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

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

As long as they’re having fun.

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

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

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

Friends.

People of faith.

Let us talk.

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

And much has been said about this.

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

Um.

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

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

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

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

EV001576

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

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

prayer candles

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

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

Carmel Mission

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

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

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

I don’t want to fight with them.

They don’t want to go. They complain.

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

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

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

A story about this:

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

Interior of public indoor swimming pool

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

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

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

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

Schoolgirl with goggles in swimming pool

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

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

Swimmers About To Touch Finishing Line In A Race

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

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

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

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

Boy hiding

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

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

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

I want to be with people who submerge

in the task, who go into the fields to harvest

and work in a row and pass the bags along,

who are not parlor generals and field deserters

but move in a common rhythm.

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

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

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

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

Having fun is certainly a value.

Now what’s our religion?

In faith,

j

discipline road sign illustration design

taking Communion, and other subversive acts

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

Image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eucharist

Willimon continues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

j

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

shut up and swim (the Gospel according to Luke)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rural landscape in Poland

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

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

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

I do not know the answer to these questions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One or the other.  Choose.  

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

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

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

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

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

j

of Lent, and liturgy, and things that sparkle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My God.  I miss this.  

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

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

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

It feels like an invitation.

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

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

j