The Mess in the Middle

It’s overcast today, with a raw autumnal chill in the damp air. Most of the snow from Sunday’s storm has melted away, save the piles of crusty dirty slush at the corners of driveways, and most of the debris has been removed. When heavy wet snow meets trees and shrubs that are still in full leaf, the result is, well, brush for the bonfire pit and a mess of scattered leaves in the gutter.

The seasons continue turning. The Christian tradition observed the feasts of All Saints and All Souls at the beginning of November, the remembrance of the heroes and martyrs gone before, and of all the beloved dead. The western Pagan traditions observed the turning of the new year, into the darkness, when the veil between the worlds is at its thinnest and the ancestors walk with us in the place that is beyond place and the time that is beyond time. I don’t pretend to understand this strange center from which all is connected. But I know it in my bones to be a true thing.

I will be traveling tomorrow, for over a week, and I am at that point in the pack-cull-repack cycle where I have my snow boots in one hand and the weather forecast in the other and I am seriously weighing “wear the snow boots to the memorial service, then leave them in the car at the airport to save space” versus “wear the snow boots on the plane even though it will be too warm for them next week” versus “leave the snow boots at home, and wear proper dress shoes to the memorial service, in the snow” – and none of these, none of these seem like really good options.

But this world we live in, this holy broken world? It is not made of good options. Not entirely. It has no beginning, it has no ending – it is all messy unresolved middle.

Two years ago, when I started pouring my discernment journey into this blog, a part of my decision to write in public about the process came from my frustration that seminarian blogs – at least the ones I had discovered, at that point – all seemed to taper off to a trickle somewhere about a year or two in. A few sermons and the occasional cat picture, then silence.

In reviewing my posting record it looks like that happened to me about six months ago. And so for the person who may be reading, who is now where I was then, looking for a map to this wilderness, I feel moved to offer some words as to why and how this happens. Continue reading

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Reverend Bill DeWolfe, 1927-2014

A few brief words – I had the privilege of working with Bill DeWolfe on the congregational “Leap of Faith” home team last year. I will remember him for his sense of hope, humor and the historical perspective he brought to our visioning conversations. I cannot say I knew him very well, but I am so grateful to have known him at all. Godspeed, sir. Rest in peace and rise in glory.

William A. DeWolfe, 1927-2014

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Reverend Lee Devoe, 1959 – 2014

Four days of cold autumn rain did not help anything. It was already a difficult week when the storm blew in and lingered off the Maine coast. It reminded me of the years I lived in Oregon: raw and windy, rain battering against the windows while I rearranged words on the computer.

We learned at church last Sunday that the Reverend Lee Devoe, the former interim minister who had served our congregation several years ago, was nearing the end of her life; mid-week we learned that she had already passed away, the day before we learned she was ill. Cancer is so fickle and so merciless. She was only 55. It is a heartbreaking and sudden loss.

Rev Lee was the first Unitarian Universalist minister I ever met. I’ve thought of her increasingly over the last two years as I have felt, and fought, and followed my own call to ministry. Like a painting that looks up close to be a mess of dots and splotches, the real beauty of her ministry here only became clear to me at a distance. I had so hoped to run into her again someday.

We held a small memorial service for her last night. I had written some words – because writing is what I do – that I had intended to read, but it became clear to me that what I had written wasn’t actually for us. We did not need me to tell us what she did here. The stories I heard from others reminded me that we already knew.

Continue reading

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Hitting Ledge

I didn’t have the camera with me last week when we pulled out of the driveway of the convalescent facility where a family member has been recovering after surgery. Utility crews have been laying gas line in our area for the last couple of years, which has entailed digging up pretty much every major roadway and most of the secondary ones, sometimes twice in a summer, and as we waited for the light to change Spouse and I noticed the words spray painted on the asphalt beside a small (patched) excavation:

Ledge – 1.5 ft

It’s this thing about Maine, probably true of other places as well, places where the topsoil is irregularly thin and rocky: dig anywhere, deep enough, and sooner or later you will hit ledge. In this case, it appeared that the utility crew had hit ledge – the granite bedrock that holds up northern New England both geologically and culturally – about eighteen inches down.

I’m not sure how deep they were planning to lay that gas line, but I’d wager it was more than eighteen inches. The frost line – below which the ground reliably does not freeze, the depth to which foundations and footings must be dug to avoid precarious shifting with the freezing and thawing of the soil – is more like three or four feet down, maybe more; I’m not a foundation contractor, I’m guessing from the depth of old cellars. Not eighteen inches.

But, they’d hit ledge.

When you’re digging a hole for a purpose, the clank and shudder of steel blade against stone will send chills down your spine, even if you’re just digging in the garden. I can only imagine how it works for larger, more expensive public works projects. You stop, and you stare for a minute or several. Maybe you poke around with the shovel to see if the rock has edges. Maybe it’s just a boulder, something you can dislodge with a bit of effort and roll out of the way, down in the back where you wanted a bit of fill anyhow. After all, sometimes it is.

Sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes, it’s ledge.

It sinks in slowly, when you hit ledge, the rising realization that whatever it was you were working on just got a lot more complicated and a lot more uncertain. You realize you have choices and none of them look particularly great. The Maine landscape is littered with the relics left by people who have tried them all.

You can redouble your efforts, the shovel yielding way to the pick-axe, the drill, the blasting cap. Extra time, extra money, extra effort to make this road, this hole, this foundation conform to your human will, leaving jagged edges exposed along the cut.

Or you can stop, decide that the hole is as deep as it’s going to get, the road is as smooth or as far up the hill as it needs to go, that quitting while you are ahead is more sensible than spending any more resources trying to change something as stubborn as a granite ledge. Perhaps then you will redesign the project, or what remains of it, around the ledge, working with the landscape instead of forcing your way through it. Or perhaps you will decide to abandon the effort altogether and do something else.

I have found, sometimes, that working with people is not unlike working with the earth. Most of us have places that are soft and easily tamed; many of us also have a bit of ledge within us, close to the surface or buried deep. It does not seem useful to me, most of the time, to spend a lot of effort blasting and grinding away at the tough places that make us who we are. In time, exposed to the wind and frost, even the rawest edges will weather, keeping their character but becoming softer, more rounded in their forms.

What hitting ledge forces you do to is ask yourself “Just how badly did I want to do that – exactly that thing, in exactly that way – anyway?” Sometimes resistance is an opportunity to reimagine what happens next, and how to get there.

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We’re All In This Together

The alarm clock sounded at 1:00 am Sunday morning, an hour that I am more accustomed to greeting at the other end of my day. I folded quietly out of bed, put on my macaroni-and-cheese yellow “Standing on the Side of Love” tee shirt, and gathered up my stuff. Saturday had been damp after a few days of crisp, cold autumnal weather, and the stars were twinkling in the moist night air as I drove over town to meet my carpool.

Four of us from my home congregation rode together down to Portland to catch the bus chartered by the Maine UU State Advocacy Network (MUUSAN) down to New York City for the People’s Climate March. The bus was full – I think 55 people, from all over southern and central Maine: Augusta, Ellsworth, Pittsfield, Auburn, Waterville, Portland (both Allen Avenue and First Parish); ministers serving two of our congregations and a couple of folks from Texas who had planned their vacation to coincide with the march.

A busload full of sleepy Unitarian Universalists (and friends) en route to the People's Climate March in NYC (Sept. 21, 2014)

photo courtesy of MUUSAN

I was thinking of the gathering of the waters – the ritual by which so many UU congregations mark the beginning of the church / school year in late summer – and the natural water cycle: rain that falls in drops, gathers in puddles and pools, forms streams that flow into rivers, rivers that drain into bays and estuaries where they mingle with the great salt ocean. And then, under the sun, water evaporates, forms clouds that blow inland on the wind, tear their hems on the jagged mountain ridges, and the water falls again as rain to begin the cycle anew.

Two white women smiling, in a bus.

Riding the bus to NYC.
Debbie M (left) and Claire Curole (right).

And so we came, individuals making a carload, carloads filling a bus, busses heading for a city within a city, voices and banners joining with other voices and banners to sound the alarm on global environmental issues: to show, by showing up, that this is a real thing that is vitally important to all of us. Continue reading

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Vacation Theology

It’s gone muggy again for now, but the air earlier this week was cool and clear, with the whisper of autumn floating on the wind. A few leaves at the tips of the excitable, anxious maples are starting to hint at shades of red and gold. It was a welcome shift from the thick summer heat earlier in the week that greeting us when Spouse and I returned from a short vacation, but also a reminder that this wide-open summer is beginning to draw inward, into a new season and time.

Spouse and I observed our fifth wedding anniversary this summer by taking a few days “down east” – a camping trip in Washington County, ME. We’d originally scheduled the break between the CPE program I didn’t finish this summer and the internship I won’t be starting this fall, but it was still important to go spend some time with each other. The weather was cool and beautiful – we camped and did a little hiking at Cobscook State Park; spent a day playing tourist on Campobello Island, NB; heard some great live music at a Summerkeys concert in Lubec one night and at a little country fair in Pembroke another day; and ended the trip with a wildlife-viewing cruise around Passamaquoddy Bay.

It is satisfying to see the tourist economy growing downeast. Washington County is the end of the road – the eastern pointy bit of Maine – with a mostly resource-based economy that has suffered greatly over the last fifty or hundred years as the sardine canneries close and the shipbuilding trades and major ports move elsewhere. Spouse tells me that the first time he went to Eastport, some twenty-odd years ago, there were almost no businesses downtown save the only restaurant, a diner with a sign it its window reading “Closed until next food delivery.” I am pleased to report that this is no longer the case – there is still a lot of poverty and decay in rural Maine, but there is also hope and community and revitalization. I hope to get back out there every so often.

We got back to town late Monday, back to the heat and humidity, work and errands, meetings and appointments. Ending vacation also initiates a shift for me, out of this summer’s season of introspection and stillness back into the slightly-more-externally focused world of seminary where I not only have things to do but deadlines to do them by. In an effort to productively distract myself from the bittersweet reality of not being in Chicago this week with my classmates, I’ve taken up an early start on the reading for my classes this term. I’m working through Paul Rasor’s Faith Without Certainty, required reading for my Liberal Theology class that’s also on the denominational required reading list, and I’m trying to recapture the glimmer of understanding I had a day or two ago (when I began writing this post), a brilliant gossamer thread of connection between vast abstract academic theories and the salt-scented reality of fishing villages in deep rural Maine.

It made sense then. I swear it. Now, if only I had somehow not lost that thought in the process of coming up the stairs and getting on the computer.

Perhaps it was simply that when I read Rasor’s overview of what “Modernism” means in this context – science, progress, human reason, the autonomous individual, bold enterprise – and particularly of the residual systemic issues that are Modernism’s shadow legacy (racism, colonialism, classism and economic inequality among them) my mind’s eye illustrates the text with a downeast travelogue. The history of the region is one of cyclical prosperity and decay, colonialism and coexistence, the weatherworn poverty of the present juxtaposed with the ghosts of former affluence and the tiny sprouts of hope jutting up through the cracks, tender but tenacious.

There is a resilience in these rural communities that seems to me to push back against the presumptive culture of everyone for themselves. One cannot afford to be completely individualistic in remote locations. Living in tight knots of people, where pretty much everyone knows pretty much everyone else, forces a level of interdependence that can be avoided in larger, denser concentrations of people. You may not like the guy, but everyone knows he’s the only person in a fifty mile radius who has a portable sawmill, and so you deal with him.

I ought, perhaps, to have used the camera more on vacation. Then I could pass round a picture and say, this here? this is what the post-Modern critique of Modernism looks like. It has weathered cedar shingles and a faded sign and a whimsical piece of folk art in the window, and it is open every day but only until four o’clock. It smells of salt and old fish and road tar. It is around the corner from a vacant boarded-up sardine cannery with a crumbling concrete dock and across the street from an empty lot where a set of granite stairs leads to nothing. Post-Modernism has a soft, cynical chuckle at Modernism’s notions of progress because progress is motion and motion means “away from here” and post-Modernism knows that “here” will still be here when the big houses burn down or sag on their sills until they collapse under their own unmaintained weight.

Post-Modernism paints flowers where they will not grow, because it can.

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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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