Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A Table Of Friends...

This is a long one folks, trying to condense 30 years into a few paragraphs.  It is precious to me, so did not want to cut it short.  It is a story I hope you enjoy and can relate to.

Recently, we had a dinner celebration.  Our very dear friends Dan and Connie were in town and we had a dinner to give them a chance to see some old friends on their short visit to South Bend. 

We meet at Don and Kathy’s home.  They are marvleous hosts and their home is full of comfort and hospitality.  There are 14 of us in attendance - a great number to gather around their large dining table.

Set before us is Goat Cheese and Pesto Torta, Bruschetta and Crostini, Peppadews, German Bologna, Lasagna, and a beautiful Lettuce Salad with lots of goodies hidden in it.  For dessert we have NY style Cheesecake and Marce’s White Chocolate Fantasy Cake.  We mill around, casually nibbling the appetizers, preparing dinner plates, pouring wine and eventually we gather at the table.

It’s a complicated story how we all met and got hooked up, but I will try to make sense of it.  I would guess that all of us have different versions of the tale, so right up front I will say these are my recollections and I can't guarantee the total accuracy of my 52 year old brain.

I don’t remember exact dates after all these years, but know that several from this group have been in my life for over 30 years.  Some I met through a house church I was attending.  We were a small group, but had strong beliefs (the leader of the group was a devout follower of Bill Gothard) and the group was like a family.  We not only tended to peoples spiritual need, but financial needs as well.  It always amazed me at how generous this small group was and what we were able to accomplish.

While we were a tight knit group, we could also be a bit volatile, splitting several times over the years, losing a few and picking up others with each divide.  I was pretty young when a lot of that was happening, with two young children.  I have to admit I did not know what a lot of the “hubbub” was about during these bouts of turmoil, although there were times when I’d pipe up and give my opinion on some things.

The group was very male oriented in the leadership area.  Women had their place and it was pretty much to be at home taking care of their husband, house and children (Thanks Bill Gothard).  Not many worked outside the home.  If you were not absolutely thrilled to be cleaning your house and tending to your husband’s every need, there was a bit of a stigma that got attached to you (and I imagine a lot of prayers were prayed on your behalf).  This attitude really went against the grain of me, as I had some bad vibes from growing up around a dominant, abusive man and I was determined not to follow in some of my relatives footsteps.  I remember like it was yesterday at about 11 years old consciously making the decision after witnessing one of the many incidents of abuse my brother-in-law inflicted on my sister Carol, that no man would ever treat me that way.  And that was only a part of my story where men were concerned — so, I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder in this area.  I am sure the word “rebellious” came up behind a few closed doors when my name was mentioned.  I hold no ill towards those who may have felt that way at the time.  I don’t know if anyone knew my “whole” story and even if they did, still probably would not have known what to do with me!

I loved my family, being married and being a mother, but there were certain aspects of homemaking I did not excel in. I was only about 20 or 21 at the time.  (I had gotten married at 14 and accepted Christ at 15)  Being a mother came pretty naturally to me, but keeping house was a different story.  Eventually, I mastered cooking, baking and finances, but never quite got the hang of keeping a neat house. Often I felt inferior to the other women who seemed to have embraced the love of it, while I only dreaded it.  I thought that perhaps I had missed getting the “cleaning gene” that came with salvation.  Even though several of their homes were often in disarray, as mine usually was, many of the women appeared to get great joy in washing, cleaning and cooking all day.  This was not my story and I felt very guilty about it for years.

When we had fellowship times, I longed to be included in the “male” conversations that were taking place in the living room of the home we met in.  The women usually congregated in the kitchen and talked of canning vegetables, raising children and recipes.  While these things did interest me, the men were usually talking about Jesus and the things of God, and that interested me much more than water bath canning instructions.

The house church had been together a while when Dan and Connie came from California to attend the church.  Dan and the current "lay" pastor had long been friends.   Dan, an ordained minister, eventually took over pastoring.  With Dan and Connie as pastors, a whole new world was opened up to me.  Connie did not fit the mold of the usual pastors wife (she did not play piano).  She was a gifted teacher, as was Dan, and they would share in the pastoring.  While she was a very supportive wife, he was also a supportive husband and acknowledged and encouraged her gifts, which were not just in cooking and keeping house.   Their marriage was the first I took note of where they truly respected each other.  It was a turning point for me.  Dan brought an equality to the women of the church that had been missing and it gave me hope for something more.

As I mentioned before, it is a complicated story with heartaches as well as joys.  Anyone who has been involved in organized church for any length of time can imagine some of our struggles.  Dan was very different from Tom, the man who started the church, and those differences eventually came to a head and we experienced yet another church split.  This time, Dan left and started his own church.

This was a great struggle for my family.  My husband at the time, Dave, really loved Dan.  Dan was able to reach him in ways the other men had not been able to.  Now, I am not saying the men of the church did not try...they did.  But so many of the male bonding activities were centered on sports and Dave was not a sports kind of guy.  So sports oriented were the men that we would change our church service time to accommodate watching the Superbowl.  He would try to participate at times, but would usually come home humiliated, feeling much the same way I did when it came to housework.  He just was not good at it.  He liked debating with the men, but his ideas were usually challenges to the “status quo” and not readily accepted.  While we were in the same situation as the other couples in the church...marriage, job, kids, etc., we were several years younger and still had that push to challenge things...just because.

Dan also had a great influence on me.  As I mentioned before, he and Connie set a great example for respect and equality in marriage.  Her gifts were just as important to highlight as his and he encouraged women to participate in many areas.  I attribute my writing and public speaking today to Dan.  One day we were having a lively discussion on some things very dear to our heart in his living room (I had graduated out of the kitchen with Dan) and he said to me “Write that down”.  I said, “Write what down?”  He replied “What you just said, write it down.”  I did, and it became an article for a newsletter the church produced called “The Salt Mine”.  Not long after that, he asked me to take his place at an event he was scheduled to speak at and could not attend.  I felt very honored to be considered to stand in his stead.  I have not stopped writing or talking since.

We ended up attending both churches for a while.  The “old” church held great pull to us — we helped raise each others kids, got baptized together, shared our joys and heartaches with each other, prayed together.  As I said, I did not quite fit as well as some of the women did, but their influence and encouragement in raising my kids was priceless.  I cannot ignore that through this body of believers I learned to study the bible, the importance of community and witnessed the deep love of God.  It was a great foundation.

We eventually chose Dan’s church.  Some came with him, others stayed behind, new people were added. We grew and thrived there.  It was exciting to be on the ground floor of a new church.  This one was more formal in some ways than the old church, as we had a denomination we were under (Assemblies of God), but still met as a “house church”.  We rented a local hall on Sundays for our meetings and eventually converted Dan and Connie’s garage into a meeting room as well.

We kept connection with many of the people in the “old” church.  It wasn’t always a deep connection, at times only occasionally seeing each other through various events, but it was always good to see them.   Eventually, Dan and Connie left too, moving to a different part of the country (a total of three times in fact), and have settled in Seattle, WA.   We have kept in touch all these years consistently and I treasure their place in my life.

So, we fast forward to today, the table of friends.  Many of us now grandparents, some finding their way to attending the same church together again, others no longer attending any “organized” church at all, and Dan, now a newly ordained Anglican minister!  Talk about never seeing something coming...that would be it.

We gather at Don and Kathy’s house, one of the couples whose marriage was birthed in the “old” church and are still together - 33 years now I believe.  Amazing.  We eat dinner together, and drink wine and sangria.  A few of us that arrived early got to partake of Kathy’s famous “Cosmos”...something that probably would not have happened when we were attending church together “back in the day”.  While I do remember sharing a bit of wine a time or two all those years ago, it never flowed as freely as it does today.  Those of us who chose to partake appear to be moderate, responsible drinkers and it is one of the things we have “grown” in.  We also enjoy discussing wines and such and a few of us attend wine tastings together.  Some of our group choose not to drink alcohol (lips that touch wine will never touch mine), and no one thinks badly of the other for their choices.  Maturity is a wonderful thing.

Here are the names of those in attendance:  Dan & Connie, Don & Kathy, Chuck & Sue S., Barry & Cheryl, Jim & Maggie, Bill & Sue, Mike and Bill P.  I will attempt to connect the dots.  From the “old” days:  Dan, Connie, Don, Kathy, Barry, Maggie, Mike and Bill P.  Those grafted in by re-marriage:  Sue S., Cheryl, Jim and Bill.

Don and Kathy have a long dining table in their spacious country kitchen and in the middle of our meal, Father Dan encourages us to tell our stories of meeting Christ. We encourage him to start with his, and since another attendee, Chuck, was instrumental in that, we hear a bit of his story too.  Kathy tells her story, which brings her to her connection with Barry, who was friends with the man who would become her husband Don. (It was Barry who introduced them)  Maggie shares her story, and her husband Jim, shares his recent health struggles and the wonder of God through it.  Then we hear from Cheryl, whose story is quite amazing and reminds us all that it is the love and grace of Jesus that drew us.  Throughout the evening we all interject a bit of something, especially after we hear the details again of how some of us got connected.  A few help tell another’s story.  Believe it or not, I am not talking a whole lot, mostly just drinking it all in and smiling at the wonder of it all.

I think of how many there had an influence on me as I literally “grew up” amongst them. The connection with Dan and Connie I described earlier.  But many here are forever etched on my heart.  One of my best friends ever, is Bill P.  His story is very deep and early on in our relationship God placed a seed in my heart for him that has planted deep roots that are not easily moved.  He was in and out of my life for many years as he would leave church, come back, leave again and eventually left the area and moved to Seattle.  But we stayed friends, talking on the phone, writing letters.  He eventually found his way back to South Bend and we again went to church together for many years.  He is “Uncle Bill” to my kids and a part of most family dinners and events.

Barry was married to Evie at the time we attended church together and their house became a refuge for me from the chaos of my own.  My first husband and I were struggling on many levels and I confided our deep secrets to Barry and Evie, many times late at night after I finished my shift at a local Cantonese restaurant, “Marks”.  I would show up on their doorstep bearing leftover Egg Drop Soup and they would say, “Stay a while” and that was my cue to bear my soul.  Evie and I became good friends and she was one of the women who really encouraged me in raising my children. 

Barry is forever in my heart for many reasons, but one that stands out is an apology he made to me.  During the time we were attending church, we had a pool party at someone’s home.  At some point a few of the guys thought it a good idea to start throwing women in the pool.   After throwing a couple of the women in, they set their sights on me and grabbed my arms and legs.  As they were carrying me to the pool I asked them not to throw me in.  I did not do well in water and was not a great swimmer and especially do poorly when it comes to “horsing around” in the water.  When I was young, my crazy brother in law, the one that beat my sister, thought it was great fun to hold me under the water one year we were at the lake.   A six foot plus man holding a 10 year old under the water against their will and then laughing about it when they finally let the gasping child free can leave a mark - and it did for me.  The closer they carried me to the water, the more terrified I got.  They ignored my pleas and kept walking towards the pool and when I realized they were going to go through with it, I became hysterical; crying, begging and pleading for them not to.  My hysteria must have moved them, because they put me down at the pools edge, leaving me embarrassed at my outburst, yet grateful it had an impact.  It hurt me that they would allow me to get to that point and not listen in the beginning, but life went on.  Years later, at a church reunion, Barry came to me and apologized sincerely for that day.  It meant a great deal to me that even though much time had passed, he still remembered and thought enough of me to make it right.

There are so many more stories of these friends, these comrades, demonstrating true “agape” love for each other.  It was our common love of God that drew us together and it is that same love that keeps us coming back.  The years have given us the wisdom to know how precious true friendships are and that relationship is really what God is all about.  So many of the “rules” we once thought so important have faded, but what remains is the love.

So as I sit at the end of the table, listening to these friends, watching, observing - I am pleased.  Pleased at who they have become, pleased at who I have become.  I no longer consider myself second class because I hate cleaning house.  In fact, I have no shame in stating that finally, after many years of dreaming about it, this year I have on occasion hired a housekeeper. 

No longer do the men and women talk separately; we all sit together at one table, equally sharing what is on our hearts.  There are no judgements of the “new” spouses, all are welcomed into the mix.  I am witnessing dreams being fulfilled and dreams yet to begin.  Some of us are still struggling with many things, but some of us have found the peace we were seeking all those years ago.  All this warms my heart and I believe, makes God smile.  It is life, it is friendship, it is fellowship...it is God.

1 comment: