Tag: Unitarian Universalism

When God prank calls you

When I was in my early twenties, I planned to go to seminary and become a Unitarian Universalist minister. I cherished this dream for several years, going as far as meeting with admissions officers from Meadville Lombard Theological School. This revelation may come as a surprise to those who know how much I love swearing and sleeping in on Sunday mornings. Over this past summer, I mentioned my now-silent religious calling to chaplain and author Kerry Egan. She asked me what made me give up on the idea. “Well,” I said, “I realized that I’m not good at being. I’m great at doing, but horrible at being.” She knew just what I meant. Religious folk are supposed to exude a calm, non-striving presence. I’m a halfway decent listener and I’m genuinely empathetic. But I’m also an antsy, leg-jiggling, nail-drumming advice-giver and people-helper. A lot of times, what people, particularly those with spiritual problems, need is to be truly, deeply heard. I’m about as deep as a jelly roll pan and about as still as a Mardi Gras parade. I am not minister material.

What I didn’t share with Kerry was the full backstory of the period of my life that led me to give up on the idea of ministry. The decision not to pursue ministry grew out of working with the Worst Possible Mindy. Worst Possible Mindy–let’s call her WPM–is a former boss of mine, a hospital chaplain who worked at the Duke Medical Center. I think of her as the worst possible version of myself because she seemed to embody and amplify all my foibles. She was full of great ideas, but terrible at seeing things through to completion. Her prodigious energy sizzled out of her in all directions, often leading to confusion, chaos, and crisis-mode actions. She had strong opinions and never curbed the instinct to share them. Although WPM probably meant much of what she said in jest, her need to be heard could make her come across as an rabid alpha female or a bully. Watching her operate was like watching the Bizarro Superman version of myself. As a boss and as a human, she was pretty much a disaster. The fact that she was a chaplain, someone who was supposed to exemplify the best of humanity, someone who was supposed to be in close touch with the universal and the divine, made her failings seem 100 times worse. I gave up on ministry because I was afraid that would happen to me — that standing on that pedestal would lead to a nasty tumble. I concluded that my dream of becoming a minister had been wrong. God hadn’t really called me.

Kerry’s response to my statement about being versus doing was that she, too, lacked the essential skills of a minister. “I learned them,” she said. “I’m still learning them.” They reminded me of the tagline of Stacy Sergent’s wonderful Chaplain Jesus Lady bloglearning (and unlearning) about life, death, God, myself, and other things…  I’ve thought about those words for months. I don’t know if I’ll ever go to seminary. However, the idea of learning has had an effect on me. Most ministers aren’t born to be ministers. Good ministers remain open to learning how to be more human rather than striving to attain saintliness.

Maybe certain in-born characteristics can help your chances of success, but most of the being is actually in the doing, the trying, and the learning.

Beam me up, Chaplain.

This piece was originally published in the November 2014 issue of the Association of Professional Chaplains Newsletter. Reprinted here with permission.

“For most people, religion is nothing more than a substitute for a malfunctioning brain…  It wasn’t until I was beginning to do Star Trek that the subject of religion arose. What brought it up was that people were saying that I would have a chaplain on board the Enterprise. I replied, “No, we don’t.” –Gene Roddenberry

“Roddenberry made it known to the writers of Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation that religion and mystical thinking were not to be included, and that in Roddenberry’s vision of Earth’s future, everyone was an atheist and better for it.[39] He stubbornly resisted the effort of network execs to put a Christian chaplain on the crew of the Enterprise. It would be ludicrous, he argued, to pretend that all other religions would have become obliterated by this point, or that such a cosmopolitan people would impose one group’s religion on all the rest of the crew.”[40] Wikipedia entry on Gene Roddenberry

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I was intrigued when I discovered recently that Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, hated, and I’m talking blood-boilingly, eye-buggingly HATED, the idea of putting a chaplain on board the Starship Enterprise. Before I go any further, let me issue the disclaimer that I’m not an avid Trekkie. While I am a casual fan of both the original Star Trek and The Next Generation, I don’t speak even a word of Klingon and I’ve never seen a single episode of Deep Space Nine. I encourage true Trekkies to boldly go where no Mindy has gone before by engaging in the Trekkie message board discussion about the topic of chaplains, religion, and Star Trek.

Despite my lack of Trekkie street cred, Roddenberry’s stance was interesting to me for a couple of reasons. First, I have a strong suspicion that anyone who’s been a chaplain for more than, say, four minutes has at some point encountered similar antagonism to the mere fact of their existence. I’m guessing this applies in all realms of chaplaincy, but since I know the most about chaplaincy in the hospital setting, I’ll use that arena to illustrate what I mean.

Many hospital chaplains will have run into a doctor who felt that they were “in the way” or even that they were undermining patient care or challenging the doctor’s authority. Or maybe you’ve had an experience in which a patient became enraged at a gentle offer to pray with them. For example, I remember my boss at the Duke University Medical Center coming into my office wide-eyed with shock after having a patient’s family scream at her in the hallway. “You come in here with your soft voice and your little prayers! What good is that? She’s in pain! She’s dying! You’re useless!” (Side note, after the woman died, the family actually sought out my boss to thank her for putting up with them, and for finding snacks and tissues for them).

Sometimes such antagonism is born out of the anger and fear that surrounds a trauma or a death. Other times, though, it comes from a sort of cognitive dissonance. Hospitals are supposed to be shimmering bubbles of modernity — the best that modern medical science has to offer. They’re about stuffing people full of precisely engineered, molecularly-targeted drugs and doing things to them that involve really big, fancy words. Words like stereotactic laser-assisted surgery and autologous mesenchymal stem cell infusions. To some people, suggesting a simple act like offering a prayer to a higher power might be as welcome in such a setting as offering to bring out the leeches and bloodletting tools.

For others, it’s not about the setting; they just can’t get on board with the idea of religion at all. I write novels about a hospital chaplain in a small North Carolina town. In my first book, I included a scene where a patient’s wife tells the chaplain that she doesn’t need the chaplain’s help because she isn’t “superstitious.” BURN! Like most of my best lines and plot elements, that was based on a true event. In that real-life situation, I felt that that word was carefully chosen to be extra insulting. Not just “not religious,” “not a Christian/Muslim/Jew/etc.,” or “not spiritual.” Such people might’ve had a bad experience in the past with someone trying to foist their own beliefs onto others. They may lash out because they feel threatened and might simply not understand that chaplains are not evangelists.

Roddenberry’s anti-chaplain stance also spoke to me as someone who falls on the humanist end of the Unitarian Universalist belief spectrum. I, too, have sometimes wished that we little homo sapiens could move beyond a certain kind of religious expression. It’s hard to learn about yet another zealot overseas beheading an innocent person or a rigid religionist in our own country passing discriminatory laws based on narrow interpretations of their personal faith without wishing that there was “nothing to kill or die for. And no religion, too.”

But Roddenberry fundamentally misunderstood the role of a chaplain, and indeed the role of religion in our lives. I agree that in Star Trek’s science-driven, cosmopolitan future world, it would make sense that some aspects of religious turmoil and even perhaps facets of religious belief would naturally fall away. Let’s sincerely hope we’re done beheading each other in the name of religion by then. But Captain Kirk and his shipmates are still humans. They still live and die, become angry and jealous, confront the unknown, and, most importantly, confront the unknowable. As long as there are humans, there will be a need for those who can help them understand what it means to be human. And that’s why chaplains will be needed every bit as much in Star Date 2364 as they are today.

Stop raging against the dying of the light.

As a writer of murder mysteries that feature a hospital chaplain, I’ve probably given death a lot more thought than most people.

Brief sidebar–my daughter seems to have inherited my fascination with the morbid. While most children play the License Plate Game on long car trips, my kid keeps a tally of the different roadkill animals we pass. I think we got up to 13 possums on our drive from Illinois to Virginia last summer.

Okay. Back to my fixation with death. When I was in college, I realized that there was no heaven, at least not in the sense that I’d been raised to regard it. When I say “realized” it genuinely was a moment of realization, like a reverse Road to Damascus moment.

Here’s how it went down. My roommate, who is Jewish, had received a kosher care package from her mother in advance of the Passover holiday. She and I unscrewed a bottle of Manischewitz wine (which, if you’ve never had the pleasure of trying it, tastes like Kool-aid with a fistful of Jolly Ranchers melted into it). As we drank, she told me about all of the ancient traditions of Passover — the meanings behind the food that was eaten and the words that were spoken. I realized in that moment that my sweet roommate, who is still one of the nicest, most considerate people I’ve ever known, wasn’t going to hell. It kind of broke my brain. I mean, this thought was totally at odds with everything I’d been taught as a strict Baptist, i.e. all non-believers, including many Catholics!, would go to hell. Jesus was the Way, the Truth, and the Light and NO ONE was gonna get to the Father except through Him. But how could this be so? My roommate was following the religious teachings she’d been raised with. Was she really supposed to throw all that out and toss aside her family and thousands of years of history in order to score a ticket to the one and only (Baptist) Heaven?!

Once my belief in heaven and hell became unmoored, other long-held “truths” got caught up in this tsunami of doubt. I have never been able to get back to any kind of certainty about what happens after we die. All I know is that I don’t believe that anyone deserves eternal damnation, especially anyone as good as my Jewish roommate. This uncertainty has made life all the more precious to me. This life may well be all that there is. You might think that that would make me cling to it like some kind of stubborn, agnostic barnacle. On the contrary, it’s made me value quality over quantity. For me, fifty bright-burning years of wonder and joy, soaking in the warm light of consciousness is always going to be way better than 100 years of meh.

Along those philosophical lines, I encourage you to read this wonderful piece in the Washington Post about the American obsession with extending life. So many of us try to stretch out those last months and years like stingy people trying to spread our little pat of margarine across an endless piece of toast. I hope that, when my time comes, I’ll have the courage to face the unknown with bravery and with the hope that there is some kind of heaven. Perhaps the kind of place where my roommate and I can sit around together, sipping terrible wine on a Tuesday afternoon.

Why write books about chaplains?

I came across an inspiring blog post today: Life as a queer chaplain by Laura Arnold. I’m at a particularly thorny stage of writing the next Reverend Lindsay Harding book, and I’ve been a bit discouraged. This post really helped reconnect me with my “mission”–to entertain and engage, while reminding people that we are all children of God*. We all need love. We all seek truth. We all crave meaning and connection. Chaplains, whatever their personal stories, come into our lives at critical moments and do their best to help us walk through to the other side. But chaplains are just like the rest of us–struggling with their own inner turmoil and trying to make their own way in this world.

*Note: Please substitute The Universe or Humanity if the idea of God doesn’t speak to you.

Too much, but not enough

The Simpsons is a great fun-house mirror for American life. One of my favorite scenes of all time shows Bart and the two devoutly Christian Flanders boys playing a video game in which they throw Bibles at heathens in order to convert them to Christianity. Bart’s biblical projectile glances off of one of the heathens-making him a Unitarian. As a Unitarian Universalist myself, I’ve become used to being considered too religious by atheists and not religious enough by many Christians. The Bible must have just nicked me as it flew past!

Through my religious practice, I have become increasingly interested in the middle places between doubt and belief, between being a member of the flock and being the black sheep. The work of a hospital chaplain requires a unique ability to navigate this tricky middle ground. Like the creators of The Simpsons, I think that humor can be a good avenue for deepening our understanding, which is why it’s so important to explore and celebrate the (sometimes unintentional) comedy that is part and parcel of being a religious professional.

Many of the young chaplains I know suffer constantly from a “too much, but not enough” view of their spirituality and professional calling. A few years ago, I went for a girls’ night out with a young, single minister friend of mine. Two men approached us in a bar and started making small talk. Many young, single religious professionals can guess what happened next. How many conversations have you had – on planes, at cocktail parties, in bars – where the flirty banter screeches to an abrupt halt when your potential suitor asks, “So, what do you do?”? For women especially, it seems, answering, “I’m a minister,” or “I’m a chaplain,” can end a romantic moment more quickly than saying, “I own sixteen cats and I let them all sleep in my bed.” Even if one’s date clears that first hurdle, another lies ahead. Most chaplains are, almost by definition, tolerant of others’ beliefs and ecumenical in their own beliefs. In America, religious toleration and acceptance are not frequently aligned with the abiding faith and deep commitment to spiritual practice that are part and parcel of being a religious professional. And so, there can emerge the converse problem that people sometimes assume that because you are a person who has chosen a religious profession, you are a person of their religious persuasion.

One of the most outlandish stories I have ever heard from the trenches of hospital chaplaincy was based around this kind of dynamic. A family who held a particularly inflexible view of Christianity was refusing to cooperate with “heathen” hospital staff. They clung to the Catholic hospital chaplain, who, by virtue of being the lone religious figure present, they took into their confidence. This priest was quickly dragged into a rather questionable religious rite at a patient’s bedside. They spoke in tongues, their bodies shaken by the Holy Spirit; he sang prayers in Latin. Everyone was happier, though the nurses were perhaps rather bemused.

These complexities can be especially challenging for those chaplains who are not heterosexual. Many of the chaplains I have met are gay or lesbian, having come to chaplaincy after being unable to reconcile their sexual orientation with the expectations of their “home” Christian denomination. They wanted a life of religious service free of the harsh judgments of certain faith traditions, and found that they could occupy that middle ground by working as a chaplain. One of the main characters in a novel I published last year is a chaplain who is in a same-sex relationship. I remember one literary agent suggesting that I drop this gay chaplain character so that my book could be more readily marketed in Christian bookstores. I will admit that I considered it. (I’ve got bills to pay, after all!) But in the end, I decided that the book, like the lives of real chaplains, would have to embrace the space in between.

Chaplaincy is a unique calling, and occupies a unique place in a complicated American religious landscape. Whether you are someone who wholeheartedly embraces the Christian Bible (or the sacred text of another religion), someone who tosses it out the window, or someone who was nicked by it as it flew past, I will happily stand with you if you want to join me out here on the middle ground.

Article originally published in The Association of Professional Chaplains newsletter, November 2013. archive.constantcontact.com/fs196/1101810986071/archive/1115478955604.html#LETTER.BLOCK12