Neil Gaiman’s Beautiful Lie

Neil Gaiman’s latest novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, is about many things. It is about childhood and magic and knowing and secrets and remembering. It is a story, but it is also about stories. It is these things—all set in the landscape of Gaiman’s childhood—and something more:  a strange but familiar dance between sweetness and sorrow, revelation and obfuscation, the need to remember and the fate that eventually, we all forget.

When I first began to write I was told by a wise poet friend that it was okay and even necessary, to lie. “All storytellers lie,” he said, “We lie to tell the truth.”  I realized then, and again when reading The Ocean at the End of the Lane, that the most powerful truths must be wrapped carefully in lies or we would not survive knowing them.

Gaiman’s book is this kind of lie.

That is why, for only the second time in my life, I find myself unable to write a simple book review. I cannot parse the plot for you or analyze the prose or even tell you in any straightforward way about what The Ocean at the End of the Lane is about. Instead, I can only return a truth for a truth, a story for a story, a lie for a lie.

 Once upon a time there was a little girl who had whole worlds inside her. Though she knew many things, she was a child and for that reason alone was assumed to know nothing at all. Every moment of every day she was taught unimportant things. She was taught how to behave. She was taught what to think. She was taught what to believe. She was taught that the worlds inside her were make-believe and could never be true.

 She was given a name, a role, and a set of rules. She was told that the name, the role and the rules were the only thing that mattered, the only things that were true. She learned to hide what she knew, and as she did, she became sullen and sad as her heart dried out and crumbled, bit by bit.

 When her heart was still supple and whole, she could see that kind Mr. Shellabarger who lived next door was not just an old man who loved his garden. And his wife, Alice, was not just an old woman who stayed hidden in the house because a disease made her tremble, but was the very same Alice who once fell through the looking glass. The girl knew that the reason Mr. Shellabarger sprayed his apple trees with garlic rather than poison pesticides was that he did not want to hurt the March Hare or Cheshire Cat that occasionally sat in the big tree with the hole halfway between its roots and low branches.

 When the girl’s father would complain that Mr. Shellabarger was making the whole neighborhood smell like an Italian restaurant with his backward ways and overgrown garden, she tried to explain that only magic could make the little grapes taste exactly like beads of honey and sunlight, but her words only made her father’s anger change course, aimed at the little girl instead.  She smelled the bitterness in his breath as he screamed that she was stupid and read too many books and didn’t know the difference between stories and lies. As his anger coldly coalesced, he promised to throw away all her books and never, ever allow her see the inside of a library again.

 His anger and his promise lasted for two full weeks and by the time those two weeks had passed her heart was mud, cracked and parched from a terrible drought.  When she was allowed to return to books, she found that she had grown afraid of stories that helped her know true things, and instead read books about rocks and birds and girls who did not go down rabbit holes but wanted to wear pretty dresses and get properly married to please their fathers.

Her heart continued to crumble and it took many years of wishing to be someone else before she remembered that she could, indeed, become. Long after her father left and married the Red Queen (who was not the Queen of Hearts) she dared to begin to live her true life. And though she grew up to be a man whose heart was sometimes dry and dusty at the edges, he still reads books that remind him of being the little girl waiting to see a Cheshire smile in Mr. Shellabarger’s garden.



for Amanda

at ease
dear Heart
at ease after
inviting anyone, everyone
to come in so that alone
would not mean

at ease
dear Dreamer
at ease after
trying so very hard
to bind the wounds of
that broken-winged

at ease
dear Child
at ease after
saying “yes” too loudly
so they would not hear
your quiet screaming

at ease
dear Mind
at ease after
clawing through thorns
and tangles for words
that finally tell the whole

at ease
dear Soul
at ease after
pleasing and appeasing
so many false
and foreign

rest at ease
rest at ease
rest at ease

now sleep

I am not sure if this blog is dead…

Somehow, I lost the inspiration to write here. I’m not sure why. Most of my online presence now is on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter.  The thought of writing a post here feels like writing essays—-so many words–and that just seems dull. I’ve gotten used to the shorter formats and love the challenge of distilling my thoughts into 140 characters or an image. I save my long form thoughts for sermons in my beautiful congregation.

I also have a secret project. It’s secret because some might find it too edgy, even offensive. Mostly because it does not avoid “the F word.” In fact, it reclaims it with some joy and abandon. It is also an intentional effort to create a space that celebrates the intersections of art, spiritual community, and resistance.  And to bring the joy and pain and chaos and mess of those things together, hoping to find something beautiful and relevant there.

If you promise not to get angry about the language or the unapologetic interruption of oppression, or offended by  the celebration of all things embodied (including all kinds of bodies, tattoos, sex…) then come to The Cabaret.

Church Skills: Decision-making

At my current congregation, we’ve done a lot of work to clarify who has the power to make decisions about particular things. For instance, under policy-style governance we use, the minister has the power to make decisions about almost everything that falls under “ministry.” Are we going to start a book group? I can decide. Is a program losing momentum and taking up a lot of resources? I can decide to end it. Are we going to add another service? Up to me. Do we need to hire a few singers to help round out the choir? Done.

This clarity is good for everyone. What’s even better is that we are working very hard to make sure that if a person has authority to make a decision, they have three other things as well: responsibility, accountability, and resources. So, if I want to add a new program, I need to pay attention to my responsibilities (Does it serve the mission and ends that the congregation has set? Does it fully comply with our policies? Do we have the resources to make it happen?) I also need to be accountable for my decision and its effects. The board monitors the ongoing health of the congregation and I’m accountable to them for my decisions and whether they help or hinder the congregation’s mission. And lastly, if I’ve been given the authority to make decisions, I have to have access to resources (money, staff, volunteers, space…) to support the decisions I make. It’s not fair to give someone responsibility and accountability for something and then refuse to give them the resources they need to make things happen.

I also have the choice to share the power of decision-making with others (to delegate.) We have a Ministry Council made up of Circle Coordinators who are responsible for particular areas of Ministry. Each of them has decision-making power in their area. The Worship Circle Coordinator can decide to invite guest speakers, to change the arrangement of the chancel, to experiment with new ways of acknowledging the congregation’s Joys and Sorrows. The Welcome Circle Coordinator can decide how many Greeters we need, when latecomers will be seated, and what is in the packet we give to newcomers. You get the idea.

I’m convinced that one reason a lot of churches have trouble recruiting leaders is that we don’t let them lead. Instead, we second guess every decision and call into doubt anyone’s right to decide anything without checking with each and every one of us. Because we have all seen power and authority misused our skepticism is understandable, but it doesn’t always serve us well. We have a right to question authority, but when we question everything it is a recipe for burnout in our leaders.  One of the things religious community can do for us is give us a place to explore issues of trust. A healthy congregation can be a place where we learn to offer trust and be trustworthy.

So, let’s say we’ve gotten to a place where we have leaders that can make decisions. We have a congregation ready to trust them to do that. And now a situation comes up that requires a decision be made. What needs to happen next? How does a decision get made? How is it communicated? When should a leader go for it–make a decision and see what happens–and when should s/he stop, call for input, involve others and go slow?

I don’t yet know all the answers, but I’ve learned a lot over the past two years with this lovely, busy, ambitious, caring, congregation. We’ve made a LOT of decisions in the past few months as we financed, purchased, and renovated a building. And I have learned some things I think would be useful to pass along, especially about when NOT to make a decision alone. (even if you have the authority to do so.)

I remember wishing that a little bell would ring whenever I’m about to decide something that I’d wish later I’d asked others about. And I’m really excited to share with you just that kind of B.E.L.L.–a little mnemonic device to help you recognize that a decision needs extra input, extra communication, and extra care. Here it is:

B=Buy-in: If the decision you are about to make necessitates significant buy-in, it’s time to slow down. For example, if you want to do something that needs funding, like buying new coffee equipment or something that takes significant volunteer energy, like an every-member canvass, it’s time to get more input and take extra time to communicate.

E=Effect: If the effect of your decision will be far-reaching or will set off cascading effects, you need to slow down. For example: if you are going to change the way the nametags attach to clothing, you should slow down. Everyone wears a nametag, and if you move from magnets to pins, you may have to deal with hundreds of angry people who don’t want to put holes in their shirts. It may seem like a small thing, but the effects are far-reaching. Or, if I decide to institute a second service and that decision will trigger a chain of other effects: the need for a second RE program and the choir to sing twice on Sundays, and the need to recruit volunteers to help lead another service, act as ushers, etc…it’s a decision that is too big to make alone.

L=Long-lasting: If your decision can’t be made on a trial basis or its effects are hard to reverse, you need to slow down. For example: Planting a tree. A tree is a beautiful thing, but they last a long time and no one wants to have to cut down a tree that was planted too close to a building or in a spot slated to be used for expansion. If your decision has long-lasting effects, slow down and get input.

L=Loved. If the decision you are making will change something that is beloved by members of the congregation, you need to slow down. Disposing of the electric organ that has not been used in your entire tenure? Make sure you know its story. If it was donated in honor of a beloved member or minister, it will take extra care and communication to explain why it’s time to let it go. If you are messing with something that even a small minority of the congregation holds very dear, take extra care with the decision.

That’s it. It’s good to think that decision-making is a church skill and we can learn how to do it better. I hope this little B.E.L.L. helps make it easier to know when a decision is too big or too sensitive to make alone. I hope it also helps us know which ones don’t “ring the bell” so we’re not bringing every little thing to a committee or to the Board or a congregational meeting. Go forth and make decisions!

Being a Person, by William Stafford

(thanks to Bill Neely, who posted this on Facebook.)

Be a person here. Stand by the river, invoke
the owls. Invoke winter, then spring.
Let any season that wants to come here make its own
call. After that sound goes away, wait.

A slow bubble rises through the earth
and begins to include sky, stars, all space,
even the outracing, expanding thought.
Come back and hear the little sound again.

Suddenly this dream you are having matches
everyone’s dream, and the result is the world.
If a different call came there wouldn’t be any
world, or you, or the river, or the owls calling.

How you stand here is important. How you
listen for the next things to happen. How you breathe.

Words of Morning

This night is the most mysterious to me:
Saturday, the night between.
Yesterday, crufixion.
Tomorrow, resurrection.
but what of tonight?

Some say that on this night
the meek man who would not claim
to be God, would not claim to be
King, was busy breaking down
the gates of Hell, almost by accident–
so holy they could not hold him,
he liberated all souls,
and Hades, empty, was the first
to know–even before the women–
that something beyond death
was happening here.

Ever since childhood, I’ve had
trouble sleeping on this night
afraid the sun might forget to rise,
afraid the stone, immobile, would
refuse to roll, afraid
that when they arrive
the absent angel will not appear
will never say the words
we long to hear,
the words that mark birth
and rebirth,
the words of morning:

“Be not afraid.”

This time, a poem about love.

This one is mine. And it holds a secret. I wonder if anyone will find it?

One Poem

Love is too much for one poem, it
bears repetition, needs it, to get to
all its crazy complexities, the
things that make you wonder if anyone
believes or begins to fathom it at
all. How could they?

Things are never what they seem, never what one
hopes when love is involved.
All the possibilities are only that, only
things that could be, and nothing really
endures, because love changes us
all—every one of us.

Things are never what they seem,
three plus three is suddenly seven and
things that were are no longer and yet we
endure because we long for love and keep
faith with it beyond all boundaries, all
hope, all reason.

Love is too much for one poem,
but still we try, we cannot help ourselves:
the subject demands it of us; demands our
greatest effort; the work
of an entire life; though we know
these words will never be enough and our effort
is destined for failure. Still we capture what we can and