Friday, February 3, 2017

The Broken Cedar Chest I'll Never Give Away

This is my column that was published in The Arab Tribune on Wednesday, February 1, 2017.

I have a small, rectangular cedar chest that I keep in my study at the house. It holds essential things like my passport and social security card.

The funny thing is the lid is broken length-wise in two pieces and doesn't lay flat. That's precisely why I have kept it for the last 37 years.

Here's the story of this little broken box and why I will never, ever let it go. It reminds me of who I am and where I've come from.

When I was in eighth grade, I think there were times when I had no brain. One of those times I stole some money from the church.

My father was the pastor of the church we attended in a suburb of Birmingham. Once a month, I sang in the youth choir at the early service.

Since the rest of my family couldn't get going that early and attended the later service, on those Sundays my dad allowed me to hang around in his study after I'd put in my time. I would nap on his couch, fiddle at his desk, and walk down the hall to the Sunday School classes and explore.

I learned to drink coffee from the half-sugar concoctions I created when the classroom coffee pots had just been turned off. I practiced the art of cartooning, drawing my favorite figures on the chalkboards.

On one particular Sunday, I happened to check the door of the main office, and the office was unlocked. It never had been before. I just couldn't resist.

As I entered, there in the chair was a bank bag of money. It was offerings from the early service and from Sunday School classes. Wow.

I must pause and tell you that this was one of those moments when the testosterone in my eight grade body outweighed the wisdom of my eighth grade brain.

I thought to myself, "they won't miss one envelope." I took one off the top, stuffed it in my pocket, and got away fast.

When I got home, I pulled it out and saw that the envelope had seventy dollars in it. That was a lot of money in eighth grade.

Well, they did miss that one envelope. The next day, my dad came home for supper and told us at the table that someone had come into the office and taken an envelope with a Sunday School class offering in it.

I'll never forget the next few moments. My mother looked at me. I stared at the ceiling as if I didn't hear what was said or had not noticed her piercing eyes. She kept on looking at me.

Whew. Later that night, just when I thought I was off the hook, my mom came to my room.

"What do you keep in that little cedar chest?" she said. "Oh, my baseball cards and stuff like that." She smiled. "Okay. Open it."

That's when bad went to worse, because my nose started growing. "Um, I can't ... I've lost the key."

She smiled again. "Okay, then go to the kitchen and get a butter knife, and bring it back ... and we'll break it open." She said it with finality. There was no going back and no wiggling out.

So that's how my little cedar chest lid got cracked in two. Needless to say there were seventy dollars in it. Busted!

My dad told the church office that the money had been turned in, and I had to apologize to some man which was pretty uncomfortable.

But I learned something through the grace of God and the loving accountability of a good family. I learned that there is a part of me that can do bad things, and for no good reason.

That was the last time I stole from the church (that's a good thing since I'm a pastor, by the grace of God!).

I asked my mom years later if it was just written all over my face or if I looked just a little suspicious when the subject came up at the dinner table. "No, you looked completely innocent." "Then how did you know?" I asked. "I don't know how to explain it. I just knew."

Mothers amaze me. I don't know how they know these things, but it comes from a magical power, a special sense mothers have been given.

I still see my cracked open cedar chest all the time. I pause to look at it from time to time and remember my shadow side.

I'm not tempted to steal anymore, that's not what I mean. But if I am honest with myself, there's still a part of me that wants MORE.

Yes, I've grown now but if I'm not careful my shadow side can still rear itself. I'm not really talking about material things.

There's a part of me that desperately desires more experiences, more successes, more accomplishments, and (this is the big one) more people pleasing. My shadow side is compounded by our cultural strivings for the "more" and the "better," two things we venerate daily. It's a recipe for darkness. But I choose to live in the light.

So I keep my cedar chest to remind me where I'd be without God, without grace, and without the love of people who hold me accountable. I will always keep a few things in my broken cedar chest because I need to be aware of my shadow side.

I've never thought about this before now, but it's funny that the "valuables" I keep in my cedar chest now are mostly my papers for identification. Maybe that's not an accident.

Our shadow side is part of who we are. It's not that I don't feel forgiven, for I know that I am. But my cracked up cedar chest is a kind of holy relic for me. It's a precious object that carries a revealing memory. It's a picture of what it means to be me, broken as I can be, yet still something priceless because I'm living in grace.

Steve West is a husband, father, minister, musician, and writer who pastors Arab First United Methodist Church. His blog, "Musings of a Musical Preacher," is found at