Pain and Grace

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I often wrote to people that living in Tilden was like living in a mine field.  We never knew what we’d step on next that would blow up in our faces.  There were many good people there who were kind and supportive.  But they were no match for those who stoked the hostility and resentment that didn’t have just a single source.

Motherhood taught me how to focus.  There was so much stress and tension in the air when we lived in Tilden, but being a mother to a baby focused me.  Having a daughter to love and raise was a dream come true for me, the ultimate gift of grace, an oasis of joy.  We were very fortunate and blessed with good babysitters, both teenagers and older women.  During the day Sarah went to a house about two blocks away, and was cared for by a mother who had a daughter Sarah’s age.

During Sarah’s first Christmas, I had a solo in the annual UCC Church’s cantata.  I was to sing as Mary to the baby Jesus.  We dressed Sarah Gene up in a blue union suit and laid her on a Nebraska Cornhusker’s beanbag chair, covered with her favorite Lion King blanket.  We placed the beanbag chair up front in the aisle during my solo.  As I sang my song, Sarah recognized my voice and made noises, calling out but not crying all through the song.  It was all I could do to get through the song!  But I was told later that the congregation was in tears.  Sarah’s acting debut was at 6 months as the baby Jesus.

The Elkhorn River Parish, as it was informally called, was made up of the United Methodist Church of Tilden, the UCC of Tilden, Meadow Grove United Methodist Church and Battle Creek United Methodist Church.  The United Methodists grieved Brian’s departure for that first year, being used to constant and focused attention and not having to share that attention with any other church.  The UCC Church was very concerned that we were going to “try to turn them into Methodists.”  We worked hard to convince them that that was not our intention at all.  We read a lot about the UCC and got them to tell us their stories, their traditions.  It was a difficult journey winning their trust, but we mostly won the trust of the leaders, so that helped.

That first year turned out to be a particularly difficult year for the Battle Creek Church.  Several members had cancer and later died.  There were other illnesses and struggles among the members.  Battle Creek is a primarily Missouri Synod Lutheran town, the Lutherans dominating the population.  At the end of that first year, members in our congregation told us that their Missouri Synod friends told them why there was so much cancer and death in their congregation.  It was because they had a “divorced and remarried pastor and a woman pastor” in their pulpit.  Some of them believed that God was punishing them by killing off members of their congregation.

Nothing prepared me for such accusations.  I was introduced to women’s issues in seminary, of course, but still, I was very naive about how women pastors were often treated in the Church.  I truly thought that I would be accepted like any other pastor if I simply showed them I cared, was real, and preached the Gospel.  I was horrified that people actually believed that God would kill people because of me.  I couldn’t make any sense of that, but it hurt deeply.

I was overwhelmed from the beginning by the amount of hostility in the air.  Thank God for Sarah!  Having a baby diffused some of that, especially with the women, but there were enough people in each church who wouldn’t be deterred in their anger.  It ate at me.  Why didn’t they just like me?  I tried so hard to get them to like me.  I got good feedback on my preaching, knowing that was my strongest gift.  They liked my worship services.  But many of them simply could not let go of their anger– not knowing always, what made them so angry.  They were just mad.

Larry and I began a tradition in Ceresco of doing a Tenebrae Service on Good Friday together.  I used the basic skeleton of the service that my father had used, but we added a lot to it.  During the sermon time, one of us would do a first-person drama.  When Larry did it, he was a crippled man who’d been skeptical of Jesus but whose heart was softened there at the foot of the Cross.  I always did mine as either as Mary the mother of Jesus or Mary Magdalene.  We did our roles extemporaneously, after much practice.  I found that when I entered the role of either Mary at the foot of the Cross, I could pour out all my anger and pain into the role, and it was very cleansing.  I didn’t hold back as I essentially yelled at God in the presence of the Cross.  Every year, too, we ended the service with Larry reading the final passages of the narrative of Jesus’ death, interspersed with me singing, kneeling, a verse of “O Sacred Head Now Wounded.”  Acapella.   The sanctuary grew progressively dark throughout the service, and by the time I knelt beneath the Cross singing, there was one lonely candle that I blew out at the end of my song.  Then I ran down the aisle, stopped, turned around and sang  one verse of “Were You There?”  By then, the sanctuary was dark except for one candle hidden behind the cross on the altar.  I was barefoot and dressed in a sheet.  Again, I poured as much pain as I could into the singing, and ran out.  The sanctuary was deathly quiet and still.  Then one by one, the congregation had been instructed to come to one of us with their candle.  We said to them, “The Master is no longer here.”  They were to reply “I will take his Spirit with me” as we lit their candle and they went forth into the darkness of the evening.

That service was always very moving for people.  It was profoundly moving for me personally.  At the end of the night I felt spent, silenced, cleansed.  Which always made the sunrise and resurrection of Easter all the more joyous and healing.  Even now, many years later, when people remember anything from our ministries, they remember Good Friday.

In 1996 I went through my ordination interviews for Ordination as Elder and Full Membership in the Conference.  My interviews were again very positive and affirming of my gifts and my call.  The congregations were all very supportive and encouraging as I faced the interviews and they prayed for me.  They celebrated joyfully when I got the news that I’d “passed.”  I’d made it.

I knew an older pastor in the Conference who was a big “fan” of Gene Lowry and had also been his student.  I reached out to him and suggested that Gene be asked to be the preacher at the ordination service that year as several of his students were being ordained.  Usually the Bishop of the Conference preached or had one of their bishop friends from another conference preach– and bishops were rarely good preachers.   I never heard back from the pastor, but a month ahead of Conference, I received the Conference newspaper.  Not only would Gene be preaching the ordination service, but Tex Sample would be the preacher for morning worship through the week.   If that wasn’t exciting enough, Ed Hann had agreed to fly out and be one of my mentors, laying his hand on my head with the bishop.  Gene had agreed to be the other, long before he was asked to be the preacher.  The only thing that could have made the event more profound was a dove touching down on my head and the voice of God saying, “This is my beloved daughter, in whom I am well pleased.”

Several people from the churches made the trip to Lincoln for the event, and my parents flew out as well.  All the pain and struggle to that point seemed worth it.  All my self doubts about my ability to be a pastor were silenced.  My spiritual “heroes” stood with me, laid their hands on my head, and celebrated me.  I was on a mountain top, feeling like I’d finished a marathon and celebrated a triumph.

Then we stepped on our biggest land mine.


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