Someday comes the choosing

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source: Pixabay

There are always some of us living in whispers, tiptoeing through places both as transient as the bus station and insubstantial as the spring spiderweb.

Liminal space:  where our lives stretch taut between past and future; the charged moment; the pregnant pause.

This week, UU ministers and congregations are nearing the end of the search process. Whittling down. Narrowing toward decisions.

Our family is among these, and like the chorus in a Greek tragedy, our children give voice to the questions. (In childhood, fun and wonder occur on an annual cycle, and so our sons are constantly planning for the next go round. “Next year, can we . . .?” )

These entreaties are as predictable as the slam of the screen door in summer, and I’ve never had cause to give them more than a passing thought.

Yes, of course we will go to the pumpkin patch. Yes, of course we can pick apples. Yes, we will have Thanksgiving with–

Until now.

The bland assurances die in my throat.   (I have . . . no idea, friends.)

Eventually, I take a breath, and say with firm cheer that we will DEFINITELY be somewhere, doing something.

Which is apparently as reassuring to them as it is to me. The boys teeter for a moment between the floor-gripping horror of childhood’s early years and the skeptical derision of its middle ones, and then they request specifics. And so we begin again with the litany of possibility, repeated and embellished from day to day.

Yes, I think they have pumpkins in Smithville. Indeed, there are tacos in Springfield.

I promise that Santa will find us on Christmas, and yes, I am positive that we can find someone to make you the dragon fortress cookie for your birthday. (Note to self: am I positive? Will there still be birthday cookies?)

And remember: they have [insert whatever fairy tale feature makes each place a little more delectable . . and a little more unreal].

And so, the boys return again to the maps. Pointing with fingers that are no longer quite so tiny, at the ponds and coastlines and contours that may see these small, curious boy-hands into teenagerhood.

Behind them, out the window, the last stand of hardwood forest in a neighborhood now standing atop it. Beyond that, hills and limestone and prairie, a land of green plains moving westward, flattening as the sky opens wide above them.

These are strange days. A bit fraught. A bit magical. The lobster holds court with the western meadowlark, and cathedral spires rise with the peal of bells over our beloved prairie.

And everywhere around us, the larger country of the unknown; the place in which a map is always yearned for, and for which none shall ever be created.

This unknowing is, I suspect, what drives us mad about liminal space. We feel rootless. Groundless. Unable to build.

But that isn’t entirely true.

Yesterday, in a moving Easter liturgy, Kendyl Gibbons pointed out that the blunt obviousness of salvation by literal, organic presence “was never the point.” The point, instead? That enduring vision is what makes a way out of no way.

My friends, we can, indeed, build in this space. It’s just that we can’t anchor here.

We are building visions, and containing possibilities too grand to exist on the everyday scale. There is no room in the realities we inhabit for the lobster and the meadowlark to live together. There will be no Italian marble on the prairie, no waving wheat in Waterbury.

We choose, in the end, the path less taken (or the one more familiar, come to that) because in the real world, eventually, we must. But not yet. Not here. Here, for an eternity both precious and painful, we can build it all.

And so, we are dreaming, together.

Next comes the choosing. The dawning. The litany, made real.

But for now, there is just this moment, made sacred by our hopes.

For now, let us, each and all, dream.

j

of spiders and scariness (a pre-Halloween challenge)

photo credit Rebecca Gant. This was in her garden. Which is why I will not be.

A couple of years ago, I discovered trail running.

I love running in nature, and I love autumn, and I am thrilled to be living in a part of the country that offers both, and for months at a time.

You take the good with the bad, though.  And you could certainly argue that there is something bad about fall around here.

A dangly, sticky, creepy, crawly, hangy, sneaky, and sometimes hairy thing.

Spiders.

I have lived in the Missouri river valley for a total of 12 years. I grew up, on the other hand, at 6200 feet, and the local fauna, while impressive in their own right, were much less horrifying. Living here, I have seen creatures that would have sent my Wyoming schoolchild self running into . . . well, Nebraska.

Except that I would run north. Because: spiders.

I have made some progress around my phobia. I don’t have actual proof for you, because have spent most of the last decade grabbing a projectile rather than a camera, but I have encountered orb weavers and crab spiders, wolf spiders and enough recluses to become thoroughly bored of them. And also, jumping spiders (my least favorite because, well, they jump. And so will you. It is wrong.)

And I have survived them all.

I have outlived them, in fact.

Which brings us back to this fall. Where running meets homeschooling, in that a couple of times each week, my older son and I take to the trails while Silas is at preschool.

don’t be fooled by the civilized-looking trail marker. anything could happen in here, people. and I will probably scream when it does.

There is a story here.  It happened a couple of weeks ago on one of those amazing crisp-air, blue-sky mornings that only fall can offer.

I was excited to reach the first fork in the path so I could run a few circuits of the white trail. Soeren was excited to examine every object in front of him. And that was fortunate, because it is how I avoided stepping on what Soeren identified as The Second Largest Spider I Have Ever Seen. (It is not, I will note, the second-largest spider I have ever seen. I spent part of a summer in Costa Rica, which is a country populated by people who appear to be peaceful, yet who will reliably launch a full-scale military assault against a two-inch gecko in a shower stall. Those same people also appear to be rational, yet not one of them batted an eye while tarantulas the size of salad plates claim space on the sidewalks at sundown. Costa Rica is a beautiful and worthwhile travel destination . . . and it’s the “Switzerland of Central America” only in the way that Tim Burton’s land of Halloween was the true home of Santa Claus.)

While probably not a tarantula, Soeren’s spider was, if you are someone with misgivings about arachnids, rather heinous. Furry. Marked with dramatic lines and swirls. Camouflaged almost perfectly in the dappled sunlight of the leaf-lined trail. And large enough to neatly cover the top of my shoe. Had it walked onto my shoe. Which it did not.

[Makes the sign of the cross before continuing to type]

I offer, as evidence of my progress, my ability to make comments appropriate for a parent of a science-loving child, and for a minister-in-training who is mindful of the Interdependent Web of Which We Are All a Part.

It is true, however, that I did this while backing away slowly.  Subsequent conversation as follows:

Soeren: You don’t like him, do you?

Me: I like him fine. Over there.

Soeren: I don’t think he’s going to hurt you.

Me: I don’t think he’s going to hurt me, either.

Soeren: You’re not even standing on the trail anymore.

Me: Yikes! I mean . . . you’re right.

Sooooo. [deep breath.] I’m gonna run now.

Soeren: I’m gonna stay here and investigate.

Me: Ooohkay.

There are some things that I would like you to know before I tell you the next part of this story: I have been terrified of spiders for most of my life. I have spent parts of nights awake after seeing one in my room, afraid to close my eyes in case it walked on me. I finally learned to kill them on sight, because this at least was preferable to wondering where the object of my fears was at any given moment. I once launched a full-on administrative (and pesticidal) offensive, when volunteering in an old house that was truly overrun with recluses. And until the house in which we live now, I bug bombed every space I ever inhabited before moving in—and not for the bugs. For the spiders.

I am, to put it mildly, an unlikely candidate for arachnid coexistence.

And yet, at first grudgingly, and then in a spirit of détente, and finally with an open curiosity that astonishes those who love me (and also, somewhat freaks them out), the truth is that things have changed.

I wrote about the beginnings of this, from a different angle, a couple of years ago. I’m as surprised as anyone, but it turns out that the things I was saying to Silas back then were not just lip service.

I really do think that spider is of God, as I am. And once I realized that I couldn’t rationally refuse to acknowledge this, I also could not help but act differently. And then, to think and feel differently.

Results, thus far:

*I left a spindly little spider in her tiny web in the far corner of my room. She never bothered me, nor, to my knowledge, I her. Eventually, she disappeared. I don’t worry about it; I wish her well.

*I considered the many, many recluses scrabbling around in the night in an old house where people slept on pallets on the floor, and weighed that frightening number of spiders (xxxx?) against the number of people there who were ever bitten (0).

*And just the other day, Silas came running in from the yard to bring me to see a black spider the size of a small hamster sunning himself on our doormat. We counted his eyes, declined to invite him inside, and speculated, later, on where he might have gone.

I wouldn’t say that arachnidae and I are friends, exactly, or even allies . . . but I’m working on something like appreciation. And leading the way has been curiosity. With respect trailing right behind.

And so, I am sad to tell you what happened next. Which is this: The experience of nearly stepping on the camouflaged spider fresh in my mind, I headed down the trail. I made the turn. I leaped over the muddy area separating the trailhead from the uphill climb onto the ridge. I tucked my chin. I watched my feet.

I ran full-body into a large web extending between two trees.

Now, perspective: I run a lot, which means I actually run through webs, or parts of them, very frequently. And occasionally, I even end up with an actual spider on me, too (this is actually rarer than you might think—orb weavers are extraordinarily canny about getting out of the way when something big trip over their guide threads). In those moments, that spider is at least as eager to be off of my person as I am to remove it; orb weavers are much, much smaller than their webs would lead you to believe. Also, they are in no way dangerous.

Orb Weaver Spider

I know all of this. I know it in my head. Sometimes I know it at a gut level, too.

But on this day, friends, I utterly lost my shit.

I ran through that web and within one second, I had thrown my phone, screamed bloody murder, smacked myself upside the head, and knocked my sunglasses so far into the brush that I thought I’d never find them. I DID never find them. Soeren found them. I think it’s because he’s closer to the ground. Or perhaps it was because Soeren wasn’t searching while simultaneously hyperventilating and clutching at the air near his head and face.

And since that morning, I’ve been doing some thinking. About where fears become phobias, and memories become trauma, and also, about how kneejerk impulses might become immediate, unreflective actions. The last time I played Wii Fit it suggested that my reaction time is not so great. But friends, I know better. I may not be able to react intentionally or constructively as soon as I would like, but I can definitely react quickly.

In fact, I am pretty sure we all can—even those of us who never can make it down the fake ski slope or head the soccer ball can move effortlessly to defend ourselves from perceived mortal threat.

This is simply a human reality, right? Soeren told me the other day that he wishes he had more instincts. Sometimes I wish I had fewer, or different ones, at least.

I’m going to preach about this soon . . . the sermon’s called Something Wicked, and before I deliver it, I’m going to lead the congregation in an exercise: assembling our own personal monster.

I doubt that monster will look like a spider, but for those of us for whom it might, I also offer an alternate possibility:

Someone I know—a colleague—took a walk.

Through a graveyard.

At midnight.

Speaking of assembling monsters—how many things might we fear to meet in this situation? How many of those fears might even feel perfectly logical?

Personally, I don’t need come up with any additional answers, because what Lisa actually met in that graveyard just happened to be none other than a spider. And its web.  Which she walked through, in the dark, face first.

And in the end, her glasses looked like this:

photo credit (and, let's be real, badassery credit) the Rev. Lisa Schwartz

photo credit (and, let’s be real, badassery credit) the Rev. Lisa Schwartz

Which I can report because those glasses were not thrown into the bushes. Rather, they were held carefully, with honor for the magic of the evening and respect for a weaver whose work was inadvertently destroyed.

I have been thinking about this–was thinking about it even, as I calmed my breathing and removed the stray web pieces from my forehead.  And I wonder: how might I walk with such wonder and poise, even through the scary places?

How, in fact, might we all?

I have a theory . . . let’s call it a sneaking suspicion . . . that calmly confronting our fears might be a skill worth practicing.  In our congregations.  Where the spiders have different names, and are sometimes shaped more like elephants.

And I think we have the tools to do it.

Let’s talk more about this here.  But first: let’s do it in person–Kansas City, October 5th, 11:15 a.m.

See you at #allsoulsKC.  With . . . just maybe . . . Something Wicked.

j

on the road (OR, what I’m NOT learning in CPE this summer)

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I’ve been having some trouble with my commute.

Kansas City, with no functional, centralized public transit system, is a city of freeways.   It has byways and beltways, bridges and merges, and, as I lately am painfully aware, near-misses and sheer miracles. Also, it’s summertime, which means construction. And my schedule at the hospital often means a choice between driving at the height of rush hour or sacrificing precious hours I could spend with my family.  Or, you know.  Sleeping.

Additionally, I have discovered something: there is a lot that we take on faith in rush-hour highway commuting.

You do, anyway.  I, on the other hand, just haven’t been able to get with the rhythm. Not lately.  I want more information, you see. What is that car going to do? And that one over there? Andohmygoshthere’s a huge truck in my way and an entire lane obscured from view. And he’s braking and she’s coming over and I have to move right now but I can’t and

 

This is new. I have spent a total of seven years making some version of an urban highway commute, but until now, I never noticed the rules.

You probably haven’t either—we drive largely with our bodies, and if you’ve been lucky, there’s likely been no reason for your head to become overly involved.

Suddenly, though, I’m as a stranger in a strange land on these roads I’ve traveled for my entire adult life.  And that means the rules have become as obvious as they are impossible. And they go like this:

Make a plan. Pick your opening. Use your turn signal (this one’s a bonus for non-assholes and those who like to minimize their risk of collision). And finally—and, it should be noted, swiftly—make your move.

I’ve been struggling with all of it.  In fact–particularly on those mornings when I cross the Missouri river, take the short ramp that connects one highway with another, and then, in the space of about one minute, merge across FIVE lanes of rush-hour traffic to take a left exit–I find myself remembering days of carefree lane-changes like I’ve lost the Golden Age of Driving.

I’m sure commuting “back then” wasn’t as magical as I’m making them seem in my mind  . . .  but I do know that things were different.

Because then, I wasn’t skittish.

Because then, I wasn’t scared.

 

As it turns out, being at the scene of a major accident 36 hours before starting CPE may have had some effects. Especially when stressed. And tied to both a commute in the morning and a midday trek between hospitals. And when absolutely, bone-wearily tired.

But each day, I get up and do it again. And most evenings, I am confronted by the dreaded onramp at Metcalf and 435. Right at 5 p.m.

The main thing is, I can’t ever get on it—there is no space for me, with cars overhanging the intersections for more than a mile before the onramp, people cutting in, and two lanes merging into one just in time to fly into six other lanes (that’s on ONE side, my people) which are moving or not moving as impatience and construction and rush hour dictate.

So that’s happening, or rather it’s not happening, and it’s been taking me 90 minutes on alternate routes to travel home.

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on second thought . . .

Meanwhile, I’ve been wanting to explain to you about CPE—what I see, what I hear, how I hold those things in the charged moments, and what I do later with what remains.

I’ve been wanting to share some of the messiness in hopes that you might also see the magic.

I’ve been hoping to communicate, somehow, my fledgling understanding of what all of this means in the larger process of growing into ministry.

 

But I’m not ready yet.

 

So I won’t tell you that I’m learning about ministerial authority when I claim my space in the trauma bay, or work alongside the medical team, or stand in front of an altar in a chapel not my own.

I won’t assert that I’m learning about God in every patient room, about my faith every time I record a name in the “death book,” about myself in the moments that I spend on my knees in the chapel.

I won’t describe how I’ve learned patience in the refraining from clobbering, or perseverance in the wanting to quit.

And I will say when I struggle as hard as I have been lately with theology . . . in fact, with life . . . it’s challenging to decide whether I’m assigning meaning out of truth or out of need.

Which means that perhaps it’s suspect even to link these things.

So I won’t try.  No point.  Not yet.

Instead, I will just tell you this:

I’ve been doing CPE.

The experience, taken in total, has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

I fight several battles every day. And while my toughest opponent is myself, what I’m learning is how to stand my ground with everyone else.

And that when I do that, even by myself, I am not alone.

 

And today, my people, I got on that road.

The one that leads to my home.

There were just as many cars as before.

There was no magical open space.

But then I made one.

Out of a possibility.

I hooted.  And cheered.  I made it home in 45 minutes.

And I am going–in the same way that I will definitely hold hands and invoke Spirit and be present–to do it again tomorrow.

-j

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finding Jesus on the first floor

I first considered taking a unit of CPE a couple of years ago.

It was 10% because I thought I might want to be a chaplain.  It was 90% because I didn’t want to be a minister.

CPE seemed like a perfect solution, because I knew that it stood between me and ministry any way you slice it.  So, if I hated it, then probably that scary “calling” thing would return from whence it came. And if I loved it, then perhaps I could find an easier way to chaplaincy than the current Unitarian Universalist path to ordination allows.

What I envisioned doing, after all, was about patient care. And there are lots of ways to do that. The majority of which don’t require a deep understanding of denominational polity or skills in congregational conflict resolution.

In short, why seminary? And, more to the point, why ordained ministry? I just wanna be there for people.

 

Next month it will be two years since this particular brand of insanity began in earnest . . . and in those two years of Trust the Process (and Fight the Process, and Kick the Process, and . . . ), I can tell you that the answers to the above questions are so much deeper and richer and more complex than I ever imagined.

And also, after the last three weeks, I can tell you something else.   About CPE.

 

It is not about patient care. 

Professional chaplaincy mostly is, but to be in that role and present in a way that is simultaneously simple and delicate and risky and generous . . . you gotta go through the stuff above. The ministry stuff. The formational challenge, and the time, and the struggle. The arduous path that initially seems unrelated to the end result–it cannot be skipped.

And meanwhile, I have discovered that this—my mandatory summer of crisis and opportunity—it, too, belongs to the formation process, and all its deep mysteries, and not to the world of healthcare.

I expect I’ll say more about that soon.  Or someday, at least.  I’m really in it, at the moment, and that means, for now, that I’m not sure from one day to the next if there will be anything left over after I complete task 1.  Which is to simply be.

In the meantime, though, I will tell you something else.

If what I really wanted were a continuous focus on patient care, I have discovered a role that actually does this:

[whispers . . . ]

It’s the CNAs.

This is a stock photo. Not a patient photo. Everybody breathe.

 

These people, at their best, are the moving hands and walking feet of Jesus in these tiled hallways.

The doctors or the administrators or even the accountants may well be God.

But Christ is somewhere else.

These weeks, I’ve seen Him in the whispered joke in a patient’s ear as her bed is wheeled down a too-public corridor, in bringing a quiet, determined dignity to tasks that otherwise offer a patient precious little, and in the touching and talking and being human with a person in a bed or a line or a wheelchair who is, first and foremost, a human, too.

 

And I am so grateful for this reminder.

 

We are humans, all of us. As professionals, and as patients, we deal with this reality—our frailties and our incredible possibility— in every moment. Some of us are ignoring it, some of us acting it out in one hundred small ways . . . and some of us struggling to remember how we might connect with our humanity once again.

The institution is not human. The procedures are not human. But this hospital . . . that insurance company . . . this government . . . it is made up of and designed and remembered and carried on and implemented by people.

j

Insurance Forms

Things feel so big, the dealings so impersonal, the daily workings so unalterable, that it’s hard to see, at first glance.

So look again.

 

I am continually inviting myself to do this, too.  And when I do, I wonder:

What if we made it our number one job each day to remember that we aren’t a role or a title or a degree, not really? And that the one across from us, with the hair the color of your sister’s, or freckles, or dimples, or a gold tooth, and a look of fear or dread or hope or resignation—that person isn’t a patient or a stroke victim or a financial concern, not really?

What if we truly remembered this, with each phone call or e-mail or data input task:

I am a human being, here to serve other human beings–in love–and this entire institution exists, whether it knows it or not, to fulfill that mission.

 

Here. Now. In this very moment.

Whatever I believe in most deeply, my hands and my heart belong to it.

And whether I intend to or not, I serve that spirit with my every breath.

Please, God . . . let it be love.

-j

 

 

leading failure (a tutorial)

Imagine . . . You’re heading up a team or task force, and one of your members keeps dropping the ball.

She just doesn’t get it. She shows up late. She’s unprepared. Or maybe she volunteers to do things but never completes them.

Or, you’re a paid part of an organization, and you hire someone to do a job that seems like a great fit. He’s excited. You’re excited. And yet, he spins his wheels at first, and then, month after month, performs below the curve. He’s not delivering results, and that seems unlikely to change.

In either case, you shake your head as you wonder why the people who at first seemed so promising, in other contexts, are not able to perform as expected. Something must be wrong with the selection process. Or the applicant pool. Or with today’s volunteers or church members or college graduates.

Sound frustrating? Sound . . . familiar?

 

Whether as lay leaders, as ministers, or in our lives beyond the church walls, effective leadership is a critical skill for those who aim to truly transform lives. And like it or not, leadership means providing critical feedback in a way that fosters learning and change.

Scary? It is.

And the options we’re most familiar with—ignore the person, “fire” them, suggest politely that this might not be a great fit, express frustration to uninvolved third parties, or cross our fingers and hope—no, pray—that next time we are able to select a better team—those don’t seem to be working well.

And so, I’m suggesting an alternative, one that keeps the locus of control on ourselves:

WE as leaders must become experts at “caring confrontation.”

Red pawn figure against united yellow, isolation, confrontation,

This, in short, is our own courageous willingness to call each other, and ourselves, out when we miss the bar. Caring confrontation requires an eye on long-term results and an understanding that failure is a necessary (but intermediate) part of the learning process. Most of all, it requires us to think like educators.

In designing learning experiences, setting goals, and providing feedback, we become teachers—and we gain the opportunity to celebrate successes broader and deeper than we previously imagined.

If this sounds utopian, it may be because the more common approach—the one we perhaps learned by watching our own supervisors—is to avoid confrontation of any sort, all the while noting failures and storing up frustrations.

When we don’t know how to speak directly and honestly with one another about failure, we wait, instead, for a sanctioned opportunity: our chance to really lay it on the line. That chance is often an annual review or a final evaluation—and there, finally, we feel entitled to point out failure, and we do it by laying out our case. See here. And here. And here. You failed. I’ve been waiting to tell you, and I hoped that in the interim, you’d get it together. But you didn’t. How unfortunate.

Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson (the One-Minute Managers) call this the “Gotcha Approach.” Everything rides on one meeting or summative document, and one never knows what it will say, as if the elements of fear and surprise are somehow integral to the learning process. Pro tip: they are not.

Ideally, those we supervise should be able to self-report, from moment to moment, their strengths and weaknesses. They know what the goal is, are personally invested in meeting it, and have the necessary tools to gauge their own performance.

This awareness doesn’t happen in a vacuum, however—effective feedback lies at the very heart of the caring confrontation model. It’s just that feedback should not be delivered annually and in a summative way, unless it literally is a summary of what both parties already know. (You’ll know if this is the case because the summative document will feel boring to both of you.)

True feedback is ongoing and support-focused.

That feedback works as follows: first, we openly acknowledge failure when and where we find it. This is brief, private, and non-punitive. Then we point, again, to the bar that the learner is expected to clear, and we strategize together about the steps needed to clear it.

True feedback engages the learner—she’s making predictions, taking action, observing what happens, and then, with support, pausing to reflect. Then the cycle begins again. Think, here, of the teaching strategy of scaffolding—what the learner already knows provides the supportive framework, and we are encouraging her, always, to reach up in planning her next action.

With feedback, the learner can also make mid-course corrections—in fact, she’s expected to. And the organization, while spending more time in the training and supervision process, is also more likely to benefit from that investment because job satisfaction is higher and frustration and hopelessness are lower.

So what does caring confrontation require? It asks, in short, that we each become teachers.

 

Before you argue that you didn’t become a teacher for a reason, consider what you stand to gain by adding “educator” to your supervisor persona.

Leading like a teacher provides tools to break the gridlock and frustration of supervisees who “just don’t get it”—and it also provides organizational motivation to do things differently. As any good educator will tell you, the failure to learn lies first with the teacher.

This may initially sound unpalatable, but in responsibility lies freedom: because we have the power to change ourselves!

How does this work, in the caring confrontation model?

1. Teacher-leaders must approach any task—the “bar” that the learner must clear—as a set of key skills, in sequence. Have you visited a preschool or kindergarten classroom lately? Did you stop to wash your hands? If so, you may have seen a diagram like this.

task analysis, handwashing. Created with Boardmaker.

This is obviously very simple, but there was a time when it applied to you, too. You had to learn, part by part, what to do to clean your hands, and in which order—and to make it easier to learn, someone broke the task down for you.

In teaching, we are always asking, “What’s the next step?” Competence is the goal, but to get there, we must outline the path.

What is Rosie trying to accomplish? Think of the end goal as the top of a mountain, and imagine a long, winding trail leading up to the summit. Along the way are a series of huts—places to rest and take stock. The first step on Rosie’s path will be close to where she is now. The second will move the bar just a bit closer to the goal.   (Is this disappointingly un-magical? The path to results often is.)

This gets tricky when we are teaching someone a skill that feels like second nature to us. Perhaps it came so easily that even the steps to learning were masked—we mastered them internally. Unfortunately, it is in these areas—where we have no memory of struggling to learn—that we may instead struggle to teach. Fortunately, step 2 can help.

2. Teacher-leaders must know the learner’s skills and weaknesses, and meet her where she is.

Each step on the path needs to be achievable with the tools available, plus effort. Imagine that what you’re actually teaching is tightrope walking: falls are ok; injuries are not.

This analogy might seem overly dramatic, but keep in mind that the learner who fears doing actual damage to herself or others will spend energy on worry and hypervigilance, be less willing to take needed risks, and will struggle in a feedback process that feels fraught rather than encouraging and curious. It is therefore critical to be sure that skills are firmly in place before the stakes are high.

Let's try it once without the parachute

Suicide prevention counselors practice their skills in dozens of hours of roleplays before they ever touch an actual crisis call. Medical students practice on cadavers for a reason. Danger and praxis coexist effectively only under extremely close supervision, and with a very carefully vetted admissions process. Actual danger is not often the case in congregational life—but tell that to the person ascending the pulpit for the very first time, comforting the newly bereaved, or chairing a contentious meeting, but who doesn’t feel prepared for the task.

To assess what kind of net your learner needs, you’ll have to evaluate where they are.  This is where that step-by-step task breakdown is helpful: when you put those steps into a document and assign a number to each one, you’ve created a rubric.  You and the learner can now work together to determine current skill levels–and make a plan to reach up.

woman's hand climbing ladder drawn on green board

3. Teacher-leaders know that their primary contribution to the learning process is their time.

Skill development takes time. Supervision and feedback also take time. This investment is key—and unfortunately, it’s often given short shrift in busy schedules. We want to see results, and we want those we supervise to deliver them. That’s a reasonable expectation . . . the part we hate to hear about is the hefty amount of work required up front.

No one needs a micromanager, but inattention has its limits as a growth strategy. If you need team members to go farther and do more, prepare to evaluate, strategize . . .and teach. From the point of view of your schedule, that means some planning and research time up front while you figure out how to break the task into manageable learning segments and what skills need to be isolated (Public speaking? Database management? Tools for leading meetings?) It means being available to have a conversation early on if things aren’t on the right track.  Finally, it means time for shared planning around goals.

These tasks are more or less time-consuming depending on the nature of the work and your supervisory relationship—but the time required will never be “zero.” The learning process is collaborative, not independently-managing.

Teacher and students in computer class

And finally: 4. Teacher-leaders view learning roles as flexible and fluid

The best teachers know what it’s like to be in a learner’s shoes because they engage in continuous learning themselves. The openness and humility needed to keep our “learner” hats on even as we supervise others encourages further growth in us, in our students, and in our movement. Better still, this outlook reflects reality—we are all learning, all the time, regardless of our titles and assigned roles.

Ideally, even our supervisory relationships model “power with” rather than “power over”—a profoundly countercultural message that is right in line with our Unitarian Universalist theology of worth, dignity, and deep interconnectedness.  Some are mentors; some are supervisors–but we are learners, together.

We can embrace failure as an intermediate outcome . . . and then, acting as educators, we can use it as a growth tool.

Really excellent mentors, bosses, and leaders: They are, above all, those who can teach.

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of love and failure

Truth: The routines of my daily life depend on good juggling, but sometimes I mess up.

Good showmanship requires that I grab that dropped ball, work it into my routine and never stop smiling, but that doesn’t always happen as smoothly as I’d like. And occasionally, it’s worse–it’s not just one ball that gets dropped.

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A few weeks ago, life caught up with me in a large and multicolored explosion. I was late here and half-arsed there, and in a stunning coup-de-grace to my face-saving efforts, I managed to no-show to a meeting full of people gathered to hear me speak.

jYep. That happened.

jAnd because God is twisted– or because this is simply a ridiculously busy time of year for those of us who set watches by church or academic calendars,* I was also on the receiving end of some major ball-dropping.

It was kind of a mess, friends.

In some places, it still is.

And so, waiting for the dust to settle, I have been thinking about failure. And my first question is, why do we let it happen? And wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t?

Smiling young woman having an idea with light bulb over her head

As your dutiful enneagram Type 1, my goal when it comes to mistakes is to avoid them entirely. Failing that—and somehow, I often do fail—I simply strive not to repeat them. EVER.

Thus, I’ve been considering a menu of meltdown-prevention plans. And I’ve come to a surprising conclusion: the opportunity to screw up is accorded unequally.

In fact, it is often awarded not necessarily to the most competent individuals, but to those people we love.

That’s right: I am persuaded that when we love others, we give them room to FAIL.

And so, considering weeks like these past ones, I offer this suggestion: we shouldn’t. We simply should not trust one another this much—not if our goal is to avoid disappointment.

Trust means we expect good things, focus less on the bad outcomes that might happen, and thus end up with less of a safety net.

We are putting ourselves at risk, friends.

And so, an alternative: I’ll just do everything.

Scratch that, you do everything. Or maybe I can do what I’m good at, and you’ll do what you’re good at, and nobody should do the things that are hard or risky.

Yeah, right.

We trust, of course, because we have to.  As a people deeply dependent on one another simply to live, the truth is, we have no other choice. Disturbing though this is for my failure-management initiative, it’s actually great news for the missional church. We must trust one another a bit just to get through the days, but as it turns out, we trust even more than we have to when we love one another.

Why? Because it is messy, and risky, and sometimes even a bit miserable when we allow people room to grow. It’s challenging. Our baby birds, or grown-up employees, get into difficult situations, and they bring us with them. And as anyone who has ever been responsible for a toddler (or, I’m told, a teenager) knows—it is really hard to give people the space they need to become something else, because they are going to make a mess. And we have to be willing to hang in there through the entire process, sometimes cringing and gritting our teeth throughout, if we want to see results we can be proud of.

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Who is willing to do that but someone who can continuously hold in their hearts a guiding image of what we might grow to be—even as they step in our spilled milk, or stumble across the holes we dug spinning our wheels?

Our toddlers and teens don’t wait for us to create opportunities for their explorations—whether we’re ready or not, they must grow, and they will seize the attention and resources they need, one way or another. Adults, however, can function in a state of stasis, and this less-risky way of being is highly incentivized in most areas of our lives. And thus, how many of us encounter opportunities in our professional lives to truly grow? To become? To live into potential?


This kind of encouragement requires resources. It takes vision.

There are a few companies famous for devoting time to truly developing their talent pool, but most organizations—and many of us as bosses and leaders—are simply living in the now, feeling relieved just to match present skills with immediate job requirements. “Maintenance” focus is deeply ingrained in short-to-medium-term planning, and it feels much less risky than the alternative.

It is thus counter-cultural to invest this time and care in another—to let him fail so he can grow. A room-to-fail approach requires missional thinking with long-term results in mind. Alternatively, it takes love.

Know a place powered by both?

I do. It’s the thriving church in your community.

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It takes courage to stand as witnesses to potential, but encouragement to grow is exactly what the best lay leadership programs provide.

From finance to teaching to project management to public speaking, we stand ready to challenge and encourage you . . . even when we have to dust you off a few times or bite our nails for awhile while you find a steady foothold.

In working collaboratively with you around your talents and interests, we become part of the forces that call you into your best self. Your next self, shared with us all.

And, inevitably, we open ourselves to disappointment. To hurt, even. You will fall short of the mark sometimes, and we must not only pick up the pieces, but celebrate the progress: when we give you room to fail, we give you room to grow.

Outside of formal leadership training programs, we don’t talk about this much in the adult world.  However, the fail-to-grow (the complete opposite of “failure to grow”) concept is well-known to educators. The Zone of Proximal Development is the range just beyond a person’s current abilities, and the place into which, if properly challenged, they will stretch themselves. The process of providing that challenge is known as “scaffolding”—we are building the supportive framework for what comes next, simply by encouraging the learner to reach up a bit rather than staying where she is comfortable.

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But he might fail: he’s climbing a tree that’s growing even as he climbs, trusting branches to appear, and making the reach on the promise that they will. It’s an uneven and imperfect process. Sometimes things won’t line up. Sometimes growth will slow, other objectives will distract, he’ll need to climb back down for a bit. Sometimes he will even fall.

In the zone of proximal development, some failure is guaranteed. But the zone is where all the growth happens. And we need to be brave enough, missional enough—loving enough—to be willing to go there with one another, again and again and again.

Because as we each grow, our faith communities do, too . . . and the transformation begins in earnest.

Which I’m going to try to remember, myself.  The show must go on.  (And in the meantime, I’m looking forward to exploring part II with you–what happens after we fail: the role of caring confrontation in leadership development.)

Blessings, my people!

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*Potentially life-saving advice: those of us who do both—the seminarians in your lives, for example—are not to be trifled with in August, December, and April. You have been warned.

I did not fight the law . . . and we all win

I’ve been on the fence about sharing this story–where, and how, and if.

It’s not really an impression I want to leave you with, and it’s so simple to explain that I’m taking Soeren to visit my grandmother this week. And even if I tell you more of the truth, the easy thing is to tell it funny.

I can tell you about our late departure from Lawrence on an afternoon the week before Thanksgiving. I can describe trying to make it all the way to Cheyenne to avoid the hell that is a hotel room in western Kansas with Si and Ren. I can tell you about the dry pavement, the absence of anyone else even on the road, the clear, starry night. I can share that we were making excellent time to Wyoming, and that we shared a laugh with a sheriff who seemed truly reluctant to write me a ticket . . . but then it turned out my driver’s license was back home in Lawrence, sitting in the center console of my car (we drove Craig’s.)

Not laughing? I can’t bring myself to make the jokes any more.  I also could not look myself in the eye if I contested this ticket.

Friends, I was going 94 miles an hour. My husband was in the passenger seat. Our two sleeping children were in the back.

The truth is, speeding is my vice. I never thought of it this way . . . I never thought of it much at all, actually, except occasionally to complain about the unreasonable-seeming speed limits on various roads. I have places to be, you see. And I could get there so much FASTER without these inconvenient restrictions. And yes, it’s expensive. But mostly only if you get caught.

In the meantime, my tendency to speed has caused familial concern and quips (Craig has joked that my title upon ordination should actually be “Reverend Leadfoot”)–but nothing has happened to convince me that I should observe posted speed limits.  In fact, I’m not sure this ticket would have either.  Not for the long term.

And then, in passing on FB, I saw this clip in my newsfeed a few weeks ago. I’m not sure which of you shared it; it doesn’t matter. I knew just reading the tag line that it was for me.   I don’t mean that you particularly intended for me to see it.  I mean that the universe did.

The spot hit home, and devastatingly, as I knew from the second I saw it that it would.  In fact, I read an article about the PSA series and what they were trying to accomplish with it before I watched the clip. Because I was stalling. Because I didn’t want to see.

Once I did watch, I knew that change was coming. (I hope you’ll watch it, too; it’s embedded below this post.  But in case I haven’t convinced you, I’ll give you what you need to know.  It’s not graphic at all, and yet is utterly soul-searing.  It’s two drivers.  One is speeding.  The other has made a momentary mistake of judgment.  They are suddenly standing outside of their cars, talking.  Trying to negotiate.  Trying to change things.  But it’s just too late.  There is a child, about Soeren’s age, in the back of one of the cars . . . we watch his face, and his father’s, as everyone realizes that there is nothing to be done at this pont.  The take home message is that if you can’t find a reason in your own driving, in your own family, to slow down, then perhaps what will register is that sometimes other people make mistakes.)

I’ve spent the intervening weeks in Chicago, not driving, and that has given me some time and space to think.

For instance, I have thought–believe me–of calling Kit Carson County to plead my case. I’m a mom of two, driving 400 miles into a snowstorm to appear in court for a speeding ticket–is there any possibility of a diversion? I’d laugh, apologize, ask for understanding and a larger fine.

It might be successful. I don’t know . And I won’t know. I am not going to do it.

Instead, we went this morning to rent a car with 4-wheel drive. The “midsize SUV” I reserved turned out to be a Suburban XL, in black. We are not making this easy.

I realize that this may not seem like much of a story for a post this dramatic. I was driving really fast and . . . someone told me to stop it.

Herein lies the grace, however–and it’s that grace, that possibility of a resurrected future, the kind you get to claim BEFORE you lose it–that leads me to share this with you. I am driving to Colorado for me. But I am telling this story for you. I made a mistake, in a larger pattern of mistaken thinking, and NOTHING HAPPENED. Thank you, God, for this blessing and this opportunity.

I don’t believe in penance, but I do believe in learning through action. That means we become different by being differently in our spaces, relationships, and routines.

Know, then, that if you see a large black SUV on I-70 today driving slowly and officially, it’s not the secret service. It’s me, practicing skills to keep my kids safe . . . and yours, too.

So You’re Thinking About Seminary . . . our ACTUAL advice to you

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Dear prospective UU seminarians,

We’re back!  We had so much fun writing our last advice post that we now bring you another.  And this one contains [dun dun DUN] our actual, legitimate advice to you as you walk the heady, sometimes scary path toward seminary.

In writing this, we realized that we also wish we’d had a First Year Survival Guide, so that’s in the works.  In the meantime, though, here are the tips we wish we’d received–or in some cases, the best advice that we blessedly DID receive–in our own months of initial discernment.

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1.  Build and care for your support network

Make your friendships a priority, even when you’re busy.  Not every friendship is built to last, but trust us that the relationships that sustain you now will continue to be important as you deal with the coming changes in your life.  The demands of graduate school and the emotional upheaval of the formation process are significant, and you are going to need all the support you can get.

Maintain your ties with the friends and family who are not connected to your church community.  As you enter the formation process, your relationship with your home congregation—and most or all of its members—will change irrevocably.  It’s normal to become very deeply connected with congregational life as you explore a call to ministry, but do not let go of your connections with the larger world.

If you are a parent of small children, the admonition to “keep track of your friends” counts double.  The family with whom you can drop your child off on an hour’s notice?  The ones you can call if there’s a middle-of-the-night emergency?  Those people are on your team in a major way, and they are worth their weight in gold.  (And, pro tip? Be as available to your friends as they are to you–so you may want to start now, while you still have some free time.  Real friends don’t keep score . . . but they also don’t continually take without expecting to give.)

Take care of your primary relationships.  Your partner (and other family members) are in for a wild ride in the formation process—one they didn’t ask for and may not even fully understand or support.  Further, seminary, and the changes you will experience as a result, will affect the dynamics of even the healthiest relationships.

When you’ve had all the New Testament you can take, or you have to pay your tuition bill, or miss another weekend at home, or find a shoulder to cry on, you’re going to want the support of those closest to you.  Feed those relationships now, particularly if you have some work to do around healthy communication patterns.   And remember, going forward, to include those people in your seminary world; discuss texts, ask their opinions, get their feedback.  There is much internal work in this process that gets lost in translation or is hard to share; where possible, let those who support you be part of it.

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Unity Temple in Oak Park

2. Become familiar with how UU works on the ground—in your local congregation

Attend regularly.  Our world, and our churches, are changing–but for most of us, shared public worship remains a centerpiece of what we do together.  Get to know our rituals, our hymns, and our theology, and find encouragement to connect with what moves your own soul.  There are more than 1600 Unitarian Universalist congregations, and if you don’t happen to live near one, our largest congregation of all is available to you at the click of a button.

Get to know your minister.  In addition to being (we hope) a fount of information about UU and a starting place for your deeper theological investigations, your home congregation minister can facilitate your seminary journey in many ways.  S/he can introduce you to potential teaching pastors, help you find leadership opportunities that will develop your ministerial capacities, and write the letters of reference that you need for seminary and beyond.  Our movement’s ministers are also very motivated to help in the discernment process of potential seminarians, so when you’re ready, find a time to talk with yours.

Serve. To effectively prepare to lead our movement, it’s necessary to have a solid understanding of congregational life.  From worship to religious education to food prep, there are lessons to be learned in all we do together.  There is no substitute for practicing faith and fortitude through a season of conflict, helping to lead a change that you care about through a process that happens on “church time,” or committing, generally, to live within the bonds of covenant–even when you would like nothing more than to leave the table, and the building, and not look back.

Even if you ultimately opt for community ministry, you will be deeply involved in parish life through seminary and preliminary fellowship (and hopefully beyond); give yourself this opportunity to discover whether it is something, for all its flaws and frustrations, that you can love.

Lead. You will never be finished “serving” in congregational life, but sooner or later (and in your case, probably sooner!) you can expect to be asked to step up and lead.  This may mean joining the worship team or a governance task force or stepping into elected leadership.  You will be getting a crash course in congregational polity, honing your own leadership skills, and helping your congregation at the same time.

And prepare to let it go.  Congregational leadership is important work, so give it the best you have.  And then, when the time comes, prepare to step back.  When your ministry begins, your lay leadership must end, and eventually your time with your home congregation will, too.  Leaving is a tough, but necessary, reality of the formation process.  [Yep, it’s really true.  Need a tissue?  We’ll wait.]

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3. Connect with the broader UU movement

Attend General Assembly (“GA”)and your regional/district conferences. An interesting and fast way to take stock of the larger UU landscape is to attend one of the annual gatherings.  They feature workshops for personal faith development, tools for congregational life, powerful worship experiences, and amazing networking opportunities.

Keep track of what’s being talked about.  By following along online and in the UU World, you will get a sneak peek of (and can even take part in)  some of the conversations likely to shape your ministry. On Facebook, there are many groups set up to discuss a variety of topics; you might consider the UU Growth Lab or the Congregations and Beyond group. To learn about other Facebook groups that may be of interest, see this list from UU Planet.

Once you’ve been accepted to seminary, you can also join the UU Seminarians’ Salon, as well as facebook groups to connect you with future classmates at your chosen seminary.  Elsewhere on the net, the online talk show the VUU, run by the Church of the Larger Fellowship, provides UU content in a format we find engaging and relevant.  UUpdates is an aggregator of blog content by and about UUs, and the Interdependent Web is a column, edited by Rev. Heather Christensen, highlighting some of the week’s offerings. Also, consider connecting with seminarians and ministries in the larger (read: beyond UU) religious context.  Twitter is a particularly great resource for this purpose.

Bring your faith with you when you travel.  It’s difficult to see the larger landscape from only one vantage point.   The breadth and depth of UU theology and the particularities of congregational life are more easily understood if you’ve seen them in a variety of contexts—so do some exploring when you travel.  And, bonus: in our experience, the congregations you visit will be excited to meet U(U)—and they are great sources of insider info on things to do and places to eat.o and places tj

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4. Take stock–is your life in balance?

Make mental health a priority. If you know that you struggle with depression, anxiety, procrastination, low self worth, relationship problems, etc (–“Yes” to one or two of the above? Us, too–), begin addressing that before you step into seminary.

You will need to be in a relatively stable place simply to deal with the demands of a rigorous graduate program, and the personal, social, and psychological challenge involved in the formation process adds to the intensity of the experience.   You will be asked to evaluate yourself many times, and you must be able to look yourself in the eye and appreciate what you see.

Consider beginning work now with a therapist and/or a spiritual director, especially if you have never been in therapy before.  In our experience, this is simply an expected part of the formation process–and if the idea of delving into your own psyche makes you deeply uncomfortable, it’s probably helpful to ask yourself why.

If you are preparing for ordination as a Unitarian Universalist minister and are in seminary full-time, you can expect to spend much of your first year answering questions like “describe your childhood” and “give a reasonably full account of your life.”  You will also spend two days undergoing a psychological assessment.  All of this self-reflection can feel exhausting and overwhelming; trust us when we say that beginning your work on the big stuff is an investment of time now that will pay dividends later.

Evaluate your financial situation – Graduate school can be a drain on resources–mental, emotional, physical, and, not least, financial.  It’s a downer, but do not underestimate the impact this may have on you and on your family, both as you make your way through seminary and afterward.

The reality is that preparing for Unitarian Universalist ministry is very expensive, with costs including seminary tuition ($56,000 before financial aid for an M.Div. at one of our two denominational schools), credentialing hurdles such as the career assessment, and books, materials, webinar fees, CPE tuition, and the list goes on. The travel involved in the formation process presents further financial challenges, and is an expense often overlooked in initial planning.

The enormity of the cost of ministerial formation is something we’d like to see addressed at a denominational level.  In the meantime, our best advice to you: find a budget you can live with during seminary and after, be frugal where you can, pay close attention to deadlines as you apply for seminary (particularly where financial aid is concerned), prepare to take out loans, and gratefully accept help where it is offered.

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5. Attend to your own spiritual needs.

Cultivate a regular spiritual practice. Spiritual practice can take many forms; the important thing is to find something that both feeds your soul and fits into your life. If you could use some help getting started, we suggest Everyday Spiritual Practice, edited by Scott Alexander–it includes a variety of creative suggestions.

Connect with others on your spiritual journey

Consider joining your congregation’s small group ministry (or help to form one); some of us have found the Wellspring Spiritual Deepening course particularly helpful.

Consider what feeds you.  

Is it time with your children?  Reading mysteries?  French cooking?  Yoga?  Know what replenishes your energy and renews your spirit, and make time for those things.  Start today–we know you’re busy, but we can also assure you that finding time is NOT going to get easier as you move into formation.  Treat your spiritual life like the priority that it needs to be from the beginning, and you’ll have a good start in the self-care and boundary-setting that accompany a healthy ministry.

Seek broadly, if necessary, for congregational community

Finally, if congregational life is a significant part of what nurtures your spirit, prepare to relate to it in a new way, and soon.  As odd as it sounds, now might be a good time for a bit of church shopping.  Keep your current congregational membership active, but know that as your role in your congregation changes, you may find it necessary to seek a new or additional spiritual home.  Many UU ministers and ministers-in-formation nurture their spirits through a local Zen center, UCC church, or other community or small group ministry outside of the congregations they serve.

We realize this is a lot to take in, so congratulations if you’ve made it this far.  (You should see what we took out–post coming soon on surviving the first year of seminary.)  For now, know that it’s a work in progress for all of us, but that in our experience, some things are more easily attended to in these months before you begin seminary.

Blessings on your journey!  And now, get back to those applications!

Jordinn, Kimberley, Alix, Shane, and Lynda

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As long as you can get yourself down: the argument for an UNsafe childhood

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Two years ago, our sons’ preschool brought in writer and consultant Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder.  The purpose, amid a capital campaign for a natural playscape, was to educate us about the importance of allowing risks and exploration while enjoying nature with our children.

In this spirit, the school allowed its students to climb the trees bordering the three-acre playground.  “As long as you can get yourself down” was the rule for tree-climbing—until the day our older son fell out of one.

Soeren’s scrapes required no medical attention; he healed completely within a week.  It may sound odd, but I was delighted to learn that the abrasions to the side of my son’s face were not from falling, but from catching himself on a low branch.  Soeren has always been a reluctant physical risk-taker, constrained by an anxiety about “what if” that is uncomfortably familiar.  My parental pride and the exhortations of the nature consultant aside, however, the trees were declared off limits for the rest of the year.

Several months later, a different child fell from a metal climbing structure, breaking his arm.  In my own school experience, it was at least a yearly rite of passage for the ambulance to come and take an arm-breaker to the hospital.  The child came back the next day to much fanfare; we all signed her cast, and life continued as before.  What happened in this case was an ambulance ride, a hushed apology to the family, and the near-immediate dismantling of the offending piece of playground equipment.  The entire set was taken down and hauled away; the children played in a yard of flat grass with balls and trucks for the rest of the year.

What these events meant for our obligation as parents to “take risks” and “explore nature” was never made clear.  I still wonder, but in reality, this particular school’s interpretations are unimportant.  The larger principles at work are what is noteworthy—and concerning.

An emphasis on safety above all things as a response to competing values (Get back into nature! Without anyone becoming hurt, or frightened, or dirty!) has redefined the parental obligations for an entire generation.

Unfortunately, this emphasis encourages fear rather than eliminating it, and inflicts collateral damage in the process. Were we to truly examine what it means to expect accidents not to happen, we might realize that what we have come to expect from ourselves and each other is not just safety, but control.  Possibly absolute control—over our own thoughts and actions, over those of our children, over environments, over weather, over chance.

This expectation of control stands in stark contrast to how I was raised.  I grew up in Wyoming and experienced a childhood that, admittedly, fell at the far “free range” end of the parenting spectrum.  However,  the facebook memes making the rounds—you know, the ones listing all the things we’re “the last generation to ___”– seem to strike a nerve with my generation of parents. I’m guessing it’s because those lists acknowledge that things today are different from how any of us were raised, and those days now seem simpler and also far out of reach.

How can I keep my sons free from significant harm, yet allow them to have access to a childhood of hard-won discoveries, unsupervised explorations, and the power to invent worlds, destroy them, and start over the next day?  Most times, this might be left an idle question, read about in somebody else’s blog post, pondered briefly, forgotten by dinner.  Later that same year, however, I experienced a recurrence of post-traumatic stress disorder.  This affected my own parental perceptions of danger quite acutely; suddenly it became important to find answers to these questions, or at least strategies for wrestling with them, stat.

In desperation or habit or deep ancient wisdom, I felt a pull toward Wyoming, scene of my own childhood, to look for those answers.  To Vedauwoo, specifically—a series of tall granite outcroppings rising out of the high plains between Cheyenne and Laramie, and the natural heritage and birthright of southeastern Wyoming kids.  Vedauwoo means picnics, campouts, family hikes and wiener roasts, and later hooky days from school, stargazing, college keg parties.  And, unavoidably, it also means danger.

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Here amid the echoes and the rocks (and in this part of Wyoming, even the dirt isn’t far removed from rock; Si falls down and we spend five minutes removing tiny shards of granite from his shin), parenting initially appears harder than ever.  Risk looms larger here; what I barely noticed as a child is inescapable in watching my sons scramble delightedly across the rocks.  Danger—the real kind—beckons like the pied piper from all directions.   The boys could fall from a cliff.  They could drown in the pond.  They could lose the trail.  They could cross paths with a bear or a wildcat, be struck by lightning, or, in the particular case of my two-year-old, eat poisonous mushrooms, climb into the latrine, or cut your wrists on any of the jagged pieces of glass from the beer bottles that come here to die each weekend.  This place has been called a playground for those who love nature, but it’s a playground likely to give my generation of parents headaches, if not actual nightmares.  Gymboree it is not.

It’s overwhelming.  Or at least, I am overwhelmed.  And so, in full sun next to a wall of rock my children have just disappeared behind, with Daddy following along as spotter, I set my pack in the gravel and lie down with my head upon it.  I give up, for a bit, on vigilance.  Lying there, I also give up on trying to understand.  I ask myself if I’m also planning to give up on thinking, or breathing, or being, as I stare upward from the ground.

The patch of earth on which I’m lying slopes down a bit from my back to my head.  I wonder vaguely if I’m falling off the world or held tighter to it, and as I lie there I realize I’m facing a rock formation that I have climbed many times.

Gazing up at the granite, I am speechless, taking it in as though for the first time.  The sun feels both far away and uncomfortably intense, the light unique to clear days at high altitude.  The rocks reflect the light brightly in some places, and glow softly in pink and orange in others.  The sky surrounding the cliffs is cloudless, a color that instantly evokes a hundred memories but defies naming.   It is beautiful.  It is forceful.  It is sharp, and hard, and angular and, just . . . undeniably there.

This place is a physical representation of the phrase “It is what it is,” words that irritate and even provoke me in nearly every context.  Here, though, in the face of so much unyielding rock, they are comforting.  As I have known you, so you are.  Even now.  Even still.

rocks

As befits a person on the edge of crazy, I talk to these rocks, asking, “If you are the same, and I am the same, why can’t I keep my children safe here when my parents could?  How were they calm in the face of your danger?  How did they know that things would be ok?”

I try to remember how my parents acted.  What strategies they used to calm or caution us.  But as I think about it, what I remember most is being left to our own devices.  We played; the grownups sat, fire blazing, at a neighboring campsite and talked.  We climbed trees and explored caves; they climbed rocks and whistled down to us.  This is confusing—how could they have made sure that we were safe if they weren’t there?  How could they have known at which moment we might get into danger, and prevent it?  How could they have looked away while we climbed surrounded by only hard landings?  In my own life as a parent, I feel affronted when a playground has soft-form asphalt rather than mulch under the climbing equipment.

We yearn for control and we imagine that we wield it—but ultimately, we cannot ignore the tension created where our theories and the world-in-practice do not match up.  When accidents do happen—to someone else’s child or our own—how do we react, emotionally? With guilt?  With shame?  With condemnation?

Outwardly, we place added pressure on ourselves, on other parents, or on laws to do what the world itself refuses to—protect us at all costs.  The concept of “accident” has itself changed in the years since we were children—what once, in one sense, applied to a great mystery of life—sometimes bad things happen and we don’t know why—now indicates only negligence, whether or not we can immediately pinpoint the source.

In this context, failing to protect a child from harm is unforgiveable. We look immediately and mercilessly for someone to hold responsible when a child is hurt in any way.  As for ourselves, we believe that we simply won’t make those bad choices, and accidents will therefore never happen to us.

This attitude is a mistake, and not just because it stigmatizes those to whom bad things happen, or because places an impossible weight upon our shoulders.  It is mistaken because it cuts us off from growth.  Writing now, later, I can share that in coping with PTSD symptoms, I have had to learn two things: to see and evaluate risk more objectively, even in the face of a strong emotional response, and to accept with serenity the knowledge that there is true danger simply in being alive.  I will posit that these are the same tasks we must take on as parents guiding our children through a frightening world.

First, we must strive to see risk for what it is, and to acknowledge it where we find it.  Some things simply are too potentially damaging to allow a child to do so long as we are the ones responsible for her safety—though these determinations may vary by child, by parent, by family.  Other things, however, are not nearly so dangerous as we believe them to be, and have benefits that far outweigh the risks.  For our family, playing outside with minimal supervision fits into this second category; riding bikes without helmets into the first.

Next—and this one is the nailbiter—we must accept that it is not possible to make the world “safe.”  Dangers, known and unknown, are part of the bargain we make in living.  Our task, then, is to accept, and then move beyond acceptance to embracing the way that risk and challenge shape our lives.

In the end, whether we are willing to see it or not, our children are all climbing dangerously.  And so are we.  Maybe what they need—what we each need—isn’t a bigger safety net.  Maybe it’s actually a bigger rock, or the experience to know that the climb itself is its own reward.  The view from the top isn’t too shabby either, but the real reason we need to do it is because risk is part of what makes us human. It’s part of what makes us real.

Let’s not focus on making the world risk-free, then.  Let us instead climb to the high places, and in so doing, tap into the great pride of human accomplishment.  And let’s look to our children as we climb.  It is up to us to protect them—but they are the ones who can show us how to get ourselves back down again, and to do it with joy and grace.

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let sleeping dragons lie

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  h

“You know, Hobbes, some days even my lucky rocket ship underpants don’t help.”

One of my seminary classmates posted this Calvin & Hobbes quote yesterday morning.  And it’s true– sometimes even our most faithfully held talismans fail us.  Our magic pebbles lose their magic.  We are left, staring down our fears, armed with nothing more than what is within us.

Frankly, some days it doesn’t feel like that could possibly be enough.  It’s been dark, and cold, and there is much that feels undone and overwhelming.  Whatever I consider, from my growing list of uncompleted tasks (a side effect of Refusing To Do It All, it must be noted, is that some things don’t get done) to the tangled knots inside my head and heart–my body registers an anxious warning: Danger.  Here Be Dragons.  And sometimes, friends, I just don’t have the tools or the energy to take on one more scaly beast.

This is hard.  The work is hard.  The ongoing time crunch is hard.  The change and the losses it brings are hard.  And in the midst of these hard things, life keeps happening.  Which means, in some of our families, that death is what’s happening.  Or illness.  Marital difficulties.  Financial troubles.  The list goes on.

And thinking about this larger process, the truth is that even the supportive parts are challenging.  Almost everyone I know is working with a therapist, a spiritual director, or both—and seriously, put the emphasis on “working.”  For myself, I’ve stopped wearing makeup on spiritual direction days.  That may seem like some sort of deep personal metaphor; it’s actually because from a practical standpoint it’s just pointless–why spend valuable time applying something you’ll be mopping off your face an hour later?

In short, with one semester almost in the bag, our first year class is showing decided signs of wear.  We are growing, but it costs.  We are excited, but we feel grief.  We are strong, but know fear.  And we’re tired.

I’m tired.  This is true physically, but even moreso psychologically and emotionally.  It’s the relentless schedule, in part, but it’s also that there’s a “front” involved in doing this work, and in preparing for it.   This means “make some mistakes, but be very selective when you show your struggles.”  (Or, alternately, “Show them to everyone, via your blog.”  I’ll let you know how that works out.)  In “public,” which is virtually everywhere, remember that your presence–the calm kind–is what counts.  These are critical lessons for the leadership of our movement, but cultivating them isn’t free–we pay in time, in energy, and, if we’re not careful, in personal integrity as well.

And of course there are other, procedural costs: already, we are preparing to leave our home congregations.  In my case, that’s a very formal process; for some others it’s simply an awareness of transition in the coming months.  I think most of my classmates, weary as we are right now, feel excited about this.  For my own reluctant-to-adjust self, the knowledge of looming change feels like the slow drip of water torture.

Realistically, I imagine I’ll be prepared for the move to my intern congregation right around the time that I’m scheduled to leave that community.  For now, I literally want to dig a hole underneath my current church building, curl up inside it and stay there for a very long time.  People could come visit–bringing snacks would be good—and I’d come out for worship.  (In fact, there used to be a joke among my friends in lay leadership that we needed to have cots in the sanctuary in light of the amount of time, day and night, we spent at church.  I wonder if on some level I thought that’s what seminary would mean—I could just live at church!  I’m starting to see how without clear boundaries and constant attention to work-life balance, that could someday be horrifyingly true, but not here.  Never here.)

Instead, inevitably, I put one foot in front of the other and take one more step.  We all do, leaning on one another, following those who’ve gone before . . . and wishing, lately, for a place to rest.

And I realize that I have been waiting for someone to say it’s time to wait without planning, time to reflect without acting, time to stop, survey the landscape, and take a breath.

But no one does.  Not to me.  At least, not out loud.

Meanwhile, this happened at church—the same church where I’d like to live in the wall or the floor, but apparently can’t be bothered to engage with what’s going on during the service.  (This is not our choir, but you get the idea.)

I remember that it was pretty, but I was distracted (what’s coming next?  And what’s coming after that?), so I didn’t really listen.  Frankly, I’m not sure I would have thought about this song again, EVER, had someone not mentioned the next day how the performance touched them—the sound, the words, the spirit.

So I looked it up.  I played the song.  And hearing it, I remembered the moment I heard it in our sanctuary—but this time, I truly listened.

When the song ended, I played it again.  And I’ve been playing it since, because it speaks truth to me now.

That same service included a meditation on the importance of quiet in this season, culminating in Richard Gilbert’s observation that

“In the darkness we rest our bodies and our souls;
We escape that which distracts and confuses.
We come face to face with ourselves.
We come into the deep places of our being.”

h

And so, I now wonder, what more official invitation to rest is needed than this interlude of darkness and quiet?  The growing season will come soon enough.

What I need now is some space in which I might simply be.

For a brief time, I will rest my mind and my feet.  For this quiet interval, I will leave those sleeping dragons where they lie.

For a short season, let me be still.

-j

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