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.

You’re In the (Lord’s) Army Now! UU ministers on moving from “congregant” to “seminarian”

This series of posts arose from a discussion among  Meadville Lombard students about  surprises (some lovely; others less so) that “seminarian” status has brought to our relationships with our home congregations.   The churches we belong to are often full of beloved friends and mentors, and the place where a call to ministry was first voiced and nurtured.  Must we lose our home churches?  These first thoughts are from a minister fresh out of this process: the Rev. Patrick McLaughlin.
Stay tuned for more perspectives.  In the meantime, whether you are a minister, a layperson, or a seminarian yourself, I’d love to hear your take.
-j
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Your relationship with your home congregation starts to change the moment you announce to them that you’re stepping over the congregant-minister line by beginning seminary.This can be strange and unsettling.

I was the newly-former president of the board, deeply embedded and well thought of. I was still on the board, given the governance model (that I helped design and led the implementation of).  In the service where I revealed what I was doing, the reaction was very positive and affirming, but one of the elder members, on the way out through the line, grumbled, “Well, don’t get a big head…“. That was when I started to realize that everything had changed.

In the congregation’s eyes, you have stepped over the line (a line that may have been invisible to you as you started seminary), and are now becoming a minister. You are now an alien creature. And in short order, more and more of the congregation lose track of the becoming part of that. You are a minister. Even if you’re all at sixes and sevens about it, and your grip on your ministerial identity is sketchy, the people who were your fellow congregants don’t necessarily see that, at all.

Seminarians are urged by the UUMA and MFC processes (and even by the demands of seminary) to disengage from lay leadership. You will still engage in work that a lay person might do… but you will do it as a minister. And as you do that, you naturally start to slide out of leadership, and ultimately out the life of the congregation.

Soon, you begin to inhabit a space where the members of your home congregation just experience you as minister. Thus, what you experience is distancing, because you’re encountered and embraced differently. Only your real, personal friends are still (mostly) there as they were before.

“Do you have advice for aspirants/candidates navigating between their home congregations (from which they were called into ministry, usually) and internship and seminary experiences?”

My first advice is to mourn. You’ve just lost your church. Really. In ways that are almost irrecoverable, you’ve lost the church, and in any church you belong to in the future, you’ll always be different from the rest of the congregation. You’ll belong to it, in ways that are deeper, but you’ve lost it, mostly.

You can’t speak freely. And your minister (who is now also your ministerial colleague) is aware that you need to finish crossing the Rubicon. That minister will insist that you live into this new role plus expect you not to “misbehave,”–not to do those things that a lay person might do and get away with, but which are now violations of professional guidelines and codes about how we ministers act and how we treat one another. And so, in a variety of ways: you’re pushed, pulled, dragged, and thrown over that congregant-minister line.  And there is no return.

Do you remember how the process of stepping away from your home congregation worked for you?  How have you honored or maintained a connection with “the place that you came from”?  

Every case is unique. I’d been one of the most active of lay leaders. Search committee, Welcoming Congregation Committee, Building Chair, Committee on Ministry, Board of Trustees — and more. My wife was Worship chair for nearly six years.  So, stepping away was slow, and it was challenging. The first year, I was finishing out the term I’d been elected to on the board. And then, I took on nothing else except what I did as a ministerial student. My family was still very active. I was… there. I’d find myself invited in as a ministerial presence for various functions—but mostly, my task was to figure out how to NOT be an active lay leader, even when and where I so wanted to be. My fingers are flat to this day from sitting on my hands.

Because of the flexibility of Meadville’s part-time program, and my family’s situation and engagement in my home church, we stayed. I just stepped farther and farther away .  .  . and finally, I stepped back entirely. Sort of. With the minister’s support.

This meant more preaching as a minister— and the church made a point of paying me. And later, when my son became the de facto leader of the youth group, I kept the utmost distance (This was not because of him, per se—he was active in urging me to be chaplain for the YRUU summer and winter camps at de Benneville–which I did, and I strongly encourage anyone to do some of that sort of thing at any of our camps). I kept my distance because I didn’t think the congregation could handle and understand the fine lines there. The family remained very engaged, while I became “the minister they were helping grow,” who in the end, would go away.

There was a lot of work involved in educating our congregation around that, as I am the first person to go from that fellowship to seminary, and to be ordained by them. My ordination was one way I honored my congregation. In the meantime, it was a ruthless process of education. By the time of my ordination, we all knew I was going to New Hampshire, so my leaving was part of the charge to the congregation: “Good job. Congratulations! Now let go of this minister, and start the process again with another. That’s your job now.”

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?” 

Ministers DO have ministers; it just doesn’t look quite the same. First, there’s the minister of my home congregation.  Although she’s now a colleague and equal, and there are places I don’t fully agree with her… she’s going to be “my minister” for a long time, in many ways.

I have others who fulfill that role, too. My internship supervisor will remain a mentor. She is someone who’s invested in me, but who I had a more equal relationship with as the intern—that person is a minister, and I was a minister-in-training.

And there are others, some of them retired colleagues—in fact, this sort of support may be their real role now for many of us. They’ve been through all this, and can sit back, chuckle, offer some sage advice–and some utterly obsolete, dated, useless advice, too. But these experienced ministers are utterly capable of embracing the hurt, loss, confusion, success, and joy experiences and understanding them. Of soothing. Of cheering.

Finally, there are a handful of collegial friends one turns to, in part to kvetch and be kvetched to. “You will never believe what my Committee on Ministry chair has done…”.

On the whole, we don’t “have ministers” in the same way, but we have ministers, still. And in some ways, the relationships are deeper.

-Rev. Patrick McLaughlin

Rev. McLaughlin is a recent graduate of Meadville Lombard Theological School and the newly settled minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Manchester, NH. He is a life-long UU who grew up all over the western United States, as well as in Australia and Belgium. He attributes finding the right congregation to good fortune, a red clown nose, and a warped sense of humor.

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.*

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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.

rocks, rivers, and rough transitions

Tonight I attended an incredibly inspiring presentation from our church’s Lifelong Learning Task Force.  Together, a diverse team of leaders shared a vision of religious education–for kids, for adults, for youth, for seniors.  It was articulate.  It was moving.  And, hopefully only for me, it was sad.

After sharing what religious education could look like, and why it matters, a team member invited us to close our eyes as she led us through a guided meditation and visualization.  She instructed us to reflect on the messages we had just heard, and then to envision our own piece of the puzzle–where we might fit in this beautiful picture of the future.

I followed these instructions.*  And as I did I realized, with a knife-edge of sadness, that my own answer is:  I don’t.

Not really, anyway.  Not for now, and less with every passing month.  My job in the next year is to love, to learn . . . and to let go.

I don’t have to do this without support, fortunately . . . and what deep gratitude I feel for those around me who can help.  It–apparently–takes a lot of self-reflection, discussion, and of course, meetings, to be formed (to form oneself?) as a minister.  To that end,  I have, or soon will, a minister, a therapist, a Spiritual Director (wondering what that is?  me, too–I’ll get back to you on that), an In-Care committee, a teaching pastor, an academic advisor and a chaplain.  And probably, somewhere, a large partridge in a pear tree.

What I no longer have . . . what I’m trading in a deal that has never felt transactional in nature, but nevertheless has some of the steepest costs of anything I’ve ever attempted . . . is the security of the covenantal relationship with my fellow congregants.

Our job is to build the future, but my own days within that future, at least in this congregation, are numbered.  Of course, that’s true for all of us–we take a break, we move, we have a change in life circumstances . . . and someday, certainly, we die.  May the spark continue, though we ourselves will not.   I embrace this message, painful though it is; the work we are doing together is simply too important not to.  And of course it’s because I believe so very deeply in the importance of this work that I feel called to further it.

It’s just that I naively did not realize that this call, not merely to ministry, but to die, in part, to my previous congregational life, meant me–or that it meant now.  (Seminary is long, I can’t even imagine the person I’m going to become, and I’m not sure I want to do parish ministry, anyway . . . surely I can just stay happily ensconced in my safe space through this entire process?)

News flash to the willfully blind among us: nope.  In my case, my newly-designated teaching pastor–from whom I am so very honored and excited to have the opportunity to learn–was the one to break the news.  I had asked her, and quite chipperly, I’m sure, what I needed to be aware of in balancing my lay leadership roles with my internship in her congregation.  And gently, but mincing no words, she answered: You need to put your time and your heart into the place where you learn; let me know if you need guidance as you let your other roles go.

I will spare you my mental process as I have worked the past two weeks to understand what this means–with apologies and thanks to those people, and there are several, who merely wish I had spared them.  I will tell you a bit about how I feel now, though, starting with: unmoored.  After all, this place, more than any other, is my rock–a source of stability through the changes of life as a young parent.  I don’t know what it means to live in this town as a grown up (we lived here as college kids before this, but totally different story) without this church.  And guess what: I don’t want to know.

I also feel envious.  This evening I looked upon my beloved community, knowledge weighing on my heart, and I felt pride, love . . . and something rather like jealousy.  Why do YOU get to stay here?  Nevermind that I’m the one who made this choice; I feel, inexplicably and indefensibly, a bit piqued at everyone else who didn’t.

And I feel bewildered: I saw the faces of my friends, supporters, challengers and provocateurs–we who have grown together, we who have changed ourselves and changed one another–and wonder, again, in what possible universe it makes sense to be so deeply in love with the transformative power of church that you lose it.

And this, inevitably, brings me back to the $64,000 question.  Which is: have I lost my everloving mind?

This, my people, is the scariest thing I’ve ever done.  Is “Dear God, I hope you know what you’re doing” a prayer?

How about “I hope you know what you’re doing, because it turns out I don’t, and I feel smaller than I ever have and am hoping there’s something out there I can count on?”

Still no?

How about this:

And so I found an anchor, a blessed resting place
A trusty rock I called my savior, for there I would be safe
From the river and its dangers, and I proclaimed my rock divine
And I prayed to it "protect me" and the rock replied

God is a river, not just a stone
God is a wild, raging rapids
And a slow, meandering flow
God is a deep and narrow passage
And a peaceful, sandy shoal
God is the river, swimmer
So let go

--Peter Mayer, "God is a River"

(just a little message last Sunday from the church I’m trying to fashion into a rock.  I do see that what our faith–what my church–needs to be is the river.  Unfortunately, I also see that in trying to become a person who can remember that continuously, and even celebrate it, I am in for a VERY long three years.  Somebody please go find my partridge; I probably need it.  In the meantime . . . one more step.  Which means Buddhism seminar notes.)

goodnight from my confused, envious, wistful heart,

j

*point of fact: I helped write them.  and this vision.  and mission.  and these goals.  I knew at every point during this yearlong process that we were writing them to give away . . . it’s just that it turns out that it’s one thing to think it, and another to do it.  so is life, no?

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?  


Image

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.

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.) 

a $aving sort of grace (thoughts on shame and stewardship)

I love this post from UU Robin Bartlett Barraza, about how her family finds God and grace at a UCC church on Sunday afternoons.  Robin’s words evoke the loving embrace of community, a welcome extended not just to herself, but to her children–one of whom is (gasp!) a two-year-old.

How well I know the perils.  And how poignantly I appreciate the gift of welcoming love that my church has given my own family.  This is embodied by the people who talk with my five year old like he’s the adult conversationalist that he thinks he is.  It’s shown by the woman who smiles and laughs when Si, my younger, nitrate-addicted son, approaches eating as performance art–Cave Man Ingests Hot Dog.  It’s taking the time to give Ren the warning he needs to successfully transition between activities in RE.  It’s understanding that Si’s middle name should be Houdini, and taking steps to keep him safe where safety is not a high priority on his own list.  It’s welcoming our family of four with love and joy, even knowing that all of the above is part of the package.

These actions speak louder than mere words of welcome ever could.  And conversely, there are no words that could overcome the sense of not belonging we might have felt were church exclusive to children on their best behavior.  Yet the message, once again, is come as you are; you are welcome here.

I have known, deep in my soul, that this kind of welcome is critical.  As a parent of rambunctious children in a society where the unspoken expectation is constant control,* it is so easy to feel that we are failing where our children prove to be simply, irrepressibly themselves.  I recently read Dr. Brené Brown’s I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t), and I now suspect that what we parents sometimes feel in public spaces–and in the mental space between societal expectations and family realities–is shame.  This shame, and the mental and physical paralysis it evokes, can make it hard to even enter a space like church.  It’s hard to walk in the door the first time, and it’s impossible to return for a second visit but for perfection–or grace.  We give that grace through our welcome and our ongoing love, through our third principle commitment to open our arms to people where they are.

I could say more about parental shame and congregational welcome, but for now I’ll leave that to others.  I actually want to talk about another area in which the welcome of radical hospitality and the specter of shame are both at issue: our approach to congregational stewardship.

Money Tree (crassula) growing from a pile of coins.

According to Dr. Brown, we are vulnerable to shame anywhere there’s a gap between an ideal identity–the way we’d like others to perceive us around an issue–and an unwanted identity–the way we fear others may perceive us.  When shame arises, our physiological and emotional responses combine to create a kind of paralysis (with a heavy dose of psychological pain to boot).  This may seem overstated, or, where we acknowledge that it does happen, like an embarrassing overreaction.  It’s important to realize, then, that in our highly relational, wired-for-connection brains, an affront to our standing within social groups is processed the same way a physical threat might be.  Rational thought shuts down, the amygdala takes over, and we make instinctive choices between survival strategies (these are commonly referred to as the “fight or flight responses”).

In short, the pain of shame, and the underlying threat to our relational value, are likely to cause us to react rather than respond.  Our reactions may depend on the situation, but they generally involve moving against, moving toward, or moving away from, the person we are encountering as a shaming stimulus.  Moving against often involves anger, and our own use of shame to attempt to put the person in her place.  A person moving toward makes conciliatory gestures, hoping to be recognized as “same” rather than “other” by the person he’s feeling shamed by.  Finally, moving away from implicates the flight response; if you’ve ever responded to a disagreement by “freezing out” the party with whom you disagree, you may tend toward the “moving away” response.  (Personally, I’m more of a fighter than a flighter; the point of these distinctions, however, is that they are three unique, but equally unhelpful, responses to feeling shamed.)

drooping bud

These reactions can mask underlying feelings and motivations until they are hidden even from ourselves.  Unfortunately, they can also cause tremendous damage to our relationships.  Brown, however, argues that while shame will remain part of our daily lives regardless of the inner work we do, as humans we have the ability to develop “shame resilience.”  This set of strategies, and the self-awareness that underpins them, can allow us to free ourselves from the paralysis of a shaming experience, and to be intentional in our responses to it.

So what does all this have to do with stewardship?  Let’s explore that further; I’ll use my own ideal images around money and church as a starting point.  I want to be a contributor, to pull my weight, to be aware and considerate of those who cannot contribute at this time.  I also want to appear comfortable talking about money–and all of the above without exposing any vulnerabilities that I or my family may have around this issue.  In the area of unwanted identities, I don’t want to be clueless.  I don’t want to be a shirker of responsibilities.  I don’t want to be someone who doesn’t prioritize financial matters appropriately.  And I don’t want to be less fortunate.

In looking over this list, I doubt it’s extremely different from anyone else’s.  Depending on the amount of work we have personally done around this issue, though, and the culture of our individual churches, and our own specific financial circumstances and stressors, it may be difficult to talk openly about these issues without experiencing shame.  In fact, it may be a challenge just to be present while someone else deals with these issues.  I discovered this on a personal level just the other day.

I was preparing to lead a meeting when our minister and another congregant began to talk about their missed connection for their annual pledge conversation.  Quickly, the pair concluded that the best time to talk was right there, right then.  Thus, our minister–her name is Jill—filled out her pledge form there at the table—in front of God and everybody, as it were.  I was taken aback, but planned to politely pretend not to notice.  As it turned out, though, not noticing was not really an option.

Rather than doing the expected thing—no, the decent thing—and finishing the task as discreetly as possible, Jill took the opportunity to think aloud.  She shared the percentage of her salary she wanted to contribute, her intention to pledge at the level that would qualify for this year’s matching incentive, and her rationale for having the conversation publicly.  I asked Jill about that exchange before beginning to write this post; she confirmed that the structure and content of the public conversation was intentional.  Our minister is actively choosing to use and model the strategies that might allow us to have honest congregational conversations about money.

During this conversation, I used some strategies of my own.  Shaming strategies, to be precise.  I used them to communicate discomfort, to place the blame for that feeling with someone else, and to attempt to relegate both the conversation and my feelings about it to some other space.

Just let me know when we're done talking about this . . .

Just let me know when we’re done talking about this . . .

A key component of shame resilience is compassion–the ability to extend grace to others and to ourselves.  In that spirit, I will share with you that I think my reaction was understandable: I had never seen a conversation like this take place, I had done very little work around my own discomfort with money, and the multiple boundaries and power differentials inherent in the group, and in the conversation, only compounded my unease.  In my anxiety–rooted, I now see, in shame, which I wanted to be on someone else’s plate and not my own–I laughed, teased, and then disconnected from the conversation, waiting for it to be over.  In short, I employed the “moving against” strategy–YOU are not normal; YOU are doing something wrong–followed by “moving away from”–disengaging to prevent the conversation from affecting me.

Understanding this doesn’t change my desire to do things differently next time; in fact, it’s the only thing that might make intentional action possible.  In the meantime, we, like churches everywhere, are in the midst of a much larger conversation, one that has the potential to be empowering, transformative, bold, missional . . . and extremely uncomfortable.  That conversation is the one we have each year at the whole-church level, and even denominationally, around stewardship.

What does this larger conversation look like in our churches . . . and how could it look?  Where is shame involved?  (Because it is, friends.  It is.)  And how do we offer grace in the stewardship context–to our fellow congregants, to our finance committees and our governing boards, to our ministers  . . . to ourselves?  How do we extend the same welcome to all, and simultaneously acknowledge the reality that 1. it costs money to do what we do, and 2. that money is going to come from each of us unequally?

Perhaps it is a falsehood even to try to separate money and church; what we give and what we ask for are inextricably connected.  In American culture, we use money to value one another, which blinds us to reality–and we refuse at the same time to acknowledge the cost of things, which also blinds us to reality.  If money is simultaneously a gilded idol and the elephant in the room, it’s understandably confusing, perhaps nowhere more than within our sacred spaces, to talk about it openly.  And so, again, shame comes into play.  And in helping to frame the conversation, in choosing how we respond to it, we contribute to a culture of shame . . . or we help to lift it.

As with so many other things at church, I have mixed feelings about my own role.  Would I be willing to give a three-minute testimonial about what church–this church, my church–means in my life?  Absolutely.  And if I hear a whisper of “$ell it, girl!” in the request, does that change anything?  To wield my words with honesty, do I need to know–and do my listeners need to know–whether the directive was speak from your heart, or $peak from your heart?

Looking at more concrete questions, do we need to know, as someone recently posed in a congregational discussion of stewardship, what percentage of our members are non-pledgers?  We are also aware that a very small handful of families (and disclosure: mine isn’t one of them) are currently financially supporting much, much more than their “fair share”–do we need to know who those families are?  Do I need to know how my minister makes her pledging decision for the year?  Does she need to know how I reach my own decision?

I don’t know.  What I do know is that we have big dreams–the kind that cost.  What I also know is that there is a great potential for shame inherent in every facet of this discussion . . . and that we must balance that with grace and compassion if we want to maintain church as a safe space.  This is true for our members, for our first-time visitors . . .  and for the family who’s afraid to come to church between March and May because it’s been a very difficult year and they’re afraid to say the words–to admit that this year, they just can’t.

As always, I’d love to hear your take.

j

*You perhaps question this. As an undergrad I studied abroad in Sweden; the differences in outlook are beyond the scope of this post, but suffice it to say, Swedish children make my sons seem sedate.  And despite the society having been structured with them in mind; despite being permitted to run amok on planes and trains, in IKEA, in the public squares, Swedish children grow up to be some of the most kind, considerate and well-mannered adults I have ever met.  In spending time with these children, and in this other society, I gained some perspective about our own–we are not, myself included, so removed as we may think from the “seen and not heard” vision of childhood.

in the little things, our love

Last night I sat in an old rattan chair in our church basement, feeling chilly and gazing up at the asbestos tiles on the ceiling.  The basement is an unprepossesing space.  It’s not scary–there aren’t dark corners or long cobwebs.  But it’s largely unfinished, painted concrete and cinderblock, humbly furnished, and just not a place we show off to visitors. Fortunately, we don’t have to love it; many among us ardently pine for more space for classes and meetings so the basement could be reserved for people–our youth?–who might “appreciate its charms.”  In the meantime, it gets the job done.

I was there for the final session of a small group series on Reproductive Justice, and I came to the basement, and to the assembled group, with something between equanimity and resignation.  This was the only class offered this spring, and for a variety of reasons, I was not willing to sign on with my whole heart.  I’m interested in the subject (as I have discussed–here, for example, and here; thoughtful guest response here); I wish we would talk more about this sort of thing, and that we’d do it in a way that acknowledges that there are a variety of viewpoints even among devoted Unitarians.  But I knew this class had an agenda from the outset, and it didn’t necessarily square with my own.  And I didn’t realize this consciously until now, but from the time I put my name down on the sign up sheet until the night of our last session, I had one foot out the door.

And yet, I returned.  And returned.  And . . . returned.  I came to check it out, and I stayed to say my piece, and I came back in hopes of learning more, until finally I attended because that’s what I did on Wednesday nights.   The group was well-facilitated, its members open and enthusiastic, and the material relevant and interesting.  That said, I did sometimes feel uncomfortable.  And I sat in silence with the things that bother me– it’s just not time right now.  But I learned a lot, and though I thought of myself as “dropping in,” I was there.  (And perhaps in this, a lesson: I don’t always have to depend on my confused heart to take me where I need to go, because I have my feet to bring me.  My heart can just follow along for the ride . . . and something might touch it anyway.)

And then last night in the cool basement, staring upward as chairs scraped and feet thundered above me, something happened.  One moment I was wishing I had a quilt or afghan to wrap myself in–I am something of a critic by nature, of the organization-reforming, process-refining sort; I was quickly developing a plan for a blanket drive to make our chilly spaces more hospitable for winter group meetings–and the next, I felt blanketed in love and joy.

What happened?  Our group was checking in, and I was listening . . . but without truly listening.  (I have some work to do around mental multi-tasking, or its opposite, which I believe is simply called presence).  Then one participant shared her gratitude for the simple comfort of being able to walk into our church building, home of our little community, and make herself a cup of tea amid the bustle of the Wednesday night kitchen.  We had what she needed.  She knew where to find it, and felt invited to do so.  She felt welcomed in the space, even given the busy-ness of those around her.  She found a place of ease and respite from the demands of the day, and settled with joy and peace into our company.

Wow.  Wow.  Sometimes the little things are the big things.  In my joy at seeing the improvement in an evening that this sort of gift can create–a simple thing, but a big one for quality of life–I smiled.  Then I settled in with joy and peace of my own, and sent a quick mental blessing around the circle to my fellow congregants, to the cheery light of the lamp in the corner, to the work that we had done together that day, and up to those faded acoustical tiles on the ceiling.  I snuggled into my chair, blanketed in the abundance of a community of here and now, and engaged in the work of our final evening together.

And later, much later, and then again this morning, I thought about the ways that this community provides sustenance for my body as well as nourishment for my soul.  I think about the big things a lot, but I tend to gloss over the abundance–and the importance–of the little ones.  So, thinking about the last few weeks, I made a list:

My church community has given me . . .

* a cheering section
* a hot meal cooked with love
* encouragement to grow
* a hug, a smile, a knowing wink
* listening–casual listening, deep listening, and the sort of listening (risky, across the lines of our own hearts) that for me mediates God as closely as anything I’ve ever found
* opportunities to be a listener myself, and to learn to do it better
* space to do things that scare me–and as much of a safety net as you can have while still doing something that’s real
* an abundance of grace in my mistakes (see above)
* smiles, hugs, and genuine love for my children, even when they are acting exactly like themselves
* and yes, a hot beverage on a cold day.  or many such beverages–this is probably my most-used feature of our kitchen.  Friends, welcome to the Minstry of Tea.

What a place, right?  What an unearned bounty . . . and what a difference it makes to my days and to my life.  It makes the sort of difference, in fact, that encourages me to tromp downstairs week after week, and open myself to things I don’t necessarily want to hear.  The accumulation of tiny loves and mundane comforts may be exactly what makes it feel safe to follow my feet even when my heart isn’t quite ready.

When we talk about finding a church home, connecting around spirituality is probably what we think of first . . . but is that ultimately why we decide to stay?  Maybe the decision to join a congregation has something to do with experiencing comfort–and perhaps it’s not just the church part we should focus on, then, when we talk about growth, but on how we offer those who find us a piece of home.  A home that is not the one we make ourselves and return to in the evenings, but the one from our dreams.

A warm glow.

A space at the table, prepared for you.

A beloved community, making beautiful a humble basement.

You are welcome here.  Come in, and grow.  But first: make yourself at home.  

of Lent, and liturgy, and things that sparkle

I believe in one God (and it doesn’t make my toes curl to continue with, “the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth . . . “).  I am happily married to the guy I started dating when I was 18.  When it comes to church attendance, though . . . let’s just say that while I have a home church and it is a beloved and important part of my life, I am open to seeing other people.

Confession: religiously speaking, I am a woman of two loves.  I love UU in its promise and power, and despite its flaws and its failings.  I could use those same words to explain how I feel about Christianity.  And specifically, increasingly, what I mean when I say “Christianity” is the church of my childhood–the love and liturgy that is the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

I don’t get to my old ELCA church very often–a couple of times a year since following, astonished, my husband’s very enthusiastic footsteps to the door of Unitarian Universalism when we were first married.  But when I do, what I find in the service is challenge, uplift, joy and peace.  These are the same qualities that I encounter in great UU worship, of which my current church is often a shining example–but I sometimes find them more poignantly in the ELCA.

And, especially now, as I spend time in discernment with a call to ministry that already makes no sense (ministry?  seriously?  what!?), I wonder what that means.

One possibility is simply that I need more depth in my UU theology to find the weight and meaning–the spiritual gravitas–that Christianity comes by easily.  A faith steeped in magic and blood and anchored by doctrine–all overlaid on other, much older religions, with their own spirit and sacrifices–comes with an intensity that makes UU as it’s currently practiced feel like a blank slate in comparison . . . or a wading pool.

Don’t misunderstand; I believe that there is incredible depth possible in UU.  For me, this is true for at least two reasons–first because, while I am not a Humanist as the word is used in UU circles, humanism as a lens on the world offers a view of almost limitless possibility for what we might achieve together.  Second, and in my life more importantly, it’s true because as I engage with my deepest spiritual practices, and UU encourages me to do this as nothing ever has, I am touching the Infinite.  And here, of course, the limits aren’t the edges of depth, but of my ability to experience it.

So, great.  But the reality is, much of the time this depth remains in UU as a latent possibility I acknowledge rather than my actual ongoing experience.  I am discovering, on the other hand, that I can walk into my local ELCA church, join the service alongside strangers, and connect with great depth almost instantly.  This, I think, is why I miss the traditional liturgy so acutely.  It seems like an odd thing to be more attached to ritual recitation than to a particular answer on the question of the virgin birth, but there you have it–for me, one of these things is merely about, but the other involves connecting with.

When I refer to myself as a UU Christian, there are questions that pop up pretty reliably.  Laypeople are inclined to ask, “So why are you here?,” or some variant thereof, and later, “why can’t you just say you’re UU?”  People who’ve gone to  seminary, on the other hand, say something different: “What does that mean to you?”  I have tended to bristle at the first set of questions, and the underlying demands “Explain yourself” and “accept the UU melting pot,”–as though in maintaining an identifiable Christian identity I have rejected UU in some way, or refused to truly enter into community.

I have tended to ignore the more nuanced second question for a different reason entirely–because it’s hard.  Here, too, I perceive a challenge of sorts . . . not an identify-defending, fear-driven challenge, but perhaps a sense of superiority: “You almost certainly don’t mean ___, so why does this label have meaning for you?”  That’s annoying, and even a bit scary–what happens if I do mean precisely the thing you think I ought not to?–but that’s not the real reason I avoid answering.  I don’t answer because I don’t know.

Here’s what I do know: Last week I went to Ash Wednesday service at Trinity.  I arrived late, shared a program and a hymnal with a stranger, and spoke to no one aside from a word of thanks to that stranger and to share the peace.  I did, however, talk to God.  Prayer is a big part of my spiritual practices–I talk to God every day.  Help Thanks Wow, as Anne Lamott puts it . . . I’m all over it.  There is something different, however, in talking to God in unison.

I was sad, and scared, and hurting . . . and the Kyrie was as balm to my soul.  Spending every Sunday–and joyfully; I do love my church–in a place where our two liturgical seasons seem to be PEACE! and CELEBRATE!,  I needed the deep purple and bare branches of the Lenten altar.  I needed to stand in the company of others and acknowledge that I have struggled and failed, and that I will again.  I needed to bow my head in prayer with words for that struggle, and for the struggles of others, and for what we do in and to the world.  I needed to break bread and share wine, to remember the Beloved Community that Jesus created, that I might do better in building and honoring that community that has been commended to me.  In short, I needed to be reminded of that which is bigger than myself, and I needed to do it with and alongside others.

My God.  I miss this.  

And yet I have to credit UU here–in seven years I’ve never officially participated on a worship team (aside from a frenetic and scary exercise at Leadership School).  Yet somehow, ritual in worship, and to some degree, worship itself, has been deconstructed, reinterpreted, made visible, and maybe even made whole, such that I connect with what we’re doing with the Kyrie in a new way.  My changed perspective is simultaneously less threatening (I never did feel threatened by my faith in any conscious way, but high church ritual is intimidating, and how often does it think to explain itself?) and more meaningful.

This deeper connection with worship is a tangible UU gift to my Christian self, and for it I am grateful.  And in this perhaps UU and protestant Christianity are the two wings of the bird of my living faith.  Maybe that oft-uttered phrase “too Christian to be UU, and too UU to be Christian” is in fact true . . . and even so, perhaps it doesn’t matter at all because it misses the point.  The challenge isn’t to pick one or be one or explain one to the other, but to access both, and everything else that is in me, in the service of God.

I will tell you something, though.  I’ve never been one for Christian accoutrements, cross jewelry included (as an evangelical pastor once asked us at vacation bible school, “Would you wear a gas chamber around your neck?  How about an electric chair?”)  So it’s odd that I happen to have this, and it’s not something I notice very often . . . but hanging at a corner of my jewelry case is a tiny silver cross.  It sparkles more than an object of torture ought to.  If it weren’t so small, it would be wholly indecent.  And it’s been catching my eye lately.

It feels like an invitation.

And so, to you pastors and ministers and seminarians of the world . . . you people inclined to ask What It Means to You to Be Christian . . . I don’t know.  But I’ll tell you this: it means something.  And I don’t want to ask permission or beg forgiveness or even answer you, necessarily . . . it’s between me and God.  But I hope there’s space in your big, rational world for a tiny sparkling cross . . . and for the vastness and weight of what comes with it.

I think it may turn out that there is no room for my heart without it.

j