My experience in providing pastoral care began in my brief internship at Denver Women's Prison during my first year of seminary. Through this experience I learned to build on my basic capacity for listening and guidance with skills in spiritual direction and spiritual counseling. This was a transformational experience for me as I got to know these women who were seeking healing and redemption in a very tangible sense. I picked up on this work in my Clinical Pastoral Care unit at St Anthony North hospital, where I spent the summer of 2010. In both the prison and the hospital, there is no getting around your powerlessness to fix things, and instead you must come to terms with the value of presence, of just showing up with your whole heart, willing to look into life's fragility and beauty, and yet remain present. To me, this is the essence of pastoral care - listening deeply, being wholly present, knowing fully just how much struggle life asks of us, and yet choosing to love anyway, and healing each other and our world by this choice.
Wouldn't it be handy if we had a common set of stories that we could count on most Unitarian Universalists knowing? It could be great shorthand, similar to how Christians can say "sow your seeds in the good soil," and most will understand the reference to the gospel of Matthew and the instruction to put our energy into things that will have meaningful return. I am sure we could come up with many potential nominees, and even my own list fluctuates occasionally. However, I have a good group of stories I'd like to propose. And over a few upcoming blog posts I'll post them for our shared consideration.....here are my first few.....
Story 1. Partners, By Marc Gelman, found in Does God Have a Big Toe?
(I could preach on this story for a year it's so good)
Before there was anything, there was God, a few angels, and a huge swirling glob of rocks and water with no place to go. The angels asked God, “Why don’t you clean up this mess?”
So God collected rocks from the huge swirling glob and put them together in clumps and said, “Some of these clumps of rocks will be planets, and some will be stars and some of these rocks will be . . . just rocks.”
Then God collected water from the huge swirling glob and put it together in pools of water and said, “Some of these pools of water will be oceans, and some will be clouds, and some of this water will be . . . just water.”
Then the angels said, “Well God, it’s neater now, but is it finished?” And God answered, “Nope!!”
So, on some of the rocks God placed growing things, and creeping things, and things that only God knows what they are, and when God had done all this, the angels asked God, “Is the world finished now?” And God answered, “Nope!”
God made a man and a woman from some of the water and stardust and said to them, “I’m tired now. Please finish up the world for me . . . really it’s almost done.” But the man and woman said, “We can’t finish the world alone! You have the plans and we are too little.”
“You are big enough,” God answered them. “But I agree to this. If you keep trying to finish the world, I will be your partner.”
The man and the woman asked, “What is a partner?” and God answered, “A partner is someone you work with on a big thing that neither of you can do alone. If you have a partner, it means that you can never give up, because your partner is depending on you. On the days you think I am not doing enough and on the days I think you are not doing enough, even on those days we are still partners and we must not stop trying to finish the world. That’s the deal.” And they all agreed to that deal.
Then the angels asked God, “Is the world finished yet?” And God answered, “I don’t know. Go ask my partners.”
Story 2: Map of the World - I found this story on this website exploring Torah: http://www.shemayisrael.co.il/parsha/leff/archives/korach.htm, though the website itself does not source the story, which is why I have assumed it is a “traditional” Jewish story.
There is this man who loves to read the Sunday newspaper, cover-to-cover. There is just one problem. This man has a five year old daughter who for as much as her dad loves to read the paper, loves to interrupt him while he tries to do so. The man tries everything to keep her occupied, but to no avail.
Finally, one day, as he’s trying to read, he comes across the travel section, and has an idea. There, across the whole front page, there’s a map of the world. He rips the page off, and then tears it into little pieces. He calls his daughter over to him, and shows her all the little pieces. He says, honey, here’s a game for you. It’s a puzzle. Go grab some tape, and then see what you can do to put these pieces back together the way they are supposed to go. She cheerfully agreed, and ran off.
Five minutes later, however, his daughter came back, with the page all taped together. The man shook his head, amazed. Though he wondered if she had just put the pieces back haphazardly, a careful inspection revealed the map was perfectly reconstructed. He looked at his daughter in disbelief - she must surely be a genius. How did you figure it out so quickly?! She shrugged, and said, It was easy Daddy, on the other side of the paper, there was a picture of a person. I know what a person looks like. I just put the person together, and the whole world fell into place.
Story 3: Hindu Creation Story, Source Unknown
When humans had begun to thrive in the world the gods became concerned that they had perhaps made these creatures a bit too resilient.
The humans were creating language, building villages, hunting and gathering for their food –they were not needing the gods as much as they once had.
So, the gods gathered to contemplate this problem and debated where to hide the secret to life.
One minor god argued for the deepest abyss in the ocean. Another for the highest peak on the highest snow covered mountain.
A more experienced god said, no they will find that –“Hide it on the far side of the moon.”
The supreme god listened to all of this advise recognizing that the gods were becoming afraid of human intelligence and drive.
“No,” He said, “I will hide it where these resourceful creatures will never look.” “Where?” clamored all the lesser gods.
“I will hide the secret to human happiness within the human heart. It is the last place they will ever look.”
And all of the gods nodded and it was so AND it is so.
Think back to some of the best sermons you've ever heard. If you're like me, it's likely that the sermon that stands out for you used a story. We remember good stories. We remember characters, we remember imagery.
I love using stories in worship - in the sermon in particular but sometimes threaded throughout the whole service. I also use them in newsletter articles, in the classroom, and in casual interactions with members of the congregation.
The use of stories, whether personal or teaching stories, and the repeated re-telling and intentional application of these stories within the life of religious community allows us to engage the big questions children, youth and adults are so good at asking. Using stories for teaching and faith formation allow us to talk about specific life issues, while still giving us a safe container in which to talk about these often vulnerable and intimate feelings.
One of my favorite ways to think about a congregation is as a learning community. As a learning community, it only follows that lifespan Unitarian Universalist religious education and faith formation would be fully integrated into the life of the entire congregation, showing up everywhere and taking all kinds of forms, engaging with life’s biggest questions, struggles, and joys, all cultivated in the context of our covenant.
Integrating religious education means two things. First, that education and faith formation occurs not only in the classroom, but throughout congregational life - in worship, in social service and public witness, in small groups and in spiritual practice. From my experience and education in the theatre, I know there are things we learn through shared experience, ritual and performance that we cannot learn in more traditional instruction-based ways. Our children – and our adults – spend so much time as recipients of information, sitting at a computer, sitting at a desk, listening to others. Embodied religious education in the form of shared song and shared service, in conversation circles and in regular spiritual practice, can wake us up from this passivity our culture works so hard to instill.
Secondly, integrated religious education means that regardless of our age or stage in faith formation, we are all learners and teachers, and we are all equally invested in growing our community’s spirit and souls. Religious education does not just mean our programming for children, or youth, or even for families with younger children. It means all of us, invested in one another’s spiritual growth and the responsible search for truth and meaning. It means creating learning opportunities across generations, and it means that whether we are hosting specific age or stage-based learning opportunities, or creating intergenerational worship or educational experiences, all of these experiences serve the overall purpose of manifesting a unified church, committed to fulfilling our shared covenant across all our diversity.
"None of us alone can save the world, but together, that is another possibility, waiting."
Rev. Gretchen Haley is a Unitarian Universalist minister, mom, partner and friend, trying her best to love this beautiful, broken world.