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.


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.

Sabbatical Journal: Visit to St. Columba’s, Kent

I made this sketch of the Rev. Alissa Newton on the back of the bulletin while her associate preached the sermon.

One of the advantages of being on sabbatical is that I can visit other Episcopal churches on Sundays to see how they do things. By visiting other churches, I hope to get new ideas and perspectives.

On Sunday, July 21, I visited St. Columba’s Episcopal Church in Kent, WA. I chose this church to visit because I admire the Vicar, the Rev. Alissa Newton. She’s a bright young priest who came to St. Columba’s when it was nearly ready to close. Despite having a lovely building in a good location, they had shrunk to the point they were considering selling the building. Since Alissa has come, they’ve nearly doubled in Sunday attendance and become a vitalized and energetic congregation.

In addition, Alissa is the head of our Diocesan College of Congregational Development. In this role, she teaches about organizational development in the context of church congregations. When I attended the CCD several years ago, Alissa was on the staff and I remember how well she explained the concepts that are making our congregations more healthy and effective.

I arrived a few minutes before the 8:00 am Eucharist and Alissa immediately recognized me (she’d seen my Facebook posts about my sabbatical). An usher gave me a bulletin and I sat down to collect myself in silence. There were about nine people present. On this day, the celebrant and preacher was the associate Vicar at St. Columba’s, the Rev. Meghan Malarkey. Meghan was ordained only two years ago and has a young family. To open the service, she rang a bell to begin a period of silence. I like that. A second bell and the service began with the usual, “Blessed be God…”

The early service had no music and followed Rite II, using the Eucharistic Prayer from Enriching Our Worship. The sermon was about ten minutes long, using the Gospel passage about the visit of Jesus to Martha and Mary’s home. Meghan said that her initial reaction to the reading, as a mother and wife, is that “Jesus just doesn’t get it!” He doesn’t seem to understand how hard it is to keep a house clean and to serve and pick up after guests. Martha is working hard, and Jesus is a man who doesn’t value her contribution of labor.

In preparation for her sermon, she read a number of commentaries, but they were all by men who also didn’t get it. Then she read a commentary by Elizabeth Schussler-Fiorenze, who said that Martha was doing diakonia, or the ministry of service. So Martha’s role was not diminished but honored. The commentary also noted that there is no mention in the text about food or cooking. Meghan said she had simply assumed that Martha was cooking and serving food, but when she went back to the text, she found it silent about that. It was just her own bias that led her to make that assumption. Meghan noted that our implicit biases often lead us to overlook the contributions of those who are outside the dominant power structure.

The small congregation came forward to stand around the table for Communion, which gave a sense of community. I would say the service lasted about 50 minutes.

After the first service, Alissa gave me a tour of the building. I asked about the large carpet that took up the aisle between two of the quadrants, with soft toys near the back. She said it was for small children, so their parents could remain with them in the service. She also showed me the Godly Play rooms which were set up for kids of varying ages. Obviously this church makes a priority of welcoming young families.

I noticed there was an organ near the back wall with a quilt over it, and I asked about it. “We normally use the piano for our music because we don’t want to give that ‘funeral parlor’ feel to our church,” she said.

I was struck by something Alissa said, “When traditional Episcopalians visit our church, they often don’t return because we don’t meet their expectations of a somber atmosphere. And I’m okay with that. That’s not the demographic we’re seeking to attract.” That impressed me, because I realized that she has a vision of the kind of church community she’s creating, and she isn’t trying to please everybody. I wonder what I can learn from that.

I went away to get some coffee and returned for the second service. Alissa apologized because half their congregation was missing because their young families were participating in the Choir Camp at St. Mark’s Cathedral this weekend. I counted about 35 people present.

The second service followed the same order as the 8:00 am service, Rite II, except this service had music. The singing was puny. Something about the acoustics of the building make it so that you can’t hear the voices of the people around you, so you feel self-conscious about your own voice and you pull back. Too bad, because the music was accompanied by a lovely pianist and a trumpeter.

The Prayers of the People were unfamiliar to me, but I thought they were very good because they seemed to be more targeted than the usual broad-spectrum prayers. The Confession, taken from Enriching Our Worship, is stronger than our usual Confession. I stumbled over a couple of places in the Nicene Creed because they made some small changes, eliminating male language for the Holy Spirit, and omitting the Filioque clause.

Before Communion they announced that white grape juice was available in addition to red wine, and rice wafers were available for those who asked. There are no kneelers or Communion rails, so we stood for Communion.

The service was almost exactly an hour long. Afterward, we were invited to refreshments in the entryway, which worked nicely. I spoke with a man who had come for his second time, and a longtime member came up and introduced herself to us and told us about the church. Very welcoming. I waited until Meghan was free and introduced myself and complimented her sermon.

Overall, I would say that the atmosphere at the church was relaxed, friendly, and cheerful, while still keeping the dignity of the Eucharist. I’d like to go back someday when all the young families were there and see what that’s like.

Sabbatical Journal: Visiting family and friends

Camping near Baker City, Oregon.

My six-day retreat at Christ of the Desert Monastery in New Mexico was part of a 19-day trip I took through the American West. Driving 4,000 miles in my little Honda Fit, I crossed parts of seven states and visited my family and friends.

On the way to the monastery, I visited my friends Tom and Jean McCarthy in Farmington, New Mexico. I hadn’t seen them since 1979, and I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t written them since about 1990. Even though it’s been a long time since we’ve been together, they seemed exactly the same as I remember them. Tom and I were close friends with two other guys in high school, and seeing him was like going back in time.

After my retreat, I traveled to Colorado, where I visited my family. I saw my mother, my brother and sisters, and all my nephews and nieces except for my nephew, Noah, in Kiev, Ukraine. It was great to see my mom, who will be 100 years old in December, and my sister, Betty. Betty makes it possible for mom to live in her own home, although it’s getting more and more difficult.

In Boulder, Fort Collins, and Broomfield, I visited my brother Tom and his wife, Lora, and my older sister, Mary. I was able to have coffee with my nephew Ben, another coffee with my nephew Will, and I had dinner with my sister, Mary, and her son, David, and his girlfriend, Annie. My niece Annie Jo gave me a tour around the CSU campus in Fort Collins where I attended school 1972-74.

I stopped in Phippsburg, Colorado, near Steamboat Springs, and stayed overnight with my niece, Elena, and her husband, Dustin, before travelling on. It was great to see all my family. It makes me feel connected to them even though I live a long ways away.

I continued toward home, but on the way back I stopped off to see my friends Fred and Pogo West. Fred and Pogo were partners with me when I was a tree thinner in Southeast Alaska, 1981-1982. I hadn’t seen them since then, and it was wonderful to re-connect and catch up on their lives. Fred has liver cancer, and he’s undergoing radiation treatments.

I camped out each night while traveling, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I have a complete camping kit, including a roomy tent, a homemade kitchen set, and comfortable bedding. Several nights I was able to find an out-of-the-way place to camp with no fee, which makes the trip much more affordable. I love camping out in the great outdoors.

Having time to visit my family and friends has allowed me to reflect on my life’s journey. All these people are part of my life, and seeing them helps me put my life together and make sense of it. I’m grateful for my life’s journey and all the people I have been given to know and to love.

After 19 days away, I was certainly glad to come home to Katy and our cozy home. It’s true what they say, “There’s no place like home.”