A near-permanent fixture in the bathroom of my childhood homes was a book, usually a novel, laid on the counter, or the back of the toilet, with its spine flat, its pages splayed out, drying. My mother took a bath just about every night to help her relax, and just about every night the bath did the trick. She would climb in with her book, read a few pages, and promptly fall asleep. She would usually wake up when the book slipped out of her hands a few moments later. Hardcover and paperbacks alike, water-logged copies of many of the bestselling literary novels of the last thirty years fill the shelves of my parents’ home, a testament to my mother’s love of books, and her ceaseless fatigue.
Since becoming a minister, one of my Christmas traditions has been to drag my sister Beth with me on my hospital rounds. My sister is a trained opera singer whose voice makes people weep with both release and joy. When I first began in ministry I heard folks stuck in a hospital setting say that music was one of the things they missed most about being home for Christmas. Luckily for me, my sister is willing to be carted around from place to place, offering of herself and her voice. I think she comes in part because she’s just that good of a sister, in part because she wants to get away from the craziness that is our family in my small house at Christmas, and in part because she takes kindness on these strangers and would do anything to keep them from having to hear my voice attempt even the most basic of carols.
A few years ago I was particularly grateful for my sister’s various talents. She sang for our church service, she glued animal addresses together, she helped lead the kids in our children’s Christmas Eve service, and of course she came with me to the hospital to sing.
Over the years, The Ones We Love has offered a space to contemplate the many different people we as young clergy women love. We’ve read (and written!) about dogs and cats, parents and spouses, colleagues and neighbors. This month, this column won’t be about a person but about a thing—or, rather, things. I really like good books.
As I wrote my approval papers in the first half of 2005, one of the sets of questions focused on the proper place of secular patriotic holidays in worship. July 4 had fallen on a Sunday in 2004, and using that as a case study, we were asked to write a long section on how we would or would not address the holiday in our particular setting. In my case, I was serving on internship in a growing, vibrant church in Anchorage, Alaska, where they had a tradition of celebrating the Sunday nearest July 4th as “Freedom Sunday.”
I grew up with two pastor parents, attending two to three services every Sunday for the better part of my childhood, and only getting to choose my church when I quit hanging out at the church my father served and went off to find my own. Now as an adult, serving in a validated non-parish ministry, I know I have a choice as to where I attend Ash Wednesday services, or whether I trek through the rain on public transportation to church on a Sunday morning rather than stay home and finish up a homework assignment.
For all that, I feel like church is something I need to do even if I don't feel it, as God has a tendency to show up pretty much anywhere. This doesn't stem from some noble sense of call as a Presbyterian minister, but from a childhood shaped by church. It didn't matter which church I attended as a child, but I had to go to church on Sunday and go once during the week for a youth activity. If I was sick, I could choose either to make up a home worship service with whoever stayed home with me, or we could listen to church on the radio. Church wasn't a choice, but how we got there was. Yes, force of habit is what gets me to worship, because my experience tells me I need church to remind me life isn't about me.
For the first time in my life, there’s no one. Since the first day of kindergarten, when I developed a crush on BZ (name withheld because I’ve never met anyone else with his last name) that lasted well into the 8th grade, there has always been someone that I have admired from afar. Well, afar only in the sense that he usually had no idea I was interested in him. He was always actually tantalizingly close—a classmate, a teammate, a fellow member of the drama club, my best friend’s brother, someone I would see and talk to on a daily basis—but the feelings just never seemed to be mutual.
That is, until I met LW (name also withheld because I’ve never met anyone else with his first name).
We really had no mutual friends. We did not hang out at the same places. I actually had no idea if we had any similar interests.
So what exactly did we have in common? We worked at the same church.
Ten minutes to show time, and the pews are filled with guests. Soft, unobtrusive music flows from the organ pipes, muffling voices and the footfalls of last-minute arrivals. The groom and groomsmen, thankfully all present and accounted for, wait in the lounge for their cue. Parents smile and check for the tissues they’ve tucked into purses and pockets. Hidden away in a corner room off the narthex, one woman in white huddles with several others in some shade of satin that they’ll never wear again, whatever the bride may have promised. She adjusts her posture, realizes her stiffness, shifts again, breathes deeply, purposefully; her friends and sisters fuss with hems and hair and bouquets.
Meanwhile, I crouch at the front of the sanctuary, robe and stole puddling on the slate floor, a roll of masking tape around my wrist like a particularly hideous bracelet as I secure the aisle runner that everyone else forgot until now and no one else knows what to do with. In the back of my head the usual voice whispers, “This is not what I thought I was getting into when I went to seminary.” That thought is true of so much of ministry that it’s barely worth my eye-rolling response to myself. The bride’s mother taps my shoulder – do I happen to have a safety pin? I do, as a matter of fact. I have several of them, in a variety of sizes, in the same bag from which I produced the masking tape - which also came in handy when the unity candle set didn’t quite fit into the holders. The same bag also holds bobby pins, double-sided tape, a Tide pen, a small sewing kit, tissues, water, and assorted other helpful objects that I’ve accumulated. I was a bridesmaid four times, a personal attendant another four, and I’ve performed well over fifty weddings (I don’t count, but that’s a conservative estimate). You pick up things over time – skills and objects that smooth the chaos that goes on around weddings.
At the local library you’re most likely to find me leafing through the new cookbooks or reading up on the latest techniques for the small farmer. (Please note: my local library is in the middle of the suburbs.) Not far from these forms of escapism rest the recently published books of poetry; and you can often find me there as well, squatting uncomfortably to see what might be hidden from the eyes of more casual browsers on the bottom shelf.
This summer I lifted The Art of Losing, Poems of Grief and Healing from that nearly-hidden row of books and perused the list of contributors. National Book Award finalist Kevin Young has pulled together an impressive list of poets, and included their best words on grief and healing. Names like Anne Sexton, Jane Kenyon, e.e. cummings, Galway Kinnell, William Matthews, Mary Oliver, and Billy Collins line the table of contents: poets whose words have spoken to me through the years in simple and profound ways. Their names alone made the decision to add the book to my pile of library picks that week.