Odyssey, part 8: Walls and Fridges

"And seek for Truth in the Garden of Academus"
- Horace

"The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet."
- Frederick Buechner

I have come to recognize how certain of my childhood lessons both cut to the heart and have been taken to heart. Sitting seems to be significant. I sat on a wall. I sat on a refrigerator. Now I sit on a zafu (round cushion).

The wall. When I was about four-and-a-half, at the end of our front yard was a 3-foot wall going down to the sidewalk. My Mom was then working on her PhD in Chemistry. I was very sad about something, and I went outside, sobbing, to wait for her return from the lab. I sat on that wall and cried for her. She didn't come and didn't come and didn't come. After my distress had passed on its own, after my psyche had hardened a bit because sources of comfort could not be counted on, she finally did.

I understood she was committed both to me and to something called “work.” Not just any work. Both Mom and Dad were academics, scholars, college teachers. The unspoken lesson of their example was that the only sort of work that was truly worthy, that was worth being away from family, was learning. And teaching others. Expanding and transforming ourselves and helping others be expanded and transformed.

The refrigerator. My father's field was English. His specialty was 18th-century British Literature: “The Age of Reason.” I was maybe 5 years old when one day my father decided it was time I knew how how to tell time. I didn't learn as fast as he expected me to. Irritated, he lifted me up and put me on top of the refrigerator, facing the kitchen clock on the opposite wall. I couldn't get down. He said he wouldn't get me down until I told him what time the clock indicated.

I learned that I have to be able to figure things out. Breaking a vase will earn a mild rebuke and be forgotten. But ignorance will leave me stranded and stuck and scared.

From my parents, and from the other adults they hung out with, including those from the UU Fellowship of Auburn, Alabama (when I was 7-9 years old) and the UU Congregation of Atlanta (when I was 9 and up), I imbibed liberal political values. Being a political liberal is entirely distinct from being a religious liberal, and the ranks of religious liberals include many wonderful people who are political conservatives. That said, the circle of my parents and their friends consisted of people who happened to be both political and religious liberals.

I grew up knowing my tribe, and its habitat. I am of the tribe that lives on University campuses and UU church buildings, that hunts on the groves of academe, that gathers in libraries, feeding upon books, that pow-wows in classrooms and lecture halls and UU sanctuaries, that sings haltingly. I am of the tribe that frets about how badly certain more powerful tribes are running the country, and how unfairly certain less powerful tribes are treated.

Tribes, pretty much all of them, seek to expand their power, and my tribe's strategy was to capture people from other tribes and make them like us. Educate them. Hold them in our classrooms and make them read Plato, Shakespeare, Freud, Mary Wollstonecraft, Frederick Douglass, Walt Whitman, Virginia Woolf, Karl Marx, John Dewey. The strategy eschewed direct partisan appeals. Instead, our shamans, known as professors, issued the assignments, conducted exercises called “critically engaging the text,” and assumed that the process of becoming good thinkers would nudge the captives to the left. Students, it was expected, would emerge from this alchemical bath cleansed of their prejudices and agreeing with the prevailing views of my tribe: that government can and should create more opportunities for the poor, be less belligerent and militaristic, and more zealous in protecting civil liberties.

I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, and arrived at adulthood in 1980. I turned 21 in March that year, and 8 months later became a father, two days before I cast my first vote for president. The world of my childhood ended, not just because I became an adult. I am of the tribe that, in 1980, suffered a blow more grievous than was at first understood. My tribe has never regained the self-confidence it had in the 60s and 70s, the years of my childhood and formation. When Eisenhower had defeated Adlai Stephenson (a Unitarian), and when Nixon had defeated Humphrey (a Minnesotan, which is almost as good as a Unitarian) – my tribe shrugged and carried on. Ronald Reagan's victory in 1980 was different. The polls showed that, besides winning the overall vote, Reagan was also supported by majorities of students at the nation's finest universities. We had not previously lost the student vote, and certainly not the Ivy League student vote. Despite the careful ministrations of our most esteemed shamans, and despite judicious application of textual elixirs, the students were betraying us.

Our tribe's basic strategy wasn't working. In the slow, slow wake of that realization, our faith in the power of education to make the world better, happier, was shaken. And if education won't do it, what will? My tribe began to lose its faith, but it carried on with the only job it knew how to do.

I became an academic. I roamed through various campuses -- West Georgia College, Emory, Baylor -- before returning in 1987 to ancestral grounds, the University of Virginia, where my father and mother and her father before her had hunted sheepskin. After that, I trod the tenure track as an assistant professor of philosophy for four years: 1992-96, at Fisk University in Nashville.

Then, personal crisis. I lost that job. I lost my marriage and home. In my late-30s, my life lay in ruins, awaiting rebuilding – in some spots, from the ground up.

The call to ministry began to whisper. I yearned for connection. I was tugged by the liberal vision. In this vision, everyone recognizes and honors everyone else's right to equal concern and respect. In this vision , a decent living is available to all. In this vision, the tools for creative engagement with intellectual questions of life are in everyone's hands -- and yes, those would be the tools garnered from encounter with people like Dante and Dickinson, Rousseau, Rawls, Richard Wright, and the others one meets in the course of a liberal arts education.

In this vision, we all understand that there are many paths, and we work together to help each other work out our unique paths. That's just how I grew up. During four years as an assistant professor of philosophy at Fisk University, I worked with students for a semester, and then they were gone. I began to feel the appeal of long-term relationships of community building. At Fisk, I learned a lot about the African American community and the central place of the Black Church in African American history. The vision of my heart -- a vision of community with peace and justice -- was pointing me toward church work, toward ministry.

Parts of the job of a minister looked easy for someone like me: I was educated, I could put thoughts together and deliver them. Other parts of the job, however, were deeply mysterious and appeared simply impossible. I hadn't a clue how to be spiritually centered. I'd sat on a wall and a refrigerator. I had yet to sit on a zafu.

In the late 1990s, I was in transition: no longer a philosophy prof, what was I? What was my place? I could be smart; I had no idea how to be wise. If you brought me your broken heart, I could give you advice, sprinkled with references to Aristotle or Wordsworth. What I couldn't do is stand with you, cupping my hands around yours – metaphorically or maybe even literally – holding with you the broken pieces.

I had sat on a wall of childhood grief, and in a place of inadequacy and shame, largely pushed from active memory – and I had but dim inklings of those walls we all sit on, alone waiting for comfort – or those high perches of fear from which our knowledge is insufficient to get us down. Something in me perceived that these mysterious “spiritual” things were, at last, my great need – that only down that path lay may own healing and any possibility for participating in the world's healing. I was called toward my gift: discourse and public speaking. I was called toward my need: to learn how to live in self-awareness and in contact with the holy.

The Midwest Regional Subcommittee on Candidacy, as noted in part 7, told me to "get a spiritual practice." They first ascertained that I did not, in fact, have one. It was spring of 2001, and I had just completed my first year of seminary at United Theological Seminary in Minneapolis. I had driven over to Chicago, where I sat in a conference room in a hotel to be interviewed by this Midwest Regional Subcommittee on Candidacy, a subcommittee of the Ministerial Fellowship Committee (MFC). Passing muster with a regional subcommittee is a requirement for ministerial aspirants -- as would be, later, garnering the approval of the MFC itself. The path to professional ministry is gaily festooned with committees.

"Do you have a spiritual practice?" one of the members of this committee asked me.

Before starting seminary, I had spent two years as the congregational facilitator and preacher for the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Clarksville, Tennessee. Before that, I'd served as a president of our Fellowship in Waco, Texas, as Vice President of our church in Charlottesville, Virginia and had worked as the church secretary for a year at our Nashville, Tennessee church. But did I have a spiritual practice?

I was a born-and-raised Unitarian Universalist. I had a Ph.D. I'd been a university professor of philosophy for four years. I could debate about metaphysics, metaethics, metatheology, poststructuralism, postindustrialism, and postmodernism. If it was meta-, or post-, I was there. But did I have a spiritual practice?

Well, no, I didn't really. Nothing I regularly did was centering or cleansing, or put me much in touch with myself, or interconnected me with all beings, or produced a luminous sense of joy and peace flowing throughout the world, or made me feel lighter as I went about subsequent tasks -- or even inclined me to smile more.

Thus spake the Midwest Regional Subcommittee on Candidacy unto me: “Get a spiritual practice.”

They didn’t say which one. They didn’t define “spiritual practice.” They just said, get one. And I am forever their debt for changing my life on that day. That was just the push it took for me to take up Buddhism and Zen.

The Midwest Regional Subcommittee on Candidacy also told me to a take a whole year of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) instead of just the one 10-week unit normally required. CPE put me to work as a hospital chaplain. The broken bodies that fill a hospital often come with broken lives, broken spirits, broken hearts. Hour after hour, day after day, I sat with broken-ness, holding it, carrying other people's loads with them for just a few moments, gradually finding my own brokenness – which turned out to be also at the same time my wholeness. Like a golden luminescence inside an opaque vase – our brokenness, our cracks, are where the light shines out.

Since 2004, I have been ordained to a particular kind of professional ministry. There are times when it feels lonely, but this is not because I am unique (although, like all of us, I am), or among only a select few who minister. Indeed, I believe that all of us, or almost all, do, or have done, ministry.

Have you known that feeling? Stressed, deprived of sleep or some other human need, worn thin, to the point of transparency . . . and. And, and, and, at the very same time, filled with joy and gratitude and abundance. Have you known that feeling? Then you, too, have felt the light come through your cracks. Then you, too, have answered a call to ministry.

During World War II a young Canadian, age 22, captured by the Nazis in Denmark, charged with smuggling arms, wrote his final letter. On the evening before his execution he wrote to his mother:
"I know you are a courageous woman and you will bear this [news of my death] but, hear me, it is not enough to bear it. You must understand it. I am an insignificant thing, and my person will soon be forgotten, but the thought, the life, the inspiration that filled me will live on. You will meet them everywhere -- in the trees at springtime, in people who cross your path, in a loving little smile."
So I say to you, gentle reader, minister that you, too, are: each of us is an insignificant thing. The source of our call is the source of all grace -- the loveliness of the trees in springtime, of the song of the mockingbird, of the patter of rain. The yearning in you to serve, to minister, to be a part of a something larger than your ego’s needs and defenses: it is the very same as the yearning of the owl for a mouse, the yearning of the mouse for that nice bit of apple it smells, the yearning of the apple seed for a fertile patch in which to shoot down roots, the yearning of the earth to nourish life. Go forth, then, good minister, to realize yourself in service.

I sat on a wall. I sat on a refrigerator. I sat with hundreds of hospital patients. And I sit on a round cushion called a zafu. The patients and the zafu -- and in their way the wall and the fridge, too -- have taught me to hear life's love song. All of that sits with me every time I stand with, or for, or by, the people I serve.

* * *
Previous: "Odyssey, part 7: The Knowledge Road to Nowhere"
"Odyssey, part 6: Anti-Barbie"
"Odyssey, part 5: The Commune Attraction"
"Odyssey, part 4: Paragon of Loquacious Discourse"
"Odyssey, part 3: Mr. Bear's Lover of Leaving"
"Odyssey, part 2: Falling Apples"
"Odyssey, part 1: 1959"

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