“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.
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.