A Letter to a New Minister (Kendyl Gibbons, on the occasion of my ordination)

 

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My dear Jordinn,

You are to be congratulated for your courage, if nothing else, in thus affording me yet one more opportunity to offer you instruction, just in case all my prior efforts now appear to me to have borne insufficient fruit. Particularly in a context that precludes you from contesting either the accuracy of my observations or the wisdom of my insights. On your head be it!

[Editor’s note- this blog is so handy for contestations of all sorts . . . . 😉 ]

I hold it a great honor to be invited to recall you, and us, from the elevation of this occasion, with all its festive trappings and warmth of affection for you as a friend, colleague, and blossoming minister, to consider the deeply serious nature of today’s undertaking.

Even though such gatherings as these are indeed, as our colleague Mark Belletini describes them, “high play,” they are not all fun and games. What we have just done, with your assent, is to lay upon you a mark, a burden, and a gift. It is my task to see to it that the mark is indelible, the burden is well grasped, and the gift is seen to be precious and sacred.

By designating you an ordained minister in the living tradition of the free church, we have marked you out as a person worthy of trust and authority. We have invited our fellow Unitarian Universalists in particular, and the world in general, to look to you for institutional leadership, personal integrity, and a compassionate presence.

You are no longer a merely private person, but a public, living witness to the claims of this faith, and to the duties of the vocation that you and I now share.   How you conduct your life, no less than what you preach and teach, reflects upon the credibility of this movement, and this profession. Today that mark may seem to you, and to all of us, a joyful honor, but the time will come when you will find it irksome to be endlessly on display as a model of the demanding values we espouse, and you will understand why this is a matter of solemn vows.

I charge you to remember the love and trust in which we bestowed this office upon you, and to fulfill the covenant you have made in the name of all that is holy.

I know that you understand the burden of ministry, to be present to the distress of the world without panic, or denial, or becoming indifferent and numb. People will bring you the pain of their losses and despair, their failures and finitudes, their broken hearts and broken dreams, hoping that you can help them to find courage and strength to keep believing in the possibility of new life.

You will see the dysfunction of relationships and institutions, as well as the injustices and tragedies of the world, and yearn to give healing. Inevitably, you will be profoundly aware of your own limitations, and feel inadequate to these demands, for in truth, you are.

We all are.

You cannot fix, or save, the world; you cannot fix or save another person. All you can do, all any of us can do, is to bring that pain and despair into a place of compassionate attention and truthful witness, which is where all healing starts.

The power of transformation lies not in your intelligence or resourcefulness, but in the creative energy of the universe, which is always and everywhere present, though we are so often blind to it. You must not try to absorb into your own heart the distress that you meet with in others; you must – believe me, now; I know you know this; you must – have a practice that enables you to ground that anxiety and sorrow in the larger life of all that is, in God, by whatever name you may know it.

That is your task — to be the one who is not crippled by the awareness of all the hurt in the world; who knows where to go for sustenance; who can stand in the presence of oppression and fear and heartache and let it run through you to an ultimate, infinite source where it can do no harm. I charge you to have a vibrant, enduring relationship with that source, which will allow you to remember that you are not god; you, and your work, are a strand in the web, not the web, nor yet the weaver.

Of course, none of us would undertake these formidable duties if the calling of ministry were not also a priceless gift.

You have been summoned to live as if everything you do matters, and to stand with your fellow human beings in the most significant, sacred, and – to give an over-used phrase its actual meaning – truly awesome moments of their lives. You are expected to ponder the deepest questions of the human condition, and people will await your conclusions eagerly, hoping to find guidance for their own perplexities.

All that is most tender and precious in the unfolding of our common experience you are meant to share, and celebrate, and give voice. I promise you, if you will live it out faithfully, there is no more fully human existence than the vocation of ministry. I charge you to rejoice in the privilege of this office, to embrace its generous opportunities for creativity and community, for meaning and service and on going spiritual growth.

We have marked you out for service; remember to be the servant not of our desires, but of the holy purposes of love, truth and righteousness.

You have taken up the burden of the world’s sorrows and suffering; do not seek to carry it by your own strength alone.

Be assured that however great your struggle with your own finitude, the truly important work is not about you.

And take joy in the deep wells of shared meaning and growth that the calling of ministry opens to you.

Thus I charge you on this auspicious day, and welcome you into the community of those whose lives are given to the service of the most high.

May the bright promise of this hour be fulfilled in many years of fruitful ministry.

Bless you, dear one, and all those you will touch in faith for the rest of your days.

-Kendyl

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The Reverend Dr. Kendyl Gibbons is the Senior Minister of All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in Kansas City, MO, the 2015 recipient of the Humanist of the Year Award from the UU Humanist Association, and a beloved mentor and teaching pastor to 26 Unitarian Universalist seminarians across four decades. 

anger: a love story

I love my friends and my family.  They are amazing, creative, funny, loving people.

And, like me, they are imperfect.  They make mistakes.  They have done things, sometimes, that were hurtful, or offensive, or inconsiderate . . .

and I have felt angry.  

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Now, I don’t mean the kind of anger that sustains us to work against deeply unjust situations–the anger that allows us, even in dangerous places, the courage to confront, the vision to imagine a world that is otherwise, and the space to heal.

I’m talking about anger as a drug.

Anger that says, first to me and then through me, that there is a price that must be paid for the pain that I feel.  And which insists that in the meantime, the rest of our relationship must wait.  In suspended animation.  Until you do what you’re supposed to do.

Holding that anger made me tired.  Waiting left me miserable.  Imagine my relief, then, at the discovery that I could simply choose a different way of being.

At first, several months ago, that choice felt revolutionary.  Now, though, it feels like freedom.  It feels like friendship.

It feels like love.  

Which sorta begs the question: why didn’t I try this before?

And friends, there are many reasons why I should have: because it’s morally right.  Because to hold a grudge is to take poison and wait for your enemy to die. Because to forgive is divine.  Because . . . Jesus.

And yet, in the heat of the moment, there seemed to be only one way that things could go: the angry way.

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Why is it so hard to change things?

Perhaps part of the answer lies in scripting.  This is one term for the social patterns that our brains and central nervous systems use to shorten our response time.  Scripting is necessary–without it, each encounter would be a blank slate, and we would be slow to react and vulnerable to misunderstanding or manipulation.  The device, however, is not without its pitfalls, and we often may not even realize we’re using it.

In some situations, in fact, the script may run counter to all of our conscious intentions.  In this type of interaction, I’m not at all happy with the way we’re talking, and neither are you, but even so, we can’t seem to find a way out.

This difficulty can happen anywhere our sense of identity is on the line. The reality, however, is that some relationships are particularly ripe for unquestioned scripting.  Consider, for example, the well-trod trails, heavily loaded with baggage, that connect mothers and daughters, or siblings, or spouses.

Sometimes the script is so old—we know our lines by rote—that we don’t even try to find another way to engage.  Maybe it’s the only way we’ve ever learned to talk with one another.  Maybe the interaction is feeding us even as it damages—meeting a need to feel important, to say our piece, to defend our boundaries.  Maybe the hook is simply the adrenaline high of conflict.

Those same things are true of the script inside my head about How I Shall Act When Angry.

I have been deeply hooked into a particular way of being: Feel aggrieved.  Demand response.  Wait in anger until response received.  Punish other party with dark thoughts and aloof behavior.

Has this worked well for me?

Not exactly.  In fact, it reminds me of the scene in the first Harry Potter book in which Hermione announces that she hasn’t been speaking to Harry and Ron, and they respond, laughing: “Don’t stop now—it’s been doing us so much good!”

And so, a question decades in the making: what happens if I simply stop acting as a willing hostage to my anger?

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Not because I’m restraining myself, or holding my tongue, or saving it for later—what if I do something else because on the whole, it feels better?  

What if I do something else because I recognize, even in anger, that we are both human, and this is part of what that means?  

What if I do something else simply because I can?

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I am calling this the Happiness Option, and in practice, it can be summed up with one simple phrase: “In the Meantime, Be Nice.”

Truly, it felt odd at first.  It’s like exercising an underused set of muscles.

It hasn’t, however, felt bad—not in the moment, and not later.  Actually, it feels good to connect with joy, delightful to indulge my helping impulse, and freeing to step outside of the “angry” script.

And this immediate gratification is just the beginning.  I’ve discovered that ditching the misery script also yields benefits for the long term:

  • I’m clearer about where I stand in my relationships.

  • I get to spend less time apologizing, less time feeling badly, and less time worrying about having caused further damage.  (In fact, lately I have had to spend zero time doing any of the above.  This is noteworthy.)

  • I am better situated to identify the problems that actually matter—which are a real slight to life and truth, and which—the vast majority—are merely a slight to my ego.

  • I have access to creativity and the sense of Spirit that comes in calm moments, and I can use both to choose when and how to respond to particularly thorny issues.

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Wow?

Indeed.  This, my people, is news I can use.  And so I keep flexing these muscles, and wondering if this practice—indignation back burner, niceness front—might just be pointing me to a deeper truth, and to a lastingly different way of being.

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This might have remained merely a series of small experiments; I’m in no hurry here, and I have so. many. opportunities to practice.  But, life being what it is, I recently got to take the Happiness Option for a test drive in a situation in which it mattered, bigtime.

Picture a sometimes challenging relationship, and not one I can simply break off.  Imagine, now, an emotionally weighted subject.  A sense of personal affront.  An explicit questioning of motives.  And the involvement, and invocation, of family ties.

Kindling on a pyre, my friends.

It was, in short, exactly the kind of conversation in which I hate to find myself.

In other words, perfect for this experiment.  And predictably, that initial exchange did not go well.

Misunderstanding occurred.  Tensions increased.  Voices were raised.  Reciprocal shaming was communicated.

The conversation ended without a clear resolution, and in a way that left neither of us feeling great.  Afterward, my own combination of sadness, frustration, anxiety, and—yes—a healthy portion of righteous anger—begged to be vented.  And yet, the Happiness Option suggested, at least for now, that I not.

Hard?  Yes.  It was.

But even so, I didn’t.  I did not channel my anger into an e-mail missive.  I didn’t plan a long communications strike.  And, smaller but perhaps most noteworthy, I didn’t ignore the overture that my friend made the next day.

That gesture wasn’t an apology, an overt acknowledgment, or a plan to move forward.  It did not, in many ways, Meet My Standards.  But it was a hand extended toward remaining in conversation, even on this particular, very difficult issue—and after a moment to remind my muscles how to move, I reached out and I took it.

We are going to move forward, my friend and I.  We will figure this out together, or individually, or we’ll ignore it and it will be an area where we do not share an understanding.  I am now free, however, as the two of us move toward what the future holds.

In that freedom lies creativity, humility, and love.  And happiness.  Let us not forget happiness.

I took Hebrew Bible this spring at Meadville, and we looked at variations on the biblical canon.  The Catholic canon is more expansive; the Evangelical canon a bit less.  There are a few denominations, however, that hold that canon is still open.  We Unitarian Universalists are among them, and I’m making a conscious choice to live like I believe it.

I’m not writing a love story to anger anymore.  I’m writing one to you.  To us.  And to the sheer, luminous possibility, born of our own generosity, that this day yet contains.

-j

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Thank you, Theresa Soto, for this gorgeous meditation, shared here with permission:

In the Administrative Department of my heart, which is down the hall from Feelings, Major, I wrote down the time you offended me. The clerk, my own silent witness filled out the forms in triplicate. We wrote your name. We added your number. We added the hurt to the Memory Banks, photocopied, indexed (it can also be found in the Time Department, under Times You Forgot that I am able to be cut by paper and burned by wind). We shook our heads at the bitter sharpness of the hurt.

We made the Record of the Hurt. We announced it over the loudspeaker, so no cell, no heartbeat, and no breath would ever overlook the danger you present or the pain that you can bring. And then we were proud of our work. We stood quiet in the halls of Everything, hands in our pockets, and waited.

But Human still we both remain. And while we were Recording, in the most accurate, photorealistic way possible, you grew some more, and changed some more, and so did I, and believing the best yet to come, I was surprised to see that no recording of a single moment could reflect accurately on who you are right now. In this moment, different from the last. Some people say that Forgiveness, destruction of the Record, is for my own benefit.

Perhaps. But perhaps I don’t need you to apply to the Department of Sorry, (third floor, two doors down from Master List of Everything Unreasonably Kind) because mistakes are a human condition. There are too many forms and fines and details in the Administrative Apology. I want everything good for you. And for me. And this includes the way we just, as necessary for beings of our kind, begin again. Expungements and refreshments at noon in the Atrium.

Theresa Soto

 

yes, mothers, somebody needs you: to be YOU.

This past week I’ve seen this post again and again.  It seems to strike a needed nerve with some of my facebook friends, and so they share, often with a personal testimonial.

The sharers are some of the weariest among us, the dead-on-their feet mamas of newborns, the waiters-out of nighttime tantrums, the second (or third) shift of a job that never ends.  And what they say is that these words really resonate.

-I was in tears this morning, I felt like I couldn’t do it for one more hour, and then I read this.  

-This is so beautiful.

-This is so true.

As it happens, this post struck a nerve with me, too.  And I can see the beauty in it—I can—but my response came from a different place.  A nuanced place.  A frustrated place.

And so, I shared it with a friend, trying to find words for why those words make the bile rise in my throat every time I see them.  My friend is a mother, and a minister, and someone committed to living life as her full self rather than as the caricature that so often appears as we try to romanticize a “biblical womanhood” for the modern era.

And her response was:  Do you notice that Daddy is nowhere in this reflection?  And also, that fathers never write this?  Why is that, do you suppose?

And why, indeed?  Why is crawling on our knees across the guilt-laden minefields of early parenthood a uniquely feminine pursuit?

I can hear a whisper between the lines of this post: this is what Jesus would do.  And perhaps it is, but I would like to point out to you that Jesus is a man.  Framing self-sacrifice as a uniquely feminine calling thus isn’t inherently Christian—it’s inherently patriarchal.  It demands that women, and women alone, deny not just our bodily needs, but any deep spiritual gift that transcends our parental role.

That demand, my friends, is not beauty.  It’s also not love.  I deeply believe in, and have experienced the love of, a God who sees, holds and accepts me as me—as my beautiful, whole, female self.  A self which is not only or even first or foremost a parent, but also a noticer, a writer, a thinker, a doubter, and a lover.

And these physical parental sufferings, these sleepless nights and tired footsteps that we would hold up as the unique burden of motherhood: It’s not that men don’t experience them.  My husband, God bless him, has been the night ranger at our house for the past two years.  I personally know other men, including at least one of my seminary classmates, who do the same.

And it’s not that men don’t struggle with it.  Parenting, if you’re paying a whit of attention, is really, really hard.  And early parenting, in particular, is also physically exhausting—a marathon run one tiptoed trip down the hallway at a time.

No, friends: it’s that men don’t romanticize the physical exhaustion.  It’s that they don’t define their entire identities based on it, and then pressure one another to do likewise.  And they don’t, so far as I can tell, expect—no, demand—to go it alone, without help, without rest, without question, stopping only after the night ends to pen a ladylike missive about the honor and grace inherent in the soul-crushing demands of early motherhood.

The difference between the male and female approach to parenthood is real–and it matters, particularly for those of us fighting hard to have our words heard, our talents recognized, our lives valued as something meaningful unto themselves.

More women are actively working while parenting.  More fathers are actively parenting while working.  And yet, in 2014, we remain content to leave the emotional side of parenting, and particularly the ravages thereof, as a woman’s burden to bear.  Joy?  Dads will take that.  Guilt?  That’s all you, moms.  And survey says: men are content with this arrangement–and why shouldn’t they be?

What we’re sparing the men isn’t merely responsibility—it’s shame.  It’s the constant self-doubt, analysis, questioning of the long-term outcomes of the smallest possible choices.  It’s the crippling doubt of never-doing-it-well-enough.

What do we get in return?  Why would any of us women voluntarily take this deal?  The answers to this question are complicated and varied, but I think there may be a piece of insight in this story:

I used to work with parents of infants and toddlers as an early childhood educator. I made home visits; my caseload was particularly focused on new babies and working-but-involved fathers.  And one day one of the mothers I worked with told me a very simple story–one I came to hear repeated, in one way or another, several times in the next few years–that both surprised me and chilled my blood.

I went to the grocery store, said Amy, alone for the very first time since Tessa was born.  Jeremy stayed with her, and I knew they’d be ok, but Tessa cried the entire time I was gone!

This story isn’t unusual.  The situation isn’t extraordinary.  What is remarkable, however, is what this mom said next.

-I was glad.  

Seriously.  I smiled gently, used my “go on, please” eyebrows, and Amy added, with touching honesty:

I love it that she needs me.  

My friends, it is so beautifully human to need one another.

But what is it to need to be needed?

And what could help us feel secure enough in our own innate value that we could drop the need-to-be-needed where it exists to the exclusion of another willing and capable parent?

Remember how hard it was to get into a rhythm with breastfeeding?  Or perhaps you were one of the many, many mothers for whom it wasn’t overwhelming love at first sight when you were handed your tiny baby.

If that was you, the odds are you worked together, you and that baby, because that’s what was expected.  You had faith, and the faith of your family and community, of the hospital staff, of your friends, of your parent educator—it surrounded you.  You had all the time in the world, and you bonded.

How much of that time and patience and faith do we lavish upon a new father?  How much tolerance for what initially looks—and feels, to him—like failure?

How much do we want his success if we’re going to define this as “our” arena?

And how is this related to the story we tell ourselves about the sleepless nights of early parenthood?  How does this frame the conversation three years from now when someone needs to choose a preschool?  When someone needs to flex time to make drop off and pick up work?  When someone is pulled to leave a job that s/he loves as the reality of a two-career household begins to cause nerves, and relationships, to fray?

Without a look at what we women expect to own, exclusively, in that beloved title of Mommy, we don’t get to freely discuss any of those things, not really.  In fact, it may not occur to us to even ask for what we need.  For more than we’re getting.  For anything that might make us feel like we’re letting the side down.

The deeper story here isn’t Mommy, Someone Needs You.  

It’s Women, Suck It Up.

That’s an old story, friends, and a tired one.  Personally, I think we can collectively access a bit more creativity here.  In fact, I think we need to.

Without it, whether you’re the parent of a newborn or the writer trying to make sense of the exhaustion–or just struggling to make sense– or a mid-career executive mama whose heart is with a child she’d like to be making cupcakes with, or me: trying to follow a spark of true love through seminary, with the full knowledge that my precious baby nearly died last week while I was down the hall reading, the only answers we hear are echoes of this:

Stay home.  Keep the hall light on.  Keep pacing that floor.

But truly, unfortunately, heartbreakingly, even this small box of an answer won’t protect them.

It feels, though, like it might protect you—if the unthinkable happens, at least we’ll all know it wasn’t your fault.  You were where you were supposed to be.

Alone.  In the nursery.  On your knees.  

I’ve been on my knees, too, for too much of this past week . . . and I am getting back up now.

Yes, somebody needs me. Lots of people, every day.

They need the adult me.  The responsible me.  The vulnerable me.  The honest me.

I have worked too hard, for too long–and standing on the shoulders of my mother and my grandmothers and of their mothers–to deny all that I am.

I contain multitudes.  You do, too.

And don’t you dare call me Mommy.

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Fear and Loathing In These Pages

Sometimes I have so much to say that the limiting factors are time and typing speed.  Sometimes I am so deeply challenged by everything that’s going on that all I could write would be a list of questions.  And then, fortunately not so often, there are times like now.  Blinking cursor times. Image

Times when I avoid even sitting down to write because it’s scary to think of what will happen.

I used to be a spelling bee geek; I’d walk around with a single word in my head for simple love of the sound.  Absinthe. EnnuiMacadam.

I’ve learned words this year, too: eschatology, theodicy, cisgendered–but the word on repeat is much less interesting.  Short, sharp, and familiar–and very, very unwelcome. It’s Can’t.

A big mouth in a small body, Can’t never works alone.  It inevitably brings its best friends, Fear and Doubt.  It’s hard to tell for sure, because I’ve been too scared to take a close look—but at a glance, F & D seem huge.   Gigantic, even.  They are definitely the muscle of the operation.  And I know their game—they don’t just intimidate; they grab and hold tenaciously.  So when they appear, I run and hide.   I even avoid the places they like to hang out.  Blank pages, for example–fear and doubt love white space.

But tonight, I’m writing.

Make no mistake; it’s not because I’m brave.  I’d grant fear & doubt adverse possession of this page in a heartbeat if they’d just leave me alone.  It doesn’t work like that, though.  They are expansionists at heart.  Their version of manifest destiny would leave my life looking something like this:

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So, what does a writer do when fear and doubt threaten to take her down for the count?

Well, if you’re me, first you avoid thinking about it.

50 Facebook quips will fill a single-spaced page. 

Failing that, you simply wait for it to pass.

20 days?  30?  Pay for each with small shards of your soul.

And then you start to wonder if you could simply think of that well-worn “lean in” admonishment, sitting with the butterflies and breathing through the dizziness to Just Do It?

Sure, but buckle up: the worst part comes next.  Fear is prickly and Doubt packs a sucker-punch, but certainty sits, hollow yet heavy, right in the middle of your stomach. 

And then you know: You will never be able to do this.  What were you thinking?  You?

And it’s not just about writing anymore.

It’s about everything—dreaming. Trying. Risking.  This certainty says “Don’t. You. Dare.”

If any of this sounds familiar . . . well, first of all, I’m sorry.  I’m sorry you’re struggling.  And I’m sorry that I don’t have an answer, not for either of us.  The thing I can say—that refrain of liberal religion, perhaps the most saving and relevant and real message any of us has to offer—is this: you are not alone.

It is that message, and a friend brave enough to share it, that helped me; it even came with a lovely cartoon.

And today, that was enough.

And so today, I am taking my words back.

And may tomorrow be a day when neither of us loses them.

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You’re In the (Lord’s) Army Now! UU ministers on moving from “congregant” to “seminarian”

This series of posts arose from a discussion among  Meadville Lombard students about  surprises (some lovely; others less so) that “seminarian” status has brought to our relationships with our home congregations.   The churches we belong to are often full of beloved friends and mentors, and the place where a call to ministry was first voiced and nurtured.  Must we lose our home churches?  These first thoughts are from a minister fresh out of this process: the Rev. Patrick McLaughlin.
Stay tuned for more perspectives.  In the meantime, whether you are a minister, a layperson, or a seminarian yourself, I’d love to hear your take.
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Your relationship with your home congregation starts to change the moment you announce to them that you’re stepping over the congregant-minister line by beginning seminary.This can be strange and unsettling.

I was the newly-former president of the board, deeply embedded and well thought of. I was still on the board, given the governance model (that I helped design and led the implementation of).  In the service where I revealed what I was doing, the reaction was very positive and affirming, but one of the elder members, on the way out through the line, grumbled, “Well, don’t get a big head…“. That was when I started to realize that everything had changed.

In the congregation’s eyes, you have stepped over the line (a line that may have been invisible to you as you started seminary), and are now becoming a minister. You are now an alien creature. And in short order, more and more of the congregation lose track of the becoming part of that. You are a minister. Even if you’re all at sixes and sevens about it, and your grip on your ministerial identity is sketchy, the people who were your fellow congregants don’t necessarily see that, at all.

Seminarians are urged by the UUMA and MFC processes (and even by the demands of seminary) to disengage from lay leadership. You will still engage in work that a lay person might do… but you will do it as a minister. And as you do that, you naturally start to slide out of leadership, and ultimately out the life of the congregation.

Soon, you begin to inhabit a space where the members of your home congregation just experience you as minister. Thus, what you experience is distancing, because you’re encountered and embraced differently. Only your real, personal friends are still (mostly) there as they were before.

“Do you have advice for aspirants/candidates navigating between their home congregations (from which they were called into ministry, usually) and internship and seminary experiences?”

My first advice is to mourn. You’ve just lost your church. Really. In ways that are almost irrecoverable, you’ve lost the church, and in any church you belong to in the future, you’ll always be different from the rest of the congregation. You’ll belong to it, in ways that are deeper, but you’ve lost it, mostly.

You can’t speak freely. And your minister (who is now also your ministerial colleague) is aware that you need to finish crossing the Rubicon. That minister will insist that you live into this new role plus expect you not to “misbehave,”–not to do those things that a lay person might do and get away with, but which are now violations of professional guidelines and codes about how we ministers act and how we treat one another. And so, in a variety of ways: you’re pushed, pulled, dragged, and thrown over that congregant-minister line.  And there is no return.

Do you remember how the process of stepping away from your home congregation worked for you?  How have you honored or maintained a connection with “the place that you came from”?  

Every case is unique. I’d been one of the most active of lay leaders. Search committee, Welcoming Congregation Committee, Building Chair, Committee on Ministry, Board of Trustees — and more. My wife was Worship chair for nearly six years.  So, stepping away was slow, and it was challenging. The first year, I was finishing out the term I’d been elected to on the board. And then, I took on nothing else except what I did as a ministerial student. My family was still very active. I was… there. I’d find myself invited in as a ministerial presence for various functions—but mostly, my task was to figure out how to NOT be an active lay leader, even when and where I so wanted to be. My fingers are flat to this day from sitting on my hands.

Because of the flexibility of Meadville’s part-time program, and my family’s situation and engagement in my home church, we stayed. I just stepped farther and farther away .  .  . and finally, I stepped back entirely. Sort of. With the minister’s support.

This meant more preaching as a minister— and the church made a point of paying me. And later, when my son became the de facto leader of the youth group, I kept the utmost distance (This was not because of him, per se—he was active in urging me to be chaplain for the YRUU summer and winter camps at de Benneville–which I did, and I strongly encourage anyone to do some of that sort of thing at any of our camps). I kept my distance because I didn’t think the congregation could handle and understand the fine lines there. The family remained very engaged, while I became “the minister they were helping grow,” who in the end, would go away.

There was a lot of work involved in educating our congregation around that, as I am the first person to go from that fellowship to seminary, and to be ordained by them. My ordination was one way I honored my congregation. In the meantime, it was a ruthless process of education. By the time of my ordination, we all knew I was going to New Hampshire, so my leaving was part of the charge to the congregation: “Good job. Congratulations! Now let go of this minister, and start the process again with another. That’s your job now.”

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?” 

Ministers DO have ministers; it just doesn’t look quite the same. First, there’s the minister of my home congregation.  Although she’s now a colleague and equal, and there are places I don’t fully agree with her… she’s going to be “my minister” for a long time, in many ways.

I have others who fulfill that role, too. My internship supervisor will remain a mentor. She is someone who’s invested in me, but who I had a more equal relationship with as the intern—that person is a minister, and I was a minister-in-training.

And there are others, some of them retired colleagues—in fact, this sort of support may be their real role now for many of us. They’ve been through all this, and can sit back, chuckle, offer some sage advice–and some utterly obsolete, dated, useless advice, too. But these experienced ministers are utterly capable of embracing the hurt, loss, confusion, success, and joy experiences and understanding them. Of soothing. Of cheering.

Finally, there are a handful of collegial friends one turns to, in part to kvetch and be kvetched to. “You will never believe what my Committee on Ministry chair has done…”.

On the whole, we don’t “have ministers” in the same way, but we have ministers, still. And in some ways, the relationships are deeper.

-Rev. Patrick McLaughlin

Rev. McLaughlin is a recent graduate of Meadville Lombard Theological School and the newly settled minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Manchester, NH. He is a life-long UU who grew up all over the western United States, as well as in Australia and Belgium. He attributes finding the right congregation to good fortune, a red clown nose, and a warped sense of humor.

I love to watch you play: (or, why I will not be homeschooling my 6 year old)

I love to watch you play.

This post explains that these six words might change my life.  A friend shared it on facebook this afternoon, and I almost didn’t click.  I have things to do—that’s, uh, why I’m on the internet . . . (?) —and anyway, how often does Facebook sharing make the “life-changing” claim?  So, friend, you’ll need to specify: are we talking about the kind of life change that occurs when you realize that a coworker eats bacon with his chocolate?  Or is it the kind that means you can Lose Stubborn Belly Fat in 10 Days?

Fortunately, Audra posted just enough to let me know that this really might be relevant to my life.  And, because I like her and trust her judgment, and also because I love a good excuse not to exercise, I clicked.

And now I can tell you that the answer is: this is the kind of change that might make life easier inside my head and inside my house.  And friends, I’m all for easier.  I am a grade-a perfectionist, worrier, and control-freakista, and I can tell you that there is nothing inherently better, or bettering, about “hard”—not when it comes to domestic life.  There’s just the harder and the easier.  The undone, saved for the ideal time, and the done imperfectly.  The days when I wait for the moment of calm and peace, or the feeling that I have things under control (it’s a good thing I don’t actually hold my breath during these waits), and the days when I take it as it comes and dive right into the bedlam.

One of our church teens, and occasional babysitters, remarked the other day, “I am amazed that you and Craig are such calm people when you live with the children that you have.”  I wasn’t sure, initially, whether I felt offended or affirmed.  After a bit of consideration, though, I decided we need to take the truth where we find it—and this observation is Gospel.  In short, my people, my family is not making this look easy.  And that is fine.  Because it is not.

One thorny, knotty, rich-with-possibility-and-frustration, fraught-with-crisis-and-opportunity piece of this: homeschooling and my older son.  I am a licensed teacher.  My field is special education.  Early childhood special education, to be specific.  My son was five when we officially embarked on this experiment, and is what’s known in the business as 2E (that’s twice exceptional, meaning that he demonstrates both giftedness and one or more disabilities).  This arrangement—unfettered exploration, ample time to work on needed skills, project-style delving into passions—might have been perfect.

And yet it has not been, not for Soeren and me.  We have generally had a good relationship, but this change in the structure of our days, and my suddenly very direct responsibility for his learning, has put us on a collision course with one another.  Result: anxiety (both of us), frustration (both of us), yelling (both of us), tears (both of us, but not together).

Let me be very clear: I think homeschooling is a needed option in an increasingly widgetized, unrealistic, Matthew 25:29-inspired system of public schooling.  I particularly believe this for those children who really do march to their own beats.  You know if you have one.  (You know if you don’t have one because you may wonder what’s wrong with those other parents and/or their children.  My own personal journey with the children I have, whom I struggle daily to meet and walk with and honor as they are and as they may become, has persuaded me that “I know better” or “I could do better” is a function of the failure to truly apprehend that “there but for the grace of God.”)  I think that comprehensive, developmentally-appropriate school reform is needed, and I expect to continue to be a voice—probably an ever-stronger voice—for those changes.

In the present moment, though . . . there’s me.  There’s Ren.  There’s our dining table, and a reading book, and enough anxiety and stress between the two of us to power large-scale weather disturbances.

There is so much I want to teach him.  There are so many things I’d like to share.  And maybe someday, I will be able to.  Here at this table.  Formally.  In the meantime, however, I’ve discovered that it feels safe to learn from me only incidentally.

While disappointing and not at all what I expected, homeschooling hasn’t been a disaster.  Following Ren’s cues, and trusting his drive to learn and my own gut, we moved to an unschooling model and have witnessed excitement, growth, and stability in the day to day.  The kids are all right.  And, though visions of academic glory still make my pulse race a bit—in fact, because this is true—I am learning to accept that all right is excellent.  For me, that is.  All right is exactly what I need to learn.

It may not be what Ren needs to learn, though.  And in that case, it is only my pride and my fear standing between him and a different set of experiences.  It is my insistence on being the teacher, the judge, the enforcer, the critic, the cheerleader, and the support person that is making it, at this particular time with this particular child, impossible to fully be any of those.  And it is making learning more scary and stressful—for both of us—than it needs to be.  I choose to believe that something more wonderful than this is possible.

The public school system is an odd place to look for it, but I’m choosing, for this next year, to put my stock in faith and trust and pixie dust—the kind that the right teacher, like Tinkerbell, knows how to manufacture.

And so, I’m going to hand over the reins for a year.  I’m going to stand back.  I’m going to trust our team of professionals.  And I’m going to say, I love to watch you learn.

I give this gift to my child.  I give it to myself.  Ultimately, I give it to our relationship.

And as I commit to do this scary, beautiful, risky thing, I wonder where else this lesson might be useful.  Because it’s not only true for parents, or for credentialed educators, but for we who are invested in helping those around us grow:

Sometimes we have the responsibility to teach.

Sometimes we have the opportunity to learn.

And sometimes we are simply called to witness the miracle of the moment.  We are there to watch it happen, there to honor the journey, there to say the words: I love to watch you play.

What a sacred calling.

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.  🙂

parenting and other cruelties

It’s like this: Silas, a tiny imp at three, hair like a supernova, blue eyes lit with mischief, turns away from my gentle chiding and walks slowly, purposefully, down the hallway.  His newly three-year-old body conveys resolve in its posture, intention in its steps.  He trails one finger along the wall as he walks, pivots, turns the corner at the end.  He disappears.  Si walks away from me, without looking back.  And then he is gone.

And suddenly, in a flash of premature nostalgia, versions of this scene—the rest of his childhood, the rest of our lives—play out, one after another, in my mind.  I lean against the kitchen counter, regard the empty hallway, breathe.

And then Si’s blond head pops back into view as he leans carefully around the corner, catches my eye, grins.  He doesn’t speak as he smiles, but I hear him loud and clear.  Gotcha, Mom! I walked away from you!  

That he can even do this is new—a milestone—a marvel.  And so, this was for show.  Yet I know, and maybe he does, too, on an instinctive level, that every day he is practicing for the real thing.  We both are—blocking and rehearsing for a play I’m not sure I want to be part of.

Here’s the thing: it is freaking terrifying to be a parent.  Like, in any moment in which you’re actually paying attention.  The weight, the risk, the fear.  Sometimes it feels hard to inhale.

Part of this is the knowledge—the fear, and also the certainty—that I’m doing it wrong, all the time.  The crushing thing is that there’s no way to do it right.  I perceive the vague outline of impossibility, and in the face of something so huge, I am paralyzed.

And it’s not just my kids.  Sometimes I experience the entire world through the lens of a moral imperative that I cannot meet.  Save Things.  And it is thus both fitting and unbelievable that last Friday night, I met the bird.

Every day I can, come rain, or snow, or (my husband hates this) even dark of night, when I have 20 minutes and shoes, I run through the forest on the west side of town.  Sometimes, particularly when I have a lot of other things competing for my attention, this compulsion to self-care feels a bit sneaky.  Last Friday evening, though, under a weight of obligations and expectations that suddenly felt impossible, I spent not 20 minutes but 90, and I didn’t sneak so much commandeer them.  Rumbling thunder, running water on the path, and the increasing heaviness of my soil-caked feet aside, it was just what my soul needed . . . and then I saw him.

He was about the size of my hand, feathers puffed up a bit, bright red and completely incongruous—a songbird on the ground.   He glanced in the direction of my shoe when I stepped near him, but didn’t fly away—instead, he walked on the path.

Honestly, he seemed untroubled.  At the very least, he was not visibly panicked.  That was fine; I felt enough panic for both of us.  He was beautiful.  He was hurt or sick.  He couldn’t live here on the ground, on the trail, in the rain.  Surely I should do something?  I crouched near him on the soggy trail, asked him inane questions, watched as he snatched a mouthful of grass on this side, dug a bit in the mud on that.  He kept walking whether I did or not, seeming only slightly to notice when I reappeared next to him, and not at all when I stopped.

I considered the wild bird rescue center in a neighboring town—we once took a robin there; it had knocked itself unconscious against our clerestory window.  I considered attempting to catch this wild thing, holding it in my hands, taking him from Here to Somewhere Else.  I considered hope, and what I could rightly invest in this bird.  I considered the tasks and obligations that had already been given to me for that night.  And then I stood up and walked away.  I channeled my plucky three-year-old, and did not look back.*

I’ve been out to the trails in the week since then, and I haven’t seen the bird again.  I haven’t looked for him, either.  I have felt for him, though, in what I’m coming to understand as the pull of something bigger—a call to accept what is.

IMG_1681

It was drier this week, the trails returning to dirt; life continues to assert itself in ways hopeful, marvelous—and challenging.  The brown of the trail is increasingly adorned with dots of green.  These are the insistent sprouts of baby trees that have found enough space and enough light to grow—directly in the path of my feet.

I hopscotch over them, and try not to think too much about it.  They are heartbreaking, a bit.  A baby tree pushes up through the soil and unfurls its first leaf with a strength and hopefulness that is inspiring—it’s going to take this chance its been given to grow, and go for it.  Except that here it has no chance.  This little tree—and this one, and that one—grows only to be trampled underfoot.  And again, my heart pulls at my hands: do something.  Fix it.

I don’t, though.  I just feel.  I just think.  My grief is not for these trees.

There is no way around it, and also no way through.  I am crushed underneath its weight, under the terrible knowledge that I will fail as a parent.  Under the understanding that beyond that, I am incapable of protecting anything—even that which is most precious to me.  I am rendered powerless by truth and certainty, as in the Samyutta nikaya, that whatsoever is of a nature to arise, all that is of a nature to cease.

And, I find, in some strange way, that in utter powerlessness there is freedom.  In lack of choice there is space to breathe, to be.  To experience the strange magic of now—how this one small moment offers comfort and shelter, yet refuses to make a single promise to any of us.

I keep running through the forest, sliding around in the mud.  I’m trying to keep my feet off the living.

I’m trying to understand.

j

 

my prayer for today, for tomorrow, and for the mixed blessing that is mothering and mother’s day:

 

In these moments

when what we perceive most acutely

is our own smallness,

when we cling to things we cannot keep

as we are called to love what cannot stay

 

Comfort us as we grieve our failures,

Our incapability, our losses.  

Strengthen us that we may see, and celebrate,

our children

not as something of or belonging to us,

but as they are . . . as themselves.  

 

And help us to cultivate the gift of presence,

that we may take and recognize our joy

as it comes in the small moments of the everyday.

 

Amen.


*Ok, I looked back once.  I was already around the bend in the trail, though, and I couldn’t see him anymore.  So I waited a minute.  And then, with a prayer for bird peace, I walked to my car.  

rocks, rivers, and rough transitions

Tonight I attended an incredibly inspiring presentation from our church’s Lifelong Learning Task Force.  Together, a diverse team of leaders shared a vision of religious education–for kids, for adults, for youth, for seniors.  It was articulate.  It was moving.  And, hopefully only for me, it was sad.

After sharing what religious education could look like, and why it matters, a team member invited us to close our eyes as she led us through a guided meditation and visualization.  She instructed us to reflect on the messages we had just heard, and then to envision our own piece of the puzzle–where we might fit in this beautiful picture of the future.

I followed these instructions.*  And as I did I realized, with a knife-edge of sadness, that my own answer is:  I don’t.

Not really, anyway.  Not for now, and less with every passing month.  My job in the next year is to love, to learn . . . and to let go.

I don’t have to do this without support, fortunately . . . and what deep gratitude I feel for those around me who can help.  It–apparently–takes a lot of self-reflection, discussion, and of course, meetings, to be formed (to form oneself?) as a minister.  To that end,  I have, or soon will, a minister, a therapist, a Spiritual Director (wondering what that is?  me, too–I’ll get back to you on that), an In-Care committee, a teaching pastor, an academic advisor and a chaplain.  And probably, somewhere, a large partridge in a pear tree.

What I no longer have . . . what I’m trading in a deal that has never felt transactional in nature, but nevertheless has some of the steepest costs of anything I’ve ever attempted . . . is the security of the covenantal relationship with my fellow congregants.

Our job is to build the future, but my own days within that future, at least in this congregation, are numbered.  Of course, that’s true for all of us–we take a break, we move, we have a change in life circumstances . . . and someday, certainly, we die.  May the spark continue, though we ourselves will not.   I embrace this message, painful though it is; the work we are doing together is simply too important not to.  And of course it’s because I believe so very deeply in the importance of this work that I feel called to further it.

It’s just that I naively did not realize that this call, not merely to ministry, but to die, in part, to my previous congregational life, meant me–or that it meant now.  (Seminary is long, I can’t even imagine the person I’m going to become, and I’m not sure I want to do parish ministry, anyway . . . surely I can just stay happily ensconced in my safe space through this entire process?)

News flash to the willfully blind among us: nope.  In my case, my newly-designated teaching pastor–from whom I am so very honored and excited to have the opportunity to learn–was the one to break the news.  I had asked her, and quite chipperly, I’m sure, what I needed to be aware of in balancing my lay leadership roles with my internship in her congregation.  And gently, but mincing no words, she answered: You need to put your time and your heart into the place where you learn; let me know if you need guidance as you let your other roles go.

I will spare you my mental process as I have worked the past two weeks to understand what this means–with apologies and thanks to those people, and there are several, who merely wish I had spared them.  I will tell you a bit about how I feel now, though, starting with: unmoored.  After all, this place, more than any other, is my rock–a source of stability through the changes of life as a young parent.  I don’t know what it means to live in this town as a grown up (we lived here as college kids before this, but totally different story) without this church.  And guess what: I don’t want to know.

I also feel envious.  This evening I looked upon my beloved community, knowledge weighing on my heart, and I felt pride, love . . . and something rather like jealousy.  Why do YOU get to stay here?  Nevermind that I’m the one who made this choice; I feel, inexplicably and indefensibly, a bit piqued at everyone else who didn’t.

And I feel bewildered: I saw the faces of my friends, supporters, challengers and provocateurs–we who have grown together, we who have changed ourselves and changed one another–and wonder, again, in what possible universe it makes sense to be so deeply in love with the transformative power of church that you lose it.

And this, inevitably, brings me back to the $64,000 question.  Which is: have I lost my everloving mind?

This, my people, is the scariest thing I’ve ever done.  Is “Dear God, I hope you know what you’re doing” a prayer?

How about “I hope you know what you’re doing, because it turns out I don’t, and I feel smaller than I ever have and am hoping there’s something out there I can count on?”

Still no?

How about this:

And so I found an anchor, a blessed resting place
A trusty rock I called my savior, for there I would be safe
From the river and its dangers, and I proclaimed my rock divine
And I prayed to it "protect me" and the rock replied

God is a river, not just a stone
God is a wild, raging rapids
And a slow, meandering flow
God is a deep and narrow passage
And a peaceful, sandy shoal
God is the river, swimmer
So let go

--Peter Mayer, "God is a River"

(just a little message last Sunday from the church I’m trying to fashion into a rock.  I do see that what our faith–what my church–needs to be is the river.  Unfortunately, I also see that in trying to become a person who can remember that continuously, and even celebrate it, I am in for a VERY long three years.  Somebody please go find my partridge; I probably need it.  In the meantime . . . one more step.  Which means Buddhism seminar notes.)

goodnight from my confused, envious, wistful heart,

j

*point of fact: I helped write them.  and this vision.  and mission.  and these goals.  I knew at every point during this yearlong process that we were writing them to give away . . . it’s just that it turns out that it’s one thing to think it, and another to do it.  so is life, no?

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

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

Single grave stone

Design Mandie McGlynn 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consider the following.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

with love,

j

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