Year in Review: 2016

It is the day when I sit down and write that I am not sure whether I want to write a year in review post, and then I do it anyway.

It has been, and will be, always and already, the beginning of the rest of my life.

I didn’t blog much this year – skipped posting in April and July entirely, in fact. Things happened off camera. Probably the most significant step for me was completing my required unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) in the spring, and taking on some very occasional, very part-time work as one of the many overnight on-call chaplains at my CPE site. I am planning to do a second CPE unit in the coming year, something I would not have imagined a year ago.

Six months out I can say that CPE was… formative? transformative? Those are the words people tend to use but I never found them helpful. Surely it is a subjective experience, and one that takes different shapes depending on the student and the supervisor and the cohort and the context. What my first unit did for me was help to clarify my call to pastoral caregiving – an area where I’ve had some internal (and external) resistance. I still marvel that I get to do this holy work of being present with people in their most vulnerable situations – and that even though I feel wholly unqualified and inadequate to the task, it is somehow, mostly, good enough. I’m still processing that. It leaves me with a sense of awe and wonder.
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God’s butterknife

There’s a well-worn story that circulates in the spring time, often around Mothers’ Day:

A woman is doing some minor household repair, assembling flat-pack furniture or something – maybe she’s at a friend’s house, helping the friend move – and finds she lacks the right tool for the job.

She calls out to a small child nearby, “Can you go get me a screwdriver?”

The child replies, “Do you want a mommy screwdriver or a daddy screwdriver?”

Perplexed, the woman responds, “I don’t know. Bring me a mommy screwdriver.”

The child promptly returns with a butterknife.


I’ve been thinking about this one today, on my Monday-after-the-holiday off, performing my domestic duties as cat furniture and catching up on light housekeeping and half-abandoned projects. The calendar is shaped differently for people who work in churches and hospitals, and I have been doing just enough of each that I seldom remember what day of the week it is, if it isn’t Sunday, and sometimes I am not sure about that.

Ministry is odd work. Sometimes frustrating, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes exciting, sometimes satisfying, but always odd. Sometimes it involves fixing an old toilet chain with a paper clip, or making a checklist that includes cookies, kitty litter buckets, a manuscript, and an overnight bag. It involves changing gears from the sublime to the absurd and back again, always expecting that something unexpected will come up.

For all the things I know how to do, or am learning, I keep finding there are more things I do not even know where to start with. So I hope that, like the butterknife, my showing up and being of service in the moment is enough.

A butterknife, after all, is great for spreading butter, or cutting pancakes; but it also makes a serviceable standard screwdriver in a pinch, and can be pressed into service as an ice scraper, or used to jimmy open a stuck cocoa can or a recalcitrant bathroom door. It can be a straight edge, or a thumbtack-pusher, or used to stir the spaghetti sauce when the spoon has escaped somewhere. There are better tools for most of these things, but then in the moment there is the butterknife.

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Out of the Deep

Out of the deep
Have I called unto Thee, O Lord —
Lord, hear my voice!

Psalm 130:1-2a
tr. from Requiem, John Rutter

The first snow fell this week. So did the second snow, and that has stuck, and the pool has frozen over firmly enough to support the neighbor’s rotund clumsy cat, which lost its balance trying to drink the other day and landed, perplexed, on the surface while I watched out the window. The third snow is coming, tomorrow night into the next, and that will require shoveling the walks and borrowing Spouse’s car when I go down to Portland overnight.

It is a month out from the election, give or take a couple of days. In that time I have crafted and delivered three worship services (two Sundays and one weeknight) and worked three overnights and a day shift on-call at the hospital, and done the other things with (mostly) calm efficiency, and also finished this morning the last sequence of blocks for what will become a small bright quilt in the next week or two.

I am functional. I am so very functional. I take pleasure – pride, perhaps – in my capacity to be highly functional under stressful conditions. I get satisfaction from being able to show up and deliver even when things are falling apart.

But my heart is not in it.

My heart – small wild thing that it is, with flashing eyes – has gone to ground, disappeared into a tangled thicket of branches and old roots, wary and invisible, silently observing a world that has once again demonstrated its pervasive untrustworthiness and inherent danger.

Whatever other image you may have in your head, this is also what PTSD looks like, or feels like: for me, it’s an emotional flashback to my Reagan-era childhood of being bullied and social manipulation and parental disengagement, all under the sociopolitical cloud of imminent thermonuclear armageddon and/or the Holy Rapture, whichever came first.

When all experience feels pervasively, inescapably dangerous; when continued survival depends on being favored, or at least overlooked, by those with slightly more power in a rigged system; when authority is ineffectual or malevolent or just plain not there: the heart learns wildness to survive. It grows claws and teeth, learns to bite hard and writhe free and escape certain destruction. Stay back, it hisses, fangs bared and eyes glittering. When the world is unwelcoming, the heart learns how to survive — and nothing more.

When one doesn’t know anything else, one learns to function without it.

What is different, this time around, is that I miss my heart, that small wild tender thing. It was starting to become tame, a little bit anyway, and beginning to learn trust; that now seems much harder.

And also, when I pretend not to notice its glittering eyes watching me from the shadows, I imagine that my heart would also rather not hide and fight always, but has forgotten how to do that other thing for which it knows no name, newly learned and sweet.


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Shredded

It was gray today, overcast mostly, with low clouds shredding on the wind. Snow flurries on and off; a dusting overnight had melted by the time I got to the window this morning.

I am not eager for the snow to come. People forget how to drive in it during the months that it is not on the ground, and the first accumulating storm of the season usually results in an uptick in fender-benders and general anxiety.

We can do without more anxiety right now, really. There is plenty going around. It is a scant two weeks past the election and I have had little to say about it, at least directly and in public. My writing energy for the last couple of weeks went primarily into worship preparation for a short-notice preaching opportunity with the lovely folks at the Midcoast UU Fellowship this past Sunday.

I’m not posting whole sermons, or whole worship services, anymore; I’ve come to the sense that a worship service and particularly a sermon is something I prepare for a particular time and place and gathered body, and you can’t throw a stone into the same river twice. I also don’t write out full manuscripts these days, just long form notes, and the transitions work differently in spoken form than in writing.

But I also am still tumbling around  what the Spirit gave me, which seems too timely to keep just between those of us who gathered this week.
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As We Go Into the Night

It is more than a bit after sunset on Monday, the evening before the 2016 US presidential election. Early voting has been open in my jurisdiction for a week or so, I think; I will be heading to the polls tomorrow morning to cast my ballot. As I do.

Picture of an I Voted sticker on a dark blue shirt; partially visible name tag with initial C.

I Voted, 2015 edition

I’ve been a compulsive voter since I turned eighteen in between the Louisiana gubernatorial open primary and the run-off general election – the one that pitted the multiply-indicted (but not yet convicted) wheelin’ dealin’ slick Southern playboy Edwin “Fast Eddie” Edwards (D) against the then-unknown David Duke, Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan (R). The Louisiana Republican party distributed bumper stickers that read, “Vote for the Crook. It’s Important.”

I swear I am not making this up.

Forgive me if I have never been heavily invested in electoral politics.
When you start there, it’s really hard to get fussed up about these things.

My lack of angst should in no case be misread for a lack of attention or of interest.

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For All the Saints

Four hundred and ninety-nine years ago a German priest and scholar of theology got sufficiently riled up with the injustice he saw in the Church to write out his complaints and post them for public comment in a way that changed the course of western history.

I took a class last spring – History of the Western Christian Tradition – that was my first introduction to Martin Luther and his Ninety-Five Theses. Had heard of them, of course, but hadn’t actually read them.

Gen-Xer that I am, I couldn’t help thinking how very similar they are to a string of linked sentences on Twitter. Was the University chapel door the sixteenth-century version of social media? Perhaps so. Luther’s theses – written in Latin, of course – were soon translated into the vernacular and circulated widely, thanks to the recently-developed printing press and, as we say, one thing led to another.

It was of course more complicated than that. I wrote a short paper on it, several months ago, that I can’t figure out where I filed – so I am telling this story from memory with all the imperfection that implies. There are lots of places you can go look it up, if you are more interested in facts than stories.

There was another story circulating in the news today, about how Pope Francis had made an ecumenical visit to the Lutheran World Federation in observance of the beginning of the 500th anniversary year of the Protestant Reformation. It’s a powerful symbolic gesture; a good story. What we do with that story? It remains to be seen.

I have a soft spot in my heart for both rebels and reformers. I had a conversation the other day with a colleague whose call has led them away from the institutional process into a vibrant lay community ministry which is taking an exciting turn that’s not my story to tell. We talked about transforming the world, doing the work of ministry – and the challenges and benefits of doing that outside the institutional system versus within it.

I have written before that I am an institutionalist. I believe in creating systems that endure – and also in transforming the systems as we inherit them into systems that will adapt and endure long beyond our time. Even, perhaps, adapting by taking forms we cannot now imagine and do not recognize.

I am sure that the historical Martin Luther would raise his eyebrows, at least, at some of the things that contemporary Unitarian Universalism says and does in the name of liberal religion. There are countless generations between us, each new wave of reformers building on the foundations laid before them – and rearranging the bricks into a new structure for a new time.

We contemporary UUs disavow and discard our Christian heritage at our own peril. By neglecting reflection on the errors and excesses of our history, we risk repeating them at their worst. I think about that a lot, and about that line from Leonard Cohen:

There is a crack, a crack in everything:
That’s where the light gets in.

I want to say, don’t be afraid of breaking things. Sometimes things need to break first, so that the pieces may be used for something better. But I would be preaching to myself.

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October Rain

There is a front or something passing; I can hear the rain against the roof tonight. We need it. There was hardly any snow to speak of last winter, which has left this area in drought this water year. Tonight’s storm is unlikely to make up for it much.

But it is autumn, well past the equinox now; the leaves have again gone from deep green to golden green to orange to fluttering on the wet wind.

Winter, as they say, is coming.

I miss blogging, but I feel like I have not got anything much to say. Life continues to be life in all the usual ways. Late-season road construction has chewed up all of the ways in and out of my neighborhood, to my vast annoyance. Personal friends on Facebook have been getting a play-by-play on how to give medication to a cat. Spouse and I picked apples last weekend and there will soon be pie.

Internship is going smoothly so far. I preached there a couple of weeks ago and will do it again in December. Then there will be the January trip to Chicago – only a few days, this time – and then back here for more internship, and in the spring more CPE, and soon after that beginning in earnest the massive bundle of paperwork that will lead to the end of the credentialing tunnel. But not yet. It all seems very remote, somehow – and also inevitable, at the end of this chain of small steps.

And so I am listening to the rattle of rain against the roof, late at night, and the sounds of the other living creatures in this house, large and small, all snoring in their large and small ways.

It is good enough.

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