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Betting on the weather

By Tom Ehrich

I bet on the weather today.

I bet that, if I worked extra hard to fill ruts with topsoil and to distribute grass seed and then straw, tomorrow's 50% chance of rain would become 100%.

And then God's "almighty hand" would indeed feed and water the "good seed" I had scattered.

Am I testing God? No, just hoping for a timely rain. But if not tomorrow, then maybe Sunday (80% chance). I do what I can. And if it isn't a great result this spring, there's always fall to try again.

I learned something on my Fresh Day on the Road pilgrimage this year. If I miss one turn, I can take a different turn later. If I sail past a promising vista, I can pay more attention next time. Or the time after that.

I don't add meaning to the day by doing everything perfectly. I need to try my best, but not get uptight if my best isn't good enough, or maybe not even available. God is the source of meaning, not the works of my hands.

Finding the balance between trying hard and trusting God is difficult. I believe in hard work and extra effort. I think the world is better when people extend themselves. But it is God who gives the increase. It is God who forgives failure. It is God who helps us keep on trying.

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Let's clean up our language

By Tom Ehrich

I think we need to get squared away on some of the language we use to talk about faith.

First, "evangelical Christianity": the mantle is claimed by right-wing religious folks, but their political, ethical and cultural perspectives have nothing to do with "evangelical," meaning people who consider Scripture authoritative, conversion paramount, and getting right with God to be a matter of faith, not accomplishments.

Quoting selected passages of Scripture to justify one's bigotry doesn't qualify as taking Scripture seriously. It trivializes Scripture. Their yearning for a former disposition -- women in their place, gays in the closet, people of color in the back of the bus, America entitled to rule the world -- doesn't come remotely close to God's own yearning for justice and mercy, Jesus' yearning for oneness, inclusion, love, peace, feeding and caring for the least.

"Radical liberalism": compared to the Tea Party, progressive Christians might seem "radically liberal." But we fall woefully short of the radical liberalism that Jesus himself demonstrated. I don't see either the Tea Party or the Episcopal Church getting serious about the Sermon on the Mount. We're all just trying to hold on to what we've got. We want to feel religious while doing so.

"Religious liberty": the freedom to hate and to exclude and to demonize isn't religious freedom. It is free speech protected by the Constitution. But religious freedom means something else entirely. It means keeping religion from poisoning the state, and the state from telling people what to believe. It protects each side from the excesses of the other. Same-sex marriage isn't an issue of religious liberty. It is a change in cultural perspective, perhaps of the law, that some religious people find offensive. But it doesn't impinge on their freedom. They can still hate all they want. They can even baptize their hatred by calling it "Christian." That's nonsense, of course, but the Constitution protects anyone's right to be stupid.

"Conservative," "progressive," "Bible-believing," "catholic" -- any of the labels we apply to religious people and religious institutions. Labels lie. Some of the most liberal Christians I know have been Baptists, who usually get tagged "conservative." Some of the most conservative, corporatist, money-hungry, elite-fawning Christians I know reside within the Presbyterian, Episcopal and Lutheran traditions.

We are individuals trying to work out our relationships with God. Labels don't begin to describe the journeys we are on. If anything, the heavy weight and convenient shorthand of labeling gets in our way, preventing us from doing the necessary work of saying one's prayers and thinking one's thoughts and contemplating one's relationship with God. Faith isn't vicarious experience. It's conversion -- personal transformation, turning one's life over to God.

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Hey parents, relax!

By Tom Ehrich

During last week's stay with our California family, I marveled at the patience, tenderness and wisdom our son and his wife are showing as parents.

I have the same experience watching our New York-based oldest son and his wife care for their daughter.

They are figuring it out. With our help as their parents, perhaps, but most of it they are learning-by-doing on their own. Little things like giving a bath, setting a bedtime routine, doing the morning dance, reading aloud, playing on the floor, letting the child fall and pick himself up -- they are finding their way, as my wife and I found our way with them.

Many young parents today seem insecure and therefore prone to over-compensation, over-protection, and over-managing their children. Research shows how much damage the "helicopter parent" and "tiger mom" do to their children. but still they do it, because they are so needy.

Time will tell how children raised by insecure parents fare in life. My guess is they will do okay. Children are durable creatures. And God doesn't leave them comfortless.

I think it is the insecure parent who loses out. Just as the career-driven and distracted parent loses out. They don't see the minor miracles of a child's discoveries, or the unique way their child deals with falling, learning, and idle time.

They also become over-invested in their children -- taking away from their marriage or partnership and from their own growth, and setting up a nightmare of living through the child and requiring the child's approval. Children can't possibly bear that much responsibility for their parent's well-being.

I think children need to try new things, fail early and often, stumble and fall, get back up and stumble again. They don't need shouts of "Great job!" for doing something basic like eating their carrots. They don't need gushing praise for each small success, or even for large successes.

They don't need to be told, "Be careful! You'll fall!" They learn to be careful by falling, not by being afraid to disappoint their parents.

I suspect most parents figure this out. Their children figure it out, too. We could all benefit from just relaxing.

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Looking beyond sunny and 70

By Tom Ehrich

SAN MATEO, CA -- California time, and the living is easy.

Not a cloud in the sky, balmy temperatures, serene town, calm people, plenty of good coffee.

It makes me nervous. I don't know how to behave. I am used to the hardship of weather extremes in the Midwest and Northeast, edgy communities, irritable people.

Life in this lovely town in Silicon Valley feels too easy. It helps, of course, that I am a visitor and not having to face outrageous housing costs or one-hour commutes on a bump-em car slalom known as US 101. Even so, this is easy living compared to our home in Upstate New York.

I find myself missing the mud, the lingering snow, the grayness that winter leaves behind on cars, homes, even on people. I miss the challenge. I even miss the ugliness. It feels odd when everything around me is beautiful.

I am reminded of a grand hotel where I stayed in North Carolina. Everything about it -- from landscaping to check-in to elevators to rooms to restaurants -- was perfect. Nothing had been left undone.

I think of the hotels where I stayed on my recent cross-country drive. They were a motley set, ranging from a $49 Motel 6 to a $95 Comfort Inn. None was remotely perfect, and yet each had character and, with one exception, made me feel welcome. I admired the hotel manager who was treating his inn in the middle of poverty as a worthy establishment serving worthy travelers.

I have eaten in perfect restaurants, too. I find I prefer the quirky, worn-heel places serving everyday food to everyday people.

Many people come to expect perfection. They treat it as their due. I think they also become fragile -- unable to deal with grime and disappointed expectations. Some become mean toward the everyday that is sullying their tableaux.

Dealing with hardship builds up our capabilities. Challenge forms character. Failure is the best teacher. Hard times and hard seasons draw us closer to one another. Personal crises make us who we are.

California isn't perfect, of course. The stunning weather of recent months is the public face of a devastating drought. Work-life balance is difficult to attain here, because the cost of living is so high and employers so demanding. Loneliness, sadness, greed, worry -- they're all here.

So I learn to look beyond sunny and 70 and to see the challenges. They are what make life interesting.

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Back on the West Coast

By Tom Ehrich

SAN MATEO, CA -- Just five weeks after completing my 4,100-mile pilgrimage-by-car from San Mateo to New York, I find myself back in this lovely town in Silicon Valley visiting our son and his family live.

This time, I traveled 35,000 feet above the highways and towns of America. We got here efficiently and inexpensively. But I missed the rituals of long-distance driving. I hope to take the journey again soon, this time in warmer weather and following a northern route.

As you probably gleaned from my road trip writing, I am perplexed at the state of my homeland. On the coasts, things, on balance, seem healthy. People have jobs, attitudes are open and optimistic. Away from the coasts, I heard so much anger and hatred, much of it stirred up by Christian preachers. I heard despair and disdain.

I can see why young adults gravitate to the coasts, even though housing costs there are beyond outrageous. Who wants to start a career, launch a marriage, raise a family, and put down roots in areas filled with bigotry and economic uncertainty?

I know for a fact that there is plenty of life and opportunity in the heartland, as well as wonderful people. But, for now at least, the atmospherics present as negative.

For the next ten days, I plan to hunker down in the family life of my middle son, his wonderful wife and non-stop 16-month-old son. It's fun sitting on the sideline as they do the morning off-to-work, off-to-school scrum. I like their loving interactions.

I have great confidence in all three of our sons and their families. Crazy though the age might be, they seem level-headed and open-minded. I'm sure they aren't the only ones. Maybe that is the key: despite alarming atmospherics, good people are doing good things and raising good families. We just need to see them and encourage them.

The bigots can only win if we doubt goodness and turn fearful and inward.

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Response to Indiana law signals a hopeful moment

By Tom Ehrich

Little by little, the more-direct sun of spring is vanquishing the snow of this long winter, and grass is starting to emerge.

Something similar is happening in Indiana, where the darkness met behind closed doors to conspire against certain citizens in the name of religion.

Hatred prevailed for a time. But the more-direct sun began to shine. People took notice of what the Republican-controlled legislature and cowardly governor had done.

They began to speak out. Starting with leaders in the tech community (Salesforce, Apple) and, to my amazement, pillars of the sports establishment, citizens throughout Indiana and the nation condemned the so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act as little more than legalized discrimination.

Leaders of universities playing in Indianapolis this weekend for men's basketball honors and later for women's honors have spoken out against the law. Several states and cities, as well as numerous corporations, have banned official travel to a state where their employees and customers might face discrimination.

Politicians have joined the protest, including even the Republican mayor of Indianapolis. Now the governor himself is said to be exploring ways to "walk back" the legislation.

Religious leaders are acting. The Disciples of Christ is reconsidering plans to hold their national convention in Indianapolis. The head of Christian Theological Seminary, in Indianapolis, issued an eloquent condemnation of the RFRA as offensive in many ways, but especially because it violates the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Social media posts on the situation in Indiana are so numerous that there is hardly room left for cat videos.

This is what happens when the people speak. The direct sun of actual voices melts the wintry darkness of imagined outrage, as conspiracy theories, religious paranoia and angry-God scenarios are revealed as the fulminating of a small "base" inside the right-wing religious bubble.

Indiana's odious law might come or go, and the state will continue to reel under ridicule and disdain. But a tipping-point has been reached. People who know they have voice realize they need to use it for good, not just for commerce and amusement.

Social media mean more than cuteness. They are where people give voice to views on politics, public morality and religion. Anyone who thought religion was dead in the US has only to read the millions of social media posts on this religion-themed event.

Corporate leaders like Apple's Tim Cook realize they have an obligation to be community leaders, not just experts at separating people from their money.

University and college leaders -- always attentive to wealthy patrons -- realize they can't schedule endless fund-raising calls. They need to bring the academy's ethical, intellectual and political voice into the public square.

Even big-time athletic leaders like NCAA basketball, NFL football and NASCAR have a civic obligation. They need to do more than collect tickets and demand public funds to build new stadiums.

I take this as a hopeful moment. The religious right-wing is being exposed to a more-direct sun, and people of good will aren't sitting back and waiting in safe comfort for the bigots to run out of steam.

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Easter's context then and now

By Tom Ehrich

Easter always has a context.

The original took place in the context of Roman oppression of the known world, massive enslavement of defeated peoples, excessive wealth in the hands of a few, widespread ignorance, a corrupt emperor claiming to be God and God's corrupt people claiming to be righteous.

To that world, Jesus said hardly a word. He refused to defend himself from false accusations. He refused to curry favor with the powerful. To the wealthy he said, Give it away. To the righteous he said, Deny yourselves, and pick up your own cross. To the weak he said, Be strong. To the strong he said, Be weak. To outcasts he said, Welcome. To his accusers and tormentors he said, I forgive you.

Easter's context is much the same in 2015. Widespread oppression and enslavement, excessive wealth in the hands of a few, worsening ignorance, bigots claiming to serve God, the self-righteous claiming to revere God's truth, hatred declared holy, and what God does value -- love, mercy, justice, tolerance, peace -- declared expendable.

To our world Jesus has the same few words to say. Give it away, take up a cross, be strong, be weak, welcome, I forgive you.

If we could restrain our urge to shout on Easter Day, I think we could hear the silence of the empty tomb, the angel saying, "He is not here," and the risen Christ saying to his beloved, "Mary!"

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Was I there?

By Tom Ehrich

Palm Sunday, early morning. How will my new church observe this day?

With palm crosses and palm fronds, no doubt, and a procession of people singing "All glory laud and honor." Then we will shift gears to a somber reading of the Passion Gospel.

I won't complain if it is this way. All will be done as tradition and Prayer Book command. But I wish for more. I want to address the question, "Were you there when they crucified my Lord?"

Did I join the shouting, "Crucify him!" Not likely. But did I stand by feeling helpless and endangered when the powerful mocked and tormented God? Do I stand by today when they do the same -- as the wealthy and powerful always do?

I wrote a video script yesterday that left me troubled. How can a writer be troubled by his own words? When they end up revealing a truth he hadn't wanted to see, namely, that compromises with evil are normal and easy to make.

It takes unusual courage and faith to stand up to the darkness. Not a Sunday-go-to-church religion, but a deep and abiding conviction that shining light in the darkness is a calling worth risking everything.

And not a my-ox-is-being-gored-too attitude, but a conviction that watching out for the other guy is a calling worth risking everything.

Democracy is grounded in enlightened self-interest, and when it is allowed to work, democracy is a noble system. Faith is grounded in denial of self-interest, in a radical orientation toward the other, even the other whose words set your teeth on edge. Faith loves even enemies and victims and outcasts.

Faith doesn't mean religion, or religiosity, or religious tradition, and it certainly doesn't mean religious bullying. Faith steps into the darkness without a single one of those defenses.

Faith is happy to carry a palm cross in procession if that is what church friends want to do. But faith goes deeper, looks around at these church friends, and asks, Where is the darkness touching our lives, and what light can I shine?

And then, digging even deeper, faith looks outside, beyond the walls, and asks, Where is the darkness hurting God's children out there, and what light can I shine?

When faith is allowed to work, paradise opens.

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Stand up to "faith'based" discrimination

By Tom Ehrich

What happens, I wonder, when our leaders take the name of God "in vain," trying to baptize their preferences and claim God as their champion in the hunt for elective office?

This is surely what Moses meant when he passed along God's Ten Commandments. Number 3: you shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain. Number 2: you shall not make any graven images of the Lord your God. Number 9: you shall not swear falsely.

For "faith-and-values" folks who periodically get exercised about the absence of the Ten Commandments from courthouse walls, they are mighty casual about violating the commandments themselves.

It's like Sen. Ted Cruz asking students to imagine freedom at an event that they were required to attend so as to build an audience for the candidate. Or to imagine God forgetting God's primary concern for the "least of these," and instead to imagine God as hostile to readily available health care.

It's like my home state of Indiana passing a law that legalizes discrimination. They called it the "religious freedom" act, but it's origin and intent are to demonize all but white, heterosexual Christians.

So what will God do to such hypocrites? Smite them? Or more likely, raise up prophets to remind people what God actually did say, what God actually does value, and what our actions as people of God are supposed to be.

God has been down this road before. Tyrants and fools routinely claim God as their possession and themselves as God's truest friend. It works for a while, especially when people are afraid and the power-seeker is new. Over time, however, hypocrisy tends to Lose its allure.

Then the hypocrites double-down on repression, as they did to Jesus after false accusations stopped working and only raw power could stop him.

We have come to that point in American politics. Try religiosity as the basis for discrimination, self-aggrandizement and destruction of rights. And if that doesn't work, use raw power. Deny the vote to unwanted citizens. Buy the airwaves to spread lies. Buy legislators, governors and mayors, and hope to buy a president. The run-up to 2016 seems dominated by small chaps shouting, "Buy me!"

Rig the economy to benefit only a few. Ignore the chumps when they protest. Trash the environment. Undermine public education. Make health care unaffordable again. The negative actions go on and on, and hypocrisy isn't even required. Now it's, "I have the money, and you don't. Stand aside."

It's time for those who actually follow the Ten Commandments to stand up and fire back. We might still lose. But at least God's name won't be taken in vain by charlatans, and what God actually wants for humankind won't be reduced to the power-seeking strategies of ideologues.

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Tapping our better natures

By Tom Ehrich

I learned some important things over lunch with the pastor at my new church.

Migrant worker ministry is active here. The church takes youth to the Navajo Nation. English-as-a-Second-Language is needed in the Accord-Stone Ridge community. A Benedictine monastery is just 30 minutes away along the Hudson River. Each Sunday the church offers a contemplative service in the evening. Spiritual development is valued. And more.

Where I fit into all this remains to be seen. But it's like looking at a map and seeing many places I want to visit. When I am ready to jump in and give, there will be opportunities.

As I drove home, I felt a lightness of spirit. Finding a church home apparently matters more to me than I realized. I was prepared to accept whatever I found at my community's Episcopal church. It is thrilling to learn how much they are doing to serve God.

Our society needs healthy churches that are imbued with a spirit of mission and self-sacrifice. Otherwise, greed, fear and anger will take away our freedom.

We need to have the goodness in us tapped. God has given us hearts to love and hands to serve, but too often we get stifled or discouraged. We need our better natures to emerge, be valued, and be put to work.

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Meaning and purpose will appear

By Tom Ehrich

I arrived home two weeks ago. Today was the first day I could live into my desired next phase: writing at the kitchen table until the sun comes up, moving to my office in an outbuilding, coming up for air at lunch, doing errands, returning to my office until dinner, spending the evening with my wife.

For this day to happen, a slew of steps needed to be taken first. Welcome my wife home from California a week ago. Get furniture in the right places and boxes to a storage unit. Work with my sons to get beds set up and rugs laid. Call in an electrician to fix wiring and a thermostat. Get my computers set up.

In other words, I couldn't just walk out the door on a 45-degree day, flip a switch and be up.

My 4,100-mile pilgrimage-by-car was the same way. It took months of planning, significant financial support, a rental car, an understanding family, generous friends, and ample time.

I now know that faith happens this way, too. I can't just flip a switch and be bathed in the glow of belief. Important steps need to happen first.

I had to try life on my own and fail. I had to make a halfway approach to God and fail. I had to pour myself into the activities of faith and fail. I had to listen to the people whom God sent, and see the signs God laid before me, and read the Word God made possible, and sing God's musical stairway to heaven.

A living faith is the culmination, not the starting-point. There is no set path that applies to all people. Faith happens my way, and your way, and countless other ways around us. Faith starts in different places and leads to different outcomes. I don't see a single product called "faith," but rather a journey of infinite variety that leads to a God whom we see differently.

What we have in common isn't a set language or discipline or outcome, but a sense of need or quest or insufficiency that drives us onward.

My desired new phase in life might strike you as intensely boring, or impossible to achieve. But if we could both step back from the particulars, I think we would see at least one common element: a desire to live a whole life.

It's like my drive. I received mostly encouragement, but every now and then someone would tell me what I ought to be doing, where I ought to be going, and how I had messed by not doing this or that. I didn't take it personally, but as a sign of how much it mattered that something of meaning and purpose happen along the way.

I think we ache for meaning and purpose. Much needs to happen first, and we might get discouraged. But if we can avoid rushing in and flipping switches, I think meaning and purpose will appear.

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Happy Pi Day

By Tom Ehrich

On Happy Pi Day, my youngest son baked a blueberry pie decorated with the Greek letter pi. We ate it around 9:26.53 when 10 digits of pi appeared on the clock.

I was reminded of the single most interesting magazine article I ever read: a 1992 New Yorker profile of the Chudnovsky brothers, who built their own super-computer to extend the decimal expansion of pi way beyond the 3.141592653 we celebrated yesterday.

"The digits of pi march to infinity in a predestined yet unfathomable code," wrote the author: "they do not repeat periodically, seeming to pop up by blind chance, lacking any perceivable order, rule, reason, or design -- 'random' integers, ad infinitum."

The brothers, who extended the digits well beyond 1 billion places, wonder if the infinite digits might eventually reveal the "mind of God."

"Physicists have noted the ubiquity of pi in nature," the author wrote. "Pi is obvious in the disks of the moon and the sun. The double helix of DNA revolves around pi. Pi hides in the rainbow, and sits in the pupil of the eye, and when a raindrop falls into water pi emerges in the spreading rings. Pi can be found in waves and ripples and spectra of all kinds, and therefore pi occurs in colors and music."

When I first read the New York article, I recall being awed by the "magnificent obsession" of two brothers devoting their lives to a single quest.

In reflecting on my 4,066-mile drive across the USA, I realize that I didn't have anything close to that obsession. My thoughts were scattered. My attention wandered. When I came within reach of an interesting sight, I sometimes pulled off the road to see, but other times was thinking about something else and let the moment pass.

This is true in my writing, too. I stay on task, but sometimes my mind goes elsewhere and I have to remember what I was engaged in writing.

I don't feel guilty about these wanderings. I suppose I am thoroughly modern in being scattered. I also am responding openly to what is happening around me.

But I realize that faith often is described as a singular obsession. We are invited to give our whole body, mind and spirit to God. Like a violinist practicing for hours on end, we are encouraged to pray "without ceasing" and to meditate so thoroughly that we lost touch with the world.

Sometimes I do that in writing. I get caught up in a single piece and keep working and working on it. When I come up for air, I wonder where I have been.

I notice, though, that the piece written in obsession isn't any better than the piece written while scattered. In fact, jumping in and out of a task sometimes keeps me fresh.

On my pilgrimage, I found my deepest insights came at dinner, of all places, when I sat with my iPad in a restaurant and wrote while waiting for my food to come. Something about that tight timeframe focused my attention.

I have no earthshaking advice to give to aspiring writers, thinkers, armchair theologians or pilgrims. Just be yourself. There is no right way to pursue your quests. Whether you are deriving pi or saying a prayer or thinking about life, I suggest following whatever thread presents itself, and see where it -- and the God behind it -- leads you.

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"On the road" keeps going on

By Tom Ehrich

A week ago I stopped living out of a suitcase. Yesterday my wife returned from a year in California caring for our grandson. Tomorrow I turn in the rental car I used for Fresh Day on the Road.

At that point, the immediate travel portion of this pilgrimage will be over. But the rest of it goes on: writing about the experience and taking the next steps in seeking to understand faith in the 21st Century.

For now I plan to continue using this blog as my way to think aloud with you. Please feel free to add friends and colleagues to the distribution for this blog. Just send me their email addresses.

More time "on the road" lies ahead. I tend to be critical of the right-wing's "echo chamber" for distorting reality. But I think we all have one or more echo chambers in our lives. Church communications, for example, often speak only to people "within the bubble," as they say. So do the progressive media with which I usually agree. They aren't broad enough. I think we need to get outside -- "on the road," both literally and figuratively -- to connect with the larger themes of our times and to see what God is doing.

We must also learn to think for ourselves. Take advice, sure. How else will we hear about new ideas, new products, new artists unless someone tells us? Try them out, sure. We need first-hand experience whenever possible. But at some point, we need to say, "This idea makes no sense to me." Or, "This new product looks valuable." Or, "I think the Gospel is saying this, not that."

Then, of course, we will need to develop a capacity to disagree -- with respect, with humility, but also with conviction.

I have been "on the road" all of my life. I suspect you have, too. Change has been our constant companion. Maybe it's time we stopped yearning for stability, safety and comfort.

And let's stop yearning for a God who is ever and always the same, immutable, holding the same firm thoughts today as yesterday, enforcing the same laws, uttering the same threats, demanding the same outcomes. That isn't how Scripture portrays God, nor is it how God self-reveals.

When I ventured into church last Sunday, I came to a brand new church and as a brand new person. Yes, they have a history, as do I. But this moment was altogether new. If we can honor that newness, God will be alive in it. If they insist, however, on their history or I on mine, then yesterday's separate journeys will prevail, and something fresh and new will be lost.

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Going to church

By Tom Ehrich

Despite some last-minute wavering, I followed through on my intention to go to church today.

My plan was just to go. Not to seek any special attention, not to "examine" their worthiness for my loyalty, but just to sit in a pew, sing along, pray along, greet a few people, thank the pastor, and to look for ways I can contribute to a ministry for justice. I didn't want to fuss. I just wanted to take the first step to joining.

I chose the nearest Episcopal church, which was Christ the King, in Stone Ridge, NY, two towns away.

God's welcome started immediately. As I was parking my car, I saw an elderly man slip on the ice and fall. I went over to help him up. His fall had broken his eyeglasses. I put them back together.

Okay, God, I get it. There's something I can do here.

A visiting preacher talked about Food for the Poor, a ministry that provides food and other basics to the desperately poor in Honduras. He challenged the congregation to build a house in the village, at a cost of $3,200. I will give to that. I also cleaned out my wallet and gave enough to buy food for one person for a year.

I felt profoundly grateful that they were providing these opportunities to give.

Poverty and justice kept being mentioned in announcements and prayers.

After worship I spoke briefly with the rector. As I talked with her, I resisted the urge to play the games we play -- dropping names, citing credentials, talking insider talk -- because I am not interested in those games any longer. I am just a guy who's new to town and looking for a way to help a faith community be faithful. It was liberating.

I felt elated as I drove home. Being welcomed by God and by a faith community is a wonderful thing.

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Home, but not home

By Tom Ehrich

I am home, but not home. At least, not fully home.

Thanks to two grocery runs, the house has plenty of food. Laundry is done. Road grime is off the car windows. I've had two decent nights' sleep.

But something is still off. I can't get motivated to do the work that needs to be done. I think I have too much unfocused time on my hands. Being "on the road," as I called it, gave a tidy shape to my days.

Also, I am worn out. Four weeks of travel left me exhausted. Not sleepy as much as mentally weary.

I find that I can't just drop a lengthy pilgrimage into my life, do it, return home, and slide easily back into my life.

I am sure this weariness will pass. But it is a reminder that life-changes -- even the most positive changes that have been eagerly anticipated -- leave a hole.

I see another factor, as well. I wrote a reflection on Thursday on the faith enterprise as I see it. I focused on the "basics" of faith, not the exotica. Issues like the alleged inerrancy of Scripture, splitting theological hairs, obsession with sexual morality, the end-times, who runs churches and who owns the property struck me as irrelevant. More important are the nature of God, our call to serve, and faith community.

If this is where my reflections are leading, then I am going to find myself standing apart. Not as a rebel or discoverer of "real Christianity." Just a sense that some things don't matter all that much. And the more we focus on things that don't matter, the farther we drift from God.

This, too, left me feeling weary. I am tired of complaining about church life and trying to "fix" churches.

Anyway, a lot is swirling around. A pilgrimage changes things.

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Welcome home!

By Tom Ehrich

After driving 4,100 miles through 14 states, four time zones, and terrain from desert to farmland to plains to snow-covered mountains, I pulled into our property in Upstate New York.

I discovered three feet of snow, a well-plowed drive and a warm house. Welcome home!

I am grateful. Grateful for safe passage through so much time on the road. Grateful for a good car (thank you, Enterprise), adequate resources (thank you, readers), a supportive family, friends, and a nation that provides decent highways and free movement from place to place.

It will take me weeks, maybe months, to process all that I experienced. I come home with a more complete, and nuanced, picture of God, as well as insights into my world, my life, and the people I care about.

I came into daily contact with the so-called "echo chambers" of the right-wing: angry radio preachers claiming to be "Christian" and "family" centered, local politicians determined to make life miserable for people of color, and "news" outlets pandering to fears and bigotry. It is worse out there than I had realized.

And yet the people I met and the public places I entered seemed different from that intolerance. I saw a multi-racial world getting along at ground level, on the apparent assumption that being female, non-white, gay, Spanish-speaking and/or unarmed was just fine.

The most difficult miles were the last 300. I was returning to what the forecasters call a "wintry mix." I expected that. I was stunned, however, at how poor the communities seemed, how terrible the roads, and how angry the radio preachers.

But here, too, I found ordinary folks getting along. They know spring will come. They know that every one of us matters. Money isn't everything. Religion doesn't control people's thoughts.

These are initial impressions. Much more to discern. I hardly know where to begin. I do know that processing a pilgrimage isn't a matter of making lists and categories. So I think I will just dive in and see what lies beneath the surface.

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"Pedal to the metal"

By Tom Ehrich

WINCHESTER, VA -- My plan was to "put the pedal to the metal," and that is exactly what I did. I took the two-lane straight to Interstate 81 and drove up the Shenandoah Valley to this city close to the Maryland border, 400 miles in all.

I didn't see much, except for 18-wheelers. But that was fine. I am ready to be home. Not to end the pilgrimage, but to come to a critical point of it, namely, taking everything I have written and the places I have seen, and drawing some conclusions.

In my four cabin days in Townsend, TN, I did some reflecting on God. Now, in the days ahead, I want to look at the nature of faith.

Traveling by Interstate is efficient and comforting. I knew exactly where I was going, how long it would take to get there, what I would experience at interchanges, and how to find a hotel at almost every exit.

It’s also dull and mind-numbing. I saw an 18-wheeler drift out of its lane and almost hit the guard rail. A trucker driving tired. I sympathized. I followed my own advice: stop every hour, drink water, keep moving, don't rush it.

The lure of home is strong, however. I'm singing to myself the old truckin' song: "Six days on the road, and I'm a-gonna make it home tonight."

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Jam session

By Tom Ehrich

TOWNSEND, TN -- My long weekend at a cabin beside the Great Smoky Mountains came to a close with a jam session of mountain musicians.

Coming out of the hills to a dulcimer shop on Route 321, fifteen men and women brought their lap dulcimers, hammered dulcimers, banjos, guitars, fiddles, string bass and recorder. They sat in a circle. After extended rituals of tuning their instruments and checking in personally, they launched spiritedly into songs like "Wildwood Flower" and "8 Miles from Louisville."

They took turns picking the songs from an extensive list on a whiteboard. If you picked it, you had to signal the ending, too, either by kicking out your leg or giving a "whoop!"

They offered me a guitar, but I know when not to make a fool of myself. So I sat behind my friend Mickey, who was playing banjo, and just listened to the wonderful music.

My dad played the guitar. He loved to sit around and sing the "good old songs," like "I want a girl," "When you wore a tulip" and "Down in the valley." I learned enough guitar to lead preschoolers in song, but that was all. I just love the music.

This jam session was the perfect end to a relaxing and productive weekend. Under no pressure to drive 200 miles each day and find a hotel before sundown, I wrote extensively, went for walks, watched "Blue Bloods" online, read, and visited with my friends.

I am back on the road today, heading into nasty weather and ready to be home. So having finished my "two-lane theology" writing in eastern Tennessee, I will now "put the pedal to the metal" on Interstate 81 for the final 800 miles.

Or, just as likely, snow and freezing rain will force me off the highway to hole up in a hotel.

This final leg will be just as important as earlier legs, but quite different. Up to now, I was driving roads and towns I had never seen before. Now I will be crossing countryside that I know well. It is filled with the memories of family drives to New Hampshire, "Prairie Home Companion" on tape, and discovering peanut butter pancakes in Frackville, PA, as well as memories of college drives home to Indiana.

The question on my mind will be: What is this familiar terrain to me now? And who am I now? I know I am no longer the insecure 18-year-old who traveled east for college and fell in love with New England. Or the young husband and father bringing my family to a beloved family farm in New Hampshire -- and, in the process, escaping for a month the relentless stress of parish ministry.

So much has changed, with the passing of years and changing of careers, even more with the easing of gotta-make-it-big stress.

It wouldn't surprise me to discover that this final leg is the most jarring of all. Discovering the new is one thing; working with God to let the old become new is something else entirely.

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Big, diverse, free and open

By Tom Ehrich

TOWNSEND, TN -- This is my last full day of reflecting and writing in a cabin in the woods of eastern Tennessee. Tomorrow morning I get back in my rental car and point it north and east toward home.

These four days in a friend's cabin have been marvelous. I have done everything I wanted to do: relax, sleep well, enjoy non-driving solitude, visit with my friends, and get some deep thinking and deep writing done.

While I have been here, the snow has melted and ground reappeared. I don't expect to find that in Upstate New York. But it's coming. This long winter will end.

In writing what I am calling "Reflections," I am not trying to sum up everything that happened in the first 3,300 miles. But if were to sum it up, I would say this:

This is a big country -- bigger than I had imagined. This is a diverse country -- and those who are trying to squash diversity are doing a grave injustice to the nation. God is a big God -- big in scope, big in heart, big in love and joy, big in diversity, big in wanting good things for all of us, not just some of us.

We know the US through the small slivers where we live and travel. We know God in the small glimpses and venues where we see God at work. We couldn't begin to see it all. But we must recognize that there is an "all." There is more to the USA than we see, and certainly more to the world than we see at home. There is more to God than we know.

Over the years, Christians have become a demonic force when we demanded that our sliver become normative for all. In those moments, we have become willing to do horrible things to people, ideas and beliefs outside our small purview.

We find ourselves in a dangerous time, when one stripe of politicians and one stripe of religious leaders are gathering a ton of money and momentum to impose their wills on everyone. I think we must do everything in our power to resist this oppressive instinct.

What I am hearing in these four weeks on the road is a call to action. Political action, prophetic action, religious action -- not that I and whoever agrees with are right, but that our strength as both a nation and a faith lies in open-mindedness.

We are meant to be a free and open society, in which people can speak freely and chart their own courses. No amount of religious certainty justifies impinging on that freedom and openness.

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Sunday of reflecting and writing

By Tom Ehrich

TOWNSEND, TN -- I wouldn't call this a Thoreau moment. A cabin with wi-fi, good coffee, plenty of light and heat, and two friends nearby for sharing meals hardly qualifies as roughing it.

But I thoroughly enjoy sitting at a table beside a window, with an array of Apple technology, and writing about my Fresh Day On the Road pilgrimage. I am trying to step back from the day-to-day and glimpse themes about God.

I am not prowling bookshelves for quotes to prove my ideas and insights. The point is the ideas and insights. They come as they come, not because I opened a book, even a holy book. I want to engage with God in a fresh, untethered and original way.

I'm not saying my ideas and insights contain all truth. They are glimpses of God that make sense to me.

So, it's Sunday morning. Two more days of reflecting and writing ahead of me before I start a pedal-to-the-metal final 800 miles.

I am grateful for your continued interest. I have had a strong sense that people are taking this journey with me. Many have written comments, many support it financially, many read the daily blogs and ponder. That all means a lot to me.

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