Note: This is a guest post written by Sean Ewbank, Director for Evangelical Mission/Assistant to the Bishop in the Southeast Michigan Synod, ELCA.
“You have a unique opportunity to begin again.”
Those words were spoken to me by my dear friend as we stood in front of the smoking ruin of what used to be my home. I had just lost almost everything I owned in a house fire.
In Michigan where I lived, the weather had been at record cold temperatures for days. The furnace basically overworked itself. The house was an old one. I learned expressions in the aftermath I had never needed to know before– balloon construction means that there were no fire breaks between all the floors from basement to attic.
By the time I awoke at 3:17am to what I thought was my alarm going off and not responding to my repeated attempts to get it to snooze, I was surrounded by chalk-white smoke. I lived with only my cats as housemates. All but one were sprawled out on my bed. I leapt to my feet and rolled them up in my comforter. I had a laundry basket at the foot of the bed filled with sweats, T-shirts and my final cat. I pressed the comforter down on the basket, hugged both to my chest, and made my way down stairs to the back door of my home. There, I stepped into my boots and pulled on my coat that had my keys and wallet in it. I ran with comforter, basket, boots, boxers, and coat to my office across the parking lot.
Once inside the church, I dropped my bundle. My cats, having experienced the blast of cold air, staggered out coughing. I called 911 and I then left my kitties and ran back to the house. I did not make it more than two steps in. The smoke forced me right back out.
The house and everything in it was a complete loss. I don’t remember being traumatized by the fire. It was actually fascinating to watch. I was content that my cats and I had all made it out alive.
Mostly, I was numb to what the fire meant to all my stuff and how my life was changing. As the sun rose, I remembered that it was a Sunday morning. I snapped out of my numbness to remember that I was both a son and a pastor and in both of those roles I had things to do.
This happened long ago, before cell phones. I had to contact my parents before they left their house to drive to the church where I was serving as pastor. My mom was helping out as my substitute organist for the second Sunday in a row. I needed to make sure that they knew I was OK before they drove up and saw what had happened. Thankfully, I reached them in time.
I donned my alb and stole (pastor garments for leading worship) over my boxers and boots. The first person to arrive was my choir director. He and I stood gazing at the smoke still billowing out of the ruin. That’s when he spoke of my unique opportunity to begin again.
He was right. That house contained just about everything I owned. The previous Sunday my parents had brought everything that I had stored in their home during my college and seminary years. That included all my baby stuff, childhood memories in the form of knick-knacks carefully kept by my mother over the years. Lots of trophies and other awards. My mother always regretted not waiting just one more week to unload all that stuff.
But I really didn’t.
Over the next weeks I bought new underwear and other essentials. I was surprised how little I needed. The one thing I have truly missed over the years was a scrap book lovingly made for me by folks from my internship congregation.
About a decade later, my wife and toddler daughter would flee in the face of Katrina. They took very little. Mostly important documents, hard copies of pictures, and a couple favorite outfits with toiletries. I knew the rest could be replaced. We were OK.
My initial encounter with minimalism is not something I would wish on anyone. Through that experience, however, I learned that I really don’t need much in the way of stuff. It’s liberating.