Two Years of Storms, Part 2

When last I posted, Lynette’s surgeon had just confirmed to me that she had Inflammatory Breast Cancer.  In one of those statements I wish medical professionals would avoid, he said, “This sure did ruin my day.”  I hope I don’t have to explain why that’s not really the thing to say to a patient’s husband.

I found my way back to Lynette’s room, where an explosion of “ugly crying,” interspersed with wailing ensued.  I’m going to guess that I was far from the first husband of a patient on that floor to receive such devastating news, because the nurses gave me the space to wail, lament, and even scream.  As a hospital chaplain, I had often been on the other side of such displays.  I knew that trying to interrupt or stop them was 1. Futile and 2. Not healthy for the person grieving.  It’s an odd feeling to both be feeling the intense grief and to be observing oneself experiencing it.  Lynette’s friend Elizabeth came to her room while I was deep into the throes of my grieving.  I was able to get out the words “Inflammatory Breast Cancer,” so she would know what had brought on the display.  I asked her as well to give me space.

There was about an hour or so before Lynette would be back in the room from recovery.  It was a Saturday afternoon, and I was still a United Methodist pastor.  I needed to contact the lay leadership of my church and my District Superintendent to let them know I would not be able to preach the following day.  I also needed to get hold of Lynette’s sisters to let them know what was going on.  I also had to think about what I was going to tell my children.

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Two Years of Storms

One thing that strikes me about the story of Jesus calming the storm in Mark 4: 35-41 is the degree of panic expressed by the Disciples. It’s already been established that at least Peter, Andrew, James, and John are experienced fishermen on the Sea of Galilee. As such they have known the Sea of Galilee to have sudden storms. They know how to keep themselves and their crafts safe in such instances, in dark or daylight. Something about THIS storm, however, so frightens the Disciples that they wake up Jesus and scream at him “Don’t you care that we’re going to die?”

Over the last two years, storms I was used to gave way to a storm that had me crying out to Jesus about the danger of it all.

In the summer of 2016, Lynette and I were in our 34th year of marriage and our 30th year as a Clergy Couple in the Mississippi Conference of the United Methodist Church. By a wide margin, we were the clergy couple with the longest lived marriage and longest tenure for both of us to serve churches in the Conference. We had some challenges we were used to. I was serving a church of mostly older people in the oldest part of Gulfport. We had just completed a Vacation Bible School for the children of our neighborhood. We were seeking to discern how we could stay engaged with our community.

Lynette was working as an associate pastor at a large church in Ocean Springs. Some decisions made after Hurricane Katrina had left that church as “One Church on Two Campuses,” but also with many tensions that took up much staff time and emotional energy. We had a daughter about to begin her junior year in college. We also had a son with Autism Spectrum Disorder. He was 22, but we had dealt with this diagnosis since he was four. He had just lost his job, due to his tendency to think he knew better than management how things should be done. His future and his being “launched” into adulthood was not clear, but we were hanging in with him. In the midst of this, our 2011 Nissan Altima had had its transmission give out. If you’ve ever had to replace a transmission, you know that you might well think “Maybe we should just buy another car.” Again, there were life challenges, vocational, parental, and financial, but Lynette and I had coped with similar challenges for 34 years.

On Friday, August 19, I had just followed the two truck taking our Altima to a repair shop. They were oging to look at it and let us know what the damage would be. I came home and Lynette said to me “I think I need to go to the doctor.” Evidently, for several days she had suspected she had an abscess on her left breast. She had self-diagnosed by way of the internet, not necessarily the best idea. We went to the Walk-in clinic near our home. The nurse practitioner there looked at her breast and said “You need to go to the Emergency Room.” So, we drove to the Gulfport Memorial Emergency Room. It didn’t take long for us to be seen by an ER doctor. The ER doctor and I got to see this abscess then. It DID look pretty bad. The ER doc said “I’m going to need a surgeon to look at this.” She was admitted, since the surgeon could not see her until the next morning, The next morning the surgeon came to see her. He asked if she was having pain. No, she wasn’t having pain. He said “If this were an abscess, you would be having significant pain. I’m going to have to go in to be sure, but I think this is inflammatory breast cancer.” A sudden storm broke over us. These are words you never want to hear.

I waited in the surgical waiting room. I contacted Lynette’s sisters. I kept our daughter Sarah informed. The surgeon came to find me in the waiting room. “I was really hoping to be wrong. This IS inflammatory breast cancer.” The storm broke Full Force.

To be continued:

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She is Fierce

jaltman81

I have Many Fewer Followers than John Piper, but here is my response to his piece on women as theology professors and as pastors.

Though She Be But Little, She is Fierce

This quote from the Bard is on a sweatshirt I ordered for Christmas for Lynette.  No truer words were ever spoken about a person.  She was a fiercely loving person who was so remembered by people who knew her throughout her life.

I’ve noted that she was a member of the “Miriam Generation” of United Methodist clergywomen in Mississippi.  Becky Youngblood came to St. John’s UMC in Greenwood the summer following Lynette’s freshman year at Millsaps.  Becky was the first “girl preacher” Lynette (and many others) had ever seen.  Another trailblazing clergywoman, Mary John Dye, took Lynette with her to Arkansas in 1982 to meet and talk with Marjorie Matthews, the first woman to be a Bishop in…

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She is Fierce

I have Many Fewer Followers than John Piper, but here is my response to his piece on women as theology professors and as pastors.

Though She Be But Little, She is Fierce

This quote from the Bard is on a sweatshirt I ordered for Christmas for Lynette.  No truer words were ever spoken about a person.  She was a fiercely loving person who was so remembered by people who knew her throughout her life.

I’ve noted that she was a member of the “Miriam Generation” of United Methodist clergywomen in Mississippi.  Becky Youngblood came to St. John’s UMC in Greenwood the summer following Lynette’s freshman year at Millsaps.  Becky was the first “girl preacher” Lynette (and many others) had ever seen.  Another trailblazing clergywoman, Mary John Dye, took Lynette with her to Arkansas in 1982 to meet and talk with Marjorie Matthews, the first woman to be a Bishop in the United Methodist Church.  Lynette knew well the barriers and resistance any woman seeking to be a pastor in the Deep South would face.  She really tried not to do it.  She and Susan Woodard thought it quite humorous that they were co-winners of the Pendergrass Medal at Millsaps Commencement, 1982.  The medal was for “promise in the pastoral ministry of the United Methodist Church.” Both thought “Not Me.”

Even as she began her Master of Divinity studies at Garrett-Evangelical Seminary, Lynette was SURE she’d be doing “something else” with her degree, certainly NOT pastoring.  She slowed the process down for a year, working full time with a social service agency in Evanston.  She slow-walked the candidacy process too.  After all, why would one INTENTIONALLY pursue something when you KNOW people will be mean to you?

As we graduated, Lynette chose not to pursue an appointment or any other sort of work for the first year I would be serving as pastor. She was ready to be perfectly fine looking for work in social service, counseling, even youth ministry-UNTIL the first Sunday I was to celebrate communion.  It was sort of an “I’m called, Damn It!” moment that she couldn’t deny.

Once Lynette DID start going forward with the candidacy process and with pursuing an appointment, the resistance started as well.  We were told “It’s going to be so hard for us to find you an appointment.”  “It’s going to be so hard for you.”  “Can you be truly itinerant if you are in a clergy couple?” Then she was appointed to East End and Wesley in Meridian and guess what? It WAS hard. There WAS resistance.  There was resistance from lay people. There was sabotage from fellow clergy (most of them now deceased). That part strains my sense of forgiveness, if it strained hers less than mine.  My 4’11.5” sweetie was a threat to people’s ways of understanding the world and the Church by her very presence.  Her response was to stand firm in her size 7 shoes and say, “I’m here.”  The two songs from the Broadway canon that I think of are “I’m Here” from The Color Purple and “I’m Still Here” from Follies.  I had decided she needed to perform “I’m Still Here” for her retirement address. Not sure how the Bishop would have received it, but it was true.  Sarah played both for her at the hospital last Saturday night.

By the way, we served appointments in some portion of ten of the eleven Districts in the Mississippi Conference, so I’d say we were “truly itinerant.”

Over the last few weeks while she was in the hospital, I was struck by how many people, from all the appointments she’s had, testified to her loving and positive spirit.  I know she was hurt in many of those places, but she returned good for evil and love for hate almost all the time.  She was fierce.

She was also a fiercely loving mother.  Around the time our son Luke was four years old, we became aware that something was not quite right with him.  It turned out that he has an autistic spectrum disorder.  Lynette became his fiercest advocate.  Ask school administrators in Clinton, Petal, and Rankin County if they wanted to mess with Luke Altman’s Mama.  I’ve said often that “A Boy’s Best Friend is his Mother.”  She certainly was his.  Our daughter Sarah has soared throughout her life.  We often found ourselves just reminding ourselves to stay out of her way.  Nevertheless, the sturdy foundation of Lynette’s love for Sarah has let her soar.  We so very much wanted to be together for Sarah’s graduation from Millsaps this May.  Lynette will be cheering her on still.

Finally, no one could have been a more fiercely loving wife and companion to me.  To borrow from a more contemporary dramatist, She was “my person.” I treasure so much about our life together. In the early years, a trip to Ann Sather’s for cinnamon rolls and Swedish pancakes, followed by an afternoon game (they were ALL afternoon games then) at Wrigley Field could be a treat. On a few rare occasions, we scraped together money to see touring Broadway shows in Chicago.  We always enjoyed going to movies together.  We had season tickets to New Stage Theater for several years and enjoyed those nights out. We had the chance to travel together to England in 1989 and to Israel/Palestine in 1992.  WHERE we were and WHAT we were doing was always less important than that we were doing it together.  She was my best friend.

Lynette exceeded me in emotional intelligence and was able to gently tell me where I might be going wrong in my relationships with people in and out of the church.  I’ll have to be my own best friend in those ways going forward.

Inflammatory breast cancer proved a dragon that could be slowed down, but not slain.  I so treasure the trips to chemotherapy, radiation, Dr.’s appointments and labs.  There was literally no experience that could not be made meaningful by going through it with Lynette.  One day, near the end of her time in radiation, we made connection with a woman in her early 80s who was about to begin radiation and was quite anxious about it.  Lynette talked with her, cared for her and reassured her as only she could.  She didn’t have to “fake” loving everyone she met.  She really did.  We made three trips to Houston seeking a final treatment.  The hours we spent together in the car just talking with one another are precious.  We enjoyed getting to know a little bit of Houston and even discovering a new Mexican restaurant, a pizzeria, and a Mediterranean buffet.

During our last weekend together, when it was clear that we were truly at the end of human medicine, I was a mess.  “Ugly crying” was something I was doing, whether I wanted to or not.  Lynette would lie there, just looking at me.  I knew what an effort it was for her to get her breath and to talk.  Certainly, the effort to “ugly cry” with me was too much for her.  She was, I think, saying “We’ve gone as far as we can together.  I’m all right. You’ll be all right. I love you.”  All I can say is “Ditto.”

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A Good Last Day

Warning: Major Plot Spoiler to follow: Don’t read if you with to be surprised the by movie.

I saw Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri yesterday.  I have to say that, overall, it’s the most wildly overpraised movie I’ve seen since Finding Llewyn Davis. The performances, by Frances McDormand and others, are solid.  I expect McDormand to pick up another Oscar nomination and perhaps another win and I won’t complain.

My problem is that the storytelling, on many levels, is “off.”  McDormand plays a woman whose combination of grief, rage, and guilt ring true, but many of the others in the movie do not behave the way any person I know or have known about would.

What has particularly stuck in my craw since yesterday is the behavior of Woody Harrelson’s Chief Willoughby.  Early on, we find that Willoughby has pancreatic cancer and is dying.  This appears to be an open secret in town.  Nevertheless, Willoughby is able to maintain his (not entirely effective) leadership of the Ebbing Police Department and his role as husband and father at home.  He experiences a brief hospitalization (following a pretty gruesome interrogation scene with McDormand’s character), but seems to be able to resume his daily activities (at work and home) just after.

I have recent and absolutely unsought experience with living with a person in the end stages of cancer.  The capacity to carry on Activities of Daily Living is precious and can go away suddenly.

We follow Willoughby through a trip to a local lake, where he sets up a blanket where his daughters must stay while they fish.  He and his wife then go off to a nearby spot where they can be “alone.”  We then see Willoughby enjoying a good night session with his daughters, something all three of them clearly treasure.  Then we see him with his wife. Their conversation makes it abundantly clear that they have shared a mutually satisfying lovemaking experience.  Willoughby teases his wife about her going out to the barn to clean up after the horses.  He says he’ll do it.  He briefly interacts with the horses, then puts a mask over his head and shoots himself in the head.

The note he leaves for his wife reviews how wonderful that day was.  He says he wants THAT day to be her final memory, not the days ahead when she would have had to care for a weak and dying man.  I cannot say this strongly enough: HE’S WRONG!

I treasure EVERY DAY I had with my wife.  Even on her last day, when she was unable to get out of bed, I treasure the fellowship we had with her, the pleasure she took in chewing on ice chips and the chance we had to enjoy a last episode of The Good Doctor together.  I didn’t KNOW it was her last day.  It was not even a little fun to realize that she wasn’t asleep, but had died in the night, but I’d take that a thousand times over finding that she had shot herself two or three months earlier.  If Willoughby was as good and loving a man as the filmmakers want us to think he was, he’d have known that.

Willoughby’s suicide drives a couple of other plot developments that otherwise lack any motivation.  I suspect that’s why the story tellers put it in.  I really think the whole movie falls apart here.  I sincerely hope that the members of the Motion Picture Academy will be wiser than the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and honor a more worthy movie for Best Picture.  Get Out or The Post would be my choices.

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On “A Catholic Spirit” in Resolutions

Whereas: John Wesley defines “catholic or universal love” as “embrace(ing) with strong and cordial affection neighbors and strangers, friends and enemies.” (“A Catholic Sprit,” III.4)

And

Whereas: Wesley defines as “essentials” of Christian doctrine:

1. The Trinity

2. Christ’s deity and humanity

3. The Resurrection

(Reclaiming the Wesleyan Tradition: John Wesley’s Sermons for Today, p.110)

And

Whereas: Resolutions on contemporary issues of contention within the United Methodist Church concern “opinions” about theology and church preactice rather than “essentials” of Christian doctrine.

And: Whereas many of those resolutions use wording that is inflammatory, divisive and not reflective of Love for God and Neighbor that is the goal of Christian Salvation as taught by John Wesley

Therefore Be it Resolved:

That Resolutions presented for consideration by the Mississippi Conference of the United Methodist Church reflect a spirit of generous Christian love

and:

That such resolutions avoid language that is divisive, inflammatory or disrespectful of Christians holding other “opinions”

And: That the authors of resolutions presented to this session of the Mississippi Conference of the United Methodist Church that do not reflect such a spirit of “universal love,” as defined by John Wesley and that use inflammatory and divisive wording be encouraged to voluntarily withdraw them from consideration.

Jonathan Altman, Elder, Mississippi Conference of the United Methodist Church

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