Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Assimilation sucks

This is the week that comes around each month when my hormones rage and my emotions are raw and I fear everything and doubt everything and am pretty sure that everything sucks. I know someone who is transitioning from male to female, and I wonder if nobody every cautioned her about this week. It's hell.

I want to cry. I am scared. All the time.

I went to meet with the seminary people yesterday and it went pretty well. I had done enough homework on my own by the time I got there that the questions I had were not so much about whether I would attend, but more in the lines of how we're going to make that happen.

I came out of there with a sheaf of paperwork to fill out and return. I mentioned before that paperwork and I do not get along. It is true. Paperwork, forms that I have to fill out, cause enormous, unfounded anxiety in me. My chest gets tight, the words on the page all swim in front of my eyes, I get short of breath and I want to run away. This is part of why I am self-employed. Because to work for someone else means I would have to fill out a job application, and I have not been able to do that - honestly - for three or four years now. Even filling out the paperwork at the food pantry was tough. They want all kinds of data that I don't have - things like income stuff, pay stubs, that kind of stuff. To say it causes anxiety is something of an understatement.

But I came home with these papers, and they all had to be filled out. There was even a worksheet for federal financial aid. The form itself is online. Which scares me at a different level. I get frustrated with on-line paperwork at a level more extreme than the paper one.

But someone talked me through it and I came home and filled out what I could and will have the rest done by the end of the week. I'll be OK. I just had to sit down, breathe properly, and look at it one line at a time. Bird by Bird, the book says. That's what I did. Line by line, I got through it.

But then.

I am beginning to get feedback about how my status has changed in the public eye. Since I let people know about my plans to attend seminary, my behavior is now viewed in a different light. Suddenly I have become "a UU I know who's going to seminary" and everything I do will be viewed through that filter.

I did not ask for this mantle, nor do I want it. I want to be me. I want to go to school and to learn the things I need to learn to be an effective minister. I do not want to be a poster child for anything. I'd like to have my life back, please.

They say seminary is a transformative experience, that it will mold and shape me into a new and improved version of me, one better suited to ministry. But how much of myself do I lose in the process? How much of what makes me ME must I muzzle, or censor, or otherwise squelch so that I become palatable to the masses? And now I ask - am I willing to give parts of me up for this? I don't know. I know that the call to ministry I got was loud and clear and I can't ignore it, but I don't remember any part of it that said I had to assimilate into the collective. That was never mentioned, and I'm feeling more than a little ripped off.

I'm a bit of a sexual outlaw. I know that and like it. The people around me know it, and it doesn't seem to bother them. But I get the feeling its going to bother the shit out of a lot of people whom I have yet to meet.

There is a process by which ministers get approved. There is seminary, then ordination, and then fellowship. From what I can tell, fellowship is sort of like tenure. Once you get it, you're pretty much set, unless you do something profoundly stupid/crazy/unethical and get yourself bounced from the ministry. Seminary has a definite beginning and end and is relatively predictable. Ordination is often done by a congregation, and while it is nice, it is not the thing that matters most. Fellowship is the thing that matters most in the world of a professional minister. It is the official stamp of approval from the faith community and its representatives that person X has the training and temperament to be a minister and do good work.

The way I feel right now, I am never going to pass that test.

All my life I have been hot-headed and impulsive. I have great passion for things, and not always the patience and foresight to see how my actions are going to have long-term effects. I know. You're all stunned, I'm sure.

What is this transformative process going to do to me? Am I going to become like some rehab regular, shuffling through my days doing the thorazine shuffle? Am I going to be muted to the point of a bland, beige existence? Bile rises in my throat at the very thought. Honestly, my reactions to these thoughts are both emotional and physically visceral. I feel my eyes narrow, my shoulders drop back and my chin jut out just a bit. I feel my lip begin to curl in a sneer. If that's what I have to go through to be a minister, this is simply not going to work.

How much of what is integral to my person-hood must I sacrifice for this calling? Is not my sexuality and its expression an integral part of me? Is not my political heart and mind an integral part of what makes me uniquely me? Is not my confrontational style an integral part of me? Am I to become the demure lady that my grandmother had so hoped for? Crossing my feet at the ankles and wearing white gloves? Sipping tea with my pinkie extended just so?

I don't fucking think so.

I know my emotions are on high this week. And at my age, they are more prone to go in funky directions for extended periods of time. I am not looking forward to this roller coaster of emotion around the concept of ministry every month. I'd like some reassurance that I am not going to be assimilated and washed out, losing all of what is me to become a minister.

It took me years and years of step work and spiritual growth to get to the point where I can accept and even love myself. And now I step into something that wants to tear it all apart and reassemble it in a shape that is more palatable to others? I spent more than 40 years trying to be what other people wanted me to be to get their approval. I am finally at a place where I don't much give a damn if they approve of me or not. And suddenly my success or failure -- in a calling that had nothing to do with them, mind you -- is dependent upon the approval of a group of people whom I have not met and who have no idea who I am or how long and hard I have worked to get here, never mind where they think I ought to be.

Do I have to say out loud that I think that whole proposition is so much bullshit? I didn't think so.

I am raw. I am reacting. I know this. At least I am getting it out instead of internalizing it and letting the pressure build up until I explode. Although who knows. Perhaps this blog is another thing that needs to be muzzled. Maybe I shouldn't show doubts any more. Maybe I shouldn't put voice to the things I think and feel. Or maybe I should just do it privately. So as not to scare the horses. Or the committee. Or whatever.

Time for coffee and to read my newspapers on line. Then off to work for an incredibly long day.

Stay tuned.

Friday, February 19, 2010

focus, or lack thereof

Yesterday was a tough day for me. I lacked focus. It felt like I was a kid with ADHD. I would start something, get frustrated or bored, and go find something else. The job was tough, none of the tasks were easy. I started and gave up on no fewer than a half-dozen jobs during the day. My head was in a million places, none of them terribly work-related, and it was just awful to be in my own brain and body.

Some of it felt like a self-fulfilling prophecy. I read something in a book about the work habits of different kinds of personality types as determined by the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. I am an ENTP. Big ideas, grand schemes, good at getting people fired up and ready to go, but easy to frustrate when it comes to the mundane bits of a project. Easily frustrated when things don't go 100 percent smoothly.

Oh. That's me. In spades.

It was tough. It was tough to know that stuff and to feel it happening and to have no clear idea how to work around it. Am I doomed to always start things and not finish them? God, but I hope not. But it seems to be a trend in my life, as I look around me at my half-rearranged house, my half-finished projects in the basement or yard.

I did the right thing and called my sponsor to talk. She gave me some good, tangible ideas on how to focus my thoughts and how to compartmentalize some of my life. That was really helpful.

I chatted online with another friend who is an expert in the Meyers-Briggs stuff, and she reassured me that ENTPs get frustrated and unfocused when we get overtired and a little overwhelmed. Ooooohhhhh. That helps too.

So this morning I have a list of things I need to bring to the job site and am working on creating a punch list of things that need to be done while I am there. I am working to focus my thoughts on things I can DO, as opposed to things that I can just think about and fret over, but make no real progress. Those I must let go for now. Poof! Into the air.

I wish it was that easy. But I am making progress on it. I awoke feeling pretty refreshed. Mostly.

I had an anxiety dream early this morning. Classic thing: I came into a classroom as the instructor was handing back exams. I had missed the exam. Completely blown it off. Hadn't been to class in ages. Was sort of surprised to see how many people I knew who were in the class. Lots of people I knew from other places. My peers. I was ashamed. Ashamed for blowing it off. Ashamed for forgetting that there was an exam. Embarrassed that I had failed and that people knew it. Ashamed that the professor looked at me and said "now what's your name again?" Oh, it was awful. As we went over the exam, there was a lot of it that I knew. I probably could have passed it if I had been there. If I had known that there was an exam. But I didn't know, because I hadn't been to class and nobody told me, and why should they, it was my job to attend and all, and it was my own damned fault for fucking up.

It was a grim few minutes in the dark before I realized that I had been dreaming and that the situation, however real it felt, was just an illusion. I know that it makes perfect sense for me to be having anxiety dreams. I am in transition from one part of my life to another.

It seems like everything jolted loose back in January when I ended my relationship with Laura. Spiritual development began in earnest. I got a call to ministry. A job landed in my lap. I joined my church. Got appointed to a committee, started doing some organizing at church, got word that there might be a job in political organizing that would work for me (funding is the current sticking point), went to the fetish fair flea market again this year - as a single person - got some new jewelry and made some new friends.

It feels like my life is suddenly full to bursting with opportunities and activities. It is a strange feeling to know that I am going to have to draw some lines and limit how much of the world I can participate in at the moment. There is only so much of me and so many hours in a day. I think a list of things I am presently committed to is also a good idea. That way I can get a look at the demands on my resources and figure out what can stay and what must wait for another time.

For now, I am easing into this day. The sun has just peaked over the trees at the edge of the field. The sky is blue and cloudless, and the wind has stopped, at least for a little while. The cat thinks I should pet him (constantly) and breakfast and work beckon. The sun is back-lighting the branches of the scrubby little tangle of I'm-not-sure-what at the edge of the stream, making each twig glow in the light. The frost is melting as the sun hits it, making the branches shiny and sparkly in the light.

Even the snow is sparkly this morning. This is old snow, dead, melted, almost gone snow. Snow with long-distorted paw prints in it, snow with dead leaves and bits of bark and dust and dirt sticking out of it. But the sun is hitting it this morning at just the right angle to make it sparkle. It looks like a lunar surface, all pock-marked and jagged like a beach at the end of a long day of footprints back and forth, but it has little sparkles of diamonds in each curve and wrinkle.

The big yellow Tom cat from the feral colony is gingerly making his way across the brook. Apparently the snow is not as firm as I had imagined. It must be at that weird squishy-granular stage from the way he is walking. Oh dear. It is a very undignified thing indeed for a cat to keep poking through the snow crust and getting his paws wet. He does not like it at all, I can tell from the expression on his face and the slant of his whiskers and ears. There! He has reached the eddy at the corner of the house where there is bare ground. A respite! And he is out of my sight now, around the corner. So not only does he have more freedom to walk with dignity, he has no audience to remind him of just how undignified he recently was... poor Tom.

Kitten is on the dog's shelf now, making noises like he'd prefer to be on my desk in the window for his morning worship, but mom is there with the evil computer. I wouldn't mind him being here, but he won't jump up while I am near. I do not understand why, but I understand that it is his habit. So I will go now. It is a good day. My worship this morning is not completely done, but I think I will carry it with me through the day. Perhaps it will help to keep me focused.

This I pray, in all of the names of the divine. Blessed be. Amen.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Spirituality and focus

so... what IS it worth to me?

I spent a couple of weeks doing some pretty intensive spiritual development work, got a call to ministry that I cannot deny or ignore, and stopped my efforts.

Part of me is afraid of what other things might present themselves to me in similarly undeniable fashion if I am to continue this search. Another part of me wants to relax because hey, divinity school will teach me the rest, right? Um. Hmm. Somehow that doesn't seem entirely right.

So here I am, in a kind of spiritual limbo. I did some work, got a revelation, and haven't done much since then. Granted, I have been distracted by work and travel and a recreational weekend adventure, but still. Is my spiritual development important enough to me to take a place sort of higher up the priority list than it has been of late? Hmm.

To what lengths am I willing to go to grow spiritually?

I have been known to go to what some would call pretty radical lengths to achieve other things - projects, pleasure, campaigns. Am I willing to put that same kind of effort into my spiritual development? I don't know. It seems like I should be willing to do that. But then I know that the word "should" carries with it a lot of blame and shame. It indicates a failure to live up to a goal or standard.

I have pierced ears and tattoos. I don't happen to think such body modification is that extreme, but I understand the cultural perception that it might be. So pain for adornment or for some lasting purpose is not a huge step for me.

But am I willing to sign up for the equivalent kind of pain to achieve a heightened spiritual experience? And what might that look like? What kind of temporary (even fleeting) pain am I willing to endure in order to improve, or accentuate my future spiritual experiences?

Some faith traditions call for painful rituals in a variety of forms. Some require self-flagellation with floggers, some even use scourges, to heighten the spiritual experience. Public displays of self-abuse are sometimes a symbol of the person's devotion to their faith. That's not what I am looking for. I don't need to show others how devoted I am to my spiritual journey. I want to be as devoted to my spiritual growth and the quality of the experience I have as I am to my pursuit of the more secular achievements I seek.

Practitioners in the secretive -- and some would say extreme -- branch of Catholicism called Opus Dei use a variety of methods of self-torture to heighten the spiritual experience. Adherents will wear a spiked belt around their upper thigh for a portion of each day, and some flog themselves. These things are done in private, not to show others how devoted the practitioner is, but to remind the faithful of the suffering of Jesus and their perpetual unworthiness of his sacrifice on their behalf.

So, I think I would like something that focuses my spiritual attention in a way that compares to what the Opus Dei folks use, but without the guilt/shame/original sin baggage that comes with it.

What is it that a Unitarian Universalist can use to do that? We don't do voluntary suffering terribly well. In fact, we tend to work very hard to relieve suffering. I guess maybe suffering is the wrong word for what I want. I want something that will focus my spiritual awareness. Like a piercing focuses a person's sexual awareness. I would not even mind having such a thing bring with it a requirement for some initial discomfort or pain. I understand that. All growth involves some discomfort, and some involves real pain. But the benefits are undeniable. So what is it that i can do to focus my growth? My search? My exploration?

What is it that I can use or achieve or acquire that will do this? I don't know. I wish I did.

Perhaps the search is what it is. Perhaps there is no such thing that can focus me the way I want to be focused. I don't know.

The 11th step work that I want to do is pretty clear: "sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understand him, praying only for knowledge of his will for us and the power to carry that out."

I am seeking. That much I know. Perhaps prayer and meditation are the tools I need to focus me as I want. I don't know.

I seem to be saying "I don't know" a lot. I suppose that's good. It means I have a grasp on where the deficits are, that I know what it is that I need to learn.

Enough for today. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

morning at home

It is good to be home.

I don't know that I slept well, but I think that had to do with the cat pacing up and down the length of my person, demanding that whatever limb he could find pet him all night long. Poor guy, he's been home alone with only daily visits from some friends to scratch his ears and make sure his kibble was high in his dish. Apparently he missed me. From their behavior so far, I would guess that Quinn missed Kitten, but that Kitten did not much miss Quinn. Just a hunch.

The sun is coming up where it should this morning. A little to my left over by the line of trees at the edge of my neighbor's field. There are some scattered clouds that are in shades of blue and gray, but the sky is the color of the palest blue I have ever seen and getting lighter by the second. The sun will come up fully in just a few minutes.

The driveway is bare gravel. Snow and ice melted while I was away. We're supposed to get a storm this afternoon that will last until tomorrow night. I'll have to fill my buckets and pails with salt and sand today to be ready for tomorrow's shoveling duties.

I cannot describe the joy I feel at being home. This is so wonderful. I have not turned the heat up much really, but even in the chill, this is wonderful. Like Maureen O'Hara told John Wayne, a woman needs her own things around her. True indeed. I am at home here with my familiar things, my chair, my desk, my window looking out, by bed and blanket, my cat, my coffeepot. It is the psychic warmth offered by familiar surroundings. And it feels good.

It is daylight out there now. The sun is not yet up, but I must be going. There is work to be done and there are bills to be paid. The day is upon us. Blessed be.

Monday, February 15, 2010

almost home

The sun is coming up among buildings again for the last time in this journey. Tomorrow I will wake up in my own bed and watch it rise over familiar scenery.

I attended worship yesterday at the congregation of a friend from college. Very upper middle class, white and very educated and cultured. It was a music service and there was a piano, a cello and a 20-member choir with no fewer than four voices suited (and used) for solos. It was very cultured and high-brow. I don't think anyone there knew I was a teamster. But they all knew I was queer. It was interesting.

It was beautiful worship, please don't get me wrong. These folks offered up what they held dearest - fine chamber music - as praise for whatever shape the divine takes for them. It was beautiful (especially the Scottish/Irish-sounding bits). It was a bit of a shock to my system after my weekend in downtown Providence, surrounded by people of all colors and shapes and stripes and persuasions. Church on Sunday was a pretty homogeneous affair.

The clouds are lit this morning from beneath as the sun climbs. I cannot see it yet, as there is a house between me and it, but I can see its light reflected on the underside of the thin layer of clouds that is stretched over the city. They are the clouds that precede a snowstorm by a day or two, thin and grayish, like an old blanket worn thin. I can see bits of blue through the blanket in some spots. There is a hopeful-looking strip of blue along the horizon. Today will be a good day to meet some friends and then drive home.

I am especially looking forward to driving home.

I sit at a kitchen table in a nice apartment in Portland. There are Tibetan prayer flags hung in the window. Their letters are foreign to me - so many squiggles writ small on thin fabric. But they are beautiful. I imagine they, and others like them that I see all around, hold the hopes and prayers, thoughts of tomorrow, wishes and dreams written down and then hoisted and let go for the universe to absorb and care for.

A gray squirrel just clambered up the skinny branches of a tree in the next yard. He got to the eve of the garage's gambrel roof and dug his little claws into the asphalt shingles to haul himself up to the peak. He sat for a moment and had a brisk bath in the gray morning light and scampered off to find breakfast. He was lean for a gray squirrel, but I suppose that is proper in mid-February. I wonder if he can hibernate until food becomes more available or if he has to take his chances competing with cats and dogs and raccoons and skunks in people's trash.

I wonder if he is the same scoundrel squirrel who dug up every last bulb that the downstairs neighbor planted last fall, and sat smugly on the garden Buddha eating each one. I was here that day to witness his gluttony and her outrage. For the record, therapists are not always calm and healing people. She wanted fur-lined gloves that day.

Had an interesting talk this morning about personality types - as in Myers-Briggs personality types. I think it might not be a bad idea for me to do some reading. I need to know how I operate and how the people around me operate so that I can work effectively with them. Particularly if I work on a political project that I've been rooting for for a while. Still not sure how that all is going to work out, but I think something cool is going to come of it. We'll see.

The sun is up now, but I still cannot see it. It is 8:30 a.m. and I know it must be up, but between the close-packed houses and rooftops, the distant high-rise condos and the low-lying cloud cover, I never got to see it. I can't see the bits of blue through the thin spots any more now, although that hopeful slice of blue persists on the horizon. I think South Portland might have sun this morning. Maybe Scarborough, too.

It might be time to get moving. Worship this morning seems disjointed, awkward. Perhaps tonight, at home, things will change.

Stay tuned.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

country mouse

I am feeling very much like a country mouse this morning.

I am in Providence, RI, staying at a moderately fancy downtown hotel. It has free wifi, but no valet parking. The room is big and bright, and the sun is coming in, but it feels off, somehow.

I've been away from home for a week now, and I long for my cluttered little writing space. I want to sit at my window and look out at my yard and the neighbor's field and the foot prints of various creatures that are familiar to me. I want to see the sun come up over the line of trees at the edge of the field, and know that beyond those woods lies Atlantic Ocean that stretches for thousands of miles.

Here, the sun came up somewhere over behind me to my left, behind a building more than 20 stories tall. The only things that tall in Maine are our mountains.

It's true. The tallest building I know of is an apartment tower in Portland, and I don't think it's more than 10 or 12 stories. Bangor has nothing that tall. I suppose there are some smokestacks at paper mills that might be a couple hundred feet tall, but that's about it.

I long for my woods and quiet roads that have two lanes - one for cars going in each direction. Without a divider of some kind in the middle. I long for dirt roads and rutted driveways and country people. I want potlucks and funny stories and shared hardships - and shared solutions - that make rural living what it is.

In my week in Portland, I had a good time. I got to see a lot of people whom I have not seen in a while, and visiting with old friends is always fun. I got to eat at that great Thai noodle place, and that was fun too. It almost felt like I could move back there. The seminary I plan to apply to has a campus in Portland. I could do that, I suppose.

But a week there, followed by a weekend in Providence is enough to convince me that I need to not be in a city, even a small one like Portland, for a while. I need the quiet of a rural setting to get my head and thoughts in order. Perhaps someday when I am all spiritually evolved and can create my own peace out of air, I can live in a city, but for now I need the quiet of the country.

I've got appointments today and things to do and people to see, and I expect I will have a good time as I do it all. But I will be glad to hit the road in the morning and head north.

I will stop in Dedham, Mass. to visit an old college chum who is the minister of a small UU congregation there. I plan to attend the weekly worship service and then have coffee and chat with her afterwards. She went to the same seminary I plan to apply to. I want to hear what her heart has to say about the experience.

The sun is up fully now. The day is begun. I see people and vehicles rushing about in the street below. I miss my cat and my little dog. I miss my home. This is a fun weekend, but I think if I come next year, I will not spend a week away from home first. It is too much for me.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

New Year Resolutions, failure and success

Yesterday I preached at the UU church in Pittsfield, Maine. It was the first time I have done so since receiving a call to ministry. It was very different from what I did in Belfast back in November. That was politics and fun organizing. Yesterday was thoughtful worship. And I was keenly aware of just how untrained I am. Bless the host minister for being there to nurse me through and to chat afterwards about ministry and seminary and all manner of things.

I need to leave the house early this morning, so I am going to post my sermon and hope you like it. I'll try for more profound writing later. Please be patient with me.



So let’s talk about those New Year’s resolutions.

How’re they coming?

Lots of people I talk to say they don’t do resolutions any more. Not on New Year’s anyway. Too much pressure. They fail and feel bad and give up before Valentine’s Day.

Resolutions are serious business.

Town Councils pass resolutions. The Legislature will make resolutions and issue proclamations. “Be it resolved … such and such and so forth.”

We are frightened of grand things. We think we should try something big like that, but we stumble. We fall. We get discouraged. The task is too big. Too much. We cannot succeed.

So we quit. We give up.

Resolutions we make affect our lives.

I resolve to eat healthier. I resolve to lose weight, to exercise, to be more kind and patient, to recycle.

I resolve to tithe 10 percent of what I earn to my church and give 10 percent of my non-work time to charity.

These things involve a re-wiring of how we operate, and perhaps our finances and how we live within our families. That’s a tall order.

New Year Resolutions are a thing many of us used to do every year, but it seems that very few bother any more.

Resolutions are bold proclamations of our intents, of things we consider important enough to state out loud, or on paper, perhaps taped to the bathroom mirror where we can be reminded daily of our pledge.

Resolutions can stem from a desire to better ourselves, as in the “eat healthier, lose weight, exercise more” vein, or a desire to better our communities as with the “recycle, give to my church and charities, be kind to people” line of resolution.

And what drives us to make these resolutions? Are our aspirations so out of character that we need to write them down to remind us to change ourselves completely from what we are into what we want to become?

I doubt it.

We make resolutions to make ourselves better versions of who we already are. We have things that we believe in, things that we value, things we want to work toward to improve ourselves. We want to get better at what we do.

And yet, when we stumble early in the game, we are quick to give up. Before a few weeks have passed, we despair that we will ever be thin and fit and healthy, or that we can rearrange our finances to adequately support something in our lives as important as our church and we give up.

Oscar Wilde said “good resolutions are simply checks that men draw on a bank where they have no account.”

But Webster’s offered me some additional insight into “resolution.”

A resolution is not just a promise, it is an answer.

We resolve conflict.

We find a resolution to a difficult situation.

Resolution indicates an answer, and an answer in the affirmative.

Yet we bludgeon our psychic selves when we stumble with our resolutions. We beat ourselves up emotionally, for being human and having room to grow.

What matters, it seems, is not so much how we came to this place, but how do we get past it. How do we learn again to pedal into life with the fearless enthusiasm of a ten-year-old on a bicycle on a summer’s day? And when we fall and skin our knees, how do we remember that getting back on the bike is what is really important?

I think the “kids on bikes” analogy is a good one.

There is much adults could learn if we’d hang out for an afternoon at a skate park. Yes, kids ride bikes at skate parks. And they ride skateboards, and they ride in line skates. If it’s got wheels, kids will ride it and make it do tricks.

If there is a ramp, a kid will want to go down it. And another kid will want to go up. And a third kid will want to spin circles while going in either direction. A fourth kid will try to do it all while upside down.

And if you watch long enough, you will see an amazing thing.

The kids fail.

All the time, they fail.

They go up, and they come down, and not always on the same set of things they rode up on.

They scramble back up, push off, and try again.

And fail again.


Boards and bikes fly off in crazy directions and helmets and pads hit ramps and boards and pavement and parents cringe and wince.

The kids get up, dust off and go again.

They try and they try and they try, they watch each other, they help each other, they offer advice, and the mimic the guy who’s got the move down.

They fail.

All the time.

And unlike us, they get over it.

They understand that there is a big difference between failing and BEING a failure.

You ask a kid with a board and a helmet what his goals are, he’ll likely tell you about a guy named Tony Hawk and name a bunch of moves that would make most adults blanch to contemplate.

Ask if he thinks he’ll ever get that good, and you’ll get a bunch of different answers depending on the kid. Some are cocksure, saying they’ll beat Tony Hawk one day. Others will be reverent, saying breathlessly that they can only dream of such a thing, and others still will say “maybe.”


As in “maybe I will, maybe I won’t.”

But they don’t get hung up on the “maybe I won’t” part. They just keep skating.

If they got each thing right the first time they tried it, there wouldn't be any challenge, now would there?

And the fun is in the challenge, the learning, the mastery. And finally, in moving on to the next cool thing to try.

They don’t get freaked out about failure. To them, it’s a natural part of learning and mastering a new skill.

When a ball player comes home from a game, be it the big leagues or t-ball, all covered in dirt from sliding into base and chasing balls around the outfield, we do not judge her harshly, saying “you should have been able to achieve your goals standing up and staying clean.” Of course not. We know that success often means getting dirty.

It usually means trying more than once.

Trying several times means you didn’t get it right the first X number of times.

It means being like Robert Bruce’s arachnid muse. It means if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

Or, as Walter Elliot said in The Spiritual Life, “perseverance is not a long race; it is many short races one after another.”

Let me read to you the text on a little card I carry in my wallet. The emphasis added is my own.

We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote:

The inherent worth and dignity of every person

Justice, equity and compassion in human relations

Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations

A free and responsible search for truth and meaning

The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.

The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all

Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

These are the principles that make us who we are as a faith community.

These are not small things.

These are big things, huge ideas.



Things perhaps forever beyond our reach.

Do we commit ourselves to them once a year, do them imperfectly for a couple of weeks and then quit?

Of course not.

And why not?

Because these principles are too big, too important, too much a part of who and what we are to just abandon them.

Even if we stumble.

Even if we fail.

Recently, the UU Church of Ellsworth held a series of after-service classes for adults focusing on the seven principles of our faith. It was led by members of the congregation and drew a diverse group of participants, ranging in age from 22 to the northern side of 75. It is impolite to ask how far north of 75, I am told. We had some lively discussions and some heartfelt silences. Perspectives varied but stayed within mostly predictable bounds. We all agreed that the principles were good and that we ought to work toward practicing them in our daily lives. And we all agreed that we fall short, often, but that we do what we can and must be satisfied with progress, if not perfection.

The discussion around the sixth principle seemed to be the most anguished. Principle six states a simple goal: “The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.”

It was so big, so enormous.

A world community?

With peace?

And justice?

For ALL?!

It was so monumental that many of our group despaired of ever reaching this goal. So long as there are dishonest people, and greedy people, and mean people, and hateful people, it seemed like we’d be shoveling against the tide.

“How can we ever hope to achieve something like this?” some wailed.

Our group was split. There were some who decried such an impossible task, and there were others who shrunk it down into something a little more manageable and got to work.

I call this the “light a candle” approach.

As in “better to light a single candle rather than sit and curse the dark.”

Another woman there took the Tip O’Neil approach.

“All politics is local,” she said.

Will the whole world be able to see by the light of our single candle? No.

But the people around us might.

I was reminded of the parable about the boy on the beach throwing starfish into the sea. The beach is covered with thousands and thousands of starfish, washed up on shore and certain to perish as the tide recedes. A man notices the boy and his efforts and questions why he is tossing starfish, one at a time, back into the surf. “There are so many,” the man said. “The birds will eat them and the sun will bake the rest. They are doomed. What possible difference can you make?” the man asked the boy.

The boy holds up a starfish and nods at it before he tosses it gently into the waves. “It matters to that one,” he said.

We do not need to change the whole world to work toward a goal. We only need to change what we can reach. And sometimes that means that the only thing we can change is ourselves.

Sometimes we have to be the single candle we light. It is not easy, but it is the next right thing to do. Just keep doing the next right thing. Just reach out and offer a kindness. Just help someone who needs it. Just eat the salad instead of the fisherman’s combo platter. Just take the walk instead of watching TV.

When we make resolutions, the field is really quite wide open.

We can pick an easy target that we can comfortably achieve, designed to make us feel good about ourselves. “I resolve to return my hymnal to its place and recycle my order of service every week.”

Or we can choose something that challenges us to get outside the place where we are comfortable. “I resolve to tithe 10 percent of my income to my church and donate 10 percent of my time to charity work.”

When we aim for the big resolution, we run the risk of setting an impossible to achieve kind of goal, unless is it something we can peck at and work at and make small progresses as we go.

For me, a resolution is a thing I hold in my heart that I strive for, a principle that is in my thoughts every day, or perhaps most days.

Some days I hit it, and some days I do not.

Does it mean I have failed, on those days when I have not hit the target?


Failure is not permanent.

A single failure does not mean I AM a failure.

Failures teach us what doesn’t work.
The problem comes when we insist that the methods that have not worked will work if we try them again, even if no other variables are different.

Albert Einstein defined insanity as trying the same thing again and again and expecting different results.

So perhaps we need to learn from our kids.

If a kid at a skate park tries a thing a half-dozen times and it doesn’t work, he adjusts what he’s doing until it does work. If he still has problems, he asks someone for help. He’s not too proud. He wants to master the trick.

This behavior is difficult for many adults. We get jammed up at the first sign of difficulty.

We are afraid to skin our knees. We are embarrassed to ask for help.

We fear failure and we fear shame.

We put an awful lot of power and emotional baggage behind the word “failure.”

It stops us from even attempting things that are difficult.

We are Unitarian-Universalists! Do we not thrive on a challenge? Do we not crave difficult concepts, uncomfortable ideas, flexible theologies, things that make us swallow hard and step forward into the fear?

Yet the idea of resolutions, which remember, are answers in the affirmative to difficult things, send us grouching away remarking that they are useless.

We know that our UU principles are important enough that we commit ourselves to them, not just every Sunday when we sit in this sanctuary, but in our everyday lives.

We work to remind ourselves that every person has inherent worth and dignity, and we struggle – and sometimes fail – to treat them accordingly.

We try to work for justice, equity and compassion in human relations. And sometimes we fail. We fall short of that compassionate ideal.

We do our best to accept one another and encourage each in our congregation to the kind of spiritual growth that calls them. And we often fail. We sometimes have difficulty accepting each person. We sometimes disagree with the spiritual truths our neighbors might find.

We try to support and affirm a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, but we fail here, too sometimes. If we’re honest, we can admit we’d really rather others find our version of truth and meaning.

We affirm the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and society at large -- except when things get bogged down in committee. Then we’re not so sure democracy is a good idea.

We believe in the goal of a world community with peace, liberty and justice for all, but we despair that we will ever achieve it. We seem to be up against such enormous odds, in a world filled with greed and hate, we struggle to not get discouraged.

And we respect the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part, although sometimes we wish our neighbors would not bounce the web so violently. It disturbs our place in it, and we begin to forget again that they have inherent worth and dignity.

These are our principles. We know them. We do our best to live them.

And we fail.


We fall short of what we want to be.

When we fail, do we abandon it all, throw our hands in the air and walk away in defeat?

Of course not. We try again.

We stop, take a moment (or several) a deep breath (or several) and then, gently, as we are able, we step forward again into the work that our religious tradition calls us to do.

The UUA issued resolutions to covenant and affirm our principles with the authority of the gathered congregations at the convention.

Have we the authority to covenant and affirm similar broad, grand and sweeping declarations of intent and affirmation with regards to ourselves? Yes.

Do we afford ourselves the same measure of worth and dignity that we struggle to see and affirm in others?

Perhaps we should be gentle with ourselves.

So let us now take a look at our resolutions and see them as solutions, as answers in the affirmative, progress toward a goal of perfection.

We want progress for ourselves.

We want to be as fully human and as fully divine as we can be.

Let us resolve, then, to treat ourselves gently in our criticisms of our humanity while we encourage ourselves to continue to strive.

This we ask, in all the names of the Divine.

Blessed be. Amen.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

muted colors

Snow is falling this morning. No sun worship for the cat or for me.

The forecast says to expect only a few inches, but it looks like nature might intend to bless us with more than that. I shall pack my shovels and buckets of sand and salt in the truck before I leave, just to be sure I have the necessary bits as I travel today.

Funny how my search for a definition of my higher power seems to have faded into the background of the big news of my call to ministry. I spent no small amount of time and energy exploring what I think god might be, and how I might relate to said god, and then I got the lightning bolt thing and it all sort of faded in comparison.

The snow is reminding me that I can worship here in the morning. There is no sun to warm my face and make the cat and I blink in unison, but there is beauty just the same. Snowflakes are falling by the millions, sometimes they come in tiny little flakes and other times they lumber down from the heavens like so many little toy army men with handkerchief parachutes, big and round and white against the pale blue of the early morning dusk.

I can feel the tension in me drain away as I watch. The seem to rinse the stress from my body as they fall past me outside my window. It is as though I were standing in a shower of snowflakes and they were washing off dust and sweat and grime as they fall. I did not know I carried that much tension in the morning, but I am noticing it as it goes away.

It is a conscious act to relax like this, to submit, and let nature's metaphorical touch wash away the things that make me uncomfortable. Worship does not always happen like this for me, but I like it. I like relaxing onto the experience, to feel my body drop into a kind of altered state of relaxation, allowing the universe to be in control instead of me. It is a familiar feeling, but not one I generally experience in this context.

I know I have to go soon, to move aside nature's offerings so that people can come and go without walking through the snow and getting their feet wet. They will not look at this snow the way I am now. To them it will be a nuisance, a thing that makes walking and driving slower and more hazardous than normal. It will irritate them. It may well irritate me, too, as I drive from place to place, but I will try to remember this moment, the feeling of submission to the divine as I am joined with nature and the universe.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

a change in perspective

I have a sermon to preach this weekend.

I am wrestling with the finishing touches of the sermon and with my own heart.

Back in November when I preached, it was fun. A challenge. It was deliciously outrageous to think that me, me of all people, with my big butch queer self and my curious proclivities and semi-outrageous friends and all, would be asked to preach a sermon.

I was excited. I had a drum to beat and people to make march, and I liked that role a lot. I like getting people fired up and ready to go and then marching them off to change the world. It is a grand and beautiful thing.

I liked the idea of dressing up to play minister -- sort of. I know ministers do lots more each week than preach a sermon and lead worship, but I liked the part where I got to stand on the chancel and preach and people listened. I liked it a lot.

And now things have changed inside me.

This is not fun play-acting now.

I have received a call to ministry.

It is ALL different.

I have a costume party to attend in a couple weeks. Two weeks ago, I might have borrowed or crafted a cleric's collar and gone as clergy of some kind. I can't do that now. It has a very different feeling around it now.

Oh, it still boggles my mind that I have been called to ministry. Of all of the upstanding, rational, well-behaved people who might be better suited to a life of service and worship, the lightning bolt hit me. Or whatever it was. Something touched me that morning a week ago, and my insides are forever changed.

I was talking with friends last night about this call to ministry and how I felt like I didn't have much of a choice now in the process, save perhaps choosing which school to attend and how long to take about it. Oh, I can always choose to ignore the call. Sort of like I ignored the steps in my recovery for a long time. Um, no. That was a bad idea. I lived through it, but still, it was no fun. I have been ignoring gentle hints the universe has been giving me about this ministry thing for several months. Eventually I got the lightning bolt. I have no desire to see what larger artillery might be used if I continue to ignore the path which is now laid out so clearly before me.

So now I am writing a sermon. It feels very different than it did barely a week ago. There is something deeper here now that was not here before. A responsibility to do it really, really well. An obligation to lead meaningful worship. Suddenly, it is enormous.

The sun is creeping up through the trees at the edge of the back field. The cat will be here soon for his morning devotion. He has already demanded that I worship him, now it will be his turn to worship the sun. Seems fair, I suppose. He's still a little nervous about the changes in the desk and I think he's afraid he might be scolded for walking across my desk to get to his window perch. I placed him there today, which may help alleviate his anxiety some. This morning, we are worshiping together.

There are some things happening in my life that are worth noting. I have been poking relentlessly at the queer political establishment for several months, offering my help, my thoughts and my observations. I also offered myself, in some kind of professional (read: paid) capacity as an organizer and outreach something-or-other. We -- as a movement in this state -- need rural outreach. I've got some ideas on how to do that, and I would like to help.

Well, it seems that things are churning now to the point where something definite might actually come of all this. We are in the phone call and email stages, and I might have an opportunity to participate at some level as soon as next week.

For months, I have been praying to be at peace with whatever answer was presented to me. And now I am. Not because I am hearing from people and they want to talk with me, but because I have this ministry thing that I know is where I will end up. Will I combine politics and ministry? perhaps. It is a natural fit for me. I prefer to organize in churches and living rooms and kitchens and garages and back porches. Our work is justice work. It is a natural fit for churches to work for justice. It is what our leaders have told us through the ages. So. I have a couple phone calls to return today to find out about the next week stuff. When I can tell you about it, I will.

Do I think this organization would be wise to hire me? Yes. Even as I threaten to run off to divinity school? Yes. I have access where they need to be. I don't know anyone else who can do what I can do in rural areas. I would like to think that I would be an asset. I know that's a point for heated discussion in some areas. Not everyone likes me. I am not as politically polished as some. I tend to tell people when I think they've got their heads up their asses. Lucky for me, that kind of direct approach is respected in rural areas. Country folk haven't got time or patience for people to suck up and use fancy words while they do it. I need a favor. OK, what do you need. Conversation over. Sometimes words aren't even needed. Standing near your vehicle with the hood up is all you need to do to get help. But I am getting ahead of myself. Let's have some phone conversations first and see what comes of it. Like I said, I'll let you know what happens. In the meantime, I pray for peace in my heart and inspiration in my words.

The sun is full up now and warming my face. It it time to step into my day. Worship will continue, I think. Blessed be.