Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Called by God

I remember a humorous conversation I had with Matt just a few years ago in which I described why I was most certainly "doomed" to be called as a pastor. I provided the succinct, overarching statements that might grace the header of my resume or pastoral profile: passion for connecting people across differences through dialogue, love of theological thought and exploration, skilled public speaker, seasoned writer (with a love for devotional writing, in particular!), pianist and singer, beginning guitar player, capable administrator with years of relevant experience in a comparable field, and a desire to relate to the deepest longings of people and communities. With a self-satisfied nod, I said, "Can't you see it? I'm marked! It's inevitable!"

If you can read that these statements were said without real joy--a distinct emotion from humor--you might well have been in the room with us. As the child of a pastor and grandchild of two, I felt, quite literally, the fear of God each time I imagined serving in the world as I saw them serve. I watched my father and grandfathers come of age in mostly rural protestant churches where clergy members did everything: shovel snow, CHECK; mow the church and parsonage lawn, CHECK; prepare Sunday's sermon, CHECK; serve as hospital chaplain, CHECK; bake bread for communion, CHECK; answer the phone and door at all hours of the day or night, literally taking money from personal bank account to help parishioners and strangers meet financial needs, CHECK; baptize, marry, counsel through divorce, bury, CHECK. I could go on and on. Without strong personal boundaries, or seminary training to establish these, their churches took over their lives. I grew up bearing the consequences of an often unhealthy model of servitude. It was not a call I was in any way prepared to answer. If the phone was ringing, I was most decidedly unavailable.

My childhood and adolescent dread shifted into the bemused, but doomed mentality depicted by my conversation with Matt. And then, it shifted again. During the Maundy Thursday service just over a year ago, I watched as the pastor and associate pastor of my church broke bread for communion and raised the cup into the air, and I experienced a palpable, dramatic shift inside. Planted in me was not dread, but a sense of the honor of their role--the gift of their service. I considered the many pastors I had encountered personally, and the gifts each had offered to me. I thought about Tom, the chaplain who married us and who regularly extended himself as a listener and wise questioner as we sought to adapt to the changes in one another and in our relationship. He might have saved our marriage with some critical, well-considered pieces of advice....he certainly empowered us to save it for ourselves. I thought about John, and the meditation group he initiated--the regularity and sacredness of which created space for me to discover some profound truths about myself and who I have been created to be. I thought about Marlene, serving our church as a volunteer associate pastor after a debilitating accident. Her astute observations about faith were formative in my life, and the selflessness of her service was truly inspiring.

The shifting continues still, as I casually wade my way through seminary courses, exploring what it feels like to be in that environment. I am certainly curious more days than I am fearful, and this openness will yield something rich to my life even if I don't seek to pastor a church one day. In a recent conversation with a woman who is, for me, part therapist and part spiritual director, I was describing the evolution of my thinking over all these years. Looking up, hoping against hope once again that she would respond with some sort of answer, I saw her wry grin as her eyes said to me that she would again respond to me with questions--I would not walk home with the tidy package I came seeking. After she asked me to respond to a series of forced choice questions (e.g., now or not now? being or doing? inside or outside?), she spoke to me words of my true calling. She said, "You will never make any choice, have any role, pursue any study that will make you more the essence of God than you are right now. This is who you are called to be--Jennifer. Fully Jennifer, here and now." Days later, my current pastor reiterated the same essential message in an email to our church community in which he commented on his morning inhaling of the sweet lilac bush outside his home. "A lilac being a lilac--this is the Divine Essence."

Will I someday be called as a pastor? Perhaps. Have I already--in fact, always--been called by God? Indeed. And I'm relaxing, breathing, inhaling and exhaling my way into a full answer to Her call.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Veiled Community

For the past nine months I've been part of an intentionally formed and crafted group of women exploring feminist spirituality. When every chair in the circle is filled, we're 35 or so women, drawn from the greater Northeast region (at least at this moment in our lives), but otherwise representing every walk of life. We are oldish (late 60s) and youngish (early 20s), fattish and thinish, whitish and blackish, and lesbian, bisexual and transgender. Most intriguing, however, is how this previous set of identities intersects with our religious identities, for we are Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, and Jewish-curious, to begin with just the short list of how we likely name our faith.

To create more meaningful, engaged encounters with one another, the entire group is divided into wisdom circles. While chosen at random (a word that has new meaning in the quantum universe in which we dwell), the circles are actually quite representative of the whole, providing each of us with up-close and personal encounters with nearly all the faith identities sitting in the circle of the whole. These wisdom circles create a manageable space to reflect on the readings, but the most public expression of our grouping is the creation and implementation of rituals for the entire group during one of our gatherings of the year. In addition to designing the act of ritual, the wisdom circles craft visual complements to the weekend's theme.

Month after month, the mandalas positioned at the center of our circle have become more and more elaborate, and the rituals have extended past a simple litany and song to become sermons, choruses, seed plantings, champagne toasts (fit for a queen, with crowns upon our heads!)....I could go on and on. As our group was designated for the final month of circle-created rituals, we had entirely too much time to both generate our own ideas, and compare our in-our-mind creations with the groups before us. When our weekend finally arrived, I think it is safe to say we were all ready to be done. Email planning, personality co-mingling, and that strange tiredness that comes with shaking off winter and throwing ourselves headlong into spring had left us more in a state of stress than joy.

The rituals themselves were delightful, and the garden scene created by our most passionate visual artist was enough to convince me that indoors and outdoors had switched. But I felt disconnected, a state brought on by the final stresses of our collaboration and a personal encounter with the sometimes closed nature of our typically open circle. The feelings weren't washed away as I pushed my sunflower seed deep into the moist, black soil and asked God if She would make me more forgiving and open, ready to fully engage once again. When we separated into wisdom circles to further explore projects of leadership we had undertaken in the year (the source of my personal encounter with closed thinking in an open space), I was more than happy to suggest we retreat to the home of the Muslim member of our circle, certain that meeting her children and touring her apartment would distract us from the conversation.

As we giggled our way through her home, curious about whether taking off our shoes was religious or cultural (she's Turkish), whether her children spoke Turkish, Arabic or English, or whether this outspoken, veiled woman used her same sharp humor and wit at home, we began to find one another once again. We piled into her bedroom and, quite spontaneously, she selected and adorned each of us with a hijab. We had known her head only by the elaborate, decorative scarves that shaped her beauty, and yet here she was before us, short-haired, out of her hijab as she placed one upon each of us. In full color and splendor, we retreated to her kitchen table and simply spoke about our lives....current challenges, requests for prayer, compliments and playful jabs. We were once again wise in our togetherness.

We crossed the small lawn from her home to our classroom and delighted in the expressions of surprise from some of the other participants. We were converted not to Islam, but to the space of true togetherness. While she had crossed over to us in many forms at many times, we had taken a small, symbolic gesture to cross to her and honor her tradition. And for the first time in some time, I sat fully present in the wider circle. The gift of her veil returned to me my voice.

God's voice comes in light and dark, in community and solitude, from our full revealing and from a moment under a veil. Sometimes, if we're present, we hear and we truly listen.