Singing in the Dark

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“You need help.”

Gene Lowry was on the phone.  My preaching professor from seminary.  And now my friend.  We were good friends, but we didn’t talk like that.  I didn’t think so, anyway.

When I was in high school, I would often stay home because I was “tired.”  Numerous times my mother dragged me to the doctor to get a blood test for mono.  Dr. Holdcraft was a member of my father’s church and thought the world of my father.  As I sat on the paper covering on the exam table, he slapped me on the back.

“How’s Sue today?  You’re tired?  Ahhh, well.”  He’d look in my mouth with a tongue depressor, look in my ears, squeeze my arm encouragingly, all the while asking about the family, lauding my father and winking at me.

“Well, I don’t think anything’s wrong, but we’ll check your blood anyway, just to be sure.  It’s good to see ya!” and he’d pat me on the shoulder, ushering me out of the office, telling my Mom to please say hello to Rollo for him.

No one asked me the questions you might hear now.  Do you ever have thoughts of hurting yourself?  Have you lost interest in activities you used to enjoy?  Are you uninterested in being with people?  Do you ever feel helpless?  Hopeless?  

Dad was a deep believer in counseling as the cure-all for everything, so from the time I was in middle school, he tried to push me into counseling.  He’d done the same for my two oldest brothers.  They tried some, including primal scream therapy.  Mark used to suddenly stand in the middle of the house and let one rip with no warning.  It didn’t seem to help.

But I figured I was depressed.  I just wanted someone else to suggest it.

However, after 1984, I think what might have been something that might have gotten better eventually, took deep root in my heart and soul.

Sandie died.  She was a light in my life, who reflected so much love and grace onto me.  She was like an angel that entered my life at a key moment.  She made me laugh.  She read my ridiculously long letters and answered them eventually.  She hugged me a lot, played with my hair.  She saw me, when most of the time I felt like if I just closed my eyes, no one would know I was there.  There was a deep, emotional, life-giving connection.  It was unusual.  It was a peak on the lifeline of my life.

And then she disappeared.  Gone.  There was no comfort.  It was the first time that I would have begun answering all those questions in the affirmative.  Yes, in fact, I did think about turning my steering wheel sharply to the right when I went over the bridge.  Yes, in fact, I hoped that I would not wake up most days.  Yes, I thought of hurting myself, but knew deep down I’d never do it.  Yes, I lost all interest in activities I once enjoyed.  Yes, I slept a lot.

The grief took root in what was already fertile soil for depression, and entwined itself throughout my insides.  It became a part of my personality.  I was the one who Lost That Friend.  Over the years, I learned to live with the darkness.  I wrote a lot of poetry.  I answered the call to ministry, and did a lot of things that I would not have dreamed of having the courage to do.  I preached, I led worship, I moved across the country, I married a wonderful man, I had a child.  My life was good, but underneath was always that anxiety that it would all disappear in a moment.  I smiled, I laughed.  I wasn’t fake– but I could hide the terror.  I could counsel others, encourage and inspire others, and I believed everything I said and did.  I wouldn’t preach anything I didn’t believe.  But the darkness was never far away, and it always threatened everything that made me happy.

“I think you need help,” Gene said on the phone.  I got defensive.  What?  I laughed– which is what my mother has always done when confronted with things too close to the heart.

Then I got serious.  I tried to explain, I can’t do counseling. I was counseled all my life.  I was picked apart, splayed open like a frog on a mat, the subject of lifelong analysis at the mercy of my father’s probing mind. NO.

I’d been at a retreat at Kirkridge, near the Delaware Water Gap.  A retreat led by Flora Slosson Wuellner, a writer of books my mother collected over the years on guided imagery and prayer.  It was soothing, like a weighted blanket.  The retreat house was deep in the woods, and I had a therapeutic time just walking the woods, walking the labyrinth, rowing a boat in a small pond.  Praying. Journaling.  Stacking rocks in the middle of a cathedral of trees.

Wuellner also spoke of 9/11 which had occurred about six weeks before.  She guided us in meditations.  In one meditation, I saw Christ, guiding me along the seashore (one of my favorite places in the world).  As the wave washed ashore, it left behind a mess.  Broken pieces.  Images of what was hurting me, draining my spirit.  Images of pain. Brokenness.

Christ said to me, “Let’s clean this up together.”

I was floating in a ethereal state of peace and calm,  during which I wrote Gene and Sarah a letter.  When I found myself in a holy place, I always wanted to share it with someone I loved. I thought it was positive.

“Peggy,” Gene sounded so serious, “you need help.  I can’t help you, I’m much too far away.  I want you to go talk to someone.”

I began to cry, trying to explain why I couldn’t.  He said he didn’t see my reasoning.  Finally, he said, “I have to go.  Think about it, please.”  He paused.

“We love you.”

After we hung up, I sat on the floor in the kitchen with my knees up to my chin, thinking that I must be in trouble if Gene said that.  

The next day I consulted the list of counselors that my insurance would cover in the area.  One was a female, one was a male.  My history with male counselors, including my father, was a bit nightmarish.  I made an appointment with the female for the following day.

I didn’t know the name.  She was a nun, a pastoral counselor in Pittston, PA.  I was nervous, but I kept thinking of Gene; “we love you.”  Ok.

I sat in the waiting room of Sister Maureen’s office, flipping through magazines, nervously fidgeting.  What if this was a disaster?  I didn’t have the energy to try again if this failed.  I was so tired.

I heard a door open, and looked up to see Maureen descending the stairs.  Oh my God.  She smiled as she made her way down the stairs, and I immediately recognized her as the pastoral counselor who’d led our clergy session just two days after 9/11.  She’d filled the room with calm, a kind of maternal care and peace.  When we’d left that day, I told Larry, “Boy, if I ever went back into counseling, I would go to her!”  He agreed she was effective.

And here she was.  As we shook hands and introduced ourselves, I had a surge of hope, a quiet reassurance that this was significant.

Within the hour, she stated quite confidently that she believed I was deeply depressed, and not only that, that I was chronically depressed;  meaning that she felt this was a condition that may not be temporary.

I felt instant relief.  Someone saw it.  Someone named it.  So many times over the years I’d been told to “get over it.” My own father had said to me about a month after Sandie’s death, “clearly you’ve never gotten over her death,” as if it was an accusation, something at which I failed.  My parents had sometimes intimated I was just lazy.  I needed to get out more.  What would I possibly have to be depressed about?

I would eventually start on some meds for the depression, prescribed by a psychiatrist that Maureen sent me to.  I was actually grateful for the diagnosis.  Not that I could now settle into it and be a sad Sally, but that someone believed me.  That there was a reason I felt the way I did.  Chemicals in my brain working against me.  After I’d been on the meds for a while, I told someone it felt like I could start each day on the ground floor instead of starting in the basement and having to work my way up to just the first floor.  I felt hope for the first time that I could be better.  That even though this was something I would continue to struggle with for the rest of my life, I could also get treatment and therefore live a fuller life.

It wasn’t my fault.  I wasn’t lazy.  I wasn’t just being dramatic.

Maureen and I were in a counseling relationship for 4 1/2 years.  It was the most helpful relationship I’d been in, she was the first one to truly be helpful, and I’d been to countless counselors over the years.  After all, that was my father’s answer to everything.  But this time it truly helped.

Over the years since, as I’ve learned more and more about both sides of my family, it seems like a no-brainer.  There is a lot of depression and mental illness on both sides of my family; most of it untreated.  My brothers and I have had different paths to healing, but I truly believe that at least three of us have broken the pattern and started new stories.  That’s not to say that none of us still struggle with it, or that no one in the next generation wrestle with it.  It is, after all, in our blood, our DNA.  But those of us willing to admit it, name it, I believe, are finding help and hope instead of simply denying its presence.

I still miss Sandie.  There are times that I miss her as if she died yesterday.  It was a unique relationship in my life, an enormous gift of grace and life and love.  I’ve lost many friends to cancer since her death, and every one always brought her back to mind.  But none has affected me has deeply as her death.  It was like losing a parent.  She was the central most important person in my life.  I think if she had never died, the depression would have manifested itself some other way, as I believe the “chemicals” were always there, as I remember from high school.  But her death was what ignited it, deepened it, called it to the front.

It is something that you can learn to live with, like any chronic illness.  Sometimes it made me a better pastor, sometimes it fed my creativity and allowed me to be a comfort to those who lost loved ones, especially suddenly.  But it’s no longer a bottomless pit.  It no longer controls me.

I will always cherish Maureen as the one who named my demon, brought it out into the light to show me it didn’t have to be so scary and dreaded.  That we could face it together and make it less threatening.  She was yet another angel from God.

 

 

Mountaintop Experience

LW

“Peggy, I  want to make sure that you’re not leaving the Conference just because of Tom,”  my District Superintendent said, leaning forward, putting on his “very concerned” face.

“I wouldn’t do that,” I lied.  Or not.  I didn’t know for sure.  Emotions among clergy and laity were running so high.  I felt  I didn’t want go to a new church and be interrogated about my stance on homosexuality and Jimmy, which in my mind were two different things.  I was weary of the anger and hostility that seemed to be in the air we breathed after the trial.  I was exhausted by Tom’s bullying.  After two years of not being heard by the D.S.  as to the level of emotional abuse the secretary and I experienced with Tom, I didn’t trust them at all.  But I didn’t have the nerve to say that.

I wanted to get as far away from Nebraska as I could in 1999.  I honestly thought I’d never step foot in Nebraska again.

Silly me.

I watch a lot of crime shows, both American and British.  On more than one occasion, a victim has been impaled or stabbed with a sharp object and survived.  They were even conscious.  However, the attending doctor advises that they just not simply pull out the object, because that would cause certain death.  It would seem that you’d want to get that metal pole out of the person’s middle right away.  But the pole was now holding that person together and by pulling it out without some medical expertise, the person could most certainly die.

It’s true, too, that sometimes being in a constant state of stress can hold you together.  The energy needed to respond to the daily onslaught of stress can keep you going.  You’re little held in tension.  If that stress is removed, and the person is actually put in a stress-free environment, well, a person could feel like suddenly their insides are bleeding out.  That they are falling apart.

In June of 1999, we headed East to Northeast Pennsylvania’s Wyoming Valley, from which the Wyoming Annual Conference got its name.  Larry was to serve the CenterMoreland/East Dallas/Dymond Hollow parish and I was appointed to the Lake Winola/Falls parish.  All of these small churches were nestled in the Endless Mountains region of NE PA.  Our new parsonage, next to the Lake Winola Church, was on the side of a mountain, overlooking other mountains.  The scene from our front yard was breathtaking.  I couldn’t help but think of the image of a “city on a hill” as we drove toward our new home and could see the church across the valley, looking out majestically across the way.

I stopped keeping my fists clenched.  I relaxed into my new setting.  It felt like we’d fallen into grace again.  Everything about it felt right and good and hopeful.  However, at the same time, when I opened my arms, it felt like a legion of demons that accumulated over the years so far– showed up to say hi.

There were other things going on in me that I didn’t even realize at the time.  Or couldn’t name.  But I was bogged down in a deep mire of pain and emotional exhaustion.  There was no outside tension to hold me up.

We arrived a week before our first Sunday, so I had the chance to sit in the congregations at both churches that Sunday before.  Larry and Sarah came with me.  What Larry didn’t tell me was that at Falls, he overheard a young man lean toward his wife and say, “She’s so young!  She looks terrified.  I give her two weeks…”

No worries.  I won them over quickly, despite being a Husker fan in Penn State territory.

What I lacked in assertiveness and confidence, I made up for in worship and preaching.  Preaching was always my strong suit, and helped me gain their trust.  People in the village of Lake Winola and Falls were very kind.  Falls was mostly made up of one family, the Gearys, who kept the tiny church going.  Bill and Kitty were the the patriarch and matriarch of the Church, as well as the owners and operators of Geary Concrete.  Their grown sons and daughter and their spouses and children filled up most of the pews.  In addition there were a few other couples and elderly widows.  But the Gearys swore to keep the church going and had the means to do it.

Nobody was aware of how much pain I was in as I arrived.  It was a well-learned family trait to keep all negative emotions tamped down, smile when you’re dying inside and laugh when you’re stressed.  I wasn’t even always aware that I was doing it–it had become second nature.  It was a learned survival tactic.

In the meantime, all three of us soaked up the grace of our new mountain home.  Sarah started kindergarten at Mill City Elementary and her teachers were all wonderful.  We felt safe.  We felt loved.  Larry and I felt that we were in churches that matched our gifts and graces for ministry.  Even on stressful days, driving the snaky, winding mountain roads through tunnels of trees was good for my soul.  The scenery was breathtaking.

If all that beauty and grace were not enough, I fell appropriately in love with my new D.S. and his wife.  Jim and Yvonne Baker.  Jim was a very tall, white-haired, kind person.  He was very down-to-earth.  He grew up on a farm.  Yvonne was the ultimate host, welcoming us into her home and making us feel cherished.  When each of them took turns getting down on the floor to play with my 5 year-old, I adored these people.  They quickly felt like family.  Even after Jim announced that he was retiring after our first year in PA, we stayed close.  They babysat Sarah, sometimes overnight, and were surrogate grandparents to her.  We took turns hosting each other for dinner at our houses.  Time spent with the Bakers was gentle, fun, and easy.  I often joked with Jim that I wanted them to adopt me.

Grace upon grace.  I was grateful every day for being in that beatific setting.  During thunderstorms, I stood out on the front stoop and watching the lightening in the valleys, and listened to the thunder reverberate off of the mountains.  People responded enthusiastically to my ministry.  There were the usual stresses of ministry, of course, but never a huge crisis.  I came to love these people deeply, and their confidence in me gave me freedom to try new things in worship.

I started my first worship committee.  We had a mixed group of individuals who were excited to brainstorm about worship.  My favorite thing we did was Pentecost.  We decorated the sanctuary all in red.  Someone hung a paper dove in the center aisle.  We had fans with red and orange crepe paper to represent the fire and the wind.  We told everyone to wear red on that Sunday, and the first time we did it, I looked out on my congregation of red and said to them, “You all look like Nebraska Husker fans!”  They groaned good-naturedly.

For All Saints Sunday, we built a little shelf to attach to the chancel rail, and invited everybody to bring a candle to put on the shelf.  During the service, people came up and lit the candle, speaking the name of the person who died, sometimes sharing a memory.  It was a very moving service.

Lake Winola was the one church where leading worship and preaching fed my own spiritual journey.  I felt like I was able to receive even as I gave.  The energy was high and reciprocal.  The Holy Spirit felt very much present among us.  It was delicious.

From 2000-2001, I spent much of my free time planning my parent’s 50th wedding anniversary party, which would take place in their town of Absecon, New Jersey.  It was four hours away, giving us the chance to visit them more often.  Don and Cindy and Stan helped a lot when the actual day came, helping to decorate and clean up, but I did the bulk of the planning.  I gathered pictures and stories.  I put together a scrapbook for them.  I put together a program, which I MC’d.  I invited everybody from all of the churches my father served.  Mark was put off because the event (which was the actual anniversary) occurred during his family vacation, and he let me know this was very convenient.

That year was a mixed blessing.  I was immersed in family history and stories.  I don’t know what exactly did it, but that whole experience wore down my cherished ability to keep it all together.  To push aside any pain, depression or anxiety.  I threw myself into the planning as well as my continued ministry at the churches.  Holy Week services were even more of a blessing as people responded so energetically and enthusiastically.

The day of the anniversary party was wonderful.  It was certainly a high point.  My Uncle Denver, my mother’s brother, showed up as a surprise from Mississippi with his wife and daughter.  Many many people from all five of the churches attended.  My parents’ best friends from college, Aunt Betty and Uncle Ray spoke, as well as others from their past and present.  Stan spoke.  My nephew Ben, Mark’s son, played the piano.  George and her new husband Vince sang a Nat King Cole song from the year my parents dated.  I led the whole thing, speaking in between things, and finally, led my parents in a renewal of their vows.

The party was a huge hit.  People who knew me when I was a child were impressed at the grown up I’d become.  A preacher.  We awkwardly posed for family pictures, with Mark still exuding the tension of having to take time out of his vacation.  After the party, the family members, minus Mark, gathered at my parent’s house.  We visited, shared stories, and laughed.  It felt like a rare and good thing.  Uncle Denver set the tone for a relaxing evening, basking in the goodness of the day.

I don’t know if it was the year of immersing myself in the Family Story, looking at all the pictures, or dealing with the tensions between my siblings.  I don’t know if it was trying to truly celebrate the 50 years of my parents’ marriage while still struggling with a lot of painful memories.  Whatever.  Somehow, the final straw that held up my reserve was worn down by that year– and snapped.  In August I plunged into a deep depression.  I couldn’t articulate what I felt, but just felt emptied out.  I was angry, I cried a lot, I was anxious.  Despite all this going on, I kept up a front successfully at church.  I still managed to preach and do my pastoral duties while inside everything was crumbling.

Then on September 11, 2001, I was blow-drying my hair in the bathroom when the news came on the radio that one of the Towers had been hit.  They didn’t know what it was.  I found Larry in the kitchen and we went downstairs to turn on CNN.  We stayed there for the next four hours, watching it all unfold.

As I watched, everything in me started panicking.  First I thought, “What am I going to say on Sunday??”  How could I make sense of this?  Larry got a call and was in the other room as each tower fell.  I didn’t even comprehend in that moment that there were people in those crumbling buildings– that would have been too much for me to take in.  I stared in horror and with increasing panic.

I didn’t know anyone in New York City.  I didn’t know anyone who worked in the Towers.  But as I listened to the commentators back and forth, talking about two other planes, one at the Pentagon, one crashing in Western PA, I started hyperventilating.  It felt like the world was ending.  I wanted to run down the hill to Sarah’s school and get her, bring her inside, just in case the sky started falling.

Two days later, the pastors were called to a special District meeting to debrief and to check in with how we were doing.  They brought in Sister Maureen, a local pastoral counselor, to lead the discussion and sharing.  She was older, white-haired, in a blue pantsuit.  She was very calm and engaging.  I immediately trusted her.  Sharing with each other was a rare moment of intimacy among us clergy.  It felt good to share our own fears and anxiety.  I was able to think, that day, that what I was feeling wasn’t unusual.  To deny that it went any deeper than this shared tragedy.

After much agonizing, prayer and crying, I was able to put together a comforting service for Sunday.  I preached on the passage about Peter wanting to walk on water like Jesus, and Jesus inviting him out of the boat.  Of course he sunk.  But I compared the coming days to that feeling of stepping out on water that we knew couldn’t hold us.  But being invited forward nonetheless.  I spoke to our fears, our anger, our disbelief, our wanting to blame someone.  I spoke of grief, as many among the congregation knew someone in New York City.  I spoke from the heart.  I played the guitar and led singing of a song from the Hymnal Supplement that beautifully touched on worshiping in the midst of pain.

The sanctuary was jammed full that day.  We had to open the back doors into the fellowship hall and set up chairs.  People were openly weeping and holding their children.  People thanked me for the service.  One of my favorite parshioners, Jon, hugged me and said, “So you comfort us.  Who comforts you?”  I laughed self-consciously.  Maybe I said something about the District gathering.

It was a tender and powerful time.  The UMW brought in an Muslim Imam to speak about Islam and I was pleasantly surprised at their openness and interest.  My preaching felt even more important those weeks that fall as we stumbled forward together.  I had already scheduled a much-needed retreat that fall at Kirkridge Retreat Center for October, with Flora Slosson Wuellner, a pastoral counselor whose books I read as a teenager.

I didn’t know that retreating into the woods with another kind, gentle soul would unclench my fists even more, and utterly destroy any defenses I had left.

 

 

 

 

 

The Days After

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I was not raised to be a rebel.  In my family, I tended to be shoved into the role of peacemaker.  If someone was angry, I felt it was my job to appease them.  If people in the family were fighting, I needed to get them to love each other again.  When my parents would fight or when my brothers fought with my parents,  I got bad stomachaches.

It’s hard to completely shed those experiences.

After I got back to Aurora in the aftermath of Jimmy’s first church trial, I braced myself.  Mary had warned me that people were very, very angry.  They were also confused as to how I came to be a part of it.  I spent most of my office hours that following week explaining the way it was set up, how the jury pool was appointed, and the secrecy that was demanded of us all.  The rest of the time I spent listening to people rant and rave about the lunacy of Jimmy’s acquittal, and how they didn’t want to be a part of a denomination that didn’t punish “wrongdoers.”

Tom was more than happy to step aside and let the flow of angry people find their way into my office.

Many people told me they were leaving.  There were a plethora of more conservative churches in town for them to go to, and I didn’t have the energy or even the desire to beg them to stay.  I tried to explain to them that really the trial didn’t change anything.  The Discipline still forbade pastors to perform same-sex blessings.  But people had the idea that now the Conference was going to bring in busloads of homosexuals into the church for us to bless.  That they as congregations would be “forced” to accept the unions of gays.  Or that the Conference was going to “force” pastors to bless gay couples.  I tried to explain that it meant no such thing.

The others on the jury went home to the same fury, but their congregations wanted to know how they voted.  I didn’t blame them either way for not sharing their vote, but that refusal also intensified people’s anger.  It stopped everything.  It was the main thing on everybody’s mind.  It was everything they talked about.  It was hard to imagine that the rest of the world was still going about its business as usual.

The question that remained in a lot of peoples’ minds was, “Does the Discipline have no authority then?”  That actually was a huge fear, I think, of the administrative parts of the Conference.  They didn’t want to lose any authority.  If Jimmy was acquitted after admitting he did the thing he was forbidden by the Discipline to do, then why should anyone give authority to any of the rest of the book?  This was dangerous territory, as the Discipline has guidelines for all aspects of the Church and denomination and how it was to be run, how pastors were supposed to be in ministry and parts of it contained the covenantal promises we made at ordination.  Was it all null and void now?

At the time I was angry at Jimmy.  I supported the fact that as a pastor he felt called to minister to his congregants and bless their union.  I supported that.  I supported him standing up for what he believed was right and good.  What I was angry about was that he denied they were even lesbians– after he’d called the paper to alert them to what he was doing.  He seemed offended that he would face any consequences at all.  By comparing himself to Jesus and Martin Luther King, Jr. I would have thought he’d be willing to face the consequences of breaking the “rules” of the United Methodist Discipline.  Certainly MLK Jr. didn’t say, “you can’t arrest me!”

I was also angry that nothing else could get done.  The Church was paralyzed by this.  Pastors facing moves that spring had to face Staff-Parish Relations Committees who didn’t want to get to know them, didn’t ask them what their hopes and goals for ministry were among their new congregations, they had one question that burned on their minds.  Do you support Jimmy?  Do you support homosexuals?  

Larry’s senior pastor Ben called together some people at his church soon after the trial, to give them a place to vent.  Larry felt he had to go as the associate pastor, so I went with him.  People were yelling at each other, interrupting each other, and finally, one pastor who was a friend of Ben’s got up, threw his fist in the air and said, “I think we need to LYNCH Jimmy!”  Several people yelled out in agreement.

Larry and I were appalled and quickly found the back door.  I was horrified at the level of anger in that room, the level of hate that was being stoked and encouraged.

I got very depressed in the weeks and months after the trial.  I didn’t feel like there were a lot of colleagues that I could trust to have a reasonable discussion.  Longtime friends became estranged, father and son pastors, brother and brother pastors– many relationships were broken in the furor.  Families were split on the issue–and it affected family gatherings, we heard.  It was like a precursor to the 2016 election.

It was the only time I knew Tom to willingly take a back seat and let me drive.  Sometimes I actually thought he was enjoying watching me take so much heat just for being a part of the trial.

Not long after the trial, Larry, Sarah Gene and I had the gift of grace to be invited to Gene Lowry’s retirement celebration in Kansas City.  In fact, I was asked to be one of the three speakers at the worship service part of the celebration.  It was no secret among anyone who knew him that I had transferred to St. Paul specifically because of Gene.

I was absolutely terrified.  I was very worn down by the whole trial and aftermath, but in addition to that, people were coming from all over the country to celebrate Gene and I was so scared.  Kresge Chapel was packed on campus that day.  Thankfully, I found my place up front in the chapel, right next to Tex Sample.  He had a way of instantly putting me at ease.

“Hey, you doin’ alright?” He said, leaning in.  He knew I’d been on the jury and this was the first chance we had to talk.  We talked a bit about it, and he was very kind as always, and supportive.

Gene had always given me a hard time about using a manuscript when I preached, and pressured me a lot to get away from using it.  If I wasn’t nervous enough about the whole thing, I did decide not to use notes for that day.  I just had one small card with a few phrases to jog my memory.

That pulpit at St. Paul’s seemed very high that day.  My legs could hardly balance me I was so nervous.

But as I started to speak, people were engaged and when they burst out laughing, I was caught off guard.  What I said was amusing, thankfully, but I didn’t expect that response!  Immediately I gained confidence and spoke from the heart about the influence of this man on my ministry, yes, but more so on my life.  By the end, I must say I was heartened to see that Gene’s eyes were red and teary.

I slid into the pew next to Tex and let out a deep breath.  He bumped me with his shoulder and winked at me.  “You did real good.”

There was a party that night at Gene and Sarah’s house.  I’d purposely gotten a T-shirt made for Sarah Gene with her name on it for that occasion.  She was just four years old and wandered through the rooms as if this was her home.  People there were also talking about the trial, but I tried to steer away from those conversations.

While I was sitting with Larry in the living room, someone called for Gene to play the piano.  He sat down and played some of his jazz pieces, and then a very large and tall man with shockingly white hair approached the piano.  He had a deep, booming voice.  He requested a hymn, and as Gene obliged, this man started singing the first verse of “Amazing Grace.”  I instinctively moved toward the piano to be a part of this, and as he finished the first verse, this stranger looked at me and gestured to me to sing the next verse.

I did.

I belted it out.  I put heart and soul into it.  And it was all I could do not to break down and weep with a sense of gratitude and joy.  I was singing with Gene playing the piano.  It just seemed so familiar, so intimate.  He was no longer my professor.  I sensed then that now we were friends.  If I’d known how deep and how long that friendship would continue over the next couple of decades, I really would have wept.

As I finished my verse, Gene looked up at me and grinned.  I think he knew.

Tex came up to me later before he left the party and gave me a hug.  “I don’t know if he’ll say it, but I wanted to let you know that it meant a lot to Gene for you to be here.”

Grace.

Most everybody else had left when it was just me, Larry, Sarah Gene, Sarah L., Gene and this stranger with the floor-shaking bass voice.  His name was Judd.

“I absolutely LOVED your words today,” he said to me in that deep, authoritative voice.

I grinned.  “Thank you!”

He laughed heartily.  “When you said that the first time you heard Gene preach you wanted to throw up….!  That was priceless.”

I might have blushed.

“Was the letter really 10 pages single spaced?” he asked.

I laughed.  “Oh yeah, I reduced the font, too…”

Gene caught my eye.  “I still have that letter.”  He smiled.

I know I blushed.

“Hey listen,” Judd said. “I’m the pastor of a church in Arizona, just outside of Phoenix.  We need someone to lead a new Gen-X ministry.  Would you be interested in coming to interview for that?”

I laughed.  Yeah.  Right.  I shrugged.

“Here, let me get your number.  I’ll give you a call in a few days and we can set up a time for you to come down.  I think you’d be great!”

A couple of weeks later Larry and I flew down to Phoenix, Arizona.  We’d talked and talked and talked about the implications of me getting this job.  I’d have had to give up my ordination in the UMC and have it recognized by the UCC down there.  We’d have to buy a house, which, financially, we were unprepared to do.  Larry would have to apply to the UMC conference down there, which was known to be full.  There was a lot going against it, but the idea of being invited was overwhelming.

For three days we were literally wined and dined in Phoenix.  We stayed at a country club across from Judd’s church that was luxurious.  Judd drove us around town in his convertible and showed us the sights.  The interview itself was easy but disappointing.  The salary offered would in no way be enough for me to move and be able to get a house.  When they realized the salary and benefit package we had as UMs, they realized they couldn’t match it.  We had too many school debts as well.  It was not to be.

In the end, it was fine.  I didn’t feel like it was within my gifts to be charismatic leader in developing a ministry for young adults.  Also, in talking with Gene, Judd might have been a bit domineering.  He loved Judd, but Gene wasn’t convinced it would be a healthy match.

In the end, we enjoyed our three days in Phoenix and I enjoyed being wanted and appreciated for my gifts.  The experience clinched the idea, though, that our experiences in Nebraska had worn us down and we felt more than a little broken by all the chaos of the battle since the trial.

We decided we’d spend the coming year looking to move back East.  To go home.