Holy cow, y’all, I am a candidate for ministry in the Unitarian Universalist Association!
Feeling proud and excited. I still have a long way to go, but I have crossed a major hurdle in the process.
Holy cow, y’all, I am a candidate for ministry in the Unitarian Universalist Association!
Feeling proud and excited. I still have a long way to go, but I have crossed a major hurdle in the process.
Many years ago, I worked with an intuitive woman named Coral, who was part astrologer, part therapist, part mirror. For the years we worked together, she held a mirror up for me to see parts of myself I couldn’t see, and couldn’t trust. Part of what made Coral so valuable was her unquestioning trust in her intuition; there were times when she would say something that was right on the money that surprised her after she said it – her own mind and heart led her to speak, and instead of filtering or thinking before she spoke, she just spoke. She trusted herself enough to know she was speaking from the heart. And she moved through her days trusting her intuition, living a full and rich life.
I have always admired that about Coral, always wanted to unquestioningly trust. But instead, I have this second mind that a friend calls “Zaphod” from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – this second mind worries, watches, considers, analyzes, and fears.
Fears being rejected, fears being hurt, fears being judged, devalued, scorned. My Zaphod Brain is anxious, envious, jealous, worried, nervous, and jerky. For years, I have longed to get rid of my Zaphod Brain, but I haven’t known how. I haven’t felt strong enough, old enough, daring enough, secure enough. It has kept me from speaking my mind, from living into my fullest self, from properly navigating relationships, from feeling free.
But something has shifted.
I’m not sure what it is; maybe some of it is having swallowed the red pill and seeing endless possibilities for serving the world and loving the expansive and infinite Divine. Some of it may be realizing that as I approach 50, I really do know a thing or two, and my seminary career has deepened my knowledge. I know some of it is my recent interactions with an old friend, whom I trust completely – “pre-certified trust” he calls it – and who encourages me to put my Zaphod Brain aside.
So in the last month, I have found myself doing things that are showing me what trusting myself is like: I’ve engaged a debate from antagonism through to a burgeoning friendship; I’ve conducted a discussion group where I realized I have theological knowledge despite believing I am not a theologian; I’ve called out an ex who was doing me emotional harm and haven’t backed down. I’ve stood on the side of what’s right over what’s convenient. I’ve stood on the side of love. I am speaking truth as I see it from the pulpit without apology.
Now for many people, these may seem like no-brainers. But my Zaphod Brain has been quite nervous, second guessing, sabotaging. Or at least has wanted to. It has long convinced me that there is only so much room, and stepping out means breaking the reasonable, much-needed protective barriers.
But what I have discovered is that the space has been there for a very long time.
I’m reminded of an early episode of the animated series Futurama, where the protagonist, Fry, needs a place to stay. His new best friend, a robot named Bender, invites him to stay at his apartment; of course, it’s tiny, with just enough room for a robot to power down. But when Fry gets a plant as a housewarming gift, he longs for some sunlight. Benders says “oh, there’s a window in the closet” and opens the door to a huge room – perfect for a human, wasted on a robot.
That’s me – that room has been there all along. Space for trust – in myself, in others. I am not pushing out through the protective barriers; for the first time, I am living into all the spaciousness of my mental, emotional, and spiritual capacity.
I am still surprised at it – and I’m sure my Zaphod Brain is freaking out as I write. But I can show my Zaphod Brain the big open spaces, the huge picture windows, and the magnificent view.
After the service Sunday, we had a small group conversation – what some congregations call a talkback but which Saratoga calls “church chat.” It was a lively discussion about the series of sermons I just wrapped up on God – over three weeks, I talked about the transcendent, the immanent, and the creating-creator aspects of the Divine as we see them in our principles and our hymns.
During the conversation, one member asked me “did you put process theology at the end on purpose?” The question was probably meant to tease out my own beliefs, which I addressed – yes, process theology clicks for me, and it feels like a broader idea of God that encompasses the transcendent and the immanent.
But I think there’s more to it than that. And I have been thinking about it a lot. There are many reasons I put this relational, creative, dynamic God at the end of the series – and what I keep coming down to is that this image of God – this ever-expanding, ever-changing Divine energy/spirit/infinite all – doesn’t coerce us but rather entices us toward beauty and goodness. This creating-creator God embraces us in the family of humanity and shows us infinite possibility in every choice we make. This way of being in the world, with each other, as artists of time and space, as painters of beauty and truth, as sculptors of dignity and justice, is what we are each called to be at each moment.
This calling vibrates through the hallowed halls of our theological house. Our Unitarian, Universalist, and Unitarian-Universalist roots call us to choose, at each moment, a path toward goodness and healing, to create a community of well-being, to reach out.
This creator, creating, relational, dynamic God IS the God of Unitarian Universalism. This is the faith that calls us to action. This theology is how we make our way in the world. And we must make the choice, at every moment, to act. How will we act?
And more to the point, how will I act? What choices do I make? How am I an artist of creation, painting and weaving and sculpting my corner of the universe to make it more compassionate, beautiful, healing, just?
I put the God of process theology at the end of the series because we cannot just sit and sing and think about God. We have to do. We HAVE to take an active role. Life is not a spectator sport; we must all act in this participatory universe.
As I completed the manuscript for my sermon entitled “God and Democracy” I realized that I write and speak more passionately as a Universalist than as a Unitarian. While my Unitarianism compels thought, my Universalism compels action.
I also know that my recent exposure to the Red Pill Brethren, as well as both Michael Tino’s Murray Lecture and Beth Ellen Cooper’s compelling presentation (“Occupy Your Faith”) further engaged my Universalism – that part of me that knows my power comes from my faith, is grounded in justice and compassion, that we are called to serve the family of humanity, to stand of the side of love, to make sure the smallest voice is heard, to do, to speak up, to act.
And so I delivered a sermon that was perhaps the most passionate sermon I’ve delivered, despite my feeling like death on a cracker. I demanded action of the congregation, but also of myself. As bad as I feel, I know I too have to be an active, willing participant in the lives around me. Who am I if I ask a congregation to serve the needs of those next door if I am unwilling to do it myself? Who am I to talk about mission and servant evangelism and the call of democracy as a call of faithful action if I am not going to act as well?
So my passion – my deep faith in a loving, benevolent God who, as Clarence Skinner remarks, “loves the universe, who hungers for fellowship, who is in and of and for the whole of life” – compels me to action, to be intimately and actively engaged with this amazing family of humanity.
Here we go. Are you ready? Am I ready?
I attended General Assembly in Louisville last week, and I’m still high off the buzz. (Those who follow me on Twitter or are Facebook friends got quite an eyeful, as I joined many of my fellow attendees live-blogging our experiences.) In a nutshell, it is a transformative experience; I was an offsite delegate two years ago, but nothing beats being in the same space as over 3000 fellow Unitarian Universalists, seeing familiar and unfamiliar faces, hearing amazing lectures and sermons, listening to and singing tremendous music, being inspired by casual interactions and intentional conversations. Oh, and the shopping; there is nothing like walking into the Exhibit Hall the first time – I wanted to buy all the things! (I limited my purchases to a few t-shirts, some books, and a nice pin, but it was difficult at best!) While I am still processing some of the things I experienced and lessons I learned, I do wish to share some of what I gleaned with you (in no particular order):
“Blue Boat Home is like the Freebird of Unitarian Universalism.” – H. Roberts
…which led to a Twitter explosion of “FREEBIRD!” when we sang it during the service (and there is nothing like thousands singing with one voice a beloved song like that).
I have so many more memories and lessons learned – from the Murray Lecture (sponsored by NYSCU) to the various worship services I attended – from seeing old friends from my UU Musicians Network days to the crowd of Union students/alumnae closing down a bar. I got to see good friend Reggie Harris, and emma’s revolution, and Brother Sun perform. I got to make new friends, like KC Slack, Nicki Drumb, Craig Rubano, and Elie Kirkpatrick. And I got to hang out with Union friends Emily DeTar, Valerie Freseman, Ranwa Hammamy, Sara Goodman, and Annie Gonzalez. And and and and….the memories and lessons are countless, but since this is already long, I will close simply with this:
Go to a General Assembly before too long. Next year, it’s in Providence, RI. It’s transformative and amazing and exciting and eye-opening and exhausting. It is worth it.
Today, I read an essay by Aurelia Isabel Henry Reinhardt entitled “Worship: Its Fundamental Place in Liberal Religion.” Reinhardt explores briefly the history of worship with an eye to what we have inherited; that we have always sought public religion to unify us “in the common search for the Ultimate Good” and that we aren’t creators of something new, but simply reinterpreters of something ancient, “in the light of eternal truth and new knowledge.”
Reinhardt diagnoses some of the problems facing congregations – particularly in our denomination: that of a lack of beauty and significance. “Inquring as to the reason for monotony and threatened vacuity,” she writes, “one learns that it is the result of an effort to give a minority of the congregation due right. Criticism has eliminated the thing critized, but the creative processes have brought into being nothing to take the place of the rejected.”
Strong words – words we need to hear. I know that some congregations are doing innovative things in worship, exploring ways to get out of the “two hymns and a lecture” pattern found on many Sunday mornings. Reinhardt’s words are vital reminders of what we’re facing as we enter the next fifty years of our denomination, as we look at the shifting demographics, as we continue to wrestle with making our socially-responsible outsides look like our Sunday morning insides.
Reinhardt is on topic – and she offers a great deal of hope. She reminds us that we inherit not just the idea of worship but thousands of years of prayers, songs, stories that can be used/reimagined for today. She reminds us that “worship is one of the sources out of which new creations in the art of living arise.” She reminds us that “a service of worship is a poem written by the lover of God, a song sung by the lover of God.”
Fresh, amazing thoughts for this religion of ours in this time and place.
Of course, it was written in 1936, for the Commission on Appraisal, in a AUA report called “Unitarians Face a New Age.”
So this new age we’re facing? It isn’t that far different from the new age our forbearers 75 year ago were facing. We have fixed some things, but we still have some of the same problems, the same concerns, the same pesky foibles.
Maybe… just maybe… we can do better this time around, so that the readers of essays in 2092 don’t identify so clearly. I know this is a huge part of my call; to Aurelia, I say “thank you for your eloquence” and “amen.”
I learned this week that I am a radical Universalist.
I credit David Bumbaugh for this. In his book Unitarian Universalism: A Narrative History, Bumbaugh spends 20 pages outlining the beginnings of the Universalist church in America, from deBenneville’s sermons preached across Pennsylvania; to the founding of the first Univeralist church by Murray in Gloucester, Massachusetts; to the founding on the New England Convention of Universalists; to Ballou’s Treatise on Atonement. It’s a rich history, and a reasonably short one: only 44 years passed between the first universalist sermons in 1741 and the first Convention in 1785 – just 44 years to go from idea to denomination.
I have always been fascinated by universalism, have always found it one of the most hopeful aspects of our faith. But it was in reading this treatment, seeing the varying theological differences within universalism, that I saw my place, standing with Caleb Rich and Hosea Ballou in believing that we pay for sins in this life – that “God doesn’t need to be reconciled to humanity; rather, human beings need to be reconciled to God.” I stand with them in understanding God as a loving deity and that Jesus’s ministry is largely about how to “grow into harmony with the Divine.” I stand with them – Ballou especially – in believing that “God would not endow humanity with reason and then present a revelation that was incompatible with that reason.” I also stand with Ballou in rejecting the Trinity and instead embracing the unity of God.
(I also, by the way, appreciate Benjamin Rush’s assertion that faithful Universalists must commit to social justice, which he calls “an unescapable consequence of Universalist faith.”)
Rich’s theology was called “Death and Glory”; unlike other Universalists who believed there is some punishment for sins after death but then eventual reconciliation with God, Rich said no – a loving God doesn’t want to see us suffer. In a world where a loving God exists, we have room to reconcile to each other, to work out our issues, to confront our sins, knowing that every step we take toward the good is another step toward the Divine. For me, it’s encouraging to think I don’t have to rely on some magical thinking to be saved from a mythical hell. Every mistake I make, every trauma I suffer, every sin I commit – everything I do to heal, reconcile, rectify, brings me closer to God and those around me.
Some find this theology too freeing – if there’s no eternal threat, why do good, they suggest. And I know it’s an issue people have long debated. But what I know is that it is human nature, for the most part, to do good – to act in altruistic ways, to nurture, to help, to want to improve the world. People want to be in right relations with other people. And when we do this, we create a more harmonious space. Universalism tells us that this isn’t an exclusive club, where only some go to heaven, and the only way you get in is by believing and/or doing exactly the right things. Univeralism tells us we’re all part of the club, and we have to do right by ourselves and each other in this world, while we can. And this is what I think the creator-creating God (see process theology) wants too.
So maybe I’m a radical process Universalist. Whatever the label, with this set of theological perspectives I feel loved, and compelled, and nurtured, and yes, in awe of the expansiveness of the Divine and of human potential.
Every Monday thru Thursday at noon, Union Theological Seminary holds a chapel service – they vary wildly, with many different speakers, themes, styles, music. Thursdays always incorporate communion, however, although the flavor and presentation changes each week.
The first communion chapel I attended two weeks ago was uncomfortable for me. As I have talked about a bit here and with others, I’ve been thinking more deeply the role Jesus might play in my life and in my theology. I have grown to appreciate the model, lessons, and hope that Jesus offers… but am still quite far from calling myself a Christian, as there are some seemingly important tenets of the faith that I cannot reconcile (and which I won’t go into at this time). Suffice it to say, however, I have grown to deeply respect a true Christian faith as modeled by Carl, and many of the friends I have made on Twitter and at Union. Thus, I feel strongly about my participation in some of the sacraments – or, I should say, refusal to particpate – particularly when it comes to Communion. In my mind, it is a sacrament shared by people who believe in Jesus Christ as savior and son of God; it is precious, meaningful, an important and sacred act of the faithful. Because I do not believe those things, I don’t believe I should take part – I haven’t taken part in a Christian Communion in almost 30 years – and I respect the sacrament too much to denigrate it by my half-hearted, unbelieving participation.
So the communion chapel two weeks ago was uncomfortable, because it was clearly a sacrament for Christian believers. I understood the message – and it was not for me. It’s hard to separate being excluded from excluding myself, but it was clear that this was not a ritual for me. I decided that I would probably skip most Thursday chapels as a result.
Fast forward two weeks to this past Thursday. I went to chapel despite there being communion, because one of my professors, David Carr, was giving the message. I figured that when we got to that part of the service I’d slip out, so I sat near an aisle. Professor Carr’s message was centered around the story in Matthew about the vineyard owner who pays everyone the same wage, whether they worked 11 hours or just 1. His message was about abundance, particularly in response to the latest charges against President Obama about ‘class warfare’ when he suggests that the wealthy pay their fair share. Carr spoke of Jesus’s message in that parable, that a society is healthy when all have food, and clothing, and shelter, and even an hour’s worth of meaningful work.
A good message… a healing one… but it was in the prayer that followed that God spoke to me (I am sorry to say I don’t know who wrote it):
God of abounding, lavishing, unfair grace,
At times, your generosity challenges us, overwhelms us, and even offends us. We ask that in this moment, you would push us to love one another more deeply. We also ask that you grant us grace for ourselves in those times that we fail to love one another well. As we approach your table, where all are welcomed and none go hungry, we are reminded that there are still many situations – in our own community and in the world – in which your abundance does not seem so apparent. We now pause to offer up prayers for people and places where more of your bountiful unfairness is needed.
God of abundance, teach us how to live with open hands and open hearts, that we may tear down the barriers that divide us and contribute to the healing of the world. As we come to your table, we ask that you continue to challenge us with your unrestrained love and meet us in all of our needs. In your name we pray.
By the time the prayer ended, I was sobbing. After the prayer, we sang Daniel Schutte’s “Table of Plenty”:
Come to the feast of heaven and earth!
Come to the table of plenty!
God will provide for all that we need,
here is the table of plenty.
O come and sit at my table
where saints and sinners are friends
I wait to welcome the lost and lonely
to share the cup of my love.
Another of my professors, Paul Knitter, presided over the Communion, and while he used many of the familiar words of the sacrament, he repeated the sentiment that this was an invitation to share of God’s abundance, to sit at God’s table. All are worthy – whether they believe or not, whether they work all day or just an hour. All comers… all hearts welcome.
God opened up the table to me, who feels unworthy and unwelcome, excluded and apart from. Me. God invited me to sit at the table.
And I could not refuse.
Still sobbing, I made my way to receive the morsel of homemade bread dipped in wine and the blessing Professor Knitter offered. I sobbed through the final song, “The Peace of the Earth Be with You”… I sobbed in the bathroom after the service ended.
It has taken me until today to begin understanding what happened – and I’m still not quite sure, but I DO know that for all my feeling “outside’ – especially in a most decidedly Christian seminary, and with a most decidedly Christian boyfriend – God said “you’re welcome too.” God doesn’t seem to care that I have doubts. God doesn’t seem to care that I’m still quite angry. God doesn’t seem to care that I feel unworthy. God has a place for me at the table. How can I refuse?
Union has welcomed us, the 175th class to enter this seminary, with the theme of Stepping Stones. It is certainly fitting, as we’re all on a journey… wading into sometimes unfamiliar waters, not quite sure where we’re going to put our feet next. The Dean of Academic Affairs, Daisy Machado, talked to us about the story of Jesus walking on the water; Peter had faith enough to step out of the boat and was fine, until a storm came. Then he sank, but called out “Lord, save me.” Peter may have lost his step, but he didn’t lose his faith. He didn’t know where the next stepping stone was, but he was pretty sure there was one, and he reached out in faith in order to find it.
It’s that image that carries me, too, into seminary. In my piece on Getting to the Yes, I talked about Kierkegaard’s idea that we live life forward but understand it backward – and some of that is stepping out, seeking the next stone, not sure where it is or what it looks like. I have no idea where I’m going (woyaya!) but in faith (and with a lot of hard work) I’ll get there.
And so… all of this is but an introduction, to say that I’ll be using the category “Stepping Stones” to talk specifically about the seminary journey.
And what a journey it has been! A week in, and already my head is going to explode with all the richness and joy. Yes, I know, I’m still in those glory days… ten miles away from the muddy concert site as it were… classes don’t start until late next week. But we had an incredible week of orientation, everything crammed into fewer days because of the hurricane. Some highlights:
I met some of the most amazing people who will be on this journey with me – they are young and old, every race, every gender. Gay, straight. Christian, Jewish, other. They are still in school mode, or long out of college. They are already ministers or not sure they want to be minister. And their stories! Amazing stories of faith, hardship, struggle, and hope. Every one hearing a call to serve somehow, many – like me – unsure what form the call will take.
I met some of the most committed faculty and staff – from the facilities people to the president – all with a sense of calling, a sense of family, a sense that Union is someplace different. I know this place is special – it’s got a long history of being on the cutting edge of theological education, and situated as it is in a world class city, it’s got a special calling to be there.
I have already made some friends I feel will be with me for many years after our degrees are completed – people with whom I instantly clicked, who have a variety of experiences I can learn from. Some, like Tiara, are fellow Unitarian Universalists. Some, like Valerie, are close to my age. Some, like Clayton, are opposites in many ways but still feel like kindred spirits.
There was a delightful moment, speaking with Ruth Tonkiss Cameron, the Burke Library archivist: she shared the story of going through a professor’s papers and books – someone who taught in the first half of the last century. On the general list of contents was a note “book, Spanish”…when she got to it, she discovered it was one of the original accounts from the Spanish Inquisition. And yes, she too had that uniquely Monty Python moment: “No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!”
There was a moment that moved me to tears – when, during a dinner, Dean Yvette Wilson came up to me, hugged me, and said “I am SO glad you are here – I remember fondly our conversation last fall.” She remembered some salient details from it…that conversation that convinced me that Union was where I should go. That she remembered me and welcomed me personally…wow.
There is, admittedly, some growing sense of “what the hell have I gotten myself into”… the workload will be heavy, and I do carry some fears about my ability to get through it all. And yet, I am comforted by the fact that I was chosen out of hundreds of people who applied, that something about my application made them say ‘this woman will fit in here’. I’m sure most of my fellow classmates are wondering the same thing – what have we gotten into – and yet we will be there for each other.
There are so many more moments from last week that I can’t even remember right now. Much of the week was a blur, with so much information and sharing and feeling brought into the fold. And this coming week will be filled with so much more – advisement, meeting faculty, and the opening day of classes. But I feel blessed, and happy to be on this journey. Not sure where the next stepping stone will be, but I have faith that I’ll find it – or at least be able to call out for help if I can’t.
One of the limits of WordPress, I have discovered, is that it hates too many iframes, and thus is unwieldy to edit. So I’ve instead put up this followup post… it includes a link to the audio from August 21, as well as the words of Rev. Linda Hoddy’s blessing.
The audio – click here to listen – picks up at beginning of my formal remarks – right after “Song of the Soul”… it includes Linda’s blessing, closing words, extinguishing the chalice, and the postlude.
Linda’s words of blessing are below:
Spirit of Life,
We give thanks for this beloved community, this congregation,
where a call to ordained ministry can be felt and nurtured.
We give thanks for the one who is now being called to deeper service, and for her Yes,
We ask your blessings for her journey, and grant our own.
May Kim continue to be attuned to things of the spirit,
open to and heedful of the subtle signs and messages by which you will guide her into
the service of humanity and a better world.
May she be accompanied by wise and gentle souls
who will help her discern and refine her ministry.
May her academic preparation be excellent.
But more importantly, may her heart and mind be continually opened to your guidance and will.
May she increasingly know the divinity present in all creation:
in nature, in work, in play, in other human beings,
and herself and her call to service.
May she never doubt her own worth as a child of God, with gifts intended for the blessing of humanity.
May ministry not only be something that she does, but may it
deepen and mingle with the roots of her being, until ministry is the very essence of who she is.
May she find joy in the sacrifice and surrender that ministry requires.
We are grateful for all that she has shared with us in these few years:
Music and theater,
Laughter and tears,
Tenacity through conflict and tumult,
Warmth, wisdom, insight and friendship.
These gifts have enhanced our life together.
And now, as we release her to greater service, we wish her well.
May she know in times of doubt and struggle, as well as in times of joy,
that our prayers are with her. We will hold her gently in our hearts, forever.
PS: The Art I am using for the thumbnails is created by UU watercolorist Jordan Lynn Gribble.