Liminality

Or: How many boxes do we need?

(For UCL Newsletter, August 2017)

            I am looking at a stack of boxes.  Boxes that I have assembled, but not yet filled with our kitchen.  In anthropology a liminal time is a time in which the subject is not what they were, and not yet what they will be.  I am writing this column in a liminal moment:  I finished my position at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock at the end of June, and begin at the Unitarian Church of Lincoln on August 1.  There has been a lot of transition in the month of July, and I’ve been reflecting on the successes and challenges of ministry on Long Island, and looking forward to the possibilities in Lincoln.

            Life for Stacie and I right now involves a lot of cardboard boxes.  By the time you are reading this we will have packed up the apartment, driven a moving van to Nebraska, closed on a house, unpacked, and I hope started to settle in to Lincoln.  For now though, there are empty boxes waiting to hold blenders and slow cookers.

            Summers are so often liminal- we might be starting at a new school in the fall, contemplating retirement, or just taking a few days off to relax before the start of the coming year.  My hope for you –and for myself- that we can take a breath in the midst of the inbetween times in our lives, and appreciate all the possibility they bring.  I’ll see you in a few weeks, 

Oscar

Leave-Taking

This is the last week of April.  In eight weeks, my two years at UUCSR will be coming to a close, and I'm sitting here looking at a color coded timeline on my whiteboard of all that needs to be done in order to go through this transition thoughtfully and respectfully.  There's a lot to do.

It is sad, in a way, to leave.  I've grown to love Shelter Rock and the congregation here on Long Island, but my time here was always temporary.  I've learned more from this place than I thought possible when I started, and am starting the next chapter of Stacie and my life more prepared and confident for it.

It is expected practice to cut ties cleanly as you leave a congregation.  In a few months there will be someone else in this office, staring at this whiteboard, and they will have their own relationship with the congregation, separate from mine.

In the meantime, there's much to be done.  Time to get back to work.

The Times They Are A Changin'

This is a season of renewal.  With spring comes Passover and Easter: holidays that celebrate, in different ways, the ending of one kind of life and the beginning of another.  Renewal has been near to my heart over the last few weeks, both for myself and our denomination.

As I referenced in my last column, on March 24 I had my final interview for ministerial fellowship in the Unitarian Universalist Association.  I was granted a ‘Category 1,’ qualifying me for Unitarian Universalist Ministry with no contingencies.  This marked the culmination- and in some ways the end- of a process that I started over six years ago.  I will be at UUCSR with you through June 30, and in the meantime have started the search process for a congregation to serve as called or interim minister.

In a strange coincidence, from my point of view, the month that I entered preliminary fellowship with the UUA has also been a month that the UUA has undergone significant transition.  On March 30, Rev. Peter Morales resigned as President of the Unitarian Universalist Association.  The Association’s board has appointed a three member leadership team of Bill Sinkford, Sophia Betancourt, and Leon Spencer to serve as co-presidents until our previously scheduled election in June. 

There is change and renewal in the air this month, but like all change it comes with anxiety.  I don’t know yet where I’ll be in six months, and the same might be said the the UUA, or any of our institutions.  Anxiety is a healthy part of transitions and new beginnings, and I hope that whether in our lives or in our faith we can give ourselves and each other grace to be present in whatever we are feeling.

The holidays of this season are about new beginnings, new lives in new places, new ways to live.   Yet those beginnings are not easy:  for new life on Easter Sunday there is the grief of Good Friday; joy at escaping Egypt was tempered by fear at the banks of the Red Sea.  In the end though, those stories turn out well.  May it be so for all of us, and may we move through these uncertain times to renew ourselves, our faith, and our institutions.

On Titles

When I published this website, the tagline read 'Candidate for Unitarian Universalist Ministry.'  It no longer does.

Last Friday, I was granted Preliminary Fellowship by the Ministerial Fellowship Committee of the Unitarian Universalist Association (MFC & UUA, respectively).  This means that institutional Unitarian Universalism recognizes me as a minister.  In their words:

...the term "Minister" applies to those persons whose work is theologically grounded, whose work expresses Unitarian Universalist values and principles, whose self and contextual understanding are as a professional religious leader, and who has been granted fellowship by the MFC.

In our tradition this is separate from the act of Ordination, which will happen sometime in the next few months.  Because I am not yet ordained, I do not claim the 'Rev.' title or wear a stole in worship.

Preliminary Fellowship is a three year process of further professional development and learning, culminating in the MFC granting a minister Final Fellowship.  There are few visible differences in our day to day professional lives (ministers in Final Fellowship can supervise interns, for instance).

Receiving Preliminary Fellowship was, for me, the culmination of a six year process of discernment, graduate education, chaplaincy, parish internship, and 180 pages of written material submitted to the UUA.  It is a very, very exciting step in the life of a minister.   

We Are Made For These Times

My engagement with Unitarian Universalism began in a time of upheaval.  Fifteen years ago (I can't believe it's been that long), two things happened around the same time:  My family started attending a Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Upstate New York, and September 11 fundamentally changed the course of American civil life.

Those two events are tied for me because I learned what it meant for faith to be counter-cultural.  Members of that congregation spoke out against the Patriot act, as it was passing the Senate 98-1.  Congregants spoke out against indefinite detentions and extraordinary rendition even as we were told that these were necessary actions to keep us 'safe.'  I learned to protest in the runup to the invasion of Iraq, and how to deal respectfully but firmly with counter-protesters.  Members of that congregation were removed from then Senator Clinton's office for protesting the war.

I'm working on my first post-election sermon, and this is what is on my mind:  we as a faith have been here before.  Some of our finest moments, from John Sigismund's early attempts at pluralism, to Holms' and Skinner's pacifism during the world wars, to Beacon Press publishing the Pentagon Papers, have come in times of upheaval when it felt like the values of pluralism and universal love that are so central to our faith were under siege.  We've been here before, and that experience gives me hope for what comes next.

We are made for these times.

Except for All the Others

UUCSR Newsletter Article, June 2016

Several years ago I was serving as the co-chair of a congregational vision and strategic planning process in Baltimore.  As we left our fifth or sixth meeting of a single week, without any progress or end in sight, the other chair (the Vice President of the congregation), leaned over to me and whispered: “I think I understand now how dictatorships get started.”

One of the principles of Unitarian Universalism is a commitment to the democratic process, “within our congregations and the society at large.”  June is the season of congregational meetings, and between congregational democracy and a fraught election year in the society at large the commitment to the democratic process can feel strained, at times.

Our movement’s commitment to the democratic process far predates the publication of the 7 Principles in 1985.  Unitarian and Universalist theology evolved in parallel with American democracy.  Universalist optimism about human nature and the Unitarian emphasis on rational inquiry and debate are intertwined with early American ideas about developing a republic as a form of government new in the world.  And just as our society at large has struggled to expand who is allowed to participate in the democratic process, Unitarian Universalism has continually asked and questioned how wide the circle can be drawn, how we can invite all people into the process.

It is easy to get caught up in the view of democracy as a kind of national civic sport, with daily updates on candidates and the horserace for the White House.  I am certainly guilty of looking up the latest poll numbers in swing states just before I check how the Orioles are doing in the AL East (very well this year).  But democracy is more than what we see on CNN.

We are committed to the democratic process because we value that a group of individuals, with their own motivations and a commitment to the collective good, can come together and make decisions; that there is more wisdom in all of us than in any one of us.  Town boards, zoning hearings, congregational meetings: far from being secondary to the democratic process we see in the news, these are the places where the democratic process is most vibrant and visible.

Maybe Winston Churchill was right when he wrote that “democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried,” but to me it is a beautiful process.  Even in the fifth committee meeting in a week, there is something wonderful about the optimism and trust it calls us to have in each other.  May that call continue.

What's in a name?

Epictetus_Enchiridion_1683_page1.jpg

When I was in high school, I read a lot of science fiction, and read Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game a dozen times.  Setting aside that Card and I probably disagree on most things these days, I loved that his characters took on alter-egos for online discussion.  Locke, Demosthenes, names that implied a specific philosophical viewpoint.  When I ventured online in the early 2000s, it was under the moniker 'Epictetus,' a Greek Stoic who I loved.

Epictetus is still on my shelf.  His best known work is the 'handbook,' a text of practical advice on how to live in the world, rather than the abstract philosophy so many stoics fell into.  Handbook, in Greek, is Enchiridion.