Mountaintop experiences: St Timothy’s Outreach Center, Irvine, KY

Our intrepid mission team left for KY last Monday aboard a brightly colored Hispanic ministry bus.  Such a vehicle at first seemed overly spacious for such a small group; however, we planned to carry some of our groceries.  Plus towels and bed sheets.  Also pillows. And, after a quick peek at the week’s weather forecast, jackets and sweatshirts instead of Florida shorts and tank tops. 

Basically, by the time we left predawn the bus looked like we were scrambling for an emergency evacuation.

Mapquest set the total driving time at 13.5 hours but Mapquest does not take into account a lunch break (Subway), supper break (Cracker Barrel, of course!), and multiple gas&potty stops. It was a long day but as the terrain gradually became mountainous and the temperatures continued to dip cooler, I was excited.  I had lived in south central Kentucky for fourteen years and was seeing more and more that was familiar as we  approached the state border.  I was also hearing more and more that was familiar with each and every conversation at rest stops, to the point that, when we finally pulled into Irvine’s Walmart just before midnight, I walked into the store and thought: “I’m home!”

We actually still had miles to go, of course, even from Walmart.  St Timothy Outreach Center sits high up on Barnes Mountain. The midnight climb up the mountain was somewhat less daunting than the next morning’s ride, when we could see how sheer the drop was below us!  The first building pictured on the right was our home for the week and featured dorm style rooms with bunk beds, a large kitchen and common room.  For our group, it was a comfortable base camp for meals, hot showers and lodging.

The second picture is a newer log cabin, still under construction, located behind the first building.  It promises to be a beautiful house for future visiting teams.

Our host for the week was Fr Bryant Kibler, who is the Priest-In-Charge at St Timothy’s as well as serving a parish of his own and working in diocesan administration.  We found Fr Bryant to be, quite honestly, rather amazing.  Every morning he would gather our crew in a big truck with an even bigger van attached.  After transporting us to a job site (no small feat on narrow muddy roads and driveways!), he would divvy up the various duties, keeping us all busy, teaching the less construction savvy of us the tricks of the trade, and jumping in to do the more skilled jobs as needed.  During our lunch break, our team ate while Fr Bryant gave us a fascinating overview of Kentucky history and culture. 

Work at St Timothy’s varies according to the time of year and the size and skills of the group.  We were fortunate enough to be working inside during a week that was unseasonably rainy and cold.  We were able to continue painting and flooring that had been started in a house currently occupied but without electricity or running water.  We also repaired the floor and painted a room in our new friend Manfred’s house.

A community meal is served at St Timothy’s on Tuesday night.  Local children gathered for games and pizza.  Kids are, of course,  pretty much kids wherever you go, from the vivacious, giggly preteen girls to a pair of young brothers, very shy, who would not play skittles with the rest of us but watched very closely and later went back to play the game on their own.

The trip home went more quickly and efficiently than Monday’s long ride.  The people I’d met and the work we had shared have stayed with me. I carried the joy of the journey with me back into my work place this week. 

“Did you have a good vacation?” I was asked.

The best! 

Mission Trip Countdown:Praying for the Church Van

Our mission trip to eastern Kentucky is just hours away!  We will be leaving some time before the crack of dawn to begin our long trek up I-75 to the mountains.  We are traveling in a diocesan bus.  (I haven’t seen it yet but am told that it is colorful.)  In the midst of my pre-departure jitters, I’ve had a little poem on my mind that I saved years ago.  It’s by Michael Chitwood and I believe I ran across it in Poetry magazine:


My evangelical brethren have let me know,
via the quarterly fundraising letter,
that they can’t get the gospel around
because their van has given up the ghost.
God in the machine, help them.
I lift up their carburetor and their transaxle.
Bless them with meshed gears and a greased cam shaft.
Free their lifters.
Deliver their differential
and anoint their valves and their pistons.
Unblock their engine block
and give them deep treaded tires.
Their brakes cry out to You.  Hear them, O Lord.
Drive out the demons from their steering column
and come in to the transmission
that they may know the peace of passing.
Minister even unto the turn indicator.
Creator Spirit, Holy Maker of the Universe,
give them gas.

All joking aside, please keep us in your prayers, as well as all the other folks who are heading out this summer for the great privilege of mission team work.

Thanks for reading.  Will let you know how the journey goes….

Millennials & the Church: What does the research tell us?

Look around a typical Sunday morning congregation and chances are you won’t see many college students.  Is this a new trend?  Is it getting worse?  What do we really know about college kids and their religious practices and beliefs?

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has done some extensive research on Americans and religion, interviewing 35,000 adults and reporting on their religious beliefs and practices, as well as social and political attitudes.  The resulting report, U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, includes a full section on the religion among Millennial age group (age 18 to 29). 

There is, somewhat predictably, good news and bad news.

The report subtitle categorizes Millennials as “less religiously active than older Americans, but fairly traditional in other ways.”  Specifics issues  include:

  • One in four (25%) in this age group are unaffiliated with any religious tradition, describing themselves instead as atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular.”
  • Nearly one in five (18%) in this age group say they were raised in a religious tradition but are now unaffiliated with any particular denomination.
  • More young adults in this age group are unaffiliated now than young adults were in recent decades.  (Compare the current 25% with Generation X at 20% in the late 1990s and Baby Boomers at 13% in the late 1970s.)
  • Less than half of adults under age 30 said that religion was very important in their lives.

There are, of course, some brighter (or less dark?) spots:

  • Among the Millennials who claim affiliation with a religious tradition, the intensity of that bond is as strong today as in previous generations.
  • Young adults in general attend religious services less frequently than older adults but this generational difference is fairly small between young and older adults with a strong religious affiliation.
  • Millenials engage in a number of religious practices (reading Scripture, prayer, and meditation) less frequently than older adults; however, these numbers are in line with what Gen-Xers and even Baby Boomers reported at the same time period in their lives.
  • More than three-quarters (76%) of young adults believe that there are absolute standards of right and wrong. Interestingly enough that percentage is almost identical in older age groups (77%).
  • More than half of young adults (55%) think that churches should speak out on social and political issues.  (49% of older adults said the same.)

There is much more information available on the Pew Forum website on this topic!  The Millennial report concludes with the following recommendations for further reading:

Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults by Christian Smith and Patricia Snell (2009)

After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion by Robert Wuthnow (2007).

And this in a review of this last book from Publisher Weekly: “Wuthnow argues that our society provides lots of structural support for children and teens, but leaves younger adults to fend for themselves during the decades when they’re making crucial decisions about family and work.”

Food for thought indeed…..

Thanks for reading!

P.S. You may have noticed that I’ve added a blog roll.  (It was a bit of a challenge for me and I’m rather proud of the accomplishment.)  I’ve started with just a few Episcopally relevant blogs/sites.  If you have recommendations for more, please let me know!

Questioning the Almighty: What does God need with a starship?

OK, so I must confess that I’m a Trekkie from way back.  I could quote you lines from many Star Trek episodes and movies but my absolute all time favorite Star Trek scene happens to be from the film Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.  In this particular passage the crew has traveled (with much action and many adventures, of course!) to a planet beyond the Great Barrier and the landing party has finally come face to face with what appears to be the Face of God–or at least an Old Testament prophet sort of giant talking head.  “God” is in the process of welcoming his “children” and asks that they bring their spaceship just a little closer to the planet when a hand goes up from the back of the group.  The ensuing dialogue goes something like this:

Kirk: Excuse me… Excuse me… I just wanted to ask a question. What does God need with a starship?

McCoy: Jim, what are you doing?

Kirk: I’m asking a question.

“God”: Who is this creature?

Kirk: Who am I? Don’t you know? Aren’t you God?

Sybok: He has his doubts.

“God”: You doubt me?

Kirk: I seek proof.

This past Sunday was the second Sunday of Easter and most of us heard again the story of Thomas and Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances recorded in John’s Gospel.  Because Thomas is not with the other disciples when Jesus first appears, he does not believe their witness, saying instead that unless he sees the mark of the nails in Jesus’ hands and puts his hand in his side, he will not believe. 

He seeks proof.

Thomas is commonly known as “Doubting Thomas,” though the label is misleading.  After all, having found the proof he needed, Thomas was himself a powerful witness and went on to preach the Gospel as far away as Persia and India.  He is the patron saint of architects, builders, construction workers, masons, and stonecutters–solid professions all.  Proof, perhaps, of the foundation of faith established by his relationship with Jesus, a relationship strong enough to tolerate questions.  Said Pope St Gregory the Great of Thomas:  “Do you really believe that it was by chance that this chosen disciple was absent, then came and heard, heard and doubted, doubted and touched, touched and believed?….In a marvelous way God’s mercy arranged that the disbelieving disciple, in touching the wounds of his master’s body, should heal our wounds of disbelief.”

And what does all this have to do with campus ministry?  One of the great offerings we have as the church on campus is to create an environment where it is safe to ask questions.  What better place to find a community in which you can wonder, explore, seek proof, “touch and believe”?  Today’s college campus in fact seems to be a perfect place to find healing for our “wounds of disbelief” and to build a strong foundation of faith.

As always, thanks for reading.  More to come….

Mission trips & God’s foolishness

The USF Chapel Center mission trip is just a few weeks away!

It’s a funny thing about mission trips.  If you’ve not been on one, the idea may seem to you—as it did to me at one time—perhaps a little foolish.  After all, I’m not a carpenter, plumber, electrician, or of any other profession that would be at all useful at a building site.  So, what’s the point in me traveling cross country for a service project?   Wouldn’t the cause be better served if I opened my checkbook rather than packed my suitcase?

On the other hand, once you have been on a mission trip, you see things differently.  Usually there is something about the experience that opens your heart and just stays with you.

My first real mission trip was traveling several years ago to New Orleans during the summer.  Our church crew worked with Episcopal Relief and Development on a variety of houses in the 9th Ward and nearby neighborhoods.   It had been quite some time since Katrina but the remains of the destruction and the enormity of the recovery work still ahead was overwhelming.  We spend our first work day mucking out debris from a house that had been destroyed twice–first by water and later by fire.  By the end of the day we were exhausted, filthy, hot and very thirsty.

We stopped on the way back to our lodgings to gas up the van and went into the store to buy cold drinks.  Two well dressed African American women ahead of us in the line at the cash register sized us up with a glance as we waited.  They finished paying for their purchase and before heading out the door, turned around to us and said simply:

“Thank you for the work you are doing here.  Thank you for coming to our city.  God bless you.”

Ask me why, of all the memorable experiences we had that week, that one exchange with  strangers remains especially with me and I cannot give you an easy answer.  Perhaps it is God’s foolishness that we head out again and again to mission trips, knowing that there is really little we can do to help in some situations but knowing it’s important that we try.

It’s not just the work we do on the mission trip but our presence for others there that lets them know they have not been forgotten.  It’s not just the experience of a short summer trip but the witness we carry back to our own community as we share stories again and again of what we have seen and experienced.

There are lots of web options now for finding volunteer work and mission opportunities.  The following are mostly from an excellent recent issue of US News & World Report (Nov 2010) focusing on public service:

Episcopal Relief & Development

Catholic Charities USA

Samaritan’s Purse

Global Volunteers

Charity Guide

Volunteer Match

HandsOn Network

Urban Ministry

Christian Volunteering

So, what about the foolishness of mission trips?

Just remember….

“God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”
– 1 Corinthians 1:25

More to come.  Thanks for reading!

Jazz in the Liturgy & More: Canterbury House at University of Michigan

Recently I reviewed Better Get It In Your Soul: What Liturgists Can Learn from Jazz, a new resource on creativity in worship written by Reid Hamilton and Stephen Rush, chaplain and music faculty advisor at Canterbury House at University of Michigan.  I was delighted with the book, wanted to learn more, and consequently contacted the authors, who were every bit as gracious and welcoming as their book had led me to expect.  The following is from my phone interview with Fr Reid, as well as information gleaned from the Canterbury House website, which is a great introduction to their people and programs.  The CH mission statement summarizes pretty well what they are all about:

  • A progressive alternative for Christians and other spiritual seekers
  • Devoted to the spiritual growth of the students, faculty and staff at the UofM
  • Committed to integrating the intellectual, spiritual, emotional and socially responsible dimensions of student life and culture
  • Dedicated to finding God without twisting arms or sacrificing reason
  • Combining new artistic expressions with ancient wisdom and tradition
  • Friendly to lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgendered people
  • A student organization and a ministry of the Episcopal Church

There are plenty of opportunities to get involved with social justice at CH.  Service projects include:  Casa Materna, a home and educational resource for expectant mothers in Matagalpa, Nicaragua;  Episcopal Relief & Development disaster relief work; and Brewing Hope, a fair trade coffee partnership.  A fundraiser is currently underway to help rebuild Holy Trinity Cathedral in Port-au-Prince.  Mass services frequently honor specific saints of the church, commemorating social activists and raising awareness within the U of M community.

It is in the area of music, as you might expect, that CH is really unique.  They are fortunate enough to have a full time chaplain—few Episcopal campus programs do—and are therefore able to provide both a jazz mass on Sunday night and either an Evensong or Taize service on Wednesday. The Chapel is heavily utilized by music students for senior recitals, as well as providing a quiet spot for piano practice. Typically six concerts are scheduled each semester: these are ticketed events whose proceeds are used to pay the musicians.  Fr Reid said that some students who come to concerts later come back for church services; others may come only for the concerts.  The music itself is a ministry and that is reason enough to do it.

What impressed me in my conversation with Fr Reid was the wisdom of finding that “one thing.” (Remember Jack Palance’s advice to Billy Crystal in City Slickers?)  Among all the various activities expected of a college church, perhaps what we need to do is to find that one ministry which, as Hamilton and Rush have said of music, “resonates” with your campus community.  Decide who you will be and what makes you unique.

Of course, the next step in establishing your identity is getting the word out to others.  Fr Reid said that it had been very helpful at CH to invest in creating a distinct and easily recognizeable logo.  That image has been used consistently for everything associated with CH: letterhead, brochures, posters, tee-shirts, and even–and I love this one–temporary tattoos!  (How about that for “branding”?)

The door is open at Canterbury House at U of M:

If you are exploring your faith, creating your ethic, looking for a safe place to ask hard questions, need a welcoming and open community, like new and interesting art and music, or are wondering how you can make a difference in the world, then Canterbury House is ready for you.  The atmosphere is relaxed, the worship is informal and accessible, and the teapot is on the stove….Come and be involved, be challenged, be fed, be comforted, or just be! We are happy to see you.”

More to come!  Thanks for reading!

Be known to us in the cooking of pancakes

Since last fall we have been eating supper together at the Chapel Center after Sunday evening Eucharist. Some times different members of the group will bring in various dishes (salad, main dish, dessert). At other times we have cooked in the Chapel Center kitchen. This is always an adventure. The kitchen was renovated several years ago and is in good shape in terms of major equipment. It is, however, only mostly equipped with the smaller stuff, which means that there’s usually some improvising needed when you are already in the thick of things, food-wise.

Typically you find yourself opening all the cabinets at some point, muttering: “I thought I saw a strainer (measuring cup, salad tongs, etc.) here last week. I’m SURE I did. Where would we have put it?!” We are gradually adding those things that are most needful. Ingenuity can only go so far. A good paring knife, for example, is essential. We have discovered that a rotary pizza cutter is simply not an adequate replacement.

On a recent Sunday night, we celebrated the coming Shrove Tuesday with a pancake supper. While a pan of sausage and bacon warmed in the oven, we…

heated two electric griddles,

set the table,

started a pot of coffee….

And then started a new pot of coffee because the first had bubbled all over the counter.

It was a messy evening in general. I was one of two cooking at the griddles. My fellow cook was turning out fluffy golden brown, Aunt-Jemima-perfect pancakes.  I, on the hand, seemed to be dribbling more batter on the counter than my griddle. I was also doing “add-ons”: blueberries, chocolate chips, and a tasty item called “cinnamon chips.”  My plan was to pour out batter on the griddle and add the goodies as the pancakes cooked. Unfortunately, this was not a simple procedure.  The blueberries tended to roll off the pancake surface, jump the griddle and bounce to the floor. The chips fared better initially but when I flipped the pancakes, the chips would melt to a gummy mess which managed to burn as well as preventing the pancakes from browning well on the bottom. Everything seemed to take longer than it should and every platter of pancakes we sent out came back empty much too quickly.

Just when I had started to wonder if we really would manage to get everyone fed, the call came back that the cookers should “Sit down and eat!” because others had finished and were ready to jump back into the kitchen. And, as it usually is with these things, all was well. We ate much more than reasonable people should but when the leftover pancakes and sausage were gathered up, loaves-and-fishes style, we had more than enough for take-away containers–another essential part of campus cooking.

In the Eucharistic liturgy, we come together to share the bread and wine in remembrance of our risen Lord. I can’t help but think that in the kitchen fellowship of shared pancakes and sausage, celebrated with shared work and mutual service, we also have a glimpse and taste of that heavenly banquet ahead.

Better Get It in Your Soul:What Liturgists Can Learn from Jazz

  I’m a long time accompanist/church musician but have absolutely no experience performing jazz music, so I was initially more than a little intimidated by the idea of adding jazz to the liturgy.  So, when my copy of Reid Hamilton and Stephen Rush’s book arrived, I did the sensible thing: I started at the back and checked out their bibliography. (This is my standard way of deciding whether I have wandered into foreign territory with a new author.)  In this case, the expansive suggested reading list included works by Annie Dillard, John Bell, Meister Eckhart, Madeleine L’Engle and many more, with references to music ranging from Southern Harmony to Taize, from Bach to Coltrane.  I was instantly hooked.

Authors Reid Hamilton and Stephen Rush are the Chaplain and Music Director of the Canterbury House at the University of Michigan and their Sunday night services do indeed include jazz and much, much more.  They compare the liturgy of the service—the order of worship—to a jazz musician’s chart, a starting point and framework for creativity, improvisation, and the movement of the Holy Spirit.  Their aim is to have liturgy and music “work together as a cogent and coherent whole.”  The choice of music is not limited to jazz; in fact, “jazz” is used as a metaphor for any music that resonates with a congregation and engages participants.  Depending on the parish, a “jazz mass” could just as easily be based on folk music, bluegrass, hip-hop, or even polkas!

From this premise, Hamilton and Rush proceed to address a variety of topics including musical style, liturgical planning, utilization of worship space, and, in particular, clergy-musician partnerships.  They emphasize that this relationship is at the heart of collaborative liturgical planning: “Priests and musicians seeking a meaningful liturgical experience for their congregations are encouraged to start first with their relationship to each other–nurturing respect, love, sharing, and a common language to discuss their faith.”

The role of the church musician is explored more specifically in Chapter 10 (“Church Musician—Gig or Calling?”).  Stephen Rush discusses an eclectic grouping of three great church musicians—Johann Sebastian Bach, Olivier Messiaen, and Thomas Dorsey—as well as his own journey as a church musician. 

Along with the more philosophical considerations of liturgy and music there are plenty of “nuts and bolts” takeaways in the generous appendices, including sample Rite II outlines from Canterbury House services, a list of musical resources indexed by liturgical theme, as well as a Blues Mass and series of Psalm tones composed by Stephen Rush.

This is a valuable text for church musicians and clergy in any parish setting but it  particularly provides a fresh view on liturgical planning for college campus services.  As the authors suggest, college students are, after all, the Church’s best “beta testers” and campus ministry is a great place for a “liturgical laboratory”!  This closing quote concerning church music is perhaps applicable to campus ministry in general:

“Great things take a lot of work, and this work is God’s.  It’s worth it.” 

Highly recommended:
Better Get It In Your Soul: What Liturgists Can Learn from Jazz
by Reid Hamilton & Stephen Rush
Church Publishing (2008)
ISBN: 978-0-89869-574-8

Available at Amazon:

Chapel Makeover Pt I: Moving the furniture

St Anselm’s is a lovely little chapel with a very simple altar and furnishings and lots of natural light. Even though I love the space, ever since we started worshiping there I’ve felt that something just wasn’t quite right with our physical setup.  Take a look at this picture and see if you agree:

Chairs, chairs, chairs!

Yes, chairs, chairs, chairs!  Maybe I’m just a bit on the claustrophobic side but I felt generally hemmed in by a liturgical fence of too many chairs and hymnal racks.  We were set up in a U-shaped configuration rather than traditional straight rows but it still seemed too stilted.

Here’s another shot facing the altar:

Still crowded, both in the “pews” and around the altar.

So, we decided to experiment:

  • First, some of those chairs just had to go!  We moved about 15 chairs out.  Instant open space!
  • The altar is massive and appears permanently fixed where it is.  The pulpit on the left of the altar and piano on the right, on the other hand, could be shifted.
  • We moved the piano to the back corner and now have a flexible spot for singers and guest musicians to set up music stands and/or equipment.
  • We moved the pulpit to the opposite end of the room, facing the altar.  Our priest typically does not use the pulpit to preach; however, the pulpit is still available for reading the Gospel or for visiting preachers.  We now have more room to gather at the altar for Eucharist.
  • We moved out all of the connecting book racks.  With the chairs are not hooked together we had the flexibility to form curved rows in a semicircle from the altar to the pulpit.  At first it was TOO big a circle—too much space!  We brought the rows in just a bit and that seemed to fix that issue.

Here’s where we are so far.  See what you think:

Altar view


Piano & Pulpit

There’s more to come (Makeover Pt 2?)  If you have any suggestions, let me know.  Thanks for reading!

Teaching pigs to sing

“Never try to teach a pig to sing. It wastes your time and annoys the pig.”

This post is actually not about pigs or voice lessons but about the wisdom of trying to do things that seem unlikely to succeed.  Why should we be concerned with college campus ministry when there are so many other areas where our Christian outreach efforts might be more visibly effective and successful?  Some would say from the start that what we are attempting–building an active Episcopal presence on campus–is an exercise in futility: 

College kids are too busy (i.e. having too much fun) for church, right?” 

You might get some to come but they are just showing up for a free meal, you know?”

Don’t worry—kids drift away from the church in college but they’ll be back in a few years when they start getting married and raising kids of their own.”

Obviously, I disagree.

I do think many college students are incredibly busy—sometimes working strange weekend shifts that make regular Sunday morning church attendance impossible. 
(Dropping in as a visitor for an occasional service has its own problems.  In general, how welcoming are we to the college student who does show up as a visitor on a typical Sunday morning?)

I think students will show up for a meal, but many traditional church goers do the same!  Why do you think churches plan so many activities around the traditional potluck supper?

As for drifting away and wandering back—well, perhaps.  Some do. Many others will drift away to find other churches more interested in involving their generational dynamic.  Others will just drift, and maybe for a long time.

The bottom line is that we take care of people in our lives that matter and college students should matter to those in the household of God.  The Millennials (20-30 year olds) in our midst are part of our church family and campus ministry is one way to keep our relationship with them alive and well.

St Dunstan’s, which is the Episcopal Church at Auburn University, perhaps says it best in the following from their campus ministry newsletter:

The Episcopal Church needs to see campus ministry and young adult ministry as the most important evangelism and mission area there is. It is where our culture is the most dynamic, most committed, most culturally diverse.”


There’s more ahead. Thanks for reading!

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