Fuck this, America

Fuck this, you guys. 

Wait.  Is nothing sacred?

How can you, and particularly as a minister, audaciously claim THAT word in the name of public faith?

I claim it because some things are indeed sacred, starting with being able to worship and learn and celebrate without fear of being shot to death in a nation in which the SOCIAL CONTRACT is currently BURNING in the halls of power.

I claim it because we know that faith means the power to bless, and we forget that we wield the equally important responsibility to curse: that which opposes the inherent worth and dignity of human life; that which steals hope; that which opposes, in short, the calling of God.

I claim it because this ongoing carnage is against my religion.  

And so, you’re right.  We should have a conversation about acceptable dialogue in the public square.

Here is how this is gonna go:

If you are more concerned about my saying the eff word—no, fuck that.  If you are more concerned about my saying ‘fuck,’ and by concerned I mean moved to say something to me about it, than you are inspired to action by the slaughter of six and sixteen and sixty year olds who are doing things like going to kindergarten and attending a concert and, you know, praying, and by inspired to action I mean that you are actively saying something to power about it, then you are part of the problem.

Ouch, right?  Those are fighting words.  Fuck, and You are part of the problem: two things we don’t have the stomach for in upper middle class white America.

I am so sorry to have to tell you that your baby/husband/wife/father didn’t make it, though, said to a thousand someones you don’t know and maybe a couple you do: that for some reason does not make us physically ill at this moment.

guns blood

But it should, you guys.  It really, really should. 

And so I’m starting this post with fuck and also writing it a lot of fucking times right in the fucking middle because I would like us to notice what it feels like to be uncomfortable.

What it costs.

Where we feel it.

The thing is, friends, I used to think that there would come a moment when the balance would tip and more of us would know what some of us know

That you are not safe, not anywhere, not ever, from mass casualty gun violence

That you are safe from your neighbors, even the ones who are different from you

That an incredible amount of money is invested each year to oppose and obfuscate those two realities so that you ignore the first and are terrified of the latter

That more guns only add to the reality of the first proposition.

… I used to think that then, in that tipping point, the larger We that lies at the core of American-style democracy, or that did, or that survives in our dreams, that this collective force would begin to assert itself, spontaneously and passionately.  That WE would begin to act purposefully and effectively.

Friends, I don’t think that anymore, and here are the two reasons why:

First, because comfort is the ultimate slot-machine payout of privilege.

Not worrying about X or Y or Z . . . indeed, not thinking about it at all, which necessarily precludes discussing it or the drag of hearing about it on Facebook or considering underlying themes (unless rendered harmless and third-person as fodder for the book group, addressed in two-hour increments, merlot in hand)—this elysian existence is the ultimate grand prize of “making it.” 

And talking about gun violence is fucking uncomfortable as hell.  It’s uncomfortable because it makes people sad.  It’s uncomfortable because people are going to disagree.  It’s uncomfortable because your uncle Joe and that one guy from high school are going to act as corporate shills of the NRA, because the NRA pays fucking millions every year to ensure that the right and privilege here is defending their coffers and calling it “freedom.”

It’s uncomfortable because the reality is that at this moment in this country you might fucking die in any goddamned random public place, or in a private place if your misogynistic loved one also has a gun, and who wants to think about that?

Comfort, my peeps, is both the dream we chase and the slow narcotic drip that we use to justify all the not-seeing.  And as its beneficiaries, we are loathe to contemplate, much less voluntarily enter into, the discomfort that we imagine to be the permanent price of challenging the status quo that got us here.

So that’s a problem.

It’s a big fucking problem.

And it’s not the only thing that’s troubling me.

Because the second problem is that actions are reflexive, which might seem hopeful in that we could move quickly at any point, but it isn’t, because it actually means that we are likely to move only in the ways that we can easily manage under stress:

  • What we ourselves have previously practiced
  • what we’ve seen modeled
  • What is rooted in the fundamental reflexes of our reptilian brains 

That’s it.  When push comes to shove, that’s what we’re working with.

And it’s fucking not enough. 

I want you to practice something different. 

For me, yes, and for our democracy, by which I mean not fucking consumer capitalism, but the social contract in which I still have so much hope.  I want you to practice differently for your fucking children, and I want you to practice differently for mine.

I want you to imagine a day when I can hold fucking worship without half an eye on the fucking door because I am responsible in that hour not just for your immortal souls BUT FOR ALL OF YOUR GODDAMNED LIVES.

gun bible

And so, I have created a handy practice guide.  I was going to make it 100 things but I thought that might be a little fucking overwhelming. Then I thought of three, but then you might think you have to do them all at the same fucking time.  And that’s not what I’m saying.

What we are going for instead is simply a movement toward something OTHER THAN THIS FUCKING INSANITY.  From each one of us.  The isolation and then the flexing and eventually the building and strengthening of OUR MUSCLES OF COLLECTIVE RESISTANCE.

Here, my friends, are FIVE fucking things that even you can do to end the fucking slaughter in our fucking public spaces:

 

  1. Call your local elected representatives one time per week and tell them you are for fucking gun control.
  2. Call your state elected representatives one time per week and tell them that you don’t care about the NRA Scorecard because you are for fucking gun control.
  3. Say fuck this on social media and explain to your circle of influence that you are for fucking gun control.
  4. The next time your uncle Joe or that random guy from high school shuts down a conversation about how we can fucking move on this issue, TELL YOURSELF that their perspective is a fucking hack.  Which it is.  Maintain hope.  Maintain Hope.  Maintain hope.
  5. LEVEL UP NINJA MOVE: The next time your uncle Joe or that random guy from high school shuts down a conversation about how we can fucking move on this issue, name the thing that they are doing as PEDDLING IN HOPELESSNESS AT THE EXPENSE OF LIVES and say fuck that.  Know that while you do this, you are modeling courage and showing his and your public that we will not allow the conversation to be stopped with this inanity.

Bonus #6: Join Moms Demand Action*. Prepare for the movement.  Prepare to make change.

This carnage: it is against my religion.

moms for gun sense

In peace,

(by which I mean holy fucking fire),

j

*Yes, even if you’re not a fucking mom.  Jesus Christ.    

Because “As long as they’re having fun” is not enough

There are six words that I hear fairly often in Unitarian Universalist churches in discussing the religious experiences of our UU children and youth. They are six words that apparently sound innocuous to hearers. Or perhaps it’s that they sound like freedom, the mythical kind that can exist only after every obligation is taken away and a happiness-filled vacuum remains.

As long as they’re having fun.

To me, on the other hand, this phrase sounds like neither freedom nor happiness. In fact, as the mother of two children, myself, these words make me feel just a bit crazed.

They are most often delivered with a shrug and a sweep of the hand, in response to questions about what we might or might not want our children to get out of their church experience.

As long as they’re having fun, I don’t really worry about that.  

Friends.

People of faith.

Let us talk.

It’s no secret that our movement has a hard time hanging onto our children once they reach the teen years. Denominations, in general, are not great at retention, but we Unitarian Universalists have for two generations been particularly noteworthy in this category. And by noteworthy, I mean ignominious.

And much has been said about this.

  • It’s because we don’t tell them we want to keep them.
  • It’s because we inspire them to be openminded, so their departure from our faith is probably well-considered and is actually a mark of success.
  • It’s because everyone keeps saying they all leave, so please don’t write about this—you’ll further traumatize them.

Um.

I’ll leave untangling those three threads to the experts.

But there is another piece—a fourth piece—that I do want to talk about. As a religious professional and also, particularly, as a parent.

It’s a piece about discipline. Yes, I said that. You can tar and feather me in a moment. You know, after you finish reading.

A few years ago, I was asked to be part of a task force on religious education in one of our congregations—a church that was literally established in the hope of offering liberal faith to its young. We were tasked with creating a set of deliverables, one of which was a “basket of things we might offer to someone born into our congregation, over the years of their childhood and youth.” We eventually came up with a job description, but no such basket was identified or created. And there were nights, amid long hours of careful wordsmithing, when I honestly considered sliding from my seat to lie down on the floor. Or slipping outside to howl at the moon.

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The other participants were deeply committed to the congregation . . . and several were equally deep in their belief that the only thing we can offer to our children in good faith is a blank slate. Anything else—any list of what we’d like for faith inputs or developmental outcomes—is tantamount to “indoctrination.” “Brainwashing.” Later that same year, I spoke passionately about my wish to see my children included in the worship hour, at least by their presence there, and was met with the rejoinder “In my day, we didn’t punish our children like that.”

Here, friends, is my tale of boredom and brainwashing—the kind that taught me to love church, to love your church, into middle adulthood. There was a white robe in my size, and a long pole, flame on the far end, lifted up to light more than fifty candles in the darkness of a magical Christmas Eve. There was sitting, to be sure, in pews and classrooms, more than I can tell you over the course of a childhood.

prayer candles

As a youth, 8 classmates and I met Wednesday evenings and Sunday mornings for a two-year period. We sat in the front pews, raised eyebrows at one another in worship, and made notes for the sermon summaries we were required to write. Each had to conclude with at least one question we’d like to discuss further. And we never knew when Pastor Rockwood would smile from up on that chancel at the group of us in the pews, or direct a quip our way to make sure we were listening.

This was work, to be sure. And it was also a continual invitation into the life of the church—a deep welcome. It was a pain in the butt sometimes; juggling confirmation around schoolwork and other activities is a big commitment, and from my parents most of all. Who, I should perhaps mention, are atheists. My parents were Nones before that was cool—and they made time to shuttle me back and forth to church regardless. My religious upbringing in the ELCA—the liberal Lutheran church—was left to my grandparents and to my own discretion, but my parents were willing to support my zeal because they believed in the value of discipline and that several millennia of accumulated human wisdom probably count for something.

Carmel Mission

I am persuaded that the investment was worth it—and I’m grateful to have been held by a community where I was encouraged to make and keep commitments.

So I ask you: what do we Unitarian Universalists believe in? Not as a shared theology, but collectively about our children? What we might offer to our kids in the 18 or so years that we could assuredly have them among us?

I hear us talking about our first graders as the reason that we, as adults, stop coming to church.

I don’t want to fight with them.

They don’t want to go. They complain.

As though the complaints of a 6 year old are the natural litmus test for anything important.

Taking kids seriously is important. I am a big proponent—and practictioner, in my best moments—of deep listening to our kids. The kind of listening that sits on the bedroom floor alongside them, that waits to speak, that keeps breathing so they can, too.

But we don’t need to draw a straight line from listening to action. And truly, sometimes the larger process of growth requires that we refuse to alter course in the face of complaint.

A story about this:

I grew up swimming. I taught myself to float in the bathtub, was the weird tiny kid in swimming lessons with the big ones, and experienced childhood constantly attended by green hair and the faint smell of bleach.

Interior of public indoor swimming pool

But I never was an excellent swimmer. Not good enough to make the cut at all-state. What I was, in the end and in spite of myself, was a disciplined one. And the discipline is what has mattered for everything that came afterward.

Swimming, and later teaching and lifeguarding, took me first around the state and then around the country. I interned for Disney and worked for Seeds of Peace—both because of swimming. I wanted to be in those places for the mission, but they hired me because of what I could offer them.  These were skills cultivated by two decades of not raw talent, but commitment—the kind that sees you through 5:30 a.m. call times and twice daily practices, Saturday meets, sit-ups and shoulder pain.

And eventually I got to those places because during the summer of my seventh year, my mom stood firm against my swimming strike. I remember it still, and the weird thing is, there’s nothing much to tell—just as there wasn’t in that moment. I don’t know why I didn’t want to go to swim lessons. I remember not knowing then, either. It’s just that I didn’t. Not that day, not anymore, not ever again if I could help it, and after explaining this to my mother and being met with incredulity, I hid under the Holly Hobbie cover of my bedside table.

My mother found me and considered, nonplussed. And then she hauled me out, put me in the car, and took me to swim lessons. I was furious. Ditto the next day. On the third day, I was still mad, but knew it was a losing battle. By the next week, I was happy to go again.

Schoolgirl with goggles in swimming pool

I remembered this later, at 13, when I joined the high school varsity swim team for one of the rudest awakenings of my life. I have never worked so hard, swallowed so much water, known such misery. And when I tossed myself into the car between early and late practices that first day, I knew I was going to quit. And then I looked at my mother’s face and knew that I wasn’t. Oh, cruel fate. This time, however, she cut me a deal. Do this in good faith for two weeks. If you still want to quit then, I won’t say anything else.

I didn’t quit.  By the third day or so, I knew I wouldn’t.  But I remember that rule now, in the trenches. And I am so grateful to have had parents who believed in me enough to ask me to wait it out. To show up with me, to cheer even that time I swam the last lap alone, to believe that showing up and swimming really does matter.

Swimmers About To Touch Finishing Line In A Race

We need communities that believe that. Our kids deserve them, even when that commitment means that they are not, in a given moment, having fun.

And you might be surprised about what happens when you have a frank conversation with a complaining six or seven year old. One that sounds like, we will be going to church. Every week. So we can fight about it, or we can find a way to enjoy this family ritual together—but we’re going. [And then smile.]

We did have precisely this conversation at our own house two years ago with my willful older child. We talked lovingly, but I meant business, and I kid you not: problem solved. Immediately.

I am sure that the issue will come up again over the years, and we’ll talk honestly—but my own clarity around what matters here helps tremendously. We, as a family, go to church. We also eat dinner, take showers, and feed the pets. When things are treated as non-negotiables, they develop the force of gravity in your family life, and they stop being objects of conflict. (This idea is called the “Wall of Futility” by parenting coaches, and it really does work—but you have to be clear about what’s a given in your household. Including around faith.)

Boy hiding

And yet, as a people, we treat discipline, whether spiritual or parental, like it’s a bad word. Synonymous with punishment.

My people, it is not. Discipline forms the basis of engaged spiritual practice. It can be beautiful. It’s even poetic.

As Marge Piercy writes in her powerful poem, “To Be of Use,”

I want to be with people who submerge

in the task, who go into the fields to harvest

and work in a row and pass the bags along,

who are not parlor generals and field deserters

but move in a common rhythm.

We need this in our churches if they are to function as organizations. And we need it spiritually as well—the ability to cultivate discipline is part of what makes us truly human.

Call me old school, but I am indeed staking a claim on a different vision—and I’m doing it as a Unitarian Universalist.

And with a hard awareness: we still might not keep our kids. My kids are UUs, not Lutherans, and a study of our history in this past year has me persuaded, at least for now, that a faith that not only embraces freedom but holds freedom at and as its very center will always need a halfway covenant for its children. Generations of our kids, raised in freedom and never needing to seek it, have grown to become seekers of something else.

We may indeed lose them from active participation in this faith, but even without creeds, we can be intentional about bequeathing unto our young something for their journey. What would we like that to be? And how will we do the work of it—and invite our children’s hands to be part of what we build?

Having fun is certainly a value.

Now what’s our religion?

In faith,

j

discipline road sign illustration design

It’s Not About You: finding slow church in a quickie culture

church bank

My husband and I fumbled toward regular church attendance like awkward teenagers might feel their way to third base. We were shy and shamefaced, almost desperate to connect with the larger something we’d heard through the grapevine that we might find here. But we wanted to find that something without attracting attention or admitting ignorance, and certainly without rearranging anything else in our lives. And so, on certain Sundays, we tended to fall into the event, crashing through the doors late, without planning or ceremony, and often still arranging errant pieces of clothing.

Other weeks we didn’t make it at all; we’re not exclusive, you know? We have lives. You understand. Also, we had very little stamina for a long and slow build up. Give us what we want, now, so we can get out of here.

And yet eventually, we became one with that community anyway. They were just so . . . loving. But the blending, on our end, was mostly incidental and accidental—because our focus, of course, was on meeting our own needs.

And the weeks and months passed. And sometimes: we felt satisfied.

Mostly, though, we didn’t. Something is missing, we began to whisper to each other.

And since we knew that something wasn’t in us, then the problem, clearly, lay with the church.

Something was wrong with this congregation. It’s you, church. It has to be you.  

And so, we did the rational thing:

We prepared to leave.

Goodbye

We attended even less, checked out emotionally, and pulled back on our financial contributions. We talked about alternatives, and began, slowly, to scope them out. Neighboring cities? Neighboring denominations?

Somewhere, there has to be a match for us. A soul mate. A congregation that’s going to understand us, and put our needs first.

And yes, while the breakup felt inevitable, we admit we did feel a tiny bit resentful. We tried hard, you see. A restaurant that provided unsatisfying service might not even earn a second visit, but you, church—

You’ve provided partial satisfaction and incomplete joy for years and we kept giving you another chance. I mean, if anything, you owe us.

We travel a lot as a family, and during this time, going to church in the cities we visited became a guilty pleasure. Each congregation visited was a fling before the final separation—walking in to those new spaces was unfamiliar, sometimes a bit uncomfortable—and also, exhilarating. The world was full of so many possibilities, many with features we only dreamed of back home.

Which is how we found ourselves in a spare white chapel in St. Louis. The minister, herself a visitor to the congregation, paused in the liturgy to raise a hand heavenward, then sweep it from side to side, insisting that the assembled congregation take note of the many still-standing visitors gathered at the back of the chapel, scoot away from the aisles to make space, and then raise their hands, fingers extended to indicate how many seats for newcomers they had adjacent.

See?  We thought. You can do these things better.

Thus accommodated, we settled into our seats and awaited our portion of self-satisfaction.

And received, instead, a smack upside the head. Figuratively, of course.

Because the Rev. Margret O’Neall was there to speak to us about consumer culture, and what it looks like when we bring it to church.

Vintage gumball machine

We are steeped in something that is the very antithesis of an authentic religious experience. It is invisible, and it is everywhere—as seamless a part of our daily lives as the air we breathe.

That something is consumerism. In fact, we might even go so far as to call consumerism a national religion (establishment clause notwithstanding) in this 21st century moment—and we carry its sacred expectations right into our faith communities.

And friends: it doesn’t work well.

I hope that in the course of your own religious life there are at least a few sermons that you gratefully carry—the feelings, the moment of awakening—for years after hearing them.

This was one for my family; the moment when we realized that we weren’t satisfied because we cannot consume community.  That we were unsure where else to turn because we can’t purchase wisdom and depth. And that we need the flawed, frustrating collective because as humans, we are not wired to individually find our way to gratitude, love, or healing.

No Sale

And yet, if we’re not self-reflective about our intentions in our communities of faith, we are likely to approach our churches like satisfaction vending machines. And in so doing, we deny ourselves and our communities the opportunity for real change.

The thing is, transformation doesn’t always feel good. Sharing time, space, and resources often isn’t a warm and fuzzy experience in the immediate moment. Further, growth is hard, and maturity is demanding, and our dreams are expensive—and in ways that exact costs from each of us.

In consumer culture, when things get tough, we learn the lesson; we don’t buy that experience anymore.  We simply vote with our dollars and with our feet. Society says that’s the rational response, and mostly, it works ok.

But it doesn’t work in our faith communities.

We are used to being handed things in exchange for payment. So how should we be when we are instead in a place that focuses not on serving us, but on seeing us?

Friends, we need to give more, come always, and ask less. And then—amazingly, countintuitively—then things get magical.

My people, what is happening—what is on offer in the smorgasboard of plenty of your local church—is nothing short of transformation. You will be nourished. You will be changed. And eventually, you will grow, and in ways that will add richness and depth to your life, even as you help to add those qualities for many others.

But, get this: like the watched pot that never boils, this alchemy cannot happen while your focus is on YOU. On what YOU need. On what YOU get.

sulky angry child

So what might an alternative look like?

Let’s consider one example at issue as our churches work to expand Sunday morning programming, that we might do more than merely scratch the surface: our time investment on the Sabbath.

A quick in-and-out Sunday experience may be our goal . . . but why? And what happens if we take a deep breath and lean in to experience Sunday, at least the mornings, as a time FOR church? As a day in which church is not standing between you and your lawn, but a covenantal gathering standing for something larger, and of which we are gratefully a part?

I have many friends active in the LDS church, and recently, one of them posted on Facebook about having had “2-hour church” that day—a rare event due to severe weather. Usually, you see, they stay longer. Of this particular event, my friend shared, “I’m a fan, but it did feel like a waste of mascara.”

I laughed . . . and then I thought about us. By which I mean the Unitarian Universalists I know and love, and also quite a few others of us who hail from the mainline Christian tradition.

I thought about our tendency to literally watch the minutes tick by anytime we’re approaching the one-hour mark in a worship service. And about our sense that, “It was too long” is meaningful feedback for a minister—or for ourselves—in reference to a worship service that took 15 hours to create, and which lasted for one hour and five minutes.

Orange alarm clock 3d. Icon. Isolated on white background

Friends, we think two-hour church is a waste not of mascara, but of our morning.

Why is that?

Because we are so unbelievably overscheduled that adding even one more hour will tip the balance of quality of life for the worse?

Because we can be certain that we will get nothing of consequence out of the worship or religious education being offered during a second hour?

Or is it, perhaps, because we believe both of the above propositions because of a third thing: because in our minds we have walked not through the door of a church, but a vending machine. Church is a spot for a quick hit, one we can attend without breaking stride in the rest of the weekend.

And thus, we’re here for this food and that sermon and this nursery and that group but not this other stuff. Don’t make us touch these things. Don’t ask us to sit through them, or think about them, and heavens, no, we’re not going to pay for them.

GIVE US WHAT WE WANT, OR WE’LL GO SOMEWHERE THAT WILL.

Angry boy screaming, demanding something

Here’s the thing. You can approach church that way. Also, parenting—I read an essay recently from a mother and father who, before the birth of their son, signed a contract with one another dividing up nights and duties and days off, treating their child like a job. (Unsurprisingly, that approach turned out not to be great for their child or their marriage.) But my people, the satisfaction you seek will not be yours. Not at church, not on the “give me what I pay for” path.

When we begin our church journey convinced that we don’t have enough of what we need, and proceed by trying to stake a claim to whatever that is, and then by grabbing as much as we can, we are indeed indulging in worship.

We are worshiping scarcity.

And that falls right in line with that dominant culture, the water in which we swim.

As long as this is as close as we get to sacrificial spiritual practice, our church life is a waste . . . and not of mascara. It is a waste of potential. A squandering of days. A sacrifice of life-force.

Do you want your faith to be something more than a fashion statement?

Then your church needs to be more than a vending machine.

And so I invite you, as a spiritual practice, to try a different way on Sundays.

Show up. Breathe. Be.

Demand less.

Relax more.

And know that together, we are preparing to change the world.

Because we’re not making transactions.

We are making commitments.

Amen.

j

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of love and failure

Truth: The routines of my daily life depend on good juggling, but sometimes I mess up.

Good showmanship requires that I grab that dropped ball, work it into my routine and never stop smiling, but that doesn’t always happen as smoothly as I’d like. And occasionally, it’s worse–it’s not just one ball that gets dropped.

Image

j

A few weeks ago, life caught up with me in a large and multicolored explosion. I was late here and half-arsed there, and in a stunning coup-de-grace to my face-saving efforts, I managed to no-show to a meeting full of people gathered to hear me speak.

jYep. That happened.

jAnd because God is twisted– or because this is simply a ridiculously busy time of year for those of us who set watches by church or academic calendars,* I was also on the receiving end of some major ball-dropping.

It was kind of a mess, friends.

In some places, it still is.

And so, waiting for the dust to settle, I have been thinking about failure. And my first question is, why do we let it happen? And wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t?

Smiling young woman having an idea with light bulb over her head

As your dutiful enneagram Type 1, my goal when it comes to mistakes is to avoid them entirely. Failing that—and somehow, I often do fail—I simply strive not to repeat them. EVER.

Thus, I’ve been considering a menu of meltdown-prevention plans. And I’ve come to a surprising conclusion: the opportunity to screw up is accorded unequally.

In fact, it is often awarded not necessarily to the most competent individuals, but to those people we love.

That’s right: I am persuaded that when we love others, we give them room to FAIL.

And so, considering weeks like these past ones, I offer this suggestion: we shouldn’t. We simply should not trust one another this much—not if our goal is to avoid disappointment.

Trust means we expect good things, focus less on the bad outcomes that might happen, and thus end up with less of a safety net.

We are putting ourselves at risk, friends.

And so, an alternative: I’ll just do everything.

Scratch that, you do everything. Or maybe I can do what I’m good at, and you’ll do what you’re good at, and nobody should do the things that are hard or risky.

Yeah, right.

We trust, of course, because we have to.  As a people deeply dependent on one another simply to live, the truth is, we have no other choice. Disturbing though this is for my failure-management initiative, it’s actually great news for the missional church. We must trust one another a bit just to get through the days, but as it turns out, we trust even more than we have to when we love one another.

Why? Because it is messy, and risky, and sometimes even a bit miserable when we allow people room to grow. It’s challenging. Our baby birds, or grown-up employees, get into difficult situations, and they bring us with them. And as anyone who has ever been responsible for a toddler (or, I’m told, a teenager) knows—it is really hard to give people the space they need to become something else, because they are going to make a mess. And we have to be willing to hang in there through the entire process, sometimes cringing and gritting our teeth throughout, if we want to see results we can be proud of.

Image

Who is willing to do that but someone who can continuously hold in their hearts a guiding image of what we might grow to be—even as they step in our spilled milk, or stumble across the holes we dug spinning our wheels?

Our toddlers and teens don’t wait for us to create opportunities for their explorations—whether we’re ready or not, they must grow, and they will seize the attention and resources they need, one way or another. Adults, however, can function in a state of stasis, and this less-risky way of being is highly incentivized in most areas of our lives. And thus, how many of us encounter opportunities in our professional lives to truly grow? To become? To live into potential?


This kind of encouragement requires resources. It takes vision.

There are a few companies famous for devoting time to truly developing their talent pool, but most organizations—and many of us as bosses and leaders—are simply living in the now, feeling relieved just to match present skills with immediate job requirements. “Maintenance” focus is deeply ingrained in short-to-medium-term planning, and it feels much less risky than the alternative.

It is thus counter-cultural to invest this time and care in another—to let him fail so he can grow. A room-to-fail approach requires missional thinking with long-term results in mind. Alternatively, it takes love.

Know a place powered by both?

I do. It’s the thriving church in your community.

Image

It takes courage to stand as witnesses to potential, but encouragement to grow is exactly what the best lay leadership programs provide.

From finance to teaching to project management to public speaking, we stand ready to challenge and encourage you . . . even when we have to dust you off a few times or bite our nails for awhile while you find a steady foothold.

In working collaboratively with you around your talents and interests, we become part of the forces that call you into your best self. Your next self, shared with us all.

And, inevitably, we open ourselves to disappointment. To hurt, even. You will fall short of the mark sometimes, and we must not only pick up the pieces, but celebrate the progress: when we give you room to fail, we give you room to grow.

Outside of formal leadership training programs, we don’t talk about this much in the adult world.  However, the fail-to-grow (the complete opposite of “failure to grow”) concept is well-known to educators. The Zone of Proximal Development is the range just beyond a person’s current abilities, and the place into which, if properly challenged, they will stretch themselves. The process of providing that challenge is known as “scaffolding”—we are building the supportive framework for what comes next, simply by encouraging the learner to reach up a bit rather than staying where she is comfortable.

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But he might fail: he’s climbing a tree that’s growing even as he climbs, trusting branches to appear, and making the reach on the promise that they will. It’s an uneven and imperfect process. Sometimes things won’t line up. Sometimes growth will slow, other objectives will distract, he’ll need to climb back down for a bit. Sometimes he will even fall.

In the zone of proximal development, some failure is guaranteed. But the zone is where all the growth happens. And we need to be brave enough, missional enough—loving enough—to be willing to go there with one another, again and again and again.

Because as we each grow, our faith communities do, too . . . and the transformation begins in earnest.

Which I’m going to try to remember, myself.  The show must go on.  (And in the meantime, I’m looking forward to exploring part II with you–what happens after we fail: the role of caring confrontation in leadership development.)

Blessings, my people!

j

*Potentially life-saving advice: those of us who do both—the seminarians in your lives, for example—are not to be trifled with in August, December, and April. You have been warned.

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?

don’t talk to strangers (listen to them instead!)

Last month I took an intensive course in Unitarian Universalist Congregational Polity–and heard something from our instructor that frightened me: “Unitarian Universalism as we know it isn’t going to be around 50 years from now.”

Single grave stone

Design Mandie McGlynn 2013

He went on to say, however, that “just because our current association goes away doesn’t mean that our work will.  Individual congregations will go on, and the task is to work together as part of a meaningful movement.”  Then, in closing the course, our professor shared another thought, this one from Rev. Abhi Janamanchi: “The center of Unitarian Universalism lies outside of itself, in the stranger, in difference rather than in similarity. . . . We are called to create holy communities where strangers are not only welcome but where all are enjoined to do the work of healing and transformation by wrestling with the strangers within themselves.”

I found this interesting, because in building community, welcoming the stranger, and beginning that process with ourselves, we just may have the tools to ensure that UU is around for future generations of seekers.  Naming this work, however, isn’t the same as doing it.  We are indeed fighting for relevance–for survival–and the challenge facing us is not about recruitment.  It’s also not about social justice, at least not in the issue-driven terms in which we currently frame it.

Let’s go back to Rev. Janamanchi’s thoughts.  Welcome the stranger, he says, and start with the stranger within ourselves.  I think we have all heard this; it may even speak to us in a powerful way.  Yet very rarely do we tie our words about radical hospitality to a set of concrete actions, or even to a larger applied theology.  In fact, I wonder if “welcoming the stranger” is perhaps Unitarian Universalism’s “Sunday-only” theology.

Friends, are you familiar with how this works?  In my ELCA days, week after week, I’d find myself in the pew listening to “lamb of God” and connecting deeply with the communion ritual. Brought up short by Christ’s sacrifice, I’d reflect passionately on my own need to practice a little self-sacrifice for the good of others, wondering how I could put something so momentous out of my mind.  And then, washed of my sins–and of the annoying burden of thinking about them–I stepped out into the bright sunlight, resumed my life, and forgot about it until the next Sunday.  Then, there I’d be, reciting the Kyrie and thinking, again, “Oh, crap.  This.  Why can’t my wayward heart remember?”

I didn’t beat myself up too much, though; I had the doctrine of original sin on my side.  (Heck, it was right there in the liturgy.)  I don’t think about these things, or change my actions, or change my heart, because I can’t.  I will never remember.  Only here, on this hard bench, can I  hope to become a better person–and even then, not through my own efforts.

You can probably tell: one of my favorite things about UU—one of the things that makes this faith a living and meaningful part of my life—is that the message only starts at church.  It is never intended to stay there.   And it’s clearly and immediately applicable to my life.  There’s no fire or brimstone, yet our pulpits pack quite a punch: here’s the vision–now get off your rear ends and make it so.  Thus, I find myself continually afflicted, with an urgency isn’t washed away by our rituals.  Rather, it bleeds into my daily life, and it compels me to action.

In this way, I am invited to think differently about money, challenged to live into greater generosity, encouraged to help create a just distribution of resources.  I am pushed to consider how my actions affect our neighbors and the larger world.  I am called to strengthen my relationships, accepting and celebrating that we are held together in the bonds of covenant.

Yet there remains an issue around which I do not see much action.  I hear the call sometimes, and I feel it in those moments . . . and then I return to complacency.  And in fact, I think complacency is where many of us are on this challenge: the call of radical hospitality–the relentless demand that we welcome the stranger.

And how, as a movement, do we justify our ongoing failure (refusal?) to do the deep work to find the strangers within ourselves and to recognize, hear, and welcome the unfamiliar in others?  Forgive us, Lord, in our amnesia and blindness, which are not at all willful, as we are deeply flawed people and simply cannot do any better. . .  that doesn’t work here.  We don’t have original sin.  We have humanism.

What if we treated that humanism less as a license to believe nothing and more as a set of goalposts?  What if we saw ourselves in the waning minutes of the first half (or of the game, if you want to get apocalyptic in your atheism) and looking to advance the score?  We are responsible for our actions, and equally so our inactions. . .  there’s nobody here but us chickens, so let’s get our behinds in gear.

And so I’m asking: why don’t we act on this piece of what we believe?  I’ve been wondering about this for months, and I have a theory.  Are you ready?  It’s deep: I think we don’t know what to do next.  And in the meantime, concerned for our very survival as a movement, we are arguing amongst ourselves about a “bottom line theology” (can I interest you in a creed, anyone?  How about some dogma?), and chasing willy-nilly after a group of largely, almost definitionally, uninterested people.*

Frankly, whether Unitarian Universalism exists in the next century depends on our community-building skills.  We must construct the beloved community, and, having built it, we must dedicate ourselves to its care and feeding.  We must know and value our freedom, and the individualism that demands it—and, holding that freedom, we must nonetheless choose “we” over “me.”  And friends, building a “we” is going to start, end, and move forward by truly learning to listen to one another.  

We will transcend boundaries, build coalitions, overcome the petty differences which block the way to meaningful agreements, and care more, and more deeply, for one another, simply by learning to close our mouths and open our hearts and our minds as others speak their truths.  I don’t mean “we need to listen” as a platitude.  I mean WE NEED TO LISTEN as a set of skills.  This means something we might teach each other in small groups, practice within our own congregations, and then model within our wider communities.  

What does this look like?  It’s a set of values and goals, and also a set of procedures.  Both can be modified; the overall objective is to elicit, recognize, and respond to the humanity in everyone we meet. Every single person.  Does that jive with our deeply held beliefs?  Does that sound like inherent worth and dignity?

Photo by Jon Delorey, used under a Creative Commons license. Design Mandie McGlynn 2013.

Photo by Jon Delorey, used under a Creative Commons license. Design Mandie McGlynn 2013.

Listening skills aren’t a new-age, ethereal concept—we needn’t be suspicious.  And we needn’t reinvent the wheel; there are a number of highly effective models for learning to listen deeply, even around highly polarized and sensitive issues.  The novel thing is bringing it to church.  The revolutionary thing is taking it from there out into our communities, and doing it as part of the movement.

This is hard work—the hardest work we will ever do.  In listening, we take the exhortation to love one another and we make it manifest; it’s the task of an entire lifetime. But there is nothing more important, and we have everything we need to begin this process.  And friends, it is urgent.   We want to bring healing to our fragmented neighborhoods, to our hurting communities, to our stratified and unjust world.  I agree with all of our noble goals—it’s just that all of our efforts are tilting at windmills until we truly learn to stand shoulder to shoulder with those whom we see as “other.”

Amy has a different dream for the capital campaign.  Adam thinks that a personhood standard for making abortion decisions best fits the ideal of honoring inherent worth and dignity for all.  Jared is gay, and a member of Log Cabin Republicans.  I know this, but do I know why?  Do I know how to find out?  Do I even know how to start a conversation that acknowledges and honors difference?  Maureen has a child with a diagnosed mental illness.  Anna was briefly homeless last year after a job loss.  Jason’s wife died by suicide.  Do I acknowledge this?  Do I avoid certain subjects?  Do I create a space where it’s safe to talk?  And if someone does begin to speak, do I listen?  What value do I place on listening as a personal ministry, or as a ministry of the larger church?

CS Lewis advises, “If you’re seeking comfort, you won’t find truth.”  In these uncivil, fragmented times, what might happen if we stepped out of our comfort zone with a sense of curiosity and a true zeal for our mission to build community?  It is possible that the answers would amaze us all.

Consider the following.

In 1994, in the midst of a bitter local and national polemic on the subject of abortion rights (sound familiar?) five people were shot in Planned Parenthood clinics in the Boston area.  Recognizing that something needed to change—not in the law, in the clinics, or in women, in general, but in the conversation itself—the Archdiocese of Boston, together with the Public Dialogue Project, attempted something risky and innovative.  The plan: break the deadlock by changing the culture, through an idea so radical that the women involved truly feared for their safety should others find out what they were doing.  That idea, friends, was nothing more or less than intentional listening.

Six women–three leaders from each side–were recruited to take part in the project.  At first, they agreed to meet together four times for a series of moderated discussions.  The sole objective was to understand each other better.  What actually happened was that every one of the women held to their covenant to stay in conversation with each other over those initial meetings—and then continued to meet and to listen for a period of five years.

And in this time—not right away, but soon—things began to change.  Again, not the law, at least not because of anything these particular women were working on.  And not the underlying issues surrounding abortion.  What changed was the larger conversation happening in Boston.  It became less toxic.  It became less violent.  It became more personal, in the sense that those involved began to put down some of the accumulated armor and acknowledge the other participants as people.  As women, as mothers, as loving and beloved members of larger communities.

There is something else that I find fascinating about these conversations—an outcome-that-wasn’t: not one of the participants changed her opinion.  If anything, engaging in this sort of long-ranging, open conversation allowed each to become more clear about what, at the heart of things, she held dear.  Further, it didn’t matter that neither group changed its opinions, because in stepping back from the bitterness, the judgment, and the slogans, these women led their respective movements in doing the same.

With commitment and training to love by listening, we can create the safe space necessary to have the kinds of conversations that change things.  Safe space is required if we are to acknowledge the conflicts we feel around our own positions—this is the “stranger within each of us” that Janamanchi mentions.  These internal conflicts—our own strangers—are critically important, because in acknowledging them, we can reach a place of comfort in seeking compromise, a third way that makes life better for everyone involved.

Thinking about abortion, a third way might look like support for women around the challenges that make it difficult to choose to parent a child in all but the best of circumstances.  It might be ready access to birth control.  It might be excellent and early prenatal care.  It might be affordable and high-quality childcare and preschool.  These are not difficult points to agree on, but they are impossible things to talk about when we’re locked into a position—and an associated identity—and view listening as a show of weakness.

You want a message of hope and redemption?  This movement is as strong as the communities we build within it, and we have every tool we need right now to shore up the foundation.  What would happen if liberal religion listened?  


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We might just recognize that in love, there are no sides . . . just one very big table.  Welcome to it, friends.  Now what can you learn about the person sitting next to you . . .  and what tools are you going to need to do it?

with love,

j

*Would anyone out there like to see us talk less about the Nones—a group that, at the moment, has self-selected OUT of our sphere of influence, and more about the nuns—a highly energized cohort who might actually share our  social justice vision?  Would anyone like to see less questioning of the values and loyalty of those within the movement who reach different conclusions than our own, and more embracing of difference as an opportunity to grow ourselves?  Please–and please pardon me–for the Love of God?  Amen.

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

the thing we love . . . that leaves us (part II)

(Or, “Running Through the Thistles: a Lay Perspective”)

The first part of this story appears here–this is part II . . .

So where does all this leave us, and what does any of it have to do with church life?

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There is one relationship we build within our congregation that, if we are doing things as well as we hope to, will inherently be time-limited: the one we have with our minister.  At some point, the ministry continues, but the minister does not.

This fact was recently brought to my attention, and I am slightly embarrassed to say that it came as something of a shock.  Certainly, simple naivete played a part in my astonishment, but our congregation is also in a unique position: our current minister is the only minister we’ve ever had.  In 60 years as a fellowship, the last decade is the first time that we have accessed any sort of professional ministry, and only in the last few years have we had a settled minister.  Thus, our minister is, for all intents and purposes, The minister.

And I now understand that someday she will leave us.  Actually, this much I had worked out for myself.  Superior reasoning skills, no?  The part that astonished me is what our minister’s departure will mean.  Which is, jointly and severally, the end of our relationship with her.  Not unlike a death–a death foretold, with ritual preparations including thank yous and farewells and unfriendings on Facebook.

Why take a painful situation (a goodbye) and exacerbate it by turning it into something else (a cut-off)?  The reasoning is usually framed as a potential detriment to the relationship between the new minister and the congregation.  This failure to connect and to define a [n exclusive?] two-way relationship adversely affects both parties and ultimately the ministry itself.

Unfortunately, this isn’t merely theoretical; I have a friend–I’ll call him Matthew–whom I know to be an intelligent and caring individual, and who is, by all accounts, a talented pastor.  Despite those attributes, Matthew’s ministry recently unraveled as a result of unclear loyalties and power structures.  The congregation opted to maintain an official, ongoing relationship with the former senior pastor even as they welcomed a new one; several years (and a significant investment in consulting time) later, it has become clear that this arrangement existed to the detriment of all.  Perhaps the greatest harm accrued to Matthew himself, who was unable to establish the relationships and the leadership traction necessary to steer a congregation whom he loved deeply and believed in utterly. These difficulties and the bitter legacy they leave harm congregations, the denominational ministry and ultimately the larger faith community.  Members are lost, gifted pastors leave, and we all are distracted from our primary church tasks–the worship of God and our shared work to build and care for the Beloved Community.

For a detailed and affecting discussion of these challenges and some thoughts about how ministers and congregations might rise to meet them, see the 180th Berry Street Lecture, given by Rev. Dr. Mark Morrison-Reed.  I will warn you, however, that while very eloquent and even beautiful in places, Morrison-Reed’s reflection is a painful read whether you are a layperson or, I’m told, a minister.

Truthfully, even with the above knowledge, I am not entirely convinced that a “take no prisoners; leave no friends” approach to goodbyes is the best one from a personal or a theoretical perspective.  I will set that aside, however, and look instead at the meaning of this impending loss.  Which, while hopefully rather distant from the current moment, will someday be upon us.  In the meantime, foreknowledge is ours to do with what we will.

As to our minister leaving, when the time comes: it will be painful.  In fact, the knowledge of it hurts already, and my natural inclination is to protect myself.  While the situation is less fraught, this is not unlike what I experienced in my friendship with Jamie [note: for the rest of this story, see Part I].  Or my five-year-old’s reaction to the Snowman’s passing out of the boy’s life after staying just long enough to illuminate some true magic in the world.  Why connect in the present when the ties we make must break?  Why invest ourselves in that which cannot stay?

In answer to these questions, Rev. Morrison-Read quotes Unitarian Universalist theologian Forrest Church, who opined that “[t]he fact that death is inevitable gives meaning to our love, for the more we love the more we risk losing. Love’s power comes, in part, from the courage required to give ourselves to that which is not ours to keep: our spouses, children, parents, dear and cherished friends, [and congregations]…”  Thus, explains Morrison-Read, “it takes courage to throw off caution and enter fully into life [because the] risk of loss is not just great; it is certain.” This is poignant, evocative, and (unfortunately, in my view–how lovely it would be to have relationships without pain) absolutely true.  In fact, it is precisely what I wish I had realized two years ago, watching Jamie from what I hoped was a safe distance while guarding my heart and hiding my love away.  We love because that is what we are here to do, and the losses we incur are simply part of that love.

Yet that message, however powerful, is not the point of this post.

This is a reflection not just about love and loss, but about intentional congregational life. In short, we know that, in any context, that which we love may leave us.  We know that we must continue to love, and to offer the best that we have within us, even so.  The question is, what power does that knowledge afford us in our congregations–and not just in our dealings with our clergy?

One thing we might learn from the knowledge that our minister will leave–and that our particular relationships with her will end–is that as congregants, we must focus our efforts in what we can do for each other.  In the end, the work we do to build an intentional community, or to intentionally build ourselves and grow spiritually, isn’t between ourselves and our minister.  It’s between ourselves and . . . us.  In this context, a job well done is revealed by the our relationships with one another; the currency that counts is the trust we place and the care we take and the covenants we make and honor.

With those tasks in mind, let’s look around and ask what we might do next.  It is we who stay–to whom should we reach out in offer of connection?  It is we who stay—how might we make the circle bigger?  Can we forgive the one who wronged us?  Listen to the one who irritates us?  Can we hold each other tighter, and can we do it in this season, rather than waiting for a time of crisis?

But–here’s the real mind-trip–our focus in relationship must be about “us” because it ultimately isn’t about us at all.  This idea, of course, isn’t new either.  Many denominational communities view their work as the natural extension of a relationship even more fundamental than what we have with one another–that which we cultivate with God.  Phrased this way, the concept may not resonate with some UU’s, but even we are being pushed to acknowledge something on the order of a Larger Truth.  (Don’t worry, friends, it’s not what you think–but it will demand sacrifices just the same, the first being a lessening of our egos.)  And that truth is: it’s not about you.  Sound a bit familiar?  A piece of this was shared with ministers at General Assembly last summer (See Rev. Dr. Fredric Muir’s 2012 Berry Street Lecture, “From iChurch to Beloved Community”) and has been making its way into congregational discussions since then.

I can be pretty self-centered and even a bit dense at times, but I think I could have figured out “It’s not about U” on my own.  Eventually, anyway.   The real challenge to my fledgling attempts toward the practice of radical hospitality is understanding that my congregational work is not only not about me– it’s also not about anyone else I already know and love.  We need to keep our eyes fixed lovingly on one another not because what we do here is an end in itself (though of course it is, and hopefully a beautiful and healing one), but because what we hold in our hands as our most reverent, connected selves is nothing less than the future.

We will continue to hear this message. In fact, it seems like being a Unitarian Universalist in the current moment means confronting this truth again and again; it is going to continue to creep up on us, tapping us on the shoulders, whispering in our ears, until we adapt to its demands.  And so, reflecting on our tasks as an intentional-community-in-the-face-of-loss becomes part of the larger challenge: to think more broadly about our purposes and our obligations as a people of faith.  We are building something for the future, something that comes through us but is not of us.

In our churches and our fellowships, in the meeting halls and campus buildings and repurposed storefronts–in all those places where a living faith exists–something profound and sacred has been entrusted to our care.  We may enjoy it, live in it, scatter it joyfully around our lives–but it will never fully belong to us.  Like the children in Khalil Gibran’s poem, our religion is not really ours.  In this discussion of losses we face as a congregation, perhaps the greatest is our illusion of self-importance, of ownership.

This summer the Rev. Dr. Lisa Presley advised a group of us that “if Unitarian Universalism has given you something–if this faith it has been a transformative influence in your life, and I think for all of us, it has–then you have no right to close the door behind you.”  Keeping those words in mind, we lean into loss, embracing life before death and the pain of grief after it, because it is the faith that must outlive us–a faith embodied in our healthy, thriving congregations.  Thus, we seize this moment and open our hearts to one another with the full foreknowledge that they will be broken wide open.  In so doing, we keep alive a vital spark, handed to us by those who came before and which we ourselves must pass on, that the work of peace and justice in the world may continue.

Channeling our beloved, but impermanent, minister: May it be so.