Telling the Truth

connecting the dots of my life

Tag: Seminary

Conversations that matter

On 21 April 2016, I broke my jaw and my wings were clipped. Not just by the broken jaw, but by a string of unanticipated health events that followed. Today it takes time to attend to my aging body.

So I often wonder what the meaning of my life is now. Why am I here? I know I’m going to die. So what about the meantime, in whatever time I have left on this earth? Is blogging it? I love blogging, but….

A couple of weeks ago I got an email from a friend and former colleague at the seminary. Would I be willing to interview a seminarian working on her MA degree? The answer was Yes! Of course! Big smiles and happiness! A high point in my life!

So this last week I spent time on the phone with her. Lots of time. We didn’t talk about the fine points of my life as a pastor (which I am not). Instead, we talked about the not-so-fine points of my life as a survivor of childhood abuse. Especially what it took in my late 40s to begin the long process of healing while I was professor and then dean at the seminary.

Why was this conversation a high point for me? Because it let me know I still have something to say. Especially, but not only to women and men preparing for ministry in churches, or for leadership in religious organizations.

Blogging about my experience has been and still is part of my healing. Yet nothing beats a one-on-one conversation, or a small group discussion in which I’m able to talk about what it took for me to begin healing.

We’re all dealt cards we didn’t ask for, even before the moment we’re born. Going into a professional position or a new job doesn’t magically make all that disappear. In fact, it often triggers it. Understanding how trauma shaped and still shapes us is worthy of our best efforts. Not alone, but together.

I don’t know how this will play out. Nonetheless, I’m hoping for more informal opportunities in which my personal and professional experiences come together in surprising ways.

Cheers!
Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 14 October 2018

friendly inhumanity

not large but small things
echo in hollow chambers
the sound of life denied
drips from human souls
into ground saturated
with the life-blood of refugees
halted at the border
of the promised land
of plenty caught in webs
of grief and disbelief
the latest casualties
of friendly inhumanity

Yes, I’m still at it. Why? Because our national inability to govern wisely is breaking down in front of our eyes. Most of us have to get up and go to work. I don’t.

This is my work: to keep in front of my eyes the tragedy of national leaders who seem to have lost the will to govern wisely and solely on behalf of the most needy among us. From the ground up, not from the heights of make-believe trickle down theory.

When I was working at the seminary, I experienced up close the chaos one ill-placed leader could wreak within a community. The scramble was on, not just among staff who desperately needed their jobs, but within the hearts of every member of the organization.

What do we do now? Do we shut up and pretend we’re doing business as usual? To what extent do we voice our concerns? And how?

Things that were straightforward, or at least manageable, became fraught with nuances and consequences to be avoided. Telling the truth was dangerous, even when supported by clear data and research.

And yet we stayed on. Not because we were cowards, but because we believed in the greater good of our students and of each other as trusted colleagues. We did what we could, and watched the rest being taken over by the hands of others. Not a fun way to work.

It wasn’t always that way, for which I’m grateful. Nonetheless, the last years of my tenure were fraught with conflict, uncertainty, promises that turned into something else, scoldings from time to time, and the breakdown of good will among people of good will. In the end, I chose to leave what had become punishing for my body and spirit.

Why this strange link between refugees and my work at the seminary? Because in each case a leader (dean or president) chooses to govern by creating chaos. The chaos at the seminary was somewhat controlled by those who governed differently. In the end, however, even that couldn’t save us from being exploited and taken over as an institution.

Mr. Trump governs by creating chaos within the White House and within our nation. This won’t save us from ourselves or others. Sadly, there isn’t much business ‘as usual’ anymore. Instead, we’re invited to witness and experience chaos every day.

My hope and my prayer is that I’ll be a grounded, hope-filled, prayerful neighbor, doing what I can to offer hospitality to strangers. Especially those unable to speak freely for themselves.

©Elouise Renich Fraser, 11 July 2018

In the presence of my enemies

It’s January 2006. I got to my office early, and was preparing to drive to the airport and catch a flight to Houston, Texas, to be with my sister Diane who was dying of ALS. She had opted for comfort care at home. No food and no medication. Just fluids and whatever would comfort her. This might be my last visit with her.

As I was about to leave my office, the phone rang. It was D. His premonitions were correct. The president of the university had just requested D’s resignation. So here it was, after several years of difficult personnel and budget issues.

No, D didn’t want me to cancel my flight. Instead, I flew to Houston in a stupor of spousal pain and rage, and gave D a call that evening. I continued as dean at the seminary. D was now free to follow his heart and eventually accepted a position with an international organization he’d helped birth.

Now it’s August 2008. I’m on a platform in the university gym along with other dignitaries. We’re in full regalia, ready for the fall convocation, installation of new faculty, and installation of the new chancellor of the university. The man chosen as the next provost, one of D’s friends and faculty colleagues, would be installed as the new chancellor. My job was to offer the installation prayer.

Inside, I was a mess. When the time came, I stood at the lectern facing the university faculty along with our seminary faculty. A number of university faculty had been unhappy with D’s administration. Some bitterly so.

On the outside I was a professional. On the inside I was in melt-down, shaking in my spirit and fully aware I was facing some university faculty who felt like enemies, along with many others who still grieved D’s resignation.

The newly minted chancellor stood next to me, and I invited everyone to stand with me for the prayer. It was simple and direct. And yes, it was a prayer for me and for D, not just for the new chancellor.

The prayer made use of Psalm 23. I couldn’t find the original script. It went something like this:

Because the Lord is your shepherd and knows everything about you, you will never lack for anything you need.
When you’re weary, may you find rest in green pastures, and follow your shepherd to pools of quiet waters.
When your soul is troubled, may you find restoration, and be guided in paths of right relationships that bring honor to your shepherd.

When you go through times of deepest darkness and despair, may you fear no evil;
Your shepherd will be with you, to find and comfort you no matter what happens.
When your shepherd prepares a banquet for you, and your enemies are looking on or sitting at the table, know that you are an honored guest in the Lord’s house, worthy of the best wine in the world.

Finally, remember that this goodness and mercy will be with you all the days of your life, and you will dwell in the house of the Lord, your good shepherd, forever.

Amen

I don’t understand all the dynamics of this event. Nonetheless, when I sat down I was calm inside, ready for whatever came next.

©Elouise Renich Fraser, 28 June 2018

A Prayer for Yesterday and Today

This morning I came across a prayer I wrote and delivered in May 2008, one year before I retired as dean. It was for our seminary’s special chapel for graduating seniors. It brought a few tears to my eyes, and I decided to share it with you. It isn’t easy to be human, is it?

Merciful, Gracious, and Most High God,

We come to You today just as we are
And because You invite us into your presence.

On this special occasion we lift up our graduating seniors
Our Brothers and Sisters, just as they are—
Filled with anticipation and perhaps a little anxiety;
Filled with excitement and perhaps a little uncertainty;
Filled with relief and perhaps a little dread about what comes next;
Filled with gratitude and perhaps a little disappointment or remorse.

We pray that Your will, not ours, would be accomplished in and through them.

We pray they will grow beyond this place in wisdom, skill and grace as followers of Jesus Christ, regardless of the cost to their reputations or professional standing.

Grant them grace and courage to grow
In and with their families;
In and with their churches and communities;
In and with their spiritual accountability partners;
In and with this world You love so much

Send Your Holy Spirit to keep their hearts soft and open as they move into new roles with more responsibility, and heightened pressure to look competent and successful.

Send Your ministering angels from time to time to remind them of their humanity, and to remind them that they are always beginners, always God’s beloved children still learning what it means to follow Jesus.

We pray that You would keep them and all of us as we learn to negotiate and inhabit this world You love.
A world plagued by natural disasters;
Political, ethnic and religious disasters;
Economic disasters and inequities;
Relational disasters and deep, unrelenting sorrow.

We pray for Your will, not ours, to be done in this world, beginning right here with us.
Your will for justice;
Your will for reconciliation and forgiveness;
Your will for courage to talk about and embody what makes for peace–
Beginning right here on the corner of Lancaster and City Avenues.

Just as we are, we come today to the foot of Your cross—
The cross that illuminates and is illuminated by the life You lived with us in Your son Jesus of Nazareth, and through the power of Your eternal Holy Spirit

We celebrate the degree of wholeness You have worked in us and in our brothers and sisters around the world.

We anticipate Your bringing all things to a conclusion in us and in this world
To Your honor, Your perfection, and Your glory.

To that end, we join our voices, our hands and our hearts as we pray together the prayer Your son Jesus taught us to pray, saying
Our father who art in heaven,
Hallowed be Thy name.
Thy kingdom come;
Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread;
And forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.
And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil;
For Thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory forever and ever.
Amen.

©Elouise Renich Fraser, 27 June 2018

A vexing situation – Sexuality 3

It’s now 1986. I’ve been an assistant professor of theology for three years. A new academic dean has just arrived, as have recent newspaper articles about one of our recent graduates. She had been one of our more conservative students, and was now an ordained pastor.

According to newspaper accounts, our graduate, happily married with two sons, left her conservative denomination to become pastor of a church for gay men and lesbian women. She had become disenchanted by her denomination’s anti-gay/lesbian rhetoric as well as concrete actions taken against homosexual women and men. I applauded her courage, as did some of my colleagues.

Our new dean circulated to the faculty a copy of the newspaper account along with a brief memo letting us know we would be talking about this. In the account, our former student identified herself as a graduate of our seminary.

Thus began a long conversation in the faculty that ended after nearly 10 years of anguished discussion about what we as a seminary should do. Not about this one graduate, but about gay men and lesbian women who might be already enrolled or applying for admission to our seminary. And about what faculty could or could not teach in the classroom.

The seminary hadn’t made attitudes or beliefs about homosexuality (or heterosexuality) an official requirement for admission in the past, so why did we need to clarify our ‘standing’ at this time? And why, given the recent history of the seminary’s heterosexual president, as well as hints of stories that might be told about one or two male professors of the past, were we suddenly consumed by angst about homosexuality? Wasn’t heterosexuality of equal weight and importance?

During my first three years at the seminary I became known, along with several colleagues, as a ‘safe’ person to talk with about matters of sexuality. Especially homosexuality. That meant I knew how to listen, how to be supportive without being directive, and how to help seminarians think about options. It didn’t take many conversations to realize I had no clue about the inner and family lives of gay and lesbian seminarians.

Some, now full adults, had never come out of the closet with their families, much less their friends. The thought of appearing before a board or session of a church to be interviewed for ordination was terrifying. Some ordination exams were public. Open to members from other congregations. Questions could be asked by anyone in the room, including questions about candidates’ personal lives.

I attended scores of these public exams. Nothing was more brutal than knowing ‘visitors’ from other churches could sway the outcome of an exam. The sessions sometimes functioned as semi-political social and theological warfare. If that sounds harsh, so be it. The possible consequences for the woman or man standing up front were harsh. Especially if the moderator wasn’t skilled and politically savvy.

Finally, in 1996, the seminary published internally a new policy on human sexuality and moral conduct. It included implications for present and future members of the seminary community and for faculty members in their responsibility as teachers.

I like clarity. I like knowing what’s expected of me. Yet this new policy sent a double message.

To be continued.

©Elouise Renich Fraser, 4 April 2018

A vexing situation – Sexuality 2

Almost all my life I’ve been aware of sexuality, especially my own. Since my birth in 1943, I’ve been a member or participant of multiple religious communities that have talked about sexuality only when necessary. Usually when cultural pressures seemed to endanger ‘our’ young people.

I don’t remember sermons or safe conversations about everyday situations such as how to have a safe conversation with someone whose heart is aching or carrying a heavy secret. Nor have I had much training in how to watch or change my behavior so that I’m as clear and safe as possible when it comes to my sexuality.

For me, this unspoken agreement not to talk openly about sexuality made things worse. Especially after I arrived at the seminary in 1983, one of a small number of female faculty members. I felt alone and confused, left to figure things out by myself.

So here I am, a new assistant professor at a theologically conservative seminary with socially responsible roots and programs, along with a still-fresh wound from the former president. My new colleagues and students have their luggage from the past, and I have mine.

Perhaps the approach of ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ was the seminary’s way of allowing us to feel safe. Which, of course, many of us did not.

The first three years of my appointment I was exhausted, confused, anxious and fearful. Not because of what I knew, but because of how much I didn’t know. Not chiefly about how to teach or how to deal with classroom situations (though that was no cakewalk), but about being an academic advisor to each of my assigned advisees.

They appeared at my door, several times a year. Women and men with multiple issues about scheduling, grade point averages, work load, childcare, job requirements, immigration requirements, culture shock and yes, secrets. Heavy, untold stories about past history, realities about current history, sometimes things they’d locked away in a closet as though that would take care of it.

I think back to those three years as my Apprenticeship in Real Life. Classroom dynamics were nothing compared to the atmosphere in my office when an advisee or other student decided to tell me a secret about his or her sexuality. My job was to respond appropriately and with integrity.

Did I stumble around? Absolutely. Was I confident? NO! Did I have all the answers to life’s burning questions? No. Did I make mistakes? Yes, I did. And I learned a lot.

The most painful thing I learned was that my own sexual issues from childhood were still haunting me. Things I thought I’d left behind were suddenly right there in front of me or inside me. They demanded a hearing, even though I was there to listen and offer guidance to others.

I didn’t know it then, but I was beginning a personal curriculum that eventually humanized me. My closely guarded secrets about childhood and teenage years as well as secrets about my adult years weren’t the end of the world. They were keys to joining the human race, especially in the one area of my life I couldn’t understand no matter how much I tried to normalize it.

And I wasn’t there yet. In fact, things became more difficult after my first three years of teaching.

To be continued.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 27 March 2018

A vexing situation – Sexuality

When I arrived at the seminary in 1983, it didn’t take long to figure this out. The seminary had an unspoken policy when it came to sexual behavior. Don’t ask, don’t tell.

This left me in a quandary. I’ve just walked into a seminary with a still-fresh wound inflicted by the former president. It wasn’t about homosexuality. It was about another sexual preference, though no one in her or his right mind would have called it that back then.

He had an arrangement with a second ‘wife’ with whom he enjoyed getaways for at least a couple of years. It seems no one knew what was going on until one of the seminary’s capable staff members noticed a strange charge to his credit card.

The well-kept secret was out, and his time at the seminary came to an abrupt end. No one was happy about it. He was a highly respected man, well spoken, still in the prime of his life, and one of ‘ours.’ Which means he was a member of the church denomination that had birthed the seminary.

When I was interviewed to become a professor at the seminary, the still-fresh wound was never mentioned.

‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ already had a life of its own at the seminary. It seemed  to work. The seminary seemed to have good standing with constituents in the area. And if the word got out (which, of course, it did), the seminary had done the right thing. And attention quickly moved on to the bright future ahead now that this sad and unfortunate anomaly had been dealt with.

How did the seminary community process this crisis? I don’t know. I don’t recall much conversation about what had happened or how it might have changed the seminary’s thinking about sexual ethics and the abuse of power.

Doing the right thing when it comes to matters of sexuality is dicey at best. I don’t find the usual assumptions and exhortations from pulpits or other platforms helpful, though I believe we must talk about sexuality openly and honestly.

And there’s the rub. Because sexuality is complex, attempts to be open and honest can quickly devolve. Though we say we want an open conversation, we prefer a controlled environment. Many of us also arrive with our own unexamined baggage or our belief that we’ve got our own sexuality under control.

Trust, already in short supply, can quickly become nonexistent. Sometimes followed by resort to tired stereotypes and untested assumptions about people. It takes great skill and commitment to keep an open conversation open.

It seems we’re allergic to conversations that make us uncomfortable. Not simply as speakers, but as listeners. We prefer boundaries, no matter which side we’re on. Sometimes we argue about boundaries instead of talking about ourselves and our own painfully isolating secrets.

From my perspective, the seminary wasn’t skilled as a community when it came to creating safe space for open and honest dialogue about sexuality. ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ was the unofficial, accepted way of dealing with things. This covered the seminary’s past history as well as the past and current histories of students, faculty and staff. Unopened, unexamined pieces of luggage full of confusion and heartache.

To be continued.

©Elouise Renich Fraser, 22 March 2018

Safe, Not Sorry | Part 1of 2

That’s how I’d headline my teenage and young adult approach to making decisions.  Safe, not sorry!  I still carry remnants of this in me, even though I know nothing is necessarily safe, and there’s no guarantee I’ll never be sorry.  Life isn’t safe; Read the rest of this entry »

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