Our Time Machine

Concrete Community Bible Church
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Highway 20 is a time machine.

An east-west corridor a few roads north of the bustling Interstate 90, along which we now live, Highway 20 is less traveled than the freeway, which goes eventually to Boston, and also than Highway 2, which goes to the faux-German village of Leavenworth and various other agricultural destinations. Highway 20 goes up and up, past a series of hydroelectric dams to a pass that’s closed for half the year. In months when you can keep driving, you wind through miles of fire-scorched wilderness and forgotten tiny towns, finishing within sight of the Idaho state line. It’s a grand trip.

Not that we’re going so far today. This morning, at the misty-grey end of September, we’re destined for Concrete, Washington, in the foothills of the North Cascade Mountains. Concrete, named for one of its original exports, is a small town, much smaller even than Kandern, but the highway carries me back in time as we drive along it, to a moment when Concrete was the big city. I grew up even further up this highway, where the Skagit River Valley narrowed and deepened, living in the eternal shade of evergreens and high hills. To eight-year-old Kristi, Concrete meant Little League and roller skating, grocery stores and bigger restaurants. More critically, it meant Church. We’d make the fifteen-mile drive down the valley several times a year, canceling our tiny house church service for some special occasion, like a Christmas pageant or a baptism Sunday, at Concrete Community Bible Church.

We arrive at Concrete Community Bible Church a few minutes before Sunday School, where Timmy and I have the privilege of sharing about our last two years at Black Forest Academy. Its white, friendly facade looks as genial as ever, and inside it’s no different. The last time I visited, in the summer of 2013, I was planning our wedding; today I arrive with my husband, quite obviously pregnant. At every turn we’re greeted effusively, some faces familiar and others less so, by people who’ve read our emails or prayed over our printed names in the bulletin. By the time we get up to speak, I’ve already shared our story half a dozen times, and from the front of the room my usual nervousness gives way in the glow of their welcoming excitement.

There are many kinds of communities. I often write about the transience of life at BFA. Friendships, community, churches–they are ever-changing, each year and season different from the last. While it’s marvelous to see God shaping each BFA for its specific moment in time, here at Concrete CBC I find a different marvel: the beauty of continuity. It’s continuity for me–there are people here who have truly known me since I was eight years old, and can trace the twisting paths that have brought me to this point–but it’s far greater than that. Here are decades of relationship, generations living, growing and loving in this tiny town in the Upper Skagit. I listen to their prayer requests and praises, their words of encouragement for one another, with the feeling of eavesdropping on a much longer conversation. This congregation, led by the same devoted pastor for the past 23 years, knows one another well, year after year living out their calling as the body of Christ in this little town.

I suppose it’s easy for transience to be jealous of continuity, but I’m not today. I can join in this service, singing songs to the God we all worship together, with neither the scorn of the willful nomad nor the envy of the perpetual exile. Because this place is home for me, too, even if it’s just for today, our time machine Sunday on Highway 20.

Winter Warmth

Dining room set for dinner at la Maison de Rafah in Burgundy, France.

Dining room set for dinner at la Maison de Rapha in Burgundy, France.

 And in the humid ever-summer I dare his picturing mind not to go back to the shout of color, to the clean rasp of frosty air, to the smell of pine wood burning and the caressing warmth of kitchens. For how can one know color in perpetual green, and what good is warmth without cold to give it sweetness?

John Steinbeck, Travels With Charley

We’ve been out for most of the afternoon, freezing on the hilltop town of Vézeley in the Burgundy region of central France. While most people visit wine-rich Burgundy in the lushness of summer or the harvest season, we’ve chosen to come in the winter, which offers us a stunning palette of grey and white, an assortment of Crusade- and relic-related history and several bone-chilling monasteries, basilicas and chapels, awing us to silence with frozen stone and soaring heights.

It’s nearly dark when we return to la Maison de Rapha, feathery snowflakes chasing us out of the dusk and into the warm kitchen. Inside, we’re greeted by the smell of wood fire and the coming dinner, along with a fresh flan tart that our hostess has prepared for her son’s eighth birthday, with enough to spare for her seven weekend guests. The birthday boy in question is holding court at the kitchen table, surrounded by Lego sculptures that he built from several different sets.

I’ve come here with six other women from Kandern. Among us, we work at all three BFA campuses (and one dorm), teaching subjects that vary from music to history to graphic design. Though our jobs keep us incredibly busy, we’ve still managed to meet on a weekly or bi-weekly basis to study Scripture, some of us for the past three years. In a place that changes so rapidly, the sense of depth and continuity in this group has been richly encouraging, as we walk together through the complexities of ministry and relationship. This weekend away, so long in coming, has been a chance to invest time in rest and friendship, reading James and praying together as we share an adventure in a new place.

As ready as I was for a weekend away, I confess that the place itself took my by surprise. The stunning greyness of France, stark in winter, is enchanting enough on its own, but la Maison de Rapha, the guesthouse where we’ve been staying, is truly remarkable. Run by a couple who have been serving missionaries together for the last fifteen years, the house routinely opens its doors to workers in ministry, as the hosts seek to provide a space for renewal. And as we sit at the table together to enjoy a many-coursed French feast, or talk over a cup of breakfast coffee, that’s exactly what they’ve made. A home, warm and inviting, for rest.

And though France remains as new and foreign as ever, this place is so familiar to me. I watch their son playing with his toys at the table, and realize that this was me, twenty years ago. I grew up in a place much like this, a retreat center in the Cascade Mountains of rural Washington State, to which we’d welcome guests from near and far. Some were young–though none as young as I–and others less so. But they came with a common desire, to seek God and experience rest in a new and lovely place.

I remember my parents often quoting Edith Schaeffer, one of the co-founders of the retreat center L’Abri Fellowship in Switzerland, who said that their guests met God in clean toilets and warm beds as much as good teaching or religious conversation. I never understood, as an eight-year-old playing with Legos and helping with chores, how that could make any difference. Now I do.

Except that here the ministry is French food and coffee that I don’t have to make myself. It’s coming back from wandering around in the wintertime to a room warmed by a roaring fireplace. These luxuries seemed small when was small, when meals and fires were part of the package deal of childhood. Now, I understand weariness, and know the comfort and ministry of a welcoming home. I feel myself thawing, in heart as well as body, slowly understanding hospitality better as I experience it as an adult, longing to be a person of safety and refuge for others. Thankful for this place and the family who runs it, I return to my own snowy village blessed and restored, warm again in winter.

Austria and Analogies

Question: “Is there an analogy for that?”

Answer: YES. (Always.)

Greetings from Schladming!

I’m writing from a picnic table outside of Tauernhof Bible School, in a valley among the Austrian Alps.  Though this is a ski town, I know it better at times like these.  Schladming in summer is sweetly dusty hayfields, cheery international greetings from fellow hikers, and one-euro ice cream at least once a day.  In 2002, I came here as a student for the summer before I went to Seattle Pacific University.  Two years ago I worked on one of the many dairy-farm-and-guesthouse operations in the next village.  Now I’ve come back for a third summer, this time as an instructor for Tauernhof’s Upward Bound program.

Upward Bound is a unique Bible school in that most of the lectures are woven into a variety of outdoor activities and backpacking trips around the area.  Along with the direct teaching, nearly every activity–from rock climbing to small group activities to hiking to chores–comes with a debrief.  During Instructor Week, when we are trained in all of the elements of the coming weeks, we’ve been participating in both activities and debriefs.

Without revealing events still secret for participants (who may be reading this… Holly Dahlstrom), I can say the most common question, at the end of each day, is “What analogies to life in Christ can you see in this activity?”

It’s not a new question for me.  Having been raised at Alaythia Fellowship, where we asked similar questions every time someone learned to belay a friend on the climbing wall or crossed the narrow wires on the high ropes course.  No outdoor recreation activity stands alone, without parallel to life.  Part of it must be having listened to thousands of sermons using this outdoor imagery to describe following God, but whatever the cause it is how I think now.  When I think of ropes I know that they mean trust, that dependency is sometimes required for success and that we must keep moving in order to get anywhere, both on the trail and on the wire and in following Christ.

These analogies have followed me through life, taking me through some of the harder times with the hopes of summits, or the fog clearing, or a moment’s rest.  And here in Schladming, I’m waiting at a pass.  Behind me the loveliness of home; across the edge a misty forest, where I can only guess at the path.  For now, however, I’m content to wait at the top, teaching lessons in analogies and saving the coming-down for later.

Sheep graze on a high meadow outside of Guttenberghaus

History in Skagit Valley

The still grey valleys–Snohomish and Skagit–grow smaller as we keep driving.  It’s Sunday morning, early, and Holly and I are on a quest.  We’re searching for history.  History in general: as we drive east along Highway 20, towards the closed Washington Pass,  towns built a century ago still bear the faces of their youth.  History in particular: ours.

We are going to Concrete, Washington, site of Concrete Community Bible Church, where I am speaking in the 10:00 AM service about my upcoming sojourn as a missionary teacher at Black Forest Academy.  It’s the church I attended sporadically as a child, mostly for Vacation Bible School and Christmas pageants.  The memories I have of this town are linked mostly to this church; my life in Skagit Valley, which I left at the age of eleven, took place 15 miles further down the road.  I recall youth group ventures and choir rehearsals, vague Bible-related endeavors in the basement whose floor plan echoes back from childhood.

It is the liability of the pastor’s kids to always take their pastors along with them.  Since I have always attended my father’s churches, at any given moment only one of the three can exist as I knew it.   Island Community Church is full mostly of strangers.  Alaythia Fellowship remains in memories and friendships only.  Though I have always been happy in the communities that surround me, there is also a sense that I’m erasing history from behind me as I go. No one in Seattle knew me prior to adolescence.  Until Sunday, I forgot that anyone did at all.

We arrive at the church in time for Adult Sunday School, and Pastor Rob immediately rushes to greet us.  He marvels at how grown-up we are, as it’s been a decade since we last attended church here, and declares excitement for what I’m about to share.  I’m excited, too, though I haven’t yet inherited my father’s nonchalant public speaking skills.

The church is warm and small, and just as I remembered it down to the banners that hang on the walls.  (I found myself staring at the same red heart scribbled across a crucifix that held my eight-year-old attention through sermons I didn’t understand.)  Before the service starts, several members of the congregation greet us genially, recalling our days at Alaythia.  We are anomalies, the girls who left the valley and now travel the world, but even so we’re received, after all these years, with an easy hospitality that inspires me.  I don’t feel like an outsider here–just a long-gone insider.

The speaking goes well, and as I stand in front of the church I realize that my strongest passion for teaching at BFA comes from the fact that the students there are the children of ministry families.  It’s a position I know well, the knowledge about faith without necessarily a personal understanding.  And as I speak to this church, seeing people who mentored me in faith as a child, I realize the deep importance of teachers–Sunday School and otherwise–in bringing up the next generation of Christ-followers.  I realize that there is a deep appropriateness in beginning my support-gathering ventures here, at the beginning of my calling.  These are the people who invested me, just as they continue to invest in the young people in their community, and I’m inspired by both the past and the present as I speak to them, as they welcome me.

After a long lunch with old friends, a scenic drive through the greenest valley, Holly and I deemed the quest a success.  We came with words and curiosity; we a reminder that we are part of Christ’s body, linked together by history and, more importantly, the Lord we serve together.