Still Speaking

Mrs. Clark opened her door after I knocked. “I was baking bread this morning and thought of you. Here’s a loaf. I hope you like it.”  She took in a deep breath, bowed her head and crumpled forward like a flower drooping. Bringing her clasped hands up to her chest a second passed before she breathed again and straightened to meet my gaze. “You remembered.” She said. “You remembered. It’s been a year today since my Walter died.” We visited a little bit there on her cozy front porch before I headed back down the street two houses to my own house where one of my babies was napping and the other two needed to be picked up from nursery school.

I didn’t remember it was the anniversary of her Walter’s death but I let Helen think whatever she wanted to think. But here’s what happened:

I’d been at the church the night before. There was a meeting and as was fairly common for that congregation someone acted ugly about something. Some congregations are truly skilled at arguing about things about which Jesus, the Holy Spirit, God Almighty and all the angels don’t give a rat’s patootie. This congregation got a lot of things right, but boy–howdy some of them sure could act ugly. And sometimes they directed that ugliness at us, their co-pastors. Even when it wasn’t aimed directly at us, some of it usually splattered in our direction.

When I climbed into bed I congratulated myself for not being worked-up about the ugliness. My skin must be getting thicker, I thought. I’ve been doing ministry long enough I’ve learned to let things just roll off my back. I thought. Hmm. I thought, a little over ten years into this and I’m getting the knack of it.

At two a.m. I woke up because someone was sobbing. It took me a moment to realize the person sobbing was me. With a sleeping husband beside me and three sleeping little boys across the hall I stifled myself quickly. And then as I was just waking up to my heart-wrenching doubts that so frequently follow on the heels of church members complaining–I’m not cut out to be a minister, this has all been some big mistake–I heard, in my head, but plain as day, an instruction, “Go downstairs and read.”

For years and years a thin little volume called, A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants (Rueben P. Job and Norman Shawchuck, Nashville: The Upper Room, 1983.) has been my frequent companion, spiritual guide and source of strength. The morning of the church meeting I skipped my prayer time. The boys were little, life was demanding and I just skipped praying (it happens!) In our family room at 2:00 am I turned to the words I missed in the morning, the words I was told to go downstairs to read. The Psalm was about God not abandoning us in a pit. And one of the readings for reflection was from St. Teresa of Avila (Way of Perfection). Part of it read,

Sometimes, too, God allows his servants to have stormy days…although they are distressed and seek to calm themselves, they are unable to do so…Let them not tire themselves seeking to infuse sense into an understanding which is, at the moment incapable of it. But let them pray as well as they can and even not pray at all, but consider the soul to be sick and give it some rest, busying themselves in some other act of virtue.

Wow! I read the words again and again. They sure seemed to be written just for me, just for right then.

I spent the rest of that sleepless night writing a letter to one of our youth group kids who was going through a rough time and making some bad choices in the process and then baking bread so there was a fresh loaf for my family to wake up to and another to share.

By mid-morning I was wondering if I was maybe a little crazy for thinking God had time or inclination to call me downstairs in the night.  But then I took the loaf of bread to Helen Clark for no real reason other than she was the first person who came to mind when I thought about what to do with it.

I bowed my head on my way home from her house. I don’t know how, I don’t understand God’s mysterious ways, but it sure seemed to me, I’d just been used.

I’d just been used by God to carry comfort in the form of freshly baked bread to a woman who needed comforting, and in the process God lifted me from my own little pit of church drama and self-doubt to comfort me, too.

I don’t usually hear instructions in the night. But if God spoke to Joseph and Samuel and others of his servants in dreams and in that still small voice long ago, based on that one night when my children were young and I was, too, I have to believe, as our United Church of Christ brothers and sisters affirm, God is still speaking today. It’s up to us to be sure we listen.

In Bondage

I’m in bondage this morning to two overflowing hampers of dirty laundry.  A shortage of clean undergarments has become a near-crisis. Guests over the weekend disrupted the laundry-doing cycle and contributed three extra sets of sheets and towels to the normal weekly wash. The washing machine will be busy most of this morning. The nice thing about doing laundry is I can do my sermon-writing around it. Breaks to fold and to spray-and-wash stains gives my eyes a break from the computer screen and my brain a break to re-group and think through transitions.

Later today I’m meeting a church member to wash and sort toys in the church nursery. We’re moving the nursery from a great-big room at the end of a long hallway to a smaller, more infant and toddler friendly sized room closer to where most of the Sunday morning action is. Last week when we met we culled the collection of toys and pulled out at least five large garbage bags full of things to donate and another two or three to throw in the trash.

These are the days when I lament. We’re drowning in So.Much.Stuff. The Pixar movie Wall-e haunts me. Poor little Wall-e the trash compactor robot left to roam the earth after humans have fled to cruise-ship like spaceships, trying to compact all the trash piled all over it—I feel his pain especially on days like today.

I know why the church nursery has so many, many toys. People donate their children’s and grand-children’s gently-used toys and over time they just accumulate.

I know why I have all these sets of sheets and towels and extra beds. Mike and I have six adult children between us. We want them to feel free to come home to visit and to bring friends with them when they are able. I have all this laundry to do because we aim to be hospitable–but still, the mounds on my laundry room floor and the bags of toys for the Salvation Army store and the garbage bin remind me of a story from years ago.

I was twenty-six years old and just setting up house in Zaire. The two of us (my ex-husband and I) had been assigned a four bedroom home built by and for Disciple missionary families in the forties or fifties. The house had a lot of windows and I can sew, so an afternoon visit to the merchants in Mbandaka ten miles away provided me with ten dress-lengths of fabric from which to make curtains. The next morning the fabric was piled on a chair in our living room when Bontongu, one of our students at the Pastor’s Training Institute, came to help us out around the house. His eyes widened when he saw the stack of fabric. I told him I was going to make curtains from it and he nodded, still wide-eyed. He said, “My wife has one dress length of fabric from which she made her dress. It is the only one she has since she was full-grown.”

Later that same week Bontongu saw a couple broken drinking glasses in our kitchen trash. He asked if he could have them. “They’re broken.” I said. He nodded. “They’re sharp. You’ll be cut on them.” I said. He said, “I will use a stone to rub the sharp edges until they are smooth and we will be the only family in the school with our own drinking glasses.”

When I get to feeling that I’m in bondage to too much stuff I think of Bontongu who had next to nothing in material possessions and I remind myself that mine is a bondage of my own choosing. Nobody has ever forced me to buy anything. If I want to do something about having too much stuff, the good news is, I can.

Benediction

I witnessed something breathtakingly beautiful yesterday.

It was ten minutes before worship. I was in the sanctuary greeting people and making sure everything was in place. I’m going to say the man’s name is Stan. I’m guessing he’s in his late seventies. In his prime he was a stellar athlete, an outstanding baseball player. Now it takes him twenty minutes just to walk from the sidewalk outside our building into the sanctuary and find his seat in the pew. When Stan walks, the man who used to soar around the bases is curled into the shape of the letter “C.” Lingering back injuries and Parkinson’s disease have ravaged his body. As Stan and I were chatting, little children were running around in the aisles.

I’ll say her name is Kaya. She’s just turned two years old and is as cute as any two year old child to whom God has ever given the gift of life. I mean, she’s make-your-innards-ache cute. Yesterday her red gingham dress was simply icing on the cuteness-cake. From the opposite end of our very long pews she spied me and squealed my name, “Dr. Becky!” Making a bee-line for me I reached my hand in front of Stan to receive Kaya’s spirited high-five. What joy!

Not one to stay in one place very long, Kaya turned and headed back to the other end of the pew. I said, “Kaya, wait.” She stopped and looked at me quizzically. “How about giving Mr. Stan a high-five, too?” She nodded her perfect little head, grinned her perfect little smile and came back. Looking directly up into Stan’s face, Kaya gave him “five” but it was a different gift than that which she bestowed on me. She was more gentle in her approach and then, just as she was about to pull her hand away quickly the way one does when “giving-five,” Kaya paused and simply rested her perfect little hand on top of Stan’s age-ravaged hand and looked him, kindly, in the eye before turning and running to the other end of the pew.

Did I mention, Kaya’s just turned two? It’s only been a month or two since she clung tightly to her mama or tata and peeked shyly from behind their legs.

A crippled-up, proud and kind old man, received his benediction, his blessing on his day, as a free gift from an impossibly beautiful cherub, just before formal worship began.

And God was in that place. And God was in that moment. And tears were in our eyes. And a little child led us.

I love the church.

Unglued

The East High School gym was filled with Samsonite card tables from various eras dug out of basements and garages and covered with white paper, and high school seniors and their parents drinking orange juice from Dixie Cups and pale lukewarm coffee in Styrofoam and eating sweet rolls. At 7:30 in the morning, the din of the senior awards breakfast was deafening. My middle son Daniel was among the honorees. The two of us shared a rickety table with Dan’s classmate Michael and his dad, Jack. People, movement, sound, light, energy was all around me.

I was inside my own bubble looking out. When Jack asked, “So, how are you, Becky? Things good at the church?” it took me a moment to process the thought that I should respond. What I said was, “My mother died last night.” My words fell like a cinder block. The four of us were startled by them. It wasn’t clear our little table could support their sudden weight.

How odd it was to me that the world was going on so normally, and that I and Daniel and the rest of our family would be going about such normal-life things. I’d never before lived a day without my mother being alive. I’d lived most of my adult life hundreds of miles away from Mom, and we weren’t the kind of mother and daughter who talked to each other on the phone all the time. But always, always, my whole life she’d been there. And now, not suddenly, because her death had been a long time coming, and not surprisingly, because we had been keeping vigil and caring for her as she labored into eternal life for weeks by that time, now she was simply, gone. It was an odd, disorienting feeling.

The memory of that morning, of my feelings nine years ago returned earlier this week and linger here. Out on the deck this ridiculously pleasant Saturday morning in mid-August in Nebraska, it is so beautiful I thought, “Even my Colorado cousins can’t beat this perfection.” But, just under the surface of that thought I am disoriented. Despite all the immediate surrounding evidence to the contrary, all is not well. The perfect breeze, the ideal temperature, the green, green trees and blue, blue sky belie the heavy truth.  Our nation is in trouble. Our churches are in trouble. Our neighbors are in trouble.

Vulnerable people all around the world have been in trouble always, but, this week, every week this past year, more and more of those whom I know and love who had been less vulnerable than the most vulnerable are feeling more and more threatened, more and more afraid. Immigrant friends, brown friends, gay friends, Muslim friends, and now Jewish friends—can it really be that in 2017 in the U.S.A. on Saturday morning a week ago a congregation at worship was menaced by Neo-Nazis wielding automatic weapons?

Out of the blue the other night a friend from far away texted me, “Are you concerned for your safety?” His reason for asking was different than my reason for replying a hesitant, simple, “Yes.”

I almost flunked the Rorschach ink-blot test when I took the battery of psychological tests required by the church before sending missionaries overseas back in my twenties. There was some image in which almost any sentient human being sees a gun, but Pollyanna me, I saw something completely innocuous instead. A night in my forties spent curled up in the fetal position bracing for the possibility I could be shot cured me of any lingering naiveté about how vulnerable all of us truly are to each other. One hurting, unglued human can wreak havoc.

I know that now. And now we see the evidence there are myriads of hurting humans among us and some of them are coming unglued.  It hasn’t happened suddenly and it shouldn’t be a surprise.

We have to process this thought; it’s time for each of us to respond. It’s time to speak up for those who are threatened, even if that means we may be threatened, too. It’s time to pray and to bravely unleash the power of love. Maybe there’s still time to make whole that which and those who are coming unglued around us.