Dear prospective UU seminarians (helpful advice. freshly squeezed.)

So.  Something’s calling your name.  And you wonder if that something might be Spirit, and if the way to appease it might be seminary.

If this describes you, your potential future classmates* have put together a list of steps that we feel might be helpful.  And, if they’re not helpful** . . . well, in that case, we mostly thought that they might be humorous.

advice from Religion Man

We recommend (in no particular order) that you:

1. Gather all of the financial resources you have available; if you can liquidate some assets, even better. Place them in the center of a large circle. Light them on fire. Dance around it, singing “We are the flow, we are the ebb,” or other Pagan chant of your choice, while filling out form RSCC-6 detailing financial plans for your future ministry.

2. If you identify as Christian, find a helpful disguise. Wear it each time you visit a church to receive communion.

3. If you identify as non-Christian, find bread of your choice. Next, bring wine. Place them together on an empty table (bonus points: use the scarf you got at GA last year as an altar cloth). Breathe deeply. Practice rolling your eyes in a way that looks worshipful.

4. Tell the story of your life. Tell it again. Now again. When the person listening has either literally perished from boredom, or attempted to slap you senseless, proceed to the next step.

5. Have a breakdown. Or two. Analyse them with friends, family, and fellow seminarians. Extra credit: involve others in your breakdown as it is actually happening. This is best done in public.

6. Return to Step 4. Write it all down. Produce a 1 page summary, a two page extended summary, a four page reflection, an eight page essay, and a 24 page bio with references.

7. Program the number of your minister, therapist, spiritual director, advisor, and every UU clergyperson and seminarian you have ever met into your cell phone. Build safeguards to ensure that you neither butt-dial nor drunk text any of the above.

8. Purchase a graven image of your choice. Options: Large chalice, small chalice, gold chalice, silver chalice, and, new for 2013, a bling-inspired cross/chalice combination.

9. Wear your chalice everywhere you go. If you lose it once, consider it an invitation to question your call to ministry. If you lose it twice, it is an indication that you need to get a chalice tattoo.

10. Buy 2 new bookcases. And a reading chair and a stand-up desk. Make that 4 bookcases. Or 8. And a smart phone. And a kindle. And a macbook. And an ipad.

11. Join weight watchers in anticipation of the 10-20 or more extra pounds you’ll gain from stress eating and lack of exercise.

12. If partnered, begin preparing him/her for the transition to ministry. Spend Saturday evenings wandering around muttering to yourself. Spend Sundays hiding at an undisclosed location. Find random people to call, e-mail, and/or text you at all hours of the day. Move date nights to Tuesday afternoons.

13. Assist your partner in locating a therapist or spiritual director of their own. Keep the professional’s number posted in a prominent location. Signs you may need to contact that person: your partner suggests you leave ministry; your partner hums “Enter, Rejoice and Come In” for three days straight; your partner indicates that they are discerning their own call to ministry. (This last scenario should be considered an emergency.)

14. Be sure to be responsive to your partner’s needs. This is a stressful and demanding time for them, too. Consider adding “It sounds like you’re feeling” to the beginning of each and every sentence. For serious household disagreements, “That’s not how polity works” should be sufficient to end the argument.

15. Be as vague as possible with your loved ones when talking about the formation process. CPE is best explained to a concerned spouse or partner in the midst of your first 24-hour on-call shift.

16. Sprinkle your speech and writing with acronyms. Be cagey about their referents. When asked to explain one you’re not sure about, simply substitute words that sound good. (The Regional Sub-Committee on Commissioning? The Regional Standing Commission on Credentialing? No one else knows, either.)

17. Attend a gathering of robed clergy. Covet their vestments: the gravitas-granting robes, the hand-painted silk stoles, the chalice medallions large enough to be made out from the back of the sanctuary… Now open a new savings account and add another line to your household budget. (You can replace the Retirement Savings line with the Clerical Accoutrements line — you won’t be saving any more for retirement in the foreseeable future anyway.)

18. Prepare a response to the questions, “You’re in seminary? (be alert for possible alternate phrasing: “You’re in cemetery?”) What denomination? What is THAT?” Keep answers as short as possible. Under no circumstances may your response begin with, “How long have you got?”

19. “Borrow” a hymnal. Mentally pledge to return it. Should you actually follow up on that pledge, remove all post-it notes, dust, and coffee stains. (On second thought, plan to gift a hymnal or two to your home congregation upon your ordination.)

20. Begin writing sermons. With over 600 to deliver in an average-length ministerial career, you’re going to need them.

Best wishes!

j and friends

*Thanks to Alix Klingenberg and Sara LaWall for sharing their wit and wisdom.  If the other contributors to this lovely list would like to be (dis)credited outright, message me.

**your potential classmates, also potential future colleagues, are wonderful and warm-hearted, and many of them have offered legitimately helpful suggestions as well.  That list comes next.  But first, we laugh.   And perhaps that’s the best tip of all: humility and humor are prerequisites.

when the time comes to let it go

butterfly in child hands

I’ve been thinking a lot about this post.  I wrote it last December, contemplating a time (an as yet undefined, hopefully very “future” time) when my congregation’s minister will leave our church.

That reflection was about living in peace with what you know will leave you, and about figuring out how to do the work required to live into a personal commitment to stay.  And it was about realizing that building relationships with my fellow congregants, and then expanding the circle to make room for the stranger, was what mattered in both of these contexts.

Friends, all of that may be true.  It probably is.  It sounds good, anyway.

And yet, the joke’s on me.  Note: when worrying about anticipated grief, consider also “denial”– it’s a treasonous thing, and its reversal packs a stunning wallop.

I hoped, last winter, that I was working on identifying and hanging onto what stays, and gracefully accepting the impending departure of what does not.  Looking back at my collected work, what I think I’ve actually written is “How to lose a lot of what you thought you needed, including your money and possibly your mind, in 11 short months.”

These days my blog is showing up in Google searches from potential UU seminarians (halloo, there!), and in helpful response, I have considered writing an actual “how to” post, as a step-by-step list.  (Step one: Tell the story of your life.  Tell it again.  Now again.  When the person listening has either literally perished from boredom, or attempted to slap you senseless, proceed to the next step.  Step two: Gather all of the financial resources you have available.  Seriously, all of them; if you can liquidate some assets, even better.  Place them in the center of a large circle.  Light them on fire.  Dance around them, singing “We are the flow, we are the ebb,” or another Pagan chant of your choice, while filling out form RSCC-6 detailing your financial plans for your future ministry.  . . . )

I could go on from there, and I’m sure my fellow seminarians could, too . . . the thing is, it probably doesn’t matter.  There is so much I didn’t know, consent I wasn’t informed enough to give, losses I wasn’t prepared to incur.  Maybe a step-by-step list, even a silly one, would be a move in the right direction . . . but for many of us, I suspect it would change nothing.  If the number one value were doing something that clearly made sense from the ouside, “rational” perspective, who in this time and place would prepare for a life of religious leadership?

No, this is a path for people who are drawn by something else, something so compelling that we’re willing to grope in the dark where needed or stretch a foot out toward a path that does not yet exist.

It takes much trust—so much trust—to keep moving forward when you can’t see where you’re going to put your feet next; in doing this, you will feel quite acutely the weight of what is riding on your every move.  Because it’s not just about you.  It never is.  It’s lifelong friendship and the tiny fingerprints that have been born of it.  It’s the ridges and contours of this place where we grew into a family.

And, of course, this doesn’t stop with my family.  Part of the path that is missing, or at least missing significant signage and guideposts, is in the saying goodbye to my home congregation.

There are a few recommendations here and some vague admonitions there, but really, we’re all just feeling our way through.  Sometimes, I’m leading that feeling-out process; that can be more of an adventure than a person who hates awkwardness—hates it more even than raisins—can gracefully handle.

And I’m starting to wish, in this weird, in-between time, that I had a sign.

It should read:

I can’t be your friend

(and soon I can’t be your “friend,” either)

The time is coming when we will let all these things go.

But that time is not now.  Not yet.  So for now, I just grit my teeth through the awkwardness.  For now, I just imagine saying goodbye.  And the moment seems unthinkable.  Huge.  Unbelievably sad.

But then I realize: “huge” is not how goodbyes like this happen.  I sit, lately, in the spaces that used to feel like home, the ones that for years have been comfortable like a favorite pair of jeans.  And I notice that it doesn’t feel the same anymore, in subtle but definite ways.  There is a gradual slipping away of some things, and, at the same time, a slow dawn of others.

There is truth here: this is how it will happen.  This is how it will be.  As an icicle melts, as a pathway is etched, as a child grows.  Each new day is a goodbye, and a new arrival, as I gradually become someone else.

The one who will go.

And, then, someday . . . the one who lets go for a living.

-j

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raisins are of the devil, and other things I didn’t learn at #CGUUS

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Last weekend I attended a conference for Unitarian Universalist seminarians, at which our theologian in residence was the Rev. Thandeka.

Thandeka is, quite honestly, something of a legend within my denomination.  Thus, I was surprised when I learned that she was willing to spend an entire weekend with us—but she felt that there were things that we as seminarians needed to hear, and things that someone needed to offer us.

And so we came together, seminarians and theologian, and I stood ready, palms out and eyes closed, to accept those things.  Hard truths, where needed.  Challenge.

Those came, at times.  So did encouragement, and grounding, and connection with one another and with our sense of the sacred.  And also, halfway through a Saturday morning workshop, there came something more tangible.

Something small.  Something wrinkly.

Thandeka gave me—gave each of us—a raisin.

And then, commanding us to empty our mouths of anything else, she instructed us to eat that raisin.  More specifically, to chew it.  Sixty times.

Friends, I detest raisins.  Truly.  From early childhood, I have gone to great lengths to avoid ever having one in my mouth.  This has become such a habit that it’s extremely rare that I even come into contact with one–so rare, in fact, that a mere encounter might occasion a story.  A pause.  A chance for theological reflection.

Take, for example, last November.  It happened at church.  We did a cornbread and cranberry juice communion the Sunday before Thanksgiving, and members of the congregation were invited to bring homemade cornbread.  The baskets were passed down the aisles . . . and it turned out that the one that our section of the church received was a raisin cornbread.  (Yep, that’s a thing.  It’s probably lovely . . . if you don’t happen to hate raisins.)

My kids do not hate raisins, but they don’t like things-in-things, and were thus immediately, and vocally, suspicious of this offering.  Which put me in the odd, but oh-so-adult, position of reminding them both that we receive graciously and eat politely–and then modeling this myself.  Raisins and all.

Boy, was I impressed with myself in biting that cornbread.  Goodness, was I mature about eating it.  I even swallowed it.  I discovered that it was crumbly enough that if I took small bites, I didn’t really have to chew–no teeth-to-raisin contact needed to occur.  And I reflected on how simply accepting what is given and expecting that it will be enough is itself a spiritual practice.

I took what was there.  I let it feed me.  I managed not to engage the raisins.

And I think this is how we get through those first awkward, maybe even distasteful or painful, experiences of true community.  Of communion.  On that Sunday last November, my largely atheistic humanist “fellowship” served up a Communion with a hearty side of communion, and I, Look-at-me-I’m-Christian girl, did what I could to choke it down.  With as much generosity and grace as I had available in that moment, I partook in the ritual by merely getting through it.  And I was proud of myself.  (And you know what?  That’s ok.  You gotta start somewhere.)

Elsewhere in the church, or even right there in my same row, there were probably others mustering their grace and grit and getting through it, too.  Others who hate raisins, or more likely, who love raisins, but hate communion.  We did it, though.  Individually, and also together.  Yay, us.

That was a moment, believe it or not, of increasing spiritual maturity.  It was a conscious decision to step away from the what-I-want-when-I-want-it consumer culture in which I live most of my life, and to take and be thankful for exactly what I didn’t want.

And then I forgot about that chewy little object lesson, at least consciously, as I moved through the months since then—11 months that have tracked exactly with my discernment and beginning formation process.  Until last weekend.  Until I discovered that the Raisin Test has a part II.

I have a child with sensory processing disorder, and mainly I’m simply aware that I do not know what it is to experience life as he does.  To feel sensations so strongly or acutely that they trigger a shut-down reaction.  Except, when I held that fat dark raisin in the palm of my hand last weekend, and considered what I had just been asked to do, I thought I sort of might.  I thought this because my beef with raisins isn’t the same as with, say, beets, of which I hate the flavor, or items labeled “processed cheese food,” to which I am opposed on nutritional principle.

When it comes to raisins, I simply hate the texture.

Not only do I not want to eat them—I do not, above all else, want to chew them.  I do not wish to hold one in my mouth, to mash it with my teeth, to experience its fundamental raisin-ness and to do all of the above with no distractions and with a chewing end-point farther away than for any food that has touched my lips in recent memory.

I do not want to. 

And this—the instruction, the expectation, the experience—is so fundamentally perfect, so very this process, that I actually smile as I hold that raisin before me.  Well played, life.

Isn’t this the way?  Isn’t this precisely what we must each do?

Take this thing that you recoil from the mere thought of, and engage with it.  Don’t eat around it, or pretend it’s not there, or swallow it whole.  Take it on.  Do precisely that which makes you uncomfortable, and continue to do it until the feared object disintegrates.

And so, I do it.

It goes like this:

2 chews: OMG, I’m eating a raisin.

4: I hate raisins. I –eek—hate. Raisins.

7: Raisins stick to my teeth.

10: Raisins are objectionably chewy.  Raisins taste raisiny. 

15: It feels different now. 

20: It tastes interesting. 

25: I actually sort of like the taste of this raisin.

35: Raisin flavor is surprisingly complex

45: Maybe I don’t hate raisins?

55: I’m chewing on nothing.  I’m engaging with the memory of raisin.

The point of this exercise was not overcoming sensory aversion, but labeling sensate experiences, and we went on with the workshop.  In the week since then I have kept reflecting, though, and what I think so far is: maybe I don’t hate raisins.  Maybe I just dislike being uncomfortable, including that claustrophobic feeling when things get too close to me.  Raisin, don’t touch my teeth!  And thus, I wonder if I’ve been so worried about having to feel discomfort that I’m missing things.  Important things. Non-raisin things.  If I’ve been aiming to avoid, or to eat around, all of those experiences which are initially uncomfortable but ultimately necessary.

What if “lean in” actually looks more like “bite off”? 

Bite off, in fact, and then chew.  60 times.

Until all that is left is air, and memory . . . and myself.  Oh, my silly, beautiful self: we meet again.

I may just learn patience—and presence–one chewy lesson at a time.