Motherhood and Mayhem

thumbnail

It was 11:00 p.m.  I was eight months pregnant and we were waiting at a truck stop at the Wood River exit off of Interstate #80 .  We’d driven 90 minutes to get there for this clandestine-type meeting.  It was past my bedtime.  I was tired, achy, and feeling  as big as the side of a house, as my mother would say.

“This is just weird,” I told Larry as we sipped on Diet Cokes in a booth near the window.  I started to wonder if we ought to be near the window after all.  I should stop reading so much Grisham, I thought.

At about 11:04, Susan spots us in the corner and nods.  She stops to get a coffee, pay for it, and then heads in our direction.  Susan was a District Superintendent in the Northeast District of the Nebraska Conference.  It was May.  I’d made it plain to Sam, our D.S. in the South Central district, that I could not stay at Guide Rock/Cowles for another year.  I would not raise my baby in that hostile environment.  The Bishop had agreed, anyway, that the best thing for GR/C was to be connected to Red Cloud, and let the Red Cloud pastor deal with them.   So we were in limbo as to what would happen to us come June.  With a baby soon to come.

Susan had called us earlier that day and arranged to meet us at the truck stop near Wood River at 11:00 p.m.  We didn’t know what to expect.  The United Methodist Church was very adamant about keeping clergy appointments secret until the Sunday that all of them were announced simultaneously in the affected churches.  They were very unhappy when the PPRC members of such churches leaked the news that a pastor was moving or who they were getting.

Thus this secret meeting near midnight on the Interstate.

“I have an idea,” Susan informed us as she slid into the booth across from us.  “But it’ll require you to take less-than-fulltime appointments.”

We weren’t pleased.  Both of us had school loans to pay off.   We really couldn’t afford less-than-full-time appointments.  But we also couldn’t afford to stay where we were.

“There’s a three-point charge in my district;  Tilden/Meadow Grove/Battle Creek.  The Tilden United Church of Christ is on its own, and the UCC Conference has asked for our help in getting them a pastor.  So what I want to do is this;  add the Tilden UCC Church to the United Methodist Parish.  You’d be at 3/4 salary for the first year, and then next year, Peggy could get a full-time salary and Larry would get half-time.”

As a Probationary member of the Conference, I had to have two years of full-time ministry before I could apply for Full Membership and Elder’s ordination.  I’d completed one year.

“That just means, Peggy, that you’d delay Elder’s ordination for a year.”  Susan leaned back and waited for our response.

We didn’t have much choice.  It was either take the offer of less money and later ordination or stay in Guide Rock.  Neither option felt good at all.  But one did feel worse.

“I guess we take it,” we agreed reluctantly.

What Susan didn’t mention that day was that the current pastor, Brian, was well-loved and didn’t want to move, and that neither the United Methodist Churches or the UCC Church members had a say in the formation of the new parish.

When my water broke at Dreisbach’s, Larry called the doctor back in Superior to ask what we should do.  She instructed us to get back to Superior to the hospital.  While he was on the phone, Mom had ushered me into the women’s bathroom to clean up as best as I could.  The waitress was holding a tray full of rolls when Larry approached her to tell her we had to go, that his wife’s water broke, and he’d be willing to pay for the salads.

“Oh my God!” she yelled, dropping the tray, sending rolls bouncing across the restaurant floor.  “Get out of here!  Go!  Don’t worry about it!”  She physically pushed Larry toward the door.

“Wait,” he said, “My wife is still in the bathroom!”

We made the 90 minute drive back to Superior, with me in the front seat holding my breath, as if that would keep the baby in.  Larry made a stop at a gas station to get Dad some crackers and cheese, as he was about to “faint with hunger.”  When we arrived at Broadstone Memorial Hospital in Superior, we were pre-registered (just in case this happened), so they took me right up to the room.  My parents took the van and went to the nearest bar to get some supper.

My doctor, who was a woman, did not “believe” in epidurals, so all I was given was some meds to relax me.  Additionally, they hooked me up to an IV of Pritocin to get things moving.  Dad went into the waiting room to sleep in a recliner and woke up to find a nurse covering him up with a blanket.  Superior was a town whose population was 2400, so we got small-town service.  I was the only one in the maternity hall that night.

Larry stayed by my side all night as I drifted in and out of sleep between contractions.  I had a lot of back pain, so he stood up and rubbed the small of my back with his fist until a nurse relieved him.  When the doctor arrived at around 9:00 the next morning and announced it was time to have a baby, Larry had the presence of mind to switch the cassette tape in the player to Gene Lowry’s jazz piano-playing.  At 9:43 a.m., with Larry and my mother present to witness her arrival, Sarah Gene was born to “The Sound of Good News.”

Immediately the doctor placed Sarah Gene on my belly.  I’ve joked that she looked a bit like ET at the time, but she was my ET.  She was still covered in birth gunk and her face was still swollen from the entry into the world, but I cried.  She was mine.  Larry and I made her.  I’d wanted a daughter so badly for so many reasons I couldn’t even name.  And here she was.

The doctor insisted I stay two nights, knowing I was moving on Monday.  Sarah was born on Friday.  Some Guide Rock members sent flowers and gifts.  Larry brought a gift that my brother Stan and his wife Barbara had sent “to be opened on the day of the birth.”  It was a beautiful silver Ankh necklace; an Egyptian symbol for fertility and new life.

On Sunday afternoon, the Superior/Nora churches held a farewell party/baby shower that had been planned ahead of time, not knowing Sarah would be there.  I was looking forward to going home that afternoon, but the ladies at the church were anxious to see the baby and me.  So the day I got out of the hospital, I went to a church baby shower/farewell party.

The very next morning, the movers came to move us out.  I stayed in the living room with Sarah Gene, sitting on a lawn chair while Larry loaded up our van with last-minute things.  It was 98 degrees that day with heavy humidity, truly miserable.  We were headed to Norfolk to spend the night in a hotel before moving into the parsonage at Tilden.

I felt sick and miserable, sitting in the back, guarding my little girl from an avalanche of belongings towering behind us.  It was hot, we were stressed, my father was put out because he thought he should be at home enjoying his retirement, not hauling boxes in and out of houses.

At a rest stop off the interstate, I climbed out of the van and moaned with pain and discomfort.

My father turned to me abruptly and said, “What the hell’s the matter with you?

Mom intervened.  “Rollo, she just had a baby!”

“That was three days ago!” he argued.  I scooped Sarah out of the back and went into the rest stop.  I didn’t have the energy to deal with him.

When we pulled up to the parsonage in Tilden, my heart sank.  There was a wall of garbage extending half a block at the curb.  People were going in and out of the house.  It turns out Brian and some faithful parishioners had been up all night packing things up, because he’d put it off until the very last day.  They weren’t done.

I was exhausted in body and soul.  Could things get any harder here?  We’d already been warned that the United Methodists were angry that they were being forced into a parish arrangement with the UCCs, and that the UCCs were angry and worried that we’d try to turn them into United Methodists.  We were already walking into a hostile situation.  I had four more weeks of maternity leave, but I needed to just get into the house and rest.  Not yet.

By the grace of God, Susan, the chair of the UCC administrative committee, lived a block away in full view of the parsonage.  She came over as soon as she saw us pull up, and offered to have us come over to her house while Brian finished up.  Best of all, Susan was the mother of four and understood what I was feeling.  She kind of scooped us up and took us out of the present chaos.

She had a full lunch laid out for us and she took the baby out of my arms to give me a break.  Her home was like something out of a magazine, beautifully and artfully decorated with antiques, country items, etc.  I immediately felt calmer and sheltered.  She took these tired, stressed-out souls and gave us rest.

Primary on our agenda would be setting boundaries.  Brian, we already discovered, had some issues with boundaries.  The parish office had been in a bedroom of the parsonage, so people let themselves in the front door at all hours of the day.

Having a baby helped in a lot of ways.  It assuaged a lot of the people’s anger over the forced parish, and it put up instant boundaries.  People understood I needed my space for the remainder of my maternity leave.  They agreed that the parsonage was our domain.  The office was moved to the basement, to which there was a separate outside door.  One problem solved.

The women of the churches were very kind to us.  Again, being mothers, they were very concerned about me having just given birth and having to move three days later.  They were also impressed. 

“Wow, back when I gave birth, they kept us in the hospital for two weeks!  I can’t believe you had to move!  You’re a rock star!”  one little old lady said.

The parish women had set up an arrangement to have suppers brought in for the first two weeks, so I got to meet a lot of people ahead of time.  Most of the time they caught me in my nightgown, after having been up with the baby every two hours during the night, but I was so tired I didn’t care.  They got to see the vulnerable human Peggy right away!

The day after we moved in, Larry had to get on the road to head back to Pennsylvania to attend his older daughter Jennifer’s high school graduation.  So I was left with mountains of boxes, a newborn baby, and my parents.  And people I didn’t know showing up at the door.

I couldn’t be much help with the unpacking.  My mother, God bless her, has always been very task-oriented and a hard worker.  You give her something to do and she dove right in, incredibly focused and driven till the task was done.  She delegated tasks to my father, who regularly complained about having to do all this work.

“Why aren’t you helping??” he finally barked at me one day.  I was carrying the baby, bouncing her and rocking her to get her to stop crying.

I opened my mouth to speak, but my mother got to him first.

She was leaning over a box to see what was in it, but when she heard him, she whirled around as if lit by a match and her face looked fiercer than I’d ever seen it.

You didn’t understand 28 years ago, and you don’t understand NOW!!!  Just HELP for once and shut up!”  I was frozen in place.  I’d seen my mother’s wrath before, but never like this, and never directed at my father.  Her face was red and she looked like she could burst, but tossing some stuffed animals out of her path, she retreated to the bedroom.

My father didn’t say a word but picked up a box and carried it down to the basement.

When my mother was pregnant with me, my father was being moved to the Pennington United Methodist Church from Erma.  I was due to be born July 4th, but we had to move June 25th.  Instead of making arrangements in the new town, my father asked the doctor to induce labor before the move.  I was born June 22.  My father and three brothers were out getting ready for the move.  Mom and I moved three days after my birth, from the hospital to the new parsonage in Pennington.  A few days after the move, my father packed up the family to go spend a month vacation at Malaga Camp, in a small cabin.

It’d always been one of those family stories you tell with laughter.  It wasn’t until Sarah’s birth that I realized Mom hadn’t been laughing.  She’d been stuck in a cabin away from home for a month, with a newborn baby and three boys 12 and under, while my father … relaxed.  She’d been holding that one in for twenty-eight years.

Larry turned around after the graduation and came right back, so he was only gone a few days, but it was a rough few days!

My mother had intended to stay for six weeks, as her own mother had done for her for each of her four births.  But after two weeks–while we were watching OJ Simpson drive down the highway on TV in a white Bronco–Dad announced that they were going home.

“Rollo!—” Mom started to object–

“No.  We’re leaving.  I don’t have anything to do here.  We’re going tomorrow.”

I was furious, but spent.  I wasn’t getting any sleep, I was scared of how the new parish was going to go, I was worried about how we were going to pay our bills with less money, and I was brand new at this mothering thing.  I wanted my mother.

They made a deal that Mom could fly out later in the year to stay with us.  But I needed her now.

Thank God for Susan, just down the street.  She was more than willing to help with anything, to babysit while I took a nap, to listen when I had questions, etc.  She had a calm, soothing demeanor, as if nothing could shake her.  I relied on her a lot that first year.

When I started back to work, I preached at two of the churches and Larry preached at the other two, then we’d switch the following week.  I packed up the baby in my Ford F150 and took her with me.  When I arrived at the churches, someone in the congregation took her and held her during the service.  They had sign-up sheets to take turns each week, and the women were delighted to get a turn.  It was distracting to preach while my daughter was crying out in the congregation, but I learned to concentrate under pressure!

After a few months of that, we hired one of the teenage girls from the Methodist Church, Alicia, to hold Sarah during church at the Tilden UMC, then bring her home to the parsonage and babysit till we got home.  That took a lot of pressure off of me, trying to get from one church to the other on time.

The money was not enough.  We couldn’t make ends meet on two 3/4 time salaries.  We had too much debt.  Almost from the beginning of our three years at Tilden, we had constant phone calls from collection agencies demanding money we didn’t have.  When Sarah was sick, we worried over whether she was sick enough to go to the doctor, as our health insurance didn’t cover a lot.  It took us three years to pay off the hospital in Superior for Sarah’s birth.

The pressure was building, but in the midst of all that, I was determined to not let any of it take away from my daughter’s first years.  I didn’t want any of it spoiled.  She was my grace, my purpose and the source of my hope in those difficult days.  They were also the most difficult days of our marriage.  The pressure of the struggling parish, the constant bickering over which church got more attention, the lack of sleep, the relentless phone calls from collectors all kept us in a pressure cooker most of the time.  We fought a lot.

Yet there were many pockets of grace.  There were people like Susan who offered us respite and friendship.  We looked forward to Wednesday night choir practice at the UCC Church.  There were people of all ages there.  They began their evening with a covered dish dinner and fellowship, followed by rehearsal.  There was a lot of laughter and kidding.  Singing was always a great therapy for me.  Men and women alike passed the baby back and forth through the choir as we sang.  That community was a balm to my soul every week.

There were kind people whom we ministered to in the midst of cancer, illness or grief.  There was always Sarah’s firsts:  talking, walking, singing.  She was a source of relentless grace, bringing joy and laughter on the worst and best of days.

She gave me a reason to press on.

Ghost Town

hqdefault

Despite the tension, being a pastor felt natural to me.  It seemed to be what everything in my life had prepared me to do.  Preaching brought me out of my introverted silence, pumped life and passion through my body.  I knew I was good at it, it came easily to me.  Preaching was a high, and Sunday afternoon, I napped.  With a sense of being gloriously spent.

Visiting people who were in pain was a natural expression of who I was.  I felt like I was in my element, and during such visits, the rest of the world and its worries  melted away.  Part of the reason I was called to do more funerals was that I was good at it.  Most of the time I didn’t know the deceased, but I knew how to gather families and get them to talk, tell stories.  That time turned out to be cathartic for family members.  They laughed and cried, remembering their loved ones.  Remembering moments.  From those stories, I built a service.  I made them laugh in the midst of their tears.  I told their stories back to them.

“You sounded like you knew them!” I often heard.

The people of Guide Rock liked me.  They liked my preaching.  More people came to church.  Some came back to church after they’d been to a funeral.  The new preacher cared, they heard.

At Edythe’s husband’s funeral that first week of my appointment, Robert approached me.

“You’ll hear my name from others.  I’ve had so many run-ins with our previous pastors, I’m famous for making trouble.  You won’t see me on Sunday mornings, I’m not coming back.  I’ve had it with these people.  But I’m glad you’re here.  I’m glad for them.  You’re obviously one of the good ones,” he said, shaking my hand.

I thought maybe I was here to help them heal, to strengthen as a church, and to grow.

The second time I bled, Larry took me to the ER in town as before.

“Well, you may be miscarrying,” the doctor said bluntly, “but we’ll just have to wait.”

I laid on the exam table and closed my eyes.  Tears linked down the sides of my head onto the paper beneath me.  Larry put his forehead on mine while the doctor left the room, to allow me privacy to get dressed.

She’d been so blunt.  “Miscarrying.”  She advised me to stay down again for a week and check in again with her; sooner if I bled more or miscarried.  Larry helped me sit up, though the room spun and my hands were trembling.  I tried to hold in the tears.  I felt so alone, just the two of us.  No family nearby, and I couldn’t call my mother.  I’d have to take care of her if I told her, assure her everything was alright.  But I didn’t know that.  I wanted to be comforted instead.

From the couch at home, I called Wanda, my secretary, and told her that I’d be down again for a week.  There was silence on the other end of the phone.

“Uh… ok.  I’ll call Pat (the chair of the Pastor-Parish Relations Committee).”  Silence again.  “You’re probably miscarrying, huh?”  My face tingled with unshed tears and I felt suddenly nauseous.  No comfort here.

“I don’t know.”

A couple of days later, Pat called me.  “I just wanted to tell you about a special PPR meeting I’ve set up for next week when you’re back,” she said, not asking me how I was, not even saying ‘hello.’

“Ok,” I laid back on the pillows. “What’s it about?”

“Oh,” she said, “Nothing to worry about.  We just need to address some concerns across the parish.”

Pat was a member of the Cowles Church.  I’d met Pat at her house in the country.  Well, not technically.  She had no house.  Her house had been destroyed in a tornado a few years previously.  Only her basement was left.  Her and her husband had plans to retire and move to Red Cloud in the near future, so they didn’t rebuild.  On her property was a large cement slab, with a doorway  in the center of it, attached to a triangle that was the descending stairs.  That day I’d met her for coffee to get to know her as my PPRC chair.  She was reserved, but friendly.

She hung up.  I felt a deep, sickening dread.  Tingling again, beginning in my face and extending down my body.  My chest was tight and I felt nauseous.  I was scared.  I started to cry.  I just wanted a little bit of comfort, some assurance.  Support.  Larry was my sole supplier.  I was grateful for him.

But otherwise, I felt so alone.  And panicked.

“I don’t know if I can do this for another 37 years if this is what church ministry is going to be like,” I told Larry when he brought me supper and fluffed the pillows under my feet.  He didn’t say much.  He was furious at my churches for showing no support whatsoever, no concern.

The women of Superior were already discussing who would get to babysit this new little person.  They did send flowers, cards and shared concern with Larry when they saw him at the church.  I envied him his appointment.  There were issues, of course, but it was a good strong church with a viable ministry.  They were responsive to his leadership.  There were times I resented Larry for having a good ministry, where he felt rewarded.  Where he could use his gifts.  He went to the office every day and people came in and out, visiting with him.

I felt like I was a pastor in a ghost town.

The following week I still hadn’t miscarried, and was given the go-ahead from the doctor to go back to work.  The SPRC meeting was Tuesday night at the Guide Rock church.  As I drove the 25 miles west to Guide Rock, I looked out at the seemingly endless prairie.  Cows grazing, a gorgeous Nebraska sunset.  So much beauty.

I walked into the basement of the Guide Rock Church.  Everyone was already there.  Pat, the older couple from Cowles, and three Guide Rock members.  Waiting for me.

Pat sat up straight, lips pursed, not looking like the friendly woman who served me coffee in her basement home just weeks before.  They asked me to say a prayer, which I always found odd.  What was I praying for?  For guidance?  They knew what they were there for, and they already had their script.

“A lot of people are upset,” Pat said, opening the meeting.  No one asked how I was feeling, how I was.  The Guide Rock contingency, led by Wayne, looked down at the table, as if folding into themselves.

“You missed two Sundays of church!” Pat noted accusingly.  “We had to pay for replacements for two Sundays!  Are you going to pay us back for that?”  She stared at me angrily.

“I was on bed rest, ordered by my doctor,” I said feebly.

“Still, we had to pay out that money… and while we’re on the subject, what are you going to do with the baby?  Is the baby going to take time away from your ministry?  Are you planning to bring the baby to the office?  What if you get called out?  Then what happens?”  Her questions, obviously rehearsed and written in the notes in front of her, came in rapid-fire succession, giving me little time to answer.

“I will set up child care in Superior,” I said quietly, stunned at the attack.  They were already threatened by my baby?

One of the Henderson’s piped up.  “You’ve never come to visit us at our home.  People are complaining that you don’t visit. Why not?”

“I’ve done some…” I answered feebly, again, “I’ve had a lot of funerals.”

“yes, of people not even in our churches!  People complain they don’t see you much in Guide Rock at all…”

And so it went on.  Pat let it slip that she’d been going door to door in Guide Rock and to the other six members of Cowles not present to get a list of complaints against me.

The Guide Rock representatives were silent.  They didn’t look at me.  They didn’t speak.

The attack went on and on.  I tried to answer their concerns, but I was stricken.  I was exhausted, depressed, and angry.  But I didn’t have the nerve or the energy to defend myself.

With two separate episodes of bleeding and bed rest, all of my concern and emotions were directed toward my baby.  I felt desperate.  I wanted this baby so badly.  Once we decided that we’d start trying, we grew more and more anxious to have a child together.  We assumed we’d only have one, since Larry would be almost 42 when it was born.  Secretly, though, if we had a boy, I wanted to try again for a girl.  With all my heart, I wanted a daughter. I’d love my son if I had one, but I wanted a daughter with all my heart.  I couldn’t even explain the intensity of that desire.  Part of it, perhaps, was to have the kind of relationship with her that I’d always longed for with my own mother.

When Pat seemed satisfied that she’d filled her agenda of dressing me down, she adjourned the meeting.  The Guide Rock people left quickly.  The Cowles contingency tried to make small talk with me as I locked up and turned the lights out.  Outside, I sat in my truck and waited till they were all out of the parking lot.

And I sobbed.

After a long conversation with Sam the District Superintendent, he scheduled a meeting with Pat and Wayne at the parsonage.  Sam and I had lunch frequently in Red Cloud where I poured out my anguish.  He listened faithfully.  Sam was a good pastor.  He was kind and compassionate.

At the meeting, Pat was on her own.  She was without her cohorts from Cowles.  Wayne felt more empowered.

“You attacked Peggy unfairly!  You went around town and collected complaints, people told me!  You didn’t even ask them for what they love about Peggy or how she’s helped them!  You asked them specifically what she needs to do that she’s not doing.  You even gave them ideas!”  Wayne was uncharacteristically outspoken and visibly angry.

Pat was silent, her lips pursed with indignation.  Sam tried to mediate.  Pat didn’t deny that she looked for complaints.  She didn’t say much during the meeting, and she didn’t look me in the eye.

The baby growing inside of me gave me hope, a sense of new life.  We found out we were indeed having a little girl.  When I called my mother, she screamed and laughed.

I wasn’t going to bring my daughter into this hostile environment.  I wasn’t going to apologize for having a baby, or allow them to dictate how much time I had with my child.  Having a baby, a daughter, for me, was a dream come true.  I wasn’t going to allow this community to suck the joy out of this experience as they sucked out the life from everything else.

With Sam’s help, I was able to get an audience with the Bishop.  The Bishop was well aware of Guide Rock’s reputation for chewing up pastors and spitting them out.  The role that the Cowles’ leaders played in that was new to him.  My proposal was that Guide Rock was too small a church to carry the parish, now that New Virginia had closed.  Financially, they couldn’t pay their own bills much less apportionments to the Conference.  I proposed to the Bishop that Guide Rock and Cowles be joined to Red Cloud in a parish, since Red Cloud was a bigger and stronger church.  He agreed that seemed like a good idea.

Since I was a recent seminary graduate, I also knew that I would not be appointed to that arrangement and we would move.  Larry and I had talked about this.  There was some tension around that decision, as he was in a good appointment.  We were moving because of me.  But he also was angry at how cruel Guide Rock and Cowles had been to me, and did not want to bring our child into that arrangement.

My last Administrative Council meeting was also my last day in the parish.  At the meeting, after we’d taken care of regular business, Wayne stood up.  He looked up and down the table.  The Cowles people were there, as it was a joint Ad Council meeting.

“You all should be ashamed of yourselves,” he said, looking around.  “We should all be ashamed at how we treated Peggy this year!”  People looked down at the table.  “She is the best pastor we’ve ever had, and we treated her like crap!  We never let her do what she needed to do, and now we’re paying for that.  She’s leaving.  And I don’t blame her one bit.  Who would want to stay and take this crap?  You should all be ashamed of yourselves, I know I am.”  He sat down.

It was very quiet.

The Chair moved that we adjourn.  He turned to me.  “Pastor Peggy, we do apologize.  We are sorry you  were treated so badly.  I wish we could undo it.  But I, for one, wish you all the best in your new appointment and with your baby.  Thank you for all you’ve done for us.”

Meeting adjourned.  We moved into the fellowship hall for my baby shower.

The baby was due June 16th.  Annual Conference, from which I’d been excused, was June 1-4.  We were scheduled to move out June 6th, and into our new parsonage June 7th, staying overnight in Norfolk, Nebraska.  Larry and I had traveled to Norfolk to make arrangements with the hospital there.

My parents flew in from New Jersey to be with me while Larry attended Annual Conference, and to be there for the birth.  My grandmother had stayed with my mother six weeks for each of the babies my mother had.  Dad retired from pastoral ministry in May.

On June 2nd, Larry came home early from Annual Conference and offered to take us all out for a steak dinner at Dreisbach’s in Grand Island.  GI was 90 minutes away, but the steak was really good.  My father complained the entire way about how absurd it was to drive 90 minutes for dinner, and how famished he was.

I remember seeing the waitress come through the doors carrying a tray with our salads on it.  At that precise moment, I had a really weird feeling in my abdomen, followed by a sudden gush of liquid.

My father, with his fork poised to enter his mouth, stopped.  “What’s the matter?”

“I think my water just broke.”

“Are you sure?”

Yeah, I was pretty sure.

Guide Rock

Guide_Rock,_Nebraska_downtown_2

“Downtown” Guide Rock, Nebraska;  Population: 200 

I was sitting at my desk in Guide Rock, Nebraska when an enraged, huge man appeared in the window next to my desk.  I jumped backwards out of my chair.  His face filled the entire window, and his eyes narrowed as he found me in the room.

“They’ll never get over you!”  he screamed and his image disappeared to the right.  I knew he was heading for the door.  I could hear him laughing as he burst through the front door, so I ran toward the hall only to realize that there was no back door.  I turned and ran full force into the front screen door, hope to get past him and escape.  Hoping that someone would see me in the front yard and help.  But then as I was feeling the cuts of the screen against my skin, I realized no one would see me.  No one would help if they did.

And I woke up, trembling and sucking air desperately as if I’d been underwater.

I grew up with stories of my father’s first appointment in Erma, New Jersey.  It was a small church that he grew over 13 years.  They adored him, I was told.  They threw him a “This is Your Life, Rollo” event in which they flew his mother out from India, showered him with gifts, and named their fellowship hall after him.

I didn’t need a hall named after me, but I was excited to dive into ministry full-time and apply all that I’d learned.  I had big expectations.

During my last year of seminary, Bishop Martinez visited Nebraska students on the St. Paul campus.  He told us that it was his intention to give us all very positive first appointments upon graduation, because, he said, that first appointment could affect the rest of our ministry.  If it was good, then we’d start off on a strong foot.  If it was a bad experience, we could be struggling up hill into the future.

Bishop Martinez was a prophet.

As wonderful as Ceresco and Valparaiso were for us, we had to go.  I didn’t realize, when falling in love with Larry, that for some conferences, clergy couples were a problem, not an asset.  Especially those couples who desired to live in the same parsonage.  It was “difficult” to appoint us.  Many couples compromised by the wife taking a part-time appointment while the husband took a full-time appointment.  Crazy me was ready to go full-time.  In addition to being ready for ministry, I had bills to pay.

So, we had to leave Ceresco to be able to appoint both of us full time.  We’d been at Ceresco for two years, and we loved the people and the churches.  But it was time to go.  After all, we were United Methodist pastors in an itinerant  system.  Larry had agreed, upon full ordination, to “go wherever the Bishop sends (him) without reserve.”  I would someday make that promise… trusting, of course, that the Bishop would have my best interests in mind.  Assuming that I was more than a push-pin on a map.

1993.  We packed up our things and moved to Superior, Nebraska, where Larry would serve Superior and Nora UMCs, and I would commute 25+ miles to Guide Rock/Cowles/New Virginia.  The Guide Rock congregation, who owned the parsonage, were not happy at all that I would not be living in the parsonage and asked me why I couldn’t.  I said I wanted to live with my husband.  They were angry.

They stayed angry.

Actually, they were angry before they even met me.

Before I graduated, my predecessor, Marilyn, met us in St. Joseph, MO to tell me about the churches.  She’d been there a year.  She was an older woman, a bit unkempt, and ready to unload.  She told me about individuals in the church, particularly the nasty ones.  The Conference had bragged that Guide Rock had paid their full apportionments to the Conference the previous year, the sign to the Conference of a “strong church.”

Marilyn said, “The only reason that they paid apportionments is because Helen, an old lady on the edge of town, owns greyhounds.  She won big last year– $30,000– so she paid off the church’s apportionments for them.”

Gambling is actually frowned upon in The United Methodist Book of Discipline, but hey.

She also told me that the whole town has a strong history and reputation for hostility.   Guide Rock has a population of 200 people and is far away from everything, out in the middle of nowhere.  The closest town is Red Cloud, famed for the writer Willa Cather, but Red Cloud is not very big either.   The people of Guide Rock were ticked at the government, the Conference, basically everybody.  They feel victimized.

Five years earlier, GR had a woman pastor who bullied them.  She was hostile, demanding, and controlling.  I believed it because I knew her.  She left after a year.  Then the Conference appointed a man, an older man, who last six months.  Upon leaving GR, he left the Conference and the ministry.  He was followed by a pastor who had been kicked out of two churches before being appointed to Guide Rock.  He didn’t do anything, I was told.  For six months out of the 18 months that he was in Guide Rock, he was in the hospital.  He left the Conference.  Then there was Marilyn, who I was told by my District Superintendent, bullied people.  She was a bully.  She trashed the parsonage while being there for only a year.  She, too, left the Conference.

The average length of stay for any pastor serving Guide Rock in its entire history was a year, or slightly less.

But I was fresh out of seminary, I was pumped and ready.  Perhaps my job was to provide healing to these folks.  Perhaps my mission was to offer them grace, build them up, strengthen them.

I was also terrified.

The parsonage in Superior was a lovely, two-story old house with finished wood sliding doors into each room.  It reminded me a lot of the house in Red Bank, NJ where I grew up.  I kept looking for the good, for signs that this was what God wanted.  I enjoyed unpacking and making it ours.

Cowles was the second of my three churches.  There was no population posted for Cowles, as it was “unincorporated.” (Not enough people to count, basically)  There was very little there besides the church, and Cowles UMC had 9 people in the congregation on Sunday morning.  There was no indoor plumbing, but there was an outhouse out back that hadn’t been used in years.

New Virginia was a little white clapboard church all by itself in the middle of the prairie on a dirt road.  Not gravel, but dirt. (Toto, I don’t think we’re in New Jersey anymore)   The church consisted of 10 people on Sunday morning, but they only met for worship once a month.    The members were all over the age of 70 (which seemed old to me at the time).

On the first Sunday of the month, they met for a covered dish dinner, laid out on the back set of chairs in the sanctuary.  They brought in jugs of water as there was no plumbing there either.  They had two outhouses out back, men’s and women’s.  After a hearty potluck meal, the men sat on one side of the church and the women on the other for worship.

It was like stepping back in time. The chairs all folded up and were linked by iron.  In the summer, they were sticky, as if newly varnished.  The room smelled very musty and old.  People dressed from Little House on the Prairie would have looked right at home.

“Keep it short, they tend to fall asleep quickly,” Marilyn had informed me.  There was an old out-of-tune piano, but no one to play it, so I would have to bring my guitar as well to accompany them on the hymns.

Welcome to ministry, Peggy Sue.

That first Sunday went well.  Everyone was polite and kind, but I sensed that they were very reluctant to trust me.  After all, they didn’t expect me to hang around long.  I hoped to win their trust and prove them wrong.  This is what I was prepared for, this was the culmination of all the exciting things that happened to me to get me to that point.  I was ready to dive in.

The most memorable part of my first day was driving to New Virginia.  It had rained two inches the night before, so the dirt road leading out to the church had turned to pure mud.  My 12 year-old stepson Michael was with me in my pick-up as we struggled down that muddy path for ten miles.  The truck fishtailed the entire way, I struggled to keep it on the road.  Mike was laughing the entire way, delighted in the adventure, and perhaps some of the choice words coming out of my mouth.

My heart raced a bit more when the little white church finally came into view.  The old men were out on the porch of the church as I pulled in, the sides of the truck splattered generously with mud.

Wayne, the youngest of them all at 70, sat on the step and slapped his knee.  “Welcome!” he said, laughing. “By the way, normally when we get 2 inches of rain we cancel church because it’s too hard to get here.  But we really wanted to see how a young woman preacher from New Jersey in a pick-up truck would handle it!”  He laughed, and the others joined in.

I chose to assume they were good-natured, and laughed along with them.

The Pastor-Parish Relations Committee and I talked about how it was crucial that I be a visible presence especially in Guide Rock, especially because of the hostility over me not living in the parsonage.  So I set up my office in the empty house.  The rest of the house was completely empty.  I went there every morning and sorted through the mail.  Much of the mail, of course, was advertisements for exciting new Bible Studies, approaches to ministry, curriculum for confirmation, etc.  Most of it went in the trash.

My secretary, Wanda, was a tall, older woman who lived on a farm with her husband.  She was kind, but she was the one who filled me on in the church’s dismal history.  Talk about a glass-half-empty person.  She’d seen enough pastors come and go, get chewed up by the congregation and spit out, that she seemed to actually feel sorry for me before I even started.  But for two days a week, she was company.  The rest of the week, I was completely alone in that empty, silent house.

Someone told me about a rock concert in Guide Rock that I needed to attend.  The group was a small family Christian band from in town.  They didn’t come to church much, but Wanda said maybe I could win them over.  The kids were all home-schooled, which was a new concept to me, and the family, Wanda said, generally stayed to themselves when they weren’t performing.

I saw it as an opportunity to show interest in the community.  When Larry and I arrived at the large hall in Hastings, about 45 minutes away, we saw some of my people from the Guide Rock Church.  They seemed glad to see me.  I think one of them was related to the father of the family band.

The group came out and played.  They weren’t very good.  They were loud and chaotic, but their lyrics used Jesus’ name a lot.  Finally, the father, with his guitar, stepped to the mike.  He looked out into the mostly empty hall–about 30 people were there– and launched into a tirade about the devil being at work in our community.  He shook his Bible in the air and said, “This is pitiful!  Nobody wants to hear the Lord’s music!” He began to pace the stage and came back to the mike.

“And I tell you what, it’s the fault of those phony, ordained, paper-preachers…” he growled. I stiffened.  “They’re all frauds!  They think with their education they got something to say but they don’t know the Lord!  They’re not saved!  I can count on one hand the number of preachers I honestly trust…”

My chest tightened.  What the…?  I nudged Larry, whose jaw was visibly tensing.  “Let’s get out of here.”

The next morning at the empty parsonage, Wanda told me, “Oh yeah, Kevin is just plain crazy.  He’s just angry all the time.  The kids can’t relate to anybody, they don’t know how.  They’re all holed up in their house alone.  Someone said that Kevin got mad at all the sex on T.V. one night and took a shotgun and blew it to pieces.”

During my first week, Edythe had a stroke and was sent to the hospital in Lincoln.  I hadn’t met Edythe yet.  I was eager to get out of town anyway, and the two-hour drive was a chance to get a break.

Edythe was a sweet, tiny red-haired woman in her 80s.  She was very appreciative that I came to visit her all the way in Lincoln.  We talked a long time.  Her husband came in during our visit, as he made the trek from home to Lincoln every day to see his dear wife.  He told me about his garden and all the things that were coming up that he would share with me.  The visit was a gracious oasis in that turbulent first week.

Edythe was moved to a rehab hospital soon after that, also in Lincoln.  After my first Sunday in the pulpit, I headed to Lincoln again to see her.  As I approached her, I saw she was huddle over in her chair with her son stroking her back.  She was weeping.  I knew tears were very common in stroke victims.  Her son looked up and me and thanked me for coming.  He went to get some coffee and gave me his chair.

“Hey, Edythe,” I said, stroking her arm.  Her smile was shaky through the tears.  We talked a bit.  She stopped crying eventually.

“Is your husband coming today?” I asked her.

She looked up at me, startled, and began to cry again.  “I thought that’s why you were here,” she said, puzzled.  “My son just told me that Henry’s dead.”

Someone had found him the night before, laying in his garden.  A massive heart attack.

My heart hurt.  He’d been such a sweet man.

My first funeral in Guide Rock was huge, as I was told it would be.  Everyone liked Henry.  That was one thing that people in town could agree on, said Dayre, the funeral director.  Dayre was a young, blond, tanned partner in Williams Funeral Home out of Red Cloud, and I met him and his brother Michael before the funeral.

“You look way too young to be a preacher,” Dayre told me when I walked in with my clergy collar on.

I laughed.  It was something I heard quite a bit, and I confess, it made me feel good.

Dayre and Michael both teased me and joked with me that day about being a Jersey girl stuck out on the prairie.  They also added their two cents about the history of this doomed ghost town.  “Everybody fights.  It’s what they do.  It’s the main activity,” Dayre said.  “Nobody trusts each other, much less outsiders.  You’ve got your work cut out for you.”

The funeral went well.  I had met with family members in the days leading up to it, asking them about Henry.  They shared stories, laughed through their tears.  I visited others in the community, too, to hear what they had to say.  It was agreed;  Henry was a sweet, beloved man in this community.

Afterwards, Dayre approached me.  “That was beautiful,” he said. “You sounded like you knew the man!”

Matthew, a leader in the small community and a banker, approached me.  “You may hear my name around church.  I don’t come.  These people are nuts.  I can’t handle them.  I left years ago and there’s no way I’m coming back.  And I hate preachers,” he said, “but you’re alright.  I think you’ll be good for them.  Just don’t let them eat you alive,” he said, patting me on the arm.

(Wanda said later, “You can take that to the bank.  Matt doesn’t say good things about just anybody…”)

I felt pumped full of hope that day.  I’d won them over.  Many, many people complimented me on the funeral and were surprised that I was able to capture Henry’s spirit in my sermon, not having known him.  One of my seminary professors had told me, “you do a good funeral, and you go a long way to winning over the community.”  My hopes were back up.

I didn’t realize that my main task in Guide Rock would be… funerals.

If all the funerals I did that year were church members, I would have emptied out the church.  Larry thought Dayre recommended me and called me for funerals because he was attracted to me.  He did flirt, though he seemed happily married with kids he adored.  But for whatever reason, when someone died in or around Guide Rock who didn’t have a church affiliation, I got the funeral.  Or if they were Missouri Synod Lutheran and hadn’t kept up on their pledges to the church, I got the funeral.

Sometimes I’d get home from one funeral and walk in the door only to have a phone call from Dayre or Michael telling me about the next one.  All in all, I had close to 60 funerals that year.  In 12 months.

Meanwhile, the rest of my ministry was stalled.  I couldn’t get anyone on board to do anything.  I had a lot of ideas.  I was on the mailing list for piles of United Methodist resources that ended up in the trash.

“That’ll never work here.”

“You can try to have a confirmation class, but nobody will show up.”

“Nobody wants to come out at night.”

As time went on, people in Superior told me that the Guide Rock church had a reputation across two counties as being a place that couldn’t get along.  They fought about everything.  People left the church because they couldn’t stand the fighting.  Just driving into town it felt like some force sucked out my breath, my spirit.  No one was out on the streets.  It was like a ghost town.  Within three months, I was depressed, sucked dry.  Everything I was so ready to do, dreams I had of ministry and getting things going, making a difference, were completely crushed.  Sitting in the parsonage day after day, immersed in the stillness, the empty quiet, I sunk deeper and deeper into depression.

I did go out visiting with detailed directions from Wanda.  People seemed confused as to why I was at their door, they were suspicious of my motives for visiting.  So I stopped doing that.  I went downtown to have lunch at the cafe, hoping to make connections there.  People stared at me, of course knowing I was an outsider.  It didn’t feel warm.

In October, I discovered I was pregnant.  We’d thought about waiting till I got through my first year of ministry at least, but somehow, I think we needed a little hope.  As soon as we started trying, I got pregnant.  That life growing inside of me was my source of perseverance.

If people would have yelled or screamed or raged, I would have still been afraid, but somehow their passive, hostile silence was more draining.  They expected nothing good and they sucked the life out of anyone trying.

Wanda told me they all liked me.  They liked my preaching and worship services.  Back in Echelon Hills, I’d started singing my benedictions, which was something congregations really appreciated, so that became my trademark.  Wanda said people loved that.

But whereas worship and preaching usually energized me, it was draining in Guide Rock and Cowles.  Cowles simply didn’t have enough people to feel like a worship service.  I did increase the worship attendance in Guide Rock to about 60 people per Sunday.  But there was no energy coming back.  They took whatever I had to offer, but gave nothing in return.  It was as if the community was a black hole that sucked everything out of me that I had to give.

I carried 7Up in a to-go cup with me every Sunday, as I suffered from morning sickness.  I had it with me in the pulpit.  But the long miles in between Guide Rock and Cowles and (monthly) New Virginia, took a toll.  I had to use the otherwise unused outhouse behind the Cowles church, full of cobwebs and creatures lurking about.  The house next door had peacocks in the backyard that eyed me curiously as I disappeared into the dilapidated building.  They screeched during Silent Prayer every Sunday, without fail.  As if they were against anything good as well.

The New Virginia people told me in my third month that they were ready to close their church.  It was becoming too difficult for them to trek out to the church each month, much less haul the food and water.  And their main benefactor, Charlotte, was moving to Red Cloud.

So in the midst of death, there was strangely– life.  For the final celebration at New Virginia, I wrote up their history, their long list of pastors who served them, and the members who’d made them a church.  I sent invitations to family members who were away, and former pastors who’d served there.  We packed the little prairie church.  A member’s great-grandchild was baptized.  It was the first time the baptismal font was used in decades.  We sang hymns, I played the guitar.  The District Superintendent spoke.  An offering was taken for the upkeep of the building in the future.  The plate was overflowing.

We had a covered dish dinner out on the lawn.  It was bittersweet, but it was a holy party.  I kept trying to figure out why I was there, what God wanted from me amidst all the death.  Perhaps it was this.  To give dignity to the little church on the prairie as they closed its doors.

A week later, however, we were back in the little church on the prairie to say goodbye yet again.  This time, to Wayne, the youngest member of the New Virginia Church at 70.  He’d been found dead of a stroke in his house just days after the celebration.

It was around that time, too, that I started bleeding.  “It might be a miscarriage,” Wanda said nonchalantly.   I was ordered to bed rest by my doctor in Superior.  I missed a Sunday at church.

And the death spirit that seemed to follow my ministry in Guide Rock daily, intensified.

 

 

 

 

Accepted

1992 ordination

For the first 36 years of my life I lived with undiagnosed chronic depression and anxiety.  Most of the time I didn’t think about it as it was just a way of life.  At the end of each day I was exhausted, but wasn’t everybody?  I was always on edge, always afraid of getting in trouble or criticized.  I thought I had a lot to prove.  It was magnified many times over on my journey into and through ministry.

I never felt good enough to be where I was.  At St. Paul School of Theology, as at Drew, I still felt like I had to constantly prove myself and that I was always just one step behind.  I thought if important people like Tex and Gene would be impressed by me, then maybe I could feel ok.  Gene, however, was not one to express such things easily.  I didn’t know this at the time.  Tex was impressed with my gifts and said so, but after gaining one accolade, I had to move on to another, as if they expired.  Well, he said last week that I was awesome, but he might have changed his mind….  I felt like I had reached this point in my journey by tricking people, and felt that sooner or later someone was going to catch me and call me a fraud.  I was scared.  All the time.

Coming up for ordination didn’t help.  I thought perhaps this was where I’d be unmasked, especially after the fiasco at Conestoga Parish.  In 1992, there was a two-step ordination process in the United Methodist Church.  The first step was Deacon’s Orders and a probationary membership in the Conference.  Candidates were eligible for this step once they were halfway through seminary.  The second step, Elder’s Orders and full membership in the Conference, became possible after serving a church full-time for two years.   I was eligible for application for Deacon’s, Larry was eligible for Elder’s.

I still didn’t know anybody in the Nebraska Annual Conference, since I was at school during the year.  Larry’s interviews for Elder’s Orders were in January.  His experience didn’t help my terror.  He’d had only two pastors on his interview committee.  One hardly spoke at all, just smiled.  The other, whom we’ll call Frank seemed to resent that Larry graduated from Drew.  He was a St. Paul grad.  He was hostile and accusing, suggesting that Larry wouldn’t have any theology at all graduating from Drew.  He asked Larry questions that were common questions asked at our Senior Credo conferences at St. Paul; not questions Larry was prepared for.  But being Larry, he kept his cool and didn’t confront his accuser.  Afterward, the dopey quiet one whispered helplessly in Larry’s ear, “I’m so sorry.”

Fortunately, Larry and the other candidates had the opportunity to mingle with the rest of the Board of Ordained Ministry throughout the day in discussion groups and over lunch.  In addition to that, Larry was already known and loved in the Conference.  They knew he was already a good pastor.  When Larry was ordained in June, Frank shook his hand in front of the whole congregation and whispered, “You got in in spite of me, I see.”  And he smiled a mean smile.  God Bless.

If I hadn’t been terrified before Larry’s interviews, I figured I was doomed afterwards.  Carol had warned me back when I left Conestoga that this could reflect badly on me.  My interviews were in March.  In preparation for these interviews, like Larry, I had to write pages and pages of answers to questions from The Book of Discipline.  I had to submit a sermon and a detailed Bible Study.  I had to write an autobiography.  I sweated over those papers.  I wrote more than they ever needed to know for my answers to the questions.  I took breaks, paced the floor, cried, insisted to Larry that I’d never make it, lost sleep.  Still stinging from his own experience, Larry was more than supportive and assuring.

“When you get there, look for a man named Don Bredthauer.  He was a D.S. when I was a student pastor, and he was really supportive of me.  He helped me get started.  At Annual Conference he suggested books I should read to help me.  He’s a good guy.”

Right.  Larry wasn’t allowed to come with me, so he dropped me off at Kearney First United Methodist Church early one Saturday morning and told me he believed in me.

I walked into the fellowship hall at Kearney First, scanning the crowd, feeling like everyone knew I was a stranger.  Everyone else surely knew everyone there.  My hands were shaking as I leaned over and wrote my name on a nametag and pulled the sticky backing off.  When I straightened up, there was a tall, thin, graying man smiling at me.  He stuck out his hand.

“Hi, Peggy, I thought that was you.  My name is Don Bredthauer…”  You’re kidding.  “I just wanted to greet you and tell you how impressed I am with your written materials.  I’m on your interview committee this afternoon–” he laughed, “I’m not really supposed to tell you that, but I am really looking forward to it.”  He patted me on the arm, looked around as if to see if he was overheard, winked at me and disappeared into the crowd.

Well, ok then.  My heart was still pounding and my hands were ice cold.  But I thought, thanks for that one, God.  

I stood up straight and took deep breaths, pretending I knew what I was doing.  Thankfully my friend Eric, from school, was also up for ordination.  I made a beeline for him, the only familiar face in the crowd.

The members of the Board were all dressed casually, with the idea of blending in.  Throughout the day we were in discussion groups with a few of them, answering questions about ministry situations.  The idea was to make everyone feel as if we were all equal.  I intentionally kept my distance from Frank when I spotted him and inwardly snarled.

We began the day with worship and ended with worship.  The whole day did help to calm nerves, but despite Don’s introduction and compliments, I did start to worry again as the afternoon interviews loomed closer.  Would they grill me on Conestoga??  Would they shame me for quitting?  Would they ask me to prove my commitment in light of that episode?  Would Carol be on my committee?  If so, I was sure I was doomed.

While waiting for our turn, all of us candidates paced the halls of the large church.  Eric went into the sanctuary and played the piano.  Some of us gravitated toward the worship area and soaked up his soothing music.  All of us were praying.

Finally it was my turn.  A woman named Nancy called for me and escorted me to a Sunday School room.

“Nervous?”

“Ha!” I said, answering with my shaky laughter.

She smiled.  “I wouldn’t worry.  Your materials are wonderful.”  She winked at me.

Huh.

As we entered the room and she introduced me, there was Don, grinning like he was having a good time, an Indian pastor named Mannick Samuel, and the pastor who hadn’t defended Larry at his own interview.  I didn’t know what to think about that.

Nancy introduced me to the group, adding that I was a student at St. Paul School of Theology (which they knew from my autobiography) and that I’d transferred into Nebraska from Southern New Jersey (which they also knew).

“I see that Larry has already gone through his interviews and passed.  Does that make this any less frightening for you?”  Nancy asked casually.

I let out an involuntary guffaw.  “Hardly!  His experience actually makes me MORE nervous!”  I laughed again–a little too loud, I was certain.

Nancy’s eyebrows shot up.  “Really?”  She turned to the pastor who’d been on Larry’s committee.  “Bob? Can you tell us something?”

Bob looked a little sheepish, as he wrung his hands in his lap.  “Frank was really hard on Larry,” he said, shrugging.

Nancy pressed her lips together tightly.  Her displeasure was evident.  This eased my anxiety quite a bit.  “Well, I’m really sorry to hear that.  We’re not going  to do that,” she smiled.

I liked this woman.

Nancy had a stack of copies of my papers in her lap, as they all did.  She looked through them, browsing, and told me that my answer to all the questions were very strong, well thought-out, nicely written and well-informed.  She complimented my sermon, my Bible Study.  She made positive comments about my autobiography and asked me one clarifying question on something– I don’t remember what.

“Now, does anybody have any questions?” she referred to the rest of the group.

Don grinned at me.  Holding the thick stack of papers in his hands, he shook his head.  “I agree with you, Nancy, these are excellent materials. She answered every question so thoroughly there’s nothing to ask!  I say we approve her!”  He dramatically dropped my papers on the floor in front of him.

I sucked in my breath and stifled a laugh.  Really???  I smiled, trying not to laugh and cry at the same time.

Nancy rolled her eyes but did so smiling.  “Don, we can’t just let her go after 10 minutes.  I agree, there’s not much to ask, but let’s take some time here, ok?”  Don nodded, leaned over and picked up the papers again and started to shuffle through them.

Mannick asked me about my father.  I was very honest in the autobiography about my difficult relationship with my father.  I suspected that this would come up, especially since he was a pastor himself.  Mannick asked me pointed questions about our relationship, how that affected my faith and my call, etc.  I answered as best I could, and I was starting to calm down.  We talked about his culture growing up in India, and how that affected his view of women.

Nancy and Don both raised the questions about Conestoga, asking me to tell them again what happened.  Again, I was very honest.  I knew they knew Warren the D.S.  I didn’t disparage him, but I shared the frustration at not being able to get any support or intervention from him to help the situation.  I told them how I tried to address the problem, but the stress of school and my wedding on top of it all made it necessary for me to leave.  I spoke of how much I valued my seminary education, so much so that I did make the transfer to St. Paul, and that I didn’t want my student ministry to undermine that at all.

They seemed pleased.  By the end of the interview– which was shorter than anyone else’s–they affirmed their compliments of my materials and my handling of the interview and wished me well.  They assured me that they would recommend to the Board that I be ordained a Deacon in June.  Someone would call me in two days to let me know how the vote went.

Mannick pulled me aside before I left.  “Just one word of advice,” he said. “Learn more about your father’s culture.”  He smiled and patted me on the arm.

At the end of the day, Larry picked me up, giving me flowers and Garth Brooks’ new CD.  He was happy to hear that my experience had been much better than his, and agreed that it was a “God thing” that Don was on my committee.

On June 5, 1992, at the Nebraska Annual Conference, Larry and I were ordained in the same service;  him an Elder and full member of the Conference, and me a Deacon and probationary member.  It felt particularly significant to be ordained together, another huge gift of our new marriage.  My parents flew out to Lincoln for the event.  It was their first time in Nebraska.

“The roads are all straight!” my Mom said.  “When we were landing, it looked like the whole state is drawn in a grid!”

“The sky is right next to you!” my father commented.  “It’s like a dome!”

It was fun to show them around and share my new home with them.  The congregation was very supportive and threw us a reception to celebrate our ordinations.  They presented us with a quilt, handmade by the quilting ladies, with blocks signed by each member of the Ceresco/Valparaiso parish.

I was home.

 

 

Rev. In Training

246758_486607571363476_1304153325_n

“Hey, honey, you have a gorgeous voice.  Listen, I work in Las Vegas, and I bet I could get you a gig.”

I laughed self-consciously.  This was the father of the young man whose funeral Larry just officiated.  He spoke with a gravelly smoker’s voice.  He was shorter than me.   He elbowed me conspiratorially.  “What do you say?”

“Yeah, thanks, but I don’t think so.”

His son had collapsed suddenly from a heart attack at the age of 23.  The family wasn’t a part of the church or any church, so the funeral director had referred them to Larry.  The young man had been engaged to be married that summer.

Since the funeral fell on a weekend, I was home from school.  When they needed someone to sing for the funeral, Larry volunteered my services.  The devastated fiance requested that I sing “Young Love” by the Judds and “The Dance” by Garth Brooks.   To that point, I’d never sung anything at a funeral that was outside the realm of traditional church music.  Our organist was good, but didn’t have country music in her repertoire, so we managed to find the accompaniment music on cassette at a store in Lincoln.  Both of the songs were challenging, but Garth and I aren’t in the same range.

I didn’t know the family, but I was moved by the family’s grief.  The young man had had no prior health issues.  Such things unnerved me and made me feel like life was much too unpredictable.  I realized then that I’d lived a pretty sheltered life, protected from a lot of harsh reality.  I didn’t feel like I would have known how to comfort the family, so I was grateful that Larry was there for them.  He’d done work with hospice and trauma already and had Clinical Pastoral Education training in Summit, New Jersey.  He was a strong comfort to those who suffered devastating loss.  I didn’t think I’d ever be able to do what he did.

In my family, death was something we didn’t talk about.  That and sex.  When it happened too close to us, as with Sandie, we cleared our throats and sucked it up.  Which really meant we stuffed the pain inside where it festered and became a lifelong infection.  It reared its ugly head every time I stood in the face of others’ loss and grief, reminding me it was always there.

The Ceresco and Valparaiso congregations were very kind to both of us.  There were a lot of young adults with small children in the congregation who were glad to have a younger pastor and his newlywed wife.  We were invited to dinner at parishioners’ houses many weekends and were even treated to tickets to a Nebraska football game in Lincoln.  We had seats behind one of the goal posts. Sitting in a sea of red in a game that was won in the last few minutes, I became a Husker fan that day!

Ceresco was a small town just 20 minutes from Lincoln, so we had the best of both worlds.  Downtown, which consisted of a couple of blocks, there was a small family-owned grocery store, a bakery, a car dealership, the community center where the seniors met, and Ernie’s of Ceresco.  Ernie’s is a major furniture store that some complained took over the town.  On the other hand, there might not be a town if it weren’t for Ernie’s.

Gene Peterson owned Peterson’s grocery store a couple of blocks from our house.  I enjoyed going to the grocery store because Gene would always greet us himself and follow us around as we shopped.  His mother-in-law was Verna, whom I stayed with before Larry and I were married, and Gene loved to play pranks on her.  One day, Gene approached us as we entered the store.

“Hey, you two, do me a favor.  Go drop by Verna’s house after you’re done here.”  He was giggling, so we knew he was up to something.  “Would you?”

After we put our groceries in the car, we walked the two blocks to Verna’s house and rang the doorbell.  When Verna opened the door, her mouth dropped open.

“Hi Verna, we were just at the store and thought we’d stop by. Can we come in?”  Larry asked her.

“Uh… sure!” she said a bit nervously and turned toward her kitchen.  You had to go through the kitchen to get to the living room.  As we walked through the kitchen, she turned to Larry, wringing her hands.

“So, how are things? What are you two up to today?” she walked with her back to the kitchen counter.  As she did, I noticed quite a few bottles of alcohol lined up on the counter.  I knew why Gene had told us to come.

We didn’t stay long, just made small talk, and went on our way with the excuse that we had refrigerated items in the car back at the store.  Verna nodded and nodded, nudging us out the door.

Later, we got a phone call from Gene.  He was laughing so hard he could barely speak.  He’d said that immediately after we left he got a call at the store from Verna.

“I got all this alcohol out here on the counter ready for the party, and guess who shows up at my door??  Pastor Larry and Peggy!! I was so embarrassed…” Gene confessed to her that he’d sent us over there, knowing that all the alcohol would be out.  She hung up on him in a huff, but he knew he’d be forgiven.

I’d grown up in large New Jersey towns where people didn’t really know each other.  The churches my father served were also very large, over a thousand members, so I’d never known the simple joys of a small town community.  Kids in these small towns couldn’t wait to get out, thinking it was too stifling and complained that everybody knew each other so you couldn’t get away with anything.  But to me, it was a gift of grace.  I loved being able to walk downtown and have people know me, greet me, and wish me well.  I liked going to the bank and having the teller call me by name and ask about married life.

The small choir I started was a success.  We didn’t do  complex music, but we had a lot of fun and they were actually very good.  I was encouraged by doing something I’d never done before.

I loved assisting Larry in worship every Sunday.  Serving communion was again one of my favorite things, as people came to the rail with their hands cupped, ready to receive.  Larry had a way of making it personal.  He looked each person in the eye as he gave them the bread and put his large, warm hand over theirs as he said, “The body of Christ, broken for you.”  And so I would offer them the chalice of grape juice, their eyes still looking up as I said to them, “The blood of Christ, shed for you.”  And they smiled shyly as they dipped their bread in the cup.

Both of us had had the same professor at Drew, Dr. Ken Rowe, who had instructed us students to always give big hunks of bread at communion.  “After all,” he said, “the bread is a symbol of God’s grace, and we need all the grace we can get!”

We both appreciated that, and so for the rest of our ministries, we always gave huge chunks of bread.  People joked that they should have brought some meat and they could have made a sandwich.  Sometimes I noticed the little old ladies would discreetly break the piece in half and stuff the rest in their pocket.  In case they got hungry later?

I developed more confidence in my preaching at Ceresco.  People were very kind and gracious with their feedback.  Gene Lowry’s narrative style of preaching felt just right to me, as I was first and foremost a writer.  I liked to retell the biblical story in a way that people felt that they were there.  They told me they could see, smell, feel and imagine the story.  I often, like Gene, threw in some modern images, like Peter looking at his watch, or the brother of the Prodigal Son jumping off his John Deere.  It helped people relate to the ancient story.  I had fun trying different things, adding stories of my own to connect to the biblical story and to what I believed we were to learn from it.  I quickly sensed that preaching was my strongest gift for ministry– and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

One day, Mr. Burkland approached me.  Mr. Burkland was a sweet, elderly man who liked to flirt a little with me.  It was harmless.  He also encouraged me weekly in my studies and my training.  He liked to tell Larry and I jokes as he came through the line after the service.  We’d been to his house for dinner.  His wife was a grouchy, serious woman who could be very intimidating, but she was a kind woman underneath that gruff exterior.

One Sunday after I’d preached, Mr. Burkland wanted to give me constructive feedback.  I think the folks at Ceresco and Valparaiso felt they were part of my education, and so they took that role very seriously.

“The sermon was very good, Peggy,” Mr. Burklund said, “but there was just one thing I wanted to tell you.  I don’t know,” he said, searching for the right words, “You need to do more.  I mean,” he wrinkled his face in concentration, “I think you need to wave your hands around more.”  He demonstrated what he meant, and waved both of his hands in front of me.

I chuckled.  Ok.  “Ok, I can do that, thanks!” I shook his hand and he went on his way.

That afternoon Larry got a phone call.  “Wes Burkland fell and hit his head. It sounds pretty serious.  I gotta go to the hospital.”  I volunteered to go along.

When we arrived at the hospital in Lincoln, all of Wes’ family was gathered in the hallway outside of his room.  Some of his grown children were in the room by his bed.  Everyone was crying.  I felt the heavy weight of dread and fear as I realized what was going on.

“He’s dead,” one of his sons said to Larry as we approached.  His face was wrenched in sorrow.  “I don’t know, they think he had a stroke before he fell, … God.  He’d just gotten home from church and went to get something out of the basement…” he broken down and walked into Larry’s comforting arms.

Death.  It felt like my heart froze in my chest.  This was one part of the job that I never really thought about.  In all the excitement of the inspiration and call and doors opening, I didn’t think about the dark side of ministry.  The pain.  Tragedy. Death.

Wes was 85 years old, but he was such a good soul.  People like that ought never die.  I didn’t go in the room with Larry.  I just couldn’t.  I stayed outside, but I did peek around the door frame.  There was Wes.  Lifeless.  I’d only seen dead bodies after the funeral director had done his or her work, all prettied up.  Or not.  It was the first time I’d seen someone right after death.  I felt sick.  Terrified.  I just stared at my old friend who was no longer there.  I’d learned too well from my parents to stuff my emotions to the point that I couldn’t feel them until they built up.  I couldn’t cry.  I just felt terror.  And admiration that Larry could go in there, calmly and be such a strong comfort in the midst of such sorrow.  I didn’t think I’d ever be able to do that.

I did offer hugs and offered my condolences.  But I couldn’t get the image of Wes’ body out of my mind later.  I went home and had a good cry.

But every time I preached again after that, I made sure to wave my hands more.  For Wes.