Difference Makers: Christ Church Easton’s Alpha Weekend

Faith is not a sprint. The Holy Spirit is irrational and real. And sometimes, finding ways to nurture and stoke a community of faith and love; something that feels like a family, is about the best way you can spend a weekend.

Christ Church Easton‘s Alpha Weekend was a retreat suited for people who would quickly tell you they don’t do church retreats. I know because I was one of those people–I’d never done anything like it. But you’d be hard pressed to find someone at the end of the weekend who didn’t feel like they had been part of something totally unique, moving, connecting, and Spirit-filled.

The Alpha Course is billed as a sort of introduction to Christianity. It’s about understanding and building a relationship with God, not about hitting the books or simply learning facts. It was created in London and since Nicky Gumbel took it over in 1990, it’s become a bit of a global phenomenon. It’s designed with people who don’t know much of anything about church in mind; who maybe never thought they’d have a need or interest. Each meeting is centered on food, fun, discussion, and laughter. In my experience, it’s as much a personal and group adventure as it is a course.

At Christ Church, Kelsey Spiker, who heads up the youth ministry, was gearing up to lead a Teen Alpha Course. Fr. Bill Ortt and Jana Leslie liked the idea of running an adult Alpha at the same time, for any parents or others who were interested. What followed was 100 people–roughly half kids and half adults–who signed up. On Saturdays, after the 5pm worship service, the whole group sits down for dinner together, eats and laughs and connects, then breaks up into groups to watch a video and discuss. I signed on as a leader, and I’ve seen some pretty cool things go on each Saturday.

Which led to the Alpha Weekend away.

My daughters are part of the Teen Alpha group. The three of us were a part of about 60 people who headed out to the Claggett Center in Adamstown, Md–an idyllic setting in Maryland mountains.

It was a weekend to unplug from the distractions of everyday life; to refocus energy and attention; to connect with each other; to grow together in faith and understanding.

The youth movement took nature walks, played basketball and impromptu capture the flag, and made the most of the Claggett Center campus on a rainy Saturday. The adults went between group videos and discussion and unstructured time for reflection, with everyone coming together to eat, and morning and evening time to pray. As someone who generally prays by myself in solitude, there is something about praying as a community that transcends anything I can feel on my own.

Saturday evening, the rain let up and everyone gathered around a fire. There is a core of this group who radiate music and just being around them is being around a concert ready to happen at any moment. That night it was Grace (yes, that kind of Grace, but also a person), a soft-spoken 18-year-old arts student, who opened the song flood gates with a guitar and a song called “Difference Makers.”

It’s easy to think of a retreat as an escape. This wasn’t. The death of an Easton High School student preceded the weekend and was on hearts and minds of everyone. While we were there, word came in of a tragic death of a young child of somone’s close friend. People’s lives, loved ones, joy, pain, questions, sorrow, searching, and happiness were all present. And all real.

With the rain, Saturday was a day largely spent indoors. So when the sun came out Sunday morning, I ate breakfast quickly and hit a hilly hiking trail at Claggett. I wandered through the woods until I found a stream flowing downhill, and hopped onto rocks and followed the stream to the river. I sat next to the river, listened to birds, felt a breeze on my face and prayed for a while. Until I realized I had to get back for the morning’s movie, “How can I make the most out of the rest of my life?”

With a book in my hand, wearing jeans, I hit the trail running, smiling and laughing like a kid, making it with a couple minutes to spare.

I am a note taker–never leaving home without a pocket notebook and pen. The weekend was filled with things to write down:

“Prayer is a two-way conversation.” – Nicky Gumbel

“Jesus didn’t come to make life easy, He came to make people great.” – NG

“You’re not saved by doing good; you are saved in order to do good.” – NG

“The Holy Spirit is completely irrational and totally real and relevant.” – Fr. Bill Ortt

“The inspiration of the Holy Spirit isn’t found on page 101 of the prayer book.” – Fr. Bill (meaning it isn’t as simple as just opening a book)

After the movie and group discussions, morning worship service was filled with song and Spirit. People who don’t generally speak in front of groups shared gratitude and thanks for having a church family. We left the Claggett Center, and the weekend, fully charged.

This past weekend, we were back at Christ Church. Fr. Charles Osberger, a guest minister, led the Alive at Five Saturday service. He talked about his own experience with Alpha, saying, “the love of God is present like surfing on a wave.”

Building on a theme, he prayed that we “have the Scriptures open to us in ways that stretch and deepen our understanding.” And he noted that, “When God moves from a God ‘out there’ to a God inside us, it is like igniting a fire.”

That fire, the feeling that something is starting and building, that’s what it feels like is at work right now at Christ Church. With Alpha, but that’s only part of it. It’s something that is hard to put into words, but something you can see and feel. It’s people making a difference in each other’s lives. It’s people trying to walk their walk and live God’s love. It’s struggles, failures, challenges, and successes. To use a Christ Church notion, it’s “real hope, real grace, real joy, real God.”

Resolve: The Everyday and the Epic

What I need for 2017 is resolve, not resolutions. The resolve to continue some of the good things that got underway in 2016, and resolve to be better about getting to some of the things I left out. Resolve to continue to be grateful, to give back, to love, to follow God’s lead, and to smile.

I started 2017 with a five mile sunrise run and then church. The girls and I finished 2016, the stretch between Christmas and New Year’s with a Star Wars marathon–episodes one through seven, Anna’s request after seeing Rogue One–and will have to see if 2017 brings us some snow to get us outside.

As 2017 gets rolling, it’s worth looking back at some of the good from the past year, and some things to resolve to get after for the coming year. We’ll make the list go to 10, since top ten lists are the rage this time of year:

2016 (the year that was)

1. 2016 was a meat-free year for me, except for fish and seafood. Fancy people call that being a pescatarian. I call it trying to be less of a hypocrite. I’ve always been bothered by truckloads of chickens or pigs crammed into cages, driving by on the highway, and the whole notion of animals being raised for the sole purpose of being food. I don’t hunt, but I happily fish, and will clean and grill/cook, so trying to make my own diet more in line with how I operate in the world. It was a resolution I made at the beginning of the year to see how long I could stick to it. Year one is under the belt.

2. We welcomed Harper to our family. You can read more about that here.  At the beginning of June, we rescued a six-ish month “Australian shepherd mix” with the help of Operation Paws for Homes, and our family and our hearts grew exponentially. One of the year’s best decisions.

3. I started writing. I have been writing/blogging for a number of years, but wasn’t making a point of really doing something with and about writing. That changed in 2016, both in starting this site, in writing a monthly article for Tidewater Times and in making a commitment to write and keep writing.

4. I let God into my life. I’ve always been a spiritually-minded person, have always been a searcher, and have always tried to live life the best I can. But 2016 was a calling and answering of a different kind. It has led to looking deeply into my heart, at life, at love, at God, and listening. It has been uncovering and recognizing something in my soul, which is in each of us, allowing the Holy Spirit and Christ to move freely and try to follow. It is not easy, I still mess up wholly, frequently, and am fully human. But I am trying to take my life, what talents I can offer, and time, to ignite and follow the passion and path that God has put in me. If you’ve been reading here, you may have noticed that. During 2016 I also found Christ Church Easton, a home church community, and have just begun my work as Assistant for Small Groups and Christian Education. I have a long way to go, but am learning and trying to make the most of every step.

2017 (the year that is beginning)

5. More silliness – it’s easy to get pulled in to high seriousness: work, deadlines, bills, money, schedules. But so many of my favorite moments are so easy to look past if I don’t make time and have the mindset. Anna running around the yard laughing with Harper chasing her; Ava dancing in the new year; leaf pile shenanigans; beach exploring and sea glass hunting; snowman building; taking and making the time to find simple reasons to laugh and smile.

6. More road trips – I wasn’t very good at this in 2016. A great Harper’s Ferry trip in April, but that isn’t enough when there are so many cool places in easy driving distance. My schedule is busier for 2017, so putting things on the calendar and making time for bits of wanderlust, from day hikes, to car camping, to skateboarding, to visiting national and state parks and historic sites. I didn’t do a good job with this in 2016, so it’s on me this year.

7. Less stuff – Watching a documentary on Netflix the other night called “Minimalism,” was a reminder that I need to own my stuff, not let my stuff own me. There wasn’t anything particularly earth-shattering, I try to keep “stuff” in check as it is, but “The Minimalists,” do a solid job of making some points that I might already know, but don’t always keep at the forefront of my thinking: “It’s not so much about financial gain as it is about financial freedom, which is the ability to wake up in the morning and spend your day as you see fit.” And “Love people and use things, because the opposite never works.” I want to remember in 2017, to focus less on the care and feeding of “stuff,” and more on the care and feeding of the soul.

8. More trails – Over the past 10 years of my life, trail running has given me incredible scenery, accomplishments, camaraderie, solitude, friendships, and put me in nature. I spent less time on trails in 2016 than I have in a long time. Some of that is because Sunday morning was my trail running time and that has become church time. I am glad to have church as a time for worship, reflection, and community. I also need to make other time for trail running and hiking. We pushed our Appalachian Trail across Maryland challenge into 2017. That’s one part of more trails.

9. More prayer – I try to pray every day, make a quiet time to talk to God, to show gratitude, to listen, to be still. I have a lot to learn and I know this needs to be a focus.

10. Dig deep – I made some steps in the right direction in 2016. I want 2017 to be a year for follow through, for resolve, for next steps. It is time to dig deep and keep at it. Whether in writing, in study, in leading small groups, in playing, at work, I have reached a place in life where I have a pretty good idea of what I need to be doing, what my calling might be, what I need to do for the girls, the things that make me deeply happy. Now it’s a matter of staying after it, while being mindful that things have a way of going in directions we don’t expect.

In the documentary “180 South,” Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard says, “The word adventure has gotten overused. For me, when everything goes wrong, that’s when adventure starts.” There is likely something to that.

A life well-lived is one that appreciates, finds, and embraces both the epic and the everyday. And sees that each lives in the other. There is a bit of both throughout the above list. So that’s my resolve for 2017: make room for, appreciate, and embrace the everyday and the epic. That’s an outlook for a lifetime.

On Vocation: Five Golden Things

“It’s not just a job, it’s an adventure,” was an ad slogan the U.S. Navy used in the late 1970s and early 80s. It must be pretty good since it still sticks in my head. What if we could go through life like that? What if we felt that way about our jobs? Our lives?

Not all jobs feel that way. But for the life adventure attitude, we’ve got to dig deeper than just a job and look at vocation.

A man knows he has found his vocation when he stops thinking about how to live, and begins to live. – Thomas Merton

I don’t claim to be in that space Merton describes, but I am getting closer, and I am getting a pretty good lay of the land for what that looks like. For our purposes here, let’s think of vocation as a hand; as the work we do in the world with our lives. Our hand, like most hands, has five fingers. The fingers are all part of the hand, and the hand is made up of the interconnecting fingers. You can’t separate them from each other, they are all part of the same thing/work/life/vocation.

Disclaimer: I am a work in progress and things change and evolve over time. In describing these things, I am putting words towards things I have found in life to this point to be the things that seem to make up aspects of vocation/calling. Check back frequently.

1. Fatherhood. This is the one role in life I am least prepared for, it takes improvisation, winging it, frustration, questions, blood, sweat, and tears. And it’s the role that means the most, rewards the most, defines the most. Nothing else I do, or could ever do, compares to it.

2. Writing/Reading/Learning. This has been a part of me, a defining part for 30 years or more and counting. From the notebook in my back pocket, to grabbing a book with coffee in the morning, it is a part of me that never turns off. For the past six months, Tidewater Times has been a great outlet for me to write about everything from nature to history to incredible people and cool goings-on in our community. I hope to make this more and more a part of my life over time.

3. Being outside. I feel most alive outside, in nature. I can be running (preferably trails), walking the dog, hiking, paddleboarding, kayaking, bird watching, skateboarding, but being outside is where my soul feels both most alive and most at peace. Recognizing that and making sure to recharge that way and make the time for it is a daily practice.

4. Building/connecting community. It’s not a coincidence that when I was at a major crossroads in life and career, it was the Oxford Community Center that needed a director. When I think about my family being in the area since the 1600s; the evolution and changes in the town and the community; the players and personalities that have helped shape this place in the past and during my lifetime, it seems like a place I am supposed to be, involved in work that I am supposed to be a part of. I can look around and see and feel a connection to the town and the Eastern Shore in ways I have never seen or felt anywhere else. I’ll just leave it at that for now.

5. Spirituality. I saved this for last for a reason. This is where the change has been taking place and the reason for my reflection on vocation and for this post. I have been a lifelong spiritual seeker. My path has taken me in wonderful, rich, and unexpected directions at just about every step of the way. Over the past year and a half especially, that direction has revealed itself more through a deepening relationship with God, through Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, and the love that flows through the Trinity, through our hearts (my heart), and into the world. I’ve never felt anything like it, and how could I have?

It’s when I have let go and allowed God to work that I have felt most free, most driven, and the most connected. On an October Friday, I put a gameplan out into the Universe, which I have no other way to describe then that I just knew those things were what I was supposed to be doing. The three parts of the plan are: 1) writing/sharing, 2) learning and studying, and 3) helping to create a community of Christian small group study. That Sunday, Father Bill Ortt stood in front of the Christ Church Easton congregation and said that they were looking for someone to lead small groups. He said you don’t need any experience, he had more than 30 years worth and that he would look to help train/mentor the right person.

That began a conversation that has helped reveal a calling (of sorts) and that has turned into a part-time job as Assistant for Small Groups and Christian Education with Christ Church Easton.

Vocation is the big picture. It is doing the work that you feel called, charged, fulfilled to do. It isn’t necessarily connected to a job, but it can be, and when it is, then you know you are doing the work you should be doing.

As God has revealed life and vocation to me, and helped me see what those things are that charge me and that I can give back, I have Frederick Buechner’s words in my head a good bit, “The place God calls you to is where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” I don’t know about the world, so I’ll start with myself, my family, our community. And we’ll see where it goes.

Making Us New

Each day is full of the expected and the unexpected. There are things I see coming and plenty I don’t. There are things I recognize and those I know are new. And that goes for myself as well; there are parts of me I recognize and parts I have to do a double take to catch (some I like, some I need to work on).

We can say the same thing for each of our paths through life: there is familiar ground and new ground every day. The thing about it is to keep going.

By your endurance you will gain your souls. – Luke 21:19. That was the Gospel from this morning’s worship service at Christ Church Easton. Over the last couple months, I have been reading the Books of Luke and John, and I underlined that passage a week or so ago. As a distance runner it speaks to me of lessons learned through perseverance. As someone whose life doesn’t generally seem to move in straight or discernible lines, it’s also about endurance in the face of the unknown. We might call that faith. Faith helps us endure.

Jesus talks about the destruction of the temple, the impermanence of the earthly life, the trials and tribulations and hardships that lie ahead, and the need to stay on the path, have faith, “by endurance you will gain your souls.” There are a very few things we can control, life happens all around us, what are we to do, what are we called to do as followers of Christ in the face of it all?

What we are called upon to be in this world is a force for good, for hope, for reconciliation, and righteousness… we can be better vessels of grace in this (community). – Fr. Bill

Life happens in ways we can’t understand. What we are called upon is to be a force for good, for hope, for faith. To focus on those things we can do something about, how we treat others, how we serve, what we can do for ourselves, our families, our communities.

Our walk may require different shoes than we expected (I had to grab the photo above, which shows what happens when a priest has to go from two morning worship services to volunteering at the Waterfowl Festival). It may take us down different roads, put us in different places, and run us into different people than we expected or than we would have chosen on our own. Though we’d like to, we can’t control what or who we encounter, but we can control who we are, how we act, and how we see things and people.

2016-nov-pickering-close-up-2

Sometimes I think we adapt to the path we are on. We are made new by how we respond. Sometimes, I think we adapt to the path we see coming. We are made new to prepare for what’s ahead. In both cases, it is our response to God, what He’s put in front of us, and how we respond to His calling that makes us new.

Endurance, enduring doesn’t just have to be work and suffering. Those things are there, but so are happiness, joy, celebration, inspiration, and love. All things by which God makes us new, renew us. Along our path, we are able to become new again, invent, and improve ourselves. We can look to God for inspiration and we can surround ourselves with people who inspire us.

I’ve had the great fortune over the past couple weeks, to be inspired by two friends, in their mid-40s, doing amazing things that they have taken upon themselves to do.

2016-nov-jj-opening-dudes

Jeremy Joseph is an elementary school art teacher, father of two girls, his wife is also a teacher. He is an artist with a cool style. Recently he decided to take his painting in a new direction and opened a solo exhibit of 30 new works. More on that another time, but Jeremy has long been an inspiration for me and writing, the way he makes time for creativity, for his passion, when it would be easier just to work, to be a dad, live life. Instead he chooses to have creativity, art, and newness be a part of his life.

A.K. Leight is a marine biologist. He decided a number of years ago that he was going to get his PhD in environmental science (Biological Oceanography) knowing he and his wife work full-time, have two girls, and that it was going to be a long, slow process. This past week he successfully defended his thesis, bringing the culmination of so much time, effort, and study. It’s not something most people do 20-some years into a career. As I am entering a new life adventure where continuing education and/or graduate study are a part of a calling, I am inspired by what A.K. has done and how he has gone about it. I am blessed to have friends who inspire me by their example.

Every day there is something new for us. Every day we can bring new eyes and renewed heart to what we are doing and how we live our lives. Every day God makes us new.

The Gameplan Part II: The Real Work

You’ve called yourself to action, now what are you going to do with it?

That’s the real question. And the answer has been growing in me for 44 years. It’s something that has gained momentum and traction, has surfaced at earlier parts of my life, and keeps coming back, with more force. It’s to the point now where I can feel it when I pray, when I listen, and it can overwhelm me when I don’t expect it. It’s something that is bigger than me, maybe something for which I am just a vessel.

The place where God calls you is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet. – Frederick Buechner

I’m not clairvoyant. But I try to pay attention and to be mindful when and where things keep coming up. In July, I made a conscious change to more actively follow my dreams. To live life more intentionally and closer to my heart. To commit myself to writing in ways that I hadn’t before. During the past year, but especially the last several months, I can feel a clearer voice and purpose when I write, that seems to come the more I do it. It’s moving toward something, or some way to see.

And a strange thing has happened repeatedly now when I talk to people. I get, “You’re writing a book, aren’t you?” “There’s a book coming.” “It’s time to write a book.” I didn’t think so until a couple months ago, but it has been connecting threads, uncovering itself, and coming to light. More on that another time.

buechner-quote

I have been drawn to learning. It recently came up as a primary strength of my personality. No surprise there. I’ve talked before about deciding  against going to graduate school in Duquesne University’s philosophy program, just after college. I took the more practical, sensible option of getting to work.

Years later, when the contract we were working on ended after three and a half years of working in Washington, D.C., I was at a similar crossroads. Reading and thinking and praying back then, I felt a pull to go to seminary, to delve into studying Christian theology and see where that went. It felt strange, but right, and I talked to a handful of people about it and began researching options. Then I was offered another DC job for a good paycheck, which I took, thinking it the best option for my family, and let that notion fade.

My sense is that things in our lives happen when they are ready to happen and not before. Both of those times, feeling pulled to deeper study in faith and philosophy, I wasn’t ready. It wouldn’t have been real in the way it needed. It was while working the second DC job that I lost track of what my heart and soul wanted out of life, my marriage fell apart, and ultimately so did the job. I had to hit the reset button on life. That had to happen.

That calling to continued, deeper, sustained study in faith and Christian theology is back, exponentially louder than either time before. I’ve ignored it twice before; I won’t do that again.

slide-jesusreally

I get stirred up, moved, inspired when I read Thomas Merton, Buechner, C.S. Lewis, T.S. Eliot, Richard Rohr, and of late John Eldredge (which is where the image just above is from). I feel things working in me and through me when I am in church. But that isn’t enough. I have to do something with that, I have to act.

One of the things I have seen during the past year at Real Life Chapel with Pastor Frank Short, is how vital and essential small group study is. Church on Sunday is a time to recharge, to reflect, to come together, to pray. But there is no dialogue, there is no depth, it is not the time or the place for the real work to be done. That’s where smaller groups, and directed study and engaging with each other comes in.

Getting people together for some purpose seems to be something I do. A number of years ago, we had a writer’s group, which was a big part of a number of our lives for a stretch. In 2008, a few of us started the Rise Up Runners group, which led to more adventures and friendships than I could have imagined.

Life, and our personal walks of faith are best shared. We need to be encouraged, challenged, helped out, questioned by others. It’s not a safe or easy walk. There are wrong turns, bad ideas, fog, darkness. But there are also accomplishments, clues to be found and left, ways to hold each other up.

God acts in the world through people, among other ways. Through us. Finding and honoring our tribe of spiritual adventurers is key to making sure we find and keep to our path.

Now what are you going to do with it?

That’s the question my heart has been sitting with and my prayers have been in conversation with. When fire and passion and energy have built, are building, what will I do with it?

The answers that keep presenting themselves, over and again: 1) write, tell and share your story.  Dig deep, sustain it, tie the threads together, focus it. Look to examples like Buechner and Merton, that’s part of why they are there. 2) Learn, study, sustain and direct it. Follow the repeated calling to graduate study, find your teachers and mentors for that road. 3) Find and convene and honor a tribe, a small group for Christian study. Engage, laugh, celebrate, wrestle with stuff. Help each other.

Life is an adventure, at least how I want to live it. When I look back, so many things and experiences have been building in me and informing me, some I could hear, some I ignored. They are beginning to come together, and I’ve been quiet enough to listen, to hear, to feel.

It’s all led to right now. It’s where the good stuff is. Where the fun is. And where the real work begins.