11 Things I Learned While Traveling

My church allowed me a couple weeks leave in January, mostly to begin wrapping my mind around my father’s death.  There had been cards and emails and hands on my shoulders praying for me on Sundays.  People then, and now, check in with me.  The people of our church have been faithful in caring for me and us.  While I was away from the office, I had to return to Arkansas to tend to some business of my father’s.  I mostly stayed home the rest of the time, but I took a few days to travel.New Community Praying For Me

For years I have had an abiding appreciation for long journeys on trains, even though my tolerance for the longest trips has diminished.  This time I flew part of the way, took up space in the home of dear friends (parents of my brother, David), boarded a train in New York for Montreal.  On the reverse, I stayed again for a night at the Swanson home and woke up to cross the George Washington bridge and a crowded bus to get back to Chicago.  I’ll leave the details to more intimate conversations–because some things should remain private posts–but here are some things I learned during this last trip:

1.  Anticipate delays, route changes, interminable waiting while other trains pass, coughing fits by multiple passengers, and various surprises which decorate, determine, and define the journey.

2.  I really dislike getting on a subway in a new city, on the express train, going in the opposite direction I intended.

3.  Sometimes strangers turned travelling partners say thank you and God bless you when you let them use your phone.

4.  Strangers really want you to get where you’re going.

5.  When searching for walking paths, stay on the side of the street with houses because mountains don’t have the easiest walkways.

6.  In a foreign land I’m much more aware of someone mistreating me and much more aware, and perhaps grateful, when someone is nice to me.

7.  People told me it was too cold to walk where I wanted to go, and I concluded it was because they didn’t know me, my ability, or because what they were saying was wise, even though I had to choose.

8.  A church can be (and probably should be) a physical reminder to dream, to be inspired, without disregarding beauty and heritage and God.

9.  Don’t trust when taxi drivers give you estimates during rush hour, or, at least, double them.

10.  The train is an antidote to my delusions which tell me I don’t need to see blackbirds flitting from tree to tree, water frozen in a river, and cars waiting at stoplights.

11.  There are delightful and memorable things, off well-worn paths, and generally away from view, and those things become gifts that help you see.

Three women on a street in an old city

Two Questions From the Weekend, pt 2

As I mentioned in my last post, I had a great time leading a retreat the other day with Highrock Covenant Church in Arlington, Massachusetts.  Before the Saturday retreat, I met for dinner with the two leaders helping me prepare for the day.  Michelle and Amy treated me to a tasty meal at a new favorite place, Not Your Average Joes.  Incidentally if I’m ever in Boston and you’re there too, you can take me there for a meal.  Note that I may come with family.

During our conversation, Michelle asked me two questions.  Her first was why do you lead these retreats, and I thought out loud about that in my last post.  In this post, I’m rambling about her second question.  The context of our retreat didn’t really relate to her second question since it was a broader, bigger question.  She asked, what is your dream?

Some kind of way I was expected to answer first.  So I tilted my head up and thought about the largeness of the matter.  Michelle caught my thought as if it were a tossed ball and said she knew it could be answered in many ways.  I knew exactly what I wanted to say.  Only later, when she and Amy answered themselves, did I think I miscalculated.

Their answers would hone in on particular things they wanted to do, while mine focused on the broader answer right before that, what I wanted to be.  I told them that I wanted to be a faithful pastor while being a good writer.  My dream is to serve the congregation in front of me, people I know, and to serve the reader I would probably never meet.  That has become a persistent abiding dream.  It’s a part of the play that I think of when I close my eyes.  Those two worlds combined serve as the stage on which my life is.

I’m thinking about words all the time.  I’m listening to the stories of others, making sense of them, or trying to.  In one role I’m sharing an old story, turning it over, researching its rudiments and investigating the world from which it was written.  I’m trying to interpret that story for my life and community.

In the other role, I’m wondering through the creative process and attempting to write the story in my ear, the story in front of me, the one that, unlike the old story, resists revision right now.  It’s the story I’m working over, thinking about, and going back to once I’m done writing this post.

I want to do well at both.  I’m not the type to attempt something and quit.  I’m destined to send myself nuts, but it’s the only route I know.  I blame it on my birth order.  At least today.  But these two parts of me, these untraceable pieces of my character, compose my dream.

I appreciate Michelle’s question.  I wonder how you would answer.

Two Questions From the Weekend, pt 1

I was in Boston for the weekend to lead a retreat with new friends at Highrock Covenant Church.  Our denomination’s department of Christian Formation has facilitators, me included, who are dispatched to facilitate these invitations to prayer when local churches request them.  I’ve done a half dozen of these retreats in the last years, and Saturday was my latest opportunity.

Friday evening I enjoyed a meal with Michelle Sanchez and Amy Bositis.  We talked about the usual things, our geographies, our stories, and how we came to the places we are.  We spoke of our families, ministries, and, of course, we eventually got to the matter of last minute details for Saturday’s retreat.

Somewhere in the midst of eating, Michelle said she had two favorite questions she wanted to raise.  Her first question is the one I want to write about today.  Her second question comes in the next post.  They are questions worth answering, considering, and answering again.  They are questions worth keeping.  The first one: why do you lead these retreats?

I heard the obvious in her question.  She was planning to introduce me in the morning to a group from her church, and she wanted what wasn’t in my brief bio.  But I also heard a more general, penetrating question: why do you do what you do?  Have you thought lately about that question?  Why do you do what you do?  Why do you spend the time you do where you are?

It would help to know that the particular retreat we participated in is an assortment of prayer practices paired with various passages from the Bible.  I answered Michelle’s question simply.  I told her that I get to do, in these retreats, two of the most essential pastoral acts, and since I’m a pastor, the retreats are perfect opportunities for me to do two things I love: I get to teach people other ways to pray, and I get to put people before the scriptures.

So I get in planes or in rental cars and arrive at new places, meet new people, and wade through awkward or familiar ways to pray.  There is silence and music.  There is usually chocolate, a lot of reading, and, this time, there was bell-ringing.  There was my getting lost because Boston’s streets are notorious for their signage.  Several participants told me, in other words, either you know your way or you don’t.  There were sweet sisters in religious life.  There was a visit to a friend’s new church.

But Michelle’s question sparked the weekend.  Before the questions and the answers and the warm greetings of members from her church.  Before the smiling and hand-shaking with nuns so warm it made me think of fresh bread and a crackling fire.  Before the Sunday night return flight and right prior to Sandy’s arrival.  Sitting at the table, with a tasty dish of pecan-crusted chicken, roasted sweet potatoes, and green beans, Michelle anchored me into my work.

She helped me remember why I did my work.  And I thought about how good that felt, because there are things about work that aren’t always good or enjoyable.  There are people I know who grieve their work, people I know who don’t have the work they want or any work at all.  There I was getting to enjoy the consideration, getting to look forward to tomorrow, getting to embody the connected pieces of my vocation.

And like the pecan chicken and the tomato basil soup before it, the day ahead would be splendid.  The weather would be glorious for it, even if mornings following would bring winds so strong they’d make children shudder.  Leaves would fall easily to the ground in many gardens.  Sun rays would stretch across our heads and around the chapel like our favorite music.  And I would enjoy every moment of it.

Bryce’s First Retreat

After a breakfast of oatmeal and bite-sized chunks of honeydew, we walked down the green carpeted hall.  Another pastor-father passed me, grinning and saying the same thing he said the night before, “They have child care!”  He walked briskly from the room where I was headed.  His three children were there.  I heard them playing, though they weren’t noisy at all.  No, they needed my son for noise.  He would lift the sound level by his own voice.  He would teach three children from one family what noise was.

There were blocks of all colors and games and bright toys along one wall.  Two staff members, a married couple who explained to me that they had nine grandchildren, one of whom was the same age as Bryce, wrote his name and took his bag.  I explained that yes, he could have snacks.  I said that there was a pacifier in extreme situations, though I, as always, was secretly embarrassed by this admission.  I still wish he did not use the thing, but he does.  It doesn’t kill him.  Let’s hope it doesn’t alter his development in the long run.  I pointed to where I kept the sucky cup, which isn’t a sippy cup because a straw pops up.

None of the other children had bags.  At first it was another small sign that I was at a Pastors and Spouses retreat without my wife.  I had those signs already that morning and the night before.  My explanation to colleagues became common.  Dawn couldn’t get off work.  Dawn has class “tomorrow night” or “tonight,” depending on when I answered the familiar question.  But it wasn’t a sign that I was wifeless or that Bryce was motherless for the retreat.  I had a bag, simply, because I knew my kid.  I packed his water and a banana and some pudding.  I included enough diapers and wipes.  He would only be there for two hours, but I knew this boy.  He would be a challenge, potentially.

I turned to walk out while he was busy playing.  I came back when we had a break, an hour and something later.  I listened for his scream as I descended the hill from the center to the building where childcare and lodging were.  Nothing yet.  He wasn’t yelling through the stones.  That was good.

At the bottom step to the basement level where the noise and playmakers were, I looked both ways like I was sneaking, like I was taking something that wasn’t mine to take.  I wanted to go undetected.  My thought was to stick my head in the room, get a thumb pointed up, and return to the next session.

But Bryce was behind me as I edged toward the room.  He was in the arms of a grandfather and new friend, Dave, who I heard saying, “There’s daddy.”  It was too late to hide, though I tried as I turned around.  Bryce was already reaching for me.  He had been crying.  He was still sniffling, and when he took to my neck, I saw the dribble under his nose and the strips of dried tears down his cheeks.  I felt a twinge of regret that I had not been there, that I had left my kid with these others who he did not know.

I got the usual and expected questions.  Is he sleepy?  He wasn’t.  He had almost two more hours before a nap grabbed him.  Then, the grandfather and new friend said something that sounded good to me, better than the half compliments, half sermons I had heard that morning about spending time with my son or about how fathers weren’t as involved as they should be.  He said, “Oh, it looks like he just wanted his daddy.”

Back in the room with the wall of toys, one of the staff folks asked if I had ESP.  No, I told her, I just know this guy.  I changed his diaper.  When we came back from the changing, he launched into the toys that were in every corner by then.  I saw something called Lincoln Logs, and there was a tiny town being built on a table that the kids had abandoned.

Bryce started drawing with his new friend and playing with one of the other children who had a pink and brown box of somethings I couldn’t see.  He found a truck, knelt down, and started pushing it the way he did when we visited the Poethigs down the hall the other day.  “Vroom vroom,” he whispered, as he rolled over the large rolling television that was playing something from Disney.  Then the boy came over took a pen and tried to swipe the taped paper with all the kids names and ages.  I asked him to leave it.  He kept the pen, deciding that I meant the paper.  His new friend and adopted for the day grandfather figure took him to the board.  They started drawing, Bryce with his back to me and me, suddenly, grateful that I paid attention every now and then to the kid’s rhythms.

Before I left at Dave’s suggestion—“You can sneak out, dad because things should be fine”—I heard a mumble or two from the great adults who gave themselves to do what I couldn’t.  “Maybe he just needed a dry diaper.  Maybe he just needed his dad.”  I, again, chose the second answer and I walked out with that in my ears.  And Bryce didn’t cry or wail or scream—for about another ten minutes—until I was too far away to hear him.

Mondays With My Boy #11

I suggested that we have lunch as a family since I was taking the boy up to a Pastors and Spouses Retreat.  It was my final requirement for our denomination’s ordination, which happened in June.  I had to attend our conference’s (i.e., region’s) retreat.  It worked best that Bryce attend since they had childcare, since Dawn had class on Tuesday evening, and since she couldn’t get away from school or work.  It would have proved difficult to find childcare for that weird slice of hours before our grandmothers arrived on their given days to be with the boy.  Dawn leaves for work two hours earlier than they’re used to arriving.

We picked up Dawn and had lunch, as we’ve done a few times before.  It was cute that Bryce knew we were outside his mom’s building.  He pointed and called for her.  Two or three times.  He yelled and yayed when she opened the door to greet him.

After we ate, Bryce began a slight melting; let’s say softening.  He transitioned to a full meltdown after Dawn exited the car.  His hand was pointing, following her, his screams were screaming, and she had turned to see what my life was to be over the next who knows what while I drove to Lake Geneva.  I thought to myself, this has to be easier.

We were passing Garrett’s popcorn by the time I pulled his cup from the holder under my arm.  “Want water?” I asked.

His arms reached out, thankful to have something.  He knew that I wasn’t into the pacifier movement his mother and his other loved ones participated in.  He quieted down for most of the commute, delaying his I’m bored whimpers for the last fifteen minutes.

People love my son.  Well, people probably love most kids his size.  After all, those kids tend to belong to someone else so that it’s easy to enjoy a cute-faced boy or girl in five-minute increments.  When we got to Covenant Harbor, Bryce was loved.  And I remember thinking what I’ve thought before about my denomination—that I’m grateful I get to be in ministry with others who care so well.  I knew that these folks weren’t the type to love for a little while.  These pastors and ministers and staff workers had been practicing love for the long haul.

Bryce got his name tag.  He went around introducing himself, in a language only other babies understand.  I laughed at my colleagues who tried to listen for his words.  We’d debate meanings between us, and I’d give up trying to know what he meant.  We unpacked and went to dinner where Bryce was preoccupied with getting more milk than I would allow and where a lovely woman and minister, Rev. Slaughter, went to get him a banana when he reached for hers.  She also brought a slice a pie (Bryce likes whipped cream now) and a plum and a pear, whispering, “Just in case.”

We were about done with dinner by then.  The banana finished him.  He had eaten less than I’d liked to see him eat.  But he has been doing that lately, eating more at breakfast and lunch than dinner.  He was waving and talking so much to Kathy behind him that she left her table to sit across from us.  He insisted on being in my lap, which he never does.  Kathy tried to ask me questions, tried to engage Bryce.

As I think about it, my responses to her conversation probably sounded like baby language.  I could hardly hear what people at my table were going on about, much less have a direct conversation with another person with Bryce doing stuff he never does.  It was enough to pay attention to the boy.  It was harder than usual, when he’ll eat what you put in front of him and when he’ll turn around when you tell him to and when he’ll happily devour his meal in his seat.

After dinner I let him stay up a little later than routine.  We were supposed to hear music and sing together.  But the worship started with reports and talking, so Bryce started his own talking in the large gym.  He ran to greet the other kids.  He sang to himself, trying, I think, to get the show going since I explicitly told him there would be music.  In the end, we had to leave after a half hour without singing.  He did have to go to bed.  So while we walked down the hill from the Jackson Activity Center, night time sweeping us into a cool embrace, we sang our little walking song.  Don’t ask me to sing it.  It’s our song, and actually it really does sound like language only babies understand.

Personal Retreats, pt. 2

Yesterday I started into a series of reflections, after I returned from my own personal retreat.  Today’s topic is what not to do.  These posts come both from my personal experience and from good reading of people like Richard Foster, Ruth Haley-Barton, Henri Nouwen, Eugene Peterson, Howard Thurman, and Dallas Willard.  They’re great writers and they point me to other insightful practioners as well.

Now, on to what not to do during these personal times you set aside for reflection, pause, and listening to God–in no particular order of importance.

  1. Don’t crowd your time.  If you do, you’ll inevitably end up being busy and hearing nothing.  A friend told me a year or so ago that his spiritual guide told him that it was perfectly acceptable to sleep during his 24-hour retreat.  Doing nothing is much better than doing too many things during a retreat.
  2. Don’t check email.  In fact, don’t do anything that you’d normally do.  If your retreat is compacted down to the size of less than a day, why would you check email and texts during that small frame anyway?  Leave those contacts for later.  Pay attention to contacting Someone else.
  3. Don’t rush.  Eat carefully, tasting your food.  Try to walk with more patience.  Turn your head and see the neighborhood.  It helps you develop gratitude when you’ve resisted the speed and pull of any and everything.  It’ll be unsettling because you’ll hear that little person in you screaming about how fast things are going around you, how far behind you’ll get if you don’t take it up a notch.  But close your ears to that voice, and try to hear another.
  4. Don’t go without a goal.  You need to expect something.  You need to have something in mind, some thing before you.  It’s good to go with questions that you want God to answer, decisions you’d like to make or be closer to having them made after your time.  Because these spaces are so spacious, you’ll likely come away with some clarity.  Your head may be clearer.  You just may hear God’s voice in that half-day retreat or in those fifteen minutes of silence.
  5. Don’t wear ear plugs.  I thought about wearing ear plugs on my Amtrak ride.  But I resisted.  I really did want to hear and see things that I wouldn’t generally see.  I think it helped.  It opened me to those little things I take for granted.  I saw the faces of the coach attendants when they came and asked for our tickets.  I heard the guy snoring when I kept reading that same paragraph six times because I couldn’t concentrate until I laughed at him.  And trust me, there are ways to get people to leave you alone without wearing plugs in your ears.
  6. Don’t set your alarm.  Whether it’s your alarm in the morning or your clock signaling you to get to the next thing.  You need room at a retreat.  Obviously if you only have 30 minutes for your mini-retreat, you need to be aware of time, but you’ll set your expectations accordingly in that case.  Otherwise, give yourself space.  Don’t feel pushed by the requirement to be somewhere else at some other time.  Try to be right where you are.
  7. Don’t do what the woman in this video did.

Would you add anything?

Personal Retreats, pt. 1

Marking out time in your day, week, month, and year for God to speak to you can be a direct way to spiritual growth.  Not that spiritual growth can be discerned easily.  It can’t be quantified the way pencil marks on a wall can track a person’s height or the way a scale can, however accurately, reflect a person’s weight.  Spiritual growth is harder to notice.  It takes into account the interior and the exterior, what we feel and what we do with those feelings.  Growth includes how we’ve thought and learned as well as how we’ve led from those thoughts.

I suppose I could spend some time with my assumption in the first sentence–for God to speak to you–but I won’t.  Go with me on that one.

There are ways that people of faith mark out time for growth.  It generally includes, among other things, acts of service, participation in congregational worship, and celebration of the sacraments (though the language of sacraments won’t be consistent across all Christian denominations).  More internal gestures would include praying, studying sacred passages, devotionals, and giving.  A retreat is another example, one that can involve people or be done on your own.  I just finished a personal retreat, and here are a few points about retreats, whether with groups or personal.

  1. Take the retreat anywhere you have space, time, and resources.  You don’t have to leave town.  When I spoke with my spiritual director about needing to focus on prayer and about the upcoming retreat too many months before May, she encouraged me to separate space in my day or my week at that time.  She said that I could build retreats into my schedule and not wait for one.  So, take the retreat in the afternoon, right before your busiest time in the day, on your commute, when you have family around who can assist.
  2. They need to be planned with enough space for you to hear.  Hearing presupposing listening, which is critical.  Retreats have many purposes.  Some people go on teambuilding retreats.  I’m talking about retreats where the explicit and hoped for point is to listen to what God may be saying.  You need “planned” time to sit, in solitude, and listen.  Solitude is hard.  If you’re not used to that word, it means doing nothing but listening.  It means being quiet before God.  It’s not prayer but it’s related.  It’s being still and waiting.
  3. Prepare yourself for all kinds of strange things.  I have a least two fun stories from every one of my personal retreats.  It’s a practice that I’ve taken one every other year for the last six.  On this last one, an old woman pulled me next to her and told me that God had given her a message for me.  Now, in my spiritual history and present that’s not strange, but in the context of my paying attention to God, it was timely–and a little interesting.  It was at the beginning of my time and gave me another reason to say, “God, okay, my ears are open.”  You may experience spiritual pain on these things.  You may revisit hardships.  You may remember or be consumed by temptations or lies about who you are.  It may not be joyful, some of these spaces set aside for listening.  It may be hard.  But growth is happening.
  4. When you return, rebuild your plans for your spiritual growth.  I came home thinking about what the next year needs to look like: my monthly spiritual direction, the idea of connecting to a group of pastors, setting in concrete conversations with a friend or two regularly, talking more to people I trust about what’s inside.  I thought about my denomination’s version of continuing education reports which, I’m pleased, they revised to include the important dimension of spiritual growth and not only reading, learning, and educational experiences.  I’m considering some of the ways I need to structure my time so that I’m practicing what I’ve learned, so that I can grow deeper and stronger, so I can hear God clearer.
  5. Tell people who love you what you’re doing.  Those good people can ask you helpful questions.  They can support you while you’re gone.  They can help fill in the gaps you left when you departed.  Tell people.  They may talk with you when you return or pray for you while you’re away.  While you don’t need to take everybody with you on a retreat, in a sense, you need others to come along.

The next post will be about what not to do on these retreats.  The one after will be about things to do.  Now, a question for you, if you’re in the answering mood.  What kinds of things do you do to hear and listen to God?