Why this bicycle rider loves Portland

July 29, 2011


At 6 A.M. on Friday mornings, my bicycle and I slip out of our condo and zip four blocks down Columbia Street to the bike trail that takes us over the Columbia River on the Interstate Bridge. Even at that hour of the day, I always see a few other cyclists during the eight-mile ride down to the Friendly Old Fellows breakfast that our church sponsors.

After breakfast this morning I continued another mile and a half down Broadway, over the Willamette River through downtown Portland, to manhandle tables for Sunday’s barbeque after church and do research at the Multnomah County Library for a book I’m writing. From the restaurant, I headed straight down Broadway, a four-lane arterial into the city with heavy commuting traffic. The challenges are compounded by the fact that the street includes lanes dedicated to left-only and right-only turns and furthermore by newly laid streetcar tracks near the bridge.

Long ago, the City of Portland laid out a bike lane on the right edge of Broadway, a little skimpy in width but adequate. More recently, it has made two “right turn only” lanes for traffic wanting onto Interstate-5. To protect cyclists, there now are traffic signals that are red for motorists and green for cyclists who are going straight ahead on the right side of these two turn lanes. Even with the signals, of course, street-wise cyclists pay close attention to what cars and trucks are doing! A defensively aggressive way of cycling is the only way to move and stay alive.

Close to the Broadway Bridge, with its wide sidewalk for pedestrians and cyclists, another right lane disappears in a “right-turn-only” reduction of street width. Here, however, the bike lane swings over one lane to the left, which positions cyclists for a straight-on approach to the bridge. The street markings tell all concerned, whether on two wheels or four, where everyone else is supposed to be. (A post on bikeportland describes the changed striping and signals.)

This scenario is intensified by the fact that the street runs down hill so that even easy-going cyclists are likely to be bombing down at 20 mph. The traffic signals are there because some of the cross streets are also heavy duty, push-hard-and-fast arterials.

This morning at the spot where the bike lane swings over to the left, a tractor-trailer rig with double trailers, had pulled up just ahead of the newly positioned bike lane, waiting for the light to change. It was slightly out of position, but a rig that big has to compromise a little on street-sized lanes.  I slipped into the lane just in front of him and was blown away by the fact that 25 (I counted them) cyclists all heading into town were lined up, mostly two abreast, waiting for the light to change.

When it turned green, off we went, some at moderate speed, and others ready to move forward much more rapidly when there was room. Most of the cyclists were dressed in streetwise, ordinary clothing rather than dedicated cycling gear (which I was wearing). As is the case with Portland commuters, they were riding a wide range of mounts: now and then a knobby-tired beast, but mostly old road frames that have been outfitted for all-year, all-conditions city cycling. I watched one young woman in bright blue short shorts, who rode faster than I could go, with absolute confidence signal a left turn and deftly work her way across the South Broadway traffic so that she could make a left turn into a cross-street two blocks past the end of the bridge.

The two dozen cyclists quickly thinned out as we made our turns to various destinations downtown (and because we rode at different speeds). By the time I reached my destination (a mile through town at the corner of Broadway and Portland’s Columbia Street), I was the only one left.

Have I mentioned the fact that today is the 29th of July and in Portland at 8:00 A.M. it was sunny and 60, going up to a high of 80? Low humidity and even lower pollution index.

Maybe there are other North American cities where people can ride like this in this kind of Garden of Eden weather. But Portland is the only one where I’ve experienced it. Mad cyclist that I am, I sure do love this wonderful place!

The images were taken at the west end of the Broadway Bridge earlier in the summer. On this occasion, we were queuing up because the drawbridge was open to allow ships to pass through.

Two strategies for liturgical change–one of which I like better than the other

July 26, 2011

What should you do when the traditional language of worship becomes a barrier between worshipers and God? Answering this question is one of the most important tasks facing pastors, church musicians, and others who prepare and lead the church’s services of public prayer.

In a review of Elizabeth Johnson’s new book Quest for the Living God, Amy Plantinga Pauw, refers to “the strategy of subtraction,” which she says is “currently in vogue in some mainline churches.” The problem with this strategy is that it “results in a very restricted vocabulary for prayer and praise.” The book under discussion bears as its subtitle “mapping frontiers in the theology of God.” Thus, Pauw’s comment deals specifically with God-language, and in particular with the exclusive use of male and hierarchical language with respect to God.

When we use the strategy of subtraction, we excise the unwanted language and make do with what is left. Since this male-gendered language dominates Biblical and classical prayer language, much of the tradition is rendered unusable by the strategy of subtraction. One reason for rejecting Father as a title for God in public prayer is that some people have had unhappy experiences with their fathers; therefore, these life experiences stand in the way of their praying when Father is the title used.

The same logic, however, quickly reduces the language even more. In recent weeks, national news has featured stories of mothers who have abused and in some cases murdered their own children. Therefore all motherly language has to go. And the experience that some people have had in their families—experiences of abuse, neglect, domination—mean that all references to family must be discontinued. When we correct problems by subtracting what bothers us, we quickly come to what may be even deeper problems: skimpy language, abstract language, empty language, insipid language, misleading and perhaps faith-diminishing language.

Pauw notes that “even in Protestant traditions in which women have some role in shaping liturgical language, there is disagreement about whether the best strategy is to edit old language, craft new language or, for a variety of reasons, simply to live with a lopsidedly male vocabulary for God in worship.”

The obvious alternative to the subtracting strategy is a strategy of addition. Although I didn’t use that nice term in Faithful and Fair: Transcending Sexist Language in Worship (a book I published exactly 30 years ago), this is the approach I recommended. We should reduce our use of male vocabulary for God, I proposed, while at the same time increase our use of female vocabulary and other metaphors that are not gender-based.

In his most recent book, Speaking Christian, Markus Borg also proposes a strategy of addition as a way to revise worship. He is discussing the use of a creed in the church’s services of worship. In both the Lutheran Church of his earlier years and the Episcopal Church of his current life, either the Apostles or Nicene Creed has been a standard element. After discussing problems with these classic statements, Borg suggests what I would term a strategy of addition. Instead of excising these two ancient statements, Borg proposes that they be continued but in rotation with other more recently developed statements that declare the core of the Christian faith in ways that are useful to Christians today.

If we have to choose between these two strategies, my preference is for the strategy of addition. By increasing the number of metaphors, any one of them is modified in scale and scope. We have so many to choose between that we cannot easily limit our focus on one or two. When we decrease the number of metaphors, in contrast, those few that remain are elevated. Because we have so few alternatives, we have to settle for one of those remaining to us, no one of which may be adequate.

Another way of resolving these problems identified by Pauw is to edit and revise the language of prayer. This strategy has an important place, but first we need to deal with the contrasting approaches of subtraction and addition. Once we are clear on this point, we will be better able to take on the much more challenging task of editing, revising, and improving the church’s language of praise and prayer.

Amy Plantinga Pauw teaches at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary. Her review of Elizabeth Johnson’s “Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God” (Continuum) appears in “Christian Century,” July 26, 2011.

Making conversation with a ghost

July 21, 2011

In the introduction to his book Wheeling Through Europe, young W. E. Garrison implied that prior to his summer trips through England and central Europe he had bicycled from the east coast to the Midwest. Confirmation of these earlier travels can be seen in a letter that the twenty-four year old graduate student wrote to his father, J. H. Garrison, an editor, publisher, and church leader in St. Louis.

In this extensive report of one of the most memorable incidents on young Garrison’s English travels, he refers to cycling trips he had done in previous summers: 1895, New Haven to Terre Haute, Indiana; 1896, tour through Wisconsin; 1897, Boston to Chicago. The heading of this letter can be seen below.

To read the letter, click Letter to Father 8-23-98:

The Garrison papers (deposited in the Disciples of Christ Historical Society in Nashville, Tennessee) also contain additional examples of his photography. A note in the Garrison files indicates that he not only exposed the film but also developed it. The two prints in this column demonstrate his interest in special effects. Friend and colleague Don Haymes, historian and archivist at Christian Theological Seminary, Indianapolis, wrote this comment when he saw these prints:

“Double exposures” are easy enough to make with an older camera—just don’t advance the film or take out the plate and replace it. Most of them were accidents—products of haste—but an artist might make a double exposure deliberately, with some planning and forethought. WEG could have photographed the scene, almost surely with the camera securely mounted on a tripod or some sort of steady base, then increased the shutter speed and set a timer to activate the shutter. He could also have done it in the darkroom, with some artful “dodging” of the human figure or by carefully superimposing two frames.  Nowadays the adept have Photoshop, and can place you in this scene making conversation with a ghost . . . but the learning curve is much more steep.

When we consider the weight of the camera and tripod, not to mention the rest of the gear he likely carried, we renew our respect for WEG’s physical strength and fortitude. We may wonder how many tires he may have mended on that winding road.

As a bicyclist-photographer, Garrison continued a tradition that had been well-established a few years earlier by Frank Lentz who in 1892 embarked upon a trip around the world and then mysteriously disappeared. In his book about Lenz, David V. Herlihy publishes a studio pose of Lenz with bicycle and camera on tripod. The Garrison photos in my column today display his bicycle and gear, both of which will be discussed in later columns.

At this point, it is enough to say that the bicycle probably weighed between twenty-two and twenty-five pounds, which is lighter than many touring bicycles in use today. It can be inferred from the letter that this bicycle was a new model, purchased shortly before the trip. Graduate student that we was, Garrison seemed to have cash on hand not only for the bicycle, but also for the steamer to London and hotels throughout his two-month cycle tour.

Progressive churches and the church of long ago

July 18, 2011

An important challenge for progressive churches is to maintain a strong and reliable connection with the one church that can be traced back to the apostolic era. Robert Jenson’s book Canon and Creed can help us in maintaining this connection. Although this is a theological book, the topic which Jenson discusses—the structure of the church’s continuity over time—comes from the social sciences. “Is the so-called church of today indeed the same community as the church of the apostles? Which is to say, as the church of Christ? (3).

There is, he proposes, “ecumenical agreement in a truly minimal proposition: the church is the community of a message, that the God of Israel has raised his servant Jesus from the dead.” Stated even more concisely: “Jesus is risen.” In order to flesh out this “message,” the church’s sacred scripture (canon) and its theological core (creed) have focused attention on three historically oriented themes: creation, the history of Israel, and the cluster of activities and meanings in which Jesus is the central figure.

The church also has developed a complex understanding of the divine. Through all of this process, there is one god at work, a god who comes to us in three guises, yet still is one. Striving for language to describe this complex idea, Jenson suggests that they are “three nodes in a network of relations.” The creed summarizes this complex theological idea and points people in the right direction, which is to affirm their own relationship to this one God who creates the world, redeems it through Jesus Christ, and empowers all things living through the Holy Spirit.

Although this function of creeds can be perceived in the classic statements enshrined in ancient liturgies, I see it more clearly in a recent composed affirmation of faith.

You, O God, are supreme and holy. You create our world and give us life. Your purpose overarches everything we do. You have always been with us. You are God.

 You, O God, are infinitely generous, good beyond all measure. You came to us before we came to you. You have revealed and proved your love for us in Jesus Christ, who lived and died and rose again. You are with us now. You are God.

You, O God, are Holy Spirit. You empower us to be your gospel in the world. You reconcile and heal; you overcome death.

 You are our God. We worship you.

With the central story line clearly in mind, it is possible to understand and affirm biblical texts that otherwise are difficult for progressive Christians to use. One of Jenson’s illustrations is his exposition of the annunciation as described in Luke 1:26-38. The gospels, Jenson notes, are the “part of the New Testament where creedal critique most needs to cut through historically constructed appearances. And in the Gospels few scenes pose exegetical possibilities so theologically heavy and are so in danger of being hidden under critics’ interesting but theologically irrelevant constructions, as does the annunciation” (99).

Jenson proposes that having to assign this story either to history or to legend is misleading. There is a third category within which the annunciation falls. “It is perhaps time for Judaism and the church to say out loud: the story told by modern cosmology and biology is an abstraction from the truly encompassing story of reality. It is an abstraction that is splendid and fascinating within its own scope, and is amazingly powerful for immediate practical purposes.”

There is, however, another dimension, which Jenson refers to as “the apocalyptic depth of reality,” and it has “connections and ordered sequences” that “determine results.” In this passage, the virginal conception of Jesus is this kind of story. It seems inescapable to me that the resurrection, which in Jenson’s system is even more important, also belongs to this third category.

Despite the fact that many who call themselves “progressive Christians” raise questions about the canon and bridle at the thought of creeds, Jenson’s concern for continuity with the church of all times and places is important. Even though I see things quite differently from others such as Paul, Augustine, Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, and Alexander Campbell, I believe that we have all been part of the same church—the church that I want to bequeath to generations still to come.

This leads me to three conclusions for all of us who lead worship and preach in progressive churches: 1) This basic message can guide us in determining which portions of the Bible to use in worship and how we can best express our faith in hymns, prayers, and sacraments. 2) We can affirm the “encompassing story of reality” told by scientists and historians, and at the same time proclaim a faith that transcends all that we know about the history of time. 3) We can offer a way for people to accept the inevitabilities of life and death with a deep sense of peace, joy, and hope.

Telling the Church’s Master Story

July 11, 2011

The Nashville Convention Center was the setting for a religious ceremony that illustrates one of the continuing challenges of historic Protestant churches, which is to recite the church’s “master story” in succinct and believable language.

The occasion was the opening ceremony of the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) on July 9, 2011. Included in the celebration was a montage of familiar church music, liturgical dance, and a sermon dramatic enough that even children closed their books to listen.

The conclusion to this liturgy was the service of Holy Communion, which takes the form of a meal ceremony with bread and grape juice. At the heart of this ceremony, leaders of the assembly and congregants recited a prayer that proclaims the basic story of Jesus and affirms the central meaning of that story for all who participate.

The challenge for many churches is to tell that story so that it is faithful to the tradition and believable by people in our time. The most widespread way to be sure that the story is remembered properly is always to use approved texts for the prayer. Many of these published prayers, however, are worded in ways that worshipers in our time find theologically or culturally difficult. In order to get around this problem, many churches change the language and abridge the prayer. Unfortunately, the result is that the central story virtually disappears. This problem is especially prevalent in Disciples congregations where ordinary practice is for this prayer to be extemporaneous, short, and widely ranging in theme.

At the Nashville Convention Center, however, a better response to the challenge was presented: the communion prayer was proclaimed in a form that is full enough that the master story was proclaimed effectively. It was worded in ways that bypass some of the problems that have been so troublesome to serious Christians in these churches. It incorporates short musical elements sung by congregants so that the prayer become more than a statement by an elder or minister. Rather, it becomes the proclamation of the gospel by the entire congregation of worshipers gathered to remember Jesus.

Because this prayer is such a good example of this liturgical text, it is worth careful study by pastors and church leaders interested in the vitality and effectiveness of churches in our time. Since this prayer was developed for use on a special occasion, congregations would need to make modest revisions in order to use it in regular Sunday worship. Many congregations would discover that their worship was strengthened in a very good way. To read the text, click on 2011GAGreat Thanksgiving.

Disciples historian bicycles through England

July 9, 2011

During the middle years of the twentieth century, W. E. Garrison was one of the preeminent church historians in the United States. Although his books covered a broad range of historical topics, he was especially interested in American Christianity and in the distinctive history of his own church, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

During Garrison’s years as a graduate student in Chicago, in the 1890s, the modern “safety” bicycle with pneumatic tires was developed and became a new mode of personal transportation for enterprising people like Garrison. In 1898, following the completion of his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, Garrison spent two months bicycling through Britain and the following summer two months bicycling through central Europe. In 1900, his father’s publishing company published Garrison’s book describing these two excursion.

I know of only four locations where this book can be viewed. One of them is the Disciples of Christ Historical Society in Nashville, Tennessee, where the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is now in session. Earlier this year, I posted four chapters from this delightful travel narrative. You can find these postings in the February 2011 archives of this blog.

Garrison’s first chapter was written on board ship as he traveled to Liverpool. It gives his thoughts about why bicycling is such a fine way for people to travel through an interesting country. To read his first chapter, click About Bicycle Touring.

Although he was only 24 years old when he made this trip, Garrison was a remarkably well read man, showing extensive knowledge of English history and literature. This intellectual interest shows through clearly as he describes his journey. His writing gives no attention to the sweat and hard work that dominates so many modern cycling narratives. Rather, Garrison gives fascinating insights into the places and people whom he meets. I have also  scanned and posted three additional chapters, which you can access by clicking on these two links: Into the Heart of EnglandShakespeare’s England; The East Side of England.

Faith and Patriotism

July 4, 2011

The Sunday closest to the Fourth of July was once a day when people went to church. Attendance would challenge Easter Sunday as the highest day of the year. Not so anymore. Most churches now find that the Fourth of July Sunday and Memorial Day Sunday are among their days of poorest attendance in the entire church year.

This dramatic change of religious interest in the festival of American Independence is partly a sign of the fact that most holidays have become a time for short vacations rather than the occasion to celebrate historic events or public virtues. Whereas we once commemorated civic and religious days with solemn rituals, patriotic addresses and sermons, and picnics that brought people together, we now use these days as chances to get away from public life and forget the beliefs, values, and practices that draw us together. One reason why Americans are losing a sense of shared values may be that the civic rituals that once fostered these values have been abandoned in favor of play days.

The loss of a religious factor in the Fourth of July is also a sign of the ambivalence that most Americans now feel concerning the relations of religious faith and public life. The religious right still tries to hold these two aspects of life together, but the larger percentage of Americans want to keep religion and politics carefully distanced from other.

These paragraphs are taken from a sermon I preached in 1999 when Independence Day fell on Sunday. It is based on Matthew 11:25-30, which on the surface hardly seems like the basis for discussing personal faith and public happiness. I include references to an essay on assisted suicide by Courtney S. Campbell (Oregon State University), a UN-sponsored conference on limiting population growth, a speech by Al Gore, and a book of prayers by Marian Wright Edelman (who will be addressing the General Assembly of the Christian Church in Nashville, July 13, 2011).

To continue reading, click Personal Faith