Why Church?

IMG_1277Why church?

I’ve asked myself that for much of the last year. Personally and professionally, change abounds. I’ve expanded my work from home and married the man I love. It’s been a good but busy time, with plenty for my hands and heart to do. For the past six months, I’ve found myself often at home with family, attention focused tightly at a time where that seems the most appropriate action.

Church has changed, too. The UU community I’ve called home for the past seven years has also gone through wrenching changes, with a loss of our minister last summer and a moderate loss of congregation in the process. Initially, part of church leadership, I sat through meetings and contributed to email discussions, watching conflict and division grow and wondering just what was right. Gradually, I pulled back, first leaving my committee chair position and then attending services only sporadically. During winter and spring, I dropped my son for his OWL classes (Our Whole Lives — a human sexuality series offered in Unitarian Universalist and United Church of Christ churches) and spent services in the church gathering area, where I could tune in and out as desired. This summer, I’ve attended rarely, excusing my absences to travel and family consolidation time.

I’ve started to more deeply consider the question underneath my avoidance. Why church? Why should I get up each Sunday morning, the one day no one needs to otherwise dress and leave the house, and go to church? Why not stay home with my coffee, New York Times, NPR, and pajama-clad loved ones? Why drive twenty minutes to sit for sixty, sip coffee for fifteen, and drive another twenty home? Why do I go?

Seven years back, I had reasons, the first being a hole I couldn’t fill at home.  A life-long member of some Christian denomination or another, I was, seven years back, rather new to saying aloud that I didn’t see any evidence of a god. A reluctant agnostic, mostly closeted because I wasn’t sure I wanted to leave the safety of a personal god, I was feeling loss. Holidays deepened the sense of loss, with Lent and Advent leaving me unmoored. Finding a congregation that was fine with my increasingly faithless status and offered a touch of ceremony to the big liturgical holidays relieved a bit of the chasm that came with jumping theistic ship. At least I was somewhere doing something vaguely familiar.

I came to that UU congregation with several searching friends. In my socially slow-moving, introverted style, I gradually found new friends and acquaintances.  I’d spent the previous decade and a half moving from parish to parish, never feeling settled. At one, I’d come to know a few families well enough to make coffee hour more than a dash for a donut for each kid, but I never found friends. I certainly didn’t experience the supportive relationships my parents had known and continue to know in their places of worship. At this church, I’ve had true friends, the sort where coffee hour can’t contain the conversations. The sort  that spread to the other six days of the week.

And the sort of friends that can sop up some of the sorrow of a slowly imploding marriage and soften a bit of the disaster of divorce. New friends and old held me when I cried. Sunday mornings because a refuge, a time and place I could let down and feel, for just a bit, cocooned from a reality I couldn’t believe was mine. I don’t believe in fate or a god that directs our lives, but I do believe in the power of two or more people gathered in love and in the balm of friendship. I imagine I’d have found a way through those terrible years without that place and those people, but I’m not sure I’d have made it through with much of my sense of self and dignity intact.

Of course there were the kids. Boys, young boys then, not the type to share their grief and confusion over bagels and fair trade coffee but old enough to feel a sense of community. I considered Sunday morning church and religious education to be a social as well as learning opportunity for my introverted boys. Over the years, I came to deeply appreciate the UU approach to children’s religious education. It’s respectful and thoughtful, and my children blossomed in that environment. Questioning was welcomed, the quiet, thoughtful sort as well as the more outspoken and even challenging type. My boys have done well there, learning lessons about respect, dignity, worth, and love, lessons that came through the members who taught them regardless of what the curriculum of the day was. As they’ve matured, they’ve taken on responsibilities that serve the congregation, learning that belonging to community means participating in the work of the community.

That’s good stuff. But, still, I’m asking the question.

Why church now?

I’ve settled comfortably and confidently into my agnostic, humanist view of the world. Holidays no longer echo emptily. We’ve largely left Easter behind, and Christmas has become a time for family. I don’t wake up the first Sunday of Advent longing for “Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel,” and I often find Fat Tuesday takes me by surprise and leaves with no pierogi or other indulgence, let alone a vice to give up. I don’t go to church to fill that hole. It’s filled itself with time.

My life’s settled down (for now) and with that calm, my need for sanctuary seems less urgent. I’ve found more peace within myself, although that’s still a peace that takes work, as I’m prone to angst and anxiety. Over the years, I’ve found more of that peace at home, in no small part because I’m sharing that home with a supportive and loving partner. I have friends, some from church, some from other communities, friends I mostly keep up with outside of the confines of Sunday mornings. And my boys? As the church has aged and the number of families with children has dropped, even with jobs they enjoy and adults who care for them, church isn’t offering them the companionship it once did.

Why church?

I’ve let that question flit in and out of my mind for a year. I’ve pondered it more seriously for the last several months. And for nearly a week, I’ve written and rewritten this piece, hoping to sort through that question a bit more. A sermon a week back, given by a long-time member who’s seen the place through many ministers and countless changes, provided me with a longer view. After a lifetime of mostly Catholic church experience, I’m new to the leadership and political engagement that many other churches require. I’d never watched a congregation grumble and feud. I’d never seen a member cry because of changes in ministry. I’d never sat at the meeting table, seeing how painful and divisive disagreement can be. Frankly, I’ve wanted to flee, missing my ignorance about the hard work it takes to build a church. I’ve wanted to return to the outside, where lack of engagement in process allowed me to keep my rose-colored glasses on or simply leave when things didn’t feel good anymore.

But this longer view makes me think yet again about my question: Why church?

  • Church, because it is a place where others who value religious freedom gather.
  • Church, because values of inclusion, equality, and justice always need a voice.
  • Church, because supportive community is built over time, not just used when in need.
  • Church, because working through pain, anger, and disappointment in community deepens understanding.
  • Church, because children thrive in an environment of thinking, caring adults who see them as competent and valuable.
  • Church, because stumbling and falling aren’t ends if we help each other off, address our hurts, and work together to heal.
  • Church, because it reminds us that community is larger than any one person, idea, or belief.

So I’m finding my way back to church. I can’t say my energy or enthusiasm is high, but seeing the place from a longer view nudges me to have more patience with the time we’re in. So I’ll show up on most Sunday mornings. I’ll ease into participation beyond that, parking my cloak of disappointment and reluctance on the hangers in the hall. I’ll have the hard conversations, listening to others and mulling over ideas. I’ll also look to the past, learning about what it takes to make a community last over a century and a half and perhaps helping to build that community’s future.

Advertisements

He’s the One Percent

My ten-year old has Aspergers.  He’s proud of his place on the autism spectrum, referring happily to himself as an Aspie and chiding me for my neurotypical status. The way he sees it, he has a spot in a special minority. He will proudly remind me that as a person on the autistic spectrum, he is one in 110.  He is the one percent, he boasts.

But don’t call his Aspergers a disorder (as in “Autism Spectrum Disorder”). From his point of view, he’s hardly disordered.  His order is just fine, thank you very much.  Is it an autistic brain order?  Certainly.  But disorder?  Nope. While he’s not been exposed to the idea that autism is something to be “fixed,” I can imagine he’d quickly point out that he isn’t broken.

I agree. His Aspergers is as much a part of him as his blue-grey eyes. In the past year and a half, I have learned plenty from the autistic community, a diverse group of people who fall all over the spectrum.  I have fumbled my way through conversations about love, self-advocacy, and emotion, stumbling and standing corrected on many occasions.  For several months, I left the autism conversations to others, wary of misstepping in my efforts to understand autism in general and my son in particular.  A month back, I re-entered the conversation on Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism, responding to two editorials in the New York Times that called into question the reality of Aspergers.

Have no doubt.  Aspergers is real. While it may be losing its place on in the DSM 5 as a new definition of autism emerges, incorporating (hopefully) those with Aspergers and the mysterious PDD-NOS, it is no less a real entity. Not so sure?  Live with us for a day.

Aspergers, whether with that name or not, is disabling.  Certainly it is more disabling to some than others, but, by definition, it “causes clinically significant impairments in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.”  We don’t talk about that at home, not because it isn’t real to me but because, at this point, it isn’t real to him.  Homeschooling has left us without a need for the accommodations he might require in a classroom. He simply doesn’t feel disabled.

So something must be going right. Truth is that he struggles plenty. Social life challenges him mightily, and while he’s gradually adding to his body of knowledge about the rules of relationships, the older he gets, the more tricky that game is. As I watch his brother navigate a kind, accepting crowd of teens, I’m often reminded that even for the most socially aware and conscientious, the teenage years are far harder than these relatively blissful pre-hormonal ones.

Make no mistake. I don’t care much for blending in with the crowd. I’d just like him to have some sure-shelter friends who will stand by him as he moves into those difficult years. He does have friends now: a few kind, tolerant souls who accept him for who he is. A subset of these stand up to him when he digs his heels in, and I love them for it. It’s connections with humans that I want for him. I don’t want him to be lonely.

I can’t say that any of his friends are aware of his diagnosis, although if he’s shared it with them or their parents have shared it with them, that’s fine by both of us. He recently outed his Aspergers in an online class, and the responses were polite and positive. I can’t think of a better outcome. No one fussed over it, and at least one child researched Aspergers and decided that he himself did not fit the criteria. While letting that detail out in class, he yet to write more about his Aspergers, preferring to blog about cats and history, with a brief foray of late into poetry (Bertram’s Blog). I’ve asked him if he’d want to share about that part of his life, wondering aloud if his positive view of autism might educate others. He’s still thinking that over.

It may be hard for him to write about it, as hard as it would be for me to write about being neurotypical. After all, he’s experienced no discrimination and feels empowered by his Asperger’s. The diagnosis was a relief, since it explained the difference he’d felt for so long. While the anxiety that accompanies his Asperger’s troubles him, the actual Asperger’s does not, at least to his way of seeing it. There simply seems to be nothing to say.

Whether he decides to turn his writing in that direction or not, I hope he retains his satisfaction with Aspergers. I am sure he’ll face challenges related to it over the years. Every day he struggles with transitions, sensory issues, paralanguage, and social norms, all related to his Aspergers. For now, however, he only sees the positive parts of being in the one percent. May the world of his future see him the same way.

One Rule to Bind Us

Poster available through Scarboro Missions.

I can’t recall when I first learned the Golden Rule, but I’m sure I’d heard it plenty by kindergarten.  I didn’t know it had a biblical basis until a bit later, and I was well into adulthood before I realized Christians hadn’t cornered the market with their primary rule of engagement:  “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Matthew 7:1).

It’s a fine rule, from preschool through old age.  It works in a variety of circumstances including, but not limited to, the sandbox, the schoolhouse, the home, the church, the workplace, Congress, and social media.  Its versatility is complemented by its clarity: if you like being treated with respect and kindness, treat others that way.  No caveats, no disclaimers.  The Golden Rule is elegant in its simplicity. Continue reading

Transition Lenses

Truth be told, I don’t transition easily.  That’s no shock to my friends and likely explains a bit for my acquaintances and meeting cohorts, but somehow, my reaction to shifts in routine, location, or even the weather still catches me by surprise.

This time, I’m just a few hours back from a fine three days away with my One Good Friend (main squeeze, significant other, whatever).  Three days of hiking through the woods and fields of the middle of southern Michigan, canoeing on the Kalamazoo river, eating meals neither of us had cook, and enjoying general companionship with one of my favorite adults.  While the trip relaxed and renewed me, by the last day, I was itching to write.  While we delightfully drew out the last day, taking the long way home to hike Hidden Lake Gardens and stalled the journey’s end with a meal just minutes from home, I was eagerly anticipating an evening alone at home before my boys return tomorrow morning.  I had it all planned out.  I’d unpack enough to throw a deserving load of laundry in, read through the mail, check for phone messages, and settle into write.  An impromptu trip to a small publishing company in Marshall reignited my book-writing fire, and sleep had challenged me the previous two nights as I tried to recall my outline for my book, a list written last summer and revisited since only by accident when shuffling through my files.  With a few chores out of the way and a full stomach, what barriers between me and writing could arise?

Me.  That’s the barrier.  Not the house.  Not the return to responsibility.  Not the shift from half of a duo to all of a solo.  Just my general difficulty moving from one mindset to another.  New shoes?  I need several days or more to adjust.  Expecting oatmeal for breakfast and find the canister empty?  Briefly consider a run to the store, ruminate about toast, and eventually make do.  My ex-husband has to swap a planned night with the kids for another night?    Silence.  Long silence.  Perhaps a verbal pause or so, all the while mind whirling and readjusting expectations, with (generally) calm acquiescence.   While I handle transitions far better now than even ten years back, I still find they leave me stunned, either speechless or overflowing with (generally the wrong words).

A few years back, my older son, tired of bright sun in his eyes during soccer games, tried those lenses that transition from sunglass-like in the daylight to almost clear glass inside.  Data indicated that they’d shift in a minute, making for visual comfort in no time at all, no matter what the lighting.  My son was excited, at least initially.  It turns out a minute is a long time when you walk into a dimly lit house after being out in the sun.  It turns out to be too long, at least for my then 11-year old son, who ditched the transitioning lenses for good-old clear polycarbonate at his next annual exam.  Seems the transition time just didn’t work for him.

My brain often feels like those glasses when a sudden change occurs.  I knew that the move from vacation to home would be rough.  I knew I’d likely feel at loose ends and a bit lonely after several days of companionship.  I planned accordingly, parsing out chores and writing, planning for a glass of wine at 7 or so, with a snack at 9.  Surely, with all that planning, the transition would be barely noticeable.

Upon arriving home, I stalled my reentry a bit longer, chatting with a neighbor for a while before even opening my front door.  Once she returned to her gardening, I unpacked the car, cleaning up a bit as I went.  Since that process was surprisingly swift without two boys to prod along, I quickly moved to laundry and guinea pig care before settling down to write.

But my mind went silent, dark as could be.  The stillness I’d sought quickly became unbearable.  Unwilling or unable to let my emotions and thoughts adjust, I read email, surfed Facebook, checked my voicemail, and generally fidgeted in body and mind, fighting the angst.  No luck.  My tension continued to mount, and I continued to fight.  I was furious and took myself to task.  I’d been eagerly anticipating this time without child or One Good Friend to start work on a writing project (at best) or to blog (not a bad choice either).  I’d spent two days with my mind flooding with ideas and energy, and here was my chance.  And I was blowing it.

But I was sad and lost.   A bit lonely, even. And simply out of sorts, dark lenses in a dark house.

When I could acknowledge that pain, the tears came.  Not the long, jagged tears soul-wrenching events evoke, but just some sad tears to honor change.  I also messaged a few friends, sharing a bit of my sorrow and quickly moving on to other subjects.  Before long, the lenses had cleared, just a hint of tint from my trip remaining, enough to remind me and bring a smile.

Like my younger son (although to a lesser degree), change challenges me, stalls me out or induces stonewalling and anger.  Sometimes, that emotion flies out.  Often it turns in, tying me up in knots until I face it and allow it simply to be.  Disapproving of my feelings during my transition today didn’t alter the feeling.  Acknowledging it, sharing it, and letting it pass on its own did.   I’m not ever likely to be free-wheeling and easygoing with transitions, and that’s okay.  Just honoring that part of me makes all the difference and makes that transition time less distressing.

 

 

 

 

Planning for the transition didn’t ease the transition at all

 

One Match, One Good Friend

This weekend, I tossed at least 11 documented toxins into the atmosphere.  Two, toluene and benzene, are known carcinogens.  I sent a few pounds of petroleum product into flames, and  not for heat, light, transportation, or toward any other material end.  My reasons were purely selfish and wholly healing.  Well, at least it was another step on the healing path.

Nearly sixteen years ago, I lit that thick pillar of white paraffin in a church from the flame of a candle my mother lit just minutes earlier.  My soon-to-be husband lit the same pillar with me, from the light his mother set into being.  We made our vows to each other, kissed, signed on the designated lines, and started the journey of our marriage.  We intended to light the wedding candle on our anniversary each year, but I don’t recall if that ever happened.  By default of being the only white candle in the house, it served as our Christmas candle for many years, our light in the middle of our advent wreath, lit at Christmas dinner to celebrate the birth of Jesus.  We must have burned it a few other times, given the inch or so depth to the wick from the candle rim, but it remained largely intact. 

Since our divorce last winter, I felt somewhat taunted by that candle, that symbol of unity and covenant.  I’d long removed my ring, tucking it away somewhere hidden from my daily routine.  Wedding pictures came down when an addition went up some five years ago, and they never found their way back to the walls.   And while the house is filled with reminders from the intervening years, it was that candle that bothered me.  It just stood for too much to throw away or send to the local Salvation Army Thrift Shop.  I could have turned it over to my ex-husband, but I was fairly certain it would find its way to a landfill, and that’s as close to immortality that an object can get.

So I took a thoroughly modern and rather practical path to a solution.  I posted my quandary on Facebook.  The replies flew in.  I was advised to continue to use it as any other candle, melt it down and make new candles, chop it into a million pieces, turn it into a fire starter, keep it for my kids, and (one of my favorites) burn it upside down.  I offered it to a friend who replied that she’d never had a wedding candle, but her husband vetoed that idea, either not caring for the karma from a possibly defective religious symbol of unity and love or just understanding my need to rid myself of the thing in a more ritualistic manner.  One friend’s suggestion won out:  one bottle of wine, one match, and one close friend. 

So this weekend, on my first trip away from my children in 10 years, I did just that.  In the hills of southeastern Michigan,  after a fine dinner including a glass of wine, a dear friend silently took one match and lit an old copy of the New York Times and a bit of kindling in our fire ring.  Propping the eight inch pillar on a log that topped the kindling, he set the paper to flame.  As paper then kindling caught, flames reached the candle, which soon slipped from its perch, tumbling into the fire.  As it blackened, deformed, and shrunk, I squatted just outside the fire ring and wept. 

Once most of the burning was done, I moved up to a bench, dried my eyes, and thanked my match-bearing companion.  To be with someone cleansing their heart of pain is an act of bravery and compassion.  The remaining evening and following day held more silence than usually occurs in my presence.  A melancholy fell upon me, and while the candle burning wasn’t in the front of my thoughts, the dissolution of my marriage was.  I wonder if some point, I’ll be able to look back without a lump in my throat, not at missing my ex-husband and the rather awful marriage we had our last few years and not yearning for the better although quite human marriage we had for years earlier.  Those feelings are long past.   Now, my tears arise at concern over the wounds to my children’s hearts,  my sorrow about the frailty of human relationships, and my resistance to change.   And the tears pass.   I know  my children are better off living without boiling anger in their midst.  I’ve learned much about honoring that frailty, and I better understand that strength in a relationship takes two committed to bending, listening, and opening to change.  And I’ve learned to welcome change, although it’s  sometimes painful, since it opens doors to love, new life, and growth.

One match, one good friend, one candle burned, energy and matter returned to the universe.  And life moves on.

A special thanks to D., my one good match-lighting friend.

Sharing Friendship, Sharing Religion

The piece  “The ‘it’ Church”  in the Spring 2010 UU World  led me to think about a dear friend and neighbor.  The article, by Peter Morales,  UUA president, focuses on the role of having ‘religion’ in a church versus the not having it, his description of friendship brought my thoughts away from my church and closer to home to my neighbor and friend.

I’m blessed with a number of friends I can call on when in tears of sorrow or joy.  Without these people, I’m not sure how I’d have weathered a failing marriage and subsequent divorce.  Most of those friends developed from my La Leche League leadership, church, and homeschooling.  With most, I share similar political and religious values.  Our lawn signs (Democrats)and radio station (NPR) are the same.  We can discuss politics, social issues, and spiritual issues without contention (not too much, anyway).

And then there’s my dear neighbor friend.  We share quite a bit in common.  We  homeschool our kids, and our children are friends.  We borrow needed ingredients from each other, care for each other’s pets and flowers when the other leaves town, and watch each other’s children on occasion. We count on each other as an ear for concerns and joys.  I can cry in her presence without shame and with assurance of support.  However, our politics and religious affiliation differ greatly.  Once, when borrowing a conservative Catholic publication from her to read an article on breastfeeding, her husband declared the magazine might burst into flames upon reaching my property.  I laughed, and the article survived the trip to our liberal, Unitarian Universalist home without so much as a scorch mark.  He and I exchange similar friendly barbs, often about media choices and the like.

But his wife and I don’t go there.  Not, I believe, because of fear of conflict.   As many of my friends can attest, I’m often a fan of informal debate.  While I can’t speak for her, I know I avoid those topics because they don’t enhance our friendship or our understanding of each other.  Beyond the names of our respective religious affiliations, beneath the different politics, we share the same religion, at least according the Peter Morales’ description.

Religion, our religion, is what we truly care about, what we want to preserve, embrace, and create.    . . . when we ask one another what we truly love, what we truly value, what we care about more than anything else in life, something amazing happens. We don’t argue. We listen. We connect. We discover that we love and want the same things. We care about one another.  We want honesty, depth, and intimacy in our relationships.  We want enduring friendships. We also discover that we realize that we are all in this life together. We want to help heal the world. We want compassion, understanding, and justice to guide our actions and our governments. We want to work together, hand in hand, to build a world beyond exploitation and violence.   (Morales )

We share love for our children and families along with a desire to preserve our children’s hearts and spirits, allowing them time to be young.  We believe in holding our small ones close, meeting their needs day and night, respecting the voice they bring to our families.  We share values of kindness, love, and peace in our lives.   While we call it by different names and nurture it in different ways, we share a belief in a force greater than ourselves, something that calls us to go beyond our immediate desires and concerns.    Morales says, ‘”Religion is much more about what we love than about what we think”  (Morales).   I like that definition and its emphasis on the heart rather than the head (and I’m a thinker to the end), and as a seeker of connection, I appreciate it’s focus on our shared loves. 

I shared the Morales piece with my friend, along with a rather awkward bit about what I felt we shared and why I appreciated her in my life.  In part, this post is a somewhat more elegant statement to her.  It’s also an invitation to broaden your definition of religion and connect to one another.  As always, feedback and thoughts are appreciated.

Source:

Morales, Peter. “The ‘it’ Church.”  UU World. N. p., 15  Feb. 2010.  Web.