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.

Kindles

A few days ago I got a box out of the closet in the corner of my office. The faded markings on a address on the box, covered by several layers of packing tape indicated I received the contents while serving in Kincaid, WV as a student pastor in the United Methodist Church. I lived near the church in Kincaid, served a second church in Mossy and attended what was then called West Virginia Institute of Technology. That school, like a couple other of my alma maters, has since either closed or been relocated. It’s hard to tell which from their name and new location. If anyone asks, I tell them I graduated from WV Tech which is a little ironic for a guy who knew his next step in life would be a theological education. Then again it would explain why I justify writing my devotions, studies, blogs and even sermons on electronic paper when creating my “SFD”. (Writers and fans of Ann Lamont will get that. Others won’t want to know.)

That box at some point in time held a hot air popcorn popper but I don’t remember having one of those so I reckon the contents that are currently there were shipped to me in this container. The label says it was delivered to a post office box in Kincaid. Yes. I had one of those but the number meant nothing to me even after seeing it in writing. The postmark is dim that I can’t make out the date but I’m guessing the late 80’s or early 90’s. I’m not so dim as to forget when I went to whatever the name of that school was.

The box isn’t all that important. Nor the mailing label for that matter. But they were interesting to me. In a way they remind me that the contents and I relocate from time to time. We’ve traveled quite a few miles this box and I.

IMG_20171205_124748.jpgInside it are ceramic figures of a sheep, a donkey, an ox (not to any kind of scale, mind you, because I’ve seen an ox and they are scary big) as well as a camel that has been glued together more than once. An angel is in there too as well as three suspiciously Anglo looking “Wise Men from the East” and equally White looking shepherd, Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus. Don’t ever tell me that we don’t allow culture to influence our “pure biblical religion.” I will just ask you to show me your nativity set or a copy of the latest Christmas card you bought with a scene of Jesus’ birth on it.

We all make Jesus fit into our culture at times. It’s what we do as humans. Actually, it’s what the Son of God had to do to become one of us as well.

I carefully placed this suspect nativity set on the credenza in my office using some plants left over from my Dad’s funeral a couple of years ago as a back drop. I didn’t think much about the racial and theological implications of the pieces while I was placing them. I handled each one with care because I didn’t want to get the glue out again and because each one kindles in me a love for the group of people who got together decades ago and hand painted each one of these figurines.

I attended United Methodist Temple in Beckley, WV as a youth and young adult. They had a tradition of giving one piece of this set to each child as they grew up among them. When the occasion arose that they had some outlier like me who came late to the party, then they would send them an entire set when they went off to college or left home for whatever reason. The thing is that I knew that these pieces were labors of love. The people who painted and sent them to me were my last true church “home.” I have loved and have been loved by every congregation I’ve served but the fact is that I came out of Temple.

These were my people.

These were my people giving me a gift.

These were my people giving me a gift to remind me of the Incarnate nature of Jesus.

Every year I put them out and remember. Every year I put them away in the same box, with the same styrofoam popcorn – just caught that irony there of the box and the packing popcorn – and I remember the care taken to make sure I got them.

And I take them with me. Always.

Peace!

#ReThinkAdvent
#UnwrapChristmas

Ash Thursday

ashwednesdayThe imposition of ashes was yesterday – of course,
I know that much.
The calendar said so…
The liturgy dictated it…
I even carried out – despite a snow shriveled congregation huddled in a sanctuary being renovated – carpets removed, chalk lines on the floor and walls, electric lines dangling like tongues from the wall.

I thought about the dust swirling about us…
Of course, it was carpet fiber…
Of course, it was wood dust and plaster.
But perhaps, just perhaps, among the sixty year old carpet ripped from its resting place
there were the long ago deposited cells of saints now in glory.
It took my breath away, this thought, and tempted me to breathe deeper still.
We talked about that.
Listened to a reading about dust and ashes, ashes and dust.

And thirteen times
I dipped my index finger into the oily black mess
of burnt palm branches and
God only knows what else that settled from our place of worship.
(Yeah, I’m different that way…I use my thumb to push back stray hairs.)
I made the sign of the cross on foreheads.
I said the words, “You are dust, to dust you shall return.”
We prayed.
We sang.
We stared at the different crosses one pastor/artist could create on the canvass of skin.
We laughed and we left.

But today is “Ash Thursday” for me.
I look at that paintbrush which is my index finger
and I see it.
The ashes,
the dust
that has embedded itself deep into the quick of my finger.
Only a painful cut with the nail clippers will erase its presence.

Yet before I pull out the eraser,
I am reminded
that this is the first time,
the only first time,
that my Dad is among those saints remembered as dust, celebrated as ash.

He is embedded deep too.
Not just in the quick of my finger but somewhere quite deeper…
in the ganglia of my nerves…
in the composition of my cells…
in the foggy clarity of my memory…
in the power of my family system.
Cut off from the family – but present still.

I can cut out the ashes on my recognition of Ash Thursday,
almost as easily as I wiped the cross from my increasing forehead.
But some dust, some ash will remain deep.

Maybe that is why we were told not to look for the living among the dead –
We can easily find the dead among the living…
Look in a mirror…
Listen to a laugh…
Talk to a child…

It’s Ash Thursday for me…and I thank God I am happy for that!