parenting . . . on the edge

What happens when parenting isn’t perfect?  When life isn’t what you expected?  When things get hard in mommyland?  I wrote this a year ago, after discovering that my own answer is “Keep running.”  What’s yours, friends?

-j

running shoes

Maybe somebody has to explore what happens 
when one of us wanders over near the edge 
and falls for awhile. Maybe it was your turn.

–William Stafford, “Afterwards”

Recently, it was my turn.  As Stafford’s poem suggests, you can ask, but there’s no telling why, exactly.  My personal cocktail of despair involved leaving my job to be a stay-at-home mother, a mass shooting that felt a little too close to home, and—oddly—a spiritual shift so fast and ferocious that it seemed likely to upend my tidy life entirely.  Welcome to life on the edge.

Anxiety comes with a whole goody bag of possible symptoms.  For me, however, it’s just one thing– the sense of danger around every corner–that has made day to day life challenging; that has, in fact, led to episodes both comical and worrisome.  A car backfires in an alley; I jump.  A teenager misfires with a water cannon at a pool party and everyone around me gets wet—I get grass stains, because I drop instantly to my knees on the lawn, a crazed ninja in a twinset.

Overall, I feel vulnerable, exposed, in harm’s way.  And the fear is particularly gripping where my children are concerned.

As it happens, I have plenty of opportunities to reflect on this: my younger son is a climber.  Silas climbs fearlessly and constantly.  At two he has had falls, stitches, and, once, after discovering that lamps do not make good handholds, surgery.  After Silas-proofing to the best of our abilities, we take the inevitable in stride.  We sigh.  We laugh.  We make “as long as you can get yourself down” the cardinal rule of our home.

And yet now I am so worried about what might happen—what could happen—what probably will happen if I’m not careful enough—that I start to feel incapable of parenting him.  Worry leads to fixation.  Fixation turns into paralysis.

This comes horribly to life one afternoon; the boys are in their rooms for what used to be called naptime, but which is actually, unofficially “mommy needs a break time, whether you sleep or rest or simply spend an hour picking your nose.”  I might use these precious minutes to read, write, or check Facebook; sometimes I sit and stare at a wall in silence.  On this day, though, I take a shower.  I am shaving my legs when I hear a crash.  A spectacular sort of crash.  Seconds later, my older son propels himself through the door and into the bathroom, talking in an excited jumble, “SilasfellandcrashedIthinkhe’shurtcomefast!”

At one point—in “the normal days”—I might have run, blindly, instinctively, or at the very least, swiftly, to the scene, mom-as-rescuer ready to do her thing.  I’d appear out of nowhere, cape trailing behind me, to snatch my child from the jaws of danger.  I think I would have, anyway.  On this day, what I do is: nothing.  Or nothing effectual, at least.  I switch off the water, grab a towel, stand dripping onto the shower floor, stare at Soeren.  He is nearly hopping with anxiety and excitement, chattering a stream of words in my direction, but I am looking through him, listening beyond him.  And what I hear is silence.

That silence—an empty nothing that echoes down the hallway—expands until I feel a terror that seizes my heart and kicks the backs of my knees.  I see pictures: Silas crushed by furniture.  Silas dangling from the cord of his window blinds, pinned in the space next to his bed, broken or bleeding on his floor.  I feel sick, guilty, terrified, each image worse than the one before.  And still I stand there.  I don’t make myself move.  I can’t make myself move.  I might be standing there still, I tell you truly, except that finally, miraculously—thank you, God—I hear Silas begin to cry.

This particular bogeyman disappears, a figment of my imagination after all.  I attend to Silas, we work together to clean up his room, and we move on with the day.  Later, though, I hear the quiet whisper of fear, and this time, it’s questioning me. My focus.  My dedication.  My abilities.  And honestly, I have to agree with it.

I’ve been spending time wresting with the dangers inside my head, but I wonder who my children might look to when the danger is real.  Increasingly, scarily, it seems like the answer is, “Someone else.” I don’t know how to keep my children safe.  I don’t know how to keep myself safe.  I’m not even sure I remember what “safe” feels like.

I talk with my therapist, my minister, my mother.  And they all say: Keep walking.  Trust yourself.  Trust the Process.  I picture that capital-P Process, an unbroken string stretching across a white background, and me, blind despite the brightness, grappling awkwardly toward it.  Feeling my way, step by lurching step, across the unknown.

Outside of my imagination, “keeping walking” looks like this: I stare into space; I wander, as if lost, through familiar rooms; I look down to see that I’m holding items I don’t remember picking up.  Homeschool papers and workbooks pile up untouched, shaming me; we don’t have a television, but we have Netflix, and soon my children memorize the theme song to the Backyardigans.  I do load after load of laundry, a task so discrete that it cannot intimidate, but I cannot make a dent on the mess in the kitchen.

Through all of this, my husband—acknowledged by both of us to be the more dramatic personality in our relationship—is strangely placid.  Why aren’t you worried, I ask.  He looks mildly amused.  He reads my drafts, takes my arm in crowds, catches my eye and smiles when the children are being maddening.  Mostly, though, he stands back.  Craig handles the tasks of everyday life and waits, the very image of Keep Calm and Carry On.  He has something, my husband.  I think it’s called faith.

And eventually, I do, too.  Not the kind I imagined, the unshakeable certainty you carry with you at the core of your being.  This is a faith you consider the existence of, a half-believed rumor, then crawl toward, grasp for and ultimately stumble into.  The kind you skin your knees tripping over and arrive, finally, splayed out on the floor but grateful in the knowledge that Things Will Be Okay.

That happens on a trip back home to Wyoming, in a sharp experience of clarity on a hike with the boys.  In an afternoon, I come face to face with my childhood and also with my powerlessness to protect my children—to protect myself—offered as a lesson by one of the most beautiful and hard-edged places I know.

Depositphotos_9098169_s

The truth I come back with, the only truth I know, goes like this: you can climb, and you might fall.  You can try, and you might fail.  You can live, unsafely . . . or you can die.

The acceptance comes in a moment, but the shift back to normalcy happens only gradually.  In the meantime, I take up running and move with a dogged devotion that my sale-rack athletic shoes cannot match.  I try ellipticals, treadmills and sidewalks before meeting, finally, the wooded trails on the edge of town.  We are matched, that patch of woods and I, not quite wild but definitely not fully civilized.  A little messy.  Too steep in places.

I run, and I breathe, and I come back to myself, but as the days grow shorter and the shadows longer, I feel a wistfulness tinged with fear for all the moments I cannot keep.  Under this worry might be nothing.  Or, it might be everything.

Am I losing this season?  Can I hang onto myself?  Is this my last chance to run this year?

Without ever consciously acknowledging them, I keep the questions on heavy repeat in my mind. As I wonder and I worry, I do what comes without questioning: I keep running.   And eventually I come to understand that there is only this.  Hot weather: keep running.  Cool weather: keep running.  Leaves turn: keep running.  Leaves fall: keep running.  Darkness settling in, the ground a changeable surface of debris over mud: walk, gingerly—but continue to put one foot in front of the other.

Finally, the return to rhythm touches the other parts of my life.  My cheeks hurt and I realize I have been smiling as I listen to my sons explain a game to one other, each playing by rules of his own making.  I kick through leaves alongside Silas, holding his hand, and find myself walking happily at half-height, that I might better hear his two-year-old observations on the world.  My husband and I reclaim our evening ritual of regaling each other with the three best parts of the day; we laugh so loudly that Soeren emerges from his room and demands that we stop waking him up.

It is fall, and it is beautiful.  I notice, and celebrate a spectrum of colors, and of feelings, that I had forgotten existed.  I label them as they come.  Ochre.  Ruby.  Anticipation.  Excitement. Joy.

And yet.  The edges of my life don’t fit together quite like they did before.  The frayed and knitted-together places remain invisible to most everyone else, but I can see the seams.  And I know.  I am choosing.  To engage with life means deciding, sometimes daily, to step away from the edge of risk—or not.  It is choosing whether to pull my children back from their own falls—the ones that life brings to each of us and the ones they create for themselves in climbing, pushing, experimenting.

We are all wandering out near the edge of falling.  It is also the edge of learning—the edge of flying.  But it’s a cliff.  It’s a canyon.  It’s a place without railings.

And still, we live here.

of friendship, worship, and the bravery of storytelling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The man was unfairly persecuted during the service.  

The woman was unfairly persecuted after the service.  

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

Any of us could have done something.  

We each could have done more.

On this day we failed.  

On this day we triumphed.  

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

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

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

Checkmate!

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

This is confusing.  It’s potentially embarrassing.

And also, it presents problems.

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

tumblr_mceyztjInH1rvjyls

“First Year of Seminary,” everydayimpastoring.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Depositphotos_6431861_xs

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

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

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

photo-8

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

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

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

Me, sobbing: I don’t think so.

Mom: So . . . why can’t you just NOT?

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

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

Me:

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

Me: How do I say no to God?

Mom: Just . . . say ‘No!’

Me: Like . . . ‘Screw you, God!?”

Mom: Yep.

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

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

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

photo-9

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bullhorn Woman

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

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

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

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

What is the difference

Between your experience of Existence

And that of a saint?

g

The saint knows

That the spiritual path

Is a sublime chess game with God

 

And that the Beloved

Has just made such a Fantastic Move

 

That the saint is now continually

Tripping over Joy

And bursting out in Laughter

And saying, “I Surrender!”

    f

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

You have a thousand serious moves.

jChess

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

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

Checkmate.

I should be so lucky.

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.

IMG_1681

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.  

don’t talk to strangers (listen to them instead!)

Last month I took an intensive course in Unitarian Universalist Congregational Polity–and heard something from our instructor that frightened me: “Unitarian Universalism as we know it isn’t going to be around 50 years from now.”

Single grave stone

Design Mandie McGlynn 2013

He went on to say, however, that “just because our current association goes away doesn’t mean that our work will.  Individual congregations will go on, and the task is to work together as part of a meaningful movement.”  Then, in closing the course, our professor shared another thought, this one from Rev. Abhi Janamanchi: “The center of Unitarian Universalism lies outside of itself, in the stranger, in difference rather than in similarity. . . . We are called to create holy communities where strangers are not only welcome but where all are enjoined to do the work of healing and transformation by wrestling with the strangers within themselves.”

I found this interesting, because in building community, welcoming the stranger, and beginning that process with ourselves, we just may have the tools to ensure that UU is around for future generations of seekers.  Naming this work, however, isn’t the same as doing it.  We are indeed fighting for relevance–for survival–and the challenge facing us is not about recruitment.  It’s also not about social justice, at least not in the issue-driven terms in which we currently frame it.

Let’s go back to Rev. Janamanchi’s thoughts.  Welcome the stranger, he says, and start with the stranger within ourselves.  I think we have all heard this; it may even speak to us in a powerful way.  Yet very rarely do we tie our words about radical hospitality to a set of concrete actions, or even to a larger applied theology.  In fact, I wonder if “welcoming the stranger” is perhaps Unitarian Universalism’s “Sunday-only” theology.

Friends, are you familiar with how this works?  In my ELCA days, week after week, I’d find myself in the pew listening to “lamb of God” and connecting deeply with the communion ritual. Brought up short by Christ’s sacrifice, I’d reflect passionately on my own need to practice a little self-sacrifice for the good of others, wondering how I could put something so momentous out of my mind.  And then, washed of my sins–and of the annoying burden of thinking about them–I stepped out into the bright sunlight, resumed my life, and forgot about it until the next Sunday.  Then, there I’d be, reciting the Kyrie and thinking, again, “Oh, crap.  This.  Why can’t my wayward heart remember?”

I didn’t beat myself up too much, though; I had the doctrine of original sin on my side.  (Heck, it was right there in the liturgy.)  I don’t think about these things, or change my actions, or change my heart, because I can’t.  I will never remember.  Only here, on this hard bench, can I  hope to become a better person–and even then, not through my own efforts.

You can probably tell: one of my favorite things about UU—one of the things that makes this faith a living and meaningful part of my life—is that the message only starts at church.  It is never intended to stay there.   And it’s clearly and immediately applicable to my life.  There’s no fire or brimstone, yet our pulpits pack quite a punch: here’s the vision–now get off your rear ends and make it so.  Thus, I find myself continually afflicted, with an urgency isn’t washed away by our rituals.  Rather, it bleeds into my daily life, and it compels me to action.

In this way, I am invited to think differently about money, challenged to live into greater generosity, encouraged to help create a just distribution of resources.  I am pushed to consider how my actions affect our neighbors and the larger world.  I am called to strengthen my relationships, accepting and celebrating that we are held together in the bonds of covenant.

Yet there remains an issue around which I do not see much action.  I hear the call sometimes, and I feel it in those moments . . . and then I return to complacency.  And in fact, I think complacency is where many of us are on this challenge: the call of radical hospitality–the relentless demand that we welcome the stranger.

And how, as a movement, do we justify our ongoing failure (refusal?) to do the deep work to find the strangers within ourselves and to recognize, hear, and welcome the unfamiliar in others?  Forgive us, Lord, in our amnesia and blindness, which are not at all willful, as we are deeply flawed people and simply cannot do any better. . .  that doesn’t work here.  We don’t have original sin.  We have humanism.

What if we treated that humanism less as a license to believe nothing and more as a set of goalposts?  What if we saw ourselves in the waning minutes of the first half (or of the game, if you want to get apocalyptic in your atheism) and looking to advance the score?  We are responsible for our actions, and equally so our inactions. . .  there’s nobody here but us chickens, so let’s get our behinds in gear.

And so I’m asking: why don’t we act on this piece of what we believe?  I’ve been wondering about this for months, and I have a theory.  Are you ready?  It’s deep: I think we don’t know what to do next.  And in the meantime, concerned for our very survival as a movement, we are arguing amongst ourselves about a “bottom line theology” (can I interest you in a creed, anyone?  How about some dogma?), and chasing willy-nilly after a group of largely, almost definitionally, uninterested people.*

Frankly, whether Unitarian Universalism exists in the next century depends on our community-building skills.  We must construct the beloved community, and, having built it, we must dedicate ourselves to its care and feeding.  We must know and value our freedom, and the individualism that demands it—and, holding that freedom, we must nonetheless choose “we” over “me.”  And friends, building a “we” is going to start, end, and move forward by truly learning to listen to one another.  

We will transcend boundaries, build coalitions, overcome the petty differences which block the way to meaningful agreements, and care more, and more deeply, for one another, simply by learning to close our mouths and open our hearts and our minds as others speak their truths.  I don’t mean “we need to listen” as a platitude.  I mean WE NEED TO LISTEN as a set of skills.  This means something we might teach each other in small groups, practice within our own congregations, and then model within our wider communities.  

What does this look like?  It’s a set of values and goals, and also a set of procedures.  Both can be modified; the overall objective is to elicit, recognize, and respond to the humanity in everyone we meet. Every single person.  Does that jive with our deeply held beliefs?  Does that sound like inherent worth and dignity?

Photo by Jon Delorey, used under a Creative Commons license. Design Mandie McGlynn 2013.

Photo by Jon Delorey, used under a Creative Commons license. Design Mandie McGlynn 2013.

Listening skills aren’t a new-age, ethereal concept—we needn’t be suspicious.  And we needn’t reinvent the wheel; there are a number of highly effective models for learning to listen deeply, even around highly polarized and sensitive issues.  The novel thing is bringing it to church.  The revolutionary thing is taking it from there out into our communities, and doing it as part of the movement.

This is hard work—the hardest work we will ever do.  In listening, we take the exhortation to love one another and we make it manifest; it’s the task of an entire lifetime. But there is nothing more important, and we have everything we need to begin this process.  And friends, it is urgent.   We want to bring healing to our fragmented neighborhoods, to our hurting communities, to our stratified and unjust world.  I agree with all of our noble goals—it’s just that all of our efforts are tilting at windmills until we truly learn to stand shoulder to shoulder with those whom we see as “other.”

Amy has a different dream for the capital campaign.  Adam thinks that a personhood standard for making abortion decisions best fits the ideal of honoring inherent worth and dignity for all.  Jared is gay, and a member of Log Cabin Republicans.  I know this, but do I know why?  Do I know how to find out?  Do I even know how to start a conversation that acknowledges and honors difference?  Maureen has a child with a diagnosed mental illness.  Anna was briefly homeless last year after a job loss.  Jason’s wife died by suicide.  Do I acknowledge this?  Do I avoid certain subjects?  Do I create a space where it’s safe to talk?  And if someone does begin to speak, do I listen?  What value do I place on listening as a personal ministry, or as a ministry of the larger church?

CS Lewis advises, “If you’re seeking comfort, you won’t find truth.”  In these uncivil, fragmented times, what might happen if we stepped out of our comfort zone with a sense of curiosity and a true zeal for our mission to build community?  It is possible that the answers would amaze us all.

Consider the following.

In 1994, in the midst of a bitter local and national polemic on the subject of abortion rights (sound familiar?) five people were shot in Planned Parenthood clinics in the Boston area.  Recognizing that something needed to change—not in the law, in the clinics, or in women, in general, but in the conversation itself—the Archdiocese of Boston, together with the Public Dialogue Project, attempted something risky and innovative.  The plan: break the deadlock by changing the culture, through an idea so radical that the women involved truly feared for their safety should others find out what they were doing.  That idea, friends, was nothing more or less than intentional listening.

Six women–three leaders from each side–were recruited to take part in the project.  At first, they agreed to meet together four times for a series of moderated discussions.  The sole objective was to understand each other better.  What actually happened was that every one of the women held to their covenant to stay in conversation with each other over those initial meetings—and then continued to meet and to listen for a period of five years.

And in this time—not right away, but soon—things began to change.  Again, not the law, at least not because of anything these particular women were working on.  And not the underlying issues surrounding abortion.  What changed was the larger conversation happening in Boston.  It became less toxic.  It became less violent.  It became more personal, in the sense that those involved began to put down some of the accumulated armor and acknowledge the other participants as people.  As women, as mothers, as loving and beloved members of larger communities.

There is something else that I find fascinating about these conversations—an outcome-that-wasn’t: not one of the participants changed her opinion.  If anything, engaging in this sort of long-ranging, open conversation allowed each to become more clear about what, at the heart of things, she held dear.  Further, it didn’t matter that neither group changed its opinions, because in stepping back from the bitterness, the judgment, and the slogans, these women led their respective movements in doing the same.

With commitment and training to love by listening, we can create the safe space necessary to have the kinds of conversations that change things.  Safe space is required if we are to acknowledge the conflicts we feel around our own positions—this is the “stranger within each of us” that Janamanchi mentions.  These internal conflicts—our own strangers—are critically important, because in acknowledging them, we can reach a place of comfort in seeking compromise, a third way that makes life better for everyone involved.

Thinking about abortion, a third way might look like support for women around the challenges that make it difficult to choose to parent a child in all but the best of circumstances.  It might be ready access to birth control.  It might be excellent and early prenatal care.  It might be affordable and high-quality childcare and preschool.  These are not difficult points to agree on, but they are impossible things to talk about when we’re locked into a position—and an associated identity—and view listening as a show of weakness.

You want a message of hope and redemption?  This movement is as strong as the communities we build within it, and we have every tool we need right now to shore up the foundation.  What would happen if liberal religion listened?  


Image

We might just recognize that in love, there are no sides . . . just one very big table.  Welcome to it, friends.  Now what can you learn about the person sitting next to you . . .  and what tools are you going to need to do it?

with love,

j

*Would anyone out there like to see us talk less about the Nones—a group that, at the moment, has self-selected OUT of our sphere of influence, and more about the nuns—a highly energized cohort who might actually share our  social justice vision?  Would anyone like to see less questioning of the values and loyalty of those within the movement who reach different conclusions than our own, and more embracing of difference as an opportunity to grow ourselves?  Please–and please pardon me–for the Love of God?  Amen.

Sanity NOW! (perhaps yelling helps?)

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

Image

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

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

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

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

A76ZxKjCcAIqH0p

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And in the meantime, this happened.

Image

And this.

Image

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

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

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

Friends, HOW do you do this?*

from the bottom of my passionately crazed heart,

j

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

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.

Image

Dear Raising Faith: on pastoral care for humanists

This guest post, from “Alicia,” asks what Unitarian Universalism, and what our ministers, specifically, might have to offer in times of personal crisis.  These are great questions, and I’m happy to put them out here.  What think you, trusty readers?  

All the best,

-j

My teenaged baby sister still lives with our parents. She’s been suffering with depression for quite some time now, and it’s recently come to enough of a head for our parents to seek psychiatric help for her. spilled pillsShe’s currently on her second prescription in as many weeks (it is always hard to find the right medication and the right dosage), and after spending time with her this weekend (when she seemed to be in relatively good spirits, discussing with me her plans for prom and the future), I got a message from my mom today telling me that they had taken her to the hospital, because she is having suicidal thoughts.

My immediate reaction was one of helplessness. I live not only in a different house but a different state, unable to provide my physical presence as support, nor practical help with household duties, cooking, or anything, really, while they help my sister work through her depression enough to safely leave the hospital. I do what I can to be there for her emotionally, trying to keep up with her through Facebook and text message, making time for her when I visit. But ultimately, there’s nothing tangible I can do to help.

On the heels of lamenting my helplessness, I had an impulse to e-mail my minister. He is great at being aware of the stresses present in his congregants’ lives and asking how he can support them. But as someone who sucks at asking for help, much less directing it, what can I say? Honestly, I have no idea, in this moment of helplessness and brokenness, what kind of meaningful help he could offer.

If I were a Christian, I would be seeking spiritual reassurance, a reminder that even if I am helpless, God is not, and He has both a plan and the power to remedy any situation. A Christian minister would pray with me, for God to soothe my heart and my sister’s (and my parents’), to heal us, or at least wrap divine arms of love around us, providing security as we weather the storm.

But even though I’m sure my minister would give that to me if I wanted it, I don’t – I’m agnostic. If I believe in something beyond physical reality, it’s not anyone moving the chess pieces of humanity about with a grand design in mind to checkmate the devil. I don’t believe in a personal God who knows the sorrows of every sparrow. So while I’m quick to suggest that my mother seek out her Christian minister’s care for her own needs, I hesitate to do the same, even when it occurs to me that I might – that perhaps, I ought.

In the context of a humanistic religion, what does pastoral care have to offer that a good friend – or a good therapist – doesn’t? The space to express my feelings of sorrow and helplessness abounds here on the Internet, and in the hearts of a few loving and trusted friends. They offer me non-anxious presence, love, an awareness that I’m not alone. A therapist (if I had one), would undoubtedly validate my concerns and offer me some secular coping strategies. I am fairly emotionally and spiritually self-aware, and don’t need anyone to tell me to engage in self-care during this time (though it seems a bit ludicrous to worry about myself because of my sister’s pain, I know it’s important). So what does the minister of my humanistic religion have to offer me in this time of difficulty?

This question feels big to me, the crux of a wider (if tired) conversation about Unitarian Universalism, and what makes us a religion rather than a social group, a lecture circuit, or a gathering of activists. And I’ve never really known how to answer that, except that it is a feeling, a sense of wonder and unity that can only be called religious. But while that is nice when all is well in life, what does it offer when all is not well?

(click here for a response from the Rev. Jill Jarvis.) 

warning: this post is about S-E-X

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

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

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

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

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

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

1334945289726_8022433

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

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

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

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

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

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

Temptation

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

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

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

Woman's panties hanging on white background the cross brooch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts?  Go.

j

a $aving sort of grace (thoughts on shame and stewardship)

I love this post from UU Robin Bartlett Barraza, about how her family finds God and grace at a UCC church on Sunday afternoons.  Robin’s words evoke the loving embrace of community, a welcome extended not just to herself, but to her children–one of whom is (gasp!) a two-year-old.

How well I know the perils.  And how poignantly I appreciate the gift of welcoming love that my church has given my own family.  This is embodied by the people who talk with my five year old like he’s the adult conversationalist that he thinks he is.  It’s shown by the woman who smiles and laughs when Si, my younger, nitrate-addicted son, approaches eating as performance art–Cave Man Ingests Hot Dog.  It’s taking the time to give Ren the warning he needs to successfully transition between activities in RE.  It’s understanding that Si’s middle name should be Houdini, and taking steps to keep him safe where safety is not a high priority on his own list.  It’s welcoming our family of four with love and joy, even knowing that all of the above is part of the package.

These actions speak louder than mere words of welcome ever could.  And conversely, there are no words that could overcome the sense of not belonging we might have felt were church exclusive to children on their best behavior.  Yet the message, once again, is come as you are; you are welcome here.

I have known, deep in my soul, that this kind of welcome is critical.  As a parent of rambunctious children in a society where the unspoken expectation is constant control,* it is so easy to feel that we are failing where our children prove to be simply, irrepressibly themselves.  I recently read Dr. Brené Brown’s I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t), and I now suspect that what we parents sometimes feel in public spaces–and in the mental space between societal expectations and family realities–is shame.  This shame, and the mental and physical paralysis it evokes, can make it hard to even enter a space like church.  It’s hard to walk in the door the first time, and it’s impossible to return for a second visit but for perfection–or grace.  We give that grace through our welcome and our ongoing love, through our third principle commitment to open our arms to people where they are.

I could say more about parental shame and congregational welcome, but for now I’ll leave that to others.  I actually want to talk about another area in which the welcome of radical hospitality and the specter of shame are both at issue: our approach to congregational stewardship.

Money Tree (crassula) growing from a pile of coins.

According to Dr. Brown, we are vulnerable to shame anywhere there’s a gap between an ideal identity–the way we’d like others to perceive us around an issue–and an unwanted identity–the way we fear others may perceive us.  When shame arises, our physiological and emotional responses combine to create a kind of paralysis (with a heavy dose of psychological pain to boot).  This may seem overstated, or, where we acknowledge that it does happen, like an embarrassing overreaction.  It’s important to realize, then, that in our highly relational, wired-for-connection brains, an affront to our standing within social groups is processed the same way a physical threat might be.  Rational thought shuts down, the amygdala takes over, and we make instinctive choices between survival strategies (these are commonly referred to as the “fight or flight responses”).

In short, the pain of shame, and the underlying threat to our relational value, are likely to cause us to react rather than respond.  Our reactions may depend on the situation, but they generally involve moving against, moving toward, or moving away from, the person we are encountering as a shaming stimulus.  Moving against often involves anger, and our own use of shame to attempt to put the person in her place.  A person moving toward makes conciliatory gestures, hoping to be recognized as “same” rather than “other” by the person he’s feeling shamed by.  Finally, moving away from implicates the flight response; if you’ve ever responded to a disagreement by “freezing out” the party with whom you disagree, you may tend toward the “moving away” response.  (Personally, I’m more of a fighter than a flighter; the point of these distinctions, however, is that they are three unique, but equally unhelpful, responses to feeling shamed.)

drooping bud

These reactions can mask underlying feelings and motivations until they are hidden even from ourselves.  Unfortunately, they can also cause tremendous damage to our relationships.  Brown, however, argues that while shame will remain part of our daily lives regardless of the inner work we do, as humans we have the ability to develop “shame resilience.”  This set of strategies, and the self-awareness that underpins them, can allow us to free ourselves from the paralysis of a shaming experience, and to be intentional in our responses to it.

So what does all this have to do with stewardship?  Let’s explore that further; I’ll use my own ideal images around money and church as a starting point.  I want to be a contributor, to pull my weight, to be aware and considerate of those who cannot contribute at this time.  I also want to appear comfortable talking about money–and all of the above without exposing any vulnerabilities that I or my family may have around this issue.  In the area of unwanted identities, I don’t want to be clueless.  I don’t want to be a shirker of responsibilities.  I don’t want to be someone who doesn’t prioritize financial matters appropriately.  And I don’t want to be less fortunate.

In looking over this list, I doubt it’s extremely different from anyone else’s.  Depending on the amount of work we have personally done around this issue, though, and the culture of our individual churches, and our own specific financial circumstances and stressors, it may be difficult to talk openly about these issues without experiencing shame.  In fact, it may be a challenge just to be present while someone else deals with these issues.  I discovered this on a personal level just the other day.

I was preparing to lead a meeting when our minister and another congregant began to talk about their missed connection for their annual pledge conversation.  Quickly, the pair concluded that the best time to talk was right there, right then.  Thus, our minister–her name is Jill—filled out her pledge form there at the table—in front of God and everybody, as it were.  I was taken aback, but planned to politely pretend not to notice.  As it turned out, though, not noticing was not really an option.

Rather than doing the expected thing—no, the decent thing—and finishing the task as discreetly as possible, Jill took the opportunity to think aloud.  She shared the percentage of her salary she wanted to contribute, her intention to pledge at the level that would qualify for this year’s matching incentive, and her rationale for having the conversation publicly.  I asked Jill about that exchange before beginning to write this post; she confirmed that the structure and content of the public conversation was intentional.  Our minister is actively choosing to use and model the strategies that might allow us to have honest congregational conversations about money.

During this conversation, I used some strategies of my own.  Shaming strategies, to be precise.  I used them to communicate discomfort, to place the blame for that feeling with someone else, and to attempt to relegate both the conversation and my feelings about it to some other space.

Just let me know when we're done talking about this . . .

Just let me know when we’re done talking about this . . .

A key component of shame resilience is compassion–the ability to extend grace to others and to ourselves.  In that spirit, I will share with you that I think my reaction was understandable: I had never seen a conversation like this take place, I had done very little work around my own discomfort with money, and the multiple boundaries and power differentials inherent in the group, and in the conversation, only compounded my unease.  In my anxiety–rooted, I now see, in shame, which I wanted to be on someone else’s plate and not my own–I laughed, teased, and then disconnected from the conversation, waiting for it to be over.  In short, I employed the “moving against” strategy–YOU are not normal; YOU are doing something wrong–followed by “moving away from”–disengaging to prevent the conversation from affecting me.

Understanding this doesn’t change my desire to do things differently next time; in fact, it’s the only thing that might make intentional action possible.  In the meantime, we, like churches everywhere, are in the midst of a much larger conversation, one that has the potential to be empowering, transformative, bold, missional . . . and extremely uncomfortable.  That conversation is the one we have each year at the whole-church level, and even denominationally, around stewardship.

What does this larger conversation look like in our churches . . . and how could it look?  Where is shame involved?  (Because it is, friends.  It is.)  And how do we offer grace in the stewardship context–to our fellow congregants, to our finance committees and our governing boards, to our ministers  . . . to ourselves?  How do we extend the same welcome to all, and simultaneously acknowledge the reality that 1. it costs money to do what we do, and 2. that money is going to come from each of us unequally?

Perhaps it is a falsehood even to try to separate money and church; what we give and what we ask for are inextricably connected.  In American culture, we use money to value one another, which blinds us to reality–and we refuse at the same time to acknowledge the cost of things, which also blinds us to reality.  If money is simultaneously a gilded idol and the elephant in the room, it’s understandably confusing, perhaps nowhere more than within our sacred spaces, to talk about it openly.  And so, again, shame comes into play.  And in helping to frame the conversation, in choosing how we respond to it, we contribute to a culture of shame . . . or we help to lift it.

As with so many other things at church, I have mixed feelings about my own role.  Would I be willing to give a three-minute testimonial about what church–this church, my church–means in my life?  Absolutely.  And if I hear a whisper of “$ell it, girl!” in the request, does that change anything?  To wield my words with honesty, do I need to know–and do my listeners need to know–whether the directive was speak from your heart, or $peak from your heart?

Looking at more concrete questions, do we need to know, as someone recently posed in a congregational discussion of stewardship, what percentage of our members are non-pledgers?  We are also aware that a very small handful of families (and disclosure: mine isn’t one of them) are currently financially supporting much, much more than their “fair share”–do we need to know who those families are?  Do I need to know how my minister makes her pledging decision for the year?  Does she need to know how I reach my own decision?

I don’t know.  What I do know is that we have big dreams–the kind that cost.  What I also know is that there is a great potential for shame inherent in every facet of this discussion . . . and that we must balance that with grace and compassion if we want to maintain church as a safe space.  This is true for our members, for our first-time visitors . . .  and for the family who’s afraid to come to church between March and May because it’s been a very difficult year and they’re afraid to say the words–to admit that this year, they just can’t.

As always, I’d love to hear your take.

j

*You perhaps question this. As an undergrad I studied abroad in Sweden; the differences in outlook are beyond the scope of this post, but suffice it to say, Swedish children make my sons seem sedate.  And despite the society having been structured with them in mind; despite being permitted to run amok on planes and trains, in IKEA, in the public squares, Swedish children grow up to be some of the most kind, considerate and well-mannered adults I have ever met.  In spending time with these children, and in this other society, I gained some perspective about our own–we are not, myself included, so removed as we may think from the “seen and not heard” vision of childhood.