Saved from the Gypsies

My mother-in-law will celebrate her 95th birthday tomorrow. Alma Geraldine (“Gerry”) White was born on November 18, 1919 in Logan, New Mexico. Gerry’s mother Lela was born in the Native American territory of Oklahoma in 1896 and as a five-year-old child traveled by covered wagon to New Mexico along with their cattle and horses. Lela may have been the only redhead in the entire territory and was a novelty to the Native Americans.

Gerry herself also traveled by wagon train to northern New Mexico when she was three months old, and her father got a job with the railroad hauling ore. New Mexico was a rough and tumble place in the early twentieth century.

One of Gerry’s favorite stories was about the time when her older sister Helen wanted a puppy. Helen was so fixated on getting a puppy that when a group of gypsies passed through with horses and wagons, Helen traded her younger sister for their puppy! When Gerry’s father Guy arrived home, he said, “Where’s Alma?” Helen said, “I traded her to the gypsies for a puppy.” Guy rode off, gun in hand, to rescue Alma (Gerry) from the gypsies. He got Alma, but they didn’t get their puppy back.

Since Lela was a staunch Baptist, Gerry, too, grew up as a Baptist. Because there were no schools in Chama, sister Helen was sent to the Loreto Academy, a Catholic boarding school in Santa Fe known for its miraculous staircase. Because of the harsh treatment that Helen received at the hands of the nuns, little Gerry was sent to help Helen. The first time Gerry saw Helen being punished by the nuns, she lit into the nuns like a banshee. Her discipline? Gerry had to sleep with the nuns at night. Gerry was never afraid to call it like it was.

Gerry’s parents eventually moved to Santa Fe where she graduated from public high school in 1936 at age sixteen. There was no thought of higher education because there were no colleges in the Santa Fe area. Besides, Gerry was too young to be accepted into college, and her parents didn’t have enough money for college.

Gerry was always very good at math, so she got a job keeping books at a department store. Then she moved on to the accounting department of a wholesale grocer. Every time Gerry had an opportunity she took the civil service examination and eventually landed a job at the state capitol of Albuquerque in the accounting department.

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One time an insurance man came in to speak to her boss and said, “You can’t imagine the number of girls who are quitting jobs and going into the Army.” Gerry thought that was a ridiculous idea, but the next thing she knew, she was down at the recruiting office herself! Gerry passed the IQ test with flying colors, but the physical part was a different story. Gerry had asthma and was always rather sickly as child. Nevertheless, Gerry was recommended for Officer Candidate School.

Somewhere around this time Gerry married. She was still a teenager, and her husband was sent off with the entire New Mexico National Guard to Bataan in the Philippines. These were all boys that she knew from high school. Every single soldier but one died, including her husband. Gerry said that the one young man who did survive was never right in his mind.

Gerry was more determined than ever to enlist, for she believed that our country was fighting for its life. There was a reason she was saved from the gypsies. Gerry went to Officer Candidate School in Des Moines, Iowa and was one of the first five thousand women in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC). The WAAC was first established in 1942 and was converted to the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) in 1943.

The WACs were the first women to serve in the ranks of the U.S. Army outside of nurses. They were not universally accepted at first, but it soon became clear that fighting a war on two fronts would demand resources in industry and the military beyond those that only men could bring.

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Although basic training was difficult for Gerry because of her health issues, she did very well in the mental tests. Gerry was chosen as one of one hundred and fifty young women sent to Washington D.C. for what turned out to be a three month secret mission in the winter of 1943. Gerry said, “We were picked for our mechanical and analytical ability. The plans were that the Army would train women to take over the anti-aircraft artillery in Washington D.C. and eventually the entire east coast.

“So this was an experiment. We were assigned to an old CCC camp at the Arboretum in Washington, and those old barracks were terrible. They were just boards and cold as the dickens. It was January. We actually lived and worked in underground bunkers, kind of like caves, where they had three bunks and an old coal stove to keep us warm. We built fires in the coal stove, and the person in the middle bunk was nice and warm. However, the person on the top burned and the person on the bottom froze. It was miserable living, believe me.

“We had to hide our tracks leading up to the bunkers. Also, all of the women had to use APO addresses and they were not allowed to call home for the entire time they were there. The mission was to protect Washington D.C. against any enemy that might make it over the Atlantic Ocean. We used huge search lights at night to follow planes. Women were not supposed to have the use of guns, but we had huge 90 mm guns. We knew how to take apart and put together these giant search lights. We were the first cadre to take over antiaircraft artillery for all of Washington and the entire eastern seaboard.

“After we learned all this stuff, President Roosevelt decided that none of our enemies had planes that could bomb our east coast, so they disbanded us. Well, we were absolutely sick because we were so full of anticipation. We really wanted to do it.” Gerry was then one of ten young women from the group to be sent to the Air Service Command in Spokane, Washington. This is where she met her future husband, Paul Haller, who was in the Air Force. From there she was moved to officer Candidate School at Boeing Field in Seattle where she set up a budget and fiscal office and watched B-29’s being made.

After getting married, Gerry and Paul were both assigned to Dayton Ohio, which was unusual because couples did not often get to stay together. They were both discharged in 1946, each having served four years. They eventually settled in Michigan, where Paul’s parents lived.

Gerry and Paul had three children, and Gerry went on to become a successful CPA. Not wanting to lose a piece of her heritage, she and Paul raised horses on two hundred acres of land outside Hastings. Gerry also became a very active United Methodist, moving beyond her Baptist heritage to adopt her husband’s religion of the warmed heart and free will. In the mid 1970’s they moved to Florida where Gerry switched careers and became a real estate broker and agent.

I first met Gerry in 1978 and marveled at her determination, drive and grit. I always wondered what Gerry could have done and who she would have become if she had lived fifty years later than she did. Even so, she held down a full-time job, raised three children, and managed a gentleman’s farm. Saved from the gypsies, Gerry blessed all who knew her.

No one ever imagined that Gerry would outlast her three sisters, two of whom were younger. After a difficult childhood with asthma and a time when she spent months in bed, Gerry persisted and became accomplished in a world that wasn’t quite ready for successful women. It was probably that feisty New Mexico spirit.

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Just this past winter, Gary and I took Gerry to see a movie, August: Osage County.
After the movie was over, Gerry leaned over to me, and said, “This was the scariest movie I’ve ever seen since King Kong.” (King Kong was released in 1933!) “What the heck was this movie all about?”

“Maybe you didn’t get it because you had a margarita for dinner.”

“Well, I recognized Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts.”

Then, on the way back to her assisted living room, Gary said, “I like your hair, Mom.” He knew she had gotten her hair done that day. “You mean my wig?” she said. Gerry was referring to Meryl Streep, who wore a black wig in the movie when she was in public.
“How do you like my wig? I’m wearing one, too,” I said. My hair looked somewhat like Streep’s wig.

Gerry did a double take and smiled. Then she led us with her walker back to her room.
I dreamed that night of a young Gerry Haller, saved from the gypsies to …

Give the nuns fits;
Push her frail body to its limits in basic training;
Woman-handle those huge searchlights;
Keep Army financial records in tip-top shape;
Ride horses, free as a bird;
Move from faithful Baptist to faithful United Methodist;
Talk proudly of two grandsons in the Army and Navy;
Serve as one of the very first WACS in the U.S. Army;
Do our income taxes online until age 93.

Happy birthday Gerry! Thank you for your service. I want to be like you. I love you.

Blessings,
Laurie

The Assumption Trap

  • Our church was really excited about the Vital Church Initiative, but no one ever said we’d have to change the way we’ve always done worship.
  • I can’t understand why our pastor’s husband won’t join the men’s study group. Isn’t that his job?
  • Our new pastor didn’t say hi to me at coffee hour after worship. I don’t know why he doesn’t like me.
  • She shouldn’t be on the Finance Committee. She’s too new to the church and doesn’t understand how money works around here.
  • They promised us that the conference would never close our church, but no one will give us help to pay our bills.
  • I’m not going to vote for the new addition to the building. We can’t possibly raise the money in this economy.

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Assumption: a thing that is accepted as true or as certain to happen, without proof.

It’s human nature to make assumptions. Assumptions are a part of our belief system and help interpret the world around us. Because we learned these beliefs previously, we take them for granted and do not question them. From our assumptions, we then make inferences about others in order to make sense of our surroundings.

If we live in a dangerous area of the inner city, we lock our doors because we assume that anyone ringing our doorbell has evil intentions. If we come from the country, we assume that everyone who lives in the suburban communities of a major city has great wealth and is snobbish. Because of the values our parents taught us, we assume that everyone who is overweight lacks self-control, everyone who is gay has chosen this “lifestyle,” and everyone who struggles with substance abuse issues is morally weak.

Each one of us makes judgments and comes to conclusions about others based on what we have been taught and have experienced. Consider the assumptions that people made about Jesus and the inferences that they drew. Jesus ate with sinners. Therefore, he must be a sinner himself. Jesus healed a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. Therefore, he broke the Jewish law. Unlike John the Baptist, who fasted, Jesus came eating and drinking. Therefore, he is a glutton and a drunkard. Jesus cured a man who was blind and mute. Therefore, he has a demon. The inference: Jesus was dangerous and a threat.

The belief systems of many of the Jewish religious leaders were so deeply ingrained that they could not conceive of Jesus as anything other than a rebel and a heretic. Those assumptions about Jesus so threatened the status quo that they eventually led to his death as the so-called King of the Jews.

Why do we make assumptions, anyway?

  • We make assumptions when we don’t have all the information that we need to make a decision or judgment. Rather than ask questions, seek correct facts and clarify intentions, we default to our own belief system.
  • We hear what we want to hear. At times the truth may be so painful that we shut ourselves off from the reality of a situation and choose to stay within our comfort zone.
  • We forget or have never learned one of the hallmarks of healthy conversation, “Do not assume malicious intent.” Rather than acknowledge that people bring different viewpoints to a particular situation and may see the data in another way, we decide that it is others who are at fault or are out to get us.

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A mark of healthy self-awareness is realizing that the inferences we make are greatly influenced by our assumptions about people and situations. In 1997 Don Miguel Ruiz published a best-selling book called The Four Agreements; A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom. These four principles are designed to help us live whole, happy and productive lives.

1. Be Impeccable with your Word
2. Don’t Take Anything Personally
3. Don’t Make Assumptions
4. Always Do Your Best

Ruiz puts the onus on us to avoid making assumptions by asking questions and seeking the information we need to make wise decisions. He writes, “If others tell us something, we make assumptions, and if they don’t tell us something, we make assumptions to fulfill our need to know and to replace the need to communicate. Even if we hear something and we don’t understand, we make assumptions about what it means and then believe the assumptions. We make all sorts of assumptions because we don’t have the courage to ask questions.”

Open and honest communication, which can mitigate the drama that plays out because of assumptions, is at the heart of all healthy organizations, including the church. I wonder how the vitality and sustainability of our local churches might be enhanced if we all had a professional communications staff person. Clearly, that will never be the case, yet there are ways in which clergy and laity can work together to enhance effective, clear communication.

What can clergy and church leaders do to avoid the assumption trap? Lay people who don’t know what’s going on will invariably make assumptions about what is going on. They will also share those assumptions with others as if they are true. Hence, gossip and the rumor mill. That’s why it’s critical to be out in front with communication.

  • Communicate as often and as clearly as you can. Even having no new news to report about a particular issue can be shared so that everyone is in the loop. Seek the help of laity with skills in the area of public relations.
  • Make regular reports about the financial status and overall health of the church.
  • Realizing that others may not want to hear what you desire to communicate, be clear, transparent and non-anxious.
  • Have periodic “town hall” meetings where church members can ask questions and dialogue face to face.
  • Don’t sugarcoat the truth. At the same time, offer hope and encouragement. Trust, faith and confidence are contagious.
  • Clergy and church leaders must have a positive, can-do attitude. Parishioners will follow our lead. If we ourselves aren’t convinced that our congregation can do the impossible; if we aren’t certain ourselves that we can raise $300,000 for a building addition; and if we don’t believe that the power of the Holy Spirit and a viable strategic plan will enable us to grow and reach new people for Christ, then none of it will happen. Period.

What can laity do to avoid the assumption trap?

  • Recognize when your own biases may cause you to hear only what you want to hear.
  • Learn how to see situations from more than one point of view and broaden your understanding.
  • Rather than share your assumptions with others by spreading rumors, take the initiative to ask questions and seek clarification.
  • Understand that certain things such as personnel issues need to remain confidential; trust that your leaders are acting prayerfully and in the best interest of the church.
  • Never assume malicious intent on anyone’s part.

How do we avoid the assumption trap? Alan Alda once said, “Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.” Clean those windows and bring on the light!

Blessings,
Laurie

Dark Night of the Soul

“Next week we’re going to discuss chapter seven, ‘The Dark Night of the Soul,’” I reminded the Tuesday morning women’s book study. We’re reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s new book, Learning to Walk in the Dark. No sooner had I gotten the words out of my mouth when ninety-one year old Betty blurted out, “Well, that’s a great chapter for Election Day!”

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Betty’s sharp wit never fails to entertain our group, which dissolved into laughter. Of course, Betty has been alive longer than any of us, having lived during the aftermath of the Nineteenth Amendment guaranteeing American women the right to vote (1920), Prohibition, the Great Depression, World War 2, the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, September 11, and the Supreme Court’s October 8 decision to let stand five federal appellate court rulings that recognized a constitutional right for gay people to marry.

Betty has seen it all, and she understands that the results of Election Day will not magically save us, even if Michigan elects the governor and U.S. Senator for whom she chooses to vote. Nor will Election Day be all doom and gloom if you and I continue to live gracious and justice-filled lives no matter who is in office.

Dark Night of the Soul is the title of a poem and commentary by sixteenth century Spanish Roman Catholic mystic, St. John of the Cross. John spent eleven months in a monastery prison for refusing to renounce his work with Teresa of Avila, both of whom attempted to reform their Carmelite religious orders. Allowed only bread and water to eat, John could not bathe or change his clothes, was flogged by the other monks, and spent most of his time in solitary confinement with only a slit of light in a prison wall.

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With nothing left but God, John composed his greatest works by memorizing them in the dark of his cell. In the midst of cold, despair and hopelessness, John was on fire with the love of God and wrote about what he learned in the dark. The dark night represents the hardships and difficulties that we meet in detaching from the world and entering into mystic union with God.

After John managed to escape from his cell, he spent the rest of his life explaining that God, whom he described in Spanish as todo y nada, is both all and nothing. We cannot hold on to or grasp God; we can only encounter God and be changed. In the same way, human striving is ultimately nothing. Rather, we experience true life by loving God through listening, seeing and surrendering.

Today we use the phrase “dark night of the soul” to describe an intense personal or spiritual crisis that may seem to mimic clinical or situational depression. However, it’s more like a divine wrestling with God, like Jacob at the Jabbok Ford. The dark night of the soul often takes us by surprise. All of a sudden faith vanishes, God is distant, life is meaningless, and we are overcome with loneliness and despair. Like St. John of the Cross, the only way to move beyond the dark night of the soul is to embrace the dark and learn from it. In the wrestling, God’s love leads us through the valley where the old self dies and a new self is born.

Dark nights of the soul are not confined to individuals. Our country experienced a dark night of the soul on September 11, 2001. The Great Recession in 2007-2008 saw a dramatic economic decline in world markets that had a global impact. And, as Betty so eloquently pointed out, every national election can be seen as a dark night of the soul if we pin the hopes and dreams of our nation and world on the election of national leaders who promise to make it all better. Might embracing political differences enhance our ability as a country to work for liberty and justice for all?

Thousands of local churches are also going through dark nights of the soul. Some congregations are so consumed by conflict that little energy is left for vital ministry. Other congregations are dying right before our very eyes, refusing to change and allow themselves to die to the old in order for something new to emerge.

In the same way The United Methodist Church is in the midst of a dark night of the soul over the issue of gay marriage. United Methodist clergy are testing our polity by performing gay marriages for church or family members. Bishops are placed in difficult situations as just resolutions are sought. Trials are held, judgments are rendered, decisions are announced and appeals are made to the Judicial Council. The night is dark because no one ever “wins.” Strategizing for the 2016 General Conference is leading to different options for the future, including “amicable” separation.

Might God be calling United Methodists to enter the dark night of the soul by sitting in our cells, voluntarily giving up our cherished views of God and each other and writhing in the agony of new birth? Should we be asking forgiveness for wasting precious time and resources that could be used to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with all people?

What would it take for The United Methodist Church to surrender rather than resist, to wave the white flag and admit that without God we cannot “fix” ourselves or others? Could the dark night teach us that the dividing line between sin and grace is not always clear? By living in solidarity with the pain of the world, choosing undeserved suffering and a necessary dying, dare we walk further into the heart of darkness to find God? By refusing to blame others or play the victim, can we coexist in deep suffering as well as great joy, rejoicing in the role we can play together in God’s future of our world?

Surely, this kind of faith is not safe, for the way through is ultimately the way out. I wish the dark night on everyone because in the dark there is no longer certainty about who is right and who is wrong. God is todo and nada. Stripped of everything that has provided meaning, we are left with a God who is all and nothing. Nothing except love. “Who has ever seen people persuaded to love God by harshness?” wrote St. John of the Cross. And, “Where there is no love, put love – and you will find love.”

In his book The Darkness of God, Denys Turner writes that when depression passes, all is restored. When the dark night of the soul passes, all is transformed. I yearn for that transformation, for we are not without hope. In loss, emptiness and nada we not only find hope, we find our true selves.

So bring on the dark night of the soul tomorrow. Let’s go the polls and vote for todo and nada. Let my vote cancel out yours, and your vote cancel out another. But let us vote, coming out transformed rather than restored. And while we’re at it, let The United Methodist Church be transformed, not restored. Let our local churches be transformed, not restored. And let each one of our lives be transformed, not restored.

Transformed not by harshness but love. Transformed not by dogmatism but by understanding. Transformed not by certainty but by surrender – surrender to a God who is nothing but love.

Blessings,
Laurie