Faith Matters - Packing Mercies

An occasional visitor to different congregations, I have the pleasure of experiencing a variety of worship. There are many similarities as well as significant differences. One element common to almost every service is the time before the prayers of the people when the community is invited to contribute their concerns and celebrations, or some variation on that theme.

Prayer requests generally range from those for the personal needs in the congregation to a broad spectrum of those for the world parish. Everyone requests prayers for healing, consolation and traveling mercies for family and friends. Some also ask prayers for peace, food, justice, healing and freedom for God’s children in other places.

One Sunday not so long ago, the congregation was responding to the pastor’s invitation to announce joys and concerns. Near the end of the time, a hand went up a few rows in front of me and a woman asked for “packing mercies”. It was the pastor’s spouse. The pastor had been appointed to a new congregation. The moving van would arrive in a few weeks. A ripple of knowing laughter skittered across the sanctuary.  

Anyone who had ever moved in the congregation understood the stress of changing an address. They knew the need for prayer if the family was to arrive at their new home without physical exhaustion and with some semblance of mental health. Military families, families who have hitched their career wagons to the corporate life and clergy households all contributed an understanding sympathetic sigh as we prayed together.    

Her remark set my mind chasing after memories of the fourteen moves in my own odyssey. It was a moment of empathy that had roots in my own moves sustained by prayer as well as sweat and tears. The prayer request transported me to the tape dispensers, colored markers, newsprint bundles and dozens of sturdy cartons begged from the Wine and Spirits Shop. An unknowing visitor in the parsonage at either end of the move might well be startled by the colorful boxes that were formerly home to a variety of non-Wesleyan beverages.    

The empties are filled, labeled, sealed and stacked, creating their own cardboard canyons on the first floor. Neglecting to label a box’s contents is a serious omission that sets everyone adrift in a sea of ignorant searching at the destination. Where is the bread knife with the red handle? Where is my gray sweatshirt? Where are the coffee filters? Some household items hide so well that they only make their appearance on stage every other move.  

One of the more useful skills I acquired along the way was household packing. To help pay the bills during graduate school days I worked for a moving company. Most pastors in our itinerant system would benefit from an internship with a moving company. Packing should probably appear as an elective in the curriculum of our undergraduate colleges. In our society, most everyone gets some on-the-job training in the science and art of relocation. Most of us get to change homes several times along the way.  

Packing and moving are among the most stressful stipulations in the fine print of the marriage covenant. In addition to the grief of saying goodbye to all of our support structures in a community, changing an address also rents a moving van of physical and emotional exhaustion. All members of the moving guild covet prayers for packing mercies. Family relationships and marriages submit to a season of final exams. Just to be a survivor of the experience merits a passing grade.  

Moving does have its virtues, however. It can also be an occasion for taking stock of what we have accumulated, what we believe we will need to carry forward and what we may now need to set down. It is an opportunity to lighten the load. How to pack is not nearly as important a skill as discerning what to pack. It is a spiritual exercise as well as a physical one. In the many realms in which we make our home, less can be more.  

Matthew reports that Jesus’ traveling instructions to the disciples as he sent them to the house of Israel was that they travel very lightly: no gold, no copper, no bag, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff. Sounds like little more than the clothes on their backs.

The monastic tradition insists upon poverty as well as chastity and obedience. The point seems to be that you need to lay something down in order to take up something else. If you are full of one thing, then there is no room for anything else. This is radical stuff as well as good advice. It calls for a trust in divine providence that does not come to all of us along the way. No need to learn how to pack, just take very little. Take only what you really need.  

In our culture, many of us have the burden of carrying too much. We are under continual re-construction, drafting blueprints for bigger barns. We watch the self-store villages springing up just outside of town. We need more space to house more things. The prospect of less makes us anxious. We devote much time, energy, and treasure to protect, maintain, insure, store and restore the things we own. Sometimes it seems like they really own us. Sometimes it seems like we end up serving them.  

Navigating all the cardboard canyons of our life, there are days when Jesus’ instruction makes kingdom sense: the lighter the load, the longer you may travel. You have a better chance of getting to your destination if you carry less. We may be more useful along the way if there is more of us and less of other things. We can focus on what really matters if we set some things aside.  

The impending arrival of the moving van may become just one particular spiritual exercise. An inventory of what we have, what we need and what we will carry forward is an opportunity to discern some truth about ourselves. We stand in need of packing mercies. Some of us are still trying to learn how to hold on with open hands.  

God’s peace.

Chuck Johns

By: Reverend Chuck Johns On 8/1/2009
Topics: Faith Matters