Gateways Have Power

Way back when, I was in an intensive year-long residency—it was a program that was and still is part of becoming a minister. This nationwide education for all types of ministers takes place in some kind of “clinical” setting. I did my “residency” in a large hospital known for its Level 1 trauma center. My program included three other ministers and our supervisor. In so many ways it really was year-long intensive group therapy with other minister wannabes. Our supervisor was very good. She knew when and how hard to push us to grow, to become what we said we wanted to be. 

We acquired a skill set and most importantly a new identity, both necessary to be ministers. The primary way we did so was to encounter again and again what the program called the “living human document.” In other words, post-seminary, we put down the books, walked into patients’ rooms—into wherever someone was in need—and announced ourselves.  Again and again we did that. Then we retreated into group, or supervision, or deep sleep, to let what we had done take form.

I remember the how much fright I felt the first 50 times crossing the threshold into the room of a person unknown to me, and announcing, “My name is Ann Marie, I am your chaplain.” It was at least 100 times of passing through that gateway before I would own—or feel the least bit comfortable with—my “title,” the responsibility I had taken on.

For those of you who have been in my office, you know now why the antique sign that says “chaplain” is important to me.

Gateways have power.   

This national program was set up to teach minister wannabes how to function in an acute care setting, but more importantly to help us adopt a new identity, to become ministers. 

This past Thursday, I was at a service auction event, with a dozen long-time UUCSH members there with me. Perhaps, everyone there but me had had experience volunteering with the Giving Network. With the annual Gala coming up soon, those folks started telling stories about the experiences they had had doing the good deeds that they do there.

Mark Allison told a story about some young men he had worked with doing pickup and delivery—mostly of very heavy items, taking and bringing furniture in a big truck, to and from so many different homes. His story was about one of those young persons, a UU whom no one would think of as “religious,” who came to refer to what they did as “God’s work.” Of course, this young person used that term partially in jest.

“God’s work.”

I feel certain the other wannabe chaplains in that year long residency I was a part of seriously thought of themselves as doing God’s work. As an angry, agnostic UU, I resisted thinking like that. 

What I did come to realize after passing through so many gateways was that I was “God’s work.” I was being transformed, perhaps as was the young man Mark told his story about. 

That is true for me, and perhaps for the Giving Network musclemen and the others who labor there, it is something I hope we all can affirm from our own experiences; crossing thresholds into the unknown is part of becoming who we will be. It is human work, being as fully human-as-we-can-be work.

It is our work. 

We often get fooled into imagining that entering a gateway that leads us into another space is a once and done kind of deal.

Birth, death, marriage, graduation, birthdays, contracts, new years—these are all “once and done” kind of deals, or at least they appear to be… until the next one comes around.

Myths and legends, stories about what it means to be human, often depict the crossing of thresholds as part of an elaborate multi-stage journey, with many “once and done” elements strung together. You took your first breath, you said your vow, you mature into adulthood, you pass.

Yet, it seems to me that we have very few once and done thresholds to pass over. It seems to me that the gateways with the most transformative power are those that are passed through again and again. It isn’t always one long, linear, progressive journey, but circling back and forth again and again, never “done.”

At least “maturing,” becoming wiser than perhaps you once were, never happens all at once. It happens through the gateways one crosses again and again.

In a congregation I served in the past, there was very bright young mother who taught at college level. She had a husband and two little children. They had all started coming to the UU church I served at the time to have a place (they said) for their kids to grow up. One day this young adult, career-woman mother asked me, why it is that we UUs have not yet fully changed our society for the better? Why is it taking so long? If we truly believe that we can transform society, why haven’t we yet?

Good question, I said; keep asking it.

Many of you of a certain age are likely familiar with Joseph Campbell, who was a student of mythic archetypes, and who was made famous by a series of Bill Moyers video interviews some decades ago. 

Campbell talked about the “hero’s journey,” the well-known, oft-repeated story found in many of the world’s religions and cultures. The story of how a young man or woman is taken out of the everyday and thrust into a region of supernatural wonder where mythical-level forces are encountered. To become the “hero,” the young person must struggle with those forces until winning a decisive victory. Forever changed, the young person returns to the community from where he came, now wise, now seasoned, ready to mentor others through their journey to become the hero or heroine they are meant to be.

To be heroes or heroines, we must struggle with the forces that would keep us from triumph. The strong, the wise, the brave will win.

We still believe that…

That young woman wanted to know why the faith that speaks so highly of the personal and the collective journey, to become more and more of who we dream to be, has not yet become… has not yet found the power to change what needs to be changed…. has not yet walked through the gateway that will finally do it for us all….

Why not?

It is a very good question. 

We ought to keep asking it.

And perhaps we ought to let go of the myth of the hero’s journey…

Before encountering the “living human document,” when I was studying religion as an undergraduate, and then theology in seminary—reading the books—it was “normal” activity to engage in a debate about whether or not human development was governed by fate or by freedom. In other words, is what happens to us preordained, or is it the result of our choices?

UUs seem to come down on the side of choices, but with two very important caveats: None of us are ever “free” to make choices, as the many systems of unequal power and privilege have tremendous influence upon our “freedom.” Thus, we work to liberate ourselves and others from inequities of all kind. AND the second caveat, there is no such thing as an individual hero or heroine who struggles alone. Each one of us is thoroughly embedded in some kind of community, some web of inter-relatedness which we can never and would not wish to free ourselves from. Thus, UUs who work to extend the beloved community, rather than anoint ourselves or others as lone heroes or heroines.

We recognize that ancestors, mentors, supervisors, parents, teachers, preachers are important. Siblings, cousins, buddies, soulmates are important. One doesn’t cross a threshold alone. The myths and legends the privileged may study and hold up as archetypal are likely devoid of the complexity that could be offered if we could but see the water we swim in and know it isn’t the only water there is.

But let’s not go too far down the rabbit hole today. Let’s save the complex theological conversation for the Building Your Own Theology workshops that I am starting for you on Sundays, beginning February 9, from 1-2:30.

The most important thing I have learned in my education as a human being, a shaping that continues with every gateway I pass through, is this: one must pass over whatever threshold presents itself. There is no going around the gateway, no avoiding the work that presents itself. No wishing we could return to where we were when things were great. There is no hero or heroine that is going to rescue us from what needs to be done.

I must, we must step forward, roll forward, keep keeping on, following the spirit of love, creating the future as best we can, always adjusting the dream of where we are going, within the communion of those moving with us.