Truckin’

When I first moved to the Midwest, I was terrified.  I’d never traveled west of Sandusky, Ohio at that time, and could not have found Nebraska or Missouri on a U.S. map.  Geography seemed to be missing from my public school education.  As is true of a lot of people in New Jersey, I would be hard-pressed to locate most states in the rest of the country!

Looking back, one of the best things about moving west was getting away from home.  I didn’t hate New Jersey, but I never truly felt like I belonged there.  Additionally,  my father had a way of messing with my head, causing me to have very little faith in my own ability to function as an adult.  By the age of 25, I felt completely inept at basic life skills.  Despite the very real sense of the Spirit turning my life upside down, deep down was that nagging doubt that I could succeed at anything.

But in 1991, I transferred to St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Missouri, which was still 6 hours away from my beloved Larry, who was then living in Osmond, NE.  At the end of my first semester at SPST, the used Dodge Colt that my father insisted on buying me for my trip– quit.  It needed a new transmission.  It was time to purchase my first vehicle that would be in my name.  My first two cars had been hand-me-downs from my father and the third, as I said, was purchased by him.  The move west was in every way my jump off the proverbial cliff– into independence from my father.

So I wanted to go big.

I was going to marry Larry that summer and move to Nebraska when I wasn’t in KC for classes, so I thought, why not?  I’d get a pick-up truck.  It seemed like the thing to do when moving to farm country.  It was also the last kind of vehicle my father would ever buy.

When Larry and I went to go look for trucks at a place owned by one of his parishioners, the only used truck they had was a 1988 Ford F150. It had a fifth-gear with a stick on the floor; black with a thin red stripe down the sides.  It felt HUGE.  I’d only driven little Toyota sedans and an even smaller Dodge Colt.  When I got behind the wheel of that truck, I nearly cried out of joy.  I felt… invincible!

I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar!  

I was in love.  I served as an intern that summer at four churches in Nebraska, and traveled many miles on gravel roads, dodging snakes and turtles.  I drove it up and down Route 29 between Nebraska and Kansas City for two more years– to and from seminary.  There were a lot of news stories about young women travelling alone and then missing, so I was leery of where I stopped for breaks.  I was white-knuckled on Route 70 in Kansas City.  But I had something to prove.  I’d started this journey despite so many people back East telling me I was crazy, including my father.  I was not going to stop just because I was scared.

I was nervous a lot those last two years of seminary, finding my way, wondering what the future looked like with me as a pastor, trying to impress my favorite professors in school, trying to make friends, etc.  But I felt like Somethin’ Else driving my truck.

I thoroughly enjoyed it when parishioners remarked to me over the years, “So, you have a mighty nice husband letting you drive his truck, huh?”  I’d just grin and say,

“This is my truck.”

During my first appointment after seminary, my third church on the circuit was a tiny white clapboard church out in the middle of nowhere, at the end of a dirt road.  It was not a gravel road, it was dirt.  On my first Sunday, there’d been two inches of rain, which made the dirt road into muddy soup.  For 9 miles, with my 12 year-old stepson in the truck with me, I fishtailed through that mud, gripping the wheel and trying to keep my language under control.  When I pulled up to the little white church, the old men were all on the porch, slapping their thighs.  My arm pits were wet.

“Normally we’d cancel church when we get that much rain,” they confessed with amusement,  “but we were all curious to see how a woman from New Jersey would handle it in a pick-up!” They laughed. I think I was still grinding my teeth.

“Oh, Peggy is happy to come out here in all kinds of weather,” my stepson Michael piped up.  He grinned up at me.

Since I spent three and sometimes four days a week in Kansas City during the first two years of our marriage, Larry would sometimes take a class once a week so he could come see me.  We developed a habit of buying Kentucky Fried Chicken and eating it in the bed of the truck in the school parking lot.   Professors and students walked by and smiled at us, a bit perplexed by our urban picnic.

When Sarah was first born, I buckled her in in her car seat on the bench seat of the pickup and took her to church with me.  People in the congregations happily took turns holding her during the service while I preached.  They bundled her up in the carrier and had her ready to go by the benediction.  I carried her back out to the truck to go to the next church to preach.

As she grew up, she enjoyed riding in the pick-up with Mom and listening to country music.  Now, at almost 24 years of age, she has a playlist on her iPod called “pick-up songs.”  They’re not songs to pick up men, as her father strangely assumed,  but are songs she remembers hearing on the radio while riding with me in the pick-up truck.  Garth Brooks, Travis Tritt,  Alan Jackson, Diamond Rio, Clint Black, etc.  Good ’90s Country.

One summer we drove the pick-up back East with my two stepchildren and Sarah;  all four of us nicely packed in on that bench seat.  Jennifer was a Chicago sports fan, so we nervously sought out the basketball stadium where the Bulls played– a very seedy side of the city.  We didn’t get out, but Jennifer took pictures from through the windshield.  We got out at the Bears stadium and even got to go down and see where the team sat.

Back in Nebraska, when it was only Michael who came out, he and his Dad and I would drive out of our little town and lay in the bed of the truck and look up at the stars.  We continued that tradition when Sarah came along.  When Mike was old enough to get a summer job, I lent him my truck to get to his job.  That summer he started thinking of it as his own.  He washed and waxed it faithfully.  He was proud to show up at work in it.

My parents were confused at my purchase, of course, but got used to it.  At our wedding reception, my mother had a toy pick-up truck in the entrance, that she painted black with a red stripe, and put a bride and groom teddy bear in the back of it.  My Jersey friends tried to assimilate this new me; a bit bolder, taking risks, and fitting in so well in what they thought of as “country” culture.

I even bought cowboy boots.

When we moved back to Pennsylvania in 1999 for 6 years, we lived in a small village on the side of a mountain.  The roads were narrow and curvy, and it soon proved very impractical to have a rear-wheel drive pick-up in that area, especially in the winter time.  After ten years, we decided to give up the truck.  It broke my heart.

In keeping with the tradition of Larry and I eating KFC in the bed of it back in Kansas City, we decided to drive to the nearby lake and say farewell with a KFC meal.  In the bed.  Sarah was about 8 at the time and was excited about our pick-up truck picnic.  I had a hard time letting it go.  So we had another chicken dinner in the bed of the truck before I could let it go.

That old truck meant to me what the city of Kansas City also means to me.  They are both significant parts of my getting away, growing up, learning to trust my own gut and faith, having the courage to set boundaries with my father so I could heal.  It was something I chose for myself.  It didn’t surprise me when I first got to Saint Paul and Gene Lowry showed me a picture of his own beloved truck that he’d given up many years before.  It was an older Ford.  It was black.  With a red stripe.

In the years since, we’ve driven many different kinds of cars, mostly Fords.  I’d dreamed of getting another pick-up someday, but new ones are so expensive it didn’t seem possible.  Since we got a camper we had an Explorer.  The Explorer’s engine blew, and the cost of replacing it would be more than the stupid thing was worth.

We hadn’t planned on getting a new vehicle anytime soon, but the Explorer’s demise made that necessary.  We still needed something to haul our camper.

We got a pick-up.

It’s used, and sadly, it’s automatic as most of them are now, but it’s an F150.  I nearly cried the first time I drove it.  I’m out of practice driving something so big, but it feels right.  And good.  I find myself grinning as I’m driving down the road.  It’s been 17 years since I had to trade my first old pick-up.  It was like giving up a beloved pet.  But just like Nebraska felt right when I first moved out here into Big Sky country, so it feels right to be back behind the wheel of a truck.

I am Woman, hear me roar!  

Who knows what’s next?

truck

Goin’ To Kansas City

1200px-Kansas_City_MO_Skyline_14July2008v

The folks at Echelon Hills UMC wished me well, and sent me off with prayers and good wishes.  I felt conflicted that they had been kept in the dark, but Robert still hadn’t told them about Larry’s divorce.  They worried about me, knowing that I would be driving my little Dodge Colt with a UHaul trailer from New Jersey to KC alone.  Of course, I wouldn’t be alone.  Larry was flying out to spend Christmas with me and my parents and would accompany me on the cross-country trek, amid warnings of snow and ice.

My first semester at St. Paul School of Theology in KC, MO was a rollercoaster of emotions.  My anxiety level was through the roof.  I had grown up with the idea that I didn’t deserve good things– I mean really good things– so if really good things happened to me, they were as stressful to me as bad things.  I felt sure I’d be punished.  The biggest thing that affirmed this to me in a way that took root in my spirit was Sandie’s death in 1984.  She was such a powerful presence of love and grace in my life, an intense infusion of love and belief that I was worthy of love.  And she was gone.  For years, I think I blamed myself.  She was too good.  Her impact on me was more than I deserved.  She had to be stopped.

And in 1991, I was knocked over in love with Larry, a recent divorcee.  People in Echelon Hills didn’t know he was divorced until the gossip mill started leaking it around the time I left.  When Robert announced to them in January 1991 that Larry and I were engaged, well, they assumed the worst.  Suddenly all their good will toward me was destroyed.

Thank you, Robert.

The adventure of truly feeling like God was leading me–literally PUSHING me– out west to a place I couldn’t find on a U.S. map was emotionally overwhelming.  The opportunity to study with Gene Lowry, one of the top authorities in the current field of preaching, and Tex Sample– blew me away.  The sense of community and Midwest hospitality of the seminary was so inviting and gracious… I was sure I would be punished somehow.  I didn’t deserve this.  This was way too much grace.  I was bad.  Maybe the people of Echelon Hills was right.  I was a fraud.

Meanwhile, my District Superintendent in New Jersey had called me into his office to wish me well and pray with me for my journey to the Midwest.  He was very pastoral and gracious.  He seemed to believe me that God was pushing and leading me out west, because otherwise I’d never have the guts to take such a risk.  Robert later told me that he’d called Robert soon afterwards and said, “I think she’s a fool to be giving up Drew University just to chase some guy with a beard.”  He meant Lowry.

Maybe they were right.  Maybe I was a fool.

My parents didn’t understand all this talk about God’s leading either.  How could I give up the prestige of Drew University Theological School to go to a “lesser” school?  They made no bones about telling me they thought I was making a huge mistake.

I moved into my apartment on campus at the end of January.  I was terrified.  It was all becoming too real.  When Larry left, I felt so alone.  He lived six hours away in Osmond, Nebraska.  I knew no one.  I knew Lowry and Sample only politely.  Lowry confessed years later that he was also nervous about my move to St. Paul, thinking that if I did in fact feel like I’d made a mistake, he’d be partly responsible.

In the meantime, I sat in the middle of my apartment floor that first day and wondered what I’d done.  How did I get there?

My first class was a preaching class with none other than Gene Lowry, 8:00 a.m. on a Monday morning.  This was it.  He’d been larger than life in the pulpits and stages on which I’d seen him.  He’d turned my life upside down with his words.  The power of it all took my breath away.

The class was in a small classroom around a conference table.  There were about ten of us students.  I wore my “Carpe Diem” sweatshirt– it felt fitting for the moment.

My palms were so sweaty and I tried to settle into my seat at the table without showing my anxiety.  I chatted with the students near me, making introductions.  Then he came in.

Gene came in, carrying the text for the class and a couple of folders which he threw on the table.  My heart started racing.  He didn’t look directly at me as we went through the syllabus and the text, all the preliminaries of the first day of class.

Afterwards, I went back to my apartment, called Larry and sobbed.

“I don’t think I can do this!” I confessed to him.  I was starstruck.  How could I be worthy of this?  I wanted Gene to like me.  No, I wanted him to be impressed with me.  I wanted to be his friend.  I had a lot of lofty expectations.  It was way too overwhelming.  As Larry is so good at doing, he talked me down from my anxiety attack and assured me that I’d just done a huge thing.  Of course it was overwhelming.  I felt better after we hung up.  I washed my face and took a deep breath.  And a nap.

A huge disillusionment was the realization that many of the students at St. Paul were not as in awe of Gene as I was.  (“A prophet is without honor in his own hometown”?)

“Oh God, he’s mean,” said one of my neighbors.

“He’s much too difficult, really demanding,” another said.

They didn’t understand why I would come all this way to study with Lowry.  They were intrigued with my story except for that part.

What had I done?

St. Paul’s was very different than Drew.  At Drew, I’d made straight A’s reading the material and spitting the information back out.  St. Paul even had a different grading system.  Not A’s and B’s, but E (Excellent), G (Good), S (Satisfactory) and U (Unsatisfactory–an F, basically.  The intent was to take the focus off the grade itself and to grade according to how well we interacted with what we were learning.  They graded us not only on how well we learned the material, but how we engaged it.  We had to think for ourselves!  We had to interact with it all and say how it applied to church ministry.  St. Paul didn’t want us to just learn for the sake of learning, but to learn for the sake of doing ministry.  Which is one reason why I was attracted to it.

But I didn’t know how to think for myself.

My father didn’t raise me to think for myself.  He wanted me to think like him.  He wanted me to just take in everything he lectured me on as pure gospel.  Freud, Jung, Rogers, Maslow, Tillich.  To him it was all indisputable Truth.  When I expressed my own thoughts or opinions, he laughed at me.  I wasn’t smart enough to know any better.  I was just a woman and to my father, women were not as intelligent as men.  We were “too emotional,” “too sensitive” and we were prone to hysteria.

I was convinced I was stupid.  Despite my straight A’s at Drew University, the top scholarship and the respect I’d gained there.  None of it was enough to impress Rollo.

I was terrified.  I didn’t participate in class discussions because I felt too stupid to have anything worthwhile to say.  However, class participation was imperative to my grade.  I felt like I had something to prove to my parents and all the skeptics back home; that I hadn’t made a mistake, that I knew what I was doing, and I was not a fool.

But I was not going to be as academically successful at St. Paul as I had been at Drew.  I wasn’t going to get all E’s.  And if I didn’t, then I’d made a big mistake.

Every day, every class, threw me into a panic.

Then one day I got a letter from a parishioner at Echelon Hills.  She’d just heard about my engagement to Larry.  She was furious.  She accused me of being a home-wrecker, a fraud, and a whore.  She said I had betrayed Robert’s “good faith” and put him in an awkward position. (If she only knew)  She went on and on, calling me all kinds of names, saying that the church had trusted me with “their youth” and clearly I was not a good example or role model.  The letter was inflammatory and full of all the rage she could dish out.  Which was a lot.

I was devastated.  I didn’t have enough self-esteem to be angry and offended.  It affirmed all of my worst fears about myself; that I was a fool, that my faith wasn’t real, that I was stupid and selfish, that I was worthless.  That I didn’t deserve Larry’s love or Gene’s friendship or anything good.

I was still reeling from the letter, wiping the tears and blowing my nose, when my mother called.  She was bright and cheery, making conversation.  She didn’t ask how things were going.  She didn’t ask if I was homesick or what my classes were like.  She did say, “Well, we expect you to do even better at St. Paul’s, since it’s an easier school than Drew!”

How could I do “even better” than straight A’s and a top scholarship??  It was like a lead pipe to my gut.  I folded over on the floor, my head on my knees as I just answered her with “yes, uh-huh, ok, see ya, love you too.”

I dissolved into tears for the second time that afternoon.  Then I got mad.  I was going to disappoint my parents.  I would not  make top grades at St. Paul.  It was impossible for me.  I didn’t know how to think my own thoughts, to question experts, to trust my own mind.  I would not make E’s, I could not.  And therefore I would fail.  G’s were the equivalent of B+’s, but anything less than an E, the top grade, would not be enough to prove I hadn’t done an impetuous thing going to KC.

Then, something snapped.  I got mad.  Really mad.  Mad at the snobs at Drew who thought no other seminary was as good as theirs.  Mad at the D.S. who was pastoral and kind to my face, even praying with me, but telling Robert I’d made a big mistake.  And I was mad at my mother for setting me up to disappoint her and my father, to fail in their eyes.  And I was mad at God– because why not?– for getting me into all this.  I wasn’t strong enough to do this, to make such a huge leap of faith– a 1500-mile leap of faith!

I threw things.  I stomped around the apartment.  I punched the couch.  I grabbed the portrait of my parents and the portrait of my whole family, and threw them both on the floor.  I stomped on the glass frames with the heel of my boots.  Stomped.  Again and again and again, till the glass was shattered into mostly tiny pieces.

In the midst of the rage, I was sobbing as well.  I was a failure, I thought.  Just a naive, too-sensitive, starry-eyed  girl.  There was no way, in my mind, that I could succeed.  No way.  Exhausted, I picked up the frames and carried them to the trash. As I started to throw them away, I noticed there were a few larger fragments of glass.  I picked up one of those shards with my right hand.  It was very sharp.  And I thought, I could end this now.  All this failure. All this stupidity.  All this disappointment.  

God, I hated blood.  But I stared at the sharp piece of glass and looked out my window at the campus.  I started shaking.  Why won’t you like me?

I turned the shard over and over in my hand, my left hand still holding the shattered frame of my parent’s portrait.  Their faces were smiling  brightly beneath the brokenness.  I moved the glass shard closer to my left wrist.

But then it came to me.  That morning, at my 8:00 am preaching class with Gene, he’d been shaken.  He had just found out that one of his students from another class had died suddenly of a heart attack.  Someone he’d had in class for two years already.  He stumbled through our class, often losing his train of thought.  When class was over, he started to leave, but he turned around and looked at all of us.

“Please don’t die,” he said.  His eyes were sad.  “Don’t die.”  And he turned back toward the hallway and disappeared.  It was the first time I’d seen his human side.  His vulnerable side.  His non-celebrity side.  It’d touched me, assured me.

Please don’t die.  

Shit.  I threw the glass shard into the trash, along with the pictures.  I leaned against the wall by the window and cried some more.

There was a knock at the door.  I quickly washed my face and wiped it off with a dish towel.  I knew my nose and eyes were still red, but, oh well.  I ran my fingers through my hair and opened the door.

It was Erwin, an older second-career student who lived just beneath me.  He held an open book from one of Theology classes.  Erwin was a gentle soul in a large round body and a big gray beard.

He looked right into my eyes.  “Peggy, I just had a question about something in our reading for Thursday.  I just wanted your opinion on what he’s saying here,” Erwin pointed to a paragraph  in the text.  I read through it, and the meaning was pretty clear.  I knew this wasn’t about the text.

I gave a summary of what I thought the author was saying.

Erwin looked down at the book.  “Yeah, that’s what I thought, thanks.”  He looked up at me.  “You doing ok?”

Surely he’d heard all the noise of breaking glass and stomping boots.  The walls and floors were very thin. But I appreciated his checking on me.

I smiled.  “Yes, thanks.”

He nodded.  “Well, if you need anything, you know where I live!”  He clapped the book shut and left.

I sat down on the couch.  I breathed in and out.  Please don’t die.  I let out a big sigh.

I was not a fool.  I wouldn’t just move halfway across the country to chase after a “celebrity.”  I wouldn’t give up a full tuition scholarship on a whim.  I wouldn’t leave a place where I’d earned respect and esteem for nothing.  I wasn’t that brave.  And I wasn’t that stupid.

Deep in my gut, my soul, my heart… I believed God was turning my life upside down and saying “Go.” Go.  Go forward.  Get out of the backyard.  Seek Life. Seek New.  

It had been breathless, exciting, terrifying, mind-boggling.  Holy.  Life-changing.

I could not have done it if I hadn’t believed God was behind it all.  I wasn’t that brave.

I hugged a pillow and called Larry.

 

Snakes in the House

Snakes

The other day I was raking in front of the house, getting all the leaves and various branches that have piled up against the house over the winter.  As I raked back a particularly large pile of leaves, I exposed a tangle of garter snakes.

“Hello,” I greeted them cheerfully.

I didn’t scream like a little girl, I wasn’t even astonished.  I took some pictures of them and put them on Facebook and Instagram.

“Ew!”  “Yuck!” “OMG!” were some of the responses.

Gibbon and the Kearney area is known to have quite a large garter snake presence.  I’m amused that people who have lived here all their lives are so grossed out by them.  I’m not.  Because they are in the grass.  Or the leaves.  Or sunning on the sidewalk.

They are not in the house.

My final church appointment was here in Gibbon.  The church has about 300 people, and when I was there we averaged about 100 on Sundays.  I’ve heard that people have speculated as to why I left the ministry and some think they know.  The stories vary, and maybe I didn’t make myself clear when I left.  Maybe I didn’t fully know why myself at the time.

Gibbon is a wonderful little community– if it wasn’t, we wouldn’t have chosen to buy a house here.  I have no resentment toward the Gibbon Faith UMC.  They didn’t drive me out of pastoral ministry.  When I arrived at Gibbon, I was already full of holes.  In my heart, my soul, my spirit.  Several years of various crisis-filled churches and situations had built up.  The people of Gibbon received me very graciously.  For the first couple of years, I loved it there.  I felt like I could do good ministry and begin again.  To truly heal.

But there were snakes in the house.

I mean that literally AND figuratively.  There were, in fact, snakes in the parsonage.  People joked about it when we arrived.  Wasn’t it funny!  You better watch out for them!  Ha ha.  The first time I saw a snake, it was in the finished basement.  Ok, the basement is the kind of place where little critters might get in.  Larry beat the crap out of it and carried its devastated body up the stairs and out the door, like my knight in shining armor.

Then we found them in the living room.  The cats were curious about them and poked at them, pushed them around, but they didn’t kill them.  Thanks for your help, guys.

Occasionally I’d walk out of the kitchen and literally step on one in the dining room.  And scream.  Larry would come and beat the crap out of it and carry its devastated body out the front door.  He had zero tolerance for snakes in the house!

After he’d left the ministry and gone into nursing, Sarah and I were at Annual Conference when I get a call from Larry.  He was clearly agitated.

“I just about had a heart attack!”  he said, still a little breathless.  “I was opening the freezer door and a snake dropped off the top of the refrigerator!  It was huge!”  He admitted to screaming like a little girl and then beating the crap out of it and carrying its devastated body out the front door.  He was still shaken up when he called.

This was getting ridiculous.

We complained, half-heartedly, because really, no one seemed interested in doing anything about it.  We went to the Trustees.  We went to the store and got stuff that was supposed to keep them away.  (The snakes, not the Trustees) We sprayed around the perimeters of the entire house.

They still got in.

One Christmas Eve morning, I swung my legs out of bed onto the floor and felt something cold and slimy between my toes.  I screamed like a little girl.  It was a snake! On the second floor.  In winter.  I was not amused.  I admit to laughing a bit picturing Larry having a snake fall on his head and his screaming like a little girl.  But this wasn’t funny.

So Larry got out of bed, beat the crap out the snake with a broom, and carried his devastated body out the door downstairs.

That wasn’t the reason I left the ministry either, of course.  But I admit it put me on edge in the spring and summers, not knowing when I’d be stepping on another cold slimy reptile in my own house.  Well, of course it wasn’t my house.  I just lived there.

I don’t know exactly when things changed.  When the honeymoon was over and the snakes came out.  I served only small churches in my 19 years of ministry, simply because that’s about all there is in Nebraska.  The big churches in Lincoln and Omaha are reserved for pastors who know how to climb ladders.  That was one thing they didn’t teach in seminary.

And for the most part I liked the small church.  But in a small church, if there is one or two bad apples who get too much power, then it’s really bad news for the church and especially for the pastor.  It might be someone who is willing to do all the work that no one else wants to do, and so they figure it’s their right to control things.  Or it may be someone–and this happens in all size churches–who has a lot of money.  The church is forever in need of money, so they become beholden to such people.  If those families leave, then the church, some think, will close.  That was a common fear of all small churches, especially in rural towns.  That the Big Conference would come in and shut their doors.

If you’re a United Methodist, you know that churches have to pay apportionments to the Conference, and those bills get quite large.  Besides the pastor’s salary and benefits, the apportionments are one of the largest items on the budget.  The Nebraska Conference tried to make them sound less like a meaningless obligation by calling them “Ministry Shares.”  Some of the money went to international missions, but a good portion of it went to the denomination’s upkeep:  D.S.’ salaries/benefits/company cars, Conference expenses, etc.

Small churches spend a good portion of their time trying to figure out how to pay those apportionments.  To me, I thought our time could have been better served figuring out how to fund mission work or outreach ministry to the community.  But there was little time and almost no resources for such things.  Bishops and D.S.’s spend a lot of time figuring out how to get churches to pay full apportionments.  Sometimes they were manipulative.  They’d threaten to put our churches on the Shame List that goes around the Conference if we didn’t pay all of what we owed.  Pastors were considered responsible for that failure.  Churches were afraid of getting closed. Pastors were afraid of getting moved to another parish.  Somewhere in Timbuktu.

Money was a constant anxiety in the small church.

At Gibbon, I had at least two people who made my ministry difficult those last two years.  We’ll call them Barb and Fran.  Barb was very involved at the Conference level, was a certified lay speaker, and essentially I came to believe that she really wanted to be a pastor but couldn’t for various reasons.  She was the ultimate Church Lady.  She was one of the first to greet me when I first moved into the parsonage, the first to try to give me run-down of people in the congregation in her opinion.  I’d encountered many like her over the years.

For the first couple of years, Barb and I got along great.  She was helpful, but I didn’t fully trust her.  Her husband was a grumpy, judgmental, racist, redneck-sort of guy, but for some reason, he liked me.  People just said, “Oh, that’s just Fred,” when he made inflammatory, even violent remarks about Arabs, Muslims or Hispanics.  But he had a soft spot for me, and I often wondered if that really ticked off his wife.

Barb would volunteer for everything.  People were so grateful that she was willing to do so much.  She was always smiling, always cheery, and yet I came to realize that underneath that smile was a lot of rage and hate.  A lot of venom. I didn’t want to turn my back on her.

She knew I was more liberal than herself– probably more liberal than the majority of people in the congregation by far.  Her husband Fred knew this too.  I preached from my heart and my sense of what God wanted me to say.  I told stories that challenged perspectives.  People told me I made them think.

I think it was Obama’s fault that Barb turned vehemently against me.

I didn’t preach politics.  I did challenge what I understood to be injustices or things that were against my understanding of Jesus’ teachings.  I prayed for George W. Bush when he was president, though I didn’t vote for him.  I prayed for all our country’s and world leaders every Sunday.  But when Obama became president and I prayed for him, I think Barb started gathering her weapons.

You think I’m paranoid.

She told me she was “very unhappy” that I prayed for Obama.  Excuse me?  She could be vicious.  All with a cheery, Praise-the-Lord smile on her face.  I tried to kill her with kindness.  I tried to be gracious with her.  I prayed for her, about her.

I began hearing that she was talking about me behind my back and trying to get people to turn against me.  To my face, she acted like an ideal Christian lady, her smile forever glued to her sunshiney face.

She started to actively work against me.  She’d openly argue with things I proposed in meetings.  She’d volunteer to do the pastoral prayer in meetings (but the chairperson reminded her I was the pastor).  She’d tell people in the congregation that I didn’t deserve my salary.  Fran, my other challenge, told the Trustees I didn’t deserve new carpeting in the parsonage.  I didn’t work hard enough.

In a UMW meeting one day, another conservative parishioner was going on and on and on about how much she hated Obama and how “un-Christian” Democrats were and how they are leading our country into godlessness.  I stayed quiet.

“No one here is Democrat, are they?” she asked suddenly.  I didn’t have the energy to admit it.

“Pastor Peggy is a democrat!” Barb loudly volunteered.

Many of the women looked at me, shocked, as if I’d admitted having an abortion.  As the other woman continued her anti-Democrat tirade, I slipped out quietly.  Some battles weren’t worth it.

Then in 2007, I had the year from hell.  It is true that after you’ve lost one or more people to premature death, every loss after that stirs up those old griefs.  Especially if you never really got to grieve honestly.

Every single month of 2007 I had a funeral.  Sometimes more than one.  And they were all sudden and tragic.  A sudden heart attack.  A blood clot moved.  A construction accident.  A suicide.  Cancer. Cancer. Cancer.  All of it was hitting me like arrows that cut below the skin.  Brought up other losses in my life that I never fully grieved.  Hadn’t been “allowed to” at the time.

Then the final one-two punch of 2007.  My dear friend Karen and Lee, the nicest guy in Gibbon, were both struck with cancer.  Karen’s was in her pancreas.  I knew that was a fatal diagnosis.  Lee’s was multiple myeloma.  Lee had been in the hospital for heart surgery when they discovered the cancer.  His body just wasn’t strong enough to fight it.

Karen was my buddy.  She was the local liberal; she didn’t grow up in Gibbon but she and her husband retired here.  She was the most popular person in the congregation, I think, despite her unapologetic views.  She was kind, hilarious, and joyful.  She was very active in the congregation, and started the Sew ‘n Sews, a sewing group that made prayer blankets and worked on quilts to give away.  She was the smiling face I always looked for in the congregation when I preached, especially if I was addressing something controversial.  She loved me and I loved her.  She called me her best friend.

She was diagnosed in June.  Lee was diagnosed in April, in the midst of all those funerals.  By November, Lee was in Omaha pursuing aggressive treatment and Karen was on hospice.  Time stopped for me.  There was no question where my energy was going to go.  I loved both of those people, and so did my congregation.

I spent October visiting Karen every day in the hospital.  We cried, we laughed, we held hands and hugged, and I sat with her until she fell asleep.  I cried every time I left her in that hospital bed.  Then I went home and took a nap.

I managed to preach every Sunday, but much of my week was focused on Karen for two months.  Barbara used this as a weapon against me.  She criticized me behind my back for spending so much time focused on Karen.  People told me what she said.  They never said that they defended me though.  Few people stood up to Barb.  They didn’t want to criticize her!

During Karen’s and Lee’s last week of life, I asked Barb to cover for me at the nursing home for the worship service there.  She often covered for me, she was my lay speaker.  But she was furious.

“My sister is dying too!  Karen’s not the only one dying!  You’re spending way too much time with her!” was her response.

I was emptied out. I felt like my skin was full of open cuts and everybody around me was walking around with open bottles of alcohol.  I had nothing left.  As I visited Karen every day, I couldn’t help but think of my dear Sandie, who was like a mother to me, who loved me for who I was when I was growing up.  Sandie’s cancer took her in 4-5 months in 1984 and I thought I’d never recover.  We weren’t to talk about it at home.  I was supposed to just walk on.

That grief kept flaring up at unexpected moments since 1984, but in 2007, it flared its ugly head with a vengeance.  I found some comfort in the fact that I could be there for Karen in a way that I couldn’t for Sandie who had lived too faraway.  But I felt like I was losing Sandie all over again.  I was an emotional dishrag.

Barb and I were finished then.  That was the last straw.  I called the nursing home and explained that I had two parishioners on the brink of death and I couldn’t get away.  They understood.  Barb never forgave me.  I still don’t know why.

(By the way, her sister was not dying. She had a chronic illness that was a constant burden, but she didn’t die for several more years.  Barb’s husband Fred was dying from the moment I arrived until ten years later when he actually died. She was always embellishing the illnesses of those close to her, seeking sympathy.)

I went to visit Lee that day in Omaha, and I could tell he was just days from death.  I’d been very nervous leaving Karen that day (Omaha is three hours away), because she, too, was close to death.  She was then unconscious and incommunicable.

The next night I sat with her and her husband until Karen took her last breath.  The next morning, I had a text from Lee’s wife that he, too, had died.  I was crushed.  Devastated.

I think that’s when it was finally over for me.  2007 was one death after another of really good people.  They were all too young.  I stumbled through that year, emotionally exhausted and grief-stricken, but Lee and Karen’s deaths were the final blow.  Barb’s abuse in the midst of that was the last straw.

In the midst of death and grief, things get really real.  You realize what really matters in this life and what you waste so much time on.  I wasted a lot of time in my ministry worrying about the Barbs in the congregations, trying to please them, trying to defend myself against them.  I couldn’t do it anymore.  Nor did I want to.

I never made above minimum salary in my ministry, which was a hardship when it came to paying off all my student loans.  After that year, it just wasn’t worth it.  I was spent.  I was used up.  I had no more tolerance for the snakes that I kept stumbling over again and again.

For the next year and a half, I desperately looked for a way out.  I ended up working as a chaplain in hospice.  I knew a lot about death and grief, and I found that made me more able to help people who were facing it.  It was real.  No more meetings arguing about how many bags of potato chips we need for the Sunday School dinner or whether 40 year old carpet needed replacing in the parsonage or whether I, the pastor, deserved the salary they were so gracious to pay me.  No more driving to Kearney to pick up my check from the treasurer after not getting it for several days because “there wasn’t enough money to pay you.”  No more slimy reptiles on my carpet.  I. Was. Done.

It’s been almost 9 years now, and despite being a person who doubts most big decisions I make, I never doubted that one.  I am less anxious, less depressed, more energetic, more interested in hobbies and learning, and broadening my interests.  My relationship with Larry– which was always very good– got much better after I left church ministry.

And I’m proud to be a damn Democrat.

 

Wide Open Spaces

uncertain_future2

“Welcome to God’s country!” Gene Lowry greeted me, reaching out for a side hug.  I’d flown into Kansas City, Missouri to visit the campus of St. Paul School of Theology.

Larry had picked me up from the airport on Friday, and drove me north to Nebraska where I’d stay with his church treasurer for the weekend and preach at his church in Osmond, Nebraska (pop. 774), before he drove me back to Kansas City on Monday for my visit.

I don’t know what I was expecting when I landed in the Middle.

“Wow, they have tall buildings and everything,” I mused as we drove out of the parking lot at the airport.  Larry smiled.

“Yeah, it’s a real city.”

However, as we drove beyond the city limits and closer to Nebraska, the land flattened out and the trees grew more sparse.  The sky formed a dome over the earth and you could see the sky to the right, the left, in front of you and behind.  I’d spent my entire life to that point in New Jersey, with traffic, buildings, and trees.

About halfway through the trip north, I started hyperventilating.  My body was responding to something that I couldn’t put into words, but suddenly the anxiety was overwhelming.  I couldn’t breathe, my hands were cold and clammy.  I panicked.

Larry pulled the car over to the shoulder and held me.  He dug out a fast food paper bag from the back seat and instructed me to breathe into it.  An officer pulled up behind us.

“Everything ok here?” He asked into the open window.

“Yeah,” Larry assured him, “she just isn’t feeling well.”

I’d had panic attacks before.  In the middle of the night when I lived alone in Collingswood, thinking I was having a heart attack and they’d find me dead in the morning.  Or on choir tour with Lester, when he’d wanted me to play guitar from memory.  Or the night before I moved into my own apartment in Woodbury, and Mom had taken me to the ER where they injected me with something that made me sleep for 24 hours.

It was usually in the middle of the night.  Not in broad daylight.  But something about the wide open spaces around me triggered terror in me.  There was nothing around me or above me to protect me… from what?  I didn’t know.  I felt exposed.  I had the irrational fear that if something bad were to happen– like a physical emergency– there was nowhere to go.  Just miles and miles of wide open… space.

Larry talked to me gently, never questioning my sanity or reaction.  He made me concentrate on breathing into the bag until I calmed down.  It worked.  He had an incredibly calming effect on me, and the longer our relationship went on, the anxiety attacks eventually disappeared altogether.

Larry’s congregation in Osmond was thrilled to meet the “pastor’s girlfriend.”  They were  kind and welcoming to me immediately.  I was instantly immersed in the unique hospitality of small town Nebraska.  They acted as if they already loved me.  We walked downtown to the post office and people greeted us all along the way.  Larry had an account at the grocery store where he could put groceries on his “tab,” trusted to pay later.  Later, I spoke to my mother and told her Osmond reminded me a little bit of Mississippi.

She laughed. “Brookhaven’s has about two or three times as many people!”  She couldn’t imagine a town with fewer than 1,000 people.  Well, neither could I.  But I liked it.  I liked the familiarity among people.  The friendliness.  I appreciated the congregation’s joy over Larry having a “girlfriend.”  They were very kind and appreciative of my preaching on Sunday.

I liked Nebraska.  I told my closest friends that it felt like “coming home to a place I’d never been before…” (John Denver, Rocky Mountain High.)

Gene Lowry was a lot less intimidating on his own turf.  He wore an open-necked shirt and sweater as he embraced me before the noon meal at St. Paul’s that Monday.  We’d had a good visit back in Princeton, New Jersey, and he realized from that conversation, I guess, that I wasn’t some flighty fan-girl.  That I was serious about wanting to come study with him. I’d assured him that I wanted to check out the school to make sure that it was as good as he was.   He was a kind and enthusiastic host, setting me up to visit classes he thought would interest me.

Lunch at St. Paul was served in a large dining hall, with people seated around large round tables.  The food was served family style.  There was a prayer said before the meal, an open mic to share prayer concerns, and a singing of a hymn.  That day we sang, Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.  I mused that we’d never have sung that at Drew, it was too “evangelical.”  As I sat at my table, with a couple of professors, some office people and some students, my eyes teared up.  Is this heaven?  

No, it’s Kansas City.

At Drew, there was a definite sense of who was important and who was not.  The professors did not dine with students and many of them didn’t even live in New Jersey, but commuted in from various other locations to bless us with their presence.  There was no sense of community.  We were all competing with each other.  One day our classmates may be our bosses, our District Superintendents.  We didn’t trust each other.  If you mentioned personal faith or a sense of God’s Spirit guiding you, you were labeled.  “Evangelical.” “Conservative.”  “One of Those.”

After lunch, I sat in the admissions office, talking to the office manager there until it was time to go to my first class visit.  I was anxiously waiting for a chance to meet Tex Sample, the church and society professor.  Larry had one of his books and had met him years earlier at a conference retreat.  He’d been very impressed with Tex, and I’d read on the back of his book that he was from Mississippi.  Go figure.  It was another one of those weird “coincidences.”  I was hoping to get to ask him where in Mississippi…

The day before my trip west, Robert called me into his office at the church.  He’d just been away at a Conference in Texas, put on by the denomination.  It was a Church Growth Conference, and there’d been many presenters and speakers from around the United Methodist Church.  Robert was a die-hard faithful Drew alumni.  He was on various boards and promoted Drew wherever and however he could.  I knew he was troubled by my looking elsewhere, especially when it would mean my giving up the prestigious Carl Michalson scholarship.

He started talking before I had a chance to sit down.  He handed me a hymnal and bible, each with the logo of the Conference etched on the front.  “A gift,” he said.  I thanked him.  He sat back in his chair and looked down at his entwined fingers.  He let out a deep sigh.

“You know I’ve not been altogether supportive of you transferring out of Drew and leaving us here at Echelon Hills.”  He shook his head.  “But there was a presenter there at the conference, a Dr. Tex Sample.”  He paused.

“Oh yeah!  I’ve heard of him!  Larry met him…”

“Yeah, well, he was incredible.  The way he engaged us, the amount of research he’s done, his presentation, and how it all was so relevant to the Church today.  God, he was funny!”  Robert laughed.  He looked directly at me.  “My point is, there are no professors at Drew that come close to that guy.  If were 25 years younger and had the opportunity to study with the likes of him and Lowry…” he sighed and shook his head.  “I’d go for it.”

Wow, another miracle.  I didn’t need Robert’s approval, but I didn’t want to hurt him.  Despite everything else, he was a good mentor.  I wouldn’t have known the basics if I hadn’t worked with him.  With all my A’s at Drew, I would have been wholly unprepared for church ministry.

After lunch, I was sent to Tex Sample’s office.  I’d met him briefly while in the admissions office, when he stopped by to tease the secretary.  He wore blue jeans and an open-necked shirt.  He spoke with a thick Mississippi accent, and when we were introduced, he chuckled.

“Oh yeah, you’re enamored with that rascal Gene Lowry.  Oh well, you’ll get over it,” he winked.  “I’ll see you later.”

“Don’t listen to him,” Betty the secretary assured me.  “He and Gene have been best friends for 20 years.”

Later, I nervously made my way to Tex’s office.  The door was open, and I peeked in.  Three of his walls were lined with books.  It was a pretty small space, but he had lots of pictures and various memorabilia here and there.

“Hey you, c’mon in,” he said, getting up.  He had a baseball bat in his hands.  He motioned for me to sit while he continued standing.  He swung the bat around, which added to my nervousness, since it was a very small space.  “So, tell me, why do you like Gene so much?”  He grinned.

I gave him a short version of my call story, and the strange, unfolding journey to the Midwest.  He nodded, swinging his bat as he listened.

“So I wanted to ask you…where in Mississippi are you from?”  I was still very shy, intimidated, but his familiar way of communicating and his bat-swinging made me think he was just a regular guy under all the published books, fame across the United Methodist Church and speaking tours.

He chuckled and leaned the bat up against the wall, sitting down across from me.  “It’s a tiny place in the southern part that no one’s ever heard of.  Brookhaven.”

Oh my God.  I flushed a bit.  This was all so weird.  “I’ve heard of Brookhaven,” I said quietly.

He leaned forward with his hands on his knees.  “How the hell have you heard of Brookhaven?”  He was genuinely astonished.

I laughed, a bit breathless from all the continuing connections.

“My mother grew up there.”

His mouth dropped open.  All politeness gone.  “Who the hell is your mother?”

I laughed again.  This was fun.  “She’s a Calcote.  Her father was Boyd Calcote.”

His mouth still hung open.  “Hell, I know the Calcotes!  Yeah, I knew who your grandfather was.  Huh!”  He stared at me.  I just smiled.  This was all so wonderfully weird and serendipitous.

We talked for a while longer, and he’d known some of my uncles, never met my mother.  She’d gone to the country school, Loyd Star, and he’d gone to Brookhaven High.

I attended a class that he taught that afternoon, where he introduced me as “a big fan of Gene Lowry” and passed out Babe Ruth candy bars to all of us.  It was a small, interactive class.  Tex taught in the Church and Society department, so his classes often involved students going out into the city and engaging people of various walks of life.  He was particularly interested in people on the fringes of society and how the church could reach such people.

Gene and his wife Sarah took me out to dinner at the Hereford House downtown.  They wanted to hear all about my day, and I was so excited and breathless I could hardly eat.  Sarah reached over and took my steak, putting it in a to-go box when I hardly touched it.  I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I’d heard Gene preach, and both of those times my life had changed.  Both times I felt propelled out into the unknown, carried along by the Spirit, as pieces of this mysterious puzzle fell into place.  I’d never experienced anything like it.  But there was no room for doubt either time.  It was like God had to make it all so convincing that I couldn’t turn away.  I was a bit dizzy from it all.

I was still in awe of Gene and a little afraid of him, despite his being so down-to-earth, so… Midwestern.  He and Sarah treated me like an old friend, who I saw was who they were.  There was no pretenses.  After supper, they drove me back to the school, as Gene wanted me to attend an integrated course with Tex.  The core classes at St. Paul were classes taught by two different disciplines, usually a theoretical class like Theology and a practical class, like one of Tex’s Church and Society classes.  The intent was to learn the theory, but also to learn how to apply it.  It was the specific complaint I had about Drew.  At Drew I learned how to think, I learned content and spit it back out.  But never were we taught how to apply it.  In fact, much of the time, professors would tell us, “You can’t teach this in the Church.”

Gene and Sarah hugged me at the door.  “I have a feeling I’ll be seeing you again soon,” Gene said, winking, before he and Sarah got back into the car.

I don’t even remember what the class was that I attended that night, I just remember vividly how it felt.  Tex paced the front of the class as he taught, gesturing and telling stories that applied.  One minute was I was laughing out loud and the next I had tears in my eyes.  At times I literally held my breath.  I was scooped up in the moment, again, in awe.  He was passionate, real, full of heart, and also brilliant.  My father always looked down on my mother’s family, calling them “sub-culture.”  He thought they were stupid and backward.  And here was a guy from my mother’s hometown, talking like my mother’s people, and was a brilliant scholar.  To my father, he would have been a walking contradiction.

I had tears in my eyes most of the night as I sat and listened, mesmerized.  I would be a sponge in this man’s classes.  He would give me another view of my mother’s world.  He would challenge me, make me think beyond the narrow boundaries that I’d done previously.  A whole world was opening up to me that night.  I knew I was going to move to Kansas City in January.  I was both terrified and exhilarated.

It felt like a huge gift.  Giving up my scholarship at Drew would prove costly, of course.  But like my falling in love with Larry, nothing ever felt so right.  I was always unsure of my ability to make good decisions, always wracked with self-doubt.  It was like God made it so clear I couldn’t deny it or question it.  I had to just stay on board, hang on tight, and see where the road took me next.  It was a magical time!  It was delicious, other-worldly.  It was Field of Dreams and Dead Poet’s Society and as magical as Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.   Carpe Diem!

It was pure grace.

The next day as I flew back into La Guardia airport, I saw the lights of New York City and New Jersey and I literally started to cry.  I felt homesick.  It felt like I was leaving home instead of returning.