I with Mournful Tread Walk the Deck my Captain Lies

robin williams

I find myself grieving the loss of actor Robin Williams the way I would a member of my family.  I’ve been puzzled by my own reaction. Like many people, I am a huge fan of his work, especially his more serious movie roles.  But other actors and singers and news makers have died whose work I also admired and I didn’t feel like this  There are people who pay less attention to the world of celebrities and red carpet photos than I do. But not many.  There isn’t much I am less interested in than what movie star is dating what pop singer or what some actress wore to a movie premier. I couldn’t stop thinking about Robin Williams and how it’s affecting me.  So I gave in and pondered and here’s what I’ve got.  Robin Williams death is lodged in my heart because of depression, ministry, aging, and hope.

If Williams’ death wasn’t a suicide, it wouldn’t pain me so much.  But it hurts. It strikes my soul.  It’s the depression, both his and mine, that makes his passing a powerful loss.  I have depression (even wrote a series of posts about it last year) as do many of my friends and colleagues in ministry. If you’re a Unitarian Universalist or a church goer of any kind, the likelihood that your minister or pastor has depression is much higher than you might think.  Maybe one reason that ministry has been such a fit for me as a career is not a drive to inspire hope in others, but to continually encourage myself.  I have lost friends and colleagues to suicide related to depression in the last year and I know that it may only be grace or luck that keeps me and many of my loved ones from getting to that place of pain so deep there is only one way out.  If I am honest, Robbin Williams’ suicide scares me.  It scares me because, well, every time we lose a battle with depression, it increases anxiety about losing the war. I am not suicidal, but I could be, as could my friend or my colleague.  Like casualties in any war, when the count of the dead goes up, the soul cries “stop, no more. Stop the killing.”  

Many of us who live with depression find ways to encourage others, to assist others on their journey to health and wholeness, to teach, to entertain, to provoke and inspire – it is how we combat the darkness.  It’s well known now that studies seem to show creativity and mental illness, including depression are linked.  

Often overlooked in this link between mental illness and depression is the connection between professions that are not overtly considered creative outlets such as teaching and ministry.  While writers and musicians and actors work in fields where their creativity is at the forefront, many teachers and ministers use their proclivities for writing and/or performing in service to their vocation.   Toronto Star movie critic Peter Howell says Williams was  “the epitome of the clown who laughed on the outside but cried on the inside.”   Chances are, if you have had or know a particularly creative and/or innovative teacher or clergy person, then that person is very likely to have a similar dark side.

Robin Williams evokes this pain about the battle with depression, not because he’s the first or most well known to die from it, but because he was one I grew up with and he played roles that deeply affected me.

I was just old enough to remember Williams as Mork from Ork, not just on Mork and Mindy, but on Happy Days – Happy Days! I was in college in 1987 the year Robin Williams found a permanent place in my heart with Dead Poet’s Society and Good Morning Vietnam.   I spent eight years teaching high school and John Keating inspired me to inspire. As the struggles of adulthood  set in, Sean Maguire  wasn’t just counseling Will Hunting, he was talking to me, too.  When I went into the ministry I began to use What Dreams May Come to inspire discussions with youth groups about the different ways human beings have envisioned life after death.  

The suicide of the student in Dead Poet’s Society hits especially hard now, as does the poignancy of Walt Whitman’s (seriously, does anyone not refer to Whitman as “uncle Walt” after seeing that film?) O Captain My Captain.     About the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, it’s appropriate for the actor’s death as well as the president’s because the actor played many “captains”  – those who steered a principled, compassionate and human course through the often stifling and oppressive status quo.  From Adrian Cronauer to John Keating to Patch Adams to Sean Maguire, to Genie, Williams was a powerful portrayer of good-hearted men (or other beings).   

It’s particularly poignant that so many of his famous roles propelled stories that dealt with mental illness, suicide, and death.  And yet the characters he played in these stories were nothing if not bearers of light in darkness inspiring hope. At the same time, however, this inspiration was steeped in the reality of the human condition.    So even in the face of my own sadness and a very sobering respect for the dark power of depression, I look for ways to continue to bring light. I am reminded how vitally important it is to be there for others when the darkness descends and how important it is for me to reach out to others when it descends on me.  

Preparation for Ministry: Spiritual Direction Training compared to Seminary

The best preparation I had for ministry was the three year training program for spiritual directors I completed at Heart-Paths Dallas in 2012.  For those who do not know about or who are not familiar with spiritual direction, I offer this description from Liz Budd Ellmann, the Executive Director of Spiritual Directors International:


“Spiritual direction explores a deeper relationship with the spiritual aspect of being human. Simply put, spiritual direction is helping people tell their sacred stories everyday.” (For more in-depth descriptions see SDI here  or my own spiritual direction web site here.)

Seminary did not prepare me to accompany others on a spiritual journey. I learned this while training to be a spiritual director.  I learned most of the tools needed to practice this art from Heart Paths. Essentials such as deep listening, asking effective questions, vulnerability, and discernment,  were anchors of the spiritual direction curriculum, but not of my seminary experience.

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Uncle Walt and the Undying Dancing Man

I’m not feeling Easter-y this year.  I’m tired, generally grumpy, and I seem uninterested in many things that I used to be passionate about.  I’m not feeling depressed as much as exhausted.  It’s been a stressful year full of financial anxiety and it comes after two years  of many major changes in my personal life, divorce among them.  I’m happy to be working out contracts with two congregations, where I will be half-time pastor at each, so my underemployment and financial anxiety is about to lessen considerably, and yet, I find that I’m not excited.  I’m having a Leaves of Grass Easter this year. I seem a bit stuck; a bit lost amid the state of the world and my own personal struggeles and anxieties.  As Unlce Walt put it:

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Unitarian Universalism, Mission, and Nerdfighers: DFTBA & LTHOOTW

I realize that I am not the first, but only the most recent person to make this connection: Unitarian Universalists are Nerdfighters.   If you do not know what Nerdfighers are, please see this explanation in The New Yorker   or the introductory video below by Nerdfighter originators John and Hank Green:


“People who instead of being made up of cells and organs and stuff are actually made out of awesome. They fight decepticons on behalf of Nerds everywhere!”

Nerdfighers are champions of reason and intellectualism which they use in the humanistic pursuit of making the world a better place. We Unitarian Universalists are proud to use intellectualism to increase the awesome in the world and decrease the suck. In fact, the Nerdfighters mission to increase the awesome in the world and decrease the suck is but another way of saying Love the Hell Out of the World.   Loving the Hell out of the World and Not Forgetting to Be Awesome are excellent examples of world transforming ideas as mission, especially for a religion such as Unitarian Universalism that is trying to institutionally move “beyond Congregations” and weave “Free Range” Unitarian Universalists into the broader movement.    Unitarian Universalists tend to be Nerdfighters by nature any way, we are to a great extent nerds and geeks who love to get involved in just about any social or political or religious activity that makes the world more awesome (more just, loving, equitable, sustainable and compassionate) while removing as much suck from the world as possible ( you know the hate, violence, oppression, war, disease,  injustice, inequality, sexism, racism, homophobia, etc).  There are many of us. We are legion. And we don’t all belong to traditional congregations. Yet, we all share in a big reason “WHY?” which I think can be described as Loving the Hell out of the World or Being Awesome and Decreasing Worldsuck.

Mission is more important than a mission statement, a  creed or even a set of religious principles. Mission is a reason why you do everything!  Mission helps an individual or a group or community make decisions about the best of use of time, money, resources and talents.  For example does idea “X” or project “Y”  increase the awesome in the world? If yes, then it is in line with the mission and worth your time, money, and effort.  Does idea “Y” or project “X” decrease worldsuck? If so, it is worth your time, investment, and energy. Replace increase awesome and decrease world suck with your mission such as Loving the Hell out of the World.  Does X or Y help you Love the Hell out of the World? If so, you are on mission. If not, do something else.

Another lesson about mission we learn from Nerdfighters is the importance of having a mission that is something which can unite a community by inviting them on a journey together but which can also be localized to each member’s or sup-group’s particular life,  location, and situation.  For example, a side project for the Vlog Brothers, The Project for Awesome, raises money for various good causes and organizations.  What being awesome and decreasing worldsuck looks like in any individual context still contributes to the overall mission.  It’s like Loving the Hell out of the World because the type of love, care, and attention your particular part of the world needs to remove the hell, might look different than someone else’s.

Mission doesn’t need branding or advertising.  It needs living and acting and community. John Green told the New Yorker

“…We don’t really want nerdfighters to be a mainstream cultural phenomenon,” Green wrote me. “I worry that mainstream cultural phenomena need, like, Message Singularity and A Brand and an Institutional Voice and stuff. That kind of thing does not interest us at all. We just want to make cool stuff with people we like.”

While the institutions of religion (denominations and such) struggle with branding themselves and finding a unified message, millions of people are living out their humanistic faith (be it humanism or atheism or a humanistic approach to a tradition as Judaism, Christianity or Islam) without a pressing need for those institutions.  What people are looking for is community on a similar journey putting their values into practice by, say, decreasing worldsuck.  The great mission to do this takes many forms.

The Red Pill Brethren are one manifestation of Unitarian Universalism finding and living out a mission we describe as “Loving the Hell out of the World.”   The Red Pill Brethren and our un-conference project, Life on Fire, has an outpost in Indianapolis with the Free Range UU’s of Indianpolis. John Green lives in Indianapolis.  I wonder if he might be persuaded to come to a Life on Fire event in his home town and talk about this idea of mission, how DFTBA is an example and other cool things?

Just as Unitarian Universalists like to say, many people are UU’s, they just don’t know it yet, so too can this claim be made by Nerdfighters.  There are a lot of Nerdfighters out there, some of them just don’t know it yet, such as many Unitarian Universalists.

So, UU Nerdfighters, don’t forget to be awesome and Love the Hell out of the World.


Personal note:  I was introduced to John Green, The Vlog Brothers, and Nerdfighters by my son, Zack, two years ago.  I like to think this fact alone is testament to the undeniable reality that I am indeed a Nerdfigher and raising Zack is pretty much alone at the top of the list of things I have personally done to decrease worldsuck. Continue being AWESOME, my son.

A Good Enough Ash Wednesday

I love Ash Wednesday because it is a liturgical reminder of that Universalist promise that I am OK; that I am acceptable, loveable and OK just as I am. And so are you.  God loves everyone, no exceptions. Even you. Even me.  At the heart of Ash Wednesday and the ritual imposition of ashes is the Universalist theology that God condemns no one to eternal damnation. We are all IN with God. Even if we’re imperfect and make mistakes.


If there is anything that’s missing sometimes from the contemporary Unitarian Universalist worship tradition it is a ritual of forgiveness of, well, sins; the liturgical and prayerful recognition that I am a mess; that I am mess of anxieties and flaws and contradictions and a jumble of emotions that sometimes make it difficult for me to be my best self, and it’s OK to be such a mess.  My messiness doesn’t make me unloveable or unacceptable, or wretched or evil, it just makes me human.  It reminds me that I don’t need to be perfect, or even good, but as Brene Brown says (and as my partner is constantly reminding me) Good ENOUGH.

Good enough includes fucking up and unintentionally hurting others through things I do or neglect to do. It includes being self-centered and self-absorbed and self-important and beating myself up for not being who I want to be.  I don’t believe that humanity is depraved and wretched, but we are not all good either.  Ash Wednesday reminds me that the line between good and evil, right and wrong, dark and light, perfect and good enough are lines that run down the middle of each one of us.

Ash Wednesday reminds me that God does not seek to punish me or condemn me and I need to stop doing it to myself and others.  Ash Wednesday reminds me that God loves everyone. No exceptions. Even you. Even me.

So today I took my imperfect, good-enough self (after an imperfect attempt at making ritual ashes – really,  it took me three tries) and sat in coffee shops and cafes with some ashes and a sign that read “Free Ashes  – Nothing can separate us from the love of God. God loves everyone. No exceptions.”  I didn’t intrude on people or start up conversations. I made of myself a presence, gave out ashes to a couple of people, had some prayerful moments with a couple of baristas, doing my best to offer a simple reminder that there is nothing I or anyone else has done or will do that is so horrible we can not rest in the love of God’s forgiveness.  Maybe I will even learn to better forgive myself.

Ash Wednesday reminds me that I am not God, I am human and am doing the best I can to live this human life.  It reminds me that it’s good for me to say I’m sorry when I’m wrong, make amends the best I can, and move on.

Maybe this is the essence of all the old Christian traditions about repentance and the forgiveness of sins – not to make our human imperfection a burden, but to help us realize we are only human and good enough.  Somewhere along the line, the concepts of sin and repentance got warped and bent into tools to heighten our shame and increase our self-loathing.  Ash Wednesday is an opportunity to recover a healthy sense of sin and repentance.  It’s just a part of life that we sometimes screw up, sometimes in big ways, and we need public and private ways to better acknowledge this that also reinforce for us we are only human and all we can do in any given moment is try to do our best.

The imposition of ashes is a ritual act of repentance, the purpose of which is not pointing out our wretchedness, but giving us a way to acknowledge we’ve made mistakes without giving ourselves yet another reason to feel like crap for making mistakes.  Spiritually healthy acts of repentance emphasize both the responsibility to own our mistakes (confession) and recognition from another or others we are sorry  for having human faults and not being our best selves (absolution).  This an audacious ritual. It is at the essence of why some people had so much trouble with Jesus – he had the nerve to tell people they are forgiven for their sins!  Spiritual healthy rituals of confession and absolution have to include acknowledgement that we are only human, we are doing our best, and even with our flaws and fuck-ups, we are good ENOUGH.

The Unitarian Universalist tradition needs more ritual acts of confession and forgiveness.  I am comfortable with some of these inherited from the Christian tradition, such as the imposition of ashes, and I wonder what prayerful confession and absolution might look like for Unitarian Universalism.

I’m  deeply grateful for the handful of people who received ashes from me today and for those who talked to me about God and Jesus while I ordered coffee and soup,  and to those who asked about the rainbow pin I wore with my collar.  I may not have been a perfect servant God or representative of Unitarian Universalism today, but I was good enough, and I will consider it blessing to have been reminded of that today.