I Can Never Surprise You: the story of my life outside the church walls

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.

The World of Festivals Slowly Pops its Head Above Ground

Photo by Matthew Bornehorst at Unsplash

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.

Monthly Update from Mom’s in Long Beach

I am still in Long Beach, California taking care of mom. I have been here since November, and will be here through May (at least – perhaps longer). Mom still needs lots of care, and that is not likely to change. Meanwhile, Charlie – her begging little Miniature Doberman is a senior citizen as well, and his health is not the best. So, I am taking care of two little old persons.

Charlie would eat himself to death, if we were to allow it. He begs for food all day long. When I am in the kitchen, he dances around my feet, making it difficult to cook and not step on him.

Meanwhile, I am beginning to get back to a somewhat regular rhythm of writing, podcasting and playing music. I have been reunited with my acoustic guitars, as well as now having a beautiful (and beautiful sounding) graphite travel-sized guitar which I shall be able to use during backpacking, train and bus travel, and working in festivals in the UK. This graphite Cargo guitar was given to me by a friend, and I can not be more thankful for the generosity. It solves the problem I’ve had over the last few years needing a guitar I could travel with that was impervious to the extreme elements I am often found in.

I have completed a couple podcasts recently. The first podcast  is with Edmundo Santiago, and follows his ideas on politics and the Christian life. His thoughts fall between, or perhaps more accurately – outside the parameters of our polarized two-party system. The second podcast is my first video-podcast, and it is a discussion with my good friend Jim Hogue on developments in the Burning Man Gathering, and how that relates to the struggle Christianity has with the incursion of consumerist culture upon the church.

I am looking at talking to Trump supporting Christians, and Christians who are planning on voting Democrat in the next election, in my future podcasts. I am looking for people who can talk about difficult issues in a friendly manner. This is meant to be part of series that breaks down the polarization between extreme positions. Does this describe you? Contact me, if so.

Wild Theology Podcast with Diana Greenfield

A new episode of the Wild Theology Podcast comes from the George and Pilgrim Pub in Glastonbury, England. This is a discussion with Diana Dingles Greenfield aka The Goth Vicar of Glastonbury. We both have just returned from the 3 Wishes Fairy Festival followed by the Glastonbury Festival, and I am staying with Diana and her husband Sedge in the village of Street next door to Glastonbury.

Link to Podcast: https://www.patreon.com/posts/wild-theology-39-28150190

Cornish Fairy Festival and Glastonbury: UK Mission 2019 – Part 2

This is the second part of a previous blogpost at the end of six weeks and six festivals in the UK this year.

Hanging with the Searle Family

After spending time at the Appleby Horse Fair, and three days with Matt and Jo Arnold, I made my way to Cheltenham, and stayed with the amazing Marc and Anthea Searle. They are like a home away from home. It is an important part of our faith that we learn to take all that we have and place it into service for God. The Searles model this as well as anyone I know.

 

From Cheltenham, I headed to the town of Glastonbury and met Diana Greenfield. She and I and Stu headed south to Mt. Edgecomb Park in Cornwall, just over the harbor from Plymouth, Devon, England.

Diana and I at 3 Wishes

I spent the next five days helping Diana and Stu as they managed the main tent and stage for the Fairy Festival. It was a second year for me to be there, and conversations about life and faith were now common with people I had come to know through the festival.

I was there right until the end helping Vicky take down the circus tent that the main stage was held in.

A crowd gathers in our little vale in the trees at Glastonbury 2019

On Monday, after 3 Wishes, I caught a ride with Sedge, Diana’s husband, and he dropped me off at Worthy Farm, the site of the Glastonbury Festival. I found my way to the site of of the Iona Community and there I spent the next full week hosting people in our little campsite in the trees. You can read more about the experience at Glasto on my travel and bucket list blog page. This year’s Glastonbury Festival was filled with discussions about faith and the person of Jesus, and in some ways had a more fruitful sense of mission than 2017 (the year of the last Glastonbury Festival). I cannot thank the Iona Community and Debbie (who organizes this group) enough for providing a space to make Christian Spirituality an accessible worldview to the festival goers at Glasto.

If you would like to support my podcasts, you can become a patron on my Patreon Page. You can also find a link on this website to donate to the mission of reaching the subcultures of this world through festival outreach, and mission to places where our world’s nomads live. 

 

 

Appleby Horse Fair and podcasts with friends: UK 2019 – Part One

Since the last blog post about three weeks ago, I have added three more festival outreach events to the frenetic place, and have stayed with friends in Pontypridd, Cheltenham and Plaisley. I created a few podcasts. One about the travels and two of them interviewing Matt and Jo Arnold, who I stayed with in Plaisley near Sherwood Forest.

I moved on from the three festivals in Wales (Focus Wales, How The Light Gets In, and the Hay Festival). I stayed with my friends Andrew and Dawn in Pontypridd and spent a day seeing the site of the festival they are running in August – Between the Trees. It was a gorgeous location and festival worth considering. The gathering is a mashup of folk music, science and philosophy near Bridgend in a hidden little gem of a forest.

From Pontypridd I traveled up to the Appleby Horse Fair in northern England. Due to a series of weird circumstances it took me 24 hours to get there by train and bus, when it is only a five hour drive. I missed the last train to Appleby from Leeds, and had to spend the night in the late night eateries, or at the train station. The following morning the ticket machine ate my money, and I missed the first train out, and then the second train broke down, and I had to wait two hours for the next train.

I eventually arrived in Appleby, and the first person I met turned out to be a pioneer vicar in a neighboring town, and she and her pioneer vicar husband invited me to stay with them for the weekend of the festival.

Appleby 4

The Appleby Horse Fair is the largest gathering of Gypsies and Travellers in Europe. I did a podcast specifically talking about my experience at the Appleby Horse Fair, and you can find it on my Patreon page. I am hoping to return to Appleby in the future. It offers an opportunity to learn about one of the most misunderstood people groups in the UK. One of the great duties of life, and particularly of mission, is to understand the other we disagree with.

Matt Arnold at Sherwood

Following my time in Appleby, I traveled back south and stayed with Matt and Jo Arnold and their three boys. They live near Sherwood Forest and Matt took me on a Sherwood Forest tour while I was there, and we did a couple podcasts together. Matt is one of the few people who regularly works with the same demographic of people I do, and it made the podcast with Matt fun to do. Jo works for the Christian Fellowship for Psychical and Spiritual Studies, and this made the podcast with Jo a unique experience, as we talked about Christians who have experiences they cannot put into the typical Christian theology box.

Part 2 comes up next with stories from the Fairy Festival and the famous Glastonbury Festival.

If you would like to support my podcasts, you can become a patron on my Patreon Page. You can also find a link on this website to donate to the mission of reaching the subcultures of this world through festival outreach, and mission to places where our world’s nomads live. 

UK Mission 2019 – three weeks in

I have now been as many festivals in the UK this year as weeks I have been on the ground. These first three weeks have been in North East and Mid-East Wales. First in Wrecsam, which I outlined in the last post, and then two weeks at the book town of Hay-on-Wye.

One of the boards I created for the events at the Hay Festival.

I created a podcast from the philosophy festival at Hay, and this is my update after leaving HowTheLightGetsIn and moving across town to the Hay Literary Festival. I worked as a volunteer steward at the BBC stage. I have done this over the last three years, and this group has become a family away from home. I ended up writing signs for the events, and this year we were able to move the sign making up a notch. It became a bit of friendly competition between three of the many stages who were trying to art up their upcoming event signage. I posted  boards I created, and the reason for wanting to help the festival become a better event on another of my blog pages. You can see the chalk boards I created on that page. I saw the work as a way of being a good witness in my desire to help the event be a better experience for all who attended.

I spent much of time with new and old friends talking about life, which typically includes my personal testimony about meeting God, my theological work in Wild Theology (the belief that God, the world and people are all wilder than we’ve been told), and discussions about the growing number of people who identify as “none” on religious polling and census data. I also spent a good deal of time speaking Welsh. Surprisingly, I found fluent Welsh speakers living at Hay-on-Wye. Although it is in Wales, it is on the border, and there are few Welsh speakers in the small town, and I think I have met most of them over the last five years.

This is the area I set my hammock tent at Hay-on-Wye.

I camped in the trees above the Wye river in my hammock. Each morning a young Dunnock full of peach fuzz, but able to fly flitted among the branches around my tent, and I would talk to it. On the last morning, I took down my tent and as I untied it from one of the trees, the young bird jumped on a branch as close as he could get, and stared twittering at me frantically. It was as though he was upset that I was leaving him. I wish I had taken a picture of the cute little guy for you, but Dunnocks are quite nervous and jumpy little characters that flit among the branches. So here is a Youtube video of an older Dunnock singing.

I am now in Pontypridd with Andrew and Dawn, and preparing to leave for the North of England for the Appleby Horse Fair, which is Europe’s largest gathering of Gypsies and Travelers. More news to come soon.

If you are interested being a part of these travels and outreach in festival and destination locations, please contact me. You can also support this ministry through donations at the link below.

UK Mission 2019 – first week in Wales

Arrival in Wrecsam, Wales

Castle Dinas Bran overlooking Llangollen

At 8:30am, the Virgin Atlantic flight left Logan airport in Boston for London Heathrow. I had purchased a round trip flight for just over $350 some months previously. It was one of the best prices available this year, and I had booked it through Delta Airlines, but immediately jumped on the tickets when I saw that it was a Virgin flight. I had the row of five seats to myself.* During the flight, I met Kaliko, a man who was born on the Isle of Wight. As a young man he was adopted by a lady in Hawaii. Today he is a fluent speaker and teacher of the Hawaiian language, and an activist for minority polynesian languages. Kaliko and I will be following one another in social media from here on out, and I hope that someday our paths pass again.

Liverpool Library entrance

After arriving in Heathrow, I caught the London Underground to Victoria Station, and from there caught a £9 five-hour Megabus ride from London to Liverpool. During the bus ride, I met Alex. Alex is Russian/Lithuanian but has been living in the UK for years. He is currently homeless, and quite happy to be so at the moment. He plans to spend a few months in Liverpool working, and making some money. He has been befriending other homeless, and sharing God’s love with them for about three years. He showed me around Liverpool, and I am hoping to be able to get back there to see him again before I leave the UK in August.

40 hours after leaving the US, I finally arrived in Wrecsam in North East Wales for the Focus Wales event. I stopped at a pub in Wrecsam to get my bearings and try to connect with people I had contacted on the Couchsurfing network. I walked past a place called Saith Seren (Seven Stars), and saw a “Cofiwch Dryweryn” (“Remember Tryweryn”) sign, which was evidence that this could be a Welsh Language Pub. I stopped in, plugged in my computer, spoke to the bartender, who was fluent in Welsh for a bit, and got to work on the computer. After getting a bit of work done, a man came into the pub who appeared to be in charge. He talk with the bartender in Welsh, walked around the room straightening a few things up, and stopped to speak with me in English. I responded to him in Welsh, and his eyes got real big. He asked where I was from, and after a about 10 minutes of conversation in Welsh, he asked if he could take my picture. He took my picture, and unknown to me posted it on Twitter and Facebook with a comment about meeting me, speaking in English, and how I responded in fluent Welsh with a heavy American accent, and said, “Phil is from Massachusetts.” In a short time the post exploded with hundreds of likes and responses from Welsh speakers. For the next two days, people in Wrecsam would recognize me from the picture on Facebook or Twitter, and friends of mine from across Wales would respond to the posts.

That night, I was not able to connect with the my potential Couchsurfing locations on the first night, but that is not something to stop someone like me with a hammock tent. Late that first night, I met Cary. He is a homeless drug addict in Wrecsam, and has lived there his whole life. He showed me around to the hidden “wild camping” locations around Wrecsam, and the spot he has been living in his tent. We talked about what it is like to be homeless in Wrecsam, and the troubles he has with the other homeless who are heroin addicts, and alcoholics. He describes himself as an amphetamine addict, and struggles with the theft, and violence that comes from other addicts.

Focus Wales and Couchsurfing

Saint Giles Parish

By the second day I was able to connect with Katherine who had a place for me to Couchsurf in her home right next to Wrecsam’s center. I was one of three couchsurfers at her place. For the next three days, I volunteered at one of the music venues, which was St. Giles Parish Church. In the afternoons and evenings I worked with the small team at Saint Giles, and connected with people from around Wales in the music industry at other times.

I met Faith Owen on the second day. She works in Coleg Cambria in Wrecsam teaching Welsh. Turned out that her husband is a pastor of the Nazarene Church in the nearby village of Penycae. I traveled around with their family on Saturday to see some beautiful locations above the town of Llangollen like the Castell Dinas Bran (Castle Dinas Bran – see photo at the top), the ruins of a 13th century castle that looks down on Llangollen. The next day, I attended their services and experienced a beautiful and friendly group of Welsh believers.

I also spent some time with Dot Gosling, the purple-haired vicar in North Wales. Dot and I had been circling in similar orbits for awhile and finally met face to face.

During this same time, I completed a 5,000 word article for the Church Mission Society magazine, Anvil. The topic was “Spiritual but not Religious”. While I was completing the article, discussions popped up in Katherine’s home. Katherine, her partner Brian, another couchsurfer named Lauren, and I talked at various times about the nature of spirituality and religion. I’m hoping to see them all again in the future, because I had such a wonderful time getting to know them all.

All in all, this time in Wrecsam (“Wrexham” in English) has been fruitful, and relationships were developed with the festival and the greater community of Wrecsam.

* If you ever need help finding cheap flights contact me. I can give you the tips on flying cheaper than you might expect.