Lost in Translation

january-2016-277She asks me to join her for the lecture at the Japanese Studies Department.

She says she thought it might help us understand each other better.

We’re late and get lost on the way, winding our way down little paths between brick buildings.

At last we find the right building but can’t find the room.

We ask an old man in a tweed jacket for directions.

We walk down long gray titled corridors.


The halls echo with our footsteps.

We hear voices ahead, see the small flyer taped to the door,

“Translating in Two Directions:  An Evening with Jay Rubin and Motojuki Shibata.”


The small lecture room is full.  We see a couple of empty chairs in the second row.

We clomp down the gray steps, squeeze by knees, step over colorful shoes to the last empty seats at the edge of the room.

I help her take off her coat.

I take off my own.

I pull up the little wood swivel desk at the side of the chair.

I pull out my white lined pad, scrounge in my backpack for a pen.


The two old men sit on stools.

Rubin has translated the novels of Haruki Murakami into English.

Motojuki Shibata has translated Rubin’s novel, The Sun Gods, into Japanese.


The less you think, the better a translator you are, Rubin begins.

Shibata nods, Indeed, translation is not hard. Translation is merely a detailed recreation of what goes on in your heart.

Rubin nods, Yes, It’s intuitive. 


It’s a mystery to be in a relationship with someone whose first language is another language.  It’s a wonder to be in a relationship with someone who comes from another culture, another world.


The other day, we had just left a play.

I said, What did you think?

She said, I didn’t get it.

I thought, I bet she doesn’t understand 90% of what I say.  I bet she hasn’t understood a thing I’ve been talking about all this time.  


Later, I asked her about the play again. I asked her what she didn’t understand.

She told me she didn’t understand the strong Southern dialect.

She told me she missed some of the words.

Then she told me what the play was about.

She told me how all the characters were afraid.  She told me how none of them could understand each other.  She told me about things in the play I had missed and never seen.


Here, in the lecture hall, someone asks a question at the back of the room.

I turn to see who’s talking.

Almost everyone in the room is Japanese.  There are only a few other white faces here.

I didn’t notice that almost everyone was Japanese when we came in.

When we hurried in late all I saw was the back of many black haired heads.



I remember last January on the first morning in Japan, I ran around looking for forks.   Then I remembered, I’m in Japan, and that container of things that I’d mistaken as pencils were in fact chopsticks.

Oh, yeah, I laughed aloud, Japan.

No forks, chopsticks.  



I have traveled to many strange places around the world.

I have never traveled to as strange a place as Japan.

A place where every little thing you do is ringed with ritual – greetings and goodbyes, the beginning and ending of a meal.  Bows and blessings, palms resting gently together.

The otherness pervades every aspect of life.


I learned to take a shower sitting on a little stool and use a little blue towel to scrub myself clean.

I learned how to eat sushi and sashimi, shabu shabu, yakitori, and floating tofu.  I tasted many things I had never tasted before, an immense variety of textures and tastes.


Over my week in Japan, I eventually stopped looking for forks.

I quieted my longing for the familiar and let the strangeness of Japan speak to me.

I learned to embrace the uncomfortable wonder of being in another world where life in every detail is constructed differently.


One morning, for the New Year ritual, she knelt before the little altar for her ancestors in her family home.

She lit the incense stick, rang a bell, bowed.

Then we bustled off for Sunday morning worship at her Anglican Church built in the design of a Buddhist temple.

After church, we visited a Buddhist temple.

She showed me how to wash my hands, rinse my mouth using the bamboo ladle at the entrance to the temple.


We walked through parks and temple grounds.  She pointed out the green of the pine trees, the blooming pink camellias, the plum and cherry trees that will blossom in other seasons.  For everything, a season.  For every season, a flowering.  In everything the natural world is intertwined.


“What do you smell?” she asked as we walked through a dark concrete underpass below the roadway.

“Nothing” I replied.

“Exactly,” she said.  “Nothing.  No smell.  This is what I miss about Japan.”




The city streets packed, the trains full and everything is quiet.

So quiet.  No loud voices, or honking horns.

No angry fists raised from the white gloved taxi drivers.

No blasting music from the stores on the street.

Quiet. So quiet.

Once in a while, a little white ambulance passed.  It had a pleasant little siren.  The little microphone on the roof announced which way the ambulance turned.


In my week in Japan, I learned to say hardly a word.

I learned to bow, to bow again and again to all of the wonder.


On our last day, she visited her mother’s grave.

She bowed at the entrance to the cemetery.

Drew two buckets of water and a scrub brush and washed the grave.

Gathered leaves and pulled weeds and took them to the place where they will be burned.

Scattered water on ancient graves for those whose names have long been lost.

Bowed again.


I know the longing that we might speak the same common language, laugh at the same jokes, love the same food, understand the plays we attend in the same way.  And I am learning the wonder of the strangeness, the otherness between us.




Recently, I officiated at a wedding for a young couple.

I was reminded again how weddings are often full of the language of “two becoming one”, one heart, one mind.

I wondered if it every really happens.



Perhaps we are all mysteries to each other and will remain so.  Perhaps no amount of common life, shared experiences or mutual understanding can remove our “strangeness” from each other.


Perhaps yes, the hope of marriage, as with all of our relationships, is not to remove the “otherness” but to learn instead to live with it, be curious about it, and try to love it, the “otherness”, the “strangeness” in each other. (Arthur McGill, “Dying Unto Life: Arthur McGill on New God, New Death, New Life”, edited by David Cain, Cascade Books, 2013, pp. 143-45.)


The lecture is over.

I have been scribbling notes and drawing pictures.

I have been thinking of many things.

I put down my little desk.

Tuck my pad and pen into my backpack.

We rise to leave.


I wonder what she heard.

I wonder what she understood that I did not.


I help her put on her coat.  I put on my own.

We greet friends.  She bows.  I shake hands.


Maybe translation is not so hard after all.

Maybe it’s more like a dance, like a play, like the imagination that inspires the drawing of a picture, the writing of a poem.

Maybe it’s the detailed recreation of what goes on in our hearts.



We take hands, walk out into the night to find our way home.



The Sheep Quest

imageI am just back from a pilgrimage to Iona. This tiny Scottish island in the inner Hebrides is said to be the place where St. Columba brought Christianity from Ireland to Scotland. Iona is called by many a “thin place,” that is, a place where our physical experience of reality and our awareness of a deeper spiritual reality are so close they can almost touch. It is imagined in a thin place that we might be able to reach out and take hold of the eternal.

That concept of thin places is an intriguing one to me. It suggests that there are geographies in our lives where our sense of something deeper and bigger than our individual being is present and available. That is one of the reasons people go on pilgrimages – to reach those places of “deeper and bigger.”

Before I headed off to Iona, I had put together a little booklet on the sheep of that far away isle. I wrote about that in my blog post, “Sheep Nerd.” I was surprised by the reaction to that post. Although I had speculated that the topic was boring to my fellow pilgrims, many of them said they were actually intrigued by my pre-trip presentation on sheep.

So when we all arrived on Iona, I invited my fellow pilgrims to take their booklet and see how many of the six breeds listed there they could spot. I made the promise that if they saw at least four different kinds of sheep on Iona, they would get a prize. I am a sucker for prizes. In this case, I went to the Iona Craft Shop, where the owner Michael had been so my booklet preparation, and bought little Iona pins.

Then I began bugging the pilgrims. “How many different sheep breeds have you seen?” I would ask. The answer was often, “I don’t know. There are sheep everywhere.” Sometimes the answer was a bit more refined. “I saw some with black faces and speckled legs. What kind are those again?” And then there were some folks who actually took the little booklet out into the field and began hunting for different breeds.

imageThe Scotties are easy to spot on Iona. They are the ones you see by just looking up. They are indeed the ones with “black faces and speckled legs.” They also have horns – the ewes and the rams both. The Leicesters are probably the next easiest to find. They are not far from the Iona Abby, where we were all staying, and just by walking around, pilgrims will see them. And then there are the charming Zwartbles. They are distinctively black and white, and I can point any visitor up the road to where they will be found. So that makes three.

It takes a diligent sheep searcher to find more than three different kinds of sheep though. The texels are probably the best bet for the fourth breed. They are all white, and fluffy, and they too can be found not far from the Abby.

By the second day of our pilgrimage, I had spotted these four different kinds of sheep. But I still had not seen the last two in my booklet- the Suffolk and the Hebridean. I was told they are there, but search as I might, I could not spot them.

I asked my fellow pilgrims if any of them had seen either of those two breeds. “I’m not sure,” some said. “I’ve seen a lot of sheep. “I saw some black ones up this road a bit. Are they Hebridean?” “I saw some gray ones,” one person said. “What kind are they?” Hmmm.

It was on Tuesday, the day of our “off road” pilgrimage, a pilgrimage within a pilgrimage, that I finally spotted a Suffolk sheep on Iona. The off road pilgrimage is an all-day walk around the island, led by folks from the Iona community. Our small group of UCC pilgrims joined the larger group of pilgrims for this island journey. As we walked on gravel roads and trails, we stopped at certain places for readings, conversation, and song. It is a wonderful way to learn some history of the island, hear some tall tales, and build community.

In addition to the off-road pilgrimage, there wss a shorter, less rigorous on-road pilgrimage that day. While the off-roaders hike up over hills, across meadows, all the way down to St. Columba Bay and back, the on-road pilgrims stay on the paved roads and meet up with the off-roaders for tea and biscuits at about 2 o’clock.

imageSo there we all were, the off-roaders and the on-roaders, enjoying our hot tea as the rain drizzled down, when I looked out over the field and spotted a black faced, black-legged sheep among the Leicesters. I looked closer and saw, yes! There was a Suffolk. I was so excited that I called folks over to see. I specifically searched out all of my fellow UCC pilgrims with their sheep spotting booklets and pointed across to the Suffolk. We gathered in excitement – well it felt like excitement to me – and other pilgrims who were not familiar with our sheep search also came over to see what we were looking at. “It’s a Suffolk sheep” I said. “I think it might be a ram in there with the ewes.” Soon there was a crowd of us looking across at that one sheep.

All of which brings me back to what it means to be in a thin place. Standing there, looking across the field at one sheep in the midst of a virtual sea of sheep, I felt the presence of the mystery of life. All we had seen of the island- the rocks that are among the oldest on our planet, the rough waves churning against the shore, moving in, moving out, the peat bogs building for centuries, the seventh century crosses and the fifteenth century nunnery, the heather and the bracken, and there I was, at one brief moment of time, focused on one sheep. As if knowing that a moment can only be a moment, the sheep that was the center of our attention moved away. The group watching dispursed to our seperate pilgrimages- some on-road, some off.

In the days that followed, I searched for the Hebridian sheep. The rumor was that they were at the north end of the island, and a few pilgrims thought they might have seen them from a distance. I walked out that way twice, the second time as rain was coming down, looking for them, but I never found them.

Maybe that is how a pilgrimage should be. Some of what you are looking for, you find. Some of what you are looking for remains merely a rumor, something for another time. And in all of it, there are those moments, when you know for certain you are a part of something deeper and bigger then you can see. You are standing in thin place.


img_1540On Sunday, October 2 Debra Jarvis, Catherine Foote, Mary Ellen Smith, Nancy Hannah, Kris Garratt, Beth Amsbary, Sean and Teresa and Lenore Owens brought St. Francis’ blessing to the streets in offering blessings to dogs and cats and other critters and the humans that care for them for the gift they are to our life and world.


Debra Jarvis also invited great groups working with pets in our community to join the festivity – Project Canine, Saving Our Seniors, and Old Dog Haven.


Accompanying the humans for blessings on Sunday were Birdie, Dash, Maggie, Marcia Jean, Mac, Tater Tot, Seraphina, Milo, Tinkerbell, Rufus, Pearlie and assorted others!


“Tater Tot, I bless you in the name of the Creator. And may you and Judi enjoy life together sharing love and kindness to all you meet!  Amen!”

It was church on the streets.  The church that has gifts to offer and share and give away.  Tomorrow’s church won’t be a place which you have to come into in order to receive the gifts that have been entrusted to us.


Today’s church needs to be the place like it was on Sunday that takes says, “Hey!  We have gifts to share!” and brings the gifts of blessing and presence, care and love out to the streets.

“People stood around and visited eating treats and feeding canine treats to their dogs. Just a great mood and the two hours flew by. We gave out the prayers of St. Francis in little rolls of paper – suitable quite suitable for fetch!”   Rev. Debra Jarvis  img_1543

Listen!  The dogs are still yapping about it!

Thank you Debra!  Thanks for inspiring us to get out and share a gift of blessing today!



The Prayer of St. Francis

Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is error, truth;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much
Seek to be consoled, as to console;
To be understood, as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life.





picture1Perhaps, it was in Florida, at one of those large church conferences when I first met Charles.  Wherever it was, it was a long time ago, some twenty years, when I first heard this gray haired man in a tweed jacket put together words about the story of his life in a way that I had never before heard:  Scholar and Sculptor.  Artist and Activist.  Pastor and Prophet.  I remembered all these years later the ancient stories he re-imagined in clay.  I remembered those amazing faces he crafted – longing, hoping, despairing, and dreaming.  I remembered especially Charles’ hands, his large hands, as he shaped his stories and told of his craft and opened my imagination.


Years later, another coast and another time, we were looking for artists to come and share and teach with us.  I remembered Charles.  Thanks to our Artist in Residence Kris Garratt we found Charles, retired now from his work with the Office of Church and Society in the national setting of the United Church of Christ.  Two years ago, Charles and his wife Carol McCollough came to Seattle.  I took them to our Senior Retreat, I preached with Charles, I took them sailing.  That spring they invited me to visit them at their little farm outside of Princeton, New Jersey.


As spring warmth poured through the windows, we sat around their old worn table in their old farmhouse kitchen and shared wonderful food and many stories.  Charles walked me through the old barn that had become his studio.  I’d never seen a place like it.  It was like a museum – it was a museum, of one man’s craft of turning stories into sculptures, making stories into art, the way Charles had always seen and pictured and knew the stories.   A beaming young girl on ice skates.  A smiling pig with wings.  Crucifixes and parables – faces of wonder, agony, fear, hope.  It was the hope most of all, the hope that despite all that shown through.  The truth of life as Charles crafted it – not as it might be, but as it is.  I watched Charles hands as he led me through and shared the stories.

skater-2I told him that he had a story that needed to be shared.  I shared a dream of what a wondrous thing it would be to have a filmmaker follow him through and hear the stories he had shared with me.  That winter I returned.  We walked through the barn together.  Charles told his stories to the filmmaker.

may-2015-022Charles and Carol have shared that they have seen words put together here at University Congregational Church in ways they have never encountered in quite the same way before – art and faith, art and worship, art as a lived sharing at the heart of our life together as church.  They offered a loan of Charles’ sculptures, for us to use and to share with the wider community.  We made plans to receive it – a repository of art – enlivening, re-visioning, re-imaging of story as only art can.

picture3From October 7-9 our Lecture Series is featuring Biblical scholar Stephen Patterson.  Patterson writes, “Charles McCollough’s art captures the drama, humor, and irony of Jesus’ parables that no prose interpretation can.”

We hope you will join us here at University Congregational UCC in Seattle for an art reception to view his sculptures and to meet Charles and Carol on Friday night, October 7 from 5-7 pm. 

He will also be speaking here after worship on Sunday, October 9 at 11:30 as well.

may-2015-029I am grateful for the blessing of my friendship with Charles and Carol.  Grateful for the blessing of words that are generous gift, gracious hospitality, dear friends, amazing grace.


Learning to Swim


Here, at the river,

I taught you to swim.


Held my arms out to you

as I stepped slowly,

ever so slowly away,

testing the tension

between courage and fear.


You pushed off,

exuberant splashing

as I called confidence

to you across the water.


Listen –

I am calling you still.


Peter Ilgenfritz

892 893


“It’ll Be Fun!”

img_8093I ask my sister, one more time, just to make sure I heard her right….Nan, you would like me to do – what?

Drive to Portland during rush hour this Thursday, pick me up at the airport and run 199 miles.  

Run 199 miles! By myself!  Are you kidding?

No, that would not be fun!  We’ll be on a relay team with 10 other people.  It’ll be fun! 

What kind of “fun” people would do this kind of “fun” thing?

About 12,000 mainly lanky, extremely well fit young people in their 20’s and 30’s.  And yes, a few middle agers like us – and even some old people!   img_5657

How long will this “fun” 199 mile race take?

About 30 hours.

30 hours!  That doesn’t sound fun!

Oh it will be!  We’ll start at 1:30 on Friday afternoon and finish by 7:00 on Saturday night – just in time for a great fun dinner!  We’ll each run three segments of the race.    


Yes, you’ll run three segments of about 6-8 miles.  

When will I run these “segments”?

After I run us down off Mount Hood on Friday afternoon, you’ll run us up a big hill and though it will be about 95 degrees….



It’ll be fun!  We’ll pass you a bag of ice along the way and cheer you on!

And then you’ll run at 3:15 on Saturday morning when it will be a nice cool 55 degrees…

What!  We run at night?


It’s fun!  I have head lamps and knuckle lights you can flash at the trucks to keep them out of your way as you run down Route 30.

Knuckle lights?

You’ll see. They’re fun!  And finally on Saturday afternoon all you’ll have to do is run 3 miles up a mountain and 3 miles down and then you’re done!


And a family will be running a hamburger stand out of their garage just where you finish!  How fun! 

How will we get around for all these “fun” activities?

We’ll rent vans that we’ll decorate with our names, our road kill and fun things like that.


Road kill!

Oh, that’s just a fun way of keeping track of the number of runners our team will pass. 

I’m afraid I’ll be “road kill” for a lot of other teams!

Don’t worry!  You’ll do fine!  It’s just for fun! 

So, where will we sleep after all this “fun” running?

In the van.

In the van?  But we’ll be sweaty and smelly after running….Where will we change our clothes?

In the van.


Where will we shower? Don’t tell me “in the van”!

No! Of course not!  We won’t.  Instead, we’ll use towels and baby wipes to clean ourselves. 


It’s like camping – but without the tent and sleeping bag and mattress pad!  It’s fun! 

Where will we eat? No, don’t tell me –

In the van.

And what delicious food are you promising me we’ll eat?

I’ve got granola bars and Gatorade and we’ll have Cup-of-Noodles on Saturday after your night run.  Fun things like that.  


And just when will we be able to sleep?

When we can.  We’ll get out to cheer our team members on as they start and finish their races.

And just how do you expect I’ll get back to work at church on Sunday morning?

We’ll catch a bus to Portland from the coast on Saturday night and you’ll leave at 4:30 on Sunday morning to drive back to Seattle – just in time for church! 

And what do I get for taking part in all this “fun”?

A tee shirt – and a medal!



It’ll be fun!

It’ll be fun?

Yes!  It’ll be fun!  Very fun!


Doing Differently

september-2016-020Last week it would have been different.  Last week I would have said that I believed that this was a great opportunity for us to do it differently.  This week, I know, it’s true.  Doing differently works.

Last week the challenge was clear.  Here’s the backstory:

My clergy colleague Catherine was leaving for a few weeks of well planned for vacation and to lead a church trip to Iona.

My clergy colleague Amy was beginning family leave as she welcomes a new foster daughter into her family.

My colleague Rebecca was finishing her position here as our beloved Children’s Ministry Coordinator for the past seven years.  Our interim coordinator, Leslie would begin next week.

Oh yes, and next week was September, the beginning of a season of newness here at church.


Sometimes when things change and when challenges are clear it can feel like a perfect storm and a time to buckle the hatches and head for shore.  Sometimes, yes, there is a time for just that.

But sometimes, such a time is instead a time to imagine doing things differently.

Sometimes it’s clear that we will fail if with try to keep doing things the way we have always done them.  We know clearly what will happen then: stress and burnout, overload and anxiety.

So what if we did it differently?


How might it be if we embraced this time – a time in all of our lives full of challenge and change in so many ways – and saw this time as gift and opportunity for us to think about doing things differently?

Like so many churches our own congregation is living into a new church structure. Like many church’s we have found that some of the familiar ways of being church with a dozen 12 member boards that meet monthly just doesn’t meet the realities of our lives today and doesn’t help us move forward the ministries we are called to today.

We’ve needed to figure out new ways to try on doing ministry together. We’ve had to embrace that some ways we try will fail.  We’ve had to embrace the truth that failing is a gift and one of the best ways to learn what can work.   We’ve had to embrace the gift of experimenting.september-2016-013

This fall, I look forward to exploring in my own life and in our life together as church new ways we might carry out our responsibilities for and with each other.  I am excited about what we might learn.

I’ve learned already…

When we are clear about our purpose, our imaginations can soar about how we might carry that out.

When we recognize that we really can’t do it all alone, we can risk letting go of control and asking others to join us knowing they will bring in new ideas and new ways of doing things.

When we recognize that the skills of thinking differently are something we all can cultivate, we can become creative people ourselves and not leave the creative thinking to others.


As Adam Grant writes in his book Originals:  How Non-Conformists Move the World, all of us can learn to spot opportunities for change, recognize a good idea, overcome anxiety and ambivalence and make suggestions that can be heard and embraced for doing it differently.   He’s given me such courage and encouragement to think and do differently.

So, it’s September.  And what a great time to begin.  To think different, be different, imagine different about the ways we have always done things.   To live our faith and be part of the ongoing newness and creativity that is God and that God is bringing to life with us in the world.

So what about it?  I’d love to hear your stories of how this month you tried on doing something familiar in a new way.  What worked?  What didn’t?  What wondrous failures did you have?  What did you learn along the way?  Send me your stories and I’ll collect them and share a blog post on what we learned!

Blessed September experimenting!


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