Changing Trains, or a little life update of sorts

There’s this moment after leaving the Secaucus station where the train ducks into a tunnel, and the deeper into the dark it goes, the quicker the air pressure changes as if to suck the little sickle cell up the vein to the heart of Manhattan. From under the Hudson, all the passengers are adjusting their ears with those closed-mouth yawns where they move their jaws into their throats repeatedly to equalize the pressure. And all the while they are staring into the black windowpane as though just outside the train there’s more to see than the bleak concrete tunnel. In reality, the windows have become mirrors. And in the tunnel, the train feels smaller, a community traversing together even if momentarily. There’s the woman doing her make-up because she woke up a little too late. The twenty-something is wearing a pair of Beats and bouncing his head up and down as though the whole train has been sucked into his favorite Eminem song. A woman walks the aisles begging for loose change so she can get home. A balding, slim man with glasses reads the Times. Another man with slightly hipper glasses, the Daily News. Most today are buried in their phones. The Quiet Car, the “no-talking” section of the train, is surprisingly louder than the other cars, mostly because everyone is so quiet that every screech, every bump, and every “Oh my God is the train about to break apart!” cacophony has been deafeningly heightened. Everybody is waiting. That’s what this is more than anything else. The City is coming but it isn’t here yet, and we have all resigned to the hard fact that this just is what it is and isn’t about to be any faster. Commuters are surprisingly patient people. Most of the time.

Sometimes, I think, I get so good at waiting that I could just end up living there in the train. I used to think it was because I loved the unknown that I ended up in wait. But the unknown implies some kind of obsession over the destination, and maybe for better or worse I just really like the journey. Suffice to say, I’m no longer on Shelter Island. I guess I sort of unintentionally traded it for Manhattan. And so, the last month and a half has been train ride after train ride between the City and New Jersey. I worked briefly delivering food via phone app as I walked from Greenwich Village to Harlem and back again. The tips were terrible. The work was exhausting. But when you walk miles on end around New York City, it’s hard not to fall in love with all the steel and glass – the way it stands fixed and stately while the arteries and veins below and beneath are dangerously alive and well.

In all the walking I did, I found myself meandering about some pretty fascinating places. I attended a faith table in the halls of The Riverside Church where Dr. King and Paul Tillich and past Presidents once preached. So, too, I found myself laying down in the street of Federal Plaza to stage a “die-in” protesting deportations of undocumented immigrant children that ended in their death. I spat on the steps of Trump Tower. I slurped down my first oysters with an old friend from the archaeological dig in Israel. I grabbed drinks in a quaint little bar in the Upper West side making new friends as we discussed just how to tackle the problem of Islamophobia head on. There’s something about this city, its mecca of ideas and hope, that makes you feel as though this could be where it all begins, whatever ‘it‘ is exactly. Every part of me that believes in changing the world, however narcissistic it may be to believe I could get to have a hand in doing so when that task belongs to us all, nevertheless feels called to this island more than any other.

Of course, it hasn’t been without its eye-openers. I was in Penn Station recently doing what people in Penn Station do: waiting. And killing time there, a homeless man approached me and asked me to buy him food. I hesitated and wanted to ignore him but went into Duane Reade and bought him a sandwich anyway. Afterward, I was upset with myself for having done so. My mind wandered to concerns about the “system of dependence” and whether I’d contributed to that. I felt guilty for having helped someone. And then it sort of hit me: is our country so broken, am I so broken, that there’s inevitable cultural guilt now ingrained in helping someone in need? And it’s not really about whether I’d bought the bloke a sandwich so much as it’s about the authentic kindness I was so hesitant to offer. I’m not even sure there was anything kind in the way I bought him a sandwich. I just wanted to give him the food as quickly as possible so he could go his way and I could go mine – both of us returning to our different worlds of waiting. And looking back on it, I don’t even think my hesitance or lack of kindness was about concerns over “systems of dependence,” the way my brain had conjured up that lie to make me feel better so much as it was about this very strange human desire to not want to confront real pain and suffering – be it our own or someone else’s. Suffering is something we’re so afraid of, given we’re so determined not to be reminded of our own mortality or our own flesh, that we’ll add to the pain by ignoring it as long as we can lest we have to see and do anything about it. But it’s the very fact that we have absolutely no idea what to do about it, how to help, that we end up preferring to ignore than to act.

A few weeks before, uncertain of my future and reeling from all this unexpected change, my girlfriend Mattie and I went to see Avenue Q and then to a Moroccan restaurant afterward. When it was over, we headed back to Penn Station for what had been a fantastically-successful evening. But when we got to Penn, we discovered there were no trains out until 11:11, two hours off. We were both exhausted but figured, “Hey, the City is ours, so let’s just keep walking around.” But every corner we turned, the City was just covered in darkness. A man wailing for help as if the world was ending. An addict coming up and begging for money from Mattie as his hands shook. When we said we wouldn’t give him money, he started grabbing for Mattie. I stepped between them ready to do whatever was necessary. There was more: people who smelled so badly you couldn’t sit within twenty feet of them in the train station, drunk people vomiting, a woman touching herself, a man who could barely walk. It was as if our romantic, privileged night had had the veil pulled, and the suffering side of the world was out in full force. It was scary, all that suffering. And so we naturally turned to those questions about what the hell we could do. Admittedly there was something off-putting to our white privilege luxury of getting to ask these questions. I was job searching and technically “homeless” and still saw “them,” these sufferers, as a “them.” Again, was assuming we can do something not kind of narcissistic? Who the hell are we to think we could tackle any of the problems these people have?

So, too, Mattie and I are really different in how we approach solutions to problems. There’s that old metaphor you might know about the guy walking on a beach with his friend, and he sees thousands of starfishes. Every so often, he picks one up and throws it back to the ocean. His friend asks, “Why are you doing that? It’s not like it matters,” and the guy responds, “It mattered to that one.” Mattie is relational. She sees throwing one starfish back into the sea to be hugely important even if it’s small in the grand scheme of things. I’m, sadly, embarrassingly, not often interested in the starfish as individuals – not as much as I feel I should be. It’s not that I don’t want to help. It’s that I’d rather go find the scientists, find out why all the starfish washed up here to begin with, discover it’s, say, the cause of Big Oil or some form of pollution, and then I want to go and speak truth to power. I think there’s salvation in Mattie’s approach. We need to see each other as people and not as broken systems even if the systems desperately need change. But I struggle with that.

We talked more: we joked about creating an organization of lobbyists who lobby lobbyists but for good causes. Such organizations are out there, I guess, but I don’t really feel they’re collaborative or united enough. We pressed the metaphor more. Mattie works in a pet store and is well-aware of how broken the pet industry is; she’s literally raised caged birds from the egg. The system is broken, and though Mattie abhors the notion of caging these creatures meant to soar, she understands that as much as she’d like to free them, a broken system means more birds, and it’s unlikely they would survive in the big blue yonder. She can do what little she can, though, and that’s to make sure they have good homes, that their cages are clean and well-kept and enough for them for now. It isn’t really a solution to the systemic problem, but it’s necessary work. A homeless shelter, a food pantry, a welfare check, food stamps: they don’t fight the system. They may even inadvertently shore it up at times. But until someone really tackles the Powers that Be, really breaks them apart or exposes them for the injustice they bring to our world in a way that begins meaningful change from the top-down, Mattie is right in caring for the caged birds, in throwing back one starfish at a time, or at least drizzling a little water on it to keep it alive. I don’t mean in using these metaphors to in any way cheapen that I am talking about people, human lives in reality. But it’s a point worth acknowledging – that it takes a metaphor about animals (where the power dynamics between human-to-animal are obviously very different than they should be when we’re talking human-to-human) before we often empathize with our fellow humankind, that we recall that they are, indeed, an us. And it’s fear, ours and theirs alike, that’s rendered us a them to them and them a them to us.

Our fellow humankind. Our brothers and our sisters. That’s where I’d like to leave this little blog. Back in September, a Facebook argument with a former Wabash professor of mine went from a post on his wall to a private message to exchanging emails. I won’t rehash the argument entirely, but I will say that the late Dr. Webb and I were on two polar ends of the political spectrum, and yet, he was more than willing to engage with me not just civilly but kindly, something I deeply valued and haven’t always been able to do myself. We talked, mostly, about adoption and how adoption should be understood by Christians in particular. He, as an adoptive parent, and me, as an adoptee, and again, we mostly disagreed, but on one point in particular, Dr. Webb and I couldn’t agree more: For him, his adopted children were his children. To put the word “adopted” in front of that cheapened it. They are “my family,” he stated, “My kin. As much inside of me as my ‘biological’ children. That’s a miracle made possible by grace.” I felt the same way of the wonderful people I call Mom and Dad. Where we disagreed was in the nuance: Dr. Webb felt strongly that blood is what makes someone kin, and to adopt someone was to make them by grace your own flesh and blood. While I appreciated what he was trying to do with that, I felt too much of our country’s negative history, of racism and tribal mentalities, were tied to privileging blood over choice. To me, our own flesh and blood are not our kin unless we’ve chosen to make them so. In a sense, even if someone is “biologically” yours, only through adopting – that is, choosing to nurture them – do they become yours or you theirs. If adoption creates blood bonds, as Dr. Webb argued, the family remains too small for me. The beautiful act of choosing to love, to adopt, radically reshapes how large the family can and should be, and it removes those barriers that keeps us an us and them a them.

But those barriers aren’t broken unless we strive to know each other, too, to really know each other, and that means to know our suffering, to confront and help carry it for one another. A week before his untimely death, Dr. Webb posted a beautiful, albeit haunting, article on depression, and as I read it over, I couldn’t help but think that it’s those old fears and those same broken systems that have kept us disconnected from one another. Dr. Webb’s beautiful theological definition for depression is that it is “when your need for God is as great as your feeling of God’s absence.” He goes on to say, “If joy happens when your gifts fit the needs of the world around you, depression results when your emptiness echoes God’s silence.” This is true and God’s seeming silence, I believe, is felt most by the “silence” of those who surround us and by our own ways of silencing our true selves. But finding our voice and hearing others is hard work, and I can say I have, sadly, incredible understanding of when and why we fail to do so. I am thankful to have known this little giant of a teacher; his voice was heard. And will continue to be.

And so, the train keeps moving. We can put down our phones, our headphones, our newspapers, our staring into the bleak windowpanes and begin to talk again. We can begin to view those of us on the train car (and those off it) as an us and not a them. We can do the hard work of giving voice to ourselves and to others but only if we are willing not to give into our fears of the inevitable suffering that surrounds and too often destroys us. For now, I am gainfully employed in the City. I’ll be securing resources that will benefit on-the-ground workers from Syria to Gaza and from the horn of Africa to India. And every morning and every evening, I’ll hop on a train or a subway car, and as it sways back and forth in some rhythmic chant to the bloodstream of the City, I’ll try to do more than just waiting. Because the City isn’t what we’re waiting for. It’s not some distant place we’re trying to get to when the train pulls into the station. It’s right here, right now. It’s the train and the people on it. And it’s up to us whether they’ll be family or not.

Seasons of Transition, or Autumn on Shelter Island, or Rummaging through Other People’s Stuff to Know Where You Belong

AutumnShelter Island is brimming with the colors of autumn. The trees are surrendering their leaves eagerly, and gold and crimson paint the landscape against a still-green grass. Needless to say, I am mesmerized by it, caught up in an awe that leaves me wandering around the island – quite literally – as though I’ve been transported into a dream, a surreal landscape of colors made only in the movies. Now that the summer residents have vacated, the island emptier and quiet, there’s a kind of freedom to everything, and watching the leaves fall doesn’t tell, as autumn often does, of the impending winter with all the deadened silence it promises. Instead, there’s the sense that the leaves are just doing what it’s time for them to do and are glad that now is their time. Even the trees that are already bare don’t seem cold and sad to me the way they did in other climes. Here, it just feels so much more like a kind of invitation, as though they’ve shed their heavy fur to better stretch out and feel the breeze against their naked skin. And this process is happening all around me at once. It’s as if the breeze has whispered to them all, “Now, now! Become light!” And to be in the midst of it is thrilling and humbling.

I started drinking my mother’s Russian tea again and am eager to carve pumpkins and warm up some apple cider. The cooler air doesn’t yet freeze: it just invites other reasons to bring about more warmth in other ways. As I’ve taken to exploring more of the island, I’ve wanted to see every tree I could and feel and smell the sea-breeze anywhere it might blow. And it’s lead me down some interesting paths:

One such path, in fact, has been to venture to estate sales on the island, and this past weekend took me to a four-story house overlooking the Heights. From the top floor, you could see the little peninsula – Jennings Point – where I live and beyond it all the way to the edge of the North Shore where Long Island Sound stretches to Connecticut. Strangely, I was more taken with the views from the house and with the house itself than I was with what was in it, but everything was for sale. I guess that should be obvious given that it was an estate sale, but I’d never been to one, and it felt sudden and intense like the changing leaves. Just somehow sadder.

Asbury

Nothing had been moved. It all sat exactly where it had been when it was last used (some of which may have been a very long time), and the only difference was that a tag had been added claiming what it was believed to be worth in dollar amount and not in sentimental value. I wondered whether estate sales were ever happy events? Wasn’t the natural conclusion that someone had died? And so much of their stuff, the things they’d held dear perhaps, was now just a reason for someone to make money to be able to buy more stuff or pay off what was already owed. The words of the Teacher, that “everything under the sun is meaningless” (Ecc. 1:14) were on my tongue but were held within. Outside the leaves were still rushing to the ground to make a happy, final journey, and I hoped much of this story and the many stories the stuff therein lent to an equally happy end.

But as I wandered around peering into room after room, I realized that without those stories, the stuff felt flat to me. I kept thinking that if someone told me about the grandfather who carved the wooden giraffe in the corner, I’d just have to have it. Or if I overheard a conversation about the old trunk in the middle of the room, I’d long for it, too. A few months ago on my first yard-sale outing, I came across something that looked like a clock but one that counted high tide and low tide instead of time, and as I looked it over, a gentleman in his 70s smiled and said that he’d made it himself, carved the wood by hand. It wasn’t pride that he spoke; just the assurance and hope he conveyed that something handmade would have the right home. I smiled back and told him that my grandfather had done a lot of woodwork, too, and I bought the little clock on the spot. Stories extend the impermanent; the better the story, the longer the permanence of a thing will last.

All of that is to say, my mind lately is so heavily-focused on things that last amid major change, on the movement from old to new and seasons doing what they must. But how can you tell a leaf from a tree if they had the same roots? How can you know what of the past isn’t just a dusty tradition but is something that belongs?

I am not from New York, and this is something my southern drawl, faint though it is, reminds me and my coworkers of daily. And yet, I pride myself on the little accomplishments – on learning how to correctly pronounce “Lawn Guyland” and maintain that pronunciation each time I say it. For as much of a belonging as I feel I have gained here already, there’s still much acclimation I have ahead of me, acclimation borne in the task of determining what belongs and who I am to make that call. My job right now, in fact, is deeply tied to this question as I prepare a new season of camp, one that will impact some 700 people directly and countless others along the way.

Part of being so “new” to a place is to learn how to dissect, understand, and respect the cultural differences of that place and how you either fit into it – or don’t. And, along with that, what to do when the fit doesn’t happen as nicely as you might wish it did. As a Peace Corps volunteer, the first six to nine months of my life in Morocco were devoted almost entirely to this aim, the process of adjustment, and so it’s interesting that in a culture where I speak the same language, eat pretty much the same food, and share the same nationality, I can still find myself needing to “adjust” to a different kind of culture shock, the kind where, say, a four-story mansion leaves me feeling likes the leaves rushing to the ground outside but still wanting to know what my place is in waltzing about ooing and aahing at the beautiful view. Peering across the Peconic Sound at my home from a mansion in the Heights was eye-opening to say the least —

PharmacyI have come to feel strongly that in order to do my best job, to be my best self, I have to have a very clear understanding of the vision that’s been laid before me. It’s important to me how I worded that, too. Note that I didn’t say “my vision,” though I hope to shape the one that’s long been a part of this place. To have vision is more than merely peering selfishly into the future to foretell the best possible outcome or how to get there. It requires understanding the past in all its flaws and with all its greatest triumphs. And in looking backward and forward together it requires remembrance, something that is markedly different from simply “remembering,” which is a cerebral process, but remembrance is instead an action, if not even a kind of ritual that moves from the cerebral recalling of a narrative toward the acting it out. Vision takes the “stuff” cluttering our homes and hears the old stories, but, instead of leaving the stuff to gather dust, picks it all back up again and makes a space for new stories to stand alongside it. That is, vision is wholly utilitarian. And it requires community. A vision for yourself is dead. It’s not merely a fallen leaf. Those grow back or replenish the ground. Vision without community is dead at its roots. Vision with community knows how to decipher the leaves from the trees. It celebrates change not as an end but as part of the regrowth process. But not every leaf will understand that’s what’s happening as it falls or will grasp the beauty of the process, and that’s why change is sometimes so much harder than it should be; that’s why vision, which includes change, demands seeing the whole picture: not merely the leaf but the tree; not merely the tree but the ground and the roots below; not merely the roots of one tree but of the many they’re connected to; not merely the many root systems but the whole of the forest and its ecosystem.

Walking around the little downtown of Shelter Island Heights, I ended up in Dering Harbor just off Bridge Street on the 114 between the North and South ferries. A car pulled up and the window rolled down, “Can you tell me how to get to the ferry?” someone asked. I pointed them in the direction and assured them they were on the right road. Another car. Same question. And another. Somehow just walking down the street, I joked to myself, I must look like a native. I must seem like I know where I am and what I’m doing. I don’t. None of us really do. Even when we are natives to an area. But I’m gaining the ability slowly but surely to look back and know where the roads I’ve traveled lead. I’m looking forward and pointing out the best route I know for now. Isn’t that all any of us can ever really do? At least until the time comes that, we too, will happily fall from the tree to replenish the ground, and the whole season will celebrate what’s come before and what’s coming after.

The Transient Paths of All the Creatures of the Field

There’s a family of groundhogs that have been hanging around my house lately. They are joined, strangely enough, by the sudden return of deer who avoided the island like the plague when the summer crowds first arrived on Memorial Day. Some have been brave enough to get within a few feet or so. And driving down the road recently, I saw again a flock of turkeys. It’s as if a “no [insert animal here]” sign was removed much the way the stop signs on Shore Road will be removed soon after Labor Day.

There are, of course, the usuals who never left – the squirrels, the chipmunks, the ospreys, and the gulls – all around and about. But I’m intrigued most by the coming-and-going of the temporary little animals – both the furry, cuddly kind and us human beings, too. It’s almost jarring how quickly life can change, the mode of circumstances that drive us – quite literally – from one place to the next. That’s how quickly I found myself drawn from Morocco to cross the ocean to Tennessee to New York.

I remember when I was in high school and first studying early nomadic humans in Mr. Briley’s world history class and how strange it was to me that people picked up and left and didn’t know one place, really, as home. Our earliest ancestors did what the animals seem to do even now: follow the safest path that has the guarantee of food. But by the time I was reading the Odyssey a few years later, it seemed to me there was a drive greater than the search for safety or food alone that lead us away. Something tied together the unknown, some need to know it, and our need to be. Something nearly guaranteed this kind of transience for a life that’s already, fortunately or not, a fairly transient one. Was some evolutionary pattern instilled in us so that when we did choose to go, we were still just following the food sources subconsciously? That may be, but I think the search for bread and wine can be one deeply symbolic and beyond the physical elements. It’s no wonder that the eariest mythologies, the earliest gods and goddeses, were tied to the land, the river, the well-springs of life. But they were tied to them in a way that followed the well-spring to where it sprang most, and that was something that they found often shifted and changed as the waters moved.

The holiest places, then, were the places we human beings felt it was safe to stop, even if (or especially when) that was temporary. And we still do this. It’s why we camp, why we retreat, why we vacation, or even move. In a society so driven by consumerism, there’s more than money pushing us out of our complacency whether we listen to it or not. There’s a voice that whispers, “Go,” against all our fears of leaving our holy spots, our sanctuaries. There’s another voice that whispers, “Stay,” when we stumble upon our calling. It’s the very reason most great prophets, Jesus included, were peripatetics, sauntering such that their home was wherever their feet were at the given moment. How long are we allowed to stop? How long do we need to replenish ourseles? From where is the water fulfilling enough and can we distinguish it from the bitter waters we choose too often to drink instead? How long before the holy home of rest is grown to something mundane and no longer the haven to us it once was? Will we carry the courage to acknowledge when we must go or when we must stay? Will we connect ourselves to our inner self, to the “Ground of Being,” to others so that we can hear the voices with honesty when they nudge at us? Whether evolutionary patterns or not, we are called to be like the fish of the sea and the birds of the sky or even the little groundhogs scuttering away to the shadows underneath the cottage. But they seem to know better than us how long to be. I envy them and the early nomads for the ease with which the evolutionary patterns seem to be guiding to their most basic decisions. But I’m thankful too for the rest, for the pause, for the return of the little creatures and the role I play welcoming them here to my home, however temporary or long-loved they or I will be.

Endorsing Camp: a “talk” about Lakeshore and why you should support it!

I was asked recently to speak in a local Tennessee church about my experience of Lakeshore Camp & Retreat Center and thought I would publish (an edited version of) the talk here on the blog for it to be read:

Several years ago, as a high school senior, I would not have given a glowing endorsement of “church camp.” In fact, I stopped attending camp at the tender age of 11 because someone – presumably one of twelve boys in my cabin – stole my wallet. I mean, really, who steals an awesome neon-checkered wallet at church camp?! I’m still mad about it; after all, there is nothing that gets me (and most of us) more fired up than hypocrisy in the church. But if hypocrisy were a good enough reason for giving up altogether, the Christian movement probably should’ve ended before Jesus was even crucified. We stick with it because, despite the hypocrisy that’s inevitable to our brokenness, our hope in the presence of God eclipses all of that. Sometimes, it’s not even despite the hypocrisy but through it that love prevails. The question is whether we’re willing to work through it: be it our own hypocrisy or the hypocrisy of those we claim to love.

So, despite my inability to give a glowing recommendation for church camp as a high school senior, I nevertheless chose to start working at Lakeshore as a college freshman and continued there for four summers (despite wrecking the camp truck on the first day). And what I saw in those four summers was life-changing – for me as a young adult and for the thousands of campers who came through Lakeshore: I saw kids who came with no friends forge a family by the campfire and discover their strength of character in the woods. I saw youth from at-risk backgrounds hear the words “I love you” for the first time in a meaningful way. I heard their shock-and-awe when they woke up to the smells of home-cooked pancakes, the first home-cooked meal some of them had ever had. I saw leaps of faith from forty feet in the air on the camp ropes course and small, important steps of faith taken as youth explored and echoed an age-old story of redemption to find their place within it. I watched and joined as we canoed, hiked, creek-stomped, and hammocked through creation and were taught to care for what had been given to us. No cell phones. No glued to TV-screens or computers. And yet more connected to what mattered than we’d ever been.

And, of course, there’s plenty of stories of life-changing moments where someone knelt and prayed in the tabernacle or on the dock, where hearts were strangely warmed, but to be perfectly honest with you, while that’s important, soul-wrenching stuff, I think the power of camp has as much to do with the everyday stuff, as well. It’s kind of like this: if you achieved the incredible feat of completing (and understanding) a work by James Joyce or, say, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, you don’t pat yourself on the back for learning your ABCs in Kindergarten afterward. But by God if those ABCs weren’t really important, and camp is kind of like that for youth (or even adults retreating there): it’s the ABCs of Christian formation, of life formation, of learning how to “stick with it” in the face of hypocrisy, whether your own or somebody else’s. Of learning how to hope beyond despair and love beyond fear. I don’t know many places that care for all ages and love all people the way camp does.

So, all that said, I guess it’s interesting to me that while we have youth directors and pastors in churches, there’s no “coach” that is going to demand of your kid, “Sorry, you can’t be on this team if you don’t attend camp.” And that’s not to knock the importance of, say, cheerleading or basketball camp where that often does happen, because they are certain to build teamwork and character and healthy lifestyles. But a Christian camping and retreat center like Lakeshore does those things, too. And even more, it focuses on the one thing that we – no matter what age we are – have this strange tendency to neglect the most: our spirit. We live in a world where we are not always expected to take good care of ourselves, where we seldom have empathy or love for other people or are held accountable by them – especially those vastly different from us, and we certainly aren’t taught to draw near, to retreat, to listen for the voice of “something greater” moving in our lives. But that’s three things camp does do. And it does them really well. And while I don’t seriously think we need a church coach enforcing the expectation of attending church camp, as it would defeat the purpose of us making our own free choices, I do think it’s worth being reminded of where our priorities really are, of how centered we aim to be.

More than that, we live in a world where too many “Christians” have turned Christianity into a dirty word, where even church camp probably too often has a bad rap for being a little too much Bible-thumper, a little too much “Jesus-camp” and a little less like the love it claims to uphold. In a world where there are Christians too-often preaching bigotry, we need Christians who stand for something better to educate youth to think critically about their faith and to engage it in a loving context. If the “church” is to survive into the next century, it so desperately needs a generation of Christians raised on the kind of values that are loving to all people, to all of creation – as well as a generation of Christians who can hang on – still loving – in the face of those who don’t. I’ve seen Lakeshore Camp & Retreat Center raise those kinds of kids to be adults – something I’m proud to have been and keep being a part of. And I want to see that legacy continue.

So, if you’re a parent, I encourage you to send your kid to camp and let them see for themselves what this thing of grace is all about. If you have money, I encourage you to donate to the scholarship fund so campers of all walks of life can experience the same thing. If you’re in college or about to be, I encourage you to volunteer to work a summer or apply next year to be on staff. If you’re a young adult, I encourage you to spend a week or a weekend there, perhaps as a volunteer or maybe for an adult retreat. If you’re a pastor, I encourage you to take your church on a retreat to the camp. It is a place for all to “experience life, love, and the God of grace.” It needs you, church, and frankly, you really need it.

When Surface-Level Religion Meets a Psychology of Depth, or Why Camp (or Something Like It) Could Replace Church

Tomorrow morning, thousands of families will pack into their cars – some wearing their Sunday best, others in jeans and a t-shirt – and head once again to a church service like the one they went to last week. For some, there’ll be a choir decked in robes, lighting of the advent candle, a scripture, a message, a few hymns. For others, there’ll be a praise band, hands raised in the air, a worship leader, a projector-and-screen displaying stock images of a pretty waterfall behind the scripture message. A pastor will speak. Some of them will deliver a message that’s tough to hear, challenging perhaps, but quickly forgotten. Others will preach a message of nurturing love, of taking care of your own, a message patting the congregation on the back, and everybody will momentarily feel a tiny bit better about themselves as they walk out the door to go back into the “real world.”

In most cases, church as it works like this really does help people maintain their status quo. Had a bad week? The pastor might legitimately say something that speaks to you. There’s a good chance that a song you hear or a scripture that’s been read could bring you out of your funk or at least provide a different perspective you hadn’t considered. And this has been well-documented in the field of psychology. People who attend church, by-and-large, are healthier psychologically than those who live fully secular lives in the same culture. After all, “optimists are healthier” and religion and ritual promote reasons to lower stress, not to mention the power of a social support group that religion often provides.

But in maintaining the status quo, if that’s the unseen goal of “church,” there’s a lack of concern for any continual, real depth – that is, any confrontation that brings about self-awareness. A good movie can challenge you or bring you out of a funk, especially if you see the movie with a group of consistent, caring friends. But it won’t necessarily demand that you look within yourself to answer the question, “Who am I?” or “What about myself should I change?” And, similarly, modern American religion doesn’t either. It’s too often a system of staged complacency. After all, if church today functioned to bring people to true repentance and forgiveness (of themselves and others), to self-actualization, there would never have been a need for the field of psychology to develop in the first place.

But think about it: It seems more and more that modern psychology can and does succeed where religion has failed on an epic scale. The honesty required of, say, an AA meeting or of any form of therapy does what church never could quite get right – but only for those with the courage to admit they needed or wanted the help to begin with, only for those who were ready to ask the tough questions. Otherwise, therapy is just as useless an endeavor as religion. No one overcomes an addiction, as an example, without surrendering their will and truly wanting the help to overcome it, but those who do surrender and overcome their addiction are able to do so because they were able to confront the worst of themselves. They find the courage to confront their own suffering and self-destruction.

All of us, at the core of our depths, will find – if we go looking – similar suffering and attempts at self-destruction. We need not be addicts to know there are things about ourselves we do not want known, things we do not talk about, usually. But isn’t it kind of absurd that exploring those ugly depths is precisely, in the field of psychology, what brings people to healing, but it’s as if we are conditioned to fear that exploration instead. And church has not historically been a place that fosters or encourages us to delve into the worst of ourselves with any sense of honesty, largely because of our fear of shame and judgment. Instead, we just sing a song or read a paragraph from a Gospel and expect that to do it justice. Theologian Paul Tillich writes about this when he says,

We are always moving forward, although usually in a circle, which finally brings us back to the place from which we first moved. We are in constant motion and never stop to plunge into the depth. We talk and talk and never listen to the voices speaking to our depth and from our depth. We accept ourselves as we appear to ourselves, and do not care what we really are. Like hit-and-run drivers, we injure our souls by the speed with which we move on the surface; and then we rush away, leaving our bleeding souls alone. We miss, therefore, our depth and our true life. And it is only when the picture that we have of ourselves breaks down completely, only when we find ourselves acting against all the expectations we had derived from that picture, and only when an earthquake shakes and disrupts the surface of our self-knowledge, that we are willing to look into a deeper level of our being.”

Tillich calls this deeper level, depth itself, “the Ground of Being,” or God. And I’m moved to agree, but the glimpses I’ve gotten of that depth have not been easily, nor painlessly, uncovered. And perhaps more importantly, I can’t claim to have a solution for the way we miss this in religion, for the way the modern church is overcome with fear of this self-honesty. I don’t think it works exactly for pastors to become shrinks, or merely to send their parishioners to them (though I think the latter should happen more often). I don’t think that it’s helpful for us to simply and suddenly expect people to start being honest with themselves or with others, or to demand as much like an intervention. But the status quo will be what does religion off, if religion is to die… the way it appears to be slowly dying.

So what must change? If I had to guess, too often in the church, the reason people seem to fear plunging into that depth (and, Tillich would say, finding God there) is because they don’t know each other. In therapy, the relationship between the therapist and the patient is built on trust. In church, especially larger ones, small groups, Bible studies, Sunday schools, etc. help build that trust, but the nature of why people attend creates large gaps in it. When you see someone once a week, not always consistently, and you don’t know why they’re there, the likelihood that you’re going to feel comfortable opening up – and finding resolution for – your deepest, darkest issues is pretty nil. That’s not to say it never happens. I think summer camps and retreats work to build more authentic relationship. I’ve seen firsthand a group of kids who didn’t know each other at all on a Monday really love one another openly and honestly and learn to love themselves by Saturday. It’s simple, really. Put people under the same roof for any length of time and, after they’ve endured the trials of that experience, you’ll eventually create trust – that is, an authenticity that will allow people the safe space to delve deeper into who they are. In other words, if religion is to learn to do what psychology is already besting it at, it’s going to have to start to look a whole lot more like camp. I don’t mean in saying that to suggest that things will just get better, that people will delve into their inner core, if a church just starts building a fire outside and singing “Kumbaya” on a Sunday morning. But I do think that if religion is to survive well into the 21st century, church has to learn how to aspire to more authenticity, to create a culture where one of the first goals is to get people to know each other, to trust each other, and finally, to listen with that knowledge and trust. If we can’t do that, we’ll just keep packing into our cars, schlepping ourselves off to another mundane, if not staged, experience every Sunday, an experience that helps keep us going but without ever asking us to wonder who we are or to seek our real depth in the Ground of Being.

Following the Followers on a Trip Down Memory Lane, or My Week at Camp

Sometimes, I can be a really nostalgic person. I think the side of me that loves telling stories is that person. But I love remembering the past not to get stuck there but to help understand the present. Suffice to say, I spent a week last week helping out at a camp I had worked at nearly a dozen years ago doing the exact job I’d first held there, the P.U.F., or Program Utilities Facilitator. It’s essentially the camp gopher or could be described as the camp caretaker. It’s the behind-the-scenes backbone of camp jobs schlepping water and food where they need to go, anticipating problems and solving them before they ever became problems. And it’s just something I’m really good at doing. I’m the kind of person that if I could change the whole world without anybody knowing I was the one to change it, I’d jump at that chance.

To step back into that role was both a stroll down Memory Lane and a reminder of who I am and who I’ve always wanted to be. A friend described it comparing it to moving into a new house but not before driving by an old house you’d lived in long ago first. There was the sense that I’d crossed both figurative and literal oceans since having last been there. The swim was absolutely exhausting but those who’d only dipped their feet in the water couldn’t see how anybody could view the swim as anything but fun. I felt at times too old, incapable of describing how vast and dangerous and graceful the ocean really is to those who are yet to really encounter it. That’s not to make their experience thus far sound immature. They were to me incredible, loving people with so much to offer the camp. A few of them even carried a kind of wisdom of their own, perhaps crossing a few oceans a time or two themselves, even teaching and challenging me in powerfully positive ways, and yet, I felt a little like I’d changed in such a profound manner in ten years time so as to almost be silenced or quieted in their presence. Does a stroll down Memory Lane, even if it leaves you with plenty you want to say, not also leave you somehow humbled and voiceless if only for a moment?

In a way, I felt followed. I’m not entirely sure what I mean by that. That I was stepping into the role of a leader, perhaps? On some level, yes, because I chose to step up when that was needed, but I don’t think I mean “followed” in terms of being trusted or believed in. I think I mean something more along the lines of people chasing after me in a loving or caring way, to make sure I felt welcome, really welcome: followers leading, which are the best kind of followers. Whatever you want to call sacred, I think that kind of serving spirit really gets to the core of what we all need to be fulfilled. And in that sense, the week was packed with plenty of genuine conversation, real talks so to speak: in the seat of a little red truck, on a canoe sitting backwards and facing one another, in the beds of an infirmary, rocking back-and-forth on a pontoon boat, or along a dark trail in the middle of the woods.

Somewhere along that trail, I remembered the words I’d heard earlier in the week from the director of the camp who paraphrased someone else – “If you want to know where you’re going, look down at your feet to see what direction they’re moving in. If you don’t like where they’re leading you, turn around.” Sometimes, my feet just turn me in circles, but maybe sometimes we need to go back to where we’ve been to be reminded why we go where we go.

So, my feet have now taken me on to St. Louis, and I’m finally feeling ready to break out in a sprint forward.

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.