by Mary C. Lindberg
Memphis, 412 miles. The mileage sign crushed my spirit, as disheartening as the humid air which would hit me when I opened the door of my air-conditioned car. I began my road trip from central Illinois to Tennessee, traveling from one family member’s home to another, knowing that it would be a long way. But I gulped when I pulled onto the highway and read that sign: Memphis, 412 miles. How in the world could I endure 412 miles in the car? I knew that music wouldn’t serve to distract me, and I hadn’t brought any books on tape. Suddenly, I got one of my best ideas ever—I could stop resisting the drive and perhaps even enjoy it if I turned that day into something I love: a writer’s workshop!
I reached behind me to retrieve a notebook my bag in the back seat; I fumbled in the glove compartment, thrilled when I located a pen. My road-trip-writing-workshop quickly took shape, with musings about tire shard debris strewn on the highway and the quilted, silver backs of semis. And I centered my thoughts on a big question: How does change happen?
Now I love trying to ask big life questions, and trying to answer them in new ways. I was willing to bet that the land surrounding 400+ miles of highway could teach me some answers to this question perched in my soul—How does change happen? I knew from making the same drive from Illinois to Tennessee several other times that I would start the trip in the flat, vast farms of Illinois tractor territory. But by the end of the day, God willing, I would be surrounded by lush, green, rolling hills rising up from the Mississippi. What I didn’t know, and wanted to observe carefully enough to solve the mystery, was how exactly that change would come about. Obviously the farms wouldn’t end abruptly, like the edge of a page, any more than the flat terrain would instantly wrinkle into hills. So how would those changes come to be?
I made my road trip during the first weeks of saying goodbye to the congregation where I served as a pastor for eight years. Change was clearly on my mind, and I longed for clues about how to decipher the process of going from one state to another. A potentially tedious 400-mile drive turned out to offer a unique opportunity to pay attention, to contemplate what I left behind, and to write, of course. I perched my notebook on the passenger seat next to me. With very few cars on I-55 that day, I could easily glance over and scrawl my thoughts. It’s funny now to look at my chicken scratch trip notes. I wrote down amusing signs, like Green Frog Wedding Chapel and Cotton Museum. I tried to think of new adjectives for clouds besides billowy. I listed highway exit food stops—Bonanza, Ponderosa, Subway—and noticed the correlation between town size and quality of the restaurants.
In the meantime, I filled the day as a seeker/geographer/writer—letting the land teach me and exploring my question. At first the dusty brown fields repeated themselves, verse after verse. Then a small crop of trees appeared, a refrain between farms. Larger patches of trees followed, first on one side of the road, then on the other. “Aha, the land’s changing,” I thought. But then the trees disappeared again and longer stretches of farmland returned. As more miles accrued on the odometer, farms and trees alternated on the landscape. Sometimes trees closely lined the road and seemed to be forests, but when I looked closely, I got peek-a-boo views of the farms behind the trees. As the land gradually morphed from flat to rolling, mile signs ticked through century marks and the light continued to evolve. The bald sun of mid-day softened to afternoon and evening hues. Eventually, the trees began to “win” and the farms became a memory.
Being a practiced sermon writer, I theologized about life and came up with “points” as my little car crawled down an imaginary map line:
- I recognized that change occurred incrementally. I already knew that, of course, but I saw it afresh when the percentages shifted little by little. 100% farmland morphed into higher and higher percentages of forested land, and so on and so forth. For much of the route, old and new blended.
- I remembered, hour by hour, that I could only see the sights next to me on the road, even if I could anticipate and imagine changes ahead.
- I discovered that little details changed along with the big picture—blue cornflowers in Illinois gave way to yellow sunflowers in Tennessee.
Bright sun and endless miles lulled me into new corners of creativity. I wondered about the topography of writing, and how growing up amid lines of level corn, linear overpasses, and subtle color shaped my literary style. And those thoughts led to wondering about the topography of faith. Our journeys with the Holy are delineated by highs and lows, dried-up gullies, and clouds that gather and disperse, as have the journeys of God’s people throughout time. Prisoners clothed in orange jumpsuits retrieved hamburger wrappers and empty cups in a ditch on the side of the highway. I noticed them at the same moment a pickup truck pulling a shiny fishing boat drove by on the frontage road. The prisoners glanced up as well and saw the fisherman with his window down, tanned arm jutting out. There we all were—on the road of change together, living between what’s been and what will be. When did we see you in prison? When did we see you as a stranger?
In between wondering whether an editor would change the signs from Lodging-Food-Gas to Lodging-Gas-Food, letting radio stations usher me into new airspace, and researching my big question, thoughts of the church I had just left flitted around my mind: pictures of the goodbye party, faces of children and their parents, guesses about whether the senior volunteers were folding bulletins during that afternoon. Fueled by long-term relationships in a community of faith, my mind tried to traverse the process of getting used to a new reality on my own. I felt simultaneously thrilled that Bible School was behind me, and dumbfounded that the experience of throwing myself into Bible School wasn’t ahead of me. Where were “my” church folks now—wondering about me? Hiding behind each stalk in the fields through which I passed?
Although the land was my teacher that day, and I watched it far more closely than ever before, it occurred to me that the land wasn’t, in fact, changing after all. Every square inch of the land through which I drove remained essentially the same as the moment when I passed by. The land didn’t change; my position on the land changed. Back there among the farms I drove by early in the morning, the grass still fed Oreo-colored cows. Back there in my ten years of parish ministry, the past remained, authentic and protected. No matter how far I traveled from the church and people I loved (or endured), each section of the trek would still be there, imprinted on a deeper core.
And ahead of me, around one of the bends that replaced the straight road as the day wore on, new work and encounters awaited, already established in their territory, available when I reached them.
Asking and attempting to answer the big question—How does change happen?—provided me with delicious joy and distraction during a day that could have been boring. My motivation to root out an answer was born in the tenuousness of those early days post-parish. Even though I cared about change in general, my deeper motivation was to explore my own personal change. What I really wanted to know was how my change would happen. How would I ever let go of the satisfaction of knowing my job, the thrill of preaching and teaching, the laughter and truths we shared while making a church together? Maybe if I could just figure out how the farms and trees traded places on the land over 400 miles, I could gracefully hand my work over to another, and open my hands to what someone would offer me.
By mid-afternoon, barely perceptible rises replaced flat lands. Down the road, larger inclines pushed me up-up-up to the crests of hills, seeking panoramas and wider perspectives. With pages now covered in notes, my spirit grew weary of the intentionality of the quest to notice change. Deep inside me, a new idea arose with the hills—maybe you find out as much by not being so intentional as by striving to learn. Relaxed and fulfilled by a day of creative writing, I let go of thinking so hard. I simply looked around and saw—ah, the trees have covered the land.
Memphis, 412 miles. My agenda for that summer day seemed evident. In the morning I would say goodbye to my sister and by nightfall I would say hello to my dad. My parish goodbyes and hellos were not nearly as clearly paired, nor achieved in one sitting. Over the next weeks and months the parishioners who once upon a time journeyed with me now simply traveled through my thoughts, sometimes stopping in, sometimes staying too long. At times I focused on “getting on down the road,” filing away the Sunday School ideas or scheduling supply preaching in new communities, for example. At other times, I just let go, felt a mix of feelings, and trusted that change would somehow arrive, whether or not I was watching for it out the window.
My dreaded road trip on a scalding summer day turned out to be a rich metaphor for change. And I answered the question, in a sense. How does change happen? In the case of my car trip, change happened when one reality gradually eclipsed another, and my perception shifted along the way. Change happened in both large digits and tiny details. Change occurred when the former finally got traded for the future. Noting the process of change proved a fascinating exercise during a summer drive, but what about our changes that are internal, not external? Would the metaphors hold up? When our situations change, for example when our churches grow or diminish or when we retire, our route is not as tangible as Illinois to Memphis. We often don’t know where we’re going, so we can’t celebrate the halfway mark or the last tank of gas. And signs? The only signs we can locate often look more like the dull, empty backs of billboards than the bright, colorful messages on the fronts.
As pastors, we should be change experts. After all, we immerse ourselves in change. We walk with people of all generations who face changes every day. We listen to a parishioner who is wondering whether their elderly parent will ever stabilize, rather than bounce back and forth between the emergency room and the assisted living facility. We try to support our music director, who is trying to figure out where the changes in worship style will end. We witness the employed lose their jobs, and wander into a dense fog of fear. We hear new parents flounder as they struggle to create a predictable schedule for their family. We watch teenagers growing out of their old selves along with their old shoes. As members of the body of Christ we face corporate change as well as individual change. The rumors rumble around us that the church won’t be what it was, and we feel the deep anxiety of our traditions being amended. And to top it off, we don’t know where the church is going next—whether 412 miles could even begin to get us to the new phases we need in order to survive.
I searched the land for answers about how to change in an attempt to sort out my confusion. When we’re in the middle of change, we can’t really see the way through. Figuring out how to navigate the shifts in our lives can seem as mysterious as knowing how our lungs look, or how next year will look.
So what might we try to find on our way through the mystery of change? We could study God’s people as carefully as I observed the land, and not rely on old assumptions about how they will adapt. After all, we share a holy text filled with stories about a people repeatedly enduring change and surviving the unknown. God’s people move; they falter; they suffer; they meet; they take two steps forward and one step back. Isn’t that change?! God’s people in the stories go from here to there, following the ones who went before, or a call, or repentance. Take Ruth for example. She left home, carrying some pain, to find a new home. She was sent on her way with a blessing, yet her journey didn’t include mile markers or cruise control. Change for Ruth included all sorts of surprises along the way and in Bethlehem.
I’m not trying to be simplistic here, as if to say we can shadow God’s people and they will leave us a trail of manna crumbs. Studying Ruth doesn’t imply that she will recommend a route through change, but reading her story again connects us to a character walking her way through change. Characters can be companions, spiritual ones at that. Bible characters and real life characters. Yesterday I met a 90-year-old pastor. What has he found and given up along his road of change? I trust that we will both be served by talking about that question.
My favorite method for finding our footing on untraveled trails is the model I used on my road trip—writing. Although I spent countless hours in the car on the way to Memphis, I arrived the second I found that pen and paper, and came up with the idea for my own personal writer’s workshop. From then on I wasn’t tolerating the trip; I was milking it. Leaving my church happened after a long discernment. I loved words; I loved people. I came to a point at which I needed to decide where to invest myself. After I left and wrote The Graceful Exit, I watched the miracle of two passions coming together—I didn’t have to choose words or people, any more than the land could only support fields or forests. I was able to use my words to care about my people.
God saves me with pen and paper. When I face a snarl of emotions, the frustrations of not knowing, and the ins and outs of daily life in a world of people, I write. In other words, every day. Sometimes even more often, if I need to write my way to the bottom of a problem. I advise my kids to write, my friends to write, my pastor to write. Because the words have guided me through stability and change. Starting at line one, I just put one word in front of another. More often than not, after I write about two-thirds of a page, I gain some insight from beyond me that I couldn’t have known without all the words before. And whether the revelations are large or small, life-changing or merely amusing, the writing made me feel alive in my quest. During my road trip, my reflections about change proved healing, but the most healing thing of all was that I did what I loved, rather than merely endure what could have been painfully bleak. I wrote, I sought, I cared—so I felt alive, rather than merely tolerating a necessary interlude.
I preach a gospel of writing, for God has surprised and taught me, page after page. A gospel I want you to try, to share, to practice—if you have not found this tool for yourself already. How does change happen? Via the Word made flesh, my friend, via the Word made flesh. Write about change for yourself. Look back, and around. Then tell us. After all, your words and stories have changed my life and other’s lives. Your call to express the roads you’ve traveled has shown me the way home.
Congregations magazine, 2013-07-10
2013 Issue 2, Number 2