All posts in Life

  • This is America: My Thoughts

    If you haven’t taken the time to watch the music video to Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” you need to.

    It isn’t just another music video dreamed up by a marketing team to sell records. This video is an art piece. As with any good piece of art it will mess with you. It works on you. It doesn’t leave your memory. It will stick with you.

    Over the last week I have watched it more than a dozen times and I cannot stop thinking about the images, the lyrics, and I how I feel every time I watch it. I can’t get the lyrics out of my head.

    This is America
    Don’t catch you slippin’ up

    Every time I watch it, I want to write something…my thoughts…my feelings…my reactions…my anger…my hope. It seems like I have a different reaction every time I watch it, but one thought continues to remain consistent: this song is important.

    In some ways this is the “The Times They Are A-Changin'” for a new generation. Bob Dylan wrote that song in 1963 and was later called the voice of a generation. I don’t know if generations have a single voice anymore. We are so polarized and tribal and live in such a pluralistic world that maybe there isn’t one song that will speak to and for an entire generation.

    But then again, maybe this is the song and voice and message for this generation.

    So watch and listen with an open mind and heart. Be prepared to be moved. If you have already watched it once or twice, watch it again…and again. Listen and watch. The video is just as important as the song.

    Be warned. Some lyrics are explicit and some images are graphic, but still…you need to watch this.

    Whoa. This is America.

    America are you listening?

    There is more in this song and video than I will take time to comment on. Others have written about all the symbolism here, but let me start with the obvious: This is America and America we have a problem.

    We have a revolving door of violence and it seems like after we all offer “thoughts and prayers,” we go back to life as normal. Particularly people like me. I am a middle class white dude. When I watch “This Is America,” I do so with white eyes. I make no apology for my ethnicity and socioeconomic status. I just acknowledge that it exists and I am aware of it. I’m aware that because of my place in life, I see things with certain biases and assumptions. I do not know what it is like to live in fear. I do not know what it is like to be a black man in America. I see Glover running at the end of this video with fear in his eyes and I cannot imagine a situation where I will ever know a moment of terror like that. One thing I do know: #BlackLivesMatter.

    America we have a problem and guns are a part of that problem.

    In the opening scene when the guitar player (minus his guitar) is executed, the man’s body is dragged off only after the gun used in his murder is carefully handed off in a red cloth. In America guns have become sacred and any talk of ending the proliferation of guns is met by outrage and resistance. (I have written about that here.) I know we have second amendment rights. I know we need armed law enforcement. Nobody is saying we have to eliminate all guns but what can we do to end the spread of guns and gun violence?

    How long will we rant on social media over escalating violence in America and then go back to:

    Look how I’m geekin’ out
    I’m so fitted
    I’m on Gucci
    I’m so pretty

    How long? How long until we say enough is enough?

    How long until we as a people can say innocent black men gunned down in the streets of America is not OK?

    How long until we say people being killed in our schools, churches, and movie theaters is not OK?

    How long until we say violence on the “other” side of town is my problem too?

    How long until we learn to put down our guns and love one another?

    As a pastor I have the opportunity to serve communion week after week. Very often as I serve the wine with the words “the blood of Christ shed for you,” I think this is the way: we don’t need to shed blood anymore, Jesus shed his blood for us. The only way to peace is to confess our sin, abandon our ways, and follow the Jesus way empowered by the Spirit. This is the hope I have for America. My hope is for baptized followers of Jesus Christ to shed their political affiliations and ideological covers and wrap themselves with the other-worldly, enemy-loving, counterintuitive ways of Jesus.

    This is the way. Jesus is the way. Peace is the way. There is no way to peace…peace is the way. If we will embrace Jesus, he can save us, not to take us to a distant world, but so he can save this world.

    Childish Gambino has awaken something. Let’s not grow comfortable with violence. Let’s stay awake and aware. Let’s stay woke.

    America are you listening?

  • Why is There a Black Smudge on My Forehead?

    It isn’t a smudge. It is ashes in the shape of a cross. Today is Ash Wednesday.

    Like many of us who were nurtured in a Southern Baptist and/or charismatic nondenominational context, I didn’t grow up with Ash Wednesday or Lent as a part of my practice of the Christian faith. I am deeply appreciative for my Southern Baptist upbringing. They taught me the centrality of following Jesus and they gave me a love for the Scripture. I equally appreciate the years I spent in the charismatic renewal. The Pentecostal/charismatic tradition taught me to love Jesus with all my heart and remain open to the surprising work of the Holy Spirit.

    As much as I love these expressions of the Christian family, neither of these traditions gave me the Christian calendar.

    The Liturgical Calendar

    For so long I thought the church’s liturgical calendar was dead tradition, man-made religion practiced by Roman Catholics and liberal Protestant Christians. I was wrong. I was arrogant and ignorant. I was blinded by my own sense of spiritual superiority. I know better now.

    Today I observe the church calendar with a growing number of post-Evangelicals and post-charismatics who desire a rich, substantive faith rooted in the ancient traditions of the Christian faith. (Quick commercial: We are hosting a gathering at Word of Life Church June 28-30, 2018 for people who are on this journey of discovering the great tradition and looking to do church in a way that is both contextual to our present time and reaching back into the great tradition. Lean more here: www.watertowinegathering.com.)

    Nearly all Christians recognize Christmas and Easter, but what I, and so many others have discovered, is that there is an entire calendar with seasons and celebrations throughout the year. To be honest, most Christians celebrate Christmas and Easter not because they are ancient traditions, but because they are some of the final remaining relics of a Christianized-culture. In other words, non-liturgical churches typically recognize Christmas and Easter, because they are listed on the same calendar that marks Mother’s Day and Independence Day.

    To observe the liturgical calendar with its seasons like Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost is to resist the growing secularism that is the air we breathe in North America. The cultural tide has turned. The Christian faith no longer has a dominate voice in our culture and we aren’t getting that voice back. We certainly will never expand our gospel witness by engaging in never-ending culture wars. We don’t fight and clamor for the kingdom of God in order to attack secularism. Instead we resist it. Observing the Christian calendar is one of the ways we resist the ways of the world and the rising flood waters of secularism.

    Today, for the first time since World War II, Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday have collided. Today is a test to see which calendar has primary influence over us. I am not saying we forsake Valentine’s Day. I bought flowers for my wife. But I bought them yesterday, hid them in my truck, and left them for her before I headed out for our 7AM Ash Wednesday Service.

    So Why Ash Wednesday?

    Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent and Lent is all about Jesus.

    In fact the entire Christian calendar tells the story of Jesus. Today marks the beginning of a 40-day journey with Jesus to the cross and ultimately to the resurrection. Every Sunday on this journey is a mini-celebration of the resurrection, so everything is not doom and gloom, but today, on Ash Wednesday, we are intentional about identifying with the sorrows of the cross so we can prepare ourselves for the joy of the resurrection. If we do nothing to prepare for the Easter celebration, then Easter becomes about Easter bunnies, Easter eggs, and Easter candy. And I am all for it! In fact, I am giving up candy and sweets for Lent so bring on on Cadbury eggs on Easter Sunday!

    Giving up something for Lent or fasting a meal or day during Lent is a way to remind us of the sufferings of Jesus, so we create a little contrast in our lives, so that when Easter comes, watch out, the joy and excitement will be palpable!

    Ash Wednesday along with the entire Lenten season is a well-worn spiritual pathway walked by millions of Christians before us. Today it is practiced not only by Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians but by ordinary Protestants like me and you who want to reach back into the great tradition of the Church that we might walk more faithfully with Jesus today.

    Here on Ash Wednesday we are reminded of two things:
    1. Jesus died for our sins according to the Scripture, according to the long and winding story the Scripture tells.
    2. We will at some time also cross the threshold of death.

    We welcome the first reminder, but we recoil when anyone talks about death. To admit that yes we will all die is not to morbidly fixate on death or long for death, because as Christians we believe death is an enemy, an unwelcomed invader into God’s good creation.

    Death is indeed unwelcomed, but death is a present reminder that humanity is fragile, life is like a mist that appears for a little bit and then vanishes. Yes we are going to die, but we do not fear death, because we believe Jesus has defeated death by his death through the resurrection.

    Our response on Ash Wednesday is the same response we offer to the gospel and that is confession and repentance. For ancient Israel ashes were a sign of mourning and repentance. The ashen cross we received on our foreheads today is a similar sign. We receive the sign of repentance as a reflection of our desire to turn from sin and turn to Jesus. Sure it is weird to have someone smudge ashes on your forehead and walk around all day with what looks like dirt on our foreheads, but this mark is a part of being God’s peculiar people.

    So today I wear ashes on my forehead. Yes it is strange, but in some strange way it helps me grow closer to Jesus.

    To help you on this Lenten journey, we have created a Lent Devotion Guide with Scriptures, a question, and a prayer for every day during this season of Lent. You can download it at wolc.com/lentguide.

    Join us on this journey.

    Join us in this resistance movement.

    Join us in what Jesus is doing in and through his church today.

  • The Last Jedi: Luke Speaks to the Church

    I’m a Star Wars fan.

    I’m a fan because Star Wars has been with me my entire life. I remember watching The Empire Strikes Back in a drive-in with my parents when I was six years-old. I remember standing in line to get tickets for Return of the Jedi. I collected Star Wars action figures and turned my pre-adolescent  bedroom into a galaxy of it own. I read the books based on the screenplays of Episodes 1-3 before the movies came out in the early 2000s. As I became a father of three boys, I was happy to see them gravitate towards this story that took place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

    When I played with my Star Wars toys as a child, it was not to replay fight scenes or lightsaber duels from the movies; I told stories, new stories that went deeper into the narrative world created by the Star Wars universe. Storytelling is the magic of Star Wars. It really isn’t the special effects, CGI, or epic battles. It is the story. The enduring appeal of Star Wars is a testimony to the power of myth.

    [Warning: There are spoilers below! If you have not seen the movie stop reading now.]

    Star Wars: The Last Jedi

    Star Wars fans were nervous about The Force Awakens when it came out in 2015, but nothing could have prepared us for the polarization that came with The Last Jedi. While the critics love it, fans are divided. To date is has a 92% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but an audience score of 53%. I saw The Last Jedi a week after the release which gave me time to read some online reviews and comments from friends on social media. I could tell people either loved it or hated it. It seemed to me that among the Star Wars faithful, most were disappointed with the movie.

    When I walked out of the theater, I was completely elated. But I was shaking my head. I couldn’t understand why so many fans didn’t like The Last Jedi. I absolutely loved it. It brought back all the nostalgia from my childhood. I laughed. I didn’t cry, but I did feel a lump in my throat. What I loved so much was the story. The Last Jedi is a great story. It seems to me that those who didn’t like it had expectations that the movie did not fulfill, questions that that movie did not answer.

    Great stories don’t bow down to the demands of the crowd. Great stories aren’t mastered or controlled by the audience. Great stories invite us in to explore another world and, if we are open, a well-told story can shape and reshape our imaginations.

    The Last Jedi is the conclusion to Luke’s story. He is the main character. At the end of The Force Awakens we were all left wondering how Luke would respond to Rei’s offer of a lightsaber. His response was to flippantly toss that lightsaber over his shoulder and walk away. Luke Skywalker on Ahch-To, 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi, isn’t the same Luke Skywalker we saw celebrating with his friends in the Ewok village on Endor. This Luke was broken and despondent. He was living in near seclusion with his guilt and shame, waiting to die.

    Maybe fans didn’t like this version of Luke. Mark Hamill himself didn’t like how Luke Skywalker was portrayed in this film, calling him “Jake Skywalker” and saying “this is not my Luke Skywalker.” Setting aside our expectations for this movie, I thought this was a masterful move in the telling of the story of Luke Skywalker. He was the hero of the galaxy, indeed a legend, but now he was a flawed, jaded, bitter man. He is a fallen hero, still on a quest. A hero who, by the end of the movie, finds redemption and peace. 

    Three Things Master Luke Has to Say to the Church

    The power of myth and well-told stories are their ability to be translated into various cultural forms. As a Christian peeking into the Star Wars universe I can seem archetypes and themes that speak well to the church on mission today in our current cultural context. So let’s allow Luke Skywalker speak to us today. He is still a Jedi Master. He had three lessons for Rey. Here are the three things he has to say to us.

    #1 Grace is Given to the Humble

    As Luke explains to Rey the events surrounding Ben Solo’s metamorphosis into Kylo Ren, he is quick to take the blame. It was his arrogance. He was a hero, but he allowed the acclaim to inflate his ego. He had become “Luke Skywalker the Legend” and he had subtly begun to trust in himself, slowly closing himself to the Force. He saw the darkness growing in Ben and at the height of his own arrogance, Luke contemplated killing his own nephew.

    Luke opted for isolation on Ahch-To to hide in shame and eventually die. He was humiliated but for Luke this experience was necessary. Rey’s arrival didn’t instantly relieve him of his shame, but it opened the door for hope. Like so many flawed heroes in the Bible, Luke Skywalker’s life testifies to this simple truth: God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. Luke’s grace appeared in the form of Rey who will carry on the Jedi’s legacy. Luke’s pride gave way to humility and in the end of the movie he shows up to be a hero once again. 

    #2 Failure Can Be the Greatest Teacher

    My inner nine-year old started jumping up and down when Yoda, as a force ghost, appeared on the screen. Luke was about ready to burn down the ancient tree and Jedi books (which Rey somehow snuck aboard the Millennium Falcon) when Yoda appears. And wisdom he came to bring.

    Yoda offers this sage advice: “The greatest teacher, failure is.”

    Many of the characters in The Last Jedi are wrestling with their past: Rey with her parents, Kylo Ren with his turn to the dark side, and Finn with his previous life as a stormtrooper. But no character is haunted by the past more than Luke. He ran from his failure. He needed something like Pete & Geri Scazzero’s Emotionally Healthy Spirituality. He needed a way to process his painful past. Luckily Yoda shows up with a literal lightning bolt to help Luke reckon with his past.

    Failure is a great teacher, but only if we take the time to reflect upon it, wrestle with it, and allow God to heal us of past mistakes, so we can go forward with God’s mission. Failure left unattended is no teacher at all.       

    #3 There is Power in Contemplation

    I suppose many Star Wars fans were disappointed with how the movie ended. One YouTuber with a large Star Wars fan channel said he wanted to see Luke as a powerful Jedi take on Kylo Ren in an epic lightsaber battle. However what we saw from Luke was a few swings of his lightsaber and a Matrix-style back bend to dodge a striking Kylo Ren. I understand people’s disappointment. They wanted a Jedi warrior who would do some epic damage with that lightsaber! Instead we were given a quiet Luke who through meditation projected himself onto the salt-covered planet of Crait. In doing so he gave time for the remaining resistance fighters to escape. In the end he finds the peace he needs to pass on and become one with the Force.            

    So many Christians want a kick-butt Messiah. They struggle to come to grips with a God who saves not by killing his enemies, but by being killed. Star Wars fans wanted a kick-butt Luke. Instead they are given a Luke who ultimately engages his enemy through solitude and meditation.

    Christians for centuries have practiced contemplation, sitting quietly with Jesus in prayer. Contemplation has the power to transform our heart and mind and our  outlook on the world. In a world of hostility and antagonism, we need less warriors and more contemplatives. After all, Yoda told Luke in The Empire Strikes Back, that wars do not make one great.

    The greatest legacy of Luke Skywalker is throwing down his lightsaber and not killing Darth Vader, an act of nonviolence, and then saving the rebels through an act of contemplation. Perhaps we who follow the Prince of Peace could follow his lead.  

  • When Death Is So Near: A Spoken Word Poem

    Yesterday I did something impulsively, something I had never done before.

    Let me back up and offer some context…

    My friend Ruthie Johnson wrote a poem yesterday. She is a person of color and lives 5 miles from where Philando Castile was shot. She wrote in response to what she was feeling. She works 3 miles from the gas station where he was shot and she had even stopped there before. This shooting happened in her neighborhood. Her poem was deep and poignant. It was prophetic in that it was words from elsewhere. The more I read her poem, the more I was moved by it. I began to hear this voice inside my head as I read it over and over. It was the voice of a preacher, a spoken word poet, crying out in lament. I felt compelled to record her poem as a spoken word. I have never done anything like this before, but as I said, I felt something calling me (demanding me!) to give voice to the words I was reading.

    A few caveats…

    First, I am no poet and I am the furthest person from hip hop culture. I literally have one Jay-Z song in my music on iTunes. Any weaknesses in my reading should not take away from the brilliance of the poem.

    Second, I am not taking a side in the growing hostility between the Black Lives Matter movement and the police. I equally mourn and pray for the city of Dallas and the police officers who lost their lives. I do not want to add to the hostility. I want to grieve with those who have lost the lives of people they love.

    Third, I do not pretend to understand the pain and struggle of my black neighbors and people of color. I am simply offering this spoken word as a way to say: “blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” I am a white son of the South who grew up in the suburban Midwest and I am learning to listen and love people who are not like me.

    Finally, in recording this I changed one word of the poem. I did this subconsciously, but chose not to correct it. Near the end of the poem, Ruthie writes: “When death is so near we must repeat.” I say: “When death is so near we must REPENT.” And with this slight change, I encourage you to repent, to turn away from hate, name-calling, scape-goating, discrimination, and suspicion and turn to King Jesus who teaches us to love God and love one another. Jesus died to take away our hate and violence. He rose from the dead to offer us new life.

    Peace.

  • Wendell Berry, “To a Siberian Woodsman”

    wendall-berry

    Today was a day full of activity…meetings, emails, and phone conversations. The work of a pastor is not a weekend gig and neither is it a 9-5, clock-in/clock-out kind of vocation. I love serving the church, but it requires us to wear a lot of different hats. I do not mutli-task so well and it takes me some time to transition from one task to another.

    In the business of clearing out my inbox today (which I like not to be longer than 10-15 emails) I saw that I had received an email from a friend inviting me to read a poem he had recently come accross from Wendell Berry. I thought that in the fury of that moment a break from email to read a poem may be a perfect idea. So I switched gears. I took off my “office/admin/clearer-of-the-email” hat and put on my thinking cap. I am glad I did.

    The poem I read from Wendell Berry was “TO A SIBERIAN WOODSMAN (after looking at some pictures in a magazine).” Reading it stopped me dead in my tracks. I want you to read it too, but let me offer a few introductory comments.

    First, Wendell Berry may be the sanest man in America. No joke. Wendell Berry is a modern wise-man, a rare American-sage, who speaks with the authority of the aged. Granted he wrote this poem in the late 1960s, but it carries the weight of a societal elder who brings insight and counsel from another world. Berry is a prophet. This is true. He is also a farmer, which offers credentials much more believable than those so-called “prophets” with self-appointed titles, blogs, and  YouTube channels, “prophets” lost in a mixed up sea of conservative politics and a doomsday eschatology.

    Second, this poem is about love and peace and letting go of the idol of nationalism, at least these are some of the themes I drew from the poem. Feel free to draw your own conclusions, but do not read it with too critical of an eye. Do not read it with your defenses up. Do not read it looking for things you disagree with. There is time for critical evaluation, but as with all art, do not start there. Instead start with a mind and heart that is open. Read it multiple times. Remain open until this poem speaks to you and then, if you must, evaluate what you are hearing.

    I have probably said too much (or maybe I have not said enough!). Nevertheless I invite you to read and listen. Perhaps God will grant you ears to hear.

    TO A SIBERIAN WOODSMAN
    (after looking at some pictures in a magazine)
    by Wendell Berry

    1.
    You lean at ease in your warm house at night after supper,
    listening to your daughter play the accordion. You smile
    with the pleasure of a man confident in his hands, resting
    after a day of long labor in the forest, the cry of the saw
    in your head, and the vision of coming home to rest.
    Your daughter’s face is clear in the joy of hearing
    her own music. Her fingers live on the keys
    like people familiar with the land they were born in.

    You sit at the dinner table late into the night with your son,
    tying the bright flies that will lead you along the forest streams.
    Over you, as your hands work, is the dream of still pools.
    Over you is the dream
    of your silence while the east brightens, birds waking close by
    you in the trees.

    2.
    I have thought of you stepping out of your doorway at dawn,
    your son in your tracks.
    You go in under the overarching green branches of the forest
    whose ways, strange to me, are well known to you as the sound
    of your own voice
    or the silence that lies around you now that you have ceased to speak,
    and soon the voice of the stream rises ahead of you,
    and you take the path beside it.
    I have thought of the sun breaking pale through the mists over you
    as you come to the pool where you will fish, and of the mist drifting
    over the water, and of the cast fly resting light on the face of the pool.

    3.
    And I am here in Kentucky in the place I have made myself
    in the world. I sit on my porch above the river that flows muddy
    and slow along the feet of the trees. I hear the voices of the wren
    and the yellow-throated warbler whose songs pass near the windows
    and over the roof. In my house my daughter learns the womanhood
    of her mother. My son is at play, pretending to be
    the man he believes I am. I am the outbreathing of this ground.
    My words are its words as the wren’s song is its song.

    4.
    Who has invented our enmity? Who has prescribed us
    hatred of each other? Who has armed us against each other
    with the death of the world? Who has appointed me such anger
    that I should desire the burning of your house or the
    destruction of your children?
    Who has appointed such anger to you? Who has set loose the thought
    that we should oppose each other with the ruin of forests and
    rivers, and the silence of the birds?
    Who has said to us that the voices of my land shall be strange
    to you, and the voices of your land strange to me?

    Who has imagined that I would destroy myself in order to destroy you,
    or that I could improve myself by destroying you? Who has imagined
    that your death could be negligible to me now that I have seen
    these pictures of your face?
    Who has imagined that I would not speak familiarly with you,
    or laugh with you, or visit in your house and go to work with
    you in the forest?
    And now one of the ideas of my place will be that you would
    gladly talk and visit and work with me.

    5.
    I sit in the shade of the trees of the land I was born in.
    As they are native I am native, and I hold to this place as
    carefully as they hold to it.
    I do not see the national flag flying from the staff of the sycamore,
    or any decree of the government written on the leaves of the walnut,
    nor has the elm bowed before any monuments or sworn the oath of allegiance.
    They have not declared to whom they stand in welcome.

    6.
    In the thought of you I imagine myself free of the weapons and
    the official hates that I have borne on my back like a hump,
    and in the thought of myself I imagine you free of weapons and
    official hates,
    so that if we should meet we would not go by each other
    looking at the ground like slaves sullen under their burdens,
    but would stand clear in the gaze of each other.

    7.
    There is no government so worthy as your son who fishes with
    you in silence besides the forest pool.
    There is no national glory so comely as your daughter whose
    hands have learned a music and go their own way on the keys.
    There is no national glory so comely as my daughter who
    dances and sings and is the brightness of my house.
    There is no government so worthy as my son who laughs, as he
    comes up the path from the river in the evening, for joy.

  • Pope Francis before Congress [FULL TEXT]

    Pope_Franis_before_congressLike many people around the country I watched and listened with eager anticipation to Pope Francis’ address to a joint session of congress yesterday. I have followed some of the reaction to his address in the last 24 hours and as with anything touching on the subject of religion, and yes politics, some reactions have been good and some not so good. I encourage you to read the address in its entirety. The Pope speaks with the voice of a prophet, assuming a vocation similar to the Hebrew prophets where he both energizes and criticizes in what he says.

    I am aware we all read and listen from a certain perspective, a certain point of view. My encouragement to you is to try NOT to read it from the perspective of one political ideology or another, whether conservative or liberal. Also try NOT to read it from the perspective of denominational dogma, whether Catholic or Protestant. Instead try to read it from the perspective of Jesus. I am not Roman Catholic, but I believe in one, holy, catholic (meaning “universal”) and apostolic church. I am compelled by this ancient belief to listen to Pope Francis as a brother in Christ. While he does not mention the name “Jesus,” he quotes Jesus and it seems to me his words are filled with the Spirit of Jesus.

    Maybe pray before you read, perhaps you will have ears to hear.

     


     

    Mr. Vice-President,

    Mr. Speaker,

    Honorable Members of Congress,

    Dear Friends,

    I am most grateful for your invitation to address this Joint Session of Congress in “the land of the free and the home of the brave”. I would like to think that the reason for this is that I too am a son of this great continent, from which we have all received so much and toward which we share a common responsibility.

    Each son or daughter of a given country has a mission, a personal and social responsibility. Your own responsibility as members of Congress is to enable this country, by your legislative activity, to grow as a nation. You are the face of its people, their representatives. You are called to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, for this is the chief aim of all politics. A political society endures when it seeks, as a vocation, to satisfy common needs by stimulating the growth of all its members, especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk. Legislative activity is always based on care for the people. To this you have been invited, called and convened by those who elected you.

    Yours is a work which makes me reflect in two ways on the figure of Moses. On the one hand, the patriarch and lawgiver of the people of Israel symbolizes the need of peoples to keep alive their sense of unity by means of just legislation. On the other, the figure of Moses leads us directly to God and thus to the transcendent dignity of the human being. Moses provides us with a good synthesis of your work: you are asked to protect, by means of the law, the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face.

    Today I would like not only to address you, but through you the entire people of the United States. Here, together with their representatives, I would like to take this opportunity to dialogue with the many thousands of men and women who strive each day to do an honest day’s work, to bring home their daily bread, to save money and –one step at a time – to build a better life for their families. These are men and women who are not concerned simply with paying their taxes, but in their own quiet way sustain the life of society. They generate solidarity by their actions, and they create organizations which offer a helping hand to those most in need.

    I would also like to enter into dialogue with the many elderly persons who are a storehouse of wisdom forged by experience, and who seek in many ways, especially through volunteer work, to share their stories and their insights. I know that many of them are retired, but still active; they keep working to build up this land. I also want to dialogue with all those young people who are working to realize their great and noble aspirations, who are not led astray by facile proposals, and who face difficult situations, often as a result of immaturity on the part of many adults. I wish to dialogue with all of you, and I would like to do so through the historical memory of your people.

    My visit takes place at a time when men and women of good will are marking the anniversaries of several great Americans. The complexities of history and the reality of human weakness notwithstanding, these men and women, for all their many differences and limitations, were able by hard work and self-sacrifice – some at the cost of their lives – to build a better future. They shaped fundamental values which will endure forever in the spirit of the American people. A people with this spirit can live through many crises, tensions and conflicts, while always finding the resources to move forward, and to do so with dignity. These men and women offer us a way of seeing and interpreting reality. In honoring their memory, we are inspired, even amid conflicts, and in the here and now of each day, to draw upon our deepest cultural reserves.

    I would like to mention four of these Americans: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.

    This year marks the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, the guardian of liberty, who labored tirelessly that “this nation, under God, [might] have a new birth of freedom”. Building a future of freedom requires love of the common good and cooperation in a spirit of subsidiarity and solidarity.

    All of us are quite aware of, and deeply worried by, the disturbing social and political situation of the world today. Our world is increasingly a place of violent conflict, hatred and brutal atrocities, committed even in the name of God and of religion. We know that no religion is immune from forms of individual delusion or ideological extremism. This means that we must be especially attentive to every type of fundamentalism, whether religious or of any other kind. A delicate balance is required to combat violence perpetrated in the name of a religion, an ideology or an economic system, while also safeguarding religious freedom, intellectual freedom and individual freedoms. But there is another temptation which we must especially guard against: the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners. The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps. We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within. To imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place. That is something which you, as a people, reject.

    Our response must instead be one of hope and healing, of peace and justice. We are asked to summon the courage and the intelligence to resolve today’s many geopolitical and economic crises. Even in the developed world, the effects of unjust structures and actions are all too apparent. Our efforts must aim at restoring hope, righting wrongs, maintaining commitments, and thus promoting the well-being of individuals and of peoples. We must move forward together, as one, in a renewed spirit of fraternity and solidarity, cooperating generously for the common good.

    The challenges facing us today call for a renewal of that spirit of cooperation, which has accomplished so much good throughout the history of the United States. The complexity, the gravity and the urgency of these challenges demand that we pool our resources and talents, and resolve to support one another, with respect for our differences and our convictions of conscience.

    In this land, the various religious denominations have greatly contributed to building and strengthening society. It is important that today, as in the past, the voice of faith continue to be heard, for it is a voice of fraternity and love, which tries to bring out the best in each person and in each society. Such cooperation is a powerful resource in the battle to eliminate new global forms of slavery, born of grave injustices which can be overcome only through new policies and new forms of social consensus.

    Here I think of the political history of the United States, where democracy is deeply rooted in the mind of the American people. All political activity must serve and promote the good of the human person and be based on respect for his or her dignity. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” (Declaration of Independence, 4 July 1776). If politics must truly be at the service of the human person, it follows that it cannot be a slave to the economy and finance. Politics is, instead, an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the greatest common good: that of a community which sacrifices particular interests in order to share, in justice and peace, its goods, its interests, its social life. I do not underestimate the difficulty that this involves, but I encourage you in this effort.

    Here too I think of the march which Martin Luther King led from Selma to Montgomery fifty years ago as part of the campaign to fulfill his “dream” of full civil and political rights for African Americans. That dream continues to inspire us all. I am happy that America continues to be, for many, a land of “dreams”. Dreams which lead to action, to participation, to commitment. Dreams which awaken what is deepest and truest in the life of a people.

    In recent centuries, millions of people came to this land to pursue their dream of building a future in freedom. We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners. I say this to you as the son of immigrants, knowing that so many of you are also descended from immigrants. Tragically, the rights of those who were here long before us were not always respected. For those peoples and their nations, from the heart of American democracy, I wish to reaffirm my highest esteem and appreciation. Those first contacts were often turbulent and violent, but it is difficult to judge the past by the criteria of the present. Nonetheless, when the stranger in our midst appeals to us, we must not repeat the sins and the errors of the past. We must resolve now to live as nobly and as justly as possible, as we educate new generations not to turn their back on our “neighbors” and everything around us. Building a nation calls us to recognize that we must constantly relate to others, rejecting a mindset of hostility in order to adopt one of reciprocal subsidiarity, in a constant effort to do our best. I am confident that we can do this.

    Our world is facing a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Second World War. This presents us with great challenges and many hard decisions. On this continent, too, thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities. Is this not what we want for our own children? We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation. To respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal. We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome. Let us remember the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Mt 7:12).

    This Rule points us in a clear direction. Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated. Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves. Let us help others to grow, as we would like to be helped ourselves. In a word, if we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities. The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us. The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.

    This conviction has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty. I am convinced that this way is the best, since every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes. Recently my brother bishops here in the United States renewed their call for the abolition of the death penalty. Not only do I support them, but I also offer encouragement to all those who are convinced that a just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation.

    In these times when social concerns are so important, I cannot fail to mention the Servant of God Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker Movement. Her social activism, her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed, were inspired by the Gospel, her faith, and the example of the saints.

    How much progress has been made in this area in so many parts of the world! How much has been done in these first years of the third millennium to raise people out of extreme poverty! I know that you share my conviction that much more still needs to be done, and that in times of crisis and economic hardship a spirit of global solidarity must not be lost. At the same time I would encourage you to keep in mind all those people around us who are trapped in a cycle of poverty. They too need to be given hope. The fight against poverty and hunger must be fought constantly and on many fronts, especially in its causes. I know that many Americans today, as in the past, are working to deal with this problem.

    It goes without saying that part of this great effort is the creation and distribution of wealth. The right use of natural resources, the proper application of technology and the harnessing of the spirit of enterprise are essential elements of an economy which seeks to be modern, inclusive and sustainable. “Business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving the world. It can be a fruitful source of prosperity for the area in which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good” (Laudato Si’, 129). This common good also includes the earth, a central theme of the encyclical which I recently wrote in order to “enter into dialogue with all people about our common home” (ibid., 3). “We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all” (ibid., 14).

    In Laudato Si’, I call for a courageous and responsible effort to “redirect our steps” (ibid., 61), and to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity. I am convinced that we can make a difference, I’m sure and I have no doubt that the United States – and this Congress – have an important role to play. Now is the time for courageous actions and strategies, aimed at implementing a “culture of care” (ibid., 231) and “an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature” (ibid., 139). “We have the freedom needed to limit and direct technology” (ibid., 112); “to devise intelligent ways of… developing and limiting our power” (ibid., 78); and to put technology “at the service of another type of progress, one which is healthier, more human, more social, more integral” (ibid., 112). In this regard, I am confident that America’s outstanding academic and research institutions can make a vital contribution in the years ahead.

    A century ago, at the beginning of the Great War, which Pope Benedict XV termed a “pointless slaughter”, another notable American was born: the Cistercian monk Thomas Merton. He remains a source of spiritual inspiration and a guide for many people. In his autobiography he wrote: “I came into the world. Free by nature, in the image of God, I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and my own selfishness, in the image of the world into which I was born. That world was the picture of Hell, full of men like myself, loving God, and yet hating him; born to love him, living instead in fear of hopeless self-contradictory hungers”. Merton was above all a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the Church. He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.

    From this perspective of dialogue, I would like to recognize the efforts made in recent months to help overcome historic differences linked to painful episodes of the past. It is my duty to build bridges and to help all men and women, in any way possible, to do the same. When countries which have been at odds resume the path of dialogue – a dialogue which may have been interrupted for the most legitimate of reasons – new opportunities open up for all. This has required, and requires, courage and daring, which is not the same as irresponsibility. A good political leader is one who, with the interests of all in mind, seizes the moment in a spirit of openness and pragmatism. A good political leader always opts to initiate processes rather than possessing spaces (cf. Evangelii Gaudium, 222-223).

    Being at the service of dialogue and peace also means being truly determined to minimize and, in the long term, to end the many armed conflicts throughout our world. Here we have to ask ourselves: Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society? Sadly, the answer, as we all know, is simply for money: money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood. In the face of this shameful and culpable silence, it is our duty to confront the problem and to stop the arms trade.

    Three sons and a daughter of this land, four individuals and four dreams: Lincoln, liberty; Martin Luther King, liberty in plurality and non-exclusion; Dorothy Day, social justice and the rights of persons; and Thomas Merton, the capacity for dialogue and openness to God.

    Four representatives of the American people.

    I will end my visit to your country in Philadelphia, where I will take part in the World Meeting of Families. It is my wish that throughout my visit the family should be a recurrent theme. How essential the family has been to the building of this country! And how worthy it remains of our support and encouragement! Yet I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without. Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family. I can only reiterate the importance and, above all, the richness and the beauty of family life.

    In particular, I would like to call attention to those family members who are the most vulnerable, the young. For many of them, a future filled with countless possibilities beckons, yet so many others seem disoriented and aimless, trapped in a hopeless maze of violence, abuse and despair. Their problems are our problems. We cannot avoid them. We need to face them together, to talk about them and to seek effective solutions rather than getting bogged down in discussions. At the risk of oversimplifying, we might say that we live in a culture which pressures young people not to start a family, because they lack possibilities for the future. Yet this same culture presents others with so many options that they too are dissuaded from starting a family.

    A nation can be considered great when it defends liberty as Lincoln did, when it fosters a culture which enables people to “dream” of full rights for all their brothers and sisters, as Martin Luther King sought to do; when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed, as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work, the fruit of a faith which becomes dialogue and sows peace in the contemplative style of Thomas Merton.

    In these remarks I have sought to present some of the richness of your cultural heritage, of the spirit of the American people. It is my desire that this spirit continue to develop and grow, so that as many young people as possible can inherit and dwell in a land which has inspired so many people to dream.

    God bless America!

    (Here is a PDF copy of his address if you would like to download it.)

  • My New Book: Through the Eyes of N.T. Wright is Here

    bookcoverI am proud to announce the release of my new book: Through the Eyes of N.T. Wright: A Reader’s Guide to Paul and the Faithfulness of God. It is now available in paperback and on Kindle.

    Everyone has heroes. When I was growing up, mine was Michael Jordan. I idolized him. My bedroom was a shrine to his basketball awesomeness. Like Mike. If I could be like Mike. Then I grew up and faced the facts: I wasn’t a very good basketball player. I also grew up in my faith. As a teenager I began to take my faith seriously and my heroes began to change.

    In 2007 I found a new hero and he wasn’t a basketball player. He actually grew up playing rugby.

    I was a young pastor, serving my first church, and I was on a bit of spiritual journey. I needed new heroes and I found one across the pond, a then bishop in the Church of England, Tom Wright or as he is better known in North America, N.T. Wright. He is currently professor of New Testament Studies at St. Andrews University in Scotland. He is, without question in my mind, the most important and influential voice in the Church today. He also writes a lot of books and some of them are pretty big.

    I had a chance to meet him in 2014. He was lecturing at Christ Church Anglican in Kansas City. It was a ticketed event. I found out from one of the organizers that I was the first one to  purchase a ticket after they went on sale. I felt like a 12 year-old girl going to a One Direction concert. After the morning lecture I was able to meet him briefly at a book signing and although I was told he was not taking pictures, I snapped this picture with Tom.

    me_and_Tom

    The book he was signing was Paul and the Faithfulness of God, a two-volume, 1,700-page densely-packed scholarly work on the theology of Paul. Tom has been working on this book for years or as he said in a recent interview, he has been working on Paul his whole adult life. It is a stunning academic accomplishment laying out in footnoted-detail what Paul was saying in his letters and what he was trying to accomplish. It is an important book, but I fear those who need to read it the most will have a tough time plowing through it. I took four months to read it and I ended up nearly 200 pages short. I had to take a break, before finishing it up.

    I have written Through the Eyes of N.T. Wright to make Tom’s work accessible. This book is like a road map to help you navigate through all the twists and turns as Tom works to reconstruct Paul’s world and his worldview, so we can see and understand what Paul has said about God, God’s people, and God’s future. These topics are massively important. Paul didn’t write philosophical discourses full of abstract speculation. He wrote real letters to real churches instructing them in the ways of life because something unbelievable had happened! The God of Israel, who is the God of all creation, had returned to his people and his work of new creation had begun! God has renewed his covenant and was in the process of renewing the minds of his people according to the new things he was doing.

    Paul wrote what he did because new life was springing up all around him and he wanted these small fledgling congregations loyal to King Jesus to begin to think Christianly, because God’s work of new creation is centered in and through his people. I could go on, but I really want you to read my book…and I need your help.

    My book is published by Doctrina Press, which is me. “Doctrina Press” is my own imprint. I have self-published this book, which means I am (among other things) the marketing department. I would love to have your help in promoting the book. Here are some things you can do:

    1. Check out the book on Amazon.com. The book is available in a paperback and Kindle edition.
    2. If you have friends who are interested in N.T. Wright and/or Christian theology, or who are serious students of the Bible, send them a link to the book on Amazon.
    3. Use your social media accounts to direct people to the book.
    4. If you have a chance to read the book, leave an Amazon review.

    I sent a PDF copy of the book to Tom not expecting a reply, but one day later I received a response. For me Tom Wright is a rock star, so getting his response was like getting an email from Bono. He thanked me and congratulated me for “ably summarizing” his big book on Paul. He said he was grateful, which made me happy. He also said that he wished I would have sent him my manuscript before I published it. He would have been happy to clarify some things. Dang! I should have emailed him earlier. He also said he would be “delighted” to meet with me if we were ever in the same part of the world at the same time. I have to find a way to make that happen.

    Anyway…check out the book, tell you friends, and let me know what you think.

  • Radical Authenticity, Sexuality, And Spiritual Transformation

    (One of the reasons I haven’t blogged here very often is because I have been blogging once a month for Missio Alliance. The following blog was first posted on the Missio Alliance blog on November 14, 2014. I thought it would good to post it again in light of the current conversation in the church regarding sexuality and personhood.) 

    authenticity“But God wants me to be happy, right?” As a pastor living in North America in the 21st century, I have been asked this question more than once. Christians conditioned by a me-first (and “me-always”) culture default to this one abiding principle: the universe exists so I may indeed be happy. I am not opposed to happiness per se. It is a product of the work of the Holy Spirit. Happiness, or “joy” if you prefer, is both in Jesus and connected to the mission of Jesus. He said, “I have told you these things so that you will be filled with my joy. Yes, your joy will overflow!” (John 15:11 NLT). The issue is not whether or not God wants us to be happy, content, joyful people; the issue is how do we define happiness and more importantly, where do we find this happiness?

    The trans-cultural pursuit of what we may call “happiness” is really “wholeness,” becoming complete human beings. We were each created in the image of God, but as a master artist, God has created us uniquely in his image. We are to reflect God’s image into the world and echo back the praise of creation to God, but the ways in which we reflect God’s image will be based on how God has uniquely formed us and how he is re-forming us to be a unique expression of the image of Jesus. This transformation and wholeness allows us to be our true selves and enables us to overcome the internal obstacles to experiencing the happiness we all so desperately long for. Along this track of genuine, Jesus-formed, character transformation the church carries forward the mission of Jesus. Where we get off track is when we exchange the process of spiritual transformation for the acceptance of radical authenticity.

    The mission of Jesus is to redeem and restore God’s good world including humanity, God’s image-bearing creation. God created us to be whole, body and soul, so our true selves could emerge from the rubble of our false selves bent out of shape from the forces of corruption running rampant in God’s world. Radical authenticity is the mistaken task of being true to your self, determining what seems natural to you, and rejecting all outside influences, conventions, and moral knowledge. Being “true to yourself” enthrones the false self and follows the royal decrees of this self calling it “spontaneity,” “freedom,” and “being who I am.”

    N.T. Wright in After You Believe describes radical authenticity as the self-talk that goes like this:

    Be yourself; don’t let anyone else dictate to you; don’t let other people’s systems or phobias cramp your style; be honest about what you’re really feeling and desiring. Get in touch with the bits of yourself you’ve been screening out; make friends with them and be true to them. Anything else will result in a diminishing of your true, unique, wonderful self.

    Wright adds:

    Some people mistake (this way of thinking) for the gospel itself.

    Radical authenticity follows Shakespeare’s axiom: “To thine own self be true,” to which I reply, “Yeah, but what if you are jerk?” This kind of authenticity misunderstands the gospel and sadly misdirects the mission of the church. The gospel does not invite us to look outside to the rules or inside to our authentic selves. The gospel invites us to look to Jesus. We do not find our true selves, our uniquely-created-in-the-image-of-God selves, by looking inward at the false self, but by looking upward to Jesus. In speaking to the crowds following him, Jesus said: “Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self. What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? What could you ever trade your soul for?” (Mark 8:34-37 The Message). Jesus wants us to discover our true selves, but it is found in first dethroning the false self with all of it’s wants, wishes, and desires and doing what may in fact be the most unnatural act of all: allowing that self to be crucified and buried, so God can resurrect the true self in a slow methodical process of spiritual transformation.

    Never has this course correction from radical authenticity to spiritual transformation been more urgent than in light of the current cultural discussion regarding sexuality, sexual identity, and sexual ethics. The church has failed in the past when we make conversations regarding sexuality merely a matter following a list of rules: Do this and don’t do that…or do this and try not to do that…or do this and if you do that, don’t tell anybody…or do this and if you do that, confess it privately and try not to do it again. Our sexuality is too complex, too connected to our internal life, to merely manage it by a list of rules. Plus spiritual transformation, as an integral part of the mission of the church, has never been a process of following the rules.

    When it comes to sexuality, radical authenticity has condition people falsely to assume that they must be free to express sexual desires according to the norms established by the false self. They reason: I have these desires. I have this sort of sexual orientation. I would be inauthentic and untrue to myself if I do not seek to fulfill these desires. Within this context, Christians across the spectrum of sexual orientation not only live out of their false self, but worse yet, they assume their identities, their true selves, are primarily tied to their sexuality. We have allowed the worship of Aphrodite to misshape us into people who define ourselves first and foremost by our sexual identity. We should certainly not ignore our sexuality, but we must tear down the altar to Aphrodite and submit our sexuality to a process of spiritual transformation where we can find our true selves with a much more modest view of our sexual identity.

    Spiritual transformation is not looking at the false self as the unblemished picture of who we are supposed to be. Spiritual transformation is the work of the Spirit to conform us into the image of Jesus for the joy of God the Father. We can be happy, joyful people. We can discover our true selves, but we cannot find out who we are supposed to be if we start with the false self. We have to place ourselves, all of ourselves including our sexuality, in the hands of the Holy Spirit and allow him to form us, mold us, change us, to reflect the image of Jesus. This work of transformation not only brings us the happiness we are looking for, but it ultimately brings joy to the heart of God our Father, because the Father loves the Son. As the Father sees the image of the Son being formed in our hearts and lives he exclaims once again: “Behold my son! The one that I love!” Dedicating ourselves to radical transformation as a direct rejection of radical authenticity is the only way forward if we are preserve the mission of the church.

     

  • Buffalo River Trail Hike (Boxley to Kyles Landing): May 22-24, 2015

    2015-05-22 19.00.20

    The Buffalo River Trail (BRT) is a 36.5 mile hiking trail in Northern Arkansas about an hour or so East of Springdale. The Buffalo River is a National River running 135 miles through Arkansas. It is a popular destination for float trips. There are a lot of trails in this area, but the BRT is considered the best hiking trail in the area and some of the best hiking in the Ozarks. The entire BRT runs from Boxley to Pruitt. We ended up doing just over half of the trail from Boxley to Kyles Landing. My oldest son Wesley and I were hiking this trail for his 16th birthday. We talked about maybe coming back for his 18th birthday and doing a float trip down the river.

    For our hike we used Tim Ernst’s trail guide. It had some good maps and descent descriptions of the trail, but it was written primarily for day hikers. There was no mention of campsites in the guide, making finding a campsite at night a bit of a challenge. While there was an ongoing description of the trail, it was written in paragraph form separate from the map, making it difficult to read and hike at the same time. With that said, we only lost the trail once and found the guide helpful in making our way down the trail.

    DAY 1

    We left St. Jo at 6:40 a.m. in order to get to Springdale, Arkansas by lunch time to eat at where else, but Zaxby’s, our favorite chicken place.

    2015-05-22 11.22.05 HDR-1

    We drove another hour and half to Ponca and made it to the Buffalo Outdoor Center (BOC) by 1 p.m. When we dropped into the river valley we lost cell phone signal and never got service again. Grant at the BOC said there is no service along the trail, but that there are courtesy phones at the campgrounds which we would be hiking through and we could get a call out there to the ranger’s station or to the BOC. We dropped off a spare key and signed forms for them to shuttle our car to the end of the trail. We had a good experience at the BOC. As a river and hiking outfitter, they are fully stocked with whatever you need (last minute) for the trail. Their shuttle service is a bit pricey. It works like a valet service. They pick up our car from the trail head, keep it at their facility, and then drop it off at our desired location. After leaving the BOC we drove on to the Boxley trail head and locked up our car. We snapped a quick picture by the first sign and blaze and we were off at 1:30 p.m.

    2015-05-22 13.44.12 HDR

    We crossed the road (Hwy 21) and immediately had to stop and take off our shoes and socks to cross Smith Creek. Thanks to my brother’s wise advice, I packed my camp shoes which made it easy to cross the creek. To do it again, I would have put on my camp shoes at the trail head and worn them across the road and across the creek. We passed two women who were going the opposite direction and we headed on around a field.

    We began hiking up some small ascents and we were both surprised how thick the undergrowth was. It had been raining pretty steady in the area the last few weeks which meant streams were full, but it also meant undergrowth and grass with high. After walking through a grassy area Wesley starting counting the number of ticks he was knocking off his legs. He was up to three in the first two miles of the hike. At one point the grass was five feet high. No joke. I should have packed my weed eater.

    2015-05-22 14.50.20

    We caught a nice bluff view, before walking on a country road for a half mile or so. The trail jetted off the road and back down into the woods. We crossed a few streams along the way. As expected every stream and runoff had water moving. We were able to cross most streams without getting our feet wet for the most part. Some runoffs had rock beds that were slick, but we crossed through with no problems. We took a break at one creek running down the bluff. It has a nice cascading waterfall down it.

    2015-05-22 15.30.35

    We crossed Arrington Creek at about the 3-mile mark. It had a nice campsite, but we were wanting to make more miles before making camp. We passed a number of blow downs along the way. Some looked recent. At one blow down over a large, rocky runoff we lost the trail. We looked around for a bit, before we saw a blaze on the other side of the runoff. According to the guide book we were using, the trail is not blazed, which is true…sorta. We did find either a blaze or a wooden sign of some sort anytime there was a sharp turn or intersection on the trail. The signs were helpful.

    We continued to climb up the trail after Arrington Creek and Wesley continued to knock off more ticks. I had to pull three off his legs. By 6 miles in, Wesley already counted 12 ticks. I really regretted not spraying down our gear and clothes with Permethrin. We stopped for a break and Wesley put moleskin on two hot spots on the balls of his feet. They weren’t blisters, but they were getting red and sore. We crossed Dry Creek, which wasn’t dry and then crossed into a private property. When we arrived at Running Creek, we looked for a camping spot, but it looked like the creek and surrounding area was on private property. When we crossed the creek, we found goats!

    2015-05-22 19.22.45 HDR

    Apparently, whoever owns the land around this area is a goat farmer. We saw two fire rings near the creek, but it looked like those spots were all on private property. Bummer. We hiked back across the creek and looked for trees off the trail to hang our hammocks from. The challenge was to find trees near the creek, off the trail, and NOT on private property. We looked for a while and finally found four trees that would work even through the ground was on an incline. The good thing about hammocks is that you do not need level ground, but a step incline makes for a tough first step in the morning. I set up our hammocks while Wesley gathered fire wood. We were set up in the woods just on the other side of the property line, but still close to the creek.

    2015-05-23 06.29.54

    We had finished setting up around 8:30 p.m., just as it was getting dark. We chose a flat spot near the creek to cook supper and build a fire, even though it was on private property. We ate mash potatoes and Turkey sausage bites and Wesley stretched out his pad next to the fire.

    We both went to bed by 10 p.m. I stretched out in my hammock and fell a sleeping listening to the sound of the creek.

    DAY 2

    I woke up at 6:15 a.m. to light rain falling on my tarp. It was a cool morning. I couldn’t see my breath but I shivered a bit as I changed into my hiking clothes. I warmed up as I gathered water and grabbed my food bag. The rain picked up some so I sat on a rock under my tarp as I boiled water for coffee and oatmeal. Breakfast hit the spot. I was ready to hike. I woke Wesley up at 8. We were hiking by 9.

    2015-05-22 19.15.54

    We had to cross Running Creek again which meant we had to stop dry our feet and put our socks and shoes back on after crossing the creek in our camp shoes. The trail began to ascend up out of the Running Creek, I am glad I didn’t wear my rain jacket even though it started raining a bit. We began to make some miles in the ran, hiking on a pretty muddy trail. In crossing a draining stream running down the bluff, I stepped stepped too quickly on the slick open rock face and fell on my right side. I fell on my right arm and shoulder with a quick THUD. I hiked nearly 100 miles last year on the AT and didn’t fall once. I am out here two days and I fall in the first 10 miles. Lessons learned. Step slowly on slick rocks. We kept walking and as the rain let up, I shot a quick video.

    We made it to the Ponca landing and saw a number of people with canoes and kayaks getting ready to put in. We thought we might eat lunch there, but there wasn’t a picnic table on anything. This was not a campground, just a landing. The Buffalo River looks like great destination for a float trip. Wesley and I talked about coming back down here with some guys and doing a float trip, maybe for his 18th birthday. We went under the bridge (Hwy 74) and hiked on.

    2015-05-23 12.43.15We made it to the Steel Creek Campground at 12:15 and the sun came out! We set up by the restrooms and laid out our gear dry. We ate lunch and enjoyed the sunshine before heading back down the trail at 1:30.

    The terrain was rocky and steep in places, but we were rewarded with a great view of the river and surrounding bluffs a couples miles outside of The Steel Creek Campground. This was the best view of the hike. Parts of the Buffalo River Trail here in Arkansas reminds me of the Appalachian Trial in Georgia.

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    As we continued to climb, Wesley’s knee began to give him trouble. His knee really started to hurt on the downhill towards Beech Creek. As we were making our biggest climb of the day, a 700 foot ascent over 2 miles towards the Slaty Place, Wesley really started slowing down. The knee along with some pretty bad chaffing began to wear him down. He powered through, refusing to switch packs with me. This section of the hike was really similar to the Georgia section of the Appalachian Trail (AT). The AT had higher climbs, but the terrain on this section of the Buffalo River Trail was just as steep and rocky as parts of the AT.

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    He was in pain and I knew it, but he continued to say he didn’t want to quit. We talked it out and made the decision to get off the trail at Kyles Landing tomorrow. The only solution for a bum knee and chaffing is rest. So the decision was an easy one. I am in pretty decent shape and I could tell this trail was taking a toll on my feet in legs. It felt like I was getting a blister on the bottom of my right toe, probably from hiking with wet feet most of the day. The descent down from the Slaty Place to Indian Creek was wet and muddy. We made it to Indian Creek at 7:15 and found a great spot to make camp!

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    Wesley collected firewood and I set up the hammocks. A group of hikers we saw at the river overlook hiked joined us at our camping spot. I cooked supper near the fire ring. Ramen and beef jerky were on the menu for tonight. I do not eat Ramen back home, but I crave it on the trail. I talked with the other hikers who were a part of a hiking club in the area. A girl who hiked in after us built the fire. Another one had an interest in the AT. I told stories from my section hike on the AT last year and they had a lot of gear questions. Wesley went to bed a little before 10. I stayed up yawning until about 10:30 p.m. It is hard to pull me away from gear conversations. One of hikers had girl scout cookies, which she shared, and we all enjoyed sitting around the fire, eating cookies, and telling hiking stories. I got into my hammock and was again lulled to sleep by the sound of running water.

    DAY 32015-05-24 08.46.10

    I slept great last night. Fell asleep fast and only woke up twice. We camped again by a creek with a little waterfall, which made for an excellent backdrop for good sleep. I woke up once to rain hitting my tarp at 4 a.m., but fell back asleep until 6:30. It was light rain so I grabbed my food bag and water and started breakfast. I enjoyed my coffee and oatmeal while listening to the new Mumford and Sons on my phone, all from the comfort of my warm and dry hammock. The rain stopped and our camp started waking up about 8 a.m. It looks like nine of us made camp here last night. Wesley was awake, but stayed in his hammock resting his knee. I walked down to Kyles Landing at about 8:30. It was a short walk as we camped only 1/2 mile from Kyles. I found the courtesy phone that Grant told me about. I called the Buffalo Outdoor Center and they said they would bring the car to Kyles Landing but it may be early afternoon before they could get there.

    2015-05-24 09.56.44I walked back to camp and told Wesley. We decided to lounge around camp and enjoy this creek-side camping spot while the sun tried to peak through the trees. I caught up on blogging and enjoyed the sound of the water and the birds overhead before we packed up and hiked out at 11 a.m.

    We got to the registration area at Kyles Landing where I made the call to the BOC early that morning and there was our car! We changed clothes and drove out. As we got a cell phone signal, I noticed I had a text from my brother saying a big storm was coming through our area. As we drove to Springdale the rain started coming down hard. I did want to hike on today, but I knew we made the right decision. Hiking in the rain with a knee issue and chaffing would have only made those two issues worse. Sometimes you have to listen to your body and make the right decision even if your heart wants to press on.

    All in all it was a great hike. Moments of suffering. Moments of discomfort. But a lot of fun and a memorable experience for Wesley and me.

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    2015-05-23 06.52.50

  • Berryman Trail Hike: April 9-10, 2015

    2015-04-09 13.26.49 HDRThe Berryman Trail (BT) is a 27-mile trail in between Steelville and Potosi about an hour south of St. Louis, Missouri. The BT is a loop, making it possible to hike the trail over 2 days without needing a shuttle. I hiked the trail with Ben, my brother Jeff, and my friend Dave from St. Louis. Ben and I have hiked two other times (here and here) and my brother and I hiked the Georgia section of the Appalachian Trail last summer. This was Dave’s first hike.
    We started the BT on Thursday, April 9 at 1:15 p.m. Our plan was to begin with the eastern loop, hiking the trail counter-clockwise. We headed out under sunny skies and it was in the upper 70s. I had read that the eastern side of the loop was the “dry side,” meaning less water. After days of rain in the area, we found all the streams to be full. I only carried a liter of water and filtered water out of one of the streams when I ran out. We hiked through a a mixture of hardwoods and pines on a beautiful day.
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    It seemed like we had a stream crossing every few miles or so. We enjoyed finding creative ways to cross the streams without getting our feet wet.
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    It turned out to be a hot day with the temperature reaching near 80 degrees. There were no tough climbs but we tackled more steep ups and downs on this side of the loop than we would on day 2. We all had AT&T phones and cell service was spotty. We found a signal from time to time.
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    We arrived at the Brazil Creek Campground at 6:00 p.m., completing 10 miles on our first day. Before we left from the Berryman trail head, we dropped a vehicle at the Brazil Creek Campground because there was a 60% chance for severe thunderstorms. We stashed a pop-up canopy and four chairs in Dave’s vehicle at Brazil Creek. Once we arrived at camp the clouds started rolling in so we set up our shelters first. Dave, Ben, and I were all hammocking. Jeff brought his tent. We set up the canopy over the fire pit and gathered some firewood to keep the wood dry whenever the rain started. But the rain never came.
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    We built a small fire and started cooking supper. I ate mash potatoes and turkey bites, one of my favorite meals on the trail. Ben had a weather radio and we listened as severe thunderstorm warnings and tornado watches were issued for our area. The winds blew up to 20-25 mph. We watched storm clouds come and go and heard thunder in the distance but all the severe weather went around us. We only had a few sprinkles. We never needed the canopy.
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    I slept pretty good in my hammock. My new underquilt worked great but the winds continued to rattle my tarp until midnight. Lows dropped down to the low 40s and I woke up cold at about 5 a.m. I used my 40 degree down bag as a top quilt. I should have used my 20 degree synthetic bag. I got up at 6:00 a.m. and built a small fire. I was never shivering cold and I couldn’t see my breath, but it was chilly. After heating water for coffee and oatmeal and after the sun began to peak through the trees, I started warming up.
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    Brazil Creek was a nice campground. No running water or privy, but it was right by the creek and it did have a picnic table, which is always a plus. It looked to be primarily a horse camp, but there were plenty of flat spots for tents and trees for hammocks. We hit the trail at 9:15 a.m. thinking we had a 14-mile day in front of us but it ended up being a 17 miles to get back to the Berryman trail head. Some of the maps online for the trail are old. We figured out that trail maintainers have rerouted certain sections of the trail to do more ridge walking, following the contours of the bluffs instead of dipping down into the valleys. You do not need a map to hike this trail, but if you are looking to hike the BT and want a map, use this one.
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    It was cool when we started hiking, but it warmed up quickly. We continued hiking through pines and hard woods. There was even a couple of “views,” at least views for the Ozarks. The second day seemed to have less ups and downs than on the eastern side of the loop. We continued hiking until noon, when we stopped for lunch by a stream. I set up my hammock to enjoy lunch “off the ground.” I love hiking with a hammock because where ever you go you always have a place to sit.
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    When we were stopping for lunch, two other hikers stopped to chat for a second. They were day hikers, hiking the entire trail that day. One of the guys was from Columbia and the other was from St. Louis. We talked a bit about the BT and gear and then they mentioned that they hiked on the AT last May. They hiked from Springer Mountain to Dick’s Creek Gap in Georgia in May, a couple of weeks before Jeff and I hiked the entire Georgia section. Funny. Small world. These were the only people we saw on the trail.
    As we wrapped up lunch, I laid back in my hammock and thought about taking a nap, but we  had miles to go before we got to camp. We packed up and headed back down the trail. The longer we hiked, we realized we had more to miles in front of us than expected, which was fine with me. It was sunny and 65 degrees. A great day for hiking.
    The western side of the loop overlaps with the Ozark Trail.
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    The Ozark Trail (OT) is a collection of trails in the Missouri Ozarks, 390 miles worth. There are plans to connect all of the trails to create a continuous footpath, but right now there is 200+ miles that are connected. While hiking, I thought about doing a long section hike on the OT, maybe 100 miles or so. Maybe summer 2016. Who knows?
    There were a number of access roads crossing the BT, but there were signs at every intersection. There was no way of losing the trail. I appreciate the volunteers who have kept the trail in good shape. We passed a couple a new blow downs and one tree that had recently been struck by lightning, presumably from storms the last couple of days. We didn’t see much wildlife on the trail. I heard turkeys early in the morning and we saw one tree frog, a chipmunk and a squirrel, and one small black snake. We stopped at an artisan well on the trail at the Edward Beecher Recreation Area. This would be a great camping spot. We filled our water bottles from the spring without filtering and then pressed on.
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    We pushed on realizing we had seven miles to go. I noticed the conversations came to an end as we continued to hike, a sure sign we were getting tired. We took a short break and I checked for a cell signal and got one! I laid down on the ground and rested on my pack. I texted home and posted some pictures from our break spot and then we made the final push to camp.
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     We made it Berryman Trail head about 5:45 pm and I shot a quick video.
    Jeff and I collected firewood, while Ben and Dave  drove over to the Brazil Campground to pick up Dave’s vehicle. We set up camp and started supper. We could have driven home, but I would not have gotten back to the house until 11 p.m. I am glad we decided to camp a second night. We ate supper and I built a good-sized fire.
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    Ben drove into town and returned an hour and a half later with pizza and gummy bears. Even thought I had eaten supper, I ate a slice of pizza. I figure I burned enough calories hiking 17 miles that day. It was a cloudless night and the stars were out as we sat around the fire. We headed to bed around 10:30 p.m. or so and I was fast asleep within about five minutes. I slept good. I did wake up at 4 a.m. a bit cold. I realized that my underquilt had slid out from underneath my hammock. My mistake. I hung it too lose under my hammock. A mistake I will not make again. I fell back asleep and woke up about 6 a.m.
    I boiled water for coffee and oatmeal. Ben stoked up the fire and we warmed up. It was about 4o degrees or so. We packed up and headed home about 8 a.m. I am looking forward to my next adventure this summer on the Buffalo River Trail.