Special Interest Groups, Faith Community Version

Cataclysmic weather events happen frequently enough (thanks global warming) that a faith community could form around raising awareness, helpful disaster theology, and responding appropriately whether the floods are in Texas or India, Bangladesh and Nepal.

I hear often enough that the diversity of people’s interests (professional and otherwise) within a congregation is an asset (only the poor woman or man who works as an accountant often gets stuck being the Council treasurer). We cite other differences in a congregation as a selling point, such as multiple generations: “What other organizations foster on-going inter-generational relationships, besides extended families?” But I’ve been thinking a bit lately about the benefits of specificity, of a faith community with a narrower scope. What if we initiated theological conversations specific to certain professions in order to build a faith community (with some benefits of, and differences from a congregation) for those who have similar stresses, settings for living out their faith, and perhaps investment in acting on their faith in similar arenas?

I’ll give you an example: A faith-based non-profit builds schools or libraries, or sponsors school fees for children in an under-developed part of the world. A cohort of teachers, school staff and administrators in this country could be transformed by forming a relationship with one such school. We could do Bible Study on both ends, sharing insights between teachers and students here and there. Through the wonders of the internet, we could share video clips of ourselves, hopes, prayers and perhaps even create a project together such as Christmas cards or a seasonal devotional book. We’d fill Bible Study with stories of Rabbi Jesus teaching, or saying “Let the little children come to me.” Maybe we try cooking something from the other culture, and have a meal “together.” But it would all be about the vocations of teachers and students.

Or maybe medical professionals would be interested in engaging with a faith-based clinic or nursing school. Bible study or devotions shared across the miles could focus on healing stories, or even poetry from the Song of Solomon about the beauty of bodies. Perhaps the hospice departments would have spiritual insights about caring for people faithfully, through to the end. There would be room for conversation too about burnout in the profession and what it is to be, like Jesus, a wounded healer.

When a natural disaster occurs, “Disaster Theology” events that fund-raise, share best practices for response, de-bunk bad theology and lay out helpful theology would feed my soul. And while the regular church-goers need to hear it too, certainly, those who live well outside the sphere of influence of any congregation need helpful “disaster theology.” Cataclysmic weather events happen frequently enough (thanks global warming) that a faith community could form around raising awareness, helpful theology, and responding appropriately whether the floods are in Texas or India, Bangladesh and Nepal.

Such a project wouldn’t be church, by some definitions: without regular worship or sacraments. But that is also the appeal! Community-building with faith, meaningful theological discussion, and challenges to reach beyond our own spheres for the sake of the Holy Spirit working sounds like what I actually need from church. Some of us are ready for less church and more direct action on our specific concerns because of our faith.

Pastor in the Pew

(An edited version appeared online in Fidelia’s Sisters, the publication of Young Clergy Women International.)

When I let it slide in conversation that I am a pastor, the natural follow-up question is, “Where’s your congregation?” For me right now, the answer requires extra explanation. I am a “pastor in the pew,” a phrase I am not entirely sure I should be coining. My national church body’s term for my status is “on leave from call for family reasons,” but in plain language, I am staying home with the kids for awhile. I do not believe at all that everyone should (even if they could, financially) do this, but for me and my family all the factors converged at once to make this what I wanted to be doing right now. Others gain the status of “pastor in the pew” by going into specialized ministries as chaplains or counselors, serving camp ministries or non-profits, going to graduate school, becoming professors or synod/regional church staff or retiring. Then, there we are: in the pews of a congregation where we are not the pastor.

We have the specialized education of seminary, and also gifts and insights into various kinds of ministries developed through experience. We also carry the confidence and wounds of being deeply embedded in congregational life. All of those things are recognizable and can be shepherded to the good of the congregation by a thoughtful pastoral leader, in whose flock we now bleat. But my real question is this: How do I still carry the identity of “pastor”? My church body does not ordain pastors until they have received a call from a congregation (only rarely to specialized ministry first), and we imbue the “call process” with spiritual weight, believing that the call of the Church is the action of the Holy Spirit herself. But, does it wear off? If I’m not actively leading a congregation, am I still a pastor? How do I be a faithful “pastor in the pew”?

First do no harm, right? My first priority is to be as respectful as possible of the pastor in the congregation where we joined. We could only join, of course, a congregation where I found the pastor respectable, but there are all the daily ways to live it out. I pay attention to details like always referring to her by using “Pastor” in front of her name. I am that rare person who responds to announcements by volunteering and strives to reply promptly to e-mails. If I had feedback to give about how she is doing her job, I would give it privately but never anonymously. Even theological challenges must be made with respect to the authority of her office, in my view. I only suggest ideas that I am willing to participate in bringing to fruition, and include her in official capacities (like opening with prayer) in projects I have instigated. I trust our pastor, so I am honest with her about what I do and do not want to lead or participate in. I negotiate directly and transparently when I am asked to perform pastoral duties (in my case for neighbors) such as baptisms in the church’s space, so it cannot even be perceived by an onlooker as usurping any authority. As another clergy woman, I try to think about when I would have liked someone to just volunteer to cut me some slack (because it wasn’t in the budget); that’s why I preached not long after our pastor returned from her maternity leave, and this year during Lent.

Those are the practical things, helpful notes from the field guide to being a decent “pastor in the pew”. The deeper stuff has to do with working out where my head and heart are, while I sit in the pew. I have to figure out what this call, and the identity I’ve worn for most of my adult life, mean when I am not in congregational leadership. I have to find outlets for my gifts for ministry outside of our congregation, because there I am not the pastor. I have been using my theological mind and my penchant for words to write: articles, blogposts, and even a book proposal. Writing about faith and life has been really meaningful and healthy both to exercise my mind, but also stretch and challenge myself theologically. The more I write, the more I want to read theology too. I feel like I’m contributing to a larger conversation. Next, what about all those organizational skills, connections I’ve cultivated and creative ideas I still have? I was pleased to stumble upon a ministry under development in my very neighborhood, whose leadership team could use an infusion of my energy. The exploration phase ended 6 months after I came on board, unfortunately with a failure to launch, but it was an outlet for me to use my pastor’s mind and networks, for which I am very grateful. As long as I remain a pastor in the pew, I’ll need to find these ways to live out that part of my vocation. Because, I have an ego.

Extrovert or introvert, call of God and all, I am still convinced that anyone must have a certain level of confidence and appreciation for themselves to stand up in front of others week after week and preach. The responses, even when negative, tell us that people are listening enough to our voice to struggle with what we have said. In sermons, classes, meetings, and even one-on-one pastoral care situations: the authority of the pastor still holds power for many people. Having been accustomed to that kind of authority makes me want to be cautious and self-aware about what affirmations and sense of value I might be seeking now. I have noticed that particular parishioners dig in their heels and exercise control in churches, when they do not have outlets for exerting authority in other parts of their lives, such as at a place of work or in a family system. I want to guard against becoming that thorn in the pastor’s side!

Finally, this time as a “pastor in the pew” is an opportunity to put my other vocations, of spouse/partner, parent, child, and friend, before being the leader of a congregation. The balancing act is suspended for awhile. My spouse and my kids get to chart their own course in this congregation, to be known for their own personalities and opinions, without reference to me as the pastor. They can be involved or not, without the concern that it reflects on my pastoral identity. Outside our household, we also get to show up more for friends who have something going on Sunday mornings: baptisms, installations in a new call, children’s programs, or just an interesting presentation happening at a friend’s church. While in congregational leadership, I guarded my limited Sundays off for travel and vacations, so many of these things were not feasible.

Of course there are things I miss about leading a congregation, and my identity when I was doing so. I cannot imagine how difficult maintaining clear boundaries would be for a person who retires or takes another job, but continues to worship in a congregation they had formerly served in pastoral leadership. That must be why most denominations have written or unwritten guidelines about contact with former congregations and members. In my view, a “pastor in the pew” can be an honored, supportive vocation for whatever time span, but it must be embarked upon with careful consideration.

5 Years In…

Every year when our Vikta’s birthday arrives, so does another milestone: The anniversary of when we first knew of our daughter. We received her referral document on her 2nd birthday, and 2 photos of her the next day. That was 5 years ago! Today, I’m remembering the adoption process, the waiting, the love and the great unknowns. I remembered that I had written about this to the congregation where I was the pastor at the time, in February when we finally had approval to go become her parents and bring Viktoria home. Here is that letter:

Dear River of Life,

Every adoption process is different, I know. These days there is much preparation required on behalf of the adoptive parents: classes, the home study, background checks from everywhere you’ve lived during your adult life and mountains of paperwork. But after all the preparation, for many there is suddenness. You are suddenly chosen by birthparents, maybe even receiving a call from the hospital. Or perhaps the child has been living with you through foster care, but is suddenly available for adoption. For inter-country adoption, there is often a sudden phone call telling you to buy your plane tickets, or meet someone at the airport. You may fear unwanted sudden events: a birthmother may have a change of heart, or unknown biological relatives could show up out of the blue, or politics will affect adoption from other countries. But always, with the suddenness, you would know that your life has changed forever.

I was ready for the suddenness, ready to be overwhelmed by how little I know after all, ready for the exhaustion and the chaos and the adaptation at lightning speed. It was this part of the process I never wanted, never knew to expect and certainly didn’t think would become the defining part of the process for us: incessant waiting. For 3 months our lives were suspended in waiting, not planning except in fits and starts for what we do not even know will be needed.

It has felt like it is dragging on and on, cycling through the seasons. Again, I know that for other adoptive parents, the wait can be much longer. In reality, this stage of the process for us has only been half a year – 6 months since we knew there was a specific child, whose name and photograph we’ve clutched tightly. But I am steeped in the rhythms of the “church year” so I’ve noticed that this six months spans just about all of it, except for the vast “Season After Pentecost.” Perhaps that is part of the reason it feels so long.

Reformation: We first had a phone call during the busiest weekend since I’ve been at River of Life (the ALLIA Convention) but were not able to return it until Monday. Then we heard about the child the adoption agency was referring to us: Viktoria! We soon said “Yes!” we would move forward with a visit, which was not able to take place until the end of October, over Reformation Sunday. Reformation is a celebration of God doing a new thing within old forms like the Church and the Scriptures. For us it was a brave new world, meeting the child whom we had to say “yes” to again a few days into our visit. We were choosing our future according to our consciences, even though we still couldn’t grasp the full implications of that choice. Kind of like Martin Luther, we thought, as we flew back home by way of Frankfurt, Germany.

Advent: Do you understand when I say that it has felt as if I am perpetually stuck in Advent (the season of waiting, anticipation, and longing)? A few weeks after we returned from our first trip to meet Viktoria, Advent was upon us. One of my pastor colleagues suggested that I could just hold up a photo of Viktoria in place of a sermon on “longing” that December.  Like the readings from the Prophets we always hear in the season of Advent, there were these promises for the future, but nothing was yet realized.

Christmas: Jesus was born centuries ago in Bethlehem of Judea, but we still wait for him to  come again. Stefan and I had a different child we were talking about in addition to the baby Jesus, and pondering all these things in our hearts. Every Christmas there is so much love invested in a tiny young person, but also in the potential for what they could do in our lives and our world. It was Christmas, but it was still Advent for us.

Epiphany: We know that there’s a lot of time in between Jesus’ birth and the magi visiting, and his baptism in the Jordan River. It’s not as quick as the church year has it. Instead there a good deal of growing up going on in between those milestones. But when we arrive at Epiphany there is something so satisfying about how everything is revealed at last. We, of course, hoped that since it hadn’t happened yet, our travel and court dates would be revealed, but there was no instant gratification on that matter by January 6th. This year I did 4 baptisms on the Sunday of Epiphany/Baptism of our Lord: 3 children from very near… one from as far away as China, our friends’ daughter who was adopted and came home to their family just a year ago. She is likely to be Viktoria’s first friend in her new life with us. The baptism liturgy we used has adoption language, about how God adopts all of us through baptism, into the same family.

Lent: Finally, finally, finally… one week before Ash Wednesday we got the word. We will “bond” as a family during Lent. That is our church season of reflection and repentance; I’m not sure what meaning to take from that just yet for our adoption process. During Holy Week, as Jesus parades into Jerusalem, breaks the Passover bread with his disciples, is betrayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, and gives up his life on the cross, our family will be moving steadily towards our permanent future and a great celebration, but not without grief. Our dear little girl has had enough grief and loss for a young life already…the fear and inexpressible emotions the disciples and Jesus himself experienced on Good Friday have already played out to some extent in her story. Her birth parents, who were not capable of parenting her, must have agonized too since they loved her enough to do what was ultimately the best for her. That was the painful, most just thing to do. There will be a lot of emotional turmoil as we try to write a new life story together. Yet through all of it, we will come, ultimately, to Easter. The Resurrection of our Lord will be our family’s time of new life too! The court date when we become a family forever is April 4th, the Thursday after Easter. I cannot wait for the joy of it – joy that is sincere because of all we’ve been through.

Even if no one else we know has been through this same exact process, and even those who’ve been through similar processes do not empathize with the exact way we’re experiencing it, it is not a completely new story. It is the oldest story, which we have known and loved all these years, and will continue to tell and live out for the rest of our days. The timing on that, at least, feels right.

Pastor Lee Ann

Embodied Stereotypes Instead of Theology

“Keep Minnesota passive-aggressive! (Or not, whatever you think is best.)”

I laughed out loud when I read that t-shirt slogan, and told my husband about it when I got home. Minnesotans have a set of character traits that we – and others – claim define us, and they tend to be synonymous with Lutherans, a Christian denomination that is still predominates here. Or I should have said, white Minnesotan Lutherans. Of Scandinavian descent. Sometimes those things are just assumed when you are in the majority. “This is who we are,” we say sometimes jokingly, sometimes not. But it’s killing us, or the people we don’t yet recognize are part of us.

Justine Damond was the 3rd person to die at the hands of police in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul in under 2 years. The culture within a police department may be toxic, but the culture we propagate in the community they serve has to be complicit for it to continue. Living into the stereotypes about ourselves costs lives; maybe this time we’ll do something about it. An op-ed by a former Hennepin County assistant defender in the Star Tribune underlined that it is the citizens who run these cities, and to whom the police departments are accountable when we insist on reforms. I wonder if black or brown citizens have ever thought that is true, though? This time, however, Police Chief Harteau was asked to resign.

How did our communities get here? Lutherans (again white, Scandinavian Lutherans) stereotypically don’t want to make a fuss. Stereotypes always misrepresent some, but they can also be internalized and become self-fulfilling prophesies. Our type stops participating rather than facing conflict. Church leaders worry, if we offend people and they leave, then we have no more chances to influence their prejudices, to change their hearts. Meanwhile, those who have been excluded or shamed disappear, never to return. We settle further into our homogeneity and justify not rocking the boat because “we don’t have any of those people here anyway.” Or we slip it in, little bits at a time, stories here or there, guest speakers, one pick in the book club, to open people’s eyes to discrimination. Maybe it builds up to a critical point of realization for some people. Or maybe the Council calls a special session because the complaints have become too numerous that the pastor is “too political,” although she has been fastidious about not mentioning any politicians or political parties. Except for a few side illustrations, living as if people of color (or any other group of people who might make us examine our complicity in discrimination) do not exist, bleeds outside of our churches into our communities. It shows up most starkly in what we do NOT do.

Lutherans can back up the pace of our incremental change with theology! An impetus for the Reformation touched off by Martin Luther 500 years ago this year was his assertion that there is absolutely nothing we can do (like buying indulgences or being a good person) to earn salvation. Luther claims that since there’s nothing we need to do, we are freed from selfish obsession about the fate of our souls, to serve our neighbor. But somehow being free to serve does not motivate us as much as fear or doing good works under threat. Taken only in part, the emphasis on “nothing we can do” leads to doing nothing as an act of faithfulness.

Although there are Lutherans who are African-American, African, Asian, Latinx, and Native American in the Twin Cities, I bet you didn’t know that. The image we project – not helped by Garrison Keillor’s long-time sagas on the fictional Lake Wobegone – of Lutheranism in Minnesota is monolithic: white Scandinavian. And because we’re all white and Scandinavian (in our mind’s eye), we are like a homogeneous family. Families unfortunately can be insular, and not motivated to take a stand unless we perceive one of our own is being threatened. But by failing to identify with people of color, LGBTQ folk or others we have marginalized, we deny what should be the definition of our faith: We are all one in Christ, so we are family.

The false self-image of the homogeneous family is corroding us from within, yet true to our reformation heritage, people are calling out the harmful practices. The ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) is the largest Lutheran church body and the most engaged in the public sphere, so that marginalized people could stay within it and actually try to change things. They are trying. The #decolonizelutheranism movement ) is a testament to the birth pangs and groaning of that process. But it is not just for the sake of the Church that we need to stop living into our stereotypes. It is explicitly for the sake of our neighbor, our brothers and sisters and our communities. The culture once established by a plethora of Scandinavian Lutherans in this area could be changed again, by a mass movement of the same owning the fullness of our theology and demanding change for all of our siblings: Jamar Clark, Philando Castile, and Justine Damond included.

The particular is universal, as a friend reminded me recently. So likely we are not just talking about Lutherans in Minnesota, but also Presbyterians in California or Southern Baptists in Georgia. Living our stereotypes instead of our theology leaves our family members crying out for justice alone.

Would a Spirit of Adoption Make Us Relate?

(Based on my previous post, a classmate from my Collegeville Institute course challenged me to find a current news hook and submit something perhaps as an Op-Ed to the Star Tribune. This is what I wrote, but it wasn’t picked up. There were many urgent issues for comment this week.)

Take this theological concept outside, please!

Thousands who make it inside a church this Sunday will hear about the “spirit of adoption” in one of the lectionary* Bible readings (Romans 8:12-25), while members of adoptive families like mine live it every day. Does this phrase and concept only matter to those whose lives are connected to adoption, foster care, kinship adoption, or adoption by step-parents? Or could claiming it as a goal transform our public life, and painstakingly drag us out of the polarized camps where we have become entrenched since before last fall’s election?

A “spirit of adoption”: Minnesotans know a bit about that. Minnesota has a huge adoption community, bolstered by Lutheran Social Services of MN, Children’s Home Society, the International Adoption Medicine Clinic at the U of M and adult adoptee advocacy organizations like LGA, all based in the Twin Cities. A “spirit of adoption” could and should be in the air here. Yet it’s not something we receive passively. And that’s the point. Adoption makes new family of unrelated people. It’s a choice to relate to others, and commit to being family with those who did not come from you, do not resemble you, and will sometimes exasperate you beyond your limits. Nurturing a “secure attachment,” in adoption lingo, requires consistent, repetitive effort, especially because bonds of trust have been broken before. It is a lot of work, but having a family, committed to us no matter what, launches us into the world to multiply the good, instead of scrambling to take care of ourselves.

I wonder what it would be like if neighbors made a commitment to standing by one another, like an adoptive family does – not because of our similarities, but because our differences make such a commitment necessary. What if residents of a city or town decided that just because another person was also a resident in their town, despite living in a different area, being of a different race, speaking a different language, or practicing a different religion, we were still related just because we are all members of the human family? What happens to them therefore matters deeply to us: in a show-up-with-a-casserole, testify-at-city-hall, confront-negligent-landlords kind of way. The “spirit of adoption” means defending and loving our family no matter what.

In families there is sometimes the matter of inheritance, and always the matter of legacy. We divide and sometimes fight over the material goods, money or resources, as our communities might when making budget decisions on the local and state-wide level. We lick our wounds and take stock of what we received from previous generations: assessing what to keep and what to throw away. It’s hard for those who thought everyone was getting a fair share to hear the opposite without getting defensive. But family, it must be done. If we are committed to staying at the same dinner table no matter how the conversation goes, our legacy will be to nurture belonging instead of walking away.

*The Revised Common Lectionary is a 3 year cycle of Bible readings followed by the majority of Lutheran, Methodist, Episcopal, UCC and Roman Catholic churches.

Preach on Us

Preach about my family this Sunday!

(Maybe not by name, because you probably have adoptive families or adult adoptees in your own congregation, and they should be the ones you consult and name.) But trust me, we have some serious lived commentary on the “spirit of adoption” in Romans 8:12-25 (the Epistle reading in the Revised Common Lectionary on July 23, 2017). This passage was one of the Scriptures I highlighted in an article for WorkingPreacher.org, as a built-in opportunity to speak from the pulpit about adoption. Now’s your chance!

The spirit of adoption is first of all, its permanence. We are forever families, but we’ve had to work at that secure attachment. When a child is born, and their needs are met consistently by a primary care giver, the child seems to have an innate trust and bond with that care giver (usually a parent). But it isn’t innate; it comes through constant attention and consistent care and affection, which is a great deal of work, especially in the middle of the night. It takes deep commitment to love and care for a child no matter what. Every. Single. Time. Through our own wounds, losses, upheaval, and even post-partum depression.

When my husband and I adopted our eldest daughter, for awhile attachment was the primary focus of our lives. Prospective adoptive parents are counseled on how to establish that they alone are the ones their child should attach to in their new life, which can seem harsh to grandparents, friends and other care givers. Parents must be the ones to meet all their child’s needs for physical affection, emotional comfort, and basic needs like feeding them. No one else, for 6 months, we were told. It was not a threat, to heed or feel guilty about (there are circumstances; people work). It was advice from those who know how delicate and difficult it can be for us to form new secure attachments, to trust and live as though this new relationship will be forever. To do that, we need our focus narrowed down to only 1 or 2 people, until it sticks. There will be developmental stages, especially in the teenage years, when everyone questions their identity and belonging, but the goal we keep in front of us as adoptive parents is to pay attention to nurturing attachment and never to sow any seeds of doubt about the permanence of our family. Let me spell out the comparison: As Paul writes, when we cry “Abba! Father!” it is the spirit bearing witness to our trust that God our Parent hears and will respond to us. Every. Single. Time. This is a permanent, secure attachment. But even with God, it takes time to develop attachment when we’ve been abandoned before.

In our family, and in my reading of Paul’s theology, the spirit of adoption is about choosing to be transformed. We opt in, then the scale of the transformation completely blows us away. Parents, both birth and adoptive, make the initial adoption plan, with none of us knowing the extent or details about how we will be transformed by these new relationships. We believe God chooses us as God’s own children, but is God also surprised at being changed through relationship with us? What was initiated with new relationships was transformation, but not just for one of us, for all of us!

The transformation ripples outward from parent/child to siblings, extended family, community and beyond. It was not just our daughter’s life that changed when we adopted her. I became a mother; my husband became a father; and our expectations about what that involves had to adjust immediately. When a child is available for adoption, it can mean that there is neglect, abuse, abandonment or institutional care in their history. Behaviors in reaction to that history can emerge later, to test the boundaries of parents’ commitment once the child feels a little bit safe. Developmental delays and unknown disabilities surface. One parent in an adoptive families support group said, “We were ready to be in the category ‘adoptive families’ but now realize that we also need to navigate being parents of kids with special needs.” Everyone participated in that support group because we have been transformed by our beloved children – and wouldn’t change our fierce love for them ever – but don’t always have a handle on how to process all of it.

Our extended families also had to learn to speak about families in ways that include our beloved child by adoption. Adoptive families may draw our family trees differently, reassess how we value our families’ ethnic heritage, and shift the conversation about family resemblances from physical attributes to personalities, to make us all think more intentionally about what really makes us belong together. If people in our churches ever refer to the congregation as a “church family” then it can be very illuminating to ask intentional questions about how our words and actions imply belonging (or not) for those who are not born into the church family, or don’t resemble the majority.

Inheritance is not a big part of my “spirit of adoption,” but perhaps that is due to my privilege. I do not have to worry about how my basic needs will be met tomorrow, so thinking about a financial inheritance or legacy seems not so relevant as the new relationships adoption has forged with our family members here and now. Yet legacy and inheritance matter a great deal when survival is less certain. Another adoptive family we know is very honest about the heartbreaking circumstances that led to the formation of their family. Their children’s birth parents both died of diseases that were preventable, if they had access to medical care. So part of the legacy their children now have is a future where that particular risk is not such a threat. But we all bristle at the notion that somehow we “saved” our children, which is language better left with Jesus’ actions and not applied to our families. Adoption only comes out of brokenness, that much is true. In this country or abroad, there is plenty of brokenness. We did seek to do some good in the world by adopting a child who needed a family. But being in a family is a mutual relationship, whereby we are all changed by our life together. A savior complex puts a barrier between parent and child that denigrates our child’s origins and questions the love that transforms us both. We committed from the beginning, to suffer together and to be glorified together.

Finally, there is the groaning. This Scripture passage summons collective groans from both labor pains and the pain of waiting for adoption. All children cause parents to groan, both in the waiting to become a family and in living out our relationships our entire lives. What I’d love to hear within a “church family” is the collective groan of those who know we are not complete in our homogeneity, without groan-inducing transformation from relating to those who challenge us. The Spirit cries out for adoption to bring us together with others as with God our Parent. We have not yet embraced all our siblings, stood with them against the world, nor loved them so fiercely no one would dare challenge the lasting bond between us. We have not yet been transformed, until we seek out those relationships that will challenge everything we assumed about ourselves. The Spirit cries out for adoption, to become a new kind of family.

A Ritual to Define the Culture (of a Collegeville Institute workshop)

Group Photo (2)

Did we start yet? Was that part of it, or just a note before we began? Should we be walking reverently or can we keep chatting? The ritual began casually, setting the tone it would carry throughout. Several times I was unsure if we were participating in an official action, or speaking off the cuff, but it didn’t matter either way. Either way, we were clearly among friends, the sentiments behind our actions were real, and what we were doing reflected exactly what this week at Collegeville had been. Through words and pauses, we related to one another, turned introspective, and cast our view outward to what the broader audience needed to hear, all in the same period of time.

Was it intentional, to begin with a question mark, blurring the line between relationship and ritual? If not, it was a clever happenstance. We stood around and waited for Tess to emerge from behind the Butler Center, and lead us to the tree beside Ben’s back porch. Sometimes it is good, she said, to have an object that can hold the meaning of something for us, to be blessed and carried with us. So the tree with its roots and branches and rootedness and branchiness reminded us. Admittedly my mind wandered a little bit at this point, but I did add my cell phone to the pile at the foot of the tree. I’m hazy on the details, because to me the details weren’t the point. The point was the ethos. Sticks of incense along the side of the patio promoted an ethereal spirituality. We were making space, setting the stage for everyone to have their own experience, except all together. Like Collegeville itself.

When we filed inside, Ben had a great blaze going in the fireplace, and all the furniture had been moved to the outskirts of the room so we could stand in a semi-circle. Melanie instructed us, while clarifying both the similarity and difference from the previous group’s ritual, to write on the paper provided something general in our lives that we’d like to be rid of. When Ben opened the glass door in front of that blazing fire, the risk-averse majority among us were content to put our scraps of paper on the small shovel he extended, and let him send up our released hopes as our intermediary.

John smiled at us, and started explaining how we would now bless the person next to us, or thank them, or note how they had blessed us. Then did he say, “for example”? Regardless, the example started, and he was briefly telling Tess who and how she was and what he hoped for her, and when he finished, even she had to pause in front of the fire before deciding we had started and it was now her turn. The explanation had turned into the doing of the thing. The talking about writing the story had turned into the telling of the story itself. We each did this for each other, probably half listening while another spoke and half planning what we would say about or to the person to our left. Isn’t all word-smithing half listening and half planning anyway? Caroline gave us each a long match stick so we could write a word in the air outside, releasing it into the universe. Several people explained that they would have preferred sparklers, but, oh well.

The ritual ended with drinks and snacks and people settling into groups to talk, laugh, and tell stories, morphing seamlessly into “porch beers,” a ritual which already had a precedent this week. Or maybe it didn’t end; maybe it’s still going. The assignment had been to create a ritual so that the other group could write about it as if we were anthropologists. Perhaps it was just inadvertent that Group 2 created a ritual to summarize and define the culture of the Collegeville Institute during our particular week. Or maybe it was intentional.