of friendship, worship, and the bravery of storytelling

Very early Monday morning, I returned home, bleary and beat, from 2013 General Assembly in Louisville.  I attended Ministry Days as well (thanks again, UUMA, for including aspirants this year), and so spent seven straight days in the hum and hustle of what I will call LUUieville.  This six-block section of downtown, centered around the Convention Center on 4th St., included the Marriott, Fairfield Inn, Springhill Suites, and the truly megalithic Galt House Hotel, where many of us stayed.  (It also included the Hyatt, which to my knowledge all 4000 of us pretended did not exist.  Get with the program, Hyatt . . . and while you’re at it, stop air conditioning the sidewalk. UPDATE: As of July 1, Hyatt Hotels has reached a collective bargaining agreement and the global boycott led by UniteHere has been lifted.)

In LUUieville, one might observe tie dye, chalice jewelry, deep conversations about covenant and social witness, prolonged interactions with those asking for money, people strolling casually and people hurrying, and nearly everyone, young, old, well-dressed or completely casual, wearing large nametags around their necks.  It was, to say the least, an interesting week–a time of friends and fellowship, of renewal and discovery, and of sharing stories and creating new ones.  Perhaps most of all, it was a time for talking about when and where and how we tell those stories, and what our storytelling might mean for our movement.  From Lillian Daniel to Eboo Patel to Bill Schulz, we heard the case, again and again, for stating our case as a people of faith.

Unsurprisingly, I came away with a few stories of my own . . . and also, a thought about that larger question of storytelling.

The idea with storytelling is that if we each speak from “I,” and from the heart, walls will fall down.  And sometimes, they will–with a willing listener, brave and open storytelling may result in a long and enjoyable conversation, in which beautiful differences and lovely commonalities are discovered.  I tell my own story, and then I respectfully make space for you to do the same.  Then in sharing, we are transformed.

Cool, huh?  (Everybody say, “aww . . .”)

I wish that were my message.  It’s simple.  It’s to-the-point.  It’s warm and fuzzy.

Unfortunately, though, working across the lines of difference–across conflict–is more complicated than that.  As a movement, we need not just to think about storytelling, but to challenge ourselves to go deeper with it.  It is a powerful tool, but using it to bring love and wholeness to our communities is going to require more than our narratives and our mouths.  Why?  Because, for one thing, it turns out that story-driven interactions can  entrench conflict rather than solving it.

Stories can help us to see one another .  . . but our own stories, held too closely, serve only to blind us.  (As I type this, Patrick Park is singing “Here We Are”—“We can’t see past our own sad stories/and forget how to listen.”)  Case in point: one of my new friends, a fellow seminarian, and I began to talk together about a very knotty issue, and quickly found ourselves knee-deep in disagreement.  The issue was close to each of our hearts, and felt tied to call, to authority, and in some ways, to identity.  We started by trying to parse the issue itself . . . that was like digging a hole.  Two holes.  And not the kind that intersect in the middle in some sort of tunnel of love.

I have a story—my story—about this conflict.  It is a true story, as best I know it—a relation of events that takes into account my own faults and foibles, and one that strives to be fair.  And Sarah has her own story—a story which is also compelling, also full of emotion . . . and also, to the best of her knowledge, factually accurate.  Again, what we have here is one situation.  Two people.  Two stories.  And both are true.

Both contain lessons, demand action, even inspire outrage.  Viewed from either side, the issues themselves become blurred, muddled and half-obscured by the strength of emotions involved.  This is true because this particular conflict isn’t actually issue-driven; it is story-driven.  Our own stories—the ones we tell ourselves, the ones we tell each other—can drive us deep into uncompromising territory.  Into the place where battle lines are drawn, because they seem like the only rational option.

Fortunately for our budding friendship, Sarah and I recognized this.  Later in the week, I saw Amy Carol Webb sing a song in which I recognized myself—here it is.

We both laid our shovels down, and started again, and this time we didn’t talk about “issues” or “truth” or try to label what “we” believe.  We started somewhere else: with the hard work of attempting to put ourselves in the other’s shoes.

To really build relationships—to forge community across entrenched lines of difference–we need to have not just the passion and energy to tell our own story, but the compassion and creativity to tell another’s.  Even when we have to really reach for it.  Even when we don’t quite get there.  I tried this, last week, with Sarah–tried sitting silently, eyes closed, to see the situation as she does, to feel what she feels, to tell a story from a different place.

In one sense, this failed—I didn’t fully enter Sarah’s story; I couldn’t even fully speak to her pain.  It was enough to broaden my view and open my heart, however.  It was enough to help my clenched fingers and clenched jaw turn loose of the “truth” they’d been harboring.  It was enough to open my heart to whatever comes next.

Being ready to tell another’s story takes guts.  If we don’t take this leap, though, it is likely that in those situations where difference is what we perceive most acutely, we will end up with a heart problem.  We can speak, but without truly listening.  We can act, but not in partnership with those who disagree with us.  We can share who we are, where we come from, and what we feel, but to stop there is to insist that our own perspective be heard and honored even where others’ are not.  Perhaps, then, the most important question we might ask isn’t, “how can I tell my story,” but “how else could I tell this story?”  Perhaps not, “what is the truth,” but “how might [this crazy-sounding thing that I’m hearing] make sense?”

In this week of lessons, there proved plenty of time to think about these questions, including on Saturday, when I attended a rare UU communion service.  Late in the worship, during a silent, standing ritual in which we received bread and wine with only a shared gaze, a man began to talk.  He had been talking for most of the service, turning the sermon into a sort of call-and-response routine, but I wasn’t aware of him during the communion–I was deep in reflection.  A woman stepped forward, quietly requesting that the man refrain from talking during the ritual (I didn’t hear her, either).

The man became angry, struggled to gather his belongings, and left the room in a dramatic scene, as the officiant bearing wine passed by.  Another minister began to sing.  The assembled body of people began to sing, too.  The door swung closed behind the man.  Nobody spoke.  Nobody moved.  Eventually the service ended, closing the book on assembled UU Christianity for another year.

That of course isn ‘t the end of the story, however.  It turns out that people are angry.  Complaints have been directed every which way.  This is completely unacceptable, not UU . . . not Christian.  What we need is a takeover of the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship (UUCF).  What we need is an alternative to the UUCF.

Um . . . maybe.  But how else could we tell this story?

The man has a mental illness, behaves differently, and should be met with love where he is. 

The woman is grieving a loss and had hoped to find peace and solace amid the quiet reflection of the communion ritual.  

The service was an example of our UU failure to live into the beloved community in the spirit of Christ.  

The service was an example of a beautiful ritual that doesn’t fit all needs of all people at all times.  

The service was simply what it was, and we are called to respond as we will, searching our hearts, bidding our hands, our feet, our mouths to do the work of love.  

The man was unfairly persecuted during the service.  

The woman was unfairly persecuted after the service.  

No one was persecuted; sometimes it is painful to live within the confines of community.

Any of us could have done something.  

We each could have done more.

On this day we failed.  

On this day we triumphed.  

On this day, we did both, and everything in between, and hopefully learned something that will allow us to live more fully, and to tread more gently, tomorrow.  

This is a small example, but that’s exactly the point: we each deal with countless opportunities every day to challenge and change the narratives in our heads.  Large or small, the questions we might ask are the same: How brave are we?  How creative are we willing to get?  How uncomfortable can we allow ourselves to be?  Whose story is missing here, and how can we tell it?  How else might we tell the story?

We must become storytellers, all right.  Not autobiographers, but narrators and sharers of that vast rainbow of experience—the minority perspective, the voice of the one who angers us.  Using not just our mouths, but our ears and perhaps above all, our hearts, our movement might dream to tell a tale not just of ourselves . . . but of what is possible.

For my dad, on Father’s Day

turtle rock trail, Vedauwoo

Walk softly, like the Indians.  Take long strides. 

This is lichen.  That’s a beaver dam.  These are brook trout.  Rainbow trout.  Walleye.

This grass has roots you can eat.  Don’t touch those mushrooms.  Don’t eat these berries.  Don’t drink this water.

This is a handhold.  This is a foothold.  These roots will hold your weight; those won’t.  Pick a spot when you jump.  Use your knees when you land.  Find a cave in a thunderstorm.

This is a starling, a meadowlark, a hawk, an eagle.  This is a nest.  This is why you don’t touch it.

This is Saratoga.  This is Thermopolis. Evanston.  Laramie.  This is where you are from.

Those are thistles.  Those are stickbugs.  Here are moths . . . here are hundreds and hundreds of moths.  This is a vacuum.  This is your ceiling, safe again.

This is your grandmother, your great grandmother, your grandfather, your great grandfather.  These are my cousins.  These are your cousins.  These are the people who love you.

This is a mountain.  This is the prairie.  This is new snow, chilly air, bright sunlight.  This is what belongs to all of us.

Walk softly; take long strides.  This is who you are.

 j

photo-13 - Version 2

I love to watch you play: (or, why I will not be homeschooling my 6 year old)

I love to watch you play.

This post explains that these six words might change my life.  A friend shared it on facebook this afternoon, and I almost didn’t click.  I have things to do—that’s, uh, why I’m on the internet . . . (?) —and anyway, how often does Facebook sharing make the “life-changing” claim?  So, friend, you’ll need to specify: are we talking about the kind of life change that occurs when you realize that a coworker eats bacon with his chocolate?  Or is it the kind that means you can Lose Stubborn Belly Fat in 10 Days?

Fortunately, Audra posted just enough to let me know that this really might be relevant to my life.  And, because I like her and trust her judgment, and also because I love a good excuse not to exercise, I clicked.

And now I can tell you that the answer is: this is the kind of change that might make life easier inside my head and inside my house.  And friends, I’m all for easier.  I am a grade-a perfectionist, worrier, and control-freakista, and I can tell you that there is nothing inherently better, or bettering, about “hard”—not when it comes to domestic life.  There’s just the harder and the easier.  The undone, saved for the ideal time, and the done imperfectly.  The days when I wait for the moment of calm and peace, or the feeling that I have things under control (it’s a good thing I don’t actually hold my breath during these waits), and the days when I take it as it comes and dive right into the bedlam.

One of our church teens, and occasional babysitters, remarked the other day, “I am amazed that you and Craig are such calm people when you live with the children that you have.”  I wasn’t sure, initially, whether I felt offended or affirmed.  After a bit of consideration, though, I decided we need to take the truth where we find it—and this observation is Gospel.  In short, my people, my family is not making this look easy.  And that is fine.  Because it is not.

One thorny, knotty, rich-with-possibility-and-frustration, fraught-with-crisis-and-opportunity piece of this: homeschooling and my older son.  I am a licensed teacher.  My field is special education.  Early childhood special education, to be specific.  My son was five when we officially embarked on this experiment, and is what’s known in the business as 2E (that’s twice exceptional, meaning that he demonstrates both giftedness and one or more disabilities).  This arrangement—unfettered exploration, ample time to work on needed skills, project-style delving into passions—might have been perfect.

And yet it has not been, not for Soeren and me.  We have generally had a good relationship, but this change in the structure of our days, and my suddenly very direct responsibility for his learning, has put us on a collision course with one another.  Result: anxiety (both of us), frustration (both of us), yelling (both of us), tears (both of us, but not together).

Let me be very clear: I think homeschooling is a needed option in an increasingly widgetized, unrealistic, Matthew 25:29-inspired system of public schooling.  I particularly believe this for those children who really do march to their own beats.  You know if you have one.  (You know if you don’t have one because you may wonder what’s wrong with those other parents and/or their children.  My own personal journey with the children I have, whom I struggle daily to meet and walk with and honor as they are and as they may become, has persuaded me that “I know better” or “I could do better” is a function of the failure to truly apprehend that “there but for the grace of God.”)  I think that comprehensive, developmentally-appropriate school reform is needed, and I expect to continue to be a voice—probably an ever-stronger voice—for those changes.

In the present moment, though . . . there’s me.  There’s Ren.  There’s our dining table, and a reading book, and enough anxiety and stress between the two of us to power large-scale weather disturbances.

There is so much I want to teach him.  There are so many things I’d like to share.  And maybe someday, I will be able to.  Here at this table.  Formally.  In the meantime, however, I’ve discovered that it feels safe to learn from me only incidentally.

While disappointing and not at all what I expected, homeschooling hasn’t been a disaster.  Following Ren’s cues, and trusting his drive to learn and my own gut, we moved to an unschooling model and have witnessed excitement, growth, and stability in the day to day.  The kids are all right.  And, though visions of academic glory still make my pulse race a bit—in fact, because this is true—I am learning to accept that all right is excellent.  For me, that is.  All right is exactly what I need to learn.

It may not be what Ren needs to learn, though.  And in that case, it is only my pride and my fear standing between him and a different set of experiences.  It is my insistence on being the teacher, the judge, the enforcer, the critic, the cheerleader, and the support person that is making it, at this particular time with this particular child, impossible to fully be any of those.  And it is making learning more scary and stressful—for both of us—than it needs to be.  I choose to believe that something more wonderful than this is possible.

The public school system is an odd place to look for it, but I’m choosing, for this next year, to put my stock in faith and trust and pixie dust—the kind that the right teacher, like Tinkerbell, knows how to manufacture.

And so, I’m going to hand over the reins for a year.  I’m going to stand back.  I’m going to trust our team of professionals.  And I’m going to say, I love to watch you learn.

I give this gift to my child.  I give it to myself.  Ultimately, I give it to our relationship.

And as I commit to do this scary, beautiful, risky thing, I wonder where else this lesson might be useful.  Because it’s not only true for parents, or for credentialed educators, but for we who are invested in helping those around us grow:

Sometimes we have the responsibility to teach.

Sometimes we have the opportunity to learn.

And sometimes we are simply called to witness the miracle of the moment.  We are there to watch it happen, there to honor the journey, there to say the words: I love to watch you play.

What a sacred calling.

Checkmate!

It has recently come to my attention that I might not know anything.

This is confusing.  It’s potentially embarrassing.

And also, it presents problems.

For one thing, I have completed years of grad school.  I have degrees.  If those mean nothing specific in a practical sense (besides debt), they should at least signify some accumulated knowledge.  Right?

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“First Year of Seminary,” everydayimpastoring.com

Beyond that, I have a larger problem: this discovery is challenging to my narrative about beginning seminary.  In fact, it’s challenging to framing the call to ministry—the rationalization of which has been a key part of being brave enough to embark on this adventure in the first place.

A short version of that story: A little over a year ago, I started to hear a vague internal whisper about ministry.  It wasn’t unsettling—I didn’t think it meant me, exactly, or  becoming a minister.  I wondered why it was so curious, and what it wanted me to learn . . . and, amused, I tried to humor it.  Then, last summer, someone gave that whisper a voice—to me, about me . . . or some version of me that he thought he saw.

At first, I was more amused than ever; in fact, this was hilarious.  Then I discovered that the internal whisper was no longer whispering, and that I couldn’t turn it off.  In the eternal words of Paul Simon: I don’t find this stuff amusing anymore.

I have wondered sometimes how one ought to distinguish between an internal voice that indicates a calling to ministry and an internal voice that suggests mental illness.  Frankly, I’m still not always certain that I have made the distinction appropriately . . . and, during the past year, I have felt something akin to panic trying to figure it out.

In the midst of these questions, and determined to reign in my bizarre “church issue,” I hatched a plan: I would simply go back to work.  Probably my mind—and my hands—just needed to be kept busier.  It speaks to my desperation that despite the fact that I was already at-home parenting two small children and engaged in a raft of volunteer activities, this seemed totally reasonable.  At least, it seemed worth a shot—and critically important to try. Soon.  Before the voice got any louder.  If I could just hang on until January, I thought, when I could be back in the classroom . . .

My therapist, however, was dubious, and suggested that I take a career assessment and consider the results carefully.  This seemed unnecessary—I had taken career assessments and aptitude tests; I knew my Myers-Briggs and my Enneagram types.  By late October, though, I couldn’t wait any longer.  I  guiltily watched all the UUA videos on Becoming a Unitarian Universalist Minister; I felt like I’d gone on a crack bender.  Insufficiently deterred, I approached the MFC reading list as a potential “scared straight” program.  I selected Congregational Polity as my first text, reasoning that I’d be bored to tears almost instantly—only to acknowledge, 60 pages in, that I was fascinated.  Beguiled.  In love.

Horrorstruck, I knew it was time for the big guns.  Bring on the career assessment.  I caved and took it online the week of an extended family trip to Florida.

The MAPP Assessment is a strange test.  It has 70 questions, each with three potential answers, which in my memory are things like “sort mail” “drive snowplow” and “teach math class.”  You mark one “most preferred,” one “least preferred,” and leave the third choice blank.  Truly, I do not believe there was a single question about spiritual preferences.  There were a lot of questions about heavy machinery.

Depositphotos_6431861_xs

Despite this apparent imbalance, and the lack of any narrative responses whatsoever, this assessment feels free to draw conclusions about you, your passions, interests, abilities, and suitability to various types of work.  It’s like the Ouija board of career counseling, and honestly, I probably did it wrong—I was so distracted by the bizarre choices offered that my main objective while taking it was to emphasize my lack of facility with things with gears.

Results are delivered in a top-twenty fashion.  In some ways–in retrospect, at least–the results were both interesting and affirming.  Public interest legal practice was #14.  That made sense.  Numbers 12 through 5 were mostly various forms of teaching, with college at the far end and kindergarten and special education closer to the top.  Perfect.  Number four, and a few other random items were things focused on writing.  That was understandable, too.  Three and several others were in the area of guidance or career counseling—helping people achieve their goals.  Slightly off the beaten track, but fine.  And then, my top two.  The first was “columnist or correspondent,” with a note appended that “this job may be a component of other employment rather than an independent occupation.”  Ok, got it.  On to item the second.  Which was, as you may have anticipated, effing, I kid you not, minister.

This freaked me out, friends.  So much so, that it is only after the fact that I learned these interesting details about my other matches.  It was literally months later that I actually read any of the narrative descriptions.  What I did in that particular moment was slam my computer shut, grab my shoes, and go for a long, long, long run down the beach.

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I ran to the pier.  I ran past the pier.  I ran until the sun was setting and I couldn’t run anymore.  And then I did what I do when I have a problem I can’t outrun: call someone who can help.  In this case, my mom.  And for the first time outside of my therapist’s office I said those scary words, the ones that felt like they had the power to rock the ground under my feet: I think I’m feeling a call to ministry.

I don’t remember a lot of that conversation.  I know there was surprise (her) and listening (also her) and tears (only me, I think) . . . but I mostly just remember the end.  I had flopped down rather dramatically, as I am wont to do while talking to my mom, and was lying on my back on the beach.  The end of the conversation went as follows:

My mom: So you don’t really want to be a minister?

Me, sobbing: I don’t think so.

Mom: So . . . why can’t you just NOT?

Me: I don’t know! I feel like I’m saying no to God!

Mom: Well, if you don’t want to, say no to God.

Me:

Actually, before I say any more, let me just say that my level of mental trauma around what happened next is such that I have residual fear of typing it.  I tell this story only Inshallah.  Amen.

Me: How do I say no to God?

Mom: Just . . . say ‘No!’

Me: Like . . . ‘Screw you, God!?”

Mom: Yep.

Me: [unto the heavens, the sand, and the assembled universe] Screw you, God!

And then, friends, I screamed.  Because, just like that, I was IN. THE. OCEAN.

And the ocean was cold.  And wet.  And . . . not where it was supposed to be.

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And then the water left—it had been a wave, of course, and not, as my baffled brain had initially informed me, the ocean itself—and I was once again on the beach, drenched and stammering.

As rude awakenings go, the experience was surprisingly gentle.  I had been lying in dry sand up a steep incline from the surf, and the suddenly-present ocean surrounded me from underneath rather than washing over my face.  My phone was ok.  My mom was still on the line.  I was, however, cold, confused, and more freaked out than ever (I also had the particular pleasure of washing sand from my hair for the next three days).

“I think,” said my mom, “You should probably talk to your minister.”

This seemed reasonable.  I said I would, meaning in, say, a year.  (I made it three more months . . . )

In the meantime, though, something else happened: I started this blog.  I found a place to put some of my thoughts, and discovered I had more to say, and in so doing, I found a small glimmer of hope.  This glimmer eventually got bigger: it became the idea that, just maybe, I have something to say.

This was an incredible relief.  Frankly, there is nothing about the call to ministry that makes sense to me, not on its face.  I have another career, one that I believe in and am good at.  I have never considered leading a church—and in fact, my initial response to the soul-provocation I have felt in the last year was to consider leaving my church.  And I have spent most of my life assiduously avoiding public speaking of any kind.  The only thing I could vaguely link between my background and ministry was chaplaincy, and even that seemed like quite a reach.  But—but!—perhaps my call was to be a Sayer of Profound Things.

Of course, I envisioned this not just a random something-or-other that I might pick up along the way, but as deep Truth from my inner being.  And I didn’t have to look far for subjects.  I’ve been gathering up Somethings nearly from the day I first set foot in a UU church.  Thoughts.  Suggestions.  And, increasingly, ideas that I’d like our movement to consider.  Like . . . NOW.

Bullhorn Woman

When I think about this in context . . . as a new seminarian . . . a convert to UU . . . a young adult . . . that small ocean wave seems a bit subtle.  Much more subtle than I have been with some of my own words.  God just might overestimate my receptiveness.

These days, however, I’m finding that God can be both subtle and firm.  And what I am firmly hearing, again and again, everywhere I turn, is that I do not in fact have things to say.  That my job at this point is to be quiet.  To be still.  To seek to understand.  (Not to seek first to understand, with the assumption that then I get to talk.  Simply to understand.)  And so, I am wondering, again, what it is that I have that’s solid.

Not my congregation.  Not stability.  Not any clear answers.  Not Truth or Something to Say.  Not an answer to the “why” or the “when” or the “how.”  Not a guarantee.  And not a promise of another moment beyond this, the full and beautiful present.

 But, thanks to the poet Hafiz, via the Rev. Chris Holton Jablonski, I do have some words.  They’re not mine.  They’re not something to say.  They’re something to be listened to, now and going forward.

What is the difference

Between your experience of Existence

And that of a saint?

g

The saint knows

That the spiritual path

Is a sublime chess game with God

 

And that the Beloved

Has just made such a Fantastic Move

 

That the saint is now continually

Tripping over Joy

And bursting out in Laughter

And saying, “I Surrender!”

    f

Whereas, my dear,
I’m afraid you still think

You have a thousand serious moves.

jChess

I have hands.  I have ears.  I have an insistent inner voice that might indicate a tendency toward insanity.

 And, maybe . . . again, Inshallah . . . I have a starting place.

Checkmate.

I should be so lucky.