Monday, August 24, 2009

It's a Wonder We Survived!

I'm sitting here, my hair twice-scrubbed, a load of laundry banging in the washing machine, and grateful to be alive. Yes, it was another hair-raising, harrowing weekend in Yellowstone National Park.

Actually, we only had a handful of staring-death-in-the-face moments. But if you make your judgment of Yellowstone's safety based on all the the signs and placards, you'd assume that, statistically, you have about a 50/50 chance of surviving any given day in Yellowstone.

You can get mauled by a bear. You can get gored by a bison. You can get trampled by a moose. You can get torn apart by a pack of wolves. You can even get rabies from the squirrels. Everywhere you turn, it seems that pretty much everything in Yellowstone--animal, vegetable, or mineral--has it in for you, and is out to cause your death in the most appalling and gruesome ways you can imagine. The earth's crust can crack open and swallow you up, camera and all. A mud volcano can explode and take you with it. You could fall into a boiling cauldron of steaming sulfuric acid. You could even get spinal meningitis and Legionnaire's disease from the geyser water run-off. Then of course there is all the old National Park standbys...drowning, hypothermia, falling ice, falling off a cliff, falling into your campfire, a tree falling on you, suffering heart failure on 329 stair steps of Uncle Tom's Trail. Believe me, all of these dangers we have seen posted and/or written up in literature in some form or another.

In spite of all these many dangers, toils, and snares, we really had a spectacular time.

The Dramatis Personae of this expedition included Jeremy & Brenda Reyes (the same folks who I wrote about earlier, who persist in this ridiculous notion of abandoning us for the East Coast) and their children Nora & Everett; Josh and Sharmilla Felix, and their children Madeleine and Ian; Phil and Julie Reyes (Jeremy's parents) who dropped by for a couple days; and myself.

Sharmilla and Brenda had left a day early, on Thursday, ostensibly to scout out campsites, but of course it turned into a girls' road trip a la Thelma & Louise, slipping the surly bonds of motherhood, hearth, and home, in search of adventure and freedom, whooping it up in an actual motel and fine dining and goodness knows what mayhem and mischief in that hip party town of West Yellowstone, with all its taxidermy shops and Montana kitsch vendors. Somehow, they also secured us some killer campsites (almost literally) at a great campground in Grant Village in Yellowstone park, where the rest of us joined them on Friday. (In our case, this translated into three men and four young children crammed into an SUV for seven and a half hours. Hooray for portable DVD players!) Phil and Julie, whom we'd not seen in weeks since they began a cross-country road trip, joined us that evening as their path happened to intersect ours on their way back to Utah.

We set up our tents (four of them) on our adjoining campsites. While other seasoned campers around us had tidy and austere campsites, we looked more like the Clampett Family had just unloaded a Gypsy wagon and created a refugee camp.

The first unsettling omen happened when we returned to our Gypsy camp the first night after attending a Ranger presentation, and discovered our campsite had received a citation. Yes, we got written up by the hall monitor, as it were, apparently for leaving clean, unused cups and utensils out where bears could get at them, and potentially sit at our picnic table and have an imaginary tea party, which is about all they could do with what we'd left out.

The citation provided us with something to help start our cooking fire with. And oh, what a meal we had. Chicken stewed over the open fire in a dutch oven, grilled vegetables, and more winged bugs than get eaten in a season of Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern. Of all the deprivations we might eventually experience over the weekend, food was not one of them.

Over the the next couple of days, we got to do a smattering of "the sights". We of course hit Old Faithful, which remarkably enough did not kill any of us instantly, as it does most viewers, apparently. We saw the Old Faithful Lodge, and poked around several of the other geysers in the area, also without dying. And we went on several hikes and saw some incredible scenery, and didn't fall off any cliffs (though every available hand usually had a child attached to it in some places). Then we'd come back to our Gypsy camp and make dinner (and always the kind of food that you miss when you're not camping--stewed chicken, hobos, grilled corn and vegetables...there's something about a cast iron dutch oven on an open fire grill...) and of course there were the flaming marshmallow torches for s'mores (more flaming death, narrowly averted!)

Then we'd huddle around the fire as the sun went down and the heat of the day became the chill of the night, but none of us expired from hypothermia (though it was close some nights.) The kids would play, climb trees, play hide-and-seek, sword-fight with sticks, all the usual stuff, until, with some protest, they were hauled off to bed. Wolves would howl at night (but did not tear us apart), and we'd occasionally hear the Nazgul-like call of the elk, and someone in one of the neighboring campsites snored in a way that sounded suspiciously like an angry bear. (Actually, this guy was in danger of being mauled by fellow campers.)

Things started to get adventurous on the last full day, Sunday, when we stopped off at the Mud Volcano. The site also has a short hike through a geyser-ridden valley, mostly on a wooden boardwalk over the fragile earth that was on the verge of swallowing us alive. We got most of the way up the small canyon and discovered that our pathway was cut off by a family of bison. They had secured the narrow passage like some bearded Taliban militia gang at Khyber Pass. When we looked around, we realized that were essentially surrounded by them, with their horns at the ready. Keep in mind, a couple hours earlier we had been rolling our eyes at all the dimwitted tourists who were ignoring the warnings about approaching bison. Now here we were, a group of a dozen or so friends and strangers, ten feet away from the beasties, praying they would show us mercy and allow us safe passage.

Eventually, after conversing among themselves with lots of deep grunts and apparently figuring that they had had their fill of disemboweling people for the day, the bison did step aside and allow us through, and we scooted on through. We then encountered a big steaming cauldron that spewed so much vapor that it left us with a visibility of about two feet for a ways (a bit unsettling when you have just encountered bison). We emerged on the other side of the steam bath to realize that, yes, sure enough, more Taliban bison were cutting us off. So we waited a while longer for this next group to cross the wooden boardwalk so we could move on. They finally did, but when had just gotten past the blocked crossing, a large bull bison changed his mind and apparently decided that we needed to die after all, or at least, change our underwear. He began charging us through the trees. We scampered like scared bunnies to a safer distance, but we found that we had had our fill of bison for the day.

As we headed back to the campground, it started to sprinkle. The sprinkle became a downpour before we reached our Gypsy camp. And by the time we got back to the camp, there was not a dry thing to be found. Rivers were running through the campsite, the place was a big mudhole, not a sliver of usable shelter for sitting or eating. Tents were wet, inside and out. A couple of tents were hastily moved out of the new rivulets, and a few of us scrambled to create a makeshift shelter by stretching a small tarp over most of the picnic table by stringing it from the trees, while others grilled sausages and cooked ramen noodles, unprotected, in the downpour. Happy campers, the whole sorry lot of us.

Anyway, somehow a fire managed to get lit through some ingenuity (and the liberal use of chemicals) and it offered a distant memory of warmth. The kids ate, and were then carried across the mud pit to their tents to go to bed, while we then huddled under the tarp and ate, and talked about all of the no-brainer items that we wished we had brought camping--you know, like a real rain tarp, weather-proof clothes, a hot tub, a motel, etc. We cracked open a bottle of aptly-named "Happy Camper" Cabernet. The irony did not go unnoticed, nor did the wine go unappreciated.

And by some miracle, over the course of the evening, our soggy faces were laughing again. And I remember thinking that it was a golden moment. It was much more unforgettable this way. It was great to share all the fun times, the death-defying adventures, and even the discomforts with these people. And with the Reyes clan's imminent departure, it was likely a last hurrah, which made it all the more meaningful.

As I was pondering these things, another deadly danger that was never posted ANYWHERE in the park showed up on our doorstep. A herd of federal rangers stampeded into the campground, with search dogs and shotguns drawn, and surrounded a campsite a couple lots down from us. We were too cold, wet, and bison-shocked to care much at this point. We eventually managed to get a sketchy version of the story. Someone from the campground, presumably the suspect they were after, saw them coming and bolted out into the darkness, and several agents went after him, while several others remained behind and held the drunken mates of the escapee at bay. So what can you do? We went to bed in the rain.

The next wet and drippy morning, we saw that the feds were still there, and apparently had apprehended their man, who was being carried off in handcuffs and leg bindings. All's well that ends well. We collected our soggy things, shoved it into the vehicles, and got a hot breakfast and lots of coffee in West Yellowstone.

It's worth noting here that until this weekend, Sharmilla had never darkened the doorway of a tent, nor was acquainted with anything that could, even generously, be called "camping." To even contemplate this trip was an enormous step out of her comfort zone, as indicated by her counting down the days until the weekend with a sense of dark foreboding. The prospect of that great trinity of terror--dirt, cold, and wild animals--loomed ominously in the future. I say all this entirely to her credit, because she actually stepped up to the plate quite boldly. And of course, we were kind of eating crow, since for weeks we had been assuring her that it's no big deal, that camping is fun, that the forecast was nice, that animals are more afraid of us than we are of them, etc., etc. And then we get attacked by an enraged bison (who was much less afraid of us than we were of him), and survive the ordeal only to spend the night in the freezing muddy camp with a crazed drunken murderer on the loose in the woods behind us. Cue Dueling Banjos. Well, I don't know if he was actually a murderer, he may have just been guilty of leaving a dirty cup on the picnic table.

Hooray for camping!

Check out my facebook album of the trip.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Flip this church

I think if I were handy (and patient and had lots of time on my hands), I would get in to "flipping"...taking an old, beat-up, negelected house and fixing it up. There' s something satisfying about turning an eyesore into a thing of beauty, or at least making it much less of an eyesore.

We've been doing a bit of "flipping" at the church the past few years. (True on many levels, but right now I'm referring to the actual physical building itself). A couple years ago, a lot of elbow grease went into remodeling our dreary little sanctuary.
Well, actually, it was less of a remodel and more of a restoration. The classic bow-tress ceiling and turn-of-the-century brick masonry had long ago been covered with a drop ceiling and dry wall by some previous, uninspired owner of the building.

When Living Hope purchased the storefront building in the early 90s, it was originally thought to be a cheap, temporary waystation on the way to something bigger and better. This humble little storefront on Main Street was never intended to be a permanent home for the church, so we didn't put much thought in the facility itself. It was a functional meeting space, but hardly inviting. But over the years, dreams of "bigger and better" faded, and we gradually began to realize that God may have deliberately placed us
here for a reason. And so we decided it was time to begin doing something to make it more user-friendly. And we did a pretty good job--on the inside.

The outside, however, is quite a different story. The church's exterior would be a blight on skid road, let alone the heart of Brigham City's prime redevelopment district. Chipped, drab white paint unceremoniously slapped over the original frontier-town masonry; windows boarded up with rotting plywood; and a number of haphazard add-ons and fixes to add-ons that make it the architectural equivalent of Frankenstein's monster. And don't get me started on the collection of junk that had accumulated in hidden corners and behind sheds.

Our flaws were not so noticeable until the two buildings on either side of ours were acquired by the city and demolished recently. Our new-found nakedness has exposed us as an unsightly wart that is now the only thing between the well-manicured city hall, and a historic building that just underwent a million-dollar renovation. And then...there's us, and our sorry little structure, now sticking out like a sore thumb.

The trouble is, we're not just dealing with a shabby exterior. We are also dealing with the reputation that Living Hope has acquired in Brigham City, one of Utah's crown-jewel Mormon settlements. Mormonism, despite its more modern ecumenical rhetoric, still teaches that all other churches are of the devil (harlot daughters of the great whore of Babylon, and all that), and apparently Living Hope is actually the devil's
favorite, because of our history of challenging Mormon faith claims. Whenever a local asks me, "So, where do you work?" it invariably throws an awkward wrench into the conversation. It's especially uncomfortable when I'm getting my hair cut. Not only does the conversation stop, but the girl has very sharp things in her hand, moving rapidly in close proximity to some arteries that I'm particularly fond of.

Anyway, the only things missing from our building (in the minds of most Brigham City residents, anyway) are the black clouds and lightning hovering over our roof, the bats flitting around, the unearthly wails, and the creepy organ music emanating from no where in particular. (Cue
Fugue in D minor.) In other words, our exterior closely resembles what the town already thinks of us.

It does raise the question: should we be overly concerned about what we look like? Should we even
care what the town thinks of us? Some might say, "don't judge a book by its cover," or "beauty should come from within," and so forth. And more to the point, we are surrounded by a unique culture here in Utah that is obsessed with appearances, often at the expense of substance...whitewashed tombs, as Someone once put it. If we care too much about our outward appearance, aren't we just falling into that same hypocritical mindset, when we should instead be striving for authenticity?

If our goal was simply to bolster our reputation, or look pretty for its own sake, then you could argue that. Nevertheless, a number of us have recently come under the conviction that the neglect of the outside of our church building is, in essence, the equivalent of telling our community that we don't care about them, that we don't really want to engage with them. If we ask ourselves whether our building's current appearance is a potential stumbling block to the ministry we believe God is calling us to, we have no choice but to answer
"Yes." We may as well spray-paint "KEEP OUT" on our boarded-up windows. Besides, we're not talking about needing expensive new clothes for the church; it's more like just combing our hair and putting on a clean shirt. It falls under the category of "the least we could do."

So most nights the past few weeks I've come home shaking bits and pieces of old putty, insulation, and shards of broken glass out of my hair and clothes. Jim and I have removed the nasty plywood on the outside, and the insulation panels on the inside, to reveal four large turn-of-the-century metal mullion windows, that a couple years ago we didn't even know existed. Of the 80 panes of glass, about 30 were broken or missing, so we've purchased the glass ourselves, spent hours upon hours chiseling out broken windows held in by 100-year-old petrified glazier's putty (I dare you to show me a tougher, more indestructible material. I wonder if NASA has considered it for spacecraft re-entry heat shields.)

We play Glenn Miller Orchestra on Pandora internet radio as we work. And with each window that gets exposed, repaired, and cleaned, the sanctuary is transformed. I had thought it was classy and inviting before; now, with all these windows, it is truly spectacular. And the unexpected thing that intrigues me is that we can now look outside and see Main Street--and be reminded of why God has placed us here. And Main Street can see
in--and perhaps discover that we don't have a blood-stained altar made of skulls and femurs.

This weekend we also had a work party at the church. There were maybe 20 of us. Windows were cleaned, mullions were painted, weeds were whacked, a door was replaced, old lumber de-nailed, garbage was cleared out. And we've got more work to do--removing ratty old paint from where it never should have gone in the first place, putting paint where it desperately needs it...I'm sure I'm forgetting something. Our goal is to have our "mini-makeover" completed by the time Peach Days hits (September 11th) when literally tens of thousands of people will be filing past our building on their way to tour the city's remodeled historical building.

Peach days...that's another blog entry altogether. Suffice it to say that we'll have our own building open for Peach Days as well, serving water and popcorn and giving people a place to get out of the sun for a while, and perhaps be refreshed in other ways. This year the challenge will be to get people
in the door, and we'd like to remove any hindrance to that.

Our goal really is to engage our community. We want to be salt and light here in Brigham City. We want to be accessible here on Main Street. We want people to know they are welcome and that they are wanted. That is at the heart of what we are striving to do, including the cosmetic improvements to our building. It's not to draw attention to ourselves; rather, we want to point to the God we serve. A God that lives on Main Street, ready to intersect with every person that walks by. We know that this is
His heart, and it's becoming ours, too.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Hello, Good-bye

Last week a friend announced that he and his family were going to be moving soon...pulling up anchor after 11 years in Brigham City, and heading back east. (Why is it always back east and out west?) I threatened to make my next posting about them if they went forward this fool notion. And not being one to back down on a threat, here goes.

Besides bumming me out, the whole thing kinda got me thinking about how life gets divided into these "chapters," usually divided by some life-upsetting event...a stake we stick in our personal timeline that becomes a before and after reference point. It can be happy or sad, planned or unplanned, a deep loss or a new adventure. Sometimes a mixture of all at once.

The place we hang our hat at the end of a typical day often (but not always) defines these chapters.
Back in the good (?) old days, people didn't move around so much. People were born in a town, lived and worked, and died, in the same town. Now, people get itchy feet after a few years. What gives? I suppose I can't sit in judgment; I've moved around a lot myself in my adult years. From Richland to Tacoma to Mexico to L.A. to Costa Rica to Pullman to Alberta to Richland (again!) to Miami, to Utah, to Israel, back to Utah...and every place with its own set of realities and people in my life and likes and dislikes.

But I digress. (I notice that I often resort to philosophizing in order to avoid emotional issues.) The fact of the matter is, I was unprepared for just how much the news of my friends' imminent move would affect me. It was terribly inconsiderate of them to not take this into consideration when making their decision.

A year and a half ago, this news would have made me sad, to be sure; but more in the sense of a vague regret for not having gotten to know them better. Maybe we'd have a few laughs at some final gathering, then they'd go away, and life would go on.

But last year Jeremy and I found ourselves in a small collection of guys that together shared a difficult journey. I think it was my first real experience of developing "foxhole comrades," relationships forged in the fire, that are real, honest, and life-giving...and rare. We spend lots of hours and pots of coffee (very good and strong coffee I might add) talking and agonizing together about the hard stuff that was going on. We also laugh and joke and pray together, and dream about ministry opportunities and share about God's faithfulness and talk about trivial things and stupid things, and brew beer. (Very good and strong beer I might add.)

We all have our own lives, so to speak, but our lives have intersected often enough, and these guys have been a significant extension of God's grace in my life. I count those relationships among the gold that emerged from the crucible.

Jeremy's reasons for leaving are good and proper--that is to say, it is by God's leading. And I affirm that (through gritted teeth, mind you). And to watch the God-seeking and faith-testing steps he and his family are taking in the process is an encouragement and an admonishment to me. Their path may not be clear; but it is sure, because of the God they serve.

Of course, I still entertain a hope that they will discover that they mis-heard God, and will announce that they're going to stay after all, and drop all this ridiculous nonsense about moving away. I hope they read this blog and come under that conviction! Or perhaps it will just remind them of all the unpleasant schmaltz and drama associated with saying good-bye, and make them want to get it over with all the sooner. (Either way, thanks, Jeremy & Brenda, for putting up with being the topic of my blog this week. And don't let it go to your heads.)

So yeah, I'm sad. And...I'm glad that I'm sad, because it means that there is something of value to let go of, and these are not just casual friendships that come and go without leaving a real mark on your life. I would wager that some day sooner or later we'll run into each other again, play catch-up, drink strong coffee and good beer; the country's big, but not that big. But still, things will never be quite the same.

I could remind myself about how we must let go and trust God, be grateful and thankful for how He's blessed us, and trust Him for one another's future and well-being...and that's certainly true and all. But I'm still sad. It still sucks.

Monday, August 3, 2009

But First, a Little Background...

When I moved to Utah six years ago, it was to help a small church in Brigham City produce documentary videos about Mormonism. I didn't really know a whole lot about Mormonism...I didn't really even know much about making videos.

Nevertheless, during the five or so years that I worked with the church's video ministry, we cranked out four documentaries, several of which had a noticeable impact on the culture around us. The first one challenged the truth claims of Mormonism based on DNA evidence, and the issues that it raised became so problematic that the LDS Church altered the introduction page to the Book of Mormon to try and subdue the controversy.

It was a pretty good run; over those five years, we developed a significant web presence, managed to secure a solid reputation, and our materials became pretty well-known and appreciated among those who have an interest in ministry to Mormons. We also generated a lot of angst among defenders of Mormonism, and so we received our share of abuse along with accolades (neither of which were really deserved.)

But things are different now. Last year, the video ministry made the decision to separate entirely from the church. This put me in the position of having to choose between my vision and my vocation. To make a long story short, I chose vision. I chose to remain with the church, which had not departed from the vision that had drawn me here six years ago. It was the choice I made, based on a conviction that what was happening here, in Brigham City, through this little church, was what God was drawing me to.

I've never regretted that choice, but it has opened up an enormous set of questions. So what exactly
is God calling us to do here? How does He want me to fit in to the whole thing? The irony is that despite the unknowns, I have never, ever, ever, had a stronger sense of being in the middle of God's will and purpose than now. I kid you not. It's the strangest thing, to be in the midst of uncertainty, and yet at the same time, such an undeniable sense of God's orchestration.

We as a church have been criticized by some for what we "let go of" over the past year. They say we let the video ministry "clean house" on their way out. I don't have much of an answer for the critics, except to say that as we emerge on the other side of this transition, there is a very clear sense (among those of us who gather regularly to pray for this church and its ministry), that God is re-making us, and part of that remaking was stripping away the old--more thoroughly than we ever imagined-- so that He can build the new.

Of course, at first the "old" were difficult to let go of. It involved a lot of pain. But as we became convinced that God was, for whatever reason, allowing this to happen, we began to loosen our grip. First the roof, then the walls, then the floor have been systematically removed, until we're looking at bare foundation. By all human reckoning, we are essentially left with little. Certainly not enough to do much of anything with, or so it would seem. But that's by human reckoning. If we're truly about God's business, then what we lack is no limitation for God. And there is the lesson that He's been teaching us.

So here we stand, surveying our foundation, watching God sweep the remains of the rubble away, exposing the bare concrete. We watch as he methodically and purposefully fills in the holes and gaps and cracks that we didn't even realize were there. The scene that greets us is no cause for pride, that's for sure. But we take genuine joy in watching the Master at work; it is nothing short of thrilling. It's clear that he has a plan in mind. He hasn't yet revealed to us the details of his architectural plans, but it's almost as if we see him walking around with a clipboard, the blueprint tube tucked under his arm. He's got something waiting in the wings, of that there's no doubt. He's afforded us a few hints and peeks, and I'll say more about that in later posts, but the overall picture is still largely in the mind of the One who can speak the Universe into existence. In other words, His plan, whatever it is, is a sure thing.

Don't mistake this for word-faith doublespeak. We presume absolutely nothing except that He is faithful and that He will glorify himself. If there's anything we've learned, it's that God's economy rarely jives with our own. We humans measure success in terms of productivity and results and numbers and accomplishments. How much is in the bank account? How many people visit our website? How many DVDs have we sold? How many lives have we affected? And these aren't bad things, in and of themselves, so long as we maintain the right perspective.

But God's criteria for success are much different. All He requires of us is to trust Him. That's no small thing, to be sure, but it's remarkably simple and freeing. And when we trust Him, then we also let go of our need to have something to show for ourselves (it's all "filthy rags" anyway) because He already has something to show for Himself. But even so, He takes joy in letting us join Him. As a patient father lets an eager young child "help" him with his chores (even though the father could do it much more quickly and efficiently on his own!), He delights in letting us participate in what he's doing, and designs ways to include us.

So we'll continue to open our hands to Him and say "Okay. Here we are. What do you want us to do now?" And so now...we wait.