It’s been a long time since I’ve had a double Starbucks day, but today is one. In fact, today might be the first double Starbucks day I have had since I resigned from professional ministry. Last night, I worked until 11, and then had to be back at work at 6 a.m., which doesn’t sound all that awful until I factor in the half-hour drive each way, the fact that I am never actually out on time, and still had to eat dinner when I got home and shower when I got up, and, perhaps more significantly, my brain is more likely to misbehave when I’ve not slept well. My first cup was a venti dark roast I picked up on my way in to work. When I got to work, the place was full of customers. Men just standing there, talking about nothing and drinking their coffees. I think I may have grumbled a hello as I stalked through them to get to the office.
I did not feel very pastor-y today. I didn’t want to have to see or interact with people. I didn’t want to listen to anyone’s problems. And for the love of everything holy, I did not have it in me to be gracious to other crabby people.
As a pastor, I should have known better: people seem to know when I feel least pastor-y, and that’s when they demand it.
My first shifter got a running start on pushing my buttons. She refuses to take on any responsibility, but wants to do all the management tasks that make her feel like she has authority. She has been in the store longer than anyone else, so she feels like she can do whatever she wants. She is forever telling me what she thinks I should be doing and is frequently disrespectful, particularly when she has an audience. It wasn’t even 7 a.m. when I was venting in my office, via my cell phone, to my sister.
I needed to be gracious in how I dealt with her. But oh my God, why today? Couldn’t she have waited until tomorrow to be in such a spectacularly awful mood?
I spent more than an hour trying to deal with a vendor whose delivery was every kind of messed up you can imagine: wrong products, wrong quantities, wrong prices. We scanned and counted and crossed things off of lists, and still, we got nowhere. There was no combination of things that got us to the right ending.
I needed to be patient. Of all the days to demand patience, today was hardly the best choice, but there we stood, reviewing stacks of Monster energy drinks and trying to sort out $3000 worth of beverages clogging up the hallway.
As a pastor, I should have known better: the universe knows when I can’t handle one more thing, and that’s when it throws its best curve balls.
My two favorite people to work with are Carol and Abby.* Abby works at the sandwich counter in the store, is barely nineteen, with a pixie face and her dark hair up in twin pom poms that look like Minnie Mouse ears. Last night, we were talking about tattoos, and I told her that the verse written in Hebrew on my right wrist reminds me that no matter what is happening, God’s character is constant. She told me about her tattoos, from the matching bow tattoos she shares with an aunt to the flower on her arm “just because it’s pretty.” Her grandmother, Carol, works on my side of the store. She’s in her mid-fifties, with bottle-blonde hair, pink iridescent lipstick, and a voice that tells you that she has had a wild life. She’s shamelessly herself, chatty, funny, caring, loud, and has the ability to make people feel like they are the light of her world, just by being on the other side of the counter. She’s always talking about her dream of owning a food truck, making good, reasonable food for people in an environment where she can cook, hang out, and live the life she loves. Sometimes, despite the fact that I know she doesn’t have much of an income, she will make a bunch of food and bring dinner for everyone at work just to let us know she cares. I adore her. Last night, I got to work with both Abby and Carol, and it was really great.
When Carol came in today, she looked at me and said “Honey, you look so tired, and a little depressed. Hard day? is everything OK?” I said that I was pretty tired, and that it had been a hard day, but that I was otherwise OK. She asked about how things are going with a guy that I’ve been seeing, and I filled her in on the latest. She was, as usual, glad to hear that things are going well.
“I’ve had a hard day, too,” she finally said. “You know I went to that [lung] specialist today, and that asbestos disease that they talk about on TV? Well, I don’t have that, but it’s almost the same thing. My lungs are all folded up and full of shit and there’s no treatment or anything. I’m gonna get a second opinion, but if it’s this disease, I didn’t do nothing to cause it, but then it’s like, six months and I’m gone.” She wiped under her eye. “Don’t tell nobody. I’m not saying anything until I get a second opinion, and if I talk about it, I’m gonna cry again. So don’t tell nobody, OK?”
Regardless of the work polo I was wearing, I was immediately in “pastor mode” again. I listened, and told her that I wouldn’t talk about it with anyone in the store (given the fact that none of you know her/where I work and names are changed, I figure this isn’t violating her privacy). I was stunned. She has been in and out of emergency rooms for her breathing, and her condition was generally overlooked by the staff at the income-dependent medical clinic that she went to for far too long.
She’s too young. Too nice.
She doesn’t deserve it. I mean, how many people do you know who, when given a six-month sentence, go to work a few hours later and are first concerned about how their raggedy boss is doing?
I’m glad she feels like she can tell me these things. She’s part of my little unofficial mini flock, now that I am in a different kind of ministry. I doubt she thinks of me as her pastor, but she does think of me as a friend, and that’s a privilege I don’t take lightly.
As her friend, I’m devastated, heartbroken. I am so very angry that it is happening to her.
I’m helpless. My years of pastoring taught me well that I cannot fix anything. I can guide, love, teach, pray. but I cannot fix things, and that is the cruelest reality for pastors. Every pastor I know wants to fix things, and not one of us can. I’m reminded, again, by the verse on my arm that God didn’t change from one minute to the next. God is still God, diagnosis or not. No matter how hard that is to comprehend today.
So I do what I can do: I can love. Listen. Grieve. Pray. Be a friend. And drink this tea at Starbucks while I brainstorm how to do those things better.
*Names are changed.
When I was in seminary, there were two buildings for student housing: one for those who had families, were single men, or older single women, and one for the younger single women. There are a bunch of practical reasons for doing this, but one of the underlying reasons was to keep the single women separated from the single men and families. Even though we all had apartments, there was concern over whether or not we would get too close and cross too many lines. Even as adults who had undergone an incredible amount of screening before admission, we weren’t trusted. Nevermind the fact that single men and married individuals were capable of having affairs; it was very important to keep the younger, unmarried women separate. Unless they had kids, in which case, they were housed in the family building.
This is the case with one of my best friends at the time. She was a single mother, so when we hung out, it was most often at her place so that her daughter could do homework and be at home. She is a person of big ideas, and I was happy to go along with them. One Saturday, I took her, her daughter, another seminarian, and her son to the pumpkin farm that I had gone to while growing up in the suburbs of Chicago. We decided that since we had never made pumpkin pie from scratch before, we would get a few pumpkins and give it a whirl, and the next afternoon, we looked up a recipe and got started.
Holy buckets, Batman, I had NO IDEA how long it would take or how much pumpkin you can actually get out of a pie pumpkin! We carved and we roasted and we mashed and we baked… for HOURS. Neither of us could bear to even look at pumpkin anymore when we pulled the last one out of the oven at about 3:00 a.m. We were both exhausted, and at some point, I fell asleep on her couch. A few hours later, she woke me up and I walked back across campus in the same flannel pants and hoodie that I’d been wearing the night before, to get showered and changed before morning prayers. As I was walking back to my apartment, my path crossed with another friend’s, and he made a joke about me wearing my pajamas to prayers. I told him that I’d been baking all night, eventually crashed on a couch, and was on my way to change. He said OK, and we made more small talk as I walked back to my apartment.
I could not have imagined the kind of crap storm that that night set off. Later that Monday, I was told to go to what is essentially the dean’s office. When I got there, I was totally shocked to be told that my behaviors had been reported, and that I needed to watch myself. Apparently, the time I spent at my friend’s apartment doing homework, watching movies, and baking, was sending out the impression that I was a secret lesbian. I explained that there were usually other people there, but since they were people who already lived in the family housing, it wasn’t as obvious that they were there. I tried explaining that she was one of my best friends, and since we had both just moved hundreds of miles to get there, it was understandable that we would depend on each other for support. It didn’t matter, though. No matter what I said, they weren’t sure that I wasn’t a lesbian and I needed to be careful.
I was floored. I was furious. I didn’t see why it was any of their business, and why the assumption would be that two women cannot be very good friends, but instead, have to be romantically involved in order to spend a lot of time together. We lived in a community of about 100 people, surrounded by a tall brick wall, so we didn’t have a lot of choice but to spend time with one another.
I left the office and called my friend to give her a heads-up, in case she was asked about it. I called my other friend and asked if he had thought that I wasn’t truthful, and he said that he would have come to me about it, not reported it.
A few days later, my little sister and I were walking around a Borders on State Street in Chicago when we walked past some of their Christmas kitch. I’d told her about what had happened, and on the top of one of the displays was a rainbow foil Christmas tree that stood about a foot high. I commented that I should get the rainbow tree for my apartment since they thought I was a lesbian anyways. My sister, always one for egging me on, agreed, and I bought one. Because I had an weirdly massive bathroom counter in my apartment, it ended up being stuck there.
It stood there every day, long past the Christmas season, long after they told me to “finish taking down my Christmas decorations,” in a small act of defiance. I never took it down. In fact, when I went on my summer and Christmas internships, I took it with me. When I moved into my first and second parsonages, I unpacked it and placed it on the bathroom counter where it belongs. It’s my reminder every day to not let them push me around. It’s my reminder to be who I am and not let them force me to hide. It’s hard to miss a rainbow foil Christmas tree; it demands to be noticed.
About six months ago, I was at a regional event where another minister used the word “gay” to insult a kid right in front of him. It’s a knee-jerk reaction for me to call someone on using “gay” as an insult, and when I did, the minister informed me that she was going to say whatever she wants and I can’t stop her. That didn’t sit well with me, so I went to our regional leader about it. When I got done telling the leader what had happened, her tone changed a little and she said “it’s OK, Cindy, I think I know why it upsets you.”
Um. It upsets me because I witnessed a minister insulting a kid. It upsets me because I have an awful lot of friends who aren’t straight and I don’t like the implication that it means that they’re somehow lesser.
Her tone, though, and a few other comments she made, led me to wonder if she thinks that I’m a lesbian, but I didn’t call her on it then.
Three months ago, when I got to my new assignment, I was talking to one of the other ministers, and in the course of our conversation, she let me know that a significant number of other ministers in our region think I’m a lesbian. Apparently, having gay friends, supporting marriage equality, and a rare ally-ish post on Facebook meant, to them, that I must be gay, too. Then, she told me to “tone it down” so that people don’t get the wrong impression.
Tone it down? Mmm, nope. I can’t. I can’t because there’s no need to. I’m not going to stop having gay friends. I’m not going to stop encouraging marriage equality. I’m not going to stop being an ally.
I can’t because all of these moments have given me a teensy glance into what I imagine some of my friends have experienced: uncomfortable meetings with people who get way too far into your business, having the intimate parts of your life serve as gossip fodder for people who are supposed to be your friends, feeling like life would be easier if you did certain things or didn’t do certain things while also knowing that being anything other than yourself would be hell, pressure from religious leaders who are praying for your salvation despite the fact that you yourself have already been forgiven and given grace, feeling less-than-welcome in church despite it being the place that is supposed to welcome everyone… It was nowhere near the stories my friends have shared with me; their stories are heartbreaking and many of them have been able to show much more grace to their oppressors than I think I could muster.
Because of them, I can’t tone it down. Because I admire their faith, kindness, and goodness, I can’t tone it down. Because they’re smart, funny, fantastic people who make every day of my life better, I can’t tone it down. In the last few years, I think I’ve become kind of like my little pride tree: unobtrusive, not shying away from who and what I am, and not going anywhere. And sometimes, like my tree, when the light hits just right, I sparkle.
It was sunny and I was on the way to the bank when I met her under the tree that had such beautiful leaves. She was smaller than I expected, shier than I expected, and dressed in flannel, despite it being August. She was smiling and polite and didn’t fit with the tough, attitude-filled brat image that I’d gotten from people.
It was dark and cool in the late fall evening when I dropped her off at her house and she said “Cindy, I like you a lot. I hope you’re our minister for a long time.” I don’t even remember what activity we’d been doing that night to prompt such flattery, but her grandmother assured me that she hadn’t liked a minister in a long time, so if she said it, she meant it.
It was miserably hot out without a cloud anywhere as I drove her and the younger girls to camp, singing pop songs at the tops of our lungs, laughing when someone got the words wrong. No one wanted to admit to why we all knew the words to the One Direction song and blamed it on it being overplayed and annoying instead of the fact that it was really stinkin’ catchy.
It was any given Sunday, but especially in the fall, when she and I teamed up against her grandpa in our football rivalry. He was a huge Packers fan but we had much better taste, finding every excuse to stick Bears logos on anything that would sit still long enough.
It was just the two of us and her sister in the van when we left the Starbucks parking lot. She liked Strawberry Frappuccinos, and I had a vanilla latte, and we talked about boys the whole way to Iowa. I tried to get her to see that she deserved someone who loved her like every girl should be loved.
She wasn’t just a kid in my congregation. She was Becca. She is someone I loved. She is someone I still miss every single day.
These are the memories I am choosing to remember. Not the hospitals, court dates, police reports, or case workers. Not the green organ donation bracelet I wore for months after her death. I can’t forget these things. They are as seared into me as anything I can possibly imagine. I’ve decided that I can choose which things I remember, though. That I can choose which memories flash first in my mind when I think of her. Yeah, she had more tragedy and heartache than any kid should, but she was still a kid. She lived more in her seventeen years than most people do in seventy, but she was still a kid.
I need to remember her that way.
Besides, she’d kick my butt if she thought that I didn’t.
My feet are freezing as I sit in the coffee shop with my coat over my lap, wearing a black t-shirt and green hoodie, wishing I had chosen the black CuddlDuds to wear under the hoodie instead of the t-shirt. Normally, what I wear isn’t all that important, but today, it is. Today is the day when the residents of my small Midwestern town are wearing the local high school’s colors in memory of a kid named Matt.
Matt turned 15 years old less than two weeks ago. Skinny and blond in pictures of him with his teammates, he would have fit right in on my nephew’s baseball team. On Saturday, Matt was at a friend’s house. The details of what happened aren’t public, but somewhere, things went horribly wrong and Matt was fatally, accidentally shot.
Matt is the sixth teenager who has died since I moved to this tiny town less than three years ago. The first were two young girls who were electrocuted while detasseling corn. The third, another young boy who was killed in an accident involving farm equipment at his family’s place. The fourth was a girl in my congregation, followed just a few weeks later by her friend, who committed suicide. Now Matt. I only knew one of the kids, but my heart is still heavy.
I struggle to know what to do with this. I don’t have answers, and that is a hard place to be.
I am heartbroken for the kids who have lost their friend. I am sorrowful for the families who are never going to be the same.
Being the practical, Midwestern, Peter-like minister, my inclination is to DO SOMETHING about it. For all his mistakes, Peter, the disciple known best for denying Jesus right before his death, was someone who didn’t like to just sit and wait. He was a fixer. He asked a lot of questions that would have bugged most teachers. He stuck his foot in his mouth more often than he would have liked. He was a lot like me. He would have been right at home amongst my maternal side of the family.
In this case, though, there is not much I can do, few (if any) answers to find. I don’t know the family, and it would be presumptuous of me to step into their lives without invitation. Though I would be happy to do whatever was asked, I am out of my element on this one. The only scripture that seems to be at all helpful is scattered in the Psalms, bits of lamentation and anguish thrown out into the ether by the authors, often left unanswered, except for the acknowledgment that despite the sorrow, God is still God, and will be praised.
It is hard to praise in times like this. Truthfully, my heart doesn’t feel inclined to praise.
However, I’m choosing to think of praise as one of the things I can do. Wearing green and black while I am drinking my coffee is a way to take my stand with my community. It was an unspoken act of solidarity with the six other people at the gym today who were wearing it as well. In this time of grief for others, I can choose to be a voice of praise. However small, however seemingly insignificant, it is my act of defiance. The action that stands in the face of sorrow and hurt and says “you don’t get the last word here.”
As liberal as I am, I am a traditionalist. I find comfort in knowing what to expect in certain situations. I find peace in anticipating my dad making French toast on Christmas morning. I still make my bed the same way I was taught in Sunbeams as a kid. There is almost nothing that brings me contentment on a Sunday afternoon quite like grilled cheese and chicken noodle soup while I watch the Bears game, just like I’ve done for the last few decades.
My deeply-rooted desire for tradition fits nicely into my denomination. There is an endless list of traditions that are as second-nature to me as can be, and for years, I loved that it meant that while I might find pews instead of chairs or a single minister instead of a married minister, I could go into almost any church and know that the terminology would be the same, the song arrangements the same, etc. When I was in seminary, planning a Sunday morning worship service was taught like science: we were to have x sings, y verses of scripture, and z minutes allowed for the message. The cue sheets for worship services were timed out to the minute, complete with scripted transitional phrases and if a meeting was “too long,” elements were to be cut or shortened to fit. I should mention that in terms of church styles, we are NOT a liturgical denomination, but all the planning made it feel very much like high-church to me.
Then I got my congregation.
A congregation that was in shambles.
A congregation that was largely illiterate.
I came into the picture after years and years of fighting and feuding. Songs that I thought everyone would know were new to them, and they had a hard time reading fast enough to sing them. The person who offered to do the A/V didn’t know how to minimize a window on the computer, so I ended up having to do the A/V from the pulpit most Sundays. Every week, I planned out the service similarly to the way that I had experienced Sunday mornings every week for the previous 32 years.
Song, song, pray, offering, song, pray, scripture, message, pray, sing, go home.
Or some variation on that.
Then, on February 2, 2013, the 17-year-old in my congregation was pronounced dead in the pediatric intensive care unit. She had been left for dead by a pedophile. I’d been in the hospital with the family since she had been found a couple of days prior, and I was a wreck. I was angry. I was empty. I had no idea at all how I was going to “do church” the next morning. How on earth was I going to walk into the chapel and lead them in singing “Praise God from whom all blessings flow!” when I could barely even close my own eyes to pray? Knowing I had no strength of my own to say anything, I prayed for God to tell me what He wanted me to say. I found a few scriptures that I could do something with and went to sleep.
My homiletics instructor would weep knowing that that’s all I’d done, but what I’d prepared earlier in the week just wasn’t going to cut it.
The next morning, I walked into the chapel. It was silent. There sat her family, another parishioner who had known her for her whole lifetime, and my parents, all in the back pews of the chapel. I took a music stand and walked back to stand nearer to them.
I confessed that I hadn’t had a clue what to say to them, because I knew that we were all devastated. I told them that what I had concluded is that what we needed in that moment was not to “do church” like we always had. The purpose of the church is not to work peacefully through the cue sheet and hope that the Holy Spirit does Her thing. The purpose of the church is to care for and instruct one another while we worship. That morning, we needed healing. The kind of healing that cannot happen anywhere else.
I spoke of the death of Jacob and the grief process. I spoke of not holding anger in our hearts towards the person responsible for her death. We didn’t sing a single song that morning. There was no offering collected. I played some music while we had time to pray and left it very open in format – they were welcome to pray out loud, with one another, silently, through some kind of artistic expression at a table I’d set up in the back, to pray at the altar… whatever we needed. We cried a lot as we prayed individually, and then I prayed before we all left.
It wasn’t “church” like I’d had before, but it was the first time that the congregation there felt like it was the church. While all I have is a skeleton of an outline, it remains the best sermon I’ve ever preached.
Since then, there has been a lot of trauma in the congregation, a lot of church discipline, and nearly everyone has left or been dismissed. The few who remain are starting over. I have no idea how to do that, feeling totally lost on how to build on ashes, but the times that we have stopped “doing church” so that we can be the church have been the most effective. When everyone was sick and the service consisted of me and one widow, it was the first time that she opened up about how I could really pray for and support her. This morning, when it was just my parents and me, a family that left 8 months ago came back. Instead of singing the songs I’d planned, we listened to the kids and celebrated their good news and listened to the heartbreak of the grandmother who needed someone to hear and to care about her burdened heart.
I’m not advocating getting rid of worship services altogether – I really do like them – but what I’ve learned is that being the church sometimes looks very different than doing church. A recent Facebook friend referred to her church as a “MASH unit” for those who have been hurt. I couldn’t think of a better way to describe those times that I’ve ditched the cue sheet. For a million different reasons, people are hurting, and they need somewhere to go for healing. They need a MASH unit. They don’t need a perfectly executed cue sheet; they need to encounter the church in the form of its people who are ready to love them.
I hope and pray that that is the kind of church my congregation becomes.