Dear white girl from Kansas: I choose them

Wow, it’s been a few years.  More than that, actually—time flies, right?  We don’t keep in touch, and even though we lived and worked less than 30 miles from each other for the last six years, I haven’t seen you.  We don’t send birthday greetings.  I don’t know that I even understood you to be part of my village.

Until now.  By which I mean last week, when you sent me that message, and invoked the “friend” card.

fb-inbox

Don’t worry; you’re not alone.  I know this story.  It happens every now and again.

While we lack anything that might be taken for a relationship, we have a friendship, and you’re invoking it now to let me know I have put it on the line.

For being out of touch? 

For not knowing your kids’ names? 

For forgetting your birthday?

Nope.

For talking about racism. 

See, we can go a long time without talking, but there are some things friends just don’t do.  And I need to know that.  So you’re telling me.

Here’s the post that crossed that friend line:

“If you voted for Trump, and are also “not a racist,” this might be an important thing for you to read. And reflect on. And speak out about.

If this sort of thing is ok with you, well, you’re entitled to your prejudices. And also: we have a word for them.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/trump-attorney-general-jeff-sessions-racist-remarks_us_582cd73ae4b099512f80c0c2

And here’s part of your response:

“I know I am a sensitive person, but when I see that in the title of your post you mention things like “not a racist”, I really feel bothered. Things aren’t always so black and white. I do think it’s possible to identify more with one party- even while not completely loving your candidate- and not be generalized as a racist. I did read [the article about Sessions] and am intrigued by the choice.

I am worried about President Elect Trump and his choices, however I am hoping and praying too and giving him my hope and optimism. I really am trying to be inclusive and forgiving and allowing people a chance, even if they’ve said and done things that they shouldn’t have. . . . “

You go on to remind me to be tolerant, and, above all, that you are not a racist.

angry woman pointing

Dear Facebook friend.

Here are some things I value:

Civil discourse

Dialogue, and the magic I have sometimes found in the midst of it

Learning

Relationships

But we are not having a leveled conversation here. 

15027769_981968141493_3848083482700941187_n

And aside from the things listed above—things that I actually do value—you’re making a strong implicit ask for me to prioritize a couple of things that I do not, in fact, value:

“Friendships” with people I’m not really friends with.

Dialogue about two things (potential of hurt feelings; potential of persecution, harassment, and unequal treatment based on skin color) that are categorically, exponentially different, carried on with “pretend like all concerns are equal” as a ground rule.

“Be nice*” as the fundamental edict of white womanhood.

And friend, there’s also something here about honor.  About respectability as a white woman.  About what we believe, but mostly do not say, about “decency” and “playing by The Rules.”

It’s been impossible not to notice—in fact, I think this is one of the great and unwelcome shocks to upper middle class white America during these last few years—that “don’t be racist” is no longer a rule.  It is my experience that it was a rule, at least out loud, for more than a generation and a half.  But it’s clearly not a rule now.

And yet, don’t be mean to other white women is TOTALLY a rule.  Also: don’t talk about hard stuff.  Don’t say what you’re thinking or wondering or worrying about, unless it happens to be birthday party décor.  Don’t you dare—ever— say something that might indirectly call anyone to account.

girls making self portrait on the beach

Sister, you’re intrigued?

And you’re asking me to be silent in the face of that?

I am not going to play nice with your casual racism, just because the world we have inherited says that “play nice” is in the honor code, and “check your freaking white privilege” is not.

My reality as a minister in a progressive, anti-racist, anti-oppressive, and multiculturalist faith tradition is that I’m standing atop a widening chasm in maintaining my various relationships.  And I’m not sure how much longer I can do it.

I am no longer sure how to occupy space where I give the same amount of energy—more energy, honestly—to dialoguing about your “a little hurt” feelings than to being physically present with those who are afraid for their marriage rights, for their trans child’s ability to use the bathroom without being beaten or intimidated or psychologically and physically brutalized, for their humanity, for their lives.

I can’t play by white girl rules anymore.  They make real conversation, and underneath that, real movement, impossible.

And I don’t think that’s an accident.  I don’t think my complicity with your comfort is value-neutral.

Thus, as to your implicit threats and explicit invitations: I’m trying to imagine the person you think I might be, the one you’re trying to pull me toward becoming.

I don’t think she’s someone I could live with.

And so, when it turns out I can’t bridge the gap anymore, I will have to make a move.  And the truth is, my choice is already made.

If being in relationship with you means preserving your comfort, keeping your thoughts pure and your cheeks tear-stain free …   if to be “friends,” I must choose silence, over and against solidarity with people whose concerns have never been about comfort—who are acting in a hierarchy of needs that doesn’t get past the physical and psychological safety pieces–

Friend, I choose them.

I choose my humanity.

I choose my soul.

Sound stark?  Feel problematic for your sense of hope, or your understanding of, yes, the magic power of dialogue?

It is.  That’s why it’s taken me this long to say this thing, even to myself.  It violates every “nice girl” norm I know.

Handcuffs standing on laptop computer keyboard

But there is indeed an alternative.  And it looks like you doing some work—to get courageous rather than comfortable.  It looks like you living in flexible, contested space for awhile.

Truly, you want to stay in relationship?  Or establish something deeper?  Or simply read my FB public ministry and not feel personally affronted in considering my words to the world?

That would look like you not expecting me to choose silence as a package deal with “friendship.”

Can you do that?  Are you inclined to?

I don’t know.

What I’m sure of: no one will make you.

And that, friend, is what we call privilege.

j

 

*to those who have social value.  Obvs.

**I’m going, now, to humanize this person.  I’m doing it because humanity and complexity are the deepest call of my faith, and I truly believe that we gain nothing—in any conception of “We” worth having—without that generous willingness.  But before I do that, I want to ask you for a favor.  All of you.  Every single person reading this.

Take a moment, and consider who we are not willing to humanize in our narratives.  To whom do we not offer this gift—this sacred responsibility belonging not to the people we choose to talk about, but to ourselves, as story-tellers?  Who are “thugs” in our narratives, rather than sons, scholars, dads, grads, promise, potential, our future?  Who are “illegal,” in your story, instead of brilliant daughters, future doctors, terrorized toddlers, and the many-centuried hope not just of American shores, but the hope of our nation itself?

I will show you the fuller humanity of this white woman, because we all deserve it.  But remember this: we all deserve it.  And the next time you want someone to look upon you positively in your own story, I invite you to work twice as hard to reframe your internal narrative about someone else.  Especially when it’s challenging.  You’ll know you’re on the right track when you surprise yourself.

So:  this open letter is part of a real exchange, with a real person.  I don’t know if we’re friends now, or if we will be in the future.  I do know that she’s stayed in dialogue as our conversation has continued beyond this point.  I know that she’s been courageous and willing to listen.  I know that she’s working hard to open her heart and hear other, larger stories—and that we can receive that as a gift, because although it is a bullshit way to allocate resources, privilege is real, and it makes willingness optional.  Call-in helps.  So does a willingness to answer when called.

In short, “White girl from Kansas” just might be more impressive than you give her credit for.  May that possibility mean something when it matters.

anger: a love story

I love my friends and my family.  They are amazing, creative, funny, loving people.

And, like me, they are imperfect.  They make mistakes.  They have done things, sometimes, that were hurtful, or offensive, or inconsiderate . . .

and I have felt angry.  

j

Now, I don’t mean the kind of anger that sustains us to work against deeply unjust situations–the anger that allows us, even in dangerous places, the courage to confront, the vision to imagine a world that is otherwise, and the space to heal.

I’m talking about anger as a drug.

Anger that says, first to me and then through me, that there is a price that must be paid for the pain that I feel.  And which insists that in the meantime, the rest of our relationship must wait.  In suspended animation.  Until you do what you’re supposed to do.

Holding that anger made me tired.  Waiting left me miserable.  Imagine my relief, then, at the discovery that I could simply choose a different way of being.

At first, several months ago, that choice felt revolutionary.  Now, though, it feels like freedom.  It feels like friendship.

It feels like love.  

Which sorta begs the question: why didn’t I try this before?

And friends, there are many reasons why I should have: because it’s morally right.  Because to hold a grudge is to take poison and wait for your enemy to die. Because to forgive is divine.  Because . . . Jesus.

And yet, in the heat of the moment, there seemed to be only one way that things could go: the angry way.

Image

Why is it so hard to change things?

Perhaps part of the answer lies in scripting.  This is one term for the social patterns that our brains and central nervous systems use to shorten our response time.  Scripting is necessary–without it, each encounter would be a blank slate, and we would be slow to react and vulnerable to misunderstanding or manipulation.  The device, however, is not without its pitfalls, and we often may not even realize we’re using it.

In some situations, in fact, the script may run counter to all of our conscious intentions.  In this type of interaction, I’m not at all happy with the way we’re talking, and neither are you, but even so, we can’t seem to find a way out.

This difficulty can happen anywhere our sense of identity is on the line. The reality, however, is that some relationships are particularly ripe for unquestioned scripting.  Consider, for example, the well-trod trails, heavily loaded with baggage, that connect mothers and daughters, or siblings, or spouses.

Sometimes the script is so old—we know our lines by rote—that we don’t even try to find another way to engage.  Maybe it’s the only way we’ve ever learned to talk with one another.  Maybe the interaction is feeding us even as it damages—meeting a need to feel important, to say our piece, to defend our boundaries.  Maybe the hook is simply the adrenaline high of conflict.

Those same things are true of the script inside my head about How I Shall Act When Angry.

I have been deeply hooked into a particular way of being: Feel aggrieved.  Demand response.  Wait in anger until response received.  Punish other party with dark thoughts and aloof behavior.

Has this worked well for me?

Not exactly.  In fact, it reminds me of the scene in the first Harry Potter book in which Hermione announces that she hasn’t been speaking to Harry and Ron, and they respond, laughing: “Don’t stop now—it’s been doing us so much good!”

And so, a question decades in the making: what happens if I simply stop acting as a willing hostage to my anger?

j

Image

j

Not because I’m restraining myself, or holding my tongue, or saving it for later—what if I do something else because on the whole, it feels better?  

What if I do something else because I recognize, even in anger, that we are both human, and this is part of what that means?  

What if I do something else simply because I can?

j

I am calling this the Happiness Option, and in practice, it can be summed up with one simple phrase: “In the Meantime, Be Nice.”

Truly, it felt odd at first.  It’s like exercising an underused set of muscles.

It hasn’t, however, felt bad—not in the moment, and not later.  Actually, it feels good to connect with joy, delightful to indulge my helping impulse, and freeing to step outside of the “angry” script.

And this immediate gratification is just the beginning.  I’ve discovered that ditching the misery script also yields benefits for the long term:

  • I’m clearer about where I stand in my relationships.

  • I get to spend less time apologizing, less time feeling badly, and less time worrying about having caused further damage.  (In fact, lately I have had to spend zero time doing any of the above.  This is noteworthy.)

  • I am better situated to identify the problems that actually matter—which are a real slight to life and truth, and which—the vast majority—are merely a slight to my ego.

  • I have access to creativity and the sense of Spirit that comes in calm moments, and I can use both to choose when and how to respond to particularly thorny issues.

j

Wow?

Indeed.  This, my people, is news I can use.  And so I keep flexing these muscles, and wondering if this practice—indignation back burner, niceness front—might just be pointing me to a deeper truth, and to a lastingly different way of being.

Image

j

This might have remained merely a series of small experiments; I’m in no hurry here, and I have so. many. opportunities to practice.  But, life being what it is, I recently got to take the Happiness Option for a test drive in a situation in which it mattered, bigtime.

Picture a sometimes challenging relationship, and not one I can simply break off.  Imagine, now, an emotionally weighted subject.  A sense of personal affront.  An explicit questioning of motives.  And the involvement, and invocation, of family ties.

Kindling on a pyre, my friends.

It was, in short, exactly the kind of conversation in which I hate to find myself.

In other words, perfect for this experiment.  And predictably, that initial exchange did not go well.

Misunderstanding occurred.  Tensions increased.  Voices were raised.  Reciprocal shaming was communicated.

The conversation ended without a clear resolution, and in a way that left neither of us feeling great.  Afterward, my own combination of sadness, frustration, anxiety, and—yes—a healthy portion of righteous anger—begged to be vented.  And yet, the Happiness Option suggested, at least for now, that I not.

Hard?  Yes.  It was.

But even so, I didn’t.  I did not channel my anger into an e-mail missive.  I didn’t plan a long communications strike.  And, smaller but perhaps most noteworthy, I didn’t ignore the overture that my friend made the next day.

That gesture wasn’t an apology, an overt acknowledgment, or a plan to move forward.  It did not, in many ways, Meet My Standards.  But it was a hand extended toward remaining in conversation, even on this particular, very difficult issue—and after a moment to remind my muscles how to move, I reached out and I took it.

We are going to move forward, my friend and I.  We will figure this out together, or individually, or we’ll ignore it and it will be an area where we do not share an understanding.  I am now free, however, as the two of us move toward what the future holds.

In that freedom lies creativity, humility, and love.  And happiness.  Let us not forget happiness.

I took Hebrew Bible this spring at Meadville, and we looked at variations on the biblical canon.  The Catholic canon is more expansive; the Evangelical canon a bit less.  There are a few denominations, however, that hold that canon is still open.  We Unitarian Universalists are among them, and I’m making a conscious choice to live like I believe it.

I’m not writing a love story to anger anymore.  I’m writing one to you.  To us.  And to the sheer, luminous possibility, born of our own generosity, that this day yet contains.

-j

j

Thank you, Theresa Soto, for this gorgeous meditation, shared here with permission:

In the Administrative Department of my heart, which is down the hall from Feelings, Major, I wrote down the time you offended me. The clerk, my own silent witness filled out the forms in triplicate. We wrote your name. We added your number. We added the hurt to the Memory Banks, photocopied, indexed (it can also be found in the Time Department, under Times You Forgot that I am able to be cut by paper and burned by wind). We shook our heads at the bitter sharpness of the hurt.

We made the Record of the Hurt. We announced it over the loudspeaker, so no cell, no heartbeat, and no breath would ever overlook the danger you present or the pain that you can bring. And then we were proud of our work. We stood quiet in the halls of Everything, hands in our pockets, and waited.

But Human still we both remain. And while we were Recording, in the most accurate, photorealistic way possible, you grew some more, and changed some more, and so did I, and believing the best yet to come, I was surprised to see that no recording of a single moment could reflect accurately on who you are right now. In this moment, different from the last. Some people say that Forgiveness, destruction of the Record, is for my own benefit.

Perhaps. But perhaps I don’t need you to apply to the Department of Sorry, (third floor, two doors down from Master List of Everything Unreasonably Kind) because mistakes are a human condition. There are too many forms and fines and details in the Administrative Apology. I want everything good for you. And for me. And this includes the way we just, as necessary for beings of our kind, begin again. Expungements and refreshments at noon in the Atrium.

Theresa Soto

 

of friendship, worship, and the bravery of storytelling

Very early Monday morning, I returned home, bleary and beat, from 2013 General Assembly in Louisville.  I attended Ministry Days as well (thanks again, UUMA, for including aspirants this year), and so spent seven straight days in the hum and hustle of what I will call LUUieville.  This six-block section of downtown, centered around the Convention Center on 4th St., included the Marriott, Fairfield Inn, Springhill Suites, and the truly megalithic Galt House Hotel, where many of us stayed.  (It also included the Hyatt, which to my knowledge all 4000 of us pretended did not exist.  Get with the program, Hyatt . . . and while you’re at it, stop air conditioning the sidewalk. UPDATE: As of July 1, Hyatt Hotels has reached a collective bargaining agreement and the global boycott led by UniteHere has been lifted.)

In LUUieville, one might observe tie dye, chalice jewelry, deep conversations about covenant and social witness, prolonged interactions with those asking for money, people strolling casually and people hurrying, and nearly everyone, young, old, well-dressed or completely casual, wearing large nametags around their necks.  It was, to say the least, an interesting week–a time of friends and fellowship, of renewal and discovery, and of sharing stories and creating new ones.  Perhaps most of all, it was a time for talking about when and where and how we tell those stories, and what our storytelling might mean for our movement.  From Lillian Daniel to Eboo Patel to Bill Schulz, we heard the case, again and again, for stating our case as a people of faith.

Unsurprisingly, I came away with a few stories of my own . . . and also, a thought about that larger question of storytelling.

The idea with storytelling is that if we each speak from “I,” and from the heart, walls will fall down.  And sometimes, they will–with a willing listener, brave and open storytelling may result in a long and enjoyable conversation, in which beautiful differences and lovely commonalities are discovered.  I tell my own story, and then I respectfully make space for you to do the same.  Then in sharing, we are transformed.

Cool, huh?  (Everybody say, “aww . . .”)

I wish that were my message.  It’s simple.  It’s to-the-point.  It’s warm and fuzzy.

Unfortunately, though, working across the lines of difference–across conflict–is more complicated than that.  As a movement, we need not just to think about storytelling, but to challenge ourselves to go deeper with it.  It is a powerful tool, but using it to bring love and wholeness to our communities is going to require more than our narratives and our mouths.  Why?  Because, for one thing, it turns out that story-driven interactions can  entrench conflict rather than solving it.

Stories can help us to see one another .  . . but our own stories, held too closely, serve only to blind us.  (As I type this, Patrick Park is singing “Here We Are”—“We can’t see past our own sad stories/and forget how to listen.”)  Case in point: one of my new friends, a fellow seminarian, and I began to talk together about a very knotty issue, and quickly found ourselves knee-deep in disagreement.  The issue was close to each of our hearts, and felt tied to call, to authority, and in some ways, to identity.  We started by trying to parse the issue itself . . . that was like digging a hole.  Two holes.  And not the kind that intersect in the middle in some sort of tunnel of love.

I have a story—my story—about this conflict.  It is a true story, as best I know it—a relation of events that takes into account my own faults and foibles, and one that strives to be fair.  And Sarah has her own story—a story which is also compelling, also full of emotion . . . and also, to the best of her knowledge, factually accurate.  Again, what we have here is one situation.  Two people.  Two stories.  And both are true.

Both contain lessons, demand action, even inspire outrage.  Viewed from either side, the issues themselves become blurred, muddled and half-obscured by the strength of emotions involved.  This is true because this particular conflict isn’t actually issue-driven; it is story-driven.  Our own stories—the ones we tell ourselves, the ones we tell each other—can drive us deep into uncompromising territory.  Into the place where battle lines are drawn, because they seem like the only rational option.

Fortunately for our budding friendship, Sarah and I recognized this.  Later in the week, I saw Amy Carol Webb sing a song in which I recognized myself—here it is.

We both laid our shovels down, and started again, and this time we didn’t talk about “issues” or “truth” or try to label what “we” believe.  We started somewhere else: with the hard work of attempting to put ourselves in the other’s shoes.

To really build relationships—to forge community across entrenched lines of difference–we need to have not just the passion and energy to tell our own story, but the compassion and creativity to tell another’s.  Even when we have to really reach for it.  Even when we don’t quite get there.  I tried this, last week, with Sarah–tried sitting silently, eyes closed, to see the situation as she does, to feel what she feels, to tell a story from a different place.

In one sense, this failed—I didn’t fully enter Sarah’s story; I couldn’t even fully speak to her pain.  It was enough to broaden my view and open my heart, however.  It was enough to help my clenched fingers and clenched jaw turn loose of the “truth” they’d been harboring.  It was enough to open my heart to whatever comes next.

Being ready to tell another’s story takes guts.  If we don’t take this leap, though, it is likely that in those situations where difference is what we perceive most acutely, we will end up with a heart problem.  We can speak, but without truly listening.  We can act, but not in partnership with those who disagree with us.  We can share who we are, where we come from, and what we feel, but to stop there is to insist that our own perspective be heard and honored even where others’ are not.  Perhaps, then, the most important question we might ask isn’t, “how can I tell my story,” but “how else could I tell this story?”  Perhaps not, “what is the truth,” but “how might [this crazy-sounding thing that I’m hearing] make sense?”

In this week of lessons, there proved plenty of time to think about these questions, including on Saturday, when I attended a rare UU communion service.  Late in the worship, during a silent, standing ritual in which we received bread and wine with only a shared gaze, a man began to talk.  He had been talking for most of the service, turning the sermon into a sort of call-and-response routine, but I wasn’t aware of him during the communion–I was deep in reflection.  A woman stepped forward, quietly requesting that the man refrain from talking during the ritual (I didn’t hear her, either).

The man became angry, struggled to gather his belongings, and left the room in a dramatic scene, as the officiant bearing wine passed by.  Another minister began to sing.  The assembled body of people began to sing, too.  The door swung closed behind the man.  Nobody spoke.  Nobody moved.  Eventually the service ended, closing the book on assembled UU Christianity for another year.

That of course isn ‘t the end of the story, however.  It turns out that people are angry.  Complaints have been directed every which way.  This is completely unacceptable, not UU . . . not Christian.  What we need is a takeover of the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship (UUCF).  What we need is an alternative to the UUCF.

Um . . . maybe.  But how else could we tell this story?

The man has a mental illness, behaves differently, and should be met with love where he is. 

The woman is grieving a loss and had hoped to find peace and solace amid the quiet reflection of the communion ritual.  

The service was an example of our UU failure to live into the beloved community in the spirit of Christ.  

The service was an example of a beautiful ritual that doesn’t fit all needs of all people at all times.  

The service was simply what it was, and we are called to respond as we will, searching our hearts, bidding our hands, our feet, our mouths to do the work of love.  

The man was unfairly persecuted during the service.  

The woman was unfairly persecuted after the service.  

No one was persecuted; sometimes it is painful to live within the confines of community.

Any of us could have done something.  

We each could have done more.

On this day we failed.  

On this day we triumphed.  

On this day, we did both, and everything in between, and hopefully learned something that will allow us to live more fully, and to tread more gently, tomorrow.  

This is a small example, but that’s exactly the point: we each deal with countless opportunities every day to challenge and change the narratives in our heads.  Large or small, the questions we might ask are the same: How brave are we?  How creative are we willing to get?  How uncomfortable can we allow ourselves to be?  Whose story is missing here, and how can we tell it?  How else might we tell the story?

We must become storytellers, all right.  Not autobiographers, but narrators and sharers of that vast rainbow of experience—the minority perspective, the voice of the one who angers us.  Using not just our mouths, but our ears and perhaps above all, our hearts, our movement might dream to tell a tale not just of ourselves . . . but of what is possible.

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.

warning: this post is about S-E-X

Not long ago, I was studying in a coffee shop in the late hours of the evening.  It’s a beautiful place to read—high ceilings of hammered tin, warm woods, a banistered staircase to the loft-style art gallery above.  It’s also a place with which I have a slightly uncomfortable relationship.

A Little Religion With Your Coffee (it's not just a UU thing)

A Little Religion With Your Coffee (it’s not just a UU thing)

Just being there feels like bordercrossing, a bit—and perhaps it alerts me to some borders within myself.  The large bookstore, adjacent, features the writings of Sarah Palin and Dinesh D’Souza, centerpieces of what I can only describe as a wall of conservatism.  The news rack next to the coffee counter has a guide to “local Christian-owned businesses.”  And the clientele . . . as in the numerous other coffee bars in town, most of us are students of one kind or another—but these students, though they look the same—look like sorority girls, philosophy majors, ultimate Frisbee players—talk with one another differently.

I know this because the line between private and public speech seems to blur a bit in this space.  I keep headphones handy at all times not so much because I must have music while I write, but because I was once, in a different cafe, an unintentional recipient of an entire psychological history, transmitted by an applicant to a local assistance program to his case manager.

It’s an odd dynamic, those of us who share nothing interspersed like conversational hedgerows among those who share everything.  And here, those who share aloud are often talking about their faith.  So it is that I once sat adjacent to a truly engaging, multi-hour conversation between two young women—they may have been 20—about the movement of God in their lives and their sense of life as a spiritual journey.  Wow, I thought—one does not hear this sort of thing every day . . . or even most Sundays.  Another evening I attempted to finish an essay amidst a spirited and silly conversation about old testament justice (wishing, by the end of it, to enact a little “old testament justice” myself).  And many times I’ve found myself reflecting upon my own prayers in light of those being offered nearby; these are generally both stirring in their earnestness and grating in their reliance on “Jesus, wejus . . .” as invocation.

1334945289726_8022433

I was thus not surprised to discover, rising to get some water, that a lively discussion had begun at a table nearby.  The dynamic evolved, even as I watched, from a paired study table with occasional questions or asides to the larger group, to a preach-and-teach session, drawing in even those at surrounding tables.  A man, later identified as a local youth pastor, held court.  Josh was thirty-something, married, parent of an infant, handsome . . . and loud.  And his selected topic for the evening was birth control.

We have begun to talk with one another in our Unitarian Universalist churches about the current focus on Reproductive Justice and what it might mean—and how, for those of us in states advocating for a complete overturn of Roe, we might engage the question politically.  In these discussions, birth control has been mentioned, in fear and anger, as the next frontier of the conversation.  And honestly, I haven’t entirely understood this.  As someone who desires to see major cross-spectrum efforts to reduce our abortion rates by supporting women, families, and best practices in early childhood ed, the assertion that “they’re coming for the birth control next!” has boggled my mind.  In short, why on earth would anyone–on either side of the aisle–argue for something likely to cause more unwanted pregnancies?

While I’ve mentioned that I can be a bit slow on the uptake, I think my incomprehension is partly related to how we have talked in this season—and how we haven’t—about the larger social implications of reproductive justice.  So great is our fear and our rage that we have been ineffective in framing connections between what’s happening to abortion rights, what might happen next with birth control, and what it all means in a larger social picture.  We, smart, savvy, dedicated people come together and, attempting to communicate the enormity of what is changing, find ourselves sputtering “patriarchy . . . control over women . . . turning back the clock . . . GAH!”

This matters, friends.  If I don’t understand–and believe me, I genuinely want to–we face a double challenge in trying to communicate with those who would just as soon remain apathetic or unconvinced. As individuals and as a movement, we have to prod ourselves to ask the larger question of why we might be seeing a coordinated social movement to disempower women, particularly those of lesser means.  And when we do ask, we need to manage our own anxiety, that we might wait long enough to hear the answers, and that we may wrestle expansively enough with them to begin to understand how to work in partnership with others concerned.  We are a gentle, angry people . . . perhaps we could add “curious and questioning” to our social justice repertoire.

In the meantime, I finally began to understand, crossing borders in a coffeeshop, what I couldn’t quite get within our own movement.  Youth Pastor Josh said, leaning back in his chair and raising his arms for emphasis, “There are only three reasons for using birth control: fear of God’s will, covering for sin, and selfishness.”  One of the young women at the table began to challenge this, and Josh, gesturing a “down” motion with his palm, talked over her, saying, with an indulgent chuckle, “Wait, now.  I’ve been through this same thing with the young ladies on our Israel trip, and also with my wife, who was unchurched and had to come to these things gradually.  Let me explain.”  His explanation centered, unsurprisingly, on the obligation to trust that what happens is God’s will, paired with the assertion that the sole purpose and entire responsibility of sex is to create new life.  Later that evening, I posted the “three reasons” quote on Facebook, and a lively discussion followed, raising several points, of which I’ll deal with only one today: in avoiding a larger conversation about sex, we are allowing a discussion about birth control to frame our views of our sexuality, rather than vice versa.

Back in the midst of the in-person discussion, I didn’t have to wonder about the connection from the coffee house to the state house: Josh moved the conversation quite effortlessly toward a series of political actions.   In the OB exam room, no one should be able to ask if a pregnancy is planned—no one can plan pregnancies; that’s God’s job, and the question is a first step toward abortion counseling.  And we need to think very carefully about what it’s saying when we make birth control widely available—it shouldn’t be.  Birth control should be an option of last resort.  (Have we heard this before?  It’s what I believe about abortion . . . and I find myself wondering where I got that.)

Temptation

It’s hard to see within the confines of a conversation like this, but the move to limit access to birth control is indeed about controlling and enforcing social norms—and that happens because we allow our thinking to be defined by someone else’s agenda.  I think there is something we can do about it.  It’s something apolitical, yet purely seditious.  It’s risky, but only in that it asks that we confront our own shame, and step out from behind it.  It’s free.  And it has the power to make a difference.

Friends, I think it’s time to talk honestly, frankly, and (here’s the social-norm-busting piece) publicly about sex.  To say that sex isn’t just about procreation.  To remind ourselves, and our policymakers, that it never has been.

Further, we need to assert that this statement is a religious one.  Sex within the context of a committed relationship is not only sanctioned, by sanctified—required, in fact—by the Talmud.  While procreation is certainly a sacred element, and one key purpose within this ethical framework, there are other purposes as well.  Spiritual and psychological unity of spouses, celebration of the gift of physical presence that God has bestowed upon us, a living opportunity for practicing whatever principles call us to value another’s happiness as well as to respect and care for ourselves.  Rabbi Shmuley Boteach celebrates these ideas, encouraging couples to remember and recognize the importance of their shared sexual life, in his book Kosher Sex.  And he’s not alone—a number evangelical Christian writers have made a similar argument (see, e.g., Intimacy Ignited, by Linda Dillow and Lorraine Pintus, together with their husbands, or the blog Hot, Holy and Humorous).

Woman's panties hanging on white background the cross brooch

Why, then, as a people of a less-restrictive faith—and one particularly concerned with reproductive justice–do we not address the often-unspoken cultural rules underlying the “3 reasons for birth control” argument?

In a sex-positive culture, it’s possible to recognize that are many reasons for birth control, and to separate a practical, effects-based conversation from a larger, ethics-based conversation.  Our culture, on the other hand, is sex-phobic.  As a natural and inevitable part of life, no social strictures are going to make sex disappear; we simply force it underground.  We hear from the exceptions, the extremes, the ethically challenged . . . and we pretend like sex belongs to them, instead of to each of us.  Could Unitarian Universalism and related movements take a meaningful stand to challenge this?

A few years ago, I read an argument that the unspoken reason for continued social resistance to normalizing homosexuality is because talking about it openly violates a key social rule: don’t require others to actually envision your sex life.  The topic is so deeply personal that it makes us uncomfortable—and in a way that seems almost innate–to speak publicly about sex in any real way.  It’s amazing, but words alone are sufficient to make us feel like intruders in a private space, or to draw us into unwanted intimacy.

So on that note, here’s the part that may cause some of you to go out-of-body.  If you can, I encourage you to stay with me, and to think about what you might say about your own life—about your own relationships.  A healthy sex life is a very important part of my adult, monogamous, family-centered relationship.  It bolsters and deepens the bonds of our marriage; that’s critical during these years of less time to talk and more chaos, of balancing less money with more decisions to make.  My husband and I are are two halves of a unified whole, and not in a way that could ever be true of a platonic friendship.

The state’s interest in marriage as a building block of society has been recognized again and again; I tell you, though: if we want healthy, functional families, we also want healthy adult sexuality, and political decisions that move us away from that possibility are likely to have unintended consequences.  And there’s more: my husband’s and my truth is that our sex life has been saving, for both of us.  If we truly trust God’s vision for humanity, rather than “fearing God’s will,” in Josh’s words, shall we not accept that in healthy sexuality God has given a great gift to us?  Shall we not celebrate this rather than seeking to subvert (and, inevitably, to pervert) our sexual identities?  Where’s the trust in that?

Sex, and sexuality, are part of the human condition.  They are part of relationships.  They are, potentially, a truly excellent part of marriage.  And you know what?  We needn’t apologize for that.  But we do need to speak up for it.  While this conversation may feel innately uncomfortable, I don’t believe that’s really the case.  There are people who would like us to see sex as dangerous, and bad, and something to be carefully regulated lest we lose all control.  Some people also feel this way about food; we fortunately have enough sense not to ask that they dictate dietary policy for the rest of us.

I have a right and a responsibility (born of self-love) to a healthy sex life.  The current political situation in my state seeks to take that away from me, and I think it’s time to speak out.  Those of us accustomed to merely sitting adacent to public dialogue, wearing headphones in the coffee bars of life–most of us, in other words–might be the ones from whom we all need to hear.  So let’s keep talking about abortion.  And yes, let’s talk about birth control.  But let’s also find a way to talk, individually and in the collective, about sex, and what that looks like in real life, and why it matters.  That’s what’s underneath all of this, friends . . . and our implicit don’t ask, don’t tell policy around the subject is allowing the terms of morality to be defined in a way that works for almost no one.

Thoughts?  Go.

j

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.

how can I know another’s heart?

This is a post guest-written by a friend, Mandie, who shares her own experiences and perspectives about abortion in response to this post.  For more of Mandie’s words about parenting, faith, and life in general, go here.
j
_
I volunteer as an escort at a local women’s health clinic that twice a week provides abortions. My job is to shepherd women into the clinic — walking them from their cars to the door and making small talk to help drown out the shouts of the protestors.
Even after weeks of this, I never quite know what to say. Every word of chit-chat seems crass when I know how wrenching the decision to end a pregnancy can be. And even for the women who are confident that they are doing the right thing, walking through protesters into that clinic, knowing the social stigma that awaits them when they return to the world, is just plain hard.
 

Image
One cold Saturday morning, I arrived at the clinic before the doors were unlocked. The protesters were already setting up with their thermoses full of coffee, their rosaries at the ready. Idling in the pull-up driveway was an old, boxy sedan full of people.In the front seat were a man and woman looking to be in their 40s, heads bent toward each other, talking softly. Crammed in across the bench seat in the back were four exuberant children, who appeared to range in age from about 3 to 9.

As I walked up to try the clinic door, the woman got out and the car drove off. Since the door wasn’t actually open yet, we had to stand there for a few minutes, waiting, with the eyes of the protestors upon us, as cold as the air.

“I’m sure this looks really great,” the woman mumbled, “me coming here with my kids.”

Oh, Honey.

My heart nearly burst with sorrow for her — sorrow that she had to make this choice, sorrow that she felt ashamed and unsafe even with me, whose job it is to be supportive of her and protect her from those who would shame her.

I wished I could wrap my arms around her, that I could take her cold hand in mine and pass on to her the love and compassion I was feeling. Instead, all I could do was look at her and say, “Honey, I am SO not judging you.”

How could I know another’s heart? How could I imagine the circumstances surrounding her decision? Without that knowledge, how could I possibly judge her?

What must have brought her to this place?

Did she look at two lines on a plastic stick and cry because she and her husband were already barely able to care for the four living, breathing, children full of personality and love that they already had, because while another baby would fill her with joy, it would leave them without the resources to care for any of them?

Did she cry because she was physically and emotionally exhausted by the demands of motherhood, and another pregnancy — another baby, another child — would be a burden too great to bear, would break her completely, and leave her family without the glue they so desperately needed to hold them all together?

Maybe she stands here next to me after facing the choice between carrying her pregnancy to term and leaving all of her young children without their mother, or terminating the pregnancy before it was much begun?

Maybe she rejoiced at the positive result and eagerly attended all of her prenatal appointments until the day the doctors told her that her baby was severely malformed and would almost certainly be stillborn if the pregnancy continued.

Did she think everything through again and again, agonizing over it until she finally decided on what she felt was the best option in the worst situation?

Abortion providers screen their clients with paperwork, watchful for warning signs of coercion. They ask women to check yes or no for a variety of questions, and one is “This is my only option.” How many women check that box knowing full well that the other options available to them are few, and none will truly help?

This woman standing next to me, with cold hands and warm eyes, what will she face when she leaves this place, a little relieved but also broken-hearted? Denial that she could be experiencing Post-Abortion Stress Syndrome, a condition that doesn’t actually exist because, after all, women are no more likely to suffer emotionally after an abortion; after all, a fetus isn’t a person, isn’t worth mourning. A mouthful of shame and attempt to convert her into another weapon of anti-choice protest, because after all, she is living proof that abortion hurts women, so she should try to prevent others from making the same choice she made; after all, if there’s no choice, there’s no pain.

Who will see her as the woman, the human being, that she is? Who will respect her decision and her pain?

Perhaps if abortion weren’t so stigmatized in the first place, if so many lines weren’t drawn in the sand, if women weren’t made into political pawns by this debate, she wouldn’t be quite so emotionally scarred. Perhaps she would feel safe telling her story, and allowed to heal without losing her identity.

A final note from Mandie: If you would like to speak to someone about your experience after abortion, or if you are considering abortion and would like spiritual counseling without moral judgments, you can contact Faith Aloud for free and confidential counseling by phone.

fewer lines, more listening, part II

It’s been a little while.  I had something I needed to say before embarking on this post . . . more on that here.  And then I took some time to simply sit with my thoughts, and those of lots of others.  Within Unitarian Universalism, there are many bloggers dealing with the same kinds of questions: How do we engage that which is outrageous?  What should we say when confronted with systemic injustice?  How should we be as a people committed to standing on the side of love, living in a country where standing on the side of fear is the most expedient way to policy change?

It is an act of spiritual violence to sit idly while oppression reigns.  Not talking is not the answer.  Shying away from hard questions for fear of making someone uncomfortable is not the answer.  Agreeing to disagree is also not the answer.

And so . . . be it resolved:

Let’s not be silent.

Let’s not agree to disagree.

Let’s not refuse to ask each other hard questions.

But what this post is about—my piece of this conversation, a thing I have been feeling the need to say for several months, and which, more than anything else, is the reason this blog exists in the first place—is that I’m also hearing other whispers.  Sometimes, they’re more than whispers, and they urge us toward something that looks less like standing on the side of love, and more like leading from our anger and our fear.  I hear this when we talk about—or refuse to really talk about—abortion, saying things like, well, if we really acknowledge that a pregnancy might amount to more than a ball of cells, we’re going to be exploited by the other side.  I hear this, and loudly, when we assert that merely remaining in relationship with someone identifies as an evangelical Christian is tantamount to allying oneself with a culture of violence.

Until (insert group) is ready to accept (insert deeply-held principle affecting the lives of real people), there’s simply no point in engaging with them, or so the argument goes.  It’s too risky.  It doesn’t feel good.  Listening only enables them.

Here’s the thing: choosing not to listen enables us.  It allows us to maintain the stories and images—of ourselves and of the other—that help us feel secure in our choices.  It allows our congregations to feel unified where we haven’t done the hard work to find something other than fear to rally around.  It lets us avoid the pain of growth and change, because neither is likely to happen where we build echo-chambers instead of houses of public worship.

Perhaps the questions we should ask in deciding whether it’s worth our energy to talk to the “other” should have less to do with what they, and we, believe, and more to do with the meta-level communication processes involved.  Instead of “Might she agree with me?,” or “Is his belief system offensive to me or even harmful in some way?” perhaps we should ask, “is he willing to engage in public dialogue?  Does she show respect for the goals of civil discourse?”  What we might move toward is a conversational covenant, a structure that might allow us to have true dialogue about things that matter—and with people whose views are very different.

Does this seem radical?  Impossible, even?  A dream so utopian that not even UUs can believe in it?

Friends, I have news.  I will refrain from calling it Good News, but I believe, and deeply, that if Unitarian Universalism is to be part of the healing process in the larger society, we must become listeners, first and foremost.  We must listen to ourselves, and that’s where a lot of the buzz in the blogosphere is being directed at the moment—are we hearing and honoring that still small voice within each of us, including when it calls us to speak?  However, we cannot stop there.  We must also listen to one another, and then we must take a risk and listen to “the other”—the voice of difference, of disagreement, of discomfort.  And we must do this not simply because it honors the inherent worth and dignity of each person to listen with an open heart—we have to do it because it will form the basis of our most effective social justice work.  An intentional, worshipful commitment to dialogue can change not only conversations, but people and ultimately political realities.  In fact, in our current era, listening may be the most powerful, most needed, and most under-utilized tool we have.

More soon.  In the meantime, a thought:

“Our job as churches is to learn to talk together again and to allow our conversation to spill out of our churches and into our neighborhoods, a stream of hope scented with the rich fragrance of the reconciliation, the shalom that God desires for all creation. May we abide faithfully in this calling!”

Christopher Smith, The Virtue of Dialogue

Peace, all.

j

note: a follow-up to this post can be found here, with “don’t talk to strangers (listen to them instead!)”

an intermezzo about abortion

“There aren’t ‘women who have abortions’ and ‘women who have babies.’ Those are the same women at different points in their lives.” — Rachel Atkins, PA, MPH, Executive Director, Vermont Women’s Health Center

My children are the joy of my life. I love them more than I would have imagined possible; they add depth and meaning to my days and challenge me to seize the moment, to see the good, to be true to my best self far more effectively than anything else ever has.  That these things are true, and that the idea of having another child, at least right now, is impossibly frightening, is one of those strange paradoxes of life.  My husband and I have our hands full in every possible way. The past year has been very interesting around here, and in the midst of it, I took a pregnancy test, got an unexpected result . . . and I cried.

And eventually, I thought the unthinkable—the dark whisper that comes after, “I cannot be pregnant right now.”  Or, I halfway thought it, only to be overwhelmed by fear, guilt, shame . . . in the hours between taking that test and talking with my husband, I felt something like despair.  I knew that in even thinking about ending a pregnancy, I was turning away from my faith in God.  And I knew equally that my marriage, while wonderful in many ways, had been strained to the limit by our two career, two commute lifestyle, a series of significant (and horrifically expensive) health challenges and an ongoing, soul-gutting lack of sleep best employed in the context of a gulag.

Having a third child is an expensive proposition by any measure, but in this reality, it felt like the true cost might be my soul.  And of course, I worried about that fairly literally on the other side, not because I believe in eternal damnation, but because I believe that we are responsible for our decisions, and there was no potential cost that made this one feel defensible.

In short, I didn’t feel free to think about abortion.  I also didn’t feel like I could talk about my fear and internal struggle, not anywhere, but particularly not in the context of church.  In the Christian church, I’d find platitudes and guilt . . . and in the Unitarian church . . . I wasn’t sure. And after some soul-searching, I decided not to find out.

Ultimately, it wasn’t fear of God, but fear that I would not, could not be heard on my own terms in the Unitarian context that kept me silent.  I was afraid I might lose UU as a safe space for my family—not because I’d be shamed for considering an abortion, but because I might be encouraged to, in a way that would let me know, irrevocably, that my own spiritual experiences are not taken seriously by this religion.

This is unfortunate, as I have rarely felt so acutely in need of spiritual guidance.   I was terrified—and my terror at the situation was compounded by fear of becoming an unwitting case study for those determined to view “crisis pregnancy” as solely a medical decision or even a political statement.  I feared being ideologically manhandled by people whose devotion to their cause makes it difficult for them to acknowledge the toll that “choice” can take—even where that choice seems the more survivable one for the members of our family living outside of the womb.  And I realize now—I realized then; irony is bitter—that I had helped to build the ideological walls that entrapped me.

By framing the issue in black and white terms, by choosing a “side,” and then choosing another; in agreeing, tacitly or explicitly, to be identified as part of a group differentiated from another group on the sole basis of my thoughts about abortion, I had left myself precious little room to manage the actual events of life.  By reducing this life circumstance to an “issue,” my response to it was equivalent to a “statement” . . . unless I’d prefer to remain anonymous.

In the end, it wasn’t a decision we had to make.  I wish I could tell you I was entirely happy about that.  I wish I could tell you I wasn’t.  The reality is, it was a terrible, scary, confusing few days . . . and I’m still confused about these issues, it still scares me to think of becoming unintentionally pregnant, and it continues to feel terrible to weigh quality of life (mine, my husband’s, and our children’s) versus actuality of life (an unborn child’s).  The best thing I can say is that I have a deeper understanding of how incredibly complicated and fraught these decisions are—not unlike end of life decisions, which in some ways this is—and greater empathy, on both sides.  I hope that this more nuanced picture of reality enables me to respond more creatively as a participant in our ongoing dialogue about abortion.

Partly this means a change in the way I envision the conversation.  It also impacts the way I engage with the social justice piece of reproductive health.  Thus, as part of our family’s inaugural Chalica celebration this year, we made a donation on day 2 to celebrate justice, compassion, and mercy. I considered our local battered women’s shelter, the rape crisis center . . . and Planned Parenthood.

After careful consideration, I chose Planned Parenthood—not because I feel any less conflicted about the moral issues we confront in the abortion debate, but because the work that they are doing to allow women to lead healthy and productive lives—and here I am talking about basic and essential preventive health care, friends—is simply not being routinely provided by anyone else.  In fact, in many communities it is no longer being provided by anyone at all, and there is every indication that this trend will continue.  This is unacceptable; it is, in fact, an sign that we have lessened the humanity of women in poverty.  I felt a bit strange, but also proud, making this donation, and the same mix of pride and apprehension in posting about it on my facebook page.  I may have lost a few “friends”—or not—but the world continued to turn despite my embrace of a messy take on morality.  Nothing of note changed . . . except for me.

In this conflicted, messy, imperfect action–in recognizing the humanity on all sides of this conflicted, messy, and imperfect discussion–I took a small but significant step away from polarity.  What started with my wallet—and believe me, I experienced no small amount of cognitive dissonance making this donation; I really did have to force myself—ultimately brought my heart along for the ride.

I am not somebody’s pawn in this conversation.  And as it turns out, you don’t have to be, either.  How often do we paint ourselves into a corner of a discussion that shouldn’t have corners in the first place?  Why do we let others define the terms of our thoughts and opinions on some of the most nuanced issues we confront?  We step into the midst of a polemic that we had no role in creating (most of us, anyway), mentally check one of two boxes available, and accept the entire adhesion contract that the movement—whichever movement—places into our hands (if it is not instead shoved down our throats).  It will take a conscious, informed effort on each of our parts, but what if we simply stop allowing the discussion to be framed this way?

Another option: a continued challenge toward self-reflection and a renewed commitment to self-responsibility—including the insistence that this right extends to others.  As above, allowing each woman to manage her own life leads to decisions that are messy, imperfect, and conflicted.  Thus, the greatest challenge of all might be a quiet one: the inner work that allows us to accept this.

Perhaps we could call this the theology of life.  We seek the ideal, we acknowledge what is real, and we render unto each other the terrible, wonderful power to make decisions for ourselves.  Ultimately, we do this not because we know things are going to work out the way that we want them to, or because we are entrusting others to make the same decisions that we would make, but because, in the words of Nelson Mandela, “to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

To that end, this past week, I went farther, making a donation—and a significant one, for our family—to the Peggy Bowman Second Chance Fund.  Our church has contributed to this fund at least once per year for as long as I’ve been a member.  My family, on the other hand, has contributed never.

Unlike my Planned Parenthood contribution, this isn’t something I can rationalize by explaining that I’m covering costs for preventive care; someone who believes in it more can foot the bill for abortion services.  No, I made a donation that will help pay for abortion expenses for a woman in a personal and financial emergency.  And I have to tell you: it hurts a little.  This is true despite what I shared with you earlier—and I think it’s because, at its heart, this isn’t what we pretend it is.

Abortion isn’t an issue.  It is rights and lives and real people clamoring for recognition of worth and integrity.  It is balancing that which cannot be balanced.  I continue to stretch myself, and it continues to hurt a bit because this isn’t a process that makes things feel less fraught or somehow numbs me to reality.  There is a woman out there making a choice that ends a possibility for another human being, and I am helping to make that choice possible.

For me this awareness touches both a great sadness and a great mystery.  That sadness and mystery too often go unacknowledged—because we know there is power in this pain, and we fear it.  But let’s acknowledge it, just as we acknowledge that there is wonder and revelation in allowing for human freedom, whatever great things or terrible wreckage that freedom may leave in its wake.

It could be a choice.  It could be a child.  And, just maybe, it could be your family.

If so, I’m trusting you to make your decisions, and to live with them and make sense of them, in the best way you know how.  I simply don’t know what else to do.

fewer lines in the sand, more listening (part I)

Recently, the Rev. Tom Schade published a series of posts suggesting that today’s political conservatism is wholly inconsistent with the values of Unitarian Universalism.  To those who claim both allegiances, Schade says “Show your work”—how do you get from your faith to your politics?  I take issue with this, not because I don’t think the questions are valid, but because I’m not persuaded that it makes sense, given the number of ethical and practical conflicts that we all live with each day, to level these challenges at one particular group of UUs.

Maintaining right relations—with each other, with our communities, and with the broader world—is demanding, soul-searching work.  But it’s not work that belongs most particularly to one group or another—it’s the work of all of us.  And so, perhaps we can say, to conservative UUs, to liberal UUs, and to everyone in between: Tell your story.  Explain your reasoning.  Show your work.  And then listen, in a spirit of honest curiosity, as we consider the answers.  What does our religion require of us, individually and together?

As we examine these questions—stepping up to the plate ourselves–carefully and respectfully, freely and responsibly—we create the safe space that might allow others to do the same.  This is valuable, as those who choose to worship among us have self-selected, perhaps more than they consciously know, to invest some effort in the task of living spiritually-connected lives.  As Unitarian Universalists, we are not the Nones–those who have opted for a life of secularism–but a religious people who have entered into a covenant that includes invitation to spiritual growth.

So let’s provide that challenge to grow, and Rev. Schade has highlighted some areas where discussion in our congregations might be helpful and illuminating.  But let’s also accept that the invitation to self-examination, and the discoveries that follow, are going to change not just the one we think needs to be changed, but us, too.  In talking openly with those with whom we disagree, we will be made different, and we need to be.  Not because we need to believe in equality of opinion, as individuals or as a movement, but because we believe in the power of stories to shape the world–and to reshape our perceptions of it–and we each must tell our own.

On that note, here is a little piece of my story, as it relates to opinions, values, politics, and our relationship to and with the Infinite.  Our minister–let’s call her Jane–occasionally posts an article or meme related to a social justice issue on her publicly-accessible facebook wall.  One recent post was about abortion; I responded to it explaining that I don’t think the discussion needs to be all-or-nothing on either side, and that I, for example, am both pro-choice and a supporter of the codification of some fetal rights.  Conversation up to that point had been a range of “Amen!” and “Rah-rah!” comments about the original post.  After my response–cue crickets.  (Jane respectfully acknowledged my post and looked for areas of agreement, but the silence from other participants felt deafening.  On the whole, I wondered if it was perhaps shameful in UU circles to even frame the issue as two sets of rights to balance, rather than as an outrageous usurpment of one.)

Not long afterward, some members of my church were socializing together before a meeting, and the topic of the anti-abortion movement in the U.K. came up.  Opponents of abortion reportedly staged silent vigils across from women’s clinics, handing out leaflets to women who passed by.  “Those people are just crazy!” exclaimed one member, and the others nodded their agreement.  My husband replied that he didn’t think it was that the protesters were crazy, but that they were living their values—different, but strongly-held—in a way that made sense to them.  Crickets again . . . and then a hasty change of subject.

I share this example because it is one in which my husband and I hold what is—so far as I can tell—a fairly moderate view [namely, that abortion should be safe, legal, and an option of last resort, one particularly eschewed after the point of viability] in terms of the range of opinions in our society, but which is an extreme view in the context of Unitarian Universalism. I will share more about this, from a different perspective, in my next post.  For the moment, a few words about how my take on abortion fits with my larger faith—my response to the calling to account for which Rev. Schade speaks.

I arrived at this opinion—having spent much of a decade information tabling for Planned Parenthood—through my experiences of pregnancy, childbirth, and pregnancy loss.  It is a view dictated by my heart and my soul more than by my head, and it’s been both challenged and supported in my journey since then.  I have researched and written in the special education context in support of fetal rights—and the rights to life, dignity, and bodily integrity of all who cannot speak for themselves.  Far from conflicting with my UU faith, it is my deep concern for the inherent worth and dignity of ALL people that leads me to reflect upon and speak about my own views on abortion, counter to prevailing UU opinion though they may be.

Do my fellow congregants agree with my thoughts about this?  I’m not sure, as we haven’t found a space or format in which we can really discuss it [aside: this space is sorely needed, as are the willingness and practical skills to engage, and it’s not just UUs that are missing these–it’s our society], but my guess is no.  Should I be called to account for my reasoning should I decide to stand and speak for what I believe to be just and humane?  Definitely.  But do I have a higher burden of obligation to do that than someone speaking on the other side, simply because my opinion is less common in this faith?  What presuppositions do we make about the values and scruples of those who reach different conclusions—and what do those judgments say about us, as a movement?

To those who would assert that this calling-to-account of some members is not because their opinions are different, but because the opinions conflict with our principles, I ask: how do we get from “our principles” to the intolerance of some theological beliefs within individual UU congregations?  How do “our principles” guide our blindness to the empty plate at our own congregational table, or inspire us to do first for ourselves and share with others what is left over?  They don’t, of course, but our congregations deal with both of these issues–or in some cases, choose not to deal with them–constantly.

I suspect that we each struggle, at least insofar as our eyes and hearts are open, to discern the meaning and the imperative behind our values, and to live in accord with that.  That’s part of why we need religion–it’s hard to live a life of worth and decency without examining our choices.  Thus, the hypocrisy we’re talking about today is just easy pickings–it’s visible, and it’s about “someone else.”  Just this once, let’s skip the low-hanging fruit and see if we can go deeper into what matters.

The reality is, those who disagree with us are, in general, not crazy.  They are people, often people who care deeply about the same sorts of things that we care about, who have arrived at different conclusions.  But a common reaction—perhaps even our default reaction, these days—is to view those people as “the other,” and to see them only through the lens of our disagreement on an issue.  And there are tangible benefits to doing this.  First, fear of the Other can unify a group into a cohesive Us like nothing else—for an extreme example of this, consider the instant national unity, from the mountains to the prairies to the halls of Congress, after 9/11.  Further, it feels good; righteous outrage stimulates the pleasure centers of our brains, and makes the complicated, headache-inducing dilemmas we face everyday seem much simpler.  And while it’s disappointing, we UUs are not immune to this simplification-by-way-of-Other . . . sometimes it is even preached from our pulpits.  (Perhaps this surprises you—I hope it does, actually, as that might mean it is rare—but I have seen it happen.  And friends, it is ugly.)

Drawing a line in the sand.  An old metaphor.

Why is this call to establish [and enforce?] a UU line in our politics happening now?  Is it necessary?  And where else might we choose to go in the call to deepen our commitments to living our spiritual principles?

More on that soon.  In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts on any or all of this discussion.

j