Saturday Night Fever

Saturday Night Fever

We brought back the magic of 1977 to celebrate my 40th Birthday this past weekend. There was lots of great food, great disco music, great fashions, and great stories shared by all.

Saturday Night Fever

But naturally, the best part of the whole evening was my friends and family who came to share the occasion with me. Many of them took advantage of the opportunity to pop into our makeshift “Photo Booth” for a snapshot — and even though not all of the pictures have been processed yet, I wanted to post some of my favorite “early returns.”

Saturday Night Fever

All the pictures are turning out beautifully, but for the sake of concision, I thought I’d pick ten of the ones that really stood out… Like the above shot of two vintage-1970s, stone-cold killers: Rick Asp and Jack Slack…

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Or these crazy kids, who kept the party thumping with their moves on the dance floor…

Saturday Night Fever

My sister came in a fabulous fur coat (originally worn during the 1970s by our Grandma Liechty), and the dress she wore was hand-made by our mother during the same era! She wore the 1970s fashions well!

Saturday Night Fever

I’m not sure how true-to-the-period my little Cor’s thrift store selections were, but he still looked fabulous to me…

Saturday Night Fever

Our friends from H2O Kent helped to bring a really fun energy to the party. And it was just beautiful to see people from so many different social circles — neighbors, colleagues, church friends, family members — come together for a fun evening of “Saturday Night Fever” on my behalf.

Saturday Night Fever

My Dad probably caused the greatest surprise of the night, when he walked in with brown hair and a brown mustache (he’s usually marked by distinguished white hair and no whiskers)! It was so fun to have my parents there: especially seeing how they were the only other people who were there for the original event in February of 1977.

Saturday Night Fever

The real MVP of the night, though, was undoubtedly my wife, Marci. She put in a lot of work — in the midst of a very busy stretch of the semester — to make sure we planned and prepared adequately for such an event.

Saturday Night Fever

There are more pictures — and I will soon be adding even more — available to view and download in an on-line album I’ve set up on Flickr. Once I get the whole collection, I’ll also post some more to my social media accounts. For the time being, though, I just want to register a big THANK YOU to everyone who came out and made my 40th birthday such a special event. Keep the Fever burning!

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Best President’s Day Ever

UntitledPresident’s Day is not typically a great holiday.

I mean, the day seems to be nice enough for school-children and government employees (who get the day off), as well as for people who sell cars or furniture (who seem to make a big deal out of the opportunity to move inventory). But for most of us, President’s Day is quite forgettable.

This year, though, something magic was in the air.

Over the weekend, I started my annual tradition of gradually whittling down my Christmas-to-Birthday Beard — and my first step was an unusual look I call the “Chester Arthur.” He was the 21st President of the United States of America, but it may well be that one of the most significant elements of his legacy has become his facial hair: seamlessly linking sideburns and a handlebar moustache. I’ve gotten some funny looks over the last couple of days — especially from my own children — but it’s been fun!

The real fun, however, happened this afternoon. After I got home from my last meeting of the day, I found our neighborhood buzzing with all kinds of activity. The sun was shining. The air was fresh and mild. The boys of the neighborhood were playing soccer across three yards. The girls were selling iced tea on the sidewalk. And the adults were all centered around our neighbors’ driveway, where they were boiling down maple sap into maple syrup: another 19th Century anachronism that proved surprisingly delightful on a day such as today.

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I was welcomed into the circle and served a drink. We watched the littlest ones show off their new skills in walking and talking, far advanced beyond the point on the calendar when we were all driven inside for the winter. We laughed deep belly laughs at stories of our kids, our associations with the 1970s, and the maple syrup experiment unfolding in front of us. We arbitrated disputes between our children. We caught up on all the latest news from each other’s lives.

We had to troubleshoot the syrup-making process a couple of times, but we had such a good time enjoying the process together. I don’t know how the syrup will end up tasting, but the experience was sweet enough in its own right — and you could say that it definitely brought our neighborhood to a point where we stick together, like a stack of flapjacks.

It was easily the best President’s Day I can remember. But already, I’m looking forward to the next one.

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The Netherlands Welcomes Trump in His Own Words

This video is a brilliant example of satire: across cultures, across linguistic divides, and across political ideologies. I’m seriously impressed with the way the comedy was executed in a way that makes sense to both Dutch audiences and American audiences. The degree of difficulty for something like this is quite high — still, it’s executed quite effectively.

I’ve felt tongue-tied since Election Day: very concerned about the rhetoric coming from Donald Trump, but also quite concerned about the rhetoric coming from those who disagree with him. I guess sometimes it just works best to say it with satire.

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MLK Day

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On our way to visit my brother and his family in Texas for New Year’s, we had the chance to spend a day in Memphis and visit the site where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, in 1968. The former motel has been converted into the National Civil Rights Museum, and I was impressed with how they provided the context and the consequences of Martin Luther King Jr.’s campaign for civil rights. (I’d highly recommend a visit to the museum, if you ever get the chance).

I’m so white I used to see “MLK Day” on the school calendar and wonder why they made a special day for drinking milk. I still feel clueless a lot of the time, when it comes to truly understanding and meaningfully engaging with the struggles that people of color face in our culture today.

But I want to keep learning and growing.

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Certainly, I believe that part of the process of learning and growing comes from studying history. Even more than grasping the basic facts and timelines of the civil rights movement, though, I think it helps to experience the struggle. Walking a mile or two in another person’s shoes goes a long way toward making sense of their world. A day at the museum is a good place to start, but it can’t stop there.

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I gained sympathy toward Mexican immigrants to the United States when I was an immigrant, fighting through all the red tape that a government throws up to keep me out. I understood an element of the awkwardness that many African-Americans in the United States experience, as minorities, when I lived in a neighborhood where a majority of the residents were Berber Muslims. On so many different levels, I see how our Amsterdam years were good for us.

But how can I continue to learn and grow, now that I’m back in Ohio, back in the majority, back in the place of power and privilege?

We’ve still got a lot of work to do.

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Flying South for the Winter

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Ever since my struggles with seasonal depression in northern Europe, I’ve become a big proponent of “flying south” for the winter: even if just for a week or two. It’s really amazing how much some regular exercise, some vitamin supplements, and some extra sunshine and rest can help with beating the winter blues.

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A couple of days after Christmas, our family loaded up our minivan for a long drive south and west: to visit my brother and his family in north-central Texas.

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We got to watch my nephew play in a basketball tournament. We played hours of basketball with the boys on the court in my brother’s backyard, while the girls took a trip to visit the Magnolia Market in Waco. We played family games every night. We visited the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, the Stockyards in Fort Worth, and the Civil War battlegrounds in Vicksburg. We ate elaborate homemade breakfasts and some really good southern barbecue (one incredible meal at Central City Barbecue in Memphis, and another even better meal at Cooper’s Barbecue in Fort Worth!). We brought in the New Year with many of our favorite people in the world.

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It was delightful.

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Now we’re back in Ohio. We’ve packed up all our Christmas decorations. We’ve gone back to work and school. We’ve carried on with life while the temperatures have plunged far below freezing, down around zero degrees Fahrenheit. Yet somehow, it all feels bearable because we’ve stocked up on sunshine and smiles. There are still many weeks of winter to come, but we’re going to survive.

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Ministry Highlights from 2016

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Ice Cream Group 2

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Do I take my faith too seriously?

Do I take my faith too seriously?

I’m saying “seriously” in the sense of solemnity, sobriety… Maybe “joylessly?” I’ve recently been considering Jesus’ words from the 9th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, and I’ve felt challenged to get more serious about joy and celebration.

I think there is something in the human psyche that yearns for a certain element of solemnity and ritual — particularly when it comes to births, marriages, deaths, and holy days. We don’t want to always be silly and superficial. But does the antonym of “silly” have to be “solemn?” How can we combine depth, meaning, joy, and celebration?

I can tend toward criticism of Christians and churches that talk about “leading with love” and embracing the rag-tag crumbs of civilization that show up on our doorsteps. Think: Anne Lamott and her San Francisco friends (even though I always love reading about Anne Lamott and her San Francisco friends!)… They can seem so “soft on the Gospel,” forgetful of the hard truths and high stakes that might get overlooked by those “mired in a loose lifestyle.”

What if they’re really onto something, though?

Established religion, it seems, pulls hopelessly toward legalism and dynamics of inclusion and exclusion that are decidedly different from Jesus’ M.O. Today’s religious establishment can be eerily similar to the Pharisees and Sadducees of the New Testament. It doesn’t seem to matter too much if the theoretical framework is “the traditions of our forefathers,” or “the Law of Moses,” or “the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” Religious people can spend a lot of time thinking and talking about the sacrifices that must be made for ministry… the rending of garments that must be enacted in the face of the world’s misery… the fasting from food and drink (at least certain kinds of food and drink) that must be observed in the light of the current religious realities…

But Jesus says, “It is not sacrifice I want, but mercy.” Jesus feasts with the tax collectors and other sinners and says, “It’s time to celebrate,” when he’s around. He says we need new wine skins to go with new wine (and yes, he uses wine as his best analogy!). And don’t we believe that Jesus is alive?!? Aren’t we living in the time of New Wine?!? Shouldn’t we be following the example of those who follow the example of Jesus?!? I’m angry, anxious, and excited — all at the same time — to think of the differences between our current religious realities and the Jesus of Matthew 9.

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Sinterklaas in Holland (Michigan)

UntitledOur family started Friday morning in Kent, Ohio, with kruidnootjes in klompen (crunchy, gingersnappy, cookie-buttons in old-fashioned, Dutch wooden shoes). We realize this pairing is not typical for most American families or Dutch families — but it’s pretty typical for us (blending American traditions, Dutch traditions, and Swedish traditions) at this time of the year. The kids went to school, and the adults went to work: humming along, on-track with our typical lives.

At noon, however, we jumped the rails.

We knocked off work early, pulled the kids out of school, and drove five-and-a-half hours north-west to participate in a local festival we read about in a single paragraph of a single magazine article from “Midwest Living.”

Our destination: Holland, Michigan. They promised a Sinterklaas processional, and that was enough for us. We didn’t know how authentic or Americanized their version of the Dutch holiday would be. We didn’t know if there would be mobs of people (like what we used to experience during our days back in Amsterdam), or if we would stand out in an uncomfortably-thin crowd. Would there be Sinterklaas songs or treats that we would recognize? How would Americans handle the Dutch tradition of Zwarte Piet, which has racially-charged overtones with the “helpers” in minstrel-show blackface (vestiges of the Netherlands colonial history)? Would our grand excursion be fun and worth the time, money, and energy we invested?

We didn’t know what to expect.

The streets of Holland were beautiful, but quiet, when we rolled into town around 6:30 PM. I’d say it was above-average holiday lights and garlands decorating an above-average Midwestern town filled with brick buildings and brick pavers. We had no trouble finding a parking spot just a stone’s throw away from Centennial Park and the Armory, which were supposed to be the epicenter of the town’s Sinterklaas celebration. We were the only family to be seen on the streets, even though preliminary festivities had supposedly started a half-hour earlier and the grand processional supposedly started a half-hour later. When we got into the Armory, however, there was a pleasant hum of voices and activity. We were greeted by seven or eight teenaged helpers dressed in decently-authentic, probably homemade, Zwarte Piet costumes. And it turned out they were just fine without any face paint at all. Some of them called themselves “Elves,” but we were OK with that. They gave us Tootsie Roll Pops and fun-sized Snickers and Milky Way bars for treats.

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Each of our kids was given supplies to create their own paper lanterns: a small dowel-rod, a rubber band, a paper-and-metal frame, and a small battery-powered flashlight. Most Dutch children do the lantern thing in early November, for a different holiday (Sint Maarten’s), but we learned that the lanterns were supposed to be a part of the Sinterklaas processional, so we were glad to go along with it.

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After ten minutes or so, we decided to walk a couple of blocks to Holland’s Market Square, which they designated as a “Kerstmarkt” with perhaps a dozen wooden stands selling food items and hand-made crafts (only a couple of which were Dutch- or Sinterklaas themed). And there: at the end of the market, we saw Sinterklaas himself. His costume was decently-authentic, probably store-bought, and he sat astride a white horse, very similar to the sort of horse that he would ride in the Netherlands. A Piet / “Elf” held the reins to the horse, much like he would in the Netherlands, as a small crowd of families stood around taking pictures.

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At 7:00 PM, the processional started. It felt a little bit strange that there was no music (which would be a pretty significant element of such events in the Netherlands), but it was fun to walk through the streets of Holland with Sinterklaas, a couple hundred people taking pictures, carrying lanterns, and chattering happily. Around 7:15 PM, we arrived at Centennial Park. Sinterklaas dismounted and proceeded to the central Gazebo. Local dignitaries said a few words, Sinterklaas was introduced, he taught the crowd to count to three in Dutch, and then we all counted: “Een… Twee… Drie…” And (after a slight delay due to presumed technical difficulties), the town’s big Christmas Tree lit up to a round of cheers and applause.

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After the tree was lit, the crowd disbanded fairly quickly. We didn’t know exactly what was happening, but we followed the crowd to a grand old building, flanked with marble pillars, just across the street from the park. There everyone crowded the steps up to the building, which turned out to be the Holland Museum. Over the course of perhaps half an hour, everyone filed into the building. Inside, we snaked through the exhibits — a mix of Dutch artifacts and items from the town’s history — until we got the chance to meet Sinterklaas himself. The people standing in line with us were a mix of locals and visiting Hollandophiles, like us. Some were Dutch citizens; some were married to Dutch citizens or children of Dutch citizens. Several used to live in the Netherlands, so we got to speak more Dutch than I expected. It was a fun camaraderie that made the wait a highlight of the evening. Towards the end of the line, we were served hot cocoa and Dutch butter cookies, which were not very authentic, but still a nice gesture.

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At the end of the line, we got our chance to meet Sinterklaas and take our picture with him. The coolest thing of all was that the American Sinterklaas actually spoke Dutch! We asked if we could sing him a Sinterklaas song, and he suggested “Sinterklaas Kapoentje!” The streets of Holland were quiet again, when we emerged from the Holland Museum. We said good-bye to some of the other families that had been standing in line with us, and then we drove back to our hotel for some swimming and sleep.

It was fun. Nothing life-changing, but a very enjoyable excursion. Our family enjoys our connections to Dutch culture, but we’re also happy to be American Midwesterners — and this weekend felt like the perfect combination of the two worlds.

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Beloved Brothers

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Shopping for groceries… Sharing the gospel… Applying for jobs… Falling in love… Saving for retirement… Negotiating purchase agreements and employment contracts… Raising children… Officiating weddings and funerals… Getting suits tailored… Maintaining fitness as our bodies age… Leading churches in Bowling Green, Amsterdam, and Kent…

It’s amazing to think how much Jason and Chad have meant to me over the last twenty years that we’ve walked together, figuring out our way through all sorts of life experiences.

We forged a spiritual brotherhood as young men. Now we’ve advanced together to a place in life that was unimaginable to the teenagers we were when we first met. Sometimes our paths have diverged; other times, the paths have been so congruent that it’s been hard to distinguish one from the other. Other people have journeyed with us (Matthew McClure, our co-pastor at H2O Kent, is one particularly-notable brother with whom we have walked many meaningful miles). There is nothing to which I can compare these relationships, outside of perhaps my marriage.

It’s impossible to find friendships of six months or six years which approximate the effect of a twenty-year friendship.

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We flew to southeast Texas for a Pastors Conference this week, and we got to enjoy new experiences together: Torchy’s Tacos, Buc-ees Gas Station, Rudy’s Barbecue… It was special. Still, it was not unlike previous experiences we’ve had together on Michigan Avenue in Chicago… in the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto… at the Ancient Roman Wall in Nijmegen… on the ferry to Alcatraz in San Francisco… (Man! What glorious history we’ve had together!). The traveling destinations are different, but the traveling companions are the same. Thus, we’re privileged with a curious continuity that provides a glimpse of a more profound phenomenon.

What’s changing with us is us.

We’re aging. All three of us are turning 40 this year. And even though I’m not willing to write any of us off as “over the hill” just yet, it’s hard to deny the fact that our hair has thinned and grayed. Back injuries and vestibular irregularities are a part of our lives now. Our children are far closer than we are to the “wonder years” of high school sports championships, college adventures, and youthful romances. It feels weird enough for me to notice about such things myself; but for Chad and Jason to notice that in me, and for me to notice that in them… It’s especially bizarre.

I’m not complaining. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. I’m extremely thankful for these long-term friendships. I just wish I knew how the next 20 years of our friendship were going to play out. I guess we’ll figure that out along the way. Just like we always do.

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Raking Leaves

Scrape, skritch, scratch, rake. Scrape, skritch, scratch, rake.

I drag my bamboo rake along the lawn. I gather the leaves into piles. I gather the piles onto a tarp. I pull the tarp to the front of our property. I dump the leaves along the curb. And then I repeat the process again and again. It takes almost two hours to do our whole property.

Scrape, skritch, scratch, rake. Scrape, skritch, scratch, rake.

We have so many trees in our part of town. Raking takes place in multiple stages. First the oaks dropped their acorns. Then the locusts dropped their leaves. The maples flamed the brightest and most beautiful shades of yellow, orange, pink, and red before dropping their leaves. And finally, the stubborn old oaks give up their leaves in batches, as prompted by winds and rains.

Scrape, skritch, scratch, rake. Scrape, skritch, scratch, rake.

I don’t resent the chore. In fact, I find it therapeutic. I especially love to be out in the yard when the sun is shining but the air is cool. A few minutes of activity with the rake works up enough body heat to offset the chill. The crisp fall air feels good in my lungs. I smell the leaves and the scent of a distant fire. I hear the hum of gas-powered leaf-blowers from my neighbors. I love the solitude, yet simultaneously I love the bond with my neighbors.

Scrape, skritch, scratch, rake. Scrape, skritch, scratch, rake.

Raking gives me time to think. I think about my children. I think about my church. I think about baseball, how my team lost. I think about politics, how my candidates lost. I think about the way that my emotions about the baseball loss and the political loss carry a similar weight — not much — and I wonder why that is. I think about the way other people seem to feel very differently.

Scrape, skritch, scratch, rake. Scrape, skritch, scratch, rake.

One of the things I love about raking is that it’s seasonal and cyclical. Every year, for years and years and years, the trees have dropped their leaves at this time of the year. Every year, for years and years, people have gathered the leaves with rakes at this time of the year. This is already my fifth Fall in this house. Already my 25th World Series, since starting to follow the sport. Already my fifth Presidential Election, since gaining the right to vote. The names and faces come and go, like leaves on the trees, but the cycle continues.

Scrape, skritch, scratch, rake. Scrape, skritch, scratch, rake.

It feels good to clean up my little corner of the world. Scrape by scrape, raking all the debris into tidy piles along the curb. I know the job is not finished. I’ll be doing it again next week, and for years to come. But I take satisfaction in the moment of clarity.

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