Summer Camping

The campsite was laid out in our usual Sears family way. The tent had been set up on the highest piece of ground my Dad could find in the rented campsite, far enough away from the fire area that no one had to worry about embers hitting the tent and far enough under trees as to provide much needed shade. My Dad would always bring extra stakes and ropes to secure the tent and rain canopy –  experiences of camping in heavy rains had apparently taught him to do this – which created a ready made obstacle course for my two brothers and me.

It was my birthday, but I don’t remember which one. Truth of the matter is that Dad’s vacation fell on my birthday so often in my early years that I thought camping was something you were required to do on your birthday. That is, until I realized that we were always home in February and October for my brother’s birthday celebrations. But this was normal for me.

It was still light out but we had eaten dinner and even a cake of some sort and were really just relaxing for the evening. My younger brother was making use of the obstacle course. Mom, my older brother and I were sitting at the picnic table playing a game of “Sorry!”. Why we took board games on camping trips was beyond me at that time. I’m guessing it cut down on the number of times Mom had to yell at us for chasing one another around the tent or fire. It was also a good time waster. Dad was working on getting a fire ready for the evening.

I don’t recall what we were snacking on, probably chips or pretzels, and soft drinks. It was my turn to move in the game and my older brother was getting impatient but my attention had turned to a squirrel in one of the trees near us. I had been watching a lot of squirrels simply because I was hoping to see a “flying squirrel”. To that point, I’d just seen a lot of acrobatic ones. Still my attention was in the trees when my Mom suddenly began slamming the table, knocking the “Sorry!” game pieces all over the place and spilling her bright pink can of TaB. She wasn’t really making any noise but it looked like she was coughing. Truthfully, I had no idea what was going on at the time.

Now, just to put this in it’s proper historical time, this was taking place before the widespread implementation of the Heimlich Maneuver. Heck, it might have even been before the maneuver itself was introduced. I don’t recall the exact birthday but it had to be around 1975. I might have been ten years old, but I doubt it.

So, here we are, a family of five, with one in obvious distress at picnic table in some state park in WV. One boy running around a tent and jumping over and crawling under the various sets of ropes holding down a tent and rain canopy. Two other boys looking stunned, glancing back and forth between a ruined board game, a dripping diet soda, and a mother acting very strange. And a father getting a campfire ready for roasting marshmallows.

My Dad stepped away from the fire building, walked up behind my Mom and said, “Do you need a hit?” and then without even waiting for answer, hauls off and smacks her in the back with the flat of his hand with so much force that she went sprawling across the table, the Sorry! board, and the spilled TaB. I don’t know if the pretzels fell victim to the sprawl or not.

Mom came up from the “hit” with just about the same force she had taken – proof to my young mind that every action has an opposite and equal reaction – and screamed at my Dad, “Well, what did you ask me for if you weren’t going to wait for an answer!”

Somehow, the whole thing became outrageously funny at that moment and both Mom and Dad began laughing and the rest of us stunned observers, who were still not sure what had happened joined in.

The evening went on. I got to have the first S’more of the night because it was my birthday. We sat around the campfire as always and were told “once, if not a thousand times” not to get so close to the fire. We laughed and sang and sometimes just got quiet. But every once in a while the breeze would snatch up enough smoke and billow it towards someone that they would cough. Inevitably someone else would say, “Do you need a hit?” and the coughing person would yell “NO!” and everyone would crack up.

In fact, it became such a joke in our family that I can remember my Dad, coughing in a hospital bed during his last week of life, smiling and shaking his head “no” when I asked him, “Do you need a hit?”

That little phrase seemed to carry us back to the woods, the tent, the sticky s’mores the squirrels, the wood smoke, and the fun.

Some words are like that. They evoke such powerful memory that they take us back to something that is more than just a memory, more than just a fading thought. They evoke time, place, event, with such Gemüt that reality itself is evoked anew.

In my family, “Do you need a hit?” still does that.

My other family, the one that I journey with towards that “home” we do not know yet, has a few too.

“This is the body…broken…”

“I was glad when they said to me…”

“Peace be with you.”

“He is risen…”

“In the beginning…”

And I thought it was just going to be another summer camping trip taking place around my birthday. Who knew?

Mugs of abundance

The following is a work of fiction. It is the first installment of many and may at some point cease to exist on this blog and take up residence elsewhere. Any resemblance to people living and or not living is just because sometimes the people I meet are incredibly more interesting than the people who hang around in my head. I try to be nice to the ones who have inspired me. Sure, some of them are pretty poorly hidden, but “Cary” is not me. Trust me. We almost share a calling, but even there things are different.

 

The ancient experienced hands of the retired nurse placed the ceramic mugs with great care on the shelves in the cupboard. An occasional clink, as one mug hit another, was all the new occupant was expecting to hear. There had not been much chit-chat between the volunteer laborer and the new resident. But the music was broken by lyrics he didn’t expect. “You think you have enough coffee mugs, pastor? Looks to me that you could serve a whole bunch of people with all these mugs. How many of you drink coffee?”

“Just two of us.” he said. “It does seem as if we’ve picked up a few extra along the way, though. Guess we like our mugs.”

“Hmph. Guess you do.” was the end of the song. But the music continued.

And that was two churches ago for the preacher. Long before others in the house began drinking coffee and adding to the plethora of caffeine dispensers that crowded the cabinet in their newest, smaller parsonage. He was quite certain that somewhere in the maze of boxes yet unopened there was a treasure trove of mugs aching to be used, long over their own sense of caffeine withdrawal and simply settled in the darkness of their moving paper rest home.

But the four were there.

Mugs

There was the one he had since his time in seminary, the last of a group of four that he purchased from the Baptist House at Duke Divinity. Cary always thought it a bit ironic that one of his most cherished possessions from his days at a United Methodist seminary was a Baptist mug. And yet, every Wednesday and every Sunday, this was the one that made the trip from cabinet to Kuerig. Well, truth be told, it would sometimes come straight out of the dishwasher and make its way to the coffee machine. But on Sundays and Wednesday, Cary needed the reminder that the mug brought with it.

It wasn’t a reminder of all that he has learned. It wasn’t a reminder of his Master of Divinity degree. It wasn’t even a reminder of particular people or places. He used that mug to remind him that truth be told, he wasn’t even close to having all the answers. On Sunday morning, as he got ready to somehow stand before a congregation and preach, he needed that reminder. He was just happy that it only took a mug and not a two-by-four upside his head. And sure, he used it on Wednesdays too as a reminder that when he taught Bible Study, the Bible was usually going to teach him more than he could manage to squeeze out in a lesson or two.

And then there was the brother mug. One of his two brothers got him that one, but truthfully he couldn’t remember which one. Didn’t matter much. He used Brother one day a week to remind himself of them. The three weren’t the best at staying in touch with one another but when the chips were down, they knew that they could count on one another. The mug reminded Cary of them, their differences, their similarities, but especially their connection to one another.  Since the loss of their father, Cary looked forward to the Monday encounter with this mug. He could sip and say a prayer for his brothers. And he needed that grounding as much as he needed the humility he found with the Duke.

He remembered offering the MTSO mug to his buddy, now a Chaplain in the Army, on one of his visits. “What in the world are you doing with a Methodist Theological School of Ohio mug?” was the question Ray asked. Cary shrugged and said, “I got it during a visit of their Course of Study one year. I hope I cleaned it before I filled it. Been sitting on the shelf a long time.”

Truthfully though, this mug got used as much as Duke and more often than Brother. MTSO came out twice a week, typically on Tuesday and Saturday to remind Cary of the two best friends he had in ministry. Ray went to MTSO but his other friend, Ann, went to Candler, or as Cary loved to jokingly call it, “Chandler.” No Candler mug in the mix but it didn’t matter. When he drank his coffee from MTSO he thought of them both, prayed for them both and gave thanks to God that he knew they were always just a call away. MTSO was a good memory mug – laughter from residency, long, late night talks at Annual Conference, and just the memory that these three very different people ended up so close to one another. If someone would have taken wagers on the military haircut Ray and the long haired Cary becoming friends, they would have lost a bundle. It was rocky, but perhaps the rockiness made the friendship that much stronger. Of the three, and sadly there used to be four, but that is a story for another day, Cary is the only one still serving a local church. He acknowledges that the other two do great work for the Kingdom…better work for the revolution that Jesus wishes to bring…than he often manages on his best days.

Friday was the day for the “Brown Mug from North Carolina.” Cary wasn’t sure of the pottery that produced it but it clearly was hand thrown and it was his Friday mug. Given to him by a former Associate Pastor, this mug was Cary’s Sabbath mug. (Yeah, pastors do take a Sabbath day and it ain’t Sunday, that for certain.) Cary uses BMNC because it’s all about grace. The Deacon who gave it to him taught him a lot about receiving grace. They worked well together, but they did so in a difficult place at a difficult time. Her creativity and spirituality helped to keep the church they served very well grounded. Truth be told, Cary wasn’t completely forthright about how bad things were when he brought this Deacon into the mess and that was wrong. And Cary didn’t talk about everything that went on with him while they worked together. It was one of the many wrongs Cary could never make right again. The BMNC was a reminder of that tragic truth of life. More so that despite the wrong, their was peace between Cary and Julia, the Deacon, not because of Cary’s honesty, but due solely to the amazing grace Julia showed.

“It’s a good way to start a Sabbath,” Cary would think. “The bitterness of coffee and the sweetness of grace.”

Yeah, there is an abundance of mugs in Cary’s parsonage. Most of them don’t get used by him. There are others in the house who find the other mugs more to their liking. But these four take up six important places in Cary’s life. And they cover six days.

And that leaves Thursday.

Well, you must wait to hear about Thursday because you don’t quite know enough about Cary to understand. You can rest uneasily, though, that there is a mug for Thursday.  And that mug is the only one he loathes to use.

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.

 

Perfect Wedding – An Excerpt

The following is an excerpt from a larger work of fiction that I have been pecking away at for quite some time. Alas, it still waits to be complete. The larger work is more from the science fiction genre, but like all those works, some reality slips in. I felt like sharing this excerpt now because, well, I wanted to share something light. I hope you enjoy…

 

Pastor Cary looked at the bride and groom in front of him, standing with family and friends, bridesmaids and groomsmen to rehearse the day they hoped would be a “perfect day” for both of them. He looked around at the ornate sanctuary they were standing in, fiddled a little with the microphone and said, “It is my tradition to ask the groom to keep looking at the front of the sanctuary until I let him know it is time to turn and see the bride walking down the aisle.”

“How nice,” the bride beamed.

“Perfect,” the groomed whispered.

“Yep,” said the pastor as he recalled the time he started this tradition at his very first wedding:

It was twenty years before and Cary stood at the front of the church and checked the stole hanging around his neck for the seventeenth time that afternoon. Just like it was sixteen times ago, the stole was straight. But unlike then, it was now soaked with perspiration from his neck. The heat from the August sun was warming up the little country church and the ceiling fans could do little more than stir the humidity that settled on everyone gathered for the wedding.

The groom stood off to Cary’s left looking cool and calm despite both the order and stickiness of the day. Perhaps his military training was helping him in this particular instance. His dress uniform helped Stephen look both at ease and at full attention at the same time. His shoes were so shined that Cary couldn’t help but notice them and in doing so, managed to steal a glance to make the eighteenth check of his stole. “Still straight,” he thought to himself.

He glanced over at Delia, the pianist, and thought for a moment how very old she was and how many weddings she had seen compared to him. “She’s quite possibly older than the trees that went into making that piano and probably played more weddings than there are keys on it,” he thought. Of course, Delia wasn’t actually playing the piano as much as strumming it. She was finding the first note of a chord and then letting the rest of her fingers fall not so gracefully into place giving the illusion of a song rising out of the instrument. She opened her eyes, which normally stayed closed during her playing, and looked at Cary as he gave a little nod to signal her to start the procession for the bride. She never even noticed but kept right on playing, no strumming, the old Gospel hymn she had decided to torture for the moment.

Cary waited a cautious minute and then hazarded a step to his right towards the piano. That got her attention. She stopped mid chord, leaving an already unresolved melody quite unfinished and said, “Now?” much louder than Cary had hoped.

“Yes. Please.” He responded with a calm smile settling on his face even as another bead of sweat found a home in his stole. He tugged at it again, this time not even caring if it was in place or not.

The old company building that had been used for generations as a gathering place for the Methodist people lacked almost as much architectural adornment as it did practicality. It was pretty, but in the quaint way pretty is used to describe something plain, like the side of a barn or an old Plymouth. Cary always thought of it as a worship space that provided the bare minimum anyone needed to know that there might be some creative force in the universe. Whether it spoke of an Almighty God or an employer that wanted those who gathered to remember who was really in charge was a really good question.

The front doors of the church were located at the top of maybe a dozen steps leading straight from the weeds that were only somewhat infested with gravel in the parking lot. Cary had seen earlier that the bride, Roberta, had arrived and was thankful she had the good sense to get prepared at home and make the trip to church. The little nook that served as a narthex inside the front doors left very little room for anyone to wait in the best of weather, let alone the  West Virginia August heat. Cary had greeted her in that narthex along with a few members of her family. Those kinfolk, with the exception of two cousins who had been serving as ushers, took their seats and Cary made his way through the basement of the church to lead the groom to their present location of sweating.

Just as Delia ended the silence that had settled over the congregation with her own question of timing, the interior doors of the narthex opened with an equally non-musical flourish. “Thing One” and “Thing Two,” what Cary had taken to thinking of the ushers after he failed to recall their names, opened those doors with great gusto. The door on the right, which swung quietly on its ancient hinge, was positioned so that it could never fully be opened, yet another tip to the impracticality of the building. Somewhere near the eighty degree mark of its swinging arc it made contact with the last pew on that side of the church. Thing One had no idea this was about to happen as he pushed the door open so it crashed loudly into the pew holding the entire Smith clan. Several of them started at the sound of wood on wood and all of them moved forward. Cary simply closed his eyes long enough for a trickle to go from brow to eyelid and then he reached up and wiped it dry.

Wishing the damned sweat had been some form of acid that would have temporarily blinded him, Cary opened his eyes to see Thing 2 standing against the back wall of the church trying to figure out what to do with the door on the left, which only barely reached a ninety degree point when it was completely against the wall. However, with a bride about to make her entrance, there was little room for both door and Thing 2. Cary watched as the usher extended his fingers and arms to an almost ridiculous length and then flattened himself against the wall preparing to be frisked by the nearest available officer of the law. “Door stops,” Cary thought. “What this place could use is a couple of good door stops.”

By this point Delia was well into the butchering of the wedding march and the bride, who seemed completely unaware of the commotion caused by her cousins was making her entrance. The groom, however, had missed it all and was looking at the pastor with both confidence and expectation.

On this first occasion of Cary’s master plan, the groom turned on cue after Cary invited the congregation to stand and he was greeted with more than half a dozen older members struggling at best to rise to their feet and turn towards the center to see the bride. One of them, a retired pastor, stumbled into the center aisle and appeared to be lurching towards the bride when his wife just managed to pull him back by his belt and keep him from falling. The groom also got to see Mr. Smith, who turned out to be a distant relative of the bride but a closer relative of the ushers, smack Thing One across the back of his head and shake a finger at him for opening the door so carelessly. And to place a perfect little topper on the layers of Pastor Cary’s master plan the groom also got to see bride framed by the image of Thing 2 still struggling to hold the door open and giving the appearance of making love to back wall of the church.

Delia kept up her slicing and dicing of The Wedding March until the exact instant that the Bride arrived at the front of the church and without even a hint of finishing the chord, let alone the phrase, she stopped. Pastor Cary grimaced, pulled at his stole and collar again, and asked the congregation to be seated. Between the creaking of old pew and sighs of people finding their seats, Cary was quite certain he heard someone, somewhere break wind. Still, he opened his little Book of Worship and said words he would say hundreds of time till today, “Brothers and sisters, just as Jesus graced a wedding in Cana of Galilee…”

Although he was looking down at the small print in his book, he knew without looking something else was happening. At the very extremes of his field of vision he saw the bride’s dress shaking and the groom nervously tapping his foot. He stopped after he said, “so may Jesus be present as Stephen and Roberta come this day to give themselves to one another,” looked up, and saw that both bride and groom were doing all in their power to fight back laughter. The dam burst when in the silence they looked up from the floor, caught each other’s eyes and they both burst out laughing bumping military shaved head into veiled head as they bent over in the pain that such a release of joy brings.

Pastor Cary almost attempted to say something to bring back the somberness of the moment but Delia’s “Oh my!” as she banged on at least a third of the piano keys sent the rest of the congregation, save Things One and Two, right into the throes of laughter themselves. The ushers appeared to busy nursing a sore noggin or creepily studying a section of the back wall to even notice what was happening around them.

Coming back from this blessed memory, Cary said, “Yes, I just want to make things perfect for you both.” Try as he might, he had not been able to recreate that perfection again.

 

8/6/14
Chautauqua Lake, NY

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.