things we lost in the fire

 

Image

The formation process, year 1.

It’s educational.  It’s beautiful.

It’s really damned hard.

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

Often that something is small.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it is so very hard.

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

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

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

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

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

So what does one do?

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome, fire.  

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

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

-j

Image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Rev. Amy Zucker Morgenstern

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

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

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

Your relationship with your home congregation starts to change the moment you announce to them that you’re stepping over the congregant-minister line by beginning seminary.This can be strange and unsettling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Rev. Patrick McLaughlin

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

on (not) drowning

In a previous version of my life, I spent a lot of time around water. Eventually, I discovered that if you hang out around the pool enough, you might as well get paid for it: as soon as I was old enough to take the test, I became a lifeguard.

You can learn many things while guarding, from personal preferences like the roles you prefer to play in a team, how you handle boredom, and whether you can manage a crisis . . . to highly task-specific knowledge, such as how to safely help a person who has become unable to save herself.

This is not me.  Just so we're clear.

This is not me. Just so we’re clear.

The first rule: if you yourself are in the water, don’t ever try offer your own body as a saving base for an active drowning victim.  This means do not grab the person without something between you and them, and never—EVER–let them grab you.  This rule is why the rescue tube—that long orange floatie that lifeguards have been carrying for the past 15 years or so—was created: to provide a buoyant buffer between a rescuer’s body and that of a drowning victim.

This innovation didn’t arise from a fear of closeness: it’s because active drowning victims act irrationally and dangerously.  They flail.  They hit.  They grab and hold without discrimination, and sometimes with strength and tenacity that are not entirely helpful.

In a worst-case scenario, the victim gets hold of your head, wraps her arms around you to keep herself afloat, and takes you both under.  This is a dangerous situation that lifeguards practice in certification training, and the solution is counterintuitive: you must break the hold by swimming down—away from the surface, away from the air, and away from the person you’re trying to help—and then try again to approach from a different angle, remembering to keep yourself farther away.  In some circumstances, it’s actually necessary to wait for the person to lose energy and stop fighting before you can assist them.  Occasionally that happens only when s/he becomes unconscious.

Aside from drills, I have never been a rescuee.  In fact, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where that would happen; I was basically born with fins.  And yet, the past semester of freaking out—about seminary, the call to ministry, changes to my role in my congregation, and life-altering transformations, in general—it seems akin to a drowning process.  Or, more accurately, to a fear-of-drowning process.

First I was the kid who climbed to the top of the high dive and then refused to jump.  For a long time.  A looooooong time.  (and honestly, who hasn’t wanted to climb up there and give that kid a great big push?)  But it’s so far down, and it looks different from the top than you thought it would, and falling is scary, and having to swim after that is daunting, and everybody’s staring at you and . . .

And then I was the panicked swimmer floundering in the water.  Head back.  Arms flailing.  Oblivious to the crowd gathering, and a potential danger to those who would try to help.

Only—check this out—it turns out that the gathering crowd is yelling.  At me.   “Put your feet down!”  “FEET! DOWN!”*  They are yelling because it turns out I’ve been flailing around in exactly 2.5 feet of water.

I can stand here.  My children could stand here.  This is both noteworthy and embarrassing, but I don’t dwell on it, because I have also realized something else: I can swim.  (It’s hard to do a thorough self-assessment of skills while actively drowning.)

In fact, it turns out that I actually love swimming.

I love it more than I thought possible.  I love it so much that it changes my dreams—they get bigger.  Much bigger. Bigger than I could even have imagined.

And so, this evening I went to look for some of those dreams . . . in a small and surprising container.  One that, of course, is filled with water.

This is a sensory deprivation tank, affectionately known by devotees as simply “the tank.”

IMG_1805

There is a chair.  There is a tiled shower area.  There is a warm glow from a candle, surrounded, altar-style, by shells and stones.  There are earplugs, and a towel . . . and little else.  There is not, for example, a clock.  There’s not a window.  There’s not background music, or light reading material, or an internet connection.

It’s just me . . . and the tank.

And I stand there, taking deep slow breaths while the uber-Zen tank guy gives me a floating 101 run-through, and I try to nudge my fear toward “excited” rather than “terrified.”  That sort of nudging, after all, is what I’ve been doing for the past few weeks, and it has taken me places.  I am leaning in—to my fear, using it to power through, to take the leap into the deep water—and I have found myself talking in class, holding a microphone at Vespers, offering a writing workshop to my classmates and leading experimental humanist worship on the sidewalk on Michigan Avenue.  (yep, that happened.  I did it.  It was C-R-A-Z-Y . . . and wonderful.)

And yet this tank is something else entirely.  For one thing, it’s dark.  This is not a run of the mill, lights are off kind of darkness.  It’s not even lost-in-a-forest, or heard-a-noise-at-midnight darkness.  This is primordial darkness.  Darkness as living entity.  Darkness as beginning, middle and end, the kind in which you might experiment to determine whether it even matters if your eyes are open or not (answer: it does, and it doesn’t).

For another thing, an hour can seem like a very (very . . . very) long time when I am alone with my brain and nothing else.  Which I eventually am—it simply comes down to that once I stop fighting.  There is nothing else left.

First, though, I have to overcome my physical fear, and I realize that I am literally trembling as I lie down in the tank, door still ajar.  My body rises immediately to float atop the surface—there are 800 lbs of Epsom salts dissolved in these 200 gallons of water, creating a buoyancy roughly equivalent to that of the Dead Sea.  My head tips back a bit, and I float peacefully.  Calmly.  With pleasant orange-toned visions of the ceiling outside of the tank.  Just this, I think . . . it is almost enough.

Except that I’m done with almost enough.  And so, I close the door.

It is a bit heavy—heavier than I thought, definitely heavier than Alix said (“You can push it open with a finger!”) and it closes with certainty.  And then I am alone.

It is dark.  I cannot see.  I cannot hear.  The only thing to feel is water, and it’s a pleasant nothing, warmed to exactly skin temperature.  All that is left is to float, and I lean back, slide down, and rise again to the surface.  This is ok.  Odd.  Surprising.  I’m doing it.

Then I take a deep breath, reach out to feel the walls, and realize that I’m turning a bit in the darkness.  I’m not turning over—the buoyancy makes that essentially impossible—but around, as you might floating down a lazy river.  I take another breath.  IcantseeIcantsee.  I worry about finding the door.

I sit up suddenly, splashingly, and scratch my way toward the where I think the door might be.  Saltwater runs down my forehead toward my eyes as I try to keep franticness at bay.  I find the large circle with my fingertips.  I push, hard.

Door open.  Air.  Breathe.  Sigh.  Sit.

Try again.

And so it goes for maybe 10 minutes, until suddenly, during a floating moment, I have a realization.  It’s a thought both small and profound.  It belongs in the category, a designation for which I recently laughed at my float-experienced friends, of “Things the Tank Told Me.”

This realization is: “’Trapped’ is just a feeling.”  I turn that over in my mind, and realize it’s true on a deep level: there is no space that will feel big enough unless I’m content to find myself within it.  And conversely . . . perhaps I could choose to find myself right here in this tank.  To be here.  To fully inhabit this space and my body for this hour.  To live into where I am for now, and to trust that I am safe here.

And so I do.  I start with this moment in which I can concede that I don’t need to do anything—but for my panic about “what if?,” I am calm and happy and safe.  Realizing this, I commit to remain calm for the rest of the hour. It sounds reasonable inside my head, but almost immediately, I feel the familiar well of fear.  Too big.  Too much pressure.

Well . . . perhaps, then, dear self, we can agree to remain calm and happy in each moment where that works, knowing that we can make a new plan and respond appropriately if something changes.  No need to worry about it now.  Just be, until it’s time to be in a different way.

And this works.  This I can do.  One moment to the next, until the moments cease to be.

I dream.  I imagine.  I lose track of time and thought entirely.  I come back to myself and use my hands to scull the length of the tank until my head bounces gently off the top.  I scull back down to the bottom, pushing off with my feet like an amphibious pinball.  The water moves sloshily around me, rocking, swaying, and I feel an unnerving sense of vertigo.  This too shall pass, I think.  It does.

And so does the hour, until I hear a knock at the door and then another knock on the tank.  Relaxed and ready, I meet that knock with two of my own, sit up, and climb back into the light, leaning in toward whatever comes next.  I’m grateful to be swimming, grateful to be floating . . . grateful to be here.

j

*water safety PSA: joking aside, yelling is not an effective strategy for an actual active drowning victim.  (come to think of it, yelling is also unlikely to be helpful for people who  only think they’re drowning.)  We’re taking some literary license for the purpose of telling this story. 🙂

shut up and swim (the Gospel according to Luke)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rural landscape in Poland

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

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

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

I do not know the answer to these questions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One or the other.  Choose.  

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

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

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

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

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

j

Checkmate!

It has recently come to my attention that I might not know anything.

This is confusing.  It’s potentially embarrassing.

And also, it presents problems.

For one thing, I have completed years of grad school.  I have degrees.  If those mean nothing specific in a practical sense (besides debt), they should at least signify some accumulated knowledge.  Right?

tumblr_mceyztjInH1rvjyls

“First Year of Seminary,” everydayimpastoring.com

Beyond that, I have a larger problem: this discovery is challenging to my narrative about beginning seminary.  In fact, it’s challenging to framing the call to ministry—the rationalization of which has been a key part of being brave enough to embark on this adventure in the first place.

A short version of that story: A little over a year ago, I started to hear a vague internal whisper about ministry.  It wasn’t unsettling—I didn’t think it meant me, exactly, or  becoming a minister.  I wondered why it was so curious, and what it wanted me to learn . . . and, amused, I tried to humor it.  Then, last summer, someone gave that whisper a voice—to me, about me . . . or some version of me that he thought he saw.

At first, I was more amused than ever; in fact, this was hilarious.  Then I discovered that the internal whisper was no longer whispering, and that I couldn’t turn it off.  In the eternal words of Paul Simon: I don’t find this stuff amusing anymore.

I have wondered sometimes how one ought to distinguish between an internal voice that indicates a calling to ministry and an internal voice that suggests mental illness.  Frankly, I’m still not always certain that I have made the distinction appropriately . . . and, during the past year, I have felt something akin to panic trying to figure it out.

In the midst of these questions, and determined to reign in my bizarre “church issue,” I hatched a plan: I would simply go back to work.  Probably my mind—and my hands—just needed to be kept busier.  It speaks to my desperation that despite the fact that I was already at-home parenting two small children and engaged in a raft of volunteer activities, this seemed totally reasonable.  At least, it seemed worth a shot—and critically important to try. Soon.  Before the voice got any louder.  If I could just hang on until January, I thought, when I could be back in the classroom . . .

My therapist, however, was dubious, and suggested that I take a career assessment and consider the results carefully.  This seemed unnecessary—I had taken career assessments and aptitude tests; I knew my Myers-Briggs and my Enneagram types.  By late October, though, I couldn’t wait any longer.  I  guiltily watched all the UUA videos on Becoming a Unitarian Universalist Minister; I felt like I’d gone on a crack bender.  Insufficiently deterred, I approached the MFC reading list as a potential “scared straight” program.  I selected Congregational Polity as my first text, reasoning that I’d be bored to tears almost instantly—only to acknowledge, 60 pages in, that I was fascinated.  Beguiled.  In love.

Horrorstruck, I knew it was time for the big guns.  Bring on the career assessment.  I caved and took it online the week of an extended family trip to Florida.

The MAPP Assessment is a strange test.  It has 70 questions, each with three potential answers, which in my memory are things like “sort mail” “drive snowplow” and “teach math class.”  You mark one “most preferred,” one “least preferred,” and leave the third choice blank.  Truly, I do not believe there was a single question about spiritual preferences.  There were a lot of questions about heavy machinery.

Depositphotos_6431861_xs

Despite this apparent imbalance, and the lack of any narrative responses whatsoever, this assessment feels free to draw conclusions about you, your passions, interests, abilities, and suitability to various types of work.  It’s like the Ouija board of career counseling, and honestly, I probably did it wrong—I was so distracted by the bizarre choices offered that my main objective while taking it was to emphasize my lack of facility with things with gears.

Results are delivered in a top-twenty fashion.  In some ways–in retrospect, at least–the results were both interesting and affirming.  Public interest legal practice was #14.  That made sense.  Numbers 12 through 5 were mostly various forms of teaching, with college at the far end and kindergarten and special education closer to the top.  Perfect.  Number four, and a few other random items were things focused on writing.  That was understandable, too.  Three and several others were in the area of guidance or career counseling—helping people achieve their goals.  Slightly off the beaten track, but fine.  And then, my top two.  The first was “columnist or correspondent,” with a note appended that “this job may be a component of other employment rather than an independent occupation.”  Ok, got it.  On to item the second.  Which was, as you may have anticipated, effing, I kid you not, minister.

This freaked me out, friends.  So much so, that it is only after the fact that I learned these interesting details about my other matches.  It was literally months later that I actually read any of the narrative descriptions.  What I did in that particular moment was slam my computer shut, grab my shoes, and go for a long, long, long run down the beach.

photo-8

I ran to the pier.  I ran past the pier.  I ran until the sun was setting and I couldn’t run anymore.  And then I did what I do when I have a problem I can’t outrun: call someone who can help.  In this case, my mom.  And for the first time outside of my therapist’s office I said those scary words, the ones that felt like they had the power to rock the ground under my feet: I think I’m feeling a call to ministry.

I don’t remember a lot of that conversation.  I know there was surprise (her) and listening (also her) and tears (only me, I think) . . . but I mostly just remember the end.  I had flopped down rather dramatically, as I am wont to do while talking to my mom, and was lying on my back on the beach.  The end of the conversation went as follows:

My mom: So you don’t really want to be a minister?

Me, sobbing: I don’t think so.

Mom: So . . . why can’t you just NOT?

Me: I don’t know! I feel like I’m saying no to God!

Mom: Well, if you don’t want to, say no to God.

Me:

Actually, before I say any more, let me just say that my level of mental trauma around what happened next is such that I have residual fear of typing it.  I tell this story only Inshallah.  Amen.

Me: How do I say no to God?

Mom: Just . . . say ‘No!’

Me: Like . . . ‘Screw you, God!?”

Mom: Yep.

Me: [unto the heavens, the sand, and the assembled universe] Screw you, God!

And then, friends, I screamed.  Because, just like that, I was IN. THE. OCEAN.

And the ocean was cold.  And wet.  And . . . not where it was supposed to be.

photo-9

And then the water left—it had been a wave, of course, and not, as my baffled brain had initially informed me, the ocean itself—and I was once again on the beach, drenched and stammering.

As rude awakenings go, the experience was surprisingly gentle.  I had been lying in dry sand up a steep incline from the surf, and the suddenly-present ocean surrounded me from underneath rather than washing over my face.  My phone was ok.  My mom was still on the line.  I was, however, cold, confused, and more freaked out than ever (I also had the particular pleasure of washing sand from my hair for the next three days).

“I think,” said my mom, “You should probably talk to your minister.”

This seemed reasonable.  I said I would, meaning in, say, a year.  (I made it three more months . . . )

In the meantime, though, something else happened: I started this blog.  I found a place to put some of my thoughts, and discovered I had more to say, and in so doing, I found a small glimmer of hope.  This glimmer eventually got bigger: it became the idea that, just maybe, I have something to say.

This was an incredible relief.  Frankly, there is nothing about the call to ministry that makes sense to me, not on its face.  I have another career, one that I believe in and am good at.  I have never considered leading a church—and in fact, my initial response to the soul-provocation I have felt in the last year was to consider leaving my church.  And I have spent most of my life assiduously avoiding public speaking of any kind.  The only thing I could vaguely link between my background and ministry was chaplaincy, and even that seemed like quite a reach.  But—but!—perhaps my call was to be a Sayer of Profound Things.

Of course, I envisioned this not just a random something-or-other that I might pick up along the way, but as deep Truth from my inner being.  And I didn’t have to look far for subjects.  I’ve been gathering up Somethings nearly from the day I first set foot in a UU church.  Thoughts.  Suggestions.  And, increasingly, ideas that I’d like our movement to consider.  Like . . . NOW.

Bullhorn Woman

When I think about this in context . . . as a new seminarian . . . a convert to UU . . . a young adult . . . that small ocean wave seems a bit subtle.  Much more subtle than I have been with some of my own words.  God just might overestimate my receptiveness.

These days, however, I’m finding that God can be both subtle and firm.  And what I am firmly hearing, again and again, everywhere I turn, is that I do not in fact have things to say.  That my job at this point is to be quiet.  To be still.  To seek to understand.  (Not to seek first to understand, with the assumption that then I get to talk.  Simply to understand.)  And so, I am wondering, again, what it is that I have that’s solid.

Not my congregation.  Not stability.  Not any clear answers.  Not Truth or Something to Say.  Not an answer to the “why” or the “when” or the “how.”  Not a guarantee.  And not a promise of another moment beyond this, the full and beautiful present.

 But, thanks to the poet Hafiz, via the Rev. Chris Holton Jablonski, I do have some words.  They’re not mine.  They’re not something to say.  They’re something to be listened to, now and going forward.

What is the difference

Between your experience of Existence

And that of a saint?

g

The saint knows

That the spiritual path

Is a sublime chess game with God

 

And that the Beloved

Has just made such a Fantastic Move

 

That the saint is now continually

Tripping over Joy

And bursting out in Laughter

And saying, “I Surrender!”

    f

Whereas, my dear,
I’m afraid you still think

You have a thousand serious moves.

jChess

I have hands.  I have ears.  I have an insistent inner voice that might indicate a tendency toward insanity.

 And, maybe . . . again, Inshallah . . . I have a starting place.

Checkmate.

I should be so lucky.

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

adelaide praying

Wikimedia commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blazing heart

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

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

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

I’m only worried for myself.

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

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

Don’t lose this, girl.  

Is that to much to ask?

j

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

rocks, rivers, and rough transitions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still no?

How about this:

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

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

--Peter Mayer, "God is a River"

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

goodnight from my confused, envious, wistful heart,

j

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

Sanity NOW! (perhaps yelling helps?)

These are my babies, Si and Ren, at our church on Easter.

Image

On the one hand, I love this picture.  My boys look like their handsome, irrepressible selves on a beautiful spring day in a place that means so much to us.  On the other hand . . . my sons also look like Daddy dressed them.  And they look like it because it’s true; when it was getting dressed time at our house, I was busy doing other things.  Churchy things.

The things, and the place, that used to bring us together as a family now, increasingly, mean that my husband and I are running a “divide and conquer” offense.  And it seems unlikely that this is going to change; if anything, we are in for increasing disruption around, and because of, our church life.

These changes are the third item in the mental list I can’t help but keep about my seminary decision.  It’s a sort of tally sheet; I could call it “the high cost of insanity.”  The top three items are, in slightly shifting order, “I really might fail at this; Everyone I know is going to think I’ve lost my mind; Ultimately, after all of this, we lose the church home that has brought such depth, meaning and joy to our lives.”  If that last point is true–and I don’t know yet whether it is–the beloved community in question does not simply leave your life quietly.  On the contrary.  First it loves you.  Then it eats you.

I have written here about the demands life makes of us to balance that which cannot be balanced, but until now, I was speaking academically.  These past few weeks, on the other hand, the equation seems much closer to home.  As I wade through papers and plan team meetings and stare into a future that contains community and congregational internships, I wonder how–and sometimes if–I will successfully wear all of the hats I’m being given, and how, succeed or fail, merely attempting it will affect my home and family life.

A76ZxKjCcAIqH0p

Have you seen this cartoon?  It’s true, but not to worry: I gave up the clean home battle long ago.  That ship sailed around the time we added a second child and the first one started getting into everything.  The cartoon is funny and, replacing “clean home” with “seminary” or “a career” or even “a passion beyond my family,” also a bit scary.    For one thing, my children are getting older.  Not yet in the way that may eventually mean that they need less of my help.  Older in the way that they notice who’s taking care of them—and who isn’t.

Fortunately, I have a blessing of a husband: a man who was himself raised by a devoted, involved father, and who regards parenthood as a joy and a privilege.  This is a gift to our children, an inspiration to me, and comes with some serious perks–I literally did not change a diaper for either of our kids for the first month of their lives, and C does night duty with Si even now.  (Our second son, God love him, is one of those children who at three still doesn’t quite grasp the sleeping through the night concept.) C has never been a stay-at-home Dad, but from day one, he’s been at home as a dad, and pity the misled person who suggests that my husband is babysitting when adventuring with our sons.

Add to this a great sitter—a salt of the earth, Jesus-praising 69-year old who drives in from a neighboring town to “take care of my boys”–and you might understand, a bit, the loving village who are helping us to raise our children.  Our lives as they currently exist would not be possible without Judy, and we love her dearly (though she did teach Si to say “thread” as a two-syllable word, and Ren to use “Like ah say” as a key introductory clause).

In short, my kids are in good hands.  And it’s not like I was doing a Donna Reed impression before now.  I’ve been in school or working (usually in school and working) for every year of my children’s lives.  My family is used to April and November as lost months–midterms, papers, mommy with her nose in a book or gazing with consternation at the laptop screen.

I feel worried now, though, in a way that I didn’t before.  Perhaps it’s that my children are bigger, more articulate in their demands for my time, my attention, the entirety of my heart.  Maybe it’s that this call to ministry feels entitled to speak to the same things, to make the same claims [Must those be competing?  Please don’t be competing.] Or maybe it’s just that I have always viewed this reading/writing/learning process as a path to a finish line . . . and have suddenly been given to understand that there is no race, and no end.  In different contexts, with varying subject matter and stakeholders, there is just this.  Read, write, listen, learn, repeat . . . forever and ever, amen.

This isn’t unfamiliar territory, and in some ways, it’s a comfort and a relief to simply acknowledge what is.  And yet.  There is just something about the shift from “until” to “always” that changes things utterly.  It’s perhaps like getting married after living together for years, discovering that things you could put up with before—the things you assumed would pass, somehow—are now suddenly just your life.  And they are Not Funny Anymore.  And so, if you happen to be loving and lucky enough, you get your shit together.  You make a new vision.

I need a new vision now.  My whole family does.  And it needs to involve connection and balance, along with the passion that my husband and I both feel for the amazing work that we get to do.

What’s happening in its absence is this: I am leaving town momentarily, missing the weekend with my family (for the third time in four weeks). It’s for something I am so excited about—but my excitement is tempered by some real mommy guilt. On another of these weekends, Ren lost his first two teeth and the tooth fairy came. I heard about it on the phone, and smiled—and then I cried.

And then there’s THIS week.  Where to even begin?  Mid-travels, post-Easter, paper and outlines for final essays due, things at my house have sounded like this: “Mommy’s working!”  “Mommy’s writing!”  “Mommy has a meeting!” “How was your day—I’ll be home from class at 9!”  “Seriously, you’re awake now?  I got FOUR HOURS OF SLEEP.”

And in the meantime, this happened.

Image

And this.

Image

And also, something I didn’t get a picture of, but which I can simply describe as a scene that might have immediately preceded the Bonfire of the Vanities.  It was staged in my living room, and involved my husband’s beloved art and architecture books and a montage of CDs, photos, DVDs—all oversprinkled with twine, ribbon, and about 15 small metal crucifixes from my blog photo prop bin.

I haven’t yelled.  I haven’t killed anyone.  I did take the opportunity to introduce the concept of “sin of omission” with Ren, who apparently sat calmly on the couch while Si took the Harold and the Purple Crayon concept for a walk.  And all the while, I am of course thinking about my own sins of omission, of absence, of distraction . . . and wondering what it means to be a PK.  And about what it means, in the interim, to be the kid of a potentially crazy, passionately in love, sometimes wildly overscheduled person in seminary.  To be the child of a person who loves them so very, very much, and loves their daddy, and loves her life and her house with the mostly neutral but also red-in-places walls.

But who is also a person for whom that–this big, beautiful set of blessings–isn’t, hasn’t been, will not ever be enough.  These kids will have to share their mom’s heart.  Always.

Friends, HOW do you do this?*

from the bottom of my passionately crazed heart,

j

*feel absolutely free to talk to me about Jesus if you feel so inclined.  It’s going to take something more than magic eraser to clean up these walls.

putting the holy in “holy $#$!”

Last week, my husband and I had an exchange that went as follows:

[open door to fridge; something falls on my foot]
 
Me: %&*^&%
 
Husband: [stares at me, shakes head slightly, eyes twinkling and trying to suppress a smile]
 
[two other things also fall out–apparently need to clean fridge]
 
Me: Seriously, for #$^$ sake.
 
Husband: [bursts out laughing; gives me sympathetic hug]
 

note: this is annoying, partly because he’s laughing at me, and also because I am fairly sure he’s the one who put the stuff in the fridge like this in the first place.

a more reverent approach to the refrigerator?

a more reverent approach to the refrigerator?

The thing is, I’ve been a pretty prolific curser for my entire adult life.  Since before that, in fact.  And C and I have been together for about 15 years now.  Past a certain age, the f-word, standing on its own, just isn’t that funny anymore.  Except that it suddenly is, right now, in my house–at least when it comes out of my mouth.

 

After weeks of snickering and sympathetic pats on the head, I finally pressed my husband on this point . . . and the explanation he came up with was “holiness juxtaposition.”  Which means, as far as I can tell, that I am supposed to be nicer, or that someday we at least hope I will be nicer, but right now I am not.  Thus, the sheer size of the space between this expectation and my current reality is hilarious.

And I get that.  Sort of.  I don’t feel in any way ministerial . . . and there’s no reason I would.  Not yet.  (Maybe not ever.  I am trying to just go with this whole thing and see what happens, but honestly, I am so baffled to find myself on this path that a lot of times it makes me want to say . . . well . . . something sort of like %&^$!)

In the meantime, though, my husband is obviously making some mental adjustments.  And it’s not that they’re bothering him . . . on the contrary, he seems delighted.  In this most recent example, he explained, “you should definitely keep cussing; I like it.  It makes me feel better about my own failings.  [laughing] And if ministry doesn’t work out, you could be a sailor.  Or a truck driver.  Or . . . [nearly bent double from hysterics] a bail bondsman.” Current amusement aside, though, this does make me wonder: what happens if I surprise both of us and actually turn into a minister over the next few years?

The label and identity clearly carry some weight and change expectations even from the person who knows me best.  Does that matter?  If you’re a minister, are you a minister all the time?  Or do you just play one on tv?

I wonder about this partly because it disturbs me to have my brain and personality fundamentally altered, however much those changes are needed (and they are.  I acknowledge this.)  I also wonder because I like being a partner–being, that is, my flawed, vulnerable and human self–with my husband.  And I’d like to stay married to him, his fridge storage methods notwithstanding.

I have given some thought to the seminary process and how it might change me, and how those changes affect my primary relationships .  .  . but now I’m wondering about the ministerial role itself.  Is it a hat you wear?  Or is it something essential to the core of your being?

All this reminds me of the writer Andrew Corsello, who makes it a point to tell his wife, Dana, who is an Episcopal priest, “Girl, you put the ‘ho’ in ‘holy’.”  Over several essays, Corsello writes about his own take on the holiness juxtaposition that Craig now finds so hilarious . . . Corsello himself has at times found it smothering–a threat to his own self image, to his marriage.  (This essay provides Corsello’s overview of the situation.  The quote above is taken from a longer piece, “The Angel and the Skank,” which ran in Wondertime magazine years ago.  That essay is much more about parenthood, and how it might allow us to rise, miraculously, to more than is expected of us, but is a worthwhile read–simultaneously gritty and gorgeous.  Wondertime’s interests are now held by Disney, which has CleanFlixed the original quote, but you’ll remember it.)

I’m sure this is one of those things without a clear answer . . . but for those partnered folks in ministry, or who are in the process of entering ministry: has adding a religious identity to your spousal one been weird?  Is it hard to balance, and does it fundamentally alter to the texture of your marriage?  Or are you simply yourself, but moreso?

For my part, I will keep you posted, but I would love to hear more from anyone who can advise in the meantime.  As would, I’m sure, my husband.  🙂

j