Saturday, December 31, 2016

Cycling Chiloe in Chile

I am in southern Chile on the main island of Chiloe on the Pacific Ocean for a week-long self-guided bicycle tour. As touch points for this tour, my friend Fred Milligan and I are riding to towns and villages in which wooden churches were constructed in the 19th century. Some of these churches are now designated by UNESCO and have been or are being carefully preserved.

These structures are unique in that they were intended to be stone buildings and are built according to plans shipped from Europe and based on European stone churches and cathedrals. But the needed stone does not exist as a resource in the area. So, Chileans creatively used local boat making knowledge and skills to build the churches out of wood. It's quite a feat.

The main island of Chiloe (it's actually an archipelago of islands) is about 80 miles long and 40 miles wide and is very hilly. The undulating terrain is tough on day-long bicycle rides. Not any one of the hills is too hard to climb, but the accumulation of them over the course of 40 to 50 miles takes its toll. The last few miles of a day of such riding makes even the mildest hill seem like Mt. Everest to hill-weary legs.

John Franklin Hay
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Monday, December 26, 2016

The Last to Arrive?

We take our place at the continuing gathering that centered in Bethlehem

Christmas arrives. Or, we arrive at Christmas--sooner or later. In our faith-formed imagination we are invited to take our place in the Nativity. In this poem, I imagine the unusual and continuing draw of unlikely people to an unlikely place: Bethlehem.

First, census-responding throngs
swell the local populace,
burgeoning homes and hostels
with not-so-welcome guests.

Then, a young man and pregnant girl
arrive, seeking vainly for a room.
Bedding down in a stable,
she gives birth among livestock.

Later in the night, gnarled shepherds
traipse in, finding their way
to the mangered newborn,
just as an angel had told them.

How much later we do not know, Magi
come with gracious gifts,
following a star that draws them
from beyond any traceable map.

And later still, from the four corners
of earth and time, we make our trek.
Are we the last to arrive
at the gathering in Bethlehem?

Years from now, until the end of ages,
more will be drawn and find the One
whose birth angels once proclaimed
and so shall forevermore.

Graphic by Janet McKensie -

Monday, December 19, 2016

Settling for a Little Togetherness at Christmas

I've backed off of most of my holiday insistences in favor of something more profound.

What more can be said of Christmas that has not already been said, written, sung, drawn, or dramatized? Nothing, really. And yet I keep trying simply because it inspires and possesses me so. As I see it, there will always be rich angles and new perspectives and cultural combinations that somehow bring the ancient stories and traditions into intriguing--if not new--light. This is why I keep writing of Advent and Christmas.

Year by year, I try to pay attention to the way I anticipate Christmas and experience its traditions. I note that my observance of Advent and Christmas and my perspective on them keeps evolving, even if subtly and slowly. 

Some things about the holiday that I once held passionately—even self-righteously—have faded in importance to me. For instance, I'm not as much a stickler for trying to convert people to observe Advent. Once convinced that if folks only knew about Advent-keeping--its rich roots and spiritual promise--and had practical tools with which to observe it, they would. I've also tried to get folks to practice/observe the Twelve Days of Christmas tradition. I've pretty much failed on both fronts.  For whatever reason, most churches I know and most people I know--including my own family--don’t really care much for the full practice of Advent, even if they dutifully observe it. Though I grieve this a bit, I've let it go.

Most people I know, more or less just join in the predominant anticipations and preparations for Christmas that are typical of mainstream American culture.  For better or worse, American Christmas seems to defy any specific tradition or order.  What I sometimes call kulture krismas is a diverse, eclectic, inconsistent, and conflicting mix of themes and practices and meanings that more or less get at the heart of Christmas in one way or another.  However it is approached or practiced, most of us usually “get it” sometime between the 1st and 31st of December. 

While I still think “we’re missing so much” and “we’re watering down meanings” and “this is too secular,” these days my level of Christmas holiday satisfaction seems to be determined less by appropriateness and more by togetherness.  So we miss lots of opportunities to express and experience the depth of this season; what matters more right now, at least to me, is being together—belonging, being present to and with and for one another.

While I'm not sure either of these family traditions will continue, there are a couple of  activities our tribe seems to be engaging in repeatedly these days.  One is attending the city's Homeless Memorial Service on the first day of winter each year. At least part of our immediate and extended family go to Christ Church Cathedral on Monument Circle at 11 am on Winter Solstice to join with homeless advocates to memorialize all who died in Indianapolis due to their homelessness during the year. It’s somber, but also clarifying and challenging. I suppose this practice as much as anything else brings Christmas into focus for us individually and together. Whatever else happens afterward, that is something of a conscience marker.

We’ve also gotten into the habit of going to a movie together on Christmas night. After all the gatherings are over and the presents are unwrapped, we pick out a movie to see together and take it in.  Sometimes the movies are poor, but we share the experience and have fun talking about it afterwards--sometimes for years. None of us will ever forget seeing the movie “Meet the Fockers” one Christmas night some years ago. Bad movie. Stupid movie. Inappropriate movie for kiddos. But we have the most fun laughing about that experience every year now.

Don't get me wrong, our family has layers of family traditions. But I think we've turned a corner from keeping tradition for tradition's sake.  I'm learning that when insistent traditions unravel or lose their meaning, go for togetherness. Just maybe out of the richness of a valued  and intentional presence to one another, something new and wonderful--even inspiring or transformational--might begin.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Urban Squirrel

Squirrel inhabit trees,
regardless the location.
To them, trees are
trees--whether urban
foliage or ancient
forest. Risks and
survival tactics vary
per setting; this
rodent readily adapts.
An electric highwire
is mere passage
to food, cover.
Perhaps preferred
to scampering down
a tree trunk only
to be snared by
a stealthy fox.

John Franklin Hay
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

What Squirrel Teach the City

The poetry of a city
compacts and intensifies
what we contemplate in
forest, stream, and wilderness.

The human animal figures
more prominently in urban settings--
a beast of wild capacities
and transcendent grace.

That carrion and rodent
and an occasional coyote or deer
persist amongst our density
brings wonder and hope.

That they put up with us,
make the high-risk effort
to bear with our strident civility,
is a sign that we may yet be saved.

Few though they may be,
their presence startles us,
endears us, reminds us,
subtly reorients us to life.

From our sanitized windowed perches
they beckon to us that we are not alone,
that we are late on this scene,
that we are but a part--not the center.

All it takes is a squirrel or two--
a hawk nesting on a high rise,
a deer wandering a city street--
to reset reality, restore sanity.

John Franklin Hay
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Friday, December 9, 2016

Rethinking John the Baptist in light of Donald Trump

After a nasty election ordeal and the rise of Donald Trump as President of the United States, John the Baptist starts to make some sense to me for the first time. Maybe we now have a political and religious context that begins to bring John's life and message into focus.

This year's Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings for Advent in the Gospels are taking us through Matthew's writings about John the Baptist. Week after week, the RCL keeps rubbing our noses in this iconoclastic character's stark life and startling words. Where's the comfort? Where's the hope? Where are the endearing pastoral scenes of Mary being chosen and shepherds being visited and angel choruses singing? Instead, we get a wilderness wild man acosting everybody with his one-word harangue: "Repent!"

A year-long campaign season featured daily lies, fake news, ugly scandals and relentless mudslinging. Just about everyone seems to have been dirtied, contaminated, and somehow diminished. Seductively, Hillary supporters, Bernie people, Trump followers, and even innocent bystanders were mimetically drawn into a costic back-and-forth. Wouldn't a dunk in the Jordan River feel refreshing? Might raw repentance and cold baptism help us break from the recent past and turn us, clean and fresh-faced, to the future?

In Trump we have a morally and emotionally flawed governmental leader as slippery and conniving as Herod--playing the ends against the middle, promising prominence to religionists while co-opting their integrity, slyly working the angles to maximize his power and image at the expense of, well, just about anyone and everything.

Particularly, single-issue religionists have been taken in, sacrificing much of the predominant message of Jesus for the hope of finally rolling back Roe v Wade. Flying the banner of religious liberty, today's Saducees and Pharisees feel their power: the fleeting satisfaction that they have put in place a leader who will do their bidding on abortion. Yet, the handwriting is already on the wall that their champion new Herod will do his own bidding in his own way in his own time at their expense, just as their chosen heroes of the past have done.

Then, there are progressives (like me) who feel let down and forelorn and lost as much as resentful and angry and resistant. To many of us, this election wasn't just a shocking loss, but a thirty-year rollback of basic liberal democratic values. The conversations in my circles continue to include lots of disbelief and grief and handwringing. Democrat-type folks are fearing the worst and trying to figure out where to go from here.

And into this politcal and religious paradox steps John the Baptist. He comes from out of nowhere. He doesn't figure into the religionists' grand compromise. He doesn't care about progressives' losses. John has no respect for the latest Herod and his coercive plays to consolidate power. He is deaf to political subtleties and cares less about offending the lowest and highest. John speaks truth equally to the powerful and powerless.

To all, he calls: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!" (Matthew 3:1-6). I suppose who and where we are at the moment conditions how we hear his call. Some hear it as a threat to political arrangements they've just painstakingly won. Some hear John as one more desperado trying out yet another cynical spin on the disenfranchised. Some hear it, however, as a compelling invitation.

Religionists will try to use John in the same way they think they've successfully used the new Herod. Who couldn't use a little repentance and isn't it nice that someone is back to baptizing reprobates like in the good ol' days? But John will have none of this. He calls them out: "You brood of vipers!" To those who hide pride behind faith and hatred behind banners of religious liberty, John commands: "Produce fruit in keeping with repentance!" (Luke 3:7-9).

To disheartened liberals and cynical millenials and disenfranchised citizens and aliens, John calls: "Share what you have." (Luke 3:10-11). Open your doors. Open your closet. Open your heart to those you've disregarded or demonized. That's how this coming kingdom works. In the face of ideological vascillation and rollback of essential social and healthcare safety nets, expressing rudientary, practical love for neighbors has never been more critical.

To those being payed to work for the new Herod, who carry out his alt-right inspired policies, John beckons: "Be fair!" (Luke 3:12-14). Don't falsely accuse people. Don't distort truth to get a conviction. Don't bully vulnerable aliens. Don't be taken in by tax reforms and economic policies that extort the poor and diminish the middle class while lining the coffers of the rich. If you work for the government or implement its policies in your company, use all the leeway you have to help people live well in spite of a flawed and mean-spirited system.

To the new Herod, John just tells the inconvenient truth. He doesn't tip-toe around him. He doesn't avoid confronting him. He does what the relgionists, in their compromise with this devil, failed to do: John rebukes him for his infidelity and adultery. John also rebukes Herod "for all the other evil things he had done." (Luke 3:19). Someone had to do it. The moral universe demanded it. The future needed it. The way for a future of hope had to be cleared and the ground of justice and grace prepared.

Of course, no one stopped Herod. Herod did what Herods do: he used his power to add evil upon evil and threw John into jail. Ultimately, he had John beheaded and served up the Baptizer's head on a platter for entertianment. Such is the brutality of coercive power then and now.

John didn't survive. But survival was never the issue for John. Maybe it's not the critical issue for us, either. Preparing the way for the future was the issue for John. It called for a radical break with idolatrous political and religious arrangements and reliance on mere ideologies and systems. It called for repentance--a remorse and turnaround deep enough to bear fruit in changed lives and socially transformative behavior. Preparing the way for a fair and just and grace-filled future may require speaking truth unflinchingly to power today--and that may come with a high price.

The new political and religious reality helps me understand and appreciate John. I'm starting to like him. I salute John. But shall I join him? Shall we?

John Franklin Hay
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Finding Time

I keep thinking that I will find time to reflect well on the actions which fill my life these days, and to read, write, and to ride my bicycle. And here I am on the brink of the last month of the year and I have read relatively little. written relatively little, ridden sparingly (by my standards), and not engaged in a level of contemplation that moves me more than a few inches below the surface of appearances and conventional thought.

Of course, there is always plenty of time. If I have not had time it is because I have not taken time, made time, carved out the spaces for the reading, reflection, writing and riding that bring me both joy and put me uniquely in touch with creative resources. Time is not the issue. Choices and discipline is the issue.

We find time for what we want to do or feel we need to do, do we not? Over 2016, I have felt and responded to the need to respond proactively to the numerous community development opportutnities and challenges before the organization I lead, to respond to the opporunities and challenges of the congregation I serve, to respond to family opportunities and challenges, to respond to nonprofit community service opportunities and challenges of the causes I deeply care for, etc. The "free time" I have had is the limited marginal time between these primary concerns. Still, that represents a significant amount of time.

I am grateful for meaningful opportunities and challenges that call for my time. I am grateful to work in areas of my passion: community development, impacting the city I love and call home, cultivating a fragile urban community of faith, investing in social enterprises that change can change the trajectory of lives. I have thrown myself--and my time--into these over these eleven months. My investment of time and energy is much of my expressed mission and prayer.

And yet. And yet, I feel I am also called to reflect and to write. And the joy of cycling is somehow integrated into these callings. This part of my sense of calling has taken a back seat to the calling to what Parker J. Palmer and the Quakers call "the active life" thus far this year. But, on the eve of December, I feel strongly the call read, to reflect, to write, and to ride with renewed focus.

Will I "find time" for these disicplines, these actions over the next month? Will I forego time wasters and whatever idleness that robs my soul of these valued sources of soul sustenance and growth? I will if I so choose. This blog piece may well be the first expression of this dscipline.

John Franklin Hay
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA


Nazi resistor Alfred Delp saw in Advent a call for radical awakening from self-sabotage

WAKE UP, O SLEEPER.  Father Alfred Delp was condemned as a traitor for his resistance to the regime of Adolf Hitler and hanged in a Nazi prison in 1945.  Shortly before his execution, the Jesuit priest wrote a piece now titled "The Shaking Reality of Advent" (reprinted in Watch for the Light).

To one who was going through such fire, Advent was no serene welcoming.   It was a radical shaking to awake out of a self-sabotaging, illusory sleep.  At the same time, Delp points out that awakened ones should not now act anxiously or rashly.  Instead, live and act in anticipation of the next Advent and the surpassing value and new order it brings.  Here are a few excerpts:

TIME TO GO TO WORK. "If we want to transform life again, if Advent is truly to come again -- the Advent of home and of hearts, the Advent of the people and the nations, a coming of the Lord in all this -- then the great Advent question for us is whether we come out of these convulsions with this determination: yes, arise! It is time to awaken from sleep. It is time for the waking up to begin somewhere. It is time to put things back where God the Lord put them. It is time for each of us to go to work, with the same unshakable sureness that the Lord will come, to set our life in God's order wherever we can. Where God's word is heard, he will not cheat our life of the message; where our life rebels before our own eyes he will reprimand it."

THOSE WHO LOOK TO THE LORD.  "The world today needs people who have been shaken by ultimate calamities and emerged from them with the knowledge and awareness that those who look to the Lord will still be preserved by him, even if they are hounded from the earth."

A TIME FOR RENUNCIATION.  "Advent is a time when we ought to be shaken and brought to a realization of ourselves.  The necessary condition for the fulfillment of Advent is the renunciation of presumptuous attitudes and alluring dreams in which and by means of which we always build ourselves imaginary worlds.  In this way we force reality to take us to itself by force -- by force, in much pain and suffering."

A TIME OF PROMISE.  "At the same time, there is much more that belongs to Advent.  Advent is blessed with God's promises, which constitute the hidden happiness of this time.  These promises kindle the inner light in our hearts.  Being shattered, being awakened -- only with these is life made capable of Advent.  In the bitterness of awakening...the golden threads that pass between heaven and earth in these times reach us."

WE HAVE RECEIVED A MESSAGE.  Delp describes three promises we receive in Advent: (1) the angels annunciation, "speaking their message of blessing into the midst of anguish, scattering their seed of blessing that will one day spring up amid the night, call us to hope...  Advent is a time of inner security because it has received a message."  Delp challenges each of us to be such an angel of annunciation wherever possible.

DO WE HAVE A READY HEART?  The second promise of Advent is (2) the blessed woman: "Advent's holiest consolation is that the angel's annunciation met with a ready heart.  The Word became flesh in a motherly heart and grew out far beyond itself into the world of God-humanity."  Delp compares Mary's readiness and bearing of a great truth, a great liberation, to our own lives: "We must remember today with courage that Mary foreshadows the light in our midst.  Deeper down in our being, our days and our destinies, too, bear the blessing and mystery of God.  The blessed woman waits, and we must wait too until her hour has come."

WE HAVE AN OPPORTUNITY.  The third promise of Advent is found (3) in the voice and message of John the Baptist: "These John the Baptist characters...cry for blessing and salvation.  They summon us to our last chance, while already they feel the ground quaking and the rafters creaking and see the firmest of mountains tottering inwardly...They summon us to the opportunity of warding off, by the greater power of the converted heart, the shifting desert that will pounce upon us and bury us."

JUST BEYOND THE HORIZON.  "Space is still filled with the noise of destruction and annihilation, the shouts of self-assurance and arrogance, the weeping of despair and helplessness.  But just beyond the horizon the eternal realities stand silent in their age-old longing.  There shines on us the first mild light of the radiant fulfillment to come... It is all far off still, and only just announced and foretold.  But it is happening..."

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Star Spangled Sit-Down

It's been a few weeks since San Francisco QB Colin Kaepernick did not stand--astonishingly--for the National Anthem before a preseason NFL game. Everyone's weighed in by now. Sides have been taken. Presumptions have been made. Condemnations declared. Justifications defended.

At the next game, Kaepernick chose not to sit, but to kneel, prayer-like. More reactions. More punditry.

I've bided my time, for the most part. Now it's my turn, or at least the turn I'm taking.

In the form of Tweets (extended a bit), here's what I'm thinking, how I'm responding:
  • If one hadn't heard of 'cultural religion,' Kaepernick's choice to defy one of its sacrosanct rituals introduces its power. Worth Googling and digging deeper.
  • For many people, American 'cultural religion' more controls personal and collective behavior than Christian religion, or at least trumps it. Thus, routine capitulation to 'just war' and suspending Biblical precept for national principle.
  • Poets and protesters have long challenged American cultural religion, from Mark Twain ('War Prayer') to Langston Hughes. It's a tradition not to be taken--or dismissed--lightly. Not sure Kaepernick is in this league, but it IS a time-honored league.
  • Instead of blindly condemning or defending Kaepernick's choice, explore anew your own desire for a better America--and how you express it. Hopefully there is something about America you find worth protesting to correct or make better. Against the tide of apathy or ignorance, if you were called upon to take a stand (or a sit), what would you do?
  • For me, standing for the National Anthem is how we signal--regardless of deep injustices and with a long way to go--we are one, indivisible. It's about all of us in spite of some of us. It's our moment--perhaps the only moment--we have together as a ragtag melting pot trying express life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
  • I may hesitate when I stand for the National Anthem, but I DO stand. My stand may not mean what it means to others. To me, it expresses my hope. For me, my hesitation is that since I learned as a child to stand for the National Anthem and recite the Pledge of Allegiance, I became a person of deep faith--a radical, if you please. My sense of faithfulness to what I now understand of authentic Christian faith eclipses and often runs counter to American doctrine and cultural religion. To be authentically Christian makes it difficult to be blindly American. Still, I stand for the National Anthem. As I stand, I pray in hope that "the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdoms of our God and of his Christ."
So, Colin, sit, or kneel. You're in good company. I'm with you in your protest of undue law enforcement violence against black citizens. I'll stand with you in making changes. My Christian faith and the justice for the oppressed it stands for compels me to work for change. But please consider another kind of protest. This uniquely American moment, once it is diminished by one protest and cause after another, may lose its signal of hope to draw us together for higher purposes.

John Franklin Hay
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Crash Helmets for God Seekers

“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return. ” - Annie Dillard

John Franklin Hay
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

When 'Pray For Orlando' Rings Hollow

In addition to being a community advocate, I also serve a United Methodist congregation  (East Tenth UMC, Indy). To this point, I have avoided using "prayer" in response to the massacre of gay citizens in Orlando. Don't count me with those who choose offer prayers and hope things get better somehow. They won't--not without nonviolently-focused anger and deliberate actions that bring change.

I grieve that "prayer" has come to mean, for some, a passive reaction or an excuse or cover up for inaction. As such, prayer rings hollow and is foreign to the heritage of Biblical faith.

But in the best tradition in the church, when we say "pray for... [a person or a financial need or a problem]," we know it means: "Respond! Become an answer to the prayer request. Help out. Open your wallet. Visit the sick. Share food. Don't acquiesce to injustice. Stand with those who are being persecuted. Make a difference."

We believe this is how God and people of faith have acted in the past and how we reflect God's mercy and justice today. To do less simply reflects functional atheism.

If you want to pray for wisdom in how best to act in response to tragedies like Orlando, do so (this is the essence of the practice of contemplative prayer). Just don't not respond redemptively. Don't just offer prayers. Make your life a prayer.

John Franklin Hay
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Pentecost and Social Justice

"Pentecost laid the axe at the root of social injustice." - Phoebe Palmer Knapp

Kevin Austin leads a 21st-century effort to end human
trafficking around the world via the Set Free Movement.
TRANSFORMED AND EMPOWERED TO LOVE. Officially, May 15 is the celebration called Pentecost. An ancient Jewish holiday that follows fifty days after Passover, Acts 2 records the event that forever changed the context of Pentecost for the followers of Jesus. Now celebrated as the "birthday of the Christian church," Acts tells the story of God pouring out the Holy Spirit on Jesus' disciples in fulfillment of ancient prophesies and the promise Jesus had made (Acts 1:4-8).

FROM COWERING TO COURAGEOUS. Pentecost turned cowering converts into bold advocates. It transformed a rag-tag band of despairing disciples into people indwelled and overflowing with the love of God. Pentecost launched a movement that, for all its 2,000-year ebb and flow, has never quite ceased to transform people and challenge core human injustices in every generation through a burning love that overwhelms fear, paralyzing inertia, despair, violence, domination, pride, and corrupt power.

SELF-GIVING ACTIVISM. I am part of a Christian tradition that places Pentecost at the heart of spirituality, both personally and corporately. Wesleyan holiness folk think that every believer in Jesus Christ can directly and personally--in one way or another, at some point or another--encounter a Pentecost-like transformation that catapults one from initiatory and fledgling faith into maturing love and self-giving activism.

EVIDENCE IN LOVE. Our tradition considers the evidence that one is "filled with the Holy Spirit" and growing in Christlikeness will be found in a love that is notably self-forgetful, service-focused, and redemptively confrontational to the powers of domination at work in the world. We see in Pentecost not just a personal empowerment, but a collective empowerment both (1) to embrace and express the new eschaton--described in the Bible as the Kingdom of God--and (2) to bring the influence of this future-focused reality into every possible social relationship, structure, policy, and practice as a signal and sign of what Love wills for the world's future.

FREEDOM AND LIBERATION. That is the context of Phoebe Palmer Knapp's statement: "Pentecost laid the axe at the root of social injustice." To Knapp, a holiness teacher, speaker and advocate in the late 19th-century America, "social injustice" primarily meant human trafficking and oppression of women. She expressed her confidence in the radical change Pentecost called for by advocating vociferously for the abolition of slavery and for the suffrage of women in America. She saw in the gospel of Jesus Christ a clarion call for freedom for all human beings and the liberation of women from the age-old system of domination that reduced them to objects and possessions. She set a tone and standard both as a woman and as a Christian leader that fueled many in the evangelical and Christian holiness movements at the time. I would welcome her voice anew on these same, lingering issues in the 21st century.

Explore a 21st-century expression of the fight to end human trafficking that has reemerged from the Wesleyan holiness faith tradition: The Set Free Movement.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Lessons from my First Solo Bike Camping Excursion

Since riding the Great Allegheny Passage from Pittsburg to Washington, D.C. self-contained last summer with a small group, I've been itching to do some solo bike camping. I've ridden thousands of miles internationally and in the states, but rarely camped while doing so. My first opportunity to solo bike camp came the first weekend of April, an excursion that led me into Wendell Berry's homeland in Henry County, Kentucky.

On Friday, I drove my VW from Indianapolis to Columbus, Indiana, parked it at my cousin's house and struck out on my panniers-loaded Surly Long Haul Trucker for Madison, Indiana via State Highway 7. My panniers and seat saddlebag included a one-person tent, air pad, sleeping bag, cooking supplies, some food, clothing, toiletries, and tools--about 30 lbs. in all. It was a balmy 45-mile ride, with a break halfway in North Vernon. I arrived in Madison in the middle of the afternoon and set up camp at Clifty Falls State Park. In the early evening, I explored this quaint Ohio River town and had great pizza at the Red Pepper cafe.

Saturday morning, after breakfast at Red Roaster coffeehouse, I pedaled across the Ohio River bridge and started exploring Henry County, Kentucky. This is the home of one of my favorite writers, Wendell Berry. Berry describes and reflects on this simple country in his writings, from wooded hills to rolling meadows to creek banks and the Kentucky River. I rolled through Port Royal and tried to take in the essence of this place, which is at the same time remarkable and commonplace. From my experience of this day, I will read Berry with more clarity and understanding.

I cut my Henry County ride short because of a stiff and steady wind that kicked up. It must have been 30 mph with higher gusts. The ride north and west back to the Ohio River and Indiana was a struggle. I arrived at the state park campsite with my tent bending sideways in the gale. I re-secured the stakes and ropes. Temperatures dropped and the wind continued to howl until the early Sunday morning hours. My one-person tent would have blown away had I not been inside it.

By Sunday daybreak, the wind had died down but temperatures had dropped to freezing. I climbed out of my sleeping bag, dusted frost off my panniers, broke camp, and prepared to ride from Madison back to Columbus in the cold. Against a headwind, I arrived in Columbus around 3 pm, loaded the Surly on my VW, and drove back to Indy.

I covered about 140 miles over the weekend and had what I consider quite a nice little adventure. Here are a few lessons I learned and pass along from my first solo bike camping weekend:

1. Cold is not an enemy or a friend. It is a factor to plan for. Reduce cold’s impact with good gear.

2. Riding self-contained produces wide options and independence. But it’s a slower ride. I'm used to riding 18-22 mph, but with 30 lbs. of camping supplies, etc. in two panniers and a seat saddlebag, I managed about 15-17 mph. I can still pedal fast on flats, but climbing hills are much slower.

3. My bike shop (A1 Cyclery in Indianapolis) set me up with a perfect cross-country touring steed: a smooth Surly Long Haul Trucker, which I've ridden for four years. This is a no-worries, tough, dependable bicycle for riding long distances. I've had no breakdowns or problems in 10,000 miles.

4. Factor wind in your plans. 30-40 mph winds changed my distance and range of activity. No way around this; it's just ugly and hard.

5. A State Park base camp made a nice returning point. Keeping a base camp for a weekend of riding made day travel lighter. And, I met very helpful campers whom I talked to each day.

6. A 30-degree F rated sleeping bag works for 30 degrees F (and high wind). I stayed warm. Good buy. I purchased a sleeping bag that was also lightweight.

7. Enjoy local coffeehouses, food, and places. These are better than franchises in small towns. I like eating at local restaurants instead of cooking on my own, also. Except for making some coffee and soup, I ate at local places entirely.

8. Indiana’s Clifty Falls State Park gets a thumbs up for service, cleanliness, and scenic awe. Deep ravines. High cliffs. Beautiful falls. This place is worth a two-day visit. Plan on vigorous and rugged hiking.

9. Relax and you’ll enjoy the ride on the way to where you want to go. Be here now.

10. I need to find a lightweight, compact fuel cooking unit that defies windy conditions. Taking recommendations.

John Franklin Hay 
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Sunday, March 6, 2016

In Honor of Theresa Ann Branch

A tribute to a family friend who recently died

Theresa Ann Branch, 78, died on March 2. She and her husband George served as Children's Ministers at the church of my childhood (the era from which this photo is taken). I traveled to West Virginia to participate in her memorial service on Saturday. Early in the morning before the service, I penned the following reflection to share. I thought of Theresa as a pastor's spouse and of her life in Parkersburg for over 35 years after George passed away. She died far from her childhood home, but had made a home in the place to where she and George felt called of God to serve. This, to me, is profound and fascinating.

This is where the call of God ends,
or begins:
Here in a city far from home,
With a spouse preceding you 
in death by decades,
Among people you never could have
imagined knowing in your
beginning years.

When you said “yes” 
to the invitation of Jesus 
to a lifelong journey,
this is where it ends,
or begins.

“Come, follow me, and I will make you
fishers of men,” Jesus said.
“Deny yourself, take up your cross daily,
and follow me,” Jesus said.
“Whom shall I send, and who will
go for us?” God asked.
And you said,
“Here am I. Send me.”

So you followed.
And you were sent.
You journeyed—
in joy, in sorrow,
in laughing, in weeping,
in serving, in sharing—
over a lifetime in the name of
the call of God.

This is where the call of God ends,
or begins:
Here in a place you have made
a home,
With a spouse who from eternity
has blessed and beckoned,
Among people—friends, loved ones,
saints, characters—you could not
have imagined caring for you
in your beginning years.

When you said ‘yes’ to Jesus,
He promised to be with you
to the very end—and 
this is where it ends,
or begins.

The road has not been easy.
Its winding turns at times
baffled and startled and grieved.
The way has also been joyful--
as if you’ve been borne along
by grace, by love, by hope.

And, having walked the last mile
of the way, you hear the One
who invited you, “Come, follow me,”
now welcome you: “Well done,
good and faithful servant.”

This is where the call of God ends,
or begins:
Here in places we make our home,
With companions who dare to link arms
in love with us—for better or worse,
Among people who are given to us,
and to whom we are given—at the same
time rag-tag and wonderful beyond
our imagination.

We hear Jesus’ invitation anew,
“Come, follow me, and I will make you…”
We say, today, ‘yes,’ afresh.
This is where it ends
and begins.

Legacies of faith surround us.
In life and from eternity
they beckon:
“Jesus is with you,” they say.
“He is faithful,” they exclaim.
“Do not hesitate to follow—
to go with him, with him
all the way.”
“It will be worth it all.”

At this journey’s end,
so let us begin.

John Franklin Hay
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Monday, February 8, 2016

Roots of Ash Wednesday: Spreading Humility Around

I'm struck by the sense of solidarity with all sinners that Ash Wednesday has come to reflect

ROOTS OF ASH WEDNESDAY. Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, the beginning of 40 days of prayer and fasting leading up to Holy Week and Easter. I came across a few paragraphs by Stuart Malloy that put the ashes we mark on our foreheads on this day into perspective. Malloy writes:

“Ashes marked on the forehead of worshipers were not always given to everyone, but only to the public penitents who were brought before the church. Much like Hester Prynne bearing her scarlet letter, these open and notorious sinners were marked publicly with the sign of their disgrace.”

IDENTIFYING WITH THE PENITENT. “As time went on, others began to show their humility and their affection for the penitents by asking that they, too, be marked as sinners. Finally, the number of penitents grew so large that the imposition of ashes was extended to the whole congregation in services similar to those that are observed in many Christian churches on Ash Wednesday.”

IF YOU ONY KNEW… Malloy continues: “We who will bear the ashes upon our foreheads stand with those whose sins may be more public, but not, according to the Scriptures, more grievous to the heart of God. And so we make our confessions. . . . If you only knew the secrets of my heart, if you only knew the sins that I am capable of contemplating, if you only knew some of the schemes I have considered – and of course God does know – then you would know that I, too, am a sinner.”

THIN LINE, EARNEST PRAYER. He concludes: “Ashes are signs that we are all in this sin business together, and that the difference between the good in us and the bad in us is sometimes frightfully thin. We so often fall short of the Faith we claim. We have treated people as things and we have treated things as if they were valuable people. And so we look into our hearts and make the ancient prayer of one notorious sinner our own: ‘Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me’ (Psalm 51:10).”

BLESSING OF THE ASHES. Here is the blessing often uttered just before foreheads are marked in ashes with the sign of the Cross:

“May these ashes be to us, O God, an acknowledgment of our wrongdoing and our acceptance of your forgiveness. In these ashes are our prejudices, our impatience, the times we have turned our backs on the suffering of others, our neglect of the environment, our indifference, our materialism, our greed, our hypocrisy, our envy…all of our sins. In these ashes of repentance are the seeds of our forgiveness and our transformation. For God always accepts us and forgives us. Through our repentance and forgiveness comes transformation. May God create within each of us a clean heart and a new and right spirit.”

Friday, January 22, 2016

Nine Years After India

Preparation for a cycling travelogue this week prompted me to consider the power of adventure.

This day in 2007, I was pedaling in the center of India and was mesmerized by this land of wonder and paradox, of the bizarre and ordinary, of great wealth and vast poverty, of modernity and antiquity. Today, that experience challenges me anew.

Carefully preparing for a one-hour presentation about my journey for the Central Indiana Bicycling Association's (CIBA) Winter Speaker Series at Central Library in downtown Indianapolis, I viewed and reviewed hundreds of slides, thousands of photos, numerous video clips and mementos and journal entries, along with the blog I developed for the event ( The review and preparation experience brought all my senses and recollections of that life-changing event to renewed life in me.

At the distance of nearly a decade and half a world away, I have fresh observations and new questions about what I saw and experienced in those six weeks and 2,000 miles. Had I left these images and memories alone, perhaps they would have continued to calcify and fade way. But I have revisited and resurrected my experience in India and it breathes wonder in me. This is, to me, the power of contemplation. The original experience becomes a part of eternity when repeatedly contemplated and allowed to agitate thought and change behavior.

Maybe, more basically, my fascination is this: Am I--are we--willing to experience events, such as this six-week journey on a bicycle through India, in a way that somehow fundamentally alters us? Or, do we process such experiences--fascinating travels and rapturous adventures--so that, for all their possibilities for changing us, they ultimately become little more than framed photos on a wall that we occasionally admire while we go on through life unaffected by the existential challenges they presented at the time? How can we adventure and reflect on our adventures in a way that changes us?

I left India in February 2007 with a sense that I had experienced something that would--and should--reshape my way of thinking and approaching life and relationships at a rudimentary level. I wasn't sure what all that meant. I just felt that something had happened to me, in me, not that I had just accomplished something.

I had ridden 2,000 miles and helped raise funds to rebuild a hospital, and had helped raise awareness of that hospital. That's what I accomplished. That's what externally occurred. But what happened in me? What was accomplished--or beginning to be accomplished--in me? To what extent was my trajectory and pattern of thinking and choosing being shaped and changed?

In posts that follow, I will try to explore what changes I can observe and articulate nine years later. Whatever I can now articulate, I will have just scratched the surface.

John Franklin Hay
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Steps in Redemptive Love

Resisting evil nonviolently is not for cowards or vengeance seekers

Martin Luther King, Jr. challenged civil rights activists to focus their anger away from destructive means and ends. He reflected on the transformation of anger into redemptive love after he committed to the way of nonviolent resistance in response to the evil of racism. The steps in redemptive love, he concluded, are:

First, “It is not a method for cowards, for it resists evil; it is not passive.”

Second, “it does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his or her friendship and understanding.”

Third, it directs its attack “against forces of evil rather than against persons who happen to be doing the evil.”

Fourth, “it entails a willingness to accept suffering without retaliation…to accept violence if necessary, but never to inflict it.”

Fifth, it “avoids not only external physical violence but also the internal violence of spirit.”

Friday, January 8, 2016

After Celebrations End, the Work of Christmas Begins

Howard Thurman suggests next steps for Christmas revelers

"When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart."

from The Mood of Christmas by Howard Thurman