Saturday, September 21, 2013

The things that people say

One conversation in the church hallway: 

Q:  Did you miss us?
A:  That's a yes-or-no question. Why not ask me what I missed the most?
Q:  OK, what did you miss the most?
A:  I missed all the stories. I am curious to ask people, "What happened with that diagnosis? Where is that troublesome kid of yours? How are you coping with the loneliness you felt in May? What has God been doing in your life?"

Another conversation, this time in the parking lot: 

Q:  Are you planning another sabbatical yet? It's only six years and nine months away.
A:  Actually I will try to have a brief sabbatical during every single day. Maybe ten minutes, perhaps an hour. It is God's gift to put some space into the middle of all our work.

A brief interchange, in my study:

Q:  You will not believe what I got into this summer.
A:  Try me. And then, if you're interested, I will tell you a story or two of my own.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Back At It

Rev. Old Duffer with groom and best man
Upon returning from the sabbatical, my first pastoral act was to preside over the wedding of T.C. and Julianne. They selected an organic farm in the northern woods of Pennsylvania as the site for exchanging their vows.

It was a perfect day. Just perfect. I am frequently cautious when a couple wants to write their own vows, get married in a field, ask all guests to take their folding chairs to the reception tent, grow their own flowers, and request the father of the bride to make all the wine. But I have to say, this is not an ordinary suburban couple.

A really good-looking couple
I have known the groom since he was a little kid, and have worked alongside his mother Nancy for twenty-three years. He used to come over to my house when he was a high school senior and listen to outrageous jazz when he should have been studying for a math test. His bride is an oncology nurse in Philadelphia, and she embodies healing in her voice, touch, and demeanor. They are a perfect match for one another. What a privilege to take part in their incredible day!

Re-entry has started. A handful of wedding guests were church members, approaching Jamie and I with hugs and hellos. We discovered that Dick and Marie bicycled through the Canadian Rockies shortly before our trip there; they lunched in the same Irish pub that we enjoyed in Canmore, Alberta.

I stopped by the church to chat with Roger, the recently retired minister who covered for my summer absence. He has a short list of some matters that he thought I needed to know. Our lively congregation stayed busy over the summer (that's an understatement!) and kept Roger on his toes. With a sweet grin, he asked innocently, "How in the world do you keep up with these people?"

I smiled.  Why do you think I took a sabbatical?  Both of us chuckled.

What love looks like
The first Sunday morning went well. Roger preached and I prayed. That was plenty. After shaking lots of hands, we both arrived late at coffee hour, where a cake with our names inscribed was waiting for us. The elders presented each of us with an enormous yellow chrysanthemum, and sent off Roger with a very appropriate gift. He did a great job, and I cannot thank him highly enough.

The week ahead is intentionally unscheduled, and numerous folks promise to stop by and say hello. I have missed the stories of their lives, and I am look forward to catching up.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Preparing the Elevator Speech

The Elevator Speech. It's the two-minute synopsis, the brief summary, the time-limited pitch. When the elevator door closes, you have a short time to say what you want to say before the door opens and your audience disperses.

So you have to say it quickly. Get right to the point. A lot of us know the experience.

Say, for instance, that the teenager goes to camp. The week is wonderful, just what she hoped for. She meets new friends, feels her spirit come alive. On Saturday morning, when the minivans roll in, her parents greet her with a hug and say, "How was camp?" They give her thirty seconds or so to sputter a response. Then Dad looks at his watch and declares, "Time to go."

The staff at the mission volunteer site warned some of us about this a few years ago. Our team was mucking out houses afflicted by massive storms and flooding. It was an exhausting and exhilarating trip. On the last night, the staff asked, "How will you tell your story when you return? Think it through, because people who didn't take this trip will give you a mere few minutes to say it before their eyes glaze over and their minds move on elsewhere."

So how in the world could I reduce a wonderful sabbatical of three months into an elevator speech?

My brother and I were talking the other day. He said, "We would like to come down and see the pictures from some of your sabbatical journeys." Great, I replied with a smile, because we have about nine hundred of them.

"Pick about twenty," he said. Spot-on advice.

So that is what I am mulling over: The Elevator Speech, as I return to my church work. Let me try out a few sample speeches in preparation.

Question: How was your sabbatical?
  • It was a tremendous three months of spiritual enrichment, with lots of time with loved ones and friends. Virtually all my sabbatical project goals were met and exceeded. I'm feeling well rested, and enthusiastic about getting back to work. And I am deeply grateful for the congregation for granting me this time and the Lilly Endowment for granting us the funds.
Question: How was your vacation?
  • Actually it was more of an extended Sabbath, rather than a typical vacation. Imagine climbing a mountain, praying for most of a week with a group of monks, shooting forty minutes of reflective film footage in the Canadian Rockies, and singing with Bobby McFerrin. It's not like any vacation that I've ever had.
Question: How was that spiritual thingy, whatever it's called, that you just finished?
  • It was a summer filled with a lot of peace, a lot of rest, a lot of enjoyment with my wife and kids, and simply full of music in various keys and rhythms. For the moment, I am feeling completely grounded. My feet are firmly planted. I have a refreshed perspective of the work that I have been put on the planet to do.  I also am aware of the things that I don't need to do.
Hmm... Which of these speeches should I use? Open mouth, whatever comes out, comes out. And it probably will not capture what a complete gift this time has been.

Monday, September 9, 2013

And I Love Her

Jamie at Bow River Falls, Banff
The greatest blessing of this whole blessed sabbatical is time with my beloved, Jamie Strong. We have thoroughly enjoyed eleven days in western Canada with minimal interruptions and little, if any, scheduling. It has been a tremendous opportunity for us to just be together. No agenda, lots of space for laughter and conversation. And the mountains are an unbelievable backdrop for this precious time.

We have our differences, of course. Like music. Our rental car has Sirius XM, and she gently found for me the Real Jazz station that features Charles Mingus and Freddie Hubbard. After about 400 miles of that, she discovered the 60's station and the 70's station. The family rule has always been "whoever drives will pick the channel." After hearing Karen Carpenter croon yesterday as we crossed the continental divide, I have secretly pulled out the CD of Oscar Peterson's Canadiana Suite which I will submit after I assume the car keys today.

Ten years ago, we married on a Sunday afternoon, pledging our love together and our commitment to raise the four kids that we share in common. The raising is drawing near to completion. With three out the door and the fourth now fully employed, we can proceed with our duet. Many of this past week's conversations have bubbled up into plans for renovating spare bedrooms, making repairs and changes around the house, taking new opportunities for socializing, and the plotting of future traveling adventures. We truly love it in the Big Mountains. And there's a lot of the world we would like to see together.

As we conclude this trip and move toward the end of the sabbatical, we have decided to stay in A Bear and Bison Country Inn in Canmore, just south of the Banff National Park. We spent six nights here on our honeymoon, and joked with the innkeeper that we haven't had an extraordinary breakfast since then. It's great to be back, even for a night, and highly recommend it to all travelers.

Right across the street was a site for one of the terrible floods this past June. A twelve-foot ditch was created by a roaring stream. It ripped out trees, sidewalks and pavement . . . yet you would hardly know it by the quick repairs. A massive reconstruction of the creek bed is just outside our window, a reminder of the awesome power of nature and the resiliency of human courage.

Jamie remarks on it, but I am thinking of something else. It takes great courage to give and receive love to one another, and to commit to love's growth in your shared life. She has shown such courage, and she invites it from me.

I love her very much, and I cannot imagine traveling anywhere important without her.

Friday, September 6, 2013

He is Always Right

Sheldon Sorge, Canadian Travel Guru
I realize an affirmation like that is giving a blank check to Sheldon Sorge for many things. But when it comes to selecting get-away sites in western Canada, he is Always Right.

Of course he is. Sheldon grew up out here. So did his wife Tammy. They know the territory. And Sheldon knows me.

He is the pastor to Pittsburgh Presbytery (AKA Grand Exalted Poobah, or Presbytery Executive). That is a thankless job. He deals daily with struggling churches, confused pastors, and theological water balloon fights. To keep sane, he has three extracurricular joys: a very wonderful wife, a love of playing jazz on the piano, and any overpriced beverage from the Isle of Islay. We have those joys in common.

We also love pastoral ministry, which is closer to how we met. Sheldon recruited me twice to serve as a mentor for new pastors, which I enjoyed thoroughly. It became the basis of a great friendship that we keep building. He gave me tips on where to take Jamie for our honeymoon in Calgary, recruited my band to play jazz for a national pastors conference, wrote a recommendation letter for my first sabbatical grant, lined me up to preach and present at a few church events, and invited me to share pizza and beer with Walter Brueggemann and Barbara Brown Taylor. In turn, I recruited him for the board at Stony Point Center... (uh, maybe I get the better end of the deal).

Anyway, a trip to Alberta and British Columbia requires Sheldon's expert advice. Want to know where the picturesque lake is located? The really cool restaurant? The best local brew? He knows and he is always right. That is how we landed at Fairmont Hot Springs Resort for the weekend. Sheldon and Tammy were just here two weeks ago. He has been talking about this joint for years.

Now I know why. The setting is stunning, the atmosphere is relaxing. At $99 per night, the price is certainly reasonable.

We drove through amazing scenery to get here. The Crowsnest Highway traces down from Nelson drawing near the US border. There are ominous warnings of avalanches and 8% grades. Add a pounding rainstorm, highway signs for possible caribou, and the absence of guardrails, and you have a good sense of today's four-hour drive.

A misty pause along the Crowsnest Highway

So we enjoy a bargain-priced resort that my dear friend wisely recommended. We haven't enjoyed much luxury this summer, opting mostly for modest accommodations. But tonight and tomorrow we splurge and relax. I picked up a good novel in a used book store in Nelson and Jamie is knitting her third major project on this trip. We are enjoying the opportunity to plot out our empty nest and discuss all the projects we want to do around the house. The time and space is a wonderful gift for us and we are grateful.

All praise to Sheldon tonight. We toast him from the mountains that he and Tammy enjoy whenever they can. We celebrate their friendship, their encouragement, their love, and their deep wisdom.

When it comes to travel in western Canada, Sheldon is always right.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Life is a Movie, Kind Of

OK, this is the truth: we came here because of a movie.

The 1987 feature "Roxanne" is Steve Martin's remake of "Cyrano de Bergerac." I have always loved that sweet film, probably Martin's best. When the credits rolled, I recall writing down "Nelson, British Columbia" on my popcorn-stained napkin and vowing if there was ever an opportunity to go, I'd like to visit.

So here we are. Our B&B is three blocks downhill from the fire station where C.D. Bales, Martin's big-nosed character, was the long-suffering chief of an incompetent fire company. Here is one of my favorite speeches that he made in the movie:

I have a dream. It's not a big dream, it's just a little dream. My dream - and I hope you don't find this too crazy - is that I would like the people of this community to feel that if, God forbid, there were a fire, calling the fire department would actually be a wise thing to do. You can't have people, if their houses are burning down, saying, "Whatever you do, don't call the fire department!" That would be bad.
The Nelson Fire House
It is twenty-six years after that movie's release. We can presume the real-life guys in the fire company have worked out the kinks in their hoses. A couple of fire alarms went off today, and the engines handled the calls proficiently. Nelson seems to be a well-functioning small town. The community is set within postcard-beauty surroundings and professes to be about four hours from anywhere.

Lively Baker Street
The main drag is Baker Street, nearly a half-mile of bistros, bookstores, boutiques, and small shops. There are no Big Macs available among the 75+ eateries in town. The streets are full of children and families. There is a busy community library down the block.

And there are a lot of characters here, too. Located about forty miles north of the northeastern corner of Washington State, Nelson was once the destination of many Viet Nam draft-dodgers and numerous other folks pursuing alternative lifestyles. These days there are a lot of mountain bikers, skiers, and connoisseurs of organic free-range foods.

We are struck by how this community is thriving. Art galleries everywhere, a street violinist on the corner, coffee shops full of customers in mid-afternoon. What is the secret?

One snarky National Post article from earlier in the year called Nelson the marijuana capital of Canada, noting that pot may be the largest cash crop in British Columbia, and Nelson never experienced an economic downturn. Perhaps; but there is something else in the mountain air that keeps the positive energy flowing. The community creativity is palpable. People are friendly, helpful, and outgoing. Folks on the street visibly enjoy one another and welcome outsiders like us.

the coffee shop around the corner
So I reflect on the small town where we live, some three time zones away. How can a community flourish? What are the long-term habits that build friendliness, joy, and well-being? Certainly the people who live in Nelson have made the commitment to do so; you cannot whisk through a town that is four hours from anywhere. In our suburban hometown, there are many people who seem to pass through without putting down roots or contributing to the community's life. I wish we could find ways to change that.

It also strikes me, just on observation, that Nelson has created community organizations where people bump into each other and work together. We walked through a grocery co-op, for instance, and then saw the handiwork of a poetry team, leaving free verse on newsprint attached to local buildings. There are many folks on the streets who stop and chat with one another. They genuinely seem interested in working for the public good.

I like that. And I believe Nelson is something more than a mere movie set.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Wild Ride to Revelstoke

After a quick trip to Lake Louise, we drove over the Continental Divide into British Columbia. It was a beautiful, dazzling ride to the town of Golden, with a ten-mile hill at the end.

And then the real fun started, as we climbed again on the way to Revelstoke, the town that gets the most snow in British Columbia (between 470 and 700 inches per year). The road was spellbinding. I was particularly glad that Jamie drove, so I could keep snapping photos through the windshield as we went around every bend. Glaciers, avalanches, high mountains with steep walls: it was exciting and we felt completely alive.

Take a look at the slideshow below . . . just click the button and watch the fun!

(Oh, and you will need Adobe Flash to see the pictures. Sorry if you don't!)

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The Necessary Picture from the Canadian Rockies

The View from Lake Louise

Monday, September 2, 2013

For the Beauty of the Earth . . .

Beauty touches beauty at Moraine Lake
Jamie and I are residing in beauty, totally surrounded by enormous mountains, stunning lakes, and the straightest pines we have ever seen. The Canadian Rockies are one of God's most extravagant designs.

As we toodle around Banff National Park, it is easy to pause, take in the view, and snap a few pictures which will never capture the grandeur and scope of the landscape. But we do this to touch the scenery and to later remember where we were.

On Sunday afternoon, we walk past the Roman Catholic church in Canmore. The priest has chained the parking lot to keep out the tourists. "Mass has concluded, stay out of here" is the unfortunate message. Apart from the obvious breach of hospitality, this belies the unfortunate split between the God who is revealed in scripture and the same God who leaves fingerprints all over the beautiful world.

My favorite "unreal" body of water: Peyto Lake

In territory that looks like this, I can understand why people are outside, enjoying nature. The splendor is compelling. I lament how some of my fellow clergy lack the imagination to find and describe the intersection between heaven and earth. Like a lot of others, they tend to choose one over the other, forgetting that Christ is the One who holds all things together.

Is this Bow Lake - or merely a copy?

Christian people need to be around beauty, especially like this. It lifts them out of temporal distress. It corrects their arrogance by reminding them of how small and limited we are. It prompts them to envision a great God whose power and abundance surpasses everything we see and know. This is grace in granite.

Along the Icefields Parkway
For the life of me, I cannot imagine anyone looking at these mountains and claiming they were an accident. God has been here. The Spirit blows in the bracing wind.

I guess that is why I am here. Not as a tourist but as a pilgrim. As we travel up the Icefields Parkway, surrounded by 10,000 foot-high blocks of granite, I imagine the Creator's good pleasure in conjuring all of this out of the soil.

Rundle Mountain, overlooking Banff Township

I also imagine God's delight when the children made in the divine image see the holy handiwork and exclaim, "Wow! Thanks for giving us a world that looks like this."

Takakkaw Falls, at full power

Sunday, September 1, 2013

A Tzimtzum Moment

According to Jewish mystical tradition, when God stepped back after making the world. The Holy One, blessed be He, clapped his hands in laughter and said, "Tov! It is good. Very good!" Then God stepped back.

This blessed withdrawal is called tzimtzum. It is just the thing we should expect of a Sabbath-keeping God.

This stepping-back is the mark of good parenting, divine and human. God does not hover nor manipulate, choosing instead to make room for children to do their own work. The Spirit can come and help. But for a creation to flourish, the Maker must give it some room.

The elegant Mr. Hamme
Today I understand this, in a much smaller way. This is the date of the 22nd annual Jazz Communion at First Presbyterian Church of Clarks Summit. I am not there. The jazz service was my baby, my creation, but I have stepped back in sabbatical. The original plan was to return today, but family plans pushed everything back by two weeks. So we asked Al Hamme to step in as the musical director, with my old pal Tim Schumacher as the guest guitarist.

A quick afternoon Skype call to Al confirms what I already know: all went well. Tony Marino dug into the deep notes, Tom Whaley got up in time to get the rhythm dancing, Al swung his tail off, and Tim did just fine. Al reminded me that everybody is replaceable. True enough.

It is freeing to back away from something you started. Let it rise and fall on its own merits. If it is to live and flourish, let is do so in freedom. Truth be told, I was sleeping in on Sunday, just about the time the jazz service started two time zones away. And everything went just fine. Heaven's providence is greater than human control.

Tov! It is good. Very good.