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.

Shellee Coley sings from her Soul on “Songs Without Bridges”

Shellee Coley is a blessing.  Finding Shellee Coley performing at a local pub last year was one of those little gifts of grace you receive when you frequent venues that promote that local music.   I’ve gone out to hear Shellee a number of times since that night and one of the reasons I love her is that Shellee Coley is soul singer.  Although right at home in the neo-folk movement with its attendant country, americana, and singer-songwriter vibe, Shellee’s music goes right to that place where your heart meets your being.  It’s soul music.

Songs without Bridges CD Cover

She begins her new Songs without Bridges CD with an acapella version of the hymn It is Well with my Soul. It’s a powerfully haunting rendition that feels even more sparse than her solitary voice sitting alone in the front pew of an empty church. You’ll recognize the emotional space she sings from if you’ve ever walked alone in prayer on the edge of the water or knelt by yourself in front of the votive candles in an empty cathedral.  Coley’s voice is the soul in those places.  She sings only the first verse and the refrain, leaving out the lyrics about sin and Satan, using her voice to evoke the heart in the place of both sorrow and joy, the resting-in-God space of the acceptance of things.

Coley frequently tells stories about her songs while performing and many of those include growing up in a strict Christian home where she was only allowed to listen to religious music.  Like many artists who grew up in a strict conservative Christian religious culture, Shellee’s work is permeated by Christian and biblical images.  The religious references and allusions are authentic and prayerful, never self-righteous, contrived, or overly pious.  They are artistic references from someone who has made peace with her spiritual journey, keeping the good and soul-enlivening, and leaving the rest behind.  The tune Open Skies is an example:

“I will stand here singing under open skies.

I don’t need no shelter, I just need to feel the rain.

So I will walk through the valley of my shadows

and I will wade through the water of my death

and I will drink from cup that flows with mercy and love

and I will sing, I’ll keep singing the same old song

till they lay me in the yard. And even though I’ll keep on singing,

Lord, keep on singing my song forever more.”

Coley has written a couple songs about parenting and motherhood, including Conversations with Z from her last CD, which she co-wrote with her daughter.  Continuing her mother’s journal on this recording, Free is a prayer that every parent has prayed in his or her own way.

“Sometime I wish I got paid by the hour to do this job.

I can leave at five o’clock and have martinis in my downtown loft.

Sometimes I wish I could find a damn bathroom to myself.

Ten minutes alone without someone knocking on the door

and needing my help, and I’d be free.

Free from a red head jumping all over my bed

on Saturday morning, demanding donuts

and to turn the TV on.

Free from a boy turning into a man before my eyes

and free from a breaking heart

as I watch him try to figure out this life.”

To the Water could have been written purposefully for a baptism or UU water communion liturgy.  Coley credits the song to her discovery of the work Anam Cara (Celtic: Soul Friend) by spiritual writer John O’Donohue.

I’m going down to the water today.

I ‘m going down cuz it’s whispering my name,

and I don’t know if I’ll have much to say,

but I ‘ll listen for you and I’ll wait

for the deep to call out to me,

and I’ll wait for your voice to come set me free.”

Songs without Bridges is another page in the prayerbook for all of us for whom music is a spiritual practice.  Amen.

Songs without Bridges is available to stream on and until the CD is released later this month,  free downloads of some of the songs are available from the store on her website