Standing At the Edge

standing at the edge

the first step

is the only step

-even now, by jill sabella & rosemerry wahtola trommer

A New Year, and what are your resolutions? I prefer to think of them as dreams, dreams I’ve resolved to make real.

Here are a few of mine:

  • More play. I don’t get enough and it is beginning to show.
  • More collaboration. I want to work with and alongside people more rather than on my own.
  • More poetry. I received a beautiful little gift called “even now” for Christmas. It has only 3-line poems resembling haiku, accompanied by artwork of only three brushstrokes. Minimalist, profound, I’ll be sharing them here.
  • A devotional book. I’ve long wanted to publish a devotional based on humanist spirituality. I can’t figure out how to get it started, but start it I must.

In order to do anything or add anything to our lives, I believe, we must stop doing something else. Law of equal and opposite reaction. If I want to do these four things, I will have to stop doing some other things.

That’s a tough one, especially if the “stop doing” list involves other people’s expectations. Family members have a way of making us cling to old behaviors, since it often benefits them emotionally.

Don’t try to tackle all of the emotional hurdles at once. Standing at the edge, the first step is the only step.


Transformation of Grace

[It was] one of those moments where reality sort of spills outside its boundaries, and you become aware of a happiness that you don’t deserve. Which is grace. When that happens your soul swells up a little, and you want to be worthy of that happiness.

-David Brooks, on seeing his family in an idyllic moment playing in the backyard. He was speaking with Krista Tippett for the On Being podcast.

I think of grace as winsome beauty, natural hardiness, and long-lasting robust love all rolled into one. Capable of withstanding momentary stresses and deep human error.

When David Brooks and E.J. Dionne were speaking to Krista Tippett about this subject (listen here: it was in the context of religion and politics. They made the point that even in a context of separation of church and state, our political views are still informed and shaped by our religious ones.

What could happen if the spiritual understanding of grace dominated our politics? What could we do to regain the category “grace” as a practical and conceptual guide? What if it was a cultural imperative alongside of other words like “freedom” or “hard work”? What if we had ways to ensure its presence in our legal system, our tax code, our educational system, and our penal system?

Grace can be a robust thing, brought forward from nice-sounding Bible quotes and cute pictures of ballerinas, into the tough realm of the every-day world. It has the power to change us by making us want to be more, to rise to a higher level.

How could we be transformed, if we adopted the beautiful and strong thing called Grace as our governing reality? If our heroes were not Supermen but Grace-Men? Not Wonder-Women, but Grace-Women?

Who are grace-heroes for you? Take a moment and talk about one here.

The Certainty Fortress: How To Dialogue With The Aggressive Right

As I’ve been in discussion with people who disagree with me, I’ve been looking for ways to deal with these conversations.

They often do not go well, especially if the person is ideologically to the right. A combination of cocksure attitude and combative stance, with lack of genuine interest in listening to another view, can make these attempts at conversation turn negative quickly.

I’ve realized we need some good conversation “markers” and “exit ramps” so that we can protect the relationship and still assert a different viewpoint.

I don’t see it that way, but I’m curious to find out more about why you see it the way you do.

This is one way to interrupt the argumentative pattern. Curiosity is gentler, and changes the dynamic from a contest to a more appreciative inquiry.

It is not always necessary to say “I don’t see it that way.” But sometimes we need to do that in order to arrest the aggressive talk. Saying “I don’t see it that way” is less inflammatory than “you’re wrong” and it provides a way to remind the other person that there is another view they haven’t accounted for.

Following up with a curious question, and then another, and another, is a way again to stop the flow of aggressive talk and require the other person to reflect.

Can you tell me what you mean by ______________?

This is another way to stop a running flow of Fox News talking points. Pick a word or phrase and ask them to unpack it. This accomplishes two things: 1) It forces them away from pre-packaged doctrinal views they’ve picked up from media, and 2) It establishes a human bond by opening space for them to talk about their own experience.

I feel like we are talking about two different things.

A good middle-conversation marker, if there is repeated lack of listening and lack of attention being paid to opposing views. Often I have to insert this statement multiple times before the other person realizes they aren’t getting anywhere.

Let’s stay in dialogue.

It’s OK to say you need to stop. (With a really aggressive person, say “I’m going to stop you there” while holding up your palm to them. This is remarkably effective.) We need to have an exit ramp from the conversation, especially if it is during the holiday and we have precious little time with family and don’t want to spend the whole time arguing about politics or other controversial subjects.

Emphasizing the desire to stay in dialogue leaves the door open. It says you care about what they have to say. It says you value the relationship above the ideas being discussed.

Remember, It’s A Process

We need to have these dialogues in order to be heard, and to help move our family, friends and country forward toward more open-minded views. But we can only plant seeds.

Know that by the very process of asking curious questions, being gently assertive, and having an exit strategy, we open cracks in the hard certainty of the other viewpoint. We can always follow up with a good factual article or reference by email, but the important thing is not to get caught up in the heat of the moment, and attempt to “win” at an argument.

Let’s pledge to find ways to sneak inside the “certainty fortress” of right-leaning family and friends this holiday and beyond.

Open Letter to the NJ Governor

Dear Governor Christie:

I am writing as a father, concerned citizen, and representative member of the Unitarian Universalist faith tradition, which upholds the dignity and worth of every human being, and wishes to see social justice in action in our state.

I also represent the Gun Violence Prevention task force of the UULMNJ – Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of New Jersey.

Our goal on the GVP task force is not to “control” guns or take them away from law-abiding citizens, but rather to work to prevent gun violence, a very different aim.

The New Jersey Assembly passed A. 4126 (keeping firearms away from those convicted of domestic violence) by an overwhelming bipartisan majority last week (60-2). The companion bill previously passed the Senate unanimously.

Please sign A. 4126, denying firearms to those who commit domestic violence. This is one way to make progress on an issue that is admittedly fraught with controversy, but that needs the attention of our public servants and state leaders in order to move forward.

Lives that will be lost if perpetrators of domestic violence are permitted to have firearms.

You have promised to sign this compromise bill. Now I call upon you to keep your promise and sign A. 4126, which will protect the lives of the many women and children who are victims of domestic abuse.

These women and children have no say in what their physically powerful male abusers can and will do to them, especially after they try to report behavior. When an individual is acting in anger and with physical force, he will often punish even those he claims to love, if they talk to anyone or go to the police.

Mandatory firearm removal from these individuals is one more common sense step to take in protecting those who find themselves trapped in this frightening and life-threatening situation.

I ask you again to please sign A. 4126 into law to reduce gun violence and protect the citizens of our state.

Beyond Sylvan Grove :: An Open Letter To My Family Part II

At this summer’s reunion my aunt brought to life our great-grandmother in a dramatic presentation.

Her name was Julietta, and she was raised in a small town called Sylvan Grove, Kansas. Her life was touched early on by her father’s death and her mother’s illness. She was raised for a time by a local pastor.

I loved hearing about my ancestor, feeling that she was close by. But I had a mixed reaction to the presentation as a whole.

My aunt reminded us that the ONE thing Julietta wanted to pass down to us is faith in Jesus. We heard how she was looking down from heaven and wishing that we all could remain in the joy of that faith. As the representative of the family tree at its head, she wants Jesus known and proclaimed above all. She wants us to know Jesus loves us.

On the face of it, why should anyone find that troubling? The words said by Julietta through my aunt were delivered with love, and were only the expression of well-meaning care for her family. If Jesus means love, if Jesus means family, if Jesus means all that is true, right and holy for us all, then why would anyone want to disagree or go another way?

As a family, we have come a long way from Sylvan Grove.

Steeple And Cross Set Against A Blue Sky

This wooden cross on a simple steeple set against a sunny summer blue sky reminds me of visiting the small country church in Sylvan Grove as a child.

We have spread out from that idyllic place where people were fed and nurtured on the Christian faith and a simple, plain and happy existence, into a changing and diverse world not graspable by anyone in that small town. Our family has members whose experiences and beliefs no longer match up with the worldview put forth out of Sylvan Grove.

New views of the world, new systems of belief, new faiths and non-faiths have entered the family bloodstream. These other viewpoints and beliefs are, in my view, equally legitimate to the one that came from Sylvan Grove.

Sylvan Grove The trouble with these singular narratives is just that: they are singular. They don’t allow for other stories, other explanations of the world, other lenses through which to view reality. Not everyone in our family sees Jesus as the way, the truth and the life. Not everyone feels welcomed when they are told they must believe in him. Not everyone wants to base their life on his teachings. This does not make them ignorant or immoral, just human.

I don’t blame my great-grandparents for their worldview from Sylvan Grove. But I do know that as educators, they would have also wished to leave a legacy of expanding knowledge. My great-grandfather, after whom I was named — would he have wanted us to stay frozen in time, stuck in a single place, placed in a box of knowledge and not allowed out? 


The next posts will continue this open letter.

Is There Room For Diversity? :: An Open Letter To My Family

Dear family,

I have an important question, one that broaches a sensitive topic, and my first instinct is to shy away from it. But I feel it is time to ask.

I want to ask it because you are important to me, and I also want to ask it because I sense others in the family might be asking it as well (though silently and in private, out of respect and deference and maybe more than a little fear of conflict).

We recently gathered again for our once-every-three-years reunion. I have always been amazed at the ability of our extended-extended family to keep these gatherings going over the years and decades. It is a special blessing.

I want to thank you for welcoming us, for spreading love around, for helping me rediscover our heritage. I appreciate all the effort (these things are a lot of work!) that my parents put in to help get us all to one place in the beautiful Black Hills of South Dakota. A beautiful family in a beautiful setting.

It felt good to reconnect. I met and re-met so many of you (and ran out of time to get to all 90 or so people who came!), and introduced my own family to some very important people in my life. It is valuable for our kids to meet you and to see how a large family does things together, as well as to understand where their parents came from, and who they are. A formative, identity-building thing.

My question comes in that context, of a treasured experience, of love and respect for family, and of a sincere desire to preserve it.

My question is this: Is there room in our family for diversity of belief?

I honestly don’t know the answer.

Christianity has been, for many or most of our family, the glue that has helped keep it together all these decades. Some of my earliest memories are of my grandpa’s devotions, lovingly given in his role as both pastor and family member, of my grandmother’s soft words whispered in my ear about pleasing the Lord, of my father’s guitar songs around the campfire, songs that always included generous references to God the Father.

That continued at this reunion. I enjoyed the glowing face of my mother as she led children in “This little gospel light of mine” and “If I were a butterfly, I’d thank the Lord for giving me wings.” These were songs I learned before I knew how to tie my shoes. I feel like they are a part of me, and singing them brings me back to my roots.

Mutual Support

Indeed, our family tree has deep roots. At the same time, I can sense it has many new branches. Maybe there are new trees, a whole forest growing up around the original tree.

If Christianity is at the base, can it continue to be the only food to nourish this ever-larger tree, or forest ecosystem?

If there are other views present, and if we need to expand our thinking, will we be able to do so?


The next several posts will continue this open letter.



Trust Issues

It’s rough when you realize your loved ones don’t trust you.

Last year I had a conversation with my brother about Unitarianism. I wondered aloud about what would happen when my non-believing family showed up to our next family reunion.

This is how my brother responded:

I would think that if I were attending a reunion that was Christian and I was not, I would expect to be respectful and adapt, rather than expecting everyone else to change. Maybe you need to think about what your goals really are—what are you trying to accomplish with the family and your involvement in Unitarianism?

A fair point. But he immediately assumed I had an agenda. That I had a goal of converting everyone in my family to Unitarianism. I told him I was not trying to change anyone’s mind. He also assumed I would approach the reunion aggressively and disrespectfully.

There is a history here. My family tends to regard people who speak with enthusiasm as salesy, untrustworthy types. They can easily mistake my energy for argumentativeness about topics they are uncomfortable about.

I probably needed to curb my enthusiasm a bit in this conversation. But I realized that it is also a matter of low trust.

The low trust is a result of my separation and divorce several years ago, as well as my departure from the Lutheran ministry. My family took it very personally. In many ways I was on a pedestal, in an awkward unspoken way, and when I got off of the pedestal, everyone felt betrayed. They don’t ever say that directly. But the look in their eyes and their lack of trust is always evident, just under the surface.

It hurts to know my family doesn’t trust me. But it is getting better. With lots of emotional investment, presence, and patience.