finding Jesus on the first floor

I first considered taking a unit of CPE a couple of years ago.

It was 10% because I thought I might want to be a chaplain.  It was 90% because I didn’t want to be a minister.

CPE seemed like a perfect solution, because I knew that it stood between me and ministry any way you slice it.  So, if I hated it, then probably that scary “calling” thing would return from whence it came. And if I loved it, then perhaps I could find an easier way to chaplaincy than the current Unitarian Universalist path to ordination allows.

What I envisioned doing, after all, was about patient care. And there are lots of ways to do that. The majority of which don’t require a deep understanding of denominational polity or skills in congregational conflict resolution.

In short, why seminary? And, more to the point, why ordained ministry? I just wanna be there for people.

 

Next month it will be two years since this particular brand of insanity began in earnest . . . and in those two years of Trust the Process (and Fight the Process, and Kick the Process, and . . . ), I can tell you that the answers to the above questions are so much deeper and richer and more complex than I ever imagined.

And also, after the last three weeks, I can tell you something else.   About CPE.

 

It is not about patient care. 

Professional chaplaincy mostly is, but to be in that role and present in a way that is simultaneously simple and delicate and risky and generous . . . you gotta go through the stuff above. The ministry stuff. The formational challenge, and the time, and the struggle. The arduous path that initially seems unrelated to the end result–it cannot be skipped.

And meanwhile, I have discovered that this—my mandatory summer of crisis and opportunity—it, too, belongs to the formation process, and all its deep mysteries, and not to the world of healthcare.

I expect I’ll say more about that soon.  Or someday, at least.  I’m really in it, at the moment, and that means, for now, that I’m not sure from one day to the next if there will be anything left over after I complete task 1.  Which is to simply be.

In the meantime, though, I will tell you something else.

If what I really wanted were a continuous focus on patient care, I have discovered a role that actually does this:

[whispers . . . ]

It’s the CNAs.

This is a stock photo. Not a patient photo. Everybody breathe.

 

These people, at their best, are the moving hands and walking feet of Jesus in these tiled hallways.

The doctors or the administrators or even the accountants may well be God.

But Christ is somewhere else.

These weeks, I’ve seen Him in the whispered joke in a patient’s ear as her bed is wheeled down a too-public corridor, in bringing a quiet, determined dignity to tasks that otherwise offer a patient precious little, and in the touching and talking and being human with a person in a bed or a line or a wheelchair who is, first and foremost, a human, too.

 

And I am so grateful for this reminder.

 

We are humans, all of us. As professionals, and as patients, we deal with this reality—our frailties and our incredible possibility— in every moment. Some of us are ignoring it, some of us acting it out in one hundred small ways . . . and some of us struggling to remember how we might connect with our humanity once again.

The institution is not human. The procedures are not human. But this hospital . . . that insurance company . . . this government . . . it is made up of and designed and remembered and carried on and implemented by people.

j

Insurance Forms

Things feel so big, the dealings so impersonal, the daily workings so unalterable, that it’s hard to see, at first glance.

So look again.

 

I am continually inviting myself to do this, too.  And when I do, I wonder:

What if we made it our number one job each day to remember that we aren’t a role or a title or a degree, not really? And that the one across from us, with the hair the color of your sister’s, or freckles, or dimples, or a gold tooth, and a look of fear or dread or hope or resignation—that person isn’t a patient or a stroke victim or a financial concern, not really?

What if we truly remembered this, with each phone call or e-mail or data input task:

I am a human being, here to serve other human beings–in love–and this entire institution exists, whether it knows it or not, to fulfill that mission.

 

Here. Now. In this very moment.

Whatever I believe in most deeply, my hands and my heart belong to it.

And whether I intend to or not, I serve that spirit with my every breath.

Please, God . . . let it be love.

-j

 

 

yes, mothers, somebody needs you: to be YOU.

This past week I’ve seen this post again and again.  It seems to strike a needed nerve with some of my facebook friends, and so they share, often with a personal testimonial.

The sharers are some of the weariest among us, the dead-on-their feet mamas of newborns, the waiters-out of nighttime tantrums, the second (or third) shift of a job that never ends.  And what they say is that these words really resonate.

-I was in tears this morning, I felt like I couldn’t do it for one more hour, and then I read this.  

-This is so beautiful.

-This is so true.

As it happens, this post struck a nerve with me, too.  And I can see the beauty in it—I can—but my response came from a different place.  A nuanced place.  A frustrated place.

And so, I shared it with a friend, trying to find words for why those words make the bile rise in my throat every time I see them.  My friend is a mother, and a minister, and someone committed to living life as her full self rather than as the caricature that so often appears as we try to romanticize a “biblical womanhood” for the modern era.

And her response was:  Do you notice that Daddy is nowhere in this reflection?  And also, that fathers never write this?  Why is that, do you suppose?

And why, indeed?  Why is crawling on our knees across the guilt-laden minefields of early parenthood a uniquely feminine pursuit?

I can hear a whisper between the lines of this post: this is what Jesus would do.  And perhaps it is, but I would like to point out to you that Jesus is a man.  Framing self-sacrifice as a uniquely feminine calling thus isn’t inherently Christian—it’s inherently patriarchal.  It demands that women, and women alone, deny not just our bodily needs, but any deep spiritual gift that transcends our parental role.

That demand, my friends, is not beauty.  It’s also not love.  I deeply believe in, and have experienced the love of, a God who sees, holds and accepts me as me—as my beautiful, whole, female self.  A self which is not only or even first or foremost a parent, but also a noticer, a writer, a thinker, a doubter, and a lover.

And these physical parental sufferings, these sleepless nights and tired footsteps that we would hold up as the unique burden of motherhood: It’s not that men don’t experience them.  My husband, God bless him, has been the night ranger at our house for the past two years.  I personally know other men, including at least one of my seminary classmates, who do the same.

And it’s not that men don’t struggle with it.  Parenting, if you’re paying a whit of attention, is really, really hard.  And early parenting, in particular, is also physically exhausting—a marathon run one tiptoed trip down the hallway at a time.

No, friends: it’s that men don’t romanticize the physical exhaustion.  It’s that they don’t define their entire identities based on it, and then pressure one another to do likewise.  And they don’t, so far as I can tell, expect—no, demand—to go it alone, without help, without rest, without question, stopping only after the night ends to pen a ladylike missive about the honor and grace inherent in the soul-crushing demands of early motherhood.

The difference between the male and female approach to parenthood is real–and it matters, particularly for those of us fighting hard to have our words heard, our talents recognized, our lives valued as something meaningful unto themselves.

More women are actively working while parenting.  More fathers are actively parenting while working.  And yet, in 2014, we remain content to leave the emotional side of parenting, and particularly the ravages thereof, as a woman’s burden to bear.  Joy?  Dads will take that.  Guilt?  That’s all you, moms.  And survey says: men are content with this arrangement–and why shouldn’t they be?

What we’re sparing the men isn’t merely responsibility—it’s shame.  It’s the constant self-doubt, analysis, questioning of the long-term outcomes of the smallest possible choices.  It’s the crippling doubt of never-doing-it-well-enough.

What do we get in return?  Why would any of us women voluntarily take this deal?  The answers to this question are complicated and varied, but I think there may be a piece of insight in this story:

I used to work with parents of infants and toddlers as an early childhood educator. I made home visits; my caseload was particularly focused on new babies and working-but-involved fathers.  And one day one of the mothers I worked with told me a very simple story–one I came to hear repeated, in one way or another, several times in the next few years–that both surprised me and chilled my blood.

I went to the grocery store, said Amy, alone for the very first time since Tessa was born.  Jeremy stayed with her, and I knew they’d be ok, but Tessa cried the entire time I was gone!

This story isn’t unusual.  The situation isn’t extraordinary.  What is remarkable, however, is what this mom said next.

-I was glad.  

Seriously.  I smiled gently, used my “go on, please” eyebrows, and Amy added, with touching honesty:

I love it that she needs me.  

My friends, it is so beautifully human to need one another.

But what is it to need to be needed?

And what could help us feel secure enough in our own innate value that we could drop the need-to-be-needed where it exists to the exclusion of another willing and capable parent?

Remember how hard it was to get into a rhythm with breastfeeding?  Or perhaps you were one of the many, many mothers for whom it wasn’t overwhelming love at first sight when you were handed your tiny baby.

If that was you, the odds are you worked together, you and that baby, because that’s what was expected.  You had faith, and the faith of your family and community, of the hospital staff, of your friends, of your parent educator—it surrounded you.  You had all the time in the world, and you bonded.

How much of that time and patience and faith do we lavish upon a new father?  How much tolerance for what initially looks—and feels, to him—like failure?

How much do we want his success if we’re going to define this as “our” arena?

And how is this related to the story we tell ourselves about the sleepless nights of early parenthood?  How does this frame the conversation three years from now when someone needs to choose a preschool?  When someone needs to flex time to make drop off and pick up work?  When someone is pulled to leave a job that s/he loves as the reality of a two-career household begins to cause nerves, and relationships, to fray?

Without a look at what we women expect to own, exclusively, in that beloved title of Mommy, we don’t get to freely discuss any of those things, not really.  In fact, it may not occur to us to even ask for what we need.  For more than we’re getting.  For anything that might make us feel like we’re letting the side down.

The deeper story here isn’t Mommy, Someone Needs You.  

It’s Women, Suck It Up.

That’s an old story, friends, and a tired one.  Personally, I think we can collectively access a bit more creativity here.  In fact, I think we need to.

Without it, whether you’re the parent of a newborn or the writer trying to make sense of the exhaustion–or just struggling to make sense– or a mid-career executive mama whose heart is with a child she’d like to be making cupcakes with, or me: trying to follow a spark of true love through seminary, with the full knowledge that my precious baby nearly died last week while I was down the hall reading, the only answers we hear are echoes of this:

Stay home.  Keep the hall light on.  Keep pacing that floor.

But truly, unfortunately, heartbreakingly, even this small box of an answer won’t protect them.

It feels, though, like it might protect you—if the unthinkable happens, at least we’ll all know it wasn’t your fault.  You were where you were supposed to be.

Alone.  In the nursery.  On your knees.  

I’ve been on my knees, too, for too much of this past week . . . and I am getting back up now.

Yes, somebody needs me. Lots of people, every day.

They need the adult me.  The responsible me.  The vulnerable me.  The honest me.

I have worked too hard, for too long–and standing on the shoulders of my mother and my grandmothers and of their mothers–to deny all that I am.

I contain multitudes.  You do, too.

And don’t you dare call me Mommy.

j

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.

taking Communion, and other subversive acts

This weekend, I had a totally unscheduled Sunday morning.  That’s become a rare thing when I’m at home, and one which—oddly—means a decision about where to worship.  Lately, I tend to take these “free” Sundays and either visit a local emergent Christian church or my old ELCA stomping grounds, mainly so I can take Communion.*

Image

Truth, which I have mentioned before: this feels sneaky.  I’m not sure if internal ethical struggle is innate in my personality, or if this is based on a misguided sense of denominational expectations . . . or if I am responding to actual denominational expectations, perceived indirectly, but accurately.

Regardless, one of my goals for the next few years is to find peace and balance around my own self-care of the soul.  For me, for now—and for the foreseeable future—that includes the Christian rituals that call me back to my best self, grounding me more firmly in my body, yet fixing my attention more compassionately outside of it.

Other than prayer, which is highly portable and available individually, I most yearn for Communion and for the Kyrie–the ritual confession and forgiveness of sins.  It’s not a matter of needing a larger Christian context, I don’t think–I would partake of these elements in my home church, and I have, gratefully, when that’s been a choice.  It’s just that, as part of my deeper spiritual practices, an annual memorializing of these rituals isn’t enough for me.

So now, realizing that I’ve spent years waiting for the desires of my heart and the realities of my church to meet in the middle, one task is to acknowledge the obvious: an intersection of my Christian-based ritual needs and the practices of my UU church is not an achievable goal.  In many ways, I have always known this, and I wouldn’t turn my UU church into something that it is not, even if that were within my power.  But I also don’t want to wish that I were different—what I want, in sacrament as in so many other areas, is to go deeper in my faith: to challenge myself to connect with what matters, and to articulate it where that’s helpful.

Thus, I find myself returning to this question of cloak-and-dagger Christianity, and wondering: why the guilt?  Is secrecy necessary?  I don’t know anyone who “sneaks” to yoga, thinks very carefully about whether to wear Buddha beads to UU worship, or feels like a visit to the local Zen center might somehow indicate disloyalty to their UU faith.  Yet my own desire to make the Lord’s Supper part of my Sunday does feel a bit like I’m two-timing my church. And perhaps, in a sense, I am.  I have no choice, in that they’re both churches.  Scheduled opposite one another. With the rituals in question available in one, and not in another.

What’s a Christ-smitten, UU-dedicated girl to do?  I don’t know. Suggestions welcome.  For myself, I’ve tried to imagine, especially lately as I think about what it would mean to really claim and connect with this ritual, what it might look like to truly make Communion an option in the UU context. One thought: what if there were a bread and wine table somewhere in the building, not once a year, but once a week?  What if we made it so that those of us so inclined could stop by, do our thing, offer bread to one another, pray individually or together?  This time of ritual and reflection, done carefully, might take 10 or 15 minutes; participants might then simply begin, continue with, or rejoin other events of the morning.

On the “Christian” side of this equation, this obviously wouldn’t work for someone with a Catholic approach to the sacrament.  However, it seems unlikely that Christian orthodoxy tries to make a home within UU often, if ever–from what I have observed of UU Christianity, a DIY communion ritual could be a fit for the majority of us.  As for my non-Communing fellow congregants, what might this mean for them?  I was tempted for a moment to assert that the possibility of ritual inclusiveness would change no part of the worship experience of anyone who chose not to participate.  But that’s almost certainly not true, so a question: how might something like this affect others?  What might the presence of bread and wine and a greater awareness that there are practicing Christians among our number change at our church?  What might this challenge?

As I reflect on all of this on a personal level, I am also wrestling with the theological and historical underpinnings of Christian ritual, and Communion in particular.  This is academic—I took three classes last month at Meadvile Lombard, the first of which was African American Humanism.  (I decided that if I were really going to open myself to this experience, I might as well start with what would challenge me, and just reading the title of this class made me feel like a stranger in a strange land.)  The course was one of the most challenging and thought-provoking I’ve ever taken, and I am currently working on a paper about framing communion within “strong humanism” as outlined by my professor (and UU theologian) the Rev. Dr. Anthony Pinn.  Thus, I have been reading–and reading, and reading–about breaking bread together, on our knees and not, and reflecting on what our embrace or rejection of this ritual might mean for us as a liberal faith.

Things I’m discovering: a Christian vision of Communion as a subversive, action-inspiring, and human-focused ritual does exist—it has existed for millennia, and has adherents today.  Again, to be clear: this more human-centered view has Christian adherents.  And also, the familiar, comfortable ritual that brings me so much peace and connection hasn’t always been such a show.  It used to be more humble.  It used to be more real.

There are many great treatises on the history and theology of the Lord’s Supper; I’m happy to provide some resources for further reading if this excites anyone besides yours truly.  For now, though, I’m going to attempt only to provide a bit of context within modern popular culture, through a reflection that Rev. William Willimon, of the United Methodist Church, shares in his book Sunday Dinner: Reflecting on the Lord’s Supper:

[Previously, congregations were seated] at tables, and had a meal which looked and tasted like a meal.  The custom of using individual pressed white tasteless wafers is an extension of medieval preoccupations with the bread as a holy, untouched, spotless portion of Christ’s body.  Over the years both the glasses and the wafers got smaller until the church seemed to have a make-believe meal without food.

Eucharist

Willimon continues:

I finally said “enough is enough” a couple of years ago when I read of a man who . . . has begun marketing a product for those in a hurry.  He produces airtight packets which contain a crackerlike pellet in one compartment and two grams of grape juice in another compartment—a disposable, self-contained, eat-on-the-run Lord’s Supper—“This is my body packaged for you.”  There you have it.  The last hindrance to totally self-contained, self-centered religion is removed . . . Now, thanks to unit packaging, we need never come into contact with or be touched by another human being again.  Just when you thought modern life had depersonalized the gospel to the uttermost, we have another breakthrough—Communion without communion!

And in reflecting upon this, I realized something: that in retreating, for the love of safe ritual and the comfort of what is familiar, to a church not my own, one where I don’t really speak to anyone and one where I incur no obligations–I think I especially love that part– I, too am partaking of Communion without communion.  And what, really, is the value of that?  There is much academic and religious discussion of what “Do this in remembrance of me” might have meant, but I have yet to see an argument that the aspect of gathered community is irrelevant.  That joining together as one, signified by the single loaf of bread from which pieces are shared, is an insignificant part of the ritual.  That I might justifiably avoid what provokes my soul, week after week, for a drive-through wafer and wine experience.

Yep, convicted again.  And so, finally, I chose yesterday to commune rather than to Commune.  On that day, it was the right decision; I got what I needed, if not some of what I wanted, and I helped others to meet their needs as well.

And that, friends, is why we call it the beloved community.

This post could end here.  That would be convenient, but ultimately unhelpful—because the questioning and internal struggle do not end here.  In fact, they simply do not end.  This summer I have discovered that learning about, and indeed, being open to, the powerful messages of humanism neither erased my own theology nor made my questions about it less urgent.  Similarly, this “personal convenience vs. community” struggle will go on in my heart, no matter how I name or explore each side.

This process is a wrestling match, to be sure, but that’s different from a battle: there will not be a “winner.”  Any success will be incremental and personal: gradually, I will develop the strength and patience to truly hold a sense of “both” in a polarizing situation—to simply accommodate what will not be reconciled.  And from there, I might look for creative ways to serve needs more fully, and more beautifully.  It’s hard to think of something more Christian . . . or more humanist . . . than that.

And in the meantime: it’s a serious pain in the ass.  And thus I’m glad that, in this particular case, there is potentially wine involved.

j

*I generally write “communion” in the lower case, even where I’m referring to high-church ritual.  In this post, however, I am following Christian theological convention in capitalization.  My intention in this context is to highlight the distinction, as drawn by Rev. Willimon as quoted in this post, between the ritual act (“Communion”) and the connection with community (“communion”) that may or may not accompany it.

shut up and swim (the Gospel according to Luke)

I went to the ELCA church in my town this past Sunday, and walked inside in a spirit of relieved anticipation.  I was expecting, I think, to have my “needs” met exactly . . . so it disturbed me to discover that the confession of sins had been reduced to a perfunctory paragraph at the very beginning of the service, the words to the Lord’s Prayer updated (leaving me muttering about forgiving trespasses and proclaiming power and glory forever and ever while others spoke staidly of sins and times of trial), and the cadences altered for the call and response portions of the liturgy.

Nevermind that this isn’t my church anymore, and hasn’t been for more than a decade.  Nevermind that I don’t make myself part of the community here—in fact, I don’t think I know a soul these days—support the church financially in anything but a perfunctory way, keep in touch or engage in any of its work.  I want this institution to stay right where I left it, how I want it, so that I can come back and take what I need.

Predictably, the institution is failing to cooperate.  I am disappointed.

So disappointed, in fact, that on Sunday I considered leaving, mid-service—not out of pique, exactly, but because I was suddenly very sure that sitting through this not-what-I–expected thing was not a good use of my time.  Unwilling to climb over my neighbors or make the walk of shame down the center aisle, however, I finally committed myself to a further 40 minutes of unhelpfulness . . . and there I sat, resigned and sort of bored, until we got to the Gospel reading.

It was the one from Luke 9—(verses 9:52-61) in which Jesus refuses to allow those who would follow him to so much as say goodbye to their families or bury their dead.  Not only does he refuse to grant his followers even these small mercies– he condemns their inclinations, saying, “no one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit to enter the kingdom of God.”

I was glad to have a chance to unpack these verses a bit more, as they have always troubled me: this is Jesus we’re talking about.  What kind of love looks like this?  And honestly, these demands seem not just unloving but . . . sort of crazy.  Uncomfortable, yes, but also potentially damaging.  And personally, I tend to follow only reasonable-sounding instructions (reasonableness TBD by yours truly).

I was mulling this over as we heard, in the children’s story, that it’s hard to follow Jesus—he asks so much of us, and he means come right now; abandon all that you were doing, thinking, and planning and trust instead in me.

That means leaving.  That means loss.  Which of you would agree to that?  What say you, little people?  What think you, big ones?  It’s hard, right?  But, not to worry—Jesus gives us other things when we follow him.  Jesus gives us so much that we don’t even miss what we left behind.  (Patently untrue, this last part, and I felt a blog post brewing—why must we lay words of sacrifice before our children only to smooth them over in a neat little lie?  I think I would have had one composed by the end of the service; perhaps you’d be reading it right now . . . but then the sermon came, and it knocked me right on my butt.)

The assistant pastor’s name is Jennifer Kiefer.  Rev. Kiefer is young, my age.  She sings beautifully, leads worship calmly, and shared a bit about the story of her call to ministry with us all when I dropped in for the Ash Wednesday service.  I was interested to hear her preach, and I don’t know what I was expecting, exactly . . . but not this.

Rev. Kiefer retold that story from Luke, highlighting the unreasonableness of it all.  (That’s what I’m saying, girlfriend!)  And then she shared how she’s been thinking of these challenging verses, and what they mean for an ongoing struggle in her life: the need to be in control, or at least to feel like she is.  I recognized a few of her personal examples—it’s that way, isn’t it . . . but the challenge didn’t stop there.

Rev. Kiefer invited us to consider for ourselves how the desire for control manifests in our own lives, and what we might be dishonoring as we cling to what feels safe—as we put a hand to the plow but then look back.  She encouraged us to reflect upon who we might be hurting as we thrash about like fish on a line, when we move to turn back when ultimately we have no choice but to go forward.  And then she called on us to look at what we might be fighting against in a new way—to acknowledge the scariness, and then to name it differently.

Some people find meaning in using other language for God (how well I know it, sister), and one of the most interesting terms I’ve heard is “The Place.”  That never resonated with me, until thinking about what it might mean to give up control.  About where we might find ourselves.  About why that is so scary—because when we move forward, we lose things, and we step, however briefly, into a vacuum.  That emptiness can be terrifying.  It can be painful.  We can find ourselves in a hurting, lonely place. 

Rural landscape in Poland

What if that place—the vacuum, the emptiness, and even the painful parts—what if that is The Place?  The only place we can be, the place where we are, and our task is to live into that space, let go of our need to control it or have it be different, and find ourselves and God there, just as it is.  What if we did that, in faith?  What if we put a hand to the plow, and moved forward, not because it’s what we planned, or thought we wanted, or what makes sense to us . . . but because we’re putting our trust in The Place?  It will be what we need . . . when we are willing to find ourselves where we are called to go. 

This might be obvious to anyone who reads this blog, but friends, I have looked back.  I have done more than look–I have tried to leave the plow entirely.  I have argued about the need for tilling in the first place.  I may, in fact, have attempted to sell the plow for parts.

When things hit as close to home as this message did, I struggle a bit with interpretation.  Has God, acknowledging the mounting evidence, determined that it’s best, in my case, to dispense with subtlety?  Was my need to make meaning so great on that day that I would have heard anything—anything at all—as though it were speaking right to my soul?

I do not know the answer to these questions.

What I do know is that I sat, laughing, through “Lamb of God,” that I cried through communion, and that I left knowing that some things I thought were wrong are actually much, much too right . . . and vice versa.

And then, a couple of days ago, I remembered the first summer I spent as a camp counselor.  I was part of the waterfront staff, which invariably involves a lot of ongoing training, and after one of these sessions our team lead asked if anyone had anything to say.  My hand shot up as I announced, with urgency and enthusiasm, “I have a question!”  Ali looked in my direction, shook her head, smiled, and drawled, to general laughter, “Why am I not surprised?”

I remembered this because “Wait, I have a question!” was my first reaction—my default reaction—to the clarity I felt after church on Sunday.  Astonishing, but true: it is possible to meet even clarity with questions.  In fact, for me it’s actually quite tempting because clarity can be really uncomfortable.  Questions, on the other hand, allow me to spend time merely talking about things; this is less scary, and thus, much more appealing, than simply shutting up and doing them.

Thus, in this case, the “Aha!  I really actually am supposed to trust this,” realization was followed in short order by “Wait–trust what?  Trust whom?  Trust all the time?  And what does “trust” mean, anyway . . . ”  (Yes, my inner self does sound a tiny bit like Bill Clinton on the witness stand.)  I think at one point I was actually going to ask these questions—reasoning, perhaps, that this might keep everyone, and especially myself, too busy to actually do anything meaningful.

In a small victory for the way of the plow, I did quickly realize that this was ridiculous.  Which led me to muse, on Facebook, whether my calling is actually to ministry, or merely to color commentary about ministry.

That was a joke . . . and yet it wasn’t.

I am beginning to understand that I can jump in and do this work—the work of ministry, the work to be where I am, the commitment to allow myself to fully participate in the process and be changed by it—or I can stand on the sidelines and talk about it.

One or the other.  Choose.  

In this post, my friend Mandie likens this decision to experiencing a brook by sitting by it and trying to understand, or by jumping into the water to experience it firsthand. For Mandie, this says a lot about how we live our UU faith.  For me, right now, it says a lot about how I live into this call.  All the chatter and worry and questions about questions . . . even the pondering—it’s so much sitting by the brook.

I don’t want to sit by the brook anymore.  It’s limiting.  It lacks mission (other than the completely self-serving, “Do not under any circumstances get wet.”)  And it’s not even fun.

I will say that I don’t know what this means yet, or what it looks like, including for Raising Faith.  I’m an extrovert, and I experience writing as a compulsion . . . but I am headed to Chicago in a few days–spending the rest of the month there, in fact–to attend my first set of intensives at Meadville Lombard.  And I’m planning to do some swimming.  Plowing.  Whatever.

Maybe I’ll bring you along.  Or perhaps I’ll discover the beauty of silence.

Or, just maybe, I’ll tell you about it later, a few years from now . . . when I have a sermon to give about a certain few verses from the book of Luke.

j

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.

Are you there, God? It’s me . . . the girl who never shuts up.

adelaide praying

Wikimedia commons

My minister tells a story about deciding, as a child, that she wanted to be a teacher when she grew up.  In fact, if I remember right, her realization was that she needed to be one.  So she wrote her adult self a letter to ensure she’d remember, and not stray from the righteous path.

I’m not saying she strayed, but she’s not a teacher now.  She wasn’t a teacher before she became a minister, either.  There is something about the present that utterly refuses to be controlled, even by the most earnest wishes of the past.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot.  There has been some debate as to whether I’m standing at the edge of a cliff, or have recently fallen from one, but either way, I’m afraid—sometimes clingingly, desperately afraid—of what I lose on the way down.

And what I’m afraid of losing now is nothing less than my faith.

That looks extremely dramatic in print.  I think that losing touch with what moves us is a common worry, though—it’s just one that we prefer not to acknowledge, even to ourselves.  Having just survived Early Christian History, for which I researched a paper that included lengthy sources on legitimacy and apostolic succession, it is clear to me that the urge to pin down “truth”—to fix it forever—is not a unique inclination.

At a deep level, this might be what we seek in doctrine: the relief of not having to worry, search, redefine, or make ourselves too uncomfortable.  In theory, we come together and make creeds— mold our shared beliefs into shared words—so we will know one another.  “In our belief in these truths,” we are saying, “you and I are one and the same.”*

What if, though . . . what if we really write them for ourselves?  “Remember, now, this is what you believe.  Nothing else.  This.  And if you can just hold on to what I tell you, I promise it will be this way for always.”  (Be still, my heart—I have found another trusty, dependable rock!)

Frankly, the promise of “same” is tremendously appealing to a creature of habit such as myself.  Those of you still shaking your heads at my repeated grad school adventures may be surprised to learn that I have eaten the exact same lunch—two tacos, with cheese and pico and my favorite red salsa—every Monday and Wednesday for months.  Or that I am the person who will give you a look and struggle not to think unkind thoughts about you if you take “my” chair in class.  Or that I still haven’t forgiven Ruth’s Diner in Salt Lake for cancelling my favorite side from the menu, or my local coop for ceasing to carry my favorite yogurt.

Seriously, I am the slowest adjuster I know.  It’s ridiculous. But I like what I like, and I want it to be there when I need it—my rituals and routines are precious to me.  (Did I mention that I took a Buddhism seminar this semester?  Did I also share with you that this did not go well?)

And yet, intellectually at least, when it comes to my faith, I don’t want to write myself any letters.  I know better than to attempt to enjoin my heart, my soul . . . my love.

What I’m trying to do is to get to an open place.  What I want to do is trust.

But, digging into and struggling with and thinking about and sometimes, yes, loving those early Christian scriptures, I realized that there’s another piece here.  It’s not just that it’s scary to be open to new things.  It’s that there’s something here that I absolutely feel and experience, but can’t name or control.  It lives in my heart, I think–at least, I feel it there.  It resists my mind’s efforts to put it in a box.  And sometimes, for reasons I don’t totally understand, I kind of forget about it.  It doesn’t go away, but I sort of do . . . and then, almost like a child, I am surprised and delighted to find it again, as I did recently amid old books.

This “something” is faith, but it’s not simply a quiet certitude.  It is spirit.  It is magic.  And when I felt it in the library the other day—when my heart skipped with excitement and love, I rejoiced.  And then I worried.  What if, in one of these times of forgetting, I lose it entirely?

Perhaps I’ll wonder if I ever really knew it–knew faith, knew God–at all.

This makes me think of Chris Van Allsburg’s book The Polar Express, in which a sleigh bell is given to a small boy as a reminder of his belief.  That tiny bell rings for him with the knowledge of his experience, but his parents are sure, always, that the bell is broken.  They can’t hear it, not even on that first Christmas morning.

Will the bell will ring for me forever?  Or will I, like the boy’s sister, realize someday that it has fallen silent, never to be heard by my ears again?

Scary truth: it concerns me to surround myself with people for whom it never rang in the first place—not because I’m uninterested in what they have to say, and not because I’m afraid that their truths will somehow invalidate my own, but because sometimes you need someone who can carry the spark for you.  There are times when the ultimate faith of friendship is to keep someone else’s spark alive with a bit of breath, to walk with it, hold it carefully, so that you may pass it back to her when she can keep it again.  And maybe that’s what they were thinking back in Nicaea.  Not, here’s a measuring stick so we can kick those unbelievers out, but, does the bell ring for you?  Can I trust you to carry this spark for me?

Are my fellow Unitarians willing to be spark carriers?  Are my fellow Christians?

Blazing heart

Amazing, beautiful, surprising . . .and powerful.  This spark has its enemies.  People have tried for thousands of years, for more reasons than we can count (and yet also, for only one: because we fear), to blow it out or bury it.

And yet, it will not be buried.  That’s the amazing, soul-freeing, regime-shaking truth: you can build entire cities, limestone and marble, glass and gold, trying to “honor” the spark while really seeking to cover it over, or bend it to human will—and it will pop up again somewhere else.  Often where we least expect it.

In short, I’m not worried for it.  Not at all–the spark will continue.  I hope to be worthy to carry it, but it doesn’t depend on me.

I’m only worried for myself.

Because the truth is, having known it, I don’t want to be without it.  I want to feel it.  I want to hold it in my hands when it’s been weeks or months or please not years of talking about God instead of connecting with God.

And so, I guess, there is this.  It’s not a letter, exactly . . . it’s somewhere between a reminder to myself and a plea to the universe.

Don’t lose this, girl.  

Is that to much to ask?

j

*Notice, dear friends, that this is not “one in the same,” which is a phrase spawned of mishearing rather than linguistic precedent.  I moonlight as your friendly Grammar Witch.  You’re welcome.  🙂

don’t talk to strangers (listen to them instead!)

Last month I took an intensive course in Unitarian Universalist Congregational Polity–and heard something from our instructor that frightened me: “Unitarian Universalism as we know it isn’t going to be around 50 years from now.”

Single grave stone

Design Mandie McGlynn 2013

He went on to say, however, that “just because our current association goes away doesn’t mean that our work will.  Individual congregations will go on, and the task is to work together as part of a meaningful movement.”  Then, in closing the course, our professor shared another thought, this one from Rev. Abhi Janamanchi: “The center of Unitarian Universalism lies outside of itself, in the stranger, in difference rather than in similarity. . . . We are called to create holy communities where strangers are not only welcome but where all are enjoined to do the work of healing and transformation by wrestling with the strangers within themselves.”

I found this interesting, because in building community, welcoming the stranger, and beginning that process with ourselves, we just may have the tools to ensure that UU is around for future generations of seekers.  Naming this work, however, isn’t the same as doing it.  We are indeed fighting for relevance–for survival–and the challenge facing us is not about recruitment.  It’s also not about social justice, at least not in the issue-driven terms in which we currently frame it.

Let’s go back to Rev. Janamanchi’s thoughts.  Welcome the stranger, he says, and start with the stranger within ourselves.  I think we have all heard this; it may even speak to us in a powerful way.  Yet very rarely do we tie our words about radical hospitality to a set of concrete actions, or even to a larger applied theology.  In fact, I wonder if “welcoming the stranger” is perhaps Unitarian Universalism’s “Sunday-only” theology.

Friends, are you familiar with how this works?  In my ELCA days, week after week, I’d find myself in the pew listening to “lamb of God” and connecting deeply with the communion ritual. Brought up short by Christ’s sacrifice, I’d reflect passionately on my own need to practice a little self-sacrifice for the good of others, wondering how I could put something so momentous out of my mind.  And then, washed of my sins–and of the annoying burden of thinking about them–I stepped out into the bright sunlight, resumed my life, and forgot about it until the next Sunday.  Then, there I’d be, reciting the Kyrie and thinking, again, “Oh, crap.  This.  Why can’t my wayward heart remember?”

I didn’t beat myself up too much, though; I had the doctrine of original sin on my side.  (Heck, it was right there in the liturgy.)  I don’t think about these things, or change my actions, or change my heart, because I can’t.  I will never remember.  Only here, on this hard bench, can I  hope to become a better person–and even then, not through my own efforts.

You can probably tell: one of my favorite things about UU—one of the things that makes this faith a living and meaningful part of my life—is that the message only starts at church.  It is never intended to stay there.   And it’s clearly and immediately applicable to my life.  There’s no fire or brimstone, yet our pulpits pack quite a punch: here’s the vision–now get off your rear ends and make it so.  Thus, I find myself continually afflicted, with an urgency isn’t washed away by our rituals.  Rather, it bleeds into my daily life, and it compels me to action.

In this way, I am invited to think differently about money, challenged to live into greater generosity, encouraged to help create a just distribution of resources.  I am pushed to consider how my actions affect our neighbors and the larger world.  I am called to strengthen my relationships, accepting and celebrating that we are held together in the bonds of covenant.

Yet there remains an issue around which I do not see much action.  I hear the call sometimes, and I feel it in those moments . . . and then I return to complacency.  And in fact, I think complacency is where many of us are on this challenge: the call of radical hospitality–the relentless demand that we welcome the stranger.

And how, as a movement, do we justify our ongoing failure (refusal?) to do the deep work to find the strangers within ourselves and to recognize, hear, and welcome the unfamiliar in others?  Forgive us, Lord, in our amnesia and blindness, which are not at all willful, as we are deeply flawed people and simply cannot do any better. . .  that doesn’t work here.  We don’t have original sin.  We have humanism.

What if we treated that humanism less as a license to believe nothing and more as a set of goalposts?  What if we saw ourselves in the waning minutes of the first half (or of the game, if you want to get apocalyptic in your atheism) and looking to advance the score?  We are responsible for our actions, and equally so our inactions. . .  there’s nobody here but us chickens, so let’s get our behinds in gear.

And so I’m asking: why don’t we act on this piece of what we believe?  I’ve been wondering about this for months, and I have a theory.  Are you ready?  It’s deep: I think we don’t know what to do next.  And in the meantime, concerned for our very survival as a movement, we are arguing amongst ourselves about a “bottom line theology” (can I interest you in a creed, anyone?  How about some dogma?), and chasing willy-nilly after a group of largely, almost definitionally, uninterested people.*

Frankly, whether Unitarian Universalism exists in the next century depends on our community-building skills.  We must construct the beloved community, and, having built it, we must dedicate ourselves to its care and feeding.  We must know and value our freedom, and the individualism that demands it—and, holding that freedom, we must nonetheless choose “we” over “me.”  And friends, building a “we” is going to start, end, and move forward by truly learning to listen to one another.  

We will transcend boundaries, build coalitions, overcome the petty differences which block the way to meaningful agreements, and care more, and more deeply, for one another, simply by learning to close our mouths and open our hearts and our minds as others speak their truths.  I don’t mean “we need to listen” as a platitude.  I mean WE NEED TO LISTEN as a set of skills.  This means something we might teach each other in small groups, practice within our own congregations, and then model within our wider communities.  

What does this look like?  It’s a set of values and goals, and also a set of procedures.  Both can be modified; the overall objective is to elicit, recognize, and respond to the humanity in everyone we meet. Every single person.  Does that jive with our deeply held beliefs?  Does that sound like inherent worth and dignity?

Photo by Jon Delorey, used under a Creative Commons license. Design Mandie McGlynn 2013.

Photo by Jon Delorey, used under a Creative Commons license. Design Mandie McGlynn 2013.

Listening skills aren’t a new-age, ethereal concept—we needn’t be suspicious.  And we needn’t reinvent the wheel; there are a number of highly effective models for learning to listen deeply, even around highly polarized and sensitive issues.  The novel thing is bringing it to church.  The revolutionary thing is taking it from there out into our communities, and doing it as part of the movement.

This is hard work—the hardest work we will ever do.  In listening, we take the exhortation to love one another and we make it manifest; it’s the task of an entire lifetime. But there is nothing more important, and we have everything we need to begin this process.  And friends, it is urgent.   We want to bring healing to our fragmented neighborhoods, to our hurting communities, to our stratified and unjust world.  I agree with all of our noble goals—it’s just that all of our efforts are tilting at windmills until we truly learn to stand shoulder to shoulder with those whom we see as “other.”

Amy has a different dream for the capital campaign.  Adam thinks that a personhood standard for making abortion decisions best fits the ideal of honoring inherent worth and dignity for all.  Jared is gay, and a member of Log Cabin Republicans.  I know this, but do I know why?  Do I know how to find out?  Do I even know how to start a conversation that acknowledges and honors difference?  Maureen has a child with a diagnosed mental illness.  Anna was briefly homeless last year after a job loss.  Jason’s wife died by suicide.  Do I acknowledge this?  Do I avoid certain subjects?  Do I create a space where it’s safe to talk?  And if someone does begin to speak, do I listen?  What value do I place on listening as a personal ministry, or as a ministry of the larger church?

CS Lewis advises, “If you’re seeking comfort, you won’t find truth.”  In these uncivil, fragmented times, what might happen if we stepped out of our comfort zone with a sense of curiosity and a true zeal for our mission to build community?  It is possible that the answers would amaze us all.

Consider the following.

In 1994, in the midst of a bitter local and national polemic on the subject of abortion rights (sound familiar?) five people were shot in Planned Parenthood clinics in the Boston area.  Recognizing that something needed to change—not in the law, in the clinics, or in women, in general, but in the conversation itself—the Archdiocese of Boston, together with the Public Dialogue Project, attempted something risky and innovative.  The plan: break the deadlock by changing the culture, through an idea so radical that the women involved truly feared for their safety should others find out what they were doing.  That idea, friends, was nothing more or less than intentional listening.

Six women–three leaders from each side–were recruited to take part in the project.  At first, they agreed to meet together four times for a series of moderated discussions.  The sole objective was to understand each other better.  What actually happened was that every one of the women held to their covenant to stay in conversation with each other over those initial meetings—and then continued to meet and to listen for a period of five years.

And in this time—not right away, but soon—things began to change.  Again, not the law, at least not because of anything these particular women were working on.  And not the underlying issues surrounding abortion.  What changed was the larger conversation happening in Boston.  It became less toxic.  It became less violent.  It became more personal, in the sense that those involved began to put down some of the accumulated armor and acknowledge the other participants as people.  As women, as mothers, as loving and beloved members of larger communities.

There is something else that I find fascinating about these conversations—an outcome-that-wasn’t: not one of the participants changed her opinion.  If anything, engaging in this sort of long-ranging, open conversation allowed each to become more clear about what, at the heart of things, she held dear.  Further, it didn’t matter that neither group changed its opinions, because in stepping back from the bitterness, the judgment, and the slogans, these women led their respective movements in doing the same.

With commitment and training to love by listening, we can create the safe space necessary to have the kinds of conversations that change things.  Safe space is required if we are to acknowledge the conflicts we feel around our own positions—this is the “stranger within each of us” that Janamanchi mentions.  These internal conflicts—our own strangers—are critically important, because in acknowledging them, we can reach a place of comfort in seeking compromise, a third way that makes life better for everyone involved.

Thinking about abortion, a third way might look like support for women around the challenges that make it difficult to choose to parent a child in all but the best of circumstances.  It might be ready access to birth control.  It might be excellent and early prenatal care.  It might be affordable and high-quality childcare and preschool.  These are not difficult points to agree on, but they are impossible things to talk about when we’re locked into a position—and an associated identity—and view listening as a show of weakness.

You want a message of hope and redemption?  This movement is as strong as the communities we build within it, and we have every tool we need right now to shore up the foundation.  What would happen if liberal religion listened?  


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We might just recognize that in love, there are no sides . . . just one very big table.  Welcome to it, friends.  Now what can you learn about the person sitting next to you . . .  and what tools are you going to need to do it?

with love,

j

*Would anyone out there like to see us talk less about the Nones—a group that, at the moment, has self-selected OUT of our sphere of influence, and more about the nuns—a highly energized cohort who might actually share our  social justice vision?  Would anyone like to see less questioning of the values and loyalty of those within the movement who reach different conclusions than our own, and more embracing of difference as an opportunity to grow ourselves?  Please–and please pardon me–for the Love of God?  Amen.

pastoral care for humanists? : the Rev. Jill Jarvis responds

This guest post merits a guest reply; Rev. Jarvis, thanks for your words.  Readers, anything to add?  

Peace,

j

Alicia, this is a distressing situation indeed – you’re far from your loved ones, unable to help in any practical way, worried about both your sister and your parents. Fortunately you’re finding good support among your close friends, both online and in person. You know you’re not alone and you have people to affirm your feelings and listen deeply. But it sounds like you’re wanting something more, and wondering whether your nontheistic religion could possibly provide it. What is pastoral care for the humanist?

In any context I’m aware of, pastoral care is pretty much what you’re receiving from loving and trusted friends, and even the internet.  It’s a compassionate witness to those feelings of sorrow and helplessness, a non-anxious presence, and awareness that you’re not alone.

But even with that loving support provided by friends, you long to talk to your minister. Maybe it would be helpful to consider what you feel is missing. 

As you describe what you imagine a Christian minister might say, it seems to be a way of making sense of what you’re experiencing.  What’s the meaning behind all the pain? Is there a larger context, and can it offer hope? I think you’re asking whether your religion can help you make sense of your pain and fear. 

If it ultimately can’t, I’d advise you to consider changing religions. But first, take the time to struggle with understanding your experience of helplessness and vulnerability, in light of your own faith. The Rev. Rebecca Parker, in her book Blessing the World: What Can Save Us Now, says that when our current faith is inadequate to explain our reality, we have three options:  reject our faith, deny our experience, or become theologians.  That last option is about wrestling with the stories and traditions and our own experience until it all becomes meaningful, and we have a faith we can rely on to help us make it through this night and the many nights to come.

Chaplains in a hospital aren’t supposed to impose their own theology on a patient struggling through a life crisis.  They’re trained to provide support and comfort to patients of all religions and none. They mostly listen and affirm, meeting people where they are. But if a person in crisis signals a need to understand their situation in a greater spiritual sense, if they’re searching for a deeper meaning, the chaplain helps them do that by evoking the power of their own traditions and beliefs (the patient’s, not the chaplain’s.)

 I think most UU ministers are particularly good at this. We don’t feel called to make everyone’s experience fit neatly into One Great True Story.

Though I’m not a Christian, I really doubt that most liberal Christian ministers would be evoking the Christian worldview in quite the literal, simplistic sense you describe. How would that really help someone in crisis? Only if you’re truly able to ignore the realities of this life in favor of a joyful existence after death, would (it seems to me) you find that comforting.  It’s all part of a larger plan controlled by a God that has the power to make it all better…..really? Just observing life as you know it tells you that things sometimes don’t turn out as we hope, good people suffer, we are all vulnerable all the time.  If you hear the Christian story in that literal sense, you have to conclude that maybe God won’t make things better for you, even though God could. Where’s the comfort in that?

I think you’re longing for this sort of comfort, but seeing it available only if you were able to accept that supernatural literalism, and you can’t.  It doesn’t fit with your experience of life.  But underneath Christian dogma is the reality of human existence that can be evoked, through Christian stories and traditions, to make meaning in a much deeper, non-literal sense that does resonate with people’s experience.  The same can be said for Unitarian Universalism, with a non-theistic focus – but as with any religious tradition, you have to do the wrestling part.  Humanism is not (should not be) just an absence of certain beliefs.  If it ultimately can’t help you find meaning and comfort through the joy and suffering of life, I’d advise exploring other alternatives.  Naturalistic humanism works for me, but the wrestling has taken years, and if you’re doing it right, is never over.

In this case, the first step would be to talk to your minister. He should be able to help provide context and form for the wrestling. Blessings on your journey.

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Dear Raising Faith: on pastoral care for humanists

This guest post, from “Alicia,” asks what Unitarian Universalism, and what our ministers, specifically, might have to offer in times of personal crisis.  These are great questions, and I’m happy to put them out here.  What think you, trusty readers?  

All the best,

-j

My teenaged baby sister still lives with our parents. She’s been suffering with depression for quite some time now, and it’s recently come to enough of a head for our parents to seek psychiatric help for her. spilled pillsShe’s currently on her second prescription in as many weeks (it is always hard to find the right medication and the right dosage), and after spending time with her this weekend (when she seemed to be in relatively good spirits, discussing with me her plans for prom and the future), I got a message from my mom today telling me that they had taken her to the hospital, because she is having suicidal thoughts.

My immediate reaction was one of helplessness. I live not only in a different house but a different state, unable to provide my physical presence as support, nor practical help with household duties, cooking, or anything, really, while they help my sister work through her depression enough to safely leave the hospital. I do what I can to be there for her emotionally, trying to keep up with her through Facebook and text message, making time for her when I visit. But ultimately, there’s nothing tangible I can do to help.

On the heels of lamenting my helplessness, I had an impulse to e-mail my minister. He is great at being aware of the stresses present in his congregants’ lives and asking how he can support them. But as someone who sucks at asking for help, much less directing it, what can I say? Honestly, I have no idea, in this moment of helplessness and brokenness, what kind of meaningful help he could offer.

If I were a Christian, I would be seeking spiritual reassurance, a reminder that even if I am helpless, God is not, and He has both a plan and the power to remedy any situation. A Christian minister would pray with me, for God to soothe my heart and my sister’s (and my parents’), to heal us, or at least wrap divine arms of love around us, providing security as we weather the storm.

But even though I’m sure my minister would give that to me if I wanted it, I don’t – I’m agnostic. If I believe in something beyond physical reality, it’s not anyone moving the chess pieces of humanity about with a grand design in mind to checkmate the devil. I don’t believe in a personal God who knows the sorrows of every sparrow. So while I’m quick to suggest that my mother seek out her Christian minister’s care for her own needs, I hesitate to do the same, even when it occurs to me that I might – that perhaps, I ought.

In the context of a humanistic religion, what does pastoral care have to offer that a good friend – or a good therapist – doesn’t? The space to express my feelings of sorrow and helplessness abounds here on the Internet, and in the hearts of a few loving and trusted friends. They offer me non-anxious presence, love, an awareness that I’m not alone. A therapist (if I had one), would undoubtedly validate my concerns and offer me some secular coping strategies. I am fairly emotionally and spiritually self-aware, and don’t need anyone to tell me to engage in self-care during this time (though it seems a bit ludicrous to worry about myself because of my sister’s pain, I know it’s important). So what does the minister of my humanistic religion have to offer me in this time of difficulty?

This question feels big to me, the crux of a wider (if tired) conversation about Unitarian Universalism, and what makes us a religion rather than a social group, a lecture circuit, or a gathering of activists. And I’ve never really known how to answer that, except that it is a feeling, a sense of wonder and unity that can only be called religious. But while that is nice when all is well in life, what does it offer when all is not well?

(click here for a response from the Rev. Jill Jarvis.)