An Evangelical Pilgrimage
Random header image... Refresh for more!

Category — Posts by John

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

My Place in this World


Penn Valley, CA :: Kate just told me that I stress her out more than any person she knows. I wanted to point out a few obvious exceptions – Hitler, Pol Pot, swine flu – but I didn’t go there. So I stress her out more than any person she knows; it’s not hard to see why: this afternoon I came to her with another idea.

Amidst the never-ending stream of my bright ideas, there is one dream Kate and I keep coming back to. We’ve talked for a couple years now about buying a little acreage with Dave and Kristialyn, producing as much of our own food as possible, putting down roots, and living life within a specific geographical, cultural, and community context. But we get discouraged because it feels like we’ve been priced out of the market. Property is expensive. We don’t feel like we should work office jobs we hate in order to enjoy our homestead for a couple hours a night before bed, with occasional weekend visits. (I don’t mean jobs that are hard. I mean jobs that are inharmonious with our values and priorities.) Nor do we want to wait for retirement. Why work for forty years at jobs we “hate” in the vague hope that once we retire we can finally live a life that is consistent with our principles, as well as our deep desires? This amounts to a hatred of the present tense, with no guarantee that we’ll make it to retirement anyway, and it requires us to compartmentalize our lives in a way that can’t but damage our spirits.

Going back even further to when we were just married, Kate and I had a different vision for our lives. We talked about opening up a little bookstore in some little town. I’d be in charge of the bookselling, Kate would make pastries and coffee. Between customers I would write my own books. Our little shop would sell both new and used volumes, and I would be able to promote books and authors I like. I’m not sure what happened to this particular dream. We held on to it for a while, but it got buried by the demands of daily living.

Driving around Grass Valley today, I was again discouraged by how out of reach our little piece of land seems. Then I remembered that other dream, the bookstore.

It just so happens that I’m getting ready to re-read Wendell Berry’s novel, “Jayber Crow,” for an essay I have to write. And driving around I remembered that, unlike most of the characters in Berry’s fiction, which centers around the community of Port William, Kentucky, Jayber Crow was not a farmer. Jayber’s skill was barbering. When Jayber made his way to Port William, the town happened to need a barber, and so Jayber took over the chair.

Jayber Crow performed several services essential for community life. Besides cutting hair, Jayber’s barber shop became a meeting place. Whether they needed a cut or not, men were always stopping by to share the latest news, catch up, or just watch life happen on the street outside the shop window.

No kidding, I believe access to a good local bookstore is essential to the health of a community. Bookshops are businesses, and local bookshops are local businesses. They are storehouses of knowledge and wisdom and renewal. (The word “store” comes from the Latin word meaning “to renew,” though I write this post on Black Friday, when few retailers seem especially concerned about renewal.) They can be gathering places, houses of hospitality. I also believe bookselling can be a vocation, in the sense of using one’s gifts – time, abilities, and resources – for the common good. (As one example, it seems like the folks at Hearts & Minds Bookstore in Pennsylvania approach bookselling as a vocation.)

So today I approached Kate with an idea – really a melding of two ideas: moving to a little town somewhere that needs and can support a bookstore, a town in proximity to trees, water, and room to walk; introducing ourselves to the community; renting until we can afford to buy, and then buying from a neighbor. Besides its vocational aspects, there is another, more selfish reason I like this idea. There is no work I enjoy more (or feel more called to) than my own writing, but I can’t support the family that way right now. If I had to pick an alternate way to make a living, running a bookstore would be it. So much so that when my writing career does take off, I believe I will want to hang on to the bookstore. These seem like all-important consideration.

I’m not sure how this fits in with On the Narrow Road. I don’t see how it conflicts, since it must take longer than a year to set something like this up. For starters, I don’t know how to find a town that fits the above criteria. I suppose we have to stumble upon it. Like when I drove through Joplin, Missouri earlier this fall. Joplin, Missouri – a Mississippi River town (though at 50,000 people, a little big for my taste), plenty of trees, the birthplace of Mark Twain, and, as far as I can tell, not a single stand-alone bookstore in the whole damn town.

I’m nearly 32 years old and I’m still trying to find, in the raspy words of Michael W. Smith, “my place in this world.”

What are your thoughts? Does anybody out there know a little town in need of a young family and a bookstore?

November 27, 2009   12 Comments

Merlin’s Justice


Grass Valley, CA :: I’m sitting outside a Starbucks in Grass Valley. This town is where Kate grew up. It was a beautiful Sunday. I went for an hour-long walk with Molly today, and then went for another long walk by myself later in the afternoon.

It’s 7:30 p.m. A clear night after a beautiful day, but it’s getting cold now. It’s actually too cold to be sitting outside without a jacket, but I needed to be within earshot of the five guys drinking their coffee out here on the patio. They are all drinking venti sizes of something and, judging by their energy level, their volume, the way they keep talking over each other, and the way they are all standing instead of sitting, they got extra shots too. At least two of the guys are more under-dressed than me, wearing shorts. All of them have longish hair, and a couple of them are making valiant attempts to grow facial hair.

I needed to be within earshot of these guys because when I walked up to the store they were engaged in a passionate discussion about something and I wanted to know what. I just Googled some of the phrases I keep hearing: “berserker,” “Thor,” “The Courtesan,” and “Merlin’s justice” (which is not, it turns out, ancient Britain’s version of Montezuma’s revenge). They are talking, loudly, about role playing games. Just now, one of the guys shouted out, “Regular melee is the best, magic melee sucks ass.”

Yeah, these guys are nerds. But who cares? I had zero friends when I started halfway through my eighth grade year at Lowell junior high in Lincoln. It was the RPG guys who took me in, so, yeah, I know my way around a 12-sided dice.

I realize that I’m arguing with no one in particular, but how is what these guys are doing any different than the thick-necks who get together every week to watch and argue about professional sports? If anything, watching an NFL game is harder to justify than a role-playing game, because at least with DragonQuest (or whatever these guys are playing) they are more than just spectators. They enter a story and exercise will and their choices have consequences.

But I’m not going to begrudge the nerds or the jocks their past-times. Ultimately, what they are doing is creating community, and the worst thing of all is to be isolated.

I have no idea where all this came from. I have a lot of catching up to do on this site. I need to talk about our trip to California from Keizer. I need to explain why I am posting haiku of all things on my Twitter feed. But I sat down at my computer and this is what came out. Now it’s so cold I can’t feel my fingers, so all that other stuff will have to wait.

Updated: In an earlier version of this post, I said “if anything, the NFL is more meaningless than…” That was not only bad writing, it was lazy writing. Both of these activities – the sports-watching and the gaming – are packed with meaning.

November 15, 2009   7 Comments

Checking In from the Balcony


Portland, OR :: So, I’ve had a lot going on these last few weeks. Jordan and I relaunched the main site for Burnside. I am writing a longish profile of an author for the January/February issue of Relevant, along with two short book reviews. I also signed a contract recently (with two co-authors) to write a book with a title I can’t tell you on a topic I can’t divulge for a publisher who will remain anonymous. All this on top of grant writing, which has been sporadic.

The manuscript for the book is due at the end of February, just before Kate and Molly and I head east. The profile and the book reviews will be done next week. I will have a few other assignments for the month of November, but nothing major. I should soon be able to settle back into a routine of writing for On the Narrow Road.

I appreciate Kate’s posts. She is picking up the slack on the blog, as at home, so I can get all my writing done. Thank you, sweetheart.

In other news, it’s good to be back in Portland for the evening, sitting next to Dave on our bench at 39th and Sandy Starbucks, heckling the baristas (Natalie and Ashley) like Statler and Waldorf in the Muppets. I’m going to Jon R.’s house later for a party sponsored by Tostino’s (Pizza Rolls and nacho cheese) and farewell butt-kicking in Halo.

October 30, 2009   4 Comments

Windsor Island Road

My Route

Keizer, OR :: It’s important enough to me to bring my bike on this trip that I’d be willing to sacrifice one – no, two – of my seven boxes of books to fit the bike in the trailer or RV. Something I’ve discovered in the last couple years, but have yet to fully embrace, is that I love exploring the world from the seat of my bike. Nothing compares to a good walk, especially one that is slow and rambling and meditative. But biking is under-appreciated for its writerly pace.

I do a lot of my creative writing and grant writing in coffee shops. Since coming to Keizer, I’ve been riding each morning to Coffee Paradigm, a great little coffee shop located in what was once a house  built in 1914. Coffee Paradigm is an easy three mile ride from where Kate, Molly, and I are staying at my parents’ place. I decided to take the scenic route on my way home from the coffee shop today. I didn’t have a map, or a cell phone in case I got lost, but I wasn’t too concerned. I pointed my bike in the general direction of home and let the road take me where it would.

Where the road took me was on a nine mile detour. I got on Windsor Island Road, which quickly twisted and turned its way right out of the Keizer city limits. The road narrowed and the pavement changed from cement to asphalt. The houses and schools and churches disappeared, and I was surrounded by orchards, nurseries, and hop fields.

It was beautiful but I was lost. Windsor Island Road became Simon Street became 9th Avenue became Salmon Street became Ravena Drive. I thought about turning around, but I have this thing against backtracking and so I kept going with the vague hope that River Road, Keizer’s main drag, was somewhere to the right.

A gentle rain started to fall. The bike lane had long since disappeared, but traffic was light. Occasionally a gravel or manure truck rumbled past me on my left. I waved casually in the country way to the tractor going the other direction. I wished I had my cell phone. I thought about asking directions from the farmer who had driven his truck to his mailbox. Instead I said hello and kept riding. Two mean dogs chased me down the road. I outran one and yelled at the other to go back home, which it did, thank God. I was reminded of something I read earlier in the day. It was in Psalm 124, which in the Benedictine short breviary is labeled “a song of pilgrimage”: “Praise be to the LORD, who has not let us be torn by their teeth.”

Finally, improbably, when I was starting to despair, I climbed a difficult hill. I stopped at the top to catch my breath and found myself standing just a few feet away from a sign marking the Keizer city limits. I was close to home, even if I didn’t know the best way to get there (see the above map).

I wasn’t annoyed that I rode 12 miles when I was expecting three. I saw nine extra miles of countryside I probably wouldn’t have seen in a car, where it is too easy to turn around, if I would have taken the scenic route at all. I experienced firsthand – and on the world’s most fuel efficient vehicle – one of the key characteristics of Keizer: the suddenness of its proximity to farmland. I want to ride my bike around the little towns we visit across America. I want to get lost but not too lost. And, now that I know where Windsor Island Road ends up, I may want to do today’s ride again. But on purpose.

September 30, 2009   No Comments