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.