In the late summer of 1996, I was 26 years old and I had packed up my car and headed to Wyoming for an internship at a church there. It was just me and a pile of cassette tapes and a boombox next to me as I drove across the prairie toward my home for the next year. I arrived on that cool August Saturday evening where I met up with a member of the church who took me over to where I was to live. She showed me around the place – it was half of a townhouse. She dropped the key in my hand and said brightly, “See you tomorrow morning.” And then left me alone there. Even with the traffic outside, it felt like I had never been in a quieter or more lonesome place than being in that empty half of a townhouse that evening. The neighbor kids rang my doorbell shortly after I got there and looked at me hopefully and said, “Do you have any kids?” I shook my head and said no, and they said, “oh” – and walked away. “Welcome to Wyoming”, I thought.
I began to unload my car and get settled in my house and even though I was nervous, I was determined to learn as much as I could and make the most of being in this new place where I didn’t know a soul. Over the next days and weeks I got to know the congregation and they were very nice. There was about one other single person my age in town – he was the Presbyterian minister – and he called and we started going out to movies now and then. I was busy and staying productive and doing my best – things would have been looking pretty good – except for one large, looming problem – that my internship supervisor didn’t think I was doing a very good job at all.
Within days of my arrival he began to come in my office each morning with a list of ways I was failing miserably. The way I preached – not good. The way I taught – sorely lacking. The way I dressed – I looked “too female”. My personality – too quiet. Each day I began to dread going to work as I knew what was coming – more criticism. Being the dutifully obedient girl I had been brought up to be, I spent each day trying to become the kind of pastor he wanted me to be and do what he wanted me to do – but it was never good enough. At a time in my life when I needed encouragement and support in the gifts I did have – every day was a painful gouging of my spirit as he pointed out all the gifts I didn’t have. By the end of the first month, he sat across from me in my office shaking his head as he said, “Ruth, I just don’t think you have what it takes to be a pastor. I wish you hadn’t come here.”
He said all this to me – and I absorbed all his criticism and anger and thought, “wow, he must be right.” He’s a pastor – he is older than me – he knows stuff. What did I know? My spirits began to sink lower and lower. The weeks ticked by and I grew more and more miserable. The thought of being there a whole year brought me nearly to despair.
So after a few months of this, my office phone rang one bleak morning. It was my hometown pastor. He had run into my mom at the bank in Henning who had told him how horrible I was feeling and what an awful experience I was having. God bless him – but he said to me, “You know, Ruth, you don’t have to stay there.” He said some other stuff, too – but that was what I heard – “you don’t have to stay there.” That had honestly never occurred to me – that I could leave – that I could refuse to agree with being told I was garbage, and I could shake the dust from my feet and leave. That same day, I called the seminary and finally told them how awful it had been. The office that had set up that internship knew me because I had worked in that office and they knew I wasn’t bluffing. They said one of them would come out to see us the next week and see if they could help us work things out.
But that night as I sat in my half of a townhouse, I knew “working things out” was not what I wanted. I didn’t want one more minute of that pastor’s influence in my life. I was going to leave first thing in the morning – leave Wyoming, leave seminary. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I didn’t have the foggiest clue. I just knew I had stayed too long already and I all I could see was the road away from that place and that awful internship. It was equal parts liberating and crushingly sad to me as I packed up my car that night – getting ready to leave at first light. I felt like I was setting myself free – but I also felt I was letting God down. As I drove away I remember I just kept saying, “I’m sorry, God”, “I’m sorry, God” – over and over. I said “goodbye” to no one. When I tell this story I say it was the only bridge I ever burned.
I used to feel a lot of shame about this story. I saw it as a failure – my failure – that if I were stronger I would have stayed and toughed it out. That if I were stronger I would have stood up to the bully internship supervisor and fought for my place there. But now I know that it was probably good I left when I did….to preserve whatever gentleness I still had within me. As it was, it took me six months to return to seminary – to begin to believe that maybe, just maybe one awful pastor in Wyoming shouldn’t have the final say in what was to become of me.
And the reason I tell this story is because of how I returned – how I came back to life after that…because it was one of the darkest times I have ever known. I can tell you about it because I know you have been there in your own ways. We all know times in the valley of dry bones.
How I came back to life was like this: A friend let me sleep in her spare bedroom while I tried to figure out some brand new course for my life.
How I came back to life was like this: Another friend who helped me find a job would bring me a cold diet coke and place it on my desk for me each morning – she knew I was so sad I could hardly speak and so she would bring this little gift for me each day.
How I came back to life was like this: Countless people – my friends, pastors, professors, my family – kept checking in with me and encouraging me – not to do anything in particular – but just to let me know that I was okay, and I was loved, and I was held.
How I came back to life was like this: That winter I got a job in a bookstore, I began dating the long-haired opera singer who worked there. He was decidedly not Christian – he called himself a pagan – but we would spend hours talking about faith and God and the church. Hours and hours. And maybe one might think that that spending oodles of time talking about God with my pagan boyfriend might be the thing to draw me farther away from seminary – but it was precisely that which brought me back. God works how God works – and suddenly I had the energy and desire to try again. The belief that I could. And while my pagan boyfriend and I didn’t last all the way through seminary, he bought me this clergy stole I’m wearing today, and he couldn’t have been more proud of me on ordination day. We are still good friends. God worked through that relationship and so many others in my life at that time to heal me and get me headed in the direction I needed to go again.
So – as Martin Luther would say – what does this mean?
At Bible study on Wednesday, we talked about the story of the Dry Bones and how God breathed life into the bones and they lived. A discussion question we pondered was, “What kinds of situations do people face which might cause them to despair that they feel like dried, dead bones? How might God’s Spirit breathe life and hope into these folks?” The stories people told were beautiful and awful and meaningful – all at the same time. I marveled at how we each understand at our very core what it means to be in the midst of the Valley of Dry Bones – and thank God, by God’s grace, we understand what it means to have the breath of God grant us newness of life again.
What does this mean?
I read recently that the road to Easter runs through the graveyard. We can’t get to Easter morning without first going through the horror of Good Friday. I don’t understand why times of devastation must come in our own lives, but I do know that when the ease, and laughter, and joy return after wandering in darkness, we catch a glimpse of the joy of the resurrection. I’m thankful for that.
What does this mean?
Be present for each other.
Know that God is with you – even in the darkest, driest, most desolate places you go through.
Wait patiently for that renewing Spirit to fill you again with breath and life
Don’t expect that Spirit to come in any certain way
Or to always feel its presence quickly
Or to arrive on demand
But you can trust it will come.
It always does.
It’s with us right now.
I pray that Holy Spirit fills you full today and you will know how precious and loved you are.
In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
“Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.” – Ezekiel 37:5-6