Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

All of the Things I’m Not Allowed to Write About

Every once in awhile, I get an email or a quiet conversation from someone asking why I had not said something publically on an issue. Most recently, it was an email challenging me to write something publically on my position on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the U.S. Military. What that email has had me thinking about has been the restrictions I have voluntarily accepted from several different quarters on what I am able to say in a medium as public as Celestial Lands.

It’s not as if I have all that large an audience for what I write here. In fact, if I was writing these articles for the number of people who actually read them, I would have given up a long time ago… As I have said before, the primary audience for everything here at Celestial Lands is me, myself, and I.

I have developed a spiritual practice of public writing, of taking what was once the pre-writing for my sermons and doing it publically, in a medium that is searchable and that can serve as a repository of ideas and thought for me for years to come. I do it publically because it is excellent practice for the public aspects of ministry, as well as the wonderful feedback that I receive both publically and privately. Most importantly for me is that what I write here I can be held accountable for, and that has caused me to take this practice much more seriously than when I was keeping it all private.

That others might read what I write and find it of value is actually a secondary concern… and a distant second at that. I’m pleased when someone tells me that something I write has had meaning for them… but that is not the reason for Celestial Lands.

One of the most valuable parts of having practice of public writing has been having to think clearly through what the voluntarily accepted restrictions on my public prophetic voice mean. I have had to think clearly about where the lines are, how close I can come to them, and which lines I give a wide berth to. There are six somewhat fuzzy areas that I have accepted voluntary restrictions upon what I can and cannot say in public.

I have voluntarily accepted, in my role as a military officer, that it is not my place to directly criticize military policy or serving officers and certain political leaders in a public manner. Within the military and among colleagues however, my public silence can grant me private entry to speak to some of these issues.

I have voluntarily accepted, in my role as a Candidate Minister of the UUA, that it is not my place to publically criticize ministerial colleagues whom I might disagree with, or to speak to issues going on in the congregations and ministries in which they serve in a public way. The second part has come up more often than the first, especially with UU Military Veterans who ask me to speak prophetically about something their minister said, or a policy in their congregation. That public silence can also serve as a private entry into those same conversations with ministerial colleagues.

An expansion of this silence is why I do not allow even replies that are critical of my ministerial colleagues. If you want to speak to that, more power to you. UU Ministers are no less subject to answering for their statements and behavior than any other person who accepts a voluntarily public life… but you can do that on your own web-presence, not here at Celestial Lands.

I have voluntarily accepted, in my role as a Chaplain Resident of both a hospital and a hospice, that it is not my place to speak publically criticizing either of the institutions that I serve. I am allowed to serve as a minister (and in my case, a student-minister) in those institutions as a privilege, and for that privilege I accept that I am a part of those institutions, and responsible to them. Once again, what this allows me is access to speak prophetic truth within the institution if I feel called to do that.

I have voluntarily accepted that, in my role as a minister, a provider of pastoral care, that I will not betray the confidences of those who confide in me. This can get a little fuzzy for me, especially when my role as a provider of pastoral care is connected with a patient’s medical needs… but it is a line I am learning to walk with some grace. As I am learning how to do this well, I have put up a “firewall” of sorts around the experiences of the pastoral ministry and my engagement here at Celestial Lands. Someday, I will be able to walk the line between those two much better… for now I’m just doing my best to keep them separate. Learning to walk that line will be invaluable in my eventual service as a congregational minister.

I have voluntarily accepted that, in my role as a friend, not everything that my friends share is for public reflection. Some of my friends have even taken to letting me know when something is for public reflection and when it is not… but if I don’t know, I err on the side of caution. This trust also allows me to speak with them privately on issues of their lives in a way I would never be able to if they thought it would end up splashed on the web (or from the pulpit, for that matter).

I have voluntarily accepted that, in my role as a husband, much of the private relationship between my wife and I is exactly that… private. Sandy is my best-friend and my partner… and I am not her minister. Am not, can never be, and would not do a very good job if I tried. Anytime I mention her in a public reflection (with the exception of this one, just because I’m being ornery) I get her approval first. My wife is not a Unitarian Universalist, and she is a fairly private person, and so it is a part of my role as her husband to defend that privacy. Once, when someone asked her why such a private person would marry such a public extrovert as myself, she replied that “He (meaning me) is very good cover. In any public situation, he grabs all the attention, and no one notices me… which is exactly what I want.” People have gone to seminary or church with me for years and could not to this day pick my wife out of a line up. Part of my role is to defend that privacy.

I often get the question from fellow UU’s, both ministers and lay-people, about how I could be willing to accept the restrictions upon my public, prophetic voice that the military imposes on me as an officer. I laugh, because I run into that same kind of restriction in almost every aspect of my ministry, not just the military. In each case, it is the willingness to accept such restrictions that gives entry into the private conversations where policy is made and implemented, where decisions are made and choices are debated. When I think of where I would rather have our prophetic voice, the decision for me is obvious.

And yet, there is another aspect to all of this. In each of these institutions for whom I have limited my public voice, there are limits upon that limitation. In each case I have thought through what kinds of situations I would be willing to resign or remove myself from those institutions in order to speak prophetically and publically. I am not going to detail what those situations may be, but I have given deep thought to them.

If, for example, the military asked or ordered me to violate the confidence I hold as a pastor or the principles I hold as a Unitarian Universalist, I would have to resign as a military officer (as I define those principles, not as others do). If a friend asked me to violate the commitments I’ve made as a husband, I would have to end that friendship. And if my hospital asked me to violate the ethics I hold as a part of my faith, I’d have to find somewhere else to practice my ministry. In each of these cases, the situation would be important enough to end the relationship that allowed me private prophetic access in the institution. In each of these cases, I would then feel free to follow a public, prophetic call if that were appropriate to the situation… and perhaps to do so with greater authority and authenticity for having been within the institution, and felt the need to remove myself from it.

We all make commitments in our lives that limit our public, prophetic voices. If you do not make such commitments, then I would challenge whether or not it is possible to function in authentic relationship. It was this realization that allowed me to finally come to peace with the decision I made to do so with the U.S. Army, and that realization came from the years of practicing walking that line represented here at Celestial Lands.

Yours in Faith,


One Thought on “All of the Things I’m Not Allowed to Write About

  1. Very thoughtful, and something I want to read and reread at greater length.

    As a journalist, I’ve been thinking a lot about the Washington Post’s recent admonitions to its staff members about their use of social networking. What you’re doing here strikes me as very much in that spirit of professionalism, and I commend you.

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