Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Advent Risk: Exposing Ourselves to the Light of the World

The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight. 

Oh Little Town of Bethlehem

There is a song that has spoken volumes to me recently.  It is called "Exhale" and is written and sung by Plumb.   I have sung the lyrics frequently as I take my morning run through my neighborhood with my two dogs.  Of course a song that talks about breathing is a natural fit for running. I literally am praying to "breathe in" oxygen and "exhale" carbon dioxide to sustain me as I keep running along the path.  But, in addition to the physical practice is the spiritual practice.  There is a deeper "breathing" that I need, a deeper longing that I express.  I pray that I would be granted spiritual sustenance to keep running with perseverance the race marked out for meHebrews 12:1.

The chorus of "Exhale" goes like this:

Just let go… let His love wrap around you
And hold you close
Get lost in the surrender
Breathe it in until your heart breaks…
Then exhale…

One thing is clear to me: there are a lot of strong feelings right now.  Depending on whom you supported in the recent election, or even if you supported no one, chances are you feel something deeply.  Maybe, after this election season, you feel hopeful, happy, misunderstood, angry, frightened, or even combinations of several of these?  We all need to time and space to "breathe in" and feel whatever we feel without being rushed to exhale.  The fact is, that while some hearts rejoice other hearts are broken—and we need to sit with that uncomfortable tension.  We don't like to feel other's discomfort for too long; there is a very human tendency to want to smooth over and differences.  The problem sometimes in our desire to have unity we rush to say, peace, peace, when there is no peaceJeremiah 8:11.

The fact is, many don't feel "peace" right now.  We need to acknowledge that reality and give one another time and space to feel the dis-ease in our souls—and in our land—before we can "move on" together and seek to heal it. 

More than ever, we need places where the lyrics of verse one are true:

It's okay to not be okay.
This is a safe place.
Don't be afraid.
Don't be ashamed.
There's still hope here... There's still hope here.
No matter what you've done or who you are.
Everyone is welcome in his arms.

I think this verse names an inconvenient truth.   There are huge amounts of fear and shame operating both in our personal lives and in our corporate expressions of who we are as the people of God.  

It's not easy to admit these feelings within ourselves.  It's easier to deny them and keep on keeping on as we've always done in the past.  The problem is that until we do admit the fear and shame within us, they hold power over us, eating away at us from the inside out.  They hold us back from being all we have the potential of being in Christ.  These negative emotions put barriers between individuals and between different communities.  They have a tendency to pit us versus them—with God supporting "our side" and opposing all opposition by any means necessary.

Unacknowledged fears and shame in our midst make experiencing the kind of unity Jesus prayed for in the Church in his final prayer with his disciples—John 17:20-23—all but impossible to achieve in practice. 

As long as we keep our fears and shame hidden inside and refuse to acknowledge them, they will continue to thrive in our midst—the unnamed elephants in the room.  These emotions try to convince us that bringing these things into the light would just be "too painful".  So when we are confronted with them, rather than acknowledge them and experience liberation from them we often do anything in our power to prevent them from being exposed.  We get angry... we get defensive... we lash out at people we love to protect ourselves from having to "go there".

Sadly, the twin spectres of fear and shame hover over church families just as much as they hover over biological families and over our individual lives.  

O how we need places where it's really safe to be vulnerable and reveal who we are—even if who we are is different from the majority of others.  If Christian communities can't be such "safe places" then what hope is there to find them in the world?  

Advent is the season when we prepare our hearts to receive the Light of the World coming into the darkness of our world in the person of Jesus—John 1:1-18.  Followers of Jesus believe God came and dwelled among us; Emmanuel, a common name for Jesus, literally means "God with us".   But John also speaks another "inconvenient truth" with which we must grapple: the people preferred darkness more than lightJohn 3:19.  (Note that this verse comes just three verses after the famous hopeful and uplifting words of John 3:16.)

That's why I think the lyrics of verse two of "Exhale" should become our daily prayer:  

Spirit come, tear down these walls.
Like only you can.  
Like only you can.
Reconcile this heart to yours. 
Right now God... Right now.

We need the peace that Christ made possible through the blood of the crossColossians 1:20—to come and tear down the dividing walls of hostilityEphesians 2:15—that keep us trapped in darkness, afraid to acknowledge who we really are—and how we really feel.  But we can't just keep it general, we also need to make it personal.

We need to ask God to work on the only heart we ultimately have control over—our own.  

One of the traditional Advent themes is peace.  In a commonly read scripture during Advent, Isaiah speaks of the coming a strong ruler who, among other titles is called Prince of PeaceIsaiah 9:6. The prophet Micah speaks of the coming of One who will be our peaceMicah 5:5 A letter attributed to Paul says Jesus is our peaceEphesians 2:14.  In other places, Paul speaks of the peace of Christ [God] that surpasses our human understanding—Colossians 3:15; Philippians 4:7. 

I believe the key to experiencing true Advent peace is being honest about the things within us that keep us hiding in the darkness.  That is to say, we have to name our fears and shame...  

Now, a word of caution: tread carefully into this area.  Be sure you are ready to "go there".  As I hinted at earlier, this business of naming fear and shame is volatile; things can get ugly—fast—if you do it.  (Trust me on this.) Having the courage to name a fear or shame that exists in your community might just get you run out of town—kind of like people tried to chase Jesus out of town when he spoke the truth in the synagogue in his home town—Luke 4:14-30.  You see, we human beings have become comfortable in our darkness and would just assume stay there.   We've adjusted our eyes over the years and figured out how to function in the dim light. Shining light into the darkness hurts our eyes; we recoil at its radiance.  In fact, we can get downright nasty defending our darkness, lashing out at any and all light bearers.   We can't really imagine the world being better without our fear and shame being present so we aggressively defend the status quo.

But Advent reminds us that if we would experience healing and wholeness that birth of Christ promises, we "the people sitting in darkness" must risk exposure to the Light of the World.  

My hope for this Advent season is that I (that we) would become a person (people) through whom the Light of Christ can shine more fully.  I hope we experience the peace (and hope, joy, and love) of Christ in our midst that leads to the experience of unity in Christ with one another. Let us each pray to discover the role that is uniquely ours to play as we work together to create a Christian community that sets individual disciples free from the twin spectres of fear and shame and allows us to shine like a stars in a dark placePhilippians 2:15—as we proclaim the message of Jesus wherever we go.

During Advent ask yourself: What darkness (i.e., fears and shame) within me do I need to acknowledge and risk exposing to the Light of the World in order to more fully reflect Jesus in my life?

Monday, November 21, 2016

Breathe It In... Then Exhale

I wrote the prayer below for use in worship on November 20, 2016 (Christ the King Sunday).  It was a corporate prayer given after the time in the service when people share "joys and concerns".  We always end that time by saying the The Lord's Prayer (a.k.a., The Prayer of the Kingdom).  The verse at the end is the chorus of a song called "Exhale" written and sung by Plumb. (You are welcome to adapt this prayer for use in your setting if you like it...)

Lord God we have raised our joys and concerns to you.
We’ve made our intercessions and confessions on behalf of ourselves and others.
We know that you hear all our prayers O Lord.
We know you rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.
Human nature makes it easier to rejoice with others than to weep with them.
Tears make us uncomfortable; we confess we avoid weeping as much as possible.

But there are people are weeping today, Lord.
Sometimes there are lessons we need to learn that only tears can teach. 
Jesus, we ask that we would learn to weep for the things that made you weep.  
Teach us to weep for our friends and family as you did for Lazarus.
Teach us to weep for the wounded world as you did over Jerusalem.

The feelings we have at this moment in time are real—and raw—and they matter.
May we allow ourselves to feel the full weight of what we feel.
May we give others space to feel what they feel.
May we all take a deep cleansing breath [have them do it] and inhale your grace. 
May it saturate the space in our hearts and in this sanctuary.
May it permeate this place; may we each take it out into the world around us.

Just let go… let His love wrap around you
And hold you close
Get lost in the surrender
Breathe it in until your heart breaks…
Then exhale…

Join me now in the Prayer of the Kingdom… Our Father who is in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on Earth as it is in heaven.  Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us and lead us not into temptation.  For thine is the Kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. AMEN

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Leadville, Part V: A Lesson We Should've Learned in Kindergarten

So what lessons should Leadville's struggle teach us...

There is a rule we learn in kindergarten but struggle to live our whole lives: If you make a mess you should clean it up. It seems simple, yet from the time we are born, human beings have a hard time following it, and life is far more complicated because of it.

As anyone who has children can attest, it's much easier to make a mess than to clean it up. Laurie and I joke that we always say we know where our daughter Becca has been. As she moves from place to place around our house playing, she will inevitably leave what I like to call a creative remnant behind.   (You could also call it a mess, adding other "colorful" adjectives as I sometimes do.) Now, while its frustrating to her parents to always clean up after her, at Becca's age the area of consequence of her actions can be fairly well contained to our home.  However, if we don't at some point learn the "clean up after yourself" lesson, as we grow older, the consequences of our failure to "clean up our mess" begins to have broader impacts.

For example, let's imagine that we are all grown up, and find ourselves in charge of a mining company.  We have resources we want to extract from a certain area.  How will we go about the process?  Well, if we never learned to clean up our mess as a child, we figure it's okay to strip the resources from the soil, leaving complete environmental devastation in our wake. After all I got what I wanted, now I'm ready to move on.  What is left behind is merely creative remnant—collateral damage necessary for economic progress.  Someone else can deal with the mess... 

Unlike when we were kids, there's no one to put us in "timeout" if we fail to clean up as adults.

It seems to me that EPA tried to play the role of "disciplinarian" in Leadville. When EPA arrived in town, the parties were finally forced to sit down and try and work out a solution.  It wasn't easy, but eventually (it took more than a decade) they got it done.  I assure you, though, EPA was not warmly welcomed when they first arrived in town, anymore than the defiant child likes being placed in "timeout". 

The Yak Tunnel entrance as it appears today.
But when contaminated water pouring from the Yak Tunnel caused the Arkansas River to “run red” on February 23, 1983, and began threatening water supplies downstream, there was no denying the need to act anymore. Leadville’s problem, which had been a "local issue" for decades, suddenly became Colorado's problem—and even America’s problem. The public became much more aware of the issue and demanded action to protect them. Something had to be done—and someone would have to pay for it. Millions of dollars would be spent to figure out how to clean up what the mining companies had carelessly left behind—and who would pay for it. While some “responsible parties” could do identified, many others could not be made to pay; the companies had long sense gone out of business; the individual owners had died. But make no mistake, future generations paid a considerable “cost” for their failure to clean up after themselves.

Leadville's story serves as a reminder to me that in our thirst to fuel our relentless engine of progress we have done considerable damage to the natural world—and the planet can only take so much before there are serious consequences for life on Earth.

Sometimes, such as in Leadville, we reach a point where we just can't deny what's happening.  The river is red this morning—clearly that's not natural.  We are forced to reckon with the facts; we have to repent. We have to acknowledge what's been done and change our direction. Even though you and I are not the "responsible parties" for past damage to our environment, like the citizens of Leadville, we are still called to be part of the solution.

We need to find a better way that strikes more of a balance between economic and environmental prosperity.  Both are important.  Are we truly "prosperous" as a nation if our environment is in ruins?  What good is financial wealth if the only planet we have to live on is a desolate wasteland due to our insatiable lust for economic prosperity?  (The movie Wall-E is an over-the-top example of the consequences of unchecked economic growth.  But perhaps the hyperbole makes a point...) 

God entrusts human beings with stewardship of the planet—Genesis 1:26-31.  We might take time to consider:  How are we doing in that regard? Yes, the Earth is God's good Creation, and we are given resources to to continue that work of creation with God.  These resources are here for our use, but there have always been limits/boundaries that we must respect, or suffer the consequences.  And when we do use resources, hopefully Leadville's example will remind us of that fundamental rule of life: when we make a mess, we should clean it up—not leave it lying around for someone else to deal with.  It's much easier that way...

Monday, September 19, 2016

Leadville, Part IV: Cleaning the Mess the Miners Left Behind

Book Cover
Somewhat by chance, I learned about another chapter of Leadville’s story while we were there. One night we wandered into a place called the Book Mine, and I picked up a book called, Leadville: The Struggle to Revive an American Town by Gillian Klucas. Thinking the book might be an interesting read, I started in—and I was not disappointed. The author summarized Leadville’s “glorious” history as a mining boom town but spends much of her time delving into the "darker" side of Leadville’s mining: the environmental impact of what the mines left behind. (Leadville is just one of many places out west that has dealt with these impacts.)

Leadville’s troubles became national news in 1983, when one of the old mining tunnels that were used to carry waste away from the mines [shown below] gave way spilling huge amounts of waste water into the nearby Arkansas River.  The opening scene of the book is presented from the perspective of a long-time resident of the area named Doc Smith who lives on a ranch along the Arkansas River.  She describes the fateful morning when the river “ran red" from Doc's perspective.

Of course this wasn't the first time a spill had happened in this area.  What made this time different was the size of the spill.  This release was so large that it threatened the water supply of more heavily populated areas downstream, such as Colorado Springs and Aurora (a suburb of Denver), which drew national attention to the residue the mines and smelters of the Leadville Mining District left behind (e.g. lead, heavy metals in the soil and water) in a way that previous spills had not. Later that year, Leadville was designated a Superfund site, beginning an effort to clean up the "mess" mining left behind that would play out over several decades.

We did trek out to what appeared to be a mine entrance
located just outside Leadville.  I have no idea which mine this was.
 Time did not allow for deeper investigation while we were there.
However, the Mining History Association has many more photos posted
online from a tour of the Leadville Mining District conducted in 2007.

The Yak Tunnel entrance as it appeared in 2002—after EPA-mandated clean-up.
This 3.5 mile long tunnel was used to haul ore and drain the mines
in the area; this was the tunnel that ruptured in 1983, spilling contaminated
water down California Gulch into the Arkansas River and bringing
national attention to Leadville's "mining mess"   Image credit:
Mining History Association.
The author describes the long, complicated—and sometimes bitter—struggle to clean up the messes, that involved a number of parties including: the Environmental Protection Agency, the state of Colorado, the Principally Responsible Parties (e.g., the biggest mining company still in existence was the ASARCO mining company), and the “ordinary” citizens of the town. The debate was not only about who should be responsible for the cleanup—but even whether said cleanup was really needed. The town struggled with its sense of identity: Residents wanted to protect their legacy as a mining town.  They didn’t want to disturb and/or destroy more of the “relics” of the past than was necessary.

Klucas weaves a fascinating tale bringing together some of the town’s history with anecdotes and quotes from some of the people (e.g., local politicians, EPA officials, land owners) who were actually involved in the controversy. Early on the relationship between EPA officials assigned to Leadville and townsfolk was contentious to say the least. They were viewed as unwanted government intruder into Leadville’s affairs. Thanks in part to a change in the EPA leadership, eventually the town and EPA learned how to work together and work to clean up Leadville proceeded more smoothly than it had before.  By 2011, EPA considered the area “cleaned up”—though pregnant women are still encouraged to have their lead levels carefully monitored.

The museum was dedicated in 1987.

National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum.  Leadville, CO
There is a National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum that provides a nice overview of Leadville's mining past. While some of the above-ground evidence  of Leadville's mining past still remains—see photos above—I think I would hard-pressed to find much physical evidence of the mines, tunnels, ditches, tailing piles, wedding cakes, or merlot ponds described in the book if I didn't know exactly where to look for them.  The EPA-cleanup, while controversial and bitterly contested at the beginning, seems to have been effective in doing what it set out to do: cleaning up the mess that mining left behind in Leadville and the surrounding vicinity.

As with many places where industry once reigned but has since moved on in this country, the physical evidence is “cleaned up” long before the potential environmental and public health impacts diminish. Those longer-term impacts may very well still be present today.  The damage done to the land, water, and air, wildlife, and to the lives of people who lived here, by mining is much harder to quantify or to put a price-tag on—which was why the argument between Leadville and the EPA was so intense.

Had I not happened into that bookstore the day we were there and read this book, I would never have known about this chapter in Leadville’s story. And yet is an important chapter, not just in Leadville’s story but in America’s story. Klucas makes it clear in her book that this wasn’t just a Leadville issue—it was and is an American issue. When the book was written in 2004, there were 500,000 abandoned mining sites in the U.S., 300,000 of them in the west—23,000 in Colorado alone. By one estimate 40% of the watersheds in the West were at risk for contamination.  

Sunday, September 11, 2016

A Selah in the Psalm of Life

It’s the time of year where school children everywhere are writing the obligatory back-to-school essay.  The topic assigned is often: What did I do on my summer vacation?   

Well, our family had quite a summer vacation—in fact it was actually two vacations.   Thanks to a grant my wife Laurie received from the Lilly Endowment for Clergy Renewal—and with the generous support and encouragement of our congregation at Good Shepherd UMC—she was able to take three months of Sabbath leave this summer.  As part of that, our family was able to take the “vacation of a lifetime”.  

Disney Dream anchored
at Castaway Cay
Part One of our vacation took place in early July.  We went to Disney World on our tenth anniversary and loved it and this Sabbath grant offered us a chance to get back.  We left home on June 30, and took the better part of two days to drive to Florida (including a visit with old friends of Laurie’s at a restaurant in South Carolina that I remembered from a family vacation we took to Florida years ago).  We then spent two days visiting two of the theme parks (Magic Kingdom and Hollywood Studios).   What was new on this trip, was that in addition to doing “Mickey by Land”, we did “Mickey by Sea”. We took a four-day cruise onboard The Disney Dream leaving out of Port Canaveral, and travelling to Castaway Cay and Nassau.  And now, like all who go on such cruises, all other vacations will have a hard time competing with “the cruise experience”.
One of the crew who served us meals.
Note the napkin art Becca is holding.
This part of our vacation was so much fun—and such a relaxing break from the ordinary routines of life.  Disney “gets it right” when it comes to hospitality and pampering at its parks—and especially on its ships. (We recently focused on hospitality at our church—Disney may have a thing or two to teach us in that department.) We literally cried when that trip ended and we drove away from the port.  But alas, we had to start our two-day trip “back to reality”. The kids were off on summer vacation and Laurie was, of course, on Sabbath, but I had to work between our trips.  (I won’t lie, it was hard to focus, but, on the other hand, there was plenty to do to try and compensate for the remarkable 19 working days I took off this summer!)  

Outside Union Station in DC.
Our cross-country pilgrimage begins!
Chicago's Soldier Field
Home of da'Bears!
On August 5, Part Two of our vacation began.   The Silver Cab took us to Union Station in DC to begin a 2.5-week cross-country pilgrimage via trains, planes, and automobiles—and throw in a couple boats for good measure.  Amtrak took us from DC to Chicago, leaving at 3 PM and arriving in Chicago the next morning.   In Chicago we had about an eight-hour layover allowing us time to do a city tour.  (Chicago seems like a fun place that would be worth a return trip.)   We then boarded a train to Kansas City.  Upon arriving in KC (about 10 PM) we had to make a late night taxi ride from the train station (downtown) to KC’s airport (outside the city) to get a rental car at that hour on a Saturday.  We then had to drive said car back to our hotel. Needless to say, that was a late night!

Water Park at Adam's Mark
hotel in Kansas City
The next day, we did something a clergy family rarely gets a chance to do: we slept on a Sunday morning!  Of course “sleep in” means different things to different people; I am an early riser by nature so I was still up pretty early.  The kids enjoyed the hotel’s water park during the day, and then we visited Church of the Resurrection’s evening service.  This is Adam Hamilton’s church located in the KC suburb of Leawood.  Pastor Adam unfortunately was not there that week, but we still heard a good message from an assistant pastor.  (As luck would have it, Adam was returning the very next week to start a new preaching series on Moses and the Exodus; oh well, the best laid plans.  I imagine we will read about soon in one of his upcoming books.)
Brown vs Board of Education

The next morning, we set out on a trek across Kansas and Colorado.  This was the longest stretch of driving of the whole trip.  (We did it in the comfort of a modern SUV; I can only imagine that same trip was like when pioneers took it without the benefit of paved roads via Conestoga wagon!)   We did have an interesting (unplanned) stop in Topeka, KS, where we visited a museum dedicated to Brown Versus the Board of Education—the Supreme Court decision that abolished the idea of “separate but equal” and ruled that schools must be integrated.

I couldn’t help but think that while in some ways we’ve made much progress in race relations since the mid-1950s, in other ways it seems we are still having bitter arguments over what limits should be placed on the phrase, “with liberty and justice for all”.

Wheat Jesus
Other than Wheat Jesus (a strange billboard along I-70, near Colby, KS, showing a disembodied Jesus peering out of a field of wheat—see photo on the right) there wasn’t much else to see as we drove across rural Kansas into Colorado. We travelled down very straight and flat roads, looking across acres upon acre of farmland, eventually giving way to “scrubland” as we headed west and the climate turned drier.  The prairie was periodically punctuated by evidence of human inhabitation with an occasional small town, often at or near the junction of highways (plan your stops for gas carefully out here!).  We also saw more than a few “big white windmills” spinning as we drove across the heartland.  Apparently, in addition to harvesting grain these days in America’s breadbasket, we are also “harvesting” the wind—which is a good thing!

Manitou Springs, CO
Just when we thought we might go crazy from being cramped in the SUV as a family, God was merciful, and we reached our next destination: Manitou Springs, CO.  Laurie and I had visited here 11 years earlier, when Laurie was pregnant with Brady.  We stayed in the same hotel this time. (We joke that Brady’s love of trains was born when he took his first “train ride” up Pikes Peak on the Cog Railway in utero.)  While in Manitou Springs, we visited Pikes Peak and Garden of the Gods, which is a spectacular series of rock formations located in the vicinity.

A road outside Leadville, CO
After two nights there, we drove up even higher into the Rockies on winding mountain roads to Leadville, CO (an old mining town high in the Rockies that is the highest incorporated town in the U.S.)  Laurie’s maternal-grandmother was born in Leadville and she did some genealogical investigation at the local library, trying to find the whereabouts of her great-grandfather’s grave.  While there I happened to pick up a book that told the another complicated chapter of Leadville’s story: “cleaning up the mess” the mines left behind.  Leadville became a Superfund site in 1983—a fact that a tourist like me visiting in 2016 is not likely to realize.
Ghost Ranch
With my friend Jeff in Sedona, AZ
After spending the night in Leadville’s “eccentric” Delaware Hotel (which looked like it could be featured on an episode of Ghost Hunters) we left town and embarked on a gradual (several hour) descent from the high mountains to the desert, eventually arriving in Abiqiu, NM later that afternoon.  We spent two nights there and visited a place called Ghost Ranch—a property associated with the late artist, Georgia O’Keefe, that is now a Presbyterian Retreat Center.  After two nights in Abiqiu came yet another long stretch of driving across New Mexico into Arizona, to Sedona, AZ.  (When I turned in the rental in Sedona I had totaled almost 1500 miles since leaving Kansas City!)  That night we had dinner with an old friend and spiritual mentor of mine, and his family.  Becca and Brady seemed to hit it off with Jeff's kids (Maria and Maverick); too bad they don’t live closer.
Petrified Woods

Chapel of the Holy Cross
Sedona, AZ
"The corner" in Winslow, AZ
Canyon de Chelly

Lake Powell
Page, AZ 
Antelope Canyon
Page, AZ
Route 66
Horshoe Bend
Page, AZ
The next morning, we began a four-day guided tour of Arizona, which provided a nice break from driving. Our tour guide, Steve Gerhart (Arizona Scenic Tours), knew much about the area we were visiting, and was, in general, a very pleasant person to travel with.  We were in the van for a good number of hours together and had some interesting conversations as we travelled.  We could have visited all the places we visited on our own.  We would have saved some money if we did, but there’s no way we would have gotten as much out of it as we did having someone to guide us. The tour took us all across Arizona, including: Sedona (Chapel of the Holy Cross—on Sunday morning), Winslow, AZ (yes, we actually “stood on the corner in Winslow, AZ”), the Petrified Forest, Canyon de Chelly, Monument Valley, Lake Powell, Horseshoe Bend, Antelope Canyon, and culminating with the Grand Canyon—aptly named.
Grand Canyon

 Our tour ended in Williams, AZ, where we had dinner at a place located on the old Route 66. (We had actually saw the sign for the start of Route 66 back in Chicago and at other places in Arizona.)  After that, Steve dropped us off at a local hotel, where a shuttle picked us up and drove us out to “Williams Junction”, aptly named since is not so much a station but a spot along the tracks outside of town, where the Amtrak train slows down long enough to have passengers and their luggage embark. 

The view of Universal Studios from our
hotel room in the Hilton Universal.
The Universal sign at night.
The train had to reroute to avoid the fires burning in San Bernardino, so we made it Los Angeles a little later than we were scheduled, but still plenty early to get a full day in LA.  Alas, at that point I had to start driving again; we picked up our rental car (a sedan this time) from the train station, then drove through LA traffic on “the 101” to our hotel, which was right across from Universal Studios Hollywood.  Because we just didn’t get enough theme parks earlier in the summer, we went to Universal that day, and then visited Griffith Park and Observatory the next morning, before heading up the coast, batting California traffic much of the way.  We were however rewarded with some fantastic views of the Pacific around sunset.   Traffic thwarted our original plans to meet a friend of Laurie’ for dinner, so we ended up stopping for dinner in Santa Barbara.  This seemed like another neat place that would be fun to explore further if one had time. But we had to press onward toward our next destination: Lompoc, CA.

The kids loved looking the
Christmas (in August!) Village
at Kara's house.
Chapel at La Purisma Mission
Laurie had lived in Lompoc for less than two years when she was in high school, but the time was very impactful on her formation.  This was another place on our trip where Laurie reconnected with her past, seeing two of her old friends (twin sisters named Kara and Kristi) and their families We also visited the town of Solvang, CA an visited the old La Purisma mission located outside Lompoc (one of many such missions along "the 101"). We then "hung out" at Kara and George's house and ordered pizza for dinner.  After two weeks of travel it was nice to just "relax at home"!  Laurie really enjoyed the chance to reconnect with this part of her spiritual/personal journey.

Sanctuary at First UMC
Lompoc, CA
Muir Woods
Getting ready to board our return flight
from San Francisco.

On Sunday morning we worshipped at First United Methodist Church in Lompoc.  This was where Laurie and her friends worshiped as youths, and where Kara and her family still worship after all these years. After church we had a greasy Carl’s Jr. lunch, and then hit the road again, stopping in Campbell, CA (near San Jose) for dinner with Kristi, her husband, and youngest son.  After dinner, we drove into the California night toward our final destination: San Francisco. The next morning, we did tours of Muir Woods and San Francisco Bay, and had dinner with another old friend of Laurie’s that evening.  

Alas, even the best things eventually end.  The next morning, it was finally time to head home; we boarded an early flight from San Francisco and flew back to DC.

Sometimes when one is busy living life, one’s worldview can become a bit myopic.  By that I mean that we telescope on our own our individual needs and desires, and forget that there is so much more out there beyond our limited horizon.  We get so caught up in the importance of our own affairs.  As if the world literally depends on what I do.

A trip like the one I just had a chance to take is a good curative for that tendency.  I got outside of what was familiar and I saw some places I’ve never seen before—and may never see again. I was reminded just how vast—and just how good—this nation is.  The land, the water, the air, and the people we met on our journey, all proclaimed the Presence of God to us on our travels this summer.   We weren’t “in church” every Sunday as we normally are given my wife’s role as pastor, but I feel like we worshipped every day.  

We were reminded of what we already knew: God is found outside the church doors just as easily as God is found at church.  Though I personally believe participating in church on a regular basis makes it easier to have “eyes that see” and “ears that hear” God in the world.  

People keep asking me, what was my favorite part of the trip?  Of course people want to know.  But with such a packed agenda.  I honestly find it hard to pick “just one activity” that was my favorite. Every part was unique—and enjoyable in its own way.  We “saw” God in so many different places. I took many photos at each location, several of which accompany this essay, but often I thought, “No camera does what I am seeing justice.”  Sometimes, even with all our instant communication technology, there is just no substitute for actually being there.

I plan to write more about my specific experiences in subsequent posts.  For now, I will just say thanks to the Lilly Foundation, the people of Good Shepherd—and most of all God–for making this Sabbath Leave possible for my wife.   I’m thankful to be married to my wife, whose 20 years of faithful service made this time summer’s travel possible.  I’m also thankful to her for doing 99.9% of the planning of our itinerary—and that’s probably a conservative estimate J—so that our family could enjoy this “vacation of a lifetime”.  She continues to bless me in so many ways.

Clergy life is a “costly” calling.  The pastor pays the highest price of all, but when you “marry into the ministry” you assume some of that mantle as a clergy spouse.  Our children didn’t really get a choice; they were just sort of born into the role of pastor’s kid.  Overall they’ve rolled with it, but there is no question, over these past 13 years, that our whole family has had to make many sacrifices to enable my wife to serve.  She gave up the right to decide where she lives when she was ordained and agreed to “go where she is sent”; I am now part of that by virtue of marriage.  We sometimes have to sacrifice her being with us so she can be with the people God has called her to shepherd.   We sacrifice some things other families probably take for granted (e.g., Laurie works almost every Sunday so we can’t easily plan a weekend getaway or do other activities take require us to be “away from church” on Sunday.)  

Sometimes the pace of life is so hectic that we only realize how much we needed a break once we have time to stop and think about it for a while.  This summer provided a much-needed opportunity for us to “stop and think about it for a while”; it was, if you will, a time of intentional resta Selah in the Psalm of life.  I think—I pray—we used our time well and are better than when we left in June. I know beyond a doubt that God was with us on our pilgrimage this summer.  I suspect I will be processing the lessons these three months have taught me for months and possibly even years to come…