We don’t create — We reclaim

What does it mean to reclaim something?

Source: Unsplash/Martine Vogel

After retrieving the appropriate key, my colleague unlocked the door, and we stood side-by-side in the newly vacated church office of our former head of staff. It was our first time in the space since she had left. At first glance, the unoccupied room appeared typical: rows of windows; cleared bookshelves; motivational art; cushioned couches; leafy plants stretching for sunlight.

Yet, as I stepped through the threshold, I remembered recent scenes of flurried intensity in this room. The all-hours crisis and conflict management meetings, emergency conference calls, tense supervisory sessions, tearful confessions, rigorous conferences with outside consultants, etc. All the harried work of institutional transition: the good, bad and ugly.

Today, this office was silent, unlit and empty. Our head of staff had left abruptly due to unforeseen and tragic medical circumstances. The difficult work that had been done in this room was now finished. Soon, we would be calling our next senior pastor to sit behind that desk. We are preparing to write a new chapter in this room.

I am reminded how much the rooms in which we live, breathe and work reflect images of ourselves back to us. A workspace contains the archives of who we’ve been and who we are currently striving to become. It’s contained in the memories of early mornings, late nights, triumphs, failures, echoes of hearty laughter, vent sessions behind closed doors, and secret tears behind computer screens. If we take the time, we can sift through emails, forms, photos, degrees and awards to find a roadmap. Rooms store our past and present selves. They also contain space for our future potential.

A spiritual director recently asked me: “Do you imagine God experiencing you as you have experienced your life?” My kneejerk reaction was to inelegantly snort and retort, “As a hot mess?” After we both laughed and our discussion evolved to a different subject, I found myself picking his question back up again later. I was surprised to find myself thinking of standing in that empty church office alongside my pastoral colleague.

“Our past is not what we’ve left behind; it’s what we carry.” — James K.A. Smith

I imagine God experiences us like the rooms that form us. I imagine my former head of staff’s office sighing with compassion for its occupant who had to leave so unexpectedly. I imagine that room filled with grace for the ones who carry this painful past with us.

The rooms that house us bear witness to the best and worst of us. So does God. And when we clear out a room, splash the walls with a fresh coat of paint, and prepare to start over again, our experiences aren’t erased. They are a part of us and a part of a much bigger picture. A grander narrative is unfolding.

In his book How to Inhabit Time, James K.A. Smith lifts up a quote from William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Smith observes in response, “Our past is not what we’ve left behind; it’s what we carry.” Smith reminds us that even when we start over again, we aren’t starting with nothing. It isn’t creation ex nihilo. We are continuously shaped, formed and changed by our experiences.

When we go through a season of upheaval – a change, shift, move, or rupture –  the task before us isn’t creation out of nothing; it’s the work of reclamation. We are called to reclaim the things we carry, the past pieces of ourselves that have formed us but have fallen temporarily from our awareness.

When we go through a season of upheaval – a change, shift, move, or rupture –  the task before us isn’t creation out of nothing; it’s the work of reclamation.

To reclaim means “to recover,” “to retrieve,” and “to take back.” Images of reclamation that spring to my mind require significant labors of time and meticulous attention: unpacking boxes, repurposing furniture, mending tattered clothes, and the long process of mental and physical healing. All of these entail holding space for what is lost, broken, worn, tired, and in varying stages of disuse or disrepair. An undeniable factor in the work of reclamation is the essential acknowledgement that something or someone is worth reclaiming. Intrinsic value is found. Love and care are felt.

Every part of us is held in God’s memory. The things we carry with us, however ugly or messy they may be, are worthy of redemption. God loves even the parts of us that we have forgotten, or perhaps are actively trying to forget. Confession is a vital step in the work of reclamation. Much of our baggage is the regrets we shoulder, the guilt we feel for what we have done or left undone. Rooms witness our sins and trespasses non-judgmentally and contain these as well.

An undeniable factor in the work of reclamation is the essential acknowledgement that something or someone is worth reclaiming in the first place.

There was no closure or reconciliation between myself and my former head of staff before she had to leave. To continue the analogy, her empty office knows that: as does God. God is asking me to trust that God already holds the knowledge of what was done and said in this room, and therefore, to release the confessions of my heart back to God. By God’s grace, I am working on that. I am working on reclaiming the parts of myself that have changed over time or were temporarily shelved.

I am grateful that every piece of us is held in God’s memory. God knows what we have been and what we will be, our past and our potential. And in this little sliver of time we call the present is when we are given the grace to keep trying, to keep reclaiming, to keep carrying the memories we hold that have formed and shaped us.

Here in the present, may we dust ourselves off and breathe. Imagine God experiences you like the rooms that have housed you, remember you, and have formed you. Breathe into God’s daily experience of you: full of abiding compassion, mercy, and love.

Thank you for reading! As always, check out this piece and more at my Presbyterian Outlook author page!

Pilgrimage reflections from the messy middle

What’s the difference between transition and transformation?

Source: Unsplash/Richard Viana

I wonder, what does it mean to be on a spiritual journey we never intended to take in the first place?

I’ve been asking myself this question a lot lately. I didn’t join the Great Resignation of 2021-2022. I like my job. I like the congregation I serve. In fact, I like it so much that I relocated to town. I happily adopted the local zip code and kissed my twice-daily views of Jersey Turnpike bumpers goodbye. Then one day, I looked up to realize I was working in a place I didn’t fully recognize. My office was the same, but the ground around me had shifted. Overnight, the journey of transition had begun and had permeated every aspect of our congregational life. It was as though I was serving an entirely different church…

Like so many institutions right now, our large congregation on the Philadelphia Main Line is experiencing massive change. In about a year’s time, nearly all my former colleagues have departed. Seats around our conference table are vacant or filled with interim colleagues, chief of which is highlighted by our ongoing search for a senior pastor. It has been a bumpy road, particularly over these past several months. Congregational grief over lost relationships and missing institutional memory remains acute. Some members have walked out the door, weary of the constant flood of change.

Yet prospective members want to join, hopeful that something new under the sun is happening here. Our new staff team has locked arms and are eager to create and lead together. I confess that sometimes it feels as though we are trying to build on sand. At any point, will office responsibilities get shuffled around yet again? Will another volunteer step into my office feeling discouraged? The internal dialogue in my head loops on repeat: How did we even get here? Where are we going next? Maybe I should start a dog-walking business, just to be safe… 

Nevertheless, here we are: a liminal setting we never intended to be. Since arriving in this unanticipated space, I wonder what it all means for our congregation and for me. In many ways, life itself is a series of arriving in unexpected places. I suppose it’s what we do after we arrive in each space that matters. Specifically, when God calls each of us forth into uncharted territory: how will we respond?Will we answer the call?

To be clear, I am still in the midst of the pilgrimage. These are not my sage reflections from life on the other side, but rather my obscured views peering out from some choppy “middle” place.  It’s not easy to articulate my thoughts on the journey so far. As I have learned, existing in this liminal space means many things are truth all at once, often in tension. I love my new colleagues, but I miss my former ones. The ubiquity of impermanence is overwhelming; still a new door of possibilities has cracked open to us wider than ever before. I can see the light of revitalization streaming through, and it’s so clear to me that God is at work here.

The question now is: how will we step forward into this next phase of the journey? How do we interpret God’s work faithfully and with intention? How do we participate and join in with what God is already doing in this place? The soil is fertile in the congregation for renewal, regrowth, and dare I say revival. What will we do with the fertile soil God has handed us? All this remains to be seen…

My experience in the messy middle has made me wonder if churches overuse the word “transition.” Without a doubt, the word “transition” is a beneficial one to keep bookmarked in our congregational lexicons, especially today. A transitional season is a midway point, a place of change, a time of fluidity, and a shift toward the next thing. Lord knows, none of us are strangers to transition these days! Though to be very clear, a time of transition is only intended to carry us so far by its very definition. It literally means “to go across,” like a bridge. In anticipation of our arrival on the other side, we need another word at the ready in our back pockets.    

With that in mind, as our congregation takes the next step into an uncertain future, I am craving a different word: “transformation.” Transformation means to be changed, to undergo a metamorphosis. For my weary soul, transformation feels exciting, holistic, and capacious: brimming with big possibilities and full of potential. Transformation offers an invitation to step into something bigger than we are, a metaphysical transcendence beyond the finite limitations of who and what we once were.

Transformation is a term expansive enough to fit both our enthusiasm for what is to come and our sadness at what once was. To be transformed doesn’t mean we step away from our grief and simply leave it behind us in the dust, unaddressed and denied. The transformative process is one that takes our grief along with us to this next pivotal phase of the journey, allowing every part of us to be shaped and molded, especially the pieces of us still broken and hurting. Truly God’s hand is the redemptive agent in the sacred work of transformation.

If we’re honest with ourselves, transformation is equal parts exhilarating and frightening. Ready or not, widespread spiritual and ecclesial transformation is already happening. Whatever comes next, in the life of our own congregations or for the American Church at large it will be nothing we’ve ever seen before. Once we go across that bridge, we won’t be the same. Our God who leads us to the other side will shape us and form us in ways beyond our wildest imaginations. Transition takes decisive steps toward a new place; it is the bridge that carries us over to the other side. Transformation is full immersion into uncharted territoryhow will God change us?