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Life is a crazy journey.  There is no way to predict where it will take you.  It is the surprises that keep it interesting and make for some of the greatest stories – even the heartbreaking ones.  At the end of our lives, we are the sum of all of those experiences and what we chose to do with them.  Well, this is where you will get a glimpse of my life experiences and the ruminations that have resulted.  Like anyone’s life, they are all over the game board of life: family, adventures, friends and antics.  These are told through words and photography.  Enjoy!

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When my family was much smaller and younger, we lived in a small Pacific Northwest logging community called Quilcene.  Now, one might read and so pronounce that name in a plain straightforward fashion like “kwil – seen.”  However, like almost all dialects of the English-speakers language, there are hidden sounds only the locals know about.  This is a sure fire way to identify outsiders (i.e. “people from not around here”).

Small Blue Boat Reflection in Port Townsend Harbor

Small Blue Boat Reflection

The local populace pronounces it “kwila-seen.”  It is the shibboleth (or is that sibboleth?) of the local dialect.   Fortunately, no one is killed over such a goof.  I believe the sound is correct and reflects the American Indian languages of the area (e.g. the Quilayutes).  It, after all, also being the name of the local tribe that used to inhabit the area.  (The Quil-a-cenes were later absorbed into surrounding tribes, most notably to the south on the Hood Canal in the Skokomish tribe.)  Unfortunately, some early English speaker’s attempt to Anglicize the word missed the short “a” and so we are stuck with Quilcene, which is much better than what the original American-European settlers of the area wanted to call it:  South Burlap.

Into this small community, my family settled.  My oldest son, Gareth, was a new-born.  A couple of years later, Cara, our oldest daughter was born at home.  Four years after, our youngest daughter, Julian, was born at home there too.  The locals quickly educated us on the correct pronunciation of the word.  This, along with learning that everybody was related to everybody else, was one of the most important lessons to learn in this small community.

Almost everyone in this community earned their living from the logging industry.  Those that didn’t were employed in some seafood related industry.  Oyster farms still do a thriving business there to this day.  Logging, however, will probably never be what it once was 25 and more years ago.  Our neighbor Bob was one of those hard-working loggers.

Bob was known for delivering firewood for many years around the Quilcene, Brinnon, Dabob areas.  He made a living doing the hard work of pulling out old trees, cutting them, splitting the cuts, and delivering it.  Most people relied upon wood heat to get through the cold, damp winters of Washington State.  “Bob the Woodman” was their main source for good dry wood.  Success at that allowed him to branch out into selective logging and clearing lots for people building homes along the curves of the Quilcene and Dabob bays.

Bob was a good neighbor.  Our properties joined one another on seven acres of wooded property.  Red Cedars and Douglas Fir inhabited most of the property.  This made a perfect play ground for my oldest two kids.  Of course, as conscientious parents, we were always careful to keep our eyes upon our kids.  Our oldest son had a habit of running off and disappearing from our presence.  This made us a little more paranoid than normal parents, if there are such things.

Seagull Reflection

Seagull Reflection

Despite our best vigilance, however, our son had a habit of wandering off.  This led to his getting into all sorts of mischief even before the age of five.  There was the time he showed up two blocks away across Highway 101 in his diaper standing in front of the local gas station.  There were the two separate occasions he discovered bald-faced hornets nests.  On the first occasion, he poked it with a stick.  He and his sister got stung.  On the second occasion, having learned from the first one not to poke it with sticks, he threw rocks at the nest.  He and his sister got stung.

As you can imagine, his penchant for exploration and getting himself into trouble only expanded as he grew older.  This explains his mother’s premature grey, his fathers premature baldness, and the slight twitch in the corner of both our right eyes.  Nature or nurture, whatever the cause, gets started awful early.  Too early in my book.  I think kids should be born educated and ready for the work force.  It would eliminate a lot of social problems.  Alas, but I’m not the Creator.  Good thing too, probably.  Giving birth to college kids would be incredibly painful for mothers.  And, how would you explain nursing?  “Come here, sweetheart!  It’s time for your lunch.”  “Aw, mom!  You’re embarrassing me.”

One of the advantages of raising your kids in a rural setting is that they learn so much by just being outdoors.  It truly is an amazing experience and opportunity.  I feel sorry for kids who grow up in the city and don’t know their way around a good wooded patch of ground.  My kids spent countless hours examining nature.  They learned a lot.

One time, my wife caught our oldest son, at about three years of age, exploring the biosphere of the upper canopy of the trees about 30 feet off the ground in his rubber boots.  He learned that, if he didn’t break his neck carefully descending the tree, his mother would kill him.  Another time, I taught my son about heat transference through convection with a steel burn barrel by telling him, “Don’t touch the barrel, it’s really hot”.  Then, he immediately tested my hypothesis by touching the barrel and getting a nasty blister on his hand.  Then, there was the time I took him to explore the mud flats of Quilcene Bay at low tide.  We were having the time of our lives seeing all kinds of tidal land creatures: hermit crabs, worms, clams, snails, and plant life.  About two-hundred yards from shore I suddenly realized he was barefoot.

“What happened to your boots?” I demanded to know.

“There way back there,” he pointed.

“Where?”

“Back there,” he kept pointing.

“How did they come off?”

“The mud took them off.”

I picked him up.  He still had his socks on but now they were as black as the mud of the bay and hung thick and wet about a foot down from his feet.  I held him out away from me as his socks swayed in the wind.

“Come on,” I said.  “Let’s go get your boots.  I think we’re done for the day.”

I reached down and pulled off his socks and then tucked him under my arm, carrying him like a sack of potatoes.  The extra weight made the mud pull on my boots too.  This was as much a father’s education as a son’s.

I looked down at him.  He was watching the ground pass underneath us.  “Did you have fun?” I queried.

“Yes,” he replied.  “I like the worms the best.”  He turned his head toward me and smiled.

“Of course,” I said and smiled back.

We found his boots stuck in stride just as he had left them.  The thought to stop and retrieve them or to put them back on again never seemed to occur to him.  I suppose he was too fascinated with the bugs and creatures and keeping up with his dad.

The problem with growing up in a rural setting is that property boundaries can sometimes be fuzzy.  Locals know one another and cross each others property almost at will.  Those really familiar with each other don’t even bother knocking on one another’s door.  They just let themselves in and yell, “Hello!?”  That’s country living for you.

This was difficult for my kids to learn also.  Our neighbor Bob had all kinds of fun equipment for a young boy to play on.  Gareth particularly liked the heavy equipment that would appear from time to time on Bob’s property.  He was always amazed at their size and imagined in his little mind what they could do.  One of his favorite pieces of Bob’s equipment was a skidder.  This is used by loggers to move logs around.  However, it doesn’t move anything when it’s batteries are dead because a 4 or 5 year-old boy was playing on it and pushing buttons.  It takes a long time to charge a skidder’s batteries back up.  Plus, it is not something Bob appreciated discovering when heading for the woods at 4 or 5 in the morning.

Broken Sand Dollar

Broken Sand Dollar

Bob had incredible patience with our son. I only heard him yell across our properties a few times, “Gareth!!”  By then, Gareth was almost always already home after we discovered that he had wandered off yet once again.  This let us know that our son had probably gotten into something.

As a logger, Bob had access to small seedling trees that were used to replant clear-cut areas.  Bob had a stretch of property on the opposite away from us that he decided to replant.  Good naturedly, Bob invited Gareth along to show him how trees were planted.  If they are not planted properly, they will die and the tree and one’s labor will be lost.  One must have a proper depth to the hole to make sure and get the full root system in the ground.  You don’t want any exposed root area.  Then, one covers up the roots.  However, the tap root needs to be as straight as possible, so a short, small tug is given on the tree when it is buried to help ensure this.

When investing in the life of the child, I believe it is important to give them, as much as is reasonable possible, exposure to many different things.  Who knows what will “take” in their little hearts and minds that causes them to decide to become a mechanic, doctor, nurse, plumber, lawyer, carpenter, or even forester.  Who knows the potential within the heart and mind of a child?

At the same time, who truly knows what is going on in those spaces?  When Bob returned from the woods the next day, he discovered that my son had pulled out all 100+ trees that he had planted with him.  Did they need to be recounted?  Did they need an “extra pull” to make sure they were straight?  Did they simply need to be removed because their place only appeared to be temporary?  We will never know, I suppose.  That’s a lesson we’ll never learn.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (October, 2011)

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Analysis of Church Conflict Management

In my articleAnatomy of Church Conflict Management“, I suggested that there are some familiar mistakes that churches and their leadership tend to make in regards to conflict and crisis management.  I also quickly summarized what effective leadership before, during and after these events occur might look like.  It is to these leadership needs during conflict and crisis that I would like to return now.

It is necessary for every church to have a conflict and crisis management plan.  This plan needs to include:

  • Knowing the triggers or events that call for the plan to be engaged,
  • Working the crisis management and communication plan,
  • Communicating the unfolding development of these plans to those who need to know, and
  • Identifying the desired stages and outcomes of working these plans, and then, finally,
  • Evaluating how these plans worked and what needs to be adjusted to make it/them work better next time.

Identifying capable leadership to handle conflict and crisis is important.  Not everyone is emotionally and psychologically equipped to deal with them.  At the same time, leadership directly involved may not be good candidates because of conflict of interest or lack of objectivity.  A team of three to five people who are spiritually mature, skilled communicators, emotionally mature, and hold the respect of others in the organization make a great team.  For many churches, this group may be the Board of Elders.

Mt, Adams, Washington State

Clear Skies Over Mt. Adams, Washington State

If this is not possible, then working with a third-party dispute resolution or crisis management team is the best option.  This may come from a hired company, one of the many non-profit dispute resolution centers around the country, denominational leadership, or a team from another church in the community who has developed their own team.  The important point is to know who – what team – you are going to look to before the need arises.  Everyone in the organization needs to be informed of who this team is and what the “triggers” are that call for their involvement.

Not all conflict or crisis is the same.  Some involve only a couple people or a small group.  Others, however, involve a larger portion of the organization and have potential to cause a ripple effect that disturbs the whole organization.  It is important for every leader to know what level of disruption is being faced.  This will be an important trigger that sets in motion the work of a conflict and crisis team and the plan that has been established.

A carefully scripted plan for communication, handling confrontation, and identifying the small-step goals to reconciliation, restoration and peace must be established in the calm before the storm.  In the heat of a crisis is not the time to attempt to develop a plan.  The plan must be clear enough so that steps can clearly be taken to move toward progress.  Getting “stuck” in a conflicted crisis is not to anyone’s benefit.  Every plan must answer simple questions:

  • Who is involved?  Who needs to know?
  • What are the issues and how can they be discovered?
  • How can miscommunication and misunderstanding be avoided as much as possible from those who are on the fringes of the problem?
  • How will the process and its milestones to restoration be communicated to those who need to know?
  • How will “success” in terms of reconciliation and restoration be recognized?
  • What will be the terms in which irreconcilable differences and hurts are recognized and a “parting of ways” a recommendation for the organization to move forward?
  • When will the end of the process for the team be recognized?

Every conflict or crisis event must also involve a debriefing and evaluation time for the team.  This may also included key individuals involved who were not on the team.  This will not only allow the team members to take away “lessons learned” from the experience, but it will allow them to adjust the conflict resolution and crisis management plan in order to be more effective in the future.  Just as important, is the opportunity for the team members to sort through their own thoughts and feelings after handling such an emotionally charged situation.  This helps the team to make sure that as individuals they are not carrying away any unnecessary emotional or psychological baggage.

Low Clouds Surrounding Mt. Hood, Oregon

Cloud Skirted Mt. Hood, Oregon

Every event is different.  Then again, every event is similar.  Where the congregation and its leadership is immature and/or unhealthy, it almost always waits too long to seek intervention.  One thing is clear.  Conflict resolution involves as much art as it does science.  In twenty-five years of pastoral ministry, here are three things that I have come to realize about church conflicts:

  • The “problem” is almost never “the problem.”
  • Change and growth never come without problems (i.e. conflicts).
  • I can be my own worst enemy in that I cause most of the problems (i.e. conflicts) I experience.

Of all places, the faith community should be a place where the practice of our spiritual principles and precepts enable everyone to overcome fears, doubts, misunderstandings, chaos, conflicts, confusion and even anger.  Unfortunately, as I pointed out in my last article, there are myths about itself that the Church must overcome.  Don Bussart, associate professor of interpersonal ministries at The Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado, identifies these as:

  • The Church must suppress conflict to maintain its image to as a loving community united in God’s service.
  • Conflict is bad because it threatens the unity of the church.
  • A loving person is always tranquil, stable and serene.
  • The administration, worship and programs of the church are fixed and established thus not subject to change.
  • Individuals and the church as whole should be “spiritual” — that is, should be “above” conflict.

The fact of the matter is that the pastor (lead or senior pastor) is most often the first line of defense in dealing with conflict and interpersonal crises in the congregation.  Marlin Thomas in Direction Journal astutely puts the pastors role in perspective:

“For pastors of troubled churches, ministry cannot be viewed as “business as usual.” One cannot relate to troubled people as fully rational beings, capable of making and keeping bona fide agreements. And troubled church systems cannot be led as if they were healthy systems. If they are so treated, they will only become less healthy, and the pastoral leader will ultimately be caught by painful surprise and sadly fail in his [or her] heavenly calling.  Pastors of churches under stress must think of themselves as specialists. They must care for people according to the special, “soulish” needs of their wounded pseuche, and not merely conduct “church as usual.”. . . The administrative leadership style of a pastor in a troubled church must be that of a loving but firm parent who presents clear outer boundaries to the children, while allowing them to develop slowly within the parameters of their own ability to grow. Disordered people can serve God, even if they can’t get along very well with each other or even with the pastor. But in such cases the pastor must be more than just a pastor; he must be skilled in the taming of hearts. It is true that only God can ultimately tame the heart, but it is also true that God desires to use sensitive, skilled human agents in that effort.”  [Bracketed italics added.]

One of the biggest needs a pastor must fulfill is to help the congregants become grace-filled, permission-giving members.  This is outlined simply by Thomas as:

  • Give life permission to be the way it is, until Christ changes it.
  • Be who you are—responsibly.
  • Let others be who they are—caringly.
  • Be willing to say “where” you are—kindly.
  • Let others say “where” they are—acceptingly.
  • Care about your sister or brother—appropriately.

This character development doesn’t happen over night.  It is a long journey.  However, the benefit is growing into grace-filled individuals who have an internal agility (i.e. flexibility) to deal with different people and growth and changes that pose potential conflict.  The larger the capacity of a congregation to practice this in interpersonal relationships the better its ability to handle and recover from conflicts and interpersonal crises.

Mt. Rainier, Washington State

Mt. Rainier Behind Safeco Field

It is interesting to note that most statistics tell us the the majority of non-churchgoers in the U.S. consider themselves to be Christians.  Of these, four out of ten have dropped out of church due to a “painful” or “agonizing” ordeal in a church.  I have pastored Assembly of God churches for 25 years and can attest to many encounters with people who no longer attend church because it was simply too emotionally painful for them to return.  Either the people in the church or the building, or both, held such bad memories that even returning to the building proved impossible.

Today, I attend a Central United Protestant Church, which is a trans-denominational church left over from the protestant military chapel supplied by the U.S. government’s Hanford Project during the cold war.  It is under the leadership umbrella of the United Methodist Church but serves five other denominations.  Not surprising, I have discovered similar stories around the community concerning this church.  So, this issue goes beyond denomination labels, church sizes or community settings.

There are many resources for church leadership and their congregations to use.  A perusal of the world wide web will uncover a library of articles, papers and blogs for careful consideration.  Independent consultants and denominational resources are available to most every church.  In a couple of instances from my experience regarding small independent churches, calling in respected and recognized pastoral leadership from other churches to offer guidance and counsel is a possible alternative.

Where there are people there will be conflict.  Where there are people passionate about issues there will be passionate conflict that could lead to interpersonal and congregational crisis.  However, such occasions need not be a debilitating and defeating event.  Instead, they could be transforming events that help individuals grow in grace and help congregations grow in expressing mature Christ-like love and unity.  How we face it will be the determining factor.  The question is whether we will take the time to thoughtfully prepare for it before we face it.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (October, 2011)

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Get any group of people together, no matter their moral platitudes, and there is bound to be conflict.  Sometimes this conflict can lead to a heightened crisis that threatens the health of the organization with loss of membership, customers and leadership.  If left unmanaged, the conflict-turned-crisis can have lasting, damaging effects: poor self-image, leadership demoralization, a scarred community image, organizational paralysis, and covered up interpersonal wounds.

Yellow Flower from Tri-Cities, Wa

Yellow Flower from Tri-Cities, Wa on Badger Mountain

One would hope that a church community would be better suited and equipped for managing conflict and dealing with crisis.  However, my experience has been that this is not true.  My work experience in other organizations has been a mixed bag.  After all, were all are human no matter where we work.

At the same time, some organizations I have worked in have had a proactive conflict management plan with proactive leaders.  Where these leaders have followed the conflict management plan, the conflict was dealt with quickly and decisively with little disruption to the organization.  Sometimes the issue was resolved without loss of employees and sometimes it was not.  However, everyone knew the steps carried out as well as the outcome and why it was arrived at in that way.

I have yet to find a church organization that deals with conflict so constructively.  And I have to ask why?  (I am not asserting that one does not exist, I am simply stating that my limited experience has yet to discover one through my encounters or of those friends that have shared their stories of church conflicts and crises with me.)  The answer to that question is complicated.

Unfortunately, our public news channels carry too many stories of the failure on the part of church organizations to deal with conflict and crises.  This should cause all church leaders, at whatever level, to sit up and take notice that if they do not practice proactive judgment concerning conflict and crisis in their faith community, then the larger surrounding community will for them.  This will come out as clearly as exposure in the news media outlets or as subtly as the community staying away – and warning all their friends and relatives to stay away.

So, why do church organizations fail at constructively and proactively handling conflict or crisis?  The answer varies…

  1. Church leaders and their followers tend to spiritualize the conflict.  Thus, it is just a matter of all parties concerned praying about it, reading Bible verses about peace keeping, not speaking evil and guarding their tongues.  While these are good spiritual disciplines, they do not actually deal with the problem at hand.  It is to treat spiritual disciplines as some kind of magic that will make the problem suddenly go away.  And if it doesn’t go away?  Then the problem is with our spirituality and not that we simply didn’t wisely handle to problem.
  2. Church leaders and their followers tend to bury the conflict.  The attitude is that Christians should not offend others.  Broadly taken, this inhibits any confrontation that needs to happen in a healthy organization.  Thus, hurt feelings and offenses get covered up in hopes that it will, after awhile, just go away and be forgotten.  Sometimes conflict is buried because everyone assumes that it is the pastor’s job or that the way the pastoral leadership is dealing with the conflict (even if it is to avoid dealing with it at all) is the best and only way.  This is connected to the idea that Christians should never offend.  It also means they do not question leadership actions (or inactions).  The unspoken cultural value in these church organizations is that a good Christian doesn’t question the process or its outcomes but trusts that, whatever the result, the church leadership did the right thing (or at least meant to do the right thing).
  3. Church leaders and their followers tend to misuse The Matthew 18 Principle.  The Matthew 18 Principle is taken from The Gospel According to Matthew 18:15 – 19.  The idea is that interpersonal conflict should be dealt with on a personal level and only escalated to the leadership level or the larger community level after that has failed.  This is a great model for interpersonal conflict and should be used more often.  However, it only deals with an interpersonal conflict.  What happens when that conflict, as often happens, involves a larger group of the faith community?  What should the steps be when the conflict involves a high profile leader?  What is the strategy when the conflict is witnessed or known by many individuals?  This is where The Matthew 18 Principle does not entirely help us.  It is limited in scope and application.
  4. Church leaders and their followers tend to attack and silence the messengers.  Often, in order to deal with the array of opinions, personal judgments, and purveyors of partial truths, church leadership will attempt to shut up or shout down such background noise.  This is often done under the guise of “trusting leadership to handle it” and “personal privacy issues” for those involved in the conflict.  Both of these are worthy considerations for all concerned.  However, they miss the larger need of communicating to all parties who have a vested interest in the process and the outcome.  By attempting to attack or silence those who want to give a message to one or both of the parties or to the leadership managing the conflict, the problem is only compounded not alleviated.
Badger Mountain, Tri-Cities, WA, Flowers

Purple Button Flowers on Badger Mountain, Tri-Cities, WA

Conflict and crisis is always unsettling.  It is like experiencing an earthquake.  When the whole earth is moving, you just want it to stop and feel solid, un-shaking ground under your feet again.  After the earthquake, everyone is talking about it.  It becomes a shared experience and also a process to assure each other that everything will be alright.  Conflict and crisis in an organization shakes the whole structure.  People are going to talk about their experience.  They need to talk about their fears, insecurities and reassure each other that they will survive the process and the outcome.

Unfortunately, few churches have a conflict/crisis management strategy that also includes a conflict/crisis management communication strategy.  If they do, it most often boils down to this:  “Don’t talk about it.  Trust your leadership.”  This almost always fails except in cult-like or personality driven faith communities.  Since conflict and crisis are a part of the human experience, wise leadership should use the “calm before the storm” to thoughtfully plan a conflict and crisis management strategy.

An often overlooked key to conflict and crisis management is communication.  Sometimes only dealing with the parties involved is not sufficient.  This is especially true when dealing with high-profile situations or prominent people in a church organization.  Often times, it is managed behind the scenes.  The next thing the congregation and other church employees know is that certain people are no long around.  Without explanation, they are left to create their own stories of the events and outcomes.

Part of a good strategy is managing the story that is being told, especially by the employees and core leaders of the organization.  This does not mean twisting the story’s events to make an organization and its leadership look good.  It means having an open, honest and truthful explanation of events.  The more transparent the communication – even with the admission of stumbles and failures on the part of leadership – the better.  Not everyone may like the outcomes, but they at least know the process was open and honest.  Most leadership, employees and customers can live with this process.

Badger Mountain Flowers in Tri-Cities, WA

Badger Mountain Flowers in Tri-Cities, WA

Another part of a healthy strategy is wisely deciding the scope of communication needed.  This involves answering the questions, “Who needs to know?” and “Who does this affect?”  Some one likened it to having a group of people standing around when someone spills a bucket of paint.  Who got paint on them?  They are the ones that need to be addressed and included in the communication even if they are not involved in the process.  Ignore them and they will tell the story from their point of view and experience.  Include them in the group experience and it becomes larger than just a their own personal story.  Now it involves a group experience that involves clean up and recovery from the accident or tragedy.

Conflict mediation is not new.  It has been around for as long as humankind has walked the earth.  Today, there are formal conflict or dispute resolution and mediation services in local communities.  Non-profit dispute resolution centers exist around the country and effectively help organizations and individuals work through conflict.  They can prevent costly court and lawyer fees and bring satisfaction to all parties involved.  Many large organizations establish their own dispute resolution teams.  This may be a model that could serve well most churches.
Using a third-party dispute resolution source or developing a team within the organization is for each organization to determine.  For churches, this may mean using a trusted faith-based group outside the organization such as trained denominational leadership.  I’ve worked cross-denominationally to help another church and its pastor navigate conflict and crisis.  The key is having a plan and engaging that at the earliest possible moment.  This is  when leadership is most needed.  Proactive leadership will…
  • Know the triggers or events that call for the plan to be engaged,
  • Work the plan,
  • Communicate how the plan is working to those who need to know, and
  • Identify the stages and outcomes of working the plan, and then, finally,
  • Evaluate how the plan worked and what needs to be adjusted to make it work better next time.
Every leader realizes that he or she may not be able to take everyone through the crisis and keep them in the organization.  For whatever reason, individuals will decide for themselves if they trust leadership and how it is working for everyone’s interest.  However, the goal of church leadership especially should be to help as many people navigate the turbulent waters of conflict and crisis and bring as many people as possible through the storm.  The church more than any other organization should be able to navigate these storms.  This will take a commitment to living out biblical principles of forgiveness and reconciliation along with proactive leaders who have a publicly recognized, transparent plan that is managed and communicated carefully during these times.  It may not prevent the storms from coming, but it will certainly help the church fellowship survive them.
©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr.  (September, 2011)

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Backpacking Friends

Backpacking Friends

For my 50th birthday this year I decided to return to a favorite Washington backpacking destination of mine – the Wilderness Area of the Olympic National Parks Coast.  I invited any who would come with me for a week long excursion from Rialto Beach near LaPush, Washington, to the Ozette River or Ozette Lake.  I didn’t have many takers.

I have hiked the Washington Coast area between the Hoh River and the Point of the Arches several times over the years.  I was born in Port Angeles, Washington, while my parents were living among the Makah Indians of Neah Bay, Washington.  My mother has told me more than once that my umbilical cord was never completely severed from the Peninsula.  She may be on to something there.

I have found myself returning to the Washington coastal areas around Queets, Forks, LaPush, Neah Bay, Clallam Bay, Port Angeles, and Sequim during important turning points in my life.  For instance, before I got married, I took my two best friends on a hike out to the Point of the Arches and Cape Alava.  In the middle of celebrating my 50th birthday on this past hike, I remembered that it was on my 40th birthday that I traversed the same portion of the coast.  So, there you have it.

When I lived in North Dakota for five years, it was not the beautiful mountain ranges or the snow topped dormant volcanoes of the Pacific Northwest that I missed.  No.  It was the ocean.  I missed the surf and the smell of salt water.  While the North Coast of Lake Superior above Duluth may fool the eyes into thinking for a moment that one is traveling HWY 101 on the Oregon coast, it only takes one breath for a person to realize that the massive expanse of water before them is not salty.  It simply cannot replace the ocean even as beautiful as Lake Superior is in the fall season.

Standing Rocks

Standing Rocks

Call it a spiritual connection or a mystical one, I occasionally feel a very strong pull toward the beaches and its waves.  Even in the cold wet wind, I could spend hours walking a beach or, better yet, searching through tidal pools for their colorful life forms.  Perhaps some little old Makah grandma spoke some mystical chant over me as a babe, I don’t know.  I only know I love all things about the sea.  Even its food.

A key to hiking or backpacking the Washington coast, or any coastal area for that matter, is to coordinate the tide schedule.  Get that wrong and a fun trip down the beach and around a headland could become a nightmare.  Many an unwary beach comber or day hiker has been caught unawares at how fast a northern tide can come in and how high it can move up the beach.  A tidal difference between low and high tide of 6′ – 8′ is nothing.

Throw in a storm surge or an extra high tide and the trouble only exponentiates.  I know.  I’ve waited out a couple tides on little tiny pieces of a beach or hillside waiting for the tide to recede enough to continue down the beach to my planned camp site.  I have only been caught during the day.  I cannot imagine what would happen to anyone needing to wait over night or until the next morning.

So, not only is it important to get good low tides to hike up and down the beach, but it is also important to make sure the timing of the tide coincides with when you plan on traveling.  Get a tide too early, and get started too late or get up too late, and you will find yourself scrambling to make the tide before it comes all the way in and blocks your route.  Get a tide to late in the day and you limit the amount of time you actually have to walk or hike the beach.

Starfish Cluster

Starfish Cluster

The biggest challenges in the tide changes are the headlands.  These rocky, sometimes mountainous, stubs of land that stick out into the surf pose an interesting challenge.  Should the backpacker or hiker get there at low tide, they may be rounded at ocean level.  This often means scurrying over rocks and boulders, navigating seaweed slick rocks, and getting around tidal pools.  Take your time and go carefully, and it will be a fun adventure.  Hurry and you may slip and fall and injure your pride and tender body parts.

Fortunately, the Park Service has provided ropes and ladders for many of these headlands.  This makes getting over the headlands possible at high tide.  However, these can be a challenge themselves.  The hillsides are often slick with mud and clay.  The ropes, while sturdy, are often wet and muddy.  So, navigating these ropes and ladders takes some care and a little skill, especially with a backpack.

When many first-timers think “beach hike”, they immediately assume walking long, firm sandy beaches.  However, nothing could be farther from reality.  The seascape along the Washington coast is forever changing and is very rugged.  Prepare to have your feet and legs tested as you trounce through loose sand, bounce along from boulder to boulder, slip and slide on slimy rocks, shimmy along logs, fjord creeks and rivers, and shuffle along gravelly beaches.  This is besides the times you must use rope and rope ladders to get over headlands or spend time walking above the beach in the forest.  It is nature’s veritable obstacle course for the backpacker and hiker.

Rock Island in Mist

Rock Island in Mist

The weather itself can be its own challenge.  Despite what any weather person on the local cable or TV channels will tell you, it will most certainly be the opposite.  Late July, August and September are the only reliable months for some guarantee of drier weather.  However, one must always keep in mind that this is the Washington coast after all.  It is also the home of North America’s rain forest where precipitation is measured from 110″ – 200″ per year.

The advice that I give to all my fellow travelers is simply this:  “You will get wet at some point.”  Whether it is from crossing a stream, stepping in a tide pool, getting caught unexpectedly by a wave or rain, one should simply expect to experience some portion if not all of their body being wet.  For this reason, I pack everything I want to remain dry in gallon zip-lock bags.  Air mattresses, sleeping bags and larger items are wrapped in garbage bags.

A rain proof backpack cover is helpful.  Wearing wool is necessary because it is better to be wet and warm than wet and cold.  Finally, a large tarp or plastic sheeting is handy if one does not mind the extra weight to provide cover to get out of the rain or extra shielding for the tent.  Most places along the coast a fire can be used to dry out gear.  However, on the north part of the coast between Yellow Banks and Cape Alava no fires of any kind are allowed.  Just remember to bring fireproof fire starter to build fires with wet wood.

Small Crab

Small Crab

The Park Service requires all backpackers to have hard-sided bear proof containers.  This is not so much to keep bears out, though that is important, as it is too confound the raccoons that plague the camp sites near the major trail heads.  Personally, I have had more gear and food stolen and ruined by the small critters than the large ones.  Seagulls will destroy anything to get at food left where they can eye it.  Mice, chipmunks and squirrels have eaten holes through backpacks and knapsacks to get a a goody or power bar.  All of this I speak from personal experience.  So, put all your food in a hard sided, tight lidded container and hang it!

Proper preparation can make hiking and backpacking the Washington coast an enjoyable experience.  It is well worth the hard work and effort to get away from the heavily used trail heads.  Get a few miles up or down the beach during the off season and one won’t see a soul for days.  The beauty and solitude is refreshing to the soul.

I have often claimed that nature is God’s biggest Cathedral.  As much as humankind has spent countless hours and untold riches to build the Creator cathedrals and temples to honor him, none can compare to the natural wonders of the world.  I have often said that I feel more close to God in the out-of-doors wild places than I do in the sanctuaries built by human hands.  Is it any wonder that humankind had a much more reverent and awe outlook upon the divine when it more closely dwelt in and among nature?  Our sterilized and concrete world has only removed us from what inspires the human soul to look up and wonder in awe.

When wandering the wild places of creation, I am often reminded of the old hymn’s words that sang, “…were the whole realm of nature mine, that were an offering too small, love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”  I think Isaac Watts wrote that in the out of doors.  He was not sitting in some darkened office and cloistered away in a cubicle.  He was looking upon and considering the expanse of nature in all its beauty and thinking, “There must be a God and he must be bigger than all of this!

Oceanside Stream

Oceanside Stream

I have found myself on several occasions caught breathless in the beauty of the ocean and seascapes.  After a stormy day before and night, when one wakes up to a crystal clear blue sky reflecting off the gently rolling waves along the shore, there is nothing that compares.  I remember waking up one night late to step out of my tent because “nature called” only to be captured by the site of nature before me.  Hung low on the horizon, like the setting sun before it, rested the moon that created a shining road of light across the hundreds of miles of oceans right up to the beach in front of me.  And sprayed in vast array in the sky above and around the moon were sparkling lights of planets and stars in the thousands, if not millions, with the Milky Way gathering them all into an eternal trail of heavenly light.

I stood there for a good 20 minutes in the chilly, cold night air.  I sensed something sacred in what I witnessed.  Moving too quickly would have seemed as sacrilegious as getting up in the middle of Sunday worship to loudly excuse oneself to leave.  I have often said that people move too quickly through nature.  Like irreligious folks who just want the songs and sermons to be done so they can go about the more important duties of their life, when it comes to observing and spending time in creation, many people simply scan, sniff and move on.  One might as well have a drive-through Eucharist.

One of the advantages of being an aging backpacker is that you are forced to take it slow.  When I was younger, I was guilty of just wanting to eat up the miles of trail to get to a destination, which usually had a lake with trout in it.  While I took time even then to stop and admire creation, I did not do it with the same intention that I do so today.  Perhaps it is the idea that “this backpack trip may be my last one”.  My knees are not holding up well.  Sleeping on the ground, even with a good backpack mattress, is harsher on my body than it used to be in years gone by.

Island at Sunset

Island at Sunset

I would like to think that it is because I simply realize I have the time.  I am not in such a hurry.  I have learned the great value of pacing myself in whatever I do in life.  I have become more observant of my surroundings.  I have learned to live in the moment with joy and less anxiety.  I have learned to breath.  This is more than just a “stop and smell the roses” philosophy of life.  It is the idea that revelation and life are all around me if I will only take the time to get out and see it.

I suppose one does not need to go into the wild places of nature to experience this.  Some may find it in the middle of the busy city.  Others may find it in music or writing.  Still others may find it in beautiful deep relationships.  Each one of us has a place where we discover “deep calling to deep”.  Mine just happens to be on the wild reaches of the wet Washington Coast.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2011)

Lone Starfish

Lone Starfish

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Deciding to leave the comfort of one’s home to enter the world of the poor in another culture is not to be done blithely.  It is not for the faint of heart.  Once determined to enter such an experience, a traveler must brace for a test of endurance and flexibility.  I am reminded of Bilbo’s warning to Frodo in the epic trilogy “The Lord of the Rings” by J.R.R. Tolkien, “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door.  You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

I had heard of the Tarahumara Indians in the Copper Canyonof Mexico over 20 years ago when friends of mine made

Tarahumara Woman

annual trips with blankets and clothing to donate to them.  Their plight then was very bleak.  It seems that it has not improved much in 20 years.  There are somewhere between 50,000 and 70,000 people who live in the Copper Canyon.  The exact population is unknown because the Mexican government does not count them.

Three native Indian tribes make up the population in the Copper Canyon: Tarahumara, Pima and Yaqui.  Each tribe has its own language.  The Tarahumara alone have 5 distinct dialects which can make communication among their own tribe difficult at times.  They prefer the name of their own language, Raramuri  (“those who run fast” or “runners on foot”), and are known for running very long distances.  Living isolated and deep in the canyon has helped them preserve their culture, language and music.

The Copper Canyon is over 25,000 square miles or 4 times larger (some say 7 times larger) than its sister canyon, the Grand Canyon, in Arizona, U.S.A.  The Sierra Tarahumara is actually made up of 6 large canyons with rivers that feed into the main part of the canyon and the Rio Fuerte which empties into the Sea of Cortez.  The remote and rugged nature of the area isolates the Tarahumara and makes getting help to them very difficult.

This area of Mexico has been under a drought for the past several years.  This has made the bleak living conditions of the Tarahumara and other Indian tribes very difficult.  Death from hunger is a very common occurrence.  The infant mortality rate is 50%, mostly due to nutrition issues.  The high elevation (8,000 ft) and cold winters can also bring its own misery.  The winter of 2010/2011 was particularly bitter and reports of children freezing to death were regularly heard.

There are a number of different non-profit organizations and Christian ministries at work attempting to bring relief to different parts of the Copper Canyon.  My church, Central United Protestant Church (UMC), in Richland, Washington, partners with Tomas Bencomo and Tarahumara Ministries based out of El Paso, TX., and Juarez, Mexico.  We have had Tomas and Maria Bencomo and their co-worker and translator, Brenda Granados, to a few of our missions conferences, which we call Global Impact Celebrations.

Our team flew into El Paso, TX, and stayed at the Micromotel right next door to the airport.  We spent the night and then got up early in the morning and rode to a little village 8 hours south called Rio Chico.  Rio Chico is the staging area for humanitarian trips into the canyon.  It also has an experimental farm to train Tarahumara farmers.  Another experimental farm is located in Rio Bravo about 12 miles away.  These help train farmers in better farm methods.  After a season, the farmers are sent back home with seed and a steel plow that can be pulled by a mule.

The first few days were spent planting 200 fruit trees and digging and pouring a foundation for a small building.  This was done all by hand with broken shovels and picks.  So, it not only made for hard work but also frustrating work.  The elevation of Rio Chico (about 7,000 ft) made the work seem even more difficult from us lowlanders.  We joined a group at Rio Chico from Montana, Wyoming and Minnesota.  So, at least we had plenty of hands to do the work.  Still, those few days produced sun burns and lots of blisters and sore backs.

Finally, we loaded up to go down into the canyon with a supply of food.  We took a large four-wheel drive box truck and a four-wheel drive Chevy Suburban.  It is a 10 hour ride from Rio Chico down into the Copper Canyon where Tomas Bencomo and his team have a boarding school.  It serves about 300 families.  It takes 4 1/2 hours to travel the last 60 miles of dirt road.  The last 2 1/2 hours is descending 20 miles into the steep canyon by a steep twisting road with 31 hairpin turns.  They are so sharp that the driver must stop in mid-turn, backup and finishing the turn.  Fortunately for our driver, we descended it at night so he did not know what he was facing as the headlamps of the Suburban shown out into the pitch black night.

Finally, we arrived at the canyon camp tired from 4 1/2 hours of constant jarring and jostling in close confines.  It was

good to get out.  The night sky was brilliant with a splash of stars, but only the narrowest portion of the sky could be seen as the walls of the canyon pinched the night sky.  It would not be until morning that we would gaze up the steep canyon wall and be amazed at what we had ignorantly descended in the dark.  We all agreed that we were glad we had done it in the dark.  Some of us may have gotten out and walked down the road otherwise.

The morning was clear as we made our way to the main boarding school.  Out buildings were scattered all along the sides of the canyon, which meant that almost everyone had to move up or down its walls.  Level ground is a precious commodity reserved for buildings and gardens.  The sounds of chickens and children filled the morning air around the school where 80 – 90 children are housed and fed.  A government teacher comes in, when she can make it, to provide education at a small building close by.  This week, apparently, she was not able to make it.

The children that stay at the boarding house or who travel up and down the canyon to go to school travel long

Food Distribution in the Copper Canyon

distances to get there.  Parents send them because they know that their children will receive food and an education.  A few of the mothers come with their children and help in the kitchen and with other duties with the children.  They are paid with food to take home on the weekends.  Typically, children head home on Fridays and return late Sundays for a new week.  The ages range from a couple years to almost 6th or 7th grade.  After that age, there are no other resources for the children.  Many of them go to work.

One young brother and sister there had been rescued last Fall from starvation.  The family could no longer feed the 1 and 2 year old boy and girl.  So, they asked another family to take care of them.  However, that family too finally came to the heart wrenching decision that they, too, could no longer feed these two and feed their own kids.  So, they were placed in a corner, covered with blankets, and left to die of starvation.

One of the workers at the children’s home heard about it and went to see what she could do.  She encouraged the family to give the children to her to feed.  They were somewhat reluctant because they were afraid of the social stigma that may accompany when others find out about their plight.  After much coaxing, the two youngsters were given to her.  She drove the 4 1/2 hours over the rough dirt road to take the children to the nearest medical clinic.

The doctor at the clinic took one look at the 1 year old boy and declared there was no hope for him.  The two year old girl seemed to be in much better shape and a chance to live.  The compassionate worker who had spent all day hiking into the canyon to rescue the children and then driving over the jarring road to get there refused to allow the doctor to deny the boy treatment.  Finally, the doctor declared, “Fine.   If you can get him to eat something, perhaps there is hope.”  The only thing she had available was a small bag of potato chips.  She gingerly took out a small piece of a chip held it up before the listless boy.  Once the morsel was registered by the boy, he lunged at the potato chip and jammed it in his mouth.  “Well!” declared the surprised doctor, “It looks like he’s going to live.”

Tomasito - saved from starvation

While we were there we had the joy of holding these two lively kids.  They were full of life and joy.  This is one story among many that reveals the importance of this type of service to the indigenous people of the Copper Canyon who are locked in poverty.  Our team passed out bags of groceries that families were able to take home.  The food was available to everyone and anyone who came to receive.  The week’s worth of food, which many of them would attempt to stretch into a month, was gratefully received.  Women received food first and then the men who had come received food for their families also.

There are no shortcuts out of the Copper Canyon.  A train rides along the rim from Chihuahua to the Pacific Ocean.  For most of the residents of the canyon, the only supplies available are those that the hike out to receive and then pack back in to their families.  Some, a few, are fortunate enough to have a burro to help with the chore.  Most, however, continue to live as they did when the Spanish Conquistadors pushed them into the canyon 500 years ago.

So, we climbed back into our vehicles glad that we did not have to hike out of the canyon.  Instead, we bounced along for 4 1/2 hours until we got to a paved road, that led to the town of Creel that brought us to a good road back to Rio Chico.  After 10 hours on the road, we fell into our sleeping bags exhausted only to get up early the next morning for the 8 hour drive back to Juarez and El Paso.  It would be good to get home.

The illusion of short-term mission trips is that one has experienced fully what it means to be embedded and fully embraced in a mission project.  However, nothing could be further from the truth.  We were returning home.  We would go back to our routines in our American suburbanvilles.  The ones we were leaving behind would continue the work.  On Sunday, the next day, Tomas would preach a 7 am service in Juarez, an 11 am service in El Paso, and another 3 pm service in Juarez.  Then, Monday morning, he and his team would take the long torturous road back to the land of the Tarahumaras.  And do it all over again.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (April 18, 2011)

Tarahumara Dwelling

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I have long had a love affair with all things Greek: Greek cuisine, modern and ancient history, the ancient Koine language, mythology, as well as its ancient philosophers, playwrights, and important figures to European development.  I find these ancient connections with the development of modern thought in philosophy, politics, arts, and sciences fascinating.  It is a part of the world that holds a unique place in the development of Western civilization.

However, it has been some time since I delved into much of anything dealing with these subjects. My eclectic interests of late have taken me into 18th and 19th century American and European history.  This period, of course, has direct ties with and influences from the ancient Greek civilization.  I find it all fascinating.  Little did I know that this fascination would come into play with my dealings with a troubled young man recently.

For anonymity sake, we will call this young man Stephen. I had just recently taken a part-time administrative position at the church we attend (Central United Protestant Church in Richland, Washington).  I was posting some things on the bulletin board near our main entrance when this young man walked in with one of our church members, Bill.

Bill and Stephen walked up to me and Bill said to Stephen, “Hey!  Here’s is someone you can talk to.  He used to be a pastor.”

Turning toward me, Bill introduced his new companion, “Ron, this is Stephen.  I just met him on my way in and he really needs someone to talk to, do you have time to talk to him?  I’m in charge of Celebrate Recovery and we’re just about ready to get started.”

Bill turned back to Stephen, “If you want, after talking to Ron, why don’t you join us in the Fellowship Hall right around the corner over there?  We have dinner together and you are welcome to come eat with us.”  Bill pointed to a hall off the entry way they had just passed.

Stephen, looking down at the floor, timidly replied, “We’ll see.  Maybe.”

As Bill turned to leave us, I held out my hand to Stephen and said, “Hi, Stephen.  I’m Ron.  How can I help you?

Stephen, with his eyes not leaving the floor, replied, “I just need someone to talk to.  Is there some place private we can go to talk?

My office is not a private one. It is a center of activity.  My mind quickly turned to one of the many rooms located on an upper floor of our building.  “Sure.  Let’s go upstairs.  There’s bound to be a quiet room up there we can find.”

As I led our way up the stairwell just around the corner from us, I tried to make Stephen feel at ease with some small talk.Bill is a great guy.  The ministry he helps lead, Celebrate Recovery, is wonderful.  They start out with a meal together.  If you’re hungry and want to discover some new friends, I would highly recommend going.  You’ll find a lot of good people there.  We are all recovering from something and that is a good place to deal with whatever it may be.”

I entered the first empty room and turned on the light. Then I stepped aside as Stephen entered the room.  I gently swung the door shut but left it partially open in case of an emergency.  It was already apparent to me that Stephen was really struggling with something.  We seemed weighted down by the world.  The air in the room grew heavy.

As we each found a seat, I started by asking, “So, Stephen, how can I help you?  What do you want to talk with me about?

Stephen hesitated.I just came here because I needed someone to talk to.  I don’t know the difference between a pastor or a priest.  I haven’t been to church since I was really little.”

He let his words fall to the floor and became quiet. I waited.  After a few moments, he continued, “I really don’t know where to begin.”  He paused.  Then blurted out, “I guess I just need to say it.  What do you think about suicide?

I thought to myself, “Wow.  What a way to start work back at a church!”  However, I kept my composure and remained calm and reassuring.  I did not know at what stage of threat Stephen was to himself or if he was even referring to himself.  So, I probed with a question to get Stephen to talk and be more specific about what he was thinking and feeling.

I answered, “I’m not sure I understand.  Do you mean, what do I personally think about suicide?  Or, are you wondering what God thinks about suicide?

Then, trying to lighten the approach to a very heavy subject, I said, “As for myself, personally, I think death in any form sucks…except, perhaps, in my very old age in my sleep.”

Stephen cracked a small smile.I guess I’m wondering what God thinks,” he replied.

Well, without going into a long and boring theological explanation,” I began, “the Bible paints a picture of what God had in mind for humanity from the very beginning.  It is pictured in the Garden of Eden in the book of Genesis.  Humankind lived in perfect harmony with God, nature and one another.  However, humankind’s rebellion brought not only separation from God but also division and conflict with one another and even with nature.  One of the outcomes of this is also division and conflict with our own self.”

I paused and asked, “Do you kind of understand that picture?

Stephen nodded.

I continued, “Jesus was sent by God to reveal to us what God had in mind for us.  Not only that, but Jesus made it possible that we could be healed and restored in our relationship with God, one another, and even with ourselves.  In fact, Jesus promises a restoration of that perfect harmony one day.  Until then, life is a spiritual battle of restoring God’s order as he intended it from the beginning.”

I paused for a second to see if Stephen was tracking. He seemed deeply interested in what I had to say.  So I went on.

Stephen, I believe that many who attempt suicide do so out of the desperation of their brokenness.  It is not what God wants for any of us and it grieves His heart when we destroy what he created.  At the same time, I have to recognize that every individual is unique and the reasons that lead someone to such desperate action cannot be judged by any human.  So, God will deal with each individual out of His own mercy and love for them.  If you’re wondering if I believe that a person is automatically destined to hell because they commit suicide, I would say, ‘No.’  Only God is judge and only he knows what is going on in a person’s heart and mind at that point.”

I turned toward Stephen and asked, “Many times thoughts of suicide are driven by a sense of great loss.  Have you experienced a great loss or sense of loss lately that makes you feel like life is hopeless and purposeless?

Stephen thought for a moment and then said, “No.  Not really.”

Then what do you think makes you feel like life is so pointless?” I asked.

Stephen grew quiet. I could tell he was pondering what to say.

Finally, the words spilled out, “I guess pretty much my whole life.  My parents ruined themselves financially and so I am not able to go to college even though I and my sisters did really well in High School.  My sisters and I don’t have anything to do with our parents.  Their lives are all screwed up and we’ve realized that we grew up in a really messed up family.  So we are all angry at our parents.”

How old are you, Stephen,” I probed.

Nineteen,” he answered.

Well, there is still plenty of time to go to school and there are lots of creative ways to pay your way through school,” I offered.

Yeah, well, there is something more.”  Stephen grew solemn again as he gathered his thoughts.  “I did something really awful to someone,” he finally said.

What was it that you did?  Did you physically hurt someone?  Did you steal from them?  What was so awful?” I asked.

It was nothing illegal.  But it was something really bad.  I had this friend that I worked with and did something really bad to him.  You see, he was the manager of the store and we got to be really good friends.  We did a lot of stuff together outside of work.  I thought we were having a great time but then he started to grow really distant.  Pretty soon he didn’t want to spend any time with me.  He was pretty much the only friend I had…have had.”

Stephen fell silent for a moment and I could see tears in his eyes.I don’t know what I did to make him angry.  But he would not talk to me or anything.  I would call and he would not answer.  I left messages but he never called back.  So, I thought the only way to get his attention was to make him think that I was dead.  So, I had my sister call him and tell him that I had committed suicide because I was so sad.

Stephen looked at me to see if I would react to this news. I calmly replied, “Go on.  What happened next?

Well, my friend became really upset because he thought that he had caused me to kill myself.  Then, when I finally let him know that I was really alive and had not killed myself, he grew even more angry.  Now, it’s worse than our relationship was before and now I’m thinking that it would have been better to actually have done it.  I’ve screwed up my life.”

 

Wall Mural In Roslyn, Washington, September 2010

Wall Mural In Roslyn, Washington, September 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

I let a moment go by before responding.Stephen, when we began I asked you if you had experienced any losses in your life.  At that time you told me that you did not think so.  However, listening to your story, I am hearing you tell me of three very great significant losses in your life.  All of these have happened very recently:  First, you are grieving the loss of your family and the relationship you thought you had or wish you had with your parents.  Second, you are grieving the loss of a dream; a dream to go to school.  Third, you are grieving the death of a relationship with a very close friend.  Stephen, that is a great amount of loss for anyone to have to deal with in their life let alone someone as young as you.  It is no wonder to me, then, that you feel life is pointless, hopeless and purposeless.  Do you understand what I am saying and do you think what I am saying is hitting home?

Yeah,” Stephen softly replied.

You are only 19 years old.  I’m 49.  I can tell you that there is a lot of life yet ahead of you.  Life is rough and tough.  No one comes out unbroken.  In fact, the reason why I am in a faith community is because I believe that broken lives can be mended and put back together again with God’s help.  I believe Jesus not only shows us the way but also provides the way to become whole again.  Our whole church is full of broken people.  We are all at different places along the road to recovery.  You cannot get through life without experiencing brokenness.  That is what you are experiencing.”

Stephen, I cannot offer you any quick-fix formulas, but I can tell you that you are just beginning to write your own life story.  I believe that God wants to be a part of writing the stories of our lives.  I don’t think your story is over yet.  It seems hard now, but this is not the end of the story.  It might be one of your darkest chapters, but it is not the final chapter.  I want to encourage you to consider allowing God to be a part of your life so that he can help put the broken pieces your life back together.  He has a different story to write than the one you may be thinking of right now.”

What do you think about what I’ve said so far?”  I wanted to offer Stephen a chance to respond.

People have been telling me that maybe I need to consider religion,” Stephen began.  “Some of my friends say that it would help me a lot.”

Well, if you mean by ‘religion’ a formulaic way of living your life within religious ritual, then I cannot help you there.  Personally, I have not found that satisfying.  However, I like to talk less in terms of the word religion and more about relationship.  It is all about having a relationship with God that heals the division and distance between us and God, us and others, and even us and our own selves.

I wanted to draw some kind of story or parallel that might capture his attention. It was at this point that my love for Greek invaded my consciousness.

Personally, I think that without God, life is like a Greek tragedy play by Euripides.  Humankind stands no chance against the chaos of life and capriciousness of its gods.  We are all doomed.  This would make life seem pointless.  How can we ever win?  Why keep going?  We are no better than Sisyphus trying to endlessly push the bolder up the mountain only to have it come crashing down on us again.  Is our only meaning to be found in the eternal struggle?  Is that all that is left of life is to get up again and start pushing the bolder back up the mountain?  I don’t think so.  I think that there is a better way.  For me, I have found it in a relationship with God through Jesus Christ and in community with other believers who are on the same journey.  We are all at different places on that journey, but we all see with hope the opportunity to be healed and made whole again.”

I knew that I had just unloaded a lot, so I wanted to take a moment to see if Stephen was tracking with me or if I had just lost him with all the Greek history and mythology.

What do you think about what I’ve said?” I offered.

You’ve certainly given me a lot to think about,” he replied.  “I need to take some time to consider it.  I appreciate your time and don’t want to keep you any longer.  You have really helped me.”

I’m glad that I was able to help,” I returned.  “I really want to encourage you to consider taking Bill up on his offer for dinner.  I think you’ll have a great opportunity to meet some new friends there.  Also, we have a counseling center here and I would also encourage you to seek further counseling and help with a professional.  Would you like me to help you with that?

Stephen smiled a weak smile, “No.  I’ll be alright.  I just needed someone to talk to and this really helped.  By the way, do you always teach Greek when you counsel people?

I chuckled, “No.  I’m sorry.  I have an odd education background and love pretty much all things Greek.  I got really caught up into it when I was in collegeI don’t usually try to bore people with Greek history or philosophy.”

That OK,” Stephen replied.  “You see, that is my favorite subject and it is the direction I wanted to go into for college and then graduate studies.  My dream is to one day teach Greek history and philosophy.  So, I loved your reference to Euripides and Sisyphus.  I’ve not heard many people refer to them before in a conversation.”

I was surprised.You know.  I don’t think you’re meeting me today and, out of all the people here at the church that you could have talked to you, that you talked with me was by accident.  You see, if God is actively writing my story, which I believe He is, then part of my story for today was a divine appointment with a young man named, Stephen.  Can I pray with you before you leave?

Sure.  I would like that,” Stephen replied.

The room seemed a little lighter when Stephen left. To be sure, his troubles had not vanished and there was still a rough course in front of him.  I think about him and pray for him each day since our encounter.  Stephen reminds me that our world is full of people who live completely or partially broken lives.  We are all in need of repair and renewal.  At the same time, even people on their own journey toward wholeness can be used to point out the path to healing for others who are searching.  And they may even engage Euripides to help do it.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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