shut up and swim (the Gospel according to Luke)

I went to the ELCA church in my town this past Sunday, and walked inside in a spirit of relieved anticipation.  I was expecting, I think, to have my “needs” met exactly . . . so it disturbed me to discover that the confession of sins had been reduced to a perfunctory paragraph at the very beginning of the service, the words to the Lord’s Prayer updated (leaving me muttering about forgiving trespasses and proclaiming power and glory forever and ever while others spoke staidly of sins and times of trial), and the cadences altered for the call and response portions of the liturgy.

Nevermind that this isn’t my church anymore, and hasn’t been for more than a decade.  Nevermind that I don’t make myself part of the community here—in fact, I don’t think I know a soul these days—support the church financially in anything but a perfunctory way, keep in touch or engage in any of its work.  I want this institution to stay right where I left it, how I want it, so that I can come back and take what I need.

Predictably, the institution is failing to cooperate.  I am disappointed.

So disappointed, in fact, that on Sunday I considered leaving, mid-service—not out of pique, exactly, but because I was suddenly very sure that sitting through this not-what-I–expected thing was not a good use of my time.  Unwilling to climb over my neighbors or make the walk of shame down the center aisle, however, I finally committed myself to a further 40 minutes of unhelpfulness . . . and there I sat, resigned and sort of bored, until we got to the Gospel reading.

It was the one from Luke 9—(verses 9:52-61) in which Jesus refuses to allow those who would follow him to so much as say goodbye to their families or bury their dead.  Not only does he refuse to grant his followers even these small mercies– he condemns their inclinations, saying, “no one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit to enter the kingdom of God.”

I was glad to have a chance to unpack these verses a bit more, as they have always troubled me: this is Jesus we’re talking about.  What kind of love looks like this?  And honestly, these demands seem not just unloving but . . . sort of crazy.  Uncomfortable, yes, but also potentially damaging.  And personally, I tend to follow only reasonable-sounding instructions (reasonableness TBD by yours truly).

I was mulling this over as we heard, in the children’s story, that it’s hard to follow Jesus—he asks so much of us, and he means come right now; abandon all that you were doing, thinking, and planning and trust instead in me.

That means leaving.  That means loss.  Which of you would agree to that?  What say you, little people?  What think you, big ones?  It’s hard, right?  But, not to worry—Jesus gives us other things when we follow him.  Jesus gives us so much that we don’t even miss what we left behind.  (Patently untrue, this last part, and I felt a blog post brewing—why must we lay words of sacrifice before our children only to smooth them over in a neat little lie?  I think I would have had one composed by the end of the service; perhaps you’d be reading it right now . . . but then the sermon came, and it knocked me right on my butt.)

The assistant pastor’s name is Jennifer Kiefer.  Rev. Kiefer is young, my age.  She sings beautifully, leads worship calmly, and shared a bit about the story of her call to ministry with us all when I dropped in for the Ash Wednesday service.  I was interested to hear her preach, and I don’t know what I was expecting, exactly . . . but not this.

Rev. Kiefer retold that story from Luke, highlighting the unreasonableness of it all.  (That’s what I’m saying, girlfriend!)  And then she shared how she’s been thinking of these challenging verses, and what they mean for an ongoing struggle in her life: the need to be in control, or at least to feel like she is.  I recognized a few of her personal examples—it’s that way, isn’t it . . . but the challenge didn’t stop there.

Rev. Kiefer invited us to consider for ourselves how the desire for control manifests in our own lives, and what we might be dishonoring as we cling to what feels safe—as we put a hand to the plow but then look back.  She encouraged us to reflect upon who we might be hurting as we thrash about like fish on a line, when we move to turn back when ultimately we have no choice but to go forward.  And then she called on us to look at what we might be fighting against in a new way—to acknowledge the scariness, and then to name it differently.

Some people find meaning in using other language for God (how well I know it, sister), and one of the most interesting terms I’ve heard is “The Place.”  That never resonated with me, until thinking about what it might mean to give up control.  About where we might find ourselves.  About why that is so scary—because when we move forward, we lose things, and we step, however briefly, into a vacuum.  That emptiness can be terrifying.  It can be painful.  We can find ourselves in a hurting, lonely place. 

Rural landscape in Poland

What if that place—the vacuum, the emptiness, and even the painful parts—what if that is The Place?  The only place we can be, the place where we are, and our task is to live into that space, let go of our need to control it or have it be different, and find ourselves and God there, just as it is.  What if we did that, in faith?  What if we put a hand to the plow, and moved forward, not because it’s what we planned, or thought we wanted, or what makes sense to us . . . but because we’re putting our trust in The Place?  It will be what we need . . . when we are willing to find ourselves where we are called to go. 

This might be obvious to anyone who reads this blog, but friends, I have looked back.  I have done more than look–I have tried to leave the plow entirely.  I have argued about the need for tilling in the first place.  I may, in fact, have attempted to sell the plow for parts.

When things hit as close to home as this message did, I struggle a bit with interpretation.  Has God, acknowledging the mounting evidence, determined that it’s best, in my case, to dispense with subtlety?  Was my need to make meaning so great on that day that I would have heard anything—anything at all—as though it were speaking right to my soul?

I do not know the answer to these questions.

What I do know is that I sat, laughing, through “Lamb of God,” that I cried through communion, and that I left knowing that some things I thought were wrong are actually much, much too right . . . and vice versa.

And then, a couple of days ago, I remembered the first summer I spent as a camp counselor.  I was part of the waterfront staff, which invariably involves a lot of ongoing training, and after one of these sessions our team lead asked if anyone had anything to say.  My hand shot up as I announced, with urgency and enthusiasm, “I have a question!”  Ali looked in my direction, shook her head, smiled, and drawled, to general laughter, “Why am I not surprised?”

I remembered this because “Wait, I have a question!” was my first reaction—my default reaction—to the clarity I felt after church on Sunday.  Astonishing, but true: it is possible to meet even clarity with questions.  In fact, for me it’s actually quite tempting because clarity can be really uncomfortable.  Questions, on the other hand, allow me to spend time merely talking about things; this is less scary, and thus, much more appealing, than simply shutting up and doing them.

Thus, in this case, the “Aha!  I really actually am supposed to trust this,” realization was followed in short order by “Wait–trust what?  Trust whom?  Trust all the time?  And what does “trust” mean, anyway . . . ”  (Yes, my inner self does sound a tiny bit like Bill Clinton on the witness stand.)  I think at one point I was actually going to ask these questions—reasoning, perhaps, that this might keep everyone, and especially myself, too busy to actually do anything meaningful.

In a small victory for the way of the plow, I did quickly realize that this was ridiculous.  Which led me to muse, on Facebook, whether my calling is actually to ministry, or merely to color commentary about ministry.

That was a joke . . . and yet it wasn’t.

I am beginning to understand that I can jump in and do this work—the work of ministry, the work to be where I am, the commitment to allow myself to fully participate in the process and be changed by it—or I can stand on the sidelines and talk about it.

One or the other.  Choose.  

In this post, my friend Mandie likens this decision to experiencing a brook by sitting by it and trying to understand, or by jumping into the water to experience it firsthand. For Mandie, this says a lot about how we live our UU faith.  For me, right now, it says a lot about how I live into this call.  All the chatter and worry and questions about questions . . . even the pondering—it’s so much sitting by the brook.

I don’t want to sit by the brook anymore.  It’s limiting.  It lacks mission (other than the completely self-serving, “Do not under any circumstances get wet.”)  And it’s not even fun.

I will say that I don’t know what this means yet, or what it looks like, including for Raising Faith.  I’m an extrovert, and I experience writing as a compulsion . . . but I am headed to Chicago in a few days–spending the rest of the month there, in fact–to attend my first set of intensives at Meadville Lombard.  And I’m planning to do some swimming.  Plowing.  Whatever.

Maybe I’ll bring you along.  Or perhaps I’ll discover the beauty of silence.

Or, just maybe, I’ll tell you about it later, a few years from now . . . when I have a sermon to give about a certain few verses from the book of Luke.

j

of Lent, and liturgy, and things that sparkle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My God.  I miss this.  

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

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

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

It feels like an invitation.

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

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

j