Friday, July 24, 2009

Pointless Shame

When I was a little girl, I was ashamed that my Aunt Thelma could bite into an ice cream cone with her front teeth and I couldn't because the cold of the ice cream hurt too much. My aunt would egg me on and mock me when I couldn't bite the ice cream, but I kept trying so as not to be shamed. To this day I am able to bite into an ice cream cone without the cold hurting me.

When I was grown up, telling that story in a family gathering, my mother told me that Aunt Thelma had had all her top teeth pulled when she was in her twenties. She had false teeth. That was why she could bite into an ice cream cone without feeling the cold.

Only today have I understood the implications of that story of my aunt's pulled teeth, an understanding beyond how I had experienced my aunt as a pretty horrible tease all my life. The real point came to me when I reminded myself that I had my mother's mouth, a mouth given to incurable gum disease. This morning I realized the truth: I'm lucky to have as many of my own teeth as I have. My aunt wasn't so lucky.

I'm one of the "lucky" people who has had all four of her wisdom teeth and none of them impacted. Yesterday I had two upper right back molars extracted - the wisdom tooth and the molar next to it. They were healthy teeth. They had to come out because they were loose and "not doing you any good". They were loose because I have bone loss caused by gum disease. They were a loss because I had already, over the years, had the three matching lower right molars extracted over time and those two upper molars had nothing with which to occlude, which compounded the effect of the gum disease.

I have gum disease in spite of thirty years of meticulous home care of my teeth and gums. I inherited my mother's and aunt's "tenacious calculus" (not to be confused with tenacious integral calculus!). I have extremely fine, grainy, extra sticky calculus, a bacteria which accumulates as plague under the gum line and attacks the bone in which the teeth are afixed.

But in addition to inheriting a type of calculus, I didn't have regular dental care until I was thirty years old. And this, again, goes back to my family life.

We never had a lot of money. I wore hand-me-downs, which is hard when you're the only girl and the oldest in the family. It means my hand-me-downs came in a big cardboard box from people I didn't know. Dental and health care were for emergencies. I went to the dentist only when I had a cavity, which means I didn't go often. When I was a teenager, I had my first extraction, a molar on the lower left. The dentist was evil. He scared me. The day he extracted my tooth, he turned to me after I had opened my eyes and held the tooth in front of me and said, "Someone's going to make a lot of money off your mouth one of these days!" I never went back.

Finally, plaque build-up that, combined with smoking, made my lower teeth look rotted, inspired a friend to have the courage to take me to her dentist. There I began thirty years of faithful attendance of oral care alternating between the dentist and the periodontist. I hated it, but I did it, and my home care was and still is faithful and meticulous, even when I go camping! (And people were surprised to see my lower teeth were fine!)

But then, both the periodontist and the dentist retired in the same month. It was more than I could bear to try out the perio's replacement and find a new dentist. So for six years I didn't go to a dentist or a perio. Moving from church to church was only an excuse for why I had not found new oral care professionals. The truth was I was afraid of trying. I was afraid of getting another monster.

So, yesterday I faced the pointless shame of having two otherwise healthy teeth extracted. Make no mistake: I feel shame for having had to have these teeth extracted. And there's no point to the shame. It's an inherited shame. Like my mouth, like the attitude toward dentistry, my shame has roots in my past: only poor, uneducated people have teeth extracted. It's a sign of being beneath the good people.

I am a priest in the Episcopal Church. I have had a total of six extractions over the years. My lower teeth are shifting leaving a couple of gaps. I feel ashamed of my smile.

But I smile anyway. I'm known, in part, for my smile. No one has ever said to me, "You low class person, go away from us!" The shame I feel is pointless. I write, therefore, in part to exorcise that shame demon, but more to encourage others.

Shame is pointless. It just sits there, eating at you. Remorse for deeds done or left undone is an action for right and good. Shame and embarrassment are debilitating. I intend to keep smiling and not worry whether or not people can now see that there is a big gap in the back of my smile. I'll smile as a sign and symbol for anyone else who feels this pointless shame, and as an example for those who may be lucky enough to have a perfect smile, for mine is as perfect as anyone else's because it's mine.

Monday, July 20, 2009

This and That

It's Monday 20 July 2009 and there's so much to report.

First, I started online Spanish lessons through the Tell Me More program through my local library. If I take the class at the library, I can use Rosetta Stone. Both are free to cardholders of the library, of which I am one. Muy bien!

On Friday, I went to the Transfer Station (the dump) to get one of those blue plastic tubs to put my recycling in. An English speaking person waited on me, but a Latino got the tub for me, so when I took it from him I said, "Gracias" and he replied in Spanish, "De nada"! I can't tell you how much that tiny exchange thrilled me. He didn't condescend to answer in English; he answered en Espanol, as if I deserved it. I am encouraged to learn more than ever from that little moment.

Second, I have discovered the web site of St. John's Center for Spiritual Formation the importance of which is in one of the dreams of the Mission Congregation of Grace Episcopal Church to become a center for Christian spiritual formation! St. John's is an interfaith meditation center. It's not a big stretch to go interfaith with the MG's dream. I love the daily sittings - 2o minutes of silent sitting, 5 minutes of walking meditation, another 20 minutes of sitting, from 7;30-8:15 a.m. Monday through Friday and 9-9:45 a.m. Saturdays and major holidays. That's something we can start right away!

Interested? Let me know.

Third, by sometime in September, if the weather and the use of the church parking lot cooperate, there will be a prayer labyrinth painted on the parking lot of Grace Episcopal Church in Norwalk. Another dream come true, and another step toward that spiritual formation center dream. The path will be wide enough for wheelchairs and walkers, which will mean a pretty big labyrinth, hence the parking lot, and also lots less expensive than other ways of laying out a labyrinth. I am so grateful to the people at Grace who are going to make this dream come true.

Fourth, there will be a "Street Mass" on the last Sunday of every month, from September through December (with a Thanksgiving Sunday picnic after the November service, and I hope we come up with a wonderful way to make Christmas possible for people who live on the street at the December service). That gives us time to get police, neighbors, bag lunch volunteers, other churches, and things we haven't thought of yet in place, so we can go weekly in the new year. We'll hold the services in the parking lot, on the labyrinth, so it's on our property, and in the path of lots of foot traffic every day of the week including Sunday.

I want to thank the dreamers at Grace, and elsewhere, who are making these things possible. There are other things in the works, but you will have to wait awhile on those.

Thank you to all of you, also, who have kept Grace Church in your prayers, and who have been praying faithfully the prayer, "What is God calling us to do in this place?". What, indeed. All these ideas came about since we started praying that prayer. If you put yourself in the way of the Holy Spirit's path, with the intent to serve the world through Her, She answers, and not in some half-measured way, but abundantly, in a pouring over, rushing rivers way. Thanks be to God.

So, if you come to Grace, and see from 25 (in the summer) to 50 people in the pews, and that tempts you to give Grace a miss, don't. There are lots of things coming to birth at Grace and I want you to be part of them.

And if Sunday worship is not your thing, try the Mission Congregation, on the second Saturday of each month, resuming on September 12 at 1:00 p.m. after a brief summer break. You will be treated to 2 hours of Bible study, free discussion, dreaming, planning for the dreams, and sharing of the Bread and Wine of Holy Communion.

I hope to see you at worship soon. May the God of Peace bless and keep you always.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Chaplain to Children

I'm off today, Sunday July 5, to camp to become chaplain to children age 7 to 12 years. This is going back to my roots in ministry. My first call was to the Cathedral Church of St. John in Wilmington, Delaware, where, as minister of children's spiritual formation, spiritual resource for the children's choir school and program director of the Debnam House community center for elementary school age children, I was, overall, chaplain to the children of the cathedral and Brandywine Village.

I loved it. I have tried to carry this love into primary pastor ministry. It was why I was called to most of the places I have served.

It's an odd thing: work with children almost always is deputed to assisting clergy who may or may not have any gift or calling to it, or, if lucky, to lay people who do have a calling. I have noticed that is beneath the call to rector or primary pastor/clergy. The adults expect the top man or woman to tend to them, while finding other people to work with their children. Oddly, at the same time, every profile I read for rector/primary clergyperson includes some primary reference to building up the Sunday School numbers and developing a youth program.

Well, this week, for one week, I don't have to worry about any of this "who is called to what" business. I'm off to Camp Washington until Friday, and I can hardly wait.

I'll be out of touch. But I know all of you are perfectly capable of taking care of yourselves and one another. It's the children who need a priest and for six days I get to fulfill that call.

Peace to you all.