An Evangelical Pilgrimage
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Category — About OTNR

Important Update


Things have been quiet around here. The last post is five weeks old. I think we’ve posted just six times in the last two months. Some of the posts are only marginally about our trip, and most don’t mention the trip at all. The dearth of updates doesn’t reflect a lack of activity, a calm before the storm of our scheduled departure in early March. We’ve actually posted less because of just how very much activity there has been behind the scenes. Everything has happened, the ground beneath our feet shifting from one day to the next. Daily updates would have been exhausting and cruel. Only our families and Dave and Kristialyn should have to go through that. Now the ground has stopped shaking and everything is changed. It’s time to fill you in.

In short, we are postponing the trip. Our adventure was possible because my work as a grant writer can be done from anywhere as long as I have a telephone and internet access. But the grants business has slowed to a trickle. My unspoken belief that my line of work was recession-proof — thanks to the stimulus money, what one of my colleagues calls ObamaBucks — was foolish. We haven’t had steady grant work since October. My family is now in a position where we need to hunker down, finish paying off debt, and start saving money again to replenish the cash reserves we’ve burned through these last few months.

We don’t regret in the least our decision to pack up and leave the city we love. We’ve made our way up and down the West Coast, as we always intended. We spent wonderful time with my family in Keizer, with Kate’s family in Grass Valley-Nevada City, and with friends in Chico, California, which is where we are now. We even made it back to Portland a couple times. Since October, we have been the recipients of an enormous measure of hospitality and grace. I know that Kate is looking forward to utilizing her own gift of hospitality when we settle down. And it is time to settle down.

Time on the road taught Kate and me several valuable lessons. One important lesson is that today is provided for, and that that can be enough. A second, related lesson is to hold loosely to future plans. The rest of the blog post was written and should be read with those two lessons in mind.

Kate and I foresaw the need to make this decision, and so we talked and prayed for a few weeks about where we want to settle down. It ultimately came down to two choices: Grass Valley-Nevada City, or somewhere near these two little towns in Oregon, Mt. Angel and Silverton, which are just a few miles apart and not far from Salem and Portland. Both areas have a lot in common: they are communities which seem to be intimate with their landscapes, supportive of rural living but still within easy driving distance of urban amenities like airports and museums and the arts, proximity to family, proximity to outdoor adventure like hiking and camping, open space, plenty of inspiration for my writing. In addition, these communities seem like they could support a small bookstore, which has become a recurring feature of our daydreams.

In the end, we decided on the Mt. Angel-Silverton area. What ultimately tipped us toward Oregon is our community there. These last few months, we’ve taken the American dream of mobility and life without geographical constraints to an extreme, and we don’t want to keep living there. Though our lives have been untethered from any actual place, we were always orienting ourselves, like magnetic north, toward our friends and family. We have some special people in Oregon. Like Dave and K-yo, Mark Lore (of and Alexis, Dustin and Cara and Moses, Libby, Yubi, the Westbrooks, Sarah and Trevor, Brit and Andy, the (Stable) Gabels, the Brunos, and Jon (Daddy) Riker.

Kate will be going back to work, something she is actually excited about. I’ve started sending e-mails asking about apartments and houses in Mt. Angel and Silverton. Our plan right now is to drive back to Oregon on January 17. For good, it seems. We don’t have a place to stay yet, but we know we’ll manage somehow. There are even strong signs that the grant business is ratcheting up for the spring — too late to save our trip, but very welcome.

On the Narrow Road isn’t dead. We’ll continue to use this blog to document our family’s attempt to live in a way that does not conform to the broad road of consumerism and American excess. It’s time to learn how to live within boundaries, submit ourselves to a community and a place and to God. It’s time I learned how to live a life governed not by the overwhelming appetites of the present, but by the accumulated wisdom of the past, with an eye on the future, planting sequoias, judging each decision by how it will effect the world Molly will inherit from me, if there is a world left for her to inherit.

I hope to continue writing the OTNR book. Instead of writing the book in the form of a long travel narrative, I am going to go back to my original idea: 12 essays about 12 churches. Each article can stand alone, and I will try to publish them in magazines as individual essays. Then I’d like to add a 13th chapter which would be the account of a month-long road trip (very different than the 36 weeks Kate and I originally planned) to re-visit the churches, talk to people along the way, and draw some broad conclusions about evangelicalism in America. If it makes sense for us financially, I’d like to start the project by visiting my childhood church in Lincoln, Nebraska this March or April.

And so our adventure will be a journey not measured in miles but in the distance from the head to the heart, and between Kate and me, and between us and you, our community. Thank you for coming this far, gentle reader. Won’t you continue on with us?

January 5, 2010   10 Comments



Portland, OR :: It bothers me that I haven’t been able to summarize this project for the “About” page of the blog. No kidding, I wake up every morning worrying over what that might mean. I wrote a little in a previous post about what the project is not, but hardly anything about what it is.

When I am asked in person to describe OTNR, I ramble awkwardly for five minutes. I say something about growing up in the evangelical church, and something else about exploring our spiritual heritage; I go on about visiting churches and talking to people along the way, and then, when the person’s eyes glaze over, I say the only thing I know for sure, which is that I don’t know what to expect – that the the project will be shaped by what we find out there on the road.

“Do you know where you’re going to go?” is another common question. But we don’t really. We hope to spend October with my parents in Keizer, Oregon (just north of Salem), November in northern California, and December in southern California. We’ll spend January and February somewhere on the west coast, though we don’t have definite plans. Then in late February or early March we’ll start from Portland and point our camper van, RV, or trailer east. I’d like to head immediately to Lincoln, Nebraska to visit my old church. Who knows after that. “Do you know where you will go?” is a completely reasonable question. (It’s also, come to think of it, a question with two meanings for many of the people I hope to talk to on this journey.) But I can’t give you a good answer.

I feel a bit like the Australian Aborigine who, submitting to the call of the “walkabout,” sets out on a moment’s notice and follows the invisible paths of his ancestors. These invisible paths are known to indigenous Australians as “Footprints of the Ancestors” or “Way of the Law.” To Europeans they are called “Dreaming Tracks” or “Songlines.”

The great traveler Bruce Chatwin wrote in a book called “The Songlines” that “wherever men have trodden they have left a trail of song (of which we may, now and then, catch an echo).” Chatwin imagines that “these trails must reach back, in time and space, to an isolated pocket in the African savannah, where the First Man opening his mouth in defiance of the terrors that surrounded him, shouted the opening stanza of the World Song ‘I AM!’” This is the best description I have for the project. It’s not even mine, but it will suffice for now: we’ll be traveling along the songlines of American evangelicalism.

All this is to say, be patient, dear reader; stick with us. Hope with us that the details of the project will unfold as we submit to its momentum.

August 30, 2009   2 Comments

On the Name


Portland, OR :: This project was originally conceived three years ago under the title “The Way We Worship.” My plan was to write twelve essays on twelve churches. The essays would collectively document the diverse ways in which American Christians gather for prayer, praise, teaching, and fellowship. I wanted to explore everything from megachurches to house churches; churches that are dying to churches that are thriving; congregations that meet in white clapboard buildings on a country road, and churches that meet in brewpubs and coffee houses in the middle of the city; postmodern churches on the “cutting-edge” and churches that are profoundly, proudly modern.

While the simplicity of this idea still appeals to me, I’ve come to feel constrained by the original title and structure. There is an obligation to look for archetypal churches, which lacks spontaneity – and besides, I want to meet people, not archetypes. In addition, the title “The Way We Worship” implies an almost exclusive focus on Saturday night or Sunday morning services, which isn’t enough. Far from it (cf. the well-written but ill-conceived recent article by Jason Boyett on the Relevant website, “6 Denominations in 6 Weeks”, about which I will have more to say in a future post). Finally, the rigid framework – twelve essays on twelve churches – doesn’t leave much room to write about my family’s physical, spiritual, and relational journey.

Last week I was reading a collection of Wendell Berry’s poetry, and I came across a Sabbath poem that beautifully summarizes my present goals for this project – and for myself apart from this project. The “rarest wildflowers” are the people Kate and I will meet on our trip.

I dream of a quiet man
who explains nothing and defends
nothing, but only knows
where the rarest wildflowers
are blooming, and who goes,
and finds that he is smiling
not by his own will.

It was Dave who suggested the title “On the Narrow Road,” a play on Jack Kerouac’s 1957 classic novel “On the Road.” A quick internet search revealed something interesting: the only other use  of the title I could find was a 1989 book by Lesley Downer called “On the Narrow Road: A Journey into Lost Japan.” Downer’s book retraces the steps of the 17th century Japanese haiku poet, Basho, who wrote about his own pilgrimage in a travelogue sometimes translated as “The Narrow Road to the Interior.” The word “interior” in Basho’s title refers not just to mountainous interior of northern Japan but to the poet’s own inner journey. I picked up a copy of Basho’s travel narratives at Powell’s and, reading late into the night, I realized I had found a kindred spirit. Basho did just what I wanted to do: he headed north, visited temples (churches), and talked with people along the way.

Basho, a Zen Buddhist, wrote with a level of detachment I admire. He doesn’t defend or criticize or even celebrate. His poetry and prose are not didactic. His writing just is. My sociologist friend Matt will probably say that detachment is all but impossible when dealing with a subject – my spiritual heritage, American evangelicalism – so intimate and charged with meaning. But I feel like the pursuit of detachment, if not it’s attainment, is critical to this project’s success.

There is plenty to celebrate in American evangelicalism; God knows there is plenty to criticize. But I am not a good enough writer to do those things well. I’ll stick with the basics: this is who I am, this is where I come from, this is where we are going.

August 18, 2009   14 Comments