What is your life? You are a midst that appears for a little while and then vanishes. (James 4:14)
I hate moving.
Now don’t get me wrong. I am a United Methodist clergy, sold out to the theology of itinerancy. Plus I love arriving at new destinations along with an anticipated excitement that is born out of new beginnings. I enjoy the adventure of discovering fresh starts in unfamiliar surroundings. I even love meeting new people and developing new relationships. I especially appreciate the new perspective moving to a new location gives. But I hate, I loathe, I detest, the mechanics of physically moving. In general, my attitude toward moving embodies the old adage, “Everyone wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.”
Every time I start packing boxes for an upcoming move I hear George Carlin’s monologue on “Stuff” playing in my head. He espouses about how our homes are “just piles of stuff with a cover on it.” Carlin’s foul-mouth theology reduces the meaning of our very existence to finding a place to put our stuff, and if we get bigger homes, then we have to get more stuff to fill it up. Moving convicts me of my identity as a stuff-collector.
I know District Superintendents do not usually move their residence on the district to which they are appointed, but what better way to experience the full expanse of this 3,000 square mile James River District? After three moves on this district, a rationale can be made that these moves tie in with the new District Superintendent’s job description as a “Mission Strategist.” A more practical argument can also be made that moving enables me to be so much more compassionate and empathetic to the pastors who have made the big move this year. Ok, if those two don’t work for you, how about, it is harder to hit a moving target!
So, as I box up all my stuff to move from one pile to another, I also began to unpack (pun intended) questions such as: How much of this stuff do I really need? How much of my identity is contained in these cardboard and plastic vessels? Why do I keep moving the same stuff around? What is worth keeping and what needs to go?
My life in boxes is a vivid reminder that I am just passing through this world. There are some essential items that I pack last and open first in a new home. For me, it is paintings, pictures, and books. These are old friends that surround me with the comforting message that I’m home, wherever I am. However, even these sentimental trinkets can accumulate over the years and begin to weigh me down.
There is a story of a young priest who visited his monastic mentor. When he got to his friend’s one-room apartment he was surprised at the spartan accommodations. The room contained only a small bed, table, chair, and cupboard. He looked at his host and asked, “Where’s all your stuff?” His friend returned the question, “Where’s yours?” Somewhat surprised, the young cleric answered, “I have all I need. I’m just passing through.” The monk responded, “So am I.”
Moving actually helps me downsize my collection of stuff that is no longer needed. No doubt it is easier to stay put, build bigger barns or rent storage buildings for our collections, but I am thinking that our children and grandchildren will be pretty perturbed at having to go through all the crap we leave behind. Much of my stuff would be better utilized at thrift stores, shelters, clothes closets, and yes, even the dump. If I had to reduce my life to what I can put in a box, it better be pretty valuable stuff.
I listen to a lot of people who are worried about where we are moving as a denomination. However, perhaps the greater problem is that we are not moving at all. We have comfortably maintained the status quo with our mission being cluttered by the sentimental trinkets of yesteryear. I walk through a lot of churches with rooms full of memorabilia and monuments to past glories. Sunday school classes once bustling with children are now storage closets of stuff from a bygone era. Church walls are littered with yellowing artwork and full of pictures of people wearing funny clothes. They have collected a lot of stuff that produces some comfort in their decline, but no longer make disciples of Jesus Christ.
I get it. In case you didn’t hear, I hate moving! It’s painful, it’s stressful, and it usually involves downsizing. Just when I get set in my ways and stuck in my comfortable routines, it’s time to load up the wagon! So I get it when churches balk at the notion of having to change and move in new directions. But with every frustrating move, there is a corresponding memory. Packing my life in boxes and loading them up the truck is very stressful. My wife and I may even disagree on what stuff needs to go with us (I’ll not go any further with that thought). So I really do get it when churches disagree on what needs to change and what needs to stay the same.
However, even these disputes can be healed by the memory of how God has guided us in the past and delivered us to a new unknown future. In the midst of chaos of a move we have to focus hard to recall a promise of our Savior’s presence – always. It is that very memory that renews our realization of how God is not only moving us, but moving with us on the paths of righteousness, besides still waters, and through dark valleys.
When we gather as the Body of Christ it is this memory that calls us to move forward. We resist (because who loves moving?), but if we are careful to discern and listen, God will continue to lead us beyond ourselves on yet another exciting adventure. When the Holy Spirit comes, you’ve just got to move. Your feet, your hands, your hearts, and even your minds have just got to move forward. The same Spirit will move us to clean out those storerooms of the past and start filling them with new ideas, ministries and possibilities.
I am still unpacking boxes – literally and figuratively. I’ve got the important stuff with me already. God’s grace, my faith, my wife (who still loves me very much), my dog, Leo, and yes, even some sentimental pictures and practical books. But I didn’t have to move Jesus with me because he was already there!
Although I do not know where we are moving as a denomination, my prayer and heart’s desire is simply to discern where God is going, and then catch a ride.
I do believe it is time to get out of the box.
And the best of all, God is with us!