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

A container for grace: reflections on white people, privilege, and pitchforks

Woman hand pointing down

These past couple of months, I have been dealing with the fallout from a mistake I made in trying to talk meaningfully about my own white privilege. I shared a facebook post from a seminarian of color, and in doing so, took out a lighthearted hashtag in a deadly-serious paragraph, which I feared my own readers would interpret as a permission not to take my colleague’s words with the reflectivity that they otherwise might. I then wrote to this seminarian to explain what I’d done and ask if it was ok.

It was, to put it mildly, not ok.  Values at issue here included my space-taking and assumptive behavior as a white woman, and a larger obligation to think, and then to think harder, before acting. And there is also, probably, the obnoxiousness of the post I wrote in the first place. No one has said so, but the meditation I wrote to introduce my colleague’s post to my circle of friends feels to me to have touched the white privilege discussion only insofar as naming it and concluding that, “basically, I don’t have to give a shit.”

No, I didn’t precisely say that. And I didn’t mean that, either. Except that I actually sort of did, and having since sat through two excruciating white-folks-talk-about-race panel discussions, I am beginning to think that we white people actually do this a lot as a starting point. (“I have privilege! You probably don’t! Here’s what privilege looks like! WOW, my life is easier!”) It can sound a lot like Criming While White, but for mommy bloggers, and I’m wrestling with whether this piece of our work is even something that’s helpful to do publicly.

At any rate, that happened, and what I came to understand in the ensuing back and forth with this seminarian, my mentors, and my fellow colleagues in formation is that there are many different values around sharing posts, editing words, and claiming space.

And also, I came to understand something else.

Which is that we as Unitarian Universalists have no framework for dealing with true transgression among us—and lacking such a container, find ourselves equally unable to offer grace.

My mistake, from the very beginning, was dealt with extremely publicly, and the responses from my white colleagues fell into two binary buckets (with a third, HUGE space we’ll call “utter silence”).

Two plastic buckets, one full, one empty

That first bucket was “Say it ain’t so!” I’ve held a couple of visible leadership positions in the seminarian community, and my making this kind of mistake was apparently rather stunning for some. I received message after message indicating, “I KNOW this isn’t right—you didn’t do this.”

Oh, friends. Oh, but I did.

Publically, this side of the discourse looked like, “Don’t talk about Jordinn like that!,” and subsequent attempts to shut down discussion of transgression, and of racism in our seminarian community, because this particular incident and its framing felt unfair.

The other bucket, meanwhile, was, “Shame on you!” A seminarian from another school went so far as to say, “When I think that someone among us, someone preparing for ministry, would do SOMETHING LIKE THIS . . . ” Another invited me to reconsider my call. At my own seminary, several of my classmates declined to stand next to me at our weekly vespers service, and one went so far as to refuse to look me in the eye.

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In short, this situation was keen to enforce its own script, and the roles were limited to two dimensions. One was called “Victim.” One was called “Perpetrator.”

That’s the same script on two different sides– and it tries to restrict access to people as complex individuals, constantly in the midst of learning, with behaviors and understandings that sometimes are on mark, and other times miss it and require correction. This script was tempting in a time of great anxiety, however, and I watched even people I knew consider it. And I get it. It’s critically important that I in no way be representative of the larger seminarian community if I’m going to mess up around race—because that would mean that we all have work to do. Or, scarier still, it could mean that we are not going to be able to do all of the work that we need to before the moments when we are called to speak about race.

It could in fact mean that we are going, inevitably, to fall short sometimes. To find ourselves, each of us, on the lesser side of our hopes, or called to see the shortcomings underneath our intentions.

It is perhaps interesting that during this same period, I’ve been doing a lot of pulpit supply, preaching a sermon about sin. It’s Lent, and it’s a good sermon: funny, poignant—and provocative.

It provokes because I am taking pains to explain to Unitarian Universalists—to my people, many of whom have never voluntarily observed Lent and for whom “repent” is maybe an actual cuss word—that our screw ups are indeed inevitable. And that when we accept this reality, it frees us—we become prophets able to live our faith with both integrity and gentleness. We walk with humility, take responsibility in our errors, and extend the hand of healing without encumbering our love with the concern that the person we’re reaching out to may not “deserve” it.

I preach this sermon wholeheartedly, but if I could hold my breath while doing that, I would. Because pushback around anything that suggests a mere whiff of guilt is inevitable in this current moment in our tradition.

And so I was not surprised a few weeks ago in Topeka when a man came up to me and said, I have a gripe with your sermon.

I was surprised, however, about what he suggested I add to my theology: the idea that “sin” should mean only that we have set the bar too high. And that when we understand that, then our screw ups really aren’t screw ups at all.

Stand back, y’all.

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There is indeed a bar here, and perhaps we should take a moment to look at it, and to consider our commitments as people of transformative faith.

I self-importantly edited someone else’s words, acting in my own arrogance. More recently, I yelled at my older son in my own impatience, and just this morning spoke unkindly to a friend out of my own sadness. I have definitely, in this past week, failed to act where I knew better and drawn uncharitable conclusions where I know nothing and also coveted things not my own. I have broken promises, some quite willfully, and while I don’t have Rob Eller-Isaacs’ litany of atonement memorized, but I’m pretty sure I’ve done everything in it to which we might ritually confess. Probably twice.

Also, just last week, seven people were apparently shot by one person in Florida, word comes from Germany that a man chose to deliberately kill 150 people by crashing a plane into a mountain, and the governor of Indiana signed a bill into law allowing optional discrimination against those who identify as GLBT.

But not to worry. We have all just set that damned bar too far beyond our reach.

Denial. It’s what’s for breakfast.

And oddly, I think it’s precisely this inclination toward denial that spawns both the frenzied grabbing of pitchforks that we UUs sometimes do, and the post-pitchfork mystification about what we might then do next. We screw up when we could do better. We screw up when we don’t know how to do better. We screw up when we don’t want to be bothered with doing better.

And in each of those moments, that bar is exactly where it needs to be. It’s not there to shame us. It’s there to set the mark that calls us forward.

And my people, we are that bar. We, so often, are all we have to call each other forward.

So we’d better learn to do it in a way that saves. What we need, y’all, is grace. The kind that finds us where we are. Here. Now. As we stand, leaping for that bar, and missing.

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The trouble is that waiting to offer grace until we think that the other person deserves it is in fact the farthest thing from grace. It’s instead a quid pro quo ritual of the oldest sort, one performed at the edge of an abyss.   Someone needs to pay, and if we can simply figure out whom to push from the cliff, we can feel reassured that our spaces are once again transgression-free. And if in the ensuing conflict-free silence, we detect a whiff of terror . . .   well, at least it keeps our discussions simple and manageable. Who will take the risk to act otherwise?

Friends, our shame around whiteness and our horror at its costs are things we must begin to hold, to process, and to grieve. Even as we learn.

This particular error was a small one in the larger landscape of my own racism. And the truth is, pointing this out does nothing to lessen my involvement in enacting privilege—I’ve certainly done worse, and more cluelessly, and you probably have, too. And in those moments, we may in fact have had our actions not called out but condoned. This system does that.

But without a space able to hold the complexity in each of us—to hold us, sinners all—it becomes critically important that any error that taps into communal shame be an affront so egregious that it’s sure to be a one-off. Not the entitled rudeness that’s common as mud. Not the kind of mistake, in short, that you might make. Tomorrow. Or even sooner.

I heard it asserted, and repeatedly, that I “plagiarized something or other,” or “attacked a seminarian of color.” Consider what it means if we can’t find a space to sit with what actually happened, to ask curious questions about it, to attempt to understand how an inquiry about a hashtag could come to this.

Because it could. It did. And no additional elements are needed for that to be true— so what might happen if we claim some space, in love, to look at the ways in which we humans can hurt one another?

Without this space, what we have is silence, binaries . . . and a very tall cliff.

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Also, statements like the one from the seminarian who suggested that the responsible thing to have done would be to have known better than to screw up in the first place.

When 10 of my colleagues “liked” that comment, I knew we were in trouble . . . and friends, we are. Individually, collectively, in this space and in many others. In places where there is no identified space. On Facebook, and off of it.

Our shared dialogue is imperiled, and this conversation isn’t why—it’s simply symptomatic.

Without the courage to try, the humility to own failure, and the grace to stand up, extend a palm, and start again, there is no way for us to walk forward together.

We have to have conversations we’ve never attempted before. We have to learn to walk with people we’ve never loved before. We have to flex leadership muscles we haven’t used before.

And right now, we are failing to try. That third, silent bucket—the opt out between the two poles—it’s looking pretty good right now. It’s risk-free not to speak up.

Because the responsible thing is not to make the mistake in the first place. We are responsible people when we know better than to make mistakes.  

Truth: this stance is not responsible. It is not helpful. It is not honest. And yet, the bar is still there. And it’s not too high if we are to be people of transformative faith. Though it is quite true that our efforts will often fall short.

That’s a complex space in which to live, but it is our space. And calling ourselves humanists while denying that a lived truth of humanity is that we screw things up, all the time, makes us complicit in the same mental gymnastics and wishful thinking that our theology was designed to eschew.

No acceptance of transgression; no offering of grace.

And that means “cliff,” every time.

How excellent, then, that there are other choices. And how salvific that we have some spaces in which we might attempt them.

One framework might look like this:

For a given situation, let us do some discernment around what is and isn’t our business. Let us find inside of ourselves the muscle we might call our “holy courage.” Let us power it with love. And let us then learn to ask good questions from a place of curiosity.

We can use tools like this to help.

And let us, finally, get a handle on failure and the feelings that come with it.

What does disappointment mean to me? Can I handle it in others? Can I tolerate it in myself?

Do I feel like failure deserves to be met with shame? Where does that come from? Is it serving me—and more importantly, is it serving the larger We?

We must dare to envision something more. A place big enough to hold us all, and which isn’t content merely to hold us—challenge yourself to envision the place which dares to call us all into our next selves.

Let us dare to imagine more beauty. Let us dare to act with more courage, which so very often means with more love.

This sounds like a vision of perfection . . . I submit that it’s more likely the result of dealing truthfully with our shortcomings. They don’t have to scare us to teach us . . . and those who shame us cannot lead us.

In faith, my people.

j

of Soeren and Silas and seasonal singing (aka, Jesus wept)

child singing

Tis the season, friends. By which I mean the season for singing . . . about chestnuts and sugar plums and the wonders of His love. And as someone who mostly doesn’t sing, at least when I have a choice, I have had wonders all my own this season. About, for example, whether singing can ruin children’s lives.

This fall, Silas and Soeren sang with the Capo and Cadenza divisions of the Lawrence Children’s Choir. It all ended in a darkened theater, on a big stage, in full view of the ticketholding public. And friends, it was painful.

Leading up to the concert, we have some inkling that the performance might not go well. Choir practice for the semester gets off to a dreadful start, and though Silas warms up to it after a few weeks, he’s not one for novelty. It takes him weeks to stop actively physically resisting the move from the orchestra classroom to the choir classroom to practice on the risers. What, then, of the much-less-practiced transition from one high school to another, and from classroom to actual stage and live audience?

And Silas is not my only concern. Both of my children march to their own beat much of the time—this is part, in fact, of why I wanted them to have a structured experience in a group of other children. But there’s a limit to what an hour a week can achieve. In fact, there are limits to what can be achieved, period. Soeren spent three years of his life in highly structured Montessori environments. I’m sure he benefited in some direct ways, but love of order and tendency to follow directions are not among them. The long view is that I have been trying to instill these particular values for many years. The deeper truth is that Soeren has been himself, and resistant to being molded, since before that.

Which brings us back to the final rehearsal. Of seventeen (17!!!) numbers, the youngest children are slated to perform in six of them. My sons’ favorite of these, “Turn the World Around,” captures their hearts, but the instructions for performing it have not captured their attention. At least, not in a way that is helpful for choral performance. The entire song is repetitions of three harmonies, one of which predictably includes the line “turn the world around.” The children have been instructed to, upon singing this line, turn slowly and carefully around, exactly one time. All 46 children. 44 of whom appear to follow directions.

Soeren, who is 7 and a dreamer, who loves music and performing in the Nutcracker, but who also lives nearly entirely in his head, is so transported by the experience of the singing that surrounds him that he stands, staring straight ahead, while around him the entire group pirouttes in place. Soeren’s face is transfixed, eyes gazing into middle distance; his body, meanwhile, is frozen. The outside appearance is that a chorus of children are blithely singing and dancing as one child, trapped in the middle, speechlessly beholds an approaching catastrophe that he is powerless to prevent.

The music director says Soeren’s name twice, snaps her fingers, waves an arm in a theatrical gesture. My older son doesn’t so much as glance in her direction. The director shakes her head sharply and abandons the effort as in front of her, the choir continues to sing.

It’s my business, Soeren explains later. I suggest that from where I’m sitting, at least, following directions is everyone’s business, but Soeren states, calmly: our teacher says it’s ultimately my business whether I decide to turn or not. Ultimately means in the end. I ultimately decided not to.

In the same rehearsal, meanwhile, Silas is positioned amid 8 other tiny children on another section of risers. And Silas does turn. He turns, as instructed, on “turn the world around.” He also turns on “we come from the fire” and additionally, for the entirety of the later “Do you know who I am” section. In fact, Silas continues to turn for the rest of the song, and then for the following three numbers, songs that have nothing whatsoever to do with turning.

The music director, perhaps knowing when to cut her losses, barely glances in Silas’s direction, but Si’s own teacher, a woman whose gentleness and humor have only slightly frazzled in the company of my younger son, reaches out to remind him to stop. Silas proves as resolute as his brother, however, and continues his slow, continuous turns until eventually he falls off the riser and disappears from view. He takes another child, a little girl with neatly parted hair and a ruffled pink skirt, down with him. She is fine. Silas is fine. Silas begins to spin, again.

Miss Sara assumes a position right next to my still-revolving child. She shakes her head. I put my own in my hands. Across the room, two of my mama friends laugh silently. One pantomimes with her hands, mouths “Can I help?,” and I shrug, palms up.

The teachers seem mostly unperturbed, the entire choir is singing, and in that moment, what can you do? In the immediate and unforgiving space between the theory and practice of parenting, what can any of us do?

Eventually, mercifully, it ends.  We survive, the three of us, and the bystanders do, too.

We get dinner. I take some of my trademark deep breaths, the ones I began practicing while pregnant, never anticipating that I was preparing not for childbirth, but for the entirety of the rest of my life.

And much later, after bedtime, I retell this story. And then I casually mention to my husband that I’m not sure the concert—the public one, on taller risers—is a great idea. And I remind him, much more emphatically, that I work on Sundays. In a neighboring state. And that it might turn out that I cannot be there to watch this event. That he might be on his own . . as I have been for choir practice all semester. (I actually don’t say that last part out loud.)

And yet, on concert day, I am unwilling to stay away. I tell myself that it’s because it’s one of those moments that you’re always glad you went to. Because I’ll regret it if I don’t. Because what kind of a mother would miss this, though in truth I don’t set much store by What Kind of A Mother. I’m not that kind, whatever that might be.

In actuality, I probably leave church early and drive an hour in pouring, icy rain because I have earned this. We deserve each other, this concert and I, after the hours I’ve spent—hours in which I contemplated the meaning of parental sacrifice more acutely than ever before—singing, out loud, in front of other people, in order to convince my four year old to do the same.

And so, I find Craig, who has dropped the boys off in the specified location, and we take our seats. And we watch.

The audition-only tour choir performs beautifully, notes hanging briefly in the air and then melting away. And then our own children appear.

Si and Soeren take to the stage twice, for three songs each time. For this performance, the older choirs—choristers and above—wear special show-choir outfits. Our children, meanwhile, are in corduroys and sweaters.  Or rather, they were.  In front of 800 people, among small children attired in their Sunday best, Soeren and Silas make their choral debut in Skydive Colorado t-shirts.

Craig goes off to fix this at intermission, and we watch with satisfaction as the children troop back onto the stage, ours, this time, matching the others.

Or not.

No one is watching Soeren, who is entirely obscured by the “grandma choir” which has joined the children for the finale. Whether he turns or not is indeed his own business, as predicted.  Even in front of 800 people.

Silas, on the other hand, is visible.  Or rather, parts of him are. There are nearly 150 people on stage, all singing, and there are instruments and motions and a riot of color. But two of us only have eyes for the tiny blond child at the foot of the risers. Who is swept on stage with the others, and who, in the middle of the crowd, and in the middle of the song, is standing and singing, with his eyes shut and both arms wrapped entirely around his head.

To cover his ears, he tells us later. It is so very loud.

He looks pained up there, and we are pained, too. We should not, after all, have done this to him. To either of them. To ourselves. Choir, with its lessons and its joys, it is not for everyone. It is not for my children. And now we know.

Except that Soeren is ecstatic, proud to have been onstage and to have sung with the big kids and even because I behaved myself. Silas, meanwhile, has fallen asleep, but later, after the post-concert crush and the cold rain and the rather shell-shocked dinner, I take yet another deep breath. I ask, as casually as I can muster:

So . . . how was the concert, Silas?

And Si looks up at me, smiles proudly and says,

It was awesome.

Really!?, I ask, unable to keep the incredulity from my voice.

Really, says Silas.

I SANG.

And so he did.

singing kids [Converted] copy

Are you there, God? It’s me . . . the girl who never shuts up.

adelaide praying

Wikimedia commons

My minister tells a story about deciding, as a child, that she wanted to be a teacher when she grew up.  In fact, if I remember right, her realization was that she needed to be one.  So she wrote her adult self a letter to ensure she’d remember, and not stray from the righteous path.

I’m not saying she strayed, but she’s not a teacher now.  She wasn’t a teacher before she became a minister, either.  There is something about the present that utterly refuses to be controlled, even by the most earnest wishes of the past.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot.  There has been some debate as to whether I’m standing at the edge of a cliff, or have recently fallen from one, but either way, I’m afraid—sometimes clingingly, desperately afraid—of what I lose on the way down.

And what I’m afraid of losing now is nothing less than my faith.

That looks extremely dramatic in print.  I think that losing touch with what moves us is a common worry, though—it’s just one that we prefer not to acknowledge, even to ourselves.  Having just survived Early Christian History, for which I researched a paper that included lengthy sources on legitimacy and apostolic succession, it is clear to me that the urge to pin down “truth”—to fix it forever—is not a unique inclination.

At a deep level, this might be what we seek in doctrine: the relief of not having to worry, search, redefine, or make ourselves too uncomfortable.  In theory, we come together and make creeds— mold our shared beliefs into shared words—so we will know one another.  “In our belief in these truths,” we are saying, “you and I are one and the same.”*

What if, though . . . what if we really write them for ourselves?  “Remember, now, this is what you believe.  Nothing else.  This.  And if you can just hold on to what I tell you, I promise it will be this way for always.”  (Be still, my heart—I have found another trusty, dependable rock!)

Frankly, the promise of “same” is tremendously appealing to a creature of habit such as myself.  Those of you still shaking your heads at my repeated grad school adventures may be surprised to learn that I have eaten the exact same lunch—two tacos, with cheese and pico and my favorite red salsa—every Monday and Wednesday for months.  Or that I am the person who will give you a look and struggle not to think unkind thoughts about you if you take “my” chair in class.  Or that I still haven’t forgiven Ruth’s Diner in Salt Lake for cancelling my favorite side from the menu, or my local coop for ceasing to carry my favorite yogurt.

Seriously, I am the slowest adjuster I know.  It’s ridiculous. But I like what I like, and I want it to be there when I need it—my rituals and routines are precious to me.  (Did I mention that I took a Buddhism seminar this semester?  Did I also share with you that this did not go well?)

And yet, intellectually at least, when it comes to my faith, I don’t want to write myself any letters.  I know better than to attempt to enjoin my heart, my soul . . . my love.

What I’m trying to do is to get to an open place.  What I want to do is trust.

But, digging into and struggling with and thinking about and sometimes, yes, loving those early Christian scriptures, I realized that there’s another piece here.  It’s not just that it’s scary to be open to new things.  It’s that there’s something here that I absolutely feel and experience, but can’t name or control.  It lives in my heart, I think–at least, I feel it there.  It resists my mind’s efforts to put it in a box.  And sometimes, for reasons I don’t totally understand, I kind of forget about it.  It doesn’t go away, but I sort of do . . . and then, almost like a child, I am surprised and delighted to find it again, as I did recently amid old books.

This “something” is faith, but it’s not simply a quiet certitude.  It is spirit.  It is magic.  And when I felt it in the library the other day—when my heart skipped with excitement and love, I rejoiced.  And then I worried.  What if, in one of these times of forgetting, I lose it entirely?

Perhaps I’ll wonder if I ever really knew it–knew faith, knew God–at all.

This makes me think of Chris Van Allsburg’s book The Polar Express, in which a sleigh bell is given to a small boy as a reminder of his belief.  That tiny bell rings for him with the knowledge of his experience, but his parents are sure, always, that the bell is broken.  They can’t hear it, not even on that first Christmas morning.

Will the bell will ring for me forever?  Or will I, like the boy’s sister, realize someday that it has fallen silent, never to be heard by my ears again?

Scary truth: it concerns me to surround myself with people for whom it never rang in the first place—not because I’m uninterested in what they have to say, and not because I’m afraid that their truths will somehow invalidate my own, but because sometimes you need someone who can carry the spark for you.  There are times when the ultimate faith of friendship is to keep someone else’s spark alive with a bit of breath, to walk with it, hold it carefully, so that you may pass it back to her when she can keep it again.  And maybe that’s what they were thinking back in Nicaea.  Not, here’s a measuring stick so we can kick those unbelievers out, but, does the bell ring for you?  Can I trust you to carry this spark for me?

Are my fellow Unitarians willing to be spark carriers?  Are my fellow Christians?

Blazing heart

Amazing, beautiful, surprising . . .and powerful.  This spark has its enemies.  People have tried for thousands of years, for more reasons than we can count (and yet also, for only one: because we fear), to blow it out or bury it.

And yet, it will not be buried.  That’s the amazing, soul-freeing, regime-shaking truth: you can build entire cities, limestone and marble, glass and gold, trying to “honor” the spark while really seeking to cover it over, or bend it to human will—and it will pop up again somewhere else.  Often where we least expect it.

In short, I’m not worried for it.  Not at all–the spark will continue.  I hope to be worthy to carry it, but it doesn’t depend on me.

I’m only worried for myself.

Because the truth is, having known it, I don’t want to be without it.  I want to feel it.  I want to hold it in my hands when it’s been weeks or months or please not years of talking about God instead of connecting with God.

And so, I guess, there is this.  It’s not a letter, exactly . . . it’s somewhere between a reminder to myself and a plea to the universe.

Don’t lose this, girl.  

Is that to much to ask?

j

*Notice, dear friends, that this is not “one in the same,” which is a phrase spawned of mishearing rather than linguistic precedent.  I moonlight as your friendly Grammar Witch.  You’re welcome.  🙂

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.

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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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

a $aving sort of grace (thoughts on shame and stewardship)

I love this post from UU Robin Bartlett Barraza, about how her family finds God and grace at a UCC church on Sunday afternoons.  Robin’s words evoke the loving embrace of community, a welcome extended not just to herself, but to her children–one of whom is (gasp!) a two-year-old.

How well I know the perils.  And how poignantly I appreciate the gift of welcoming love that my church has given my own family.  This is embodied by the people who talk with my five year old like he’s the adult conversationalist that he thinks he is.  It’s shown by the woman who smiles and laughs when Si, my younger, nitrate-addicted son, approaches eating as performance art–Cave Man Ingests Hot Dog.  It’s taking the time to give Ren the warning he needs to successfully transition between activities in RE.  It’s understanding that Si’s middle name should be Houdini, and taking steps to keep him safe where safety is not a high priority on his own list.  It’s welcoming our family of four with love and joy, even knowing that all of the above is part of the package.

These actions speak louder than mere words of welcome ever could.  And conversely, there are no words that could overcome the sense of not belonging we might have felt were church exclusive to children on their best behavior.  Yet the message, once again, is come as you are; you are welcome here.

I have known, deep in my soul, that this kind of welcome is critical.  As a parent of rambunctious children in a society where the unspoken expectation is constant control,* it is so easy to feel that we are failing where our children prove to be simply, irrepressibly themselves.  I recently read Dr. Brené Brown’s I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t), and I now suspect that what we parents sometimes feel in public spaces–and in the mental space between societal expectations and family realities–is shame.  This shame, and the mental and physical paralysis it evokes, can make it hard to even enter a space like church.  It’s hard to walk in the door the first time, and it’s impossible to return for a second visit but for perfection–or grace.  We give that grace through our welcome and our ongoing love, through our third principle commitment to open our arms to people where they are.

I could say more about parental shame and congregational welcome, but for now I’ll leave that to others.  I actually want to talk about another area in which the welcome of radical hospitality and the specter of shame are both at issue: our approach to congregational stewardship.

Money Tree (crassula) growing from a pile of coins.

According to Dr. Brown, we are vulnerable to shame anywhere there’s a gap between an ideal identity–the way we’d like others to perceive us around an issue–and an unwanted identity–the way we fear others may perceive us.  When shame arises, our physiological and emotional responses combine to create a kind of paralysis (with a heavy dose of psychological pain to boot).  This may seem overstated, or, where we acknowledge that it does happen, like an embarrassing overreaction.  It’s important to realize, then, that in our highly relational, wired-for-connection brains, an affront to our standing within social groups is processed the same way a physical threat might be.  Rational thought shuts down, the amygdala takes over, and we make instinctive choices between survival strategies (these are commonly referred to as the “fight or flight responses”).

In short, the pain of shame, and the underlying threat to our relational value, are likely to cause us to react rather than respond.  Our reactions may depend on the situation, but they generally involve moving against, moving toward, or moving away from, the person we are encountering as a shaming stimulus.  Moving against often involves anger, and our own use of shame to attempt to put the person in her place.  A person moving toward makes conciliatory gestures, hoping to be recognized as “same” rather than “other” by the person he’s feeling shamed by.  Finally, moving away from implicates the flight response; if you’ve ever responded to a disagreement by “freezing out” the party with whom you disagree, you may tend toward the “moving away” response.  (Personally, I’m more of a fighter than a flighter; the point of these distinctions, however, is that they are three unique, but equally unhelpful, responses to feeling shamed.)

drooping bud

These reactions can mask underlying feelings and motivations until they are hidden even from ourselves.  Unfortunately, they can also cause tremendous damage to our relationships.  Brown, however, argues that while shame will remain part of our daily lives regardless of the inner work we do, as humans we have the ability to develop “shame resilience.”  This set of strategies, and the self-awareness that underpins them, can allow us to free ourselves from the paralysis of a shaming experience, and to be intentional in our responses to it.

So what does all this have to do with stewardship?  Let’s explore that further; I’ll use my own ideal images around money and church as a starting point.  I want to be a contributor, to pull my weight, to be aware and considerate of those who cannot contribute at this time.  I also want to appear comfortable talking about money–and all of the above without exposing any vulnerabilities that I or my family may have around this issue.  In the area of unwanted identities, I don’t want to be clueless.  I don’t want to be a shirker of responsibilities.  I don’t want to be someone who doesn’t prioritize financial matters appropriately.  And I don’t want to be less fortunate.

In looking over this list, I doubt it’s extremely different from anyone else’s.  Depending on the amount of work we have personally done around this issue, though, and the culture of our individual churches, and our own specific financial circumstances and stressors, it may be difficult to talk openly about these issues without experiencing shame.  In fact, it may be a challenge just to be present while someone else deals with these issues.  I discovered this on a personal level just the other day.

I was preparing to lead a meeting when our minister and another congregant began to talk about their missed connection for their annual pledge conversation.  Quickly, the pair concluded that the best time to talk was right there, right then.  Thus, our minister–her name is Jill—filled out her pledge form there at the table—in front of God and everybody, as it were.  I was taken aback, but planned to politely pretend not to notice.  As it turned out, though, not noticing was not really an option.

Rather than doing the expected thing—no, the decent thing—and finishing the task as discreetly as possible, Jill took the opportunity to think aloud.  She shared the percentage of her salary she wanted to contribute, her intention to pledge at the level that would qualify for this year’s matching incentive, and her rationale for having the conversation publicly.  I asked Jill about that exchange before beginning to write this post; she confirmed that the structure and content of the public conversation was intentional.  Our minister is actively choosing to use and model the strategies that might allow us to have honest congregational conversations about money.

During this conversation, I used some strategies of my own.  Shaming strategies, to be precise.  I used them to communicate discomfort, to place the blame for that feeling with someone else, and to attempt to relegate both the conversation and my feelings about it to some other space.

Just let me know when we're done talking about this . . .

Just let me know when we’re done talking about this . . .

A key component of shame resilience is compassion–the ability to extend grace to others and to ourselves.  In that spirit, I will share with you that I think my reaction was understandable: I had never seen a conversation like this take place, I had done very little work around my own discomfort with money, and the multiple boundaries and power differentials inherent in the group, and in the conversation, only compounded my unease.  In my anxiety–rooted, I now see, in shame, which I wanted to be on someone else’s plate and not my own–I laughed, teased, and then disconnected from the conversation, waiting for it to be over.  In short, I employed the “moving against” strategy–YOU are not normal; YOU are doing something wrong–followed by “moving away from”–disengaging to prevent the conversation from affecting me.

Understanding this doesn’t change my desire to do things differently next time; in fact, it’s the only thing that might make intentional action possible.  In the meantime, we, like churches everywhere, are in the midst of a much larger conversation, one that has the potential to be empowering, transformative, bold, missional . . . and extremely uncomfortable.  That conversation is the one we have each year at the whole-church level, and even denominationally, around stewardship.

What does this larger conversation look like in our churches . . . and how could it look?  Where is shame involved?  (Because it is, friends.  It is.)  And how do we offer grace in the stewardship context–to our fellow congregants, to our finance committees and our governing boards, to our ministers  . . . to ourselves?  How do we extend the same welcome to all, and simultaneously acknowledge the reality that 1. it costs money to do what we do, and 2. that money is going to come from each of us unequally?

Perhaps it is a falsehood even to try to separate money and church; what we give and what we ask for are inextricably connected.  In American culture, we use money to value one another, which blinds us to reality–and we refuse at the same time to acknowledge the cost of things, which also blinds us to reality.  If money is simultaneously a gilded idol and the elephant in the room, it’s understandably confusing, perhaps nowhere more than within our sacred spaces, to talk about it openly.  And so, again, shame comes into play.  And in helping to frame the conversation, in choosing how we respond to it, we contribute to a culture of shame . . . or we help to lift it.

As with so many other things at church, I have mixed feelings about my own role.  Would I be willing to give a three-minute testimonial about what church–this church, my church–means in my life?  Absolutely.  And if I hear a whisper of “$ell it, girl!” in the request, does that change anything?  To wield my words with honesty, do I need to know–and do my listeners need to know–whether the directive was speak from your heart, or $peak from your heart?

Looking at more concrete questions, do we need to know, as someone recently posed in a congregational discussion of stewardship, what percentage of our members are non-pledgers?  We are also aware that a very small handful of families (and disclosure: mine isn’t one of them) are currently financially supporting much, much more than their “fair share”–do we need to know who those families are?  Do I need to know how my minister makes her pledging decision for the year?  Does she need to know how I reach my own decision?

I don’t know.  What I do know is that we have big dreams–the kind that cost.  What I also know is that there is a great potential for shame inherent in every facet of this discussion . . . and that we must balance that with grace and compassion if we want to maintain church as a safe space.  This is true for our members, for our first-time visitors . . .  and for the family who’s afraid to come to church between March and May because it’s been a very difficult year and they’re afraid to say the words–to admit that this year, they just can’t.

As always, I’d love to hear your take.

j

*You perhaps question this. As an undergrad I studied abroad in Sweden; the differences in outlook are beyond the scope of this post, but suffice it to say, Swedish children make my sons seem sedate.  And despite the society having been structured with them in mind; despite being permitted to run amok on planes and trains, in IKEA, in the public squares, Swedish children grow up to be some of the most kind, considerate and well-mannered adults I have ever met.  In spending time with these children, and in this other society, I gained some perspective about our own–we are not, myself included, so removed as we may think from the “seen and not heard” vision of childhood.

a coming out, of sorts*

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

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

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

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

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

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

All the best,

j

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

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

in the little things, our love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My church community has given me . . .

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

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

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

A warm glow.

A space at the table, prepared for you.

A beloved community, making beautiful a humble basement.

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