Bio – Transition

I made the decision to enter grad school. The exhaustion from my prior experience was likely related to my youth and lack of experience as a spiritual guide of adults. The change was timely and the new relationships I formed were of mutual benefit. It became obvious to me that discipleship is rarely a one way enterprise. When we meet with others each of us have the opportunity to grow in spiritual maturity. But this was not accidental or coincidental. Some of my new friends and I began meeting for the purpose of supporting one another in our spiritual journey.

I began reading William Willimon and Eugene Peterson. In Resident Aliens, Willimon and co-author Stanley Hauerwas articulated church as an adventure in ways I had not heard before and it proved helpful for me personally and professionally. Peterson’s contemplative exegesis helped me make strong connections between a biblical theology and a practical pastoral theology. This changed my thinking and practice and helped me to see things in different ways. They were much more helpful than Peters and Waterman.

It was during this same time I began to become fascinated with the church year. Looking at the story that occurs from Advent through Easter, Pentecost and into Ordinary Time helped me to recognize my own role in the story. Time began to look different and I wanted to spend time differently. I really like what Dorothy Bass says about time. It “is a meeting place, a point of rendezvous with God.” Not only did I regain a sense of adventure, I had fallen deeper than ever into the story. I felt part of a “rendezvous.”

I began looking for ways to help those on the fringe. People on the periphery helped me to understand what the Kingdom of God looks like. I began seeking places where God was at work and attempted to join Him there. I began to see how my own spiritual growth benefits others in the body. The time I spent in activities that strengthened my own spiritual life was investment in the body of Christ. We are called to grow for the sake of others and for the sake of a broken world. There is a sense that to stay where we are and become stagnant is to cheat the body of Christ and to cheat a broken world.

What Are We Getting Ourselves Into?

“I’ve got a tiger by the tail its plain to see…” Not the lyric you might expect to hear in Sunday School. But there I was in front of the class belting out the lyrics. The way the story was told to me, the teacher asked if anyone in the class had a special song they wished to sing. While older me can’t imagine myself agreeing to sing in public, apparently five year old me thought it was a good idea. Buck Owens would have been proud. My parents – not so much.

We began to attend another church soon afterward. Hopefully that decision was not related to my singing.  But from early on I was part of a community called church. I had no idea what that meant at the time. I had no idea how belonging to church would shape me or where it would take me.

It is time to begin thinking about church for what it is – an adventure. As with other adventures, this requires direction. Without direction it is a guarantee that we will be all over the place. Probably more of us singing Buck Owens songs in Sunday School. That is why we read the logs of those who have gone on before. They help us navigate territory by reminding us where we’ve been and they help us understand what to expect along the way.

This becomes our primary literature. It invites us into its story and takes us on a canonical adventure. Sometimes I explore this literature alone. This can be enjoyable and a reasonably helpful exercise. This allows me to move at my own pace. I can reread parts that I like best. I can turn the page if the reading becomes too uncomfortable.

But this literature is intended to be relational. It is written for a group. It is best explored in community. It is to be read in twos and threes and even larger gatherings. It prompts conversation about what this adventure should be like. It encourages hearers to continue some practices and to change others. It expects our gatherings to become enactments of a new reality that is to spill over into other parts of the journey.

The primary literature reminds us that this adventure is not one that is safe. One does not join this narrative in order to stay out of trouble. The journey will take you to slave camp, through deep water, into the wilderness, and into battle with giants. Those who have traveled this adventure have suffered stoning and imprisonment. The narrative explicitly calls us to follow one who was sentenced to execution. If safety is what you desire, then maybe this journey is not for you. It is safe to say that when five year old me stood in front of a Sunday School Class and sang, there is no way I could have known what I had gotten into.

Hikers, Spaghetti, and Lutherans

Every Wednesday during the months of June and July, the local Lutheran Church serves spaghetti to hikers who may be passing through the borough. It’s not only spaghetti. I am pretty sure they make their own sauce, and meatballs, and salad, and desserts, even homemade ice cream. They replenish supplies and listen to stories and make hikers feel important.

I join them for dinner because I love trail stories. (It was pointed out that I was the only one present who was neither a hiker nor a Lutheran). I listen as hikers talk about gear and fears and weather. I listen to stories about bears and barred owls. I look through pictures that hikers have taken along the way. I ask them what they hope to find during their journey. I ask the story behind their trail name. I meet people from literally around the world. I ask what it is like to have a homemade spaghetti dinner after weeks on the trail. Nearly every time they tell me this is the best meal they have had. One hiker said when he learned of this meal, he pushed extra hard to arrive in Duncannon on Wednesday. The blisters were miserable but he claims it was worth it.

I think of the tendencies and temptations churches can have. How we might choose not to minister to some who will not be able to give back or even join us on a Sunday morning. How we might not want to support the Lutherans because they are competition. How we might think about force feeding a watered-down message down hiker’s throats along with spaghetti.

I am so glad these Lutherans do not seem worried about such things. I am convinced they love to serve. I am convinced they recognize hikers not as transients but as neighbors. The fact is, I support this ministry because the kingdom wins when Lutherans host hikers, when Lutherans offer kindness, when Lutherans serve the hungry and thirsty.

I learn that Bill was at the laundry mat one Wednesday afternoon and overheard a hiker there announce she would be spending the night in Duncannon because the Lutherans were offering free spaghetti and she wanted a home cooked meal on her birthday. Of course, Bill made sure she had a birthday cake that night when she arrived. It was emotional. I’ll bet whenever she remembers the summer she hiked the Appalachian Trail that this will be one of her favorite memories. Thank God for Lutherans.


A Journey Called Church

One morning Alf and I went for a walk. On another day Roger and I walked through the woods with his dog Charlie. And yet another day, Mike and I walked a trail along Sherman’s Creek. Every Sunday, Joan walks a half mile to church.

None of this is by accident. Walking the areas around Duncannon is an enjoyable exercise. The streets and sidewalks, the waterways and forests all bring pleasure. But this is more than pleasure. It is also a good metaphor for what we are trying to do. We are walking together as a community called church. And we are walking this journey in and around this place called Duncannon.

Interestingly, Duncannon sits along the Appalachian Trail. In fact, it is one of the few communities the trail actually passes through. There is even an Appalachian Trail Festival held here. It is even more interesting to me that we gather to worship on the trail. Our building is located on High Street and to walk on High Street is to literally walk on the Appalachian Trail. You did read that right. The white blazes that carefully mark the trail from Georgia to Maine pass directly in front of the church building. Anyone who enters the front door must step onto the trail before entering.

I rather like this. A church on a trail. While we all may not be on our way to Maine or to Georgia, we are all on our way somewhere. My suspicions are that all hikers are interested in spirituality on some level, whether intentional or not. There is something about the trail that calls to the soul. To hike the Appalachian Trail is a pilgrimage

To gather as a people of God is also a pilgrimage. I cannot help but remember that God has always called people to go out on a journey. We are a people who belong to the Way. Walking together as a people called church. When we say we belong to the Way, we are being very intentional. This is not a generic spirituality. We are following One who claimed to be the Way. This is truly an adventure.


A Long History of Community

I am serving in Christ Reformed Church in Duncannon, PA. We are trying to be intentional about things like becoming a community and belonging to a community. We are reading texts like Genesis and recognizing ourselves as descendants of a promise. The promise of a worldwide family. For centuries followers and disciples have taken this seriously. We are following the same steps and praying the same prayers as these early followers.

We are practicing the promise given to Abraham so long ago and so far away, but we are practicing this promise in this place. What Abraham practiced among the Canaanites, we attempt to practice among the Duncannonites. We break bread together and remember who called us. We walk through the church year with the understanding we are on a journey.

Early in my relationship with this body, I was called to a meeting held in the downstairs of the building. Some referred to this as the dungeon. I was ok with this description. Some of the church’s best stuff has come from out of dungeons. We discussed details during the meeting.  But what I remember most was the way the meeting concluded. John had us join hands and pray the Lord’s Prayer. I felt like part of something big. Like we belonged to a long history of people who have prayed these words in dungeons and church basements.

Onlookers and Travelers

In the preface to Knowing God, J. I. Packer prompts some interesting questions as he describes people standing on a balcony watching travelers on a road below. These balconeers or onlookers may comment to one another about the pace of the travelers or the gear they carry. Onlookers may question decisions travelers are making. They might be curious about where travelers are headed. They might even ask travelers questions about their experience. No matter the level of interest onlookers have, they are still onlookers.

Onlookers and travelers may think about the same things, but the experience is not the same. The struggles are different. Even the questions are different. Travelers must make decisions about direction. Their challenges demand action. I fear (as I think Packer does) that we spend too much time and effort on the questions and interests of onlookers. It is time to think like travelers, like people on an adventure.

Springsteen and Kingdom Come

Although I haven’t met him, I imagine Bruce Springsteen to be the kind of guy who has stated multiple times his love for God and country. While I do not know what spiritual arena he claims to be part of, I am convinced that he considers himself deeply spiritual. It is my understanding that he was raised Roman Catholic and I have heard him reference salvation, baptism, heaven, resurrection and a host of other spiritual themes.

Bruce obviously loves the rich history of gospel music and re-singing old spirituals. I rather enjoy when he performs such songs, but also enjoy when he sings ballads and folk songs and rockabilly and nearly any other genre he decides to try. It seems he simply loves music. It is easy to imagine him thinking that the right song just might change the world.

I have a favorite Springsteen song and it combines elements mentioned above. “Land of Hope and Dreams” is a rock gospel folk ballad of some sort. When seen in the context of the larger Springsteen corpus, it appears he is primarily referencing the American dream in this song. At least the freedom, opportunity, justice, and second chance themes that accompany that dream. But I cannot help but listen and hear images of kingdom come. So I listen to this song and find myself thinking about the church.

“Land of Hope and Dreams” is an invitation that Luke the gospel writer could appreciate – everyone is welcome to join this journey, no one is excluded. This is a song where hope becomes tangled up with reality. It may be a response to Woody Guthrie’s “This Train is Bound for Glory,” another song about an adventure with a train as a significant part of the storyline.

Here are some lyrics from Guthrie’s song;

This train is bound for glory/Don’t carry nothing but the righteous and the holy/This train is bound for glory, this train… This train don’t carry no gamblers/Liars, thieves, nor big shot ramblers/This train is bound for glory, this train… This train don’t carry no liars/She’s streamlined and a midnight flyer/This train don’t carry no liars, this train… This train don’t carry no smokers/Two bit liars, small time jokers/This train don’t carry no smokers, this train… This train don’t carry no con men/No wheeler dealers, here and gone men/This train don’t carry no con men, this train… This train don’t carry no rustlers/Sidestreet walkers, two bit hustlers/This train is bound for glory, this train.

Yet, “Land of Hope and Dreams” spreads a message of inclusiveness instead of a message of exclusion. It makes “This Train is Bound for Glory” sound like something the Pharisees might have been singing when Jesus walked in and invited everyone to come aboard.

Here are some of Springsteen’s lyrics for comparison;

I will provide for you and I’ll stand by your side/You’ll need a good companion now for this part of the ride/Yeah, leave behind your sorrows, let this day be the last/Well, tomorrow there’ll be sunshine and all this darkness past/Well, this train carries saints and sinners/This train carries losers and winners/This train carries whores and gamblers/This train carries lost souls/I said, this train, dreams will not be thwarted/This train, faith will be rewarded/This train, hear the steel wheels singing/This train, bells of freedom ringing/Yes, this train carries saints and sinners/This train carries losers and winners/This train carries whores and gamblers/This train carries lost souls/I said, this train carries broken-hearted/This train, thieves and sweet souls departed/This train carries fools and kings thrown/This train, all aboard.

And the not so subtle gospel conclusion “People get ready/You don’t need no ticket (oh now, no you don’t)/You don’t need no ticket/You just get onboard (people get ready)/You just thank the Lord (people get ready)/You just thank the Lord (people get ready)/You just thank the Lord (people get ready)…”

Perhaps Bruce desires that citizens hear a vision for the nation, that religious types hear a vision for the church, or that individualists began to hear the need to work alongside others, even those who are entirely different than us. Perhaps he desires we hear all the above. After all, we are a collection of differents, a gathering of unlikely travel companions. Even if Bruce is singing about a utopian American idea, his language keeps putting another kingdom on my mind. Granted, this may say more about me than about Bruce. But, whatever his intentions were, I will keep on listening.

A Short Paragraph for the Journey

It is interesting that Luke includes a walk early in the Gospel,
where we are reminded it is possible to think Jesus is with us
when He is not, and concludes with another walk where we are
reminded there may be times we are uncertain about where He
is when He happens to be walking right beside us. What we can
count on is that He, just as surely as the words of the prophet,
enters into specific situations. He shows up in the middle of life
happening. I am reminded that we have not got this Jesus figured
out. I walk into innumerable places of familiarity and wonder
in which of those I might recognize His presence. Luke might
suggest a guide for our journey—perhaps a child.

The above paragraph is an excerpt from Participant: Field Notes from Here and Now, p. 76

O Brother, You Shall See Things, Wonderful to Tell

Over the weekend, Bill invited John, Dave and I over to think about our spiritual journey.  We were joined by Ulysses Everett McGill, Pete Hogwallop, and Delmar O’Donnell.  OK, so we were getting together to watch the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou.”

Loosely based on Homer’s Odyssey, the story sometimes looks more like a cross between The Pilgrim’s Progress and The Wizard of Oz.  But, make no mistake, this is a spiritual pilgrimage disguised as a journey through the Deep South during the depression era.  Everett, Pete, and Delmar are sinners.  This is emphasized by the fact that they are prisoners who have escaped from the chain gang.  For me, this is part of the greatness of the story – they begin literally chained together.  I enjoy this so much because none of us set out on this adventure alone.

After their escape, they meet a blind Seer who tells us all we need to know about this journey.  “You seek a great fortune, you three who are now in chains.  You will find a fortune, though it will not be the one you seek.  But first… first you must travel a long and difficult road, a road fraught with peril.  Mm-hmm.  You shall see things, wonderful to tell.  You shall see a … a cow… on the roof of a cotton house, ha.  And, oh, so many startlements.  I cannot tell you how long this road shall be, but fear not the obstacles in your path, for fate has vouchsafed your reward.  Though the road may wind, yea, your hearts grow weary, still shall ye follow them, even unto your salvation.”

It doesn’t take long to realize the Seer is right.  This is a quest for treasure, where obstacles abound, along with narrow escape.  Among the twists and turns, there are plenty of laughs, yet, no scene is entirely comical or entirely tragic.  Our three pilgrims are betrayed by kin, participate in a bank robbery, are seduced by sirens, and deceived by a rather refined Cyclops.  They stumble upon a baptism where Delmar and Pete are baptized, meet a new friend Tommy who has sold his soul to the devil, stop a Ku Klux Klan rally, and are surrounded by old timey music from start to finish.

The music is fitting, even at unexpected moments, and pulls us along throughout the adventure.  You will recognize Ralph Stanley, Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris, and Gillian Welch among the voices.  Even our travelers join in the chorus.  They record “Man of Constant Sorrow” as the Soggy Bottom Boys (Everett came up with this name in mockery of Delmar and Pete’s baptism).

Delmar and Pete submit themselves to baptism in the early scene but not Everett.  He tries to be more rational “Even if that did put you square with the Lord, the State of Mississippi’s a little more hard-nosed.  Baptism!  You two are just dumber than a bag of hammers!”  Rational, that is, until the end of the story when he realizes that he is about to die and unable to talk his way out of trouble.  Then he kneels to pray “Lord, please look down and recognize us poor sinners… I know I’ve been guilty of pride and sharp dealing.  I’m sorry that I turned my back on you.  Forgive me.  Help us Lord, for the sake of my family.  For Tommy’s sake, for Delmar’s and Pete’s.  Let me see my daughters again, Lord, help us please.”  In another surprising turn of the story they are rescued by a flood.  Shall we say that Everett also was baptized in miraculous waters?

The movie, to some degree, is about seeing.  Or not seeing.  So we meet a blind disc jockey and a one-eyed giant.  We also meet a man who lives by the law who sees only through dark sunglasses and is unable to see who has been forgiven of transgressions. Interestingly, it is only the blind Seer who is able to see what is really happening here.  This is evidenced most clearly when the miraculously saved Everett sees a cow on the roof of a cotton house.  Just as the blind Seer said he would.  Perhaps it is only after he experiences salvation that he finally has eyes to see.

My favorite scene comes late in the movie when the Soggy Bottom Boys perform at a political rally and are finally discovered as the artists who recorded the smash hit “Man of Constant Sorrow.”  Some will disagree but I am fairly certain this is the best dance scene in any movie ever.  Admittedly, this reveals more about me than about dancing.

As with anything else, there is a risk of over thinking this movie.  We all have a little bit of Everett in us.  Instead, I recommend that you sit back, laugh, sing and enjoy it.  And if you have seen it before, it is probably a good time to see it again.

A Story of Adventure

The text is not God.  But it is summoned by God.  And it keeps coming at us whether we request it or not. Sometimes, I think I have tamed it, like Lewis’s men thought they had tamed the grizzly.  Then it keeps charging at me and I am unable to escape.  Sometimes I think I can charge back, but like ocean waves it repeatedly reminds me of my place in the story.  The text offers numerous difficulties that are not easy to navigate, yet I continue to be drawn into it.

The adventure that the text takes us on is not an easy one.  We know this is true because even preachers of this text do not always believe its words.  If they did they would not so often explain away its mystery.  Or attempt to make it into something that seems more relevant for this century.  The fact is, though we claim that we are serious about this adventure of the text, we seem uneasy with allowing it to speak for itself.

The text is more than a journey from Genesis to Revelation.  It takes our soul on an adventure with prophets, poets, and evangelists as our guides.  The context is creation.  Everything we see and do occurs here.  In the opening scene, creation takes shape.  In the final scene, creation sings a song of praise.  The text calls us to engage with other participants as we live out creation realities.

Living by a text is nothing if not a story of adventure. It is a story about surviving and testing one’s wit in this place.  Our text gathers us and asks us to look inside to explore issues of identity. It strips us down to our bare bones in order to find out what lies underneath the surface. It asks who we are when there are no props of modern convenience.  It alerts us to danger and beauty and an abundance of gifts.  It motivates us to continue a life of gratitude.  It orients us in the ways of God and gives us a ticket close to the action.