Friends in Low Places

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I always had the idea, it seems, that I had to be punished for something.  Or that I couldn’t have good things.  In any situation, I was supposed to choose the hardest thing possible.  When Tex and I talked about what ministry setting I would undertake after I left Conestoga, I had a choice between a shelter for abused women in Kansas City, or assisting Larry at his church in Ceresco.

“What’s the problem here?” Tex looked at me, confused.

“Oh, can I work with Larry?”

“Of course!”

Oh.  Didn’t I have to suffer?  Didn’t I have to do the sacrificial thing?  The hardest thing?  Wasn’t working with Larry too… good?  

I officially became Larry’s student assistant at Ceresco and Valparaiso UMCs.  My duties would include assisting him in worship every Sunday, preaching once a month, and starting a choir at Ceresco.

It was a gift of grace.  A chance to recover and heal.  The congregations were thrilled to have me in an official capacity.  They were so kind to us. After all the pain from Echelon Hills, it felt so good to be embraced as a couple.  No ghosts or mean people lurking in the shadows.

When we came back from our honeymoon that summer, we were invited over to dinner with other couples at someone’s house.  After dinner, a bunch of other parishioners pulled into the driveway, honking their horns and cheering.  We were gently escorted to a pick-up truck that led the parade into the tiny town of Ceresco.  All of the cars and trucks honked their horns as we all waved to people on the streets.

I had no idea what was going on.

We ended up at the church, where many more people were gathered.  There were decorations in the fellowship hall, and a table full of presents and … groceries.

We were presented with various foods, mostly canned things from people’s gardens, fresh baked goods, etc.  I was informed that the event was called a Pounding.  It was a traditional event that small rural towns held for newlyweds, to celebrate their marriage and fill their cupboards with food.  So we were given a pound of this and a pound of that…

I was falling deeper and deeper in love with Nebraska.

When people back East asked me how it was going at Saint Paul, I told them that it was like I’d been curled up in a small, dark, closet and someone opened the door.  I could breathe.

My perspective on humankind had been very narrow to that point.  I didn’t know anything else.  Messiah College certainly didn’t challenge my thinking, except to make it even narrower.  My father ingrained his psychology into me, perhaps as a last ditch effort to make one of his children his protege.  I wanted to please him.  So I ate it all up.  I majored in psychology.  I thought his thoughts, talked his words.  Used his books to write college papers.

To Rollo, we are all determined by the first three years of our lives.  How we were treated and how we responded to our mother was foundational.  This included how well we did at potty training.  My father believes that a child’s personality is formed in those three years and the basis of it cannot change.  We all have romantic/sexual impulses toward the parent of the opposite sex and display jealous behavior toward the parent of the opposite sex.  Everyone, regardless of gender or culture or anything else, are all shaped by these same basic forces.

Any personality anomalies were always the fault of the mother.  Though I took on his thinking for the most part, I did suspect that the father had a hell of a lot to do with traumas too.  At least that was my experience.

My father believes he remembers his birth and that it, like any birth, was traumatic.  Being in that warm, cozy place, and then being forced out into the cold, bright world is part of all of our shared birth traumas.  Much of our lives is a desperate but of course futile attempt to get back to the womb.

That’s the gist of all the lectures I endured at Rollo’s dinner table.

During my first semester at SPST, Gene advised me to take a class with Tex called “Power.”  Tex is a sociologist, and was the professor of Church and Society.  The class was about the different forms of power in our society, how that plays out in humans and societies, and most importantly, the Church.  There was no question about taking the class.  I wanted to take as many classes as I could with both Gene and Tex.  The Brookhaven, Mississippi connection was a strange serendipity that seemed much more significant than mere coincidence.

“How the hell have you heard of Brookhaven??”

Tex’s classes felt like community.  And that was one of his goals.  Class participation was a very important part of our grade, but he and the other professors also believed it was an important part of our learning to be leaders of the church community.  We were challenged to think, to back up our thinking.  At Drew, I just had to read and spit back what I read without fully processing it.

I grew up on country music.  My Mom was always playing country stations on the kitchen radio, so I grew up hearing Johnny Cash, George Jones, Hank Williams, etc.  I can still hear my Mom singing, “Hey-hey, Good-Lookin’, wha-a-at you got cookin’….”  I liked Kenny Rogers and Johnny Cash myself, but by the time I got to seminary, I hadn’t caught up with the whole ’90s Country thing.  I had too much else going on.

Well, country music is a big part of Tex Sample, of course, from a sociological perspective.  He loved it, but he also saw it as the Gospel music of the blue-collar community, the soul music for white people.  A theme of Tex’s classes was Friends in Low Places by Garth Brooks, with the assumption that Jesus, the author of our church ministries, is a friend to people in low places.  Tex’s theology and practice of ministry, much like that of St. Paul ST’s, involved Jesus being the minister to the poor, the down-trodden, the “least of these.”  It wasn’t all just believing in Jesus so you get to heaven, but that we have a responsibility as Christians and the Church to be Jesus in the world.  To do social justice and ministry.  And of course, John Wesley would have agreed.

Every once in a while, someone would burst out singing Garth’s signature song or Tex would play it.  It was a … thing… at St. Paul.  I learned to love Garth Brooks among everything else.

Tex is a preacher and a teacher.  When he taught, he was all over the room, gesturing, expressing, telling stories.  He used stories of his crazy family members in Mississippi to illustrate his points.  His storytelling abilities reminded me so much of my brother Don.  Tex had us laughing so hard we cried.  And then within the same hour, he had us with tears in our eyes for other reasons.  He was dramatic, passionate, and all of it stemmed from his own deep commitment to Jesus Christ and the Church.

I was in awe.

I was a sponge in that class.  I laughed hysterically.  I cried.  Lectures felt like really good sermons that made you want to go out and be a better person and buy lunch for the next homeless person you see.  When I left classes, I always called Larry and told him all about it.  I was so wound up!  I wanted to change the world!  I wanted to preach the Gospel!  I wanted to get people to get off of their butts and reach out to the least of these in every community.

I was shaken to my core, too.  Tex described the world and humanity in completely different ways than Rollo.  It felt like doors were bursting open all over inside of me, letting in intense light and pulling me outside of myself.  I was often breathless, but not so much from anxiety as excitement.  Life!  The world was suddenly so much bigger than I’d previously thought.  People were so much more complex than I’d thought.

People were not all the same.  We were not all formed the same way.  First of all, I had permission to truly realize how different I am from my father just for being female– and that I wasn’t inferior.  I had a whole different perspective simply because of my gender.  Hell, I don’t remember being born, but if I did, what I was feeling was like I was being born again.  So how could birth be traumatic?  It was full of so many possibilities and wonder.  I was being changed.  I felt like I was being set free.

In Biblical terms, scales were falling off of my eyes and I could see in a whole new way.

…And it scared the livin’ hell out of me.

I realized how safe my father’s thought processes were.  They kept the world small and manageable for him.  People were this and that, good or bad, male or female, etc.  There were so many days I went back to my apartment, called Larry… and sobbed.  Sometimes it was like throwing up a lot of pain.  But a good bit of those soul-cleansing tears were … joy. Like literally being unbound.  To think, to feel, to wonder, to question… and get excited about ideas and answers and the diversity of the world.

I was exhausted.  The text we used for class was a particularly dense, sterile scholarly work, and my classmates complained daily about its difficulty.  We had to outline each chapter and hand those in for each reading assignment.  I did the best I could, but it was daunting material.

One day, toward the end of the semester, Tex asked me into his office after class.  He said he really appreciated my outlines, and they showed that I had a good grasp of the material.  (Really??)

“Has Gene asked you to work for him next semester?” Tex asked me.

Well, yes, Gene had asked me to be his student assistant at a lunch we recently had with his wife Sarah and Larry.  I’d just about lost my lunch that day.  I was still so starry-eyed with these men that it wouldn’t have been any more exciting if Johnny Cash himself had asked me to dinner.

“Yes.”

“Damn!” Tex punched the air, toward the floor.  “I knew he’d get to you before I could.”  I sat there and grinned like a fool.  I couldn’t believe this.

“Would you be willing to work for both of us?”

Um, let me think.

“Of course!” I said all too calmly, but inside I  thought I was going to throw up. I was feeling like that a lot those days.

As Tex’s student assistant, I would read and outline books he wanted to use for sources in the writing of his own books.  I also transcribed recorded interviews some of his previous students had done with what Tex called “hard-livin’ folks.”  He said he really appreciated my work and my summaries of what I read, that that would be really helpful to him.

My face hurt from smiling so much.

I’d thought I was stupid.  Simple.  “Just a woman.”  Even the Carl Michalson scholarship at Drew didn’t convince me I had any brains or gifts.  But these two men, both scholars, professors and well-known authorities on preaching and ministry–liked me.  They thought I had gifts for ministry.  They thought I was smart.  They both traveled all over the U.S. preaching, doing lectures and seminars across denominations.  They both published several books.

The first time I had to preach in front of Gene, I was so dizzy and sick with anxiety I didn’t think I’d survive it. Despite that, it went well.  I, of course, wanted him to be speechless with wonder.  Be astounded at my gift.  Never mind that I came to learn more about preaching from him and be better at it.  I wanted him to crown me a worthy protege.  I wanted him to say something like, “Now I see that God has indeed brought us together…”

That didn’t happen.  Gene is very introverted and not as expressive out of the pulpit as he is inside it.  He was positive about the sermon and delivery and gave me some feedback about what needed improving.   He was mostly positive, but he wasn’t “blown away” as I’d secretly hoped.  Despite this, I felt like Ray in Field of Dreams when he first got on the mound to pitch to Joe Jackson.  He said, “I’m pitching to Shoeless Joe Jackson…”

Before I began my first sermon for Gene, I thought, I’m preaching for Eugene Lowry… 

Whoa.

I basked in the community of SPST.  I loved the noon meals, the sharing of prayer concerns, the mixture of students and faculty around the tables.  Most days, I stopped to look out at the city skyline of Kansas City and wonder, how did I get here? 

It all seemed too miraculous for little ol’ me.  At the same time, I was terrified something would take it all away from me.  I didn’t think I deserved all this magic.  This affirmation.  This excitement.  Every week I drove my Ford F150 5-speed with a stick on the floor the four hours to Kansas City.  I listened to all ’90s country on the radio during the trip.  When I returned to Cereso on Fridays, Larry would have a hot supper ready for me.  Then we’d go to the church for choir practice.

I don’t play the piano.  But I do sing.  I got someone to accompany us on the piano, as I figured out how to get this group of parishioners to be a choir.  We started off with hymns.  I had them all watch Sister Act as a group. We had fun times of fellowship.  I did my best conducting them in worship, trying to look like I knew what I was doing.

My preaching at Ceresco grew as I came home passionate and excited about all that I was learning in KC.  My thoughts were challenged, stretched, impassioned.  People continued to respond favorably to my preaching, and the choir was a hit.  I was recovering from my months in Conestoga, my call to ministry beginning to heal.

My marriage continued to be a source of shelter, hope and love.  Larry and I thrived on being partners in ministry as well as in life.  It felt right.  It all felt so right. And good.

We were able to get Gene to come to Ceresco and do his Jazz and Christianity lecture/concert and to preach for worship.  I was so excited to share him with the congregation that had welcomed us so warmly and loved us.  I’ll never forget that Sunday morning, Larry walked behind us.  Gene and I, both in our clerical robes, processed in at the start of worship.  Walking beside him in worship in our robes, felt so significant.  Like we were … colleagues. That whole time in seminary and in Ceresco felt like dreams kept coming true.  That such things were possible, even for me.

Despite all that, my ordination interviews loomed ahead in January of 1992.  I still didn’t know many folks in the Nebraska Conference, except the ones I met during the Conestoga debacle.  I remembered Carol saying that whole experience could reflect badly on me for ordination.  In the weeks leading up to the interviews, I had the packet of questions, essays, etc. that I had to fill out.  I had scores of pages I had to write in answer to the questions in the Book of Discipline.  Writing was my forte.  But I was afraid that somehow I was yet to be punished for unnamed sins.  I couldn’t have it this good.  Perhaps, I thought, it would all fall apart when I came to apply for ordination.

I really expected them to tell me to forget the whole thing and go home.

 

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