Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Respecting the Call

I have this friend who recently changed jobs.  Having been in academia for a number of years, she has now moved 1,000 miles away to pursue life as a housewife.  This has been a difficult transition for her.  Of the things she misses about her previous job, it is status and respect for her position that I hear her mention most.

And I've been rather miffed by this.

Because I didn't understand it.

I grew up in a family that was neither respectable nor respected.

First off, we were poor.

Secondly, my father is an alcoholic who was actively using drugs and alcohol through most of my childhood.

Thirdly, he was a violent drunk.  It wasn't unusual for the police to show up at our house.  Or for my father to have standoffs with them in the street, waiving a(n) (unloaded) gun at them in a threatening manner.

As a result of these factors, among others, it comes as no surprise that three of the four children also turned out to be addicts and alcoholics who have had significant trouble with law enforcement officials.

And when you come from a small town, and have a specific and easily recognized last name, it was easy to choose to be blind to the looks of pity and disgust that were often cast my way.

I couldn't wait to get out.  And I thought surely education was the key.

So, I pursued it.  I pursued it out of my small town, and out of my rural state, all the way to the glorious metropolis of New York City where I met people who thought my last name was something I had made up and which would most likely be found in a fairy tale as opposed to real life.

I met people who had no idea who my father was, or who my sister was, or who either one of my brothers were.  People who for a very long time were not aware that I had any family at all, because I spoke of them so rarely.  I love my family.  But I wanted to be known first and foremost for who I was, not for who I was related to, and this was finally my chance.

And then, I ended up back in my small town, in my rural state, in my home church where sidelong glances had been endured or ignored for years.

Except, now I was an intern.  Now, I was in a transitional position between congregant and pastor.  Now, I had status.  And that status brought with it respect.  And I was blind to it.  I didn't even realize it.

Until Christmas morning.

There is this family in my home church who are like royalty.  They're the quintessentially good family.  Good parents, good kids, successful, wealthy, and multi-generational.  There are currently three generations of them attending our church.  I secretly think they need to change their last name to "Jones."  As in "Keeping up with the Joneses" because they are those kind of people.  They set the bar, and no one can quite match their perfection.

I know this is all illusion.  I know that no one, and certainly no family, is perfect.  But these people are intelligent, attractive, wealthy, kind, generous, well liked, and respected.

And growing up in a church alongside that, with certain members who did not always seem so kind or generous only served to accentuate how incredibly poorly equipped I was to do anything life.  Because I came from that other family.

I know that this is an illusion to.  God equips whom God calls, and thus, I must be equipped, because Baby, I have been called!

But none of this was really evident to me.  It was always simmering just below the surface.  I was never fully comfortable around them, but I could never articulate why.

Until Christmas.

I was serving communion.  By intinction.  The pastor was handling the bread, as I refuse to touch it.  I was holding the wine.  And as each person walked by, breaking of a small piece of bread to the pastor's, "The body of Christ," and dipping it into the chalice of wine to my, "The blood of Christ," nearly every single person's gaze was on their hands.

Now, I don't know how many of you have experienced communion by intinction, but we're a church that typically passes the elements in trays of bread cubes and tiny glasses (think about 1/5 of a shot glass) of wine or grape juice, each person holding the elements until all have been served and consuming them communally.  I love communion.  I love taking it as a community.  As an entire community.  I love the ritual, and the intimacy of sharing it as one big group, collectively acknowledging who God is and what God has done throughout history and specifically in the person of Jesus.

But communion by intinction, though each person consumes the elements individually, is incredibly intimate.  A one-on-one exchange of blessing and God-ness in the body and blood of the Christ.  And though I'm sure it's more just the quietness of the act that leads people to stare at their hands, I wouldn't be surprised if some of them did so, because the intimacy of the act is uncomfortable.

But not so one individual of this family.  And for the record, this is the one person in this family whom I have always found intimidating to no end.  Utterly terrifying.  When I applied for ordination, I almost threw up when I had my interview with the deacons because he asked me questions.  When I preached my first sermon, I almost threw up because he was sitting in the audience.  When I was pulpit supply for the first time, I wanted to cry because I was so stressed about doing it on my own for the first time.  And because he was in the audience.

There are reasons for this.  And I know what they are.  But this is not the forum in which to discuss them.

The point is that when I served communion to this member of the royal family, he made eye contact.  He caught my gaze and held it, while I served him the wine, and uttered, "The blood of Christ," softly to him.  And he smiled at me through the process.

And I felt accepted.  I felt respected.  I felt affirmed.  More than any of that, I felt validated.  I felt as though he was recognizing my authority as a person in a pastoral position within the church.  And my throat tightened and the corners of my eyes pricked with tears.

I had no idea that some part of wanted this family's approval.  They are, after all, the royalty of our little rural church.

Suddenly I had it.  And I wasn't sure what to do with it.  Or why it meant so much.  But it made me think maybe I can do this.  Maybe answering the call wasn't a mistake.  Maybe someone who has known me whole life can see in me what those who have known me only a few years are convinced of: that those whom God calls, God equips; and I'm equipped, because, Baby, I have been called!

Friday, December 16, 2011

A Response

I feel blessed today.

Actually, I feel blessed almost every day.

And in feeling blessed, there is nothing I enjoy more in life than passing those blessings on, in blessing others.

I have come to realize that in the wider world, this is unusual.

Not so in my corner of the world, by any means.  And so it confuses me when people are astounded by acts of kindness and generosity.  Doesn't everybody do this kind of thing?  Doesn't everyone seek to bless others?  Don't all people attempt to meet the deficit of others by giving from their own abundance?  Well, don't they?

Apparently not.

And the first time I realized this was when I was catapulted to the upper echelons of friendship by . . . giving someone a ride to a funeral.  It was a bit of a drive, Manhattan, NY to Delaware.  But seriously, I was in graduate school and I only had one class that day.  I skipped it, hopped behind the wheel of a car and drove.  All I really missed out on was a lecture and time to do homework.

Those of you who know me at all know that means I missed a lecture and time reading Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince again in anticipation of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows release a few short months hence.  Seriously, who has time to study when there's good literature available for reading?

But this blew people away.  First, the friend I drove to Delaware felt that this put him forever in my debt.  Second, everyone I was introduced to by this friend after the fact said, "Oh!  You're MB...  P told us all about you!  What you did for him...that's's amazing!  I mean, who does that kind of thing!?  I don't know anyone who would do something like that for another person."

Seriously, who are you people?  And how have you been so deprived of acts of kindness that driving a person to a funeral makes that kind of impact?

When I was finishing up my Master's degree, I had a friend who regularly told me how unusual I am.

Now, for the record, I consider myself a pretty thoroughly average individual.  I figure I'm about as average as you're likely to find anywhere in the world.  And while it's true that I have certain gifts and skills of a highly unusual nature, I figure my core, my center, who I am in my heart of hearts isn't anything particularly unusual.

When my grad school friend would remark about how extraordinary I am, I accepted it graciously, but figured, "Well, sure.  But everyone is extraordinary.  Anyone, provided the right circumstances, would resopnd in precisely the same way."  Wouldn't they?

And I guess I'm coming to realize that this is not necessarily the case.

Some background:

I grew up in the great state of Iowa.  In a rural community.  Of 50.  Yep, that's a period after that zero.  Not 50,000 as some unfamiliar with Iowa have assumed.  Just 50.

I grew up attending a conservative congregation in a liberal denomination.

I grew up in an aloholic household rife with abuse--physical, emotional, sexual.

I grew up as a welfare kid.  Free school lunches.  Food stamps.  Section 8 housing.  Title 19 Medicaid.

I grew up in poverty, a house where there was never enough.

Yet, somehow, I grew up in a home that operated from an economy of plenty rather than an economy of want.

Part of that is due in no small measure to the extraordinary people in our church.

One year, my father was arrested for drunk driving the morning of my birthday.  I think I must have been turning 5 that day.  Of course, one of the downfalls to small town Iowa is that damn-near everyone owns a police scanner.  This means everyone knows everyone else's business.  And they are a gossippy bunch.

But this day, one of the women in the church gathered the rest of the women in the church and they brought over pizza and Pepsi and made sure I celebrated my birthday.  And they loved and supported my mother, too.

The people in my life during my childhood weren't always so forward in their support.  Often when it comes to family secrets, things that are typically considered shameful, they would not step in.  But they were there, in the wings, just waiting to respond if ever someone asked for help.

Throughout the years I've continued to be surrounded by people like this.  People who operate from an economy of plenty, often choosing to postpone their own wants to meet someone else's need.  People who know what lasts (people) and what doesn't (stuff).

I've striven to be this sort of person.  As one who currently lives in poverty but who is ineligible for any kind of assistance programs, it is not often that I have the opportunity to bless others with material goods.

Oh, I've got some skills in the kitchen, and for $20.00, I can make Christmas gifts for a whole legion of people.  And I do.  In part because I love cooking and baking.  But mostly because I love to feed people.  Because I love to meet needs.  Because it happens so rarely that I have something to give.  I delight in the opportunities when they present themselves.

It happened recently, however, that someone I know, and about whom I care quite deeply, was suffering.  The holiday season is never quite as bright as it should be for those short on family.  Add to this dire financial straights and things were looking quite bleak.

Now, it just so happened that I have an occasional job on the side that provides a very small amount of recompense.  It isn't much, and it's inconsistent.  And in the way many small churches run, it's never truly clear how much time will pass between service rendered and payment received.  There is simply no way to plan or budget for this.

And so it happened that while I was waiting for a check to arrive, I discovered that a friend was in need.  And as I had no immediate need for the funds--I was planning on sticking them into my savings account for a long-term goal--I began to pray about it.  I was struck by the thought of providing for the needs of another.  It wasn't much, and it wouldn't go far.   But it was all I could do.

I decided to do it.  Coming up on the holiday season, I said to myself, "If that check comes before Christmas, I'm passing it on.  The whole of it."

So, when I showed up to church on Sunday, December 11, 2011 and found a check, that's exactly what I did.  I passed it on.  All of it.  Because I saw a need, and I knew that I had the ability to meet it--at least in part.

Because this is what has been modelled for me by others in my life, through the course of my entire life.

Those who have loved me have done a greater service to the world by enabling me to love others.  And all of it is founded in word's of Jesus, which I'll paraphrase:  The Greatest Commandment?  Love God.  Love people.

But how do we love God?  By loving people.

Whatever you do to the least of these....

Seems pretty simple to me. 

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

We all carry the divine spark.  In choosing to invest in people, we place our hearts in the very center of God-ness.

It's not rocket science.  But it is awfully rewarding.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Success! A Hat That Fits!

I have a huge head.

It's true.  And it's okay because my huge head matches my gigantic man hands and my huge feet.

I have to buy men's athletic shoes, because I cannot often find women's shoes in my size.  I have to buy really cheap, crappy women's dress shoes, because higher end shoe makers don't make women's dress shoes in my size.

On the rare occasion that I find myself thinking, "Gee, I'd like a warm pair of gloves," I have to buy them in the men's department as well.

But hats?  Warm, winter hats?  Forget it.  There is simply no manufacturer out there who makes a hat big enough for my huge head.

Oh, I've tried.  Lots of time.  And it always ends the same:  with a red pressure mark across my forehead from the band of the hat, which, inevitably has squeezed my head until it's bunched up, slid up my head, and fallen off.

This experience, repeated many times over the years, had, I thought, permanently put me off the hat-buying habit.  Really, who wants a red stripe across their forehead, mussed up hair, and no hat to show for it?

Then, Friday night.

My parents and I were on our way to dinner to celebrate my mother's birthday.  In a recent dish-washing accident, the crock-pot had been broken, and so we stopped at a local department store to pick up a new one.

Now, my father decided this was the perfect time to find himself a new stocking cap.  I tagged along to the men's department to see what they had, knowing it would be a fruitless and disappointing trip.  After all, it's not like winter hat manufacturers have changed all that much over the course of time.

Oh, was I ever wrong.

Turning the corner, what should I see but this:

That's right!  A hat, in the image of a cow's head with attached mittens!

I decided to try it on just for fun.  And can you imagine my delight when I realized for the first time in my life I was wearing a warm winter hat that actually fit!  Sadly, the flaps are not long enough to reach the ends of my arms, so in order to wear the mittens, I have to keep my elbows bent at 45 degrees or greater.  But who cares!?

This is the  coolest winter hat EVER!  (In my not so humble opinion.)  And at $14.20, tax included, how could I possibly pass it up?

Yep.  I bought the hat.  The first winter hat that has ever fit my ginormous head.  And what a sweet hat it is.  I can't wait to wear it to the office on Monday.

Warm ears.  Stylin' good looks.  And it doesn't muss up my hair.  What a fantastic Friday buy.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

My Christmas Wish List

Dear Santa,

As you know, despite popular belief, I'm not actually good with people.  Oh, I'm very good at socializing, and helping, and entertaining.  And I do TRULY enjoy it.

However, I have an anxiety disorder.  And that plays out when meeting new people en masse.  Especially if I do not have the opportunity to decompress before meeting the next batch.

So, Santa, this year, I'm hoping to speed up the "decompression" process.

As such, here is my Christmas wish list:

1 Sensory Deprivation Tank fully installed in my living room and enough cash in my account to maintain it.

That's it.  I don't think it's too much to ask.