summer vacation (a dialogue about questionable life choices)

I’ve been kinda quiet here lately. In real life, too, unless you’re one of My People.  Then I’ve been rather chattery. Nerves, you see.

We here at Raising Faith are dealing with Many Big Events In the Formation Process.

Mostly, I’ve been taking lots of deep breaths. I’m getting very good at that. Someday you might not even be able to tell that I’m breathing.

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Then I’ll be like this rock. Only smaller. And slightly more responsive.

In one month and one week, I start CPE (that stands for Clinical Pastoral Education) at a medium-sized metropolitan hospital.

 

I haven’t done it yet, so I can’t tell you much about how it will be. But, thanks to numerous versions of this very conversation, I can tell you what you’re likely to ask me—in order, even.

Those exchanges generally end with you looking astonished and slightly horrified.  Which in my head I translate as, “I do not understand . . . and Wow.”  Or, maybe, “You really have made some terrible life choices.”

Maybe so.  Sometimes I wonder.  I’ll keep you posted.  In the meantime, though, I realized I can use printed words to really answer the questions.  We have time here, and space, and  . . . . it’s just easier.

So: here goes.

What’s CPE?

Clinical Pastoral Education.  It means chaplain rotations at a hospital.  It’s like a full time job, time-wise; I’ll be at the hospital through the workweek, and work an overnight shift once every six days.  Since I won’t be in my hometown, but in a nearby city, it’s fortunate that the hospital has an on-call room where I can stay during the night shifts.

That commute sounds rough. Why don’t you just be a chaplain at our local hospital?

For a CPE program, you need a hospital that has not just chaplains on staff, but resources for training and supervising new chaplains. This is like the difference between a hospital that trains and teaches doctors and a hospital that merely employs them. Facilities with the capacity for chaplain training can, in general, be found here: Like most areas of health care, programs for chaplain education are concentrated in large metropolitan areas.

Fortunately, I live near just such an area. Also fortunately, the hospital consortium I’ll be serving with is working on a deal with my smaller community hospital that would allow me to do some shifts locally.  This is probably obvious, but I am a big fan of that idea. We’ll see if it works out.

Do you get paid?

No.  In fact, it costs money.  There are several sources of potential financial aid available to help defray the costs, but completing a unit of CPE means paying fees to both the hospital and my seminary.

Hmm. And do you know what you’re doing?

Not really. I did take a required class at my seminary this spring. It was fine. But I wouldn’t say I feel prepared.

How is that ok?

I can’t really answer that. I will tell you that I have talked with at least 40 people about their experiences going through CPE and that not one of them has said “I knew what I was doing.” At all.

“First Day of CPE,” via EverydayImPastorin’

I was going to add, “and nobody died!” but probably, that’s not true. That’s, you know, one of the reasons you might need a chaplain.

 

You don’t sound very excited. Isn’t this what  you wanted to do in the first place?

Yeah, about that. So back when I first acknowledged to myself that I was discerning a call to ministry, a primary point of terror was that it made no sense. None. I had a whole life, which I mostly loved, and none of it pointed this way.

Except. I spent five years volunteering and then working at a crisis counseling center with a particular focus on suicide prevention and grief support. Then three more years assisting a complicated grief group at a family support center. Then I got a grant to do some research around grief and the legal process. Later, in the education field, I did my masters project around supporting families of young children in grief.

So you see, I had this beautiful aha moment, one I clung to as I jumped off what felt like a very tall cliff: I’m not interested in ministry, per se. I just want to find an authentic way to be present to families who have experienced a loss. I could be a chaplain. And better still: I could be a pediatric chaplain!

Eureka. Insanity explained.

And now, 18 months later, that pediatric chaplain vision still lives in a corner of my mind. She’s increasingly cramped, though, by things like radical hospitality in congregational life, the intersection of the sacred and the secular in our voluntary organizations, the opportunities every day to recognize the humanity in another and, quoting Wendell Berry, to practice resurrection. So I don’t think about her much these days. And also, there’s the reality that she might actually need a chaplain herself.

Trigger warning: this is a very sad story. And it’s not mine. And for that reason, details have been changed.  The thing is, last month I rode home from Chicago on the train, returning from my last set of seminary intensives for this year. I ate in the dining car with my friend and colleague.  During that meal, we shared a table and talked love and life with the two women across from us. They were a generation older than we, one already a grandmother several times over, and the other excited to greet, this month, her first grandchild. It was a story of joy and expectation.

Until, over dessert, we began to talk ministry. And then the second woman told me a different story. Of another first grandchild. A beautiful baby boy, Evan—the pregnancy was perfect. His birth went fine. And Evan went home to his loving and overjoyed family . . . but he failed to thrive.

Eventually, he was scheduled for exploratory surgery. It revealed a hidden heart defect. And, during that that surgery, one which the family has been told was merely a routine step in a longer diagnostic process, Evan died.

This woman, this grandmother of loss, and grandmother-to-be—her faith and her grace, her openness and hope— she was luminous. I hold her in my heart. And Evan. And his new baby sister. Lord, let her grow.

I, on the other hand, was a mess. I was physically present, don’t get me wrong, and I managed to keep the tears mostly in my eyes. But friends, my heart is not the heart I had when I did those other things. The griefy things.

I have a mama heart now, and it throbs frequently and breaks easily and just is probably not cut out for this chaplain stuff. 

I spent that conversation listening through the treacherous haze of a mental battle, one that went something like, “OMG, I Cannot. Handle. This./Seriously woman Keep Your Shit Together/ How are you ever going to be a minister if you can’t even be present with Random Lady on a Train?

And that, friends, is when my pre-CPE crisis began in earnest. You know, the what the hell was I thinking, this is an awful way to spend a summer and maybe also my life crisis.

My casual observations indicate that we all get to this realization at some point. That we really are not enough for what is being asked of us. How could we be? No one is.

And yet—and here is that maddening ministry piece again

Then we do it anyway. You wake up, one morning in your bed, or one evening on a train in the face of hope and loss sitting across from you and your chocolate mousse, and you know you cannot do it, there’s no way you can do it, no one could do it . . .

And then you do it.

All of that said though, that experience on the train was a dash of cold water in the face of my pediatric chaplain vision. Because, you know, no one comes to the children’s hospital because they’re having a really great day.

And yep, someone needs to be there with those families. To be there with each of us, when it is our turn.

I’m just not sure I’m made of tough enough stuff for that to be me.

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You’re right; that sounds terrible. Why would anyone do this thing?

The immediately available answer is: we do it because we have to.

If you know a minister in a denomination that requires an M.Div., ask her about her CPE experience. She had one.

But why do you have to do that?

Everyone I have talked to—you know, the ones who did not say they knew what they were doing—has given me the same answer about this. It’s very short. And totally predictable.  It’s like it comes to you in a personal fortune cookie at a closing CPE banquet.

That answer is: CPE breaks you open. You hold and hurt for and walk with other people’s pain—and your own—until you break. And then, eventually, with help, you put yourself back together. As a person who can be at peace amid pain.

There’s variation on the amount of collegial support or competitive torture that people report experiencing with their cohorts, or their supervisors, or the nursing staff . . . and some people have 5 minutes to answer a page and some have 30 . . . but the process and its effects sound pretty standard.

 

That sounds really, impossibly hard.

I agree with you.

Seminarians do it anyway.

Yay.

You’re in the (Lord’s) Army Now, part II: Rev. Amy Zucker Morgenstern on ministering to ministers

This is part II of a series on making the adjustment from congregant to seminarian (and ultimately, to minister).  For Rev. Patrick McLaughlin’s commentary on changes to relationships within the home congregation, click here.  Rev. Audette Fulbright explains UUMA guidelines and collegial relationships here.  Thanks now to Rev. Amy Zucker Morgenstern for sharing this perspective on what feeds her soul as a minister.  As always, friends, YOUR thoughts are most welcome–comments below.

-j

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I don’t exactly have a home congregation, as I did not begin coming to a Unitarian Universalist congregation until I had a pretty strong sense that I wanted to be a Unitarian Universalist minister (long story). Those who were active in a congregation before hearing a call to ministry can better answer the very important questions about navigating between one’s home congregation and the early stages of ministry. I’ll devote my space to the other questions:

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

Every spring my UUMA chapter gathers for a retreat at a beautiful center in San Juan Bautista, California. It is matched for restfulness and beauty only by the center we go to for our fall retreat, in Camp Meeker, California. This spring, as we sat in one of the worship services, a colleague said, “I love the way you give yourself over so wholeheartedly to worship.”

I laughed and said, “You mean the way I weep non-stop?”

Because I do. As soon as I get to the retreat center, I feel my heart soften and my guard go down. I am about to be ministered to. I’ve been looking forward to it for months: the lovely setting, the time when all obligations (professional and familial) are set aside, the deep conversations about the questions that haunt my soul, the camaraderie with colleagues I see at few other times, and most of all, the worship. After all, when I was a layperson and seminarian, I used to go to services almost every week. Now I go a few times a year: at the fall retreat, the spring retreat, and, if I get there, General Assembly or the CENTER Institute. By the time the retreat begins, my hunger for that time of communal ritual and reflection is intense. The tears often start flowing before the chalice has even been lit.

Many of my spiritual needs are met by the church I serve: close connection to wise and generous people, an immersion in extraordinarily beautiful music and words, dialogue about profound matters, meeting people in some of the most intense intersections of their lives, and, of course, meaningful work. But it is true that I have no minister there. It’s a multi-staff church, but we ministers are not each others’ ministers. And it is not my spiritual community in the way I hope it is for our members, for a very simple reason: I can’t be vulnerable enough. I love to meet with our small groups, but I couldn’t walk into one at the end of a bad week and say, “Sometimes I just feel like quitting my job.” I have tremendous liking for members of my congregation about whom I think, “We could be wonderful friends . . . ,” but the thought always ends, “. . . except then they wouldn’t have me as their minister.”

I give in to tears at memorial services sometimes, but not nearly as much as I feel like doing; if I did, I wouldn’t be able to speak the words that help others to have that experience. I love our worship services, but even on the rare occasions that I spend one in the pews, I never totally relax into the experience; I’m too busy thinking about how to coach the Worship Associate for next time, and whether the second hymn was really an appropriate choice, and how I need to call the man who talked about his sister’s death at Caring and Sharing. I am technically a member of the congregation I serve, and it means a great deal to me as a participant as well as a leader, but when it comes to certain very vulnerable areas of my spirit, it is my chapter that is my chapel and my church.

I do have other sources of spiritual support besides the chapter retreats. Probably the most important is a monthly reading and reflection group for female UU clergy in my area. We are basically a covenant group, with a tight structure, a regular meeting time and place, readings selected to inspire rich conversation, check-ins, and a wide-open door. (If anyone wants to know how to create something like this in their area, I’d be happy to talk about it—e-mail me at parishmin AT uucpa DOT org.) We make a high priority of being there, and we model going deep. It is almost always one of the most important conversations of my month, and it never fails to leave its tender mark on my spirit.

Are these satisfactory? Are these enough? I’m not always sure. Even if I do meet my spiritual needs through chapter worship, my women’s group, and other means—my relationships with my wife and daughter, my friendships, my spiritual practices of making art and reading poetry—there is another concern.

To do my job, I need to understand what brings people to a religious community. And yet, here I am, always an outsider, with community aplenty but none that is exactly a Unitarian Universalist church. Do I remember what it is like to be a member of a brick-and-mortar, worshipping-every-Sunday congregation? If not, it can’t be helped, for any of us. But we can fill the gaps as best we can: through groups like the ones I’m in, through participation (however sketchy or clandestine) in a community such as the Church of the Larger Fellowship or a neighboring church, even through communities with very different purposes than a church’s. (The Rev. Steve Edington once wrote an illuminating essay on what he had learned about church from his volunteer work on the planning team of Lowell, Massachusetts’, annual Jack Kerouac festival, and for my part, I learned a lot about religious communities from my experiences in an online Harry Potter fan group—I’ll write them up one day.)

In other words, we need to belong to religious communities not only to keep moving forward on our own spiritual journeys, but to equip ourselves to lead religious communities.

-Rev. Amy Zucker Morgenstern

After 15 years in ministry, Amy is still a little stunned with gratitude that she gets a paycheck for work that affords her so much growth and inspiration. (Parenthood, marriage and artmaking are even more fulfilling. But she doesn’t get paid for those.)  Amy graduated from Harvard Divinity School in 2000, did her parish internship in Middlebury, VT, and has served our congregations in Rutland, VT, and, since 2003, Palo Alto, CA. She blogs about ministry, art, politics, and other matters at sermonsinstones.com.

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,

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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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how can I know another’s heart?

This is a post guest-written by a friend, Mandie, who shares her own experiences and perspectives about abortion in response to this post.  For more of Mandie’s words about parenting, faith, and life in general, go here.
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I volunteer as an escort at a local women’s health clinic that twice a week provides abortions. My job is to shepherd women into the clinic — walking them from their cars to the door and making small talk to help drown out the shouts of the protestors.
Even after weeks of this, I never quite know what to say. Every word of chit-chat seems crass when I know how wrenching the decision to end a pregnancy can be. And even for the women who are confident that they are doing the right thing, walking through protesters into that clinic, knowing the social stigma that awaits them when they return to the world, is just plain hard.
 

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One cold Saturday morning, I arrived at the clinic before the doors were unlocked. The protesters were already setting up with their thermoses full of coffee, their rosaries at the ready. Idling in the pull-up driveway was an old, boxy sedan full of people.In the front seat were a man and woman looking to be in their 40s, heads bent toward each other, talking softly. Crammed in across the bench seat in the back were four exuberant children, who appeared to range in age from about 3 to 9.

As I walked up to try the clinic door, the woman got out and the car drove off. Since the door wasn’t actually open yet, we had to stand there for a few minutes, waiting, with the eyes of the protestors upon us, as cold as the air.

“I’m sure this looks really great,” the woman mumbled, “me coming here with my kids.”

Oh, Honey.

My heart nearly burst with sorrow for her — sorrow that she had to make this choice, sorrow that she felt ashamed and unsafe even with me, whose job it is to be supportive of her and protect her from those who would shame her.

I wished I could wrap my arms around her, that I could take her cold hand in mine and pass on to her the love and compassion I was feeling. Instead, all I could do was look at her and say, “Honey, I am SO not judging you.”

How could I know another’s heart? How could I imagine the circumstances surrounding her decision? Without that knowledge, how could I possibly judge her?

What must have brought her to this place?

Did she look at two lines on a plastic stick and cry because she and her husband were already barely able to care for the four living, breathing, children full of personality and love that they already had, because while another baby would fill her with joy, it would leave them without the resources to care for any of them?

Did she cry because she was physically and emotionally exhausted by the demands of motherhood, and another pregnancy — another baby, another child — would be a burden too great to bear, would break her completely, and leave her family without the glue they so desperately needed to hold them all together?

Maybe she stands here next to me after facing the choice between carrying her pregnancy to term and leaving all of her young children without their mother, or terminating the pregnancy before it was much begun?

Maybe she rejoiced at the positive result and eagerly attended all of her prenatal appointments until the day the doctors told her that her baby was severely malformed and would almost certainly be stillborn if the pregnancy continued.

Did she think everything through again and again, agonizing over it until she finally decided on what she felt was the best option in the worst situation?

Abortion providers screen their clients with paperwork, watchful for warning signs of coercion. They ask women to check yes or no for a variety of questions, and one is “This is my only option.” How many women check that box knowing full well that the other options available to them are few, and none will truly help?

This woman standing next to me, with cold hands and warm eyes, what will she face when she leaves this place, a little relieved but also broken-hearted? Denial that she could be experiencing Post-Abortion Stress Syndrome, a condition that doesn’t actually exist because, after all, women are no more likely to suffer emotionally after an abortion; after all, a fetus isn’t a person, isn’t worth mourning. A mouthful of shame and attempt to convert her into another weapon of anti-choice protest, because after all, she is living proof that abortion hurts women, so she should try to prevent others from making the same choice she made; after all, if there’s no choice, there’s no pain.

Who will see her as the woman, the human being, that she is? Who will respect her decision and her pain?

Perhaps if abortion weren’t so stigmatized in the first place, if so many lines weren’t drawn in the sand, if women weren’t made into political pawns by this debate, she wouldn’t be quite so emotionally scarred. Perhaps she would feel safe telling her story, and allowed to heal without losing her identity.

A final note from Mandie: If you would like to speak to someone about your experience after abortion, or if you are considering abortion and would like spiritual counseling without moral judgments, you can contact Faith Aloud for free and confidential counseling by phone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last week, we watched what has become a winter tradition for us: The Snowman, Dianne Jackson’s beautifully rendered adaptation of the Raymond Briggs picture book.  I remember the movie from my own childhood–I first saw it in school, and I loved it immediately.  I am among the least musical people I know, but the score remained in my head so completely that in hearing it again as an adult I felt, for a moment, what it was like to be seven, watching a filmstrip with my chin on my desk and a gum eraser in my hand.  There is nothing flashy about the animation or the story, but it’s captivating anyway (as demonstrated by the complete, and completely uncharacteristic, stillness of my sons as they watched).

The next part of this story contains some spoilers, so if those will detract from your Snowman experience, watch this first.  Then, in 26 minutes, continue reading.  We’ll wait.

Ready?

This hopefully isn’t a great shock, but The Snowman is a movie about an ephemeral relationship.  The friendship between the boy and the snowman is deeply special; indeed, we sense that it has been profoundly transformative for both.  (Certainly this is so for the boy, but could the snowman have existed without a boy who believed enough to create him?)  But the relationship is also very short; it consists of a single, magical night, after which the snowman melts as the boy is sleeping.  In the final scene the boy, looking grief-stricken, falls to his knees where the snowman last stood, and reaches to place his own scarf on the ground by the snowman’s.  Cue credits.

I think I had forgotten the ending of the movie, and clearly my children didn’t remember it either.  My two-year-old’s face contorted with rage; as is his custom, he then looked for objects to throw.  My five year old, on the other hand, began to cry, and then to sob uncontrollably.  When he could speak, it was to shout, “He’s gone!  The boy loved him, and he’s GONE FOREVER!”  This was followed by, “Why couldn’t he save himself?  He could fly–why wasn’t he smart enough to fly to Antarctica?”

We talked about this a bit, and I wondered aloud if the snowman chose not to leave because he was exactly where he was supposed to be–in the yard where the boy had made him, keeping watch until the morning.  Perhaps he stayed because he belonged to the boy, and nowhere else?  Ren responded angrily, “Then he shouldn’t have made him!  This shouldn’t have happened!”  Valid points, both.  And that is where we left the conversation.  But it is not where I left my thoughts, as I dried my own eyes (disclaimer: I have been known to become teary, in my adult life, during Disney movies, commercials for Johnson & Johnson products and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and while reading Because of Winn-Dixie aloud to my third-graders)  and continued with the day.

The movie, and the resulting discussion, were particularly poignant for me last week–and still are, actually.  Ren’s questions touch on some things I have been wondering about, and even wrestling with, myself.  As much as I’d like to think I’m doing this in a mature, adult way, there is wisdom in the honest questions of a five-year-old.  Further, as I try to come to terms with truths I’d prefer not to acknowledge,  it is true that I sometimes talk to God like a kindergartner having a tantrum.    What, I demand, is the value of having something special in our lives, only to lose it?  How should we be in the face of impending loss?  (And really, don’t all of our relationships occur in that context?  How easily we forget it, though–and so the stakes feel different when we are truly aware that grief is looming.)

This is something I’m thinking about in the context of two examples–one personal, one congregational/denominational.  I will talk about the personal one today, and save the congregational discussion for its own post.  [In advance, a small warning: like The Snowman, this first story involves an ending, this time of a life, that is not what any of us would have preferred.]

Today would have been the 37th birthday of a friend I knew for a very short time.  I met Jamie in September, 2010, as she artfully balanced parenting a lively and adorable four-year-old, doing articulate and enthusiastic outreach through a blog that touched hundreds and possibly thousands of followers, and completing intensive treatments for metastatic breast cancer.  Jamie died on March 29, 2011.  She died as she lived–surrounded by a close network of family and friends, connecting with the people and things that were important to her.  She had a smile that could light up a stadium paired with a personality that made you feel like you were the only one in the room. Though at times her frustration and weariness were clear, Jamie embraced the calling that she felt to tell her story and used it to connect with and better the lives of others.  (to read more about this, in Jamie’s own words, go to her website, LovingPink.com, and scroll down for the link to her blog.)

There has never been a moment–truly–from my fear and worry when Jamie first shared her story with me (I got to know her at a time when I had a suspicious lump of my own, and had been referred for biopsy) to my increased fear and worry as her medical journey took a turn for the worse, to the take-your-breath-away sadness I felt at learning of her death, that I have not been glad to have known her.  The example Jamie set of making each day count and connecting with the important things while letting the others go has influenced my thinking and my parenting.  The example her close friends and family set in dealing with her advancing illness has changed my thoughts about how we handle death.

There is another truth, though: from the time that I met her, I kept Jamie at arm’s length.  I was grateful to know her–and terrified of the day when I wouldn’t.  From the beginning, and with as much foreknowledge as any of us can have, this was a time-limited relationship–one destined to be much, much shorter than I would have liked.   And I dealt with the terrible weight of this knowledge by keeping my heart away, to the extent that I could.

I interacted with Jamie virtually rather than actually.  When I did see her in person, I kept it short.  I am embarrassed and saddened to say that there were times when I’m not sure I even looked her in the eye.  We had children of a similar age at the same school, and in the fear and sadness and guilt that I felt at the reality of what was happening to Jamie and her family, it was easier to look at the wall, or the ground, or the fish tank.  I turned my eyes away rather than suffer the pain of truly seeing her beautiful face, rather than taking the risk of truly connecting.

I know that Jamie saw this.  Amazingly–mercifully–I also know that she forgave it.  Once, as I stammered through introductions at the school picnic shortly after learning that my own lump was a benign cyst, she put her hand on my arm, and said, simply, “It’s ok . . . it’s ok.”  In the expansiveness of her generosity of spirit, she allowed me a modicum of dignity even as I failed to grant the same to her.

This relationship changed me for the better even as I failed to be fully human within it.  I regret that failing.  I regret it for Jamie . . . and I regret it for myself.  I guarded my heart, and I missed out on some of the treasures of the present moment . . . for what?  To avoid pain?

If we are to truly live, pain is inevitable.  Suffering was always going to be part of this situation; I could have done nothing to change this truth.  And I know–I knew it profoundly from the moment that I met her–that I would never choose not to have known Jamie.  So the question is, what is left . . . now . . . after . . .  (and isn’t the problem with the ending of a relationship that there is so very much “after” to be dealt with)?  

As best I can work out, my task now is to continue to learn from Jamie’s example, and to wish that I had been willing to know her more fully, whatever that might have brought.  May I honor her memory by doing the hard work–the work of truly connecting–to turn that wish into reality each day.

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Jamie Barkes Pursley

Which brings us back to the Snowman, and to the part of this that connects to congregational life.  Stay tuned.

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