Helpful, but not Essential

I averaged 53.2 hours of ministry per week during my time at Estes Park Leadership Training, so I wasn’t exactly twiddling my thumbs out there. Still, it feels like my roles largely landed in the category of “Helpful, but not Essential.”

Part of this was circumstantial: arriving a few weeks after the start of the program, after rhythms and relationships had been established.

But I’m choosing to believe that another part of this phenomenon had something to do with what God wanted to teach me. I felt like God wanted to bring my heart to a place of resting instead of striving. I heard God telling me that He’s got everything under control — and my best role is to enjoy, ascribe, and celebrate the glory of what God is doing: in ministry at Kent State University, in the fund-raising that supports our ministry work, in parenting and marriage, in everything.

The truth of the matter is that God’s purposes are going to be accomplished. With or without me. If people don’t step up to fill the roles God has appointed for them, he will use animals or inanimate objects. We really are “Helpful, but not Essential,” when it comes to Kingdom work. We can choose to be depressed by that or encouraged by that. But it’s something we need to get into our heads.

You know what’s funny?!? Later on the same day that I wrote some of these thoughts down in my journal, ministry dynamics started changing rather quickly. I’ve been coaching and caring for some European missionaries (from afar) ever since I moved back to the United States in 2012. It’s been pretty low-key for the last six years, but all of the sudden there has been some unexpected chaos and confusion brought about by personal circumstances — and they suddenly need help. On my last day at Estes Park Leadership Training, I had two separate — but equally intense — conversations about lives in turmoil. These conversations included elements of emotional trauma, spiritual pain, and existential angst. In essence, they were sending out clear cries for help. Then on the drive back from Colorado to Ohio, I learned that two other young women from our project were brought face-to-face with sudden tragedy at their job site and struggling to make sense of it all. Again, in this situation, my heart longs to help. But I have very little to offer, considering the circumstances.

In all of these situations, I’ve been reminded that I cannot take on any sort of “Savior Complex” or “Hero’s Cape” — though, believe me, I’m tempted to try. This is where it’s cool, though, to see the way that God has orchestrated things. My summer of learning to be “Helpful, but not Essential” has been preparing me to trust God — and spend my energies joining the battle in the spiritual realm, in prayer, while He does the heavy lifting in the lives of each of these people.

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Awe and Serenity

I’m back from a summer of worship.

It’s hard to explain, hard to encapsulate. But when I think back on everything I’ve experienced over the past couple of months — both on vacation and on assignment at Estes Park Leadership Training — I’m filled with a sense of awe and serenity.

I think of the rolling hills across the grassy high plains of South Dakota, northern Wyoming, and southern Montana: the way the winds rippled the landscape around Little Bighorn… the clusters of pronghorn antelope around every-other corner at times… the sweeping vistas of unspoiled openness.

I think of my run from our cabin along Emigrant Creek, down Chico Cemetery Road: four graceful does leaping fences and racing ahead of me… the road cutting down into the prairie hills… turning around to see stately Emigrant Peak in all its power and majesty.

I think of the vast, green, vibrant valleys of Yellowstone — especially the Lamar Valley, where the bison and their young grazed and gloried in the cool, mountain air.

I think of the breath-taking cold of Phelps Lake, after a leap from Jump Rock: the blues of the skies and water surface and grays of the mountains and deeper waters when my eyes first flashed open upon impact (making sure I had my bearings)… Cor clamoring for me so quickly after his own impact, like the bobber on a fishing line… warming up again afterwards in the golden sunshine.

I think of the smooth, silky warmth of the milky-turquoise waters at Wyoming Hot Springs State Park: the gentle stink of sulfur… the otherworldly mineral formations… the friendly chatter of strangers extolling the virtues of bison-meat, elk-meat, and grass-fed Wyoming beef… air-drying in the cool breeze after my internal temperature had raised a bit.

I think of the electric-blue dragonflies skimming the surface of a marsh towards the end of our family’s long, tired hike back from Phelps Lake, and the wonder of a moose’s ability to dive eighteen feet under the surface of the water to get food (though he never saw fit to demonstrate for us).

I think of the dramatic colors in the Morning Glory Spring in Yellowstone’s Upper Geyser Basin.

I think of the quiet drive from Colter Bay to Thermopolis, in Wyoming. Everyone else in the car seemed to be sleeping or otherwise engaged — but that made it feel like I had Wyoming to myself: weird buttes and red-rock canyon walls and open prairies and the shock and awe of the Wind River Canyon, tunnels boring through thick, craggy rock.

I think of the delicious meals we ate at the Zavitzes’ house… at the pool-side cafe in Chico Hot Springs… at the Sidewinder Cafe in Jackson… even the paper-thin Swiss cheese from the Albertson’s in Billings.

I think of the power in the winds on Bunsen Peak… the sun in South Dakota’s Badlands… and the waters gushing through the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

I think of the overwhelming intensity of the mosquitoes near Jackson Lake, when I went bushwhacking out by Little Mackinaw Bay.

So many different expressions of God’s power and beauty and creativity and glory!!!

When I think of all this, I fall to my knees and pray to the Father, the Creator of everything in heaven and on earth. I pray that from his glorious, unlimited resources he will empower you with inner strength through his Spirit. Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong. And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God.

Now all glory to God, who is able, through his mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think. Glory to him in the church and in Christ Jesus through all generations forever and ever! Amen.

Those words may have been from the Apostle Paul, marveling at the mystery of Jews and Gentiles being reconciled in God’s Family (Ephesians 3:14-21) — but they feel pretty applicable to my summer out west, as well. I’m very glad for all the awe and serenity I’ve experienced over the last couple of months, but I’m also glad that the same power — the same glorious, unlimited resources — are available to empower me here, in northeast Ohio. And I’m looking forward to living that out in the months to come.

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Mount Ida with Daniel

Daniel and I started at dawn. Mist curled over the lake at Milner Pass, as we started quickly gaining altitude. Within the first mile, we were already above tree line, and the landscape spread before us: sun and shade in sharp contrast to one another, demarcated by the ridge of mountains that made up the Continental Divide.

At times, the incline was too steep and the air was too thin for us to talk much, but for a large portion of the four-and-a-half hours that we hiked together, we kept up a running dialogue about marriage, ministry, and personal faith. The journey itself was highly rewarding.

In terms of the destination at the end of the journey: the summit of Mount Ida was spectacular. Even more than I expected (even though I’d observed that this particular hike is a trendy pick for “The Rocky Mountain National Park’s Top Hike”). At least three separate mountain ranges were visible from Ida’s summit. A dozen different lakes shimmered in the sun beneath us. Even though everything seemed pretty stable up at the top, some of the drop-offs were anxiety-inducing.

I really liked the way this hike went. With just two of us, similarly matched in terms of experience and ability, we were able to move pretty quickly and still enjoy plenty of opportunities for stopping when it felt truly worthwhile. I really appreciated the space our hike provided for Daniel and I to share our lives and enjoy a memorable experience together.

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Flattop Mountain, Hallett Peak, and Otis Peak with the Family

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We often have an “Adjustment Period” when we hike as a family. This usually happens in the early part of a hike, where aggravations mount, tempers flare, and despair can feel overpowering. We’ve observed this on all different sorts of hikes in all different settings, so we really weren’t sure what to expect with a 3-peak, 13.5-mile belly-whopper in the Rocky Mountain National Park.

All things considered, though, we handled the early challenges of our hike pretty well. It might have even been our shortest and easiest Adjustment Period ever, in fact, if it weren’t for the mosquitoes on the way up Flattop Mountain. The insects were unusually intense. Still, we managed all right. We took plenty of rests to enjoy the scenery along the way, and after awhile we settled into a rhythm.

When we made it up above tree line, spirits brightened considerably. We delighted to hear the sound of furry pikas calling to one another across the tundra, and we cringed to hear Elliot singing to the marmots along the trail — but it was all in good fun. The awe-inspiring views also helped to take our minds off the physical exertion involved.

When we finally summitted Flattop Mountain, we were astonished by the stillness at the top. We brought all kinds of winter-wear and windbreakers along with us in our packs. When we sat to eat a snack, though, it was warm and windless enough that we would have been comfortable in short sleeves.

Most of the elevation gain was out of the way by the time we got up Flattop Mountain. Still, Hallett Peak felt like a real accomplishment, as it was the tallest and steepest of the three peaks. When we made it to the top, we took a bunch of pictures (though none of them were particularly good at conveying the experience) and helped make friends by taking other people’s pictures for them as well.

Some clouds started rolling in on our way up to Otis Peak. The winds picked up slightly. Some of our new mountaintop friends told us that there may be some challenges to our exit strategy — down Andrew’s Glacier toward the Loch — so there was a level of anxiety and uncertainty that came to be associated with this part of the hike. Still, we were able to complete our final summit without incident.

It’s a pretty amazing feeling to make one’s third mountain summit before noon! Still with the weather and the uncertainty about conditions on Andrew’s Glacier, we decided we might be wise to figure out our way off the mountaintops before enjoying our lunch.

Some reports had apparently been circulating about Andrew’s Glacier: that it was too icy… or that the size of the glacier was diminished by weather conditions… that official hiking guides had been advising people to steer clear of the area… But we knew of some people that had come down that way just a week and a half earlier, and our experiences from two years ago made us feel sufficiently safe that we decided to come down via the glacier after all. The only real “danger” ended up being that our backsides got pretty cold and numb after sliding down the snow for awhile!

We made it safely to Andrew’s Tarn in time for lunch, and then we started picking our way down through the valley to Glacier Gorge. The section of trail between Andrew’s Tarn and the Loch was actually the most complicated part of the hike, and we were further challenged by a herd of elk that were feeding right along the trail (completely blocking the trail in some sections).

Just after lunch, Elliot tried to lead us across another section of snow and ice (like the ones pictured below). To our horror, we watched as he lost his footing and started sliding down the glacier. He skidded perhaps 25 meters before crashing into the rocks at the bottom of the ice flow and coming to rest on a precarious ice shelf over cascading water. Fortunately, though, he managed to get one foot out in front of him, to lessen the impact at the end, and his wounds were ultimately pretty superficial: some cuts and bruises on one knee. He was able to hike out on his own power, and we all gained a healthy sense of respect for the mountains in the process.

We were definitely tired by the time we got back to the trail head. A few tears were shed over the last mile, when we had to do another slight incline to reach our car. Overall, though, I’m really proud of the way we worked together to complete this hike. It’s not the longest or steepest or scariest hike I’ve ever been on — but it may well be the one of which I’m most proud.

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July 2018 Prayer Letter


You yourselves have been taught by God to love each other. And in fact, you do love all of God’s family… Yet we urge you, brothers and sisters, to do so more and more. (1 Thessalonians 4:9-10)


Greetings from Colorado! This is such an amazing place to spend the summer! We love the mountain views, the cool temperatures, and the easy opportunities for activities such as hiking, biking, and fly-fishing (a new hobby I’ve been trying to develop this summer, after a friend gifted me some gear). We also love the ministry opportunities provided by the Estes Park Leadership Training program: sharing the Gospel regularly, making new friends, deepening existing relationships, and watching God transform lives right in front of our eyes. I feel like there are so many stories I could tell from the past month of life here in the mountains, but an interaction from last Thursday evening seems like a good place to start…

“This is your son?!?” She asked. Enthusiasm mounted in her voice. A smile spread across her face. “He is very popular here.” Her Turkish accent made this pronouncement seem even bigger, more global. Other bystanders from Jamaica, Colombia, and Malaysia nodded and added words of agreement. “Very popular.”

Cor just looked up from his Turkish coffee and grinned sheepishly.

While we’ve been here at Estes Park Leadership Training — keeping ourselves busy with meetings and all the minutiae of running a program for 130 college students from across the country — our Cor has been reveling in the glories of the World Cup of soccer.

He starts most mornings by grabbing his soccer ball and walking towards the center of the sprawling campus of the YMCA of the Rockies. Depending on the time of day and the day’s match schedule, he’ll either go to the large grassy field near the big flagpole or to the YMCA’s Administration Building (“the Admin”) — and then he’ll switch to the other location at some point in the morning. On the grassy field, he kicks around his soccer ball and imagines himself as the striker, and the keeper, and the announcer, and the crazed crowds in the stands. Inside the Admin, he clusters with other soccer fans around the big-screen television and watches the games on the live telecast.

It’s actually kind of lucky that the Dutch and American teams didn’t qualify for the tournament because we Asps can get way too emotionally-invested in these teams, to a point of ugliness. With the teams in this year’s World Cup, however, our family has a happy, healthy, working knowledge of the sport, the teams, the players, the coaches, and the cultures involved. When Cor watches the World Cup matches in the Admin, he’s chatty, friendly, and engaging. He reacts to the game with demonstrative emotion and passion. His ten-year-old gasps, cheers, groans, and hand-wringing seem to be pure, unadulterated expressions of what everyone is really feeling on the inside (if they’re into the game). And people love him for it.

Why am I telling you this? It’s because there are times when I’m tempted to think that my family is a hindrance to ministry: they slow me down… they divide my time and attention… they make me stand out instead of blend in… This summer, however, I’ve been blessed to see the ways that my children allow for connections that would never happen under other circumstances: Cor’s popularity among the fútbol fanatics / seasonal workers who come to the YMCA of the Rockies from around the world… Olivia’s sweet care for the infants and toddlers around the Y… Elliot’s relationships formed on his Housekeeping shifts and on the basketball courts after work…

I’m learning that much of our best ministry seems to come through family dynamics — which actually makes a lot of sense. We’re adopted into God’s family when we place our faith in Jesus (Romans 8). Our love for each other is an echo of God’s love, receiving its fullest expression when we live this out for the world to see (1 John 4). College students respond to this. People from different cultures (like the two Turkish women pictured with us on the right) respond to this. Our own hearts are also filled as we experience this “extended family” dynamic of God’s love.

So we just want to say: Thank you for being a part of our ministry family! You’re a significant part of the reason why we can be here in Colorado: not just me as a “ministry worker” but us as a whole family. We don’t take this opportunity for granted! We love you guys, and we’re honored to be in this together. We’ll be in touch…

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Vacation Lessons

We weren’t fully prepared for the cold and wind.

I mean, we knew the weather forecast ahead of time and packed sufficient layers. We had talked to park rangers and mapped out our plan. We were logistically prepared. But we weren’t emotionally prepared for 4.2 miles of hiking with temperatures in the mid-40s, with winds about 20 miles per hour.

Still, we zipped up our jackets and forged ahead.

My boys whined like the wind for the first mile. There were several moments when I legitimately wondered about scrapping our plans and turning around. And that was just in the first quarter-mile. Cor kept worrying about being attacked by bears. Elliot kept fussing about the way he’d rather be in bed. Olivia was stoic and silent for the most part, but the hood of her sweatshirt was so tightly drawn around her face that only her nose, lips, and the brim of her cap were visible.

Marci and I did our best to keep everyone moving, ascending the slopes of Yellowstone’s Bunsen Peak. We hoped that we could persevere through the mental and physical barriers to experience the sublime joy and refreshment of hiking through some of the most beautiful natural scenery on God’s green earth. Still, we didn’t know. We were walking — or hiking — by faith.

About halfway up the mountain, though, something shifted.

The boys got a look in their eye and started serving as the “gas pedal” for our group, instead of the “brake.” Olivia noticed a grove of dwarf pine trees, smiled, and suggested we call it the “Tiny Piney Forest” (later to be lovingly rebranded the “Tiny Piney Whiney Forest” because of its position at the tail end of our Ascent of Complaint). Elliot chucked a snowball at me on a corner of the trail. Marci and Cor practiced their specially-choreographed handshake for a mountaintop celebration.

By the time we made it to the top of Bunsen Peak, the temperatures were even colder and the wind howled even harder than at the trailhead — but our experience of the elements was entirely different. We yelled and laughed into the wind. We took a few photographs. We found a sheltered spot and ate some Lemonheads and special trail mix. And then we enjoyed a happy hike back to the car, noticing things we had failed to observe during our whined-ing way up.

Our hike up Bunsen Peak this morning was a special experience that seemed to capture echoes of our family vacation as a whole.

The first few days, as we started driving out west, we were all irritable and argumentative. Sure, we had fun swimming in hotel swimming pools, but then we squirmed and squawked about the way our skin felt itchy and tight. Of course we enjoyed treating ourselves to rich meals in special restaurants along the way, but our digestive systems were unsettled by it all. We had other memorable moments, too.

We soaked up the sun in the Badlands of South Dakota…

We played basketball in the shadow of the Devil’s Tower in Wyoming…

We watched the prairie grasses waft and wave across the hillsides at the historical site marking the Battle of Little Bighorn in Montana…

But we didn’t have a rhythm. Honestly, we didn’t really hit our “vacation stride” until the last couple of days. Almost a week into our road trip. It’s surprisingly difficult to go from a sprint to a standstill in life. But it’s so, so worth it.

I know that our family is privileged to have a good amount of vacation time, and to be able to take it in relatively long stretches. Not everyone is so lucky. But I’m learning that there are (unintentional) statements being made in the way that a pastor practices rest and recreation.

I know of another pastor who was once asked, “How much vacation time should a pastor take in a given year?” And his response was, “All of it.” He claimed it was necessary for his own soul, for his family’s well-being, and for the well-being of his church. He elaborated: “We come and develop this complex that our church can now no longer live without us for a week or two.  Using all your vacation time given to you forces others to step up in your absence, shows them they can make it without you for a time, and reminds the pastor most of all that God is not utterly dependent on him for this church to function. We are expendable and we need regular jolts of humility to remind us of that.”

I’m glad that Jesus is the Creator, Sustainer, and Savior of the world. Not me. Resting well is an act of Gospel proclamation. I don’t always do it perfectly, but I’m glad for those moments when I can persevere through the mental and physical barriers to experience the sublime joy and refreshment of a good vacation.

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Memorial Day 2018

Out in the farmlands of Richland County, there’s a cemetery labeled with a simple wrought-iron sign: “Revolutionary War Cemetery.” As the name suggests, a few well-weathered gravestones go all the way back to the 1700s, when this part of the country was first settled — in part by veterans of the American Revolutionary War.

But there are newer graves, as well — several of which belong to members of Marci’s extended family. We visited the cemetery to place an American flag on the grave of Marci’s grandfather.

He wasn’t killed in action, but he was a veteran of the U.S. Armed Services — and we thought Memorial Day was a good opportunity to remember him. So, we placed the flag, shared some family stories, and spent the rest of the day like so many of those before us loved to celebrate such summer days: with farm-work, food, and family.

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20 Years of Marriage, 63 Photographs of Trees

Marci and I flew out to San Francisco last week for a four-day getaway. We arranged for the trip because this month marks our 20th wedding anniversary, and we wanted to do something special together.

Northern California was appealing to us because it provided relatively easy access to both culture and nature. Once we got there, however, we found the city considerably less appealing than the natural areas outside the city. Part of this was due to our natural inclinations towards introversion. Part was due to the fact that we just finished a busy school year, which had taken an emotional toll on our family. And part was due to the fact that we let ourselves be talked into upgrading from our compact economy car rental to a brand-new, fiery-orange Mustang convertible.

We had such a lovely time: cruising the Pacific Coast Highway… watching wildlife (pelicans, crabs, starfish, sea lions, deer)… eating delicious meals in unusual settings… talking together about our past, present, and future… But of all the things we saw and did, the trees of Northern California may have been the most impressive elements of our trip. The Coastal Redwoods and Giant Sequoias, especially. I ended up taking 63 photographs of the trees out in Northern California — and I didn’t get a single shot that fully encapsulated the awe I felt when I looked at those trees with my own eyes.

 

The pictures simply don’t do the experience justice. But I’ve been thinking about this, and I appreciate the way that it’s kind of similar to the way that saying “20th Wedding Anniversary” doesn’t do the experience justice. Maybe there’s some sense of perspective from the aggregate, the juxtapositions, the volume of snapshots each depicting a slightly-different point of view. But not really. It doesn’t feel satisfying for me to attempt encapsulating these experiences in snapshots, but it also doesn’t feel satisfying for me to leave them unmentioned or seemingly-unobserved.

      

I’m immensely grateful for the two decades that Marci and I have spent together. I wish I could show you. I wish I could tell you. But it’s fine. Psalm 115 struck me recently: “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name goes all the glory for your unfailing love and faithfulness…” It’s easy to make an idol out of romantic relationships, instead of celebrating the way our human love reflects the Heavenly love that gave us that ability in the first place. “Our God is in the heavens, and he does as he wishes. Their idols are merely things of silver and gold, shaped by human hands… All you who fear the Lord, trust the Lord! He is your helper and shield. The Lord remembers and will bless us…”

That’s our prayer for the next twenty years. We want to keep trusting the Lord, relying on him for our help and protection from life’s storms. Whether that’s in Northern California, or Ohio, or Europe, or wherever, we’re thankful for God’s blessings and our ability to keep on walking in wonder.

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Grown Up, But Not Really

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Our youngest child is finished with elementary school! We’re very proud of Cor, especially because he worked really hard to make the Honor Roll (for the first time) this year.

At all of their end-of-the-school-year activities — a “graduation” ceremony, field trips, and such — we parents were inclined to look at each other and say things like, “They grow up so fast” and “We just can’t believe they’re Middle-Schoolers now!”

But I know better.

I know better because I was there earlier in the day, before the “clap-out” and the last of the “last”s, at the celebratory Pool Party / Sports Day at the Kent State University Recreation and Wellness Center.

I know better because I heard the way the boys giggled about seeing the “thing” of a guy in the locker room, while they were getting ready to swim.

I know because I watched them crack each other up with jokes and physical comedy centered around the sign advertising a workout class called “Butts & Guts.”

They’re still growing up. The whole maturity / immaturity thing is fun, in its own, silly way. I’m glad to have kids who are still getting older. But I’m also glad that it takes awhile.

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