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the road taken

Navajo roads are something else. For one thing, "road" isn't entirely accurate. "Dirt track" or "suggested pathway" might serve better. We're used to paved roads wherever we go, roads which sometimes develop potholes or cracks but which, sooner or later, are repaired and we go on our merry way, rarely thinking about the ground beneath our feet.

On the reservation of the Navajo Nation in Arizona and Utah, most roads are unpaved. There are a few major highways which the state keeps up, but if you spend any time on the reservation, most will be on dirt roads. You drive on hot, orange sand tracks, some as wide as 3 lanes of traffic, some narrow enough for a single vehicle, some merely hints of a direction leading away from where you are. Either side of the road is banked and covered with desert flora—tumbleweed, etc. You can look across the desert towards a distant mesa and think that it's quite close, perhaps a mile or two, and know that it's at least 3-6 miles away.

One of the first things you might notice when driving from point A to point B on the reservation is that there is no straight line connecting the two. Even the main road meanders around the bases of mesas, connecting homes to one another rather than creating an efficient route and expecting homeowners to make their own ways. You drive in large arcs, sweeping around a valley in a way that suggests the road's architects knew what they were doing—each turn shows you a new side of the mesa you're approaching. There might be a quicker way to get across Chee Valley, but the Navajo seem uninterested in it.

The next thing you might notice is that there are no street signs. There is no direction whatsoever to reassure you that you're on the right road nor to suggest where you might turn. Driving on the reservation is intuitive. I asked our brother Tono Haycock once how they give one another directions and he said, "We don't." They just know where they're going and where everyone lives. For us white folks, we have to navigate from memory, learning where the bumps and dips are, physically remembering which turn to take and which mesa is home.

And once you reach your destination, you'll find an entirely different network of roads—almost every home on the reservation is surrounded by several interconnected paths which lead you to the different living spaces they've created. One goes semi-directly to the main house. A couple branch off towards livestock areas which in turn have roads back to the main house and each other. There might be another home on the property or garage or shed which has its own set of roads leading back. And there are usually at least two ways to leave from the compound. The options are almost endless.

You might say my point here is obvious—we are all following some sort of road in our lives. Your path is much different than mine, but they all seem to sway back and forth without signs to show us the correct way. Because there is no correct way. You are moving towards a destination (eternal life in community with God) yet how you get there is unclear. If you take this turn or that, it may seem that you are in fact moving away from your goal, but another turn brings you leaps and bounds closer. You can get mired down in the short, interconnected roads near home and never realize there's a glorious panorama outside your comfort zone. And so on.

Yet this journey image of life is not at all obvious. How often do you find yourself so focused on a task that you've lost the big picture? How often do you find yourself arguing for a single, exclusive understanding of a situation at work or at church and unable to acknowledge that others might also have the truth? How often do you find yourself wishing things were simpler, clearer, more obvious to you and those around you? As bumpy as they can be, driving the reservation roads each year refocuses my mind and heart—let it go, they seem to say. Just follow the path, take things as they come, pay attention to the other people you're with on the path, let it go.

doughnuts and jesus

Have you ever had a Krispy Kreme glazed doughnut fresh off the conveyer belt at 6 in the morning? No? Go ahead and set your alarm now so you can drive to the closest Krispy Kreme—in Columbus—and try it. I'll wait.

How was it? No, I don't expect you to have actually driven to Columbus, but I do expect you to try it next time you're in a city with a Krispy Kreme bakery. You won't regret it. Let me paint the picture for you. When you walk in, your nose fills with the scent of baking dough and hot glaze. You can see through several large glass windows the machinery which makes the doughnuts: mixers, shapers, some sort of tall, rise-inducing rack, the oven or vat or whatever it is that cooks them (it's been a while for me), and the conveyor they arrive on, doughnuts freshly drenched in sweet glaze. At this point, you may think, "So what? It's a commercial baking enterprise." If you were there, you would only be thinking that until you ordered your doughnut, had it handed to you, still hot, from the conveyor, and taken your first bite.

My friends, this is what heaven tastes like. It's hot but not uncomfortably so, sweet but with a strong undertone of yeast, and literally melts in your mouth. It is not, though I may try, a taste that can really be described. And it is, much to my disappointment, almost completely unlike the taste of the same doughnut several minutes later. Once it cools, the glaze hardens, the dough firms up, and the taste of heaven dissipates like smoke on the breeze. The doughnut we buy at the store bears no relation to this newly-minted, fresh, passionate doughnut.

That's right, passionate. Because I'm not just waxing lyrical about breakfast foods in my second-trimester state, I'm talking about the Gospel, too. How often have we heard the Gospel preached and it sounds nothing like what Jesus actually said? Or it has no taste, no yeast, no passion? Or it's gone stale? And how often do we ourselves feel that way about it, ignoring the scandalous implications of Jesus' words and the drastic measures he wants us to take to change the world? Jesus offers us the Gospel—the fresh-off-the-conveyor, melt-in-your-mouth, taste of heaven doughnut—and we receive or offer the world the day-old, store-bought version.

To be fair, we've always quite liked the day-old, store-bought version—it's sweet and a little salty and satisfies what we think we want. But there's more out there—there's challenge to live better, there's powerful comfort in grief, there's unnamable joy when you search for it and get up early and wait for a glimpse of the kingdom. But the kingdom isn't really like a doughnut, friends. There is a cost to discipleship. We are charged to sacrifice our sleep and our wealth and our comfort for the sake of others and for the sake of God. It is not easy to follow in Jesus' footsteps and we all too often decide to sleep in and go to the convenience store instead. But the reward for following is passionate life and a taste of heaven.

What is your passion at Redeemer? How is your faith evident in what you do in the world? What are you sacrificing for the sake of heaven? And what have you tasted as a reward?


This past summer, we embarked on our first ever Junior High Mission Trip. It was a great success!

Just a week or so ago, we returned to the Dayton Street house for our first volunteer date. At the end of our YouthWorks mission, when I asked them what they were going to "take home" from the trip, the teens unanimously agreed that the Community Land Co-Op was amazing and that they wanted to go back and help more (one of the conveniences of doing mission in your own town). After a little more conversation, one teen T.K. volunteered to write up the paperwork for a mission grant from Redeemer if the group thought they could get the people-power to make a difference. She and I have begun that paperwork, making this the first youth-led mission initiative we've ever had.

And now we need your help. From the beginning, the seven teenagers on the mission trip wanted this to be an all-ages opportunity. Yard clean-up, wall demolishing, sheetrock hanging—these are not just for the youth but for our entire community to pitch in. If you can hold a trash bag or if you can hang cabinets, we need you! Parents, grandparents, singles young and old, and all the teenagers—be on the look-out for announcements and a sign-up sheet in the narthex. Our next volunteer date is tentatively scheduled for December 1 from 9am to 1pm. Throughout the winter, we will offer monthly opportunities for you to make a difference in exotic Cincinnati. Come join the fun and make a difference!

Roller Coasters and the Divine

Our Youth Council, the teenagers who lead our youth program at Redeemer, spent a day at Kings’ Island recently followed by a lovely barbecue at the home of Karen and Mike Staffiera. The day was meant as a “thank you” for all their hard work this past year and an opportunity for bonding among the group. It was fanTAstic. Our first ride was the new Firehawk and, if you like roller coasters at all, you’ve got to try it: once you’re strapped into your chair, it reclines. And I don’t just mean a little for a better television-watching-angle—I mean your feet are above your head. You ascend the first hill lying down, backwards, and head-first; it is fairly freaky. Then, just as you go over the top of the hill, the track rotates laterally so you are hanging prone, flying-Superman-style. And off you go! The Firehawk is amazingly smooth and worth the current wait.

Now, before you think this is just an advertisement for Kings’ Island, let me share something with you. I have a love/hate relationship with roller coasters. Specifically, I get motion-sick. Really motion-sick. I spent large portions of the day lying down on the grass, holding everyone’s hats and phones as they rode ride after ride. We’ve got several photos of me looking queasy. The first ride doesn’t bother me—it’s exhilarating to feel the wind in your hair, the palpable excitement in the crowd around you, the freedom of raising your arms and letting go. But several in a row and my stomach catches up with me.

It’s terrifying. To be strapped into a small, mechanical car and thrown at terrific speeds over hills and through the air is scary. And, if I’m honest, that’s a huge part of the love. As you climb that first hill, there is a feeling of abject fear: this will never work, we’re really high up, get me out of this thing, O God we’re going to die. But you can’t get out—it would be more dangerous for everyone if you tried to get out at the top of the hill rather than ride it out. And there is a moment at the crest of that hill when you see the face of God. At that split second, when the cars tip the balance and start down the hill, you let go. You let go of the fear, you let go of your expectations, you let go of your breath. You let go of everything and scream. It’s one of the purest moments of emptiness you can experience. And one of the purest moments of joy. To be in that single moment of fear and joy is to see God. Susie B and I joked about that as we were coming into the station after riding the Firehawk—we were both shaking and giddy, not sure how we felt about the ride yet, but certain that it had been a holy experience.

This is what it comes down to: fear and joy in one package. Kevin B did some thinking about that this past weekend at the Young Adult retreat that CORE sponsored at the Cathedral. The decisions we have to make in our lives, the experiences we have, the relationships we form, are all filled to the brim with fear and joy. We never know what will happen and our anxiety can sometimes overwhelm us, but most of us have had the experience of taking a risk and reaping a powerful reward. We sometimes go into a thing, confident in the joy it will bring only to be laid low. Everything is like this—choices, relationships with other people, relationship with God, Creation itself. That moment at the top of a roller coaster is our entire lives. I did get sick riding those coasters, but I also loved it. I loved spending time with some of the youth of our parish who are living a risky and fearful time in their lives. They are becoming who they will be. They don’t know yet who that is, but they are excited. There is joy in the unknown just as much as there is fear.

I have asked many of our youth this question and now I want to ask you: what would you do if you knew you had only six months to live? A year? What fear would you tackle? What joy would you not postpone? How would you serve God? What’s keeping you from it?


Listen to this:

Maybe there's a God above
But all I've ever learned from love
Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew ya
And it's not a cry that you hear at night
It's not somebody who's seen the light
It's a cold and it's a broken "Hallelujah."

This is the last verse of Jeff Buckley's song "Hallelujah." He sings with only his guitar for accompaniment into an empty and echoing room. His voice is haunting, thin in places, as though he's about to give up on singing entirely, and powerful with anger in others. You feel rather than hear his despair—it washes over you in waves. His song ends, dejected and hopeless—love is a cold and broken "Hallelujah."

Leonard Cohen actually wrote the song and when he sings it, he ends with this verse:

I did my best, it wasn't much
I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch
I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but "Hallelujah."

I've got a live recording of Cohen singing it and his voice is deep and rich and...perplexed. It's as though he doesn't really understand what he's singing but he's singing it anyway. He's trying to puzzle it out, trying to make some sense of his life. I can relate—youth ministry can be frustrating and overwhelming. There are times when I know I've done everything I can and a conversation simply doesn't work. I tell myself that it is God who turns folk's hearts and God who is in charge, not me. It doesn't always work.

It is frustrating to me that I can't find the definitive version of this song—it seems that everyone who records it, including Cohen himself, picks and chooses the verses they'd like to sing. The verses in some ways contradict one another: some seem to be more Bible-story-oriented—David, Bathsheba, Samson and Delilah—and some which are introspective and seem to be based on the singer's own history in love. How do they fit?

In the young adult Bible 101 group at my church, we've been talking about the book of Genesis and its two Creation stories. How do they fit together? Can we make them agree with each other so that it makes sense to us? Should we just take the one that makes sense to us this moment and sing its "Hallelujah"? What's the real story? What are they saying to us: are they short histories of what happened back in The Day, are they political machinations to uplift a downtrodden tribe, or are they poetic versions of a people's experience of their relationship with God?

The answer seems to be "yes"—that is, yes, they're political, yes, they're historical, and yes, they're a people's experience. I'm not saying I like that answer or even that I understand it. I do know that God's creation is so much more complicated than we can imagine and we can find God where things are the most frustrating.

Many days I feel like ending the song where Jeff Buckley does. More often I sing with Leonard Cohen who senses his sinfulness and his salvation in every breath, who sings:

…even though it all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but 'Hallelujah.'"