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.