Wednesday, September 26, 2012

To the Penny...

Circle round, friends. I have a sweet story to tell.
And that open chest, filled with dress-up clothes 
is what inspires its telling this night.
It's a bit circuitous, but truly rich with 
wonder and grace
and it happened at -
well, what can I say?
It happened at exactly the right time. 

I had been at my job as Associate Pastor for about eight months, 
when I overheard an off-hand remark
made by our Senior Pastor,
 a man I greatly admired and
was delighted to be working with in my first-ever
paid ministry position.
And this is what he said:
"Well, all the stats tell you that you'll know a new
hire is a good hire if you can see that
they have 'raised' their own salary
and it shows up in the general budget funds
by the end of their first year."


Earn my own salary? 
Have it show up in the budget?
By doing what, exactly?
I was scrambling to learn who people were,
how they worked together - or didn't work together.
I was preaching a few times,
teaching a few times,
making lots of house and hospital calls,
planning small groups,
meeting with individuals and couples for counseling.
How was any of that
going to raise money for the budget? 

And then . . .

One afternoon, a favorite client of my husband's,
a truly beautiful, older woman who was
self-confident, gregarious and very out-spoken 
called him up and said:
"What's this I hear about you making a move to Santa Barbara? 
You know I've just moved up here, too, don't you?
Tell me all about this please!! 
Why are you here?"

So he told her.
"Well, you see, it's like this...
my wife is a pastor."
"She is what? A pastor, did you say?
Does she preach?"
"Sometimes," Dick said.
"She's an associate and she's part-time, so
it's just a few times a year."
"Well!" She bellowed. "I want to know the next time
she's up in the pulpit, because I'm coming myself
to check her out."

And come, she did.
All 5 feet 10 inches of Pasadena socialite that she was,
garbed in a bright chartreuse wool cape,
straight from the runways of Milan.
She had been active in an Episcopal parish
in Pasadena but hadn't yet found a church home 
in this new community.
When she came to hear me preach, 
she walked into the back door of the gymnasium 
we were using as a worship center, 
looked at the beautiful wooden cross 
we had mounted on the long wall 
(between the basketball hoops), 
genuflected, crossed herself, and sat down in the back row. 
Like any good Episcoplian would.
And she did that every single time she came.

That first time, she came up afterwards,
effusive in her praise, just delighted
that her financial advisor's wife
was a preacher.
She introduced us to a few other people in her social circle,
and went out of her way to be kind and inclusive. 

"Whenever you're up there," she said, 
"I'm gonna be down here." 

And she was.

She called the church office, and got the schedule.
And just about every time I preached for the next 10 years,
she was there, sitting in the back row. 

But here's the strange and wonderful part.
Are you ready?
That first Christmas, 
on the first anniversary of my very first day of work,
she called her investor guy - that would be my husband - 
and said something like this, entirely of her own volition:
"You know, I would really like my annual gift this year to
go to that Covenant Church where your wife works.
That's a great group of people over there
and I'd like to support what they're doing."

Can you guess what happened?
Her gift, 
to the penny
was the exact amount of  my salary -
for the entire year.
And for every year that she lived after that.
Can you imagine how encouraging this was
to a very wet-behind-the-ears,
brand-spankin' new pastor? 
To this day, I give thanks to God for this
gift of love and grace in my life.
First of all,
for this delightful, loving and faithful woman.
And then for her serendipitous generosity.
Her gift came at exactly the right time,
and was exactly the right amount.

And I had forgotten this lovely truth until one night
last month when we entertained several small girls.
They opened the dress-up chest,
and floating out of it came some of this 
loving friend's beautiful clothes. 

When she died, I had also become acquainted
with one of her sons - had married him and his wife,
in fact. And one day, as we were driving back to 
Santa Barbara from a time away, my phone rang.
He said, "Mom's in the hospital, and it doesn't look good
at all. But don't come - because I know she would not
want you to see her looking like this."
Gently, I assured him that I would be there,
and we headed straight to the hospital before going home.
That time of prayer and anointing and farewell
was one of the most beautiful experiences of my pastoral life.
And the two sons who were with her were
more grateful than they knew to have
the prayers of the church prayed over their mom as she died.

After her service,
the son and his new wife brought over a truckload 
of her clothing and costume jewelry,
donating it to a rummage sale we were having
to raise funds for student ministries.
I bought some of her beautiful and brightly-colored clothes,
including that chartreuse cape,
and put them lovingly in the dress-up box for my grand-girls -
who were yet to be born at the time!

Because, somehow, 
I just knew they would love them. 
And every time, they wrap themselves in
one of her diaphanous gowns,
I smile.
Both of our girls are going to be quite tall, you see.
Both of them are blessed with dramatic,
confident personalities.
And one day soon,
I'll tell them about my friend,
the one who blew through my life
like a gift on the Wind of God
and graced me with her love.

OF COURSE, I'm joining this one with Jennifer Lee's God-Incidences meme,
and also with Ann, Duane and Emily - whose amazing book releases TODAY.
If you love someone with an eating disorder, this book is one you should have on your shelf - it is terrific. "Chasing Silhouettes," by Emily Wierenga