The Power of One

My Column for The Elgin Review 10.7.2020

Sometimes all it takes is one person to restore another person’s belief in humanity.

Mike and I are just back from a two-week vacation in the Black Hills. Our plan was to hang out in a beautiful place and keep away from other people as much as possible to avoid the risk of COVID-19. It mostly worked except when we took the 1880’s train from Hill City to Keystone round trip.

Mike’s a train buff. His dad worked on the Union Pacific when Mike was little. Mac died when Mike was fourteen so early memories of riding the rails with him are especially fond. We stopped by the station where signs were posted to stay six feet apart. Sanitizer stations marked the entrances. Plexiglass shields protected souvenir buyers from sales folk and vice-verse.  Comfortable that precautions were in place, Mike ordered our tickets.

Before the conductor yelled, “all aboard” and the engine let out its’ distinctive first “whoosh” of steam, I was already steamed. We were surrounded by people without masks, standing too close to each other on the platform. When we boarded the train, the windows were closed against the chill of the day. On our car every seat was full and only two other couples wore masks. Grandma and grandson wore theirs onto the train, but when they sat down two feet in front of us, they took them off.

The scenery was breathtaking, but I was holding mine (well, trying to) that whole first hour. When we stepped onto the platform in Keystone while the engine switched to the other end of the train to make the return trip, once we were finally socially distant from others, my first words to Mike were,

“I hate people.”

“Oh, Becky. That’s not true. You, of all people, do not hate people.”

I assured my beloved, “Oh, indeed I do.”

“How hard is it to err on the side of caution and wear a mask?” I snapped.

“I hate people.”

Back on the train for the return trip, I was by the window and I opened it despite the chill. With air whooshing in I felt safer.

At the first crossing out of the Keystone station, a lanky young man with a buck-toothed grin in a floppy hat stood outside a white van and waved with great enthusiasm as the train passed. I and others waved back. Surprisingly, the same man stood waving at the next crossing and the next. The older man, at the wheel inside the van, waved too. Fourteen crossings, more than an hour of driving and stopping for the same train. Fourteen times, the young man with the grin and special needs, waved and shared his grin with us. The older man (his dad?) had the route down pat. Perfectly timed. They’d done this routine a gazillion times before. The old man racing the train, stopping and parking again and again and again so the young man could wave and grin as we rode by. 

I wept a little and whispered to Mike,

“I don’t hate people anymore.”

**

If you’ve soured on your fellow humans, if you find yourself wondering where’s the good in this world, I hope you’ll find your way to worship with us at Park Congregational Church ten miles west of Elgin on Highway 70 and ½ mile south where God has never failed to show up to show us self-giving love every time we gather. Worship is at 9:15.

I love hearing from you. My email is beckyzmcneil@gmail.com

I Say There is Hope

My Column for The Elgin Review, Elgin, Ne May 8, 2019

A member of a congregation I once served reached out to me. “If you get a minute, I could use some guidance. In a discussion with my sisters this weekend, all of them said the current political environment continues to push them further from church. They believe they see both Democrats and Republicans using Christianity to tear others apart. And if that’s true, then the church is complicit and is an underlying cause. They feel attending church is now more like belonging to a club, instead of a foundation. This breaks my heart. I know they aren’t alone in this thinking, and I have no idea how to respond. Do you have any thoughts to share? Is there any hope?”

How would you respond?  Are you with my friend? Do you see church as a foundation upon which to build your life? Or, are you more inclined toward her sisters’ view?

In my experience, and in reading church history and the news, church is as it has been throughout millennia, a mix, a collection of human beings joined together for a myriad of reasons, some holy and some wholly unholy. Political parties use Christianity to tear people apart, to sow seeds of dissension and to establish who’s in and who’s out. In far too many cases, Christians bow to the idols of power, influence and wealth and are complicit in the divisiveness of our day.

I’ve had moments when I’ve thought I would just walk away. “Please, don’t associate me with those kinds of Christians.”

I am, however, compelled by a vision of love cast by Jesus who healed and helped and welcomed and lifted up every kind of person toward wholeness and fuller lives. I am compelled by Jesus who empowered all his followers to go and do as he did. In the earliest days the church grew by leaps and bounds because people saw the ways Christians loved others.

I am compelled to cast my lot with the motley crew of the church because I saw a little boy named Calvin, snot nosed, dirty red face streaked by tears, embraced in a big hug by a man who’d never had kids when Calvin burst into a church meeting one evening, “My Daddy’s left and says he’s never coming back. What am I going to do?” Calvin’s dad never came back, but that congregation surrounded Calvin with so much love and so much support that he found his way.

I cast my lot with the church because there is a little congregation in the middle of corn fields where three pajama clad kids wandered in one Sunday morning and asked if anyone had anything to eat. Mom and Dad were still asleep (after a night of partying) and there wasn’t any food in the house. Ever since, the church serves Sunday breakfast to anyone, and now serves breakfast every school day, too, for the kids who wait for the school bus on the corner across the street.

The DNA of the Christian faith is caring for all our neighbors. Out of that DNA has sprung most of the hospitals around the world, most of the orphanages, most of the colleges, universities, and the public school movement, too, the Civil Rights movement here and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. From the church Habitat for Humanity was born, and Alcoholics Anonymous, too.

It seems to me that attending church is something fairly easy to opt in or out of when culture and politics make us all cranky, but being church is more challenging and far more compelling.

I say there is hope.

You are always welcome at Park Congregational United Church of Christ.

At Last

When I climb into bed at night, I giggle. I’ve been giggling as I nestle under the sheets and onto my pillows for the past six and a half years and all indications are, the giggle isn’t going away. Mike noticed it first. “Do you realize you giggle when you crawl into bed next to me?” “Hmm! I guess I do” I agreed.

The giggle is pure delight. Mike is “at last this is flesh of my flesh” to me. Mike is home and my safest place. Mike is my other half. Seeing Mike makes me grin and I can’t help it. Between us, there’s a magnetic field of some sort—drawing us toward each other. We “met” on Match.com. The first time we met for coffee was two months, a whole lot of e-mails and phone calls later. One of my first thoughts when I sat across from him made me blush, Becky! I said, in my head with the inflection my mother might have used when slightly incredulous and to set me straight, what are you thinking? I was thinking, I’d like to run my fingers through his hair right there at his temples.

His eyes are gentle and kind and…they twinkle and the hair at his temples is a gorgeous gray, highlighting his smiling eyes.

We both lived a long time before we found each other.

Mike was married before. His marriage lasted twenty-two years and produced three great kids. He and his ex-wife eventually had different priorities and they were divorced. The failure of his marriage was painful. Mike’s a family man. In fact, he moved out of the family home into an apartment just a block away so he could continue to be a very present father for the two of his children still at home. Sad, angry, lonely he built a new life for himself. When we met he’d been divorced for three years, his marriage had been over except on paper and in living arrangements for several more than that.

I was married before. I was married for nineteen years and our marriage produced three great kids. My ex-husband struggled with mental health issues. For many years he blamed his depression and struggles on external stresses, circumstances and people. Then, I started to get more of the blame. I was sad and lonely and one of my wisest, dearest friends guessed it. She asked “are you happy?” I told her “no, I’m just figuring it out one day at a time. This is the ‘for worse’ of the ‘for better for worse’ parts of the vows.” She said she couldn’t do it. She said she was crazy about her husband and he was crazy about her. I said “all marriages take work”. She said, “and some simply don’t work.” I told her mine was working just fine (even though it wasn’t).

A few months later a neighbor down the street sat me down to tell me she was concerned about my kids. “I don’t think you know what’s happening when you’re away at the church.” I didn’t know. She described a conversation she overheard putting away laundry in the hall while my son and her son and another neighbor boy were hanging out in her son’s room. The anger that had been turned on me was being turned on my children, too.

The divorce was pretty hellish. I don’t know many people who make it through divorce unscathed, we sure didn’t. So, when all the dust settled, and I eventually had full-custody of the kids, I moved home to Nebraska to be near my aging parents and one of my brothers. They helped me and the boys heal, and my brother and I helped our parents navigate some cruel blows from aging.

For eight years I said I was wearing a hat with three bills. Above one it said, “Mom” above another it said, “Daughter” and above the third it said, “Minister.” I just spun the hat around my head depending on the moment. Nowhere on the hat was there room for anything that said, simply, “Becky.”

A bit of Becky time eventually came. My elder two graduated from high school, my youngest was a high school junior, my mother “graduated” too.  And that’s when Mike and I met.

I didn’t know what was missing in my life until I met Mike. I had no idea what marriage could really be even though I tried my darndest to make a good marriage the first go around. There are other stories to be told about divorcing and dealing with guilt and the fact that all of us “miss the mark” all of us fall short in different ways at different times in life. We can wrestle later with thoughts about divorce and sin and forgiveness and the Bible and making sense out of what ancient, yet still living documents teach us about God’s will.

But, I can say this for sure. Mike is a gift to me from God. Of that I have absolutely no doubt.

Mike and I are wholly married to each other in the holy way God imagined and dreamed for all God’s children. Genesis says God looked on God’s very good creation and realized something not yet perfected, “It is not good for the man to be alone.” said God. And God fashioned another human just perfect for the first. Flesh of each other’s flesh, bone of each other’s bone.

All of this story brings me closer to the point I want to make.

Mike and I have six young adult children. What I want desperately for each of them is that they find someone fashioned just right for them to journey with through life. I want each of them to dance with delight because they are so well loved and to find the embrace of one with whom they know they are “home.” One who, at last, is flesh of their flesh. I want them to shiver with the pleasures of intimacy and break into grins when their special other turns the corner. I want them to have that someone they trust and can count on when cancer strikes, when stress is high. I want them to giggle when they climb into bed next to each other even when they are growing old.

I want that for each of our six children and for you and for your children and our neighbors and for our neighbor’s children. And here’s the kicker–one of our kids is gay and that doesn’t change one bit my hopes and prayers and dreams–they are the same for all six of our kids. I want them to know, if they want to know, I want them to really know love. I want them not to have to live life alone. And not to have to pretend to be who they aren’t because there isn’t anything more lonely than that. I don’t care if the one my kid loves is he, she or they. I want them to find the one for whom they say, “at last.”

Once upon a time and even now, there are those so caught up in religious rules and regulations they would deny the holiness of the love Mike and I share because we were both married before. And right now, this very week when there’s so much hurt and so much heart ache and sorrow out there and each of us needs another to shore us up and help us find home, this very week there are religious zealots who have written a heinous and ugly declaration denying the holiness of love to those who are LGBTQ+.

To them I say, Stop it already! God’s love is bigger than your limited imaginations.

And to God I say, Thank you. Thank you. Thank you for second chances. Thank you for the gift of my Mike. Thank you that as soon as I finish writing and click “publish” I will go upstairs and climb into bed and giggle as I nestle under the sheets and onto my pillows and next to my already sleeping sweet husband.

Thank you, God. Thank you. Thank you.

Dr. Leo Perdue

I read today of the death at 70 of my first professor of the Bible.

Dr. Leo Perdue is to blame for me throwing and then stomping all over one of my expensive text books in my dorm room one night midway through my freshman year. “Agggh! This stuff is going to make me lose my faith!” I was legitimately afraid. Who would I be if the stuff he assigned us to read wiped away my faith?

I chose church youth group over ballet when I was fifteen. I refrained from doing (some) things in the back seat of cars with boys because I was the good Christian girl, president of the statewide youth group for my denomination. I was an upholder of good Christian morals. I hadn’t gone to college to lose my faith. I’d gone to deepen my faith and prepare to be a minister. If I lost my faith, who was I and what was I going to do with my life?

Myth in the Bible? No! It was all true, every last word. Different authors within the book of Genesis? How could that be? Various types of Biblical Criticism? Why would one criticize the Bible? Questions about Jesus’ virgin birth? If that’s questionable, what isn’t? If you pull out enough of the Jenga blocks it all falls down. Doesn’t it?

In the midst of my pique of frustration and fear, in my mind’s eye I saw Dr. Perdue. I remember distinctly thinking, he is a good, kind man. He obviously loves God and he loves us. If this stuff hasn’t ruined his faith, maybe I need to stick with it, too.

For your humor, kindness, intellect, faith, curiosity, encouragement and a beguiling touch of absent-mindedness (your burgundy v-neck sweater was inside out the day you arrived at class late because one of your babies had just been born), Dr. Leo Perdue, thank you.

You showed me how, after it first falls down, to build a faith that can be renewed.  For you, and for that, I am eternally grateful.