2006-09-15 : Doing religion with someone can be exactly wrong

Minister Jon called Meg. This was before he'd resigned resigned, but while he was resigning, and she's on the Committee for Ministry, so he called her. They talked for a while and it's an interesting, hard story but it's Meg's story, so I won't tell it. Then he asked to talk to me.

"To me?" I said. I was wracking my brain. This was after we'd bumped into each other at Video To Go, but I couldn't really think why he'd want to talk to me specifically. I reached for the telephone and I was like, oh, maybe it's because he's finally putting together that poker night he's been talking about, and he's going to invite me to play.

I'd like to play poker with him. Cool.

"Hi Jon."

But he offered me his condolences, in minister-voice. I laughed out loud - I didn't mean to, it wasn't appropriate, but it was just so funny that he was offering me his condolences. Just a quick little laugh, I can't imagine what he thought about it, but I couldn't help it. "Oh that," my laugh said. It had honestly not occured to me that he'd do it.

I wasn't hurt or offended or anything. A little disappointed about it not being poker night, but whatever, he's got things of his own to do. I accepted his condolences as graciously as I could, but I bet he could hear the laughing in my voice until I passed the phone back to Meg.

Poor Jon. He was in a terrible rough spot, betrayed and grieving and giving up his calling, but he had to go through with this little "doing religion with someone" ritual, offering his strength when it was clear he'd used his up and could've really used some of mine. I kind of wish I hadn't laughed at him, he wasn't doing me any harm.

1. On 2006-09-15, Julie, aka jrs said:

I was going to comment on that last paragraph, and then you changed it.  Sneaky, sneaky.


2. On 2006-09-15, Vincent said:

Yeah, it wasn't quite right. Now I don't remember exactly what it said. "Pretend friendship," I think, but that wasn't quite right.


3. On 2006-09-15, Julie, aka jrs said:

Yep, something like that.  It was really bothering me which is why I came back and saw it was no more.  I can really understand the laugh bit, that disconnect between expectation and experience, I've been there.  But your comment about pretend friendship seemed unnecessarily harsh particularly about a guy you want to play poker with.  (And I can't believe I'm going on about something you un-wrote—sorry about that.)


4. On 2006-09-15, Vincent said:

He was fulfilling an obligation to me, but it wasn't an obligation I want or expect or helped make. It was his own obligation, between him and I don't know who, not an obligation between him and me. I welcome - I totally welcome - his condolences; Jon, thank you. But he's not obliged as far as I'm concerned.

Even if he would have fully and honestly offered his condolences anyway, which he probably would have, he was calling in his official capacity and there was just no escaping it.

So it wasn't pretend friendship, not at all. It was just that there was something else in there too, something non-mutual, and it made the interaction funny to me instead of real.


5. On 2006-09-15, Sydney Freedberg said:

His official capacity reminded him, "hey, reach out to this other person." That's how ritual and tradition and structure can help the emotional side.

If I pray for you, or with you, I honestly don't know whether God will do anything or not. I do know that I have reminded myself of you and our shared humanity, and that will affect what I do.


6. On 2006-09-15, Julie, aka jrs said:

"It was just that there was something else in there too, something non-mutual ..."

Ah. I see.  This is where I see a huge chasm between your "Roleplaying with someone" and "Doing religion with someone" posts.  I am not surprised when a religious interaction is solely one directional, but I have a hard time imagining roleplaying in that way.  Thanks for letting me thrash this out a bit.


7. On 2006-09-15, Vincent said:

Sydney: His official capacity reminded him, "hey, reach out to this other person." That's how ritual and tradition and structure can help the emotional side.

Screw that. I don't want him to reach out to me if ritual and tradition remind him to do it. More importantly, I don't need him to. If he does, it's for his own benefit, not mine.

I don't begrudge it (I just think it's funny) but Sydney, you're fooling yourself. The fact that there was religion involved robbed his condolences of their value. I'm serious; your "see how religion helps" can go to hell.

(Now, there is the very off chance that Jon will read this. Jon: we're cool. It's me and Sydney who're arguing, not me and you.)


8. On 2006-09-15, Sydney Freedberg said:

Of course it's primarily for his benefit. When I pray for you, whatever God may or may not do, the one person I know benefits from it is me. Now, hopefully, I benefit in the direction of becoming a better person, one who has a stronger habit of thinking about the welfare of other people, and I end helping you in some tangible way.

"The fact that there was religion involved robbed his condolences of their value"—I find that striking. Honest question, now, not rhetorical: Do you have a threshold for when external, formalized structure becomes so prominent that it overshadows the human sentiments it was meant to support?

For example, I presume that if a non-minister, a regular unordained person, had written himself a yellow sticky note saying "Vincent's dad," and he only rememers to talk to you because he saw the note, that in itself wouldn't devalue his or her condolences for you. Conversely, if the head of fundraising for the Unitarian church were standing next to Minister Jon while he called Meg and whispered in his ear, "her husband's dad just died—ask to speak to him and say something nice—she might remember it and contribute more next year," that would devalue his condolences for me as well, I presume, for you.

But I suspect there's some line in the middle where we disagree. For example, what if Minister Jon was talking to Meg and thought, "O boy, I never said anything to her husband about his dad, I really don't have the energy to do this right now, I don't even know if I believe in Heaven anymore, but damn it, I'm still a minister for a few more hours at least, it's my job." (From your description, this is actually pretty likely to be what happened). I would still think his habit of religion had helped him here, by giving him the nudge to try to reach out to another human being when all his other habits and inclinations were saying, "don't bother." That's what I'm thinking of when I say "see how religion helps." Is this something like what you're thinking of when you're saying "'religion helps' can go to hell"?


9. On 2006-09-15, Ian Burton-Oakes said:

(Okay, I have been trying to find the right words for a while now. These feel like them.)

Both you and Meg have this gift, Vincent. You have a sense of the human scale of all these things you write about.  It shows up here, in the previous post about Jon, in her heartbreaking meditation on your father's passing, in her delightful recounting of the carnival, in Dogs, in 1001 Nights.

I admire it and it is something that I have tried to cultivate in my own life.  What you two have both written has served as touchstones for me in that regard.  I have printed them out, shared with my wife.

I have heard some people say when they read some personal reflections that it was 'like I was there.'  I wouldn't say that about these things and I think that is part of their beauty.  These are yours, hers, and they make me appreciate what is mine, in a way that is so contrary to the narcissistic, selfish way that term gets used most times.

Thank you to both of you for taking the time to write about these things and share them.  I thought about saying this at fairgame, too, but I feel like it would lose something in the repetition.


10. On 2006-09-15, Vincent said:

Ian! That's very kind, thank you.


11. On 2006-09-15, Meguey said:

Thanks Ian.

Just to clear something up; Jon is not giving up ministry, he's just leaving this particular congregation, after serving seven years. As far as I know, he is still a chaplin at UMass Amherst, and there are a ton of UU churches within 50 miles of here, so I expect he'll wind up at one of them.

Also, he started out the call with condolences to me. Jon was my minister, and I was his as a memeber of the CoM. My relationship with him is very different than Vincent's, for what it's worth, and I think they should get together for poker night.


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