Sunday, September 21, 2008

A Quick Life Update

Hello for the final time tonight, faithful reader.  Please read the two posts below, which complete my review of Jenny Jump State Forest and pose a few interesting (at least interesting to me) questions about fear.

As for my life, I am busier than a beaver or an ant before winter.  Over the last few weeks I have been preparing for the fall academic semester, hanging out with my wife and trying to relax as much as possible (to no avail).  Now I am in the thick of academia, about to plunge even further in its murky depths.  I am taking several fantastic classes this semester: Systematic Theology, Preaching, Writing as Faith Practice and Greek Translation.  I am also starting a unit of Field Education, working at a local Church in Trenton, NJ.  Needless to say, I am both eager and cautious about what lies ahead of me.  I hope, and fear, that I will be stretched this semester, in ways that I have never been.  I also hope that this will be a time of discernment for me, a time of questioning and finding answers, even if those answers lead to more questions.  

More than anything, I want to find joy and passion.  I want to know that I am at least getting out of the woods, even if I am not yet on the right path.  I want to know whether the light I see ahead is the daylight I so desire, or a train I should avoid.  I want to know if I am running away, or running toward, if I am escaping from or finally heading home.  Many of you know that I am caught in my thoughts between believing that I am called to parish ministry (being an ordained pastor) or academia (being a professor, or teach of some kind), or perhaps a third option (God only knows... literally).  Since I was in seventh grade, I have believed that I was called by God to do something.  For almost nine years I thought that that something was being a minister of the word and sacrament.  In fact, I never gave a second thought that this was my path.  

One day, during a class that aimed to view the pastor as a person, a class that focused on knowing oneself, the thought hit my like a train: what if I am not called to be a pastor?  I had been told this many times before, of course, that there were many callings, many vocations, many ways to live for God.  But I had never asked this question of myself.  I had been having a growing discomfort and apathy over the pastoral role, specifically the pastor as counselor and the pastor as administrator.  Slowly, I had begun to resent the fact that pastors nowadays, at least in the Presbyterian Church, are looked upon as administrators, counselors, healers, preachers, teachers, parents, prophets and a myriad of other things.  This seemed to me to contradict directly 1 Corinthians 12: 

"27Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. 28And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues. 29Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues[d]? Do all interpret?"

If not all are apostles and teachers and prophets and healers and interpreters and administrators, why are pastors supposed to be?  Why are we not calling more and more on our congregations to take up the gifts God has given them?  Why are we not, more and more, de-emphasizing the position of pastor, instead of lifting it higher and expecting pastors to be gods?  Pastors are simply members of the church, chosen, for a time, to lead, or to exhort, to comfort.  But this is the job of all.  And pastors are simply congregants who feel that God has given them something to say, a vision for the church.  They are no greater than and are not more gifted than the people in their congregations.

Compounding all of this was the fact that I had become more and more attracted to the idea of teaching.  I have always thought of myself as a teacher, and all through my life I have held in tension three future occupations: writer, professor, pastor.  I have focused much of my life on pastor, thinking that it was the "God-ordained" ministry, the only one that could be viewed as a true "calling," (and isn't this what many of us think?).  Yet I remember thinking often how wonderful it would be to teach, to see the light of understanding glow in students eyes, to impart knowledge, to learn from my students, to question with them.

As soon as I was struck by this thought, the thought that I did not have to be a pastor, I felt both great fear and a great release.  I was afraid for what I would tell my family and my wife's family, who had known me for years, and had heard me say many times that I was confident that I was going to be a pastor.  I was afraid to tell my friends, some of whom were depending on me, who were going to be pastors with me, who had asked me (sometimes jokingly, sometimes not) to officiate their weddings when I was finally ordained.  I was afraid of the fact that it might mean seven more years of schooling, seven more years of being poor.  I was afraid and ashamed that I had for so long talked to my wife about only being here for three years, and she had put some of her dreams on hold to come here to support me.  I was afraid that I was straying from the path.  And yet, simultaneously, a great burden that I hadn't known was there lifted off of my shoulders.  I carried it still, supported high and pulling slightly on my armpits, until I finally broke the news to my wife.  She sat in silence for a while, questioning, and then said what she has always said to me: "I will support you and love you wherever you go."  The straps on my burden broke.  I felt free, and yet still fearful.  Hard times and hard questions have followed, but God's love and the love of my wife have continued to sustain me.

I still do not know if I have simply shrugged off the cross I was meant to bear ("take up your cross and follow me," said Jesus) or if I escaped from my own preconceived notions of ministry and the call God has for me.  I don't know if I have left the path, or ventured toward it.  So this year is a time of discernment.  I'm still taking all of the necessary classes to be ordained (although I am no longer engaged in the long, tedious, expensive Presbyterian process of ordination).  I am still working in a church for a field education experience, about to do all the things that I have no passion for, to see if my passion is actually just tempered by fear and needs to be overcome by love.  

I apologize for that not-so-brief update.  It just poured out of me.  Thank you for reading, if you have read this far.  I am sure I'm not the only one searching for a meaning and a purpose.  Grace and Peace to you, faithful reader.

Communing with Nature 5: Jenny Jump Musings

Well, here we are, finally, the end of my Jenny Jump posts.  It is hard to pull exact thoughts from an event that occurred three weeks ago, but I remember generalities and certain images flash through my mind.

Fear.  I wrote briefly about this in the last two posts, but I would like to elaborate on it here.  I freely admit that I was deeply afraid at moments on this trip.  Black bears are not normally a problem in the Wasatch and Uinta Mountain ranges of Utah (at least not that I can remember).  So, though I have been camping before, I've never had to think about bears.  Our first night in Jenny Jump, I lay awake for several hours after Sarah had finally gone to sleep, jumping at every noise, wondering if we'd left any meat residue on anything outside, pondering whether or not woven plastic and fiber-glass poles were enough to keep out a four-hundred pound bear.  Rest eventually came by way of shear exhaustion and the uncomfortable realization that if we were attacked by a bear, at least we were together and it was our time to go.  As I lay thinking the second night, my mind went to our distant ancestors, cave-dwellers, roaming nomads, sheepherders.  How could they have done it?  They must have either just been used to the fear, or must have had a higher tolerance for frayed nerves.  No wonder everything was turned into some type of deity.  No wonder so many of the first stories involved animals as characters.  Anthropomorphizing something frightening and strange, by its very definition, means to make something more human, more acceptable, more like us.  And communal stories of tricksters and lovers and the comedy of tragedy turn the frightening night into something known, something contained, something that can be passed on from parent to child, a secret.  When we can name something, we have power over it, we can classify it, make it more manageable.  

Now we live in a time when the mystery of the animal and the danger of the night have shifted.  We constantly assert our dominance over all of nature.  We have declawed our nightmares.  Yet we still cling to our old tactic of naming things, categorizing them, telling stories.  But now we tell these stories about each other, turn each other into archetypes.  Fear of animals has become fear of each other -- or perhaps the fear was there all along, but now that we have conquered one, the other has moved forward in our minds.  Tribalism has existed for millennia, of course, and prejudice right along with it.  Still, we are now fighting against our very "nature," that engrained habit that tells us labeling something makes it more safe and more close, even if it also creates an artificial distance between souls.  

I will not comment here on the candidates in our current political race, neither the one for whom I would vote, nor the one for whom I would not.  But I will write that I have heard many pundits and political know-it-alls questioning the role of racism and sexism in our decision-making. With a woman and an african-american both running, they assume, race and sex will have a huge part to play in this election.  During a special on CNN hosted by Roland Martin, one commentator even ventured to assert that more people vote on feeling and on who is most like them than on the issues.  What bothers me most about this is that it is, itself, a classification, a labeling, a naming.  The "american public" will most likely vote thusly because of their collective trending toward being like this or like that.  I ask, can we not conquer our nature?  Can we not bridge the distance cultivated by our need to name?  Whether you are against Sarah Palin because she is a woman, John McCain and Joe Biden because they are old, or Barack Obama because he is an African-american, can we not do better?  Or are we doomed, for now, to stay bound to our old ways and the fear that informs them?  Because it is fear, as far as I can see, that is the true determiner in this election.  Fear of war, fear of loss, fear of poverty, fear of the other.  I find it ironic that we are engaged in a "War on Terror."  Are we truly fighting our fear?  Or are we fighting the things of which we are afraid?  The title of this blog is "There is no fear in love."  The wider context of this quote is: "There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment." (1 John 4:18)  The true test of our times is whether or not we can overcome our fear with love.  At least that's my take on it.  Please leave comments, faithful readers, and thank you for staying with me.

Communing with Nature 4: Jenny Jump Beauty

Dear faithful readers, I can only apologize for my absence with excuses: the beginning of the school year, my duties as a deacon, and general laziness.  I am sincerely sorry for my absence.  Of course, maybe some of you are simply bored of this whole Jenny Jump review and are waiting for me to return to something more substantial.  Well, have no worries, I will.  In fact, I will try to post two quick final Jenny Jump posts and then finally post a third, general update of my life.  So, with all of that written, prepare yourself, dear reader, for a virtual (ha, because we're on the internet) glut of posts.

First of all, let's think about the beauty of Jenny Jump.  If you've never been camping, I really cannot adequately describe to you the musky, cloying smell of decaying leaves and the freshness of the air.  I cannot match the glory of a bright blue sky, the color of a baby's eyes, clear as sight will allow.  I cannot even broach the subject of a midnight sky with a few whispy clouds and the comforting sight of familiar constellations far from home.  Camping brings me to my roots, makes me wonder how afraid our tent-dwelling ancestors must have been, surrounded by the bark of wild animals and the twinkling sounds of insects.  Every motion teasing their nerves.  How insulated we are in our cities full of human noise.  I feel more awake and alive when I'm camping.  I feel more aware.

And the art of camping itself, well, how can I describe to you the success of a fire made only with a few pieces of newspaper, a match and some dry wood?  How can I tell you how satisfying it is to sleep in a tent erected with your own hands and sweat (even though Eddie Bauer helped with the design)?  How, if you've never been camping, can I possibly manage to evoke the weary pride that comes from hiking for five or six hours, the refreshing feeling of slick sweat pouring from your pores, the knowledge that you have worked and you have achieved something as you stand at the cliff edge on the summit of a mountain, surveying the terrain before you?

All of that to say that my deepest wish for you, dear reader, is that you know this joy, you know this pride, you know this radical experience (radical meaning "going to the root").  My heart aches for you to go camping for yourself if you never have.  Meanwhile, these brief descriptions, I hope, encourage you to go.  And now these brief descriptions will be supplemented by pictures.

The eponymous fire, built with my own hands.  It was a quick fire, meant to burn out before we went to sleep.

Just one of the spectacular views from our many hikes.

A Jenny Jump Sunset.  Wild bats were flying around in the gathering dusk.  I tried to capture them with the camera, but they were fluttering too fast.

I love pictures of paths.  Maybe it's my current preoccupation with a search for a vocation, but I think I've always been fascinated by a good path picture.  Not to say that this is a particularly good path picture, but something about the dappled light on the brown dirt and the golden sun striking the green undergrowth caught my eye.

And finally, the satisfaction of a successful hike.  And a beautiful woman by my side.

Stay tuned for the final Jenny Jump update and then a life update.  Thanks for sticking with me, faithful reader.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Communing with Nature 3: Jenny Jump State Forest Review

Well, here it is, finally, the review of Jenny Jump State Forest.  First, a couple of preliminaries.  I made a decision right when I created this blog that I would moderate the comments.  This means that, before I post the comments, I will review them.  So, if you comment on a blog post your comment might not appear right away because I make sure that i read them through before posting them.  This is simply because I want to make sure that some random person doesn't post something offensive in the comments.  This does not mean that I won't post something if someone doesn't agree with me, but only that I won't post something if it's from someone I don't know and I feel that it will be incredibly offensive to someone I do know.  Also, I would love to respond to every comment on every blog post, and that was my initial intent, but I don't think that it is a realistic goal.  I wish that it was.  I may comment back now and then, but, please don't take offense if I don't comment on something that you write.  Please know that I do read all of the comments (obviously, since I moderate them all) and that I thank you so much for writing.

Now, on to Jenny Jump.  The first thing I have to say is that a state forest like Jenny Jump proves that New Jersey does, in part, deserve the name of the "Garden State."  Obviously, large cities like Trenton and Newark and the mess and smoke and urban sprawl that naturally come with large cities dominate the rather slim state of New Jersey.  But there are plenty of beautiful spots here, and Jenny Jump is one of them.

From hilltop vistas to beautiful hiking trails, Jenny Jump is a sight for sore eyes.  Here are a few pictures for proof.

A view from the Ghost Lake trail.

A view from the Summit trail.

Another view from the Summit trail.

A view of the Summit trail.

The campsites themselves are quite nice.  There are both roadside and walk-in campsites.  Roadside ones are a few feet off of the road.  Walk-in sites are either 25 yards or 75 yards from the road that runs through the forest.  Sarah and I chose a 25 yard walk-in site, and it was perfect.  Each site has a fire pit, a bear-pole to hang trash/food (although they highly recommend putting trash and food in your car trunk for safety) a picnic table and plenty of cleared space for tents.  The State Forest also has eight "cabins" which are log-structures with an outdoor fire pit and picnic table, an indoor wood-burning stove and four bunk beds.  And the Forest has two group sites, one for about 20-25 people, the other for about 40-60.  All of the campsites are close to restrooms that are cleaned regularly (and thoroughly) for those who really don't like to use leaves for toilet paper and to dig a pit in the ground.  The staff at Jenny Jump was extremely nice and very helpful (even staying a few minutes late so that we could finish registering and giving us advice on where to get cheap firewood).  Here are a few pictures of our campsite:

The picnic table and our tent and camp chairs.  Notice that you cannot even see our car.  The path goes down directly from behind our camp chairs.

Me, starting a fire at our fire pit.  You can see its proximity to the tent and picnic table.

Sarah and I were in Jenny Jump during the week at the end of the summer, after labor day, so our time there was pretty quiet.  But, as far as we can tell, Jenny Jump is not very well known in New Jersey (we had difficulty finding reviews and websites about it, and many of those reviews mentioned how quiet it was).  Nevertheless, for us it was very quiet and we had a very relaxing time.  None of the hikes were more than two miles, and, while several of them had a few challenging spots and some steep inclines, they were generally accessible and very fun.  There are a few campsites and I think one trail that are disability accessible.  

A few drawbacks: the forest is close to a few major highways (including I-80), and traffic noise is heard amongst the many forest noises of squirrels and owls.  There are black bears in the area, so you have to be very careful with food and other things.  This fact especially left me a little jumpy and cautious, as we rarely had to concern ourselves with bears in Utah, and so I hadn't dealt with them before.  But the office does provide information and hints on bears, and if you follow their advice you should have a great time.  Also, ticks.  There are ticks in New Jersey forests, and in Jenny Jump.  Some of them carry Lyme Disease and other ailments.  So, another thing that you have to watch out for.  Wear long pants, use bug spray.  Again, the office has hints.  Of course, I couldn't sleep well the first night after reading the guides on bears and ticks, but the fear faded soon (ish).  Finally, the Ghost Lake is not as pretty as it looks in pictures.  It's not bad, but it's not very big and it actually is not open for fishing right now.  The hiking trail there was beautiful in its own right, but I was underwhelmed by the lake.  Still, we came at the end of summer, and perhaps it was more beautiful early on.  Here are a few pictures.  Judge for yourself:

This is pretty much the extent of the lake.  It was full of lily pads and weeds and you could tell why it was called Ghost Lake.  It seemed haunted.

There were a few beautiful lilies in the lake.  We also saw a few wild turkeys, but we couldn't get a picture of them.  By the way, did you know that Male Turkeys can fly up to 50 mph and grow a "beard?"

Overall, the trip was wonderful and relaxing and I would recommend the Jenny Jump State Forest to anyone interested in camping in the New Jersey/Pennsylvania area.  Tomorrow: Beauty in Jenny Jump.  Thanks, as usual, for reading.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Communing with Nature 2: Jenny Jump Review

Greetings faithful reader!

I apologize for not updating over the last few days.  Obviously, Sarah and I were camping for the first three days of the week, and I've been recuperating and watching the Republican National Convention for the last two.  So, now I'm back and ready to be posting.  I think I'm going to do a short series, perhaps three separate posts, on our camping trip.  It was so amazing and so many great things went on, that I don't want to overwhelm you with a huge, long, unreadable post.  So, I'll start off with a review of Jenny Jump State Forest, continue onto a discussion of beauty and all that we saw at Jenny Jump, and finish with thoughts and experiences that came from our trip. Part 1 - a review of Jenny Jump State Forest will be appearing either tomorrow (Sunday, September 7) or Monday, and then each following day I'll post about the other two topics.

So, thank you again, faithful reader, and I'll leave you with a teaser of our adventures.

Sarah and I sitting outside of our tent.

A home away from home, complete with uno cards, a word puzzle book, and, if you look closely, my guitar.

At the end of our adventures.  Both of us look a little sleepy, and I'm pretty greasy from two days without a shower, but I'd say we're a pretty handsome couple.  (Side note, isn't it interesting that the word couple, which is essentially gender neutral, is often paired with the word handsome, which is often connotative of a masculine trait?)

Monday, September 1, 2008

Communing With Nature

For all of you faithful readers, a quick update:

This past weekend my parents came up to visit us.  It was a whirlwind trip, driving twelve hours on Saturday, spending Saturday night and Sunday with us, and then leaving for a return drive of twelve hours at six o'clock this morning.  Though the visit was brief, the time was precious.  We played yahtzee, ate well, talked quite a bit, and just spent time together.  (for those keeping count of such things, my mother won both yahtzee games).

As I type, Sarah is cleaning out our cooler.  We are preparing to go to Northern New Jersey for what we hope will be a relaxing two-day camping excursion.  Our camping site of choice is a place called Jenny's Jump (I'll type the story of the place later, but as a teaser, I'll say that the area includes quite a few places with the names of Ghost and Dead).  It's supposed to be a very quiet, restful area, with a few camping sites, a nice hiking trail, and good weather this week.

I'm typing quickly, as I need to pack, but I will give you a full update when we return on Wednesday, including a review of the campsite, pictures and any thoughts that come to me while we are communing with nature.