When I told Gary I was going to talk to you about money, he cringed very visibly. He told me it is a taboo subject, and then gave me this look, like: “you know what a taboo subject is, right?” Like he was nostalgic for the days when I was insisting on using the pulpit for easy topics like religious beliefs, sex, and death.Read More
Update: Rev Fulgence has been released! I'm leaving this page up, though, because of the useful tips. --Liz
Many of us in the International UU community are deeply troubled by the arrest of Rev Fulgence. There are things that each of us can do to help. For those in positions of leadership, though, in various communities, it pays to also think strategically. A few points which might be helpful to those planning actions in their communities (written mostly for Churches, but others too).
1. Organizing writing blitzes: Letters are still the gold standard. When judging how much of a fuss is happening, politicians value letters so much more highly than emails. But emails are faster. You don't have to chose between the two. You can have the text of a letter go out in email, then print and sign it.
2. Social media: Fuss is judged by direct contact to politicians, but also by "general buzz". In addition to writing people can (even on their phones) post Facebook statuses and tweets, post images of themselves holding signs that say "Free Rev Fulgence" (pictures get great hit rates), like the Facebook page, or sign the petition. Every one of these things matter. When talking to a group, don't forget to explain the mechanics of how this fuss will make a difference--especially to kids.
3. Don't forget the hashtag: It's #ReleaseRevFulgence, and you can use it on Facebook, too, not just twitter. It allows the people who are searching to see how much "fuss" is happening to find what you are doing. And by "people" I don't just mean politicians. I also mean the people on the ground in the Burundian Church. Fulgence's lawyers. His wife and son.
4. Earned media hits: When judging the amount of fuss, one thing that they look for is that it's crossing types of Media. A traditional media story that's being talked about on twitter, or a Facebook campaign that's made it onto the radio... multiple types of media matter. You can do a press release. How is this news? Well, if you've ever raised money for the Burundian church, you can say "Locally funded church/scholarship program/AIDS orphan project is under attack". Add any photos from the fundraiser plus some quotes from people who've met him, and you have a story. If the kids are drawing pictures to send to politicians, take photos (with permissions)--"kids trying to get a man out of jail" is a story (and pictures are a huge draw). If your city regularly has "religious freedom debates", and your congregation is fighting to get a man out of prison for practicing your religion, that's a story. Note: Sunday is the best time to get a reporter out. They need a story for Monday, but not a lot happens on Sunday.
And now, a few tangible resources:
3. Useful photos (in a dropbox). They do not have permissions associated with them, but all of them come from sources extremely friendly to the cause.
It goes without saying but I'll say it anyway: Any and everyone is free to use anything here, altered however they like, in whatever way they see fit.
Thank you for anything you're doing to help. We'll see him home soon.
Me: —Look. I try to be politically correct, but sometimes there’s a phrase where nothing but colourful language will do. If you are allowed to say “fag”, I get to say “pussy”.
Seminary friend: It’s not that simple. I don’t get to just say “fag” because I’m gay. I gave it some thought. You have to ask yourself certain questions. You know how you will hear that word, but how will others in the room hear it? What history does it carry? What are the systems of oppression you are supporting in using that word in that way? What are the experiences of the people in the room?
It was harder to do that than it would have been to just give up the word.
I have tried, with the swearing like a trucker. You know, in the interests of good Seminarianship. But I have to tell you, it’s been Really. Fucking. Hard. There is something that is said by “you’re being a pussy” that is not replaced by “I have noticed certain patterns in your interaction style”. Perhaps this is why the people on Fox News are so very upset with the “language police”.
“Why does everything I have to say have to be so politically correct? Why do they get to dictate which words I can use?” a friend once said to me. “When is it my turn as a white guy to dictate the words?”
You’ve been dictating the words forever, I wanted to say. You’ve dictated the patterns of speech, the style of dress, the accent… there has always been a uniform. It is just that now, there are others voting in it’s design. It is no longer just your tailored suit, that everyone had to pull on and try to ignore the wrinkles and the tight parts that made it hard to breathe. The idea of society choosing it’s language to reflect certain values… this has always been there. It got a name, “political correctness” only when it was no longer just one group doing the choosing. When the power began to be shared.
“Our Gracious, Heavenly Father,” begins the prayer at seminary, during our first few days.
Me (in my head): Can he SAY that? Can you just up and open a prayer that way at a Unitarian Universalist seminary?
Apparently he can. As he does it, he looks up just a little, as if to insist on carving out this space for himself. I can use these words if I want to. These words are a part of who I am. You cannot take away my faith or my right to speak it aloud.
I generally refer to myself as “Atheist but not the grumpy kind”, but I became grumpy in that moment. I do not carry religious trauma—I was Christian for several years and found it to be an unequivocally positive experience. I did come to realize that I don’t believe in God, but I don’t actually see that as central to who I am spiritually. It’s a side note. Like the fact that my marriage is between a man and a woman is not something I see as a central defining feature (although some would).
I have seen this pattern more times than I can count, now. The use of a theistic word with the slight jutting of the jaw, as if to declare “you can’t tell me what I can and cannot say”. And my back goes up, the way it would if a fundamentalist pastor referred to his wife with that slight touch of extra emphasis.
I don’t know what to say about which words we should or should not use, but this power struggle makes me sad on the deepest of levels.
But what else do you do? There are some things that you just can’t say without spiritual language. There are some experiences that you just can’t have without a spiritual song, or a certain type of moment. It is not fair to starve some so as not to inflict further wounds on others. I do not know how to walk this line. Either concession seems intolerable to me.
Perhaps it was the specific setting—one in which my usual trucker vocabulary was being so meticulously pruned and groomed to become academic—that made it sting so much. It doesn’t usually bother me. Occasionally, though, I feel for those with histories of spiritual trauma. I want to ask the speaker “What history does that word carry for others in the room? What conversations have you had with a spectrum of people about your choice?”. I want to say “It is one thing to speak these words with a sentence or two of context and safety. It is entirely something else to speak them in the way you just did—with a trace of an aggressive clench to your jaw, a quick stare around the room… You did not just say ‘my wife’. You said ‘my wife’. Do you know this? Do you feel the difference?”
I have never said this to anyone. I will not, I said to myself, participate in the Language Debate. I refuse to be the other half of this dance. We are more than this. I will not be part of playing tug of war with sacred things.
Yet, to be silent is not a solution, either. This is the nature of power struggles. Nobody wins a power struggle.
Someone has to call it off.
We have listed the words. They are on a flip chart, and we have heard members of the congregation speak about what the words mean to them. We have heard stories—some of them so wildly divergent that it boggles the mind. Some of them inspiring, some heartbreaking.
“The thing is,” our Minister says carefully, “It isn’t just about the words. It’s about the context, the relationship. How we put things together. When I say I’m an Atheist, that means a certain thing. When I say that I pray, that means a certain thing. When I tell you that I am an Atheist who prays, that says something entirely different, and new. About my theology, about how I live, about my ability to hold complexity. We can’t separate the words from their surroundings.”
I thought that, by “surroundings” she meant the rest of the sentence. The other ideas. I have since learned that she meant the community. The relationships. The way we understand one anothers’ stories.
In that moment, she opened a door in me.
Oh, sinners, let’s go down, let’s go down, come on down.
Oh, sinners, let’s go down,
Down to the river to pray…
They love this hymn. These seven Unitarian Universalist misfit friends I have been gathering with from time to time—they love this hymn and many like it. These friends with whom I have shared such deep stories, such meaningful experiences of worship, such fiery exchanges of ideas. It does not occur to me to tell them that I am an Atheist, and these words do not make sense to me. I just sing.
I have come to love that hymn. The laying of hands, the way the music paints in my mind the sunset over Lake Erie outside the window as I remember slowly sinking into the music.
It was a year before I had the courage to tell them that I was the group’s lone Atheist. No, that’s wrong. It wasn’t about courage, it was just that it took a year for it to come up. It turned out that I’m not the lone Atheist—there are several of us. I am surprised by this—that I have learned so much about these people’s lives and I forgot to ask this one critically important question.
This one question I thought was critically important.
I have been reading Unitarian and Universalist history until my eyes bleed. It is so interesting, the stories we choose to tell. Servetus, who stood up for what he believed, and was burned at the stake. Channing stood up for what he believed in, shut out. Emerson, criticized brutally—stunned by it. We tick these heroes off like beads on a string. This is their theology, their thoughts… this is how they fought for what they knew to be true. This is how the tug of war played out. This is how we were defined, and redefined. Taken together, it is one very specific story. One rosary. Hail Memories, full of debate. The words set you free. Click. Click. This is who we are. What we do.
This is the story we have been assigned to learn.
It is no wonder that nearly every time someone uses one of “those” words with that set of the jaw, with that glance around the room, it turns out that they are either a Seminarian or a Minister. We are over steeped in the vision of a tug of war around language. Imagine if we were steeped instead in the stories of the moments when it was, as my Minister said years ago “not just about the words”.
I do not want to learn to pull harder, or better. I don’t want my vocabulary to triumph. I don’t want to win.
I want to learn how to drop the rope.
I want to learn to listen to your story until my soul overflows with your memories. I want to tell you my story with gentle truth and unequivocal strength. I want language to be something we create together, understanding that words are made of definitions, yes, but also of shared experience. I want to learn the meaning of words at least in part the way children do—by seeing the pattern in the moments. These are the words we speak during heartbreak. These are the words for joy.
Yes, this dictionary of experience is inadequate to the task of communicating among strangers. But, this is my religion… that we would no longer be strangers to one another.
I want our language to reverberate with what we have created together—with the memory of your hand in mine. When I speak the word “pray”, I treasure the fact that for me, this word is irrevocably stained with the colours of the sky above Lake Erie, and the sound of your voice… it’s melody lifting high and clear above the sound of the waves.
When I say I am an Atheist who prays, this is what I mean. I am telling this story of us. Of me, standing, not palms pressed together in front of my heart, but with arms open. Your hand in mine. I could not have reached for you in that moment, if I had not been willing to drop what I was carrying.
Teach me this. Teach me a dialect that is not a hammering of definitions, but a story of moments. Teach me to speak in a way that understands that words cannot mean something separated from their stories. Any more than a note can mean something separated from a melody.
Teach me to drop the rope.
Ministerial formation should be hard.
But this is the wrong kind of hard.
We are being trained to be academics, which limits our potential for diversity. If it’s worth saying, we must learn to say it in ways that do not require a University degree to be understood. We must learn to speak about everyday topics, plainly, humbly, with a bit of humour, and without a trace of Revsplaining. James Luther Adams is a preacher worth studying, but so is Jon Stewart. The voices we will serve in should be the voices we train in. And the voices we serve in should be ones with a broad reach.
We are being trained to be the wrong kind of competent. In the age of Google, we need to put less energy into absorbing information and more into learning to manage it. Encyclopedic knowledge will not matter nearly as much as skills around curation and critique. Having no gaps (i.e. achieving a base level in 17 areas) will not matter nearly as much as having areas of great brilliance, and effective tools for collaboration. We must ask which competencies really are broadly necessary. Safe leaders matter—we need to continue to focus on that and excel at it. There are certain areas we must all be minimally grounded in, as well. But beyond that, what matters most is how fantastic your strengths are, not a base level of acceptability in a broad range of competencies. The Ministers I admire most, I admire because of the height of their brilliances—not their lack of gaps. They have gaps.
We are being trained to ditch our day jobs. And maybe our children, spouses, and spiritual lives as well. As with other Protestant traditions, we must face that the future will require some bi-vocational Ministers. This does not mean Ministers who work part time at McDonalds. This means Ministers with active careers that overlap with their Ministries and are a vibrant part of them. Vibrant careers are not amenable to being told to take the back burner to inflexible commitments of time, geography, and resources. In our experience, children and spouses share this quality. If we want Ministers who are vibrant and whole people, we need to stop systematically weeding those people out, by failing to accommodate the very wholeness that is required in a spiritual leader.
We are being trained to be the wrong kind of collegial. Our future movement will be all about connections, and our professional Clergy must not be mostly connected to themselves… or even mostly connected to UUs. We must redefine what it means to be collegial in radically inclusive ways. We must partner with laity, with entrepreneurs, campaigners, activists… we must embrace a diversity of roles in our movement. We must stop responding to every type of brilliance by asking “Have you considered Ministry” and channeling people down a very fixed path. We must stop responding to divergence from that path as “failure”, and start treating it as a potential moment of being loved into a truer and more fitting calling. We must, in the words of one facebook commenter, stop thinking “sieve” and start thinking “sorting hat”. Our leadership should not sort into “Minister” and “Plan B”. It sorts into “A certain kind of Minister” and “Plan whole-alphabet-of-potential”. We must take the stories that have traditionally been pushed to the margins, and start lifting them up.
We are being trained to be martyrs. We are told we must accept unreasonable workloads and unreasonable financial burden, or be seen as whiners. This system skews Ministry to be filled with people who are either independently wealthy or delusionally optimistic about debt. And, once we are trained, we are financially shackled and unable to take risks and be creative. A pulpit in debt is not a free pulpit. We get stuck when we look for solutions, because we cannot squeeze money out of people and organizations that don’t have it to give. The only solution left, then, is to think radically and creatively about making the whole thing less expensive. It is time to start thinking about multiple tracks (Deaconate!), apprenticeships, alternatives to expensive degrees, and using local experts and technology to radically reduce the cost of things like the RSCC.
This kind of radical creativity will not be easier, it will be harder. It will mean more bi-vocationality, which will require flexibility on the part of the credentialing process. A minimum wage job can be asked to work around the needs of formation, but a vibrant career that funds and serves a unique kind of Ministry will likely not be so adaptable. It will also mean more entrepreneurial thinking—which will require candidates willing to crowdsource, apply for grants, and generally find ways to convince people that what they are doing is worth paying for. It will mean empowering Lay Leaders to do some of the jobs we normally would reserve for Ministers—with solid but limited training and excellent collegiality and support.
This will require trust on all of our parts that a growing movement will be more able to make space for all of our gifts. Above all, it will require us to let—and even encourage—one another in experimenting. We need lots of experiments—some of which will not work. We cannot afford to wait to figure out the perfect system for an unpredictable world. We need to stop thinking about turning the ship, and start thinking about launching tugboats. We must try stuff out. Now.
It will be harder, but it will be the right kind of hard.
This is not about the students, although they are suffering in this system. It is not even about our movement, although it is being crippled by this system. This is about our congregations and communities, who are looking to us for leadership. Our movement as a whole is struggling with finances, inflexible structures, and a mindset of scarcity. Society as a whole is struggling with these issues. The people we lead are often in helping professions themselves, facing the exact same issues we are facing. We must model adaptability, interconnection, an entrepreneurial mindset, and a deep groundedness in a call to service.
In our culture, fighting back against high financial barriers is an act of justice. Fighting back against exhaustion is an act of justice. Fighting for solutions—for creativity and bravery and flexibility and radical interdependence—these are acts of justice.
We must stop seeing our training as something we get through in order to serve, and start seeing it as an act of service in and of itself. We must see the formation of Unitarian Universalism Ministers as an expression of Unitarian Universalism.
Me: What do you think of this blog post I wrote about the parliament hill shootings?
My friend: It’s, uh, an accurate analysis.
My friend: You wrote this instead of something, didn’t you? There was something you were thinking about but not talking about.
Me (all in a rush): I was thinking about the shooter's mother. There’s this blurb in one of the news stories about a reporter reaching her and she is crying like crazy and saying she doesn’t grieve for her son, she grieves for the victims. And I was thinking about parenting mentally ill kids and what you wonder and what you are afraid of.
My friend (who raised a mentally ill kid): I know. When I heard, he [her son’s dad] came over [they are divorced]. We turned on the radio and stood in the kitchen. Hugging one another and crying.
Me: There are so many things I want to say to that mother.
Friend: Write about that.
Me: But I—
Friend: I thought you said you weren’t going to be afraid any more.
So I wrote the post. I gritted my teeth, and waited for the trolls. There were none. Nothing but shares, page views more than ten times what a post would normally get, and even a spot on the radio. And more comments that I’ve ever gotten, all with messages of affirmation for that mother.
Since deciding not to pursue Professional Ministry, I’ve written several posts on my main blog that I never would have written while I was in formation. Every time I clicked “publish”, I was afraid. And then I reminded myself there wasn’t anything to be afraid of any more.
And then my blog transformed. Hits went up, shares went up, and emails and messages began pouring in about the difference I was making in peoples’ lives. For the first time, I really felt like I had a Ministry in that space. And I thought “what is broken in this system, that the posts that made such a difference were the same posts that I avoided posting out of fear of the Powers That Be?”.
Then I realized something. It was never about the Powers That Be (in this case, the MFC interview that comes at the end). It was about the Ministry itself. It was about the role, and the fact that a Minister’s life does not divide up into work and not-work. If you sit in the pew thinking about your Ministers’ sex life, you can’t listen the same way—and yet, we need people to come out of all kinds of closets in this area. If you are too worried about your Ministers’ mental health, you can’t lean on them the same way—and yet, we need people to write about mental health. If your Minister says “fuckwad” a lot, you may not feel great about them representing you in the larger community—yet we need role models of leadership that speak with a variety of types of voices.
All this adds up to one unavoidable conclusion in my mind. We need a variety of types of leaders—some constrained (and supported) by the Ministerial role… and some not. And I am in the “not” category.
Since Anonymous posted about Seminarians and fear, I’ve had several people ask me about my experience. “Why didn’t you make it through? Why couldn’t you be Minister? Were you afraid?”
I was afraid. But not, I am realizing, of the MFC.
I could have passed that interview, even if I did get a bit mouthy on my blog (and, ahem, everywhere else). I had a glowing RSCC report (that’s our initial interview), straight As, and positive reviews from every supervisor so far. It wasn’t failing that interview that I was afraid of—it was passing it, and what would come afterwards.
And it wasn’t that I couldn’t be a Minister. It was that I shouldn’t be a Minister. And I have to tell you that I was not forced out of the path because I realized I would fail to clear the hoops. I was loved into a different path, by brave and wise group of colleagues (Lay, Minister, and Student).
Here’s what I have learned so far. It is much more comfortable to fight the power controlling your journey than to be the power controlling your journey. Everything is free-er now, and everything is harder, too. Harder to make decisions, harder to know you are being responsible and safe, and harder to find colleagues. Harder to figure out a source of income, harder to find role models, harder to figure out what you need to learn and how you will learn it, and harder to even find language to explain what you are doing.
And it is scarier. I am not less afraid, I am more afraid.
But it’s the right kind of fear.
Years and years ago, when Gary and I were designing our commitment ceremony and I was just getting to know the Unitarians at my Congregation, I handed my new friend Anne an invitation.
Me: I know we hardly know each other and we've only met a couple of times, but we are going to be best friends. And when we are best friends, you will want to have come to my wedding.
Me: See? It bodes well that you do not find me creepy.
I can be overly enthusiastic about people sometimes. I will meet people and develop oddly intense friend crushes. I don't do small talk well.
Me (two weeks ago): I can't wait to meet your new boyfriend.
Shawn Who Always Makes Good Decisions: When you do, try to ask him two socially appropriate questions before you ask anything weird.
Me: Got it. How was your trip, and what are you looking forward to at the conference. And then how was your childhood and tell me your story of coming out of the closet. That'll work.
Shawn: (Pauses while trying to formulate his response tactfully).
Me: You should learn to make that noise that Marge Simpson makes sometimes after Homer talks.
It is not my fault that I don't like small talk. And that I love people so much.
Me: (a week ago) I am so excited to be going to GA. I'm going to meet so-and-so… I LOVE so-and-so.
Gary: You've never met her. You use that word kind of easily.
Me: But she wrote the blah blah sermon and the yada yada manual. (I am being deliberately vague because of that stuff about how you shouldn't profess love to people on the internet even though GA is done now and I totally did meet her and talked with her for, like, twenty minutes).
Gary: If you've never met someone, I don't know that you can say that you love them.
Me: I can so. Like I love spaghetti.
Gary: You need more words.
(People don't usually tell me I need more words).
Thing is, this is how I learn. Some people learn by reading, and some learn by listening, and I learn by humans. I used to think it was a great weakness that I have so much trouble reading. Lately I've learned to just accept this as neither good or bad. Just different. Yes, the knowledge learned by hearing about the Cambridge Platform and then turning it into a rap to the tune of Ice Ice Baby is not as, er, historical as reading it directly... but there are also ways in which peoplearning gives you unique perspective.
Like when we used to go on those wine tasting trips, and everyone wanted to go in my car because they feel that when they are drinking, I will be a better driver than they will. I am not sure about that part, but I happily went along with it because I want to make people happy, and nobody is particularly happy being a passenger while I am driving unless they've had a lot of alcohol.
And so I would go to all these wineries and I would hear the stories, and pick the lavender, and notice the sunshine. And when we tried the wine, I would listen to the descriptions and watch the faces, and over time I got a sense of who was going to like what… because I had no sense of taste to distract me, I "learned" the wine in a whole different way… through the eyes of others.
We train Ministers with this idea that we should end up as these self sufficient, self differentiated, fully baked islands of 17 competencies… I'm not sure this is the best way to view it. After all, a recent study cited by the UUMA (UU minister people) showed that the best predictor of the success of a Ministry wasn't training, personal temperament, or situation… but was being connected with a small group of colleagues in ongoing and deep relationship.
What would it look like if there was a list of "17 connections"? What if we thought that to be a good minister (as in professional, or just as in person) you needed to have certain relationships in your life?
Someone who embodies hope and brings you back to it when you lose faith… Someone who is good at the exact opposite things from what you are good at… Someone who is not afraid, when you are way off base, to love you back into recognizing your errors… Someone who never recognizes any of your errors or weaknesses, but just adores and cheers you on… Someone who is always full of ideas that inspire and challenge you…
What if our society brought the same intensity of purpose to finding these relationships as we bring to finding people to sleep with/marry/write awful poems about?
Telling Gary everything I learned at GA, I was struck by how often I was describing people. Guy Who Is an Adult Embodiment of Sesame Street… filled with music and a kind attention and this oddly wise soft strength. Rock-Star-Dissertation woman, who embodies diving into an idea with attention and academic ferocity while maintaining a kind of groundedness that makes reading her work like listening to a story (and who routinely responded to compliments with a blank stunned look that was awesomely hilariously humble). Drum guy who leads like an earthworm, scuttling about underneath things making sure that everything is fertile and healthy and digested and ready for Good Things to spring out of the ground with enthusiasm and abandon. Parasite story woman, who felt like a tree with very deep roots… and who in every conversation spoke with a kind of intense warmth and full honesty that you rarely see paired so tightly in one person. Spiritual archeologist guy who sees reverence everywhere and is chronically confused and inconvenienced by chit-chat. Mother of Meadville, who has this soft and kind exterior and then layers of wicked hilariousness and iron determination... like mothers everywhere. Social Justice woman who infused even the simplest stories with a sense of joyous fireworks exploding – even her hands flowered with barely contained passion as she spoke. Also, the literal fireworks punctuating that conversation may have been a factor.
I will not get to know all of these people. For one thing, not everyone is amenable to "I have something to learn from you. Let's form a deep friendship. Come stay at my house." (Although I have to say, a surprising number of people have no problem at all with my approach… I think the people who are page turners for me also tend to not be easily frightened by enthusiasm).
There is an immense frustration to coming home with pockets filled with seedlings and not having enough space in my life for all the planting I want to do. Social Media is not enough for this.
Maybe that's why we so often substitute wise books for wise people. I don't think it always works.
“This discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learner’s souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is not an aid to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”
That was Socrates. Talking about the alphabet. I agree with him. Sure there were great advantages to substituting learning-by-book for learning-from-people. But we lost something, too.
Oh, Socrates. You ain't seen (Facebook) nothin' yet.
P.S. That dissertation, which is found here, is a read-at-your-own-risk kind of thing. Because a) it will change your ideas about Unitarian Universalism (in a good way, in my opinion), and b) it can be hard on your family life. At one point, I forgot to pick up the kids because I got engrossed in wanting to find out what happened next. Another time, I was all "I can't, right now, I'm reading a dissertation" and Gary gave me that look like "do you have a brain tumour?".
Gary: You don't usually read dissertations for fun.
Me: That's because there aren't enough fun dissertations.
Seriously. Reads like a story.
When my Congregation bought its current building, we did a number of renovations right away. One of the first things we did was take down the giant wooden cross at the front of the building.
Me: I have a skill saw.
My Friend Anne: I do not think that the first thing the neighbours see of us should be you sawing up a cross on the front lawn.
Gary: I wish you would not use a skill saw.
I don't know how the cross came down, but it did. And it took a while for the rest of the renovations, including repainting... which meant that for a while, we did not have a cross on the front of the building, but we did have a building where the sun had bleached all of the front wall except where the cross had hung.
And I kept thinking "there is a metaphor in here somewhere".
I am not in a Christian seminary, but we learn in the shadow of the cross. Our understanding of what a Minister is comes from Priests and Pastors, not from Gurus, Shamans, or Traditional Faith Healers. We may be like Priests, or we may be different from them, but the exploration is shaped by that story. How would my understanding of what it means to serve in a religious or spiritual context change if I were studying Witch Doctors or Aboriginal Elders? I might still disagree with pieces and modify things... but "not a Priest" and "not a Shaman" are, I think, two different creatures.
Living as I do on Treaty Six land, I can't help but become immediately curious about the model of my Aboriginal neighbours. How do they "train" their leaders? Do they have categories like that? What are the various roles, and how to they choose who does what? What does spiritual leadership look like in that context? How is their religion even passed down from generation to generation?
How have I lived here all my life without knowing the answers to these questions?
One of the first things on my list was to change the fact that Unitarian Universalism is, in my children's minds, "that thing that Mom does that means she can't be with us". I have snapped "Not now honey, I'm reading Theodore Parker" too many times.
So I thought: What if a third of what I do has to be done with my kids?
Kind of changes what you study, doesn't it?
Enter Avatar... the children's cartoon, not the blue people movie. It stars Aang, a 12 year old boy raised by monks who believes that when the going gets tough, the tough sit down to meditate and connect with their spirit selves in order to find wisdom. Not your average kid's cartoon. And yet, the kids love it. There are fight scenes, in addition to scenes exploring peoples' feelings about what just happened in the fight scenes. And humour... hilarious stuff. And the most complex and beautifully nuanced characters you have ever seen.
So, I started meeting them where they are. "Did you know that Unitarians mediate?", and "Connecting with your inner voice is a part of Unitarianism" and "Let's have Avatar food for lunch!" (which is how I got them gobbling up the tofu broccoli stir fry which qualifies as a spiritual advancement due to the extreme miracle-ey-ness of the situation).
And, "Let's sing some of the Avatar songs from the hymnal!". Which is how I got my kids sitting with me on the floor meditating and singing Fire of Commitment and Meditation on Breathing and the whole time I am thinking "I am going to hell for this" which is kind of an interesting inner monologue for a Universalist.
I did tell them that these things aren't technically Avatar things. I made a speech about common roots and contextual theology and then they ignored me and ran off to practice Earth Bending.
And then I thought, "why not?". After all, this is what religion does. It meets people where they're at. Otherwise I wouldn't be going to yoga class or celebrating Christmas or a whole host of other things that I take for granted. It's okay to shmozzle things.
And something else happens... when you study with kids it leads you in new directions. Towards stand up comedians and children's stories and lively music and active spiritual practices. I'm not sure that's a bad thing.
I told my kids that our Minister knows how to call in the four elements. They are way impressed by this. Me, I am hoping not to be excommunicated.
In the end, though, I think it will be okay. So what if my kids start to think that Unitarian Universalism is a reason for laughing and dancing and telling stories?
They might even be right.
The hardest part about preaching, for me, is learning to speak slowly. I have been told it is a bad idea to cram everything I have to say into one sermon because for heaven's sake what if I succeed?
Since I prefer to speak so quickly you can't absorb a word I say, this is not generally a problem.
After years of battling to slow down, I found the solution in the Pigeon Rat. I realized that if I couldn't pause naturally, I could say a word or two silently in my head to achieve the same thing... I'm not sure why I chose "Pigeon Rat" except that it was a running joke from my high school and it still makes me smile.
So, I was finally able to pause dramatically and say "Now, in this moment of (pause) sacred space..." because I was saying "Now in this moment of (pigeon rat) sacred space...". A miracle. Much better preaching.
"Wow, that class really worked... what happened?" congregants would ask me.
I did not tell them.
I did not tell anyone until this most recent class at Meadville, when we were studying voice and my prof asked me about the pause to connect with the audience and I shared my genius solution so that I could impress her and...
Prof: WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU HAVE BEEN WRITING "PIGEON RAT" ALL OVER YOUR SERMONS?"
Me: It's worked really well. I learned to do that in the advanced preaching class.
Prof: Bill told you to do that?
Me: Well, I learned it in his class. Not exactly from him. I mean, it was my idea. But he told me to pause. He didn't tell me to use pigeon rats. Not in so many words. Technically what he said was "That's a bad idea – you will accidentally say 'pigeon rat' in the middle of somebody's wedding vows some day". But I haven't, so no harm done. And it's great because I have finally learned how to pause!
Prof: Pigeon ratting and pausing are not the same thing.
In that class, we talked a lot about being in second circle. This is an acting phrase, for when you are really connected with your audience. I was not familiar with this because when I am preaching I am thinking stand-up-straight-speak-slower-lower-the-pitch-of-your-voice-smile-eye-contact-speak-slower-is-my-fly-done-up-speak-slower-pigeon-rat.
Prof: The pause is not just for your audience to catch up with you. It is for you to connect with them.
And whoa, she is right. A whole different world when you are having a conversation rather than performing a conversation. Not just for them, but for me.
I think it might be the same with life. Perhaps that is why I am not such a good meditator... I am always performing the pause rather than just letting it sit and listening to it.
I think you can learn knowledge quickly, but for wisdom, you need to allow time for steeping. Real pauses, not ones you check off on a list. Wiggle room. Some people pray, some meditate... I have noticed for myself that life is completely different when I just sit.
"Religious forms may be useful and beautiful. They are so, whenever they speak to the soul and answer a want thereof. In our present state some forms are perhaps necessary. But they are only the accident of Christianity. Not its substance. They are the robe, not the angel, who may take another robe, quite as becoming and useful." Theodore Parker, 1841
For me, an important part of the process was to figure out: When you let go of the robe (Church structure) for a minute, to focus on the angel, what do you have? What's at the centre of UUism for me?
Me (one evening, talking to my spouse who treats cancer): Suppose someone's sitting in your office waiting room. Any given person, all you know is that they're in your office waiting to see you… what is their chance of dying? Twenty percent, or fifty or what?
Gary: One hundred percent.
Me: You are the worst doctor ever.
Gary: Oh – not all of them will die of cancer. But they're all going to die.
Gary sees the world a little differently than I do. He sees everything in terms of health. Which makes him an interesting party guest sometimes.
Me: What were you talking to Owen about so earnestly as we were leaving?
Gary: I was telling him he had cancer. When we first sat down to dinner, I noticed--
Me: And you just sat there all night making small talk?
Gary: It is better manners to tell people they have cancer at the end of the night. So you don't wreck the party.
My sister Teela, who was visiting at the time, from the other room: Um, I don't have cancer, do I?
It's not just cancer that Gary sees. He sees sickness and health in general… He sees city design through the lens of how much physical exercise it promotes, and the layout of grocery stores through the lens of how it affects food choices, and so much more. And his life's work takes a variety of shapes. Sometimes he works with patients, and sometimes he advocates for change, and sometimes he does research, and all of that stuff comes down to one thing, which is furthering health.
Me, I see connection. I see whether people feel connected to a sense of awe and purpose in their lives, and to themselves and to one another. I see whether people are living lives that are fast and overcrowded and all surface-ey, or whether they have the time and space to slow down.
And I'm called to help with that. Whatever that looks like.