the interdependent web(s in our garage)

The other day as I buckled Si into his carseat, he declared, “I like ‘pidahs!” This surprised me; of late, anything that evokes a mere suggestion of 8 legs or skittery movement–things that could represent “spider” only to my son and to Joan Miró–tends to elicit screams and frantic hops from my toddler.

I accept as part of my daily ration of mommy guilt that I somehow Did This.  Confined spaces, public speaking, and spiders; I regard these things with equal parts horror and awe, and in the last example I can only assume I have transmitted those feelings to my child.  In fact, spiders frighten me so much that I have overcome my aversion to killing them. Psychologically, it feels much, much worse to have seen one and wonder where it has gone (and when it might come back to crawl on me) than to simply grab a tissue, take a deep breath and have done with it.  In my semi-conscious worldview, spiders are to be respected but never trusted, and must die or accept voluntary repatriation to the outside if I see them.  So, perhaps it should not have come as a shock that the next statement out of Si’s mouth was, “I like to ‘mash them and ‘tomp on them.”

It was a surprise, though–the cavalier brutality of preschoolers (or is it that of little boys?) always is.  I climbed plenty of trees growing up, but I also liked dresses and dolls and playing quietly with my sister; my two boys, despite my having carried and birthed them and regarded them each day in wonder, remain something entirely Other.  Parenting them is not unlike a hostile takeover: I look around what formerly was simply my house–my life–and discover that things have been retitled and repurposed, as have I.  And I continue to wait for the inevitable adjustment: does their play need to be this wild?  Must their voices be so loud?  Need my every possession become a direct object of verbs so active I worry that our walls may not survive them?  They will change, or I will, or we will continue our mutual wearing-down of one another until college (them) or medication (me), or both.  In the meantime, they–particularly my younger son–manifest a delight in destruction that is a bit unsettling.

Where those destructive urges are applied to other living things, I feel I must draw a line, one that takes into account not just behavior, but ethics.  And sometimes–now I wonder just how often–I use off-the-shelf Parent Theology to do it.  “Are you taking good care of God’s creatures?” I ask my two-year-old.  I am not sure how it started, but I continue to ask this particular question in large part because it’s highly effective.  Five-year-old Ren invariably looks abashed and then calibrates his movements oh-so-carefully, lest he further disturb part of the Lord’s menagerie.  (I have to say, I love this reaction.  Actual worry about other living things, whether it’s motivated by concern for the creatures’ lives or out of fear that God might be looking down and frowning, seems to lessen the odds that the children are on the road to sociopathy.  Which . . . well . . . sometimes we wonder.)  There are evidently limits to the question’s power, however.  My wily toddler regards me seriously for a moment, then announces, “Imma tell God not to put ‘pidahs in our garage!”

Fair enough.  And this statement addresses a conflict that I have a hard time reconciling myself: how should we deal with the place where my space and someone (something) else’s overlap?   As Unitarians, we believe in a just allocation of resources, which we sometimes explain to our children as, “one for you, and one for me.”  When we’re talking about people and cans of food, this makes perfect sense.  When we’re talking about my house and the ravenous colony of sugar ants that invades it every spring, it makes no sense at all . . . except that, sometimes, I still feel like it should.  I put off calling the exterminators until everything sweet has been thrown away or banished to the freezer, and when Dmitri finally comes, I feel terrible.  “You have to get the eggs,” he explains.  He has a friendly smile, a slight accent, and two kids my own children’s age, and I forget for a moment that we are talking about poisoning things.  “We’ll just spray the colonies under the downspouts–they won’t be able to save the eggs.”  Eggs?  They’re going to try in vain to save their eggs?  I must look horrified; Dmitri puts a hand on my arm and says, “You do not have to give to them the house.  They have other places to be living.  This is yours.”

And so it is.  And sometimes maintaining this place of ours involves poisoning other living things.  (Of course, this is true, and it’s not limited to ants and the clear chain of events between my calling the exterminator and their deaths–how many of the things we use, enjoy, or do in and around our home involve a cost in lives of other creatures?)  That I know this and sometimes think about it doesn’t mean that I believe we indeed ought to give our house to the ants.  Nor are we vegetarians, and there is plenty in our home that is neither free-trade nor fair-trade, possibly in the most damaging sense of that phrase.  We accept tradeoffs each day, and we try to educate ourselves and to do better when we know better.  Thinking about the ants, however, brings an awareness that it’s hard to answer my children’s questions around the choices that we make in this area while simultaneously trying to instill in them a code of ethics based on concern for others, and for the interdependent web of all life (that would be UU principle number 7, for those following along at home).

The larger problem then, where moralizing to my offspring is concerned, is that this “caring for God’s creatures” standard is either arbitrarily applied or impossible to meet.  It’s easy enough to trot it out when I feel concerned by my children’s behavior, but try living by it yourself.  Ren has his own version of the question, though his tends to be voiced as an exclamation: “That was a LIVING. THING!”  This phrase–generally howled by a small person laid prostrate at the murder of one or more members of phylum Arthropoda–is the bane of Montessori parents everywhere.  I mean, we love that they teach respect for all living things–but do we really have to mean “all?”  Literally, all of them?  What would that sort of respect look like?  And how do we balance it with the other realities of our lives, for example the desire to eat bananas unsullied by fruit fly eggs or to shower in the basement bathroom without reenacting scenes from Arachnophobia?

Clearly, I do not have answers for these questions.  For the time being, we do the best we can in each moment to reason clearly, and to talk with Si and Ren in a way that makes our reasoning plain.  Or we do, sometimes.  In other moments, it seems so much simpler to borrow the voice of God and issue proclamations–Take Care of My Creatures–that are rule and explanation both.

Perhaps our real religious commitment is not to reach a particular conclusion about ants or spiders, but to continue to wrestle with the questions, and to do it in front of and alongside our children.  This is a struggle, to be sure, but perhaps in our children themselves we have the best equipment possible.  Mine can spot spiderwebs, and hypocrisy, from 100 paces.

“recovering Christians”–and recovering Christianity

As I have shared, I am a Unitarian Universalist and a practicing Christian.  Sometimes I talk about my experiences with this.  Other times, I talk about my faith, generally, and it’s heard by my fellow congegants from a Christian perspective (I haven’t been exactly quiet about that, especially this past year, so it’s probably not surprising that when I say something about my religion, it’s assumed that I’m talking about J.C. and the boys).

This happened a few weeks ago.  I shared on facebook the discovery that college students are having intense discussions about the nature of God in coffee bars downtown, leading to an in-person discussion on the same topic with some of my church friends.  The earnestness of the students’ dialogue both excited and perplexed me–I have been yearning for a place to discuss God more, myself, and wondered aloud why these discussions aren’t happening at church. The response of my church friends, on the other hand, surprised me: “If what you need is an in-depth Bible study,” advised one friend, “then you probably need to go somewhere else.”  The comment was off the cuff and not meant to be offensive, but I think it’s telling in terms of how we UUs sometimes view questions of faith, especially where we put “Christian” in front of that faith.

I have thought about this in the weeks since this interaction, and I have a few questions.  Of which the first (and the only one I’ll deal with today) is: who said anything about Bible study?  We actually have a fairly long-standing Bible study group in existence at my church; I have never gone to it, but I feel sure that it is an open, curious and respectful discussion.  What I want is to go deeper with my faith.  I want reflective dialogue.  I want consideration of difficult questions.  I want connection.  We can offer these things to one another without any mention of Bible study, and conversely, we can read our Bibles with all the piety of Mary and still miss the mark on the things that truly encourage the development of spiritual depth.

One aspect of the Bible does matter in this discussion, however, and that is the feelings we have toward it and how we bring those attitudes to our interactions around faith.  To the extent that you are offended by biblical references, closed to any possible message in the life or words of Jesus, or openly hostile to the inclusion of any Bible stories in the religious education that we might offer our children, you are indeed impeding my ability to fully explore and grow in my faith in the context of my church.  For those who explain that it’s not a kneejerk reaction against Christianity that provokes this attitude–“I’m a humanist; I don’t ‘do’ this spiritual stuff”–I wonder if that reasoning holds up in light of the variety of texts included in UU-style worship.  Do the Upanishads offend you equally?  Are the musings of Rumi as fingernails on a blackboard to thine ears?

When I first wrote a draft of this post, I ended up with something ridiculous–a reflection about how odd it is to be the sole practicing Christian I know . . . amid a congregation of former practicing Christians.  Certainly we are a varied group in our church, but the vast majority of us were at one point churchgoers in Christian families.  The interesting question, then, isn’t “why am I the only one,” but “why does Christianity continue to hold meaning for me?,” and perhaps “what led my fellow congregants to decide that the ‘Christian’ label wasn’t one that fit them?”  Of course, this isn’t one story.  It’s more than 100 stories, and I’d love the chance to hear them.  Given that Christianity isn’t exactly unfamiliar territory for our congregation, however, our individual histories suggest that there are challenges to confront directly if we are going to be truly open to spiritual growth.

On Twitter this summer, Rev. Ellen Cooper-Davis exhorted us, “Don’t be a recovering anything.  Recover.  Be a Unitarian Universalist.”  Those words inspired a round of hear, hears in the blogosphere, and I’d like to add an Amen, myself.  In a widely-shared post, Unitarian Universalist minister and online persona PeaceBang also called for us to release the part of our congregational identities that are built around rejection of our previous religious lives.  These perspectives are timely and needed if our movement is to grow. They do, however, leave open the question of how one might recover from prior religious trauma, and how congregations can help.

I got my start in Unitarianism at a large church in Salt Lake City.  If we accept that individuals can be damaged at the hands of religion, this congregation was ministering to the walking wounded, and it showed.  While its members were in many ways a thriving and joyful bunch, the church culture I entered into was defined by “us” and “other”–we were hunkered down against a social onslaught, and in that context we devoted more energy to patting ourselves on the back than reaching out to those in need; we spent more time raising our eyebrows and nodding knowingly at what individuals had previously experienced than in doing the work to process those hurts and move forward.

Building a cohesive community, helping members to feel safe and comfortable, encouraging a spirit that makes people want to return–these are important tasks for any congregation.  Our more important task, however, is welcoming the stranger.  The healthy church is not the one in which everyone knows that s/he is “on the team” and feels bolstered by a Yay, Us!  sermon to go out and live for another week among “them.”  It is the church whose doors are truly open for public worship, for anyone–like us or very, very different–who may walk through them.  This requires that we do the difficult work, individually and together, to acknowledge and work through our spiritual hurts so that we are open to grow ourselves and to foster that growth in others.  In this way we gain both depth and centering, that we might maturely witness and minister to the struggles of the stranger among us (even when that stranger is someone we know and love who is grappling with something we ourselves haven’t experienced and don’t understand).

This I believe: we are not fully free to grow spiritually while we handle the religion of our past with garlic cloves and lead vests.  Coming to terms, together and individually, with our Christian heritage is needed.  It’s challenging.  And . . . it’s out of my area of expertise.  Are positive spiritual growth opportunities enough, or do we as a denomination need to offer intentional opportunities for spiritual detox?  What would that look like?  And what might our congregations look like, from our relationships with one another to the messages we hear from our pulpits, if we all decided, together, to “recover and be Unitarian Universalists?”  I would love to know . . . and as wonderfully quippy as Rev. Cooper-Davis’s words were, I don’t think our merely saying them is enough.  Our members have been hurt.  They are hurting.  Where do we go from here, that we might go somewhere better, together, in the future?

j

[note: for a UU minister’s response to this post, click here.]

the thing we love . . . that leaves us (part II)

(Or, “Running Through the Thistles: a Lay Perspective”)

The first part of this story appears here–this is part II . . .

So where does all this leave us, and what does any of it have to do with church life?

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There is one relationship we build within our congregation that, if we are doing things as well as we hope to, will inherently be time-limited: the one we have with our minister.  At some point, the ministry continues, but the minister does not.

This fact was recently brought to my attention, and I am slightly embarrassed to say that it came as something of a shock.  Certainly, simple naivete played a part in my astonishment, but our congregation is also in a unique position: our current minister is the only minister we’ve ever had.  In 60 years as a fellowship, the last decade is the first time that we have accessed any sort of professional ministry, and only in the last few years have we had a settled minister.  Thus, our minister is, for all intents and purposes, The minister.

And I now understand that someday she will leave us.  Actually, this much I had worked out for myself.  Superior reasoning skills, no?  The part that astonished me is what our minister’s departure will mean.  Which is, jointly and severally, the end of our relationship with her.  Not unlike a death–a death foretold, with ritual preparations including thank yous and farewells and unfriendings on Facebook.

Why take a painful situation (a goodbye) and exacerbate it by turning it into something else (a cut-off)?  The reasoning is usually framed as a potential detriment to the relationship between the new minister and the congregation.  This failure to connect and to define a [n exclusive?] two-way relationship adversely affects both parties and ultimately the ministry itself.

Unfortunately, this isn’t merely theoretical; I have a friend–I’ll call him Matthew–whom I know to be an intelligent and caring individual, and who is, by all accounts, a talented pastor.  Despite those attributes, Matthew’s ministry recently unraveled as a result of unclear loyalties and power structures.  The congregation opted to maintain an official, ongoing relationship with the former senior pastor even as they welcomed a new one; several years (and a significant investment in consulting time) later, it has become clear that this arrangement existed to the detriment of all.  Perhaps the greatest harm accrued to Matthew himself, who was unable to establish the relationships and the leadership traction necessary to steer a congregation whom he loved deeply and believed in utterly. These difficulties and the bitter legacy they leave harm congregations, the denominational ministry and ultimately the larger faith community.  Members are lost, gifted pastors leave, and we all are distracted from our primary church tasks–the worship of God and our shared work to build and care for the Beloved Community.

For a detailed and affecting discussion of these challenges and some thoughts about how ministers and congregations might rise to meet them, see the 180th Berry Street Lecture, given by Rev. Dr. Mark Morrison-Reed.  I will warn you, however, that while very eloquent and even beautiful in places, Morrison-Reed’s reflection is a painful read whether you are a layperson or, I’m told, a minister.

Truthfully, even with the above knowledge, I am not entirely convinced that a “take no prisoners; leave no friends” approach to goodbyes is the best one from a personal or a theoretical perspective.  I will set that aside, however, and look instead at the meaning of this impending loss.  Which, while hopefully rather distant from the current moment, will someday be upon us.  In the meantime, foreknowledge is ours to do with what we will.

As to our minister leaving, when the time comes: it will be painful.  In fact, the knowledge of it hurts already, and my natural inclination is to protect myself.  While the situation is less fraught, this is not unlike what I experienced in my friendship with Jamie [note: for the rest of this story, see Part I].  Or my five-year-old’s reaction to the Snowman’s passing out of the boy’s life after staying just long enough to illuminate some true magic in the world.  Why connect in the present when the ties we make must break?  Why invest ourselves in that which cannot stay?

In answer to these questions, Rev. Morrison-Read quotes Unitarian Universalist theologian Forrest Church, who opined that “[t]he fact that death is inevitable gives meaning to our love, for the more we love the more we risk losing. Love’s power comes, in part, from the courage required to give ourselves to that which is not ours to keep: our spouses, children, parents, dear and cherished friends, [and congregations]…”  Thus, explains Morrison-Read, “it takes courage to throw off caution and enter fully into life [because the] risk of loss is not just great; it is certain.” This is poignant, evocative, and (unfortunately, in my view–how lovely it would be to have relationships without pain) absolutely true.  In fact, it is precisely what I wish I had realized two years ago, watching Jamie from what I hoped was a safe distance while guarding my heart and hiding my love away.  We love because that is what we are here to do, and the losses we incur are simply part of that love.

Yet that message, however powerful, is not the point of this post.

This is a reflection not just about love and loss, but about intentional congregational life. In short, we know that, in any context, that which we love may leave us.  We know that we must continue to love, and to offer the best that we have within us, even so.  The question is, what power does that knowledge afford us in our congregations–and not just in our dealings with our clergy?

One thing we might learn from the knowledge that our minister will leave–and that our particular relationships with her will end–is that as congregants, we must focus our efforts in what we can do for each other.  In the end, the work we do to build an intentional community, or to intentionally build ourselves and grow spiritually, isn’t between ourselves and our minister.  It’s between ourselves and . . . us.  In this context, a job well done is revealed by the our relationships with one another; the currency that counts is the trust we place and the care we take and the covenants we make and honor.

With those tasks in mind, let’s look around and ask what we might do next.  It is we who stay–to whom should we reach out in offer of connection?  It is we who stay—how might we make the circle bigger?  Can we forgive the one who wronged us?  Listen to the one who irritates us?  Can we hold each other tighter, and can we do it in this season, rather than waiting for a time of crisis?

But–here’s the real mind-trip–our focus in relationship must be about “us” because it ultimately isn’t about us at all.  This idea, of course, isn’t new either.  Many denominational communities view their work as the natural extension of a relationship even more fundamental than what we have with one another–that which we cultivate with God.  Phrased this way, the concept may not resonate with some UU’s, but even we are being pushed to acknowledge something on the order of a Larger Truth.  (Don’t worry, friends, it’s not what you think–but it will demand sacrifices just the same, the first being a lessening of our egos.)  And that truth is: it’s not about you.  Sound a bit familiar?  A piece of this was shared with ministers at General Assembly last summer (See Rev. Dr. Fredric Muir’s 2012 Berry Street Lecture, “From iChurch to Beloved Community”) and has been making its way into congregational discussions since then.

I can be pretty self-centered and even a bit dense at times, but I think I could have figured out “It’s not about U” on my own.  Eventually, anyway.   The real challenge to my fledgling attempts toward the practice of radical hospitality is understanding that my congregational work is not only not about me– it’s also not about anyone else I already know and love.  We need to keep our eyes fixed lovingly on one another not because what we do here is an end in itself (though of course it is, and hopefully a beautiful and healing one), but because what we hold in our hands as our most reverent, connected selves is nothing less than the future.

We will continue to hear this message. In fact, it seems like being a Unitarian Universalist in the current moment means confronting this truth again and again; it is going to continue to creep up on us, tapping us on the shoulders, whispering in our ears, until we adapt to its demands.  And so, reflecting on our tasks as an intentional-community-in-the-face-of-loss becomes part of the larger challenge: to think more broadly about our purposes and our obligations as a people of faith.  We are building something for the future, something that comes through us but is not of us.

In our churches and our fellowships, in the meeting halls and campus buildings and repurposed storefronts–in all those places where a living faith exists–something profound and sacred has been entrusted to our care.  We may enjoy it, live in it, scatter it joyfully around our lives–but it will never fully belong to us.  Like the children in Khalil Gibran’s poem, our religion is not really ours.  In this discussion of losses we face as a congregation, perhaps the greatest is our illusion of self-importance, of ownership.

This summer the Rev. Dr. Lisa Presley advised a group of us that “if Unitarian Universalism has given you something–if this faith it has been a transformative influence in your life, and I think for all of us, it has–then you have no right to close the door behind you.”  Keeping those words in mind, we lean into loss, embracing life before death and the pain of grief after it, because it is the faith that must outlive us–a faith embodied in our healthy, thriving congregations.  Thus, we seize this moment and open our hearts to one another with the full foreknowledge that they will be broken wide open.  In so doing, we keep alive a vital spark, handed to us by those who came before and which we ourselves must pass on, that the work of peace and justice in the world may continue.

Channeling our beloved, but impermanent, minister: May it be so.

Oh, when will we ever learn?

I thought that I would have a new post for you today.  As this day has unfolded, though, it has turned out that the only words I have are Pete Seeger’s.

On its face, this is a song about war.  Reading a bit deeper, however, it is a poem about the terrible call to witness as the losses mount, losses that seem both inevitable and senseless.  It is a reminder that, though as individuals we may feel helpless,  our collective choices in one moment either contribute to or help to prevent our anguish in the next.

When WILL we ever learn?  That, for now, remains an open question.

But there is hope in continuing to ask.

peace, and prayers for peace.

j

the thing we love . . . that leaves us (part I)

Last week, we watched what has become a winter tradition for us: The Snowman, Dianne Jackson’s beautifully rendered adaptation of the Raymond Briggs picture book.  I remember the movie from my own childhood–I first saw it in school, and I loved it immediately.  I am among the least musical people I know, but the score remained in my head so completely that in hearing it again as an adult I felt, for a moment, what it was like to be seven, watching a filmstrip with my chin on my desk and a gum eraser in my hand.  There is nothing flashy about the animation or the story, but it’s captivating anyway (as demonstrated by the complete, and completely uncharacteristic, stillness of my sons as they watched).

The next part of this story contains some spoilers, so if those will detract from your Snowman experience, watch this first.  Then, in 26 minutes, continue reading.  We’ll wait.

Ready?

This hopefully isn’t a great shock, but The Snowman is a movie about an ephemeral relationship.  The friendship between the boy and the snowman is deeply special; indeed, we sense that it has been profoundly transformative for both.  (Certainly this is so for the boy, but could the snowman have existed without a boy who believed enough to create him?)  But the relationship is also very short; it consists of a single, magical night, after which the snowman melts as the boy is sleeping.  In the final scene the boy, looking grief-stricken, falls to his knees where the snowman last stood, and reaches to place his own scarf on the ground by the snowman’s.  Cue credits.

I think I had forgotten the ending of the movie, and clearly my children didn’t remember it either.  My two-year-old’s face contorted with rage; as is his custom, he then looked for objects to throw.  My five year old, on the other hand, began to cry, and then to sob uncontrollably.  When he could speak, it was to shout, “He’s gone!  The boy loved him, and he’s GONE FOREVER!”  This was followed by, “Why couldn’t he save himself?  He could fly–why wasn’t he smart enough to fly to Antarctica?”

We talked about this a bit, and I wondered aloud if the snowman chose not to leave because he was exactly where he was supposed to be–in the yard where the boy had made him, keeping watch until the morning.  Perhaps he stayed because he belonged to the boy, and nowhere else?  Ren responded angrily, “Then he shouldn’t have made him!  This shouldn’t have happened!”  Valid points, both.  And that is where we left the conversation.  But it is not where I left my thoughts, as I dried my own eyes (disclaimer: I have been known to become teary, in my adult life, during Disney movies, commercials for Johnson & Johnson products and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and while reading Because of Winn-Dixie aloud to my third-graders)  and continued with the day.

The movie, and the resulting discussion, were particularly poignant for me last week–and still are, actually.  Ren’s questions touch on some things I have been wondering about, and even wrestling with, myself.  As much as I’d like to think I’m doing this in a mature, adult way, there is wisdom in the honest questions of a five-year-old.  Further, as I try to come to terms with truths I’d prefer not to acknowledge,  it is true that I sometimes talk to God like a kindergartner having a tantrum.    What, I demand, is the value of having something special in our lives, only to lose it?  How should we be in the face of impending loss?  (And really, don’t all of our relationships occur in that context?  How easily we forget it, though–and so the stakes feel different when we are truly aware that grief is looming.)

This is something I’m thinking about in the context of two examples–one personal, one congregational/denominational.  I will talk about the personal one today, and save the congregational discussion for its own post.  [In advance, a small warning: like The Snowman, this first story involves an ending, this time of a life, that is not what any of us would have preferred.]

Today would have been the 37th birthday of a friend I knew for a very short time.  I met Jamie in September, 2010, as she artfully balanced parenting a lively and adorable four-year-old, doing articulate and enthusiastic outreach through a blog that touched hundreds and possibly thousands of followers, and completing intensive treatments for metastatic breast cancer.  Jamie died on March 29, 2011.  She died as she lived–surrounded by a close network of family and friends, connecting with the people and things that were important to her.  She had a smile that could light up a stadium paired with a personality that made you feel like you were the only one in the room. Though at times her frustration and weariness were clear, Jamie embraced the calling that she felt to tell her story and used it to connect with and better the lives of others.  (to read more about this, in Jamie’s own words, go to her website, LovingPink.com, and scroll down for the link to her blog.)

There has never been a moment–truly–from my fear and worry when Jamie first shared her story with me (I got to know her at a time when I had a suspicious lump of my own, and had been referred for biopsy) to my increased fear and worry as her medical journey took a turn for the worse, to the take-your-breath-away sadness I felt at learning of her death, that I have not been glad to have known her.  The example Jamie set of making each day count and connecting with the important things while letting the others go has influenced my thinking and my parenting.  The example her close friends and family set in dealing with her advancing illness has changed my thoughts about how we handle death.

There is another truth, though: from the time that I met her, I kept Jamie at arm’s length.  I was grateful to know her–and terrified of the day when I wouldn’t.  From the beginning, and with as much foreknowledge as any of us can have, this was a time-limited relationship–one destined to be much, much shorter than I would have liked.   And I dealt with the terrible weight of this knowledge by keeping my heart away, to the extent that I could.

I interacted with Jamie virtually rather than actually.  When I did see her in person, I kept it short.  I am embarrassed and saddened to say that there were times when I’m not sure I even looked her in the eye.  We had children of a similar age at the same school, and in the fear and sadness and guilt that I felt at the reality of what was happening to Jamie and her family, it was easier to look at the wall, or the ground, or the fish tank.  I turned my eyes away rather than suffer the pain of truly seeing her beautiful face, rather than taking the risk of truly connecting.

I know that Jamie saw this.  Amazingly–mercifully–I also know that she forgave it.  Once, as I stammered through introductions at the school picnic shortly after learning that my own lump was a benign cyst, she put her hand on my arm, and said, simply, “It’s ok . . . it’s ok.”  In the expansiveness of her generosity of spirit, she allowed me a modicum of dignity even as I failed to grant the same to her.

This relationship changed me for the better even as I failed to be fully human within it.  I regret that failing.  I regret it for Jamie . . . and I regret it for myself.  I guarded my heart, and I missed out on some of the treasures of the present moment . . . for what?  To avoid pain?

If we are to truly live, pain is inevitable.  Suffering was always going to be part of this situation; I could have done nothing to change this truth.  And I know–I knew it profoundly from the moment that I met her–that I would never choose not to have known Jamie.  So the question is, what is left . . . now . . . after . . .  (and isn’t the problem with the ending of a relationship that there is so very much “after” to be dealt with)?  

As best I can work out, my task now is to continue to learn from Jamie’s example, and to wish that I had been willing to know her more fully, whatever that might have brought.  May I honor her memory by doing the hard work–the work of truly connecting–to turn that wish into reality each day.

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Jamie Barkes Pursley

Which brings us back to the Snowman, and to the part of this that connects to congregational life.  Stay tuned.

j

toward a hands-on sort of faith

IMG_1218      My two-year-old son really, really loves Jesus.

For what it’s worth, Si attended a year of Catholic preschool and was given all the loving indoctrination the experience can provide (aside: if you can find a school run by nuns, it probably deserves your consideration.  The sisters at Our Lady’s were saints in-the-flesh; it is hard to imagine more gentle, caring, and well-educated teachers).  School, however, is not what inspired his love.

The object of Si’s adoration is the small infant Jesus from our nativity set.

He was originally more interested in the nativity livestock, and what two year old wouldn’t be?  The animals are familiar, action-oriented, and inspire both of my sons to make gleeful barnyard noises (had they been written after a visit to our home, Psalms 98 and 100 would almost certainly have requested a “blessed silence” unto the Lord.) Eventually, however, the animals, and also the men, the woman, and the angel had been examined and arranged, and I asked the boys if they remembered what this story was about.  Neither was sure, so we embarked on the tale of long ago and far away.

I introduced Mary and Joseph–a couple traveling, a baby soon to be born, and no place to stay (one would think that no words more horrifying than “no rooms in the hotel” have ever been spoken, judging from my five-year-old’s reaction; we travel a good deal, and this was one piece of information that he could relate to–and yet, couldn’t).  Then the magic of that night–everything amiss, yet everything according to plan–and the wonder of a baby born to bring hope to a hurting world.  The kids were captivated and I felt some of their awe, myself.  This is a story of beauty and power; from the miracle of faith to the chance for renewal even when all seems lost, these are themes that speak to us still.

And since the day I told the story, Si only has eyes for Jesus.

Or, more accurately, he has eyes, arms, fingers, lips and occasionally teeth for Our Savior.  He carries him around in the palm of his hand.  He kisses him.  He places the baby in locations where one can imagine him watching the fascinating activities of a day in the life of an almost-preschooler.  And occasionally, my orally fixated younger child places the plastic version of the infant son of God into his mouth entirely.

Fortunately, this happens infrequently.  When I am at home, we give Jesus a bath, put the nativity set away for a time, and talk about taking care of our bodies and respecting our things.  Last Monday, however, I wasn’t at home, and our sitter, a salt-of-the-earth, Christ-loving woman in her 70’s, was so scandalized that she put the baby “someplace safe, where Si can’t get at him.”  In the busyness of the dinner transition, I forgot to ask where that place might be; we found Jesus three days later–and his manger, too–in witness protection behind the key basket on a high shelf.  (A Christmas song for our time:  “I found Jesus on the high shelf.”  Trout Fishing In America could sing it.)

I confess that I find Si’s relaxed relationship with this Jesus-figure both disturbing and liberating.  I have no memory of an easy friendship with this baby, but of course there was a time when I might have greeted the Christmas story with the same glee, the same innocence, the same blissful possessiveness.  And, also certainly, there is a great deal in life that must be respected.  Our bodies. Those of others.  Rules.  Property.  And, to an extent, religion.  Is not “deserving of respect” an inherent part of what constitutes sacredness?  On the journey to adulthood, we must each develop the restraint, care and gentleness to live within these boundaries.  It is our job as parents to assist our children in these tasks.

I wonder, though: what happens when we put faith “someplace safe” so that a child “can’t get at it?” Mystery is part of the beauty of the religious experience; do we lose that in encouraging–even cultivating–a spirit of easy, unintimidated familiarity with faith?  Can we let things be a bit more relaxed, that we might walk more closely with God?  Is it ok to hold the cross?  To rearrange the nativity?  To handle the sacred stones, inspect the prayer mats, examine the makings of the menorah?

Gilbert Chesterton encourages us in this direction, saying “Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair.”  For my children, that love affair has begun. I can only guess where it will lead . . . but I wonder if Si, in seeking God’s presence at 30, will in some vague way remember the heft in the hand of a tiny friend he called Jesus when he was nearly three.

Raising Faith v.1.0

Hi, there!

This site exists because I made an early New Year’s resolution to stop bugging all my Facebook friends, who generally read for posts about my family, with constant reflections about my family’s faith.  I kept thinking, “after I talk about this one issue . . . after things settle down in our congregation and there’s not so much going on . . . after I finish my Chalica posts”–I am going to stop posting about religion all the time.  Unfortunately, over these same months I have found myself with an increasing number of questions, musings, and occasionally, frustrations about my religion and about religious life, generally.  Sometimes I have felt, in a way that’s bigger than the Facebook format really allows, that I might have a thing or two to say about all of this–but NOT that I’d like to literally say (I am terrified of oratory-style public speaking.  I hate it.  The mere thought gives me goosebumps.)  What I needed, it occurred to me, was something like a column.  Or . . . a blog.  Aha!

I’m interested in all things religious–history, beliefs, the ins and outs of congregational life and even denominational growth and politics–but particularly the biggest questions, which sometimes seem like the smallest.  Why do we go to church?  How should we treat those who mistreat us?  Can we raise children with a clear denominational identity and still encourage them to think critically and love openly?  I was thinking about these questions this morning and realized that overall, I wonder how, in a religion that values (among other things) individualism, freedom of conscience, and differing viewpoints, we might attempt to raise children of faith. And lo, Raising Faith was born.

I am a Unitarian Universalist (hesitantly since 2005 . . . transformatively since this past summer).  My Christian faith remains important to me as well; my husband and I are doing our best to raise our two young sons in a blend of both faiths, making spirituality an intentional matter in our home and our lives.  Sometimes this feels beautiful.  Sometimes it feels a bit scattered.  And sometimes, like this morning, I am too busy trying to keep my two year old from swallowing our nativity Jesus to think much about faith in the bigger picture.

I want this to be a space to explore issues, ask questions, share discoveries, and celebrate the joy and beauty of family-life-in-faith.  What I don’t envision is an overly reverent take on any of the above, an exclusively UU perspective (in fact, I hope not–let’s get ecumenical about this), or commentary without the occasional mistake or misstep.  Let’s be real.  It may be messy at times.  Even edgy (!)  But it will also be fun, and funny . . . and, who knows, maybe we’ll even learn something.

Looking forward to the conversation–thanks for reading!

j