Cardboard Assault

There is a smell here of both hope and anxiety. It is a smell that is fresh but acrid as it attacks my nostrils, triggering memories of days gone by while making my eyes water as I focus on the days to come. It is a smell that carries weight itself even as it gets weighed down with the possessions of life. It is a smell accompanied by promise, even as it is locked tight with the screech of tape rubbing against its surface.

It is the smell of cardboard. My house is filled with its aroma.

I’m an itinerate preacher in the United Methodist Church. This year I join with thousands of colleagues around the connection as I pack my belongings and prepare to move to the place my Bishop has assigned me to go. On the surface, that seems like a simple thing: Jobs change. You pack the boxes and you move. This is life.

I have a friend in the Army who has moved 19 times in 31 years. I don’t envy him. I don’t even want to think about moving that much. However, I think it’s different for him. Sure, we both signed up for an itinerant life. But there appears to be so much less understood about the preacher that moves her or his family from town to town than there is about the multitude of soldiers who move from base to base. And maybe that is part of it. When soldiers move, they are almost always leaving with others or arriving with others. They are moving out of and into a community of “movers.” Preachers and their families move from and into communities of “stayers.”

The ones I am leaving behind have been taught by me, frustrated by me, and joined me in the worship of Someone much bigger than all of us. I know their stories. Some families have been here so long the roads and buildings have their names on them. And they know each other. Their houses are known not just by the community of faith but the whole community. Their place is here. My place will soon be “not here – but there.” And the folks there have more than likely been there a while as well, rooted in the area and each other. Familiar with worship, with one another, with the jokes that have gone on for generations. Sure, they know we are coming, but what does that really mean? They’ve had preachers arrive before. They are watching one leave now. How does that affect everything? I feel for the loss at both places. But the smell of cardboard reminds me that I am the one moving. I am the one without a place.

IMG_20190516_214216.jpgI take one of the old boxes that I have used to move before, unfold it, and let the dust assault my senses. I fix the box for filling and start packing in the contents of life. But it is more than stuff that is going into these boxes. It is memories. This is the place my two youngest graduated from high school. This is the home they left for college, and left again for grad school. I will fill the boxes with some of “their” stuff and even more of “our” stuff but when they get to the new place, something will be very, very different. And when I smell the low-grade heat of the adhesive tape locking away that stuff, I smell that which is getting left behind.

Sometimes I take a box and start filling it with my life, and the aroma that arrives is one that reminds me that there are new things headed my way. New challenges. New friends. New experiences. New mistakes to make. New. New. New. It is hopeful and promising but just like holding one of my newborn children there is something frightening in all that newness. The responsibility of it all. The knowing I am going to a place where everybody knows my name, but I don’t know theirs. The new routes I will have to learn. The new celebrations I will share in. The new ministry that will take place. The hope of all this newness is weighty, even heavier than the cardboard filled with the dishes from the china cabinet.

Sometimes I prep a box for packing and the aroma that reaches me gives my mind a shot of racing fuel in the form of adrenaline. Are the movers sure they can do this job? Are they really going to show up? Am I going to get to say good-bye the way I want, to everybody that I want to say good-bye to? Is my spouse packing that stuff or am I? And who is sorting through that part of life over there? Will this break en route?

Will anyone be here to say, “So long. We love you.”? Will anyone be there to say, “Welcome. We love you.”?

Sometimes I get a box from the stack of recycled moving materials and even though it is empty, I have trouble moving it. A dense and heavy fog surrounds the box. The fog interrupts normal conversation modes between my spouse and me. It makes me tired, oh, so tired. It overwhelms me. To borrow from an all too popular show on TV: Moving. Is. Coming. And with it comes the change in the relationships even in my house. Excitement. Grief. Excitement. Grief. It wears on any marriage. I’m just fortunate enough to have a spouse who patiently keeps on packing, even when it seems it will never end. Because in the end, we want to be together. We choose each day to love each other and no tension, not even the tension of finding the right box for “that” will end that choice.

My house smells of cardboard. It is hopeful. It is anxious.

It is dust – held together by pressure and glue. Someday it will be dust again. Then again – so will I.

So will we all.

My house smells of cardboard – a holy smell leading me away from and towards the place that is not quite home.

Take A Breath: Reflecting on Two Conferences (Guest Post)

The following post is by my daughter Erin Sears. Erin just completed her sophomore year at Marshall University. She is spending this week at the West Virginia Annual Conference both as a member of our General Conference delegation and a member of the communications team. Although the feelings and opinions are hers, I just happen to agree with them. She has a good message here.

Erin pauseOn Tuesday of this week, overwhelmed with preparations for Annual Conference, I set out for an afternoon walk around the campus of West Virginia Wesleyan College. A rain storm changed my plans, and I shortly found myself nestled in the quiet of the Meditation Chapel. For the first time all week, I allowed my mind to wander and settle into the familiar thoughts that seemed to consume me these days.

The thoughts began a year ago this week when the 2015 West Virginia Annual Conference elected me as a part of the delegation to General Conference. As I sat in the Meditation Chapel, I remembered those moments as if they were yesterday. I had been filled with awe at first because the people of West Virginia had affirmed the calling I felt from God last year at Annual Conference. However, the awe was tainted ever so slightly with fear. I wondered if I would be able to handle the enormous responsibility of being a delegate to General Conference.

The emotions of last year’s Annual Conference faded away.

My mind jumped to this past January, when I held the Advance Daily Christian Advocate, the workbook for General Conference, in my hands for the first time. I was oddly giddy for a college student who had just received an additional thousand-page reading assignment for the spring semester.

The work of General Conference seemed real for the first time. It was not just talking anymore. That first night I spent hours skimming through the various petitions and resolutions. My excitement faded, and anxiety crept back into place, again. The deadline that once seemed so far off started rapidly approaching.

As I digested petitions and resolutions, I began to worry I lacked all the knowledge I needed to make the right decisions for the global church. I felt backbreaking pressure about the importance of each decision.

The anxiety and pressure remained with me when I arrived in Portland, Ore., for General Conference. The time was now for the United Methodist Church to show its true self. Each decision we the delegates made could define us, the church.

My mind raced through the events that unfolded over the course of General Conference. I was so overwhelmed by emotions that I did not know what I felt. Each day was an emotional rollercoaster. One moment I experienced pure joy. The next, devastating sadness.

Fast forward to this week.

I could not focus on my emotions anymore. Instead, my mind turned toward the decisions that the delegation was preparing to report at Annual Conference. A long list scrolled through my mind – the bishops’ proposal, episcopal tenure, Imagine Abundant Health, withdrawal from the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice – and anxiety overtook my confused emotions. I wondered how the Annual Conference would handle the news of all the decisions from General Conference and how they would see me afterward.

Would the Annual Conference, still see me as a young lady called by God?

As I wondered, I looked around the Meditation Chapel. My eyes drifted towards the stained glass window beside my seat. I was taken back by the sight in front of me. I had placed my full water bottle in window sill when I had walked into the room. Etched across the tumbler was the General Conference logo “Therefore Go.” The logo pointed directly to the cross.

Then I realized that I must go and set aside my anxiety and be filled with the living water Christ offers.

That living water began to flow through me as glimmers of hope from General Conference emerged in my mind.

After one intense session, I walked into the hallway on the brink of tears. Someone gently ushered me toward Bishop Larry Goodpaster, one of the several bishops offering prayer outside the plenary hall in the Oregon Convention Center. As Bishop Goodpaster poured out a prayer, I felt God’s presence enfolding me and filling me with love and hope.

Another glimmer of hope: During legislative committee, my group spent time seeking to understand one another and the various contexts of our ministries. The dynamic of our conversations about petitions changed because of this process. Although we did not all agree, we worked respectfully with one another and left continuing to develop relationships with one another in spite of our division.

Yet another glimmer of hope: One morning, I met a fellow delegate while in line at the coffee shop inside the convention center. As we worked our way up to the front of the line, we shared a little bit about ourselves. He offered up encouragement that I needed to hear that morning and graciously bought my coffee.

Even in the mess of emotions of General Conference, God kept showing up like a breath of fresh air.

However, my anxiety had covered up those movements of the Spirit. I allowed something other than Christ to consume me. When I laid that down at the cross, I was refilled with something greater and more satisfying than that which consumed me – the living water of Christ.

May it be so with us.

 

Shoes

I bent over and tied the strings of the shoes and took my first couple of tentative steps in these new dress shoes. Well, new is not right. They are used but they are new to me. A color that is somewhere between Oxford and brown. Soles that are made to last or shoesat the very least be replaced when they wear out.

The first step was a bit odd. There was some tightness on the top of my right foot and I wondered if this was going to be a permanent rubbing spot of if the shoes would mold their way over from their old owner to me. I knew before the day was done, the shoes were still pliable.

What I really wondered about was whether the new owner was pliable as well.

These original owner of these shoes was not a pastor, but I have to say that throughout my life I never met a man who was more an advocate for his pastor than the owner of these shoes. I recall a time that one of his pastors came under attack by anonymous letters and he stood from the pulpit and said, “I will be checking the mail from now on, folks. And any letters that come to this church without return addresses or signatures will go in the trash.” Far as I know, the original owner of the shoes made good on that promise, for the attacks died away and the pastor continued leading in peace.

I recall one time when I came under some criticism as the pastor of the owner of the shoes and this time, he set out to order a load of horse manure and have it dumped on the front yard of the leader of these antagonists. His wife talked him out of it but I found out he had the price and was ready to write the check to have it done.

The original owner of these shoes was no pastor, but he knew what it meant to care for a pastor, advocate for a pastor, and even be angry for that pastor when the pastor could not do it on his own.

The original owner of these shoes was no preacher but he knew a good sermon when he heard it and gave praise where praise was due. The only problem was, you needed to know his scale of praise.

One week, while this shoe owner was out fishing with his family, he caught a fairly impressive 12 inch trout. He was quite proud of that catch and had his picture made with it. A little later in the day, his wife managed to land a 15 inch monster of a trout. The owner of the shoes looked at the fish and said, “Well, that’s decent, I guess.”

Preachers needed to know this. A “good” sermon was just okay, but chances are, if you hit one out of the ballpark, the owner of the shoes would tell you, “That was decent.”

The owner of the shoes which I put on for the first time yesterday, was not a perfect man but he was a man that was after God’s own heart. I cannot count the number of times I saw him sitting in a chair, Bible open, coffee at his side, eyes closed in prayer. Sometimes the shoes would be on. Sometimes they would be off. But this owner of the shoes knew he needed to walk where Jesus walked.

I put the shoes on yesterday and I wear them again today knowing that these are my Dad’s shoes. He passed away in December and my mom cleaned out his closet and asked me if I wanted these shoes – if they fit okay, that is.

Well, they go on my feet just fine. They tie up nice and neat and have even garnered a compliment or two. But I have a feeling it will take me quite some time before they really fit. Maybe they will. Maybe they won’t. But at least I will have the reminder of what Dad was and what I can be.

Tomorrow, I think I will wear them again.

 

Eyes to See

image

Crocus

A Spring flower pokes through the ground…
And one sees the end of all winter;
One sees a sign of hope;
One sees a fragile creature doomed to the next bite of frost.

Pushing up through the ground in search of the sun,
This little one
Perseveres.

Some see it as a thing for them –
To admire,
To analyze,
To determine the worth and valor.

But maybe, just maybe, this little one
Who chooses a journey
Many wise ones would dare not take
Is the one who really finds the presence of God –
In sunshine,
A breeze,
Warm dirt,
Even in the passing shadow of a photographer.

It amazes me what some people see,
Because they always look outward for signs of God’s presence.
They only share what’s inside in
A hope fueled by vanity
To cultivate or force faith upon another.
Some never venture into the Resurrection that lies within –
the scary place
Of dormant seasons
Crawling worms,
Earthy smells
And long waits.

What does the crocus see on its journey?

What does the missionary see as they journey to new places?

Is God only found in what we describe or is profundity procured perfectly when we look inside for peace.