A Letter to a New Minister (Kendyl Gibbons, on the occasion of my ordination)

 

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My dear Jordinn,

You are to be congratulated for your courage, if nothing else, in thus affording me yet one more opportunity to offer you instruction, just in case all my prior efforts now appear to me to have borne insufficient fruit. Particularly in a context that precludes you from contesting either the accuracy of my observations or the wisdom of my insights. On your head be it!

[Editor’s note- this blog is so handy for contestations of all sorts . . . . 😉 ]

I hold it a great honor to be invited to recall you, and us, from the elevation of this occasion, with all its festive trappings and warmth of affection for you as a friend, colleague, and blossoming minister, to consider the deeply serious nature of today’s undertaking.

Even though such gatherings as these are indeed, as our colleague Mark Belletini describes them, “high play,” they are not all fun and games. What we have just done, with your assent, is to lay upon you a mark, a burden, and a gift. It is my task to see to it that the mark is indelible, the burden is well grasped, and the gift is seen to be precious and sacred.

By designating you an ordained minister in the living tradition of the free church, we have marked you out as a person worthy of trust and authority. We have invited our fellow Unitarian Universalists in particular, and the world in general, to look to you for institutional leadership, personal integrity, and a compassionate presence.

You are no longer a merely private person, but a public, living witness to the claims of this faith, and to the duties of the vocation that you and I now share.   How you conduct your life, no less than what you preach and teach, reflects upon the credibility of this movement, and this profession. Today that mark may seem to you, and to all of us, a joyful honor, but the time will come when you will find it irksome to be endlessly on display as a model of the demanding values we espouse, and you will understand why this is a matter of solemn vows.

I charge you to remember the love and trust in which we bestowed this office upon you, and to fulfill the covenant you have made in the name of all that is holy.

I know that you understand the burden of ministry, to be present to the distress of the world without panic, or denial, or becoming indifferent and numb. People will bring you the pain of their losses and despair, their failures and finitudes, their broken hearts and broken dreams, hoping that you can help them to find courage and strength to keep believing in the possibility of new life.

You will see the dysfunction of relationships and institutions, as well as the injustices and tragedies of the world, and yearn to give healing. Inevitably, you will be profoundly aware of your own limitations, and feel inadequate to these demands, for in truth, you are.

We all are.

You cannot fix, or save, the world; you cannot fix or save another person. All you can do, all any of us can do, is to bring that pain and despair into a place of compassionate attention and truthful witness, which is where all healing starts.

The power of transformation lies not in your intelligence or resourcefulness, but in the creative energy of the universe, which is always and everywhere present, though we are so often blind to it. You must not try to absorb into your own heart the distress that you meet with in others; you must – believe me, now; I know you know this; you must – have a practice that enables you to ground that anxiety and sorrow in the larger life of all that is, in God, by whatever name you may know it.

That is your task — to be the one who is not crippled by the awareness of all the hurt in the world; who knows where to go for sustenance; who can stand in the presence of oppression and fear and heartache and let it run through you to an ultimate, infinite source where it can do no harm. I charge you to have a vibrant, enduring relationship with that source, which will allow you to remember that you are not god; you, and your work, are a strand in the web, not the web, nor yet the weaver.

Of course, none of us would undertake these formidable duties if the calling of ministry were not also a priceless gift.

You have been summoned to live as if everything you do matters, and to stand with your fellow human beings in the most significant, sacred, and – to give an over-used phrase its actual meaning – truly awesome moments of their lives. You are expected to ponder the deepest questions of the human condition, and people will await your conclusions eagerly, hoping to find guidance for their own perplexities.

All that is most tender and precious in the unfolding of our common experience you are meant to share, and celebrate, and give voice. I promise you, if you will live it out faithfully, there is no more fully human existence than the vocation of ministry. I charge you to rejoice in the privilege of this office, to embrace its generous opportunities for creativity and community, for meaning and service and on going spiritual growth.

We have marked you out for service; remember to be the servant not of our desires, but of the holy purposes of love, truth and righteousness.

You have taken up the burden of the world’s sorrows and suffering; do not seek to carry it by your own strength alone.

Be assured that however great your struggle with your own finitude, the truly important work is not about you.

And take joy in the deep wells of shared meaning and growth that the calling of ministry opens to you.

Thus I charge you on this auspicious day, and welcome you into the community of those whose lives are given to the service of the most high.

May the bright promise of this hour be fulfilled in many years of fruitful ministry.

Bless you, dear one, and all those you will touch in faith for the rest of your days.

-Kendyl

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The Reverend Dr. Kendyl Gibbons is the Senior Minister of All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in Kansas City, MO, the 2015 recipient of the Humanist of the Year Award from the UU Humanist Association, and a beloved mentor and teaching pastor to 26 Unitarian Universalist seminarians across four decades. 

When freedom’s just another word

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

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

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

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

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

Wait, what!?

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

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

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

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

And a slog it has been.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To my soul.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is, in short, the opposite of freedom.

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

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

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

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

And so, “freedom.”

Ha.

I guess it looks like walking, friends.

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

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

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

To be followed, again, by ordinary time.

j

 

taking Communion, and other subversive acts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Willimon continues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

j

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blazing heart

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

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

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

I’m only worried for myself.

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

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

Don’t lose this, girl.  

Is that to much to ask?

j

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

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

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

Peace,

j

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.) 

“Recovering Christians”: a UU Minister Responds

Happy New Year, friends!  We are starting 2013 by looking back (but for the purposes of moving forward!) at an earlier post: this one, in which I wondered how we might move past the “recovery” stage in our approaches to religion.  Below is a UU minister’s response to that post.  Raising Faith is about exploring together through ongoing conversation, so I am happy to post this response–and I’d love to hear your thoughts as well.

Wishing you a blessed start to your year.

j

When I first joined a UU church in 1990, there was a popular curriculum called “The Haunting Church” used in an adult education class. That was replaced in 2006 by “Owning Your Religious Past.”  I don’t know how widely this curriculum is used, but wanted to point out that it does exist.
The aversion to all things Christian has been a much-discussed and debated part of UU culture, overlapping with the humanist-theist controversy, for at least as long as I’ve been a UU. Having studied in a UU seminary with fellow students from throughout the UU spectrum – both geographically and theologically – I’m aware now that these issues are moving targets. Some congregations are very open to Christianity and theism – maybe they always were, maybe they’ve actively worked on becoming more pluralistic, or maybe new generations have caused a cultural shift.  Some are still very predominantly humanist and proud of it (sometimes, the “us” vs. “them” mentality you mentioned) – but I have a sense that is changing. 
The congregation I serve was once nearly exclusively humanist, but has been in transition theologically and culturally during the past decade (a result, I think, of numerical growth – or maybe the growth is the result of the transition – probably both are true.)  I’d say about half would describe themselves as some form of theist, and half as non-theist. Doesn’t that make you wonder, what does “theist” mean to those who so label themselves?  Is it about the use of God-language?  Does it include earth-based spirituality?  Is the god/goddess in question naturalistic, immanent, transcendent, personal, anthropomorphic, or…?  Most importantly, what does that mean for how we live our lives?  I find myself wishing that we did have ongoing ways to engage these questions together.
I’ve had requests to use more biblical references in my services.  I’ve heard some wonder whether there’s too much emphasis these days on Christianity in our congregation, and will there be room for humanists? And vice versa.  Mostly I see a willingness to be open to exploring different religious ideas and traditions, and this certainly includes Christianity. Not every individual. But the congregation as a whole.
The willingness to let others engage, even in communal worship, is not necessarily a willingness to engage oneself.  I’d love to see a real interest in exploring together, in small classes or groups, our ideas of God or even religion.  We need to go deeper, in ways that speak to our own experience and open us to the experience of others – that’s where transformation becomes possible. Healthy UU congregations have evolved past the “knee-jerk reaction against” stage, to an atmosphere of acceptance and safety where people can say they’re Christian or Buddhist or theist or atheist and not feel marginalized, but embraced. But engaged/challenged/asked to elaborate?  Not so much. We’ve too recently achieved the “safe space” culture and are hesitant to mess with that.  So in talking about our different theologies (if we do talk about them), we engage in an adult UU version of the “parallel play” of toddlers. But “Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations” is all one principle – not two separate concepts.  Failure to engage, explain, question, discuss – for fear of lapsing into hostility or smugness – pretty much precludes encouraging one another’s spiritual growth. I think we can do better, and we should.
Reading your post, I’m pondering what it might mean to be a “practicing Christian” in a UU community,  and how that might differ from being a “practicing UU.”  Does “practicing” mean celebrating certain holidays, sharing the ancient stories, taking part in traditional rituals?  Does it mean intellectual adherence to certain dogmas regarding ultimate reality? And/or does it mean, living the faith?  In thinking about this, I’m remembering an article by the Rev. Victoria Weinstein.*  Rev. Weinstein identifies as a UU Christian; this article appeared in UU World in 2007.  
Rev. Weinstein wrote: 

But where was Jesus in our UU worship life? … Since Jesus’ radical inclusivity, love of humanity, and passion for justice was so harmonious with all the “good news” I was hearing in our congregations, why did our ministers and congregants so assiduously avoid the Gospels? … I could not understand why UUs would allow the perversions of the Religious Right to define the word “Christian” (or “religious,” for that matter), why they would concede religious language to the conservatives, and why they would go out of their way to construct a religion intentionally bereft of theology… where every spiritual path but the Christian path was considered valid and where all evidence of a Christian past was removed, revised, and painted over.

It took ten more years of committed Unitarian Universalist life for me to consider that perhaps my dear UUs were the most strangely faithful Christians of all. Having either intuitively or consciously embraced Jesus’ gospel of love, service, and justice, they could not stand to affiliate with any so-called faithful who claimed to have received their inspiration for discrimination, exclusion, superstition, and damnation from the same source. The well, for too many UUs, had been irrevocably poisoned, and they would thereafter drink of the living waters from another source. Any other source, it seemed, but the Christian well. I felt called to abide with my religious community, to remain patient with my own sense of religious difference among them, and to pursue the ministry.

That perspective resonates with my own UU experience (mostly!)  Particularly so as I’ve come to know this faith as not being defined by a set of intellectual beliefs.  It’s a way of living, of understanding life and love and our relationship to the mystery of that which is greater than ourselves, however we may each experience that. 
I’m aware that the members of the congregation I serve have a great range of experience with Christianity in their former religious lives.  Some have been viscerally, deeply wounded – by misogyny, homophobia, biblical literalism.  They’ve been abused by both church authorities and the teachings themselves.  Of these, some seek healing and would appreciate other ways to understand the Christian tradition.  Others want nothing to do with it, ever, period.  But there are many more who had a mostly positive experience with Christian churches.  They left because they stopped believing in the dogma, or wanted a greater (or different) emphasis on social justice, scientific knowledge, or freedom of conscience.  Their memories of Christian community are mostly fond, not traumatic.
So I think we need to tread lightly when we assume “woundedness” among our humanists (for example.)  For those who are indeed wounded, the church is here for healing, not to further deepen the wound or to give it more power among us. In our enthusiasm to get past our aversion to our own Christian roots, we’ve sometimes sent the message to humanists that, if only you’d get past your childhood trauma with religion, you’d see the light and be open to Christianity (or theism.) Of course, that’s not true and is as insulting as the implication that when you get over your old irrational superstitions you’ll leave Christianity behind.
What would it look like to build a Beloved Community where spiritual growth is actively encouraged?  I think we’d have active groups of members exploring the deep spiritual questions together, feeling safe enough to reveal their own ideas, willing to question and to be questioned, everyone humble about their own beliefs and curious about those of others. And open to being changed by the process. 

*Rev Dr. Victoria Weinstein is active in the blogosphere as “PeaceBang,” where she continues to discuss issues such as those she raised in the essay referenced above.