Out of the Backyard


People have asked me, “What about your call?”  I no longer believe that the events of 1989-90 were so narrowly focused as to simply get me into church ministry.  My call to ministry, as I referred to it all back then, was also a call to life.  It was a summons out of my old life that wasn’t working, that was leaving me stagnant and depressed.  It was a call to get away, far away enough, to become who I am, and not just a mixture of my Dad’s psychology and my Mom’s fears.  It was a call to start being who I am created to be, to think for myself.  It was a long journey.

My becoming a pastor never entered the mind of anyone in my family, least of all me.  When my oldest brother Don was a child, Rollo groomed him for the ministry with high hopes.  He’d put Don up on the dining room table and try to get him to recite poetry, giving him tips on how to enunciate and speak out.  I’m not sure when he gave up on that dream– but as Don grew older, it became very clear that he wanted nothing to do with the church, much less the ministry.  Rollo gave up, but was bitterly disappointed.  The other two boys followed Don to the exit door of the church.  My father never even considered that I could be a pastor.

From as far back as I can remember, Dad told me I was “too sensitive, too emotional” for the ministry.  I had no interest in doing it, mind you.  I believed him that the church would eat me alive.  Besides, I was sure I was too dumb, too shy, and yes, too sensitive.  Besides, Rollo didn’t like women ministers much.  He believed the ones who were trying to pave the way for other women were “bitches”– too aggressive, trying to be men.  Others were too flighty or too this or too that.  I knew of no women pastors that my father respected as equals.

It was fine by me.  I don’t have many memories of my father growing up, except at mealtimes.  The church was his whole life, and I knew there were many times that he and Mom went into a room and locked the door to talk about church stuff.  He complained about people that made life difficult for him, who didn’t like his preaching, or complained about this or that.  Until I was a teenager, they didn’t let me hear too much about church conflicts, but I saw enough that I figured I would never be tough enough or smart enough to do it.

From the time I was a teenager, I suffered from undiagnosed depression and anxiety pretty frequently.  I was tested for mono a lot in high school,  but no one–including the doctor who was a church member–wanted to think that Dr. Rollo’s daughter could be depressed.  What would she possibly have to be depressed about?

The summer of 1989 changed my life.  I had a strong and passionate faith, which I believe got me through quite a bit to that point.  I was the one child in the family who did NOT leave the church.  My life was immersed in church. I loved going to the United Methodist Annual Conference gathering in Ocean City, New Jersey every June.  There I got to see people who became like family to me, since I rarely saw my real extended family.  Pastors and their wives, counselors from camp, people I’d met through the church, were like my aunts and uncles.  I loved going to Conference, worshiping with a thousand other Methodists, walking the boardwalk, getting hugs from the people I loved.  Going to the beach was a bonus.

In June of 1989, I was working full-time and couldn’t get off for Conference.  I’d graduated college with a B.A. in Psychology two years before, and still had no clue what to do with my life.  I was very depressed at that time, living in my own apartment, paycheck to paycheck, going from one job to another, relying on my clerical skills.  On June 12, 1989, I drove down to Ocean City to go to the worship service that evening to say goodbye to two of my favorite people, John and Jane Ewing.  John was retiring and they were moving to Florida.  John had been my father’s District Superintendent at one point, and I grew to love him and Jane like family.

When I slid into the pew beside my mother at St. Peter’s UMC in Ocean City, my mother said that the preacher that night was supposed to be really excellent.  She’d heard that he was really unique and inspiring, and sounded like someone I might like.  I loved the music and singing at Conference, but the preachers were usually quite boring, often being Bishops from other Conferences.  I was just there for John, who would be recognized with the others who were retiring that year.  I was sad that he was leaving.  I was sad in general.

Some important person introduced the preacher, a Dr. Eugene Lowry from Kansas City, Missouri.  I had no clue where Missouri was, but knew it was pretty far away. Out in the middle somewhere.  Dr. Lowry was a bit of a scary looking person.  He was very tall, thin and lanky.  His face was squarish, outlined by a beard but no mustache.  If you put a tall stovepipe hat on him, he could have passed for Abraham Lincoln.  He was stern looking, and certainly carried an air of authority.  I leaned back and tried to get comfortable.

Lowry took out his reading glasses from his suit pocket and put them on, opening his Bible to the evening’s Gospel passage:  Matthew 25:14-30.  It was known as the Parable of the Talents.  As soon as Lowry began to read, I knew something was different.  He read with great drama, as if he were telling the story rather than just reading it.  He was animated and expressive.  I’d never heard the Bible read like that.  I sat forward.  When he was done reading, he took off his glasses, laid them gently on the edge of the pulpit and said, “This… is the Gospel of our Lord.”  Silence.

He looked around the room of about 900 people, slowly.  He shook his head.  “Well,” he said, “I’m offended.”  More silence.  Huh?

And he began to preach.  He spoke as if Jesus were full of it to tell such a story.  Questioning Jesus??  The story is about a rich man who went on a long trip and left his entire estate in the hands of three servants.  He didn’t divide things up equally, however.  To one, he gave five talents, to the other two and to the last, just one talent.  In ancient Middle Eastern times, a talent was about a year’s wage for the common laborer.  It was serious money.  While he was away, the first two servants invested or gambled the money and doubled the master’s money.  The five talents were turned into 10, and the two talents became four.  The last servant, perhaps a more conservative sort, dug a hole and buried the one talent.  When the master returned, he called the servants in to see how they fared in his absence.  The two servants happily presented the master with their results, and to each of them he said, “Well done, good and faithful servants, well done!  You have been trusted with little, now you will be trusted with much!  Enter into the joy of your master!”

The third servant was afraid of the master.  He knew the master to be a man who reaped where he didn’t sow and took what wasn’t his.  And so the servant nervously came forward and assured the master that he had not lost what was given to him.  “Here,” he said, “you have what is yours.”

The master was ticked off!  “You wicked and lazy servant!  You knew, did you, that I reap where I do not sow?  Well, you should have at least put the money in the bank where it would have gathered interest!  Get out of here, take this man to the outer darkness where there is only weeping and gnashing of teeth!”

Lowry was offended.  His face reflected that.  He seemed completely indignant. He spoke of how the last servant was the most loyal and responsible!  He wasn’t wicked and lazy!  The other two had gambled the master’s money– it wasn’t theirs to play with– and they could just have easily lost it all!  But the last one was careful.  He knew it wasn’t his money, and so he kept it safe.  Sure, Lowry said, he could have earned interest on it had it put it in the bank, but… well, at least he didn’t lose any of it!

Then he looked more closely at the third servant.  What was his wrongdoing?  Lowry had us all questioning Jesus’ standpoint.  Why dishonor the third servant?  Why honor those crooks?  It seemed to me the preacher was digging a hole he wouldn’t be able to get out of.

The third servant admitted being terrified of the master, who was known to be a ruthless man, taking what wasn’t his, reaping where he didn’t sow.  He could crush anyone who went against him!  The third servant admitted it:  he was afraid.  No one could blame him, sure, but he was afraid.  He was afraid of the enormous gift that the master had entrusted him with, and was so afraid of anything happening to it, he didn’t even trust the bankers.  He needed to keep it where he could control it, keep an eye on it himself.

So he buried it in the backyard.  Well, then he couldn’t just leave it there unguarded.  Perhaps neighbors would see the disturbed earth and go snooping and digging.  So the third servant stayed there, hovering over the hole in the ground, not letting it out of his sight, not trusting anyone else to care for it or guard it.  He stayed there day and night, worrying and fretting, and could do nothing else.  He was afraid.  He was stuck in that backyard, and, Lowry suggested, that backyard became his grave.  There was no life in the backyard, only death.  Life for that servant stopped.  The third servant was afraid.  His fault didn’t lie in his fear, but his allowing his fear to keep him paralyzed, seeking to keep control over that gift in that hole that he had dug for himself.

“Get out of the backyard,” Lowry said.  There is no life there, only an outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.  Get out of the backyard.  Lowry paused, looking around the room.

Enter… into the joy of your master.  He closed the Bible and put his glasses back in his breast pocket, still looking hard out into the upturned faces in the congregation.  Enter… into the joy… of your Master.  And he walked away.

He walked away!  No “Amen” or “thanks be to God,” no introduction of the next hymn… he just walked out of the pulpit and sat down with the worship leader.  There was silence.

Suddenly, not knowing why, I wanted to cry.  Or throw up.  My hands were cold and clammy, I was sitting forward on the pew, my back aching from being tense.  I felt like I’d been holding my breath for a long time.  I turned to my mother.

“Who told him I was coming?” I asked her.  She looked at me questioningly, but smiled, as she opened the hymnal to the final hymn.  How the hell did he know??

I actually felt scared.  Who was this guy?  I had the alarming sense that he’d known what it was like to be me.  To live inside my body.  To be afraid all the time.  To feel like everyone was going to find out that I was nobody special after all.  That I had no gifts, no talents, no achievements to brag about.  I was so afraid all the time that no one would love me if they really knew me.  I was so depressed.  Living alone didn’t help, but I had desperately wanted to get away from home after college.  As hundreds of people sang around me, I stared at that angular man behind the pulpit.

Who are you? How did you know?  

I went to the reception afterward in a bit of an anxious daze.  I hugged John and Jane and sadly said goodbye to them, telling them I loved them so much.  If John were staying, perhaps I would have talked to him about what was going on inside of me, my questions and self doubt.  But he was leaving.

I decided to come back the next night. Lowry was preaching again and perhaps he would give me answers to all the questions he’d stirred up that night.  So, I needed to get the hell out of the backyard where I was dying in my own fears and anxieties.  But what did that mean?  What was I supposed to do?

When I went to college, I’d toyed with the idea of going into the ministry, but folks at my Christian college assured me that God didn’t call women into the ministry, it said so in Scripture, they said.  Nobody else encouraged me, so I gave that idea up in my freshmen year of college.  What had I been thinking?

That night after the sermon, I spent the night on the couch of the cottage where my parents stayed for Conference.  I drove back to work early that next morning, with plans to return to Ocean City that evening.

The next night, Lowry preached another powerful sermon, this time on the Woman at the Well.  I was desperate to get answers that never came, so I don’t even remember what he said that night.  I got separated from my parents after the service as they greeted friends, and I was so tired.  I hadn’t slept well at all the previous night, thinking about backyards and talents and taking risks but not knowing what kind.  As I shouldered my way through the crowd with my eye on the door, a woman named Mrs. Burrus bumped into me.

“Oh, Susan,” she said, and her eyes were full of tears.  She grabbed my arm, holding me in place.  I hadn’t seen the woman since I was about five years old and she scared me a little.  She laughed self-consciously.  “I was just so moved by that sermon,” she said, shaking her head as if trying to shake off her tears.  I didn’t know what to say, so I just smiled.  Just as suddenly as she’d grabbed my arm, she let it go, and I continued to move through the crowd of people.

I made it through the door and just as I landed on the street, Greg bumped into me.

“Whoa!  Peggy Sue!” He smiled and wrapped me in a big bear hug.  Greg was a pastor and had been a camp counselor at the church camp I’d attended during high school.  He and I had talked about the possibility of my going into the ministry, back in high school.  In fact, we’d had breakfast together to talk about it, on a Youth Conference Weekend in Ocean City, about six years previously.  We lost touch when I was in college.

I was so glad to see him it hurt.

We chatted about my job and life, what was happening with him.  “I haven’t seen you on any lists for candidates for ministry, what’s up with that?” He asked bluntly.

I hemmed and hawed, made excuses, saying something about moving on and realizing that the ministry was not the answer for me.

“Really?  Well, I think…”

“Hey Peggy Sue! How are you??”  Ken came up from behind Greg, slapped him on the back and reached forward to pull me into a hug.  Ken was Greg’s best friend and had also been a camp counselor at the camp I attended.  He asked me many of the same questions Greg had asked me, trying to catch up on five years.

“We were just talking about why she decided not to go into the ministry,” Greg informed Ken with a smile.

“Whoa, really? That’s not right.  Let’s go get ice cream…” Ken put his arm around me.

Greg insisted he was too tired, he wanted to go back to his hotel, but Ken was often like an enthusiastic child.  He wouldn’t let Greg wiggle out of it.

We walked the boardwalk, eating ice cream, and talked about everything but the ministry.  They talked about Lowry’s preaching. “Well, if that’s preaching, then no one here has ever preached,” Greg said enviously, shaking his head.  We all agreed Lowry was like nothing we’d ever heard before.  I didn’t mention that he’d completely unnerved me and scared the crap out of me.

A couple of hours later, we ended up back at St. Peter’s, and the three of us sat down on the front steps of the church.  Greg and Ken both talked about their calls to ministry, their experiences in the church, and didn’t sugarcoat it.  They’d admitted that there were times that were pretty rough and that they’d both thought of leaving.  But there were unspeakable gifts of grace and joy in it all, too.

As we parted with hugs, Greg slipped me a book that was usually shared with candidates for ministry.  “Read this,” he said, “and then call me.  We’ll have lunch.”

I said I would, but as I got into my own car and drove back to the cottage, I was determined to find my own way out of the parabolic backyard.

I didn’t sleep well that night either, going over all the conversations in my head.  The ministry strangely made sense out of my whole life to that point.  When I arrived at work the next morning, I called my friend June and asked to meet for lunch.  June and Doug were like surrogate parents to me at that time.  I hung out at their house a lot when I was lonely, and often stayed for dinner.  They were also leaders of a lay ministry that went to various churches for weekend programs to help revitalize the churches through their lay ministries.

We’d recently been on such a weekend together up in New York state.  The church had been pastored by Carolyn, a recovering alcoholic and brilliant scholar.  I had been called on to tell my story in one of the evening’s events and Carolyn had said she really identified with a lot that I’d said.  We’d agreed to stay in touch.

When June and I ate lunch, I told her about the sermons and my conversations with Greg and Ken.  “I think I’m going to call Carolyn, to see if I can go up and visit her and talk with her; get a woman’s perspective.”

June smiled.  “Well, that’s weird.  Carolyn called us last night, asking for your phone number.”

This was getting a bit weird.

When I got to my apartment, sure enough there was a message from Carolyn asking me if I wanted to come visit for the 4th of July weekend.  I called her back and accepted the invitation, but didn’t tell her about my own agenda.

Meanwhile, I took a road trip to Pittsburgh, PA to visit a friend of mine out there.  The six hours on the road gave me a lot of time to think.  While there, we went to see “Dead Poets Society.”  At first I really identified with the character of Todd; the shy, awkward and nervous student who ate up everything Mr. Keating said about seizing the day.  Todd was too shy to really speak out or take risks, always opting to do what his parents wanted him to do.  During that powerful scene in which Mr. Keating pulls him forward to make up a poem, prompts him, pushes him, and finally gets Todd to speak a poem that came from his heart and creativity– whoo, I was there.  I was weeping.

But then I was caught up in Neil’s character.  The boy whose life was mapped out for him, who lived to please his parents.  He dreamed of being an actor, of letting out that passionate, creative side to himself, but his parents would have none of it.  Mr. Keating inspired Neil to give it a try.  He did, and he was brilliant.

But as Neil’s father came to bring him home, yelled at him for being so irresponsible, and finally informed him he was going to military school, I felt myself getting angrier than was appropriate.  He was trapped.  He didn’t have the guts to stand up to his parents and do what he wanted to do, what was in  his heart.  As he slowly came to the decision to kill himself, inside I was screaming, “No!  No!”  I was sweating, crying and begging him not to do it.

I left that movie completely unnerved.  Get out of the backyard.  I knew that I’d already considered Neil’s decision a few times, but knew I’d never go through with it.  But the realization of how desperate I felt scared the hell out of me.

I drove up north to Rye, New York to spend the 4th of July weekend with Carolyn and her family.  I got there early and the babysitter let me in.  I was sitting at the kitchen table when Carolyn and her husband arrived home.  They sat down and we talked for four hours.  I got right to the point, and told her what all had been going on since I’d last spoken to her.

She smiled knowingly.  She offered to pray with me.  The three of us held hands and she prayed a long prayer for me, for me to be open to what God wanted of me, to what was best for my life and for who I was created to be.  Before she was done, I knew.

I was going into the pastoral ministry.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s