Monday, June 30, 2014

On General Assembly: Your Love Binds Me Up

This is likely the beginning of a 3-4 part post on my last week.  Honestly, I have so much I need to do right now -- write notes for work that are due tomorrow.  Go grocery shopping since I have no food in the house.  Figure out some specifics of what I'm teaching this fall because I'm meeting with someone about it this afternoon and should probably try to look like I know what I'm doing (spoiler alert: I don't).  I've been gone since Wednesday morning and didn't get back until 11:30 last night, at which point I pretty much just fell into bed.  This transition back to Normal Life is feeling a bit like somebody pushing me into the deep end, even as I try to resist.  Just a couple more minutes, I'm countering.  Just a couple more minutes to sit with and discover and unpack and relish this new, tender being that was birthed inside me this weekend.  Just a little while longer to nurture her quietly and get to know her more fully before we try to enter the world together.

General Assembly (GA) is the annual meeting of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA).  From business meetings to workshops to worship services and repelling over the sides of buildings...from discussions about justice and ministry and feminism and equality to composting and gender-neutral bathrooms....from music and singing and community to quiet moments of prayer, reflection, and meditation, GA has it all. I never could have imagined how much of "it all" GA has, actually.  Being only one person, I experienced only a tiny portion of what GA has to offer, and it was huge.  Too big for words.  Too much to put on a piece of paper, even, because I can barely embody it all in my three-dimensional flesh.  In fact, I may still burst open.  It's like I can feel my soul pushing at the edges of my skin, begging for more room.  The love and wonder and amazement I soaked in through being there is filling me so much, it almost hurts as it tries to escape from my body and make its way into the world.

There are so many ways I could write this, and none of them are feeling "right."  I suppose I could start with Wednesday evening worship and write my way through Sunday morning.  I could write about each of the workshops and services and meetings I attended. I could tell you about how mind-blowing it was to see our faith, which I had only ever considered in terms of individual congregations, in the context of a larger denomination.  I could write about watching the democratic process unfold, or about the power of worshipping with 4,600 people.  I could tell you about the simultaneously humbling, overwhelming, and empowering experience of understanding that I have a huge community I can call upon, lean on, and draw from in the justice work I want to do.  I could ramble for hours about what it feels like to have a community behind me that will stand with and behind me, that believe in love and justice, and that truly attempt to live their love in ways I did not know was possible.  I could go through each of our 7 principles and tell you how I saw them each lived into action this weekend.  Or honestly, I could just sit here and write as many synonyms for awesome and inspiring and humbling and energizing as I can generate.

And perhaps I will.  Perhaps I will blog about nothing but GA for the next 3 months.  Goodness knows I'd have more than enough to write about.  But there are two things I learned about most: the power and necessity of personal stories, and love.  So this is where I'm starting, in the knowledge that I'll write more later.  I'm starting with my story about love.

When I told someone close to me that I was going to GA, her response was this: "why would your minister want you to go to something like this?" and "those people must really like you.  What have you done to make people over there like you so much?"

These questions stung.  There aren't answers for them really, and the only answers I could find were "I dunno" and "nothing."  This type of thinking seeps into your consciousness, even if you aren't good at it on your own.  I don't want to brag, but I actually happen to be an expert at this type of thinking.  What do you think you're doing? I asked myself.  What can you possibly gain from this that will benefit anyone but yourself?

All the way to Rhode Island, I kept asking myself those questions.  What do you think you're doing?  Who do you think you are?  I felt unsure.  This thinking was no fault of anyone but my own brain -- but I couldn't reconcile it with myself.  Sure, I'm doing some work in Reproductive Justice within the congregation.  Sure, I consider my faith to be an essential piece of who I am.  Sure, I have ideas about expanding our congregation's acceptance and awareness of people with disabilities...but who did I think I was going to a big event like this, voting on denominational issues, being part of this larger community?

After arriving in Providence on Wednesday, as I walked out of worship that evening, something in me had changed.  The question had changed.  It felt as though something had physically changed inside of me.  A door was unlocked, perhaps, and something hidden and precious was exposed.  The question instead was this: how did you get here?

A year ago, I only attended my congregation sporadically.  I knew almost no one.  For nearly two years, I struggled to attend services.  I saw this vibrant community, and I did not see a way into it.  I believed I was unworthy of being part of it.  I believed I was too broken to join that space.  I worked hard to sit through the sermon and slip out quietly and unobserved.  I got to be an expert at that, too. 

The theme for this year's GA was "Love Reaches Out."  This theme was reflected in the worship services, in the workshops, in the justice work that is being done, in the hearts of the strangers and friends there with me.  Love does reach out.  Love is reaching out.  We are working to reach out in love.

And that, although I could not name it before, is the answer to my question.  I got to the place where I am now because love reached out.  I got here because I was seen.  I was treated as though I mattered.  I was given a space at the table of worth and mattering I thought I had been banished from, and I was permitted to come to that table in any way I was able.  Love reached out.  And it mattered.

Part of the pain of the past several years has been this shame-filled place where worthiness feels elusive: I knew I was capable of so much more, and yet was unable to access that person.  I felt betrayed not only by community and people and life, but also by myself.  I could not reach out in love and be the person I know I am because I did not trust that my light would be seen as valuable.  I did not trust it would be protected.  I did not trust it would be seen as precious.  I could not reach out to love and community, because recent history had told me my light might be snuffed if I did so.  My light might be blown out, or stepped on, or taken from me. 

But here's the thing: love reached out anyway.  Without expectation, love reached out.  My love reached out in return, and it was seen.  It was honored.  It mattered.  When we reach out in love, it matters.  When we allow others to love us, it matters.  When we honor and name what is precious in one another, it matters.  When we do nothing except speak in a way that shows others they have a seat at the table, it matters.  When we do the hard work of walking our talk on issues others hold close to their hearts, it matters.  When we engage in large-scale justice work on big issues that infuriate and sadden us, it matters.  When we listen to just one story, shake one hand, give one hug, it matters.  When love reaches out, it always matters.  I know.  In the deepest place in my soul where these damn tears keep falling from, I know.

There were several speakers who referenced being saved by Unitarian Universalism.  On the one hand, I have a hard time swallowing that language.  Being "saved" is language that seems to already have been cornered by other faiths, and it conjures images that just don't fit for me.  But I do know this: while Unitarian Universalism might not have "saved" me, Unitarian Universalists almost certainly have.  When I was in graduate school, living in another state, attending another congregation, it was the UUs there who kept me afloat.  That group of people reminded me that there is still good in the world.  I have this small group of amazing people, I told myself, and they are good.  As things in my world are crumbling, they are still good.

And then I moved.  Even though people told me "you will find more good people.  You will find more UUs," I didn't believe them.  I thought that, maybe, I had found some little pocket anomaly of good folks who were willing to love me in spite of my brokenness. 

It took me a while.  A long while.  As I started to grow in community, I thought, ahhI have found another pocket of good people.  How fortunate I am to find another little cluster of good folks.  Every time I found another person who reached out in love, I experienced unimaginable gratitude.  How can I possibly be so lucky?

During our worship service on Saturday evening, though, I got it.  Not just an "oh yeah!" type of got it.  Not an "I get it!" type of got it.  Not even an "oh my god, holy cow" type of got it.  This was a run-over-by-a-train type of got it.  A can't-catch-my-breath type of got it.  A descent-into-weeping-in-the-middle-of-worship type of got it.  I, who never cry, just could not stop crying these tears of gratitude and sadness and overwhelm. 

When we say "love reaches out," I realized, we weren't just talking about reaching out to the world.  We weren't just talking about our justice work and activism and reaching out to marginalized communities.  We weren't just talking about loving "people."  It wasn't just about others.  This love could also be for me.  This white, privileged, cis-gender woman?  I could need that love, too.  I could receive that love, too.  My feelings of brokenness are unique, as all of ours are, but also rather universal.  And that love -- that love being generated around me -- it could also be for that broken place in me.  It could start to heal me.

In an arena with 4,600 people, that's a lot of love, y'all.  When that realization hit me, and that love came pouring in...I couldn't breathe.  I couldn't sing or think or do anything but sit there, and cry, and let it happen. 

I realized, finally, that these pockets of a few handfuls of "good people" were not anomalies.  They were not this weird phenomenon I was lucky enough to happen upon.  I realized that in that arena alone, there were 4,600 people who were also Love People.  4,600 people who were trying to live and love reaching out in the only way any of us know how: imperfectly.  Faultily.  Beautifully.  I understood that, as I do my "work" -- be that the work towards Reproductive Justice or disability rights, towards being a person who reaches out in love, or towards being a person who is healing her own brokenness, I am joined by people all over the globe who are doing that same work.  I am joined by people who have that same set of 7 principles guiding them, who sit in their similar-or different-communities, and sing the same hymns, go through the same rituals, with the goal of reaching out to all of us in love.  Even as we are hurt.  Even as we and our loved ones and our world suffer great and horrific losses of faith, friendship, self, and even love.  Even as we hear about and experience tragedies and injustices and things that can never be made right.  Even as we experience and witness pain we did not know was possible, love reaches out.  In ways I forgot I could experience.  In ways I did not remember I deserved.  In ways I did not even know existed, love for you -- for me -- for all of us -- is always and forever reaching out.

So may it ever be.

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