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. 

Monday, January 19, 2015

Hearing God in Selma

Instead of writing my sermon on my day off, as I often do on Fridays, last week I decided to procrastinate another day and go see a movie. Selma was my choice.  Of course, Sunday’s texts were on my brain. They were about hearing God speak to us and responding to God’s voice. And, wouldn’t you know it, as I watched the movie, that’s all I could see. So, I ended up spending the afternoon in sermon preparation after all. (It’s the blessing or the curse of being a preacher, depending on how you look at it.) I found myself in a movie theater watching a powerful story about what happens when people listen to God’s voice and act.
Early in the movie, Martin Luther King is preparing to enter into an emotionally charged and potentially violent situation in Alabama. It’s nighttime and he can’t sleep. So he makes a telephone call. We see him waking a woman from her sleep on the other end of the line. When she answers he says, “It’s me.” She knows who that is. And then he tells her that he needs to hear from the Lord. It’s the gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson and she sings “Precious Lord” to him over the telephone. For Dr. King, in that moment, that’s what God’s voice sounded like.

The movie is filled with people who felt called by God, and answered that call. They came from all over the United States: North, South, East, West. People of all colors and backgrounds. All putting their lives on the line for the sake of people who were denied their voting rights because of the color of their skin. All responding to God’s call to do justice.

The most dramatic part of the story came when the protesters tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge to get outside Selma. The first time they tried, law enforcement was waiting for them on the other side of the bridge. As they approached, they were gassed and beaten. Dr. King was not with them that time. The next time they tried to cross the bridge, Dr. King was with them, and they had amassed thousands of people who had come from all over the country to join them. This time, as they approached the other side of the bridge, again, the Sheriff and his men were waiting for them. Suddenly, they stepped aside so the protesters could pass. Dr. King stopped. He knelt and prayed. And then he turned around and walked back. They didn’t pass over the bridge that day. He got a lot of flak for that. But he said he would rather people be angry at him than see them attacked and killed. Some considered this an act of a cowardice, but it took great courage to listen to God’s voice and follow it as a leader, even when he knew it wasn’t going to be popular. Dr. King took time to pray his way through what was ahead, and God told him this wasn’t the time to go forward.

The next time they crossed over the bridge was God's time. Over 3,000 people marched from Selma and by the time they arrived in Montgomery, there were 25,000.

Throughout the movie, the cloud of death hangs heavy. The risk and sacrifice of those who answered God’s call to march for justice was never forgotten. There were those who lost their lives in the fight. Martin Luther King was one of them, but he was not alone. Seeing other humans treated like something less than human always brings me to tears, whether I’m witnessing it firsthand or in a movie. The brutality in Selma took me through my stash of Kleenex before we had gotten to the half-way mark. Since I was a little girl when this happened and I only remember catching glimpses of it on T.V., it was hard to comprehend how all this was going on while I was riding my bike and climbing trees in Hamilton, Ohio without a care in the world. I was especially moved by those whites who were a part of the movement and were killed for their actions. I didn’t know about them. And I had to wonder if I would have had that kind of courage. I have stood on the side of justice and participated in peaceful protests many times, but I never thought it could result in the loss of my life. I’d like to believe I would have been there with them in Alabama, but I doubt that I have that kind of conviction and courage. Some of my tears during Selma were tears of humility and contrition.

You might say that it was a religious experience for me because I heard God speaking to me through this story from my history that I never really knew. And God also spoke to me about how God speaks. The voice of God demands a response. How will I be changed? And how will I respond?