Dear prospective UU seminarians (helpful advice. freshly squeezed.)

So.  Something’s calling your name.  And you wonder if that something might be Spirit, and if the way to appease it might be seminary.

If this describes you, your potential future classmates* have put together a list of steps that we feel might be helpful.  And, if they’re not helpful** . . . well, in that case, we mostly thought that they might be humorous.

advice from Religion Man

We recommend (in no particular order) that you:

1. Gather all of the financial resources you have available; if you can liquidate some assets, even better. Place them in the center of a large circle. Light them on fire. Dance around it, singing “We are the flow, we are the ebb,” or other Pagan chant of your choice, while filling out form RSCC-6 detailing financial plans for your future ministry.

2. If you identify as Christian, find a helpful disguise. Wear it each time you visit a church to receive communion.

3. If you identify as non-Christian, find bread of your choice. Next, bring wine. Place them together on an empty table (bonus points: use the scarf you got at GA last year as an altar cloth). Breathe deeply. Practice rolling your eyes in a way that looks worshipful.

4. Tell the story of your life. Tell it again. Now again. When the person listening has either literally perished from boredom, or attempted to slap you senseless, proceed to the next step.

5. Have a breakdown. Or two. Analyse them with friends, family, and fellow seminarians. Extra credit: involve others in your breakdown as it is actually happening. This is best done in public.

6. Return to Step 4. Write it all down. Produce a 1 page summary, a two page extended summary, a four page reflection, an eight page essay, and a 24 page bio with references.

7. Program the number of your minister, therapist, spiritual director, advisor, and every UU clergyperson and seminarian you have ever met into your cell phone. Build safeguards to ensure that you neither butt-dial nor drunk text any of the above.

8. Purchase a graven image of your choice. Options: Large chalice, small chalice, gold chalice, silver chalice, and, new for 2013, a bling-inspired cross/chalice combination.

9. Wear your chalice everywhere you go. If you lose it once, consider it an invitation to question your call to ministry. If you lose it twice, it is an indication that you need to get a chalice tattoo.

10. Buy 2 new bookcases. And a reading chair and a stand-up desk. Make that 4 bookcases. Or 8. And a smart phone. And a kindle. And a macbook. And an ipad.

11. Join weight watchers in anticipation of the 10-20 or more extra pounds you’ll gain from stress eating and lack of exercise.

12. If partnered, begin preparing him/her for the transition to ministry. Spend Saturday evenings wandering around muttering to yourself. Spend Sundays hiding at an undisclosed location. Find random people to call, e-mail, and/or text you at all hours of the day. Move date nights to Tuesday afternoons.

13. Assist your partner in locating a therapist or spiritual director of their own. Keep the professional’s number posted in a prominent location. Signs you may need to contact that person: your partner suggests you leave ministry; your partner hums “Enter, Rejoice and Come In” for three days straight; your partner indicates that they are discerning their own call to ministry. (This last scenario should be considered an emergency.)

14. Be sure to be responsive to your partner’s needs. This is a stressful and demanding time for them, too. Consider adding “It sounds like you’re feeling” to the beginning of each and every sentence. For serious household disagreements, “That’s not how polity works” should be sufficient to end the argument.

15. Be as vague as possible with your loved ones when talking about the formation process. CPE is best explained to a concerned spouse or partner in the midst of your first 24-hour on-call shift.

16. Sprinkle your speech and writing with acronyms. Be cagey about their referents. When asked to explain one you’re not sure about, simply substitute words that sound good. (The Regional Sub-Committee on Commissioning? The Regional Standing Commission on Credentialing? No one else knows, either.)

17. Attend a gathering of robed clergy. Covet their vestments: the gravitas-granting robes, the hand-painted silk stoles, the chalice medallions large enough to be made out from the back of the sanctuary… Now open a new savings account and add another line to your household budget. (You can replace the Retirement Savings line with the Clerical Accoutrements line — you won’t be saving any more for retirement in the foreseeable future anyway.)

18. Prepare a response to the questions, “You’re in seminary? (be alert for possible alternate phrasing: “You’re in cemetery?”) What denomination? What is THAT?” Keep answers as short as possible. Under no circumstances may your response begin with, “How long have you got?”

19. “Borrow” a hymnal. Mentally pledge to return it. Should you actually follow up on that pledge, remove all post-it notes, dust, and coffee stains. (On second thought, plan to gift a hymnal or two to your home congregation upon your ordination.)

20. Begin writing sermons. With over 600 to deliver in an average-length ministerial career, you’re going to need them.

Best wishes!

j and friends

*Thanks to Alix Klingenberg and Sara LaWall for sharing their wit and wisdom.  If the other contributors to this lovely list would like to be (dis)credited outright, message me.

**your potential classmates, also potential future colleagues, are wonderful and warm-hearted, and many of them have offered legitimately helpful suggestions as well.  That list comes next.  But first, we laugh.   And perhaps that’s the best tip of all: humility and humor are prerequisites.

the interdependent web(s in our garage)

The other day as I buckled Si into his carseat, he declared, “I like ‘pidahs!” This surprised me; of late, anything that evokes a mere suggestion of 8 legs or skittery movement–things that could represent “spider” only to my son and to Joan Miró–tends to elicit screams and frantic hops from my toddler.

I accept as part of my daily ration of mommy guilt that I somehow Did This.  Confined spaces, public speaking, and spiders; I regard these things with equal parts horror and awe, and in the last example I can only assume I have transmitted those feelings to my child.  In fact, spiders frighten me so much that I have overcome my aversion to killing them. Psychologically, it feels much, much worse to have seen one and wonder where it has gone (and when it might come back to crawl on me) than to simply grab a tissue, take a deep breath and have done with it.  In my semi-conscious worldview, spiders are to be respected but never trusted, and must die or accept voluntary repatriation to the outside if I see them.  So, perhaps it should not have come as a shock that the next statement out of Si’s mouth was, “I like to ‘mash them and ‘tomp on them.”

It was a surprise, though–the cavalier brutality of preschoolers (or is it that of little boys?) always is.  I climbed plenty of trees growing up, but I also liked dresses and dolls and playing quietly with my sister; my two boys, despite my having carried and birthed them and regarded them each day in wonder, remain something entirely Other.  Parenting them is not unlike a hostile takeover: I look around what formerly was simply my house–my life–and discover that things have been retitled and repurposed, as have I.  And I continue to wait for the inevitable adjustment: does their play need to be this wild?  Must their voices be so loud?  Need my every possession become a direct object of verbs so active I worry that our walls may not survive them?  They will change, or I will, or we will continue our mutual wearing-down of one another until college (them) or medication (me), or both.  In the meantime, they–particularly my younger son–manifest a delight in destruction that is a bit unsettling.

Where those destructive urges are applied to other living things, I feel I must draw a line, one that takes into account not just behavior, but ethics.  And sometimes–now I wonder just how often–I use off-the-shelf Parent Theology to do it.  “Are you taking good care of God’s creatures?” I ask my two-year-old.  I am not sure how it started, but I continue to ask this particular question in large part because it’s highly effective.  Five-year-old Ren invariably looks abashed and then calibrates his movements oh-so-carefully, lest he further disturb part of the Lord’s menagerie.  (I have to say, I love this reaction.  Actual worry about other living things, whether it’s motivated by concern for the creatures’ lives or out of fear that God might be looking down and frowning, seems to lessen the odds that the children are on the road to sociopathy.  Which . . . well . . . sometimes we wonder.)  There are evidently limits to the question’s power, however.  My wily toddler regards me seriously for a moment, then announces, “Imma tell God not to put ‘pidahs in our garage!”

Fair enough.  And this statement addresses a conflict that I have a hard time reconciling myself: how should we deal with the place where my space and someone (something) else’s overlap?   As Unitarians, we believe in a just allocation of resources, which we sometimes explain to our children as, “one for you, and one for me.”  When we’re talking about people and cans of food, this makes perfect sense.  When we’re talking about my house and the ravenous colony of sugar ants that invades it every spring, it makes no sense at all . . . except that, sometimes, I still feel like it should.  I put off calling the exterminators until everything sweet has been thrown away or banished to the freezer, and when Dmitri finally comes, I feel terrible.  “You have to get the eggs,” he explains.  He has a friendly smile, a slight accent, and two kids my own children’s age, and I forget for a moment that we are talking about poisoning things.  “We’ll just spray the colonies under the downspouts–they won’t be able to save the eggs.”  Eggs?  They’re going to try in vain to save their eggs?  I must look horrified; Dmitri puts a hand on my arm and says, “You do not have to give to them the house.  They have other places to be living.  This is yours.”

And so it is.  And sometimes maintaining this place of ours involves poisoning other living things.  (Of course, this is true, and it’s not limited to ants and the clear chain of events between my calling the exterminator and their deaths–how many of the things we use, enjoy, or do in and around our home involve a cost in lives of other creatures?)  That I know this and sometimes think about it doesn’t mean that I believe we indeed ought to give our house to the ants.  Nor are we vegetarians, and there is plenty in our home that is neither free-trade nor fair-trade, possibly in the most damaging sense of that phrase.  We accept tradeoffs each day, and we try to educate ourselves and to do better when we know better.  Thinking about the ants, however, brings an awareness that it’s hard to answer my children’s questions around the choices that we make in this area while simultaneously trying to instill in them a code of ethics based on concern for others, and for the interdependent web of all life (that would be UU principle number 7, for those following along at home).

The larger problem then, where moralizing to my offspring is concerned, is that this “caring for God’s creatures” standard is either arbitrarily applied or impossible to meet.  It’s easy enough to trot it out when I feel concerned by my children’s behavior, but try living by it yourself.  Ren has his own version of the question, though his tends to be voiced as an exclamation: “That was a LIVING. THING!”  This phrase–generally howled by a small person laid prostrate at the murder of one or more members of phylum Arthropoda–is the bane of Montessori parents everywhere.  I mean, we love that they teach respect for all living things–but do we really have to mean “all?”  Literally, all of them?  What would that sort of respect look like?  And how do we balance it with the other realities of our lives, for example the desire to eat bananas unsullied by fruit fly eggs or to shower in the basement bathroom without reenacting scenes from Arachnophobia?

Clearly, I do not have answers for these questions.  For the time being, we do the best we can in each moment to reason clearly, and to talk with Si and Ren in a way that makes our reasoning plain.  Or we do, sometimes.  In other moments, it seems so much simpler to borrow the voice of God and issue proclamations–Take Care of My Creatures–that are rule and explanation both.

Perhaps our real religious commitment is not to reach a particular conclusion about ants or spiders, but to continue to wrestle with the questions, and to do it in front of and alongside our children.  This is a struggle, to be sure, but perhaps in our children themselves we have the best equipment possible.  Mine can spot spiderwebs, and hypocrisy, from 100 paces.

toward a hands-on sort of faith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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