From Our Intern Minister
The Vulnerability of Butterflies
In second grade I was like most other boys I knew: I hunted the bugs and insects in the back yard. Once in a while I found a caterpillar. I would put it in an old glass mayonnaise jar, punch holes on the metal lid, and put leaves and twigs in there to make it feel at home.
I wanted to observe, firsthand, the mystery of becoming.
The cocoon would form over time, and eventually, the butterfly would come out after a struggle. When it finally came out, I took the jar outside and opened the lid expecting it to just fly away. But it didn’t.
I did not know that its exoskeleton and wings were still wet. It had to wait to dry out and harden up. The newly emerged butterfly is very vulnerable to predators at this stage.
That moment of newness, full of struggle and full of potentiality took hours before it took flight.
Two years ago I went to Boston for an interview to get to the next stage in my ordination process. Much like a caterpillar, I thought once I passed that cocoon of an interview I would officially get my wings and magically become a minister.
Well, when the questions came I stuttered, froze up, and blanked.
I did not pass, and rightfully so. I stepped outside and noticed the horrible cold and wind of early winter in Boston. And I had to find my way to the train station.
On the way I passed a Unitarian church and a statue of a famous Unitarian minister.
I felt like a failure. On the train, I still felt the bitter cold and nasty windy of that interview.
I tried to journal and I could not write because my thoughts swirled so violently within my head. I felt ashamed, alone, rejected, guilty, and I felt that I let my wife, my minister, my mentors, and myself down.
Hours later, we had a layover in Albany, New York. I wanted to get off that train, stretch my legs, get some food, and I asked the woman sitting next to me if she wanted join me. We walked out of the train station and got a slice of pizza served on a paper plate.
She told me she was from Maine, traveling to California to visit and possibly live with her aunt. She asked me what I was doing on this train. I took a long pause, vulnerable like a fresh wet butterfly, I could barely talk but uttered, “I am a failed Unitarian Universalist minister.”
I went onto explain my situation and what I was feeling.
She listened and said, “You don’t seem like a failure to me, you can come back in a year, can’t you?”
The way she listened and those hopeful yet realistic words made my wings start to dry and my flight seemed imminent. I should have opened up to her hours before. For the next few months I reached out to multiple people at my seminary, my church, and the UUA. My minister, my mentors and friends wrestled with me on a plan of committed action. Last year, I went back to Boston prepared and confident in my calling, and I walked out of that interview room with a victorious side kick.
Embracing life, not as clear-cut stages, but as a continuous process, is cuddling with risk and hugging vulnerability. Have the courage to embrace your vulnerability and talk to your ministers, your friends, or, perhaps, a stranger on a train.
The hope of a listening ear and the kindness of thoughtful words might be just what you need to dry your beautiful wings so that you too can feel the imminence of flight.
Sustained in Gratitude
On February 16, 2014 I was asked to speak in front of the congregation on how UCN sustains me. The following is that speech.
My relationship with UCN started about 4 years ago when I was a pulpit guest. I still remember many of the people I met, including Brian Mitchell, who was the worship assistant that Sunday. Three years ago Rev. Julie became my teaching pastor. My seminary pairs up ministers with students to meet with on a regular basis and to mentor them into ministers. Now I am in my final year of seminary and in the last year of my 2-year internship. In 4 short months my internship will end. I have already begun to grieve and feel a sense of loss because I have grown close to many of you and know that that will all change very soon.
From the moment I came here as a student minister, I have felt welcomed and supported. I have a very committed intern committee that has helped and encouraged me behind the scenes. Over a year ago I went to an interview in Boston as part of my ordination process and I did not pass. I took a night train back from Boston to Chicago. As the train moved westward into the night I looked out of the window and all I saw was darkness; the occasional lights dotting the landscape proved that people must be out there somewhere. My thoughts swirled around in never ending circles. I was devastated and ashamed, but once back in Mequon at the next intern committee meeting I could feel the love in that room, and those people sustained me.
Rev. Julie has also sustained me, giving me a lot of freedom to pursue my calling here at UCN. She has encouraged me to be a pulpit guest in the area and has mentored and guided me with respect and collegiality. She is very intelligent, well read, spiritual, and a committed minister. UCN is very fortunate to have her as their minister. She took a chance on me and for that I am very grateful.
Many other things have sustained me at UCN. I have been given the pulpit once a month, a true gift (many interns are not given that many opportunities). Many people have also given me honest feedback which has helped me grow as a minister. From the beginning, many here have given me a sense of ministerial authority that I was reluctant to claim at first. I have not always felt worthy of this calling that I have embraced, but I have always felt honored to be here, learning with you and from you. Over the next 30 or so potential years of my ministry I will always think about my time here at UCN as the place I became a minister. It is the church that makes the minister.
There is an old song with the lyrics:
The church is not a building.
The church is not a steeple.
The church is not a resting place.
The church is the people.
UCN is not about the 10 acres of land and this barn of a sanctuary; it is about the wonderful people here committed to justice, to a greener planet, to a gentler way life, to a freer and fuller faith.
So do not pledge to UCN just to keep the lights on or the heat going. Give from the abundance of gratitude that you have for this community. UCN has changed me and I believe UCN will change many more lives. As you sense gratitude, I ask that you pay it forward by freely giving your time, talents, and treasure.
I came here a confused seminarian with a calling and I am leaving a minister. For that, I am in gratitude to Rev. Julie, my intern committee, and all of you. For it is all of you that make this odd assembly of thinkers and dreamers a church, and it is all of you that make this student intern a minister.
What Has Gone Before Us
At Meadville Lombard Theological School in January, I saw the archivist polishing the 150 year old silver communion set. Surprisingly, he was polishing it to use in a student-led service. The organizers of the service had originally thought maybe 8 people would show up but 24 people partook. From all reports it was a very meaningful ritual that emphasized Jesus as an exemplar. The communion also emphasized the oneness of the faith community present. A professor who graduated from Meadville 30 years ago told me that nothing like this would have ever happened back then.
Theologically we have always put an emphasis on experience and reason. Though traditionally, theology can be thought of as having quadrants: Reason, Experience, Scripture, and Tradition, many UU’s think everything is potentially scripture. However, too often we forget about tradition, about the wisdom of the past. I think we do that because our religious movement is a product of Modernity. Modernity has been characterized, among other things, as doing away with tradition, a turn to the self, and a turn to the rational. We emphasize the use of reason in religious matters and look to the oracle within. In keeping with the Modern way of thinking we have discarded the past. Ralph Waldo Emerson led Unitarians to do away with miracles, and he actually quit being a Unitarian minister because he did not want to perform the Lord’s Supper anymore. He encouraged us to only look forward.
Our liberal tradition is constantly evolving and attempting a third way between theology and contemporary culture. In essence, as our culture evolves we tend to adapt with it. For instance, when Darwin’s theory of evolution came to prominence we did not fear it like other traditions did; we actually embraced it. There is an alternative to Modernity’s disdain for tradition that I think we need to embrace. The art community is calling it ‘Altermodern.’ We can respectfully view and be part of a tradition but yet be critical of it. We are done with completely throwing away tradition and instead are able to critique the past, come to turns with it, and use the things that are still meaningful. It is in this spirit that I plan to offer 4 sessions of Adult RE classes in the spring that go into UU history. There will be time to reflect on and internalize the past, be critical of it, and be open to be formed by it.
One of my professors serves a UU congregation in California and leads many interfaith initiatives there. She was asked how she got so good at it and replied that it is because the UU church she serves is essentially interfaith. Indeed, one of the strengths of our liberal faith is our openness and acceptance of diverse beliefs. One of the goals I have as intern minister is to get UCN involved directly in the Ozaukee community doing interfaith work. I believe that we can accomplish more working with diverse faith groups and than we can learn and grow because of those partnerships. I have been meeting periodically with area ministers to try to get a feel of what is needed and what other faith-based groups are working on. In addition, I am working with other congregations in Ozaukee County to start a chapter of Family Promise, to help families experiencing homelessness.
Earlier this year I found out that the Saukville Community Food Pantry, in connection with many local churches, hosts a free meal site once a month on every 4th Saturday from Noon to 1 p.m. at St. Peter's United Church of Christ (UCC). They sent UCN a letter asking if we want to partner with them. A few members and I went to check out the details of the meal to see if this is something we could do. Initially, they were getting about 30 diners per meal but in November they had around 80. Families, senior citizens, congregants, and various other people that look like you and me go to this meal every month. St. Peter’s converted their old sanctuary into a dining hall complete with a state-of-the-art commercial kitchen. (I was told their dishwasher takes seconds to complete a washing cycle.) UCN is signed up to serve a meal on January 25, 2014. Not only is this building a better relationship with our Family Promise partners but it is directly serving our neighbors in need. Please consider helping prepare, serve, or donate food for this community meal. Help get the word out by telling friends and family that on the 4th Saturdays these meals are free of charge and all are welcome. Please contact me if you would like to volunteer or would like more information about this important interfaith partnership.
Theology of Silence
During the holiday season I find it difficult to find my spiritual balance. I need periodic moments of silence, and these times are hard to find in December. However, these moments are of the utmost importance because without them the surface elements of life take over. I don’t need many of these moments of silence but I need them nonetheless. I remember the first day of my chaplaincy internship. I got there early but my mind was still racing ahead. I had just quit my fulltime job days before and was arriving into a place of incertitude. The student chaplains were to meet in front of the chapel. Most met there and made short introductions with each other, but one student, Leandro, a Roman Catholic Priest from Brazil, went directly into the chapel, virtually ignoring us. There he sat in silent prayer while the rest of us gabbed and waited for the supervisor. I admired him for being that rare human animal gifted with beautiful speech that could refrain from using it. Later on that first day, we had a check-in question where we were to share with the group where we found the divine in our lives. Leandro said he found the divine in silence. He reminded me of the power and gift of the silence.
I don’t know if true audible silence is attainable. As I write this I hear the hum of the refrigerator and the filter buzzing in the fish tank. The silence I am reflecting on is something more than physical surrounding can give. However, experiencing a sort of physical silence can remind you of the silence that is within. Normally ‘being silent’ means to not speak your mind but by intentionally being silent we are still speaking but not in words or thoughts. We are removing attitudes, images and ideas. We are stripping down life to its bare essentials and trying to speak to the ineffable nothingness, being-itself. Silence helps us confront the darkness and dryness within. Our culture of economic productivity thinks this type of silence is a waste. But paring down cultural life and just focusing on being, on silence, restores the soul.
The ironic thing for me is to get a sense of silence it helps to listen to music. Music can embrace and incorporate silence. Music can deconstruct all the manifestations of elegance and ornament that normally exist around it. To help me come into silence I have been listening to a particular piece, Silence is the Question by the Bad Plus. It is the simplest of compositions. The main section, often repeated, is simply 3 chords and an ascending C major scale. Between these seemingly simple notes, I hear a deconstructed world of silent contemplation. It is as if the notes lead toward silence (as perhaps all good theology should as well). There is a question of silence. Silence is not an answer; it is a mysterious question we have to regularly dive into.
There is a lot of excitement building around the possibility of partnering with Family Promise to help homeless families in our community. Helping those in need is our religious duty. But I also think that helping the needy is being in process and participation with the divine. We are lured into this from the call of the great religious and ethical traditions, and we are embraced and intimately connected to the ground of this call, love. As this passion flows through us we respond with compassion and we actualize the divine possibility in front of us.
We have an opportunity to live out our religious calling, to participate in the divine with other faith-based organization in our community. We have the opportunity to get our hands dirty and help those that are hungry, thirsty, and homeless. We have the opportunity to house and help the needy in this church building. After all, a church, the building and its people are here to help and serve.
The social justice committee has faced some opposition to this opportunity. I was talking with one pastor on the phone after I had sent a letter to him about the possibility of working together. He asked, “So let me get this straight, you want to put our differences aside and work together to help homeless families. “
“Yes, basically”, was my reply.
“Well, then I don’t want anything to do with this because our differences are too vast. I cannot ignore our differences. I care too much about my congregation’s eternal salvation.” As shocking and unfortunate as this response was it was of the minority.
However, it is apparent that what this pastor was most concerned with was correct belief. He did not want to associate with those who are different than him. Instead, let us be concerned more with correct action and let our knowing, being, and doing converge. Let us embrace and celebrate the diverse theologies in Ozaukee County bringing our spirit and history of religious tolerance into our community.
Maybe that pastor was right about one thing, we should not ignore our differences. Let us embrace our differences and then get on with living out our compassion. The only way to combat our differences in belief is to lie down together in the intersection of faith and action.
Our theology should unite the world with our church, making the spiritual realm equally as in important as the real world of lived history. If we have a choice in politics or in social action, let us side with the poor, side with the oppressed. Let us not be content with the status quo. Let us use our faith, our theology, our principles, and our religion to arrive at compassion, not division.
Family Promise Update
It has been a long process of just over a year but we are nearing a huge day: October 23, 2013 at MATC in Mequon at 7:00 pm. A representative from Family Promise, a national organization that works with faith-based groups to directly help homeless families, will be speaking. All are encouraged to attend. Our goal is to get a dozen or more churches committed to this project so that we can move forward. The Social Justice Committee has been hard at work trying to build relationships with the other 60 or so faith-based organizations in Ozaukee Co. While we have had some negative responses, the majority of the faith-based organizations have been overwhelmingly supportive and positive.
The idea for this project stemmed from surveys and a Barn Banter where the congregation’s recommendation was to focus on poverty in Ozaukee Co. More specifically we received direct input from a non-profit panel discussion at UCN. We learned that there is not an organization in Ozaukee Co. that helps families who are experiencing homelessness. The social justice committee reached out to Family Promise chapters in other nearby counties and learned that it was a great organization that met our objectives. If we can gather enough committed faith-based groups, Family Promise would help facilitate and mobilize the groups to house and feed families experiencing homelessness. Initially we are trying to organize and publicize this but hope to co-lead this project with other faith- based groups. For example, if there are 13 committed congregations, UCN would be responsible four weeks out of a year.
If you have more questions please contact me, read some of the literature available at UCN, go to familypromise.org and come to MATC on October 23 at 7:00 pm. Please talk up this exciting project in the community.