For some of us, this is our favorite time of year. For others, family centric holidays feel like cruel reminders of loss, misfortune, and tragedy. Happy songs chime in the shops and on radio stations. People talk about their favorite Christmas songs and carols. Yet, some of us would rather hide our heads from the reminders of hard times. We find ourselves more comfortable with the raw edginess of the Pogues Fairytale of New York. Unsurprisingly, this is one of the most played songs during the Christmas season, which perhaps gives evidence to the fact that Christmas is a raw day for many people. Over the years, I have discovered a few ways to navigate this season successfully and with a good degree of excitement despite an often overwhelming sense of dread.*
Create new rituals around the holidays that emphasize things you can still enjoy. When Christmas became a lonely holilday with shadows of trauma that haunted me like the Ghost of Christmas Past, I established a new rhythm for the season. I celebrated the Winter Solstice––the shortest, darkest day of the year. I gathered with friends that night. We told stories, sang songs, and shared our favorite meads together.
Find a way to serve and replace your expectations of receiving. This is one of the most powerful ways to transform unfulfilled expectations. When we work to fill the needs of others, we step outside the traps inherent to a self-focused high-expectation life. Food Banks, and churches offering meals for families without the resources to buy them are just a couple examples of service oriented activity during the Christmas season.
Find a new circle of friends who understand your situation. It’s okay to share how you feel about the season. Instead of being a party pooper, you will discover that you are not alone in feeling the way you do. You are likely that you will find that people already in your life struggle just like you do.
Poke fun of the things you dislike about most about a self-focused holiday. A little light-hearted self-deprication goes a long way in changing one’s focus in tension filled moments. I did this by writing a Christmas song about selfish expectations of receiving things I want for Christmas. (link)
Rebuilding life after loss, tragedy or misfortune may require some of the hard work of self-evaluation and adjustment. This is what the Jesus and the writers of the Bible called repentance. But once this self-adjustment has begun, there remains the hard work of remaking life and creating new patterns of life and new circles of friendships who offer life and hope in the middle of life’s tragedies.
*It should be noted, that when you look like Santa, it’s not wise to be grumpy around Christmas. That will certainly make your neighbor’s children cry.
After a month and a half away in the US, first in Salem for the monthlong Halloween and then home to California, I am now back in the place that has become my new home: Caernarfon, Gwynedd, Wales. It’s back to immersion in the Welsh language, organizing community events in Caernarfon, and preparing for “Dim Saesneg” my yearlong Welsh language trip through the country.
Since my return to Wales, people have been stopping me to say that they’ve seen me in the news and are thanking me for making a point to learn their language and promote it. Learning a language of the people who speak minority languages across the world is a major point of identification with culture and it represents one more way that we can incarnate the love of God to others. Language acquisition is just one important missional representation of “God with skin on”.
Wales has been football crazy since I returned, because the country made it into the World Cup for the first time since the year I was born. Unfortunately, they did not make it into the round of 16, but evidence of excitement was everywhere with large gatherings watching the matches, and people singing Yma O Hyd.
My first two weeks back have been eventful. I’ve done an interview with the Welsh language magazine Golwg about why I moved to Wales, why I am learning Welsh, and why I will be traveling through the country for a year and a day speaking nothing but Welsh.
Last weekend, I spoke at The Community Church – Wrexham during a Sunday Evening Christians Together in Wrexham event. As is typical of my work and my outreach, I spoke about reaching out to subcultures, the disenfranchised, and going to the places Christians are typically afraid to go. Stories from Salem, Burning Man, Glastonbury, the Appleby Horse Fair, and my immersion in the Welsh language punctuated my point that part of loving God is learning to love what God loves, and God loves the people of the world. He appears to have a special place in his heart for the disenfranchised and the oppressed. As a nation that has struggled to maintain its ancient language despite centuries of effort to eradicate it, this is a message that rings deeply in the people of Wales and motivates many of them toward compassion for the oppressed of all nations.
After the evening with Christians Together in Wrexham, (and seeing friends like Faith and Keefe Owen) I joined John Ramm, one of the musicians from the church, and my wonderful hosts Mike and Hazel Norbury at the Magic Dragon Tap for an open mic. The place was hopping. I received a wonderful reception from the people and after making even more friends in Wrexham (now famous for the football team owned by Rob McElhenney and Ryan Reynolds), I am expecting that Wrexham will be a place of necessary return.
The following day, I met with The Community Church pastors Nick and Sue Pengelly at Mike and Hazel’s home, and we visited Grace Lockhart at the Rhos Community Café. Grace pastors a small church with a huge outreach to festivals, and a café in the village just outside Wrexham. Grace has been doing outreach like the prophetic festival outreach that happened so effectively in Salem for a couple decades.
Last night I revisited an open mic in a town in the top of Anglesey (the northern tip of Wales, about 20 miles from Caernarfon), and it was like returning home. I’ve made several new friends in Amlwch, and like Wrecsam, this is likely to become a place of necessary return on a monthly basis.
Sunday morning, I will be preaching in Bangor at Penrallt Chapel during the second week of Advent on the subject of love.
 The monthly magazine should be coming out in a couple weeks. See Golwg at https://golwg.360.cymru  https://www.facebook.com/christianstogetherinwrexham/  https://www.facebook.com/rhos.communitycafe.7  https://www.penrallt.org/home/index.php
It’s not quite a week that I’ve been back from my six days at the Music and Science Festival in Merthyr Mawr Reserve in Pen-Y-Bont in south Wales. I moderated a discussion on Welsh Independence put on by YES Cymru, and I was responsible for a small space called “The Cwtch”, which basically means a nice little cuddle type of hug. The Cwtch was the space for outdoor open mics. Later the open mic performers took a late night stage of the best of the open mic musicians. In all there were 6 open mics over Saturday and Sunday of the Festival.
On my return to Caernarfon, I had to immediately move out of the apartment I was in, and am now in a temporary residence once again. A super special thank you to Rhys Davies, who’s [lace at Tŷ Glyndwr in Caernarfon is fun temoporary space.
Now, I am trying to once again immerse myself in the Welsh language experience in preparation for next year’s year-long walk around the country without speaking anything but Welsh for a year.
If you are a Welsh language learner, and would like to join me for a day, perhaps longer, walking and talking, stopping for a pint, participating in pub gigs, learning Welsh history and Welsh stories and myths…all in Welsh; then mark August 2023 on your Calendar. That is the starting date for my year-long walk and talk. Details of the schedule and events to start coming together soon.
Details from Life in the Festival and Life in the Town
Before Between the Trees, Stephen Simmonds and I set up The Cwtch, the area which would become home to the Open Mics and the Festival Choir, along with other assorted set up duties.
Once the festival began, I had two main duties. On the Friday evening, I moderated a discussion on Annibyniaeth (Welsh Independence from the UK), which was organized by YES Cymru (a pro-Independence Movement). I jokingly commented that it was rather strange to have an American moderating a discussion on independence from England. It was a robust discussion with people agreeing and disagreeing openly, and getting along despite the differences.
Saturday and Sunday, I ran six Open Mics. The first four were in the beautiful outdoor unamplified setting of The Cwtch. On Sunday afternoon/evening, we held two sessions on the small stage. The level of skill coming from the open mic was remarkable, and included some of the performers from the large stage testing out their new material. Each session ended with me leading all the musicians together in playing the song from the Waterboys, Fisherman’s Blues. I’ve translated the song into Welsh, and so I would do a verse or two yn Gymraeg. Elv Saw sent a video of us singing Fisherman’s Blues with a bit of Welsh to the Waterboys a couple days ago, and they responded back noting that it was “awesome.” Some of us are currently considering how to keep the Between the Trees Open Mic Sessions going throught the year.
Throughout the festival, I had many discussions on spirituality, which included the use of the number of old churches closing, and how those buildings might be used for both social action and spiritual renewal.
Upon returning to Caernarfon, I had to move house immediately. The place I’ve been renting was sold, and they wanted to close on the sale. I had a contract that allowed me to stay through November, but I felt that it was best to accommodate the previous owner as much as possible. “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches,” the proverbist tell us. (Proverbs 22:1) So thanks to my good friend Rhys Davies, I am currently staying at Tŷ Glyndwr inside the old town walls of Caernarfon. If you ever come to stay, and are looking for an affordable place, this is a really nicely run bunkhouse in a beautiful old market/pirate town which locals often call the Welshest of Welsh towns.
Since being back, I’ve been spending my time getting to know the local musicians and the “Cofis” (Caernarfon townies). I’ve been playing music in the Market Hall, and spending time with some of the native Welsh speakers, soe of whom drink and curse like sailors, and we end up talking about spirituality and God. Much like living in Salem, Massachusetts, I feel like I have moved into a festival town where people are open in both mind and heart. This is why I am here, because I find this place to be one that has hard shell on the outside at first impression, but is incredibly soft of heart. God has his hand on Caernarfon in a remarkable way––that is, if we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear. Please keep us––this town and myself in your prayers.
Life at the local church, Caersalem feels full of vibrant life and grace, and the church at its pastors (Rhys and Menna) can use your prayers as well.
Eight days of intensified Welsh. This was not an organized class, or structured language learning. This was the yearly cultural event called The Welsh National Eisteddfod. 100,000+ people come to participate in, and experience this most vibrant of Celtic languages and the culture that undergirds it.
This was a place where I was forced to stick to speaking Welsh most of the time, and I struggled like a fool to understand the presentations, performances, and conversations around me.
In this event, people from all over Cymru (Wales) travel to spend anywhere from one day to the full eight days in competition, music, theater, dance, and language-based experiences. I had an extremely wet beginning, and started the event with a deluge, and the post my hammock tent was tied to began leaning in the softening soil of the dark wet night. If you know anything about hammock tents, you will know that that whatever you are tied to needs to be solid or heavy rains will certainly visit your sleeping space…and well the heavy Welsh rain did visit me as the pole slowly leaned over through the night.
The following day, everything I brought with me spent the afternoon in the drying barn at the dairy farm. This was a good test for ‘Trixie’, the carbon fiber travel guitar. Yes, I can confidently declare that she can withstand Welsh rain!
After this soggy start, I settled into spending my days immersing myself in Welsh. I spoke with other learners. Sometimes was called upon to do a bit of Welsh language teaching in the Learners Tent. Two of those learners (Miguel and Maisy) were students in Bristol. Maisy from Hong Kong drew a picture of me in about fifteen minutes and made my day. I spent the days and evenings in discussion with Christian groups working on the Maes (the festival field). I spoke with bards and musicians. I bumped into friends from across Wales and struggled to keep up with the conversations and presentations at the Eisteddfod.
One morning Pastor Rhys Llwyd, from the church I am helping in Caernarfon, spoke and I followed up with a couple songs I’ve written in Welsh. The picture of the moment, taken by my friend Faith Owen, is in the photos below. Great connections were developed, and I look forward to developing the map and plan for my Walk across Cymru (Wales), which I plan to begin at next year’s Eisteddfod. There would be far too many people to thank for the moments at the Eisteddfod, but Alun the farmer, Twm the Bard, Andrew the pastor from London, and Carwyn and Simeon from the Baptist Union get a special nod for now.
The benefits of this week will show themselves for months to come, and I anticipate that the connections I have made will benefit my plans to walk around Wales speaking nothing but Welsh next year.
I arrived in Wales, caught COVID on the first night. After a short quarantine, I got better. It was a bit like being turned into a newt. Then I spent the next six weeks traveling to five different festivals, which my previous emails outlined. Well, now I am back in Caernarfon, and it’s time for a little rest––okay that last bit is a bit of a lie. So, here’s the update of what has happened, and not happened, since arriving back in Caernarfon.
I’ve received notice that the place I am renting is being sold, and that I will need to move out by November 10th. Now that’s rather hilarious because it’s also my birthday. I’m not really worried about it, but it is a strange coincidence. Prayers will be appreciated, because finding a place to live in Caernarfon is not an easy task at the moment.
There was a March for Welsh Independence in the recently designated “city” of Wrecsam. I went with Gwyn Williams to the event, and accompanied a few thousand people in the happy celebration
Capel Caersalem, the Baptist Church that has sponsored my visa, had a weekend camping festival. I spent the whole of the last week preparing for the event by leading a team of girls from America, who are here with the Greater Europe Mission, to help Iwan and Delyth organize their lovely piece of property, just outside Caernarfon, for the the little festival. There were about 50 of us from the Chapel, and I was the speaker on Saturday night. We met around the fire. I spoke partly in Welsh, and partly in that foreign tongue––English, because that’s about the best I could do with my limited Welsh. I sang a few songs I’ve written, and two of those were in Welsh as well. I think it went well––at least that’s what people told me. I told a short story about my personal connection to Wales, and more specifically to Caernarfon, which I will need to put onto podcast soon, and then I spoke about the subject of love. Love is such a common theme in Biblical sermonizing, and today it is popular to make love the primary basis of our Christian lives. I challenged that thinking a bit by suggesting that we become like what we love, and that it is possible to have love go astray and in all wrong directions.
Well now it’s time for a bit of a rest from a month and a half of solid festival work – I wish! Now the really hard work begins. During our little Capel Caersalem festival, and now in the town of Caernarfon, I’ve been spending time working on my Welsh language skills. I walk downtown and sit with the locals on a bench in the town square. We talk, I barely understand a word they say, and squeeze out the words I know between their thick accents and what sounds like mumbling. I stop at the local pubs and hang out with people I know. Those who are involved in Welsh TV, radio, and music are typically easier to understand than most of the other natives. Performers and actors and radio personalities work on their diction and are less likely to mumble or use strange local colloquialisms, of which there are many in Caernarfon. Most of the time, my brain feels like it is on overload. I suppose I am improving bit by bit, but every now and then, the little spinning color wheel of death that happens to your old Mac happens to my brain.
The basic things are taking forever! I have only been in Caernarfon a little more than two weeks out of the last 2 months due to my travels, and I am having a heck of a time getting my personal banking and the details of my health care in the UK set up. Every time I try to get something accomplished there is another little detail that someone hasn’t told me. Hopefully I will have a bank account and be fully connected to the Health Services in the next couple days.
So the next couple months are all about working toward fluency in Welsh, and establishing the connections in Caernarfon to be able to bring blessing to this town, which has been called the heart of Cymry Cymraeg (Welsh speaking Welsh).
The last time I was able to post an update, I had just returned from ten days at Hay-on-Wye in two festivals: the Hay Literary Festival and How the Light Gets In. I received a ride home from Dafydd who lives near Caernarfon, and after only two short days back at home in Caernarfon, I left again for three more festivals across the UK.
My first stop was Stockport. I met Dee Cunniffe and Hope Deifell, and together the three of us traveled to Appleby-in-Westmorland to visit the Appleby Horse Fair. This was my second year at what is described as Europe’s largest gathering of Gypsies. More than anything this was a learning event. I am deeply concerned that Christians go on mission without understanding the cultures they attempt to reach. Roma, Gypsies, and Travelers are among some of the most misunderstood and abused peoples in history, and if we think that that we can share the life and love of Christ with them without understanding their culture, we are desperately deceived. The fact is that many of them are deeply devoted to God and are lovely people we need to get to know better.
Three Days in Appleby
We stayed with the Pattimores. This was the second time I have stayed with Dan and Kristy just outside Appleby. After three years, the kids are all grown up, and beginning to tower over me. Hope, Dee, Kristy, and I were able to spend over an hour with Billy Welch (the Shera Rom, and organizer of the Horse Fair), which amazed us, because he is such a busy man. Billy spoke about new legislation coming into effect concerning travel trailers and other campers stopping near neighborhoods, and how new restrictions will make traveler life more difficult than it already is. The US has these similar restrictions in many states. Having lived as a traveler for almost three years, I know the struggle of living nomadically and being able to remain within the confines of the law. The Gypsy and Traveler way of life is being attacked by government legislation and, Billy Welsh shared his concerns. He believes that such strict governmental legislation has not been seen since the Nazi regime, and he is concerned for the lives and the culture of his people. We talked about ways that Christian churches might be able to alleviate the growing suppression against the nomadic lifestyle. This is something that will be on my radar for many years to come. Please pray with me for the safety of full and part time travelers, and for blessings upon them.
During the Horse Fair, Hope and I talked with Fred, an atheist Gypsy in his fifties, who talked about how the Horse Fair was when he was younger. Today, many of the shops in the little village close during the fair. In fact, there are more closed shops than open ones during the influx of thousands of Gypsies, Travelers, and the accompanying visitors like us who come to experience the Horse Fair. Fred told us how the Village was welcoming when he was young, and how over time the town became less welcoming, and shops began to close. It saddened me to hear that the village is less welcoming than it once was, and I find myself praying that there might be a change in this attitude at Appleby.
Photos from Appleby
3 Wishes Fairy Festival
Following Appleby, Hope and I made our way down to Cornwall––barely. I say barely, because just across the harbor from Plymouth, which is in Devon, is Torpoint, which is the first edge of Cornwall. We had initially arrived in Bristol, and Diana the “Goth Vicar of Glastonbury” picked us up. We spent two days preparing decorations for the soon coming Glastonbury Festival, and then arrived at Torpoint to help with the set-up of the 3 Wishes Fairy Festival. I was tasked with managing the smooth running of the Main Stage, which was a circus Big Top. From mid-morning until after midnight, I made sure the bands, the sound team, and the Swamp Circus team from Cornwall all got along and that the schedule remained relatively on-time. On Friday and Saturday night of the festival we ran a silent disco from midnight until almost 2am (okay, it was closer to 3am on Saturday). Things went well, and it looks like this might be something I might be doing again next year.
This was my third time helping at the Fairy Festival, and like many other festivals, it felt like I was coming home to serve alongside old friends. After a three-year hiatus from the festivals, many of us remarked that it seemed as though there was never a break, and never the isolation of the COVID season. Things were almost back to normal. There were discussions about spirituality with musicians, and people who self-identify as “Fairies”, “Pixies”, and even “Unicorns”. The Fairy Festival is a gathering of individuals and families who generally identify as Neo-Pagans of one tribe or another and come dressed in the regalia of a fairy world. In the future, I am hoping to connect more with the Swamp Circus and to visit the alternative community they have in Cornwall.
Rushing to Glasto
On Monday morning after the Fairy Festival, we had to make haste and head to Glastonbury town to pick up the decorations Hope, Diana, and I had prepared for the Iona Community space at the Glastonbury Festival. We got a quick shower, licked up our gear, repacked for Glasto, and grabbed a pizza for the road. When we arrived at the festival, we were told that the gate for early arrivals was closing in ten minutes. We were about 12-minutes’ walk away, and so with all our gear, Hope and I set off in haste to get to the gate. We arrived huffing and puffing to discover that it was still open for another 4 hours. Upon entering the gate, I pointed to a distant location of the festival, and told Hope, “We are somewhere in a copse of trees––way over there.” Sometime late in the night, after the setting sun of the second longest day of the year, we arrived in the dark at the Iona Community.
We helped set up camp, we decorated the little area with shiny apples made from bags like ones I had once bagged tea in. Diana had created a series of seven framed art pieces representing the seven last words of Jesus, and there were hula-hoops with ribbons resembling dreamcatchers hanging in the trees. With Christmas lights strung in the trees it was all quite dreamy, and when the festival started on Thursday, people came into our little Iona Community (link) copse to relax from the heat of the midday sun or sit by a warm fire in the cold of the late night. The Iona Community space sits on the edges of day and night-time events, and at the edges of the live music stages and Green Futures field. It perfectly represents the spaces in-between the worlds of high-technology and ecologically minded concern, between the light and darkness, and between wild abandon and thoughtful meditation. Friday and Saturday nights rolled into Saturday and Sunday morning, and we finally said goodbye to the last of our visitors at 4am on Saturday morning, and 5am on Sunday morning. As the sun rose, we went to sleep grateful for the deep discussions about spirituality and life with the hundreds of people who came to visit us. Debbie Chaloner is the Iona Community leader who oversees this event, and among the eight of us there were three vicars a pastor and loads of experience in festival outreach settings. Hope was new to this event, but as I knew would be the case, she became an indispensable part of the team.
Like the Fairy Festival, Glastonbury was a reunion of friends, and a reconnection with people who remembered us from previous years. I cannot over-emphasize the power of connecting with people in the places they visit for their inspiration. The festivals of our world have become the expressions of “church” for the unchurched. And this should be no surprise to us. Like the Feasts of Israel that were established by God as a gathering space for the Jewish people, the festivals of our world are becoming yearly gatherings where people reignite their zest for life in a community of like-minded people. It is my contention that these places are under-represented by Christianity, and it is now our responsibility to change that. But as we change that, if we do it in the classical manner of 20th Century Christian evangelistic outreach, we will only prove to the world that we do not care to understand them. In fact, it will be evidence to them (whether true or not) that we do not care for them at all. Our responsibility includes developing an anthropology for the subcultures of our changing world. May we learn to learn once again.
You haven’t heard from me for a couple weeks because I was volunteering and sharing work, life, art, and philosophy at Hay-on-Wye in the Welsh Marches. This is a place I have been going each May (with a COVID break, of course) for the last eight years.
The first week, I was volunteering as a Steward at the Hay Literary Festival. This is a place authors and thinkers come to share their stories and present their provocative ideas. The team I work with at the Hay Festival feels like a family, and I am grateful for the leadership of our BBC and Sky Arts tent crew, which comes in gentle encouragement from Paul, and Steve. Along with Gerald, I have somehow become a sign artist for the group. Black wooden boards stand at the entrance to events, and the stewards hand draw titles of events and names of participants. A few of the festival teams go a step further and turn the board into a work of art. I am certainly no artist, but I am decent with fonts, and a bit of doodling. Somehow my doodles caught the eye of comedian and Sky Arts presenter Frank Skinner. My event board and I ended up on stage at the end of the third day of Sky Arts Big Hay Weekend. Frank gave me the nickname Phil the Board, and apparently the interview will end up on the show on the weekend of June 18-19.
After a week at the Hay Festival, I walked across town with my hammock tent (yes, a tent that swings between two trees!), and just barely over the border in England, How The Lights Gets In, a philosophy festival happens. This was my first experience of volunteering as a Steward at Hay-on-Wye, and this festival is a different kind of family. It’s a little wilder in the evening, with dance parties, DJs, and significantly more drinking. It’s also a place where discussions regularly pop up about spirituality, theology, life philosophy, and assorted God and human experience topics. Like each year before, the festival and my network of friends did not disappoint. We talked life, spirituality, God, the devil, definitions of authenticity, and assorted other life and intellectual values.
I am now back in Caernarfon for a couple days. Tomorrow, I hit the road again with Hope Deifell (who is visiting the UK from Black Mountain, North Carolina) and Dee Cunniffe. Both talented ladies have been part of Burning Man teams, and other festival events I have been a part of. Dee will come with us, or I should say, take us, up to the Appleby Horse Fair in Appleby-in-Westmoreland. Here we will spend some time with the English and Welsh Gypsies, and Irish Travelers. Dan and Kristy Pattimore are once again offering a place for wayfarers to stay. Like everything else over the last two years, friends will be united, and ministry will reach the festivals and events once again.
Following Appleby, Hope and I will head toward Cornwall and the 3 Wishes Fairy Festival where we will be helping with the stage, and stewarding and following the lead of my talented and crazy friend from Glastonbury, “Diana the Goth Vicar”. After the Fairy Festival, Hope and I will be headed to the humungous Glastonbury Music Festival. We will arrange the decorating of the Iona Community space in Glastonbury, and through the four days of the festival, we will help provide a quiet and safe space for festival goers, with a warm fire under trees.
I will send updates about the festival experiences as I am able. It is not always easy to find dependable internet service, or even the time during the festival weeks.
Some people might ask, “Would Jesus go to a festival?” I would answer, “Isn’t that what he did during Passover, Pentecost, and the other Jewish festivals?” They may have been different kinds of events, but they were the places the people of Israel gathered. These festivals are the places the people in our world are gathering today, and I believe that Jesus is already there. He is just waiting for some of us to join him.
I’ve spent a good deal of time with people who are not Christians, and in fact don’t have any interest in appearing to live by biblical standards. But most Christian pastors I know have limited contact with the wild world of subcultures I frequent.
I know only a few pastors who have been to Burning Man. The Christian connection with the world of Burners is slim, and typically, it is a negative experience for the Burner.
The preponderance of church leaders I know have no idea what today’s Pagan is (or ‘Neo-Pagan’, to use an anthropological identification). When they use the word ‘pagan’ or ‘heathen’, they typically mean godless hedonistic people. It’s a negative identifier for someone who drinks and parties a lot and should be avoided because they are a bad influence.
My friend Jim Henderson used to arrange discussions with atheists in churches. He would ask the pastor to find a few atheists to discuss their view of Christianity and the Christian church in front of the congregation. Jim came to our church in Salem about 12 years ago. He asked me to find three atheists for the panel––no problem. I found a few friends and acquaintances, and they were ready to be part of this public discussion. Jim was surprised that I found the atheists he needed. Apparently other pastors he had dealt with didn’t know any atheists, and Jim would have to visit coffee shops or pubs prior to the event to fill those slots. I was as surprised as Jim. He was surprised that I knew three atheists in Salem. I was surprised that other pastors couldn’t find anyone to join the discussion.
The other night, I was hanging out with one of my Witch friends in Salem. This Witch friend enjoys a rather hedonistic alternative sexual lifestyle. This is not necessarily standard in Pagan circles, but neither is it uncommon. After being told a few tales of sexual exploits, my friend remarked, “I just can’t freak you out. You never get surprised.” My friend occasionally tries to freak me out, and tests me with these stories.
My Witch friend was not the first person to make the comment that I was not easily surprised. I’ve heard that several times over the years from people who are trying to push my little Christian pastor buttons. It is almost as if I am being tested to see whether I can practice what I preach about loving people unconditionally.
From Burners, to Witches, to Atheists, to general non-believers, and occasionally from Christians who practice such alternative things as open-marriage, I have heard some variation of these words: “You never get surprised.” Typically, what they mean beneath that comment is that I do not reject them, and that I can accept them as friends.
It is true that I am not easily surprised by the weird things people do. I am also not easily offended. I do not need people to agree with me for them to be my friends. Perhaps being surprised easily and being offended easily are closely related. Even if they are not, the world around us that does not follow Jesus appears to think that they are related.
Perhaps our little Christian world is too little. Perhaps it is too narrow. Perhaps that is why we are surprised when we hear things that are part of the world of alternative sexuality, alternative religious beliefs, hedonistic partying, radically differing politics, violence, or criminality. I may walk a narrow way to Christ. In fact, it is narrower than most people think. But this way intersects the broad road in many places, and my lack of surprise and offence is just one more evidence to the non-Christian that I truly love the wide-road walkers I know. We are good friends because I am not surprised by what they believe and how they live.
Perhaps my lack of surprise is simply a shadow of grace in the storms of judgment and bias raging in our world. Sometimes I wonder why I am so calm in the face of hedonism and heresy, but mostly I am thankful. That calmness allows me to go places that many other Christians can’t imagine.
Interested in more stories from outside the church walls and a theology of wild mission? Check out Love Big or Go Home.
I’m visiting Long Beach, CA. I lived here for two years recently, and occasionally had to take the A line from Long Beach to Union Station in LA. Last night, I had to take it again. Previous times taking the A Line, I usually boarded the train early in the morning. The train was fairly crowded at 5:30 am. It was filled with homeless people in the seats with their heads on their knees, and their hoodies pulled over their heads. I saw this half a dozen times on my travels from Long Beach to LA.
Last night, I traveled from Union Station southward just before midnight. People who previously had their heads in their laps in the morning were now boarding the train and taking their seats. They’ll stay on the train until it’s last stop. Late in the night people board and take a nap. First ride in the morning, people board and quickly assume the curled-up position for the hour-long ride.
A thin middle-aged black man talked and screamed and cackled like a cartoon villain to his reflection in the train window. An older Latino gentleman took a swig from a bottle wrapped in a brown paper bag. He smiled and chatted briefly with me. A younger woman and the man with paper bag night cap chatted in comfortable familiarity. A young man had a loud conversation on his cell phone with a girl he loved. He desperately begged for her to give him a chance. Bikes started coming aboard with their current owners. They were dropped on the floor or leaned against the exit doors. Something about the careless treatment of the bikes suggested that the current owners might have picked up these bikes for free recently. The bikes appeared to carry no intrinsic value to the riders.
Across the world, the homeless catch a snooze wherever they can. They sit long hours in late night coffee shops to stay warm. They curl up in the inset store-front foyer cubby-holes. They bundle up on sidewalks over the steaming grates to stay warm in freezing northern cities. They once covered up with newspapers on park benches, but the world of online news has chopped the newspaper industry back. Finding a thick Boston Globe or New York Times isn’t as easy as it used to be.
I wondered how many pastors and concerned Christians make time for the population living on the trains. It’s far sexier to create an outreach to surfers, and far more profitable for the church to reach the middle-class and upper-middle-class neighborhoods. It’s more acceptable when our new congregants don’t smell so bad that your eyes burn, and there are fewer interruptions when the man in the third row isn’t screaming and cackling at his demons.
The next day, I met a small group of friends at Fat Stogies––a cigar shop in Long Beach. A homeless man walked up to the railing of the outdoor patio and asked if he could do a job to get a bite to eat. Ru, part of a circle of friends at Fat Stogies spoke up. “I got you. Don’t worry about it.”
Ru walked down the street and bought the guy ribs and corn on the cob. He sat on the curb and waited for Ru to return. I walked out to meet the guy. I sat down on the curb next to him.
“Hi. I’m Phil. What’s your name?” “Hi. I’m Daniel.”
We talked. Daniel told me about getting robbed recently. He told me his history, and said he’s had money and good jobs in the past and spoke about places he’s traveled. He complained about the difficulty of his situation, and how dehumanizing it felt to be in such desperate need. He vacillated between questioning why God put him in this situation and saying there must be a lesson in it all. Daniel cried. I told him that I couldn’t completely understand, but that my recent years on the road in Priscilla the Winnebago taught me about the struggle for dignity when you’re getting chased out of neighborhoods and parking lots. He told me about the loneliness, and how it was difficult to look people in the eyes because of the shame. He bemoaned the fact that others didn’t want to look into his eyes either.
The space between the haves and the have-nots is a shame-based gap. The poor feel like their dignity has been stripped and they have nothing to offer. The better-off, at every level, from stable lower class to rich, feel like they don’t know how to help. I would suggest that if we don’t struggle with that shame, then we don’t have a heart, and something is wrong with us. But I would also suggest that the relief from that shame is not discovered in evading the problem. It is discovered by looking it in the face. I sat down with Daniel to hold a conversation and learn his story. Ru bought him dinner. He cried at both acts of kindness. Ru and I both faced our internal desire to be a solution head on. We did it in different ways, but we did it. Daniel profusely thanked Ru for his generosity. He profusely thanked me for sitting and talking to him like he was a regular guy, because “nobody does that with me anymore”.
Perhaps the deepest desperation of poverty is not the actual lack of money, but the invisibility. The have-nots can’t look into the eyes of the haves because they are ashamed. The rich don’t look into the eyes of the poor. I hope the rich are also ashamed because they are not sure how to help, but it could be that some are simply judgmental.
I rode the A line the other night. God was on the A line for the last trip south. And I wondered how many people recognized him when he talked to his own reflection in the train window. (Matthew 25:37-40)
Since early 2020, large gatherings have been curtailed. COVID stopped our social lives in a time warp, and there are many people who feel that we might not be able to return to the way things were. Others are excited for the possibilities that lie ahead.
Burning Man will return, but it will have an attendance at 2012 levels, and that is intentional. Things had slowly been feeling like they were going astray, and this is an attempt to draw back to the core values. Glastonbury is going to return after a two fallow years in a row.
Do you feel like the cicada coming out of its 17 years in larval nymph form? Are you ready to stop burrowing beneath the soil, and break out into the world to sing?
Many of us feel this way, but we’ve come out into a new wild, and seemingly, more dangerous world. Some of us greet the new day with zeal, but remember, not everyone is popping out of the ground to sing. Many of us will peek out of our holes slowly like the groundhog coming out of hibernation.