I spent a couple hours today cleaning out the church office. I organize in piles. I like to be able to lay eyes on all my stuff--papers, liturgical gear, easels and so on--so I know where everything is, and I do not forget certain items exist. My favorite tool in this way is a bookshelf. The titles are on the spine. After a period of repeated use, I know the color and size of each book well enough that I don't need categories to find them again. An open shelf is a horizonal pile. I love them.
However, this piling doesn't work quite as easily at work. There just aren't enough shelves. Also, I am not one of those ministers with a spacious private office to retreat to. I have a desk in the corner of the shared workspace, but I haven't sat at it since before the pandemic. The way we work has changed. The church office is no longer a buzz of activity. Over time, piles--vertical ones--have taken over the desk. In this case they were piles I didn't really need.
Anyway, I got to cleaning my desk along with the stacks on the floor and the other two desks that share the space. One of the desks is for an intern if we ever have one again. The other is for a church administrator. After the departure of our beloved admin Felicia, we need a new one of those as well. Since it has just been me in the office--along with drop-ins from lay leaders--all surfaces are about the piles.
Cleaning isn't easy for me. As I went through the stacks of paper, I found references to old ministries that are no more. We used to have an active youth group. We had a D&D group for kids. We had multiple Christmas Eve services, plays-in-worship, fall fairs, rummage sales, and casual hangouts after worship at a local bar. Some of these things are long gone. Some need attention and could be revived. In any case they are memories. I greet them with panic, nostalgia, and sometimes regret.
Most of the regret, though, is saved for failures. Not all programs had long runs we can look back on with pleasure. There are as many false starts in the piles. Usually, they are things I thought might have potential. However, they fizzled out. Usually there was a marked lack of energy or interest. I don't blame others, but I do blame myself sometimes. I ask myself if Maybe I pitched it in a different way I could somehow have made them more compelling.
At home the attic and the basement are filled with things like this. There are plenty of problematic reminders. When I survey the boxes in the corners of the house, I see happy things...sometimes. However, most happy things aren't shoved away from sight. Just as often I see signs of old failures, conflicts, and dark times. We carry that stuff around, particularly when others see the same moment in a more positive light. I ask myself if this is this the day I rent the dumpster and start chucking things out. Maybe it is just another day I can't deal.
I know of plenty of people who say they aren't like this. They claim to move through life without attachments. Memories and garbage are in the past and they are unaffected or forgetful. Good for them, I guess. When I walk through life, I know there are many paths we can take. We hit the crossroads and we pick our way through the choices. Sometimes we luck out and sometimes we do not. Just as in any walk, the path can be hard. The goals can be elusive or disappointing. Yes, the story of the struggle and what we learned may give us strength for the next journey. That said, things may have sucked and we have the right to remember that as well.
Perhaps others don't wonder about the roads we turned from, but I do. Just maybe you do, too. In our lives we pick things up, or they stick to us. We can reach our destination covered in common burdocks or--even worse--ticks. Maybe you know the stress of old detritus. We carry it farther than we should.
So back to the cleaning, if we can manage it. In the fall I think of the rebirths to come in the spring. That potential rebirth drives us to go through the piles. We need to prepare the ground for the next crop. A clear desk gets us on to the next job. Man, though, it is work, isn't it? We don't just become a new person. We don't just rise one day clean and unburdened. Before the resurrection there is a bottleneck, we must find a way to squeeze through. If you are doing this work, I see you. I hope you have someone helping you carry the load. There are moments when we need someone or something to give us a push or a yank.
I sat at my desk today and looked out the window for the first time in a long time. It was nice to bask in the November light for a moment, watch the traffic go by, drink my coffee, and read an old copy of the Christmas Pageant from long ago. Maybe there are some good dreams in the future. Maybe there is more cleaning to do before Advent. Maybe there will be emptying in winter to make room for something new. Maybe we lay down some burdens for the new thing. We shall see.
I hope you all fill your dumpster this year. Let's make a pact to get the garbage out. Cleaning is tough work to do by yourself.
I am a full-time pastor in a small, progressive church in Massachusetts. This blog is about the non-church things I do to find spiritual sustenance.