Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Most Christians are Too Nice and Very Boring

I go to the same mega-church almost every week. It has all the right doctrine, both evangelistic and social justice outreaches, a preacher with a PhD from Stanford in literature, and 5 services per Sunday with attendees numbering 4000. The music is excellent and professional and you can pick between a traditional (choir) and a contemporary service with a live band. I have always appreciated the pastor’s sermons and I am being mentored by the mission pastor. I also attend a divorce recovery workshop there. And, I don’t have to fight too violently to get my kids to come along. The only thing I miss is community. I don’t know anyone there and no one knows me. No one says hello to me except the greeters and I say hello to no one because I don’t know anyone either (accept the pastor, the mission pastor, and a few mission elders). Since I don’t have too many friends here who aren’t super busy, I crave for human community.

Once in a while I pop into a pub on Mercer Island where you might say the less polished rich people frequent, or those who have been rich and lost their millions, or for those who drive school buses but inherited great wealth from their parents on the Island. It’s a bar for the rich who lost their way. As with frequent clients of bars, many are loudly opinionated. The less they can back their opinion, the louder they are. I usually go to watch the game and just to be around people. After a while of being a bump on log type stranger, people will begin conversations with me. White bearded old Lou Summers an 80 year chap that looks like he stepped out of a geriatric form of an L.L. Bean catalogue was the first one to make my acquaintance. He tells me stories of growing up in Seattle while he whittles away at his martini and sometimes spills it on me. He loves to talk of his time as a marine when he fought in Korea. Born a Lutheran, he lost his faith when he saw American priests giving last rites to American Soldiers who were sent into unwinnable battles with the Chinese and North Koreans. He is often brought to tears as he recites the many war atrocities he witnessed on both sides. Whenever I engage Lou on philosophical or religious issues he will stop to ask me if I am writing a book on the characters in the bar. I say, “No, I am not writing a book. “Are you sure” he asks me? “I like you, but I think you’re up to something. You’re the one person in this pub who is not looking for somebody or something to save him.”

People tend to avoid Lou because they’ve heard all his stories before so when I enter the bar a shuffling of chairs takes place and suddenly the only chair left at the bar is next to eighty year old Lou. Behind me is Ward,a six foot seven, former Canadian Football player and millionaire who drives a hummer and is throwing darts with Burke. Ward never gave me the time day until he found out I was a dyed in the wool Neil Young fan. I sort of avoid conversation with Ward as he is a handsome male athlete in his mid 40’s who uses his spare time to drink and engage in the conquest of women as a hobby. I am not sure he would appreciate my perspective on that. Burke, his dart-loving friend, on the other hand is another large man but much more rotund and graduated from High school in 1971. Balding on top with salt and pepper stubble and the sides, he is handsome man who is in the construction business but has no work going at the time. His wife divorced him and took everything. Ward took him in and he camps out on Wade’s couch. Burke is a Catholic and goes to church. He is especially open and friendly with me because he grew up in Stamford and I in Darien. We both grew up Catholic. He attends church and has an appreciation for God but has few Biblical values, or least conflicting ones. His habits with women and alcohol consumption don’t seem to conflict with his faith values. Maybe he holds them in tension well. He would be right smack dab with the conservative right if it weren’t for the abortion issue. What he has going for him is that he is a good natured fellow who is quite likable.

On occasion, I will get a spot next to Van. Van is about 70 and was Special Ops for the Russian Navy. He is brilliant pool player and understands culture and world politics very well. The bulk of my in depth conversations take place with Val. He served in Afghanistan in the 1980’s and had many stories tell. For special Ops, he is a gentle man who likes to discuss religion. He told me, if anyone could possible convert him to the faith, it would be me. His atheism is dissolving.
Behind me would be James, former US Secret Service. He orders his glass of house wine and talks a seat at a table in the back and just observes. He rarely says a word unless someone joins him at his table. He was the one who told me the pub was owned by the Chinese Mafia!

The Barmaid would be Tracy, who is now about 27 but immigrated to America when she was 7. She is totally acculturated and she is beautiful and her pop culture quotient outweighs any other knowledge she may have about anything other than mixing drinks, pool, or pop music. She works hard and has fun too, even takes the occasional sexual harassment like water of a duck’s back.

Bruce, sporting dirty blond hair and always a day’s growth of stubble comes in about 5 pm, riding the bus from Seattle wearing a trench coat with the Seattle times under his arm. He’s a brilliant man who was born wealthy but somehow lost all his wealth along the away. Now he works for a large hotel chain doing IT work which he does not enjoy as people younger than him who are over him treat him like he knows nothing. He travels around the Seattle on a trivia team as a hobby when he isn’t playing pool in pub. He and I have had some deep conversations, many times around Christian ethics and values. He parades his values as compassionate but I challenge him that his cynicism is a mask just to protect his real indifference toward the plight of the world. He often says, “Why those #%$#X&@)* Christians, blah, blah, etc., when he is actually referring to the Religious Right and their abuse of the abortion and gay marriage issues to cloud other important issues of unjust wars for oil, poor education, 13 million American Children living in poverty, poor health care, no insurance for many, the poor and the working poor, and the plight of the poor in other countries, and the marriage of corporate conglomerates and the government. He has a good point here but misses the fact that abortion needs to be included in the quality life argument too, even if it used unwisely as a smoke screen at times.

The fun apart about the pub is I can talk deeply with people about critical issues of faith and culture. I can’t find a venue at church to do that. I have two great landlords that fall on the side of the being very conservative religiously and they change the subject when I ever get to close to a ‘liberal’ or ‘moderate’ agenda. In the pub, if I approached a sensitive topic with some friends, they might curse and swear but the conversation would continue. Other than having a couple beers, I have not compromised my integrity and at times have even given inebriated customers a ride home.

By no means is a bar going to become my new church or regular group therapy but it may become some sort an occasional community where I can explore in depth issues of faith and politics which is taboo in many churches.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

ABC's of Brian's Year Review

Alana enjoyed her tour of duty at Mercer Island High School and desires to graduate from the exclusive M.I. High next year (Obama’s mother graduated from M. I. H.S.).

Brian was divorced on Aug 17th but continues to see the kids as often as possible. He attends First Pres. Bellevue, has been doing tree work, and leading short term trips into Cambodia.

Cambodia calls out to me and is still on my mind. I miss my friends and tight community that I enjoyed so much there. God Bless Cambodia!

Divorce has taken its toll on me but I am very thankful to God and to close friends who have sustained both me and the family through the last two and a half years of very tough time.

Eugene Maher, my dad passed away in early December. I was glad to have been there when he passed to be a support to my mother and spend time with family and friends.

Funeral- My dad’s funeral went very well. I did the eulogy which seemed to go well and the service was accompanied by Darien Firemen and we had an escort to the grave site by fire truck. Dad would have been very impressed.

God is very present in hindsight as I can count and identify the evidence of his presence each day but He seems to be silent concerning the future. This is perhaps the greatest struggle for me.

Humor- I was just checking out (did not join) E harmony on the internet and I left it on my screen and Jordan said, “Dad, your new E harmony wife won’t like the fact you don’t have a job!” I am re-reading all my Patrick McManus books again which make me laugh out loud.

International- I am still having difficulty segueing into American culture when I am international at heart. That’s my niche and I still feel like I am a fish living out of water.

Justice- I pray daily for trafficked children, the poor, marginalized, the oppressed, child laborers, and single mothers, for all is not right in the world, even during this Christmas Season.

Kingdom Realities- “Thy Kingdom come, they will be done, as earth as it is in heaven.” The Kingdom is here now and will be fully realized when Jesus returns to usher it in. “Fear not,” Jesus said. Good news for a country that manipulates its citizens through fear (even religious authors).

Loss- I have lost a life partner, a ministry, a cohesive family and my dad this year.

Matthew graduated from Sammamish High School last year and is taking a year off. He is going to Cambodia in January and will start at Bellevue College next fall.

Neil Young turned 65 this year. Doesn’t that make you feel old?

Older- I am 53 and still climbing trees. This too, must end.

Power outages on the Island all week long due to high winds.

Quintessential Christianity takes care of the poor, orphans, the fatherless and the widows.

Recovery- I went through a 6 week divorce recovery workshop which was very helpful
Salvage-since the theme of the bible is restoration, reconciliation, reclamation, and redemption, I am waiting on the Lord to put me back on line but the wait is excruciating.

Theological Studies- I have one more course to go in order to finish my MA in Intercultural Studies at Fuller. In this job market, that and 50 cents just might get me a cup of coffee.

Unbelievable Pho! Every week end I take Alana to have Vietnamese noodle soup in White Center where the Pho is the best I ever had. One plus for the Seattle area!

Vancouver. I have been traveling to Vancouver BC on occasion to do some training on Cross-Cultural Ministry with 10th Ave Church. I usually drive across the border.

Worst drivers in the US and worst traffic in the US are found in Seattle. I didn’t say worse than Phnom Penh.

X-My ex is doing well. She has a job but not well paying. She is looking for a real job so keep her in your prayers.

Ya’ll –Thanks for your prayers, encouragement, emails and financial support. We would be in dire straits if it weren’t for you.

Z-in the Greek Alphabet, is Omega, or the end. This ends my year in review

Saturday, December 11, 2010

A Forester's Perspective

Dr. Terry Tatter, renowned professor of Arboriculture and wood science at U-Mass, and author of the books I used to study for my Connecticut Arborist license was called as an expert witness in the law suit over a tree from Calvary Baptist (my church) falling on a woman’s car and bruising her in the incident during a freakish summer storm. He said, “This Arborist, Brian Maher is responsible because his pruning cuts are what led to the decay that caused the tree to crack and fall on the car and injure this woman!

Tatter brought in all sorts of blocks of wood cut up from the tree in radial and tangential sections to display to the court (most of the stem of the tree was removed before he arrived on the scene). “This simple Arborist does not have the experience to know how defects and decay affect the interior integrity and structure of the tree. “ Little did he know that when I was a forester, part of my on the job training was to spend hours watching how logs opened up on the saw mill. I was to study how exterior defects manifested themselves on the interior of the tree in terms of rot, decay, shake, twisted grain, knots, etc. There weren’t too many trees native to New England that I didn’t see sawn out or peeled on a veneer knife. I remember watching with fascination as the veneer knife peeled off wood like pulling toilet paper off the roll. You could follow the history of the tree from clear wood all the way down to the knots. Tatter lost the case and the later appeal as well.

As a forester I sometimes bid on standing timber so I had to learn what exterior defects looked like on the inside of a standing tree and what they did to the quality of the potential lumber. My company did not want me to waste their money on rot, crook, stain, sweep, decay and ring shake. While looking at a stand of timber I was going to bid on, I would check the stumps from logging operations in the years gone by to see what they looked so I could get an idea what was going on with certain species. In stands where there appeared to be no past harvesting of timber, I used a forester’s tool called an increment borer. It was like a hand drill bit that you drilled into the center of the tree and before you backed out the bit, you extracted the core. This could tell you how old the tree was, whether or not the tree was hollow, healthy, fast or slow growing, and whether it had ring shake, tension wood, or compression wood, etc. All this affected the quality of veneer or lumber. It wasn’t as if I could cut a tree down on someone else’s property and look at the rings to see how fire, drought, insect damage or too much rain affected the growth of the tree but it was still a good indicator of health and quality. But, it is much more interesting to track the history of tree or the stand by examining the annual rings on the stump vs. and increment borer.

I know we humans don’t have annual rings but I assume we have something akin to spiritual annual rings. I once did an assignment in seminary where I was to chart what affected me positively or negatively in the psychological, social, emotional, spiritual and physical realm for every year of my life. It really was like examining the annual rings of a fresh stump. I could track my personal history and see how I came to struggle with the issues that plagued me when I grew older. The point was to see that no matter how many bad life experiences we had, God’s grace, whether meted out directly or through persons, was an active constant in our lives. I saw on my annual rings those years when I had some grade school teachers in public school that shamed me publically a number of times in front of the class. By the time I hit fourth grade I had no self-esteem or sense of self-worth. My annual rings were compressed signaling a lack of personal growth and trauma. Rings in the following years showed growth as God sent mentors into my life in the form of teachers, coaches and scoutmasters who found something worthwhile about me. My spiritual annual rings will show floods, drought, fire, insect infestation, etc, or in human terms, trauma, crises, and undesirable events as well as periods of significant growth and health. As one unravels themselves in this light, it is like examining annual rings on a stump. When you try to unravel the life history of someone else, that is when you need an increment borer, especially if they are unable to examine their own annual rings (and that should be done by a counselor).

I remember the guys who operated the veneer knives bringing me blocks of wood containing horse shoes, axe heads, spikes, saw chain, etc, that the tree had grown around and compartmentalized when the tree was just a sapling. Those items shattered the knife. I hope they weren’t blaming me because there was no way I could’ve found any exterior defects signifying their existence. It’s like when some people seem perfect and have it all together with no outside indicators that their lives are anything but in perfect control and stability until knife hits that chunk of steel embedded deep in the interior of a person’s character. That has happened on occasion to me I must confess and it was the only Great Physician who could set things right again.

Back in the fifties a man in New York State had a coon dog who took off one night chasing a raccoon. He never came back and the man always wondered what became of the dog. In the late seventies he had his property logged and the logger bucking up logs on the log landing was bucking up a hollow tree and cut into part of a petrified dog that was way into the top part of the tree. It was the man’s coon dog.

The point is we all have defects. Some of us have defects so large a dog could climb into them, and others of us have a few burly knots or an axe head buried down deep under some clear wood. Some defects are obvious from the outside and some are not and they are ones that might require a little probing with an increment borer, but they are there and they can affect our lives. It is not our job to be defect detectors in others but Grace detectors. Counting anyone’s spiritual rings will reveal a history of God’s grace diffused through the annual rings, such as Oak wood which is ring porous. God’s grace is there in our lives so it might be good to stop striving, especially during this Christmas season and examine the myriad of ways that he has been present in our lives from the beginning.

Monday, December 6, 2010

A Tribute to Lou

“G1!” “What is G1? I said. I was told it stood for Glenbrook 1, Troop 1 from Glenbrook (Stamford, Ct) of Alfred W. Dater Council that used to meet in Union Memorial church during the late sixties. Anything was better than old “Droopy Drawers,” our current scoutmaster who had us working on some sort of oscillator. I didn’t join scouts to build oscillators, whatever the hell they were. Actually I don’t even know why I joined but here we were in February of 1969, getting a new scoutmaster (thank God!).

But he was from Stamford! Mr. Lou Pape, curly hair on the fringes, balding in the front and sporting a chrome dome in the back, called the scouts of Troop 50 to attention. He wore black rimmed coke bottle type glasses. I, being only a 12 year old snob at the time, was wondering why someone from the neighboring ‘city’ of Stamford had to be imported to lead our Darien Troop. Mind you, Darien is a bedroom community of commuters to New York City, an island for the white and wealthy. Who was this character, I thought? It wasn’t after too long that one learned that Mr. Pape was no light weight, and you didn’t mess with him. After a few months, and a mass exodus of scouts, Troop 50 began to take to shape, a good shape. Finally, I began to realize why I joined scouts. Mr. Pape chucked the oscillators and begin to train us is in actual scouting skills, leadership and outdoor skills.

Mr. Pape was not a guy who looked hip by any means but he had a cool early 60’s Volkswagen van which he slept in on campouts when we weren’t backpacking. He switched over to sleeping in a tent because it was actually colder in his white VW van. Plus it didn’t do hills to well.

I remember one of our campouts that first year; it was a camp-o-ree in Woodland Park in Darien, sometime in 1969. We hiked from the Andrew Shaw Scout Cabin near Ring’s End Lumber Company to Woodland Park on the Stamford line. The camp-o-ree was made up of Alfred W. Dater council troops, all Darien and Stamford. Back in those days, when scouting was more popular, Darien had about 12 troops and Stamford, maybe 40 troops. Close to 25 troops were in attendance at this camp-o-ree. The scenario was that a nine year old girl was lost in Woodland Park and 25 troops had to find her. Zoomies were flying over lending suspense and credibility to the operation. 40 minutes into the operation, Mr. Pape had us comb an area a Stamford troop had jus finished searching. Our Assistant Senior Patrol Leader and captain of the Darien high School wrestling team, Doug Hanum spotted a large log buffered by leaves. He had us pull all the leaves away from under the log and low and behold, there was the girl. We followed our first aid training, built a stretcher from poles and our kerchiefs, and used our stretcher as a backboard to carry her out. Troop 50 one first place in the camp-o-ree that weekend because Mr. Pape’s training paid off. May this character from Stamford was alright. He sure knew his scouting stuff.

Early Campouts were a fiasco, so to speak, trying to whip the troop into shape from the slack days of old Droopy Drawers. On simple ten mile hike, after about hour you would here from the back of line; “Mr. Pape, how many miles?” He would casually reply: “Two more miles, Bubby.” This went on until we finished our 11 mile hike.

There is no age that seems to exhibit the epitome of thorough and unmitigated tomfoolery than that of the junior high school aged boy. His age, around eleven or twelve is precisely the age where he is allowed and even encouraged to sign up in the local scout troop. If it weren't for the older scouts who kept the silly tomfoolery of the younger ones to a manageable level through the use of the evil eye, cutting remarks, condescension, pranks and beatings, this age group would have their fathers pulling out their hair.

The Pound Ridge Reservation is a small State Park just inside the New York State border, not far from Southern Connecticut. If any place stirs up old memories of early scouting days, it is this place. Late March, in '69, perhaps twelve brand spanking new scouts, all dressed in their shiny new polyester scout uniforms, neckerchief slides and belt buckles gleaming sporting their wool checkered jackets or winter Parkas, occupied one of the three existing lean-tos that the illustrious troop 50 of Darien reserved for a weekend wilderness experience. Weekend warriors they were at best.

Earlier in that overcast and chilly spring day, our Scoutmaster Lou Pape had led us all on a ten mile hike around the park. There went the saddest looking bunch of scouts you might well have ever laid your eyes on. Joey B. had pots and pans haphazardly tied to his state-of- the- art Yucca pack, clanging and banging his away down the trail, looking more like an old prospector than a boy scout, scaring away any remote possibility of spotting any real wildlife. Even a crow would have been a welcome sight after a while. Then there was “Gills” Callahan who couldn't walk ten yards without hiking up his sagging drawers. Gills, was the lad who took too much abuse about his weight but always took it quite well and otherwise kept a low profile.

While Jim von K was complaining of chafing his tender thighs raw with his unchallenged, untried, brand spanking new polyester scout pants, "Saigon Elly", a derivative of his actual name (Dick Sagonelli) which resulted from Mr. Pape's intentional mispronunciation, brought up the rear - not to be confused with Callahan, who was continuing to bring up the rear quite literally.

Every now and then some tenderfoot would summon up enough courage to cry out; "Mr. Pape.....how many more miles"? The response never changed - "Two more miles, Bubby". That had always puzzled the best of us tenderfoots but since most of us were not Einstein types when it came to math, except for maybe the Toumey brothers, no one ever challenged Mr. Pape. But there were one or two of us who could put two and two together. For instance, if on a 10 mile hike we had been walking only an hour, and some loon asks the inevitable question and gets the standard, "Two more miles, Bubby" response, then it seemed to us that something wasn't adding up logically. But on the other hand, Scoutmasters never lie. This was a moral dilemma. And since scouts are encouraged to be honest and trustworthy, then we must assume our leader was the guru of trustworthiness. Thus, he would never lie. So, there we were, trapped between a rational rock and a moral hard place. It was only till we were able to read maps and notice trail signs that we had it figured but by then it was one of those nuggets of revelation you kept to yourself.

Stream crossings were always an event to look forward to, especially just after the ice thaws. The older scouts, most specifically a few who were on the High School wrestling squad would take bets on each tenderfoot who came up to take their turn crossing the brook. Gills Callahan lumbered up to ford the stream, hiking up his pants and shifting his pack around till he got comfortable. All bets were on. Gills got about a third of the way across the raging brook when he stepped on a slippery moss covered rock and down he went like a ton of bricks, face first into the stream. His pack had slipped up and was holding his head under the water. When the money was collected and the laughter died down to a dull roar, Assistant Senior Patrol leader, Michael Metzger grabbed the boy by the collar with one arm and pulled him up out of the brook in one swift motion.

There he was gasping for breath, soaked to the skin with his wet hair matted down on his head. Due only to his obesity was his pack and its contents able to remain up out of the water and somewhat dry. Gills immediately checked to see if the sweet tarts in his pants pocket were dry. So to accompany Joey's pots and pans a clanging, a 'squish, squish, squish' now beat out a new tempo to Joey's rhythm. In between the clanging and squishing was the sound of the occasional tenderfoot tripping over a root. It is just amazing where they put those things, right on the trail, no less. They called it, 'pulling a Smith'. Smith seemed to be able hone in on roots like he had radar. His name was personally etched on every root on the trail or so it seemed anyway. I must confess that I found my share in the early days, too.

Arriving back at the campsite, the tenderfoots of Coyote, Buffalo and the Cobra Patrol were indeed tender. Blisters, chaffed thighs, sore backs and aching shoulders where the straps cut into their tender skin under weight of their brand new gear, had this rag tag bunch lagging behind, limping, moaning, whining and complaining. They dropped their gear in the lean to, argued and fought briefly over which prime real estate they wanted and then sat on the nearest available object. The Toumey boys, Ken and Don, stood out amongst them like Mr. Clean on a linoleum kitchen floor. Not a hair out of place, or a speck of dirt or mud anywhere. How did they do it?

As the tired and sore bunch of wilderness novices took inventory of their personal causalities, the Senior Patrol Leader, Hawkins, came to remind us it was about time to rustle up some firewood to cook dinner. It began to drizzle at about 3 pm when we were putting our pea brains together to make a plan to cook up a complicated culinary delight - soup. Some rocket scientist noticed that in our lean to, unlike the others, lo and behold, there was a fire place built in the inside corner. Hey, great, we won't have to get wet! Tenderfoots, no longer in spotless shiny polyester but thorn torn, wet and mud stained, went out to select some choice firewood for a blazing inferno that would take the chill out of our bones on this cold, dank, drizzly late afternoon. Joey, Smith, Louie, Jim, Mark, Kern, Saigon Elli, Don, Ken and Gills Callahan went out to gather up some wood.

Tom Deppen otherwise known as “Bedpan,” and I stayed back to build the fire and brew up some soup. Louie offered us the use of his famous knife which had every attachment from a normal fork to a belly button lint remover. The scary thing was it had never been cleaned. Maybe it was a survival technique. He could have lived for a few days off the crumbs that were stuck between attachments and the green slime that was growing on the various implements that a wipe on a pant leg didn't totally do the trick. If you poured just hot water into his mess kit cup, you'd have a combination of instant Hot Chocolate, oatmeal and tang. So we declined his kind offer of using any of his mess implements. Three hours later and a quarter of cord of unburned green wood, we all settled down to some lukewarm soup. Smelling like we'd lived out our last five years in a hickory smoke house, we abandoned the idea of a roaring bonfire to dry us out. Who needed one anyway? When Mr. Pape came to check on us he took one whiff, and while looking around through the blue haze lingering in the lean-to, he spotted the green wood smoldering in the fire place. I vaguely remember him scratching his head and looking down at his boots, perhaps searching for the right words to say, and then giving us a short lecture on the undesirability and the drawbacks of using green wood vs. dry wood but one thing I do know is that the story of the "three hour soup" still lives in infamy to this day.

Shortly after, darkness fell and with it the rain poured down in buckets. We must have had 12 scouts jammed into that lean-to. Since it was raining so hard, our normal campfire program was canceled. We were all settled in our little jelly rolls, dodging cold drops of water that never seemed to spring up in the same place twice. It was only 7 pm and as the temperature dropped, occasional flashlight beams sliced through our warm breath which was clouding and rising in the cold night air.
Before everyone got settled into their little jelly rolls, there was a frenzy of rummaging going on.
"Shoot, gotta get my canteen and put it right here in case I get thirsty." And another;
"Let’s see, If I put my boots right here, I can get 'em if I hafta take a pee in the middle of the night."


"I should've brought a pillow", as someone wads together some T-shirts and underwear and stuffs them under his head. The back ground to all these comments or thoughts is someone blowing up an air mattress that inevitably will be flat before morning. One of the Toumey boys is donning a poncho, ready to head out into the down pour and brush his teeth. Someone rips a loud one and the lean-to erupts with laughter. Gills, in a panic is ripping apart his pack looking for some back up Twizlers or Nibs to tide him over for the night. "Hey where did my Pez go? Did anyone see my Pez"? It had been swallowed up in the mysterious darkness of the lean to. "Oh, shut up, Callahan, just wait until morning."

After three or four hours of unmitigated tomfoolery, laughing at dirty jokes, telling crude stories, the passing of wind at large decibels, guffawing, etc., some of the tuckered tenderfeet dozed off. Every now and then when our laughter got out of control, we'd hear Mr. Pape yell;
"Knock it off 'yuse guys, its lights out"!

Only when the beam of a flashlight began to shine in our direction did silence resound in our lean to. Funny, you could hear a pin drop-but not for too long!

All of us were stacked into the lean to like cord wood with our feet facing out toward the open face. Only Gills Callahan, because of his sheer obesity was lodged perpendicularly to us, closest to the outside. Rain was cascading down off the roof in sheets in front of us, creating quite a large puddle in front of the lean to. Bedpan, myself and perhaps another scout ascertained that Gills had fallen fast asleep, perhaps dreaming of Sweet tarts, Nibs, Necos or Fireballs. Whose idea it was, I can't remember, but with a slight nudge, we rolled poor unsuspecting Gills out into the depression that was caused by the rain cascading off the roof. Gills was thoroughly soaked before Mr. Pape had discovered him, a quite waterlogged, mostly disheveled lump of cotton, polyester and flesh on his final rounds before turning in. He must have kicked Gills back into to the lean to. Amazingly, Gills didn't wake up until the next morning. Or so it appeared. Mr. Pape assumed Gills had rolled out on his own after some tossing and turning. He should have known better.

One dilemma Mr. Pape hadn't quite solved and that was just exactly who it was in the corner of the lean to, body shivering, teeth chattering and wrapped in a pink blanket. No sleeping bag, just a pink blanket-pink, no less. First the Green wood-three hour soup, a disheveled lump sleeping in a puddle, and now a shivering body in a pink blanket. Did it get much better than that?

After a cold breakfast of whatever un-edible food we rustled up, we began to pack up our knap sacks. Mr. Pape had come by earlier to identify the shivering body in the pink blanket. Nobody had to tell him it was Joey. Mr. Bachman or Mr. Metzger or some other kind hearted parent had boiled enough water for the gaggling of tenderfoots to have a cup of hot chocolate. Forgetting that anything could get hot on a camp out, most of us singed our tongues down to the bone. It always took at least a week for my tongue to heal and for that burnt taste in my mouth to go away. My mouth always felt as though a group of tenderfoots had camped out in it for the weekend and used it as a latrine.

Mr. Pape was not God, and could not create something out of nothing, but he did his best.

I freely admit I was rather obnoxious as a pre-adolescent (probably adolescent as well) but Mr. Pape taught me and mentored me in scouting skills and gradually I emerged as a leader in our scout troop. Mr. Pape was my first mentor and coach who (other than my father) accepted me as I was, and worked with me. Many of my earlier experience with adults and people in authority were rather abusive. Mr. Pape helped me to believe in myself and taught me leadership and outdoor skills that are still with me today.

With the switchover to Mr. Pape, we now had campouts every month. Each campout had to do with at least a 10 mile hike. Tailgate camping was just not found in Mr. Pape’s book. Darien’s Troop 50 became quite competitive in the Alfred W. Dater council from 1969 to 1973. In 1971, my father became Mr. Pape’s assistant and we proceeded to grow in scouting skills.

Mr. Pape wanted to see me get my Eagle Scout badge and encouraged me from early on. He told me: “Son, one day you’re going to meet a monster, and she is called a ‘girl.’ When you meet her, the probability of any progress on your Eagle Badge will cease. Work hard now, so when you meet the monster, all your hard work won’t be lost.” His words were prophetic but I followed his advice and had most of the work done for my eagle badge at 14. I got my eagle when I was 15.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

When is the Church being the Church?

While staying home from church with my recently widowed mother, I was doing some reading and came across this quote:

“How does the Church contribute to the survival of the communities in which it ministers?” Churches invariably struggle with their relevance because they don’t know how they contribute to their respective communities. The survival of an individual church, in some respects, becomes an end in itself. Churches exist for their own sake.” Bruce Bradshaw.

This quote, among other things, has demonstrated to me that the church’s engagement in social justice issues on global and local levels is not only the natural outflow of a biblical ethic of love, grace and justice, but the very means by which individual churches are to survive. Without re-inventing the wheel and giving the complete rationale for social justice as stemming from a purely biblical ethic (read Howard Yoder), suffice it for now to say that Jesus’ summary of the law into the Great Commandment is enough reason for the church to engage in social justice. Many churches separate evangelism and social justice as two unrelated commandments, and often evangelism is prioritized when both are actually interdependent missions/commandments for the church. Teaching in churches on biblical ethics, holistic ministry, and social justice is largely lacking which affects the world view of each person in the pew. I think that any efforts in discipleship that don’t include doing social justice just reinforce a pietistic and doctrinal heavy emphasis type of discipleship that leads to non-engagement with the social system and powers. Obedience in many forms of contemporary discipleship boils down to sins of commission, not sins of omission like our call to social justice. I have only attended one church, Pasadena Mennonite Church, where social justice was treated fairly, given a place in discipleship and the life of the church. This church engaged society and the powers. My expat church in Cambodia didn’t need to address it too much because it was what many of us were already doing.

Early on in my Christian life I felt empty or that something was missing in my Christian life. It just seemed too shallow and when I tried to share the gospel with friends and strangers, it was too forced because my motivation was that I had the “truth” and they needed it- not that I had this particularly great experience that I want to share with someone because they needed it too. I could not even share that my experience was all that great or describe what was different about me (except I didn’t drink or smoke). In the late 80’s I began reading C.S. Lewis and Francis Shaffer and they were a catalyst for thinking about a Christian World view and the evolution of Christian thinking over the last two thousand years. My world view began to allow more space for a biblical ethic of social justice. My exposure to Jai Sankarsarma at World Vision, Cambodia in the early 90’s and living in a developing Buddhist country further enabled me see how interdependent evangelism and social justice were. When I went to work for World Vision I had to develop a Christian Witness Training Module for World Vision National Staff. In the process I read Paul Hiebert, Bryant Meyers, Bruce Bradshaw, Ron Sider, Don Kraybill, John Steward and a host of others. I enrolled in Fuller in 2005 and my courses began to pull everything together in light of God’s missional and redemptive plan for the cosmos.

The course am taking now was very helpful as we studied a biblical view the powers and principalities, and how church needs to engage societal or systemic evil in order to fulfill its mandate of being salt and light and bearing witness to the Kingdom of God in the midst of the cosmos-it should not simply address the symptoms. This challenges my faith in a way because it takes cooperation between churches, unity, organizing, research, and risk. It is much easier to just teach bible studies, preach a sermon or handout food to the poor and feel good about it when we have abdicated the important responsibility of the church being the only entity that can successfully engage the powers. Recently I have been given more light to see, and I want to be part of a ministry that realizes the Church’s responsibility to engage powers. I am saddened in one way because I have recently been divorced and need to be near my children in Seattle where jobs are not easy to find and it looks like I may have to take a low paying job doing anything I can to pay alimony. I would love to find a Christian non-profit to work nearby that does engage the powers and can transform societal systems. So I am not comfortable in my position now, because I want to act, and it seems like those doors are closed for the time being.

The ethical issue, then for me, is not about bribery, or lying, or when to obey the government vs. God, etc., it is how can we live in a particular society and system without giving more leeway to the powers in the exploitation of the working class, the poor, oppressed and alien? How can we let high insurance costs, high interest on credit cards, high health costs, high food costs, and high pharmaceuticals continue to be made available only for the wealthier members of society? How can I live my life in the system without receiving benefits that cost others or make others go without? This will continue to challenge and grow my faith as I pray to God for more clarity in my role in civic society or overseas as a community development worker. Most churches would never have challenged me or pushed me this far toward a holistic type of discipleship. I unfortunately had to come to this point of faith and challenge through working for Christian NGOs and taking seminary courses.