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 Moments

The world is rough. It is full of death, sickness, sadness, and anger. The adage is that life is suffering. You can’t dispute that. There is so much we can’t understand, that doesn’t make sense to us. Granted we can’t see the big picture, but there are times when our limited view can seem absurd.

But then there are moments. Moments when our hearts expand, connect to our minds, guide our actions, and we can see and feel something bigger than ourselves. Life is also full of these moments, but it is up to us to see them. To find them. And to help make them, for ourselves and for others. Especially for others, because that is how we experience them for ourselves.

Spirituality is not learned by flight from the world, or by running away from things, or by turning solitary and going apart from the world. Rather, we must learn an inner solitude wherever or with whomsoever we may be. We must learn to penetrate things and find God there. – Meister Eckhart

In his sermon yesterday, Father Bill Ortt described a mystic as “someone who is hypersensitive to God around them.” He talked about Meister Eckhart, who is a favorite of mine. I think we do well to have people around us who are hypersensitive to God’s presence in the world and in our hearts. They help us to see, they help us to not miss our moments.

2016-nov-girls-on-harrison

For me those moments can happen anywhere. They happen watching my daughters play field hockey. They happen in an interview that turns into a two-hour conversation on spirituality and life. They happen sitting with Anna, Ava, and a friend of theirs at Rise Up Coffee, eating and laughing and telling stories. They happen catching a sunset on the water. I felt a transcendent moment in church yesterday as the choir and congregation were singing, clapping hands, and the girls started clapping along.

Experiencing those moments can be about being plugged in. If we close our eyes, we won’t see them.

The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God’s eye are one, one seeing, one knowing, one love. – Meister Eckhart

Yesterday afternoon was beautiful. As fall settles in, you don’t know how many of those weekend days we will have. So Ava and I opted out of watching football or TV, grabbed Harper and went hiking around Pickering Creek Audubon Center.

2016-nov-ava-and-harper

One part of experiencing those moments, is that sometimes you have to go make them. Our conversations, watching Harper cover ground, being in the woods and fields, smelling fall smells; it just as easily could have not happened.

Frederick Buechner wrote a book called, “The Alphabet of Grace,” where he tries to captures all the blessings and moments he experiences in a single day, just by looking more deeply into life.

Today, my moments and blessings are grateful ones: Ava having a good neurology appointment and good news on her MRI results; time spent with the girls and watching Anna discern and decide how/whether to spend money she earned babysitting; having a job I enjoy and that allows me to take time to go to a doctor’s appointment; coming home to a roof over our heads and a dog eager to share the evening; grilling dinner for the girls on a crisp, autumn night; taking time to be deeply and humbly grateful for the time we have together.

Storing Up, Finding My Way

I knew it was coming. Sometimes catharsis taps you on the shoulder, sometimes you run square into it, head on. Sunday we were waiting for each other.

My runs this summer have been five to seven miles, at a quick-for-me pace. It’s felt good to push and see how I respond. Sunday morning was the first group run I had done in a while. We started out slower, so I decided to run further. It was hot. I wasn’t planning to run so far, but the reckoning was there. I ran for about eight miles with someone faster than me, until I decided to drop off.

I found my quiet spot. My longest run of the year, at a pace too fast, undertrained, on a heat advisory day. I had reached a point where I knew I needed to draw spiritual blood; to push, to suffer; to get everything out; to find that place on the other side of daily life, on the other side of sweat and tired, that only running can take me.

In that place, I found a me I had let go for a bit. We stared each other down, smiled, and then got inside out of the heat. I am a glutton, not dumb.

Herb Elliott quote

Herb Elliott is responsible for one of my favorite quotes. I have written it in notebooks, posted it on the fridge, put it on bulletin boards. Sometimes I have to go back to it. I don’t think a race has to be a race, it can be life.

It’s time to store up. I’ve been antsy for a road trip, but this isn’t the same thing. It’s a gathering in; a collecting.

The hut at the top of the page is called Fossickers Hut, in New Zealand, I found via Cabin Porn. I don’t need to go there (though I wouldn’t argue), but need to find/make that space. To feel it, so that I remember the me that running brings me back to; that writing brings me back to. Sometimes I don’t realize I’ve stepped away, then look around. And have to find my way.

It was a long day, of early morning field hockey practice and watching Anna tough out a 7am practice when feeling like crap the whole previous day, and working through it. And being impressed by her fortitude. It was scrambling home after a late meeting, grilling dinner, and laughing with the girls over mindless dinner humor. It was walking outside after cleaning the kitchen, seeing the sun setting, and color and clouds, and reading the clouds differently.

Clouds come floating into my life, no longer to carry rain or usher a storm, but to add color to my sunset sky. – Rabindranath Tagore, “Stray Birds”

Clouds add depth and shape. They shade us from the sun. They add color to sunsets and sunrises.

2016 sunset clouds

To Sit With a Dog

I lived with pets for the first 42 years of my life. I was preceded in my family by a grouchy, black cocker spaniel mix and a large Siamese cat. Dogs and cats were a part of life until separating in 2014, and rental agreements prohibiting pets.

Truth be told, at first I liked the quiet. And the clean. And not having to worry or be responsible for a pet. Daughters were enough. I was burned out.

But a funny thing happened in a quiet home. Quiet became silence. Silence became stillness. And home wasn’t home. There was a void. And the girls saw what it was before I did. They started asking to get a dog. As kids do. But I felt it. I am dense, but at some point it sank in. And our landlord agreed to allow a small dog.

2016 Harper house

We knew we wanted to rescue a dog, knew a bit what we were looking for, and through Operation Paws for Homes in northern Virginia, found Harper (named for Anna’s favorite athlete Bryce Harper and for author Harper Lee).

From someone who takes a philosophical approach to life, dogs teach us more about life and about ourselves than we ever teach them.

Dogs are our link to paradise. They don’t know evil, or jealousy, or discontent. To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring–it was peace. – Milan Kundera

When I walk Harper through town, just the two of us, something different happens to my mind. I am slowed from running, not in a hurry, and watching what she sees. Hopefully not a squirrel.

mindfulness_poster_UK

I need more “mindful” and less “mind full” in my life. And dogs can help get us there. Harper helps me get there.

Harper was found on the streets. She is skittish around big machinery; you can see some of what she’s been through. But at eight months old, she is one of the most chilled out puppies I’ve seen. And she puts smiles on the girls’ faces and laughter in their hearts in a way I haven’t seen in my house over the past two years.

Most everyone in our neighborhood knows Harper and speaks to her by name when they walk by and she’s in the yard.

She sleeps in the bed, against the back of my legs. On nights the girls are here, she often rotates sleeping with one of them. As I write, she is crashed out on her dog bed in the sun room. She is constant, consistent, boundless, loving unconditionally. Except maybe food and walks, those might be her terms.

There are days when I come home from work, and Anna or Ava will tell me that they took Harper for a walk around the neighborhood, and detail their route and what they saw. This has quickly become one of my favorite things.

I understand Jim Harrison when he says:

Barring love I’ll take my life in large doses alone–rivers, forests, fish, grouse, mountains. Dogs.

In our case, Harper has added something to our family that we couldn’t have found any other way.

2016 Harper Ava