Part of the process of becoming a Unitarian Universalist minister is that you need to complete an internship in a congregation supervised by a minister. I completed a two year internship in a congregation in Massachusetts. I am still in relationship with many of the congregants. The first time I met with my supervising minister was the day after I preached my first sermon for that congregation. He handed me the copy of the sermon I gave him with lots of notes in red ink. He ripped it apart, told me he hated it, and that it had no worth. He then told me that he had all the power in our relationship because he would be writing my evaluations. I was so disappointed and left his office feeling like I had failed and questioning whether or not I wanted to continue my ministerial formation process. I sat in my car in the church parking lot crying. I was humiliated but even worse I thought that to be a minister I was to become like my supervising minister. I believed that that was what ministers needed to be and I knew I couldn’t become such a minister.
I did continue with the internship. My ministry flourished and I was in deep and meaningful relationships with the congregation and staff. My resilience coupled with the epiphany that I didn’t need to become that type of minister. I needed to find my own voice and develop my own ministry. Once I realized that, my process of becoming led me to unearth things I never knew about myself such as my craving for transparency and authenticity. I frequently tell you that I am an open book. That hasn’t always been the case. Because of my difficult early childhood I denied and hid parts of myself in shame. Once I entered the ministry I knew I could not be in authentic relationship with a congregation without claiming my past and deciding how it had shaped me in my process of becoming.
May Sarton wrote: Now I become myself. It's taken time, many years and places. I have been dissolved and shaken, Worn other people's faces. . . .
Which of us has not worn, or tried to wear, other people's faces? To fit some mold because we admire it, or our parents urged it on us; because we just don't think much of ourselves as we are, or want to make ourselves more acceptable in the world; perhaps to take on work and people that don’t really suit us. There are many reasons, and we may not realize we're distorting our real selves until we've been at it awhile. But eventually we begin to feel the pain of wearing shoes that do not fit. We hurt. Becoming more fully ourselves includes the space we make in our lives for friends and for family, for spouse and for children. It includes the life of our minds and our hearts, our hobbies and our inner lives, and the causes to which we give ourselves.
And so, whether we’re just starting out in life, or living in retirement, we do well to listen to the calling of our hearts, to our vocation. When I speak of vocation, I'm speaking of the whole of our lives. I’m speaking of the choices we make about all these things, from childhood to the last days of our lives, as we are dissolved and shaken and, in the end, become more fully ourselves. I’m speaking about the lifelong process of becoming the whole becoming who we are called to be.. Writer Gregg Levoy recalls the story of Jonah. He tells us that Jonah was running from his calling to become – a call that rocks the boat. And so it is. It’s uncomfortable. Very often, like Jonah, we run from it, sometimes again and again. But if it’s an authentic calling, it keeps coming back. It won’t leave us alone. We turn this way, or that, trying to still the rocking of the boat. But it won’t go away. In Levoy’s words, “Being unwilling to bear the hurly-burly of faithfulness to our call, we court disaster -- Latin for "against one's stars" – and we end up agitated anyway. Although we have the choice not to follow a call, if we do not do so, the Sufi poet Kabir said, our lives will be infected with a kind of "weird failure." We'll feel alienated from ourselves . . . and fitful with boredom, the common cold of the soul. . . .” The calls we will not name or follow coalesce into entities that will attempt to tunnel their way into consciousness using any rough tool at hand to remind us of their imperatives, and they will do so through the logic of pain. As an old Roman saying goes: The fates will lead those who will. Those who won't they drag.
Understanding ourselves is not easy. Recalling a time when he was in residence at the Quaker community of Pendle Hill, Parker Palmer decided after a decade of conscious vocational search, to convene what Quakers call a "clearness committee" to help him decide whether to accept an invitation to become the president of a small college. Tell us what attracts you most about it, he was asked. But all his answers seemed to focus on what he did not like – fund-raising, the politics, giving up his summer vacations, even wearing a suit. When someone repeated the question, he heard himself saying that, well, he guessed he'd like seeing his picture in the paper with the word "president" under it. Awkward pause. Then someone said, "Parker, can you think of an easier way to get your picture in the paper?" He didn't take the job.
It isn’t easy, because our rational selves can go only so far in understanding hopes and fears and desires that mostly lie deep in the subconscious. To listen to our hearts, we have to go below the level of the intellect, and beyond the issues of money and status which dominate the culture we live in. We have to recognize that the “good life" we long for is not just about our standard of living, but our standard of life. It's about finding wholeness. It's about becoming who we really are, as we match our deepest longings with "the world's deep hunger." It's in this matching that we find meaning and satisfaction, and what has traditionally been called "vocation," that is, a life that calls to us.
Vocation, Palmer reminds us, is not an act of the will. It's about listening – listening to ourselves. It's a spiritual journey. The great religions teach that the spiritual journey is one of growing in awareness. But it's more than simply living in the moment. It's about opening all our senses to what's happening both within us and around us in that moment, and to our reactions to it. It draws alike on intellect and feeling, head and heart.
Sometimes, when we begin to look within, the chaos that bubbles up can be frightening, as with memories of painful childhood experiences, or abusive ones. And so we may also benefit from experienced guidance on the journey – mentors, therapists, pastors, doctors; or sometimes just the presence of other seekers in a group we trust -- small groups in safe settings within this Congregation, like Small Group Ministry, the Men’s Group, and others. Or just one-on-one conversations with trusted friends or others who have been through what we are going through. For me, a holistic approach to religion must embrace both the journey inward of self-awareness, and the journey outward into the world of justice-making and human service.
Without the journey outward, the journey inward by itself can become narcissistic. Without the journey inward, the outer journey by itself may lead us into burnout, and worse, we may find we are following only the call of ego or guilt, serving our own need more than the world's. Interwoven, these two journeys can make our lives whole. The great test comes as years later we look back on our lives. Have we found the place where the deepest longing of our souls has met the world's greatest hunger? Have we found not just a living, but a life?
In the great body of Hasidic wisdom, there's a much-told story about Rabbi Zusya. Toward the end of his long life, he is said to have declared that "In the coming world, they will not ask me: 'Why were you not Moses?' They will ask me: 'Why were you not Zusya?'" How will we answer when our time comes?
Each of us is in the process of becoming – of becoming a person, a more complete or whole person, an authentic person; each of us is in the process of creating a life by what we do and say every day, by what we think and feel moment to moment, by the ways in which we respond to the unexpected, unanticipated and sometimes painful or challenging events of our lives – the way we respond to disappointments or disagreements. Our ancestors invented various religions as a response to a basic human need in us, the need to make sense out of the experience of being a separate individual, knowing that our individual life is limited and feeling a need to find a sense of meaning, purpose and direction in this life.
You will find that this Congregation is a great source of comfort in finding meaning and purpose. To me, Unitarian Universalism, in its basic sense, is the lifelong process of making connections with other people, and re-connecting with an ever-changing, aging, failing-and-succeeding self, and a sense of connecting with the natural world of which we are a part. You join a congregation in order to support it and to feel supported in your own life journey. Let us continually engage the process of becoming so that we and those we share the journey with clearly see our true selves. Let us be ever reminded that together we are one.
May it be so.
The Process of Becoming, a sermon delivered by the Rev. CJ McGregor at 1stUUPB, Nov 8, 2015.