Arrived but Not Landed

So Major Life Decision has morphed into Major Life Event. We are no longer leaving Arkansas. We are no longer moving to South Dakota. Both are accomplished facts, no longer part of our planning, now part of our history.

All quiet on campus for now. Great time to be reflective!

All quiet on campus for now. Great time to be reflective!

Now what?

I’m asking that question a lot in these first few days at my new appointment. DWU in July is quiet, to say the least. I’m reading through files and filling out forms and trying to learn the names of the buildings and the offices on campus. But that only fills up so much of the day. Ministry to me is always about people, not programming. No matter how much I plan, I still have to wait on students to arrive on campus before I can truly get to work on that part of my job.

I imagine this is at least somewhat true for my colleagues who pastor local churches. Those who moved this year began their ministries in their new settings in June or July, when church attendance is usually at its lowest. It’s almost impossible to get a true picture of congregational life in the summer, and those who try end up with a skewed understanding of what (and who) a church really is.

Maintaining perspective is one of the most important disciplines for those of us in new settings. We have lived in chaos for weeks in anticipation of the move. The temptation is to rush toward stability, to jump right in and declare ourselves landed.

But that approach only considers our need for order, not our duty to learn and love a new congregation. When the flight is turbulent, the ground looks awfully inviting. But the end result is good only if we have the discipline to grab the parachute first.

A new job—pastoral or otherwise—requires some floating. The first few weeks offer us a unique perspective from which to survey the terrain and decide where we will land.

So I’ve arrived at DWU, but I haven’t really landed yet. I’m floating toward stability and trying to not get in a hurry, trusting that solid ground will be here soon enough.

Release

Well, we made it to South Dakota. Even if some of our stuff didn’t.

Van Meter Move 2014 got off to a rocky start when, two days before we were to load up, Budget called to tell us our truck was cancelled. Thirty-six frantic hours later, I had located a slightly smaller truck—22’ instead of 24’—and got busy drawing up plans.

You wouldn’t think that those two feet would make that much difference in what did and did not make it onto the truck. According to my floor plan for packing, we should still have some room left over in the last few feet of truck to fit it all into.

My packing schematic--the source of no small amount of teasing from wife and friends, but a quite efficient tool, if I do say so myself.

My packing schematic–the source of no small amount of teasing from wife and friends, but a quite efficient tool, if I do say so myself.

That was before I realized some of the things I’d left off the schematic. Two dressers had been stuffed into closets beyond my consideration. Not in the plan. The basketball goal the boys’ grandparents bought them. Not in the plan. My table saw and the boys’ bicycles. My own fault for leaving those out, but still…not in the plan.

The schematic more or less worked for about 14 feet, at which point the left-outs began to show up. Five feet from the bumper, it became clear that we were not going to make it.

Looking at all the things we’d accumulated, I started to panic. How much had we paid for all this stuff? And how could we justify leaving it behind? For a few minutes, I felt like Steve Martin from “The Jerk.”

“I don’t need anything! Except this stapler…and the paddle game…and the ashtray…and the remote control…”

And these mower ramps. And the wheelbarrow. And my mountain bike…

The truth is that I don’t need any of these anymore. Our yard is too small for a riding mower. The grounds crew at DWU takes care of mulch and debris. I haven’t mountain biked in five years, not since I fell in love with road biking.

Not only did these things not fit in my trailer. They no longer fit in my life. So why would I hang onto them?

Good question. One answer is that I paid for them—earned them, in a manner of speaking. Another is that I might need them again someday. Another is that I might be able to sell them and use the cash to buy other stuff.

But, from garden tools to grudges, anything we earn can outlive its usefulness. Hanging on to old treasures are signs of living in the past, or of waiting for a past-like future. And which is more important: more cash to buy more stuff, or blessing a friend who still needs what I no longer do?

When we closed the door on the trailer, we left out a lot of things. I’m sure that time will prove that some of what we took with us is useless, and some of what we left we’ll wish we had. No matter. We got something of greater value: a lesson in releasing the past.

Don’t bring with you things you don’t need. And you need a lot less than you think.

Last Memories, First Impressions

My friend Omar taught me the power of last memories—and the necessity of choosing a good one.

Omar and I had fought many a battle together while serving in campus ministry in Arkansas. Both of us were leaving a mountain of frustrations behind us on the way to our new states.

But Omar told me that he was not going to let his last memory of Arkansas be one

Fishing at Grandma's--one of the "best of" memories we will take northward with us.

Fishing at Grandma’s–one of the “best of” memories we will take northward with us.

of futility or insult. Instead, he chose a dinner that several campus ministers had together, one that both closed out a training event and remembered one of our late colleagues.

“We laughed and talked and really cared about each other,” Omar said. “It was the closest thing to real community that I experienced in Arkansas. And that’s what I want to remember.”

This week, as I pack my boxes, I’m sifting through mental images, both memories and expectations. I’m thinking through the life I’m leaving behind and the life I’m getting ready to enter.

And I’m making choices. I don’t want my last memory of Arkansas or my first impressions of South Dakota to be colored by hurt feelings or stress. I don’t want either boundary of this transition to be handed to me simply because of chronological sequencing.

I want to decide the emotional landscape of those boundaries. I want to leave with the best of what I’ve been given. I want to arrive there with the most hopeful of hopes.

This strikes me as the same kind of maturity I encourage in my students when a healthy dating relationship ends. Celebrate what was good, I tell them. Let go of what was not, or it will drag you down and make you bitter. Choose what you will take with you from that relationship, and look forward to what’s ahead.

Easier said than done, now that I’m on the receiving end of this bit of wisdom. It doesn’t come naturally to me, and so far I’m failing a lot. But this work must be done nonetheless.

And so I’m trying on last memories of Arkansas State, football games and worship services and cookouts and people who feel genuine loss at our moving—people for whom we feel the same sense of loss. I don’t have the one single defining memory yet, and I may never have it. Perhaps it will be a collage.

The same may be true of my new home in Mitchell. I’ve already been greeted by people who genuinely welcome our arrival, I’ve met a few students and gotten messages from a few more. But what will it be like to actually drive into town? What will it feel like to come home after dropping off the moving truck? What will be the mental picture that endures?

I don’t know that answer yet. But I know that, before anything out of this flow of chaos begins to solidify as part of my story, I will be sifting through it for the memories and impressions I want to keep. The rest can wash downstream, and I will watch it go, knowing I am better off with only that which I’ve chosen to keep.

 

Liquor Boxes

The best advice I’ve gotten about moving so far? Get boxes from the liquor store.

That’s not to say I bought the liquor inside them. I didn’t, although more than one friend has inquired about such while helping me pack. I simply went by the spirits store nearest our house, asked for boxes, and came out with a truckload of cardboard cases that once held whiskey, tequila, wine, vodka, and a rum with the dubious moniker The Kraken.

Why do these boxes work so well? In part because liquor is expensive. The packaging companies don’t want their product or profits to spill from broken bottles. So they pack them in sturdy, well-made boxes. On top of that, the boxes are small, presumably to minimize losses in the unfortunate instance of a dropped case. Movers can pack plenty in them without worry that they will be too heavy or cumbersome, as appliance boxes tend to be.

Not only are liquor boxes useful, they are a great practical joke. Although

The Kraken...sounds fishy to me. But it's a great box for packing.

The Kraken…sounds fishy to me. But it’s a great box for packing.

there would be nothing at all funny about someone consuming 30 boxes worth of hard liquor, it is funny to watch people—particularly in the Bible Belt, where I currently live—step out of the unloading line for hushed conversations about why the preacher would be moving that much alcohol into the parsonage.

At it’s core, however, my affinity for using liquor boxes is utilitarian. They worked to accomplish the purpose of their original design. They work just as well when re-purposed.

But they can’t accomplish both at once.

I thought about this as I packed my office last week. Had those boxes been full, they would have been no use to me, no matter what they contained. I have things—books and Cardinals’ paraphernalia, mostly—that are important enough for me to haul a thousand miles north to my next appointment. I only have so many boxes, and each one has only so much space. Anything already in my boxes would waste space at best and thwart my prioritizing at worst.

It’s also true on a metaphorical level.

Like any pastor anywhere, I have accumulated a hodgepodge of emotional memories in my time at Arkansas State University. Baptisms. Weddings. Sacred conversations. Moments of victory. Frustrations. Broken promises. Falsehoods and failures.

If I only have so much space, which of those will I prioritize?

The answer seems obvious enough: accentuate the positive! But the actual packing tells me that turning the obvious into practice is easier said than done. No matter. Jesus went out of his way to make sure his followers knew that “easy” was never a criteria for faithful actions. I know what I have to do.

And I want to do it. I want to carry with me the best of what I’ve been part of in ministry in Arkansas, and to jettison the rest. So I’m mentally piling up the bad memories—few in number, but strong in emotional pull—and throwing them into the dumpster. The good memories are going with me, in boxes repurposed for a better spirit.

Lasts

Last week was, for me, a week of lasts.

Last goodbyes with several friends before we move.

Bikers from TdF 2014 pose outside of Des Arc UMC. After 200 miles on a bike together, you're more or less family.

Bikers from TdF 2014 pose outside of Des Arc UMC. After 200 miles on a bike together, you’re more or less family.

Last mission trip with my ASU students. Along with that, the last Tour de Faith bike ride I will take as A-State Wesley’s pastor.

Last time leading worship with this group of students.

You’d think I’d be used to this sort of thing by now. An inherent part of campus ministry is saying goodbye. You welcome students to campus, get to know them, invest in them, but know all the while that, if all goes according to plan, you will have to let them go in four or five years. When they leave, you cry in your office. It’s just part of the rhythms of the job.

On top of that, I am a United Methodist pastor, working in a system marked by frequent pastoral moves. I knew when I chose this profession that it would be difficult to set down roots, and that I would not always be in control of my own appointment.

But none of that has prepared me for this particular move. After seven years in Jonesboro—about double the average stay for a UM pastor, according to the latest Barna report I could find—I have come to love this place and these people. And falling in love makes you vulnerable to the pain of loss.

In my more skeptical moments, I wonder if it’s all worth it. I wonder if my denomination really wants us to learn to love our people, since love means attachments, and attachment makes us more difficult to move. I wonder if it would not be easier to treat ministry like it was any other job, to serve my people in a caring but aloof fashion. I wonder why I don’t become just another service provider, a religious cashier of sorts, someone paid to define and facilitate spiritual transactions.

But that’s the “lasts” talking. In my clearer moments, I know there’s a bigger reality.

When I search the bible for direction and comfort during this transition, I keep going back to the story of Joseph. He didn’t just lose a job. He was sold out by the people who should have cared about him most. I can only imagine the sense of loss and desperation and disorientation he must have felt on his way to Egypt and then again in prison.

Joseph had two choices: die bitter, or fine a way to live better. He chose the latter, and his people were saved because of it.

The stories of those of us moving this year—mine included—are not nearly so dramatic. But the premises hold true. We can focus on what we lose in the change and be bitter about it, which will destroy us and leave our new parishioners underserved.

Or we can embrace the pain of the “lasts” as a necessary part of moving forward in God’s grace. We can look ahead knowing that, for every loss in pastoral transition, there is a corresponding gain.

The lasts don’t last forever, and they carry with them the hint of a promise. Soon the lasts shall be firsts, in a new place and with new people. As much as I grieve what I am losing, I can’t wait to fall in love again.

 

Looking Over Loss

When my wife and I decided in April to move to Dakota Wesleyan University, we were too numb to feel much beyond relief. After months of grief and uncertainty, it just felt good to know what was going to happen, to be able to exercise some sort of control over our situation—something sorely lacking among ARUMC campus ministers of late.

The last two weeks, however, remind me of waking up after getting my wisdom teeth removed. Once the anesthetic fog began to clear, I realized just how painful this whole endeavor was going to be.

I had prepared myself for the calls and e-mails from colleagues that I started receiving once the news hit the clergy gossip circles. I had even thought through the last few weeks of school and inevitable goodbyes with my students at Arkansas State. No surprise to anyone that I shed my share of tears, particularly at our last A-State worship service.

Denise's sunflowers are something we will miss from our current house, but also something we might take with us to the new one.

Denise’s sunflowers are something we will miss from our current house, but also something we might take with us to the new one.

But neither Denise nor I were quite ready for the emotions that came with putting our home on the market. The little white house has been our dream home, and the land and woods our boys’ playground. For five years, I’ve written in the same office—everything from book reviews to blog posts to a fairly credible novel. For five years, Denise and Jonathan have worried over the garden, and Zachary and I have played baseball in the field.

This house has not been the place we happened to live. It’s the place in which we’ve built our lives for half a decade. Goodbye is not coming easy. Goodbye never does.

To live is to lose. Sometimes that’s a controlled loss, as with our move. Sometimes it’s a gut-punch, like the death of a friend or, as is now the case with Central Arkansas, a brutal natural disaster. Regardless of how loss comes to us, however, it brings a terrifying reality: we cannot hold anything worth holding without knowing we could lose it.

Of course, that’s not the whole story.

Lately I’ve been reading Margaret Heffernan’s Willful Blindness, a fascinating exploration of why we (humans, families, churches, etc) cannot see things that are right before our eyes. She notes that, “as the behavioral economists Kahneman and Tversky found, losses loom very much larger than corresponding gains.” (p. 25). We feel loss more acutely because it brings the absence of something known, something comfortable. It’s harder to take solace in a resultant gain, especially when it is not yet realized.

Heffernan’s point is not that we are powerless in the face of loss. Rather, she argues that when we understand what causes our blindness, we can address it. We can gain power over it. We can release what has been taken from us so that we can accept what is given.

To put it so simply does not imply that such perspective is easy. As excited as we are about the new chapter of our lives, we feel the coming loss of our friends, our jobs, and our home acutely.

But we are Easter people at heart, and we know this move is right. We will empty this house with tears, but also with prayers for whoever the next owners turn out to be.

And we will start over in a new world that’s not defined by loss, but by hope.