Saturday, August 13, 2016

True Color

Six years. Well, I've lived in this house for almost six years and it was only recently that I noticed that the wall color in the living room did not work with the fireplace. The fireplace surround is a white marble with gray and black swirls and the hearth is black tile. However the walls were painted a dark brown/green, a trendy color six or more years ago. Before I moved into the rectory it was freshly painted. Some of the colors are really lovely even today: the pale yellow in the kitchen is a cheery color and works well with the dark granite on the counter tops; a warm white in all the halls and up the the stairs is gentle, neutral, easy on the eye. But the dark brownish-green in the living room and dining room was just too dark, the pea soup green in one of the bedrooms was really bad, and the sea foam green in two of the bathrooms reminded me of doctor's offices. So this summer I decided to use some of my vacation time to repaint the rooms.

Five rooms in five days, that's what I did. Removed curtains and curtain rods, and old and rusty metal blinds that we never used came down. I painted the powder room first, which was a huge challenge because it is so small! Then I painted my son's room. Those two are the same greige color, which looks more tan than gray, but is a nicer color than before. That took two days. On the third day I painted the bathroom - icky old oak cabinets and all. Cabinets are painted in a glossy gray, the walls in an eggshell gray, the same shade. On the fourth day I tackled the living room, the largest room in the house. It took me over 6 hours to edge, trim, and paint that room. I thought it would never end. The fifth day I painted the dining room, relatively easy, compared to the other rooms. The living room and dining room are in the same shade of gray as the bathroom.

The sixth day I put everything back in order. I hung new curtains in all the rooms, and I have to admit, I felt pretty darn proud of myself for measuring and hanging curtain rods. True it was made a lot easier because my husband has a drill with the screwdriver bit on it, so hanging curtain rods took seconds.

When it was all done I felt an immense sense of satisfaction. The look is new, fresh, calming, lovely, and makes sense.

Now I ask you, when, ever, does a transformation happen like this? In just a few days of work, granted hard, exhausting work, but one in which in the end, everything is different? Not only different but exceedingly satisfyingly different.

I've worked as a parish priest for sixteen years. My hope, always, is to journey with congregations as they encounter and come through their own transformation, becoming the congregation that is most authentic to them. Rarely, ever, has this actually happened. All work, not a lot to show for it, and little satisfaction for the effort.

I suppose that isn't really the point though, feeling satisfied with parish ministry? Or is it?

Certainly I thought, when I entered parish ministry with my new, shiny, optimistic M.Div and MSW (emphasis in Family Systems for Congregations no less) and ordained self, that journeying with people and whole congregations as they revealed their true strengths and were supported in that process, would afford some satisfaction. Who wouldn't want to become their most authentic self? (OMG, don't laugh at me! I know I was more than a little naive).

Yes, seminary taught me that parish ministry is about incremental change, tiny steps forward and giant steps back into homeostasis. Still, I thought that parish ministry is about revealing the inherent strengths, the true colors of congregations, and enabling them to come forth. It means the priest and leaders are talking about the strengths and colors over and over and over because it takes eleven times of hearing something before the general population acknowledges that they've heard it once. Yeah, yeah, I know a lot about the "technique" of leadership. I've read all the books and taken many continuing ed courses on it and been part of clergy group after clergy group. I did it all so that I could be the best possible parish priest, a wise, insightful, skilled leader.

Parish ministry has taught me a lot about patience and going slow and repeating the parish story over and over and over, and allowing for years to unfold while only little steps forward take place. Then, when it all gets reviewed, and people have some small amount of satisfaction, to hear that no one credits the female priest with any of the changes and support that has taken place.  It's a demanding dynamic to be a parish priest, particularly when female, to hold on to one's sense of purpose even when so very often one is actually diminished by the things others say and how one is treated. It's the reality of women every where in every position, even the female athletes in the Olympics know this reality.

The biggest lesson I've had in parish ministry is what I've learned about me.  The lessons have helped me become a better person and priest and how to understand how I can more effectively guide and support the congregation so that they too might grow.

Unlike painting five rooms in five days and ending up with a whole new look and feel, the transformation God is calling us to be about is not as immediate. Transforming ourselves into the best version of who we can be, the person God sees, requires a willingness to do that kind of inner work. It's about gaining self awareness and other awareness and being willing to grow in maturity and change. It is sacred work, good work, hard work, but rarely do we see the fullness of our efforts, for those can take a lifetime.

Yet, in the end, when we do this holy work, we find our true selves, our truest colors, and at last, perhaps, we find peace.

Thursday, August 04, 2016

Broken, healed, renewed, perhaps?

My mother and biological father, circa 1955 

My mother, born seventy-seven years ago today, was a story teller. I remember how restless I could be as I tried to sit through her telling me something. Especially as a teenager and young adult, I often thought, "Just get to the point!" She loved to weave in every detail she could remember, or rather every detail she wanted to remember. Her version of reality was usually not the same version that other people experienced. Although she only had a high school education she was very smart and spent the last years of her life learning about quantum physics. 

My mother was never a healthy person, she had polio as a child and rheumatic fever. She use to tell stories of being five years old and confined to bed for a year, hooked up to machines. Her grandmother was her only joy in those days, visiting her and comforting her. She never found much solace, at least not that she chose to remember, in the care and love of her parents. These illnesses left her with a damaged heart but she could walk. My mother's heart was damaged both physically and spiritually. Forever broken, my mom, was unable to tolerate any kind of criticism of herself. This, the result of her parents leaving her to tend to her younger siblings when she was just three and four years old, while they left for weekend long drinking binges. That wasn't bad enough, when they returned her parents would beat her for not taking good enough care of the house and her younger brother and sister. My uncle, her brother, corroborated these stories. He says that while his parents were always good to him, they were not good to my mother. They broke her in ways that she never recovered from. She was always broken in heart, mind, and body. 

On some level my mother knew she was broken, even though she could not admit this to herself. She would tell me these stories of her life and then remind me that she was trying to give me a different life. I was to go to college and have a job. I don't think she ever thought of me having a career, but at least able to have a job and support myself. 

I graduated from seminary when I was 41. My mom was 59 that year, the same age that I am now. Sometime that summer we went out for lunch and she gave me a framed cross-stitch that I had made some 34 years earlier. The cross stitch, in a hideous baby blue and pink thread reads, "I will bring the light of the gospel into my home." I remember making this and thinking that I was being so creative to alternate the colors. I laugh at that memory, of making this. But I was very touched that my mother had saved it and then framed it to give to me. I had accomplished more than what she ever hoped for me. Growing up, as she and I did, in Salt Lake City, Utah, it was inconceivable that a woman would or could ever acquire a dual degree M.Div/MSW and be ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church. As former Mormon's I didn't hear of the Episcopal Church until I was 28. The UCC minister, a woman, recommended the Episcopal Church to Dan and I, during our premarital counseling sessions. She had grown up in the Episcopal Church and said it would be a good fit for us, Dan with his former Roman Catholic upbringing, and me with my many questions about faith. Obviously we took that minister up on her recommendation, and to my great surprise, I ended up becoming a priest. My mother was an agnostic, but still she celebrated my accomplishment. 

Then again, my mother tried to live her life through mine. My early years were spent supporting my mother's version of reality, confirming and affirming her. It was my job, my role in the family to do this. When I moved away for college, and in the twenty years that followed, I slowly came to realize that I was not my own person. I did not have a complete grasp on how to make decisions because I could not figure out what I really thought or wanted nor could I trust my judgement. I was very confused and insecure, having spent so much of my life being enmeshed with my mother and making decisions that she led me too. Years of therapy and much hard work in family systems have finally given me a greater capacity to do that, to know who I am and to make decisions I can trust because they are centered in my values, beliefs, and principles, which are grounded in my faith and the teachings I've internalized from the Episcopal Church and family systems. 

My mother died suddenly, of a massive heart attack, when she was 65 years old, September 21, 2004. She always told me that she wanted to be cremated but to not get back her ashes, just leave her be. However, when she died, I called my brothers, my uncle, my dad and my aunt, all people who knew her well. We talked about what to do and how to honor her life, even though she had managed to become estranged from all of us. That was her way. She usually had a lot of people she was angry with, and only a couple of people in her inner circle. But, that circle was fluid, anyone on the inside could quickly find themselves on the outside, without any sense of how or why. She'd just get mad and stop talking to you. It was the dominant feature of her life long brokenness. 

In the end we decided to cremate her and inter her ashes in the Salt Lake City cemetery in a plot shared by her mother, father, and sister. There is some irony in this, interring her for ever with the very parents who broke her. But she claimed to love her father and so we put her next to him. I remember wondering if she would hate me for all eternity for doing that. But on the day we buried her the sun was shining and the air was clear. 

I like to think that in the end she found peace with all of it.

View, looking down from the plot where my mother is buried.

And another view, looking out across the tree tops to the mountains that surround the SLC valley

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