“In the meantime”- Rev. Kendyl Gibbons on installing a minister

Installation of Rev. Jordinn Nelson Long at Fairhaven, MA

Rev. Kendyl Gibbons

April 2, 2017

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Rev. Dr. Kendyl Gibbons is the senior minister of All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in Kansas City, Missouri

Good afternoon, Fairhaven, and friends from all over.  We meet today to formalize and celebrate leadership in our Unitarian Universalist movement, amidst some political turmoil within the leadership of our association.  Issues around racial injustice in this country have commanded our attention as religious liberals since our founding, and we have yet to resolve the tension between the culture of privilege that we inherit, from which many of us benefit and some of us suffer, and the call to justice, equity, and compassion that is never entirely silent at the core of our faith.  Today we find ourselves again in pain over a hiring decision made by good people with good intentions, that has nevertheless served to perpetuate disenfranchisement and systemic power imbalances among us.  The president of our association has resigned from office for the remaining three months of his term.  No one knows for sure exactly what it would mean to get this right for once.  Nevertheless, this is in fact no time for any of us to despair, and despair is the opposite of leadership.

Rather, this is a time not only to face into both our individual and our collective pain, but in fact to be thankful that there is enough capacity among us – even if just barely – for that pain to be recognized by those who carry it and articulated into a space of potential trust, and heard and taken seriously in locations of power.  I am inclined to think that the transformation of our institutional structures that we all long for — even as we struggle with our resistance to meaningful change – will not happen just because forces of privilege become willing to undergo the discomfort of hearing about the pain that people of color experience.   We won’t get there unless that happens, but it’s not enough.  I think we have to be willing to incarnate pain in our institutional experience, and walk through it together, if we are going to learn to actually behave differently.  As we used to say in seminary, “Oh, great; another friggin’ growth opportunity!”   And yet, without those opportunities, as disorienting and difficult and demanding as they are, we are condemned never to move beyond the limitations and injustices of the past.  Choosing to recognize and face into pain is one of the key manifestations of genuine leadership, and it is at the core of what we are gathered here to affirm.

An installation like this shares with a wedding the same dynamic of joyful connection and hope-filled promises for the future; a covenant of fidelity and support, intended to sustain the adventure of mutual discovery and joint accomplishment.  It is wonderful; a high moment of human intention to be sure; deserving of celebration.  And yet, like a wedding, these high hopes and noble promises can only have their end in some form of sadness.  It can be sudden and dramatic tragedy — the minister dies unexpectedly, leaving the congregation heart-broken and grieving.  Overwhelming conflict comes to a head by ousting the minister, leaving bitterness and anger.  It can be a slow, debilitating erosion of integrity or interest — the people stop coming, the minister stops caring.  It can be nobody’s fault — the local employer closes shop, and demographics doom the congregation.  It can be spectacular moral failure — the minister seduces a member of the church, or the treasurer embezzles the endowment and refuses to pay the minister.  Even in the very best case scenario — the minister enters a well-planned and well-funded retirement after years of loyal and skillful work — both the congregation and the minister will still experience a period of poignant loss, confusion, and sorrow.  The longer and more successful the ministry, the more painful that eventual separation.  It’s the same with weddings; the story only ends either with one spouse grieving the loss of the other, or else with both grieving for the loss of the love that had once brought them joy together.

There is no fixing this; it’s inherent in the proposition to begin with.  The sustenance of the particular connections that give shape and meaning to our lives is always balanced by the grief that comes with losing that bond, either to mortality or entropy.  As Robert Frost says, “However it is in some other world, I know that this is the way in ours.”  As long as we are creatures in a world of matter and energy, we know at some level that everything is temporary.  There are people who look to religion for an exception to this law, for some eternal truth or unfailing love that endures when all else dissolves, and that is indeed what many faith traditions promise.  My own life-long religious humanism takes a different approach.  It seems to me that faith is not about the search for something that never fails, but rather the affirmation that the experience made possible through connection, relationship, and community is worth the pain of inevitable loss.

I cannot prove this proposition, of course.  If you were to say to me, “I have been there, and the pain of bereavement, or betrayal, is far greater than any joy I ever found,” I would not argue with you — only you can know the dimensions of your own griefs and gladnesses.  What I can do — what we all do, I suspect, in this strange vocation of ministry — is testify.  I can tell you the stories of those who have given themselves to love and to covenant, and been so enriched that they would do it again and again, despite knowing that heartache is part of the bargain.  I can bear witness out of my own life in leadership that ‘success’ is a kind of seductive phantom, ever in search of more; it is rather the shared effort, the working together itself, that satisfies both in the moment and in memory.  If you really want to build community, take on a demanding project together, and don’t let yourself quit when the going gets tough.  Whether or not you accomplish the goal, you will be known to each other, and changed by each other, in the process, and that is the foundation of authentic community.

It’s the ‘don’t let yourself quit when the going gets tough’ proviso that is the reason for all this hoopla over stuff like installations.  It will be silly, and humiliating, six months from now, for either Jordinn or the members of this congregation to turn around and say, “Oh, never mind; this is harder than we thought!”  This is why our communities of memory and promise are founded upon covenants; because we all need a defense against the impulse of immediate feelings that challenge our best intentions.   It is necessary to be reminded from time to time of what you said you were going to do, and what you really want, over and above the lure of momentary comfort.  There is more to covenant than just noticing when our interests happen to coincide:  “You want to try being a minister?  Oh, good; we are looking for someone to organize and entertain us.  Let’s do this!”  Now I’m not saying that the bureaucratically organized ministerial search process in the UUA is so perfect that calls don’t sometimes come about for such trivial reasons; but what I know is that if ministry works, it has to grow into something deeper and more challenging and at times more aggravating on both sides, than this.  In fact, in this setting, it is hard not to be reminded of Shel Silverstein’s cautionary verse:

 

Have you heard of tiny Melinda Mae,

Who ate a monstrous whale?

She thought she could,

She said she would,

So she started in right at the tail.

 

And everyone said, “You’re much too small,”

But that didn’t bother Melinda at all.

She took little bites and she chewed very slow,

Just like a good girl should…

…And in eighty-nine years she ate that whale,

Because she said she would!

 

I find this particularly apt given Jordinn’s well-known affinity for sea food!

Now, I do not mean to suggest that every misguided decision must always be pursued to the bitter end, nor that any ministry, however fruitful, ought to endure for eighty-nine years, certainly, but I do think there is a word to be offered on behalf of that which we do ‘because we said we would.’  That word is covenant; it is our solemn promises that counteract the randomness of a future in which anything and everything is possible, by committing us in advance to certain relationships and values that we have selected as references points for our unfolding journeys.  We do this in the knowledge aforethought that there will be both ultimate losses, and incidental difficulties along the way.  We do it because what we build with intention, and even with difficulty, is more satisfying in the long run than the pleasures that we happen to encounter randomly wandering around.  We do it in these time-consuming, somewhat anachronistic rituals — like weddings, and installation services — invoking powers that we scarcely know how to name, and only partly believe, because we are seeking some way to give our lives the density, and dignity, and depth that we suspect, with longing, might yet be possible for us to access.

The conservative columnist David Brooks, a perceptive if crotchety observer of progressive culture, once described the paradox of liberal institutionalism as the attempt to ‘build a house of obligation upon a foundation of choice.’  I think he had an accurate point, with specific application to Unitarian Universalism and its insistent basis in covenant.  We tend to reject family legacy, cultural convention, or the dogmas of tradition as constraints in the project of framing either our specific individual lives or the social structures we must share.  We want to make our own commitments of conscience out of an essential freedom; we want to choose our duties and assent to the responsibilities for which we will be held accountable — not because some external force of history or divinity assigned them to us, but like Melinda Mae, because we said we would.  Rather like a long-co-habiting bride, Jordinn’s ministry here is already well underway — what, if anything, changes today?  I suggest that what changes is that you, the congregation, and she, are about to try to name, and call into being by naming, that ‘because we said we would’ that will bind you both to a shared future, despite the certainty of grief which that future holds.  This is an act of faith, on both sides, and let no one tell you otherwise.

It matters that we do this, in both private and collective life, even though there is no escape from eventual loss, because it is precisely what we enact together in the meantime that gives sacred significance to our days.  If we are faithful to the purpose of church, it seems to me that there are two necessarily uncompleted projects in which we are always engaged, and these are the challenges on the ground of which authentic community arises.  The first is to take David Brooks at his word, and demonstrate what it looks like to indeed build a house of obligation upon a foundation of choice.  What does an institution that incarnates the values of Unitarian Universalism look like on the hoof?  When the curious and the spiritually hungry come to these doors, will they see people relating to each other and to the rest of the world as our seven principles would suggest?  If all someone did was to observe your congregation in action, what would they assume the essence of our faith to be?  As I experience it, that essence and those values are counter-cultural; at our best, we are a subversive organization, challenging a success and power idolizing society, bearing witness to the possibility of more compassionate, liberating, and humble human community.  We do this most effectively, if not most often, by exemplifying such relationships, amidst the all the challenges of life in a voluntary organization.  The effort to be the world we want to see is exhilarating, once we get past the trap of constantly judging and blaming each other.  That’s one project to work on together.

The other never ending adventure we share is our own spiritual growth, into the people each of us wants to become.  Many and various are the forces which urge us at every moment to take stock of what we have, and whether we are satisfied with that, but where in the course of our daily lives might we be held accountable for what we are, or what growth we are striving for?  Who asks us to step into spiritual maturity, to aspire to be grown ups, to identify the qualities that would make our lives worthy of honor, emulation, and blessing?  From what I see, if the church is not a place for this, it doesn’t happen anywhere — and this brings us back to covenant.  Because there is nothing gained by trying to apply my aspirations for personal growth to you; rather, my role as a partner in religious community is to hold up the mirror of accountability to what you said you wanted to be; to bear witness to your achievements and failures and continuing efforts to give your life the shape you most deeply believe it ought to have.  We can share insight and inspiration on this journey, but no one else can do the work of spiritual growth on your behalf — that is not the minister’s job, not even one as talented and passionate and beloved as Jordinn is destined to become.  Besides, she has her own inner life to cultivate, with the added challenge of making it transparent enough to serve as an inviting model and summons for all of you.  But in the end, religious community that is founded in freedom of conscience and diversity of expression can only hold together because we said we would; it can only keep us as accountable as we make ourselves in covenant, to one another and the challenges we have chosen to take on together.

 

Today, my friends, we bear witness as you and Jordinn make explicit your stepping into that covenant with one another.  We bring to this moment our full awareness that struggles and parting, as well as joys and fulfillment, lie ahead.  We bring the testimony of our own past experiences, as well as the centuries of our heritage, affirming the promise that religious community offers, is well worth the price that it demands.  With all the hope and wisdom at our disposal, we bless your future together, and lift up your example to our movement and to the world.  May you grow together, and sustain each other; may you find the community that is not self-serving, but other-serving and justice-serving, and in the process, become the greater selves that you have shown each other, in courage and faithfulness, all because today, in this place, in this joyful, poignant moment, you said you would.

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Rev. Jordinn Nelson Long is the newly installed minister of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Fairhaven, MA

Send us a Minister! (reporting live, from Unitarian Universalism’s Big Dance)

One of the sole romantic stories that Unitarian Universalism allows itself is that of English minister John Murray’s arrival on this continent. Widowed and heartbroken, Murray gave up preaching to sail to America and begin his life anew. However, his New York-bound ship became stuck on a sandbar off the coast of New Jersey when winds died, and Murray was sent ashore for provisions. There, he came across one Thomas Potter, who, as the story goes, had been waiting for him. For ten years. Potter had built a church, in fact, believing that God would send him a minister to preach the radical message of universalism.

Potter makes a deal with the reluctant Murray that if the ship cannot sail before the sabbath, Murray will come ashore and preach Sunday morning—and ultimately, the American era of Universalism is born.

 

A miracle, it hath occurred. If this had happened in any other faith, there would be a shrine and a pilgrimage route.

As befits our faith, however, the question I want to consider belongs purely to the pedestrian side of this equation:

Where was the putative congregation in all this?

One assumes that Potter’s offer is predicated on the understanding that there were people, come Sunday, who would wish to be preached to. If so, these people had been waiting for years for the arrival of their minister.*

Possibly the early universalists were more patient than the modern UUs I know. Imagine us, sitting ever so quietly in our pews. Praying, “Send us a minister!”

I have been thinking about this because we modern Unitarian Universalists are in the midst of the season known as “the search process.”

This is where, and how, congregations and ministers find one another.

And for the first time ever, I am a participant. (A player? A pawn?)

White chess pawn standing on chessboard

 

The whole baroque process is frequently compared to dating (read: group blind dating, with the intent to marry—it’s more like The Bachelor than dinner with the guy from next door), and there are certainly analogues. A focus on photogenic details. Will-they-call anxiety. Casual social media stalking. The occasional messy breakup. And delightful pieces as well—the unanticipated giddy joy, the previously-uncontemplated attractions, the writing of names, together, for effect.

There are modern sandbars, to be sure. Unexpected blizzards, Skype mishaps, and missed connections literal and figurative have all played a role this season.

And like their early American counterparts, the people are waiting. Have been waiting, in some of these congregations, for years. Finally, we are ready to call a minister.

And yet, unless we plan to put a level of trust and patience in divine providence that would be—let’s say unusual—in this movement, the truth is that “Send us a minister” is not what this process looks like.

Go fishing for a minister, maybe. Purchase a minister on the commodities market, if we forget the deeper call of our theology. But not, generally, “Sit here and wait patiently until someone else sends us one.”

And each year, participants on every side of this expensive and convoluted process lament that. If only God (actually no one says that) If only Keith Kron/the transitions office/the UUA/somebody would just “do the matching for us.”

Send us a minister.

Or send us a sandbar on which we might catch one.

SUDBURY, MASSACHUSETTS:  18th century First Parish Unitarian Church

SUDBURY, MA- First Parish Unitarian Church Not currently in search, friends.  🙂

I wasn’t sure when, after months preparing to interview with the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, I’d ever voluntarily read the Cambridge Platform again.

But friends, the answer is now. I am reading it again now, and am considering the magic and miracle of a history that believes that our congregations—that our people—know best.

And so, we don’t “send” ministers.

We cultivate faith and hope . . . and then we send packets. We send paperwork. We send greetings to the people who are themselves the deciders, and thus we decide, with every e-mail, which send-off to use.  Sincerely? Too cold. Fondly? Too warm. Warmly? What are we talking about, here? Blessings! (I have “blessed” more people in the past six weeks than in the whole of my life before this. )

And eventually, if things progress to the point of “serious relationship,” we send ourselves, in person.

We ministers in the congregational-polity tradition claim a significant amount of agency over our own futures. Over the spaces in which we will live into our calls. And this is true not merely incidentally, but because the freedom of the pulpit–and the pew–that inheres in our covenantal theology requires this. We choose freely and discern together at every step of the way, practicing and modeling exactly those skills we will need for our journey together in shared ministry.

And yet we grasp, sometimes, for something easier, and there is a reason for that.

Because this is hard.

This year, I’m engaged in this process as a minister, but the truth is, search is also very difficult for our congregations. It’s expensive, and there may be budget worries. It’s time consuming—four hours per week, on average, for an entire year (and that “four hours” gives little perspective; try 20 to 30 hours on precandidating weekends; more if you happen to be the committee chair and de-facto “host”), and everyone is busy.

And yet, these people do this on volunteer hours. They are keeping the faith and communicating a theology of people and place out of love for both. I think we forget this sometimes, both as ministers and as a denomination: that what happens in our congregations—that they exist in the first place, and that they continue to thrive–is a beautiful miracle.

This truth, that we are covenanted, not legislated, holds deep import for how we will search for an engage our ministers.

And yet there’s another piece of this that deserves mention: the heartbreak. This process is a path to heartbreak.

This is true because we meet each other in the same spirit of voluntary openness required to forge true partnership. Our communication happens tentatively at first, and then with greater and greater openness; the kind that leaves hearts on the line. The kind that demands risks, individually and together.

Tears will be shed this spring, my people. They already have been, and what I hope we understand is that this is not a bad thing.

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On the contrary.

Because what happens, underneath it all, is that our ministers and our search committees use faith—their own, and our collective assurances—to hold ambiguity, so that everyone else doesn’t have to.

In a free faith, creativity and self-determination are key, and to allow those to be part of the selection process, someone has to tolerate the uncertainty. The search committees, and the candidate ministers: We are the designated feelers in this process.  Not to appease the demands of hierarchy, but as a function of democracy. Because our history and our hope are staked on the radical notion that congregations know their needs best and must chart their course freely—and that ministers must be equally free to follow the dictates of their own call and consciences.

A process that takes this equation out of our collective hands, while administratively neater and in many respects, much simpler, would bear little resemblance to what ought to be our touchstone: life in our congregations.

An uncomfortable truth lurking within the 1646 text of the Cambridge Platform is that our congregations do this—hold, know, and care; preach, teach and lead—they do all this—with, and also without their ministers.

We ministers can help hold a vision, but it is unto the members of our congregations that the container for it is entrusted. We ministers can speak to the spark of our highest aspirations, but is our congregations who must keep the literal fires burning.

We remember this at pledge time. But how deep is our consideration of congregational ownership and the sacred demands of a shared ministry in the moments that are mere precursor?

As we send pieces of ourselves—and then our bodies, our families—across the country, repeatedly, in the name of call?

We Unitarian Universalists affirm the democratic principle: one person, one vote.  We carry forward the sacred trust of our history. We believe in the bright magic of our dreams.

And so, what other process could there be?

We need a bishop.

It is true, friends, that this process is hard. Holy moments hold space with disillusionment and sometimes, with betrayal. Thousands of dollars are spent, and more are promised. Hopes have grown large, and hearts will yet be broken. But where else, I wonder, are hopes and hearts and dollars on the line? For what larger dance are we rehearsing?

I want, even now, to be making ready for it.

But it would be so much easier if we had a more formal matching process, with fewer choices.

Just send us.

Brown mail delivery package with tag

No.

I beg to differ.

This has been an awesomely challenging few months. We are all tired. And certainly, we and this process need both pastoring and guidance from the larger denomination. Beyond Categorical Thinking is a key example of input-from-above that shapes a process with more fairness, and more joy, available for all.

But in the end, I have to cast my lot with the committees and the quorums.

I choose this process for the same reason I choose our congregations, and I hang in when it’s hard for the same reason that we come back to the table, and to our covenants, time and time again.

I have, in the words of poet Adrienne Rich, no choice but “to cast my lot with those who, age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.”

Those are my people.

And this is all of our process.

Not from a ship, then, and not from denominational authorities, either, but from this long and sometimes awkward dance— from these very committee meetings, these phone calls, these e-mails, these questions and answers and these half-articulated hopes . . .

There is appearing, already on the horizon, the future we have dreamed of.

It is our ministry.        

Together.

Amen.

j

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*Fun fact, as best we can tell: The “congregation” was composed of Potter’s friends and neighbors, and they had indeed been waiting for 10 years—because they thought he was an idiot, and that Universalism was a heresy. Our sermon illustrations are at times imperfect. Wrestle with this as you will.

You’re In the (Lord’s) Army Now! UU ministers on moving from “congregant” to “seminarian”

This series of posts arose from a discussion among  Meadville Lombard students about  surprises (some lovely; others less so) that “seminarian” status has brought to our relationships with our home congregations.   The churches we belong to are often full of beloved friends and mentors, and the place where a call to ministry was first voiced and nurtured.  Must we lose our home churches?  These first thoughts are from a minister fresh out of this process: the Rev. Patrick McLaughlin.
Stay tuned for more perspectives.  In the meantime, whether you are a minister, a layperson, or a seminarian yourself, I’d love to hear your take.
-j
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Your relationship with your home congregation starts to change the moment you announce to them that you’re stepping over the congregant-minister line by beginning seminary.This can be strange and unsettling.

I was the newly-former president of the board, deeply embedded and well thought of. I was still on the board, given the governance model (that I helped design and led the implementation of).  In the service where I revealed what I was doing, the reaction was very positive and affirming, but one of the elder members, on the way out through the line, grumbled, “Well, don’t get a big head…“. That was when I started to realize that everything had changed.

In the congregation’s eyes, you have stepped over the line (a line that may have been invisible to you as you started seminary), and are now becoming a minister. You are now an alien creature. And in short order, more and more of the congregation lose track of the becoming part of that. You are a minister. Even if you’re all at sixes and sevens about it, and your grip on your ministerial identity is sketchy, the people who were your fellow congregants don’t necessarily see that, at all.

Seminarians are urged by the UUMA and MFC processes (and even by the demands of seminary) to disengage from lay leadership. You will still engage in work that a lay person might do… but you will do it as a minister. And as you do that, you naturally start to slide out of leadership, and ultimately out the life of the congregation.

Soon, you begin to inhabit a space where the members of your home congregation just experience you as minister. Thus, what you experience is distancing, because you’re encountered and embraced differently. Only your real, personal friends are still (mostly) there as they were before.

“Do you have advice for aspirants/candidates navigating between their home congregations (from which they were called into ministry, usually) and internship and seminary experiences?”

My first advice is to mourn. You’ve just lost your church. Really. In ways that are almost irrecoverable, you’ve lost the church, and in any church you belong to in the future, you’ll always be different from the rest of the congregation. You’ll belong to it, in ways that are deeper, but you’ve lost it, mostly.

You can’t speak freely. And your minister (who is now also your ministerial colleague) is aware that you need to finish crossing the Rubicon. That minister will insist that you live into this new role plus expect you not to “misbehave,”–not to do those things that a lay person might do and get away with, but which are now violations of professional guidelines and codes about how we ministers act and how we treat one another. And so, in a variety of ways: you’re pushed, pulled, dragged, and thrown over that congregant-minister line.  And there is no return.

Do you remember how the process of stepping away from your home congregation worked for you?  How have you honored or maintained a connection with “the place that you came from”?  

Every case is unique. I’d been one of the most active of lay leaders. Search committee, Welcoming Congregation Committee, Building Chair, Committee on Ministry, Board of Trustees — and more. My wife was Worship chair for nearly six years.  So, stepping away was slow, and it was challenging. The first year, I was finishing out the term I’d been elected to on the board. And then, I took on nothing else except what I did as a ministerial student. My family was still very active. I was… there. I’d find myself invited in as a ministerial presence for various functions—but mostly, my task was to figure out how to NOT be an active lay leader, even when and where I so wanted to be. My fingers are flat to this day from sitting on my hands.

Because of the flexibility of Meadville’s part-time program, and my family’s situation and engagement in my home church, we stayed. I just stepped farther and farther away .  .  . and finally, I stepped back entirely. Sort of. With the minister’s support.

This meant more preaching as a minister— and the church made a point of paying me. And later, when my son became the de facto leader of the youth group, I kept the utmost distance (This was not because of him, per se—he was active in urging me to be chaplain for the YRUU summer and winter camps at de Benneville–which I did, and I strongly encourage anyone to do some of that sort of thing at any of our camps). I kept my distance because I didn’t think the congregation could handle and understand the fine lines there. The family remained very engaged, while I became “the minister they were helping grow,” who in the end, would go away.

There was a lot of work involved in educating our congregation around that, as I am the first person to go from that fellowship to seminary, and to be ordained by them. My ordination was one way I honored my congregation. In the meantime, it was a ruthless process of education. By the time of my ordination, we all knew I was going to New Hampshire, so my leaving was part of the charge to the congregation: “Good job. Congratulations! Now let go of this minister, and start the process again with another. That’s your job now.”

It is sometimes said, perhaps with just a bit of wistfulness, that ‘ministers don’t have ministers.’  Is there a congregation in which you participate in worship or other aspects of congregational life?  Who or what ministers to your spiritual needs?” 

Ministers DO have ministers; it just doesn’t look quite the same. First, there’s the minister of my home congregation.  Although she’s now a colleague and equal, and there are places I don’t fully agree with her… she’s going to be “my minister” for a long time, in many ways.

I have others who fulfill that role, too. My internship supervisor will remain a mentor. She is someone who’s invested in me, but who I had a more equal relationship with as the intern—that person is a minister, and I was a minister-in-training.

And there are others, some of them retired colleagues—in fact, this sort of support may be their real role now for many of us. They’ve been through all this, and can sit back, chuckle, offer some sage advice–and some utterly obsolete, dated, useless advice, too. But these experienced ministers are utterly capable of embracing the hurt, loss, confusion, success, and joy experiences and understanding them. Of soothing. Of cheering.

Finally, there are a handful of collegial friends one turns to, in part to kvetch and be kvetched to. “You will never believe what my Committee on Ministry chair has done…”.

On the whole, we don’t “have ministers” in the same way, but we have ministers, still. And in some ways, the relationships are deeper.

-Rev. Patrick McLaughlin

Rev. McLaughlin is a recent graduate of Meadville Lombard Theological School and the newly settled minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Manchester, NH. He is a life-long UU who grew up all over the western United States, as well as in Australia and Belgium. He attributes finding the right congregation to good fortune, a red clown nose, and a warped sense of humor.

on (not) drowning

In a previous version of my life, I spent a lot of time around water. Eventually, I discovered that if you hang out around the pool enough, you might as well get paid for it: as soon as I was old enough to take the test, I became a lifeguard.

You can learn many things while guarding, from personal preferences like the roles you prefer to play in a team, how you handle boredom, and whether you can manage a crisis . . . to highly task-specific knowledge, such as how to safely help a person who has become unable to save herself.

This is not me.  Just so we're clear.

This is not me. Just so we’re clear.

The first rule: if you yourself are in the water, don’t ever try offer your own body as a saving base for an active drowning victim.  This means do not grab the person without something between you and them, and never—EVER–let them grab you.  This rule is why the rescue tube—that long orange floatie that lifeguards have been carrying for the past 15 years or so—was created: to provide a buoyant buffer between a rescuer’s body and that of a drowning victim.

This innovation didn’t arise from a fear of closeness: it’s because active drowning victims act irrationally and dangerously.  They flail.  They hit.  They grab and hold without discrimination, and sometimes with strength and tenacity that are not entirely helpful.

In a worst-case scenario, the victim gets hold of your head, wraps her arms around you to keep herself afloat, and takes you both under.  This is a dangerous situation that lifeguards practice in certification training, and the solution is counterintuitive: you must break the hold by swimming down—away from the surface, away from the air, and away from the person you’re trying to help—and then try again to approach from a different angle, remembering to keep yourself farther away.  In some circumstances, it’s actually necessary to wait for the person to lose energy and stop fighting before you can assist them.  Occasionally that happens only when s/he becomes unconscious.

Aside from drills, I have never been a rescuee.  In fact, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where that would happen; I was basically born with fins.  And yet, the past semester of freaking out—about seminary, the call to ministry, changes to my role in my congregation, and life-altering transformations, in general—it seems akin to a drowning process.  Or, more accurately, to a fear-of-drowning process.

First I was the kid who climbed to the top of the high dive and then refused to jump.  For a long time.  A looooooong time.  (and honestly, who hasn’t wanted to climb up there and give that kid a great big push?)  But it’s so far down, and it looks different from the top than you thought it would, and falling is scary, and having to swim after that is daunting, and everybody’s staring at you and . . .

And then I was the panicked swimmer floundering in the water.  Head back.  Arms flailing.  Oblivious to the crowd gathering, and a potential danger to those who would try to help.

Only—check this out—it turns out that the gathering crowd is yelling.  At me.   “Put your feet down!”  “FEET! DOWN!”*  They are yelling because it turns out I’ve been flailing around in exactly 2.5 feet of water.

I can stand here.  My children could stand here.  This is both noteworthy and embarrassing, but I don’t dwell on it, because I have also realized something else: I can swim.  (It’s hard to do a thorough self-assessment of skills while actively drowning.)

In fact, it turns out that I actually love swimming.

I love it more than I thought possible.  I love it so much that it changes my dreams—they get bigger.  Much bigger. Bigger than I could even have imagined.

And so, this evening I went to look for some of those dreams . . . in a small and surprising container.  One that, of course, is filled with water.

This is a sensory deprivation tank, affectionately known by devotees as simply “the tank.”

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There is a chair.  There is a tiled shower area.  There is a warm glow from a candle, surrounded, altar-style, by shells and stones.  There are earplugs, and a towel . . . and little else.  There is not, for example, a clock.  There’s not a window.  There’s not background music, or light reading material, or an internet connection.

It’s just me . . . and the tank.

And I stand there, taking deep slow breaths while the uber-Zen tank guy gives me a floating 101 run-through, and I try to nudge my fear toward “excited” rather than “terrified.”  That sort of nudging, after all, is what I’ve been doing for the past few weeks, and it has taken me places.  I am leaning in—to my fear, using it to power through, to take the leap into the deep water—and I have found myself talking in class, holding a microphone at Vespers, offering a writing workshop to my classmates and leading experimental humanist worship on the sidewalk on Michigan Avenue.  (yep, that happened.  I did it.  It was C-R-A-Z-Y . . . and wonderful.)

And yet this tank is something else entirely.  For one thing, it’s dark.  This is not a run of the mill, lights are off kind of darkness.  It’s not even lost-in-a-forest, or heard-a-noise-at-midnight darkness.  This is primordial darkness.  Darkness as living entity.  Darkness as beginning, middle and end, the kind in which you might experiment to determine whether it even matters if your eyes are open or not (answer: it does, and it doesn’t).

For another thing, an hour can seem like a very (very . . . very) long time when I am alone with my brain and nothing else.  Which I eventually am—it simply comes down to that once I stop fighting.  There is nothing else left.

First, though, I have to overcome my physical fear, and I realize that I am literally trembling as I lie down in the tank, door still ajar.  My body rises immediately to float atop the surface—there are 800 lbs of Epsom salts dissolved in these 200 gallons of water, creating a buoyancy roughly equivalent to that of the Dead Sea.  My head tips back a bit, and I float peacefully.  Calmly.  With pleasant orange-toned visions of the ceiling outside of the tank.  Just this, I think . . . it is almost enough.

Except that I’m done with almost enough.  And so, I close the door.

It is a bit heavy—heavier than I thought, definitely heavier than Alix said (“You can push it open with a finger!”) and it closes with certainty.  And then I am alone.

It is dark.  I cannot see.  I cannot hear.  The only thing to feel is water, and it’s a pleasant nothing, warmed to exactly skin temperature.  All that is left is to float, and I lean back, slide down, and rise again to the surface.  This is ok.  Odd.  Surprising.  I’m doing it.

Then I take a deep breath, reach out to feel the walls, and realize that I’m turning a bit in the darkness.  I’m not turning over—the buoyancy makes that essentially impossible—but around, as you might floating down a lazy river.  I take another breath.  IcantseeIcantsee.  I worry about finding the door.

I sit up suddenly, splashingly, and scratch my way toward the where I think the door might be.  Saltwater runs down my forehead toward my eyes as I try to keep franticness at bay.  I find the large circle with my fingertips.  I push, hard.

Door open.  Air.  Breathe.  Sigh.  Sit.

Try again.

And so it goes for maybe 10 minutes, until suddenly, during a floating moment, I have a realization.  It’s a thought both small and profound.  It belongs in the category, a designation for which I recently laughed at my float-experienced friends, of “Things the Tank Told Me.”

This realization is: “’Trapped’ is just a feeling.”  I turn that over in my mind, and realize it’s true on a deep level: there is no space that will feel big enough unless I’m content to find myself within it.  And conversely . . . perhaps I could choose to find myself right here in this tank.  To be here.  To fully inhabit this space and my body for this hour.  To live into where I am for now, and to trust that I am safe here.

And so I do.  I start with this moment in which I can concede that I don’t need to do anything—but for my panic about “what if?,” I am calm and happy and safe.  Realizing this, I commit to remain calm for the rest of the hour. It sounds reasonable inside my head, but almost immediately, I feel the familiar well of fear.  Too big.  Too much pressure.

Well . . . perhaps, then, dear self, we can agree to remain calm and happy in each moment where that works, knowing that we can make a new plan and respond appropriately if something changes.  No need to worry about it now.  Just be, until it’s time to be in a different way.

And this works.  This I can do.  One moment to the next, until the moments cease to be.

I dream.  I imagine.  I lose track of time and thought entirely.  I come back to myself and use my hands to scull the length of the tank until my head bounces gently off the top.  I scull back down to the bottom, pushing off with my feet like an amphibious pinball.  The water moves sloshily around me, rocking, swaying, and I feel an unnerving sense of vertigo.  This too shall pass, I think.  It does.

And so does the hour, until I hear a knock at the door and then another knock on the tank.  Relaxed and ready, I meet that knock with two of my own, sit up, and climb back into the light, leaning in toward whatever comes next.  I’m grateful to be swimming, grateful to be floating . . . grateful to be here.

j

*water safety PSA: joking aside, yelling is not an effective strategy for an actual active drowning victim.  (come to think of it, yelling is also unlikely to be helpful for people who  only think they’re drowning.)  We’re taking some literary license for the purpose of telling this story. 🙂

shut up and swim (the Gospel according to Luke)

I went to the ELCA church in my town this past Sunday, and walked inside in a spirit of relieved anticipation.  I was expecting, I think, to have my “needs” met exactly . . . so it disturbed me to discover that the confession of sins had been reduced to a perfunctory paragraph at the very beginning of the service, the words to the Lord’s Prayer updated (leaving me muttering about forgiving trespasses and proclaiming power and glory forever and ever while others spoke staidly of sins and times of trial), and the cadences altered for the call and response portions of the liturgy.

Nevermind that this isn’t my church anymore, and hasn’t been for more than a decade.  Nevermind that I don’t make myself part of the community here—in fact, I don’t think I know a soul these days—support the church financially in anything but a perfunctory way, keep in touch or engage in any of its work.  I want this institution to stay right where I left it, how I want it, so that I can come back and take what I need.

Predictably, the institution is failing to cooperate.  I am disappointed.

So disappointed, in fact, that on Sunday I considered leaving, mid-service—not out of pique, exactly, but because I was suddenly very sure that sitting through this not-what-I–expected thing was not a good use of my time.  Unwilling to climb over my neighbors or make the walk of shame down the center aisle, however, I finally committed myself to a further 40 minutes of unhelpfulness . . . and there I sat, resigned and sort of bored, until we got to the Gospel reading.

It was the one from Luke 9—(verses 9:52-61) in which Jesus refuses to allow those who would follow him to so much as say goodbye to their families or bury their dead.  Not only does he refuse to grant his followers even these small mercies– he condemns their inclinations, saying, “no one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit to enter the kingdom of God.”

I was glad to have a chance to unpack these verses a bit more, as they have always troubled me: this is Jesus we’re talking about.  What kind of love looks like this?  And honestly, these demands seem not just unloving but . . . sort of crazy.  Uncomfortable, yes, but also potentially damaging.  And personally, I tend to follow only reasonable-sounding instructions (reasonableness TBD by yours truly).

I was mulling this over as we heard, in the children’s story, that it’s hard to follow Jesus—he asks so much of us, and he means come right now; abandon all that you were doing, thinking, and planning and trust instead in me.

That means leaving.  That means loss.  Which of you would agree to that?  What say you, little people?  What think you, big ones?  It’s hard, right?  But, not to worry—Jesus gives us other things when we follow him.  Jesus gives us so much that we don’t even miss what we left behind.  (Patently untrue, this last part, and I felt a blog post brewing—why must we lay words of sacrifice before our children only to smooth them over in a neat little lie?  I think I would have had one composed by the end of the service; perhaps you’d be reading it right now . . . but then the sermon came, and it knocked me right on my butt.)

The assistant pastor’s name is Jennifer Kiefer.  Rev. Kiefer is young, my age.  She sings beautifully, leads worship calmly, and shared a bit about the story of her call to ministry with us all when I dropped in for the Ash Wednesday service.  I was interested to hear her preach, and I don’t know what I was expecting, exactly . . . but not this.

Rev. Kiefer retold that story from Luke, highlighting the unreasonableness of it all.  (That’s what I’m saying, girlfriend!)  And then she shared how she’s been thinking of these challenging verses, and what they mean for an ongoing struggle in her life: the need to be in control, or at least to feel like she is.  I recognized a few of her personal examples—it’s that way, isn’t it . . . but the challenge didn’t stop there.

Rev. Kiefer invited us to consider for ourselves how the desire for control manifests in our own lives, and what we might be dishonoring as we cling to what feels safe—as we put a hand to the plow but then look back.  She encouraged us to reflect upon who we might be hurting as we thrash about like fish on a line, when we move to turn back when ultimately we have no choice but to go forward.  And then she called on us to look at what we might be fighting against in a new way—to acknowledge the scariness, and then to name it differently.

Some people find meaning in using other language for God (how well I know it, sister), and one of the most interesting terms I’ve heard is “The Place.”  That never resonated with me, until thinking about what it might mean to give up control.  About where we might find ourselves.  About why that is so scary—because when we move forward, we lose things, and we step, however briefly, into a vacuum.  That emptiness can be terrifying.  It can be painful.  We can find ourselves in a hurting, lonely place. 

Rural landscape in Poland

What if that place—the vacuum, the emptiness, and even the painful parts—what if that is The Place?  The only place we can be, the place where we are, and our task is to live into that space, let go of our need to control it or have it be different, and find ourselves and God there, just as it is.  What if we did that, in faith?  What if we put a hand to the plow, and moved forward, not because it’s what we planned, or thought we wanted, or what makes sense to us . . . but because we’re putting our trust in The Place?  It will be what we need . . . when we are willing to find ourselves where we are called to go. 

This might be obvious to anyone who reads this blog, but friends, I have looked back.  I have done more than look–I have tried to leave the plow entirely.  I have argued about the need for tilling in the first place.  I may, in fact, have attempted to sell the plow for parts.

When things hit as close to home as this message did, I struggle a bit with interpretation.  Has God, acknowledging the mounting evidence, determined that it’s best, in my case, to dispense with subtlety?  Was my need to make meaning so great on that day that I would have heard anything—anything at all—as though it were speaking right to my soul?

I do not know the answer to these questions.

What I do know is that I sat, laughing, through “Lamb of God,” that I cried through communion, and that I left knowing that some things I thought were wrong are actually much, much too right . . . and vice versa.

And then, a couple of days ago, I remembered the first summer I spent as a camp counselor.  I was part of the waterfront staff, which invariably involves a lot of ongoing training, and after one of these sessions our team lead asked if anyone had anything to say.  My hand shot up as I announced, with urgency and enthusiasm, “I have a question!”  Ali looked in my direction, shook her head, smiled, and drawled, to general laughter, “Why am I not surprised?”

I remembered this because “Wait, I have a question!” was my first reaction—my default reaction—to the clarity I felt after church on Sunday.  Astonishing, but true: it is possible to meet even clarity with questions.  In fact, for me it’s actually quite tempting because clarity can be really uncomfortable.  Questions, on the other hand, allow me to spend time merely talking about things; this is less scary, and thus, much more appealing, than simply shutting up and doing them.

Thus, in this case, the “Aha!  I really actually am supposed to trust this,” realization was followed in short order by “Wait–trust what?  Trust whom?  Trust all the time?  And what does “trust” mean, anyway . . . ”  (Yes, my inner self does sound a tiny bit like Bill Clinton on the witness stand.)  I think at one point I was actually going to ask these questions—reasoning, perhaps, that this might keep everyone, and especially myself, too busy to actually do anything meaningful.

In a small victory for the way of the plow, I did quickly realize that this was ridiculous.  Which led me to muse, on Facebook, whether my calling is actually to ministry, or merely to color commentary about ministry.

That was a joke . . . and yet it wasn’t.

I am beginning to understand that I can jump in and do this work—the work of ministry, the work to be where I am, the commitment to allow myself to fully participate in the process and be changed by it—or I can stand on the sidelines and talk about it.

One or the other.  Choose.  

In this post, my friend Mandie likens this decision to experiencing a brook by sitting by it and trying to understand, or by jumping into the water to experience it firsthand. For Mandie, this says a lot about how we live our UU faith.  For me, right now, it says a lot about how I live into this call.  All the chatter and worry and questions about questions . . . even the pondering—it’s so much sitting by the brook.

I don’t want to sit by the brook anymore.  It’s limiting.  It lacks mission (other than the completely self-serving, “Do not under any circumstances get wet.”)  And it’s not even fun.

I will say that I don’t know what this means yet, or what it looks like, including for Raising Faith.  I’m an extrovert, and I experience writing as a compulsion . . . but I am headed to Chicago in a few days–spending the rest of the month there, in fact–to attend my first set of intensives at Meadville Lombard.  And I’m planning to do some swimming.  Plowing.  Whatever.

Maybe I’ll bring you along.  Or perhaps I’ll discover the beauty of silence.

Or, just maybe, I’ll tell you about it later, a few years from now . . . when I have a sermon to give about a certain few verses from the book of Luke.

j

Checkmate!

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

This is confusing.  It’s potentially embarrassing.

And also, it presents problems.

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

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“First Year of Seminary,” everydayimpastoring.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Me, sobbing: I don’t think so.

Mom: So . . . why can’t you just NOT?

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

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

Me:

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

Me: How do I say no to God?

Mom: Just . . . say ‘No!’

Me: Like . . . ‘Screw you, God!?”

Mom: Yep.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bullhorn Woman

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

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

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

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

What is the difference

Between your experience of Existence

And that of a saint?

g

The saint knows

That the spiritual path

Is a sublime chess game with God

 

And that the Beloved

Has just made such a Fantastic Move

 

That the saint is now continually

Tripping over Joy

And bursting out in Laughter

And saying, “I Surrender!”

    f

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

You have a thousand serious moves.

jChess

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

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

Checkmate.

I should be so lucky.

rocks, rivers, and rough transitions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still no?

How about this:

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

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

--Peter Mayer, "God is a River"

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

goodnight from my confused, envious, wistful heart,

j

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

putting the holy in “holy $#$!”

Last week, my husband and I had an exchange that went as follows:

[open door to fridge; something falls on my foot]
 
Me: %&*^&%
 
Husband: [stares at me, shakes head slightly, eyes twinkling and trying to suppress a smile]
 
[two other things also fall out–apparently need to clean fridge]
 
Me: Seriously, for #$^$ sake.
 
Husband: [bursts out laughing; gives me sympathetic hug]
 

note: this is annoying, partly because he’s laughing at me, and also because I am fairly sure he’s the one who put the stuff in the fridge like this in the first place.

a more reverent approach to the refrigerator?

a more reverent approach to the refrigerator?

The thing is, I’ve been a pretty prolific curser for my entire adult life.  Since before that, in fact.  And C and I have been together for about 15 years now.  Past a certain age, the f-word, standing on its own, just isn’t that funny anymore.  Except that it suddenly is, right now, in my house–at least when it comes out of my mouth.

 

After weeks of snickering and sympathetic pats on the head, I finally pressed my husband on this point . . . and the explanation he came up with was “holiness juxtaposition.”  Which means, as far as I can tell, that I am supposed to be nicer, or that someday we at least hope I will be nicer, but right now I am not.  Thus, the sheer size of the space between this expectation and my current reality is hilarious.

And I get that.  Sort of.  I don’t feel in any way ministerial . . . and there’s no reason I would.  Not yet.  (Maybe not ever.  I am trying to just go with this whole thing and see what happens, but honestly, I am so baffled to find myself on this path that a lot of times it makes me want to say . . . well . . . something sort of like %&^$!)

In the meantime, though, my husband is obviously making some mental adjustments.  And it’s not that they’re bothering him . . . on the contrary, he seems delighted.  In this most recent example, he explained, “you should definitely keep cussing; I like it.  It makes me feel better about my own failings.  [laughing] And if ministry doesn’t work out, you could be a sailor.  Or a truck driver.  Or . . . [nearly bent double from hysterics] a bail bondsman.” Current amusement aside, though, this does make me wonder: what happens if I surprise both of us and actually turn into a minister over the next few years?

The label and identity clearly carry some weight and change expectations even from the person who knows me best.  Does that matter?  If you’re a minister, are you a minister all the time?  Or do you just play one on tv?

I wonder about this partly because it disturbs me to have my brain and personality fundamentally altered, however much those changes are needed (and they are.  I acknowledge this.)  I also wonder because I like being a partner–being, that is, my flawed, vulnerable and human self–with my husband.  And I’d like to stay married to him, his fridge storage methods notwithstanding.

I have given some thought to the seminary process and how it might change me, and how those changes affect my primary relationships .  .  . but now I’m wondering about the ministerial role itself.  Is it a hat you wear?  Or is it something essential to the core of your being?

All this reminds me of the writer Andrew Corsello, who makes it a point to tell his wife, Dana, who is an Episcopal priest, “Girl, you put the ‘ho’ in ‘holy’.”  Over several essays, Corsello writes about his own take on the holiness juxtaposition that Craig now finds so hilarious . . . Corsello himself has at times found it smothering–a threat to his own self image, to his marriage.  (This essay provides Corsello’s overview of the situation.  The quote above is taken from a longer piece, “The Angel and the Skank,” which ran in Wondertime magazine years ago.  That essay is much more about parenthood, and how it might allow us to rise, miraculously, to more than is expected of us, but is a worthwhile read–simultaneously gritty and gorgeous.  Wondertime’s interests are now held by Disney, which has CleanFlixed the original quote, but you’ll remember it.)

I’m sure this is one of those things without a clear answer . . . but for those partnered folks in ministry, or who are in the process of entering ministry: has adding a religious identity to your spousal one been weird?  Is it hard to balance, and does it fundamentally alter to the texture of your marriage?  Or are you simply yourself, but moreso?

For my part, I will keep you posted, but I would love to hear more from anyone who can advise in the meantime.  As would, I’m sure, my husband.  🙂

j

a coming out, of sorts*

Two weeks ago I did something I’ve sworn for months that I would not do.**  (Swearing is bad, friends; avoid.)  I applied to seminary.  To Meadville Lombard, specifically, which is one of two schools dedicated to preparing Unitarian Universalists for ministry.  And then, last night–at church, fittingly–I received an acceptance e-mail.  (Yes, an e-mail.  Before you wonder what kind of outfit this is, exactly, I will tell you that law schools and the graduate schools of large research universities now communicate acceptances in the same way.  The fact that I know this firsthand is one of the many reasons why seminary is something I hoped to avoid.)

So that’s the “what.”  As far as “why” . . . there’s no rational way to explain it.  Actually, the rational explanation is that I’ve lost my mind, so if that squares with your suspicions, feel free to stop here.  And enjoy; you just got five minutes of your life back.  For the rest of you, I have even less of an explanation; I can simply say that it’s been a long time coming, though lately things are happening with breathtaking speed.  And I can share my opinion that without the spiritual to guide it to the expansiveness of possibility, the rational tends to think itself right into a box.

As I mentioned in my original introduction, I created this blog in an attempt to hold the line on “the religion stuff”—and because I had things that, after months of trying, I couldn’t not say.  I don’t know if I was trying to cut a deal with myself or with my faith, but either way, it hasn’t worked out as planned.  This compulsion to comment about religion—itself following on the heels of, sequentially, a need to read, a call to question, a passion to learn, a yearning to connect, and finally, a decision to write—in the middle of finals week—a sermon (a sermon!?)—has not abated.  Rather than an end product of the process of becoming increasingly annoying in my church life, Raising Faith has turned out to be a sign of a fundamental, and ongoing, shift in my relationship with my faith.

It’s tempting, especially in the frustration of grasping for explanations that fail to make clear the magic and challenge and yes, the terror, of this process, to say simply, again: “This is something between me and God.”  And it is; that phrase and that relationship have meaning and feeling for me.  But it’s not an exclusive relationship.  Discernment is between me and my congregation and God.  It’s between me and my minister and my mentors.  It’s between all of the above and our denomination.  What an interesting set of questions we are undertaking to answer.  What an awesome, fearsome, joyous responsibility.   And what a privilege to be part of it, wherever—and I really, truly do not know where, or when, or how—the process may lead.

And now I’d like introduce myself—again, but personally this time.  This blog was never anonymous to anyone who knows me “in real life,” but along the way, I have had the opportunity to share, learn about, talk with—in some sense, to know—people who don’t know me.  There is real appeal in cultivating even the illusion of anonymity in the wild and wooly place that is the internet . . . and there is risk in giving it up.  There is risk, too, in relationship, yet we recognize that in our connection lies our humanity.  My call is yet to be discovered, but may supporting the fragile magic of connection be my cause, always.

Thank you for walking this path with me, friends.  And for those recently joining me, welcome.  I’m Jordinn.

All the best,

j

*thank you to the friends who shared their thoughts with me about potentially co-opting the phrase “coming out” as a title of this post.  Their consensus was that respectful use to reflect a thoughtful revealing of a true, but unknown, self felt supportive, and not damaging.  I appreciate their sharing, and hope that my decision to use the phrase is not a hurtful one, even unintentionally.

**a friend from Midwest Leadership School just reminded me that I went on record this summer with, “I hope someone smacks me if I ever decide to apply to seminary.”  I’m not sure what exactly motivated that comment (fear . . . of . . . literally spending the rest of my life in graduate school?  Of debt beyond my wildest imaginings?  Or of the larger sense of being out of control over my life path?)  At any rate, if I thought a good slap upside the head would help, I’d volunteer . . . but I don’t.  So, as I am not a masochist, I suppose I recant.  And will let this stand as a reminder to myself to beware making sweeping pronouncements at the dinner table.  😉