Click with the Klunkes

We were married within a year of each other: Marci and me, Michelle and Mike. We went on staff with the same missions agency within a year of each other.

We each had our first child within a year of each other: Gillian and Elliot…

We each had our second child within a year of each other: Nathalie and Olivia…

And yes (the attentive reader probably saw this coming), we each had our third child within a year of each other: Luke and Cor…

There’s just a level of symmetry between our families that’s rare in our circles. And besides the circumstantial symmetry, we’ve just really come to love our friends: Mike, Michelle, Gillian, Nathalie, and Luke Klunke.

They love Jesus. They love collegiate ministry. They’re great listeners, story-tellers, game-players, fly-fishers, sports-fans, and ministry-practitioners.

We’ve appreciated every opportunity we’ve gotten to do life and ministry together: in Orlando, Amsterdam, Kent — and especially Estes Park. We hope that this summer won’t be the last time we’ll get to do this; still, with kids starting to graduate and go off to college, we don’t take summers like this for granted, either. For however long it lasts, we’re grateful for our click with the Klunkes.

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Running Up the Mountain Together

We’re coming up on the end of our time in Colorado.

I’m going to miss it for a lot of reasons — but particularly for (1) the mountains and (2) the cohort of young leaders with whom I’ve been privileged to work these last five weeks. This morning, I got to combine these two elements in a way that gave me personal joy and (I think) a deeper glimpse into some of the things God is doing in my heart, in the Collegiate Mentoring Program this summer, and in my current ministry context back in Kent.

It started when I made up my mind that I needed one more attempt at running up Bible Point.

All kinds of people go up Bible Point all the time because it’s a relatively short hike — less than a mile and a half — on the west side of the YMCA of the Rockies. It’s steep enough that it takes some real work to get up there, but the view from the top is spectacular enough that people are willing to put in the work. Over the past few summers that I’ve been here, though, I’ve become particularly intrigued with the idea of trying to run, nonstop, all the way from the sports field in the center of the YMCA of the Rockies to the top of Bible Point. Unfortunately, I’ve never succeeded in running nonstop, as the steep sections of trail limit my legs and thin mountain air limits my lungs. But I’ve gotten faster over time. And at one point, I even held the record on Strava (a social media platform for endurance athletics) for their segment titled “Bible Point (from the livery).” I lost my “King of the Mountain” classification last summer (kudos to John Grotenhuis, whoever he is!). And as I age, I’m not sure that I’m ever going to reclaim the crown. But still, I want to keep pushing myself — and I could see on Strava that there was another staff guy from our network’s church at the University of Missouri who was also regularly running up Bible Point (albeit typically a couple of minutes slower than I typically do it). He also happens to be one of the participants in our Collegiate Mentoring Program this summer, learning to play more and more of a lead role back in his home context. So I thought maybe it would be beneficial for both our relationship and our running pursuits to make a run at Bible Point together.

Last night, I messaged him: “Hey Mike! I’m thinking about taking another run at Bible Point tomorrow morning. Probably around 6:30 or 7:00 AM. Would you be interested in joining me?”

He responded, “Yes, let’s do it. I’m down for either time.”

So we made plans to meet at the playground in front of the Craft and Design Center. At the appointed time, we started stretching for the run as we looked up at the rocky spot that marked Bible Point. And then we started running. The first three-quarters of a mile was level enough that we were able to manage some conversation — but then we hit the steep sections of trail, and all our breath was focused on getting to the top of Bible Point.

At first, it seemed that I was stronger than Mike, in danger of pulling too far in front of him for the synergistic purposes. So I slowed down a bit and decided to conserve some energy for at least a little while. But after a couple more switchbacks, I reached the point where I felt like I could not keep running — and Mike pulled ahead of me by a couple of steps. For the next half-mile, the distance between the two of us varied as we took turns running (at a very slow pace) and walking with our hands helping to push our thighs up the mountain. In the last quarter of a mile, though, it became clear that Mike had stronger legs — and he pulled ahead to finish a twenty seconds ahead of me.

I felt kind of discouraged that my body had betrayed me and that I couldn’t hang with Mike for the whole climb. But between gasps of air at the top of Bible Point, Mike checked his watch and exclaimed, “That was… a full two minutes… faster… than I’ve ever… gone before!” He spat into the dust, doubled over with exhaustion, and looked over at me with a smile. “Thanks for the push.”

I congratulated him for his strong run and moaned about my own sense of exhaustion. My legs and lungs screamed for me to go nowhere and to do nothing but recover for a few minutes. So I sat on a rock and reflected.

Something about our run seemed like a metaphor for life and ministry.

I’m at an age where I’ve developed a good base of experience and endurance — even if my peak and performance may not be what it used to be. Younger men have a higher ceiling for what they can accomplish, but they don’t often realize their own strength until someone else pushes them beyond what they thought was possible. My pride may get wounded, as I watch the young legs surge ahead of me on the home stretch, as I see my name get lower on the list of Strava segment achievements… But there’s also a certain satisfaction that comes from seeing the next generation rise and realize their full potential.

Once we had fully caught our breath at the top of Bible Point, Mike and I took the easy job back down the trail to where we started. When I got back to my cabin, my watch uploaded the data from our run to my phone, to Garmin, to Strava — and I was delighted to discover that even though I had finished 18 seconds behind Mike, I had also beaten my personal record by 8 seconds (faster than the run that had once made me “King of the Mountain”)! I smiled to myself, realizing that Mike’s and my combined run was not just an act of sacrifice and “passing the baton to the next generation.” We saw a boost in both of our performances. And Mike had come within 6 seconds of being the new “King of the Mountain” on our run.

Later in the morning, at our group session for the Collegiate Mentoring Program, Mike and I talked about the Strava standings and Mike said, “Man, we need to try that again before you have to leave!”

I knew it might be a scheduling challenge, but I agreed that it would be fun to give it another try. “Seriously. We’re so close,” I smiled. “Next time, I think that record is yours for the taking.”

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Ranger Things

I totally binged this weekend on a new series (of experiences) called Ranger Things — and it was amazing.

Believe it or not, there was a time in my life when I seriously considered producing nature documentaries as a career — and it’s not too hard to see a world where I became a park ranger instead of a pastor. Not that I’m complaining about my current vocation or life circumstances! I really do love the way my life has turned out. Still, I really don’t know how to put words to the way the mountains, forests, lakes, and streams of America’s National Parks fill my soul with joy and wonder.

Friday afternoon, I got to do a solo hike up Eagle Cliff. The silence and solitude of the mountainsides were a sanctuary for some extended time with God, and the mountaintop provided a place to consider all the peaks and valleys of our summer experiences out here in Colorado.

Saturday featured a family hike to the top of Twin Sisters with the family, and we literally climbed through the clouds, getting to see the views from below the clouds, in amongst the clouds, and above the clouds. We also ran into some friends from 1500 miles away — on top of the mountain, of all places! So that was pretty fun!

And today, I hiked with some Kent friends to Chasm Lake (including an encounter with an actual ranger from the National Parks Service!). About half of the hike was above tree-line, with vast snow banks still clinging to the flanks of the Park’s largest mass of mountains. We hiked across glaciers, passed beside a glistening waterfall, and scrambled up some large rocks to reach a pristine mountain lake with large blocks of ice still floating beside the shoreline.

I’m aware that I might be susceptible to recency bias, but I might be inclined to put Chasm Lake as one of the Top Three Hikes in the Rocky Mountain National Park. I’m really glad I got to experience that hike (even if it meant I had to miss the Women’s World Cup match between the United States and the Netherlands).

Our time to enjoy hiking in the Rockies is quickly drawing to a close — but I’m glad we can make the most of it while we’re here.

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Physical Fitness Fourth

Something about Colorado makes me want to move: running, cycling, hiking, swimming, basketball, soccer, tennis, pickle-ball, kickball… The thin mountain air can complicate the cardio-vascular component of exercise; still, the clear skies and cool weather conditions beckon me to run and jump and play.

So, for the Fourth of July holiday, I took advantage of the opportunity to participate in a few special physical fitness festivities… starting with departing from my cabin at 3:45 AM to go run a half-marathon in Longmont. My friends Brooke and David (plus David’s friend Sam) joined me for the Longmont Half-Marathon. It was a unique setting, running mostly over prairie and farmland, with some river wetlands, and the beautiful Rocky Mountains in the distance. I didn’t know what to expect with attempting a half-marathon at 5,000 feet above sea level — but I was pleasantly surprised with how fast I was ultimately able to run, finishing the race in 1 hour and 40 minutes.

Later that evening, our family joined the rest of the staff at the Estes Park Leadership Training program for a picnic in Stanley Park, near Lake Estes. I was prepared to just sit in the shade, nibble on snacks, and enjoy conversation with colleagues. But with a basketball court directly beside our picnic pavilion, it was practically inevitable that a basketball game would break out — and I ended up being one of three 40-something pastors who ended up banding together to take on trios of younger staff… And we won more than we lost, so we had to (got to?) keep playing even longer.

It was a fun day of activity, but you can be sure that I slept well that night after exercising my freedoms for physical fitness.

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The Wonder of Ute

My children have long thought that they dislike hiking.

My observation is that they don’t actually dislike the activity itself; in fact, when we hike we usually end up having a lot of fun seeing new places, sharing new experiences, and enjoying conversation along the way. But they’re naturally inclined to dislike the idea of hiking; they think they’re going to get hot and tired and bored. And, of course, that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. But I work hard to counteract these misperceptions.

So I thought I’d ease them into the world of hiking possibilities at the Rocky Mountain National Park this summer. On our first free day since getting here, I picked a trail that was relatively short: the Ute Trail, just off of Trail Ridge Road. It’s an out-and-back route, which could allow us to go as long or as short as we would like. It’s an interesting drive to the trail-head, with dramatic mountain vistas and lots of opportunities for wildlife spotting. The trail itself stays relatively flat, even though it’s at a very high altitude, up above tree-line. And inch-for-inch, pound-for-pound, I can now confirm from personal experience that it’s a very high-reward / low-cost hike.

Still, old habits die hard — and the kids’ first instinct was to start with complaint. I knew better than to dwell with them in their complaint, though, and I overrode their objections with confidence. More quickly than expected, they shifted to a posture of acceptance — almost enthusiasm — and we packed up for the hike fairly quickly and cheerfully.

We had to deal with some traffic, getting into the National Park, but I probably grumbled about that more than the kids. By the time we started climbing Trail Ridge Road, all the grumbling was forgotten. We made it up above tree-line, and pretty shortly thereafter we came upon the parking lot for the Ute Trail. Within a quarter-mile of the place where we parked our minivan, we found a pile of rocks with a dramatic vista across a deep valley to a ridge of snow-capped mountains. We took a bunch of pictures — some proper portraits and some silly stuff — and then I thought we’d hike just up the next ridge to see what we could see and then assess how much further we wanted to go.

To my surprise, the kids moved to the front of our group and set a rather aggressive pace along the trail. They were talking and laughing and not complaining at all. We stopped for more pictures at a few different spots, but there never seemed to be any hint of a desire to turn around and finish the hike sooner rather than later.

At one point, I leaned over to Marci and whispered, with a sense of awe in my voice, “It almost seemed like the kids are enjoying the hike.”

We ended up doing a full two miles out and two miles back, with very minimal grumbling from the kids. The views were spectacular. The weather was lovely. And we just had a lot of fun together.

The experience made me realize that my kids really are growing up. They’re not just kids anymore; they’re youths. They’re opening up to new experiences, and it’s a wonder to behold the way they behold the world. This weekend’s experience on the Ute Trail gave me a moment to appreciate the wonder of Youth, and I’m very glad for that.

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The Collegiate Mentoring Program

For three out of the last four summers, I’ve been a part of a new initiative within our network of churches. It’s called the Collegiate Mentoring Program. This year, I get to make leadership of the Collegiate Mentoring Program my primary focus for the summer, and it really feels like something of a dream job.

The program is aimed towards the development of church leaders and church planters. It seeks to establish foundational truths and practices for the long-term health and sustainability of vocational ministry workers in our Collegiate Church Network. And from everything I’ve seen over the last few years, it seems to be having a great effect on staff retention, the health of staff marriages, the growth of well-adjusted children in staff families, the ordination of new pastors, the level of effectiveness in campus ministry, and catalyzing the multiplication of disciples and churches on college campuses across the United States and potentially around the world, as well.

We meet as a group four times per week: twice to interact with established ministry leaders about a variety of different areas of interest, once to strengthen our practice of the spiritual disciplines, and once to focus on theological training. In addition to these group sessions, each participant spends two hours each week in an individual mentoring session, where two experienced pastors provide space to process what God is doing in the individual’s life. And, wow! It feels like God has been doing some amazing work in these individual sessions!

This week, we had a special experience. I helped to lead a Wilderness Retreat, where I took everyone from the Collegiate Mentoring Program out into the Rocky Mountain National Park for two days of solitude, silence, fasting, prayer, reflection, and interaction with the Lord. It provided an opportunity to cement some of the things that have been coming up through our group sessions and individual sessions, and I’ve been really encouraged to hear about the ways that God met these young leaders out in the Wilderness. I’m praying for Chris, Mike, Andy, Kyle, Jason, and Ben, and I’m looking forward to seeing what happens in their lives over the rest of this summer and beyond.

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I recently finished reading David Sedaris’s book, Calypso. It’s a collection of short stories and essays from an author I’ve been reading for several years. I read his stuff because he’s funny. And often surprisingly insightful.

I’m happy to say that this book didn’t disappoint in either of those regards. I laughed out loud while reading some sections, and I nearly cried to myself while reading other sections.

The most meaningful portions of this book dealt with the death of Sedaris’s sister, who committed suicide after a long struggle with mental illness and various addictions. He processed his grief through the lens of a family vacation cottage, named the Sea Section, on the shores of North Carolina. Sedaris also writes about his own mortality, and I really appreciated these musings (especially since I’ve recently been considering similar things, myself). But what’s crazy is that he figures out ways to write about these dark, difficult subjects of mental illness, suicide, and mortality — while still keeping a level of levity (and even hilarity). This book actually feels entirely appropriate as summer vacation reading — which is the function that it filled for me during our recent family reunion — and I consider that the highest sort of compliment for a book like this.

Sedaris comes at the world from a pretty different perspective than I do. He’s a proud, gay, politically-partisan artist with a penchant for browsing weird Japanese clothing stores and sunbathing on the beach… But even as a humble, straight, politically-independent pastor who wears polyester half-marathon running shirts and prefers long hikes through the woods, I appreciate the way that Sedaris helps me to see his world — and mine.

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Family Reunion in Texas

Everything’s bigger in Texas.

Today we started driving from Rockwall (in the north-central part of the state), and we traveled six hours north and west to the panhandle — at almost 80 miles per hour — and we still have a couple more hours of Texas roads tomorrow morning before we get out of the state! Texas is a big deal.

We’re stopped for the night in Amarillo, and our hotel is right next to a restaurant called The Big Texan. The Big Texan advertises a free 72 ounce (six pound!) steak dinner to anyone who can finish it in an hour. And the restaurant itself is a sprawling complex of dining space, arcade games, gift shop souvenirs, and other western Americana. It’s pretty amazing.

The reason we came to Texas was for a family reunion. And it was a pretty big deal, too. My mom’s extended family has been organizing these reunions every 3-5 years for as long as I can remember. A different branch of the family takes responsibility for each reunion — and this time it was organized by the family of my great-uncle Paul, most of whom have settled in Texas.

There were almost 200 of us. We ate lots of food. We spent a day at a water park. We swam in the hotel pool almost every day. We sang a lot of songs in four-part harmony. And, of course, we had lots of conversations catching up on everything that’s happened since the last family reunion.

I appreciate the Liechty Family for its industrious approach to life, business, and ministry. I appreciate the family’s extravagant generosity and hospitality. I appreciate the way we have fun with each other. And I appreciate the way that the family reunites every so often, creating space for connection with distant relatives and with close relatives (I especially enjoy getting together with all the descendants of my parents, “The Jans”).

Our family is not perfect (who’s family is?), but I still think we’re pretty great. And I’d have to say that our reunion in the Great State of Texas was pretty great, too.

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Traveling through New Mexico

We had it all plotted out with precision timing. Olivia and I would pick up Marci, Elliot, and Cor around 4:30 PM — and then zoom south down I-25 towards New Mexico. I thought we may even make it to the Great Sand Dunes of southern Colorado just in time for the sunset. What an epic way to start off our meandering, three-states-in-three-days road trip to a family reunion in Texas!

Unfortunately, Marci and the boys were delayed in their air travel. It was closer to 9:00 PM before they emerged from baggage claim. We hit some pretty gnarly construction traffic just north of Colorado Springs. And then, when the road finally started to open up in front of us, we needed to stop for a bathroom break.

I was frustrated.

After our bathroom break, we merged back onto the highway and I calculated the remaining time and distance would make it around 1:00 AM when we finally made it to our hotel in Alamosa. Knowing the state of exhaustion in our family, I reluctantly decided we should bypass the Great Sand Dunes altogether, since they would have added almost an hour and a half to our journey. But I didn’t like it one bit.

It occurred to me that travel is almost always like this. Delays. Frustrations. Complaints. Irritations. Why do we do this to ourselves?!? Is it really worth all the time, money, and stress?!? When we finally got to bed in Alamosa, we were all annoyed with each other and exhausted.

The next morning dawned bright and beautiful, but also hot. As we drove south, the temperature climbed. We set our sites on Bandelier National Monument, near Los Alamos, New Mexico. And while we enjoyed the views of the mountains stretching into high desert with intermittent plateaus, we weren’t exactly having fun in the car. We finally made it to Bandelier in the early afternoon, to see the ancient cliff dwellings carved out by the Pueblo peoples. But even though we’d finally made it to one of our “fun” destinations, the kids were whiny and lethargic.

The parking lot was full. The sunscreen was greasy. The shuttle was slow. We completed the primary loop that’s been plotted out for tourists like us. We waited our turn to take pictures of us inside the cliff dwellings. And it was fine. But not transcendent.

It’s tempting to just post the pretty pictures and make it seem like we had an enchanted afternoon in New Mexico. But that just wasn’t the case. After our time in Bandelier, we drove to Santa Fe and promptly got lost, trying to find the historic city center. It felt like an insurrection might be brewing in the back seats of the family minivan.

We had to eat, though. So we pressed on, trying to find a suitable place to suffer through a meal together. Of course, parking spots were hard to come by in downtown Santa Fe. But we eventually found a spot by the public library and then wandered around until we noticed a rooftop cafe, marked by turquoise table umbrellas. We looked at the sample menu they’d posted street-side, and the kids argued about their ability to find anything enjoyable. In the end, we decided to give it a try. And I’m glad we did.

The Coyote Cafe turned our evening around.

The view from the rooftop terrace was charming. The evening temperature was just right. The wait staff was friendly and efficient. The food was delicious. And we finally got to relax together, as a family. It was fun. I was so glad for the opportunity to experience that meal in that setting together with those people.

When we learned that the remainder of our drive after dinner would take one hour and forty-five minutes (not the forty-five minutes I’d estimated earlier in the day!), we actually laughed it off and settled in for a drive across the plains. We rolled into Santa Rosa, New Mexico, right around sunset — and we drove directly to a spot we’d heard about called the Blue Hole. It’s a natural spring in town: 81 feet deep, 60 feet wide, with a constant, cool temperature of 61 degrees Fahrenheit. It had looked intriguing to us when we were researching our trip back in Ohio… but once we made it to the rim of the Blue Hole, it looked and felt kind of cold. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to go through with it.

But God bless my wife! Marci sized up the situation and said, “I think you guys should just change really quick and do it now.”

So we did. And we leapt into the Blue Hole several times, from several different jumping points. The water was very cold, and the encroaching darkness made it difficult to see very far down into the water. Still, we had fun splashing and playing in the dusk. We stayed for about twenty minutes, and then we decided it was time to get to our hotel.

As we drove away from the Blue Hole, my arms shivering from the cold, my swimsuit soaking the driver’s seat of our minivan, I looked in the rear-view mirror and smiled broadly. “This is why we travel,” I thought to myself. In spite of all the headaches… in spite of the delays and complaints… in spite of the sweat and tears… we sift through the mountains of dust and dirt to find the sapphires, shimmering faintly in the darkness of the desert. So we can swim in them and make memories as a family.

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Father’s Day Celebration with some Twin Sisters

Wild Hikers

It’s Father’s Day! My father and my sons are 1,263 miles away, in Ohio, and my daughter had to work today, with the Housekeeping Department of the YMCA of the Rockies. But this didn’t actually make me all that sad. Marci and I worked out plans ahead of time to observe the occasion later this week, when we’re all together as a family again. Instead, I spent the better part of today hiking a two-peaked mountain, called Twin Sisters, in the Rocky Mountain National Park.

I was accompanied by three students from H2O Kent: Marissa, Delaney, and Peter. They were wonderful hiking companions, even though this was their first hike above tree-line and their first summit hike.

The weather forecast indicated some threat for rain and thunderstorms, but we made it to the summit and back without getting wet at all. In fact, we hiked under blue skies and golden sunshine for most of the morning.

I wish the rest of my family could have been with me, of course, but the experience on Twin Sisters genuinely filled my soul, with a special appreciation for my Heavenly Father. And as an added bonus, the top of the mountain provided enough cellular signal for me to leave a voicemail for my Dad and catch up with Marci and the boys for a few minutes before it was time to finish our hike.

I’d say it ended up being a pretty happy Father’s Day.

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