Category Archives: faith

Someone Else’s Story

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And what chapter do you contribute…?

I have not written a post here in two and a half months.  In that time frame, 3 valuable people in my universe died.  Two of my connections from Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) died, both on Monday, April 27.  Randy, our unit supervisor, was a mentor, coach, sensei, cheerleader, buster-of-chops-and-rejoicer-in-successes.  John, a member of our peer group, was a United Methodist pastor on sabbatical, a warm hearted man of insight and humility.  These losses came to all of us as a shock, and for me, a gut-punch as I was still reeling from Aunt Helen’s death, which I shared in my last post here.

One week later, on Monday, May 4, my beloved friend, #FirstEverWorkHusband and Person, Martin, died.  I have written several times about him, his kidney failure, and our friendship in this blog.  We had just texted shortly before he passed, and his death appears to have been a fast and massive heart attack.  I can’t really write much about that right now; it is still pretty raw and I continue to process a great deal.

But the circumstances surrounding his passing left me inconsolable.  When I could manage to sleep there were dreams (which are to be expected and I know there will be more to come); various types of crying, from leaky moments to wailing, sobbing jags.  Finally as I stood in my yard, I spoke out loud, to Martin, to God, to The Universe, asking, pleading for…something.  A sign.  I said, “I need something to know that Martin is OK, so if he is…if you are…please, let the next feather that comes my way be either white or red.  I will take that as my sign.”  I didn’t specify that I needed to be the one to actually find the feather, but I didn’t give that much thought.

Flash forward a few weeks to a Thursday evening after work, when I reported to my church to record the service for the following Sunday, since we had not yet been cleared yet for in-person worship due to coronavirus.  On my music stand was my music for the service, and an envelope with my name on it.  I opened it to find these beautiful #featherblessings from my #ChoirBoss, Carroll, courtesy of his neighbors who had collected them on a walk with their dog.

 

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As gorgeous as the spotted feathers are, it was the red one that brought me to tears.  It was the sign I had begged for.  After we had finished recording the service, I thanked Carroll for his gift, explaining to him, with choked-back tears and a breaking voice, what the red feather meant to me, and how it was the first semblance of comfort I had received since Martin died.  I thanked him for unwittingly playing such an important role in someone else’s story…in my story.

We never know the importance of a seemingly small gesture.  Something we may do or say without a second thought can make all the difference in another person’s life.  When you get an impulse to reach out to someone, don’t ignore it.  You never know when you might be writing a chapter in someone else’s story.

 

Weirdest Lent Ever

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A church service and a phone call…

This year on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, our choir at Ebenezer UMC did not assist in the service there, so I took the opportunity to attend the service at the last church where I sang and served.  It was a joy to worship with the congregation at Messiah Lutheran, one of my church homes, and folks I will always consider family.  My patient husband was chauffeuring me around at the time because my vertigo had flared up, and we agreed with the family doctor that I probably shouldn’t drive until I was feeling better.  So Sweet Pea picked me up from work, we shared a tasty supper at PF Chang’s, then headed across Kingston Pike to the church.

”You are dust, and to dust you shall return…”

It was a beautiful service, contemplative and solemn…and just as we were leaving the church my silenced phone began to vibrate.  My cousin Hazen was calling to tell me that Aunt Helen was in the hospital and her situation looked pretty serious.  “Aunt” Helen is actually my first cousin, but because she was so close in age to Mama, and because they had grown up like sisters, we always called her Aunt Helen, just like all the other Aunts we were blessed to know and love on Mama’s side.  It was probably late in grade school before I figured out the actual family math on that relationship.  But she always functioned as an Aunt for me.

Because my vertigo was flaring I knew that a drive to Johnson City on my own was not possible, so I asked Dad if he might be up for a visit with Aunt Helen in the hospital on Sunday.  My cousin Stacy had told me that we should probably visit soon if we wanted to.  So Dad, bonus mom Carole and I made the brief trip up on The First Sunday of Lent, in beautiful sunshine and coolish temperatures.  Signs of spring were evident along the roadside as the landscape began to green up.

We arrived to find my cousin Lisa talking with the doctor, and Aunt Helen’s frail frame in the bed.  She was awake and recognized me before I fully made it into the room.  We exchanged “I-love-you’s” and I asked the questions I always ask at such a time as this.

”Are you afraid?”  She said no.

”Are you in pain?”  She said yes.

And I swear, it was like seeing Mama in her hospital bed, living that scenario all over again.

In the days that followed, our phones blazed with text messages and calls.  How was Aunt Helen doing?  Was Lisa eating?  Did anybody sleep last night?  Might they send Aunt Helen home?  What exactly would hospice entail or provide?

That Tuesday night, Aunt Helen went home with hospice care.

Wednesday morning, Hazen called again to tell me that Aunt Helen had died about a half hour before. Stacy was texting while Hazen and I talked.  I was at my newish job learning a very new task, and Amy, my trainer, who was aware of Aunt Helen’s condition, let me have her office for a while to make phone calls and cry.  It was a kindness I will always remember.

The Second Sunday of Lent was Aunt Helen’s memorial service.  Years ago she had asked me to do her eulogy, and I agreed.  My cousin Lisa asked if I could sing as well, which I also agreed to do.  I never sing well at funerals.  But I do it anyway, with the understanding that, while it won’t be beautiful, it will be loving.  I’m doing the best I can.

Rumors and speculation about coronavirus had already started to churn, and looking back now, I am grateful that we had the chance to gather as Aunt Helen’s family, by blood and choice, to honor and remember her.  I was able to hug my people, cry, sing, and laugh.  The church was packed with others whose lives Aunt Helen had blessed.  If a couple more weeks had passed, we wouldn’t have had the chance to be together like that.

The remainder of Lent saw us all self-isolating, exercising caution, and avoiding crowds as much as possible.  Many of our workplaces shut down, or drastically curtailed their activities and staffs.  A trip to the store became a major event. Toilet paper, of all things, became almost impossible to find!  And our church buildings have sat empty.

But The Church has, in many cases, been more vibrant and active than it was before coronavirus flipped everything sideways.  Technology has allowed us to stay connected to our church families via live streams and Zoom calls, for example.  I was privileged to assist my own congregation in worship on Palm Sunday and Easter, with a few other musicians and our pastors, from our mostly empty sanctuary, properly distanced from each other.

I miss hugging people.  I miss sharing space with my church family and my kinfolks. And Lord, how I miss Aunt Helen.

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(My last photo with Aunt Helen, February 2019, during #OperationTakeAMinute.  She was my first stop on a month-long road trip, and the days and nights I spent at her house are memories I will cherish forever, especially now that her New Home is someplace I can’t visit.  YET.)

Waiting

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Once upon a time…

It was Saturday, the Eleventh Day of April, in The Year Of Our Lord Two Thousand Twenty, and the day before Easter Sunday.  Known in many Christian traditions as Holy Saturday, this day was, for me, a bit different from the fifty-plus Holy Saturdays in my life that preceded it.  Our world was in a quieter state than most of us had ever experienced before because of a viral pandemic called Coronavirus that ground much of our activity to a standstill.

It hit me even as I typed the word “standstill”…

STILL.

Not moving, suspended, stationary.

But not inactive.

As with the first Holy Saturday, our world seemed on this day to be holding its breath, waiting for something.  A change.  A revolution.

A revelation.

As I found myself waiting on Holy Saturday in The Year Of Our Lord Two Thousand Twenty, I reflected on exactly what it was for which I was waiting…Easter Sunday celebrations, of course, even though I knew my church’s building would be nearly empty.  But we would connect through the gift of technology for which we all gave thanks.  The glory of Jesus and the hope of new life through Him would still be preached and revealed.

But I also waited for my world to return to “normal”, whatever that meant now.  My suspicion was that my definition of normal would never be the same.  Gone were the days of long-range planning for…anything, really.  Life was now taking place in real time, one day at a time, heartbeat by heartbeat and breath by breath.

And I imagined the body of Jesus, lying in that small, dark space that was both tomb and womb, having experienced death, waiting to rise up and emerge into a world that would be changed forever.  Good Friday was about Death.  Easter Sunday was about New Life.

Holy Saturday was about Waiting.

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Church On My Couch

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It’s not about the building…

This morning I went to church.  On my couch.  The flippant, sarcastic, class-clown side of my personality wants to call it:

The Fifth-Sunday Singing Service at The First Church of St. Social Isolation.

The trusted-Jesus-in-my-childhood side of me knows that it is, in truth:

The Church Is Not About The Building.

My childhood church had a motto that was printed on our bulletins.  It read, “Enter to Worship—Depart to Serve”.  That is ringing more true to me in these days of social distancing, self-imposed isolation, safer-at-home.  Thanks to the Interwebz, we can still participate in worship, work from home, see about our friends and family.  We can stay fairly well connected.

We can donate to causes, including the local church, that are working to provide necessary resources to our neighbors in need.  We can share music, humor, insight, and even our own original thoughts, in an effort to keep our loved ones engaged, lifted up, and encouraged in the days of COVID-19.  We can drop non-perishable necessities off onto our neighbors’ porches.  We can call, text, Zoom/FaceTime/Messenger Chat to stay connected.  I think that all of these efforts are “church”.

I completed an extended unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) in 2012.  The ages of my peer group ranged from mid-40s to late 60s.  The eldest member of our group was participating at the recommendation of a ministry of his church, a well-established, well-heeled, and well-respected faith community here in Knoxville.  Toward the end of our time together, Bob remarked that he was “seeing more church happen inside the walls of the hospital” than he had ever seen at “church”.

Which illustrates the point, once again, that it’s not about the building.

Church is loving our neighbor, whoever they are, wherever they are, however we can, without trying to judge whether or not they are worthy.  When we are unable to gather face-to-face, church can still happen.  Loving our neighbor from a distance is still love.  Prayers, financial support offered online, front-porch drop-offs, whatever we can do…we can still love our neighbor.

We can be the church.

We ARE the church.

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Practice Makes…?

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The old adage versus the new perspective…

We’ve all heard the old saying:

Practice makes perfect.

Here’s the thing, though.  “Perfect” is impossible for human beings.  Whether the pursuit is related to our health, profession, or artistic endeavors, perfection is an unrealistic goal.

I am primarily a musician, but I also enjoy several other creative pursuits including paper crafting, photography, and writing.  When I commit myself to a project, I want my efforts to be the best I can make them, realizing that my best is never going to be perfect.  Coming to grips with that is an ongoing process…and it is a change in paradigms.

So often we are goal-oriented, when perhaps it is better to be process-oriented.  Case in point: a student who crams at the semester’s end to receive an “A” on an exam, but forgets the information soon after the test is over. Process orientation is more focused on learning bit by bit, along the way, and letting the exam take care of itself when the time comes.  Information learned along the way tends to “stick” better.

I have begun to realize, and to share with others, an adjustment to the old adage:

Practice doesn’t make perfect.  Practice makes progress.

When I was young, I thought my life was going to be all about the destination; as I have gotten older, I realize it’s really about the journey…the process, and the progress.  As long as I am growing, moving forward, doing my best (whatever my best happens to be on a given day!), I am on the path that is meant for me.

That’s really the best I can ask for.

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(Pictured above, a recent creative project…in progress!)

Body, Mind, And Spirit

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It’s all connected…

First of all, I AM NOT A MEDICAL OR MENTAL HEALTH PROFESSIONAL.

I recently posted a question on social media regarding the connections among body, mind, and spirit.  The few responses I received were insightful, and in line with much of my own thinking, although from a different angle than I was originally considering.  I have always wanted this blog and its content to be positive and uplifting, but never at the expense of authenticity.  My thoughts on the interconnectedness of body, mind, and spirit were leaning in a different direction when I posed the query.

For months I have been dealing with some health issues in my body.  The tests I had in the fall revealed no major problems, only a diagnosis of IBS (irritable bowel syndrome).  I have followed doctor’s instructions in order to treat those symptoms, without much success.  But I’m doing what I can and, frankly, since I am still seeking a full-time job, I am not inclined to go spending a lot of money on more tests that won’t show anything wrong with me.  I am managing the best I can.

But as my body has started experiencing other symptoms in recent months, my mind and spirit have also taken a bit of a beating.  Scripture tells us that we are indeed “fearfully and wonderfully made.” (Psalm 139:14).  We are also told that, “A merry heart does good, like medicine, but a broken spirit dries the bones.”  (Proverbs 17:22). I understand that to mean that, among other things, all our systems are connected to one another.  One system cannot be impaired without others also being altered.

My family doctor and I have discussed this delicate balance more than once.  Ongoing physical pain can exacerbate problems like depression and anxiety, both of which I have dealt with for decades, as well as concentration and the ability to learn and retain information.  Conversely, ongoing depression and anxiety (or other mental health conditions such as bipolar disorder, obsessive/compulsive disorder, etc.) can manifest physically, increasing symptoms such as headaches, digestive disorders, appetite changes, sleep disturbances, and chronic pain in any or all parts of the body.  Spiritually, it can become difficult to pray, read and study scripture.  Sometimes a person can begin to question their faith in the God Who made them.

It’s all connected.

The question sometimes becomes like the “chicken/egg” riddle: Which came first?  It can be difficult to figure out.  Does one’s body hurt all over because they are depressed, or is one depressed because they hurt everywhere?

There are no simple answers.  It’s all connected.

The Bible shows us many examples of imperfect heroes of faith.  The prophets Elijah and Jeremiah appeared to suffer from depression (possibly situational, possibly clinical, or even both).  The Apostle Paul talked about his “thorn in the flesh”.  The Psalmist(s) sometimes despaired of life.  And poor Job…that guy suffered in every way imaginable.

I heard someone once say the following:

“I’ve heard it said that we are human beings having a spiritual experience; I submit to you that we are spiritual beings having a HUMAN experience.”

It’s ALL connected.

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Pans And Patience

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And a misplaced tradition…

Once upon a time, long, long ago, there were women in my family who made magical sweet treats and savory dishes.  My cousin Judy carries on her own version of the family culinary heritage.  I thought of her today as the first snow of the season fell, because on the first snow day every year, Judy likes to make a fruit pie.  I hope she enjoyed baking today and looking out at her beautiful snow-covered farm.

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WAY back in the day, both of Reed’s and my grandmothers, and also Aunt Martha, made apple stack cakes.  Apple is the only flavor I ever remember them making, at least.  I also remember the apples for many of those cakes being dried on window screens inside a shut-up car in Mamaw and Papaw’s yard.  Granny never referred to dried apples as apples; they were always simply called “fruit”.

Reed had the foresight to ask for lessons in stack-cake-making from both Mamaw and Aunt Martha.  The recipe itself is not a difficult one, but the making of a stack cake is a process.  I remember Reed saying that Aunt Martha told him it just takes pans and patience.  (I might add that counter space would be really helpful!)

It’s strange how so many of my food memories have become less about the food and more about the hands that prepared it.  Of course, every tooth in my head is a sweet tooth, and I do LOVE me all those yummy treats, especially the rare, special-occasion ones.  A few years ago at Christmas time, Reed got a hankering for a stack cake, but did not have the desire, pans, or patience to make it himself.  Fortunately, we have a high school friend who at that time owned a highly-acclaimed local bakery (she has since sold it to her niece, so it remains in good hands).  Reed mentioned to Peggy that he sure would love a stack cake, and Peggy said something along the lines of, “I can hook your a$$ up!”

And hook it up she did.  He brought this humble-looking, beautiful creation to Christmas Eve at Dad’s house, and eventually we tore into it.  The moment I took a bite, I burst into grateful tears.  Decades disappeared, and my mouth and mind were flooded with the flavor of nostalgia.  Once more, I was reminded that tastebuds and heartstrings are directly, and closely, connected.

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People of faith often talk about Heaven being a wedding feast, or a banquet.  I like to believe that this is true.  And I like to imagine the tables there, laden with something to satisfy every craving, and plenty of room for everyone to share in the marriage supper of The Lamb.

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(I shared this recipe for a church cookbook shortly after I was married.  The amount of fruit needed was not specified, it’s just something you have to eyeball…but more is better.)

That Baby I Held That Day

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And a memory of 9/11 I never wrote about…

Everyone remembers September 11, 2001.  Even after 18 years my recollections of the day can still bring tears to my eyes if I linger on them for more than a few minutes.  I have shared bits and pieces of how the day and night unfolded for me…but I have never written down part of the story.

I was working the primetime 4pm-1am shift at the local Fox TV station, and I had been up late the night before.  Jeff and I were still very much in mourning for Mom Cutshaw, who had died in June, but trying to resume business as usual, whatever that means after a parent has died. My cousin Alan rang my phone that morning telling me a plane had hit a building very close to where my brother, Reed, worked, and to get up and turn on my TV.

I did, and we all know what unfolded throughout the next hours.  More planes crashing, more death.  I called my boss, Tom, and told him about Reed, and he asked if I needed to stay home.  I said I’d keep him posted.  I and my family were fortunate; we only had to wait hours to hear that Reed had gotten out of the city and was safe, at least physically.  I know people who didn’t hear about their loved ones for days.

I reported for work, grateful and shaken, to sit behind my console and watch solid, unrelenting coverage of the tragedy…endless replays of the planes crashing, the buildings toppling, people jumping from buildings rather than be burned alive…and commentary from newspeople, pundits, analysts.  My friends and TV brothers that afternoon and night in addition to Tom were Larry and Dan.  I was so grateful for these “boys” who kept me company, gave me bathroom breaks and propped me up, as I hoped I was able to do for them.  We were all overwhelmed, sad, angry, and feeling kind of…lost, I guess.  Late in the afternoon, Dan’s sister came by for a quick visit.  And she brought her little 3-month-old son, Cameron.

Lord, how I do love to shnoogle me a little teeny one, what we in the South sometimes call an “arm baby”.  I asked Meriam if I could hold her little treasure and she obliged with kindness.  I held that sweet new life close to me, humming, with leaky eyes and silent prayers…Lord God, what kind of world is this child going to grow up in?  Protect him.  Protect us all.  Lord, I am so sad…

That baby brought healing to me, more than any words of comfort spoken by ministers, vows of justice sworn by our government officials, tributes offered by the rich and famous.  That baby was born just before Mom Cutshaw died…just before all those people murdered on 9/11 died.  Holding that little, sweet, innocent new life reminded me that life indeed goes on, and that God indeed cares, even when nothing in the world makes sense.

That baby is now 18 years old, old enough to drive a car, vote in elections, serve in our armed forces.  And while I have not seen him in the years since I held him that day, I have often prayed for him.  I have shared the story of how he blessed and comforted me on a day when all of us were left feeling so very lost.  I haven’t seen his Uncle Dan in many years, but I remember him in prayers, too, and their whole family.

I owe them at least that. I owe them a debt of gratitude.  Especially that baby I held that day.

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(The baby’s hand in this photo does not belong to Cameron, but to my great-nephew Forrest, from a chance I had to hold him when he was an “arm baby”.)

Rewind

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If I could turn back time…or place…

Do you ever wonder what would happen if you could turn back time?  I indulge in such fantasies now and then, particularly when my life does not seem to be going the way I would like it to go.  But if I had the ability to rewind my life, how far back would I want to go?  It’s a rabbit hole I could fall into and never come back from if I let myself dwell on it.

Maybe I would go back to when I was about five years old, before Becky Ezell drowned and my little life had not been touched by death yet.  Even at that young age I understood that the lifeless form in the casket only resembled Becky, but it was not really her, not anymore.  It was just the package she had lived in before she died.  She was about 12 years old when she drowned, but I have never forgotten that she was sweet to me.  It’s a big deal when an older kid is nice to you.

Or perhaps I would return to the first time I ever sang a solo in front of people.  I was in the Herald Children’s Choir at my church and Becky Kidd, our leader/teacher (and phenomenal church organist) had me sing a solo in a little musical we put together and practiced diligently to offer to our church family.  I think I was nine or ten years old.  So many times in so many places I have offered up songs since then, a gift for which I give thanks.

I think about the many turning points along the way, sometimes wondering, “What if I had chosen differently?”  Just one step in a different direction alters the entire trajectory of a life.  Would I go back to a decade…a year…a moment…for a do-over?

The whole last two years of Mama’s life…I’d definitely do those differently.  I screwed some stuff up there.  Probably the first two years after she died, too.  Worrying about other people’s grief kept me from properly processing my own.  It cost me in ways I am probably still paying for.

Or would I just go back to the first of this year, when my dog was still alive and I had plans that I felt would fix a lot of things for the people I love?  Wondering about it serves no purpose, I realize.  But sometimes it is difficult not to.  There is an old adage that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.  Perhaps these tangents are my way of trying to learn from history, and trying to look forward.

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Catching Dreams

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Or even remembering what mine used to be…

Last year after returning from a vacation trip to Houston for our niece’s wedding, a friend at work asked me, “Didn’t I hear you say something once about collecting feathers?”  I responded that, yes, I indeed collect feathers.  He mumbled something and shuffled to his desk a few seats over from mine.

A moment later he returned with a gift that surprised and warmed me to my core—a Native American dreamcatcher.  I yelled, “Squeeeeeeee!” And hugged him so hard I think it startled him.  He explained that he donates to a mission/orphanage out west somewhere and they had sent him this beautiful dreamcatcher as an appreciation gift for his contributions.  He wanted me to have it.

I was floored, humbled, and touched by his thoughtfulness to share such a beautiful item with me.  This guy has always been a friend to me, but his exterior can be gruff.  He does not like people to get too close to him.  I have often described him as a “cactus with a marshmallow center”!

The legend of the dreamcatcher is that a person is supposed to hang it over their bed at night.  The woven web in the center catches the sleeper’s dreams, trapping the nightmares while allowing the sweet dreams to flow down the strands to the feathers below, allowing them into the mind of the sleeper.

I have always heard tell that my Mamaw’s Grandma Sayne was full-blooded Cherokee.  I have never been able to verify this, although with technology evolving all the time and so many records available online now, it might be possible to do so.  A first cousin I have never met in person reached out to me on social media hoping to learn more about our family, and he might be the person to unravel this branch of our family tree.  Even a tiny portion of Cherokee in my lineage would make sense of a lot of things about me, how I see my world, and the things I value.  Perhaps confirming such a family history would help me to remember the childlike dreams of my past…those days when I thought anything was possible.

As it is, I look at this sweet gift, a reminder of a friendship from a workplace Shinsky and I no longer share, but memories I will value for a lifetime.  I will pray that both of us will conjure and fulfill new, meaningful and happy dreams moving forward.  I will give thanks for his heritage and for mine, for years of shared work and a future that I cannot yet see.