Letting Go of the Olive in Us

I reluctantly watched the HBO miniseries, Olive Kitteridge. The book on which the series is based is one of my favorite books. I have such a distinct image of Olive in my head, I didn’t know if I could deal with someone else’s perspective on Olive. But, I ended up liking the miniseries, although I felt like it should be called something like Olive “light” or “sort of” Olive since it covered—in my view anyway—just a narrow part of the Olive who was brought to life in the intertwining short stories by Elizabeth Strout.

One of the most poignant scenes in the book, which was not included in the television version, is in a story called “Basket of Trips.” In that story, Olive is at the house of a new widow, during the reception after the funeral for the woman’s husband. Near the end of the reception, the new widow asks Olive to go upstairs and to find the “basket of trips” and to throw it away. The basket in question is full of brochures that the woman and her husband had gathered to plan how they would celebrate his victory over illness, which never happened. Olive has the urge to reach out and touch this deeply grieving woman, but she cannot. That’s not who Olive is. That’s not what Olive does. She’s a crusty, hard-edged Maine woman, honed and shaped by her struggles with depression as well as the harsh Maine weather. Although she is capable of compassion, it is offered only occasionally.

As Olive shares the same space with this woman in deep grief, she just wants to reach out to touch her. Not embrace her or kiss her on the cheek or anything. Just touch her. But, she can’t. Because that’s not who Olive is. That’s not what Olive does.

She is stuck in a box. That box brings her a certain comfort of knowing who she is, and having those in her community know who she is. But, that box also constricts her and keeps her from trying even the smallest of new things.

I’ve been thinking of Olive Kitteridge a lot lately and not just because of the miniseries that bears her name.

At Old South, we are engaging in quite a few changes. We are in an experimental period in our governing structure. We are also experimenting with adding new and varying voices in worship. We are trying to break free of our “box,” of what is comfortable, familiar, safe, but can also be confining and suffocating.

These changes have, for the most part, been embraced and lived out in what can only be described as amazing ways. It’s truly been stunning, and perhaps more so, since we share that very same harsh climate—through weather and culture—as Olive Kitteridge. People are doing new things and trying new things.

One man, who earlier this year referred to himself as the “Moses” of Old South (okay with being a leader, but not okay with the public speaking aspect of being a leader) is now reading psalms during worship and leading the call to worship on a regular basis. Other people are also trying new things—leading the children’s story, offering the pastoral prayer, singing in the choir, or serving communion.

It’s not a completely life-altering thing—at least not yet—but there is now a discernable sense of new life in our midst. Worship, though not dramatically different than before, feels more Spirit-filled. More people are smiling. More people are staying after worship to enjoy fellowship. People are clearly feeling good about our gathering together, for worship and meetings.

Long-time mainliners are not exactly known for being excited about significant changes, and there are certainly a few at Old South who are not enthusiastic about the changes that are taking place. Change isn’t easy, but once it gets going, it’s hard to stop. There is a life to it that goes beyond the individuals who are embracing the changes and making them real—the movement of the Holy Spirit in our midst.

I’m not at all sure where this is all going to go, and I think that’s just about right. I’m increasingly finding that my place in this congregation is as a sort of guide, rather than leader. My job is to tap into what I’m seeing and feeling and experiencing and to help to guide us all into more meaningful ways of being together, as we seek to be a community of faith, as we seek to be transformed by the Gospel of Christ—sometimes even when we are drawn out of our familiar and comfortable roles. But, finding that, in church, we can try out those new things, can answer those new calls, and discover a new sense of security, safety grounded in faith rather than in old, familiar societal roles.

It’s too bad Olive didn’t have church, a place where she could practice living out small acts of kindness, stretching out beyond her well-defined role. It’s tough to live out one’s entire adulthood as one particular person. When church is working well, there’s a way of accepting that change is part of the experience. And, to find in those changes, new and wonderful gifts and talents—even the gift of reaching out to another, offering connection, compassion, love.

About smaxreisert

I'm a United Church of Christ pastor serving the small, faithful Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Hallowell, Maine. I was ordained in Massachusetts in 1995, moved to Maine in 1997 and have served the Hallowell church since 2005.
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