Guest commentary by Matt Schmidt
I am sleeping inside the 71-degree womb of Edna, a climate-controlled, robotic arthropod — a giant mechanical crustacean — with the guts of a living room, kitchen, bathroom and bedroom, and the organelles of electricity, HVAC, LED lights, Bluetooth speakers and satellite television, crammed into a 100-square-foot fiberglass body.
Edna is a leisure trailer.
Her purpose is to allow modern luxuries that upper-class society can hitch and trail behind a Chevy Suburban on the open road, so a family of four (or five, maybe six, but six would be tight) can comfortably camp in Yellowstone or Nova Scotia or apparently, now, in a church parking lot in the suburbs of Chicago.
The overly anxious church properties director warned me that the village of Western Springs absolutely does not allow trailers to park in such places — he knows from that one time in the 90s when they made him move his pop-up tent camper out of his driveway — and promises that the two-week permit to camp outside the church is etched in stone. People around here don’t approve of this type of thing, he explained. The cops have already called me about it, he fibs, I presume. Though I wonder if that’s happened because housing values are so high and all the yards are perfectly manicured and big white SUVs filled with lacrosse paraphernalia park in driveways, not campers housing a pastor without a permanent home. The church member who owns Edna, who lives in one of the nearby big houses, who got the permit to set up Edna in the church parking lot, the one who plays squash with the village commissioner, promises me that its OK. I feel good about bending rules for the sake of the gospel.
I am dreaming I’m Jonah. Outside the rain slams against the rubber blubber of my mysterious whale savior. Water pours down the windows. It’s dark and scary. The trailer lifts and drops with the wind. From the belly, I lament my loneliness. Will I wake up in Rockford or Traverse City or Milwaukee? Is it possible that my heart can long for my spouse even more than this? I wonder if this qualifies as loss of control, or if there is further to wander. I don’t want God to lead me somewhere new. Backwards is impossible. Change sucks.
I used to be a normal associate pastor at a normal suburban Presbyterian church. I led mission trips, taught Sunday school, visited people in the hospital, preached once in a while, failed and succeeded in all the regular ways. Our church system shifted dramatically when our head of staff of over a dozen years announced she was leaving. In that session meeting, when she broke the news, I felt the elders turn towards me one at a time while she was still reading her “goodbye love letter,” as if I were the lowest point in the room where all the anxiety needed to drain. It shocked the system, because everyone thought she had 10 more years here before she would retire – like the last head of staff did and the one before that.
Over the next few weeks, people asked if I was going to be the new head of staff. “Not possible,” I would respond with a smile brushing responsibility away like a fly. Youth asked if I was going to preach more. “Gosh, I hope so,” I would joke. Many people were sad at the sudden loss of a pastor they loved. In so many ways, she was irreplaceable. And all the while, I had a secret: my wife, Hillary, was interviewing at a school far away from this church, back where she grew up, where her entire family still lives, where we hope to raise children and grow old, where we’ve wanted to live for almost a decade. Before our head of staff could finish her letter, Hillary nailed the interviews and landed the job. We were next. The morning after session, I attempted to draft my own “goodbye love letter.” But it didn’t feel right. And I deleted it.
We quietly put our house on the market.
I am dreaming I’m Paul. A wandering, determined pastor pulled between places: wanting to stay and help and grow and serve and reconcile – and yet, knowing there is more out there that needs sowing. A traveler flash-planting shallow community in the hopes of resurrection. Words packed with meaning that skip off so many hearts and never take root, especially not in places like this where mental illness is dealt with in multimillion dollar hospitals, where homeless people have shelters, where poverty is miles away but not present, where black is just a color that makes white people look thin, where morning shots of ginger, lemon and turmeric promise no more inflammation, where essential oils are exchanged like sage wisdom and where Flat Jesus accompanies children and adults on their leisure trailer summer vacations. Here healing comes in many forms, open-mindedness is key, and people still aren’t totally happy although they have great smiles and know how to have fun. Should I stay and help Flat Jesus inflate?
I don’t want to leave this church, and yet I know that I need to go forward into a new calling in Michigan. I know I yearn for my spouse. I know God can use me to serve anywhere. Why can’t I stay and serve two places at once? Or three?
The fish vomits.
I walk 30 steps to work. I sit in my office staring at a microphone wondering what my electric letters recorded to this congregation will sound like. Today, a recorded sermon. Tomorrow, an interview. It’s not Scripture, but my passionate, honest words about God nonetheless. I look outside towards Edna. She is marvelous in her construction, luxurious in her options, a stopgap for an otherwise torn pastor between places – one who is searching and longing for deep human ministry. I speak with the freedom of knowing my words matter. And I long for real conversation that reshapes the world with divine creativity.
MATT SCHMIDT is the creator of exploriosity.org, a blog about curious theology and faith formation. He recently served as the associate pastor at the Presbyterian Church of Western Springs in Illinois, and now resides in Michigan, where he writes, podcasts and teaches.