Friday, December 28, 2007

N. Hawthorne on Concord MA

"Never was a poor little country village invested with such a variety of queer, strangely dressed, oddly behaved mortals, most of whom took themselves to be important agents of the world's destiny, yet were simply bores of a very intense character."

Can't even remember where I originally saw this, but I jotted it down in my diary at the time, and now I share it with all of you. Enjoy!

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Some Early Morning Reflections on the Longest (and Darkest) Night of the Year (and Soul)

I've been thinking a bit more about some of the issues I've been ruminating over lately regarding privilege and entitlement, now that I've had a chance to sleep on them a little. Perhaps "afflicting the comfortable" really is just part of the job description of a minister, no matter how uncomfortable it may feel to all concerned. But (to quote a former parishioner) “who comforts the afflicter?” Clergy talk and talk until we are blue in the face about the importance of self-care and spiritual renewal, but when push comes to shove, who among us is truly brave enough to look to our own needs first when our people really need us?

I once believed that Ministry was a profession just like any other profession: grounded in the mastery and practice of a particular body of knowledge and set of skills. But after 25 years, I’ve come to understand that ministry is really about a set of relationships. A relationship with God (or whatever passes for “God” in your particular understanding of Universe), along with a calling to a higher purpose in service of a larger good. A relationship with an institutional organization, and to its historical traditions and values. A relationship with a community of people who have invited you to become their leader, teacher, coach and caregiver; and to individuals within that community, each of whom is continually making up their mind about whether or not they are willing to call you THEIR minister. It is a tremendous privilege to be addressed by the title "Reverend." But it's not a privilege we are entitled to by virtue of education or credential or expertise; rather, it's a title we have to earn again and again every day by being worthy of people's reverence. Which is certainly not a burden to be taken lightly.

Likewise, these relationships can be incredibly fulfilling, and profoundly rewarding in their own right. But like any relationship, they are also often destined to disappoint. Destined perhaps even to break people's hearts (including our own). It’s merely a natural consequence of the fact that nobody’s perfect. I know full well that my people aren't perfect, and that I’m not a perfect minister either. And even if I were, that still doesn’t mean that I’m going to be everyone’s cup of tea. No minister is. But that still doesn’t keep me from being a very good minister (or at least doing the best that I can)... even when I disappoint, or can’t quite live up even to my own expectations for myself.

In his book Put on Your Own Oxygen Mask First, Bill Easum talks about the dangers of a "high mercy gift." UU's are probably more comfortable talking about healthy boundaries, the dangers of co-dependence, and developing "serviceable Ministerial relationships," but I think the issues are pretty much the same. In my own mind, it's about finding the proper balance between "service" and "leadership" in the role of Servant Leader. This may just be my wise cynicism rearing its ugly head again, but I'd venture to guess that an awful lot of conflict between clergy and members of their congregations boils down to different expectations about who is going to lead and who is going to follow, and who expects to be served by whom. And I’m afraid that an awful lot of ministers I know tend to exude an aura of privilege and entitlement when they would really be much better off practicing humility and sacrifice.

But Privilege and Entitlement are not the exclusive property of ordained clergy. Not by a long shot. I’ve also seen way too often with my own two eyes how easily a minister’s willingness to sacrifice and serve humbly is subtly transformed into a kind of humiliating servitude. Not through malice or design. But by the unrealistic and unrelenting expectations of affluent, educated, “successful” people who are accustomed to getting what they want and to having things their own way. They come to church (when they aren’t doing something more important) for their weekly dose of inspiration and “intellectual stimulation,” and leave feeling good about themselves and all that they believe they stand for. But how many of them really practice what we preach? Or am I just naive to believe that this is any different than it should be?

What does it truly mean to be people of faith, serving as leaders in communities of faith, and practicing a particular faith tradition? That word “faith” is often interpreted as “belief without evidence,” but it’s so much more than that. It means confidence. It means trust. In Latin, it is “fidelity” -- a word which we have imported directly into English with nary a varied nuance. When we are unfaithful, and trust is broken, people lose confidence in us -- and it can happen in a heartbeat. Building Trust, on the other hand, often takes a great deal of time and effort and shared experience. Clergy can’t MAKE people trust them, although the role itself these days comes with both a great deal of implicit trust and a great deal of cultural suspicion built-in as standard equipment. The best we can do as individuals is to endeavor always and in all ways to be Trust-Worthy, and hope that those around us will see that for what it is.

And then comes the hardest part of the business of all: learning to trust ourselves. And funny how that phrase works both ways: learning ourselves how to trust others, and learning as well how to trust our own skills, abilities, knowledge, insights, motivations and “faithfulness.” This is where the discipline of learning how to give ourselves over to something larger than ourselves comes into play. And it isn’t easy. But who ever said that anything in life that is truly worthwhile is ever easy?

Thursday, December 20, 2007

That's just the Cross-Eyed Bear...

One of the challenges I've been wrestling with recently, both in my ministry and my own spiritual practice, is moving beyond the “wise cynicism” I’ve developed in more than a quarter-century of this strange and wonderfully frustrating work, so that I might somehow reconnect with the optimism, idealism and passionate enthusiasm which originally called me to this vocation in my youth.

Over the years I’ve managed to develop a pretty thick skin, and (at times, at least) a pretty jaded attitude. I’ve learned the hard way that “no good deed goes unpunished,” and how to remain so “non-anxious” and “non-reactive,” “non-defensive” and “self-differentiated” that people sometimes wonder whether I’m even paying attention. I’ve learned how to take criticism seriously without taking it personally, and that there are lots of things, both in life and at church, that I just can’t fix no matter how hard I try, and am better off simply learning how to live with and accept. I no longer harbor a lot of illusions about the true nature of my work. And yet in the midst of this "disillusionment," I sometimes find the work itself more and more difficult to do “in good faith.”

For example, I have become SO tired of feeling like I have to harangue, cajole, browbeat or shame basically good and decent people into doing the right thing simply because they are too stubborn, lazy, self-satisfied, comfortable and content to do the right thing on their own. This was basically the problem with my last congregation, and it was unpleasant for everyone concerned. And yet, for a lot of people, this is precisely what preachers are SUPPOSED to do, which is also, I suspect, the reason so many of them stay away from church in droves -- because they find the experience “too preachy.” Let’s face it, nobody really LIKES being preached to. Much less being preached at.

Likewise, one of the most difficult conundrums facing any leader is determining how quickly to try to move people forward. No matter what pace you choose to set, there are always going to be some folks who feel you’re going too fast, and others who feel like you’re not going fast enough. Getting everyone lined up, facing in roughly the same direction, and moving along the same path at approximately the same speed (more often than not when they aren’t even looking at the same page of the guidebook) can feel like an impossible chore. Is it best to try to lead from the front, holding high your shepherd’s staff while setting a brisk pace in the hope that the others will keep up on the journey to greener pastures? Or is one better off herding from behind, barking and nipping at the heels of the stragglers while keeping a wary eye open for the wolves in sheep’s clothing?

I know it’s a stereotype, but at least more "traditional" preachers had both a big carrot and an even bigger stick. Do the right thing, and you’ll be going to heaven; do something different, and you can go somewhere else. More recently, proponants of the so-called “prosperity gospel” have added promises of worldly wealth, success, health and happiness to the menu of pie in the sky when you die. It may seem a little hard for some of us to swallow, but a lot of folks are apparently gobbling it up with a spoon. Indeed, the traditional metaphor of "the shepherd and their flock" implicitly reinforces these stereotypes. "Sheep" who are incapable of thinking for themselves need a strong and decisive Pastor to tell them what to believe.

But if anything (at least in my experience) the typical members of UU congregations more closely resemble goats: frisky, nimble, curious, aggressive, highly independent, natural escape artists, and willing to swallow just about anything they can get their mouths around if given an opportunity. Yet even a herd of highly-heretical goats occasionally requires the services of a faithful goatherd:to keep them safe from predators, and properly groomed and fed; to track them down when they get loose and become lost or hurt; and ESPECIALLY to keep them from running amok in the neighbor's garden...which is (as you will well know if you've ever kept REAL goats yourself) their absolutely favorite activity of all, but doesn't really do much to improve relations with the neighbors. And even though you're doing it for their own good, even goats generally resent being led on a leash back to the goatshed, when they could be running free.

But getting back to the subject at hand, I understand perfectly well the importance of expressing a positive attitude and creating a positive message: that you “catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar,” and how important it is to give basically good people a good reputation to live up to. I know that internal motivation is a more powerful incentive than external pressure, and that it is better to inspire than to scold. What I DON’T really understand is why I find it so difficult at times to inspire myself, and why I have come to expect so little, and yet so much, from this “divine profession” to which I have devoted my entire adult life.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

In Praise of Dyslexia

A soon-to-be-published study by Cass Business School professor Julie Logan reports that 35% of successful American entrepeneurs exhibit signs of dyslexia. "The broader implication" according to the article, "is that many of the coping skills dyslexics learn in their formative years become best practices for the successful entrepreneur. Children who chronically fail standardized tests must become comfortable with failure. Slow readers learn to extract only vital information, so that they're constantly getting right to the point. Dyslexics are also forced to trust and rely on others to get things done -- an essential skill for anyone working to build a business."

If true, this is a fascinating illustration of the concept of "different abilities," as well as the notion that many so-called "disorders" are socially constructed (which is to say, that society finds certain behaviors disorderly, rather than there being anything inherently wrong with the person).

Of course, this also reminds me of all the speculation early in his administration that our President is dyslexic, which explains both his mother's interest in literacy, and his own routine butchering of the English language.

Then again, he could just be stupid. I also seem to recall him saying that the underlying problem with the French economy is that they don't even have a word for "entrepeneur."

But I think the main lesson I take away from all this is the distinction between intrinsic ability and hard work. Sure it's nice to be gifted and talented, or to possess "natural" abilities of above-average whatever. But it's persistence and hard work that always seem to make the real difference between success and failure. No matter how smart you are, there is always someone smarter...and everyone you meet knows something that you don't.

It doesn't matter how big or strong or fast or even beautiful you may be either...there is always someone bigger, and stronger, faster and more beautiful.

And luck? Everyone knows that hard workers make their own luck.

Here's another interesting article from Scientific American about the Secret to Raising Smart Kids. Guess what the secret is? Don't tell them they're smart. Tell them that effort is more important than ability, and to find confidence in their ability to weather failure rather than easily achieve success.

So next time you're feeling down and discouraged, take strength from your disappointment and remember that anything worth doing is worth doing first. But if you just stick with it, things will indeed get better. And so will you.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Auto-blog II -- My New Focus

I notice with some amusement that my colleague from Portland OR, Marilyn Sewell, is also blogging about her new car, after her faithful old Honda was first stolen out of her driveway, and then missing for a month (during which time she replaced it with a used Volvo), only to later have the Honda recovered by the police. By that time, of course, the Honda had been stripped of anything valuable (which did not, apparently, include her CDs), and Marilyn had fallen head over heels in love with her new Swedish ride anyway, so the Japanese import was released into the custody of the Insurance company, who will no doubt find it a good home.

My story isn't nearly so dramatic as Marilyn's. Having made the decision to replace my 10-year-old Ranger pick-up with a smaller, more fuel-efficient and city-friendly (i.e. easy to park) vehicle, rather than paying $2500 to have the four-wheel-drive repaired and the rest of the vehicle brought up to where it would pass inspection, I basically only considered three options: the Escape Hybrid (because someone told me that I ought to buy a hybrid), the Subaru Outback wagon (which is a very popular car in my neighborhood, and also I've noticed among Unitarian ministers in general), and the Focus (which is the model Ford created to replace the Escort, and, as you have no doubt already inferred from the title, is the vehicle I eventually bought).

I'm not really certain how I became such a loyal Ford customer, but since this is my third one in a row now (and I've basicly driven nothing else for 15 years) I guess I qualify. Bought the original Escort wagon in part because we realized that we could buy two Escorts for the price of one Outback; and the fact that I drove it for nearly a quarter of a million miles before it finally gave up the ghost (in protest, I think, over having to leave its home in the Pacific Northwest) certainly did a lot to cement my loyalty to the product. The Ranger was not such a bad ride either, and my appreciation for that vehicle was reinforced early on by the fact that the only car dealership on Nantucket sold and serviced Fords, which pretty much gave them a Mircosoft-like competitive advantage when it came to selling to and servicing Island residents.

When I eventually moved back to "America," to an affluent little faux-rural New England town just over the river and through the woods from Walden Pond, my dirty, dented, decade-old pick-up made a nice contrast to the Escapes, Priuses, Saubs, Subarus, and BMWs I generally saw all around me...not to mention all the various SUVs and Mini-vans (of every make and model) and more Hummers per captia than anywhere else in the Commonwealth (although none, I don't think, were owned my members of the congregation). And since it was a fifteen minute drive in any direction just to get gas or groceries, I ended up spending a lot more time in that car than I would have chosen to otherwise.

But here in Portland ME it's a very different landscape. Although I live a half-mile from church (as opposed to only 40 yards in Carlisle, and maybe 40 feet on Nantucket), just about everything I could ever want or need is within easy walking distance of my apartment, and public transportation is readily available. Still, as a minister, I feel compelled to keep a car in the city, even though on some levels at least I would be delighted not to have to. My Aunt in Seattle has lived without a car in that city ever since she returned from the Peace Corps in the mid-1960's -- 40 years during which she has also traveled all over the world (including India and Pakistan, South America, and widely in Europe and Africa)using only public transportation, a bicycle, and her own two feet. She doesn't even like to RIDE in cars if she can avoid it. And I admire her independence in doing so.

But it's different being a minister. Even when gasoline and rubber were being strictly rationed during the Second World War, clergy and physicians received priority status, since society recognized that they needed those resources in order to accomplish their jobs. Nowadays MDs rarely make housecalls, the status of ministers is somewhat less exhalted, and if anything our society is more car-dependent than ever. But the importance of "auto-mobility" to the work of ministry is essentially unchanged; we travel at odd and unpredictable hours, are often needed in a hurry, even more often need to be two places at the same time, and are even at times required to provide transportation for others who cannot transport themselves.

Yet at the same time, the style of automobile a minister selects suggests an awful lot about their theology, and needs to be undertaken with great discernment. If I'm going to be making my parish visits in a Mercedes, a BMW, or a had better be AT LEAST a decade old, and preferably a vehicle that actually belongs to (or perhaps was bought by and handed down from) my extremely successful attorney/physician/corporate executive partner. Foreign compacts (like the Subaru or Marilyn's Honda) are generally good, while American cars (it seems to me, at least) are a little more of a mixed bag -- it's nice to buy domestic and support the jobs of unionized American Auto Workers, but is what's good for General Motors REALLY what's good for the country anymore?

Likewise, my heart may long for a little red convertible, but my brain tells me I'm a lot better off picking a sensible blue or green or white or gray sedan or compact wagon. Or maybe a small SUV or Mini-van...expecially if I have young children in the household. And if I REALLY want to make a statement, then I'll get a hybrid...assuming I can afford it. But God forbid that I should ever find myself behind the wheel of a Hummer...unless I'm accompanying a National Guard unit to the location of a natural disaster.

And so it came to pass that armed with this set of sensibilities, I set out in search of a new car to replace the Ranger. Ruled out the Hybrid Escape on grounds of cost, as well as the realization that both the Subaru and the Focus got just as good gas mileage with conventional technology. Flirted with the Subaru...and if I'd been willing to make the effort I probably could have found a good, low-mileage used Subaru wagon for only a few thousand more than I ended up paying for my Ford. But people who own these wagons tend to like them so well that they hold on to them for a long time, and besides, the Ford dealership is a lot closer to my home, and I already had a good relationship with them based on the work they'd already done on my truck. So that's where I started, and that's where I ended up...mostly because I didn't want to have to put any more time into this entire process than I absolutely had to anyway.

So I zeroed in on a Focus, and then began the even more complicated process of finding MY particular Focus out of all the possible Foci (or maybe in this case, it really is "Focuses") potentially available to me. And the reason this turned out to be more complicated than I'd thought is because I made it so. My first thought was that I would go with some sort of used "program" car -- a former rental a year or two old, which can generally be picked up for about two-thirds the price of a comparable new car. But those cars all come with automatic transmissions, and I'd decided that I really did want a standard five speed manual shift again, as well as cruise control if I could get it (since I'd also enjoyed that option on my previous two Fords, and have grown rather accustomed to it). And then (and this really was my one true concession to having turned fifty) I really wanted to have a moonroof if they could find one, just so I could still potentially open up the top and feel the wind blow through what's left of my hair on a sunny summer day once in awhile. But to compensate for that indulgence, I also insisted that there be no spoilers or flashy trim, and that the car could be any color but red.

The bad news was that there was only one vehicle with that particular configuration of equipment anywhere in New England. The good news was that it belonged to the dealership only five miles across town. Then we learned that it wouldn't arrive on the lot for another week. Then came the blizzard, which delayed things even more. By this time I was already starting to rethink my decision about buying a new car at all -- $2500 bucks to keep the Ranger on the road through another winter was looking like a pretty good idea after all. But my dad, bless his heart, came through with some very sensible fatherly advice: you tend to keep these cars a long time Tim, (he told me), and you can afford to buy the car you want -- so bite the bullet, spend the money, get the car and ENJOY IT! for a long, long time.

So that's what I did. Even so, after fifteen years without a car payment, the sticker shock was pretty intense. Doubled the cost of my insurance, and the state excise tax alone is a dollar a day. Add in the payments and the cost of off-street parking, and I'm into this alligator nearly five hundred dollars a month before I've bought a single drop of three dollar a gallon gasoline. All told, I'm estimating that the "privilege" of owning and operating my own vehicle is going to cost me about 12% of my annual gross income. Thats a helluva lot of cab rides, frankly. And if I lived in a community where flex-cars were available, I think I'd be looking awfully hard at signing up.

But then there's the clergy thing. Suburban nursing homes, evening potlucks and circle suppers, hospital visits, ministers meetings...a car may not be an absolute necessity, but it sure does make things easier and more convenient. Although let's not forget the greatest irony of all. Now that I've actually purchased this beautiful new car, I'm afraid to drive it in the snow...and so mostly I try to leave it parked in the garage, and walk everywhere I can anyway. So we'll see. Maybe by this time next year, somebody out there will get a great deal on a low-mileage, high MPG standard shift, cruise-control equipped Clerical Black Ford Focus sedan with a moonroof. Or maybe by then I will have simply gotten over all this automobile angst, and will be loving my new ride....

Monday, December 10, 2007

Auto-blog I - Remembrance of Rides Past

So it finally happened. Rather than waiting for my '97 Ranger to take things into its own hands, last week I broke down and bought myself a new vehicle. This is actually the first new car I've owned in 15 years, and only the third I've owned in my entire lifetime of driving. And while I've started to give myself permission to feel happy about owning a new car (which is, after all, supposed to be a happy occasion), I'm also feeling a little funny about it...which is really what I want to write about.

But first a little history. My very first car was a hand-me-down 1962 red Plymouth Valiant station wagon (with a push-button automatic transmission)that had belonged to my mother for a dozen years before I finally got my hands on it. Picked up three tickets and was involved in three accidents with that little beauty, the last of which finally killed it outright on a sharp curve on a steep hill on a rainy day in a suburb of Seattle about two weeks before I started college at the University of Washington.

But by that time I already had another ride: an even redder 1968 Triumph TR-250 convertible which my father had bought for me as a reward/bribe in order to get me to study a little harder so that I could get into a decent college in the first place. It's funny how quickly a basically bright but lazy kid can become a straight-A student when there's a sports car as incentive, and although my father complained miserably about that little two-seater roadster, I suspect in retrospect he would say it was the best $2,000 he's ever spent in his life.

And it did double duty; because once I actually started college my younger brother got to drive the TR, and I didn't get back behind the wheel until the start of my Junior year, when HE was a freshman living in the next dorm over, and I could finally afford to insure the thing myself. But of course he kept a duplicate set of keys, and more than once I stopped by my parking space only to discover nothing but an oilspot waiting for me. But at least he always had the decency to return it with a full tank of gas!

When I went off to HDS for graduate school (at the start of his Junior year), the TR once more came into my brother's keeping, and eventually passed from our lives on his watch. I lived quite contentedly carless in Cambridge and Boston, and remained car-free until the start of my internship back in Seattle, where I spent $300 for a 1974 lemon yellow Volkswagen Dasher. That car burned about a quart of oil for every tank of gas, but it got me everywhere I needed to go for a year an a half, before finally perishing in a snowstorm 10 days before I was scheduled to begin my first settled ministry in Midland, Texas.

It was in Midland that I purchased my first-ever new car: a 1985 Toyota Corolla. Of course, being from the Pacific Northwest, I didn't really appreciate how few and far between Toyotas were in Texas in those days; my "new" Toyota was actually delivered to me from a dealership in New Orleans, with 800 miles already on the odometer. I didn't care; I drove that car for eight years (including back and forth between Texas and Seattle three times), while my wife went through four different vehicles in that same period (a used GMC Hornet-which was her vehicle of choice before we were married; a new Ford Escort; a new Dodge Omni; and a slightly-used Dodge Shadow, which she came home with one day after taking the Omni to the dealership to have a headlight replaced, and discovering that she could actually save nearly $100/month if she simply traded it in and bought the Shadow instead).

In 1993 my wife had just finished Law School, and I was about to start back to school myself to study for a PhD. She had a good job, we had come into some money, and so we paid cash and treated ourselves to his and hers Ford Escorts: a little red coupe for her, and a forest green wagon for me. I put 237k miles on that car in the eight years I drove it, commuting back and forth between Portland, Corvallis, and well as all up and down the I-5 corridor from Bellingham to Roseburg preaching on the weekends (just for the record, in that same eight-year period she only put 42k miles on the coupe).

In the summer of 2001, I'd completed my PhD and was about to begin an interim ministry on Nantucket Island. What to do about a car on the island was a frequent topic of discussion among my family. At first I thought I might be able to get by without a car, but I was assured that this would not be the case -- that even on an island, a minister still needs to be able to make those parish visits out to 'Sconset; and in winter there are no buses and bicycles are a little problematic. Then I thought I might swap cars with my daughter, who was then living in Massachusetts but planning to return to Oregon in the fall. But she refused to take the Escort under any circumstances. Finally, when the folks on Nantucket also assured me that the island was an excellent place to have an old car (since when it DOES finally break down, you don't have that far to walk home), I decided to try my luck and try to drive my trusty wagon cross-country.

In retrospect, having lived so much of my life behind the wheel of that vehicle for the previous eight years, I had a lot of emotional investment in getting my CLERIC car to a nice round quarter of a million miles before allowing her to retire gracefully on Nantucket. Meanwhile, my family started a pool about how far backwards along the Oregon Trail I would make it before the car finally expired permanently. The winning bet was that I would never make it out of the state; climbing the Blue Mountains on I-84 I suddenly lost 5th gear, and so I coasted down into Baker City and within four hours had traded in my Escort for a used, 1997 white Ford Ranger X-cab 4x4 pickup.

Unpacked the Escort, repacked the Ranger, settled the dog safely into the passenger seat, and we were back on the road again. Drove that truck for two years on the Island, and another four in Carlisle...and learned to love the four-wheel drive and the big cargo space, but never really did get used to the poor gas mileage (19 mpg), or how tricky it was to park in tight places. Big blind spot too, especially trying to glance back over my right shoulder through both a tinted rear window and the canopy. Put a big dent in the passenger door my first day on the Island, trying to squeeze into my driveway past an inconveniently-located telephone pole; and over the years picked up a few more dents and dings as well...but for some reason it didn't really bother me, because, after all, isn't that what trucks are for?

That Ranger also came in awfully useful moving up here to Portland, and I'm sure I could have happily driven it for many more years, since it only had 134k miles on it and still seemed to be going strong. But I also noticed last winter that it was making funny noises when I put it into four-wheel drive, so last month when I took it into the dealership to have it serviced and winterized, I asked them to take a look. Sure enough, I needed new hubs and a U-joint, plus brake work, a new thermostat, as well as an aftermarket brakelight kit to bring the canopy into confomity with Maine law...$2500 worth of work (which the service manager quickly offered to discount 10% on account of me being clergy).

And I was almost ready to get that work done, when while driving back down to Massachusetts on the day after Thanksgiving I suddenly remembered that burnt-out headlight on the Dodge Omni. Why, I asked, should I sink another $2500 into a beat-up ten-year-old gas-guzzling clunker when I could be driving a new, compact, fuel-efficient 21st-century automobile instead? It just didn't make sense to me. Or perhaps I should say, all of a sudden I just didn't feel like nursing along my old truck from one mechanical crisis to the next, and started looking forward to owning something with a standard 3 year/36k mile bumper to bumper warranty, free road side assistance, passenger-side airbags, and all the rest.

And so the search began. To be continued in part two....

Sunday, December 09, 2007

I Just Can't Weight!

Over at Beauty Tips for Ministers, my buddy PeaceBang is launching an "On-Line Ministry Posse" for "Ordained Compulsive Overeaters." I'm no doubt eligible for a charter membership, but having just glanced at the Harvard study about the social contagiousness of obesity, what I'm really wondering is whether I could do more good simply by placing myself in quarantine instead. Like PB, I also weight about a hundred pounds more than I did when I graduated from seminary, although in fairness, after three years of living on coffee, cigarettes, Top Ramen, tunafish, and contemplative prayer, I looked an awful lot like an internment camp survivor on the day of my ordination.

A little home-cooking and a more family-friendly lifestyle quickly cured that. Then came the occupational hazards of our vocation: wedding receptions, covered-dish dinners, coffee hour, tea and cookies during pastoral visits, not to mention the countless bags of food handed to me through drive-up windows as I rushed from one place to another. They quickly started to take their toll -- an extra 300 calories a week comes to about five pounds a year, which over the course of a 25 year ministry...well, you do the math. It's not enough just to hang a "Please Don't Feed the Minister" sign around one's neck. Frankly, I'm astonished that I'm not a lot heavier than I am!

Of course, I could always simply tell myself that being a "weighty soul" merely gives me more gravitas. But I also worry about the health risks of having a BMI over 30: diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke (not to mention all of the day to day aches and pains of simply moving around in the world)...not exactly the kind of "live fast, die young, leave a good looking corpse" death-style I'd envisioned for myself as a kid. The truth is, I've never really seen myself as "heavy" (despite my constant joking about my weight); in my mind's eye I'm still that svelte, limber, well-muscled twenty-something with a full head of hair who could play full court basketball all afternoon, shower, down a whole pizza and a pitcher of beer, and still do it three times before sleeping the sleep of the just after. And I suspect like a lot of us who saunter in these circles, I know a lot more about HOW to lose weight than I actually seem to be able to bring myself to DO. But for what it's worth, here are a dozen tips for dropping the lbs. Maybe if I write them out like this, I might actually feel inspired to practice what I preach.

1) Eat Positively, not negatively. I'm now trying to organize my eating around foods that I like and that are good for me, rather than merely what's fast, tasty, and convenient. Healthy eating is a lifestyle choice: slow food, "locovore," vegan or semi-veg, or even just a few "fast" days to go with the feast days. I want to think of it as a cuisine rather than a diet. And even more importantly, as something I enjoy rather than a source of depravation.

2) Eat a big, healthy breakfast. I'm not talking steak and eggs here folks. I mean things like oatmeal and granola, yogurt, fresh fruit, maybe ONE boiled free-range, high-Omega 3 egg. And for God's sake stay away from Starbucks or the Dunkin' Donuts! That's not breakfast; it's dessert.

3) Eat your main meal at mid-day. And eat whatever you want, within reason. If you're already following Principle #1, this should be no sweat. My nutritionist had a great rule of thumb: 1/2 the plate with vegetables, 1/4 protein, 1/4 starch. And then pay attention to the size of the plate!

4)TWO Apples a day... My nutritionist also taught me that if I planned eating around four servings of fruits and vegetable first, it makes it a lot easier to control the fats and starches. Of course, it also helps to know that one good-sized apple is TWO servings of fruit....

5) Watch what you drink. One of the most astonishing things I discovered when I first started keeping track of everything I ate was how many calories were in my beverages: fancy coffees, sodas, beer and wine, even fruit juice. Now I'm trying to keep it to black coffee, herbal tea, and plain old H2O...with maybe an occasional glass of beer or wine (as it says in scripture - 1 Tim 5:23) just to help with the digestion. I've even forsworn diet sodas, which some studies show despite their zero calorie reputation simply stimulate the appetite for other sweets. My experience was that even when I was having a hard time watching what I ate, it was relatively easy to cut back on what I drank. So put the water bottles in the fridge where the diet cokes used to be, and if you still need a little caffeine pick-me-up in the middle of the afternoon, try a good iced coffee instead.

6) No noshing after dark. This is a hard one for me...which became a lot easier when I also made the decision to stop watching TV. Of course, I wasn't able to stick to that resolution for very long either. But at least now I try to keep my pantry clear of foods beginning with "C" - cake, cookies, candy, crackers, chips, get the picture. And thanks to TiVo, I can watch a little of whatever I want when I get home from church, and still get to bed at a reasonable hour.

7) Shop one day at a time. This is a little more eccentric, since ideally what one would do is shop once a week with meal plans and a list, and put nothing else in the cart, and eat only what you'd planned. But since I don't have that kind of foresight or self-control, I've gone to the other extreme of trying to keep very little food around the house and food shopping every day, just like the French. It's too soon to tell how it's going to work out. But if for some reason I don't get to the store, I still have a pantry full of Top Ramen and canned tunafish!

8) Get out of the car. This is kind of ironic for me, since after six years of driving a beat-up old pickup, I finally broke down and bought a new vehicle...the first truly NEW vehicle I've owned in 15 years. And that in itself is worth its own blog entry, but the bottom line is that now that I own a new car, I don't like to drive it in the snow, so instead I tend to keep it safely parked in the garage and try to walk everywhere I can (including the small grocery store just up the block). Behind America's sedentary lifestyle and national obesity epidemic is a "trinity" of demons: TV, the automobile, and high-fructose corn syrup. Just think how much better we all would be if we could just exorcize those three things from our lives.

9) Lift weights to lose weight. OK, I admit it -- I come from a family of three boys, and sports were always a big part of our lives. But as much as I love the gym, I've always hated the weight room -- because lifting weights is WORK, not play. But the fact of the matter is, pumping a little iron does a lot of good things for a body: builds muscle, burns fat, shapes and's really miraculous. So join a gym, find a partner or hire a trainer, and just do it! As unpleasant as it can be, minute by minute and pound for pound, it's a helluva lot better than the treadmill....

10) Pay cash when dining out. OK, maybe this is a little extreme. But living all alone right in the heart of a small city known for its great restaurants, I tend to eat out a lot. And for some inexplicable reason, I always tend to eat a little less (and a little less often) when I know I'm paying cash....

11) Never clean your plate. I know, it goes against everything my mother taught me. But clergy tend to have a lot on their plates, and people keep bringing us heaping second helpings. So just make it a rule to leave those last few bites for Jesus, who God knows was a scrawny little guy who could have used a little fattening up. This works metaphorically as well as nutritionally, BTW.

12) Always talk to strangers. Do you remember your mother also telling you not to talk with your mouth full? Well, here's a thought -- talk first, and eat between ideas rather than talking between bites. Have you ever noticed how chatty Cathy always seems to send half her meal back to the kitchen, while the strong, silent types (like me) are nibbling off their plate, and nodding while we chew? It's just an observation...

And here's a final thought, to make it an even Bakers Dozen. Don't try to swallow all these things at once; they'll just make you sick to your stomach. Rather, pick one or two and nibble on them for awhile, and then add a third, and a fourth...and keep going from there. I know I put this weight on one bite at a time, over a period of 20 years. It's going to have to come off the same way...although hopefully, a little faster....

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Justice Making

Now that I've come out of blogospheric hybernation, I suppose I ought to catch up with a few other loose ends. A few months ago I attended a day-long training session with Marie Fortune around the issue of working pastorally with survivors of domestic abuse. As part of that training, she spelled out a seven-step process (or perhaps paradigm is a better word) for Justice Making, which I thought was extremely insightful and relevant to a much broader set of situations and circumstances. So while it's still relatively fresh in my mind, I thought I'd flesh it out a bit and share it here.

* Truth-Telling -- Justice-Making begins by creating a safe space where people can tell the truth about their experience. Perpetrators depend upon the silence of their victims in order to hide their behavior from the scrutiny of others. Creating opportunities for people to find their voice again, and to offer their testimony, is the first step from victimization to survival.

* Acknowledgement -- Once people have found the courage to tell their truth, it is also essential that we listen to them, hear what they have to say, and acknowledge that what happened to them wasn't right or fair. Victims typically blame themselves for their misfortunes; survivors are able to distinguish between the things they had control over and the things they didn't, and need to be affirmed in their understanding that they are still OK even though what happened to them wasn't.

* A Compassionate Response -- Often the temptation when we hear a story of injustice is to want to "fix it" -- to become angry, to want to do something, to forget about the person while we focus on the problem. But the person should always come first. Compassion means literally "to suffer with." The Compassionate Response to injustice is basically that same old "ministry of presence" we were taught about in CPE: a person-to-person connection that lifts up our common humanity and holds it in relationship regardless of what may have been suffered.

* Protect the Vulnerable -- Safety for victims and potential victims is the sine qua non of authentic justice making. If injustice can not be "arrested," then attempting to establish justice in an atmosphere of uncertainty, insecurity and vulnerability becomes very difficult indeed.

* Accountability for Perpetrators -- In its essence, the call for accountability is an invitation to repentence. It asks (and insists) that the perpetrator(s) of an injustice recognize that their actions and choices do not take place in a consequence-free environment, and that they take responsibility for the consequences of their own behavior. To frame this in a religious context, without repentence their can be no atonement, and without atonement there can be no forgiveness.

* Restitution -- Domestic abuse, like any other abuse of power, is ultimately about broken covenants, the violation of boundaries, and damaged relationships. Religious professionals in particular often have a bias for attempting to repair those relationships prematurely, before first attending to the more fundamental issues of safety and accountability. Likewise, often times these relationships are broken beyond repair, at which point the work of ministry becomes one of shared grieving rather than attempted healing.

* Vindication -- OK, so maybe it does have the same root as "vindictive," but vindication is not about revenge; nor is it reconciliation, forgiveness, or even atonement. Rather, it's about being liberated from the burden of something that was not your responsibility in the first place. Or to put it another way, it is the public recognition of an injustice rather than the "acceptance" of one, which in turn releases the victim from those insidious feelings of shame and guilt regarding their own victimization, and sets them solidly on the path to healing, wholeness, and "survivorhood." It is the public affirmation of a private truth, which "justifies" the survivor and sets them free.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Right or Liked?

First snowstorm of the season last night. Forecast was for nine inches, but so far we've been disappointed in that regard. Not that I really consider it much of a disappointment. Good numbers in church yesterday for the first Sunday in Advent; nearly 200 souls (children and adults) at worship, and over 40 for the "Newcomers Luncheon" after church, where we introduced some of the church officers and talked about the next steps in the Path to Membership. Lots of energy and enthusiasm for the start of the holidays. Makes it a pleasure to get up and come into work in the morning, even when it's snowing.

Not that I harbor any illusions that anyone had actually noticed, but until Linda Laskowski discovered (and resurrected) an old post I'd written last summer describing her "Congregations Count" workshop at General Assembly, it had been several months since I'd last posted here. Part of the reason for my absence has simply been the distractions of other, more important concerns as I begin my new ministry here in Portland ME. But mostly it involved some serious soul-searching, after I violated the integrity of one of my oldest and most fundamental principles as a writer, and pulled down an earlier post about my transition experience out of the congregation I was serving before being called here, as a result of having received an angry (and, the truth be told, somewhat threatening) e-mail from one of my former parishioners, berating me for having publicly "denigrated" in this blog both that congregation and (more accurately) the affluent and privileged community where it is located.

Frankly, I didn't really see it that way myself. From my point of view, the post was honest, candid, and (to be sure) at times less than completely flattering...but it also acknowledged both some of my own shortcomings in that situation (since there's no way I could possibly have listed them all), as well as many of the positive things I learned from and enjoyed about the experience.

But since I'm not in the business of gratuitiously pissing people off (or at least I don't THINK I am), I decided to pull down that previous post anyway, at least for awhile, while I thought things through, and sorted out my own feelings and opinions on the matter. After all, from my perspective, the real "soul work" took place in the writing itself. The sharing of my thoughts on this blog was only an afterthought, so that others might potentially benefit from the wisdom of my experience. Even so, I also really hated the idea of censoring myself simply because someone else took offense at my honest opinions. It's called a "heckler's veto," and it really pisses me off -- especially when used as a weapon by powerful people who desire to silence their critics.

And the great irony, of course, is that the principal barrier to that congregation ever achieving everything it has the potential to become is its own inability (or maybe unwillingness) to see itself as it truly is (which is what made my experience there so frustrating to begin with). Which is also, of course, now entirely their problem, and no longer any real concern of mine. In fact, until I received that angry and intimidating e-mail, I felt like I had pretty much achieved closure with that situation, along with all the attendant disappointment that accompanied it, and was moving on to something far more congenial and satisfying. But afterwards, for awhile at least, I suddenly found it difficult to think about anything else!

So thanks for that little gift, former parishioner. If you were afraid that I was going to tell the truth about your smug, sanctimonious little "City in the Woods," maybe you should have treated me a little better when you had the chance.

At the end of the day, the Truth (or at least MY truth) is that, notwithstanding my former congregation's routine and habitual institutional parsimony, I actually liked (and still like) the people there quite a bit -- even the ones who sometimes made my life difficult or challenging (and believe me, UUs are very clever and intelligent folk, and can often be quite creative in this regard). But it's also true that when, after four years without a raise (or even a COLA), I finally started to complain, rather than addressing the situation responsibly, the treasurer's husband (who also, surprise, surprise, just so happens to be the same former parishioner who wrote me the nasty e-mail) took me to lunch and strongly suggested that I might actually be a lot happier working somewhere else. Which, of course, turned out to be true. Which is why I feel so grateful now that things worked out the way they did, and so delighted have been called to this pulpit here in Portland.

UU clergy are often charged to "preach the truth to power." This, or something like it, is pretty standard language in most ordination and installation services, and a responsibility which I have always tried to take to heart in my own ministry. At my installation service at that former congregation I pledged myself "with God's help, worthily to maintain the freedom of this pulpit, speaking the truth in love both publicly and privately." And yet one wonders, what does it mean to speak "with love?" Does it mean telling lies or keeping secrets, in order to prevent someone else's embarrasment or disgrace? Or is it actually more loving to tell the truth honestly yet without joy, knowing that the danger of keeping secrets is always worse that the truth plainly spoken?

Unfortunately, the challenge often gets reduced simply to a more rudimentary conflict between personal intellectual integrity and interpersonal social graces: Would your rather be Right or Liked? But this is really way too simplistic. Most folks, I think, would like to be both right AND liked. The real problem is that a lot of folks simply don't like to hear the ugly truth. And so to avoid being unpopular, we refrain from sharing it with them. Yet ultimately, the issue of "being right" has nothing to do with one's own ego-driven needs to be liked, or even the natural human desire to avoid appearing foolish (as in "I'm right and you're wrong"). Rather, it is sustained by the underlying and uncompromising conviction that Truth Really Matters, and that we should seek it even at the price of both being unpopular and at times discovering (and admitting) that we were wrong.

The REAL ethical dilemma for me always boils down to the whole Prophetic/Socratic/Cassandra issue: how long should one remain silent about something they KNOW to be wrong, simply to avoid becoming unpopular and disliked?

The word "courtesy" originally refered to a style of manners appropriate to the royal court, where it was often difficult to speak the truth to power without having one's head chopped off. Because let's face it, powerful people typically don't like hearing the unvarnished truth (much less being made to appear foolish or told they are wrong) any more than the rest of us do. Which is why it is so easy for them to grow ignorant and out of touch with the factual situation "on the ground" and "outside the bubble." When we habitually replace candor with euphemism, and...well, I don't really need to spell it all out, do I? Or maybe I do. After all, these days our leaders often aren't exactly the brightest bulbs on the marquee....

"Say what you mean. Mean what you say. Try not to BE mean when you say it." Clarity. Sincerity. Sensitivity. This is the challenge we clergy face when we lovingly attempt to speak the truth to people who have power over us. We need to embrace the values of honesty and candor, while at the same time trying as best we can to take our own egos out of the equation, and make ourselves servants of Truth itself. But keeping secrets simply to spare someone the shame of their own bad behavior is, at best, an act of co-dependent enabling, and at worst bad behavior in its own right. To put it another way, "All that is required for Evil to triumph is for Good to remain silent and do nothing." I think it was Winston Churchill who said that. Or something like it anyway.

Then there remains the delicate question of being sensitive to other people's feelings, even when you know they're wrong....

The Truth often hurts enough simply on its own. There's rarely any need to rub it in by saying "I told you so." Defensiveness and denial are difficult enough barriers to hearing and understanding Truth; we don't need to make it any worse by getting our own egos involved. By embracing an attitude of empathy and compassion, our desire to be liked, along with our willingness to care for others (whether they "agree" with us or not), can help to make "the Truth plainly spoken" a little easier to hear as well.

I calculate that my four-year sojourn with my former congregation easily cost me over $100,000 in direct compensation. And if that sounds like an awful lot of money to you, it's because it is. Of course, 80% of that was simply the difference between the low-ball offer I agreed to accept from them, and the six-figure salary I turned down at the time from another, larger congregation just down the road. Another $19k had to do with the way they chose to handle the utilities at the Parsonage: basically neglecting to inform me beforehand that they were not included in the "Fair Rental Value" they had provided in their Congregational Record, and then deducting that money from my paycheck instead. Finally there's the four years without a raise or a COLA, and the nearly six grand they decided to stiff me by refusing to pay me through the entire three months of the contractual 90 day severence period. Oh yes, and they'd also promised me equity sharing and a sabbatical after five years service (as per the Guidelines), and of course I never heard anything more about that either. But you know, as my daddy used to tell me, we pay a little tuition for every lesson that we learn. And since we generally can't afford to make ALL the mistakes ourselves, it's a blessing sometimes to be able to learn from the mistakes of others.

As for my former congregation, the truth be told, I'm honestly hoping that they will thrive under new ministerial leadership. I hope that their big anniversary celebration this year goes well, I hope that the cellular tower contracts we'd been pursuing for the past two years are at last approved by the foot-dragging town government (contributing some much-needed additional revenue to the bottom line), and I also hope that they will finally figure out that if they want to keep their next pastor happy, they need to be attentive and faithful to the UUA's Fair Compensation Guidelines, and increase their average pledge above its currently shameful level in order to make that happen. And if they can just do those few simple things, they might actually have a chance of becoming the kind of congregation they think they are, rather than continually building "castles in the air" without bothering to put the foundations under them.

Now, about that hundred thousand dollars.... Maybe once those cell phone dollars start rolling in, we could just split the difference?