We’ve just moved to a new city where I will assume a new pastorate in a few days. Until this transition, my wife and I worked 165-miles apart. We will be living together full-time for the first time in four years. Unpacking and consolidating I’ve discovered that when you live in two homes, have a home office and a work office, AND keep the car well-stocked, you can end up with multiples. Multiple multiples might be more accurate.
We also had multiple toasters. We have multiple bags of dog food not to mention the hand lotion here, there, and everywhere. We even have an extra robe now because she kept an extra in my parsonage. None of this is to complain. It’s been fun counting the number of like items we’ve found we had. The joy of being together in one home outweighs any minor difficulties of merging households.
Make the bed.
“Should I change the sheets today?”
No time. Tomorrow.
Do the dishes.
Water the grass.
Deal with dog.
Eat. Don’t dawdle.
Ding. Ding. Reply to texts.
Teeth. Don’t forget to brush your teeth.
“I’ve gotta start a load of clothes before I go!”
In the midst of my morning routine I found sabbath. As the laundry detergent slowly and intently flowed into the cup, I took a breath. My body relaxed and my blood flowed in rhythm to the steady, unhurried liquid as it flowed from bottle to tap to measuring cup.
In and out. Sigh. I am here in this now.
That’s when I knew who I am. That’s the moment when I felt the divine presence in my morning routine.
Awhile back, I was inspired by the abundant life still present in the parched late summer at the Tom McCall Preserve near Rowena, Oregon. The dry conditions were not unusual that year. I confess the sound of the hot wind blowing through the dry grass and crinkling leaves brings me peace when I hike there in the summer months.
Instead of the Columbia River Gorge’s hot breath, I experienced its bitter winds on my early February hike. There was no crunching to be heard, only the sloshing sound of my (thankfully!) waterproof hiking boots on the muddy and floody trail. There was subtle beauty in the winter moisture just as there was in late summer.
Last fall, much of this area was under a drought emergency. Mt. Hood was rapidly losing its snowcap. Areas I hiked in July had the same lack of snow that is typical of late September. This winter we’ve been blessed by moisture falling as rain at the lower elevations and snow in the mountains.
Certainly we need to be concerned about climate change; we should be taking more drastic actions than we have been taking. Nonetheless, spiritually we need to remember that the very nature of existence is change. What is now, will not last forever. Droughts become an abundant winter of snow and rain.
Writes Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön, “Impermanence is a principle of harmony. When we don’t struggle against it, we are in harmony with reality.” I confess that I’ve recently been in a funk. I’ve been struggling with the wilderness, the “no-man’s-land” as Chödrön refers to it, on and off for some time.
The result of course is I’ve been out of harmony with reality. By allowing myself to resist and struggle against the impermenance, failing to be in the present, I allow myself to be out of sync with the joy, the contentment — the divinity — within myself and others. So, I confess my sin and pledge to continue the wandering, the learning to be.
Below are photos of the moisture from my recent trek through McCall Preserve. The image that looks like a small stream? That’s the trail.
Pulling the leash taught, he looked wistfully down the road. Turning his head toward me his brown eyes yearned to explore beyond the side walk.
“No. I don’t want a car to splash on me. Look at the size of those puddles,” I said calmly.
He turned and continued his wistful look followed by yearning brown eyes.
“No, not this time,” I said firmly and without harshness.
He turned and looked down the two-lane road. I waited. He looked back at me, using every cute bone in his body (he has many) to plead his case.
He yearned and turned back to me.
I nodded my head back the way we came. Letting out a sigh (really), he gave up. Moments later he found the perfect spot and we returned to the warmth of the indoors.
Like my beloved Heywood, we often have to settle in life. I’ve found that sometimes, not always, but often enough my yearning for the land beyond the sidewalk is not what I need. Sometimes settling isn’t settling at all. It is finding the joy in the perfect spot I’d passed by on my desire to go beyond the sidewalk.
Though productive and gratifying my spirit and body were ready for a sabbath hike at the end of the day. With thoughts of wafting sage and a murmuring river, I began filling water bottles and checking my pack.
Making a “just in case” stop before heading the twenty-five miles to our localstate park, I watched as the energy of out-of-towners turned our small town gas station abuzz. Some smiled; many looked pained and stressed.
The station manager smiled at me and I her. It was a holiday weekend at the only gas stop for fifty miles. Our small talk while she pumped multiple cars revealed that though it was still before four, she’d been chewed out several times by stressed holiday-goers.
Once filled, I headed down to the park. As I passed wheatfields, the old abandoned homestead, a parishioner’s ranch, and the wind farms I noted actual traffic on our two-lane highway. I waved at the sheriff as I slowed to pass him writing a ticket.
The thought emerged as I made the twenty-five minute drive but impressed itself upon my brain as I walked the quiet trails in the canyon. My holidays are significantly different than those of others. We’ve long since given up stress-cations and are healthier for it.
Walking quietly along the trail, I listened to the gurgling river, the singing birds, and humming insects. The stress of my day flowed out of me with each footfall. Respite is not tied to a place; it is in the journey. My sabbath began as I filled my water bottles and stopped for gas. My healing was jump started by smiles and small talk at the gas station.
The friendly wave from the sheriff and the nod from the woman leaving the trailhead are not a means to an end. They are the sabbath itself.
I hope that the hurrying masses find the peace they need when finally arriving where they’re going on this holiday weekend but I wonder. I wonder if they might have more joy if they slowed down and breathed in the journey rather than fighting it.
Looking around the living room I said, “We don’t own much in this room.”
I’m not attached to the overstuffed couch from another era, though it naps well. The glass-topped coffee table, functionally repaired many times is sturdy and large enough to hold dinner plates for two. We do own the Ikea bookcases and their contents but not the industrial strength desk.
“We don’t own much in the bedroom, either,” she said.
“No, the bed is theirs and so is that ugly nightstand. That funky plant stand your boss was getting rid of is ours, though.”
We live in the partially furnished parsonage owned by the church I serve in a tiny, isolated eastern Oregon town. We live in the company house with canyons of empty cabinets and closet space.
“We own everything in this room,” she said in a follow up conversation a few days later.
Ninety miles away in the tourist town where my wife serves as a hospital chaplain, we rent a room above a garage. It is a place for my wife to sleep when she’s on call. In it we have an Ikea sleeping mat on the floor, a dresser, a tiny couch, and a twenty dollar coffee table.
“Let’s do it,” she finally agreed. I had been pushing us to divest of our possessions for a long time. We’d been dabbling in getting rid of things for a couple of decades but somehow we never took a serious plunge.
On that August night, sitting on the bed we owned in a house we owned, we decided to respond to God’s claim on our lives by getting rid of all but what would fit in the two cars we planned to move with us across the country. We later amended those parameters to allow us to ship twenty-five boxes of professional books in addition.
That process of responding to God’s call to move 2600 miles on the basis of “a Holy Spirit moment” coupled with giving up most of what we own was filled with learnings and emotions. I blogged about my experiences of what we dubbed Emptying Barns, the Year of Letting Go of Stuff.
“I haven’t looked at a lot of these books since we moved to Oregon,” I said.
“Me, either,” she replied. We looked at each other with gazes that meant action. Fresh off of reading Marie Kondo’s The Life Changing Art of Tidying,” we were both inspired to renew our divestment of possessions. Within the week I delivered five boxes of early childhood books, which I previously couldn’t give up, to our local child care center. (My former career was in early childhood education.)
This simple act of letting go of possessions that serve no purpose in my current life, has resulted in the start of a relationship with the local child care center and its director. We are already talking and thinking about how my congregation can support her important work. It’s a no-brainer to me that books on a shelf are of less value than a relationship that will be mutually beneficial.
At not-quite five years since we began Emptying Barns, I feel an urge to let go of more. I feel God pushing me to relinquish my attachment to things once again. There are those blank mailing labels from my failed business and that box of old phone cords and computer peripherals that “I might need some day.” There are too many post-its for someone who doesn’t use post-its and there’s that red sweater I picked up for two dollars at the thrift store but no longer wear.
There are even mementos that fail to inspire any longer. If they don’t inspire or help me to build relationships, are they of any worth?
Despite my commitment to further emptying the barn, despite the overall positives of the process, I would be lying if I didn’t own up to a few feelings. Lately, I’ve let the gods of stuff ooze into my psyche. The culture built upon acquisition and monetized self-value tells me I need more. It tells me there is not enough and I must scramble for my share. Our culture usurps the reality that there is enough for all of us.
I worry about where I will live when I can no longer work. I worry about whether student loans will be paid off before I am forced by age or health to retire. I worry that without property, I am of no-worth. I perceive judgement, classism, from some in the upscale neighborhood with the room above the garage. I feel vulnerable because the parsonage — my home — is only mine as long as I provide service as pastor.
Indeed, our culture has a way of luring us away from the divine.
But I’m stronger than I was five years ago when we consciously chose to empty the barn. Things do not own me like they once did.
Though I live in a world that contradicts the teachings of the rabbi Jesus whom I follow, the feelings seep into my consciousness at times. The difference is that I have less stuff to control me.
I know that God is not in the accumulation of things but in my relationships with people, with the earth, and directly with God. I know that I am called to continue to let go of more so I can see the divinity all around me.
Yeah, from the perspective of the culture my lifestyle is one of vulnerability. Living within the culture I will sometimes feel vulnerable in the company house and above the garage but I can choose to follow the counter cultural prophet of the first century.
In that choice I find abundance. In the choice to let go, I find more room for loving.
One misjudgment and my car lost $300 of value, at least according to Kelly Blue Book. The bumper blemish that remains is so minor you’d barely notice especially on a 2-1/2 year old car. My dad once called this the cost of owning and driving a car.
I have options. I can choose to report the injury to my pride, letting my insurance company pay to repair it, minus the deductible, of course. But that seems silly and a waste of resources. Leaving this scar on the bumper also, for those who care to notice it, is a testament to my human proclivity to make mistakes.
I’ll probably stick with the scar.
One necessary surgical procedure and my body was forever changed. The incision area is minor, you’d barely notice, especially on a fifty-something man who rarely goes shirtless in public. My eighty- and ninety-something parishioners call this the cost of growing older.
I have options, I suppose. I could probably have minor plastic surgery. That, is definitely silly and beyond my financial means. My belly blemish, and its occasional sensitivity, are a testament to my life’s journey.
I’ll definitely stick with this scar.
This scar, unlike the one on my car, adds value. I grew emotionally and spiritually through the experiences of surgery and recovery. I’m more than I was; I like who I am. I like the lessons I learned about myself, my family, and others.
I understand now why people like to show their scars. I’m proud of this scar and I’m going to try to be proud of the bumper blemish on my car. They both say, I’m living. I’m learning. I’m human just like you.
Shortly after our cross-country move it became financially necessary to sell my car. My wife was underemployed; I was unemployed. Following the sale, I experienced a sense of loss and grief.
Living in a city with excellent mass transit, getting around was not the source of my sadness. Just as previous times in my life, I felt a sense of liberation using public options for getting around. My embarrassment (is that the right word?) came when I drove my wife’s Corolla. The embarrassment was quickly followed by guilt for my first-world angst.
Americans of my generation, particularly men, were subject to the enculturation that what we drive reflects not only who we are but our value. Undoubtedly, I absorbed an unhealthy dose of that marketed self-identity.
Identity is a funny thing. Identity is complex; self-identity is never created in a bubble. Our families of origin, our culture, our inborn characteristics, recent events, and the choices we make all conspire as we live our lives of becoming.
About how we think of ourselves, identity also includes how we choose to present ourselves to the world. At two, my son already had a sense of public identity as he exclaimed, “I’m a big ol’ talking boy.” His self image was the result of adult comments about his behavior coupled with his own self-assessment. In his statement, his comfort with his own nature was revealed.
Because our family culture valued vigorous communication, my son’s pronouncement carried limited risk. Had we devalued child talk, his public self-identification as a talker might never have occurred. While he might have still assessed himself as a talker privately, it would have carried with it the seeds of self-loathing.
Hence, my grief over my car was about what I perceived it said about me. I chose to think the ubiquitous Corolla did not fit my self-image as a creative, open-minded, unique thinker. This was exacerbated by then-recent experiences in an educational institution that sought — intentionally or not — to quash my creative soul.
My identity was sensitive. My heart desperately yearned for healing.
But the human psyche is a remarkably flexible thing. The divine one who felt my feelings with me, nudged my mind and heart open so that I might learn about myself. At war within myself, I felt guilt at idolizing a car while intentionally divesting myself of possessions. But the loving spirit, the healing one I call God, gently led me to self-love.
In my becoming self-image (for our identity is never complete), I accepted my choice of thing-induced identity. I looked at it. I examined its edges, its surface, and, yes, even its core. In time, I released the guilt.
I confess that I struggle everyday with acquisition-based identity. As I grow into the image of God in which I am created, I continue to work at letting go of harmful identity markers. Instead, I choose and recommit to building self-image based on relationship with all of humanity, creation, and divinity.
It’s not easy, I often backslide, but I continue on my lifelong journey of becoming true to the divine identity — the Imago Dei — that we all share.