“In the meantime”- Rev. Kendyl Gibbons on installing a minister

Installation of Rev. Jordinn Nelson Long at Fairhaven, MA

Rev. Kendyl Gibbons

April 2, 2017

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Rev. Dr. Kendyl Gibbons is the senior minister of All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in Kansas City, Missouri

Good afternoon, Fairhaven, and friends from all over.  We meet today to formalize and celebrate leadership in our Unitarian Universalist movement, amidst some political turmoil within the leadership of our association.  Issues around racial injustice in this country have commanded our attention as religious liberals since our founding, and we have yet to resolve the tension between the culture of privilege that we inherit, from which many of us benefit and some of us suffer, and the call to justice, equity, and compassion that is never entirely silent at the core of our faith.  Today we find ourselves again in pain over a hiring decision made by good people with good intentions, that has nevertheless served to perpetuate disenfranchisement and systemic power imbalances among us.  The president of our association has resigned from office for the remaining three months of his term.  No one knows for sure exactly what it would mean to get this right for once.  Nevertheless, this is in fact no time for any of us to despair, and despair is the opposite of leadership.

Rather, this is a time not only to face into both our individual and our collective pain, but in fact to be thankful that there is enough capacity among us – even if just barely – for that pain to be recognized by those who carry it and articulated into a space of potential trust, and heard and taken seriously in locations of power.  I am inclined to think that the transformation of our institutional structures that we all long for — even as we struggle with our resistance to meaningful change – will not happen just because forces of privilege become willing to undergo the discomfort of hearing about the pain that people of color experience.   We won’t get there unless that happens, but it’s not enough.  I think we have to be willing to incarnate pain in our institutional experience, and walk through it together, if we are going to learn to actually behave differently.  As we used to say in seminary, “Oh, great; another friggin’ growth opportunity!”   And yet, without those opportunities, as disorienting and difficult and demanding as they are, we are condemned never to move beyond the limitations and injustices of the past.  Choosing to recognize and face into pain is one of the key manifestations of genuine leadership, and it is at the core of what we are gathered here to affirm.

An installation like this shares with a wedding the same dynamic of joyful connection and hope-filled promises for the future; a covenant of fidelity and support, intended to sustain the adventure of mutual discovery and joint accomplishment.  It is wonderful; a high moment of human intention to be sure; deserving of celebration.  And yet, like a wedding, these high hopes and noble promises can only have their end in some form of sadness.  It can be sudden and dramatic tragedy — the minister dies unexpectedly, leaving the congregation heart-broken and grieving.  Overwhelming conflict comes to a head by ousting the minister, leaving bitterness and anger.  It can be a slow, debilitating erosion of integrity or interest — the people stop coming, the minister stops caring.  It can be nobody’s fault — the local employer closes shop, and demographics doom the congregation.  It can be spectacular moral failure — the minister seduces a member of the church, or the treasurer embezzles the endowment and refuses to pay the minister.  Even in the very best case scenario — the minister enters a well-planned and well-funded retirement after years of loyal and skillful work — both the congregation and the minister will still experience a period of poignant loss, confusion, and sorrow.  The longer and more successful the ministry, the more painful that eventual separation.  It’s the same with weddings; the story only ends either with one spouse grieving the loss of the other, or else with both grieving for the loss of the love that had once brought them joy together.

There is no fixing this; it’s inherent in the proposition to begin with.  The sustenance of the particular connections that give shape and meaning to our lives is always balanced by the grief that comes with losing that bond, either to mortality or entropy.  As Robert Frost says, “However it is in some other world, I know that this is the way in ours.”  As long as we are creatures in a world of matter and energy, we know at some level that everything is temporary.  There are people who look to religion for an exception to this law, for some eternal truth or unfailing love that endures when all else dissolves, and that is indeed what many faith traditions promise.  My own life-long religious humanism takes a different approach.  It seems to me that faith is not about the search for something that never fails, but rather the affirmation that the experience made possible through connection, relationship, and community is worth the pain of inevitable loss.

I cannot prove this proposition, of course.  If you were to say to me, “I have been there, and the pain of bereavement, or betrayal, is far greater than any joy I ever found,” I would not argue with you — only you can know the dimensions of your own griefs and gladnesses.  What I can do — what we all do, I suspect, in this strange vocation of ministry — is testify.  I can tell you the stories of those who have given themselves to love and to covenant, and been so enriched that they would do it again and again, despite knowing that heartache is part of the bargain.  I can bear witness out of my own life in leadership that ‘success’ is a kind of seductive phantom, ever in search of more; it is rather the shared effort, the working together itself, that satisfies both in the moment and in memory.  If you really want to build community, take on a demanding project together, and don’t let yourself quit when the going gets tough.  Whether or not you accomplish the goal, you will be known to each other, and changed by each other, in the process, and that is the foundation of authentic community.

It’s the ‘don’t let yourself quit when the going gets tough’ proviso that is the reason for all this hoopla over stuff like installations.  It will be silly, and humiliating, six months from now, for either Jordinn or the members of this congregation to turn around and say, “Oh, never mind; this is harder than we thought!”  This is why our communities of memory and promise are founded upon covenants; because we all need a defense against the impulse of immediate feelings that challenge our best intentions.   It is necessary to be reminded from time to time of what you said you were going to do, and what you really want, over and above the lure of momentary comfort.  There is more to covenant than just noticing when our interests happen to coincide:  “You want to try being a minister?  Oh, good; we are looking for someone to organize and entertain us.  Let’s do this!”  Now I’m not saying that the bureaucratically organized ministerial search process in the UUA is so perfect that calls don’t sometimes come about for such trivial reasons; but what I know is that if ministry works, it has to grow into something deeper and more challenging and at times more aggravating on both sides, than this.  In fact, in this setting, it is hard not to be reminded of Shel Silverstein’s cautionary verse:

 

Have you heard of tiny Melinda Mae,

Who ate a monstrous whale?

She thought she could,

She said she would,

So she started in right at the tail.

 

And everyone said, “You’re much too small,”

But that didn’t bother Melinda at all.

She took little bites and she chewed very slow,

Just like a good girl should…

…And in eighty-nine years she ate that whale,

Because she said she would!

 

I find this particularly apt given Jordinn’s well-known affinity for sea food!

Now, I do not mean to suggest that every misguided decision must always be pursued to the bitter end, nor that any ministry, however fruitful, ought to endure for eighty-nine years, certainly, but I do think there is a word to be offered on behalf of that which we do ‘because we said we would.’  That word is covenant; it is our solemn promises that counteract the randomness of a future in which anything and everything is possible, by committing us in advance to certain relationships and values that we have selected as references points for our unfolding journeys.  We do this in the knowledge aforethought that there will be both ultimate losses, and incidental difficulties along the way.  We do it because what we build with intention, and even with difficulty, is more satisfying in the long run than the pleasures that we happen to encounter randomly wandering around.  We do it in these time-consuming, somewhat anachronistic rituals — like weddings, and installation services — invoking powers that we scarcely know how to name, and only partly believe, because we are seeking some way to give our lives the density, and dignity, and depth that we suspect, with longing, might yet be possible for us to access.

The conservative columnist David Brooks, a perceptive if crotchety observer of progressive culture, once described the paradox of liberal institutionalism as the attempt to ‘build a house of obligation upon a foundation of choice.’  I think he had an accurate point, with specific application to Unitarian Universalism and its insistent basis in covenant.  We tend to reject family legacy, cultural convention, or the dogmas of tradition as constraints in the project of framing either our specific individual lives or the social structures we must share.  We want to make our own commitments of conscience out of an essential freedom; we want to choose our duties and assent to the responsibilities for which we will be held accountable — not because some external force of history or divinity assigned them to us, but like Melinda Mae, because we said we would.  Rather like a long-co-habiting bride, Jordinn’s ministry here is already well underway — what, if anything, changes today?  I suggest that what changes is that you, the congregation, and she, are about to try to name, and call into being by naming, that ‘because we said we would’ that will bind you both to a shared future, despite the certainty of grief which that future holds.  This is an act of faith, on both sides, and let no one tell you otherwise.

It matters that we do this, in both private and collective life, even though there is no escape from eventual loss, because it is precisely what we enact together in the meantime that gives sacred significance to our days.  If we are faithful to the purpose of church, it seems to me that there are two necessarily uncompleted projects in which we are always engaged, and these are the challenges on the ground of which authentic community arises.  The first is to take David Brooks at his word, and demonstrate what it looks like to indeed build a house of obligation upon a foundation of choice.  What does an institution that incarnates the values of Unitarian Universalism look like on the hoof?  When the curious and the spiritually hungry come to these doors, will they see people relating to each other and to the rest of the world as our seven principles would suggest?  If all someone did was to observe your congregation in action, what would they assume the essence of our faith to be?  As I experience it, that essence and those values are counter-cultural; at our best, we are a subversive organization, challenging a success and power idolizing society, bearing witness to the possibility of more compassionate, liberating, and humble human community.  We do this most effectively, if not most often, by exemplifying such relationships, amidst the all the challenges of life in a voluntary organization.  The effort to be the world we want to see is exhilarating, once we get past the trap of constantly judging and blaming each other.  That’s one project to work on together.

The other never ending adventure we share is our own spiritual growth, into the people each of us wants to become.  Many and various are the forces which urge us at every moment to take stock of what we have, and whether we are satisfied with that, but where in the course of our daily lives might we be held accountable for what we are, or what growth we are striving for?  Who asks us to step into spiritual maturity, to aspire to be grown ups, to identify the qualities that would make our lives worthy of honor, emulation, and blessing?  From what I see, if the church is not a place for this, it doesn’t happen anywhere — and this brings us back to covenant.  Because there is nothing gained by trying to apply my aspirations for personal growth to you; rather, my role as a partner in religious community is to hold up the mirror of accountability to what you said you wanted to be; to bear witness to your achievements and failures and continuing efforts to give your life the shape you most deeply believe it ought to have.  We can share insight and inspiration on this journey, but no one else can do the work of spiritual growth on your behalf — that is not the minister’s job, not even one as talented and passionate and beloved as Jordinn is destined to become.  Besides, she has her own inner life to cultivate, with the added challenge of making it transparent enough to serve as an inviting model and summons for all of you.  But in the end, religious community that is founded in freedom of conscience and diversity of expression can only hold together because we said we would; it can only keep us as accountable as we make ourselves in covenant, to one another and the challenges we have chosen to take on together.

 

Today, my friends, we bear witness as you and Jordinn make explicit your stepping into that covenant with one another.  We bring to this moment our full awareness that struggles and parting, as well as joys and fulfillment, lie ahead.  We bring the testimony of our own past experiences, as well as the centuries of our heritage, affirming the promise that religious community offers, is well worth the price that it demands.  With all the hope and wisdom at our disposal, we bless your future together, and lift up your example to our movement and to the world.  May you grow together, and sustain each other; may you find the community that is not self-serving, but other-serving and justice-serving, and in the process, become the greater selves that you have shown each other, in courage and faithfulness, all because today, in this place, in this joyful, poignant moment, you said you would.

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Rev. Jordinn Nelson Long is the newly installed minister of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Fairhaven, MA

A Letter to a New Minister (Kendyl Gibbons, on the occasion of my ordination)

 

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My dear Jordinn,

You are to be congratulated for your courage, if nothing else, in thus affording me yet one more opportunity to offer you instruction, just in case all my prior efforts now appear to me to have borne insufficient fruit. Particularly in a context that precludes you from contesting either the accuracy of my observations or the wisdom of my insights. On your head be it!

[Editor’s note- this blog is so handy for contestations of all sorts . . . . 😉 ]

I hold it a great honor to be invited to recall you, and us, from the elevation of this occasion, with all its festive trappings and warmth of affection for you as a friend, colleague, and blossoming minister, to consider the deeply serious nature of today’s undertaking.

Even though such gatherings as these are indeed, as our colleague Mark Belletini describes them, “high play,” they are not all fun and games. What we have just done, with your assent, is to lay upon you a mark, a burden, and a gift. It is my task to see to it that the mark is indelible, the burden is well grasped, and the gift is seen to be precious and sacred.

By designating you an ordained minister in the living tradition of the free church, we have marked you out as a person worthy of trust and authority. We have invited our fellow Unitarian Universalists in particular, and the world in general, to look to you for institutional leadership, personal integrity, and a compassionate presence.

You are no longer a merely private person, but a public, living witness to the claims of this faith, and to the duties of the vocation that you and I now share.   How you conduct your life, no less than what you preach and teach, reflects upon the credibility of this movement, and this profession. Today that mark may seem to you, and to all of us, a joyful honor, but the time will come when you will find it irksome to be endlessly on display as a model of the demanding values we espouse, and you will understand why this is a matter of solemn vows.

I charge you to remember the love and trust in which we bestowed this office upon you, and to fulfill the covenant you have made in the name of all that is holy.

I know that you understand the burden of ministry, to be present to the distress of the world without panic, or denial, or becoming indifferent and numb. People will bring you the pain of their losses and despair, their failures and finitudes, their broken hearts and broken dreams, hoping that you can help them to find courage and strength to keep believing in the possibility of new life.

You will see the dysfunction of relationships and institutions, as well as the injustices and tragedies of the world, and yearn to give healing. Inevitably, you will be profoundly aware of your own limitations, and feel inadequate to these demands, for in truth, you are.

We all are.

You cannot fix, or save, the world; you cannot fix or save another person. All you can do, all any of us can do, is to bring that pain and despair into a place of compassionate attention and truthful witness, which is where all healing starts.

The power of transformation lies not in your intelligence or resourcefulness, but in the creative energy of the universe, which is always and everywhere present, though we are so often blind to it. You must not try to absorb into your own heart the distress that you meet with in others; you must – believe me, now; I know you know this; you must – have a practice that enables you to ground that anxiety and sorrow in the larger life of all that is, in God, by whatever name you may know it.

That is your task — to be the one who is not crippled by the awareness of all the hurt in the world; who knows where to go for sustenance; who can stand in the presence of oppression and fear and heartache and let it run through you to an ultimate, infinite source where it can do no harm. I charge you to have a vibrant, enduring relationship with that source, which will allow you to remember that you are not god; you, and your work, are a strand in the web, not the web, nor yet the weaver.

Of course, none of us would undertake these formidable duties if the calling of ministry were not also a priceless gift.

You have been summoned to live as if everything you do matters, and to stand with your fellow human beings in the most significant, sacred, and – to give an over-used phrase its actual meaning – truly awesome moments of their lives. You are expected to ponder the deepest questions of the human condition, and people will await your conclusions eagerly, hoping to find guidance for their own perplexities.

All that is most tender and precious in the unfolding of our common experience you are meant to share, and celebrate, and give voice. I promise you, if you will live it out faithfully, there is no more fully human existence than the vocation of ministry. I charge you to rejoice in the privilege of this office, to embrace its generous opportunities for creativity and community, for meaning and service and on going spiritual growth.

We have marked you out for service; remember to be the servant not of our desires, but of the holy purposes of love, truth and righteousness.

You have taken up the burden of the world’s sorrows and suffering; do not seek to carry it by your own strength alone.

Be assured that however great your struggle with your own finitude, the truly important work is not about you.

And take joy in the deep wells of shared meaning and growth that the calling of ministry opens to you.

Thus I charge you on this auspicious day, and welcome you into the community of those whose lives are given to the service of the most high.

May the bright promise of this hour be fulfilled in many years of fruitful ministry.

Bless you, dear one, and all those you will touch in faith for the rest of your days.

-Kendyl

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The Reverend Dr. Kendyl Gibbons is the Senior Minister of All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in Kansas City, MO, the 2015 recipient of the Humanist of the Year Award from the UU Humanist Association, and a beloved mentor and teaching pastor to 26 Unitarian Universalist seminarians across four decades. 

Send us a Minister! (reporting live, from Unitarian Universalism’s Big Dance)

One of the sole romantic stories that Unitarian Universalism allows itself is that of English minister John Murray’s arrival on this continent. Widowed and heartbroken, Murray gave up preaching to sail to America and begin his life anew. However, his New York-bound ship became stuck on a sandbar off the coast of New Jersey when winds died, and Murray was sent ashore for provisions. There, he came across one Thomas Potter, who, as the story goes, had been waiting for him. For ten years. Potter had built a church, in fact, believing that God would send him a minister to preach the radical message of universalism.

Potter makes a deal with the reluctant Murray that if the ship cannot sail before the sabbath, Murray will come ashore and preach Sunday morning—and ultimately, the American era of Universalism is born.

 

A miracle, it hath occurred. If this had happened in any other faith, there would be a shrine and a pilgrimage route.

As befits our faith, however, the question I want to consider belongs purely to the pedestrian side of this equation:

Where was the putative congregation in all this?

One assumes that Potter’s offer is predicated on the understanding that there were people, come Sunday, who would wish to be preached to. If so, these people had been waiting for years for the arrival of their minister.*

Possibly the early universalists were more patient than the modern UUs I know. Imagine us, sitting ever so quietly in our pews. Praying, “Send us a minister!”

I have been thinking about this because we modern Unitarian Universalists are in the midst of the season known as “the search process.”

This is where, and how, congregations and ministers find one another.

And for the first time ever, I am a participant. (A player? A pawn?)

White chess pawn standing on chessboard

 

The whole baroque process is frequently compared to dating (read: group blind dating, with the intent to marry—it’s more like The Bachelor than dinner with the guy from next door), and there are certainly analogues. A focus on photogenic details. Will-they-call anxiety. Casual social media stalking. The occasional messy breakup. And delightful pieces as well—the unanticipated giddy joy, the previously-uncontemplated attractions, the writing of names, together, for effect.

There are modern sandbars, to be sure. Unexpected blizzards, Skype mishaps, and missed connections literal and figurative have all played a role this season.

And like their early American counterparts, the people are waiting. Have been waiting, in some of these congregations, for years. Finally, we are ready to call a minister.

And yet, unless we plan to put a level of trust and patience in divine providence that would be—let’s say unusual—in this movement, the truth is that “Send us a minister” is not what this process looks like.

Go fishing for a minister, maybe. Purchase a minister on the commodities market, if we forget the deeper call of our theology. But not, generally, “Sit here and wait patiently until someone else sends us one.”

And each year, participants on every side of this expensive and convoluted process lament that. If only God (actually no one says that) If only Keith Kron/the transitions office/the UUA/somebody would just “do the matching for us.”

Send us a minister.

Or send us a sandbar on which we might catch one.

SUDBURY, MASSACHUSETTS:  18th century First Parish Unitarian Church

SUDBURY, MA- First Parish Unitarian Church Not currently in search, friends.  🙂

I wasn’t sure when, after months preparing to interview with the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, I’d ever voluntarily read the Cambridge Platform again.

But friends, the answer is now. I am reading it again now, and am considering the magic and miracle of a history that believes that our congregations—that our people—know best.

And so, we don’t “send” ministers.

We cultivate faith and hope . . . and then we send packets. We send paperwork. We send greetings to the people who are themselves the deciders, and thus we decide, with every e-mail, which send-off to use.  Sincerely? Too cold. Fondly? Too warm. Warmly? What are we talking about, here? Blessings! (I have “blessed” more people in the past six weeks than in the whole of my life before this. )

And eventually, if things progress to the point of “serious relationship,” we send ourselves, in person.

We ministers in the congregational-polity tradition claim a significant amount of agency over our own futures. Over the spaces in which we will live into our calls. And this is true not merely incidentally, but because the freedom of the pulpit–and the pew–that inheres in our covenantal theology requires this. We choose freely and discern together at every step of the way, practicing and modeling exactly those skills we will need for our journey together in shared ministry.

And yet we grasp, sometimes, for something easier, and there is a reason for that.

Because this is hard.

This year, I’m engaged in this process as a minister, but the truth is, search is also very difficult for our congregations. It’s expensive, and there may be budget worries. It’s time consuming—four hours per week, on average, for an entire year (and that “four hours” gives little perspective; try 20 to 30 hours on precandidating weekends; more if you happen to be the committee chair and de-facto “host”), and everyone is busy.

And yet, these people do this on volunteer hours. They are keeping the faith and communicating a theology of people and place out of love for both. I think we forget this sometimes, both as ministers and as a denomination: that what happens in our congregations—that they exist in the first place, and that they continue to thrive–is a beautiful miracle.

This truth, that we are covenanted, not legislated, holds deep import for how we will search for an engage our ministers.

And yet there’s another piece of this that deserves mention: the heartbreak. This process is a path to heartbreak.

This is true because we meet each other in the same spirit of voluntary openness required to forge true partnership. Our communication happens tentatively at first, and then with greater and greater openness; the kind that leaves hearts on the line. The kind that demands risks, individually and together.

Tears will be shed this spring, my people. They already have been, and what I hope we understand is that this is not a bad thing.

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On the contrary.

Because what happens, underneath it all, is that our ministers and our search committees use faith—their own, and our collective assurances—to hold ambiguity, so that everyone else doesn’t have to.

In a free faith, creativity and self-determination are key, and to allow those to be part of the selection process, someone has to tolerate the uncertainty. The search committees, and the candidate ministers: We are the designated feelers in this process.  Not to appease the demands of hierarchy, but as a function of democracy. Because our history and our hope are staked on the radical notion that congregations know their needs best and must chart their course freely—and that ministers must be equally free to follow the dictates of their own call and consciences.

A process that takes this equation out of our collective hands, while administratively neater and in many respects, much simpler, would bear little resemblance to what ought to be our touchstone: life in our congregations.

An uncomfortable truth lurking within the 1646 text of the Cambridge Platform is that our congregations do this—hold, know, and care; preach, teach and lead—they do all this—with, and also without their ministers.

We ministers can help hold a vision, but it is unto the members of our congregations that the container for it is entrusted. We ministers can speak to the spark of our highest aspirations, but is our congregations who must keep the literal fires burning.

We remember this at pledge time. But how deep is our consideration of congregational ownership and the sacred demands of a shared ministry in the moments that are mere precursor?

As we send pieces of ourselves—and then our bodies, our families—across the country, repeatedly, in the name of call?

We Unitarian Universalists affirm the democratic principle: one person, one vote.  We carry forward the sacred trust of our history. We believe in the bright magic of our dreams.

And so, what other process could there be?

We need a bishop.

It is true, friends, that this process is hard. Holy moments hold space with disillusionment and sometimes, with betrayal. Thousands of dollars are spent, and more are promised. Hopes have grown large, and hearts will yet be broken. But where else, I wonder, are hopes and hearts and dollars on the line? For what larger dance are we rehearsing?

I want, even now, to be making ready for it.

But it would be so much easier if we had a more formal matching process, with fewer choices.

Just send us.

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No.

I beg to differ.

This has been an awesomely challenging few months. We are all tired. And certainly, we and this process need both pastoring and guidance from the larger denomination. Beyond Categorical Thinking is a key example of input-from-above that shapes a process with more fairness, and more joy, available for all.

But in the end, I have to cast my lot with the committees and the quorums.

I choose this process for the same reason I choose our congregations, and I hang in when it’s hard for the same reason that we come back to the table, and to our covenants, time and time again.

I have, in the words of poet Adrienne Rich, no choice but “to cast my lot with those who, age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.”

Those are my people.

And this is all of our process.

Not from a ship, then, and not from denominational authorities, either, but from this long and sometimes awkward dance— from these very committee meetings, these phone calls, these e-mails, these questions and answers and these half-articulated hopes . . .

There is appearing, already on the horizon, the future we have dreamed of.

It is our ministry.        

Together.

Amen.

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*Fun fact, as best we can tell: The “congregation” was composed of Potter’s friends and neighbors, and they had indeed been waiting for 10 years—because they thought he was an idiot, and that Universalism was a heresy. Our sermon illustrations are at times imperfect. Wrestle with this as you will.

Because “As long as they’re having fun” is not enough

There are six words that I hear fairly often in Unitarian Universalist churches in discussing the religious experiences of our UU children and youth. They are six words that apparently sound innocuous to hearers. Or perhaps it’s that they sound like freedom, the mythical kind that can exist only after every obligation is taken away and a happiness-filled vacuum remains.

As long as they’re having fun.

To me, on the other hand, this phrase sounds like neither freedom nor happiness. In fact, as the mother of two children, myself, these words make me feel just a bit crazed.

They are most often delivered with a shrug and a sweep of the hand, in response to questions about what we might or might not want our children to get out of their church experience.

As long as they’re having fun, I don’t really worry about that.  

Friends.

People of faith.

Let us talk.

It’s no secret that our movement has a hard time hanging onto our children once they reach the teen years. Denominations, in general, are not great at retention, but we Unitarian Universalists have for two generations been particularly noteworthy in this category. And by noteworthy, I mean ignominious.

And much has been said about this.

  • It’s because we don’t tell them we want to keep them.
  • It’s because we inspire them to be openminded, so their departure from our faith is probably well-considered and is actually a mark of success.
  • It’s because everyone keeps saying they all leave, so please don’t write about this—you’ll further traumatize them.

Um.

I’ll leave untangling those three threads to the experts.

But there is another piece—a fourth piece—that I do want to talk about. As a religious professional and also, particularly, as a parent.

It’s a piece about discipline. Yes, I said that. You can tar and feather me in a moment. You know, after you finish reading.

A few years ago, I was asked to be part of a task force on religious education in one of our congregations—a church that was literally established in the hope of offering liberal faith to its young. We were tasked with creating a set of deliverables, one of which was a “basket of things we might offer to someone born into our congregation, over the years of their childhood and youth.” We eventually came up with a job description, but no such basket was identified or created. And there were nights, amid long hours of careful wordsmithing, when I honestly considered sliding from my seat to lie down on the floor. Or slipping outside to howl at the moon.

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The other participants were deeply committed to the congregation . . . and several were equally deep in their belief that the only thing we can offer to our children in good faith is a blank slate. Anything else—any list of what we’d like for faith inputs or developmental outcomes—is tantamount to “indoctrination.” “Brainwashing.” Later that same year, I spoke passionately about my wish to see my children included in the worship hour, at least by their presence there, and was met with the rejoinder “In my day, we didn’t punish our children like that.”

Here, friends, is my tale of boredom and brainwashing—the kind that taught me to love church, to love your church, into middle adulthood. There was a white robe in my size, and a long pole, flame on the far end, lifted up to light more than fifty candles in the darkness of a magical Christmas Eve. There was sitting, to be sure, in pews and classrooms, more than I can tell you over the course of a childhood.

prayer candles

As a youth, 8 classmates and I met Wednesday evenings and Sunday mornings for a two-year period. We sat in the front pews, raised eyebrows at one another in worship, and made notes for the sermon summaries we were required to write. Each had to conclude with at least one question we’d like to discuss further. And we never knew when Pastor Rockwood would smile from up on that chancel at the group of us in the pews, or direct a quip our way to make sure we were listening.

This was work, to be sure. And it was also a continual invitation into the life of the church—a deep welcome. It was a pain in the butt sometimes; juggling confirmation around schoolwork and other activities is a big commitment, and from my parents most of all. Who, I should perhaps mention, are atheists. My parents were Nones before that was cool—and they made time to shuttle me back and forth to church regardless. My religious upbringing in the ELCA—the liberal Lutheran church—was left to my grandparents and to my own discretion, but my parents were willing to support my zeal because they believed in the value of discipline and that several millennia of accumulated human wisdom probably count for something.

Carmel Mission

I am persuaded that the investment was worth it—and I’m grateful to have been held by a community where I was encouraged to make and keep commitments.

So I ask you: what do we Unitarian Universalists believe in? Not as a shared theology, but collectively about our children? What we might offer to our kids in the 18 or so years that we could assuredly have them among us?

I hear us talking about our first graders as the reason that we, as adults, stop coming to church.

I don’t want to fight with them.

They don’t want to go. They complain.

As though the complaints of a 6 year old are the natural litmus test for anything important.

Taking kids seriously is important. I am a big proponent—and practictioner, in my best moments—of deep listening to our kids. The kind of listening that sits on the bedroom floor alongside them, that waits to speak, that keeps breathing so they can, too.

But we don’t need to draw a straight line from listening to action. And truly, sometimes the larger process of growth requires that we refuse to alter course in the face of complaint.

A story about this:

I grew up swimming. I taught myself to float in the bathtub, was the weird tiny kid in swimming lessons with the big ones, and experienced childhood constantly attended by green hair and the faint smell of bleach.

Interior of public indoor swimming pool

But I never was an excellent swimmer. Not good enough to make the cut at all-state. What I was, in the end and in spite of myself, was a disciplined one. And the discipline is what has mattered for everything that came afterward.

Swimming, and later teaching and lifeguarding, took me first around the state and then around the country. I interned for Disney and worked for Seeds of Peace—both because of swimming. I wanted to be in those places for the mission, but they hired me because of what I could offer them.  These were skills cultivated by two decades of not raw talent, but commitment—the kind that sees you through 5:30 a.m. call times and twice daily practices, Saturday meets, sit-ups and shoulder pain.

And eventually I got to those places because during the summer of my seventh year, my mom stood firm against my swimming strike. I remember it still, and the weird thing is, there’s nothing much to tell—just as there wasn’t in that moment. I don’t know why I didn’t want to go to swim lessons. I remember not knowing then, either. It’s just that I didn’t. Not that day, not anymore, not ever again if I could help it, and after explaining this to my mother and being met with incredulity, I hid under the Holly Hobbie cover of my bedside table.

My mother found me and considered, nonplussed. And then she hauled me out, put me in the car, and took me to swim lessons. I was furious. Ditto the next day. On the third day, I was still mad, but knew it was a losing battle. By the next week, I was happy to go again.

Schoolgirl with goggles in swimming pool

I remembered this later, at 13, when I joined the high school varsity swim team for one of the rudest awakenings of my life. I have never worked so hard, swallowed so much water, known such misery. And when I tossed myself into the car between early and late practices that first day, I knew I was going to quit. And then I looked at my mother’s face and knew that I wasn’t. Oh, cruel fate. This time, however, she cut me a deal. Do this in good faith for two weeks. If you still want to quit then, I won’t say anything else.

I didn’t quit.  By the third day or so, I knew I wouldn’t.  But I remember that rule now, in the trenches. And I am so grateful to have had parents who believed in me enough to ask me to wait it out. To show up with me, to cheer even that time I swam the last lap alone, to believe that showing up and swimming really does matter.

Swimmers About To Touch Finishing Line In A Race

We need communities that believe that. Our kids deserve them, even when that commitment means that they are not, in a given moment, having fun.

And you might be surprised about what happens when you have a frank conversation with a complaining six or seven year old. One that sounds like, we will be going to church. Every week. So we can fight about it, or we can find a way to enjoy this family ritual together—but we’re going. [And then smile.]

We did have precisely this conversation at our own house two years ago with my willful older child. We talked lovingly, but I meant business, and I kid you not: problem solved. Immediately.

I am sure that the issue will come up again over the years, and we’ll talk honestly—but my own clarity around what matters here helps tremendously. We, as a family, go to church. We also eat dinner, take showers, and feed the pets. When things are treated as non-negotiables, they develop the force of gravity in your family life, and they stop being objects of conflict. (This idea is called the “Wall of Futility” by parenting coaches, and it really does work—but you have to be clear about what’s a given in your household. Including around faith.)

Boy hiding

And yet, as a people, we treat discipline, whether spiritual or parental, like it’s a bad word. Synonymous with punishment.

My people, it is not. Discipline forms the basis of engaged spiritual practice. It can be beautiful. It’s even poetic.

As Marge Piercy writes in her powerful poem, “To Be of Use,”

I want to be with people who submerge

in the task, who go into the fields to harvest

and work in a row and pass the bags along,

who are not parlor generals and field deserters

but move in a common rhythm.

We need this in our churches if they are to function as organizations. And we need it spiritually as well—the ability to cultivate discipline is part of what makes us truly human.

Call me old school, but I am indeed staking a claim on a different vision—and I’m doing it as a Unitarian Universalist.

And with a hard awareness: we still might not keep our kids. My kids are UUs, not Lutherans, and a study of our history in this past year has me persuaded, at least for now, that a faith that not only embraces freedom but holds freedom at and as its very center will always need a halfway covenant for its children. Generations of our kids, raised in freedom and never needing to seek it, have grown to become seekers of something else.

We may indeed lose them from active participation in this faith, but even without creeds, we can be intentional about bequeathing unto our young something for their journey. What would we like that to be? And how will we do the work of it—and invite our children’s hands to be part of what we build?

Having fun is certainly a value.

Now what’s our religion?

In faith,

j

discipline road sign illustration design

It’s Not About You: finding slow church in a quickie culture

church bank

My husband and I fumbled toward regular church attendance like awkward teenagers might feel their way to third base. We were shy and shamefaced, almost desperate to connect with the larger something we’d heard through the grapevine that we might find here. But we wanted to find that something without attracting attention or admitting ignorance, and certainly without rearranging anything else in our lives. And so, on certain Sundays, we tended to fall into the event, crashing through the doors late, without planning or ceremony, and often still arranging errant pieces of clothing.

Other weeks we didn’t make it at all; we’re not exclusive, you know? We have lives. You understand. Also, we had very little stamina for a long and slow build up. Give us what we want, now, so we can get out of here.

And yet eventually, we became one with that community anyway. They were just so . . . loving. But the blending, on our end, was mostly incidental and accidental—because our focus, of course, was on meeting our own needs.

And the weeks and months passed. And sometimes: we felt satisfied.

Mostly, though, we didn’t. Something is missing, we began to whisper to each other.

And since we knew that something wasn’t in us, then the problem, clearly, lay with the church.

Something was wrong with this congregation. It’s you, church. It has to be you.  

And so, we did the rational thing:

We prepared to leave.

Goodbye

We attended even less, checked out emotionally, and pulled back on our financial contributions. We talked about alternatives, and began, slowly, to scope them out. Neighboring cities? Neighboring denominations?

Somewhere, there has to be a match for us. A soul mate. A congregation that’s going to understand us, and put our needs first.

And yes, while the breakup felt inevitable, we admit we did feel a tiny bit resentful. We tried hard, you see. A restaurant that provided unsatisfying service might not even earn a second visit, but you, church—

You’ve provided partial satisfaction and incomplete joy for years and we kept giving you another chance. I mean, if anything, you owe us.

We travel a lot as a family, and during this time, going to church in the cities we visited became a guilty pleasure. Each congregation visited was a fling before the final separation—walking in to those new spaces was unfamiliar, sometimes a bit uncomfortable—and also, exhilarating. The world was full of so many possibilities, many with features we only dreamed of back home.

Which is how we found ourselves in a spare white chapel in St. Louis. The minister, herself a visitor to the congregation, paused in the liturgy to raise a hand heavenward, then sweep it from side to side, insisting that the assembled congregation take note of the many still-standing visitors gathered at the back of the chapel, scoot away from the aisles to make space, and then raise their hands, fingers extended to indicate how many seats for newcomers they had adjacent.

See?  We thought. You can do these things better.

Thus accommodated, we settled into our seats and awaited our portion of self-satisfaction.

And received, instead, a smack upside the head. Figuratively, of course.

Because the Rev. Margret O’Neall was there to speak to us about consumer culture, and what it looks like when we bring it to church.

Vintage gumball machine

We are steeped in something that is the very antithesis of an authentic religious experience. It is invisible, and it is everywhere—as seamless a part of our daily lives as the air we breathe.

That something is consumerism. In fact, we might even go so far as to call consumerism a national religion (establishment clause notwithstanding) in this 21st century moment—and we carry its sacred expectations right into our faith communities.

And friends: it doesn’t work well.

I hope that in the course of your own religious life there are at least a few sermons that you gratefully carry—the feelings, the moment of awakening—for years after hearing them.

This was one for my family; the moment when we realized that we weren’t satisfied because we cannot consume community.  That we were unsure where else to turn because we can’t purchase wisdom and depth. And that we need the flawed, frustrating collective because as humans, we are not wired to individually find our way to gratitude, love, or healing.

No Sale

And yet, if we’re not self-reflective about our intentions in our communities of faith, we are likely to approach our churches like satisfaction vending machines. And in so doing, we deny ourselves and our communities the opportunity for real change.

The thing is, transformation doesn’t always feel good. Sharing time, space, and resources often isn’t a warm and fuzzy experience in the immediate moment. Further, growth is hard, and maturity is demanding, and our dreams are expensive—and in ways that exact costs from each of us.

In consumer culture, when things get tough, we learn the lesson; we don’t buy that experience anymore.  We simply vote with our dollars and with our feet. Society says that’s the rational response, and mostly, it works ok.

But it doesn’t work in our faith communities.

We are used to being handed things in exchange for payment. So how should we be when we are instead in a place that focuses not on serving us, but on seeing us?

Friends, we need to give more, come always, and ask less. And then—amazingly, countintuitively—then things get magical.

My people, what is happening—what is on offer in the smorgasboard of plenty of your local church—is nothing short of transformation. You will be nourished. You will be changed. And eventually, you will grow, and in ways that will add richness and depth to your life, even as you help to add those qualities for many others.

But, get this: like the watched pot that never boils, this alchemy cannot happen while your focus is on YOU. On what YOU need. On what YOU get.

sulky angry child

So what might an alternative look like?

Let’s consider one example at issue as our churches work to expand Sunday morning programming, that we might do more than merely scratch the surface: our time investment on the Sabbath.

A quick in-and-out Sunday experience may be our goal . . . but why? And what happens if we take a deep breath and lean in to experience Sunday, at least the mornings, as a time FOR church? As a day in which church is not standing between you and your lawn, but a covenantal gathering standing for something larger, and of which we are gratefully a part?

I have many friends active in the LDS church, and recently, one of them posted on Facebook about having had “2-hour church” that day—a rare event due to severe weather. Usually, you see, they stay longer. Of this particular event, my friend shared, “I’m a fan, but it did feel like a waste of mascara.”

I laughed . . . and then I thought about us. By which I mean the Unitarian Universalists I know and love, and also quite a few others of us who hail from the mainline Christian tradition.

I thought about our tendency to literally watch the minutes tick by anytime we’re approaching the one-hour mark in a worship service. And about our sense that, “It was too long” is meaningful feedback for a minister—or for ourselves—in reference to a worship service that took 15 hours to create, and which lasted for one hour and five minutes.

Orange alarm clock 3d. Icon. Isolated on white background

Friends, we think two-hour church is a waste not of mascara, but of our morning.

Why is that?

Because we are so unbelievably overscheduled that adding even one more hour will tip the balance of quality of life for the worse?

Because we can be certain that we will get nothing of consequence out of the worship or religious education being offered during a second hour?

Or is it, perhaps, because we believe both of the above propositions because of a third thing: because in our minds we have walked not through the door of a church, but a vending machine. Church is a spot for a quick hit, one we can attend without breaking stride in the rest of the weekend.

And thus, we’re here for this food and that sermon and this nursery and that group but not this other stuff. Don’t make us touch these things. Don’t ask us to sit through them, or think about them, and heavens, no, we’re not going to pay for them.

GIVE US WHAT WE WANT, OR WE’LL GO SOMEWHERE THAT WILL.

Angry boy screaming, demanding something

Here’s the thing. You can approach church that way. Also, parenting—I read an essay recently from a mother and father who, before the birth of their son, signed a contract with one another dividing up nights and duties and days off, treating their child like a job. (Unsurprisingly, that approach turned out not to be great for their child or their marriage.) But my people, the satisfaction you seek will not be yours. Not at church, not on the “give me what I pay for” path.

When we begin our church journey convinced that we don’t have enough of what we need, and proceed by trying to stake a claim to whatever that is, and then by grabbing as much as we can, we are indeed indulging in worship.

We are worshiping scarcity.

And that falls right in line with that dominant culture, the water in which we swim.

As long as this is as close as we get to sacrificial spiritual practice, our church life is a waste . . . and not of mascara. It is a waste of potential. A squandering of days. A sacrifice of life-force.

Do you want your faith to be something more than a fashion statement?

Then your church needs to be more than a vending machine.

And so I invite you, as a spiritual practice, to try a different way on Sundays.

Show up. Breathe. Be.

Demand less.

Relax more.

And know that together, we are preparing to change the world.

Because we’re not making transactions.

We are making commitments.

Amen.

j

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of love and failure

Truth: The routines of my daily life depend on good juggling, but sometimes I mess up.

Good showmanship requires that I grab that dropped ball, work it into my routine and never stop smiling, but that doesn’t always happen as smoothly as I’d like. And occasionally, it’s worse–it’s not just one ball that gets dropped.

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j

A few weeks ago, life caught up with me in a large and multicolored explosion. I was late here and half-arsed there, and in a stunning coup-de-grace to my face-saving efforts, I managed to no-show to a meeting full of people gathered to hear me speak.

jYep. That happened.

jAnd because God is twisted– or because this is simply a ridiculously busy time of year for those of us who set watches by church or academic calendars,* I was also on the receiving end of some major ball-dropping.

It was kind of a mess, friends.

In some places, it still is.

And so, waiting for the dust to settle, I have been thinking about failure. And my first question is, why do we let it happen? And wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t?

Smiling young woman having an idea with light bulb over her head

As your dutiful enneagram Type 1, my goal when it comes to mistakes is to avoid them entirely. Failing that—and somehow, I often do fail—I simply strive not to repeat them. EVER.

Thus, I’ve been considering a menu of meltdown-prevention plans. And I’ve come to a surprising conclusion: the opportunity to screw up is accorded unequally.

In fact, it is often awarded not necessarily to the most competent individuals, but to those people we love.

That’s right: I am persuaded that when we love others, we give them room to FAIL.

And so, considering weeks like these past ones, I offer this suggestion: we shouldn’t. We simply should not trust one another this much—not if our goal is to avoid disappointment.

Trust means we expect good things, focus less on the bad outcomes that might happen, and thus end up with less of a safety net.

We are putting ourselves at risk, friends.

And so, an alternative: I’ll just do everything.

Scratch that, you do everything. Or maybe I can do what I’m good at, and you’ll do what you’re good at, and nobody should do the things that are hard or risky.

Yeah, right.

We trust, of course, because we have to.  As a people deeply dependent on one another simply to live, the truth is, we have no other choice. Disturbing though this is for my failure-management initiative, it’s actually great news for the missional church. We must trust one another a bit just to get through the days, but as it turns out, we trust even more than we have to when we love one another.

Why? Because it is messy, and risky, and sometimes even a bit miserable when we allow people room to grow. It’s challenging. Our baby birds, or grown-up employees, get into difficult situations, and they bring us with them. And as anyone who has ever been responsible for a toddler (or, I’m told, a teenager) knows—it is really hard to give people the space they need to become something else, because they are going to make a mess. And we have to be willing to hang in there through the entire process, sometimes cringing and gritting our teeth throughout, if we want to see results we can be proud of.

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Who is willing to do that but someone who can continuously hold in their hearts a guiding image of what we might grow to be—even as they step in our spilled milk, or stumble across the holes we dug spinning our wheels?

Our toddlers and teens don’t wait for us to create opportunities for their explorations—whether we’re ready or not, they must grow, and they will seize the attention and resources they need, one way or another. Adults, however, can function in a state of stasis, and this less-risky way of being is highly incentivized in most areas of our lives. And thus, how many of us encounter opportunities in our professional lives to truly grow? To become? To live into potential?


This kind of encouragement requires resources. It takes vision.

There are a few companies famous for devoting time to truly developing their talent pool, but most organizations—and many of us as bosses and leaders—are simply living in the now, feeling relieved just to match present skills with immediate job requirements. “Maintenance” focus is deeply ingrained in short-to-medium-term planning, and it feels much less risky than the alternative.

It is thus counter-cultural to invest this time and care in another—to let him fail so he can grow. A room-to-fail approach requires missional thinking with long-term results in mind. Alternatively, it takes love.

Know a place powered by both?

I do. It’s the thriving church in your community.

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It takes courage to stand as witnesses to potential, but encouragement to grow is exactly what the best lay leadership programs provide.

From finance to teaching to project management to public speaking, we stand ready to challenge and encourage you . . . even when we have to dust you off a few times or bite our nails for awhile while you find a steady foothold.

In working collaboratively with you around your talents and interests, we become part of the forces that call you into your best self. Your next self, shared with us all.

And, inevitably, we open ourselves to disappointment. To hurt, even. You will fall short of the mark sometimes, and we must not only pick up the pieces, but celebrate the progress: when we give you room to fail, we give you room to grow.

Outside of formal leadership training programs, we don’t talk about this much in the adult world.  However, the fail-to-grow (the complete opposite of “failure to grow”) concept is well-known to educators. The Zone of Proximal Development is the range just beyond a person’s current abilities, and the place into which, if properly challenged, they will stretch themselves. The process of providing that challenge is known as “scaffolding”—we are building the supportive framework for what comes next, simply by encouraging the learner to reach up a bit rather than staying where she is comfortable.

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But he might fail: he’s climbing a tree that’s growing even as he climbs, trusting branches to appear, and making the reach on the promise that they will. It’s an uneven and imperfect process. Sometimes things won’t line up. Sometimes growth will slow, other objectives will distract, he’ll need to climb back down for a bit. Sometimes he will even fall.

In the zone of proximal development, some failure is guaranteed. But the zone is where all the growth happens. And we need to be brave enough, missional enough—loving enough—to be willing to go there with one another, again and again and again.

Because as we each grow, our faith communities do, too . . . and the transformation begins in earnest.

Which I’m going to try to remember, myself.  The show must go on.  (And in the meantime, I’m looking forward to exploring part II with you–what happens after we fail: the role of caring confrontation in leadership development.)

Blessings, my people!

j

*Potentially life-saving advice: those of us who do both—the seminarians in your lives, for example—are not to be trifled with in August, December, and April. You have been warned.

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.

things we lost in the fire

 

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The formation process, year 1.

It’s educational.  It’s beautiful.

It’s really damned hard.

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

Often that something is small.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it is so very hard.

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

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

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

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

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

So what does one do?

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome, fire.  

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

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

-j

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Rev. Amy Zucker Morgenstern

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