A Russian Steambath Tour + Are You Clean Enough for God?

Our banya, which sits about 100 feet from the house.

Americans use an average of 100 gallons of water a day. We use maybe 3 gallons apiece. We’re just not that thirsty---or that clean. (One of my sons has worn the same sweatshirt the entire summer. Just 1 washing. And I just went 6 days without washing my hair. I’m lucky like that . ..)   

Our water does not gush from our 2 faucets in the house: it ambles, urged along simply by gravity-flow from a tank above our house filled with water from our hand-dug well. Getting clean and staying clean take time and energy. We don’t have an indoor shower or a tub; we bathe in a banya, a word and a custom brought over by the Russians 300 years ago when they colonized this part of Alaska.  

The banya is a wood-fired steam sauna in a building separate from the house. We build a huge wood fire in the barrel stove,

fill the inside tank (over part of the barrel stove) with water for our hot water.  

We keep the fire stoked until the water inside is hot and the air temperature is about 200 degrees. It takes 3 - 4 hours---we have to plan ahead. Then we take turns filing out to the banya, towels over our shoulders. We steam and sweat, washing in basins, emerging  red-faced, happy and clean. 

We use very little water, but we use a lot of wood, all of it driftwood found on beaches, dragged to shore in a flotilla, stacked until we saw it up and burn it.

I’ve been dragging my body into that banya for 35 years now. Naked I sit, in my grime and sweat and the worries of the day, sucking in air almost too hot for my lungs.  But I’m not really here to get clean. I'm here to get pure. 

The banya, like a native American sweatlodge, is often a house of prayer for me. Two thousand years ago, on a grassy hillside, maybe a bit like the one where we built our banya, a promise and a blessing was given: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. “

 Am I pure enough yet to see the living God? 

In a book of prayers from the Presbyterian church published in 1940’s  I find this prayer: 

 “Grant that we may think clean, generous, humble                                                                  thoughts and harbor none that  stains the mind or dims our vision of Thee. So cleanse our hearts that we may ever behold thee face to face . .”

What I have seen of God so far is this: 

He strips us,   he scalds us,    he sears our lungs,   he opens 

our pores,   we melt,      our bodies weep . . . 

And when we return again to the world, 
we wear clean clothes, our skin shines, 
people are kinder,  
and the world itself is  brighter than we left it.

How many of us are “pure in heart”?  
Not me. But we shall be, one day. Even as we lean toward that day,


this day,


we have been made 

clean    enough.

Learning to Mend Net+ Slow Church: A Hard, Patient Apprenticeship

We’ve just finished two days of intensive net mending, when the (fishing) nets are hauled ashore and racked, and draped out like massive curtains. And maybe I should say massive dirty curtains who have gone asailing in naughty waters, dragging back ashore in its skirts and folds rotting jellyfish and slurping runaway kelp?   But we don’t chastise our runaway curtains, we simply put on our gloves if we’re picking kelp and go to work. We clean the net, but mostly we mend.  And also we sneeze from the jellyfish on the web.  (And sometimes we chase away deer, who love the salt on the webbing.)

With needles in hand (yes, they are called needles), and scissors and glue around our necks, we sort through the mesh, hands dog paddling, from hole to hole. Some caused by our own enginesa s we fish around the net, some by sea lions who rip through the net like thread, some by rocks caught at the bottom, some by thrashing salmon. The small holes we mend quickly, cutting out the fallen strands, creating new strands and knots. Glueing them after so they hold. For the larger holes, and there are many of these! We cut out all the snapped and shredded mesh then sew a patch in, a patch of new web sewn into the old, so when it is done, it is stronger than ever. The large patches can be fathoms long and can take hours. (We usually have a whale to thank for these!)

This is the first year my youngest sons learned to mend.

We are a full tribe now on the nets, standing for 10 – 12 hours each day.  There is much to say about this, what happens when people stand next to each other, beside and among each other, all hands on the nets, all searching, cutting, sewing, stitching the same.  This wide open room without walls or ceiling, this space becomes our confessional, our music hall, our story circle. We sing spirituals and saloon songs, we confess, tell jokes, spin stories, debate beauty and sin.

(Josh Krohn, crewman fabuloso!

Our lives are stitched together as we mend the holes between us

(Father and daughter)

          This is not a bad way to live. Yes, our hands get cold and cramped. The hours pass slowly, and in four days time, we’ll be at it again, these very same nets passing through our needled hands. If it rains, we’ll still be here. If it blows, fogs, blusters and whips, we’ll still be standing here. But I see something good in this, and in all the patient work we sometimes dread.  John Pattison and Chris Smith, in their gorgeous, new worthwhile book, Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus 

The vital question is, what is the primary story that shapes our lives? Careening from one thrilling story to the next like an adrenaline junkie, we may be successful, we may even be doing good in the world, but we will also leave a lot of broken relationships in our wake. The down times, the slow work of spiritual formation, the dailyness of apprenticing ourselves to Jesus, the long-term commitment to particular people and a particular place---all the quotidian details of life will leave us restless and discontented. If, however, we find our identity primarily in the scriptural story, we begin to understand community and place as integral to God’s reconciliation of creation through the continuous incarnation of Christ in the world."

I am guessing that most of you don’t do this same kind of work----but you do other work like it.  If we can see the place we are planted, the people we are given, the work that is brought to our hands as all a necessary and bounteous part of our belonging to Christ----and our belonging to this delightfully wild and tactile world, where sea lions blast through nets like thread and jellyfish sting our noses-----

we can find a patient and peculiar joy in that massive whale hole that will take 3 hours to mend,

In the picking of berries for a year's cache of jams,

In the month-long stacking of wood for a winters’ stash of heat. 

In whatever you must do that grows your patience long and quiet and thin.

Apprenticed to Christ, right here, right now, through sneezes, broken meshes and rain.

Apprenticed to Christ, now, these words, stitching my world into yours, yours into mine . ..

Do you see your own patient apprenticeship in the work Christ has brought to you?

(Peter Bradshaw, crewman fabuloso!)

The Backyard Glory Particle: Where is Yours?

Do you know those moments when the clouds are on fire, when the air shreds into a thousand gulls, 
 when the ocean lays poems of kelp on your beach, 
 and the mountains hover beneath a ghosting moon?

What do we say in those moments? What do we see? 

Two summers ago, when “the missing cornerstone of particle physics” was hailed and discovered two summers ago, the Higgs particle, scientists cheered and thanked “Nature.” Do you remember? Others praised God for yet another window on his presence in the world. Some applauded the proof that God is no longer necessary to explain the universe. 

 Lawrence Krauss, director of the Origins Project at Arizona University, is one of the exultant ones, who is sure the Higgs particle will erase the need for God. “The Higgs particle is now arguable more relevant than God,” he writes. His explanation for the universe, beyond the scientific particulars, is now this: “Everything we see could have emerged as a purposeless quantum burp in space. “

Have any of you had this conversation yet with your children or grandchildren?

        “Where do I come from? How did all this world get here so big and beautiful?”

        “Honey, Sweetie, I’m so glad you asked! Scientists have finally told us. We’re all a meaningless quantum burp from space. Isn’t that wonderful?”

         I will not argue with Krauss, who is clearly investing his scientific career in trying to make God disappear, but I will present my own evidence gathered just this week in favor of the God of the particle, or what I am calling the Glory particle, evidence I did not have to wait 500 trillion collisions to collect. I needed only open eyes and a camera. The rest was given----for nothing. I share it with you:

(Even the  outhouse is lit glorious by this radiance)

Whose glory is it? It’s not mine—or yours. We don’t own it, we can’t buy it or schedule it or even quantify it. We are lucky if we can witness just pieces and moments of it, and the luckiest ones of all are those who know whose it is, who absorb all the beauty and astonishment, and give it all back, as they can. As I am trying to do now.

The scientists are far from done. Indeed, they are just beginning. "The dream is to find an ultimate theory that explains everything. We are far from that," says Fabiola Gionatti, the head of the ATLAS team of scientists.

I won’t be waiting for them to find an “ultimate theory.” I’ll cheer them on, but I’ll simply look out my window, eyes and soul open to the One who Made it All, the God of Everything, who somehow filled us as well with particles of glory. I see them in you. I feel them in me. Maybe our witness and our wonder, in some small way, helps bind this whole world together as well.

I’ll do my part.

And you, are you seeing the glory particles there in your backyard?

Don't be silent. Don't make the rocks cry out.

Speak, sing, weave, photograph, paint, sculpt----



P.S.  I have two spaces left at the Harvester Island Wilderness Workshop (for writers). I am offering these spaces at HALF OFF! Aug. 30 - Sept. 6. See the banner above and click for details. This is a one-time ever special offer! (If a couple comes, one needn't be a writer.) Excited to see who God will bring!

The 10 Worst Jobs in America+What Are You Working For?

         While everyone is out playing this weekend, I am thinking about work. We have no fish. The nets are blank.  I went out a few nights ago with my daughter---and after hours of bending over multiple nets, we caught five fish. Yes, five. Did we pay for our gas, even?

            This week, Kristi and I spent six hours, until nearly midnight, making smoked salmon sausage, my own new recipe. It was better than I imagined  (SO good!!)  but no one at the dinner table said a word about it.  Silence as they ate (What? Are you kidding? Do you know how long that took us?)

               It took me a lifetime of living to write Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers and two years of writing and praying, and out it goes into the world. What will come back? 

              I am writing a new book now that I began taking notes for 10 years ago. It will take me another year to finish. Will all that work be worth it?

           Sometimes very little of our labor comes back to us. Of what use is it, this work?  And what if you have one of the 10 Worst Jobs in America? (link at end of post). My heart goes out to you----loggers, flight attendants and others. (Can you guess?)

          And to all of you loading the dishwasher for the 79th time this month, only to unload it hours later after you put the 17th load of laundry in for this week . . .  And the report you just filed, the account you just settled, the yard you just mowed, the bedpan you just emptied,  the apple pie you just made, the car you just fixed, the fishing net you just cast---all will need doing again.

      How weary we are of our labors that never end, or only end just in time to begin again.

         All of us, patient weary laborers, can join the Preacher from Ecclesiastes who asked, thousands of years ago, 

“What does the worker gain from his toil?” 

And we toil not only under our everyday work load, but under this weight as well:

 “He has made everything beautiful in its time, “ the Preacher tells us.

Do you know what he is naming beautiful? “To everything there is a season . .. .  Dancing, laughing, love, embracing, building . .. "     Yes, of course—beautiful!  But look at the other side: "Uprooting, killing, tearing down, mourning, scattering stones, hating, dying."


How are these things "beautiful"? 

This is the burden---that we will know some of this in our own lifetimes, that traumatic, tragic and ugly things will befall us, and we won't know why. 

Our lives are too short, our eyes too narrow, our hearts too finite to see how God has and will transform our labor and our suffering. He WILL, but we won't always see it.  

But sometimes God’s time is NOW! And sometimes, even often, we are given glimpses of the beauty and the good he is already making from the work of our hands.

This week, 

A daughter (yes, the work of hands) returns for a visit . . .

On a beautiful hot (for Alaska) day---in between fishing, we earn time off to go swimming! 

        And this most amazing message from a reader: 

 A reader of Forgiving wrote me to tell about her parents who had died more than 30 years ago. She wasn’t sad when they passed---there was so much dysfunction and so little love. In her 20’s, she went to their graves and pounded the dirt in fury, “I hate you! I hate you!” she yelled. She left with her hands dirty and her heart hard. But God. But God was not done with her. God has patiently been bringing renewal and love into her life. And the work of my hands and life gets to be a small part of this. After reading about "honor your mother and father" in Forgiving, she wrote me to say she will go to her mother’s grave on the anniversary of her death----to plant flowers. To plant flowers in the dirt instead of a fist.

I cried.

        We often don’t see fruit from our labor, but know, believe that none of what you do is lost. Nothing you put your hand or mind or heart to, in the name of Jesus, is wasted.

From the Common Book of Prayer, I pray this for all who are weary: 

Dearest Almighty God

"Deliver us in our various occupations
 from the service of self alone,
that we may do the work you give us to do
in truth and beauty 
and for the sake of the common good;
for the sake of him who came among us 
as one who serves,
your Son Jesus Christ Our Lord,
who lives and resides with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever."


*The 10 Worst Jobs in America (according to Forbes)