One of the highest privileges I’ve received is that of serving as Pastor for the community of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights for the past 26 years. In 2010, this group granted me a four-month Sabbatical from my ministry for a time of recharging and renewal. In 2019, they extended that offer again – so I’ve got three months to wander, wonder, and join in life in a different way. The longest single time period that I’ll be away from Crafton Heights involves a visit to Africa – a place that has long been a source of renewal and inspiration for me. You can learn more about the relationship between Pittsburgh Presbytery and our partners in Malawi and South Sudan by visiting the Partnership Website.
If you’ve read posts from early on in this African pilgrimage, you may recall that when our team of 14 arrived in Blantyre, Malawi, virtually none of our luggage did. We had transferred from a large, mostly-empty plane to a smaller, really crowded plane, and some of the stuff simply did not fit in. Folks at both airports assured us that they knew where it was, only that it would take day or two to get it all to us. They were right. It was a slight inconvenience, easily rectified and quickly dismissed.
When I left Juba, South Sudan, to journey to Gambella, Ethiopia, I knew I was on a tight schedule. According to my itinerary, I had 55 minutes to make a connection at Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa, which has the distinction of not only being one of the busiest hubs in the world, but is also undergoing massive reconstruction. My situation was not improved by the fact that my plane was 30 minutes late leaving South Sudan. As I rushed off the plane in Addis, I explained my tight turnaround to several Ethiopian Airports employees, each of whom looked at me incredulously and said in Amharic something that I took to mean, “Well why are you standing around talking with me about this, old man? You better run, and run fast!”
Because my Amharic is about as good as my Chinese, Estonian, or Navajo, I simply looked as helpless and as lost as I could. I must be pretty good at looking that way, because they assigned me a coach – they found a guy who I am convinced used to run for one of the Olympic teams back in the day. “Coach” brought me outside of one terminal and ran with me past the jets, the propellers, and the baggage handlers into another terminal. When he figured out that I had to go through passport control and get my visa examined, he handed me off (yes, it was like the “Pastor Dave Relay”) to a young woman who brought me to the front of the line, stamped my passport, and then pushed me through the security so that yet another man helpfully removed my belt, frisked me, and ran with me out to my waiting aircraft. I made the flight, but was not surprised when I arrived in Gambella to discover that my luggage had not.
I inquired of both Ethiopian Airlines personnel on site at Gambella, and they assured me that my luggage would come, probably in the morning on the next plane. To keep me happy, they wrote my little tag numbers on a scrap of paper and put that paper on someone’s desk. The next day I went out, only to discover that not only had my bags not arrived, but there was no internet that day and nobody could help. It took me two days to even file a claim with the airline. In the meantime, I was in a rather_________ (fill in the blank: quaint/rural/remote/traditional) African community with two shirts, two pairs of underwear, one pair of pants, and a toothbrush.
You’ve had splinters before. You know that they are really essentially insignificant. In your head, you think, “Yeah, I’ll want to get that out soon. It’s kind of annoying”, but you realize that having a splinter is not the same as breaking your leg or having a house fire or losing a loved one. Splinters are small potatoes.
And yet, you also know that the longer you have a splinter, the more time and energy it takes. You don’t want to but you find yourself picking at it. You curse yourself for having trimmed your fingernails so closely and wonder why in the world whoever used the tweezers last couldn’t be bothered to put them back in the right place. A friend may come to visit and speak to you about some crisis in her life, and you are trying to look sympathetic and supportive but in your head you’re thinking, “Yeah, but I have this splinter and it’s really on my last nerve! This splinter is the worst!” Of course, it’s not actually the worst, you’ll readily admit to anyone who would ask you about it, but in your heart of hearts, pretty soon (in your mind, at least) the pain of your splinter starts to rival that time you had appendicitis.
For almost a week, I’ve gotten up and stood in the shower washing yesterday’s underwear and socks and then placing them on the line to dry. I’ve called more people at Ethiopian Airlines than I ever thought possible, and some of them recognize my name now. Everyone assures me that the loss is being traced and I need to be patient. And I am sorry to say that I am more bothered by this than I wish I was. It’s just stuff. Stuff like this:
- The preaching alb I’ve worn since it was given to me in 1993 – the sign of my vocation and, perhaps, my identity.
- The bible I’ve used – and carried around with various scraps of paper, poetry, photos, and mementos – for years.
- A beaded cross I was given by a South Sudanese woman and that I like to wear when I lead worship as a reminder that we are all connected.
- A large stack of letters, gifts, and greetings I’ve been given in Malawi and South Sudan to convey to friends of friends in the USA.
- A propeller that I brought from the USA to help the church here in Ethiopia repair their motorized canoe and gain access to more villages.
- The shirt my wife says is her “favorite” – a soft cream colored long-sleeve with the Church’s logo and “Pastor Dave” embroidered on the breast.
- Small gifts I’d brought for my daughter and granddaughters.
- A pocket knife that once belonged to my grandfather (a.k.a. “Grandpa’s knife”)
- And yes, things like clean underwear, deodorant, and cholesterol medication.
It’s all stuff. It’s only stuff. But it’s my stuff.
Perhaps I’m afraid that maybe, somehow, it’s not just stuff – but somehow, it’s my me too.
If I lose my alb and stole, can I still be “Pastor Dave”? If I don’t have the gifts, will people be glad to see me? When I fail to carry the greetings with which I’ve been entrusted, will my integrity be called into question?
When I began this Sabbatical, I volunteered to walk away from most of my life. I knew that I was giving up the summer of boating with friends in Pittsburgh. I didn’t plant a garden and I walked away from some of my favorite ministries at the church. Yet I was in control. I thought about what I could miss and what I couldn’t miss and what the costs and opportunities were, and I made a choice. And it’s been good. Hard, but good.
But now, these small reminders of home and identity and love and self were taken from me, and are in limbo somewhere, and that is more disturbing, more unsettling to me than I wish that it was.
It’s stuff. Only stuff.
And even as I type this confession, I am aware that every day of this Sabbatical – every blessed day since I left Pittsburgh – a dear friend has been hospitalized and in agony each day. I pray for her. Another friend lost her husband of nearly 60 years right after I left town in June. I’ve been engaged in conversation and study with those who have had to flee everything they’ve known in order to stay alive as refugees in a new place and who need “trauma healing” to get through this part of their lives. My city has been torn apart by another senseless murder and the political discourse in the USA has sunk to new lows each day.
And I’m over here well-fed and housed and with two changes of clothes and still I’m worrying about my stuff.
Oh Lord, deliver me from confusing the self that you have given me, and the image that I have carried, with the things that I wear or carry or use. Help me to see the splinters for what they are and to walk with those who face real challenges every day. Teach me wisdom and grace and humility. Teach me to release my stuff and to hold on to you and those you have put around me – to cling to that which matters most. Amen.
While it may seem sacreligious to quote the late George Carlin after such a heartfelt prayer concerning materialism, the observations about “Stuff” he shared at the Comic Relief show in 1986 are, well, prophetic. Be advised, there is some language in here that you’re not used to hearing from your pastor, but if I don’t have any more clerical collars, who am I, anyway? Find a quiet nook and see if he isn’t telling the truth here:
(if you can’t play the clip in your browser, access it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MvgN5gCuLac)