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.”

A Tale of Two Buildings

Let’s be up front: this isn’t really a tale of two buildings. It’s more what they represent. They are buildings, but also emblems. The cabin and the church.

The Cabin

It is so easy for me to be a hermit. An active, outdoor hermit, mind you–wrangling sunrises with coffee, running, paddleboarding, looking for birds. I like to hermit in the John Muir, Edward Abbey, Thoreau style.

It’s the easiest thing in the world to daydream about finding a cabin like this one from Cabin Folk and holing up for a good stretch with books, notebook, trail running shoes, binoculars, backpack, you get the idea. And I would enjoy that and likely recharge a bit.

Solitude is a necessary condition for me. But I’ve come to realize it’s not enough. It’s just a beginning point, albeit one to return to. If you are one to ask life’s biggest questions and take the walk to find answers, there is a good chance that you are going to struggle at times. You are going to suffer, you are going to come up short, and sooner or later, you are going to need help. That can be a humbling experience. For me, being humbled is also a necessary condition.

It’s being humbled and needing help that sets us up for needing other people. Needing a community of sorts. Needing people who we can relate to; who understand our struggles; and who we can in turn help with theirs. In my experience, helping someone–whether it is moving furniture, listening, laughing, accomplishing a goal, or just being there–creates a feeling in me that I can’t replicate on my own, cabin in the woods or not.

The Church

The world is so empty if one thinks only of mountains, rivers and cities; but to know someone who thinks and feels with us, and who, though distant, is close to us in spirit, this makes the earth for us an inhabited garden. – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

“Someone who thinks and feels with us,” Goethe is perhaps describing the beginning or foundation of community. In his sermon at Christ Church Easton on Sunday, Fr. Scott Albergate posited that “The reason to go to church is to be in the company of others,” and that while in a worship service, “Hopefully it will sink into your soul–through the sacraments, songs, Scripture–that life is beyond our control.”

If you spend time in nature, or if you are at all mindful of the passing of time, disease, death, the notion that life is beyond our control is almost self evident. And it can be a heavy truth to bear. As we try to carry that with us, it can weigh us down.

Fr. Scott also pointed out that the majority of what we know of Jesus through the Gospel, he is concerned with healing and transformation. Healing and transformation, through Christ, happen through love and grace. Love happens in the world, through people. We can’t experience it alone. And when we come together, a funny thing happens:

God brings his presence ‘into the house,’ and we are called to release it back out into the world. – Pete Greig, “Red Moon Rising”

Grace is only grace because God gives it to us, He shares it. We know it as a gift and show it by sharing it with each other and others. We know love and grace in the company of others.

Two Buildings

The cabin is the place to find ourselves in solitude. The church building is the place to come together with those “close to us in spirit.” We come together to know, to experience God’s grace through each other and to take it out into the world.

I need both buildings and what they represent. I think Thomas Merton gets it right when he says:

We do not exist for ourselves alone, and it only when we are fully convinced of this fact that we begin to love ourselves properly and thus also love others.

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.

A Thinking Man’s Guide to Oxford

I’ve come to love lazy paddles. It’s a mindset, an ease, deep breaths. The purpose isn’t to see how far you can go, but to float; to enjoy time on the water; to look for birds, or treasure; to talk; enjoy a beverage; watch the sunset.

Last evening’s lazy paddle netted an Eastern Kingbird sighting (a first), Bald Eagle and Ospreys, multiple Great Blue Herons and Green Herons, either a sandpiper or sanderling scurying along rip-rap; a majestic sunset on the river; rich amarena cherry ice cream, pulling up to the Scottish Highland Creamery by kayak; and a full moon rising over Town Creek.

Other than the ice cream, the evening cost nothing. As we were floating and the sun was teasing some clouds, I said, “Most people don’t do this.” It seemed a shame. I was grateful to share it all. Lazy paddles hold the key to how to enjoy Oxford.

Oxford, Md., is a town with pricey real estate values. It’s not full of shops or things to check off your agenda.  But if you don’t need a guide book to tell you what to do; you are good with self-guided and easy-paced; Oxford has no end to what it can offer the thinking visitor or resident.

Benches

2016 oxford park bench

All over town there are park benches sitting alongside the waterfront. Some of them are obviously located, some of them take some searching. Where there is a bench, it is public access. Take a load off, sit down. Watch the water. Read. There are benches at small beaches. Gives you more reason to explore.

Oxford Park

2016 Oxford Park collage

The park is the crown jewel of the town. It’s a shady lunch spot after a bike ride. It’s a playground for kids. The living shoreline is a study in fighting erosion, while also leaving some beach for kids to play on and rocks full of periwinkles to explore. It’s the first image that comes to my mind when someone says the word, “park.” It’s changed a bit over time, but the soul of the place is still the same. It’s easy to build your day around Oxford’s park.

The Strand

2016 Harper Strand

Over the past couple years, the beach end of the Strand, just down from the Oxford-Bellevue Ferry, seems to have become a local hot spot. When my girls asked why everyone went to the beach at the Strand, I asked them to tell me where there was another public beach in Talbot County. At this point the sea nettles have taken hold for the summer, but the beach is still full of folks setting up picnics, putting in kayaks, paddleboards, or rafts, and taking advantage of a shallow, scenic expanse of beach. There aren’t many to be found in the area.

Architecture

St Pauls Church

Oxford is not a town that overwhelms you. But it will expand your soul if you slow down and take it all in. The churches, the houses, the boat yards, and restaurants, all speak to and from the water that surrounds them, and walking the few miles around town never fails to slow down my heart rate and put a smile on my face.

Community

OCC in Spring

One thing you can learn pretty quickly about Oxford, is that it is an odd mix of people, odd being a good quality. In a quick cruise through town, you’re likely to meet watermen, restaurant workers, landscapers, retired folks from various walks of life, volunteer fire fighters, artists; you still find kids on skateboards or riding bikes, and the lunch crowd waiting in line at the Oxford Market‘s deli, is equal parts blue and white collar.

If you are just giving the town a once-through, maybe you don’t catch that, but I think you will. And if you decide you dig the town and make more than one trip, or become a frequent visitor or resident, you will find out for sure. A family recently moved from Los Angeles to Oxford, citing the feeling of community as one of the reasons for their move. I get what they say and felt.

I wouldn’t be doing my day job if I didn’t make mention of the Oxford Community Center. Any place that you can go, for free, and watch The Big Lebowski on the big screen; see Shakespeare performed on the lawn; catch a lecture or concert; see a World War II photography exhibit; or be a part of a community potluck dinner, is worth looking into.

Outside

2016 TC sunset

Oxford has its icons. Those places and activities like taking a ride across the river on the Oxford-Bellevue Ferry. Or eating steamed crabs and taking in the sunset at The Masthead at Pier Street.  Or fine dining at The Robert Morris Inn. Each of those things is a singular and signature Oxford experience.

But this is a “thinking man’s guide to Oxford,” because it is about free and low cost means of finding out what the town is about. Oxford is more than just going out to eat or a place to tie a boat up. It is a place to savor slowly.

Between a 5-mile running loop I have around town, walking dogs, biking for ice cream or a beer at a dock bar, I tend to cover some miles through town, and almost always find something new to take pictures of. I find reading perches and sunrise and sunset vantage points.

Oxford is a town I fall in love with anew every day because I find different ways to be outside in and around it. Like a lazy sunset paddle and ice cream. Best enjoyed when shared.