One of my very favorite ministerial tasks is to teach. I wish I had time to do more of it. Last night, I started a three-session course called “Encountering Jesus” and we began with Jesus As Healer and the healing miracles. I happened to look up just as a participant got an “ah ha” light in her eyes — that “I just learned something really cool” expression, and I felt an actual thrill go through my body.

I did get a call to ministry, but the first and really supernatural call I got was to be a teacher.

When I was in college, I dropped out of the music major my second week of school. I knew it was wrong for me. I ran from the School of Music to the English Department and nicely and desperately demanded that they enroll me late in a Freshman Seminar. My only requirement was that it be meeting that day, that hour. The administrator was aghast. “There are waiting lists for all the seminars,” she said. I stood there and pointed at the enrollment list. “Just add me to that one,” I said. “That one looks good. Yes, that’ll do. That looks like the perfect seminar to add me to right now” until she relented and gave me the pass slip to class. (I actually couldn’t even see the title of the seminar — I just knew I needed to get into one).  I arrived late, sat next to a guy who would wind up becoming one of my best friends and who would introduce me the boy who would be my boyfriend for the next seven years, and switched majors.

I never doubted my impulsive decision. Not only was it the prompting of my own soul, I decided that my dad had come through from the spirit world to give his support and approval.  I felt it was a sign that, as I was crossing campus to bolt for the English Department, I heard someone playing “Clair de Lune” on a dorm piano in one of the quads. That was the last song played at my father’s funeral two years prior.

People ask how God works in people’s lives who believe in God. To me, God works as a felt presence, intuitions and uncomfortable and often disturbing inbreaking of inconvenient truths. When I try to detour around the promptings of the Holy, I inevitably get busted. And I mean truly, deeply busted in real time, and sometimes for a long time.

God is an energy with which I try to sync myself; a wave I try to ride without flailing against it. I love the last line of our church affirmation, “to the end that all souls shall grow into harmony with the Divine.”  I am always trying to be obedient and grow into harmony with God. It doesn’t make me sweet, it doesn’t make me nice, it doesn’t make me not irritated or angry, it doesn’t necessarily make me more likeable to others. I used to think it would.  What it does make me is peaceful and very happy. All is well with my soul. The peace that passeth understanding, and still no time for foolishness.

I understand now that God blesses and graces — God doesn’t grant personality transplants.

You may wonder what caused me to bolt out of Concert Choir that fateful morning in September of 1988 in Evanston, Illinois at around 10:00 AM, rush to the registrar’s office to find out what I would have to do to quit the School of Music and be admitted to the College of Arts and Sciences and make a break for the English Department in time for a noon seminar.

Here’s what happened. I had started classes a couple of weeks prior, and had felt a sense of real grief and dismay when I looked at my course line-up of all music studies, all semester. Voice lessons, Italian lessons, keyboard, music theory, concert choir. No literature, no history, no humanities? My advisor assured me that I’d have some electives in junior year and could diversify at that point. My heart sank, but I wasn’t old enough yet to respect that sensation and get the heck out then and there.

Holding onto that unexpressed dismay and sense of loss of broader academic study somewhere in my heart and soul, I stood that morning to sing with a large ensemble of other first year music students. We were singing “Carmina Burana.” The sound was extraordinary. The young singers were serious and amazingly talented, happy to be there, excited to devote their lives to music, and all skilled at sight-reading. I knew I was out of my league and more than that, that I was not willing to do the work required to become as good as any of them. I had neither the discipline nor the desire. I felt like laughing out loud. “Oh my GOD, I am SO not qualified to be here!”

I have always had the happy ability to recognize talent and appreciate it, and not to feel threatened by other people’s talent. I felt great admiration for my peers and in no way diminished by their excellence. I simply knew that I couldn’t rate and that was okay.  I had such clarity.

The funniest part of this story is who God/Fate/Trickster put me between that morning. On one side of me was Sarah Pfisterer. On the other side of me was Mary Dunleavy. Both of these lovely, now highly-acclaimed sopranos lived in my dorm and hung out with me after I quit the voice major, telling me that I had a great voice and shouldn’t be discouraged. I said to both of them, “No, you guys — YOU have great voices. You have great voices, you stand a chance at really making it, I’m fine but I’m not anywhere near your calibre.”

(I see that Mary just played Musetta in “La Boheme” at the Met in January, which I actually saw on the 13th for my birthday!!– I’m sorry I didn’t see it one of the nights she was singing! I was happy to be able to see Sarah play Christine in “Phantom of the Opera” on Broadway and as Magnolia in the national touring company of “Showboat”).

The next year, after the dust had settled on my dramatic transition from voice to English major, I was required to choose a major within the English major. The choices were English Literature, The Teaching Of English and something else I have forgotten — maybe writing? Or poetry? Anyway, I do remember sitting with my course catalogue in my lap wondering which one I should choose. I idly flipped through the pages, assuming that I’d choose the literature track but glancing at some of the other track’s requirements. I had no desire to take the boring education courses, and I wasn’t a writer, so…

And then I heard a voice, as loud as if the person had been standing right next to the bed where I was sitting. It said, “You are going to be a teacher.”

Here’s how I reacted. I said to myself, “Hmm. Okay, I guess I’ll go for The Teaching Of English concentration, then.”

No fanfare, no questioning, no wondering, no second-guessing. A mystical experience that set the course for my life and I was completely matter of fact about responding. I still marvel at that.

I was to hear that same voice speak one other time the next year, but that’s another story.

I heard a voice say, “You’re going to be a teacher,” so I obeyed.

And that obedience has given me a life of joy and fulfillment, although the forms of my teaching have changed over the decades.

Last night, the thrill of that original calling returned to me full force. It may not be a big thing, but because it has been exactly the right thing, I shall not want.

Posted in memories, Mind of the Minister, Theological Reflection | Comments Off

How A Dog Says “I’m Sorry”

Everyone says, “You have to be the Alpha.” But I have a beagle, and beagles don’t respond to Alpha training, no matter what Cesar Whats-His-Name teaches. Cesar Milan is not the boss of me. I don’t like him. I think he’s savage. I don’t believe half of what these dog gurus teach. You can scare almost any animal into obeying you if you abuse it at the same time that you’re feeding and taking care of it. Millions of people were raised that way by their parents but it doesn’t make it right.

“But they’re canines! They’re pack animals! There has to be an Alpha!” Yea, and you’re not a canine, I notice. You have opposable thumbs and leashes and restraints that alpha dogs in the wild don’t have. At any rate, I won’t treat my beagle hound that way and never have. I never crated him past a couple of weeks of trying, either. Some dogs think their crates are their safe caves, yes, but mine never did. He thought it was a penitentiary and he hadn’t committed any crime. So he just howled and howled at his adoptive humans and tore up everything we put in there with him to comfort him, and smacked the water bottle around and peed and pooped on himself until we repented and unlocked the crate. He never went near it again. He got gated into the kitchen for a week and the baby gate never stopped offending him, so he finally got free reign of the house.

In eight years he has never chewed one thing, destroyed one thing, peed on anything, pooped anywhere, or made one bit of mischief.

He gets a lot of attention, a night of sleep on a warm bed, and snacks and love galore.  He gets along with most other dogs and he loves children. He is a pretty decent houseguest, too.

And he’ll give me the food right out of his mouth. If you know hound dogs and their food, you’ll realize how big an act of generosity and trust this is. Beagles are notoriously obsessed with food.

A couple of weeks ago I gave my beagle a really fancy bone: way too fancy and rich to chew for too long. After an hour, I went to get it from him, and he growled at me. HEY, I said. HEY. GIVE ME THE BONE.

He growled and snapped at me.


Saturday nights bring out the Rooster Cogburn in me.

Well, my darling beagle did make himself sick with the bone. Very sick. It took him a full week to pass it and meantime I felt guilty as sin. I should have asserted my Alpha status with him that night. I should have thrown a towel over my dog and his bone and snatched that thing from him with no further ado.

A couple of weeks have passed since the crisis, so today I gave my sweet beagle a Himalayan chew, which is an entirely different and far more digestible kind of treat. But I still wanted to limit his time with it, so I went to repossess it from him this afternoon. He’s not nearly as crazy about his Himalayan chews as he is about the big pork bone, so I figured he would handily surrender it.

But he growled at me.


I put my hand on the bone and he growled and snarled. I raised my voice another decibel or two. Or five. MAXFIELD! GIVE. ME. THIS. BONE. RIGHT. NOW.

I put one hand on his snout and held it there, and put my other hand under his chin in a confident way to show him I wasn’t buying his theatrics. It was a risk but I feel that we have a lot of trust between us after eight good years together, so I took that risk.

I AM TAKING THIS BONE RIGHT NOW AND I DO NOT LIKE YOUR TONE. He growled and snarled but I could tell his heart wasn’t in it, and I just slid the bone out of his mouth. I did have to give it one yank, but he didn’t make a move to snap at me.

Then I stood over him and delivered a bit of an Alpha performance saying things like THIS IS MY BONE AND ALL YOUR BONES ARE MY BONES, DOG. I AM THE GIVER OF BONES AND I AM THE TAKER-AWAY OF THE BONES.

Then we had a nap.

I got up a little later to do some work in the study and left the dog to his bone, which he said he wanted. After about half an hour, I heard him start to cry a funny cry, halfway between his “I have to go out” whine and his “I love you and am so happy to see you” whimper. I thought he might be playing with the cat, as they have their own little language and he doesn’t use that vocalization with me. I didn’t recognize it.

I kept working.

Every few minutes, he would make that funny cry again, up and down the scale with a few woops at the end. Beagles are exceptionally musical.

“What is it, Maxfield?” I got up to see.

As I approached him in the hallway, he approached me on his belly, practically, wagging his tail and dropping his bone for me.

“Oh, is that for me?”

He scooted forward and threw the bone in the air. Thump, it fell on the carpet. He picked it up and tossed it in the air again.

“You want to play?”

I bent down to get the bone off the floor and he nuzzled my hand with his snout.

“What, honey?”

I finally figured out that he was showing me that he wanted me to have his bone in my hand while he chewed it. So we did that for awhile. I sat down on the floor with my hand open and the bone in it, and Max settled himself on his belly with one paw on my wrist, one paw on the floor and worked on his bone for awhile. When his chewing knocked the bone out of my hand, he grabbed it with his teeth and put it right back into my palm.

What a hound.

I felt like that scene in “The Miracle Worker” except I was Helen Keller and he was Annie Sullivan.

I said, “Listen, I knew you weren’t going to bite me. I knew it. But you can’t even pretend. That’s not okay.” And he said, “Bones love food warm lady snacks bone feelings warm lady smells love happiness snacks safety.” His tail went thump thump thump.

Then we went outside and played catch, and he caught the squeaky ball and ran and ran and ran wild circles of ecstasy around the muddy yard.




Posted in Mind of the Minister | 4 Comments

Secret Polyamory: A Single Girl’s Response

I have noticed a new trend in my on-line dating life: being approached by a guy in an open marriage.

It’s supposed to be different from cheating because his wife knows that he’s dating, approves of it, supports it, and is dating other partners herself.

How nice for them!

Here is the series of questions I ask Open Marriage Guy when I am approached to become part of his wonderfully free, polyamorous* lifestyle:

1. Do you think there is any difference in social status between you, Married Man, and me, Single Girl? In other words, have you considered all the social benefits that are conferred upon you by virtue of the fact that you have a ring on your finger?

If you haven’t considered this, let me prompt you. Marriage is regarded by our society to be a marker of maturity, stability, faithfulness and good citizenship. Single adults are regarded by our society to be sad,  incomplete, yearning, relationship failures, or rejects.

Do you therefore intend to make up for this status differential by informing your family, friends, professional colleagues and neighbors that you’re polyamorous? If not, why not?

Because it benefits you to look like a stable, monogamous married and family guy, right?

2.  You tell me that you have real love and commitment to offer in the event that we get intimately involved. You tell me that I seem like an amazing woman and that both you and your wife would cherish having me as part of your circle of intimacy.

Thank you for the compliment, but I have more questions:

First of all, you don’t know me. You do understand that you’ve basically gone shopping for someone to introduce into your romantic life, right? And propositioned me to enter into an arrangement that benefits you but has no long term prospects for me, right? I haven’t identified as poly and you’re trying to sell me on this?

That’s not love. That’s commerce.

How does this love and commitment work, exactly? You two share a familial home with children and a separate circle of friends and family. Will I be welcome to come hang out, share meals, watch movies, and sleep over? If not, are you them presuming that I will be hosting all of our sexy get-togethers at my home?

Of course you are.

If not, then how will you explain my presence to the children? ”Auntie Victoria is going to spend the night tonight! She and Daddy are special friends so they’ll be sharing a bedroom.” Really? Oh, you would just lie to your children to preserve the status quo, to raise them in a deceitful environment? What a great parenting strategy.

No, you weren’t going to ever introduce me to the kids at all, of course. Because what you’re looking for is an opportunity to treat me like a consumer item — a marital aid to generate more love, care, sex, fun and intensity for you while not at all being there for me in any substantive way.

3. About that “love and commitment” stuff, I was wondering:

When your mother-in-law needs to be picked up from the airport on a day for which we have made plans (tr: you and your wife have worked your playmates into your schedule), who’s going to get canceled on?

And canceled on, and canceled on, and canceled on.

When my birthday party falls on the night of your kid’s play, will I be assuaged by a late night visit when you come over bearing a cupcake with a candle in it? That’s cute. You must have mistaken me for someone with no self-regard.

I hear your invitation as “Hey, you seem awesome! My wife and I would like to sign you on for a relationship in which your needs will never, ever come first!”

I was wondering about STDs: if you and your wife are sexually active with other partners, do I get to meet all of her partners so that we can all discuss what we are all doing to mutually protect ourselves from the spread of infectious disease? Or was I just supposed to trust you when you tell me what’s up in that regard? That’s really fascinating, how you think my self-esteem is that damaged.

As an accomplished woman in a leadership position, when do I get to introduce you — my loving and committed lover — to my community? Will you be by my side when I receive an honor? Probably not, huh? And where will you be while I’m doing the hard work required to receive that recognition? Bringing me tea, taking out the garbage, rubbing my shoulders, holding me night after night through the difficult months of sustained effort, and leaving me supportive messages through the day?

Naw. You’ll be at work, and going home to your wife and kids night after night — which you should be doing. I’ll get the leftovers, the incessant apologies, and the residual energy of the narcissistic drama addiction that you have confused for love.

You’re beginning to get the idea that this arrangement isn’t particularly appealing to me — or any self-respecting woman — aren’t you?

Oh, hey, listen. When I was younger, this kind of arrangement would have really tempted me. Back then, I didn’t know my worth. I didn’t know who I was and what I deserved. I thought it might even be convenient to be an acknowledged mistress — romantic dates, passionate kisses, adoration and none of the messy, daily challenge of co-habitation and marriage. I considered the merits of the deal as not interfering with my real marriage to the Church.

But I’m a much older now and I have stood up with dozens of couples and officiated at the covenanting ceremony by which they declare that they shall be faithful to each other unto death. I have been the one to sign the marriage certificate bestowing upon them the full rights and privileges of state-sanctioned holy matrimony. When I stand at that ceremony, I am fully aware that by this rite of passage, these two people will henceforth have conferred upon them the status of Grown-Up by society. They will be given legal privileges, tax benefits, and big time social approval.

I have not fought with other social justice activists for marriage equality so that those so joined could publicly benefit from the institution of marriage while privately turning to individuals like me for added comfort, sex, fun and diversion with no attendant responsibility or accountability.

If all the couples who benefit from a polyamorous lifestyle want to come out of the closet and explain to all those who witnessed their marriage (starting with parents and grandparents) that their intention was to build a domestic arrangement where they would be faithful to one another in love but openly move in and out of other romantic relationships, I would support that. I think it is high time that we had this broader conversation about the sham that is monogamy in our culture and stop pretending that coupled isolation and monogamy is working for most people over three to six decades together. It is not.

I respect that it is not, I see that it is not, and I commend people for trying to figure out how to handle the failure of traditional marriage expectations in a different world.

I respect that married couples may negotiate, in trust, porous boundaries in their relationship that allows for authentically loving relationships to blossom into romance. Then let’s stop keeping those relationships secret and shameful and re-define marriage so that it doesn’t split the world into marrieds and singles, with one group presumed the more mature and stable.

Look at this sucker. His wife has convinced him that sleeping around is about feminist liberation and not about selfish hedonism. She’s using him for domestic comfort and stability while screwing around. That’s not polyamory, that’s exploitation.

And look at all those men who have contacted me in recent years to try to persuade me that I would be getting anything but a raw deal by secretly (they say “discreetly”) entering into a relationship with a married man.

Some of them are just cheaters. Some of them think that I’m going to sympathize with them about their frustrating wives — women who tolerate them day after day and often financially support them! Women who raise their children, who cook their meals, who do their laundry, who wrap their parent’s Christmas presents. Oh honey, you have the wrong woman. Watch me give you precisely zero time of day while you insult other women in my presence.

But nowadays, more married Lotharios and their wives have embraced the new romantic consumerism: scoop up wonderful, emotionally healthy, intelligent, fun, understanding, loving single people and use them for all they have to offer while offering crumbs in exchange, all while comfortably benefiting from the social status of looking Properly Married.

Happy Valentine’s Day, lovers. I’m here to reform or dismantle oppressive institutions, not to offer up my body, mind and soul to enable you so you can benefit from them.

* A poly friend of mine pointed out that this is not really polyamory, which is a good point for further consideration. I am using the term “polyamorous” because it is how many of the men in “open marriages” who proposition me identify themselves.  - V.W.