The Voice Comes Back

beachtop

“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 the housemate from hell.

 

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