things we lost in the fire

 

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The formation process, year 1.

It’s educational.  It’s beautiful.

It’s really damned hard.

There is something different, challenging, not what I expected every single day.

Often that something is small.

Wow, I wrote about religious community last fall from that perspective . . . but now I wonder if it looks more like this.

Or, hmm, I notice that I would dearly love to tell this person off.  Previous response: do it.  More likely current response: I wonder if I can sit with this feeling . . .

Occasionally, there are bigger issues.  My community ministry internship just started, and we’re not on campus again until January, so these come up most often in my connections with my home congregation.  They are issues along the lines of what Rev. Patrick McLaughlin referred to in this post about the bumps on the road from “congregant” to “seminarian.”  This can be a challenging path to navigate, and with two new seminarians—my congregation’s first, ever—it looks like we’re all in for an interesting church year.

And then, every once in awhile, there are Other Things.  Really Big Things.  They are things unanticipated—or worse, feared—that mean real sacrifice.  These things aren’t merely interesting, or uncomfortable, or even humbling and embarrassing—they are true gamechangers.  They are shifts so big that they affect not just me but my whole family–our daily lives, our friends, our support system, and our plans for the future.

After the latest earthquake, one that rates at least a 7 on the richter scale of unpleasant seminary-related adjustments, I had a realization.  It was horrifying.

My God.  This process is going to take everything.  There will be nothing left.

The words came, unbidden, into my head, in a moment that felt a bit like despair.  And yet my tendency, in times of fear and uncertainty, is to consider the worst case scenario and work backward from that, and I felt sure that I’d soon realize that “everything” is a an overstatement.

I will tell you, friends: I haven’t realized that, at least not in any way that offers solace to my scared self.  Instead, the words–and the changing reality behind them–have settled into my stomach with the weight of truth.

This calling—this process of being made and remade—it’s going to lay claim to everything that isn’t tied down.  Perhaps it will take even more than that—I am starting to picture a wave of flames washing over me, over my family, consuming whatever isn’t fireproof.  It will change our relationships.  It will alter the way we live.

I’m not worried for our lives, themselves.  The flames are intimidating, but they are truly scary only where I’m wrestling with them to hang on to all that is now.  This fire won’t harm us . . . but it is intent on consuming some things that feel very important to me.

And, get this: I’m just supposed to watch.  No, that’s not right.  I’m supposed to offer, willingly.  Take them.  Take this, and that . . . take everything holding me back, everything tying us to this place, everything standing between now and the future into which we must walk.

And it is so very hard.

It is hard to stop wrestling.  It is hard not to fight for the Things and all that they stand for—hard not to yell “MINE!” and cling to what I’ve earned, or paid for, or helped create.  It’s hard to let go of the dreams that are attached to those things, balloons of my hopes tethered to what are now someone else’s shiny prizes.

It is hard—it’s extraordinarily hard—to relinquish the “me” that I have been.  And it is hard—stunningly, choking-back-tears and struggling-to-inhale hard—to let go also of the things I thought I was going to be in the future.  To watch my family—to watch my husband—let go of those things, too.

What can you do when the fire comes?  Not beforehand, but now, in this moment, when it is too late for extinguishers or insurance, when it is too late to change anything that matters?

This question, of course, isn’t just about the formation process.  A congregation I know recently received the news that their minister is leaving at the end of this church year.  The announcement has caught them by surprise, and on one level, they’re scrambling to get ready.  On another, deeper level, they know that there is not enough time—perhaps you can save the family pictures, but not the cherished furniture.  On a deeper level, they know that there are some things for which you cannot truly prepare . . . and changes that you cannot hope to prevent.

Outside of congregational life, the fire awaits us, too.  An unexpected death.  A serious illness.  An adaptive challenge that gives us no real choice but to stand and face it, breathing and hoping and taking one more step until the smoke has cleared and we can count the costs.

So what does one do?

Here is my family’s answer: we will hold tight to each other, release everything else, and lean into the flames.  We will find out what is fireproof.  We will find out what is made to stay, what will be forever changed, and what will live only in our memories.

And we will remind ourselves of what we know . . . what we learned in the kind of community so special that it made firewalkers of us:

We have what we need.  We will have what we need.

We see it coming over the horizon, bright, hot, bigger than we imagined.  We do not run.

Instead, we take one more step.  We crouch low.  We hold hands.

Welcome, fire.  

parenting . . . on the edge

What happens when parenting isn’t perfect?  When life isn’t what you expected?  When things get hard in mommyland?  I wrote this a year ago, after discovering that my own answer is “Keep running.”  What’s yours, friends?

-j

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Maybe somebody has to explore what happens 
when one of us wanders over near the edge 
and falls for awhile. Maybe it was your turn.

–William Stafford, “Afterwards”

Recently, it was my turn.  As Stafford’s poem suggests, you can ask, but there’s no telling why, exactly.  My personal cocktail of despair involved leaving my job to be a stay-at-home mother, a mass shooting that felt a little too close to home, and—oddly—a spiritual shift so fast and ferocious that it seemed likely to upend my tidy life entirely.  Welcome to life on the edge.

Anxiety comes with a whole goody bag of possible symptoms.  For me, however, it’s just one thing– the sense of danger around every corner–that has made day to day life challenging; that has, in fact, led to episodes both comical and worrisome.  A car backfires in an alley; I jump.  A teenager misfires with a water cannon at a pool party and everyone around me gets wet—I get grass stains, because I drop instantly to my knees on the lawn, a crazed ninja in a twinset.

Overall, I feel vulnerable, exposed, in harm’s way.  And the fear is particularly gripping where my children are concerned.

As it happens, I have plenty of opportunities to reflect on this: my younger son is a climber.  Silas climbs fearlessly and constantly.  At two he has had falls, stitches, and, once, after discovering that lamps do not make good handholds, surgery.  After Silas-proofing to the best of our abilities, we take the inevitable in stride.  We sigh.  We laugh.  We make “as long as you can get yourself down” the cardinal rule of our home.

And yet now I am so worried about what might happen—what could happen—what probably will happen if I’m not careful enough—that I start to feel incapable of parenting him.  Worry leads to fixation.  Fixation turns into paralysis.

This comes horribly to life one afternoon; the boys are in their rooms for what used to be called naptime, but which is actually, unofficially “mommy needs a break time, whether you sleep or rest or simply spend an hour picking your nose.”  I might use these precious minutes to read, write, or check Facebook; sometimes I sit and stare at a wall in silence.  On this day, though, I take a shower.  I am shaving my legs when I hear a crash.  A spectacular sort of crash.  Seconds later, my older son propels himself through the door and into the bathroom, talking in an excited jumble, “SilasfellandcrashedIthinkhe’shurtcomefast!”

At one point—in “the normal days”—I might have run, blindly, instinctively, or at the very least, swiftly, to the scene, mom-as-rescuer ready to do her thing.  I’d appear out of nowhere, cape trailing behind me, to snatch my child from the jaws of danger.  I think I would have, anyway.  On this day, what I do is: nothing.  Or nothing effectual, at least.  I switch off the water, grab a towel, stand dripping onto the shower floor, stare at Soeren.  He is nearly hopping with anxiety and excitement, chattering a stream of words in my direction, but I am looking through him, listening beyond him.  And what I hear is silence.

That silence—an empty nothing that echoes down the hallway—expands until I feel a terror that seizes my heart and kicks the backs of my knees.  I see pictures: Silas crushed by furniture.  Silas dangling from the cord of his window blinds, pinned in the space next to his bed, broken or bleeding on his floor.  I feel sick, guilty, terrified, each image worse than the one before.  And still I stand there.  I don’t make myself move.  I can’t make myself move.  I might be standing there still, I tell you truly, except that finally, miraculously—thank you, God—I hear Silas begin to cry.

This particular bogeyman disappears, a figment of my imagination after all.  I attend to Silas, we work together to clean up his room, and we move on with the day.  Later, though, I hear the quiet whisper of fear, and this time, it’s questioning me. My focus.  My dedication.  My abilities.  And honestly, I have to agree with it.

I’ve been spending time wresting with the dangers inside my head, but I wonder who my children might look to when the danger is real.  Increasingly, scarily, it seems like the answer is, “Someone else.” I don’t know how to keep my children safe.  I don’t know how to keep myself safe.  I’m not even sure I remember what “safe” feels like.

I talk with my therapist, my minister, my mother.  And they all say: Keep walking.  Trust yourself.  Trust the Process.  I picture that capital-P Process, an unbroken string stretching across a white background, and me, blind despite the brightness, grappling awkwardly toward it.  Feeling my way, step by lurching step, across the unknown.

Outside of my imagination, “keeping walking” looks like this: I stare into space; I wander, as if lost, through familiar rooms; I look down to see that I’m holding items I don’t remember picking up.  Homeschool papers and workbooks pile up untouched, shaming me; we don’t have a television, but we have Netflix, and soon my children memorize the theme song to the Backyardigans.  I do load after load of laundry, a task so discrete that it cannot intimidate, but I cannot make a dent on the mess in the kitchen.

Through all of this, my husband—acknowledged by both of us to be the more dramatic personality in our relationship—is strangely placid.  Why aren’t you worried, I ask.  He looks mildly amused.  He reads my drafts, takes my arm in crowds, catches my eye and smiles when the children are being maddening.  Mostly, though, he stands back.  Craig handles the tasks of everyday life and waits, the very image of Keep Calm and Carry On.  He has something, my husband.  I think it’s called faith.

And eventually, I do, too.  Not the kind I imagined, the unshakeable certainty you carry with you at the core of your being.  This is a faith you consider the existence of, a half-believed rumor, then crawl toward, grasp for and ultimately stumble into.  The kind you skin your knees tripping over and arrive, finally, splayed out on the floor but grateful in the knowledge that Things Will Be Okay.

That happens on a trip back home to Wyoming, in a sharp experience of clarity on a hike with the boys.  In an afternoon, I come face to face with my childhood and also with my powerlessness to protect my children—to protect myself—offered as a lesson by one of the most beautiful and hard-edged places I know.

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The truth I come back with, the only truth I know, goes like this: you can climb, and you might fall.  You can try, and you might fail.  You can live, unsafely . . . or you can die.

The acceptance comes in a moment, but the shift back to normalcy happens only gradually.  In the meantime, I take up running and move with a dogged devotion that my sale-rack athletic shoes cannot match.  I try ellipticals, treadmills and sidewalks before meeting, finally, the wooded trails on the edge of town.  We are matched, that patch of woods and I, not quite wild but definitely not fully civilized.  A little messy.  Too steep in places.

I run, and I breathe, and I come back to myself, but as the days grow shorter and the shadows longer, I feel a wistfulness tinged with fear for all the moments I cannot keep.  Under this worry might be nothing.  Or, it might be everything.

Am I losing this season?  Can I hang onto myself?  Is this my last chance to run this year?

Without ever consciously acknowledging them, I keep the questions on heavy repeat in my mind. As I wonder and I worry, I do what comes without questioning: I keep running.   And eventually I come to understand that there is only this.  Hot weather: keep running.  Cool weather: keep running.  Leaves turn: keep running.  Leaves fall: keep running.  Darkness settling in, the ground a changeable surface of debris over mud: walk, gingerly—but continue to put one foot in front of the other.

Finally, the return to rhythm touches the other parts of my life.  My cheeks hurt and I realize I have been smiling as I listen to my sons explain a game to one other, each playing by rules of his own making.  I kick through leaves alongside Silas, holding his hand, and find myself walking happily at half-height, that I might better hear his two-year-old observations on the world.  My husband and I reclaim our evening ritual of regaling each other with the three best parts of the day; we laugh so loudly that Soeren emerges from his room and demands that we stop waking him up.

It is fall, and it is beautiful.  I notice, and celebrate a spectrum of colors, and of feelings, that I had forgotten existed.  I label them as they come.  Ochre.  Ruby.  Anticipation.  Excitement. Joy.

And yet.  The edges of my life don’t fit together quite like they did before.  The frayed and knitted-together places remain invisible to most everyone else, but I can see the seams.  And I know.  I am choosing.  To engage with life means deciding, sometimes daily, to step away from the edge of risk—or not.  It is choosing whether to pull my children back from their own falls—the ones that life brings to each of us and the ones they create for themselves in climbing, pushing, experimenting.

We are all wandering out near the edge of falling.  It is also the edge of learning—the edge of flying.  But it’s a cliff.  It’s a canyon.  It’s a place without railings.

And still, we live here.

You’re in the (Lord’s) Army Now, part II: Rev. Amy Zucker Morgenstern on ministering to ministers

This is part II of a series on making the adjustment from congregant to seminarian (and ultimately, to minister).  For Rev. Patrick McLaughlin’s commentary on changes to relationships within the home congregation, click here.  Rev. Audette Fulbright explains UUMA guidelines and collegial relationships here.  Thanks now to Rev. Amy Zucker Morgenstern for sharing this perspective on what feeds her soul as a minister.  As always, friends, YOUR thoughts are most welcome–comments below.

-j

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I don’t exactly have a home congregation, as I did not begin coming to a Unitarian Universalist congregation until I had a pretty strong sense that I wanted to be a Unitarian Universalist minister (long story). Those who were active in a congregation before hearing a call to ministry can better answer the very important questions about navigating between one’s home congregation and the early stages of ministry. I’ll devote my space to the other questions:

It is sometimes said, perhaps with just a bit of wistfulness, that ‘ministers don’t have ministers.’  Is there a congregation in which you participate in worship or other aspects of congregational life?  Who or what ministers to your spiritual needs? 

Every spring my UUMA chapter gathers for a retreat at a beautiful center in San Juan Bautista, California. It is matched for restfulness and beauty only by the center we go to for our fall retreat, in Camp Meeker, California. This spring, as we sat in one of the worship services, a colleague said, “I love the way you give yourself over so wholeheartedly to worship.”

I laughed and said, “You mean the way I weep non-stop?”

Because I do. As soon as I get to the retreat center, I feel my heart soften and my guard go down. I am about to be ministered to. I’ve been looking forward to it for months: the lovely setting, the time when all obligations (professional and familial) are set aside, the deep conversations about the questions that haunt my soul, the camaraderie with colleagues I see at few other times, and most of all, the worship. After all, when I was a layperson and seminarian, I used to go to services almost every week. Now I go a few times a year: at the fall retreat, the spring retreat, and, if I get there, General Assembly or the CENTER Institute. By the time the retreat begins, my hunger for that time of communal ritual and reflection is intense. The tears often start flowing before the chalice has even been lit.

Many of my spiritual needs are met by the church I serve: close connection to wise and generous people, an immersion in extraordinarily beautiful music and words, dialogue about profound matters, meeting people in some of the most intense intersections of their lives, and, of course, meaningful work. But it is true that I have no minister there. It’s a multi-staff church, but we ministers are not each others’ ministers. And it is not my spiritual community in the way I hope it is for our members, for a very simple reason: I can’t be vulnerable enough. I love to meet with our small groups, but I couldn’t walk into one at the end of a bad week and say, “Sometimes I just feel like quitting my job.” I have tremendous liking for members of my congregation about whom I think, “We could be wonderful friends . . . ,” but the thought always ends, “. . . except then they wouldn’t have me as their minister.”

I give in to tears at memorial services sometimes, but not nearly as much as I feel like doing; if I did, I wouldn’t be able to speak the words that help others to have that experience. I love our worship services, but even on the rare occasions that I spend one in the pews, I never totally relax into the experience; I’m too busy thinking about how to coach the Worship Associate for next time, and whether the second hymn was really an appropriate choice, and how I need to call the man who talked about his sister’s death at Caring and Sharing. I am technically a member of the congregation I serve, and it means a great deal to me as a participant as well as a leader, but when it comes to certain very vulnerable areas of my spirit, it is my chapter that is my chapel and my church.

I do have other sources of spiritual support besides the chapter retreats. Probably the most important is a monthly reading and reflection group for female UU clergy in my area. We are basically a covenant group, with a tight structure, a regular meeting time and place, readings selected to inspire rich conversation, check-ins, and a wide-open door. (If anyone wants to know how to create something like this in their area, I’d be happy to talk about it—e-mail me at parishmin AT uucpa DOT org.) We make a high priority of being there, and we model going deep. It is almost always one of the most important conversations of my month, and it never fails to leave its tender mark on my spirit.

Are these satisfactory? Are these enough? I’m not always sure. Even if I do meet my spiritual needs through chapter worship, my women’s group, and other means—my relationships with my wife and daughter, my friendships, my spiritual practices of making art and reading poetry—there is another concern.

To do my job, I need to understand what brings people to a religious community. And yet, here I am, always an outsider, with community aplenty but none that is exactly a Unitarian Universalist church. Do I remember what it is like to be a member of a brick-and-mortar, worshipping-every-Sunday congregation? If not, it can’t be helped, for any of us. But we can fill the gaps as best we can: through groups like the ones I’m in, through participation (however sketchy or clandestine) in a community such as the Church of the Larger Fellowship or a neighboring church, even through communities with very different purposes than a church’s. (The Rev. Steve Edington once wrote an illuminating essay on what he had learned about church from his volunteer work on the planning team of Lowell, Massachusetts’, annual Jack Kerouac festival, and for my part, I learned a lot about religious communities from my experiences in an online Harry Potter fan group—I’ll write them up one day.)

In other words, we need to belong to religious communities not only to keep moving forward on our own spiritual journeys, but to equip ourselves to lead religious communities.

-Rev. Amy Zucker Morgenstern

After 15 years in ministry, Amy is still a little stunned with gratitude that she gets a paycheck for work that affords her so much growth and inspiration. (Parenthood, marriage and artmaking are even more fulfilling. But she doesn’t get paid for those.)  Amy graduated from Harvard Divinity School in 2000, did her parish internship in Middlebury, VT, and has served our congregations in Rutland, VT, and, since 2003, Palo Alto, CA. She blogs about ministry, art, politics, and other matters at sermonsinstones.com.