Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Is This What an Empath Is?

I don’t have mystical or psychic abilities but I possess qualities that would identify me as an empath.   

At church, when I greeted people, I surveyed their faces. Was there sadness or fatigue in the eyes? Were there worried frowns behind the smiles? Or were they masking everything over? When I shook their hands, I noted the strength in the grip, the temperature, and whether they had a wedding band. If I hugged someone I gauged their vitality and shared some of mine with them.   I listened to the tone of voice and I paid attention to the nuance of their words. I did a quick survey from head to foot. I saw tattoos, jewelry, and state of dress. It's not that I cared how well they dressed--I was looking for signs as to how they were.

I did this outside of church, too, at restaurants and the grocery store.  There were often many encounters within a short amount of time.  Once, someone accompanied me to the Walmart and commented later, “Within fifteen minutes you met with eight people, all of whom told you significant things about themselves.” That was normal for me.

I absorb people’s feelings. I feel their sadness and pain. I enjoy their happiness, too, but mostly I feel the angst.  When I visited the hospitals, I often felt their symptoms while I was with patients. 

Sometimes, especially at funerals, I'd get overwhelmed when I stood in front of a crowd and felt their collective vulnerabilities and it would all slam into me as I gathered my thoughts.

I’ve done this all my life and it helped me be a good minister.  Nobody forced this on me. It’s who I am and what I do. But there were periods when it all bore down on me like a great weight, and it would feel like any minute my knees would give out and I’d crumble to the floor. I don’t think people noticed except maybe other empaths. I could hide it because I was cheerful and talkative, but inside I was wearing out.

During this last year, I’ve rested and reevaluated, and I’m learning to develop the ability to protect myself so I can continue to function. Additionally, I’m finding things that replenish me. 

Sunday, May 28, 2017

ER Visit and a Wedding

I stopped just after I entered through the door. The emergency room was bustling with nurses and patients.  I turned around to leave but then I stopped again.  I was still standing in the entrance when the attendant at the counter noticed me.

“May I help you?” she asked.

“I… don’t know if I really have an emergency,” I stammered.

“What’s the problem, sir?”

“My chest hurts… and…” And then I started crying and couldn’t stop. 

It became a blur at that point. I remember a nurse came and guided me to a room. She spoke softly as she took my blood pressure, pulse, and temperature. Then she pasted a bunch of electrodes all over my chest and back.  She left the room saying the doctor would see me as soon as he could.  She came back to check on me a couple of times. 

It wasn’t my heart. It was an anxiety attack.  I’d been having them often, only not as severe. Before I left my job at the church I had one every Sunday morning before people arrived for the service.  My chest and head would pound, I couldn’t breathe, and I’d get dizzy and nauseated.  I knew it was anxiety so I tamped it down by focusing on the people in front of me.  But that weekday the pain in my chest came and wouldn’t go away.  In fact it became worse which is why I went to the ER.

It was embarrassing. I hated telling anyone that I was panicking when there was no emergency.  On the other hand, I guess I was having an ongoing emergency and my heart was in pain as I faced major changes in my home and career. 

Late in the afternoon they took all the electrodes off me and told me to go home and relax.

That next week, a young couple who didn’t attend my church asked me to perform their wedding.  They came to my office and we discussed the particulars of the ceremony.  When I asked what they did for a living, the woman surprised me when she said she was a nurse at the ER.

“Did you see me when I was there last week?” I asked. 

She nodded. I felt the embarrassment and I didn’t know what to say.  I was the pastor giving advice and instruction yet she had seen me as a blubbering mess. 

“Are you comfortable,” I said, “with my doing your ceremony?”

She smiled and said, “Sure, if you are.”

We continued the session.  A few weeks later I performed the wedding.  As I had her repeat the vows, my memory came back and I realized she was the nurse who actually took care of me. 

After the service I hugged her and said, “I didn’t remember you until just now.”

She understood. 

If I were still a minister I might tack on a verse or spiritual observation at this point.  But really… I got nothing.  I wrote this so people would understand how bad I was feeling when I left. But I also wrote so I wouldn’t forget that a person I was assigned to help had already helped me.   

Friday, May 26, 2017

Just a Gringo from Texas

“Don’t take this the wrong way, man,” the middle school student said, “but you talk Spanish like a Gringo.”

“That’s okay,” I said. “I talk English like a Texan… y’all.

In Orlando, we have many cultures living next to each other.  People from Puerto Rico, Cuba, Venezuela, Haiti, France, England, Vietnam, Korea, China….   And then there are all those strange-talking foreigners from the north like New York, Chicago, and Idaho (hey, if you’re not from Texas you’re a foreigner to us).

Kidding aside, it’s a splendid place to live where the cultures weave themselves in a vibrant tapestry.  But it’s complicated. I try to pay attention but I don’t understand everything I see and hear. 

The other day, I was substitute teaching in a rowdy class.  One kid started throwing a partially filled water bottle into the air, trying to get it to land right side up—a popular physics experiment repeated over and over in schools.  I politely asked him to stop. He looked at me, smiled, and gave it another toss.  I became less polite and yelled at him and he looked at me like I’d lost my mind.  I was sure he’d lost his.

There was no lesson plan for the class. I didn’t even know the subject. In fact, it was several minutes before I figured out that none of them spoke English.  I then realized that the boy hadn’t understood my directive and he didn’t know why I yelled at him. 

When I had a moment, I went to him and asked, “Hablas Ingles?” 

photo by David Mercer
He shook his head. 

I pointed to the water bottle, put my hand on my chest, and said, “Lo  siento… I’m sorry.” And then he really looked bewildered.  But it was the best I could do.

The class was a disaster complete with kinetic mayhem along with screeching and a fight. 

I didn’t get around to taking roll until the end of class. It was a laborious task with names difficult to pronounce and the kids weren’t answering me anyway.  But the boy to whom I apologized came and stood next to me. He helped me read the names and together we got the job done.  I thanked him and he gave me a terrific smile.

It gives me pause.  A Texan who can’t speak Spanish and a Puerto Rican boy who spoke no English found an opportunity within a misunderstanding to be gracious to each other. It turned a bad day into a good memory. 

Y’all have a good day.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

I Was Tired

“I don’t think any of us knew how tired you were,” my friend said after I moved away. I didn't realize at first how right he was.  

When I arrived in Orlando, I thought I’d find a job right away, but in fact I stayed inside with the lights off and couldn’t move for days which turned into weeks. And I cried every day.

The secrets wore me down. I didn’t dare discuss my thoughts and doubts with anyone. I hid how unhappy I was. I called on every ounce of strength to present myself the cheerful, energetic preacher. I didn’t always succeed.

I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say I’ve been tired most of my life.  I was always able to mentally move aside the fatigue and move on but it took its toll on my health as I got older. 

Now, Sylvia takes care of me. She fed me good food and took me to hear good music. We went to the beach and I walked on the shore where the cool water washed my feet and the waves established a new rhythm inside me.

I’m better. My health issues are fading. I’m able to rest.  For the first time in years I sleep through the night. 

I reflect a lot on what led me to this moment even as I begin living again. I still cry every day but it doesn’t last as long.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

My Last Church Was Wonderful

I had to leave because I was exhausted and because my beliefs changed. But I didn’t leave because people were mean to me.
Idabel FUMC, photo by David Mercer
At some point, I want to discuss the unhealthy dynamics of religious culture, but first I want to speak of the last church I served before I left ministry.  Plenty of churches behave poorly in extreme times, and I’m sorry to say that it’s quite true that they “shoot their wounded.” But the church in Idabel was different.   When I got divorced, people expressed their love for both me and my ex-wife, which is unusual. When I told them I needed to leave the ministry, they were kind and generous.

We weren’t perfect in our church.  We had our conflicts.  But we did good work together.  And when I needed it most, they were there for me.

I will always love the First United Methodist Church of Idabel, OK.  

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Am I a Hypocrite?

“I am told God loves me–and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. Did I make a mistake in surrendering blindly to the Call of the Sacred Heart?
--Mother Teresa,

Faith is not an either/or proposition. People often have powerful faith without sensing the presence of God—that’s why they call it faith.  People can speak of light yet feel they’re in darkness. People have doubts but they continue to live in service to a God who may not seem real.

Are they hypocrites? Was I?

I felt like one at times. However, I tried to stay truthful in my ministry. Occasionally, in the classroom and the pulpit, I shared my doubts and struggles. I taught from the scriptures. I represented the church doctrine. I helped people as often as I could. And I did it as a follower of Jesus.

Can a person struggle with doubts and be a minister at the same time?  A lot of them do.  After Mother Teresa died, her letters and journals revealed that although she was a highly regarded religious leader who led the cause to feed the hungry, she did not feel the presence of the God.

That’s how I felt, too, although no one is clamoring for me to be declared a saint.  But to the very best of my ability I pushed aside my doubt and did the work.

People who are deeply spiritual have often endured the “dark night of the soul,” a condition where God seems to disappear.  I think some eventually rediscover a holy presence, but the light just never came back for me. Or for Mother Teresa, who persevered in her service until death. 

I feel like I died, too, only I’m still breathing. However, I also feel that I’ve gained a new life.  I’ll be speaking of that soon.    

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Silent Reckoning

Photo by Sylvia Kirkendoll Mercer
I finally admitted to myself that while I prayed constantly, God never answered back. No words came to me. The feelings I experienced were my own.  And the events that happened after I prayed had only the meaning I attributed to them. 

It was painful.  I had poured out my life in service to someone who did not find me worthy of a response.

Friends tried to encourage me, saying that perhaps God is so great that I simply could not understand his communication. I accepted this thought for most of my life.  But I came to the conclusion that if God was all powerful, surely he could find a way to get through to me. (BTW, the story of God sending his Son is not direct communication, either). 

In one of my final one sided conversations with this unseen, unheard entity, I said “I will continue to care for people and do the things I assume are important to you because they’re important to me, too. If you decide someday to talk to me about that, I’m right here.”  As usual, I got no response but I quit expecting one and I went about my work. 

I still prayed publicly for the sake of my people.  I reflected their thoughts and hopes.  And I relied on the liturgies written by others. But my personal outpouring stopped.

God has remained silent, too.