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Red-Letter Profession

Monster copy

Image credit here.

Whole months have rushed by. I have been working harder and keeping busier than I would like. This season of labor feels necessary and therefore regret-free.

I can be a bit of a workhorse. Tackling challenges often invigorates me. But an excess of work without the benefits of regular exercise and restorative solitude is numbing. Add to that picture my recent lapse in the practice of spiritual disciplines, and the result is a high-functioning sleep walker. At least until the lights go out. That’s when the monsters come out to play.

Last night, I dropped into bed sleep-deprived and fighting a virus. As soon as my breathing settled and I drifted off to sleep, the monsters kicked open their cage and ran amok. I saw them from the insides of my eyelids and felt their scratchy nails as they raced circles around my brain. They yanked down my lids and released, snapping them open like window shades. The creatures moved next to my chest and began their vigorous warm up. They were planning a protest march, and they wanted to make sure I was awake to appreciate it.

The monsters had demanded my attention many times in recent weeks but I had tossed them Facebook, Netflix, and coffee and told them to shut the hell up. I should have known better. I can handle one or two small monsters with no more than a few mild abrasions. It’s a wrestle-and-release scenario, much like fishing for sport. I definitely should have known better than to ignore them for so long. The fiends had grown to a frightening size and multiplied unchecked.

Have you ever faced an army of chanting monsters? I hope you will be spared. They are shrill, tone deaf, and lacking in rhythm. The only part they can reliably perform is the chorus. They have that down.

They sound something like this:

You are going crazy and your arms are flabby and you are going crazy and you are a bad supervisor and you are going crazy and you haven’t folded the towels and you are going crazy and you forgot to refrigerate the milk and you are going crazy and your shower is moldy and you are going crazy.

If you try to ignore them, they just get louder:

You are going crazy and you will get cancer and you are going crazy and your mother is going to die and you are going crazy and you will have to work forever and you are going crazy and your children will suffer and you are going crazy and you will get bedbugs and you are going CRAZY!

I crawled out of bed, turned on the light, and retrieved my Bible. Henry was out of town so I didn’t have to worry about waking him. I randomly opened to the book of Mark and began reading. The monsters did not like this.

I read the words in red, Jesus’ words. I rested my palm on top of them. I don’t know why I did this.

Across time and space, I felt his breath and heard the words from his lips. I thought about “the Word made flesh” (John 1:14). In defiance of all logic, we were sitting on my bed palm to palm, Jesus and I. I borrowed his strength to wrestle and release each monster. Jesus and I talked for a while, and I drifted off to sleep.

Think what you must. I am not going crazy.

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Shabby

office

Saturday, July 25, 2015

God and I are having a conversation.

It has no words.

It is summer, and I have four unexpected hours before my next counseling client.

I sit in my donated cinder block office, the window unit clunking out an icy gasp as I hunch at my end-table desk and ponder the praying hands, the plastic cross, and the bold needlepoint “JESUS” which share this tiny island. Christian kitsch.

I dare not remove them. Any changes must go through the Queens of this church, too old now to manage the stairs to the Sunday School rooms below. They loan me “my” office any day but Sunday. It took me 5 years of plotting, but I made the dusty rose curtains and the gilded table lamp with the punctured metallic cardboard shade disappear.

The stack of Bibles can stay. They are my friends. I find my business card stuck in Jeremiah. I read a few chapters and sit, pondering.

Visible above the air conditioner and framed by peeling wood, the tired playground sighs for someone to comfort it. The cheap plastic equipment and the flimsy, hand-assembled jungle gym peer back sadly through the dirty panes, and I am glad the oaks clothe them in dignity while they wait. The preschoolers will not return until Monday.

Outside my door, children race up and down my (usually) retiring hallway. I hear Spanish. One congregation is holding its semi-annual yard sale and cooking food in the shopping center parking lot. I’m going to need some pupusas before you know it.

Four congregations share this hulking edifice and struggle against the snowballing demands of a church in decline. The roof leaks, and the sidewalks crumble….The heating system goes up. A signup sheet on the bulletin board solicits mundane assistance: Who is bringing napkins this month? Paper towels? Toilet paper?

I did a few workshops in the lower level once. The Chinese congregation opened its kitchen and its small sanctuary.

The White congregation is old and dwindling. The pastor maintains a calm demeanor and continues his ministry. It was in response to this attrition that he sought partnerships with the other congregations, and they have all become friends.

I see the African American congregants pass my door regularly on their way to and from functions, and we exchange smiles and pleasantries. I’ve been in this room for 6 years and they have never made a referral. Sonya joined me here about 18 months ago and began working a few evenings a week. Soon, I began to get knocks on the door. People always seem surprised to see me. They ask politely for “the regular counselor.” This makes me smile. Sonya is Black. It’s no problem. We all need to feel safe.

I tried to leave once.

I was tired of mopping the ladies room every time it rained. I was tired of the stained gold carpet and the dirty pink and green sofa, which took up too much of the narrow room anyway. I couldn’t stand the smarmy artwork and the gold-painted plastic shelf and mirror set attempting to look like fancy gilded wood. I am an Ikea girl.

I was done when an especially heavy rain caused “my” water-stained ceiling to collapse. The room flooded. The church dried everything out and put it back exactly the same way.

I found an office at a different church near by.

This office had bus service plus metro access. It had clean furnishings in good condition. It had a door which shut and locked properly. It even had a door bell.

But I realized it wasn’t my home, and I wanted to move back.

Our Director scrounged up a little money. Sonya and I ran our ideas by the lead pastor and the Queens. We picked out a few furnishings, assembled them, and did some deep cleaning. Things are far from perfect but I am at peace.

I throw open my door and enter one of America’s most diverse zip codes. A United Nations of food and a Crayola box of beauty. A patchwork quilt. All these dance before me to the music of Acts unfolding.

Content, I return to the office to consider these wonders.

Four congregations share this hulking edifice, the building which houses The Church. Sometimes the groups go about our faith separately. Other times, they join hearts and coalesce into the Greater Oneness. Heads bow. Many-textured voices intertwine and rise as one in prayer, in confession, in song. Incense to The One.

I am tired. I am shabby.

I am home.

Infidelity

Image credit here.

Image credit here.

Summer, 2013

“Are you getting enough?”

“Well…”

“I know we haven’t made much time for each other lately.”

“I’ve been getting by.”

“Because if you aren’t getting your needs met here, I want to know where you are getting them met.”

No, no no, this is not a conversation about sex! This conversation occurred in my women’s group. We were discussing our friendship needs.

My Ladies and I have been fast friends since chance (read: God) threw us together in the Spring of 1999 when we attended the same church retreat.

When we first started getting together, we met weekly. Each time we told new stories, learned more about one another, and laughed so hard it’s a wonder nobody ever threw up. Once each summer we went to great lengths to escape our children so that we could go off somewhere and behave like children. Please don’t ask me about specifics. If I told you, I’d have to kill you.

We had established the perfect blend of personalities, interests, and abilities. We did serious; we did spiritual; we did raucous; we did clueless. This was the life! We would go on like this forever! Nothing could ever come between us. We all but took vows and exchanged rings.

Slowly the passion cooled. We were on our way to becoming an old married couple. Getting together was enjoyable, but it wasn’t always the peak experience we had come to expect. As our children’s lives became more complicated and our work demands changed, making time for one another dropped further and further down our list of priorities. To be fair, perhaps I should also add that it dropped further and further down our list of possibilities. We were exhausted! Sometimes making the effort to coordinate four schedules became just one more thing—one more box to check on an already long list. And let’s face it. Who needs that?

As we began to coast, each of us began to explore other friendships. This felt good! We were getting our friendship needs met! But the enjoyment was also tinged with the guilty pleasure of “the affair.” Shouldn’t we be trying harder to make our schedules work? Shouldn’t we be pushing harder to create excitement in the perfectly good relationships we had? Could we be authentically happy that our intimate friends had found ways to get what we could not provide? Occasionally things between us became awkward as we wondered where we stood. Were we headed for divorce, however amicable? We had gone through infatuation and a lengthy honeymoon before the glow wore off and we found ourselves in the power struggle trying to assert our own agendas. Are you familiar with Imago Therapy? The theory behind it holds that if you make it successfully through this rough patch, you enter into a more mature and stable love.

Well….

We all agreed that the group needed an injection of something to keep things fresh. Without acknowledging it to one another, we more or less ended up in two camps.

Camp Edify wanted our times together to focus more on the study of Scripture in order to produce spiritual growth and maturity. This was a worthy aim. Camp Bite Me shrewdly figured that Bible Study = homework = one more thing. Seeing how frazzled we had all become, the Bite Mes didn’t want our times to have any agenda other than relaxation and fun. This aim was worthy as well.

When Edify touched on spiritual themes, Bite Me listened with patient smiles while it silently screamed, “Squish the damned camel through the needle already so we can get to the fun part! Can’t we just keep it light?!” Edify listened to Bite Me with Christian tolerance, plotting all the while how to manipulate the talk back to loftier fare. As the power struggle intensified, so did the tactics. Since neither camp had actually declared itself or its agenda, each volley had to take the form of a finely crafted segue lest the other camp come to suspect its motives. Fortunately, we are all very subtle and refined individuals.

I recall one van ride last summer in which the volleys sailed flew back and forth for the better part of two hours. As the Edifys became more earnest, the Bite Mes became more, uh, entertaining. In the end, it was Pollyanna versus Jersey Shore in an epic smackdown. I bet you can’t guess who ended up crying “Uncle.”

I’m willing to share the conversation with you in its condensed form but only if you promise not to tell anyone. I think it appropriate, in this day of Twitter and speed dating, to collapse it to its bare essentials. This may also help to insure that I will still have friends and a job in the event that someone I know actually reads this.

“Ten Commandments.”

“Ten inches.”

“Seek ye first.”

“Knockwurst.”

End times.”

“Ten times.”

“Grace.”

“Mercy!”

“Forgive us our debts.”

“Cigarette.”

For several months after this wrestling match, I wasn’t sure where we’d end up. For a while we went our own ways and almost seemed to forget about one another. A sort of continental drift or benign neglect had become the norm. Certainly nobody was going out of their way to organize anything.

I prepared myself for disappointment by trying to imagine I was ok with these developments: These women were nice but a lot of people are nice. And I was very busy. And both camps were starting to get on my last nerve. To gird myself against possible hurt, I practiced my Steel Magnolia Hug (lean in, brittle embrace, pat, pat, pat, I-don’t-need-you, release) and my International Air kisses (Mwa! I-am-above-zees. Mwa!) in the mirror, and said, “Screw it. I am just fine.”

Except that I wasn’t. I wasn’t fine at all. Hanna had dumped me, and I was high and dry. I didn’t realize how depressed I had become until I ran into one Lady unexpectedly and felt the tears spring into my eyes. I lurched into in a hug and didn’t want to let go. I needed my Ladies! I sent out an SOS, oblivious to the snot which threatened to short out my phone. Hell froze over, pigs flew, and before too long, we were seated cozily together enjoying a meal. We had a wonderful time.

We are older. We are wiser. We are still intact. Some things have shifted and some have stayed the same but we are still faithful to one another. Furthermore, I believe we are entering a good place in our odd little union.

This is the fourth installment in The Story of Hanna. Click here to read installment three. Click here for installment five.

Good Friday Gone Bad

rainy night stadium lights Grant Frederiksen

Image courtesy of Grant Frederiksen

I went to Jesus’ funeral last night. He was the best man I had ever known, and now I’d never see Him again.

Good Friday is the one day in the year when I sit quietly next to His lifeless body and weep. I weep because I miss Him. I weep because He suffered. I cry hot tears because He is dead, dead, dead, and now the unfinished business between us can never be put right.

I know how the story ends but I need to feel the loss of my Lord and reflect upon His pain. Pain I should rightfully have borne were justice served. Feeling the loss of Him prepares me to feel the joy of His resurrection. Not only is He not dead, He still likes me and is glad to see me even though I helped to kill Him.

I went to Jesus’ funeral last night and discovered that someone had scheduled seven other funerals at the same time. One funeral for each of the Last Seven Words of Jesus. Services were held for the victims of ISIS and Ebola; Robin Williams; Brittany Maynard; and Eric Garner. There were others I cannot now recall, and that is a shame because all of those mourned last night deserve to be recognized, grieved, and laid properly to rest. The daily news is full of sadness, injustice and horror, and we are called to hear and act.

But I went to Jesus’ funeral last night.

I could not get to Him to say goodbye. One after another, the funeral processions crowded by, forming a continuous throng of mourners through which I was unable to pass. Here and there, I caught a glimpse of Him before He was eclipsed. Finally the crowds began to dwindle, and I began my trembling approach.

The service ended before I made it to Him. The music stopped. It was time to go. The man in front of me began talking about a movie he had seen. There were bright lights and friendly chatter.

I sobbed it out in the car on the way home. My husband was lovely to me.

The sermon had been thoughtfully crafted and intended for good. I knew that. But it had gone terribly awry, and I felt cheated and bereft.

Now that my tears have dried, I wonder: Maybe I got the point after all.

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