The Worst Church Advertisement

A post for Good Letters blog


I don’t mean to brag, but I attend your ideal church.

If you’re a millennial or a 30-something interested in social justice and dissatisfied with your tradition, your suburban congregation, or your mega-church, and feeling a bit None-ish, then I have the church for you.

What’s on your list of descriptors for the perfect congregation, you social justice-y-leaning, about-to-give-up-on-church looker?

Local community oriented?

Guess, what? I walk to church. And we are hyper-community oriented; we are an intentional community. I think you might like that we’re a little bit radical. We actually live on the same property together!

Authentic?

We provide a space where people allow themselves and others to be vulnerable. There are no fakers here. Just real folks sharing their lives and showing you who they really are.

We are an intergenerational group from ages one to eighty.

Socially concerned?

Yep, most Sundays, we pray for peace in the world, for refugees, for both sides in war-torn regions. We even pray for our enemies!

Kid-friendly?

My seven-year-old daughter reads scripture during worship. My one-year-old toddles through the middle of the circled gathering. It’s not unusual for one of the younger kids to shout out commentary of the scripture or a song. We aren’t fussy and we expect that children will clap their hands and make noise. Sometimes—gulp—we even choreograph a dance for them.

A different kind of leadership and worship style?

We are a lay-led congregation. There are no microphones or stages. Our circular gathering makes it less important who is leading; we don’t mind if you’re a man or a woman, if you’re single or married, young or old, just as long as you are willing to serve. Until recently we used an overhead projector from the nineties for song lyrics. The sheen of worship doesn’t overpower the realness of people. And even with all of this, we still follow the lectionary. We’re kind of a low church with a dash of high church.

Doesn’t it sound great? You’re more than welcome to come for a visit. But just a word of caution: Once you get here, you might want to leave.

Keep reading over at Good Letters

YA Blog series: On Rites of Passage by C.F. LAPINEL

I have known C.F. Lapinel for many years. We made it through grad school together, huddled in pubs and coffee shops during winter, hunkering down to write from our imaginations about odd children who lived in worlds of make-believe and fantasy. I've always appreciated not only his "childlike mind," his boundless imagination, and his ability to craft a complex and beautiful sentence, but also his kindness and compassion. One day, I hope to see his YA novel of three sisters sitting on a bookstore shelf. 

You can read more of his writing at bluestonescribe.com and follow him on twitter at @BluestoneScribe

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“All grown-ups were once children... but only few of them remember it.”

― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

A distant acquaintance reminded me recently: “Some minds work overtime to make sense of their world...” He was telling me, I think, that I have something of a childlike mind, something I've always been glad to see not only in myself but in others. It’s true that some minds do work overtime. And this is just what young-adult fiction helps us do: make sense of our world. Iʼd even argue that the more skeptical the mind, the more relevant young-adult literature becomes, for we need just such tools to learn to navigate the often bewildering world in which we live.

In ancient times, people practiced rites-of-passage more commonly than we do now; at least in the formal, recognizable sense. When the village elders split these young-adults-to-be into groups and readied them, this activity engaged the whole community. Parents participated as well as non-parents, particularly if the non-parents were extended family; and most everybody in a tribal community would have been extended family.

These rites had relevance to everyone, young and old alike.

For the adults, Iʼd hazard a guess that something psychologically complex occurred. To periodically prepare (and observe) a new generation facing the same rite they too experienced in youth would be an opportunity to revisit old emotions and compare them with present thoughts and emotions. Memories of the focused fear and excitement upon entering the mysterious rite would have become diffused with age, distilled into a more settled, perhaps jaded, understanding of what life in the village truly required, in relationship with the raw, majestic power of the natural world. I would assume that the inevitable evaluation, or re-evaluation, of the village mythology would result in reaffirming or else challenging faith in the community.*

There is no great leap of logic required to see young-adult literature as the modern descendant of these ancient rites. The painful and humiliating experience of those rites endured by our once youthful ancestors is now communicated to youth in literature, tasking them to imagine themselves as archetypal protagonists. When we were young, what were our brains doing as we consumed books like The Hobbit,The Wind in the Willows,Grimm's Fairy Tales, and The Outsiders? What do our brains do now as we revisit them?

Aren't we just as much Huckleberry Finn, each of us, as a Harry Potter, or a Nancy Drew as we ever were? And weren't these characters once known as Anansi, Odysseus, or Ishtar?

Every time we reread these stories we learn something altogether new. These stories recount our ancestral fear and ignorance; remind us of our thirst for discovery, identity, and power; and describe the responsibility we must take for what Voltaire called "our little garden".

If however we don't know the old stories or even the newest ones, like Percy Jackson & the Olympians, we have a responsibility to learn them. By actively participating in and encouraging young-adult literature, we are behaving like responsible gatekeepers for our community, encountering ourselves and others in relationships. We are choosing to reaffirm faith in the community or challenge it, based on whether we wish our children to share the experience we had or not.

In so doing, we are testing the cycle of identity, the cycle of the self, of who we have become, both as individuals and as a wider community. Do we break the cycle, as it exists, or do we recommit and affirm the values of the community? Are we truly behaving in a responsible way? Are we facing our fears, surmounting our obstacles, embracing life? Or has something gone wrong?

Hal Borland, a well-known American columnist also wrote the young-adult novel When the Legends Die about a native-American hero named Tom who rediscovers his roots. I love Hal Borland. His writing is spare and ethereal. He was perhaps best known for his nature column in the The New York Times, which he maintained until his death in 1978. The dominant theme of When the Legends Die is self-discovery in the midst of social decay. Tom Blackbull is a young Ute tribesman in early 20th century America. Told with with grim grace, Borland's tale follows Tom from early childhood in the wilderness, where he loses his parents George and Bessie, into adulthood as he struggles to come to terms with modern life, a life that does not offer him a welcoming place. Tom’s conflicted attitude toward his ethnic heritage reflects in both his self-esteem and the choices he'll make throughout. Should he accept the fractured, defeated identity that awaits him on the reservation? Or should he embrace the life his mother taught him in the wilderness?

Once more he slept, and dreamed, and he was alone, walking over the earth in the night. He came to a mountain and he said, “I have forgotten who I am.” There was no answer. He said, “I was the boy who went with Blue Elk and did what he said I must do.” Again there was no answer. “I went with Red Dillon and did what he said I must do.” Still there was no answer. “I killed as they taught me to kill!” he cried.And at last the mountain's voice asked, “Why?” -Hal Borland, When the Legends Die

There is an elegiac tone to the work. This stems from the omnipresent feeling that the cultural identity that Tom must choose is ultimately futile. His is a culture in decline, rapidly decaying and taking it's few remaining people with it. Whoever he becomes cannot be passed. Who he is will end with him. In Tom’s world, when legends die so too finally dies all of his ancestors, their souls lost to oblivion. And through Tom's inimitable struggle, some alienated young-adults and a few of us old scrappers may also feel that oblivion rising over us. How did we handle the crisis? Will we be more or less successful next time? In a classic book like this one, you might 'find' yourself.

*For more on these rites and descriptions of different types practiced around the world in various ages, including our own, please read Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces or Sir James Frazier's classic The Golden Bough. These are two excellent and illuminating works in this regard.

Gorgeous violence

DSC_0019 There is a gorgeous violence to farm life.

Imagine a five-year-old witnessing with enthusiasm the full-scale butchering of three dozen geese in one day. It's enough to make PETA hunt us down with truckloads of paint.

You would think a child fascinated by such gruesomeness would become a serial killer one day.

But that's the strange beauty of farm life. This same child raises ducklings, chicks, and geese as if they were her darling babies. She sings to her new ducklings, telling her father that these are not to be butchered. They are hers.

She will spend hours in the basement with them, teaching the yellow tufts to follow her.

Though seemingly incongruent, perhaps it's these things she experiences in farm life that teach her that we must cycle through the dirty, muddy, mucky, painful, violent parts of life along with the joys, nurturing, and love. It's an introduction more profound and approachable than a violent movie or video game. It's something she can handle.

I recently read an interview with Joel Salatin at motherearthnews.com, a celebrity in the organic farming world (don't laugh, we do have celebrities) who describes himself as "a third generation-Christian-libertarian-environmentalist-capitalist lunatic." Salatin's version of farm life, where he raises, butchers, and sells pork, beef, and chicken in a manner that he calls "beyond organic" is actually therapeutic: "In a word, this is all about healing: healing our bodies, healing our economies, healing our communities, healing our families, healing the landscape, healing the earthworms. If it’s not healing, it’s not appropriate."

Salatin doesn't mince words. He believes that children can handle this kind of gorgeous violence better than adults:

"This is why we enjoy having our patrons come out and see the animals slaughtered. Actually, the 7- to 12-year old children have no problem slitting throats while their parents cower inside their Prius listening to “All Things Considered.” Who is really facing life here? The chickens don’t talk or sign petitions. We honor them in life, which is the only way we earn the right to ask them to feed us — like the mutual respect that occurs between the cape buffalo and the lion."

Maybe one day when creation is made new, the lion will make friends with the lamb and the farmer will no longer need to slaughter her animals. But wouldn't it be amazing (and perhaps ironic) if this new kingdom came just a little bit more by the healing farming practices of those who respect death just as much as they respect life.

How can I keep from singing

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I'm not going to lie.

It's been a rough winter.

From dog bites to anxiety attacks to the harshest winter anyone can remember (seriously, the farmers whose ancestors immigrated here from the northern parts of Scandinavia are sick of this winter), I have found myself wallowing in the darkness, wandering in cold places, lost in the wilderness.

My husband did a sermon recently on the temptation of Jesus. He noted that Jesus didn't choose to go into the wilderness, he was lead there (I would venture to guess he might've been dragged). For some reason, the knowledge of Jesus' unchosen time in the wilderness was a comfort. That he didn't desire any of this death or pain and that he understood my own little version of wilderness because he'd been through it, big time.

When my five-year-old came inside today from playing in the melting snow (more like mud, really), she was gloriously happy, red-cheeked and dirty, making her mother breathless by talking a mile a minute about how she'd collected rotten vegetables to feed the bugs in her ant house, how she'd helped Daddy fix the tractor.

After she ran back outside, she left some of her spring behind.

For months, I've been begging for life, crying out for spring, searching for one bright spot of green poking through the wintered earth.

My daughter brought life right to me. Her hands were filthy with it, her eyes sparkling with it, her voice a song to life anew.

I felt so grateful. And I began to sing and cry because I couldn't help it:

"No storm can shake my inmost calm while to that rock I'm clinging; since Love is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?"

My life flows on in endless song;
Above earth's lamentation,
I hear the sweet, tho' far-off hymn
That hails a new creation;
Thro' all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul—
How can I keep from singing?
What tho' my joys and comforts die?
The Lord my Saviour liveth;
What tho' the darkness gather round?
Songs in the night he giveth.
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that refuge clinging;
Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth,
How can I keep from singing?
I lift my eyes; the cloud grows thin;
I see the blue above it;
And day by day this pathway smooths,
Since first I learned to love it;
The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart,
A fountain ever springing;
All things are mine since I am his—
How can I keep from singing?*
*I used to think this was an Enya song. But then I discovered that it's actually an old Quaker hymn. And Love is Christ the Lord. Beautiful!