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.

parenting and other cruelties

It’s like this: Silas, a tiny imp at three, hair like a supernova, blue eyes lit with mischief, turns away from my gentle chiding and walks slowly, purposefully, down the hallway.  His newly three-year-old body conveys resolve in its posture, intention in its steps.  He trails one finger along the wall as he walks, pivots, turns the corner at the end.  He disappears.  Si walks away from me, without looking back.  And then he is gone.

And suddenly, in a flash of premature nostalgia, versions of this scene—the rest of his childhood, the rest of our lives—play out, one after another, in my mind.  I lean against the kitchen counter, regard the empty hallway, breathe.

And then Si’s blond head pops back into view as he leans carefully around the corner, catches my eye, grins.  He doesn’t speak as he smiles, but I hear him loud and clear.  Gotcha, Mom! I walked away from you!  

That he can even do this is new—a milestone—a marvel.  And so, this was for show.  Yet I know, and maybe he does, too, on an instinctive level, that every day he is practicing for the real thing.  We both are—blocking and rehearsing for a play I’m not sure I want to be part of.

Here’s the thing: it is freaking terrifying to be a parent.  Like, in any moment in which you’re actually paying attention.  The weight, the risk, the fear.  Sometimes it feels hard to inhale.

Part of this is the knowledge—the fear, and also the certainty—that I’m doing it wrong, all the time.  The crushing thing is that there’s no way to do it right.  I perceive the vague outline of impossibility, and in the face of something so huge, I am paralyzed.

And it’s not just my kids.  Sometimes I experience the entire world through the lens of a moral imperative that I cannot meet.  Save Things.  And it is thus both fitting and unbelievable that last Friday night, I met the bird.

Every day I can, come rain, or snow, or (my husband hates this) even dark of night, when I have 20 minutes and shoes, I run through the forest on the west side of town.  Sometimes, particularly when I have a lot of other things competing for my attention, this compulsion to self-care feels a bit sneaky.  Last Friday evening, though, under a weight of obligations and expectations that suddenly felt impossible, I spent not 20 minutes but 90, and I didn’t sneak so much commandeer them.  Rumbling thunder, running water on the path, and the increasing heaviness of my soil-caked feet aside, it was just what my soul needed . . . and then I saw him.

He was about the size of my hand, feathers puffed up a bit, bright red and completely incongruous—a songbird on the ground.   He glanced in the direction of my shoe when I stepped near him, but didn’t fly away—instead, he walked on the path.

Honestly, he seemed untroubled.  At the very least, he was not visibly panicked.  That was fine; I felt enough panic for both of us.  He was beautiful.  He was hurt or sick.  He couldn’t live here on the ground, on the trail, in the rain.  Surely I should do something?  I crouched near him on the soggy trail, asked him inane questions, watched as he snatched a mouthful of grass on this side, dug a bit in the mud on that.  He kept walking whether I did or not, seeming only slightly to notice when I reappeared next to him, and not at all when I stopped.

I considered the wild bird rescue center in a neighboring town—we once took a robin there; it had knocked itself unconscious against our clerestory window.  I considered attempting to catch this wild thing, holding it in my hands, taking him from Here to Somewhere Else.  I considered hope, and what I could rightly invest in this bird.  I considered the tasks and obligations that had already been given to me for that night.  And then I stood up and walked away.  I channeled my plucky three-year-old, and did not look back.*

I’ve been out to the trails in the week since then, and I haven’t seen the bird again.  I haven’t looked for him, either.  I have felt for him, though, in what I’m coming to understand as the pull of something bigger—a call to accept what is.

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It was drier this week, the trails returning to dirt; life continues to assert itself in ways hopeful, marvelous—and challenging.  The brown of the trail is increasingly adorned with dots of green.  These are the insistent sprouts of baby trees that have found enough space and enough light to grow—directly in the path of my feet.

I hopscotch over them, and try not to think too much about it.  They are heartbreaking, a bit.  A baby tree pushes up through the soil and unfurls its first leaf with a strength and hopefulness that is inspiring—it’s going to take this chance its been given to grow, and go for it.  Except that here it has no chance.  This little tree—and this one, and that one—grows only to be trampled underfoot.  And again, my heart pulls at my hands: do something.  Fix it.

I don’t, though.  I just feel.  I just think.  My grief is not for these trees.

There is no way around it, and also no way through.  I am crushed underneath its weight, under the terrible knowledge that I will fail as a parent.  Under the understanding that beyond that, I am incapable of protecting anything—even that which is most precious to me.  I am rendered powerless by truth and certainty, as in the Samyutta nikaya, that whatsoever is of a nature to arise, all that is of a nature to cease.

And, I find, in some strange way, that in utter powerlessness there is freedom.  In lack of choice there is space to breathe, to be.  To experience the strange magic of now—how this one small moment offers comfort and shelter, yet refuses to make a single promise to any of us.

I keep running through the forest, sliding around in the mud.  I’m trying to keep my feet off the living.

I’m trying to understand.

j

 

my prayer for today, for tomorrow, and for the mixed blessing that is mothering and mother’s day:

 

In these moments

when what we perceive most acutely

is our own smallness,

when we cling to things we cannot keep

as we are called to love what cannot stay

 

Comfort us as we grieve our failures,

Our incapability, our losses.  

Strengthen us that we may see, and celebrate,

our children

not as something of or belonging to us,

but as they are . . . as themselves.  

 

And help us to cultivate the gift of presence,

that we may take and recognize our joy

as it comes in the small moments of the everyday.

 

Amen.


*Ok, I looked back once.  I was already around the bend in the trail, though, and I couldn’t see him anymore.  So I waited a minute.  And then, with a prayer for bird peace, I walked to my car.  

rocks, rivers, and rough transitions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still no?

How about this:

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

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

--Peter Mayer, "God is a River"

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

goodnight from my confused, envious, wistful heart,

j

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

pastoral care for humanists? : the Rev. Jill Jarvis responds

This guest post merits a guest reply; Rev. Jarvis, thanks for your words.  Readers, anything to add?  

Peace,

j

Alicia, this is a distressing situation indeed – you’re far from your loved ones, unable to help in any practical way, worried about both your sister and your parents. Fortunately you’re finding good support among your close friends, both online and in person. You know you’re not alone and you have people to affirm your feelings and listen deeply. But it sounds like you’re wanting something more, and wondering whether your nontheistic religion could possibly provide it. What is pastoral care for the humanist?

In any context I’m aware of, pastoral care is pretty much what you’re receiving from loving and trusted friends, and even the internet.  It’s a compassionate witness to those feelings of sorrow and helplessness, a non-anxious presence, and awareness that you’re not alone.

But even with that loving support provided by friends, you long to talk to your minister. Maybe it would be helpful to consider what you feel is missing. 

As you describe what you imagine a Christian minister might say, it seems to be a way of making sense of what you’re experiencing.  What’s the meaning behind all the pain? Is there a larger context, and can it offer hope? I think you’re asking whether your religion can help you make sense of your pain and fear. 

If it ultimately can’t, I’d advise you to consider changing religions. But first, take the time to struggle with understanding your experience of helplessness and vulnerability, in light of your own faith. The Rev. Rebecca Parker, in her book Blessing the World: What Can Save Us Now, says that when our current faith is inadequate to explain our reality, we have three options:  reject our faith, deny our experience, or become theologians.  That last option is about wrestling with the stories and traditions and our own experience until it all becomes meaningful, and we have a faith we can rely on to help us make it through this night and the many nights to come.

Chaplains in a hospital aren’t supposed to impose their own theology on a patient struggling through a life crisis.  They’re trained to provide support and comfort to patients of all religions and none. They mostly listen and affirm, meeting people where they are. But if a person in crisis signals a need to understand their situation in a greater spiritual sense, if they’re searching for a deeper meaning, the chaplain helps them do that by evoking the power of their own traditions and beliefs (the patient’s, not the chaplain’s.)

 I think most UU ministers are particularly good at this. We don’t feel called to make everyone’s experience fit neatly into One Great True Story.

Though I’m not a Christian, I really doubt that most liberal Christian ministers would be evoking the Christian worldview in quite the literal, simplistic sense you describe. How would that really help someone in crisis? Only if you’re truly able to ignore the realities of this life in favor of a joyful existence after death, would (it seems to me) you find that comforting.  It’s all part of a larger plan controlled by a God that has the power to make it all better…..really? Just observing life as you know it tells you that things sometimes don’t turn out as we hope, good people suffer, we are all vulnerable all the time.  If you hear the Christian story in that literal sense, you have to conclude that maybe God won’t make things better for you, even though God could. Where’s the comfort in that?

I think you’re longing for this sort of comfort, but seeing it available only if you were able to accept that supernatural literalism, and you can’t.  It doesn’t fit with your experience of life.  But underneath Christian dogma is the reality of human existence that can be evoked, through Christian stories and traditions, to make meaning in a much deeper, non-literal sense that does resonate with people’s experience.  The same can be said for Unitarian Universalism, with a non-theistic focus – but as with any religious tradition, you have to do the wrestling part.  Humanism is not (should not be) just an absence of certain beliefs.  If it ultimately can’t help you find meaning and comfort through the joy and suffering of life, I’d advise exploring other alternatives.  Naturalistic humanism works for me, but the wrestling has taken years, and if you’re doing it right, is never over.

In this case, the first step would be to talk to your minister. He should be able to help provide context and form for the wrestling. Blessings on your journey.

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the thing we love . . . that leaves us (part II)

(Or, “Running Through the Thistles: a Lay Perspective”)

The first part of this story appears here–this is part II . . .

So where does all this leave us, and what does any of it have to do with church life?

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There is one relationship we build within our congregation that, if we are doing things as well as we hope to, will inherently be time-limited: the one we have with our minister.  At some point, the ministry continues, but the minister does not.

This fact was recently brought to my attention, and I am slightly embarrassed to say that it came as something of a shock.  Certainly, simple naivete played a part in my astonishment, but our congregation is also in a unique position: our current minister is the only minister we’ve ever had.  In 60 years as a fellowship, the last decade is the first time that we have accessed any sort of professional ministry, and only in the last few years have we had a settled minister.  Thus, our minister is, for all intents and purposes, The minister.

And I now understand that someday she will leave us.  Actually, this much I had worked out for myself.  Superior reasoning skills, no?  The part that astonished me is what our minister’s departure will mean.  Which is, jointly and severally, the end of our relationship with her.  Not unlike a death–a death foretold, with ritual preparations including thank yous and farewells and unfriendings on Facebook.

Why take a painful situation (a goodbye) and exacerbate it by turning it into something else (a cut-off)?  The reasoning is usually framed as a potential detriment to the relationship between the new minister and the congregation.  This failure to connect and to define a [n exclusive?] two-way relationship adversely affects both parties and ultimately the ministry itself.

Unfortunately, this isn’t merely theoretical; I have a friend–I’ll call him Matthew–whom I know to be an intelligent and caring individual, and who is, by all accounts, a talented pastor.  Despite those attributes, Matthew’s ministry recently unraveled as a result of unclear loyalties and power structures.  The congregation opted to maintain an official, ongoing relationship with the former senior pastor even as they welcomed a new one; several years (and a significant investment in consulting time) later, it has become clear that this arrangement existed to the detriment of all.  Perhaps the greatest harm accrued to Matthew himself, who was unable to establish the relationships and the leadership traction necessary to steer a congregation whom he loved deeply and believed in utterly. These difficulties and the bitter legacy they leave harm congregations, the denominational ministry and ultimately the larger faith community.  Members are lost, gifted pastors leave, and we all are distracted from our primary church tasks–the worship of God and our shared work to build and care for the Beloved Community.

For a detailed and affecting discussion of these challenges and some thoughts about how ministers and congregations might rise to meet them, see the 180th Berry Street Lecture, given by Rev. Dr. Mark Morrison-Reed.  I will warn you, however, that while very eloquent and even beautiful in places, Morrison-Reed’s reflection is a painful read whether you are a layperson or, I’m told, a minister.

Truthfully, even with the above knowledge, I am not entirely convinced that a “take no prisoners; leave no friends” approach to goodbyes is the best one from a personal or a theoretical perspective.  I will set that aside, however, and look instead at the meaning of this impending loss.  Which, while hopefully rather distant from the current moment, will someday be upon us.  In the meantime, foreknowledge is ours to do with what we will.

As to our minister leaving, when the time comes: it will be painful.  In fact, the knowledge of it hurts already, and my natural inclination is to protect myself.  While the situation is less fraught, this is not unlike what I experienced in my friendship with Jamie [note: for the rest of this story, see Part I].  Or my five-year-old’s reaction to the Snowman’s passing out of the boy’s life after staying just long enough to illuminate some true magic in the world.  Why connect in the present when the ties we make must break?  Why invest ourselves in that which cannot stay?

In answer to these questions, Rev. Morrison-Read quotes Unitarian Universalist theologian Forrest Church, who opined that “[t]he fact that death is inevitable gives meaning to our love, for the more we love the more we risk losing. Love’s power comes, in part, from the courage required to give ourselves to that which is not ours to keep: our spouses, children, parents, dear and cherished friends, [and congregations]…”  Thus, explains Morrison-Read, “it takes courage to throw off caution and enter fully into life [because the] risk of loss is not just great; it is certain.” This is poignant, evocative, and (unfortunately, in my view–how lovely it would be to have relationships without pain) absolutely true.  In fact, it is precisely what I wish I had realized two years ago, watching Jamie from what I hoped was a safe distance while guarding my heart and hiding my love away.  We love because that is what we are here to do, and the losses we incur are simply part of that love.

Yet that message, however powerful, is not the point of this post.

This is a reflection not just about love and loss, but about intentional congregational life. In short, we know that, in any context, that which we love may leave us.  We know that we must continue to love, and to offer the best that we have within us, even so.  The question is, what power does that knowledge afford us in our congregations–and not just in our dealings with our clergy?

One thing we might learn from the knowledge that our minister will leave–and that our particular relationships with her will end–is that as congregants, we must focus our efforts in what we can do for each other.  In the end, the work we do to build an intentional community, or to intentionally build ourselves and grow spiritually, isn’t between ourselves and our minister.  It’s between ourselves and . . . us.  In this context, a job well done is revealed by the our relationships with one another; the currency that counts is the trust we place and the care we take and the covenants we make and honor.

With those tasks in mind, let’s look around and ask what we might do next.  It is we who stay–to whom should we reach out in offer of connection?  It is we who stay—how might we make the circle bigger?  Can we forgive the one who wronged us?  Listen to the one who irritates us?  Can we hold each other tighter, and can we do it in this season, rather than waiting for a time of crisis?

But–here’s the real mind-trip–our focus in relationship must be about “us” because it ultimately isn’t about us at all.  This idea, of course, isn’t new either.  Many denominational communities view their work as the natural extension of a relationship even more fundamental than what we have with one another–that which we cultivate with God.  Phrased this way, the concept may not resonate with some UU’s, but even we are being pushed to acknowledge something on the order of a Larger Truth.  (Don’t worry, friends, it’s not what you think–but it will demand sacrifices just the same, the first being a lessening of our egos.)  And that truth is: it’s not about you.  Sound a bit familiar?  A piece of this was shared with ministers at General Assembly last summer (See Rev. Dr. Fredric Muir’s 2012 Berry Street Lecture, “From iChurch to Beloved Community”) and has been making its way into congregational discussions since then.

I can be pretty self-centered and even a bit dense at times, but I think I could have figured out “It’s not about U” on my own.  Eventually, anyway.   The real challenge to my fledgling attempts toward the practice of radical hospitality is understanding that my congregational work is not only not about me– it’s also not about anyone else I already know and love.  We need to keep our eyes fixed lovingly on one another not because what we do here is an end in itself (though of course it is, and hopefully a beautiful and healing one), but because what we hold in our hands as our most reverent, connected selves is nothing less than the future.

We will continue to hear this message. In fact, it seems like being a Unitarian Universalist in the current moment means confronting this truth again and again; it is going to continue to creep up on us, tapping us on the shoulders, whispering in our ears, until we adapt to its demands.  And so, reflecting on our tasks as an intentional-community-in-the-face-of-loss becomes part of the larger challenge: to think more broadly about our purposes and our obligations as a people of faith.  We are building something for the future, something that comes through us but is not of us.

In our churches and our fellowships, in the meeting halls and campus buildings and repurposed storefronts–in all those places where a living faith exists–something profound and sacred has been entrusted to our care.  We may enjoy it, live in it, scatter it joyfully around our lives–but it will never fully belong to us.  Like the children in Khalil Gibran’s poem, our religion is not really ours.  In this discussion of losses we face as a congregation, perhaps the greatest is our illusion of self-importance, of ownership.

This summer the Rev. Dr. Lisa Presley advised a group of us that “if Unitarian Universalism has given you something–if this faith it has been a transformative influence in your life, and I think for all of us, it has–then you have no right to close the door behind you.”  Keeping those words in mind, we lean into loss, embracing life before death and the pain of grief after it, because it is the faith that must outlive us–a faith embodied in our healthy, thriving congregations.  Thus, we seize this moment and open our hearts to one another with the full foreknowledge that they will be broken wide open.  In so doing, we keep alive a vital spark, handed to us by those who came before and which we ourselves must pass on, that the work of peace and justice in the world may continue.

Channeling our beloved, but impermanent, minister: May it be so.

Oh, when will we ever learn?

I thought that I would have a new post for you today.  As this day has unfolded, though, it has turned out that the only words I have are Pete Seeger’s.

On its face, this is a song about war.  Reading a bit deeper, however, it is a poem about the terrible call to witness as the losses mount, losses that seem both inevitable and senseless.  It is a reminder that, though as individuals we may feel helpless,  our collective choices in one moment either contribute to or help to prevent our anguish in the next.

When WILL we ever learn?  That, for now, remains an open question.

But there is hope in continuing to ask.

peace, and prayers for peace.

j

the thing we love . . . that leaves us (part I)

Last week, we watched what has become a winter tradition for us: The Snowman, Dianne Jackson’s beautifully rendered adaptation of the Raymond Briggs picture book.  I remember the movie from my own childhood–I first saw it in school, and I loved it immediately.  I am among the least musical people I know, but the score remained in my head so completely that in hearing it again as an adult I felt, for a moment, what it was like to be seven, watching a filmstrip with my chin on my desk and a gum eraser in my hand.  There is nothing flashy about the animation or the story, but it’s captivating anyway (as demonstrated by the complete, and completely uncharacteristic, stillness of my sons as they watched).

The next part of this story contains some spoilers, so if those will detract from your Snowman experience, watch this first.  Then, in 26 minutes, continue reading.  We’ll wait.

Ready?

This hopefully isn’t a great shock, but The Snowman is a movie about an ephemeral relationship.  The friendship between the boy and the snowman is deeply special; indeed, we sense that it has been profoundly transformative for both.  (Certainly this is so for the boy, but could the snowman have existed without a boy who believed enough to create him?)  But the relationship is also very short; it consists of a single, magical night, after which the snowman melts as the boy is sleeping.  In the final scene the boy, looking grief-stricken, falls to his knees where the snowman last stood, and reaches to place his own scarf on the ground by the snowman’s.  Cue credits.

I think I had forgotten the ending of the movie, and clearly my children didn’t remember it either.  My two-year-old’s face contorted with rage; as is his custom, he then looked for objects to throw.  My five year old, on the other hand, began to cry, and then to sob uncontrollably.  When he could speak, it was to shout, “He’s gone!  The boy loved him, and he’s GONE FOREVER!”  This was followed by, “Why couldn’t he save himself?  He could fly–why wasn’t he smart enough to fly to Antarctica?”

We talked about this a bit, and I wondered aloud if the snowman chose not to leave because he was exactly where he was supposed to be–in the yard where the boy had made him, keeping watch until the morning.  Perhaps he stayed because he belonged to the boy, and nowhere else?  Ren responded angrily, “Then he shouldn’t have made him!  This shouldn’t have happened!”  Valid points, both.  And that is where we left the conversation.  But it is not where I left my thoughts, as I dried my own eyes (disclaimer: I have been known to become teary, in my adult life, during Disney movies, commercials for Johnson & Johnson products and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and while reading Because of Winn-Dixie aloud to my third-graders)  and continued with the day.

The movie, and the resulting discussion, were particularly poignant for me last week–and still are, actually.  Ren’s questions touch on some things I have been wondering about, and even wrestling with, myself.  As much as I’d like to think I’m doing this in a mature, adult way, there is wisdom in the honest questions of a five-year-old.  Further, as I try to come to terms with truths I’d prefer not to acknowledge,  it is true that I sometimes talk to God like a kindergartner having a tantrum.    What, I demand, is the value of having something special in our lives, only to lose it?  How should we be in the face of impending loss?  (And really, don’t all of our relationships occur in that context?  How easily we forget it, though–and so the stakes feel different when we are truly aware that grief is looming.)

This is something I’m thinking about in the context of two examples–one personal, one congregational/denominational.  I will talk about the personal one today, and save the congregational discussion for its own post.  [In advance, a small warning: like The Snowman, this first story involves an ending, this time of a life, that is not what any of us would have preferred.]

Today would have been the 37th birthday of a friend I knew for a very short time.  I met Jamie in September, 2010, as she artfully balanced parenting a lively and adorable four-year-old, doing articulate and enthusiastic outreach through a blog that touched hundreds and possibly thousands of followers, and completing intensive treatments for metastatic breast cancer.  Jamie died on March 29, 2011.  She died as she lived–surrounded by a close network of family and friends, connecting with the people and things that were important to her.  She had a smile that could light up a stadium paired with a personality that made you feel like you were the only one in the room. Though at times her frustration and weariness were clear, Jamie embraced the calling that she felt to tell her story and used it to connect with and better the lives of others.  (to read more about this, in Jamie’s own words, go to her website, LovingPink.com, and scroll down for the link to her blog.)

There has never been a moment–truly–from my fear and worry when Jamie first shared her story with me (I got to know her at a time when I had a suspicious lump of my own, and had been referred for biopsy) to my increased fear and worry as her medical journey took a turn for the worse, to the take-your-breath-away sadness I felt at learning of her death, that I have not been glad to have known her.  The example Jamie set of making each day count and connecting with the important things while letting the others go has influenced my thinking and my parenting.  The example her close friends and family set in dealing with her advancing illness has changed my thoughts about how we handle death.

There is another truth, though: from the time that I met her, I kept Jamie at arm’s length.  I was grateful to know her–and terrified of the day when I wouldn’t.  From the beginning, and with as much foreknowledge as any of us can have, this was a time-limited relationship–one destined to be much, much shorter than I would have liked.   And I dealt with the terrible weight of this knowledge by keeping my heart away, to the extent that I could.

I interacted with Jamie virtually rather than actually.  When I did see her in person, I kept it short.  I am embarrassed and saddened to say that there were times when I’m not sure I even looked her in the eye.  We had children of a similar age at the same school, and in the fear and sadness and guilt that I felt at the reality of what was happening to Jamie and her family, it was easier to look at the wall, or the ground, or the fish tank.  I turned my eyes away rather than suffer the pain of truly seeing her beautiful face, rather than taking the risk of truly connecting.

I know that Jamie saw this.  Amazingly–mercifully–I also know that she forgave it.  Once, as I stammered through introductions at the school picnic shortly after learning that my own lump was a benign cyst, she put her hand on my arm, and said, simply, “It’s ok . . . it’s ok.”  In the expansiveness of her generosity of spirit, she allowed me a modicum of dignity even as I failed to grant the same to her.

This relationship changed me for the better even as I failed to be fully human within it.  I regret that failing.  I regret it for Jamie . . . and I regret it for myself.  I guarded my heart, and I missed out on some of the treasures of the present moment . . . for what?  To avoid pain?

If we are to truly live, pain is inevitable.  Suffering was always going to be part of this situation; I could have done nothing to change this truth.  And I know–I knew it profoundly from the moment that I met her–that I would never choose not to have known Jamie.  So the question is, what is left . . . now . . . after . . .  (and isn’t the problem with the ending of a relationship that there is so very much “after” to be dealt with)?  

As best I can work out, my task now is to continue to learn from Jamie’s example, and to wish that I had been willing to know her more fully, whatever that might have brought.  May I honor her memory by doing the hard work–the work of truly connecting–to turn that wish into reality each day.

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Jamie Barkes Pursley

Which brings us back to the Snowman, and to the part of this that connects to congregational life.  Stay tuned.

j