On a Screen, Dimly

I really wanted to get this up three weeks ago but, well, life intervened, as it does. This spring is rich and full and involves lots of deadlines and commuting and similar externalities.

Public, Private, Professional, Personal- Part Three

Previous segments: Part 1 and Part 2

Square divided into quadrants: top left (purple) Public and professional; top right (orange), Private and Professional; bottom left (green), Public and personal; bottom right (yellow), private and personal.

This model is a way to visualize the understanding that some pieces of our personal lives can be public – or, to put it another way, that some parts of our public lives can be personal. Not only is it inevitable for many of us, but it’s important. Our public personal selves add realness – even authenticity: a little bit of quirk or grit or color to an otherwise bland, tepid professional image. All work and no play, as the saying goes, makes Jack – or Jo – dull and lifeless. A touch of the personal, where the world can see it, makes our public selves human.

But that’s not all. Continue reading

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A Model for Navigating Public Presence

Public, Private, Professional, Personal- Part Two

One thing seminarians hear regularly is that a minister is, in some sense, always a minister: that there is no completely setting aside the ministerial role – except in situations where the people you’re interacting with don’t know you’re a minister. I can report there’s some truth to this: on more than one occasion I’ve said “grad school” rather than “seminary” and changed the subject to avoid having to listen to people fall all over themselves apologizing for using profanity, or not going to church anymore.

(Just so you know: That gets old, FAST. Whether or not you go to church? That’s your business. I haven’t met anyone past their first year in seminary who doesn’t cherish the opportunity to talk about anything other than church stuff. If one of your personal friends is in seminary or active ministry – and you aren’t – talk to them about the ball game.  Your favorite new TV series.  Art.  Gardening. Cat pictures. Something you saw on the internet. Whatever you would talk to your other friends about. I promise your clergy friend will be cool with that. If they aren’t into cat pictures, they will change the subject.) 

The other thing we seminarians keep hearing is that ministers need to keep good boundaries between their professional and personal lives.

“Don’t overshare.”

“Preach from your scars, not from your wounds.”

This advice is absolutely true – for the health of both the minister and the congregation – and also deeply challenging in a vocation defined less by specific tasks or context than by the simple presence and person of the minister. Our tools are our selves. When we show up, we’re on. Could be any hour of the day, any day of the year – but because we are also human, we can’t be available all of the hours of every day or all of the days of every year. And so we must draw a line somewhere, carve out a few spaces for being just us.

For my whole adult life the internet has been one of the spaces where I can relax and be human, free from job and family expectations. But I’m increasingly finding that this freedom and familiarity goes against the emerging conventional wisdom I get from my colleagues – students and otherwise – for whom the online sphere is a kind of pulpit, inherently public and therefore automatically and exclusively part of the professional realm. I suppose that’s one way to do it: arranging your life so that all things public (including your online life) are only professional, and all things personal are kept private – and offline.

But I’ve been online for as long as the internet has been available to the general public, since the early-mid 1990s. Online presence has been part of my personal life since way before my call to professional ministry – this blog is only the latest iteration of that. Having a personal life that’s entirely unplugged is not an option for me: that train left the station over twenty years ago. And I expect the same is true for many Gen Xers and Millennials, especially the younger folks for whom there has never really not been an internet.

Those of us with long digital trails can’t separate things the easy way – Professional – Public – Online on one side and Personal – Private – Offline on the other. Instead, my model looks something like this: Continue reading

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Public, Private, Professional, Personal

It’s that time of year again, and conversations in various parts of the internet have cycled back around to questions of image and identity, professional presentation and authenticity.

It’s a perennial favorite for people in public life – or those, including seminarians, who are moving into the public sphere: the fine art of navigating the tricky passage between the Pointy Rocks of Unprofessionalism and the Sucking Whirlpool of Inauthenticity. Perhaps I’m being a little flippant; on the one level it seems absurd that something as superficial as presentation should even matter, and on the other it does matter so very much.

It is a source of no small anxiety. What does it mean to show up as your authentic self? To show up as a professional? As a minister? How, as the song goes, do you know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em?

One of the places we get tangled up is around boundaries: the boundary between the personal and the professional, the boundary between the public and the private. Which is which? How do you know where to draw those lines? Historically there’s a strong tendency to conflate the public with the professional and the private with the personal. It seems important to me to tease these ideas apart because the conflation is no longer useful in the age of social media and instant connectivity.

I don’t feel like I have solid answers but I’ve been teasing and tumbling the questions around for awhile now, and it’s time to turn out some of the work in progress.

Continue reading

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Putting the Pieces Together

Two colorful greeting cards with abstract designs assembled from angular scraps of paper. One is a blue and green chalice with an orange and yellow flame. The other card is a rainbow.

It has been a full month since I updated here.  

The image above is of a couple of paper-collage greeting cards I made while I was away at school.  (One of the hazards of being “out” as an artist is that I can’t easily get away with sending generic cards from the drugstore.)  

Between the creative craft projects and the intentional practice at healthy human interactions, I sometimes think seminary is a lot like kindergarten – although I do appreciate that I get to use the sharp scissors these days, and as far as I can tell nobody ate my glue.

This has probably been my last long trip to Chicago. I am not done yet – I will not graduate for at least two more years. But I have completed the majority of my academic classes and the rest of my trips will be much shorter.

I feel like I have only just started to learn how to do this thing, this packing my life into hardside suitcases and schlepping it halfway across the continent for full immersion into the thick intensity of formational community, only to have that suddenly now be a thing that is over and I must move on to the next thing I don’t quite know how to do.

I am very much in discernment and contemplation right now, or I need to be – as much as I can, tucked into the crevices between all the things I postponed so that I could spend a month away from home. The suitcases are still in the living room and I just did the laundry yesterday. Reentry is still hard after all this time. And the spring term officially started two days ago so there has been no real opportunity for rest and closure.

But all that is to say that while I have been not-writing on the blog, I have been no less occupied with other things, tumbling around some stories that are not mine to tell, and other stories that are mine but not yet ready for telling. Hard things, heart things. The places where our human masks become thin and – if we look closely – the glow of the holy shines through.

I have seen holy things, these last few weeks.

And I have also been worn thin in places, and generally feel empty and cross and stretched and in need of renewal, and I have a couple of weeks to get some of that figured out before I step into the next piece: spring extended CPE placement. About which I have no small anxiety, given the experience I had during my unsuccessful attempt two summers ago.

Have I grown? Maybe. I hope so. I would like to make better mistakes this time. I fear that I haven’t grown enough yet, maybe, or that this new growth is still too fragile. CPE is supposed to be challenging, but it isn’t supposed to be traumatic and destructive. I am hoping that this time around the experience will prove to be more of a greenhouse than a wood chipper.

Between that and the history class I’m taking this term, I think the first half of 2016 is going to be really light on blogging. I miss doing this regularly, and I need to figure out how to integrate it into my work in the long term.  But that will not happen tonight.


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Drive by posting: Chicago bound

Handwritten in silver on brown paper: "Doing all the Things. How do I get there from here? Remember to breathe."

doing all the things
how do I get there from here?
remember to breathe

I found it when I was rummaging around in a pile of unsorted stuff, looking for things I wanted to pack, and posted the picture to Facebook. One of my friends described it as a love note from my past self. It’s my handwriting, but I don’t remember writing it.

The last few days have been chaotic and in the morning I leave for Chicago again, for January classes. I’m torn between wanting to see people I haven’t seen since July or longer, and knowing that many of the people I would dearly like to be with will not be there, for whatever reasons. It’s how low-residency works: we are never all in the same place at the same time.

So I offer you the above scrap of minor wisdom, from someone I used to be, while I am scurrying around packing last-minute things and fretting about money and time and wanting to be in two or more places at once.

How do I get there from here? Remember to breathe.


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Year in Review: 2015

I wasn’t entirely sure that I was going to write a 2015 year-in-review post, but now it comes down to the end of the line and here we are and it’s time for some reflection, maybe. Maybe not a full play-by-play this year. This year things have moved slowly, dancing to their own rhythm.

Winter did finally show up, after all. Two days ago. I was out in the yard barefoot on Christmas Day, and by Tuesday the high temperature had dropped 40 degrees and we got our first real accumulating snow storm of the season. For all I complain about shoving snow around, the early winter nights sure are dark without it.

And perhaps I won’t get bored looking at it as quickly as I did last year. I’m wondering whether I’m going to need to spray paint the front yard again like I did back in February. It did seem like a good idea at the time.

It was a year of shifting expectations. Major changes in the ministerial credentialing process at the UUA level shook things up in the spring and early summer. I guess uncertainty is the new normal – we are in the grinding gritty edge of things where old expectations and new realities do not mesh up exactly, and it seems sometimes that we are all making it up as we go along while trying to preserve the superficial appearance that everything is perfect, polished and under control.

Forgive me, imperfect world. I don’t have a whole lot of use for that foolishness. If things are uncertain then let us be honest about our uncertainty. If things are imperfect or incomplete then let us be honest about the imperfections, the limitations, the opportunities we might grow into. So often we are shamed into concealing or denying those places from which we might grow – the places where we are not yet all that we might become – and it feels cramped and tight and broken. But the first piece, always, is to take an honest inventory and say to ourselves and to one another, “Yup. This is what I’ve got. It is imperfect, and it is real.”

This is not – however – to say that we ought to stop there. The rush to closure and completeness has another shadow, the shadow that says “This is all I have and all I’ll ever be – no need for changing or growing or transformation, nope. All set.”

I remember just enough of the Latin I took in school to be dangerous, but one of the pieces that stuck was that there were two ways of expressing the past: the imperfect, and the perfect. The perfect form was for expressing events that were complete, that happened once: I ran to the store Tuesday. The imperfect form was for expressing events that were ongoing, or habitual: I used to run to the store every Tuesday. This distinction persists more strongly today in languages like Spanish and French – the grammatical structure of English has Germanic origins rather than Latin ones – but the idea is still under there.

In this way the word “perfect” has two sets of ideas within it, one overlaying the other: flawlessness, and beneath that, completeness. But in this world, this real ongoing world in which we are ever and always in the middle of things – is anything ever complete? I think not – it cannot be, everything has limits – and so, because we are finite and mortal and bounded, we are inherently imperfect and so are all things in this world. I am, and you are, and every human is, and every human system is, imperfect and incomplete, with fuzzy boundaries and uncertain outcomes.

I have spent 2015 getting to the edge of being comfortable with that.

Not, of course, perfectly comfortable. But comfortable enough with the discomfort of limitation and unknowing that most of the time now I can shrug and say, “I will do what I can with what I have from where I am, and leave the rest undone.” This is, maybe, what sanity looks like.

But like anyone newly converted I find myself wanting to spread the gospel of shameless imperfection, and being vexed and frustrated by others’ persistence in (and insistence on) old ways of thinking and being. I do chafe at the presumption that there is exactly one right way to do it, this being human, and that this way or that way is the best answer for everyone and we ought to all be judged accordingly, and ranked according to our approximation of an unachievable ideal. Or, realizing the ideal is unachievable, insisting that our current situation is as close as anyone ever ought to get.

Yeah nope. That’s not how it really works; if our systems are structured to force us into conformity or to freeze us in complacency, then that is an incompleteness in our systems which does not allow for the beautiful complex unfolding imperfection of the world. We are always already good enough; we can always already do better.

“There is a crack,” writes songwriter Leonard Cohen, “a crack in everything: that’s how the light gets in.”

Happy New Year. See y’all on the flip side.


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Wet Christmas

And then, when it seemed darkest, the SUN did rise after all,
and she knew that SPRING would come again.

The funny thing about the winter solstice is that it doesn’t all happen at once. I mean, yes, there is one day marked on the calendar, officially – either the shortest day or the longest night – but the earliest sunset, at least in my location, is usually a few days before then, and it will take a week or more for the sunrise to start creeping backward into the morning. For now, the sunrise is “stuck” as late as it comes, about 7:15 in the morning, and sunset is just past 4 pm.

When there’s any sun at all.

It’s been wet, this December. Wet and raw and unpleasantly cold, without being cold enough for all this water to come down as snow, and while I like to crack wise about not having to shovel rain, all the mud and battered brownish grass is depressing. And it is dark, so dark at night, without snow cover to reflect whatever light there is.

If the long range forecast holds true, we might, might get some snow next Tuesday. I am not holding my breath. It’s not forecast to slip below freezing again until Sunday night.

I write a lot about the local weather, but this December has been unseasonably warm. I like to joke that we used up our entire 2015 allotment of snow back in February, but the combination of off-year weather patterns and a degree or two of global warming has shifted the view outside my window from a classic Christmas postcard to a sorry, sodden mess.

At least we don’t have to shovel it.

I am likely to be scarce from blogging through the end of the year. Classwork and church work have absorbed most of my writing and reflection time – the piece I’m preaching Sunday is turning out more like a blog post than a sermon, but I have to preach something and so I will take what the Spirit sends me and let it be good enough. Maybe it will show up here later. Or maybe it will get repurposed into something for class in January. It is hard to believe that I need to leave for Chicago again in just two weeks.

The image below is from a few years back, but I’ve added the text that I used on a couple of solstice cards this winter:

Black foreground with tree silhouette, golden sky with purple clouds. Tiny sliver of sun peeking over horizon. Text in high contrast letters "And then, when it seemed darkest, the sun did rise after all, and she knew that spring would come again."

A blessed Solstice, a Merry Christmas, and if I’m not back to the blog before then, a happy and prosperous New Year to all.

May it be so.

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