Leaving Las Vegas. By which I mean Facebook. By which I mean I don’t know what I’m doing.

So I have this Facebook account.

I have friends, and “friends,” and followers- some intentional and some who I strongly suspect just got lost.  It’s a place where I speak the words that are on my heart, or I share the words of others, and people respond.

Pretty simple, right?  My Facebook works like yours does? 

This feels net-neutral, no pun intended, most of the time.  FB is a container, holding the good and the bad.  And the things it holds include the transcendent and the funny and the nearly magical and the appalling and the annoying and, occasionally, the tragic.

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I’m an external processor, and have been writing for an audience for my entire literate life.  I share real stuff, and I hear often that it matters to people.  Thank you for what you said.  For what you shared.  For what you wrote.

I myself found beauty and hope, connectedness and pieces of information that I need to survive in this moment and in whatever this era may be, on Facebook just this morning.  It’s where so much of the good stuff lives.

And yet we have a problem, Facebook and I.  And I don’t know how to solve it.

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Can I have an online ministry, the question goes, and hold onto something that feels like myself?

My people, I do not know.

This year I have done some things I’ve never tried before, in the pursuit of balance.  I’ve begun to filter content, and to use the “block” feature selectively.  I think I used to feel, in an unexamined way, that cutting anyone off was against my religion.  Then I realized that self-care is also part of my faith, and that you don’t get to be intimately involved in my life just because you want to be.  That discovery been uneventful and surprisingly great, and so has this other thing: taking one-week breaks once a quarter and disabling my Facebook account entirely.  Literally disappearing, and having it disappear from my life.  It sounds scorched-earth, and in the moment I first tried it, I think it probably was– and yet, I’ve found it restorative and astonishingly easy, and the weird thing is, I don’t miss FB.  

 

Truly.  Not right away, and not later either; it’s more like waking up from having been hypnotized than taking a vacation away from beloved people and things.  In fact, I have discovered that I always dread coming back.

But I do miss you, many of you, and I miss conversation and I also miss sharing what’s happening in my world.  And then there’s the reality that FB feels fairly necessary for my work in the world, even the “real life” and brick and mortar pieces of that life–the online threads run deep.

And yet I still haven’t found a way to go halves on Facebook.

I need a workable middle rather than a freefall off the addiction cliff, and I’ll be honest: I’m no longer sure that such a space exists, at least not for someone like me, or for the work I do here.

This realization reminds me of a cartoon I once saw—on Facebook, of course– about the experience of shopping at Target.

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Like, how a person would reasonably expect that excursion to go, and what happens to your brain and hands and wallet instead.

It was this:  http://crappypictures.com/shopping-at-target/

And lately, that’s exactly how I feel on Facebook.

I sign on because I just need to do this one thing.  It’s usually something specific and work related; a question about worship or a response about pastoral care- a task on my to-do list that I intend to cross off by logging on.

And then twenty minutes later I sign off, and it’s in that second, staring at the login screen, that I realize that I didn’t do that one thing.  I suddenly realize, in fact, that I haven’t even thought about that thing from the moment that the virtual-world-a-la-Zuckerberg, the one with the urgent red numerals and the picture-filled news feed, first opened before me.

My people, I have repeated this cycle—identify task; log on to complete it; log out and suddenly remember what task, still uncompleted, was– as many as three times.  Consecutively.

This makes me worry about my brain.

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And I feel certain that it’s not accidental.  Facebook now hijacks our brains because it’s good at doing that, and it’s good at it because a policy decision was made somewhere along the line to become effective hijackers of our daily lives.

And friends, I know that “hijack” is a strong word.  I’m using it intentionally, and in the brain science way; this post is not, at least not yet, to say that I am having a theological born-again moment, or renouncing technology altogether and resolving to pastor in a more traditionally-pastoral way.

But as Facebook, so goes life.  The thing is, Can’t turn it off, can’t look away feels like a pretty good synopsis of my first year ministry experience—the real-life portion– and I know something about this deep in my bones: it’s unsustainable.

Having a public persona on Facebook, or probably anywhere, makes some pretty big asks.   Accordingly, I’ve had many conversations about authenticity with colleagues and leaders over the past few years. What to reveal, and how real do we keep things, and how do we hold ourselves or move in the face of the relentless projections of ministry and the pastor/congregant relationship.

Often we speak of these things normatively, as if there is an “answer” to be had, when the reality is that there is simply a spectrum of options.  Increased and decreased transparency.  Greater and lesser self-awareness.  More and less consistency of contact with our own internal touchstones and our larger value systems.  Times to be very vocal and times to fall largely silent.

These are things each minister must consider in her public work, and my Facebook meta-conversation is no exception.  What is driving me to distraction, however, has turned out to be none of this.

It is instead distraction itself: the loss and sorrow and ultimate opportunity cost of fractured attention.   

And again, it’s not just Facebook.  FB has become what it is because our society is what it is, our lives are what they are, our willingness and need to be constantly other-occupied lies where it does.

And maybe that’s not your story; a lot of people seem to make life online and offline cohere.

But my reality isn’t this simple.  I find Facebook addictive, and I also feel sure that this is deliberate.  And that in my case, this addiction- its processes and its inputs and deliverables– it fits right into all the fractured spaces of a larger and equally-frenetic lifestyle.

And in the meantime, I have these kids.

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Ren is wise beyond his years, savvy, wry and well-read.  And he is also dealing with emergent Aspergers, working on social skills and where his body is in space and figuring out how to love and flourish as who he is while meeting others where they are.  It’s a big job, and while he doesn’t want to hold my hand, he appreciates my standing close.

Si, meanwhile, is a tornado of boy energy, sharp and focused, exquisitely sensitive, quick to snuggle and equally quick to seek retribution when all is not right in his kingdom.  He used to beg me to color with him.  I think I did that once, while composing in my head most of an essay about how hard that was.  The next year, this past one, struggling for roots himself in a vastly different landscape, he pleaded for plants.  I promised to take him after school, on the weekend, sometime soon.  I never did; the pots sit empty in our garage.

Now my younger son wants to build, wants me to watch and learn and copilot.  And I discovered that I am so used to saying no to my child that I had to find not just time but unused muscles, unaccessed vocabularies, to say yes.

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I am a work in progress.

But untenable is not too strong a word for this lack of attending.

Fortunately, these two have other loving adults in their lives, the ones who were present when first teeth fell out and each boy learned to ride a bike and they celebrated three consecutive birthdays, all without me present.  (Literally; I was away at seminary in every single one of those cases.  Three years.  An irreplaceable chunk of two childhoods.)

The kids are alright, but I might not be.

The costs, these days, are more than I’m willing to pay.  And so, this is the year that we lurch our way into something else.  And it has begun with this summer because when you realize that something really isn’t working, the reasonable thing is to stop doing that thing, and to try something else.    

The thing is, I’m hearing a call again these days.

It’s to come home.  

Because you know what (and this is magical): it’s not too late not to miss it.

So this is me, figuring this out, and who knows how it’s going to look.  Maybe there’s a middle space as yet undiscovered. Maybe it’s called Facebook-with-limits, or maybe it’s that we begin to meet each other somewhere else.  

But I do know, in the meantime, where my own middle space is going to be.

We’ll wave to you from the kitchen window.  

j

tiny plant in mug

All images Pixabay/flickr

“In the meantime”- Rev. Kendyl Gibbons on installing a minister

Installation of Rev. Jordinn Nelson Long at Fairhaven, MA

Rev. Kendyl Gibbons

April 2, 2017

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Rev. Dr. Kendyl Gibbons is the senior minister of All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in Kansas City, Missouri

Good afternoon, Fairhaven, and friends from all over.  We meet today to formalize and celebrate leadership in our Unitarian Universalist movement, amidst some political turmoil within the leadership of our association.  Issues around racial injustice in this country have commanded our attention as religious liberals since our founding, and we have yet to resolve the tension between the culture of privilege that we inherit, from which many of us benefit and some of us suffer, and the call to justice, equity, and compassion that is never entirely silent at the core of our faith.  Today we find ourselves again in pain over a hiring decision made by good people with good intentions, that has nevertheless served to perpetuate disenfranchisement and systemic power imbalances among us.  The president of our association has resigned from office for the remaining three months of his term.  No one knows for sure exactly what it would mean to get this right for once.  Nevertheless, this is in fact no time for any of us to despair, and despair is the opposite of leadership.

Rather, this is a time not only to face into both our individual and our collective pain, but in fact to be thankful that there is enough capacity among us – even if just barely – for that pain to be recognized by those who carry it and articulated into a space of potential trust, and heard and taken seriously in locations of power.  I am inclined to think that the transformation of our institutional structures that we all long for — even as we struggle with our resistance to meaningful change – will not happen just because forces of privilege become willing to undergo the discomfort of hearing about the pain that people of color experience.   We won’t get there unless that happens, but it’s not enough.  I think we have to be willing to incarnate pain in our institutional experience, and walk through it together, if we are going to learn to actually behave differently.  As we used to say in seminary, “Oh, great; another friggin’ growth opportunity!”   And yet, without those opportunities, as disorienting and difficult and demanding as they are, we are condemned never to move beyond the limitations and injustices of the past.  Choosing to recognize and face into pain is one of the key manifestations of genuine leadership, and it is at the core of what we are gathered here to affirm.

An installation like this shares with a wedding the same dynamic of joyful connection and hope-filled promises for the future; a covenant of fidelity and support, intended to sustain the adventure of mutual discovery and joint accomplishment.  It is wonderful; a high moment of human intention to be sure; deserving of celebration.  And yet, like a wedding, these high hopes and noble promises can only have their end in some form of sadness.  It can be sudden and dramatic tragedy — the minister dies unexpectedly, leaving the congregation heart-broken and grieving.  Overwhelming conflict comes to a head by ousting the minister, leaving bitterness and anger.  It can be a slow, debilitating erosion of integrity or interest — the people stop coming, the minister stops caring.  It can be nobody’s fault — the local employer closes shop, and demographics doom the congregation.  It can be spectacular moral failure — the minister seduces a member of the church, or the treasurer embezzles the endowment and refuses to pay the minister.  Even in the very best case scenario — the minister enters a well-planned and well-funded retirement after years of loyal and skillful work — both the congregation and the minister will still experience a period of poignant loss, confusion, and sorrow.  The longer and more successful the ministry, the more painful that eventual separation.  It’s the same with weddings; the story only ends either with one spouse grieving the loss of the other, or else with both grieving for the loss of the love that had once brought them joy together.

There is no fixing this; it’s inherent in the proposition to begin with.  The sustenance of the particular connections that give shape and meaning to our lives is always balanced by the grief that comes with losing that bond, either to mortality or entropy.  As Robert Frost says, “However it is in some other world, I know that this is the way in ours.”  As long as we are creatures in a world of matter and energy, we know at some level that everything is temporary.  There are people who look to religion for an exception to this law, for some eternal truth or unfailing love that endures when all else dissolves, and that is indeed what many faith traditions promise.  My own life-long religious humanism takes a different approach.  It seems to me that faith is not about the search for something that never fails, but rather the affirmation that the experience made possible through connection, relationship, and community is worth the pain of inevitable loss.

I cannot prove this proposition, of course.  If you were to say to me, “I have been there, and the pain of bereavement, or betrayal, is far greater than any joy I ever found,” I would not argue with you — only you can know the dimensions of your own griefs and gladnesses.  What I can do — what we all do, I suspect, in this strange vocation of ministry — is testify.  I can tell you the stories of those who have given themselves to love and to covenant, and been so enriched that they would do it again and again, despite knowing that heartache is part of the bargain.  I can bear witness out of my own life in leadership that ‘success’ is a kind of seductive phantom, ever in search of more; it is rather the shared effort, the working together itself, that satisfies both in the moment and in memory.  If you really want to build community, take on a demanding project together, and don’t let yourself quit when the going gets tough.  Whether or not you accomplish the goal, you will be known to each other, and changed by each other, in the process, and that is the foundation of authentic community.

It’s the ‘don’t let yourself quit when the going gets tough’ proviso that is the reason for all this hoopla over stuff like installations.  It will be silly, and humiliating, six months from now, for either Jordinn or the members of this congregation to turn around and say, “Oh, never mind; this is harder than we thought!”  This is why our communities of memory and promise are founded upon covenants; because we all need a defense against the impulse of immediate feelings that challenge our best intentions.   It is necessary to be reminded from time to time of what you said you were going to do, and what you really want, over and above the lure of momentary comfort.  There is more to covenant than just noticing when our interests happen to coincide:  “You want to try being a minister?  Oh, good; we are looking for someone to organize and entertain us.  Let’s do this!”  Now I’m not saying that the bureaucratically organized ministerial search process in the UUA is so perfect that calls don’t sometimes come about for such trivial reasons; but what I know is that if ministry works, it has to grow into something deeper and more challenging and at times more aggravating on both sides, than this.  In fact, in this setting, it is hard not to be reminded of Shel Silverstein’s cautionary verse:

 

Have you heard of tiny Melinda Mae,

Who ate a monstrous whale?

She thought she could,

She said she would,

So she started in right at the tail.

 

And everyone said, “You’re much too small,”

But that didn’t bother Melinda at all.

She took little bites and she chewed very slow,

Just like a good girl should…

…And in eighty-nine years she ate that whale,

Because she said she would!

 

I find this particularly apt given Jordinn’s well-known affinity for sea food!

Now, I do not mean to suggest that every misguided decision must always be pursued to the bitter end, nor that any ministry, however fruitful, ought to endure for eighty-nine years, certainly, but I do think there is a word to be offered on behalf of that which we do ‘because we said we would.’  That word is covenant; it is our solemn promises that counteract the randomness of a future in which anything and everything is possible, by committing us in advance to certain relationships and values that we have selected as references points for our unfolding journeys.  We do this in the knowledge aforethought that there will be both ultimate losses, and incidental difficulties along the way.  We do it because what we build with intention, and even with difficulty, is more satisfying in the long run than the pleasures that we happen to encounter randomly wandering around.  We do it in these time-consuming, somewhat anachronistic rituals — like weddings, and installation services — invoking powers that we scarcely know how to name, and only partly believe, because we are seeking some way to give our lives the density, and dignity, and depth that we suspect, with longing, might yet be possible for us to access.

The conservative columnist David Brooks, a perceptive if crotchety observer of progressive culture, once described the paradox of liberal institutionalism as the attempt to ‘build a house of obligation upon a foundation of choice.’  I think he had an accurate point, with specific application to Unitarian Universalism and its insistent basis in covenant.  We tend to reject family legacy, cultural convention, or the dogmas of tradition as constraints in the project of framing either our specific individual lives or the social structures we must share.  We want to make our own commitments of conscience out of an essential freedom; we want to choose our duties and assent to the responsibilities for which we will be held accountable — not because some external force of history or divinity assigned them to us, but like Melinda Mae, because we said we would.  Rather like a long-co-habiting bride, Jordinn’s ministry here is already well underway — what, if anything, changes today?  I suggest that what changes is that you, the congregation, and she, are about to try to name, and call into being by naming, that ‘because we said we would’ that will bind you both to a shared future, despite the certainty of grief which that future holds.  This is an act of faith, on both sides, and let no one tell you otherwise.

It matters that we do this, in both private and collective life, even though there is no escape from eventual loss, because it is precisely what we enact together in the meantime that gives sacred significance to our days.  If we are faithful to the purpose of church, it seems to me that there are two necessarily uncompleted projects in which we are always engaged, and these are the challenges on the ground of which authentic community arises.  The first is to take David Brooks at his word, and demonstrate what it looks like to indeed build a house of obligation upon a foundation of choice.  What does an institution that incarnates the values of Unitarian Universalism look like on the hoof?  When the curious and the spiritually hungry come to these doors, will they see people relating to each other and to the rest of the world as our seven principles would suggest?  If all someone did was to observe your congregation in action, what would they assume the essence of our faith to be?  As I experience it, that essence and those values are counter-cultural; at our best, we are a subversive organization, challenging a success and power idolizing society, bearing witness to the possibility of more compassionate, liberating, and humble human community.  We do this most effectively, if not most often, by exemplifying such relationships, amidst the all the challenges of life in a voluntary organization.  The effort to be the world we want to see is exhilarating, once we get past the trap of constantly judging and blaming each other.  That’s one project to work on together.

The other never ending adventure we share is our own spiritual growth, into the people each of us wants to become.  Many and various are the forces which urge us at every moment to take stock of what we have, and whether we are satisfied with that, but where in the course of our daily lives might we be held accountable for what we are, or what growth we are striving for?  Who asks us to step into spiritual maturity, to aspire to be grown ups, to identify the qualities that would make our lives worthy of honor, emulation, and blessing?  From what I see, if the church is not a place for this, it doesn’t happen anywhere — and this brings us back to covenant.  Because there is nothing gained by trying to apply my aspirations for personal growth to you; rather, my role as a partner in religious community is to hold up the mirror of accountability to what you said you wanted to be; to bear witness to your achievements and failures and continuing efforts to give your life the shape you most deeply believe it ought to have.  We can share insight and inspiration on this journey, but no one else can do the work of spiritual growth on your behalf — that is not the minister’s job, not even one as talented and passionate and beloved as Jordinn is destined to become.  Besides, she has her own inner life to cultivate, with the added challenge of making it transparent enough to serve as an inviting model and summons for all of you.  But in the end, religious community that is founded in freedom of conscience and diversity of expression can only hold together because we said we would; it can only keep us as accountable as we make ourselves in covenant, to one another and the challenges we have chosen to take on together.

 

Today, my friends, we bear witness as you and Jordinn make explicit your stepping into that covenant with one another.  We bring to this moment our full awareness that struggles and parting, as well as joys and fulfillment, lie ahead.  We bring the testimony of our own past experiences, as well as the centuries of our heritage, affirming the promise that religious community offers, is well worth the price that it demands.  With all the hope and wisdom at our disposal, we bless your future together, and lift up your example to our movement and to the world.  May you grow together, and sustain each other; may you find the community that is not self-serving, but other-serving and justice-serving, and in the process, become the greater selves that you have shown each other, in courage and faithfulness, all because today, in this place, in this joyful, poignant moment, you said you would.

View More: http://erinkavanaughphotography.pass.us/jordinn

Rev. Jordinn Nelson Long is the newly installed minister of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Fairhaven, MA

Though you’ve broken your vows a thousand times [re-covenant in a museum]

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I spent much of this week in a city I deeply love, which is also a place with which I am in the process of becoming something else.  “Visitor” doesn’t quite get there, and “stranger” never will . . .  but I’m learning the balancing act of living in, and loving, two places, while in some cases un-living and perhaps even un-loving.

It’s tough, and I’m doing it unevenly, unequally, and sometimes ungracefully.  And I’m persuaded that there’s no other way; we create and negotiate relationship, and do change rather than cut-off, by feeling our way through.  It’s a challenging thing for humans to straddle the canyons dividing “I” from “thou,” “this” from “that,”; “here” from “there” while maintaining a sense of balance and selfhood.

We simply move forward in trust, and hope that our mistakes might be small and not harmful. 

I could write a lot of words about that, simply from a personal perspective.  But what occurred to me on this particular visit is that in some way, we’re all here together.  Not in Kansas City, of course, though I’m sure the visitor’s bureau would love that.

I mean that we are ALL strangers living in a strange land right now, trying to maintain communion with what is important and beautiful from “before” even as we reach and lean and lurch our way toward an as-yet unknown “after.”

And meanwhile, we live in neither of those places—we instead exist in a “now” that is present, but undefinable.  And in this landscape, it’s hard to know how to balance the ordinariness of life—the tasks, the priorities, the conversations–with the urgent call to push back against what is changing.  And let’s be clear: what’s happening in our nation is not just change—it’s rupture.  Breakage.  It’s a negation of much of what has come before, including values.  Including lives.

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How do we continue to weave with the threads of “any given Friday” when we know that in the background, damage is being done?

How do we go on, having arrived at a place in which it is normal to eat a four dollar cupcake while reading entertainment on one’s phone, and where it is simultaneously only reasonable to be screaming in the streets and demanding change and answers in the halls of power.

If there are answers to be had to these questions, they will come through our wrestling with and bridging two realities, in those moments when we find ourselves standing atop a widening canyon, a foot on both sides.  And we will do the real work of keeping our balance, first and finally, in the ways we always have: through art—word, image, song, act—, through religion (in churches and before the altars of our own hearts), and through human encounter.

And I thus think it’s not only relevant, but perhaps imperative, to tell you that in Kansas City, right this minute, it is possible to physically weave yourself between the threads of a very old song.  Janet Cardiff’s “Motet” at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art is exploration of public space, of art and musical harmony, of closeness to one another and to God, of sacred music and the secular curation of culture.

And not unlike custom cupcakes and all varieties of screaming in the streets, it is a product of our social and spiritual hunger.

“Motet” is 14 minutes long.  The room contains 40 speakers, some sound panels, tall white walls, leather benches . . . and a polyphonic memory sung, dissected, reconstructed, and explored.

Though removed in time, space, and cultural context, the song is powerful.  Listeners lean in.  They pause, and then linger.  They close their eyes.  Some cry.

And meanwhile, we do the same, trying to understand what is becoming of our nation.

Writing for NPR, Alva Noë reveals his discomfort with public religion and performance art, both, asserting that “There [is] actually something creepy about [Motet]. A room full of robotlike speakers going proxy for absent singers . . . and a museum or gallery is not a sacred space. There was something almost chilling about the performance of such a spiritual offering in such a secular context.”

This same week for Breitbart, Daniel Nussbaum asserted that the National Endowment for the Arts “has become a controversial agency over time . . . [because] taxpayers should not have to fund art they consider to be against their values, or obscene.”

And simultaneously, writing for the Church of the Larger Fellowship, and for Unitarian Universalism as a movement, Rev. Meg Riley said of covenant:  “I wake up in the morning feeling discouraged by the news of the day before…entire pieces of government being eliminated with no sense that anything of value will be lost; many people I know and love scared for their very lives with the new “health care plan,” news media that focuses on the ins and outs of party politics as if that is what I care most about, rather than focusing on how we are to be together and take care of one another in this time.  So our theme of the month, covenant, feels more and more relevant to me . . . [because it means] that we are all responsible to and for one another; that no one is free when others are oppressed.”

We cannot, in short, be separated from one another.  Cause cannot be separated from effect.  And none of us can be cut off from the context from which we hail—not really.  We are a people who cross borders all our lives, in our hearts if not with our very bodies.

And this is precisely the thing.  “Motet” is powerful because it isn’t separated from context.  It is in fact not divorced from anything that has come before—because it cannot be.

And this, wandering through a place that used to be my home but no longer is, is a revelation I can use.

Janet Cardiff’s exposition on infinite loop lays a song in our laps, parsed to be intimately accessible at the same time that it builds and crescendos to something that cannot be held by walls.  It has the audacity to be both right-sized for our ears and much too big to keep or categorize.

And this, friends, is not what religion has finally been brought to by secular culture.  It is, instead, precisely what we’re all achieving together, in the best moments: a faith that meets us where we are, in the confusion and fragility and human scale of “now,” which then carries us, soaring and together, into something more.

“Motet” is a recognition of all the history we have held, and it’s a simultaneous assurance for the next leg of a journey.  That the ancient song continues even amid displacement, that God may be found amid technological advances, that manna falls even amid changing invitations and varying hungers, and is here for us. still

Not unlike our covenants with one another.

That dusty word–covenant–speaks of the promises that return us to one another, and to ourselves.  The kind that are so strong that they can be redeemed even when broken.  The kind that allow us to straddle, sure of balance, the canyon between “here” and “there.”

In covenant, in “Motet,” in Kansas City: we tread familiar paths equipped with different tools, find ourselves returned to the start of all our wanderings and seeing the place with new eyes, and. know in deeper ways than we were able to before.

Sacred song in secular space is not a break.  It’s a return.

And here is its promise as best I know it:

What has come before is not gone.  It is here with us, here for us, still.  Here for the asking, for the hearing, for the singing.

This is what a sacred motet in a heartland museum can mean.  It is what the institution of church, keeping the songs of the people for millennia, can mean.  It is every cathedral with its sermon in stones, every poem, every protest, every hymn trying to name God by tugging the vibrating violin strings of our hearts.

In two days, “Motet” will close.  The song will once again fall silent.

 

But my people: it is nevertheless not too late.

It is not, yet, too late. 

j

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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. 

12 weeks; 25 lessons . . . my summer in CPE

Greetings, friends.

As the ink dries on my final self-evaluation, presented just this morning, I rejoice in part by sharing this list with you.

I send appreciation to my CPE cohort group (and our supervisor) for sharing laughter, tears, and learning, and for serving as draftreaders of this post.  Appreciation also to the many incredible SLH staff members with whom I’ve had the privilege of working.  Big thanks to my beloved support team who have helped me through this experience in many ways–you know who you are.  And finally, I offer gratitude, wonder, and respect for the patients and family members I’ve had the honor of companioning these past weeks.  Prayers and blessings to all.

Much love,

j

Hospital surgery corridor 12 weeks; 25 lessons (and colleagues, I’d love to hear YOUR lessons as well.)

1. Moving toward any situation, there’s what you expect.

Then there’s what you see.

And then there’s what there is.

Sometimes there is a lot of space between those things. 

 

2. GSW means gunshot wound. MVC is short for multivehicle collision. And STAT is classical Latin for get your butt down here right now.

 

3. People make decisions about me and who I will be to them in seconds.

Sometimes less. Some of that is what they project from without. Some is what I project from within. And amid the projections, there is a circle of space in which I have control over a part of my image. Herein lie power and identity, service and sacrifice. Who am I willing to be for you? How will I move to do that?

 

4. When grief finds you, you can cry. Or, you can not cry. Both choices might change things.

 

5. Your religion matters, even if your denomination is tiny and has an unusually long name.

I never understood as a patient or parent why I was being asked to share my religion upon admission, and I have hesitated more than once to even try to explain that I am a Unitarian Universalist. At one visit to the local children’s hospital I hemmed and hawed, explaining, “probably ours isn’t even one of the choices.” The admissions clerk replied smoothly, “No, we have that. I’ll put it right in.” That was a small moment, but it was one of great hospitality, and I remember it clearly amid a day that is otherwise mostly a blur.

From the medical side of things, I can now tell you that we ask not so we can report your hospitalization to your church (you would need to ask us to do that) or to sort or classify you in any particular way. We ask because your faith and its rituals are important to your life, and that makes them important to your healing.

And who knows—your local UU chaplain may be ready and waiting to talk with you. So make your presence known. Consider that pre-admission faith statement to be part of your ministry, to yourself and to the world.

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6. The most intimidating spaces I walk into are the ones where I will be alone with myself.  Yours are probably different, but if you can identify the scary places, you will hold a key to changing both frame of reference and behavior.

 

7. I feel the sting of failure acutely. And then I reliably reflect, stand up, and keep going. From here on out, we’re calling that success. Which in CPE language means “good enough.”

 

8. Editing means loss. So does stepping forward. So does simply continuing to breathe. In the formation process, you chisel and sculpt and free from the rocks a new version of yourself. And you will, inevitably, leave pieces of yourself on the cutting floor.

 

9. On a related note, it can be scary to move out of draft form. To use periods rather than commas. To bid farewell, walk away, close the door. There is beauty in openness; there is honesty and integrity in closure. The boundaries of this work require both.

Goodbye

10. Moments are shared, bonds are formed . . . and then, as attends the work of all caring professionals, it is time to let them go.

The place between life and death has been called the thin space, the valley, the hinge, or the knife edge. Whatever words we use, it is a privilege and an intimacy to be invited into it.

As chaplains, our walk through this space with you is often short in duration; then we commend you back into your wider communities of care, trusting in your combined strength and resources, and in the Whatever-Is. There are next steps, but we will not know about them. I find God in that mysterious unknowing.

And I root for you still.

 

11. You took hundreds of risks today, some tiny, some larger. You’ll take hundreds more tomorrow. Which ones did you notice?

 

12. I am constantly surrounded by blessings. And sometimes that bounty feels like too much to take in, and I’m tempted to push them away or live at the edges, with words like “earn” and “deserve” echoing in my mind.

I haven’t figured out why it’s ok to have so much. And I cannot know that things will be the same tomorrow. This means it’s possible and even understandable to meet extreme generosity with shame or fear.

And yet, I find a lived answer to this every Sunday. I love the ancient liturgy, and I wonder if the most powerful words within it are “given for you.” I subscribe to a faith with generous love at its core. Might holding that truth in my heart mean learning to be fearless about receiving?

Deeply grateful . . . and fearless.

 

13. If you’re tempted to say something stupid, try not talking. Truly. There are events for which the solidarity of silence is the only reasonable response.

 

14. I have told myself for a very long time that I “don’t do well with blood.” I can now tell you, post trauma center, that when it comes to the physical realities of bodily fluids, blood is only the beginning. There’s also vomit, sputum, cerebrospinal fluid . . .

As it turns out, I can handle more than I thought I could, in the moments where “handling it” is what is needed. Blood running down the wall? Alrighty then. Wound vac at the bedside? Ok. But later, post-fluids, what needs processing are my feelings. Life in the trauma bay is a buy-now, pay-later endeavor for care providers. I choose to pay later in a way that affirms life and hope, and that means remembering that good stewardship of resources begins with my own emotional and physical energy.

 

15. People are often not sure what a chaplain might be for. Nor a Unitarian Universalist. Explanations can be invitations, obligations, or apologies. They can also be opportunities.

 

16. There is both magic and danger in the spaces between us. When I walk into your patient room, or come into the trauma bay as a fellow staff member, we are immediately negotiating and sharing power. We might also be mediating God.

 

17. I would rather scrub floors or skip meals or, on some days, cut off fingertips than ask for help.

Even when it matters. Especially when it matters.

I hope to continue challenging this tendency in myself. In the meantime, I pray that the realization inspires a more generous pastoral awareness—the reluctance to request or receive assistance of any kind is not uncommon in our congregations, and it presents challenges around concepts of covenant and care.

Support

 

18. Holding the hand of a dying person will encourage you to touch your faith. Holding the hands of fifty dying people will demand, instead, that you challenge it.

So do it. Lean in to the questions. Despair, even—can it be faithless to cry out into the expanse of space My God, My God, Why if Jesus did just exactly that? And to notice that that the question goes unanswered?

Wrestle. Observe.  Acknowledge, get mad, throw anything you need to overboard . . . and then, return to what is simple. To what you know about living and meaning and this moment. And find with the darkness and the questions and the numbered, labored breaths the faith that will carry you forward. It is, now, a faith fit for the valley . . . a faith worthy of the sacred steps you will take holding so many other hands.

 

19. I do not know why bad things happen. I just know that they do, and that sooner or later, some of them will happen to you. And when they do, I hope that you let yourself fall, as Rev. Kate Braestrup advises, and, when you’re ready, that you notice what catches you. That you can number each blessing, each piece of grace and beam of love as it finds its way to you. Comfort and solace amid the Very Worst.

You don’t have to call that God . . . but you could.

 

20. Sincere affirmation opens many doors.

 

21. Food does not heal sadness.

Like the children’s story We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, the fundamental truth of grief is that we can’t go over it, we can’t go under it, and we can’t go around it. We have to go through it.

For me, despite many attempts, chewing has not turned out to be an instrinsic part of the healing process . . .  and even so, the hospital cafeteria offers surprisingly good meals and its staff engage in a cheering ministry all their own.

Bon appetit.

Slice of apple pie

 

22. People will tell me they are “spiritual, but not religious,” in any of the ways that people say this, approximately 500 times between now and when I’m ordained.

And infinitely more times after that.

I have come to accept this. And believe that my task is to see it as an invitation to exploration, using language, symbols, and values that hold meaning for the individual. This will be how we do faith in this time . . . and it’s actually not a bad place to start.

 

23. Both/and isn’t just seminaryspeak. It is an invitation to find oneself within the complexity of life, where things are rich and ambiguous and multivalent.

This way of looking at things can be deeply uncomfortable—it offers none of the easy answers of either/or. It also offers possibilities and hope that remain obscured within a two-dimensional view of conflict.

Developing the emotional range and creative tools to live into ambiguity, and to encourage others to explore it with us, is one of our most important tasks as religious leaders. It is risky, deeply countercultural, and requires the use of imagination and prophetic voice. And it just might offer a future in those spaces where the horizon seems the darkest.

 

24. The fact that a thing needs to be done does not mean that the thing is mine to do. Sometimes simply taking care of my own square is an act of love and faith.

 

25. Some days, it is worth planning an outfit around your shoes.

(Any day you spend working in a hospital is one of those days.)

 

Ballet flats

on (not) drowning

In a previous version of my life, I spent a lot of time around water. Eventually, I discovered that if you hang out around the pool enough, you might as well get paid for it: as soon as I was old enough to take the test, I became a lifeguard.

You can learn many things while guarding, from personal preferences like the roles you prefer to play in a team, how you handle boredom, and whether you can manage a crisis . . . to highly task-specific knowledge, such as how to safely help a person who has become unable to save herself.

This is not me.  Just so we're clear.

This is not me. Just so we’re clear.

The first rule: if you yourself are in the water, don’t ever try offer your own body as a saving base for an active drowning victim.  This means do not grab the person without something between you and them, and never—EVER–let them grab you.  This rule is why the rescue tube—that long orange floatie that lifeguards have been carrying for the past 15 years or so—was created: to provide a buoyant buffer between a rescuer’s body and that of a drowning victim.

This innovation didn’t arise from a fear of closeness: it’s because active drowning victims act irrationally and dangerously.  They flail.  They hit.  They grab and hold without discrimination, and sometimes with strength and tenacity that are not entirely helpful.

In a worst-case scenario, the victim gets hold of your head, wraps her arms around you to keep herself afloat, and takes you both under.  This is a dangerous situation that lifeguards practice in certification training, and the solution is counterintuitive: you must break the hold by swimming down—away from the surface, away from the air, and away from the person you’re trying to help—and then try again to approach from a different angle, remembering to keep yourself farther away.  In some circumstances, it’s actually necessary to wait for the person to lose energy and stop fighting before you can assist them.  Occasionally that happens only when s/he becomes unconscious.

Aside from drills, I have never been a rescuee.  In fact, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where that would happen; I was basically born with fins.  And yet, the past semester of freaking out—about seminary, the call to ministry, changes to my role in my congregation, and life-altering transformations, in general—it seems akin to a drowning process.  Or, more accurately, to a fear-of-drowning process.

First I was the kid who climbed to the top of the high dive and then refused to jump.  For a long time.  A looooooong time.  (and honestly, who hasn’t wanted to climb up there and give that kid a great big push?)  But it’s so far down, and it looks different from the top than you thought it would, and falling is scary, and having to swim after that is daunting, and everybody’s staring at you and . . .

And then I was the panicked swimmer floundering in the water.  Head back.  Arms flailing.  Oblivious to the crowd gathering, and a potential danger to those who would try to help.

Only—check this out—it turns out that the gathering crowd is yelling.  At me.   “Put your feet down!”  “FEET! DOWN!”*  They are yelling because it turns out I’ve been flailing around in exactly 2.5 feet of water.

I can stand here.  My children could stand here.  This is both noteworthy and embarrassing, but I don’t dwell on it, because I have also realized something else: I can swim.  (It’s hard to do a thorough self-assessment of skills while actively drowning.)

In fact, it turns out that I actually love swimming.

I love it more than I thought possible.  I love it so much that it changes my dreams—they get bigger.  Much bigger. Bigger than I could even have imagined.

And so, this evening I went to look for some of those dreams . . . in a small and surprising container.  One that, of course, is filled with water.

This is a sensory deprivation tank, affectionately known by devotees as simply “the tank.”

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There is a chair.  There is a tiled shower area.  There is a warm glow from a candle, surrounded, altar-style, by shells and stones.  There are earplugs, and a towel . . . and little else.  There is not, for example, a clock.  There’s not a window.  There’s not background music, or light reading material, or an internet connection.

It’s just me . . . and the tank.

And I stand there, taking deep slow breaths while the uber-Zen tank guy gives me a floating 101 run-through, and I try to nudge my fear toward “excited” rather than “terrified.”  That sort of nudging, after all, is what I’ve been doing for the past few weeks, and it has taken me places.  I am leaning in—to my fear, using it to power through, to take the leap into the deep water—and I have found myself talking in class, holding a microphone at Vespers, offering a writing workshop to my classmates and leading experimental humanist worship on the sidewalk on Michigan Avenue.  (yep, that happened.  I did it.  It was C-R-A-Z-Y . . . and wonderful.)

And yet this tank is something else entirely.  For one thing, it’s dark.  This is not a run of the mill, lights are off kind of darkness.  It’s not even lost-in-a-forest, or heard-a-noise-at-midnight darkness.  This is primordial darkness.  Darkness as living entity.  Darkness as beginning, middle and end, the kind in which you might experiment to determine whether it even matters if your eyes are open or not (answer: it does, and it doesn’t).

For another thing, an hour can seem like a very (very . . . very) long time when I am alone with my brain and nothing else.  Which I eventually am—it simply comes down to that once I stop fighting.  There is nothing else left.

First, though, I have to overcome my physical fear, and I realize that I am literally trembling as I lie down in the tank, door still ajar.  My body rises immediately to float atop the surface—there are 800 lbs of Epsom salts dissolved in these 200 gallons of water, creating a buoyancy roughly equivalent to that of the Dead Sea.  My head tips back a bit, and I float peacefully.  Calmly.  With pleasant orange-toned visions of the ceiling outside of the tank.  Just this, I think . . . it is almost enough.

Except that I’m done with almost enough.  And so, I close the door.

It is a bit heavy—heavier than I thought, definitely heavier than Alix said (“You can push it open with a finger!”) and it closes with certainty.  And then I am alone.

It is dark.  I cannot see.  I cannot hear.  The only thing to feel is water, and it’s a pleasant nothing, warmed to exactly skin temperature.  All that is left is to float, and I lean back, slide down, and rise again to the surface.  This is ok.  Odd.  Surprising.  I’m doing it.

Then I take a deep breath, reach out to feel the walls, and realize that I’m turning a bit in the darkness.  I’m not turning over—the buoyancy makes that essentially impossible—but around, as you might floating down a lazy river.  I take another breath.  IcantseeIcantsee.  I worry about finding the door.

I sit up suddenly, splashingly, and scratch my way toward the where I think the door might be.  Saltwater runs down my forehead toward my eyes as I try to keep franticness at bay.  I find the large circle with my fingertips.  I push, hard.

Door open.  Air.  Breathe.  Sigh.  Sit.

Try again.

And so it goes for maybe 10 minutes, until suddenly, during a floating moment, I have a realization.  It’s a thought both small and profound.  It belongs in the category, a designation for which I recently laughed at my float-experienced friends, of “Things the Tank Told Me.”

This realization is: “’Trapped’ is just a feeling.”  I turn that over in my mind, and realize it’s true on a deep level: there is no space that will feel big enough unless I’m content to find myself within it.  And conversely . . . perhaps I could choose to find myself right here in this tank.  To be here.  To fully inhabit this space and my body for this hour.  To live into where I am for now, and to trust that I am safe here.

And so I do.  I start with this moment in which I can concede that I don’t need to do anything—but for my panic about “what if?,” I am calm and happy and safe.  Realizing this, I commit to remain calm for the rest of the hour. It sounds reasonable inside my head, but almost immediately, I feel the familiar well of fear.  Too big.  Too much pressure.

Well . . . perhaps, then, dear self, we can agree to remain calm and happy in each moment where that works, knowing that we can make a new plan and respond appropriately if something changes.  No need to worry about it now.  Just be, until it’s time to be in a different way.

And this works.  This I can do.  One moment to the next, until the moments cease to be.

I dream.  I imagine.  I lose track of time and thought entirely.  I come back to myself and use my hands to scull the length of the tank until my head bounces gently off the top.  I scull back down to the bottom, pushing off with my feet like an amphibious pinball.  The water moves sloshily around me, rocking, swaying, and I feel an unnerving sense of vertigo.  This too shall pass, I think.  It does.

And so does the hour, until I hear a knock at the door and then another knock on the tank.  Relaxed and ready, I meet that knock with two of my own, sit up, and climb back into the light, leaning in toward whatever comes next.  I’m grateful to be swimming, grateful to be floating . . . grateful to be here.

j

*water safety PSA: joking aside, yelling is not an effective strategy for an actual active drowning victim.  (come to think of it, yelling is also unlikely to be helpful for people who  only think they’re drowning.)  We’re taking some literary license for the purpose of telling this story. 🙂

of friendship, worship, and the bravery of storytelling

Very early Monday morning, I returned home, bleary and beat, from 2013 General Assembly in Louisville.  I attended Ministry Days as well (thanks again, UUMA, for including aspirants this year), and so spent seven straight days in the hum and hustle of what I will call LUUieville.  This six-block section of downtown, centered around the Convention Center on 4th St., included the Marriott, Fairfield Inn, Springhill Suites, and the truly megalithic Galt House Hotel, where many of us stayed.  (It also included the Hyatt, which to my knowledge all 4000 of us pretended did not exist.  Get with the program, Hyatt . . . and while you’re at it, stop air conditioning the sidewalk. UPDATE: As of July 1, Hyatt Hotels has reached a collective bargaining agreement and the global boycott led by UniteHere has been lifted.)

In LUUieville, one might observe tie dye, chalice jewelry, deep conversations about covenant and social witness, prolonged interactions with those asking for money, people strolling casually and people hurrying, and nearly everyone, young, old, well-dressed or completely casual, wearing large nametags around their necks.  It was, to say the least, an interesting week–a time of friends and fellowship, of renewal and discovery, and of sharing stories and creating new ones.  Perhaps most of all, it was a time for talking about when and where and how we tell those stories, and what our storytelling might mean for our movement.  From Lillian Daniel to Eboo Patel to Bill Schulz, we heard the case, again and again, for stating our case as a people of faith.

Unsurprisingly, I came away with a few stories of my own . . . and also, a thought about that larger question of storytelling.

The idea with storytelling is that if we each speak from “I,” and from the heart, walls will fall down.  And sometimes, they will–with a willing listener, brave and open storytelling may result in a long and enjoyable conversation, in which beautiful differences and lovely commonalities are discovered.  I tell my own story, and then I respectfully make space for you to do the same.  Then in sharing, we are transformed.

Cool, huh?  (Everybody say, “aww . . .”)

I wish that were my message.  It’s simple.  It’s to-the-point.  It’s warm and fuzzy.

Unfortunately, though, working across the lines of difference–across conflict–is more complicated than that.  As a movement, we need not just to think about storytelling, but to challenge ourselves to go deeper with it.  It is a powerful tool, but using it to bring love and wholeness to our communities is going to require more than our narratives and our mouths.  Why?  Because, for one thing, it turns out that story-driven interactions can  entrench conflict rather than solving it.

Stories can help us to see one another .  . . but our own stories, held too closely, serve only to blind us.  (As I type this, Patrick Park is singing “Here We Are”—“We can’t see past our own sad stories/and forget how to listen.”)  Case in point: one of my new friends, a fellow seminarian, and I began to talk together about a very knotty issue, and quickly found ourselves knee-deep in disagreement.  The issue was close to each of our hearts, and felt tied to call, to authority, and in some ways, to identity.  We started by trying to parse the issue itself . . . that was like digging a hole.  Two holes.  And not the kind that intersect in the middle in some sort of tunnel of love.

I have a story—my story—about this conflict.  It is a true story, as best I know it—a relation of events that takes into account my own faults and foibles, and one that strives to be fair.  And Sarah has her own story—a story which is also compelling, also full of emotion . . . and also, to the best of her knowledge, factually accurate.  Again, what we have here is one situation.  Two people.  Two stories.  And both are true.

Both contain lessons, demand action, even inspire outrage.  Viewed from either side, the issues themselves become blurred, muddled and half-obscured by the strength of emotions involved.  This is true because this particular conflict isn’t actually issue-driven; it is story-driven.  Our own stories—the ones we tell ourselves, the ones we tell each other—can drive us deep into uncompromising territory.  Into the place where battle lines are drawn, because they seem like the only rational option.

Fortunately for our budding friendship, Sarah and I recognized this.  Later in the week, I saw Amy Carol Webb sing a song in which I recognized myself—here it is.

We both laid our shovels down, and started again, and this time we didn’t talk about “issues” or “truth” or try to label what “we” believe.  We started somewhere else: with the hard work of attempting to put ourselves in the other’s shoes.

To really build relationships—to forge community across entrenched lines of difference–we need to have not just the passion and energy to tell our own story, but the compassion and creativity to tell another’s.  Even when we have to really reach for it.  Even when we don’t quite get there.  I tried this, last week, with Sarah–tried sitting silently, eyes closed, to see the situation as she does, to feel what she feels, to tell a story from a different place.

In one sense, this failed—I didn’t fully enter Sarah’s story; I couldn’t even fully speak to her pain.  It was enough to broaden my view and open my heart, however.  It was enough to help my clenched fingers and clenched jaw turn loose of the “truth” they’d been harboring.  It was enough to open my heart to whatever comes next.

Being ready to tell another’s story takes guts.  If we don’t take this leap, though, it is likely that in those situations where difference is what we perceive most acutely, we will end up with a heart problem.  We can speak, but without truly listening.  We can act, but not in partnership with those who disagree with us.  We can share who we are, where we come from, and what we feel, but to stop there is to insist that our own perspective be heard and honored even where others’ are not.  Perhaps, then, the most important question we might ask isn’t, “how can I tell my story,” but “how else could I tell this story?”  Perhaps not, “what is the truth,” but “how might [this crazy-sounding thing that I’m hearing] make sense?”

In this week of lessons, there proved plenty of time to think about these questions, including on Saturday, when I attended a rare UU communion service.  Late in the worship, during a silent, standing ritual in which we received bread and wine with only a shared gaze, a man began to talk.  He had been talking for most of the service, turning the sermon into a sort of call-and-response routine, but I wasn’t aware of him during the communion–I was deep in reflection.  A woman stepped forward, quietly requesting that the man refrain from talking during the ritual (I didn’t hear her, either).

The man became angry, struggled to gather his belongings, and left the room in a dramatic scene, as the officiant bearing wine passed by.  Another minister began to sing.  The assembled body of people began to sing, too.  The door swung closed behind the man.  Nobody spoke.  Nobody moved.  Eventually the service ended, closing the book on assembled UU Christianity for another year.

That of course isn ‘t the end of the story, however.  It turns out that people are angry.  Complaints have been directed every which way.  This is completely unacceptable, not UU . . . not Christian.  What we need is a takeover of the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship (UUCF).  What we need is an alternative to the UUCF.

Um . . . maybe.  But how else could we tell this story?

The man has a mental illness, behaves differently, and should be met with love where he is. 

The woman is grieving a loss and had hoped to find peace and solace amid the quiet reflection of the communion ritual.  

The service was an example of our UU failure to live into the beloved community in the spirit of Christ.  

The service was an example of a beautiful ritual that doesn’t fit all needs of all people at all times.  

The service was simply what it was, and we are called to respond as we will, searching our hearts, bidding our hands, our feet, our mouths to do the work of love.  

The man was unfairly persecuted during the service.  

The woman was unfairly persecuted after the service.  

No one was persecuted; sometimes it is painful to live within the confines of community.

Any of us could have done something.  

We each could have done more.

On this day we failed.  

On this day we triumphed.  

On this day, we did both, and everything in between, and hopefully learned something that will allow us to live more fully, and to tread more gently, tomorrow.  

This is a small example, but that’s exactly the point: we each deal with countless opportunities every day to challenge and change the narratives in our heads.  Large or small, the questions we might ask are the same: How brave are we?  How creative are we willing to get?  How uncomfortable can we allow ourselves to be?  Whose story is missing here, and how can we tell it?  How else might we tell the story?

We must become storytellers, all right.  Not autobiographers, but narrators and sharers of that vast rainbow of experience—the minority perspective, the voice of the one who angers us.  Using not just our mouths, but our ears and perhaps above all, our hearts, our movement might dream to tell a tale not just of ourselves . . . but of what is possible.

pastoral care for humanists? : the Rev. Jill Jarvis responds

This guest post merits a guest reply; Rev. Jarvis, thanks for your words.  Readers, anything to add?  

Peace,

j

Alicia, this is a distressing situation indeed – you’re far from your loved ones, unable to help in any practical way, worried about both your sister and your parents. Fortunately you’re finding good support among your close friends, both online and in person. You know you’re not alone and you have people to affirm your feelings and listen deeply. But it sounds like you’re wanting something more, and wondering whether your nontheistic religion could possibly provide it. What is pastoral care for the humanist?

In any context I’m aware of, pastoral care is pretty much what you’re receiving from loving and trusted friends, and even the internet.  It’s a compassionate witness to those feelings of sorrow and helplessness, a non-anxious presence, and awareness that you’re not alone.

But even with that loving support provided by friends, you long to talk to your minister. Maybe it would be helpful to consider what you feel is missing. 

As you describe what you imagine a Christian minister might say, it seems to be a way of making sense of what you’re experiencing.  What’s the meaning behind all the pain? Is there a larger context, and can it offer hope? I think you’re asking whether your religion can help you make sense of your pain and fear. 

If it ultimately can’t, I’d advise you to consider changing religions. But first, take the time to struggle with understanding your experience of helplessness and vulnerability, in light of your own faith. The Rev. Rebecca Parker, in her book Blessing the World: What Can Save Us Now, says that when our current faith is inadequate to explain our reality, we have three options:  reject our faith, deny our experience, or become theologians.  That last option is about wrestling with the stories and traditions and our own experience until it all becomes meaningful, and we have a faith we can rely on to help us make it through this night and the many nights to come.

Chaplains in a hospital aren’t supposed to impose their own theology on a patient struggling through a life crisis.  They’re trained to provide support and comfort to patients of all religions and none. They mostly listen and affirm, meeting people where they are. But if a person in crisis signals a need to understand their situation in a greater spiritual sense, if they’re searching for a deeper meaning, the chaplain helps them do that by evoking the power of their own traditions and beliefs (the patient’s, not the chaplain’s.)

 I think most UU ministers are particularly good at this. We don’t feel called to make everyone’s experience fit neatly into One Great True Story.

Though I’m not a Christian, I really doubt that most liberal Christian ministers would be evoking the Christian worldview in quite the literal, simplistic sense you describe. How would that really help someone in crisis? Only if you’re truly able to ignore the realities of this life in favor of a joyful existence after death, would (it seems to me) you find that comforting.  It’s all part of a larger plan controlled by a God that has the power to make it all better…..really? Just observing life as you know it tells you that things sometimes don’t turn out as we hope, good people suffer, we are all vulnerable all the time.  If you hear the Christian story in that literal sense, you have to conclude that maybe God won’t make things better for you, even though God could. Where’s the comfort in that?

I think you’re longing for this sort of comfort, but seeing it available only if you were able to accept that supernatural literalism, and you can’t.  It doesn’t fit with your experience of life.  But underneath Christian dogma is the reality of human existence that can be evoked, through Christian stories and traditions, to make meaning in a much deeper, non-literal sense that does resonate with people’s experience.  The same can be said for Unitarian Universalism, with a non-theistic focus – but as with any religious tradition, you have to do the wrestling part.  Humanism is not (should not be) just an absence of certain beliefs.  If it ultimately can’t help you find meaning and comfort through the joy and suffering of life, I’d advise exploring other alternatives.  Naturalistic humanism works for me, but the wrestling has taken years, and if you’re doing it right, is never over.

In this case, the first step would be to talk to your minister. He should be able to help provide context and form for the wrestling. Blessings on your journey.

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Dear Raising Faith: on pastoral care for humanists

This guest post, from “Alicia,” asks what Unitarian Universalism, and what our ministers, specifically, might have to offer in times of personal crisis.  These are great questions, and I’m happy to put them out here.  What think you, trusty readers?  

All the best,

-j

My teenaged baby sister still lives with our parents. She’s been suffering with depression for quite some time now, and it’s recently come to enough of a head for our parents to seek psychiatric help for her. spilled pillsShe’s currently on her second prescription in as many weeks (it is always hard to find the right medication and the right dosage), and after spending time with her this weekend (when she seemed to be in relatively good spirits, discussing with me her plans for prom and the future), I got a message from my mom today telling me that they had taken her to the hospital, because she is having suicidal thoughts.

My immediate reaction was one of helplessness. I live not only in a different house but a different state, unable to provide my physical presence as support, nor practical help with household duties, cooking, or anything, really, while they help my sister work through her depression enough to safely leave the hospital. I do what I can to be there for her emotionally, trying to keep up with her through Facebook and text message, making time for her when I visit. But ultimately, there’s nothing tangible I can do to help.

On the heels of lamenting my helplessness, I had an impulse to e-mail my minister. He is great at being aware of the stresses present in his congregants’ lives and asking how he can support them. But as someone who sucks at asking for help, much less directing it, what can I say? Honestly, I have no idea, in this moment of helplessness and brokenness, what kind of meaningful help he could offer.

If I were a Christian, I would be seeking spiritual reassurance, a reminder that even if I am helpless, God is not, and He has both a plan and the power to remedy any situation. A Christian minister would pray with me, for God to soothe my heart and my sister’s (and my parents’), to heal us, or at least wrap divine arms of love around us, providing security as we weather the storm.

But even though I’m sure my minister would give that to me if I wanted it, I don’t – I’m agnostic. If I believe in something beyond physical reality, it’s not anyone moving the chess pieces of humanity about with a grand design in mind to checkmate the devil. I don’t believe in a personal God who knows the sorrows of every sparrow. So while I’m quick to suggest that my mother seek out her Christian minister’s care for her own needs, I hesitate to do the same, even when it occurs to me that I might – that perhaps, I ought.

In the context of a humanistic religion, what does pastoral care have to offer that a good friend – or a good therapist – doesn’t? The space to express my feelings of sorrow and helplessness abounds here on the Internet, and in the hearts of a few loving and trusted friends. They offer me non-anxious presence, love, an awareness that I’m not alone. A therapist (if I had one), would undoubtedly validate my concerns and offer me some secular coping strategies. I am fairly emotionally and spiritually self-aware, and don’t need anyone to tell me to engage in self-care during this time (though it seems a bit ludicrous to worry about myself because of my sister’s pain, I know it’s important). So what does the minister of my humanistic religion have to offer me in this time of difficulty?

This question feels big to me, the crux of a wider (if tired) conversation about Unitarian Universalism, and what makes us a religion rather than a social group, a lecture circuit, or a gathering of activists. And I’ve never really known how to answer that, except that it is a feeling, a sense of wonder and unity that can only be called religious. But while that is nice when all is well in life, what does it offer when all is not well?

(click here for a response from the Rev. Jill Jarvis.) 

a coming out, of sorts*

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

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

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

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

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

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

All the best,

j

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

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