9.11

twin-towers

I have always hated our country dwelling on what happened on September 11, 2001. People are killed in much greater numbers every day -often by American’s own hands across the world – yet we Americans focus on the 2,996 Americans who died on that day.

I was scheduled to preach at Oakhurst Presbyterian Church in Atlanta on Sept. 16, 2001, the Sunday after 9.11.  Although I had been attending the church since 1997 and loved its racial and social economic diversity, I had never preached and I was nervous.  Nibs Stroupe, the pastor there, is an incredible preacher.  Seminary professors, ministers and students, as well as those who haven’t had the opportunity to attend college, attend. .

Whenever I preach, I write the sermon ahead of time and I remember sitting in my apartment, watching the towers fall on television knowing I was scheduled to preach that Sunday.  I called Nibs and offered the pulpit to him, but he said, “No, you go ahead and preach.”  I suspect he didn’t want to preach that day either!  Fortunately I had chosen John 10:7-10 ( “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly”) as well as the story from Luke about the unknown woman being healed from her issue of blood (Luke 8: 43-48) as my texts. I was able to easily adjust the sermon to refer to the attacks.

I will never forget walking into the sanctuary with Nibs, seeing it filled to the rafters. I took a deep breath, said a prayer and entered with him. Although I love preaching, it takes me forever to write a sermon and I get really nervous beforehand although it never shows.  This is one reason 20 years ago; I was looking for a call where I could preach more.  Folks have told me its gets easier and this is a TBI loss that will always hurt.

However, once I get going, I’m fine. Since Oakhurst is not your typical white Presbyterian Church where the label of “frozen chosen” is apt, getting direct responses such as “Preach it!” or “Amen, sister” energizes the preacher and it energized me that day.

Here is how I ended that sermon, 15 years ago:

“In the book, “the Blood of the Lamb” by Peter Devries, the main character loses his daughter to leukemia. On the day of her death someone had left a cream pie which he was carrying when he found himself standing before a crucifix outside the church next to the hospital.

He looked into the eyes of the crucified Christ hanging on the cross, cursed his name, and flung the pie squarely into the face of Christ. He stood there defiantly thinking, “Take that you SOB”

 Christ did Christ took it, and then giant tears began streaming out of those holy broken eyes of that Christ causing the whipped cream to slide down his face.

 Through the tears of Christ, through your tears, through my tears and through the tears of those involved or aware of this catastrophic event- together – through our tears, we can reach out to Jesus and Jesus will help us stand. This is the meaning of having life abundantly.”

Even today, 15 years later, this image is powerful to me.

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Living Water

When I selected John 4 (The Woman at the Well)  for a first-person sermon to preach at Circle of Mercy last year, I realized it refers to water.  Whether it is a river, lake, ocean or a pool, it doesn’t matter to me.  I love everything about water.  Perhaps this is why I enjoy swimming so much.

I was able to preach this sermon at Grace Covenant Presbyterian on August 5 and it was so much fun! The picture at left is the one printed in that Sunday’s bulletin.  I edited the sermon some from when I preached it before but I so loved preaching it.  I know that a sermon is not a performance but it did remind me how much my spirit misses performing on my violin and viola. When I used to perform, a part of myself would soar.  I often felt as if my spirit touched God’s Spirit somehow and I could express all my feelings without the bother of using the right words.

Sometimes when I preach, I experience this feeling again.  That’s what happened on Aug. 5.  I so love this feeling!  It used to take me forever to write a sermon and I was in the process of looking for another call where I would be able to write more sermons when my accident happened.  I figured I would learn a system and it wouldn’t take me so long.  My accident certainly put a stop to that! 

One of my neuropsychologists pretty soon after my accident told me that with all my cognitive challenges, writing a sermon would be too difficult. While it is difficult I am still able to do it.  If I could only stop worrying about them so much!  I used to worry all the time about things but I had the cognitive energy to handle these emotions.  Now worrying affects my ability to focus and it wears me out.

I’ve tried to limit my responsibilities because I cannot handle as much now but I have found I get bored. My latest thought is to try to add some responsibilities but still find a balance in my life.  I understand this will be a challenge and perhaps it won’t work but I at least have to try.  When I lived in Atlanta, I erred on the side of trying to do too much.  

One thing I want to try is singing in the choir at Grace Covenant Presbyterian.  The choir director there is an excellent musician and it may be a way I can use the creative part of myself.  Of course this presents another challenge.  Since I don’t drive at night, how will I get to rehearsals?  I figured I would have to catch a 5:30 PM bus for a 7 PM rehearsal.  This seems like a bit of a stretch but perhaps I’ll try it and see how it goes.

At the risk of proof texting, it helps me to keep verses in my mind.  I’m sort of picky about language though and I figure since I’m only using them personally, I can use a combination of various translations.  The verse  I’m trying to focus on now is a  combination of the NRSV and the Inclusive Bible from Proverbs 3:6 &7: “Trust God with all your heart, and don’t rely on your own understanding.  Acknowledge God in everything you do, and God will direct your paths.”  

I definitely need God to direct my paths.  I do believe God has given me living water on this journey just as God gave it to the Samaritan woman. Allowing God to direct my path is not  easy but I have found my life is so much richer when I do this.

One wild and Precious Life.

At the Good Friday service at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church, one of the speakers read from “The Summer day” a poem by Mary Oliver  It really stuck with me and if you want to read it here’s the link: http://www.loc.gov/poetry/180/133.html .  I had heard it before but hearing it then was just the right time.  She wrote, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

I had one of those long, drawn out Presbytery meetings today.  They are always difficult for me and since our Presbytery is stretched out so far geographically, I’ve made the choice to attend only the ones I can drive to on my own.  This means I only attend perhaps two out of four each year.  This one was particularly difficult because there was an issue before the Presbytery with which I felt rather strongly . I decided this past weekend to write a short statement and speak today.

It almost felt as if God was giving me the words to say.  I didn’t want to speak there because it stresses me out terribly. Yet, I couldn’t ignore that pull inside of me.  So I wrote something.  The words came which was great.  I practiced it a little bit because I’m not one of those preachers who can preach without practicing.  I knew that my words weren’t really supposed to be a sermon but I thought I would say them anyway.

I chose to wear moon earrings that a friend of mine made for me because the image of the moon always gives me strength.  I don’t as a rule wear dangle earrings whenever I speak but I decided this time, I needed anything that would remind me to stay calm.

The day started out with me taking Sparky to Doggie Daycare.  It’s a new location so I had to use my GPS.  I then saw the highway was backed up going back so I decided to try going to the meeting a different way.  My GPS took me the long way but I got there to the meeting just fine.  When I arrived, I had to “rest my brain” by putting in my ear plugs and sitting in the car for a few minutes.  Driving even more than 40 minutes tires me out.

So when I felt ready to enter the building I did.  As usual, it was crowded and noisy.  I don’t do well in those environments but I managed to get through it.  I sat in the front so I could concentrate on the proceedings.  What I didn’t bargain for, was the moderator’s lack of moderating skills.  She kept confusing Roberts Rules of Orders and seemed unsure.  I know I wouldn’t want to try and moderate this group.  I was nervous enough just by speaking for 1 1/2 minutes! I felt for her because she’s was called to a very difficult job and I know this only too well.  However, folks stepped forward to help her and in the end, it worked out.  God truyly is a great God!

Never the less, I found myself getting angry inside at all the shenanigans.  The only thing I could think of to do was to step out for a few minutes, put in my ear plugs and “rest my brain”  So that is what I did.  I’ve stopped worrying what folks think of me when they see me sitting in a corner somewhere with my eyes closed and my ear plugs in.  I returned to the meeting when my emotions were better under control.

What did I find when I returned?  The same stuff!  Again, I lasted as long as I could but I decided I’d better just get out of there and come back after lunch.  So I went to my car, put the seat back and rested for a few minutes.  I pulled out my Android and my lunch and munched happily away.

I did, however, remember that Bills and Overtures had said anyone who wanted to speak about one of the overtures, could meet with them.  I decided this was a good thing for me to do.  Shoot, I had spent time writing my little speech and I wanted to say it!  I think God was with me because I was able to locate folks who knew where the committee was meeting so I went there.  I was early so again, I put in my ear plugs, closed my eyes and rested my brain in the quiet room.

After saying my little spiel and then hearing everyone’s comments at the meeting, I changed my view on the amendment. I had written my little spiel in favor of the overture so I adjusted it a little.  I then went back to the meeting in progress.  This time I sat in the back of the auditorium so I could freely roll my eyes.  I figured I would speak if I felt the spirit moving inside.  If not, I wouldn’t.

A funny thing happened.  I acted like a lot of ministers at Presbytery meetings. I think they talk just so they can hear themselves talk!  I wanted to say my little spiel even though I didn’t think it would change anyone’s mind.  So when the time came, I spoke.  It went fine like it always is when I speak.  I had gone through all my anxiety for what amounted to nothing.

After the meeting, I struggled with my feelings.  Did I really hear God moving in my spirit and telling me to speak or was I only hearing my own voice?  On the way out, I shared my concerns with a minister friend and she said something interesting.  She alluded to her Quaker siblings and how they are always talking about feeling God’s Spirit within them.  Perhaps God was moving in a way that I didn’t yet understand.

I’ve thought about her words often since the meeting.  Did I misunderstand God’s voice?  I’ve come to the conclusion now that I did not.  Michael and I are doing several presentations on brain injury to law enforcement professionals as well as some other folks.  We’ve done two and I was a nervous wreck for the first one.  It’s funny because Michael is doing the bulk of it and  I’m only adding my personal survivor stories. He should be the one filled with anxiety! The first one went well and we were asked to do another.  I stressed over this one a little less than the first.  So now we are going to do a third one on May 1. 

This experience today, helped me see that I still can speak.  Oh, I can’t remember the words as well and I worry that I’m going to mess up but so far, it’s been okay. The same with the brain injury presentations.

 So what am I going to do with my one, wild and precious life?  I’m not going to waste it by being filled with anxiety!  Tomorrow I was supposed to deliver vegetables from GCPC’s garden to a friend who has a low income and cannot afford to buy them.  Instead, I made the necessary calls and someone has agreed to do it for me. So I plan to drink good coffee, write in my journal and read the New York Times.  I might even work out in the yard! So I’m going to still be responsible but I’m going to enjoy this life God has given me.  After all, this is the only life I have and I don’t want to waste it.

Holy Week

Mark and Kristy lead a class on the Resurrection stories and art at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church (GCPC). In the first session, they laid out 15 paintings depicting the Resurrection in art.  We were asked to look through them selecting the ones that drew us in.  I saw glorious images of Jesus ascending into heaven but none of them really struck me until I saw one by Michael Ciry, pictured on the left.  Someone commented that this Jesus looked like he just came out of concentration camp.  I think I was the only one drawn to that painting.  I could relate to that Jesus because that Jesus knows exactly how I feel.

I’ve taken on too many things again this week.  They’re not stressful but my perfectionism makes them more difficult then they need to be.  I worry about them which uses up too many of the neurons in my brain. This in turn stresses me out and I’m miserable.  I try and spread commitments out but it didn’t work this time.

It doesn’t have to be this way which is one reason I agreed to do everything.  I want to practice dealing with the stress.  When I led worship all the time, I was a perfectionist.  Every word had to be just the right one and I was careful not to forget a word or trip as I walked to the pulpit.  I didn’t have the challenges of too much stimulation which is now part of everything I do.  Worrying only adds to the stimulation.

As a TBI survivor, I cannot be a perfectionist and I can’t worry about what people think.  For instance tomorrow I’m going to lead communion at Circle of Mercy (COM).  When I lead, it is simple and certainly not nearly as “preachy” as others who lead.  But this is how I do it.  Some people might like it, others won’t but that’s okay.

I’ve said the words of institution hundreds of times but due to my brain injury, my memory can’t be trusted and sometimes I forget simple things.  I worry this will happen but you know what?  The sacrament doesn’t depend on me so if I mess it up, it doesn’t matter!  I need to say this to myself a million times.  (Since the Alliance of Baptists , one of COM’s two denominations, does not view communion as a sacrament, I’ve had to think more carefully about what communion means to me.)

On Good Friday at GCPC, nine different leaders are leading 20 minutes on the Last Words of Christ.  Again, my perfectionism is getting in the way.  I’m a good speaker but I worry about forgetting the words. I also compare myself to others.  I printed the words out in very large print double spaced to help me with this.  In all the times I’ve spoken since my TBI, I haven’t lost my place or fumbled on my words. My eye contact isn’t great now because I have to look at my words more but this is the way I now am.   I think my words will help folks reflect on the day plus they are fun to preach.  I’m trying to remember that some people may relate and others may not.  

So this Holy Week, I’m going to try not to be such a protectionist!  I’ll see how this works.

The Woman at the Well

I preached my first person sermon on the woman at the well yesterday at Circle of Mercy. It went well. I had written it a couple of weeks ago but I wasn’t happy with it. I practiced it Saturday morning and it hit me what was wrong. I made some changes and it improved greatly. I was still nervous about it but it went pretty well. It was a bit theatrical but it was fun to preach. I hope I wasn’t so into the experience of being the character that I lost track of why I was doing it! I do believe God spoke through me though.

Having a smaller plate now is a real challenge. In a perfect world, this sermon is all I would have on my mind. Unfortunately other things have come up. I’m working on a team with several other folks who are supporting a man who was homeless but now has housing. Others on the team can drive him places which is great since my sense of direction is so challenged. At our last meeting, no one was able to take him to the various food pantries to pick up his food boxes tomorrow so I’m going to do it. I need to remember that he knows where we need to go and all I have to do is drive him to the various places.

On top of that, I’m leading a foot washing for the homeless women who stay at Grace Covenant four times a year for a week. This is going to be a wonderful event and I look forward to it. The problem is these three things have stressed me out. I wish they happened in different weeks but I want to do all three. I hope I haven’t taken on too much!

I will use everything I know about handling my stress. I have not been spending time in contemplative prayer which always helps me. Plus I need to stick to my time schedule and not get too perfectionist about things. I wanted to write more about my challenges around preaching my sermon but I’ll have to do this later. For now, I”ll work on the foot washing service, pray and swim this afternoon. This should help me relax.

Sermon

I’m going to preach at Circle of Mercy congregation on May 1. As I wrote earlier, I like to preach but I never was able to get into a groove so writing a sermon is always difficult for me. A neuropsycologist once told me that I’d never be able to write them because of all my challenges but I’ve written and preached several since my accident.

I’ve learned that is easier to write one when I have an idea already. Preaching from the lectionary is tough since I have difficulty putting structure on something which is one of my TBI challenges. I do better if I already have thoughts about a particular passage. Sermons are difficult for me to write and and I get stressed out over them but I think I have some skill in preaching. I’ve decided with enough lead time, I’m able to preach one.

Last year, we studied Encounters with Jesus: Studies in the Gospel of John by Frances Taylor Gench in a Sunday School class at Grace Covenant. I got excited about her interpretation of John 4:1-41, the woman at the well, and thought it would be a great passage to use for a first person sermon. I did some research on Samaria but I never wrote the sermon and I can’t remember where I put those notes! Ah well. I’ll be okay without them.

I’ve learned to set aside specific time to work on a project and then put it in a folder to contain it. I used to spend hours and hours right before I had to preach but I can’t do this now. So this morning I spent an hour reading the chapter in the book and coming up with some ideas. On Wednesday, I’m going to begin writing it and then I’ll put it away for a few days. This should help me not worry about it so much.

It will probably take me several short spurts of time to write it but my goal is to have something written in two weeks. It’s too stressful for me to write a sermon right before I must preach it so once it is written, I’ll practice it a few times and then put it away.

I’m using everything I know about my stress to manage it. I’ll probably write this several times in this blog but it is an important concept for me to remember. “When you feel anxious, the brain releases chemicals that cause you to have difficulty thinking as clearly. This can make things especially difficult for someone with a brain injury.”

However, I do have a plan. I already have a first person sermon on Hagar that I can preach if this one doesn’t work out. This takes some of the pressure off me.

Do you have difficulty with stress or containing your thoughts as I do? It helps me to write them down and then put them away. I also plan to swim some laps this afternoon which will take my mind off my thoughts and it will help relieve stress. See above right for commenting instructions or contact me directly at tamara@indylink.org