I awoke with the memory of a woman I haven’t seen in 37 years.
I wondered why I woke up with her on my mind. Once I dated my BlessBack letter, I understood. July 2, 2012 marked the 11th year that my father passed away. How like God to prompt me to write a BlessBack in a missing-you state-of-mind to a woman whose husband went missing in October 2011 and wasn’t found until six months later on the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday 2012.
You might think that because I wrote BlessBack: Thank Those Who Shaped Your Life that writing a BlessBack is a breeze for me. Sometimes it is, but not when it comes to writing a BlessBack and a sympathy card at the same time. “Slow” defines how long it’s taken me to finally get this letter off. After all, it’s been three months since Karen’s husband passed away.
A backward glance and then finding a place to separate myself from killsoul ― busyness ― took some time. Overlooking the lake here at my cabin in northern Minnesota instead of life’s congestion helped me find time to write a well-thought-out letter.
I wanted Karen to know she was a rope holder in my life. I wish I could tell her husband that he too, was a rope holder, but I can’t. It is too late.
The rope holder story came to me in a sermon by Xtreme Impact strength man Jeremy Baker. The story is taken from Mark 2 and is about Jesus visiting someone’s home. A paralyzed man learned he was there and wanted to talk to Jesus but because of his condition, couldn’t get to him as the house was crowded with people. There seemed no way the man could get in.
But to the man’s surprise, the paralyzed man’s friends came to his aid, climbed the roof of the house, removed the roof tiles and lowered the man through the roof so the man could encounter Jesus.
Karen and Jim Schwartz were two of my earliest rope holders. They helped me get to God. Pastor Jim came as our youth pastor to Christ the King Lutheran Church in Bloomington, Minn. when I had just turned 13. The first of many rope holds came when Jim asked us to call him “Pastor Jim;” no “Reverend,” no surname. That simple gesture granted permission for young people to talk to a pastor in a real way.
The second rope hold was more personal. In the early ‘70s, my mom taught piano lessons after school to bring in extra income for my brothers’ braces and my piano lessons. Church youth choir practice was 4:45 p.m. on Wednesdays. We lived far enough away that I couldn’t walk to choir. The only way I could get there was if someone was kind enough to give me a ride.
Pastor Jim was that someone. The youth group he led was after choir so every Wednesday for several years, Pastor Jim willingly left home early, roared up my parents’ driveway in his green Porsche. I’d hop in and away we’d go to church. I can still see his right hand, with a class ring on his ring finger, on the gearshift, as we made our way down 86th Street to Fremont Avenue. He’d ask me questions about my school (“fine,”) how piano lessons were going (hated the half-hour of practicing every day), and how I liked choir (choir? You mean Social Hour. Loved it). I tried to retain something from his sermon the previous Sunday to talk to him about during the fifteen-minute drive.
Later, in October 1973, he confirmed me. I still have the certificate of confirmation Pastor Jim signed. (In the above picture, I’m the brunette three rows up from the bottom, the second one in. Pastor Jim in the center bottom of the picture and on the right.)
Karen was a rope holder too. She lived the life I wanted to live. Before Pastor Jim started driving me, Karen invited me up to their apartment and I sat in her kitchen. I looked around their modern apartment so different from the French provincial and Duncan Phyfe in our home. Art made of dots and swirls. Modular furniture in metal, leather, green, white and orange. My mood ring and bell-bottoms fit in in this cool, Californian place. She was friendly, made actually talking to a pastor and his wife feel ordinary, a comfortable thing. Most of all, she seemed to want to know me; she thought a teenager might have an important thought.
If you’ve read BlessBack, you know I keep stuff, letters mostly. But I also hold onto souvenirs. If I were the paralyzed man now healed, I’d have kept one roof tile, a piece of that rope and the mat. In my case, I kept a church bulletin from August 11, 1974. It is a memento of my journeying faith. It is my first participation in helping to put together a youth church service. Reflected in the service is the music of the era I played when not practicing scales or a recital piece. Sprinkled throughout the service are songs Neil Diamond wrote for the movie Jonathan Livingston Seagull: “Be,” “Lonely Looking Sky,” “Sanctus.”
Rope holding has two points of view. The ones holding the rope are trustworthy. They are secure that their strength will be enough to hold and they are willing to risk a rope burn or two. In Pastor Jim’s case, older church members gave him a word or two about the service and the songs selected. But Pastor Jim never once buckled. From his point of view, he held the rope steady, secure in the knowing he was getting the youth to God in the best way he knew: By allowing them to be themselves on the way there; their desires, their feelings, expressed their way.
The other point of view is from the person on the mat. She is the one trusting she will be held, whether by being given a ride to choir every Wednesday throughout the church year, talking to and seeing a pastor just like me – human. And lastly, trusting that self-expression by way of singing Neil Diamond songs in church is sanctus. kyrie. A beautiful thing.
I am grateful for these two rope holders who got me where I needed to be.
Who has held the rope for you?
About Julie Saffrin
Julie Saffrin is the author of numerous published articles and essays. Her latest book, BlessBack: Thank Those Who Shaped Your Life, explores the power of gratitude and offers 120 creative ways to journey toward positive, lasting change.