As I was leaving the church office Thursday night, I noticed that someone left an unopened box of Excedrin Migraine tablets on my desk.  I welcome all gifts, of course, but if someone wanted to be really helpful, they might have left a set of snow tires and tire chains instead. (All three trips up here in the last eight days have either been in snow, ice, or white out conditions.) 

What did someone mean by leaving me a box of migraine pills? The interpretation of a thing can go many directions, you know.  Reading people is like reading the Bible, if you don’t get the interpretation right, you might find yourself in a mess. Was someone trying to tell me that this job wasn’t going to be easy?  Did they think the climate in Geneseo was going to mess with my sinuses?  Do we have a healing service where I’m expected to hand pills out along with the bread and wine?  I kept wondering.  My first sermon had been a few days earlier:  was someone trying to tell me that it had given them a headache?  Was someone hinting that I’m a bit of a pain?  If so, I suppose it could have been worse: they could have left a tube of Preparation H.  Or maybe the Excedrin box is a subterfuge: the pills aren’t really what the box says they are and I’ve unwittingly stumbled upon a drug drop.  We are just off Interstate 80 you know.

I’m getting a headache trying to figure this out.  Of course, I could just suppose that Mark and Melva forgot something in the chaos of their move to Kewanee, but where’s the pizazz in that kind of theory? 

Interpretation demands context.  And in the context of my new church, it must be noted that everyone has been really nice to me so far.  So, I’ll just assume that someone was being thoughtful and leave it at that.  

I woke up today thinking about another congregation, long ago, that welcomed me as their new pastor.  It was also a January, in the midst of treacherous snow and ice.  I was only a sophomore in college, the youngest and most untrained pastor the bishop had ever sent them.  The previous pastor had left them suddenly and unexpectedly, and I was about all the conference could rustle up at the time. My only strengths were that I loved the Lord, I could talk my way into or out of anything, and I was fearless. I was only 19, single, and in the very early stages of learning how to love my parishioners.  In contrast, the love those church folks had for me was quite mature.

They had a big parsonage, a house they had scrubbed clean and repaired for my arrival.  It was two-stories with six large rooms and a basement. I’d never had my own house before, or even an unfurnished apartment.  The totality of my worldly possessions could be loaded into my Ford Maverick, all but a small writing desk that my previous church gave me as a going away gift.  The only comfortable place to sit was the carpeted stairway.  

A coalition quickly formed to furnish my new abode.  Between my grandmother (who only lived 12 miles away) and my new church members, the parsonage began to fill up.  All three bedrooms quickly featured antique beds, acceptable mattresses, and chests-of-drawers.  The church decided that since they didn’t have to pay a moving company to move me in, they would give me $500 to spend on furniture.  I bought a living room couch that pulled out into a bed for $129, then blew the rest of their gift on two over-stuffed living room chairs featuring gaudy floral patterns.  (Remember, it was the embarrassing 1970s, and I was a college student!)  

I found two saw-horses and an old door in a closet in the church.  My brother helped me move them into my dining room, and when the whole thing was set up and covered with a bedsheet, everyone thought (from a distance) it was a dining room table.  With some extra folding chairs from the church basement, I could host dinners and parties.  

One old couple gave me a three legged table for the kitchen, as they couldn’t find the fourth leg and it was no longer of any use to them.  When propped up against the wall just right, it was usually sturdy.  I thought I would take delight in such eccentric members, but sad to say, my relationship with that particular couple never did get off the ground.  

The rest of the congregation made sure I had sheets, pillows, towels, cleaning supplies, a vacuum cleaner, a black and white TV, brooms and dustpans, dishrags, wall hangings, and additional furniture.  

I suppose the memories of those folks in Madison, Illinois, in the winter of 1973, were triggered by news that the members in my new church in Geneseo were readying their parsonage for my arrival.  I learned that twelve volunteers showed up on Friday morning, when it was seven degrees below zero, to clean and furnish the rooms where I’ll be staying the next six months.  Some people go beyond the second mile in their kindness and generosity.

This is my 50th year in the ministry.  For most of those years I have settled in where I’ve been appointed.  But the first years, while I was in school, were years of migrant ministry. I was always on the road between the schools I attended and the churches I served. And now, decades later, as I serve churches in my retirement, I’ve become a migrant pastor once again, moving between my home in Urbana and whatever church the bishop has assigned me. Resuming the sojourner life after all these years feels warmly familiar.

Sojourners depend on hospitality, even those who are self-reliant and no longer flat broke.  A migrant soul needs stuff, to be sure; but also spirit.  The spirit is often tucked into the stuff that is offered. Over and over, my churches have provided pastoral care to me, blessing me so that I might be a blessing to others. And in my migrant years, such blessings that come my way are all the more poignant. 

When I was a freshman in college, Olney Immanuel church provided me with meals and a social life.  The folks there invited me into their own homes at a time I was feeling homesick, having left my parents and siblings for the first time in my life.  The Madison church looked after me like I was their own son.  The Harpers Ferry churches, in my seminary years, went out of their way to welcome me into a very different culture, regionally and racially.  The folks in my first retirement appointment, in Salem, Illinois, equipped their parsonage for my two-nights-a-week stay as if it were a five star hotel.  And now the Geneseo church eases my migrant ministry with a warm place to stay… and a bottle of migraine pills.    

Perhaps I’ll never know the backstory of that Excedrin.  But that’s okay, because as a Bible scholar, I’m used to not always knowing the full backstory of a scenario.  I do what I can to identify as many contexts as possible, but in the end, we have to take whatever we get and move forward with what it is.  I move forward with Bible stories based on the context of what I know about Jesus.  And I move forward with church members in the context of their eagerness to show the love of Christ for anyone in their orbit.

I don’t get migraines, but I think I’ll hang on to the box of pills anyway, simply to stimulate my imagination in whatever direction it will roam. Such blessings keep me joyful and creative. So... to whoever, for whatever reason... thank you.