Friday, March 27, 2009

Boxed In

I've got an issue with boxes. As the Israelites hoarded manna in the wilderness, I store oodles of cardboard boxes in my basement because you never know when there may be a box famine.

To make matters worse, most of my beloved boxes were flooded last spring when a torrential downpour flowed through my basement. They've dried out now, but they're totally useless.

I could cast blame for this box collection in two directions. The first is necessity. I moved every year during college and grad school. I'm an itinerant pastor who could be moved again on a moment's notice. I need them, for goodness' sake, even the useless ones.

The second is heredity. Compulsive hoarding is a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, a genetic problem on the 14th chromosome. My grandma's home used to be piled floor-to-ceiling with used Pringles cans, Styrofoam trays, rusty coffee cans, crusty marshmallow cream jars, envelopes of blurry photographs, old-fashioned blow-dryers, friendship cards, ration coupons from World War II, sequin calendars, 30-year-old boxes of raisins, fossilized candy, receipts from my grandpa’s 1940s job at the dairy, Indianapolis Star newspapers from the 1960s, clothes she meant to give me 20 years ago, and my favorite, the sanitary belt Methodist Hospital gave her when my uncle was born in 1942.

I'm happy to report that a saintly neighbor has helped to tidy my grandma's clutter heaven so that her red Cadillac walker can be easily maneuvered. Even so, we dread the surprises that await us when it comes time to clean out her front porch, basement, attic, and spare bedroom.

As I reflect on my grandma's home, I can sense a similar future awaiting me. First boxes, then who knows what? Why do we cling to such useless possessions?

When I confessed this issue to a church small group studying simplicity, they laughed. But they also held me accountable. One person is checking my recycle bin to make sure that I'm purging those boxes.

My sister and her husband recently moved. She called the other day to see if I wanted any of their leftover boxes, adding that she didn't want to contribute to my box problem.

"No thanks," I replied, explaining that I need to remain strong to my resolution. I'm getting rid of the boxes I'm in, one at a time.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

In a flash

I determined that the confirmands should burn their sins. You know, as an object lesson. They were learning about God's justifying grace. It seemed the perfect way to emphasize that when God forgives us, it is just as if we've never sinned. What's more, I have a middle-school fascination with fire and burning. Sounded like a perfect plan.

The first step, I realized, was to find an appropriate method of burning. Based on the experience of a pastor at another church, whose identity shall remain anonymous, I knew that two things were essential:
  1. Not to burn burdens in the sanctuary itself. That can create a lot of smoke, set off fire alarms, and produce the fire department. That can be a real mood-breaker during Ash Wednesday services. "Remember that you are dust, and to [LOUD SIREN] you shall return."
  2. Not to use real paper, which also produces voluminous smoke. See above.

I needed flash paper, which would vanish into thin air the moment it was lit. While googling for a flash paper source, I quickly recognized that magicians have the corner market. After an extensive search, I finally tracked down a magician on the eastside who operates a shop out of his home. Let's just say that if I ever tire of pastoral "hocus pocus," I could make decent money selling magic supplies.

I had one of those weeks where selling magic supplies didn't seem half-bad. I was suffering from ecclesial malaise -- weary of the church, the call, the endless moments of service. In spite of the tears, the venting to friends, the prayers, and the complaints, I felt like a mouse caught in a glue trap in the church's kitchen. I was still alive but unable to move.

I handed out rectangles of flash paper to the youth, who spent time reflecting, praying, chatting when they were supposed to be silent, and writing their confessions. We ventured to the courtyard. We sang, prayed, and set our papers aflame.

I don't know if you've ever used flash paper, but it's pretty fun stuff. When you set a corner of the paper on fire, it burns brightly for an instant. The key is letting go at just the right moment. POOF! The paper is engulfed with one or two flames before disappearing completely. No ash. No residue. Nothing remains.

We went around the circle. "Cool!" one person exclaimed. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven. "I'm scared!" another said. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven. "Whoa, stand back!" In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.

My turn finally arrived. My paper began to glow. I had to let go.

Friday, March 13, 2009

"Oh Church"

As I wrestle with what it means to be the Church, love the Church, serve the Church, and yet retain a prophetic edge against the Church, I'm drawn again to the words of Carlo Corretto. A mentor shared Corretto's thoughts with me almost five years ago, and I'm only now beginning to understand the truth they contain.

How baffling you are, oh Church, and yet how I love you!
How you have made me suffer, and yet how much I owe you!
I should like to see you destroyed, and yet I need your presence.
You have given me so much scandal and yet you have made me understand sanctity.
I have seen nothing in the world more devoted to obscurity, more compromised, more false, and I have touched nothing more pure, more generous, more beautiful.
How often I have wanted to shut the doors of my soul in your face, and how often I have prayed to die in the safety of your arms.

No, I cannot free myself from you, because I am you, although not completely.
And where should I go? To build myself another church?

But I could build one only with the same defects, because they are mine:
Defects which I have inside myself.
And if I built one, it would no longer be the Church of Christ.
I am old enough to understand that I am no better than other people.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Morning Has Broken Me

"If people were meant to pop out of bed, we'd all sleep in toasters."
-- Garfield

Mornings have always hated me, and in return, I've despised them. I don't like to pop out of bed. I try to limit my snooze button hits to three, but sometimes more are necessary, depending on how mean the morning appears.

As loquacious as I am throughout the day, I don't like to talk to people first thing in the morning. I can be very grumpy toward anyone who crosses my path. When I was in kindergarten, my mom used to wake me with a lovely rendition of "Morning Has Broken." I was so nasty to her that my maternal reveille was soon replaced by an impersonal alarm clock.

If I were in charge of the world, the workday would start shortly before noon and end about 9 p.m. I'm in my prime in the late afternoon and early evening, just as others are slowing down.
Since the world is not likely to conform to my recommendation, I'm learning to cope. I'm certainly never going to be a morning person. But my seminary roommate, who knew how horribly rotten I could be in the early hours of the day, has said that I've greatly improved. We traveled together again last summer, and she was shocked at how much more sociable I was upon waking.

I will never be ready, however, to sleep in a toaster.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

It's slum life

I've wondered a lot about the child stars from the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire. A week ago Sunday, Azharuddin Ismail and Rubina Ali were lauded by glamorous Hollywood. Three days later, they returned to their homes in the slums of Mumbai.

Azharuddin, according to CNN, sleeps under a plastic sheet in a shantytown. Rubina stays with her family in a tiny shack next to an open drain.

One moment they were twirling through rides in a land of milk and honey and Disney. The next second they were welcomed as heroes in a community of shacks and hunger and poverty. One instant they were whiffing ice cream and celebrity perfume; the next was cow dung and urine. One second they paraded down the red carpet. The next time they ran through the dirt path, stumbling over raw sewage and trash and neighbor children.

The contrast is almost too much for the human heart to bear.

The film's producers have vowed to put together an educational package for Azharuddin and Rubina to guarantee them schooling, as well as a sum of money upon completion of their schooling at age 18.

Azharuddin's mother has heard rumors that the Indian government will provide her with a new home as a result of her son's new-found fame. Those plans are unconfirmed. "I've been praying for a new home for awhile now," she said. "It's all up to Allah now. "