St. Simons and Seashells by the Seashore

On the coast of St. Simons Island in the Golden Isles of southern Georgia, you’ll find Spanish moss dangling off the branches of the old oak trees, dolphins and manatees gliding about in the waters as the sun rises, and a rich history tied to John and Charles Wesley, two brothers who both spent time on the island at nearby Fort Frederica. There they camped and worked as ministers before their involvement with the Methodism movement really took off, and that’s where I got to
spend my week last week “camping” with a national gathering of camp and retreat leaders as part of the United Methodist Church.

St. SimonsI can’t say enough for how beautiful the island is and probably always has been; the way the sunrise peaked through the Spanish moss and graced a nearby chapel was captivating indeed. And a few days were warm enough outside for a picnic or a nice stroll by the water. To waltz around on the island was a reminder to me of how much I crave knowing a place. Like my grandfather’s farm or my little house in the olive orchard of Morocco – I savor what a place is from its history to how I experience and come to love it. I fear a day where there are no longer places we can do this, sacred places apart where we can step out and still see our natural world. So, when I do get a chance to grasp hold of something removed from our fast-paced, technology-driven, world of false connections, I find that important. And there by the waters of St. Simons, a few deep breaths went a long way to rejuvenate me and make me feel, well, human again.

Don’t get me wrong, I love a good grassy field or a mountain here or there, but at the end of the day, I think I’m drawn mostly to water. It’s rhythmic, eternal, powerful. One of the speakers at the conference asked us whether we wanted to be a swamp or a river: dead still or moving forward, and I spent much of my week thinking about that metaphor – about the different kinds of waters I’ve swam in or swallowed up or sat and stared at for hours. An island is a good place to be if you’re thinking at all about the power water can have to transform a place or a person. There’s a reason John the Baptist washed cleaned repentant people in the Jordan. It’s a little like that Carnival Commercial that was played during the Super Bowl where JFK speaks about the calling of water and the way we’re called to the sea; after all, we are made up of the same concentration of salt water:

But maybe what struck me the most was what can come from that mighty force with its current and creatures swimming about just feet below the choppy surface. A great sea can leave many gifts in its wake. When I was a kid, I spent nearly every summer with Mom and Dad walking the beaches of Fort Walton hunting for seashells. Then, we’d collect several of them, bring them home, wash them up, and put them in a jar like the spoils of a great treasure hunt. I was reminded of that at St. Simons this week when I saw cases of conch shells, sand dollars, and starfish – all sizes, shapes, and colors. Why is it, it seems then, that the greatest shells were found a generation or two ago? I don’t remember the last time I was able to find a sand dollar; I feel like the largest conch shells I’ve ever seen – the ones where you can hear the ocean if you hold it up to your ear – seem to be missing from the many trips I’ve taken since I was a kid. My grandmother left a whole case of them behind fragile glass as if to peer in and wonder what universe they’d come from while the shells I’ve found scouring the beaches since then were mere remnants of another time, just a few broken pieces away from being sand.

Fort Fred

I think we sometimes do the wrong thing with the little gifts that wash our way. We ooo and aaah over them and then encase them behind glass, as the world is depleted of its natural treasure. We store them away like they belong in a museum. I’m half-tempted, though, to grab a jar of shells and dump them back into the ocean where they belong. I’m not sure if that metaphor really makes sense or if I even want to explain it rather than just letting it be whatever it is, but I’ll say this much: in my own life with the many gifts I know I’ve been graced, I’m not sure I’ve always used those gifts in the right ways or in the right place. I think I’ve sometimes oooed and aahed at them or wanted to put them behind glass to admire them without actually letting them be what they were really meant for. And that leaves the beach barren, cold, full of remnants. At St. Simons this past week, I think I finally got a sense of what I might need to do with all those seashells. I think I heard my calling back to the sea. And that’s something I would hope we were all able to find.

A Call for Friendship across Political Divides

It’s been an election season that’s fired me up. I’ve always tried to be politically-savvy, but I can’t say before this year, I’ve ever been politically-involved. Lately, though, I’ve gotten my feet wet in a local campaign that’s, honestly, gotten a little ugly. The father of one of my camp friends is running as the Democrat for District 27 here in West Tennessee, a district that was redrawn by Republicans with the hope of ensuring that more rural counties would guarantee no Democrat could get elected again. What they didn’t count on was a conservative Democrat who had either lived, worked, or gone to school in almost all of the counties that made up the District.

Perhaps because they got scared that Randy Lamb would dash their hopes of taking back District 27, the Republican Party began a series of negative ads comparing Lamb to Barack Obama and as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” One Union University student wrote into the Jackson Sun, the local paper, saying, “One pamphlet in particular I found to be reprehensible. Included in this campaign ad is a poorly Photoshopped image of Mr. Lamb depicted as a shepherd. He is herding a herd of black rams. The wording reads, ‘What Randy Lamb’s herding Tennessee doesn’t want any part of.’ This image obviously has racial allusions. It is subtle, but direct.”

That kind of thing is the kind of thing that can get me really fired up. Joining the campaign was something I probably would’ve done regardless of ads with racial overtones, but the negative campaigning made it all the more important to me to get a positive word out about Randy Lamb, his focus on public education instead of vouchers, on expanding Medicaid, and on bringing jobs to West Tennessee. While phone banking for Randy, I found myself telling voters: “Please, please, if you get anything in the mail that says something awful about Randy, ignore it. He really is a good guy.”

In the midst of negative campaigns, it’s really hard not to retort with something equally as negative, and I haven’t succeeded at it personally. It’s easy to dismiss Randy’s opponent, Ed Jackson, or the Republican Party in West Tennessee (who ran the negative ads Jackson said on Facebook he doesn’t like) as racists or as bigots. It’s hard to find the balance between the need to call out an injustice when you feel someone you believe in has been wronged while also dishing out the kind of grace that trusts most people are or want to be good and do the right thing. It seems like we too-often like to lump the injustices and those who commit them as one-in-the-same. But maybe it’s not that simple. Maybe most of us are just trying to get by, trying to do what we believe is right, and even where and when that’s misguided, there’s something to be said for our trying.

On Thursday, I stood in the sun at the polling center holding a sign for both the Lamb campaign and for “Vote No on Amendment 1,” an amendment that would give the Tennessee legislature the power to ban abortions for victims of rape, incest, or women with medical complications. Standing next to me for the nearly five hours I was there was none other than Ed Jackson himself and a few of his supporters. Naturally, we struck up friendly conversation. I talked about my time in the Peace Corps and my love for traveling. Ed and I discussed some of our favorite countries we’d visited, his son’s good work teaching English in an industrial town in China. We talked about the Boy Scouts, both of us Eagle Scouts. Turned out, Ed had been a part of a troop that was formed at my home church years ago, and we knew some of the same folks in scouting, an organization we both deeply admired given the impact it had on us growing up. There was something humanizing about standing there carrying on friendly conversation with someone whose worldview so greatly differs from my own. I offered him water. He offered sunscreen – which I later regretted not accepting – and lunch. Behind the social media anger, behind the negative television ads, behind the things we think we know that are right, even if they are right, are real people all too easily forgotten as “real” when viewed from the false veil of computer and television screens.

I don’t agree with Ed Jackson’s policies. In fact, I’d argue that a lot of Republican policies demean the poor with a lack of empathy that could hardly be considered “Christian.” In my short time working with the Lamb campaign, I’ve overheard a Republican or two say the same of us Democrats: how could those liberals be for policies that are so unchristian? But what I don’t doubt, having met him, is that – like Randy Lamb, like all of us – Ed Jackson is just trying to do what he thinks is right. And there’s hope in that. Because there’s common ground to be found there.

Last night over dinner with friends, it was said (to paraphrase) that “when compromise became viewed as a weakness in America, everybody lost.” Though I’m stuck on believing my way is the right way, I’d like to think that Ed Jackson’s encounter with me was an encounter he walked away from thinking, “Maybe we can work together,” because the way forward in a world where political differences seem to have become battlegrounds is to re-establish relationships that are cordial, civil, and most importantly, recognize and reiterate that we must trust that we’re all trying to figure it out, how to make this town, this city, this state, this country just a tiny bit better. I cast my vote for Randy Lamb, and I’d do so again and again, but if I were heading to the Tennessee State Senate and Ed Jackson happened to be there, I’d find a way to work with him. And I believe I could. But to be able to do so requires something of us all, on both sides of the aisle, and it’s going to have to start with getting out from behind the screen, meeting each other face-to-face, and being committed to friendly conversation.

The Curious Case of the Toilet Seat Picture Frame

A few years ago, when I was working at a church near Nashville, I took my youth group on a trip to do service work in the Appalachian Mountains at a summer camp there. It was a week filled with hack saws, lots of paint, and conversation with poor or elderly folks of the Grundy County community in East Tennessee. When a former youth of mine began working full-time a few years later at the same summer camp, he mentioned one day that in an office used by summer staffers, there was a make-shift toilet seat on the wall that functioned as a picture-frame. Inside the picture frame? Me.

Toilet Seat

At first I thought it was hilarious, and on some level I still do, but at the very least, it was an incredibly befuddling thing. Who would put a picture of me in a toilet seat picture frame? What had I done that irked them so, or did they just want someone attractive to be hanging there on the wall (ha-ha)? Were they trying to make a statement about me by hanging my picture in a toilet seat? Where did they even get the picture?

After an old friend asked around, at least some of those questions were answered this week. While I still don’t know who was behind the curious case of the toilet seat picture frame or how they got the picture of me, I now know why they hung the picture. And the answer is Sufjan Stevens.

At the end of our week in 2010, a group of my youth wanted to perform a song for the Friday night talent show. With one of them on banjo, two on guitar, and a percussionist, we performed “Casimir Pulaski Day” for seventy or so youth and adults. Since none of them wanted to sing, I offered to provide the vocals, which is weird because singing isn’t really my thing, but I wanted to be supportive. So, we sang the song straight through, and when it was finished and we’d sat back down, a woman behind me (probably in her mid-40s) sneered, “Well, that was just inappropriate!” At the time, I just shrugged it off and hadn’t thought twice about it. Apparently, though, one of the staffers also thought it was inappropriate, and rather than addressing it with me directly, decided hanging my picture behind a toilet seat was the best way to handle it.

The truth is, I don’t really care. Summer camp staffers are usually in their early 20s, and even us 30-somethings can be incredibly petty sometimes. And yet, I think it’s a really good example of some of the wider problems the church faces today – namely in the way Christian people can sometimes cower in the face of anything a little too human:

“Casimir Pulaski Day” is a heartbreaking song that narrates a crisis of faith in the midst of losing a friend to terminal cancer. It raises questions about morality – the complications caused by a tempting kiss and the shame of creating those complications for someone about to die. It questions God, particularly God’s seeming absence in the face of bone cancer, yet still manages to find “glory” in the face of God whom the narrator encounters the day his friend dies.

“Casimir” is the first and only song I know how to play on guitar, and singing it with my youth group was probably one of more special moments of my three or four years working with them. When I found out someone had found the song offensive for a Christian camp (to the point that they felt putting my picture up as a symbol of human excrement was of equal merit), I poured over the lyrics. There is that one line that says, “Tuesday night at the Bible study, we lift our hands and pray over your body, but nothing ever happens.” Maybe they thought the song was pushing a kind of agnosticism? But no less than the Psalmist (Ps. 22:1) or Jesus crying from the Cross in Mt. 27:46, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Sufjan himself acknowledges this in an interview discussing the song when he says, “Firm belief is a bit unreal. That leads to religious fanaticism. Doubt is inseparable from Christianity. With every figure in the Bible you find doubt – Abraham, Moses, all the kings and the apostles. Even Jesus doubted. So isn’t it funny how religions – especially Christian institutions in the U.S. – have eliminated all doubt? They don’t understand how important it is to doubt.”

Or maybe it was the line about the kiss? In the song, the girl kisses the narrator’s neck, and he says to her that he “almost touched your blouse.” Or even later, there’s an unclear reference to something shameful they’ve done in the night. There’s nothing sexual about it at all – unless you’re looking for something sexual there. But even if it is something risqué, this fear some Christians have that demands topics always have a G-rating can sometimes make Christianity seem at least a little fake. There’s something heart-wrenching about the honesty of a young man torn by the temptation to share an intimate moment with someone dying. In its prude, proper obsession with “holiness,” a lot of Christianity forgoes the earnest struggles anybody could relate with to instead champion some artificial propriety. Those Christians make sin into a kind of laundry lists of do’s and don’ts rather than the simple concept of being alienated or separate from that which we hold sacred. The beauty of “Casimir” is in Sufjan’s heartfelt search for something sacred in the goodbye of this friendship, in the way the things we hold dear can so easily be taken from us, and so he sings, still finding glory in something, “All the Glory when he took our place, but he took my shoulders and he shook my face, and he takes, and he takes, and he takes.”

One of the things I love about Sufjan is that very shear honesty. Or maybe honesty is the wrong word. Maybe it’s just some very blunt confrontation with reality. I see that in a lot of people my age. If we can’t get to the heart of matters, acknowledging the best and worst of ourselves pretty quickly, then we’re probably going to lose interest just as fast. In that sense, I kinda hope my picture stays behind the toilet seat for a long time. Like a badge of honor, it symbolizes, for me at least, that I’m a person who is willing to sift through a few heaping piles of dung if that’s what I have to do to watch the garden grow. Admittedly, those of us eager to sift through the manure seeing it as fertilizer rather than something stinky and awful are bound to offend from time-to-time. But the fruit is riper, the vegetables larger, and for that we should make no apologies.

Concerning the Apparent Pending Schism of the United Methodist Church

I don’t really understand why progressive United Methodists (also known as “United Methodists,” as the term “progressive” is redundant) feel the need to cater to remaining “united” with those Methodists whose professed beliefs are more in line with, say, the Southern Baptist or other Evangelical churches. Pastors and congregations who are pushing Biblical literalism of any form are only United Methodist in name, and if they were to read their own Book of Discipline, they’d already know the shoe doesn’t fit. It never has. The Wesleyan movement was always one that employed not merely sola scriptura but reason, tradition, and experience, as well (the so-called “Wesleyan Quadrilateral“).

If the goal is to remain “united” with people whose theology essentially resembles more conservative churches than it does the direction the United Methodist church has historically moved in (i.e. a progressive one), why not reach out to other denominations entirely in an ecumenical move that undoes the Reformation? Why not return to the fold of the Anglican church? Or better, to the Roman Catholics if they’d take Methodists back? With all respect to Adam Hamilton, this whole notion that local churches should decide on an individual basis what they think about sexuality or the authority of scripture (and whatever else the slippery slope might offer) suggests that Methodists should extend a hand to all Congregationalist churches, as well, if the polity is going to be no different, really, from those church movements.

To me, the United Methodist church appears to be clamoring to avoid losing members, which is a financial issue (and admittedly a disturbing one), but to kowtow to the extreme right-wing of the church to avoid financial disaster is to miss the mark on why the church makes theological statements to begin with. It’s not a business; it’s a family, and family’s break up sometimes. And then, sometimes, they get back together, too. The story doesn’t end with a split even though sometimes a split is inevitable. To worry so much over the dreadful disaster a schism might bring is to forget the whole message of resurrection. It’s to forget the church’s own history of how it became the Methodist Church to begin with.

If, indeed, the church does “split,” it won’t be a matter of there suddenly forming two separate churches, and there won’t be the need for the United Methodist church to lose the term “united.” It’ll just be that a group of pastors and congregants came to the unfortunate realization that the doctrine they apparently hadn’t been reading over the years was never quite in line with what they’d been preaching in those churches all along. Granted, if this is solely an argument about homosexuality, I can see how you could make the case that the Discipline, for a long time, has been on their side, but this conversation is much bigger than issues of sexuality; it’s about how the church approaches its holy writ at large. And the beauty of those texts is that every generation since they were first composed gained something different from them, just as future generations will continue to glean new metaphors and messages from the same ancient documents.

I’m not saying the church has to split. In a sense, I’m saying it already has. The argument concerning homosexuality is over. While the current leadership within the church hasn’t yet claimed that in General Conference, youth and young adults – the future of the church – have already claimed where they stand. Period. So, if that gang of 80 or any gangs decide to rip the church apart, maybe it isn’t the end of the world. And letting them have their way to keep the church financially out of the red is letting money guide the conversation. The way forward isn’t to run around the issue; it’s to work through it with, at the least, a little honesty about why schism scares people – and whether it should or not.

On Prayer

I signed up last week to be a “prayer partner” with Lakeshore United Methodist Assembly, a Methodist summer camp I frequented as a kid and worked at for four summers, and in the next few days I’ll be assigned someone on staff to pray for this summer. I haven’t always been the most prayerful person, if by “prayer” you mean kneeling or bowing your head and beginning a sentence with, “Dear God” or something similar. But then again, I don’t think we have a very healthy understanding of what prayer is, either.

It seems to me, too often, we think prayer is about outcome. I pray for someone sick or hurting, and God will heal them, or I pray for a job, and God will “open a door,” or I pray for someone’s summer, and they’re going to have a great summer, and the outcome will be good and that’ll be because God intervened to make it so. And that’s a bunch of hooey. What of those for whom no cure or relief will come or for those who remain jobless or for those whose summers isn’t going to be the greatest they could have asked for? I don’t believe in a God who works on behalf of some and not all. I know far too many people (and have been one myself) whose prayers, if prayer is solely about outcome, have gone unanswered.

The typical Christian response to this critique is to say that God doesn’t always give us the answer we want, just the answer we need. Or sometimes God’s ‘no’ is God’s ‘yes.’ And that’s poetic and pulls at the heartstrings, and I even sort of like the metaphor that runs against the whole health-and-wealth gospel where God gives you everything you want if you ask for it and live a good life. But it still revolves around the idea that prayer should have a goal, and the goal is either God’s yes or God’s no.

To me, the goal is process, not outcome. I think of prayer as being more meditative. It’s about awareness which breeds empathy and leads to connection within community. I’ll spend my summer praying for someone not because I think God will intervene like some booming voice from the sky that shouts, “Thou shalt have good summer!” but because in the process of praying for somebody else, I make the effort to stop being so absorbed in my own little world, and then, as a result of prayer, I’ll hopefully be moved to intervene to do what I can to make their summer a tiny bit better. It’s the notion that God moves through us, not because of us or without us.

In that sense, prayer is technically still about outcome, I guess. But in a world where too many Christians say, “I’ll pray for you,” while my atheist and agnostic friends are the ones who actually step up and do something, it’s time we had a healthy conversation about what prayer is supposed to be. It’s not, “God, be with this person so I don’t have to be.” It’s, “How can I help? I’m here; just tell me what to do.” If prayer doesn’t move people to act in that manner, it’s fruitless; it isn’t even really prayer. But that’s also a scary thought, because if we’re honest in our efforts to consider others outside of ourselves in our prayer lives (and I’m preachin’ to myself here), we’d be doing a hell of a lot more to make people’s lives better. It asks of us our time, energy, and money: and those are three things we don’t necessarily want to give. Prayer, though, can and should alter our mindset toward that end, and when it does, it’s communal, because when prayer moves us to act for others, we’re acting for ourselves at the same time.

So, I’m hoping my prayers this summer will be more than just prayers. At the very least, somebody is getting a really awesome mix tape (or two) and several encouraging letters. And if I can do more, I will. In the meantime, I’ll see where else prayer leads me.

A Trip to Camp, or Surveying the Remnants of Eubanks Bank

Yesterday, as I was driving to visit the church camp I used to work at, I had a moment where I decided that if there’s a hell (and if I go there), I will probably spend eternity in a continuous loop of being forced to drive Highway 641 North between the interstate and Camden on what has to be the most boring stretch of road ever constructed. Inevitably, I’m always stuck behind a car going forty in a fifty-five, and the speed limit should’ve been bumped up to sixty eons ago.

Camp, though, is the opposite of hell to me, and maybe that’s why it’s such a pain trying to get there, since you’re likely to twiddle your thumbs on the steering wheel in anticipation that whatever camp holds is good and can alter your current mindset of “not-good” or whatever else the world outside of camp seems to always deliver. It’s a sanctuary, a holy ground, a tabernacle, a sacred grove. It’s home and family and memories of family – the ones we’ve hurt and been hurt by and the ones we’ve loved and been loved by. And so, it’s a refuge of sorts.

That said, I think there’s a fine line between seeking refuge or replenishment and seeking to escape, and sometimes the same place can be both, and sometimes, we need both of those things to cope, but when I sat down with the old staff (and by “old” I mean “wise” in case they’re reading this) – whether it was a candlelit Mexican dinner with Martha or closed-door conversation spouting out painful honesty with Gary or silliness and serious banter with Chris Alexander – I’m convinced that, at camp, we find ourselves always able to say, “Here, it’s okay to be you.” I think anybody who’s ever been to any half-decent camp, secular or sacred, would have similar findings.

Earlier this afternoon, I set out on a mission of sorts to locate a part of camp that bears my name. A few years ago, one of the staffers built an orienteering course in the backwoods of camp property than ran along a creek called “Polk Branch.” Using a compass and a small map, you’re tasked with the responsibility of finding ten locations named after former Wilderness camp directors. They’re places like the “Taylor Tall Beech Grove” or the “Brock Grassy Knoll” or “Pulliam’s Squeeze.” And one of them near an embankment is called “Eubanks Bank.”

Orienteering Map

When I set out to find my little spot in the woods, I put the compass in my pocket and decided I didn’t need it. The map looked easy enough to follow, I told myself, but about thirty minutes in and on a tight schedule, some part of me was debating whether I should try to recall exactly how to use the compass from my Boy Scout days. I wasn’t exactly “lost.” I knew those woods well enough (because I’d been lost in them before), but for a split second or two, I did have the sickening feeling that I wasn’t prepared or that I might not be able to find what I was looking for. When I stumbled upon the first marker in a copse of beech trees, the tension eased up and instead of trying to figure out what to do with the compass, I settled on just following the creek and letting it lead me where I needed to go.

The orienteering paperwork describes my little spot in the woods thusly:

Eubanks Bank: named for Philip Eubanks, Director 2006, this embankment rises up about 5 feet above the valley and flattens out like a table just above the creek and floodplain. There are signs of old cornrows in the ground here that are still visible from when these woods were farmland.

When I stumbled upon the marker, I sorta crouched down in the remnants and kind of admired the serene scene much the way I imagine an explorer planting a flag in the ground to lay claim to new lands. I powered on to Al-Chokhachi Balcony and a few others before I ran out of time and had to head back.

As I was walking back to the road, I thought a lot about my refusal to use a compass on an orienteering course. It almost seemed to defeat the purpose in a way. I had this map and this compass both of which gave me straightforward directions (quite literally) but instead, I chose to let the creek and the wind be my guide. I thought about how the compass and the map were symbols of religion and religious texts to me, but somewhere along the way, I’d been so angry with the compass and the map that I’d gone the extra mile to also ignore the creek. And yet, the creek was a power to be reckoned with. On the surface, it’s quiet and peaceful and glides along the little pebbles, but it’s a great mover and shaker – one that carves the whole landscape and replenishes the roots underneath. For too long, I’d turned a journey into a destination, but with the compass and the map in my pocket, it all came flooding back – who I am and the things I need to cultivate and care for. The veins and crunch of every yellowed leaf, the birds soaring overhead, the call of the creek flowing into itself: who needs a compass to know where they’re going? Or, to quote Tolkien, “Not all who wander are lost.”

Driving back to Jackson on good old Highway 641, Tennessee was beautiful. The redbud is in bloom leaving a lavender touch on a green and gray landscape. The pine trees have kept their promise through the winter and are still green. The road lies and leaves the false impression that you’re surrounded by land as flat as Indiana, but in fact, if you pay attention you’re sure to notice rolling hills and even a cliff or two somewhere between the interstate and Camden. It was a drive I can say I thoroughly enjoyed.

The Farm: ‘do yourself a favor and pack your bags; buy a ticket and get on the train’ – tyorke

there, along the old oak grove
where the soy bean meets with the tree line,
the fractal limbs rise up and tear
against the old blue-black sea-sky,
naked and aching for spring
or anything green:
and freed of all their shame –
there, for a whole world to see,
but they’ll grow cold, all the same,
and funny that it is, that old oak copse,
when the rest of the world would throw on a coat,
she’ll shed every leaf to the bare-bone soul,
to expose Turkey Creek and the land there below.