Communion with the Little One

May 10, 2010

So, I was never really one of those moms who was like, “And, the second I saw him and held him in my arms, everything changed. My whole life was different and new and I would do anything for my baby.” This is not to say that I did not love my little cuddle bug A LOT when he was born. I did. I was thrilled to have him and I still am. But, for me, I was pretty much the same person before he was born as after he was born, except with an adorable baby and sleeping much less.

I am also not a mom that is totally awed by all the amazingly wonderful and brilliant things my baby does. Yes, he is really quite cute. And seems to be a bright little bee. But I am pretty low key about him and his magic. I think in a pretty good and healthy way.

I say all of this for two reasons. First, because sometimes I feel like maybe a sucky mom because I don’t run around saying how wonderful life has been since he has been born and how it has changed everything and the sun rises and sets differently and all. I think there is this cult of motherhood that tells women that you have to just love your child and have him or her change your world and it will be immediate and like magic. I think this sets people up to feel pretty terrible when they are in month number six (or in my case, 14) of not sleeping through the night and all of a sudden your house is chaos all the time and you only see your partner in passing while one of you is changing a diaper and the other is… oh, I don’t know… studying for her general exams in October. Anyway, so on Mother’s Day when everyone is crooning about how magic mothers are and how much they love mothers and flowers and roses and all of that, I guess for whatever reason I felt inspired to bring it down a notch for all those moms out there who sometimes wonder if they are doing it right even though the fireworks of love and peace and perfect joy didn’t/don’t go off like they “should.”

The second reason I wrote about all of this is so that the next thing I am about to say about my little toddler boy doesn’t sound like the ultimately cheeziness. That is, it isn’t my style to go around crooning about the boy, so when I say something like how he taught me a really profound lesson, it doesn’t get lumped into the pile of 101 profound and beautiful things my baby did THIS MORNING.

Geez. I did too much lead up to this. I do this in my papers too. I go on and on in the intro setting everything up and then I have two and half sentences of substance to say.

Anyway, our boy loves to drink out of glasses. Sippy cups are okay, but he really prefers to drink either water or apple juice out of the big glasses that are obviously too big for a one year old. But we’re pretty flexible, so we do it even though it often means that when he is done he pulls the glass away pretty fast and the juice or water gets on him or us.

And he has taken to insisting on sharing his drinks, and then tonight, his strawberries. He is insistent – he takes a drink, and then puts the cup to mine or my partner’s mouth in a very insistent way and we take a drink and then he takes another drink. He mushes the strawberries up between his fingers and sort of shoves one in into my mouth, with such a pleased look on his face, and then squishes one up and puts it in his mouth. And somehow this led me to “get” communion in a way I never have before. Regular readers of this blog know I have a highly ambivalent relationship with Christianity and can never decide really if I am Christian or not. And for some reason I have always loved communion – there was something that was so special about it – like this thread that went back throughout my life and childhood and then back throughout time. It felt like a very connecting sort of ritual. Like I was part of something really special. Yet, for the last few years, I never take part because I just feel like I can’t do it until I know more where I stand. This has been sad for me.

Yet, somehow through sharing my apple juice and strawberries with my boy – I got something. This idea of table fellowship. Communion not as some ritual that we do in church – that marks us as in or out – but as joyful sharing of nourishment, in communion with each other. It is an intimate thing to feed and give a drink to someone else. This is why the bread and wine is not sat out on a table for each person to go up and get themselves, but we give it to each other.

I think with a lot of things, the meaning of a moment can’t quite come through so well in words. The sweet smell of my little boy and his juice. His pre-linguistic self knowing that there is something important about me taking a drink and then him and then me and then him. The clear joy and satisfaction he gets from making sure that we are sharing – that we are a team, that in many ways we are one.

It helped me better understand why I am so drawn to communion and miss it so much. Yes, yes, I know there is that whole bread/body, wine/blood thing. But that is for another post. For now, I will commune with my little one, and appreciate what he has to teach me about life and love and faith.

So We Probably Really Can’t Have Poor Ministers

November 6, 2009

I know lots of others have realized this and commented on it, but it just struck me anew this weekend. Two things reminded me of this. First, there is a family in our congregation where the dad is, like me, on the path to ordination.* They have three children and I can’t imagine how hard it has been for them for him to take three years off to go graduate school, and then try to find an internship and CPE that pays anything close to a living wage. I assume the irony must not be lost on many of our leaders and congregants that the UUA and the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee are members of the interfaith Let Justice Roll Living Wage Campaign, but we don’t typically pay student ministers a living wage and require them to do a unit of CPE which is a job that requires you to pay them.

The second thing that reminded me of this (aside from my ongoing realization of it in my own life), was a post on a message board where the poster was considering going to graduate school in pursuit of eventual ordination. She didn’t say her denomination, but I could tell by the details she posted that she was UU (which I know is not technically a denomination, but you get the idea). It was absolutely clear to me that she really didn’t realize what it took, or how impossible it would be for her given her situation as a single mother and the challenges with poverty that she described in her post. I didn’t have the heart to try to compose a post discouraging her.

I’m sure it has occurred to people before that one of the reasons our congregations are so un-diverse is because it is a pretty un-diverse privileged crowd of people who can afford to become our ministers. It seems to me that this would be something on the priority list to reform, but it is my sense that it is not. I wonder if it is because we have enough ministers so there is the sense that making fellowship and ordination more accessible would just flood the Association with too many ministers? Or there are just other financial/reform priorities?**

*In case you know me and wonder, “Really? She is still at that?” Yes, I am. It is the so-called “turtle track.” Slow and steady…

**It is important for me to point out that I recognize that I am implicated in this structure of injustice, as well, as a Unitarian Universalist and privileged person. I also don’t want this to be read as “Oh, bad Unitarian Universalists can’t get anything right,” which I know is a favorite past time of UUs. That said, I still thought it worth it to post my thoughts about it – both as a way to contribute to bringing the issue to our attention and, let’s face it, because blogging about things is helpful to me to “get it out” and reflect on things. Why I feel the need to write this long explanation, I don’t know. But I did.

The Secret Is Total Bunk

November 28, 2007

I’ve been intending to write about The Secret for a while and Rev. Fred Small‘s recent UU World article Psst: ‘The Secret’ isn’t total bunk,”(adapted form a sermon) inspired me to sit down and get to it. (The Secret has also recently been mentioned at Philocrities and over at Surviving the Workday).

The problems with the book, the DVD companion to the book, and the general philosophy/science outlined therein are so numerous that I have no intention of trying to outline them all. You can read the wikipedia article, which outlines a good number of the problematic aspects and claims. The question for me, as it is was for Rev. Small, is if there is something redeemable about The Secret. Should we throw the baby out with the bathwater?

In the end, for Rev. Small, there was something redeemable about The Secret. After pointing out some of the problems with the book, he writes:

The Secret reminded me that to dwell constantly in the negative is its own kind of hell—a hell of my own choosing. I don’t want to deny or flee the negative, but I need not build my house on its sinkhole. How effective an activist for change can I be when my thinking and speaking are infused with hopelessness? How much time and energy in all areas of my life do I devote to criticizing what is, rather than creating what could be?

“There is no greater power in the Universe than the power of love,” says The Secret. “The feeling of love is the highest frequency you can emit. If you could wrap every thought in love, if you could love everything and everyone, your life would be transformed.” That’s a view I wholeheartedly endorse.

Yet, for me, while I understand that some good thoughts and ideas can come from The Secret – especially the sense that positive thinking is important, focusing on the negative is not often helpful, that we should “emit” love our lives, I think it is total bunk. Just because some parts of a book or a way of thinking can be isolated and might be helpful, I don’t think that we can, or should, separate out the acceptable parts of thinking such as that espoused in The Secret given what the overall “package” implies – an overall package that people are buying into by the thousands.

What does the overall package imply, you ask? That your thoughts are responsible for what happens in your life – if you think positive things, positive things will happen. And if you think negative things, negative things will happen. There is no gray area here.

“Everything that’s coming into your life, you are attracting into your life. And it’s attracted to you by virtue of the images you’re holding in your mind,” Bob Proctor of The Secret DVD tells us.

As Rev. Small reminds us in the UU World article:

The Secret demands three simple steps: 1) Ask. 2) Believe. 3) Receive.

“It’s like having the Universe as your catalog,” explains [Dr. Vitale, Metaphysician]. “You flip through it and say, ‘I’d like to have that product and I’d like to have a person like that.’ It is You placing your order with the Universe. It’s really that easy.”

The insurmountable problem I have with this is that the logical conclusion these sort of theological/scientific claims require: if things aren’t going well for you, it is because you are doing something wrong. Not only is this just reprehensible to me in general (thinking of those I know who have suffered and succumbed to cancer despite hopeful, joyful honest asking and believing), but this is also a quite racist, classist and sexist claim as well: those who are doing well are doing so because they have asked and believed – because they have done what they need to do, attracting good to themselves. Those who are not doing well have not asked and have not believed – according to The Secret‘s law of attraction, they have not attracted good things to them because their thoughts and energies are not good enough. So, women, if you get raped: you could have prevented that with different thoughts. To the millions suffering from the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa: you could have prevented this by thinking different thoughts. Did your wife get laid off from her job?: that also could have prevented by thinking different thoughts. If you go to a highly segregated school that is vastly underfunded and get an inadequate education: you simply did not open that catalog of the universe and pick out what you wanted – you could have prevented this by maybe taking a little action, but mostly by thinking different thoughts, emitting different energy. It’s really that easy.

Rhonda Byrne speaks to this in a Newsweek article:

“The law of attraction is that each one of us is determining the frequency that we’re on by what we’re thinking and feeling,” Byrne said in a telephone interview, in response to a question about the massacre in Rwanda. “If we are in fear, if we’re feeling in our lives that we’re victims and feeling powerless, then we are on a frequency of attracting those things to us … totally unconsciously, totally innocently, totally all of those words that are so important.” (Jerry Adler. “Decoding ‘The Secret'” Newsweek, March 2007)

Right. So apparently the Rwandans might who were massacred (or those killed during the Holocaust or, say, Matthew Shepard or other people who have been brutally killed) might have been having totally unconscious, totally innocent frequencies which, in the end, resulted in their deaths. What a woefully inadequate answer to questions about longing, hoping, and suffering in our world. Shame on you Rhonda Byrne.

Positive thinking is great. Emitting love frequencies is great. But this is not what The Secret is about. The Secret is making claims about how the universe works. If you think about what you want, believe it will come to you, it will. If it doesn’t, you aren’t doing things right. This sounds to me too much like blaming those who suffer from injustice, oppression, and simply those who suffer. It feels like such a slap in the face to all of the people who I have known throughout my life – and really, those throughout the world – who have believed, and yet suffered and struggled and not received. And, it is a slap in the face to those who, for whatever reason, have not been able to believe.

Our Unitarian Universalist faith does not offer easy answers to why there is suffering in the world. We do not have answers as to why we do not always get what we want, or why justice and goodness and health so often fail to manifest in our lives. This is because there are not easy answers to these questions. These are important places for reflection, exploration, struggle, and grappling with hard theological and scientific questions. Why did the cancer treatment not work? Why did our dad lose his job? Why does violence like that which we see in Darfur continue? The Secret, and any embrace of it, dismisses these questions and this grappling that is so central to our faith with easy, simplistic answers.

Let’s call this what it is. The Secret is bad pseudo-science and has nothing to do with what Unitarian Universalism is about. We can embrace love and positive thinking and hope without contaminating our faith or our lives with the absurd theological and scientific claims of The Secret.

Addendum: I just want to clarify, after reflecting on this post, that my frustration with The Secret is primarily about The Secret and its theology, not about Rev. Small’s attempt to glean something useful from it. I understand where Rev. Small was going with trying to take some good out of a book/theology/world-view that he takes pains to point out has great problems. I just respectfully disagree with that approach. I don’t know Rev. Small, but imagine, like so many of our ministers, is a thoughtful, kind, and very wise person. Just thought it was important to clarify this.

A Congregationally Based Movement? On Community Ministry and the Work of Our Faith in the World

June 16, 2006

Long long ago, a curious, excited, idealistic, and somewhat-wounded undergraduate student was three years into her studies. She had registered for a religion course her first year at school because, as a lowly first year student, she could not get into any of the courses she wanted to take. But, in the beautiful world of finding-yourself-undergraduate land, this was just the way that many found their calling. And so, between the pages of Hittite-Suzerain treaties and in a large lecture hall filled with works on eschatology, a scholar-of-religion-to-be was born.

In time, this intellectual interest in religion began to fuse with personal interest in religion and spirituality. The young woman had found a lot of love and healing in Christianity, even if she had also found a lot of pain and fundamentalist judgment. Even in all that creepy, way-too-cheerful Jesus-saturated blah blah, she was also able to find a peace. A connection. She was able to help make sense of things that did not make sense. Part of her interest in religion in an academic sense was the amazing and exciting ways that people all throughout time had managed to do that sense-making, too, in their own creative ways. It was beautiful and amazing. It left her hungry for more.

The young student, only one year away from graduating with a liberal arts degree in religion and political science realized that she needed to figure out her next step. A little voice in her head said, “Did you ever think of becoming a minister?” The young woman laughed. Ha ha ha. A minister. Wouldn’t the family find that interesting-ish/weird/curious. She told that little voice to be silent — perhaps facing life-after-undergraduate school was making her brain say and think funny things. Minister. Ha. Double ha.

But, time came and went, and the little voice stayed. As the young woman thought more, she was able to envision the possibility of a ministry that was not about preaching on a pulpit and being in a church and with a congregation, things that were fine for some people, but not really a place that tugged on her heartstrings. Rather, she felt the presence of the divine on the streets and in the mountains and in the “out there” beyond church walls. She loved being in the mountains of Appalachia, learning about the ways that they did their sense making. She loved being with the people that didn’t usually go to church as they did religion in their own non-church way – breaking beans on the porch, talking about things. Communing over french fries and soda, loud souped up cars clunking by. She liked being with the people who weren’t always welcome in church. In living rooms. At the hospital. In everyday life. Fumbling along in some difficult yet holy and sacred and beautiful way to make sense of a world that was not just. Maybe, the little voice and she discussed in the way that people discuss things with voices in their head, just maybe there was a way to be a minister, to be present to people in a journey of making sense of the world, that didn’t involve being a church-minister. Maybe. She thought.

She made an appointment to talk to a liberal Episcopalian priest in the DC area. She asked, “So is it necessary to actually believe everything the Episcopal church says is true? Do you have to believe in Jesus as God, and Savior of the world sort of thing, or can you sort of pick and choose, or use Christianity as one among many frameworks for making sense of the world?” The young woman could not imagine that the minister would say that you really had to believe that all the stories were true as in capital-T True. But, the minister did tell her just that in the most solemn and how-could-you-even-ask-that way. You couldn’t just think that it was a nice idea. You had to think it was real. Real. Real-Jesus-raised-up-from-death sort of way. And so that was that. The Episcopalians seemed like the only hope for a church where she could fit in and that would maybe consider making her a not-in-a-church-minister. So she told that voice to hush. There was no ordination for her. She would just have to free-lance it somehow. She knew she liked to study religion and so she applied to the schools where she thought the best feminist theology stuff would be taking place. One of those places happened to be Harvard Divinity School.

Come to find out, she had missed a church that might take her. All over New England and Harvard Div. School there were the Unitarian Universalists. She and her partner visited a church because they had seen a quote outside a UU church that said “unquestioned answers are more dangerous than unanswered questions.” Time passed. Classes passed. She met other students in this UU church. She and her partner joined a UU congregation. The little voice had grown, was not so little anymore, and was jumping up and down in her head saying “We’ve found it! We’ve found it! Sign up for this! Yay!” But she went slowly, trying to calm down her voice. There was a community ministry option in this church that would let you be a not-in-a-church minister. You didn’t have to say things you didn’t believe or stick to a particular framework for making sense of the world. You could draw from various traditions, centered in the seven principles. This might fit, she told herself.

And, in many ways, it did fit. But, yet, she heard from several people that Unitarian Universalism was a congregationally-based movement. Hmmm. Would she fit in a congregationally-based movement if she wanted to be a non-congregationally based minister (horrors of all horrors!)? She was happy to affiliate with a church, to be a member of a church, but that could never be the center of her ministry. She found out that even though she didn’t plan to ever be a parish minister, she was required to do a parish internship. Another time,  Unitarian Univeralist minister was telling a story about how someone once said, “Oh, I’m a Unitarian Universalist at heart, but I don’t belong to a church,” to which the minister replied that you MUST belong to a church (or the Church of the Larger Fellowship) to be a Unitarian Universalist. Hmm.

The young woman wondered if our congregations make places for everyone who might be a Unitarian Universalist at heart. She thought of the young men she mentored in the inner city; the Appalachian families she knew; those who had been wounded by a church experience; those whose souls did not fit well with committee work.

The young woman thought of Buddhism, and loving-kindness as a part of Buddhist practice, and thought that while there are many who belong to Buddhist communities or sanghas, there are also lots of Buddhists who do not belong to an official faith community. Isn’t it possible to be Unitarian Universalist in our everyday lives, without belonging to an official congregation or the CLF? Must we be a congregationally based movement or can our congregations be just one part of our movement? Does it make sense to use parish ministry as the primary paradigm by which to train and teach our ministers, or would it not make sense to envision new ways of being ministers that does not follow a congregational/parish framework? What would a cadre of real actual equal-to-parish ministers who were not PARISH ministers look like if they were to meet the needs of the hurting and seeking people in this world who don’t want to or can’t or don’t fit in a congregational setting? What might we be able to do outside a congregational setting that we can’t do within one?

The young woman loves her new religious home. She loves Unitarian Universalism, its ministers, its congregants, its songs (well, many of them), and sermons. But she has great hopes for a Unitarian Universalism that has room for all those who are UUs “at heart” and don’t fit into congregations or who are able to give and get in rich and valuable ways outside of parishes. She thinks of approaches to living out Unitarian Universalist faith in the world that make space for new sorts of communities, new visions of religious practice, new ways of doing justice and loving that are big enough and flexible enough for all beings and ways of being.