Once upon a time, not so long ago, one room in my home was empty.
The yoga room was my favorite spot in the house. Save for art on the walls, a mat on the floor, and a lamp in the corner, the room was bare. Open. Blank. Free. Without the crowdedness of stuff, voices echoed in those four walls.
Then a cardboard box moved in. Bubble wrap soon followed. Cardboard multiplied. The squeak of packing tape, stretched and torn, echoed in a less-than-peaceful noise through the room. The echo weakened with the presence of stuff. I closed the blinds that I'd always left open.
At first, I left a rectangular space open for the yoga mat. I was determined that my time on the mat would not change amid the changes of an itinerant minister's life. No matter how much the yoga room evolved into the moving room, I would not move the yoga mat out.
John the Baptist had other ideas.
I had packed a box of keepsakes from the living room, labeled them, and carried them to the yoga room. It was too heavy to place on top of a nearby box. The space previously reserved for the yoga mat was perfect for laying this burden down. I placed the box on the hallway floor, folded the yoga mat in half, and laid it carefully in a corner. I felt like I should apologize to my four-year-old, flat friend.
Debating where I could relocate the yoga practice, I slid the box of keepsakes into the mat's old spot. Only then did I notice what I'd written on the label:
John the Baptist
I laughed out loud at this Methodist's method of packing. I knew exactly what was in that box. Anyone else would probably wonder how a locust-eating, wine-fasting prophet ended up in a preacher's box alongside decorations for wine glasses.
John the Baptist was a long, slender, wooden piece that a former parishioner gave me when I officiated at her brother-in-law's funeral. Her brother-in-law had given it to her, and she wanted for me to have it. At first I was puzzled. The painted figure did not look like John the Baptist to me. He carried a lamb and had a gentle face. He did not have the wild look I'd always associated with the voice crying in the wilderness. I asked her if she were sure it was John the Baptist. She showed me a card that came with the piece, and indeed it was John. I've always loved that particular John the Baptist--because he was not what I expected.
Now here sat John in a box that displaced my favorite spot. Thousands of years after he preached a message of repentance that pushed people out of their comfort zones, his presence forced me to change my zone of yoga comfort.
For the past four years, my life has felt as comfortable, open, and spacious as the yoga room. I've pastored two congregations with joy. We have grown together and learned together. We've baptized babies and buried saints and confirmed future leaders. I've had time to write about the escapades of Isaac the dog and the theology of British banjo players. I seemingly had every reason to stay on this beautiful delta road....
... until, driving through Tupelo, Mississippi, on vacation last year. I missed a turn -- and found myself in the parking lot of a hospice center.
I remember looking up at the sign for Sanctuary Hospice and thinking, "How did I get here?" No sooner did I ask the question, I felt the answer in my spirit. This was no wrong turn or driving mishap. God was speaking.... But what was He saying?
I looked at my odometer. I had driven 139 miles, and my gas tank was 139 miles from empty. The identical numbers illuminated the dashboard as I reached for my Bible.
O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up.
You discern my thoughts from far away ...
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?...
If I take the wings of the morning
And settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
Even there your hand shall lead me,
And your right hand shall hold me fast.
(Psalm 139:1-2, 7, 9, New Revised Standard Version)
After praying this beloved psalm, I continued on the trip. I came home. I went back to work. I resumed my routine, but I was no longer comfortable. Deep within me was a restlessness that would take many months to acknowledge and discern. I was drawn to hospice ministry. I wanted to learn more about working with those at the threshold of life and death. I wanted to help churches learn how to care for another when a member is dying. While I felt called to preach to the living, I also felt called to work with the dying. How on earth would these work together?
Through the guidance of some wise leaders in The United Methodist Church, I learned about a degree program where I could both explore studies in end-of-life care and serve as the pastor of a church. I researched the program and confirmed that it was conducive to the working pastor's life. I was thrilled with the newfound clarity. It felt right. It felt good.
Yet--the discernment process was not over.
I still felt restless.
I knew that it was time to move to a new appointment.
But I loved my churches.
I loved the people.
I had every reason to stay.
A voice crying in the wilderness of my heart kept saying, "Go...."
With much fear and trembling, eventually, I surrendered to that voice. I made the necessary phone calls. I shared the news with the staff-parish committee, then with the congregations. We cried. We asked and answered questions. Joy about the future mingled with the grief of saying goodbye. Deep peace resided in my heart. I waited for the phone call of what was on the other end of the ellipsis for "Go ...."
When John the Baptist emerges from the "living room" box, he will be at home in West Point, Mississippi, where I will serve as the pastor of First United Methodist Church. I am also finishing an application for the degree program which, if I'm accepted, will begin after I've had time to unpack the "moving room."
When we talk about our callings, many of us talk about our vocations, our occupations, our passions, our roles in the Church. A call is not only what we do now. A call is what beckons us into God's future. Into "the farthest limits of the sea." Into the unknown. One of the things I love about pastoring is that there is always room for dreaming. Taking a risk doesn't require us all to physically move, but the risk requires us to dream. I dream about wonderful days ahead for First UMC of West Point. I dream about a bright future for St. Luke UMC and Shipman Chapel. I dream about a world transformed through the power of Jesus Christ.
Even the darkness is not dark to you;
The night is as bright as the day,
For darkness is as light to you.
God's call may invite us to step into darkness. Only when we step forward into the dream do we discover that Light surrounds us--and moves with us.
all good things to each of you,