Sheep Nerd

imageToday my Bible study group went on a tour of the Seattle Art Museum. We were there to see the “Graphic Masters” exhibit, featuring over four hundred prints and drawing from the last five hundred years. The exhibit, which closes this weekend, was exquisite. We began with the groundbreaking work of German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer. We looked at the intricate work of Rembrandt and the pointedly satirical art of Goya. We had to rush through the Picasso room because of time. But then we arrived at the roomI had really come to see.

This was the room that held the over 200 drawings of R. Crumb’s Illustrated Book of Genesis. Crumb, probably most famous for creating the “Keep on Truckin'” character of the late ’60s, had taken over four years to illustrate, in detail, the entire book of Genesis. Genesis is not a short book. It contains 50 chapters, and all kinds of “begat “details that would seem to be tough to illustrate. But somehow, Crumb did it.

I admired his illustrations of the Creation story, his take on the Garden of Eden, the Tree of Life, and the serpent who tempted Eve. But the story I examined closely, reading every word, was the one found in Genesis 30:25-43. That is the tale of how Jacob cheated his father-in-law Laban and became a wealthy man.

imageAs the strange little story goes, after years of tending the flocks of his father-in-law Laban, Jacob wanted a flock of his own. He suggested that Laban pay him by giving him the spotted sheep in the flocks, and Laban could keep all the rest. But then Jacob took the best ewes and put spotted and striped sticks by the water trough when they came to drink. The idea was that whatever a sheep is looking at when a lamb is conceived will be reflected in the appearance of the lamb. Sure enough, as happens in legends like these, the trick worked. The ewes that were looking at the spotted and striped sticks when the ram came along all gave birth to healthy, spotted lambs. When the weaker ewes came to the water trough, Jacob took the sticks away, and all those ewes gave birth to weak, unspotted lambs. What a trickster that Jacob was.

Among modern sheep breeds, that story is remembered in the breed known as “Jacobs.” A Jacobs sheep indeed is brown and white spotted, and the rams have beautiful black curved horns. The shepherd’s crook I brought home from Scotland six years ago is made from hazel wood topped with a carved Jacobs ram horn.

Sure enough, J. Crumb had very nicely illustrated this story of Jacob and his sheep. I was satisfied.

If you are still reading all of this detail about the SAM exhibit, and the naming of a very particular breed of sheep, and the Bible story that goes with it, congratulations. I realize that by this point in the blog, I have now completely confirmed that I am both a sheep nerd and a Bible nerd.

By “nerd” I mean someone who gets caught up in all lot of information that the average person doesn’t care much about, and probably isn’t particularly relevant to most people’s lives. One definition calls a nerd “studiously boring.”

I have always known that I am a Bible nerd. But my full realization that I have also become a sheep nerd happened last Sunday night, when I gathered with the group of folks from my congregation who are going to Iona. There are thirteen of us going to visit that sacred Scottish Isle in late September. Over the last months, we have gathered to share a meal and to talk together about the island and the trip. Each participant has done a special research project, and shared the results with the wider group at our different gatherings.

Iona5I knew from my two previous trips to Iona that there are a lot of sheep on the island, and they are of various breeds. Some of the breeds I recognized, some of them I did not. I was curious about those sheep, and imagined all of my fellow pilgrims would be curious too. I decided to title my presentation on “The Sheep of Iona.”

But when I googled the topic, I didn’t find much information. Just some references to blogs from others who had been to Iona and commented, “There are a lot of sheep there.” I decided to dig deeper. I contacted the owner of the Iona craft shop on the island.

A fellow named Michael answered my email right away. He listed the several different breeds of sheep on the island, and specifically named the breeds that his shop uses to produce their wool and wool crafts. I eagerly gathered more information on each breed, and I looked through my own pictures from Iona to find examples. I put all of the information together in a little booklet, printed off twelve copies, and eagerly headed off to the Sunday meeting.

I was prepared for an in depth discussion of various sheep breeds, their characteristics, and their uses. So there we sat in a circle. I handed out my little booklet and said, “My presentation is on the sheep of Iona.” I heard a few snickers.

That’s when it hit me. Folks had done presentations on the Abbey on Iona, the nunnery on Iona, Celtic Christianity, the Book of Kells. All of those presentations were thoughtful reflections on spirituality and the nature of pilgrimage.

Iona2Now here I was talking about sheep. Not the spirituality of sheep. Actual sheep. What their wool is like. What their ears are like. Different colors of their fleeces. What it means to say this breed is polled, or why this breed is rare, or how when shepherding practices changed in the United Kingdom, this breed increased and this breed declined. I had only gotten to page two of my booklet after I had compared and contrasted three of the seven breeds I was featuring, when I saw that people’s eyes had begun to glaze over. Suddenly I felt like a preacher whose sermon had gone on too long. Using a particularly obscure scripture text. With illustrations that actually did not relate to anyone’s life.

I began to speed up my presentation, cutting here and there, leaving brilliant observations about this particular breed or that particular type unsaid. But when I got to the Bluefaced Leicester I couldn’t resist. I just had to tell the group about the Border Leicester too, cousin to the Bluefaced, and star of the movie “Babe.”

I heard myself explaining that the Texel makes a nice foundation ewe. The Hebridian is a primitive breed with fantastical horns. The ubiquitous Scottie ewe also has horns. The distinctive looking Zwartble is naturally polled – no horns on the ewes or the rams. My breed, the Romney, is also not found on Iona. (And by the way, there are no Jacobs sheep on Iona – at least none that I saw.)

When I finally finished talking, the group sat in a kind of silence. Then we moved on. Inside, I laughed at myself. Yes, I am a sheep nerd.

But then I also agree with the words of John Muir: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” I remember that God is found not only in the places we call sacred, but in the very specific details of the obscure. It’s all hitched, and any deep exploration of the sacred or the mundane leads us to the same place. Robert Crumb, not a religious person, says he began his illustration of Genesis thinking he was creating a satire, But as he got into it, he discovered that the process of looking deeply at the stories captured him in such a way that he set his satire aside. He just focused on the details of the stories themselves, and in doing so produced a masterpiece.

Zwartbles on IonaI know that most of us have those nerd places within – those places of specific and detailed knowledge of obscure and irrelevant information. I also suspect that going deep into any one of those topics might take us deeper into spirituality itself. So I dedicate my booklet on “The SHeep of Iona” to all the nerds out there, and my own nerdiness too. God is right here, even in those “studiously boring” places of our lives.

10 Minutes

10 Minutes

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At the top of the hill by the traffic signal she waves me down,

A little woman with a large plastic box waving her arms,

Help.  Help me.  I need you help me. 10 minutes, 10 minutes.

I look over at her, the expectant, hopeful look in her eyes.

I look at the plastic box there by her feet, a jumble of cloth and small pieces of wood, a red ceramic bowl and shiny porcelain figurines.

The light changes to green, the traffic begins to roll forward.

She looks at my bike rack, sees my hesitation as an invitation.

She’ll make do with what she’s got.  Today, a confused man with a bike rack, he’ll do.

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She starts to lift up her box.

Here, I’ll help you, I say, and help her place the box gently on the rack.

10 minutes, 10 minutes, she says, waving her hands down the long street of trees ahead.

The light changes.  We walk across the intersection, she walking behind,

Balancing the box with her small hands, black hair bobbing up and down.

I’m Peter, I say.

Mai, she says.

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I wonder how she got to this corner with this big plastic box.

I wonder where’s she’s been.

I wonder who she is.

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So many questions, so many different worlds.

And now, this:  a man, a bike and a black haired woman with a plastic box.

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Down the street she waves me

Down past the burnt black remains of what was once a house.

Down past the fancy pink house with a red car trunk open in the drive and a woman taking out her grocery bags.

Down the street she clammers on, 10 minutes.  10 minutes. 

Down and around the corner where a small black haired woman steps out of a house,

Sees us coming and throws her hands in the air.

The women cry out in exclamation and delight.

Everywhere, everywhere, there is laughter.


Peter Ilgenfritz

The Sweep

imageTwo weeks ago my sister and I participated in the Whidbey Island Triathlon. My sister was competing, and I was a volunteer. For many reasons, I decided this would be a good year to step out of the competition and give something back. I offered to be “The Sweep.”

For those who don’t know the term, the sweep is the one who brings up the rear. Following the last person in the race, the sweep is the encourager, the support. If a bike breaks down, maybe the sweep can help. If a runner drops out, the sweep can let the race officials know. And as the last competitor passes the aid stations, the sweep is the person who informs the folks there that they can pack up and go. The sweep’s job is to be the last, after the last. It felt like something I could do.

imageSo on Saturday morning I stood watching the swimmers come out of the lake. The sweep doesn’t have to swim. Another reason it was such a good fit for me. I cheered my sister on as she got on her bike and took off. I wouldn’t see her again in the race. Many folks were still in the water, and I of course was waiting for the person who was last.

That person was Mary. She was in her first triathlon, and she was glad to be out of the water and on her bike. We rode along together at the back, and folks cheered us as we went by. “Way to go, you’re looking good,” they called out. I wanted to say “I’m the sweep” so they would know why I was last. On the other hand, though, I certainly have been in last in other triathlons, when I wasn’t the sweep. I kept my mouth shut.

I offered Mary water and food, and spoke what I hoped were encouraging words. She walked her bike up the first hill, and I got off my bike and walked with her. On the second hill I told her how she could shift to another gear and she made it up without stopping. By the time she got to the run, she was feeling strong again. She took off, and I couldn’t keep up. Now I really was last after the last. As I passed the aid station at the one and a half mile mark, I panted out, “I’m the sweep. That woman up there was the last runner.” The volunteers said, “Great, thanks,” and started packing up.

Then I saw another person up ahead who was walking. Thank goodness. I caught her and started walking with her. Her name was Jennifer and this was her first triathlon too. We talked about the beauty of the island and how nice it was to be out there. As we passed the final aid station, I said to the folks there, “This is the last runner. I’m the sweep.”

“Wait,” Jennifer said, sounding surprised. “I’m last?” Then she took off running. I ran steadily behind her until we rounded the final corner and the finish line was in sight. Then I stepped off the course and walked over to the other side, while the crowd on the hill cheered Jennifer home.

imageI know what it is like to cross that finish line, and hear the cheering and encouragement, even for the last competitor. But this time I discovered how much I also enjoyed the role of “Sweep.” The encourager. The helper. The one who gets to step aside and cheer while someone else crosses the line. Somehow it seems to fit with ministry.

Jut a few days after the Whidbey Triathlon, the Olympics began. The stories that have swept us up this last week have been breathtaking. Gold medals to talented and dedicated athletes and teams, devastating injures, close victories and heartbreaking defeats have kept us riveted to the coverage.

Of course I am not comparing the Whidbey Tri to the Olympics, but as I watch the performances from that international competition, I find myself thinking about the threads that connect us all. I think of those who have been the “sweeps” in athletes’ lives, and in my own life. I find myself thinking of all the ways we human beings are called to show up for one another, to cheer one another on, to encourage, and to aid.

Maybe that is nowhere more clear than in the stories of the Olympic Refugee Team, made up of ten athletes from around the world whose current status is “no homeland.” Suddenly, in a world in the midst of a refugee crisis, athletes and their stories take on profound meaning.

imageThe most repeated of those stories is that of Syria refugee Yusra Mardini. Two years ago this Olympic swimmer was swimming for her life in the Mediterranean Sea. The boat she was in, along with her sister and 18 others, was taking on water and threatening to sink. WIth her sister ad another refugee, Yusra jumped in the water and for hours pushed and pulled the boat across to the shore. She has said of that time, “It was quite hard to think that you are a swimmer and you might end up dying in the water.”

Her story compelled me to look into the other stories of the other members of this first-ever team. Each one is a story of inspiration and triumph. They are also point us all to what matters most.

James Chiengjiek fled Sudan to avoid becoming a child soldier, and lived in a refugee camp in Kenya. He is competing as a distance runner. One of his dreams is to inspire others. “Because I have been supported by someone, I also want to support someone,” he says.

Anjelina Lohalith also escaped the Sudan civil war. She says of her Olympic running, “It will inspire other refugees because wherever they are they will see that they are not just the ‘other people’.”

As I write this blog, some of the Refugee Team members are still waiting to compete. Others have finished their events. Yusra Mardini won a qualifying heat but was not fast enough to advance. Syrian swimmer Rami Anis had a personal best time in his freestyle, finishing 56th out of 59 competitors. Yolanda Mabika, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, who competes in judo, was knocked out in her first round.

It is a long way from Whidbey Island to Rio de Janero. It is a long way from supporting folks in a three hour triathlon to facing the suffering and divisions in our world and trying to make a difference. Yet as I reflect, I realize how much I long for a world that cheers the last one across the finish line as loudly a it cheered the first. A world that is is less “us versus them,” and more “because I have been supported, I want to support.” A world of bridges and dreams, not walls and despair. I long for a world where a Sweep might be there to catch everyone in need, and speak words of encouragement, and offer aid. The work of building such a world is the work of faith. We do not do it alone, and it is not a sprint, but a marathon. So like any athlete, I resolve to dig deep, and commit myself again, and keep on running, or sweeping, that race.

Image from Wikimedia and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Image from Wikimedia and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

I Met Muhammad Ali

I Met Muhammad Ali

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I met Muhammad Ali.

Or rather, I had breakfast with him.

Or actually, he was in the same restaurant

where we were having breakfast

that muggy summer morning in 1991

at the Holiday Inn in Chicago next to the Lake,

the great Black man with the twinkling eyes.


I remember my Dad said,

I think that it’s him.


Sure looks like it him, 

Could possibly be him, I said.


I remember watching him.

I remember how long it took for him to take a spoonful of cereal and bring it up to his mouth.

How a little blond boy came up to his side and asked him for his autograph.

How long it took him to take out his pen and write out his name.

I remember feeling sad for him and sad for me,

of what had become of Muhammad Ali.

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I remember when I was 9.

When he came back to the ring.

How he’d had it all and lost it all – the title, the trophies, the power,

the respect so many years ago.

I remember wondering how you keep on going after so much losing.

I remember how he gave it all up for things people I knew didn’t like and didn’t understand –

A Conscientious Objector and a Muslim.

A Man who spoke his mind.

A Black Man who didn’t care about making anybody comfortable.

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I remember knowing that we came from different worlds.

I remember recognizing that people that looked like him, behaved like him, could not live in my world.

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I remember watching him with my Dad.

Cheering him on.

Wanting him to win.

Hoping that after losing the best years of his fight and his life in the game

that he could get at,

get back at,

that he could be the Champion again.

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I remember when I was 13.

When he took on Frazier again.

The Thrilla in Manila that was no thrilla.

I remember it went on and on.  Hours it seemed.

It hurt to watch.

I kept on watching.

I just wanted it to be over.

Watching him get pummeled.

I remember how tired he looked.

I remember watching it on the couch with my Dad.

I remember, the 13th round, Frazier’s coach leaning in close, keeping him down,

telling him to wait for the bell and not get up.

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I remember hoping with my Dad.

I remember longing with my Dad that at last it could be over.

I remember yelling at the television, yelling at Frazier, please, please don’t get up.

I remember my Mom coming in to see what all the fuss was about.

I remember telling her to wait, we couldn’t explain now.

I remember waiting a long time.

I remember how tense I felt.

I remember at last the bell rang.

I remember the two embraced, collapsed into each other, barely able to stand.

I remember thinking this is a terrible sport, an awful sport.

I remember Ali’s weariness, no sputter or fight but the weariness in him.

I remember thinking his time is running out.

I remember Dad said he can’t keep going on forever.

Can’t keep fighting,

Can’t keep at it,

Can’t keep rising more,

I remember this as well.

ali 2

I had to stop watching him box.

I couldn’t stand the tension, couldn’t stand to see him lose.

I just wanted everyone to get out of the way and just let him be,

be the Champion forever,

that he deserved that.


I wanted him to quit, while he was on top.

I remember how he kept on going.

I remember wondering why.

I remember all this, I remember it all.

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That’s why early this Sunday morning

I’m here at the Safeway

Standing in line to buy the Sunday Times.

$6, she says, Wow that’s a lot.

Can you imagine, the man behind me says, shaking his head,

Spending all that when money’s so tight.


I tell them about Muhammad Ali.

How I met him once.

What he taught me.

I tell them I saw in him what I wanted to be.

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I tell them he showed me that there can be more to life than the ring and the fight,

that there are convictions and truth

and the giving it all up for something worth so much more.


I tell them he showed me there can be a time for the fight and a time to get back in the game.

A time to keep on going past what they said you could do or your body can bear.


I tell them he showed me that the greatest fights are those we never planned.

The daily fights of rising and striving, despite discrimination and disease,

despite disability and despair.

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I tell them he showed me that life can take away your smile

but that we must never let it take away the twinkle in our eyes.


I tell them about watching him with my Dad.


I tell them I want to hold the paper that holds his name,

who helps me live into my own.

This amazing man who came out of the pit and back into the game.

This fighter in the ring and this war resister.

This uncontainable and outspoken man, this real and imperfect man.

This daring to be different and his own and no one else’s man.


I tell them when life hits me flat,

I get up,

I keep on,

I remember.


I remember Ali.


muh 1

Peter Ilgenfritz

July 9, 2016





imageAs I prepared for the beginning of the swim portion of my triathlon last weekend in Cottage Grove, I found myself a little nervous. I knew the distance I had chosen was going to be challenging. It is called the “olympic” or “international” distance and includes a one mile swim, a twenty-four mile bike ride, and a six mile run. I have completed those distances before, but not very often, and the long swim always, always intimidates me.  My “swim fear” began several years ago in a triathlon down in Portland. As I began that race, I inexplicably lost my breath, and found myself struggling and wheezing through a half-mile swim, something I had thought was going to be easy.

In the years since that race, my out-of-breath experience has happened again in about half my races. But I have worked hard on getting better with my swimming and breathing. I even hired a coach to help me through it. I began taking medication for “excercised-induced” asthma. And I have made great progress. Last year I got confident enough to enter a longer olympic distance triathlon, and I finished without any water-related incidents.

Still, ever since that Portland triathlon, the water makes me anxious. And the thing about a triathlon is that the swim is the first event. You can’t go on until you have done the swim. If you want to be a triathlete, you have to get in the water. And I am always a little wary when I get in the water.

Last month I traveled to California for the Bass Lake Yosemite Triathlon. This event was being held in my home state, and in fact the swim was in the lake where my family vacationed when I was a child. My sister and I stayed with the woman who had been our next-door neighbor when we were growing up. What a wonderful setting for a race.

imageBut I was entered in the Olympic distance event, and my old water fear was lurking at the edge of my thoughts as my sister and I took our friend out to dinner the night before. It was whispering in the back of my mind as we laughed and shared stories of growing up. It was on clutching at my heart as I waded into the water the next day, and as the announcer counted us down: “Ready, set, go.” Then I was off, swimming strongly through the water and breathing easily as I went. As I swam, I remembered playing on the beaches of this lake as a little child. I remembered my parents sitting in lawn chairs watching us as we splashed and dove and chased tiny fish. I remembered the hazy orange look of everything through the tinted mask I used while I was exploring the lake bottom. I stayed relaxed.

I reached the half-mile turn around buoy, feeling good. As I headed back to the shore, I passed other swimmers. Some were clearly struggling, and knowing that feeling, my heart went out to them. Suddenly I found myself focusing on each swimmer I passed, sending them positive energy and praying that they could relax, that they could catch their breath, that they could keep going.

When I got out of the water at Bass Lake, I felt great. I had challenged myself and I had come through well. I was smiling as I got on the bike and climbed the hills around that lake I first saw when I was in grade school, and smiling as I ran past the small store we would walk to when we were little. It was a joy to receive the Finisher’s Medal at the end of the race. My sister greeted me there at the end to share my joy. Her own race had finished over an hour earlier. I told her about my prayers for the swimmiers and she laughed. “Leave it to a preacher to pray for the people she passes in a race,” she said.

imageThat was more than month ago. Last Saturday I was in Cottage Grove Lake, preparing to swim again. And my old anxiety was back. As the announcer counted down our start, I took a deep breath. “Ready, set, go.” And I was off. The first half mile felt ok, and then, suddenly, my breath was gone again. It hadn’t happened in a year, but it was happening now, in the middle of a long swim. I still had half a mile to go.

I lifted my head out of the water and saw a kayak there, carrying one of the volunteers out on the lake to support us swimmers. I made my way over to her and grabbed the side of the kayak. I was gasping and wheezing and wondering if I could continue. I was as close to quitting as I have ever been. “Just climb onto this boat and let her take you in to shore,” I thought.

But then I thought of all the folks who were cheering me on. Folks back in Seattle who would ask how my race had gone. My coach who had helped me through my fears. The long hours of training I had already invested. My sister, out on the course of her own race.

As I held on, the woman spoke encouraging words to me. “Just let your lungs fill up with air,” she said. “Feel the air going all the way in.” I remembered the prayers I had said for swimmers in Bass Lake the month before. And now here was this woman, saying a kind of prayer for me, and backing up that prayer with the very useful action of being a steady flotation device.

So I took one more breath and let go of the boat. I put my head back down, and began to swim again. It wasn’t pretty. I could take ten or twenty strokes at a time and then I had to rest. But every time I looked up, my steady new friend was there in her kayak. And the dock was getting closer. Finally, eventually, there was the shore.

imageI came out of the water exhausted. But I got on my bike and rode, and then I put on my running shoes and headed out. I walked more than ran those final six miles. When the finish line appeared on the horizon at last, I was the last one on the course. Most of the spectators had gone home. But there was my sister, still cheering me on. And the announcer was still there, calling out my name as I come into sight. And there was a volunteer ready to put the Finisher’s Medal around my neck as I crossed the finish line.

My sister and I gathered our gear and headed for the car. She told me that she had finished her race feeling strong. She had come in third in her group, and had received a pint glass with the name of the race on it to recognize that achievement. it is something she has wanted to do for several years now, and I was happy for her. She also told me she was so proud that I had kept going.

Then another volunteer came running up to me and told me I had finished third in my age group too. It turned out there were only three of us in the 65-69 year-old category, and just be finishing the race I also got a third place glass. She pressed it into my hand and told me what a good job I had done to finish.

And keeping on, isn’t that the work we all have to do? Whether the swimming has gone well or we wonder if we can even stay in the water, the work of faithfulness, justice, and mercy is always long.

Back when I was a child swimming in Bass Lake, the Equal Rights Amendment was being debated in congress, and discrimination in the work-place based on gender was just being prohibited at the federal level. Then in the 70’s, due in large part to fear fanned by the religious right, the ERA was rejected. I remember very clearly that rejection. I felt like I had lost my breath.

imageBut I stayed in that water. Others have rallied around, providing steady support. Together we have offered one another prayers and encouragement. And stroke by stroke, we have seen progress. This week, at the Democratic National Convention, a major US political party nominated a woman as their candidate for president. I know two women personally who were born before women could vote in this country, who now this fall will have the opportunity to cast their ballots for a woman as President.

And you, what water of justice work are you swimming in? Is it environmental justice, anti-racism, economic equity? How is your breath? May you be surrounded with those who will encourage you, and may you say a prayer for those who are struggling. Hang in there. And know that I am praying for you.


june 2016 computer 004Instead of going to the gym or out for a run like I always do at noon on Mondays with my friend Larry who works at the Y, today I decide I will instead use this time to be efficient. I will use this time well to get some chores done and besides, I got my exercise in today, I biked into work this morning.  So I stand at my fancy new computer desk and open my email and am ready to start efficiently scanning, responding and deleting email messages from the past two day when I see an email about pictures that are being shared with me from a recent event.  I think that is a very nice thing that someone wants to do.  I wonder if someone took pictures of the worship service yesterday.  I am thinking about writing a blog about that service.  Perhaps, I could use some of the pictures in my blog.  I click on the blue Shutterfly link and suddenly my computer screen is flashing and my speakers are blaring:


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I know at this very moment that my credit card numbers are being downloaded by men in purple facemasks with gold trim who are running to the bank and emptying my accounts.  I know my car at this very moment is being broken into and my house ransacked.

“WARNING! WARNING!” my computer screams.

I think about my trip coming up in two days.  I think about having no credit cards or plane tickets. I wonder how I can take care of all this in the day before I leave.  I wonder what “personal information” means.  I wonder why someone would want to download my pictures.  I think about how I have no time to deal with all this.


The screen is flashing.  I can’t see any number to call.

“ARGH!  WHAT CAN I DO!”  I yell back at the computer.

“WARNING!  WARNING!” It shouts back.

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My colleague Rebecca rushes to the door, “WHAT!  WHO! WHO DIED!”


“WHAT?  WHAT?  WHO DIED?” she asks again.

“OH, I’M SORRY, NO ONE DIED” I yell over the blaring speakers.



“I hate when that happens”, Rebecca says, “You should call David.”

I try calling the office.  One, two, three extensions.  No one is answering.


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Perhaps our whole computer system is shutting down.  Perhaps men in purple facemasks with gold trim are rushing into the church office at this very moment.  Years ago I shut down our entire computer system by opening a little odd message that said “I LOVE YOU”.  I thought it was a bit odd, wondering who loved me.  I sent the “I love you” virus on to our entire data base.  I think, I can’t believe I did this again.

One more “ARGH! WHAT HAVE I DONE!” before I turn and walk down to the office.  David, our Church Administrator, is in his office. I apologize for opening some link that is now making my computer yell at me and is stealing all of my credit cards, pictures, personal information and perhaps infecting our whole computer system.  He walks with me upstairs to my office.  He turns off the speakers.  He says he will call the computer techs.  He doesn’t seem too concerned.  He offers a laptop so I can keep on working on my project.  I can’t imagine working on another computer at a time like this.  I tell him that I will take the break I should have taken earlier instead.

June 2016 003

Instead of going for the run I planned, I drive to the running store.  I choose a new pair of running shoes exactly like the last pair I bought and the ones before that and the ones before that.  They are the kind I always buy.  The kind where there are no surprises. I am relieved that my credit card still works. I wonder if I will get a call asking if this is a legitimate purchase. I think of George W. telling us we all needed to go shopping in response to 9/11.  I think, sometimes shopping helps.  No, I think it is getting outside and out of the office that helps.  Getting away from a computer that is yelling helps.  Anything helps to make me forget what has happened.

I return to the office.  The computer techs have been called and say, alas, that nothing dire has occurred.  I opened what was just a particularly loud and scary spam message.  Yes, I think, it did its trick.  And somewhere someone is laughing for getting me to jump.  I think about who would do something like this.  I think about forgiveness. I think how forgiveness is no easy matter.

june 2016 computer 006

And yes, I am relieved.  For thankfully, no one died today. And as far as I know no one is running around showing off my sailing pictures.

I wonder.  I wonder what I’ll do the next time the screen starts flashing and the speakers start blaring, “WARNING!  WARNING!”  Will I panic?  Will I turn off the speakers and go to get help?  Will I call the number on the flashing screen and rattle off all my passwords and credit card numbers and personal information in the hopes of doing something, doing anything to make the shouting stop?

Or maybe, hopefully, before all this, I’ll remember that efficiency has its limits.  That sometimes the most efficient thing to do is to get out of the office and go for that run, to come back in an hour, clearer, collected, not nearly as likely to open strange sounding links, yell ARGH and make me and my colleagues jump.

Yes, maybe, I’ll go and try out those new shoes now.

June 2016 002

Plunging In

imageI am spending this week with my congregation. Not all of them, of course. But almost two hundred of us have gathered at the Seabeck Conference Center on Hood Canal for our summer church camp.

A few years back at this camp gathering, my friend Meighan and I started swimming across the little arm of the Hood Canal where Seabeck is situated. It is challenging to plunge into the cold salty water and head out across to the other side, about a quarter of a mile away.

This year we did our swim on the first day, just after lunch. As we were walking down to the water, we encountered a group of folks who were driving into town to run some errands. Our speaker for the week, Rev. Da Vita McAllister, was in the group.

The next day, just before the program began, Rev. Day walked over to me. “How was your swim?” she asked.

“It was cold,” I answered.

“Was it invigorating?” she asked.

I wanted to answer quickly, say yes, move on. But for some reason I was in a more reflective mood. Was it invigorating, I wonder? Well, it was cold. And I was very nervous about it. Swimming in such water sometimes takes my breath away so thoroughly that I think I will sink. In fact, this year, when I discovered I had accidentally left my wetsuit at home, I even wondered if I would get in the water at all. Right up to the moment I stood at the edge of the water, I was thinking maybe I wouldn’t swim this year. “Invigorating” isn’t quite the word I would use.

“No.” I responded.

She seemed a little surprised by my answer. I was surprised too. “Then why do you do it?” she asked.

imageAgain, I wanted to answer fast. I am in training. I am getting ready for a triathlon. Swimming is on my training schedule for today. But I suspect there is a deeper answer. I just don’t know what it is.

I shrugged. I looked over to Meighan who was sitting nearby. “Meighan,” I called. “Why do we do it?”

She shrugged too.

Then the conversation was over. There was nothing I could say that quickly, and the morning program was about to begin.

But I was still thinking about the question. Why do I come to Seabeck planning to plunge in the icy cold Hood Canal, hoping I can swim across? Why do I worry about it and wish I wasn’t doing it and jump in anyway?

The answer isn’t that simple. It has something to do with training, yes. But then, why do I do these triathlons? I suspect some of it is about the reward of having a very specific goal and accomplishing it. So many of the things I do in my life are intangible, unmeasurable, and unfinished. At the end of a day of ministry, how do I know if I have done enough? How do I know, with all the choices I have made that day, if I have attended to the right things? And of the things I have of necessity left undone, what will happen now? Do I ever really finish anything? Do I even know where the finish line is?

In a triathlon, there is a clear finish line. In the training, there is a specific goal. When I wade in the water of the Hood Canal, I have a clear intention, and I can tell when I have done it. I wanted to swim from here to there and back again. When I am in the middle of my swim, I know how far I still have to go. When it is finished, I can look back over the water and see how far I went. And being in that cold, cold water forces me to live very much in my body, and very much in the moment.

image“Why do you do it?” Rev. Day was saying again. But this time she was asking the whole group of us.

This week at Seabeck we have been in training for racial justice. Rev. Day is here from the Connecticut Conference of the Untied Church of Christ to lead us in that training. We have been learning a common language. Racism is prejudice combined with power. It is both conscious and unconscious. It is personal and it is institutional. We all, every one of us, swim in its poisoned waters. But we are here this week to unmask racism- to see it, to hear it, to feel it. And then, to stop it.

In that moment, Rev. Day was inviting us to look inward. “Why are you here?” she asks us. “This work is not easy,” she explains. “If you don’t know why you are doing it, you will have nowhere to stand when the work gets so hard you think you can’t go on. This road is long. If you don’t know why you do it, you will burn out and give up long before the finish line is in sight.”

She tells her own story of why she is in this work. Then she invites us to turn to our neighbor and tell them why we are here.

I think again of the cold water of the Hood Canal, and the anxiety I feel standing at the water’s edge. I think of my call to ministry, my absolute conviction that the Gospel is about love and justice. I think of my deep sense of connection with all of creation. I think of the racism that continues to poison our nation. I think of last week, and the families of Alton Sterling and Philando Castille. I think of very specific people I care about, who also swim in these poison waters. And I think of myself and all the work ahead, within me and in the wider world. I stand at the edge of the work, uncertain and unsure. Then I take a deep breath and plunge in.


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