Thursday, July 28, 2005


Snapshot: It's noontime. The sun is hot in the sky as the adventurers set out on their maiden voyage aboard the S.S. Orange Paddleboat. They have been planning their voyage throughout their week-long stay at the lake, along with their trusty officer of the galley. The sailor's rations, artfully packed in a Marsh brown paper grocery bag include two ham sandwiches, a bag of potato chips, two bananas, two cans of Sunkist orange soday and Grandma's reknown chocolate chip cookies. The sailor's each carry with them on their vessel their own fishing nets and their own tiny green bucket to entrap any wayward miniature painted turtles (which they will undoubtedly name "Myrtle" and keep as pets for a day or so before releasing them back into the land from whence they came). These sailing journeys were Grandma's idea, for Grandma understood adventure.

Snapshot: It is evening in 1980. The sun has set and it is the light blue of twilight on the lake. Cicadas and crickets are chirping. Citronella candles have been lit. We don't dare turn on lights in the cottage, as mosquitos would soon feast on us for supper. The summer Olympics is being aired on televisions all over the world. Everywhere, people are huddled in tiny groups watching this pinacle of the childhood sporting year. Everywhere, that is, except our cottage on Chapman Lake where even a teeny-tiny black and white television has yet to be introduced, as Grandpa doesn't want to spoil the rustic nature of the cottage (I mean, geez, we actually had put in a bathtub and shower the year before we were getting a little too civilized if you asked him). Two cousins lament over their pitiful and isolated state on this the first night of the opening ceremonies. Grandma creates the Chapman Lake Olympics which are performed on the six by eight foot arena of carpet between the couch and the recliner. There are only two countries, the country of Adam and the country of Christen. Grandma is the judge and gives surprisingly generous ratings as we each execute difficult hand stands and cartwheels. She often gave 8's and 9's. She was much more lenient than the Soviet judge. Grandma understood creativity.

Snapshot: It is raining. Again. For the third day. Two children are trapped in close quarters. Again. For the third day. Did I mention it was raining? Grandma busts out the Monopoly game. A game which ultimately lasted for two more rain-filled days. Sunkist orange cans and Monopoly money were strewn across the dining room table. When it would come time for meals Grandma would say, "just scoot it over, children. We'll eat around it." I think that's how Vermont Avenue got that blueberry stain. Grandma understood endurance.

Snapshot: I'm eleven and sitting on the floor at Grandma's feet. She's sitting in the recliner in front of me. My parents have just announced they'll be divorcing. Grandma's quizzing me, an only child herself. "And you feel okay about living with your Mom?" "Yep," I mumble. "And you're sure you know how much you're loved?" "Yep," I repeat. "And you know you can always come to the lake with us if you want?" "Yep." "And you know this is all for the best?" "Yep. Really, Gram, I'm fine." She is quiet, sizing me up. I keep watching her face as she rocks slowly in the recliner. The chair creaking softly with each downbeat. "That's right," she finally says, "You are fine." And gestures me toward her where she pulls me onto her lap and rocks me, even though I am practically as tall as she is. "Just fine," she murmurs.

Snapshot: It is nineteen years later. I call her one night in Florida where she is staying for the winter with Grandpa. My father insists. I don't want to call her because I don't want to tell her my news. I'm getting ready to divorce the man that only four years ago I stood up with in front of a church of over 300 people and promised to love for the rest of my life. I am embarassed and ashamed, afraid of the judgment of others. But I promised my father I'd call. Dad had said, "Call her...she keeps asking me what's going on with's like she has some sort of sixth sense...she needs to hear it from you." I call her and tell her my story, mumbling occasionally and swallowing tears. She is quiet and then she says simply, "Well, I'm glad that's all it is, Honey." Granting me the grace I couldn't give myself. Grandma understood unconditional love.

Snapshot: It is late at night on the lake and it is hot. I am in college and I am visiting for Grandma's birthday. I have brought her bedroom slippers shaped like rabbits, and the wiggle their ears as her feet bounce up and down in the reclining chair. Grandma and I sit on the front porch and watch the lights across the lake. We tell stories--silly stories that don't even bear repeating and probably include some sort of bawdy humor related to bodily functions and we both howl with laughter. But Grandma's laugh is loud enough to carry all the way across the lake. Grandpa shuffles out from the bedroom sleepy-eyed and tells us we need to be quieter. "Okay, Herman," Grandma says. Grandpa goes back to bed. As soon as he's out of earshot Grandma turns to me and winks, "Spoilsport," she says. And then she laughs even louder. I will remember that laugh as long as I live.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Grandma Miller

My grandma died this morning.

I'm weary. It's been too much today. I've seen my grandfather kiss my grandmother's cold lips as he cried hot tears and tenderly told her goodbye in a soft voice. I've touched my grandmother's soft hands for the last time and pried her diamond engagement ring off her arthritic finger. I've smelled the sulphuric smell of well water at the lake as I mopped up Grandpa's kitchen floor in an effort to do something (and to take care of that nasty lemonade spill due to my clumsy nerves). I've tasted the deviled eggs which seem to be ubiquitous after a death in the rural midwest, thanks to the countless God-fearing Christian women who make it their mission to feed the bereaved.

My heart hurts tonight.

This is the second grandmother I've lost in six months. The odds aren't looking good for grandmothers in my family this year.

So much to think about...and remember...and hold close tonight. But for now, a tepid bath (it's still 86 freakin' degrees out at almost 10 p.m.) and a soft bed. Maybe Grandma will whisper in my ear the words I need to speak on Thursday.

Things to Do Whilst Awake at 2:43 A.M.

  • Annoy husband, who is far to polite to respond in any way, by twisting and turning in bed, thereby pulling covers away from him and undoubtedly keeping him awake.
  • Go to kitchen and have bowl of tasty and fiber-filled generic raisin bran, thus ensuring superior "regularity."
  • Pray. Focus on prayer for enemies. Recount to God each little teeny-tiny infraction against said enemies. Become very angry in process and realize that praying for enemies might be better if details were vague. God will understand.
  • Itch poision ivy on neck, attained undoubtedly from miniature dachshund who, while romping in backyard, apparently found the vile weed. Consider buying tiny miniature dachshund haz-mat outfit to avoid further incidents. Google "dachshund haz-mat." Believe that the reason no outfit can be found is because one must be spelling "haz-mat" incorrectly. Curse google.
  • Finish final load of laundry.
  • Convince cat to hold still so that matted hair on his back can be cut out. Praise cat and tell him how patient and beautiful he is. Spend time analyzing why exactly he gets matted hair only in that spot. Determine that he is too fat and cannot reach his tail to clean. Vow to switch him over to low calorie cat food. Apologize to cat for this change. Offer tasty morsels as incentive to lose weight.
  • Read husband's copy of TV Guide cover to cover. Realize that perhaps Tom Cruise really did have a "celebrity melt-down" when he was on the Oprah show. Wonder about odds of his marriage to Katie Holmes lasting. Be thankful you don't have to provide their pre-marital counseling.
  • Marvel at all that can get done if you slept less at night.
  • Crawl into the guest room bed with a book and admit defeat.

Friday, July 22, 2005

The First One That Will Break Me

Annie is my first patient that has the power to break me...the very first client in my three months of work who will cause me to burst into anguished tears when she finally dies. I adore Annie. I adore her sweet husband, Jimmy. The love they have for one another is so palpable. It is a living, breathing presence everytime I sit with them. Thanks to the wonders of the anti-depressant Lexapro I'm relatively calm in the face of death...but Annie's death is the impetus for the emotion which could finally leap over those protective pharmaceutical gates and render me helpless.

Annie and Jimmy live in a little tiny shotgun house on the outskirts of town. It is a part of town separated by eight railroad tracks and a switching station. Sometimes when I drive to see them I am a half-hour late due to the obnoxiously long train delays. They live in a ordered but filthy home, thanks in part to the coal-heated furnace which sheds its residue year-round and in part to Jimmy's good-hearted, but slightly inadequate cleaning skills.

Annie and Jimmy are in their 70s or 80s and have lived in this home for over forty years. Jimmy built the home, and recognizes that it's plywood sidewalks which covered the spring mud and it's uninsulated windows which leaked the winter wind are not as adequate as he thinks Annie deserves. Jimmy has a lush garden next to the house in which he grows yellow tomatoes (red tomatoes mess with Annie's coumadin levels) and wax beans (Annie's favorite). He confesses that he doesn't care much for vegetables, but he has noticed that she seems to enjoy watching him garden. Every night he wheels Annie around in the wheelchair on the perimeter of the soil and he points out what has sprouted, and what has blossomed, and what is ready to be pruned. And then, Jimmy settles her in next to him on the porch swing which he made out of old car seats, and they watch the traffic go by, while their caged 'coon hunting dogs finally halt their ceaseless barking, knowing their master and mistress are nearby.

But Annie is failing. She hardly talks now. That sweet trilling voice which once sang "off tenor" with a gospel band called "The Glory Bounders" is raspy. She no longer serenades me with an Appalachian version of "Amazing Grace" where her notes slide all over the scale and leave me slack-jawed in my own state of amazement. But her long fingers still reach out as she strokes the faces of those close to her. Yesterday she brushed my cheek and said, "Well, I'll be...ain't you just as purty as can be."

Jimmy won't cry in front of her. In front of her, he massages her spindly legs and says in that slushing way that those without teeth do, "Hi Honeeeyyy...How's my baby doll?" His eyes light up, and he's so convincing you almost can look past his tears.

Yesterday he told me that he'd bought her the most expensive casket he could find. It looked like marble and had roses on it. It cost him $10,000. He said, "If it were me, you could just throw me in a long as I'm next to her...but for her, nothing but the best. She comes first."

I told Jimmy to call me if Annie starts to decline rapidly over the weekend, so I could come out and be with them. So that Jimmy wouldn't have to be alone. Jimmy said, "Ma'am, should I call you even if it's the middle of the night?" I assured him that yes, night or day, he should call--that I wanted to be with them.

When he calls I will go. And together we'll weep tears for the woman who sang in both of our hearts in different ways. And even Lexapro can't deny that kind of love.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

I am a step-mother

Oh so long since I have communed with my sweet little blog, which I swear is only read by my sweet husband and duty-bound parents. God love you all (all five of you).

I realize I have this problem. Yes, I'm working on it in therapy (thank you , John). I have a hard, hard, hard, hard, hard time writing anything unless it think it is PERFECT. I have gone so far as to insist that my college English professor NEVER know about this website (despite the fact that he has become a good friend to both me and my father). I have this DEMON editor on my shoulder sometimes. And so, if I'm not completely sure about my writing. I don't write. I won't write. Thus, the long silence after the Annual Conference sermon. I felt spent.

So, I'm trusting this little audience (who in my mind are very few in number) and writing anyway and hoping you'll forgive me.

Here's the deep thoughts of the day:

I am a step-mother. I am privileged to parent two of the most amazing human beings ever created on this planet. Two intoxicatingly beautiful girls whom I adore. And two amazing creations who are never mine. This has it's benefits, as I am free to boast about them outrageously since I can take no credit for their phenomenal genes. But to be a step-parent means that one always cedes parenting. I will never be Tess and Brynn's mother (nor should I be). I am always second-best. And I understand that. And I accept that. And I respect and admire the girls' mother tremendously and would never want to infringe on her role as mother. Never. And yet...I am still always second best. And I am also a competitive person. So this is one of my "growing edges" as they used to say in CPE training...or "another fucking growth experience" as one of my good friends (accurately) names it.

I "inherited" Tess and Brynn when they were 8 and 5 respectively. I loved, loved, loved having a ready-made family to be part of. And I loved, loved, loved the phenomenal parenting that I saw in Robert. I threw myself whole-heartedly into the role of step-mother. I bought the most expensive popcorn popper that Target sold, so that when Tess had her first overnight we would have the best popcorn (just as my step-mother made for me). I went to the library and read up in the particulars of cheetahs so that I would have something to share with a wild-cat loving Brynn. I called and emailed my own step-mother regularly with questions and sought her wisdom and advice.

And what I've realized...the verdict as of July 20, 2005 is that step-parenting is HARD. It's so hard and it's such an exquisite joy. I adore "our" girls...but they will never know my body as their home. I adore "our" girls...but their safety is always found within their mother or father's eyes first (as it should be). I adore "our" girls...but I still feel as if I have no claim on them, no right to their loyalties.

Today I called home while I was working and Robert was home with Brynn. Robert and I chatted--touched base on our day--enlightened each other on our latest insights--reminded each other of pick-up and drop-off times for miscellaneous activities and as I was getting ready to sign off Brynn slid a note to Robert. In her scrawling 8-year-old writing she had written the words, "Tell Christen I said hi." Robert relayed the message. I felt my heart melt. It is in those instances that I realize that step-motherhood may not be for the faint-hearted, but it's worth it. Because she remembered me. And that's something.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Annual Conference Caucus Sermon

It's been so long since I've posted...but I've been a busy girl. Working on my sermon for the Womaen's Caucus Luncheon at Annual Conference in the Church of the Brethren (forgive the exclusive language, this denomination has a ways to go yet in being enlightened in some areas). I've had some requests to post the sermon, so here 'tis. Back to more deliberate bloggage soon...

Winter Wheat
A Sermon Presented by Christen Pettit Miller on July 4, 2005 at the Womaen's Caucus Luncheon.

Listen to the poet Carlo Carretto:
How baffling you are, oh church,
And yet how I love you!

How you have made me suffer,
And yet how much I owe you!

I should like to see you destroyed,
And yet I need your presence.

You have given me so much scandal
And yet you have made me understand sanctity.

I have seen nothing in the world more
Devoted to obscurity, more compromised,
More false, and I have touched nothing more pure,
More generous, more beautiful.
How often I have wanted to shut the doors
Of my soul in your face, and how often
I have prayed to die in the safety of your arms.

No, I cannot free myself from you, because
I am you, although not completely.

And where should I go?

I speak confessionally when I say that this is my lover’s quarrel with the church. I love it, and yet I feel so distanced. I find my home within its embrace, and yet it stifles me. It taught me what it means to be a follower of Christ, and then sometimes it slapped my hands when I tried to act on its teachings. I believe the church is at it’s most authentic, when it unashamedly follows the teachings of Jesus and yet when those ideals become idols, or mere words without action, there is no greater hypocrisy. I have come to recognize that I am not alone in my wrestling.

Last fall I received a phone call at home one evening after supper. Our house was aflutter with girls home from ballet class, one of whom was pirouting through the kitchen as my single-minded husband, who doesn’t do very well at multi-tasking, was fixing her macaroni and cheese. Our youngest child was regaling us with a blow-by-blow of her daily observations of the class bully, Eric D. while simultaneously carrying the miniature dachshund around the kitchen in what looked to be a rather compromising position. It was too much action for my little mind after a twelve hour shift at the hospital where I was a chaplain in an intensive care unit. In the midst of this chaos the phone rang. I picked it up quickly, pulling the cord out in the hallway with me to avoid ensnaring the piroutting eleven-year old or tangling up the dachshund and heard a voice ask, “Christen, would you like to be the speaker at the Womaen’s Caucus luncheon next year at annual conference?” I asked the speaker to repeat the question. She said, “If you’d like time to think about it you can call me back.” I quickly piped up that, “No, of course I didn’t need time, of course I would do it, of course, I would be honored. Yes! Yes!” And then I paused and said, “but what should I say?” She gave me the scripture and told me, I’m sure much more about the theme, but in the midst of that harried evening I wrote only these words, “message of hope…cloud of witnesses…we’re tired and weary.” Wide parameters for one who lives in ambiguity on the mere margins of this denomination. But I have recognized that I don’t live there alone. There are many others out here. I want to thank the Womaen’s Caucus steering committee for asking for my voice, the voice of one not born and bred in the Church of the Brethren with the standard Brethren purebred pedigree. The voice of one who no longer serves the denomination in pastoral ministry at a prominent church. The voice of one who has at times felt like a stranger in a strange land ( but a good land, a land of potlucks, a land where they like to eat lots and lots of ice cream).

The writer of the letter to the Hebrews was not unfamiliar with struggle. For Hebrews was written to a people whose hope and faith were feeling a little shaky. Eugene Peterson disarmingly shares the ancient writer’s purpose. He says in commentary on the text, “It seems odd to have to say so, but too much religion is a bad thing. We can’t get too much of God, can’t get too much faith and obedience, can’t get too much love and worship. But religion…can very well get in the way of what God is doing for us.” The people to whom this letter was addressed had, it seems, gotten caught up in this whole business of religion rather than in simply living their faith. But despite how wrong they may have gotten this religion business… they were still a well-meaning people who had been persecuted for what they believed. They were a people who had been imprisoned for their faith. They were a people who had seen their reputations sullied. Because they had spoken the truth that they knew, because they had witnessed to the abundant love and radical justice that Jesus offered, they found themselves alienated from the culture around them. This letter was written to refresh the weary, to remind them that they needed to persevere. It is a letter that could be written today for those who speak that same message of abundant love and radical justice and are instead met with hostility and cynicism and disregard.

And so the questions begin for us. How are we like those early readers of the letter to the Hebrews? And how are we to run the race and not grow weary? How are we to continue to preach the prophetic words of inclusion and justice when we are questioned with cold exclusion, hostile words, or a dismissive glance? How do we find it within ourselves to continue the work of Jesus, when we feel hopeless? When hope is hard to come by?

I confess that I am not a fan of the “WWJD?” phenomenon. All the products and paraphenalia. It may have started as a simple reminder to follow the steps of Jesus by wearing a simple cloth bracelet. And that’s fine. However, it’s been co-opted by a market economy that’s tried to commodify the very one who resisted commodities and lived a life of simplicity. I can’t imagine Jesus having his old wine poured into a new insulated state-of-the art decanter with “WWMD?”—“What Would Moses Do?”, embossed on it on gold-lettering while wearing his “WWMD?” baseball hat and hugging close to him his “WWMD?” plush teddy bear.

However, having said all that, I believe that asking what it is that Jesus would do in a given situation, and how it is that we can follow in the footsteps of our teacher is still an important question.

The first thing I suggest is that we remember that we cannot go it alone. When we look to our teacher, we see that Jesus pointedly surrounded himself with companions, even when those same disciples misunderstood his motives. When Jesus commanded his followers to spread the news of the gospel they went out two by two. The spiritual writer, Christina Baldwin, in her book Calling the Circle shares these words on the call to community, “All I know is that none of us can travel further by ourselves. Alone, our hearts become stony and guarded. Alone, we become frightened. Alone, each of us can only stand and watch the next tree go down, watch the child fold over in hunger or pain…and whatever intervention we make is not enough. But, when we are traveling in the company of many, then we are a great body that can affect change.”

But there are other reasons to find a space within community. In community, we can also be carried when we feel too weary to continue. The Quaker writer Parker Palmer reminds us that the beauty of community is such that when we reach the limits of our own capacity to love, community means trusting that someone else will be available to pick up where we have left off. Community is that safe and nurturing place which nurses our vision when we are too exhausted.

When I was beginning pastoral ministry, and facing ordination in the South Central Indiana district, I sat down before a Ministry Interviewing Committee. Our meeting was cordial, and I was pleased at how well the process seemed to be flowing until one of the committee members took her Bible out of a bag at her feet and placed it on the table. She rested her hand upon it, and said with conviction, “My Bible is clear on the teachings of homosexuality. Can you explain why you disagree?” The meeting went downhill from there, and I left wondering whether I would be granted ordination. I wept angry tears throughout most of that afternoon. At a board meeting at the church that evening I reported the painful interlude. The room was quiet. And softly, one of the board members spoke up and said, “Christen, let me pray for these people for you right now, because I can see you’re having a hard time praying for them.” Her reminder to me was the reminder that we do not have to go it alone. There are shoulders on which to rest our heavy heads, and arms to carry our limping bodies when we want to do the right thing, and are simply too weary to do so.

The second lesson is this: solitude is full of God. This is something Jesus knew. When we are at our weariest, when we are our most worn, we can seek solace to reconnect with our Creator. When we are left wondering if our work has any meaning, when we question whether our feeble voice speaks with more than a whisper, it is time to return to our God in solitude to renew our souls. It was Jesus who sought solace in the desert, in the hills, away from the crowds. It is in this quiet place away, in this Sabbath time apart, that we can find the peace within to return to the struggle. It is when we pull away and allow ourselves to crawl up into the lap of God to be cradled and rocked for awhile that we can eventually find the strength to walk back into the fray. We need not feel guilty for these moments, or days, or even years away if it renews us to keep the Spirit alive, to continue to follow the teachings of the Christ.

And finally our third lesson. If we follow Jesus, we recognize that we are called, we are commanded to speak truth to power. It was Jesus who spoke truth to the Pharisees about healing on the Sabbath. It was Jesus who turned over tables in the temple when he recognized a sacred space was being abused for commerce. We are empowered by a God who embraces the powerless to raise our voices against injustice and intolerance in every form. We are called to stomp our feet in righteous indignation when justice is not forthcoming. We should recognize our anger as a sacred summons from the living Christ.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton was one of the founding mothers of the feminist movement. She was the writer of the Women’s Bible, which was an early feminist interpretation of the scriptures. Toward the end of her life, though, she was growing discouraged. For despite the many years of labor, despite the thousands of miles traveled in campaigning for suffrage across our nation, despite the many women she had inspired and taught, Stanton recognized a sad truth. She would never live to vote. It would not happen in her lifetime. Rather than be discouraged by this outcome, though, Stanton instead wrote these words, “We are sowing winter wheat which the coming spring will see sprout and which other hands than ours will reap and enjoy.” Winter wheat, indeed, for the first woman to cast a ballot did so eighteen years after Stanton’s death.

We who labor in the work that Womaen’s Caucus undertakes are sowing winter wheat. We may never reap and enjoy the seeds that we sow, but it is imperative that we continue the planting.

We sow winter wheat whenever we challenge church search committees who claim that they cannot allow a woman to pastor in their midst based only on her gender. May our daughters and granddaughters never know this kind of discrimination.

We sow winter wheat whenever we stand alongside our lesbian sisters and gay brothers and demand their full inclusion in ordination and celebrate their contributions to our communities of faith. May our daughters and granddaughters, our sons and grandsons take as a given the goodness of diversity.

We sow winter wheat everytime we choose to use inclusive language for our Creator when we preach and when we pray and when we sing. May our sons and grandsons, our daughters and granddaughters know God as more than just a masculine deity.

We sow winter wheat whenever we continue to remind our denomination that language shapes thought, and that for this reason we must find a new name that encompasses all of who we are as a sister and brother-hood. May our daughters and granddaughters always know inclusion, and may our sons and grandsons support such inclusion.

Sisters and brothers, we are sowing winter wheat as we remain committed to the values of Womaen’s Caucus, as we support it with our prayers and with our gifts. The struggle is not over, but we are not alone. Look around you at the companions sitting to your left and to your right and recognize that we are surrounded by a mighty cloud of witnesses. And when the day comes that our children gather the sheaths and bake the bread, all will enjoy a feast in the community of God.

In the name of Christ our liberator, may it be so.