Tuesday, July 31, 2007

These Kids Are a LOT of Work!

I'm at Jr. High camp this week, and being run ragged. My muscles are honestly burning from all the exercise - ultimate frisbee, hiking, soccer, kickball, and chasing these burning thunders all over the campgrounds. They won't go to sleep at night, and then won't wake up in the morning; complain about being tired all morning, but then won't stop talking at rest period, then complain when I have to wake them up from their nap; they want to be treated as if they were totally responsible and independent, but every chance they get they're totally irresponsible and can't hardly do anything by themselves. What a week... or, er, three days, so far (yikes!).

Good food, though. (For those who know him, Sean Langdon is cooking, so we're eating well.)

I'd write more, but I have to chase my cabin - someone is probably on the verse of losing a digit.

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Monday, July 30, 2007


This happened 10 years ago, around this time of year, so I thought it might be a good time to share it.

It is a hot, humid, August morning in Lamoni, Iowa. I am sixteen years old. In a huge gym filled with empty bleachers that will soon groan under the weight of 1500 teenagers, I sit on a low riser. Having just rehearsed the song we will be singing, the choir I sit in the midst of is abuzz with anticipation of the worship that will come, what the day holds, and where they will go to escape the heat.

“Excuse me everyone! We need someone to say a prayer in English at the end of today’s service! We have someone praying in Spanish but need someone to pray in English! Any volunteers?”

Silence sharply hits the buzzing choir. No hands go up. My mind races through the four days I have just experienced in this strange, foreign space that is the Midwest of the USA, which each day seemed increasingly far away from my home in Canada. Too many times had I heard prayers that started with “Dear Father…” too many times had I witnessed male-dominated leadership; too many times had I wiggled uncomfortably in my seat with a dissatisfied feeling in my stomach.

“I don’t mind” I hear myself say, as I watch my hand raise.

“Great! Thank-you!” replies the one on the pray-er quest.

I don’t think much of volunteering. Praying in worship is something I have done many times at home in the comforting space of the Pacific Northwest. I’d just have to speak a bit louder, that’s all. Teenagers trickle-in and fill the huge space, and the high-energy worship launches. I prepare myself as I normally would, paying attention to the words of others, listening carefully to what the songs and scriptures are saying in order to echo their words. At the end of the service I confidently step out of the choir and moved forward to wait for the microphone to be passed to me. I take hold of the microphone and look out at the gathered group, the beauty of this diverse gathering, the sense of anticipation and possibility that is so palpable in a group of teenagers, stirs me deeply and fills me to overflowing. I take a deep breath, close my eyes, and begin to pray:

“Loving Mother God…” I feel like I’ve just stepped off a cliff into a great abyss of uncertainty. Falling into the oceanic depths of chaos, the tehom as I would call it now, feels a bit lonely, but not cold or desolate, just uncertain.

The rest of the prayer has disappeared from my memory. I remember looking down at my shirt just after saying ‘amen’ and realizing that I was not anonymous; I had “Pacific Northwest Delegation” emblazoned across my chest. It would not be long, I thought, before I was hunted-down and reprimanded. But a mob of pitch-fork-wielding teenagers never showed up, and the only comment I received before running away from the crowded gym that morning was from the choir director who thanked me. I realized that maybe the tehom was not quite as lonely as I thought.

From the vantage point of my 26-year-old self, everything else in my life seems to radiate out of that point, that moment of truthfulness and prophecy, a time of saying ‘yes’ not just to saying a prayer, but to something much deeper and larger.


Thursday, July 26, 2007

Bringing Up the F-word

The editor of Real Change - the Seattle weekly peddled exclusively by homeless people - posted a great discussion of "the f-word" (fascism). In Seattle, people of faith and other concerned citizens will be gathering for a "strategy session" on resistance to fascism:
My friend Rev. Rich Lang at Trinity United Methodist Church in Ballard has called an Emergency Meeting at his church for August 1, at 7 pm. I'm going. Rev. Lang has been concerned with the growing signs around us for some time, but a recent Executive Order signed by the President has him particularly concerned.
Rev. Lang's Real Change column from today's Real Change is posted there, too. It is worth reading, and the strategy session sounds worth attending.

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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Build Them Up, and They Will Become

It took me a while to figure out how well Christie (my partner) was training me to be a better husband. It was sneaky. But most of the time it worked.

She would encourage me to do the things she wanted me to do by complimenting me as if I was already doing them, and doing them so well.

"You drive so calmly and defensively, not aggressively at all. You're a very understanding and forgiving driver," she would say. Or: "I'm glad that we like the same level of cleanliness around the house - you don't leave piles of clothes or things laying around," as I'm kicking my dirty laundry out of sight under the bed.

She knew, obviously, that I wasn't deserving of the compliment or the identification - yet. But there is something very powerful in being identified with particular characteristics. Something about the human psyche makes us want to live up to those expectations.

I think the same thing is going on in Paul's (?) letter to the Colossians, when he writes:

And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, [Jesus] has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before [God]... (1:21-22)

Of course, we are not blameless and irreproachable - we still are estranged, still hostile, still doing evil deeds - we are in constant need of re-reconciliation. But Paul identifies us as already everything God wants us to be, already whole and blameless, already abandoning hostility and evil acts.

Is Paul tapping human psychology here? Paul declares we already are what God is trying to make us! And you can almost hear the Colossians wanting to be better, wanting to abandon hostility, feeling motivated to cease evil deeds, beginning to feel less estranged and unworthy. We can almost hear the Colossians response because we hear ourselves responding to the same impulse.

And the verses above followed a hymn about Jesus - so Paul tells us we are Jesus', we are like Jesus, we are reconciled by Jesus, just after a hymn describes the glories and power of Jesus, Paul links us with that glory and power. Talk about giving people something to live up to!

Do the Colossians respond? Will we?

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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

poetry and gappy theology

Is there enough poetry in our lives? Today my teacher, who is first generation Chinese-American was telling us how much Chinese love poetry, they put it everywhere: on teapots, in landscape paintings, around the door of a home, on a flower vase, wherever there is a little spare space a few characters of poetry can be added.

Poetry doesn’t seem to occupy the same sort of space – literally or metaphorically – in our North American lives. In fact, I find that poetry tends to actually make people rather uncomfortable: “I don’t get it” folks say, “That’s pretty, but what does it mean?” folks wonder.

But the more that I study theology, the more I try to preach or write about what I dis/believe, the more I try to connect in pastoral yet challenging ways with my fellow spiritual pilgrims, the more I find that poetry offers far more possibility than any other form of writing or speaking.

I presided over a church service this weekend and found that the best way to communicate what I wanted people to learn or take away was through the hymns – the poetry. I find that people are at such different places in their spiritual journeys, and needs are so different, that most communities need “gappy” theology. By “gappy” theology, I mean theology that has enough gaps to allow people too find and make their own meaning. By this I don’t mean hymns or poetry that have no meaning or completely relative meaning, but rather different layers of meaning that can speak differently to different people.

I too find myself, far too often, trying to tie people down to thinking exactly the way I do, believing exactly the way I do – I find myself thinking “if only this person could read exactly what I’ve read, and hear the lectures that I’ve heard, then they’d see things the way I do!” But then there's the experiences I've had, the people I've loved, those who've loved me, the things I've seen... all of that has influenced the way I see the world and the way I do theology. How could I ever convey that totality of life theologically?

I speak of poetry as a revelatory distillation of experience.... Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so that it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.

-Audre Lorde "Poetry Is Not a Luxury" in Sister Outsider

Maybe poetry is a way of doing theology in a way that both honours the fullness of our lives and allows enough space for others to enter in.

Three things are too wonderful for me;
four I do not understand:
the way of an eagle in the sky
the way of a snake on a rock
the way of a ship on the high seas
and the way of a man with a woman

-Proverbs 30:18-19


Political Observation: Voting

Forgive me. I'd like to make a political comment.

If we (citizens and government of the United States of America) want to maintain or even improve democracy in our nation, I humbly submit some suggestions. Two ideas off the top of my head for simple, easy, low-overhead, low-infrastructure ways to increase democracy in our government are: Instant Run-Off Voting (IRV) and universalizing polling places.

Instant Run-off Voting is not a new idea. It simply allows voters to rank their choices - if your first-pick of candidate doesn't get enough votes to contend, then your vote goes to your second choice. If your second choice is knocked out of the running, then your vote counts toward your third pick. And so on. This allows (encourages) people to vote their principles first, and virtually eliminates the "spoiler" effect. A "spoiler" is someone like Ross Perot in '92 or Ralph Nader in 2000, who supposedly draws enough votes away from one or another of the two major party candidates to win the race for the other major party. IRV allows people to vote for the person they would genuinely rather have in office, without looming over them the threat that their least desired candidate might be elected because of it. The system as it is now clearly benefits the two entrenched parties who both use "spoiler" language to discourage disloyalty. Both the Dems and Rebs want to discourage consideration of IRV because it is easier for them to remain in power without it. IRV would open the door to all kinds of "third-party" or "independent" candidates, and the public would be exposed to a genuine variety of viewpoints, and the major parties themselves would be held more accountable to their constituencies' expectations. Simply put, Instant Run-off Voting is a necessity if we are to make any strides toward genuine democracy in this country.

Also helpful, and requiring virtually no change to infrastructure, would be to eliminate the restrictions on polling places. Simply don't assign people to polling places. Have voter records accessible electronically. Allow any voter in the state or county to go to any polling station - close to their work, close to their hairdresser, close to their school, close to where they'll be having lunch. Allow them to walk in, check their card, and have the ballot they need printed for them right there, and drop it off as they leave. No more contested ballots based on who shows up at what polling station. No more hours-long lines in poor neighborhoods. Just let people vote wherever they are. This would benefit the poor and working families, who are less likely to work near their home, and therefore have their poling station be inconveniently located for their workday.

Come to think of it, make voting day a holiday. Don't think people will come vote on their day off? Make it legally compulsory. Make it illegal not to vote. If all they want to do is show up and sign their name (essentially not voting at all), that's fine. But if they don't vote, there's a fine or something. If we want people to vote, there has to be a combination of carrot and stick. The present system works to actually discourage people from voting, because the entrenched powers want people to not vote. It is easier to have one's way if the people don't care what happens to them.

So there. Some ideas to get the conversation going (or keep it going). As Christians, it seems a faith issue to empower the disempowered, to make sure the meek have a voice. Our so-called "democracy" at present doesn't do that very well (if at all). Our faith conviction ought to compel us to consider alternatives.

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Monday, July 23, 2007

Break Down Walls - Build Bridges

Or, What Conan the Barbarian Taught Me at Church Camp

I grew up going to church camps in Arizona - in the mountains just outside of Prescott. Everything I knew about church camp was taught to me there, including (most importantly?) the stuff not covered in classes or preaching services.

How to build a good fort - location & construction. What pinecones made for the best throwing in pinecone fights (without hurting your own hand, or hurting the other kids too much). And which sticks made for the best stick-fighting.

Stick-sword-fighting was popular when I was a little kid. When I was five or six, of course, I wanted to play with the eight- and nine-year-olds, but they already had their teams. They knew how to build better forts, throw pinecones better, and always managed to find stronger, more wieldly sticks. But as I grew older, I slowly gained the craft passed on to me through innumerable scratches and defeats. So by the time I was eight or nine, I knew the best fort spots, could throw pinecones with approximate accuracy, and find the good sticks. My friend, Jamie, and I grew up together and so formed our own "team," and excluded the younger six- and seven-year-olds - and enjoyed the privileged position of victors in fort-durability and stick-fighting.

Now, in stick-fighting, the object isn't to hit the other person, it's to hit the other person's stick and (hopefully) break it. The weaker sticks get broken and weeded out of the battle, and eventually the strongest stick remains. ("There can be only one!") And the year that I am remembering now, I had the best stick of my life. I can still remember it, picture it in my hand to this day - the feel and the heft of it, and its surprising strength. (I must confess... I cheated: that year I brought this particular stick from home. Ah, but how the sweetness of victory compensated for the secret guilt of violating the unwritten rule.)

Anyway.... That year there was a new boy our age, but Jamie and I had already formed our team, and he didn't have the secret knowledge that we had earned over the past several years. So we relegated him to the team of little kids - the six- and seven-year-olds, despite his obvious longing to be with us.

Not surprisingly, in a grand battle of epic proportions - at least seven or eight kids - Jamie and I were kicking the little kids' butts. They just couldn't find a good stick to save their lives! And this new kid was red-faced with anger, embarrassment and frustration with his team. In an ego-inflating series of victories, my stick reigned supreme, and broke several of this new kid's sticks in a row. Finally, on the verge of tears, this kid just picked up the biggest log he could find on ground around him - almost too heavy for him to lift at all - and swung it like an axe over his shoulder and down at me. Instinctively, like Conan the Barbarian, I raised my sword horizontally over my head (hoping it would hold) and perrried the blow.

What neither of us knew up until that moment was that that log was rotten through the middle. The instant it made met the resistance of my super-stick the log exploded into dust and splinters. And as if my sense of superiority weren't already secured, the log split and the upper-half fell back onto this other kid. His own log doubled back on him and hit him in the head - surely scratching him a little, blinding him with wood-dust and being the final straw in his ultimate defeat. He ran off, crying.

The battle raged on for a few minutes (although no one wanted to fight my stick after that), but ended when that kid's mother raced into the scene. She was dragging me across the camp - surely to confront me in front of my own mother - and yelling at me asking why I had hurt her son! We were on the opposite side of the camp from my mom, so I had some negotiating time, and I described the scenario (without the obvious embellishment above). And halfway across camp, she stopped in her tracks.

"I didn't hit him," I pleaded. "He hit himself!" And I explained the rules of the game and his own violent engagement of me. It was in self-defense, I argued. (Or the rough eight-year-old equivalent of a self-defense plea.) And to my profound surprise, she let go of my arm. She thought for a moment or two, and then agreed that it wasn't my fault. I wouldn't have to face my mother, or even apologize to her son. She did, however, ask that I start to include him in things with Jamie and myself. (Which we did for the rest of the week - there's nothing like suffering and battles to build a bond between boys.)

I was innocent, according to the letter of the law. I was blameless by the rules. Even this mother did not feel she could hold me accountable for acting within the "law." I was set free.

I was not free, however.

I may have been innocent according to the letter of the law, but I was convicted by the Spirit of Jesus. I didn't have to apologize to that kid for causing him to hit himself with his own log - but I should have apologized for not including him in my circle of friends, for not embracing him despite his newness, his foreignness, his being a stranger. By every conventional law, I was blameless. By every law of God, however, I was convicted.

As a disciples of Jesus, we must not think of ourselves as bound by the laws of humans. We are bound by the Law of Love, the Law of God, the Life and Law of Christ. And it may just be, that when we embrace everyone to "our team" (or join theirs, if they won't join ours) that there won't be any place for stick-fighting.

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12 hours ago

I finished Harry Potter 7.

Anyone else? I won't spoil anything by discussing details here, except to say that I thought it was a good book to end the series. Thanks J.K. Rowling, for a great ride.

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Monday, July 16, 2007

Two Long Weeks: One Small Lesson


I'm just returning (recovering?) from two straight weeks of Reunions (week long family church camps). The first outside of Remote, Oregon (and boy, was it!), the second at Samish Island in the north Puget Sound. This explains my lack of posting these two weeks - the first week was entirely cut off from all electronic communication, the second was so busy I had no time for any.

Reunions are both rejuvenating and exhausting. Try two of them back-to-back.

At Remote, among a great many other things, I was assigned with leading two song/praise services each day, every day. This despite my lack of interest or ability in leading praise-singing. I did say to the director, though, that I would do anything she needed me to do... so I guess I deserved it.

The Remote CofC-ers were exceedingly generous, however, and faithfully participated in (and perhaps even enjoyed) the singing. I ended up introducing several songs to the camp, two of which were taken from the labor movement: "We Shall Not Be Moved" and "Roll the Gospel (formerly 'Union') On!" They were so much fun to sing that by the end of the week we didn't need the lyrics on the Powerpoint anymore and were comfortable spontaneously improvising variations.

By the end of the week - with ten or more of these song-services under my belt - I felt comfortable leading them. So much so that my first few days at the next camp up at Samish Island, I actually missed not leading the song services. As a result, at the Wednesday evening worship/communion service, I volunteered to lead the pre-service singing. Up went my Powerpoint, and I started strumming on a borrowed guitar (thanks, Catherine). The musicians - a bass, a viola, and a piano - who were there for the service, started joining in and improvising accompaniment like a Prarie Home Companion segment. And the congregation not only sang but belted out the songs - throwing at me suggestions for lyrics and everyone singing along. The Samish Saints raised the roof - cultivating a spirit of excitement and anticipation which started off a great Communion service.

All because the Remote Reunion Director took me at my word and made me step outside of my comfort zone, to serve in an unexpected way. What I had been grumbling about inside myself leading up to and even through the Remote Reunion, ended up being a tremendous ministry to me, and helped me be a better minister to others.

This doesn't mean I won't necessarily grumble about my next uncomfortable assignment. But I will have to rethink how long I avoid throwing myself into it regardless.

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Saturday, July 14, 2007

a breath of fresh air

The other night while I was walking home at the end of a long, hot day I found some surprising refreshment. I noticed that as I walked along the street, the temperature and taste of the air changed dramatically when I stepped beyond the first bank of concrete buildings, and set out across a tree-lined street. As I kept walking I noticed huge shifts in the temperature and quality of the air, from stuffy and hot next to buildings, to refreshing and cool next to plants and trees. It was a very immediate and obvious reminder of my/our own total dependency on the world around us - particularly the green, growing world, for our survival, and the necessity of plants for our lives to flourish.

I also found myself thinking about the unexpected places where I find breaths of fresh air, or the times when i don't even realize that I need fresh air until it comes whooshing over me or gently wafts into my nostrils. Sometimes I think my life (our lives?) become stagnant and muggy and stale so gradually that I don't even realize what has happened until something awakens my senses, either by rushing in and shaking me up or gently and softly permeating me.

Once I'd had my first taste and sniff of fresh air during my walk the other night, I kept looking for those fresh breaths the whole rest of my way home. My nostrils were so entranced by seeking out that sweet soft air that they managed to sniff it out even in tiniest gardens along the way.

When the air of our human lives is so heavy and hot and thick, can we dare to sniff out wisps and whispers of sweet green goodness? As in the city, which may seem void of such lushness, yet where I found fresh air, we may find those whispers in unexpected areas, from unexpected people, in books we may have once turned our noses up at, or in the flotsam of our consumed and consuming lives.

The grace and power of greenness (what mystic Hildegaard Von Bingen called veriditas) can enliven and restore the soul, and is woven deeply into creation by the One who desires our flourishing. May we be blessed by its goodness.


Wednesday, July 04, 2007


...and the livin' is easy.

Here's a little summer treat, a lovely quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson, made all arty by yours truly. Enjoy. (click image to see larger, higher quality version)