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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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An Afternoon in My Other Counseling Office

male-purple-finch-perched-on-branch

Photo credit here.

The air is dead with offgassing carpets, cleaning products, and layering, lingering camouflage. Makeup, perfume, deodorant, shampoo, aftershave, and gum conceal souls ashamed to show their bruising. Souls afraid to own their splendor.

The light is dead as well. Unnatural light emitted by glowing tubes which draw from a source inadequate to supply true illumination. It reveals the glistening scalp under the expensive coif. It corners the man who must hide his face or else betray his sorrow.

It tells all: Charlie has combed his hair but he has not bathed for a week.

It tells nothing: This cool, reptilian light does not warm. It does not heal.

So many voices. I am at once numbed and enamored, lacerated and reassured. I escape the contrived comforts of my outpatient surgery to shake off the smothering accumulation.

I walk the property in slow circles. Goodness and mercy follow me as I gulp the sunshine in slow, steady breaths. A purple finch perches atop the rusted fence. A cow lows in in the distance. The light enters at my invitation and pools in my recesses.

I return to the well-appointed office donated by the well-appointed church made up of well-appointed congregants who trust that I am versed in the art of swallowing light.

Here is a post I wrote some time ago about an afternoon in my urban counseling office.

 

 

 

 

Resurrection Day, 2016

 

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commoms

 

I wanted a flashy day with loud music, confetti, and line dancing but God said No. Resurrection is a process.

I wanted a forgettable day with daffodils, blinding sunbeams, and enough perspiration bleeding through my t-shirt to prove that Winter had come to an end. God provided a pale day and a chastening spirit which chilled the bones of the beeches and chattered the ghosts which clung to their outstretched arms.

I zipped my jacket and kept hiking. Hints of redbud pink rewarded my perseverance.

Today I sit behind my desk and discover that I have one delicious hour more than I had expected. I have forgotten my utensils and, in the privacy of my office, peel and eat a sweet potato like an ice cream cone while typing these words with sticky fingers. Ideas rattle in my own skull, crowding one another and asking for safe passage onto paper. I choose to bring this one to Life:

God has provided another perfect day.

Candy from a Stranger

Indonesian Food

I was told never to take candy from strangers.

So I didn’t.

I took a whole lunch, and I ate every bite.

I’ve written once before about my love for the community in which I work. Today reminded me again that I have landed in the right place.

I had just returned to my somewhat rundown host church after stepping across the parking lot for coffee and was about to close my office door behind me when I heard a tentative, “Ma’am?”

I turned and saw a tiny woman I did not recognize.

“Ma’am, have you had any lunch today?”

She turned and gestured toward the battered desk which serves as the church’s Sunday reception area. There rested a half-empty platter covered with plastic.

“Would you like to try some Indonesian food? I made it for a prayer breakfast but others also brought food, and the turnout was small.”

The woman brought the plate to my door, where I still stood. This was unexpected. She appeared to mistake my hesitation.

“These are made from sticky rice and coconut milk. The dark one is sweet and has brown sugar. The other isn’t sweet, and it has tuna in it.” Almost apologetically, she added, “I come from an island. We learned to use what we had.”

The lovely, moist rectangles were plated on banana leaves.

I was overwhelmed by her simple kindness. I hurried to get a tissue to use as a plate. A tissue? Well, I am a therapist, after all.

I thanked her profusely.

“Let me think if I have something I can give you,” I said stupidly.

“Oh no,” she said. “You don’t need to give me anything for them. Please—take as many as you want.”

I hadn’t been thinking to pay her, only to share a part of my self in return. I had been visualizing my sandwich, orange, and hardboiled egg. Who would want those? It’s ridiculous, I know. But that was what popped into my mind as I scanned my brain for a gesture of communion.

I ate the rice cakes at the desk where I am now writing. The savory one was a type of tuna sandwich which hinted of ginger. The sweet one was a gooey delight. Without the banana leaf beneath them, the fragrant cakes had become hopelessly grafted to the tissue. I ate them paper and all.

Rita is no longer a stranger.

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.

Aunt Mimi

Image courtesy of Cath

Image courtesy of Cath

I had to tell you more about Aunt MiMi because I’ve been thinking about her so much.

My Uncle Stanly’s position as a bigwig in the MVA of major city had afforded my aunt plenty of opportunities to indulge in her favorite pastimes: shopping, going to parties, and making friends! Aunt MiMi was both flashy peacock and hardworking pragmatist. She had worked a full-time secretarial job downtown and earned every inch of her big, fat Cadillac and every ounce of flounce in her ample closets. She could easily have become pretentious and jaded. She never did. Aunt MiMi maintained a girlish enthusiasm for life until her last day on this earth.

Aunt MiMi was as vivacious as Uncle Stanly was stern. We kids were instructed to keep our voices low and tiptoe around him. He never really talked to or acknowledged children; in fact, he rarely spoke at all. I don’t think I ever heard him laugh. He usually sat like a statue, his pipe clamped between thin lips. I do have one warm memory of him, however. One Thanksgiving he sat to my right. As he passed me the next dish, his lips curled five degrees heavenward, and he spoke: “I bet you don’t love lima beans as much as I do.” That was it.

Unburdened by angst, Aunt MiMi kept things simple. She didn’t introspect or ruminate. Her world was populated by Good People and Bad People. She had it on good authority that Bad People existed, but she had never actually met one herself. She was the kind of woman I could imagine disarming a burglar with a frying pan and then serving him a side of ice cream and cookies to go with his ice pack. He’d end up thanking her and swearing off a life of crime. She probably had such faith in people because of her childlike faith in God. She was childlike but not childish. She attended Mass weekly, prayed faithfully, cast her burdens upon the Lord and didn’t look back. She believed. She had God to do the heavy lifting, so why should she?

Aunt MiMi was fiercely loyal. Loyal to friends, family, brands, traditions, and institutions. Make no mistake about it: those cookies would have been Chips Ahoy; the ice cream, Breyers Natural Vanilla. And both would have been purchased at the same family-run grocery store she had been patronizing since it opened its doors in 1946. Aunt MiMi couldn’t help but make fast friends everywhere she went.

Incredibly, she genuinely doted on dour old Uncle Stanly. Aunt MiMi even doted on her mother, the formidable Odessa A. Tilghman. Once known as “The Belle of Georgia Avenue” (said she), and pursued by the entire male sex (of course), she had become a jowly tyrant in a flower-print house dress.

Though it may seem at odds with her mischievous nature, Aunt MiMi was not a fan of change. She managed to make it work for her without ever seeming stuffy. The style and color of Aunt Mimi’s teased hair never changed throughout my lifetime, and I never saw her without coral-painted nails. She never seemed to change size, either. As far as I could tell, she stopped buying clothes at some point and just rotated through her two-million-and-fourteen outfits and their matching accessories.

Aunt MiMi’s house got the same treatment she did. I don’t recall Aunt MiMi’s ever changing a stick of furniture or a stitch of upholstery. She and Uncle Stanly had never been able to have children, so I guess nothing ever wore out. Her blue velvet armchairs fascinated us kids during our more formal Sunday visits. If we rubbed the fabric in one direction, the color lightened. If we rubbed it the other, it darkened. The chair cushions were another matter. Sitting for decades with scarcely a warm bottom for comfort, they had petrified disconcertingly.

My aunt often said that if you could just hang on to things long enough, they’d come back into fashion. And she walked her talk. Her house was a magical museum of exotic tchotchkes, fine china, and 1940’s Americana. Her kitchen never changed. Not one iota. It was a delicious study in strawberries, one of her favorite foods. Her downstairs bathroom was amazing too. My sister Gwen and I could scarcely stay out of it. It had sparkly butterfly wallpaper and a crystal dish of scented soaps shaped like tiny roses and other lovelies! Her attic and basement were chock full of treasures, and I lived for the day she’d invite me to rummage through them. I sneaked into her basement for a quick peek whenever I could. The attic sang to me like a siren and promised Ali Baba’s Cave of Wonders but I didn’t dare chance it. I would have had to sneak upstairs, through the master bedroom and then up another flight to reach it.

Sadly, I never made it to Aunt MiMi’s attic until after her death when my mother and I helped our cousin sort some of her belongings. It did not disappoint.

On January 27, 2005, at one hundred years of age, the fabulous Aunt MiMi slipped peacefully out of this world and into the next. She fell asleep while waiting for her bowl of strawberries and woke up in the arms of Jesus.

Does He tango? Because I’m pretty sure there’s a party in the house.

This post is part of Family Rules. For the prior post in the series, click here. For the next post, click here.

Photo credit here

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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