Summer 2016 Recap
It’s been quite an eventful summer. It’s our second summer in Southern California, but it felt like our first. Last summer we had just made the cross-country and cross-cultural transition from East Coast to West Coast and were trying to settle in. The kids swam in the pool a lot and we made a couple trips to the beach, but that’s about it.
Part One: An Ark-shaped Adventure in NorCal (with Hamilton, too!)
This summer, however, Osheta and kids were ready for some California exploration. So, we planned a summer vacation. In Boston, one of things our family looked forward to the most was “Family Camp” at Pilgrim Pines in New Hampshire. A few words of context about that. First, I didn’t know what “Family Camp” was until we stumbled upon it through our incredible denomination. And since then, I’ve met a ton of other people with no frame of reference for “Family Camp.” Essentially, it’s a lot like “Summer Camp” (which a lot more people are familiar with), but with the added feature of your whole family being there. There are the common Summer Camp activities for kids a lot of people are familiar with, like archery, roasting marshmallows by the campfire, and swimming. But there are also activities for the parents, like a guest speaker and game nights, etc. Second, we absolutely Loved our Family Camp experience at Pilgrim Pines. Every year, it was like a family reunion. We saw the same families there; our kids become close friends with their kids; and we looked forward to that week all year long. So, one of the harshest realities about the move to L.A., was the realization that we wouldn’t be able to just drive up to New Hampshire each summer anymore. So, Osheta did some internet research and found a few places in Northern California that had a similar “Family Camp” kind of vibe. (Sidenote: SoCal, you slippin’! Where’s Family Camp at?!)
Now, this was our first time attending this camp’s summer programming. So, we were both excited and a bit nervous. Mostly, this was because we knew this camp had a very high bar to meet—and possibly nothing would measure up to our nostalgic memories of Pilgrim Pines.
Thankfully, our overall experience was great. The setting was gorgeous. I’d never been in the presence of Redwood trees and they were stunning. Even after several days, I still found myself gawking at them as we walked around the campgrounds. Each of the kids made friends and had a ton of fun. Some of the activities for the kids at this camp blew our minds—for example: the Block Party in the Woods. For a camp with a Conservative Methodist heritage, I was pleasantly surprised to find the Block Party didn’t hold back at all! There was a dance floor and a legit DJ! Good for you, RCP! There was also Laser Tag in the woods, which simultaneously transported me back to my childhood in the late 80s, and confronted me with my aging mid-30s body. Those kids were serious! But it was a lot of fun.
The food was great, too. It would have been a shame if the experience of such a great camp had been sullied by sub-par food. Thankfully, it was not.
Although many (most) of the families that attended Redwood’s family camp the week we did had been attending that same camp, on that same week, for many years (sometimes decades), several families eventually warmed up to us. We got those new-kids-in-school looks in the Dining Hall for the first few days. But, by Wednesday, folks began talking to us, asking us what brought us to camp. And by the end of the week, the kids weren’t the only ones who’d made some new friends.
The camp was also very close to Santa Cruz (around 13 miles or so). So, one evening we took an impromptu excursion to the Boardwalk, rode rides and ate funnel cakes. It was a blast. Even better, Pastor Mike and Christina Hogg, who were mentors and shepherds for us when we lived in Uptown New Orleans, now live in Northern California, not too far from Santa Cruz. So, we were able to spend time with them and borrow their passes to the Monterey Aquarium. Being with them was one of the best parts of the entire summer for us.
The only potential drawback of the week, for Osheta and I, was that we had not properly prepared ourselves, nor even really done the hard work of self-evaluation, when it comes to our tolerance for theological or homiletical teaching that harkens back to an earlier stage of our discipleship journey. By virtue of leadership roles in churches for the past decade or so, we’ve rarely been in a context where we’ve sat under the teaching of folks we didn’t know personally or hadn’t specifically chosen to hear from (e.g. at a conference). So, when we found ourselves uneasy at some of the teaching that was offered that week, we were caught unawares. We had to scramble and ask ourselves what we should do. Should we suck it up, chew up the meat and spit out the bones? Should we say something, engage in some constructive but critical dialogue? Or should we simply skip out on those portions and find other activities to fill that time.
In the end, we did a little of each. We skipped some sessions we felt would be too painful to sit through. I, very cautiously, engaged a few of the speakers about their content—hoping to be more constructive than just critical. And we did chew up some meat and spit out some bones.
What I was reminded of during the teaching portions at the camp, was what God has done in my own journey of discipleship to move me beyond Fundamentalism and into the beauty of robust ‘Critical Realist’ approach to faith. I was reminded that I no longer look to be either entertained by preaching nor “equipped” to convert those who hold other views from my own. I lived in those models of Christian pedagogy for many years, and I am very grateful to have left them behind.
Instead, I appreciated the times I had to simply reflect and enjoy the presence of God mediated through the beauty of creation and fellowship with family and friends. I’m so grateful that God didn’t leave me where I started.
(PS – Thanks to Osheta, our kids now know all the words to the Hamilton soundtrack.)
Part Two: Walter Brueggemann and Songs with Hand-motions
My friend Tripp Fuller hosts a podcast called Homebrewed Christianity, and is the Director of Theology and Humanities at the Hatchery LA, which is an innovative seminary and church planting hybrid training center in Redondo Beach. Through the connections in the academic theological world he’s cultivated over all the years he’s hosted one of the longest-running and most thoroughly nerdy theology podcasts online, he’s been able to attract historic and globally-renowned leaders to SoCal to instruct his students. Sometimes, when these guest lecturers come to town, Tripp makes an event out of it. And that’s precisely what produced “Adult VBS with Walter Brueggemann”. Hearing Walter Brueggemman, arguably the world’s preeminent Old Testament scholar, lecture for a week is perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It’s no exaggeration to say he’s world-renowned in academic biblical scholarship circles. The theme added some levity to the week, but it wasn’t overdone. Tripp likes to have fun, and also to make middle-aged pastors perform songs with hand-motions.
At first, I tried to take notes as Dr. Brueggemann spoke. But 10 minutes into his first lecture I realized that by the time I had processed something profound he just said, and wrote it down in my own words, he’d already moved on to say more profound things that I now wanted to process. So, note-taking was a bust. I resigned myself to allowing his lecture to wash over me like a one-man, live-stage performance. And I wasn’t disappointed in the least.
Brueggemann has introduced several ground-breaking approaches to biblical scholarship and Old Testament theology. This week spent hearing him lecture and interact with folks on-the-fly was a like a crash course in his 50 year career of work. From his concept of “prophetic imagination” (which builds on the work of Abraham Joshua Heschel) to his reimagining of the Exodus narrative through an economic (Marxist?) framework to his Orientation, Disorientation, Reorientation approach to the Psalms, Brueggemann touched on so many of his revolutionary ways of thinking that by the end of the week, I think we all felt a little caught up in his vortex of biblical insight (which felt wonderful!)
Some of the most important things I took away from the week were: 1) A narrative approach to Scripture (particularly the Old Testament) bypasses and renders obsolete much of the metaphysical speculation that may provide job security to theological academics, but rarely changes the way Christians practice their faith. (Note: Not all metaphysical thinking is without spiritually formative power. But there is definitely a fetish among some that borders on a mental disorder).
2) Just how important the physical, material universe is to God. Brueggemann relentlessly calls our attention to just how much the narrative of Scripture emphasizes our relationship to the land, our relationship to justice via economic systems and practices, and just how much God’s self-revelation has to do with how we live with and love one another. In that way, I have always found Brueggemann’s theology to be thoroughly orthodox in it’s contempt for Arian/Gnostic/Platonic dualism.
3) Just how relational God reveals Godself to be in the narrative of Scripture. Brueggemann emphasizes the mysterious and adventurous relationship Israel shared with YHWH in the narrative of Scripture and forces his hearers to confront their assumptions about God’s nature built on systematic theology constructed by dead, white European lawyers. Brueggemann drives Conservatives batty with his insistence on the what the Text says about God’s ever-changing engagement with the world. And Brueggemann drives Liberals equally crazy with his insistence on what the Text says about God’s personal agency in our lives. I love that about him and his thought!
I’m also so glad I got to share a few days of this week with my brother, Pastor Delonte Gholston, who is a fellow theology nerd and advocate for justice. He too has gleaned from Brueggemann’s work and didn’t want to miss the chance to meet the man and hear him teach in person.
Part Three: Subversive Manhood Retreat at the Beach
This summer ended with an amazing Men’s Retreat to beautiful beach-side campgrounds in San Clemente. Over twenty of the men of New City Church packed up Friday afternoon and sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic all the way to San Diego County to spend time with one another, discuss “Subversive Manhood,” and camp out under the stars near the beach.
Pastor Delonte, Blake Waltman, and myself led the retreat and I am so very grateful that I did not have to plan it alone. It was an amazing logistical feat to provide meals, tents, sleeping bags, and spiritually-formative content for a couple dozen men. Delonte set the tone for the weekend with an impassioned teaching on the ways of Goliath in contrast to the ways of David from the famous story in I Samuel 17. He challenged us to walk in the ways of the “Son of David” (i.e. Jesus) who, like David, did not fight evil with evil, but entrusted himself to God. He also cautioned us from trying to wear armor like Goliath, as king Saul tried to have David wear. As men, we often measure our worth by the standards the world gives us, rather than our identity in Christ.
Saturday, I also taught on the subject of “Subversive Manhood” from one of my favorite passages in Paul’s letters. First Corinthians, chapter one, has a wonderful passage about the way that faith in a Crucified Messiah subversively upends all our measures of power and wisdom. In fact, Paul teaches that God does this intentionally! The Cross shows us a way of being men that undermines every sinful conception of manhood. The Cross of Jesus is God’s wisdom and power. As Clark Pinnock once said,
“God’s true power is revealed in the cross of Jesus Christ. In this act of self-sacrificing, God deploys power in the mode of servanthood, overcoming enemies not by annihilating them but by loving them. What an unexpected form of power! Is it not a subtler and higher form of power than coercion? It is a power that respects the mutuality and reciprocity of love.” 
Ryan Murray, who is also a New City member who attended the Men’s Retreat, took these amazing photos for which we’re so grateful.
- Clark Pinnock, “God’s Sovereignty in Today’s World,” in _Theology Today_ (Princeton, Apr 1996), Vol. 53, Issue 1, start page 15.