Fear Factor

Pure Luck and I hopped in the car on Monday to visit Shopping Village in the Whites. We booked a room in a not cheap, but pretty tacky motel, all for the sake of the in-room Jacuzzi, something on which we occasionally splurge (and by occasionally I mean five times in six years). We planned a hike of minor proportions, one we did four years ago when Molly was such a small pup she needed lifting over things. The idea was to see how much progress I’ve made both walking and on the elliptical, to enjoy a view from the ledges of the particular mountain, and to be sure I wasn’t too exhausted or lame to enjoy the rest of our brief getaway. After all, this was to be my time of re-creation.

After dropping the dogs at the kennel, we enjoyed the lovely ride to SV in the W. We drove through town, spied out our lodgings for the night, then turned onto Hurricane Mountain Road. It’s one of those hairpin roads between mountains that they close in the wintertime.

Apparently April 17th is still wintertime if you live in SV in the W.

We turned the car around.

“I know another place we can go,” intoned my husband.

“Is it a lot harder than this would have been?”

A brief silence ensued.

“No, no, it’s not much harder.”

“I’m not sure I believe you,” I said. You see, my friends, I’ve been down this road before.

“Well, let’s just try it.”

I’ve been down that road, too. “Let’s just try it” means “If we start, we will finish, and there will be no excuses short of a medical emergency so dire as to require a helicopter evacuation.”

The word Ledge should have been my second clue that the hike would be more than I had anticipated on this particular day.

“There is a small steep section,” said my husband reassuringly, as if there might be a steep section roughly the length of a flight of stairs.

What I would like to know is how a person 11 feet tall can confidently stand up straight when the world to his left or right is sloping away at a vertigo-inducing angle? I know this 5’ tall woman could not. The “small steep section” – actually most of the trail to the top – found me on my hands and knees, clinging to whatever was close at hand, using moss as a railing, and absolutely paralyzed if I happened to look either up or down. In those moments of panic, I would hear the deep voice of my husband saying, “The earth will support you. The rocks and the trees are here to help you. It’s just like going up a flight of stairs.”

Right. The Stairway to Heaven!!

But Reader, I married him, and by now I know that he is usually right, if a bit optimistic about my abilities. There were four things that made the ascent possible that day. First, his voice. Second, two women who had given up and were coming back down; I *had* to be in better shape than they! Third, going back down looked worse than finishing the climb, and we were planning to come down a different way.

But the most important reason was this: I remembered my sermon from the day before, and the music from Rent that inspired it. The words ran through my head, over and over again. “There’s only now, there’s only here, give in to love, or live in fear, no other path, no other way, no day but today.”

Oh, brother. Don’t you hate it, preachers, when you find you were preaching to yourself?!?!!

“What is it you’re afraid of, Songbird?” he asked me more than once.

As I crouched against a rock, seeking to compose myself for the next upward climb, I answered, “I’m afraid that everything will slip away.”

If that is not my core existential angst, I don’t know what is.

There was an Easter Monday I spent in the hospital, being treated for a severe postpartum depression. I checked in on the evening of Holy Saturday and spent Easter Sunday sitting at a table weeping quietly. On Monday the work began in earnest. It was there I began to understand my deepest fear, to lose everything but still be alive.

“You’re not afraid of death?” he asked me on the mountainside.

No. I’m afraid that everything will slip away.

As hard as it was to make that hike, in which the 1.2 miles uphill took as long as the 3 miles winding down and back, it’s even harder to face other fears. All my life I’ve used food as a means of numbing any feelings that I’m not “supposed” to have. On the occasions I’ve tried to change the way I eat, the tornadic strength of my un-anaesthetized feelings frightened me as much as the trail to White Horse Ledge did this Easter Monday.

But, I’m 44, almost 45. I want more than I ever have before to be active, and I don’t want to carry what amounts to a backpack on the front of my body. Yesterday I faced some other fears and began practicing better habits. Let’s just say I wasn’t at my most calm or patient after counting out 100 calories worth of Mini-Wheats. Let’s just say coffee with skim milk is not a pretty sight. Let’s just say yesterday was not a great day.

But, again but, I got up this morning, and I’m still alive. I counted out the Mini-Wheats and it *almost* amused me. I broke some of them in half in the bowl and made more bites. (Is that some good behavior modification?)

No other path
No other way

I’m still afraid. On the hike, I leaned against a tree that grew at an angle toward the sky. It was solidly attached, but in my mind I could see it and me tumbling down, falling without ending, an image of the capacity I seem to think I have for ruining everything for myself. The only way out of that feeling, out of that fear, is up and over. The path down the other side won’t necessarily be easy, but at least it won’t be straight uphill.


Area Mom Freaking Out For No Reason Again

Tonight, just after dark, we went downtown to pick up some dinner at the little pizza place right next door to the video store we like. I’ve been getting videos there for many years. They used to deliver, which was enormously convenient when the children were small. This summer I’ve noticed that the parking lot outside the building is more and more crowded, and people are circling waiting for a spot. In particular they like to stop circling as soon as they see someone walking toward a car, because getting a spot in the video store parking lot is clearly a time-sensitive matter.

Earlier this summer I watched a mother with kids in the car back up the length of the parking lot, fast, to try to beat me into a space. Now, I wasn’t going to take the space anyway; she was there ahead of me. But I found I was just enraged by the encounter. #1 Son was in the car with me; he pretty much thought I was nuts, and this may explain why he likes to drive now rather than be the passenger. Mom-with-Kids didn’t get the spot in the end; I got out of her way and someone else slipped into it. I left the parking lot and drove around the block, eventually finding a spot on the street. We took our time about going into the video store, because I was *so* close to wanting to deliver a verbal smackdown to this woman about her crazy driving.

But I’ve been that desperate mother with a car full of kids, and it’s highly unlikely I would have fussed at her in the video store.

Meanwhile, however, my blood pressure was on the rise. My temper was hot.

Tonight we experienced another bad parking scenario. Traffic circling the lot was at a standstill as a red sedan waited for a gigantic pick-up truck to back out of a space. It didn’t help matters that giant pick-up truck’s driver took his time about backing out in the first place, but when he finally did, red sedan’s driver had to back up to give the truck room to clear the parking space.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I really hate it when there is that kind of backing up in a parking lot. This is probably because as a young driver I had several accidents while backing up in parking lots, and I am therefore keenly aware of how easy it is to lose the view of a car behind you or to misjudge the distance you are traveling in reverse.

Pure Luck, meanwhile, had gone in to pick up the pizza.

The truck out of the parking space, red sedan pulled in and parked. I pulled forward to continue circling, but as I came around a corner, pickup truck was backing up again!! ACK!!! I quickly checked to see how close the next car behind me was–too close–and so I honked. You see, giant pickup truck is much taller than the Songbirdmobile, and I wanted to notify the driver of my presence very nearly under his rear bumper. He was having trouble negotiating the exit from the parking lot, which is relatively narrow, but after another try, he was able to exit. Since Pure Luck had gotten back into the car (an illustration of how long the first part of this parking transaction lasted), we followed the truck through the exit.

Pickup Truck Driver lingered, looking back at me from his open window, as if to say, “Why did you honk at me, b!#*&?” He turned a corner, stopped, and looked back again.

I was a little upset. (See Title.)

“Was it wrong of me to honk to be sure he knew I was there, or should I have let him hit me?” More words to that effect were spoken in a big hurry.

Pure Luck listened to me patiently, then said, “I don’t think you need to be upset about this. I don’t think you need to worry about what he thinks of you.”

Ah. That gets to the heart of the matter, doesn’t it? I grew up in a family that emphasized not making a scene and not getting on the wrong side of anything or anyone. My work as a pastor seems to demand the same thing most of the time. In the blogosphere I sometimes worry if my comments go too far, come on too strong. Who exactly am I presenting to the world?

It’s no fun to be rejected or disparaged, but even worse to wonder if you really deserved it. I wasn’t really worried about the guy in the pickup truck, but rather about someone who took offense at my well-meant comments posted in a little box.

Part of the trick bag of being clergy is finding time and space in which you do not have to play the pastoral role. It’s extremely difficult. My heart went out to someone grappling with these questions which plague me all the time. I remember one of my mentors telling me, just after I started my first call three years ago, how he arranged his life in order to have time to exercise and how it was an item of faith with him that he did not work on his vacations or his sabbatical or his days off. I wondered how this could be possible? I argued that it wasn’t. I told myself that it was all very well for him because his wife was cooking dinner every night. (I’m not sure what that had to do with it, but I was feeling oppressed by his advice and couldn’t think of anything to cook myself, probably.) And in fact I know now that there were exceptions to his rules. But he held fast to them anyway.

I struggle with the issue of time off, but I struggle less with it after three years than I did in that first year. It’s in the small moments that it comes back to me, when I’m angry in a parking lot and kind of wish I were one of the people free to be uncivil and deliver an impolite salute. And I realize that the struggle is not really about days off but about the pastoral role. One of the reasons I love doing things with the dogs is that I’m not a pastor in those hours. In obedience class, I was definitely not a pastor. I was barely a dog handler. I was mostly a clutzy woman whose pockets were full of liver treats and whose sweater was covered with slobboo. There was great freedom in being that woman, who didn’t have to care if people saw her decorated with slobboo; they were wearing it, too.

Saturday morning I’m going to mix up those roles. I’ll be at a dog club event, a Fun Day, and for a few hours I’ll be just a garden variety volunteer, signing people in at the Registration table. But just before lunch, I will put on my pastoral role and perform a Blessing of the Animals. At the same time that I love the fact we will be praying for the animals displaced by Hurricane Katrina, I’m also a little sorry to have to play that role, because it blurs the lines.

My advice continues to be impractical, and I violate it myself, but to my clergy friends who struggle with this issue I would say, Try and find something to do that is so engaging, so captivating or so difficult that you cannot remember you are a clergyperson while you are doing it. The other role will clamor for your attention again soon enough.

Angst, Discernment, Ministry

The Heart of the Matter

First, thanks for the cyber-hugs!! I slept a little better last night and feel a teeny bit perkier today. This morning I met with one of my lectionary group friends (the others are on vacation), and we had a great discussion about Holy Ground and burning bushes. The group will “re”group and go forward. I think I need to say something to the departing colleague about how it felt to get the word via e-mail.

I didn’t love the response I got from the manager of the dog list, but I found a peaceful way to share my thoughts about the e-mail that had angered me the other night.

The news of the world is no better today. Since I posted yesterday I learned of Pat Robertson’s suggestion that the USA employ assassination as a political tool. His first foray into TV was in my hometown many years ago, and my (Baptist Republican) maternal grandmother was an early financial supporter of his. My opinion of him can be summed up thusly: Pat and his wife Deedee loved my grandmother while she had a checkbook and a pen, inviting her to their home and making a fuss over her; Deedee even made some curtains for her! But as soon as a series of small strokes weakened her mentally and physically, Pat dropped her cold. My advice to Pat: it might be time to stop telling God what to do and take a listen to what God might be saying instead.

Friday Mom (who really should be working or dissertating, right? but I’m glad you stopped by anyway!) wanted to know what I meant in the comments box about inadequacy, which I confessed lay beneath the surface of my mood yesterday . Sunday night I had the chance to worship with the new church start that will now be renting space from Small Church. It’s an Open and Affirming UCC congregation of about 50, worshipping in a contemporary style. The pastor is a good friend; we used to be in supervision together and have worked together on some denominational projects. I’m very happy we have a space they can use and I see great things ahead for the two congregations working together. (Just don’t ask me to love Praise Music. I do not love Praise Music.)

But on Sunday night, watching him lead that very different service, I thought about how free-wheeling he is and how careful I am, and it bothered me. A lot. I’ve worked through a lot of my novice nervousness in the past three years. I’ve grown into doing Communion without anxiety. I’ve adapted the service to lower the barriers for everyone in worship, explaining things as we go along, leading worship in an informal style that allows everyone to feel welcomed and has broken down a lot of the icy rigidity that was the mode when I arrived there. We do a lot of drama in worship and include the children in a variety of ways. We have a vibrant worship life. These are changes that have pleased most people, and if people aren’t pleased, they certainly aren’t telling me (an old family systems issue for this congregation!).

The problem area for me is the sermon. I identify myself more as pastor and writer than pastor and preacher, and I fear I make an idol of my written text. I’m getting better about departing from it, as I find something mid-sermon that I want to add, or drop something that doesn’t seem to fit anymore. I work things in that came up during the Sharing of Joys and Concerns, for instance, if they seem apropos.

Rev. Fun (he calls himself that, so it seems appropriate) had designed a service that began at their old meeting place. They caravaned together to Small Church, where they sang a few songs, and then he preached briefly. He told the story of the Egyptian army being covered by the Red Sea, and the celebration of the Hebrews who could see the view, and the trepidation of those who had crossed the Red Sea first and could now see, spreading out before them, a vast desert, an enormous unknown wilderness. It was very well-done. He’s scripturally and theologically sound, amusing, heartfelt. I’ve admired his preaching before.

But here’s what really got to me on Sunday night. The people talked back to him. They talked back to him!!! When they felt he had left something out, or not finished something off, they did it for him! And he didn’t turn a hair.

I would have been mortified. I would have felt threatened. I would have cared.

Am I holding on too tightly? Is it because 3 years out from ordination is the equivalent of being in preschool? Will I be more open when more time has passed?

So much of Protestant worship is moving in this direction: Power Point and Praise Music and virtually no liturgy. The thing is, I *like* hymns (I like all good music, really, and would even like good Praise Music if I heard some), I like to hold the book in my hand, I like to hear scripture read aloud well, I like praying corporately and responsively, and I especially like writing those sermons. They are both a gift from and an offering to my God each week. But I fear I am both a baby and a dinosaur and have a hard time seeing what the future holds for me, if this is the future.

I will leave you with this image. Pure Luck listened to me patiently after the service the other night, and they understood most of what I was talking about, but they didn’t know what I meant when I said “Praise Music.” So I downloaded a clip of “Shine Jesus Shine” to play for him and explained that it was the sort of music intended for arm-waving and that sort of thing. I told the whole story again to #1 Son a short while later, while I was moping in the living room, and as I played the clip on my laptop, I caught sight of Pure Luck next door in his office, waving his arms back and forth!