Doing the Best We Can

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September 11th will be the 6th month anniversary of my mother’s death.
Grief sucks.

It’s not straightforward, predictable, or tidy.  Some days I feel just fine, thinking, oh, I’m doing much better, moving on! Then WHAM!  I wake up on the weekend with my bones feeling like lead and I can only move from the bed to the recliner.  All I want to do is sleep.

Or I’ll be putzing along fine, doing my day, and something as small as bumping into something makes me suddenly collapse into tears.

I would like it to be “normal.”  Ok, if I’m thinking about Mom, or remembering a good memory of her, then yes, ok, let me cry.  But this out-of-the-blue crying or mono-like exhaustion seemingly unrelated to what the day is… I don’t like it.  I’ve always liked to be in control.  I learned that well from both of my parents.

I’ve had many losses in my 54 years, but few of them were shared around my parents.  I was 19 when our family friend and second mother Sandie died from melanoma at the age of 39.  At 19 I was naive enough to believe that surely God would not allow her to die when I needed her so badly, when she had young kids, and she was a radiant, loving being that the world desperately needed.  It was a rude awakening that you can pray all you want with great energy and desperation, and still a precious, loved human being can unjustly die much too young.

I understood my grief then.  I slept a lot when I wasn’t working.  I cried my heart out, alone in my room, because we simply didn’t talk about Sandie’s death after the funeral.  When I started to cry during a TV show in which someone died, my father was annoyed.  “What’s the matter with you?” he said with some irritation.   I cried harder and went to my room.

Grief sucks.  Complicated grief really sucks.  I love my mother.  But I wish we could have been closer.  But she grew up in the 1930s and 40s on a farm in southern Mississippi.  Her own mother was a tough little cookie, and she had to be.  She wasn’t one to show emotion much, there was too much to be done.  She had 6 kids; five of them boys, and a husband who drank too much.  Mom said he was pretty scary when he drank. My mother grew up being close to a woman who was a sharecropper on their farm, someone with whom she could ask questions about girl-things, and share her feelings.  Grandma was not the type.

And so my mother did what she knew.  She did special things for me when I was little.  She tried to make gifts special and she was awesome at planning birthday parties.  But she wasn’t one to cuddle or share giggles, or answer questions about “girl things.”  We never talked about sex.  Once I became a teenager and young adult, she wasn’t quite sure what to do with me.  I know she feared for me, being a girl, and the kind of trouble teenage girls could get into.

What I wanted with Mom was what I do have with my own daughter.  A safe place.  Cuddling and giggling, and talking about the things that scare us, anger us, and frustrate us.  We talk about what makes our hearts come alive. We share music and how it touches us, we go on mother-daughter dates, just the two of us, or share a movie night when Larry is away or working on something else.  Sarah knows I love her unconditionally.   I was determined to give her what I wanted as a daughter growing up.

That doesn’t mean we never argue or get mad at each other.  We do.  But we also know in the midst of such times that we are ok, and our relationship is intact.  She’s done things I may not have approved of at the time, but she knows I still love her.  And always will.

I love my mother.  I miss her.  I keep thinking of things I’d like to tell her.  When I hear about people we both knew and haven’t seen in decades, I want to call her.  But part of my grief, too, is that we weren’t able to have what Sarah and I have.  I realize, now, that she couldn’t give what she didn’t get either.  I know she did her best.  I know she loved me in the ways she knew how.  But there was a lot I didn’t know about her, things she didn’t share.  Things you just didn’t talk about on the farm.  You just went on and got done what needed to be done.

I’ve always wondered why I was born with a nature that wanted more.  That wanted sharing and loving and talking honestly.  Why did I become a person that wants to talk openly with the people I love, share personal stories, hug a lot, touch a lot, share how I feel about you?  When Sarah was small, Mom used to tell me that I told Sarah “I love you” too much.  I praised her too much.  I have simply given what I so desperately wanted.

For a long time I was angry with Mom for not being who I wished she could be.  Some people got angry with me for being so honest about her, as I’ve described something they didn’t see and I was ruining their image of her somehow.  We all present to the world an image.  And that’s normal.  My mother was someone else at church, with church people.  That’s not to say she wasn’t at all that person.  Obviously she was.  But with our families, and the people who are more intimately a part of our lives, we let that guard down, for better or worse, and what is under that image we present, is also a part of who we are.

Mom did a lot of good in her life.  She was a revival preacher before she met Dad in college, and according to my cousin, she had people rolling in the aisles and comin’ to Jesus.  She’d felt called during those years to being a missionary in some foreign country.  But she married Dad, and like a lot of women in the 50s, she put aside her aspirations and became his helpmate.

She was an awesome minister’s wife.  Of course, she didn’t get paid for what was a full-time job.  She had her own gifts of leading Bible studies, coordinating craft groups, preaching on Women’s Sunday, teaching Sunday School, comforting parishioners and doing a myriad of kind things for them.  Towards the end of her life, however, she wondered if she let God down by not becoming a missionary and fulfilling that calling.  I tried to assure her that she did a lot to spread God’s grace and love in the world, wherever she happened to be.  But I know it still nagged her.

I know my mother was proud of me, and that she loved me.  She let me know these things in the ways she knew how.  I, like her, found people (and lost people) who could give me what my mother couldn’t, but I never stopped longing to receive it from her.  And despite knowing that it was unlikely, as long as she was alive, it was possible still, to get those things I needed from her.  Now it’s not.  And that is part of my grief.  She was a precious soul who had a passionate, almost insatiable love of God and deep longing to be worthy of God’s love.  I’m not sure she ever truly believed she was worthy.

Because of my faith, I think she finally knows she is.

I’m learning to accept what she was able to give.  She didn’t truly know on this earth that she was loved unconditionally, so she couldn’t give that to me.  But when I arrived at her funeral, my brother gave me a letter he found among her things.  A letter she’d written before she had her stroke and got pneumonia, but was never mailed.

With the usual insistence that she was going home soon (from her “hotel”), she told me that me, Larry and Sarah were very important to her, and that she loved us very much.

I get it out and read it every so often.  And I thank her for doing the best that she could.  I try to do the same.

Moving On

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Many years ago, a sweet, well-meaning older woman went on a rant during a United Methodist Women’s meeting about how it was “obvious” that no one could be a Christian and a Democrat at the same time.  I swallowed.  I was already tired in my bones, wanting a completely different job that I could leave every day instead of being “on” 24/7.  And being criticized for every little thing.  I did not speak.

The Church Lady, as I always called her, who was always eager to start a fight, piped up and said, “Oh, but Rev. Peggy is a Democrat!”  All heads turned toward me, mouths open, as if she’d revealed that I’d had an abortion.  The woman speaking stared at me a moment, turned back to her audience and kept berating Democrats.  I pretended to get a call on my cell phone and just left the building.

I was nearing the end of my endurance.  It was still another year before I was able to find a job to save me from the well I was drowning in.

When I was a little kid in Red Bank, NJ, I used to sneak into the church sanctuary during the week, when all was quiet.  I can still smell the old varnish on the church pews,  a tinge of Lemon Pledge on the surface, the aroma of old pages, and hints of perfume lingering after the Sunday morning services.

I climbed the wooden steps up into my father’s pulpit, a white bulb that held him aloft, over the congregation every Sunday, making him seem somehow higher and holier than all of us.  We literally looked up at him as he spoke, his black wings waving as he gestured intensely over some psychological or biblical idea.

As a young child, though taller than most in my class, I could barely see over the dais of the pulpit out into the empty pews.  I reverently touched the linen cloth over the flat surface, where he laid his indecipherable notes each week, the color according to the season of the Church year.   I felt I was standing on holy ground, in a place where you had to be especially smart to stand.  I never imagined I could ever stand in such a place.  Nonetheless, I imagined the pews full, all faces lifted up toward me, entranced, listening intensely, all inspired and ready to take off on angel wings once I concluded the Word.

There was a whole lot I didn’t know then.

I did, in fact, get to stand in that place– though not that particular place (serving a church my father served would have required a lot more therapy than I could have afforded!)–for 19 years.  It was 10 years ago this fall that I left the pastoral ministry.  I hear there was a lot of speculation among my church members about why I did it, even though I gave some lame indications of a plan to go back to school which didn’t pan out as I’d hoped.  Some assumed it was this parishioner or that one that “drove (me) out”, and yes, there were a few that I wouldn’t have minded blaming for it all.  There were always those parishioners who would have driven Jesus to cuss!  I’m not sure I knew then exactly why I was leaving, but I knew without a doubt– just as I knew without a doubt I was being led to do it in the first place–that it was time to go.

Ten years has given me a lot of perspective.  Necessary healing.  Insight.  And hope.  None of which I had a lot of when I left.  What I did have a lot of was pain, anger, and a deep sense of shame.  A lot of that is gone now.   At the time, I felt like a victim.  I can still recite all the wrongs I felt were done to me by the denomination, individual members and church boards.  It helped to justify my leaving by reciting all those wrongs.  And those things did happen.  They were incredibly painful, and some were very unjust.  I’m still not sure I could see my last bishop somewhere without having an overwhelming desire to trip her… but I’m sure I wouldn’t.

Shame was the worst.  As much as I knew it was the right decision to leave, how do you walk away from a very real call?  It was a powerful call, a very real experience that was profound and life-changing.  It is still a huge part of who I’ve become as a human being.  There were always the stories of pastors who “left” and they were usually shared in whispers or with raised eyebrows.  If there wasn’t some obvious misconduct, then other pastors tended to wonder about mental illness or breakdown of some kind.  Of course we’d all thought about leaving, we thought about it all the time, but to actually DO IT… put something of a cloud over one’s head.

Ten years of moving on, trying new things, trying and failing to find a church to attend as a worshiper, and talking, talking, talking with trusted friends, has given me a lot of perspective.  And release.  I had to forgive myself for leaving, and forgive those who wouldn’t ask me about it, including my father.  I had to forgive myself for being human, breakable.  For letting some people down.  I had to try to forgive that Bishop who “treated me wrong” and also to realize that I was still as much a child of God with worth as she is.

There were so many reasons why I had to leave, and I’ve only learned some of them after having left.  And realizing what life can be on the “outside.”  I grew up in a bubble, the bubble of the United Methodist intinerent system.  Some people told me I had no idea what it was like to be a person struggling to pay a mortgage, afford a house at all, or just the many “real life” things that people face day in and day out.  That was mostly true.  I lived in a different world.  It was difficult to have friends as a pastor.  Someone else might get jealous.  You didn’t know who you could trust and where it was safe to talk about certain struggles.  I learned the hard way who not to trust, and all too often, it was the people who were in a position to be the one who was to “pastor the pastors.”  I lived apart from a lot of the rest of the world.  I didn’t even know it.

In the end, I just wasn’t cut out for it.  I needed to get some “real life” experiences, to relate to regular people without the set-apart-ness of the clergy robe.  Other clergy colleagues had lived that life before answering the call, but I moved from one parsonage– that of my father– to another parsonage.  Insulated.

For someone who always worried about what other people thought of me, being clergy was deadly.  There’s always someone who hates you or talks about you behind your back to others.  There were many who hated me just for being female, but I think I won most of them over.  There were others who hated me for not being the previous pastor, as if it was my fault the bishop moved them out and me in.

It was all Love/Hate.  The people who loved me really loved me, and the people who hated me, really hated me.  I was good at a lot of the parts of the vocation (we were told in seminary it’s not a job, but a vocation).  I loved preaching and planning/leading worship.  That was all my favorite part– Sunday mornings!  I could have left the rest of it to some other thick-skinned martyr.  I enjoyed sitting down with the little kids and doing children’s sermons and trying to make sense of the Christian narrative to preschool minds.  I was delirious with joy holding a warm, bundled infant in my arms and proclaiming his or her worth in the eyes of God, inviting the congregation to claim this tiny person as one of their own as God’s community.

Little introverted me came alive in the pulpit.  It was a call, a challenge, to be bigger than my little ol’ self, and somehow God gave me a gift to preach.  I knew that in my gut, and rode the wave each Sunday morning, feeling blessed, as if a dove had alighted on my head and said, “Good job, Peggy.”  I loved my people (mostly).  I was in awe of the vulnerable ones in a hospital bed, feeling unsure and scared, putting their hands in mine, trusting me to pray them through, to encourage them and put them in God’s hands.  I was honored to be called in when someone was dying, to walk with them to the edge of this life and see them off into the next.  To hear the stories of their lives being told around the bedside.  “Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion,” said Truvy in Steel Magnolias.

But I was not cut out for the politics of the Annual Conference, the vying for churches on the part of pastors, the measure of success being how much money you could extract out of your flock to pay the Conference bills.  Some nights I felt like a lamb at a slaughter at Staff-Parish Relations Committee meetings, when some chairpersons felt it was their duty to find out what people thought the pastor was doing wrong.  At one church, I was reduced to tears and one large old lady said to me, “What the hell is wrong with you??”  (That was my second-to-last church)

I didn’t have the stomach for sitting on a church trial jury to judge one of my peers, and listen to other clergy assigned to the position of acting the part of lawyers, using the same manipulation and devious word-games to “win.”  And “winning” meant a clergy was de-frocked.  I also couldn’t live with seeing other clergy committing sexual misconduct but “getting off” by making a deal with the bishop– because they were “powerful” or “charismatic.”  I was incensed to hear parishioners defend a guilty pastor’s sexual crimes against someone vulnerable with “a man has needs.”

And I wasn’t up for being in the same profession, finally, as my father.  There was inevitably comparisons.  He had almost all big churches, big salaries, and outward signs of success.  I couldn’t seem to succeed with those criteria, and ultimately, couldn’t seem to make enough money to pay off my student loans.  It wasn’t in me to play the political games I saw others play to get where they wanted to go.  I was naive, I guess, to think that that’s not what it was supposed to be about.

For many years, I felt like a failure.  By the time I was offered a chaplain’s job in hospice, a gracious gift of a job and a place to “land”, I felt I was near an emotional breakdown.  I felt I let God down.  I felt like I let my parents down.  Even as I moved on with my new job, there was that underlying anxiety of having failed.

However, this many years later, I feel whole again.  Or maybe whole for the first time.  Looking back, I realize how much anxiety I felt 24/7 when I was a pastor, and was therefore unable to truly enjoy life.  I was unable to receive love.  The pastoral ministry intensified all my worst character defects.  It’s taken me almost all of ten years to let it all go.  To know that I am grateful for those 19 years of ministry and the precious people who trusted me with their hearts and souls.  To know that leaving was truly what needed to happen, to move on, to heal, and grow in ways that I couldn’t have otherwise.  I admire those who can do it for a lifetime.  And still hold true to who they are.  It takes a strength of character I didn’t have at the time.  Or maybe I just needed to “live” a little, and I don’t mean sow any wild oats.  I mean just be a regular human in the crowd.  Learn how to be in relationship with other regular humans.  Fight for what I believe in without worrying about the church ladies being upset with me.

And finally, just learning how to love and be loved.  To offer kindness.  To encourage and inspire others when I can, from the same level.  Ten years.  I am grateful for the journey.  I wish I could go back and tell that poor broken, anxious, depressed pastor as she hung up her robe:  “You’re going to be fine.  Really, really fine.”

Burnin’ Love

 

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Sarah Gene Michael-Rush and George Klein, 2012 

I can’t tell you where I was when JFK was shot– I was yet to be born.  But I remember the day Elvis died.  I was 12 years old in 1977 and the only image I had of Elvis at that point, was due to the often-cruel media’s portrayal of him.  At the time, the only impression I had of him was a washed-up, has-been, past-his-prime rock star.  I hadn’t realized then that there were a few songs of his I’d heard on the radio during the ’70s that I really liked.  “Kentucky Rain,” “Suspicious Minds,” “Moody Blue.”  I didn’t associate those songs stuck in my head with the image of the chunky guy in the white jumpsuits.

On the day he died, my family and I were vacationing up at our home in the Pocono Mountains.  My mother and I were doing a craft project in the living room when we heard the news on our little transistor radio.  I heard about how thousands were gathering at Graceland in the hot, sticky Memphis heat– and they were devastated.  Days later I saw that awful picture of Elvis in his coffin, on a magazine in the grocery store checkout line.  I was horrified.  It was one of many times I began to see how cruel the media was toward him.

My life moved on.  I rarely thought about Elvis again.  Jump forward to 2002.  I had an adorable, passionate 8 year-old daughter whom I adored.  One day she came home from a friend’s house where they watched the animated Disney movie, “Lilo and Stitch,” whose soundtrack, I learned, was all Elvis music.  For days afterward, Sarah was going around the house belting out “A hunka-hunka Burnin’ Looooove…” with great drama and passion.  We thought it was so cute.  Music has always been a very important part of my life and spiritual life, so I tried to encourage that in Sarah.  Music was always playing in our house.

For Christmas that year, we bought her a CD of 30 of Elvis’ hits, which included “Burnin’ Love.”  I had no idea that I was throwing gasoline onto what was then just a small fire.  Sarah played that CD on her cheap plastic CD player over and over and over again, memorizing all the songs, twisting and gyrating to the beat and singing along energetically.  It wasn’t long before the CD had to be replaced because it was literally unplayable.  She’d worn it out.

Five years later we were visiting my parents in Southern Mississippi.  On the way down through the state, inevitably we passed many billboards advertising Graceland.  Sarah stared out the window, begging us to go.  We said maybe another time. I think we both assumed it was just a cheesy tourist trap.   However, when we left my parents’ house several days later, we were a little stressed.  I don’t know what happened, but there’d been some family tension.  Larry and I decided to swing East as we made our way north, and head to Memphis.  Sarah didn’t realize what we were doing until she saw the sign:  “Welcome to Graceland.”  

I thought she was going to hyperventilate.  She was 13.

Graceland really is a magical place if you care at all for Elvis’ music.  I’m sure that was the day that pushed me over the line into identifying as an Elvis fan myself.  There’s just a sense of “presence” there.  It’s hard to explain.  He’s everywhere throughout the modest mansion.  We took the tour, listening to the narrative on the provided headphones, as we made our way through the famous house.  The best part, of course, was watching my daughter take it all in.  She was in awe.  Her face lit up as she wandered through the rooms.  I doubt that we learned anything that day from the narrative that she didn’t already know.  I stood back as she knelt at his grave and shed tears for a man who died 17 years before she was born.  Her sadness was very real.

She knew even then that his life was tragic.  How could it not be, being as big a star as he was, and often taken advantage of by people who used him as a commodity to make themselves millions?  No one sugar-coated his life story.  But the power of his music, his talent, his passion, and impact on music was overwhelming.  That trip changed her life.  She was an Elvis fan for 5  years already, but after that, his music, his story and his image were engraved in her soul.

The fact that his life was so tragic and that he struggled so much seemed to make her love him even more.  It added power to his music for her, and became the thing she always went back to whenever she faced difficulties or disappointments in her own life.   Her grandmother, Sukoo, made her Elvis curtains for her room.  She got many more of his CDs with her own money over the years, and built up her collection.   She read all the more reputable books on his life, and the bad news in those books never made her love him any less–only more.

Her love for Elvis became like another living presence in our house.  I fell in love with his music, and began to understand why he was such a powerful influence on Rock ‘n Roll and on other musicians across many genres.  I understood why the Church was terrified of him, and how Elvis’ presence could literally shake up a passionate heart, make them feel things they never felt, and get those feet moving, even if you had no idea where to move them.  I became an unapologetic enthusiastic fan.  Sarah and I danced often in the kitchen when his music was on the CD player.  If I noticed that Elvis songs were the only songs playing on her iPod, I could sense that maybe she was having a bad day and needed a lift and encouragement.  Elvis has always made her feel better.

Sukoo gave Sarah a silver TCB lightening necklace many years ago. She only takes it off to go swimming.

We took another trip to Graceland in 2012, after Sarah graduated from high school.   It was in August, so the humidity was very high and as soon as we stepped out of the car, the sweat pores opened.  It rained off and on that day, but that did nothing to cool things off, just made the humidity worse.  Since it was a Friday, Sarah knew that Elvis’ best friend from high school, George Klein, would be in the radio studio that afternoon.  She’d brought Klein’s memoir of Elvis with her, hoping to get an autograph.  We were skeptical.  We knew he started his show at 3 p.m., so we went over to the front of the studio to wait.  People were hanging around, but it wasn’t crowded.  Suddenly, a man came up behind us, touched Sarah on the shoulder and said, “I’ll be with you in a moment, honey,” and as he headed through the studio door, we realized it was George Klein!

Sarah started laughing a bit breathlessly, staring after him, looking and forth to us and the closed door as if needing affirmation that that just really happened.  I was laughing with her, and Larry just looked confused– it had all happened so fast.  Then minutes later, Klein came back out the door and put his hand on her shoulder.

“Now, what can I do for you, honey?”

It took a moment for her to speak.  But she finally found her voice and asked him to sign her book, which he did without hesitation, and posed for a picture.  He gave her a one-armed hug, and then went back to work.  We were still laughing and Sarah’s eyes were filled with tears.

Later, while on our second tour through the mansion, Sarah was watching a video of Elvis from the Hawaii TV special on a large screen  in the Jumpsuit room.  The walls were filled with memorabilia and several of his iconic jumpsuits were on display.  The room was hot, as it was packed with tourists.  I watched Sarah as she watched Elvis do one of her favorite songs, “An American Trilogy,” with tears trickling down her face while she smiled.

We heard the thunder outside as it was getting louder, and then suddenly there was a loud BANG! and the lights went off for just a minute or two.  As the lights came back on, there was complete silence until someone said, “Hey, Elvis,” and we all responded with nervous laughter.

I don’t remember the year we started the ritual.  But we are a family of rituals and traditions that may seem odd to someone else.  We have a habit of remembering our favorite dead musicians on their birthdays and death days.  It started with Elvis.  On August 16th and January 8th, Sarah prepares fried catfish, okra, and cornbread for dinner, followed by banana pudding for dessert.  All day long Elvis sings on a repeated circuit on her ipod speaker, from the time she wakes that day till we all go to bed that night.  (We do the same for Johnny Cash on his appropriate days)  That evening we watch one of Elvis’ many recorded concerts or one of the movies that isn’t particularly cheesy.  We’ve done this for years.

Over the years listening to Sarah’s music come down the hall, I’ve recognized Elvis songs that I overheard coming from my brother Don’s room when I was just a little kid myself.  Songs that became ingrained in my consciousness, only to reconnect many years later.  I’ve been known to spontaneously dance in the kitchen when an Elvis song comes on, or sing loudly along with him in the car.  His music has brought more joy and passion into our lives, and has become a significant part of the soundtrack of our family’s life.

All because of a silly little blue alien named Stitch.

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A Moment

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My favorite house of all that I’ve lived in was the house in Red Bank.  We moved there when I was just 5 years old, and sadly moved away when I was starting high school.  The house on Broad Street had three stories and a basement.  The top half of the house was red and the bottom half was white, and a porch wrapped around the front.  To a little girl, it felt like a mansion.  

I had my own room at the top of the long staircase that felt like it was designed for a princess.  The colors were blue and white, with wallpaper that was decorated with flowers and latticework designs.  All of the furniture was white, with gold flowers and leaves decorating them.  The handles were made to look like brass.  I had a full double bed all to myself, and lots of floor space to dance to my David Cassidy records and play with my Barbie Dolls.  There was a non-functioning fireplace in one wall, where I stacked my collection of books.

The basement of the house was cold, dark and somewhat dingy.  My mother tried to whitewash the walls to keep them from crumbling, but most of it fell off.  No matter how much she swept or cleaned, it was just a dank, dusty place.  To my friends and I it was a place of mystery.  We dared each other to sneak down there in the dark and walk around, usually running quickly back up the wooden stairs to the comfort of the kitchen as we screamed like only little girls could.  Venturing further into its depths, we discovered,  in the distant corner, a painted image of a skull and crossbones.  Beneath the image was a long, thick nail embedded in the wall, upon which hung– yep– a skeleton key.  We would dare each other to walk all the way into the darkness, to actually touch the skull image, which we did, before running back up the stairs shrieking like we were being chased.

Sometime later, however, when I was in early middle school, my parents purchased a ping-pong table and installed it in the basement.  More efforts to clean the environment failed.  But now we had a reason to go to the basement.

My father, it turned out, was an excellent ping-pong player.  Each of the boys and myself took our turns playing him.  None of us could beat him.  He had a wicked serve that was nearly impossible to return.  Dad was very competitive, in whatever he was doing, so letting me win never crossed his mind.  I kept asking for rematches, and as I played him over the years, I got better.  I began to be able to return more of his volleys, and learned to sometimes return his wicked serve.  Every night after the evening news, I begged him to play.

He still wore his shirt and tie from his day at the church office, but he was a different man in competition.  No mercy.  He loved to win.  I ran from side to side of the table, diving, reaching, jumping, screaming sometimes and sweating profusely.  Dad wasn’t the type to cuddle or have me sit on his knee.  He didn’t tousle my hair or kid with me.  He was very serious, always the preacher or counselor.  Always The Tie.  But for those moments, we got to play.  We had a small transistor radio in the basement that we kept on a current pop station as we played the best of 2 out of 3, which of course, Dad always won.

When we moved to Woodbury, the ping pong table was in the garage.  And we played.  I got better over the years, but couldn’t beat him.  We didn’t talk, except to announce the score as we went.  If we laughed, it was nervous tension, part of the play.  Dad and I weren’t close, he wasn’t always sure how to relate to a girl.  He felt more confident in his role as pastor and counselor than he did as father.  But in those moments, we got to play.  He didn’t give me pointers or tips, I learned simply by trying to return his hits.

Finally, when I was a wife and a mother living in Nebraska, it happened.  We had our own ping pong table in the basement and I challenged Dad to the best of 2 out of 3.  And I beat him.  Finally.  He was retired by then, in his mid-sixties, but no less energetic at the ping pong table.  It was a close couple of games, but I finally beat him.

As we went back upstairs he was a bit sheepish, muttering something about how he’s not as energetic as he once was, as I high-fived Larry and scooped up my baby daughter in celebration.  Mom laughed nervously.  I wasn’t feeling mean or smug.  I simply felt like finally I could beat Dad at something.  Or at least be as good as him at something.  He wasn’t the kind to give praise, so I spent a lot of years trying to impress him.  To get his attention.  It was a small triumph.

He got older.  We didn’t play again after that.  We lived 1500 miles apart and as we moved around, we didn’t have a place for a table anyway.

When I was at clergy retreats, where I never truly felt comfortable anyway, I found that I could at least feel less awkward when there was a ping pong table at the facility.  I beat all the guys, much to their surprise.  I sweat a lot, put all my energy into the games.  I never felt comfortable with all the politicking that went on wherever clergy were gathered, but give me a ping pong table, and I could stand out a bit.

I didn’t play for 15 years after that, as we never had a house that had room for a table.  Two years ago, I was eligible to participate in the Nebraska Senior Games, being over 50.  I’ve never been much of an athlete, but wanted to participate somehow, just to get out of my comfort zone.  So I signed up for the ping pong match in my age category.

I didn’t have anywhere to practice, so I went to the match without having played in 15 years.  It turns out being much like riding a bicycle.  You never forget.  I won a medal.  It wasn’t the Olympics or anything newsworthy, but it felt good nonetheless.  It was one thing that Dad and I had.  I can still remember the sweat stains appearing under his arms, his forehead breaking out in a sweat as he leaned forward with an expression of determination.  And the end, laying my paddle down, out of breath and sweaty myself, as I’d met every volley from one side of the table to the other.  And then the day I finally beat him.

Dad didn’t give a lot of compliments, and when I became a pastor, he liked to remind me that he was the better pastor.  But when I was a hospice chaplain and sat with many of the dying and the suffering, one day in an off-guard moment, Dad said, “You know, you’ve done things that I could never do.”  It was what he could give.

But it was even better than beating him at ping-pong.

 

Our Story is All We Have

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“I now see how owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing that we will ever do.” 
― Brené Brown

I’ve always been a teller of stories.  When I see someone whom I haven’t seen for a long time, I tell them stories.  My life is a collection of stories.  I think in narrative.  That’s one reason why when I discovered the preaching of Gene Lowry I was astonished.  He teaches Narrative Preaching.  It was the kind of preaching that I was already trying to do, and here there was a name for it.  And one of the best preachers I’ve known was doing it.

I’m confused when people listen or read a story I’ve told and tell me it’s not right.  There have been people who have refuted what I’ve said.  MY story.  I’m the one that lived it, felt it, experienced it, cried through it, laughed through it, been scarred and inspired by it.  No one can tell another person that their story simply isn’t true.  If my story offends you, that doesn’t make it not true.  Or if my story reveals something that makes you uncomfortable, that’s something you must deal with and ask yourself why.  But no one has the authority to tell someone else that their story isn’t true.  Sure, we do it all the time, and throughout history, it’s true that the stories that make us feel better are the ones that get told.  History has been most often told by the winners.  We don’t like the dark side of our histories.  But it’s there.

It’s life.

Then sometimes we find out that the stories we were told were not entirely true, or were missing key parts.  My father remained a mystery to me my whole life.  He didn’t reveal a lot about himself.  His whole life in India–his first 20 years– is a book that we couldn’t open.  My brother sent me Dad’s Bible that he had when he was just 18 years old, still living in what is now Mumbai.  I cannot imagine my father ever being that young.  I’ve seen pictures of a painfully skinny, darker-skinned, black-haired young man looking like he would get sand kicked in his face at the beach.  But it’s hard to see that young man as my father.

His Bible is underlined in various colors, especially the New Testament.  He made notes here and there.  He was a passionate young Christian, then, eager to spread the Gospel.  He volunteered in a Student Christian Movement that did just that.  He came to the US in 1949, two years after India gained independence.  He was there for the violence of Partition, the riots and killings.  He never spoke of it.

I don’t know what his life was like those first 20 years.  I don’t know anything about my grandfather, Percy, who died when Dad was 14.  Until Facebook, I didn’t even know who my cousins on Dad’s side were.  I’ve seen pictures of other darker skinned, black haired people that are my aunts and uncles, now all deceased.  My grandmother, Jesse, I know, gave birth to 11 children, only 6 of which survived.  She lost 5 children and a husband.  She had to be a tough lady to survive.  I never got to meet her, as she lived on the other side of the world.  I wish I had.

She was Indian, but for some reason hated all things Indian, and raised my father to love all things British.  Until a few years ago, I thought my father was a British subject with a little bit of Indian blood.  But we learned that Grandma Michael was 100% Indian, and Grandpa Percy had a good percentage of Indian in him.  Further back, there’s some English blood mixed in.  But Dad was more Indian than he knew.  Or at least told us.

I don’t know his story, just bits and pieces.  It seems that my three brothers and I all experienced Dad differently.  I came 7 years after the youngest son, and wasn’t a part of my brother’s lives for the most part, growing up.  When Dad was young, with three sons, he played football with other pastors, preached from the Bible, didn’t want Mom to wear a swimming suit in public.  But the father I knew had “graduated” into psychology, and focused more on self-help type sermons, throwing a little verse in there to make it churchy.  I learned the Bible from my mother, or from a variety of other people who crossed my path.  The father I knew wore a tie all the time, would never be caught dead in a pair of jeans, and never played football.  Or played much at all.

The four of us have different stories about our parents.  Being the last in line and the only girl, my stories differ a lot from my brothers’, though some coincide.  For a long time, I was hesitant to tell my stories.  We all form our own impressions of someone who is in leadership.  I do, I know.  I’ve learned that sometimes my impressions don’t always match with who they are at home, out of the public eye.  Of course, with some celebrities we are completely disillusioned.  We don’t want to believe the “other” stories.  Who wanted to give up that fun, loving image of Bill Huxtable, or the guy advertising Jello with little kids–to accept the REAL story?  We’d rather just say it can’t be true.

There are stories I will never know about my father, because he didn’t want to tell them.  He told himself and others for 80-some years that he was a subject of the “British Empire,” and he stuck to it.  It made him feel better than being an Anglo Indian in British-occupied India.  He wanted to side with the “winners.”  Don’t we all?

I don’t fault him for that, but it was confusing to find out that a lot of the stories I was told simply weren’t true.  I know also, that we tell ourselves stories all the time to feel better.  And after a while, we believe them.  Don’t tell us any different.

At my mother’s funeral, I learned from a cousin, that before Mom met Dad, she regularly preached revivals!  My Mom!  Cousin Landon laughed through the tears in his eyes, telling me how he went with her, and was always amazed at how people were literally rolling in the aisles, “slain by the Spirit,” and my Mom kept on preaching the Word.  I never knew that.  My mother was always a devout Christian, studying the Bible diligently, marking them up (she had several translations) and underlining and making comments.  She kept a journal for years, reflecting on the Bible passage of the day and what it meant for her life.  That never stopped or wavered.  But I never got to hear my mother preach.

I would have loved that.

This all makes me realize, of course, that there are a lot of stories that I don’t know about either of them, and may never know.  They didn’t tell.

We’ve learned a lot about our ancestors in Southern Mississippi.  It’s certainly not all pretty, but how can it be, knowing what we know about the South in those days?  I have ancestors that fought for the Confederates in the Civil War– I got to visit their graves.  Some  fought in the Revolutionary War.  Some owned slaves and some were even slave traders.  Those are the hard stories.  They’re unpleasant.  But I believe we have to tell the hard stories as well as the good stories to know who we really are.

It’s human nature to want to be known, to be seen, and to be heard.  It’s hard when someone won’t listen, or refuses to believe us.  Or only wants to believe the good stuff.  We need to tell.  We need to be heard.  We need to be connected.  And believed.

One of the many joys of working as a hospice chaplain was hearing the stories people told me of their lives.  People who are dying want to know that their lives mattered.  The good, the bad, the hard struggles, the triumphs and the failures; all of it is the stuff of a life and is part of who we are.  The images people have of us are no less true just because they don’t know the whole story.  Those images are part of us as well.

I think my daughter knows me pretty well, certainly better than I knew my parents, because I wanted her to know me.  Sure, there are stories that she doesn’t know, and may only discover after I’m gone– because knowing her, she will dig out all my journals and read them!  And I trust she’ll love me just the same.  

In a couple of years we hope to go to India to get a sense of the culture in which my father grew up.  I want to get a deeper sense of that world, so foreign to me, and maybe understand why he didn’t want to own it.  To see the world that shaped him.  And, I think, haunted him.

Maybe I’ll learn something.

 

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.