For The Someday Book

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Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger. Atria Books, 2013, 307 pp.

Ordinary GraceThe title drew me in from the “new books” section of the library. I’d never heard of William Kent Krueger before, but he is apparently best known as a mystery writer. Ordinary Grace is a bit of a mystery, but it is mostly a coming-of-age story about a young boy, son of a Methodist minister, as the reality of death touches his small community and his family. It is not the best book I’ve ever read, but it was a good story well told. I couldn’t put it down, and it made me weep more than once. It spoke to my heart in a powerful way in this season of my life, as the pastor parent of a young boy.

The story belongs to Frank Drum, who is thirteen in the summer of 1961 and the novel’s narrator. Frank and his younger brother Jake have the run of their Minnesota small town, while their older sister Ariel is busy preparing to attend Julliard in the fall. Their daily explorations unpack the town’s characters: the minister father who carries invisible scars from his bleak past at war; the mother who gave up her own musical dreams; the piano teacher Emil Brandt, blind from war wounds and resigned from a life of fame; his sister Lise, living with mental illness; their father’s war buddy Gus, who lives in the church’s basement. There are savory and unsavory characters, from their young friends to a Native American with a past to the rowdy teenagers to the town police officers. The story unfolds a series of tragic deaths that occur over the course of the summer. As Frank is exposed to these deaths, and to the events that led to them, he enters an adult world of violence, betrayal, adultery, prejudice and more.

What drew me in was the plainspoken style that Krueger gave to many of the adult characters, especially Rev. Drum, as they explained to the boys and to one another the realities of loss, hope and especially grace. I put nearly a dozen flags in the book, and copied out countless quotations to keep for later. Here are just a few.

These are Rev. Drum’s remarks at the funeral of a transient man whose identity is unknown. I would hope to speak so simply and truthfully.

We believe too often that on the roads we walk we walk alone. Which is never true. Even this man who is unknown to us was known to God and God was his constant companion. God never promised us an easy life. He never promised that we wouldn’t suffer, that we wouldn’t feel despair and loneliness and confusion and desperation. What he did promise was that in our suffering we would never be alone. And though we may sometimes make ourselves blind and deaf to his presence he is beside us and around us and within us always. We are never separated from his love. And he promised us something else, the most important promise of all. That there would be surcease. That there would be an end to our pain and our suffering and our loneliness, that we would be with him and know him, and this would be heaven. This man, who in life may have felt utterly alone, feels alone no more. This man, whose life may have been days and nights of endless waiting, is waiting no more. He is where God always knew he would  be, in a place prepared. And for this we rejoice.” (71)

When the Drum family suffers a terrible loss, Rev. Drum questions whether his own sins in war might be to blame. His war buddy Gus responds with words that cut to my heart as a pastor who has known times of doubt.

Gus said, “You think God operates that way, Captain? Hell, that sure ain’t what you’ve been telling me all these years. And as for those sins of yours, I’m guessing you mean the war, and haven’t you always told me that you and me and the others we could be forgiven? You told me you believed it as surely as you believed the sun would rise every morning. And I’ve got to tell you, Captain, you seemed so certain that you got me believing too. … I can’t see any way that the God you’ve talked yourself blue to me and everyone else about would be responsible for what happened.Seems to me you’re reeling here, Captain. Like from a punch in the face. When you come around you’ll see that you’ve been right all along. I know I give you a hard time about your religion, but damned if I’m not grateful at heart that you believe it. Somebody’s got to. For all the rest of us, Captain, somebody’s got to.” (191-192)

I know what it feels like to carry the weight of faith because other people need you to believe it, even when you have your doubts. Krueger’s ability to name this subtle experience of ministry so plainly moved me.

I also learned from the Prologue a quotation from Aeschylus that I had not heard before.

He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain, which cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.

In the end, it was the grace of Ordinary Grace that moved me–the way the characters in this small town extended grace and forgiveness to one another across terrible circumstances.

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Palm Sunday this year was a microcosm of the ups and downs of being a preacher’s kid. It was a big Sunday at our church, with a special event that more than doubled our normal attendance. J does not come to church, so B usually hangs with me and runs around the fellowship hall before worship, then sits with the nursery worker (Ms. F) and her family until after the children’s sermon, when all the children head to the nursery or Sunday school.

However, Palm Sunday begins with a Blessing of the Palms with our neighboring churches. We all gather in the back yard of the church, lay the palms in the grass, bless them, sing, and process back to our own churches for worship. I figured it would be nice for B to stay with me during this part. Everyone stands in a circle, so he could just stand with me in the clergy clump. He got to hold my hand and lead the procession into the church, singing “All Glory, Laud and Honor.” I had been practicing the song with him all week, so he knew the first verse and chorus for us to sing together. And what kid doesn’t love waving a palm branch in the air, leading the parade? High times.

Me & B in the clergy clump

Once we arrived in the sanctuary, I deposited him in his normal spot with Ms. F and her family, and everything flowed smoothly. He came up with the other kids for the children’s sermon, and departed to play with his friends in the nursery.

After church, I always have a hard time getting back to see him, so he sits at fellowship hour with Ms. F. She makes sure he gets cookies and lemonade, and I try to work my way through the crowd before he’s finished with them. But this was a big Sunday. A really, really big Sunday. After church was a full luncheon and program, and crowds of people trying to talk with me. I breezed by to check on B at one point, and he looked overwhelmed by the crowds. “I want you to sit with me,” he said. “I’m sorry, B, I can’t right now—I still need to talk to some people. You enjoy your lunch.” He looked disappointed, but the fruit and cookies on his lunch plate quickly restored his spirits.

The luncheon wore on, and I was helping to lead the program. I managed to get to the food table and load a plate, but there was no chance of eating. I weaved my way to the table with B and Ms. F’s family and set the plate down. B said, “Mommy, I want you to sit with me. I want to eat all together.” I noticed his lunch was mostly untouched. “I’m sorry, B, but I can’t right now—I’ll come back and sit with you when I’m done leading up front, and we can sit and eat together.” He looked sad.

Then it was time to hand out gifts for the special occasion, so I was walking from table to table handing out gift bibles. I got to B’s table with Ms. F and family. “Mommy!” He was so excited to see me. I smiled back, but I was talking into a live mike and I had to keep moving. When I was two tables away, I turned to see him standing on his chair, looking over the heads of the crowd directly at me: “Mommy! I want you to come sit with me!” The look on his face was forlorn. “I’m sorry, B. I’m almost done, I promise. My plate is with you, and I’ll come sit and eat with you as soon as I’m done.” His face fell, then wrinkled, then pulled tight into a cry. Mine almost did too. I watched him take a deep breath and pull himself together to avoid a meltdown in public. He sat down quietly and waited. I felt awful. No one else seemed to even notice this moment, or the tension I was feeling as mom and minister.

Finally, I said a prayer to send the crowds out, and tried to work my way across the room to where my son and my lunch awaited. It felt like people were swarming around me—everyone wanted to say something, to congratulate me on the successful event, to tell me a story, ask for a prayer or just have my attention. I finally made it to where he was sitting. Ms. F had carefully preserved my plate and his, even as the volunteers were busily clearing the tables. I greeted him, but his response was half-hearted. I tried to sit down, but three more people lined up to talk to me. Ms. F and her family left, and two more people came to talk to me. B got up and stood next to me at the table, and I picked him up and let him interrupt the adult conversation, once again promising to sit down and eat in just a minute.

Finally, there was a break in the flow and the hall began to empty. I sat down in my chair and put B in his, only to discover that our food was gone. We had been standing there the whole time, but someone had come along and cleaned off the table—including our food. Poor B just lost it. You just don’t break a promise to a three-year-old. Especially one who has been so patient and so good while for the last two-and-a-half hours his mother paid attention to everyone in the world but him.

I felt awful. And exhausted. And hungry. And embarrassed that my three-year-old was bawling in my arms, but proud of him for standing up for his needs the only way he knew how.

In one short Sunday, B had journeyed from the head of the parade  to the back of the line, from the center of attention to the only one who couldn’t get my attention. This scenario gets repeated week in and week out. Everyone wants to greet him and talk to him. They bring him gifts and talk about how cute and smart and beautiful he is. He is everyone’s darling.

But they aren’t his darling. I am. He loves the attention and he has extra grandmas everywhere—but the only person he really cares about is me. I’m the person that meets his needs and calm him down. I’m the one he wants to share his lunch with, the one he wants to show his new truck to, the one he wants to hold him. And on Sunday mornings, I’m the only one he can’t have. And it must seem from his perspective that he’s the only one who can’t have me. When he is not being darling, when he just needs his mama like any other three-year-old, he can’t have me—because those same people are keeping mama busy listening to their medical concerns and church business and questions about the Mother-Daughter banquet. They are needy children too.

I feel every week the stress and strain of being both minister and mom, attending to both the needs of my son and my church members. But he feels it too—the stress and strain of being the preacher’s kid, who is simultaneously the head of the parade and the last in line, but never able to be just an ordinary part of the crowd, a kid enjoying worship and a church potluck with his mama.

After some hugs and rocking, we went to the kitchen together, and because I am the preacher they opened the foil wrappings and put-away casseroles for us. We managed to cobble together enough leftovers to resemble a lunch. As much as I wanted to just go home and kick off my shoes, we sat together in the church fellowship hall at the same table where B had waited so long with Ms. F and her family, and quietly ate our food while the volunteers wiped tables and mopped floors around us. It was the best this minister mom could do that day.

It’s amazing what a kid learns in church. Today, in addition to learning about Palm Sunday, waving palms and shouting “Hosanna!” , even singing along with the refrain to “All Glory, Laud and Honor,” B informed me that he learned that lemonade comes in two colors: pink and yellow. Usually, we have yellow, but today we had pink, and he decided pink is much better.

In every conversation about what we did on Palm Sunday, the pink lemonade featured as prominently as the palms.

I look forward to Christmas pageant Sunday. Not because I just get a Sunday off from preaching (which is nice), but because I just get to be a mom in church for awhile. Sure, I have to run the rest of the service–but from the time the pageant starts until the singing of the final carol, I slip into the pew next to my son. I get to handle his wiggling, shush his talking, introduce him to the hymnal, answer his questions and coax him to wear the shepherd’s hat and walk down the aisle with the other kids.

Being a preacher’s kid can be tough. Everyone knows you, and thinks you should know them and talk to them like the preacher does. Everyone expects you to have exemplary behavior, and everyone is always paying attention. This is only complicated by the fact that I am not there to sit next to him in worship to coach him along. J does not come to church regularly, so he sits with the nursery worker and her family. So far, as he approaches his 3rd birthday, B has risen to the challenge and exceeded all reasonable expectations for good manners and church decorum.

But I always treasure these (few) days when I get to be the parent in the pew. Like every other mom, I wanted him to be willing to put on the darling angel garland or brown fabric square and rough yarn that will transform him into a shepherd, to parade down the aisle and participate in the pageant. Like every young child, he resisted. Definitely no headgear for him, but his curiosity was piqued enough to go join the gaggle of kids up front to see the baby Jesus. And the three minutes I spent on the floor by the front pew, where I had walked him up front, where he was turning around to me and deciding whether to stay or go, pointing at the baby Jesus and smiling at me–those three minutes were priceless.

And holding him, wiggling and restless in the back, waiting for his chance to go up front, when I can’t get him to stop talking because he’s so excited, when he whispers in my ear, “Look, Mommy! The ornaments on the tree are dancing!” because one of the angels has her wings caught on a low branch, I know why I love the Christmas pageant every year. I get to be mom, and nothing else, even for just a little while.

B celebrated his first Communion today, a few weeks shy of his third birthday. We were visiting a parishioner in a nursing home, taking communion for Christmas. As I was setting it up, he got very inquisitive about what I was doing, and he said, “I want to have communion too!” That was enough to make me say yes.

As a child, my parents decided that we should not take communion until after our confirmation, usually around age 12. Because everyone in my home church went forward to kneel at the altar to commune, I remember feeling conspicuous, excluded and isolated sitting alone in the pew. I remember being angry that people thought I wasn’t old enough to understand, and a sense of righteous indignation that anyone would try to deny me access to Jesus’ own body and blood. Clearly, I understood what communion was all about–I should have been able to partake. This experience has given me a passionate commitment to the openness of the communion table to this day. Christ invited everyone to partake at the table–no one should be denied access to Christ’s table, for any reason.

In reaction, I decided I would never deny B the chance to come to Christ’s table. I also decided that I would not ever allow him to participate without some explanation of what we were doing. This is not “snack time.” Since we will be serving communion at the family-oriented Christmas Eve service, I figured that would be his first time. I had planned to spend some time explaining it in advance. But today he asked to be a part of Christ’s table, and I could not deny him. Prepared or not, today was the day, this nursing home room was the place.

As I filled the tiny cups and stacked the silver platter with wafers, I explained to him that this was very special juice and bread–that we didn’t eat until we heard the story, and that the story was about Jesus. This bread and cup help us remember the story about Jesus. Then I proceeded to perform the short liturgy for home communion. B listened carefully throughout, and paid attention appropriately. He was probably more attentive than the resident we were visiting!

When the time came to serve, I served my parishioner first, then broke my piece in half and gave some to B. He held it until I said, “take and eat,” and he took and ate. I had to tell him to wait, not to grab the tiny cup of juice that was so tempting, but he waited patiently while I served her and took a sip myself before giving him the rest. Then he drank, and sweetly collected the cups and carried them to the trash.

Oh, the life of a preacher’s kid! What an odd collection of spiritual milestones he will have!

Who knows if he will remember this, but it was a special moment for me, to include him in this holy sacrament, to bring him into the circle of Christ’s family table. I pray it will be the first of many, many tastes of the bread and cup, and that he will always feel welcome at the table.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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