Sabbatical Journal: Time with Katy

Sabbatical Journal: Time with Family

Part of the plan for my sabbatical was to spend some quality time with my family. As many clergy families know, the clergy spouse and family are often left behind when the clergy person gets too busy. So part of my sabbatical was meant to visit my family and reconnect with Katy.

In the last week and a half of my sabbatical, I stayed home and spent time with Katy. We went camping at Dungeness State Park, went to a play at Bremerton Community Theater, dined out several times, listened to some good local musicians, accomplished some household tasks together (like cleaning out the tool shed), went to church together at Kitsap Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, and generally enjoyed our time together. Katy’s on a break between teaching terms at South Puget Sound Community College, so we both had some free time.

Having time together was good for us. It allowed us to just hang out together and enjoy each other, and it renewed our bond with each other. 

Sabbatical Journal: Visit to Christ Episcopal Church, Tacoma

i’ve heard good things about the music and liturgy at Christ Episcopal Church in Tacoma, so I decided to attend there for the last Sunday of my sabbatical.

I arrived about fifteen minutes early, but the choir was still practicing, so I waited in the narthex with some nicely dressed parishioners.

The building is unique. It’s composed of a towering cement shell that wraps around the worship space in a sweeping curve. In the rear of the nave is a set of towering organ pipes, with the organist and the choir beneath them. Christ Church is well known for its excellent music and rightly so.

The organist is an elegant retired musician with a fine command of the instrument. The liturgical space is so resonant with the curving cement walls that the organ and choir easily dominate the service. Although the congregation sang well, the swell of the choir’s voices behind us strongly reinforced the singing and filled the space.

There was a good deal of music in the service, some of it composed by the music staff of the parish. As a singer, I appreciated the music because it was well done and it added to the depth and meaning of the scripture texts. 

On the other hand, the visual experience is somewhat jarring. The raw cement walls of the nave are not easy to look at for an hour.

The altar party consisted of the tall woman priest (the celebrant), a male priest (the preacher), and four adult male assistants. They showed great dignity and reverence in their movements and added a great deal to the service.

In some resonant spaces, it’s hard to hear the spoken word clearly, but the sound system here was excellent, and those speaking could be clearly heard. The preacher, a retired professor of religion, spoke slowly and clearly so that his words were easily heard.

The sermon was crisp and well thought out, on a difficult Gospel text. Jesus says that his followers must hate their families and carry the cross if they are to be his disciples. The preacher carefully explained the context of Jesus’ words. He said that in Jesus’ time, your family was your only social support group and your means of survival. To follow Jesus meant to give up the security of your family. On the other hand, it was a means of liberation from suffocating family restrictions, but there was a risk, the risk of going into an unknown future.

He then told the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran Pastor who resisted Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930s and 40s. The preacher said that Bonhoeffer’s friends advised him to flee abroad but he made the decision to stay and resist. He was eventually jailed and executed.

The preacher described how Hitler promised to restore Germany’s greatness after the humiliation of WWI; his racial hatred of Jews; and his disregard of anyone who got in his way. The preacher never mentioned the current administration, but the parallels were clear.

He concluded by saying, “ What is Christ asking us to do, when racial hatred is increasing, the homeless are brushed aside, some people can barely make a living, the environment is in crisis, and some are suffering so a wall can be built on our southern border?”

The pews were about half full. I would guess there were 80-100 people present. Most of the congregation were elderly, but a few families came in when it was time for Communion.

The organist played a lively postlude at the end of the service. Everyone stayed to listen to it, and when I left, I was whistling the melody.

I went into the parish hall for coffee afterward. There was a nice buzz, and I spoke with a woman I happen to know. 

If I lived near this church, I would gladly become a member. The excellent music and the resonant atmosphere, the great care the altar party showed, and the dignity of the liturgy would do it for me.

Sabbatical Journal: Church Visit to Kitsap Unitarian Universalist Church

Today Katy and I attended Kitsap Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Bremerton. Katy wanted to try this church out because, as an anthropologist, she feels a kinship with Unitarian Universalists, so I agreed to accompany her.

The church building is nestled into the woods on Perry Avenue. It has a bright, airy feel to it with lots of windows facing the forest behind the pulpit. When we arrived, we were greeted with a warm hello and handed a bulletin. There was a cheerful hum of conversation as the pianist played a prelude. The piano was a newish Kawai piano with a bright, clean sound, and the pianist had a sensitive and accurate touch. For me, the music was the best part of our visit.

Today the regular minister was not present (she’s a part-time minister), so the service was led by lay ministers. There was no reading of scripture, and we sang a number of hymns with familiar tunes but altered lyrics (references to God were removed or softened). Unitarian Universalists have no creed and allow a great diversity of belief. In fact, atheists, agnostics, Jews and Buddhists are often members of UU churches.

But it was clear that they were lovely people, concerned about the world and the environment, liberal in their views and progressive in their politics. Although most were silver-haired, there were a number of young families with children. It seemed like a vibrant congregation.

The speaker today was a retired UU minister, speaking on the subject, “What does humanism mean today?” Humanism is the belief that our destiny is in our own hands, not in the hands of a supernatural power. However, our speaker admitted he was a “religious humanist,” and believes that we have experiences of the numinous, even though there is no personal Deity as he understands it. Needless to say, I disagree. For me, God is a person and my relationship to God is personal.

After the service we stayed for coffee in the foyer and several people introduced themselves to us and engaged us in conversation. One fellow invited us to their book study.

Although I missed the presence of God in the service, I did enjoy the music and the people were quite friendly and open. I’d be glad to be a part of their congregation, except that I need the Eucharist to feed my soul.

Sabbatical Journal: Six-day backpacking trip

From August 21-26 I spent six days backpacking in Olympic National Park. Every summer I try to explore a little more of the park, and this time my goal was to hike up the East Fork of the Quinault River, over Anderson Pass into the top of the Dosewallips River, then over LaCrosse Pass into the Duckabush River, and down the river to the trailhead, a distance of about 40 miles.

Although some people suggest that hiking alone is not a good idea, I like the solitude. When I backpack by myself, I don’t have anyone to care for except myself. My world is greatly simplified, and all I have to worry about is my next meal and my next camping spot. There are no phone calls, no texts, and no emails to answer. 

I’m very careful to keep myself safe. I prepare carefully, checking and double checking my gear lists before I go. I’m careful to stay on the trail system and I don’t take foolish risks. I’m an experienced backpacker, and I carry an emergency locator beacon that, when triggered, sends a distress signal to a satellite that alerts an emergency center with my exact location.

What I like about backpacking by myself is the utter simplicity of it. There’s nothing between me and nature, and so I feel in close contact with reality. I feel really alive. In this simplified world, it’s easy to feel God’s presence. God is all around. As Elizabeth Barret Browning put it in a poem,

Earth’s crammed with heaven
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes.

When I go to the mountains, I feel at peace with nature, at peace with God. It’s no surprise that so many Biblical encounters with God occur in the wilderness or the desert. Moses’ encounter with the burning bush (referenced in the above poem) is the classic example.

I wrote a detailed account of my trip in my hiking blog, “Val-di-ree,” which you can find here.

Sabbatical Journal: Family time in Hood River

Our family rented a vacation home in Hood River, Oregon, for five days, so that we could have family time together without the worry of our ordinary chores. It was a two-bedroom house near downtown Hood River, a charming old-fashioned house with a private back yard and a lovely wooden gazebo with a barbecue grill.

Katy, Guy, and I were there, and Chad and Brittany flew in from Washington, DC, so we were all together. We spent our time making meals, playing board games, visiting coffee shops, and hiking nearby trails. In addition, Katy’s sister, Margo, visited us for a day and joined us in board games and dinner.

One day we hiked a couple of miles of old Highway 30, near Mosier, OR. The old highway was abandoned in 1950, but has been restored as a walking and bicycling trail. I goes through two tunnels and has sweeping views of the Columbia River below.

Another day we all drove up to Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood and enjoyed the old-time craftsmanship of the lodge, with its huge beams and timbers and hand-crafted and carved furniture. We took a short hike above the lodge and found a place in the woods for a picnic lunch.

We explored the coffee shops of Hood River, ultimately choosing Doppio Coffee on Oak Street as our favorite. Hood River has a great selection of specialty shops, restaurants, bars, and coffee shops that make it a destination town for many visitors.  We had dinner one evening at Sixth Street Bistro, a favorite for us because of their vegetarian selections and outdoor dining. We also walked along the river front and watched the kite boarders and sail boarders who take advantage of the strong winds in this part of the Columbia Gorge.

It was great to simply be together and enjoy each other. Since we don’t see Chad and Brittany very often, this was our chance to re-connect and re-establish family ties. It was an important part of my sabbatical.

Sabbatical Journal: attending newlife church

On Sunday, August 18, I attended newlife church (no capital letters) in Silverdale. I attended this church because I wanted to see how our local megachurch does worship. Newlife is a very successful Assemblies of God church with six campuses in Kitsap County that have a combined Sunday attendance of over a thousand people.

I arrived about ten minutes early and found plenty of parking space with yellow-vested parking attendants on hand. The vast lobby was filled with people, especially people in their twenties and thirties. I walked into the auditorium and was handed several papers including an offering envelope, a sheet for sermon notes, and a flyer on newlife. The auditorium is completely black except for the stage which was brightly lit with colorful abstract murals in the back and large screens on each side.

The worship team came on, consisting of three guitarists, a keyboardist who was the lead singer, a woman drummer behind a plexiglass shield, and three young women with microphones on the front of the stage. The lyrics to the songs were projected on the screens for everyone to sing, and I did see people moving their lips and occasionally lifting their hands. The din from the band was so loud I couldn’t actually hear anyone sing. There was no discernible melody to the songs but since the notes were simple steps up and down, it was easy to stumble through the songs. Frankly, the music did nothing for me. The praise team was earnest and enthusiastic, but the lyrics were bland and predictable and the noise level was just too much for me. But I think others found the music meaningful.

After 17 minutes of this, a bright young pastor bounded onto the stage and enthusiastically welcomed everyone. There were announcements, and offering baskets were passed very efficiently (you can give online or by text). Then the lead pastor, Wes Davis, took the mic to introduce his friend, Jeffrey Portman, who is also a pastor of a multi-campus church. Portman spoke for 25 minutes on “Brokenness is God’s specialty.” He asked twice, “Can anyone be too broken for God?” He answered, “No, brokenness is God’s specialty.” It seems they have substituted the word “brokenness” for “sin”, which I admit is much more appealing. Most people don’t want to call themselves sinners, but they’re willing to admit to having “brokenness” in their life.

The speaker used a number of photos on the screens, including his family and his dogs, and he told several stories of personal conversions that he had facilitated. He ended by inviting people to pray a prayer accepting Jesus as the Lord of their life. Pretty standard evangelical sermon.

Another ten minutes of praise music was followed by a pep talk by Wes Davis, promoting his next sermon series on “Jesus Apprentice,” about becoming disciples of Jesus. When he was finished, he walked off the stage and the service was over (no blessing or benediction).

I think newlife has found a successful formula for attracting young people: soft rock music, a casual and welcoming atmosphere, an appealing evangelical message, and excellent speakers and musicians. Looking through their website, I see that they often teach about “how to become a healthy and mature person and family,” a kind of self-help message, and they have many small groups and events for people to join, as well as outreach activities to help people contribute to their community. They have quite a large staff to facilitate all these activities. They’ve created a subculture of evangelical Christianity that is appealing to many.

However, I missed the sense of the holy that I get when I attend a liturgical church. The liturgy of the Prayer Book welcomes us into the presence of God with solemnity, silence, and majestic language. That’s what works for me and for others like me. I also missed the sense of participation I get in a liturgical church. Watching people perform on a stage just makes me into a spectator. I guess I’d rather be a member of a congregation participating in the hymns, responses, and in the Eucharist. Without Holy Communion, I always feel something is missing.

Sabbatical Journal: Visit to St. Mark’s, Hood River

On Sunday, August 11, my two sons and I attended St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Hood River, Oregon. Our family has rented a vacation home in Hood River for the week.

We arrived just before 10:00 and were greeted warmly by an usher and given a bulletin. The building is a rather old traditional Episcopal Church, with wooden pews and beams overhead and choir pews in the chancel. It smelled like old, warm wood. The congregation was definitely older. We were the youngest people present in the congregation of 36. 

The celebrant was a tall, bearded priest in his seventies who was filling in for the rector who was on vacation. He had an energetic sparkle to his eyes and he explained that we were using a liturgy from the Iona Community in Scotland rather than the usual Book of Common Prayer. I found the liturgy interesting from a theological perspective but it didn’t make my heart sing like the normal BCP liturgy.

The sermon was based on Hebrews 12, in which the writer uses Abraham as an example of faith for the Christian community. The priest began by saying that he has taken up the study of calligraphy, and he showed us an example of the practice lettering he brings his teacher each week. Spiritual practice is like learning calligraphy, he said. It takes a lot of practice, practice, practice, and you never reach perfection.

The Peace was long and sustained and everyone greeted each other, including us. Afterward the priest asked guests to introduce themselves, and since it was obvious that we were the only guests, I stood and gave a brief introduction. Then the priest asked people forward for prayers, and everyone said the birthday prayer pasted in the back cover of the prayer book. A woman shared that she was celebrating the end of her cancer radiation treatments and everyone applauded.

Communion was administered at the altar rail, with some people standing and some kneeling. We returned to our seats by going through a separate hallway.

At the end of the service, every able-bodied person was asked to help carry bags of clothing from the parish hall into the church. This was to prepare for their big outreach event of the year in which they give away free clothing to children, just before school starts. In the next week, they’ll lay the clothing on the pews so that parents and children can pick them out. Because there is a big migrant population of fruit pickers in this area, the need is great. There were well over a hundred bags to move, so we were busy for quite a while.

We enjoyed helping with this project. Everyone involved was quite warm and cheerful and we were immediately included in the effort. Obviously this is an important annual event for them that they all believe in.

When we were done, we had coffee and refreshments and several people approached us for conversation. One was a woman in her seventies who tried to recruit me to join her co-housing cooperative in which single people and families share meals and decision making. Another was a fourth-generation orchardist who explained about the kinds of fruit in his orchards and when they ripen.

The congregation was warm and friendly, but I’d have to say they were dying because there were no young families present at all. Nearly everyone was over seventy, a huge contrast to the crowds of active, outdoor-oriented young people that come to Hood River for the windsurfing, paddle boarding, and hiking opportunities.

 If I lived in Hood River, I’d gladly become part of this congregation. They’re clearly  a warm and affirming group who are comfortable with each other, and I think I could find a church home with them.

Sabbatical Journal: Watercolor Workshop

I attended a watercolor workshop in Bend, Oregon, from August 5-9. Our teacher was the famous Australian watercolor painter, Herman Pekel.

Herman is passionate about watercolors: “I don’t know what I’d do if I couldn’t paint,” he said. He’s a bit eccentric and excitable. Sometimes he gropes for words, then says, “You know what I mean?”

Each day he would paint two watercolors, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. He would paint the first wash, then stop and allow us to copy him at our easels, then he would bring us back to his easel while he painted his second wash and finished the painting. He was very patient as a teacher and came around to each of us to offer advice and encouragement.

I learned a lot and came away with new tools and skills to help me improve my watercolors greatly. Here’s what I remember of his teaching.

  1. Find a place in the shade. 
  2. Ask yourself, “Why am I painting this?” Visualize the painting before you begin.
  3. Paint the first wash wet-into-wet to establish the background colors.
  4. Paint the second wash to create shapes in the mid-ground and foreground.
  5. Paint with dry brush technique to establish details.
  6. “Always find an excuse for a patch of white.”
  7. Always keep some “sparkle” on the paper.
  8. Use expressive brush strokes.
  9. Get the proportions right.

Each night the group went out to dinner at one of the great restaurants in downtown Bend. It was fun to relax with my fellow artists and enjoy joking around and good conversation.

To keep my costs down, I camped each night at Tumalo State Park on the banks of the Deschutes River, about 15 minutes from the hotel where the workshop was held.

Here are some of the paintings I made.

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Sabbatical Journal: Visit to St. John’s, Olympia, WA

On Sunday, August 4, I attended St. John’s Episcopal Church in Olympia, WA. I chose this church because it was conveniently located on the way to a workshop I was going to in Bend, OR.

I arrived about 15 minutes early. There was no usher yet so I picked up a bulletin from the table and sat down for prayer. The church has a very high ceiling which creates a reverberation effect that enhanced the organ prelude. The organ fills the chancel and dominates the front of the church. It sounds beautiful but definitely gives a “funeral parlor” effect.

The church was about half full when the service began. The altar party consisted of the priest, two Eucharistic ministers, and a crucifer, a seemingly small group for such a large space. The priest spoke very quickly and it was hard for me to catch all his words, despite a good sound system. The space is just too big for speech to come through clearly.

The Gospel lesson was the story of the rich man whose harvest was so big he decided to build bigger barns to contain all his wealth. The sermon began with a lament for the two mass shootings that had occurred in the last 36 hours. The priest said, “If our country could put a man on the moon fifty years ago, surely we can find a way to stop gun violence.” But he didn’t propose any political solutions. The priest then spoke at length about the Gospel lesson and money, but I couldn’t tell you what his main point was. Fifteen minutes in length.

The Nicene Creed, taken from Enriching Our Worship, had a couple of small changes a make it more palatable to the modern ear. The Peace was a congenial and relaxed affair. During the Eucharistic Prayer, the priest seemed quite alone and far away from the people, standing at a very wide altar. Communion was administered at two stations (no kneeling at an altar rail).

After the Postcommunion Prayer, the priest invited people up for birthday and anniversary prayers, but I needed to hit the road, so I sneaked out at that time.

I think I would have a hard time attending this church on a regular basis because everything seemed so distant. The acoustics created a barrier for me that was very difficult to overcome.

Sabbatical Journal: My spiritual home

One of the goals of my sabbatical was to visit the church in Alaska that raised me up to go to seminary. Last Friday I flew to Petersburg, Alaska, and yesterday I celebrated the Eucharist and preached at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Petersburg, my home church.

I attended St. Andrew’s with my family from 1984 to 1992, when we left for seminary. Coming back here after 27 years is like a pilgrimage to me, a return to holy ground.

In my sermon, I told how one Sunday years ago in that very place, after receiving Communion, I sensed the presence of Jesus next to me, as real as any other person in the room. He put his hand on my arm and said, “Come with me.”

It was the moment of conversion for me, when Jesus became real for me – not just a historical figure or a person in a book, but a real, living presence. It was emotional for me to be in the same place where I had that experience, and it was touching to pray the Eucharistic Prayer at the same altar where my predecessors prayed.

There were 10 people at the service – it’s a very small church. But most of them were people I knew from the time when Katy and I attended there. In my sermon I named many of the old-time members who have passed on, and everyone nodded knowingly. I felt a sense of connection to that church that was very gratifying.

Afterward, we had a light lunch around a table and aI felt as though aI’d never left. When we were cleaning up, a young woman stopped by the church to visit briefly. She’d been in the Sunday School class I taught 30 some years ago! It was wonderful to see her.

Visiting St. Andrew’s made me feel that I’d come full circle, returning to the place that had nurtured me as a newly reborn believer. I remembered the early times in our marriage, my years as a young father, raising our two boys in the church, and the tremendous spiritual growth I experienced there. My pilgrimage was well worth it.