Monday, August 5, 2013

Putting yourself out there

At the Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara's new members' luncheon this spring where John and I were celebrating officially joining the congregation, Rev. Aaron McEmrys leaned over and said to me, "You should join the Worship Committee." We were actually in the middle of a whole group discussion, and the comment was a whisper, almost as if he had slipped me a note in the middle of class. My heart almost literally stopped. How did he know, how could he have known, how much that one sentence would mean to me?

On our first date, as I was throwing everything I could at John to scare him off, I told him that I wanted to go to seminary. He didn't flinch, but even as I talked to him about it, I was terrified.  With many of my crazy ideas, reality (at some point) settles in and I realize what I've gotten myself into. Usually, this pertains to something fun, like driving cross-country or creating our own prom. Sometimes, it's big stuff, like starting a company or writing a book. In all of these things, when I start out down the path, I'm excited, not scared.

It is different when it comes to my spiritual beliefs. As passionate as I am about my own journey, what terrified me was leading others in their journeys. How could I teach anyone else anything about spirituality when I have so many questions myself? How could I be worthy of that awesome responsibility?

Yet, I wanted to try. When Aaron invited me to join the Worship Committee, I said yes. And then I signed up to help lead the service on August 4th. The monthly theme was despair (great, uplifting theme for my first service!). The service ended up including a puppet show put on by our kiddos and John supporting the service on stage, doing the candle lighting and helping with the puppet show. I was honored to be trusted to help lead the service and honored to have John by my side as I put myself out there (literally, actually...Ken Ralph, who was the other lay-leader for the service, built an extension for the chancel so that we could do our reflections closer to the congregation).

I am so very grateful for my amazing partner and family, and for Ken Ralph, Rev. McEmrys, the Worship Committee and USSB for trusting me. Yesterday was amazing and everyone's support got me to take the risk of putting myself out there and work through my fears.

Below is my reflection that I shared with the congregation yesterday. I'm already looking forward to the next service I'll help lead later this month (two services on despair!) and more committed than ever to working, seeking, persevering and honoring the title of our service: "Pounding the Stone."

Finding my religion 

Growing up, whenever someone asked me what religion I was, my mom told me to tell them "Christian." The truth was, we weren't really anything...I suppose if pressed, I would have said yes, I believe in God, and I do remember praying, but I never had any sort of religious education. By high school, I was starting to feel a gap. I had lots of questions and I wanted answers. I decided I would find my own beliefs, not blindly believe what someone told me I should. 

The first real connection to religion I felt came when I stumbled across excerpts from the Old Testament and the Torah. That's it! I thought...I'm Jewish! I told my mother that I wanted to be Jewish, and she patiently explained to me that being Jewish and practicing Judaism were different, that I could practice Judaism but that by bad luck of birth, I would never BE Jewish. It felt like a door closed on me that day, but I kept searching.

I took a comparative religions class my senior year and was introduced to Hinduism with its beautiful gods and Buddhism with its centering meditational practices I still use today. I learned more about Muslims and Christians...the basic facts, really, but enough for me to question the validity of organized religion. Over and over again, the stories the same: my beliefs are right, yours are wrong and you should be punished for not thinking the same as I do. And the Jews...usually the target of the other religions, the perpetual underdogs, but with idiosynchrocies in their own right...I realized I couldn't convert to Judaism after all, as I was NEVER going to give up bacon cheeseburgers. 

In college, I read the Bible cover to cover. Yes...even every "beget" in the Book of Numbers. I read more of the Torah and continued my study of Jewish history. I read much of the Quran. I read Siddhartha and books on Native American mysticism. I researched the Mormons and Mayans and the practice of VooDoo and HooDoo. I read story after story of near death experiences, watched the tv psychics who claimed to speak to the dead and researched ghost stories. I did everything I could to try to see the patterns, to see what all of these religions and spiritual connections were trying to tell us, to understand the underlying thread that ties together religious beliefs and tries to answer THE question of the meaning of life. 

In graduate school, I attended a Lutheran church and went through classes to be baptized. Every week I came to class and argued with the Pastor about the content of the homework he had assigned to me. I didn't even really buy the concept of baptism by that point, and I was disillusioned that I could disagree with so much of the Lutheran religion but by showing up each week and arguing, they would baptize me anyway. What was the point of it all?

At the end of all of my seeking, and after reading The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, I decided that as an answer to “What is the meaning of life?” 42 was as good an answer as any. 

Many years later, recently divorced with three small children, my parents having moved back to Michigan from living with me in Pennsylvania, in the midst of a destructive relationship from which I was desperately trying but couldn't seem to break free, I started questioning whether "42" was really enough of an answer, and whether it was enough of an answer for me to give my kids as they started asking inevitable questions. I felt alone, more alone than I had ever felt in my life - I felt alone in my soul. Reaching that point, the bottom of the pit of despair, is not always a sudden, shocking drop. Sometimes falling into despair is a slow descension, as bit by bit, every belief you have is challenged, everything you hold true is shown to be false. When I looked in the mirror, when I looked at my life, I didn't know who I was anymore and I didn't know how to find her again. 

What do you do when you realize that your life is not what you want? How do you move forward when you don’t know what will make you happy? I didn’t know where to start. It became difficult to face each day, to wake up to that loneliness, knowing that I didn’t want to be in this place of sadness, but not knowing what to do to change my life and move forward.

Religion seemed an unlikely answer to my despair. I had studied, researched, analyzed and tried on so many beliefs, but none of them fit. I was still asking the same question: what is the meaning of all this? What is the point of suffering through all of this loneliness, pain and sadness? I couldn't answer it for myself, and I couldn't answer it for my children. 

In a desperate conversation, I expressed all of this to a friend. She listened to everything I had to say, then simply said, "you sound like a Unitarian. You should check out your local congregation and see what you think." I was skeptical, but despair can drive you to try one more time.

The first service I attended was almost exactly two years ago today. I went alone, sat in the back of a converted Colonial house in West Chester, PA on a metal folding chair. The room had a Shaker feel - wood floors, white walls with quilts hung for decoration. I listened to Rev. Deborah Mero lead the sparsely attended summer service. It was the first time I had been to a church led by a woman. Not long into the service, she lit the chalice and invited anyone to come up and light a candle, and if they so chose, to share with the congregation the reason for lighting it. She called it "caring and sharing," and as I watched that week and each week after, members of the congregation would come up to light a candle, sometimes alone, sometimes as a family, and take the microphone to tell of the death of a loved one, or thank someone for an unexpected kindness, or to celebrate a birthday or birth. Sometimes candles would be lit for a political cause, or for someone none of us had ever met but had heard about through the news. Sometimes no one would come up to light a candle at all. The "caring and sharing" each week helped me get to know the congregation and, when I eventually found the courage to share myself, gave me the opportunity to let others get to know me, too. Sometimes funny, sometimes sad - lighting candles together was my favorite part of the service, because it was completely unpredictable and undeniably human. It was what showed me, more than anything else, that I am a Unitarian. It let me know that I belonged, I was not alone, and that sometimes, even when you think you've tried everything, you should give it one more try.

As this is my first service assisting as a Worship Associate, I'd like to share with all of you the experience of sharing together our Joys and Sorrows. Ken and I will be bringing the microphones down into the congregation. If there is a joy or sorrow you’d like to share, please let us know. In the interest of time, ten people will share with us today and John will light a candle for you as you share with all of us.

To begin, I’d like to light two candles today, first, for my first Unitarian family back in West Chester and for Rev Deb as she prepares for her retirement. Thank you for raising me up from despair, not through any special outreach, but just by sharing yourselves with me. And second, for my new Unitarian family here in Santa Barbara: thank you for welcoming me and my family so warmly, for giving me an opportunity to continue my seeking surrounded by support and enthusiasm and love. 

[congregation lights candles]

And now I light a candle for all of those joys and sorrows carried in our hearts which could not yet be spoken aloud. May this candle lift them out of the darkness and into the light. 


  1. While I am not a believer, I really enjoyed what your wrote above. - Joe Ganci

  2. I have been struggling a lot over the last few years. It never dawned on my that it had a name...despair. How serendipitous is it that I should open my email this morning (before starting another trying work day) and see your blog post. It was beautiful. I left organized religion many years ago for some of the same reasons that you mentioned. And '42' worked for me for many years after that. But now I am considering investigating the local Unitarian congregation to see if I might 'belong' somewhere. Thank you.