On the Boardwalk

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When they say “you can’t go home again,” it’s really true when you’re a P.K.  When people ask me where I’m from, I say “New Jersey.”  If they happen to have connections in NJ and push it further, saying, “Where in New Jersey?” I have to say, “All over, really.  Mostly Red Bank and Woodbury.”

But neither of those towns are my hometown.  I spent my childhood in Red Bank, and my high school years in Woodbury.  There’s no house I can go back to in either of those places, because strangers are living there.  Both towns have changed quite a bit, and there would be very few people that would remember me.

The one place that was constant through all those years, and on into adulthood, was Ocean City, New Jersey.  The Southern NJ Conference of the United Methodist Church met there annually, before they merged with Northern NJ.  Before my mother started attending with my father, we waited for Dad at home, knowing that when he returned from Ocean City, he’d tell us whether we were moving or staying.  One of those years, Dad decided to buy me a T-shirt on the boardwalk.  I remember distinctly that I was in fourth grade, because I wore it to school.  But only once.  My fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Hartswell, who smelled so good that us kids would sniff the air after she walked past, eyed my T-shirt that day and read it out loud.

“Hmmm…” she said.

The T-shirt had a picture of a cat with dreamy eyes and it said, “Stroke me and I’ll purr.”  Clearly Dad didn’t know that this was not appropriate for a child’s T-shirt.  He just knew I liked cats.  Mrs. Hartswell knew.  Somehow the T-shirt got lost in the laundry.

I think I was in middle school when my mother started going to Ocean City with my Dad, and even let me go along.  She got me out of school for three days in mid-June, seeing that it was so close to the end of the school year, anyway.

Their friends from college, the Hughes’, had friends who owned a cottage in Ocean City that they allowed “Uncle Ray” to use for himself and his friends during Annual Conference every year.  There were three bedrooms, a kitchen, dining area, bathroom and a living area, all just two blocks from the ocean.  The Hughes–whom I called “Aunt Betty” and “Uncle Ray”– my parents, and a couple called the Ameys all stayed there for those days in mid-June.  I slept on the couch.

I did that every year through high school, and drove down a day or two during college and the two years I was at home after that.  Every morning, the three men quietly got ready, whispering, and eating breakfast, so they wouldn’t wake me sleeping in the living room.  Ray and Jay would joke with my father, who was always lagging behind, and they usually left without him while he went into the bathroom to shave.  He wasn’t thrilled with the all-day meetings and took his time getting there, but Ray and Jay felt that being on time to Conference meetings was akin to obedience to God.  Maybe not, but they never skipped meetings, as far as I ever knew.

I took my time waking up after they all left, taking in the morning light through the front window, and the sound of the wind chimes on the porch.  To this day, the sound of wind chimes takes me back to those days in Ocean City.  I could smell the ocean from the living room, as it came through the screened windows.  That is still my image of pure relaxation;  the sound of wind chimes, the smell of the ocean, and a slight breeze through the window.  And time.  I’m back in Ocean City.  Home.

I’d get up when I heard Aunt Betty, Ruth and Mom start their days.  Aunt Betty was a sweet, loving, short woman.  She never wore make-up because Ray didn’t believe in it and she tried to be an obedient wife.  But she was beautiful, nonetheless, with her radiant spirit, her fun sense of humor and her deep capacity to love.  We spent our days playing Scrabble on the top deck of the house, able to see the ocean and beach from that perch.  Or we went shopping downtown.  We walked the boardwalk.  Well, Ruth didn’t.  I’m not sure she believed in fun, though she was nice enough.  She sat and crocheted, hour after hour and watched us play games, laugh and tease.  And kept on crocheting.

In the evenings, after supper, we all went to the evening worship services at St. Peter’s UMC, where all the conference meetings were held.  It had a huge sanctuary, no air conditioning at the time, so the windows at the top of the stained glass windows were all open.  About 800 people were there for services each night, and we sat about halfway up the aisle.  The sound of seagulls provided a soundtrack to prayers said out loud and in silence, and occasionally one or two of the birds would find their way in and fly across the top of the sanctuary, squawking, perhaps providing commentary on the sermon or the organ music.

It was thrilling for me to sing along with 800 other United Methodists in that space that smelled of ocean and was sticky with humidity.  United Methodists, historically, love to sing.  In the UM Hymnal, it says that historically, United Methodists are a “singing people.”  From John Wesley’s Select Hymns, published in 1761, he wrote in his instructions:  “Sing lustily and with good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep, but lift up your voice with strength. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of its being heard, than when you sung the songs of Satan…”

Pastors and laity at Annual Conference took these instructions seriously, unlike your usual Sunday morning experience in the local church.  My heart would pound with nearly a thousand people belting out, “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing.”  The organist for Conference was also particularly good, so the floor would vibrate with those bass notes, the seagulls would flutter at the ceiling, as if chasing the high notes.  Worship at Annual Conference fed my soul.

After the evening service,  I would search the crowd for my friends;  counselors from camp, my father’s District Superintendent, John Ewing, who’d known me all my life, and people from our own church.  I’d beg Mom to go walk on the boardwalk with me, and usually the Hughes and my parents would tag along.  The Ameys went back to get ready for bed.

On the boardwalk, I’d search the plastic-tagged people strolling by for my friends and mentors.  Ed, who I knew from camp at Pennington.  Greg and Ken, also from Pennington camp.  John Ewing.  Other camp counselors.  When I did find them, my parents and Hughes kept walking as I visited with my adult friends.  I caught them up on my life.  They’d tease me.  I got a lot of hugs.  They were always glad to see me and made me feel like they were focused on just me in that moment, listening and taking me seriously.  Which is why I loved them.  I was like a green plant, growing in their attention.   Pennington camp was always at the end of June, so I knew I’d see them all again in a couple of weeks.

If it wasn’t too late when we got back, or if the men got back early in the afternoon before supper, we’d play the game Probe.  It was a word game where you had to guess each other’s hidden word on a plastic tray, letter-cards face down.  At meals, the men talked about the meetings of the day, what absurd decisions were made or tabled one more time, sometimes laughing at some of the comments delegates made at the microphone.  None of the three men there were ones to ever go to the microphone at Conference.  They gossiped a bit, and Jay and Ray had a way of teasing my father.  Dad would do his usual dinner table pontifications, and whereas some people were intimidated by Dad, Ray and Jay were not.  They knew him as a skinny little foreign student in college.  They loved him but teased him, not feeling inferior or superior to him.  Just amused.  He took it from them, as he knew they meant no harm.  When he went off on philosophical monologues, they just laughed.  Good-naturedly.

Those were easy days for me and my mother, some of our most relaxed times together.  She was out from under the pressures of being a pastor’s wife, not on display, and with her lifelong friend, Betty; one of the few people with whom Mom could totally relax.  Betty treated me as if I really were related to her, teasing me, asking about my life, making me laugh, and playing Scrabble with me when Mom wanted a nap.  She made me feel loved.

Every year at Conference, they remember the pastors, pastors’ spouses and lay delegates who had passed away the previous year.  This year, these many years later, the Conference is now in Wildwood, NJ and includes the Northern New Jersey Conference.  There are very few people left that would remember me or my parents, as Dad had been retired almost 25 years.  Jay and Ruth Amey are both deceased.  Ray and Betty are in the United Methodist Home in Pitman.

I went back this year, when I’d received some money I hadn’t anticipated.  It may not seem worth it to someone else to go all that way to see my parents’ faces on the screen for about 30 seconds, but it was more than that.  Some of our best times were at Annual Conference.  My faith was deepened and nurtured at Conference, albeit in Ocean City, not Wildwood.  After the year we’ve had, even before my parents’ deaths, it felt right to spend a few days at the beach.  To remember.

Ed was there.  Greg and Ken were there; all of them retired now, but all there to honor someone they knew and loved.  Those of us who are family of the deceased were ushered in during a hymn.  It was not in a church, but at the Wildwood Convention Center.  I saw my own face on the big screen up front as I processed in.  We laid an evergreen branch down on the altar, in memory of our loved ones.  Later, we would receive them back to take home and plant.

I stood for Mom. And for Dad.  And for John Painter, with whom I’d been a student assistant pastor in Roselle Park, and who taught me all the practical things I needed to know as a pastor that I didn’t get in seminary.  A young, African American singer sang Sandi Patty’s “We Shall Behold Him.”  Oh.  Unlike our annual conferences in Nebraska or Northeast PA, I sat among a diverse crowd;  people of various ethnic backgrounds.  White, Black, Asian, etc.  There were people with rainbow scarves around their necks representing their support for LGBTQ people, which is an issue presently dividing the UMC.  When that young man sang, we were all together.  I felt pinned to my chair, goosebumps rising on my arm.

An older gentleman stood up and energetically pointed at the singer, “You sing it, man!  Praise God!”

I had tears in my eyes and felt breathless.  That song was worth the whole service.  It spoke of seeing God face to face and how awesome that will be.  The preacher talked about how all our loved ones were experiencing that awesome experience NOW.  As we processed out, I felt Ed’s arms around both me and my husband.  Later, we met and visited for two hours on the boardwalk.  Same ocean. 30+ years later.  Friendship that has remained over major life changes, misunderstandings, physical distance, personal struggles, pain and grace, highs and lows.

It wasn’t Ocean City;  I hope to go there next year.  But it felt right and good to stand for my parents and remember them in New Jersey.  That’s where they spent most of their lives.  That’s where most of their friends were.  Their graves are in Mississippi, and we had their funerals there.  It was Mom’s home, and she loved it.  But I knew them in NJ.  Near the shore.  It felt right to remember them there, with the ocean breeze and the sound of seagulls.  And a thousand tongues singing praise.

And to walk into the hugs of Uncle Ray and Aunt Betty, to allow them to remember their best friends to me.  To share memories and to laugh.  But mostly to hug.

P.K. or T.O.

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Some people believe that before we are born, we choose the parents we want to be born to.  I admit I’m skeptical about that.  I have three brothers, and I know one of them for sure would not have chosen to be a pastor’s kid.  Being a pastor’s kid was a very negative experience for him.  It was a mixture of good and bad for me; because our relatives lived all over the world and so faraway, I found adopted family in the church.  Who would I be if I hadn’t grow up as the pastor’s kid?  I’d be a completely different person, as would my brothers.  Better or worse, I don’t know.

But this is my story, which is the only story I have the authority to tell.

When John Wesley came up with the model of itinerant pastors, he wasn’t thinking of the future, necessarily.  The circuit riders, who rode on horseback from town to town to preach the Gospel, didn’t live long lives.  It was a harsh life, and not one conducive to family life.  Yet the modern church took on the model of “itineracy” for its structure.

In the United Methodist Church, you don’t apply to a church that you’d like to go to.  You don’t go and “try out” by preaching for them and letting the church decide whether they want you or not.  In the UMC, you are sent.  By the Bishop.  He or she, in conversation with the Cabinet (yes, the UMC is modeled after the US government–red flag!!), decide where the pastors will live and work.

It’s an arrangement you sign up for at ordination.  The Bishop asks you Wesley’s Historical Questions, (written in the 18th century, mind you), “Will you go where the Bishop sends you unreservedly?”  And you are to say an enthusiastic “yes!”  In my long history with pastors and the UMC, I know for sure we all failed the “unreservedly” criteria.

As you can imagine, it all gets very political.  When I was growing up, they printed the salaries of all the pastors in the annual journal, so pastors were able to compare their salaries to others’ and know what churches to “shoot for.”  They don’t do that anymore, but there are always those churches that some pastors drool at with desire, and hope to be in the Bishop’s good graces so they will be sent to the “prime appointments.”  And, of course, there are churches that ambitious pastors hope to never serve.

It goes the other way, too, unfortunately.  If a pastor acts up, doesn’t respect the authority of the Bishop, and/or offends the Bishop in some way, Bishops have been known to send the pastors to certain appointments to “punish” them.  That doesn’t work out well for the pastor or the perhaps innocent congregation who receives one ticked-off pastor.

Into all of this complicated human mess comes children.  Pastor’s kids.  Or, as one of my mentors back in the day called it, “T.O.”, for Theological Offspring.  They are thrown into this situation without any say.  Of course, one might argue that no children  get to choose their parents’ vocations.  Children of movie stars, political leaders, or any celebrities, also don’t get to choose to be the children of people in the limelight. (Nor do they get to choose their names, like “Elijah Blue” or “Apple.”)  But PKs are unique, and I can speak about the experience with some authority.

I can only speak of the experience in the UMC, which is not like the call system of other denominations, where children can actually go to one school their entire lives.  As a PK in the UMC, you usually move quite often.  I was actually more fortunate than others, as I only moved three times from the age of 3 days to 18 years.  My daughter moved 6 times in as many years, and didn’t move anymore after that only because I left the pastoral ministry and decided to live in one place for the duration of her education.  (You’re welcome, Sarah)

It’s very common for PKs to have nothing to do with the church after they are out on their own, and that is mostly true for my family.  Only one of my brothers, who married a Catholic woman, attends church.  The other two don’t have anything to do with church.  I took the more complicated way of becoming a pastor, and then having nothing to do with Church.

Being a pastor’s kid, as I’ve said before, decided the day I was born.  No kidding!  My father was moving to a new church when my mother was 9 months pregnant, and I was actually due after the moving date.  So the doctor was asked to induce labor over a week early, which as you know, back in those days, inducing was even harder on the mother than it is now.  (My daughter was induced because my water had broken and things weren’t happening, and I can attest, it is not fun.)

I moved when I was three days old, and of course, that move didn’t affect me as much as it did my mother.  I moved again when I was 5, and I don’t remember that being much of a big deal either.  I spent the next 9 years in Red Bank, NJ, and moving away from there at 14 was really awful.  I’d made all my friends from the time of kindergarten through middle school.  I was a shy and nervous kid, so the thought of uprooting and starting all over was devastating.  My friends were all going to the new regional high school in Red Bank, that was brand new with rubber floors in the gym (I thought that sounded cool).

From a pastor’s perspective, you are told what salary you will make, where your kids will go to school, and you move into a house that is not your own.  More pastors are buying their own houses and getting the church to rent out the parsonage, but that causes huge conflicts in the church for the first pastor to do that.  It also causes a mess for the pastor who comes in afterwards and can’t afford to buy his own house, and there’s now no parsonage.  The housing allowance provided is not nearly enough to rent a house, much less buy one.  If a pastor does what he or she is supposed to, and moves into the parsonage, they don’t buy a house until they are retired at 65 or so.  For the less fortunate pastors, this is a huge financial crisis.  They find that they can’t afford a mortgage or their mortgage is over 30 years and they never pay it off.

As a pastor’s kid, you are on display.  The expectations of the congregation for that child’s behavior vary, according to the congregation.  My oldest brother had expectations put on him that I never experienced in my father’s later churches.  If a pastor has hundreds of bosses in the congregation, the pastor’s kid has hundreds of people with an opinion on how they should behave.  And they always share it.

In the last church where I lived with my parents, I had a mostly good experience.  The congregation was very kind to me.  I had lots of adopted family there.  I was very active in the church, in Youth Group, Bell Choir, the Adult Choir, and Sunday School.  I heard people talk about how wonderful my father was, and I also heard about people who couldn’t stand him.  I knew about the biggest church conflicts (like moving the first worship service back 15 minutes and the second service forward 15 minutes so they could have Sunday School in between.  People actually left the Church over that.)

In my new high school, of course, everyone knew I was the new Pastor’s kid.  The other pastor’s kid in my grade, the Baptist kid, went full-out the opposite way of myself.  He grew his hair long, didn’t always bathe, and did drugs.  He wanted it known, for the record, that he was not some goody-two-shoes just because his father was the Baptist preacher in town.

I was the goody-two-shoes, but I’m not embarrassed by that.  I loved Church then, for the most part.  I didn’t think drugs was very good for my body, nor did I like the way alcohol made me feel.  I didn’t have sex with any boyfriends, because I knew that could result in pregnancy (and no one was telling me about birth control!), and I guarantee that would have been a shame that I would never live down.  I couldn’t imagine how my parents would react to that, and I didn’t think  it’d be unconditional love and support.  Sex was a big no-no.  Shame was a big motivator.

However, oddly enough, I did have parishioners who did think I was “too good.”  One in particular, who adored my father and thought he could do no wrong, at the same time told me I should “get laid.”  She thought I needed to live a little.  I was close to her at the time, and really looked up to her.  I cared way too much about what other people  thought (which is deadly for a pastor’s kid) and wanted to please her.  But the stakes were too high.  I wasn’t ready to shoulder the burden of that much punishment.

I didn’t go into pastoral ministry because of my father.  I had a very real, very profound call of my own.  However, I do realize, that because my father was a pastor, I was in the right environment to be “primed” for the call.  But I think that being a pastor’s kid, too, was part of the reason I also had to ultimately leave.  I’d lived the fishbowl life.  I’d already been moved around by someone who didn’t always have my best interests in mind (“Induce labor!”).  I’d seen the underbelly of the Church from my living room.  I’d seen all three of my brothers wrestle through their own struggles with being on the church stage, and ultimately reject faith altogether.  I’d wrestled with the expectations of the church and of my parents, which always conflicted.  I’d undergone criticism for being too “uptight,” “too good,” or “ungrateful.”  I’d dealt with the pain of leaving all my friends 80 miles behind and having to be the new kid in school.

I’d dealt with lifelong anxiety, depression and guilt.  After all those things piled up on me once again as a pastor, I decided it wasn’t a healthy life for me or for my daughter, who remembers all the people in the church that were especially mean to her mother.  She’s not impressed with Bishops and D.S.’s.  She’s seen how cruel they can sometimes be, and how un-Christlike many of them can be in their political positions.  When my husband left the church ministry, his blood pressure went down considerably.  In the ten years that I’ve been out, my anxiety and depression have decreased and I’ve learned how to be healthy spiritually, emotionally and physically.  I think my relationships with my daughter and husband are much much healthier.

All four of us in my family of origin have our painful stories of life as PKs.  My oldest brother and I share those freely and seem to get each other.

I can’t say whether or not I would have chosen the that life before I was born or not.  It wasn’t all bad.  It wasn’t all good.   I did the best I could.

I do wonder how children of John Wesley would have turned out.  I kind of shudder.  I suspect he knew reproduction would not have been a good idea for him.

 

 

Let (Him) Eat Cake

Food and Wine:40 Recipes From 40 Years: Steps

When I was in high school in the early ’80s, my mother heard about how high cholesterol could kill you.  Then she discovered that cholesterol was a big problem in her family history.  Our lives changed after that.

Mom never did anything half-halfheartedly.

By that time, I was the only child living at home and so the only one who suffered from her new obsession.  We had a lot of meals that included Tofu, for which I never acquired a taste.  We ate more chicken– without the skin!  We were forbidden red meat and desserts.  I protested that I was only a teenager and shouldn’t have to suffer these restrictions, but she believed the earlier you start paying attention to cholesterol, the better.

Now of course I realize that yes, eating healthier is very important if you want to stay healthy.  But Mom didn’t believe in EVER treating yourself to something fatty.  And the way my mother was– being particularly good at guilt– it was difficult to eat in front of her.  If I ate french fries at a restaurant, she watched me with judging eyes.  I confess I never got over this.  Even as a middle-aged adult, I couldn’t enjoy french fries or even a big meal of any kind in the presence of my mother.

But she was the hardest on my father when it came to food.  My father loved food!  The fattier the better!  Perhaps this was the little rebellious boy in him, but he liked his desserts and would sometimes find a way to get them without her knowing.  It was one of the funny little games in their relationship.  Mom was scared of Dad being overweight; reflecting of course that that could lead to a heart attack or stroke, and therefore death.  Mom just had a thing about fat.  It got much worse when they retired and she had more time to worry about it.

My brothers used to joke about how they didn’t have anything natural in their house; all the food was made of chemicals, assembled to be non-fat and/or no-sugar.  Again, I understand it’s important to eat healthy and keep one’s weight down to avoid health issues that might be avoidable, but Mom was extreme.

When I was ordained in Lincoln and they’d flown out for the event, we stayed at the Days Inn near the airport.  Perkins was open 24 hours, and one morning, Dad confessed he sneaked out of their hotel room in the middle of the night and went to Perkins for a cheeseburger.  Mom never knew.  He was pretty pleased with himself.  For him, so deprived, a cheeseburger was like manna from heaven.

Another time Dad and Mom were visiting us in Nebraska, we all walked over to Subway, just over the viaduct.  The walk wasn’t even a mile distance.  At Subway we ate lunch (the low-fat sandwiches of course) and got ready to leave for the walk back.

“Larry,” my Dad said, “My legs are feeling a bit sore.  Would you mind walking back with the others and coming to get me in the car?”  Mom scolded him a bit for being lazy, as she often did when he didn’t join her for exercise, but we left him sitting in Subway with his ever-present cup of tea.

When Larry arrived at Subway to pick up Dad, he said that Dad had just finished his second oatmeal raisin cookie.  He’d tried to stuff the last bit in his mouth before Larry walked in, but the evidence was in the crumbs on the table.

“Don’t tell Margaret!” he said.  Larry didn’t tell on him, except to me.  I wasn’t going to tell.

Mom was always an excellent cook and baker, and she made a lot of delicious treats for other people to enjoy.  She didn’t ever partake, nor did she allow Rollo to indulge.  I still couldn’t eat dessert in front of my skinny little mother.

At the same time, my father “forbid” my mother to do things she really wanted to do, for fear she would die.  She wanted to jump out of a plane– no way.  Her best friend, Betty, indulged in parasailing in her later years, and my mother wanted so badly to join her.  Nope.  Mom couldn’t do anything that would make my father nervous or anxious for her safety.  Their fears fed each others’, it seemed.  What resulted however, was that neither of them took very many risks.

When I was living with them, Dad tried to restrict me in the same way, but I managed to mostly do what I wanted to do.  However, I was very anxious most of the time, taking on his fears that I might die.  He called me up at college and begged me to change my major so I wouldn’t have to go to the Philadelphia campus for one semester.  He was acting very odd and wouldn’t tell me why this sudden interest in my not going to the city for a semester.

It turned out that a parishioner’s daughter was murdered that week at Drexel University.  I was to spend a semester at Temple University.  It didn’t matter that they were different schools in different parts of the city.   For months he begged me to change majors.  I refused.  I went to Temple and lived to tell about it.  But for years I had panic attacks and trouble with anxiety whenever I did take any risks.

Just a couple of years ago, my parents went to a new restaurant in Brookhaven, Mississippi that had a bakery full of delectable desserts.  They had a nice lunch.  As Dad got older and thought more about his mortality, he started telling stories of his mother.  By that time, he’d told us that when he was leaving India for the United States, his mother gave him a box to take with him.  Inside it was a chocolate cake.

“Ma made the best chocolate cake,” he said.  “Moist, rich…delicious.”

That day at the new restaurant, Dad eyed a huge piece of chocolate cake.  He wanted it!  He told the waitress the story about his mother, and she said it was very moist and rich.  Delicious.  Dad ordered it.  But Mom intervened and said in front of the waitress that he couldn’t have it.  Apparently they argued, and Mom gave him quite the hard time about this cake.

The waitress felt so sorry for him that she put it in a take-home box and gave it to him, free of charge.

I never heard whether he ever got to eat it.

The sad side of these stories is that my parents had a difficult time with simply enjoying food.  Or anything.  Moments of goodness and joy were fleeting for them both, because they ended up finding something wrong with it, or thinking of what could go wrong.  There were times that I did what I could to give them a good time, give them an event of absolute grace.  Their 50th wedding anniversary party.  A trip with us to the Black Hills in South Dakota.  Others took them on trips or out to dinner.  They traveled around the world.  I think they enjoyed those trips, despite not eating any dessert.  But many people tried to get Mom to just let Dad eat his cake.  Or pie.

Sometimes he did, but by that time, he felt too guilty to enjoy it.

The crazy thing is, I know from hearing from people from their pasts, that they were able to give joy and create joy for others.  They just had a hard time indulging in joy themselves.  Or trusting it.

This past week Larry and I traveled to New Jersey for the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.  We’d been invited to the memorial service there, held in Wildwood, NJ, for all clergy and clergy spouses that died this past year.  It was a beautiful service honoring all those who have “crossed that final river.”  It was touching and gracious to see each of my parents’ pictures up on the big screen.  It was good for my soul.

After the service, there was a dinner for the family members in a separate room, with the Bishop present to greet us.  We met a widow and her daughter and a District Superintendent, with whom we shared good conversation.  We all shared stories of our loved ones as we ate a delicious meal.  It was truly lovely.

After coffee was served, they came out and served dessert.

A huge slab of rich, creamy, moist chocolate cake. 

I laughed out loud and…

I ate it.  For Dad.

And hoped there are no diet restrictions at the heavenly banquet.

Orphaned

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Within two and half months, I became an orphan at 53.

C.S. Lewis, in his book, A Grief Observed, writes:  “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.  I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid.  The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning.  I keep on swallowing…”

My father died on January 1, 2019.  My mother, who seemed to be a quite healthy, mobile- if not forgetful -90 year-old, died on March 11 after a sudden and short bout of aspiration pneumonia.  I suspect, however, that the main cause was a broken heart.  Though it was no surprise, my favorite Uncle Denver died on March 31 after many years of heart issues.  He was 94.

Grief, I’ve found through the years, is a very individual journey.  No one can do it for you.  No one can even understand exactly how you feel.  Not even my brothers.  Each of us had different relationships with our parents, different experiences, different emotions.  Each of us are experiencing loss in our own individual ways.

When Dad died, we were all focused on Mom and how she was doing.  That shielded us a bit from the onslaught of complicated emotions, I think.  We were concerned about her and how to get her to settle into her memory care facility– and she was not having THAT! When I talked to her every other day,  she was always packing.  She was going home.  It didn’t matter to her that she knew she couldn’t live alone in the country; she’d figure that out, she said.  We pretty much had the same conversation every time.

Meanwhile, I was stumbling along, feeling all sorts of emotions with the loss of Dad.  As silly as it sounds, I asked myself, “What am I supposed to feel?”  And why did I feel like the wind had been knocked out of me, when he and I were never close?

Lewis talks about the “laziness of grief.”  I get that.  I am tired, have very little motivation. I feel a general malaise.  Unfortunately, my father taught me too well that feelings are a  sign of weakness, and you must abolish them, rise above them.  I don’t believe that, but it is still difficult for me to just have a good cry when I need to.  I was trained to keep feelings below the surface.  It wasn’t safe to break down or feel deeply around my father.  So now, it builds up for a long time until a massive cry-storm erupts.  Not pretty.

Mom’s death happened so fast and so unexpectedly.  This time there was no shield.  We were all face to face with suddenly having no parents; so in a way, it felt like we were facing both losses at Mom’s funeral.  She died just two months and 10 days after Dad.  Other than memory loss, she was very healthy and strong!  We assumed she’d go on for a long time.  It seems she didn’t want to do that without Dad.

There’s something totally different about losing your mother. I think, especially, if you’re a  woman.  We shared flesh, bone and blood.  I was created within her body, nourished by her body.  I read recently that the eggs that result in her children are present in our mothers when they are fetuses themselves!  I’ve been a part of her since before she was born.  Literally.  You don’t get more basic, more primal, than that.

I look like her.  We had the same eyes, the same smile, the same laugh.  I have her temper!  I have her capacity to feel everything very deeply, whether joy or sadness, anger and hurt.  I’ve inherited her capacity for creativity, art, teaching, poetry.  Her deep desire to learn.  She was the one who taught me to sense God’s presence in nature, in the world.  She taught me about faith that resides in the heart and soul,  not just the head.

The mother/daughter relationship is an intense one, and hundreds of books are written on it.  It can be volatile, intimate, comforting, joyous.  Women’s psychology says that when boys are born, they are culturally educated to move away from mother, to become individuated early on.  Girls, however, are not given the same expectation.  They are nurtured to stay close to Mom and to home, to move on only when it’s time to marry and have children of their own.  They are never encouraged to detach or to become their own individual.  Of course, that is changing, but slowly.  And like much psychology, it’s generalized.

I didn’t always appreciate being so much like my mother.  Now, I do.  I’m guessing that’s a part of growing up; accepting your mother’s weaknesses as well as your own, and embracing her strengths.  And realizing that she did the best she could do with what she had.  She did what she knew.

Death is still tricky in our world.  We still don’t talk about it well.  I’ve had many wonderful cards and messages expressing condolences and promising prayers.  The people that seem to understand most of what I’m feeling are two women friends who both recently lost their mothers.  My husband, who lost his father prematurely to cancer 28 years ago and who has worked in hospice for many years, also understands.

I want to feel better.  “How long has it been since your mother died?” Larry asks.

“3 1/2 weeks.”

Point taken.  I’m tired.  I go to bed tired, I don’t sleep well, and I wake up tired.  I don’t feel like doing anything, but fortunately, I do have a job that gives me a routine.  Otherwise, I take a lot of naps.  I have managed to go to the gym a few times a week, but I don’t have the same endurance I had a month ago.  Sometimes I’m nauseous.  Anxious.  I jump at loud noises.  I get depressed for no reason.  Well, I guess there is a reason.  It’s always there.  I hear news about someone back in New Jersey that my mother and I both knew and I want to call her up and tell her.  Oh.  Or I think of a question about our family or something that happened years ago, that I want to ask her about.  Yesterday I noticed on my phone under, “Frequently Called,” was “Mom.”  I couldn’t bring myself to delete her contact information.

There’s not a lot of wise things I can say right now, because I haven’t mastered this grieving thing.  I know there is light at the end of the proverbial tunnel, but I don’t see where that tunnel ends, or even if it does at all, but just gets “lighter” somewhere down the line.  The person who has known me the longest ever, is gone.  I might have complained that she didn’t do this or that, or truly understand all the choices I made, but the fact is, she was there the whole time.  We knew each other before I saw the light of day, before anyone else knew who I was, I was a part of my mother.  In many ways, a part of me has died with her.  In another way, part of her lives on in me, and will in my own daughter.

Grief is messy.  I like to say “this is going on and why.”  Maybe that comes from my father who so loved psychology.  But it doesn’t matter why you feel something, when the basic reality, is that you do.  You just feel crappy.  I can have a good day and suddenly feel very, very sad.  One day I laughed out loud, and my daughter burst into tears.  “You laugh just like her,” she explained, as I pulled her into a hug.

I’m still new at this.  I’ve lost many people in my lifetime, but this grief is completely different.  As a pastor’s daughter, I never had a hometown, or the ability to go back to the house in which I grew up.  I grew up in more than one house, and my parents no longer lived in those houses.  So my home was my parents themselves, for better and for worse.  My original home was wherever they happened to be.

I stayed in their most recent house with Larry and Sarah, when we were down to Mississippi for the funeral.  Mississippi was Mom’s original home, the place she always wanted to get back to, no matter where she was.  When we gathered there after the funeral with my brothers, we all went through the house and took what each of us wanted, before the rest of it is auctioned off in an estate sale.  Since I’ve returned to my own home, slowly I’ve incorporated the things I took, into my house.  Somehow the house looks better.  We’ve lived here for ten years, and over those years I’ve painted, moved things around and decorated, trying to make it into our sanctuary.  A place of welcome, comfort and safety.  With things added from my parents’ house, it feels like it finally is what I want it to be.

And I can’t help but think as I muddle through this time of grief–sorting through the ashes of loss and new beginnings– I will begin to feel more whole and complete, as I incorporate the best of who my parents were.  The best of them in me.  Letting go of the disappointments and hurts, and allowing the grace and gifts of them to live on and blossom in my life.

May it be so.

 

 

Beyond Words

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When I was a student at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Missouri, I took a class called White Soul.  It was January of 1992, I’d been a student at SPST for a year by then, and already my life had been changed in many ways by the professors who taught me and the challenging classes I took.

White Soul was a class taught by Dr. Tex Sample, professor of Church and Society, and mysteriously a son of Brookhaven, Mississippi, where my mother grew up.  The class was a look at country music and how it serves as the white man’s blues.  Garth Brooks was at his peak at that point and was leading the way in converting many young people to country music.  I learned quickly that Garth’s “Friends in Low Places” was a favorite on campus, and somewhat of a tongue-in-cheek model of the Gospel.  Jesus was notorious for having friends in “low places,” after all.

The class was available to those outside campus as well.  One particular day, Tex had played a song by Dolly Parton called “Family.”  The first part of the song says:

“When it’s family, you forgive them
For they know not what they do
When it’s family, you accept them
‘Cause you have no choice but to
When it’s family, they’re a mirror
Of the worst and best in you
And they always put you to the test
And you always try to do your best
And just pray for God to do the rest
When it’s family
Some are preachers, some are gay
Some are addicts, drunks and strays
But not a one is turned away
When it’s family
Some are lucky, others ain’t
Some are fighters, others faint
Winners, losers, sinners, saints
It’s all family…”

I think someone made a comment about ideally, a symbol for the Kingdom of God, or the Communion of Saints, could fit this image.  Of course, it, like real families, fall short.  This discussion sparked a pastor among us to stand up and tell us a true story  about one of his young parishioners.

This young man, we’ll call him Dave, went home from college and decided it was time to tell his parents the truth about himself, which was the result of a long journey of struggling and discernment.  He had them sit down in the living room, telling them that he had something very important to tell them.

He was gay.

At first, his parents didn’t speak.  They just stared at him.  Then, very slowly, as Dave stood there very nervously, his father got up and took the elbow of his wife.  He whispered to her to go into the kitchen, which she did obediently.  Without speaking, Dave’s father went to the living room closet and reached high onto the shelf of the closet and brought down what looked like a shoe box.  He gently laid the shoe box on the coffee table.  Slowly and wordlessly, he opened the box and lifted out something wrapped in a thick cloth.  He laid the cloth on the table and unwrapped it, as if it were delicate.

It was a handgun.

Dave’s father stood back up, looked down at the gun, and looked up at his son. His jaw set, he spoke.

“Son,” he said, putting his hands on his waist, “Your mother and I are going to go out for a while.”  He looked down at the gun, and back at Dave.  “You know what to do.”

There was a collective gasp in the classroom when the pastor told that story, and for a moment Tex was quiet.

I never forgot that story and how it made me feel.  I’ve told it in several different churches; usually when I preached on the Prodigal Son and got to the point in the story when he decided to go home and see if his father would take him back.  The father in the story I told was a stark contrast to the father in the Prodigal story who ordered a feast in celebration of his son’s return.

I have no idea how that son in the pastor’s story felt, and what a struggle he must have faced in having to accept that his own father would reject him so viciously.  I’m a white, heterosexual woman.  I’ve known my own share of rejection.  I have my own stories of feeling rejected by the Church that shaped me and helped make me who I am.  So much so that I finally had to walk away from what was once my spiritual home, in order to find healing and strength.  Many dear friends couldn’t understand how I could leave.  That’s ok.  I lived my story.  It is, in fact, my story.  No one else’s.

But despite my claim to deep spiritual and emotional pain at the hands of the institutional church, it doesn’t come close to that boy’s pain.  Or the pain of many, many LGBTQ people who claim the United Methodist Church as their spiritual home, despite everything.

I tried not to pay attention to what was happening at General Conference’s special session last week.  The UMC is not my home anymore, and sometimes I’m sad about that.  I have many family and friends who are, in fact, still very much a part of the UMC.  I care about them and what happens.  I confess I do not understand how LGBTQ persons have persevered so long, banging on the denominational door that remains stubbornly shut.  I’m not that strong.  I was born into, taught, inspired, shaped by, educated by, and employed by the UMC.  It was my home for 44 years.  I get not wanting to give up on your home.  Leaving was a very personal and painful decision for me.

I admire and wonder all these people I see who will not give up on getting those doors opened.  Someone said this week on Facebook, that we need to keep perspective.  That the hungry were fed this week through the food pantry, people were comforted by the ministry of the local UMC, youth experienced learning about God.  And, it was said, LGBTQ people aren’t kept from being parishioners, members of leadership committees or worship leaders.  The restrictions are against “only” marriage and ordination.

But I know a few families from my former parish, whose children are gay, lesbian and/or transgender.  I don’t think it would a comfort to them or their children to know that they can worship or join committees in the church, but they aren’t good enough to have their relationships of love blessed or to be ordained to lead.

When I was in college, one of my professors, who became a dear friend, once said to me that when he’s confused about what God wants, when it seems that the Bible contradicts itself on certain things, he looks to Jesus.  He reads and studies the four Gospels.  He studies what Jesus said and did, who he was and is.  Because after all, Jesus is the one who, as Christians we believe, is the incarnation of God.  The Word Made Flesh.

I’ve always used that approach.  Jesus’ main teaching, the core of his life and death, is Love.  He lived for Love, he died for Love.  Who killed him, after all?  The Church authorities.  The people who lived by the letter of the law.  And I believe the Resurrection is the message that nothing, not life or death or principalities or anything on earth or in heaven can separate us from the love of God.  Not even the Church.

The thing that really ticked off Jesus, was hypocrisy.  That set off his temper in a big way.  He touched, he healed, he lifted up, he invited.  People.  He didn’t ask them who they loved, but he commanded that they love.  Above all else.  The law of God is summed up in the commandment to love your neighbor, love God and love yourself.

Homosexuality or any other sexual identity that is freaking Christian people out, doesn’t even make God’s Top Ten Commandments.  Jesus never ever mentioned it.  He came to invite us all to the party called the Kingdom of God.  To Life, Wholeness, Joy, True Life.

I know the issue is fear.  We’re terrified of what we don’t understand.  I don’t claim to understand LGBTQ people.  How can I?  I don’t live in their skin.  They don’t understand me either.  We love differently, but we all love.  Everybody wants to be loved.  Everybody.

Sex is a thing we don’t talk about.  We sure didn’t talk about in my house growing up!  We didn’t talk about it in church.  Now it’s being thrown in our faces– or at least I think many people feel that way.  You’re going to make me think about what those people do?

I know for a fact that I had people in my congregations that were adulterers (which, by the way is on God’s Top Ten list of Don’ts).  No one talked about it.  They were leaders in the church.  Sometimes, in fact, they were some of the most judgmental people.  I’m not saying we should have kicked them out, but people turn a blind eye to adultery, child abuse, sexual abuse and domestic abuse in the church much too often.  And then we call people who just want to be in a committed, loving, monogamous relationship and to have that blessed in the Church— sinners.  Repugnant.  Perverts.

I don’t get it.  I know sex is a powerful thing, and for many people, a very frightening thing.  But these days, we’re letting our fears blow up into rage and hatred and assure ourselves that God hates all the same people we do.  Anne Lamott, a Christian writer, says it’s a sure sign that we’ve made God in our own image, when we believe that God hates all the same people we do.

I don’t understand the perseverance, the courage, and the relentless faith that keeps LGBTQ people wanting to take their place at the Table of Christ in the UMC when they keep getting battered and threatened and insulted by the leaders of the institution and the the hard, sharp cover of The Book of Discipline.  They are stronger than I am, and I wish them well.  I pray that they will persevere in bringing justice and inclusivity to the United Methodist Church someday.  They have fought this battle for over 40 years.

I have many heterosexual friends, both laity and pastors in the UMC who are fighting that battle with them, and I pray for all of them.  I thank God for them.  Some may say that I don’t have a right to say anything about it, because I left.  Maybe that’s true, maybe it’s not.  But in a way, the United Methodist Church is still my family, even though we don’t speak much.  I wouldn’t be who I am without it.

I believe that God will bring about God’s justice, mercy and love in this world and in the next, but apparently, it’ll be a sometimes bloody fight against the ever-powerful forces of hate and evil that claim to work in God’s name.  I believe in the Communion of Saints and the Kin-dom of God (which ultimately includes all God’s people).

And I believe in love.  In all it’s myriad of expressions.  For me, it all stems from the source of all our lives… in whom we live, love and have our being.

 

The Struggle Not Availeth

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“Say not the struggle nought availeth,
The labour and the wounds are vain,
The enemy faints not, nor faileth,
And as things have been they remain…”
–Arthur Hugh Clough

Now the smoke seems to be clearing since Dad’s death and we’re now more focused on my mother and her slow mental decline.  The grief from Dad’s death is not simple, but I’ve experienced enough losses over my 50-odd years to know that every loss is experienced differently.

I get caught off guard a lot.

My father, in many ways, was a character.  I think he wanted to be.  Unique.  Different.  And he was.

The other night we were watching one of our favorite British shows, Endeavour.  Since discovering cousins in England and later traveling to see them, I’ve been intrigued with the various customs, sayings, different foods, etc. in the former empire.  In one episode, DI Thursday said to Morse (the show’s main character), “You look like you’ve lost a pound and found a sixpence.”

I think I made an involuntary loud noise.  And had to pause the show.

My father used to say to anyone who looked sad, “You look like you’ve lost a pound and found a shilling.”  We thought it an odd saying, since at that time we weren’t familiar with English coinage.  But I usually responded, if I was indeed sad, “Well, I lost a pound but didn’t find any shilling.”

It happened again the following night.  Morse, a very literary, opera-loving detective, read a poem at the funeral of a fallen colleague.

“Say not the struggle nought availeth,
The labour and the wounds are vain,
The enemy faints not, nor faileth,
And as things have been they remain…”

He went on to read the rest of the poem, but I didn’t hear it.  I might have been choking on my glass of water.  I hadn’t heard the poem in many years, but in my head, the voice speaking it was not Morse, but my father, in his Indian-British accent.

He did that sort of thing all the time, but in the years of his retirement and especially in the months leading to his death, he didn’t resort to poetry anymore.  In many ways, after he retired, he was a man without an audience; a preacher without a pulpit.  A shepherd without a flock.  He really struggled in the 24 years of retirement.  He didn’t know anything else.

But I digress.

I suppose it’s normal when someone dies, but especially a parent, your whole life plays back to you at odd moments.  As I said, now that the weeks after Dad’s death have passed and “things” have to therefore be done and decided upon, I’ve bit hit with these random memories.

As a teenager, I have vivid memories of sitting at the breakfast table before school, and my father would put on one of his many hats, carrying some sort of office-type bag with him and pause with his hand on the door going out to the garage.

“I go to prove my soul…” he’d often say.

Wow.  Heavy.

When Dad was a child growing up in India–with an Indian mother who, for some reason, hated all things Indian–he was immersed in all things British.  My father rarely talked about his childhood or India years, and when he did it was just snippets.  He talked about the mango tree just outside his window, or the view of the Mahim Bay that inspired him.

At some point in his growing up, perhaps as a part of his education, he was made to memorize and recite poetry.  So he was known to randomly blurt out a line or two from one of the many poems he learned as a child.  He never recited the whole poem or even tell us what the poem was about or by whom.  It was as common to him to quote a poem as it was to other men at the dinner table to say, “I had an interesting day today…”

I usually rolled my eyes.  Dad’s at it again.

When one of us would bring home a friend, whether boy or girl, Dad inevitably would recite a line from a poem with great flourish and gestures and then lean toward the guest and say, “Do you know that?”

Well, they never did, and more often than not, they were intimidated.  I think sometimes that was Dad’s intent.  He liked to intimidate– not in a menacing way– but in a playful way.  It just wasn’t always received that way.

If not quoting poetry, he’d ask a philosophical or theological question.  “Is Man basically good or evil?”

We were used to it, but outsiders were not.  And again, if it were, in my case, a boyfriend or in my brother’s cases, a girlfriend, they usually looked to one of us as if to find out the right answer.

One of the old family stories includes the time when my late sister-in-law Barbara first came to dinner.  She’d been warned about Rollo.  She was ready.  When Dad started reciting some random English poem, Barbara cleared her throat and said, “Bill and Tommy were really good friends,…” reciting a poem from her early reading days.

We all laughed.  I think my father was confused.

My father admitted never being very good at small talk.  To cover this, he knew how to get others talking or else he’d go off on a monologue of theology and/or psychology or a mixture of both.  Usually people nodded, not knowing what in the world he was talking about, but when my friends from college came home with me, they just about sat at his feet and drank up his words.

Which irritated me.

They’d ask him questions and get him going deeper into his monologuing.  He had an audience!  He was thrilled.  I usually went to get some sodas.  This could go on for a while.

Instead of asking me how I was doing in any given moment, he used to say, “How is it with your soul?”  Um, I don’t know.  That was a big question.  It wasn’t until I was in seminary myself learning about John Wesley that I discovered that that was a line Wesley used in his pre-denomination covenant groups.  Each person was to say how their spiritual life was going.  Ah, another mystery solved.

I’m realizing, now, that all of us tend to be different people, in ways, depending on who we’re with.  Which one is the real person?  I guess we’re all just a sum of our parts, literally.  I’m an introvert.  But when I was a preacher, someone said I came alive in the pulpit (does that mean I’m usually dead?).  It’s true, that I was more animated, more expressive, even more confident when I was in the pulpit.  I loved preaching.  I loved weaving stories that people could relate to with the Biblical story.  I enjoyed taking them there to the scene of the story to give them a feel of being there.  Of it being less foreign.  It struck my creative cord and something I was good at.

But out of the pulpit, someone might suggest I was a different person.  Quieter.  More introspective.  Preferring the company of one or two people, and not one to “work a crowd.”  My daughter and husband yet different sides of me.  But all of those images of me are me.  It’s always been my goal to be authentic.  Real.  Wherever and with whomever I am with.

The same was true with my father, of course.  He was a character as a pastor and preacher.  The Englishman from an exotic country and a bit of a permanent tan.  He preferred English things to anything Indian, but that’s how he was raised.  I think that was a pervasive thing across the family tree, as I’ve come to learn more.  Dad grew up in India from 1929-1949.  He was present for the struggle for India’s independence from Britain.  He was there when Gandhi was doing his thing.  He was there during the Partition, when things got violent in the cities.

He never talked about any of that.  He only mentioned that he thought of Gandhi at the time, like many of the British then, as a “half-naked fakir.”  The middle-aged Rollo, now a longtime American citizen, grew to admire Gandhi.  But beyond that, Dad did not share any stories about living through that tumultuous time — decades before he would find out from a DNA test that he, in fact, had more in common with the rebellious Indians that the Empire that sought to keep them.

How much does what’s in our blood matter?  He grew up shaped by all things English.  He loved all things English.  Though his accent was a mixture of English and Indian (as I was informed by my cousins), we thought it was English.  After all, like American accents, there are many different British accents, based on region.  I never heard another accent like my father’s until I met my cousin Peter, now a resident of England, who also grew up in India.

I know my father struggled with his identity as an Anglo-Indian.  But he didn’t talk about it.  We’d ask him questions over the years, trying to piece together the puzzle that was him and therefore our ancestry.  He mostly avoided such questions.  His life in India is mostly a mystery.

I wish I could have got those stories out of him.  I wish he could have told them.  The more I learn about Gandhi, the struggle for independence after centuries of being in the British empire, the bloody aftermath, the clash of cultures and castes, etc., I’d have loved to have known what it was like to be there.  What is India like?  I’d love to go there, to get another piece in the puzzle, but I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to get there.

What I’m learning, however, is that we are all more complicated than what we appear.  We are the product of many cultures, influences, dreams, nightmares, struggles, and even identities.  We inherit both burdens and gifts from our parents.  Hopefully we even learn from some of their mistakes.

I always only heard a line or two from my father’s cognitive collection of poetry.  But I looked up the poem by Arthur Hugh Clough that Morse recited in that episode.  Apparently Clough struggled with a lot of expectations of greatness put upon him that he ultimately could not live up to.  He wasn’t as “successful” as he was expected to be, but went into education, and, of course, into writing poetry.

“Say not the struggle nought availeth,
     The labour and the wounds are vain,
The enemy faints not, nor faileth,
     And as things have been they remain.
If hopes were dupes, fears may be liars;
     It may be, in yon smoke concealed,
Your comrades chase e’en now the fliers,
     And, but for you, possess the field.
For while the tired waves, vainly breaking
     Seem here no painful inch to gain,
Far back through creeks and inlets making,
     Comes silent, flooding in, the main.
And not by eastern windows only,
     When daylight comes, comes in the light,
In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly,
     But westward, look, the land is bright.”
It’s a poem about hope.  No matter what the struggle.  “Look… the land is bright.”

I trust my father has found that bright land.

God Is In the Roses

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I’m tempted to keep saying “I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel.”  But I stop.  Who cares how I’m supposed to feel?

My father died 2 1/2 weeks ago.  We knew it was coming.  And then, of course, once it happens, things happen so fast you don’t have time to think.  Now I’m home, receiving condolence cards, some from people I haven’t seen in 35 years.  They speak of the pastor they remember in my father.  “A loving, compassionate man.”  “Brilliant.”  “The best preacher ever.”

Just a few years ago, those comments would have made me angry.  “Whoa,” I would have said, “if they only knew.”  But in the last few years, I think I’ve done a lot of healing.  I don’t know why.  Was it turning 50?  Gaining peace from leaving the pastorate?  A lot of Al-anon meetings?  Yes, yes, and yes.  I didn’t want to get to my father’s death and have all that anger erupt then.  I didn’t want to be THAT family member at the funeral.

But I haven’t known what I feel.  When I saw him in the hospice that last day he was unconscious.  I touched his hand and tried to feel a connection to this person.  This was my father.  The person, anyway, that occupied that role for the last 53 1/2 years.  But he seemed like a stranger.  When we viewed the body two days later, same thing.  I tried to feel a connection.  But all I could think of was that night in October in the hospital in Jackson when he tried to have a “significant” conversation with me.

“You were into the equal rights women’s stuff, I remember,” he said, trying to recall memories of my life as he knew it.  I smiled.  No use arguing now.  He never knew that all I ever wanted was to be seen by him as a full, valuable, cherished human being.  He just never got that.  So he dismissed my passions.  Laughed at them sometimes.

That night, once he could not truly remember much of my life, he began to tell me all the “wonderful” things he accomplished.  Then he pat my hand and said, “So, it’s ok if I don’t wake up tomorrow.  We’ve connected.”  I nodded.  I knew that was as good as it was going to get.  The time for wishing for more was long over.

Upon viewing his body, I looked upon a man who never let me know who he really was.  Who kept himself aloof, impersonal, always professional.  His parishioners saw him in his pastoral role; the orator, the counselor.  My warm, personable mother made it possible for them to see him as human.  They didn’t know that they wouldn’t know how to relate to him if my mother wasn’t there.  They saw the role he played, apparently well.  Not everybody adored him.  There were some that said that he didn’t talk about Jesus enough.  He was offended.

But it was true.  He didn’t.

I don’t know what my father believed, when it came right down to it.  I know he was terrified of death.  I know in the last three months of his life he was inconsolable.  They increased his Ativan to the maximum dosage.  He was terrified of being alone, especially at night.  He was not comforted by the presence of his family, he didn’t care if we were there or not, really.  He just wanted a warm body in the room.  He wanted a voice on the other end of the phone when he intellectualized his terror.  His family just could never please him.

The preacher for the funeral was a man whom Dad filled in for in Brookhaven, at Jackson St. UMC.  Pastor Ron was a tall, skinny, effeminate man with a syrupy smile and a very large bow-tie.  Dad would drive into Brookhaven occasionally and visit with Ron.  For Dad, being a pastor was being part of an elite club.  He felt that United Methodist pastors especially, were a special breed of people.  They were above laypeople, for sure.

Dad had prepared a narrative that he wanted read at his funeral, to make sure certain things were said about him.  He’d asked Stan to read it, but I don’t think he trusted Stan to go through with it, so he gave it to Pastor Ron.

My father’s eulogy about himself said that he was a British subject who was born and raised in India.  He served five “really big churches”, with memberships from 600-1200 members.  He was a pastor, preacher, counselor, educator, seminar-leader, keynote speaker, director and “many other things.”  “He led many, many people to Jesus, and he was profoundly committed to his relationship with his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

Then Pastor Ron talked about how he would invite Dad over for “high tea” in downtown Brookhaven, MS.  Dad had a way of getting people to do things for him.  Pastor Ron got his secretary to provide cucumber sandwiches and a pot of tea for Rollo when he visited.  One day, their visit came after Pastor Ron was out doing his pastoral calls.  He came in and took his coat off, and took out his .357 Magnum pistol and laid it on his desk.  Dear God.

That syrupy sweet smile.  “There the pistol lay between the Word of God and English Breakfast tea.”  The congregation laughed.

I couldn’t help but think that the pastor was a deeply closeted gay man who felt the need to assert his manhood by bragging about the size of his concealed-carry.

How to feel?  My father was not a British subject.  That was the narrative I was fed all of my life, until my brother gave him a DNA test and we came to find out he was more than half Indian.  His mother, Mom-Mom Jesse, was nearly 100% Indian.  The woman who Dad claimed made him embrace all things British.  My father hated the Indian side of him and was verbally racist against “the natives.”  He said once that Britain should never have left India.  In fact, he left when they left.

My father always wanted to be British, and for his entire life after India, built that entire facade of being the Englishman.  Even after the DNA test.

He would take it to his grave.

All of us children agreed that the service was for Mom.  It was in her home church, the people were all “her” people, and it was for her comfort.  Therefore, it was ok.  Pastor Ron led us in a singalong of “Beulah Land,” a song I never learned but was always a favorite of Mom’s.  The highlight for me was when my great-niece Riley sang “Amazing Grace.”  It was the most real part of the entire service, and beautiful.

I still don’t know what my father believed, and neither did Pastor Ron.  My father would never use the phrase, “my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” and he thought “fundamentalists” were stupid.  He did not talk about Jesus, for fear of sounding simple.  He talked about “life beyond life” and “being accepted,” and a lot of esoteric language I can’t even remember because it made no sense.

He couldn’t tell me what he believed.  What gave him comfort.  What gave him hope.  He never talked about “heaven” or “eternity.”  I cannot imagine my father being at peace.  Because he never was on earth.  He was always very anxious.  Obsessive at times.  But he dismissed the “simple faith” of my mother, of me.

Pastor Ron said he knew that Rollo was laughing, now.  Laughing with joy.  Maybe.  But I cannot imagine it at all.  He never laughed with joy here.  I never knew him to have joy.  My daughter said she cringed when the preacher said that, because she could remember too many times when I was so angry with my father that I couldn’t see straight– and he laughed in my face.  I saw him laugh at my mother when she was furious with him.

I sat there with my arm around my mother, who was comforted by Pastor Ron’s words.  She sang “Beulah Land” with gusto, as I’d often heard her do so in the kitchen many years ago.  My mother taught me about Jesus and God’s love and joy in faith, and how faith can help in hard times.  My mother taught me how to find God in nature, in the woods, in a sunset, in the quiet, by the ocean or a stream.  My mother taught me faith of the heart.

I didn’t cry.  I have cried so many tears over the decades; tears of sorrow over not feeling loved or even seen by my father; tears of frustration when he just wouldn’t listen to me or take me seriously; tears of sorrow when I felt he belittled my mother one more time.  Perhaps there are more tears in there to be shed. Perhaps not.

My mother was comforted.  That’s what mattered that day.  The casket spread was full of roses and pine branches, which gave off a powerful, sweet scent.  As I listened to Pastor Ron say things that were blatantly untrue, the aroma of roses floated between us all, around us, enveloping us.  I remembered Rosanne Cash’s song, “God is in the roses… and the thorns.”  And I was comforted with every inhalation.

I was ok.  I am ok.  My brothers are ok.  They, too, were baffled by my father’s aloofness and lack of ability to feel an emotional connection with anyone, much less his own children.  But we all found healing in our own ways.  Mark attends Catholic Church since marrying Nancy, but the other two want nothing to do with church.  My own relationship with church is like a marriage that has gone sour after too many betrayals and hurts.  Me and Jesus are fine.

The night Dad died, as I went to sleep, I felt a huge relief.  As if a wall that I’ve been pushing against all my life finally fell open.  Dad was always the source of tension.  The person I could never prove myself to, the one who was never satisfied, the man who first dismissed me as “hysterical,” “too emotional,” and “just like your mother”– as if that was an insult.  I stopped pushing so hard a few years ago.  The night he died, it felt like a deep sigh.  A release.

A chance to begin again.

I am sad that he lived such a lonely life inside himself, when all four of his children would have loved, at one time, to be a source of joy and pride for him.  All of us had to finally give up that hope to have lives of our own that were healthy, full of love and relationships, and peace.  I assume he’s in heaven, but I  can’t picture it.  I assume he’s different.  That he finally experiences joy. And peace.

I hope he does.

I Remember

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“Now the thing about time is that time isn’t really real/it’s just your point of view/how does it feel for you?/Einstein said he could never understand it all/planets spinning through space/a smile upon your face/welcome to the human race… isn’t it a lovely ride?–
–James Taylor, “Secret O’Life”

This is a strange year for me.  Countless people have gone through what I’m going through, so it doesn’t make me special.  But our family was weird.  I think I grew up feeling that nothing bad could happen to the members of my immediate family.  It just happened to other unfortunate people.  It seems silly to me now, of course, but my family of origin has escaped, not so much unscathed, but a lot better off than some people.

Until now.  My father is on hospice.  My mother is in a memory care unit that she refers to as her “hotel.”  She can’t wait to get back home, and she hopes they’ll “release” my father soon.  Of course they’re not ever going home, but you can’t say that to a person with dementia.

We thought Dad was going to die in October when he had chest pains and they found that two of his arteries are 99% blocked and his valve is 70% blocked.  But he’s still here, just laying in bed.  I think even before the dementia, my mother never really believed he or my father could die.  She didn’t have to think it through, it just didn’t make sense for them to die– to her.  Or him.  My father seems a bit insulted that he might just be on that journey.  Like an ordinary human being.

We lost a dear friend to Alzheimer’s back in May.  Yvonne was a surrogate grandmother to my daughter Sarah when we lived in Pennsylvania.  She and her husband Jim were there for us during some really difficult times.  They were the essence of pure love.  Good, good people.  We saw Yvonne last year when the Alzheimer’s was very advanced, and it was heartbreaking.

Just last week we got news that a friend and former colleague, John, died at the age of 75.  Both Larry and I worked with John as his student assistant, consecutively, back in New Jersey when we attended Drew University Theological School.  I only worked with John for 6 months, as I later transferred to school in Kansas City.  But my time with him was intense and profound.  I learned how to do a worship service from him.  He taught me how to put it together so that the hymns, songs, prayers, rituals, readings and sermon all related to one another.  Parishioners later in my ministry were always impressed by that, but since working with John, I thought ALL pastors did that.

He taught me the basics of doing a hospital visit, meeting with a family about a funeral, serving communion.  At Roselle Park, they had the tradition of people coming forward for prayer during the second hymn.  John and I would kneel with them and say a prayer over them at the chancel rail.  As his assistant, I became a pastor, and I experienced all the things I would love about being a pastor.

We processed in at the beginning and there was a huge cross up front, looming over us that put me in the spirit of awe.  When we recessed out, there was a stained glass window of Jesus with his hand up, as if in a blessing.  On the Sundays that I preached, especially, it felt like Jesus was saying, “Well done, Peggy.”

John celebrated my sense of wonder and awe at the holy moments of worship and pastoring.  Offering communion to people who came and knelt before me with their hands cupped, ready to receive a blessing.  Those who came asking for prayer.  Finishing a prayer in the hospital with someone and find that they had tears in their eyes.  That first day that I put on the white alb that my mother made for me.  It was like taking on the mantle.  John smiled.  He knew.

Our relationship wasn’t perfect, by any means.  He was an active alcoholic at the time.  Later, he referred to himself as a “high functioning” alcoholic, because he didn’t miss meetings or worship, he was able to keep it “under wraps.”  However, I did smell it on his breath often, sometimes on Sunday, and he had a couple of Cutty Sarks at our long lunches.

Despite that, John supported me through some very difficult times, including the decision to move halfway across the country to study at St. Paul School of Theology.  We shared many holy moments in friendship during those brief months– it was intense.

We would have a falling out around the time I left, when I didn’t think we’d be friends again– alcoholics can incite that kind of rage in the people who love them.  But we both made amends.  When we lived in PA for six years, we met John halfway every few months to share lunch.  It was at one of those first lunches at the beginning of the new millennium that he shared his journey into AA and being sober.  It was an intimate conversation that day, as he shared at a level he’d never shared with either of us before.  As he had done with both of us, we celebrated this important step in his life.

In the years since, we’ve kept in touch via emails and Christmas letters.  When I won a sermon contest, John drove over to Princeton to hear me preach in 2005.  He was still sober, still struggling to give up the cigarettes.  He said he was proud of me that day, and we had a good visit.

Through Christmas letters, we were told of his increasing COPD and other health issues, going on oxygen.  I wasn’t too surprised, but yet saddened to get a letter this year from his widow, Tina, telling us of John’s death.

And I Remember.  I’ve been remembering, silently, and out loud with Larry, many moments with John– the profound and the maddening, the laughter and the tears.  There are moments I feel a deep sadness, though I haven’t seen him in 13 years.  When you share such intense moments, God-moments, with someone, it doesn’t matter.  “Time isn’t really real.”  Those moments are eternal.  You don’t forgot things like that, they stay engraved in your heart forever.   When your souls connect with another in vulnerability and trust, in brokenness and healing, it feels like it can’t be broken.  Not even by death.

I remember Yvonne.  The many suppers we had at her house or our house.  The many times she and Jim babysat Sarah overnight, or when they both got down on the floor and played with her.  Many hugs.  Many tears.  So much love.  She was the consummate host, and in her home and in her presence, you felt like you were home.

I don’t know what happens after this life.  I trust that there is life after death.  I don’t know what it looks like or feels like, but I can’t help but trust that it is real.  I’ve experienced such profound connections– other-worldly, timeless connections that aren’t broken by physical absence or even death.  How can we have such holy bonds here if there isn’t more?   At their best, those bonds feel like just a taste of what there is to come, when our bodies don’t betray us.  When we don’t need our minds to remember, for our souls will do that.

So, this Christmas I remember.  As I slowly lose both my mother and my father, I also remember my whole life.  Being a child.  A teenager.  We had difficult relationships, but I’m remembering those moments with my mother, especially, when she and I did connect.  When she could forget all the other things that troubled her and BE with me.  Glimpses.  Moments that caught her off guard.  And it wasn’t so long ago.  In Soul Time.

I will remember, and dwell in those grace-filled moments when I feel sad.  And trust that John, Yvonne, and all those who I’ve loved and lost in this life, will also remember me.

Peace.  It is a lovely ride.

My Father Is Dying

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My father is dying.

People are kind, offering their prayers and condolences.  I appreciate it.  But there’s a part of me that wants to assure them that it’s okay that he’s dying.  In fact, it’s a good thing.  However, in our culture, we’re a bit weird about death.  You’re not supposed to speak ill of the dead or even the dying.  I don’t understand that.  I don’t believe in being cruel, but I do believe in telling the truth.

It’s difficult to be in this position.  My father and I were never close.  I don’t grieve his dying.  I really don’t.  I grieve his LIFE.  That may sound callous to an outsider, but I imagine there are some who understand.

When I was a teenager, I went to see On Golden Pond with my parents.  I immediately felt guilty.  Since then, of course, I’ve seen many happy-ending movies where there’s a difficult relationship between a father and a daughter, but they just talk it out and they hug and everyone is fine.  I wanted to impress my father, just like Jane Fonda in the movie.  But no matter how many back flips or somersaults or dances I did…. my father just didn’t notice.

He never did tear up like Michael Landon at the sight of his little half-pint on  Little House on the Prairie.  I so wanted to be Pa Ingalls’ little girl.  I ached for it.

I just wanted him to notice me.  To know I existed, and to feel something positive about that.  But he was an important man, I was told.  He was a pastor of large churches, he was dynamic in the pulpit.  He awed some people with his preaching.  He spent hours and hours preparing his sermons.  They were mostly focused on psychology and self-help, with a little Jesus mixed in.  A lot of people said he must be brilliant because they didn’t understand what he was talking about.

I felt very very guilty for not loving my father.  But I was very young when I realized he was a vastly different person at home than he was in church.  At church, he appeared very knowledgeable, charming, gracious and witty.  At home, he put down my mother repeatedly as “simple and hysterical,” “too emotional and sensitive.”  When it all got to be too much and she lost it with him, he’d laugh in her face (something he did to me when I was older.)  She would then lock herself in the bathroom to cry it all out.  My father usually sent me to go to the bathroom door and beg her to come out.

At other times, he’d jam a pill into her mouth.  He convinced doctors to supply him with Donnatol, a mild tranquilizer, and he always had extra.  Sometimes she’d spit it out, “I don’t want your pill!”  Most of the time, she gave in, like a wilted flower and swallowed the pill.  Then she went to take a nap.

My father started supplying me with his prescription Donnatol when I was about 12.  I always had my own supply and took them for my nervous stomach until I was 25, when my then-fiance Larry threw them out.  My father thought pills could fix anything, certainly his hysterical women.

I tried to love him.  Daughters “should” love their fathers, after all.  I felt guilty for wishing I had Charles Ingalls for a father, or Mister Rogers or Mr. Allen, who was a family friend from church.  Or Rev. Ewing, who happened to be my father’s District Superintendent at one point and who had an amazing Donald Duck impression.  I wanted a father who would snuggle up with me and read me a story.  Or a father who would say, “good job” when I shared with him one of the stories or poems I’d written.  I wanted a father who saw me.

During most of my life, I felt invisible.  I thought if I closed my eyes and stayed quiet, no one would even see me in a room.  I just hungered to be seen.  As a little girl, I’d play by myself in the living room and pretend some grown-up that I loved was watching me, smiling, with love.

I’ve always said my mother taught me about Jesus and my father taught me about Freud.  Mom taught me that Jesus loved me.  My father taught me that I had penis envy and wished I could be a man.  My father became enamored with psychology sometime around the first five years of my life.  It became his life focus.  I’d get psychology lectures at the dinner table, and I was a trapped audience.  When he said “of course all women want to be men and are envious of their penises” Mom simply said, “Oh Rollo, we do not!!”  My father would laugh his oh honey, you just aren’t smart enough to understand laugh and continue to lecture.

When I was about 12, he told me that all daughters are sexually attracted to their fathers–“it’s normal”–and I vehemently assured him it wasn’t true.  Again, he laughed.  After all, I was a woman and I was too simple to understand.

So I felt always vulnerable, as if I was always under a microscope, being analyzed like a frog pinned open on a mat in biology.  He didn’t see me, he saw a case study.  I was his lab rat.

I have three older brothers, but they were all out of the house by the time I was 10.  All three gave my parents their share of troubles; drinking, driving wrecklessly, dropping out of school, getting in trouble with the police, etc.  They all turned out to be responsible, healthy adults eventually, but they all embarrassed my father on their way through high school.

My father sent my two oldest brothers to a psychiatrist where they were subjected to scream therapy.  Occasionally, my brother Mark would stand in the middle of the house and let out a passionate, alarming scream.  I got used to it.

None of my brothers ended up wanting anything to do with church or religion.  Like me, they saw the incredible discrepancy between the words my father preached in church and who he was at home.  They, too, caught him in lies.

I was lucky.  Or something.  A lot of good, kind, genuine Christian people came across my path from the time I was a child.  Pastors, church people, counselors from summer camp, even the music and person of Johnny Cash.  I learned more about Jesus and who Jesus is from Johnny Cash than I ever did from my father.  I also plundered my mother’s bookshelf and read the books of C.S. Lewis, Henri Nouwen and other Christian spiritual writers.

Music, I always say, was my salvation.  My brother Stan had an uncanny way of finding music that he knew I’d like, and which would serve as my soul food.  Neil Diamond.  Dan Fogelberg.  I found Johnny Cash through a film at church and fell in love with him and Jesus.  Mac Davis.  My creed became “I believe in music, I believe in love.”  Even now, I supposed my theology could be summed up in that phrase.  I’d lay in my room and listen for hours.  The words became ingrained in me.  Gave me hope.  Purpose.  Reason to believe.

I learned about God’s grace from Ed at Pennington, and from Rev. Ewing and his wife, whose lives exemplified Jesus’ love and life-giving grace.  I listened to every word spoken and shared at summer camp.  I ached for the hugs of my adult friends, the people who saw me and saw something beautiful in me.

I felt guilty growing up that I didn’t love my father.  Oh, I suppose I “loved” him in a respectful way for a while.  He was my father.  But I secretly wanted my mother to divorce him.  Of course I felt guilty.  You’re supposed to love your father, right?  But I was tired of constantly feeling inferior to him, of listening to him tell me how important and special he was, and how I was a bad daughter if I didn’t realize that.

I learned early in life that my father spoke to at least one counselor over the phone.  I grew to learn that he had at least 1 or 3 that he spoke to regularly.  He’d go into his “study”, shut the door, and Mom would tell me he wasn’t to be disturbed.  He was talking to “his friend.”  He and I began to fight so regularly that I was sure he was telling his counselor what a horrid daughter I was.

I never understood how a father couldn’t love his daughter, or, it seemed, feel any kind of emotional bond with anyone.  I thought it was my fault.  Something was desperately wrong with me.  I was ashamed.  When he and I were alone in a room, he’d analyze me and tell me what was wrong with me, and he’d give me sheets with instructions on how to meditate.  I suffered anxiety attacks and panic attacks pretty regularly, and felt bad that I couldn’t master his meditation techniques.

I went into the ministry, after experiencing a profound and life-changing call.  It was real.  My father took credit, believing I went into the ministry to be like him.  I never told him my call story because such stories of faith and movement of the Holy Spirit were simple-minded and naive to him.  My story was much too precious to me to be subjected to his psychoanalysis.

My mother and I were as close as we could be, but it was clear in our house that my father’s needs came first, and they often conflicted with mine.  She had a handful trying to keep him happy, his ego nourished and fed.  She told me I should feel privileged to be his daughter, as he was a very important man and “brilliant.”  Guilt. Guilt. Guilt.

My father is dying.  He’s 89 years old and his arteries are 99% blocked.  He did, in fact, die while we were there, but because he told them to do all things necessary to keep him alive, he was revived.  Now he is bed bound in a hospice house.  My mother is staying at a memory care unit because she has Alzheimer’s.  Every day my nieces pick her up and take her to see my father.

My father is terrified.  He’s terrified of dying.  I can honestly tell you that I don’t know what he believes.  He’s said a lot of words over the years, but that’s all they turned out to be.  Words.  He sometimes mocked my mother’s “simple” faith in heaven and eternity.  When we were down South with him during the first couple of weeks of his getting sick, he pleaded with us to make sure someone stayed with him all night in his hospital room, then in his hospice room.  He was terrified of being alone.

He keeps making incessant demands on anyone around him; my brother, my grown nieces and their husbands, the nurses at the hospice.  He calls three counselors every day.  Even they are getting to the point that they don’t always answer the phone.  So he uses his granddaughter’s phone, so they don’t recognize the number.  He manipulates my mother, whose dementia is getting worse due to the stress and lack of sleep from being by his side every day.

My father has put down my oldest brother all his life, the one who lives in the same state as him.  Yet he continually makes demands on him, criticizes him, and pushes and pushes to the point that my brother has to stay away.  My brothers and I are doing what we need to do to make sure he and Mom are cared for, but my father has emotionally alienated ALL of his children.

My father has been a millstone around my neck all of my life.  I’ve fought hard for years to have any kind of self-esteem and self-worth, as he always dismissed me as a hysterical female.  All women to him are inferior to men.  To him, we’re all too emotional and out of control, with no intelligence worth speaking of.  It is only by God’s grace and the many precious, beautiful Christian human beings that have crossed my path throughout my life, that I have any faith at all.

I do believe I could never have made it in the church because there was no way I’d be as good as my father.  I felt like a failure when I left church ministry.  Being in the same profession as my father proved to be too impossible– I could never shake the unreasonable expectations of the church people, but mostly of my father.  He always assured me through my career as a pastor, that he was always the better pastor and preacher.  He refused to be impressed.

Two months ago when he was in the hospital and thought he was imminently dying, he made me sit on the bed.  “You’ll always be my little Susan,” he said.  I gave up the name Susan (my middle name) when I was a child, precisely because he loved it so much.  He tried to share memories of our life together, but he couldn’t remember my life.  After stumbling around for a while, he told me all the great things he’s done.

“So if I die tonight, it’s ok.  You and I connected.”

Sure.

He didn’t die.

I still cringe at those commercials where a father and a daughter are obviously so close, sharing a profound moment together.  Or when I hear about people talking about how their father taught them so much, said profound things that gave them life lessons to live by, I groan.  I don’t admire my father.  I’m embarrassed at his level of deceit, his racist and sexist statements that he makes quite loudly in public, and his incessant demands.  He is the Emperor in the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes.  My father has lived for 89 years with the illusion that he is the most impressive human being that has ever lived and that anyone, including his children, who aren’t impressed are just…. stupid.

How does one feel when such a parent is dying?  I don’t tell many people the truth about him.  There are many church people who were fooled by him, or who were helped by him in spite of him.  I won’t tramp all over their memories.  I’m glad that good can come out of the most unlikely circumstances.

I’m not bitter.  I’ve talked, journaled, prayed, cried, gotten angry, talked with my brothers, and yes, was even in counseling for a while.  I was fortunate to marry a man completely unlike my father.  I didn’t marry him because of that.  I married him because he is a good, kind, loving, unselfish, compassionate, gentle, generous human being.  And I am ever so grateful that he sees me as I am and loves me deeply.

And I have a daughter with whom I am very close.  My brother Don and I agree that we both wanted our children to have a very different experience of parenting then we did.  We wanted our children to know we always had their backs, that we loved them for who they are and not what we wanted them to be.  And my daughter Sarah Gene is more than I could ever have asked for.

I take one day at a time.  I pray.  I ask for guidance.  I breathe deeply.  But when my father does die, I don’t envision shedding any tears.  Or if I do, it will be for the little girl who could never get him to love her. And she will move on.

Exile

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I walked the campus in sunny California, breathing in the warm air, feeling the peace of being 1,000 miles away from the chaos in Mountaintop.  We would be moving soon after I returned home, and I hoped that this Conference, put on by the Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus, would be good for my soul.

It was.

Reta, my feminist professor friend from Messiah College was there and one of the presenters.  I met many passionate, gifted women, many of whom had left the institutional church behind.  They shared their painful stories with me and listened to mine.  I didn’t think I could actually leave the Church.  However, I was haunted by that image of the pastor who killed himself in the church sanctuary.  “NOW is it enough?”  Also, on my last visit to Messiah to have lunch with Reta, I visited with my friend and former psychology professor, Phil.

He knew my story.  “Peggy, I think you’ve outgrown the church.”  That conversation stuck with me.  In a way it did feel that way.  Not that the Church was “beneath” me, but somehow my experiences and gifts had outgrown what the church wanted from me.

During the Conference in California, I met all kinds of women.  Some were professors, some were writers, and some worked other jobs but had a passion for women’s place in Christianity.  I felt embraced and affirmed in my disillusionment of the structural Christian church.

The seminars focused on women in the Gospel stories, both named and unnamed.  Linda Allen, a folk singer from Bellingham, Washington, provided the music.  The songs were folk songs about women’s reality, everyday lives, and the struggle to find our story within the Christian story that is so focused on male “heroes.”  I learned more about Wisdom-Sophia, as referenced in Proverbs and the Apocrypha. Wisdom was with God in the creation of the world.  Many scholars believe that Jesus is the personification of Wisdom.

I bought some of Linda’s music.  One song that stood out for me was “I Cannot Call You Father.”  It was about women whose relationships with their fathers were abusive, certainly the opposite of grace-filled, and therefore the association with God as Father made it difficult to relate in a healthy way to God.

Growing up in a house with three brothers and a father who tried to be the center of our worlds, I had lived most of my life embracing the male point of view.  My father’s psychology and perspective dismissed female experience as inferior and less important than the males’.  I didn’t have a lot of strong-female influence growing into adulthood. In fact, my strongest experience of female grace was also one of profound loss: Sandie.

The Conference was an immersion of grace.  It was OK to be female!  It was OK to feel the way I felt, to see things the way I saw them.  It was a huge blessing to know that being female gave me a unique and important perspective– not an inferior one.

I also realized that my image of success in the Church was skewed by my father’s perspective.  Success in the Church meant climbing the ladder in the Annual Conference, getting bigger churches and bigger salaries each time.  Having the congregation lavish you with expensive gifts.  Honoring you with “This Is Your Life” or expensive trips.  That was a profoundly male image of success.  And very secular.

I’d been given the “prize appointment” in the Wyoming Conference and it nearly destroyed me.  And my marriage.  That image of success, I realized, was not really what I wanted, but what I was taught to want.

I came home to Mountaintop to pack up and get ready to move.  I was filled spiritually, emotionally and mentally.  I’d spent a powerful few days feeling connected to other women who weren’t competing with me, who were actually impressed that I was ordained in a mainstream denomination.  They also listened to my pain of that year, and affirmed that I wasn’t crazy or “too sensitive.”  That my deep pain was legitimate.

Larry and I would be replaced by a pastor who’d always eyed Mountaintop as the ultimate prize.  He was chomping at the bit to get there.  Many pastors could not understand how we could walk away and thought we were fools.

Nevertheless, after the Conference, I had hope.  An intense image of Grace that I carried with me from the experience was Linda Allen’s song, “Lay It Down.”  It described a comforting mother, a comforting wife, allowing her loved ones to lean against her in her arms, and ended with the image of God as Mother inviting us to lay our burdens down upon Her breast and rest.   I was refreshed.

Poor Larry was not.  He was still broken, exhausted, angry and stressed.  He was not  hopeful in his new appointment.  He would be associate to a harsh woman pastor who had just come off of being a D.S. She had to prove herself at Elm Park, following a white-haired man who’d been there for many, many years. The Church had once been the biggest in the Conference– many years ago.  Now it was a huge stone building, very majestic and beautiful inside, but attendance every Sunday barely filled 1/4 of the sanctuary.  As associate, Larry basically would run the youth group and do whatever his senior pastor did not want to do.

Waverly and Factoryville UMCs were linked for the first time.  They couldn’t have been more different.  Waverly was a high class, wealthy town that had a reputation for being very uppity.  Factoryville was a blue-collar community with a university in town.  Waverly  averaged about 25 people per Sunday, but had enjoyed having their own pastor, Ted, for many years.  They did not want to be linked with any other church, much less Factoryville.  Factoryville wasn’t thrilled to be linked with Waverly, a town that had a reputation for looking down on the surrounding communities.

The Waverly members were hostile from the beginning– with few exceptions–because they adored Pastor Ted.  He did everything they wanted him to do, had no boundaries, and had the time to visit every shut-in several times a week.  They thought he was wonderful.  He told them, as many pastors do, that the Conference was moving him against his will.  However, I did know that he had asked to leave.  Go on to bigger and better things.  He was appointed to a bigger church within 10 miles away.

I started off with a positive attitude, determined to serve these two tiny churches the best way I could.  Factoryville was a small but passionate church, full of many enthusiastic leaders and down-to-earth people.  They were thrilled I was there.  They liked me from the beginning.  They received my preaching and worship with enthusiasm.  They were very kind.  I wasn’t able to give them my best after all, and I do regret that.

The day we drove into Waverly following the moving truck, I was anxious.  I knew they resented me already for replacing Ted.  They also believed that they “had” to be connected to Factoryville just to give me an appointment.  They blamed me for that.  Despite their low numbers, they believed they didn’t need to share a pastor with anyone.

Larry pulled up to the curb on the narrow Church Street that day, behind the moving van.  I anxiously jumped out of the car to meet the parishioners that were out on the front lawn awaiting our arrival to help us carry things in.  Just as I opened my car door, a white Cadillac Escalade drove past us, hitting the car door.

The car door was intact, but I realized that a side mirror on the Escalade was sheared off, laying in the street.  “You go,” Larry said, “I’ll take care of it.”  He went to talk to the passengers in the Escalade while I greeted my shaken parishioners.

It was not a good first impression.

My hope quickly diminished.  The parsonage was huge, right next door to the white clapboard church, and in fact shared a driveway with the church.  They had done what they were supposed to do, painting rooms, touching up here and there, fixing what needed to be fixed in the house.  There were no carpets, but all hardwood floors.  It was a beautiful house, really.  But it never felt like home.

They weren’t impressed by my preaching.  In worship, they were cold, I had no sense of Spirit or connection that I normally experienced in worship.  They were visibly reticent and detached towards me.  Sarah, 9 years old, sensed it immediately.  She requested that she attend church with me at Factoryville and then go home during the service at Waverly.

I struggled in worship at Waverly.  Usually I felt something coming back to me, that I wasn’t in worship alone, summoning the Spirit.  Worship felt like work at Waverly.  Still, their faces were expressionless, ungiving.  I couldn’t get them to laugh, much less smile.  Worship was a drain there, no matter what I did.

At Factoryville, they embraced me, responded to my preaching and worship.  I hated that I had to rush off to Waverly after service.  I wanted to stay for fellowship time.  Be with those people.  They were real, down to earth, devoted in their faith.  The choir was especially powerful.  The director happened to be a professional music director, and the choir was unusually good for such a small church.  They blessed my soul every Sunday, and I told them so.

Sarah made friends at Factoryville and even had a little boy follow her around who had a crush on her.  For Children’s Sunday, she was asked to do the sermon, and she did an excellent job. (Of course)  At nine years old, she preached about the gospel elements in Harry Potter.  She did so without my help.  I was so proud of her.  She loved hanging out at Factoryville.  Sometimes parishioners let her stay for Sunday School with the promise that they’d drive her back home afterwards, to Waverly.

My relationship with Waverly was contentious from the start.  I resented them for not giving me a chance and they resented me for just being there.  During my first Pastor-Parish Relations Committee meeting, they listed all the things I did wrong. Or the things I wasn’t doing.  I’d had no chance to heal after Mountaintop, so my mental health was already shaky.  I broke down crying in the meeting.

“What the hell is wrong with you??” Stella shouted at me.  Stella was a large, elderly woman in the church, well-connected in the community.  She’d been “like a grandmother” to Pastor Ted’s daughter.  She kept in touch daily with Ted and his family.

Depression and anxiety set in quickly.  It didn’t help that Larry was miserable at Elm Park.  He had so many gifts to offer the church, but he was in a position that wanted none of them.  He spent many days in his office reading his books from seminary.  He couldn’t make up enough things to do to fill his day.

Every day each of us drove through Clarks Summit.  In the middle of Clarks Summit was the bridge from the PA Turnpike exit, towering several stories above the road.  It was called “Freedom Bridge,” which many locals found ironic, because it was a popular suicide spot for jumpers.  Sarah called it “the jumping bridge.”  Both Larry and I drove under that bridge with dread, haunted by how desperate we both felt.  Hopeless.  Neither of us could comfort the other.  We were out of hope entirely.

But I managed to preach every week, which was my lifeline;  always having to scour the weekly Scripture lessons for hope and grace.  My preaching didn’t suffer, oddly enough.  It was always my strongest gift for ministry– that and funerals.  That year, my preaching kept my head just above the water, making me have to continually search for good news while everything else felt so dark.

There was grace in the midst of the darkest days.  When I was still in Mountaintop, I’d asked Jim Baker, my former D.S. and Sarah’s surrogate grandfather, to meet with me every so often over lunch to talk about ministry.  To serve as my mentor in an unofficial capacity.  We kept that going during that year in Waverly, thank God.  He gave me much-needed pastoral care.  He prayed with me.  He listened.

I also  went to Maureen for counseling regularly.  Those two were my gentle, gracious incarnations of Jesus, helping me to walk through one of the darkest times of my life.  I felt beaten up.  In my journal I wrote, “This year feels like a spiritual flu.  It’s emptying me out, leaving me weakened… I’ve lost my passion for the Church… I feel used.”

It was August, 2004, just two months into my ministry at Waverly/Factoryville, where I wrote of a deep sense of my own pulling away from the Church.  My relationship with the institutional Church was like a marriage falling apart.  The passion was certainly gone.  I had a difficult time imagining staying in the relationship.

“Why would you give me these gifts for ministry, only to punish me?  To waste me here, where they don’t want what I have to give?…”  I’d rage at God out loud in the echoey emptiness of our parsonage. Some days I got out of bed to walk Sarah Gene to the bus stop, then go home and go back to bed.  I’d get out of bed and shower in time to walk across the square to the small deli where I’d buy a couple of sodas and meet her bus in front of the store. It became a gracious ritual to sip our drinks there and have her tell me about her day.  It literally got me out of bed.

There were stacks of unopened boxes in the dining room.  I knew I wouldn’t stay.

It was not a friendly town.  The postmaster at the post office on the square was always rude and impersonal.  I’d lived in so many small towns where I came to know the postmaster and exchanged pleasantries every day, picking up my mail.  Not with this woman.  The deli became my safe place.  Our afternoon ritual of sipping sodas, sometimes adding a sweet treat, became the highlight of my day.

One day I visited a shut-in that Stella had specifically asked me to visit.  Frank was an older gentleman that was bed-bound and had a 24-hour caregiver in his home.  It was a very nice home, and the caregiver, a young, large man in a T-shirt and sweatpants, ushered me through the house to Frank’s bedroom.

I approached Frank’s bed.  I took his hand.  “Hello, Frank, I’m Rev. Peggy.  Stella asked me to come see you.  How are you doing today?”  I rubbed his hand as I spoke.

Frank’s eyes turned toward me and he yanked his hand away.  I was startled, but didn’t take offense.  He had an oxygen mask over his face, which he removed for a moment.  He struggled with his breath.

“How….” he put the mask on again and drank of the air.  “How do they…” He sighed, seemingly gulping the air between phrases.

I smiled pastorally and touched his hand again.  Again, he yanked it away.  “It’s ok,” I said, “take your time.”

He removed the mask again.  “How….do they…. let you… be a minister??” His eyes glared at me as he replaced the mask and sucked in the much-needed air.

I froze.

His young caregiver approached the bed, hovering over his face.  “What the hell did you just say??” Frank turned away from him like a petulant child.  The young man looked up at me and back at Frank.  “You apologize to her right now!  Why are you being so mean?”

I smiled at the young man and quickly moved away from the bed.  “It’s OK,” I said, putting up my hand with surrender.

“No it’s not,” he said angrily, still glaring at his charge.

“Don’t…. come back….” Frank struggled to say, momentarily moving his mask away from his mouth.

I swallowed and backed out of the room.  The caregiver followed me, apologizing profusely.  “I am so sorry, he can be a real bastard sometimes, but that was uncalled for.”

I shook my head, waving my hand in dismissal, as if his words were just a cloud of gnats hovering around my face.  I swallowed the sour taste in the back of my throat.

“This town,” he said, “Can be very mean.”

I laughed bitterly.  “Oh, trust me, I know.”

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