Thursday, July 29, 2010

Reading my old journals...

has been quite an interesting look back at the person I used to be compared to the person I am now. I've kept a journal for much of my adult life, starting over 30 years ago when I was struggling to understand and deal with my crumbling marriage, a child who needed consistent parenting, and the pressures of career and friendships, to say nothing of the co-dependency which hamstrung me for many years.

I've thrown out the earliest renditions of those maunderings, except for a couple in which I was not quite as puerile as others; I didn't want my poor son to stumble on them after I was gone and wonder who this infantile whiner was, reminded of the days when I was a less-than-sterling parent and a very immature and egotistic thinker. That's not to say that I don't still have those moments, but I have improved! (IMHO)

Those early journals tended to be full of "counting coup", ways I could avenge myself after years of unhappiness, men I admired who admired me in return, that sort of thing. And they were whiny as all get out. No, the Favorite Son shouldn't have to wade through those in search of his mother's history. Sorry, kid.

But what really struck me were the years just prior to and during seminary, when I felt such a strong call to ministry, dithered for several years before getting the strong wake-up call to ministry, and began the process of preparing for ministry. I can see such stark differences between who I was early on in the process and who I have become---or am becoming.

It's embarrassing to see how callow and crass I could be in those early stages. Those days are not gone for good, I know, because I catch myself being callow and crass every day still! But these days I understand what I'm doing and am able to move beyond callow and crass to a place that is more representative of who I really am. I hope. Or maybe I just hide it better.

Seminary studies, CPE (clinical pastoral education), and internship all changed a piece of me. The educational part, the classes in which I rubbed elbows with Christians of all sorts plus fellow UUs, this was intellectually stimulating and I did better in those tough classes than I ever did in my undergrad work or even in my first master's.

The CPE experience, where I dealt with life and death, sometimes terrible deaths, every day was shocking, satisfying, life-changing, especially in the challenges presented by the group of fellow interns with whom I met daily. I was reminded of a time when I self-righteously hammered an intern colleague for her perceived manipulativeness and later realized that I was just as manipulative in some other ways. Our CPE supervisor gently set me straight and I ate crow, eventually coming to value this colleague in ways I never would have expected.

I went into my internship just about as cocky as I could be, sure that I would set my internship congregation on fire with my dazzling sermons and fabulous ideas. And I did have a good deal of success in these ways, but I got so full of myself that my dear supervisor, Rev. Catharine Harris, had to sit me down and give me some perspective. (I just wrote Catharine a note of gratitude for her courage in speaking truth with love to a very high-on-herself intern who had lots of potential but not much good sense!)

I haven't gotten to the journal in which I record my devastation when the Ministerial Fellowship Committee confronted me with my "intensity" (who, me?) and gave me a less than perfect score in my credentialing interview. That's the next humbling thing I'll have to read and reflect upon. It too was an important step in the making of this minister.

Seems to me that the universe has been hard at work bringing me down a peg or two every time I needed to be reminded of my own failings. And yet I also know that every human being has failings and our life's journey is one of identifying and dealing with our frailties, so that we can gradually become happier, more useful, and better able to pass along our experience, strength, and love to those coming along behind us. Or so I see it today.

Monday, July 26, 2010

One of the things...

ministers dread, and nearly all of us have to cope with at one time or another, is a string of deaths in the congregation within a relatively short period of time. It's hard on our psychic energy, our tear ducts, our resiliency. If we're lucky, we have bounce-back time between memorial services, but sometimes that doesn't happen.

I've been serving a lovely small congregation of mostly-retired folks for seven years now and had done very few memorial services, maybe three or four. Most were elderly folks, at the far edge of their lives, and ready to let go.

Then, bang, bang, bang, in a matter of just over a year, several deaths---from chronic illness, cancer, self-inflicted, sudden pneumonia. Not all were members of the congregation; for a couple, I was the only connection to the church. But with each person, I had walked "that lonesome valley" of anticipation of death, in some way, either vicariously through family members or directly holding a hand.

Each person was different in how they approached the inevitable; they were resigned or angry or secretive or unpredictable or indomitable. Yet each person came to that moment when the spirit left the body and only the husk remained, like a cocoon left behind when the butterfly burst forth.

I have never felt so filleted by experience as I have during this past many months----scored right down the middle of my heart, with relief, with grief, with fear, with anger. And no sooner did one experience's pain ebb, than the next one began. Eventually, I became somewhat desensitized, relieved if others had to perform ceremonies, resentful if appreciation didn't appear fast enough to suit me, maintaining professional distance just to get through.

But that protective distance was eventually breached, because right now, a beloved member of our congregation is in his last days of life, after suffering a terrible fall early in June. He sustained a head injury which could never be healed and the trauma to his brain could not be reversed. This man has been the Viking giant of our congregation for many years, offering leadership and resources that we needed badly, forcefully backing the building of our own home ("I want it built in time for my memorial service!" he'd say---and so it is), serving as our president, our canvass chair, our membership chair, as a worship leader, in the choir, always in the foyer greeting new people. Nobody who ever met Baird Bardarson would ever forget him.

We are all struggling with this impending death, even more than the others, because for awhile it looked like he would recover. And now that hope has been taken away and we are awaiting the news that he is gone.

A friend within the congregation, who knows how hard all this has been on me, asked me if there was any way she could be helpful right now. "Yes, there is," I said. "Don't die."

"I won't," she said.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A friend sent me this article which...

I think is profoundly true and says a great deal about friendship and differences between males and females.

Friendship Amongst Women” - UCLA Study

By Gale Berkowitz

A landmark UCLA study suggests friendships between women are special. They shape who we are and who we are yet to be. They soothe our tumultuous inner world, fill the emotional gaps in our marriage, and help us remember who we really are.

By the way, they may do even more. Scientists now suspect that hanging out with our friends can actually counteract the kind of stomach-quivering stress most of us experience on a daily basis. A landmark UCLA study suggests that women respond to stress with a cascade of brain chemicals that cause us to make and maintain friendships with other women. It's a stunning find that has turned five decades of stress research -- most of it on men -- upside down.

Until this study was published, scientists generally believed that when people experience stress, they trigger a hormonal cascade that revs the body to either stand and fight or flee as fast as possible, explains Laura Cousin Klein, Ph.D., now an Assistant Professor of Bio-behavioral Health at Penn State University and one of the study's authors. It's an ancient survival mechanism left over from the time we were chased across the planet by saber-toothed tigers.

Now the researchers suspect that women have a larger behavioral repertoire than just fight or flight; in fact, says Dr. Klein, it seems that when the hormone oxytocin is released as part of the stress responses in a woman, it buffers the fight or flight response and encourages her to tend children and gather with other women instead. When she actually engages in this tending or befriending, studies suggest that more oxytocin is released, which further counters stress and produces a calming effect.

This calming response does not occur in men, says Dr. Klein, because testosterone---which men produce in high levels when they're under stress---seems to reduce the effects of oxytocin. Estrogen; she adds, seems to enhance it.

The discovery that women respond to stress differently than men was made in a classic "aha" moment shared by two women scientists who were talking one day in a lab at UCLA. There was this joke that when the women who worked in the lab were stressed, they came in, cleaned the lab, had coffee, and bonded, says Dr. Klein. When the men were stressed, they holed up somewhere on their own. I commented one day to fellow researcher Shelley Taylor that nearly 90% of the stress research is on males. I showed her the data from my lab, and the two of us knew instantly that we were onto something.

The women cleared their schedules and started meeting with one scientist after another from various research specialties. Very quickly, Drs. Klein and Taylor discovered that by not including women in stress research, scientists had made a huge mistake: The fact that women respond to stress differently than men has significant implications for our health.

It may take some time for new studies to reveal all the ways that oxytocin encourages us to care for children and hang out with other women, but the "tend and befriend" notion developed by Drs. Klein and Taylor may explain why women consistently outlive men. Study after study has found that social ties reduce our risk of disease by lowering blood pressure, heart rate, and cholesterol.

There's no doubtc, says Dr. Klein, that friends are helping us live longer. In one study, for example, researchers found that people who had no friends increased their risk of death over a 6-month period. In another study, those who had the most friends over a 9-year period cut their risk of death by more than 60%. Friends are also helping us live better.

The Health Study from Harvard Medical School found that the more friends women had, the less likely they were to develop physical impairments as they aged, and the more likely they were to be leading a joyful life. In fact, the results were so significant, the researchers concluded, that not having close friends or confidantes was as detrimental to your health as smoking or carrying extra weight!

And that's not all! When the researchers looked at how well the women functioned after the death of their spouse, they found that even in the face of this biggest stressor of all, those women who had a close friend and confidante were more likely to survive the experience without any new physical impairments or permanent loss of vitality.
Those without friends were not always so fortunate.

Yet, if friends counter the stress that seems to swallow up so much of our life these days, if they keep us healthy and even add years to our life, why is it so hard to find time to be with them? That's a question that also troubles researcher Ruthellen Josselson, Ph.D., co-author of /Best// //Friends:// //The Pleasures and Perils of Girls' and Women's Friendships/ (Three Rivers Press, 1998).

Every time we get overly busy with work and family, the first thing we do is let go of friendships with other women, explains Dr. Josselson. We push them right to the back burner. That's really a mistake because women are such a source of strength to each other. We nurture one
another. And we need to have unpressured space in which we can do the special kind of talk that women do when they're with other women. It's a very healing experience.

Monday, July 19, 2010

It seemed like such a small, minor sin...

but as I turned right into the ferry line, against the expressed prohibition of such an act posted prominently at the intersection, I felt a terrific pang of guilt. There was nobody in the ferry line at that point, my only other choice was to turn left, go back up the hill to the official start of the ferry line, and enter it properly, and I was tired. My passenger seemed not to feel any compunctions and so I did it.

Naturally, immediately there appeared in my rear view mirror the sight of a string of cars way up the hill, properly coasting downhill in the ferry line AS I WAS SUPPOSED TO BE DOING, and then it was almost too late to correct my path.

"Under these circumstances," I rationalized to myself, "it makes perfect sense to turn right into the ferry line. Everybody else would do it if they were in my seat. Nobody was coming down the hill when I did it. Surely it's okay." So I stayed in the ferry line, did not turn around and go properly back up the hill as I should have, even though the other car in our small caravan had done the right thing. And luckily, the driver of the car which had immediately appeared in the line, even as I was turning right, didn't seem to care, didn't report me to the toll booth guys, and I crept furtively into the ferry holding area, waiting for the heavy hand of fate to fall upon my shoulder, in the form of some official who would tell me to leave the area, go back up the hill and do things right. After all, my mother or father would have done that; why not the ferry guys?

But it didn't happen. Comeuppance didn't strike until I drove onto the ferry deck, cut too close to an outcropping of steel wall, and, with a terrible grinding sound, ripped off my passenger-side rear view mirror.

My friend who was the driver of the right-acting vehicle (and who got on the ferry BEFORE we did, no doubt because of his right behavior) came back to commiserate. But he couldn't help pointing out that though he had gone way back up the hill to the start of the line he had still been loaded onto the boat before I had.

So this morning, after duct-taping my dangling mirror back into place, I called the Toyota guys, asked them to order a passenger-side rear view mirror for a 2005 Corolla at a cost of a few hundred dollars, including labor, and I will be getting it fixed later this week. And I will never cut, logically or illogically, into the ferry line again. I promise.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

"What must I do to be saved?"...

is one of the major theological questions of religious life, though it may be stated differently from tradition to tradition.

In UUism, of course, the quick rejoinder is often "Saved from what?", for many of us don't feel a need to be saved from anything. And we're good with the snappy comebacks, particularly when asked a question that pokes us in the anti-fundamentalist nerve.

I happened to pick up a tract at the local coffee shop, awhile back, which gave this definition of salvation: "Salvation means to be rescued from sin and its punishment and set free to know, love, and serve God...Left to ourselves, there is no rescue and the justice of God requires our eternal damnation in the terrors of hell."

Leaving aside the obvious Universalist disagreement with the second sentence, let's think about the idea in more metaphorical ways.

There is a lot to be saved from in ordinary human life, which has a way of being convoluted and soul-wrenching enough to plow some pretty deep and unproductive furrows into our behavior. Abuse or neglect or lack of love or betrayal, self-doubt, fear----all of these are common to human living; chances are all of us have been abused or neglected in hurtful ways, we have lacked love, we have been betrayed, and the outcomes of these experiences can be paralyzing self-doubt, fear, and other unproductive ways of responding to life.

I've thought about salvation and have preached about it many times, and I keep coming back to this firm idea: no matter what one's religious path might be, what we need to extricate ourselves from is the fear that comes from the self-doubt created by that abuse, neglect, lovelessness, and betrayal that all humans experience.

I don't mean normal cautiousness, the kind that keeps us driving on the right side of the road or treating our bodies properly or taking care of our children and other dependents. I'm talking about the fear that keeps us from loving others, that prevents us from thinking critically about our beliefs and actions, that hamstrings our relationships, that makes us instill that fear in others, especially our children.

For many religions, fear is a tool---fear of loss of love, fear of hell, fear of death, fear of being caught, fear of divine retribution. These are ways the faithful may be kept in line, not motivated by a desire to offer compassion or assistance or love to others, but scared straight.

Me, I want to be saved from fear. I want to be saved from the fear that keeps me from acting in loving ways at times; I want to be saved from the fear of discussing my faith openly with others who I know do not agree. I want to be saved from the fear of changing my life's patterns so that my life is healthier, whole-er. I want to be saved from the fear of being old and sick. I want to be saved from the fear of ever so many things that keep me hamstrung in small and large ways.

And "what must I do to be saved?" Hmmm, that's a good question and I think the answer is in the very word. The word salvation has a very broad meaning, indicated by how many ways it appears in other related words: salute--to wish health for someone; salvage---to save from danger; salve---a healing ointment; salver---the tray used to present safe food to a monarch. Salvation's original meaning was to save from loss at sea. The Latin base word is "salvus", which means healthy.

In non-doctrinal terms, "salvation" means to achieve health. And the interesting thing is that no one can give us health; we have to take what we have and use it properly, change habits to address our weaknesses. We ourselves are our primary saviors. Another person might rescue us from drowning, but we are the ones who must carry on. Others can only do so much.

To be saved means to seek and achieve health, of body, of mind, and of spirit. And it means that we have the opportunity to model that salvation for others. We may enlist a Higher Power to help us in this journey toward greater health; some may not feel this necessary. But it has little to do, in my mind, with life after death---and everything to do with life in this life.

A related note: as I began to think about this topic, it occurred to me that many think UUism is in need of salvation and the salvation they have in mind is growth in numbers and influence. I wonder about that; I am more inclined to think that salvation of individuals, i.e., healthy growth in individuals, will inevitably lead to salvation of a religious tradition. Growth in numbers and influence seems to me analogous to the growth in wealth and power that motivates so many in our world today. Applying the lessons of individual salvation (seeking and achieving health) to a religious body might be a better thing to do.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Liberal Values, Conservative Communities

I consider it a lucky thing, a useful thing, a benefit to have been born and raised in a Baptist preacher's family, growing up with the stories of Jesus and the Old Testament prophets, thinking how I could best fulfill my own desire to have a church-related vocation short of going to a mission field where there were snakes and big bugs.

I consider it an advantage to have grown up in small communities where small town philosophy and religion shaped politics and culture, communities which still pretty much cling to conservative values and precepts.

I feel that my upbringing and early values have given me an understanding of how geography and small town community life are connected to the commitment to conservative values and ideals. I have a great sympathy for those ideals, even though they are not necessarily my own.

I am pretty sure that if I had stayed in Washington state instead of going off to Colorado to work in the inner city my own values might be more conservative, my religion might be American Baptist, not Unitarian Universalist.

But I did go off to Colorado as a consequence of my desire to have a church-related vocation, to work as a program leader in an American Baptist community center, the Denver Christian Center. I taught preschoolers in a pre-Head Start program, met with elementary school kids after school to sing songs, play games, and give "project kids" a place to go after school, and helped with a Teen Canteen Saturday nights in the Christian Center. And I saw first-hand the devastating effects of poverty, racism, and violence. It changed me.

Every year, I go back to my small town roots, visit family members and friends who still live in those communities, and experience again the values and ideals of conservative America. It is a pleasure, on the one hand, to see all my family members again and, on the other, a struggle to listen without arguing, look for the common ground we share, and remind myself that "conservative" doesn't mean stupid, doesn't mean un-caring, doesn't mean disregard for others' needs.

I love them dearly....and it's hard. I don't know whether, if they had shared my experiences, they would understand where my liberal values come from. But my exposure to the inner city world I'd never before visited was the turning point for me. It made me hungry to find ways to help, beyond the bandaids of welfare and subsidized housing.

My life was diverted from community center work into public school teaching and counseling when I married, but my desire to help at a deeper level followed me into that profession as well. I wanted to know why kids did drugs, why teenage girls got pregnant and why they chose the solutions they did. And I still want to know. As a minister in a small congregation, I'm interested in why people behave as they do and what I can do to help.

I don't think I could go back to a small community to live. I got pretty worn out this past weekend by the need to bite my tongue, not react, and just listen. I don't have to do that very much here on South Whidbey. But I have the ability to move back and forth between more conservative folks who live in the community and the more progressive folks in my congregation. I like having that skill and I'm grateful for the oasis of liberal thought my congregation provides.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

One Hell of a Woman

She looked like a waxen doll, curled up in the big, padded recliner that had been her nest for many days and weeks over the past seven years. Her hands were cold; her wavy, short-cropped hair (her seventh "new look" post-chemo) lay softly on her forehead. Her eyes were closed and she was clearly not present. There was peace on her face at last; her body was no longer a source of pain.

I sat for awhile in the bright sunlight with her husband, her son and her daughter, and talked and wept about her last days. After fighting the breast cancer for many long years, always ready to try another clinical trial, always determined to beat the beast, my friend Sue Morrow Flanagan died just after dawn this morning in her home on Whidbey Island.

We did not expect it to be now; we thought we had more time. But cancer had its own timetable and, after the effort to pick up a small dog broke her arm, the end came quickly and without more pain. Her daughter was with her when she took her last breath. Her son was also at home and her husband had been by her side constantly. I came as soon as I knew.

I remember our last visit. The oncologist had just delivered the news a day or so earlier that the most time she had was 6 months or less. She was her normal sparky self, bright-eyed as always, not really ready to go but willing to learn another interesting thing, whatever death might bring.

No more pain, Sue. No more emergency trips on the ferry to the ER. No more upsetting new symptoms. No more worries about family members and how they're dealing with it. Your concern was always for others, not yourself, though you fought the cancer with every fiber of your being. You are and have always been one hell of a woman.

I married you and Tom a few years ago, just before you had to go in for yet another chemo and wanted to be married with your own hair and in your wedding gown. I helped you say goodbye to your little dog when he died last year. I will memorialize your life in a few days. May your new journey be one of peace.

UPDATE: As it turns out, since I will be out of town for several days, the ceremonial goodbyes will be offered in my absence. I feel a little sad about that but also glad that I was able to spend part of today with the family and to say goodbye to Sue. And I'm glad that my absence will not mean that they have to wait till I return.

Monday, July 05, 2010

The Wedding Season...

can be a lot of fun, but there's angst as well to be found for a clergyperson who is charged with helping couples prepare for their marriage ceremonies, a time when the meaning of marriage, the character and maturity of the couple, the family members attending, and the officiant's theology all come into play.

I often marry couples who were attracted to a UU minister-officiant because of varying religious backgrounds. Or maybe their parents suggested a UU officiant. Or maybe they just wanted to be married by someone who wouldn't imbue their ceremony with a lot of doctrine, as many mainline clergy are required to do.

I give couples a template entitled "A Typical UU Wedding Ceremony" which gives pretty traditional wording (no "obey", however) in a pretty traditional order, an introduction and welcome, a statement of intent, pledges of commitment, a ring exchange, and a pronouncement of marriage, followed by a prayer. I invite them to insert readings, songs, or poems, to change words here and there, to change the whole thing if they want, to substitute their own wording, to omit or change the prayer. It's important to me, I tell them, that the ceremony fit their own needs and desires.

And then, of course, when they change this or that, I have to run it through my own filter to see if it fits my needs and desires! Sometimes I quibble about a point or two, but mostly I just use the ceremony they've created from my pile of sticks. It works pretty well; most couples don't do much rearranging or substituting and just stick with the basic ceremony. That makes less work for me, for sure, but I don't mind if they want something entirely different, as long as it comes from them.

In the process, I have a chance to talk at length with the couple, asking them how they met (from each person individually, rather than as a combined story), how they view marriage, that sort of thing, so that I am not marrying people I don't know but rather performing a ceremony for people I've come to care about. My final question, during our last meeting, is "what do you as a couple hope to contribute to the world?"

Most young couples have only tentative answers to this question: model a successful marriage partnership, have well-brought-up children, etc. Some have already thought it through and want their careers to offer something greater to the world. Some have very disappointing or even narcissistic answers. Older couples are more thoughtful about their answers.

I always wonder about the couples I marry, for I rarely see them later in life. A few times, I've heard back from couples who hunt me up to tell me, on their anniversary, that they are still happy. Today I'm attending the anniversary party of a female couple that I married a year ago today. I've gotten baby announcements and right now I'm helping to plan the funeral for a woman who asked me to officiate her wedding before she had to go into chemo again, three years ago; the cancer finally has gotten her and she only has days to live.

So joy and angst combined at this time of the year. I pray for the young couple starting out who is so focused on the groom's self-centeredness and I pray for the older couple who can't set a date and I pray for the well-established young couple who will go to Turkey or Albania to offer their skills to the people, for the interracial couple whose mother/m.i.l has to make most of the arrangements because they are not yet back in the US, and for all the couples I've ever married, the ones who are happy and the ones who are on the verge of divorce, the ones whose commitment to each other made them grow up.

May they have many Happy Anniversaries to come.