We are and are not special

After my dad died, some 10 years ago now, I experienced a particular prolonged grief that dove into my physicality.  The effects were challenging and compounded, and I learned in a definitive and profound way that my body could not be disconnected from my mind and my spirit.  The grief was only indirectly connected to my father’s passing; his passing was, however, catalytic to everything that followed.  The wounding and the healing.

About three years into the quest for wholeness, I made a phone call to a health and wellness clinic.  I had consulted with the physician a couple of times, but for the most part, it was the office staff that gave direction for on-going support.  On my cordless telephone, sorting through some papers in my file cabinet, I shared my questions with the woman I usually spoke to.  She listened patiently.  Then she said not unkindly but firmly, “You know, Shannon, you’re not the only one to have ever experienced this.”  It hurt me terribly.  She was right.  She was probably wise and discerning.  I felt blood rush to my face, like the sting of a swift slap.  I said a few more things, I said thank you.  I hung up.  That phone call changed the direction and the momentum of the healing process.  With a new determination, I turned to face my crap and kick it into order, pile by pile.  I didn’t dial the clinic again.

That conversation comes back to me from time to time.  It doesn’t sting anymore.  She said what needed to be said, what I needed to hear just then whether I wanted to hear it or not.  It might not be what I would have said in the same situation, and it might not even have been completely necessary.  She may have been speaking out of a place of her own pain and a struggle she was facing that day or in that season of her life.  But she said something true, and that truth tells me things about walking through healing.

You can not know my pain and my struggles exactly.  I can not know yours exactly.  They are our own.  The manner in which an arrow comes into your heart, mind, body is not the manner it enters mine, not exactly.  In that way, I can not understand completely.

On the other hand, you have arrows that have struck you, and they pierced your skin, sometimes the very deepest places internally.  Me, too.  You are on a road to wellness and soundness.  Me, too.  You are a human who cries and laughs and longs for shalom.  Me, too.

Our troubles and pains and heartaches are unique.  Our stories belong to us.  Jesus tends to each of us intimately and personally.

Those same bleeding places are not unique.  Our stories are woven together by some strands; we are connected.  At the very least, we share our humanity.  We need each other to cry with and laugh with and pray with while we walk the road.

While I didn’t need the counsel of the lady at the clinic any longer, I did need people to keep calling to the true things within me, things buried and forgotten, shattering things and glorious things.  I surrounded myself with others who gave me words of life and pointed me to the Healer.  They let me walk alongside them in the same fashion, and I was able to give back words of life and point them to Jesus.  The wounds manifested in unexpected ways.  So did the healing of my body, my mind, and my soul.

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Altars in the world

My grandfather’s boots stood guard by the pedestal ashtray, the ashtray holding its own sentry post by the end of the couch.  In the day time, my grandmother sat in that spot of the couch, the cushion nearest the lamp stand.  At the close of the farm day, once the boots were off, that cushion belonged to Daddy Hob.

In Granny’s hours, it was a prayer seat, a place of counting and recounting the words of God in scripture.  It was also a place of prayer for my grandfather.  He just used a different language.

The day’s work behind him, now he was left with the steady rhythm of the clock above the television, the hum of the refrigerator, the white noise of the radio preacher gabbling something or other about God and sin.  He puffed on his cigarette, the taste of his beer thick on his tongue.  His gaze found a nothing point out the front picture window, and he prayed.

He prayed for that damn preacher that kept going on and on about hell.  He prayed for his own self, for strength to keep at it even though he was tired as hell.  He fumbled around in his mind looking for words to pray for his wife, he loved her and it was hard to.  He didn’t know how.  But he prayed for her, and he wished she’d turn off the staticky radio.  What did that preacher, or the two before him, know about his life, his land, his heart?  It was too quiet to pray any more.

The television helped, the news and then The Walton’s, or whatever else came on.  Just other noise.  It didn’t matter what kind of distraction.  He knew it only worked for so long anyway.  His mind would drift again to his son that had died, the questions that he had, the anguish, the anger, the ache that would not relent.  The harvest always came, right on time. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner never failed.  The news came on every night, and the repetitious droning medicated what work and beer did not.

My grandmother busied herself in the kitchen.  Tomorrow was Thanksgiving.  All of the kids would come, and all of the grandkids.  Good noise.  A full table.  A feast and a celebration.  And he was thankful.  He lit another cigarette, and stared into the television.  He prayed without words, without thought.  His soul cried out.  It was hard to be thankful about everything.  

His prayers and her prayers.  Maybe they fused together coming from the same altar.  

The boots kept watch.  Heavy with their occupation, infused with pasture soil, laden with odors of manure and tired feet, they were ready always to bear the story again another day.  They waited by the ashtray.   

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We, like sheep

One time, I wrote about thin places.  It was in my dreaming life, and the words spilled forth fluidly.  Celtic Christians explain thin places as places where the boundary between heaven and earth is so thin you can almost see to the other side, a place where God is so near, where transcendence is touchable, knowable.  In my sleep, it was easier to grasp and to express, because dreaming was, and often is for me, a thin place.

The evening before I wrote in my dreams, my daughter and I sat around my cousin, Jennifer’s, kitchen table looking at pictures.  My cousin had originally begun looking through her computer files to find a specific picture of her daughter, a photograph that captured so well the way her Abby-girl lived life–bounding and springing with a sparkle in her eyes, taking in information eagerly to get to the next event, paying attention to the details of people and things.  I guess it was on Jennifer’s mind to find the photo, because our afternoon had been spent at the Dallas Arboretum with Abby as our tour guide.  We all enjoyed being led from each point of discovery, always watching Abby skip ahead and calling over her shoulder which way to go.  Jennifer said she just really wanted to find the photo.

For two hours, we sat while she scrolled through their story in the icons of file folders.  We stopped frequently to laugh and remember, to listen to Jennifer or Abby or Aunt Betty recount the details beyond the captured frame.  Sequences of memories danced on the screen, drawing us into something sacred.  Our bellies tight with laughter, we danced in the mystery, living and breathing in the memories as if they were materializing all over again.  We hovered in a thin space where death was not allowed, where life is eternal, where time crossed lines and fused all together.  We tasted something holy, touched it with our fingers, felt it brush our cheeks.

Abby skipped through the pathways of the park, leading us like sheep.  She took us to a thin place.  I was still there when I drifted off to sleep, when I dreamed that it was possible to describe it.

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All Saints’ Day

We worked together to clean up the kitchen from supper.  My father-in-law and I put our hands to completing the task before us.  And while we worked, we talked.

I was 22 years old, fresh out of college and college ministry.  My feet were wet with the waters of the contemporary worship pool.  I had grown up in a congregation where I had learned hymns and the doxology, we sang 3 of the 4 verses in a well-loved green hymnal, and I knew glimpses of Jesus sprinkled throughout the Sundays and Sunday nights and Bible schools.  When I attended college, a new era of my faith journey began.  I don’t know that I had disdain for my church background, but somehow I had grown to believe that it wasn’t enough, that the college ministry and their more relevant means of worship and teaching was better and more.

My father-in-law was soaked to the marrow with deep-well waters of liturgical worship.  He was the professor of preaching and worship at Asbury Seminary.  Before that, he had been a pastor in the local church for nearly 25 years.  His experience as a pastor and his years of teaching provided him with a trove for instructing and challenging pastors-in-the-making in the ways of church.  He took very seriously matters of faith, of the pastorate, of searching things out and understanding them.  He was seasoned in life and in ministry.  He had been there and done that regarding multiple aspects of church life.  He had seen trends come and go, watched churches split apart, watch the Holy Spirit mend the hearts of people.  And he loved to discuss and turn topics over and over, hear different perspectives.

While we unloaded and reloaded the dishwasher, he casually invited me into a dialogue about contemporary versus traditional worship and church experience.  It was the first of many such talks, the entry level for my young soul to understand the grace and love of a gentle man who was a pilgrim along the road.  He simply had travelled more length of the way than I and was beckoning me to join him.  He wanted me to think, to use my mind to the love the Lord as well as I used my heart and my strength.  He offered grace and space enough to think out loud, to be challenged, to be encouraged, to agree and to disagree, to depart the scene with more to ponder.   He wanted me to know that we are always learning, that “we stand on the shoulders of the generation before us.”  We cleaned up the kitchen, and I decided not to run from him but to engage even if I had a differing opinion or experience.  I learned not to be afraid of questions–questions that I had answers to, that I thought I had answers to; questions that I had no business trying to answer without first being still and listening and living longer.

21 years away from that kitchen conversation with dear Dad Boyd, one year since his passing from this life into the next, I sit in my own kitchen and offer thanksgiving for him and for his life.  He was a father to my husband, and he became a father to me.

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A carol and a candle

We stood all in a row.  The four- and five-year old’s.  December and Christmas wrapped all of our imaginations with pretty bows, holly and hanging evergreen boughs and carols.  I wore a red dress with a slender, black velvety sash and a white collar, white tights and black patent leather shoes that clicked on hard floors when I walked.  Heat flowing from the huge black grates in the aisles warmed everyone.  Something rather magical about the stained glass windows reflecting the sun from outside set the sanctuary on fire with holy, and the congregation sat in the glow looking upon us expectantly.  We all waited for fingers to touch piano keys, for Aunt Betty to direct our grand choral performance.

Away in a Manger.  Just that simple song.  Three verses we committed to little memories, a story about a babe in straw and cattle lowing.  Thanks to an 8-track tape, I had sung that song many times.

Somewhere in the second verse, I mixed up the story.  I sang a line out of place.  Blood rushed to my face.  I fumbled to find the right words, to catch back up to everyone else who told the story without error.  The air felt different, the windows became just regular, the glow slipped out beneath the glass-paned doors.

As soon as the music stopped, several men throughout the congregation (and maybe a few bold women) offered “Amen!” as verbal applause.  I ran to the back row that my family always occupied.  Nestling in close to my mom, I buried my head in her lap.   Tears stung my eyes.  Humiliation washed over my small self.  Mom bent her head next to mine.  I messed up the whole song, I muttered into her wool-skirted legs.  She offered some words of affirmation and grace–which I didn’t know how to receive and wished like everything I could leave immediately–and she ran her hands over my hair.

I sat in church last night, nearly 40 whole years since the bumbled manger carol, and relived the event in my mind.

Before the start of service, I needed to get the microphone off of the stand by the communion table.  The cord stretched toward me with some difficulty, so I tugged gently to release the length of it.  I saw it trying to come toward me as it simultaneously, and in slow motion, slid across a narrow pedestal that held a lit candle.  The candle fell, and how it is in split seconds a person can imagine all manner of terrible-awful like the carpet catching fire, I do not know.  I squinted my eyes in anticipation of the impending burst of flames.  The glass candle holder lay by my feet on its side, flameless.  No fire engulfing anything.  Just one less candle illuminating the Table.

Back in my seat, I could easily see the two lit candles looking down upon the unlit one.  I was a little shaky, my heartbeat hard and visible as I looked downward.  Tears stung my eyes, because it took me too long to shake off a ridiculous pride worn by grown-up skin, because I was the wrong kind of small again.  I heard God whisper that grace was for me, that I could learn it, that it lived there by the Eucharist with all of the other candles and the one unlit one.

Performance and appearances hold me hostage often.  Knocking the candle off the wood in front of everyone just happened, could happen to anyone and quite frequently does, I’m sure.  When I wore the holiday dress and I mixed the chronology of the baby Jesus who was born in a smelly barn, no one minded.  No one cared in either event; most likely, no one even noticed.  Just me, who somehow learned from a very early age that getting it right was most important.  More important than knowing the Light of the world.  More important than seeing the holy and being wrapped up inside of its swaddling clothes.

 

 

 

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