The Mystery of the Season

One of the down sides to becoming a professional church person is that your opportunities for Saturday night parties become extremely limited. Last weekend I took advantage of one, while I still have the chance – my brother-in-law’s annual gathering of the younger generation of friends and family. It’s a gathering full of tradition and ritual – food, drink, and a Yankee Swap that can get downright vicious – and one of the more recent additions to the roster is the Reading of the Newsletters.

This year we had a new newsletter, in addition to the annual missive from the apocalyptically evangelical wing of the extended family exhorting us all to repent our sinful ways and praise the God of their preference. Chuck and Vicky wrote to Spouse’s brother at my parents-in-law’s address, a rambling newsy letter full of minor medical complaints and tales of their travels, ending with good wishes for the holidays and the new year.

None of us have any idea who Chuck and Vicky are.

I mean, no clue whatsoever.

If they’re part of the extended family, it’s the kind of extension that got lost in the back shed generations ago. We figure maybe they could be people who know Spouse or my brother-in-law through scouting: both of them meet lots of people and they are both lousy with remembering names. Or maybe these are folks who fished up an address on the internet and are trying to write to the other family in town that shares my in-laws’ last name.

We have no idea.

But it was a good party, and at the end of the Reading of the Newsletter, we raised a glass to Chuck and Vicky, whoever they are, wherever they are, and wished them the very best of holidays.

And so I wish for you, reader, whoever you are and wherever you are. Whatever you are celebrating this season, may it be warm and beautiful.

Posted in Ruminations | Leave a comment

Sing Like a Canary

The world moves quicker than I do, these days. Juggling all the things is not my greatest strength, and as time-sensitive as blogging can be, it takes a back burner to other kinds of deadlines.

Just over a week ago – Friday night and Saturday morning, just after (US) Thanksgiving – Tom Schade published a two part essay authored by an anonymous UU seminarian, which has been the subject of considerable conversation in various corners of the UU blogosphere, including lots of places on FaceBook that I am aware of and probably exponentially more that I’m not. An unsettling portion of that conversation has centered around the anonymity of the essay rather than the issues raised therein.

I’ve been on the internet a very long time, and I don’t quite understand needing to know someone’s real-world personal identity in order to consider their remarks, but if you are someone who needs to have the name of a real live UU seminarian to discuss these issues with, hi, I’m Claire and I go to seminary. I did not write the anonymous essay, nor do I know the identity of its author, whom I assume to be a peer colleague who moves in the same online circles I do. I am willing to talk about most of the issues Anonymous raises for consideration because they are familiar conversational territory and so is the anxiety that seems to fuel them. Continue reading

Posted in Words for the World | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

We Who Believe In Freedom Cannot Rest

We who believe in freedom cannot rest;
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.

It’s been stuck in my head for the last several days, since before the non-indictment came down in Ferguson, but I’m not sure it’s my song to sing. I question whether my voice – yet another middle-aged, middle-class white liberal voice – is usefully raised at this time, on this issue, under these circumstances.

My small New England town is not on fire; my streets are not filled with demonstrators and police action. The crowds that slow traffic here have been more immediately concerned with inclement weather or stuffing and cranberry sauce or hot deals on cool merchandise than equality and justice. The events in Ferguson, MO would seem abstract and remote, were it not for the internet. I have had the luxury of time and the privilege of distance, and it seems therefore that I have also the responsibility of giving the matter of systemic racial injustice some considered reflection.

But for me it is interwoven with so many things that I struggle to tease out a fragile edge from which to start. Every event happens in context – derived from the events that pass before it, contributing to the events that follow it – and I am part of that context and come from my own context as well. Sometimes the right thing to do is to listen more than to talk, to bear witness to the unfolding of the world, to another’s suffering, to the story that is greater than the larger of its parts.

It’s not about the individual data points, the litany of names and places that are but a sample of those incidents of police violence against men of color, particularly Black men. I hear other white folks argue sometimes that this one or that one wasn’t really about that – and what it most reminds me of are the people who argue against anthropogenic climate change by coming up with a perfectly plausible reason why this time or that time it wasn’t so. I want to pound on the pulpit and yell some. It’s not about the data points, but the pattern they reveal when viewed at some remove: like a Seurrat or a Monet, all dots and splotches up close, but caught in a glance from the far end of a gallery the image jumps out, water lilies, or a fine walk in the park.

We must learn to see, to feel, to perceive, to experience the whole that is greater than the aggregate of its parts. And by we I mostly mean us culturally-white, college-educated, English-speaking, middle-income liberals for whom most of the American system mostly works most of the time. When the system generally works for people like you, it is easy to assume that the system generally works.

I want to write about Ferguson, MO. But my heart is drawn to Tulsa, OK and the class I attended there earlier this month – about which I had intended to blog, but the world has been moving faster than I can write about it. Part of our preparatory work for the class involved some study of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre or Race Riot – even the language of naming the event carries implicit systemic bias. It is a story better told by voices other than mine. It is a story that echoes.

Because none of this, none of this is new. It breaks my heart to say that none of this is new. It’s the kind of thing that is so wrong, you want it to be a one-off, an anomaly; you want to not see the pattern that starts jumping out from the dots. The uprising sparked by the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO is the latest manifestation of a systemic sickness that goes back generation upon generation, implicitly modeled even when not explicitly taught. I carry it, you carry it: systemic racial bias – racism – is woven into the cloth of American culture and can only be picked out individual thread by individual thread. It is hard work that will never be complete.

Posted in Ruminations | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

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

Posted in Ruminations | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

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

Posted in Words for the World | Tagged , | Leave a comment

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

Posted in Words for the World | Tagged , | 1 Comment

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.

Posted in Ruminations | Tagged , | Leave a comment