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.