We can change history.
My daily prayer time begins with prayer for various chronic health conditions. The last one on the list is my right ear: for years, I’ve had significant hearing loss in that ear resulting from a patulous eustachian tube. I believe my youngest brother, my mother, and her mother all have or had the same thing in the same ear also.
One morning, I came to that point in my prayers, and stopped. I noted that I have prayed for that condition every day for many years, and there has never been any change. I said, maybe this is no more likely to be healed in this life, than Verna Moeller’s disfigurement was likely to be healed in this life. She is beyond the veil, now, but at that moment I devoted significant time and energy to her healing.
Verna was a devoted church member, with whom I had severe conflicts for many years. It was problematic that we had many shared interests — music, worship, evangelism — and so were drawn to the same activities. In 1984-85, we were often both at church four nights a week for some activity. Our story is inseparable from that of the congregation.
A congregation in transition
I began attending Martin Luther Church in 1979, almost exactly 43 years ago today. At the time, there were 17 Lutheran congregations within a one-mile radius of this church. This reflected the fragmented history of the Lutheran movement in this country: the Danish, the Swedish, the Norwegian, the Finnish, and the German immigrants had all set up their own denominations, that saw little need to interact with each other or unify, until the 1980s. But even as of 1979, few of those immigrants’ children still lived anywhere near those churches.
In the 1950s and 1960s, for the German-American elite of Baltimore, Martin Luther Church had been The Place To Be Seen on Sunday mornings. With the incapacitation of Herman Schultz, who had served as pastor for more than 40 years; and changes in the neighborhood; all that began to change, and the elite abandoned this congregation. In particular, the 1968 riots destroyed the nearby retail corridor; every white household that had the means, moved out to the suburbs, and blacks moved in. Very few whites were left, including the very few whites who made up Martin Luther Church; including Verna Moeller.
Several more disasters beset the vitality of this congregation. Something had gone very wrong, circa 1960, in what was then known as the American Lutheran Church (“ALC”), specifically with regard to the Sunday schools and youth ministry. Of the hundreds of children Herman Schultz had baptized in the 1950s and 1960s, now only three were left. The church, that is, the ALC, had lost an entire generation, my generation. I saw the same thing in other ALC congregations.
Then there was a peculiarity of this congregation on its own: the senior members refused to admit their own children into leadership. This boggled my mind. Maybe, maybe, as to this congregation’s attitude toward children: On Sunday mornings there was an 8:00 service, 9:30 Sunday school, 10:30 fellowship hour, and an 11:00 service. During the fellowship hour, refreshments — coffee, fruit punch, cookies and Danish — were — sold. That may have been the first sign to me that not all was right in this congregation.
On the other hand, a majority of the leadership were firmly committed to the church’s becoming inclusive of its new, black neighbors. That was focal to my joining the church. Again on another hand, there was a reactionary faction, represented by four of the twelve members of the Church Council (the vestry), who intended at all costs to keep outsiders out.
So, Church Council meetings were often like war. Some members found this acceptable, when we were dealing with “the business of the church.” I insisted, for myself, that “the business of the church” is worship, and that the spirit that pervades its business meetings should be no different from that which pervades the Mass.
The reactionaries used the word “change” as if it were an obscenity. For them, the church, the way it had been, was their rock of unchangeability in the midst of all the 1960’s turmoil, in society, on their jobs, in their homes. The one thing they could count on to not change: Pastor Schultz would always be in the pulpit, his daughter Dorothy Parsley play the organ, the liturgy and hymns come from “the red book,” the vestry always be composed of the leading citizens of Baltimore. Worship would always be a sterile experience, where children sat motionless except at the prescribed times to stand or kneel; the hymn texts be versified statements of dogma, void of any emotional appeals.
This hymn has been ringing through my mind, that may epitomize what would not have been sung in the old days. “O God of mercy, God of light:” I’ve heard it only once, at a healing service Pastor Bill and I went to at a different Lutheran church. I have attached a graphic of it, at the end of this post.
Verna opined often that the progressives would ultimately win, because the reactionaries were destined to literally die off. That hurt me. I prayed instead that the good news of inclusion would effect a change of heart. But with possibly the sole exception of Kass Ulrich, OBM, that did not happen.
Blind before birth
I don’t know whether Verna ever had any vision in her right eye.
For the first several years that I knew her, she would have had one believe that her vision difficulties began in her mid-40’s, with a series of operations for a detached retina, that were, in the end, ineffective.
Over the years, as I heard more and more of her story, it became clear that she had been born with significant if not complete blindness in her right eye, and also with associated severe disfigurement of the right side of her face.
She was zealous in her compassion for outcasts — black people, for example — given her own experiences of rejection and exclusion based on her disability and disfigurement. The first major incident occurred on the first day of first grade, when the teacher asked to have her removed; saying, “I don’t want that dumb-looking girl in my class.”
I came to conclude that, in a previous life, Verna had been either the perpetrator or victim of an acid attack: someone threw vitriol in the face of a romantic rival, not an uncommon thing in those days. The physical damage from that event carried over, for Verna, into this life.
Within the limits of karmic constraints, before birth, each of us, in effect, chooses one’s parents. In her case, Verna was drawn toward a couple who made a practice of taking in strangers who were on hard times, and succoring those people until they were whole. Verna deeply admired that compassion, and wanted to be part of it.
She was blind to one key fact: this couple did not want a child.
So she had an emotionally deprived childhood; as her parents succored those strangers more than they did their own daughter.
The loudest voice in the room
Very early, Verna learned to use her voice, of possibly operatic potential, to get whatever she might want in any situation; to make sure hers was the loudest voice in the room.
She told this story from her pre-school childhood. In the middle of the night, she would cry out that she was thirsty and needed a drink of water. Her mother would call out in response, that she should go get it herself. Verna answered, “I can’t see!” This would be repeated, Verna’s voice getting louder and louder, until her mother finally got up and brought her a drink.
She didn’t want water. She wanted a few minutes of precious one-on-one time with her mother; and this is how she got it.
I don’t know any details of her career; she was employed somehow as a musician, by Baltimore City. But in her activities in the church, Verna very often did make sure hers was the loudest voice in the room; at meetings of the church council, prayer services, Gospel choir practices, social events.
I recall a social conversation I was engaged in, with a few others, in the fellowship hall; and Verna decided to try to join us, without first listening to find out what was being discussed. The blast of her voice was an absolute shock to my nervous system, and at once I could no longer recall the previous conversation. The looks on others’ faces told me the same thing had just happened to them also. Like events happened many times.
At war with herself
A blog post of some years ago, “A short route to agony,” spoke of “the need to love the wounded or disagreeable member into wholeness.” That referred both to Verna’s eyes and to the reactionaries; “members” as body parts and also as members of the congregation.
Verna lived a life of dis-acceptance of her blindness. I never saw her do anything that would make life easier for herself, given the unchangeable fact of her disability. On the contrary, she insisted on relying on her sight for — almost everything.
The outstanding example pertains to music. She insisted on reading printed music; any music that was sung or played by ear, she regarded as without merit. Her sightreading skills are indicated by a remark expressing sorrow over something she could no longer do: “I used to read scores the way other people read novels.”
The Gospel choir
I sang a number of solos in worship, of songs from the African-American tradition. In response, black members approached me, asking me to form a Gospel choir. I took this up with Pastor Bill. He rejected the notion of my forming such a choir, as, he said, black folk would never follow a white man. (On his part, this was an expression of “affirmative action” and also of “the preferential option for the poor.”) In the alternative, we asked my friend Doris Harris, who was black, to form the choir.
Verna joined. She and I were the white members.
Her participation became a disaster, as almost every rehearsal became a shouting match between Verna and Doris, based on Verna’s having found that our singing deviated in some detail from the music printed on the page; whereas she and I were the only people present who could read music. This lasted until I asked Pastor Bill to ask her to leave the choir.
The previous choir, which she’d directed until it dissolved, had been much the same way. Every week saw a strident conflict between Verna and — one particular woman, whose name I don’t recall. It was hard for me to feel that, in a group ostensibly devoted to harmony, the disharmony was worth it.
The prayer service
For a time, I led a weekly healing service that I presumed to model on the work of Olga Worrall. Verna attended every week. In retrospect, I made a number of strategic mistakes in the design of this service. At one point, we would solicit names, from those present, of individuals to pray for; and then pray on those names, one after another, with a brief pause after each one. Verna routinely named practically every one of her living friends and relatives. Reading all those names one by one, every week, really tried one’s patience. I’ll never do this again. (Compare Ambrose Worrall, “The Philosophy and Methodology of Spiritual Healing,” ¶¶ 22-24.)
We had had to obtain the permission of the Church Council, to have these services. Today, that fact strikes me as preposterous.
If I had only known back then …
… many things I know now, I might have handled many things differently, in my relations with Verna and with the reactionaries, too. In those days, I did not as yet know about acceptance, the Twelve Steps, the Serenity Prayer, “Keep the focus on you” or “Live and let live.” I did not conceive The Way of Peace until 2010. Who knows what a difference it might have made.
We can change the past.
I feel certain that Verna will not have those disabilities in her next life. She suffered with them quite enough, in this life. Her penance is done.
Material, past events cannot, themselves, be changed. Karma inheres, however, not in the material events themselves, but rather in the affects that surround them. I can send love and compassion and forgiveness back into the past, to the events and the people who were there; the emotions God would have had me choose at the time that I did not, but can choose now; and so mend my relations with those facts and those souls, now and into the future.