How parish ministers are not like plants

I’m on the road for our faith quite a bit, and I say yes to home hospitality any time I can.  It’s a pretty safe bet, when your shared business is the church, and while it’s often interesting  . . .  and occasionally interesting, what happens most often is that we make a quick heart connection.

They share a bit of their lives, their hopes, their family pride and their existential struggle, over coffee and whatever is for breakfast.  And then, somehow, we keep in touch.  These people have come to visit me, I’ve made return visits back to them, and I got to serve, years later, as a seminary reference for one who finally decided to follow her call.

And occasionally, these people share more with me than breakfast, as happened once this past year.

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They are gardeners, this couple.  I had arrived in near darkness, after a late dinner the evening before, and they wanted to make sure I saw the backyard.  Time was short, we all knew, but I agreed, stepping with my host through the sliding door . . .  into a world of roses.  There were so many, and in their full glory, and in the background, the sound of water—a fountain he had engineered to run the entire length of the yard.  I wandered, smelled, smiled.  And then he said, “This isn’t what I wanted to show you.”  The property continued as we walked, rambling across the valley floor, past a woodshop and then into a long and carefully laid out vegetable garden, planter box after planter box of strawberries and squash, cucumbers and climbing beans.

I grew up with two sets of gardening grandparents.  I know both how to snap a pea, and how to appreciate the miracle of it.  A well-loved garden brings me back to those days, and to them, and I stood, smiling, as my host pressed peas into my hand.  He walked a bit farther, and then turned back to me, swept his hand across the landscape and back toward the house, and asked, “What do you see?”  I considered that question, answerable in so many ways, and finally turned in silence back to him, awaiting the answer.  “That,” he said, pointing toward his home, “is just a house.

But this [sweeping his hand across the land]—this is home.”

I nodded, considering.

“I went to war, and came back, and had to decide what I would be.  I didn’t have roots; I had to make them.  We made them here.  We put down roots, and we made this our home.”

Then he reached down to one of the spiny, spindly green plants in the box near his feet.  “These.  These are weeds, they’ll grow anywhere.  They’re prehistoric, older than anything out here.  And they put down a taproot so fast and so deep that you can’t get rid of them.  You can pull them off easily at the top, but they’ll grow back.  They know how to root.”

He handed me the spiky plant, and turned again to look at me.

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“Find a place to root.  Make a home.  Do it by finding some land and getting to know it.  Doesn’t matter where.  Choose.”

He gestured to the plant in my hand, then.  “You don’t have to take that with you.  But think about it.”

And then we walked back to the house, me wiping surprised tears from my cheeks as I went.

Think about it.

And I did.  I thought, first, about what on earth in our short conversations had led us to this moment.  Had I signaled with my words?  With something deep in my being?  Was this just a moment of synergy or even mere happenstance, something another visitor would have dismissed as an odd spell of passion from an 80 year old farmer, but which for me, echoed clear to the bone?

I let go of those questions as we eventually do all unknowable things, but I have held on to the exhortation that inspired them.  “Find a place to root.  Make a home.”

And here’s a hard thing: I do not know if that instruction is compatible with parish ministry.

How do you find a place to root when you serve at the will of a people?  How do you make a home in a place where you are other, and every house and rock and history belongs to someone else?

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How do you find a place to attach and deepen, when you must always be willing to act in negation of any meaningful sense of home–must be ready to cut ties, leave, and not return?

Is it that I’m missing the key to understanding how this works?

Or is it that I have apprehended correctly that “home” of the land and place-rooted sort is not on offer in this life?  That this man was talking to people after his own heart, and that ministers, mostly, are of a different genus, that of third-culture people of every stripe, kin to all who belong simultaneously everywhere and nowhere, those air plants who root in shared legacy and exist in the eternal now?

I have thought about this as a colleague and friend confessed her decade of heartache and loneliness, how she has become bereft of ever finding a partner while serving in a small town.

I have thought about this as another colleague, approaching retirement, grew teary as he recounted the journey across settlements, across communities, and the legacy it has left in his own life that nowhere is home and no one is waiting for his return.

I have thought about it as my husband and I have wondered whether and where to find a home where we are, something with land, a neighborhood, a possibility of greater rootedness for children who are not made of air.

What that man did or did not know was that I have been thinking of it always.

This is the cost we do not speak of, the calculation none of us quite knows how to make.

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And in the meantime, newer ministers choose not to consider the parish, some not because they are not called to church, but because they are not called to leave.

In the meantime, seasoned colleagues address their peers to share the story of their ministry, their odyssey (that title itself ironic, as one friend recently pointed out, given that the Odyssey itself is basically a long tale of trying and failing to be home) . . .  and then leave storied careers to spend a fifth season unsure of where they belong.

Is there a home, upon this earth, for those of us who serve the spirit? 

Is there a place, in our movement, for this conversation?

As climate and communities and churches continue to change, what will a place-based ministry look like?

j

When freedom’s just another word

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

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

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

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

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

Wait, what!?

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

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

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

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

And a slog it has been.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To my soul.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is, in short, the opposite of freedom.

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

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

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

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

And so, “freedom.”

Ha.

I guess it looks like walking, friends.

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

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

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

To be followed, again, by ordinary time.

j

 

Someday comes the choosing

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source: Pixabay

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But that isn’t entirely true.

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

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

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

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

And so, we are dreaming, together.

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

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

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

j