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My Year of Buying Nothing

That time I set the church on fire

By Lee Simpson

Mostly, when preachers use the phrase, "set the church on fire," they mean it figuratively: all eyes in the pews are set ablaze by the light of blessed inspiration while the collective congregational breath is held in anticipation of the next utterance from the pulpit. But that's not what I mean when I say that I have now set two sanctuaries on fire.

This arsonist tendency emerged early in my worship career. It was an autumn Sunday in a suburban Toronto church. There were candles strategically placed on either side of a beautifully embroidered pulpit banner. In my novitiate preaching enthusiasm, I flung out an arm to make a pastoral point, knocking the flame into ancient velvet. Then whoosh! It all ended well, in that the church is still standing. And I learned the valuable lesson of choreographing arm movements within a slightly more controlled range.

I recently told the tale to a neighbourhood church, where I'm serving as a recurring pulpit supply this summer. Then on the first Sunday in June, the Eucharistic celebration having just concluded, I carefully re-arranged the starchy white cloths over the elements — as taught in divinity school — leaving the Christ candle aglow. Apparently, I was not quite careful enough. In the midst of the next blessed prayerful moment, I sensed something awry. I peeked up as two elders came rushing forward to extinguish the conflagration behind me, smothering the fire with those same sacred threads. I had done it again!

That's how I found myself fingering replacement linens in an antique store in Maine. My family was enjoying themselves camping, which we do annually and includes a ritual visit to The Big Chicken Barn in Ellsworth. I used up all my patience in the stacks of second-hand books, noting cookbooks to check out of the library and slyly pointing out a picture book to my husband for our grandson’s third Christmas (Hey, I never promised that my Year of Buying Nothing (YBN) wouldn't include gently persuading others to err in a good cause). I had taken photos of mystery kitchen implements, with which to challenge my foodie friends on Facebook on return. But everybody else in the family was buying stuff, and I felt like Cinderella.

I turned back to the unlikely objects of temptation, with the rhetoric of rationalization playing in my head. The bad influence (voice like Martha Stewart): “They are of excellent quality and to replace something you destroyed in a church." The good influence (voice like Disney’s Jiminy Cricket): "It’s my YBN and this is something!” Meanwhile, a set of starchy white napkins beckoned — and at an affordable price. They were pristine and delicately embossed — reminiscent of something I had seen before.  

Mercifully, in the nick of time, I remembered that there was a stack of virtually identical fine linen, which I inherited from my grandmother, languishing at home. They begged to be embroidered in my own hand and presented to the kind members of the church who have just signed me up for round three — and possibly another blessed blaze. Brave folks, pray for them!


Rev. Lee Simpson is a writer in Lunenburg, N.S. New posts of YBN will appear every other Friday. You can also check out a short documentary about Lee at http://www.ucobserver.org/video/2014/04/ybn/.
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