Sunday, December 11, 2011

Room at the inn?

I preached this morning. Hit it out of the park, I think. Noticing that the more exhausted I am after church, the better -- generally speaking -- the whole thing was. I think it goes to the Hokey Pokey principle. You know, "you put your whole self in..." Yeah. Like that. Whole self in = whole-hearted worship. Works for me.

Is there room in the inn?
Dawn Fortune
Universalist Unitarian Church of Haverhill, Mass
11 December 2011

They arrived at the drop-in center downstairs after a week on the road. I’m not sure when they last showered. Apparently not all shelters and hostels have safe or functioning showers between Texas and here. They both hear voices. Maria says several members of her family hear voices. She says they are the voices of angels sometimes, and sometimes God. A doctor once gave her some medicine, but she can’t afford the prescription and doesn’t like the way it makes her feel, so she stopped taking it. Besides, she doesn’t mind the voices. They tell her she’s special. Jose refused to talk to us about his auditory hallucinations.

This couple triggered a lot of judgments that come naturaly for many of us. She’s young – 16 or 17, and he’s my age – mid 40s. She’s pregnant, he’s not the dad, but they’re devoted to each other and determined to stay together. They’ve been on the road for a week, taking Greyhound bus trips by day and sleeping in hostels and shelters each night, travelling from east Texas, where Jose has work in construction. He’s from this area, originally, and through some kind of nightmare of government bureaucracy, he was required to show up in person to pay some kind of fee and retrieve his identity paperwork. He’s a citizen, but there was some kind of screw-up with his license after his wallet got stolen, so he had to come back in person to handle it. Maria can’t sleep on the moving bus, so they’ve had to ride during the day and find a shelter at night. Her feet and ankles are swollen from the pregnancy, which appears close to the end of its duration, and from the long hours sitting in a cramped bus seat. They’ve been staying with friends in Texas, saving for their own place, so when Jose had to come east to handle things, Maria did not feel comfortable staying in Texas without him.

We took their information, such as it was, and tried to get them hooked up with services while they’re here. Jose knows the area a little, but moved when he was pretty young and no longer has contacts that could help them find a place to stay. They don’t have money to afford a hotel room for the night. Not if they want to be able to get back home to Texas when Jose’s business is concluded.

The area shelters are all full, particularly at this time of year. We called all over, trying to find a place for them, but nothing panned out. Some shelters wouldn’t accept Maria because she is not yet 18, even though she is emancipated from her parents. The other shelters did not have any beds. A shelter for women who have been abused had a bed, but Maria didn’t qualify, was too young, and that would have left Jose out in the cold. We tried everything. Nada. Perhaps on Monday they might be able to get general assistance at the municipal office to get a cheap motel room, but there’s no guarantee, and by then they’re due to be headed south again.

I talked to the drop in center staff on the phone Friday. Someone in the drop in center let the couple stay in a defunct minivan. It doesn’t run, but it doesn’t leak either. It’s not heated, but they’ve got some blankets and each other, so they’re ok.

Baby Jesus was born last night in the back of the minivan.

OK, so that’s not exactly true. In fact, the details of this story have been stitched together from the stories of the dozens of people I have met in the three months I’ve been working at the drop-in center. There is no Maria and Jose, at least not in the exact way I have described them to you today. But the situation I described is not exceptional. People are transient and/or homeless or nearly so every night, right here, in this city. Their circumstances are rarely dignified, and rarely simple. Life is complicated and messy, and life on the edges of society is all that raised to a debilitating degree.

The story I just told you is thousands of years old. It is my 21st-century adaptation of the story told in the Gospel of Luke of Joseph and Mary traveling from Nazareth to Bethlehem for a census. Mary is pregnant and they’re travelling by donkey, which can’t be comfortable in the 39th week of pregnancy. But then again neither is walking, and those were the options, so what should have been a four-day journey lasted them at least a week. They arrived tired and dirty to a town that was already full up. Resources were low and the only place they could find to sleep was in a barn with the cows and donkeys.

If that story were to take place today, the players and circumstances might look a lot like I described them. Would any of us recognize them? And more to the point, would any of us let them sleep in our spare room?

I’ve been spending one morning a week at the center since I started in September, and I have to tell you, it is both eye-opening and intensely gratifying work. The drop-in center serves anywhere from 40 to 150 people in a day. Some people come for a cup of coffee and a bowl of cereal and leave, while others stay from the moment the doors open at 8 a.m. until they close at noon. All manner of people come through that humble space. Gifted artists, construction workers, parents, grandparents, young adults struggling to make a life, all finding themselves somehow in need of a safe place to be in the morning.

Some of the clients have homes but need a place to be. Some have been staying at one of the area shelters for extended periods of time – I can think of one client who has been at the shelter for over three years.

Many are hamstrung by forces beyond their control. Many are struggling with mental illness, others are battling addiction, some are overwhelmed by the all too often deadly combination of both. Some have criminal records that make it difficult to get housing or employment, some have invisible disabilities that go undiagnosed and untreated and that prevent them from getting the services that would help. Once hooked into the social services network, things can go along relatively smoothly, provided one has some pretty humble expectations around housing, electricity and grocery needs. Addiction and mental illness compound the problems when they affect the behavior and decision-making of clients who are free and independent agents. People refuse assistance sometimes. People accept help, but then reject it later, only to later request it again. There is no point – nor should there be – when a person is simply cut off from assistance programs for such behavior. It just makes it frustrating for the staff who really want to help.

Pat Dennehey is the director of the drop-in center. A formidable woman, she manages miniscule resources and stretches every donation until it squeaks from the stress. She knows every client, their story, their history, their family situation, their drug, their drink, their diagnoses and their chances. She provides advocacy and resource referrals and management. Some clients have asked her to manage their funds, so she is their “payee” and she pays their rent and bills and disburses their money (usually from a disability check) so that they don’t run out before the end of the month. She supervises a small staff of paid workers, volunteers, and two students. She doles out groceries, frozen chickens, tooth brushes and bars of soap. She does what she can to counsel clients to lay off the booze, to put down the crack pipe, to stop buying scratch tickets, and she does so with an amount of grace that leaves none of them humiliated when it’s done. Sometimes she can help people, and sometimes she can’t. And while she’d probably deny it in public, the little victories and moments of tenderness can reduce her to tears. Pat and I get along just fine.

This is the time of year when we talk a lot about sharing what we have, about opening our hearts and our checkbooks to help those less fortunate than ourselves, and I think it is worth asking how open we actually are.

Knowing our boundaries and limitations is valuable. Priorities vary among us. A parent’s first job is to provide for and protect their children. A pastor’s job is to serve and lead their church. Like the flight attendants say, when the cabin pressure drops and the oxygen masks drop out of the ceiling, put yours on your own face before you help your neighbor.

Not everyone has what it takes to bring Jose and Maria into their homes to sleep in the spare room, or even the garage. I get that.

But what might we be doing that we’re not already doing? What could we be giving that might make a difference? Do we give just that portion of our resources that does not really make an impact on our comfort, or do we share things that make us wince just a bit? Do we clean our closets of old clothes we no longer want and donate those, or do we go out and pick up some new things to donate so someone will have a shirt that’s never been worn by anybody else? Giving our trash to someone hardly counts as virtue in my book, save perhaps its relative value as an effort to recycle. But like Hosea Ballou said about intention – if our desires are not pure, our hearts are not pure and we cannot claim virtue from good behavior done for disingenuous or self-serving reasons.

So I challenge us this week to examine our giving habits. Without crossing into the realm of codependent self-abuse, are we giving all that we could? Are we sharing as much of ourselves as we can? Is there room in the inn of our hearts for those less fortunate than us? Can we make welcome those who are difficult to welcome – the unwashed, the mumbling, stumbling masses?

In 1883, New York poet Emma Lazarus composed a sonnet called The New Colossus, inspired by America’s acceptance of immigrants from around the world. The words will be familiar to some, and new to others.

The New Colossus

Not the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Those words were inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty when it was dedicated and unveiled in 1886. This is what the world thought of America then – that we were able to welcome the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. We, as Americans, often pride ourselves on our generosity. So now I challenge each of us. In this season of holidays and holy days, let us push ourselves to give as much of ourselves as we can, and to see how it makes us feel, about ourselves and the world around us.

Blessed be and amen.

Monday, November 7, 2011

surrender, god, and letting go

I am back from my workshop weekend and faced again with theology, or rather theological writing, here in this space. I can get a handle on step two as I discussed Friday - I came to believe that a power greater than myself can restore me to sanity. I believe that. I believe that nature can balance me, that nature, or the universe, or whatever it is out there that makes gravity work and the tides do their thing is certainly more powerful than me and can restore me to balance (sanity). I'm good with that.

Step three is a bigger, scarier step. "Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of god as we understood god."

That's not exactly how it reads in conference-approved literature, but I think it'll be ok. Conference-approved literature capitalizes "God" and uses the male pronoun "Him" at the end of the sentence. My gut is the conference folks who oversee this stuff won't mind if I change the language to reflect my theology and gender issues.

The biggest issue here is made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of god as we understood god, not idiosyncratic language. Can I do that? Can I turn my will and my life over to the care of god as I understand god? It's a big, scary step. And actually, it does not require me to do the turning over, but merely make a mindful decision to do so. 'Made a decision to turn..." does NOT say "turned our wills and lives..."

So now the question is: can I make a decision to turn my will and my life over to the care of my higher power, however I envision that higher power to be? In the course of this workshop weekend, I found myself a couple of times in a position to choose a partner or join/form a group for one exercise or another. Sometimes I was purposeful and pro-active in the selecting process, and sometimes I was more passive, allowing myself to be open (while still at choice to refuse) to what opportunities might present themselves. When I was open to what might present itself to me, I found that the experience provided me with surprising richness of experience, and when I chose, with some agenda in mind, or some idea of what I might or could or should learn from a particular grouping, it never went quite as well. Now this might all be coincidence, and it may be Monday morning hindsight/quarterbacking, but it seems to be true now as I look back at my experience and assess how it all went.

I am faced now with a decision. Can I make the decision to turn my will and my life over to the care of my higher power? Can I turn my will and my life over to something so nebulous? Can I trust that great force of energy and love that has no name, no face, no form? Can I even address it with a request for help? This is where Unitarian Universalists are said to run onto problems when we pray. "To whom it may concern: There are some things in my life here that would benefit from your attention..." How do I do that? And can I do it every day?

The idea, I think, is to try to stop running things, to let go of the ego and step into the mystery and trust that the world will keep spinning without my supervision. I don't know how successful I am at such a letting go, or even at making a decision to do so. I guess maybe I can decide to give it my best shot. I can decide to do my best to turn my will and my life over to the care of god as I understand god. I can decide to trust the universe. I'm ok with that. Not sure about the whole letting go thing right now -- that's still pretty scary -- but I think I can lean back into the mystery of things and trust that the universe won't drop me.

Today I make the decision to turn my will and my life over to the care of god as I understand god. The details of what that letting go will look like will become apparent as I move through the next steps. This is a decision step. The following steps are how that decision becomes action and reality. Today I can make that decision. I can decide to turn my will and my life over. I can do that. Today, I decide. Yes. Tomorrow, I may have to decide again, but that's ok. I'll get there as I get there. Today I set the intention. Yes.

Friday, November 4, 2011

came to believe

I am discussing the divine, how I understand god and how it fits with my 12-step recovery and spirituality program. In recent months, my theology has developed to a place where I do not believe in God as a person, a guy, an entity with human personal traits like wants, desires, an agenda, arms, etc. I see god as that divine that lives in the relationship of beings, the hope in a hopeless situation, the kindness in hell. That to me is god. So how does that work in my steps? I'm not sure.

Step two says "Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity."

Now the funny part is that I had the words mixed a little in my memory, and when I checked my book for accuracy, I found that there is nothing here that requires me to have a god that is a person or that looks like one. When I got sober, I had a pretty firm belief in God. Now, almost three decades later, my beliefs are not so sure or so simple. But the bottom line question here is this: do I believe that a power greater than myself can restore me to sanity? And my answer to that is a qualified yes. Yes, I believe that a power greater than myself can restore me to sanity. I believe that nature seeks balance and balance to me represents the sanity I seek, the place where I feel personally, emotionally, spiritually secure, where I am able to approach my day from a place of abundance seeking to share instead of from a place of scarcity where I feel the need to get my share and a little extra just in case.

I need to be mindful here not to get ahead of myself. This is step two, not any other step. There is no call for submission or action, merely coming to believe that a power greater than myself can restore me to sanity. I can do that.

Now I am heading off for a weekend. One of those HAI things again. I am looking forward to it enormously. I will post again come Monday, hopefully about step 3 at that time. See you then.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

getting personal

For the past week or better, I have been doing some theological reflection about how I understand the divine. I came to the conclusion that I don't seem to have a god that has a personality or personhood. That seemed fine until Friday night when I was lying on the deliciously cool tile floor of my bathroom, wishing I had a god I could pray to who would ease my suffering. When the realization struck me, I did giggle. But only briefly, cause it hurt.

Now in my 12-step program, there is a very clear concept of a higher power, and that higher power is very much a person-type entity. God is someone to be prayed to who can and will relieve our suffering. So how does this new theology of mine mesh with that concept? In conversations with some folks this week, it came to me to explore that notion here, and in particular to go through the steps as a way to do it. So let's start at step one. I'll do the others in order as we go.

1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol -- that our lives had become unmanageable.

Sounds easy enough. No mention of god, the divine or anything holy there. There is surrender, but it is surrender to a reality, to an understanding, more than to a deity. We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol. Some people get tweaked about the powerless part. I don't have much trouble with it these days. I didn't like it much when I first came into meetings, but after clearing my head a bit and taking a look at my behavior when I was drinking ... well, let's just say it's not a point I am willing to argue any more. I am powerless over alcohol. And my life is unmanageable, or at least it was when I was drinking. I planned things that never happened. I vowed not to do things that I always ended up doing, screw-ups followed me around. It was rough. And messy.

Today my life is far more manageable, but I notice that the less time and effort I put into managing things -- to trying to orchestrate the grand symphony of my life -- the easier my days are and the less stressful they are. But that's another discussion.

So I am powerless. I can do that. The first step does not require me to have a god or a higher power, just to admit that I'm NOT one. I'm good with that. I am powerless. Over alcohol and lots of stuff. I am powerless over how people act and feel and what they say and how they behave. I can respond or react, and I am responsible for my part in that stuff, but I am powerless over how someone else behaves. I am powerless over alcohol and drugs and what they do to others as well. I am powerless over addiction and how it beats people up. I don't like it, but I am powerless over that. I get it.

OK, now I'm going to end with something I don't often do, which is a prayer. Oh, I can pray in a group, I can lead a prayer and I can participate in a prayer, but I don't seem to spend a lot of time on my own devoted to prayer. This is the simple version of the Serenity Prayer:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; Power to change the things I can; and Wisdom to know the difference.

God, whatever that might be, please grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change. That means all the people, places and things in my life that might not be running the way I like them, that I think might go better if I were in charge; those people who ought to do this or that in order to be healthy and meet a standard of life and health that I deem appropriate. God grant me the serenity to accept the world as it is, and my place in it, for today. Tomorrow I can charge the castle with pitchforks, but for this morning, I'd like to accept things as being where they are supposed to be for this moment.

God grant me the strength to change the things I can, which mostly means me: my thoughts, my behaviors, my feelings, my words. God, please make my words tender and gentle and without sharp edges, so that if I have to eat them later it won't hurt so badly. Grant me the strength to work for justice without working for my own greater glory and good. Help me to take baby steps instead of trying to find a cure for cancer before I've had breakfast. Help me to change the things I can.

And please, god, who ever or what ever form you might take, guide me to the wisdom to know the difference between what I can change and what I cannot. Grant me the wisdom to know where I can be helpful and where I'm more likely to get in the way of actual progress and healing. Help me to stay right-sized. Blessed be. Amen.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

November and more on the divine

It is November 1, beginning of that NaBloPoMo thing I've done in the past. I have not signed up to do it this year, but I have signed up to do this thing every morning, examining what I know of god and the divine and my relationship with it all and it's relationship with me. They tell me that's theology. I don't know what I call it yet.
What I mentioned only as a post script yesterday was that I spent more than 8 hours of quality time Saturday in the emergency room with some kind of gastric upset thing. I was in some pretty harsh pain on Friday afternoon/evening and it wasn't all that better by noon Saturday, so a friend took me and sat shiva while I was poked, prodded, x-rayed, scanned, drained from various places and otherwise examined. Turns out I had some kind of thing they're not sure about. It may well have been the world's most expensive nap.
This goes in with some of the discussion we've been having in my Systematic Theology course on the purpose of suffering and evil. Why does it exist? Who thought it would be a good idea for us and what kind of twisted logic came up with that notion? There are some who say that evil is not god's doing at all, but that of a bad element - Satan or the devil, and god doesn't have much to do with it. Others say it comes from human's abuse of the freedoms that the divine has given us, and others still say it serves some kind of useful purpose, either as an educational tool, or as I heard when I was growing up "it builds character."
I'm not so sure I need any more character, and I am disinclined to think there is a bad guy with horns and a pointy tail running around causing havoc in the world, nor am I inclined to think that Saturday's exploration in pain was offered to me as an educational opportunity -- a spiritual field trip, if you will. Nor am I inclined to think that it is a result of my failure to pray appropriately or recycle my tin cans. It might have something to do with my gall bladder and diet, which can be seen as an outgrowth of an abuse of freedom, I suppose, but still. All of these things speak to a god that is punitive and cruel. I can't buy that. I can accept that bad stuff happens as a part of nature and that life is unfair, but I don't see suffering as a cosmic morality tale visited upon my GI tract to impart some kind of lesson about my place in the universe and relationship to the divine.
The trip to the hospital did offer me some time to observe how people come into such a place and how they behave while there. I got to sit in my own little curtained room and hear the comings and goings of nurses and technicians and patients and loved ones. I got to hear some kind of suturing being done on a not terribly pleased person across the way, and then a cast was put on. I got to hear a guy get treated for what was probably the clap, a young woman was treated for a sprained ankle after she fell down some stairs the night before ("I was sober, really!") and a woman came in with her husband and was seeking drugs and attention. It was a microcosm cross-section of society at its most vulnerable. All walks of life come through Beth Israel's ER, and I got to listen to them all. I also got a clear idea that I am not ready for chaplaincy yet. I think I'll try for that next fall as opposed to over the summer. I am not even ready to try for this summer yet, and the application process is already underway.
So, why suffering, then? I'm not sure. When I am hale and healthy, I tend to offer a smart remark like "pain is what lets you know you're alive," but that's more bullshit than anything else. What purpose pain? What can possibly be gained by the suffering of an infant born diseased and dying in a place wracked by famine and AIDS? What purpose does that serve? To offer some kind of morality lesson to the mother? To the infant? What kind of sick fuck would set up that with a purpose? That can't be god. It can't be. But what, then? And where is god in that? Where is the divine in that situation? I am inclined to think that the doings of this earth are the doings of this earth and that suffering and what we call "evil" are the normal diseases and infections that any organism has and fights in the course of its lifespan.
It's a lame explanation, but it's what I have this morning. Perhaps more on it tomorrow.

Monday, October 31, 2011

the veil is thinnest today

This is all Hallows Eve, All Souls Day, the Day of the Dead and Samhain, the Celtic festival of the dead. It is the time of the year when the veil between the realm of the living and the realm of the dead is the thinnest it ever gets. Pagan traditions tell us that today is when we can call the names of our beloveds and they can hear us, that if we gaze at the mist in just the right way we might be able to see those who are gone from us. It is a time to say goodbye, to remember and to let go.

At church yesterday, we did a bunch of stuff about remembrance and loss and mourning and saying goodbye. We lit a lot of candles and we spoke many names into the darkness of the sanctuary. (The power and heat were out at the church because of the snowstorm that hit overnight, so the candles were necessary and welcome for a variety of reasons.)

Rituals such as this are for the living, I understand that. They are so we can have something to do that allows us to let got of loss and pain that we've been carrying around. I was in a weird place, though. My father died in June. The pain is still accessible should I think about it all too much, but Sunday is not the place for me to do that. At least that's not my understanding. It is the time for clergy to lead worship, not necessarily speak the name of our own departed and lost. Although my supervising minister spoke some names. I heard him do it. I don't know what to do with that. I will ask him this week. The service on Sunday is about me serving the divine and the congregation, not about me getting my own spiritual needs for healing met. I wonder if maybe I was more healed from this loss if I would have been better able to speak my father's name and let it go than I am now. Now I think I would have cried still. There's a lot of healing I have left to do.

The day of the dead thing does not exactly fit with my theology. I don't believe that we can see from the realm of the living into the realm of the dead, nor that anyone there can hear if we call out their name to say goodbye. I understand that it is a ritual through which we get healing, but I don't see it as literally true. I think the imagery is good and helpful as a meditative guide to the emotional release, but theologically, I am still a tad confused. Where is god in this? Where is the divine? I think god is in the healing, in the release, in the lifting of the burden of mourning and sadness. I think god is in the ritual where we stand together and hold space for each other's pain and support each other as we let it go. Is god a thing that we can pray to in this moment to relieve suffering? I suppose. But I am not inclined to believe that the divine works like that. I tend to think that the divine exists in the love and compassion we share with each other. Still thinking. More tomorrow.

Post Script:
I ended up in the Emergency Room at Beth Israel in Boston Saturday afternoon. I spent 8+ quality hours there getting poked and prodded and scanned and x-rayed only to be told that nobody's exactly sure what happened, but I seemed better so go home and get some rest. Even with my new insurance from school, I may have just spent a full day accomplishing what amounts to a $30,000 nap. We'll see what's covered and what's not and I'll let you know. Making an appointment with a regular doc today to follow up.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

suffering and god

Thursday in my systematic theology class we talked about evil in the world and what it means (or meant) to folks developing an understanding of the divine. Some say that evil is the work of another (Satan) and not god's fault or business, some say it comes from an abuse of the freedoms that god has granted us humans, some say it has educational value (I suggested that nuns might fit this model and got a nice round of laughs) and there were a couple other ways to explain the existence of evil and suffering in a world supposedly created and ruled (to some extent) by god.

There's a thing called theodocy that is the name for the dilemma created when three "truths" are offered:
1. God is omnipotent.
2. God is benevolent.
3. Evil (suffering) exists.

This is where people get tangled.

If the divine is omnipotent, then it seems to reason that god could eradicate evil. The fact that evil exists seems to indicate that god allows it to happen and therefore is not benevolent.

If the divine is benevolent, that would mean that god does not want us to suffer. The fact that we do suffer would indicate that maybe god cannot stop suffering and therefore is not omnipotent.

This is all very nice if one has a god that is a person, or has a personality, or is a being of some sort that can be prayed to and communicated with like we communicate with one another. That's not really how I understand god, so I can look at it all from a safely detached and curious stance.

Until last night.

About an hour into my afternoon class, I began to feel uncomfortable. Like maybe I'd eaten something that did not agree with me. I'd had a cheeseburger and a salad for lunch, so that didn't seem right, but by the time class was over, I was alternately sweating and shivering and my stomach felt like it was going to explode. I came back to my place, got into some sweat pants and curled up on the couch for a while. For the next eight hours I alternately felt like I would throw up, pass out or explode from the lower regions of my intestines. I was miserable. And I am not sure but it might have been worse that I did none of those things, because I have a hunch that any of them might have offered relief once I got to the other side.

So, when one is lying on the bathroom floor -- deliciously cool! -- one has some time to make some observations about life. First, there are a lot of cobwebs under the radiator. Second, where is god in this? What purpose does this level of pain serve in my world? On a scale of 1 to 10, I would have put my pain level at probably a 6. It was really pretty bad. Not so bad that I was convulsing or violently throwing up, but bad enough that I could barely walk around my little apartment and when the pain came in waves, I took lots of little shallow breaths to get myself through them. I've never had a broken bone or had a baby, so I don't have those to compare it with. This was an ache that got acute and sharp in waves. It was miserable, though.

Perhaps the most difficult thing I faced yesterday was the desire to pray to a god who could and would relieve my suffering but realizing that I did not believe in that kind of entity/personality-god. Well, hell. That's gonna screw up my step work. Hmmm. I may have to re-think this.

I finally climbed into bed at around 11 p.m., when I had confidence that laying horizontal would not make me need/want to vomit, and slept until 10 this morning. My stomach still feels like hell, but not as bad as it did last night. I'm not hungry, so I'm sipping my orange juice and taking my vitamins and wondering what has happened to me and what this means for how I understand the divine.

Today I hope to get some work done on an exam that was handed out yesterday. It's due next Friday. I don't see myself moving far or fast today, so a day of books and writing sounds just about right. Be well.

Friday, October 28, 2011

this god thing

So not unlike that time I signed up to do NaBloPoMo, I have recently signed up to blog on a regular basis for the last half of my semester. This is for a class called "Spiritual Practices for Healing and Wholeness"and the thing is kicking my butt. I am learning a lot academically, but damn, it is beating up my heart quite a bit as well. I get triggered now and then in class, and when we meet each week we start with an hour of yoga. Now, the body stores all kinds of things in muscles and joints, including trauma and abuse, so after an hour of bending and stretching and loosening up all kinds of memories buried who knows where, it gets rough when we start talking in class about some stuff. The prof is really cool in that she has made adjustments for me so that I can still participate without getting triggered so much, but still. It's hard work.

So here I am, up earlier than I want to be, writing about god. Again. I know that anyone who started reading here all those years ago never expected this to be a theological blog, but hey, here i am. I write what I am doing, and right now, that's theology. Maybe I'll get back to writing about sex or politics or cooking or building things in a while. for now, I need to work out whatever it is that's jamming me up. I appreciate your patience.

I've been thinking about what it means to have faith in a god that is not described in terms of a person or personality. Most of what I have read in school this far describes god as wanting this, loving that, hating this other thing, feeling joy and sadness, rooting for the Red Sox and otherwise being a ... guy.

And that's where I get stuck. That just smacks of us hanging human identifiers on the divine, and that does not make sense to me. We are limited in our expression by our language and our inability to think or imagine beyond our own experiences. Thus, we think of the most fantastic outer limit version of what we know and decide that this thing we call god is maybe an inch or two beyond that. I can't believe that. It does not ring true for me, and it's beyond what I can take on faith. For me to believe in something that I cannot see or experience physically, it needs to make sense to my intellect. I can't believe a creator god gave me a smart brain and then wants me not to use it. So, some stuff has got to pass my internal "well that makes sense, I guess" test or it won't fly.

Is this bad? I don't know. Is it wrong to need to understand something that is inherently incomprehensible? Or am I splitting hairs with this, demanding to know what I think I can and should know and conveniently accepting the things that do not challenge me as much that might be impossible for me to know and thus knock down my house of cards? Hard telling. The good thing here is that I am in a process of discovery and discernment. There is value in the process of learning and clarifying and distilling what it is that I know about god, and it is not a process that can -- or should -- be rushed. Here I am, learning, questioning, exploring, seeking. I trust that an honest effort at seeking will reveal things to me that I seek, and probably some I did not seek. But that's OK. It's the seeking that's important, not whatever answer I find at the end.

More tomorrow.

Friday, October 14, 2011

trust, love and the divine.

This god stuff has kept me pretty busy of late. I'm in seminary, after all. It feels like I should have something more than a passing idea of what I understand the divine to be. It also seems like it might be a good idea to develop an understanding of the divine that I can trust, so I can build a relationship with that entity that feels trusting and not likely to betray me.

You know that trust issues are big for me. I know that too, and I know that sometimes I trust too completely and when I get disappointed, I feel that the trust has been broken, betrayed, and the disappointment is crushing and complete. Most folks can look at an incident like this and say "damn. this person let me down. that sucks." whereas for me, it is often emotionally devastating. I know that I can train myself to not throw my heart so completely into situations that are destined to disappoint eventually, but that takes some time. I can also train myself to be compassionate with myself and the person or institution that disappoints me. I cannot entrust anyone or anything with responsibility for my happiness and fulfillment and safety.

It's easy to say that on paper. Or keyboard. Or whatever. It's another thing entirely to do it.

And then there is the opposite side of that coin, which is the idea that I should be able to rely on the divine in that kind of complete and total way. I mean that's the whole idea of having a god, right? So that you can rely on that god completely? Only this is where I get jammed up.

Life is life and the universe is bound to disappoint and hurt us. To rely upon a god seems only to set myself up for inevitable pain when life intercedes and my heart gets broken. But it occurred to me this week that what I have been expecting or hoping to get from god is like what Marlin promises Nemo in that fabulous Pixar movie: "I promised that nothing bad would ever happen." That image of a champion, a superpower infused protector parent is what I wanted in a god.

But it's not really what I understand the divine to be. In conversation this week, I found language for the evolving concept that I understand god to be. I understand the divine as love. God is love. It sounds oversimplified in those three words, but that's about where I am in my understanding. I know that it is often unnatural to consider the needs and well-being of someone else. It is counter intuitive to care about someone else before one's own needs are met. Yet we do it. Humans are kind to one another. We care for one another, and we do it even after we've been hurt. And that makes no sense, but it is truth. Granted there are some unhealthy levels of caring that reach into the realm of codependency, but those unhealthy "Giving Tree" moments aside, I think it is the divine at work when we give to others, when we care for others, when we go out of our way to see to the needs of another. That is god. That verb, that action, that is what god is to me.

So back up a paragraph or two, I think I have been looking for an identity for god that is a person as opposed to a concept or an entity that is a force. I wanted a person. What I got was love.

Now, I can rely on love. I can rely on the idea that even after people are hurt, they will still give. Even after we feel loss, we will reach out again to offer comfort. That is love. And that is god. So what is my relationship now with god as I understand god? Can I rely that love will happen, even in the worst of times? yes. Can I rely that compassion will happen even when it makes no sense? yes. Can I believe that people will reach out to offer each other comfort even when they are hurting? Yes. Must I believe that everyone will always behave this way? Of course not. I can believe that some will, though, and that love -- and thus my understanding of god -- will prevail. I can rely on that. I can trust that. It's a start.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

on meditation and such

Last year I took a course in Buddhism. One of the requirements for class was that we meditate for 20 minutes a day. It turned out to be more difficult than I had anticipated. Around the same time I started the class, I also started doing some pretty heavy childhood trauma recovery therapy, so when I would sit and let things get quiet in my mind, the thoughts that would rush in were very painful and not the kinds of things I could simple "notice and let flow past like leaves upon the surface of a stream." Yeah, not so much.

This term I have a class called "Spiritual Practices for Healing and Wholeness" and it is kicking my emotional butt. The meditation practice we are supposed to be doing relies deeply on a trusting relationship with the divine, and that's something I don't seem to have. In fact, two weeks ago in class, we talked about how in infancy babies learn trust and that trust is the foundation for all relationships in a person's life, with people and with the divine. Well then. In my infancy? I didn't have lessons of trust. When I was abandoned at 8 months old, with my five older half-siblings, I was not able to sit up on my own and had pretty much stopped crying.

Not all babies learn trust in that first year. Some of us learn something else. And those of us who do not learn trust in infancy spend a lifetime dealing with the after effects of what we did learn.

This week's reading was on centering prayer, an exercise that I view with some suspicion. It sounds a lot like a gentler version of some kind of unworthiness exercise. It is about emptying the self in order to reach a higher kind of spiritual awareness. I struggle with the letting go. Letting go seems to indicate that what I have is not worth holding, that it is an impediment to healing and wholeness. On the other hand, what I've got in my personhood is largely a result of what I have built up over the years. This assignment is nothing short of terrifying for me. Let go? Of the stuff that has kept me together for so long? I don't know if I can do that.

But then I read the wrong chapter. We were assigned chapters 1-8 and then 11-14. Not paying attention and trying to get the assignment done, I plowed right through chapter 8 into 9 and all of a sudden the thing was speaking my language. The book talked about how this practice fits with the 12-step recovery model, and how it works in that context, and suddenly things got a little brighter. Chapter 10 is the author's concern about some gaps in the method as done through the recovery model, but really, chapter 9 may have saved this whole experience for me. I think I can do this now. Centering prayer might not be as dangerous as I had feared.

To be honest, the chapter describes a method and results that are potentially as awkward and painful as any work I have done, but in the context of a recovery plan. When you peel back some layers of crap, there is ugly stuff that comes to the surface and demands attention. Rather than view that surfacing stuff as an imperfection in the meditation model, this version views it as a natural result of the practice, allows for whatever method of dealing with it that I might need, and then, when I am ready again, to proceed on. This is very much like step work. Do a step, all kinds of shit comes up. Deal with it, process it, and let it go. Do another step, repeat the process. And when you're done, going back and starting over might not be a bad plan.

This is the first time in a long while where the thought of meditation does not create instant tightness in my chest. I can do this. It is about healing ancient wounds. Class still triggers me substantially, but I have coping mechanisms for that. This practice can trigger me now too, and I have a way to handle it. I cannot tell you what a relief that is. I hope to report more as I learn.

Later all.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

more on god

What do I know of the divine?
I have been reading a lot of stuff for my systematic theology course, and learning that the machinations I am going through now and have done in the past did not happen in a vacuum. It seems that other people have had similar thoughts, and arranged them in far more orderly fashion than I have done here. They have written books and papers for journals and gotten their doctorate degrees based on the work. Me? I'm just trying to figure out if there is an image of god that I can carry around with me that does not offend my person or my intelligence and still feels safe.

I heard a friend talk about a guy who was grappling with the notion that god could be either all-loving or all powerful, but not both. For a god that punishes people and sends floods and plagues of locusts and all that hellfire and brimstone stuff could not be the all-loving god who forgives all offenses. Turns out the guy opted for the all-powerful version of god instead of the all-loving. It worked better for him. I don't know that I can do that.

Like my Universalist forbears, I need a god that can forgive when I screw up. I need a god that is capable of loving me beyond my own limitations, even when I cannot love myself.

In a conversation yesterday with my supervising pastor, I remembered that my therapist had said that our mental image of god is that of our father when we were two or three years old.

Well no wonder I have not been able to feel safe enough to submit to this understanding of god. When I was two or three, my father was an angry and unpredictable presence in the fringes of my life, present only occasionally at suppertime where he tried to exert parental control but I was deferring to my aunt and grandmother, with whom I spent all of my days. I did not recognize his authority then and he resented it, and was angry and I got scared when he shouted. Hell, we all got scared when he shouted.

Yesterday afternoon I met with one of my professors to see about finding some alternative readings for me for this class of meditation and prayer. The biblical stuff is often too much like that old church stuff I left to be useful in meditation. Imagine reading and repeating and writing about texts that focus on our own inherent unworthiness as humans. That is not healthy for me, so we dug around and found some that are more affirming. We settled on one by Rumi and one by Maya Angelou for my lectio divina practice.

Lectio divina is a way of reading and meditating and praying on and around a chunk of text to see what message might be revealed within it. Like sifting sand looking for gold, it takes patience and practice to calm one's mind to the point where it is open to the musings of the inner being (or god). What we learn in that quiet meditative space can be quite profound. Provided we can get to that quiet, meditative space. For me that's still a challenge.

Here's the Rumi one:

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they're a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

~ Rumi ~
(The Essential Rumi, versions by Coleman Barks)
And here's the Maya Angelou one:

Still I Rise

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don't you take it awful hard
'Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines
Diggin' in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I'll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I've got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history's shame
I rise
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I rise
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

Maya Angelou

Sitting with text is not as hard for me as sitting with silence. My brain does not want to rest and let the quiet flood in. That's still really scary, and I'm not sure why.

I need to find a therapist that is local here. Skyping with my one from Maine is not ideal. The technology is not great and it's not the same as sitting in a room with a breathing person. I am exhausted thinking about what it will take to get a new counselor up to speed on this thing that is my life. Urf.

So anyway, this thing about god. What do I know of god? I don't know. Much of what I come up with seems to be what is called negative theology, meaning that I am defining god by explaining what god is not. I say that god is beyond words to describe because words are limited and human experience is limited. Our words cannot describe something that is beyond our experience or beyond our imagination. Our words are finite, and as such cannot begin to describe an infinite god. Well great, that explains something about me and my situation, but not much about god or how I understand the divine.

What do I need god to be I guess might be a better question. I need god to be loving and forgiving and nurturing and kind. I need god to be strong when I need support and patient when I try to do things my own way under my own power. Damn. What I need is a parent. But not like the ones I had. Well hells bells. That's not where I expected this to go. OK, my instinct right now is to shut down and stop writing. I look at the clock and can see that there are things that I ought to be getting to, but truthfully, nothing is urgent. Except my need to get away from this realization and the words I write. I need god to be the parent I never had. The one who is there when I cry, the one who holds me when I am scared, the one who loves me even when I fuck up.

Healing is tough work. The little girl survived the trauma; the grown woman will survive the healing. But damn. It hurts. I guess it's ok to mourn this stuff. I think that's what I am doing. I don't like to think that I am simply revisiting old traumas for purely recreational reasons. No, I need to see clearly where I came from and what I survived and what I lost and what I never had, feel it all fully, let it burn and scream with the pain, and then let it ebb away, having done its worst, so that I can begin to reassemble the pieces of my heart. This is hard fucking work. I'd be a little less freaked out if everyone I talked to didn't keep asking if I've got a therapist to work through this stuff with. That lets me know that I'm in pretty deep when they do that. It also lets me know that what I'm talking about that is my life is beyond the skills of those folks to handle -- also a thing that gives me pause. I deal with a lot of ministers and stuff. I suppose it's good, though, that they recognize their own limitations and don't try to give me advice they're not qualified to hand out.

And there. I have successfully navigated away from the uncomfortable truth that I have uncovered this morning. I need a god who is a parent who loves me unconditionally, and I have no experience to know what that feels like. This is not "the magic Santa god" that Kate Braestrup talks about in her books, the one we pray to for a new job, new lover, new car, or any other of our "needs" here on earth. No, I need a god that just loves me, full-on, no questions, unconditionally. Like I love Quinn, maybe? Is that something I can get my brain around? I am sort of a parent for her. I love her no matter what she does. I would do everything under the sun to protect her and keep her safe. I am happiest when she is curled up in in my lap and we are snuggled together while I read. Is that the kind of love I want from a god? Hell, I'd take it, that's for sure. And maybe, it is just the thing I am describing. I don't know. This will take some more days to parse out, I think. We'll see where it goes. Enough for this morning, though. Later.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

thinking of god

I've been thinking about god again.
In school, it makes sense. That's why I'm here. Sort of.
Not all Unitarian Universalists believe in god, but I think I do.
I mean, I believe in a power greater than myself to which I can turn and that helps me.
Only I don't have a clear understanding of what god looks like. I mean for me. Other people I know can describe god with sure voices and clear terms and what I end up talking about is some "power of the universe that runs things and is a force for good." It sounds like the description of a cartoon character.
My god? I'm not sure what my god looks like. I think the instant we try to put human, finite words on the divine we start to try to put clouds in a box. It's interesting to contemplate and sort of fanciful to try, but really? My understanding of the divine is that god is beyond our own words to describe god. By virtue of the fact that we are limited in our language and thoughts to those of the human species, I think by definition that renders us incapable of defining god. It's like the colors on the spectrum beyond infrared and ultraviolet. I know they're there, but I lack the eyes to let me see them, therefore I cannot begin to describe them. Besides, when was the last time you tried to describe the color blue? Every try to do that? Yeah, it's a fun exercise to illustrate how limited language can be.
So I'm trying to get my brain around my understanding of god. I described god earlier as outside myself and an entity I could turn to for help. But that doesn't really fit either. I think the divine lives in each of us, that there is some spark of pure joy, pure love, pure selflessness and generosity that exists in all of us. Some are in touch with it and can access it and some cannot. Buddhists bow to one another in a ritual that roughly translated means "The divine that lives in me acknowledges the divine that lives in you." I like that idea a lot. I like the idea that we all have something of god inside us.
This does not make us god, or gods, or all powerful in any way, but I think it allows us to do good things in a way that maybe we might not consider on our own. Then again, this might be my liberal, white, privileged understanding of things. I can't tell.
So the tricky thing I'm facing these days is getting in touch with my own woundedness and still managing to believe that I am healthy enough and will be healed enough to do ministry.
One of the first assignments in one of my classes was to consider and reflect upon where I am wounded, where I am broken, and in what way that prevents me from being intimate with god.
Yeah, that was a lot of fun. Last week in that same class, the prof talked about how infants in the first year of life learn trust and how that trust is an absolute base requirement for building relationships, with people and with god. She's right, of course. Only I didn't get that lesson in the first year of life. I learned distrust. So now, 45 years later, can I learn it? Not in the way an infant does, with their still pliable and forming brain, developing synaptic patterns and all. No, it's going to take I don't know what for me to learn trust so that I can function in relationships. And I may walk with a psychic limp for the rest of my life as a result of that break in my infancy. I can't tell. I know that I will have empathy for people in ways that others cannot, but it comes at a high price.
More thoughts tomorrow, I hope.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

many miles have been traveled

since last we spoke.

I'm in Massachusetts now, staying in a dormitory apartment on campus at Andover Newton Theological School. I'm a full-time student. Quinn is living with me as a service dog, and well, it's been a long road.

But what I wanted to share today is that I preached my first sermon as a student minister. It was in the Universalist Unitarian Church of Haverhill, Massachusetts, where I am doing my field education placement for the year. Field education means I spend 15 hours or so at the church or doing church things each week, I preach some, I do ministerial stuff, I learn how it goes. It's a lot like a practicum if you've ever trained to be a teacher. I'm really tired right now, so I'm just going to say that the people at this church are really pretty awesome. They even applauded when we finished the service today. I am so pleased and blessed to have found this congregation. Here's what I preached. I'll wrote more later.

What are we called to do?
Dawn Fortune

In seminary, I am surrounded by people who have been called to ministry in a variety of ways. I have friends who are in training to be ministers in a number of faith traditions, from evangelical Christians to Reformed Judaism, and from the pulpit to the classroom.

It is not surprising then, that we seem to spend a lot of time talking about this thing called “call.” What’s yours? When did you get it? What does it look like to you? I have heard as many stories about call as I have met people, and each is as unique as the individual describing it. Some describe their call to ministry as a slow-moving awakening of purpose, a gradual understanding of what they are meant to do with their lives. Others describe a transformative spiritual experience, being touched by the divine. I’ll tell you about my call experience in a moment.

But first some background. In order to know why my call experience was what it was, I need to let you know a little bit about me first. I was born just down the river in Newburyport, at the Anna Jacques Hospital, in the summer of 1965. I was baptized at Saint Louis DeGonzague Catholic Church in the south end, where I also made my first communion.

I received that sacrament in the requisite white frilly dress, clutching the pink plastic beaded rosary (the boys got blue), and thinking holy thoughts about the sacrament and unholy thoughts about the itchy white tights and uncomfortable patent-leather shoes. My grandmother was the guardian of my soul, making sure that I received all of the necessary sacraments before I graduated high school.

I believed the tenets of my Roman Catholic faith until I got into college and began to face some of the serious, scary questions that I had been privileged to not have to answer earlier. Suddenly issues about reproductive choice became important, as did questions about sex and relationships, and when I came out as a lesbian, it was at the height of the HIV/AIDS pandemic and the fiercest animosity between the church and the queer community. I knew where I was not welcome, and once I left, I found it much easier to look with a critical eye – indeed, a very critical eye – upon many of the tenets that I had accepted as a matter of faith before.

Years later, I was taking a humanities class that required as a homework assignment that I attend a church that was not of my faith tradition. I had heard things about those Unitarian Universalist folks, that they were liberal and all, so I took a deep breath and went inside to check it out. The UU church in Waterville, Maine is a white clapboard affair with a clock and bell tower and a stained glass window with a picture of Jesus and some sheep. It looked frighteningly traditional to me, and I was braced for the worst as I sat in the hard wooden pew.

Imagine my surprise when I flipped through the hymnal. Readings by Lao-Tse? Marge Piercy? A hymn by Holly Near?! My mind reeled. This could NOT be church, I thought. It made no sense. I don’t remember what the sermon was about that day, but I remember going home and crying. It was all too much. I had never been in church and heard the message that I was OK. I had never been in a church that affirmed me as a human being, as a woman, as a queer person, as a person with left-of-left-of-even-more-left-than-that-leaning politics. It was more than a month before I could go back. And then another month. And then a couple weeks. And then it was summer and you all did what?! Really? You close for the summer? This was the craziest church I’d ever seen. In September, I came back with everyone else, and stayed.

But that’s not about my call. That’s just how I got in the building.

Many years later, I started preaching. Mostly I was raising money for a political campaign, but what I was doing was preaching. I told stories to an assembled crowd of people who were interested in the topic, I made them laugh, I made them cry, and I did my best to make them write big checks. I had some success, and when the campaign headquarters got a call looking for someone to come preach on marriage equality at a UU church, well, a few fingers pointed at me.

Now keep in mind, that although I was a UU, I considered myself a mostly-lapsed UU. I wasn’t attending a church, and was living in a very secular world, where I polished and treasured a moderately scandalous reputation. The thought of me in a pulpit was, and remains, to a number of my friends, more than a little amusing. But I went and I preached and I did a fair job. I was beating a political drum. I signed up the volunteers I needed, and I went home.

People started suggesting that I might make a good minister or preacher over the course of the campaign, but I brushed off such ideas as ridiculous. I was a radical sex educator, a political hack and a writer with strong opinions and a big mouth. I could not see myself in a ministerial role, working with boards and committees, being polite to people I thought really needed a sound thumping, verbal or otherwise. It just didn’t seem reality-based. I was not, as we say in seminary, “a non-anxious presence.”

A month or two later, I did join a church, and in a perfect storm of life experiences over the course of a couple weeks, I became single, started some deep spiritual reflection, joined the church and got a job after more than a year of unemployment. One Sunday morning during this time, I was sitting in my new church home. In the pulpit was our new Director of Religious Education and Lifespan Curriculum, a man of Irish Catholic extraction from eastern Massachusetts. He told us the story that morning of how he came to enter ministry, how he ended up in seminary, and how he experienced his call to serve in our church.

As he spoke, the most amazing thing happened. The sun moved gradually across the sanctuary to where I was sitting. It enveloped me in light and warmth, I felt something I can only describe to this day as a physical presence pressing down on me, but not in an unpleasant way, and words came to my mind unbidden. I hope you will forgive my language, but the words that came to me were “well shit. I’m going to be a minister. I have to go to seminary.” I figure the profanity was the divine’s way of letting me know that this message was specifically for my blue-collar self and not the polite young man to my right. Unable to move, I sat and cried through the rest of the service.

Now I know that this kind of experience is not typical of what we expect in Unitarian Universalist churches, but there it is. It is what happened to me. To tell the story in any other words would be inauthentic to my experience and dishonest to you.

What I have learned about my call is that it is the thing that takes over. My call is the thing that will rearrange my priorities. Studying is my priority now.

Call is the thing that I describe as a seed knowing which way to grow when planted in the dark earth. My call is like that – all else is becoming less and less relevant, as I know that what I am supposed to do is push skyward, somehow trusting that the color and shape of the blossom will make itself known when I have grown enough.

Historically, we have understood call to be something similar to my experience – a lightning bolt from out of the sky. The risen Jesus appears to Saul on the road to Damascus and knocks him blind from his horse; Jesus tells the brothers Simon Peter and Andrew to “come follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” We tend to think of call as involving hair shirts, suffering, sacrifice, and discomfort.

I think it is dangerous thinking to believe that a call must mean some sort of brilliant, vaguely unbalanced passion for a thing that causes a person to give up all their earthly belongings and take off into the wilderness to pursue it. That version leaves a lot of us out of the running. Saint Francis of Assisi heard a call from god, renounced his title and wealth, took off all his clothes and walked into the wilderness naked to live on grains and honey that nature provided. Not all of us can do that. Some would argue that not all of us should even try. But I think we are all called to do the work of the divine.

Our Unitarian Universalist faith calls us to action in a unique way. We are called to uphold our principles, based upon their own moral value. In our non-creedal, non-doctrinal faith, we do not have the threat of eternal damnation as a motivator. As Universalists, we do not have to worry about being separated from the love of the divine. By definition, we believe in universal salvation. There is no threat of punishment to compel us to right behavior and right relations with the world around us.

We draw our living tradition from Jewish and Christian teachings, but we do not respond well to demands for strict adherence to edicts from long ago. Our Humanist sensitivities require us to pass things through a lens of reason to see if they are relevant and appropriate in our present world. Tradition is good, but it had better have some science to back it up or we resist it. We believe in transcendence and the power of the divine, but we believe in reason, too. In the words of Ronald Reagan, “trust, but verify.”

Our Unitarian Universalist Principles call on us to do lots of things: To affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of all people, to act with justice and compassion in human relations, to accept one another and encourage spiritual growth, to search for truth and meaning, to use the democratic process, to work for peace and liberty and justice and to respect the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

That’s no small order. Christians and Jews have the Ten Commandments. You’d think seven principles would not be as challenging as something as very authoritative as The Ten Commandments, but I think our principles call on us to be as vigorous in our moral behavior as those edicts from the Hebrew Bible.

It is not easy to uphold all of our principles every day. We live in a world that makes it singularly inconvenient to practice these principles on a daily basis. Respect for the interdependent web of all existence is jeopardized every time we get coffee at the drive-though, either by the Styrofoam cup with distinctive pink and orange letters or by the mere fact that we’re sitting in our idling automobile, spewing greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.

My adherence to the first principle is sorely treated when I see some of the recent political debates and the things people there have said. Inherent worth and dignity of all people? Really? Yes, really. All of them.

This is not a religion for the faint of heart or conviction. There is nothing wishy-washy about believing that there is inherent worth and dignity in people who behave in hurtful ways.

Let me phrase it this way: What is it we do that serves love, justice, grace, and peace?

When we serve on a committee that helps raise money for a shelter for victims of domestic violence, are we not doing god’s work? When we volunteer to help with a church committee, are we not doing the work of the divine? When we speak up when someone tells a racist or sexist or homophobic joke, are we not doing the work of the divine? All of these things are examples of things we do that are part of living in right relationship with each other and the world around us. Is that not what our principles call us to do? To live in right relationship with each other and the world? Is this not where, as Rumi said, we “return to the root of the root” of our own selves?

Sometimes I think we don’t give ourselves enough credit. I think we do what we can, wish we could do more, get frustrated that we are not perfect, and treat ourselves badly as a result. I think it would do us no harm to be as compassionate with ourselves as we are inclined to be with each other. We are called to justice, and freedom, and peace, yes. But we are called to compassion, too. And humanity. And we are human.

I want to challenge you this week. I want us to be mindful of our behavior. What we do, what we say, how we act. Let us notice what of our behavior and words serves what we are called to do. Let us be mindful of the good in ourselves and in others. Let us think, too, directly and with consideration, about what our personal calling might be. How do our personal calls mesh with what the covenants of our faith call us to do and be?

We are all called. In one way or another, we all have a call. To service, to justice, to compassion, to peace, to love, to each other, to ourselves. Let us each answer that call as we are able.

Blessed be. Amen.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

tired, but hopeful

I suppose all of this work that I have been doing is what has me exhausted. It is really demanding stuff, and after an hour with my therapist today, I was spent. I came home, made supper and am now trying to figure out how to finish that paper so I can go to bed.

I have shared some rough stuff here in the past. What I failed to mention here recently are some of the real milestones that have happened in the past month.

I am setting boundaries. And I am doing pretty well at not feeling guilty about it.

I have stopped my aunt in mid-sentence when it feels like she is invalidating what I am saying about how I am feeling. I know that it is her default setting to deny unpleasant things, I know that. But lately I have been able to say "stop. I know you'd really like for me to be enjoying school and having a marvelous time, but right now what I am feeling is scared, overwhelmed, terrified and trapped, and that is not fun, it is not a good time and I am not going to tell you that it is because that is what you'd like to believe. I know you love me and want me to be happy and have fun, but right now, it's not happening that way, so please stop telling me that I am not feeling what I feel."

Holy shit.

That's a lot.

And for the most part, she's handling it pretty well.

The other night we were talking about my father and my childhood, and she said what I always have heard: "well, I think you've come to the place where you can say he did the best he could."

I stopped her immediately. Yes, he did the best he could, but that does not make it ok. He did the best he could, but it was not enough. He did the best he could, but it was still wrong that he beat me with a strap. It was still wrong that he berated me and humiliated me and terrorized me. That was abuse and it was wrong and saying it was the best he could do does not make it right or excuse it. It was wrong. Period."

We both took a deep breath.

And she agreed.

Holy shit.

Something has shifted in the universe in the past eight weeks, I swear.

The week before Christmas, I came down with a cold. Not just a 48-hour sniffle to cough and be done kind of thing, but a full three days of no sleep, sneezing, constant runny nose, stuffy head, made for a cold medicine commercial kind of thing. I was hurting. So you know what I did?

I cancelled Christmas.

Well, I postponed it. I refused to travel while that sick. I refused to spread those germs to anyone I cared about. But mostly, I took care of myself. I stayed home, in my pajamas, drank tea and kept in touch with friends via the internet and telephone. Then some friends came over and did some nurturing for my soul (and my kitchen, thank heavens!) and I went to bed content.

No travel. No stress. No drama. No family baggage. Tea. Friends. Silly lopsided reindeer antlers. Rest. Care. It was a great Christmas. My aunt took care of herself and visited people in her town and it was good. Neither of us felt neglected or lonely for any length of time and it all was pretty great.

Three days later, I was on the phone with my aunt. We were talking about a family that was close to ours way back when I was little. She had dinner the night before with the matriarch of the family, now in her 80s and growing feeble, and one of the sons, now in his 50s. He told stories of abuse and horrors that happened in his childhood that my aunt had never imagined. The guy's father broke the fingers on his left hand with a two-by-four so the kid would learn to write with his right hand like "normal kids." The father broke the kid's elbow with his new baseball bat when he misbehaved. The man's father was a cop back then, and later a big shot in the PD. Who could they turn to? Nobody. My aunt was shook by the revelation, and moved with compassion for the matriarch, who was first generation Irish-American and told to obey her husband and not protest and certainly not to leave him. For her, it was an impossible place to be.

As I listened to my aunt relate the stories, I thought back to my own childhood. It was rotten. Nobody ever broke my fingers, but my father threatened to break my bones often. He threatened to beat me to within an inch of my life, not that I knew what that was, but I knew it wasn't good and I certainly didn't want it. Sometimes he did beat me. Sometimes he didn't. Psychologists will tell you that random reinforcement is the most effective at creating compulsive behavior. That's why slot machines are regulated. They hit every so many pulls of the handle.

So we talked a little then about my childhood. How I didn't get beaten as bad or as often as other kids, but certainly more than others still. How it didn't matter how often or how badly I was beaten, because it was sufficient to keep me terrified every waking moment for my adolescence. I lived in a fairly constant state of terror.

And then she said the most remarkable thing.

"I'm sorry we didn't do more to protect you."

And for a moment, I couldn't breathe.

The air just stopped.

It couldn't go in, it couldn't go out. It just stopped. As though any motion or noise would make the miracle I had just heard evaporate in the air.

There was no couching phrase, no justification, no "we didn't know it was that bad," no "but we were afraid he'd never let us see you again," none of that. Just "I'm sorry."

I thanked her.

I explained how much it meant to have her say that. I cried. Not enough to freak her out, but enough so that she knew it made an impact. The real sobbing came after we hung up the phone and I was able to absorb the enormity.

Someone had validated that I needed protecting. For the first time ever, someone acknowledged that I should have been protected from my father's abuse. It was huge. More huge than I can explain in words here.

Something has shifted in the universe. Energy is aligned in a way that is making things happen. I don't understand it, and I won't pretend to know what's going on. I just know that I have not had this much growth in my life in a long time.

Now, on to finish that paper. I have a date with a hot chick and a bunch of needles tomorrow, and I don't want to miss it. I'll post pictures when it's done.

Sunday, January 2, 2011


I am allegedly working on a paper for my Buddhism course. It's not going well.

In the course of my learning this semester, I have uncovered a lot of things, both in the classroom and on the therapist's couch (I sit on the couch, it's not old-school analysis). And I have begun to realize some things on my own as a result of this other learning.

Like I was probably not nurtured much -- if at all -- in the first eight months of my life.

At eight months of age, I was abandoned.

And things got better. Mostly. Temporarily. For six or seven years.

When they got bad again.

The childhood stuff from about age four on, I remember that. It's the stuff before that which is causing me concern right now.

I have read the studies done on chimp infants who were not held or cuddled as infants. They grew up to be needy, psychotic freaks, unable to function in chimp culture.

I know what happens to children who are not nurtured or held as infants. It's not always much different from what happens to the chimps.

Now I know that I am not (most days) a needy psychotic freak like those poor chimps in that study, but I do know that I tend toward needy, that I crave approval and attention, and that I often do not feel like I function well in society.

I have grown a great deal in the past five or six years, but still, I wonder how much I can really expect to accomplish with such a deep primal wound. The literature on the subject is not encouraging.

Yesterday I read "Healing the Child Within," by Charles L. Whitefield, M.D. The book is subtitled "Discovery and recovery for adult children of dysfunctional families" and what is says about my particular situation is pretty grim.

The childhood stuff I endured has left me with a legitimate case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, which means I spend a lot of time fearing abandonment, betrayal and/or attack. From everyone, not just family members, but from colleagues, friends, they guy at the garage where I get my car serviced, everywhere.

Here's what he says about my situation:
The PTSD is said to be more damaging and difficult to treat it: (1) the traumas occur over a prolonged period of time, e.g., longer than six months; and especially if (2) the traumas are of human origin; and if (3) those around the affected person tend to deny the existence of the stressor or the stress.
We expect soldiers to have PTSD after combat deployment. Truly, it makes a ton of sense. But we don't expect children to have, or to get, PTSD. But looking at what kids go through, it makes as much sense, reading Whitefield's analysis of the trauma. I cannot help but think that the trauma in my life that happened before I was verbal and before I was able to think cognitively, must have left some pretty amazing trauma to my psyche.

So now I am torn. I am relieved a little bit, to understand why the Buddhist practice I tried this semester didn't seem to work for me. "As soon as you recognize a thought or feeling, let it go just as quickly" were the instructions. Really? Really? I've been digging around in my childhood and coming up with some very disturbing memories, feelings and understandings. To "let them go as soon as you recognize them" is absurd.

Let go? Let go of primal abandonment? Let go of the realization that I was neglected, abused and abandoned? Just like that?

Poof! All better!

Yeah, no.

These are old wounds, newly uncovered. They are serious, debilitating injuries that need more than a kiss and a wave bye-bye to be gone. These wounds need treatment, they need to have the old, dead scabs scrubbed off, the gravel cleaned out of the raw flesh, salve and ointment applied, and they need to be bandaged and nurtured anew, cared for in a way that never happened the first time around.


Then and only then, can that anger, that betrayal, that hurt, that rejection, be let go. And my gut tells me that this is going to be a repetitive process for the next couple of years: digging, scraping, cleaning, bandaging, healing. This is going to be a long process. It will take time, it is going to hurt sometimes, and it will not be pretty. My feelings and emotions may come out sideways and when the shit hits the fan, it's likely to splatter and be messy.

The only way I know to get to the other side of this mess is wade through it. And for now, standard Buddhist practices are not going to work. Not on this stuff. I can meditate, and learn to be mindful and other things, but hurts need to be healed before I can let them go.

Thus ends today's lesson. Tomorrow, I hope to get the paper done.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

happy new year?

So it's 2011.

This is the year I hope to stop beginning sentences with the word "so."

I am working on the last paper of the semester. It is due on Friday. I set myself a due date on it by this weekend, which has now been extended to Monday sometime, because I am taking an intensive course in religious ethics in January and it begins on Friday the 7th. And I have to have 1/3 of the reading done for the whole course before I step into the classroom, so I am going to need some time to prepare, namely next week.

Which means I need to get this damned paper done. Only it is really resisting my efforts to get it to write itself. Damned thing.

What's troubling me is how much of myself I should put into the paper. For 12, 13 weeks, we have been reading and writing and meditating and writing, and I have worked through a lot of stuff. (The paper is on Anger and Buddhism, by the way.) I have delved deep into myself, working through some childhood trauma, naming my experiences as abuse, and acknowledging that it sucked bad enough to cause problems now. In my reflection papers and in class, I have talked about the anger I carry and how it is rooted in pain and fear and how that pain and fear is rooted in trauma and how I am working to heal that trauma, all these years later. Buddhism, and how we learned about it through experiences this semester, has been a very intense, very personal, and often painful growth process.

I am just unsure how much of that is appropriate for me to include in my final paper. Do I stay true to what I have been doing so far? Do I detach and treat anger a a purely academic construct to be examined through cold, theoretical language? The former threatens to be inappropriate and the latter seems dishonest and unhealthy, as though none of what I have felt and learned and internalized this semester has affected me in any significant way.

I think I am going to write what comes and see where it takes me. Whatever is stuck is personal, so I guess the personal stuff will come out first, maybe kicking loose whatever needs kicking so that I can get to the academic requirements of the paper. I'll let you know how it works out. Stay tuned.