Watershed Discipleship

A few years ago, I was excited to learn about the concept of watershed discipleship, which combines the best of all my worlds: environmental concern from a Christian perspective, with an emphasis on social and environmental justice, with excellent scholarship combined with practical action. Not too surprisingly, many of its originators are from a peace church, the Mennonites (though people practicing it are now from a broad range of denominations). I wrote about the book Watershed Discipleship: Reinhabiting Bioregional Faith & Practice a couple months ago, if you want to get more of a sense of what watershed discipleship is.

This summer, I’m fulfilling the service-learning requirement of my PhD program by helping Ched Myers and his crew at Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries revitalize the watershed discipleship website. One of the major things I’m working on is writing and soliciting blog posts, so I’m pouring most of my writing this summer into that site, as well as the journal I edit, Whole Terrain. For those of you who are interested, I wrote a blog post about a project we did for Earth Day in April: planting 150 trees at Eloheh Farm with the Wilderness Way Community and North Valley Friends. Check out my post here. While you’re there, feel free to check out some of the other content on the site!

I’ll also post the great video that one of the youth from the Wilderness Way Community made of the day so you can get a flavor for it!

Reedwood Friends Scholar in Residence

Today marks my first day as scholar in residence at Reedwood Friends in Portland, OR. I’ll be offering a six-week series on Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings on the topic “Quakers & Creation Care: ecotheology & action from a Quaker perspective.” I’m excited to begin tonight by sharing my story of how I came to be interested in environmental concerns, and hearing others’ stories of connecting with God in nature. We will also be choosing eco-challenges to work on throughout the six weeks through the Northwest Earth Institute. See below for other topics we will be learning about and discussing together throughout the series. All are welcome to attend!


Christ & Cascadia: conference and new post

I’m soon finishing out my term as the Portland regional editor for Christ & Cascadia, an online journal and conference exploring the intersection of Northwest theology and culture. I recently went to their annual conference in Seattle. Unfortunately, I only got to go for the second day, as I was knocked out with a bad cold, but the part I went to was fun! It was great to gather with people interested in what Christian faith looks like in this region, share a bit about my own interests and research in a presentation entitled, “Cascadian Watershed Discipleship,” and see friends and colleagues. For my presentation, I shared about the concept of watershed discipleship, then gave four examples of communities and individuals who are practicing watershed discipleship around Cascadia: two church communities (Salal + Cedar in Vancouver, BC, Wilderness Way in Portland, OR), one college professor (Wes Howard-Brook at Seattle Univercbock-speaking-at-cc-conf-16sity), and one non-profit organization (A Rocha – Canada near Vancouver, BC). I may write more about these for Christ & Cascadia or other venues, or here, at a later time, but while you’re waiting you can go visit their websites and learn about their work. I enjoyed interviewing people for this project. It was fun getting to know some new people and being inspired by their work.

Speaking of being inspired by others’ work, I also wrote up an interview I did with Peter Sergienko at St. Michael’s & All Angels Episcopal Church in Portland for the Christ & Cascadia journal. (I got connected with Sergienko because he was a GreenFaith fellow in the cohort before me.) I enjoyed learning about the work that Sergienko is doing personally, as well as what his congregation and denomination are doing to enact environmental stewardship, work toward environmental justice, and be aware of both social and environmental needs of the people of the region. You can read my interview here.

For those of you interested in participating in next year’s Christ & Cascadia conference, I recommend it! It’s a good place to network with people of faith thinking about regional Christian practice. I would like there to be a stronger environmental focus. It focuses more on the culture of Cascadia, rather than thinking of it as a bioregion with particular emphasis on place and its effects on theology. I think C&C raises some good questions so far, and as we continue a regional dialogue, I am hopeful that more of an awareness of bioregion and place-based Christian theology can develop.

Stewards of the Vineyard

Last November, I had the opportunity to preach at my Friends meeting, North Valley Friends. I was asked to share about Query 19 in our Faith & Practice document, which has to do with being a Christian steward of God’s creation. A re-visioning of the Parable of the Tenants came to me then, and I thought I’d share it here, in case it’s inspiring to anyone else. (If you want to listen to a podcast of the whole sermon, it’s available here.)

Matthew 21:33-40 (NRSV): “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”

Usually we read this passage in the context of people misunderstanding who Jesus was, and not getting the fact that he’s the Messiah. Yes, but I think there’s another meaning going on here: God has set us up as stewards of the vineyard. I thought that was particularly fitting due to our location here in the Willamette Valley. So if we’re supposed to be stewards of this vineyard, if we’re tenants here, taking care of this place for the Creator, how do we do that? We want to, but how?

And those tenants seem pretty hopeless, right? They seem like they are the mean, spiteful, greedy kind of tenants who want everything for themselves.

What if we imagine the landowner giving the land to some new tenants? Imagine there’s a piece of property open out in the vineyards around Newberg. The previous tenants haven’t done a great job with it, but there’s a good infrastructure built up: gnarled old vines that need some TLC but are planted in good soil. A wine press, and maybe a rickety old house. A young couple has fallen in love with the Newberg area, and they are so excited about the prospect of making really great wine. They plan to do this by putting every ounce of love and care they can into growing and harvesting their grapes, and passionately practicing their craft in order to make an artisanal local organic wine, perhaps to be paired with their friends’ local goat cheese on bread from the Newberg Bakery. So this young couple is so excited to try to find a piece of land where they can practice their craft. They recognize they have no idea how to make wine besides what they’ve read in books, but they hope that they can learn, and they’re open to learning from others.

They meet with the landowner of the vineyard we’ve just heard about, the one where the previous tenants did not exactly care for it, and, in fact, murdered any of the landowner’s envoys, though there’s no way to prove it. At this meeting, the landowner sees this young couple and sees that they are passionate about treating this land well, and bringing forth the best fruit the land can support. The landowner also sees that this young couple is clueless—they have no real experience. They can see the wine that they want to produce so clearly they can almost taste it. They are ready to put in countless hours of labor and to do so with love. They are open to learning, and they’ve started reading. In fact, they’ve read everything this landowner has written on the subject of vineyards and winemaking, and they can quote much of it verbatim.

And so, the landowner makes a decision. He or she (whoever you’ve been imagining) decides to move back onto this piece of land, and invite this young couple to work the land alongside. Every day they work together, side by side. As the couple works, they listen to the landowner tell stories of that land, the vintages that have grown out of it in years past, the previous tenants, the faithful stewards who have worked it before. They listen as the landowner tells them about pruning a vine just here, caring for the soil, collecting and distributing water, dealing with pests, when is the exact time to harvest, and what to do to produce the wine. Sometimes when the landowner sees a particular situation, s/he invites the young couple to help come up with a creative solution, and they work together to make it happen. Sometimes, these ideas fail miserably.

The first few vintages of this couple’s wine are terrible, and sometimes they wonder why the landowner even lets them help at all. But at the same time, they are so grateful that they get to be part of the process, and they hold tenaciously to their dream, and step by step they see themselves becoming the skilled crafts-people they envisioned when they came to the land.

The seasons pass, and the young couple is not so young anymore. They have children, and teach them the ways of the landowner. They tell their children the stories and teach the craft. The children also learn firsthand from the landowner, and the landowner delights in hearing their ideas. And new stories are created as the family grows up, being nourished by and nourishing the land.


Now, I don’t know about you, but this second story gives me a lot more hope. And I challenge us this morning not to think of the tenants in the first story as the Jews, or evil corporations who are ruining our planet, but to think of the not-so-good tenants and the young couple in the second story as parts of ourselves. Because at least for me, I notice that there are days when I feel like the old tenants, and days when I feel like the new ones. And maybe these tenants aren’t so different. Maybe the old tenants were just the same as the new ones, just as clueless about how to grow grapes and make wine, but they made different choices about what to do in that situation. The old tenants, out of fear, locked down their land, struggled on their own to try to produce what they could from this land that wasn’t theirs, and refused to give even a drop to the landowner. But the new tenants, the young couple, face life with joy and passion. They are teachable. They are open to community. They have a vision and they work hard to make that vision a reality. When an obstacle pops up between them and their goal, they brainstorm and problem solve and tenaciously hold on to their vision until they can bring it to fruition.

Outdoors with Kids in Chehalem Valley: Vernonia Lake

We spent some time yesterday at Vernonia Lake, which isn’t in the Chehalem Valley, but it’s fairly accessible to those of us living in the Chehalem Valley. I’ve always passed signs to Vernonia when on the way out Highway 26 toward Tillamook, just as the road begins to enter the Coast Range, but I hadn’t ever actually been to Vernonia. It’s a cute little town, and there are a number of trailheads between Highway 26 and Vernonia that we’d like to go back and explore on other trips. There’s also a bike path that goes from Banks out to Vernonia, and someday I’d love to take our bikes out to Banks and then bike the 21 miles to Vernonia as a family. (In our case, since we have to stop in Banks and charge our Nissan Leaf, this would make a lot of sense—except for the fact that the Leaf doesn’t do so well with hauling 4 bikes.) It’s called the Banks-Vernonia State Trail, and it’s a paved path following an old rail line.

Picnic next to Vernonia Lake, OR
Picnic next to Vernonia Lake, OR

On this trip, we visited Vernonia Lake. The weather presented us with a beautiful day for walking, fishing, picnicking, and enjoying the company of our family. We met my brother-in-law and his kids and my in-laws out there, and most of the crew went fishing while my mother-in-law and I walked around the lake. It has a paved .95-mile path around the small lake, and we circled it three-and-a-half times before some of the kids got bored in the boat, so we got our exercise in for the day.

Fishing on Vernonia Lake, OR
Fishing on Vernonia Lake, OR

The details:

  • From Newberg, it’s 51.4 miles
  • Parking: $5 cash (bring exact, or stop by the bank in town, but there’s not a way to make change)
  • No motors on boats, no swimming
  • Fishing: resident bass, crappie, bluegill, brown bullhead; stocked with rainbow trout (as with any fishing, requires a license)
  • Amenities: bathrooms, docks, wheelchair-accessible fishing platform, drinking fountain, small playground (two swings and short monkey bars), boat ramp, picnic tables, benches, access to hiking trails
  • Camping: you can hike in to a primitive campground, apparently, with water, fire pits, and restrooms. $10/tent per night
  • Birding: marsh-loving songbirds, as well as some larger birds such as osprey, hawks, turkey vultures, and bald eagles
Fishing on Vernonia Lake, OR
Fishing on Vernonia Lake, OR

The lake used to be the mill pond for a Douglas fir mill that closed down in 1957. It’s fed by what must be a branch of Rock Creek. It’s a beautiful little pond with cattails and lily pads. We saw small songbirds such as red-wing blackbirds (though their wings are decidedly orange, not red), swallows, starlings, and others I don’t know the names of. There are lots of ducks, and at this time of year, there were ducklings of all sizes. We also saw osprey, bald eagles, hawks, and turkey vultures circling above the lake and surrounding mountains. Be sure to bring binoculars! I got to see an osprey dive and catch a fish.


E and his same-age cousin enjoyed fishing and boating for a while, and then spent a while disturbing everyone else’s peace by noisily having a grand old time on the swing set.

K loved fishing! This was his first time fishing from a boat, I believe, and he could have sat there for hours more. He’s a water guy! Ever since he was little we’ve noticed he loves to swim and do anything relating to water, so he’s definitely going to be a fisher-person like his dad.

After walking for a while, I supervised kiddos at the playground by facing away from them, watching the water and birds, and reading a book. Although it wasn’t exactly quiet, in addition to the human noises I could hear birds and see the beauty of the water, mountains, trees, and other beings. It was a great way to spend an afternoon.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Outdoors with Kids in Chehalem Valley: Bob & Crystal Rilee Park

IMG_20160520_132205638For our Friday adventure this week, K and I visited Bob & Crystal Rilee Park & Equestrian Trails, which is just east of Newberg on Parrett Mountain. According to the Chehalem Park & Recreation District blog, this has only been officially zoned as a park for a few months, although the purchase of the property and a sizable donation donation of land from the Crystal Dawn Smith Rilee Foundation happened in early 2014. Apparently it’s been used as a network of trails known to horse people for years, but now it’s open to the public and is becoming a public park.

IMG_20160520_130135022_HDRThis time, I got my act together and invited a friend to join us, so we went with Angelina and her little L and M. We followed our map out to Rilee Park, and just like the directions say, the Google map takes one to the farmhouse. There’s a parking area a little ways prior to the farmhouse, which is called “Bob’s Corner.” We saw the CPRD sign and parked there and looked for the trailhead.

IMG_20160520_144651403I will say that although we did eventually find the trail, it was not without crossing the road, climbing over a locked gate, tromping through some weeds in what looked like it might sort of be a path, and walking over to the wooden sign whose words we could barely read, then trying to figure out from there which way the trail was, wading through an even more overgrown section including blackberry vines, and wandering a bit to try to figure out if the trail was going to be like this the whole way.

I will also mention that since this park is really new, the map is not that helpful. There are actually two maps, one that is closer in and has names of some trails but has no roads marked and does not label Bob’s Corner, and one that zooms out and gives a broader picture but is harder to follow. We had to kind of feel our way and experiment the whole time to figure out where we were and where we were going. There were trail markers along the way, but the maps did not always have the same names as the trail markers. In the maps below, I’ve circled Bob’s corner and I show the trail we ended up walking in red.

parrett_mt_horsetrails2 parrett_mt_horse_trails

13221599_10206231403532101_4335090877003343046_nThat said, once we found the trail, it was really fun! We just kind of paid attention to what direction we were going, and made sure to loop back around when we were ready. There is quite the network of trails out there, and it was so nice to only be a few miles from Newberg but to be out on a trail where we couldn’t usually hear road noise or construction or other human noises (besides our children, and airplanes, neither of which we can really escape).

13244814_10206231403292095_2963232364999070631_nThe section of trail we did was south from Bob’s Corner. We crossed the road and climbed over a gate, then turned slightly right and went downhill, then pretty much went straight downhill (south) for a while, turned west for a ways, and came back uphill. We were probably on the trail for an hour and a half, moseying and looking at centipedes and other points of interest along the way. We could hear many birdsongs.

IMG_20160520_140102744The trail was wooded, with green ground cover everywhere we looked. Besides not knowing exactly where we were going, this was a really relaxing and fun hike. We all agreed we want to go back!

13244900_10206231405132141_6997563357930227860_nThe boys had tons of fun picking up dirt and sticks. K gave me flowers for my hair. L wanted to stop and just look up at the trees. We named different plants, learned (luckily not by experience) not to touch stinging nettles, and kept an eye out for critters. Mostly we just saw centipedes, but also some birds and a squirrel. We also found a big snail shell, but it was no longer inhabited.

10173553_10206231403972112_8424645984276428797_nIt sounds like the City of Newberg is in the process of developing a master plan to decide specifically where the trails will go and what kind of events and activities will happen there. This is going to be a great resource for the Newberg community, and I’m grateful that it’s there. I’ll watch its development into a more user-friendly network of trails with interest and gratitude.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Cascadia, the Elusive Utopia: book review, part 3

This is the third (of three) posts reviewing and thinking about the ideas found in Cascadia, the Elusive Utopia: Exploring the Spirit of the Pacific Northwest. If you missed the first two, the first post gave an overview of the book and the second post discussed the region we might call “Cascadia,” and whether or not there is a nature-based spirituality in the region. Several of the authors of Cascadia, the Elusive Utopia assert that this nature-based spirituality is a form of civil religion, so that is the idea I’m going to discuss today, along with a wrap-up of my thoughts on this book and where the scholarly Cascadian community might go from here in terms of further research.

Is nature-based spirituality a civil religion?

In my understanding of civil religion from the perspective of sociologist Robert Bellah, civil religion has to do with utilizing religious language and symbols in order to support a national origin myth/history—usually in the form of nationalism. For example, the idea of Manifest Destiny is an American form of civil religion. This American civil religion bases American conquest and the genocide of native peoples on the religious conviction that it is important for God’s “truth” of civilization and order to be spread throughout the world as gospel. Therefore, the actions of the European settlers, no matter how grisly, were justifiable based on the origin myth of bringing order and civilization to savages, using a particular biblical interpretation. Civil religion tends to celebrate the state, and uphold its policies using religious language and religious-style ceremonies.

In Cascadia, I am not certain that I see a civil religion of this kind that is different from the civil religion of the rest of the United States. Perhaps Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia contain a distinct culture based on proximity, but is it a civil religion?

Mark Silk derives his definition of civil religion from an Italian historian, Emilio Gentile, who says civil religion is:

the conceptual category that contains the forms of sacralization of a political system that guarantee a plurality of ideas, free competition in the exercise of power, and the ability of the governed to dismiss their governments through peaceful and constitutional methods. Civil religion therefore respects individual freedom, coexists with other ideologies, and does not impose obligatory and unconditional support for its commandments. (p. 110)

To me, this sounds basically like the definition of democracy, or at least the definition of pluralism. Silk finds that there is not a civil religion at play in Cascadia any more than anywhere else in the US or Canada, and by his definition I agree.

Sallie McFague, on the other hand, encourages what she calls a civil religion of Cascadia, following the editor of the book’s simple definition of Cascadia’s civil religion as “finding God by taking a walk in the forest.” She puts a comma between “super, natural,” following the British Columbia tourist logo, “super, natural British Columbia,” to indicate that Cascadians’ understanding of the supernatural has everything to do with the natural, and vice versa. McFague implies that the “religion” of the bioregion is a cultural focus on spiritual connection through the natural world, which seems to be true if we focus our understanding of “Cascadia” on the portion west of the Cascades, but is McFague’s idea truly a “civil religion”? What makes it civil, rather than simply a religion?

Implications & Suggestions for Further Research

If we limit the understanding of Cascadia down to its western section and take a closer look at the nature-leaning spirituality present in many portions of urban Cascadian society, this book effectively and helpfully categorizes different forms of “spiritual but not religious” Cascadians and the strengths and weaknesses of their perspectives. One author, Gail Wells, points out that the difference between Cascadia’s emphasis on a more natural faith and the rest of the United States’ civil religion is a focus on what’s “really real.” Wells says she is “going to argue that both nature-based spirituality and conventional religion have the potential to play an important, subversive role in what has actually been Cascadia’s dominant culture: the scientific-rational-secular-liberal culture of North America. That role is to offer an alternative way of thinking about what is real.”

This, in my opinion, is the opposite of a civil religion. Instead of a religion enforced by authoritarian dogmatism and nationalism, it is a religion that grows out of an encounter with the Earth and the supernatural Life-Force (a.k.a. God) that sustains it.

Perhaps it is the bioregion’s beauty and abundance that allows Cascadians to perceive the interconnectedness of life and to look for the sacred outside the walls of political and religious institutions. The native people of the area also felt this way, and another chapter gave insight in this direction. Authored by First Nations member Eli Bliss Enns, the chapter is called, “A Geo-Indigenous World View from the Far West Coast of Cascadia.” Enns defines various terms in his indigenous language, such as, “Wii-cosh-naas: Honoring our mutual source of creation: Everything that exists is born from a common creative source.” He also speaks of the value of each person’s contribution to a discussion, and “owning” the land through protecting it and using its resources wisely, recognizing that we are all indigenous animals and other beings. This seems like the “elusive utopia” referred to in the title of the book, a vision present in our most historic and imaginative, liberative myths and sacred stories, from Native American to ancient Hebrew, and a vision new and freshly reborn for such a time and place as this.

I can get behind this vision and desire, but to truly connect this form of nature-based spirituality to the geography of the area in question would require much more focused research. Further study needs to be done to see if this is legitimately different from other urban areas, and to find out if the whole area of Cascadia fits the description of “spiritual but not religious,” or only the individuals west of the Cascades. Also, research would need to occur regarding whether engaging in outdoor recreation across Cascadia’s girth can correctly be termed “spirituality.”

In short, although there are a number of pieces to this puzzle pointing toward a nature-based spirituality in parts of Cascadia, much more research would need to be done to make the correlation clear, and to determine whether or not “Cascadia” is a useful regional term to describe the area where that culture is present. Perhaps that culture is no more present here than anywhere else, but we Cascadians are simply lucky enough to live in a place where these super, natural spaces have not yet been completely destroyed. If nature is the “second book” where we come to know God (alongside the Bible—though, arguably, nature came first, but this is a different topic—the point is that many theologians across time and now see nature as a second way, besides the written books, to understand and know something of God, especially since so many of Jesus’ parables are based on nature metaphors), living in Cascadia can give us access to that book in more extravagantly beautiful ways than are perhaps still available in other regions.