Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Story of the Blue Countertops

The story of the blue counters begins with a dream that came at a terrible time in our lives.  While this story is not about that time, I share a little of it so you understand--and so I don’t forget--why the dream was important.

Ken and I were struggling with the sudden death of a big plan, one that we had cherished for years and believed was God-given.  Ken had spent nine years in the US Marine Corps as a COBOL computer programmer and systems analyst.  This was in the late ‘70s and COBOL, a complicated business data processing language “spoke” to computers so large entire frigidly air-conditioned buildings were required for them. Brilliant and extraordinarily good at his job, when Ken decided to leave the military he received several offers to work in data processing for large private companies.  The starting salaries he was quoted would compare to six figures today.  Flattered, he nonetheless declined all offers.  He was resigning from the USMC in order to study theology.  As it turned out, we both did, helping each other with coursework, kids, and work.  That was not an easy time, but we had a goal. We were going to minister overseas as missionaries. 
Fast-forward several years.  We were co-pastoring our second church, but some time before we had applied to our denominations’ world missions department.  Things were moving along in the complicated process, albeit slowly.  We were stunned when we received a letter that turned out to be a polite but strangely unequivocal “No, thanks.” 

I remember the two of us sitting on the bed staring at each other, speechless and teary-eyed. This sudden death of something we had planned for and worked towards for years was devastating and confusing. 
We were living on a very low salary and struggling to make ends meet. We thought about those large salary offers from nationally-known companies, and we cried and we prayed and we struggled to understand.  We never did, and this was deeply painful for a long time. We tried to find out more, but there was, we were told, no negotiating and no further explanation forthcoming.  While we struggled with the unexpected NO, we struggled even more with the seeming injustice of it.
Meanwhile, our small rural church had been growing.  We were excited about what might lie in store and we talked about the approaching need to expand our facilities. If we weren't going to fulfill the dream of an overseas missions assignment, we would turn our thoughts and energy to our current place.

Then things began to go bad. Very bad.  Unknown to us, a monstrous lie had been told, followed by another and another. No one told us, so we were mystified at what was happening to our congregation.  There were other complicated issues involving a beloved former pastor who remained in the congregation and the deacon board, one of whom was the son-in-law of that former pastor. 

Things got really ugly.  Small towns are often places where news travels fast and rumors travel too. Unfortunately, there are plenty of people who love to spread gossip—especially if it is about clergy.  One very bad day, our daughter came home crying because someone on her school bus had repeated one of those monstrous lies to her, adding that maybe her dad should go to jail. Once a teacher at the middle school said to her, “I don’t believe what people are saying about your mom and dad.  They must be good people to have a daughter like you.”  That teacher’s comment was well meant but not particularly comforting. 
I wanted Ken to resign, but he said he could not. We still disagree, all these years later, about what the “right” thing to do would have been. The stress on us was extraordinary and unrelenting.  Eventually we were asked, at a particularly horrid business meeting, to leave.  Only afterwards did a dear church couple visit us and tell us about the second and third lies. Too late, of course.  We were horrified and our hearts were broken. 

We examined our motives and our actions, reminded ourselves that we could not afford to get bitter, did our best to forgive.  Still, we were spent and knew we could not just try to pastor another church somewhere.  We needed to leave “the ministry” for a while, but we had two children as well as ourselves to think about.  We had to quickly find an income, but the computer world had changed in the years since Ken’s expertise had been prized.
The church building was right across a narrow driveway from our home, which was a “parsonage” owned by the church.  We had 30 days to vacate. I closed the curtains so we did not have to constantly see the church building.  Looking back, I think both of us were perilously close to breakdowns. 

All that leads me to the night I had the dream of the blue counters.
I lay in bed, deeply depressed and trying to pray. Eventually I slept and dreamed a vivid dream.  Ken and I were with our children in a kitchen, the counters of which were a deep royal blue, my favorite color.  I still remember, nearly 30 years later, the expression on our little boy Joshua’s face as he laughed, jumped and clapped his hands. We were extraordinarily excited. There was more exuberance than we would likely have displayed in real life. Even in the dream, I knew we were happy because we had found a new home.  We were safe.

Next morning I didn’t say anything, but the details remained clear in my thoughts--our dreamt-of laughter, our smiles and joy.  And most vivid of all were the blue counters.  I couldn’t stop thinking about them, and the details seemed much more like a memory of a real-life event than a dream.  Eventually I wondered if the dream might be important. Somewhat sheepishly, I told Ken about it.
Not long afterwards, Ken found a job as a fuel truck driver. I had already been working part-time for the county Department on Aging.  About a week before we had to leave the parsonage, we found an available rental. The house and yard were a mess, but there were many things to like about the place and the rent was affordable.  The landlord was a hate-filled nut, but we didn’t know that yet. 

The relief at having a source of income and a place to live was enormous, but I stood in the kitchen and looked at the counters.  They were not blue. They were a particularly ugly brownish yellow. I told Ken, “I guess that dream was just a regular dream after all.” 

The spiteful nature of our landlord soon became apparent. We avoided him as much as possible.  One day we came home to a hand-written note that informed us we were being “evicted” and had two weeks to leave.  He would not be returning our deposit.  Feeling fed up with injustice, we went to small-claims court and we listened, incredulous, as the landlord described how we had ruined his house.  He had no proof.  We had actually cleaned up a great deal of garbage and improved the place enough that someone wanted to buy it.

The clearly intoxicated judge said he didn’t know what to believe and handed down a decision completely contrary to landlord-tenant law. While we weren’t exactly evicted, the landlord had sold the house and we had to move.  It was a few weeks before Christmas.
Someone told us about a house owned by a missionary couple who were relocating and needed to rent it quickly.  One cold night, Ken and I, feeling utterly defeated, went to look at a large house secluded in thick pine woods. There were no visible neighbors.  In the back, a hill sloped down to a small lake. We soon saw that the house was beautiful inside too. 

Ken whispered to me, “Don’t get your hopes up. On my current paycheck there is no way we will be able to afford what they will want for rent.”  I whispered back that it would be rude not to take the tour. 
We passed through a formal living room to an oak stairway. On the second floor were three bedrooms. The master bedroom was about the size of the parsonage living room, with a private bath and large glass doors leading out to a deck that overlooked the moonlit lake.  Downstairs we saw a dining room and a large family room with a fireplace.  Another set of glass doors led to a second deck.  Ken looked at me and shook his head, but talked to the husband of the pair about rent as, chatting about the loons that lived at the edge of the lake, the woman led me to the kitchen. I heard no more of what she said.  My mouth, I have no doubt, was open. 

The counters in the kitchen were blue.  Not just any blue, they were a lovely, bright royal blue. I had never before, and I have never since, seen royal blue countertops. This was the kitchen of my dream.   

I bit dazed, I followed her back to the family room.  Ken told me what they wanted for rent, adding to the man, “I’m not sure we can do that.”  Some sort of negotiation followed, but all the while I was urging Ken towards the kitchen door.  “Honey, you must come see the kitchen.”
Ken sighed a bit, and said, “Dorcas, this is a great house, but we just can’t afford the rent.  It is less than I expected, but still too much for us….” He stopped talking and stared at the blue counters. 

We rented the house for a lower figure than first asked and we lived there nearly three years.  They were difficult years but the time was made easier by our secluded house in the woods.   We didn’t have to see anyone if we didn’t choose to—and we usually didn’t.  We marveled at the deep silence and the beauty of the snow-covered pines all around us.  In spring their scent filled the air.  We often sat on the deck to listen to loons calling across the lake, and we watched a pair of Canadian geese teach their little ones to swim.  At night, a great horned owl sometimes hooted in a tall pine just beyond our bedroom deck.
At some point, Ken applied to the Wisconsin Department of Corrections (the DOC) for a chaplain position.  He took the test and scored highly. He expected an interview but we heard nothing and after a time we forgot about it. 

Eventually our landlords wanted more rent and we moved into a tiny house in town.  As it turned out, it would have been better if we had just stayed a few more months because not long afterwards, Ken heard from the DOC and was subsequently hired at Kettle Moraine Correctional Institution near Plymouth, WI. There had been a "hiring freeze" for all state positions, and his test results had remained in a file for over a year.  
He applied for and received official endorsement from our denomination as a “nationally-appointed home missionary.”
We sometimes missed our beautiful, secluded home in the woods.  But the healing of our hearts had begun there, and life went on.  Ken spent over twenty years at KMCI, only leaving when his illness made it unavoidable. 

It seems to me that God is silent and distant.  I can’t pray. I struggle with tears and anger every time I attend church. But lately I have been thinking of that other time of sorrow and confusion.  I am, for the first time in a long time, thinking about that vivid dream and those beautiful blue counters. 


Deb said...

You know, there are times when God DOES speak, and we just aren't listening. And then there are times we are on pins and needles waiting and waiting... and... NOTHING. But I spend most of my life in the in-between of vague "I think this is the right direction" discipleship. Because while it would be easier to have the iron-clad, pillar-of-fire leading of God, most of the time it seems God points us in a direction and says, 'WALK" but doesn't tell us when to start out.

You have gone through incredible sadness and heartache. I pray that God will lead you to that place of nurture, healing and joy for you. You are a faithful, beloved daughter... never forget.


Mary Beth said...

This blows me away. When I read your writing, I feel that I am reading important spiritual literature. It is richly nourishing and deserves a wider audience.

I'm so glad your friend reminded you about this. I can't improve on Deb's words and sentiments...sending you so much love.

Anonymous said...

I too am in agreement of the comments before me and I continue to hold you and yours in prayer. I wish there were a way to get your written word published because it always impacts me so and I know I'm not alone in my response.Thank you for this work and all your stories.Lauriej.

much2ponder said...

Singing owl, your words are piercing. They open a view through the window revealing your endurance while laced with the promise of His strength in your weakness. So many things in life make very little sense as we peer through the glass dimly. Yet even still we remember as you did here, the points on the timeline where God's work was evident and we breath in, even at the slightest gasp and take another sip of hope. God is still God and He is still on the throne amen? Amen!


keith said...

What a wonderful story. I think I'd be in luck if I knew the whole story. I've skirted along good and bad my whole life but I always knew where good was.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your beautiful and hope-inspiring story.