Friends in Low Places

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I always had the idea, it seems, that I had to be punished for something.  Or that I couldn’t have good things.  In any situation, I was supposed to choose the hardest thing possible.  When Tex and I talked about what ministry setting I would undertake after I left Conestoga, I had a choice between a shelter for abused women in Kansas City, or assisting Larry at his church in Ceresco.

“What’s the problem here?” Tex looked at me, confused.

“Oh, can I work with Larry?”

“Of course!”

Oh.  Didn’t I have to suffer?  Didn’t I have to do the sacrificial thing?  The hardest thing?  Wasn’t working with Larry too… good?  

I officially became Larry’s student assistant at Ceresco and Valparaiso UMCs.  My duties would include assisting him in worship every Sunday, preaching once a month, and starting a choir at Ceresco.

It was a gift of grace.  A chance to recover and heal.  The congregations were thrilled to have me in an official capacity.  They were so kind to us. After all the pain from Echelon Hills, it felt so good to be embraced as a couple.  No ghosts or mean people lurking in the shadows.

When we came back from our honeymoon that summer, we were invited over to dinner with other couples at someone’s house.  After dinner, a bunch of other parishioners pulled into the driveway, honking their horns and cheering.  We were gently escorted to a pick-up truck that led the parade into the tiny town of Ceresco.  All of the cars and trucks honked their horns as we all waved to people on the streets.

I had no idea what was going on.

We ended up at the church, where many more people were gathered.  There were decorations in the fellowship hall, and a table full of presents and … groceries.

We were presented with various foods, mostly canned things from people’s gardens, fresh baked goods, etc.  I was informed that the event was called a Pounding.  It was a traditional event that small rural towns held for newlyweds, to celebrate their marriage and fill their cupboards with food.  So we were given a pound of this and a pound of that…

I was falling deeper and deeper in love with Nebraska.

When people back East asked me how it was going at Saint Paul, I told them that it was like I’d been curled up in a small, dark, closet and someone opened the door.  I could breathe.

My perspective on humankind had been very narrow to that point.  I didn’t know anything else.  Messiah College certainly didn’t challenge my thinking, except to make it even narrower.  My father ingrained his psychology into me, perhaps as a last ditch effort to make one of his children his protege.  I wanted to please him.  So I ate it all up.  I majored in psychology.  I thought his thoughts, talked his words.  Used his books to write college papers.

To Rollo, we are all determined by the first three years of our lives.  How we were treated and how we responded to our mother was foundational.  This included how well we did at potty training.  My father believes that a child’s personality is formed in those three years and the basis of it cannot change.  We all have romantic/sexual impulses toward the parent of the opposite sex and display jealous behavior toward the parent of the opposite sex.  Everyone, regardless of gender or culture or anything else, are all shaped by these same basic forces.

Any personality anomalies were always the fault of the mother.  Though I took on his thinking for the most part, I did suspect that the father had a hell of a lot to do with traumas too.  At least that was my experience.

My father believes he remembers his birth and that it, like any birth, was traumatic.  Being in that warm, cozy place, and then being forced out into the cold, bright world is part of all of our shared birth traumas.  Much of our lives is a desperate but of course futile attempt to get back to the womb.

That’s the gist of all the lectures I endured at Rollo’s dinner table.

During my first semester at SPST, Gene advised me to take a class with Tex called “Power.”  Tex is a sociologist, and was the professor of Church and Society.  The class was about the different forms of power in our society, how that plays out in humans and societies, and most importantly, the Church.  There was no question about taking the class.  I wanted to take as many classes as I could with both Gene and Tex.  The Brookhaven, Mississippi connection was a strange serendipity that seemed much more significant than mere coincidence.

“How the hell have you heard of Brookhaven??”

Tex’s classes felt like community.  And that was one of his goals.  Class participation was a very important part of our grade, but he and the other professors also believed it was an important part of our learning to be leaders of the church community.  We were challenged to think, to back up our thinking.  At Drew, I just had to read and spit back what I read without fully processing it.

I grew up on country music.  My Mom was always playing country stations on the kitchen radio, so I grew up hearing Johnny Cash, George Jones, Hank Williams, etc.  I can still hear my Mom singing, “Hey-hey, Good-Lookin’, wha-a-at you got cookin’….”  I liked Kenny Rogers and Johnny Cash myself, but by the time I got to seminary, I hadn’t caught up with the whole ’90s Country thing.  I had too much else going on.

Well, country music is a big part of Tex Sample, of course, from a sociological perspective.  He loved it, but he also saw it as the Gospel music of the blue-collar community, the soul music for white people.  A theme of Tex’s classes was Friends in Low Places by Garth Brooks, with the assumption that Jesus, the author of our church ministries, is a friend to people in low places.  Tex’s theology and practice of ministry, much like that of St. Paul ST’s, involved Jesus being the minister to the poor, the down-trodden, the “least of these.”  It wasn’t all just believing in Jesus so you get to heaven, but that we have a responsibility as Christians and the Church to be Jesus in the world.  To do social justice and ministry.  And of course, John Wesley would have agreed.

Every once in a while, someone would burst out singing Garth’s signature song or Tex would play it.  It was a … thing… at St. Paul.  I learned to love Garth Brooks among everything else.

Tex is a preacher and a teacher.  When he taught, he was all over the room, gesturing, expressing, telling stories.  He used stories of his crazy family members in Mississippi to illustrate his points.  His storytelling abilities reminded me so much of my brother Don.  Tex had us laughing so hard we cried.  And then within the same hour, he had us with tears in our eyes for other reasons.  He was dramatic, passionate, and all of it stemmed from his own deep commitment to Jesus Christ and the Church.

I was in awe.

I was a sponge in that class.  I laughed hysterically.  I cried.  Lectures felt like really good sermons that made you want to go out and be a better person and buy lunch for the next homeless person you see.  When I left classes, I always called Larry and told him all about it.  I was so wound up!  I wanted to change the world!  I wanted to preach the Gospel!  I wanted to get people to get off of their butts and reach out to the least of these in every community.

I was shaken to my core, too.  Tex described the world and humanity in completely different ways than Rollo.  It felt like doors were bursting open all over inside of me, letting in intense light and pulling me outside of myself.  I was often breathless, but not so much from anxiety as excitement.  Life!  The world was suddenly so much bigger than I’d previously thought.  People were so much more complex than I’d thought.

People were not all the same.  We were not all formed the same way.  First of all, I had permission to truly realize how different I am from my father just for being female– and that I wasn’t inferior.  I had a whole different perspective simply because of my gender.  Hell, I don’t remember being born, but if I did, what I was feeling was like I was being born again.  So how could birth be traumatic?  It was full of so many possibilities and wonder.  I was being changed.  I felt like I was being set free.

In Biblical terms, scales were falling off of my eyes and I could see in a whole new way.

…And it scared the livin’ hell out of me.

I realized how safe my father’s thought processes were.  They kept the world small and manageable for him.  People were this and that, good or bad, male or female, etc.  There were so many days I went back to my apartment, called Larry… and sobbed.  Sometimes it was like throwing up a lot of pain.  But a good bit of those soul-cleansing tears were … joy. Like literally being unbound.  To think, to feel, to wonder, to question… and get excited about ideas and answers and the diversity of the world.

I was exhausted.  The text we used for class was a particularly dense, sterile scholarly work, and my classmates complained daily about its difficulty.  We had to outline each chapter and hand those in for each reading assignment.  I did the best I could, but it was daunting material.

One day, toward the end of the semester, Tex asked me into his office after class.  He said he really appreciated my outlines, and they showed that I had a good grasp of the material.  (Really??)

“Has Gene asked you to work for him next semester?” Tex asked me.

Well, yes, Gene had asked me to be his student assistant at a lunch we recently had with his wife Sarah and Larry.  I’d just about lost my lunch that day.  I was still so starry-eyed with these men that it wouldn’t have been any more exciting if Johnny Cash himself had asked me to dinner.

“Yes.”

“Damn!” Tex punched the air, toward the floor.  “I knew he’d get to you before I could.”  I sat there and grinned like a fool.  I couldn’t believe this.

“Would you be willing to work for both of us?”

Um, let me think.

“Of course!” I said all too calmly, but inside I  thought I was going to throw up. I was feeling like that a lot those days.

As Tex’s student assistant, I would read and outline books he wanted to use for sources in the writing of his own books.  I also transcribed recorded interviews some of his previous students had done with what Tex called “hard-livin’ folks.”  He said he really appreciated my work and my summaries of what I read, that that would be really helpful to him.

My face hurt from smiling so much.

I’d thought I was stupid.  Simple.  “Just a woman.”  Even the Carl Michalson scholarship at Drew didn’t convince me I had any brains or gifts.  But these two men, both scholars, professors and well-known authorities on preaching and ministry–liked me.  They thought I had gifts for ministry.  They thought I was smart.  They both traveled all over the U.S. preaching, doing lectures and seminars across denominations.  They both published several books.

The first time I had to preach in front of Gene, I was so dizzy and sick with anxiety I didn’t think I’d survive it. Despite that, it went well.  I, of course, wanted him to be speechless with wonder.  Be astounded at my gift.  Never mind that I came to learn more about preaching from him and be better at it.  I wanted him to crown me a worthy protege.  I wanted him to say something like, “Now I see that God has indeed brought us together…”

That didn’t happen.  Gene is very introverted and not as expressive out of the pulpit as he is inside it.  He was positive about the sermon and delivery and gave me some feedback about what needed improving.   He was mostly positive, but he wasn’t “blown away” as I’d secretly hoped.  Despite this, I felt like Ray in Field of Dreams when he first got on the mound to pitch to Joe Jackson.  He said, “I’m pitching to Shoeless Joe Jackson…”

Before I began my first sermon for Gene, I thought, I’m preaching for Eugene Lowry… 

Whoa.

I basked in the community of SPST.  I loved the noon meals, the sharing of prayer concerns, the mixture of students and faculty around the tables.  Most days, I stopped to look out at the city skyline of Kansas City and wonder, how did I get here? 

It all seemed too miraculous for little ol’ me.  At the same time, I was terrified something would take it all away from me.  I didn’t think I deserved all this magic.  This affirmation.  This excitement.  Every week I drove my Ford F150 5-speed with a stick on the floor the four hours to Kansas City.  I listened to all ’90s country on the radio during the trip.  When I returned to Cereso on Fridays, Larry would have a hot supper ready for me.  Then we’d go to the church for choir practice.

I don’t play the piano.  But I do sing.  I got someone to accompany us on the piano, as I figured out how to get this group of parishioners to be a choir.  We started off with hymns.  I had them all watch Sister Act as a group. We had fun times of fellowship.  I did my best conducting them in worship, trying to look like I knew what I was doing.

My preaching at Ceresco grew as I came home passionate and excited about all that I was learning in KC.  My thoughts were challenged, stretched, impassioned.  People continued to respond favorably to my preaching, and the choir was a hit.  I was recovering from my months in Conestoga, my call to ministry beginning to heal.

My marriage continued to be a source of shelter, hope and love.  Larry and I thrived on being partners in ministry as well as in life.  It felt right.  It all felt so right. And good.

We were able to get Gene to come to Ceresco and do his Jazz and Christianity lecture/concert and to preach for worship.  I was so excited to share him with the congregation that had welcomed us so warmly and loved us.  I’ll never forget that Sunday morning, Larry walked behind us.  Gene and I, both in our clerical robes, processed in at the start of worship.  Walking beside him in worship in our robes, felt so significant.  Like we were … colleagues. That whole time in seminary and in Ceresco felt like dreams kept coming true.  That such things were possible, even for me.

Despite all that, my ordination interviews loomed ahead in January of 1992.  I still didn’t know many folks in the Nebraska Conference, except the ones I met during the Conestoga debacle.  I remembered Carol saying that whole experience could reflect badly on me for ordination.  In the weeks leading up to the interviews, I had the packet of questions, essays, etc. that I had to fill out.  I had scores of pages I had to write in answer to the questions in the Book of Discipline.  Writing was my forte.  But I was afraid that somehow I was yet to be punished for unnamed sins.  I couldn’t have it this good.  Perhaps, I thought, it would all fall apart when I came to apply for ordination.

I really expected them to tell me to forget the whole thing and go home.

 

Goin’ To Kansas City

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The folks at Echelon Hills UMC wished me well, and sent me off with prayers and good wishes.  I felt conflicted that they had been kept in the dark, but Robert still hadn’t told them about Larry’s divorce.  They worried about me, knowing that I would be driving my little Dodge Colt with a UHaul trailer from New Jersey to KC alone.  Of course, I wouldn’t be alone.  Larry was flying out to spend Christmas with me and my parents and would accompany me on the cross-country trek, amid warnings of snow and ice.

My first semester at St. Paul School of Theology in KC, MO was a rollercoaster of emotions.  My anxiety level was through the roof.  I had grown up with the idea that I didn’t deserve good things– I mean really good things– so if really good things happened to me, they were as stressful to me as bad things.  I felt sure I’d be punished.  The biggest thing that affirmed this to me in a way that took root in my spirit was Sandie’s death in 1984.  She was such a powerful presence of love and grace in my life, an intense infusion of love and belief that I was worthy of love.  And she was gone.  For years, I think I blamed myself.  She was too good.  Her impact on me was more than I deserved.  She had to be stopped.

And in 1991, I was knocked over in love with Larry, a recent divorcee.  People in Echelon Hills didn’t know he was divorced until the gossip mill started leaking it around the time I left.  When Robert announced to them in January 1991 that Larry and I were engaged, well, they assumed the worst.  Suddenly all their good will toward me was destroyed.

Thank you, Robert.

The adventure of truly feeling like God was leading me–literally PUSHING me– out west to a place I couldn’t find on a U.S. map was emotionally overwhelming.  The opportunity to study with Gene Lowry, one of the top authorities in the current field of preaching, and Tex Sample– blew me away.  The sense of community and Midwest hospitality of the seminary was so inviting and gracious… I was sure I would be punished somehow.  I didn’t deserve this.  This was way too much grace.  I was bad.  Maybe the people of Echelon Hills was right.  I was a fraud.

Meanwhile, my District Superintendent in New Jersey had called me into his office to wish me well and pray with me for my journey to the Midwest.  He was very pastoral and gracious.  He seemed to believe me that God was pushing and leading me out west, because otherwise I’d never have the guts to take such a risk.  Robert later told me that he’d called Robert soon afterwards and said, “I think she’s a fool to be giving up Drew University just to chase some guy with a beard.”  He meant Lowry.

Maybe they were right.  Maybe I was a fool.

My parents didn’t understand all this talk about God’s leading either.  How could I give up the prestige of Drew University Theological School to go to a “lesser” school?  They made no bones about telling me they thought I was making a huge mistake.

I moved into my apartment on campus at the end of January.  I was terrified.  It was all becoming too real.  When Larry left, I felt so alone.  He lived six hours away in Osmond, Nebraska.  I knew no one.  I knew Lowry and Sample only politely.  Lowry confessed years later that he was also nervous about my move to St. Paul, thinking that if I did in fact feel like I’d made a mistake, he’d be partly responsible.

In the meantime, I sat in the middle of my apartment floor that first day and wondered what I’d done.  How did I get there?

My first class was a preaching class with none other than Gene Lowry, 8:00 a.m. on a Monday morning.  This was it.  He’d been larger than life in the pulpits and stages on which I’d seen him.  He’d turned my life upside down with his words.  The power of it all took my breath away.

The class was in a small classroom around a conference table.  There were about ten of us students.  I wore my “Carpe Diem” sweatshirt– it felt fitting for the moment.

My palms were so sweaty and I tried to settle into my seat at the table without showing my anxiety.  I chatted with the students near me, making introductions.  Then he came in.

Gene came in, carrying the text for the class and a couple of folders which he threw on the table.  My heart started racing.  He didn’t look directly at me as we went through the syllabus and the text, all the preliminaries of the first day of class.

Afterwards, I went back to my apartment, called Larry and sobbed.

“I don’t think I can do this!” I confessed to him.  I was starstruck.  How could I be worthy of this?  I wanted Gene to like me.  No, I wanted him to be impressed with me.  I wanted to be his friend.  I had a lot of lofty expectations.  It was way too overwhelming.  As Larry is so good at doing, he talked me down from my anxiety attack and assured me that I’d just done a huge thing.  Of course it was overwhelming.  I felt better after we hung up.  I washed my face and took a deep breath.  And a nap.

A huge disillusionment was the realization that many of the students at St. Paul were not as in awe of Gene as I was.  (“A prophet is without honor in his own hometown”?)

“Oh God, he’s mean,” said one of my neighbors.

“He’s much too difficult, really demanding,” another said.

They didn’t understand why I would come all this way to study with Lowry.  They were intrigued with my story except for that part.

What had I done?

St. Paul’s was very different than Drew.  At Drew, I’d made straight A’s reading the material and spitting the information back out.  St. Paul even had a different grading system.  Not A’s and B’s, but E (Excellent), G (Good), S (Satisfactory) and U (Unsatisfactory–an F, basically.  The intent was to take the focus off the grade itself and to grade according to how well we interacted with what we were learning.  They graded us not only on how well we learned the material, but how we engaged it.  We had to think for ourselves!  We had to interact with it all and say how it applied to church ministry.  St. Paul didn’t want us to just learn for the sake of learning, but to learn for the sake of doing ministry.  Which is one reason why I was attracted to it.

But I didn’t know how to think for myself.

My father didn’t raise me to think for myself.  He wanted me to think like him.  He wanted me to just take in everything he lectured me on as pure gospel.  Freud, Jung, Rogers, Maslow, Tillich.  To him it was all indisputable Truth.  When I expressed my own thoughts or opinions, he laughed at me.  I wasn’t smart enough to know any better.  I was just a woman and to my father, women were not as intelligent as men.  We were “too emotional,” “too sensitive” and we were prone to hysteria.

I was convinced I was stupid.  Despite my straight A’s at Drew University, the top scholarship and the respect I’d gained there.  None of it was enough to impress Rollo.

I was terrified.  I didn’t participate in class discussions because I felt too stupid to have anything worthwhile to say.  However, class participation was imperative to my grade.  I felt like I had something to prove to my parents and all the skeptics back home; that I hadn’t made a mistake, that I knew what I was doing, and I was not a fool.

But I was not going to be as academically successful at St. Paul as I had been at Drew.  I wasn’t going to get all E’s.  And if I didn’t, then I’d made a big mistake.

Every day, every class, threw me into a panic.

Then one day I got a letter from a parishioner at Echelon Hills.  She’d just heard about my engagement to Larry.  She was furious.  She accused me of being a home-wrecker, a fraud, and a whore.  She said I had betrayed Robert’s “good faith” and put him in an awkward position. (If she only knew)  She went on and on, calling me all kinds of names, saying that the church had trusted me with “their youth” and clearly I was not a good example or role model.  The letter was inflammatory and full of all the rage she could dish out.  Which was a lot.

I was devastated.  I didn’t have enough self-esteem to be angry and offended.  It affirmed all of my worst fears about myself; that I was a fool, that my faith wasn’t real, that I was stupid and selfish, that I was worthless.  That I didn’t deserve Larry’s love or Gene’s friendship or anything good.

I was still reeling from the letter, wiping the tears and blowing my nose, when my mother called.  She was bright and cheery, making conversation.  She didn’t ask how things were going.  She didn’t ask if I was homesick or what my classes were like.  She did say, “Well, we expect you to do even better at St. Paul’s, since it’s an easier school than Drew!”

How could I do “even better” than straight A’s and a top scholarship??  It was like a lead pipe to my gut.  I folded over on the floor, my head on my knees as I just answered her with “yes, uh-huh, ok, see ya, love you too.”

I dissolved into tears for the second time that afternoon.  Then I got mad.  I was going to disappoint my parents.  I would not  make top grades at St. Paul.  It was impossible for me.  I didn’t know how to think my own thoughts, to question experts, to trust my own mind.  I would not make E’s, I could not.  And therefore I would fail.  G’s were the equivalent of B+’s, but anything less than an E, the top grade, would not be enough to prove I hadn’t done an impetuous thing going to KC.

Then, something snapped.  I got mad.  Really mad.  Mad at the snobs at Drew who thought no other seminary was as good as theirs.  Mad at the D.S. who was pastoral and kind to my face, even praying with me, but telling Robert I’d made a big mistake.  And I was mad at my mother for setting me up to disappoint her and my father, to fail in their eyes.  And I was mad at God– because why not?– for getting me into all this.  I wasn’t strong enough to do this, to make such a huge leap of faith– a 1500-mile leap of faith!

I threw things.  I stomped around the apartment.  I punched the couch.  I grabbed the portrait of my parents and the portrait of my whole family, and threw them both on the floor.  I stomped on the glass frames with the heel of my boots.  Stomped.  Again and again and again, till the glass was shattered into mostly tiny pieces.

In the midst of the rage, I was sobbing as well.  I was a failure, I thought.  Just a naive, too-sensitive, starry-eyed  girl.  There was no way, in my mind, that I could succeed.  No way.  Exhausted, I picked up the frames and carried them to the trash. As I started to throw them away, I noticed there were a few larger fragments of glass.  I picked up one of those shards with my right hand.  It was very sharp.  And I thought, I could end this now.  All this failure. All this stupidity.  All this disappointment.  

God, I hated blood.  But I stared at the sharp piece of glass and looked out my window at the campus.  I started shaking.  Why won’t you like me?

I turned the shard over and over in my hand, my left hand still holding the shattered frame of my parent’s portrait.  Their faces were smiling  brightly beneath the brokenness.  I moved the glass shard closer to my left wrist.

But then it came to me.  That morning, at my 8:00 am preaching class with Gene, he’d been shaken.  He had just found out that one of his students from another class had died suddenly of a heart attack.  Someone he’d had in class for two years already.  He stumbled through our class, often losing his train of thought.  When class was over, he started to leave, but he turned around and looked at all of us.

“Please don’t die,” he said.  His eyes were sad.  “Don’t die.”  And he turned back toward the hallway and disappeared.  It was the first time I’d seen his human side.  His vulnerable side.  His non-celebrity side.  It’d touched me, assured me.

Please don’t die.  

Shit.  I threw the glass shard into the trash, along with the pictures.  I leaned against the wall by the window and cried some more.

There was a knock at the door.  I quickly washed my face and wiped it off with a dish towel.  I knew my nose and eyes were still red, but, oh well.  I ran my fingers through my hair and opened the door.

It was Erwin, an older second-career student who lived just beneath me.  He held an open book from one of Theology classes.  Erwin was a gentle soul in a large round body and a big gray beard.

He looked right into my eyes.  “Peggy, I just had a question about something in our reading for Thursday.  I just wanted your opinion on what he’s saying here,” Erwin pointed to a paragraph  in the text.  I read through it, and the meaning was pretty clear.  I knew this wasn’t about the text.

I gave a summary of what I thought the author was saying.

Erwin looked down at the book.  “Yeah, that’s what I thought, thanks.”  He looked up at me.  “You doing ok?”

Surely he’d heard all the noise of breaking glass and stomping boots.  The walls and floors were very thin. But I appreciated his checking on me.

I smiled.  “Yes, thanks.”

He nodded.  “Well, if you need anything, you know where I live!”  He clapped the book shut and left.

I sat down on the couch.  I breathed in and out.  Please don’t die.  I let out a big sigh.

I was not a fool.  I wouldn’t just move halfway across the country to chase after a “celebrity.”  I wouldn’t give up a full tuition scholarship on a whim.  I wouldn’t leave a place where I’d earned respect and esteem for nothing.  I wasn’t that brave.  And I wasn’t that stupid.

Deep in my gut, my soul, my heart… I believed God was turning my life upside down and saying “Go.” Go.  Go forward.  Get out of the backyard.  Seek Life. Seek New.  

It had been breathless, exciting, terrifying, mind-boggling.  Holy.  Life-changing.

I could not have done it if I hadn’t believed God was behind it all.  I wasn’t that brave.

I hugged a pillow and called Larry.

 

Wide Open Spaces

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“Welcome to God’s country!” Gene Lowry greeted me, reaching out for a side hug.  I’d flown into Kansas City, Missouri to visit the campus of St. Paul School of Theology.

Larry had picked me up from the airport on Friday, and drove me north to Nebraska where I’d stay with his church treasurer for the weekend and preach at his church in Osmond, Nebraska (pop. 774), before he drove me back to Kansas City on Monday for my visit.

I don’t know what I was expecting when I landed in the Middle.

“Wow, they have tall buildings and everything,” I mused as we drove out of the parking lot at the airport.  Larry smiled.

“Yeah, it’s a real city.”

However, as we drove beyond the city limits and closer to Nebraska, the land flattened out and the trees grew more sparse.  The sky formed a dome over the earth and you could see the sky to the right, the left, in front of you and behind.  I’d spent my entire life to that point in New Jersey, with traffic, buildings, and trees.

About halfway through the trip north, I started hyperventilating.  My body was responding to something that I couldn’t put into words, but suddenly the anxiety was overwhelming.  I couldn’t breathe, my hands were cold and clammy.  I panicked.

Larry pulled the car over to the shoulder and held me.  He dug out a fast food paper bag from the back seat and instructed me to breathe into it.  An officer pulled up behind us.

“Everything ok here?” He asked into the open window.

“Yeah,” Larry assured him, “she just isn’t feeling well.”

I’d had panic attacks before.  In the middle of the night when I lived alone in Collingswood, thinking I was having a heart attack and they’d find me dead in the morning.  Or on choir tour with Lester, when he’d wanted me to play guitar from memory.  Or the night before I moved into my own apartment in Woodbury, and Mom had taken me to the ER where they injected me with something that made me sleep for 24 hours.

It was usually in the middle of the night.  Not in broad daylight.  But something about the wide open spaces around me triggered terror in me.  There was nothing around me or above me to protect me… from what?  I didn’t know.  I felt exposed.  I had the irrational fear that if something bad were to happen– like a physical emergency– there was nowhere to go.  Just miles and miles of wide open… space.

Larry talked to me gently, never questioning my sanity or reaction.  He made me concentrate on breathing into the bag until I calmed down.  It worked.  He had an incredibly calming effect on me, and the longer our relationship went on, the anxiety attacks eventually disappeared altogether.

Larry’s congregation in Osmond was thrilled to meet the “pastor’s girlfriend.”  They were  kind and welcoming to me immediately.  I was instantly immersed in the unique hospitality of small town Nebraska.  They acted as if they already loved me.  We walked downtown to the post office and people greeted us all along the way.  Larry had an account at the grocery store where he could put groceries on his “tab,” trusted to pay later.  Later, I spoke to my mother and told her Osmond reminded me a little bit of Mississippi.

She laughed. “Brookhaven’s has about two or three times as many people!”  She couldn’t imagine a town with fewer than 1,000 people.  Well, neither could I.  But I liked it.  I liked the familiarity among people.  The friendliness.  I appreciated the congregation’s joy over Larry having a “girlfriend.”  They were very kind and appreciative of my preaching on Sunday.

I liked Nebraska.  I told my closest friends that it felt like “coming home to a place I’d never been before…” (John Denver, Rocky Mountain High.)

Gene Lowry was a lot less intimidating on his own turf.  He wore an open-necked shirt and sweater as he embraced me before the noon meal at St. Paul’s that Monday.  We’d had a good visit back in Princeton, New Jersey, and he realized from that conversation, I guess, that I wasn’t some flighty fan-girl.  That I was serious about wanting to come study with him. I’d assured him that I wanted to check out the school to make sure that it was as good as he was.   He was a kind and enthusiastic host, setting me up to visit classes he thought would interest me.

Lunch at St. Paul was served in a large dining hall, with people seated around large round tables.  The food was served family style.  There was a prayer said before the meal, an open mic to share prayer concerns, and a singing of a hymn.  That day we sang, Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.  I mused that we’d never have sung that at Drew, it was too “evangelical.”  As I sat at my table, with a couple of professors, some office people and some students, my eyes teared up.  Is this heaven?  

No, it’s Kansas City.

At Drew, there was a definite sense of who was important and who was not.  The professors did not dine with students and many of them didn’t even live in New Jersey, but commuted in from various other locations to bless us with their presence.  There was no sense of community.  We were all competing with each other.  One day our classmates may be our bosses, our District Superintendents.  We didn’t trust each other.  If you mentioned personal faith or a sense of God’s Spirit guiding you, you were labeled.  “Evangelical.” “Conservative.”  “One of Those.”

After lunch, I sat in the admissions office, talking to the office manager there until it was time to go to my first class visit.  I was anxiously waiting for a chance to meet Tex Sample, the church and society professor.  Larry had one of his books and had met him years earlier at a conference retreat.  He’d been very impressed with Tex, and I’d read on the back of his book that he was from Mississippi.  Go figure.  It was another one of those weird “coincidences.”  I was hoping to get to ask him where in Mississippi…

The day before my trip west, Robert called me into his office at the church.  He’d just been away at a Conference in Texas, put on by the denomination.  It was a Church Growth Conference, and there’d been many presenters and speakers from around the United Methodist Church.  Robert was a die-hard faithful Drew alumni.  He was on various boards and promoted Drew wherever and however he could.  I knew he was troubled by my looking elsewhere, especially when it would mean my giving up the prestigious Carl Michalson scholarship.

He started talking before I had a chance to sit down.  He handed me a hymnal and bible, each with the logo of the Conference etched on the front.  “A gift,” he said.  I thanked him.  He sat back in his chair and looked down at his entwined fingers.  He let out a deep sigh.

“You know I’ve not been altogether supportive of you transferring out of Drew and leaving us here at Echelon Hills.”  He shook his head.  “But there was a presenter there at the conference, a Dr. Tex Sample.”  He paused.

“Oh yeah!  I’ve heard of him!  Larry met him…”

“Yeah, well, he was incredible.  The way he engaged us, the amount of research he’s done, his presentation, and how it all was so relevant to the Church today.  God, he was funny!”  Robert laughed.  He looked directly at me.  “My point is, there are no professors at Drew that come close to that guy.  If were 25 years younger and had the opportunity to study with the likes of him and Lowry…” he sighed and shook his head.  “I’d go for it.”

Wow, another miracle.  I didn’t need Robert’s approval, but I didn’t want to hurt him.  Despite everything else, he was a good mentor.  I wouldn’t have known the basics if I hadn’t worked with him.  With all my A’s at Drew, I would have been wholly unprepared for church ministry.

After lunch, I was sent to Tex Sample’s office.  I’d met him briefly while in the admissions office, when he stopped by to tease the secretary.  He wore blue jeans and an open-necked shirt.  He spoke with a thick Mississippi accent, and when we were introduced, he chuckled.

“Oh yeah, you’re enamored with that rascal Gene Lowry.  Oh well, you’ll get over it,” he winked.  “I’ll see you later.”

“Don’t listen to him,” Betty the secretary assured me.  “He and Gene have been best friends for 20 years.”

Later, I nervously made my way to Tex’s office.  The door was open, and I peeked in.  Three of his walls were lined with books.  It was a pretty small space, but he had lots of pictures and various memorabilia here and there.

“Hey you, c’mon in,” he said, getting up.  He had a baseball bat in his hands.  He motioned for me to sit while he continued standing.  He swung the bat around, which added to my nervousness, since it was a very small space.  “So, tell me, why do you like Gene so much?”  He grinned.

I gave him a short version of my call story, and the strange, unfolding journey to the Midwest.  He nodded, swinging his bat as he listened.

“So I wanted to ask you…where in Mississippi are you from?”  I was still very shy, intimidated, but his familiar way of communicating and his bat-swinging made me think he was just a regular guy under all the published books, fame across the United Methodist Church and speaking tours.

He chuckled and leaned the bat up against the wall, sitting down across from me.  “It’s a tiny place in the southern part that no one’s ever heard of.  Brookhaven.”

Oh my God.  I flushed a bit.  This was all so weird.  “I’ve heard of Brookhaven,” I said quietly.

He leaned forward with his hands on his knees.  “How the hell have you heard of Brookhaven?”  He was genuinely astonished.

I laughed, a bit breathless from all the continuing connections.

“My mother grew up there.”

His mouth dropped open.  All politeness gone.  “Who the hell is your mother?”

I laughed again.  This was fun.  “She’s a Calcote.  Her father was Boyd Calcote.”

His mouth still hung open.  “Hell, I know the Calcotes!  Yeah, I knew who your grandfather was.  Huh!”  He stared at me.  I just smiled.  This was all so wonderfully weird and serendipitous.

We talked for a while longer, and he’d known some of my uncles, never met my mother.  She’d gone to the country school, Loyd Star, and he’d gone to Brookhaven High.

I attended a class that he taught that afternoon, where he introduced me as “a big fan of Gene Lowry” and passed out Babe Ruth candy bars to all of us.  It was a small, interactive class.  Tex taught in the Church and Society department, so his classes often involved students going out into the city and engaging people of various walks of life.  He was particularly interested in people on the fringes of society and how the church could reach such people.

Gene and his wife Sarah took me out to dinner at the Hereford House downtown.  They wanted to hear all about my day, and I was so excited and breathless I could hardly eat.  Sarah reached over and took my steak, putting it in a to-go box when I hardly touched it.  I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I’d heard Gene preach, and both of those times my life had changed.  Both times I felt propelled out into the unknown, carried along by the Spirit, as pieces of this mysterious puzzle fell into place.  I’d never experienced anything like it.  But there was no room for doubt either time.  It was like God had to make it all so convincing that I couldn’t turn away.  I was a bit dizzy from it all.

I was still in awe of Gene and a little afraid of him, despite his being so down-to-earth, so… Midwestern.  He and Sarah treated me like an old friend, who I saw was who they were.  There was no pretenses.  After supper, they drove me back to the school, as Gene wanted me to attend an integrated course with Tex.  The core classes at St. Paul were classes taught by two different disciplines, usually a theoretical class like Theology and a practical class, like one of Tex’s Church and Society classes.  The intent was to learn the theory, but also to learn how to apply it.  It was the specific complaint I had about Drew.  At Drew I learned how to think, I learned content and spit it back out.  But never were we taught how to apply it.  In fact, much of the time, professors would tell us, “You can’t teach this in the Church.”

Gene and Sarah hugged me at the door.  “I have a feeling I’ll be seeing you again soon,” Gene said, winking, before he and Sarah got back into the car.

I don’t even remember what the class was that I attended that night, I just remember vividly how it felt.  Tex paced the front of the class as he taught, gesturing and telling stories that applied.  One minute was I was laughing out loud and the next I had tears in my eyes.  At times I literally held my breath.  I was scooped up in the moment, again, in awe.  He was passionate, real, full of heart, and also brilliant.  My father always looked down on my mother’s family, calling them “sub-culture.”  He thought they were stupid and backward.  And here was a guy from my mother’s hometown, talking like my mother’s people, and was a brilliant scholar.  To my father, he would have been a walking contradiction.

I had tears in my eyes most of the night as I sat and listened, mesmerized.  I would be a sponge in this man’s classes.  He would give me another view of my mother’s world.  He would challenge me, make me think beyond the narrow boundaries that I’d done previously.  A whole world was opening up to me that night.  I knew I was going to move to Kansas City in January.  I was both terrified and exhilarated.

It felt like a huge gift.  Giving up my scholarship at Drew would prove costly, of course.  But like my falling in love with Larry, nothing ever felt so right.  I was always unsure of my ability to make good decisions, always wracked with self-doubt.  It was like God made it so clear I couldn’t deny it or question it.  I had to just stay on board, hang on tight, and see where the road took me next.  It was a magical time!  It was delicious, other-worldly.  It was Field of Dreams and Dead Poet’s Society and as magical as Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.   Carpe Diem!

It was pure grace.

The next day as I flew back into La Guardia airport, I saw the lights of New York City and New Jersey and I literally started to cry.  I felt homesick.  It felt like I was leaving home instead of returning.

 

 

 

The Voice Comes Back

beachtop

“You hearin’ voices, Ray?”
“No, no, I just heard that some people did and I wanted to know if I was doing something wrong…”
“Ray’s hearin’ voices…”
“No, no, I’m not…”
—-Field of Dreams

Larry and I were walking along the Ocean Grove, New Jersey boardwalk that summer of 1990 on one of his then-monthly trips back from Nebraska.  He would drive all night to get to New Jersey from Nebraska and stay with a friend.  It was a 26 hour drive straight through.  It was love.

That summer day I was still crazy-nervous about my student ministry with Robert, especially during July when Robert was away and I was in charge of a 600-member congregation.  Ocean Grove was my go-to place to run away from stress and walk by the ocean.  So I took Larry there, to be away from Echelon Hills.  And there it was.  A poster advertising the Ocean Grove Annual Camp Meeting in August.

One of the preachers for that week was Dr. Eugene Lowry of Kansas City, Missouri; the scary guy that had preached at Annual Conference the year before and set all this craziness in motion.  There was his face, smiling on a poster.  I hadn’t seen that face in over a year. He was smiling in the picture.  He didn’t look like someone who could change my life without even knowing what he’d done.

He was coming back to New Jersey.  I hadn’t tried to find out where he was exactly or make any effort to let him know that his sermon had sparked my call to ministry that summer before.  Usually I was quick to let people know when they’d touched my life, but this guy was different.  I didn’t know why.  And he was from Missouri.  I didn’t know where Missouri was.  What were the chances I’d see him again?

It  felt like God was nudging me saying, “Here’s your chance.”  

Oh crap.

On August 5, my friend Debbie and I showed up at the Ocean Grove Tabernacle, a huge auditorium used for concerts, camp meetings and worship services.  We got there early and sat close to the front.  That evening, Dr. Lowry was presenting his program on Jazz and Christianity.  The poster had mentioned he was also a professional jazz pianist.

Lowry was dynamic, witty and very engaging, much like I remembered him from the previous year.  The presentation was more informal than a sermon, so he smiled more, made jokes, and wasn’t so intimidating after all.  I liked this guy.  He was a brilliant piano player, and talked about the connecting roots of jazz music and the Christian faith.

I should tell him.  Everybody likes to know that they’ve made a difference, that someone was actually listening.  My heart started pounding as I rehearsed words in my head.

“Good evening, Dr. Lowry, my name is PeggyMichaelandIgotoDrewTheological- Schoolandyouchangedmylife.”  Right.

After the program, there was a reception in a small building off the Tabernacle, with refreshments.  Debbie and I went, casually standing around.  A lot of people came to these camp meetings annually, so many of them knew people from years before.  We did not.  I watched Dr. Lowry and his wife mingle in the small room while I kept trying to get up the nerve to talk to him.  When he approached the table, I nervously went forward and grabbed a cookie.  I was standing right next to him.  He looked at me, nodded.  I started to open my mouth.  Then I closed it.  He smiled and walked away.

I was inwardly thrashing myself.  I decided that I’d come back two nights later when he was preaching.  I’d write a letter before then and give it to him.  After all, that’s what I do best, I thought.  Deb agreed to meet me back at Ocean Grove in two nights.

The letter ended up being 10 pages, single spaced, with reduced font.  I basically told him my life story leading up to his sermon in 1989.  You know, to give context.  The letter was bulky and thick in the envelope when I returned to Ocean Grove on August 7, 1990.

The text of his sermon that night was The Gerasene Demoniac in the Gospel of Mark.  The service was in the smaller auditorium next to the tabernacle.  I was sweating profusely, trembling, short of breath, and my hands were ice cold, as I rehearsed my greeting over and over in my head…

Hi, mynameisPeggyMichaelandIgotoDrewTheologicalSchoolandyouchangedmylife-
here’saletteraboutit.

Oh God.

Lowry read the passage from the Gospel of Mark.  Like I remembered the previous year, he read it with drama, occasionally looking up at us over his reading glasses.  When he was finished, he put the Bible down and slowly removed his reading glasses, taking his time.  He put them in his coat pocket, looking pensive.  He looked up, shaking his head.

“I don’t understand.”  And he began to preach.  He had no notes. He was talking, telling the story, questioning its validity, and questioning Jesus, making us a bit uncomfortable.  He talked about the man whose name was Legion. Legion, because he had an army of demons inside of him, tearing him apart, pulling him in this direction and that direction, making him crazy.  Yeah, I got that.  The more he spoke, the more I forgot for a while the soggy envelope in my hand and what it meant.  I understood what it felt like to feel like you were crazy.  Like there were forces pulling at you in many directions and making you feel crazy.

The people of Gerasene chained him up.  He went on and told the story of how Jesus and his buddies came ashore to Gerasene and the demoniac came out screaming at him, “What have you to do with me, Jesus son of the Most High God, do not torment me!”

I was there.  I listened to every word he said.  I was on that beach with Jesus and his friends.  I was with the towns people who watched this encounter.  I watched Jesus call for the demons to go out of the man and into a flock of pigs, and heard the people scream for Jesus to leave them.  Why weren’t they thrilled that this man among them was healed? Lowry asked, seemingly confused.  The demoniac haunted their nights with his screams, his howling, the rattling of his chains.  They should be happy and throw Jesus a party!

The problem was, Lowry said, they owned the pigs.  His healing cost them their pigs.

Lowry went on to tell the story as the man named Legion wanted to go with Jesus and Jesus told him to go home to his “friends.”  But he had no friends.  No one celebrated his liberation.  They lost out.  And Jesus said, …

I missed it.  I think I realized that the sermon was ending and I started to panic, as I’d have to approach Lowry.  I suddenly had the thought that I could just turn around and give the letter to his wife Sarah who I knew was sitting behind me because he’d introduced her.  Yeah, that’d be easier.

He said the last line again, but I was too busy thinking of my new plan.  After he spoke the last line, Lowry sat down.  No “amen,” no “thanks be to God,” just silence.

I turned to Debbie.  “What did he say?  What was that last line?”

She smiled.  “Go and tell what the Lord has done.”

Oh crap.

I looked down at the envelope, Lowry’s name a bit smudged with the sweat of my hand.  Ohgodohgodohgodohgod. 

As the last hymn drew to a close and the host pastor gave the benediction, my heart speeded up again, and I shifted from one leg to another.  I took a deep breath and moved out of the row of chairs and towards Lowry, who was shaking hands with people up front.  As I got closer to him, there was a break in the line.  He looked right at me and smiled.

You have to understand that in that moment, it was like meeting Garth Brooks or Neil Diamond for me.  He was that significant.  He’d preached a sermon that turned my life upside down and was the catalyst that pushed me far beyond my safe boundaries.  I still didn’t understand it all.  I still woke up most days wondering how I got there.  And I remembered that sermon a year ago.  How it felt to be among 900 people in that room, and this man knew.  He knew what it was like to be me.  He knew what I struggled with.  He spoke to my fears and my darkness.  But of course, he couldn’t know.  He didn’t know me.  The power and the mystery of it all terrified me.

Dr. Lowry extended his hand and smiled.  “Hi,” I said softly, “MynameisPeggyMichael
andIgotoDrewTheologicalSchoolandyoupreachedatAnnualConferenceinSouthern
NewJerseylastyearandthatsermonchangedmylife.”

Lowry chuckled, and put his other hand on my shoulder.  “Wow!”

I handed him the envelope.  “Here, I wrote you a letter about it.”

He looked down at the soggy thick envelope and chuckled again.  He took it and put it in his inside coat pocket and nodded.  “Well,” he said, “I look forward to reading it!  I really wish we had more time to talk.  But hey, I want you to do me a favor.”  He pointed to the woman who’d been sitting behind me earlier. “That’s my wife Sarah. I’d like to introduce yourself to her and tell her what you just told me, would you?”

He wasn’t so scary.  He was kind and friendly.  Warm. My mouth was cotton-dry.  I nodded.

“Thank you,” he said, patting his jacket pocket.  I nodded and concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other.  I approached Sarah and gently touched her on the arm, introducing myself and blurting out my rehearsed line.

“Oh!” she said, as if it was the most exciting thing. “I love Drew!  We know Charles Rice very well, I just love that man,” she said, referring to my preaching professor at Drew.  We chatted a bit, and I was beginning to relax.  Finally, she touched my arm and said, “Hey, if you’re ever in Kansas City, come by and see us.”  I nodded and smiled a bit stupidly.

I had no idea where Kansas City, Missouri was.

I ventured out into the night and found Debbie, who was smiling.  She’d witnessed the whole encounter.

The stress of living in Ruth’s house in Echelon Hills was getting out of hand.  Keeping the secret of what was becoming the most important relationship of my life was torture.  Ruth liked me to sit with her while we watched TV at night, so I did.  I’d listen for my telephone to ring upstairs and run to get it before Larry hung up.  He was the only one that had that number.  One day I put a frozen lasagna into the toaster oven in the kitchen to cook.  I either ate out or got frozen meals because Ruth’s kitchen was just as messy and cluttered as the rest of her house.  After I put in the lasagna, I heard the phone ringing upstairs.  It was Larry.  I was always so relieved to hear from him, as he was the only one in the world I felt I could be completely honest with at that time.  I even went on dates with a guy at church, to keep up the facade of being available.  He really liked me, unfortunately, but I wouldn’t let him kiss me.  On the other side of it, Larry was jealous that I was dating.  But I felt pressure from Robert to keep up the facade.

It was incredibly stressful.

That evening, after a long talk with Larry (whose long-distance bill those months got to be several hundred dollars), I went downstairs.  I’d completely forgotten about the lasagna.  It was burnt to a crisp.  I dumped it in the trash and went out to the hoagie shop in town.

The next morning as I went into the kitchen, Ruth met me with fury.  “How could you throw that lasagna out???  That’s so wasteful!”

“It was burnt,” I said, confused.

“It was still edible!”  She stomped out of the kitchen.  I didn’t think about it again until that afternoon.

Robert called me into his office.  “Uh, Ruth came to the church this morning and was ranting about you to the United Methodist Women’s group.  She said you threw out a perfectly good lasagna.  She pulled it out of the garbage and said she could get two meals out of it.”  He sighed.

That was it, I was looking for somewhere else to live.  I went to women’s meetings and sat threw the women gossiping about Larry and his ex-wife, spreading vicious rumors about both of them.  I had to keep my face passive, as if it didn’t bother me in the least.  I knew some of them were suspicious and that there were also rumors about me going around.

“It’s hard, I know,” said Robert.  “Keeping secrets.  it’s exhausting.”  I didn’t ask him what secrets he kept.  At the time I didn’t question his insistence that I not let anyone know that I was now dating Larry (as much as one can date 1500 miles apart).  There was no going back now.  Since people didn’t even know Larry and his ex-wife were getting a divorce when they left, they wouldn’t understand how he could be in a relationship with me already.  Robert would have to tell them that the divorce happened much sooner than anyone knew and that he’d made Larry keep it a secret until they were gone.

So I went to the post office to get my letters from Larry, hoping the postman wasn’t a member of the church and telling people I had my own P.O. box, not getting my mail at Ruth’s house.  I assumed that Ruth told people I had my own phone line and let people speculate about that.  Juggling it all was exhausting.

Before the new semester, I found a room with a middle-aged woman in South Orange.  She was referred to me by the secretary at Seminary Hall.  She was a professional woman, trying to pay a mortgage.  She was divorced and a former graduate student in Theology at Drew.  She’d changed her name from whatever it was to Mariam.  I was so relieved to be out of Ruth’s house of newspapers that I had no idea that I’d just moved in with Continue reading

Becoming Reverend

alb

Church ministry started off for me with a bang.  Looking back, perhaps I should have sensed then, that ministry would be a wild mix of intense highs and plummeting lows, precious people and very ill people, moments of great holiness and intense dark nights of the soul.

Larry Rush became my best friend in every way.  No one before him “got me” so completely.  But in the spring of 1990 he was graduating and going back to Nebraska.  I didn’t even know where Nebraska was!

During the spring semester, to everyone’s shock, Larry filed for divorce from his first wife.  There’d been a lot more going on under his cool, calm facade than any of us knew.  Even me.  His divorce was upsetting enough, but it also scared the crap out of me.  I knew I loved him.  But beforehand, he was going away and he wasn’t available.  In May of 1990, he was still going away to this mysterious land of Nebraska, but he was single.

I didn’t want to mess with that.  I didn’t want to get tangled up with a divorcee.  In my own black and white thinking, just my love for him was bad enough, but to acknowledge it at that point would have been “really bad.”  I wanted him to go to Nebraska, out of my life, and let me cry.

He didn’t leave quietly.

In his post-filing days that remained in the semester, I was one of the few friends he had left.  Many of his friends judged him harshly; many of whom were having extra-marital affairs or were divorced themselves.  They couldn’t explain their hypocrisy.  So I listened as the “real Larry” came out.  He was the same guy, but wasn’t the one who had it all together as I’d thought.  It only made me love him more.  I was pathetic.  In the meantime, he recruited me to replace him at the Echelon Hills UMC (not the real name) as the student assistant pastor.  We all had to have a student appointment to fulfill our second and third year class requirements.

I interviewed at Echelon Hills and the people were very gracious.  The interview was the day after the David Meece concert, so I was a mess.  But I sucked it up and gave an awesome interview, as if my heart weren’t breaking into a million pieces.  I met Robert (not his name), the senior pastor, earlier on campus at Drew.  I had to pass his inspection before I’d be granted an interview.

Robert was a tall, thin, older man with a pencil-thin mustache.  He carried himself with an air of sophistication.  He looked older than he was, most likely due to his drinking and smoking.  He wore an expensive trench coat. He always had a cigarette in his hand, gesturing frequently, as if he were in a black and white movie.   When Robert walked through the room, he left a cloud of Aramis cologne and cigarette smoke.

I was easily intimidated by people–especially men–in authority, and Robert carried an air of power.  He was very well-respected in what was then the Northern New Jersey Conference, being a member of many several important committees.  Echelon Hills was a respectable appointment.  I learned early in my church career that appointments were not so much about where God was leading you, but where the Bishop appointed you and how it could become a big step to something higher.  The power appointment.  I learned quickly that clergy kept track of who was appointed where, what kind of salaries they made and how many members were in their church.  It was a competition.  One of many disillusionments.

Robert sat through my interview, smoking a cigarette, his smile evident through the cloud.  I’d impressed him.  The best thing I had going for me was my call story.  It carried me through all the necessary steps toward ordination (of which there were many).  It assured me continually, and others, that I was indeed called.  I would begin my duties on June 1, 1990, as the new student assistant pastor at Echelon Hills.

Another feather in my cap going into my first role as a pastor, was at the end of the spring semester I was awarded the Carl Michalson Scholarship for “strong scholarship and great promise for ministry.”  I hadn’t even known that was a thing!  It was a full-tuition scholarship for my second year.  I was blown away.  Each of these steps seemed like affirmation, like a dove out of heaven, of my being where I was supposed to be.  I needed all the “signs” I could get!

Larry stayed in New Jersey for a few more weeks after graduation, to attend Robert’s celebration of his 25 years in ministry in mid-June.  I tried to tell him to just go to Nebraska, go, go, go!  Get healed.  Get counseling.  Get “fixed up.”  But he insisted that he loved me too.  I didn’t want him to love me back.  That complicated my life!  I made a deal with him, that he’d go back to Nebraska and get counseling, deal with his first marriage, and we’d keep in touch.  Emotions, I had learned so well, were so complicated.  Counseling was the answer I’d always been given.  The answer to everything.

Meanwhile, I moved in with a parishioner (bad idea), who had a room to rent.  Ruth was a seemingly benign elderly woman with a big house.  I rented a room upstairs and had the privacy of the upstairs.  The house was very musty and old. The downstairs was filled with stacks and stacks of old newspapers, magazines, and various decorations from a multitude of holidays.  The term “hoarder” had not become a thing yet.  There were literally pathways through her living room to the other downstairs rooms, amid walls of … garbage.  She didn’t throw out anything.

When I met with Robert for the first time since my acceptance as student assistant, in all of my naivete, I told him I was in love with Larry.  His face twitched every so slightly.  I felt I should be honest.  It was then that I realized that Robert had instructed Larry and his wife to keep their divorce a secret from the congregation of Echelon Hills and just leave quietly.  They kept up the facade for the last few months.

The fact of my love for Larry and his love for me presented a problem for Robert.  If the congregation knew that I was in a relationship (very early stages) with Larry, then it would look like I was having an affair with a married man.  That wouldn’t go over well with either them or me.  So Robert instructed me to keep my relationship with Larry a secret from the congregation.  He advised me to get a post office box so my mail didn’t go to Ruth’s house, and to install my own phone line in my rented room, so Larry’s calls wouldn’t go to Ruth’s phone.

I did wonder why he knew so much about keeping secrets.

However, I was so enamored with my first role as pastor, I put all suspicions aside.  Robert was well-liked and respected.  Who was I to find the chinks in his armor?  He must be ok if he was so “successful” in the Conference.  Plus I liked him.  He was kind to me, he was enthusiastic about my gifts for ministry and my ministry at Echelon Hills.  We talked easily and comfortably.

My mother made me my first white alb out of a kit.  Since it was traditional wear in the Northern New Jersey Conference, I bought clergy shirts with the plastic insert in the collar.  The first time I put on that shirt, I stared at myself in the bathroom mirror.  I was to stand in for Robert at a local parade and give the invocation.  I looked ridiculous to myself in the mirror, like a little girl playing dress-up.  I thought for sure everyone was going to see right through me and cry, “imposter!”

That first Sunday that I assisted Robert in worship, I was alone in the church office when I put on my alb.  I could have sworn there was music playing around me and a bit of a brighter light focused on me as I donned the alb.  It felt… significant.  I stood there for a moment in the office, looking down at myself, all dressed in white.  Who was I now?  How did this fit my own perception of myself?  It was like I was officially welcomed as a member in some Club.  I felt taller.  I stood straighter.

As Robert and I prepared to walk into the sanctuary, we stood at the back, waiting for the beginning of the music.  A huge cross on the front wall of the sanctuary loomed over us as we walked the aisle toward the front chancel.  I concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other, staring up at that cross that seemed to welcome me, embrace me and affirm me.  We parted ways in the middle and I went to my seat on the lectern side.  I sat and looked out at the congregation as they sang.  Here we go.

My first sermon was the following Sunday, June 10, during the early service.  I was absolutely terrified.  Public speaking had never been my forte, I was a writer!  I communicated best with the written word.  I could barely breathe.  The passage I preached on was 2 Corinthians 13:5; “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you—unless indeed you fail the test?

My sermon title was “This is Only A Test,” and I used the image of the test sound of the Emergency Broadcast System.  I must say, it was rather clever.  Back then, we’d often hear that sound on TV or on the radio, so it was a very common part of our lives.  I urged people to remember when they hear it next that “this is only a test!”  This too, shall pass, whatever it is.  We are beloved by God, and God will get us through and give us strength.

Though I barely breathed throughout the somewhat short sermon and my mouth was so dry that my lips kept sticking together, it went well.  I’ll never forget one man who shook my hand later and said, “That was your first sermon ever? I can’t wait to hear more!”  I could practically hear the angels singing and feel the dove on my head.

Robert, too, was very proud, and as we “disrobed” in the office.  “You’re called to preach, for sure,” he said.  A couple of elderly women walked by the glass front of the office.  He touched my shoulder and turned me toward them as they talked.  “You see that woman right there?”

“Yeah,” I said, “She was very enthusiastic when she shook my hand! She was very sweet.”

He smiled.  “Well, she was the one who threatened to leave if you were hired, because she said that women ministers are ‘unbiblical.’  You won her over with one sermon, that’s no small feat!”  He playfully punched me in the arm.

I learned a lot from Robert.  I learned a lot of the things that I didn’t learn at Drew, such as how to put together a worship service that flowed.  Or how to have all the elements of the service connect in a theme.  How to do a funeral, put together a newsletter.  When he was gone for four weeks on vacation that next month, I depended on the books of Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopalian preacher, whose books I’d discovered in the seminary bookstore.  She was my example.  She could be described as a narrative preacher, in the same camp, I would later discover, as Gene Lowry– the man whose preaching catapulted me into this adventure.

I depended on the church secretary to write out directions to the various hospitals.  I wondered why so many people stared at me while I tried to figure out the colored lines on the hospital floors that were meant to guide me.  It was only later that I realized I was wearing a priestly collar in a Catholic hospital.

I fell in love with the all aspects of the ministry at Echelon Hills.  I enjoyed hospital visits, and was surprised to often discover tears in the parishioner’s eyes when I was done praying.  Connection.  Holy connection was a surprise gift of my early days of ministry.

I enjoyed putting together sermons.  It called on a skill that was intrinsic to who I’ve always been– a writer.  Narrative preaching felt like the style that I easily fell into.  Worship was a high;  walking into that sanctuary, with the various stained glass windows above me of Jesus looking down at me.  It was as if he were smiling on me.

There was a tradition at Echelon Hills during the second hymn of the service.  People were invited during that hymn to come to the chancel rail for prayer.  The pastors met them there and they whispered their concern and we then prayed for them.  It was a tender, precious moment for me.  Or giving communion, offering the bread and the juice in the cupped hands of the people, felt like a holy gift.  Everything felt so enlivened in me.  As if I had been touched alive again in a way I could never have imagined.  This was me.  This was who I was preparing to be all my life.

Over the coming weeks, Robert and I had lunch meetings and he always paid.  They were always at classy, upscale places.  Very expensive.  They usually lasted a few hours, during which he nursed several double shots of Cutty Sark whiskey.  That concerned me, but who was I to question him?

Other things began to concern me.  Sometimes he’d casually make suggestive remarks about my looks and my body.  When I saw him in the parking lot, he’d catcall.  Before Larry left for Nebraska, he’d advised him to leave me alone.  To not mess up the good thing we had at Echelon Hills.  His exact words were, “Go back to Nebraska and find a nice barefoot farm girl.”

Meanwhile, church members eventually found out about the divorce.  Some of the more catty ones started rumors about him having a nervous breakdown, a midlife crisis, etc.  A mentally challenged woman in the congregation was pregnant and claimed Larry was the father.  Some believed her and spread the rumor.  Robert did nothing to address those rumors.  He feigned ignorance.

I did hear things about Robert from my Southern New Jersey colleagues.  There was knowledge of him having extra marital affairs.  I was increasingly concerned about his drinking, and uncomfortable with his flirtatious remarks.

One day when his father was out of town, Robert’s son, Bob was hanging around my office.  He didn’t hide the fact that he had a crush on me.  He was a rough character with greasy long hair, black heavy metal T-shirts, some piercings, heavy drinking and he bragged about doing drugs.  That day, he told me to follow him.  He had a key to his father’s office, and he let us in.  I wasn’t quite comfortable with this at all, but I felt that I had his trust, that maybe I could help him.  He went over to his father’s desk and opened a bottom drawer.  He held up a flask.

“This is my father’s Sunday morning communion,” he said, laughing.  There’d been times that I thought I smelled alcohol on Robert on Sunday morning, but he also bathed in Aramis.  Bob opened another drawer of his father’s desk.  “And this,” he said, holding up a Playboy magazine, “is his office reading material.”

Bob reveled in the horrified look on my face.  He’d revealed his father’s secrets to me and successfully shocked me.  I always wanted to believe the best about people, often despite the evidence.  Especially people in authority.  I so wanted to believe they were good.

Of course I never mentioned the revelation to Robert, but lost a bit of my respect for him.

In our Supervised Ministry class back at Drew, we were to keep an ongoing journal of our ministries and our reflections.  I shared freely about what I discovered about Robert and my disappointments.  The pastor that was head of our class was furious over my journal, writing things in the margins such as, “Robert is a highly respected and gifted pastor!  How dare you share such lies about him!”  It was my first taste of the hypocrisy and power plays of the church institution, and my first realization, too, that I had to play the games if I wanted to be a part of it.

Robert was a gifted pastor and highly intelligent human being.  He did teach me a lot about ministry in the months that I worked with him.  He was a perfectionist, I soon discovered, to the point of being anal.  His sermons were very educational and informative, but lacked passion.  All of his sentences were complete, full of sophisticated language, and his thoughts were organized.  He didn’t allow anyone else to put together the newsletter, but wrote the whole thing, organized and edited it, only allowing others to photocopy it and assemble it.  I discovered he was very controlling, as I should have known in his handling of my relationship with Larry.

As my relationship with Larry eventually progressed into a real relationship, he denied to parshioners any previous knowledge.  He clearly struggled.  I could see right through him.  He was a good person underneath all that, that sincerely wanted to live a good life, but managed to mess up quite a bit.  I noticed more and more the odor of alcohol on Sunday mornings, the shaking hands when he picked up his drink or lit his cigarette.

It was many years later that we heard from Robert that he’d been confronted, finally, by a District Superintendent and church committee in another church about his drinking.  It had gotten so out of hand, he couldn’t cover or control things any more.  He admitted, finally, that he was an alcoholic, and entered A.A.  He finally overcame his addiction, but not before doing a lot of damage to his body and many friendships, such as ours.

I entered my second year of seminary with a mixed bag of intense emotions. I was high on the wonder of how I was using my gifts and they were being received.  But I was deeply disillusioned by the power plays that I experienced at Drew, from the pastors who knew Robert and warned me to respect him, by the sexual adventures of some of my classmates who would go on to be pastors, and the cruelty of parishioners and classmates in spreading vicious and hurtful rumors.  What happened to the Body of Christ?

And so I kept searching.

Dunkin’ Donuts Immersion

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I grew up with the familiar pink-lettered box from Dunkin’ Donuts.  Getting a dozen on a weekend was a treat.  The donut chain just came to Nebraska in the last few years and only last year came to Kearney.  Before that, whenever we passed through a town in our travels that had a DD’s, we had to stop.  It’s not that I had to gorge on donuts or even that their donuts are the best I’ve ever eaten.  Or that I’m that fond of donuts in general.  But seeing those big pink letters and smelling that sweet mixture of sugar and coffee takes me home. 

Before my mother discovered cholesterol and fat we would pick up a dozen donuts from DD’s fairly regularly.  My favorite has always been the Boston Creme, with the mixture of chocolate on top and Bavarian creme in the middle.  It was fun to go with my father or brother to get a dozen and be a part of picking out the 12 donuts from the myriad of mouth-watering choices.

When we lived in Woodbury, New Jersey, the DD’s was across the railroad tracks in the not-so-nice section of town.  We always went in the daytime, mostly because that’s when you get donuts, but also because  it didn’t seem like a safe place after dark.  Some folks in town suggested not keeping your back to the windows, lest you get shot.  That was a bit of an exaggeration, I’m sure, and of course you had to stand with your back to the windows to place your order.  But we habitually looked around nervously, just in case.  We never sat down at the counter to drink from one of those thick ceramic mugs that my husband so loves now and partake in the ambrosia of sugar and dough.  The clientele at the Woodbury DD’s was a bit scary.

So it was a bit of a terrifying thing to me when my choices for a summer job in the summer of 1985 grew slim, forcing me to apply at DD’s.  The manager, Doug, could always be found during the day sitting at the counter with the regulars.  He wore a white undershirt with a pack of cigarettes rolled up in one of his sleeves.  I think he sampled the goods fairly regularly, as his pot belly peeked out from underneath his T-shirt, spilling out over the top of his jeans.

When I approached him at the counter that May, I reminded him that the previous summer he’d told me there’d be openings that year.  He looked me up and down through his thick, black-rimmed glasses and nodded.  “I remember you, sure.”

He pushed his massive body back off of the stool and motioned for me to follow him to the back.  We walked through the kitchen where donuts were stacked in trays on the rack, waiting to be iced or filled.  The baker, a petite, short woman in blue jeans, nodded at me.  I filled out an application in Doug’s tiny cluttered office as he lit up a cigarette.  They needed people on the evening shift, from 6pm – midnight, he said, and I would begin in two days.

6 to midnight?  The shop was open 24-7, so I was grateful I wasn’t on midnight to 6am, but I knew my father would be more than concerned that I was working there in the dark.  I was a bit concerned myself.

Back then we wore short pink and brown dresses with an apron and a little cap.  I was not excited about this job, but was grateful to have a job, nonetheless.  The bonus was that we got to eat whatever we wanted for free, but honestly, after smelling donuts all day and coming home with it on your clothes, they seemed less appetizing.

We made $2.40 an hour, which was far below minimum wage, but they insisted we would make it up in tips.  (Yeah, right)  I had a day job, thankfully, for a few weeks, office-sitting Pam and Alex’s surveying firm while they were away in Europe.  My father tried to forbid me to work at DD’s, as he was afraid I’d get mugged or something in that part of town at night.  Being ridiculously sheltered and naive at the age of 20, I was afraid for myself as well, but since Dad was so much against it, I took the job.  As I did so often in those years, I felt like I had to prove I could do it.

The first few nights I stayed by the cash register and didn’t go near the customers at the counter unless they called for me.  Back then, we served soups, coffee and donuts mostly, and some of these regulars could nurse one cup of coffee for hours.  I realized a lot of these people hung out there every evening, paying 40 cents for a coffee that we kept refilling hour after hour.

“Hey, why don’t you come talk to us, pretty lady?” one called to me that first week.  I’d smile and wave to him, looking in the other direction.  The other waitress I worked with was a rough character.  She flirted and teased the customers, sometimes pulling up her skirt or straddling the countertop.  She was middle-aged, had a few teeth missing and looked like she could pin anybody who tried to mess with her.  I steered clear of her.  She immediately caught on that I was a bit out of my element, and teased me a lot.

“Jim over there wants to kiss you, what are you going to do?” she’d sneer at me.  I pretended not to be afraid and just rolled my eyes.  But I stuck to my spot at the cash register, a safe distance away.

Finally, the boss stayed later to talk to me when I came in.  “You have to mingle with the customers,” he said, “you can’t just stand by the cash register.  They want to talk, that’s why they’re here.”  He patted me on the arm and winked at me.  “They don’t bite.”

Oh God.  I started lingering in the little cul-de-sac of the counter space after I poured their coffee or gave them their bowl of soup.  I stood back a few feet, though.  I pretended to be more confident than I was, and tried to joke with them.  They’d ask about college, where I was from, what my “Daddy” did.  I was nervous every night, and I always parked close to the store so I didn’t have far to walk in the dark.

One night particularly  got insane.  Lois, the hard-living, flirty waitress, acted like she was drunk.  She was mean and harassed me all evening, pushing me, yelling at me, scolding me for every little thing I didn’t do right.  She stood back and let me do all the work.  I took the donut orders at the counter, filling the boxes as people chose, and also had to respond to the requests for refills at the other end of the counter.  She just smiled, and took many cigarette breaks, leaving me on my own.  The boss wasn’t around, and Lois’d been there for years, so I didn’t feel like I could complain.  I also wanted to prove I was tough enough to be there to the end.  That night, however,  it got out of hand.

I was running here to refill the coffee maker, running back to take an order and the box would fall apart as soon as I put donuts in it.  Customers at the other end were calling me for another refill or some soup or a donut.  Lois spent hours in the back room doing God-knew-what, while customers poured in the front door to order a dozen.

I was shaking and on the verge of tears as several customers yelled at me, or Lois would come out of hiding smelling like smoke to ask me what the “*#$%*” I was doing, calling me a lard-ass, and many such poetic names.  Finally, while she was hovering over me, yelling, pushing and insulting me, I went to the coffee maker to get some coffee and it was empty.  I’d just started it to make more!  So I pulled out the filter holder to see what was wrong and it was clogged– full of boiling hot coffee which ran in a wave over my right hand.  I screamed at the sudden pain and burst into tears, bending over, letting all the pent-up sobs come pouring out.  I figured I had a good excuse– my hand felt like it was on fire.

Jim, a young regular, literally jumped over the counter, grabbed my hand and jammed it into the freezer full of ice.  He held it there and talked very gently to me.  “Hey bitch!” he called to Lois, “Call the boss!  NOW!”

As Lois, a bit stunned, ran to the back room, Jim held my hand in the ice.  It was burning and freezing all at the same time, but I was strangely grateful for the interruption in the mayhem.  I just cried, staring at my hand, while Jim still talked gently to me.  The rest of the customers just stayed quiet.  One smart guy held up his glass, “Can I have some ice?”

“Shut up,”  Jim shot back.

After Lois got back, she took over, taking orders, filling boxes, serving customers.

Doug came and took me to the emergency room where they put stuff on my hand and wrapped it.  No permanent damage, the burns would heal. Painful blisters formed all over my right hand, making for a excruciating night.

The atmosphere changed a bit at work.  Doug didn’t schedule me with Lois anymore (we had nice long talk at the ER), and the customers were particularly kind to me.  There was Jim, a local truck driver, who took care of me that night.  His buddy Gene was an elderly man who was always waiting for a phone call from his girlfriend who called him every night on the payphone at DD’s.  Rob was another truck driver who was so shy he hardly said a word.  There was Pat, a very large man who took up two stools, had very crooked teeth and talked with a lisp.  He had the mind of a child, though I guessed he was about 35 or so, and he almost daily confessed his love for me like a shy schoolboy.  And there was Digger.  I knew that wasn’t his real name.  Digger was an elderly African American man who always wore a long-sleeved shirt, no matter what the weather, and a cap that looked like it’d been dropped in the dirt a time or two.

One night Digger said to me, “I’ve been coming here for years, y’know, and ain’t none of these people know my real name.  But I’m going to tell it to you because you are a preacher’s girl and you’ll understand,” he said, smiling.  His rheumy eyes were lined with red, and his jeans had dirt caked in so deep I don’t think they would ever come clean.  They called him Digger because he dug graves in the cemetery in that part of town.

Digger’s pals leaned in. “You gonna tell her your real name?  How come you never tol’ us?”  Pat seemed legitimately offended.

Digger smiled, revealing yellowed teeth.  “‘Cause you ain’t know your Bible, man!”  He turned back to me and leaned in.  “My name is Hezekiah Wiggins, after the king in the Bible.  My mama was a good God-fearin’ woman, and I know you are too, ’cause your daddy’s a preacher.”  His eyes were moist.

“Hezekiah??”  His buddies laughed.  “What kind of fool name is that??” They laughed, saying it over and over.

Hezekiah didn’t care.  He was proud of his name and of his mama.

As days went on, I met a lot of strange people.  There was Cassie, an obese woman with curly brown hair that wore mumus and talked dirty.  She always came in with her skinny little woman friend, Carla, about 11:00 each night.  Rumor had it that she was dating Luis, the skinny little Hispanic guy she sometimes sat with, who was about half her size.

One night, Beth, the baker, came out from her baking exile as Cassie went out the door with another man.  “You know what they’re doin’, don’t ya?”  She was drying her hands off with a dish towel.  She nodded toward a van on the far corner of the parking lot.  “Cassy and Carla both own that van.  They come in here every night at 11:00 pm looking for guys.  They take ’em to their van out there for a while.  Some men will pay for anything…” she smiled, knowing that she’d shocked me, and pushed through the swinging door into the bakery room.  Ok.

Becky was a teenage girl that was new to DD’s, and began working with me most evenings.  I had to train her and she was more sheltered than I was.  I tried to calm her as she was nervous about the flirtatious customers.  One night an older man called me over to refill his coffee.  He’d been huddled with a few of the guys, showing them something and making them all laugh.  “Hey, Church Lady,” he called me, “Come look at this.  I bet you ain’t never seen one of these.”  When I approached him with a fresh pot of coffee, he held up a small plastic monkey on a key chain.  He squeezed its sides and out popped an oversized penis.  I immediately blushed while I poured his coffee while a bunch of the men laughed.

One evening, about 11:30 p.m., Carla and Cassie were sitting at the counter, talking to a couple of men that I hadn’t seen there before.  That last hour of my shift always brought in some particularly strange people.  I was usually counting down the minutes at that point in the night, hoping to get out without any incidents.  But that night, all of a sudden, skinny little Luis came bursting through the glass doors and approached the man sitting next to Cassie on a stool.  He shoved him.

“What the hell you think you’re doing, man?”  Luis screamed at him, pushing him again, till the man stumbled off his stool onto his feet.  He kept going after the guy who was twice his size, trying to get a rise out of him.

Cassie tried to calm Luis.  “Honey, I was just talkin’ to him!  Ain’t no big deal!!”  Becky literally stood behind me, grabbing onto my arms, hoping I’d protect her.  The bigger man shoved Luis back, and Luis went after him, punching and kicking.  I was frozen to my spot.  Fortunately, the baker saw the fight through the bakery window and called the police.  Then she shoved open the swinging door and approached the two fighting men.  The bigger man was beating on Luis.  Sandy the baker pushed right in the middle of them and put her arms out, her hands on each of the men’s chests.

“Let me at him!  He’s after my woman!” Luis screamed, blood running down his face.

“Stop it! Just stop it!” Sandy screamed.  I couldn’t help but think she was one tough chick for her tiny size.  She wasn’t the least bit afraid, holding the two men apart.  Finally the police arrived and shoved Luis down on the counter where they handcuffed him.  When he bent over, a very large knife stuck up out of the back of his pants.  I was still frozen to my spot in the floor with Becky still clinging to me.  The police talked to Sandy a bit, decided the other man was just defending himself, and dragged Luis out the door.

I was terrified, trembling and feeling sick.  Sandy approached me.  She nodded to the side wall of windows where there was a big smeared blood stain.  “Somebody better clean that up,” she said.  “I’m going to get a cigarette.”

Cassie just shook her head and asked for a refill.  There were some murmured conversations and Becky and I each took deep breaths.  The 12am-6pm waitress came in and put her stuff away.  I told her what just happened as I was still shaking.

She smiled.  “Oh girlie, that happens all the time.  You better get used to it.”

As the evenings passed, I talked more with the regulers.  Jim was always asking me to run away with him to Atlantic City for a weekend.  I politely declined.  Digger was always quoting the Bible to me and telling me that he knew I was a good girl and always listened to my “daddy.”  One evening, my father picked me up but stayed in the car.  He’d wanted me to quit that night the police came, but that made me want to stay all the more.

When Dad pulled up to the shop a few minutes before midnight, Digger turned around and looked out through the wall of windows.  “Hey, is that your daddy?”  I smiled and nodded.  “Well, shoot, I oughta go say ‘hey’.”  Before I could discourage him, Digger slid off his stool and went out the door.  I watched him approach my father’s car window and make a motion to my Dad to roll down the window.  My father looked at me a bit sheepishly, looking a bit panicked, but rolled down the window.  Digger stuck his hand through the window to shake my father’s hand.  I could imagine him introducing himself by his real name and proudly telling of his “good Christian mama.”  I knew Dad was terrified.

Digger came bouncing back in and slid back onto his stool.  “Your daddy’s real nice.  In fact, I tol’ him, we’ve done some services together in the cemetery.  I remember him!  I tol’ him what a special young Christian lady his daughter is.  Real nice,”  Digger grinned.

My last day at Dunkin’ Donuts was the afternoon shift on a Saturday.  I was relieved in many ways, but I was also going to miss some of the regulars.  I imagined I may not see them again.  After the night I burned my hand, the small group of guys got protective of me.  Every night when I left my shift at midnight, they all spun around on their stools to watch me walk to my car, to make sure I made it there safe.  Before I got in the car, I’d always wave to them.  They all waved back in unison.

As the end of my shift got closer that Saturday afternoon, I noticed that all the night regulars were there.  Even Cassie and Carla had showed up, and the man with the monkey penis key chain.  Jim, Gene, Rob, Pat, Digger and several others I recognized from the evening shift lined the counter with their thick ceramic mugs of coffee.  Pat informed me he was wearing a brand new shirt, and his hair was slicked back.  Digger wore a wrinkled suit.  Finally, Digger slid off of his stool and cleared his throat.

“Everybody, listen up.  It’s almost time.  Peggy,” he said to me, “We jus’ wanted to tell you how glad we are that you came to work here this summer.”  He cleared his throat and his eyes got moist.  “You study hard at that college of yours, you hear?  You listen to your preacher-daddy and be a good girl.  You already is a good girl, right?”  He winked his red eye at me.  He cleared his throat again.  “It ain’t much, but I took a collection and we wanted to give you something.”  He pulled out a dirty, slightly wrinkled envelope from his coat pocket and gave it to me.  It had my name on it, printed in sloppy capital letters.

“We gonna miss you.”  He sniffed and nodded, then led the procession of customers as one by one, they filed past me to shake my hand and say goodbye.  I had tears in my own eyes as I shook their hands over the counter and nodded in response to their good wishes.  Soon the room was empty, but for me and Becky.

I opened the envelope and pulled out a card with flowers all over it, signed by all the regulars.  Inside the card was a crisp new ten-dollar bill.

napkin

(picture drawn by Pat)

 

Learning to Trust

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In January of 1990, the Drew Theological School Choir was going on tour.

We were a ragtag bunch of people, since Drew’s student body was made up of mostly second and third-career students.  I was by far the youngest in the choir.  Our director, Lester Berenbroick, was the music director at the theological school and had been there since the dawn of time.  He was kind of a living legend around the school.  We were frightfully intimidated by him, yet he commanded high respect.

His face was carved up by deep lines and his toupee was a point of discussion among students.  It was a rather bad one.  His angular face and the harsh lines that carved it up all served to make Lester a somewhat frightful presence.  He was a master musician and we all knew it, but his personality was not conducive to teaching.  He didn’t seem to like people.  Many years later, after his death, he came out in his obituary.  He’d been living with his long-time partner for decades.  At Drew such things were probably known in whispers among students, but despite Drew’s proud legacy of liberalism, such things weren’t talked about openly.  I guess most people knew, but I was still naive and never on the gossip circuit.  He just scared me.

If I’d known about Lester’s closeted relationship, perhaps I would have better understood his hard personality.  I certainly cannot imagine having to keep the most important relationship in your life a secret.  I did come to know a bit of that for a short time, but nothing near a lifetime.   I realize, now, there was much more to Lester than met the eye.

We were all encouraged to go on the Choir Tour, of course, and after some major conflicts with my father during my first semester, I was not eager to spend the January term at home with my parents.  Lester demanded that I bring my guitar on tour, which would have been just fine with me had he allowed me to have my music.  But he wanted me to play by ear, accompanying the choir on several pieces.   I didn’t do this.  He insisted.  You didn’t say “no” to Lester and survive his scathing looks.

I was a nervous wreck.  An anxious fool.

We “toured the south,” literally singing in a different church every night of the two-week tour.  It was a brutal schedule for a bus full of mostly middle-aged pastors.  We went from New Jersey to Alabama and back, staying in the homes of kind church members along the way.

At Lester’s request, I practiced my guitar-playing during every free moment I had, which was mostly on the bus.

For each of the songs that we sang in our concerts on the tour, two students were paired up to take turns introducing the piece.  I was paired up with a second-career student named Larry Rush.  He sought me out to share conversations about how we would introduce the song.  Being a man who never forgot anything he ever read, he already knew quite a bit about the Moravian piece that we had been assigned.  I was more than a bit annoyed with Rev. Rush, as he seemed like a know-it-all.  Plus he talked too much.  On top of that, I was in a permanent state of anxiety over my guitar-playing.

One night a few of us were sitting in the living room of our host family when suddenly I got hot all over, started trembling and hyperventilating and felt an urge to throw up.  I gracefully excused myself and went to bed, where I held onto the sides of the mattress and gritted my teeth to keep them from chattering.  It was a full-blown anxiety attack.  There was nothing I could do but ride it out.  It happened again a couple of nights later right before a concert.  I sat down on the floor and became short of breath, sweated profusely and trembled, my teeth chattering.  Someone called on a young theological student, Carlos, who also played the guitar, and told him he would have to fill in for me that night.  He panicked.  As I sat on the floor, hugging myself and gritting my teeth, he attempted a laying on of hands.  He laid his big pudgy hands on my head, pressing down, imploring the Holy Spirit to heal me and fill me with the courage I needed.  I think he was the one who needed courage.  He didn’t want to play.  The Holy Spirit did not intervene on time, and a very nervous Carlos took my place on accompaniment while I sat out the concert.

On the journey back north, Larry Rush started sitting near me on the bus, and he made fun of my head bobbing all over the place as I tried to sleep on the bus, since I wasn’t sleeping well at night.  I was tired, I was stressed, I wanted to go home.  I was not amused by him.

However, as we got closer to home, we started talking some more.  I shared with him my own spiritual emptiness at Drew, where personal faith was generally frowned upon, and if you uttered the name of Jesus even in conversation, you were labeled ConservativeEvangelical.  It was not a compliment.

There were few corners where I found morsels of spiritual nourishment.  The campus United Methodist Church was dry and boring.  Larry suggested that a few of us be in a covenant group together.  It sounded like a good idea.

At the start of Spring semester, I was encouraged by my New Testament professor, Dr. Neil Hamilton.  Dr. Hamilton was a good friend of Jesus and  a bit of an oddball.  He was short, with thick, shockingly white hair and thick-rimmed glasses.  He ended sentences with, “don’tcha know?”  Sometimes he actually giggled like Tigger.  He seemed energized by a relentless joy.  He began each class with a heartfelt prayer and led us in many guided meditations centered on Jesus.  This annoyed a lot of the more scholarly liberals.  They were offended that he “made” us pray.  I worried for the future of the Church if its pastors didn’t want to pray…

I ate up everything Dr. Hamilton did.  I was a sponge, eagerly soaking up all the grace his class offered me.  I made an appointment with him one day just to talk.  He understood my spiritual struggle, my ache and longing for spiritual community.  He also said I’d have to initiate my own, because there wasn’t much of it on Drew’s campus.  He suggested some books about spiritual direction and encouraged me in starting a covenant group with Larry.  At the end of our conversation, he took both of my hands in his and prayed fervently for me and my struggle.  He gave me a hug and sent me on my way.  I felt a little less alone.

Seminary Hall was where the Theological School had most of its classes and on the third floor was the chapel.  The outside of the building was carved stone, much like the Graduate Hall across the lawn, and I felt very scholarly walking through The Forest that was Drew’s campus.  The trees came together high above to form a colorful ceiling, and the many trees were an Eden for the campus’ large squirrel population.  The squirrels were a much loved presence at Drew.  They seemed remarkably large;  well-fed without a doubt.  It helped my spirit to watch them as I walked through campus.  Their antics and interactions made me laugh at loud.  I was grateful they were there.

Larry became a regular fixture every weekday morning in the basement of Seminary Hall, where there was a gathering place with vending machines and coffee makers.  Before class, I’d stop in and have a cup of coffee with him and others who gathered.  Larry came to be known that semester as Dr. Death.  He was taking a Death and Dying course, taught by a popular professor named Nelsen, who was at the time undergoing treatment for cancer.  Larry loved to share all that he was reading and learning in Nelsen’s class, and asked us questions about our thoughts and feelings on death.  Most of us were more concerned at that time of passing exams, writing papers and passing ordination interviews.

Several of us did participate in a covenant group that semester and got to be close friends.  Larry, as the resident third-year student, led it.  We prayed together, meditated, discussed various topics, etc.  I shared some of my writings with Larry and we got to be very good friends.  However, I was leery of getting too close to him, as he was planning on moving back to Nebraska in May.  He was originally from Pennsylvania, but had finished his Bachelor’s degree in Nebraska while serving two tiny rural churches there.  He fell in love with the state.  We thought he was nuts.  I didn’t even know where Nebraska was.  Out in the middle somewhere.

Larry was a student assistant pastor at the UMC in Roselle Park, NJ.  He was planning to take his youth group to a David Meece concert in April.  David Meece was a popular Contemporary Christian music artist whose music I’d come to know at Messiah.  Larry invited the covenant group to come along.  I was especially excited to go when I realized that the concert was going to be at The Pennington Prep School, where I’d gone to camp.

I had mixed feelings about it.  It had been six years since my father had worked on me, relentlessly planting doubts about Ed and Pennington in my head and heart.  During those six years, I’d softened.  I wasn’t sure what was the truth anymore, but I did have enough memories in my heart to know that even if Ed had been inappropriate at all, he’d done a lot of good in my life.  Even if it was in spite of himself.  I’d tentatively sent him a college graduation invitation, to which he responded with a beautiful letter, affirming me and memories of our time in Pennington.  He’d sent me a letter encouraging me in my call to ministry after I wrote him about heading to Drew.  I still wasn’t sure what to think.

When we went to Pennington for the concert, I was flooded with memories.  There was the dining hall where we ate all our meals at camp.  Where Ed greeted us all each morning, singing at the microphone, making jokes.  There was the building with the swimming pool, where he’d thrown me in my first year.  There were the steps to the main building where we gathered at night to sing songs in candlelight before going to bed.  Or where we had early morning communion.

The concert was to be in the gym.  I remembered all the dances we’d had in the gym during my years at camp.  We settled in for the concert and I soaked up the memories, though still confused at what it all meant.

I liked David Meece’s music.  His song, “I Don’t Know What I’d Do Without You” was a song I played a lot during my time at Messiah, especially that freshmen year from hell.  However, that night he was promoting his new album, Learning to Trust.  The songs on the album followed a particular theme of being the child of an abusive alcoholic.  David told the story that night of his father’s death three years earlier.  His father’s death unleashed a lifetime of pain that he’d previously kept secret.  For the first time during his career, David was addressing his father’s alcoholism and how that affected David’s life.

He was very real as he spoke.  He talked about the dynamics of living with an alcoholic.  Something seemed terribly familiar.  It wasn’t the first time, either.  Before I’d gone to seminary, a recovering alcoholic church friend asked me to accompany her to a seminar on Codependency.  That day, too, the family dynamics surrounding an alcoholic sounded exactly like life in my own family.  I couldn’t understand why, as my parents didn’t drink.  My mother would flip out if Dad ordered a glass of wine.  It was then that I discovered that my grandfather was an alcoholic, which would have affected my mother deeply.

As David talked, he spoke of how everything centered around his father and his needs.  He was the most important one in the family, and he must be pleased.  He would put down David and his friends.  He demanded perfection.  He was angry when good things happened to David, instead of celebrating such things.  It took attention away from him, the father.  David talked about never feeling good enough to please his father, about never trusting good things as there was always a consequence, a punishment.  As he went on and on, I truly felt that he was describing my own experience.

Even as an adult with a successful music ministry, he never felt good enough.  David said he could offer God’s grace to other people and believe in it for them, but somehow had a hard time accepting grace for himself.

As he spoke, my eyes burned with tears that I didn’t understand.  And then I had a flashback to Pennington.  I suddenly remembered a moment.  I think it had been my third summer at Pennington.  We’d had a dance that night in the gym– the same gym where we were then.  Ed was going through the gym making sure everybody was out, picking up trash and planning on turning out all the lights before the next event.  A few kids were still hanging out, talking.  As I often did, I went to Ed to get a hug.  That summer I’d been having a particularly bad time with depression for some reason.  The moment that burned in my brain in that moment was of Ed hugging me as I cried.

He didn’t know why I seemed so resistant to God’s love and grace.  “Peggy Sue,” he said, holding me away from him, “God loves you.  Your parents love you. I love you!”

It might have been in the very spot where David Meece was standing as he told his stories of pain and abuse.  As the image faded in my mind, I broke down.  I cried hard.  David kept on speaking and went into a song, the album’s title– Learning to Trust.  It was about how hard it was to trust in the goodness and grace of God’s love as a kid.  It talked about a child growing up with the hope of a mother and father who would love you unconditionally, and how, if that didn’t happen, it was hard to trust in God’s love.  I cried harder.

The image of Ed standing on that gym floor, wondering why I was so resistant to God’s grace, stayed in my mind.  It was as if God tapped me on the shoulder and whispered,

Your father lied. 

Larry and my friend Tonya had no idea what had sparked my tears, but as I literally bent over in my chair (as if I was throwing up), they each rubbed my back from each side of me.

I looked around the campus in the darkness after the concert, seeing it all again for what it had been:  a profound moment of grace in my life.  An experience where my faith had taken root.  It was real.  It was trustworthy.  It was Good.

My father had lied.

The next morning, Larry and I had a long, emotional talk in the snack bar.  I related many memories of my father and his gaslighting (although I didn’t know that term then), his convincing me that my own perceptions of anyone or anything were not trustworthy.  His jealousy over Ed.  His always wanting to defuse any good thing that happened to me.  I always felt afraid when good things happened, even then– as if I would be punished for it.

My father lied.  It was the first time, and not the last time, that I would realize that my father lied.  It was devastating.  How could a father do that?  I continued to have my mind and heart flooded with all the best, highest, holiest moments of Pennington, when I experienced a profound sense of God’s love for me.  And a sense of horror that Dad had tried to tear all of it apart.

I didn’t know why my father’s behavior resembled that of an alcoholic– this being the second time I discovered that.  I didn’t know yet about Narcissism, basically an addiction to Self, and how everybody around a narcissist had to behave in a way that fulfilled the Narcissist’s needs.  That my father’s behavior paralleled that of an alcoholic because he was an addict– he was addicted to himself.  He couldn’t love me, or anyone else.

But that day, I didn’t know that.  I was just mad.  And horrified that I’d lost my friendship with Ed because of my father’s lies.  Larry advised me to go see Ed and tell him the truth.

So I did.  I called him up and asked if I could come see him.  He lived about an hour away from the seminary, and he seemed glad of a visit.

The day I was to go see him, I could hardly breathe.  I could not imagine telling him the truth of why I’d been distant these past six years.  Would he believe me?  Would he wonder why I’d been able to believe such things about him at my father’s word? Or worse, was I stupid yet again and would I find out he was a horrible human being after all?  Somehow, that last fear felt the least likely.  I could believe, perhaps, that he’d be hurt that I’d believed my father…

The day I arrived at Ed’s front door, I was shaking, my hands were as cold as ice, and I could hardly breathe properly.  He seemed glad to see me.  We chatted for a while as his wife Carol prepared lunch.  He let me go for a while, before he finally asked me, “So what brings you here… now?”

I swallowed and stared at the floor.  I told him about a class I had that semester called Religion and the Social Process.  It was known to most seminary students as the White Male Bashing class.  It was an emotionally brutal class for everyone, but usually left our white male colleagues feeling really defensive.  In that class, I was exposed to very real stories, however, of oppression of anyone other than white males.  I’d never read or heard much about feminism, or thought about it.  Larry had actually introduced to me a lot of sexism in the Church and society.  The more I heard about it, the more I recognized some of my own experiences.

I’d been in that class the day after the David Meece concert.  That day they talked about men who were jealous of women gaining anything good, and who fought to keep women from getting ahead.  They talked about fathers and emotional abuse of daughters.  They talked about verbal abuse, men putting women down, men assuring women that they were, in fact, inferior and stupid.  It went on and on.  Women in the class shared stories.  Again, some of the stories shed light on my own experiences growing up with my father.  I was stupid, I was weak, he didn’t expect anything from me as he did my brothers.  When I went against him or argued with him he assured me of my inferiority;  too weak, too sensitive… too female.  

I lost it in class that day, I told Ed.  I had to leave and I ended up crying a lot.  It was like throwing up emotionally, I told him, which I seemed to be doing a lot of lately.

Ed was quiet, his eyes never looking away from me as I spoke.  Finally, he said quietly, “Did I oppress you?”

I was so stunned by his question, it took me a moment to answer.  “No, no, not at all,” I whispered, shaking my head emphatically.  I felt the tension in the room, as if time was standing still and it was just two of us right then and no one else was around.

“My father…” I told him what happened in 1984.  I reminded him of David and spring semester and when I called him and he told me to get away from David, get a job across campus.  I told him what my father said about him.  How he had worked on me, analyzing and explaining and insisting that Ed had only been interested in me sexually and had therefore manipulated me to adore him all those years at camp.  I told him how it built and built in my head with Dad’s help, and that it was much easier for me to believe that it was all a fraud then to accept that someone could legitimately care for me– even God.

Then Carol came in and said it was time for lunch.

And so it was out there, hanging in the air as we joined Carol and their two daughters for lunch.  Ed prayed over lunch, we ate.  Carol asked about school, we made conversation.  But it was there.  I wanted to look at Ed, see if he was alright.  If he hated me.  If he was hurt.  But I couldn’t look at him.  We had a pleasant lunch.

After lunch, as we sat down together again, I remember the air felt like it was tinged with an energy, a tension, but not a bad tension.  Ed was quiet at first, still not breaking eye contact.  “I thought you just wanted space to grow up,” he began.  “That you needed space from me to do that.”  He shook his head.  He didn’t jump in to defend himself or to deny anything right away.  He admitted that I was special, that I was set apart from the other kids at camp for some reason.  That he felt a special connection with me.  He admitted that maybe there were times that he could have been inappropriate, but not intentionally.

I interrupted.  “I don’t believe you ever were.”

We talked for several hours.  I told him more about growing up with my father.  Never feeling good enough.  About how everything was about filling his needs.  Our lives centered around pleasing him, and as the only girl, I was inferior to my brothers and to him.  No matter what I did, I could never be good enough.  That if I argued with him, he dismissed me as “just a woman.”  I was too sensitive, weak, and irrational.  That I was never allowed to have anything good, certainly not all the attention at any given moment.  I told him everything.

“You tell me all these painful things, but you’re smiling as you talk about them.  How can you do that?” he asked.

Yeah.  I was taught to always cover my feelings.  Nothing was ever that serious when it came to me, but if it happened to my father, it was very important.  My mother and I both did it.  We smiled when we were angry.  We laughed when we wanted to cry.  I’d learned very well to cover.  My feelings simply weren’t all that important.

When it got to be dinner time, I thought I better leave.  We sat for a bit longer in silence.  I remember the light came into the room behind me, surrounding us in the late afternoon glow, as if God was holding us.  Gently keeping us.  Tenderly setting us down to go forward.

I asked him if we could pray, and he simply nodded.  We stood and held hands in the fading afternoon light.  I treasured praying with Ed, he always had such a familiar, tender connection to God.  We stood in silence at first, feeling God’s tender presence, before Ed began to pray.  It was a tender thanks for bringing me there today, for the talk, for healing, for honestly, for friendship, and for God’s relentless grace.  His words blessed me, surrounded me, filled me; gently held me.  I don’t remember what I said, but with eyes closed, it was easy to be honest and vulnerable.  I do remember thanking God for the restoration of friendship, for the safety and shelter of it.  For healing.

“Thank you,” I said a bit shyly after we hugged.

He touched my arm and smiled at me, his eyes shining a bit.  Were those tears?

“Thank you, Friend.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finding My Voice

Oklahoma-logo

High school was not my favorite time of life.  It would have been difficult enough, but I moved 80 miles away from all of my friends and had to start over in Woodbury, New Jersey.  The church helped a lot.  The congregation included me in their warm welcome of me and helped me adjust by introducing me to some kids my age.  But I was shy, I struggled with anxiety and depression, and I was anything but “cool.”  I also had no interest in partying.  First of all, there was nothing I hated more than throwing up, and I didn’t get the appeal of getting so drunk you were ill and hungover the next day.  Nothing about that appealed to me.  I didn’t smoke at all because of my Aunt Julia, who had emphysema and looked like (as my mother would say) “death warmed over.”  I never even tried it.  As far as sex, well, my mother had told me if I ever had sex before marriage, she’d be able to tell, and I believed her.  On top of that, I was very naive, knew nothing about contraceptives, and therefore I would not have known how not to get pregnant.  So I was a goody-two-shoes all around.

I did have a couple of close friends in high school.  Some did party on the weekend and others did not.  I managed to survive high school without too much drama, but I always felt like the only one who didn’t fit in.

Music has been my lifelong therapy, in many forms.  Singing in the adult choir at church was a gift.  I did feel a part of that group, and it was a fun bunch of people.  I finally made it into the high school choir in my junior year.  Before that, I was so nervous at the auditions that my throat closed up and I blew it.  But my junior year I triumphed!

Mr. Snodgrass was the choir director at high school, and was very popular with the kids.  I adored him, but was much too shy to go anywhere near him or to hang out in the choir room during study hall like the cool kids did.  Choir was 7th period every day, and at the end of rehearsal, he always stopped about ten minutes or so before the bell rang.  He pulled up a stool and talked to us;  about life, relationships, God, and love.  He spoke much along the lines of Leo Buscaglia, encouraging us to appreciate the goodness of life.  To know that we were valuable, lovable human beings with a purpose.  He inspired us to Carpe Diem!  He told us to get out of our comfort zones and challenge ourselves, to always seek to grow and love and serve.  I looked forward to 7th period every day and soaked up every word he said.  I ached to be able to just hang out in his office with the others, to be near him, and to soak up his positive presence. But when I passed him in the hallway, my mouth went dry.

In accordance with his own reaching-for-the-stars philosophy, he had us perform Carmina Burana by Carl Orff during my junior year.  None of it was in English but in German and Latin.  We were accompanied by the Philadelphia Orchestra.  It was a daunting piece for an 80-member high school choir, but we worked hard.  It was an exhilarating experience!

I was so anxious all the time, however, still carrying my Maalox tablets and Donnatol.  For every concert we performed, I always made sure I could see my getaway behind the bleachers, just in case I needed to faint or throw up.  I needed assurance I’d be able to get out as discretely as possible.  Once we got singing, however, the anxiety was temporarily forgotten and I was caught up in the high of the music; the energy, the power, the heights of emotion.

During my senior year of high school, a new couple joined our adult choir at church.  Georgi was a soprano, so she sat next to me that first night when she and her partner Bruce showed up.  Georgi had a beautiful voice, and had been a choir director in her previous church before her divorce.  She was a tall, pretty woman with flaming red hair.  She and Bruce seemed very comfortable in their new surroundings, kidding and joking with all of us.  I’d heard that she taught piano and voice lessons in addition to her day job.

After a couple of months listening to her powerful soprano voice next to me each Thursday night and Sunday morning, I pleaded with my mother to pay for voice lessons.  I loved to sing.  I had no aspirations to sing any solos, but I wanted to improve my voice, to strengthen it.  I also wanted a chance to get to know Georgi.

Looking back, I was so hungry for closeness and love, for emotional intimacy, that I gravitated toward adults who seemed able to give it.  I felt so awkward and shy most of the time.  That and my depression kept me from seeing at the time that God seemed to bring many loving adults across my path to offer their own contributions to my unfolding story.  They loved me into myself.

I went to another parishioner’s house for my voice lessons since we didn’t have a piano.  My lessons with Georgi were another highlight of my week. Most of the time I asked my Mom to just drop me off rather than lend me the car so that Georgi could give me a lift home.

Georgi let me know early on that she didn’t believe in someone singing just for themselves.  “If you have a gift, God wants you to share it!” she assured me.  I didn’t want to do that, and at first she didn’t push it.  She patiently pulled my voice out of me.  She made me work hard, as if she knew there was more inside of me than I knew.

She gave me a ride home from my lessons, and when we arrived at my house, she’d turn off the car and we’d sit and talk for a while.  She introduced me to Amy Grant music, and other Contemporary Christian music.  More music to feed my soul, strengthen my spirit and give me the fuel to go on.   I found I could talk to her easily, there in the darkness of her car.  After a while, she’d lean over and kiss me on the cheek.

“C’mon, Peggy Sue, get out.  I gotta go home.  I love you,” she always said.  Sometimes it took a lot of prodding for her to get rid of me.  I drank up her presence and friendship and just wanted to be near her.

After a few months, she signed us up to sing duets in church.  I didn’t feel good enough to sing with her, but she gave me confidence.  Bruce would be there for our rehearsals and adjust the sound in the sanctuary for us.  Bruce was an odd partner for her, I always thought.  He was much older than her, a bit cantankerous and cynical.  But there were moments I got glimpses of the warm heart underneath the crusty exterior.

“Why don’t you like me?” I protested to Bruce once, pretending to kid, but really meaning it.  He teased me a lot and I knew he asked Georgi why she spent so much time with a 17 year-old girl.   I spent time hanging around their apartment on weekends, tagging along to flea markets with them, baking cookies with Georgi at her apartment, or just watching TV, hugging one of her stuffed dogs.

The question seemed to catch him off guard, and his face softened.  “I… um.. I like you!  I wouldn’t kid with you if I didn’t like you.  I’d just ignore you,” he chuckled self-consciously.  I hugged him.

After the Christmas holidays, Mr. Snodgrass announced the plans for the Spring Concert.  It would be a musical revue of various Broadway show tunes, that would conclude with several songs from Oklahoma!  There would be auditions for various parts.  Of course, there were always some students who got parts without having to audition, as they were experienced soloists.  And favorites. One of those was Andy, one of the most popular boys in our class and the class clown.  He would be Curley in Oklahoma!  The part of Laurey was up for auditions.

I happened to mention this to Georgi, with no intention of trying out.  I had tried out for solos before in school concerts and was once again stifled by my own anxiety.  It would be my last concert in high school, and I just wanted to enjoy singing with the group.

“Oh no, Peggy Sue, you’re going to try out for Laurey.”

“But….!”

“No arguing.  It’s time to try for something big.  You can do it.  I’ll help you,” and the discussion was closed.

The audition piece was People Will Say We’re in Love.  She and I worked on it for weeks.  She helped me to imagine doing it in character, to add inflections and emotion.  I thought she was wasting her time, but she believed I could do it.  I didn’t want to let her down, but everything in me said there was absolutely no way I’d win the part over the top four sopranos in the choir.  All of them were very experienced at solos, and this was a coveted part.  It was also the last high school concert for all of us before graduation.

Georgi and I rehearsed at the church the night before the auditions at school.  When she was satisfied that I was ready, she drove me home.  I was already shaking and feeling nauseous.  I didn’t want to leave her car.

“Peggy Sue, I gotta go home.  You need to go get some rest.  You can do this.  I know you can.  I’ll be praying for you, now get out,” she said playfully, leaning in to kiss my cheek.  When I got out, I stood in the driveway as she started to drive off.

She rolled down the window.  “I love you, Peggy Sue.  I’ll see you tomorrow night at choir.  I don’t want you telling me you didn’t get it!”  And with that, she rolled up her window and drove away.

What??  I stood alone in the driveway for a while, looking off into the night.  There was a lake across from our house where the geese always landed and gathered.  It was peaceful and beautiful.  I looked at the water in the moonlight.  How would I face Georgi if I didn’t get the part?  At the time I kept telling myself there was no way at all that I’d get it.  How would I look at her tomorrow night?

I went to my room, took Donnatol, chewed up some Maalox tablets, drank Chamomile tea and paced my room.  I tried going to bed but every muscle in my body was tensed.  My heart was pounding and I was out of breath.  I could not sleep.

The next day, I went to school after taking another Donnatol and chewing more Maalox pills.  I ate only dry toast for breakfast as my stomach was doing flip-flops.  My anxiety level was at an all time high.  The auditions were 7th period so I had all day to worry.  Which I did.  During study hall in 2nd period, a friend of mine suggested I go to the choir room and practice with Mr. Snodgrass.  Maybe that would help.  So I did.  Several popular kids were hanging out there, some rehearsing, some just being social.  I shyly asked Mr. Snodgrass if we could rehearse.

Debbie, who ranked 2nd in our section of 20 sopranos, looked on.  She was fairly certain she’d get the part, someone else told me.  I tried not to look at her as “Snod” played the introduction to the song.

I sang, trying so hard to tune out everyone in the room.  I imagined Georgi sitting in a corner.  I tried to shut out the voices that asked how I dared to reach beyond my place.

When I was done, Mr Snodgrass smiled.  “Good job, Sue, I don’t think you need to go over it again, you know it!”  I smiled shyly, hoping he was being sincere.  I glanced over at Debbie, and I couldn’t read her face.

But before I looked away and hurried out of the room, she said to me, “Hey.  I didn’t know you could sing like that. Good job.”  I nodded.  I was shaking too much to open my mouth.

But I smiled on my way back to class.

Still, when 7th period came I hadn’t eaten all day and I still thought I was going to have to run to the bathroom.  The entire 80 member choir was present for the auditions, huddled in cliques and chatting in corners.  There were five of us auditioning– as predicted, the other four were the top four sopranos in the choir.  All soloists.  All confidant.

And then there was shy, trembling, nauseous, heart-pounding me.  I could not go to church choir that night if I didn’t get the part, I’d already decided.

After each singing some phrases from the song more than once, it was down to Debbie and me.  “I want you each to do it in character.  Be Laurey.  Use expression in your singing, imagine yourself in the role.”  Debbie went first.  She was very good.  It was my turn.  I thought of Georgi, pictured her face and how she coached me to express myself in the song.  Don’t come to choir tomorrow and tell me you didn’t get the part.  

I did my best.

Mr. Snodgrass leaned back a little on his stool and looked at us, his hand holding his chin.  He looked at each of us, back and forth, for what seemed eons.

“Sue.”  There was a mixture of clapping and boos.  I heard later that Debbie’s popular friends Mr. Snodgrass gave it to me out of pity.  I thought they were right.  But still. I got it.  I concentrated on keeping my knees from giving out and walking out of the room with my friends, who congratulated me and gave me hugs.

That night, Georgi was at practice early, sitting in her usual seat.  As I watched the back of her head, I savored the moment.  She turned around and saw me, looked at me expectantly.  I smiled and nodded.

She let out a sigh and jumped up and hugged me.  “Oh, thank God!  I felt so bad telling you not to come and tell me you didn’t get it!  I worried about you all day!”  She laughed and hugged me again.  I don’t think I sang much that night, I just savored the feeling.

On the night of the concert, I thought I was going to die.  I had to get through most of the concert before the Oklahoma! segment came up.  I’d taken my pills and was pacing back and forth backstage, looking around for my escape routes if needed.  I kept swallowing so I wouldn’t throw up.  My throat stuck together and I wanted a drink of water so badly, but it was getting close to the moment when I had to sing the opening lines to Oh, What a Beautiful Morning  before bursting through the front door of the makeshift stage house.

I was inside the little house, which was open in the back, pacing the tiny space.  Andy, who I sat next to in Honors English and who never gave me the time of day normally, approached me.  “Hey, you’re going to be fine.”  He took my hands in both of his.  “Just breathe!  You’re going to be great.  And when we sing People… just hold onto my hands and look me in the eye. Forget about the audience.”  He let go of my hands and nodded.  The opening notes of the song played in the distance.  I took a deep breath, and belted the words out…

First line, out onto the stage.  Curtain closed.  Pause.  Time for our duet.  The curtain opened, and Andy was holding my hands again.  We sang.  It wasn’t worthy of Carnegie Hall, but I did it.  I got the song out.  My voice was shaky, but I got through it.  By the time of the closing reprise of Oklahoma! with the whole group, I was breathless, exhilarated, and so glad it was over.

Offstage, Mr. Snodgrass pulled me into a hug.  “You did it!  You stepped out of your comfort zone and you did it!  I’m so proud of you!”  My face burned with both shyness and delight.

In the hallway, I found Georgi and Bruce with my parents.  Georgi had roses in her hands and her face looked like she’d been crying.  “You did it, Peggy Sue!  You did it!  I’m so proud of you!”  She pulled me into a bear hug before giving me the roses and squeezed me tight.  “I love you, kiddo!” she said into my neck.

“You did alright,” Bruce said, giving me an awkward hug.

Georgi and I sang many more duets in church and sang at my brother Stan’s wedding just weeks after the concert.  My voice gained in confidence with each performance and got stronger each time.  I savored those moments with Georgi, singing next to her.  She believed in me.  She thought I had a gift.  She loved me.  She wanted me around.

Andy and I didn’t become friends but went back to our separate school lives with no evidence of sharing a moment onstage.  At graduation, Mr. Snodgrass hugged me and told me again that I’d done something big that spring.  “You wanted something, you didn’t give up and you reached for it.  Don’t forget that.  I’m proud of you.”  I carried those words with me for a long time into the future.

Sandie and her family came down from New York for my graduation and stayed the weekend.  Ed drove down from Freehold after church to be there.  I couldn’t believe either of them had gone so much out of their ways to be there for me.  They made an effort.  Ed had to leave right after preaching that morning, on Father’s Day, to be there for my graduation.   Sandie made a big fuss over me all weekend.  At graduation, each time they called my name– once for a Spanish award, once for a scholarship through the AAUW, and finally for my diploma– Sandie stood up and screamed from the bleachers, “Yay, Peggy Sue!” and pumped her fists in the air.  Georgi and Bruce sat with her and Chet and the kids.  Back at the house afterward, all of my favorite people got to know each other.  They’d all heard about each other through me.

It was a very good day.

Following the Lead

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I have never been one to say things like “God wants me to do this” or “God told me…” or “it’s the Lord’s will.”  I don’t criticize those who do; some are certainly legitimate and others use God to condone their own desires.  What was happening to me in 1989-90 was certainly not typical of my interactions with God either before or after.  I didn’t tell a lot of people what was going on at the time, lest they lock me up.  It was also far too precious, leaving me feeling incredibly vulnerable to share with just anybody.

When I got back from my weekend with Carolyn, having decided to go into pastoral ministry, I decided I could take some time to breathe.  I planned to look at as many of the 13 United Methodist seminaries in the country as I could that coming year and plan on going in 1990.  Silly me.

Soon after coming back I went to see “Field of Dreams” with a friend.  I was looking forward to having some fun, settling in to my life with my future plans on the board.  As the movie started, however, I couldn’t concentrate.  I was agitated and distracted and the thought let the dead bury the dead kept rolling over and over in my mind.  Huh?  I knew it was a biblical thing and it was something that Jesus had said, but I wasn’t such a scholar that I knew the context or the meaning of it.  After a while, a bit annoyed, I found a piece of paper in my purse and wrote it down, let the dead bury the dead.  Only then could I relax and enjoy the movie.

Later, as I got ready for bed, I looked up the verse (oh, where were you, Google?)  It’s in the story of Jesus calling people to follow him and one young man said that he had to go bury his father first. (A reasonable request, I thought)  But Jesus said to him, “let the dead bury their own dead, as for you, go and proclaim the gospel.”

Ok.

Living alone has its privileges, one of which being that you can talk out loud to yourself or to God without causing a disturbance.  I paced my apartment and railed at God a little bit, feeling, nonetheless, a bit foolish.  “So.  Does this mean you want me to go to seminary now??  And where??”  Silence.  Which is what I expected of course.

The next day I came home from work and picked  the mail up off the floor.  Amidst the stack of bills was an application form for Drew University Theological School.  Subtle.  I stood there for a while with my hands shaking.  Ken, I knew, had requested that Drew send me a catalog, as it was his own alma mater.  I’d already received that.  I called Drew right away and asked if it was too late to apply for the fall semester, being as it was already late July and the semester started in August.  According to the application, I needed to take the GRE.

“Oh no,” said the admissions secretary, “that’s an old form.  You don’t have to take the GRE.  Just go ahead and apply, it’s not too late.”

Holy Burning Bush, Batman.

I filled out the application, wrote all the essays that were required and sent it on.  I asked my friend Doug  to go up to Drew with me to visit.  Doug was a leader in the Lay Witness Mission; a lay ministry that I’d become involved with recently.  He and June took me in and allowed me to hang out at their house any time I wanted. Which was a lot.

Doug and I drove up to Drew in my car and met with Mr. Hand, the admissions director.  Randall Hand was a kind, gentle soul who immediately put me at ease.  He let me know that I was accepted to the M.Div program, and happily added that they were very impressed with my materials and my writing.  That felt good.  I did confess that I didn’t have any money.  I was living from paycheck to paycheck in my own apartment and had no savings.

Randall shrugged.  “I know it sounds simple, Peggy, but if God wants you here, I believe God will get you here somehow.”  At the time, that sentiment didn’t inspire me.  I knew once my father found out, he’d want a full explanation.  How are you going to do this?  This doesn’t make any sense!  Who’s going to pay for this? I anticipated all the explaining I’d have to do.

Drew was very intimidating to me then.  It was where my own father had received his D.Min degree in the ’70s and always espoused it to be a difficult, prestigious institution.  The main reason I didn’t want him to go visit with me was because he’d already said, “You know, it’s a very difficult school.  You may not get accepted.”  Thanks, Dad.

In our Southern New Jersey UM Conference, some dismissed it as “much too liberal.”  Many of the buildings on campus were made of stone, carved and made to remind one, I suspect, of the likes of Cambridge or Oxford.  All of the buildings were surrounded by a forest of trees that provided a beautiful natural ceiling to it all.  It all loomed above me as I got into my car with a sense of foreboding.  It felt like God was a part of all this, but where was I going to get any money to do it?

I had a large collection of mixed cassette tapes in my car, all assembled to inspire me and encourage me in my travels.  One was in the cassette player in my car.  When I started up the car, the tape resumed on a song by David Meece that said, “You can go, now, you can go… you’ve got the power of God, let it flow…”  Doug chuckled.

“Well, there you go!”  I smiled.  At the moment, I was still skeptical.

I was right, my father thought I was crazy.

“There’s no way you can go to Drew next month!  Where are you going to get the money?  And how are you going to pay for it?  And what about your apartment?”  It was all what I expected.  I was asked to justify it all and I couldn’t.  Nothing was ever simple.  I always had to have a really good explanation for the things I did, and they always fell short.  I had no rational explanation for him.  And I couldn’t tell him about the crazy things that had been happening.  He didn’t believe in that kind of stuff.  In fact, I confess, I never knew what my father believed.

I was able to get my security deposit back on my apartment with no penalties, and the local church where I attended gave me $500.  It was very much appreciated, but it was a mere drop in the bucket of what I needed.  Nonetheless, on August 25th, 1989, my parents and I drove north on the Garden State Parkway with two carloads full of my stuff.  My father, I learned later, complained to my mother the entire two hours, assuring her that we’d all just have to turn right around once we got there and I’d have to live with them.  There was no way I’d be able to stay with my $500 check.

At a rest stop where we stopped for lunch, we saw the headlines of the local paper.  The oldest building on Drew’s campus, Mead Hall… was on fire.  The fire had started that morning and was still burning.

“I think we better go home,” my father said.  I refused.  Sure enough, when we pulled onto the campus, there were firetrucks and emergency vehicles everywhere.  The area around Mead Hall–where I’d met with Randall Hand a month prior–was all sectioned off.  There were still visible flames and smoke.  We were redirected to an area where there were trailers and temporary buildings set up to continue the business of the first day of the Fall semester.  We found the trailer that temporarily housed the financial aid office.  Of course, all their computers were down.  The man behind the desk in Financial Aid shook his head.

“I’m sorry, but there is no way you can attend class if you don’t have any means to pay.  We can’t process your student aid or scholarship applications without computers.  Seriously, you may want to think about coming back in the Spring.”  He looked tired.

I didn’t want to cry.  I was already a nervous wreck.  I was angry that I wasn’t getting any support from my father, and my mother was silent.  Normally, I would have tucked my shy little tail between my legs and skulked away; gone back home with my parents to live, and suffered the consequences.  But there was much too much at stake.

“I’m not leaving,” I heard my quiet little voice say.

“What? I told you…”

“No.  I have come too far, and Randall Hand told me it was possible. (Talk about dropping names!)  I’m not going home.  I filled out the applications just like I was supposed to, I did everything I was supposed to do.  I’m not going anywhere.”  My hands pushed down on my lap, trying to keep my legs from visibly trembling.  I thought I was going to be sick.

“Fine,” the man sighed and walked away for a while.  My father didn’t say anything while we sat there.  When the man returned, he said he was able to push my applications through and get me some scholarship money, with the rest covered by a loan.  He sent me to the housing office.  There were two rooms left.

We moved my stuff into a house for grad students just off campus and then went to a local diner for supper.  My father had been very quiet the whole time we unloaded my things.  At supper he finally said,  “I get the feeling you’re supposed to be here.”

I got that feeling too.

Growing up in a pastor’s family my whole life left me pretty sheltered and unaware of a lot of things.  I had romantic notions of what seminary would be like, and of living with four other women.  I envisioned that we’d all get along well, we’d have dinner together every night, have little get-togethers and be a cozy little community.  Actually, three of the other women were PhD students and I was quickly told they simply didn’t have time for anything but study.  The other M.Div. student downstairs regularly entertained married pastors who came to Drew for “seminars” occasionally.

We weren’t in Kansas anymore.

They all caught on early that I was just a babe in the woods compared to them, very naive and “innocent.”  Some were kinder than others.  I did get to be friends with one woman named Darcie, a young PhD candidate, who seemed to have compassion on me in my naivete.  She and I spent a lot of time that first year going out for coffee and became each others’ confidante in various dramas.  Early in the first semester I came home to her and another woman student making out in her room.  I tried really hard not to appear shocked or alarmed, but nonetheless Darcie felt the need to explain.  She was very heterosexual, she informed me (not that I would have judged her otherwise), but she and her friend were what one might call “political lesbians.”  They enjoyed men, but the very act of sexual intercourse was to them oppressive.  (I had no data to offer in my opinion on that subject)  I liked Darcie, so I was willing to listen and try to understand her perspective.  I knew I’d landed on an entirely different planet from what I was used to.

A senior in the M.Div program once said to me that seminary “was like a nuclear war on your insides.”  I came to understand what she meant right away.  At least at Drew, we were put through so much self-analysis and scrutiny of our beliefs.  Drew was big on therapy, which was part of the culture of Northern New Jersey.  It was a status thing at that time to admit you were in therapy.  People actually said things like, “I was telling my therapist the other day…” or “Well, my therapist says…”

One of our first courses was Pastoral Formation, led by a pastoral psychotherapist.  We were to examine ourselves and our lives thoroughly and share deeply in small groups.  It was harrowing and nerve-wracking.  What I didn’t realize until later was that going to Drew for me was  like going to an institution created by my  father.  My experience at Drew was sometimes a nightmare of being picked apart and splayed open like a dissected frog, and at other times it was a triumph that I was able to endure and even succeed the spiritual and mental boot camp of “my father’s school.”

Nonetheless, it was exhausting.

On my first day of Introduction to Theology, Dr. Delores Williams closed the door to the classroom and leaned up against it as if to make sure we didn’t escape.  She narrowed her eyes and looked around at all of us.

“Nobody in here believes in the Virgin Birth anymore, do they?” she said mockingly.

What?  No one had ever told me the Virgin Birth was a problem.  I kept my mouth shut and my hand down.  She laughed.  “I thought not,” and proceeded to go into all the reasons why the Virgin birth was a problem.

We didn’t learn any of what came to be known as “White Guy Theology”– no Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, Bonhoeffer, etc.  My Introduction to Theology class was an introduction to Liberation Theology, theologies done by minority peoples.  I didn’t even know this stuff existed, and despite my anxiety and defensiveness, I found it fascinating.  I never considered that anyone’s theology was affected by where they were born, the color of their skin or even their gender.  Therefore I didn’t realize until then that the psychology that my father espoused as gospel was also written by men who studied men, and applied it universally to all people.  Suddenly there was a hole torn into my father’s sacred robes…

My favorite class was with Dr. Bull.  Christian History.  He lectured without notes about early Christianity and how the Bible was put together.  Again, it was news to me that there were so many different gospels written down by many different people.  A committee of bishops voted on what to keep and put into the canon, and what to discard.  Therefore the Gospel of Mary Magdeline was lost… until the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered.  The editing of the Bible was a political act, I learned.

Holes were being torn into everything.

But Dr. Bull was a passionate older man who really got excited about Christian History.  He talked as if he were close personal friends with Augustine (pronounced Au-GUS-tine, not like the Florida town) and was there at the Council of Nicae.  I was enraptured by his lectures.  Dr. Bull was one of the few professors, too, who exhibited a personal faith, oddly enough.  When the Berlin Wall came down that Fall, Dr. Bull started class on his knees, saying a prayer.

Everywhere else, one didn’t want to talk about their faith with just anyone, lest they laugh at you.  It was a community that highly valued intellect above all else.  Most of my classmates had no interest in serving a church, but were on their way to PhDs to teach.  The local church, to them, was a place for non-intellectuals.

I spent a lot of time in Randall Hand’s office, lamenting my anxieties, and needing some spiritual connection.  Randall was different than a lot of people.  He wasn’t a professor, so he had the luxury of being a regular guy.  He had a deep and sincere faith, and was very understanding of my struggles.  I came to rely on him quite a bit that year.

Fortunately, I did make some friends that I could relate to and with whom I could share my struggles.  Debbie was a pastor’s wife and nurse from my own Conference and we found a lot of common ground.  I was one of the youngest seminarians on campus, as the majority of them were on their second or third careers.

I found solace on my walks through the campus, getting lost among the trees and sitting and watching the hundreds of squirrels in their antics.  Drew intimidated the hell out of me.  They wanted to, of course.  The school reeked of superiority.  At the time, I didn’t make the connection to my father and my lifelong struggles to prove myself to him.  Drew was very similar to my father and his values, and in my relentless anxiety, I worked very, very hard to prove myself at Drew.  To prove that was I worthy to be among them and that I wasn’t just some naive kid from Southern Jersey with a blind faith.  I never felt very smart.  I always thought I was rather stupid, in fact.  I didn’t get excellent grades in college.  I didn’t try harder because I thought I just wasn’t able.  But my anger and defensiveness at having landed in The Forest without a map to negotiate my way compelled me to work my butt off.  That first semester I got horribly ill with bronchitis and was down for two weeks.  The remaining weeks in the semester I had to push even harder to catch up.  On my Introduction to Theology final exam, I got an “A,” and my professor was so impressed with my argument against the Virgin Birth (which I still believed in) that she wrote “You are going to be a theologian.”  I’d made it.  I got straight A’s that semester for the first time in my life.

But even with all the accolades of my professors and my classmates, with the straight A’s and Randall Hand even suggesting I would be a bishop one day, I felt empty and lost.  None of it made me feel worthy.  None of it proved to me that I could actually be a pastor.

None of it impressed my father.  So during January break, I decided not to go home, but signed up to go on the seminary choir tour down through the southern states.  I had no idea that my life was about to change.

The Ache of Grace

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“Hurts so good.” “Sweet sorrow.”  Why do we say these things?  Why do good things make us ache?  And why does it feel that if  we name a goodness, a happiness, then we make it go away?

I was 12 when we visited the Allens up in Connecticut.  They’d moved away from the Red Bank area and I was sure we wouldn’t see them again.  The only close friends my parents had were a couple they’d known in college who were also a pastor and his wife.  They were also in New Jersey, so they stayed connected by beings pastors in the same region.

The pastorate was not conducive to friendship.  Parishioners got jealous if a pastor was closer to some members than others.  My father didn’t believe pastors could have friends.  And my mother found it difficult to be honest with people she was friends with;  she couldn’t share any problems or concerns that might reflect badly on my father.

But Chet and Sandie moved away and were no longer “parishioners.”  So I guess they were no longer off limits.  That weekend we went to see them was the “beginning of a long and beautiful friendship.”

Their 8 year old daughter Andrea had gotten some Poppers for Christmas.  They were little cylindrical pieces of foam that you pinched between your fingers, aiming them at other people.  The only thing I remember about that weekend is the Popper-fight that somehow erupted among the adults and children.  It seemed like there was enough Poppers to go around and then some, because the Popper fight went on for quite a while.  Chet and Sandie both attacked me and my mother got into the fray along with Andrea’s little 4 year old brother Chip.  It was like a pillow fight that had gotten out of control.  We were laughing, rolling, dodging, grabbing more poppers off the floor, pinching and popping blindly.  In the end, I could no longer reach any more ammunition, and Sandie was straddling my body on the floor, pelting me with her stash of little pieces of foam.  Finally, we all were on the floor–except my father who opted out of such nonsense–wiping our eyes, holding our bellies and laughing at absolutely nothing.  It was delicious and beautiful, and when Sandie made me surrender, she awkwardly disentangled her legs from my back and stood up.  I rolled over and took my time getting up, wiping the extra tears that formed in my eyes, and fighting the sudden urge to sob.

For those few minutes, I was outside of myself, out of my head, out of my life.  I forgot myself, which didn’t happen often.  For those moments I was free from my constant anxiety, the weighing of all words before I spoke them, the analyzing of every thought and emotion and subsequent self-condemnation.

I felt included.

Chet offered me a hand and pulled me up into a hug.  “You alright there, Peggy Sue?” he asked,  giggling.  The tears still formed in my eyes, but perhaps he thought they were leftover from all the laughter.  I smiled and let myself be held.

I was more than all right.

When we went back south to New Jersey, I replayed those moments over and over in my head, feeling a literal ache in my middle.  I curled up on my side in the backseat and replayed the visit again and again in my head.  I tried to write about it in my journal.  About how the weekend was so good it hurt.

I adored Sandie from that weekend on.  She took up permanent residence in my heart and as time went by, my love for her only deepened and took stronger root.  It didn’t matter that I was so shy I could hardly speak a whole sentence without evaluating it first.  It didn’t matter that I was quiet and timid.  I felt… visible.  She didn’t look through me or past me to my parents.  She smiled when she looked at me, as if she delighted in me.  She was a very touchy person– she was always putting her arm around me, scratching my back, tussling my hair or pulling me into a spontaneous hug.

Whenever we left a visit with them, I wrote every detail down, every touch, every word, trying to freeze it in my memory so I could retrieve it anytime.  So I had evidence it really happened.  That it was real.  It was a delicious pain.  Like eating a piece of chocolate so sweet it made your teeth hurt.

When I turned 14, my father was moved from Red Bank to Woodbury, New Jersey.  I thought my life had ended.  Red Bank was the only home I knew, as we’d moved there when I was five.  I grew up with all the same friends since kindergarten.  I was so shy, despite buying a book on How to Overcome Shyness.  My father thought that emotions were simply things that needed to be fixed and overcome, not felt.  Books, psychology, would fix anything.  Nothing “fixed” my shyness.  I didn’t know how I would survive leaving all my friends and be the new kid in school.

Fortunately, Kemble Memorial United Methodist Church in Woodbury embraced me along with my parents.  They helped me meet new kids before school started, and invited me to various youth activities in the church.  I felt welcomed.  They helped ease the terror of starting in a whole new school and having to make new friends when I was so shy.  They became my family.

The summer I turned 15, I decided to go to a summer camp called Pennington Institute.  It was a church camp put on by our Conference.  I’d never been away from home for a whole week before, but my then-boyfriend Eric was going, so I decided to go too.  The two of us were so painfully shy and awkward that I hoped it would give us a chance to relax with each other a bit, away from home.

Camp started on my birthday, so I didn’t really get to celebrate.  No one else knew it was my birthday, so as soon as my parents left, I kind of panicked.  What had I done?  A whole week?  I didn’t know anyone very well, and Eric already indicated that he wanted to hang out with his best friend.

After unpacking my things in my room, I wandered up to the boys’ floor to look for Eric.  He wasn’t there, so I came down the stairs that led into the main entrance of the building.  There was a crowd of teenagers milling about, greeting each other, dragging duffel bags and tennis rackets.  In the middle of the crowd was the head counselor, Ed, who was a pastor.  He’d been talking to my father earlier.  Ed was in his mid-thirties, and  dressed in shorts and a white T-shirt.  He had a whistle around his neck.  He looked up from the midst of the noisy teens and spotted me.

“Well, well!  What do we have here?” his voice was a deep baritone, loud enough to silence everyone.  They all looked up.  I felt my face get hot, and I stopped mid-step on the stairs.

“First day at camp and she’s already wandering around the boy’s floor.  And a pastor’s kid at that!!”  He gestured wildly with his hands and looked around.  The kids were all smiling up at me.

I could feel myself shrinking inward.  I thought I was in big trouble and I hated being singled out.  I opened my mouth but nothing came out.  Instead, I hurried down the stairs and ran in the opposite direction.

“You can run but you can’t hide, Michael!”  Ed called after me.  The youth around him laughed and resumed chatting.

During those first couple of days, I was so anxious and homesick that I couldn’t eat a thing.  My stomach was  twisted up in knots and I  wanted to go home.  This was a big mistake.  I didn’t go anywhere near Ed, but watched him closely.  He was very funny.  The youth all seemed to love him.  He was… weird.  He teased and joked and acted really goofy.  He made a fool of himself on purpose, to get a laugh.  I didn’t understand him.  The only pastor I really knew was my father, who always wore a tie, who never was silly or goofy, and certainly didn’t play.  My father would never lead a youth camp and found it very hard to relate to “young people.”  Ed was so different than any pastor I’d known.  I didn’t know if I liked it.  Or him.

By Monday, I’d decided I need to go home.  I was so sick to my stomach I’d never make it the whole week, and Eric was off with his buddy all the time.  Monday night, I called my Mom from the payphone in the lobby.  I was crying, begging her to come get me.  She was trying to convince me to stay.  Meanwhile, behind me I heard weeping and loud wailing.  I turned around and Ed was sitting across the lobby, pretending to cry.

“She’s waiting so desperately by the phone, wondering, ‘will he call? Does he love me?’ She doesn’t know.  But she waits, and hopes… oooohhhhhhhh!”  he collapsed into exaggerated bawling.

“Who is THAT?” my mother asked, a bit alarmed.

I couldn’t help but smile.  “Um, that’s Ed.  I guess he’s a pastor.  He’s the head counselor here, he’s a little weird.”

“Oh honey, I love youuuuuu!” Ed lamented in a falsetto voice.  I turned around and looked at him again.

“Oh no, I’m so sorry!” He was suddenly very serious, “I didn’t know you were on the phone, I thought you were waiting for a call, oh my gosh, I am so sorry…” he put his hand over his mouth and looked genuinely embarrassed.  I laughed out loud.

“Sounds like you’re having fun,” Mom said.

“No, no, that was just now, he… I don’t know him really,” I stumbled to recover my argument.  She agreed to come by the next day and see how I was doing and she’d decide then whether to take me home.  I hung up, hopeful.

Ed approached me.  “I really am so sorry, I didn’t know, I wouldn’t have done that… hey, we’re having a gathering in the gym in a few minutes, if you’re feeling up to it, why don’t you join us?”

I knew he could tell I’d been crying and I was embarrassed.  “Yeah, I need to go to my room first,” I said shyly and ran up the stairs.

The next day, my roommate suggested that we go to the pool before my parents came.  Brenda and I walked into the pool room in our swimsuits, me wearing my Dr. Scholls wooden sandals and my towel around my neck.  We walked by the bench where several of the camp counselors sat.

“There goes that Michael kid again, always making trouble…” Ed muttered loudly enough for me to hear.  I ignored him.  He was getting to be annoying.  I just wanted to go home.  I was starving.

Before we found a place to put our stuff down, he was right behind me.  “You going swimming, Michael?” He grinned like the Grinch. “Why wait?” and before I could take my next breath, he’d swung me up into his arms, cradling me.

He walked toward the side of the pool and already kids were chanting, “Throw her in! Throw her in!”  They were laughing and cheering.

As I kicked and screamed, Ed just grinned at me, swinging me back and forth, back and forth.  I felt a rush of anger and frustration as well as a bit of panic.  Brenda rushed over and grabbed my shoes off my feet.  The chanting and laughing went on, and still I felt a mix of embarrassment and anger.  Perhaps sensing that I wasn’t enjoying myself, he swung me a few more times and finally put me down.

“Never mind.  Too soon,” he shrugged.  I relaxed, just as he said, “but this is already damp anyway,” and he threw my towel in the pool.  The kids laughed.  I looked at my towel floating away, looked back at Ed and stomped my foot.  I couldn’t believe it!

A brown-haired guy named Dave was in the pool and grabbed my towel before it sunk.  “This yours?” He held it, dripping, above his head.

“Yes,” and I started to reach for it.

“Thought so!” he said and threw it further into the pool.  I sighed heavily and dove into the pool after my towel.  I swam toward the side and got out, lugging my heavy wet towel, and spotted Ed talking to someone.  I hurried toward him and the person he was talking to to warned him, “Look out!” as I threw my wet towel towards him.  It missed him and landed on the tile floor.

Ed winked and hurried off.

Brenda joined me and we went after him, spotting him here and there around campus before he ducked in another door.  My parents caught me running across campus with Brenda and I admitted that I was ok.  In fact, I realized… I was having a good time.  I stayed the week.  I barely ate a thing because my stomach never calmed down, but I had a good time.

The brown-haired boy named Dave started hanging around me.  Then he held my hand.  Then he kissed me.  I was over the moon.  Eric who?  Dave lived 80 miles away from me, so we didn’t get to see each other much over the few months we were “going out,” but we wrote letters every day, talked on the phone and convinced our parents to drive us to each other’s houses to visit.  It was over by January and my heart was temporarily shattered, but that experience of “first love” was my first taste of being giddy in love.

During that week of camp, Ed sought me out and started conversations with me.  When we made T shirts, I gave myself a “new” name.  I put the name “Peggy Sue” on the T-shirt, a name that Sandie had invented for me when I was 11.  To my new camp friends, I was Peggy Sue.

I watched Ed with other youth.  He was very popular.  He was fun and silly.  How could someone so “important” care at all for me? I wondered.  I didn’t realize until then how much I wished my own father could just love me for who I was and not always try to mold me into what he wanted; his little protege, his enraptured audience, his biggest worshiper.  I ached for a father who could look at me with love, instead of with Freudian analysis, summarizing me like a case study.

Not only did I enjoy the fun times, but I was very attentive during the study times of camp.  When he was serious, Ed was an engaging speaker and preacher.  It was as if he were personal friends with God.  His prayers weren’t formal, but sounded as if he were speaking to a beloved and familiar friend.  Ed was… real.  He got excited about telling us God loved us, or teaching us how the Bible stories related to our lives.  The singing was fun and inspiring to me, and I was moved by the candlelight commitment service.  It was an intense worship service with singing, Bible readings and skits.  It lifted me, empowered me and filled me up.

The week of Pennington–as it came to be for me for three more summers– was a week of intense community, sharing of feelings, hugging,  play and laughter, singing, swimming, and profound God-moments in the candlelight.  When I was at Pennington, I felt free to be myself.  I felt loved, visible, even popular.  In high school, I was a lonely goody two-shoes.  I didn’t fit in.

Going home from camp every year was a jolt to my emotions.  I felt exposed, vulnerable and cut off.  The rest of the world felt so harsh outside of camp.  My parents didn’t understand.  I never understood why they weren’t thrilled that their daughter had such an intense faith experience.  Instead they were annoyed that I was such an emotional mess when they picked me up.

I adored Ed like I adored Sandie and Chet.  He saw me.  He thought God loved me just the way I was, and he also seemed to think I was pretty great.

“Why do you hug him so much?” my mother would ask when I reluctantly folded myself into the car, tears running down my face in a mixture of joy and sweet sorrow.

“We hug a lot at camp, that’s all.”

“He shouldn’t be hugging you so much,” she’d say, meaning Ed.

“He’s like a father to you,” my father would add, “and of course you have sexual feelings toward him, that’s natural…”

“Dad!  I don’t!  Stop!” Leaving Pennington, I felt like my heart was hanging out of my chest, and the world was full of open containers of alcohol.  Rollo wouldn’t stop.  He wouldn’t give me a break, but kept dissecting me, especially at my most vulnerable.  I felt powerless in his presence to stop it.

“It’s true, I know why you love him so much, but he shouldn’t take advantage of that,” he said casually.

“What? He’s not… Dad, just please, be quiet.”  And I’d slump down in the backseat, holding all my camp memories close to my chest, aching so much it felt like I’d break in two.

My growing faith got me through high school.  I struggled daily with depression and anxiety.  I wrote poetry.  I kept a journal, into which I wrote all my feelings, good and bad.  I wrote Sandie and Ed lengthy letters, sharing some of my poetry, and every so often they’d reply.  I wrote letters to all my camp friends, listened to music for hours in my room and played my guitar.  I joined the Adult Choir, the bell choir and acted in plays at church.  Singing was a therapy for me that I savored.  I had a few close friends in high school who were just as nerdy as I was.

God was in the music, the poetry, the highs of summer camp, the candlelight, and in the agonizing periods of darkness and loneliness.  God saturated my life.  In that, I rested and breathed.