Three days before I left for Portland, I admitted to my oldest son and his wife that living alone was mostly leaving me lonely. I needed people around me, particularly at night time. I asked if the offer to move a bed into their house was still good. “Of course” they said.
Two days later, I found out that I could not stay in my condominium. I live in a 55 and older community and I am not 55. Our request for a one year exception was denied.
One day later, I would be on a mission trip to Portland, Maine with some folks from church. One of the things we were going to do was work with refugee families. The irony was not lost on me. I would encounter people who had fled from their homes, who had been displaced from any kind of life they knew, who would eventually settle here, a foreign land. Perspective… perspective.
Two days into the trip, I made a joke about being homeless when I get back to NJ. One of my teammates quickly responded, “You are not homeless; you are house-less. They are not the same thing.” Again… Perspective.
Three days into the trip, we stole 30 minutes to check out the rocky beaches of Portland (different from the miles of sand along the Jersey shore.) One of the young adults on the trip was collecting shells and I asked her to pick me a good one. They were fully intact snail shells, still fully intact.
They reminded me of the parable of the lobster -
“Long ago, when the world was very new... there was a certain lobster who determined that the Creator had made a mistake. So he set up an appointment to discuss the matter. “With all due respect,” said the lobster, “I wish to complain about the way you designed my shell. You see, I just get used to one outer casing, when I’ve got to shed it for another; very inconvenient and rather a waste of time.” To which the Creator replied, “I see. But do you realize that it is the giving up of one shell that allows you to grow into another?”
Because lobster shell is not elastic, the lobster must shed its shell in order to grow. Shedding is called “ecdysis” and the overall process is called molting. A lobster will molt dozens of times over the course of its life. Therefore, much of a lobster’s life is spent preparing for, performing and recovering from molting.
I dare say in this way, we are very much like lobsters. We spend a lot of our time preparing for, performing and recovering from molting.
And if resist or refuse, our lives become uncomfortable and unmangable. Similarly to the unhappy lobster who requested to stay in its shell, I believe we too can resist change. Haven’t we all been guilty of trying to stay where we are when we really needed to move on, change, grow, mature… molt?
For sure, the molting process is gruesome; it’s vulnerable, stressful, painful and downright scary. But my shell doesn’t fit anymore; in fact, it’s for many reasons thrust on me and for reasons I control, the life I had is no longer compatible. While I will pray for patience and peace through this process, it is clear that the steps are mine to take. God will not take them for me. And so I will read, reflect, share, process, learn what I can about what I am becoming so as to find and grow into my new habitat.
Pete always wanted to tell people that we fell in love under the Kenyan skies. I told that sounds beautiful and romantic but we fell in love in Middlesex, NJ.
When Pete and I were dating, we went on a mission trip to Nairobi, Kenya. We were two people on the worship team for a pastors conference. Our team was comprised of members of Middlesex Presbyterian Church. Pete on bass guitar and I was on vocals. The guitar player, Don played for Pete's memorial. His wife, Pam came over to walk and talk just days after Pete died. The leader of the team and pianist, Ted was the best man at our wedding. Ted's wife was in my wedding party and has written a beautiful book filled with her photographs coupled with scripture called These Greatest Gifts. These folks, along with Laura (my roommate at the time), John who wrote a beautiful ode to Pete in his death, Danny (who was an 8th grader in my youth group), Al (whom Pete called "Cous" as in Cousin), Al's wife Linda and Vicki (tambourine player extraordinaire).
Pete likes to tell this story about how we were deciding whether or not we were really dating. Was this really a thing? I mean from my perspective, "who just dates a single dad?" You don't. Well, I don't. This whole "I'm falling in love with Pete Scibienski, who has a 13 year old and an 18 year old" wasn't something to be uncertain about. And so as we were headed to Kenya, we decided we would be serious about the mission trip, cool it a little on our relationship and see where we were on the other side of Kenya.
But a funny thing happened in Kenya. I fell in love. And so did he.
We drank coffee each evening on the veranda outside of the Nairobi Hotel. And we talked and talked the way you do when you're falling in love. Stories after stories of childhood and embarrassing truths you save for the one you hope will hold those stories in trust for you.
On one of our days away from the conference, we visited a giraffe respite, a hospital of sorts. Folks collect hurt giraffes and mend them back to health. And we got to see them up close and personal.
And on the last night, we stood under the Kenyan sky, he took me in his arms and kissed me. And that was when I decided I would marry him and commit to his sons, my stepsons Dan and Joe. It was in Kenya that I fell in love.
I may have killed the bleeding heart plant that a friend gave me right after Pete died. I mentioned its impending death to friends last week and they said, “It’s a shade plant.”
Well shit. It’s been hanging in the sun on my patio. It gets the morning sun and then most of the day it gets heat and partial sunlight. At the end of the day, part of it can see the sunset.
So yea... I may have killed my bleeding heart.
And here is what I’m trying to learn from it: I need shade. We all need shade. And by shade, I mean safe places where we can find rest. Not necessarily sleep. Rest.
In my pastoral work, I have often said one of the greatest gifts we can give to one another is the gift of our presence and in particular, the gift of sitting together in silence. Being in silence is not comfortable for most of us. And as our world has gotten louder, our comfort level with silence has gotten worse. There are so many words, so many pictures, so many comments, so many “likes” to our posts on social media, so many friends “talking” out there in cyberspace and we don’t want to miss anything. And then add in the constant chatter of the 24 hour news cycle. Our ears are so busy; our eyes are constantly reading and watching. It’s very loud in our heads. We know little rest. We have little shade.
Perhaps that’s why the 23rd Psalm says that God “makes us to lie down in green pastures.” God has made us to lie down. Lying down is part of our nature. Lying down or rest is a natural component of being human.
To be human is to need shade. To need rest. To need quiet. And my truth: I am fighting this need for shade every day lately.
I don’t want to stop and sit still and be quiet with myself. I am grieving and it feels horrible. So, no I don't want to sit quietly with myself. I want to run away… from myself, from my surroundings, from my relationships, from my job, from my home, from my own skin. I can’t stand it in here. I miss Pete so much that my flesh starts to feel prickly; there is humming inside me and my tears have never been this close to the surface in all of my life. They overtake me. And I can't will them to stop. I don't want to sit still with myself. I want to run away.
There is quite a bit of irony in this tension too. For the past five years I have complained that I was never alone in my own house. Pete was here all the time. I would get up early to write or to read or to enjoy my house alone. And now that I have it alone, I am squandering it away by scrolling through facebook early in the am or by watching the Newsroom for the 4th time til late at night.
And then I say to myself - give yourself a break, Beth. Stop with the chastisement. You’ve just lost your best friend, your partner, your shade tree.
I’ve lost my shade tree. And my bleeding heart looks pitiful.
Pete used to tell this joke about a guy and a monkey who went to space together. They make it through take off and the monkey begins working frantically, pushing buttons, working hard. The guy just sits there. And so someone asks the guy, what do you have to do? The guy says, I feed the monkey.
In my and Pete’s world, he always said his job was to feed the monkey. I was the monkey. And I’m having to learn to feed myself.
Last week, I learned to ask for help and my sons fed me.
Last week, I learned to be more honest about my bleeding heart and my friends provided restful shade.
Last week, I told the story of Pete’s death again to a couple women at my church and it felt like I was watered.
But the honest truth is my bleeding heart still looks, and feels, pitiful.
Pete and I met at the first church I worked for. He was the bass player in the church band. I sometimes sang with the band. I was a vocalist by training and I had also picked up the guitar my last semester in college so that I could lead songs for youth group. But my guitar playing was mediocre at best. One night I approached the guitar player in the church band and asked if he had time to give me some lessons.
When Pete told this story, he said, “I looked at my friend and thought, he is working such long hours with his job. He doesn’t have time for this so he said to me, “I’ll give you guitar lessons.”
And I said, “You play the guitar too?”
And Pete said, “Yeah.” (Meaning – I have guitars that are older than you are.)
So I asked him what he would charge. And he asked, “can you make coffee?”
I said, “Buddy, I make great coffee.”
And so that began my friendship with Pete Scibienski. He came for coffee on Monday nights and taught me guitar lessons.
Coffee and guitar turned into great conversations. Great conversation leaked into going out for cheesecake at the diner. And cheesecake led to a concert in the city one August evening. And the next morning, my phone rang and he asked if I wanted to go to breakfast.
And since then he has been my first cup of coffee and my last conversation. Every part of my life misses him.
Last night I pulled his guitar off the wall, dusted it off, and tuned it up. It’s a Martin D28; he bought it somewhere between 1968 -1970. Like I said, it’s older than I am. And like any Martin, the bass notes are so full. The first strum rang within me and produced a smile.
Several years ago, I took more guitar lessons because although Pete was helpful to me not making a fool of myself during youth group, I was and still am such a hacker when it comes to playing the guitar.
I adjusted my grip just as my teacher instructed and I began practicing scales – the Ionian, the Dorian, the Phrygian, the Lydian, the Mixolydian, the Aeolian and Locrian. By the time I got to the last two, my fingertips were aching something fierce. But I kept going because I had promised myself that if I practice my scales and run the chords up the neck, then I can play a song.
And so I kept at it, fingertips screaming and the strings buzzing from a lack of pressure because my wrist was hurting as it tried to bend into the proper position.
Start the scale, start over, come back from the bottom. Try it again.
For over two decades I have relied on Pete to help me play the guitar. We figured songs out together, him plunking it out. When I didn’t like the key, he would help me convert it – and help me find easier ways to play chords because I’m still a hacker on the guitar.
Sometimes when I’m figuring out a song for church or for chapel or if I was playing at an open mic, he would holler from the other room, try the minor 6. And he was right. I had the chords wrong.
I chose a song to play after my chords and I had forgotten how the bridge went. As I was plunking it out, I stopped to listen for the inner voice of Pete who said, try the minor 6.
So I did but it was wrong. So I stopped again and listened for the inner voice of Pete who said, yeah ok, go back to the 4 not the 1. And then we had it right.
My strumming is uneven just like most of my life right now. And I got the chord sequence wrong on the bridge that we had just worked out. But here is me singing Christine Kane's "This Is the One Thing I Know" to Pete’s beautiful guitar.
I want to talk about Pete. But I worry people will not be comfortable with me talking about him, especially if I cry – which I most certainly will. I worry talking about him might communicate to some that I am “stuck” in grief when in reality, I think I’m just now coming out of shock. I worry people will tire of me talking about him when in reality, I have actually spoken very little about him since he died.
And he was so great. We should talk about him. Right?
Did you know…
Did you know Pete collected stringed instruments? one acoustic guitar, one electric guitar, three electric basses, one acoustic electric bass and one upright bass?
Did you know he played his upright bass for Faith to walk down the aisle at her wedding? He played “There’s a place for us” from West Side Story.
Did you know he loved the Allman Brothers? When Greg Allman died last month, I hated not having him around to play his favorite songs.
Did you know he loved history? When he died he was studying the Columbian exchange. He had been reading about it for almost a month. One day after work, he wheeled into the kitchen and asked me, “Did you know that cows are not indigenous to America?” I said, “No I didn’t. Who on earth would load a cow into a boat and transport it here?” When I turned around, he had the biggest grin on his face because clearly I had asked the right question. “Exactly… it’s part of the Columbian exchange.” He kept talking blah blah blah and I cut him off and said, “Wait, Columbian like Christopher not Columbian like the country?” Then he no longer had the same smile but still stuck with me. “Yes, I’m reading up on the ramifications of Columbus coming to the new world and how we got what and when we got it.”
Did you know he was also reading Waking Up White and frustrated with it. From time to time, he’d suggest that the author is naive or that her experience is not his experience in realizing his “white-ness.” And then in no time we would come to realize white people aren’t too different from one another – none of us really understand that we’re white and privileged and powerful. Even him, in a wheelchair, on disability – a middle aged white male has tremendous power.
Did you know someone gave Mateo a bi-plane that came with a battery operated toy screwdriver. The bi-plane could be taken apart with the screwdriver. One morning I helped Mateo take the plane apart but then I couldn’t figure out how to put it back together. I said, “maybe PopPop can help.” And so he started to hand the pieces to Pete and sure enough, 15 minutes later the plane was back together again.
Did you know he loved Sherlock Holmes? Absolutely any rendition, he was in.
Did you know he wore button up shirts and ties for the 25 years he worked for National Starch? But before he got to his desk, he would loosen his tie and roll up his sleeves.
Did you know he can quote the first line or tell you about any main character in a book but most of us have never seen him reading those books? I think he read them all before he turned 25.
Did you know he was not a fan of sweets? Yep, he would say, “All this and sugar free too.”
Did you know he had the cheesiest sense of humor?
Did you know he also had the darkest sense of humor?
Did you know he bought himself an Amazon Alexa mostly to have her tell him jokes? True.
Here – I’ll ask her for a joke for you…
“What do you call a potato wearing glasses? A spectator.”
Did you know he collected hats?
… and NRA stuff – Not National Rifle Association but The National Recovery Administration. This was a prime New Deal agency established by FDR in 1933. The goal was to bring industry, labor, and government together to create codes of "fair practices" and set prices.
Did you know he marched on Washington in protest to the Vietnam War? He and others from NJ slept near the Lincoln Memorial. He often talked about his shock (and probably fear and perhaps some new awareness of how the world works) at military police with automatic rifles walking around what was a completely peaceful protest.
Did you know he was actually a tea drinker in his earlier life? But then he got a job where in order to get a cup of tea, you had to go into a lounge where primarily women gathered. He felt out of place and perhaps invading their space so he settled for the coffee that was flowing freely in the office.
Did you know this was his favorite tshirt of all time? (Based on research done by me.)
Did you know although he did not have a sweet tooth, he loved bread with butter? When we were first married, I made (my bread machine made) honey granola bread regularly. And he went to work with it still warm. He said, “Those were the good days.”
Did you know he also loved pork roll? Of course you did.
Did you know he loved to talk to strangers?
Did you know he had an impressive LP Collection until his wife convinced him to sell them back to the Princeton Record Exchange for a fraction of what it cost him? And her reasoning was that we had not had a record player on which to play any of the records for as long as they had been married. And did you know she needs someone to grant her dispensation from this horrendous act?
Did you know he loved Mark Twain? Particularly, he often quoted the War Prayer.
Did you know he loved Dan and Joe more than any words he could ever utter? The three of them lived happily with one another using as little words as possible before they met me. And now there is all this need for talking.
Today marks two months without my beloved. Two months without a kiss or a hug or a pinch of my butt. Pete would often sneak a pinch of my butt and then with a smile, he would say, “I paid $14 for that pinch.”
We had a running joke about our marriage license costing $28 and each of us paid half. And so for the bargain price of $14, Pete could pinch my butt whenever he wanted to.
The other day, my grandson Mateo and I were settling in for a nap in my bed. He was laying half on Pete’s side of the bed, half on mine and we were laying close with my arm around him and I was suddenly aware of how beautiful touch feels. My arm wrapped around his. Our warmth together.
One week after Pete died, my girlfriends had planned a spa day together. I am a regular with massages. I keep a lot of stress in my body (as we all do); This spa party was not with my regular massage therapist. And I had not been touched in this way since Pete’s death. Realizing I was anxious, I emailed the spa ahead of time to tell them my story and ask that they assign the right therapist to me.
They understood and had assigned a therapist who did energy work as well as massage. She had lost a love as well in her lifetime and understood the odd sensation of being touched by another. We started in a prayerful manner by my head and then I can best describe her massage of me as lightly petting me everywhere. She never used strong touch or deep massage techniques. She just moved her hands over each inch of my body finishing with my feet.
I cried a bit but mostly I allowed myself to feel the sensation of being touched. And I was thankful for the safety and warmth of the experience.
I practiced the Japanese healing art called Reiki. For me, as a Christian practitioner, my practice is about sensing the person’s energy and prayerfully asking the Holy Spirit for healing which I feel/sense as the moving energy in the room. I have spent a lot of time in people’s energy. I have honed a skill in differentiating my energy from others’ energy. I have learned to name or describe certain energy in a room, with a person but most importantly within myself.
The practice of Reiki for me has been primarily self-discovery. After all, isn’t this how we are able to serve others. Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
Since Pete’s death, I sense differences in my own internal self. For example, I almost always have a humming sensation around the part of my body that holds my heart. And most of my upper back is tight, as if protecting the “back door of my heart.”
A couple weeks after Pete’s death, my daughter in law to be, Teal and I planned to go for a foot massage at an Asian massage place around the corner from her home. But when we got there, we thought, “Let’s do an hour.” And I thought, “Well, if I’m doing an hour, I’m going to have her do my back.” So as I settled on the table, I took a deep breath and suddenly realized I was about to have someone who does not speak my language work out the muscles and energy of my back and I would not be able to communicate what is going on with me. I should know better, I thought to myself.
So I took another breath, I said a prayer and I decided I would deal with whatever consequences there might be from this experience tomorrow. Well… if my back was the floorplan of my interior life (my emotions, my hurt, my joy, my worry, my grief) she opened up every dang room and every dang closet. I was swept clean – and I was left vulnerable and exposed.
So I spent the next couple days breathing in God’s love for me, trusting my love for myself and accepting the love from so many around me.
A couple weeks after, I went to a trusted massage therapist, who not only speaks the same language as me, she knew Pete and loves me. She used a bit harder touch but not as hard as would be typical for me. When she got to my shoulders, I had an overwhelming sensation that something was leaving, like a package and internally I started to grab for it, to save it. Then I am not kidding - Pete swooped into the room and with his sternest voice he said, “You have got to let that go.”
I started to object but he cut me off. With the same stern voice but this time filled with deep sympathy, he said, “You should never have had to carry that in the first place.”
I believe (although I can’t be completely sure) the package was filled with the weight of caring for him. In one fell swoop, the responsibility, the worry, the stress, the joy and love of caring for him as he has been sick left me.
I cried through the rest of the massage.
Our bodies carry trauma with them. Life happens and things stick to us. Sometimes things burrow inside of us and although talk therapy is invaluable, we need to honor the physicality of our lives. Not all of who we are happens in our thoughts. We are bodies. We are amazing bodies. Bodies that protect us and keep us. They move for us and serve us. And they take a beating because of us – inside and outside.
Last week, I had my annual visit to the OBGYN. I hadn’t really thought about the visit until I parked my car.
I texted Faith, “I’m at OBGYN… this appointment is never fun but it feels even more weird without anyone else touching me. Too much info but needed to say it.”
She texted back, “[sad emoji] I know you miss his hands.”
How absolutely true. I miss his hands. I miss his touch. I miss the warmth of his body beside mine. I miss the hugs and the kisses and the pinches of my butt.
Pete used to say, “I feel as if a giant duck is walking behind me, stomping out my past.” Try to imagine a duck – several stories tall - real, stuffed, cartoon, whatever you like; it’s your imagination. And now imagine that duck walking behind you with its big webbed feet crushing down on your elementary school leaving you with only memories.
There were several places in Pete’s life that had closed or moved or changed – squashed by the duck, he would say. And there were several friends who also seemed to be squashed by the duck. Pete was left with memories but without the touch or voice with which to reconnect physically to many he loved dearly, not least of which was his father and his mother.
The Duck. The Damn Duck.
I used to roll my eyes about the Duck because he was clearly being dramatic. His childhood had not been stomped out at all, and certainly not by an imaginary Duck. His childhood home still stands exactly where his father built it. They’ve added on to it but it’s still there. And his childhood school still stands, although the Diocese closed it long ago. All of the houses where he raised his children still stand, and they look basically the same minus one beautiful Cherry Blossom tree that was great for climbing.
The McDonald’s where he worked as a teenager is gone. The first office he had at National Starch is gone. National Starch was sold a couple times over at this point but the last building where he worked still stands.
And yet, he still talked about the Duck.
Pete was oriented in the past. It’s not just that he loved history, which he did; he was guided and grounded by his roots.
Throughout our marriage, he was so confused by my lack of physical roots or even my incessant need to think about and plan for the future. I was always thinking several months ahead and always leaning into what was next. And now that he is gone, I am desperate to find my roots, to hold onto something that has been here for awhile, something that knows me, knows the landscape.
Within the first few hours of Pete’s death, my family threw away his pillow. (It had blood stains from trying to revive him.) Then they changed all the sheets on my bed. They did every bit of laundry they could find. They cleaned the stains on the rug that had accumulated over several years of Pete spilling coffee or grinding dirt with his wheelchair. They also disposed of the medicine, his toothbrush, his deodorant. All that was left of him in the bathroom was a gold bar of Dial soap.
The day after his death, an army of family members collected every handicap accessible device in our home and drove them to a Goodwill Medical Supply store. All that remained of Pete’s journey with chronic illness was a manual wheelchair, a motorized wheelchair, a hospital bed and an accessible van – the bigger items for which we would need to find the right home.
The Duck had started to stamp out Pete’s life.
Yesterday, I sold the van. I sold it to one my closest companions, the associate pastor and her husband at my church whose daughter has special needs. Her daughter is 3 years old and she is now the proud owner of a fancy van, equipped with a motorized ramp.
Pete said once, “I wish I could see the world the way this little girl does.” Erin wrote about this in a blog post called "Heavenly Gazes and Wisdom." Objectively, we’re unsure what she is able to see or comprehend. But Pete was very clear - no one sees the world that way she does.
I remember years ago, I was pushing Pete in a wheelchair through an airport. Afterward, Pete said, “the only people who look at me when I am riding a wheelchair is others in wheelchairs and children.” Perhaps this insight is why Pete wished he could see what she sees.
Although as the van pulled away, I felt as though I was saying goodbye to part of my history. The van was part of my life for the past four years but now it has a future that I can partly imagine. The Duck and his big webbed feet didn’t squash out this part of Pete’s life.
A little piece of Pete’s world will continue as this little girl takes in the world through her unique senses as she travels through life in the back of Pete’s van, in the back of her van.
One more thing... If Pete were still alive, the changes proposed to the Affordable Care Act that are currently in the Senate would prove to be dangerous to him and others who are the most vulnerable in our society. If these changes pass, they will be devastating to Lucia. If you haven't already reached out to your representatives to let them know how important it is to care for our most vulnerable - those with pre-existing conditions, children and the elderly. If you want or need more information, please read Erin's most recent blog post, "Why I'm Worried: An Inhospitable Present for People with Disabilities."
We live, I live on the second floor of a condominium building. We are just above a semi-busy street. Directly in front of our patio is a large Maple tree. She is flanked by a variety of pine and some bushes beneath her.
Across the street however is a small forest, perhaps four or five trees deep. They block the view of the Shop Rite most of the year. They are Oak and Maple, Pine and Cypress.
Pete mentioned the trees often. In particular, he would tell me about the motion of the trees as they waved in the breeze during the day. Until that afternoon sitting on the patio, I would have said his primary view of the world was his online life and the audio books he was devouring. But I would have been wrong.
You see, about two weeks after Pete’s death, I was suddenly aware of the surrounding trees. It felt as if they were watching me, listening to me thinking. I had never experienced creation as participating in life with me before. But that afternoon, I saw the Maple and the chorus behind her and I realized that they had watched Pete too.
fact, they knew him. They knew all that had happened. They saw his mobility being taken from him. And it occurred to me that they probably saw him cry more than I did.
These trees were Pete’s witnesses.
I broke down in tears, whispering words of thanks to these strong witnesses. “Thank you for being here for him. For watching and listening and witnessing to his life and his hurt and his worry and his doubt and his love,” I said.
A few days went by. My heart felt like it someone had taken a fillet knife and shaved off the front of it. I looked to the trees and asked them, “how will a wound this ugly ever heal?”
I turned to my right and tried to imagine Pete sitting beside me. I tried to tell him how I was feeling – the pain in my heart, the crying that turned to moaning (that I saved for when I was alone – or with the trees.) I told Pete, “I’m at a loss for how any of this will heal. My heart is so torn apart. Anytime I think about what I can do to heal it, I just think how ugly the scar will be.”
And after a moment of silence, I added, “I love you Pete.”
And I’m not kidding – the trees spoke to me. Not audibly. But they communicated clearly, “Don’t stop doing that. Don’t stop loving him.”
I blinked with uncertainty; I looked up at the chorus of my green friends and said, “What? Do you mean I don’t have to let him go? I can keep loving him?”
I looked over to where I had imagined Pete sitting beside me and I said, “Oh my God, Pete, that’s how my heart is going to heal!”
And the trees sighed a solid, “Yes.”
Tears streaming down my face, lump in my throat, I caught my breath and said, “I know how to love him. I can do that. I can.”
Continue to love. Love will heal my heart. Love heals.
The Christian scriptures say that God is love. It’s not an adjective in that sentence. It does not say that God is loving or God is lovely. It says God is Love. When we love, we know God.
The trees set me straight that day. This was not a time to let go, move on, set aside, bury the dead. This was a time to continue to love. This season of love will look very different than the last season of love. And the the season before that was different as well. The trees knew that; they had witnessed it.
We humans often fall short of the kind of love we wish to give and to receive. But the trees, they stand with generations of love embedded in their trunks. Their branches creep outward fueled by love. And with their leaves they wave love to us as they witness to our lives.
I picked up The Inner Voice of Love by Henri Nouwen this morning, a gift from an old friend Stefan Wiltz. We both were in ministry together, working for Young Life at the time. We were young, in our late 20s and both interested in the Christian mystics, delving into writers we knew nothing about. And for so many of us in the late 90s, Nouwen was our guide to the spiritual life. Life in the Spirit, not just life in the Way of Jesus, meaning that we were coming to understand the energy, motivation and pace of life animated by the Spirit that gave way to the life of Jesus.
I married Pete when I was 24 years old. I’ve known Pete for more than half of my life. My adult life was built beside, in partnership with him. And now I find myself entering into a season of learning to live in partnership with him in a very new way. The love is still very, very real and still quite familiar. And I am surrounded by the people and places and things that we fashioned together: our beautiful adult sons, their gentle and kind chosen partners, our two stunning grandchildren, our dear friends, our church, the vast pile of stringed instruments, the same coffee mugs and even the bedding that changed this year from a queen size bed to a hospital bed beside a twin. All of the “stuff” that made up our life is present.
I’ve never lived alone. It seems embarrassing to admit something like that in the 21st century. I'm a professional woman, a spiritual guide in my community. I am strong and independent and I feel completely untethered . It's so disorienting. I would often tell Pete, “you are my home.” And so then, where is home for me? That’s the disorienting part.
My family has created an oasis on my patio, moving all of my plants outside and starting up the fountain I made out of an old planter given by a woman in my church at the time of her death. My daughter in law to be bought me a wine colored lily full of blooms and it lives beside a bleeding heart, given by a colleague who lost her husband when she too was young.
God is not a person somewhere outside of us, something strong and sturdy to attach myself to. God is much more the air in which we live. How can I affix myself to the air? I cannot. And so there is the rub in my untethered state. I want something sturdy, like an unchanging God or a 6 foot tall man with salt and pepper hair who played a mean bass guitar and always welcomed me home the same way, every day. He turned around in his wheelchair and he said, “Beth’s home! Hi Beth!” I want that kind of welcome, that kind of home base.
Several years back, Pete and I were on vacation with my parents in Colorado. The three of us took a balloon ride without him because his mobility limitations kept him from being able to get into the basket. It was one of the first things I did without him, one of the first adventures I took without him.
The thing I remember most of the balloon ride was that when you are riding with the wind, you do not feel the wind. When you are truly untethered, you move completely with the wind, at the wind’s pace, with the wind’s direction. And it’s quiet. It’s so quiet inside the wind.
Nouwen again is my spiritual guide, helping me understand the energy, motivation and pace of life animated by the Spirit. This untethered ride is the next adventure I take without Pete.
A few years ago, at UNCO (a conference I attend annually almost religiously) I was pouring my second cup of coffee in the cafeteria when I saw Carol Howard Merritt writing on a bunch of small pieces of paper. As I walked by, she looked up and asked if I could help her.
“Sure, what are we doing?” I asked as I took a seat at her table.
“I’m writing permission slips. We’re going to hand them out at the closing gathering as a way to let folks know they can go do the thing they want to do. They don’t need permission to be who they are or to do what they believe God is calling them to do. We need to stop waiting for permission to do the important things on our minds and in our hearts.”
I took a blue sharpie and starting writing phrases like: You have permission. Just do it. Yes, you can. Go ahead; do it. Today is your day. And the one that I got – This is your year.
I carried that permission slip around in my wallet for more than a year.
That was a stellar year for me and my congregation. We created a third vocation for our community of faith - a Wellness Center. And I wrote a memoir.
You see, my friend Carol encourages life – full life. The kind mentioned in the Gospel of John, chapter 10, when Jesus says that he came to “give us life – full life.”
My friend, Carol affirms full life – so much so that she wrote a book on how to embrace full life even when the community of the guy who desires to give us full life beats the life out of us.
Carol has a similar background as me. She went to Moody Bible Institute; I went to Oral Roberts. She has been a faithful follower of Jesus since her earliest days. She has memories of church and prayer meetings and bible studies that mirror my own. She also has painful family memories that are intertwined with her faith formation – just like mine.
In our childhood and youth, we learn of faith while we are learning to be people. And then more often than not in our early adult life, we spend a lot of time with and money on therapists trying to separate the two. As a pastor, I have cared for so many people who have baggage from conservative Christian homes. This may be offensive, but one of my seminary professors told us that when she was raising her children, they were allowed to watch anything on television except Christian broadcasting. Christian dogma, or any religious dogma, is the hardest thing to unlearn.
Carol's book doesn’t seek to help someone unlearn dogma. Instead, it creates a path for full life, despite dogma. She's has even created a path alongside dogma. But the book isn’t for the faint of heart because she asks a lot from the reader. She asks us to remember moments of pain, grief an confusion. She questions the the picture of God we hold in our deepest hearts and she turns it upside down while still treasuring that very picture.
Carol, like so many of my friends and colleagues, have persisted in relationship with the church despite being chastised for our questions, our gender, our sexuality, our beliefs and interpretations of the Bible. Even though you may never know it, there actually is a robust herd of followers of Jesus who do not consider themselves evangelical Christians. We have a whole other way of understanding faith and God and our world and one another and ourselves. And we still call ourselves, rightfully, Christians.
There still are a lot of people who persist in attending church to sit next to people who are different, sometimes odd, almost always needing something in life – love, acceptance, rest, forgiveness, peace and maybe permission. But as many who have persisted with the thing called church, there are a lot who have not. There are a lot of people who have given up because the very place that should have offered them love, hurt them or rejected them. Carol shines light on some of that rejection: abuse, patriarchy, gender identity, sexual identity, body image, finances and even fear of emotions.
If this sounds like you or someone you know - maybe this is your year or their year. Maybe this is the year to remember the pain, grief or confusion of faith and religion. Maybe this is your year to turn your image of God upside down while still treasuring it. And if this is your year, I’d like to introduce you to my friend Carol Howard Merritt.
PS: Seriously... don't worry. She would happily guide you whether you have any intention of darkening the door of a church again or not. I promise. This journey is worth it regardless of the religious outcome.