Three Ponchos

Nothing is more pleasurable than a road trip with good friends.  My recent trip to Acadia National Park was one such trip.  The day before our departure, I went with my friends Helen and Deb to see Wonder Woman in order to set the right tone for our adventure.  That night we amused ourselves by taking a personality test.  We found that the three of us were very different.  Deb is a giving-helper, always ready to make me a cup of tea.  She was so thoughtful to bring special treats for all of us and especially three ponchos in case it rained!  Helen is the epicurean-protector.  She brought a power cord to ensure she could hook up her computer and had chosen the place we were going to stay for its amenities.  I’m the observant-loyal skeptic.  I was the one that decided we should all take the personality test because I had observed that we were all quite different.

First stop was Freeport, Maine to do shopping at LL Bean.  We actually went to three LL Bean shops.  Our second stop along the way was Boothbay.  We had a great lunch at the Steamboat Inn and Helen and Deb started their tour of blueberry pie tasting.  This was the first of three.  Deb was very giving in offering me a bite.  We took a walk along the harbor and I observed the landforms around us and shared that the Boothbay topographic map was often used to illustrate fjords and their formation from glaciers.  Helen and Deb were very appreciative of my observations.  Helen bought a homemade bar of soap so that we had something special to use while we were gone that would make us smell good.

Boothbay Area Map

We crossed the Penobscot bridge, choosing not to go up in the elevator, but did stop and view this beautiful structure.  Deb was very helpful along the way in pointing out any orange cones signaling road construction.  Helen did much of the driving and showed good defensive technique which protected us from crashes several times.

We found the turn for our final destination, an Airbnb cottage.  A sign showed that The Fuhrer lived on the same road.  I was skeptical.  When we arrived at our cottage on a lake, Helen proceeded to move lamps around, get flashlights placed correctly for emergencies, and put the soap where we could find it.  She also figured out the internet so that everything was set up just right.  Deb started to cook dinner and shared her special snacks with us.  Helen opened a wine bottle.   I looked for material on Acadia National Park so we could identify where we might want to go the next day.  Helen locked the doors before we went to sleep.

The next morning, while Deb made French toast for us, Helen told us about the lights that flashed in one window all night that made her concerned for our safety.  I remained skeptical.

Because we are three Ph.D.s, we spent the first few hours after breakfast each morning on our own writing projects.  The measure of good friendships is an ability to be in the same room and just work, getting feedback occasionally but with no further expectation.

By late morning we were ready for our excursions.  The first one was to Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island.  Our first stop was to Bar Harbor, on the edge of the Park, where we had lunch at the Sidestreet Café.  Helen had checked out the options and found one that she thought would be great.  Helen and Deb tried the blueberry pie—the second round.  As usual, Deb shared with me.

View of Bar Harbor from Mt. Cadillac

We spent the day exploring Acadia on Mount Desert Island and learning about its landscape.  Mount Desert Island was initially a massive volcanic caldera, ten miles wide, formed from volcanic eruptions.  Underlying this caldera was an intrusion of molten granite that was two-three miles below the surface, ten miles in diameter, and one-two miles thick.  Following the end of the volcanic activity, this granite cooled, was uplifted, and tilted ten-fifteen degrees to the southeast.  With the uplift, streams began to cut into the solid rock.  The more resistant Cadillac Mountain granites grew more prominent as land was eroded around and resulted in a typical radial drainage pattern where stream flow away from the higher elevation center.  In this case, streams flowed both north and south off the higher elevations.  Finally, glaciers that were up to 5000 feet thick and flowed up to 150 miles out to sea scoured the landscape, eroding away the top layers to expose the granite, streamlining the mountains, and turning V-shaped valleys into glacial U-shaped troughs.  As the glaciers melted, the land rebounded, meaning it rose in elevation with the loss of weight from the ice, creating the incredible landscape that you see today.

U-shaped trench and glacially rounded hills









The second day our excursion took us to Blue Hill Peninsula and Deer Island, along with the port town of Stonington.  Our goal was to find Nervous Nellie’s Jams and Jellies and see what Nervous Nellie was all about.  Every turn was a surprise!  Nervous Nellie’s turned out to be an art exhibit as well as a jelly kitchen.  Each set had a theme, whether it was a medieval castle, a civil rights-related venue, or a burial site for a Viking.  We explored it all.









The Blue Hill Peninsula and Deer Island were first known for its granite.  Stonington granite was used in any number of important buildings.  The Island also produced many boat pilots who were involved in commercial marine shipping.  Then of course, lobster-fishing is very prominent.  The town of Stonington is the number one lobster port in the state of Maine.  Most recently, tourism and the arts have become important.  The island is a mix of all these things, with a wonderful playfulness exhibited in the arts.  

Public Art

In all these travels, we observed the stunning sight of fields of lupines.  We also observed what looked like rocks growing in a field.  I was skeptical of a farmer’s ability to grow rocks and postulated that we were looking at glacial moraines.  Finally, every restaurant sign claimed they had the best lobster of all.  I didn’t see this as being possible.









When we returned to our cottage at the end of one day, Helen wanted to look at the property down the road to see if she could find Hitler as a proactive move toward protecting us.  Deb went on to expertly construct a fire for us.  As we sat around the flames at dusk we heard sounds across the pond.  Deb and Helen thought they might be loons but they sounded like bull frogs to me.









Our last evening, we ate our third sample of blueberry pie, bought from a local café.  I got my own piece this time.

Such road trips create space for self-care, care for one another, and for wonder.  Road trips create the space for reviewing life’s journey:  The very hard experiences–deaths of spouses, divorces, hip replacements, struggling children, self-doubt, and deep, deep disappointments.  And the tremendous joys—your first child being put in your arms, new opportunities, deep satisfaction from seeing growth in our children and our students and our colleagues and our institutions, grandchildren, books, and beautifully crafted arguments and thoughts in writing or in theatrical productions that contribute to the world’s understanding of the human experience.

Three ponchos.  Three Ph.D.s.  Three days.  Three blueberry pies.  Three LL Bean stores which resulted in six shopping bags.  Much, much conversation.  Three very different personalities.

Deb gives through her art, crafting both theatrical texts and the casts that present them, in a way that builds understanding and empathy in her audiences.  She helps us understand our life experiences through this process.

Helen reminds us to pay attention to the simple pleasures of life—whether it be artwork or a well-crafted argument.  She advocates for clear institutional structures and policies in order to enhance the chance for human flourishing for all.

I observe in order to understand what others are experiencing and needing in order to stand with them in their joys and tears, while helping them grow.  I am always trying to understand how institutions can be built to enhance growth because I want this next generation to be able to lead us into the future.  I want them to be wise as serpents and as loving as lambs.

I remain skeptical of platitudes but I firmly believe in deep friendships because I have them.


I don’t remember asking for a tether ball.  I think I remember it being put up by my father—a pole in a tire filled with cement with a ball attached by rope.

It sat in our back driveway turn-around.  I would occasionally play with friends—each hitting the ball in opposite directions, trying to wrap the rope around the pole.  But usually I hit the ball all by myself, again and again, as hard as I could, wrapping and unwrapping the rope around the pole, one direction and then the other.  Always tethered to that pole, firmly planted in cement on my back driveway.

I don’t remember whose idea it was to make a gunny sack swing and hang it from the old cherry tree.  But we took a gunny sack and filled it with other gunny sacks so that there was a lump of them at the bottom that we could put our legs around, and tied a knot around the gunny sack with a rope that was strung up on a big branch in the old cherry tree.

Somebody found an especially tall step ladder to use in order to swing higher and save us from having to push each other.  It was a twelve-foot ladder (can that be true?).  We took turns climbing the ladder, wrapping our legs around the gunny sack and letting go, always with the knowledge that the rope was fraying as it rubbed back and forth against the limb of the tree.

And when my turn came and the rope broke, I fell to the ground and learned what it meant to have your breath knocked out of you.  I can still remember how it felt as I lay on the ground with the pain in my chest.

My mother died suddenly and it takes my breath away daily—when I have the impulse to skype with her or when I open my email and find no new news from the extended family from her.

The description that has come to me lately is that I am untethered.  She solidly connected me to places, to the people, to memories, and to the past.  She tethered me, through reminding me of who I was, in the midst of whatever happened.  Relationships among family, long time family friends tied to the various places we lived, and acquaintances were maintained through her no matter how far and wide we flew.  She tethered me.

My breath has been knocked out of me and I am struggling to be able to get back up and reattach the gunny sack to the cherry tree and climb the ladder one more time.

Midwest Party

Origins of Party Participants

I counted it up.  Over my lifetime I have lived in eight different places in the Midwest (I exclude Missouri from this count).  So no wonder I felt the need for a Midwestern party!  The planning stage for this party actually extended over a year as those of us who had grown up in the Midwest discussed what constituted a Midwestern party.  How could a party be flat in terms of terrain but multi-faceted in terms of experience?  What should make up the menu?  And what were the boundaries of the Midwest?  In other words, which students should be invited to join us?

We finally focused on the heart of the Midwest—Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana—the “I” states.  Being “nice” Midwesterners, we became concerned over the one student at my New England institution from Idaho.  Would that student feel left out?  That took some time to sort out.

Next we had to decide on menu. Again, after much discussion (months actually), we decided we need breaded pork tenderloin sandwiches, scalloped potatoes, corn on the cob, multi-bean salad, a seven-layer salad (frozen peas, salad dressing, lettuce, cheese…), apple pie and ice cream, pop (not soda), and ants on a log.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with ants on a log, it is celery and peanut butter with raisins placed on top.  It was a big hit.  The breaded pork tenderloin sandwiches were a challenge.  Our catering service was confused.  At one point they called to talk about the order and were looking at Encyclopedia Britannica to try to figure out what we were requesting.  Encyclopedia Britannica??  Britannica??  This is a Midwestern United States party rather than a British Midlands party!  We ended up with something that involved breaded pork tenderloins…

And what is quintessential Midwest?  Several individuals brought jello salads.  Initially there was some fighting over who got to bring the orange and carrot jello salad, but soon everyone returned to being nice and sorted it out.  We skipped the lime and celery version of Midwestern cuisine.


What do Mid westerners do when they get together to relax?  Well, we quickly retired to the tornado shelter.  Thankfully my finished basement serves as my tornado shelter so it was quite comfortable.  Several activities filled the evening beyond eating.  We talked about what we missed about the Midwest and the craziest questions anyone has asked you about the Midwest.

We missed straight roads on a grid pattern, the sky, and REAL pizza (as in deep dish pizza).  Also we missed Steak N Shake, Maid rite, and Culver’s restaurants where you probably could get a breaded tenderloin pork sandwich is you wanted to without consulting Encyclopedia Britannica.  We missed people accepting our being nice and friendly in public.  As one person pointed out, when you rode mass transit in the Midwest you were expected to introduce yourselves to everyone when you got on and you often left with at least 5 telephone numbers.  We miss everything you can do in Chicago.

What were some of the crazy comments people ask us or make about the Midwest?  “Is the Midwest in California?” (OK—Middle of the west coast?)   “You must really miss the ocean when you live in the Midwest.”  (Let me see…Lake Michigan alone is 400 miles long by 90 miles wide with better beaches than you will ever see in New England!!).




Typical self-deprecating humor played on “hick” stereotypes of the Midwest such as a story about a father who won the national tractor pull contest and a friend who won the Illinois State hog-calling contest.

We also formed teams to compete in a Midwest quiz.  Being all above average, all the teams achieved above 90% percent in their scores, including a 100% score on knowing where you can find a submarine and coal mine next to each other.  Everyone was nice to those on the one team that missed only one question and won the candy corn.

Near the end of the evening there was a sigh and quiet when someone talked about missing the smell of the earth after the soil was freshly turned in the spring, and how there was nothing like the tomatoes that grew in the heat and black soil of the Midwest.  Measured against the Midwest, there is nothing that passes for soil elsewhere in the world.

As one person who married into the Midwest said his first morning after arriving late the night before in rural Illinois—it is a sea of land.

High Elevation Adventures


One of my family’s earliest camping trips was to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.  I must have been around 7 years old.  It was in the middle of the summer and I remember that we had to go buy a propane heater because it got down to freezing at night in our tent. I also remember my older brother and I also getting lost in the woods near our campsite while playing on big boulders.

High elevation is associated with cool temperatures.  This isn’t because the air “losses” heat, but is related to the air molecules expanding in space.  They trade their thermal energy for kinetic energy as the fill up the larger expanse of the atmosphere with a corresponding drop in temperature.  The opposite happens when air falls in the atmosphere—the molecules trade kinetic energy for thermal energy with a corresponding rise in temperature.

I’ve been to Central American and to Haiti where you can experience going from the tropics at sea level up to cooler temperatures in minutes as you climb the mountains.  In places like Guatemala, ethnic groups are associated with the different temperature zones.  The Mayan people have been pushed up to the higher altitudes, with the Latinos in the more moderate zone.  The Spanish usually established their capital cities at higher altitudes with more temperate climates with a corresponding port city along the tropical coastline.



When I was ten years old I had a geography book that showed a picture of people who lived on the Altiplano in Bolivia, a large high plain at 14,000 feet.  The photo showed a woman with a bowler hat (adopted from the British) and a llama.  When I finally had the chance to go there I was prepared for the high elevation adventure.  This included taking a new tube of toothpaste for an experiment.

map-of-boliviaThe city of La Paz is in a valley just below the Altiplano.  The airport for the city is located above the city on this high altitude plain at about 14,000 feet.  The peaks of the Andes rise above the plain to heights of 23,000 feet.  It is comparable to being on the flat plain around Denver at 5000 feet with the highest peaks around you at 14,000 feet.  But in this case, the plain is at 14,000 feet.  As I watched people disembark from the plane I could see them slowly walk into the terminal.  When I walked out I knew why.  With less than half the oxygen of sea level, you get out of breath.  Walking any distance and especially up hill was a challenge.  Relatives brought coca tea in thermoses to give to the new arrivals to help them in their adjustment and we were given this tea at the hotel.  As soon as I got to my room I took off the top of the toothpaste and watched it come out on its own due to the change in pressure.  Soft drinks have to be bottled at this altitude to keep them from exploding which would happen if they were brought up from lower altitudes.

La Paz is one of the few places in the world where the richer you are, the lower you live.  The poor live on the hillsides leading up to high plain with incredible views but cooler temperatures and less air.  The city is also a cultural cross-roads.  The descendants of the Inca people live on the Altiplano and the Latinos are below.  No need for many fire stations at this altitude because fires don’t burn very well.  Other strange features of this high altitude environment–when we went 50 miles an hour in a taxi enroute to Lake Titicaca across the Altiplano there was hardly a breeze coming in the window of the car.  And the airport runway has to be twice as long as a regular airport because you have to taxi twice as far to take off—there is little air for lift.  And I get headaches from lack of oxygen…

img_20161012_162529011Recently I returned to the region around Rocky Mountain National Park and stayed at about 8000 feet.  I was anxious to see how it would compare to the Altiplano in its effect on me.  The temperature dropped as we went from Denver where it was hot, to Estes Park where the nights were quite cold.  When I took a hike up a road to a lookout with a friend, it was a challenge but we did make the two mile walk with stops along the way to catch our breath and take in the breath-taking views.










We were constantly reminded that we needed to drink water to help our bodies cope with the elevation.  Differences—At this elevation there was enough oxygen that I didn’t get a headache.  I saw no llamas or bowler hats, and elk were hanging out everywhere.


Where Does Water Come From?

dscn0490An art professor once told me about a conversation with a student that was working at the pottery wheel.  The student asked–“where does the clay come from?”  The professor went on to describe the clay formation in Texas where some of the best clay came from.  “But,” said the student, “where does THIS clay come from?”  Thinking that the student was not understanding, the professor described in even more detail the nature of the clay and its source. Now quite frustrated with the nature of the answer, the student asked–“where does the clay come from that comes up through the table onto the potting wheel?”  Having now come down to ground from the existential level answer to the question, the professor said:  “from the box that is under the table.”

I have been thinking of this story this week after a water main break in my town that first left the entire town without water for 8 hours and then without drinkable tap water for four days.  And in addition, the college where I work is going to have its water turned off for six hours later this month.   It is only at times like these that you ask:  Where does water come from?

It’s an interesting question that depends on where you live.  Growing up in the Midwest you knew that it came from the water tower which you could see from afar.  But of course it had to be pumped into the water tower from somewhere in order to create water pressure.  In my hometown it was the local lake that was created by the CCC during the depression.  In Michigan it was from Lake Michigan.  I once went by the place with the intake that stretched out into the lake.  On Great Barrier Island it was more complicated.  Our drinking water was collected on the roof and drained into a big copper pot on the back porch that we would put in pots to use to cook and drink.  The water that came out of the tap came from a stream.  Visiting Nicaragua for a few weeks, we had water for only a couple hours of day.  I don’t know where it came from but I was glad to have it when I did. In Hong Kong the water from the faucet came from across the border in China, but the water for the sewer system was salt water from the ocean.  We had a water boiling electric pot in our kitchen, but we basically used the tap water.  I carried out an on-going survey of whether the water was drinkable and it was always with mixed responses.  We drank it with no ill affects.  I did not drink it when I went across the border into mainland China.  And it Haiti we washed vegetables off with water with a bit of bleach.

My daughter came home after a trip to the store during the time when we were directed to not drink the water directly from the tap.  She was a bit mystified by a conversation she had overheard.  Customers had expressed concern that there was little water left in the store.  There seemed to be a fear of a shortage of water.  In the meantime, we just followed instructions and boiled the water coming out of our pipes for the one minute required to ensure its safety.  And put a bit a bleach in the dish water to be able to use it to clean dishes.  Really?  A water shortage?  We had pots of it that we never got around to using!

The next set of questions related to water, of course, might be–how does it get there?  In Flint, MI, it is through lead-contaminated pipes.  And where does it go when it leaves your house?  In Louisiana and Wellington, New Zealand, it was directly into the ocean.  But these are different questions for another day.

Where does water come from?  You might say Wenham Lake, but my existential answer, unlike the pottery professor’s answer in the case of clay, would be that water is a gift from God.




Using Pigs to Hang Laundry

Several weeks ago I was hanging laundry, enjoying one of the last days of summer.  But it was a blustery day so I had to use multiple clothes pins to hold the laundry in place.  As I worked away, I thought of New Zealand, where you had to practically tie the laundry onto the line or it would be blown to the next island.  Likewise I had to hold on to my younger daughter to keep her from being blown away with it.

Today I was chatting with a faculty member from New Zealand who talked about the beauty of the day and how it reminded him of New Zealand.  I told him about hanging laundry and being reminded of my time there.  He then asked if I had used lots of pigs.

Only then was I reminded of our utter confusion when we were looking for clothes pins in New Zealand and everyone was telling us to use pigs to hang our clothes.  We could not understand why were were looking for pigs to do this.

Only when we were told to go to bid at night and asked how many pinnies we had in change did the pattern become clear.

I still imagine using pigs to hang laundry and it makes me smile.

The Great Marsh


I began the summer and now I have ended the summer with an all-day kayak trip through the Great Salt Marsh near my home.  It gives you a different perspective to see the area from the water.  And in fact, much of the area around Essex, MA can’t be seen except by water and the change in tide meant that over the time we were out, the water could have changed 9 feet, exposing the thick sediment of the marsh.

dscn0931On both days we went out with the tide and then headed back in after the tide had started to return.  Areas like this, with marsh grassland and tidal creeks, provide rich habitat.  The Great Marsh, the largest salt marsh in New England, is no different. Just drive through the area on any summer evening and you will see lines of people at local seafood restaurants and takeout—clams and lobster dominate. At other times you can see birders out checking out the migrants who have stopped on their way between the arctic and the tropics.

While the Great Marsh provided an important source of food for Native Americans, the area around the Essex Bay became known for its boat-building for almost 300 years beginning in the 1600s.  The shelter of the estuary provided a safe place to build the fishing boats that would then be taken to the fishing port of nearby Gloucester..dscn0948

I wondered about the safety of shelter when the sands shift every day, season, and year at the mouth of the rivers.  On one trip I got stuck in a sandbar as I tried to navigate in a channel.  On the other trip we had to go out into the ocean in order to go around a sand bar and then enter the Essex River.  The breakers were coming from several directions and I did take on some water when one came over me.

As you paddle throughout the marsh, it is easy to see the age of the settlement.  For example, Choate Island (called Hog Island) was settled by John Choate in the 1600s.  The Choate house that still sits on the island was built in the early to mid1700s.


The island is a drumlin, a hill feature shaped by glaciers that leaves one higher blunt end to the hill and another more tapered end.  On Choate Island you can see examples of the salt marshes that provided pasture for cattle. As we walked on the island, it had similarities to Nova Scotia where the Acadians built structures to drain the salt marsh.

Two beautiful days in the marsh and summer is now over.



Big Rivers Tall Grass

IMG_20160704_142900661A river, by my definition, has to stretch hundreds of miles and drain thousands of square miles of prairie land.  Anything less is just a stream.  Rivers come from places unknown and stretch far beyond your own horizon leading toward the ocean.


Car Wash Options Tributaries of the Missouri: Madison, Gallatin, and Jefferson rivers

Gate to the Mountains: Headwaters of Missouri River












The Des Moines River, the Illinois River, the Ohio River, the Missouri River—all of which flow into the mighty Mississippi River.  I have lived among these rivers.  They together drain all the land between the Appalachians and the Rocky Mountains.  Thousands of square miles. When my grandmother was older, she lived in an apartment along the Des Moines River in Minnesota.  I lived 300 miles southeast near the Des Moines River in Iowa.  Open land stretched from my house to hers. Every Sunday, when I took my walk along the Des Moines River, I would imagine its route upstream to my grandmother’s town.

I once took a group of international visitors to see a lock and dam on the Mississippi River when I was a graduate student in Minnesota.  We yelled to the barge operator below us, asking about his load.  He had grain from the upper Midwest and was headed to New Orleans where it would be put on an ocean vessel to take it abroad.  Rivers fuel imagination because they come from somewhere and are going somewhere.  It is no surprise that singer, songwriter, Carly Simon used the image of the river:

Let the River Run

We’re coming to the edge,
Running on the water,
Coming through the fog,
Your sons and daughters.

Let the river run,
Let all the dreamers
Wake the nation.
Come, the New Jerusalem.

Big rivers are a force of nature.  Mature rivers like these I grew up among, wind back and forth across a landscape carving out broad and flat fertile valleys. In the middle of a region with relatively little topography, I would always lose my breath as I came to the valley’s edge at places like Little America, Illinois, where the vista opened up in front of me.  During the Floods of 1993, the rivers took back their valleys, reminding everyone that rivers are a force of nature.

DSCN0955My grandmother was born in Iowa—the “land between two rivers.”  She talked about the tall grass prairie, with its low wet spots where the cows would get stuck in the mud and have to be pulled out. Tall Grass.  These low spots and the prairie vegetation would collect rainwater and hold it, releasing it slowly into the rivers.  People eventually tiled the low parts of the prairie and plowed all of it, reducing nature’s natural holding tank and increasing the speed and height of floods.

Attempts are being made to restore the valleys and grasslands of Big Rivers.  Farmland is being turned back into sloughs within the valleys to give the rivers back their ability to weave back and forth across the landscape.  And in a very few places you can see the restoration of the prairie.  I visited such a site this summer just south of Chicago.  A block of land that was formerly in a military reserve created an opportunity for prairie restoration.  As I walked through the 7-year-old prairie, it smelled of home—a combination of direct sun, high humidity (the type that makes the corn grow) and the smell of growing grass.  Tall Grass.






Dan Fogelberg, in his song, “The River” talks about his inability to escape the Big River and Tall Grass of his origin:


I was born by a river
Rolling past a town…

I was raised by a river…

Weaned upon the sky…

I will die by a river
As it rolls away

Big Rivers.  Tall Grass.  If it isn’t hundreds if not thousands of miles long, it is not a river.  If it can’t grow five feet tall, it isn’t grass.

Notes from a Cross-Cultural Conversation

My colleagues at Gordon College and I recently spent two days with a group of scholars/pastors/thought leaders from Brazil, Hong Kong, and China.  We had the pleasure of hosting them for a gathering to explore issues of the evangelical church and its engagement with an increasingly pluralist society in each of these settings.  Near the end of our meeting, I shared what I thought I had heard in the discussion related to the challenges or opportunities facing the church in Brazil and China as they tried to serve the common good while remaining faithful, and where I thought visionary energy could be derived.

Cultural Resources

The local church is always embedded in a context rich with particular cultural resources available to them.  These are natural entryways to service and are also elements of culture and history that need to be amplified and honored in local expressions of faith.  In a country which values education and the elderly, Christians in China have naturally found niches in which to serve society that center around children and honor the family.  The Brazilian church is embedded in a culture that values warmth and hospitality.  Is there a way to honor these cultural values by expressing them and affirming them through programs that serve the common good?

Christians in each country also face political challenges: repression in China and divided priorities in Brazil, sometimes advanced by unethical means.  But one common opportunity is to recover a history of ethical Christian engagement with society.  The Chinese Christians have Chinese Republican history from the early part of the twentieth century as a model for what is possible for society.  Brazilian Christians have a history of positive collaboration and engagement with each other before the present fracturing of the church.  These are histories that need to be recovered and can serve as a cultural resource to draw upon.

Biblical Narratives

In listening to my brothers and sisters, I found Biblical narratives to help me frame their individual contexts.  As my Chinese brothers and sisters talked about the church, I am reminded of the New Testament context of Caesar and Rome.  They face a similar challenge of knowing what to render to Caesar and what belongs to God. They must wisely determine what steps allow the church to flourish amidst Caesar’s rule.  My Brazilian brothers and sisters described a dynamic situation that parallels Paul addressing the crowd in the marketplace in Athens.  Like Paul calling the people back to the worship of one God, the church is trying to find its footing amidst the cacophony of religious expression. Perhaps identifying the biblical narratives that speak to our place and time will inspire a vision for churches and resources to confront our realities.

Capacity Building and Opportunity

Christians in each setting have opportunities to build capacity in their cultures and societies by recognizing the obstacles that they face and addressing them.  In China, training and growth around church governance  is building capacity in its members that are far reaching in terms of the development of civil society.  In Brazil, where Christians experience challenges in their efforts to engage politics in a mature manner, an emphasis on church polity may serve the church well as a capacity-building strategy.  Though very different contexts, an emphasis on church governance may have more broadly transformative impacts than anticipated.

What opportunities might each faith community explore?  What if Chinese evangelicals joined with others at the local level around environmental issues, developing a care of creation movement in China?  This could be expressed as care of neighbor, but especially care of children and their future, alongside care of elderly.  The Lausanne Creation Care conference is going to be held in Taiwan.  Is this an opportunity?  What if Brazilian evangelicals took on one policy-related issue to practice the recovery of their past ability to act jointly?  This effort could be a learning exercise as they learn to use media, reflect, and re-engage, growing in their ability to model a mature engagement in the public square.  Could this help to start to recover a sense of common life among Christians?

In the end, in cross-cultural encounters, we always learn more about ourselves than others.  What did I learn about the American evangelical church?  I learned that we need the Chinese church to teach us what it means to suffer for Christ and give thanks for religious freedom.  And I learned that we need the Brazilian church to model for us the transformative power of the Spirit.  Christians in both contexts express a deep yearning for maturity in Christ.  We have much to learn from our  Chinese and Brazilian brothers and sisters who can contribute to our maturing in our faith as we seek to  engage with society in order to  serve the common good.

For more on the Project on Evangelicalism and Culture, see:


Traveling Mercies

WP_20160704_20_03_14_ProI have been thinking about the phrase, “traveling mercies” this week.  What brought this about?  Two incidents.  My niece landed in Moscow only to find that the friend with whom she was going to stay had just experienced a tragic family death.  And my daughter called me in tears.  I was in Indiana.  She was at the airport to go to Hong Kong and when she handed her passport to the agent, she discovered that it was her grandmother’s passport.  Their passports must have gotten switched a year ago when they crossed the Canadian border and now hers was in Michigan and she was in Boston trying to leave the country.

Why do we pray for traveling mercies?  We are often at our most vulnerable when we travel.  We have to depend on the help and hospitality of strangers.  I have two friends who have been traveling when they experienced the accidental death of a child.  In both cases it was outside the country where they lived. They had to depend on total strangers.

In my own family, the state police once had to track down my grandmother and step-grandfather who were traveling from Minnesota to Texas when my grandfather’s son died.  Just recently I asked my mother about the 1939 car accident the led to the eventual death of her father when she was 9.  They were in South Dakota traveling home to Minnesota when the car rolled.  She can recall the sound of the glass breaking and the feel of the car rolling.  She remembers her sister reaching over to turn the car off and seeing her father, mother, and aunt out in the field where they had been thrown.  She somehow ended up at a local doctor’s office to get her finger sewn up, but the adults were taken by ambulance back to Minnesota.  But who called for the ambulance?

Refugees are the most vulnerable travelers in need of traveling mercies.  When I lived in Iowa I helped with hosting 5 different Central American refugee families who had been accepted by Canada.  This was called the Overground Railroad.  The families stayed in our town for about 6 months while waiting for their final papers for Canada.  They each had their stories of travels to the United States.  Some had been in detention along the US border.  They had experienced death threats, trauma, and loss outside the confines of family and friends.  In one case a child had been left behind in Mexico City.  When it was time for them all to fly to Canada, we had to find someone in Mexico City who would take the paperwork to the 5-year old in the slums of Mexico City and get him to the airport at the right time to arrive in Canada at the same time as the rest of the family.  They were dependent on us—who had been strangers—and on our ability to find strangers in Mexico City to help us help them.

Traveling Mercies.  I pray for traveling mercies for those more distant from me—like Syrian refugees—and for those close to me.  We all are in need of traveling mercies.

My daughter did make it to Hong Kong.  I drove back to Michigan from Indiana and sent her passport by FedEx overnight. The agent rebooked her ticket for two days later and added two days at the end at no charge.  I wish I knew this stranger’s name…