Contents: UU World May/June 2002
Contents: May/June 2002

'A Future in This Place'

Humbling and humorous episodes from the early days of a new minister's first settlement

by Elea Kemler

SEPTEMBER. It is the first Sunday of the first year. I am the minister. I have been a minister before, but always with a qualifier. Last year my title was assistant minister, temporary, part-time. For three years the qualifier was student. Today there are no qualifiers, except new. On the hour-long drive to the church I rehearse the service.

I have spent the last three weeks fixing up my office — painting the walls despite the late August heat and humidity, clearing the desk drawers of old Post-it notes and melted Jolly Rancher candies left by the last minister. I put up a huge wall calendar and I am comforted by imagining that soon the blank boxes for the days will be filled in with events and meetings; soon I will have a future in this place. I found cushions for an arm chair and bought a child's tiny, red rocking chair, which I placed next to a basket of paper, new crayons, and fat, easy-grip markers. I can sit at my desk and rock the little chair back and forth with my foot, not sure what I am hoping for.

In the pulpit on this first Sunday my voice sounds feeble in my own ears. I am afraid that they are already thinking they have made a mistake in choosing me. In their minds, they are going over the ministers they could have chosen instead of me, maybe wondering if it is too late. I stand up and say good morning. "Good morning!" they call back. I have been told that only fifteen or twenty adults usually attend this small church in central Massachusetts on a typical Sunday morning. Today there are upwards of thirty. They are noisy, talking and laughing, some hugging, as they greet each other in the foyer and sit down in the pews. All of this is heartening.

I have planned a ritual and am nervous about it. It is a fairly widespread tradition that I have brought from the church I served as an intern minister, involving water people have brought back from their summer vacations. On the first Sunday of the church year in September, people come forward and pour their little film cases of water into a big bowl and talk about where they have been. In addition to the usual Maine and Cape Cod vacation spots, people usually bring back water from faraway and sometimes sad places — Katmandu or the Dead Sea, or the nursing home where they had to place their aging mother. Once, a little boy brought some water from his dog's bowl after his dog died that summer. All this water is then boiled and the minister keeps it in a jug with a sticker that says, "Please don't drink or throw away!" I'm planning to use the water to bless new babies during the year.

But of course I hadn't been in this church last June to ask them to bring back water so, instead, I have a glass pitcher of tap water with some little Dixie cups. Talking too fast, I explain the ritual and say that this year our water will have to be symbolic. I ask them to tell us where they would have brought their water from if they could have. I go first. I have brought water from last September's water ceremony at the church where I worked the last two years, the church where I was blissfully not in charge of anything. I tell them the water represents all that I bring with me to this new beginning. I pour the water in the bowl and sit down to wait.

For a long moment, no one moves. I feel slightly sick. But then they stir. The children come first, pulling their parents or older siblings by the hands. They pour the Dixie cups of water into the pottery bowl and tell how they have been to camp, to Canada, to visit aunts and uncles, or to swim at the pond just up the road from the church. A whole family gets up and says they would have brought water from their backyard pool. A couple with a new baby say they would have brought the water I used to bless their daughter at her dedication and naming ceremony just last month, before the church year started. They talk about how they feel they have found a home in this church, how they feel they are not raising their daughter alone.

I sit and listen to the stories of their summers and I know with a clear and sudden certainty that, while I do not now love these people, someday I will love them. Someday we will not be strangers to each other. Not yet, but someday, they will be my people and I will be their minister.

The Church Where Everything Goes Wrong

OCTOBER. Six weeks into the church year, I have realized that I am the minister of a church where things usually go wrong. The copy machine jams. The bulletin describing the order of worship has been copied with the second page first and also upside down. No one remembered to turn on the lights in the sanctuary before the service starts, so it is dark because it is raining out. The microphone is buzzing and lets out a painful, high pitched squeal, which makes people wince. We have just started the service when someone runs up with a bunch of flowers for the altar, just as someone else runs in with a silk arrangement we keep for the mornings when no one brings real flowers. There is laughter as the two flower bearers meet at the altar. They decide on the real flowers and things settle down for a while until a baby starts crying, which sets off another baby crying. I try to speak over the wailing as their fathers hustle them down the aisle and try to distract them in the back. Usually, I love watching the tall, gentle fathers who bounce their babies in backpacks at the rear of the sanctuary, but today I am annoyed because I want it to be quiet and holy and lovely and things are definitely not shaping up that way.

The woman helping with worship gets up and, instead of giving the announcements, introduces the candle lighting time, which comes later. People call out, "Not yet!" More laughter. The organist starts playing the wrong hymn and a couple of choir members yell over the din for him to stop. A few minutes later, during the time for prayerful silence, he falls onto the keyboard by accident, causing the organ to emit horrible, gassy noises. Shrieks and snorts of laughter. All pretense of Sunday morning decorum is lost and something inside me, some furious, bossy desire to have "my worship service" go according to my plan, finally slides free and I can laugh with them.

This will be the first of many times that I laugh at Sunday morning details gone awry. It is also the first of many times that I imagine God looking up or down or over or out at us from wherever God sits on Sunday mornings, slightly amazed and maybe at a loss for words because we are so funny and wonderful and odd all at the same time. In these moments I imagine God as a sturdy old woman with her hands on her hips or, perhaps, as a rabbi pulling on his long, white beard. I imagine a God shaking his or her head and saying, "What in the world are they doing over there? This is what they call church? What were they thinking?"

But I also imagine a God who is touched and a little honored by our efforts, however halting, to worship and give praise. I imagine a God who is moved by our attempts to care for one another and to name the things we know as holy. There is a warmth in this congregation that is new to me, a simple friendliness that shines through the fumblings and failures, a love that makes the ragged edges smooth. I have always wanted to believe that our mistakes aren't the most important parts of us. I have always wanted to believe that kindness and compassion matter more than anything. I sense that I can learn this here.

Dog Offerings

NOVEMBER. Sometimes I bring my dog to church. I have a fantasy, to which I am very attached, about me and my dog in my office: me curled in the arm- chair intently reading philosophy, my dog curled on the floor beside me, serenely dozing in the afternoon light.

Of course my dog has other ideas. In the first place, she is never serene. In the second place, I never read philosophy. The moment she drags me through the church door and I manage to hold her still long enough to snap off her leash, she is gone, a small, spotted bat out of hell. She races from room to room with plastic baby toys from the nursery in her mouth. She runs up and down the stairs; she drinks from the toilet in the women's bathroom; she stands with two front legs propped on a low window sill downstairs, short tail out stiff behind her, barking hysterically at squirrels in the neighbor's yard. She runs laps around the sanctuary, squeezing herself under the pews and ripping the leftover Sunday bulletins into wet shreds on the carpet.

Finally she exhausts herself and lies down in the doorway of my office. I retreat to the armchair after collecting the remains of the Sunday bulletins. She sleeps sweetly while I go through the pile of mail. I imagine how we look — her, full of canine contentment, and me, competent. I am very pleased by this picture.

When I go downstairs, though, I find a large pile of excrement my dog has left on the floor in front of the altar. She has deposited it right behind the reader's lectern, neatly lined up with the candelabra on the altar. I kneel in the chancel, scrubbing the rug with soapy paper towels and disinfectant and praying that no one will choose this moment for a drop-in visit. Once again, I am overcome by the vastness of the gap between my image of myself and the reality of my daily life. But at least I am on my knees at the altar. Some days this is as close as I get.

Numbing Out

JANUARY. Sometime around the middle of my second year I discover computer games. I become quickly addicted. Post-Christmas letdown, I tell myself, but I can't stop. My sermon preparation time dwindles as I intersperse the writing of paragraphs and the choosing of hymns with bouts of solitaire and a Chinese tile game called Shanghai. Sometimes I play until my eyes are burning. I only hope that as spring approaches I will emerge from the numb haze I have been in for much of the winter.

A friend and fellow minister got so depressed she went into the hospital for a couple of weeks in the fall. She went back in right after Christmas, more depressed than ever, and, in the midst of this, her church asked her to leave. "It isn't working out," they said. She agreed to resign and left almost immediately after some hurried good-byes. This is called a negotiated settlement. She reports feeling relieved. She said it was getting harder and harder to pretend she was okay. She said she felt like a fraud, acting like a minister when her real self was this lost, hurting child she couldn't show anyone.

I am badly shaken by this news. I also feel guilty because, to tell the entire truth, I feel stirrings of jealousy, not for the mental hospital, for the resignation. "She is free," I think to myself, then feel terrible. Lately I have been feeling a vague dread when I check the church answering machine, like I am waiting for word of some awful news or potentially disastrous conflict that I know I won't be able to cope with.

I have a dream in which I am an actor. I am sitting around a table with members of some artistic organization, and we are planning to write a grant for a play and deciding on the cast. A young man at the table says he finds it strange that a certain male actor wants to play the role of my lover since this particular actor usually likes to work with attractive women. "You aren't much to look at," he says to me. I am outraged. I hurl insults at the man and stalk out the door, belatedly realizing, once I am on the street, that he is a member of my congregation.

It is not only in dreams that I feel I am an actor. During the day I am sometimes afraid that the depth of my own sadness would shock and dismay these people I serve. I am afraid that my sadness is the most real, the most true thing about me and, if they knew, it would undermine and unsettle everything else. I try so hard to keep it from them, and I am worn out from the effort it takes to do this. Other times, I know it is the sadness, and my struggle to live with some measure of humor and even courage in the face of sadness, that gives me any right to try to serve them at all.

Standing on Holy Ground

JUNE. Dog excrement has played a larger role in the life of the church than I expected. Certainly it has played a larger role than I had been led to believe at divinity school, where, in four years, the subject never came up. The second time dog poo makes its appearance in church is on the morning of the coming of age ceremony for a wonderful, bespectacled twelve-year-old I'll call Michael. Coming of age is our church's version of bar mitzvah or confirmation, and on this particular morning we are celebrating Michael's successful completion of the ten-month program. He is going to give the sermon. His mentor, an adult who has met with him throughout the program, is going to speak, and his family is going to present him with an important gift symbolic of his coming adulthood and his new status in their eyes and in the eyes of the church. His parents are hanging up photos of Michael around the church, documenting his development from a sweet-faced baby to the sweet-faced young man who will soon stand before us. Several of the young boys in the congregation are acting as greeters in honor of the occasion. But, just as the first members of the congregation begin to arrive, a cry of alarm sounds from Michael in the foyer.

Michael has stepped, with his brand new, white sneakers, into a large pile of dog poo in the front yard and has discovered this unfortunate fact after coming inside. He is vigorously wiping the poop off his shoes in the foyer and yelling for his mother, who quickly assesses the situation and declares the shoes impossible to clean before the end of the organ prelude. The shoes are tossed outside. The lobby is cordoned off by a couple of chairs while several choir members with paper towels and soapy water go to work. (I later learn from a first-time visitor with a fortunate sense of humor that the young ushers have improvised on the standard greeting, saying, with grave politeness, "Good morning. Welcome to our church. There's a lot of dog crap on the floor, so watch your step.")

As the prelude ends, Michael, now in stocking feet, receives a whispered pep talk and hugs from his parents. He then takes his place opposite me in the chancel, calmly preaches his sermon, and is honored, blessed, and declared as having come of age by the congregation.

After the service, while Michael cuts into his huge cake and receives congratulations and presents, I ask his parents what they said to him. "We just reminded him that everyone here loved him and didn't care if he had poop on his shoes or no shoes at all," they say.

Thinking about it on the drive home, I realize that we all should have taken off our shoes. We all should have stood in our socks beside this young man as a sign that his parents' words were the truth: that where there is love and understanding and acceptance, dog poo can be tolerated. Dog poo doesn't matter then. The ground could be covered in it, and it would still be holy ground.

I have learned that all of us, ministers as well as the congregation, bring our dog poo into church with us, in a matter of speaking. We all track in awful, nasty stuff that no one wants to see or be around — our insatiable needs, our hidden weaknesses and deep fears, our rage and greed and bitterness and prejudice and despair. And all this stuff really does stink. Love doesn't make it go away. But love makes it possible to see it and not be quite so disgusted or ready to run away at the first bad smell. Maybe this is because love gives us so much else to look at.

The Rev. Elea Kemler began writing about the memorable events of her first ministry shortly after becoming minister of the First Unitarian Society in Gardner, Massachusetts, where she served from 1995 to 2000. She is now minister of the First Parish Church of Groton, Massachusetts.

 Contents: UU World May/June 2002
UU World XVI:3 (May/June 2002): 41-43

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