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

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

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

Peace,

j

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dear Raising Faith: on pastoral care for humanists

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

All the best,

-j

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

warning: this post is about S-E-X

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Temptation

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

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

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

Woman's panties hanging on white background the cross brooch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts?  Go.

j

of Lent, and liturgy, and things that sparkle

I believe in one God (and it doesn’t make my toes curl to continue with, “the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth . . . “).  I am happily married to the guy I started dating when I was 18.  When it comes to church attendance, though . . . let’s just say that while I have a home church and it is a beloved and important part of my life, I am open to seeing other people.

Confession: religiously speaking, I am a woman of two loves.  I love UU in its promise and power, and despite its flaws and its failings.  I could use those same words to explain how I feel about Christianity.  And specifically, increasingly, what I mean when I say “Christianity” is the church of my childhood–the love and liturgy that is the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

I don’t get to my old ELCA church very often–a couple of times a year since following, astonished, my husband’s very enthusiastic footsteps to the door of Unitarian Universalism when we were first married.  But when I do, what I find in the service is challenge, uplift, joy and peace.  These are the same qualities that I encounter in great UU worship, of which my current church is often a shining example–but I sometimes find them more poignantly in the ELCA.

And, especially now, as I spend time in discernment with a call to ministry that already makes no sense (ministry?  seriously?  what!?), I wonder what that means.

One possibility is simply that I need more depth in my UU theology to find the weight and meaning–the spiritual gravitas–that Christianity comes by easily.  A faith steeped in magic and blood and anchored by doctrine–all overlaid on other, much older religions, with their own spirit and sacrifices–comes with an intensity that makes UU as it’s currently practiced feel like a blank slate in comparison . . . or a wading pool.

Don’t misunderstand; I believe that there is incredible depth possible in UU.  For me, this is true for at least two reasons–first because, while I am not a Humanist as the word is used in UU circles, humanism as a lens on the world offers a view of almost limitless possibility for what we might achieve together.  Second, and in my life more importantly, it’s true because as I engage with my deepest spiritual practices, and UU encourages me to do this as nothing ever has, I am touching the Infinite.  And here, of course, the limits aren’t the edges of depth, but of my ability to experience it.

So, great.  But the reality is, much of the time this depth remains in UU as a latent possibility I acknowledge rather than my actual ongoing experience.  I am discovering, on the other hand, that I can walk into my local ELCA church, join the service alongside strangers, and connect with great depth almost instantly.  This, I think, is why I miss the traditional liturgy so acutely.  It seems like an odd thing to be more attached to ritual recitation than to a particular answer on the question of the virgin birth, but there you have it–for me, one of these things is merely about, but the other involves connecting with.

When I refer to myself as a UU Christian, there are questions that pop up pretty reliably.  Laypeople are inclined to ask, “So why are you here?,” or some variant thereof, and later, “why can’t you just say you’re UU?”  People who’ve gone to  seminary, on the other hand, say something different: “What does that mean to you?”  I have tended to bristle at the first set of questions, and the underlying demands “Explain yourself” and “accept the UU melting pot,”–as though in maintaining an identifiable Christian identity I have rejected UU in some way, or refused to truly enter into community.

I have tended to ignore the more nuanced second question for a different reason entirely–because it’s hard.  Here, too, I perceive a challenge of sorts . . . not an identify-defending, fear-driven challenge, but perhaps a sense of superiority: “You almost certainly don’t mean ___, so why does this label have meaning for you?”  That’s annoying, and even a bit scary–what happens if I do mean precisely the thing you think I ought not to?–but that’s not the real reason I avoid answering.  I don’t answer because I don’t know.

Here’s what I do know: Last week I went to Ash Wednesday service at Trinity.  I arrived late, shared a program and a hymnal with a stranger, and spoke to no one aside from a word of thanks to that stranger and to share the peace.  I did, however, talk to God.  Prayer is a big part of my spiritual practices–I talk to God every day.  Help Thanks Wow, as Anne Lamott puts it . . . I’m all over it.  There is something different, however, in talking to God in unison.

I was sad, and scared, and hurting . . . and the Kyrie was as balm to my soul.  Spending every Sunday–and joyfully; I do love my church–in a place where our two liturgical seasons seem to be PEACE! and CELEBRATE!,  I needed the deep purple and bare branches of the Lenten altar.  I needed to stand in the company of others and acknowledge that I have struggled and failed, and that I will again.  I needed to bow my head in prayer with words for that struggle, and for the struggles of others, and for what we do in and to the world.  I needed to break bread and share wine, to remember the Beloved Community that Jesus created, that I might do better in building and honoring that community that has been commended to me.  In short, I needed to be reminded of that which is bigger than myself, and I needed to do it with and alongside others.

My God.  I miss this.  

And yet I have to credit UU here–in seven years I’ve never officially participated on a worship team (aside from a frenetic and scary exercise at Leadership School).  Yet somehow, ritual in worship, and to some degree, worship itself, has been deconstructed, reinterpreted, made visible, and maybe even made whole, such that I connect with what we’re doing with the Kyrie in a new way.  My changed perspective is simultaneously less threatening (I never did feel threatened by my faith in any conscious way, but high church ritual is intimidating, and how often does it think to explain itself?) and more meaningful.

This deeper connection with worship is a tangible UU gift to my Christian self, and for it I am grateful.  And in this perhaps UU and protestant Christianity are the two wings of the bird of my living faith.  Maybe that oft-uttered phrase “too Christian to be UU, and too UU to be Christian” is in fact true . . . and even so, perhaps it doesn’t matter at all because it misses the point.  The challenge isn’t to pick one or be one or explain one to the other, but to access both, and everything else that is in me, in the service of God.

I will tell you something, though.  I’ve never been one for Christian accoutrements, cross jewelry included (as an evangelical pastor once asked us at vacation bible school, “Would you wear a gas chamber around your neck?  How about an electric chair?”)  So it’s odd that I happen to have this, and it’s not something I notice very often . . . but hanging at a corner of my jewelry case is a tiny silver cross.  It sparkles more than an object of torture ought to.  If it weren’t so small, it would be wholly indecent.  And it’s been catching my eye lately.

It feels like an invitation.

And so, to you pastors and ministers and seminarians of the world . . . you people inclined to ask What It Means to You to Be Christian . . . I don’t know.  But I’ll tell you this: it means something.  And I don’t want to ask permission or beg forgiveness or even answer you, necessarily . . . it’s between me and God.  But I hope there’s space in your big, rational world for a tiny sparkling cross . . . and for the vastness and weight of what comes with it.

I think it may turn out that there is no room for my heart without it.

j

“Recovering Christians”: a UU Minister Responds

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

Wishing you a blessed start to your year.

j

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

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

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

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

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

toward a hands-on sort of faith

IMG_1218      My two-year-old son really, really loves Jesus.

For what it’s worth, Si attended a year of Catholic preschool and was given all the loving indoctrination the experience can provide (aside: if you can find a school run by nuns, it probably deserves your consideration.  The sisters at Our Lady’s were saints in-the-flesh; it is hard to imagine more gentle, caring, and well-educated teachers).  School, however, is not what inspired his love.

The object of Si’s adoration is the small infant Jesus from our nativity set.

He was originally more interested in the nativity livestock, and what two year old wouldn’t be?  The animals are familiar, action-oriented, and inspire both of my sons to make gleeful barnyard noises (had they been written after a visit to our home, Psalms 98 and 100 would almost certainly have requested a “blessed silence” unto the Lord.) Eventually, however, the animals, and also the men, the woman, and the angel had been examined and arranged, and I asked the boys if they remembered what this story was about.  Neither was sure, so we embarked on the tale of long ago and far away.

I introduced Mary and Joseph–a couple traveling, a baby soon to be born, and no place to stay (one would think that no words more horrifying than “no rooms in the hotel” have ever been spoken, judging from my five-year-old’s reaction; we travel a good deal, and this was one piece of information that he could relate to–and yet, couldn’t).  Then the magic of that night–everything amiss, yet everything according to plan–and the wonder of a baby born to bring hope to a hurting world.  The kids were captivated and I felt some of their awe, myself.  This is a story of beauty and power; from the miracle of faith to the chance for renewal even when all seems lost, these are themes that speak to us still.

And since the day I told the story, Si only has eyes for Jesus.

Or, more accurately, he has eyes, arms, fingers, lips and occasionally teeth for Our Savior.  He carries him around in the palm of his hand.  He kisses him.  He places the baby in locations where one can imagine him watching the fascinating activities of a day in the life of an almost-preschooler.  And occasionally, my orally fixated younger child places the plastic version of the infant son of God into his mouth entirely.

Fortunately, this happens infrequently.  When I am at home, we give Jesus a bath, put the nativity set away for a time, and talk about taking care of our bodies and respecting our things.  Last Monday, however, I wasn’t at home, and our sitter, a salt-of-the-earth, Christ-loving woman in her 70’s, was so scandalized that she put the baby “someplace safe, where Si can’t get at him.”  In the busyness of the dinner transition, I forgot to ask where that place might be; we found Jesus three days later–and his manger, too–in witness protection behind the key basket on a high shelf.  (A Christmas song for our time:  “I found Jesus on the high shelf.”  Trout Fishing In America could sing it.)

I confess that I find Si’s relaxed relationship with this Jesus-figure both disturbing and liberating.  I have no memory of an easy friendship with this baby, but of course there was a time when I might have greeted the Christmas story with the same glee, the same innocence, the same blissful possessiveness.  And, also certainly, there is a great deal in life that must be respected.  Our bodies. Those of others.  Rules.  Property.  And, to an extent, religion.  Is not “deserving of respect” an inherent part of what constitutes sacredness?  On the journey to adulthood, we must each develop the restraint, care and gentleness to live within these boundaries.  It is our job as parents to assist our children in these tasks.

I wonder, though: what happens when we put faith “someplace safe” so that a child “can’t get at it?” Mystery is part of the beauty of the religious experience; do we lose that in encouraging–even cultivating–a spirit of easy, unintimidated familiarity with faith?  Can we let things be a bit more relaxed, that we might walk more closely with God?  Is it ok to hold the cross?  To rearrange the nativity?  To handle the sacred stones, inspect the prayer mats, examine the makings of the menorah?

Gilbert Chesterton encourages us in this direction, saying “Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair.”  For my children, that love affair has begun. I can only guess where it will lead . . . but I wonder if Si, in seeking God’s presence at 30, will in some vague way remember the heft in the hand of a tiny friend he called Jesus when he was nearly three.

Raising Faith v.1.0

Hi, there!

This site exists because I made an early New Year’s resolution to stop bugging all my Facebook friends, who generally read for posts about my family, with constant reflections about my family’s faith.  I kept thinking, “after I talk about this one issue . . . after things settle down in our congregation and there’s not so much going on . . . after I finish my Chalica posts”–I am going to stop posting about religion all the time.  Unfortunately, over these same months I have found myself with an increasing number of questions, musings, and occasionally, frustrations about my religion and about religious life, generally.  Sometimes I have felt, in a way that’s bigger than the Facebook format really allows, that I might have a thing or two to say about all of this–but NOT that I’d like to literally say (I am terrified of oratory-style public speaking.  I hate it.  The mere thought gives me goosebumps.)  What I needed, it occurred to me, was something like a column.  Or . . . a blog.  Aha!

I’m interested in all things religious–history, beliefs, the ins and outs of congregational life and even denominational growth and politics–but particularly the biggest questions, which sometimes seem like the smallest.  Why do we go to church?  How should we treat those who mistreat us?  Can we raise children with a clear denominational identity and still encourage them to think critically and love openly?  I was thinking about these questions this morning and realized that overall, I wonder how, in a religion that values (among other things) individualism, freedom of conscience, and differing viewpoints, we might attempt to raise children of faith. And lo, Raising Faith was born.

I am a Unitarian Universalist (hesitantly since 2005 . . . transformatively since this past summer).  My Christian faith remains important to me as well; my husband and I are doing our best to raise our two young sons in a blend of both faiths, making spirituality an intentional matter in our home and our lives.  Sometimes this feels beautiful.  Sometimes it feels a bit scattered.  And sometimes, like this morning, I am too busy trying to keep my two year old from swallowing our nativity Jesus to think much about faith in the bigger picture.

I want this to be a space to explore issues, ask questions, share discoveries, and celebrate the joy and beauty of family-life-in-faith.  What I don’t envision is an overly reverent take on any of the above, an exclusively UU perspective (in fact, I hope not–let’s get ecumenical about this), or commentary without the occasional mistake or misstep.  Let’s be real.  It may be messy at times.  Even edgy (!)  But it will also be fun, and funny . . . and, who knows, maybe we’ll even learn something.

Looking forward to the conversation–thanks for reading!

j