Saturday, August 08, 2009

What "Call" (Can) Mean

Kit Ketcham, on Facebook, posted her call story--in response to someone's request. Since I dipped an oar in that conversation... she urged that I do likewise, that it might be useful for others.

A little context and background.

I grew up UU--my parents joined a congregation when I was little, just a couple years after the consolidation. We only were active until I was about 10--and then we moved overseas. So I had the tattoos--but didn't have the LRY experience, and didn't return to formal involvement for almost 30 years. I grew up in a happily agnostic, very Humanist home. Plenty of theist family friends, and extended family--but not at home. The son of a mechanical engineer and rocket scientist... a pretty solidly scientific world view was something I absorbed.

Ministry will be my third career. I've been a writer and editor, and a full-time, at-home father and homeschooling parent (it's so fun to be asked why we homeschool, and to say "for religious reasons," since it usually triggers complete brain meltdown that's fun to watch...). I'm still doing that. I will be at least until I'm done with my M.Div and... I think I might be done before I get into a pulpit.

I'd been a deeply involved member of the congregation for years before my call. I'd been on our search committee--7.5 years ago now--and knew, as well as any lay person's likely to, what professional ministry work demanded, and looked like. I'd never even thought about doing it, nor had any impulse toward it. After all, I knew enough to know better. During search, a number of people had urged the idea on me--but they did the same to my co-chair, and we both felt it was panic; desperation, fear of some outsider. The fact that people liked it when we preached--once, or maybe twice, in a year... well, so what? Once a year's not that hard.... But do it regularly--and all the rest? Crazy.

I also dress pretty casually, given my options. Jeans, t-shirt. I like living in So. Cal, and wasn't looking to find reasons to move. I'm a night owl. Etc.

So... three years ago, I was my last year on the board of trustees. I'd been president, led the congregation though a couple big things, including a major governance revision and shrinking the board down to something sane... and at last, I was out of the presidency. For the first, time, I got to go to General Assembly (Portland, for anyone trying to place this) without feeling like I had to go and attend all sorts of things for the congregation's benefit. This was going to just be going to attend interesting lectures, visit with people... have fun. My beloved agreed to go--leave the kids in the care of our goddaughter--mostly because it was Portland, a city she loves.

We registered... and then dawdled on hotel reservations. Silly of us.

So nothing in the downtown was available, and the hotels for the convention had been full for ages... and our hotel ended up being well out of town, up on the Columbia, near the end of the Yellow Line (blessings on a city with real, working public transportation). Thursday night, we hopped on the train and my sweetheart -- not a night owl -- promptly fell asleep against me. There I was, the only person awake in the entire car, with at least 20 minutes to kill. So I started flipping through the catalog. Since I had come for my own pleasure, I hadn't planned it out. I was deciding what to do... when I felt like it.

So I started reading. What might be fun, interesting?

As I flipped pages, I read session titles... and read those that might be appealing. I flipped a page and read So, You're Thinking Of Becoming A UU Minister... -- and heard my own voice, in my head... but very clearly and distinctly (a quite odd experience)... "You know, I could do that, and I'd never have to think about it again."

Now, hearing voices--even your own--is disturbing.

But remember, I was a writer and editor. Words count, and I'm acutely aware of meaning, ambiguity and nuance.

Again.

The voice part was disturbing; that was strange... but "again" just threw me into a spin. Again says that something has happened before, and is happening... again. Remember, I had not thought about it. Not considered it. Smiled nicely at anyone crazy enough to suggest it, and moved away quickly from the lunatic.

Again.

We arrived at the end of the line and got off the train. I allowed my partner a few minutes walk in cool air--most of the way back to the hotel--before saying anything about the fact that the world had turned upside down and inside out while she'd been sleeping. The conversation went more or less like this;

"Uh, there's this session that I think I... uh... ought to go to..."
"Oh, good." (as in, that's nice.)
"About becoming a minister."
(brief pause--and these words are a verbatim report...)
"Uh, maybe your next wife--because I'm not sure I'm cut out to be a minister's wife."

Oh. Not only was I hearing voices and having incredibly disturbing experiences, I was being told that my life was probably going to get run through the chipper-shredder, just for starters.

She fell asleep easily when we got to the room. I usually have no trouble sleeping--and had trouble falling asleep. I usually find that problems are much more manageable when I sleep on them, too. I woke, and still felt like I had a cinder block in my stomach. My beloved was by now amused. Not sure about this whole minister thing, but entertained to see me so incredibly wound up and off-center.

"I think you should go to that session," she told me, and we headed in to G.A.

Of course, it wasn't that day--it was the next day. So I had a day to squirm on the meathook... and I have no idea what session I attended. I probably have some notes, somewhere--it would be interesting to see what I didn't absorb....

As I came out of the session and up the hall, I spotted her coming out of one room and heading my way--and our minister came out of another, and joined her and the two of them chatted as they came my way. When we met up, it turned out that our minister had skipped breakfast to get to something before G.A. started, and was suffering a blood sugar slide... and so I saw my opportunity; I went into search committee/board member mode and took her to go get an early lunch. We could talk about the annual meeting, the elected officers, the budget... stuff outside of my issue and distress. Yay! My dear smiled at us and went off to whatever she had next on her schedule.

Off we went. And all was well.

Until 10 minutes into the actual meal.

Suddenly, she looked at me and asked "So, are you going to go to seminary, or what?" And fortunately, my mouth was empty, so I didn't do a spit-take. But I think my jaw dropped, and I felt like checking my forehead to see if there was a mark.... (I knew my partner wouldn't have said a word, so it never even crossed my mind.)

So I spilled what was going on--and she was amused. She'd simply been asking, because she'd assumed for years that it was on my mind, that I knew, felt a call... and must be thinking about it. She was surprised I hadn't been and found it funny. So we talked for a few minutes.

And then--thankfully--someone, a stranger, walked up and asked if he could join us. I was off the hook!

Alas, it turned out he was a minister, and that our minister knew him, and knew his story and... so we went back to the conversation, now with a new acquaintance as part of it. Squirm. Mind you, I'm still completely unsure about this--highly dubious, and half-convinced that this insanity will shatter my family, end my marriage and who knows what else. I'm not looking for approval and assurance. I'm looking for the way out. I'm looking to spot--and grab--the brass ring.

Fortunately, a few minutes later, she had a meeting to get to... so she left, I made my apologies, and I fled that nightmare conversation. Now, wandering through the exhibit hall... the seminary booths leered at me. I was pretty sure they hadn't been there before--I'd never seen them at other G.A.s and I hadn't noticed them the previous day. So I left the hall....

I've no idea what the next 24 hours were like, or what I did. All I recall is that after lunch the next day, the session finally was going to happen.

I went. I was the first person in the room. The presenters weren't there, yet. So I left... wandered around... got a drink... came back and was the second person into the room--someone entered just before me, so I couldn't just leave. Slowly people trickled in, avoiding each other's eyes, wincing when they saw--and were seen--by someone they knew. Phrases like "Don't can't tell so-and-so I was here" were heard more than once.

I sat through the session. Unusually, for me, I had nothing to say. No questions. I was listening for the thing that would tell me, "No, I don't have to do this." There were things I heard that might have been killers a couple years before... but not now. Nothing. David Pettee offered--among other things--a description of various categories of calls and call stories; that was the only hopeful thing... I didn't hear mine.

I left at the end, wandered past the exhibits, and somehow collecting packets of information from a number of seminaries.

I happened to run into David the next morning, and mentioned that I'd been at the session, and hadn't heard my call listed. So he asked me to briefly describe it.

"You want the short, sound bite version, right?"
"Yeah."
"Well, I'd call it the Alien Call; I didn't know it was there, and all the sudden it ripped its way out of my chest, and looked me in the face."

David recoiled very slightly, though he managed not to look perturbed, and said something like "Well, I think you need to think about that..." and moved on.

So... we went home. I discovered that I was fine--as long as I was busy with something that demanded my attention. Educational work for the kids, fine. Committee and board meetings, great. The only problem was that any time--and every time--that I was alone with myself, "it" leaped into my awareness. Driving. Showering. Doing household chores. Driving home from meetings....

So I capitulated. I started actively looking for a seminary.

And for a moment, I thought that I'd found the brass ring. Remember, I'm a full-time parent. Homeschooling. There aren't any seminaries close by that would knowingly let a UU in classes--maybe on campus. There's one that was suggested in the L.A. basin, but that's a two hour (plus traffic) drive, one way. The notion of leaving two teenaged boys alone from very early Wednesday morning until late Thursday -- their mother's a consultant and frequently travels on business; her work week is very unpredictable much in advance... and that travel is mandatory; it's how we eat... -- didn't seem reasonable.

Fortunately, by this time, she'd decided that I ought to go ahead with this... though she retained real reservations about it, come the day that it became a reality. But going to school, she could handle.

But there wasn't one... and the idea of suggesting that we should pack up the family and move so I could be close to a seminary sounded like insanity.

And then I discovered that Meadville Lombard had a program that would allow me to do most of the study and work at home--I'd just have to go and live in Chicago for about three weeks... in January, each year, for how ever many years it took to complete the degree. That, at least, was something that could be arranged for.

I began to mention it to friends--who all seemed to think it made sense to them... which made me wonder why they were at ease and not surprised, and I was. I called and told my father what I was going to do, and got a solid and affirmative response; he thought it a fine idea. Everyone else seemed to think so--and I was still pretty freaked out.

So I applied and hurried like crazy to make the end of September deadline for everything to be complete, including the interview.

And found myself in Chicago, the next January, walking into an incredibly cold wind--while it was flirting with 80 degrees back home--when I suddenly realized that David Pettee had listed my call's category. It was just one that, having grown up as I did, I didn't connect with, or really have the language for.

Oh.

Crap.

I've no idea what to make of it. I've made peace with it. I'm enjoying the work--I'm taking an insane class load (that's official, as expressed by both other students and professors) as a "part-time" student with a family and life here at home. I'm nearly getting solid As... having skated through my B.A. with B- and C+ grades. I'm loading myself up with other, non-academic work, and I'm happy... and productive.

But it's very much a sense of being compelled.

"Called."

I could have chosen otherwise. But I'll admit that the experience was so unsettling that the idea that it might come back and need to really get my attention was more than enough to persuade me that I didn't want to find out.

"Again" is not something I want. Once was enough.

6 comments:

Masasa said...

Yes, that is helpful. Thank you!

ogre said...

You're quite welcome, Masasa.

Paul Oakley said...

Nice to have your call story to add to who I know you as from this summer's intensive at Meadville Lombard. See you in January!

ms. kitty said...

Thanks, Ogre! What a wonderful story!

Earthbound Spirit said...

Ha! Ogre, I remember meeting you & your spouse in Portland. You did have a desperately glazed look on your face. I'm glad to know you now as a colleague and friend.

Hmmm, having just written about this for the umpteenth time, I may have to flesh out the (I think) one post at my own blog. But not right now - there's a thunderstorm about to hit & I'm unplugging for awhile.

zimruch said...

Thanks for sharing the "long version" of your call story. You tell it well!