“In the meantime”- Rev. Kendyl Gibbons on installing a minister

Installation of Rev. Jordinn Nelson Long at Fairhaven, MA

Rev. Kendyl Gibbons

April 2, 2017

IMG_7498

Rev. Dr. Kendyl Gibbons is the senior minister of All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in Kansas City, Missouri

Good afternoon, Fairhaven, and friends from all over.  We meet today to formalize and celebrate leadership in our Unitarian Universalist movement, amidst some political turmoil within the leadership of our association.  Issues around racial injustice in this country have commanded our attention as religious liberals since our founding, and we have yet to resolve the tension between the culture of privilege that we inherit, from which many of us benefit and some of us suffer, and the call to justice, equity, and compassion that is never entirely silent at the core of our faith.  Today we find ourselves again in pain over a hiring decision made by good people with good intentions, that has nevertheless served to perpetuate disenfranchisement and systemic power imbalances among us.  The president of our association has resigned from office for the remaining three months of his term.  No one knows for sure exactly what it would mean to get this right for once.  Nevertheless, this is in fact no time for any of us to despair, and despair is the opposite of leadership.

Rather, this is a time not only to face into both our individual and our collective pain, but in fact to be thankful that there is enough capacity among us – even if just barely – for that pain to be recognized by those who carry it and articulated into a space of potential trust, and heard and taken seriously in locations of power.  I am inclined to think that the transformation of our institutional structures that we all long for — even as we struggle with our resistance to meaningful change – will not happen just because forces of privilege become willing to undergo the discomfort of hearing about the pain that people of color experience.   We won’t get there unless that happens, but it’s not enough.  I think we have to be willing to incarnate pain in our institutional experience, and walk through it together, if we are going to learn to actually behave differently.  As we used to say in seminary, “Oh, great; another friggin’ growth opportunity!”   And yet, without those opportunities, as disorienting and difficult and demanding as they are, we are condemned never to move beyond the limitations and injustices of the past.  Choosing to recognize and face into pain is one of the key manifestations of genuine leadership, and it is at the core of what we are gathered here to affirm.

An installation like this shares with a wedding the same dynamic of joyful connection and hope-filled promises for the future; a covenant of fidelity and support, intended to sustain the adventure of mutual discovery and joint accomplishment.  It is wonderful; a high moment of human intention to be sure; deserving of celebration.  And yet, like a wedding, these high hopes and noble promises can only have their end in some form of sadness.  It can be sudden and dramatic tragedy — the minister dies unexpectedly, leaving the congregation heart-broken and grieving.  Overwhelming conflict comes to a head by ousting the minister, leaving bitterness and anger.  It can be a slow, debilitating erosion of integrity or interest — the people stop coming, the minister stops caring.  It can be nobody’s fault — the local employer closes shop, and demographics doom the congregation.  It can be spectacular moral failure — the minister seduces a member of the church, or the treasurer embezzles the endowment and refuses to pay the minister.  Even in the very best case scenario — the minister enters a well-planned and well-funded retirement after years of loyal and skillful work — both the congregation and the minister will still experience a period of poignant loss, confusion, and sorrow.  The longer and more successful the ministry, the more painful that eventual separation.  It’s the same with weddings; the story only ends either with one spouse grieving the loss of the other, or else with both grieving for the loss of the love that had once brought them joy together.

There is no fixing this; it’s inherent in the proposition to begin with.  The sustenance of the particular connections that give shape and meaning to our lives is always balanced by the grief that comes with losing that bond, either to mortality or entropy.  As Robert Frost says, “However it is in some other world, I know that this is the way in ours.”  As long as we are creatures in a world of matter and energy, we know at some level that everything is temporary.  There are people who look to religion for an exception to this law, for some eternal truth or unfailing love that endures when all else dissolves, and that is indeed what many faith traditions promise.  My own life-long religious humanism takes a different approach.  It seems to me that faith is not about the search for something that never fails, but rather the affirmation that the experience made possible through connection, relationship, and community is worth the pain of inevitable loss.

I cannot prove this proposition, of course.  If you were to say to me, “I have been there, and the pain of bereavement, or betrayal, is far greater than any joy I ever found,” I would not argue with you — only you can know the dimensions of your own griefs and gladnesses.  What I can do — what we all do, I suspect, in this strange vocation of ministry — is testify.  I can tell you the stories of those who have given themselves to love and to covenant, and been so enriched that they would do it again and again, despite knowing that heartache is part of the bargain.  I can bear witness out of my own life in leadership that ‘success’ is a kind of seductive phantom, ever in search of more; it is rather the shared effort, the working together itself, that satisfies both in the moment and in memory.  If you really want to build community, take on a demanding project together, and don’t let yourself quit when the going gets tough.  Whether or not you accomplish the goal, you will be known to each other, and changed by each other, in the process, and that is the foundation of authentic community.

It’s the ‘don’t let yourself quit when the going gets tough’ proviso that is the reason for all this hoopla over stuff like installations.  It will be silly, and humiliating, six months from now, for either Jordinn or the members of this congregation to turn around and say, “Oh, never mind; this is harder than we thought!”  This is why our communities of memory and promise are founded upon covenants; because we all need a defense against the impulse of immediate feelings that challenge our best intentions.   It is necessary to be reminded from time to time of what you said you were going to do, and what you really want, over and above the lure of momentary comfort.  There is more to covenant than just noticing when our interests happen to coincide:  “You want to try being a minister?  Oh, good; we are looking for someone to organize and entertain us.  Let’s do this!”  Now I’m not saying that the bureaucratically organized ministerial search process in the UUA is so perfect that calls don’t sometimes come about for such trivial reasons; but what I know is that if ministry works, it has to grow into something deeper and more challenging and at times more aggravating on both sides, than this.  In fact, in this setting, it is hard not to be reminded of Shel Silverstein’s cautionary verse:

 

Have you heard of tiny Melinda Mae,

Who ate a monstrous whale?

She thought she could,

She said she would,

So she started in right at the tail.

 

And everyone said, “You’re much too small,”

But that didn’t bother Melinda at all.

She took little bites and she chewed very slow,

Just like a good girl should…

…And in eighty-nine years she ate that whale,

Because she said she would!

 

I find this particularly apt given Jordinn’s well-known affinity for sea food!

Now, I do not mean to suggest that every misguided decision must always be pursued to the bitter end, nor that any ministry, however fruitful, ought to endure for eighty-nine years, certainly, but I do think there is a word to be offered on behalf of that which we do ‘because we said we would.’  That word is covenant; it is our solemn promises that counteract the randomness of a future in which anything and everything is possible, by committing us in advance to certain relationships and values that we have selected as references points for our unfolding journeys.  We do this in the knowledge aforethought that there will be both ultimate losses, and incidental difficulties along the way.  We do it because what we build with intention, and even with difficulty, is more satisfying in the long run than the pleasures that we happen to encounter randomly wandering around.  We do it in these time-consuming, somewhat anachronistic rituals — like weddings, and installation services — invoking powers that we scarcely know how to name, and only partly believe, because we are seeking some way to give our lives the density, and dignity, and depth that we suspect, with longing, might yet be possible for us to access.

The conservative columnist David Brooks, a perceptive if crotchety observer of progressive culture, once described the paradox of liberal institutionalism as the attempt to ‘build a house of obligation upon a foundation of choice.’  I think he had an accurate point, with specific application to Unitarian Universalism and its insistent basis in covenant.  We tend to reject family legacy, cultural convention, or the dogmas of tradition as constraints in the project of framing either our specific individual lives or the social structures we must share.  We want to make our own commitments of conscience out of an essential freedom; we want to choose our duties and assent to the responsibilities for which we will be held accountable — not because some external force of history or divinity assigned them to us, but like Melinda Mae, because we said we would.  Rather like a long-co-habiting bride, Jordinn’s ministry here is already well underway — what, if anything, changes today?  I suggest that what changes is that you, the congregation, and she, are about to try to name, and call into being by naming, that ‘because we said we would’ that will bind you both to a shared future, despite the certainty of grief which that future holds.  This is an act of faith, on both sides, and let no one tell you otherwise.

It matters that we do this, in both private and collective life, even though there is no escape from eventual loss, because it is precisely what we enact together in the meantime that gives sacred significance to our days.  If we are faithful to the purpose of church, it seems to me that there are two necessarily uncompleted projects in which we are always engaged, and these are the challenges on the ground of which authentic community arises.  The first is to take David Brooks at his word, and demonstrate what it looks like to indeed build a house of obligation upon a foundation of choice.  What does an institution that incarnates the values of Unitarian Universalism look like on the hoof?  When the curious and the spiritually hungry come to these doors, will they see people relating to each other and to the rest of the world as our seven principles would suggest?  If all someone did was to observe your congregation in action, what would they assume the essence of our faith to be?  As I experience it, that essence and those values are counter-cultural; at our best, we are a subversive organization, challenging a success and power idolizing society, bearing witness to the possibility of more compassionate, liberating, and humble human community.  We do this most effectively, if not most often, by exemplifying such relationships, amidst the all the challenges of life in a voluntary organization.  The effort to be the world we want to see is exhilarating, once we get past the trap of constantly judging and blaming each other.  That’s one project to work on together.

The other never ending adventure we share is our own spiritual growth, into the people each of us wants to become.  Many and various are the forces which urge us at every moment to take stock of what we have, and whether we are satisfied with that, but where in the course of our daily lives might we be held accountable for what we are, or what growth we are striving for?  Who asks us to step into spiritual maturity, to aspire to be grown ups, to identify the qualities that would make our lives worthy of honor, emulation, and blessing?  From what I see, if the church is not a place for this, it doesn’t happen anywhere — and this brings us back to covenant.  Because there is nothing gained by trying to apply my aspirations for personal growth to you; rather, my role as a partner in religious community is to hold up the mirror of accountability to what you said you wanted to be; to bear witness to your achievements and failures and continuing efforts to give your life the shape you most deeply believe it ought to have.  We can share insight and inspiration on this journey, but no one else can do the work of spiritual growth on your behalf — that is not the minister’s job, not even one as talented and passionate and beloved as Jordinn is destined to become.  Besides, she has her own inner life to cultivate, with the added challenge of making it transparent enough to serve as an inviting model and summons for all of you.  But in the end, religious community that is founded in freedom of conscience and diversity of expression can only hold together because we said we would; it can only keep us as accountable as we make ourselves in covenant, to one another and the challenges we have chosen to take on together.

 

Today, my friends, we bear witness as you and Jordinn make explicit your stepping into that covenant with one another.  We bring to this moment our full awareness that struggles and parting, as well as joys and fulfillment, lie ahead.  We bring the testimony of our own past experiences, as well as the centuries of our heritage, affirming the promise that religious community offers, is well worth the price that it demands.  With all the hope and wisdom at our disposal, we bless your future together, and lift up your example to our movement and to the world.  May you grow together, and sustain each other; may you find the community that is not self-serving, but other-serving and justice-serving, and in the process, become the greater selves that you have shown each other, in courage and faithfulness, all because today, in this place, in this joyful, poignant moment, you said you would.

View More: http://erinkavanaughphotography.pass.us/jordinn

Rev. Jordinn Nelson Long is the newly installed minister of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Fairhaven, MA

Though you’ve broken your vows a thousand times [re-covenant in a museum]

IMG_7333

 

I spent much of this week in a city I deeply love, which is also a place with which I am in the process of becoming something else.  “Visitor” doesn’t quite get there, and “stranger” never will . . .  but I’m learning the balancing act of living in, and loving, two places, while in some cases un-living and perhaps even un-loving.

It’s tough, and I’m doing it unevenly, unequally, and sometimes ungracefully.  And I’m persuaded that there’s no other way; we create and negotiate relationship, and do change rather than cut-off, by feeling our way through.  It’s a challenging thing for humans to straddle the canyons dividing “I” from “thou,” “this” from “that,”; “here” from “there” while maintaining a sense of balance and selfhood.

We simply move forward in trust, and hope that our mistakes might be small and not harmful. 

I could write a lot of words about that, simply from a personal perspective.  But what occurred to me on this particular visit is that in some way, we’re all here together.  Not in Kansas City, of course, though I’m sure the visitor’s bureau would love that.

I mean that we are ALL strangers living in a strange land right now, trying to maintain communion with what is important and beautiful from “before” even as we reach and lean and lurch our way toward an as-yet unknown “after.”

And meanwhile, we live in neither of those places—we instead exist in a “now” that is present, but undefinable.  And in this landscape, it’s hard to know how to balance the ordinariness of life—the tasks, the priorities, the conversations–with the urgent call to push back against what is changing.  And let’s be clear: what’s happening in our nation is not just change—it’s rupture.  Breakage.  It’s a negation of much of what has come before, including values.  Including lives.

no ban

How do we continue to weave with the threads of “any given Friday” when we know that in the background, damage is being done?

How do we go on, having arrived at a place in which it is normal to eat a four dollar cupcake while reading entertainment on one’s phone, and where it is simultaneously only reasonable to be screaming in the streets and demanding change and answers in the halls of power.

If there are answers to be had to these questions, they will come through our wrestling with and bridging two realities, in those moments when we find ourselves standing atop a widening canyon, a foot on both sides.  And we will do the real work of keeping our balance, first and finally, in the ways we always have: through art—word, image, song, act—, through religion (in churches and before the altars of our own hearts), and through human encounter.

And I thus think it’s not only relevant, but perhaps imperative, to tell you that in Kansas City, right this minute, it is possible to physically weave yourself between the threads of a very old song.  Janet Cardiff’s “Motet” at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art is exploration of public space, of art and musical harmony, of closeness to one another and to God, of sacred music and the secular curation of culture.

And not unlike custom cupcakes and all varieties of screaming in the streets, it is a product of our social and spiritual hunger.

“Motet” is 14 minutes long.  The room contains 40 speakers, some sound panels, tall white walls, leather benches . . . and a polyphonic memory sung, dissected, reconstructed, and explored.

Though removed in time, space, and cultural context, the song is powerful.  Listeners lean in.  They pause, and then linger.  They close their eyes.  Some cry.

And meanwhile, we do the same, trying to understand what is becoming of our nation.

Writing for NPR, Alva Noë reveals his discomfort with public religion and performance art, both, asserting that “There [is] actually something creepy about [Motet]. A room full of robotlike speakers going proxy for absent singers . . . and a museum or gallery is not a sacred space. There was something almost chilling about the performance of such a spiritual offering in such a secular context.”

This same week for Breitbart, Daniel Nussbaum asserted that the National Endowment for the Arts “has become a controversial agency over time . . . [because] taxpayers should not have to fund art they consider to be against their values, or obscene.”

And simultaneously, writing for the Church of the Larger Fellowship, and for Unitarian Universalism as a movement, Rev. Meg Riley said of covenant:  “I wake up in the morning feeling discouraged by the news of the day before…entire pieces of government being eliminated with no sense that anything of value will be lost; many people I know and love scared for their very lives with the new “health care plan,” news media that focuses on the ins and outs of party politics as if that is what I care most about, rather than focusing on how we are to be together and take care of one another in this time.  So our theme of the month, covenant, feels more and more relevant to me . . . [because it means] that we are all responsible to and for one another; that no one is free when others are oppressed.”

We cannot, in short, be separated from one another.  Cause cannot be separated from effect.  And none of us can be cut off from the context from which we hail—not really.  We are a people who cross borders all our lives, in our hearts if not with our very bodies.

And this is precisely the thing.  “Motet” is powerful because it isn’t separated from context.  It is in fact not divorced from anything that has come before—because it cannot be.

And this, wandering through a place that used to be my home but no longer is, is a revelation I can use.

Janet Cardiff’s exposition on infinite loop lays a song in our laps, parsed to be intimately accessible at the same time that it builds and crescendos to something that cannot be held by walls.  It has the audacity to be both right-sized for our ears and much too big to keep or categorize.

And this, friends, is not what religion has finally been brought to by secular culture.  It is, instead, precisely what we’re all achieving together, in the best moments: a faith that meets us where we are, in the confusion and fragility and human scale of “now,” which then carries us, soaring and together, into something more.

“Motet” is a recognition of all the history we have held, and it’s a simultaneous assurance for the next leg of a journey.  That the ancient song continues even amid displacement, that God may be found amid technological advances, that manna falls even amid changing invitations and varying hungers, and is here for us. still

Not unlike our covenants with one another.

That dusty word–covenant–speaks of the promises that return us to one another, and to ourselves.  The kind that are so strong that they can be redeemed even when broken.  The kind that allow us to straddle, sure of balance, the canyon between “here” and “there.”

In covenant, in “Motet,” in Kansas City: we tread familiar paths equipped with different tools, find ourselves returned to the start of all our wanderings and seeing the place with new eyes, and. know in deeper ways than we were able to before.

Sacred song in secular space is not a break.  It’s a return.

And here is its promise as best I know it:

What has come before is not gone.  It is here with us, here for us, still.  Here for the asking, for the hearing, for the singing.

This is what a sacred motet in a heartland museum can mean.  It is what the institution of church, keeping the songs of the people for millennia, can mean.  It is every cathedral with its sermon in stones, every poem, every protest, every hymn trying to name God by tugging the vibrating violin strings of our hearts.

In two days, “Motet” will close.  The song will once again fall silent.

 

But my people: it is nevertheless not too late.

It is not, yet, too late. 

j

we the people

 

Of Legos and literal warfare

img_6306
Yesterday, one of my kids threw a rock at the other one. Both are fine; it was one of those brotherly “accidentally-on-purpose” things, and fortunately didn’t even leave a mark. And believe you me, there were consequences.
_
But there are also consequences for all of us–consequences that are not isolated to my family, however much you would like to pretend they are, and which are part and parcel of the political and theological position in which we find ourselves.
_
It doesn’t matter that the bigger one threw the rock, in the end, because the altercation began when the little one explained that the small collection of rocks underneath his tree was his “arsenal” against his “enemies.” Scene: a pocket park in a gated planned community. Enemies: a distant gathering of three same-sized children.
_
My kids are 6 and 9. They were born Unitarian Universalists, and have spent time in Montessori education, arts-based preschool, homeschooling.
_
I am a minister.
_
And friends, it saddens and frightens me to report that we as a family are having a hard time overcoming the culture in which our children are being raised.
_
As I sat on a park bench, and then at home, with first one and then the other child, explaining that we live in a peaceful place, do not have enemies, and do not need weapons, I realized that there is something that we desperately do need: other stories to tell our children. Other stories with which to raise our boys.
_
My husband and I both played with legos constantly as kids. Guess how many of our sets came with guns?
_
I’ll let you reflect on your own childhood. How many molded plastic Lego guns? Ever?
_
Right.
_
In my six year old’s short childhood, which has involved thousands and thousands of Lego bricks, I have involuntarily amassed an arsenal that could arm the revolution. It could. My kids now just bring them and set them on my dresser as soon as they open the box. I find tiny revolvers on my nightstand, miniature semiautomatics on my make up counter.
_
Friends, every package marketed to boys comes with weaponry of some sort, often with a remarkable variety of firearms. It is incredibly difficult to find large sets without them. Go look. I’ll wait.
_
Now consider the movies with which our children are raised. The shows. The games.
_
Now consider the narrative.
_
The story.
_
The only story that this contemporary moment is willing to teach my sons:
_

Everything interesting that could possibly happen involves the potential or actuality of a physical fight. The entire game is preparing for one or defending against it or, better still, prevailing within it.

_
We literally have no script for the story where there is peace.
_
Peace, in our little boys’ games, is simply the space between skirmishes.
_
When it should–and truly, I promise you, it could– be all that they know.
_
What have we given them to even imagine this? What script, what story, are we illustrating and encouraging, for the world in which they are actually growing up?
_
One which admittedly features more weapons than any generation in living memory– but not because we need them, have needed them, or (God forbid) will need them. No, it is because of this stupid story- “Life is one long fight to the top, composed of other, smaller fights, because this is what we do with and for resources.” It’s a story that sells, and it has crowded out so many other stories of childhood– the nursery rhymes and fairy tales, and also the stories we found and dreamed and created as we roamed neighborhoods, caught frogs, climbed dirt piles, watched ponds.
_
And yeah, on those dirt piles, we sometimes played King of the Mountain.
We sometimes pushed each other. We sometimes played the game called war.
_

And then somebody got a bloody nose, and somebody cried, and all of us learned that some games aren’t really games, and that there’s an edge beyond which danger lies . . . an edge beyond which none of us want to push.

Is that what my kids were trying to learn, yesterday?
Maybe. Maybe they were, and maybe they would have gotten it with their eyes still intact, without intervention.
But maybe we’ve given them too much of another story to be able to pull it back.
How long has this reality been in the works? What forces– what power, what money, what desire for control, what fight for a cultural narrative– lie behind it?  How do we quit the military-industrial complex ourselves while we simultaneously train our children to be part of it?
_
How will we find something else?
And how will we (all) pay if we don’t?
_
I wish I didn’t wonder these things.  But I do.
And I think the questions, and this moment, have been a long time coming.
_
j

Dear white girl from Kansas: I choose them

Wow, it’s been a few years.  More than that, actually—time flies, right?  We don’t keep in touch, and even though we lived and worked less than 30 miles from each other for the last six years, I haven’t seen you.  We don’t send birthday greetings.  I don’t know that I even understood you to be part of my village.

Until now.  By which I mean last week, when you sent me that message, and invoked the “friend” card.

fb-inbox

Don’t worry; you’re not alone.  I know this story.  It happens every now and again.

While we lack anything that might be taken for a relationship, we have a friendship, and you’re invoking it now to let me know I have put it on the line.

For being out of touch? 

For not knowing your kids’ names? 

For forgetting your birthday?

Nope.

For talking about racism. 

See, we can go a long time without talking, but there are some things friends just don’t do.  And I need to know that.  So you’re telling me.

Here’s the post that crossed that friend line:

“If you voted for Trump, and are also “not a racist,” this might be an important thing for you to read. And reflect on. And speak out about.

If this sort of thing is ok with you, well, you’re entitled to your prejudices. And also: we have a word for them.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/trump-attorney-general-jeff-sessions-racist-remarks_us_582cd73ae4b099512f80c0c2

And here’s part of your response:

“I know I am a sensitive person, but when I see that in the title of your post you mention things like “not a racist”, I really feel bothered. Things aren’t always so black and white. I do think it’s possible to identify more with one party- even while not completely loving your candidate- and not be generalized as a racist. I did read [the article about Sessions] and am intrigued by the choice.

I am worried about President Elect Trump and his choices, however I am hoping and praying too and giving him my hope and optimism. I really am trying to be inclusive and forgiving and allowing people a chance, even if they’ve said and done things that they shouldn’t have. . . . “

You go on to remind me to be tolerant, and, above all, that you are not a racist.

angry woman pointing

Dear Facebook friend.

Here are some things I value:

Civil discourse

Dialogue, and the magic I have sometimes found in the midst of it

Learning

Relationships

But we are not having a leveled conversation here. 

15027769_981968141493_3848083482700941187_n

And aside from the things listed above—things that I actually do value—you’re making a strong implicit ask for me to prioritize a couple of things that I do not, in fact, value:

“Friendships” with people I’m not really friends with.

Dialogue about two things (potential of hurt feelings; potential of persecution, harassment, and unequal treatment based on skin color) that are categorically, exponentially different, carried on with “pretend like all concerns are equal” as a ground rule.

“Be nice*” as the fundamental edict of white womanhood.

And friend, there’s also something here about honor.  About respectability as a white woman.  About what we believe, but mostly do not say, about “decency” and “playing by The Rules.”

It’s been impossible not to notice—in fact, I think this is one of the great and unwelcome shocks to upper middle class white America during these last few years—that “don’t be racist” is no longer a rule.  It is my experience that it was a rule, at least out loud, for more than a generation and a half.  But it’s clearly not a rule now.

And yet, don’t be mean to other white women is TOTALLY a rule.  Also: don’t talk about hard stuff.  Don’t say what you’re thinking or wondering or worrying about, unless it happens to be birthday party décor.  Don’t you dare—ever— say something that might indirectly call anyone to account.

girls making self portrait on the beach

Sister, you’re intrigued?

And you’re asking me to be silent in the face of that?

I am not going to play nice with your casual racism, just because the world we have inherited says that “play nice” is in the honor code, and “check your freaking white privilege” is not.

My reality as a minister in a progressive, anti-racist, anti-oppressive, and multiculturalist faith tradition is that I’m standing atop a widening chasm in maintaining my various relationships.  And I’m not sure how much longer I can do it.

I am no longer sure how to occupy space where I give the same amount of energy—more energy, honestly—to dialoguing about your “a little hurt” feelings than to being physically present with those who are afraid for their marriage rights, for their trans child’s ability to use the bathroom without being beaten or intimidated or psychologically and physically brutalized, for their humanity, for their lives.

I can’t play by white girl rules anymore.  They make real conversation, and underneath that, real movement, impossible.

And I don’t think that’s an accident.  I don’t think my complicity with your comfort is value-neutral.

Thus, as to your implicit threats and explicit invitations: I’m trying to imagine the person you think I might be, the one you’re trying to pull me toward becoming.

I don’t think she’s someone I could live with.

And so, when it turns out I can’t bridge the gap anymore, I will have to make a move.  And the truth is, my choice is already made.

If being in relationship with you means preserving your comfort, keeping your thoughts pure and your cheeks tear-stain free …   if to be “friends,” I must choose silence, over and against solidarity with people whose concerns have never been about comfort—who are acting in a hierarchy of needs that doesn’t get past the physical and psychological safety pieces–

Friend, I choose them.

I choose my humanity.

I choose my soul.

Sound stark?  Feel problematic for your sense of hope, or your understanding of, yes, the magic power of dialogue?

It is.  That’s why it’s taken me this long to say this thing, even to myself.  It violates every “nice girl” norm I know.

Handcuffs standing on laptop computer keyboard

But there is indeed an alternative.  And it looks like you doing some work—to get courageous rather than comfortable.  It looks like you living in flexible, contested space for awhile.

Truly, you want to stay in relationship?  Or establish something deeper?  Or simply read my FB public ministry and not feel personally affronted in considering my words to the world?

That would look like you not expecting me to choose silence as a package deal with “friendship.”

Can you do that?  Are you inclined to?

I don’t know.

What I’m sure of: no one will make you.

And that, friend, is what we call privilege.

j

 

*to those who have social value.  Obvs.

**I’m going, now, to humanize this person.  I’m doing it because humanity and complexity are the deepest call of my faith, and I truly believe that we gain nothing—in any conception of “We” worth having—without that generous willingness.  But before I do that, I want to ask you for a favor.  All of you.  Every single person reading this.

Take a moment, and consider who we are not willing to humanize in our narratives.  To whom do we not offer this gift—this sacred responsibility belonging not to the people we choose to talk about, but to ourselves, as story-tellers?  Who are “thugs” in our narratives, rather than sons, scholars, dads, grads, promise, potential, our future?  Who are “illegal,” in your story, instead of brilliant daughters, future doctors, terrorized toddlers, and the many-centuried hope not just of American shores, but the hope of our nation itself?

I will show you the fuller humanity of this white woman, because we all deserve it.  But remember this: we all deserve it.  And the next time you want someone to look upon you positively in your own story, I invite you to work twice as hard to reframe your internal narrative about someone else.  Especially when it’s challenging.  You’ll know you’re on the right track when you surprise yourself.

So:  this open letter is part of a real exchange, with a real person.  I don’t know if we’re friends now, or if we will be in the future.  I do know that she’s stayed in dialogue as our conversation has continued beyond this point.  I know that she’s been courageous and willing to listen.  I know that she’s working hard to open her heart and hear other, larger stories—and that we can receive that as a gift, because although it is a bullshit way to allocate resources, privilege is real, and it makes willingness optional.  Call-in helps.  So does a willingness to answer when called.

In short, “White girl from Kansas” just might be more impressive than you give her credit for.  May that possibility mean something when it matters.

A Letter to a New Minister (Kendyl Gibbons, on the occasion of my ordination)

 

2016-06-05 17.21.17

My dear Jordinn,

You are to be congratulated for your courage, if nothing else, in thus affording me yet one more opportunity to offer you instruction, just in case all my prior efforts now appear to me to have borne insufficient fruit. Particularly in a context that precludes you from contesting either the accuracy of my observations or the wisdom of my insights. On your head be it!

[Editor’s note- this blog is so handy for contestations of all sorts . . . . 😉 ]

I hold it a great honor to be invited to recall you, and us, from the elevation of this occasion, with all its festive trappings and warmth of affection for you as a friend, colleague, and blossoming minister, to consider the deeply serious nature of today’s undertaking.

Even though such gatherings as these are indeed, as our colleague Mark Belletini describes them, “high play,” they are not all fun and games. What we have just done, with your assent, is to lay upon you a mark, a burden, and a gift. It is my task to see to it that the mark is indelible, the burden is well grasped, and the gift is seen to be precious and sacred.

By designating you an ordained minister in the living tradition of the free church, we have marked you out as a person worthy of trust and authority. We have invited our fellow Unitarian Universalists in particular, and the world in general, to look to you for institutional leadership, personal integrity, and a compassionate presence.

You are no longer a merely private person, but a public, living witness to the claims of this faith, and to the duties of the vocation that you and I now share.   How you conduct your life, no less than what you preach and teach, reflects upon the credibility of this movement, and this profession. Today that mark may seem to you, and to all of us, a joyful honor, but the time will come when you will find it irksome to be endlessly on display as a model of the demanding values we espouse, and you will understand why this is a matter of solemn vows.

I charge you to remember the love and trust in which we bestowed this office upon you, and to fulfill the covenant you have made in the name of all that is holy.

I know that you understand the burden of ministry, to be present to the distress of the world without panic, or denial, or becoming indifferent and numb. People will bring you the pain of their losses and despair, their failures and finitudes, their broken hearts and broken dreams, hoping that you can help them to find courage and strength to keep believing in the possibility of new life.

You will see the dysfunction of relationships and institutions, as well as the injustices and tragedies of the world, and yearn to give healing. Inevitably, you will be profoundly aware of your own limitations, and feel inadequate to these demands, for in truth, you are.

We all are.

You cannot fix, or save, the world; you cannot fix or save another person. All you can do, all any of us can do, is to bring that pain and despair into a place of compassionate attention and truthful witness, which is where all healing starts.

The power of transformation lies not in your intelligence or resourcefulness, but in the creative energy of the universe, which is always and everywhere present, though we are so often blind to it. You must not try to absorb into your own heart the distress that you meet with in others; you must – believe me, now; I know you know this; you must – have a practice that enables you to ground that anxiety and sorrow in the larger life of all that is, in God, by whatever name you may know it.

That is your task — to be the one who is not crippled by the awareness of all the hurt in the world; who knows where to go for sustenance; who can stand in the presence of oppression and fear and heartache and let it run through you to an ultimate, infinite source where it can do no harm. I charge you to have a vibrant, enduring relationship with that source, which will allow you to remember that you are not god; you, and your work, are a strand in the web, not the web, nor yet the weaver.

Of course, none of us would undertake these formidable duties if the calling of ministry were not also a priceless gift.

You have been summoned to live as if everything you do matters, and to stand with your fellow human beings in the most significant, sacred, and – to give an over-used phrase its actual meaning – truly awesome moments of their lives. You are expected to ponder the deepest questions of the human condition, and people will await your conclusions eagerly, hoping to find guidance for their own perplexities.

All that is most tender and precious in the unfolding of our common experience you are meant to share, and celebrate, and give voice. I promise you, if you will live it out faithfully, there is no more fully human existence than the vocation of ministry. I charge you to rejoice in the privilege of this office, to embrace its generous opportunities for creativity and community, for meaning and service and on going spiritual growth.

We have marked you out for service; remember to be the servant not of our desires, but of the holy purposes of love, truth and righteousness.

You have taken up the burden of the world’s sorrows and suffering; do not seek to carry it by your own strength alone.

Be assured that however great your struggle with your own finitude, the truly important work is not about you.

And take joy in the deep wells of shared meaning and growth that the calling of ministry opens to you.

Thus I charge you on this auspicious day, and welcome you into the community of those whose lives are given to the service of the most high.

May the bright promise of this hour be fulfilled in many years of fruitful ministry.

Bless you, dear one, and all those you will touch in faith for the rest of your days.

-Kendyl

IMG_0104

 

The Reverend Dr. Kendyl Gibbons is the Senior Minister of All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in Kansas City, MO, the 2015 recipient of the Humanist of the Year Award from the UU Humanist Association, and a beloved mentor and teaching pastor to 26 Unitarian Universalist seminarians across four decades. 

When freedom’s just another word

Two Sundays ago, I attended St. James Episcopal Cathedral in Chicago. It’s the home of the Episcopal Archdiocese of Chicago, and delivers the full smells-and-bells liturgical worship—so give it a miss if you don’t like incense, kneeling communion, or a sung (Latin) liturgy. From start to finish, modernist entry plaza to soaring cathedral ceiling, the experience is intended to get your attention.

And yet, the thing about well-executed liturgy, be it humble or spectacular, is that it creates a container that’s reliable enough to hold us and predictable enough to fade from view. Because then we are free to go deep into a heart experience as a complement to our head truths.

It is a sign of ritual efficacy, then, that the most searing moment of my Sunday worship experience was not being spritzed with holy water or choked with frankincense; it was hearing the full import of an offhand remark from the priest.

“We remember the promises of baptism,” she intoned, “as we deepen our faith journey in these days—and there are 50 of them; did you know that?— of Easter.”

Me, dreamily: Yes, we remember the . . .

Wait, what!?

chicago_st_james_2

(Do Lutherans also observe this? Have I missed a key feature of the church year for the entirety of my life so far? WHY would Easter need to continue for FIFTY DAYS?)

I probably have missed this, friends. Willfully. Joyfully.

Because here’s a fun fact: I don’t want 50 days of Easter.

Not at all. I have a hard time with one day of Easter, quite honestly, between the too-bright promises of the heaven not in keeping with my theology, and the too-sugary substitutes of the secular YAY SPRING alternative. It’s sleight of hand, all of it, and it leaves me nothing for the tricks and reversals of the rest of the season. Candy wrappers and an empty tomb for the long slog through April.

And a slog it has been.

Practice resurrection, instructs a Wendell Berry poem favored by UUs this time of year.

And I have been. But friends, resurrection kind of sucks.  It’s not pretty. And we think of it in terms of continuity, but it doesn’t work that way. First, you die. And then things are different. Jesus doesn’t get to live among us anymore. Lazarus ends up exiled from his people. Resurrection is active and demanding, and not a continuation so much as a starting over—one that leaves us holding, even as we begin a new life, the broken or bloody pieces of whatever came before.

In fact, I am pretty sure that practicing resurrection is more work than simply dying.

Endings, however terrible, break over us with the force of a tidal wave. We need do nothing. They just come for us. Reemergence, on the other hand,requires effort. Which asks energy. Which we may not have in those first squinting moments.

Here on earth, a rebirth may look like wiggling a pinky finger and calling it movement. It might mean trudging and calling it hope.

Meanwhile, our monthly worship theme is “Freedom,” and it feels purely incongruous. That word, made of stars and stripes, of watermelon, of soaring birds and open highways, it has crash landed in Chicago in April.  Freedom picks itself up, tries to unfold its wings, but finds only gray skies and dampness everywhere.  The brown puddles gather on the sidewalks, flow over manhole covers, slosh into the gutters.

23035307864_0f6a03acf7_o (1)

One evening, I begin the walk home from the store just as drizzle turns to downpour.  I couldn’t have hailed a cab that night with a hundred dollar bill in my hand, much less three soaked bags of groceries. I try anyway, as the rain makes creekbeds of the streets, soaks my hat and hair, and flows, impossibly, from the top of my head to the inside of my coat.

Water runs down the back of my neck and under my shirt and into my boots and I am drenched and miserable to my skin.

To my soul.

It remains unclear, days later, whether this was a low point of my life or merely of my week, but I am quite certain that I require no further weeks of this celebration.

Party over. Goodbye Easter. Take your drizzly and disappointing friends with you.

And take your resurrections as well. You know what the tomb stands for, actually? Certainty. Closure. And above all, rest.

I’m supposed to forsake all those for the neverending vulnerability of It might be so? For the messy ambiguities of living, for the certain heartbreak of loving?

Friends, I have always been a crappy disciple. I betray. I doubt. I’d trade my dreams for a handful of beans every week if the exchange of “possibility” took its friend “ambiguity” with it.

handful of beans

And I don’t want 50 days of Easter because the truth is that I’d cut and run from even one of those days if I could. Whether it’s the holy hopes of Jesus or the humus-centered humanism of Wendell Berry, resurrection asks too much of me. I know what’s under that shiny second chance: obligation as far as the eye can see.

It is, in short, the opposite of freedom.

And there is truth in that. I didn’t know there was a particular label for this gathering of spring days, but a season is a season whether we name it so or not. Easter. Search. Spring. Thirty-something angst. Name them as you will; the fact is that is easier to hail a cab in the Chicago Loop in the rain than to escape from any season prematurely.

And there are so many seasons in our lives, and we may not initially recognize them for what they are. Would that the hardest things we deal with be calendar or weather related. How much easier if the great intractable wrestling match of this spring truly involved the Easter bunny. Indeed, I would prefer to choose my seasons, to hand-pick my struggles.

The truth: things unasked for take hold and wrap their arms around us for a time, and we are helpless.

It is hard.  And the sole escape from the work is the tomb, whether we seek it bodily or spiritually. That has always been the alternative to trudging up that hill. Again. In the rain.  To painful growth.  To the expectations that lead, inevitably, to obligation.

And so, “freedom.”

Ha.

I guess it looks like walking, friends.

Trudging. Dog paddling, if needed, through the puddles.

And then we stop to rest, find that yes, this day too has an end, and believe that someday the season will, too. These must be enough for this moment: the stopping points, and the beginnings that lie just beyond.  Enough that they will come. Enough that we will move toward them. Enough that we will keep breathing in the meantime.

For the crappy disciples among us, the freedom may lie in surrender. Not to the tomb, but to this time. To this season. To these 50 days of whatever . . .

To be followed, again, by ordinary time.

j

 

Someday comes the choosing

dawn-190053_960_720

source: Pixabay

There are always some of us living in whispers, tiptoeing through places both as transient as the bus station and insubstantial as the spring spiderweb.

Liminal space:  where our lives stretch taut between past and future; the charged moment; the pregnant pause.

This week, UU ministers and congregations are nearing the end of the search process. Whittling down. Narrowing toward decisions.

Our family is among these, and like the chorus in a Greek tragedy, our children give voice to the questions. (In childhood, fun and wonder occur on an annual cycle, and so our sons are constantly planning for the next go round. “Next year, can we . . .?” )

These entreaties are as predictable as the slam of the screen door in summer, and I’ve never had cause to give them more than a passing thought.

Yes, of course we will go to the pumpkin patch. Yes, of course we can pick apples. Yes, we will have Thanksgiving with–

Until now.

The bland assurances die in my throat.   (I have . . . no idea, friends.)

Eventually, I take a breath, and say with firm cheer that we will DEFINITELY be somewhere, doing something.

Which is apparently as reassuring to them as it is to me. The boys teeter for a moment between the floor-gripping horror of childhood’s early years and the skeptical derision of its middle ones, and then they request specifics. And so we begin again with the litany of possibility, repeated and embellished from day to day.

Yes, I think they have pumpkins in Smithville. Indeed, there are tacos in Springfield.

I promise that Santa will find us on Christmas, and yes, I am positive that we can find someone to make you the dragon fortress cookie for your birthday. (Note to self: am I positive? Will there still be birthday cookies?)

And remember: they have [insert whatever fairy tale feature makes each place a little more delectable . . and a little more unreal].

And so, the boys return again to the maps. Pointing with fingers that are no longer quite so tiny, at the ponds and coastlines and contours that may see these small, curious boy-hands into teenagerhood.

Behind them, out the window, the last stand of hardwood forest in a neighborhood now standing atop it. Beyond that, hills and limestone and prairie, a land of green plains moving westward, flattening as the sky opens wide above them.

These are strange days. A bit fraught. A bit magical. The lobster holds court with the western meadowlark, and cathedral spires rise with the peal of bells over our beloved prairie.

And everywhere around us, the larger country of the unknown; the place in which a map is always yearned for, and for which none shall ever be created.

This unknowing is, I suspect, what drives us mad about liminal space. We feel rootless. Groundless. Unable to build.

But that isn’t entirely true.

Yesterday, in a moving Easter liturgy, Kendyl Gibbons pointed out that the blunt obviousness of salvation by literal, organic presence “was never the point.” The point, instead? That enduring vision is what makes a way out of no way.

My friends, we can, indeed, build in this space. It’s just that we can’t anchor here.

We are building visions, and containing possibilities too grand to exist on the everyday scale. There is no room in the realities we inhabit for the lobster and the meadowlark to live together. There will be no Italian marble on the prairie, no waving wheat in Waterbury.

We choose, in the end, the path less taken (or the one more familiar, come to that) because in the real world, eventually, we must. But not yet. Not here. Here, for an eternity both precious and painful, we can build it all.

And so, we are dreaming, together.

Next comes the choosing. The dawning. The litany, made real.

But for now, there is just this moment, made sacred by our hopes.

For now, let us, each and all, dream.

j

Send us a Minister! (reporting live, from Unitarian Universalism’s Big Dance)

One of the sole romantic stories that Unitarian Universalism allows itself is that of English minister John Murray’s arrival on this continent. Widowed and heartbroken, Murray gave up preaching to sail to America and begin his life anew. However, his New York-bound ship became stuck on a sandbar off the coast of New Jersey when winds died, and Murray was sent ashore for provisions. There, he came across one Thomas Potter, who, as the story goes, had been waiting for him. For ten years. Potter had built a church, in fact, believing that God would send him a minister to preach the radical message of universalism.

Potter makes a deal with the reluctant Murray that if the ship cannot sail before the sabbath, Murray will come ashore and preach Sunday morning—and ultimately, the American era of Universalism is born.

 

A miracle, it hath occurred. If this had happened in any other faith, there would be a shrine and a pilgrimage route.

As befits our faith, however, the question I want to consider belongs purely to the pedestrian side of this equation:

Where was the putative congregation in all this?

One assumes that Potter’s offer is predicated on the understanding that there were people, come Sunday, who would wish to be preached to. If so, these people had been waiting for years for the arrival of their minister.*

Possibly the early universalists were more patient than the modern UUs I know. Imagine us, sitting ever so quietly in our pews. Praying, “Send us a minister!”

I have been thinking about this because we modern Unitarian Universalists are in the midst of the season known as “the search process.”

This is where, and how, congregations and ministers find one another.

And for the first time ever, I am a participant. (A player? A pawn?)

White chess pawn standing on chessboard

 

The whole baroque process is frequently compared to dating (read: group blind dating, with the intent to marry—it’s more like The Bachelor than dinner with the guy from next door), and there are certainly analogues. A focus on photogenic details. Will-they-call anxiety. Casual social media stalking. The occasional messy breakup. And delightful pieces as well—the unanticipated giddy joy, the previously-uncontemplated attractions, the writing of names, together, for effect.

There are modern sandbars, to be sure. Unexpected blizzards, Skype mishaps, and missed connections literal and figurative have all played a role this season.

And like their early American counterparts, the people are waiting. Have been waiting, in some of these congregations, for years. Finally, we are ready to call a minister.

And yet, unless we plan to put a level of trust and patience in divine providence that would be—let’s say unusual—in this movement, the truth is that “Send us a minister” is not what this process looks like.

Go fishing for a minister, maybe. Purchase a minister on the commodities market, if we forget the deeper call of our theology. But not, generally, “Sit here and wait patiently until someone else sends us one.”

And each year, participants on every side of this expensive and convoluted process lament that. If only God (actually no one says that) If only Keith Kron/the transitions office/the UUA/somebody would just “do the matching for us.”

Send us a minister.

Or send us a sandbar on which we might catch one.

SUDBURY, MASSACHUSETTS:  18th century First Parish Unitarian Church

SUDBURY, MA- First Parish Unitarian Church Not currently in search, friends.  🙂

I wasn’t sure when, after months preparing to interview with the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, I’d ever voluntarily read the Cambridge Platform again.

But friends, the answer is now. I am reading it again now, and am considering the magic and miracle of a history that believes that our congregations—that our people—know best.

And so, we don’t “send” ministers.

We cultivate faith and hope . . . and then we send packets. We send paperwork. We send greetings to the people who are themselves the deciders, and thus we decide, with every e-mail, which send-off to use.  Sincerely? Too cold. Fondly? Too warm. Warmly? What are we talking about, here? Blessings! (I have “blessed” more people in the past six weeks than in the whole of my life before this. )

And eventually, if things progress to the point of “serious relationship,” we send ourselves, in person.

We ministers in the congregational-polity tradition claim a significant amount of agency over our own futures. Over the spaces in which we will live into our calls. And this is true not merely incidentally, but because the freedom of the pulpit–and the pew–that inheres in our covenantal theology requires this. We choose freely and discern together at every step of the way, practicing and modeling exactly those skills we will need for our journey together in shared ministry.

And yet we grasp, sometimes, for something easier, and there is a reason for that.

Because this is hard.

This year, I’m engaged in this process as a minister, but the truth is, search is also very difficult for our congregations. It’s expensive, and there may be budget worries. It’s time consuming—four hours per week, on average, for an entire year (and that “four hours” gives little perspective; try 20 to 30 hours on precandidating weekends; more if you happen to be the committee chair and de-facto “host”), and everyone is busy.

And yet, these people do this on volunteer hours. They are keeping the faith and communicating a theology of people and place out of love for both. I think we forget this sometimes, both as ministers and as a denomination: that what happens in our congregations—that they exist in the first place, and that they continue to thrive–is a beautiful miracle.

This truth, that we are covenanted, not legislated, holds deep import for how we will search for an engage our ministers.

And yet there’s another piece of this that deserves mention: the heartbreak. This process is a path to heartbreak.

This is true because we meet each other in the same spirit of voluntary openness required to forge true partnership. Our communication happens tentatively at first, and then with greater and greater openness; the kind that leaves hearts on the line. The kind that demands risks, individually and together.

Tears will be shed this spring, my people. They already have been, and what I hope we understand is that this is not a bad thing.

Depositphotos_28703711_s-2015

On the contrary.

Because what happens, underneath it all, is that our ministers and our search committees use faith—their own, and our collective assurances—to hold ambiguity, so that everyone else doesn’t have to.

In a free faith, creativity and self-determination are key, and to allow those to be part of the selection process, someone has to tolerate the uncertainty. The search committees, and the candidate ministers: We are the designated feelers in this process.  Not to appease the demands of hierarchy, but as a function of democracy. Because our history and our hope are staked on the radical notion that congregations know their needs best and must chart their course freely—and that ministers must be equally free to follow the dictates of their own call and consciences.

A process that takes this equation out of our collective hands, while administratively neater and in many respects, much simpler, would bear little resemblance to what ought to be our touchstone: life in our congregations.

An uncomfortable truth lurking within the 1646 text of the Cambridge Platform is that our congregations do this—hold, know, and care; preach, teach and lead—they do all this—with, and also without their ministers.

We ministers can help hold a vision, but it is unto the members of our congregations that the container for it is entrusted. We ministers can speak to the spark of our highest aspirations, but is our congregations who must keep the literal fires burning.

We remember this at pledge time. But how deep is our consideration of congregational ownership and the sacred demands of a shared ministry in the moments that are mere precursor?

As we send pieces of ourselves—and then our bodies, our families—across the country, repeatedly, in the name of call?

We Unitarian Universalists affirm the democratic principle: one person, one vote.  We carry forward the sacred trust of our history. We believe in the bright magic of our dreams.

And so, what other process could there be?

We need a bishop.

It is true, friends, that this process is hard. Holy moments hold space with disillusionment and sometimes, with betrayal. Thousands of dollars are spent, and more are promised. Hopes have grown large, and hearts will yet be broken. But where else, I wonder, are hopes and hearts and dollars on the line? For what larger dance are we rehearsing?

I want, even now, to be making ready for it.

But it would be so much easier if we had a more formal matching process, with fewer choices.

Just send us.

Brown mail delivery package with tag

No.

I beg to differ.

This has been an awesomely challenging few months. We are all tired. And certainly, we and this process need both pastoring and guidance from the larger denomination. Beyond Categorical Thinking is a key example of input-from-above that shapes a process with more fairness, and more joy, available for all.

But in the end, I have to cast my lot with the committees and the quorums.

I choose this process for the same reason I choose our congregations, and I hang in when it’s hard for the same reason that we come back to the table, and to our covenants, time and time again.

I have, in the words of poet Adrienne Rich, no choice but “to cast my lot with those who, age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.”

Those are my people.

And this is all of our process.

Not from a ship, then, and not from denominational authorities, either, but from this long and sometimes awkward dance— from these very committee meetings, these phone calls, these e-mails, these questions and answers and these half-articulated hopes . . .

There is appearing, already on the horizon, the future we have dreamed of.

It is our ministry.        

Together.

Amen.

j

download

*Fun fact, as best we can tell: The “congregation” was composed of Potter’s friends and neighbors, and they had indeed been waiting for 10 years—because they thought he was an idiot, and that Universalism was a heresy. Our sermon illustrations are at times imperfect. Wrestle with this as you will.

Because “As long as they’re having fun” is not enough

There are six words that I hear fairly often in Unitarian Universalist churches in discussing the religious experiences of our UU children and youth. They are six words that apparently sound innocuous to hearers. Or perhaps it’s that they sound like freedom, the mythical kind that can exist only after every obligation is taken away and a happiness-filled vacuum remains.

As long as they’re having fun.

To me, on the other hand, this phrase sounds like neither freedom nor happiness. In fact, as the mother of two children, myself, these words make me feel just a bit crazed.

They are most often delivered with a shrug and a sweep of the hand, in response to questions about what we might or might not want our children to get out of their church experience.

As long as they’re having fun, I don’t really worry about that.  

Friends.

People of faith.

Let us talk.

It’s no secret that our movement has a hard time hanging onto our children once they reach the teen years. Denominations, in general, are not great at retention, but we Unitarian Universalists have for two generations been particularly noteworthy in this category. And by noteworthy, I mean ignominious.

And much has been said about this.

  • It’s because we don’t tell them we want to keep them.
  • It’s because we inspire them to be openminded, so their departure from our faith is probably well-considered and is actually a mark of success.
  • It’s because everyone keeps saying they all leave, so please don’t write about this—you’ll further traumatize them.

Um.

I’ll leave untangling those three threads to the experts.

But there is another piece—a fourth piece—that I do want to talk about. As a religious professional and also, particularly, as a parent.

It’s a piece about discipline. Yes, I said that. You can tar and feather me in a moment. You know, after you finish reading.

A few years ago, I was asked to be part of a task force on religious education in one of our congregations—a church that was literally established in the hope of offering liberal faith to its young. We were tasked with creating a set of deliverables, one of which was a “basket of things we might offer to someone born into our congregation, over the years of their childhood and youth.” We eventually came up with a job description, but no such basket was identified or created. And there were nights, amid long hours of careful wordsmithing, when I honestly considered sliding from my seat to lie down on the floor. Or slipping outside to howl at the moon.

EV001576

The other participants were deeply committed to the congregation . . . and several were equally deep in their belief that the only thing we can offer to our children in good faith is a blank slate. Anything else—any list of what we’d like for faith inputs or developmental outcomes—is tantamount to “indoctrination.” “Brainwashing.” Later that same year, I spoke passionately about my wish to see my children included in the worship hour, at least by their presence there, and was met with the rejoinder “In my day, we didn’t punish our children like that.”

Here, friends, is my tale of boredom and brainwashing—the kind that taught me to love church, to love your church, into middle adulthood. There was a white robe in my size, and a long pole, flame on the far end, lifted up to light more than fifty candles in the darkness of a magical Christmas Eve. There was sitting, to be sure, in pews and classrooms, more than I can tell you over the course of a childhood.

prayer candles

As a youth, 8 classmates and I met Wednesday evenings and Sunday mornings for a two-year period. We sat in the front pews, raised eyebrows at one another in worship, and made notes for the sermon summaries we were required to write. Each had to conclude with at least one question we’d like to discuss further. And we never knew when Pastor Rockwood would smile from up on that chancel at the group of us in the pews, or direct a quip our way to make sure we were listening.

This was work, to be sure. And it was also a continual invitation into the life of the church—a deep welcome. It was a pain in the butt sometimes; juggling confirmation around schoolwork and other activities is a big commitment, and from my parents most of all. Who, I should perhaps mention, are atheists. My parents were Nones before that was cool—and they made time to shuttle me back and forth to church regardless. My religious upbringing in the ELCA—the liberal Lutheran church—was left to my grandparents and to my own discretion, but my parents were willing to support my zeal because they believed in the value of discipline and that several millennia of accumulated human wisdom probably count for something.

Carmel Mission

I am persuaded that the investment was worth it—and I’m grateful to have been held by a community where I was encouraged to make and keep commitments.

So I ask you: what do we Unitarian Universalists believe in? Not as a shared theology, but collectively about our children? What we might offer to our kids in the 18 or so years that we could assuredly have them among us?

I hear us talking about our first graders as the reason that we, as adults, stop coming to church.

I don’t want to fight with them.

They don’t want to go. They complain.

As though the complaints of a 6 year old are the natural litmus test for anything important.

Taking kids seriously is important. I am a big proponent—and practictioner, in my best moments—of deep listening to our kids. The kind of listening that sits on the bedroom floor alongside them, that waits to speak, that keeps breathing so they can, too.

But we don’t need to draw a straight line from listening to action. And truly, sometimes the larger process of growth requires that we refuse to alter course in the face of complaint.

A story about this:

I grew up swimming. I taught myself to float in the bathtub, was the weird tiny kid in swimming lessons with the big ones, and experienced childhood constantly attended by green hair and the faint smell of bleach.

Interior of public indoor swimming pool

But I never was an excellent swimmer. Not good enough to make the cut at all-state. What I was, in the end and in spite of myself, was a disciplined one. And the discipline is what has mattered for everything that came afterward.

Swimming, and later teaching and lifeguarding, took me first around the state and then around the country. I interned for Disney and worked for Seeds of Peace—both because of swimming. I wanted to be in those places for the mission, but they hired me because of what I could offer them.  These were skills cultivated by two decades of not raw talent, but commitment—the kind that sees you through 5:30 a.m. call times and twice daily practices, Saturday meets, sit-ups and shoulder pain.

And eventually I got to those places because during the summer of my seventh year, my mom stood firm against my swimming strike. I remember it still, and the weird thing is, there’s nothing much to tell—just as there wasn’t in that moment. I don’t know why I didn’t want to go to swim lessons. I remember not knowing then, either. It’s just that I didn’t. Not that day, not anymore, not ever again if I could help it, and after explaining this to my mother and being met with incredulity, I hid under the Holly Hobbie cover of my bedside table.

My mother found me and considered, nonplussed. And then she hauled me out, put me in the car, and took me to swim lessons. I was furious. Ditto the next day. On the third day, I was still mad, but knew it was a losing battle. By the next week, I was happy to go again.

Schoolgirl with goggles in swimming pool

I remembered this later, at 13, when I joined the high school varsity swim team for one of the rudest awakenings of my life. I have never worked so hard, swallowed so much water, known such misery. And when I tossed myself into the car between early and late practices that first day, I knew I was going to quit. And then I looked at my mother’s face and knew that I wasn’t. Oh, cruel fate. This time, however, she cut me a deal. Do this in good faith for two weeks. If you still want to quit then, I won’t say anything else.

I didn’t quit.  By the third day or so, I knew I wouldn’t.  But I remember that rule now, in the trenches. And I am so grateful to have had parents who believed in me enough to ask me to wait it out. To show up with me, to cheer even that time I swam the last lap alone, to believe that showing up and swimming really does matter.

Swimmers About To Touch Finishing Line In A Race

We need communities that believe that. Our kids deserve them, even when that commitment means that they are not, in a given moment, having fun.

And you might be surprised about what happens when you have a frank conversation with a complaining six or seven year old. One that sounds like, we will be going to church. Every week. So we can fight about it, or we can find a way to enjoy this family ritual together—but we’re going. [And then smile.]

We did have precisely this conversation at our own house two years ago with my willful older child. We talked lovingly, but I meant business, and I kid you not: problem solved. Immediately.

I am sure that the issue will come up again over the years, and we’ll talk honestly—but my own clarity around what matters here helps tremendously. We, as a family, go to church. We also eat dinner, take showers, and feed the pets. When things are treated as non-negotiables, they develop the force of gravity in your family life, and they stop being objects of conflict. (This idea is called the “Wall of Futility” by parenting coaches, and it really does work—but you have to be clear about what’s a given in your household. Including around faith.)

Boy hiding

And yet, as a people, we treat discipline, whether spiritual or parental, like it’s a bad word. Synonymous with punishment.

My people, it is not. Discipline forms the basis of engaged spiritual practice. It can be beautiful. It’s even poetic.

As Marge Piercy writes in her powerful poem, “To Be of Use,”

I want to be with people who submerge

in the task, who go into the fields to harvest

and work in a row and pass the bags along,

who are not parlor generals and field deserters

but move in a common rhythm.

We need this in our churches if they are to function as organizations. And we need it spiritually as well—the ability to cultivate discipline is part of what makes us truly human.

Call me old school, but I am indeed staking a claim on a different vision—and I’m doing it as a Unitarian Universalist.

And with a hard awareness: we still might not keep our kids. My kids are UUs, not Lutherans, and a study of our history in this past year has me persuaded, at least for now, that a faith that not only embraces freedom but holds freedom at and as its very center will always need a halfway covenant for its children. Generations of our kids, raised in freedom and never needing to seek it, have grown to become seekers of something else.

We may indeed lose them from active participation in this faith, but even without creeds, we can be intentional about bequeathing unto our young something for their journey. What would we like that to be? And how will we do the work of it—and invite our children’s hands to be part of what we build?

Having fun is certainly a value.

Now what’s our religion?

In faith,

j

discipline road sign illustration design

A container for grace: reflections on white people, privilege, and pitchforks

Woman hand pointing down

These past couple of months, I have been dealing with the fallout from a mistake I made in trying to talk meaningfully about my own white privilege. I shared a facebook post from a seminarian of color, and in doing so, took out a lighthearted hashtag in a deadly-serious paragraph, which I feared my own readers would interpret as a permission not to take my colleague’s words with the reflectivity that they otherwise might. I then wrote to this seminarian to explain what I’d done and ask if it was ok.

It was, to put it mildly, not ok.  Values at issue here included my space-taking and assumptive behavior as a white woman, and a larger obligation to think, and then to think harder, before acting. And there is also, probably, the obnoxiousness of the post I wrote in the first place. No one has said so, but the meditation I wrote to introduce my colleague’s post to my circle of friends feels to me to have touched the white privilege discussion only insofar as naming it and concluding that, “basically, I don’t have to give a shit.”

No, I didn’t precisely say that. And I didn’t mean that, either. Except that I actually sort of did, and having since sat through two excruciating white-folks-talk-about-race panel discussions, I am beginning to think that we white people actually do this a lot as a starting point. (“I have privilege! You probably don’t! Here’s what privilege looks like! WOW, my life is easier!”) It can sound a lot like Criming While White, but for mommy bloggers, and I’m wrestling with whether this piece of our work is even something that’s helpful to do publicly.

At any rate, that happened, and what I came to understand in the ensuing back and forth with this seminarian, my mentors, and my fellow colleagues in formation is that there are many different values around sharing posts, editing words, and claiming space.

And also, I came to understand something else.

Which is that we as Unitarian Universalists have no framework for dealing with true transgression among us—and lacking such a container, find ourselves equally unable to offer grace.

My mistake, from the very beginning, was dealt with extremely publicly, and the responses from my white colleagues fell into two binary buckets (with a third, HUGE space we’ll call “utter silence”).

Two plastic buckets, one full, one empty

That first bucket was “Say it ain’t so!” I’ve held a couple of visible leadership positions in the seminarian community, and my making this kind of mistake was apparently rather stunning for some. I received message after message indicating, “I KNOW this isn’t right—you didn’t do this.”

Oh, friends. Oh, but I did.

Publically, this side of the discourse looked like, “Don’t talk about Jordinn like that!,” and subsequent attempts to shut down discussion of transgression, and of racism in our seminarian community, because this particular incident and its framing felt unfair.

The other bucket, meanwhile, was, “Shame on you!” A seminarian from another school went so far as to say, “When I think that someone among us, someone preparing for ministry, would do SOMETHING LIKE THIS . . . ” Another invited me to reconsider my call. At my own seminary, several of my classmates declined to stand next to me at our weekly vespers service, and one went so far as to refuse to look me in the eye.

67 dmlseS5qcGc=

In short, this situation was keen to enforce its own script, and the roles were limited to two dimensions. One was called “Victim.” One was called “Perpetrator.”

That’s the same script on two different sides– and it tries to restrict access to people as complex individuals, constantly in the midst of learning, with behaviors and understandings that sometimes are on mark, and other times miss it and require correction. This script was tempting in a time of great anxiety, however, and I watched even people I knew consider it. And I get it. It’s critically important that I in no way be representative of the larger seminarian community if I’m going to mess up around race—because that would mean that we all have work to do. Or, scarier still, it could mean that we are not going to be able to do all of the work that we need to before the moments when we are called to speak about race.

It could in fact mean that we are going, inevitably, to fall short sometimes. To find ourselves, each of us, on the lesser side of our hopes, or called to see the shortcomings underneath our intentions.

It is perhaps interesting that during this same period, I’ve been doing a lot of pulpit supply, preaching a sermon about sin. It’s Lent, and it’s a good sermon: funny, poignant—and provocative.

It provokes because I am taking pains to explain to Unitarian Universalists—to my people, many of whom have never voluntarily observed Lent and for whom “repent” is maybe an actual cuss word—that our screw ups are indeed inevitable. And that when we accept this reality, it frees us—we become prophets able to live our faith with both integrity and gentleness. We walk with humility, take responsibility in our errors, and extend the hand of healing without encumbering our love with the concern that the person we’re reaching out to may not “deserve” it.

I preach this sermon wholeheartedly, but if I could hold my breath while doing that, I would. Because pushback around anything that suggests a mere whiff of guilt is inevitable in this current moment in our tradition.

And so I was not surprised a few weeks ago in Topeka when a man came up to me and said, I have a gripe with your sermon.

I was surprised, however, about what he suggested I add to my theology: the idea that “sin” should mean only that we have set the bar too high. And that when we understand that, then our screw ups really aren’t screw ups at all.

Stand back, y’all.

Web

There is indeed a bar here, and perhaps we should take a moment to look at it, and to consider our commitments as people of transformative faith.

I self-importantly edited someone else’s words, acting in my own arrogance. More recently, I yelled at my older son in my own impatience, and just this morning spoke unkindly to a friend out of my own sadness. I have definitely, in this past week, failed to act where I knew better and drawn uncharitable conclusions where I know nothing and also coveted things not my own. I have broken promises, some quite willfully, and while I don’t have Rob Eller-Isaacs’ litany of atonement memorized, but I’m pretty sure I’ve done everything in it to which we might ritually confess. Probably twice.

Also, just last week, seven people were apparently shot by one person in Florida, word comes from Germany that a man chose to deliberately kill 150 people by crashing a plane into a mountain, and the governor of Indiana signed a bill into law allowing optional discrimination against those who identify as GLBT.

But not to worry. We have all just set that damned bar too far beyond our reach.

Denial. It’s what’s for breakfast.

And oddly, I think it’s precisely this inclination toward denial that spawns both the frenzied grabbing of pitchforks that we UUs sometimes do, and the post-pitchfork mystification about what we might then do next. We screw up when we could do better. We screw up when we don’t know how to do better. We screw up when we don’t want to be bothered with doing better.

And in each of those moments, that bar is exactly where it needs to be. It’s not there to shame us. It’s there to set the mark that calls us forward.

And my people, we are that bar. We, so often, are all we have to call each other forward.

So we’d better learn to do it in a way that saves. What we need, y’all, is grace. The kind that finds us where we are. Here. Now. As we stand, leaping for that bar, and missing.

Depositphotos_46044905_xs

The trouble is that waiting to offer grace until we think that the other person deserves it is in fact the farthest thing from grace. It’s instead a quid pro quo ritual of the oldest sort, one performed at the edge of an abyss.   Someone needs to pay, and if we can simply figure out whom to push from the cliff, we can feel reassured that our spaces are once again transgression-free. And if in the ensuing conflict-free silence, we detect a whiff of terror . . .   well, at least it keeps our discussions simple and manageable. Who will take the risk to act otherwise?

Friends, our shame around whiteness and our horror at its costs are things we must begin to hold, to process, and to grieve. Even as we learn.

This particular error was a small one in the larger landscape of my own racism. And the truth is, pointing this out does nothing to lessen my involvement in enacting privilege—I’ve certainly done worse, and more cluelessly, and you probably have, too. And in those moments, we may in fact have had our actions not called out but condoned. This system does that.

But without a space able to hold the complexity in each of us—to hold us, sinners all—it becomes critically important that any error that taps into communal shame be an affront so egregious that it’s sure to be a one-off. Not the entitled rudeness that’s common as mud. Not the kind of mistake, in short, that you might make. Tomorrow. Or even sooner.

I heard it asserted, and repeatedly, that I “plagiarized something or other,” or “attacked a seminarian of color.” Consider what it means if we can’t find a space to sit with what actually happened, to ask curious questions about it, to attempt to understand how an inquiry about a hashtag could come to this.

Because it could. It did. And no additional elements are needed for that to be true— so what might happen if we claim some space, in love, to look at the ways in which we humans can hurt one another?

Without this space, what we have is silence, binaries . . . and a very tall cliff.

Depositphotos_24446429_xs

Also, statements like the one from the seminarian who suggested that the responsible thing to have done would be to have known better than to screw up in the first place.

When 10 of my colleagues “liked” that comment, I knew we were in trouble . . . and friends, we are. Individually, collectively, in this space and in many others. In places where there is no identified space. On Facebook, and off of it.

Our shared dialogue is imperiled, and this conversation isn’t why—it’s simply symptomatic.

Without the courage to try, the humility to own failure, and the grace to stand up, extend a palm, and start again, there is no way for us to walk forward together.

We have to have conversations we’ve never attempted before. We have to learn to walk with people we’ve never loved before. We have to flex leadership muscles we haven’t used before.

And right now, we are failing to try. That third, silent bucket—the opt out between the two poles—it’s looking pretty good right now. It’s risk-free not to speak up.

Because the responsible thing is not to make the mistake in the first place. We are responsible people when we know better than to make mistakes.  

Truth: this stance is not responsible. It is not helpful. It is not honest. And yet, the bar is still there. And it’s not too high if we are to be people of transformative faith. Though it is quite true that our efforts will often fall short.

That’s a complex space in which to live, but it is our space. And calling ourselves humanists while denying that a lived truth of humanity is that we screw things up, all the time, makes us complicit in the same mental gymnastics and wishful thinking that our theology was designed to eschew.

No acceptance of transgression; no offering of grace.

And that means “cliff,” every time.

How excellent, then, that there are other choices. And how salvific that we have some spaces in which we might attempt them.

One framework might look like this:

For a given situation, let us do some discernment around what is and isn’t our business. Let us find inside of ourselves the muscle we might call our “holy courage.” Let us power it with love. And let us then learn to ask good questions from a place of curiosity.

We can use tools like this to help.

And let us, finally, get a handle on failure and the feelings that come with it.

What does disappointment mean to me? Can I handle it in others? Can I tolerate it in myself?

Do I feel like failure deserves to be met with shame? Where does that come from? Is it serving me—and more importantly, is it serving the larger We?

We must dare to envision something more. A place big enough to hold us all, and which isn’t content merely to hold us—challenge yourself to envision the place which dares to call us all into our next selves.

Let us dare to imagine more beauty. Let us dare to act with more courage, which so very often means with more love.

This sounds like a vision of perfection . . . I submit that it’s more likely the result of dealing truthfully with our shortcomings. They don’t have to scare us to teach us . . . and those who shame us cannot lead us.

In faith, my people.

j