Reflections of a Crabby Cynic

It’s been ages since I’ve made anything new from the Contessa, which is kind of sad, because I feel like I’ve been doing nothing but cooking and cleaning up after the cooking for the entire month of November. We’ve just gone with the tried-and-true this year instead of branching out, which is what you do when you pile on a parish retreat (complete with preparation for a variety show act, because have we met?), grandparents’  day at school, visiting relatives, a last-minute getaway with your favorite person, and a house full of guests.

In case that wasn’t quite enough, I agreed to share my faith story at Palmer on the Sunday before Thanksgiving. Here’s what I said.

Carrie Willard
Sharing our Faith
November 22, 2015
Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church

I love to read, and I’m going to share a piece from one of my favorite books, Gail Godwin’s Evensong. I try to read it, or at least part of it, every Advent, and because we’re about to observe Advent, I thought I’d read a bit of it today. Leading up to this part in the book, the main character in the novel, a priest, is about to preach on the genealogy of Jesus as written in the gospel according to Matthew. She writes:

[The names in the genealogy] contain the essential theology of the Old and New Testaments for the whole Church, Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant alike …that of salvation by grace.

The ‘story of the origin of Jesus Christ’ begins with Abraham begetting Isaac; no mention of that deserving elder son, poor unfairly banished Ishmael. Then Isaac begets Jacob; not a word about older brother Esau whose birthright Jacob stole. Jacob begets Judah ‘and his brothers’; why is Judah chosen and not the good and extraordinary Joseph?

What’s going on here? According to Matthew, who is being faithful to Old Testament theology, God does not necessarily select the noblest or most deserving person to carry out Divine purposes.

And this is, of course, where the message settles directly upon us. If so much powerful stuff can have been accomplished down through the millennia via the agency of wastrels, betrayers, and outcasts, and through people who were such complex mixtures of sinner and and saint, and through so many obscure and undistinguished others, isn’t that a pretty hopeful testament to the likelihood that God is using us, with our individual flaws and gifts, in all manner of peculiar and unexpected ways?

Jesus called Peter and Paul … Paul called Timothy … someone called you … and you must call someone else. Amen.

I love those words from Gail Godwin, and she and other authors have really formed my life as a Christian.

And so …

My name is Carrie, and I’m a Christian.

Most of you know me as the Rector’s wife, but my Christian story starts long before that. My parents, Dale and Linda, are here this morning, and they’ve known me long before I was anybody’s anything.

Many of you know me best through my “online presence” on my blog, or on Facebook. Social media gets a bad reputation when people “whitewash” their lives and only show their best sides, carefully curating what they want others to see. Other people complain that their Facebook friends do nothing but … complain.

As much as I love complaining … it makes me feel alive … I actually really love social media. Most of you know, for example, that I’m intensely proud of my kids … but also that I don’t iron and that I often have a sink full of dirty dishes (because I post photos of them on Facebook).

But in thinking about this talk this morning, and other times I’ve shared stories about my faith, I realized that I’ve tended toward a tidy, “whitewashed” version of my story. Birth, baptism, confirmation, marriage, and babies … check, check, check, check, and check. Dad, brother, brother-in-law, adopted grandfather, and husband – all priests. Check.

While all of that is true, it’s not the whole story. If “God is in the details,” then God is in the mess and the cracks and questions.

I was born a crabby cynic. I was the tiny blonde version of an Old Testament prophet, muttering under his breath and smoking cigarettes in the corner.

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That’s one way of saying that I was born questioning … everything. My parents and older sisters tried to give me answers, but by the time I was in Kindergarten, they had to pull in the big guns. I asked a parade of priests and bishops my most earnest, solemn questions. Most of them had to leave the room at some point to laugh, but they all tried. That practice set me up for a lifetime of seeking out people who don’t pretend to have all of the answers, and also aren’t afraid to sit with me and chew on the difficult questions. Those doubts and questions actually strengthened my faith, and I think they might have strengthened the faith of the people I was questioning, too. Don’t ever accuse me of having “blind faith.” I go in with my eyes wide open.

One thing that I really appreciate about that time in my childhood is my parents’ trust in other people’s help in my formation. As a parent, I know how hard that can be. They continued to trust other people as they sent me off to church camp and the wider world of the Episcopal Church.

They never said so, but I’m sure they didn’t agree with 100% of everything that every priest, camp counselor, guest speaker and teacher told me. And that’s what makes their trust remarkable. I grew through those experiences even if I didn’t buy 100% of whatever they were selling.

When I had just turned seventeen, they sent me off to the “wretched hive of scum and villainy” (to quote Star Wars) of the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

Side note: Madison is known as a pocket of liberal thought in an otherwise conservative state, so there were lots of jokes about sending me off with the Birkenstock Bolsheviks. I LOVED IT.

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Snow-covered Abraham Lincoln statue in front of Bascom Hall during winter. © UW-Madison News & Public Affairs 608/262-0067 Photo by: Jeff Miller Date: 2/00 File#: color slide

Confident that I’d find a tribe of cynical but faithful questioners there, I marched into the Episcopal Campus Center … and then I marched back out. Not my tribe. Eventually, I found the ELCA Lutheran Campus Center. Yes! My tribe!

My faith was strengthened there by the affirmation that there are no easy answers. That it’s OK to be really agitated by injustice in the world. That God was there with us, not only in worship, but also in studying and building community. On a large campus, the Lutheran Campus Center was my home.

After college, I went to law school at William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. Talk about a wretched hive of scum and villainy! Crabby cynics everywhere! At many times during law school, I was convinced that I had made a terrible mistake. If God had a plan for me, what if He tried to give me a road map, and I didn’t follow it? What if? What if? What if?

My parents took a lot of phone calls during that time, listening to my 21st century lamentations. They mostly listened, but my mom gave me a little nugget of wisdom that I’m convinced should be in the Beatitudes or Proverbs, and maybe the scribes forgot to write it down:

“God makes good on our mistakes.”

Whoa.

I found myself at Bruton Parish, the colonial church in the heart of Colonial Williamsburg. The rector there, Holly Hollerith, moved to Williamsburg around the same time I did, and he kept track of me throughout my time there. He knew I was a priest’s kid, and he also knew I wouldn’t come storming into his office complaining about the font on the pledge cards or the state of the fair linen. (I still don’t know what a fair linen is.) In Holly, I found another person who would sit with me through my doubts and questions, and he found me to be both a “breath of fresh air” and a “live wire.”

He also found me a husband. Holly preached at our wedding when I married Neil the year after I finished law school.

Happily ever after! Yay!

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And…

Neil is the ultimate sit-with-me-through-brooding-questioning person. And it’s a good thing, because life goes on in the happily ever after.

In the year before our wedding, Neil and I faced: his broken arm, my bar exam, family members’ cancer and Alzheimer’s Disease diagnoses, and a Category 5 hurricane. You know what they say … the first hundred years are the hardest.

We had love, we had marriage … but no baby in a baby carriage. The “what ifs” started up again. Crabby cynics have a hard time introducing more humans into a broken world, and there were no easy platitudes to convince me that having a baby would be a good idea. Recognizing how fortunate I was for the luxury of taking my time with this decision, and the luxury of making a decision at all … I dug in deep.

For this dilemma, I needed a highly qualified specialist: enter John Kerr, a priest, theologian, and chemist, and a member of the Society of Ordained Scientists. I don’t mess around.

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John understood me and my concerns, and he had white hair and a British accent. Perfect.

John was the person that God knew I needed to walk through that swampy mess. And I knew I wanted – or even needed – to be a mother.

But it wasn’t all easy after that, either. After two miscarriages in three months, I was crushed. We were sad.

And then … Rowan arrived. He was everything we dreamed he would be … and more.

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Six weeks after Rowan was born, when we were still figuring out diapers and strollers, Neil’s daddy died in North Carolina, after living with Alzheimer’s Disease for several years. If anything taught me about the fragility of life, it was nursing a tiny infant in a funeral home. It was awful … but Rowan was wonderful.

We relied so much on other people in those weeks. The airport security officer who folded up the stroller and whipped the car seat through security and told me to hold my beautiful baby. My parents, who took care of our dogs and gave me a no-nonsense pep talk about getting on an airplane with a tiny baby and a blinded-by-grief husband. Neil’s staff, who carried on with Holy Week in our absence, and prepared the most meaningful Easter Vigil service for when we returned home. We needed our people more than ever, and they all stepped up.

Not quite three years later, we were reminded again about the fragility of life. Rowan was almost three years old, and I was pregnant with Ben. We traveled to South Carolina to be with my family after Christmas, and Rowan got sick. It started out as a normal kid virus, and spiraled out of control very quickly. He went from playing, running, and laughing with his cousins … to dehydrated, unresponsive, and a blood sugar level of 11 in fewer than 24 hours. It was the single most terrifying experience of my life. There were nurses, and needles, and later an ambulance, a respiratory therapist, several nights in the PICU, and caring doctors and medical students.

The chief of the PICU came in to Rowan’s hospital room, and asked if we had any questions. I asked him if Rowan would be OK, and he said that he couldn’t say whether he would recover or not.

I did not leave Rowan’s bed. We must have made quite a pair – pregnant me, sick Rowan, and dozens of tubes and wires. I sang to him and watched him breathe. At one point, he opened his eyes, looked at my mom (his beloved Mema) and said, “Mommy’s singing the ‘This Little Light of Mine’ song.”  We didn’t have words big enough for our fear, and so I sang.

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When Rowan began to recover, he was moved from the PICU to a “regular room” in the children’s hospital, and he began to regain some of his two-year-old strength and spunk. As happy as we were to see him perking up, this was hard to see. He struggled against the IV port, and he couldn’t settle. I asked Neil to pray. We were both out of words. We had so much gratitude that he was alive and regaining strength, but we were so exhausted, and still shell-shocked and worried about what would come next. I don’t remember the words Neil prayed, or if he even said them aloud. And that’s where those of us who are crabby cynics need the Faith of the Whole – the Body of Christ – our church community – to move us along when we just can’t any more.

Reflecting back on that time, I didn’t necessarily doubt God’s presence there with us, but I wasn’t exactly floating along in a sea of hope and optimism, either. There just wasn’t a lot of space in my head for a lot of reflection – just survival.

But if anything has helped me sort through a life of faith and doubt in the midst of that much struggle in the months and years that followed, it has been Rowan Williams’ book, Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer.  I generally prefer theology in literature, or in 500-words-or-fewer pieces in The Christian Century magazine and the mockingbird blog. But I found myself reading Rowan Williams’ words and thinking about our Rowan and our life of faith.

And that brings me back to Evensong by Gail Godwin, and her reflections on calling and imperfection. We will never know how many people helped us and prayed for us and with us during those scary days, but we are grateful for them. And that is true in so many circumstances – the cloud of witnesses surrounds us, even when we don’t know that they are there.

A few months later, Ben was born. Nine pounds, nine ounces, with the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck twice. He has been making our hearts race ever since then.

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And then we moved to Texas in June of last year and we all lived happily ever after … right?

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Well …

If you read my blog, you know that there is a lot more to it than that. Our messy dark places have continued, of course. We’ve buried pets together, had trauma surrounding house closings and moving, doubts, fears, depression, anxiety, mildew, cockroaches, nagging coughs, flat tires, listeria, hysteria … Amen.

With each passing year, though, I continue to count up the saints among us who sit with me through doubts and anxiety and chewy questions.

I’ve skipped over a lot of the “bio highlights” this morning – like the terribly hilarious (or hilariously terrible?) children’s Bible my parents accidentally bought me. And the bad boyfriends, and the wayward sister, and how I met Neil and I worked for the bishop in Minnesota, and how I somehow ended up on some boards and committees here in Texas … but all of that is kind of boring next to the deep dark crevices of doubt and questioning.

Neither have I talked about cooking, food, lawyering, writing or being the “Rector’s wife.” I have a whole blog full of that.

A lot of my faith continues to be formed through literature. If you’re interested in the same kinds of things that I am to strengthen my chewing muscles, I have enjoyed:

Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott
Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott
Stitches by Anne Lamott
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver
Evensong by Gail Godwin
Father Melancholy’s Daughter by Gail Godwin
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
Letters to Children by C.S. Lewis
The Jesus Storybook Bible by Sally Lloyd-Jones
Thoughts to Make Your Heart Sing by Sally Lloyd-Jones
The Blessing of a Skinned Knee by Wendy Mogel
Home by Marilynne Robinson
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
Lila by Marilynne Robinson
Girl Meets God by Lauren Winner
The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks
The Red Tent by Anita Diamant
The Social Animal by David Brooks
The Quantity of a Hazelnut by Fae Malania
Learning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor

I’ll close with a few words from Lila by Marilynne Robinson:

‘Sleep well,’ he said gently, like benediction, as if he meant grace and peace. So now she was going to marry this old preacher. She couldn’t see any way around it that would not shock all the sweetness right out of him.

After my talk, people asked some questions, and while I answered as best as I could at the time, I thought of better answers later (naturally).

So, here’s what I should have said about some of those questions.

Someone asked me about expectations of being a clergy kid and a clergy spouse. I don’t remember exactly what the question was, but I think the gist of it was, do you find yourself acting differently because of those expectations? The answer: yes. What I could have added: this is a very lonely role. Be kind to clergy families. Chances are, they’re doing the best they can, just like you are, but under a bright spotlight with different expectations from every single seat in the pew.

Someone asked me about my favorite food to cook, specifically comfort food. For some reason, I get really embarrassed talking out loud about what we eat at home, even though I write about it all the time. I said that we had just made Smitten Kitchen’s chard and bean stew, but I should have said that my favorite comfort food is my great-grandmother’s chicken and dumpling soup, which my mom made a lot when we were growing up. I’ll post the recipe here for it someday soon.

Someone else asked me to give some advice to the middle school Sunday School class, who were in attendance and are mostly young teenage girls. I told them to be themselves, and to surround themselves with people who allow them to be themselves and who love them for who they are. What I should have added: be kind. Love others just the way they are. Be kind especially when it is hard, and especially to people who do not seem to receive a lot of kindness.

Another question was about why I chose law school over seminary. I think I said something tongue-in-cheek about seminaries not wanting anything to do with me. Now, we all know that’s not true – spend any time with a group of ordained clergy, and you’ll soon figure out that seminaries are not all that picky. I picked law school because I wanted to be a problem-solver and people-helper, and that seemed like a good way to do it. But what I should have also said was that I think we need good theological thinkers in the pews and in the Sunday School classrooms and in the law firms. Just because someone has an interest in God in the world does not mean that that person shouldn’t be valued outside of the church building for her insights. Just like we need good singers out of the choir loft and in the pews, we need questioners and thinkers everywhere. I did say in response to that question that I have not felt called to be “a priest’s wife,” but I’ve felt called to be Neil’s wife, and Neil has felt called to be a priest, and so I hope we both rise to the occasion as best we can.

Someone else asked me about why and how I learned to cook. I said (also tongue-in-cheek) that I am terrible at crafts (true story), and people tend not to care so much if their food is cut with straight lines or looks pretty. That’s part of it, but I really just love feeding people. It’s a nice way to care for people, and since we all have to eat three times a day anyway, it’s a practical hobby. I added later that the best way to learn how to cook is to feed a hungry teenager. My brother, sixteen months my junior, was my best critic and supporter. It turns out that he ate anything and everything that I cooked because he was always starving, but he wasn’t afraid to be honest if something was a little overcooked or needed more salt.

Someone asked me about my #sitbyme hashtag that I’ve used a lot on social media. That all started with a horrible article in the Houston Chronicle, and the rest of the story is too long to post here, but will be coming in a future post via the Episcopal Café.

I think that was it. There were other questions, but those were the ones that were nagging at me later, about what I could have said. And then we all went home and enjoyed a wonderful Thanksgiving week – I hope you did, too!

 

 

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Reflections of a Crabby Cynic

  1. michelle cash

    Beautifully written, Carrie. I am so glad you are going to the writing workshop, as you have a gift.

  2. Robot Instructor

    3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4 God saw that the light was good… Thanks for sharing your “bio highLIGHTs” inspiring all of us to reflect on our families, nuclear and extended.

    Thanks again for the tasty dinner last month!

    -Robot Instructor

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