Under The Collar Experiment

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Meeting the Dead in Love

More than preaching, more than weddings, more than child dedications, I love memorial services.  I feel I was knit together in my mother's womb and molded throughout the course of my life to serve in this way. Robin Williams’ recent passing had me thinking about the memorial services I have done for those who have taken their own lives.

Not that long ago I led a service for a woman who committed suicide after years of struggling with mental illness.  She would not have wanted to be defined only by the way she died. It was such a small piece of who she was.  She was also diligent, a hard worker, blunt, loving, and compassionate. As I listened to her family, one story stood out to me that seemed to slip past the family and under the door of the room where we were gathered piecing together the fragments of her life.  Once, the deceased and her sister found a bird that a cat had tortured. Its wings were broken. Its feathers were missing, ripped out in chunks. It was barely alive. Seeing this once-beautiful bird struggling for life broke their hearts. It was the deceased’s sister who told me this story. She couldn’t look at the bird—she had to turn away. Her sister—the hero of my eulogy—asked for a bucket of water. In an act of compassion of which very few of us are capable, the deceased dipped the bird beneath the surface of the water and held it there until it drowned.

This story created an opportunity for forgiveness of this final act that took her away from her family. It held the suffering and the strength. A single story from her life offered healing in a way that scripture could not. The joy of our lives is richer when the pain is not neglected, not ignored but held up to the light. When we do this everyone walks away inspired, renewed, and reminded that this life is worth living even in the face of suicide.

People often ask how ministers can write a eulogy for someone we have never met.  It is not as difficult as it may seem.  I am just a vessel for the stories told by those who knew them.  And so I meet them through the eyes of their family and friends.  The formula for doing this well is simple: First, I fall in love with humanity. Then, I fall in love with those who loved the deceased as well as with those who may have struggled to love him.  Finally, I have to fall in love with the one who is gone. After my heart is cracked open for all those involved, I then have an opportunity to meet the dead in the thick of that love, even though our earthly paths did not cross. Knowing the deceased really only adds one more story to the mix, the personal impact of their earthly life on mine.

Death is an opportunity for the truth in a way like no other.  I have the incredible opportunity to paint— using the stories from the living— pictures of the dead.  Although you may not think it so, this is not a lament. A eulogy is meant to praise. It is a final act of gratitude for a life lived. That gratitude, expressed in the context of a life’s struggle, allows us to learn about our own lives by hearing about someone else’s.
In hearing and telling your stories, they in turn, become ours.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Proud as A Peacock

I had two tattoos on my ankles since my late teens early twenties.  I have always liked one more than the other… so they have also served as a reminder that all people-- judges, therapists, ministers, even tattoo artists have bad days.  Some bad days have more permanent consequences than others.  Both of my tattoos are from an era in my life that involved a lot of feeling like I had missed the 60's and even more Grateful Dead. One tattoo is of the word peace in rainbow colors with flowers all around and the other a peace symbol that is supposed to look like it is covered in foliage.  It instead looks a bit like a failed attempt at coloring inside the lines. Because of my chosen professions of teaching and ministry, I have spent most of my time covering them.  In the Oklahoma summers most of my wardrobe has revolved around what I could wear with black opaque tights.  

Just before my wife and I had our commitment ceremony in Tulsa in July of 2009, I decided to invest in covering up the one I liked the least with another tattoo.  I found an artist whose work I liked, scheduled an appointment, and made sure he was in a good mood.  The cover up tattoo is of a tree of life in all four seasons with delicate leaves that move through the seasonal colors until winter where there are no leaves at all.  In the section that represents the spring, there is a tiny acorn that represented my hope of bringing our daughter into the world. At the commitment ceremony, I walked bare-legged in a summer dress for the first time in many years and am proud to remember this phase in my life.

In January, I found myself on a new precipice.  I had been invited to participate in a new business venture and was at the beginning of redefining my ministerial role as the church began to restructure. I knew that I wanted to cover up the other ankle tattoo from my youth, and I knew it was time to mark a new chapter in my life yet again. Knowing what I wanted and the style of artist I was after, I found someone extremely talented.  So now on my left calf, with her tail wrapped around my ankle to cover the peace and flowers is a beautiful peacock.

My mother was Christian and my father was a Buddhist Christian and so the peacock is a symbol that reminds me from where I have come. And it represents what I aspire to be. I have always been fascinated by peacocks: their beauty and mystique, the way they use their voice.  They nest on the ground but root in the trees. Even though their beauty is often translated into vanity, early Christians adopted the ancient Greek myth about the peacock that they do not decay after death.  So the peacock is the Easter bird and often depicted next to the tree of life (which I didn’t know until after the fact). Peacocks symbolize transformation and immortality. The feathers mimicking eyes remind me of the multiple ways to see any situation. In Buddhism, they are a symbol of openness, acceptance and wisdom, synonymous with bodhisattvas. Just as Peacocks are capable of eating many poisonous plants without being affected, bodhisattvas are believed to transform the poisonous mind of ignorance, desire and hatred into the thought of enlightenment, to take delusions as the path toward liberation opening up colourfully like the peacocks' tail.  

And so to mark this new phase and only weeks after launching this new blog project, I got a new tattoo in my collar.

Monday, July 21, 2014

She's got a ticket..

She’s got a ticket…

I had a dream last week that a man, who I knew was God (but who looked vaguely like Rev. Marlin Lavanhar), came to tell me I had won a million dollars.  I was skeptical.  What was this -- some kind of Publisher’s Clearinghouse invading my dream world?  “No, no," he said,  "You entered a photo contest with your dogs.” He held up a picture of my two deceased pups together when they were young.  For some reason that seemed legitimate. I took an envelope from him, and he disappeared.  

I opened the letter and found it was indeed a check made out to me, but my name was spelled wrong (which is a familiar experience).  As often happens in dreams, the next time I looked, the letters were moving around on the page and my name was becoming all jumbled.  I couldn’t possibly cash this check; I couldn't even be sure it was even mine.  After some time talking this out with someone else in my dream, I realized that all I needed to do was take the check back to God and ask him to re-issue it.  I felt relieved by my solution, and was looking for the check to do just that when I awoke.

 I journaled nonstop for 30 minutes about how beautiful this dream felt to me.  I had already won.  I merely needed to redeem what was mine, and I needed to do so with MY NAME, who I was, all of me, no misunderstandings or rearranging of pieces of me to get there.  

Fast forward to Saturday.  I am leaving Portland, Maine, to get on a plane to return to Tulsa. 
I checked my bags at the counter and proceeded to the security line.  At security, the TSA agent she was warm and friendly but said, “I am sorry ma’am.  You can’t come through. The name issued on your ticket does not match your driver’s license.”  “How could that be?” I asked.  I looked at the ticket that read Tamararev LebakOK. Keenly aware of my dream I felt like time slowed down and every word was underscored.   "Oh… I see what happened," I said. "The computer added my salutation to the end of my first name when I bought my ticket online. I'm a minister. If I had put Mrs., it would read Tamaramrs. And it seems to have added my state abbreviation to my last name.”  I had about 15 minutes to board at this point and was nervous about missing my plane.  I looked at my watch and expected her to just say, “I get it; come on through.”  She did not.  She was no longer smiling. “You are going to have to have a ticket with just your name and spelled correctly.  No title and no state abbreviation. You’ll have to go back to the counter and have the ticket reissued.” I needed to redeem what was mine.  I needed to do so with just MY NAME, who I was, all of me, no misunderstandings without the confusion of added titles or geographical locations.

I preached at the church that ordained me last month.  It was a beautiful reminder of an incredible event.  My ordination was truly magical: the participation, the music, the laying on of hands, the silence, and the feeling of a presence larger than all of us assembled.  

Eight years later and my call still sings to me as loud as it was that day. The chords are the same but the melody now has expanding layers of harmony.  Instead of a sabbatical, I will be embarking on reissuing my call beyond the walls of church. The church I have served, that has loved me into life as a confident and driven minister, has inspired me to flare up like a flame and make big shadows God can move in.  I will serve them as long as they will have me, and, I will pray to expand this ministry, to empower leaders grounded in their values who will better serve our state and, ultimately, create  a more just and compassionate world.  

May it be so.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

So a minister walks onto a beach...

So, A minister walks onto a beach…

I'm in Maine all week leading a conference.  East Coast beach culture and the clerical collar make for an interesting dichotomy.  I have multiple short sleeve collars that are made of T-shirt material and have paired them with lightweight pants, skirts, and cargo shorts.  When my legs are bare, my two calf tattoos -- one of a peacock and another of a tree of life --  flow into my flip flops (standard retreat shoes around here). At the beach, I am in a bathing suit like everyone else.  Changing from the collar into my two piece tankini made me wonder what it might feel like for others to see their minister at the beach.  Each version that we present of ourselves for various purposes has its place. And the truth is, I am comfortable in a variety of seemingly discordant settings, but is everyone comfortable with me?

For example, I had this incredible teacher in high school, and I remember distinctly the day I first saw her in a pair of jeans at the grocery store.  It was shocking.  She wore skirts or dresses every day to work so the jeans felt out of place -- like she was formal but her clothes were not. In the jeans, she came across to me as uncomfortable, not herself.  I realized that is how I felt, and not, probably, how she actually felt.  It added another layer to my experience of her because it did not fit my preconceived notions. It helped me develop  a much more complicated view of people now than I had when I was 16.

At one point this week, I went into town to pick up a gift for my daughter.   I was buying a toy, and said something like, "Yippee! I delivered on my promise to a 4-year-old for a stuffed lobster."  As I was checking out, an older man with a thick Boston accent said, "What's with the collar?"  I said I was a Unitarian Universalist camp minister at Ferry Beach for the week... that I was from Oklahoma.  My phone case has a picture of my daughter on it and he inquired,  "Is that your niece?"  Interesting assumption, I thought.  He must think I can't be married, and, therefore, am not supposed to have children.   "No," I said. "This is my daughter."

Now I realize I, too, am making assumptions about his assumptions, but my hope is that this man has a new view of all that is possible for clergy, as I did with my teacher in jeans.  Even if I am experienced as an anomaly, it is one more example outside of his expectations. Even if he thinks I, too, look uncomfortable in my collar and flip flops.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Lie to Me

Would you lie to someone in a ministerial collar? 

For some reason, I have been lied to more so far this year than I have ever been lied to in my life (that I'm aware of, anyway). There have been big lies and little lies, lies from children and lies from adults. Why am I being lied to? Is it because of my collar?

I expect to be lied to as a minister in the normal ways people choose to play the social game.  According to a recent study, 60 percent of people lie, on average, three times every 10 minutes. Phrases like: “Does this collar make my head look big?” throw most people into a social constraint that creates a lie. I actually don’t consider those kinds of comments lies. 

According to truth and credibility expert Paul Ekman, the liar must deliberately try to mislead the target.   So, if you have their permission, it’s not a lie.  In Poker, the players are not lying to one another because they have agreed to a set of rules ahead of time.  If we have an understanding that when I ask such fashion-related questions that I want the truth, then you would be lying to say it looks fine when it does not.  And if you tell me it looks fine when it does not and we don’t have that understanding of the rules of the game, then you would be lying.  The rules in our cultural religious game are: we don’t lie to a minister.  The default in my personal rule book is that I don’t ever want to be lied to, even when it hurts.

I have enough experience in a collar to know that being a minister provokes confession. I guess for some reason I believed that my collar created another layer of truth seeking, a safety net of sorts.  The collar also serves as a social lubricant that moves a conversation to things that matter most in people’s lives.  My role becomes an excuse to go deeper.    My presence evokes difficult conversations about mistakes and guilt. This is one of many things I love about the ministry.  I have always been terrible at small talk and I am a terrible liar.  The role of minister sometimes brings with it a blind trust that really ought to be earned. Lying to me when I am in my collar, however, feels like it takes more hutzpah than when lying to me in my street clothes. 

Manipulating people is wrong.  Trying to manipulate me when I am in my collar seems maniacal and something one should consider looking at more deeply, possibly with the help of a trusted minister.

Friday, June 20, 2014

The Kindness of Strangers

Teenagers can be a tough crowd.  I love the challenge of working with this age.  They bore easily, so you need to be engaging.  They are curious, but you have to make information relevant to their lives. Their hypersensitivity to hypocrisy holds up a mirror that everyone should look in from time to time.

I was asked to be a speaker at a diversity camp for Oklahoma high schoolers called Camp Anytown. They requested an hour long introduction to my free faith.   What is it? What do we believe? Who are our heroes and heroines? What are our core values?  

I accepted. On my way to the camp, I exit the highway to Vian, Oklahoma, where all the street names are rural route numbers and landmarks unfamiliar to the unfamiliar eye blend into the landscape.  After 30 minutes of driving in what felt like a circle—seeing the exact same sign three times, and with no help from the GPS, I finally swallowed my pride and flagged down the next automobile coming toward me.

It was a pick-up truck.  A young man in his 20s pulled over. As I asked him where the church camp was, I was keenly aware of my gender, my collar, and my red convertible (with the new REVSOUL license plate).  He pointed up the road I had just circled around on. He could see my frustration.  “Why don’t you just follow me there?” he says.  “I can take you.” So, I follow him down the winding roads, past the numerous churches, and into the woods. 

I thought that I was just 4-5 miles away from my destination. After 15 minutes of following this kind stranger deeper into wooded Eastern Oklahoma, I caught myself wondering if this was safe.  Somewhere in my DNA a Grimm fairytale is echoing.  Could he be leading me somewhere else?  Am I being foolish?  I snapped myself out of this by remembering that I had flagged him down.  I was the stranger.  

As we passed another fairly hidden Camp sign, proving he was taking me in the right direction, I scolded my mistrust.  After 20 minutes, I wondered if I would I have done this for someone else?  I marveled at his pace of life— that he had enough room in his day to lead a stranger this far out of his way.   As he drove me into the Camp grounds, I pulled up next to him.  We had traveled 30 minutes and 20 miles.   I rolled down my window and said, “You are my hero.  I had no idea it was this far. Bless you.”  He grinned and called me ma’am and said something I don’t remember. 

I wondered if this event was made possible by my clerical collar.  I don’t think so.
I think it was made possible by the kindness of rural Oklahoma. It is an example of the values lived out in this state—values I was immersed in as a child:
Be kind to everyone, even the stranger.
Take care of one another.
Go beyond the call of duty.

In my presentation I spoke of living out the values we profess.  As Unitarian Jane Addams so eloquently put it, "Action...is the sole medium of expression for ethics."

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Call Forwarding

My article has just hit the stands in ThislandPress with the focus of my calling not only to the church but also to develop leaders to find their values driven passion in the world.  It speaks of my coming out as a minister by wearing my collar and coming out as a gay minister in Tulsa.  I am returning this weekend to preach at the church that ordained me on Pentecost which was the first Sunday I preached to my current congregation as a called minister to a brand new combined congregation that included many people of color from Higher Dimensions.  It is an auspicious time. Pentecost has become one of my favorite holidays.

And then the wind began to blow.

(Now in biblical language, if the wind starts blowing,it means you had better wake up,because something very important is about to happen. The fire under somebody’s tush is about to be fanned)You see, in the Abrahamic faith traditions when GOD separates us humanity,the story does not end with the tower of Babel. The tower of Babel is just one of three stories closely woven together: Babel, Moses & the Commandments, and Pentecost. First, God separates the people because we were full of pride. And we learned to remain separated by joining with those who were like us and resisting those who are not. And from our separation came wars and –isms, racism, sexism, terrorism. We remained divided inter-personally as well.

With language and culture came writing and education.  Our experience of the world began to be recorded – made permanent instead of fluid.  And we began, at least in Western Culture’s history, to hierarchically judge our experience of the world, placing what could be classified and cataloged, above experiences of heart, and spirit, and intuition.

In Acts 2, something happens.  The story takes a turn…Pentecost happened actually on
The Jewish Festival Day of Shavuot (which was celebrated long before Jesus came along)Shavuot was the day commemorating God giving Moses the Ten Commandments. This was the Birthday of the church…so to speak. Now everyone hearing this story in Acts, at that time,would know this.  On that day, something very strange happens to a group of Jesus’ followers.  Something happens that most Unitarians for the most part, I would assume, have dismissed. (I’m sure Jefferson didn’t keep this part in.) Pente means 50, so 50 days after Easter - on Pentecost –God, evidently, changes her mind.

On Pentecost,We are told, that people from all over Parthians, Medes and Elamites;residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,  Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); They were gathered together (maybe trading goods) and there was a meal. Included at the event was a group of Galileans, those who had followed Jesus.  So the wind begins to blow, and the people see what appear to be tongues of fire that separate and come to rest on each of Jesus’ followers.  (I like to imagine them coming down directly to their hearts.) And they begin to speak. I’m sure, since they were practical people,the first thing they were likely to say to one another was

“You are on fire!”

I imagine, after the practical, everyone was speaking about how incredible
it is to be awake and alive. They were sharing their gratitude for their existence and
The wonders of the Holy. Now the passers by in the street are said to have heard a cacophony of gibberish. But the people in the room heard their own language coming from the Galileans. They heard a message that resonated with their experience. God must have decided that even in our differences, with some help, when our hearts are touched with the fire of the Spirit humanity could in fact understand one another. It was a miracle!  And it fulfilled in the Christian Story the beginning of the church. The birthday in fact of the church.

People with very different experiences, with different cultures, and different understandings were all under the same roof declaring the wonders of GOD in their own tongues. And everyone present, and awake, and understood.

Now there were some skeptics, mind you. Not everyone was buying into this miracle.
Someone in the room (likely a Unitarian) exclaimed, “They have had too much wine!”
 Peter corrected the skeptics: They were not drunk…it was only 9 in the morning.
The wine wasn’t even out yet.

So, God separates the people in Genesis, and then, by miracle of miracles, there is an opportunity to be together in the same room, speaking in our own tongues, about the wonder of God, the mystery of life, the wonder of our experience of being human and alive and they are understood by those closest to us.

What if our worship looked like that?! What if our worship could be a container that gracious? Our churches a meeting place for that kind of dialogue, a hearth from which many hearts can be warmed? From which we are sparked to know and manifest our gifts in the world? What if in our meeting places we could speak from a point of difference about the wonders of God and be heard?

This is the mission we are called to do.