Leaning on the Everlasting Arms

Leaning, leaning, safe and secure from all alarms,
Leaning, leaning, leaning on the everlasting arms!

If I ever learned the old hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” it had slipped from my conscious memory decades ago. Even now it does not seem like the sort of thing we would have sung very often in my childhood church: too gentle, too soft, too welcoming; not enough fire or brimstone or blood or guilt or anger. So I encountered it this summer as a new song, new to me at least – first during the short time I spent in CPE, in a morning devotional service led by a student from another tradition, and then unexpectedly some weeks later in the opening service of this year’s UUA General Assembly, held in Providence, RI.

The UUA archives video of General Assembly services and this year’s opening session (celebration and business) can be found here. (Link goes to a webpage with video and partial transcript. I haven’t figured out how to embed other people’s video yet. The GA business ends and the opening worship starts at 1:09:00. “Everlasting Arms” is the closing hymn at about 1:58:00)

It’s become the recurring theme, the sound track for this summer’s work. The majority of my own work has been personal in nature, uncovering and attending to old wounds of the soul and learning to develop the materials I have, as a lapidary or wood carver works with the natural material as it comes, including its weaknesses and idiosyncracies. My own, as it turns out, include some hard knots around vulnerability and trust, a deep old wariness rooted in things unformed that have no names.

I am told, and I believe that it is true, that this deep mistrust of the world in general and authority in particular is not uncommon. How many of us live without a feeling of security? How many of us trust that the system will work – if not always the way we want it to – at least in a way that is fair and transparent and intending the greatest possible good and the least possible harm? The truth, in our wider world, is that these things are not always true – not at the macroeconomic level, or the geopolitical one. For many of us even our smaller systems – schools, neighborhoods, families, churches – have their own built-in hazards. Survive long enough and you learn… survival.

When we experience external authority as arbitrary, capricious and controlling, when others’ power negates our own, when we learn to trade identity for affection or self-worth for survival, then it makes sense that we develop “issues” with authority: mistrust, defensiveness, subterfuge and rebellion. If this is what we know, if this how we have learned the system works, then we react to a new authority or structure according to the pattern we have internalized, which can then provoke the response we expect – and the pattern perpetuates itself. Thus, the fundamental concept behind systems theory.

They say that when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

But not everything is a nail. And so the first baby step is to realize that some of these nails are kind of funny looking. And then the next step is to realize that pounding on these funny-looking nails isn’t working terribly well. And somewhere along the way we realize, dimly, that maybe we need a different technique… or maybe a different kind of hammer. We start to imagine possibility.

How do we imagine authorities and structures that we can lean on, “safe and secure from all alarms” as the old hymn says? For those of us who are wounded and wary, what does trustable authority look like? How might we recognize it? How might we react to it? And the risky experimental part – are there existing authorities and structures which we dare to test by behaving as if they were nurturing and supportive instead of coercive and adversarial?

The answer for many of us is “Not yet,” and sometimes with very good reason. Opaque systems and inadequate resources are a fact of the human condition; layering the imperfect “best we can manage under the circumstances” onto a brittle foundation of suspicion and reactivity leads to collapse under the weight of frustration and disappointment when everything does not go exactly according to plan. And things eventually don’t.

If we are lucky, we learn – to stumble, to fall, to land hard, maybe to shatter. But we also learn to be a net for one another, catching each other as we lose our balance, creating little systems where those of us who need to can practice trusting and being trusted, in the company of those who have just enough more experience to make them seem like experts.

It is a bewildering transition to make, this learning to trust and be trusted, which seems to me the foundation for developing an authority that is not situated in power and control. I only recognize how much I have changed in the last year through interacting with the incoming students who will be starting later this month. I see so much of myself in their questions and reactions that it is very hard for me not to project my own experience over theirs. I have not yet learned to distill this particular shift in understanding and distribute it; maybe eventually I will, or at least I will keep trying.

We need it.

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Lessons Written in Stone

This post has been cooking for several weeks now, and it has become time to release it into the world. The story is unfinished, but the blog post is just about done. 

Before I moved to Maine, I lived in Oregon for several years. Oregon is a rockhound’s paradise and I have a longstanding love for the shiny treasures of the Earth. Though I never took up the hobby at a serious level, I did gather agates on the beach and ran an electric tumbler for a month at a time in the kitchen of my little apartment. I spent many hours at summer gem shows and the local rock shop, gazing at the specimens for sale in the cabinets and picking through bins of rough material from near and far. Agates, jaspers, obsidian, petrified wood… whole thundereggs just waiting for someone with a lapidary saw to reveal their internal secrets.  Though I never made the time or space to engage in lapidary work, I admired – and acquired – the work of others.

Three lumpy mud-colored rocks (thunder-eggs) on a blue and black, velvet-textured cloth.

Three thunder-eggs, exterior view.

The thunderegg is Oregon’s state rock. From the outside, they look like balls of petrified mud, formed in volcanic ash deposits; when sliced open and polished their interiors can be striking and beautiful: rings of colorful jasper, delicate mossy agate, tiny cavities lined with miniature crystals, ribbons of common opal, all the different ways that silica picks up trace minerals and arranges itself in secret beauty in the earth. Continue reading

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About Face

So one of the stories that has been flying around social media the last couple of weeks involves the case of a little girl reportedly asked to leave a fast-food restaurant because her facial injuries were disturbing other customers.

Sounds egregious, right? Click bait!

Of course I clicked; many people did. The story came with all the elements of a media classic – cute blonde preschooler with facial scars and a pink hello-kitty eyepatch, outraged family accusing employees of a fast-food restaurant of exclusionary behavior. It unfolded over the course of days that the child had been mauled by a dog belonging to a member of her extended family, that she had lost an eye and had other permanent injuries that called for ongoing medical attention, that medical bills were piling up, that then this awful hurtful insult happened…

It went viral, fast. Donations of course poured in, the fast-food chain offered money, investigations started. And in today’s iteration of the tale, allegations have surfaced that the incident at the restaurant did not happen, and that the family had raised the initial ruckus for the money.

There are plenty of places to toss around “I knew it” and “Those people” and “Should’ve” and “Shouldn’t’ve” and this blog is not one of those places. I’m not interested in blaming the child’s family, or media hype, or scourging gentle and well intentioned people for a paucity of skepticism.

At the end of the day, there is still a little child with a disfiguring injury that would benefit from continuing care, and she lives – as do we all – in a system whose structure makes that care seem more attainable through deceit and manipulation than through honest vulnerability.

What does that say about the system?

What does that say about us?

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Drive by Posting

Oh, hi.  

Summer seems to have happened.  The weather has gone from cold and wet to warm and humid.  Our yard is a disaster – the long cold winter did a lot of damage that I haven’t had a chance to clean out, and the weeds are taking over.  I shattered a tail light in the wagon when I backed into the lilac trees a couple of weeks ago, but that’s been fixed.  

CPE is turning out to be difficult in different places than I imagined it.  Takes all the time and energy I can muster and then some.   I will not be sharing details here, sorry.  Some things need to stay where they are.  


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Drive-By Posting

It seemed like a good idea at the time, back when I scheduled myself to lead worship two consecutive Sundays in the gap between the end of the spring semester and the start of the CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) program I am enrolled in for this summer. I’ve never done worship twice in a row, I said. I should try that.

So. One worship service done, one worship service yet to create, add some correspondence and an article for the church news letter, a couple of meetings and a holiday, and somewhere between now and Sunday I need to make time to revise a paper I thought I was done with several weeks ago, and the reader may well imagine why blogging has been sparse.

It will continue to be so through the summer. I start CPE on Tuesday, and I expect not to be writing much about it for public consumption for a complex variety of intersecting reasons. And because I am pressed for time, I will direct you to Karen Johnston’s recent reflection on beginning CPE, where she has already written pretty much everything I would otherwise say on the subject.

I will be back.

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Service: The Power of Music – May 18th, 2014

Frontal view of a small traditional New England church building with white painted siding and a gable roof with a steeple on top. Gray stairs lead up to the level of two doorways with a stained glass window between them. Below the window is a hard-to-read sign.

Presented 5/18/2014 at First Universalist of Turner Center, Maine.

Ringing of the bell, prelude, announcements and Doxology after the congregation’s usual custom.

Chalice lighting (sung):

Rise up, O Flame, by thy light glowing
Show to us beauty, vision and joy!
(Hymn #362)

Opening words:

O sing unto the Lord a new song:
Sing unto the Lord, all the earth!
Sing unto the Lord, bless his name,
Proclaim his salvation from day to day;
Declare his glory among the nations
His great works among all people,
For great is the Lord and greatly to be praised!
Continue reading

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Drive By Posting

It is a clear, bright spring day – not quite as warm as yesterday, but I am okay with that, because I have not yet gotten around to hauling up my summer clothes from the basement. The perennials are starting to come back, or not, after the long winter and now it is time to get out the pruners and cut back the parts that did not survive (and in some cases, rearrange the parts that did.)

But neither the yard work nor the blog post I have in the pipeline are going to be addressed right now. The tiny table I am using for a desk is stacked three deep with hymnals, books of poetry, and no less than three different Bibles as I work at assembling a worship service for Sunday – and then do it again for the following week.

I did not remember having this many Bibles in the house.
Nor would I have imagined, a year ago, riffling impatiently through them looking for “that thing I read that one time, now where was it,” that would be perfect to use in a worship service.

This is what life looks like now.

You can’t make this stuff up.

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