Bicycling into the Story of Your Life

July 29, 2010

During the generation following the Revolutionary War, some 300,000 people left their settled homes in Virginia and other states on the eastern seaboard and traveled the Wilderness Road, which Daniel Boone had cut through the Cumberland Gap, into the heartland of Kentucky. Many of them walked, trudging through dust and mud, with cattle and horses in tow. Some rode their horses and many of them rode part of the time in the wagons on which their meager possessions were precariously balanced.

Abraham Lincoln’s family made this journey a few years before the future president’s birth; when he was seven years old they crossed the Ohio River, settling in southern Indiana. Thirty years later, my Watkins ancestors made a similar journey, settling in the Indiana hill country north of Lincoln’s boyhood home.

Wanting to understand why people were willing to make that dangerous expedition into the wilderness, I traced their route, as best I could, in the early summer of 2004. My mode of transportation—a bright orange Co-Motion bicycle—was more advanced than the animal power they used. The roads were better and the lodging and eating facilities much improved.

Like them, however, I was exposed to the elements and dependent upon my own muscle power throughout my travels. Despite good roads and modern maps, I often was unsure about how to find my way, especially in the twisting roadways of Greene County, Indiana, the place where many of my ancestors—the “rude Forefathers [and Foremothers] of the hamlet,” to quote Thomas Gray—are sleeping, “Each in his narrow cell for ever laid.”

According to my custom, I prepared for my travels with extensive reading, including Ida Tarbell’s In the Footsteps of Lincoln, Robert Kincaid’s The Wilderness Road, and John Mack Faragher’s Daniel Boone: The Life and Legend of an American Pioneer. Later, I wrote an interpretive essay, describing the trip and my thoughts about the ancestors and how they shaped the person I have become. I call this narrative “Bicycling Through Time on the Wilderness Road.”

I hope that you will check it out and read the first few pages. Maybe you’ll come to a new understanding of how our ancestors settled the American heartland and, as was the case for me, reflect upon how you fit among the generations past and still to come. I’d love to hear about ways that you have bicycled into the story of your life.


Alternative Worship: Where Do We Start?

July 26, 2010

The first consideration in designing alternative worship for progressive churches is to choose the liturgical rite that will be the focus of attention. Will it be the Word/Table pattern that has been the theological norm since apostolic times? Or will it be the Music/Message pattern that has been common practice in many churches since Reformation times? My discussion will be based on the Word/Table pattern—the eucharist—for the following reasons.

First, during the church’s formative years, Christians drew upon the synagogue with its focus on Torah and prayers, and meal-centered practices, including Jesus’ fellowship meals with his closest friends and followers, to create their distinctive Christian rite. In the generations that followed, liturgical practice stabilized in several regional variants and became the normative pattern for Christian worship. The challenge for Christians in progressive churches is to inculturate classic worship into their theological culture.

Second, as I learned from Margaret Mead, the most basic human actions—actions like bathing and eating—are especially useful as the basis for human ritualization. Because the actions are so basic, we do them without having to think much about the detail. Therefore, they can become the carrier of meanings distinct from their function in ordinary life. It is easy to understand why the ritual bath of regeneration (baptism) and the “bread of heaven” (eucharist) are the basic sacramental forms of the church’s life. Meal ceremonies generate are used to remember the past (anniversaries and birthdays), anticipate the future (weddings), celebrate important events, delimit and manifest family and associational connections. It is no surprise that some of the most complex theological and sociological discussions in the Pauline epistles are stimulated by meal imagery in 1 Corinthians (especially chapter 11). Similar challenges face progressive Christians today.

Third, central affirmations of the Christian faith are intertwined in the prayers and actions of the Word/Table pattern. Furthermore, the elaborated theological systems of the several ecclesial traditions come into focus in eucharistic worship. Part of our responsibility as progressive Christians is to affirm, in appropriate ways, the central claims of the Christian faith, including teachings about God, the nature and work of Jesus, the world, humankind, sin, salvation, and atonement.

What these three points imply is that developing an alternative way of worship for progressive churches is a specific form of the task that faces every generation, which is to inculturate Christian worship. The work has to progress at several levels: theological (how we define and explain our faith), artistic (how we embody faith and theology in rites, ceremonies, song, dance, and drama), practical (how we form and maintain communities) and missiological (how we live our faith in the world “groaning in travail waiting for its redemption).

I have addressed the challenge of inculturation in a paper entitled “Each of Us in Our Own Native Language” (2006). The subtitle indicates my focus in that paper: “Connecting Classic Worship and Popular Culture.” Although I address challenges facing progressive churches in only tangential manner, this paper provides a fuller exposition of what it means to express the eternal and living Word of God in melodies, rhythms, and languages that touch the hears and satisfy the minds of people whose cultures are rooted in contrasting and often conflicting ethnic, generational, and intellectual communities.

Note: My thanks to Bob Cornwall who has recently posted excerpts from some of my published work. Although most of my books are no longer in print, most of them can still be purchased from secondary sources listed on the internet.


Going Not Quite as Fast on the Tour de France

July 22, 2010

It seems so effortless! Fifty or sixty cyclists strong, the peloton sweeps along on a smooth, level country road in France. Although the cadence that the riders maintain is rapid (over a hundred revolutions per minute), it seems easy enough until Phil Leggett announces how fast they are going: 35 miles per hour. Wow!

To put this speed in perspective, on my solo ride today, I cruised over a paved trail along the Columbia River at 19 mph. In a peloton my own strength (or a little stronger), I could probably have pushed it up to 25,  fast for me but significantly slower than riders on Le Tour. Over the entire route,  I read somewhere–21 days of time and 2,200 miles in distance–they average 26 mph. On 10% grades, they can stay on top of their gears, continue a high cadence, and maintain a speed as high as 15 mph.

The best I can do on grades like that, is grunt and sweat my way up at one third their speed, probably stopping to catch my breath a time or two. Sooner or later, I would reach the top, since I have yet to find a hill so steep that I couldn’t walk my bike clear over the top.

When we get to heaven, a theologian long ago (Augustine, I think) declared, we’ll all be 26 years old because that is the age when human beings reach their finest level of physical perfection. Too bad, Lance, already you’re 38, well past that golden moment. No wonder that Alberto Contador at 27,  and Andy Shleck at 25 can beat you any time they feel like it. Only a few years ago, you too could have sprinted past the old guy that you’ve become.

Imagine what it will be like in 40 years when you are as old as I am. Some mornings, I’m a little surprised that I can even swing my leg over the bike to start a ride. But so far, I’ve managed to keep going. I ride as hard as ever but have less to show for it. You know what I mean. Fortunately, our bodies help us settle in for the long ride of life. On the day when your effort to ride out in front of the breakaway faltered, Phil announced that because of your mature years you couldn’t sprint out in blinding speed but you could keep pushing at a steady pace and gradually pull yourself back with the group.  Speed may lessen, but endurance holds its own. We place back a little from the front, but we’re still in the race and that counts for something; actually, as the years go by that counts for everything.

Well, almost everything.

Note: The image at the top [by keithwatkinshistorian] is one of  the murals that adorn a concrete wall along the Monon Greenway in Indianapolis.


Progressive Churches and the “Something Other” Liturgy

July 19, 2010

Across a wide theological and cultural range, serious Christians are trying to establish what Lutheran theologian Thomas Schattauer has dubbed the “something other service.” In his vice presidential address to the North American Academy of Liturgy, he declared that at its core this impulse is directed “toward imagining and constructing an alternative to conventional ways of worship and conventional ways of being Christian” (italics added). “Conventional worship—and with it, conventional Christianity—focuses in one direction on the maintenance of the church as an institution and in the other on the individual as the recipient of spiritual benefits; it tends to support the social and political status quo.”

Most of the address is devoted to Schattauer’s analysis of five “perspectives on how to shape this alternative practice” in congregations in the North American context: “the liturgical movement, the contemporary worship movement, liberation perspectives, postmodern approaches, and pentecostalism.”

At the conclusion of his essay, he distills five generalizations, one from each of these impulses, proposing that there is considerable crossover of these perspectives. Schattauer encourages his colleagues in the Academy to engage in constructive conversation using these perspectives as the basis for their work.

This same purpose motivates me to develop this series of columns on an alternative way of worship for progressive churches. Whatever our leadership role—scholar, pastor, musician, missiologist, artist, administrator—we can work together to move past conventionality toward a God-centered, mission oriented, culturally relevant pattern of church life and worship.

Here is Schattauer’s list:

  • Recovery of historic practice toward a distinctive community witnessing to God’s purpose in the world
  • Use of cultural materials toward a wider embrace of people (be it the unchurched or particular ethnic groups)
  • Attention to the experience of the marginalized toward justice and inclusion of God’s reign
  • Focus on relational community toward social belonging and wholeness
  • Openness to the movement of God’s Spirit toward personal healing, holiness, and hope

My perspectives have been deeply influenced by the first of Schattauer’s impulses: the liturgical movement. Schattauer says that its central interest is “to give the church clearer definition as a community of Christ through the focus on central practices which constitute persons in relation to Christ and to one another, most especially the reading and proclamation of Scripture, baptism, and Eucharist. Moreover, the purpose of this community in Christ constituted in its liturgical assembly is to be understood in relation to God’s purpose in the world.”

As useful as it is, Schattauer’s list gives insufficient attention to another impulse that I encounter with increasing urgency in theological literature and in conversations with church people week after week: the need to restate central Christian doctrines in ways that can be affirmed by people who have dismissed older ways of stating Christian beliefs and who are searching for believable ways of describing their faith. My early theological studies focused upon the continental liberal tradition and for a generation my closest theological colleagues were advocates of process theology. While I have only limited competence as theologian, the mood, perspective, and themes of contemporary liberal theology are important to the way I think about my life as a Christian.

My plan for this series is to propose that the classic union of Word and Table, understood in its simplest and most direct form, is the place to begin our construction of worship that is “something other.” I then will discuss each of its components, in their order as they appear in the classic shape of the service. Along the way, I will take time out to comment on specific challenges—atonement theologies in the eucharist, for example—that are especially challenging to the progressive Christians whom I meet week after week, in churches on Sundays and lots of other places on the other days.

Questions, comments, proposals, illustrations, and testimonies are much appreciated. They will help to move the discussion forward.

Note: A pre-publication draft of the paper by Thomas H. Schattauer can be accessed at the site below (link provided with the author’s permission): http://www.lutheranworld.org/What_We_Do/DTS/DTS-Documents/EN/TLC_Augsburg/Papers/Schattauer.pdf


Just this once–a roadie on the C & O

July 15, 2010

So, what’s it like actually riding the C & O, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Towpath? For a committed roadie like me, who craves smooth roads and doesn’t worry much about cars, it’s a once in a lifetime experience, by which I mean that it’s worth doing once. A few annotated photos provide glimpses of what it’s like.

The photo above shows me and my bike at White’s Ferry where I went onto the path. The bike is designed for self-contained touring—long wheelbase, sturdy wheels with randonneur tires, and fenders. Most people rode heavier bikes with knobby tires and no fenders (and on rainy days the mud was flying!). All of my clothes and supplies for two weeks on the road and nights in motels are in the handlebar bag and saddle bag, about twenty pounds of gear.

Here’s what the trail looks like. The canal, overgrown with trees, is on the right. Dropping off twenty or thirty feet on the left is the bank down to the Potomac River, which often can be glimpsed through breaks in the trees. The dirt trail has many mud holes and when it rains, the surface becomes a muddy slurry that flies everywhere.

From Washington to Cumberland, MD, is 185 miles, and many people camp. In addition to these green boxes, the campsites provide hand-operated pumps, tables, and grassy areas that looked swampy to me. I like hot showers and beds.

Ruins of the canal’s mechanical features dot the course. This photo shows one of the locks and the lock keeper’s home.

In order for the canal to cross streams flowing into the Potomac, aqueducts like the one below were built. Even though these structures are in precarious condition, the stonework is beautiful and they are strong enough for cyclists.

In order to provide a steady supply of water for the canal, it was necessary to build diversion dams on the Potomac. Here’s one of them.

Although I was riding alone, I found myself in good company on the C & O. Many people ride only short distances, often using mountain bikes rented at trailheads. Others, like me, were riding alone or with a friend or family member.

And there were groups like “Friends of Ron,” eleven people from central Indiana, Michigan, and Pittsburgh who have become acquainted in other cycling trips and now coordinate their plans to cycle together a couple of times a year. Because FOR and I were traveling the same distance and stopping in the same towns, I found myself riding and enjoying time off with them.

Every now and then, it’s possible to leave the trail and visit small towns near by. I especially enjoyed Shepherdstown, West Virginia. Inside the Lost Dog, I discovered one of the most intense coffee shops that I have seen anywhere, complete with people using their MacBooks and a big sign: “Friends don’t let friends go to Starbucks.”

The guidebooks say that 60 miles a day is a good rule of thumb. No matter how strong a rider may be, the trail itself and the spacing of towns govern how far a person can go. 60 miles a day, on a practically flat dirt trail, was fine with me—just this once.


An Alternative Way of Worship for Progressive Churches

July 12, 2010

“What you should do, Keith, is develop an alternative liturgy for people like us.” My friend made this proposal as we were driving to his home following the celebration of Holy Communion at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California. In earlier conversations, we had talked about our frequent disappointment with Sunday morning worship in churches of our own communion. He presumed that my long career as professor of worship, and my continuing interest in progressive Protestant church life, qualifies me to develop suggestions.

During the next few weeks, I intend to offer my reflections upon these matters. My goal is to outline characteristics of the church’s definitive liturgy of Word and Sacrament that meet three criteria: shaped by the historic tradition, expressed in the culture of our own time, and performed in a manner suitable to the occasion. In this first column of the series, I give a preview by noting characteristics of worship at All Saints Church, which I believe are consistent with these criteria.

First, the celebration conveys the sense that what is going on is important—important enough for the leaders to be well prepared and skilled in the performance of their respective parts of the liturgy. The liturgy is always well staged so that the visual and dramatic character of the event reinforces the meaning of the words and actions. The principal leader was at the top of his form. Although he and other leaders expressed a sense of personal presence, there was nothing trivial or inept about their words or actions.

Second, it was clearly an occasion of public worship rather than religious lecture, concert, seminar, support group, or political rally. By using the word worship, I mean that the primary orientation of the event was toward God who was addressed in the prayers, especially the prayers over the bread and wine during the communion. The scripture reading and sermon were presented in such a way that they prepared the congregants for their parts in the words and actions of praise. By public, I mean that participation was open to everyone. Except for the informal words and parish notes midway through the service, nothing was said or done in ways that implied congregants had to be insiders in order to understand and participate.

Third, the liturgy was fully consistent with the long-standing pattern of worship that began early in Christian history and, with important revisions, has continued in most churches ever since. At the same time, the liturgy at All Saints was revised in ways that allow it to be more appropriate for congregants at this progressive church. Contrary to the Prayer Book pattern, only one Scripture lesson was read rather than three. The ancient Nicene Creed was omitted. Most interesting to me was the fact that the Eucharistic prayer was carefully modified so that it more fully manifested conditions in the world and implications of the proclamation that had preceded this part of the liturgy.

While Episcopalians, as part of the Anglican Communion, maintain the tradition that the words of the Eucharistic prayer are to be read from the Book of Common Prayer, All Saints clergy make subtle variations in the early portion of the prayer while leaving unchanged the theologically important words at the prayer’s center. An exchange of e-mails with one of the church’s clergy indicates that the modifications of this prayer are developed or chosen with great care. Although the words of the service indicate an immediate awareness of current conditions, there is nothing left to chance in what was said and done.

Fourth, the style of the event was consistent with the geographical and cultural location of this church. All Saints Church is located at the very heart of Pasadena, California. This wealthy, politically important city east of Los Angeles is the center of major educational institutions, including Fuller Theological Seminary, museums, governmental buildings, commercial activities, and major churches. In some ways, this part of Los Angeles County, with its leaning toward politically progressive convictions, is the counter balance to politically conservative Orange County. Several years ago, a National Public Radio program featured All Saints in Pasadena and Saddleback Church in Mission Viejo as contrasting versions of churches that are appealing to younger, unchurched people in Southern California. All Saints Church appears to be advancing despite the malaise that marks many progressive churches. One reason is the skill with which the classic liturgy is adapted to the congregation’s natural constituency.

Fifth, the liturgy conveyed a sense of movement and energy. In part, this was because the order of service expressed the theological logic of the historic liturgy. The pacing, staging, language, and music of the morning were chosen and conducted in such a way that everyone was moved forward to a dramatic finale in communion. When we left church that morning, we felt as though we had actually done something that moved us from spiritual malaise to a sense of union with the God who comes to us in Jesus Christ.


City Streets, Safe Places to Bicycle

July 8, 2010

“Chris,” I said to my grown-up grandson whose previous urban cycling had been in St Paul and Minneapolis, “I suppose you ride the Monon Trail when you go to Broad Ripple Village.”

“Not really, Grandpa,” he responded. “I usually ride straight up College Avenue. I feel safer.”

This conversation helped me understand my initial experiences on this urban trail and greenway, which has come into being in the years since I moved away from Indianapolis. It also helped me understand  the downside to urban bicycle trails and the upside to cycling city streets.

Both as cyclist on the trail and motorist driving on the intersecting streets, I had sensed the peril. Streets crossing the trail have the right of way and at intersections cyclists have to stop, peer around bushes and other obstructions to their view, and then proceed when the coast is clear.

Heavy-duty arterials (like six-laned 38th Street) may be the safest because there is no question but that cyclists have to exercise great caution. Furthermore, there is an island between the two directions of traffic so that cyclists only have to wait for clearing in one direction as they make their two-part crossing. In contrast, the two-laned residential through streets, like 52nd Street on which I have cycled and driven countless times during my thirty-three years living on the city’s north side, are perilous. I’m not used to slowing down at the point where the trail crosses the street, and my first couple of trips across town this time were too fast for the safety of cyclists who might have been trying to get across.

Fortunately for all concerned, regulars who drive these streets are learning to be careful. Some of them come to a full stop, which may be good for the cyclists trying to cross, but increases the possibility of rear-end collisions because other motorists would ordinarily not expect to find a stopped vehicle on the street in front of them.

On one of my rides on the Monon, this time with my Indianapolis son who has cycled over the north side since he was a kid, we met a member of the Indianapolis Police Department. He cycles some part of the trail, from 30th Street northward, nearly every day. “There have been several murders in my district during the past few months,” he told us. “Recently, some men jumped out of the bushes up by 46h Street, grabbed a cyclist, and shot him in the hand. The trail is safer north of 54th Street.”

A few days later, I was on the Monon again, south of the “safe district” and had to cycle to the side of the trail in order to allow two police cars to work their way southward. They didn’t seem to be in a hurry, but it was unsettling to see them.

On bright summer days, around the retail nodes, especially Broad Ripple, Nora, and Carmel, the trail comes into its own: walkers, runners, people on roller blades, mothers pushing strollers, little ones on trikes, with big brother or sister on juvenile bikes. And grown-up bicyclists who worry about cars on streets. Safety in numbers, lots of room for everybody!

Except for cyclists like me, whose goals are to ride hard and fast, without the need to keep slowing down and dodging the little ones. “On your left, please,” usually alerts people ambling along taking up all of the trail, but not if they have plugged up their ears with music devices.

So, for fast riding grown-ups like me, the streets are better. Intersections are wide open enough to see, the rules of the road are clear to cyclists and drivers alike. I can ride as fast as I want.

But Chris, probably not College Avenue. It’s too busy, too rough, too little room for cyclists. North Pennsylvania and Washington Boulevard are better: wide, reasonably patient  residential drivers, long stretches without stops, protected intersections, smooth pavement, nice looking houses, lots of green grass and shade trees.

That’s the kind of trail I like. Aggressive urban cyclist that I am, that’s where I feel safe.