General Assembly: Painful Reminders and the Work Ahead

As joyous as this week can be, General Assembly also reminds us of our failures and mistakes, and of the enormous challenges still lying ahead for us as a denomination.  Many program sessions this week have spoken of declining church attendance and the urgency for our congregations to be more relevant in peoples’ lives and in our society.  One speaker after another reminds us that church cannot simply be about the Sunday morning service, but must be the about the way we live every day.

Today, thousands of Unitarian Universalists and others marched in downtown Charlotte to call people to act against proposed actions before the North Carolina legislature discriminating against gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender individuals, their families and friends.  The rally featured dynamic speakers and members of the broader faith community in impassioned appeal to act for justice.  The gathering reminded me that I must remain diligent in the ongoing struggle of people seeking rights I take for granted, and equal treatment in the eyes of our society.

In the evening, the annual Synergy worship service honoring the passage of our youth into adulthood featured many speakers addressing our history of ministry with youth.  Betty Jeanne Reuters-Ward spoke of growing up in Young Religious Unitarian Universalism (YRUU), and the hurt felt by many when the program was dismantled a few years ago.  As a long-time advisor and advocate for youth, her words brought back that pain for me, as well.  And even though I know bear the full portfolio of ministerial responsibilities, Betty’s words reminded me of the roots of my calling and moved me to once again reach out to our youth and, hopefully, help to heal the wounds caused by our reorganization efforts and our chronic inattention to the spiritual growth of our children and youth.

And, throughout the week, conversations with my colleagues from seminary have reminded me of the enormous challenges facing Meadville Lombard Theological School.  Faculty departures, the sale of our historic campus, and other administrative actions have left many of us feeling estranged from our alma mater and concerned for the future of ministerial education in our denomination.

I love the singing, the hugs, the warmth and caring of dear friends.  But, General Assembly also reminds us that we still have much work to do.  One speaker today discussed the notion that “god” is a verb.  Our spiritual beliefs are not some static bunch of words, or ritualized acts we repeat without further thought or commitment.  Being a Unitarian Universalist is a full-time vocation and every day provides us a variety of opportunities to live our principles, to walk the path to justice, and to reach out to others in compassion.  Every new dawn presents a fresh day for action, for healing, and for love. 

How will you live your faith today?

An Empty Seat of Sadness and Satisfaction

Yesterday was my commencement ceremony from seminary. But, my seat stood vacant as circumstance kept me from attending my graduation from Meadville Lombard Theological School and receiving my Master’s of Divinity degree. Months ago, I made the decision to skip this milestone event based on predominately financial reasons. As the date drew closer, health issues had also intervened to make participation troublesome. But, I will admit that much of my decision derived from indifference of attending yet another similar celebration after a lifetime of educational efforts. I had convinced myself not to care about my absence.

Then I received a message from one of my dearest friends – a fellow seminarian whose life path has paralleled mine many times over the years in spite of physical distance separating us. She mentioned my empty seat next to hers and all I felt was sadness for missing a special and unique opportunity and sharing a moment with this loving colleague. I was reminded of a time perhaps 10 years ago. It was midweek preceding a youth conference I was attending as a sponsor, chaplain, and van driver. I learned that my favorite uncle had died and that the funeral was being held that weekend – in a distant city. I did not have the money for the trip, but what really prevented me from going anyway was my desire to fulfill my obligation to our youth and to be with them at the con.

You see, my uncle was a lay Baptist minister who served a small congregation for many years. I knew as truly as one can know in my heart that he would rather I spend that time ministering with my youth than flying to spend time with unknown cousins and other distant relatives. As it turned out, the con was an amazing experience and I felt the vibrant presence of my uncle with me during that Saturday night worship service.

Similarly, yesterday I preached at a neighboring fellowship on one of my topics of evangelical calling – atheism. I find that when I preach on the subject that many listeners, who otherwise find little of themselves in our spoken and sung religious messages, finally feel that a clergy person is speaking directly to them and inviting them into the fold of community. It was a joyous opportunity for me, as it always is, to experience that frontier of potential for ecstasy and transformation.

I suppose that that is when you know that you are truly living life. When you have so many opportunities to serve and to celebrate, to experience and explore, that you cannot achieve them all, then you know that you are not just existing. I wish I could have filled that empty seat, that seat of momentary sadness in my life. I would have loved to be with my colleagues celebrating the sacrifice and hard work of completing our seminary training. But, I overflow with the sensation that my choice afforded me yet one more opportunity to do the work of ministry – to inspire and inform, to encourage and empower, to be with other people in all their vulnerability and courage in an atmosphere of worship.

Maybe someday, I’ll find a way to physically occupy that seat of sadness and satisfaction. For now, only my spirit sits as my body continues walking.

A Network of Gratitude

This past Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, his Network of Mutuality words inspired me. The events of the past few weeks move me to write about my own life’s network.

Entering the ministry elicits a broad range of emotions, from the exhilarating and passionate to the fearful and daunting. A life of ministry presents many paradoxes … crowded solitude … powerless authority … an overwhelming sense of knowing and being inadequately.

Throughout the journey, incredible people dedicate themselves to our call. Their love and support remind us of the importance of our quest, the viceral need for our ministries.

  • To the members and staff of the First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh — you will always be my home church; the gardeners who provided the fertile soil to plant the seeds of my call.
  • To the children and youth I served — you fed my call and watched it grow toward maturity.
  • To religious educators everywhere — you welcomed my contributions, validated my gifts, and continue providing support for my expanded call.
  • To my fellow seminarians — you walk the road with me in love, and I eagerly anticipate years of mutual support and enduring care.
  • To my colleagues in New York — I eagerly anticipate our year together, having already experienced your inviting arms of welcome.

Specifically during the recent weeks, let me also thank the following people:

  • Betty, a warm and tireless pillar of First Church, thank you for your encouragement and for coordinating a farewell that touched me and epitomized the work of teaching congregations.
  • Laura, after walking many miles together, you freed me to follow my call — I wish you life’s greatest happiness.
  • Jen, my co-pilot for many years at First Church, I can only hope to work with someone as talented and caring in my future churches.
  • Linda, your engaging warmth and professionalism made finding exactly the apartment I wanted in New York not only successful, but enjoyable.
  • Jennifer, an amazing and vibrant woman, your hospitality will endure in my heart and mind long after two weary nights for my body.

To all those who have gone before us…

To my parents who gave me my tools of humanity…

To my children who continue to teach me…

To those who share my passions and struggle for a better world…

To everyone I will meet and spend time with on this road of life…

Thank you.

A Story of Heresy

During the last session of my Oral Traditions class here at Meadville Lombard Theological School this week, we ended with a storytelling festival. I thought about what story I wanted to tell, and came back to the story that is central to who I am as a Unitarian Universalist, an aspiring minister, and as a person.

You see, for me, the history of Unitarian Universalism centers on heresy. I take the meaning of heresy literally from the Greek hairesis, to choose. From Arius and Origen in ancient times, to Servetus and the Polish Brethren in the Middle Ages, to Theodore Parker and the Humanist Manifesto to modern times, our religion has been about free choice, and the free practice of religion. That story for me is best told by a fairy tale.

Once upon a time years ago, lived a young man named Henry. Henry was not a king or a prince; he wasn’t a famous soldier or a general. He was a simple man just like everybody else. He dreamed dreams like other people. He studied hard in school like other people. He grew up and began working like other people. And, he lived by a code of ethics that influenced the choices he made throughout his life.

For instance, when Henry’s parents fell on hard times, he gave up some of his goals and used all the money he had saved to secure a home for them. When Henry married, he and his wife worked for years building their own home. As his children grew, Henry scrimped and saved all of the money he could, so that they would have a chance at a better life. Henry worked for 50 years and retired. After 50 years of marriage, his wife died. Henry died peacefully a few years later. And, his children and grandchildren continue to live happily ever after.

I know Henry’s story does not make a very glamorous fairy tale. I see no Pixar productions of Henry’s life anytime in the future. There are no mythical creatures, enchanted frogs, or genies who grant wishes. No talking animals populate the narrative, and nothing happens by magic. This fairy tale contains only the choices made throughout a lifetime and the consequences of those choices. Probably every one of you here today knows a Henry, or can identify yourselves in many ways with my father. Much of his story occurs in many typical lives.

My father’s parents immigrated to America from Eastern Europe around the turn of the 20th century. My grandfather was skilled in construction using timber – not a promising vocation for a nation of steel and skyscrapers. But, he chose to come to America to find a better life. My grandmother was excommunicated by the Catholic Church for divorcing her abusive husband. She chose to come to America to live free of dogma and oppression. They met and married here, raised four children, and struggled through the Great War, the Great Depression, and another great war.

When my father returned home from the Pacific in 1945, he could have joined the thousands of servicemen entering college. Instead, he chose to invest his life savings buying his parents a farm. He then took a job as a draftsman and worked his way up the ranks in a division of a major Pittsburgh corporation. He chose a job that allowed him to spend many hours each day at home with his family. And, he chose to spend his weekends volunteering to run his children’s activities, serving his city and his church, and carrying on his father’s tradition by creating works of art out of wood.

To my father, one’s investment choices reflect one’s values. He treasured family. He believed in neighborhood and community. He respected the creative process. Most of all, he was a futurist. No matter how distressing the news, or cruel the fates, my father could see the potential for good in a situation. With enough hard work and commitment, people can always make the world a better place. Sometimes, a helping hand or a just reward is all it takes for humankind to achieve its potential for good.

My father taught me many of the values that comprise my own philosophy of life. In the end, without family, community, love of and for others, and self-respect, money and possessions cannot fulfill our lives. His life may not have been the stuff of fairy tales, but he provided me with all of the will to dream and the desire to achieve them that I will ever need. Our stories require no magic lamps and leprechauns to grant us our wishes. We only need the will and the courage to make choices.

Endings and Beginnings

Beyond saying goodbye to 2008, December saw many endings in my life. I left my job at the University of Pittsburgh of 29 years. I finished my student ministry at the First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh. My divorce became final. I should not be surprised to feel overwhelmed by all of the changes cascading down upon me.

Yet, I feel excited about the direction of my life. As I sit in my dorm room at seminary in Chicago preparing for classes, I feel that exhilaration that you feel once you have committed irrevocably to jumping off a diving board (or a cliff in my case!). What’s so very cool about this feeling is that all the fear and apprehension just fades away. Left is the adrenaline rush and the calm of knowing that everything is ahead of me, for good or bad.

Even though the next couple of years holds incredible unknown, one thing I do know is that hundreds of people support me and want to see me succeed in my journey toward ministry. The generosity expressed by people in my life has been overwhelming at times. A dear friend from Pitt gave me a Tibetan singing bowl – something I have always wanted – with an absolutely gorgeous tone. A church colleague, who has already given me so much in the past, gave me a Ugandan fiber bowl that is attractive and utilitarian. A congregant gave me his paperback copy of Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country, a book that has been on my “to-read” list forever. I immediately read it and was amazed by Paton’s simple, yet expressive prose. A long-time friend gave me a new coffee maker to take to New York for my internship this year, now that I am hooked on fresh ground. And, the other day, one of the first youth I taught in religious education classes (now married and finishing her doctorate) gave me an incredible, hand-made stole. It is blue and gold (Pitt colors) and has an embroidered image of First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh to always remind me of my roots.

These gifts of enormous generosity are the clearest signs to me that I am on the right path. And I know that the gratitude I feel from all of the people in my life will only improve my ministry in the future.

Preparation for the Ministry

Sitting in our service yesterday, my minister related the story of Hosea Ballou’s ordination. At the convention held at Oxford, Massachusetts in 1794, Ballou was in the pulpit with Elhanan Winchester and Joab Young. At the conclusion of his sermon, without warning, Winchester held the Bible against Ballou’s chest, crying out, “Brother Ballou, I press to your heart the written Jehovah!” Winchester then ordered Young to charge him. My minister quipped that he imagined that I wished it would happen that quickly.

Frankly, yes I do wish it would happen that quickly. Well, at least I wish that it could happen that spontaneously. I do fantasize that I will give a sermon so moving, that the congregation would immediately demand that I be ordained on the spot. Because I am, at heart, a preacher and I believe in the power of the sermon to move people and to change lives.

One conundrum that has perplexed me throughout my long journey toward ministry involves my Uncle Bob, who died about 10 years ago. You had to meet Uncle Bob to really appreciate him. He lived in Memphis and had that mild, slow Southern drawl that just lulled you to sleep. He loved telling whoppers. I mean, he never told little lies…he told massive lies. Uncle Bob’s lies were never malicious. In ancient times, he would have been an historian — never letting the truth get in the way of a good story. And, he did it so convincingly, so gently and sincerely, that you gladly swallowed everything he fed you.

The man also loved to horse-trade. He would be driving down the street and see a car he liked in a showroom window. Into the dealership he would drive and trade in his car. I don’t think the man ever owned any car for more than a year.

Oh yes, and he was a Baptist minister. Now, my Uncle Bob never went to seminary or had any formal training. He didn’t take college courses on the Bible, do a module of clinical pastoral education, serve an internship, or earn a degree. But, his small congregation loved him dearly all the same. He worked a full-time job selling linens during the week, but the man was a minister.

Do I wish a path like his was open to me? I don’t know. I understand the purpose of all the rigorous training and assessment. But, sometimes, I wonder whether all of this structure around the preparation of ministers somehow shapes us a little too much into standard molds. Sometimes, I wonder if all this “discernment” is really more about conforming and less about finding a true self-identity. Sometimes, I wonder if we wouldn’t be a little better off having a few Uncle Bob’s in our ministry.

S0, that is my challenge. I will jump through all of the hoops and complete every requirement necessary to become a Unitarian Universalist minister. But, there will always be a little Uncle Bob inside, yearning to tell the occasional whopper and able to adapt and change at a moment’s notice if the spirit calls or the situation demands.

Homework

Returning home from the gym last night, I made myself some dinner and sat down to do my homework. I watched George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Really. Actually, this is the second time I watched the movie this week, since I listened to the DVD audio commentary the other night.

Now, you may ask, how in the world is this homework? I am taking a class in Religious Humanism at Meadville Lombard Theological School this coming January. My final project is about Religious Humanist Themes in the Films of George A. Romero. I love being in seminary!

It’s actually not all that far-fetched. Romero’s films (both the living dead series and his other horror films) are filled with socio-political content and observations on humanity that reflect a humanist perspective. For instance, Romero deconstructs every “monster,” removing all supernaturalism. His zombies, vampires, witches, etc. are all products of our modern scientific world. Second, his films frequently deal with morality and the impact of circumstances on people’s moral decisions. But, most important, his films always address the importance of community, communication, and altruism in the successful survival of humanity. When the monster wins in a Romero movie, it isn’t because the monster is more powerful – it’s because the people couldn’t stop fighting amongst themselves long enough to battle a common enemy.

So, I am watching each movie twice, once to listen to the audio commentary (they are actually fairly boring) and the second time to glean good material to cite in my paper. Of course, I have already seen all of his movies (some many times). It is great, though, to have an excuse to indulge once more in this guilty pleasure. I am doing my homework…honest!

So, why a blog? (reason #1)

As a seminarian, one hears over and over the importance of reflection and the “discernment” process. When I interviewed for admission into Meadville Lombard Theological School, I was asked, “What do you do when you just want to ‘be’? Frankly, I thought that this was a stupid question and I had no answer for it. You see, I could not separate in my own mind times when I wasn’t ‘being’ from times when I was.

After two years, I still think it is a silly question (at least for someone in their 50’s with significant life experience). But, now I believe I have an answer. It may not be an answer that someone making an admissions decision likes to hear. It is, however, a truthful answer. When I want to ‘be,’ I let my muse free to bring together ideas in my head that have entered in the recent past. I allow the powers of synchronicity in the world the freedom to mate one idea to another to create new ideas or insights.

Sometimes, my ‘being’ is idle daydreaming. Other times, it is a cauldron of bubbling words and thoughts out of which may coalesce a single crystal shard of an idea. And, still other times, my entire life switches lanes and proceeds in slightly new directions.

So, why a blog? Mostly because it is hard to articulate my form of ‘being’ to those who will evaluate my progress toward becoming a formed minister. A blog is one way to demonstrate tangibly my acts of reflection to folks comfortable with writing poetry, drumming, or meditating under a shady tree in a pastoral grove. I’m way too obsessive compulsive for those forms of reflection. But, as a child of the computer, blogging seems a natural form of journaling my progress.

If you, too, are on a journey in life, then maybe my reflections will sound familiar. Perhaps we can share our thoughts as we speed along the highway.