Bullies, Wood Chips, and God

Post Author: Mary Beth McSwain

Nancy is a woman in her 40s. She is one of the more high functioning individuals at Clover Bottom with a mentality of around a 6-year-old. She is verbal (very verbal actually!), she can walk, and she understands most of what you say to her. Nancy is, probably due to her medication, a very wary person. She always seems to want assurance of what is going to happen and she frequently talks about how someone has wronged her in some way.

When Nancy entered Studio 1 that morning, I could tell that she was having a worse day than usual. Her worn orange turtleneck gave it away. The usual Nancy who greeted me in Studio 1 loved pastels, was often dressed in pink, and had at least three long pink and purple necklaces hanging from her neck. Nancy began her usual feelings of discontent over a bully and how she didn’t like the clothes she was wearing.

Nancy began to speak in third person asking me, “Why is she so upset?” and I said, “You mean, why is Nancy so upset?” and she said, “Yeah.” Knowing that today Nancy would color nothing with her favorite colored pencils, I said, “Well, Nancy, I know that somebody pushed you down and that you’re upset you’re wearing the same clothes you wore yesterday, but what if I told you a story?”

Nancy pushed her pencils aside while I pulled out a lot of wood chips that the other adults use as media for their artwork. “Coca Cola… Coca Cola… Coca Cola” as she pointed to the fridge like she always does on our Tuesday morning routine. I paused, retrieved her “Coca Cola” and said “Which wood chip do you like best?” I said. She picked one out and I said, “This one is named Nancy and she’s a sheep. Do you know what sheep sound like?” “BAAAAA!” Nancy said, which made her laugh, momentarily breaking her anxiety streak.

Then I picked out a larger chip which I said was God, the good shepherd. “Nancy, all of these other woodchips are your friends at Clover Bottom.” “Now, one day Nancy went off looking for her colored pencils” as I moved the woodchip across the table and buried it in her colored pencils. “But Nancy got lost and so the good shepherd left all the sheep to find her” as I moved the large wood chip to interact with the others saying, “Have you seen Nancy?” “No, have you?” “No, have you?” “Then, the good shepherd found Nancy in her colored pencils and was so glad to be with her again.”

I doubted that Nancy was following me given how upset she seemed about being bullied, her ugly orange turtleneck, and her fascination with Coca Cola! I thought to myself, “Am I being silly for nothing?” I went on despite myself and said, “So when you’re upset, Nancy, the good shepherd is looking for you and wants to care for you.” I placed “Nancy,” her favorite woodchip, on the good shepherd’s woodchip.

Nancy, arms folded in her worn orange turtleneck blurted out, “God loves everybody…and God created everybody.” “That’s right.” Then, she started singing loudly “Jesus Loves Me” motioning with her free hand for me to make it a duet. “… for the Bible tells me so! Little ones to him belong! They are weak, but he is strong!” We were so loud that other departments down the hallway checked in on us curious as to what the racket was about! Who knew that bullies, woodchips, and colored pencils would turn into an outline of a middle age disabled woman’s theology?

In that moment I learned that God honors pastoral silliness and who we are in the moment – ugly turtle necks, Coca Colas, wood chips, and all! Nancy taught me something and still compels me today. If only we could all cling to Nancy’s two statements of fact: That God loves everyone and that God created everyone. As God loves us and God created us, so we must love God’s creatures and love ourselves, never forgetting that we are all sheep who have gone astray. And we are all called to be like Christ who searches for the lost sheep no matter how differently-abled they appear.

Mary Beth McSwain is a ministry associate at Trinity Presbyterian (USA) Church in Nashville, Tennessee, and works predominantly with Christian Education and Worship. She graduated from Vanderbilt Divinity School in May 2010 with her Masters of Divinity, and continues to gain experience as an inquirer in the ordination process of the PCUSA. She has found a strong calling to continue working with the topic of special needs using art and music.

Used with permission
6 replies
  1. Erin
    Erin says:

    Thanks for sharing such a beautiful story! It reminds me of a time during my CPE residency when a patient I was visiting talked at length about how much he liked and missed the music in his church. Something (the Holy Spirit?) nudged me to offer to sing to him — and I DON’T sing. It may have been the most off-tune version of Amazing Grace that’s ever been sung, but the tears in the man’s eyes showed me that what had felt silly and awkward to me, God had used to bring a moment of joy in the midst of darkness.
    Thank you so much for the reminder to risk “pastoral silliness” — and for the evidence of the great truth and love that can come from it!


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