God Is In the Roses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it was true.  He didn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He would take it to his grave.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A chance to begin again.

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

I hope he does.

I Remember

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace.  It is a lovely ride.

My Father Is Dying

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My father is dying.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sure.

He didn’t die.

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

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

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

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

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

Exile

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

It was.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was not a good first impression.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I froze.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

.

 

 

 

 

 

The Other Side of the Mountain

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I held the bowl of water in front of me reverently, waiting for the service to begin.  Beneath the surface I saw a myriad of small seashells, their patterns blurring under the movement of the water.  I wore my familiar exhaustion like a weighted blanket.

We were at a Pastor’s Convocation in New York State, put on by the Wyoming Valley Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.  The mandatory convocation was a pastor’s training on conflict management.  In our previous 7 months of serving the Mountaintop UMC, Larry and I had read every book we could find on conflict management, healing after sexual misconduct, and clergy abuse.  The common thread in all of them was that needed support from the church institution–in our case– the Annual Conference.  It was unthinkable that we could do it by ourselves.

I was soul-weary.  It was February, 2004.  Our months at Mountaintop drained both of us.  We were angry, exhausted, and depressed.  We wondered, sometimes– often– what we’d done to receive this punishment.  From God?  Maybe, sometimes.  But mostly from the United Methodist Church.  I believed that the UMC just didn’t want me.  Lake Winola had been my only crisis-free ministry, and I still didn’t make above the minimum required salary– which wasn’t much.  In the shadow of my father, I was a failure.

I was understandably cynical about the mandatory convocation.  An exercise in futility.  A check mark in the Conference’s report card.  Did that.  Moving on.

One bright spot was the fact that I was a member of the Conference Worship Committee, led by my on-again-off-again friend Vicki.  I loved planning worship, and we were given a lot of creative freedom.

The opening worship service for that event was a service of Remembering Our Baptism.  I was one of two clergy holding a bowl full of shells.  The clergy in the group were to line up and approach us, take a shell out of the water and touch it to their face as we said, “Remember your baptism and be thankful.”

Since it was a small Conference, I knew everybody, or at least could recognize faces of all the clergy present.  Except for one.  There was a man in the back of the room whom I did not know.  He was an older man, perhaps in his 60s, and sat alone.  He slipped into line near the beginning and as I faced each worshiper I was hyper-aware of his approaching presence.

As the stranger stepped in front of me, I looked directly into his eyes and said, “Remember your baptism, and be thankful.”  His eyes were warm. Brown.  His hands were clasped in front of him in a reverent stance as he returned my gaze.  He paused.   Without breaking eye contact, he reached into the bowl and picked up a small shell from the water.  As his dripping hand rose from the bowl, I expected him to touch his face.  However, instead, he deliberately and ever so lightly touched my lips with the dripping shell.  In a kind of priestly blessing, he ran the shell across my lips, and still looking directly into my eyes, returned the shell to the water.

Woe to me, for I am ruined… For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips…

I’m not one to memorize Bible verses, but in that moment I was hushed.  Isaiah’s words flowed gently across my awareness.  My lips felt tingly, my body relaxed.  I had been blessed.  By a stranger.  As if to say,  You are ok.  Be faithful to the call.  You are not alone.  

Tears came to my eyes as the next person came to the bowl.  I repeated the words, but my heart was still connected to the stranger as he found his way back to his seat.  I looked at Larry, who was sitting in the front, and he gently smiled.  He was tuned into The Moment.  I smiled back.

I later discovered that the stranger was the Rev. Tim Savage, the leader of our Conflict Management convocation.  He was the founder of L.E.A.D. Conflict Management Consultants, held several postgraduate degrees, and specialized in church conflict. He was a licensed psychotherapist, ordained minister and spiritual director.

Of course he was.

There was a spirit about him, a presence.  As he spoke and shared stories of churches he’d dealt with, he exuded a spiritual connection that was genuine and calming.  Over the next several days, he laid out his strategies for addressing conflict in churches.  It involved bringing in an outside team from L.E.A.D and getting to know the congregation and training them to be a part of their own healing.  I thought he was an answer to prayer.  I approached two D.S.’s during a break and told them I felt that Dr. Savage could really help Mountaintop.

One of them got angry.  “What?  Are you kidding?  We don’t have that kind of money to bring them in!”  (This D.S. was on the Board of Directors of L.E.A.D)

“What are we here for, then?” I challenged him.

“To handle our own conflicts ourselves,” he said condescendingly.  He brushed me off and moved to talk to someone else.  My own D.S., Tom, shrugged helplessly.  He was impotent and incompetent as a leader.  No help at all.

I was incensed.  They dragged us up here in the middle of winter to attend a conflict management course, introduced us to a resource they were unwilling to use on one of their largest churches and pat themselves on the back for doing a good thing.

During a Question and Answer time later with Dr. Savage, my anger was boiling over already.  With heart racing and my blood pounding, I stood up.

“Yes?” the innocent leader pointed to me.

“Tell me please, how can we as pastors teach our congregations to resolve conflict when we don’t know how to resolve conflict among ourselves?”  My jaw was set.  I heard several people respond, “Yeah!”  There was whispering and murmuring.  Some uncomfortable shifting in their seats.

Dr. Savage was used to angry people.  He said something benign– and went on, but didn’t do so condescendingly.  He understood, and he said so later.  He understood that some conferences weren’t willing to go the extra mile.  They brought him in to speak at us, but they weren’t willing to get involved in the dirty work of mediation in their own churches.

He said it kindly.  Of course.

Anger was a part of my everyday mood those days.  I was exhausted and resentful.  I was angry on our own behalf but also on behalf of the victim of our predecessor’s sexual misconduct and her abandonment by the Conference– and also on behalf of Mountaintop.  They were victims, too, but most of them didn’t even realize that.  They’d been viciously and spiritually betrayed by Pastor Bruce.  Their covenant between pastor and congregation horribly shredded.  And now abandoned by the very Conference that made a deal with the perpetrator so he could keep his ordination.

I was livid.

During lunch one day, they had cute little activities for us, related to conflict.  It felt like we were in Vacation Bible School.  One activity was for each table to come up with songs related to conflict and sing them to the rest of the group.  When it came to be our turn, I’d recruited my table mates to sing with me.  I stood up, looked right at the Bishop at her table, and angrily sang, Take this job and shove it!  I ain’t-a workin’ here no more!”

People laughed.  Clever choice.  But the passion behind my choice increased my fury.  I could hardly see straight.  I felt so helpless.  Irrelevant.  Discarded. Sacrificed. I meant every word.

We spoke with Dr. Savage and requested to meet with him during one of the free afternoons.  He was more than willing.  We laid out our story to him.  We described what happened at Mountaintop, the deal Bruce made with the Bishop (a female, liberal Bishop) to keep his ordination, and the Conference’s refusal to get involved with the congregation’s healing.  He listened… as was his forte.  He affirmed us.  He agreed, too, that the Church needed outside help.  We weren’t trained for such a degree of congregational abuse and clergy misconduct.  He told us what he would recommend for us, but regretfully sympathized that we weren’t going to get the help we needed.

It felt good to at least have someone hear us, to affirm that we were in way over our heads, and that yes, we’d been abandoned by the System.

During one of his talks, Savage shared a story that has stayed with me since.  He described a clergyman who was in the midst of a complicated web of conflict in a large congregation that he served.  He tried everything.  He was a kind, devoted, faithful pastor, and hoped that offering them his gracious ministry of caring would help.  But they were an angry community, broken by an abusive history.  Finally, one day, the pastor sat on a chair in the middle of the church chancel, pinned a note to his chest that simply said, “NOW is it enough?”–

and shot himself.

It was a powerful story that sucked the air out of the room.  No one seemed to breathe.  I knew that many of us had often felt that way.  Though I would never go through with it, I understood that man’s desperation.

And that alarmed me.

NOW is it enough?  It was a common question on any clergyperson’s mind and heart.  Is it ever enough?  For some congregations, it just isn’t.

As we returned to Mountaintop, both Larry and I were haunted by that image and also angry that once again, the D.S.’s seemed indignant at our request for help and resources.  They were willing to spend all that money on getting all the clergy together for several days in a hotel for a conflict mediation educational event and pay a nationally-known speaker to come– but they weren’t willing to spend that money on one of their own churches.

My relationship with the United Methodist Church system was severely breaking down.

As we stumbled through Lent and got closer to Easter, we were all aware of the approaching anniversary of Bruce’s abrupt departure.  Larry and I shared preaching, taking turns every other week, and my turn fell on Palm Sunday.  I honestly don’t remember what I preached that Sunday–the anniversary of Bruce’s last–but I remember the intensity.  It was palpable, the sense of grief in the air.

I do remember talking about that grief, naming it for what it was, which was something many people were afraid of.  Talking about it.  In that sermon I affirmed their sense of loss, their confusion, their pain.  I affirmed their anger.  I encouraged them, though, to think of it as something we all had to face together, and therefore begin to accept healing.  Never in my ministry did I do an altar call per se, but at the end of the sermon, I invited people to join me at the chancel rail in prayer.  To pray for our congregation.  To pour out our pain before God, acknowledge it, but also open ourselves and the community to healing.

I instructed Jack to keep playing as long as people were at the rail, and sensing the trembling in my legs, I made my way down to the chancel rail to pray.  It wasn’t long before I could feel the presence of other bodies all around me– beside me and behind me.  I heard weeping and sniffling.  I didn’t open my eyes but tried to concentrate on my own prayers, my own letting go, surrendering my rage and pain.  The sense of physical community growing around me was a balm on my heart.  For that moment, I felt connected to them.  I loved them.  I forgave them their rage toward us and began to forgive their love of Bruce.  I could have curled up on the chancel kneelers and just gone to sleep right there with Jack’s organ music playing, the congregants still singing behind me, and the sense of release.

I was so tired.

As I sensed people finally moving away back to their pews, I stood up.  The last few soon followed, and Jack ended the hymn.

As I always did in any church since the beginning of my ministry, I sang the benediction.  That Sunday it was a verse of “There Is a Balm in Gilead.”  My legs felt like lead as I ended the song and moved toward the door.  I was spent.  I felt peace… strength from the sense of a job well done.

Many people came through the line, shaking our hands on their way out.  Some came with tears still in their eyes, noses red, and took our hands in both of their’s and simply squeezed our hands.  Some said, “Thank you.”  A couple of people hugged us.

When all had come through the line, we started to move toward the office, unsnapping our robes, ready to go home and take a nap.

“What the hell was THAT??” Ellen burst into our personal space like a needle across a vinyl album.  Startled, I turned to her.  She went on. “You didn’t give me any warning you were going to do that!” She got into my face, his eyes wide and seemingly possessed.  “I can’t believe you did that without telling me!”  Her anger always hit me like a baseball bat to the side of the head.

Stunned, I stammered something about it being a spontaneous thing, which wasn’t entirely true, but she scared me.  It was like being 9 years old again being accosted by my own personal fourth grade bully who wanted my lunch or else she was going to “kick my butt.”

She ranted on and on, but I finally walked away from her.  I doubt I got my nap because I was too churned up by Ellen’s attack.

It was soon after Easter that the Church Finance Committee announced at a meeting that they were $35,000 behind budget.  It was no surprise to us, but no one was going to question the many months of paying Bruce severance pay in addition to our salaries.  There was also the issue of angry church members no longer financially supporting the church in the wake of Bruce’s removal.

It didn’t matter.  The writing was on the wall.  They could not afford two pastors.  It was a relief, really.  Neither of us felt like we could spiritually afford another year of pushing a rock up Sisyphus’ mountain.

The Sunday we announced our departure, the Church Treasurer–who knew all the figures– said to us, “So, you’re giving up.”  I couldn’t speak to her.  I don’t know what Larry said.

The truth is, we felt like failures.  Thank God for Jim and Yvonne who listened to us, let me cry, and gave us a place to feel safe and loved.

We got no compassion from our own D.S., just a “doubt” that there was “much available” in regards to where we could move.  I didn’t sense that he was making much effort.  He simply didn’t care about us.  He didn’t seem to care about anyone but himself.  He was independently wealthy, he consistently reminded us of his two PhD’s and he was condescending.  I didn’t know the term narcissist at the time, but his picture could have been by the word in the dictionary.

We were informed late in the spring that Larry would be the associate pastor at Elm Park in Scranton (the appointment I’d turned down a year before) and I would serve Waverly UMC and Factoryville UMC, two very small churches outside of Scranton.  When we left the D.S.’s office I collapsed in tears.

I didn’t want to be a pastor anymore.

 

You

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(OctoWriMo Prompt:  Love)

people thought they knew
our story
even before it had begun

summed it up
analyzed
dismissed it

they had no idea

before anything else
you were my best friend
in an unsafe world
you were my refuge

you saw beautiful
when I felt ugly
you saw strength
where I saw only terror

your soft brown eyes
calmed me
centered me
held me still

storm after storm
mountain after mountain
deluge after deluge
you wouldn’t let go
of my hand

your calm patient
presence
is my rock
your smile
my sun

after all these years
it’s you I want to tell
when I see a gorgeous sunset
or when I meet an angel
it’s you I trust
when it all falls apart
to ride with me
through the turbulence

mama told me
i’d never find a partner
if I didn’t lower my expectations

she didn’t know

about you

#HerToo (Part I)

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One night in the fall of 2003, I woke up struggling to get air.   My head was pounding.  I was sweating, but my teeth were chattering.  Though I was laying down, the room was spinning.  I rolled out of bed to my knees and crawled down the hallway to the bathroom, gulping air.  I felt my way to the toilet and threw up violently, curling up next to the toilet, still shivering.  I pulled a towel down from the rack and pulled it over me, trying to calm my breathing.

It was the worst panic attack I’d had before then or after.

Vicki met me at lunch during the Spring of 2003 with the latest gossip.  “You are never going to believe what’s going on in Mountaintop…”

Mountaintop was a town at the southernmost edge of the Wyoming (Valley) Conference.  It was a coveted appointment in the Conference.  Other pastors ached to get it.  But it had been held captive for 18 years by Bruce.  18 years in a United Methodist appointment was very rare.  The Methodist bishops like to keep pastors moving.  Literally.  No one knew exactly how this happened.  But the town was kind of isolated down south, off by itself.

Mountaintop was literally on top of a mountain. Perhaps before 2003 D.S.’s and Bishops even forgot about it.  Word was that the Church was doing well, they were said to have over 1,000 members (considered large in that conference) and their pastor Bruce was a dynamic, charismatic preacher.  Or so they said.  I’d heard him once, when he came off the mountain to preach at our Lenten worship in Lake Winola.  He struck me as a bit full of himself, but it really didn’t matter to me.  I didn’t think I’d have to associate with him.

The gossip spread quickly around our tiny conference.  Apparently Bruce had been abruptly removed from his congregation on allegations of sexual misconduct.  The members of the congregation received a letter explaining this and on that Easter Sunday, The Bishop and D.S. led worship and faced a barrage of questions and blatant hostility.

Allegations were brought forth from a woman from the congregation.  Bruce and she had had sexual relations over a long period of time;  in the parsonage, in the church, and in local hotels.  It turns out… it was true.  Bruce didn’t deny it.  But he didn’t know what the big deal was.  That Easter Sunday, as the story goes, the Bishop and Dave the D.S. (so we’ll call him) met a lot of anger and confusion in the congregation.  They were angry that Bruce had been removed, and so suddenly.  They “didn’t care” about the allegations.  Yes, they knew they were true, so what?

The way Vicki told it, the Bishop and Dave didn’t want to go anywhere near the congregation again.  Dave told Vicki the story as if they were carrying billy clubs and were ready to lynch the two of them.

As the gossip spread among clergy, there was some sense of satisfaction.  How the mighty fall, and all that.  There was also the wonder, who will the Bishop send there?  Poor guy, we all thought.  (And I think we all assumed it would be a guy)  Meanwhile, they brought in Pastor Sarah, a retired pastor who’d weathered some storms before, to be in interim pastor.

Meanwhile, at every clergy event that spring, whether it was a Lectionary study group or District meeting, we all greeted each other with, “So, you going to Mountaintop?”  We were all curious as to who would win the Golden Ticket.  Though it lost some of its shine, it was still golden.  It was, after all, Mountaintop.  Clergy pretended they didn’t really care, but they did.

I had been at Lake Winola for four years and loved it.  But there was a part of me that yearned for more.  I wanted to be in a church that had more resources, more possibilities to use my gifts.  I was restless.  I felt like I’d grown a lot in my gifts for ministry, and I believed those gifts could be used in a larger church.  A single church, preferably.  I didn’t like having to leave one church to go to another, therefore not being able to be a part of Sunday School, much less teach an Adult Sunday School.

Larry and I had turned down appointments offered to us already that spring.  Dave offered us appointments that we felt sure we didn’t want.  He offered Larry the “opportunity” to serve two smaller churches than the ones he was currently serving, and he offered me the chance to be an associate pastor at Elm Park in Scranton.  Like Bruce, the current senior pastor had been at Elm Park for many years and planned to retire from there.  He wasn’t doing much any more, just kind of coasting along.  He was an older, white-haired man who was used to being in power.

No thank you.  Been there, done that. Suffered enough.  Not interested in a rerun.

So Larry and I were at peace with staying at Lake Winola and Center Moreland for at least another year.

Then Dave showed up at our door.

No one wants to hear from a District Superintendent in the Spring.

I’d wavered in my feelings about Dave.  He became D.S. after Jim, who was the best D.S. I had and would ever have.   I tried to like Dave, really, even though he completely renovated Jim’s former District parsonage (with his own vast resources) into an unrecognizable, somewhat flamboyant dwelling.  Dave had two PhD’s and liked to remind people of that.  He was an art collector and his very expensive art was displayed throughout the very large house.  Dave always came across as superior, narcissistic, and condescending.  But being single, when he was under stress, he melted into a very needy, anxious child.  And there were people who came to stroke him and nurture him.

I don’t react well to people who deem themselves superior.

Dave was visibly nervous as he sat in our living room.  “I do have an offer for you,” he said, visibly hesitant.  We waited.

“The Bishop wants to send you to Mountaintop.”

I think my stomach dropped to my knees. I felt a little sick.   “But that’s a single appointment,” I reminded him.

“Yes,” he said, wringing his hands.  “The Bishop wants to send you both there, at minimum salary, and the Conference will pay the extra salary.”

So.  No raise. In fact we would be losing money.  And we were being sent into the den of lions.  The stories that Dave had shared about that Fateful Sunday had everyone imagining the Bishop and Dave just barely escaping with their lives.  Shredded clothing. Bloodstains.  A mob.

We were not the current pastor at Elm Park.  Or Binghamton.  We were much further down the ladder.  We’d already said “no” to the Bishop.  We weren’t sure if we were “allowed” to say “no” again.  In fact, we were pretty sure we couldn’t.  At ordination, we’d agreed to go “wherever” the Bishop sent us, “without reserve.”

We had reservations.  Big ones.  Everybody with any sense did.  But we knew our “place.”

Oh, and we would still have to wait.  The Church Conference at Mountaintop would have to approve the appointment, since it was going from one pastor to two.  That meant we went to Annual Conference not knowing what our future held.  It was in the hands of a (so we heard) hostile congregation.  We couldn’t tell anyone– though I told Vicki, who was on the Conference staff.  All through Annual Conference, people were murmuring about the fate of Mountaintop and the poor pastor who would end up there.  We smiled nervously.

I think clergy felt a little pleasure that the appointment had fallen in stature and value.  That way, pastors didn’t have to feel bad if they didn’t get it.  But beneath the surface, I knew that it was still seen as the prize.  Over the years, Bruce had built it up as a growing, thriving congregation, ready to build a new sanctuary.

I was scared.  We listened to the gossip and the wondering with pasted-on smiles.  Nervous smiles.  A bit nauseous smiles.

Sometime after Conference, we heard it was approved.  We’d have to tell our congregations on June 22 (which happened to be my birthday–happy birthday) that June 29th would be our last Sunday.  Surprise!  

Our congregations were shocked.  Sad. And angry that Mountaintop got such priority that we had to be rushed off with no time to say goodbye.  But being the gracious people that they are, they wished us well.  And Congratulations.  We smiled weakly.  Something just didn’t feel right.

Sarah, the interim pastor, showed us around at the church and introduced us to staff before we met with the Staff Parish Relations Committee.  People were saying farewell to Sarah and thanking her for being there for them during a difficult time.

The secretary said to Sarah, “Be sure and come back and see us!”

Sarah smiled politely and touched her arm.  “Don’t count on it.”

My journal entries from October, 2003, say things like “Sheer madness. Pure insanity.”  People were gracious, for the most part, and were nice to us.  There were some who were openly hostile, not least of which was Ellen, the Choir Director, who clearly thought Bruce walked on water.  Her face, her mannerisms, her whole body exuded hostility and violence.  She made it clear from the beginning that she would not be our friend.  She was particularly hostile toward me and had more moments of kindness toward Larry.

We got along well with the secretary, (also named Peggy), thank God, as she would be a daily contact.  She was very open about the stories and what went on, though not offering any strong opinions on the subject either way.  She was rather nonchalant about it, but filled us in on a lot of what went on behind the scenes.  Literally.

Jack was the organist, and he, too, tried to be neutral on the subject of Bruce.  He was kind to us and very funny.  His organ playing was powerful, uplifting and was a balm for my fractured soul every week.  I think I told him that many, many times.

The first week we arrived in Mountaintop, a young husband and father shot himself in the head.  I had the funeral and met with the widow and with his friends.  A couple of months later, another young husband associated with our congregation shot himself in the head.  I didn’t have the funeral but I attended it, as his family was Catholic.  There  seemed to be so much pain, as if it was in the water.  So much brokenness, conflict, sorrow.  Some days I felt like I was wading in blood.

Since it had been 18 years, the congregation wasn’t up to date on the Conference requirements for the parsonage.  There had been minimal contact, we learned, between the church and the conference.  The conference had kind of left them alone all these years.  Everything happened so fast, too, that the Conference didn’t do any parsonage inspection.  This was a situation that most people in Mountaintop had not been through before.

In normal circumstances, there was a parsonage committee who went in after the pastor moved out and fixed things that needed to be fixed.  Often they’d paint rooms, make sure there was the required amount of furnishings, replace curtains, etc.  Bruce and his wife had been so private they didn’t let anyone into the parsonage. (Except the lover)  It had been their private domain, so very few people knew what the inside looked like, much less what their responsibility was to the parsonage.

When we moved in, there was not one scrap of furniture.  It was supposed to be partially furnished.  Thank goodness we had some furniture, though not enough to furnish every room.  No one had come in to clean, touch up or make sure things were up to snuff.  There was evidence that Bruce’s wife had run the vacuum cleaner, but that was it.

There was torn carpet in the entryway, a fist-sized hole in the bedroom closet door, a broken window covered in duct tape in the parsonage office off the bedroom, and a relentless and pervasive odor of urine throughout the house.

Never until that year did I believe that a house could be filled with evil spirits.  But I did.  The house felt possessed.  The air we breathed seemed filled with hostility, jagged brokenness, and deep sorrow.

We shampooed the carpets and painted the room where the urine smell seemed to be most prevalent.  Still, the odor hit us every time we came home.

Vicki had mentioned that the Bishop did house blessings that involved candle lighting, prayer and blessings through each room.  Previously, I might have thought that was a big New-Ageish, but I deeply felt that the parsonage needed healing.   We called to ask the Bishop if she would be willing to do it.

No.  She didn’t feel it was wise for her to step foot in Mountaintop again any time soon.  Right.  She was the Bishop!

We asked Vicki.  She was too busy, she wouldn’t have time.  Through the year, the more desperately I needed a friend, the more distant our friendship got.

Dave didn’t want to come to Mountaintop either.  And he was the District Superintendent.

We felt completely abandoned.

One night early in the fall I awoke to the phone ringing.  I answered it and noticed the clock said about 3:00 a.m.  It was a young woman, asking for Bruce.  When I explained that he was no longer the pastor, she began to sob.  She said that she often called him in the middle of the night and he would come pick her up wherever she was.  She was distraught that he was no longer available.  I was beginning to suspect that Beth was not Bruce’s only conquest.

By October, about three months of living with the powerful smell of urine, the Trustees Chairman pulled up a corner of the carpet in the back bedroom.  The floor underneath was visibly saturated.  With urine.  Thankfully, the Trustees came and pulled up the carpet, treated the floor, and put down new carpeting.  The smell was gone.

We’d been told that Bruce and his wife were “furious” that they were being treated so unjustly.  They also had a dog and a cat.  It seemed likely to us that they’d locked the animals in that room long enough to give it a good soaking.  How else would the entire floor underneath the carpet be saturated?

Over the weeks and months, people told us bits and pieces of what went on.  People knew that Bruce was having sex with Beth (not her name).  She was a single mom, Hispanic, with very little resources, who came to Bruce for counseling.  The quilting ladies could see Beth through the church window, go to the parsonage and disappear inside.  Or they saw her throw a pebble up to Bruce’s office window.

“He’s only human,” woman after woman told us.  “What’s the big deal?”

We also heard that Bruce stated in Sunday School class one day that “If a man isn’t get his sexual needs met at home, then he is perfectly welcome to go seek it elsewhere.”  The woman who told this story said that no one dared question Bruce.  He was larger than life, he was charming, he was “nice.”

I wrote in my journals that I had to believe that we were sent there for a reason.  What did God want from us?  They obviously needed healing, but most of the congregation didn’t know what they needed.  They felt victimized by the Conference, and rightly so.  But Larry and I believed, too, that they had been victimized by Bruce.  He’d manipulated them to build up his kingdom and throne where he could do anything that he wanted.  They wouldn’t question him.  He was Bruce!  He was their pastor.  He could do no wrong.

We wanted to meet with Beth, to reach out to her, but she’d left Mountaintop and had no interest in meeting with us.  Her daughter had been bullied and harassed at school.  Beth had been blamed for Bruce’s demise and was clearly not welcome.  There were a few in the congregation who had been kind to her, but not the majority.  It was her fault, according to many people. They didn’t understand that Bruce had the power and he had used it and abused it.

We tried to do little things each day, to offer little graces.  Small things like bringing in cake for a staff member’s birthday proved to be something that hadn’t been done.  Inviting people to the parsonage for an open house.  We went to Jack’s programs that he directed at the school where he taught during the week, to support him.  We attended concerts at the local college that Ellen performed.

I initiated a women’s Bible Study group and I had 22 women sign up.  I used a book that I’d used in several previous churches that had gone very well.  The book was Do What You Have the Power to Do.  It was about women in the Bible who had no names.  The study was about these women doing what they had the power to do in a male-dominated culture where they were so invisible that the writers of the canon didn’t remember their names.   It discussed global, cultural and theological issues.  The study discussed women who were silenced by men who had power.

The second week I was down to 8 women who finished out the 8 week study with me.  The others were clearly offended that I seemed to insinuate that  these issues applied to them or their circumstances, much less what happened in their church.  A few left the first night before the end, telling me off angrily.

That night I curled up on the bathroom floor was one of many such nights of waking up with severe panic attacks, usually after intense nightmares.

Larry was exhausted and depressed.  I worried about him.  We were both so angry at having to fight this battle all alone, with no help from the Conference, and no support. I met regularly with Jim for lunch for support and prayer, but no other clergy reached out to us.

We did discover that there was a seminar being held at Princeton Theological Seminary that fall on “AfterPastors.”  It was specifically about pastors serving churches that had been through sexual misconduct.  After a lot of convincing and cajoling, we convinced Dave to get us funding to attend this seminar.

It was a huge relief to be there among other clergy in the same boat– well, mostly.  They all spoke of supportive D.S.’s and Bishops who gave them what they needed.  Very quickly, we reluctantly became the center of attention as we shared our story.  The leaders essentially said that the Conference had handled our situation very badly, and we were suddenly the case study of the week.  They told us how things should  be done and what should happen.  They affirmed our feeling that the congregation was also a victim of the misconduct and needed special ministry from the Conference.  They asserted that mediators should be brought in from outside to aid the Afterpastors in that situation.  We were like parched people in a desert, stumbling on an oasis.  They shook their heads a lot, wishing they could help us more.

We left the seminar, somewhat vindicated that we were correct that things had been very poorly managed by the Conference, but nonetheless we were still stuck in the middle.

You don’t go through hell with people without developing strong attachments.  We came to love many people at Mountaintop.  Many did respond to our ministry, but individually.  No one had the nerve to stand up for us in the congregation, to address the leaders and rally them to face what Bruce had done.

Larry and I took turns preaching from Sunday to Sunday.  Preaching was my balm, and a place where I felt that I could actually do something.  Worship was my arena, the place I felt strongest.  And people responded.  We tried to allow worship to be a place of grace and blessing, healing and prayer.  It was a start.

But I always felt that Ellen was nipping at my heels like a rapid dog; finding fault with everything I did, telling me off in the church entry way or attacking me for seemingly no reason.  She hated me.  She didn’t really know me, but she let it be known that she despised me.  And that hurt.  I didn’t want to be hated by anyone.  She just wouldn’t let up.

On another Sunday, when I preached about another strong woman in the Bible, I was accosted by yet another woman, a severe fundamentalist who adored Bruce.  She got right in my face, screaming something about “raging liberal feminist”, “ungodly”, and something about me burning in hell.  I held it in until I got home and had a good sob.

We continually felt like tiny shepherds facing Philistine giants, armed only with a pebble and a slingshot.  And the giant wouldn’t fall.

As finances in the church became bleaker and bleaker at every finance meeting, we discovered that the treasurer was sending “severance pay” to Bruce at the approval of the congregation, unbeknownst to the D.S. and Bishop.  They were essentially paying two of the three salaries, while the financial resources of the Church sunk deeper and deeper.

My daughter Sarah, as usual, was my bright ray of sunshine in the midst of insanity.  She gave me reason to keep getting out of bed in the morning, though most days it was an effort.  But the nightmares got more frequent, the panic attacks more severe.

I wrote in my journal, “I cannot imagine being in ministry until I’m 67. ” That was 29 more years.  I knew then that I wouldn’t make it.

 

Finding Mother

Mary Plaster 09032003

“Awake, O Sleeper, and rise from the dead, for Christ will be your Light…”
–Ephesians 5:14

The spring of 2003 was another roller-coaster of emotion.  A season of extremes.  highs and lows.  Joy and sorrow.   It was the end of my fourth year in Lake Winola/Falls.  I loved them deeply.  They’d given me a place to heal.  They’d allowed me to be their pastor.  I got to do everything I imagined a pastor would do:  I visited them in the hospital, sat by the bed of the dying, led funerals, fed them communion, dreamed up new ideas for worship, endured 9/11 with them and grieved together, taught them in Bible Studies, and there were a few whom I felt that I had the privilege to disciple.  There were a couple of men and women who I watched grow spiritually, come alive in their faith, step out and take chances and become leaders in the church.  I felt like I’d been a part of that!
This was what I thought pastoral ministry was all along.  But something was also happening in me that seemed to disrupt everything I assumed.  I read The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd.  I’d read Kidd’s books from my mother’s shelf as a teen, when she was very involved with Guideposts magazine.  I was in a small bookstore in Clarks Summit, PA when I saw she’d written her first novel.  I was intrigued.
It was like an earthquake.
I unexpectedly resonated with Lily immediately.  Her sense of longing for mothering.  Her serendipitous journey from her father’s abuse to the Pink House, where she was mothered, nurtured, cared for.  Where she saw the ugliness of prejudice and the power of standing up for what you believe– when you know you’re loved.
I fell in love with their faith community.  The Black Madonna.  The strength of mother-love, feminine strength, sisterhood, finding strength as a young woman.  Something ached in me, deep deep down.  I love my mother.  I always tried to be what I thought she wanted, but it never seemed to work.  My father came first.  My father was the center of our universe.  His needs came first, above all else.  The Church was wound up in there too.  We knew early on that us children were not as important as the Church, and certainly not as important as my father.  We had to make him look good.  We couldn’t embarrass them.
By the time I was in middle school and high school, I felt adrift.  My hunger for Mothering was met in my relationship with Sandie.  One poignant memory is of me, my mother and Sandie, sitting in the back seat of the Allens’ car, riding back to their house after a fun day of sledding.  I leaned my head on Sandie’s shoulder.  I felt safe, sheltered, loved for who I was.  I just always wanted to be in the same room with her.  I was enough.
Of course I felt guilty for loving her so much and wishing I could live at her house.  I felt guilty for feeling like a constant disappointment to my mother.  But the longing was real.
I cried when I read The Secret Life of Bees.  I so wanted to go to the Pink House and live among those women.  To feel the power of the Black Madonna, the Divine Feminine, Sophia-Wisdom as she is named in the Bible.  That book opened up something powerful in me.  I couldn’t relate to Father God at all– He was too perfectionistic.  He was never happy with me.  He always analyzed me and found me pitiful.  Weak.  Disappointing.  He was distant, heady, emotionless.  I could not imagine Father God delighting in me as His child, much less loving me for who I was.
I found comfort in Jesus, yes.  Jesus was more than a man.  He was open, “liberal” with his love, seeing the invisible ones like me, embracing those who others ignored.  I could relate to Jesus, but not “Father.”  Not the white-bearded old man in the sky– who looked oddly like my father in temperament.
That spring I spent  a lot of time at Border’s bookstore in Dickson City.  I read Kidd’s Dance of the Dissident Daughter.  That deepened my hunger for more learning about the image of Sophia-Wisdom in the Bible, the strong and nameless women in the Bible, the images of Mother and Divine Feminine scattered throughout.  God as mother eagle pushing her babies out of the nest to fly.  The God who goes through labor pains with God’s people, giving new birth.  God has the mother hen brooding over her chicks.  Wisdom at the beginning of time, co-creating with God.  Wisdom… Sophia in the Greek.  Feminine.  God as Comforter.  I read some of the Apocrypha, the “rejected” books of the Bible.  Rejected by whom?  Male bishops in the early church, of course.
I was haunted by the women of the Pink House.  At Border’s I stumbled upon a book called “The Wisdom of Daughters: Two Decades of the Voice of  Christian Feminism.”  It was like water in the desert.  It was exactly the kind of thing I was looking for.  As I stood in Border’s reading the Introduction, I realized that one of the editors of this collaboration was a woman named Reta Finger;  who happened to be teaching at Messiah College.
I almost dropped the book right there.  A feminist theologian at Messiah College??  What were the chances?  I bought the book, went home and got on Messiah’s website.  I wrote Reta an email and told her what was going on in me;  about Kidd, about my spiritual search, about my experiences at Messiah, etc.  And the unlikely discovery of her, a feminist of all things, at Messiah College.
Almost immediately I got an email back from her that was lengthy and gracious.  She was so astonished and appreciative of my reaching out to her, and of my story.  She was also astonished that her book was at Border’s for me to discover! (Just one copy!)  We made an appointment to meet soon at Messiah.
Meanwhile, there was Holy Week, my favorite week of the Christian Year.  A time that was the most poignant, the most relevant and powerful time of year.  To me, it spoke of the relevance of the Christ Story;  dying and living, sorrow and joy, injustice and justice, despair and coming alive.  I always poured so much of my heart and soul into Holy Week.  I wanted others to “get” that significance of pouring all our sorrow into God’s hands to be redeemed into healing and joy.  To offer the world, in all its madness, to the God of New Beginnings.
That year, my parents came for Easter, as they often did.  My father was being more himself than usual that weekend, or maybe I’d just grown more intolerant.  He, as always, tried to keep me as his captive audience, spouting his esoteric psychology/theology that was unconnected to real life, but (he thought) made him sound so brilliant that he was smarter than anyone else.  He, as always, wanted to impress me with his lofty words.  So many times over the years, I sat, his captive audience, listening and growing tense and angry.  It was no use arguing with him, I learned.  He believed he was the Brilliant One and no one understood him because he was so above us all.
Something happened.  Maybe it was the earthquake in my soul that erupted that spring, uncovering years of pain, trying to deny my own experiences as a woman and mold myself into male theology and experiences.  Maybe it was that I felt like a hole in the ceiling opened and there was light shining in as I wrestled with and began healing the depression that was so much a part of me.  But I was Fed Up.
Something burst open in me.  I told him off.  I told him everything I kept pent up inside of me all those years of sitting at his feet, listening to him pour his Great Wisdom over me, enlightening me.  I was angry, finally, that I’d been so invisible to him all these years.  That I was “just a woman.”  “You’re just like your mother,” he often said when he was angry with me, as if it was an insult.  I was tired of him always taking whatever he wanted because he felt entitled.  He took and took and took.  He always came first.  Before me, before all three of my brothers.  Before my mother.  I was Fed Up.
I told him I was tired of his psychology.  I was tired of swallowing everything he shoved down my throat and never speaking up.  I told him I was tired of being analyzed like a specimen all my life, his special personal project.  I was tired of his arrogance, his refusal to ever listen to my “inferior” thoughts and ideas.
He lost it.  He exploded.  I’d never seen my father get angry before that night.  I heard stories of him throwing iced tea in Don’s face when Don was a teen, or Mom slapping Don’s face.  I’d heard of Rollo’s temper when it came to Don and Mark.  I’d never seen it.  Till then.  It was alarming.
“How dare you!  I am an important person!” He yelled.  “How dare you think you know anything!  How dare you think you know better than me!”  He didn’t know that the rage he felt in that moment was nothing compared to the rage building up in me all my life– rage I’d swallowed back like bile until Easter Eve 2003.
My mother sobbed and ran outside, locking herself in the car.  Dad went back to his bedroom and shut the door.  I felt like a scolded child.  Truth was always forbidden in my family.  You smile when you feel like screaming.  You laugh when you feel like crying.
I felt shaken to the core.  But also liberated.
Easter morning I went ahead with worship, and we all pretended the night before had never happened.  We never spoke of it.  But I was different.  It was a beginning for me– the first step in standing up, telling the truth, refusing to be ignored.
It was terrifying.
In May I drove down to Messiah College and met Reta.  We spoke for a few hours.  Talk was easy and good.  She felt the stirrings of something holy having brought us together too.  She suggested things for me to read.  She told me about the magazine that she’d been a part of for many years, the “greatest hits” of which was in the book that I’d discovered at Border’s.  She loaded me down with many, many issues which I would read hungrily.
I had no idea that a bigger explosion was about to happen.  I had no idea that a challenge that I could never have imagined was about to fall into our lives that would further disrupt our hearts and souls.  Everything felt brand new, liberating, exciting.  But I could not have realized that it was also the beginning of the end of my pastoral ministry.

 

 

Singing in the Dark

experiencing-gods-presence-in-the-midst-of-darkness

“You need help.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We love you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Mountaintop Experience

LW

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

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

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

Silly me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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