Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Vikings, Listening to Others, and Pop Songs About Locally-grown Vegetables

During every lunch hour last week, I became a Viking. This wasn’t some figurative transformation, mind you. Daily, I donned a horned (bike) helmet, carefully applied a vaguely threatening mustachio, put on a frayed-edged cape, and even carried a broadsword (albeit plastic) across my back. Two others joined me, one speaking with a New Zealand accent and Viking horns duct-taped to his baseball cap while the other, naturally bearded, wore them atop his sombrero. There wasn’t any discontinuity within these combinations – as we told the kids, “It’s not where you’re from that makes you a Viking; it’s what in your heart.”
Monday through Friday, we strode into the midst of hundreds of children, all of who cheered and clapped to see us. There were rousing, gruff-voiced renditions of current pop radio favorites (complete with coordinated dance moves), the lyrics of Justin Bieber and Nicki Minaj altered significantly in order to focus entirely upon the delights and history of the foods we were about to eat. Children and adults sang and shouted along, laughing out loud and dancing around the room before tucking into their meals with gusto. Even now, bursts of the choruses I’d rewritten can be heard being sung by kids and grown-ups as they go about their activities. Food, its local source, its production, and its history were discussed, explored, and sang about.  When you’re a chaplain at a summer camp whose culinary emphasis is avoiding anything containing corn syrup and artificial sweeteners, flavors, and colors in favor of free-range meat, naturally-raised fruit, and vegetables grown on the attached organic farm, this is simply the kind of thing you do to get the kids engaged with attentive, sustainable agriculture and Creation care.
This summer’s field education placement hasn’t just freed me into creative engagement with storytelling, drama, and the arts for the purposes of ministry; instead, it’s reminded my heart of why it is that I’ve pursued any number of vocations in the past. Rock concert promoter, touring band management, tour pastor for an internationally known punk rock band, freelance illustrator and graphic designer working in the entertainment industry, and professional clinical counselor focusing therapeutically on at-risk children, adolescents, and their families – I entered all of these professions simply because I love living life with normal, wounded, and broken people through the arts and creative culture, walking with them toward healing, forgiveness, and wholeness.  This love is being echoed and renewed with me at Camp Chestnut Ridge.
As I’ve danced, sang, prayed with, taught, and ministered to children and young adults at camp, I’ve been reminded of the need to truly, actively listen, spending the necessary time with the people who need it in order that they might know that they are worth spending time with.  Fellow chaplains, long-time camp staff, college-aged counselors from throughout North Carolina and around the world, and even the famed Dancing Man of Carrboro – these are the people with whom Jesus is allowing me to laugh with and listen to, building relationships with them while the Holy Spirit strips away my fears and insecurities.  It doesn’t matter whether I seem like a cool guy or not; rather, it’s about watching for the doorways the Lord provides, entering into the lives and realities of God’s people through story, agriculture, conversation, laughter, prayer, and song.
I’m having the time of my life.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Welcoming Interruption

    I think that in the weeks that I have been immersed in the life of faith and ministry at the Potter’s House, I have been made most aware of my potential and need for growth in the area of compassion. This is of course, not a bad place to start for someone endeavoring to respond to the need in the world with a Christ like heart. It takes Christ like eyes to do so—eyes that see with compassion and link directly to a response on behalf of the one in need. Two experiences that I have had during my time at the Potter’s House so far have taught me a couple of things about what it means to see need, where to look to find it, and how to respond once it is found.
    Sometimes need is easy to detect, and the response is so obvious that it can hardly be avoided. This was the case on a Tuesday evening when I took the long way home. It should have taken eight minutes. I know, because it typically takes me three minutes to commute (around the corner on foot) from “Andrew’s House” where I am staying for the summer in Washington DC, to the Potter’s House where I work each day. It should have taken eight minutes for me to walk from the Potter’s House, to Andrew’s house to retrieve my saxophone so that my supervisor and I could kick off our live art project outside of the cafe/bookstore, which stays open until 8p on Tuesdays. It shouldn’t have taken fifteen minutes. And it shouldn’t have taken an hour. Then I ran into Henry.
    Henry and I met earlier in the day and hit it off immediately because he is a bass player. I was originally having a lunch conversation with my supervisor when Henry rolled up. My supervisor introduced him to me, and our shared passion for 70’s era funk bass took over, derailing the conversation beyond recovery. Sometimes a conversation is a fire that you can’t put out. You just have to let it burn. The next time I saw Henry, about two minutes into my eight-minutes-on-paper saxophone retrieval operation, he had one hand on the arm of a chair that he’d found, which was turned upside down with the seat balanced on his head. I quickly learned that he hoped to take it back to his apartment. He had his other hand, on his other chair. The one that was his only way of getting back to his apartment. The one with wheels. In this moment something like compassion was easy. Obvious. Practical. I could not imagine walking past Henry knowing that he was about to attempt a trip home in a wheelchair, propelled and guided by one hand while gravity and the other fixed a wooden office chair to his head. So, I carried it for him, and because most of the trip to his apartment was downhill, I sometimes think I slowed him down.
    I ran into another no brainer on the way back from Henry’s apartment. I was just two doors away from my place when I saw an older woman leaning on a shovel in a flower bed, looking down on three indentations that hoped to be holes some day. As I passed by I casually offered my usual salutation, a smiling “How ya’ doin’”. The woman did the unthinkable and answered my normally dismissive greeting which I have by now forgotten, actually does sound a lot like a question. Her words confirmed what my eyes suspected. “Struggling” she exhaled. I made it down the two doors to my house and halfway up the stairs before I was arrested. Struggling. I stood there, on the steps, finally, just feet from my destination, calculating the percentage of my rhetoric that would be rendered empty if I kept moving forward. Ignoring the answer she’d given. The one I didn’t mean to ask for. I turned around and went back to the woman whose name was Josephine, I discovered, as I filled the next twenty minutes or so digging holes that she filled with flowers and sprinkled with water. Surely, some dig, and some carry, some plant and some water, and God makes the increase.
    In reflecting on these events I am reminded of the frequency with with Jesus and his disciples allowed their previously scheduled programs to be interrupted by compassion. Often they were on their way somewhere important, to do something important, when someone who seemed less significant than the mission to replace the kingdom of this world with the Kingdom of our Lord, would present himself or herself, in the form of a person in need. Jesus would allow himself to be stopped. To be interrupted. To be arrested by the needs of others and to accept their invitation to join them in their plight, if only to walk them out of it. Through these and other experiences at the Potter’s House, I am learning to allow myself to be interrupted by compassion. In fact, I am counting on it. I am counting on Christ, to keep my eyes open to the pain around me and within me and to help me respond to that pain with patience and with love. I am counting on the Holy Spirit to keep my heart and hands pressed against the pain that I find until life and freedom stop bleeding out. I am counting on God to teach me what the Potter knows — that tender pressure applied to the shapeless and broken can produce something beautiful. I am no longer counting, I think, the minutes, days and hours that it is taking me to become something that I can consider beautiful. Nor am I counting the steps it may take to get there. I would only have to reset the count again, whenever I was interrupted by by God’s compassionate grace.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Adventures of a summer camp chaplain, #1.

Greetings, all!  

For almost three weeks now, I've been learning what it means to be a summer camp chaplain at Camp Chestnut Ridge, a United Methodist camp and retreat center just outside of Efland, North Carolina.  Along with fellow chaplains, Juli Kalbaugh and Josh Luton (respectively referred to affectionately by campers and counselors alike as "Chappy Ju-Ju" and "Chappy J"- I'm "Chappy A"), I've been growing to know and appreciate a large, engaged, and interested summer staff of counselors and other persons from around the world.  While there's a ton of people from North Carolina in the mix, we also have four Kiwis (New Zealanders) and two folks from Scotland among the counselors this year.  It's an international crew, and I'm grateful to be working (and laughing, and learning, and sunburning) with all of them.

For the unfamiliar, Chestnut Ridge focuses on three areas: food, faith, and fellowship, all of which I want to explore in this initial post:  
  1. FOOD: In recent years, there's been a massive shift here within the realm of 'camp food' - rather than being what I had come to expect to emerge from a camp kitchen, the kitchen staff at Chestnut Ridge works had to create ridiculously tasty meals whose ingredients are natural, organic, and as locally sourced as possible.  Artificial colors, flavors, and sweeteners?  Nope!  All gone.  Vegetables, eggs, beef, pork, fruit, and more grown/raised in the camper garden and farm attached to the camp?  Oh, yes.  To top it off, the campers themselves help to plant, nurture, and harvest almost all of this food over the course of the summer, giving many young people their first insight into food that isn't automatically available in colored plastic packages.  It's been an inspiring and challenging experience for me so far, forcing me to consider the food I eat at home as well in light of the camp's focus upon Creation care.
  2. FAITH: I was deeply encouraged by the interest and sincerity with which the counselors (to whom the three chaplains also provide support) approached staff training.  Naturally, there was a whole lot of laughing and getting to know one another, but during our presentations about religion vs. spirituality, the history of United Methodism, and an intensive session with a local pastor regarding theological questions, these young people dug in deeply, asking questions about Church history, Christian spirituality, ethics, and theology that made us chaplains very grateful for our ongoing Duke Divinity experience.  These conversations have been ongoing, and I'm excited about them - for instance, I was discussing spiritual warfare, paganism, and questions about Wicca with a counselor yesterday, concerned as she was for some friends of hers who practice.  The staff and counselors at Chestnut Ridge are showing themselves to be persons of vibrant faith, growing and being shaped in any number of different ways, and they bring that vibrancy to our engagement with the hundreds of kids that come here every week. 
  3. FELLOWSHIP: Having spent two weeks of training coming to know our staff and counselors, I've found a community of developing fellowship among Brothers and Sisters in Christ that promises to serve as a crucible of community awareness for the children we serve.  Holy run-on sentence, Batman.  The focus at Chestnut Ridge about building an awareness of our place within the Body of Christ (and the fact that being part of a Body inescapably means attentively caring for and sharing with the other Body parts/people who make up the eclectic community of the Christian faith) has been encouraging, being something I'm personally pretty passionate about.  Watching seeds of this fellowship awareness and the need to care for one another begin to develop among the kids during this first week has been pretty amazing - I'm excited for the rest of the summer to unfold.
I'll leave you with some photos of some of the highlights of Chestnut Ridge.  More to come!
in Christ, Adam Baker

At first glance, you might think this horned beastie is something from a scary metal band album cover - think again.  He's one of the Jacob sheep at Camp Chestnut Ridge, a heritage line thought to be the kind of sheep that Jacob herded in Genesis 29 and 30.  CLARIFICATION: this actual sheep wasn't one those that Jacob herded.  A camper asked, so I didn't want anyone else assuming incredible age for this guy (photo via Google).

One of the campers of yesteryear with a horse friend (photo via Google).

Some of the "lake toys".  And here I was, thinking that when they said "lake toys" they were talking about water noodles, or maybe canoes at the most.  They do have both of those, but the "lake toys" are more along the lines of this giant water slide, water trampoline, a giant inflated jungle gym, and more.  Pretty amazing (photo via Google).

The last thing I see of camp as I drive out and away each day.  It pretty much echoes the heart of this place: incredible food, deepening faith, developing fellowship with one another (photo via Google).

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

trip to prison

Monday morning of last week I got a phone call that my host dad's mother died.  She had been ill for a long time, but any sort of death is a loss.  So, as my host family prepared to take in a lot of family from out of town, I went over to their neighbor's house -- my host grandparents.  They were an older couple in their early 80s who graciously opened their home up to me for the week.  It was an interesting experience to transition from one house to another right when I felt like I had just gotten settled in.  However, moving to my "next door" wasn't as drastic as the residents who come to the next door.

From what I remember someone telling me, The Next Door founders decided on the organization's name after hearing the warden of a jail explain the exit door -- the "Roll-Up One" -- it is the door that she will exit from at prison and begin her new life.  The Next Door is basically the next stop -- the next door that a resident will enter through -- after leaving prison.

I went to the Tennessee Prison for Women this past week to pick up a new resident and got to witness how The Next Door got its name. That particular day had already started out on a crazy note:  there was a bomb threat at the federal building just across from where I work. No big deal. 

A few hours later someone asked if I'd be willing to go pick up a new resident at the prison. Immediately after I say yes - I realize what I've committed to do.  It's not just going to the prison part that was intense -- it was driving in a vehicle I had never driven before on roads that I didn't know with another human being in the care whose safety and first impressions were in my hands.

I was told before I went to the prison where I needed to go and what I needed to do.  I was told to not get out of the vehicle upon arriving there because a security guard would run up to me with his/her gun and yell at me to get back in my vehicle. Thankfully, when I arrived to the prison, The Next Door had already informed someone that I was coming and a security guard met me in the parking lot I needed to be in.  I cracked my window just enough so that I could talk with him and he told me just to back my car up into this little waiting area and stay there until our new resident walked out.

After waiting for about (what seemed like) 10 minutes, I see this woman emerge with three security guards.  They were all talking and standing by this door -- really a large door -- a fence/gate thing that rolls up to let people in and out and has barbed wire seemingly everywhere.  So, the door rolled up and she walked out of it and headed over to the van I was driving.  She didn't know me and I didn't know her.  We awkwardly introduced ourselves as she loaded the her two small bags of belongings into the van.  Fearing that a security guard would come running at me, I stayed in the vehicle without offering to help her.  After she got in and buckled up, we were off to The Next Door.

She had been in prison for five years.  Can you imagine that?  I do not know what she was in prison for and I didn't ask. If she wanted to tell me, then I would have certainly listened; however, her past is her past and she wanted to be a part of The Next Door.  That's all that mattered then in that moment.  So, having no clue as to what to talk about with her -- I started out talking about the Queen's Jubilee that was being celebrated that day.  While it may have not been the best topic delve into initially, it worked out and conversation flowed naturally from there.  She also thankfully knew where The Next Door was located and helped me navigate a bit through Downtown Nashville.

Well, that is all for now.  I'll leave you with a picture of the Customs House, which used to be the old federal building but it apparently now where bankruptcy court is held?  Not completely sure about that last part.

Until Later,

Monday, June 11, 2012

At North UMC doing Ministry

This summer, I have been placed at North United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, Indiana. Indeed, the experience so far has been a good one for me. I have gotten a chance to see the day-to-day life of a church. I realize that a church is as active as its members. Thankfully, the members at North are very active, which means that there are a lot of opportunities the church offers to itself and the world. For example, I recently attended a Sunday School class titled Contemporary Biblical Form. The class, which is taught by Professor Austin Ritterspach, delves deep into the Bible. The class even employs Hebrew and Greek when necessary! On the Sunday I attended, a guest professor from the Christian Theological Seminary (which is the local seminary) took us through the various anointing stories of Jesus in the Gospels. Truly, the class was a treat for me, because it helped me to see that studying is an act of worship to God. I was absolutely thrilled to leave a class feeling smarter and spiritually stronger!

In addition, North offers a lot to the community. On several days of the week, North hosts Bread-and-Bowl, which is a ministry that provides a meal to those who need food. I have enjoyed talking with my brothers and sisters who come in for a hot meal. God has helped me to see that ministry must serve the world and not be self-involved. Furthermore, North hosts a weekly farmers' market for the local community. I have been asked to help out with this market every Thursday evening, which is a pleasure for me. I have gotten the chance to literally taste the fruit of local farmers' labor. North encourages farmers to come sell their produce in order to support themselves, which, in doing so, provides fresh, delicious food for the community.

Indeed, my experience in Indianapolis has been a good one. I am learning a lot about church ministry and looking forward to learning more in the weeks ahead.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Getting to know a placement

I am spending the summer immersed in the Croasdaile Village Retirement Community.  This community is part of the United Methodist Retirement Home network in North Carolina.  The community is home to vibrant people with a spectrum of abilities and interests, including many retired clergypersons.  As a chaplaincy intern, I have the joy of helping to lead worship services on Sunday mornings and Thursday evenings.  In addition, there are weekly devotions and Bible studies to attend and lead.  As a chaplain, I spend a lot of time visiting with persons who are sick or recovering or transitioning or lonely.
            One of the biggest joys I have shared with the Croasdaile Village community so far has been a liturgical dance during a memorial service for one of residents who had been a dance teacher in her career.  I danced to the song “Lord of the Dance” after a homily that emphasized God as the choreographer and dance master.  The opportunity to share through the gift of dance was unexpected, both for me and for the community.  However, since the memorial service took place, I have had the opportunity to engage with residents on a new level and have gained greater recognition in the community, not just as a dancer, but also as a pastoral presence.  It is exciting to hear affirmations about my call from the community I am serving in this summer.  I hope that others are having positive experiences through their summer placements.


Tuesday, June 5, 2012

it all began with a burst

Duke Divinity School was not my first choice. After I was initially accepted to UNC's MSW program, that "feeling" within me led me to apply to the dual degree program. When I was then accepted into Duke's M.Div program, I tried to back out. However, UNC had planned on me being a dual degree student after being accepted into the dual degree program. When I called about trying to just go straight to UNC, they logistically said I could either do the dual degree program or take a year off and then go directly to UNC. Being the indecisive person that I am, I had no clue what I would do for that year off.  That "feeling" within also continued to tug me toward the direction of Duke as well. Despite my hesitations, I stuck with the program.

My first year at Duke was full of eschatological discussion and biblical exegesis. While I still struggle to see the applicability of what I am learning with what I want to "be when I grow up" - I know the "struggle" is okay.  After completing my first semester, I needed something to kindle my fire of why I was at Duke and a few second semester experiences aided in starting that fire again.  First, I took an amazing class - "The South in Black and White" - taught by Dr. Tim Tyson.  For those of you who aren't familiar with Dr. Tyson, he wrote a wonderful book called Blood Done Sign My Name.  I felt like that class just hit home with my passions and I learned so much.  Second, my interview for my field placement with Rhonda Parker offered me a breath of fresh air.  As a graduate student at Duke Divinity School, I am required to partake in two units of field education for my M.Div. program. In order to be placed anywhere, I must first interview with the office of field education at Duke so as to be "placed" somewhere for the summer.  During the interview with Rhonda, I was able to be honest about what I wanted and didn't want:  I wanted to work with veterans, prisoners, or in the area of end of life care.  I wanted a strong supervisor who could offer me constructive criticism.  I wanted to be anywhere outside of the Triangle.  I didn't want to be in a church.  I felt like Rhonda really listened to me - with my struggles, my desires for my future.  She in a sense offered me reassurance that being at Duke wasn't just for nothing.  I trusted that she would prayerfully place me somewhere that would offer me a good learning experience -- and she did!

 A few months after my interview, I found out that I would be in Nashville, Tennessee working at The Next Door. The Next Door is an agency that offers mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual support to women in crisis, equipping them with skills and tools for a life of wholeness and hope. Basically, I was thrilled upon finding out where I would be spending my summer. While I knew that the population of people I would be working with would be a challenge, I was ready to learn.

Well I feel like this is a good place to wrap up this first post!  So, please feel free follow this blog or my own field placement blog for updates on my summer at The Next Door.  If you have any questions, then feel free to leave them in the comments or send me an e-mail.