Where Does Water Come From?

dscn0490An art professor once told me about a conversation with a student that was working at the pottery wheel.  The student asked–“where does the clay come from?”  The professor went on to describe the clay formation in Texas where some of the best clay came from.  “But,” said the student, “where does THIS clay come from?”  Thinking that the student was not understanding, the professor described in even more detail the nature of the clay and its source. Now quite frustrated with the nature of the answer, the student asked–“where does the clay come from that comes up through the table onto the potting wheel?”  Having now come down to ground from the existential level answer to the question, the professor said:  “from the box that is under the table.”

I have been thinking of this story this week after a water main break in my town that first left the entire town without water for 8 hours and then without drinkable tap water for four days.  And in addition, the college where I work is going to have its water turned off for six hours later this month.   It is only at times like these that you ask:  Where does water come from?

It’s an interesting question that depends on where you live.  Growing up in the Midwest you knew that it came from the water tower which you could see from afar.  But of course it had to be pumped into the water tower from somewhere in order to create water pressure.  In my hometown it was the local lake that was created by the CCC during the depression.  In Michigan it was from Lake Michigan.  I once went by the place with the intake that stretched out into the lake.  On Great Barrier Island it was more complicated.  Our drinking water was collected on the roof and drained into a big copper pot on the back porch that we would put in pots to use to cook and drink.  The water that came out of the tap came from a stream.  Visiting Nicaragua for a few weeks, we had water for only a couple hours of day.  I don’t know where it came from but I was glad to have it when I did. In Hong Kong the water from the faucet came from across the border in China, but the water for the sewer system was salt water from the ocean.  We had a water boiling electric pot in our kitchen, but we basically used the tap water.  I carried out an on-going survey of whether the water was drinkable and it was always with mixed responses.  We drank it with no ill affects.  I did not drink it when I went across the border into mainland China.  And it Haiti we washed vegetables off with water with a bit of bleach.

My daughter came home after a trip to the store during the time when we were directed to not drink the water directly from the tap.  She was a bit mystified by a conversation she had overheard.  Customers had expressed concern that there was little water left in the store.  There seemed to be a fear of a shortage of water.  In the meantime, we just followed instructions and boiled the water coming out of our pipes for the one minute required to ensure its safety.  And put a bit a bleach in the dish water to be able to use it to clean dishes.  Really?  A water shortage?  We had pots of it that we never got around to using!

The next set of questions related to water, of course, might be–how does it get there?  In Flint, MI, it is through lead-contaminated pipes.  And where does it go when it leaves your house?  In Louisiana and Wellington, New Zealand, it was directly into the ocean.  But these are different questions for another day.

Where does water come from?  You might say Wenham Lake, but my existential answer, unlike the pottery professor’s answer in the case of clay, would be that water is a gift from God.




Using Pigs to Hang Laundry

Several weeks ago I was hanging laundry, enjoying one of the last days of summer.  But it was a blustery day so I had to use multiple clothes pins to hold the laundry in place.  As I worked away, I thought of New Zealand, where you had to practically tie the laundry onto the line or it would be blown to the next island.  Likewise I had to hold on to my younger daughter to keep her from being blown away with it.

Today I was chatting with a faculty member from New Zealand who talked about the beauty of the day and how it reminded him of New Zealand.  I told him about hanging laundry and being reminded of my time there.  He then asked if I had used lots of pigs.

Only then was I reminded of our utter confusion when we were looking for clothes pins in New Zealand and everyone was telling us to use pigs to hang our clothes.  We could not understand why were were looking for pigs to do this.

Only when we were told to go to bid at night and asked how many pinnies we had in change did the pattern become clear.

I still imagine using pigs to hang laundry and it makes me smile.

The Great Marsh


I began the summer and now I have ended the summer with an all-day kayak trip through the Great Salt Marsh near my home.  It gives you a different perspective to see the area from the water.  And in fact, much of the area around Essex, MA can’t be seen except by water and the change in tide meant that over the time we were out, the water could have changed 9 feet, exposing the thick sediment of the marsh.

dscn0931On both days we went out with the tide and then headed back in after the tide had started to return.  Areas like this, with marsh grassland and tidal creeks, provide rich habitat.  The Great Marsh, the largest salt marsh in New England, is no different. Just drive through the area on any summer evening and you will see lines of people at local seafood restaurants and takeout—clams and lobster dominate. At other times you can see birders out checking out the migrants who have stopped on their way between the arctic and the tropics.

While the Great Marsh provided an important source of food for Native Americans, the area around the Essex Bay became known for its boat-building for almost 300 years beginning in the 1600s.  The shelter of the estuary provided a safe place to build the fishing boats that would then be taken to the fishing port of nearby Gloucester..dscn0948

I wondered about the safety of shelter when the sands shift every day, season, and year at the mouth of the rivers.  On one trip I got stuck in a sandbar as I tried to navigate in a channel.  On the other trip we had to go out into the ocean in order to go around a sand bar and then enter the Essex River.  The breakers were coming from several directions and I did take on some water when one came over me.

As you paddle throughout the marsh, it is easy to see the age of the settlement.  For example, Choate Island (called Hog Island) was settled by John Choate in the 1600s.  The Choate house that still sits on the island was built in the early to mid1700s.


The island is a drumlin, a hill feature shaped by glaciers that leaves one higher blunt end to the hill and another more tapered end.  On Choate Island you can see examples of the salt marshes that provided pasture for cattle. As we walked on the island, it had similarities to Nova Scotia where the Acadians built structures to drain the salt marsh.

Two beautiful days in the marsh and summer is now over.



Big Rivers Tall Grass

IMG_20160704_142900661A river, by my definition, has to stretch hundreds of miles and drain thousands of square miles of prairie land.  Anything less is just a stream.  Rivers come from places unknown and stretch far beyond your own horizon leading toward the ocean.


Car Wash Options Tributaries of the Missouri: Madison, Gallatin, and Jefferson rivers

Gate to the Mountains: Headwaters of Missouri River












The Des Moines River, the Illinois River, the Ohio River, the Missouri River—all of which flow into the mighty Mississippi River.  I have lived among these rivers.  They together drain all the land between the Appalachians and the Rocky Mountains.  Thousands of square miles. When my grandmother was older, she lived in an apartment along the Des Moines River in Minnesota.  I lived 300 miles southeast near the Des Moines River in Iowa.  Open land stretched from my house to hers. Every Sunday, when I took my walk along the Des Moines River, I would imagine its route upstream to my grandmother’s town.

I once took a group of international visitors to see a lock and dam on the Mississippi River when I was a graduate student in Minnesota.  We yelled to the barge operator below us, asking about his load.  He had grain from the upper Midwest and was headed to New Orleans where it would be put on an ocean vessel to take it abroad.  Rivers fuel imagination because they come from somewhere and are going somewhere.  It is no surprise that singer, songwriter, Carly Simon used the image of the river:

Let the River Run

We’re coming to the edge,
Running on the water,
Coming through the fog,
Your sons and daughters.

Let the river run,
Let all the dreamers
Wake the nation.
Come, the New Jerusalem.

Big rivers are a force of nature.  Mature rivers like these I grew up among, wind back and forth across a landscape carving out broad and flat fertile valleys. In the middle of a region with relatively little topography, I would always lose my breath as I came to the valley’s edge at places like Little America, Illinois, where the vista opened up in front of me.  During the Floods of 1993, the rivers took back their valleys, reminding everyone that rivers are a force of nature.

DSCN0955My grandmother was born in Iowa—the “land between two rivers.”  She talked about the tall grass prairie, with its low wet spots where the cows would get stuck in the mud and have to be pulled out. Tall Grass.  These low spots and the prairie vegetation would collect rainwater and hold it, releasing it slowly into the rivers.  People eventually tiled the low parts of the prairie and plowed all of it, reducing nature’s natural holding tank and increasing the speed and height of floods.

Attempts are being made to restore the valleys and grasslands of Big Rivers.  Farmland is being turned back into sloughs within the valleys to give the rivers back their ability to weave back and forth across the landscape.  And in a very few places you can see the restoration of the prairie.  I visited such a site this summer just south of Chicago.  A block of land that was formerly in a military reserve created an opportunity for prairie restoration.  As I walked through the 7-year-old prairie, it smelled of home—a combination of direct sun, high humidity (the type that makes the corn grow) and the smell of growing grass.  Tall Grass.






Dan Fogelberg, in his song, “The River” talks about his inability to escape the Big River and Tall Grass of his origin:


I was born by a river
Rolling past a town…

I was raised by a river…

Weaned upon the sky…

I will die by a river
As it rolls away

Big Rivers.  Tall Grass.  If it isn’t hundreds if not thousands of miles long, it is not a river.  If it can’t grow five feet tall, it isn’t grass.

Notes from a Cross-Cultural Conversation

My colleagues at Gordon College and I recently spent two days with a group of scholars/pastors/thought leaders from Brazil, Hong Kong, and China.  We had the pleasure of hosting them for a gathering to explore issues of the evangelical church and its engagement with an increasingly pluralist society in each of these settings.  Near the end of our meeting, I shared what I thought I had heard in the discussion related to the challenges or opportunities facing the church in Brazil and China as they tried to serve the common good while remaining faithful, and where I thought visionary energy could be derived.

Cultural Resources

The local church is always embedded in a context rich with particular cultural resources available to them.  These are natural entryways to service and are also elements of culture and history that need to be amplified and honored in local expressions of faith.  In a country which values education and the elderly, Christians in China have naturally found niches in which to serve society that center around children and honor the family.  The Brazilian church is embedded in a culture that values warmth and hospitality.  Is there a way to honor these cultural values by expressing them and affirming them through programs that serve the common good?

Christians in each country also face political challenges: repression in China and divided priorities in Brazil, sometimes advanced by unethical means.  But one common opportunity is to recover a history of ethical Christian engagement with society.  The Chinese Christians have Chinese Republican history from the early part of the twentieth century as a model for what is possible for society.  Brazilian Christians have a history of positive collaboration and engagement with each other before the present fracturing of the church.  These are histories that need to be recovered and can serve as a cultural resource to draw upon.

Biblical Narratives

In listening to my brothers and sisters, I found Biblical narratives to help me frame their individual contexts.  As my Chinese brothers and sisters talked about the church, I am reminded of the New Testament context of Caesar and Rome.  They face a similar challenge of knowing what to render to Caesar and what belongs to God. They must wisely determine what steps allow the church to flourish amidst Caesar’s rule.  My Brazilian brothers and sisters described a dynamic situation that parallels Paul addressing the crowd in the marketplace in Athens.  Like Paul calling the people back to the worship of one God, the church is trying to find its footing amidst the cacophony of religious expression. Perhaps identifying the biblical narratives that speak to our place and time will inspire a vision for churches and resources to confront our realities.

Capacity Building and Opportunity

Christians in each setting have opportunities to build capacity in their cultures and societies by recognizing the obstacles that they face and addressing them.  In China, training and growth around church governance  is building capacity in its members that are far reaching in terms of the development of civil society.  In Brazil, where Christians experience challenges in their efforts to engage politics in a mature manner, an emphasis on church polity may serve the church well as a capacity-building strategy.  Though very different contexts, an emphasis on church governance may have more broadly transformative impacts than anticipated.

What opportunities might each faith community explore?  What if Chinese evangelicals joined with others at the local level around environmental issues, developing a care of creation movement in China?  This could be expressed as care of neighbor, but especially care of children and their future, alongside care of elderly.  The Lausanne Creation Care conference is going to be held in Taiwan.  Is this an opportunity?  What if Brazilian evangelicals took on one policy-related issue to practice the recovery of their past ability to act jointly?  This effort could be a learning exercise as they learn to use media, reflect, and re-engage, growing in their ability to model a mature engagement in the public square.  Could this help to start to recover a sense of common life among Christians?

In the end, in cross-cultural encounters, we always learn more about ourselves than others.  What did I learn about the American evangelical church?  I learned that we need the Chinese church to teach us what it means to suffer for Christ and give thanks for religious freedom.  And I learned that we need the Brazilian church to model for us the transformative power of the Spirit.  Christians in both contexts express a deep yearning for maturity in Christ.  We have much to learn from our  Chinese and Brazilian brothers and sisters who can contribute to our maturing in our faith as we seek to  engage with society in order to  serve the common good.

For more on the Project on Evangelicalism and Culture, see:



Traveling Mercies

WP_20160704_20_03_14_ProI have been thinking about the phrase, “traveling mercies” this week.  What brought this about?  Two incidents.  My niece landed in Moscow only to find that the friend with whom she was going to stay had just experienced a tragic family death.  And my daughter called me in tears.  I was in Indiana.  She was at the airport to go to Hong Kong and when she handed her passport to the agent, she discovered that it was her grandmother’s passport.  Their passports must have gotten switched a year ago when they crossed the Canadian border and now hers was in Michigan and she was in Boston trying to leave the country.

Why do we pray for traveling mercies?  We are often at our most vulnerable when we travel.  We have to depend on the help and hospitality of strangers.  I have two friends who have been traveling when they experienced the accidental death of a child.  In both cases it was outside the country where they lived. They had to depend on total strangers.

In my own family, the state police once had to track down my grandmother and step-grandfather who were traveling from Minnesota to Texas when my grandfather’s son died.  Just recently I asked my mother about the 1939 car accident the led to the eventual death of her father when she was 9.  They were in South Dakota traveling home to Minnesota when the car rolled.  She can recall the sound of the glass breaking and the feel of the car rolling.  She remembers her sister reaching over to turn the car off and seeing her father, mother, and aunt out in the field where they had been thrown.  She somehow ended up at a local doctor’s office to get her finger sewn up, but the adults were taken by ambulance back to Minnesota.  But who called for the ambulance?

Refugees are the most vulnerable travelers in need of traveling mercies.  When I lived in Iowa I helped with hosting 5 different Central American refugee families who had been accepted by Canada.  This was called the Overground Railroad.  The families stayed in our town for about 6 months while waiting for their final papers for Canada.  They each had their stories of travels to the United States.  Some had been in detention along the US border.  They had experienced death threats, trauma, and loss outside the confines of family and friends.  In one case a child had been left behind in Mexico City.  When it was time for them all to fly to Canada, we had to find someone in Mexico City who would take the paperwork to the 5-year old in the slums of Mexico City and get him to the airport at the right time to arrive in Canada at the same time as the rest of the family.  They were dependent on us—who had been strangers—and on our ability to find strangers in Mexico City to help us help them.

Traveling Mercies.  I pray for traveling mercies for those more distant from me—like Syrian refugees—and for those close to me.  We all are in need of traveling mercies.

My daughter did make it to Hong Kong.  I drove back to Michigan from Indiana and sent her passport by FedEx overnight. The agent rebooked her ticket for two days later and added two days at the end at no charge.  I wish I knew this stranger’s name…

Mind the Gap


Margaret Silf, in her book, The Other Side of Chaos, makes a comparison between the phrase heard on the subway platforms of London (and Hong Kong)—mind the gap—to the space between the “no longer” and the “not yet” that we all experience when we go through great changes.  This “gap” between platform and train is a risky space that makes us nervous and uncomfortable.

Throughout our lives, we go through times of living within these risky spaces.  And this space is where we experience the most personal growth because the alternative is to stay home.  For the past 4 years I have been living in “the gap” having left family, place, friends, and previous positions behind.  This past year there have been signs of having started to experience life on the other side of this gap of change.  Life is starting to have a recognized rhythm and cycle.

The more we navigate these “gap” experiences, the more we become familiar and anticipate times of growth and adjustment.  My younger daughter did not have an easy time living in New Zealand, but this “gap” experience, which pushed her beyond her comfort zone, shaped her in a profound way.  She became a cross-cultural bridge for others.  When I asked her to consider going to Hong Kong for her senior year in high school, she said—why not?  The alternative, of course, was to stay home.  In thinking about this opportunity she could articulate that she knew it would take some time to adjust once we got there.  And again it was an experience that pushed her beyond her comfort zone, whether it was controlling anxiety on the overnight train ride from Shanghai to Guangzhou when we had no idea what was going on, or managing to get to a friend’s house using multiple types of transportation all on her own.  She learned once again that she could “mind and navigate in the gap” and grow in new ways that she could not anticipate.  When we went back to live in Hong Kong the second time, she leapt into life without hesitation. And having had practice, she moved to an entirely different region of the United States after graduating from college and has navigated these changes.

Often we try to circumvent the process of living in this in-between state of change and learning between the “no longer” and the “yet to be” state of life.  Over time, I have found that I have become more conscious of trying to be mindful of being in the gap without pushing toward some future.  I have to say that I get great pleasure out of entering a new culture and not knowing what is going on around me—it is the process of navigating and learning that gives me pleasure rather than becoming comfortable as quickly as possible. I desire to be “in the gap” while being mindful of it, taking in each new piece of knowledge of a new place or culture and in the process being changed myself.

Margaret Silf says that there is no shortcut to the “not yet.”  We can refuse to move toward it and cling rigidly to the “no longer.”  “We can try to move too quickly by leaping across the abyss.   Or we can see this gap as not something to be avoided at all but something to be minded.  We are to pay attention to it, not because it is waiting to swallow us up into danger but because it is our God-given tutor to prepare us for the next stage of our life.”  Hold on tight to life and mind the gap.

Foods that Travel

kitchen cooked potato chips








In spite of the globalization of trade, I have found that some foods remain tied to place.  These items are the types of food that are likely to show up at the gathering of snow birds in Phoenix, all of whom are from Fulton County, Illinois.  What would you find there?  No doubt it would be Kitchen Cooked Potato Chips from Farmington, Illinois.  These same potato chips are shipped around the country (and maybe the world) for Christmas presents for those who grew up in Central Illinois and are now spread more broadly.

If you are from Pella, Iowa, you take Dutch letters from Jaarsma Bakery in a box when you visit family, or you send a dozen at Christmas by mail.  Personally I can take or leave these almond paste pastries but a true Pelladian cannot have a gathering without them.  In Grand Rapids, Michigan, another Dutch community, banket, an I-shaped version, is a typical gift brought to a Christmas party.








When I lived in Louisiana, everyone took fresh shrimp packed in dry ice in Styrofoam ice-chests when traveling to see family.  You could not arrive without it.

Having been children when we lived in New Zealand, my daughters gave me a list of candy to bring back when I went there to visit.  Pineapple Lumps were at the top of the list—my older daughter said they were best when put in the freezer and taken out to directly pop into your mouth.  Several bags of Pineapple Lumps travelled the 10,000 miles home with me.

Pinapple lumps

For a few years, I was able to get once such local food item at Target—Good Earth Tea.  This made sense.  Good Earth Tea comes from the Good Earth restaurant in Minneapolis/St. Paul and Target also began in Minneapolis/St. Paul.  My mother in Michigan could get it at her Target.  I could get it at Target in Boston. And then one day…it disappeared from the shelf.  To be honest, I had often wondered how many Minnesotans there could be across the country who were purchasing Good Earth Tea at Target.  Just to make sure I went back several times to Target to see if they had just run out of stock—it was still on their website after all.  But I was out of luck (and tea). This made the meaning of the tea more significant as it became a matter of identity for me.  Knowing my desperation, after Christmas I found a box on my desk, brought to me by a colleague who had gone home to Minnesota for Christmas to visit family.  But soon it was gone.

Last month I was in Minnesota for a weekend to attend a memorial service.  This service was for a mentor who over the years I had met at the Good Earth restaurant dinner along with his wife when I was in town.  I told my aunt, who I was staying with, that I needed to take Good Earth Tea home with me.  Amongst the things that filled the weekend, we had lunch with some cousins—and I reminded my aunt that I needed to pick up some Good Earth Tea.  We went to a movie—and I reminded my aunt that I needed to pick up some Good Earth Tea (and it was not a great movie).  We went to visit another aunt in the hospital—and I reminded my aunt that I needed to pick up some Good Earth Tea.  We drove close to the restaurant several times always enroute to someplace else as I reminded her that I needed to pick up some Good Earth Tea.

Finally, out of desperation, I had my cousin take me to breakfast at the restaurant my last morning, marginalizing my aunt in my effort to purchase a piece of my identity to take back with me to Boston.  And who showed up to eat and drink with us but my aunt!

Next Christmas, if we are together, I am not going to share my Kitchen Cooked Potato Chips.

Good Earth Tea

Prophets and Pragmatists: Deciphering Cultural Worldviews

On a recent trip to Hong Kong I was a bit shocked to see two big construction projects underway that seemed to me to be in the speculative stage when I lived there. One was the construction of an additional runway at the HK International Airport—Environmental groups had been opposed because of wanting a stop projects that involve land reclamation from the ocean. The other construction project is the Hong Kong-Zhuhai bridge across the Pearl River delta. This bridge will stretch 30 miles across the ocean and further integrate Hong Kong with mainland China. This project is controversial because it requires only one border crossing—mainland China—rather than the usual two—Hong Kong and mainland China. Already there is great nervousness in Hong Kong over mainland China’s increasing influence and an inability of Hong Kong institutions to sustain their character and rule of law. While I was there, a bookseller disappeared and ended up in China without any record of his leaving Hong Kong.IMG_20160113_025421076

IMG_20160113_025412816 How do you negotiate your relationship between political entities under these conditions? This is the debate in Hong Kong and it is one that divides generations and families. Most Hong Kong people will tell you that their culture is a pragmatic culture. The pragmatism of Hong Kong may be tied to the larger Chinese culture. There is a saying about being blessed to live far from the emperor. The idea has been to continue to live your life underneath what may be happening within the larger official circles. Or as I sometimes think of it—you need to learn to read the tea leaves in order to constantly adjust your life o you can continue to live and avoid direct confrontation.

Pragmatism would tell you to be sensible and realistic in how you deal with mainland China—work within the realities. However, a more prophetic voice arose more recently in Hong Kong in the Umbrella Movement, especially as young people worry about their future. Everyone has the same desires for Hong Kong, but they have different perspectives on how to deal with the reality they have been dealt.

Hong Kong pragmatism is in contrast to the characteristics that cultural analysts often use to describe American culture. Such characteristics include valuing action over contemplation and dichotomous thinking in terms of right or wrong. My trip to Hong Kong has led me to think about this latter characteristic. My neighboring state of New Hampshire has license plates that say: Live Free or Die! You have two choices. I understand that dying is pretty definitive, but what if we can’t agree with what it means to live free? Do I have to die, or can I pragmatically decide to live and negotiate my way forward with others with differing ideas? If every American “stands firm” out of necessity of maintaining their principled and pure stand, then what does this mean pragmatically on the ground?

Don’t get me wrong. I am actually quite sympathetic to the need for the prophetic. But the prophetic has to grapple with the pragmatic, recognizing the painfulness of compromise. The meta-narrative of American culture has been described along the lines of the Lone Ranger: a hero rides in from the outside and overcomes evil and saves the town. But then what? Pragmatically what happens next?

One of the cultural gifts of the United States to the world may be the prophetic. Martin Luther King and the Civil Right Movement characterize this. The cultural gift that Hong Kong and China could contribute to American culture may be that of pragmatism. We need both the prophetic and the pragmatic if we are going to peacefuly live together with others at every scale of society.

My daughter’s thoughts on the Hong Kong-Zhuhai bridge? She doesn’t want to ever go on it. Is this because of its meaning in the larger political landscape and her love for Hong Kong? No. In this instance it is pragmatic. Given the poor safety record of the new high speed rail lines in China, she says she will take the ferry, even with its associated motion sickness.IMG_20160113_025749989

El Nino or Climate Change?

I have a sense of impending doom left as part of my post-traumatic stress from last winter’s 107 inches of snow in 30 days.  I’ve bought a roof rake for the snow in the hopes of magically warding off winter.

But it is the end of December and winter has not come–we walked on the beach with bare feet on Christmas day.  Should I feel guilty for enjoying the continued moderate temperatures that might be due to climate change?

Last year’s winter could be attributed to climate change which causes weather patterns to get stuck in a cycle like the cycle of large snow storms that continued to hit us.  This year’s moderate weather is more likely impacted by an El Nino, a weather pattern also called the Southern Oscillation.  An El Nino, named after the Christ child because it often happens around Christmas, begins in the equatorial Pacific in the region of Indonesia.  Normally the low pressure in this area draws the winds toward it from the subtropics, driving equatorial ocean currents from the Americas toward the western Pacific.  The west side of the Americas are left with relatively dry weather and cold currents that move from the poles toward the equator before they go west along the equator.  The Baja of California is created by this dominant pattern.

When an El Nino occurs, the low pressure center diminishes, causing a faltering of the winds that drive the tropical currents to the west.  The warm current backs up bringing unusually warm water to the west side of the Americas along with its associated torrential rains and warmer temperatures.  This moderates the temperatures and winter in areas across North America.

My plants may be confused, but I’m going to just enjoy it while it lasts.  I can take a Christmas on the beach, like everyone experiences in New Zealand, for one year.  After all, next year we might have an El Nina–the opposite of an El Nino.  But that is another story…