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 leftbehind.  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…

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