The Storm (Throwback Thursday)

The Storm, written by students from Biloxi.
The Storm, written by students from Biloxi.

Our puppy, Teddy, has decided that books are the best chew toy. We’ve caught him several times in recent days surreptitiously removing a book from the bottom of our big Ikea shelf system in the living room. He started with coffee table books, lying down to gnaw the corners of volumes also recumbent due to their extreme height. Then he managed to drag a picture book out and across the floor, and he hit the mother lode: photographs of a post-Katrina trip to Mississippi tucked inside the pages of “The Storm.”

I am in one of those pictures, standing with a small group of children, outside their church, Handsboro United Methodist, where I offered pulpit supply and emergency coverage as a small gesture of support for a pastor on the Gulf Coast, ten days off to keep recovering from the physical and emotional damage of wind and water and loss. Months had gone by and great mounds of debris had been hauled away, but houses remained catty-corner to their original addresses while the people who had lived in them still sought safety.

With some of the children of Handsboro United Methodist Church, January 1, 2006.
With some of the children of Handsboro United Methodist Church, January, 2006.

The children are holding gifts sent by the people of Stevens Avenue Congregational Church UCC, where I was pastor. I traveled to Mississippi with a backpack full of gifts, tucked in the folds of a prayer shawl for their pastor.

In the picture, I’m wearing a dress from LLBean; I got it at a rummage sale for $3.00, at a church where I filled in just after seminary, a real score because it was unworn. That’s a pair of Birkenstock women’s loafers originally purchased for my oldest son when he was at that awkward size between boys’ shoes and men’s, worn by me for many years, through numerous re-heelings, re-solings. I wore a ponytail because a retired colleague’s wife said my hair looked unprofessional around my shoulders, but I kept it long to save money on haircuts.

I remember many things about that trip, the things I saw and many of the people I met and the stories they told me. I cannot forget the people who literally clung to tree branches to save themselves, who lost their brothers, or their dogs, or their homes, or even just their sense of direction.

It’s much harder to remember being someone who tried so hard to be so many things to so many people without leaving an imprint, who tried so hard to be ordinary and good and acceptable.

I want to tell her, “You have no idea of the storms that are coming. You will feel like a house off its foundation. You will learn what it’s like to perch precariously, clinging to what remains.”

 

And then I might whisper to her, “But keep hanging on, dear one, because beyond the storm there is hope. In the recovery from the storm, there is kindness, and love you won’t recognize at first. Don’t let go.”

Reading and Rabbit Holes (#amwriting)

Letters from the Farm
Letters from the Farm

I’m having a rabbit hole week as I read “Letters from the Farm: A Simple Path for a Deeper Spiritual Life.” In the short chapters, Becca Stevens, founder of Magdalene and Thistle Farms (a priest, a preacher, a speaker and an entrepreneur with a profound emphasis on healing) tells deceptively simple stories, then follows them with questions that go to the heart of things.

I’m particularly grappling with a chapter asking the reader to consider being cooperative rather than competitive. I like to think of myself as being pretty high-minded, raising up others, and I think I’ve done that in my work with RevGalBlogPals, but that doesn’t mean I’m immune to feeling like I’m not much of a preacher or pastor or writer or spouse or mother or queer compared to ________ (whoever is the flavor of the month at those things, or has done them longer, or with wide success, or …).

Alice falling ...
Alice falling …

Since reading that chapter, I’ve been falling down a rabbit hole, passing these thoughts over and over, faster and faster:

“I should get back into spiritual direction to talk about these things, but where is the money for *that* going to come from since I am doing all these part-time jobs, and I haven’t been pursuing new writing assignments, and wow, I am really a terrible person for not working harder on that, but I’ve been very busy doing the *other* jobs, but I am not a full financial contributor what with the free-lancing, the part-time pastoring and the start-up ministry” and so forth.

Stevens asks, “Is it difficult for you to be generous to colleagues or neighbors?” That part is not so hard. The trouble is when I cannot see generosity in return – although I realize that is not the point of generosity, is it? Generosity is giving it away without worrying about how we rank on the world’s scorecard.

Then she asks, “Who could you view as your ally and colleague rather than your competitor?”

The launch down the rabbit hole is intense, as I grab at things I can’t hold in my hand, try to recall them in mental pictures and quick phrases as I fall farther. Can I hang on to that jar or pick out those titles on the shelves?

How much farther will I fall?

Answering the reflection questions in Stevens’ book feels like spiritual direction, although I miss having someone to talk to about the questions and feelings raised. This morning, instead of telling myself I’ll never be the one with the best-seller and the publicist (the one sending me advance copies of other people’s books), I’m remembering the ways I know my writing and my work with RevGals have touched others – and imagining the ways I don’t actually know about for sure. I’m considering that maybe all those jobs are too many jobs and picturing a different way of organizing my vocational life.

Alice eventually hits solid ground, then moves on through other adventures, attending tea parties and meeting Queens and finding her way home again. I will get up from the table at Starbucks and go home to real life, take the dog out, fix a sandwich, and then keep writing.

When patience wears thin (a prayer for pastors)

Sometimes, dear God,
I give thanks for being a mother
before I was a pastor,
for the ways young children
taught me patience,
for the lessons I learned
from not being patient enough,
lessons I had to learn over and over
waiting for them to grow.

But when patience wears thin,
when the frustrating people
are far beyond childhood,
and never seem to grow,
when their ideas are set,
leave no room for your Spirit,
when the words they choose
strike like weapons against
kinder-hearted prey,

Help me, God.

Three women praying - fresco from Gondar church in Ethiopia, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.
Three women praying – fresco from Gondar church in Ethiopia, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

I will hold Jesus in my heart:
misunderstood
misinterpreted
misdiagnosed
(not only in his time)
—used to gain power
by partial quotes
and pious claims
and proud insistence,

Or willful ignorance,
our willful desire to ignore
the essence of the gospel
because it is so threatening
to powers
to principalities
to privilege.

When patience is thin,
help me, God.

Help me not to play the game
of one-upping
and last-word-getting
and mic-dropping.

Help me to know
when to press the point
and when to let things lie,
to be sparing with rebukes,
to see it when my own story
compromises me, yet
to be open to the strength
of righteous indignation
when You give the word,

in Christ’s name. Amen.

For friends who know it’s holy (a prayer for pastors)

Dear God,

A pastor’s work is lonely,
not sometimes
but often,
full of stories
we cannot tell
and deeply heavy burdens
placed with trust upon us
composed of true stories
and imagined wrongs
and incalculable bad fortune
and actual evildoing.

The telling honors us.
The hearing weighs us down.

I thank you, God,
for friends who know it’s holy
to carry things together,
for friends who know the difference
between weakness and exhaustion,
between complaining
and pleading
with You.

They make us
better pastors,
better people,
these friends who walk beside us,
who answer questions,
and offer challenges,
yet know the time
to just show love.

When we are tempted
to manage it all alone,
remind us that Jesus
sent his friends out in pairs,
each friend with another,
not alone to face the world.

Friends make each other better.

Help us to find those friends.
Help us to be those friends.
We ask in Christ’s name. Amen.

*************

A prayer offered with thanks to God for all the friends who have come into my life through the community of RevGalBlogPals over the past ten years, on the occasion of the organization’s tenth anniversary.

That’s What Friends Are For

I’m terrible at artsy-craftsy things. Terrible. But I understand why we do crafts in Sunday School, because making the image of a story has the power to imprint it on us in different ways. There are some stories I remember because of the pictures in a book or a children’s Bible, but there are others that became part of my life through folding paper or coloring or gluing things together or twisting pipe cleaners or some combination of the above plus or minus popsicle sticks and string (although I prefer yarn).

It must have been a group project. I want to think it was, because it’s hard to imagine I constructed the three-dimensional paper house with the removable roof and the man on the stretcher alone. I also hate to think of the poor teachers who might have been supervising a classroom full of kids all working individually, with scissors (I forgot to mention those before) and crayons and string and all that paper.

When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” (Mark 2:1-4, NRSV)

I remember the house, and I remember how fragile it seemed, and I can see the flat little man on the paper stretcher. I think the edges of the paper folded around a string on each side, the long ends used by the friends to lower the paper man into the house.

We children, of course, lowered him ourselves.

We were the friends who removed the roof.

Now I tend to identify with the man who was paralyzed. I have lived through times when I was stuck, and unable to help myself, and only a friend’s love and care made a difference. I can feel the story from the perspective of a person lying down, carried through town on a mat, hearing the sounds of other people’s voices on either side and wondering how your friends were going to get you into the place where they expected to find help and healing.

I’ve only been in an ambulance once, but I remember the feeling of helplessness and disorientation. I had an attack of vertigo during a middle school poetry reading – my son Peter was a 7th-grader – and a teacher who was also a friend from church called 911. It was scary to be so dizzy — the room actually appeared to be spinning around me, but the more frightening time began as paramedics loaded me onto a gurney and into the ambulance. The ride was rough. They were taking my vital signs, and on the radio I heard a blood pressure number that sounded high. Was that mine, I asked? I had no idea what was happening, maybe I was having a stroke! No, no, they reassured me. But when they finished taking mine, it was even higher; it was going through the roof!

Even after we got to the hospital, where I knew help would come, it was hard to get my bearings.

Imagine the care with which the four friends carried the paralyzed man up the stairs outside the house. That’s how those houses were built, with a roof you could use as outdoor space, and a staircase along the side of the building. Imagine the confusion of lying there, paralyzed, your safety in the hands of people you trust, but not knowing quite what they will do next.

You may remember the song, “That’s What Friends are For” –

Keep smilin’ keep shinin’
Knowing you can always count on me for sure
That’s what friends are for
For good times and bad times
I’ll be on your side forever more
That’s what friends are for

It was written for a movie, but it became better-known when Dionne Warwick recorded a cover with her friends Elton John, Stevie Wonder and Gladys Knight. The record was a fundraiser for AMFAR, the American Foundation for AIDS Research. It was the mid-1980s. Awareness of AIDS and HiV began to spread, but before many people understood how the *disease* was spread, there was an enormous amount of fear and misinformation in the world. It may be hard to remember that now, thirty years later, but it’s the truth.

Warwick told the Washington Post, “You have to be granite not to want to help people with AIDS, because the devastation that it causes is so painful to see. I was so hurt to see my friend die with such agony. I am tired of hurting and it does hurt.”

Those four friends raised over $3 million for AMFAR, but they did more; they helped remove the roof of closed minds, digging through misconceptions to bring about healing.

That’s what friends are for.

When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”  

I don’t remember that part from when I was a little girl. I only remember it was his friends who made sure he got to see Jesus.

They removed the roof of a house. Listen to that! Don’t just pass it by. Read it out loud.

They removed the roof!!!

“And after having dug through it”…dig that!

I have an unsurprising tendency, as a liberal Christian who also majored in English, to suck the reality out of Bible stories and teach them as metaphor. And there are surely many metaphors to be explored. But we need to hear this story literally.

(Make a note of the date. I asked you to read something from the Bible literally. This won’t happen often.)

We need to hear this story literally.

They carried their friend on a stretcher, their paralyzed friend, and because the crowds were so enormous, they took him to the roof of the house and REMOVED THE ROOF and DUG THROUGH IT and lowered him into the middle of the room where Jesus was.

A group of friends helped me through another time of difficulty, of emotional paralysis. I had a postpartum depression so severe that I spent almost a week in the hospital. When I got home, I was flat and sad, and not sure how I would manage to take care of my three little children. I knew I needed help, but I didn’t have the wherewithal to figure out what exactly. Then the women in my Bible study group decided that in addition to bringing my family dinner for several weeks, they would pay for someone I knew to come and clean my house.

When one of them called to tell me, I cried. This was such a kind gesture, but the house was a wreck. And I am well-trained. You pick up the house before you let someone else clean it! I didn’t see how I could do that myself. The task was beyond me.

My friend on the phone said, “Don’t worry. I’ll come pick up the house with you.”

With each toy we put away, each stray sock we placed in a hamper, each piece of clean laundry folded and placed in a dresser drawer, I felt a little better; I moved a little more easily.

We have the power to do this for each other,

to do this for our friends,

to do this by being friends to one another.

That’s what friends are for.

They carried their friend on a stretcher, their paralyzed friend, and because the crowds were so enormous, they took him to the roof of the house and REMOVED THE ROOF and DUG THROUGH IT and lowered him into the middle of the room where Jesus was.

Remember what the scripture said:

When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

This is when Jesus forgave the man.

Jesus Mafa - the friends who removed the roof
Jesus Mafa – the friends who removed the roof

This is when Jesus healed him:

when Jesus saw the faith of his friends,

a faith that gave them courage to take the roof off a neighbor’s house,

a faith that gave them courage to put him down right in front of God.

We have the power to do this for our friends. Maybe someone has done it for you.

That’s what friends are for.

In the name of the One who heals and forgives, Jesus Christ. Amen.

(This is week #2 in a series on Favorite Bible Stories; the story is one of my particular favorites. This sermon is drawn in part from a blog post I wrote in 2012, when this text was not in the lectionary. It only appears in years when Easter is late.)

I am terrible at grieving, or an armored heart

I am terrible at grieving. I grew up in a family and an environment in which crying, generally, and grieving, specifically, were not only discouraged but practically anathema. When my Grandmother Spong died, my father, who was her only child and as close to her emotionally as he was to anyone, told me, “I’m all right if you’re all right,” which was his way of saying, “Don’t cry, or I might, too.”

As an adult, I faced three major losses in my thirties – first my mother, then a pregnancy at 21 weeks, then my father – and in each case, the circumstances made it difficult for me to grieve properly, at least as I came to understand proper grieving, ideas presented in classes at seminary, where I studied pastoral care through the life span and took a whole course on bereavement.

I’m not sure I got any better at grieving. Instead I learned to squeeze my eyes shut and keep the tears inside.

Crying, you see, frightens me. I associate it with a severe postpartum depression twenty years ago, a time when nothing seemed as if it would ever be right again, a time when everything seemed that mattered seemed poised to slip over the edge of an abyss. I said I had cried all my tears, but what I really meant was, I am not going to let things get that far out of my control again. If something threatens to hurt me, I will armor myself against it.

Molly was brilliant at eye contact.
Molly was brilliant at eye contact.

Just about the only exception to that armor was my first dog, Molly. She was charming, winsome, life-rearranging. I was 41 and had never lived with a dog before and had no idea how much it would feel like having a baby, another child to raise. A Bernese Mountain Dog, she had the terrible joints that some Berners do, and the crippling arthritis to go with them; that she lived to be almost 7 years old was a testimony to both my commitment to her and her incredible joie de vivre.

After her death, I did allow myself one good cry. (Emphasis on “allow,” which implies control, no?)

I always tell people who are afraid they will cry at a funeral that it’s exactly the right time for it, that their tears are a tribute to the person they loved and will miss, but I am confessing to you how poorly I do it. You may know what I mean. We hold ourselves together for the sake of others, because who doesn’t want to be a hero. And isn’t it a more secure feeling to be that hero than to let the feeling flow through and out of us? If we can only hold it all inside, we will never have to admit to vulnerability.

To mourn, to fully and consciously engage with the truth and pain of loss, is agonizing. It is something so difficult and frightening that incredibly successful people who are otherwise driven and aggressive risk-takers stereotypically shy away from grief.*

Grieve fully, feel Gratitude profoundly, and be humble enough to do the Grunt work!

Which is the hardest of the three g’s for you to practice to keep your faith simple? Grief, gratitude or grunt work?**

Books, darn it, sometimes make me think about things I would rather not, make me feel things I would just as soon compress into the components of more armor. Not long after reading both the quotes above and confessing to my journal that I am terrible at grieving, I opened Facebook on my iPhone and clicked on the daily memories they now provide whether I want them or not, and there I found this picture.

Hoagie, my last Berner
Hoagie, my last Berner

Now, he may not prove to be my final Berner, but Hoagie was the last of the Berners I had in Maine, a rescue who came to us at a time when my daughter and I really needed him even more than he needed us. He would have come with me to Pennsylvania, but he developed cancer and did not live long enough to embark on the new chapter of life with us.

“Oh, Hoagie,” I said to my iPhone, to Facebook, to no one in particular, as I sat in bed in the early morning half light. I blinked, because if you blink hard enough, or scrinch up your eyes just right, the tears will go away. Except that they don’t. Something calcifies. After kathrynzj’s Old Man Dog died last fall, we started talking about when and whether to look for a new dog, and where, and whether to get a puppy, and although my loss was further in the past, I could not say I was ready. I didn’t really grieve, I realized. I set my eyes toward the horizon, and I hardly stopped to let myself be sad, to grieve for the dog, the dogs, the life I thought I had, because of course the future looked favorable and many good things lay ahead.

I looked at the picture again, and I remembered the words I scrawled in my journal the early morning of the day before, and I looked at the picture again, and I cried.

Teddy at 3 months
Teddy at 3 months

At my house there is a new dog, this crazy puppy Teddy, a lab mix who loves my slippers, who is not a Berner, who is mouthy and likes hard pets and peeled carrots, and whose short coat feels different but good to the touch.

He likes to stand on his back legs to see what’s on the table or the counter, just like Molly.

He does this at the storm door when we leave the house, front paws up like a child, sending his heart with us in little cries of love and longing.

An armored heart cannot love that way. An armored heart cannot move into joy.

********

*Aric Clark, Doug Hagler, and Nick Larson. Never Pray Again (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2014), p. 110. Check out their blog, Two Friars and a Fool.

**Becca Stevens. Letters from the Farm: A Simple Path for a Deeper Spiritual Life (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2015), p. 32. I received a copy from her publicist, and an advance copy, too. If you’ve read this far, and are interested in the book, leave a comment and I will send you the extra book.