I Want to be Phyllis Tickle When I Grow Up


January 10th through the 12th my home town of Memphis was invaded by heretics, misfits, outlaws, mainliners, emerging, emergent, emergence and assorted Odd Ducks (and I am not talking about the ones in the fountain at the Peabody). They all descended on Memphis to celebrate the life and writings of Phyllis Tickle. They came to hear Phyllis “& Friends” recount our shared history and look toward our shared future. What most of them did not understand, except possibly Phyllis, was that “& Friends” did not refer only to the professional presenters who shared the stage, but to each and every one of those who sat in the Cathedral. In the large, formal, somewhat austere sanctuary the warmth that was generated by Phyllis filled the space with what seemed almost familial warmth.

Now, to the title of this post, “I want to be Phyllis Tickle when I grow up”. There are so many reasons I can think of that one might want to be Phyllis, but for me, the real singular reason may not be as obvious. It is not because she can recite the history of the church with the skill of a storyteller and the passion of one who lived every moment of that history (although I would love to possess such an admirable skill). It is not because she has written so many books, articles and papers that have impacted so many people (while I would love to do just that). It is not that she and her beloved husband successfully raised a pack of children successfully (even though I aspire to finish that task myself) and it is definitely not because everyone listens to everything that comes out of her mouth and critiques it (a side effect of being a public speaker that I am sure even she would give away). Explaining what it is about Phyllis that I admire and wish to emulate is a longer story.

Many years ago, at a time in my life when I was broken hearted, discouraged, idealistic and freshly graduated from Seminary a mutual friend of mine and Phyllis made me go to a meeting of Memphis Area Clergy that I was really not at all up to attending, but I did. Phyllis Tickle was the presenter and she spoke of the church that I had loved and served for so long in ways that rekindled my call, which inspired me to continue, which challenged me to stay and gave me hope for the future. If this were not enough, after the talk was concluded and most had moved on to the luncheon portion of the event, I was able to spend a few moments with this gracious lady who looked in my eyes, listened to my story (even with the chaos of the room), and made me feel heard and cared for. From that point forward I found a way to attend any time Phyllis was speaking, anywhere that I could. I remember sitting in the front row of camp chairs under a tent in North Carolina at the first Wild Goose festival and hearing the now familiar tale of the 500 year yard sale then running into her later on that day, she waving from yards away saying “Hello neighbor, did you see me waving at you in the front row?” What a warm way to let me know she knew I was there. I saw a very plain poster many years ago, that at the time my academic mind thought was cheesy, which read, “They will never care what you know if they don’t know that you care” the longer I know Phyllis, the clearer its simple wisdom becomes to me.

When the chance to celebrate Phyllis’ life and work came around and our smaller local event married the larger national event, I got the honor of seeing firsthand the love and care Phyllis took in sharing her vision for our time together. I saw her desire to do what she does best, encourage others and highlight the wonderful things going on in so many places. I discovered just how many people she kept up with and showed caring concern for and pride in. As the first day of the event rolled around, the Thursday meeting with presenters and contributors, she sat in a big comfy chair and everyone took a turn stopping by for a hug and a chat and the grin on her face could not have been larger. This time of catching up, of sharing visions and hopes was a wonderful chance to set the tone for the larger conversation to be held in the next days with the gathering, which was really all six hours would allow. There was no more of an agenda to chart the course of emergence Christianity then there is a definable “gay agenda” which does not exist.

Thursday evening’s meal started the “Main Event” with the hustle and bustle of 200 people who packed out Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous and Phyllis greeted warmly so many of those in attendance. I was pleased to introduce her to Randy Eddy-McCain from Open Door Community Church, she greeted him with recognition of his work and reputation and let him know how honored she was to meet him. Randy had buried his mother just two days before, and I saw the care that Phyllis gave to him as I watched her focus on him as she had done for me years before. I must say, for a woman who has always claimed to not be a pastor, watching her, I thought that it was an awful blurry line between maternal love and pastoral care. After much time visiting, Phyllis kissed her beloved Sam and headed to rest for the events of the next days.

The beginning of Friday I must say was a blur. Getting people, pastries, coffee, signs, books and everything else where it needed to be took all hands on deck, I even enlisted innocent bystanders at one point (there is a downside to being my friend). But when the show began everyone was in their seats, ready to hear the history of all of us, the storytelling of the master storyteller who would patch together a quilt of common threads which we could all understand. Like all storytellers, the stories were told from the tellers’ understanding, not as a detached academic understanding, but from a life that reveals the truth in the tale. Are there places that our experience, academia and hermeneutics clash with the story told? Yes, but none can question the love and care with which the story is conveyed. Just as our family of origin can tell stories in which we lived the events, yet the story is colored by the perspective of the one telling the story, because they lived the story “behind their own eyes”. All this is to say, that if the only fault that can be found in four hours of church/shared history is one understanding of a pivotal event which, knowing Phyllis, I believe she meant as the moment women were freed, is the only thing that anyone seems to be able to find great issue with, I believe that speaks highly of what she said overall. Like all who heard it, I brought to it my life story, which is one of postponing my “career years” for 14 years in order to be home with my three children, and then beginning my season of life which included a 87 hour master’s degree and a new life as a clergy family which not only changed me, but also my husband and children and shaped us in our faith. As a homeschooling mom for many years, I used every teachable moment, just as Phyllis relayed about young John Tickles’ experience at school. I was intentionally always there….BUT…(and yes I just used all caps) the rest of the story is, when our youngest child was 6 months old, my husband chose a home based business that allowed him more flexibility and time with our children. Our daughter Becca grew up playing under his drawing board, and Dad would insert comments from his office as he listened to the lessons his other children were learning a room away. That is what I remembered when I heard Phyllis’ words, that is my life story. We were able to set my biological clock to 4 years apart, because the best scholarship at the time said this allowed the kids to be babies and move to the next stage of development before a sibling needed that intense care without feeling conflict at the next child’s birth.

I also must admit an aversion to being called a “Feminist”. I do not like the label attached to me because of a long string of images and comments that the title triggers for me. As you can imagine, I was seen as a “traitor to the cause” by many because I chose to stay home, care intently for our children, and for not taking advantage of my “right” to be fulfilled by a career. I also resist the term because of the laundry list of stereotypical assumptions that people immediately associate with the term, so many of which I do not believe apply to me. Maybe it is just being a good emergence Christian that fuels my aversion to being labeled by any term.

But I digress.

Now, the real reason I want to be Phyllis when I grow up. I want to embody the love and care that Phyllis shows to all whom God places in her path. She is the ideal of what a genuine, maternal model of pastoral care looks like. She has enough knowledge in her head to fill book after book with wisdom and observations and that is spectacular, but why is it that 400 people are willing to sit in hard pews for hours on end to hear her? Because they know she cares.