Years ago, when I first started working as a pastor in churches, I asked new people that I met what they did for a living. The question seemed less intrusive than what I considered a more personal question like whether they were married or if they had children. Also, because I was single, I didn’t want to ask questions that might give church matchmakers the idea that I needed them to set me up. Every church has matchmakers even though we don’t give them a title in this day and time.
The first time that I asked that question and someone was offended, it caught me off-guard. The response was something like “I am more than a job. Why do people always ask that question?” Don’t quote me though. This encounter was over 25 years ago. The response didn’t offend me even though it caught me off-guard. I’ve always appreciated directness because one knows where you stand in such situations, and you know that the person with whom you are speaking will continue to be direct in the future. Even when I first met K, I thought her question was insightful and I thought about it with each new person that I met in the years following.
The challenge, of course, is finding a question that encourages conversation. Asking nothing can make a conversation with a new person awkward. We always can talk about the weather but that doesn’t lead to deeper conversation. This morning, as I was asked what I was going to do today, I found myself thinking back to K’s question and how it might apply to me or not. Who am I these days anyway? I’m a part-time chaplain, part-time musician, and full-time disabled person. That doesn’t mean I’m always sick, but I always must be aware of prevention precautions and energy, or I will be sick all the time. Turns out that working 24/7 when I was younger did nothing to move me toward being a better person in life. It prevented me from being a good friend, and I oftentimes put family on the back burner. Then, the body wears out eventually, as is natural.
I was a workaholic. I loved working because it seemed to give value to my life. I’m not talking about a paycheck though we all know that matters. It also mattered to me as a young adult to have talent, intelligence, and an ethical way to use my gifts to make a living. As I’ve tried to move away from my workaholism, the question kept coming up, “What if you are enough?” I never had an answer for that and still don’t really. Why? Not because I’ve avoided pondering the question. There are journal entries and my counselors’ documentation through the years to prove that time and again I’ve struggled with the question and always come up with the answer – Well, I’m not enough…and that was before I became disabled.
My answer comes up that way because of whatever circumstance life presents. You know what I mean because life is everchanging. One day you’re successfully working at a vocation that you love and the next, the church has kicked you out because you came out as a lesbian. Or perhaps you think you have a marriage made in heaven and then your spouse asks you for a divorce. Sometimes a longtime friend takes umbrage at something we’ve said or done, and no amount of work seems to smooth over the troubled waters. Then there’s family and families are always tricky. At least, I’ve never met a family that did not face tricky people or tricky moments that cause one to question everything. Also, perhaps in the relationship with the friend, we triggered some family wound that none of us might be aware of if the friend has not done deep personal work.
My partner, Heather, likes to say, “Humans are incredibly flawed and amazingly resilient.” Isn’t that true? When she and I were talking about some recent life challenges, I told her I’ve always said to G-d that if we were supposed to get along and love each other, perhaps we should have been made less ornery and prone to miscommunication. As a person trained in counseling, Heather also understands how we are all wounded people in a hurting world. I got in her car the other day and she had been playing one of my favorite CDs by Carrie Newcomer, “Kindred Spirits”. All those songs talk about the beauty and brokenness that we all are.
Newcomer’s song, “Bare to the Bone” was the only song that expressed what it felt like when I was removed as a pastor for being a lesbian. For many years, that was my favorite song because, in that song, I felt heard and seen. Her song “Geodes” is one that I think everyone can relate to because she talks about the beauty found in what is common. I’ve had this CD for many years, given to me by a blessed Spirit Friend. It first came out in 2012, so she either gave me her brand-new cd or not long thereafter. That CD has healed much in my heart. As I listened to it again this past week, the song that has been calling to me is “My True Name”; especially this line, “But you saw to my center past every imposter, and you whispered My True Name”. All week, I’ve been wondering what my true name is.
The song is clearly written for a person. However, for me at least, there are also overtones of the holy. I feel that holiness or sacredness in most songs anyway (unless the lyrics are racy or explicitly other). Music is one way that Spirit speaks to me. It’s always been this way. I only tell you this because as my beloved asked me this morning, “What are you going to do today?” I found myself resistant to her question. The question was not loaded with expectations (like of former bosses, exes, or parents thinking of chores) but was a simple curious question about being interested in my day. Heather is very loving and kind and is also supportive of my art and music. When I can’t work because I’m sick, she doesn’t put me down. We’ve also been reading Pema Chodron as a morning devotion practice, and we have deep conversations about everything. As I reminded my inner child and workaholic of this, I found myself returning to K’s original question and changing it to this. “Why do we always ask about doing, but never about being or becoming?”
In a new setting, that would be a conversation killer for most people. That’s why I’m writing it here if you’ve been brave enough to read this far. Instead of asking you what you are doing, I’m asking you, “Who are you becoming?” We need to ask ourselves this question more often I think, and I offer that the plumb line of guidance should be one of love, kindness, and justice for all creation. How do we measure up then? I know we must pay bills to feed the family, and buy medicines, but is our work on earth only that? As human beings, who hold humanity above all of the creation most often, why wouldn’t we be aiming higher?
I keep saying to people that I just want to be a person of love and kindness in this place. That isn’t enough for many people. People place expectations on each of us in ways that we’ve never asked and perhaps never wanted. That doesn’t mean we have to follow through. We can be responsible AND live up to our “True Name” when we meditate on that way of knowing our inner life and how that knowing manifests in this world. I have ideas about my true name I can’t tell you because words are insufficient. I’m going to work on music, drawings, books, and other creative venues to see if I can bring that true name into being in my days to come. Now I want to ask you, “Whom are you being today? Forget doing? Whom are you going to BE today?”
“When we look into our own hearts and begin to discover what is confused and what is brilliant, what is bitter and what is sweet, it isn’t just ourselves that we’re discovering. We’re discovering the universe.”
Pema Chödrön, “Where Is Buddha?”