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I went to a Unitarian Universalist church this past weekend.

After several weeks of intense blogging I felt exhausted, emotionally. With all of the new traffic to BITG, there has been a wave of new readers who have no context for why I write or who I am. Without context, without a sense of where I’ve come from, my posts can look rather different from how I intend them to. I’ve felt misread, misunderstood, mistaken for someone who wants to tell everybody how it is — or worse — how it should be.

There have been moments when this lack of context for me and for this blog led me to feel as thought I had no context for my own writing.

It’s been lonely.

So I sought out something different. After writing about why I left church, I went to church. Funny how that happens.

I didn’t go seeking Jesus, or even a return to Christianity. I went in search of peace, comfort, encouragement, and a little context.

Photo by Keddy Ann Outlaw, Flickr

I wasn’t raised a Unitarian Universalist, and much of the liturgy of this small church was foreign to me. I’m not sure everyone was on the same page about Jesus, as evidenced by the man beside me looked rather perturbed when the name showed up in the first African American spiritual.

But I don’t think that being on the same page, or at least thinking the same thing, was really the point. UU seems to acknowledge that one religious path, one way of thinking, may not satisfy every one’s spiritual needs.

It may not be polytheism, but at times it felt a little pagan.

Here’s what I loved about this UU service:

I sat and listened to three different people reflect on ethics, morals, and human character. They spoke about a commitment to caring for one another, and they did not sugar coat the challenges we face when trying to do that. They encouraged an entire congregation of people to be reflective. In fact, the whole service seemed to be geared toward inspiring stillness, contemplation, and reflection.

I sat there in a pew of lined up chairs beside old men, young women, couples, singles and children, and I was given something to think about.

I’ve missed that so much.

I wish that just once I could go to a CUUPS ritual, or an ADF Druid ritual, and someone would get up and speak. I wish they’d provide me with context. I wish they’d say — this is how all of this fits into my life, and this is something for you to reflect on as you stand in this circle, or sit before this altar. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked at the leader of a ritual and wished that they would just start giving a sermon.

I could label this desire as evidence of my “unresolved issues” with Christianity, but I give myself more credit than that.

A sermon, in the tradition of my youth, was not a moment to drill in dogma or beat us over the head with the Bible. Sermons were the moment when the priest became human. They were the point in the service when everyone got to see the one person with all of the credentials, the titles, the experience, as being no less human than any of the rest of us. She demonstrated her humanity by telling us about her life, about her attempts at integrating the disparate parts of herself, and about how sometimes she succeeded, and other times not so much. She had the floor, and when we heard her our hearts softened.

If the sermon was effective, her life would be the launching point for greater reflection, and we would all walk away with something meaningful to consider.

I watched the leaders of the UU service do this same thing, and something stirred inside me.

There! There it is, I though. There’s that feeling.

Meister Eckhart, by Hartwig HKD

I got what I went there for. I got to feel like my humanity was acknowledged, like there were others who shared in my struggles. I felt understood, and not because I’d make the best argument. I felt understood because someone else in the room was willing to stand up and say —

I’m human, too.

That’s all the context I need.

My grandparents got a puppy. They shouldn’t have, but they did. They’re old and slow, and puppies are the opposite of those two things. But they recently lost a dog who had been their companion for years. And the new puppy, which looks a lot like their old dog except puppy-sized, is the most adorable, the most soft, the most lovable thing you’ve ever seen.

And so, they bought it. At a pet store. In a mall.

They did this in spite of the strong discouragement from their three, grown children who all understood that it would be more sensible for them to get an older dog, a calmer dog, one that would not demand so much of their attention. But once my grandfather held the little white mess of fur and puppy slobber, it was done. Sold. No arguments could persuade him otherwise. Cash spent, dog adopted.

The dog has since escaped from their house 3 times; once for a week, and the other two times for a period of a few minutes. The dog is a quick little thing, unlike–as I noted–the old folks. During the longer stint, the dog wound up in a shelter, and then a doggy foster home. She was well cared for, and probably would have been better off to have stayed there. But, after a chip-scan she was identified, my grandparents were called, and she was brought back to their home.

They’ve fixed the fence, but not the core problem. She’s too much for them to handle, and they can’t care for her.

So, we took her. We took her to train her. We gave ourselves a month, but in two days she was as trained as one could expect a 5 month old puppy to be. She, we came to understand, was not the problem.

Can You Teach An Old Man New Tricks?

Training a dog isn’t hard. Dogs want to please us. They want to do right by us. Especially the little ones. They don’t know how, but they have a deep yearning to do so. If we give them the right kind of attention, the right kind of discipline, they can succeed. The result of proper dog training is a peaceful, symbiotic relationship between dog and human, and this little puppy has shown that she’s capable of having that kind of relationship. She’s ready for it.

But my grandpa? He’s pretty much fixed in his ways. Has been for all of my life. His hearing may have changed, getting worse with each decade, and he shakes more now than he used to. But, fundamentally he’s the same man I’ve known for the last 32 years. Stubborn. Hard-headed. Frail now, but still capable of projecting the posture of a war-seasoned Marine.

He’s going to feed this dog from his plate no matter how many vets tell him he shouldn’t. He’s going to see this little puppy in her crate, and the first time she whines at him he’s going to let her out. She’ll learn to manipulate him, she’ll run the roost, and in no time he’ll wonder why she doesn’t behave. She’ll go right back to being the dog that they couldn’t handle.

It seems fated.

I could find a better home for the dog. The original foster family said they’d take her back in a heartbeat. But, it’s arguable if I would even have the right to do that without their permission. I want to. I want to give this dog to someone else, find my grandparents an old mutt they can love, and have it all go down smooth and easy, without conflict.

I want to correct the mistake they made when they bought this dog, but it isn’t mine to correct.

And, I’d only be making a new mistake.

The Freedom To Fail

Far too often we treat old people like puppies, deciding what food they should eat, what living conditions are best for them, how to schedule their lives. We condescend to them by insinuating that they don’t know what is best for them. We speak to them from a place of assumed superiority. I’ve seen other members of my family do it to my grandparents, and been horrified by it.

And now look at me.

They deserve better than that. They deserve the freedom to fail as much as the opportunity to succeed. You can’t take away one without the other disappearing, too.

But What About The Dog?

We’re going to bring the dog back. We do it with reservations, and with a laundry list of suggestions for how to better care for the puppy. We’ll spell out the do’s and don’t’s we use with our dogs, doing our best not to condescend or belittle, and knowing full well that our “Guidelines For Proper Puppy Care” may be completely ignored. We’ll check in on little “Patches” every so often to remind her of our blissful days of doggy training, but we’ll no longer take the lead. We’ll give back the control that we seized, and by doing so provide my 80-some-odd year old grandparents the opportunity to make different choices.

Whether or not they do, ultimately, is up to them.

Have you ever been in this kind of situation? Do you have experience intervening in the life of a grandparent or parent? If so, what was that like for you?

Or, have you been in a position where your children or grandchildren have attempted to influence, or even govern over the choices you make? If so, would you be willing to share your insights in the comment section? I’d love to hear your perspective.

And, if you like this post, especially all the cute pictures of the dog’ens, please share it with your friends on Facebook and Twitter!