Life in little places

August 31, 2012

Creek Crossing in Southern Indiana


Even when this bridge was new—perhaps in the 1880s—daily crossings would have been few in number. Maybe a dozen people walking from one side of the village to the other; local farmers driving their teams to fields in the country; now and then a man on horseback starting out for the county seat a day’s ride away.

When the old bridge was too weathered to use and the road was rerouted, traffic may have picked up, but the pace of life continued much as it had always been. It was a time when people lived in little places, rarely traveling more than a few miles away from home. Everything important to them was bound up with the folks who lived near by. In these little places, villagers were closely connected to one another in all of the common ventures of life.

Could we still live that way? Probably not, but sometimes, as I slowly work my way over the crowded bridges that dominate my life in the city, I think wistfully about the way life was lived in these little places.

Note: Photo by Keith Watkins in an unidentified location in southern Indiana, taken about 1980. This photo and note are part of a continuing series of  bicycle-related portraits of life in America.

Starting a new conversation of churches with their culture

August 27, 2012

Douglas John Hall uses half of his 69-page book, The End of Christendom and the Future of Christianity, to discuss the end of Christendom. He points to the fact that churches in north America “are…being pushed visibly to the periphery” (p. 35).

He asks: “Are we just going to let this happen to us, or can we give some concrete direction to this process?” His answer, based not on optimism but on his belief in God: “We can in some meaningful sense disestablish ourselves and in the process recover something of our genuine mission in the world” (p. 36). The task, according to theologian Hall, is essentially theological.

Christians must learn how to distinguish the Christian message from the operative assumptions, values, and pursuits of our host society, and more particularly those segments of our society with which as so-called main-stream churches we have been associated…What we will have to learn is that the Christian message is not just a stained-glass version of the worldview of that same social stratum (p. 45).

Hall warns that separation from the dominant society is itself not the goal. Instead, the purpose of separation is to enable Christians to reengage in the conversation in a new way.

Nor is the goal to adopt “radical positions on various issue of personal and social ethics” and to insist that “Christianity means advocating economic reforms aimed at greater global justice, or full-scale disarmament, or the preservation of species, or gender equality, or racial integration, and so on” (p. 46). Ideas like these represent “profoundly altered moral attitudes and specific ethical decisions [that] are consequences of hearing the gospel.”

Instead of following these shortcuts, Hall writes, “we must begin with basics.” The churches now consist of two or three generations of people who are “unfamiliar with the fundamental teachings of the Christian traditions [and] ignorant even of the Scriptures…Without a deeper understanding of what Christians profess, it is absurd to think that ordinary church folk will be able to distinguish what is true to the Judeo-Christian tradition from the amalgam of religious sentimentalism and ‘bourgeous transcendence’…by which both church and culture are saturated” (p. 47).

Hall counsels churches to continue their dialogue with contemporary culture, but in a new way. This responsibility rests with special force upon the liberal and moderate churches because “we have known this particular segment of our society, [and] having been part of it, we have both responsibility toward it and genuine potential for reengaging it” (p. 58).

Hall identifies “four worldly quests” for which disestablished Christians can provide a witness that is marked by faith and hope.

The Quest for Moral Authenticity: As Christians, we know “the moral confusion” of people in our time, because we too are confused about how to live lives that are authentic. “Our own participation in the anguished quest for moral authenticity” provides the contact point with people all around us. We have to learn in a new way to find from the scriptures and Christian tradition guidance for the people who want to hear something “quite different from what is proffered by the television sitcoms” (p. 59).

The Quest for Meaningful Community: “The pursuit of individual freedom and personal aggrandizement has been the ideological backbone of new-world liberal society,” Hall writes. Coupled with this fact is “the failure of most familiar forms of communality” as seen in the “deep cynicism [that] informs all public life and institutions.” If churches would turn to the scriptures with these experiences in mind and search for new answers to the questions people bring, new and deeper forms of community would have a change to develop.

The Quest for Transcendence and Mystery: Hall believes that the secular city and technology, which promised a good life for everyone, have both fallen short. “Western people have become newly conscious of the devastations of which humanity is capable when it thinks itself accountable to nothing beyond itself” (p. 61). Wistfully, he writes: Perhaps if we were to rethink our own tradition, bearing with us the terrible thirst for transcendence and mystery as it manifests itself in the soul of humanity post mortum Dei, we would more consistently discover the means for engaging it from the side of the gospel (p. 63).

The Quest for Meaning: Even though many people of our time have turned away from conventional religion, they continue to claim that they are spiritual. They are open to a dimension in experience that helps them make sense out of the wide range of experiences—some good and some terrible—that persist in ordinary life. Our proper work in the churches, Hall writes, is to “expose ourselves less guardedly to the cold winds” of our time and “carry its spiritual emptiness and yearning…into the presence of the Holy One” (p. 65).

Do the people who have turned away from the churches know that they are on these four worldly quests? Many do not. The churches now disestablished from their former places can be compared with the Apple corporation at its low point a few years ago. One of the reasons that the company rebounded is that it developed products that answered needs which people didn’t realize they had.

Now that churches have moved out of the cultural mainstream, that’s what we can do—provide ideas and a community of support that help the people of our time resolve the urgent quests they do not now recognize.

The spirituality of cycling

August 24, 2012

They had spent all summer on overloaded bikes, cycling 4,600 miles across the country, with strong head winds and 100 degree temperatures in Kansas and steep grades over 11,000-foot mountain passes in Colorado. Even the high country in central Oregon had challenged the capabilities of this pair of self-contained retired men with long beards.

Yet their conversation on the day I joined them in their ride through Oregon’s Willamette Valley had none of the “it was so hard and I was so out of shape” blather that often appears in bicycle travel writing.

Instead, Guy the forester and Joe the preacher kept using the word “spiritual” to describe this intensely physical journey they would complete a few days later.

When I asked Guy to explain what he meant, his initial comment was “I’m not very good with words,” but then he emailed me this summary of what the trip had meant:

I am not sure how much I can add except to say I really feel God’s presence when I am on the bike.  I see him at work in the loving kindness of strangers and the beauty and wonder of creation.  It seems that a lot of my riding time is spent singing hymns in my mind or out loud, especially on the hard climbs.  Sometimes I pray as I ride.  Mostly, I just enjoy a peace that I find on the bike that is sometimes hard to come by elsewhere.  

Joe , who has made his living as a wordsmith, posted electronic reports as they traveled across the country. Back home in Illinois, he wrote his summary of the spirit of the trip (from which the rest of this column has been quoted). All across the country, Joe writes, both of them experienced a strong emotional response to what was happening.

Guy said early on that sometimes he is so moved, especially by a beautiful place in nature, that he can’t keep the tears from flowing. ‘That’s just the way I’m wired’… I tend to hold my emotions in reserve & don’t show them so readily, but I, too, felt the tears welling up at powerful moments including when we camped by the beautiful Current River in MO, as we reached the top of Hoosier Pass at 11.539 ft. elevation, & when we rode down from Lolo Pass along the Lochsa River.

“This was not just an athletic undertaking focused on bicycling,” Joe continues, “or a travel experience exploring the natural & historical wonders of our good land. It was a spiritual pilgrimage, a journey that opened our spirits to a deeper experience of God & to the spiritual dimension of the world around us & of life itself. Cycling, nature, historical discoveries, & the people we encountered were channels for discovering God’s spirit.”

As we cycled we were moved by amazing experiences of God’s creation, not just emotionally welling up with tears, but inspired to give thanks to God. These “Doxology moments” caused us to break out in song, or spontaneous exclamations of joy & praise. Several times we said, “How could anyone see this and not be inspired? How could anyone experience this and not feel a larger & deeper spiritual reality?”

Whether we call it God or something else, those moments put us profoundly in touch with the holy, the sacred, the “mysterium tremendum” at the heart of creation.

We experienced the spiritual dimension in the cycling itself, the rhythmic pedaling & steady breathing. Pedaling became a prayer at times, & it merged with song as we would often sing, whistle, or hum to ourselves when we didn’t have the breath to sing out loud…On especially difficult sections, climbing a hard grade or struggling through high heat or strong wind, I used hymns & scripture as a mantra to enter a sort of meditative state, which would pull my thoughts away from the discomfort & tune me into God’s strengthening spirit. I used the Lord’s Prayer (singing the Calypso version was my favorite).

Perhaps most deeply we experienced holiness in the people we met. We felt it in the acts of hospitality & caring from folk along the way, hosts, friends & family, & so many others who offered help or an encouraging word. We experienced it deeply in “friendships of the road” with fellow cyclists we met & cycled with for a few days, especially those we met, then parted ways, then met again weeks later, sometimes leap frogging & reconnecting time after time, sometimes after incredibly divergent paths & long periods of time. Who could not feel God’s spirit in those relationships, this traveling community of cyclists, & in those almost unbelievable reconnections?

After 4,700 miles of cycling Guy and Joe are the experts. All I can say is Amen.



What are Christians to do when “official Christianity” ends?

August 20, 2012

For sixteen centuries Christianity has been the official religion in much of the world, but we are living near the end of an era in which all of that is changing. How can churches respond constructively?

On my recent four-day ride through the Willamette Valley, I carried with me the perfect book for a minimalist bicyclist. It was a small format, paper bound volume with 69 numbered pages, so light in weight that it doesn’t register on any of the scales we have at home. Its title and author: The End of Christendom and the Future of Christianity, by retired theologian Douglas John Hall.

Despite its small size, this easily read text provides a concise interpretation of one of the most important structural changes in the history of western society. Furthermore, it offers a way for people like me, who are rooted in the religious system that is disappearing, to act constructively during this transformative period.

Christendom, as Hall uses the word, refers to “sixteen centuries of official Christianity in the Western world.” Its literal meaning, he continues, is “the dominion or sovereignty of the Christian religion.” It began when Constantine embraced the Christian faith in order to advance his imperial power and is ending now, most social observers agree, as a broad range of religious and secular systems vie for our private loyalty and a place in shaping public life.

In Peoria, Oregon, my boyhood village, official Christianity is represented architecturally in the century-old church building, which for most of its life has represented the publicly affirmed values and patterns of belief and practice for all of the systems of private and public life.

More dramatic illustrations were televised for all to see during the Tour de France. In every French village on the Tour’s course, the dominant building was a centuries-old, massive, ornate Catholic church where for many generations the actions of the family, the school, practical politics, and the feudal system of economic life were tightly intertwined.

Hall is certain that this fundamental change is far advanced and that there is no way to reverse this process, no matter how fervently churches might fight against it.

He proposes that for the most part Europe has undergone the change to a post-Christendom model more gracefully than Canada and the United States. The reason is that in North America, the establishment of Christianity “has been infinitely more subtle and profound than anything achieved in the old European parental cultures.” In Europe, the establishment of Christianity was “at the level of form,” while in our part of the world, it has been “at the level of content” (p. 29).

To Europeans, he continues, it is relatively clear “where the line is drawn between serious faith and civic cultus,” whereas in North America “Christ and culture are so subtly intertwined, so inextricably connected at the subconscious or unconscious level, that we hardly know where one leaves off and the other begins” (31).

Churches in Canada and the United States, Hall continues, have responded by concentrating upon the congregation itself, building everything upon the idea that “the church’s purpose is to be a fellowship…The church is a meeting place where people ‘get to know one another’ and to ‘care.’ In the livelier congregations, programs are developed for every age and stage of life” (p. 24).

Recognizing that this self-centered way of life is insufficient, many of these churches reach out into the community with social programs “and involvement in current ethical and social issues.” Hall observes that this model works best in suburban communities and acknowledges the constructive character of what they do.

“There are indeed more than enough human needs in our social arena to ensure that any organization exercising sensitivity and imagination in meeting them can find a place for itself.” These congregations “often perform admirable and profoundly humane services in our society. It may even be said that these services are Christian services, inspired by Christian ideals of love, hospitality, and tolerance” (p. 25).

Hall believes, however, that this response largely avoids the deeper issues that disestablishment brings. One result, especially in liberal Protestant churches, is to minimize Christianity as “an explicit faith tradition.”

“Those who are looking for meaning (and that is the most gripping search of humanity in our context) are not likely to find it in such churches. For one thing, part of the secret of their being reputedly friendly is their consistent avoidance of deeper human concerns, which are usually divisive. A superficial friendliness is no substitute for depth of meaning, or even of genuine community” (p. 27).

In the second half of his little book, Hall offers a proposal for how churches can respond more effectively. He believes that churches should not just “let this happen to us,” but instead we should give “concrete direction to this process.”

To be continued.


And when the church disappears, what will remain?

August 13, 2012

Seventy years ago, Peoria, Oregon, was a quiet village in the Willamette Valley, on River Road a few miles south of Corvallis.

Three public institutions served the people in this little place: a general store, a public school with 21 pupils and one teacher in grades one through eight, and a protestant church.

During the year that my family lived nearby, I attended the fourth grade, memorizing poems by Longfellow as I walked back and forth. I walked to the store to buy groceries my mother needed for supper, with a quarter buying bread, milk, and hamburger for our family of five. On Sundays I attended Sunday School at the little Christian Church, walking there barefoot in the summer.

In Peoria, as in little places all over the country, the institutions of business, government, and religion were bound together in a balanced union in which each part had its space and all worked together in harmony. Despite poverty, ameliorated a little by the New Deal, these were “the years of peace,” to use a phrase from a book by Harvey Jacobs.

Then came World War II and when people came back from the scenes of battle, the stability of the 1930s was broken open.

Even before the war, horse-powered farming had nearly disappeared, but after the war it vanished as did the subsistence way of life where farm families could grow their own food and live on $50 a month cash income. The village store could no longer satisfy local folks who now could drive to town faster than they formerly had been able to reach the little store that once had satisfied their needs.

One- and two-room schools were consolidated into larger districts and yellow school buses could be seen morning and afternoon.

And what remains as carrier of the community’s memory, as gathering place for the people who remain, as sign of hope for the years to come?

A few days ago, I bicycled over River Road from Corvallis to Harrisburg, and my question was answered for little Peoria. The shanty where we lived, and the gigantic maple trees that stood in the front yard have disappeared, the site now part of a recently combined wheat field. The places where the store and school once stood are empty plots of land overgrown with brush and jumbles of junk.

But standing serenely where it has always been was the little church. Its name has changed in recent years, but it provides the one sign of coherence in a ragged collection of houses and vacant lots.

Although I know nothing about the vitality or pattern of activity at the Riverside Christian Fellowship, I am grateful that something survives from a time when this village provided the systems of life that nourished me as a nine-year-old boy in a farm worker’s family.

I understand that the culture-cohering role of churches can no longer be sustained in the interfaith age that now has come into being. The intertwining of Christianity, government, and economic life that Americans have taken for granted can no longer be sustained intellectually or politically. Something new, maybe better but that we cannot now know, is coming into being.

I’m sentimentalizing the past. Even in 1940, not all was well in the unified and peaceful life of little places. But that one year in Peoria shaped my life and helped prepare me for the world that was coming to be.

Yes, there were tears when I stood in front of the church. A little joy and much sadness intermingled.


A physical form of piety

August 10, 2012


Our bikes were packed, ready for a 70-mile ride through Oregon’s Willamette Valley when Joe motioned for us to sit beside him on the edge of the bed in our motel room. He was holding a water blotched set of papers, with prayers, hymns, and religious readings and clearly expected Guy and me to join him in a religious exercise before we mounted our loaded bicycles for a much more physical form of piety.

Joe and Guy had been doing this since the beginning of their cross-country trip two and a half months earlier and were familiar with the routine. Because this was my first (and only) day to ride with them, the routine surprised me.

But only a little, because Joe was using a booklet that I had drafted in 1979 for use on the first week-long cycling event that I had conducted under the sponsorship of the seminary where I taught. Joe had ridden on four of these and had been joined on some of them by his wife Ellen and on successive years by infant daughter Teresa and infant son Noah.

I had first known Joe and Ellen when they were doing their theological studies at the seminary, and the friendship continued when they became pastors of a church in Indianapolis where the seminary was located.

In later years, Joe and another seminary student now graduated and serving as pastor had been co-leaders of similar programs for teens. Rick and his wife René and daughter Erica had also ridden with me on one of the events. Joe and Rick adapted the devotional guides we had used and they became part of the fabric of bicycle-enhanced youth activities in years when I was no longer conducting religiously oriented tours for teens and adults.

Over the years, Joe and Rick have taken self-contained bike trips together as part of their vacations or sabbatical leaves.

The title I gave these events was “Spiritual Journey for Modern Pilgrims: Religious Quest on Bicycles.” The religious tone was suggested by one of the spiritual exercises I prepared for use that first year: “Devotions at a Place of Pilgrimage.”

1. The Blessing of God

Lord, you have been our refuge from one generation to another. Before the mountains were brought forth, or the land and the earth were born, from age to age you are God.

2. The Remembrance of God’s Self-Revelation

Eternal Spirit of the universe, in all times and places you have revealed yourself through the lives of faithful people. Despite uncertainties and fears, frailties and temptations, and the alluring pleasures of this world, they have heard your call, answered in trustful obedience, and followed you wherever you have led them. By their example teach us obedience, courage, faithfulness, and hope.

Especially do we praise you for the people and events commemorated at this place of pilgrimage and prayer. (And here it is appropriate to meditate upon these persons and events, remembering them and naming once again ways in which they reveal God to us.)

One and eternal God of time and space, be present here, that all who call upon you in faith believing may know the power of your presence. Through Jesus Christ, your eternal Word, who is the source of life. Amen.

3. The Presentation of Ourselves to God

Inspired by God’s self-revelation, we dare to meditate upon our own lives, acknowledging our sin, asking God’s forgiveness, and renewing our baptismal vows of faithfulness. [Five reflective exercises were in the booklet, one of which follows.]

Learning to Be Content—Philippians 4:11-13

“I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content. I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound; in any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want. I can do all things in him who strengthens me.” [Then follows:] Meditations offered silently to God: +++The contrast between contentment and the discontent that so often characterizes life; +++The dangers of resignation and despondency; +++The positive power of adaptability to the circumstances of life.

4. A Concluding Meditation

Helper of all persons: I need strength, humility, courage, patience: strength to control my passions; humility to assess my worth, courage to rise above defeats, patience to cleanse myself of my imperfections; and the wisdom to learn and to live by the teachings of my heritage. Let me not be discouraged, O God, by my failings; let me take heart from all that is good and noble in my character. Keep me from falling victim to cynicism. Teach me sincerity and enthusiasm. Endow me with the courage to proclaim your name, to serve you by helping to bring nearer the day when all humanity will be one family. O God, be my guide and inspiration.

As we moved our loaded bikes into the cool morning air, Guy said quietly that this cross-country bike trip was a deeply spiritual experience. While the prayers we had said together had prompted his comment, his continuing conversation made it clear that he had much more in mind. More on that some other time.

Phantom Cyclist on the Interstate Bridge

August 4, 2012


It was 6:00 a.m. and dark on the Interstate Bridge that crosses the Columbia River near my home. As I started up the steep section, reasonably well lighted by my generator-powered front lamp, I became aware of a bright light coming up from behind me. It had to be on a bicycle. What else could be traveling so silently on the narrow bike-pedestrian trail on which I was cycling to my early morning breakfast?

Yet this light was brighter than any bike-mounted light I had ever seen, and it was closing in upon me faster than I could imagine.

On the Oregon side of the bridge, where the bike trail divides, I bore to the right and the phantom rider behind me moved to the left. To my amazement, he-she-it was towing a trailer, which made the speed even more difficult to believe.

On a few other winter mornings since that first encounter, I’ve seen the phantom rider again. Always silent, brightly lighted, and fast.

On a recent morning, the lift section of the bridge was up so that a big tug and barge could clear the span. There he was, my phantom companion, waiting for the span to settle back into place.

He looked to be about forty years old and was wearing a yellow rain shield to protect himself from the 65-degree morning chill. His bright beam was emitted from a series of high intensity light sources mounted on a panel fastened to the front of his handlebars. A radio with small external speakers was playing brightly.

The trailer was built of larger than normal steel angle irons. Strapped upon it was a bright orange container, roughly 16 inches by 16 by 20. A heavy cable was looped from the case to a socket welded to the rear stays just above the brake bridge.

“Motor assist?” I asked, finally realizing why his lights were so bright and he was so fast.

“Yes,” he replied. “I commute from Hazel Dell [a community on the north side of Vancouver] to OMSI [the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry near down town Portland.]” It takes me fifty minutes to ride the distance [which is about 15 miles].”

The trailer weighs ninety pounds, but the set-up allows him to cruise up hills at 30+ miles per hour and on the flats even faster. He likes to pedal for the exercise and can program the controls to maintain the speed and pedaling cadence that he chooses.

“You built it yourself, I presume.” And then I added, “How much did it cost?”

“Yes, and I’ve spent about $1,500 on the project. That’s pretty expensive, I know, but I can’t stand the thought of driving to work every day.”

Since I hadn’t brought a camera, I couldn’t record a visual image of our encounter.

At this point in the conversation, the bridge opened again and we mounted our respective bicycles to continue our trips toward Portland by different routes.

By the way, I let him go first.

Note: The bridge photo was taken on the Oregon side of the Interstate Bridge earlier in the summer, and the nearly dark photo was taken from my condo balcony.