Monday, November 30, 2015

Rocking Chair Marathon

It was the summer of 1972, in Jackson, Tennessee. I was part of the pizza-making team at Village Inn Pizza Parlor. Casey Jones Museum & Old Country Store (then located on the corner of Airways Boulevard and the Hwy 45 Bypass) invited all the businesses in town to send a representative to their store for a Rocking Chair Marathon.
It was a big deal and people all over town were talking about it. The marathon winner would take home big prizes like a new washer and dryer from a local appliance store. The winning business would get plenty of free advertising for having an employee who could sit and rock for longer than anyone else in Jackson. I volunteered to represent our team. Mr. Kilburn, the store’s owner, was as enthusiastic as I was. I wanted to win that washer-dryer. I was tired of taking baskets of dirty clothes to the laundromat. Mr. Kilburn wanted to sell more pizzas. We high-fived each other and agreed to win this challenge!
There was carnival excitement on Saturday morning as the rocking chairs were lined up, decorated and put into motion by happy competitors. I was confident in my paisley halter-top and cut-off blue jeans. A baby sat in a tiny rocker in front of me. She was rocking for an infant apparel business. An elderly woman rocked beside me, representing the Senior Centers in town. Helium balloons floated over our heads. Cotton candy and corn dogs were consumed by the crowds as they walked along, looking at us in our rocking chairs. High school bands marched by, helping us all to rock with a shared beat. Back and forth. Back and forth. Grinning and waving. “Make us proud!” Mr. Kilburn said as he fastened the Village Inn logo to the back of my chair.
The sun went down and the crowd went home. As the air grew cooler, I realized I was sunburned from the top of my head to the top of my bare feet. I kept rocking. There were volunteers stationed around the lot, making sure the chairs kept moving. To stop rocking was to be disqualified. We all had food and drink at our sides, gifts left by our friends and supporters. Porta-potties were there for our convenience and we were given timed breaks to use them. I watched as my competitors diminished in number. The stillness of the long, dark hours made staying awake too much of a challenge. Those who snored attracted the attention of the volunteers, who kindly informed the sleeping beauties that they were out of the marathon.
The sun came up and beamed brightly on my burned skin. Mr. Kilburn came by and asked me, “What can I bring you for breakfast?” I wanted donuts and coffee. He raced off to get it. I was glad to be surrounded by music, laughter and onlookers as people stopped by on their way to church and after Sunday dinner. We rocked. Back and forth. Back and forth. Just before the sun went down that evening, I stood to take a bathroom break and I had no idea which way to go. A volunteer took me by the hand and led me to the door of the porta-potty. I needed his help, again, when I returned to my rocking chair. The disorientation was unnerving but I was rocking. I was going to win that washer-dryer and I was going to make Mr. Kilburn feel proud! I stopped going to the porta-potty and just peed my pants after that. I smelled badly, but I kept rocking.
The number of competitors was down to twelve as darkness settled in on Sunday  night. The Old Country Store staff had not expected the marathon to extend into the work week. Cub Scouts were enlisted to help. The little boys had rulers and they were using them to measure the distance of our rocking back and forth. We had to rock six inches in order to remain in the marathon. At about 3:00 on Monday morning, I was still rocking when I looked over my shoulder and saw what appeared to be an evil dwarf coming toward me, aiming a pistol at my head. I flung my arm out and swatted hard at the gun. The Cub Scout’s ruler went flying through the air and I came to my senses briefly, enough to mutter a garbled apology to the boy who was cautiously reaching for his blue and gold cap at my feet.
Just before Mr. Kilburn came by and asked what I wanted for breakfast, I got it all figured out. This was a conspiracy born from an alliance between Rev. Billy Graham and President Nixon. Those men were passengers in the helicopter that kept circling overhead and they were watching us, taking pictures and laughing about how foolish we were. This marathon was their idea! They were trying to prove, for some reason, that people in Jackson, Tennessee were utter fools. We would sit and rock night and day, through sun and rain, just to win some household appliances! Once I figured that out, I was wide awake and energized by my fury! Mr. Kilburn seemed unaware of what was going on as he cheerily ran to my side and took my breakfast order. I decided he had lived in Jackson, Tennessee for far too long!
That's when my mind left me. I don't know where it went exactly, maybe chasing after Mr. Kilburn and my breakfast order. I stood up. I raised my arms up over my head and started walking. “Where are you going?” One of my co-workers was there by my side.
“I’m going to find a microphone so I can tell everybody what’s going on here!” I shouted. “We are making fools out of ourselves! This is a bad joke on all of us!”
One of the pizza makers got me into a car and took me home. A girl friend ran the tub full of hot water so I could sit and soak before I got into bed. A neighbor woman came to the door and hollered through the screen, “Was Elaine the winner in the rocking chair marathon?”
“No, she was not!" I sat up in the tub and yelled from the bathroom. "And, whatever you do, don’t vote Republican in the next election!”
Then I slept. I slept for sixteen hours and when I woke up, I read in the Jackson Sun about the marathon winner. She worked for a bank and she rocked until 7:00 on Tuesday morning. I don’t remember her name. I imagine she is still  enjoying that washer-dryer and I suspect there are autographed pictures of Billy Graham and Richard Nixon hanging on the wall above them.
Mr. Kilburn was happy that Village Inn had been represented. I was happy that my mind went back to normal, back to what "normal" is for me. I had enough sense to find my way to the laundromat with my baskets of dirty clothes. I didn't win the marathon but I learned to respect the power of sun-block , hydration and a good night's sleep.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Marriage Equality


November 26, 2015 

It is Thanksgiving morning. A cloudy sky and a cool breeze contribute to the ambience of this holiday that is set aside for gratitude. I look at the gold band on my ring finger and I am touched by how deeply that ring has affected me. The wedding ceremony, when Anna made promises and placed it on my finger, was so much more than what I had expected or imagined it would be. My gratitude for the right to marry and for the experience of being married is as shiny and precious as the gold of this ring.

We invited our friend, Dr. Mary Lin Hudson, to officiate our wedding. She teaches with me at the seminary. Having Mary Lin to stand before us allowed a mix of the authority of the state as well as the intimacy of our friendship. She shared a lovely homily, capturing the essence of who we are as individuals and as a couple. After sixteen years of living together, we have developed an identity as a successful couple. Our friends laughed with us as Mary Lin referred to us as “Martha and Mary,” one in the kitchen working while the other entertains guests in the living room.  

We exchanged vows and my emotions overwhelmed me, rendering my voice down to little more than a squeak. Anna shed tears as she spoke her vows. I sobbed. Upon reflection, I realize that speaking those vows, making promises for the rest of our lives, lifted up our mortality and highlighted our deep need for trust, truth and faithfulness. My great fear in life is abandonment. My life story has given me reason to believe that the best and most beloved relationships can be yanked away without a word of warning. And so I offered my vows, and with the words came sobs from my childhood, begging Anna to stay with me forever. The wedding gave me the opportunity to express those fears and simultaneously to have those fears relieved. This public, legal ceremony was full of grace.

The most challenging aspect of planning our wedding was the question of whom to invite. Weddings cost money and we could not afford to invite everybody. The caterer needed a head count and every head costs a dollar amount. We wanted to be generous and we wanted our guests to be wined, dined and comfortable. We chose Stonewall Hall as our venue because it is lovely and in our neighborhood. It is a big room but not big enough to hold every one of our friends and their families. So we had to make choices on our invitation list. It was not easy.

Our friends entered the door with bright smiles as they arrived on a bitterly cold day with mist in the air. Three beautiful five-year-old girls arrived and took seriously their duty to pass out little gifts to each guest. Our friend, Sharon, orchestrated the making of “Love Links,” my idea to connect our guests to each other and to us as part of the ceremony. My daughter, Jennifer, brought recorded music for gathering and dancing. A string trio set up their instruments, adding to the elegance in the space. A photographer scurried about, looking for adequate light and clicking shots here and there. The coconut cake, lovingly baked by Carrie, took its rightful place on a platform and it looked spectacular! Joy was everywhere.

I had expected the wedding to be fun. I was not aware of how palpable the love of our friends would be as Anna and I stood face to face and exchanged our vows. I have officiated many weddings. I have worked with couples to plan how the ceremony will be ordered and what words will be said. But it is only in being the bride that I felt the communal significance of a wedding. The love of our friends surrounded us. Anna and I both felt lifted up by that love and we also felt how our wedding day was a source of strength and hope for our guests. Together, we were an inspired congregation, longing for the best in all of our relationships, in all of our shared struggles and victories.

In truth, the Holy Spirit was present and gave us a rich and mystical blessing. I have never been happier and I have never felt so free. The secret of a good life is learning how to accept the love that created us and brought us here. I have had trouble believing that anyone can really love me. I have spent many hours in the offices of various therapists as I have talked on and on about how to trust that I am indeed loveable. The strong wind of the Spirit blew through Stonewall Hall and carried away the detritus of that scar tissue. The wedding was a sacred thing, a chance for God’s love to come to earth and touch all of us at once.  

A few weeks ago I was invited to speak to the people at First Baptist Church here in Memphis and to tell them the story of how I came to be both a Christian and a woman-loving-woman. I sat on the platform with Broderick Greer, an Episcopal priest and a man who loves men. We told our life stories and then we took questions from the congregation. One man asked me, “Why do you want to marry? Why do you need that right?”

I laughed and told him that Anna wondered the same thing. Being married was my idea and I had to talk a good talk in my effort to convince my partner that getting married would be in both our best interests. Sitting in the Baptist Church, I answered, “I want to be married because we CAN be married. People have struggled long and hard to win this legal battle and I want to honor their work by taking advantage of SCOTUS’ ruling.”

Now that the wedding is over, the ring is on my finger and our license has been signed and returned to the office of the Shelby County Court Clerk, my answer is much wider and fuller. I realize how secure I feel, now that we are married. If anything happens to either Anna or me, if an accident occurs or there is some sort of disaster, there will be no confusion about whom to contact as our next of kin. We are not roommates, homeowners or friends. We are married. She is my wife. I am her wife. It is recorded in legal documents and that means more to me now than I knew it would mean to me then.

There is something about being married that touches deeply our personal exchanges. I feel free now to hold the hand of my wife in public and to kiss her on the lips when we stand together in our driveway. It is no secret. There is no shame. We are a happily married couple, living the American dream.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Not Far

Buntyn Presbyterian Church
November 1, 2015
Psalm 146
Mark 12:28-34 

One day this week I had a plan. I had a deadline looming and a plan for getting my work done on time. It was raining. I took something up to the attic, just putting something away, and I heard a drip, drip, drip. I tried, for a split second, not to hear it. But it was real. I came downstairs and found the number to call our roofers. They came over and went up in the attic. They looked around and we put a container under the drip. They said they would come back when the rain stopped.
Time was ticking away when I got a call from my credit card company. They wanted to know if I was in Oregon and had I just charged $1334.00 at a place called Must Be. Anxiety was flowering full-bloom within me as I cut my credit card into pieces and dropped it in the trash. What else could go wrong?!
That's when I noticed that none of my texts that I had sent out were sent. Upon further investigation, I learned that my cell phone was no longer able to send or receive texts. I took it to the A T & T store where I sat at a table with a nice young woman who was not able to do a thing about my phone not texting. She gave me a number to call for A T & T Technical support. I called the number and talked with a nice young man for a little over an hour. He was kind but not able to help me. By that time it was evening and I had not accomplished anything on my work list. But I had grown a great garden of anxiety. The sky seemed to be falling on my life!
Not for one minute do I think that this series of events is exclusively my own. Not for one minute do I think that this series of events tops your most distressing day this past week. What I do think is this: We all know how easily we are disturbed, how quickly we can lose sight of our priorities. If a day starts going smoothly and in order, it sometimes feels like forty roaring thieves come charging in to steal my peace, to rob me of any connection with God and my awareness of the goodness of life itself.
Praising God gets left in the dust behind our well-rehearsed worries. We know how to worry and complain. Praising, trusting and loving God…Is that even something we need to do? We know how to value and trust the things of this world. But have we even put praising God on our to-do list?
I think it is something important for us to do. According to the Psalmist, we are to praise God as long as we live; we are to sing songs of praise our whole life long.
As a child, I thought that being Christian was defined by going to church on Sunday. What we did or what we left undone on the other days of the week were insignificant in terms of being identified as Christian. It was all decided on that one day of the week when we got together with other Christians, prayed, sang songs, and listened to a sermon. That was it. We were in the club. As an adult I have grown to the place where I see that being Christian is an everyday practice or it is not much at all. I live and breathe Monday through Saturday, same as I do on Sunday. And I need to feel a real connection to something greater than myself all week long. I need to know that there is something more important than the roof over my head, the credit card in my purse and the cell phone in my hand. I need to know how to trust that "something more" and I need to learn how to love that "something more" …more than I love anything else in my life.
How do we learn how to love God more than anything else? It’s a challenge. We don’t call God on the phone, meet God for dinner downtown and then take in a movie with God, holding hands in the darkness and anticipating intense intimacy later. No. We don’t interact with God in any way that resembles the ways we interact with our earthly beloveds. Not really. Because God is something more.
God keeps faith in us. God executes justice for the oppressed, provides food for the hungry, sets the prisoner free, opens the eyes of the blind, lifts up those who are bowed down, loves the righteous, watches over strangers and upholds the orphan and the widow. God is love and justice rolled into one. God is more than anything we could ever be. God is more than anything else we can know in this life. And that’s what makes it so challenging for us to praise and love God all day long. God is beyond our comprehension and easily set aside while we focus on that annoying driver ahead of us who is slowing us down and keeping us from meeting our pals for a drink after work. We tend to focus on anything and everything but God.
Helen Keller was both blind and deaf. She said, “The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart.” A blind woman was able to see what is really beautiful in this world, what is truly worthy of our praise.
A few years ago I was talking with the warden out at our county jail. We were reflecting on the problems of the world and the troubles related to mass incarceration. Warden Coleman said, “I think we have raised up a generation and taught them that what really matters in life are things. If you have enough things, you are a success in life and it doesn’t matter how you get your things. Just having them means you are a success.”
It’s too easy for us to worship our possessions, our conveniences, our security systems, investments and our privileges. We put our trust in them. We are blinded by the temporary razzle-dazzle and unable to stay connected to what is eternal.
The chief priests, scribes and elders questioned the authority that Jesus claimed. They were asking him questions, hoping to trick him into exposing himself as a fraud. And then one man, a scribe, steps closer to Jesus, obviously impressed by the responses that Jesus was giving to his antagonists. He asks, “What is the most important commandment?” The scribe isn’t interested in arguing. He sees that Jesus values something basic and is making connections that could unite all human beings. Jesus confesses the oneness of God. There is one God and we are called upon to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.
And what comes next? What would the second most important commandment be? To love our neighbor as ourselves.
The scribe received these responses from Jesus and he was impressed, touched deeply. And so are we today. Like the scribe, we recognize how improved our daily lives would be if we made loving and praising God our top priority and if that was followed by loving our neighbors as much as we love ourselves, our car, our privacy fence and our insurance policies. What if our to-do list had only one item on it, LOVE, every day of the week?
Life would be different, of course. I urge you now NOT to feel guilty if love has not been on the top of your list lately. I beg you not to feel badly toward yourself, to blame yourself if you have been concentrating on everything else other than love. Guilt and self-blame will only widen the gap between you and the eternal love that God is faithfully extending to you.
The scribe was impressed by Jesus and his answers, his presence, his power, his love. That love reached the scribe and opened his heart, his soul, mind and strength. The scribe became a man who could make love a priority every day of the week—not because the scribe was so smart or special. But because he spent time with the love that is eternal.  “You are not far from the Kingdom,” Jesus said to him. And the scribe was moved; he became something more.
It is the love of God that has the power to change us, to teach us to praise and worship that which really matters in life. It is the love of God that gives us eyes to see what is truly beautiful in this world. It is the love of God that can unite us as one human family and set us free to praise what is good and eternal in one hopeful voice together. We are not far from the Kingdom of God any time we choose to put love on the top of our priority list.