Monday, February 11, 2019

Falling ... With Style


Woody, the skinny, flop-armed cowboy in Pixar’s Toy Story, is Andy’s favorite toy. As Andy’s toy collection anxiously awaits the big reveal of this year’s birthday present—Mr. Potato Head is always hoping for a Mrs. Potato Head—they are filled with apprehension as Buzz Lightyear enters the scene. Andy bursts through the bedroom door, flings Woody off the coveted spot on the bed, plops the newest toy on the pillow, then exits.

The new toy is Buzz Lightyear, Space Ranger. Woody climbs back up and introduces himself explaining that there must be some mistake about his placement on the bed. It becomes apparent that Buzz doesn’t realize that he’s a toy and that he thinks he’s the real Buzz Lightyear, TV star and protector of the universe.

As Woody tries to defend himself and discredit Buzz, Buzz earns the admiration of all of the other toys because he has all kinds of lights and gadgets on his space suit. When asked if he can fly, he pushes a button and out pop his wings.  

“Oooo! Ahhhh…” the toys respond.  

“Impressive wingspan.  Very good.,” says the Piggy Bank.  

“These are plastic!” Woody whines his plea to the others.  

“They’re a trillium, carbonic alloy,” says Buzz, “And I can fly.”  

“You can’t fly,” Woody insists.  

“Can to,” says Buzz.  

“Can’t!”

Can!
  
Can’t!”

Can!  I can fly around this room with my eyes closed,” Buzz insists as he walks to the edge of the bed, climbs up onto the rounded bed post, closes his eyes, shouts, “To infinity … and beyond,” and dives off the bed.

Buzz plummets head first toward the floor, his helmet bounces him off a huge plastic ball, he does a midair flip, lands on a Hot Wheel car poised at the top of its track, rides it down the track, around the loop, and off the ramp which propels him up to the ceiling where he gets caught in an airplane hanging by a string which spins him around and around and around until finally he is thrown off and glides back down to the bed with a perfect, feet first landing right in front of Woody’s face, opens his eyes and says:

CAN!”

While the other toys cheer “Whooaa!” and applaud Buzz’s flying, Woody mumbles loud enough for everyone to hear, “That wasn’t flying. It was falling … with style.” 
         
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 Near the end of the 1990s at age 38 I slipped into an emotional black hole that required a two-month sabbatical from my pastoral responsibilities. It was like diving off the end of a bed with my eyes closed to prove that I could fly but finding out that all I could really do was fall … with style.

I left for my renewal time about as deep in depression as I ever want to be. Depression is not new in my life but rather a kind of consistent thread which weaves its way in and out at certain times and in various ways. I have learned to mask it—pretty well I think from the way people respond when they learn. To reveal it publicly at that moment in my life and my career—to people that I loved and trusted so dearly—was not easy. I dove off the bedpost into vulnerability and uncertainty. I had two options—I could crawl up in the corner of my sofa and sleep the days away or I could do something constructive with the time and focus on my life and what it means to fully live it.   

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 6 AM, Thursday morning, the phone woke me. I am not one that usually sees the world in that kind of early dawn haze so I knew I was about to face something unusual.

In September 1988 I was in my last year of seminary and was serving a small church in suburban Philadelphia. A high school friend asked me if I would be interested in performing a wedding—his sister wanted to get married. It would be my first wedding so sure I could do it. After all, I was almost through seminary, I was ordained a deacon by the United Methodist Church, I had my own church. Of course I could do it.

I dragged out my notes from Pastoral Care 101 and reviewed what I should do when I met with Susan and Kevin for a few sessions before the wedding—talk about some family history, find out how much they knew about each other, see if any red flags pop-up, set the date and time. They were mature adults. She had been married before. We were ready.

The Thursday before the wedding my friend was calling me at 6 AM. No one had heard from Kevin for a few days. He had driven here from the West Coast and arrived safely, we knew that, but Susan had no idea where he was now and she was getting worried. We all began calling around to hospitals and the State Police but no one had any information. We waited the day out but heard nothing.

7 PM, Thursday night. I was at the church for choir rehearsal when my office phone rang. Susan. They found Kevin at a nearby State Park but something had happened and he was now at the hospital. I told her I would call to see what I could find out.  

“I heard he was brought in by ambulance.” I was talking to the nurse-in-charge, “Is he all right?”

“Who are you?,” she asked.
  
“I’m the pastor that is marrying Kevin and his fiancé on Saturday,” I replied. “We’ve been searching for him all day.”

There was a pause.
  
“I’m sorry. Kevin has died,” she told me. “He apparently jumped off a cliff at the Park despite police efforts to talk him down.  I’m very sorry,” she said.

I was in shock. I called back to Susan to let her know—she couldn’t believe it, it must have been a mistake, she sobbed, and I could feel through the phone her body slump over into a heap of grief. It took me an hour to get to her house where we talked and cried together. I wasn’t sure what to do—“I wasn’t a real pastor yet, was I?”  My friend and his wife arrived from their day of searching for Kevin and since none of us had cell phones in 1988 they hadn’t heard the news.

I met them on the front lawn with the news. “I’m glad you’re in the ministry, Jim.  This is where you belong,” my friend told me.

Instead of my first wedding on Saturday, I presided over my first funeral on Sunday afternoon. I don’t know how I got through it—I don’t know how anyone got through it—but we did.  At worship on Sunday morning I had preached on a text from the Letter of James: “For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” (James 4:14)  Apparently that’s what Kevin thought, that his life meant nothing, that it was just a mist and then it was gone.  But that’s not true, I told the congregation. God has created each of us and we are each important and valuable and loved. Our lives are more than just a vanishing mist that’s here one day and gone the next. A man at the back of the church sat in his pew and sobbed through the closing hymn.

Kevin didn’t understand the value of life and his suicide was a tragedy that no one understood.

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 What would get me through this personal depression 9 years later? Is my life simply a mist that appears and then vanishes like James says?  Or is what Paul wrote to the church at Corinth more compelling? “We do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

I chose Paul.

I decided at the beginning of my renewal leave that I would spend a lot of time reading and writing and studying—but I didn’t. Instead I spent time sorting through the junk on my workbench in the basement getting my nuts and bolts separated from my screws—important work you know! And I rearranged my study at home so it was more comfortable. I surrounded myself with photos of my grandparents and my parents and my kids so that I could see the faces of those who have always loved me.

But I also started sorting through the emotional nuts and screws. I started therapy, I joined a clergy peer group, I did vocational counseling. I learned from a Myers-Briggs test that I am an EFSJ—Extroverted, Sending, Feeling, Judging—and that that personality type is what makes me do what I do. How’s that for some revelation, huh? I learned that I have trouble expressing my anger. “Oh, you too?,” a friend said, “Along with all of us other white males?”  

But perhaps the most important thing that I discovered was that I needed to learn to be more direct and open and revealing. Vulnerable. I returned to the pulpit and dove full in. I revealed that it was difficult to be public about my depression and to admit that I needed the time away because it connected me so closely to my dad’s reality. My dad whose life I had shared in sermons and stories, who because of a WWII amputation stood on one leg to face the world, who taught me about faith, who was my friend and my hero—my dad took his own life in January of 1983 after a long and painful struggle with PTSD and depression.

I spoke the reality of that life-altering trauma into public existence for the first time. Stigma, shame, conspiracy of silence, guilt and doubt had hidden that piece of me deep down in my ESFJ psyche. It took being shaken by my roots to be public about it but there it was, revealed in a very public way, simply because it was time. The sky didn’t turn blood-red nor did the ground open and swallow me. I found it, in fact, quite freeing and healing. It had been a painful, daily, secret journey through the 14 years between 1983 and 1997 but it is part of who I am. This greatest of all men saw no way out and so his life vanished like a mist.

And I did not want that to happen to me.

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The shame and secrecy and doubt and fear of my dad’s life-end was what was in my head when I had to face that wedding-turned-funeral in 1988. I was terrified because my wound was still so raw and still so secret. My friend who asked me to do the wedding for his sister had known my dad, knew that my dad had died five years before, but he didn’t know, I believe, the circumstances. Or maybe he did and was complicit in my conspiracy.

When I had to face the reality of a soon-to-be groom choosing to plunge to his death rather than land at the altar my anxiety was heightened and my confrontation of my own fears became even more real.

Those feelings flooded back into my life in 1997. 

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I arrived at the end of my renewal time. Healing, but not healed; depressed, but aware of it; looking at the future and counting on it. So Paul it was. I was not simply a “mist that appears and then vanishes.” I was at a place where though my “outer nature” might be wasting away I had not “lost heart” and I came to know my “inner nature was being renewed day by day.” Like Buzz Lightyear, I took a chance at flying and bounced off a few things so that I could finally land on my feet and prove that I could fly.

At the end of that movie, Buzz realizes that he really is only a toy and that he really can’t fly. To catch up with the moving van as it heads for Andy’s new house, Woody lights a fireworks rocket that the nasty neighbor kid had strapped to Buzz’s back. They blast into the air and once the rocket blows out, Buzz spreads his wings and heads for the open sun roof of Andy’s mom’s car.

“You’re flying,” yells Woody as he holds desperately onto Buzz’s back.  

“No,” says Buzz, “I’m falling … with style.”  

That may just be the best metaphor for my life, or maybe for any life actually. There are times when we realize that we are falling rather than flying. But if we stay true to ourselves and can find that there is a way forward, we can do it ... with style. And just maybe we are flying despite it all.

© 2019. James F. McIntire. All rights reserved. 

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