November 6, 2017

Setting a New Course

Recently, I began pursuing a new professional path that, on first blush, might seem like a radical change in direction. However, in the context of my life story, I think it is a fairly reasonable change and I am hopeful for some interesting new opportunities.

First, let me give you some background.

For my professional life so far, I have served as a United Methodist pastor. I was drawn to ministry for a number of reasons: a passion for the church and the rich questions of life that the church wrestles with, a love of people and a desire to serve my community, a knack for speaking and a capacity for leadership. For many years, working in the church was very rewarding and endlessly interesting.

But, eventually, the church began to become a place of frustration for me. Churches are wonderful places, but they are also broken places. The mainline church faces immense challenges - shrinking congregations, crumbling buildings, decreasing cultural resonance, insufficient resources and a basic lack of clarity around mission and purpose. In addition to all of that, the church is engaged in endless debates around sexuality, gender, and power structures - debates that don't really interest most people and serve to make the church an even less attractive option for Sunday mornings.

While my convictions as a Christian remained intact, I grew increasingly disenchanted with organized expressions of my faith...even of the ones I was leading.

I toiled in this frustration for a while and tried different opportunities, but in the end, I concluded that I would be of more use to the church and happier as a person doing something else professionally

That began a long period if introspection and reflection. I'll bore you the details except to say I have an amazing and graceful wife.

In college, I majored in Computer Science. I was an average student, on a good day. But as a child I had developed a fascination with computers from the first time I touched an Apple II (yes, I'm that old). My dad bought an Apple clone (the famous, and illegal Franklin Ace 1000) and I learned to write BASIC programs and play video games. In college, I continued my interest into computers, but I was a typical college kid of Generation X, with out any real direction. Seminary gave me direction so off I went - but now my old interest in playing with computers is returning to the fore.

Over the years, I'd built websites for the churches I served and friends. I took a stab for a while as a freelance web developer, but I didn't really like working for myself and I always wanted to hone my skills so I had more to offer. So, at the end of my reflection, I concluded that I would like to set aside some time and really develop myself as a coder/programmer/developer. At the moment, I am hoping to work in the health care field, continuing my interest in helping people, but I do not want to close myself off to any opportunities that might come my way.

As I began exploring how I might proceed, I discovered a number of "schools" that offer to prepare people for careers as web developers. To be honest, I was skeptical about them, since they were non-traditional educational institutions, usually for-profit, and with little information to confirm their effectiveness. Eventually, however, I found the Flatiron School. I was impressed with them for a few reasons. First, I read about them on a blog I follow, and the reports seemed to be quite positive. Second, I noticed that Flatiron was unique among these "code camps" in that they submitted their results to an independent audit. Finally, Flatiron has a strong commitment to educate and place women and minorities in tech careers. Their values seemed to line up pretty well with mine. That isn't to say all things are rosy at Flatiron. The need for programmers and coders has far outpaced the supply. Consequently, these "schools" have popped up in an effort to meet the need. But it feels a little "wild west." More than others, Flatiron seems committed to bringing standards and professionalism to their emerging industry - and I hope they are sincere and successful.

So, I've begun. So far so good. The road ahead is long and challenging for me, and I'm not sure where it will end up. But I am excited to find out. In the weeks ahead I'll be posting additional blog posts here about my progress and what I have learned.

Oh. There's one other reason why I want to do this. I find it fun. I enjoy it. Sitting in front of a monitor trying to make the stupid computer do something interesting is my idea of a good time. So....that's no small part of this new adventure.

June 11, 2017

Arethusa Falls and Frankenstein Cliff

Yesterday provided a perfect early-summer day to go look at a waterfall. This time of year, the rivers and lakes are full, so waterfalls have ample fuel. We decided on Arethusa Falls, just south of the AMC facility in the White Mountains. Nearby Frankenstein Cliff offered another opportunity for great views.

It was a warm day, slightly overcast. But the sun poked through often and we sweated a lot. The trip took us about four hours, and covered just over 5 miles and about 1400 feet of elevation gain. Generally, I would classify this as a moderate hike, however there were stretches on the downhill portion after Frankenstein Cliff that many (myself included) would find challenging. They are short portions, however, and we managed them without too much difficulty.

Ample parking by the trail head made us quickly aware that this is a popular destination.  The hike from the parking spot to the falls themselves was very popular and we passed many hikers heading back down as we were heading up. The trail during this section was easy to follow.  The only challenges were the climb, the many roots, and the occasional mud.  In rainy weather, this trail would be much tougher.

A short, downhill spur leads to the falls themselves.  The air gets much cooler as you approach, and you can feel the gentle spray as the water cascades down.  The falls were much larger than I expected.

After a few moments at the falls and a snack, we headed back up the spur trail and then turned off toward Frankenstein Cliff.  This trail had far fewer hikers on it - we only saw a couple - and was harder to follow.  Some sections follow creek beds and you have to look for the yellow blazes to make sure you are going the right way.  Also, since this trail appears to be much less popular, the trail is often narrow and overgrown. Just the way we like it!

The Frankenstein tail begins with a bit more uphill, until you reach a high point that offers some views, but is mostly blocked by trees.  The real view is on down from that "peak" at the Frankenstein Cliff overlook.  Here, the view of the Saco River valley is spectacular, and sadly, my iPhone camera did not come close to capturing the beauty.

Heading down from here is when things start to get a bit tricky.  The trail down from the cliffs makes a number of switch backs and is often narrow and muddy.  As you come down, you begin to realize how dramatic those cliffs are, looking back and up.

After you come down from the cliffs, you encounter the railroad, and this amazing elevated bridge.  The trail continues under the bridge, which was confusing at first because my navigation software followed the train tracks themselves back to the parking lot.  The AMC Guide says that walking the tracks is dangerous and prohibited, do I don't recommend it, tempting though it was. The trail actually follows basically the same route, just to the south of the tracks and presumably out of the way of trains.

And finally, here is the route we took:

All in all, this was a great, challenging hike, with New Hampshire's tallest waterfall at 200' and a great cliff view to boot.  A good way to spend the afternoon.

May 10, 2017

An Early Semi-Urban Hike

Living in Hartford, I am usually surrounded by the trappings of an urban environment - sidewalks, asphalt, glass, steel, cars, trucks, horns honking, sirens blaring. And yet it is fairly easy to take a short drive and find oneself surrounded by wilderness. An accessible semi-urban hike is a real treasure.

One example is the hike we did last weekend. We had a pretty glorious day on our hands, so that helped. Heading west, we went to Reservoir 6 in the Metropolitan District's recreation area system. Reservoir 6 offers a wide, 3.6 mile path around the reservoir that is a real pleasure to walk on. You can get a PDF map here. Sometimes, taking a stroll around the reservoir makes for a great day.

But sometimes you want something a little more. So, we walked about half way around the reservoir trail where the Metacomet Trail breaks off and heads up to Heublein Tower. Heublein is a popular destination, though the tower itself doesn't open until Memorial Day (here is the official site). There are a lot of ways to get up to the tower, but taking the Metacomet ensures a quiet hike away from the crowds.

The only downside for us on this hike was that there was a lot of mud. Recent rains had really saturated the trails and in some cases getting muddy was unavoidable. But hey, that's part of the fun. Around the tower there are great views and picnic tables - a good place to chill out and hang out - and there is great space for bigger groups if you are looking for that.

Also, interesting fact: A party was once held at a large BBQ pit (which is still there) for Republican political leaders. At that event, Dwight Eisenhower was asked to run for president. A little history!

At one point, wooden boards had been placed on the ground to help navigate some muddy sections.

Another fun fact: at one place near the tower, the borders of three different towns all converge: Simsbury, Avon and Bloomfield. A sign marks the spot.

And here is the route we took. It was about 3 hours for us, moderately difficult verging on easy. We covered 6.5 miles with about 600 feet of elevation gain (and loss since we did an out and back).

Having a hike like this - that truly feels like wilderness and yet is just a few minutes out of the city - is a wonderful thing. It would be nice if more Hartfordians took advantage of this very accessible widerness.

May 2, 2017

The Uncertain Future of the UMC (and it isn't about sexuality!)

As a lifelong United Methodist and a somewhat reluctant member of the clergy, I watch the church as its institutions struggle to navigate the rough waters around homosexuality, church polity, and the demands of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

These are difficult waters to move through. For many, homosexuality remains a sin, inspires disgust, and deserves the strongest condemnation. At present, our church's official policy is to deny homosexuals (self avowed, practicing) access to full membership as clergy. The level of welcome and participation of gay and lesbian lay people varies widely from church to church (though churches are clearly moving in the direction of more acceptance of gays in volunteer roles).

So, our Judicial Council, unsurprisingly, ruled recently that a Bishop can't be a lesbian and, furthermore, our Boards of Ordained Ministry, which recommend candidates for ministry, must make a "'full inquiry' of candidates" which includes "issues of sexuality". In other words, I guess our Boards have to ask our candidates about their sex lives. That will be awkward!

What's interesting to me is that the only time the church makes news anymore is when we are fighting about homosexuality. For the vast majority of Americans, the depiction of our church in the mainstream media is the image they will retain of our church. Not a pretty picture, and not something I would want to be a part of, except that I already am.

I support the full inclusion of our LGBTQI friends in all levels of the church. If they have the gifts and grace to serve as pastors, we should be celebrating that fact. But I also think the church, on either side of this debate, is making a terrible miscalculation if it thinks that by resolving the "homosexual question" - either with a new commitment to unity or a church split - that the church's problems will somehow be easier to solve. The fact is that the world has largely moved on from this issue (Ellen came out on TV 20 years ago!) and whether or not the church "resolves" it won't be of much interest to most people.

Instead, the church - or the churches if we split - will be faced with all the underlying issues that we haven't even begun to address in earnest. We just won't have homosexuality to distract us anymore from the dismal realities of our shared life: that our churches continue to shrink, that our structures continue to be untenable, that our financial models don't add up, that our wider culture no longer understands us nor really cares about us.

So, what to do in this situation? Well, we are going to have a special General Conference, that will cost around $4 million, so we can argue some more about homosexuality.

We live in a world that is in serious turmoil and desperate need of the hope, grace, and open-ended possibilities that our God offers. The Methodists, historically, had an important role to play in extending that grace through our churches which were places for people to be accepted, loved, developed spiritually, and engaged in transformative mission and ministry. We extended that grace through our hospitals and clinics, our homes for the elderly, our schools and universities that embraced intellectual advancement and scientific inquiry. We had a passionate and progressive vision of the Gospel of Jesus Christ unfolding in our individual and collective consciousness as we pursued personal and social holiness.

What happened to that?

I fear that our church will split because I don't see how the "homosexual question" can be answered in a manner that is acceptable to all. But I fear, even more, that we will continue to fail to embrace the beautiful and worthy mission that God has given us.

August 19, 2016

Camels Hump Expedition

Editor’s Note: Though this trip took place on August 19, 2016, and the post is time stamped to reflect this date, the actual writing of this post happened on August 23.

So, after our success on Mount Willard (read all about it here), we decided to up the ante and try one of Vermont's genuine 4,000 footers - Camels Hump (height 4,083 ft.). You might think I mean "Camel's Hump", but oddly, the official name as recorded by the U. S. Board on Geographic Names omits the apostrophe, so Camels Hump it is!  Locals of course usually include the apostrophe, suggesting that the hump is owned by a camel, but I don't care! I just hiked the sucker!

We knew this one was going to be a bit more demanding. However, after reading a number of online trip reports, it sounded like we could handle it. We discovered on our journey that the hike was much harder than we expected, even after reading the reports.  It isn't impossible, by any means, but it does pose a challenge to your average hiker, with significant sections requiring four-legged scrambling and a decent elevation climb.

We planned the route above - starting off on Burrows Trail but quickly taking the Connector over to Forest City Trail. The FCT ends up at the Long Trail, south of the peak, and we took the Long Trail on up to the top.  This was by far the hardest section of trail we hiked, and where most of the scrambling occurred.  Finally, after some time on the summit, we descended back following the Burrows Trail back to where we parked.

The parking spot is located at the end of Camels Hump road.  However, be careful!! We learned the hard way that there is more than one road named Camels Hump.  So make sure you are headed to the right place.  The hike along the Forest City Trail follows a stream for bit:

After the FCT joins up with the Long Trail, things start to get a bit more challenging. Scrambling up rocks on all four is not uncommon.

A bit after some of those tough scrambles up the Long Trail you come to Wind Gap, which provides a great view through a clearing.

Some more scrambling and rock climbing - all challenging for us, but doable - resulted in a joyful rest on the summit.  One thing I will say about Camels Hump is that the summit is quite nice - wide, open with great views in all directions.  You can see Lake Champlain stretched across the land. You can see Mount Mansfield and even Mount Washington.  Spectacular views and lots of room to share the space with others. We caught a perfect day and the temperature was really nice and it wasn't too windy.  Just spectacular.

We had eaten lunch just before we reached the summit. Still the summit is a great place to dine.  The alpine region above the tree line is host to a number of fragile plant species and there are markers and signs warning you to not damage the foliage.  Generally, that was not a problem as we just stayed aware of where we were stepping.  We chilled out, absorbed the view, chatted with a few other climbers, and then began our descent, first on the Long Trail over Camels Hump and then on to Burrows Trail for the return.  Burrows is a much easier trail than the FCT, but it lacks the impressive views.  It's main perk is that it allows you to make your trip a loop, instead of an out-and-back, and it is a faster return.  If you just wanted to get up Camels Hump and get back, it would be faster and easier to just go up Burrows and back Burrows.  But that's too boring for us!

The hike took us 5 hours and 22 minutes and we covered 5.6 miles. Whew!! About 2500 feet of elevation gain and loss.  Double whew! Our 5 hour time included quite a bit of time on the summit and a few solid breaks for rest and lunch along the way.  A great day!  But we were wiped - I mean really wiped!! So a few days of rest were in our future.

Camels Hump is a challenging hike, but it provides great views and a great sense of accomplishment.