Clang, clang, clang…

trolley song“Went the trolley.”  You knew that.

I think my favorite role of Judy Garland’s was as Esther Smith in “Meet Me in St. Louis.”  The Gibson-Girl look suited her well, and she was so young and vibrant and in such good voice. There is nothing quite like the joy of “The Trolley Song”.  Ah, love.

I recently had dinner with two of my friends who have fallen in love, and hearing their story of getting to know each other and realizing, pretty early on, that there was something very good there made my heart go zing.  At one point during the conversation, one of them turned to me and said, “Could your smile get any bigger?”

No, it couldn’t, because I love these two people and they suit each other so well, and finding that Someone is one of life’s grandest joys.  Hearing their story took me back to my own story of falling in love with the man who would eventually become my husband – pretty much once that train left the station, it was never going back.  We thought we had been quite clever keeping our relationship secret, but once we started telling people, they all had a “No duh” kind of reaction, which was a little anti-climactic, but I was in love so I didn’t care.

“Meet in St. Louis” ends with the family and love interests gazing at the lagoon at the World’s Fair.  All is well, all crises averted or resolved, all unrequited loves requited.

Life isn’t like that.  People don’t spontaneously burst into song and dance, and happy endings are never perfect.  Some love goes unrequited; some relationships don’t last.  Judy Garland lost that voice and that vivacity, but she never really lost her presence.

My friends who have fallen in love know that, because they’ve endured their fair share of disappointment and sorrow.  That does not erase the elation they now know.  And if this relationship moves to something deeper, that elation will get burnished and shine differently.  I hope that for them.

When I was growing up, my parent had this funny whiskey decanter set that was a trolley car.  The center held two different cut glass decanters, and at each end of the car, roped off with a little chain, were two shot glasses.  When you lifted one of the decanters, a music box started playing “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”

I supposed we all leave our hearts somewhere.  Perhaps it’s best to leave our hearts with someone.

Clang, clang, clang.



“May I speak with you…”, part 2

OpenDoorLogoYesterday’s post about my visit from Joy was read by many, at least in terms of my stats.  I appreciate the comments, likes, and shares.  Today I received a message from a minister colleague in another part of the state a few hours away.  Joy had visited her, too, a few weeks ago, and my friend had a similar experience of listening to her and helping her out.  I am grateful she let me know.

And then I checked to see if I felt that thing I sometimes feel when I’ve helped a complete stranger: did I feel as though I had been duped, taken advantage of, conned?

In every church I have served,  people come to church to ask for help, some in truly desperate situations and some looking for a handout.  I believe in handouts, to a point; I think sometimes what a person most needs is $20 to buy what they want.  But I also know that sometimes I have helped someone who then tells all his friends who also come seeking help.  Or in one town where I worked, I listened to a guy poor out his soul about his family being innocent bystanders victimized by a crime, only to learn a a few weeks later that another pastor in town had heard the same story from the same guy the year before.

After twenty or so years of pastoring, I’ve decided I would rather err on the side of kindness, knowing that some of the people I help are really not all that desperate. So with regards to Joy, did I feel duped?


Anytime I hear a stranger tell me his or her story and then ask me for help, I know that person might not be telling me the truth or even the whole truth.  I know people take advantage of the kindness of churches and pastors and church secretaries.  I also know that sometimes a church is one of the few places where someone will be treated with dignity and respect, regardless of their truthfulness.

My parents were both born in the 1930’s and their early childhoods were marked by the Great Depression.  Neither grew up in families that were neither destitute nor wealthy; my grandfathers were both employed and my grandmothers ran their households with great efficiency.  My dad was one of three children, my mom one of six.  My mother remembers that whenever someone would come to the door looking for food, my grandmother would give that person something – a sandwich, an apple, toast with jelly.  My grandfather worked in construction, and if a day laborer was needed, my grandmother would mention that to the person at the door.

To be kind is to risk being taken advantage of.  To be generous is to choose to use resources for one thing and not for another.  As a pastor, I have a sense that the time I have and the resources I offer are not solely mine; they are part of the congregation as well, and I want to be a good steward of their gifts. And sometimes I act on behalf of the congregation to live out the commands that Jesus gave.

So I don’t know if my Joy will come your way, or when another Joy will present herself to you.  I don’t know what you will decide to do. I don’t know how you will make your decision.  But maybe we all need a little Joy in our lives, for so many reasons.


“May I come speak with you about a religious matter?”

I was expecting a call like this, on a Monday after the Supreme Court’s decision about marriage.  Our office manager buzzed me.  “There’s someone on the phone who would like to speak with a pastor about a religious matter.”  Sigh.  “I’ll take it.”

“This is Reverend Beth Neel.  How may I help you?”  I usually don’t refer to myself as Reverend Beth Neel, but when strangers call and want to talk about a religious matter, I do like to be clear about my role and authority.

“I’d like to come speak with you about a religious matter.”  We agreed on  the time of 11:30.

Here’s what I assumed: that this woman, who self-identified as Presbyterian, wanted to talk with me about either the SCOTUS ruling or about what had happened in Charleston.  I confess that normally I try to pass this sort of thing along to one of my colleagues, but it was just me in the office today.

At 10:15 I ran downstairs to look at something in the building, and when I came back up to my office, she was waiting for me, 45 minutes early.  I took one look at her, wearing her down coat on a day when it was supposed to get up to 90, carrying two laden shopping bags, smelling a bit of stale cigarette smoke, and I knew that the SCOTUS ruling was probably the last thing on her mind.

She did mention it, sort of.  She said when she got off the bus in Portland and saw two men holding hands, if her mother had been with her and had seen that, she would’ve had a fit.  So much for hearing a proof-text about the sin of gay marriage.

We talked for an hour.  She poured out her life story without any self-pity, talking about her family, her mom and dad who married and divorced three times.  Her sister, who married the wrong guy.  A Mexican restaurant in the Memorial area of Houston; did I know it?  Her work at a car dealership.  Her time in Oklahoma, in Nebraska, in Seattle.  When she worked at a hotel run by East Indians, and their conversations about the Gideons Bibles and why her boss would need to talk to Jesus if he wanted her to work on Sundays.

After an hour, I asked her what her religious question was.  “Religious?  I don’t believe in God anymore.  I’m so tired I just can’t believe in anything.  I don’t know if I can go on.”  Turns out she had no where to stretch out and sleep; at her age, sleeping under the bridges wasn’t an option.  She tried to sneak in naps at Denny’s or Shari’s, but that’s no rest at all.

“Can we provide a motel room for you for a couple of nights?”  Sure.  We did, and gave her something for some food.  Should I have done more – connect her with social services, give her a ride to the motel?  Should I have done less – tell her we couldn’t help but that I’d pray for her?”  She was grateful for what we offered, said yes with dignity; she didn’t ask for anything more and I sensed (rightly or wrongly) that she really wasn’t looking for anything else.

Her name was Joy, and I don’t know if there was a higher purpose to Joy showing up in my office this morning.  Was it to challenge my assumptions that gay marriage is on everyone’s mind?  Was it to remind me that a big part of my calling as a pastor is not time efficiency but kindness?

Maybe there was no higher purpose.  Maybe there was just a child of God who needed a little help today.  And so Joy came in.  And so Joy left.


Collard Greens Scones

My family moved to Portland, Oregon, four years ago when my husband and I accepted a call to serve as co-pastors.  The church we serve is in an area of Portland that has been undergoing gentrification for the last seven or so years. When we started thinking about where to live, we knew we wanted to live in a neighborhood close to the church, and we researched what schools we’d prefer our child attend.  The list of homes available that met those criteria, and that were affordable for us, was short, but we found a house that we liked okay that’s near the church and near one of the schools, and we have settled in.  And for many reasons that go back to the privileges I enjoy as a well-educated white woman, we were able to buy a home near the church in a school boundary of our choosing.

Because I am a pastor in a church in the part of a city that’s undergoing huge social shifts, I get invited to interesting conversations about gentrification and poverty and race and education and class and all sorts of things.  Here are a few things I have learned:

– I have met the enemy, and he is us.  By that I mean that in buying the home we bought, from a flipper who bought it from someone who had had to foreclose on it, we became among those who are gentrifying the neighborhood.  Our house value has increased by over 30% in four years, which is great news, and terrible news.  Some day when we sell this house, we will make money.  But our neighborhood is quickly becoming unaffordable to many in the middle class.

– “Keeping Portland Weird” doesn’t really cut the mustard for a lot of people.  Yes, I love the Unipiper as much as the next person.  I love that recently I ran out for donuts for some friends who were staying with us, and I had to wait because they make each order fresh, and I was asked if I wanted a side of plain apricot butter or apricot butter with habanero salt.  I love that nobody judges anyone else’s fashion choices because, really, anything goes.  But I sat at one meeting and I heard some people who have lived here their wholes lives, who are being priced out of the neighborhoods they’ve lived in their whole lives, say, “Why not keep Portland kind or just, instead of trying to keep it weird?”

japanese memorial

One of the sculptures in memory of the Japanese who were interned in camps – along the waterfront in downtown Portland

– This city is so much more than Portlandia makes it out to be.  Yes, there are ridiculous and wonderful things here.  And it is beautiful, with rivers and mountains defining the landscape, and snow close by and beach close by, and leaders have been intentional about being good stewards of the earth.  Explorers Lewis and Clark are lauded, and sometimes Sacagawea gets a mention too.  And we have an ugly, ugly history when it comes to matters of race.  Japanese Internment Camps?  Check.  Redlining neighborhoods so African Americans can’t buy a home?  Check.  Slaves freed – and then told to leave the state?  Check.

At another meeting I attended, a pastor was lamenting that his church is near one of the hot-spots for Sunday brunch, so much so that his parishioners can’t find a place to park on Sunday morning.  And then he said something along the lines of “It’s like the collard greens scone.  That’s the symbol of what’s happening to us, taking pieces of our culture and making them hip and trendy, and forgetting about us.”

My friend Aimee grew up in Portland and now lives in the south and was commenting on her different experiences of racism here and there.  She writes, “…I am increasingly aware of how distant life in the west can feel from the legacy of slavery. When we were in school, we learned of local historical horrors like massacres of Native Americans, hostile land grabs by explorers and pioneers, and, if we had good teachers, exploitation of Asian immigrants and the crime of Japanese internment camps. Yes, we learned about slavery and its legacy, but at a distance. And in my largely white Oregonian reality …I somehow absorbed the idea that the racial history of the American South was not my history….  The shootings in South Carolina, and all the reasons they and so many other atrocities occur, is our history, our legacy, our problem. Racism is our gaping, festering wound. Don’t keep it at arm’s length. Feel it where you stand, on that beautiful stolen Western soil under Douglas firs and in the shadow of the mountains. Let’s own it, and let’s change it.”

I’m  not sure yet what I’m going to do, but I am going to do something.  I’ll keep going to those meetings.  I will promote opportunities for our congregation to learn.  I will stop the racist joke.  I will be humble.  But I pray I won’t be done, not for a long while.

collard green scone

Collard Greens Scones

A prayer for such a time as this

Holy God,

We are appalled – but not enough.
We are grieved – but not enough.
We are fed up – but not enough.

Our hearts are breaking for the loss of those nine beautiful lives, nine of Your faithful children who were killed doing what You ask us to do – study and pray.  So however appalled and grieved and fed up we are, You most be all those things to the millionth degree.

But God, I’m not sure our feelings are enough; I’m not sure my feelings are enough.  I have spent the last day with tears in my eyes, learning the names of the dead, reading about their lives, reading about their church, and that is not enough.  I have spent time learning about the hate in my own city’s past, about the exclusion this state used to practice, and I have listened to conversations by those who are displaced because their neighborhood suddenly becomes “desirable.”

And God, I’m not sure my knowledge is enough.

Please, Holy God, do not let us go back to the same-old same-old.  Please do not let us mourn for a week or so, and sign some petitions, and shake our heads and cry, and then be done.  Hold our feet to the fire, to the refiner’s fire.  Let us not speak but listen, and when we are done listening, let us act.  Do whatever You have to do to make us so outraged that Your children were gunned down in your house, make us so ashamed of our own complicity or inaction in matters of race, that we don’t sit and tsk-tsk anymore.

But what do we do, O God?  Show me the way.  Show us the way.  Lead us out of this abyss we have gotten ourselves into.

And comfort the families of Reverend Clementa Pinckney, and Rev. Daniel Simmons, Sr., and Ethel Lance, and Cynthia Hurd, and Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, and Myra Thompson, and Tywanza Sanders, and Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, and Susie Jackson.  And comfort the family of the shooter, because although I do not believe it, I think You would say that he is Your child too.


The guy in the line at the grocery store

Strawberry-Pint-by-Gluten-Free-CatI went to the grocery store during lunch today to pick up a few things: fresh local strawberries for the kid, snacks for the theology pub coming over tonight, and a skirt, because it was on sale and spoke to me.  I got to go to the express line and, as I usually do, picked the slowest line with the most courteous and thorough checker.  He patiently unfolded each shopping bag, carefully considered which items should go on the bottom and which on top, and weighed whether the skirt should go in with the strawberries or in a bag on their own.

I was trying to be patient, because I have decided that God is helping me grow in patience by always sending me into the slowest line, behind the person with the most coupons, or with the Friendliest Checker in America.  A youngish guy came in line behind me, put down a shirt on the conveyer belt, ran over to another line for something, then came back.  When the checker gently unfolded the skirt, scanned it, and checked to make sure it didn’t have a security devise, I turned and gave a quick smile to the guy behind me, as though to say, “Look, dude, I know you have one item here and I really was under the 12 item limit, but we have chosen the Line of Doom.  We’re in this together, and we’ll make it out, but I thought I should give you a quick smile of encouragement.”

Did I get a quick smile back?  No, I did not.  Instead what I got was a steady glaze and a big smile, and this guy fingering the ring on the fourth digit of his left hand, which I thought he was offering me.  I thought he said, “I want you to have this.”  I smiled, and said, no, no, keep the ring, I already have one, and waved the ring the fourth digit of my left hand to him.  He then said to the checker, “Please check her out” and started handing him his credit card.  No, no, I said, I’ve got this, but thank you so much.

And then he said to me, “I want to give you a blessing today.  Why can I not give you a blessing?”  I smiled, again, making eye contact, and said I would be glad to receive a blessing.  He then said that God was the source of the blessing; did I know that?  Yes, I do, I told him.  “How do you know God?”  I know God from church.  How do you know God?  “Ever since I was born, I know God.”

I got my change.  One last time, I smiled at the guy behind me and thanked him for the blessing, and told him I hoped he would have a blessing today, too.

I ran home to eat lunch and let the dog out, and then went to see one of our members who is in her last hours.  I expected her to be non-responsive; she was not.  She opened her eyes a little when I said hello and told her I was going to say a prayer for her.  “Why?”  I think she said.  “Is God going to leave me?”  No, I assured her, as did the nurse and the caregiver.  I said a prayer and offered a blessing and left, because the nurse needed to do some things and didn’t need me there to help.

But I thought about the blessing I received from the guy in the line at Fred Meyer, and the blessing I gave to the woman who is dying, who didn’t really know who I was.  What a thing it is to be blessed unexpectedly by a stranger, on the way to lunch, on the way Home.



And then we built a life together

IMG_5708Two friends of mine are courting in a way that reminds me of the courtship my husband and I had.  We had been friends for a few years before we started dating, and when we did start dating, we tried to keep it under wraps for a while.  We had a lot of friends in common, friends who had been wanting for a long time to see each of us meet that someone, friends who would jump up and down that we had in fact met that someone, and it was us.

So I’ve been thinking about our courtship then and our life now almost twelve years later.  That fall when we were falling in love, it was as though everything smelled like honey coming from bees wax, and dating on the sly (or so we thought) added an element of intrigue, and when I would get to see him it felt like it was sunny and 70 or a full moon with a light breeze for those days we did get to spend together.

Now we’ve been married for ten years, and we’ve moved a few times.  We were thrilled to have one child, and disappointed at times and crushed at other times not to have another.  We work together now, too, and in so many ways the bloom is off the rose.

But the bloom never stays on the rose; what fun would that be?  We’re more tired than we were when we were courting.  We have more gray hairs.  We don’t dance nearly as often as we used to.  But we still have this sense that we are in this together, and when it’s good that’s a good thing, and when it’s not good it can feel like a bit of a millstone.  But we’re lucky, I guess, because the times when it’s not good are few and far between.

It is hard to work together when we’re both under stress and under the same stress – we have nowhere to escape to, really, and the person I would normally turn to wants to turn to me and then we get in this self-perpetuating cycle of angst, so he goes to watch a rerun of “Friends” and I bury myself in a crossword puzzle until we’re settled enough to come out of our respective corners and put down our dukes and figure out what to do next.

Yes, after ten years of marriage, the bloom is off the rose, or better, the hydrangea is starting to fade.  We have a bright blue hydrangea in our yard, and I love it when it belts out this cobalt blue that seems somehow Mermanesque.  But the blue only lasts for so long.  And then the really interesting thing starts to happen.  The blue fades to purple, and then to an oxblood sort of red, and then green comes in, so that when I finally cut it, it’s these subtle shades that emerged almost impossibly from the cobalt of those first blossoms.

Our marriage is like that – the usual and unique experience of our first love burst out one day when we were ready to tell our friends.  And then we married, and moved, and changed jobs, and had a kid, and didn’t have another kid, and moved, and changed jobs.  We’re not starry-eyed anymore; rarely does everything smell like honey.  There’s more silence, sometimes full and beautiful and sometimes tense and wary.

But it’s interesting, this marriage.  And still beautiful, in its own way.  The colors have changed, but there are colors still.


For Pauly G.