A Little More Like The Person You’re Supposed To Be

Here we are in Northeastern Ohio again, our go to getaway to visit family a few times a year. It’s an 8-hour drive from our home in Central Virginia, so it’s long enough to wear you out and effectively lose two days – one coming up, one going back.

But it’s family, and family matters. I’ve always placed an incredibly high value on family – our vacations since I was a child have revolved around visiting cousins, grandparents, aunts and uncles. Our annual beach trip (interrupted only by two consecutive summer weddings) is non-negotiable family time.

But this is new family for me; on my husband’s side, newer relationships that are deepening and growing in places that continue to bear the weight and wisdom of trust and love.

The bonus, for me, is that this part of the world feels like home. I’ve written of this before, the strange way that my very bones sink into a sense of familiarity and comfort whose imprint seems far deeper than the three years I actually lived here. There is a connection with my birthplace, I know, only a short drive due east. I have memories here, of being a child swimming in Lake Erie with my cousins, aunt and uncle; of visiting that same family in Painesville and Mentor. But I have yet to understand or explain the deep roots that wrap themselves around me every time I am here.

Yesterday morning, I went for a short walk under a brilliant blue sky, the barely imagebudding tips of trees undulating in the wind. As I am prone to do, I was talking out loud as I walked; to myself, to God, to whatever force in the universe might be willing to listen.

What is it about this place that I feel that I belong? How can I feel so certain that I should be here, live here? How could I ever be planted here again? It’s illogical and completely out of the realm of possibility – so what is this feeling?

Fortunately, sometimes the answers come quickly. I talk back to myself, even.

It is enough that you get to come, isn’t it? That you have a place to stay and that several times a year, you are free to simply be here – to rest, to relax, to indulge this familiarity. That is enough.

And it is, truly; I am grateful, and mindful that I am deeply blessed to be able to make these trips at all.

But still, it nags at me. I am inclined to imagine possibilities, all the time, and so my headspace too often is filled with ideas and outlandish propositions – particularly when they come with the possibility of snow-filled winters (which I love) and the recurrence of the most amazingly beautiful springtimes.

So how could I do it, really? Could I get a job? Could I teach piano again? What about mom and dad and my mother-in-law? What about the kids? Where would I live? What about the music store? 

It seems like a waste of energy, really. But I can’t shake this feeling, and it’s so connected to my soul that I’m not sure I should.

Today, I spent two hours with a friend, unpacking stories and layers of life lived over the past ten years, set gently on the table before us, each one a precious gift of honesty and vulnerability, the kind that makes all of life worth living. It was rich and resonant. I felt like I was meeting this friend – truly seeing her – for the very first time, and to do so felt like an honor. Truly, it was just that.

We talked around life and faith and kids and aging and parenting and the past and the future and marriage and all the things that we needed to pull out of the depths of ten years without meaningful conversations. It was life, love and grace – and entire vat of the stuff – overflowing, running through our fingers like the sweetest honey.

(I know, I know – that’s incredibly cheesy and overly poetic, but gosh darn it – it felt like that ! I cried, twice…)

Anyway, at one point I described how weird it was, to feel so at home here, when I have such a wonderful home and work and life in Virginia. I talked about how I felt so connected here, and how complicated it was, sometimes.

She said – and I paraphrase, but as often happens when you spend time with wise people, I heard exactly what I needed to hear from her mouth, and so I can safely relate to you that this is what she said:

It’s a good thing, to have a place like this where you have a powerful connection and good memories and a feeling that you belong; you can visit that place, spend some time here, and then what matters is that you go back to your life and you’re a little more like the person you are supposed to be, because you’ve had some good  time in that safe place where your soul is at home. 

Just like that, it made sense. I kept thinking either / or; my friend reminded me that it’s always a both / and.

Today was such a good day, y’all.

Such a good day.

Good Friday

As part of the pastoral staff of a multi-site church, my energy is focused at the campus I currently call ‘home’, which is a good 40 minute drive from the location in Powhatan where everything started. I served there for all of my tenure at PCC until a year or so ago, when I shifted my focus and opened my heart to Riverside. Tonight, we were back where it all started, leading a Good Friday service for the entire church, at Powhatan.

There’s always been an awkwardness for me about our Powhatan Campus. It’s big – the room itself feels mammoth. The stage is too high; the floors too ‘white’. The room itself never sat well with my soul. There are underlying issues for me, emotional buttons that were pushed when we moved into the building several years ago that made it difficult for me to transition into what was then new space.

I love our church. I love the campus. But I’m just getting real here, and confessing that something about it – even after all these years, all these events and services – something just never felt right.

But sometimes, things change. When you least expect it, you open your eyes and realize that something big has shifted.

It is as if during the hour we spent in our first ever Good Friday service tonight, two mighty hands gripped the axis of my world and gave it a good twist.

The platform was awash in color this evening; a large wooden cross was the focal point. Slight haze (a new thing for us; some folks have exclaimed, WHAT IS THAT SMOKY STUFF?) diffused the light and set gentleness shifting thoughout the entire room. The musicians on the platform brought, to a (wo)man, excellence in preparation and presence. The level of trust, for me, was exceedingly high.

There was scripture and singing and music and a message. Through it all, I could see a crowd of faces – many familiar, some unknown. People I consider part of my church ‘family’ who worship at other campuses; my eyes lit on them and my heart leapt. There’s Jamie, in the front row! It’s Tricia! There’s Becky – there’s Warren and Denise and Darlene! Faces of the family that has embraced me at Riverside were everywhere; the campus pastor in me swelled with pride to see our folks attending and serving.

I sat behind the piano with a familiar view; because my primary musical training was as an accompanist, there is a strong sense of certainty when I am serving the leadership of another artist. Brian Hughes doesn’t stand and sing his messages, but our partnership allows me to accompany him in the same fashion as the best vocalists I have worked with.

The elements of the service were powerful and emotionally gripping for me. People sang; they were with usand we were all together in the best sense, a tribe of folks with common purpose, experiencing a fresh wind blowing through an ancient story. Art was being created simultaneoulsy in that same space, as gifted visual creatives worked on sketches and graphics behind the crowd. Bread and juice were offered and taken, the sacrament of communion in the shadow of death that was ripe with meaning.

It felt large, and significant. Communal, with strength in the power of the songs and the IMG_6628sound and the presence of all of us together. I sought out chords on that beautiful baby grand piano (I miss it so!) and the resonance settled deep in my chest, big pounding bass notes that carried the cries of my soul.

And yet; the moment that carried weight for me tonight was small; insignificant to most. I doubt that anyone noticed, or paid one bit of attention. Yet it marked the moment and connected the entire experience for me in a way that was unexpected and yet perfectly appropriate, as if it had been part of the plan from the very beginning.

We allowed people to linger, to move out of the room slowly. The band played as they moved toward the doors; at a certain point, we settled the song and effectively ended the service. I looked up to see folks milling around the back of the room – the looked at the art, they added prayers and scripture to the board. My husband had been sitting at the very back of the room, and I saw him make his way to the platform.

He’s coming to say, ‘Great job, baby…the service was awesome. You played awesome. Good job.’

But no.

He came up the stairs and moved toward the piano, where I still sat soaking in the afterglow of the music and the time of worship. I pivoted away from the keyboard, still on the bench, and smiled.

He sat beside me, and I noticed his cupped hand was holding something. He hooked his finger around mine and placed a piece of bread into my palm; he unfolded his fingers and I saw two tiny glasses of juice balanced in his hand. He looked down, a motion of prayer. I pressed my head into his shoulder and closed my eyes for a moment.

He placed the piece of bread in his mouth and I followed suit. The juice came next, even before I swallowed the bread; it soaked the dry crust that was still in my mouth, and I held still just for a moment, not rushing the odd act of remembrance that marks the life and death of the One we follow.

We sat together on the piano bench, still, fingers entwined. It was brief; I was, after all, at work, and there were people to see and conversations to have.

But in that moment all of the apprehension and the joy fused into this one thing, something that is so integral to who we are and how we treat one another, something so basic and necessary to our humanity, something that reminded me, tonight, that I am not who I used to be but moving, always, into a better version of my self.

I was seen.

He remembered me.

In the midst of everything that was happened, the man who pledged his life to mine thought of me. He understood that while we helped to direct others to communion, we ourselves did not partake. He saw that I was unfinished, undone.

He noticed me, and he brought me what I needed.

And that right there is the baseline, the bottom line, the perfect metaphor for all of this Jesus business, the reason for the sacrifice and the remembrance and the way our humanity gets all bunched up with our pursuit of holiness. It is the essence of the sacred thing about being human, and why the Jesus story fits our need so very well.

He sees us.

He remembers.

There’s a biblical concept about marriage that says a man ought to love his wife like Christ loved the church (and gave himself up for her). There is a deeply resonant connection with how we are when we are at our best in relationship with one another, and how God intended for us to love and serve and support each other all along. A deep, honoring friendship; the covenant commitment of marriage. Both have the potential to reveal spiritual truths about our humanity, and the possibility of encountering the divine in a profound way.

He noticed me, and he brought me what I needed.

You, friend, are noticed. And what you need has been provided.

Deepest blessings to you on this Friday that is, ultimately, quite good, indeed.

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What Is My Name?

Most Wednesday evenings I drive west; crossing the James from Buckingham into Fluvanna County, my little car crawls up the big hill and I coast into Fork Union. Wednesday is small group night. In some respects, it’s just ‘church night’. Cars litter the lots of most of the  five or six churches I pass on the way.

People gather. Maybe they sing, maybe they hear preaching or teaching. Perhaps it’s prayer night.

For us, it’s a time to drink a cup of coffee, eat whatever snacks miraculously appear (top notch peanut butter cookies, left over from guests who stopped by; cupcakes from a weekend event; popcorn from the microwave) and catch up. There is a prescribed study – often with a short video teaching to prompt our dialogue. We separate into groups of six or seven to talk.

I’m always the outsider, even to the person who’s never come to our church before. In a small community, in a rural landscape, most everybody knows everybody else (and their mamas and daddies and grandparents). The nicknames fly around and everybody knows of whom they speak, but much of it is lost on me.

But I’m a witness, and it’s a glorious, beautiful thing. It reminds me of the solid, decent goodness of people who don’t need ‘small group’ to do life together. That reminder gives me hope, when the politics and the terrorists tilt me towards despair. I am more grateful than I could ever convey for what I witness, given a grace-filled window into the lives of the people of this community.

/ / / /

Tonight, the discussion centered on identity. Opening questions revealed our names and their sources, along with nicknames. The best thing I heard tonight was about the child born into a family too busy to give him a proper name; he was the baby, so they just always called him ‘Babe’. When he went to school, apparently he realized that maybe he’d missed out on the name business – so he chose his own name, at the age of five.

If that just don’t beat all.

It was an anecdote, but the truth behind it was strong, in light of everything we discussed tonight. Generally, our given names are handed to us, but most of us go through life, if we’re truthful, naming ourselves. Whether the influence of friends and family or our own demons, it’s easy to find ourselves carrying a moniker that reflects a mere portion of who we are, while deflecting a deeper (and more important) reality.

I thought about this on the long drive home, about how my own life has had three specific seasons of external names that carried huge internal meaning. My given name – ‘Beth Case’ – represents my childhood and adolescence. I think of that name and I see the fourth grader with John Lennon glasses and ragged bangs, wearing a home-made red-pattered body suit with snaps in the crotch (my mom was AWESOME and I am not kidding!) This was the girl who was desperate for her teacher’s approval, FullSizeRender 56the girl who learned that being smart and quick-witted and ‘So grown up for her age!’ could get a lot of mileage and extensive capital for one who needed to be affirmed. Beth Case was the girl who got excellent grades and loved being the accompanist for the choir and sacrificed every spring afternoon during all for years of high school for musical rehearsals.

That girl seems so very far away…and yet those things she did and valued are at the core of who I am today.

Another season brought another name; a marriage, a new involvement in a new kind of church – and babies. Five of them, in short order. ‘Beth Brawley’ was shorthand for mom, lots of kids, Christian, youth pastor’s wife, I-don’t-know-how-you-do-it, ‘godly wife’, piano player… I loved the alliteration and my ego loved the public part of being involved in church and being VERY visible, what with those five kids trailing behind me everywhere I went. I knew then that the identity I wore with that name opened doors; it defined me, and allowed me to rest on the laurels of everybody’s assumptions when it comes to being married to a man in ministry.

It was a busy season, and the discontent was buried far below the surface. Eventually, like most unrest, it rose and burst free and I was clueless as to how desperately far I had gotten from any true sense of self.

The marriage ended; I kept the name. I found that church work was calling me all along – not just the man I had married – and I forged ahead. My identity had unraveled and it began to be remade; but I kept the name. My kids were all Brawleys; we were a team, we were surviving together. My name defined me now as mother. Survivor. And there was something about the alliteration…it felt like me. It was solid; it was who I presented to the world.

Interestingly enough, until tonight’s discussion I’d never thought too deeply about how important that name was to me. But the sense of identity I forged post-divorce, on my own – it was wrapped around that name. And this is not such a good thing; there is no small amount of pride and ego in ‘who I was’.

I remarried in 2009. It took three years for me to legally, officially change my name from Brawley to Stoddard. And I can tell you now that it wasn’t that I was too busy (like I claimed) or an oversight (happens often in my world…)

There was something I didn’t want to let go of; something that had nothing to do with the marriage but everything to do with how I saw myself. It took a long time for me to relinquish that identity – or at least give up the idea of who I thought I was.

(Funny…I never wondered what my ex-husband thought about how long I clung to that name – his name…)

When I made the decision, went to the social security office, and then finalized it all at the DMV, it was no small thing. In fact, I will tell you that it was as big a covenant commitment for me to make that change as it was to commit to my marriage vows in 2009. Again, it had nothing to do with the marriage – new or old – and everything to do with me and how I identified myself.

My life. My choices. My passions. My vocation. My calling. My past.

My future.

My name now means something to me – not the German heritage of my husband’s genealogy, but all that was represented in the choice I made to claim it.

This marriage – a promise made with an understanding, finally, of what it means to commit; to love, respect and honor. My name means submission (and oh, the irony..but that’s another post).

This vocation – faith and trust that the local church can be the hope of the world when it’s working right, and that I was called as a child to serve in this way. My name means pastor.

This sense of self – the beautiful freedom that comes with age and experience and the gentle grace of redemption that says I am okay with who I am. My name means restored. 

This maternal love that envelops five kids that are adults and almost-adults – I am not the apex of their lives (and they are not mine), but the field of love grows constant, deep and healthy all the way across. My name means home. 

This study prompted so much more than I expected. I’m grateful for an hour in the car to process, and for the sweetness of open hearts and collective stories, welling up from memories – joys and sorrows, pain and healing. All this comes from a community of the best people I’ve ever known in my life, and I – Beth Stoddard – am overwhelmed by this grace.

 

On Parenting

Parenting is hard work, y’all.

I spent some time today with a friend in a tough parenting position right now.

REBELLIOUS TEEN REJECTS PARENTAL VALUES!!!!!!

 Not unusual, totally stereotypical – but completely sucky when it’s your turn.

We talked, and that’s about  it. Sometimes,  just talking about it is all you get. Encouragement to continue to communicate, to be present, to be supportive, to differentiate; sometimes that’s the best you can do. Lord knows we can’t run in and fix the problem like we did when they were four. That ain’t happening.

Other conversations today included young adult trying to figure out life, and as that phrase still applies to most of us (just change the modifier to ‘middle-aged’ or ‘older’ and there you go), sometimes that’s nothing more than a crap shoot and a revealing conversation, and some well-meaning advice.

There was a reminder today, at one point, of a terrible season of parenting for a different friend that caused no small amount of tears, frustration and anger. My friend said At one point, I contemplated killing her, and he was serious. Almost.

Point being, that season morphed into another, and yet another, and that child is now thriving – a responsible citizen of the world that gives her parents reason to be filled with joy.

We forget the challenges, later, when the joy comes. It’s like childbirth, in a way; I recall that no less than one minute after the most excruciating, exhilarating, primal pain my body had ever experienced, when that baby was placed in my arms nothing else mattered. The pain? Forgotten, so swiftly to make it seem as though it didn’t even happen.

But it does happen, these hard times; and it makes us what we are. It gives us a necessary past for all of our futures, so that when we step back and remember, we see possibility. We are able to remind one another that this is life, all of it. 

For you parents tonight who are struggling – with kids that never stop, with the pushing back and acting out, with the rebellion that feels personal: Take heart.

It will subside.

They will settle.

It’s not personal.

It may be hard, but it’s not unbearable; and, in fact, it is necessary. You’ll know, one day – and it’s not too far away. You’ll look back and connect the dots, and you’ll look forward and smile. Consider it joy, if you can, and know that you will endure.

The proof is in the memories that you already hold. Think of one, right now, and see how far you’ve come.

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My, how they have changed. My littles…plus my niece and nephew. 

 

He Knew Where He Came From

It is Holy Week, and most of the people in my circle are slightly stressed, incredibly busy and very excited. We will celebrate this week, those of us who follow Jesus. Our churches will go all out to prepare for Sunday services, driven by the sheer excitement of what we proclaim (the stupefying, amazing, miraculous act of resurrection) and the knowledge that  a lot of guests will fill our seats this Sunday, dressed in bright colors and open to joy.

We’re working hard. And we’re excited.

And yet, as in most of what exists in our world today, there is conflict. There is paradox, and the collision of strong forces competing for attention. The gentle love of one who saw the least among us as valued; the brutality of a violent death. The respect and welcome we offer our neighbor; the declaration of the only King forever / Almighty God….

The loud and the soft; the hard and the pliable.

I get in trouble with finding balance at times; I am introspective and prone to wearing headphones so I can focus, but I am brash and bold and assertive. I am decisive and quick to find solutions; I am weak and prone to self-doubt. I am loud and soft, hard and pliable. To live without balance is to create some havoc, both internally and in the world around me.

But that is no small thing.

I live with insecurities; with a ragged mix of fear and fortitude. Some days I get it right and – like today – I work through my to-do list with a fierceness exploding in a celebration of productivity. I end the day feeling good about what I accomplished. Other days, I flail about, filled with doubt about whether I’m liked or whether I’m right or why I even bother… It is a roller coaster, this life of mine.

And isn’t it like that for us all?

Most Sundays, the people who volunteer at PCC’s Riverside Campus gather before the services start. We share information about events, folks in the community, and our own concerns and celebrations. Each week, I take time to tell a story – one that helps understand that investment of time and energy on our part makes a tangible difference. A new family, feeling welcomed. A child, lighting up with joy. Relationships, restored.

Yesterday, I told a different sort of story – one that reflected on the rhythm of this Holy Week when it was seemingly just another day in the lives of 1st century men and women.

Jesus, knowing that He had come from God and was going away to God, stood up from dinner and removed His outer garments. He then wrapped Himself in a towel, poured water in a basin, and began to wash the feet of the disciples, drying them with His towel.

– John 13.3-5

It is not an unfamiliar story, one often taught as an example of service, kindness, and love for others. But as words do sometimes, a phrase leapt from the page and captivated my imagination, taking on new meaning.

…knowing that He had come from God and was going away to God…

LET’S JUST STOP RIGHT HERE.

There is such depth in these words, a hint of the rich fullness of one with a sense of self that was and is revolutionary. Here is a man at a certain point in his life who enjoyed a crazed mix of celebrity and notoriety, both honored and reviled by thousands around him. By all accounts, he was responsible for miraculous healings;  he pushed against cultural and political norms. He was like no other.

And in this moment, a significant evening in the last week of his life, his action – remarkable in itself – was rooted in this: He knew where he came from, and he knew where he was going. He wasn’t leaning into his deity, or calling upon miracles. He wasn’t pontificating or persuading.

He knew where he came from, and he knew where he was going….

…and it was enough. 

He follows this simple phrase, this space of self-awareness and presence – with a generous act of vulnerability, kneeling to deal with the dirt in the room. Of all who knew him, these were the ones who would most easily assure him, slap him on the back, plan for success and strategize. They were convinced. They could have rested in this moment.

Instead, Jesus was present in a way that upended expectations once again. He lowered himself to wash their feet, to create a teachable moment that would echo through the days and weeks and years and centuries to come.

Yesterday morning, I looked around the circle of faces in our gathering place. Many were the same faces whose broad foreheads were offered up for the imposition of ashes in a peculiar vulnerability just a few short weeks ago. We were still, in this moment, and I’d like to think that the power of these ancient words sunk simultaneously into our collective souls.

And finally, there is this: In all the scurrying, the work, the preparation and the unrest; in the never-ending humanity that I will carry until the day I die; in the to-do lists and the wondering why; in the paradox of competing and compelling reasons to act and engage,  I see this: To know where I came from and where I am going is no small thing. 

In fact, perhaps it is all that is needed.