Favorite Ornaments

Most of the ornaments on our Christmas tree have a special story or significance. For instance, there is one ornament featuring a scene from the Dutch countryside. It was given to us by our neighbors, Jasper and Katrijn, in the last year before we moved out of our home on the Retiefstraat. Every time we get that particular ornament out of the box and put it on our Christmas tree, we are reminded of our Amsterdam years and all the friends we made there.

There’s another ornament that holds dried flower petals from the bouquet Marci carried on our wedding day. The top of the ornament features a ribbon that was also used as a part of the decorations for that special day, twenty years ago. Pretty neat, isn’t it?

In addition to these special ornaments that have made their way into our collection through different avenues, our family has a tradition — borrowed from Marci’s family-of-origin — in which the children receive a special ornament which marks a significant experience from the preceding year.

I don’t have specific ornaments for specific years, since I didn’t grow up with the tradition. But if I had to choose a favorite ornament that feels kind of like “mine,” I would choose one of the straw pine cones that we purchased from a street market in Stockholm in December of 2003. It was our first winter in Europe, and on a whim we decided to buy discount airline tickets to Stockholm for Santa Lucia Day (December 13th). Marci, Elliot, and I got to take a break from some of the culture shock and stresses we’d been experiencing in Amsterdam while celebrating our Swedish heritage in Sweden.

Olivia regularly gushes about her ornament from 2009: Clara (from the Nutcracker). That was the year she got into ballet and fancy dresses and other girly-girl stuff, and her explanation for choosing this ornament as her favorite is consistent with the original thought behind the ornament: “It’s my favorite because she’s so pretty and her skirt is so flouncy. Her shoes are sparkly and red and pretty. And I just remember getting her when I was five, and she just kind of looked like me.”

Cor received an ornament in 2009 to mark his first steps. His reason for choosing this ornament as it favorite is simple: “Because it looks like me!” (He declined further comment for this interview).

Elliot got a Cleveland Cavaliers ornament a 2009 (there must have been something extra-special about that Christmas, since all our kids’ favorite ornaments come from that year!). It was LeBron James first “last” year in Cleveland. When asked to explain why he likes the Cavs’ ornament, he said: “It’s very sleek, and I like the color of blue that it is. And it’s from my favorite basketball team. We went to the Cavs’ game that year, and they beat the Hornets, and it was awesome. Go Cavs!”

Marci’s favorite ornament goes back to 1979: a small crystal angel. She always liked this ornament, growing up, “Because I could position it on the tree so that one of the lights would shine through it and look so beautiful.”

Posted in Family, Home, Nostalgia, Photography, Traditions | Comments Off on Favorite Ornaments

Turkey Trouble

We spent less than ten dollars for a fifteen-pound turkey this year.

We brought the turkey home from the store in the trunk of one of our three cars. We stored it until it was time to thaw in one of our two freezers. And when we feast with our friends and family tomorrow, we will do it across two of our five tables, spaced out luxuriously over two of the four rooms of our house that could be utilized for such an occasion.

America is a land of plenty. And even though it may not always feel like it, in the midst of busy holiday preparations, America is a land of ease. Especially when it comes to Thanksgiving turkeys. There have been several times this month, however, when I’ve thought back to the way things used to be, when our family lived in the Netherlands.

I remember one year, in particular, when we were preparing to host a bunch of our friends, and we were having a hard time procuring enough turkey to roast for the feast. The Dutch don’t celebrate a Thanksgiving holiday, like Americans do. And even if they did, I don’t think the small, urban grocery stores in Amsterdam would have been able to stock large, whole birds in sufficient quantities for the general populace, like Americans do.

So I was pretty excited when I was able to find a good-sized turkey (maybe nine or ten pounds) for something like twenty-five dollars at the neighborhood street market. Twenty-five dollars was way more expensive than what it would have been to buy such a turkey in the United States, but way less expensive than it would have been to purchase several separately-packaged turkey breasts from the poultry section of the grocery store.

I felt triumphant bringing the turkey home on my bicycle. When I brought it into the kitchen, however, I was dismayed to discover that our refrigerator was not big enough to hold it. So we improvised by placing the turkey in a plastic filing cabinet and setting everything on the cold concrete slab that served as our “backyard.”

We were proud of our problem-solving, since the temperature in our backyard was at least as cold as our refrigerator, and we figured that the latch mechanism on the file cabinet would be enough to deter critters like mice and pigeons which might want to prey upon our turkey. We were not prepared, however, for a different sort of predator: bacteria. When I opened the file cabinet on the morning of our Thanksgiving feast, I nearly vomited on the spot. The turkey smelled putrid. There was no way we could attempt to roast and serve such a rotting carcass of salmonella. So we found ourselves back at Rechthoek Één (Square One).

In a state of panic, we consulted with some Dutch friends and eventually decided that our best course of action would be to visit the local poultry shop. Partly due to gaps in our Dutch vocabulary and partly due to our limited worldview, we didn’t even know that poultry shops were a thing — and that there was one relatively close to our house! So anyway, I rode my bicycle there as fast as I could and asked about their turkeys. It turned out they didn’t have any large turkeys in the shop (though they offered to order one for me), but they did have two smaller turkeys: maybe five or six pounds each. I sighed a deep sigh of relief and said we’d take them. But when they rang them up on the cash register, I was shocked to learn that the total cost for these two turkeys was something north of one-hundred dollars.


I swallowed hard and paid for the turkeys because we had guests coming over: friends from the United States, the Netherlands, England, and Japan. I figured “What’s a Thanksgiving feast without a turkey?!?” And when we eventually crowded together around a series of folding tables cobbled to run through the entire living space at the front part of our apartment, we really did have a lovely time celebrating Thanksgiving together.

I now have fond memories of the Thanksgivings we spent in the Netherlands. I’m thankful for the way they shaped me and my family — as well as our sense of “extended family” in Amsterdam. I’m thankful for the way our Thanksgivings in the Netherlands have taught me not to take all these simple joys of turkeys and cars and freezers and family gatherings for granted. But I’m also thankful that I can keep the bicycle in the garage and the food in the kitchen until it’s time for us to feast together this year.

Posted in Amsterdam, Culture Shock, Europe, Family, Food, Home, Nostalgia, The Netherlands, Traditions | Comments Off on Turkey Trouble

The Gospel According to Cub Scout Troop 3256

My neighbor texted me in the early afternoon: “Eric. This is extremely last minute… But I was wondering if you could come talk to scouts tonight around 6:45ish about duty to God. Our initial meeting plan fell through and I’m scrounging for a fill in. No worries if you can’t… but you’re obviously better at this religion stuff.

I shifted my schedule to accommodate this unexpected opportunity (which is, honestly, a pastor’s dream!)… But then I got to thinking: What is the best way to connect the Gospel with Cub Scouts?

Cub Scouts are certainly different from the Kent State University students with whom I interact on a more regular basis! Still, if I’ve figured out ways to connect the Gospel to anarchists in the squats of Amsterdam… and Hindu professors in a creative writing group… and senior citizens in my neighborhood… and my own children… then, surely there has to be a way to make meaningful connections with Cub Scouts!

The Cub Scout Manual’s “Duty to God” section didn’t provide a lot of great material. It seemed to promote a way of thinking and practicing religion in a way that was primarily oriented towards behavior modification. Which is, in my way of reading and understanding the Bible, pretty different from the way that Jesus talked about things. So I talked things through with my family over dinner and came up with a three-pronged plan to employ at the Pack Meeting in the public library:

  1. Create a space for the open exchange of ideas and inquiry, letting the boys themselves drive our dialogue with their questions and concerns.
  2. Share a brief visual representation of the overarching story of the Bible, sketched out on a white board, drawing the boys into dialogue through this tool known as The Bridge.
  3. Share a story from the Bible itself that demonstrates  Jesus’ upside-down Kingdom and its ways of dealing with “bad people” and “good people,” effectively leading a Discovery Bible Study with the boys.

I figured I’d get to the meeting, feel things out, and then choose one of those three concepts from which to lead the rest of our time together; however, after five minutes of open discussion, it became clear that the group dynamics were not going to allow for meaningful interaction. A couple of the boys showed genuine interest and engagement — but one was distracting himself with a Rubik’s Cube, another was trying to make the other boys laugh with his questions, and a third was trying to demonstrate how well he’d been paying attention in his Religion Class at Saint Patrick’s Elementary School.

Through that short time of open discussion, however, one Cub Scout seemed to present a very sincere question: Why did Jesus have to die?

And when that question came out on the table, I decided to go ahead and share The Bridge as a way of summarizing the most salient points of the Bible and its explanations for why Jesus had to be born, live, die, and rise from the dead. I went quickly because I didn’t want to lose the boys’ attention (it’s hard for them to just sit still when they’re eight or nine years old), but it was cool to see some of the boys make some connections to the message of the Gospel.

The best part of the troop meeting, however, was when I got into some Bible story-telling. I chose Luke 7:36-50 for our text: partly reading, partly summarizing, and partly dramatizing. I suggested that we could think of the “Sinful Woman” in the story as a drug addict/dealer, in order to sidestep the more likely biblical interpretation relating to her sexual promiscuity — but other than that detail, we stuck pretty closely to the story. And as the story unfolded, the boys quieted. Completely. They locked into the story and responded appropriately when I checked in with comprehension questions. And they seemed to genuinely understand the most important parts of the story: that it wasn’t the most dutiful or religious person who got the most out of their interaction with Jesus, but the most humble and desperate.

I’m going to remember the success of story-telling next time (if there is a next time). And I’m going to be praying for those Cub Scouts.

Posted in Children, Culture, God, H2O Kent, Kent, Small Groups, The Bible | Comments Off on The Gospel According to Cub Scout Troop 3256

Purple at the Polls

There was a woman on campus at Kent State about a month ago, advocating for one of the major political parties. She told everyone to wear her party’s color to the polls on Voting Day, so I made a mental note to carefully consider my wardrobe for today.

I decided to wear purple and black because I cast votes on today’s ballot for some Democrats, some Republicans, some Libertarians, and some Independents.

I mourn the fact that there aren’t more and better choices in our political system — but I’m also glad to live in a place where my vote is counted. Let’s not take it for granted!

Posted in American Politics, Kent, Ohio, Politics, Social Issues, The United States of America | Comments Off on Purple at the Polls

A Peek at the Peak

I love the way that the window over our backyard gets turned into a stained glass window every autumn. It seems to me like the “peak color” of our fall foliage arrived a bit later than usual this year… But it arrived this weekend — and man, was it spectacular!

I got to get some extended time with God on Friday, walking around West Branch State Park. It was kind of misty and rainy, but even so the fall foliage was beautiful to behold, with such a wide spectrum of color throughout the forest.

On Saturday, the weather cleared a little and created space for further enjoyment.

I got to go for a group run in the afternoon, down one of my favorite roads in the area (Lake Rockwell Road) — and it just felt like a privilege to be able to run, to run with friends, and to run with friends through such lovely fall scenery.

And then today (Sunday), the sun came out in force — electrifying all the colors as we gathered for worship on campus.

Our family went to take some family portraits immediately following the worship gathering, and conditions for the photo shoot could hardly have been more perfect.

After going home and grabbing a late lunch, I spent the weekend’s last four hours of daylight out in my yard: putting away garden hoses and deck furniture, blowing leaves from the deck and driveway to be mulched in the yard and laid into the garden beds — preparing everything for the winter.

I know that it may not sound ideal to everyone: hiking in the rain… long-distance running… and the hours of yard work… But I actually feel like it’s been a wonderful weekend.

With a good bit of rain and wind in the forecast for the coming week, the peak probably won’t last very long. But I was glad to be able to make the most of it, while it lasted.

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The Light that Leads to Life

Theological discussions — and, frankly, disagreements — are a part of my life, as a pastor and campus missionary. Which version of the Bible is the best to read? Which form of church polity or governance is most appropriate for our cultural context? How should one interpret the Bible’s prophecies about the “end times?” It’s understandable that we would grapple with these questions. But the posturing and positioning of these arguments can grow tiresome. I’m especially allergic to any claims towards “the authoritative understanding” of a controversial issue. So I was recently refreshed when I read these words from the first chapter of 2 Peter:

You must pay close attention to what [the prophets] wrote, for their words are like a lamp shining in a dark place — until the Day dawns, and Christ the Morning Star in your hearts. Above all, you must realize that no prophecy in Scripture ever came from the prophet’s own understanding, or from human initiative. No, those prophets were moved by the Holy Spirit, and they spoke from God.

As I was reading I got this image of scared children, hiding behind costumes and masks, darting from street lamp to street lamp, front porch-light to front porch-light, on Halloween night. Everyone is immature and insecure, groping from one small pool of light to the next. But we’re trying to convince the world that we’re scary monsters (not scared children). Following the example of Peter, though, we can instead adopt a mindset of bravely and cautiously stepping forward along the path illuminated by Scripture. The Christian faith works best when we’re each doing our best to humbly use the Bible as our guide for day-to-day living… until such a time when all things will be revealed.

Earlier today, I read a corollary in the eighth chapter of the Gospel of John:

Jesus spoke to the people once more and said, “I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life.”

In this, I felt fresh appreciation for Jesus as the Light of the World, and I started praying for others in my life, as well: that they would be guided by Jesus and then, in turn, offer glimmers of hope to others around them.

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Paper Generation

I grew up using telephone books to look up numbers I needed to call (and when I found the number I needed to call, I employed a rotary-dial telephone with a long, curly cord to place my calls). I used a Rand McNally Road Atlas to find my way from one point to the next, on a road trip (local directions were shared verbally and written out on a scrap piece of paper, if necessary). My wife and I wrote three or four letters per week, sent through the U.S. Postal Service, to sustain our long-distance relationship back when we were dating. I didn’t even hear about the internet until I was a college student.

These days, however, I’m quite comfortable in the digital world.

Google Calendar is my preferred way to keep track of my (and my family’s) schedule(s). I use Evernote, Dropbox, and Google Drive to keep track of all the little scraps of information I need for everyday life. When I get a new book, I prefer to have it on Kindle to reduce the amount of weight I’m carrying around in my backpack. Even when I read the Bible, I enjoy the versatility and study resources that come with the Olive Tree app on my electronic devices.

Here’s the funny thing, though, when I interact with today’s college students and twenty-somethings, I find that an increasing number of them prefer paper products for their Information Age lives. They opt for hand-bound, leather-backed, paper planners to keep track of their homework assignments and appointments. They utilize bullet journals and Moleskines to track information and ideas. They enjoy the look and feel and heft of a hardbound book, instead of the convenience of e-books.

Why is this?

I still haven’t figured out all the reasons — as most young people will simply respond with a shrug and a statement to the effect of “I just like it better,” when I ask them directly — but the trend is definitely real. As a “digital immigrant,” I think there’s something ironic about the paper preferences of this generation, these “digital natives” born after the dawn of the Internet. But I also find it kind of endearing. If I weren’t so acclimated to the Information Age myself, and so enthusiastic about electronic efficiency, I’d leave them each a note to tell them I love them.

Posted in Culture, Nostalgia | Comments Off on Paper Generation

Six-Week Sprint

Sprinting sucks. Literally. It sucks the air right out of you.

You need oxygen. Especially when you’re running. Your legs and lungs demand it. Your guts and bowels back up the demands with threats. But there’s just not enough oxygen to be had. Sprinting sucks so hard.

But sprinting is good for you. It covers a lot of ground in a short amount of time. It builds greater strength, burns more calories and fat, trains the body to process oxygen more effectively, and ultimately offers higher efficiency in training.

So, I build sprints into my training regimen, when I’m training for a race: intervals… sprints… strides… hill repeats… fartlek (“speed play”)… Whatever variation or name, these high-intensity sprinting strategies work. But they make me work. And they feel like work, not play.

Collegiate ministry can be a lot like sprinting.

Welcome Week is an extra-intense part of the experience, but I think it’s fair to say that we undertake a Six-Week Sprint every year: from Freshmen Move-In Day to our Fall Retreat in the last weekend of September. This Six-Week Sprint helps us cover a lot of ground, and it quickly establishes an effective rhythm for the rest of the school year… but it doesn’t necessarily feel great in the midst of it.

I’m catching my breath now, over Kent State University’s Fall Break (which is a welcome adjustment to the academic calendar this year!). I’m excited to settle into more sustainable rhythms and routines for the rest of the school year, once all the students return.

But I’m also glad we also ran hard to start things off. And I’m praying that God will use our Six-Week Sprint to lay a solid foundation for the rest of the year.

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Ten Years of H2O Kent

We celebrated the 10th birthday of H2O Kent this weekend, with a bunch of different activities including a 5K race, a brunch, a tailgating party, a banquet, and a worship gathering (also: let the photographic record show that I wore a different H2O Kent T-shirt to each activity!).

I wasn’t a part of the original church-planting team back in 2008, but I feel like I’ve been blessed with a unique vantage point to the church’s “conception” and “birth” through the years. Because of my friendship with Jason Slack, I was invited to a special ordination and commissioning service at H2O Bowling Green in the Fall of 2007.

Two years later — after the church planting team moved and settled into Kent — I was afforded another opportunity to attend a worship gathering in the Fall of 2009. This was just as the church was starting to hold its first public events on-campus, meeting in the Multi-Cultural Lounge of the Kent State Student Center.

At the time of that visit, I wasn’t really thinking about the possibility that me and my family would ever play a more active role in ministry at H2O Kent — but I remember being encouraged and impressed by the way the church was establishing itself back in the earliest days of their life in northeast Ohio.

Then, of course, I got to be much more intimately acquainted with H2O Kent when our family moved to Kent in the summer of 2012. We felt immediately accepted and embraced, starting with the warm welcome we received at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport.

Our full-fledged involvement over the last six years has only deepened my appreciation of everything God has done (and is doing) in this church. Our church is certainly not perfect, but we’ve fostered a strong culture of plurality, humility, and family that has lent itself to slow, steady growth through the last ten years.

At one point this weekend, we said: “The vision has never been stronger; the need has never been greater.” And I think that’s so true. The story of H2O Kent is still being written. We’re genuinely excited to see what God will do in the next ten years!

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