Dear white girl from Kansas: I choose them

Wow, it’s been a few years.  More than that, actually—time flies, right?  We don’t keep in touch, and even though we lived and worked less than 30 miles from each other for the last six years, I haven’t seen you.  We don’t send birthday greetings.  I don’t know that I even understood you to be part of my village.

Until now.  By which I mean last week, when you sent me that message, and invoked the “friend” card.

fb-inbox

Don’t worry; you’re not alone.  I know this story.  It happens every now and again.

While we lack anything that might be taken for a relationship, we have a friendship, and you’re invoking it now to let me know I have put it on the line.

For being out of touch? 

For not knowing your kids’ names? 

For forgetting your birthday?

Nope.

For talking about racism. 

See, we can go a long time without talking, but there are some things friends just don’t do.  And I need to know that.  So you’re telling me.

Here’s the post that crossed that friend line:

“If you voted for Trump, and are also “not a racist,” this might be an important thing for you to read. And reflect on. And speak out about.

If this sort of thing is ok with you, well, you’re entitled to your prejudices. And also: we have a word for them.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/trump-attorney-general-jeff-sessions-racist-remarks_us_582cd73ae4b099512f80c0c2

And here’s part of your response:

“I know I am a sensitive person, but when I see that in the title of your post you mention things like “not a racist”, I really feel bothered. Things aren’t always so black and white. I do think it’s possible to identify more with one party- even while not completely loving your candidate- and not be generalized as a racist. I did read [the article about Sessions] and am intrigued by the choice.

I am worried about President Elect Trump and his choices, however I am hoping and praying too and giving him my hope and optimism. I really am trying to be inclusive and forgiving and allowing people a chance, even if they’ve said and done things that they shouldn’t have. . . . “

You go on to remind me to be tolerant, and, above all, that you are not a racist.

angry woman pointing

Dear Facebook friend.

Here are some things I value:

Civil discourse

Dialogue, and the magic I have sometimes found in the midst of it

Learning

Relationships

But we are not having a leveled conversation here. 

15027769_981968141493_3848083482700941187_n

And aside from the things listed above—things that I actually do value—you’re making a strong implicit ask for me to prioritize a couple of things that I do not, in fact, value:

“Friendships” with people I’m not really friends with.

Dialogue about two things (potential of hurt feelings; potential of persecution, harassment, and unequal treatment based on skin color) that are categorically, exponentially different, carried on with “pretend like all concerns are equal” as a ground rule.

“Be nice*” as the fundamental edict of white womanhood.

And friend, there’s also something here about honor.  About respectability as a white woman.  About what we believe, but mostly do not say, about “decency” and “playing by The Rules.”

It’s been impossible not to notice—in fact, I think this is one of the great and unwelcome shocks to upper middle class white America during these last few years—that “don’t be racist” is no longer a rule.  It is my experience that it was a rule, at least out loud, for more than a generation and a half.  But it’s clearly not a rule now.

And yet, don’t be mean to other white women is TOTALLY a rule.  Also: don’t talk about hard stuff.  Don’t say what you’re thinking or wondering or worrying about, unless it happens to be birthday party décor.  Don’t you dare—ever— say something that might indirectly call anyone to account.

girls making self portrait on the beach

Sister, you’re intrigued?

And you’re asking me to be silent in the face of that?

I am not going to play nice with your casual racism, just because the world we have inherited says that “play nice” is in the honor code, and “check your freaking white privilege” is not.

My reality as a minister in a progressive, anti-racist, anti-oppressive, and multiculturalist faith tradition is that I’m standing atop a widening chasm in maintaining my various relationships.  And I’m not sure how much longer I can do it.

I am no longer sure how to occupy space where I give the same amount of energy—more energy, honestly—to dialoguing about your “a little hurt” feelings than to being physically present with those who are afraid for their marriage rights, for their trans child’s ability to use the bathroom without being beaten or intimidated or psychologically and physically brutalized, for their humanity, for their lives.

I can’t play by white girl rules anymore.  They make real conversation, and underneath that, real movement, impossible.

And I don’t think that’s an accident.  I don’t think my complicity with your comfort is value-neutral.

Thus, as to your implicit threats and explicit invitations: I’m trying to imagine the person you think I might be, the one you’re trying to pull me toward becoming.

I don’t think she’s someone I could live with.

And so, when it turns out I can’t bridge the gap anymore, I will have to make a move.  And the truth is, my choice is already made.

If being in relationship with you means preserving your comfort, keeping your thoughts pure and your cheeks tear-stain free …   if to be “friends,” I must choose silence, over and against solidarity with people whose concerns have never been about comfort—who are acting in a hierarchy of needs that doesn’t get past the physical and psychological safety pieces–

Friend, I choose them.

I choose my humanity.

I choose my soul.

Sound stark?  Feel problematic for your sense of hope, or your understanding of, yes, the magic power of dialogue?

It is.  That’s why it’s taken me this long to say this thing, even to myself.  It violates every “nice girl” norm I know.

Handcuffs standing on laptop computer keyboard

But there is indeed an alternative.  And it looks like you doing some work—to get courageous rather than comfortable.  It looks like you living in flexible, contested space for awhile.

Truly, you want to stay in relationship?  Or establish something deeper?  Or simply read my FB public ministry and not feel personally affronted in considering my words to the world?

That would look like you not expecting me to choose silence as a package deal with “friendship.”

Can you do that?  Are you inclined to?

I don’t know.

What I’m sure of: no one will make you.

And that, friend, is what we call privilege.

j

 

*to those who have social value.  Obvs.

**I’m going, now, to humanize this person.  I’m doing it because humanity and complexity are the deepest call of my faith, and I truly believe that we gain nothing—in any conception of “We” worth having—without that generous willingness.  But before I do that, I want to ask you for a favor.  All of you.  Every single person reading this.

Take a moment, and consider who we are not willing to humanize in our narratives.  To whom do we not offer this gift—this sacred responsibility belonging not to the people we choose to talk about, but to ourselves, as story-tellers?  Who are “thugs” in our narratives, rather than sons, scholars, dads, grads, promise, potential, our future?  Who are “illegal,” in your story, instead of brilliant daughters, future doctors, terrorized toddlers, and the many-centuried hope not just of American shores, but the hope of our nation itself?

I will show you the fuller humanity of this white woman, because we all deserve it.  But remember this: we all deserve it.  And the next time you want someone to look upon you positively in your own story, I invite you to work twice as hard to reframe your internal narrative about someone else.  Especially when it’s challenging.  You’ll know you’re on the right track when you surprise yourself.

So:  this open letter is part of a real exchange, with a real person.  I don’t know if we’re friends now, or if we will be in the future.  I do know that she’s stayed in dialogue as our conversation has continued beyond this point.  I know that she’s been courageous and willing to listen.  I know that she’s working hard to open her heart and hear other, larger stories—and that we can receive that as a gift, because although it is a bullshit way to allocate resources, privilege is real, and it makes willingness optional.  Call-in helps.  So does a willingness to answer when called.

In short, “White girl from Kansas” just might be more impressive than you give her credit for.  May that possibility mean something when it matters.

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

Greetings, friends.

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

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

Much love,

j

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

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

Then there’s what you see.

And then there’s what there is.

Sometimes there is a lot of space between those things. 

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

uu_oval_car_sticker_im_a_unitarian_universalist

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Goodbye

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

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

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

And I root for you still.

 

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

 

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

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

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

Deeply grateful . . . and fearless.

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Even when it matters. Especially when it matters.

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

Support

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

20. Sincere affirmation opens many doors.

 

21. Food does not heal sadness.

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

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

Bon appetit.

Slice of apple pie

 

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

And infinitely more times after that.

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

Ballet flats

finding Jesus on the first floor

I first considered taking a unit of CPE a couple of years ago.

It was 10% because I thought I might want to be a chaplain.  It was 90% because I didn’t want to be a minister.

CPE seemed like a perfect solution, because I knew that it stood between me and ministry any way you slice it.  So, if I hated it, then probably that scary “calling” thing would return from whence it came. And if I loved it, then perhaps I could find an easier way to chaplaincy than the current Unitarian Universalist path to ordination allows.

What I envisioned doing, after all, was about patient care. And there are lots of ways to do that. The majority of which don’t require a deep understanding of denominational polity or skills in congregational conflict resolution.

In short, why seminary? And, more to the point, why ordained ministry? I just wanna be there for people.

 

Next month it will be two years since this particular brand of insanity began in earnest . . . and in those two years of Trust the Process (and Fight the Process, and Kick the Process, and . . . ), I can tell you that the answers to the above questions are so much deeper and richer and more complex than I ever imagined.

And also, after the last three weeks, I can tell you something else.   About CPE.

 

It is not about patient care. 

Professional chaplaincy mostly is, but to be in that role and present in a way that is simultaneously simple and delicate and risky and generous . . . you gotta go through the stuff above. The ministry stuff. The formational challenge, and the time, and the struggle. The arduous path that initially seems unrelated to the end result–it cannot be skipped.

And meanwhile, I have discovered that this—my mandatory summer of crisis and opportunity—it, too, belongs to the formation process, and all its deep mysteries, and not to the world of healthcare.

I expect I’ll say more about that soon.  Or someday, at least.  I’m really in it, at the moment, and that means, for now, that I’m not sure from one day to the next if there will be anything left over after I complete task 1.  Which is to simply be.

In the meantime, though, I will tell you something else.

If what I really wanted were a continuous focus on patient care, I have discovered a role that actually does this:

[whispers . . . ]

It’s the CNAs.

This is a stock photo. Not a patient photo. Everybody breathe.

 

These people, at their best, are the moving hands and walking feet of Jesus in these tiled hallways.

The doctors or the administrators or even the accountants may well be God.

But Christ is somewhere else.

These weeks, I’ve seen Him in the whispered joke in a patient’s ear as her bed is wheeled down a too-public corridor, in bringing a quiet, determined dignity to tasks that otherwise offer a patient precious little, and in the touching and talking and being human with a person in a bed or a line or a wheelchair who is, first and foremost, a human, too.

 

And I am so grateful for this reminder.

 

We are humans, all of us. As professionals, and as patients, we deal with this reality—our frailties and our incredible possibility— in every moment. Some of us are ignoring it, some of us acting it out in one hundred small ways . . . and some of us struggling to remember how we might connect with our humanity once again.

The institution is not human. The procedures are not human. But this hospital . . . that insurance company . . . this government . . . it is made up of and designed and remembered and carried on and implemented by people.

j

Insurance Forms

Things feel so big, the dealings so impersonal, the daily workings so unalterable, that it’s hard to see, at first glance.

So look again.

 

I am continually inviting myself to do this, too.  And when I do, I wonder:

What if we made it our number one job each day to remember that we aren’t a role or a title or a degree, not really? And that the one across from us, with the hair the color of your sister’s, or freckles, or dimples, or a gold tooth, and a look of fear or dread or hope or resignation—that person isn’t a patient or a stroke victim or a financial concern, not really?

What if we truly remembered this, with each phone call or e-mail or data input task:

I am a human being, here to serve other human beings–in love–and this entire institution exists, whether it knows it or not, to fulfill that mission.

 

Here. Now. In this very moment.

Whatever I believe in most deeply, my hands and my heart belong to it.

And whether I intend to or not, I serve that spirit with my every breath.

Please, God . . . let it be love.

-j

 

 

anger: a love story

I love my friends and my family.  They are amazing, creative, funny, loving people.

And, like me, they are imperfect.  They make mistakes.  They have done things, sometimes, that were hurtful, or offensive, or inconsiderate . . .

and I have felt angry.  

j

Now, I don’t mean the kind of anger that sustains us to work against deeply unjust situations–the anger that allows us, even in dangerous places, the courage to confront, the vision to imagine a world that is otherwise, and the space to heal.

I’m talking about anger as a drug.

Anger that says, first to me and then through me, that there is a price that must be paid for the pain that I feel.  And which insists that in the meantime, the rest of our relationship must wait.  In suspended animation.  Until you do what you’re supposed to do.

Holding that anger made me tired.  Waiting left me miserable.  Imagine my relief, then, at the discovery that I could simply choose a different way of being.

At first, several months ago, that choice felt revolutionary.  Now, though, it feels like freedom.  It feels like friendship.

It feels like love.  

Which sorta begs the question: why didn’t I try this before?

And friends, there are many reasons why I should have: because it’s morally right.  Because to hold a grudge is to take poison and wait for your enemy to die. Because to forgive is divine.  Because . . . Jesus.

And yet, in the heat of the moment, there seemed to be only one way that things could go: the angry way.

Image

Why is it so hard to change things?

Perhaps part of the answer lies in scripting.  This is one term for the social patterns that our brains and central nervous systems use to shorten our response time.  Scripting is necessary–without it, each encounter would be a blank slate, and we would be slow to react and vulnerable to misunderstanding or manipulation.  The device, however, is not without its pitfalls, and we often may not even realize we’re using it.

In some situations, in fact, the script may run counter to all of our conscious intentions.  In this type of interaction, I’m not at all happy with the way we’re talking, and neither are you, but even so, we can’t seem to find a way out.

This difficulty can happen anywhere our sense of identity is on the line. The reality, however, is that some relationships are particularly ripe for unquestioned scripting.  Consider, for example, the well-trod trails, heavily loaded with baggage, that connect mothers and daughters, or siblings, or spouses.

Sometimes the script is so old—we know our lines by rote—that we don’t even try to find another way to engage.  Maybe it’s the only way we’ve ever learned to talk with one another.  Maybe the interaction is feeding us even as it damages—meeting a need to feel important, to say our piece, to defend our boundaries.  Maybe the hook is simply the adrenaline high of conflict.

Those same things are true of the script inside my head about How I Shall Act When Angry.

I have been deeply hooked into a particular way of being: Feel aggrieved.  Demand response.  Wait in anger until response received.  Punish other party with dark thoughts and aloof behavior.

Has this worked well for me?

Not exactly.  In fact, it reminds me of the scene in the first Harry Potter book in which Hermione announces that she hasn’t been speaking to Harry and Ron, and they respond, laughing: “Don’t stop now—it’s been doing us so much good!”

And so, a question decades in the making: what happens if I simply stop acting as a willing hostage to my anger?

j

Image

j

Not because I’m restraining myself, or holding my tongue, or saving it for later—what if I do something else because on the whole, it feels better?  

What if I do something else because I recognize, even in anger, that we are both human, and this is part of what that means?  

What if I do something else simply because I can?

j

I am calling this the Happiness Option, and in practice, it can be summed up with one simple phrase: “In the Meantime, Be Nice.”

Truly, it felt odd at first.  It’s like exercising an underused set of muscles.

It hasn’t, however, felt bad—not in the moment, and not later.  Actually, it feels good to connect with joy, delightful to indulge my helping impulse, and freeing to step outside of the “angry” script.

And this immediate gratification is just the beginning.  I’ve discovered that ditching the misery script also yields benefits for the long term:

  • I’m clearer about where I stand in my relationships.

  • I get to spend less time apologizing, less time feeling badly, and less time worrying about having caused further damage.  (In fact, lately I have had to spend zero time doing any of the above.  This is noteworthy.)

  • I am better situated to identify the problems that actually matter—which are a real slight to life and truth, and which—the vast majority—are merely a slight to my ego.

  • I have access to creativity and the sense of Spirit that comes in calm moments, and I can use both to choose when and how to respond to particularly thorny issues.

j

Wow?

Indeed.  This, my people, is news I can use.  And so I keep flexing these muscles, and wondering if this practice—indignation back burner, niceness front—might just be pointing me to a deeper truth, and to a lastingly different way of being.

Image

j

This might have remained merely a series of small experiments; I’m in no hurry here, and I have so. many. opportunities to practice.  But, life being what it is, I recently got to take the Happiness Option for a test drive in a situation in which it mattered, bigtime.

Picture a sometimes challenging relationship, and not one I can simply break off.  Imagine, now, an emotionally weighted subject.  A sense of personal affront.  An explicit questioning of motives.  And the involvement, and invocation, of family ties.

Kindling on a pyre, my friends.

It was, in short, exactly the kind of conversation in which I hate to find myself.

In other words, perfect for this experiment.  And predictably, that initial exchange did not go well.

Misunderstanding occurred.  Tensions increased.  Voices were raised.  Reciprocal shaming was communicated.

The conversation ended without a clear resolution, and in a way that left neither of us feeling great.  Afterward, my own combination of sadness, frustration, anxiety, and—yes—a healthy portion of righteous anger—begged to be vented.  And yet, the Happiness Option suggested, at least for now, that I not.

Hard?  Yes.  It was.

But even so, I didn’t.  I did not channel my anger into an e-mail missive.  I didn’t plan a long communications strike.  And, smaller but perhaps most noteworthy, I didn’t ignore the overture that my friend made the next day.

That gesture wasn’t an apology, an overt acknowledgment, or a plan to move forward.  It did not, in many ways, Meet My Standards.  But it was a hand extended toward remaining in conversation, even on this particular, very difficult issue—and after a moment to remind my muscles how to move, I reached out and I took it.

We are going to move forward, my friend and I.  We will figure this out together, or individually, or we’ll ignore it and it will be an area where we do not share an understanding.  I am now free, however, as the two of us move toward what the future holds.

In that freedom lies creativity, humility, and love.  And happiness.  Let us not forget happiness.

I took Hebrew Bible this spring at Meadville, and we looked at variations on the biblical canon.  The Catholic canon is more expansive; the Evangelical canon a bit less.  There are a few denominations, however, that hold that canon is still open.  We Unitarian Universalists are among them, and I’m making a conscious choice to live like I believe it.

I’m not writing a love story to anger anymore.  I’m writing one to you.  To us.  And to the sheer, luminous possibility, born of our own generosity, that this day yet contains.

-j

j

Thank you, Theresa Soto, for this gorgeous meditation, shared here with permission:

In the Administrative Department of my heart, which is down the hall from Feelings, Major, I wrote down the time you offended me. The clerk, my own silent witness filled out the forms in triplicate. We wrote your name. We added your number. We added the hurt to the Memory Banks, photocopied, indexed (it can also be found in the Time Department, under Times You Forgot that I am able to be cut by paper and burned by wind). We shook our heads at the bitter sharpness of the hurt.

We made the Record of the Hurt. We announced it over the loudspeaker, so no cell, no heartbeat, and no breath would ever overlook the danger you present or the pain that you can bring. And then we were proud of our work. We stood quiet in the halls of Everything, hands in our pockets, and waited.

But Human still we both remain. And while we were Recording, in the most accurate, photorealistic way possible, you grew some more, and changed some more, and so did I, and believing the best yet to come, I was surprised to see that no recording of a single moment could reflect accurately on who you are right now. In this moment, different from the last. Some people say that Forgiveness, destruction of the Record, is for my own benefit.

Perhaps. But perhaps I don’t need you to apply to the Department of Sorry, (third floor, two doors down from Master List of Everything Unreasonably Kind) because mistakes are a human condition. There are too many forms and fines and details in the Administrative Apology. I want everything good for you. And for me. And this includes the way we just, as necessary for beings of our kind, begin again. Expungements and refreshments at noon in the Atrium.

Theresa Soto

 

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.

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.

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

in the little things, our love

Last night I sat in an old rattan chair in our church basement, feeling chilly and gazing up at the asbestos tiles on the ceiling.  The basement is an unprepossesing space.  It’s not scary–there aren’t dark corners or long cobwebs.  But it’s largely unfinished, painted concrete and cinderblock, humbly furnished, and just not a place we show off to visitors. Fortunately, we don’t have to love it; many among us ardently pine for more space for classes and meetings so the basement could be reserved for people–our youth?–who might “appreciate its charms.”  In the meantime, it gets the job done.

I was there for the final session of a small group series on Reproductive Justice, and I came to the basement, and to the assembled group, with something between equanimity and resignation.  This was the only class offered this spring, and for a variety of reasons, I was not willing to sign on with my whole heart.  I’m interested in the subject (as I have discussed–here, for example, and here; thoughtful guest response here); I wish we would talk more about this sort of thing, and that we’d do it in a way that acknowledges that there are a variety of viewpoints even among devoted Unitarians.  But I knew this class had an agenda from the outset, and it didn’t necessarily square with my own.  And I didn’t realize this consciously until now, but from the time I put my name down on the sign up sheet until the night of our last session, I had one foot out the door.

And yet, I returned.  And returned.  And . . . returned.  I came to check it out, and I stayed to say my piece, and I came back in hopes of learning more, until finally I attended because that’s what I did on Wednesday nights.   The group was well-facilitated, its members open and enthusiastic, and the material relevant and interesting.  That said, I did sometimes feel uncomfortable.  And I sat in silence with the things that bother me– it’s just not time right now.  But I learned a lot, and though I thought of myself as “dropping in,” I was there.  (And perhaps in this, a lesson: I don’t always have to depend on my confused heart to take me where I need to go, because I have my feet to bring me.  My heart can just follow along for the ride . . . and something might touch it anyway.)

And then last night in the cool basement, staring upward as chairs scraped and feet thundered above me, something happened.  One moment I was wishing I had a quilt or afghan to wrap myself in–I am something of a critic by nature, of the organization-reforming, process-refining sort; I was quickly developing a plan for a blanket drive to make our chilly spaces more hospitable for winter group meetings–and the next, I felt blanketed in love and joy.

What happened?  Our group was checking in, and I was listening . . . but without truly listening.  (I have some work to do around mental multi-tasking, or its opposite, which I believe is simply called presence).  Then one participant shared her gratitude for the simple comfort of being able to walk into our church building, home of our little community, and make herself a cup of tea amid the bustle of the Wednesday night kitchen.  We had what she needed.  She knew where to find it, and felt invited to do so.  She felt welcomed in the space, even given the busy-ness of those around her.  She found a place of ease and respite from the demands of the day, and settled with joy and peace into our company.

Wow.  Wow.  Sometimes the little things are the big things.  In my joy at seeing the improvement in an evening that this sort of gift can create–a simple thing, but a big one for quality of life–I smiled.  Then I settled in with joy and peace of my own, and sent a quick mental blessing around the circle to my fellow congregants, to the cheery light of the lamp in the corner, to the work that we had done together that day, and up to those faded acoustical tiles on the ceiling.  I snuggled into my chair, blanketed in the abundance of a community of here and now, and engaged in the work of our final evening together.

And later, much later, and then again this morning, I thought about the ways that this community provides sustenance for my body as well as nourishment for my soul.  I think about the big things a lot, but I tend to gloss over the abundance–and the importance–of the little ones.  So, thinking about the last few weeks, I made a list:

My church community has given me . . .

* a cheering section
* a hot meal cooked with love
* encouragement to grow
* a hug, a smile, a knowing wink
* listening–casual listening, deep listening, and the sort of listening (risky, across the lines of our own hearts) that for me mediates God as closely as anything I’ve ever found
* opportunities to be a listener myself, and to learn to do it better
* space to do things that scare me–and as much of a safety net as you can have while still doing something that’s real
* an abundance of grace in my mistakes (see above)
* smiles, hugs, and genuine love for my children, even when they are acting exactly like themselves
* and yes, a hot beverage on a cold day.  or many such beverages–this is probably my most-used feature of our kitchen.  Friends, welcome to the Minstry of Tea.

What a place, right?  What an unearned bounty . . . and what a difference it makes to my days and to my life.  It makes the sort of difference, in fact, that encourages me to tromp downstairs week after week, and open myself to things I don’t necessarily want to hear.  The accumulation of tiny loves and mundane comforts may be exactly what makes it feel safe to follow my feet even when my heart isn’t quite ready.

When we talk about finding a church home, connecting around spirituality is probably what we think of first . . . but is that ultimately why we decide to stay?  Maybe the decision to join a congregation has something to do with experiencing comfort–and perhaps it’s not just the church part we should focus on, then, when we talk about growth, but on how we offer those who find us a piece of home.  A home that is not the one we make ourselves and return to in the evenings, but the one from our dreams.

A warm glow.

A space at the table, prepared for you.

A beloved community, making beautiful a humble basement.

You are welcome here.  Come in, and grow.  But first: make yourself at home.