I was doing my thing at the nursing home, preaching my sermon, singing the old songs. In the middle of the chorus of one song, it hit me. Turns out I wasn’t quite over the stomach virus, and the rumbling presence in my belly decided it wanted to make a quick exit.
Luckily I kept it together to the end of the song. I offered the benedictory in record time: “The-Lord-bless-you-and-keep-you-the-Lord-make-his-face-to-shine-upon-you-and-be-gracious-unto-you-amen.”
The weakness of the flesh is quite insistent sometimes, even for us holy guys.
So I’m bolting for the door, thinking I can just make it out of there without something happening that hasn’t happened since I was a kid.
But a little lady used her wheelchair like a cop uses a car to block the road. Fine. I tried the the catch-and-release handshake trick that you have to do when you’re moving fast through a crowd.
But she wouldn't let go.
“I need to tell you something,” she said with the urgency of an old woman who needs to say something while she’s still alive and can still remember.
I couldn't brush her off because I saw she had a legitimate need. But I also knew I was a goner. I wished one of my pentecostal friends had been there to do a miracle of healing.
In the name of JAY-SUS, I command you to to come out of him, you demon of diarrhea.
No wait. Command it to stay put for just a little longer.
"Do you have just a minute?" she asked.
“I wanted to tell you,” she said, “that many years ago, my daughter died.”
“Oh?” I said sympathetically, but thinking, I can't last much longer....
“Her boyfriend beat her to death.”
“Oh no!” I said more sincerely.
“While we were singing today, I could feel her with me, and she was singing with us.”
This was important. I was interested. Dear Lord, keep my bowels intact for a few more minutes.
“I just needed to tell you that and to thank you,” she said, and she teared up.
“Thank you for telling me this,” I said more slowly. “May God bless you and keep you.” And I touched her face. I wanted to kiss her cheek, but I had never met her before and besides, I might still have been contagious.
I left the nursing home and did a quick stiff legged walk to the car. I decided I had waited this long, I might as well drive the five blocks home and use my own bathroom in my own home.
I was back at the nursing home today, and I saw the woman again. She was different this time, staring blankly into space, her mind locked away behind worn out brain cells. Maybe she really hadn't been able to wait one more minute to share herself and her daughter with me.
I feel better now, but honestly, I’m still trying to process the moment I almost missed as I was trying to get away.
Monday, March 11, 2013
Tuesday, February 26, 2013
I’m taking the week off.
I think I needed it. Five funerals last month. Impossible tasks looming in front of me. A couple of people wanting to start a fight with me and I’m feeling more than willing to engage. Very few quiet moments, and when I do find one, I start crying. So yeah, a little time off is appropriate.
But the first day (yesterday) is a little dicey. My wife is tense and trying to finish taxes and I’ve just had the same conversation with her for the third time on something. It’s raining buckets and I can’t go outside. I get a call about a death in the community. I don’t need to do the funeral but I did need to make a visit. And there were a couple of teenagers I needed to speak to because I was worried about them.
Late in the night, I get a snippy email from a church member about a scheduling problem. I wrote her that we would keep all our obligations, that I would work it out with her when I got back, and I refrained (admirably, I think) from calling her a bitch. I also sent communiqués to the secretary and a staff member, not to let themselves be stampeded by this person while I was away.
Last night I dreamt one of their former ministers, a woman who was much beloved (I like her too) came back while I was away, and I could hear people talk of how they missed her terribly.
Then I dreamed I came back from vacation and someone had taken all of the furniture from my office.
After careful self examination, I’ve made a clinical diagnosis: I’m crazy.
And tonight, I’m taking a valium.
Monday, February 11, 2013
Another funeral today. If you’ve read this blog you know I do a lot of them.
Today’s was a gravesite service. The funeral director called me last night because the family didn’t have a church. And they didn’t know who to call. The director called me because I’m his pastor and he knows I won’t say anything hurtful or too stupid.
I didn’t know the woman’s name when I drove to the cemetery. I didn’t even know it was a woman. She was elderly and had been sick for a long time and it was a mercy that she passed.
They had picked a song to be played on a stereo and I decided it should be first. It was a sweet sad country piece, and it did the job it was supposed to do. I watched tears fall. I saw people get up from their seats to go sit close to someone they loved. Hands reached out and arms wrapped around the shoulders of another.
You can see things if you know what I know. I saw people who worked hard but were poor. They drank too much. In younger days they partied a lot, but not so much anymore because they were tired. I saw they had unresolved conflict between each other, had lashed out and hurt each other in the past, but they still loved each other and would share their sadness with each other today.
My God, I felt my emotions rising and I thought I was going to lose it before I even stood to speak to these strangers.
But they weren’t strangers. I’ve known them all my life. I tamped down my feelings and stood to be their minister.
I may not see any of them again but at that moment, I loved them.
Monday, February 4, 2013
Recently, a woman visited my church who knew me in another context. She came because she was in great emotional pain, and she knew she was welcome in my church. When she came forward for Communion, I put my arm around her shoulders because she looked so worn out, and she leaned in to kiss me on the cheek.
She never kissed me before and hasn’t since, and no one else ever kissed me at Communion but it seemed appropriate considering her circumstances.
In the fall, when I left my son at college, I almost couldn’t bear it. I put my arms around him and kissed him on the cheek, even as my eyes began to leak. Since he was a baby, he has felt my furry face brush his cheek as I pressed my lips against him. When I left him I realized it had been too long since the last time I had kissed him. I decided right then to do it more often with both my sons.
Then I remembered the feel of my dad’s whiskers when he kissed me.
You know what I wish? I wish it were okay to give the people I most care about a kiss on the cheek, and I wish we didn’t have to wait until moments of parting or great pain.
In some cultures this is perfectly acceptable and I notice that Hollywood people kiss each other all the time, but I don’t live there. Around here, a guy doesn’t normally kiss another guy on the cheek, and he sure doesn’t kiss another man’s wife.
The woman who kissed me that day is not attracted to me, nor I her, but it was powerful and it made me tear up. For the life of me, I cannot put into words what exactly transpired in that moment of contact. Well, maybe I can: desperation, loneliness, gratitude, love,….
No, I can’t really find the words.
Friday, January 18, 2013
At the ministers’ meeting, I sat at a table where I knew some of the guys. I didn’t know them all, but I could see they were all ministers. Trust me, we recognize each other.
Except I saw one man at the table whom I was sure was not a minister, although he was dressed like one with his dark suit and tie. He looked a little like one of us, too--big, overweight, with that indefinable quality of oddness we persons of the cloth often possess. But he wasn’t one of us, no matter how much he dressed the part. I can’t tell you how I knew that, but I did. Trust me, we recognize each other.
After a few minutes, he leaned over to me and gestured toward the rest of the room where hundreds of other ministers were gathered.
“All these people sit together in their own graduating classes from school,” he said. “It happens every time we have one of these events. You ever noticed that?”
“Not really,” I said.
“Oh, it’s true,” he assured me.
I didn’t think he was correct, but I didn’t argue.
“I notice things like that,” he said importantly, “I’m a people watcher.”
“Yeah,” he said just as if I was fascinated. “It’s kind of my hobby. Even when my wife makes me go to the mall with her, I’m never bored. I just watch all the people go by, and I never cease to be entertained.”
I smiled and nodded. I didn’t like him.
I directed my attention to a friend sitting across from me. He was a high mileage minister like me who, also like me, eschewed the conventional coat and tie for this event. He’s goofy and quite outrageous in a soft spoken manner, but he still has the pastor’s presence--that carriage of caring authority. Other ministers, who were better dressed than him or me, sat on either side of him. We like to be around him because he makes us laugh. Not the fake life-of-the-party kind of laugh that we use at church socials, but the helpless belly busting laughter that sad ministers don’t get enough of.
He’s sad, too, because like the rest of us, he struggles to run a church, arbitrate ludicrous conflicts, raise money, and attract new members, while all the time he is aware that his real job is to calm the turmoil in others, comfort the grieving, sit with the dying, and seduce the drug addled person away from his habit. Another reason for his sadness is that like the rest of us, he feels inadequate for the job.
The man who likes to watch people did not belong with us at this table.
Unlike him, we don’t watch people. We watch over people. We watch for the ones who need rescue. We examine them for wounds and we try to heal them. It’s hard work with a high failure rate. But it’s our real work that we squeeze in around the committee meetings, training seminars, building campaigns, and potluck socials.
Inside, I sneered at this guy who merely watches people.
But now that I’m alone and have time to process, I think about what he really said to me.
He watches people because he doesn’t belong. He is sits invisible in a crowded mall as he watches people walk by.
Yesterday, he sat invisible in a room of hundreds of ministers, dressed the same as everyone else, but not really one of us. He thought he had an explanation: I’m not in their class. .
Sigh. He is one of those that I’m supposed to be watching for. And he was sitting right next to me.
Like I said. High failure rate. Inadequate for the job.
Wednesday, December 26, 2012
When the phone rings on Christmas day, it’s either relatives or bad news.
A few minutes ago, I answered the phone to hear the voice of my student who tried to kill himself back in the fall. The semester is over and I wasn’t sure I would ever hear from him again. I took a quick moment to gather myself in order to talk him through another crisis. Or maybe he was in the hospital this time….
“Professor?” he said, “I just called to wish you a merry Christmas.”
“Thank you,” I said. He sounded pretty good. “How are you doing?”
“Actually, I’m doing pretty great,” he said.
“Really? Hey, that’s terrific! What have you been doing for this holiday?”
He has a woman in his life and they’d been out playing—I don’t think he has done much of that in his young life. They had been out driving all night, stopping in at truck stops (they were the only places open) to eat.
“We had waffles at 3:30 this morning,” he said. He speaks in a low voice, but he was obviously in a good mood.”
“Yeah,” he continued, “So, I just wanted to say thanks for all your help.”
“You’re welcome,” I said. “I’m proud of you.”
I’ll tell you the truth. I’m very tired from the holidays and all I want for Christmas right now is a nap. But when I get up, I suspect that my favorite moment will be this phone call.