I’m fine.

Why do people even ask “How are you doing?” They don’t really want to know. They want you to say “I’m fine”. They want to then go on to the rest of the conversation.

They don’t really want you to say “Things are terrible” or “My foot hurts” or “My husband is driving me crazy.” They don’t want the truth.

So why ask?

It is a bit of a transition phrase. It is a demarcation point. It is a way of saying, “Hey, I need to have a conversation with you, and this is how we start.” It is seen as polite.

But is it really polite, when nobody cares what the answer really is? To not really care about someone you are talking with is not polite. Now, sure, you may not have the desire to know what is really going on with your waitress or the guy who changes the oil in your truck. So why ask?

We ask because that is what we do.

And every time we do it and don’t really want the truth, we become more and more un-human, and more and more like zombies. We aren’t being conscious or intentional about our lives or our speech.

Finger-painting and leaving church

I finger-paint. I’m 45, and I finger-paint. I admit it. I’m getting in touch with my inner 5 year old – but I’m skipping the tantrum part. In fact, by finger-painting, I’m doing my best to avoid a tantrum.

So far, it is working.

I’m not a great artist. I admire people who can paint or draw better than reality. Right now I’m just learning how to get the paint somewhere near where I intended. That is a good start. I’m trying to be patient with myself. I’m trying to just enjoy the process.

I’ve figured out how to save money on canvasses. I go to Goodwill and buy a large canvas there. I paint over what was on it. So instead of paying $50, I pay $4. Then I don’t feel bad about smearing paint around. It frees me to have fun.

I used to paint on the interior walls of my house, but I’ve run out of space to work. It is a small house. Painting on my walls with my fingers gave me that delicious feeling of going against my parent’s rules. They used to get so upset when I’d draw on the walls. Instead of providing me with paper or canvas, they just yelled at me.

This was my normal.

I’m glad to be painting again.

When I think of it this way, I feel that finger-painting, whether on walls or on canvas, is similar to me leaving church.

I left church when I got chastised by the priest for daring to rethink church. I dared to say that organized religion is in direct opposition to what Jesus meant. I could have gone silent, and played the dutiful, obedient church member. I could have been a drone, like so many others are.

I didn’t stop writing or thinking about what church should be, about what Jesus meant it to be. It just gave fuel to my fire.

Something about finger-painting feels the same. I was told not to, but for no good reason. It wouldn’t have hurt for me to draw on the walls of my room. They could have painted over it when it was time to sell. Heck, I’m the one who had to sell the house. I could have done that. But no, the walls were pristine. Well, except for thirty years of cigarette smoke, staining everything yellow. My doodles were far safer.

I wasn’t given another outlet for my creativity. I wasn’t given a choice. I wasn’t asked. My feelings didn’t matter.

Obey. Obey. Obey. Parents and priests have a lot in common.

Get me away.

It is very hard for me to be any part of the madness going on with my husband’s family right now. I write about compassion and serving people like they are Jesus. I also write about boundaries and dysfunctional families.

These two things don’t go together very well sometimes.

Dealing with them is like dealing with alcoholics. It is as if I have a friend who is a drunk. I say “Don’t drink and drive, because you might have a wreck” and they think they know better, so they drink, and drive, and total their car. And then they say “Hey, I don’t have a car anymore, can you drive me around? Or lend me money for a new car?”

They aren’t drunks. They are just needy, and manipulative, and making bad decisions. They want things done for them that we don’t have the time, energy, or money for. They want things done that I told them we would not provide, yet they are getting them anyway.

The only trips they took my husband and his brother on were of the guilt variety. Lots of abuse – physical, verbal, emotional. It is hard to muster up the desire to take care of someone who harmed someone I love. It is hard to want to help them when they have not admitted to or apologized for the damage they did. They continue to manipulate and control, even now.

And I just have to get away from all of this. It doesn’t require the skill of a prophet to see where all of this is headed.

I told them not to get a house with a yard when they moved up here. I pushed for them getting an apartment. They are both old and not as able to take care of themselves, much less a house with a yard. Plus, when they die or have to move into assisted living, that house will have to be dealt with. That mortgage will still have to be paid.

By us.

I told them that my husband barely has time to take care of our yard and house, and they said that they wanted a yard because she wanted to garden, and he needed the exercise. Neither has happened. They call my husband or his brother over to work on their yard and to maintain their house. Electrical switches, plumbing issues, hedges trimmed. So work doesn’t get done at our house.

A year ago my mother in law finally started to admit to herself that her cancer diagnosis was terminal. In the meantime, my father in law’s Parkinson’s has gotten worse, and he’s starting to get dementia.

I said they need to move into assisted living, ASAP. Nobody listened to me. They are toughing it out at their house –their house which is too big for them. That house is impressive, a show. It isn’t practical. It is bigger than they need. This is normal for them, always having to impress people, always having to have the best.

She’s in rehab right now. She passed out, hit her head, got a concussion, and broke her leg. Rehab, to teach someone how to walk again – someone who will be dead in probably three months because the cancer has spread to her lungs.

They are not thinking ahead. They are about to leave a big mess for us to have to clean up.

See? They didn’t listen, wrecked the car, and we are having to pay for it.

I’m trying to be Christ-like in this. What would Jesus do? What should I do?

But then I remember that Jesus didn’t have to deal with his parents in law, or even his parents. Jesus never got married, and died before his parents did. He raised people from the dead. He didn’t have to watch them die or bury them or sell their stuff. And he certainly didn’t have to do any of that while working a full-time job.

I finally realized that my parents-in-law or my husband or his brother, or even his wife – none of them have been the caregivers for a dying person. I’m the only one who has. I’m the only one who has also handled an estate. I’m giving advice on what to do next because I’ve been there, and they are ignoring me. They think they know better. They are pretending like this will all go away.

Meanwhile, everything that I said was going to happen has happened. I can see the train on the tracks, headed right for us.

I’m trying to stay out of it. I can’t handle any of this madness.
I hate it.
I’m angry and sad and tired.

I want to do the right thing. I also don’t want to be seen as a hypocrite – someone who talks about Jesus and compassion and service and then bails when the going gets rough, when things get real.

But there is also codependency and enabling to consider too.

If I rescue them, if I essentially say that it is OK for them to screw up their lives and drag us down with them, that isn’t being very loving.

Sometimes there aren’t any easy answers. Sometimes there aren’t any answers at all. Sometimes there isn’t a happy ending. Sometimes it just sucks.

Bell towers

I keep being drawn to bell towers these days. Not real ones, but images of them. I didn’t even realize they were bell towers. I just knew they were four-sided tall towers, with window-like openings at the top.

What did I think they were? I didn’t. I just thought they were pretty. Now that I know what they are, I have to meditate upon it, because apparently it has a meaning and a message for me.

Anything can be a useful thing to meditate on. Anything can give you insight and teach you. But I find it especially significant to focus on things that repeat, because I see them as a sign from God to pay attention. God is saying “Here is something you need to notice.”

One of the images was at a friend’s house. Her husband had taken a picture of a bell tower at a church in downtown Nashville. It is just the bell tower, the sky, and birds. Something about it reminds me of the Episcopal retreat center on Monteagle Mountain. That place is old and musty and quaint and a little falling down. It has a Spanish mission style architecture, with red-tile roofing and white stucco exteriors.

This bell tower is like that, but I think there is more to it. There is something that hints at the idea of the Holy Spirit, with the birds flying nearby. There is something about the angle of the picture that makes me think the eye was suddenly jerked upwards, noticing this structure for the first time.

I’d admired this picture several times when I went over to visit, and then it was missing. They’d taken it to an art show to try to sell it. I felt the loss of it more than I realized. I didn’t know that I liked it that much until it wasn’t there. I asked my friend to have her husband make me a copy of it so I could have it at my house.

Then there is another picture. There is an etching that I’ve admired for at least eight years. It was tucked away under the stairs in an art gallery in Banner Elk, North Carolina. Every year, for years, I’d gone by this gallery and noticed that it was still there. I hoped that they would put it on sale. It was $100. I couldn’t really justify $100 for an etching. They can make more – it isn’t an original, a one-of-a-kind. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that if I didn’t have it, I would feel the same loss, the same emptiness that I felt when my friend took that photograph away.

I remembered that I’d paid more than $100 for that photograph. That too can be reproduced. That too isn’t a one of a kind. But, hey, artists have to eat and pay bills, and I sure wish that people would pay me full price for what I make. So it was time to pony up and buy it.

It wasn’t until I saw the title written on the back of the etching that I knew it was of a bell tower. Two bell tower images, purchased within a few months of each other, both now in my house. I’d admired the etching for years and not even known what it was.

So what about bell towers? They are where the church uses to call the faithful to prayer. But “the call” can also mean the call from God. It can mean about the call to ministry, the call to service.

I need to listen to this message.

If I don’t respond to the call, I’ll feel empty. I’ll notice that it isn’t there and feel lost. This isn’t about iconizing the image of a bell tower – it is about heeding what it points to. It is about hearing the call and responding to it. It is about realizing that if I don’t respond, I’ll feel like I’ve missed out on my life’s purpose.

Does this mean I’m being called to the ordained ministry? No. Most certainly not. The more I read of the words of Jesus, the more I know with all certainty that the ordained ministry is a direct affront to Jesus’ wishes.

Jesus came to take away the power from the authorities. He removed all divisions between God and people, and between different groups of people. Jesus says we are all good, and we are all ministers, by virtue of our baptism.

So what, exactly? I feel like I’ll know when I get there. It would be nice to follow along a path that others have trod. It would be nice to be able to say what I’m headed towards, but there aren’t words yet. Perhaps it should just suffice to say that I’m headed towards God, and forget about the how or the what or even the when. Just do it, you know?

Meanwhile I’m going to fall and fail and trip a lot. Meanwhile I’m going to tick some people off and alienate some others. In short, I’m going to be human.

Basically, I’m like a bell tower. I want to call others to prayer. I want people to go towards God. If I can show them a path or light the way, awesome. Meanwhile, I have to hear and heed the call for myself.

But bell towers crumble, and get dirty, and birds start to nest in them. They stop working right.

Just like how I don’t want to get stuck iconizing the image of the bell tower, I don’t want people to focus on me. I don’t want people to think I’ve got all the answers, because I certainly don’t. I want people to know that they are forgiven and loved, and that they are supposed to go do the same.