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Monday, March 23, 2015

Janice

Our newer folks at Holy Trinity don’t know Janice, but those who have been around a while remember her well from the time when she was a pillar of our congregation. These days, every so often her sister brings her to worship and we’re blessed to have her with us, but those occasions are too few and far between. 

For decades, Janice was a faithful alto in the choir. Although her presence was important to us, she didn't have the strongest voice, and you couldn’t really hear her. So, when she announced that she was going to sing a solo in worship, we were all surprised. “Lead Me, Guide Me” was the song. An appropriate one for Janice who had dealt with a number of physical challenges her whole life and truly trusted in God every step of the way.

She was supposed to arrive early to run through the song one last time with our music director. We expected her at 10:30. 10:30 passed, and no Janice. For weeks she had been talking about singing this solo, so her tardiness was odd. (Janice was never late for anything.) 

When we started worship at 11:00 and still hadn't seen her, we started to get concerned. At 11:15 Kathy went to her house, which was right around the corner from the church. 

Fortunately, Kathy is a nurse, because when she got to Janice’s she saw that Janice had had something that looked like a stroke and Kathy took care of her until the paramedics arrived on the scene.

It turned out Janice had a seizure that erased her short term memory. After several years, it has improved only slightly. She can remember people from her past and stories from before her seizure, but since then, she literally can’t tell you what she did 5 minutes ago. 

Over time, Janice has learned to cope with her new limitations. She lives in an assisted living facility where the walls in her room are plastered with signs her sister made for her, telling her what day it is, important phone numbers, what happened to her, and so on. She carries a schedule of daily activities in a pouch that hangs from her neck and she has a pad of paper by the chair in her room where she writes down everything that she does. 

Janice has no memory of the weeks leading up to that fateful Sunday and whenever she hears the story, to this day, when it comes to the part where she was going to sing a solo in church, she is hearing it again for the first time, and she laughs hysterically at the thought of it. 

"There is no way I was going to sing a solo in church!" she’ll say. 

"Yes, Janice, you were."  And she’ll shake her head in disbelief. 

In truth, if she hadn’t been singing a solo, we would have assumed she was visiting with family that day and no one would have checked on her when she didn’t appear at worship. Another 20 minutes without someone finding her and she would have been dead. So offering to sing that solo, something that was totally out of character for Janice, saved her life.

Can you imagine how terrifying it would be to suddenly lose your memory like that? When I think about it, I imagine that it might feel a lot like dying. I have always thought that being alive is synonymous with maintaining cognitive ability. But Janice has me rethinking that. Maybe there's more to life than registering our life experience in our brains. 

With Janice, losing her memory hasn't changed the essence of who she is as a person. Janice is still Janice. She is still able to cope with whatever life hands her. She exudes positive energy. She participates in every activity that comes her way with a smile on her face. After spending time with her, I always feel good about myself because she is so loving and supportive. 

Janice is fiercely loyal to Holy Trinity. She was always our strongest prayer warrior and she continues to be. She also always gave faithfully to the church financially, something that continues to this day. Whenever I visit her, she will invariably ask me, “How is Holy Trinity doing financially?” I will tell her we’re just fine. A couple more times in our conversation she will ask me the same question, “How is Holy Trinity doing financially?” because she can’t remember she had already asked me. This is the question she asks me more than any other. It reminds me of the Biblical truth about how connected our hearts are to our treasures. Janice clearly links her love for Holy Trinity with the support she gives through her offerings. 

In the midst of all the things she forgets, Janice remembers what's most important to her. She hasn't forgotten the love she has for our congregation and the love we have for her.  For Janice, the faith community she loves is a manifestation of the love of God in her life. 

Janice has been a gift to me personally. Spending time with her always brings me to recognize how living moment to moment, caught up in the minute details of my life, distracts me from living from the core of who I really am, a person created to be in relationship with the God of love.  

Lead me, guide me, along the way:
for if you lead me, I cannot stray.
Lord, let me walk each day with thee.
Lead me, O Lord, lead me. 

Monday, March 16, 2015

Trouble is on its way

One of my dearest friends in the entire world is coming to Charlotte tomorrow. I suspect we’ll get into some kind of trouble because we always do.

I met Donna when I was in my twenties, pregnant with my second child. She was living in Ohio at the time and I was living in North Dakota. We were both attending a meeting in Minneapolis. Our Lutheran publishing house was introducing new Sunday school material and they had recruited people from all over the American Lutheran Church to be trained so they could return to their respective geographic areas and introduce the material.

Although Donna and I had never met before this event, we clicked like lifelong friends. 

During our first lunch together at the Marriott, we were deep in conversation when a huge cockroach started strutting across the linen tablecloth. Donna spied it while she was speaking. Without missing a word, she calmly picked up a coffee cup and nonchalantly placed it over the roach, trapping it inside. We finished our lunch and left the surprise for the waitstaff. I was duly impressed by this woman.

Throughout the training we had great fun, even when things weren’t particularly designed with fun in mind. When it came time for us to part, I grieved the fact that we lived so far apart and I would never see this person again.

About five years later, I moved to Ohio and guess who was a short drive away! I gave Donna a call and we picked up right where we left off. At the time, I had no idea what a lifeline she would be for me over the course of the next decade as I walked through the darkest time of my life.  

Then I moved again. Leaving Donna was one of the worst things about moving away from Ohio for me. 

Since then, I’ve gone up her way, she’s come down my way, and we’ve met up in the middle for some adventures from time to time.

So she’s coming to North Carolina tomorrow. And that got me to thinking about the first time she came to visit me after I moved to Charlotte.

The two of us decided to make a trip to Asheville. We drove over in my new car.

Back when I lived in Ohio I was always complaining because it seemed like I was the only person in the world who still had to crank her car windows up and down and I had vowed that my next car would have power windows. So, now I had them. And I was going to make a big freakin' deal out it!

On the drive to Asheville we stopped at a McDonald’s and while we were going through the drive through I started showing off, making my window go up and down, down and up, over and over again. “Do you see how cool that is? Is that not the best thing ever!”

After about a dozen times, the window suddenly stopped half-way down and wouldn’t budge. Yep, I broke the damn window and had to drive like that for the remainder of the trip. Donna was amused by this, but I was not. Especially when it started raining.

Roughly six weeks before Donna arrived I had made arrangements for us to stay at a Bed & Breakfast in the Asheville area. A friend highly recommended the place. When I called and made the reservation, they told me they would mail my confirmation that day. (All of this stuff happened before people used the internet for such things.)

I waited and waited, but the confirmation never came. And here's the really bad part. I didn’t write the name of the place down because I figured I would have the name when I got their letter. 

I tried to call the friend who had recommended it and she was in Germany. (This was also before people used cell phones like they do now.) Oy.

I had made a reservation for two nights at some mystery place with my credit card. So, now what did I do?

I decided that if I saw the name of the place I would recognize it. And really, how many Bed & Breakfasts could there be in the Asheville area?

Donna and I arrived in Asheville in the pouring rain. We drove around for a while and found a visitor’s center. We went in and I described my dilemma to them. After making some sarcastic remarks that Donna appreciated more than I did, they handed me a listing of B & Bs in Asheville and said that if I needed to use their phone, I could.

Well, if you've ever been to Asheville, you probably realize that there are a lot of cities that have smaller phone directories than the book they handed me.

I sat down and started randomly calling places. “Hello, do you have a reservation for Nancy Kraft for tonight?”

They weren’t allowed to give out that information, they would tell me. So then I’d start whining, “No, you don't understand. I’m Nancy Kraft. I want to know if I made a reservation there. I made a reservation somewhere and I can’t remember where it was.”

I suspect most of them thought I was making a crank call because of all the laughter they could hear in the background. Donna was thoroughly enjoying this.

After about twenty calls, I finally called a place that assured me they were the B & B where I had made a reservation. So, who’s laughing now, Donna?

When I got home the long-awaited letter of confirmation was waiting for me in my mailbox. It was not from the place where we stayed. 

So, tomorrow afternoon another installment in "The Adventures of Donna & Nancy" begins at Charlotte-Douglas Airport and I’m expecting more trouble. Of course, I mean that in the best way possible.  

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Singing Above the Bellowing of Asses

I am sick to death of noisy Christians who do not in any way speak for me. It seems that the closer we get to equality in North Carolina, the louder they get. As our City Council in Charlotte considers non-discrimination ordinances that protect the rights of gay, lesbian and transgender residents, all the usual players are irritating the hell out of me.

I know they have a right to their opinion. But every hateful statement they make in the media should include a disclaimer: “The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of other Christians.”

They have decided to make an issue over who pees with whom. What if a man dresses up like a woman and sneaks into a public restroom and preys on little children? Who would want such a thing as that? Of course, the assumption is that transgender folks are pedophiles. This is ridiculous. It’s like saying redheads are rapists. It makes no sense. And yet, once the seeds of fear have been sown in the fertile field of ignorance, no matter how many facts you apply to the soil, those fears spread like crabgrass.

I resent the fact that those who spew such lies call themselves Christians. If that’s what it means to be a Christian, count me out. As someone who tries her best to know Jesus and follow him, I wonder who it is these so-called Christians are following. If it’s Jesus, it’s a Jesus I don’t recognize.

And so, I cannot remain silent. I sing with a choir of clergy voices that steadfastly offers a melodic message of love and acceptance here in the buckle of the Bible Belt. We will not be silenced, despite attempts to disrupt and derail us. The hee-haws from the likes of Mark, Flip and Franklin will not drown us out. We sing in harmony: Jews, Unitarian Universalists, Buddhists, Catholics, Protestants of every flavor. We are people of faith who will not allow our song to be taken from us.

Can you hear us? We sing of love, not fear. Our voices transcend backward thinking bigotry and pull us into the future. I pray that members of our City Council won't be so distracted by the bellowing of asses that they miss the beautiful song of Truth. 

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Worm. Her name is Worm.

“Hi, I’m Worm.” Surely I hadn’t heard her right. It sounded like she said she was a worm.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that. What did you say?”

“Worm. My name is Worm,” she said.
                          
Worm. Her name is Worm. How is this possible? All night long I kept repeating those words in my mind. Worm. Her name is Worm.

We met at a dinner we were sharing with Underground Table, a creative dining experience that is off the grid. You join the group and at the last minute you receive details about when and where to go and a wonderful chef thrills you with culinary delights. You never know who will show up and part of the fun is meeting people you wouldn’t ordinarily have dinner with. People like Worm.

In many respects she reminded me of my sister Lorena. Like Worm, Lorena is a character who squeezes all the juice out of life, savoring each drop. She’s a warm-hearted soul and longs to be liked. And like Worm, my sister Lorena, also was given a nickname as a child. 

We called her Butchie. The name originated with my father who had been hoping for a son and was blessed with a second daughter instead. Thinking that perhaps a son was never going to happen for him, he dubbed Lorena Butchie. I was about 10 years younger than Butchie and always thought that was her real name.

It took me a long time to start calling Butchie, Lorena, which was the name on her birth certificate and the one she preferred after she left home and began a life for herself. Dropping Butchie was the right thing for her to do. Besides the fact that Butchie is no name for a woman, it was a name given because she was a disappointment to her father. How awful is that? Can you imagine being referred to as Disappointment all your life?

Unlike my sister, as an adult, Worm continued to use the name she was given as kid. Although I found it deeply troubling, she appeared to be fine with it. 

Ironically, I met Worm the week after Ash Wednesday. Through the years I’ve had increasing discomfort with the traditional Ash Wednesday liturgy because of its worm theology. That’s what many of us call theology that focuses on how unworthy we human beings are, worthless like worms who can only grovel on the ground and beg for mercy. I am not a proponent of worm theology, and yet, on Ash Wednesday, it’s hard to avoid.

This year, I finally re-wrote the liturgy we use for Ash Wednesday, removing the worm theology. Yes, we are still not living as the people God created us to be and we need to face up to that. But the emphasis is on the people God did indeed create us to be, and God did not create us to be worms. Not that there’s anything wrong with being a worm, if you happen to be one. But people are not worms.

Worm. Her name is Worm. 

How had this become an acceptable name for her? She appeared to be at least 60 years old. Surely, in all that time she had had opportunities to change it. I am guessing that she enjoys the attention her name receives, which is something that also reminds me of my sister Lorena, who is never shy when attention comes her way. But really, what would it be like to go through life as a Worm? I can’t believe that it wouldn’t affect her in some deep, profound ways.

Although she is the only person I’ve ever met named Worm, I’ve known a lot of people who seem to think of themselves that way. Some of them are a part of my congregation. From time to time in my life, I have thought of myself as a worthless worm, as well.

It’s nothing new for people of faith to see themselves that way. Even the writer of the 22nd Psalm expressed this sentiment: “But as for me, I am a worm and not human, scorned by all and despised by all people” (vs. 6). Lord, have mercy!

Are we all worms? When we’re in the pits, it may be how we feel about ourselves. But is that who we are in the eyes of God?

I’ve come to see that worm theology is damaging to us as human beings. And it's an insult. Not only to us as people, but also to the One who created us. If there is any sin worth owning up to during Lent, it’s not that we are worthless worms. It’s that we see ourselves as worthless worms.   

And so, even though she told me her name is Worm, for the duration of our evening together, I couldn’t bring myself to address her by name.  


Saturday, February 14, 2015

Saturday Morning at Food Lion

I was standing in the check-out line at my neighborhood Food Lion when a boy, about 10ish, came stomping through the front doors having a hissy fit. “I don’t wanna take my medicine! I won’t take my medicine! And you can’t make me!” The kid was obviously out of control. Sounds to me like he NEEDS his medicine, I thought. It was such a perfect wise-crack that I turned around to see if I might share it with the person standing behind me in line.

A man with disheveled hair who looked like he had not bathed or shaved in several days clutched the sole item he was purchasing to his chest—an over-sized, brown bottle of cheap, nasty beer. At 8:00 in the morning. How sad was that? He was the caricature of an alcoholic.

Here I am, surrounded by people who can’t make it through the day without their drug of choice, I thought. What a sad commentary on our world.

I collected my bags. Two bottles of Diet Dr. Pepper and some mini-pretzels. This is why I had to make an emergency run to Food Lion at 8:00 on a Saturday morning. I carved out the day for writing. It’s grueling work and I knew I would never get through it without lots of caffeine, which I take cold, and something crunchy to eat. Yes, Diet Dr. Pepper and a bag of mini-pretzels ought to do the trick. I had to make an emergency run to Food Lion because I don’t keep such stuff in my house. I don’t keep such stuff in my house because I know it’s not good for me. Needless to say, I make a lot of emergency runs to Food Lion.

As I pulled out of the parking lot, I saw beer man. He didn’t seem to be headed toward any car, so apparently he had walked to the store. It’s a good thing, I thought. He approached an old man with a cane and I assumed beer man was asking the poor, defenseless man for money. Oh, leave the old guy alone!  But then after a brief conversation, beer man smiled broadly, took the empty shopping cart from the old guy and returned it to the cart rack for him.

And that’s when my judgmentalism smacked me in the face. In the course of a typical day, I wonder how many judgmental assumptions I make about other people. I have come to the conclusion that it brings me great comfort to identify their problems without even knowing them as people. No doubt they do have problems, because we all do, but I can’t begin to know what they are. Still, it makes me feel better about myself when I can feel superior to other people and so this is what I do, usually without thinking about it. But I thought about it this morning. And the truth is, the only person in my little “Saturday Morning at Food Lion” scenario with a problem that I can identify with certainty is me. 

Friday, January 23, 2015

Wendy and the Billy Goat

This morning as I was plucking a bristle from my chin I thought of my sister Wendy. It’s one of those things that women past a certain age do, but never really discuss. And Wendy actually has a name for it. She calls one of those pesky whiskers a Billy Goat. I don’t know if she invented this or not. I suspect she did because it’s the sort of thing she would come up with. But she may have picked it up somewhere. I often learn new expressions from her. She was the first person I ever saw raise her palm in the air and put it in my face as she said, “Hey, you’re talkin’ to the hand.” In other words, she didn’t want to hear it. She was also the first person I ever heard use the expression, “She just blew up the bathroom.” Again, apt words for the situation.

When we were growing up, I always found my sister annoying. The last summer I went to Camp Luella May, she went, too. She was in her own cabin, so we didn’t have a lot to say to one another because Wendy was in first grade and I was in sixth grade and that’s the way it works. I was going through my ugly duckling phase and basically hated her for being so damn cute. I have to admit she was just about the cutest kid I ever saw. She had curly blond hair and blue eyes with a dimple in her cheek. For the celebrity lookalike contest at camp I thought I was beyond clever when I put a bathing cap on my head and went as Yul Brynner. On the other hand, Wendy did nothing. Absolutely nothing. She went as Shirley Temple and won the prize. I was pissed. Later that week she was swinging on a rafter in her cabin, fell, and broke her nose. She had to wear a hat on her head for the rest of the week that said Don’t touch my nose and I felt guilty because I hadn’t been a very good sister. But hey -- competition, resentment and guilt -- that’s what sisterhood is built on, isn’t it?

I have a history with my sister that I don’t share with any other living soul on this earth. Although we aren’t able to spend much time together, I think of her constantly because my memories of her are triggered by so many common, everyday things. Last week when I was getting my hair cut, I thought of my sister as the hairdresser started snipping around my ears. Once when we were kids I cut Wendy’s hair and accidently took a chunk out of her ear. (She still reminds me of that from time to time.) I think of Wendy whenever I see a cameo pin, an old drop-leaf table, a guinea pig, an OSU football game on TV, a Labrador retriever, a squirrel at my birdfeeder, a Krispy Kreme donut, asparagus…

Yes, asparagus. The sight of it always makes me think of Wendy. Once just the two of us took a trip to the beach. We had eaten one too many Krispy Kreme donuts and needed a good, healthy dinner. So we found a steakhouse. After we sat down to order, we realized that it was outrageously expensive, but we decided to go for it. We could have gotten a side of asparagus for $20 but our bill was already well above $100 and we decided to forgo it. Still, it must have been some unbelievable asparagus for $20, we thought. Then, as someone at a nearby table was being served, Wendy looked at me and whispered, “Nancy! Look at the asparagus!” I looked over and there were two pieces of asparagus. It tickled us so much that we laughed until we cried. “Two pieces of asparagus!” She kept trying to say the words through her laughter, barely able to speak.  We couldn’t stop laughing and could hardly eat our outrageously priced meal. So, yes, I think of Wendy every time I see asparagus.  

The earliest memories that Wendy and I share are connected to our mother. She died when we were in our 20s. By then we were living in different parts of the country and only saw one another once or twice a year. Whenever we got together, it was like a therapy session as we discussed life with Mom and the way she impacted our lives. Mothers and daughters typically go through a process together, as they age, where they work through the complicated mother/daughter relationship. Without our mom, Wendy and I did that with one another. Eventually we worked it out. We came to accept the fact that our mother wasn’t perfect, just as neither of us are perfect. We forgave her for being human and grew up.

There was a time when my sister would say the words, “You’re just like Mom” to me and I would get my hackles up. Now I own up to it. Yes, I’m like my mother in a lot of ways. But then, so is Wendy. The older we get, the more I see it. We’re both hyper-sensitive, and yet we have a tendency to blurt out what’s on our mind in a way that can sometimes seem insensitive. We don’t hold back when we feel strongly about something. And we find humor in the weirdness of life, particularly our own lives. Just like Mom. I have come to the place in my life where I truly enjoy being in the company of someone who is also “Just like Mom” in so many ways. Wendy lives in Massachusetts now and I’m in North Carolina, so we don’t have the opportunity to spend as much time together as I’d like. But when we are together I always feel a little more complete than I do when we’re apart.





Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Pooky's Cone of Shame and Cultivating Compassion


Last week my pug Pooky had a tumor removed from her eyelid. It required surgery and she ended up with some stitches. So she has been wearing an Elizabethan collar, otherwise known as the Cone of Shame as I began calling such things after seeing the movie Up a few years ago. It presents unique challenges to a pug for a couple of reasons. First of all, they have no neck so it’s really easy for her to slip out of it. I learned this from past surgeries where it lasted all of 30 minutes. But this time she has one that laces through her collar, so that problem was easily solved. The other thing about pugs is that their faces are all smooshed in, so it’s a long way from her mouth and nose to the end of the cone. I realized we were going to have to remove it for her to eat and drink, but I was surprised to discover another issue the first morning I took her out to relieve herself. She can’t poop with the collar on! That's because she can't poop without smelling the ground. So she kept walking around scooping up mud and gravel in her cone. It was quite comical in a pathetic sort of way. I had to bring her home, remove the cone, rinse it out and take her back outside unencumbered before business was accomplished.

This made me think about the way certain seemingly unrelated functions are often linked for us. I have a friend wouldn’t be able to talk if you tied her hands up.  I am so dependent on my glasses that, when I have them off, I can’t hear what someone is saying to me. Of course, there are more serious linkings in our lives. Like the way people can look around them and yet fail to see because their hearts are closed.

The problems in the world are overwhelming. You don’t have to look very hard to find abundant evidence of greed, cruelty, injustice, and just plain meanness. And yet, most folks don’t see it. Their eyes aren’t functioning properly because they have a heart problem. There is a definite link between eyes and heart. Just as there is a link between justice and compassion.

Years ago I wrote my doctoral dissertation on "Nurturing a Social Consciousness through Church Education." I had lots of wonderful theories and ideas, and they still make sense to me. But the thing I missed in my dissertation is that justice begins with compassion. I couldn't learn that in a review of literature; I learned it from experience. When people I love are treated unjustly, I am compelled to act. No one with an open heart can fail to act for justice. But how do you open a heart? How do you cultivate compassion? Only God can do that. And yet, God never does anything in a vacuum. That’s where I come in. I pray that I can be a cultivator of compassion. 

Open the eyes of my heart, Lord.