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!


june 2016 010Our Church Council voted in August to support a multi-year effort to understand race, racism and white privilege in our congregation and broader community through sacred study, conversation, community building and worship.  It’s an effort that reminds me of our church’s effort 25 years ago to understand sexual orientation and become an open and affirming congregation.  That work changed our congregation and it changed lives including my own. 

Although looking honestly with care at my own prejudices, assumptions and fears is challenging and at times overwhelming, I am also grateful to be invited into work with others that helps me look more deeply at myself so that I can be more fully present with  others.  Together, I hope and pray that in these conversations to come we all may open our hearts, risk sharing our stories and show a way of life where none of us need be afraid. 

june 2016 007


On the Night that Philandro Was Killed

On the night that Philandro was killed

and the night after Alton was killed

in a terrible, terrible week of so many such weeks and months and years,


On the night that Philandro was killed

after being pulled over by the police when his tail light was out,

she tells me about the time two weeks ago when she was pulled over.


She tells me she didn’t know why, what she had done wrong.

Tells me it is scary to be a black woman alone in a car with two white officers approaching.

Tells me she texted her friend and told her where she was and what was going on so someone could tell her mom in case something happened.

She tells me she was shaking.

june 2016 034


She tells me as they approached the car one of the officers had his hand by his gun.

Tells me the officers asked for her registration and she said it is in my glove compartment and I need to reach across to the glove compartment and take it out is that alright, can I do that?

Tells me that the officers asked for her driver’s license and she said it is in the backpack in the back seat and I need to reach for it.  She asked if that would be alright to do that, to reach for her bag.

She tells me she kept one hand on the wheel so that they could see her hands at all times.


She tells me she moved slowly, very slowly.

Tells me she tried to keep breathing.

Tells me she was so afraid.

She tells me she shakes still remembering that day.

august 2016 178

She tells me about being afraid of things I have never been afraid of, worries about things I never worry about, thinks about things I have never thought about.

Tells me she crosses the sidewalk when people that look like me come walking down the street, afraid of what they might do to her.

Tells me her mom calls and texts and calls her again if she is not home when she was supposed to get home.

She tells me that her mom asks if she is safe and tells her to be careful – to be careful of people that look like me.


She tells me she is afraid.

Tells me she is afraid to go out at night.

Tells me she is afraid that her outspoken ways may get her in trouble.

She tells me she has learned to keep herself in check – her Spirt, her forthrightness, her anger, her truth, her Spirit.

july 2016 013

I have known her since she was a little girl.

Loved her spunk and drive, her forthrightness and Spirit.

Feel sad and angry thinking of her alone and afraid, tired and worn out, locked in her home because she is afraid to go out – afraid of people that look like me.


I try to understand.  I tell her that I want to.

I throw her words like Courage and Hope, Love and Understanding but they all fall flat,

fall down like birds that cannot fly, cannot catch wind and help her to soar beyond this fear, this despair, this weariness and aloneness.


I don’t know what to do.

I ask her what I can do.

I tell her I will check in with her again soon.


Today, this new morning, I remember our call.

I wonder how my life in ways I have not reflected on and have not wanted to see are keeping her down.

I wonder if I cannot give Hope until my life shows Hope,

Cannot speak of change until my life shows change,

Cannot run to console until I seek to understand.

Cannot praise a future opening into joy, into light and delight, into freedom and blessing and gift until I do the work that ensures she can be safe and walk again, unafraid.

Cannot find a way until I pick up the phone, check in, begin the conversation again.

august 2016 010



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 drawings 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 room I 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 a 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 often 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

august 2016 182

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.

august 2016 183

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.

august 2016 179

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.

august 2016 185

So many questions, so many different worlds.

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

august 2016 181

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.

%d bloggers like this: