Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Mirror Mirror

Something unusual happened today. 

A guy showed up at the nursing home just as I was about to begin worship time. I thought he was a street person  because of the ragged clothes and uncut hair, but he explained that he traveled from town to town singing gospel songs to nursing home residents.  And then he pulled out his beautiful Martin guitar that made me say "oooh," and "aaaah." He explained that a friend who supported him in his ministry had given it to him.  

I invited him to sing for us.  "I don't want to intrude," he said.  

I said that in fact I was tired and would be glad to let him take my place, and so he did.  

He went up and down the hallways strumming his instrument and getting people's attention and then he played for them for the better part of an hour, singing the old hymns like I do, telling amusing stories that I've told before, all with a kind smile and crinkly eyes. At the end, he went to all the persons, shaking their hands, touching their shoulders, blessing them with his words.  

He has been traveling across the country doing this for nine years and has been in all fifty states.  He has friends who send him a little support as he travels alone in an old minivan.

He held the hand of one nursing home resident and beamed into her face, and she looked over at me and said, "Pastor, he's a lot like you!" she said.  

I looked and he did resemble me in size and appearance (meaning he was big with a gray beard and long hair).  



While he played, I called my office and arranged to have a hotel room provided for him that night. When he was done singing, I took him to lunch and bought us hamburgers. 

He asked about my family. I told him we had two teenage boys. He asked gently if they gave me any problems.  I said no, that they had been free of trouble, made straight As and always made me proud.  

"I wish I could claim credit for them," I said, "But the truth is that they were born this way."  

I always say that, but this time I went on and told him the rest of the story. "The fact is I haven't done enough for them.  I've left them alone too much. I've worked too much, and been too tired to do much for them."

My throat closed and my eyes teared up. I never told anyone that part. He reached up and and put his hand on my shoulder for comfort, without saying anything--the same exact gesture I had done for countless people. 

I looked at him and really, it was amazing how much he looked like me in the face, with crinkly smile lines around sad eyes that had seen too much.  I could see the same dimples that people say I have behind the beard. He was almost the same size as me (which is substantial), and he had an easy manner which is how I appear to most people. 

It felt like I was looking in a mirror only the image of me was five or ten years older than I am now.  

And I got to wondering if he actually was me, sent from the near future to bless me enough to keep me from cracking up.  

Big Tipper

I go to this cafe occasionally. It’s about the only place in town I can go for breakfast if I want something other than a mac-biscuit.  


Anyway, I left a huge tip the other day. It had nothing to do with the wink she gave me, or the cleavage she flashed me, although those things didn’t hurt my feelings (I think she’s like this with most men). No, it was the pat on the shoulder she gave me as she walked away.*


I like to be touched.


I’ve mentioned that I touch people a lot. Shake the hand, pat the shoulder, or even hug if I have permission. I do it because people need it, but I don't force it, of course.  


It’s me giving something of myself to them. They need it, I give it. It’s all part of the service, folks.  


But a waitress who touches me, and then brings me food….


That’s worth a big tip.  

Thursday, November 14, 2013

None of my Business

Most churches refer to themselves as "family."

Come to us and we'll accept  you and love you--you belong with us. 

It's rarely true. Oh, there's usually a tight knit group at the core of the church that started together and have known each other a long time. And like a family, they may be close, yet dysfunctional, with each other.  Others can come to services and told they're welcome, but they can't be part of that group, even and especially the preacher.

To survive, the preacher has to know how to respect and work with the core group, but he'll never be one of them.

I have spent most of my life entrusting myself and my real family to a people who say, "We love you. We're glad you're here. We are grateful for your care and we will take care of you." And then one day, usually sooner rather than later, they won't love me anymore and they'll want me to go away and they won't care if my family starves. It won't be simply a lack of love... they'll grow to hate me. But they won't admit it.

Oh, it has not yet happened at this church. And I'll be able to stave it off for awhile, maybe a good long time. But that has been the pattern, as it was for my father who has also been a minister, and as it is for almost all ministers.

"We hated the last guy, but we love you. One day we'll hate you too, and want someone else. And for good measure, we'll break the hearts of your wife and children, and force all of you to start again with new relationships, which will also be taken away.  All the while, we'll still claim to love you, and wonder why you're so bitter.

"What did you expect? We may call it family, but we all know it's really business."  

Okay, it's nothing personal. So I can choose my own friends, right? 

Well, no. We have to approve your friends.

If it's just a business, I can do what I like on my personal time without anyone having the right to evaluate me? I can go to the movies I want, yell at the ball games, buy condoms and beer and say curse words, as long as it's on my own time, right?

Not really. You have to be a good example and we don't want you embarrassing us.

If I had problems with my family, can I come to you for support, love and help? 

We don't even give that to each other.

If I make mistakes, you'd follow the direction of Christ, and be compassionate?

Well, no. Remember, this is a business.  

Yes, and it's apparently none of mine.


That's right. but remember, we want our pastors to love and care for us.  

Friday, September 20, 2013

The Connection Between Spirituality and Depression

In FreeThinker, Barry Dukes reports on a study that suggests that religion/spirituality could be the cause of depression.  There are plenty of comments on the page and here's the link if you like:

http://freethinker.co.uk/2013/09/16/depressed-it-could-be-that-religion-or-spirituality-in-particular-might-well-be-the-cause/

I didn't want to get lost in the sea of comments and I really didn't want to weigh in on the angry debating that went on in those comments, but I did want to cogitate a bit on the content of the article, as one who is steeped in religion and spirituality and has also struggled with a depression so deep that I often wonder how I'm still alive. 

I'm not trying to brag--but I have tried very hard to be a faithful Christian. I've proven my faith and pressed on when I saw nothing to confirm that faith is valid.  I've tried to pull away from those areas of religion that really are unhealthy, even evil, and tried for a benevolent spirituality.  I'm not ready to chunk it all, like some of my atheist friends have, but while it may or may not be the cause of my depression, it sure hasn't helped it.  

But there is a flaw the logic of the article.  

Depression is linked to a lot of qualities but none of them are necessarily a direct cause. A large number of creative people suffer depression.  Does creativity cause the depression or is it linked some other way? If you told the painter to stop painting would that cure his depression? Would a depressed writer feel better if she quit writing? Would you tell the musician to stay away from music? 

There is strong evidence to suggest that depression is caused by chemical imbalance in the brain, and in fact, many have been helped considerably with medication (I'm one of them). 

I think people turn to music, artistry, and faith to assuage their desperation. I know I have. It doesn't always work and yes, it can make depression much worse. Anything that has a power to do good can also be warped to do evil, including and probably especially religion.

My sense of spirituality makes me reach past what I can see for something less tangible... something that may help me make sense of things and make me feel better.  I like that quality about myself--reaching for the unknown, searching for that mysterious Presence, hoping it is benevolent.  

But does it make me happier? 

Well... no.  

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

So This is My Angel?

"You look like the kind of angel they'd send me...." 

Bill appeared to me in a dream last night. I saw his truck stopped in front of a railroad crossing. I was so happy to see him. He got out and I looked him over. He looked good, the same Bill I remember who smiled all the time He was still kind of stout, a little younger and stronger looking than I remembered. He didn’t speak. Just smiled that delighted smile of his. I hugged him and noted past how massive his shoulders were, just like they always had been even when he was an old man.


He used to come by my office everyday, laughing, then crying, then laughing again. He thought I was so smart. “Old School,” he called me.  


They said he was very different after his stroke. More talkative, more jovial, emotionally fragile, and not as capable. They said he was touchy, that you had to be careful not to hurt his feelings.  But the only time he ever got upset with me is when I was slow to let him help me fix my car. I was overwhelmed at the task and I wanted to put it off. He remembered that he once could work on cars. He couldn’t anymore, but he found a mechanic and pushed me to get it dealt with.  Ultimately, I was grateful for his meddling.


People thought I was a great guy for spending time with him. I did watch over him a bit when I could. I took him to the doctor and the hospital. He loved food and so did I, and I treated him to dinner as often as I could.  


He always said he was watching over me, and that he came to the office to check on me and cheer me up. Bill was alone and he was sort of a community project where everyone looked after him.  I always humored him by agreeing with him that he was taking care of me.  


However, I wonder now if that wasn’t the truth. It has been a few years since I did his funeral, but I still miss him.  And last night when I went to sleep, I felt lonely, as I often do. These days, I feel the isolation more and more.   It was so good to see him in my dream, appearing long enough to show me he was still there.   

Is he an angel? Has he been watching over me all this time?

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Doing the Clergy Guy Shuffle

“Momma, why does the preacher always wear a dress?

That sweet little miscreant was not REALLY commenting on my gender orientation   She was merely referring to my clergy robe. That garment of priestly splendor that signifies my holy authority.  

But it really does sort of look like a dress.  

On the one hand, I like it because it covers a lot of errors, such as my not checking my fly before I go on.  But it’s a pain. If I have to reach for a comb, my keys, or my ringing cell phone, I have to hike it up to get to my pocket, and there’s no way to make that look dignified.  

What is the deal about clothes anyway? Why did Adam and Eve have to screw that up at the very beginning? And what were they thinking with the fig leaves?  If they’d just played it cool, I’d never have to worry about splitting the center seam of my pants again.  

By the way, I loathe tight clothes any day of the year but especially during the summer. It’s so fricken HOT. And then people want me to wear a robe over my clothes? A coat and tie is bad enough when the temp makes a good illustration of where we don’t want to spend eternity. BTW, In heaven there’s central air and NO TIES.  

Why don’t we all agree that jeans and t shirts are respectable AND comfortable, and be done with the whole debate  

But these days, what has my knickers in a twist is that now my clothes aren’t tight enough. I had to bore a new hole in my belt and cinch my pants up tight so they don’t fall off.  Now that would create a picture.  There I am delivering my best soul saving, fire and brimstone, take no prisoners sermon, and suddenly my pants fall down to my ankles just below the hem of my dress--uh, robe.  

In my nightmares I hope nobody notices. Instead of reaching down to pull them up, I do a quick shuffle off the stage, as I curse Adam and his damn fig leaves, as well as the kid who thinks I'm wearing a dress.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Vacation Blues

I’m feeling screwed and not in a good way, and besides I did it to myself.  


I took a week of vacation. We’d finished some big summer projects at church, and it was supposed to be quiet, and I could spend some peaceful time at home.  But did things slow down?


Nooooooo.


First, there were the medical emergencies--three different people in three different directions. No problem. Just make a few phone calls and I’d be done.


Well, one of them is a beloved 97 year old and she rated more than a phone call, so I went out to see her. And when they moved her to the bigger hospital out of town, I drove out to see her again. But that was okay because I like her. Everyone does.


And then there was the death. Every minister knows if they go on vacation, somebody dies. Pretty lethal when you look at it a certain way.  And the woman that died had no family, only her little community of loyal friends, most of whom came to my church. Since I was in town anyway, I’d just take care of that service, too.


And we ordered new video equipment that needed to be installed that particular week and I needed to be around to help. That was fine. It was different from working in the office. No problem.  It would still feel like a vacation, even while I reassured the naysayers: the ones who thought we spent several thousand dollars on something that wouldn’t work, the ones who thought it would make our sanctuary look ugly, and the ones who were afraid we were going to turn into one of those churches that went over the deep end with drums, guitars, snakes, and tongue speaking.  


And then there was the youth trip, where the van broke down several hours away. They tried to handle it themselves and not tell me, but they weren’t getting anywhere so finally they called me. It’s good to be connected--I was able to phone a couple of buddies and get them transportation back home.  But to switch vehicles--no one was available, so I drove that vehicle back to my buddy’s town--did I mention it was several hours away?  But I had the time because I was on vacation.  


And the week was over. I joked that it was good to come back to work so I could get some rest.  


But the truth is that I was so tired, all I could do was hang on until my next day off got here, which is today. I was so tired that everything made me furious or despairing. I had a major blow up not just with my wife, but my two teenage boys--I am so popular at my house.


One minister told that my mistake was that I really have to get out of town, far enough away that I can’t get back for anything and someone else would have to take care of things--600 miles usually did the trick.  Another friend said I shouldn’t call that vacation and I should reschedule another week. Which I would do but I’m looking at the calendar and it’s going to be a while.

So like I said, I’m feeling screwed and not in a good way.  

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Unstoppable

I live in a state where corporal punishment is still used in school. In other counties, parents are usually  allowed to give or refuse permission for their child to be paddled, but in this town, no such choice is given. And paddling can be used as a first response for anything that any teacher considers wrong behavior (chewing gum, talking in class, being late, etc.).  I’m told at least one paddling occurs every day, and that an assistant principal walks the hallways and the school lunch room with paddle in hand. 

Parents have protested this before, threatening lawsuits, but the principals tell the other children who harass the kids of the protesting parents.  Most of the parents see nothing wrong with it. The judges, lawyers, and lawmakers of this town don’t think there’s anything wrong with it either.  It’s been this way for generations and they see no need to change.   

Nevertheless, I am going to change it. 

When I came to the church in this town, a phrase came to me that recurs often: unquenchable good will.  

I’m going to unleash it on this school. 

This community responds to kindness and benevolent strength. I’m bringing the full force of my good will on the school this year.  I’ll bring candy, give cards, write encourage notes, and have my church offer various kinds of support. And I am especially going to focus on the principals—I aim to sweeten them up.  I’m going to the lunches and pass out treats to the kids. I’ll get permission walk the hallways to speak to the tired teachers and greet students.

Hell, I may even start attending sports game, which I loathe, but if it will help, I’ll do it. 

I’m going to form a team in my church to focus on changing the hearts of the school leaders.  We will pray and envision a different world to form within the walls of school. And we will strategize: “How can we change the hearts of these people?”

Then I’ll reach outside my church to other ministers and teach them to do the same thing. 

But that’s another entry. 

I aim to make converts. But it won't be for Sunday school and it won't be to carve holy notches in my belt.  I'm going to convert this town, starting with those who teach the children.  And I’ll do it in Jesus’ name. 

I’ll report back here to tell of my progress.

To those of you who know who I am--watch me.  

Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Spirit and the Stomach Bug

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.

"Sure."

NO!
 

“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

Just a Pinch

All I said was, "Next Sunday is St Patrick's day. Be sure to wear green and behave!" 



Tuesday, February 26, 2013

I Hate Vacations


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 communiqu├ęs 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. 

Maybe two.  

Monday, February 11, 2013

Knowing People I've Never Met Before


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

Power of a Kiss


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

A Place at the Table


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.”

“Really?” 

“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.