Gifts to Each Other

My Column for The Elgin Review July 29, 2020

We were in the same work-group, side by side on our knees pulling weeds from a flower bed in front of Child Saving Institute in Omaha during a regional church meeting years ago. I was living in Lincoln and chose the Child Saving Institute project because I was adopted through the agency as a baby. My ties to the place were deeper than the roots of the weeds we were pulling. He was from one of the Omaha churches. As we worked in the hot sun, we got acquainted. He was gregarious and funny. He wore kindness like cologne and had a smile that lit his face, spontaneously lifting my spirit.

In the way conversations have of traveling from one subject to another, as we moved from weeding to mulching our conversation came around to my youngest son’s Asperger’s Syndrome. Ben was in middle school then. Middle school was better for Ben than grade school, but there were still challenges. I was concerned about the possibilities for Ben’s adult life. I don’t remember the details of our mulching conversation. What I remember is Merlin listened with kindness and then joyfully told me he had Asperger’s Syndrome, too.

Earlier, with glee, Merlin told me his love story about meeting and marrying Tami.  He told me about his Ph.D. and his work. Here, in the flower beds in front of the agency that had been my first home, the orphanage where I was gifted with my family, was an embodiment of hope that my youngest son might one day live a rich and full adult life—might marry, could have a meaningful career, could be a beloved, contributing member of his community.  Merlin was the first adult “Aspie” I ever met. Generously, he offered to talk with me any time. He was eager to meet Benjamin, and promised me to be of whatever help Ben might need mapping out his future.

Merlin was a gift to me from God. Merlin and Tami moved away from Omaha years before Mike and I moved back to the city so my friendship with him has been mostly through Facebook. If you’re a parent, you know the deep appreciation I feel for this man who took keen interest in my son. When Ben graduated from High School, Merlin was one of his cheerleaders from afar. When Ben graduated from college, I didn’t have to see Merlin’s smile to feel him beaming from hundreds of miles away.

Last week, Merlin posted a picture of himself beaming from inside what looked like a clear plastic robot head. He was in the hospital in California where he worked as a speech therapist in a nursing home. The funny looking contraption on his head was an Italian invention being used to keep Merlin off a ventilator. He had COVID-19. Merlin joked about the sounds his robot head made. They sounded like flatulence and it made him laugh. I laughed when I read his post.

Yesterday afternoon I received word Merlin died. The Italian flatulent robot-head apparently was no match for this dread-disease. I’m not laughing today.

Until now, other than John Prine, whom I’ve heard live in concert, those who’ve died from COVID-19 have been far-away strangers to me. I’ve been fortunate and thankful it hasn’t been as bad as I feared it might be.

Ben’s brother, my middle son, is awaiting the results of the COVID test he took last week. He’s been under the weather for days in Pittsburgh, PA where he lives. This morning COVID-19 is not far away, it’s close to home even though we don’t have many cases here in Antelope County. Will you pray with me for a vaccine, for effective treatment, for Dan and all who await test results, for those who are ill right now, for Tami and all those who’ve lost someone they love?

Thank you for doing everything in your power to be safe and to keep each other safe. We are God’s gift to each other. Just like Merlin was to me.

**

Park Church is going back indoors for August as long as Antelope County doesn’t have a spike in COVID-19 cases this week. You are welcome to join us for worship 10 miles west of Elgin on HWY 70 and ½ mile south or via Zoom at 9:15 every Sunday morning. I am always interested in hearing from you. Beckyzmcneil@gmail.com.

 

Pressing Matters

My new spiritual discipline is ironing.

Mother ironed a lot.

She was ironing when the news announcer

broke into the afternoon programming

on our black and white Zenith portable tv

to say that J.F.K. had been shot.

I was three years old.

I remember the familiar, cozy-like smell

of sheets and shirts freshly pressed and hot–

steam rising in front of mother’s sad, sweet face.

 

The basement of the parsonage is cool.

It’s quiet and roomy and smells of years of clean laundry.

I set up Mike’s mother’s ironing board to use when sewing

but in recent weeks I’ve started ironing many things:

his handkerchiefs I used to simply smooth with my hand,

pillowcases, our COVID masks, the top part of top sheets

determined to fold over in odd little bits, our worn cloth napkins.

Under the iron, fibers fall in line

a quick spritz of water flattens the fate of recalcitrant wrinkles.

The hot, crisp smell promises all will be well.

 

As if I could iron out the wrinkles in my heart,

the folded over places in my mind.

As if the assassination of reason, the crumpling of decency,

the handkerchiefs heavy with sobs and snot from

demonstrators demeaned and detained by dictatorial bullies

could be spritzed and sprayed and fixed

with a hot iron and steam rising indignant off of sweet faces.

I am sad. I miss my mother.

Turn off the news.

Keep ironing, keep pressing on.

 

Every Life Deserves a Lifetime

My column for The Elgin Review 7.15.2020

Driving south on Highway 14 there’s a billboard north of Elgin’s city limits with a sweet baby on it. The sign says, “Every life deserves a lifetime.” In smaller print it says, “pro-life.”

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be pro-life. Cardinal Joseph Bernardin in 1983 wrote and spoke of the consistent ethic of life, teaching that all human life is sacred and to be protected.

I wonder if it’s easier for us to agree with the Cardinal when protecting life is no real inconvenience to us? Putting up a sign, standing in a life-chain, buying a “choose life” license plate requires of us little effort and no real inconvenience. If that’s being “pro-life” it’s easy.

It’s more difficult to affirm that every life deserves a lifetime when it’s someone we love who is facing an unplanned pregnancy and is in no position to raise a child. It’s more difficult to affirm that every life deserves a lifetime when study after study proves that what actually works to diminish abortions is not changing laws, but paying to provide a social safety net and easy access to birth control and health care. When poverty decreases, abortion rates decline—but to make that happen, we have to decide that caring for the poor is a priority worthy of our tax dollars.

It’s more difficult to affirm that every life deserves a lifetime when Capital Punishment is what is being considered and the lifetime is that of one convicted of a heinous crime, or when our nation’s military is engaged in endless wars, leaving dead children and civilians who are foreigners as collateral damage. Do foreigners also deserve a full lifetime?

Being pro-life is easy when it requires nothing of us, when it’s as simple as voting for the candidate who claims to be pro-life, and putting yet another bumper sticker on the back of the van or truck.

I wonder, if we’re pro-life why is it difficult to affirm that Black Lives Matter? If we’re pro-life, why are we willing to sit quietly by while our justice system serves up death in too many instances to unarmed people of color?

And, even closer to home, I wonder, if we’re pro-life why aren’t we doing everything in our power to make sure we aren’t spreading a potentially deadly virus to our neighbors? Why aren’t we, at a minimum, wearing a mask every single time we’re out in public? Why aren’t we bending over backwards to keep our neighbors and loved ones safe? Why aren’t we foregoing the night at the bar, the baby shower for our niece, the picnic with our friends, when by not getting together we can keep each other and our community safer from a disease that is deadly to some?

If every life deserves a lifetime, maybe we need to be more willing to be a little inconvenienced, a little uncomfortable, a little bored and lonely for the foreseeable future.  Maybe we need to be willing to be taxed in one way or another.

Or maybe, it’s only a billboard and we don’t really mean what it says at all.

**

Park Church is back to worshipping outdoors at 9:15 on Sunday mornings as a result of the up-tick in COVID-19 cases in Antelope County. You are welcome to join us for worship on the church grounds, or via Zoom. Those worshipping in person are wearing masks and maintaining 6 foot distances between families. I welcome your comments and questions. Beckyzmcneil@gmail.com 402.540.5615

 

Rich

My Column for the Elgin Review June 17, 2020

Once upon a time there was a girl who didn’t like me. She made it clear to other girls that she didn’t like me and told them they shouldn’t like me, either. So, they didn’t. She didn’t know me, but she knew my father was a doctor so we had to be rich and I therefore, had to be spoiled and, as a result she didn’t like me. It took two years of me being ostracized by that group without my having any idea why, before she sought me out to apologize. “I hated you because your father’s rich. I told the other girls to snub you. Now, I know you’re actually pretty nice. So, even though your father’s rich, I owe you an apology.”

I was speechless. I accepted her apology but had no interest in then becoming friends. What I wanted to do was tell her about my father. I didn’t do it then, so instead I’ll tell you.

Daddy drove cool cars and had a snazzy sense of style. With Dad’s cool car and snazzy clothes, I understand someone thinking we were rich, and certainly we always had more than enough. We lived in a new, nice but modest, 1200 square foot brick ranch home. We took two weeks of vacation every year to camp and visit national parks. But the truth was Dad grew up dirt poor in rural Iowa and he never forgot what it was to be poor. He went through medical school courtesy of the U.S. Army and paid the country back by taking care of sick kids and soldiers in Sendai, Japan during the Korean conflict. Daddy once told me, “it didn’t matter the color of the soldier’s skin, or which nation’s uniform they’d been wearing, stripped down to their skivvies they were all just scared little boys wanting the war to end so they could go home.”

When I was seven Dad took me and my brother John to the bank and opened savings accounts for us and started giving us an allowance. A whole dollar each week! We were taught to give one tenth of it to the church, 5 cents to Sunday School and 5 cents in the sanctuary. We were taught to put one tenth of it into our savings accounts so we could one day go to college. We were supposed to save ten cents each week in piggy banks on our dressers so when we wanted to buy gifts for others, we’d always have money set aside to do that. The rest was ours to spend as we chose.

Dad did the same with the money he earned. When court ordered bussing came to Omaha and there was white flight from our neighborhood, Dad kept his medical practice where it had always been. “This is the neighborhood I serve.” When insurance companies started dictating what he should charge for different procedures, he rebelled. “I won’t charge more than seventeen dollars for an office visit, because that’s all I need to charge, and it’s all most of my patients can afford to pay.”

Dad was a musician, a physician, a philanthropist, a good friend. He was a bridge player, a faithful spouse, a fisherman and a thespian. He loved words (forever sending me to look things up in the big dictionary on our hearth), and books and gardening. He walked four miles each day with his best friend, Vic, and sang in the Symphonic Chorus. When dementia set in in his eighties, he still loved a nice Pendleton sweater, a cold beer, scaring his nurses with a rubber snake, and holding his great grand kids. Dad was man of faith, and he loved us kids and our kids and all kids. Nine years now he’s been gone, and I miss him.

I want to tell that girl, wherever she is now, I am rich, not because of money, but because Marshall Zahller was my Dad.

Happy Father’s Day to all the men whose children are rich in all the ways that truly matter because of them.

**

Park Congregational Church United Church of Christ is worshipping outdoors during the month of June. You’ll find us masked, sitting under a grove of trees at 9:15 on Sunday mornings. We’d love to have you join us. You can reach me at beckyzmcneil@gmail.com and 402.540.5615My

The Way Things Are Done

My Column for The Elgin Review

June 10, 2020

In 1989 we hung our baby’s cloth diapers on a clothesline in our backyard on laundry day. Without fail, when Adam’s diapers hung in the sun, our neighbors across the alley lit their trash on fire in a barrel they kept on their side of the alley. Burn barrels were against federal and state laws inside city limits by that time, but in the small, county-seat town a lot of people still used them. “We’ve always done it this way.”

We walked around the block to ring our neighbor’s doorbell to introduce ourselves. They knew who we were. (It was a small town. Everyone knew we were the preachers). Kindly, we asked if they minded not using their burn barrel while the baby’s laundry hung on the line 30 feet away. They said they minded. They burned trash whenever there was trash to burn. They’d “always done it that way.”

The only air-conditioning in our big old house was two window units on the first floor. One hot day our windows were open while Adam napped in his crib in the nursery. The smoke detector went off in his room. A gray stench and haze from the neighbor’s burn barrel filled his room.

“Could we set up a schedule?” We asked when we visited them again. “Would you burn your trash on Wednesday afternoons and evenings and on Sunday mornings when all three of us are at the church?” “No.” they said. “We’ve always burned trash whenever we want to. We’re not going to change how we do things now.”

A call to the police to ask if anything could be done was answered with, “It may be against the law, but it’s the way we’ve always done things.” Attending a city council meeting with a dozen church members who were also tired of burn barrels in town received the same response, “we’ve always done it this way.”

That’s when hang-up calls started in the middle of every night. We had to answer. We were pastors– people expected to reach us in an emergency at all hours. After two long weeks of that, the police called us at 2:30 one morning. Could I meet them at the church? Something seemed amiss. They saw a light flicker inside the building. I dressed, drove to the church, walked around the outside of the building with the officers, unlocked the doors and did a complete walk through with them. Nothing was amiss.

It turned out, one of the policemen working the night shift was our back-alley neighbor’s son. It was the way things were done.

I believe our black, brown and indigenous neighbors who tell us of abuses of power by police in their towns and cities. I believe it is the way things are done. Not everywhere and not all the time, but, when police power was mis-used against me years ago, I lost sleep. Protestors across our country and around the globe are testifying in the court of public opinion telling us that when police power is mis-used against black, brown and indigenous people, far too often, they lose their lives. Too often it is the way things are done and it needs to stop.

Scripture warns against those “who speak peace with their neighbors, while mischief is in their hearts.” (Psalm 28:3b). Those who are sworn “to protect and to serve,” must pay attention to what is in their hearts. Ours will be a better world when that’s the way things are done.

**

Park Church is worshipping outdoors during the month of June. You are welcome to join us on the church lawn at 9:15 am wearing a mask. I love to hear from you. Beckyzmcneil@gmail.com and 402.540.5615.

 

White Flags

My Monthly Column in The Antelope County News

June 10, 2020.

Rev. Dr. Rebecca Z. McNeil

“Somebody’s father, somebody’s mother, somebody’s brother, somebody’s daughter, somebody’s child, somebody’s grandpa, somebody’s lover, somebody’s best friend, somebody’s coffee-drinking pal, somebody’s fishing buddy, somebody’s co-worker, somebody’s aunt—” For every white flag planted in front of First Congregational Church the past month, I have said, out loud, “somebody’s someone.”

Covid 19 memorial

I do not know the names or the stories of the Nebraskans who have died from COVID-19 this spring but I know they were loved and I know they are missed by somebody who is our neighbor.

When we started our memorial in front of our church building on May 6th, we planted ninety-one flags for ninety-one Nebraskans who died too soon and quite possibly alone, apart from their families in an isolation unit in a hospital cared for by heroic nurses and physicians. As I write today, one month later, there are one hundred ninety-six flags whipping in the wind in front of the church building.

On Friday afternoons at 3:00 pm, we’ve been ringing our church bell. It tolls once for every Nebraska life lost to this dread disease. Last Friday it took over twenty minutes to toll our bell that many times. We toll the bell at 3:00 pm on Fridays because it was at 3:00 pm on a Friday when Jesus drew his last breath and died. Though we may not know them, according to our Christian faith, those who have died are to be like Christ to us.

All of us are tired of social distancing. All of us are uncomfortable wearing masks. All of us just want life to get back to normal, but for one hundred and ninety-six Nebraska families and counting, their new normal includes a gaping hole of grief where once was somebody special. We owe it to them and to their loved-ones’ memory and to our own loved-ones, to remain diligent and careful so we can stop planting white flags in the church yard.

 

Getting by with a Little Help from our Friends

My column for The Elgin Review 5.24.2020

“Each of us is just one tragedy away from needing to rely on the goodness of others to get by.”

I was raised on good conservative values of hard work and self-sufficiency. I was a good student, I worked hard, I waited to marry until I had my college degree, I completed two more degrees, I waited to have children until I’d been married several years so we could provide for the kids, I lived within my means, I put money into savings, I drove carefully, I abided by the law, I voted, I saw the dentist twice a year, brushed my teeth twice a day and flossed (more often than not). Yet there I was in my therapist’s office wrestling with the truth that, for the sake of my sons, and myself, I had no choice but divorce. “I can’t possibly divorce.” I said. “I can’t earn enough money on my own to pay all the bills and he isn’t earning enough to rent a place of his own and then pay child-support on top. I can’t work full-time and take care of the boys. I live far from my family. I just can’t. I can’t stay married but I can’t divorce, either.”

That’s when my therapist said my sense of self-sufficiency was really only an illusion. We all need each other to get by. Maybe if we’re Bill Gates or Warren Buffett we’re not one tragedy away from needing the goodness of others to survive, but since most of us aren’t either of those two gentlemen, the truth is, despite all our hard work and good planning, life sometimes throws curve balls that leave us unable to do it all ourselves. That’s part of being human.

This past week I helped a friend who suffered a cascade of calamities. A job didn’t work out in a town she moved to just to take the job. Without the job she couldn’t afford her house. In the middle of looking for work she suffered a serious health problem—without health insurance, because that had been tied to her job. The health condition means she can’t drive the car she has a lease on that she can’t pay for because she no longer has a job, and she can’t get a job right now because of the health condition and so on. She found herself needing a ride to her home state to apply for housing assistance and to see if she can figure out a way to get on her feet closer to home.

She reached out to me out of the blue. I hadn’t heard about her cascading calamities. Why did I drive as far as I drove, wearing an N-95 mask for hours on end (because she couldn’t survive COVID-19 on top of everything else) to help a friend I hadn’t heard from for over a year? Because she needed help. Just like I needed help years ago when I had no choice but to divorce my husband and raise our boys on my own. Except, I didn’t raise them on my own. I raised them in a community with great neighbors and great friends and a congregation and my brother and a whole host of others who helped us. Helping each other is part of being human, too.

During these difficult COVID-19 days, let’s all look for ways to help our neighbors. And, when we need it, let’s not be afraid to reach out for some help for ourselves. Chances are, anyone you ask for help has needed help themselves, too.

**

Park Church is still worshipping via Zoom. You are welcome to join us for worship at 9:15 on Sunday mornings. Contact me for the connection information at beckyzmcneil@gmail.com or 402.540.5615

There are no Sirens for this Disaster

My Column for The Elgin Review 5.13.2020

I was fifteen when the tornado ripped through Omaha on May 6, 1975. The sky was an eerie green as I walked home from junior high. My mind that afternoon wasn’t on the sky but on my big plans for the evening. I’d been invited on a date with a high school boy to go to his end-of-the-year band banquet. It was my first “long-dress” date. Mother and I had been shopping and my dress was perfect for the occasion. I headed home to put pearly-pink Cutex polish on my fingernails and to use a curling iron on my long blonde hair.

I made it home but before the first coat of nail polish was dry, the restaurant where the banquet was to be held was demolished along with a swath of destruction right through the middle of the city. The tornado stopped just a couple miles south of our house. The miracle that day was despite it being one of the costliest tornados to strike anywhere in the United States, only three people died.

People paid heed to the sirens and took shelter and when the dust settled the community pulled together to help families and businesses rebuild their lives and livelihoods. Omaha, Nebraska made the national news while three families grieved their loved ones lost in the storm.

Our May skies this year have alternated between gun-metal gray and spirit-lifting blue. Perhaps if they were green or yellowish-brown or some other ominous, threatening shade, we would be doing a better job of preparing for disaster and heeding the warnings about Covid-19. Our warning sirens are not constantly sounding, and this disaster will not blow through and blow over in the course of one frightening afternoon. It’s one thing to take shelter for several hours when the sky is green and heavy.  It’s been entirely another to do so for two months in the spring. We’re itching for things to get back to normal. But this storm isn’t leaving only three casualties in its stealthy, silent wake.

Let’s talk about the death toll. As I write, ninety-six Nebraskans have died from this unfolding disaster. When this column goes to print, how many more will have died laboring to breathe in ICU beds far from their families? That’s ninety-six Huskers who are somebody’s father, somebody’s mother, somebody’s grandparent, somebody’s uncle, somebody’s daughter, somebody’s son. Gone.

It is up to each of us to protect one another from this storm. It is up to each of us to choose to heed the warnings, to stay away from each other, to miss the date we’ve dreamed of, to give up the big occasions, to pass on the parties and the gatherings for this season, and maybe longer. It’s up to each of us to maintain a minimum of six feet distance from one another. It’s up to each of us to choose to wear a mask, as ugly and uncomfortable as they are, every single time we’re out among others. My mask protects you and your mask protects me.

I know Nebraskans. I know we protect each other in a storm. I know we help each other take cover when ominous skies head our way. Think of Covid-19 like a big old, slow motion, EF-5 churning our way. This one isn’t going to be over any time soon, and it is going to leave an economic path of destruction. Let’s make sure it doesn’t take our loved ones with it, too.

**

Worship is one way to seek refuge during life’s storms. If you would like to worship with Park Congregational United Church of Christ, you are always welcome to join us at 9:15 on Sunday mornings. Right now we are worshipping via Zoom. Contact me for the connection information. beckyzmcneil@gmail.com 402. 540-5615.

Teachers

My Column for The Elgin Review 5.6.2020

“I like your brother John.” Those five words are the words I remember most from High School.

Mr. Burns was one of many English teachers at Benson in Omaha. I was a junior in his honors level Humanities class. He taught us Melville and Hemingway in what he called our “Fishing Unit.” Along with The Old Man and The Sea and Moby Dick, the unit included the enormously popular book that year, Jaws, by Peter Benchley. Mr. Burns created the fishing unit because a boy in the class, Rodney, loved to fish. He was a boy who was constantly ridiculed and who I now assume lived with autism. Mr. Burns created a unit to include a boy who was otherwise excluded and in doing that taught twenty-eight 16, 17 and 18-year-olds more about being humane than any combination of books could have done alone.

My brother was a Senior that year. He should have graduated the year before but he had dropped out of school for a while. He ran away from home several times from the time he was 15 before leaving for good. His pot-stash in a tennis ball can had been the center-piece of our kitchen table one night during dinner. Stone cold silence while our family ate exploded into a yelling war between my father and John while my younger brother and I escaped outdoors as soon as dessert was done. John snuck out that night and didn’t ever return to live at home. He couch-surfed with friends and I worried he would over-dose and die somewhere and we wouldn’t even know he was dead.

I didn’t realize John was back in school that year until I saw his long blonde hair from behind in one of the crowded hallways during passing period. It had been a long time since I’d seen him.

I don’t remember the exact context in which Mr. Burns said, “I like your brother John.” It was after class, and somehow, I knew John was in one of Mr. Burn’s other English classes. I was always concerned someone might think I was like my brother. It caught me by surprise to hear Mr. Burns say he liked my brother.

My brother was troubled. All the adults I knew said comforting things to me about him. Things like, “Maybe someday he’ll come around” and “I know how hard it has to be to have your family shattered this way.”

Mr. Burns said he liked John. And I’ve never forgotten his words. Mr. Burns helped me begin to see John in a different light, a kinder light. Mr. Burns gave me permission to like my brother, too.

Often times what teachers teach is so much more than the curriculum. In high schools everywhere good people like Mr. Burns are helping young people grow to be more humane, more broad-minded, better equipped to see situations and people in more than one way, in a better, truer light.

As this weird school year draws to its close, let’s give God thanks for every hard working school teacher everywhere who teaches kids and reaches kids with lessons that go beyond the curriculum, lessons that make us all more humane and inclusive and loving.

Thanks, Mr. Burns. I’m a better person because you were my teacher.

**

Park Church is a place where no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome. We’re worshipping via Zoom right now. Contact me and I’ll let you know how to join us on Sundays at 9:15. Beckyzmcneil@gmail.com 402.540.5615.

 

Running Amuck

While Covid-19 fills the news and disrupts our lives, we are reminded, sadly, it is not the only illness running amuck. Racism remains an illness to the core of our nation. While Mike and I were out walking the other night a truck with Nebraska plates drove past down Main Street. In the window was a confederate flag—a blatant dog-whistle for white supremacy.

I asked Mike, “Why? Why would anyone think that’s okay?”

When we got home, I scrolled through my Facebook feed and first learned the name Ahmaud Arbrey. He’s the unarmed young black man who was shot and killed by white men, a father and son, while he was out running in his neighborhood in Brunswick, Georgia in February. At first the case was swept under the rug by local officials, but now, after good investigative journalism by the New York Times and a video of the killing became public, the case will be taken to a grand jury. Time will tell if there will be justice for Ahmaud. But no matter what, Ahmaud’s mother will never get to hug her son again. And, every young black man in the nation wonders now if he’s safe when he goes out for a run.

I’ve been to Brunswick, Georgia on vacation. It’s a lovely seaside town. But, obviously under the surface seen by tourists, there’s an ugliness there. A confederate flag in the window of a truck in Antelope County, Nebraska makes me wonder what about us? How deep is the infection of racism here? What will we do to stop its spread?

The Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Galatia saying, “There is no longer Jew nor Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28 NRSV). Ahmaud Arbrey was one of us. He went out running and now he’s dead.