Thursday, December 18, 2014

Self-Care: Throw a Rockin' Pity Party!

I have given my little speech on pity parties to three different people this past week, so it seems
something is in the air. Let me share my view on pity parties with anyone who needs it:

Namely: I'm all for them. Even during the holidays. Especially during the holidays.

Look, sometimes life just stinks. It's unfair, and it's miserable, and dammit, why should you be going through this? You don't deserve it! No, you don't. To steal a line from The Best Man Holiday, nobody deserves misery, it's just your turn.

Now, as with all parties, you need to have good food, drink, and entertainment. Oh, and dress. People always want to know what they should wear to your party. And a guest list.

Guest List: You.

Dress: Something incredibly comfortable. Jammies. Yoga pants. Sweats.

Food: Something comforting. This is not a time for counting calories. Pay attention to the four food groups, sweet, salty, fried, and au gratin.1

Drink: Whatever works for you. Sparkling cider. Dr. Pepper. Red wine of an exquisite vintage. Hot cocoa.

Entertainment: Whatever movies turn on the waterworks. Field of Dreams. Steel Magnolias. The Notebook. (Hey, I'm not judging.) This time of year, the aforementioned Best Man Holiday.

Instructions: Watch. Eat. Drink. Sob big ugly wails, feel sorry for yourself. Stop with the being brave and keeping a stiff upper lip. Give in to it. It's okay. You're allowed. 

At a certain point, the party will be over. You'll wake up the next day, clean up the debris, wash your face, and go back to putting one foot in front of the other.

But for now ... party hearty, Marty.

1 The Sweet Potato Queens' Book of Love, Jill Conner Browne

Thursday, October 9, 2014

"The Lifesaving Virtue of Hopelessness"

Hopelessness as a virtue? Wait, wait, Universalism is "The Larger Hope," and we (wrongly attributed to John Murray) exhort people to "Give them, not Hell, but hope and courage," and we sing about bringing hope, when hope is hard to find.

Hopelessness can be a virtue?


In Necessary Endings, Henry Cloud writes:
If you are looking for the formula that can get you motivated and fearless, here it is: you must finally see reality for what it is—in other words, that what is not working is not going to magically begin working. If something isn’t working , you must admit that what you are doing to get it to work is hopeless. This chapter is about the lifesaving virtue of hopelessness. The awareness of hopelessness is what finally brings people to the reality of the pruning moment. It is the moment when they wake up, realize that an ending must occur, and finally feel energized to do it. Nothing mobilizes us like a firm dose of reality. Whether it is finally getting an addict to hit bottom and end a destructive pattern or getting a CEO in front of a bankruptcy judge to force the restructuring that he has been avoiding, only reality gets us to do difficult things.1
I have to admit that when I read this, this summer, it was like a big ole smack upside the head. Yes! First step in making a big change, whether it's personal or organizational, is losing hope. Losing hope can be exactly what we need!

And yet, how often are we the well-meaning friend who does, indeed, bring hope when hope is hard to find? Because hopelessness doesn't feel good. At best, it's uncomfortable. More likely, it's downright painful. And so here we come, with a rose in the wintertime and a beautiful basket of hope, all tied up with a bow. We don't stop to consider that maybe this isn't the season for roses, and hmm, there might be some denial mixed in with all that hope.

Wow, you are such a downer, Rev. Jo!

But what if we actually see hopelessness for what it is -- a necessary step, a tool, a motivator -- for getting us where we need to go?

In that same book, Cloud tells about Julie Shimer, CEO of Welch Allyn, a medical device company. That company is doing very well indeed, because she was able to lose hope that the way they operated would continue to work. To quote Cloud, "she lost hope in the old way, even when it was succeeding."2

She had learned that lesson through watching the mistake of her previous employer, Motorola. In the mid-nineties, they were the market leader in analog phones. AT&T came to them and asked them to make a digital phone. Nah, they said. Not good quality, and besides, they were the leader. Why change? So AT&T went to Nokia. And the world changed. And Motorola was no longer the leader. Because they hadn't lost their hope that things would continue just as they had been.

Hopelessness may just be an opportunity. Perhaps we should consider carefully before we run from it ... or block it from others.

1 Cloud, Henry (2011-01-18). Necessary Endings: The Employees, Businesses, and Relationships That All of Us Have to Give Up in Order to Move Forward (p. 74). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition. 
2 Ibid., 78.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

First Thing: Kill Your Mission

Implicit mission, that is. 

Before you start your visioning, before you begin looking for your explicit mission, deal with the mission your church already has.

Oh, it has one. It's implicit, and probably invisible. If it's articulated, it's through those statements that come out in conversation, when you're deciding whether or not to do something. Do we go to two services? Do we move? Do we expand our religious education program? Do we keep this particular element in the worship service? 

There are often answers that will come out, that are key to the identity you have (which is not necessarily the identity you want) and key to why you actually have a church.

Why do you have a church? What is the raison d'ĂȘtre of your church? Why does it exist?

Unless your implicit mission is first acknowledged and addressed, it will continue to be the guiding mission of the church, no matter the beautiful mission statement that is explicitly created. Maybe the implicit mission should be the explicit mission of the church -- it could be good! But it needs to be identified and then decided -- do we want this to really be our mission? Will this guide us to where we want to go? 

On Facebook, I asked other UUs to tell me some of the implicit/invisible missions they see. 

Some of the answers: 

  • We will be a community of like-minded people where everyone gets along. 
  • We will create a large enough church to maintain our historic building. 
  • We will keep everybody happy, so nobody ever leaves. 
  • We will do what it takes to keep our doors open.
  • The most important thing to do is take care of our people. 
  • We are a place where everybody knows your name. 
  • To be a place where well-educated folks can express relatively mainstream-liberal ideas that they cannot share at their workplace or most other public spaces.

These probably aren't what you want to be the actual mission of your church, the reason for it existing. Now, some of these may go just fine with the explicit mission you come up with. After all, we should take care of each other. And maybe you want to be a deliberately small community where everyone knows each other. Some churches are doing that, they call it "micro-church."

Find the implicit mission. If it's what you want, make it explicit.

If it's not ... kill it.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Testimony to the Woman in Starbucks Who Asked About My Church

You noted my clerical collar and rainbow pin and had some questions. I told you I'm a Unitarian Universalist minister, and you wanted to know more.

I screwed up, I think, with you. Because I began giving you information, little explanations that you could have just as easily found on Wikipedia. I got busy explaining "what" instead of "why." 

I am a Unitarian Universalist because this religion gives me a history and a theology that I can have faith in, and part of that includes the fact that it has faith in me. Unitarian Universalism says that I -- even on my bad days -- am worthy to be treated with respect and dignity. And it teaches me that I have both the capability and the responsibility to determine and define my own creed by which I will live.

To do that, I need tools, I need encouragement, and I need relationship. And that's why I am a Unitarian Universalist in faith and in practice. That's why I go to a Unitarian Universalist church, and would whether I was a minister or a member. 

My church gives me tools, and this is one of the great, beautiful things about this religion -- it opens up a library, a research lab, the size of the universe, and says, "Go. Look. See. Test everything. Hold fast to what is good." Writings on the world's religions, philosophy ancient and modern, science, culture, art, the thoughts of others, my own experience ... all of these are tools as I struggle with forming a creed that is a bit beyond where I am now, a creed that I can live by, with effort. And when I walked into this place, I walked in to a religion with a history, a people, a systematic theology and point of view. I study, I wrestle with them all, to see how they inform what I hold to be true. The core teachings on hope in humanity, and hope in the forces that guide and sustain us, lift me up. This is a hope-full religion. 

It takes encouragement, to keep going. Some days, I just want to pick the easy way out. Or I want to have a creed brimming with fancy flourishes that I can frame and look at, without actually having to live. My church encourages me to delve deeper, try harder, be the authentic person I aspire to be. They hold me accountable.

And they hold me. We are in relationship, in church. We take care of each other. We love one another. When I am broken down, my spirit crumbling, church echoes our Universalist theological belief that there is still love, and I am still worthy. We learn how to be in relationship even through the hard times. We disagree ... but we do the work to stay in the relationship. We get angry with each other ... and we stay in relationship. And as we stay in relationship with each other, so we are learning how to stay in relationship with the whole rest of the world, even those whose politics and creeds are so different from ours. We stay connected. We re-engage. We love. We find joy in each other. 

I am a Unitarian Universalist. In faith. In practice. In aspiration.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Part 3: A Minute to Learn, a Lifetime to Master -- Humankind is Good

It's pretty much like that Board Game Othello, whose tag line is "a minute to learn, a lifetime to master."

If I choose to have faith that humankind is good, and there is a force of good in the universe, then how does my life change?

It is tempting to stay in the hypothesis-testing stage forever. That, after all, requires no real action on my part, just weighing and measuring the evidence.

At this point in my life, however, I feel that I have sufficient evidence to justify my optimism, and so I put the measuring cups and scales away. That doesn't mean I might not change my mind at some later point, but I have a limited amount of time and energy, and I want to spend it now on living out the faith that I have chosen.

To have faith that humankind is good means that I must look at others not with suspicion or cynicism, but instead, with an expectation of the goodness in them. Some often call it "assuming good intentions."

It's hard. This is a culture that often urges us to question the motivations of every person. Sometimes that might be prudent, I admit, but I try to hold back. If the action seems deliberately hurtful, well yes, at that point, I need to look closer.

But often there is no need. So often, people exceed my expectations. And if they are so good, then perhaps I should be, too?

I work hard at living my values. It hasn't happened haphazardly or accidentally. I know what my core values are. Sometimes I fall short. Sometimes, I'll even write down one of these core values that I want to work on. I put it on an index card, and carry it around in my pocket, or prop it up by my computer. I put it into the present form, so, it's not "I want to be ..." -- it's "I AM ....."

If I seek to live into my faith that humankind is good ... well, I am part of humankind. Low-hanging fruit, to start with myself.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Part 2: The Ontological Core

It is my belief that the core of Unitarian Universalism is about ontology. What is the nature of being, of existence?

This is where I place my faith.

Unitarianism tells me that humankind is, in the big sum and tally, good. That doesn't mean there aren't aberrations, it doesn't mean individually we don't mess up and make mistakes. But in the great aggregate mode, humankind is good. We reject the idea of Original Sin, that we were all born bad, and that we need a mediating influence of a supernatural being to make us acceptable.

Universalism tells me that there is a force at work in the world, an "arc of the universe" to use Unitarian Theodore Parker's term, that is, in the big sum and tally, good. Bad things happen, evil and pain exist, but there is a force that persuades us to goodness, that draws us together so that we may act, and by our actions, put "good" into form. Some call this force "God"; Universalism asserts that it is not a malevolent force, nor a force of judgment. It is grace. Unasked for, perhaps undeserved. Grace.

Simplified down, these are audacious statements in which to have faith:

Humankind is good.
God is good.

And yet I do. I put all of my faith in those. Days come when I am presented with so much evidence to the contrary. How can I say humankind is good when ..... ? How can I think there is a good force at work when .... ?

It is a choice I make. I choose to live my life with one hand in a death grip to that ontological core, choosing optimism sometimes even in the face of despair, because I can do no other.

Some days I am overwhelmed with the rightness of it all; I see evidence all around me of the good at work in the world, and on those days, humankind and the Arc are all interwoven, one acting through another.

My faith is shaken time and again, but still, to it I cling. To have faith that in the final accounting, humankind and God are a force for creating, transferring, and enlarging Love, breaks me open and liberates my soul. It drives what I do, both in the small moments of simply living and in my large dreams of actions to be taken, and how I, too, can be the hands and feet of Love.

This is my faith.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Elements of Religion, But Not the Core - Part 1

"I think it would be very nice if we really tried to examine what it is we are up to and try to clarify what it is we are doing or what we’re trying to do." -- Rev. Gordon McKeeman

I am not a Unitarian. I am not a Universalist. Born in 1969, I am a Unitarian Universalist.

What is at the core of what we do?

I have struggled with this. What is the theological center of our religion? It was the Rev. Mark Edmiston-Lange who helped focus my thoughts. "I don't think it's theological. I think it's ontological."

I mused on that for several days, thinking him wrong, until I traced back why we are so different, and realized ... Eureka! Mark is right, again!

We often get confused, thinking one of the elements of our religion is the core. It happened with Humanism. The core was that humans have both the capability and the responsibility to make the world better. One of the elements coming off that was "God is not necessary." It wasn't the core, but some future Humanists made it the core. "God is not necessary!" becoming "God is NOT!"

But that wasn't the core.

With Unitarian Universalism, we have done the same. One of those offset elements was "non-creedalism." Or "we don't have to believe the same way." A worthy, important element. But not the core, the center, the raison d'etre of our religion. And yet, we have acted as if it is.

"We don't have to believe the same way!" Okay, nice. Gets new people in the door. But then what?

Tomorrow ...  Part 2, The Core of Unitarian Universalism

Friday, February 14, 2014

In praise of Friendship

I know, I know. J.K. Rowling says that really, Harry and Hermione should have ended up together.

And in Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe, it's generally acknowledged that Idgy and Ruth were lovers, not just best friends.

"Just best friends?"


The first story makes me a little grumpy, because there's this great scene in the penultimate movie where Harry and Hermione dance together that makes me think of one of my best friends. He is my brother, spiritually and relationally. He has been there for me in the depth of my sorrow, as well as my joy. He is uncle to my children, friend to my husband, brother to me, though we have different parents. Yes, that would be us, dancing platonically during a time of pain. Probably agreeing to the song, too. (It would indubitably be a song by Leonard Cohen. Or maybe Willie Nelson.)

The second really hit my mom. She's not anti-gay, in fact, as she was telling me about her social plans one holiday season, I teased her, "Mom, do you and Dad have ANY straight friends?" Seriously, she thought for a moment. "You know, I guess we really don't."

My parents, the 80-something token straights at the party.

But she loved the book of Fried Green Tomatoes and was annoyed at the movie and the inference that Idgy and Ruth were lovers. "Don't they know how much two best friends can love each other?"

I do, Mom.

I kind of liked the romantic inference in the book/movie, but I get her other point. There's just not many movies about best friends, are there? All the money is put on romantic partners. But what about friends? Those people who know you, I mean, they really know the real you ... and love you anyway?

I'm blessed to have both a "Harry" and a "Ruth." Oh, she and I would probably argue about which of us is Idgy and which is Ruth. But she's totally Ruth, being wiser and more selfless than me.

How do you make friends as an adult? It's not so easy. Dating is easier. Slip each other a phone number, and you're off and running. But friendship? "Hi, I don't mean to be weird, but I think you're really cool and would you like to have coffee some time and maybe explore being friends?"

Thank goodness for the internet.

"Ruth" reminded me that really, it was the internets that brought us together. We got online, years ago, each looking for a playgroup to get together with other moms of babies. We wound up in the same group...lone liberals in a group of gun-toting, very conservative mamas. Pretty quick, we realized each other as, as Anne of Green Gables would say, "kindred spirits." That we are now both religious professionals within Unitarian Universalism is a whole nuther story ...

"Harry" followed another pseudonymous blog I used to author, and picking up on a few clues, figured out that I was someone geographically close to him. He emailed me, we became friends, and then when my life got monumentally complicated and tragic, he broke the fourth wall and we became friends on another level.  He and Mrs. Harry are part of our family now. We have spent holidays together, wept and laughed together, alternately bullied, fussed at, comforted, and loved each other, as families and friends do.

The Husband understands my love of friends. He is still close to his own "Ruth" and "Harry," going all the way back to junior high school.

It is a love story of another sort. You still have the "meet cute," and often, the conflict, too. Friends fight. Friends get disappointed in each other. Friends have each other on a pedestal, the friend drops, and yet still, amazingly, we love each other. Warts and all, we are friends.

I will dance with you, I will throw flour at you, I will love you, for a lifetime.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

While to That Rock I'm Clinging

Pete Seeger died.

I hadn't cried all day, even though I had thought about this day before it happened; dreaded it coming, because it would mean that death really did come to all of us, even those of us as good, as filled with Spirit and meaning, as willing to live out our values day by day, as the one we called "Uncle Pete."

I won't go into all his virtues. You can google that. I will say that the hagiography you see right now about Pete Seeger is far closer to the truth than most sentimental postmortems.

A Facebook friend, Karen McCarthy, posted a video --

And I broke.

I never met Pete, unlike some of my peers. But his were the first songs I heard. I still have the LP, Birds, Beasts, Bugs and Fishes.  Abiyoyo, Abiyoyo ...

Perhaps he was my first minister. His were the songs played in my house, and my parents lifted him up as a hero. For fighting for justice. For the Hudson River. For adhering to his values during the McCarthy hearings, and then again during Vietnam, when he defiantly sang, "Knee Deep in the Big Muddy" on the Smothers Brothers show. 

It came at great cost, this living according to his values. It came at great sacrifice. Do we Unitarian Universalists have a theology of sacrifice?

I was a grown-up, a mother of 4, and still Rev. Pete provided pastoral care to me.

My youngest daughter was sick. Okay, not sick. As she said, "I'm not sick, I just have CANCER!"

There was no one carrying me. Every day, I had to keep putting one foot in front of the other. But I clung ... to something. Not faith in a God who would make it all okay. But I clung to community, to reality, to the knowledge that somehow, as a dear friend told me, I would make it through this. No matter what. There were people around me who loved me fiercely. And somehow, I knew, that life was still worth it. No matter what happened. No matter if I felt my heart was being ripped from me. Life was still worth it. And there were slim moments of peace, in realizing that.
No storm can shake my inmost calm,
While to that rock I’m clinging.
Since love is lord of heaven and earth
How can I keep from singing?
Pete Seeger was a folk singer. Some of the music was his. Some he gathered, curated, from others. I clung to that rock. Quaker hymn, Unitarian Universalist hymn, Uncle Pete brought it to me.

Ultimately, I believed that Love was lord of heaven and earth. No matter what happened, no matter disease, no matter death, no matter the Big Muddy, no matter the hate that swirls around us ... ultimately, there is a Greater Hope.

 I lay my banjo in the dirt. 

 Thank you, Peter Seeger. My "Uncle." My "Minister." My hero.

 Thank you for loving the hell out of the world.

Monday, January 27, 2014

To Love the Hell Out of the World

To love the hell out of the world means to love it extravagantly, wastefully, with an overpouring abandon and fervor that sometimes surprises even yourself. That love flows out of you, sometimes slow and steady, sometimes in a torrent, sometimes filled with joy, sometimes with fierceness, or anger, or a heartbreaking pain that makes you say, "No, no, I can't take this anymore. I can't do anymore. It's too much ... too much."

But it's too late. You've opened up your own heart, your own mind, body, and strength, and yes, it is too much. But there's also so much love that comes crashing down on you, gifts from the Heavens in the form of the smiles and cares from others, a giggle burbling up from a toddler's fat little belly, the soft, sweet smell of star jasmine catching you unaware, not knowing where it came from ... but it's here. And you're here. And just to live, just to exist, swells your heart with enough gratitude and love that you must release it or burst. And so you love, love the hell out of the world again.

Without scale, without ratio, without carefully allotting how much you will give versus how much you will receive. You love because you must. And it's the air you breathe in, the water you swim in, it's the rushing in and out of creativity, of self-expression; it's seeing the amazing, amazing, amazing gifts of the people all around you. It is loving with awe, with reverence and irreverence, seeing the miracle in a lump of dirt, in a shy hello, in forgiveness, in standing in the shadow and watching the joy someone else experiences without you, and yet feeling connected through time and space with all who have been and all who are to be.

To love the hell out of the world means to see with our hearts, fragile and unprotected. To accept that life is shattering and excruciating. To see the hell in a world, in a group, in a person, in a tear. To know that it is the experience of both the oppressor and the oppressed, as we are both. To wade in to it, armored for battle but leaving our heart completely exposed because that is what we follow, it is our night goggles in a dark world of smoke, falling beams, and faint cries from over ... there.

We love emphatically, actively, with our hands and feet; pushing the wreckage aside, reaching down, stretching until we fear our arms can go no further, but they do, we touch fingers with others, then grab on for dear life, pulling them out to safety, then going back in to remove the hell itself, before it traps someone else. We round a corner only to find hands waiting for us, to pull us  to safety, to warmth, for we are both the savior and the saved.

The hell is all around, and we work, in great passionate swoops and in slow, plodding routines, to put that extravagant love into action and remove all the bits of it from the world. Misery, ill health, disease, viciousness of greed in the face of want, voices that shout hate or whisper meanness, soul-eating addiction, humiliation, despair, injustice that curls up nastily, poisoning the spirit of giver and receiver ... we do not flee. Bone-chillingly afraid we may be, but we step forward. We are the only form love will take and the work is ours to do.

Our job, our mission, is to take all of that love, all that overflowing, passionate, undying agape and train it on the hell that exists in this world.

We are Unitarian Universalists -- from one source, to one destiny -- here to love the hell out of the world.