“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?

No.

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.

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“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.

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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.

Amen.

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.

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For Pauly G.

On thoughtfulness and reunions

My friend told me a lovely story today.  Over the weekend she received a letter from a stranger, and the opening line read, “I hope this is not intrusive.”  The letter was from a person working with the state hospital; the hospital has hundreds of containers of people’s cremated remains, and they are attempting to return them to the family of the deceased.

My friend learned that the hospital had her great-grandmother’s remains; would she like them?  She said yes, and plans to take them to the cemetery where her mother and grandmother are buried.  She will go with her daughter and granddaughter to the graveside, and there will gather six generations of strong, beautiful women.

As my friend told me this story, I got a little teary.  Maybe it was the thoughtfulness of the gesture.  I think that’s part of it, but part of it too is this strange thing I have about reunions, even beyond the grave.  (Or at the grave, in this case.)

Now I don’t believe that those cremated remains or any decaying body of flesh and bone have any power in them.  There is no life there; they are going back to the dust from whence they came.  The souls that inhabited those bodies have gone on, I believe, and while the soul makes its home in skin and sinew, it is not confined there.  The souls of my friend’s mother and grandmother and great-grandmother have gone on.

And yet.  And yet there is a poignancy to reuniting these ashes with those of a daughter and granddaughter.  I have no idea what happens when we die.  Maybe this faith thing has been one big crap shoot and when it’s over, it’s over.  Or maybe we fall asleep for a while, and wake up when Gabriel blows that horn.  Or maybe we die and boom we go to heaven and the reunion is instantaneous.

If we die and sleep for an eon, imagine the waking up.  Imagine my friend’s great-grandmother waking up, and those ashes and pulverized bones coming together again, kneaded back into vibrant form; imagine her waking up and seeing her daughter and granddaughter with her.

Wouldn’t that be something.

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