Stirring Waters

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“You and Jesus,” Mariam shook her head, blowing cigarette smoke in my direction.  “I remember what it was like to be in that honeymoon phase with Jesus.  We were all giddy, in love, and it was magical, just like you are.  But you’ll see, you’ll end up like me.  Now me and Jesus are like an old married couple.”

We were sitting on the floor of my rented room in Mariam’s house.  She had an ashtray next to her.  She squinted into the smoke she’d just produced, with an amused smile.  “Yeah, it’s sweet now, but just wait.”

I chuckled at her, my eyes watering from the cigarette smoke.  You’re full of crap, I thought.  I resented being talked down to.  I faced that a lot at Drew.  They found faith amusing, some of them.  As if they were too smart to believe in Christ or personal faith.  Most of these people were serving churches.

“I stopped believing in the Virgin Birth years ago,” Robert said to me over one of our long lunches one day.  He sipped his Cutty Sark, the ice sliding toward his lips.

“How do you preach on Christmas Eve?”

“Oh, I preach as if I believe in it, you have to.  People need that.”

It was one of many moments that I was disgusted with the “intellectuals” of Drew.  Some of my professors would say in their lectures, “you can’t preach this” or “you can’t teach this in the Church.”  As if people in the church were too stupid for what we were learning.  It seemed we were to treat people as if they were children who still believed in Santa Claus.

I spent a lot of time in the Admissions Office at Drew.  It was still located in a temporary trailer as they restored the old main administrative building that had burned on the first day of my first year.  Randall, the admissions officer, was a kind, gentle, down-to-earth man of faith.  I stopped by often to vent with him.

“Don’t take them too seriously,” he’d advise me.  “You know what you believe, and you’re very smart!  Hell, I can see you becoming bishop one day.  Just be you.”  I always left feeling better.

Mariam leaned down onto her elbow on the floor.  I guess she was going to stay for a while, I thought.

“You and me, we’re a lot alike,” she said, and I thought, please God, no.  “I like you.  You’re a head and heart person, you’re not just smart, but you feel.  That’s me too.  I think we’ll get along fine.” I stifled a cough as another cloud of smoke came my way.

I was already afraid of her.  She had a raging temper and there were times I wondered if there wasn’t something more wrong with her than met the eye.  She was twice-divorced, held three jobs to pay the mortgage, and had dropped out of the Graduate program at the Theological School.  She had hard lines around her eyes that were piercing blue.  When they looked at me, I felt exposed, as if they were searing through my skin and going where they weren’t invited.

One night I drove into the driveway at her South Orange house, and there were cops out front, their red and blue lights lighting up the dark.  My heart caught in my throat.  I ran in the back door and heard screaming and pounding downstairs.  There was a young couple living in the basement.  I hadn’t met them, but they did make a lot of noise and hosted a lot of parties.  I could hear Mariam’s voice screaming above some loud, heavy metal music.  There was a loud thud and the walls shook.

I decided not to get in the middle and went up to my room and called Larry.  I was terrified.  As we talked, I watched the red and blue police lights swirl across the white garage out back.  Larry’s voice calmed me down, and he stayed on the line until Mariam came trudging up the staircase.

“I gotta go,” I said, hanging up quickly.

Mariam dropped down on my floor, leaning up against the wall.  Her hair was a mess and her eyeliner was streaked across the side of her face. “Well, you missed the party,”  she scoffed, pulling out her pack of cigarettes and lighting up.

She told me that the couple downstairs got into a huge fight and the guy was beating the crap out of the girl.  Mariam heard what was going on from the kitchen, in addition to smelling the pot that drifted up the basement stairs.  She’d done down there, and the man had a baseball bat that he swung at Mariam’s head and hit the wall instead.

“There’s a huge hole in the wall.  That’ll cost an arm and a leg and I sure as hell know he ain’t gonna pay for it.  God-damn.”  She shook her head, looking out the window, where the police lights had moved away.  Mariam’s hands were trembling as she lit her cigarette.

“I was so scared, Peggy,” she looked at me, her eyes still burning with tears.  “He hit that girl in the stomach with that bat, and I thought I was next.  He was flying high on something; more than one thing, I’m sure.”  She leaned over and dropped ashes into the ash tray she’d carried in with her.  “I thought I was dead.  Turns out they were dealing… out of my basement! Jesus. I managed to call the cops when I shut myself in their bathroom.  They’ve been arrested.  I don’t know who’s going to come and get their stuff.  Shit, I don’t know how I’m going to make it without their rent.”

There were dark circles under her eyes.  I know she didn’t sleep much, and she came in at all hours.  I just nodded and smiled.  I tried to appear supportive, but the idea of a woman-battering drug dealer in the basement took my breath away.  Even if he was gone.  How many nights had I come in late?  He could have been there, waiting for me.  The possibilities made me shiver.

I was juggling a lot that semester.  I spent most evenings at the church office, doing my homework in the quiet of the building when there were no meetings.  I stayed late enough some nights that Mariam was in bed when I got home.  Keeping my secret was exhausting.  I wasn’t sure my relationship with Larry would survive the 1500-mile separation.  He had $500 a month long distance bills, not to mention the cost of driving back east every month to see me.  The connection with him felt so natural and deep, as if I’d known him before and simply recognized the face I’d been looking for.  As if we knew each other instantly, as if each of us truly understood what it was like to be the other.  It felt too good to be true.  The secrecy of it at Echelon Hills felt like my punishment.  I didn’t believe I deserved something so good, so life-giving.  I guess that’s why I didn’t fight Robert’s ridiculous demands to keep it a secret, however much a toll that took on me emotionally.  Secrets were shameful.  I told myself I must be bad.  The relationship must be bad.  I was paying for it.

I checked my post office box every day for Larry’s almost-daily letters.  At least at Mariam’s I didn’t have to hide my phone conversations with him.  At church, however, I still pretended to be single.  Despite the stress of making sure I didn’t slip and talk about Larry or that my face didn’t react when people spoke of their suspicion that he’d obviously had a mid-life crisis, I managed to enjoy my ministry.

A lot of my job was to oversee the youth ministry.  I didn’t feel comfortable at all with that aspect of the job.  I was shy.  I’ve never been a dynamic extrovert, as most youth ministers tend to be.  I didn’t know how to engage them, really.  Fortunately, there was a couple who did most of the work.  I showed up, did some teaching and praying, and was more an overseer.  Charlie, who headed the program with his wife, had been close to Larry.  He was quiet a lot on the subject of Larry, though his wife spread cruel and untrue rumors about him among her friends.  Sometimes Charlie would chuckle and say, “Larry used to…” and he’d tell a funny story.  I was grateful for him.  He knew how to reach youth, too, and I learned a lot from him.

Meanwhile, Larry was writing letters and making phone calls to the Southern and Northern New Jersey Conferences to see if there were any openings for him.  He wasn’t getting any positive answers.  He spoke with Ed in person on one of his visits back East, and Ed informed him that the Conference was full.  It was true of Northern New Jersey, too.  In fact, as I came to learn that semester via a letter, Southern NJ was going to have to turn away those eligible for Deacon’s Orders until we graduated from seminary.  It would delay my own two-step ordination process.  Worse, there was no room for Larry.  He contacted other conferences surrounding New Jersey, just to get closer to me.  No room anywhere.

Leaving Southern New Jersey didn’t feel like an option for me.  It was home.

Meanwhile, after having spent a month immersed in the full running of the church during that previous summer, going back to classes full-time was a shock to my system.  I couldn’t help but feel the huge gap between what I learned at school and real-life ministry.  At Drew I didn’t learn how to do a funeral service, how to put together a sermon or a worship service.  I didn’t learn how to do pastoral counseling, how to administrate meetings, how to deal with the budget.  All the practical, hands-on stuff of ministry was largely ignored at Drew.  My pastoral counseling, preaching and worship courses were all half-semester courses, as if they were minor subjects.  One graduated from Drew having preached exactly one sermon.  Having been thrown into the water that summer, the lack of practical education at Drew proved to be a glaring void as I returned for my third semester.  Despite Robert’s flirtations, long lunches, multiple whiskies, and indications of his own collection of secrets, I learned what I needed from his example.

Despite his control issues (which I later learned were characteristics of an addict), I learned how to do the practical aspects of the job from watching him.  I added my own touches, of course, but he gave me the basics. I could also share with him my own excitement over giving communion, praying for someone at the chancel rail, praying over someone in the hospital only to find that I made them cry, and having little children run up to me on Sunday mornings to hug me.  I could share with him my joy of preaching.  He understood.  Though I sensed all along that he was a troubled soul and there were things he wouldn’t talk about, I knew he loved the church.  He loved God.  And he wanted to do good ministry.  I was surprised to find how much I cared for him as a human being.  I didn’t think it was appropriate for him to share his secrets with me, but I did think that one of these days he was going to crash and burn.  I could see it in his eyes.  There was a good, caring man with integrity and deep love tortured by a man who did things he didn’t really feel were right but couldn’t seem to help himself.  I sincerely didn’t want to know what they were, but I did pray that someday he’d find the help he needed.

One day when I came home in the afternoon, I got the mail.  There was a package from St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Missouri.  What the heck?  I opened it and in the large envelope was Eugene Lowry’s latest book, How to Preach a Parable.   There was also a letter.  From Eugene Lowry.  My God, it wouldn’t have been more exciting if it’d been from Bruce Springsteen.

He thanked me for my letter about my call, and for sharing it with him.  He said one thing that stood out to him was the fact that I’d won the Carl Michalson scholarship.  Carl Michalson, he said, was his professor when he was studying at Drew (he studied at Drew??) and in fact, Michalson was the main influence on his own development of narrative preaching.  He said he wanted to share his latest book with me, and thanked me again for entrusting him with my story.  He signed off, “I hope our paths cross again soon, Sincerely, Gene Lowry.”

I hope our paths cross again soon.  I read that line over and over again.  Wow.  I sat down on the sun room couch immediately and began reading the book.  Like him in his presentations, Lowry’s writing was engaging, witty, and informative.  I could picture him preaching and telling stories on the Ocean Grove auditorium stage.

Taking a break, I tossed the book aside on the day bed and said out loud, “I wish I could study with him!”

And then I sat still.  It was quiet except for the birds singing outside.  Mariam was thankfully at work for several more hours.  I looked at the envelope the book and letter had come in.  St. Paul School of Theology.  Kansas City, Missouri.  I wondered where Missouri was.  Did it happen to be close to Nebraska?  I wasn’t sure where any states west of Ohio were.

I ran upstairs and called the phone number under the address of St. Paul’s, asking for the director of admissions.  When he got on the line, I told him I was a student at Drew, but was finding that Drew didn’t offer the practical courses needed for ministry.  Also, my call to ministry was heavily inspired by Eugene Lowry, and I just wanted to receive some information about St. Paul’s.

“Wait,” Brad the director said.  “You attend Drew University Theological School and you want to transfer to St. Paul’s?

He wasn’t a very good marketer of his seminary, I thought to myself.  Why are people so impressed with Drew?

“Yes,” I said impatiently. “And I’d like to set up a time to come visit the campus,” I added, then thought, dear God, I don’t even know where Missouri is, how am I going to get there?  

“Well, ok!”  He seemed sheepish about it, but he took my information and promised to put a catalog in the mail that afternoon.  My heart was racing.  I looked around my room.  “Are you up to something again?” I whispered.  I giggled nervously.  The waters seemed to be churning up again.  Spirit waters…

Oh, to have had Google back then!  I called Larry and told him what was going on, and he laughed out loud.  “Missouri is right next to Nebraska,” he informed me.  “Kansas City is about six hours from here, but that’s better than 30!”  I was breathless with the gracious absurdity of the idea…

Then one night when I was lying on my bed reading, I heard the door downstairs slam.  “Peggy!!  Peggy, come quick! Help!”  Mariam’s shrill voice carried up the stairs.  I immediately went into panic mode and ran downstairs.

I found her leaning over a towel on the dining room table.  Underneath her arms was a tiny kitten, laying limp and lifeless.  There was blood on the towel.  “Oh my God!” she shrieked. “I’ve killed one of God’s creatures!  Oh my God! I’m so sorry! Please forgive me!” Mariam sobbed over the tiny, still kitten.

I stood frozen, watching, feeling anger at her for her drama, feeling relieved that she wasn’t bleeding herself, and feeling genuinely afraid of what was going to happen.  “Oh Peggy, I’m a killer.  I didn’t see it, I swear! Oh God, Oh God, oh God,” she slumped over the tiny body.  She jumped up, turning this way and that, almost manic in her movements, and turned to me.  “We have to bury it, oh my God.  We have to bury it. Oh GOOOOOOOOOOD!” She slumped over and fell to her knees.  “Please, please forgive me, I didn’t mean it!”  I couldn’t move.  I didn’t want to touch her, as if her mania was catching.  My heart started racing.  I wanted to run.  She was crazy.  Batshit crazy.  I just stood there.

She jumped up, her eyes intense.  She folded the towel over the kitten and stroked it.  “You’re going to have  your first funeral,” she told me, and my breath caught in my throat.  No, no… “I’ll be right back. I’m going to get a shovel and a box.  We’re going to have a funeral.”  She disappeared out the back door.

I stumbled backward, feeling my way back to the stairs.  I could not imagine myself doing a funeral for that kitten.  Not that I didn’t care, but Mariam’s intensity scared the crap out of me.  I ran upstairs and looked out the back window as Mariam ran into the garage.  I heard banging and clanging, as she searched for what she needed.

My phone rang.  It was about 10:00 at night.  I hoped, prayed it was Larry.  It was not.

“Peggy? Is this Peggy Michael?” the voice didn’t sound familar, and my heart was already racing from all the excitement.

“Yes…”

“Hi!  This is Gene Lowry from Kansas City, Missouri…” and my knees buckled.  Whaaaaat?  

“Oh!  Hi!” I said as casually as I could.  My body was still trembling from the cat drama downstairs, and now it was shaking because as far as I was concerned, I was talking to a celebrity.

“Yeah, I was talking to Brad, our admissions director, and he said you wanted information about St. Paul’s.  And I got your letter, you said something about something weird going on, and I wanted to hear more about that…”

For the life of me I couldn’t remember a thing about anything, I was so wound up over Mariam’s theatrics over the kitten and nervous and frightened, so I gave him some lame response.

“Oh, ok.  Well, I also wanted to tell you that I’ll be at Princeton Theological Seminary in October, and if that’s not too far for you to drive, I’d be happy to meet you there and talk about St. Paul’s.  Is that far from you?”

I had no idea.  It didn’t matter.  “No, not at all!” I said.

“Great!  Well, then, if it’s not too much of a bother, I’d ask you to take me to the Newark Airport from there to catch my flight home.”

Oh my God oh my God.  “Sure, no problem,” I said as casually as I could.

As soon as we hung up, I called my mother.  “Mom, you are NOT going to believe who just called me!”

“Who??”

“Gene Lowry!  The Preacher!  He wants to meet me in Princeton and visit with me!”  I could hardly breathe, I was so excited.

She laughed, but it was an excited laugh.  “Hey Rollo,” she called to Dad nearby, “Gene Lowry just called Peggy and asked her to visit with him at Princeton next month!” she shared excitedly.

I heard his response in the background.  “Yeah?  So?  Of course he does.  She’s a beautiful young woman, what old guy wouldn’t want to meet with a gorgeous young thing?”

“Oh Rollo…”  I could imagine her waving him off.  My heart sank, but only for a second.  I was too excited.

“That’s wonderful! How exciting!” my mother gifted me with her excitement for me.  I was so grateful.  I hung up and called Larry.  He, too, was excited for me.  After getting off the phone, Mariam came up the stairs, looking tired.  Her face was smudged with dirt and there was dirt all over her clothes.

“Don’t worry about it.  I buried the kitten. Goodnight,” she said, waving at me with her dirty hand.

I didn’t have to do my first kitten funeral in the middle of the night.  And Gene Lowry wanted to meet me.

Oh. My. God.

Invisible Girl

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I still have nightmares.  I sometimes wake up feeling like I could turn into the Incredible Hulk.  Other times I may wake up wanting to sob.  It doesn’t happen as often as it used to, and this often happens when I think I’m doing much better.  Surprise! says my sub-conscience.  You’re not as healthy as you thought. 

I am 52 years old.  I’ve struggled with depression from as far back as I can remember.  I was in therapy for many years; some good, some terrible.  I’ve attended Al-Anon for 11 years.  All of this has has helped my spirit heal.  But there is a stopping point, it seems.  I give it to God.  I pray.  I know of at least one long-time friend who prays for me daily.  And yet there’s still that spiritual tumor that won’t shrink or go away.

Learning about Narcissist Personality Disorder a few years ago was a breakthrough.  I learned that my father was no so unique after all, but fit a pattern.  A very damaging pattern of behavior.  I already knew that he alienated all four of his children and his grandchildren.  I already knew that I wasn’t the only offspring who needed to take a long walk after spending the day with my father.  The good news is that my recovery time after visits has shortened.  I know it’s not my fault.  I know cognitively that I’m not a a worthless human being that doesn’t deserve to take up oxygen that other worthier human beings might need.  In my head I know that.  But the damage seems permanent on my soul.

I still feel invisible in a room full of people.  I believe that if I stay quiet in a room, no one will know I’m there.  I’m astonished when people talk to me, and even more astonished when what I say elicits a positive reaction.  Even now, writing a blog, I wonder, who am I to write a blog?  Who am I to assume anyone wants to read what I have to say?  Hell, I’m even surprised when people “like” my posts on Facebook!  I have a binder full of particular good letters and notes (remember those?) from people across the years, telling me they appreciate me for this or that reason.  I have to keep them, because it’s still a surprise to me that someone would remember me.

I remember my childhood friends whom I haven’t seen in 40 years.  I have very specific memories of the things we did, even what we said.  Reconnecting with them on Facebook, I can hardly believe they remember who I am.  Or they might say they drove through our old hometown, past my old house, and thought of me.  Really?  You remember me?

It sounds pathetic when I say it out loud, but it’s my reality.  I think a lot of my anxiety during my church ministry years came from being up front, exposed.  Open to criticism, and I assure you, in the church there’s plenty of that!  Leaving the ministry decreased my anxiety ten-fold.  Besides, my father made it a competition.  And I was never going to be as successful as he was.  He said.

He is 89 years old this week.  He has Parkinson’s and has to use a walker.  He’s having trouble with his swallowing.  Give him a break, someone might say.  But he hasn’t lost his capacity to inflict pain.  He still wields words that cut through the skin.  He speaks them with no expression on his face, and then wonders why one is offended.

My father never understood how powerful words are.  He believed himself to be the greatest preacher there ever was, and assured us children that we ought to be in awe of him.  He would tell us how much people loved him and how much he changed people’s lives.  Whenever I accomplished something, he was silent.  Or he’d tell me of his own accomplishments.  When I got married, he made sure he officiated and that the spotlight was on him, not me.  When I had a baby, he invited a cousin we hadn’t seen in forever to stop by and visit.  They visited while I recovered quietly in my hospital bed.  It wasn’t about me.  Nothing ever was.  It was always about him.

And so, it seems, permanent damage was done.  I don’t like to call people because I feel like I’m imposing on their very valuable time.  I even feel guilty about the long letters I write to long term friends.  Reading my letter will take up so much time for them.  When I visit someone I haven’t seen in years because of geographical distance, I assume I’m imposing, and I feel apologetic.

I can’t imagine that anyone would want to spend time with me or hear from me.

I’m not trying to garner sympathy.  I’m just telling my story.  There are groups on Facebook for people like us.  And I’ve discovered that when I tell them these things they respond with “Yes! Me Too!”

When I watch TV shows, I am drawn to male characters who are nurturing, gentle, kind and loving.  I love the image of older men who adore their daughters.  Who joke with them, go out of their way to be there for them, and to celebrate their victories and accomplishments.  Who can tell their daughters, “I’m so proud of you.”  I ache.  I know these are fictitious characters, but I also know such men do exist.  I am heartened when someone like Tom Hanks and Hugh Jackman appear to be who they say they are.  I am disappointed when someone plays a good, kind man and turns out to be a jerk in real life.

My father said I’d marry someone just like him, because dead psychologists said that that’s what daughters do.  I proved him wrong.  I married a Good Guy.  Who is a Great Father.  The kind I wish I’d had.  The kind that doesn’t leave permanent damage on their children’s souls.

I believe in God and the very present, active spirit of Christ.  I look back and I realize that God has helped me heal a lot.  I give thanks for the many, many people God brought across my path to love me and nurture me.  To give me what my father couldn’t.

It’s exhausting to live with this damage.  It seems that there’s a part of me that can never truly heal.  A chronic pain you just learn to live with, work around. Like asthma or legs that don’t work.

I have no illusions that the pain will cease when my father dies.  I don’t see him as much as I did when I lived under his roof.  I don’t talk to him much because he hands the phone over to my mother.  But he is there.  In the scars.  The words etched in my heart that keep me from feeling visible.  That make me feel like my image won’t show up in a photograph or my presence won’t make an impression in a room.

I can forgive.  I can understand.  But my soul won’t let me forget.  It’ll always function with a bit of a limp.

The Voice Comes Back

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“You hearin’ voices, Ray?”
“No, no, I just heard that some people did and I wanted to know if I was doing something wrong…”
“Ray’s hearin’ voices…”
“No, no, I’m not…”
—-Field of Dreams

Larry and I were walking along the Ocean Grove, New Jersey boardwalk that summer of 1990 on one of his then-monthly trips back from Nebraska.  He would drive all night to get to New Jersey from Nebraska and stay with a friend.  It was a 26 hour drive straight through.  It was love.

That summer day I was still crazy-nervous about my student ministry with Robert, especially during July when Robert was away and I was in charge of a 600-member congregation.  Ocean Grove was my go-to place to run away from stress and walk by the ocean.  So I took Larry there, to be away from Echelon Hills.  And there it was.  A poster advertising the Ocean Grove Annual Camp Meeting in August.

One of the preachers for that week was Dr. Eugene Lowry of Kansas City, Missouri; the scary guy that had preached at Annual Conference the year before and set all this craziness in motion.  There was his face, smiling on a poster.  I hadn’t seen that face in over a year. He was smiling in the picture.  He didn’t look like someone who could change my life without even knowing what he’d done.

He was coming back to New Jersey.  I hadn’t tried to find out where he was exactly or make any effort to let him know that his sermon had sparked my call to ministry that summer before.  Usually I was quick to let people know when they’d touched my life, but this guy was different.  I didn’t know why.  And he was from Missouri.  I didn’t know where Missouri was.  What were the chances I’d see him again?

It  felt like God was nudging me saying, “Here’s your chance.”  

Oh crap.

On August 5, my friend Debbie and I showed up at the Ocean Grove Tabernacle, a huge auditorium used for concerts, camp meetings and worship services.  We got there early and sat close to the front.  That evening, Dr. Lowry was presenting his program on Jazz and Christianity.  The poster had mentioned he was also a professional jazz pianist.

Lowry was dynamic, witty and very engaging, much like I remembered him from the previous year.  The presentation was more informal than a sermon, so he smiled more, made jokes, and wasn’t so intimidating after all.  I liked this guy.  He was a brilliant piano player, and talked about the connecting roots of jazz music and the Christian faith.

I should tell him.  Everybody likes to know that they’ve made a difference, that someone was actually listening.  My heart started pounding as I rehearsed words in my head.

“Good evening, Dr. Lowry, my name is PeggyMichaelandIgotoDrewTheological- Schoolandyouchangedmylife.”  Right.

After the program, there was a reception in a small building off the Tabernacle, with refreshments.  Debbie and I went, casually standing around.  A lot of people came to these camp meetings annually, so many of them knew people from years before.  We did not.  I watched Dr. Lowry and his wife mingle in the small room while I kept trying to get up the nerve to talk to him.  When he approached the table, I nervously went forward and grabbed a cookie.  I was standing right next to him.  He looked at me, nodded.  I started to open my mouth.  Then I closed it.  He smiled and walked away.

I was inwardly thrashing myself.  I decided that I’d come back two nights later when he was preaching.  I’d write a letter before then and give it to him.  After all, that’s what I do best, I thought.  Deb agreed to meet me back at Ocean Grove in two nights.

The letter ended up being 10 pages, single spaced, with reduced font.  I basically told him my life story leading up to his sermon in 1989.  You know, to give context.  The letter was bulky and thick in the envelope when I returned to Ocean Grove on August 7, 1990.

The text of his sermon that night was The Gerasene Demoniac in the Gospel of Mark.  The service was in the smaller auditorium next to the tabernacle.  I was sweating profusely, trembling, short of breath, and my hands were ice cold, as I rehearsed my greeting over and over in my head…

Hi, mynameisPeggyMichaelandIgotoDrewTheologicalSchoolandyouchangedmylife-
here’saletteraboutit.

Oh God.

Lowry read the passage from the Gospel of Mark.  Like I remembered the previous year, he read it with drama, occasionally looking up at us over his reading glasses.  When he was finished, he put the Bible down and slowly removed his reading glasses, taking his time.  He put them in his coat pocket, looking pensive.  He looked up, shaking his head.

“I don’t understand.”  And he began to preach.  He had no notes. He was talking, telling the story, questioning its validity, and questioning Jesus, making us a bit uncomfortable.  He talked about the man whose name was Legion. Legion, because he had an army of demons inside of him, tearing him apart, pulling him in this direction and that direction, making him crazy.  Yeah, I got that.  The more he spoke, the more I forgot for a while the soggy envelope in my hand and what it meant.  I understood what it felt like to feel like you were crazy.  Like there were forces pulling at you in many directions and making you feel crazy.

The people of Gerasene chained him up.  He went on and told the story of how Jesus and his buddies came ashore to Gerasene and the demoniac came out screaming at him, “What have you to do with me, Jesus son of the Most High God, do not torment me!”

I was there.  I listened to every word he said.  I was on that beach with Jesus and his friends.  I was with the towns people who watched this encounter.  I watched Jesus call for the demons to go out of the man and into a flock of pigs, and heard the people scream for Jesus to leave them.  Why weren’t they thrilled that this man among them was healed? Lowry asked, seemingly confused.  The demoniac haunted their nights with his screams, his howling, the rattling of his chains.  They should be happy and throw Jesus a party!

The problem was, Lowry said, they owned the pigs.  His healing cost them their pigs.

Lowry went on to tell the story as the man named Legion wanted to go with Jesus and Jesus told him to go home to his “friends.”  But he had no friends.  No one celebrated his liberation.  They lost out.  And Jesus said, …

I missed it.  I think I realized that the sermon was ending and I started to panic, as I’d have to approach Lowry.  I suddenly had the thought that I could just turn around and give the letter to his wife Sarah who I knew was sitting behind me because he’d introduced her.  Yeah, that’d be easier.

He said the last line again, but I was too busy thinking of my new plan.  After he spoke the last line, Lowry sat down.  No “amen,” no “thanks be to God,” just silence.

I turned to Debbie.  “What did he say?  What was that last line?”

She smiled.  “Go and tell what the Lord has done.”

Oh crap.

I looked down at the envelope, Lowry’s name a bit smudged with the sweat of my hand.  Ohgodohgodohgodohgod. 

As the last hymn drew to a close and the host pastor gave the benediction, my heart speeded up again, and I shifted from one leg to another.  I took a deep breath and moved out of the row of chairs and towards Lowry, who was shaking hands with people up front.  As I got closer to him, there was a break in the line.  He looked right at me and smiled.

You have to understand that in that moment, it was like meeting Garth Brooks or Neil Diamond for me.  He was that significant.  He’d preached a sermon that turned my life upside down and was the catalyst that pushed me far beyond my safe boundaries.  I still didn’t understand it all.  I still woke up most days wondering how I got there.  And I remembered that sermon a year ago.  How it felt to be among 900 people in that room, and this man knew.  He knew what it was like to be me.  He knew what I struggled with.  He spoke to my fears and my darkness.  But of course, he couldn’t know.  He didn’t know me.  The power and the mystery of it all terrified me.

Dr. Lowry extended his hand and smiled.  “Hi,” I said softly, “MynameisPeggyMichael
andIgotoDrewTheologicalSchoolandyoupreachedatAnnualConferenceinSouthern
NewJerseylastyearandthatsermonchangedmylife.”

Lowry chuckled, and put his other hand on my shoulder.  “Wow!”

I handed him the envelope.  “Here, I wrote you a letter about it.”

He looked down at the soggy thick envelope and chuckled again.  He took it and put it in his inside coat pocket and nodded.  “Well,” he said, “I look forward to reading it!  I really wish we had more time to talk.  But hey, I want you to do me a favor.”  He pointed to the woman who’d been sitting behind me earlier. “That’s my wife Sarah. I’d like to introduce yourself to her and tell her what you just told me, would you?”

He wasn’t so scary.  He was kind and friendly.  Warm. My mouth was cotton-dry.  I nodded.

“Thank you,” he said, patting his jacket pocket.  I nodded and concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other.  I approached Sarah and gently touched her on the arm, introducing myself and blurting out my rehearsed line.

“Oh!” she said, as if it was the most exciting thing. “I love Drew!  We know Charles Rice very well, I just love that man,” she said, referring to my preaching professor at Drew.  We chatted a bit, and I was beginning to relax.  Finally, she touched my arm and said, “Hey, if you’re ever in Kansas City, come by and see us.”  I nodded and smiled a bit stupidly.

I had no idea where Kansas City, Missouri was.

I ventured out into the night and found Debbie, who was smiling.  She’d witnessed the whole encounter.

The stress of living in Ruth’s house in Echelon Hills was getting out of hand.  Keeping the secret of what was becoming the most important relationship of my life was torture.  Ruth liked me to sit with her while we watched TV at night, so I did.  I’d listen for my telephone to ring upstairs and run to get it before Larry hung up.  He was the only one that had that number.  One day I put a frozen lasagna into the toaster oven in the kitchen to cook.  I either ate out or got frozen meals because Ruth’s kitchen was just as messy and cluttered as the rest of her house.  After I put in the lasagna, I heard the phone ringing upstairs.  It was Larry.  I was always so relieved to hear from him, as he was the only one in the world I felt I could be completely honest with at that time.  I even went on dates with a guy at church, to keep up the facade of being available.  He really liked me, unfortunately, but I wouldn’t let him kiss me.  On the other side of it, Larry was jealous that I was dating.  But I felt pressure from Robert to keep up the facade.

It was incredibly stressful.

That evening, after a long talk with Larry (whose long-distance bill those months got to be several hundred dollars), I went downstairs.  I’d completely forgotten about the lasagna.  It was burnt to a crisp.  I dumped it in the trash and went out to the hoagie shop in town.

The next morning as I went into the kitchen, Ruth met me with fury.  “How could you throw that lasagna out???  That’s so wasteful!”

“It was burnt,” I said, confused.

“It was still edible!”  She stomped out of the kitchen.  I didn’t think about it again until that afternoon.

Robert called me into his office.  “Uh, Ruth came to the church this morning and was ranting about you to the United Methodist Women’s group.  She said you threw out a perfectly good lasagna.  She pulled it out of the garbage and said she could get two meals out of it.”  He sighed.

That was it, I was looking for somewhere else to live.  I went to women’s meetings and sat threw the women gossiping about Larry and his ex-wife, spreading vicious rumors about both of them.  I had to keep my face passive, as if it didn’t bother me in the least.  I knew some of them were suspicious and that there were also rumors about me going around.

“It’s hard, I know,” said Robert.  “Keeping secrets.  it’s exhausting.”  I didn’t ask him what secrets he kept.  At the time I didn’t question his insistence that I not let anyone know that I was now dating Larry (as much as one can date 1500 miles apart).  There was no going back now.  Since people didn’t even know Larry and his ex-wife were getting a divorce when they left, they wouldn’t understand how he could be in a relationship with me already.  Robert would have to tell them that the divorce happened much sooner than anyone knew and that he’d made Larry keep it a secret until they were gone.

So I went to the post office to get my letters from Larry, hoping the postman wasn’t a member of the church and telling people I had my own P.O. box, not getting my mail at Ruth’s house.  I assumed that Ruth told people I had my own phone line and let people speculate about that.  Juggling it all was exhausting.

Before the new semester, I found a room with a middle-aged woman in South Orange.  She was referred to me by the secretary at Seminary Hall.  She was a professional woman, trying to pay a mortgage.  She was divorced and a former graduate student in Theology at Drew.  She’d changed her name from whatever it was to Mariam.  I was so relieved to be out of Ruth’s house of newspapers that I had no idea that I’d just moved in with Continue reading

Becoming Reverend

alb

Church ministry started off for me with a bang.  Looking back, perhaps I should have sensed then, that ministry would be a wild mix of intense highs and plummeting lows, precious people and very ill people, moments of great holiness and intense dark nights of the soul.

Larry Rush became my best friend in every way.  No one before him “got me” so completely.  But in the spring of 1990 he was graduating and going back to Nebraska.  I didn’t even know where Nebraska was!

During the spring semester, to everyone’s shock, Larry filed for divorce from his first wife.  There’d been a lot more going on under his cool, calm facade than any of us knew.  Even me.  His divorce was upsetting enough, but it also scared the crap out of me.  I knew I loved him.  But beforehand, he was going away and he wasn’t available.  In May of 1990, he was still going away to this mysterious land of Nebraska, but he was single.

I didn’t want to mess with that.  I didn’t want to get tangled up with a divorcee.  In my own black and white thinking, just my love for him was bad enough, but to acknowledge it at that point would have been “really bad.”  I wanted him to go to Nebraska, out of my life, and let me cry.

He didn’t leave quietly.

In his post-filing days that remained in the semester, I was one of the few friends he had left.  Many of his friends judged him harshly; many of whom were having extra-marital affairs or were divorced themselves.  They couldn’t explain their hypocrisy.  So I listened as the “real Larry” came out.  He was the same guy, but wasn’t the one who had it all together as I’d thought.  It only made me love him more.  I was pathetic.  In the meantime, he recruited me to replace him at the Echelon Hills UMC (not the real name) as the student assistant pastor.  We all had to have a student appointment to fulfill our second and third year class requirements.

I interviewed at Echelon Hills and the people were very gracious.  The interview was the day after the David Meece concert, so I was a mess.  But I sucked it up and gave an awesome interview, as if my heart weren’t breaking into a million pieces.  I met Robert (not his name), the senior pastor, earlier on campus at Drew.  I had to pass his inspection before I’d be granted an interview.

Robert was a tall, thin, older man with a pencil-thin mustache.  He carried himself with an air of sophistication.  He looked older than he was, most likely due to his drinking and smoking.  He wore an expensive trench coat. He always had a cigarette in his hand, gesturing frequently, as if he were in a black and white movie.   When Robert walked through the room, he left a cloud of Aramis cologne and cigarette smoke.

I was easily intimidated by people–especially men–in authority, and Robert carried an air of power.  He was very well-respected in what was then the Northern New Jersey Conference, being a member of many several important committees.  Echelon Hills was a respectable appointment.  I learned early in my church career that appointments were not so much about where God was leading you, but where the Bishop appointed you and how it could become a big step to something higher.  The power appointment.  I learned quickly that clergy kept track of who was appointed where, what kind of salaries they made and how many members were in their church.  It was a competition.  One of many disillusionments.

Robert sat through my interview, smoking a cigarette, his smile evident through the cloud.  I’d impressed him.  The best thing I had going for me was my call story.  It carried me through all the necessary steps toward ordination (of which there were many).  It assured me continually, and others, that I was indeed called.  I would begin my duties on June 1, 1990, as the new student assistant pastor at Echelon Hills.

Another feather in my cap going into my first role as a pastor, was at the end of the spring semester I was awarded the Carl Michalson Scholarship for “strong scholarship and great promise for ministry.”  I hadn’t even known that was a thing!  It was a full-tuition scholarship for my second year.  I was blown away.  Each of these steps seemed like affirmation, like a dove out of heaven, of my being where I was supposed to be.  I needed all the “signs” I could get!

Larry stayed in New Jersey for a few more weeks after graduation, to attend Robert’s celebration of his 25 years in ministry in mid-June.  I tried to tell him to just go to Nebraska, go, go, go!  Get healed.  Get counseling.  Get “fixed up.”  But he insisted that he loved me too.  I didn’t want him to love me back.  That complicated my life!  I made a deal with him, that he’d go back to Nebraska and get counseling, deal with his first marriage, and we’d keep in touch.  Emotions, I had learned so well, were so complicated.  Counseling was the answer I’d always been given.  The answer to everything.

Meanwhile, I moved in with a parishioner (bad idea), who had a room to rent.  Ruth was a seemingly benign elderly woman with a big house.  I rented a room upstairs and had the privacy of the upstairs.  The house was very musty and old. The downstairs was filled with stacks and stacks of old newspapers, magazines, and various decorations from a multitude of holidays.  The term “hoarder” had not become a thing yet.  There were literally pathways through her living room to the other downstairs rooms, amid walls of … garbage.  She didn’t throw out anything.

When I met with Robert for the first time since my acceptance as student assistant, in all of my naivete, I told him I was in love with Larry.  His face twitched every so slightly.  I felt I should be honest.  It was then that I realized that Robert had instructed Larry and his wife to keep their divorce a secret from the congregation of Echelon Hills and just leave quietly.  They kept up the facade for the last few months.

The fact of my love for Larry and his love for me presented a problem for Robert.  If the congregation knew that I was in a relationship (very early stages) with Larry, then it would look like I was having an affair with a married man.  That wouldn’t go over well with either them or me.  So Robert instructed me to keep my relationship with Larry a secret from the congregation.  He advised me to get a post office box so my mail didn’t go to Ruth’s house, and to install my own phone line in my rented room, so Larry’s calls wouldn’t go to Ruth’s phone.

I did wonder why he knew so much about keeping secrets.

However, I was so enamored with my first role as pastor, I put all suspicions aside.  Robert was well-liked and respected.  Who was I to find the chinks in his armor?  He must be ok if he was so “successful” in the Conference.  Plus I liked him.  He was kind to me, he was enthusiastic about my gifts for ministry and my ministry at Echelon Hills.  We talked easily and comfortably.

My mother made me my first white alb out of a kit.  Since it was traditional wear in the Northern New Jersey Conference, I bought clergy shirts with the plastic insert in the collar.  The first time I put on that shirt, I stared at myself in the bathroom mirror.  I was to stand in for Robert at a local parade and give the invocation.  I looked ridiculous to myself in the mirror, like a little girl playing dress-up.  I thought for sure everyone was going to see right through me and cry, “imposter!”

That first Sunday that I assisted Robert in worship, I was alone in the church office when I put on my alb.  I could have sworn there was music playing around me and a bit of a brighter light focused on me as I donned the alb.  It felt… significant.  I stood there for a moment in the office, looking down at myself, all dressed in white.  Who was I now?  How did this fit my own perception of myself?  It was like I was officially welcomed as a member in some Club.  I felt taller.  I stood straighter.

As Robert and I prepared to walk into the sanctuary, we stood at the back, waiting for the beginning of the music.  A huge cross on the front wall of the sanctuary loomed over us as we walked the aisle toward the front chancel.  I concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other, staring up at that cross that seemed to welcome me, embrace me and affirm me.  We parted ways in the middle and I went to my seat on the lectern side.  I sat and looked out at the congregation as they sang.  Here we go.

My first sermon was the following Sunday, June 10, during the early service.  I was absolutely terrified.  Public speaking had never been my forte, I was a writer!  I communicated best with the written word.  I could barely breathe.  The passage I preached on was 2 Corinthians 13:5; “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you—unless indeed you fail the test?

My sermon title was “This is Only A Test,” and I used the image of the test sound of the Emergency Broadcast System.  I must say, it was rather clever.  Back then, we’d often hear that sound on TV or on the radio, so it was a very common part of our lives.  I urged people to remember when they hear it next that “this is only a test!”  This too, shall pass, whatever it is.  We are beloved by God, and God will get us through and give us strength.

Though I barely breathed throughout the somewhat short sermon and my mouth was so dry that my lips kept sticking together, it went well.  I’ll never forget one man who shook my hand later and said, “That was your first sermon ever? I can’t wait to hear more!”  I could practically hear the angels singing and feel the dove on my head.

Robert, too, was very proud, and as we “disrobed” in the office.  “You’re called to preach, for sure,” he said.  A couple of elderly women walked by the glass front of the office.  He touched my shoulder and turned me toward them as they talked.  “You see that woman right there?”

“Yeah,” I said, “She was very enthusiastic when she shook my hand! She was very sweet.”

He smiled.  “Well, she was the one who threatened to leave if you were hired, because she said that women ministers are ‘unbiblical.’  You won her over with one sermon, that’s no small feat!”  He playfully punched me in the arm.

I learned a lot from Robert.  I learned a lot of the things that I didn’t learn at Drew, such as how to put together a worship service that flowed.  Or how to have all the elements of the service connect in a theme.  How to do a funeral, put together a newsletter.  When he was gone for four weeks on vacation that next month, I depended on the books of Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopalian preacher, whose books I’d discovered in the seminary bookstore.  She was my example.  She could be described as a narrative preacher, in the same camp, I would later discover, as Gene Lowry– the man whose preaching catapulted me into this adventure.

I depended on the church secretary to write out directions to the various hospitals.  I wondered why so many people stared at me while I tried to figure out the colored lines on the hospital floors that were meant to guide me.  It was only later that I realized I was wearing a priestly collar in a Catholic hospital.

I fell in love with the all aspects of the ministry at Echelon Hills.  I enjoyed hospital visits, and was surprised to often discover tears in the parishioner’s eyes when I was done praying.  Connection.  Holy connection was a surprise gift of my early days of ministry.

I enjoyed putting together sermons.  It called on a skill that was intrinsic to who I’ve always been– a writer.  Narrative preaching felt like the style that I easily fell into.  Worship was a high;  walking into that sanctuary, with the various stained glass windows above me of Jesus looking down at me.  It was as if he were smiling on me.

There was a tradition at Echelon Hills during the second hymn of the service.  People were invited during that hymn to come to the chancel rail for prayer.  The pastors met them there and they whispered their concern and we then prayed for them.  It was a tender, precious moment for me.  Or giving communion, offering the bread and the juice in the cupped hands of the people, felt like a holy gift.  Everything felt so enlivened in me.  As if I had been touched alive again in a way I could never have imagined.  This was me.  This was who I was preparing to be all my life.

Over the coming weeks, Robert and I had lunch meetings and he always paid.  They were always at classy, upscale places.  Very expensive.  They usually lasted a few hours, during which he nursed several double shots of Cutty Sark whiskey.  That concerned me, but who was I to question him?

Other things began to concern me.  Sometimes he’d casually make suggestive remarks about my looks and my body.  When I saw him in the parking lot, he’d catcall.  Before Larry left for Nebraska, he’d advised him to leave me alone.  To not mess up the good thing we had at Echelon Hills.  His exact words were, “Go back to Nebraska and find a nice barefoot farm girl.”

Meanwhile, church members eventually found out about the divorce.  Some of the more catty ones started rumors about him having a nervous breakdown, a midlife crisis, etc.  A mentally challenged woman in the congregation was pregnant and claimed Larry was the father.  Some believed her and spread the rumor.  Robert did nothing to address those rumors.  He feigned ignorance.

I did hear things about Robert from my Southern New Jersey colleagues.  There was knowledge of him having extra marital affairs.  I was increasingly concerned about his drinking, and uncomfortable with his flirtatious remarks.

One day when his father was out of town, Robert’s son, Bob was hanging around my office.  He didn’t hide the fact that he had a crush on me.  He was a rough character with greasy long hair, black heavy metal T-shirts, some piercings, heavy drinking and he bragged about doing drugs.  That day, he told me to follow him.  He had a key to his father’s office, and he let us in.  I wasn’t quite comfortable with this at all, but I felt that I had his trust, that maybe I could help him.  He went over to his father’s desk and opened a bottom drawer.  He held up a flask.

“This is my father’s Sunday morning communion,” he said, laughing.  There’d been times that I thought I smelled alcohol on Robert on Sunday morning, but he also bathed in Aramis.  Bob opened another drawer of his father’s desk.  “And this,” he said, holding up a Playboy magazine, “is his office reading material.”

Bob reveled in the horrified look on my face.  He’d revealed his father’s secrets to me and successfully shocked me.  I always wanted to believe the best about people, often despite the evidence.  Especially people in authority.  I so wanted to believe they were good.

Of course I never mentioned the revelation to Robert, but lost a bit of my respect for him.

In our Supervised Ministry class back at Drew, we were to keep an ongoing journal of our ministries and our reflections.  I shared freely about what I discovered about Robert and my disappointments.  The pastor that was head of our class was furious over my journal, writing things in the margins such as, “Robert is a highly respected and gifted pastor!  How dare you share such lies about him!”  It was my first taste of the hypocrisy and power plays of the church institution, and my first realization, too, that I had to play the games if I wanted to be a part of it.

Robert was a gifted pastor and highly intelligent human being.  He did teach me a lot about ministry in the months that I worked with him.  He was a perfectionist, I soon discovered, to the point of being anal.  His sermons were very educational and informative, but lacked passion.  All of his sentences were complete, full of sophisticated language, and his thoughts were organized.  He didn’t allow anyone else to put together the newsletter, but wrote the whole thing, organized and edited it, only allowing others to photocopy it and assemble it.  I discovered he was very controlling, as I should have known in his handling of my relationship with Larry.

As my relationship with Larry eventually progressed into a real relationship, he denied to parshioners any previous knowledge.  He clearly struggled.  I could see right through him.  He was a good person underneath all that, that sincerely wanted to live a good life, but managed to mess up quite a bit.  I noticed more and more the odor of alcohol on Sunday mornings, the shaking hands when he picked up his drink or lit his cigarette.

It was many years later that we heard from Robert that he’d been confronted, finally, by a District Superintendent and church committee in another church about his drinking.  It had gotten so out of hand, he couldn’t cover or control things any more.  He admitted, finally, that he was an alcoholic, and entered A.A.  He finally overcame his addiction, but not before doing a lot of damage to his body and many friendships, such as ours.

I entered my second year of seminary with a mixed bag of intense emotions. I was high on the wonder of how I was using my gifts and they were being received.  But I was deeply disillusioned by the power plays that I experienced at Drew, from the pastors who knew Robert and warned me to respect him, by the sexual adventures of some of my classmates who would go on to be pastors, and the cruelty of parishioners and classmates in spreading vicious and hurtful rumors.  What happened to the Body of Christ?

And so I kept searching.