Mike's Sunday Letter

--with personal notes
  • Happy Chinese New Year.  Today is the New Year's Eve, tomorrow is the day.  We will be heading to Chicago to join the Chinese half of our family after worship this morning.  It is the year of the monkey.
  • While I have known for some time that I would be moving to a new church this summer, I did not find out where until this past week.  It is being announced at First United Methodist Church in Mattoon, Illinois this morning that the bishop has appointed me to become the new pastor there effective on July 1.  Mattoon is one hour south of Urbana, right off Interstate 57.  Jie will be close enough to continue her work at the Wesley Foundation and at Parkland College, although it will be a significant commute for her.   Later on I will share my reflections on the 15 years I have been pastor of Urbana Grace, which I will continue serving until June 30.  There is much to say...and I look forward to sharing many of my thoughts in writing with you all.
  • My parents left Wednesday for their annual winter trip to Texas (for six weeks.)  The last I heard, they are doing fine after taking about 3 days to arrive in the Houston area to visit my mom's cousin.  This week they will head toward San Antonio where they rent a cabin like place for their stay.
  • Reading Miguel de Cervantes' novel, Don Quixote, one of the earliest novels ever written (early 1600s.)  I've selected a modern English translation of it.

February 7, 2016
Rules for Camping
It never before occurred to me how many Bible stories involve camping.  Sure, some of the stories occur in palaces and peasant homes and prisons.  But a huge part of the Bible takes place while folks are in route from one place to another.  Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Paul...  Even those with minimal knowledge of ancient history know that they didn't stay at Motel 6.

In a couple instances the Bible explicitly mentions camping (Exodus.)  And the second most famous character of the New Testament was a tentmaker.  But most of the time, we just have to remember...and use our imaginations.

I mention all this because I was working in my garage the other day. It is full of camping equipment:  tents, air mattresses, sleeping bags, canvas chairs, lanterns, gas stoves, coolers, water jugs, etc.  

In other words, my garage is equipped to resource a riff on a Bible story...a modern day pilgrimage. There is enough there to fully equip 16 people on a camping trip.  I accumulated all of it during the past several years so I could take Chinese scholars around the U.S. 

A pilgrimage is a trip to a place of storied meaning which simultaneously and mysteriously evokes an inner journey for us as well.  

As dying mainline churches try to find identity in a rapidly emerging, multi-cultural world, pastors are wondering what to do that will be fruitful and faithful.  Our roles are changing.  

This fall, I will have been a pastor for 44 years.  What I am doing now looks nothing like what I started out doing.  There is hardly any market left for what I used to do back then.  Therefore, these days I'm mostly winging it.  But I have started to suspect that the "pastor of the future" may be less a leader of institutions and more a facilitator of pilgrimages.  

Newly minted pastors may thus need the camping gear in my garage as much as the books in my study.

And so I tend to the camping gear...and relish the stories of trips with my Chinese scholars.  I also continually recall the stories of all the other camping trips I've taken in my life...since childhood when my parents would take camping vacations.
It is really a lot of work to take others camping, especially when they've never camped before.  With the Chinese scholars, even before we even embark on a trip, I have them gather at my house for an orientation.   They practice setting up the tents, they learn how to light the kerosene lantern, they review the kitchen equipment, and they test the air mattresses.  That may sound pedantic, but it pays off on that first hectic night out.
Our "scholar" camping trips generally last 10 days:  sometimes to Yellowstone, sometimes to New York and Washington D.C.  I try to prepare everyone for the adventures, but you never know.  

Rain never surprises me, but the severe hailstorm in South Dakota really scared me one year.  

Then there are always items that get lost.  But the time the car carrier (to store camping gear atop the van) disappeared in the middle of the night...well...I didn't see that one coming.  

And then there was the time I ran over the largest raccoon in the world...in North Dakota...damaging the rental van...at 1 a.m.  The only living creature within 100 miles that night was the other raccoon...that I didn't hit.  Even the cell phone was useless that time.  And it took me an hour to come up with "Plan B."  

And then there was the time I tried to lead our caravan through Philadelphia in rush hour (2 other vehicles following me) and as I was kindly trying to locate my followers in the rear view mirror, I accidently turned into a lane of on-coming traffic.  I won't repeat "word for word" what the drivers coming toward me were saying, but let's just note that they failed to make me feel welcome in their city.
Even though we cannot anticipate everything that will happen, I've been camping enough that I've developed the "Ten Commandments for Camping."  I follow these commandments very religiously.  So if you want to go camping with me, just keep in mind that I'm a radical fundamentalist when it comes to them: 

1.     If you have a tent that leaks, it will rain.  Don't be cheap:  just stop by Wal-Mart and get another one.  After all, a van is okay if six people are riding in it cross-country during the day.  But it will strain the fellowship if those same six have to sleep in it due to puddles in their tents.


2.     If you ask a farmer to camp in on his property, be sure you do not set up your tent in the cow pasture.  (I'd rather not repeat the story that goes with this commandment.)


3.     On your way into the campground, be sure and note the closest pizza parlor...and the time it closes.  The grilled chicken you planned for your first night out will not be done in time for your group.  When they begin to murmur, pizza will usually satisfy them.


4.     If you start to chaff in embarrassing places, use a chap stick for relief. 


5.     Do not ask someone else in the group to borrow their chap stick.


6.     Save time for a campfire, some story telling, some songs, and some meandering conversations.  Don't pack the schedule so tight that you do not enjoy the mysterious beauty of outdoor fellowship.


7.     Give everyone a job.  No one gets to be a freeloader when you camp.  On the last camping trip out east, one Ph.D. scholar was honored to be named the "Commissioner of Camp Garbage." 


8.     Don't store food in your tent.  Every bug, spider, roach, raccoon, bear, and possum in the forest will find a way to enjoy your hospitality.


9.  When you get ready to build your fire, don't skimp on the twigs and little stuff (needed to get the blaze started.)  Get twice what you think you need, then go back out and get that same amount again.  Then double that.  Then you are ready to strike your match.


10.  Don't take too much with you, but be sure that half of what you take is stuff you can use to improvise, even if you think you will have no use for it (objects that are sharp, fabrics that are soft, gadgets that clamp, ropes and wires that connect, etc.)  

When a camping trip gets really challenging, I think of Moses:  he had it worse.  His trip 400 mile pilgrimage (a four day camping trip today) turned out to be a 40-year "stuck-in-the-wilderness" campout.  And in that case, life (when the Israelites finally made it home to the promised land) only worked when they retained the maturity so painstakingly gained on their campout.

Lord have mercy.  --Mike

 The Sunday letter is something I have done now for over 20 years.  It is a disciplined musing:  mindfulness, memory, and imagination.  I write it when I first wake up on a Sunday morning and then share it with the congregation.  The letter you see published here is usually revised from what the congregation receives.  This discipline of thinking and writing puts me in the place of describing rather than advising.  It prepares me to proclaim the gospel rather than get preachy with the souls who will sit before me.  --JMS




J. Michael Smith | 2508 S. Cottage Grove | Urbana | IL | 61801