The Methodist Church
We walked into the sanctuary to see what it looked like. This would be our new home and family in many ways. Wally was finally a pastor again. It had literally been a lifetime since he’d been in the pulpit, and now I’d be beside him. I often wonder if this was the original plan. I can’t help but question if destiny actually holds a hand in the game of life. I never gave it much credence, subscribing to free will and all, but the recent unfolding of my life does cause me to wonder.
The church looked like a postcard I’d seen a hundred times. White wood siding, a towering steeple with the bell hanging proudly from its bell tower. The big black doors opened with iron handles that appeared to be a century old. The large keyhole under the door’s handle was the size of a large Bic lighter. Apparently the church didn’t keep strangers out day or night.
A waft of a musty air swept past us as the door creaked open to reveal what lived inside. We heard a small animal, a mouse perhaps, scurry quickly across the balcony as we entered. An image of Christ enveloped in a streaming rainbow of light welcomed us through the stained glass window up front, and the old sanctuary’s history embraced us as we slowly made our way up the aisle. The pews were filled with small stuffed animals, making the sanctuary feel more like a nursery or playpen than sacred space, but even with this distraction, we sensed the holy presence of God and the first taste of our future together in ministry.
Like most new beginnings, our hearts filled with hope. The opportunity to be here in this place with people who appeared genuinely happy to welcome us, while still within driving distance to my aging mom, and a stone’s throw to his grandchildren and sons was just what we’d envisioned. The life we’d hoped for, in the near future anyway, was about to start and it wasn’t a minute too soon.
When I called Martha to ask if she’d like to add anything to the newsletter, or dates I may not have on the calendar, I sensed hostility but couldn’t attach it to anything that could possibly have to do with me. We’d barely been here a month and still lived 30 miles away. Unless she didn’t like the font I’d put in the bulletin, I couldn’t think of a thing. I hate the feeling that arises when someone has a resentment directed towards you but no clue what it could be. I was confused. “Is anything wrong?” I asked gently. Her response was just what I expected. “No,” she said. I answered with the only thing I could think of at that juncture, “Ok, then…let me know if I can help with anything at all, and please let me know by Friday if you’d like something added to the bulletin or newsletter.” “Ok!” she responded with an obviously forced enthusiasm. I hung up wondering what was afoot and quietly said a prayer the inevitable hadn’t already begun.
Every organization or system’s dynamics will change when new players come on the scene. It’s a given. I just didn’t think it would rear its ugly head before we had a chance to get to know each other. Building trust and relationships strengthens the ability to work out anything that comes down the pike later, but if it happens before, it’s a longer and harder road to hoe. What confused me was everyone seemed to absolutely adore my husband, the pastor. Was there something I wasn’t sensing?
Sunday morning was filled with anticipation because we’d purchased a new slide projector, found a wonderfully inspiring video to play, and Wally learned two new worship songs from his past that invoked reverence while still being upbeat. It left us with a sense of joy. We knew everyone would love this service. It was also communion Sunday.
The service seemed to go well, and we greeted everyone at the door after the service. Ever since Connie and Liz encouraged me to join my husband at the door after the service, I gladly followed him up the aisle. I loved connecting with them face to face and getting to know who they were as people, not just faces in the pews. People felt bright and filled with the kind of love that comes from shared purpose and hope. It was evident they wanted a place to worship and seek God together. Now the question was, would we be able to find a way to inspire others and still please the folks who’d been here for generations? It was clear they loved being here, but their grown children certainly weren’t walking through the door.
The feeling nagged at me more and more. It was subtle, but real. There was an unfriendliness, a tension, coming from the head of the board and Martha any time I talked to them. To be honest, they were rude and it felt awful. Wally’s not the kind of person to go head to head with conflict, even in a collaborative way. He’s more inclined to lay low and let it pass. That’s not me. I’ve been face to face with conflict ever since I can remember. Conflict and change are familiar territory.
My sister was born angry. At least that’s what I thought as a kid. If I said I love you, she said Fuck You. If I said Please Stop, she said I’m going to kill you by putting a gun in your mouth so I can watch your head explode. She meant it.
It was my life’s goal at 23 to do everything and anything I could to help rid her of this anger. If it took going to therapy every day, I’d do it. If it took helping her get a job she’d find interesting, I’d find it. If it took including her in my circle of friends so she’d have the experience of belonging, I’d do it. And I did. It had always been that way growing up at home too. My parents would do anything they could to help her, or stop her from creating the chaos that always seemed to spawn from her rage. They took her to a psychiatrist once, but he said it’s just a stage and would pass. I’d beg them to do something, but looking back, I’m sure they had no idea what to do other than discipline her, which didn’t seem to help either.
She scared me as a child, and as soon as I was old enough to leave home, I was gone. I wasn’t actually old enough. I was only 16, but couldn’t take it one more day. My mother cried but knew my time had come. It turns out, growing up with my sister taught me a lot about dealing with conflict - and gave me a deep desire to find peace when there wasn’t any. It was always easy to see what triggered her, or when the fear rose up in her, which just about always resulted in rage. It didn’t make sense, but it was easy to see. I learned in time that I didn’t need to know why a random action or innocent word set her off, but the ability to feel her internal meter go off gave me a sharp and heightened intuition for sensing people’s emotions, especially their fears. She’d given me a gift I would use later on.
Change fed my spirit since I was born. Home was not my resting place. It was always somewhere else, whether it was distant lands or on the next block at Tante Tonny and Onkel Ivar’s Brooklyn apartment on Parrot Place, home didn’t include my nuclear family. This has been a blessing and a curse.
I don’t remember when I had my first sip of alcohol, but I do remember the first time my parents knew I did. It was my confirmation party, and all the Norwegian immigrants who’d been like family to us all our lives were there. This was a drinking crowd. They loved to sing, dance, and drink. In my white dress that I’d sewn myself, I innocently asked my father if I could have a drink. He said if it was ok with my mother, it was ok with him. I headed for the bar. After I finished whatever it was, I asked my mother. She said if it was ok with my father, it was ok with her. I headed back to the bar. I remember sitting in the back seat hiccuping the whole way home while my parents laughed at me. What I didn’t know then was I’d only drink for another 12 years, because I would reach my lifetime quota by 24. This was a very good thing.
I called him on the phone, praying he wouldn’t answer. Jim Carr was a top executive at Burson-Marsteller. He could land any account, and charm the pants off everyone. Literally. Rumor had it he’d stopped drinking and if he could stop, anyone could. I wasn’t sure if my drinking was problematic, but I knew my willpower was nil. I rarely had just one or two. I’d begun to feel awful, shaky even, in the mornings and soon learned that I, like many others, was sick and tired of feeling sick and tired. Jim had given me the confidence to write my first series of press releases for Mobil Travel Guide when I still had a summer receptionist job. He’d believed in me, and I wondered if he still would when I told him I drank more than I thought I should.
The AA meeting was in the 5th Avenue Presbyterian Church. It was close to my office, but did I have the courage to walk in the door? Thinking about it now, thirty years later, it was the best decision, bar none, I ever made. It changed my life in so many ways that I still stand in awe at the magic that happens in those rooms when people let it.
God was with me every step of the way.
If you’ve ever been to an AA meeting, you know the connection people feel and the safe space it is. There’s nothing quite like a room of people, no matter how famous or rich or talented they are, who have admitted defeat and share a similar purpose. It is remarkable. It’s how church should be. As a matter of fact, AA became my church. In many ways, it still is. It’s where I’m spiritually fed, and where my tribe is. The experience is different than church, but the way people relate to each other is so raw and honest and real that it feels like God is there too. I can’t remember a single Sunday that’s felt as honest as an AA meeting.
Some might suggest AA is not worship, and therefore doesn’t honor God. I’d beg to differ. AA transforms people and keeps them real. The entire program is set up to keep us humble, and honest. It’s hard to imagine how Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob, the program’s founders, were able to