When freedom’s just another word

Two Sundays ago, I attended St. James Episcopal Cathedral in Chicago. It’s the home of the Episcopal Archdiocese of Chicago, and delivers the full smells-and-bells liturgical worship—so give it a miss if you don’t like incense, kneeling communion, or a sung (Latin) liturgy. From start to finish, modernist entry plaza to soaring cathedral ceiling, the experience is intended to get your attention.

And yet, the thing about well-executed liturgy, be it humble or spectacular, is that it creates a container that’s reliable enough to hold us and predictable enough to fade from view. Because then we are free to go deep into a heart experience as a complement to our head truths.

It is a sign of ritual efficacy, then, that the most searing moment of my Sunday worship experience was not being spritzed with holy water or choked with frankincense; it was hearing the full import of an offhand remark from the priest.

“We remember the promises of baptism,” she intoned, “as we deepen our faith journey in these days—and there are 50 of them; did you know that?— of Easter.”

Me, dreamily: Yes, we remember the . . .

Wait, what!?

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(Do Lutherans also observe this? Have I missed a key feature of the church year for the entirety of my life so far? WHY would Easter need to continue for FIFTY DAYS?)

I probably have missed this, friends. Willfully. Joyfully.

Because here’s a fun fact: I don’t want 50 days of Easter.

Not at all. I have a hard time with one day of Easter, quite honestly, between the too-bright promises of the heaven not in keeping with my theology, and the too-sugary substitutes of the secular YAY SPRING alternative. It’s sleight of hand, all of it, and it leaves me nothing for the tricks and reversals of the rest of the season. Candy wrappers and an empty tomb for the long slog through April.

And a slog it has been.

Practice resurrection, instructs a Wendell Berry poem favored by UUs this time of year.

And I have been. But friends, resurrection kind of sucks.  It’s not pretty. And we think of it in terms of continuity, but it doesn’t work that way. First, you die. And then things are different. Jesus doesn’t get to live among us anymore. Lazarus ends up exiled from his people. Resurrection is active and demanding, and not a continuation so much as a starting over—one that leaves us holding, even as we begin a new life, the broken or bloody pieces of whatever came before.

In fact, I am pretty sure that practicing resurrection is more work than simply dying.

Endings, however terrible, break over us with the force of a tidal wave. We need do nothing. They just come for us. Reemergence, on the other hand,requires effort. Which asks energy. Which we may not have in those first squinting moments.

Here on earth, a rebirth may look like wiggling a pinky finger and calling it movement. It might mean trudging and calling it hope.

Meanwhile, our monthly worship theme is “Freedom,” and it feels purely incongruous. That word, made of stars and stripes, of watermelon, of soaring birds and open highways, it has crash landed in Chicago in April.  Freedom picks itself up, tries to unfold its wings, but finds only gray skies and dampness everywhere.  The brown puddles gather on the sidewalks, flow over manhole covers, slosh into the gutters.

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One evening, I begin the walk home from the store just as drizzle turns to downpour.  I couldn’t have hailed a cab that night with a hundred dollar bill in my hand, much less three soaked bags of groceries. I try anyway, as the rain makes creekbeds of the streets, soaks my hat and hair, and flows, impossibly, from the top of my head to the inside of my coat.

Water runs down the back of my neck and under my shirt and into my boots and I am drenched and miserable to my skin.

To my soul.

It remains unclear, days later, whether this was a low point of my life or merely of my week, but I am quite certain that I require no further weeks of this celebration.

Party over. Goodbye Easter. Take your drizzly and disappointing friends with you.

And take your resurrections as well. You know what the tomb stands for, actually? Certainty. Closure. And above all, rest.

I’m supposed to forsake all those for the neverending vulnerability of It might be so? For the messy ambiguities of living, for the certain heartbreak of loving?

Friends, I have always been a crappy disciple. I betray. I doubt. I’d trade my dreams for a handful of beans every week if the exchange of “possibility” took its friend “ambiguity” with it.

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And I don’t want 50 days of Easter because the truth is that I’d cut and run from even one of those days if I could. Whether it’s the holy hopes of Jesus or the humus-centered humanism of Wendell Berry, resurrection asks too much of me. I know what’s under that shiny second chance: obligation as far as the eye can see.

It is, in short, the opposite of freedom.

And there is truth in that. I didn’t know there was a particular label for this gathering of spring days, but a season is a season whether we name it so or not. Easter. Search. Spring. Thirty-something angst. Name them as you will; the fact is that is easier to hail a cab in the Chicago Loop in the rain than to escape from any season prematurely.

And there are so many seasons in our lives, and we may not initially recognize them for what they are. Would that the hardest things we deal with be calendar or weather related. How much easier if the great intractable wrestling match of this spring truly involved the Easter bunny. Indeed, I would prefer to choose my seasons, to hand-pick my struggles.

The truth: things unasked for take hold and wrap their arms around us for a time, and we are helpless.

It is hard.  And the sole escape from the work is the tomb, whether we seek it bodily or spiritually. That has always been the alternative to trudging up that hill. Again. In the rain.  To painful growth.  To the expectations that lead, inevitably, to obligation.

And so, “freedom.”

Ha.

I guess it looks like walking, friends.

Trudging. Dog paddling, if needed, through the puddles.

And then we stop to rest, find that yes, this day too has an end, and believe that someday the season will, too. These must be enough for this moment: the stopping points, and the beginnings that lie just beyond.  Enough that they will come. Enough that we will move toward them. Enough that we will keep breathing in the meantime.

For the crappy disciples among us, the freedom may lie in surrender. Not to the tomb, but to this time. To this season. To these 50 days of whatever . . .

To be followed, again, by ordinary time.

j

 

Someday comes the choosing

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source: Pixabay

There are always some of us living in whispers, tiptoeing through places both as transient as the bus station and insubstantial as the spring spiderweb.

Liminal space:  where our lives stretch taut between past and future; the charged moment; the pregnant pause.

This week, UU ministers and congregations are nearing the end of the search process. Whittling down. Narrowing toward decisions.

Our family is among these, and like the chorus in a Greek tragedy, our children give voice to the questions. (In childhood, fun and wonder occur on an annual cycle, and so our sons are constantly planning for the next go round. “Next year, can we . . .?” )

These entreaties are as predictable as the slam of the screen door in summer, and I’ve never had cause to give them more than a passing thought.

Yes, of course we will go to the pumpkin patch. Yes, of course we can pick apples. Yes, we will have Thanksgiving with–

Until now.

The bland assurances die in my throat.   (I have . . . no idea, friends.)

Eventually, I take a breath, and say with firm cheer that we will DEFINITELY be somewhere, doing something.

Which is apparently as reassuring to them as it is to me. The boys teeter for a moment between the floor-gripping horror of childhood’s early years and the skeptical derision of its middle ones, and then they request specifics. And so we begin again with the litany of possibility, repeated and embellished from day to day.

Yes, I think they have pumpkins in Smithville. Indeed, there are tacos in Springfield.

I promise that Santa will find us on Christmas, and yes, I am positive that we can find someone to make you the dragon fortress cookie for your birthday. (Note to self: am I positive? Will there still be birthday cookies?)

And remember: they have [insert whatever fairy tale feature makes each place a little more delectable . . and a little more unreal].

And so, the boys return again to the maps. Pointing with fingers that are no longer quite so tiny, at the ponds and coastlines and contours that may see these small, curious boy-hands into teenagerhood.

Behind them, out the window, the last stand of hardwood forest in a neighborhood now standing atop it. Beyond that, hills and limestone and prairie, a land of green plains moving westward, flattening as the sky opens wide above them.

These are strange days. A bit fraught. A bit magical. The lobster holds court with the western meadowlark, and cathedral spires rise with the peal of bells over our beloved prairie.

And everywhere around us, the larger country of the unknown; the place in which a map is always yearned for, and for which none shall ever be created.

This unknowing is, I suspect, what drives us mad about liminal space. We feel rootless. Groundless. Unable to build.

But that isn’t entirely true.

Yesterday, in a moving Easter liturgy, Kendyl Gibbons pointed out that the blunt obviousness of salvation by literal, organic presence “was never the point.” The point, instead? That enduring vision is what makes a way out of no way.

My friends, we can, indeed, build in this space. It’s just that we can’t anchor here.

We are building visions, and containing possibilities too grand to exist on the everyday scale. There is no room in the realities we inhabit for the lobster and the meadowlark to live together. There will be no Italian marble on the prairie, no waving wheat in Waterbury.

We choose, in the end, the path less taken (or the one more familiar, come to that) because in the real world, eventually, we must. But not yet. Not here. Here, for an eternity both precious and painful, we can build it all.

And so, we are dreaming, together.

Next comes the choosing. The dawning. The litany, made real.

But for now, there is just this moment, made sacred by our hopes.

For now, let us, each and all, dream.

j

homeschooling for happiness (wherein our family tries again)


Fifteen months ago, I told you that I planned to stop homeschooling my older son after a rough first year.

That decision was a great relief, an end to months of internal wrestling and ceaseless dialogue. I wanted, finally, to fall on one side of the fence; I hoped to escape, with a word—No!—the battles and the stress and the painful uncertainty of no-right-answer. My choice was months in the making, but the related blog post came quickly, inspired by those beautiful words shared by Rachel Macy Stafford, I Love to Watch You Play.

Thus, it might be unexpected that this morning I took both boys with me to drop my younger son off at preschool. That we then walked, my older son and I, to a coffee shop. That they know us by order—one hot chocolate, not-too-hot, extra whipped cream; one latte—and that we know them, too. That we come armed with handwriting work, and math, and we revel in the almost-autumn, the luxury of familiarity and togetherness and in time enough for a conversation about infinities (plural) amid an assessment of where we stand at the start of this school year.

It might astonish you to hear that this is the beginning of not just a second, but a third year of homseschooling.

It might be surprising to learn that the first year, we began with a kicking and screaming power struggle, and the second with both curiosity and resignation . . . and this year, this morning, with joy. Mine, irrepressible, the smile that comes unbidden even as I shake my head at the silliness around me. (In our house, silliness doesn’t just reign. It cavorts.) Soeren’s, on the other hand, is bubbly, contagious, and delightfully unexpected—I get to do school again? Finally! This—it’s just like last year! And I missed it!

 

My people, I am not only homeschooling, I am glowing, overflowing with joy at the small moments and small miracles. It has been a long process toward this place; these days, I’m walking alongside, journeying with, encouraging, witnessing. Not so much leading. Not so much setting the pace. So no, I don’t know where we’re going, except in the broad strokes of my hopes—but I can tell you that once I got out of the way, it’s been, three bears style, just right for our family.

This story, its hardships and triumphs, and above all its details, they are personal. And fraught—this is very much alive for us, my family and me. Reality is an adjustment. All of which has made me a bit hesitant to share. And also, there’s the fact that I’m probably not quite like you. I’m a licensed teacher. My focus is special ed. I’ve taught third graders and fourth graders and infants and toddlers and kindergartners. I’ve worked in a “great” school district and a “struggling” school district, and in two private schools.

But the thing is, I don’t have to be like you. This is a story about people who are not quite like other people, and what we might do to celebrate and teach and learn from them. You might have one of those people at home yourself. And some days, you might want to tear your hair out. Some days, you might envision lying down on the floor and yelling . . . except that your child is there already. I do not have a solution for you, but I offer this story—this set of truths and lived experiences—as you try to figure out what yours is. And also, a hug. Because, mama: it is hard.

My son Soeren is twice-exceptional; that’s an educational label for children with both giftedness and one or more disabilities. Soeren has motor dysgraphia. When he does formally start school, he may also be diagnosed with dyslexia and sensory processing disorder.* (It is, to my parental and professional eye, highly likely that he fits both of these categories; whether he is actually labeled as either will depend on how he is performing at that point.) He also scores literally off the charts in measures of vocabulary and comprehension, has been speaking in adult-like sentences since before age two, and has a grasp of mathematical concepts that eclipses my own understanding (and has for awhile, which isn’t saying much, but still).

So that’s, on the face of things, what we’re dealing with right now. And there are some things I have learned about this path. Let’s call them homeschooling Tips from the Trenches:

 

You are gonna need mentors and cheerleaders.

There will be days when you wonder if you’ve lost your everloving mind. There will be other days when you won’t wonder, because you will know very definitely that you have. This path is one of connection, love, and abundant joy. It is an invitation to live in the beauty of this moment. But the truth, my people, is that there are moments that none of us really want to live in. And so, for the stubborns or the boredom or the my-God-how-does-anyone-get-anything-done, it helps to know who you can call.

To do this, work your networks. Ask around. The quirk factor in homeschooling can be high; as in anything child-related, not all HS families are going to be a match for yours. If you can find families, though, whom you like and admire, and with whom you can keep in touch, you will be so grateful to yourself. And to them. If you’re a mama, you may especially want to seek out other mothers who do work or keep a schedule like yours, because some days it will be hard to remember that that’s even possible.  If you’re a dad, I’m told you may find it helpful to seek out other HS dads to swap war stories and simply to know that you’re not alone.   For me, seeing that Audette and Mandie and Beth make this life work helps me keep my chips together on the bad days. And their advice and suggestions help to make most of our days good ones.

 

People who don’t know you, your child, or your family situation will feel completely free to prescribe, proscribe, engage, criticize, exalt or condemn your family’s educational decisions.

Some of them will say unbelievably stupid things. This may be infuriating.

People who do know you, your child, and your family situation, including many of those you love, will also feel free to prescribe, proscribe, engage, criticize, exalt or condemn your family’s educational decisions.

Some of them will also say unbelievably stupid things. This may be hurtful.**

 

You will need decent childcare at least some of the time if you as an adult person are going to do anything else. And coordinating that during “school hours” is a particular challenge.

The task is Not My Favorite Thing—there are weeks when I am certain I spend more time coordinating care of the children than providing care to the children. My best advice is cultivate relationships with your nearby mama friends, swap and swap alike, use your church connections, if you have them, and when you find a great sitter, to keep that person close. People who are excellent with your kids will enhance life for your entire family, and did I mention your mental health? Because I should. Your. Mental. Health.

 

You chose this in part for the flexibility to do what works for your child and for your family—so empower yourself to do that.

K-12*** and other similar privately funded, for-profit companies are spending a ton of money to convince you, often via your local school district, that learning at home needs to be highly regimented. Also, that it takes the same amount of time and should involve the same kinds of tasks as learning at school. That’s a lie, y’all. There are many, many ways to structure effective learning, to measure outcomes, and to plan your days and weeks. Experiment a bit. It’s ok to try things on until you figure out what feels right for you. And (whispers) . . . expect that to take you about a year.

 

You will wonder, parenting a special-needs child outside of the formal school system, if you’re doing the right thing.

Yep. You will. And I don’t have an answer for you. But I know that perspective is key. When, for example, you’re hearing, again, a concern about social skills, about appropriate behavior, about task orientation. And most especially when those concerns echo your own—which are not so much about homeschooling, but about whether things are ok with your child, and whether they ever will be, and whether someone, somewhere, might have a magic solution that you’re overlooking. Here, then, is where I tell you a story, of where my heart breaks. And of what helps.

It helps me to remember that Soeren has been one with the floor multiple times a day for most of his life. That finally, last year—he’s seven now–he threw himself to the ground much less frequently. That now, for the first time ever, I find I cannot remember when the last time that happened was.

It helps me also when I recall that this is a child who watches everything in his world, and who also lives there. In his world. And always has. Who, at 15 months, would initiate a counting game with caregivers, joyfully alternating numbers in the twenties . . . and who, for more than a year after that, “played” only by lining things up. Shoes. Soap. Cars. Who pulled himself to standing at five months, walked at 10 months . . . and repetitively banged his head for entertainment. Who has been fascinated by the concept of infinity since age three, and who could not draw a circle until four and a half.

It helps me to remember that while Soeren can make you laugh with his razor-sharp wit, he has always had a hard time holding another’s gaze—and that now, finally, he has sufficient emotional resources to pair with the intellectual ones to make eye contact an intentional practice. Soeren can tell you about the scope and scale of the grains of sand on the beach, and later you will understand that scale in the depths of your soul as he refuses to walk upright again until every last one of those grains has been removed from the bottoms of his feet. Remembering those moments helps me to have compassion for myself and for him and for the challenge of this path—and to deeply appreciate that we are not sitting there still. That even sand does eventually come off.

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Thus, if Soeren looks you in the eye, shows you dimples when you pay him a compliment, or scans your face with a hesitant willingness to try to see what you’re feeling, know that this is what growth looks like. If he takes a breath when you invite him to, opens his palms when he wants desperately to clench them, accepts a cuddle when he’s feeling anxious, I invite you to see that for what it is: progress.

And in this story, if it looks like we’re missing the mark of normal, well . . . you’re right. But what you have been spared, in the lack of daily living with us, is the knowledge that we’ve been missing that mark from the beginning. Not on the school days. Not in the years that we learn at home. We are missing it every day, and have been. If anything, we’re getting closer to that vague watermark of ordinary—we might, someday, learn to pass. In the meantime, we are all learning together, while offering a gentle oasis to a beautiful soul.

I do realize that this hard to accept. So very hard. My mama heart has taken quite a walk to reach this place. Babies come shrouded in mystery, and between that and the beauty that blinds and the strengths that draw our gaze away from the weaknesses and the love that’s so big it’s unspeakable and the fear—O, God, the fear—it is hard. It is a difficulty both daily and eternal to see in our child’s face not our dreams but their reality.

But here is truth, and I dare to speak it, not in resignation but in acceptance—an acceptance of what is that kindles a realistic hope for what may come. I speak, I believe, in the truest love I know: Soeren is not a normal kid. Our baby is not what we expected.

And we love him and we are grateful for the gift of him and we are deeply excited at the learning that he is doing.

I don’t know, truly, if there is a right decision. But my gut says that this isn’t a wrong one.

 

And finally, know that homeschooling now doesn’t necessarily mean homeschooling forever.

We are taking it year by year. If we need to, we’ll adjust semester by semester. Your child’s education is not, first or foremost, a political issue; needs may vary across time and even across a single family (I don’t know if we’ll homeschool Silas at all. He’s a very different kid.) If you can give yourself permission to adapt and experiment, you may find that it means less pressure for everyone. In our family, less pressure equals more joy. Yay.

____

And so, back to this morning. We finished handwriting, reading, math. We talked about infinities and I pretended to know something. And then Soeren quietly thanked the barista, reported to me, “I received a compliment on my behavior,” and skipped past me out the door, notebook in hand.

This isn’t what I thought it would look like, this day.

This child.

This life.

I am learning to be a minister now . . . but still, I teach.

I teach my son.

And he teaches me right back.

 

Blessings on your journey.

j

*Yes, in case you’re wondering, the baffling constellation of autism-related developmental delays often referred to as The Spectrum is something we’ve considered, discussed, screened for.  It’s a tough call in Soeren’s case, and more to the point, it hasn’t been a label that’s had a lot of meaning for us.  High-functioning asperger’s is the best match we’ve found–and it is not a great match.  Soeren is verbally gifted and uses those gifts to connect.  More to the point, he’s wired to connect, and always has been–it’s simply that everything going on around him sometimes overwhelms that ability.  Maybe someday, we’ll discover that there’s a word for all of this.  In the meantime, what we mostly have is a phrase: take it as it comes.  I’m happy to talk with you about this if you’re struggling or questioning or in a similar boat.  From a diagnostic point of view, however, if you don’t personally happen to be a developmental ped, you’re probably not telling us anything we haven’t already heard.  

**These tendencies are perhaps indicative of shared beliefs around public education and social contract, and in a way that actually makes me feel hopeful. We do indeed feel responsible for one another and for the system itself, and we collectively appear to believe that education matters for our future. That said, the people in either category above usually wouldn’t dream of publicly leveling the same criticism, much less in the same tone, toward those close to them who have pulled their children (and their tax dollars) out of the public schools to spend thousands on a private-school education. I believe that, inherent in this discrepancy in attitudes, we may have solution and problem wrapped into one tension-filled package. Communal obligations, individual choices, special needs amid a system based on conforming inputs and outputs, and big, big money. We should talk about this. And I feel confident that we can find a more intellectually honest and emotionally mature way to do it than by scapegoating homeschooling families.

***It might interest you to know more about those companies, the actual outcomes of their products, and the amount of money your local school district is paying them in hopes of attracting per-student dollars via “virtual school” programs. You could, you know, Google it sometime. Homeschool research project. Best paired with a tea and a discussion on the how and why of public policy.

12 weeks; 25 lessons . . . my summer in CPE

Greetings, friends.

As the ink dries on my final self-evaluation, presented just this morning, I rejoice in part by sharing this list with you.

I send appreciation to my CPE cohort group (and our supervisor) for sharing laughter, tears, and learning, and for serving as draftreaders of this post.  Appreciation also to the many incredible SLH staff members with whom I’ve had the privilege of working.  Big thanks to my beloved support team who have helped me through this experience in many ways–you know who you are.  And finally, I offer gratitude, wonder, and respect for the patients and family members I’ve had the honor of companioning these past weeks.  Prayers and blessings to all.

Much love,

j

Hospital surgery corridor 12 weeks; 25 lessons (and colleagues, I’d love to hear YOUR lessons as well.)

1. Moving toward any situation, there’s what you expect.

Then there’s what you see.

And then there’s what there is.

Sometimes there is a lot of space between those things. 

 

2. GSW means gunshot wound. MVC is short for multivehicle collision. And STAT is classical Latin for get your butt down here right now.

 

3. People make decisions about me and who I will be to them in seconds.

Sometimes less. Some of that is what they project from without. Some is what I project from within. And amid the projections, there is a circle of space in which I have control over a part of my image. Herein lie power and identity, service and sacrifice. Who am I willing to be for you? How will I move to do that?

 

4. When grief finds you, you can cry. Or, you can not cry. Both choices might change things.

 

5. Your religion matters, even if your denomination is tiny and has an unusually long name.

I never understood as a patient or parent why I was being asked to share my religion upon admission, and I have hesitated more than once to even try to explain that I am a Unitarian Universalist. At one visit to the local children’s hospital I hemmed and hawed, explaining, “probably ours isn’t even one of the choices.” The admissions clerk replied smoothly, “No, we have that. I’ll put it right in.” That was a small moment, but it was one of great hospitality, and I remember it clearly amid a day that is otherwise mostly a blur.

From the medical side of things, I can now tell you that we ask not so we can report your hospitalization to your church (you would need to ask us to do that) or to sort or classify you in any particular way. We ask because your faith and its rituals are important to your life, and that makes them important to your healing.

And who knows—your local UU chaplain may be ready and waiting to talk with you. So make your presence known. Consider that pre-admission faith statement to be part of your ministry, to yourself and to the world.

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6. The most intimidating spaces I walk into are the ones where I will be alone with myself.  Yours are probably different, but if you can identify the scary places, you will hold a key to changing both frame of reference and behavior.

 

7. I feel the sting of failure acutely. And then I reliably reflect, stand up, and keep going. From here on out, we’re calling that success. Which in CPE language means “good enough.”

 

8. Editing means loss. So does stepping forward. So does simply continuing to breathe. In the formation process, you chisel and sculpt and free from the rocks a new version of yourself. And you will, inevitably, leave pieces of yourself on the cutting floor.

 

9. On a related note, it can be scary to move out of draft form. To use periods rather than commas. To bid farewell, walk away, close the door. There is beauty in openness; there is honesty and integrity in closure. The boundaries of this work require both.

Goodbye

10. Moments are shared, bonds are formed . . . and then, as attends the work of all caring professionals, it is time to let them go.

The place between life and death has been called the thin space, the valley, the hinge, or the knife edge. Whatever words we use, it is a privilege and an intimacy to be invited into it.

As chaplains, our walk through this space with you is often short in duration; then we commend you back into your wider communities of care, trusting in your combined strength and resources, and in the Whatever-Is. There are next steps, but we will not know about them. I find God in that mysterious unknowing.

And I root for you still.

 

11. You took hundreds of risks today, some tiny, some larger. You’ll take hundreds more tomorrow. Which ones did you notice?

 

12. I am constantly surrounded by blessings. And sometimes that bounty feels like too much to take in, and I’m tempted to push them away or live at the edges, with words like “earn” and “deserve” echoing in my mind.

I haven’t figured out why it’s ok to have so much. And I cannot know that things will be the same tomorrow. This means it’s possible and even understandable to meet extreme generosity with shame or fear.

And yet, I find a lived answer to this every Sunday. I love the ancient liturgy, and I wonder if the most powerful words within it are “given for you.” I subscribe to a faith with generous love at its core. Might holding that truth in my heart mean learning to be fearless about receiving?

Deeply grateful . . . and fearless.

 

13. If you’re tempted to say something stupid, try not talking. Truly. There are events for which the solidarity of silence is the only reasonable response.

 

14. I have told myself for a very long time that I “don’t do well with blood.” I can now tell you, post trauma center, that when it comes to the physical realities of bodily fluids, blood is only the beginning. There’s also vomit, sputum, cerebrospinal fluid . . .

As it turns out, I can handle more than I thought I could, in the moments where “handling it” is what is needed. Blood running down the wall? Alrighty then. Wound vac at the bedside? Ok. But later, post-fluids, what needs processing are my feelings. Life in the trauma bay is a buy-now, pay-later endeavor for care providers. I choose to pay later in a way that affirms life and hope, and that means remembering that good stewardship of resources begins with my own emotional and physical energy.

 

15. People are often not sure what a chaplain might be for. Nor a Unitarian Universalist. Explanations can be invitations, obligations, or apologies. They can also be opportunities.

 

16. There is both magic and danger in the spaces between us. When I walk into your patient room, or come into the trauma bay as a fellow staff member, we are immediately negotiating and sharing power. We might also be mediating God.

 

17. I would rather scrub floors or skip meals or, on some days, cut off fingertips than ask for help.

Even when it matters. Especially when it matters.

I hope to continue challenging this tendency in myself. In the meantime, I pray that the realization inspires a more generous pastoral awareness—the reluctance to request or receive assistance of any kind is not uncommon in our congregations, and it presents challenges around concepts of covenant and care.

Support

 

18. Holding the hand of a dying person will encourage you to touch your faith. Holding the hands of fifty dying people will demand, instead, that you challenge it.

So do it. Lean in to the questions. Despair, even—can it be faithless to cry out into the expanse of space My God, My God, Why if Jesus did just exactly that? And to notice that that the question goes unanswered?

Wrestle. Observe.  Acknowledge, get mad, throw anything you need to overboard . . . and then, return to what is simple. To what you know about living and meaning and this moment. And find with the darkness and the questions and the numbered, labored breaths the faith that will carry you forward. It is, now, a faith fit for the valley . . . a faith worthy of the sacred steps you will take holding so many other hands.

 

19. I do not know why bad things happen. I just know that they do, and that sooner or later, some of them will happen to you. And when they do, I hope that you let yourself fall, as Rev. Kate Braestrup advises, and, when you’re ready, that you notice what catches you. That you can number each blessing, each piece of grace and beam of love as it finds its way to you. Comfort and solace amid the Very Worst.

You don’t have to call that God . . . but you could.

 

20. Sincere affirmation opens many doors.

 

21. Food does not heal sadness.

Like the children’s story We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, the fundamental truth of grief is that we can’t go over it, we can’t go under it, and we can’t go around it. We have to go through it.

For me, despite many attempts, chewing has not turned out to be an instrinsic part of the healing process . . .  and even so, the hospital cafeteria offers surprisingly good meals and its staff engage in a cheering ministry all their own.

Bon appetit.

Slice of apple pie

 

22. People will tell me they are “spiritual, but not religious,” in any of the ways that people say this, approximately 500 times between now and when I’m ordained.

And infinitely more times after that.

I have come to accept this. And believe that my task is to see it as an invitation to exploration, using language, symbols, and values that hold meaning for the individual. This will be how we do faith in this time . . . and it’s actually not a bad place to start.

 

23. Both/and isn’t just seminaryspeak. It is an invitation to find oneself within the complexity of life, where things are rich and ambiguous and multivalent.

This way of looking at things can be deeply uncomfortable—it offers none of the easy answers of either/or. It also offers possibilities and hope that remain obscured within a two-dimensional view of conflict.

Developing the emotional range and creative tools to live into ambiguity, and to encourage others to explore it with us, is one of our most important tasks as religious leaders. It is risky, deeply countercultural, and requires the use of imagination and prophetic voice. And it just might offer a future in those spaces where the horizon seems the darkest.

 

24. The fact that a thing needs to be done does not mean that the thing is mine to do. Sometimes simply taking care of my own square is an act of love and faith.

 

25. Some days, it is worth planning an outfit around your shoes.

(Any day you spend working in a hospital is one of those days.)

 

Ballet flats

on mothering from afar

Watermelon slice

There are watermelon slices sitting, in an alchemy that somehow encompasses both rotting and drying, uncovered in the fridge. Perhaps they’re from the one I bought 10 days ago, green and heavy and slightly lopsided. I forgot we had it. For me, this summer, the kitchen is just something that came with the house.

It’s morning now, and silent, but a riot of color, lent by stains I can’t identify and toys I don’t recognize, shouts from the oak floorboards of the kitchen and living room. I pick my way across, alone with the sunrise on that rarest of weekdays—no work, no hospital rounds, no trips, no sitters, no guests. Just me, here. Present in the company of my family, in the comfort of my home, but no one else awake.

I’m told that lunch yesterday consisted of chicken nuggets with peanut butter sandwiches on the side. A pair of shoes is missing. Soeren’s shoulders are sunburned. And Silas’s hair has gone from supernova to rock star to Laura Ashley model (on, it should be noted, the girls’ side). The compliments he gets from women have shifted from adoration of his cuteness to envy of his mane.

I am determined to trim that mane today, because last night as he talked to me, I sometimes couldn’t see Si’s eyes . . .

Or is it because yesterday, he used a long-fingered hand to casually sweep the surfer-white curls from his forehead as he addressed me, and was suddenly not four, but fourteen? I sat, transfixed, taken, awed, horrified. How magical and terrible that you must become something so separate and strong and unpredictable. How audacious of you to do it here before my eyes. How practical of you to do it, mostly, while I am not watching.

I’m cutting it, I tell you.

You will be four again. And perhaps, my blond-curled babe, I will forget that even now I can’t quite know you.

And Soeren. Your eyes, ever changing, now look like sea glass. You are so tan. And so tall—another few inches and I will be able to rest my chin on the top of your head. And you might let me, in the stray moments, in the same way you acquiesce, with a soft smile, to being hugged, or toweled, or tickled. I don’t wonder, yet, if it’s the last time for thoughtless cuddles . . . but I can see the wondering coming, ambling toward us on the winding, unpaved lane of growing up.

All of this—the changes, the surprises, the tallness—they would be happening, all the same, if I were here. But the inexorability of the process, when remembered, comes anew as a shock and a revelation. Because, at the heart of things, we mothers still think that growing up should not happen without us.

I don’t want you to keenly feel my absence. Wishing you pain for the benefit of my ego is too big of a burden for either of us to bear. But I do wonder what it means that my lack of everyday presence is not a tragedy. That you, my children, appear to flourish anyway.

Perhaps the lesson is that the real loss is simply mine. I miss kisses. Whispers. Small gifts with four or six or eight legs, or petals, or staples. The creak of the porch swing. Domain over the kitchen sink.

What does it mean that I never wanted that kind of household eminence—don’t want it still—but I ache as I type this?  Not enough to turn back, or quit, but enough to know, for sure, that there is indeed a cost.

Enough to add fervor to my prayers that “ok” comes in all shapes, that love comes from lots of places, that enough is enough is enough, whoever’s providing it.

My faith tells me there is no hell, but amazingly, that doesn’t touch the fear of damnation here, on this earth.

Not by others. They could condemn me or my choices—maybe they do—but in the final estimation, it’s not any person’s judgment that frightens me.

What I’m afraid of is bigger and deeper, a theological matter for our time. The final judge will be the limits of each 24 hour day and the reality of opportunity cost and the truth that to love is on some level to leave your heart lying helpless.

In the face of that, I wish–I wish us all, in fact–comfort and peace and strength for the journey.

-j

Absolution for the working mother

My love for you would break hearts
It does. It has–
I would know.

But not as a sun on a leaf through a magnifying glass
Or a portrait drawn from a single sitting
Or an unbroken line of oatmeal mornings and chocolate chip cookie afternoons.

I see you in the dappled light of moving tree branches
And candid photos
In full color, not sepia
Real and shining
And part of a true story–

Part.

The rest told in mudpies and milkshakes
served to other mouths
Footprints cleaned by other hands
The laundry, the sink, and the bathrooms
that say Daddy’s Rules

You laugh, and I hear you;
You laugh when I don’t hear you.

I know this.

And I smile
and swallow
and pray
That word,
balm to souls
who always knew
you can’t really have it all

Enough.

Just let it be enough.

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I did not fight the law . . . and we all win

I’ve been on the fence about sharing this story–where, and how, and if.

It’s not really an impression I want to leave you with, and it’s so simple to explain that I’m taking Soeren to visit my grandmother this week. And even if I tell you more of the truth, the easy thing is to tell it funny.

I can tell you about our late departure from Lawrence on an afternoon the week before Thanksgiving. I can describe trying to make it all the way to Cheyenne to avoid the hell that is a hotel room in western Kansas with Si and Ren. I can tell you about the dry pavement, the absence of anyone else even on the road, the clear, starry night. I can share that we were making excellent time to Wyoming, and that we shared a laugh with a sheriff who seemed truly reluctant to write me a ticket . . . but then it turned out my driver’s license was back home in Lawrence, sitting in the center console of my car (we drove Craig’s.)

Not laughing? I can’t bring myself to make the jokes any more.  I also could not look myself in the eye if I contested this ticket.

Friends, I was going 94 miles an hour. My husband was in the passenger seat. Our two sleeping children were in the back.

The truth is, speeding is my vice. I never thought of it this way . . . I never thought of it much at all, actually, except occasionally to complain about the unreasonable-seeming speed limits on various roads. I have places to be, you see. And I could get there so much FASTER without these inconvenient restrictions. And yes, it’s expensive. But mostly only if you get caught.

In the meantime, my tendency to speed has caused familial concern and quips (Craig has joked that my title upon ordination should actually be “Reverend Leadfoot”)–but nothing has happened to convince me that I should observe posted speed limits.  In fact, I’m not sure this ticket would have either.  Not for the long term.

And then, in passing on FB, I saw this clip in my newsfeed a few weeks ago. I’m not sure which of you shared it; it doesn’t matter. I knew just reading the tag line that it was for me.   I don’t mean that you particularly intended for me to see it.  I mean that the universe did.

The spot hit home, and devastatingly, as I knew from the second I saw it that it would.  In fact, I read an article about the PSA series and what they were trying to accomplish with it before I watched the clip. Because I was stalling. Because I didn’t want to see.

Once I did watch, I knew that change was coming. (I hope you’ll watch it, too; it’s embedded below this post.  But in case I haven’t convinced you, I’ll give you what you need to know.  It’s not graphic at all, and yet is utterly soul-searing.  It’s two drivers.  One is speeding.  The other has made a momentary mistake of judgment.  They are suddenly standing outside of their cars, talking.  Trying to negotiate.  Trying to change things.  But it’s just too late.  There is a child, about Soeren’s age, in the back of one of the cars . . . we watch his face, and his father’s, as everyone realizes that there is nothing to be done at this pont.  The take home message is that if you can’t find a reason in your own driving, in your own family, to slow down, then perhaps what will register is that sometimes other people make mistakes.)

I’ve spent the intervening weeks in Chicago, not driving, and that has given me some time and space to think.

For instance, I have thought–believe me–of calling Kit Carson County to plead my case. I’m a mom of two, driving 400 miles into a snowstorm to appear in court for a speeding ticket–is there any possibility of a diversion? I’d laugh, apologize, ask for understanding and a larger fine.

It might be successful. I don’t know . And I won’t know. I am not going to do it.

Instead, we went this morning to rent a car with 4-wheel drive. The “midsize SUV” I reserved turned out to be a Suburban XL, in black. We are not making this easy.

I realize that this may not seem like much of a story for a post this dramatic. I was driving really fast and . . . someone told me to stop it.

Herein lies the grace, however–and it’s that grace, that possibility of a resurrected future, the kind you get to claim BEFORE you lose it–that leads me to share this with you. I am driving to Colorado for me. But I am telling this story for you. I made a mistake, in a larger pattern of mistaken thinking, and NOTHING HAPPENED. Thank you, God, for this blessing and this opportunity.

I don’t believe in penance, but I do believe in learning through action. That means we become different by being differently in our spaces, relationships, and routines.

Know, then, that if you see a large black SUV on I-70 today driving slowly and officially, it’s not the secret service. It’s me, practicing skills to keep my kids safe . . . and yours, too.

when the time comes to let it go

butterfly in child hands

I’ve been thinking a lot about this post.  I wrote it last December, contemplating a time (an as yet undefined, hopefully very “future” time) when my congregation’s minister will leave our church.

That reflection was about living in peace with what you know will leave you, and about figuring out how to do the work required to live into a personal commitment to stay.  And it was about realizing that building relationships with my fellow congregants, and then expanding the circle to make room for the stranger, was what mattered in both of these contexts.

Friends, all of that may be true.  It probably is.  It sounds good, anyway.

And yet, the joke’s on me.  Note: when worrying about anticipated grief, consider also “denial”– it’s a treasonous thing, and its reversal packs a stunning wallop.

I hoped, last winter, that I was working on identifying and hanging onto what stays, and gracefully accepting the impending departure of what does not.  Looking back at my collected work, what I think I’ve actually written is “How to lose a lot of what you thought you needed, including your money and possibly your mind, in 11 short months.”

These days my blog is showing up in Google searches from potential UU seminarians (halloo, there!), and in helpful response, I have considered writing an actual “how to” post, as a step-by-step list.  (Step one: Tell the story of your life.  Tell it again.  Now again.  When the person listening has either literally perished from boredom, or attempted to slap you senseless, proceed to the next step.  Step two: Gather all of the financial resources you have available.  Seriously, all of them; if you can liquidate some assets, even better.  Place them in the center of a large circle.  Light them on fire.  Dance around them, singing “We are the flow, we are the ebb,” or another Pagan chant of your choice, while filling out form RSCC-6 detailing your financial plans for your future ministry.  . . . )

I could go on from there, and I’m sure my fellow seminarians could, too . . . the thing is, it probably doesn’t matter.  There is so much I didn’t know, consent I wasn’t informed enough to give, losses I wasn’t prepared to incur.  Maybe a step-by-step list, even a silly one, would be a move in the right direction . . . but for many of us, I suspect it would change nothing.  If the number one value were doing something that clearly made sense from the ouside, “rational” perspective, who in this time and place would prepare for a life of religious leadership?

No, this is a path for people who are drawn by something else, something so compelling that we’re willing to grope in the dark where needed or stretch a foot out toward a path that does not yet exist.

It takes much trust—so much trust—to keep moving forward when you can’t see where you’re going to put your feet next; in doing this, you will feel quite acutely the weight of what is riding on your every move.  Because it’s not just about you.  It never is.  It’s lifelong friendship and the tiny fingerprints that have been born of it.  It’s the ridges and contours of this place where we grew into a family.

And, of course, this doesn’t stop with my family.  Part of the path that is missing, or at least missing significant signage and guideposts, is in the saying goodbye to my home congregation.

There are a few recommendations here and some vague admonitions there, but really, we’re all just feeling our way through.  Sometimes, I’m leading that feeling-out process; that can be more of an adventure than a person who hates awkwardness—hates it more even than raisins—can gracefully handle.

And I’m starting to wish, in this weird, in-between time, that I had a sign.

It should read:

I can’t be your friend

(and soon I can’t be your “friend,” either)

The time is coming when we will let all these things go.

But that time is not now.  Not yet.  So for now, I just grit my teeth through the awkwardness.  For now, I just imagine saying goodbye.  And the moment seems unthinkable.  Huge.  Unbelievably sad.

But then I realize: “huge” is not how goodbyes like this happen.  I sit, lately, in the spaces that used to feel like home, the ones that for years have been comfortable like a favorite pair of jeans.  And I notice that it doesn’t feel the same anymore, in subtle but definite ways.  There is a gradual slipping away of some things, and, at the same time, a slow dawn of others.

There is truth here: this is how it will happen.  This is how it will be.  As an icicle melts, as a pathway is etched, as a child grows.  Each new day is a goodbye, and a new arrival, as I gradually become someone else.

The one who will go.

And, then, someday . . . the one who lets go for a living.

-j

quote-to-live-in-this-world-you-must-be-able-to-do-three-things-to-love-what-is-mortal-to-hold-it-mary-oliver-138948

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Rev. Patrick McLaughlin

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