in the little things, our love

Last night I sat in an old rattan chair in our church basement, feeling chilly and gazing up at the asbestos tiles on the ceiling.  The basement is an unprepossesing space.  It’s not scary–there aren’t dark corners or long cobwebs.  But it’s largely unfinished, painted concrete and cinderblock, humbly furnished, and just not a place we show off to visitors. Fortunately, we don’t have to love it; many among us ardently pine for more space for classes and meetings so the basement could be reserved for people–our youth?–who might “appreciate its charms.”  In the meantime, it gets the job done.

I was there for the final session of a small group series on Reproductive Justice, and I came to the basement, and to the assembled group, with something between equanimity and resignation.  This was the only class offered this spring, and for a variety of reasons, I was not willing to sign on with my whole heart.  I’m interested in the subject (as I have discussed–here, for example, and here; thoughtful guest response here); I wish we would talk more about this sort of thing, and that we’d do it in a way that acknowledges that there are a variety of viewpoints even among devoted Unitarians.  But I knew this class had an agenda from the outset, and it didn’t necessarily square with my own.  And I didn’t realize this consciously until now, but from the time I put my name down on the sign up sheet until the night of our last session, I had one foot out the door.

And yet, I returned.  And returned.  And . . . returned.  I came to check it out, and I stayed to say my piece, and I came back in hopes of learning more, until finally I attended because that’s what I did on Wednesday nights.   The group was well-facilitated, its members open and enthusiastic, and the material relevant and interesting.  That said, I did sometimes feel uncomfortable.  And I sat in silence with the things that bother me– it’s just not time right now.  But I learned a lot, and though I thought of myself as “dropping in,” I was there.  (And perhaps in this, a lesson: I don’t always have to depend on my confused heart to take me where I need to go, because I have my feet to bring me.  My heart can just follow along for the ride . . . and something might touch it anyway.)

And then last night in the cool basement, staring upward as chairs scraped and feet thundered above me, something happened.  One moment I was wishing I had a quilt or afghan to wrap myself in–I am something of a critic by nature, of the organization-reforming, process-refining sort; I was quickly developing a plan for a blanket drive to make our chilly spaces more hospitable for winter group meetings–and the next, I felt blanketed in love and joy.

What happened?  Our group was checking in, and I was listening . . . but without truly listening.  (I have some work to do around mental multi-tasking, or its opposite, which I believe is simply called presence).  Then one participant shared her gratitude for the simple comfort of being able to walk into our church building, home of our little community, and make herself a cup of tea amid the bustle of the Wednesday night kitchen.  We had what she needed.  She knew where to find it, and felt invited to do so.  She felt welcomed in the space, even given the busy-ness of those around her.  She found a place of ease and respite from the demands of the day, and settled with joy and peace into our company.

Wow.  Wow.  Sometimes the little things are the big things.  In my joy at seeing the improvement in an evening that this sort of gift can create–a simple thing, but a big one for quality of life–I smiled.  Then I settled in with joy and peace of my own, and sent a quick mental blessing around the circle to my fellow congregants, to the cheery light of the lamp in the corner, to the work that we had done together that day, and up to those faded acoustical tiles on the ceiling.  I snuggled into my chair, blanketed in the abundance of a community of here and now, and engaged in the work of our final evening together.

And later, much later, and then again this morning, I thought about the ways that this community provides sustenance for my body as well as nourishment for my soul.  I think about the big things a lot, but I tend to gloss over the abundance–and the importance–of the little ones.  So, thinking about the last few weeks, I made a list:

My church community has given me . . .

* a cheering section
* a hot meal cooked with love
* encouragement to grow
* a hug, a smile, a knowing wink
* listening–casual listening, deep listening, and the sort of listening (risky, across the lines of our own hearts) that for me mediates God as closely as anything I’ve ever found
* opportunities to be a listener myself, and to learn to do it better
* space to do things that scare me–and as much of a safety net as you can have while still doing something that’s real
* an abundance of grace in my mistakes (see above)
* smiles, hugs, and genuine love for my children, even when they are acting exactly like themselves
* and yes, a hot beverage on a cold day.  or many such beverages–this is probably my most-used feature of our kitchen.  Friends, welcome to the Minstry of Tea.

What a place, right?  What an unearned bounty . . . and what a difference it makes to my days and to my life.  It makes the sort of difference, in fact, that encourages me to tromp downstairs week after week, and open myself to things I don’t necessarily want to hear.  The accumulation of tiny loves and mundane comforts may be exactly what makes it feel safe to follow my feet even when my heart isn’t quite ready.

When we talk about finding a church home, connecting around spirituality is probably what we think of first . . . but is that ultimately why we decide to stay?  Maybe the decision to join a congregation has something to do with experiencing comfort–and perhaps it’s not just the church part we should focus on, then, when we talk about growth, but on how we offer those who find us a piece of home.  A home that is not the one we make ourselves and return to in the evenings, but the one from our dreams.

A warm glow.

A space at the table, prepared for you.

A beloved community, making beautiful a humble basement.

You are welcome here.  Come in, and grow.  But first: make yourself at home.  

fewer lines, more listening, part II

It’s been a little while.  I had something I needed to say before embarking on this post . . . more on that here.  And then I took some time to simply sit with my thoughts, and those of lots of others.  Within Unitarian Universalism, there are many bloggers dealing with the same kinds of questions: How do we engage that which is outrageous?  What should we say when confronted with systemic injustice?  How should we be as a people committed to standing on the side of love, living in a country where standing on the side of fear is the most expedient way to policy change?

It is an act of spiritual violence to sit idly while oppression reigns.  Not talking is not the answer.  Shying away from hard questions for fear of making someone uncomfortable is not the answer.  Agreeing to disagree is also not the answer.

And so . . . be it resolved:

Let’s not be silent.

Let’s not agree to disagree.

Let’s not refuse to ask each other hard questions.

But what this post is about—my piece of this conversation, a thing I have been feeling the need to say for several months, and which, more than anything else, is the reason this blog exists in the first place—is that I’m also hearing other whispers.  Sometimes, they’re more than whispers, and they urge us toward something that looks less like standing on the side of love, and more like leading from our anger and our fear.  I hear this when we talk about—or refuse to really talk about—abortion, saying things like, well, if we really acknowledge that a pregnancy might amount to more than a ball of cells, we’re going to be exploited by the other side.  I hear this, and loudly, when we assert that merely remaining in relationship with someone identifies as an evangelical Christian is tantamount to allying oneself with a culture of violence.

Until (insert group) is ready to accept (insert deeply-held principle affecting the lives of real people), there’s simply no point in engaging with them, or so the argument goes.  It’s too risky.  It doesn’t feel good.  Listening only enables them.

Here’s the thing: choosing not to listen enables us.  It allows us to maintain the stories and images—of ourselves and of the other—that help us feel secure in our choices.  It allows our congregations to feel unified where we haven’t done the hard work to find something other than fear to rally around.  It lets us avoid the pain of growth and change, because neither is likely to happen where we build echo-chambers instead of houses of public worship.

Perhaps the questions we should ask in deciding whether it’s worth our energy to talk to the “other” should have less to do with what they, and we, believe, and more to do with the meta-level communication processes involved.  Instead of “Might she agree with me?,” or “Is his belief system offensive to me or even harmful in some way?” perhaps we should ask, “is he willing to engage in public dialogue?  Does she show respect for the goals of civil discourse?”  What we might move toward is a conversational covenant, a structure that might allow us to have true dialogue about things that matter—and with people whose views are very different.

Does this seem radical?  Impossible, even?  A dream so utopian that not even UUs can believe in it?

Friends, I have news.  I will refrain from calling it Good News, but I believe, and deeply, that if Unitarian Universalism is to be part of the healing process in the larger society, we must become listeners, first and foremost.  We must listen to ourselves, and that’s where a lot of the buzz in the blogosphere is being directed at the moment—are we hearing and honoring that still small voice within each of us, including when it calls us to speak?  However, we cannot stop there.  We must also listen to one another, and then we must take a risk and listen to “the other”—the voice of difference, of disagreement, of discomfort.  And we must do this not simply because it honors the inherent worth and dignity of each person to listen with an open heart—we have to do it because it will form the basis of our most effective social justice work.  An intentional, worshipful commitment to dialogue can change not only conversations, but people and ultimately political realities.  In fact, in our current era, listening may be the most powerful, most needed, and most under-utilized tool we have.

More soon.  In the meantime, a thought:

“Our job as churches is to learn to talk together again and to allow our conversation to spill out of our churches and into our neighborhoods, a stream of hope scented with the rich fragrance of the reconciliation, the shalom that God desires for all creation. May we abide faithfully in this calling!”

Christopher Smith, The Virtue of Dialogue

Peace, all.

j

note: a follow-up to this post can be found here, with “don’t talk to strangers (listen to them instead!)”

fewer lines in the sand, more listening (part I)

Recently, the Rev. Tom Schade published a series of posts suggesting that today’s political conservatism is wholly inconsistent with the values of Unitarian Universalism.  To those who claim both allegiances, Schade says “Show your work”—how do you get from your faith to your politics?  I take issue with this, not because I don’t think the questions are valid, but because I’m not persuaded that it makes sense, given the number of ethical and practical conflicts that we all live with each day, to level these challenges at one particular group of UUs.

Maintaining right relations—with each other, with our communities, and with the broader world—is demanding, soul-searching work.  But it’s not work that belongs most particularly to one group or another—it’s the work of all of us.  And so, perhaps we can say, to conservative UUs, to liberal UUs, and to everyone in between: Tell your story.  Explain your reasoning.  Show your work.  And then listen, in a spirit of honest curiosity, as we consider the answers.  What does our religion require of us, individually and together?

As we examine these questions—stepping up to the plate ourselves–carefully and respectfully, freely and responsibly—we create the safe space that might allow others to do the same.  This is valuable, as those who choose to worship among us have self-selected, perhaps more than they consciously know, to invest some effort in the task of living spiritually-connected lives.  As Unitarian Universalists, we are not the Nones–those who have opted for a life of secularism–but a religious people who have entered into a covenant that includes invitation to spiritual growth.

So let’s provide that challenge to grow, and Rev. Schade has highlighted some areas where discussion in our congregations might be helpful and illuminating.  But let’s also accept that the invitation to self-examination, and the discoveries that follow, are going to change not just the one we think needs to be changed, but us, too.  In talking openly with those with whom we disagree, we will be made different, and we need to be.  Not because we need to believe in equality of opinion, as individuals or as a movement, but because we believe in the power of stories to shape the world–and to reshape our perceptions of it–and we each must tell our own.

On that note, here is a little piece of my story, as it relates to opinions, values, politics, and our relationship to and with the Infinite.  Our minister–let’s call her Jane–occasionally posts an article or meme related to a social justice issue on her publicly-accessible facebook wall.  One recent post was about abortion; I responded to it explaining that I don’t think the discussion needs to be all-or-nothing on either side, and that I, for example, am both pro-choice and a supporter of the codification of some fetal rights.  Conversation up to that point had been a range of “Amen!” and “Rah-rah!” comments about the original post.  After my response–cue crickets.  (Jane respectfully acknowledged my post and looked for areas of agreement, but the silence from other participants felt deafening.  On the whole, I wondered if it was perhaps shameful in UU circles to even frame the issue as two sets of rights to balance, rather than as an outrageous usurpment of one.)

Not long afterward, some members of my church were socializing together before a meeting, and the topic of the anti-abortion movement in the U.K. came up.  Opponents of abortion reportedly staged silent vigils across from women’s clinics, handing out leaflets to women who passed by.  “Those people are just crazy!” exclaimed one member, and the others nodded their agreement.  My husband replied that he didn’t think it was that the protesters were crazy, but that they were living their values—different, but strongly-held—in a way that made sense to them.  Crickets again . . . and then a hasty change of subject.

I share this example because it is one in which my husband and I hold what is—so far as I can tell—a fairly moderate view [namely, that abortion should be safe, legal, and an option of last resort, one particularly eschewed after the point of viability] in terms of the range of opinions in our society, but which is an extreme view in the context of Unitarian Universalism. I will share more about this, from a different perspective, in my next post.  For the moment, a few words about how my take on abortion fits with my larger faith—my response to the calling to account for which Rev. Schade speaks.

I arrived at this opinion—having spent much of a decade information tabling for Planned Parenthood—through my experiences of pregnancy, childbirth, and pregnancy loss.  It is a view dictated by my heart and my soul more than by my head, and it’s been both challenged and supported in my journey since then.  I have researched and written in the special education context in support of fetal rights—and the rights to life, dignity, and bodily integrity of all who cannot speak for themselves.  Far from conflicting with my UU faith, it is my deep concern for the inherent worth and dignity of ALL people that leads me to reflect upon and speak about my own views on abortion, counter to prevailing UU opinion though they may be.

Do my fellow congregants agree with my thoughts about this?  I’m not sure, as we haven’t found a space or format in which we can really discuss it [aside: this space is sorely needed, as are the willingness and practical skills to engage, and it’s not just UUs that are missing these–it’s our society], but my guess is no.  Should I be called to account for my reasoning should I decide to stand and speak for what I believe to be just and humane?  Definitely.  But do I have a higher burden of obligation to do that than someone speaking on the other side, simply because my opinion is less common in this faith?  What presuppositions do we make about the values and scruples of those who reach different conclusions—and what do those judgments say about us, as a movement?

To those who would assert that this calling-to-account of some members is not because their opinions are different, but because the opinions conflict with our principles, I ask: how do we get from “our principles” to the intolerance of some theological beliefs within individual UU congregations?  How do “our principles” guide our blindness to the empty plate at our own congregational table, or inspire us to do first for ourselves and share with others what is left over?  They don’t, of course, but our congregations deal with both of these issues–or in some cases, choose not to deal with them–constantly.

I suspect that we each struggle, at least insofar as our eyes and hearts are open, to discern the meaning and the imperative behind our values, and to live in accord with that.  That’s part of why we need religion–it’s hard to live a life of worth and decency without examining our choices.  Thus, the hypocrisy we’re talking about today is just easy pickings–it’s visible, and it’s about “someone else.”  Just this once, let’s skip the low-hanging fruit and see if we can go deeper into what matters.

The reality is, those who disagree with us are, in general, not crazy.  They are people, often people who care deeply about the same sorts of things that we care about, who have arrived at different conclusions.  But a common reaction—perhaps even our default reaction, these days—is to view those people as “the other,” and to see them only through the lens of our disagreement on an issue.  And there are tangible benefits to doing this.  First, fear of the Other can unify a group into a cohesive Us like nothing else—for an extreme example of this, consider the instant national unity, from the mountains to the prairies to the halls of Congress, after 9/11.  Further, it feels good; righteous outrage stimulates the pleasure centers of our brains, and makes the complicated, headache-inducing dilemmas we face everyday seem much simpler.  And while it’s disappointing, we UUs are not immune to this simplification-by-way-of-Other . . . sometimes it is even preached from our pulpits.  (Perhaps this surprises you—I hope it does, actually, as that might mean it is rare—but I have seen it happen.  And friends, it is ugly.)

Drawing a line in the sand.  An old metaphor.

Why is this call to establish [and enforce?] a UU line in our politics happening now?  Is it necessary?  And where else might we choose to go in the call to deepen our commitments to living our spiritual principles?

More on that soon.  In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts on any or all of this discussion.

j

“Recovering Christians”: a UU Minister Responds

Happy New Year, friends!  We are starting 2013 by looking back (but for the purposes of moving forward!) at an earlier post: this one, in which I wondered how we might move past the “recovery” stage in our approaches to religion.  Below is a UU minister’s response to that post.  Raising Faith is about exploring together through ongoing conversation, so I am happy to post this response–and I’d love to hear your thoughts as well.

Wishing you a blessed start to your year.

j

When I first joined a UU church in 1990, there was a popular curriculum called “The Haunting Church” used in an adult education class. That was replaced in 2006 by “Owning Your Religious Past.”  I don’t know how widely this curriculum is used, but wanted to point out that it does exist.
The aversion to all things Christian has been a much-discussed and debated part of UU culture, overlapping with the humanist-theist controversy, for at least as long as I’ve been a UU. Having studied in a UU seminary with fellow students from throughout the UU spectrum – both geographically and theologically – I’m aware now that these issues are moving targets. Some congregations are very open to Christianity and theism – maybe they always were, maybe they’ve actively worked on becoming more pluralistic, or maybe new generations have caused a cultural shift.  Some are still very predominantly humanist and proud of it (sometimes, the “us” vs. “them” mentality you mentioned) – but I have a sense that is changing. 
The congregation I serve was once nearly exclusively humanist, but has been in transition theologically and culturally during the past decade (a result, I think, of numerical growth – or maybe the growth is the result of the transition – probably both are true.)  I’d say about half would describe themselves as some form of theist, and half as non-theist. Doesn’t that make you wonder, what does “theist” mean to those who so label themselves?  Is it about the use of God-language?  Does it include earth-based spirituality?  Is the god/goddess in question naturalistic, immanent, transcendent, personal, anthropomorphic, or…?  Most importantly, what does that mean for how we live our lives?  I find myself wishing that we did have ongoing ways to engage these questions together.
I’ve had requests to use more biblical references in my services.  I’ve heard some wonder whether there’s too much emphasis these days on Christianity in our congregation, and will there be room for humanists? And vice versa.  Mostly I see a willingness to be open to exploring different religious ideas and traditions, and this certainly includes Christianity. Not every individual. But the congregation as a whole.
The willingness to let others engage, even in communal worship, is not necessarily a willingness to engage oneself.  I’d love to see a real interest in exploring together, in small classes or groups, our ideas of God or even religion.  We need to go deeper, in ways that speak to our own experience and open us to the experience of others – that’s where transformation becomes possible. Healthy UU congregations have evolved past the “knee-jerk reaction against” stage, to an atmosphere of acceptance and safety where people can say they’re Christian or Buddhist or theist or atheist and not feel marginalized, but embraced. But engaged/challenged/asked to elaborate?  Not so much. We’ve too recently achieved the “safe space” culture and are hesitant to mess with that.  So in talking about our different theologies (if we do talk about them), we engage in an adult UU version of the “parallel play” of toddlers. But “Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations” is all one principle – not two separate concepts.  Failure to engage, explain, question, discuss – for fear of lapsing into hostility or smugness – pretty much precludes encouraging one another’s spiritual growth. I think we can do better, and we should.
Reading your post, I’m pondering what it might mean to be a “practicing Christian” in a UU community,  and how that might differ from being a “practicing UU.”  Does “practicing” mean celebrating certain holidays, sharing the ancient stories, taking part in traditional rituals?  Does it mean intellectual adherence to certain dogmas regarding ultimate reality? And/or does it mean, living the faith?  In thinking about this, I’m remembering an article by the Rev. Victoria Weinstein.*  Rev. Weinstein identifies as a UU Christian; this article appeared in UU World in 2007.  
Rev. Weinstein wrote: 

But where was Jesus in our UU worship life? … Since Jesus’ radical inclusivity, love of humanity, and passion for justice was so harmonious with all the “good news” I was hearing in our congregations, why did our ministers and congregants so assiduously avoid the Gospels? … I could not understand why UUs would allow the perversions of the Religious Right to define the word “Christian” (or “religious,” for that matter), why they would concede religious language to the conservatives, and why they would go out of their way to construct a religion intentionally bereft of theology… where every spiritual path but the Christian path was considered valid and where all evidence of a Christian past was removed, revised, and painted over.

It took ten more years of committed Unitarian Universalist life for me to consider that perhaps my dear UUs were the most strangely faithful Christians of all. Having either intuitively or consciously embraced Jesus’ gospel of love, service, and justice, they could not stand to affiliate with any so-called faithful who claimed to have received their inspiration for discrimination, exclusion, superstition, and damnation from the same source. The well, for too many UUs, had been irrevocably poisoned, and they would thereafter drink of the living waters from another source. Any other source, it seemed, but the Christian well. I felt called to abide with my religious community, to remain patient with my own sense of religious difference among them, and to pursue the ministry.

That perspective resonates with my own UU experience (mostly!)  Particularly so as I’ve come to know this faith as not being defined by a set of intellectual beliefs.  It’s a way of living, of understanding life and love and our relationship to the mystery of that which is greater than ourselves, however we may each experience that. 
I’m aware that the members of the congregation I serve have a great range of experience with Christianity in their former religious lives.  Some have been viscerally, deeply wounded – by misogyny, homophobia, biblical literalism.  They’ve been abused by both church authorities and the teachings themselves.  Of these, some seek healing and would appreciate other ways to understand the Christian tradition.  Others want nothing to do with it, ever, period.  But there are many more who had a mostly positive experience with Christian churches.  They left because they stopped believing in the dogma, or wanted a greater (or different) emphasis on social justice, scientific knowledge, or freedom of conscience.  Their memories of Christian community are mostly fond, not traumatic.
So I think we need to tread lightly when we assume “woundedness” among our humanists (for example.)  For those who are indeed wounded, the church is here for healing, not to further deepen the wound or to give it more power among us. In our enthusiasm to get past our aversion to our own Christian roots, we’ve sometimes sent the message to humanists that, if only you’d get past your childhood trauma with religion, you’d see the light and be open to Christianity (or theism.) Of course, that’s not true and is as insulting as the implication that when you get over your old irrational superstitions you’ll leave Christianity behind.
What would it look like to build a Beloved Community where spiritual growth is actively encouraged?  I think we’d have active groups of members exploring the deep spiritual questions together, feeling safe enough to reveal their own ideas, willing to question and to be questioned, everyone humble about their own beliefs and curious about those of others. And open to being changed by the process. 

*Rev Dr. Victoria Weinstein is active in the blogosphere as “PeaceBang,” where she continues to discuss issues such as those she raised in the essay referenced above.

the interdependent web(s in our garage)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“recovering Christians”–and recovering Christianity

As I have shared, I am a Unitarian Universalist and a practicing Christian.  Sometimes I talk about my experiences with this.  Other times, I talk about my faith, generally, and it’s heard by my fellow congegants from a Christian perspective (I haven’t been exactly quiet about that, especially this past year, so it’s probably not surprising that when I say something about my religion, it’s assumed that I’m talking about J.C. and the boys).

This happened a few weeks ago.  I shared on facebook the discovery that college students are having intense discussions about the nature of God in coffee bars downtown, leading to an in-person discussion on the same topic with some of my church friends.  The earnestness of the students’ dialogue both excited and perplexed me–I have been yearning for a place to discuss God more, myself, and wondered aloud why these discussions aren’t happening at church. The response of my church friends, on the other hand, surprised me: “If what you need is an in-depth Bible study,” advised one friend, “then you probably need to go somewhere else.”  The comment was off the cuff and not meant to be offensive, but I think it’s telling in terms of how we UUs sometimes view questions of faith, especially where we put “Christian” in front of that faith.

I have thought about this in the weeks since this interaction, and I have a few questions.  Of which the first (and the only one I’ll deal with today) is: who said anything about Bible study?  We actually have a fairly long-standing Bible study group in existence at my church; I have never gone to it, but I feel sure that it is an open, curious and respectful discussion.  What I want is to go deeper with my faith.  I want reflective dialogue.  I want consideration of difficult questions.  I want connection.  We can offer these things to one another without any mention of Bible study, and conversely, we can read our Bibles with all the piety of Mary and still miss the mark on the things that truly encourage the development of spiritual depth.

One aspect of the Bible does matter in this discussion, however, and that is the feelings we have toward it and how we bring those attitudes to our interactions around faith.  To the extent that you are offended by biblical references, closed to any possible message in the life or words of Jesus, or openly hostile to the inclusion of any Bible stories in the religious education that we might offer our children, you are indeed impeding my ability to fully explore and grow in my faith in the context of my church.  For those who explain that it’s not a kneejerk reaction against Christianity that provokes this attitude–“I’m a humanist; I don’t ‘do’ this spiritual stuff”–I wonder if that reasoning holds up in light of the variety of texts included in UU-style worship.  Do the Upanishads offend you equally?  Are the musings of Rumi as fingernails on a blackboard to thine ears?

When I first wrote a draft of this post, I ended up with something ridiculous–a reflection about how odd it is to be the sole practicing Christian I know . . . amid a congregation of former practicing Christians.  Certainly we are a varied group in our church, but the vast majority of us were at one point churchgoers in Christian families.  The interesting question, then, isn’t “why am I the only one,” but “why does Christianity continue to hold meaning for me?,” and perhaps “what led my fellow congregants to decide that the ‘Christian’ label wasn’t one that fit them?”  Of course, this isn’t one story.  It’s more than 100 stories, and I’d love the chance to hear them.  Given that Christianity isn’t exactly unfamiliar territory for our congregation, however, our individual histories suggest that there are challenges to confront directly if we are going to be truly open to spiritual growth.

On Twitter this summer, Rev. Ellen Cooper-Davis exhorted us, “Don’t be a recovering anything.  Recover.  Be a Unitarian Universalist.”  Those words inspired a round of hear, hears in the blogosphere, and I’d like to add an Amen, myself.  In a widely-shared post, Unitarian Universalist minister and online persona PeaceBang also called for us to release the part of our congregational identities that are built around rejection of our previous religious lives.  These perspectives are timely and needed if our movement is to grow. They do, however, leave open the question of how one might recover from prior religious trauma, and how congregations can help.

I got my start in Unitarianism at a large church in Salt Lake City.  If we accept that individuals can be damaged at the hands of religion, this congregation was ministering to the walking wounded, and it showed.  While its members were in many ways a thriving and joyful bunch, the church culture I entered into was defined by “us” and “other”–we were hunkered down against a social onslaught, and in that context we devoted more energy to patting ourselves on the back than reaching out to those in need; we spent more time raising our eyebrows and nodding knowingly at what individuals had previously experienced than in doing the work to process those hurts and move forward.

Building a cohesive community, helping members to feel safe and comfortable, encouraging a spirit that makes people want to return–these are important tasks for any congregation.  Our more important task, however, is welcoming the stranger.  The healthy church is not the one in which everyone knows that s/he is “on the team” and feels bolstered by a Yay, Us!  sermon to go out and live for another week among “them.”  It is the church whose doors are truly open for public worship, for anyone–like us or very, very different–who may walk through them.  This requires that we do the difficult work, individually and together, to acknowledge and work through our spiritual hurts so that we are open to grow ourselves and to foster that growth in others.  In this way we gain both depth and centering, that we might maturely witness and minister to the struggles of the stranger among us (even when that stranger is someone we know and love who is grappling with something we ourselves haven’t experienced and don’t understand).

This I believe: we are not fully free to grow spiritually while we handle the religion of our past with garlic cloves and lead vests.  Coming to terms, together and individually, with our Christian heritage is needed.  It’s challenging.  And . . . it’s out of my area of expertise.  Are positive spiritual growth opportunities enough, or do we as a denomination need to offer intentional opportunities for spiritual detox?  What would that look like?  And what might our congregations look like, from our relationships with one another to the messages we hear from our pulpits, if we all decided, together, to “recover and be Unitarian Universalists?”  I would love to know . . . and as wonderfully quippy as Rev. Cooper-Davis’s words were, I don’t think our merely saying them is enough.  Our members have been hurt.  They are hurting.  Where do we go from here, that we might go somewhere better, together, in the future?

j

[note: for a UU minister’s response to this post, click here.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ready?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jamie Barkes Pursley

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

j

toward a hands-on sort of faith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raising Faith v.1.0

Hi, there!

This site exists because I made an early New Year’s resolution to stop bugging all my Facebook friends, who generally read for posts about my family, with constant reflections about my family’s faith.  I kept thinking, “after I talk about this one issue . . . after things settle down in our congregation and there’s not so much going on . . . after I finish my Chalica posts”–I am going to stop posting about religion all the time.  Unfortunately, over these same months I have found myself with an increasing number of questions, musings, and occasionally, frustrations about my religion and about religious life, generally.  Sometimes I have felt, in a way that’s bigger than the Facebook format really allows, that I might have a thing or two to say about all of this–but NOT that I’d like to literally say (I am terrified of oratory-style public speaking.  I hate it.  The mere thought gives me goosebumps.)  What I needed, it occurred to me, was something like a column.  Or . . . a blog.  Aha!

I’m interested in all things religious–history, beliefs, the ins and outs of congregational life and even denominational growth and politics–but particularly the biggest questions, which sometimes seem like the smallest.  Why do we go to church?  How should we treat those who mistreat us?  Can we raise children with a clear denominational identity and still encourage them to think critically and love openly?  I was thinking about these questions this morning and realized that overall, I wonder how, in a religion that values (among other things) individualism, freedom of conscience, and differing viewpoints, we might attempt to raise children of faith. And lo, Raising Faith was born.

I am a Unitarian Universalist (hesitantly since 2005 . . . transformatively since this past summer).  My Christian faith remains important to me as well; my husband and I are doing our best to raise our two young sons in a blend of both faiths, making spirituality an intentional matter in our home and our lives.  Sometimes this feels beautiful.  Sometimes it feels a bit scattered.  And sometimes, like this morning, I am too busy trying to keep my two year old from swallowing our nativity Jesus to think much about faith in the bigger picture.

I want this to be a space to explore issues, ask questions, share discoveries, and celebrate the joy and beauty of family-life-in-faith.  What I don’t envision is an overly reverent take on any of the above, an exclusively UU perspective (in fact, I hope not–let’s get ecumenical about this), or commentary without the occasional mistake or misstep.  Let’s be real.  It may be messy at times.  Even edgy (!)  But it will also be fun, and funny . . . and, who knows, maybe we’ll even learn something.

Looking forward to the conversation–thanks for reading!

j