I just finished reading Brit Bennett’s book, The Mothers. It was recommended to me by my friend Cait: one of her favorite books of 2019. Cait is astonishingly widely-read (she probably goes through a few books every week). So, I figured I should take her recommendation seriously. I was also curious to give Brit Bennett’s writing a try.
The story centers around three young adults from southern California. All three of these characters are observed from afar by a group of old church ladies, or “Mothers,” from an African-American congregation called the Upper Room. And all three of the main characters have significant problems with their own (biological) mothers which drive the plot. Nadia’s mother committed suicide when she was in her teens. Aubrey’s mother married an abusive man who caused Aubrey to run away when she was in her teens. And Luke’s mother is the “first lady,” or wife of the pastor, at the Upper Room — and she has strong opinions about the women with whom her son consorts. Nadia and Aubrey, of course, are those women.
I really appreciated the character development in this book. Nadia and Aubrey are particularly well-rendered. Their relationship is complicated and fascinating. The book also paints a nuanced portrait of complicated topics like suicide, abuse, abortion, and infidelity. I felt like I learned a lot; I gained a lot of perspective from reading this book, even as a work of fiction.
The Mothers will probably not end up being my favorite book of 2020. The male characters were shallow. The story got slow at times. I was dissatisfied with the way things ended. Still, I’m glad I read the book.
Leadership Development is a significant part of our ministry with H2O Kent. We believe the university environment is ideally suited to seeing atheists become missionaries because there’s so much life transition, so much community, and so much raw potential among college students.
Consequently, we develop student-leaders by encouraging them to participate in a seven-week discipleship experience we call The Well. We invite students to consider apprenticeships and internships at different points throughout their years at Kent State University. We recruit students to go to a summer Leadership Training program in Estes Park, Colorado. And when they graduate from college, we even ask students to consider a career in full-time, support-based Collegiate Missions.
Still, we know that a career in Collegiate Missions is not for everyone. There are a lot of different factors to consider. So we’ve come up with a short-hand, alliterative way of talking about these points of consideration. It used to be the 3 “C”s (the first three listed below). Over time, however, we’ve added other considerations (while somehow managing to stick with the alliteration), so that we’re now up to 7 “C”s. It’s kind of silly, we know, but it’s also kind of cool because our 7 “C”s evoke “The Seven Seas” of ancient maritime lore. And to us, it does feel like an epic spiritual voyage.
So here’s what it takes to sail the 7 “C”s of starting a career in Collegiate Missions:
We believe Christlike Character is the absolute foundation of Christian leadership. The Bible doesn’t talk so much about one’s talent or training, when it comes to qualifications for leadership, as much as it talks about Character. 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 are two of the clearest and best examples of this. But we also look for men and women who are well respected by others and demonstrably filled with the Holy Spirit and wisdom (see Acts 6:1-7). We look for the fruit that’s being produced in that person’s life (see Matthew 7:15-20 and Galatians 5:16-26) — and if it’s good fruit, we see that person as being a good candidate for ministry leadership.
How does a person know if he or she has been Called by God to a career in Collegiate missions? It might sound like we’re looking only for people who audibly hear God’s voice or actually see a beam of light bursting from heaven to show them the way to go. But we think of Calling more broadly, in the sense of feeling compelled by a heart to obey and a critical mind and passionate commitment and devotion to God. It’s not hard to make a case from the Bible that we’re all called to make disciples (see Matthew 28:18-20). When it comes to full-time, support-based ministry among college students, though, there needs to be a focus and drive towards missions that can withstand the refining fire of Ministry Team Development. A career in Collegiate Missions can’t be something that a person is doing to appease (or antagonize) one’s parents, pastors, friends, or whatever. It has to be something a person is doing to obey God and live out one’s calling.
We need proven leaders for our Staff program. We believe that a career in Collegiate Missions is not so much a path to leadership as it is a recognition of the leadership that is already being expressed in the context of local ministry. We want people who already know how to share the Gospel, who already know how to lead a Bible study. We need people who have good communication skills and can mentor younger believers. Perfection is not a requirement; we’re all still works in progress. At the same time, a base level of Competency is important for our line of work — just as it is for most other professional environments.
Those of us on the H2O Kent Staff team are professional colleagues, but we are also brothers and sisters in Christ. “Workplace proximity associates” won’t cut it. Ministry is people. Consequently, emotional dynamics, spiritual dynamics, and social dynamics are a big part of our jobs — not just the practical stuff. So we want to carefully consider the relational fit for any potential candidates for our Staff team. We make it a priority to evaluate conflict resolution skills, communication styles, and personality dynamics to make sure that we don’t disrupt the culture and Chemistry that allows our Staff team to function as a healthy spiritual family.
For better, for worse: our model for Collegiate Missions requires an extended process of Ministry Team Development (a.k.a. “raising support”) at the front end of a ministry career. This facilitates the broad-based, grass-roots coalition of individuals, families, and churches that provide the prayer and financial support needed to sustain a ministry worker in their position. Our employment agency, Reliant Mission, does an excellent job training people in the work of Ministry Team Development. To actually raise the support, though, an individual needs to connect with hundreds of people from their personal networks. So, it’s important for anyone considering Staff to think through who their potential Contacts might be. More than just “name-storming,” it’s important to consult with family and local church leadership to make sure that access to these Contacts will be unrestricted and (ideally) enthusiastically-supported.
Working through the period of one’s initial Ministry Team Development creates a financial bottleneck. Even though the individual is employed — with benefits and everything — it takes time to raise the funds that will eventually be used to pay out all the insurances, and employment taxes, ministry expenses, and salary that are rightfully accrued through the work of Ministry Team Development. Usually, it takes a few months before someone can start to receive a full salary (and, eventually, back pay to cover any shortfalls that may have accrued along the way). Consequently, during that in-between period, it’s important that monthly costs are trimmed as much as possible and/or personal Cash reserves are built up to cover living expenses. By the end of a person’s initial Ministry Team Development, personal savings should be fully restored, if not increased. But it’s just a matter of thinking through Cash flow ahead of time and developing a realistic plan to make it through that financial bottleneck.
In the United States of America, access to a Car is necessary for the level of mobility that will be needed to get through the period of one’s initial Ministry Team Development. An individual frequently has to travel to 10-15 support appointments per week within a 30-minute driving radius, in order to meet all of his or her financial needs. Without access to a reliable Car, it would be very difficult to build this base that’s needed to sustain a career in full-time, support-based Collegiate Missions.
Every person’s situation is unique, of course. We pray regularly that God will raise up workers for His harvest field (see Matthew 9:35-38). But in our experience, it really helps to think through these 7 “C”s in order to maximize the potential of younger generations rising to take their place in these harvest fields.
Sundays are usually busy days for church leaders. It’s pretty common that I’ll have some kind of meeting before our weekly worship gathering. The worship gathering itself takes up a couple hours in the middle part of the day. It’s also pretty common that I’ll have another meeting after the worship gathering (sometimes more than one meeting). And then, in our particular church context, Sunday evenings are typically set aside for coaching and equipping leaders.
Super Bowl Sunday breaks up the routine, however.
I used to think the church could just ignore the Super Bowl. Pretend that it’s a regular Sunday. “Business as usual,” right? I figured that even if our numbers might be slightly diminished, it would still be worthwhile for those who aren’t into football. In practice, though, the Super Bowl dominates American culture. Even for those who never follow the National Football League… Even for those who say they’re “sure” they won’t have plans that would interfere with regular scheduling… Something happens on Super Bowl Sunday. People disappear. They get a last-minute invitation to some watch party somewhere — and it’s understood that good Super Bowl plans trump all other plans on Super Bowl Sunday.
Our church has also tried turning the Super Bowl into an attraction. A way to bring others into Christian community. It makes sense, of course, that the church is well-equipped to organize people and invite others to find a place to belong. To be that last-minute invitation to someone looking for Super Bowl plans. And this strategy for Super Bowl Sunday does work, to some extent. We’ve hosted church-wide watch parties in Bowman 133 (where we typically have our worship gatherings). We’ve hosted Life Group watch parties in people’s homes and in public spaces on campus. But to use some common H2O Kent parlance, I would say that these gatherings tend to be 95 percent inward, 5 percent outward, and 0 percent upward. That is: they mostly help Christians to feel like they have a place to enjoy the Super Bowl with other Christians. That’s certainly not a bad thing.
But to be honest, Christian Super Bowl parties can feel pretty lame.
The die-hard football fans make their own plans for the game, so they don’t show up. The snacks just aren’t as good, when there’s no kitchen to serve as the focal point. It does not work well to try inject a presentation of the Gospel at halftime. It does not work well to try and provide a moment of worship or reflection amidst all the noise (literally and figuratively) that comes along with the Super Bowl. So in the end, it can feel like a lot of time and energy to pull off an event that ultimately accomplishes the same thing that a majority of our regular church programming is designed to accomplish, anyway.
So what other options are there for a church on Super Bowl Sunday?!? Personally, I’ve become more and more convinced that scattering might be the best option for the church on Super Bowl Sunday. The philosophical basis for such a strategy is illustrated beautifully in Luke 10:1-11, where Jesus instructs his followers to deliberately make themselves the minority in order to bring the peace and presence of God to those who aren’t already a part of the church.
Our Life Group has studied Luke 10 over the last couple of weeks, and we decided to try a scattered approach to Super Bowl Sunday by encouraging the people from our group to actively listen for invitations to watch parties where they would not be bunched up with other people from H2O — but instead be the minority in another community’s space. To make the Super Bowl, in effect, a “road game.” Now, it’s probably good to point out that we actually encouraged each other to avoid the whole “Pronouncement of Peace” or “Wiping Off the Dust of the Unresponsive Village” thing — at least on an explicit level. But we prayed that we might get opportunities to know our neighbors and develop relationships that could lead to deeper heart connection, depending on what God might have prepared for us.
For our family, we decided to help organize a Super Bowl watch party for our literal neighbors. Basically the people who live in the four houses closest to us. We get to see and interact with each other regularly during the summer time, when we’re hanging out in our yards and on our porches. We’ve gotten to know each other decently well over the seven years that we’ve been living on the same street. But we don’t get to see each other much during the winter months.
And if I do say so myself, our neighborhood Super Bowl party was lovely. It gave us time to catch up on what’s been happening in each of our lives. Problems we’ve been working through… Grief we’ve been processing… Hopes for the new year… The kids played with marbles in our Family Room and footballs in our attic. We stayed together, in one spot, eating and drinking what we gave each other. And it was delicious!
I don’t know if we’ve really stumbled across any great secret. It’s pretty simple and intuitive. But that’s kind of what makes it so great. So Super. Worth repeating for Super Bowls to come, I think.
I just finished a second reading of Sarah A. Lanier’s book, Foreign to Familiar: A Guide to Understanding Hot- and Cold-Climate Cultures. I got this book maybe ten years ago, when our family was living in the Netherlands. I remember appreciating the book when I first read it. But honestly, it probably wasn’t super-helpful to me in managing the cultural tensions between the United States and the Netherlands because both of these countries adhere pretty closely to the “Cold-Climate Culture” profile detailed in the pages of this book. A friend recently recommended another reading of the book to prepare for our church’s upcoming Spring Break missions trip to Stockholm (Sweden), however, and my appreciation of the book increased with this second reading.
It’s a remarkably concise book. I probably finished the whole thing in just a little more than an hour of concentrated reading. There are some subtle cues that the author is coming at her study of world cultures from a Christian perspective. But there are no Bible verses quoted. I don’t recall any appeals to the spiritual benefits of cross-cultural communication. So this guide really would work for any sort of traveler wishing to understand cross-cultural dynamics. But I do think it’s especially valuable for those traveling for the sake of the Great Commission. Like our team headed to Stockholm (Sweden) for Spring Break.
When we touch down in Stockholm, we will be entering one of the most classic examples of “Cold-Climate Culture” on earth (at least I feel like I can own this as the descendant of Swedish farmers who migrated to the northern part of the United States in the early 20th Century). But we will not only be interacting with Swedish people on this trip. In fact, we will probably spend a majority of our time getting to know people from North Africa and the Middle East, who are classic examples of “Hot-Climate Culture.” So it’s really helpful to have a systematic approach to understanding some of the big-picture differences between the different people from different cultures that we’re going to be getting to know.
Here are some of the most distinctive features of Hot-Climate Cultures and Cold-Climate Cultures (each teased out by a different chapter in Foreign to Familiar):
Hot-Climate Cultures prioritize Relationship, whereas Cold-Climate Cultures are oriented around completing Tasks.
Cold-Climate Cultures use Direct Communication, whereas Hot-Climate Cultures prefer Indirect Communication. I found this chapter particularly fascinating!).
Cold-Climate Cultures default to Individualism, whereas Hot-Climate Cultures default to Group Identity.
Hot-Climate Cultures place a high value on Inclusion, whereas Cold-Climate Cultures place a higher value on Privacy.
Hot-Climate Cultures and Cold-Climate Cultures have Different Concepts of Hospitality.
Some cultures (generally those which are older and more-established) function in a way that the author terms “High-Context” — using a lot of rules and protocol. Conversely, other cultures (generally those which are newer, more urban, and more influenced by immigration) function in a way that the author terms as “Low-Context” — prioritizing informality and social fluidity. This one doesn’t exactly fall along the same fault lines as most of the Hot-Climate Culture / Cold-Climate Culture distinctions sketched out in the book. But I felt it was very insightful and interesting!
Cold-Climate Cultures and Hot-Climate Cultures also have Different Concepts of Time and Planning.
I really appreciated the way that Lanier used anecdotes to illustrate the principles outlined in her book. And I also like the way that the book provides practical considerations for everyday management of the tensions that can crop up between cultures.
I would highly recommend this book to anyone who travels across cultures and wants to make the most of opportunities for relationship with people who are different from themselves.
Have you been hearing much about the death of Kobe Bryant? It’s been quite the story here over the last few days. Our family was at a wedding on Sunday afternoon, as the news was breaking. And even among people who don’t follow the NBA, the helicopter crash felt like a significant point of conversation.
I actually disliked Kobe as a player. This was partly because he played for the Lakers, when it seemed like they were on a collision course with the Cavs for a championship. But it was also partly because of his style: a “shoot first, ask questions later” mentality, confidence that felt like arrogance, and an unfettered competitive drive that alienated others.
Even so, I’ve found myself more saddened by his death than I might have expected. And it seems like many others have been affected, as well. More than expected. Why is that?
I wonder if the strong reaction to Kobe Bryant’s death is because it reminds us of the fragility of life. It’s a reminder of our mortality. If death could strike an iconic athlete — seemingly out of nowhere — what does that mean for the rest of us? Kobe had a sharp mind and a strong body (for a 41-year-old). He was well-connected and wealthy. Granted: he wasn’t perfect (in fact, he made some rather well-documented mistakes) — but he seemed to learn and grow from his mistakes. So what more could we really hope for? If someone with all of those advantages can be victim to a such a sudden, senseless, violent death, what hope can us “normal people” have?
I wonder if this week has prompted us to grieve our own mortality, more than Kobe’s.
Death is a hard pill to swallow. We’d rather not think about it (though I actually feel like it’s been on my own mind a lot in the last year). But whether we consider our mortality or not, it’s always there. Yesterday, a friend and I were talking about a report that some are clamoring for the NBA to change its logo to feature the silhouette of Kobe Bryant, instead of Jerry West. My friend loves basketball. And he has an appropriate respect for Kobe Bryant. Still, he aptly noted, “Don’t they know that everyone in the NBA is going to die?”
I was eating breakfast with another friend this morning, and we were also talking about Kobe. Something about our conversation prompted the memory of an episode from the life of Jesus. We looked it up in the Bible and found it in the 6th chapter of the Gospel of John. The narrative in this chapter starts with Jesus feeding 5,000 people in the desert. He follows that up by walking on water. And then he finds himself preaching in front of a crowd at a synagogue in Capernaum. In this message, Jesus makes some pretty bombastic statements about his identity as “the Bread of Life” — a thinly-veiled claim to divinity. In this midst of this discourse he drops the statement, “For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.” People were, understandably, repulsed by this thought.
Then, at the end of the chapter, Jesus’ followers share their own struggles with the uncomfortable truths Jesus is speaking. So Jesus says to them:
“Does this offend you? Then what will you think if you see the Son of Man ascend to heaven again? The Spirit alone gives eternal life. Human effort accomplishes nothing. And the very words I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But some of you do not believe me.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning which ones didn’t believe, and he knew who would betray him.) Then he said, “That is why I said that people can’t come to me unless the Father gives them to me.”
At this point many of his disciples turned away and deserted him. Then Jesus turned to the Twelve and asked, “Are you also going to leave?”
Simon Peter replied, “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words that give eternal life. We believe, and we know you are the Holy One of God.”
Where else are we going to go? What else are we going to do? In the face of our mortality, our finitude, our options are hopelessly limited. But there is One who gives eternal life. I know Him. I’ve made my peace with the queasy, blood-and-guts elements of human existence and embraced the Gospel as my only hope — both for this life and the life to come. But there are a lot of other people who haven’t reached that understanding.
I’m asking God for more opportunities to talk about these things with others this week. This week, and for as many other weeks as God sees fit to give me.
The Aspen Project is off the ground! After much prayer, consideration, and conversation, we decided to start with sending our first specially-funded student-intern to Youngstown State University this semester.
YSU is one of the larger schools on our list of academic institutions within a one-hour drive of Kent, with an enrollment around 13,000 students. It’s a state school, like Kent State University and the University of Akron, where we’ve already successfully established campus-focused H2O Churches. But it’s also got some unique qualities that make it an interesting test case for the Aspen Project.
For one, Youngstown State has a much higher percentage of commuters than either Kent or Akron. It’s also more geographically isolated, serving as its own hub for the surrounding region (whereas I’d say that Kent and Akron are both a part of the greater Cleveland / Akron / Canton metroplex). The school is smaller than Kent State, but it still feels like a very lively campus. The people I’ve talked to from Youngstown are self-deprecating (like all good Ohioans), particularly when it comes to their “Rust Belt” reputation, but it’s also clear that people from Youngstown really love Youngstown.
We also have some really meaningful contacts in Youngstown: Christians who are already trying to strategically engage the city and the campus with the Gospel. Of course, this means that YSU is not an entirely-unreached campus. But we’ve been hearing that there might still be a place for an H2O ministry presence in Youngstown — so the whole idea for this semester is to more seriously explore avenues for influence and partnership.
Alec is our student-intern at Youngstown State University this semester. He’s a junior at Kent State, studying business. He developed an excellent plan for approaching the semester, with two days a week on campus. He’ll gradually shift from research and prayer to outreach and strategic engagement, as the semester wears on. And all along the way, he’ll be getting guidance and support from our staff team at H2O Kent. His primary “staff guide” for the semester is named AJ, and his involvement seems especially meaningful because of his pre-existing relationship with Alec and his desire to be sent out from H2O Kent for a church plant in the next couple of years. But I’m also planning to travel with Alec to Youngstown several times this semester (including this week, when I took all of these pictures). And other staff will play strategic roles at strategic moments. We’re hoping it will feel like the whole church is owning this initiative, together with Alec.
There are two ministry workers at YSU who are serving as some of our earliest and strongest points of contact: Andrew and Leah. They’ve been incredibly welcoming — answering a lot of our questions and showing us what they’ve already learned about doing ministry in Youngstown. While Alec and I were in town today, for instance, we joined a group of students who regularly meet to talk about Theology on Thursdays.
Over time, we’re hoping that Alec will be able to get to know other ministry leaders in the area, as well, and we’re also especially eager for him to start engaging with un-churched people on campus. It seems like the semester is off to a great start, but we’re very curious to see what we’re going to learn as the next few months unfold.
Please pray with me for Alec, AJ, Andrew, Leah, and any of the other people God might pull into this story over the course of the Spring Semester. We met three new people today — Dan, Muhammad, and Hayley — in whom I’m praying seeds of the gospel may sprout and grow.
It’s exciting to consider the possibilities. We’re eager to see what God will do through the Aspen Project at Youngstown State University.
The kids had the day off from school yesterday. It was a very cold, wintry day (it seems that the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend is pretty reliably snowy and frozen). So we decided to revive a tradition that’s now three years in the running: Laughing in the Face of the Winter.
The concept is to pretend as if it’s a lovely summer day. To spite the snow and ice. In 2018, we hiked to Deer Lick Cave in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, strolled the beaches of Lake Erie, and got ice cream cones from Mitchell’s in Ohio City. In 2019, we hiked to Blue Hen Falls in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park and got blizzards from Dairy Queen.
This year, we started by getting in the car, putting on some sunglasses, and jamming to some summer playlists I have saved on my smartphone (I’m proud to say that the children have bought so heavily into this concept that Elliot came up with this musical innovation for LITFOW 2020).
We drove to a nature preserve called Chapin Forest, in Lake County, and we hiked through about a foot of fresh snow to have a picnic on the top of Gildersleeve Mountain.
At our picnic site, we laid out our picnic blanket, hung up some hammocks, and just relaxed for awhile. It was a genuinely lovely to be in the forest. Everything sparkled. The hiking — and some Minty Morocco tea — kept us plenty warm. We only snacked on some cheese and crackers, but we still called it a picnic. Because that’s what you do when you’re laughing in the face of winter.
We were planning to drive further north after our time on Gildersleeve Mountain — to play frisbee on the beaches of Lake Erie. Unfortunately (or fortunately), we enjoyed our picnic so much that we didn’t leave ourselves enough time to include the extra drive time. So after hiking and picnicking, we drove south (back towards Kent) instead.
We got ice cream at our favorite summer stop: Handel’s, in Stow. And then we went to “The Red Park” (not its proper name) just a bit up the road.
We played on the playground, tossed around a frisbee and a football for awhile, and then we were ready to go home for the evening. I like the notion that there’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing. But even with all our excellent winter gear layered on and all the fun we were having together, it was very nice to get home, strip off the soggy winter stuff, and relax by the fire in our climate-controlled house.
Laughing in the face of winter is fun. But so is resting until next year.
I fully believe and affirm that “all Scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” But as I prepared to preach through Psalm 40 this weekend, I was freshly reminded that studying the Psalms can be tough.
They’re a different sort of Scripture, aren’t they?!? They’re not narrative. They’re poetic. They’re not necessarily linear, or literal, or logical. They’re episodic, and evocative, and emotional. They don’t necessarily have a central lesson to teach. They impart an impression. They typically train our feelings more than our thoughts.
For all of these reasons, I’m not sure that studying the Psalms is really the most meaningful approach to the Psalms. Pore over them as master works of literature? Yes. Learn something of a language for your heart? Absolutely. “Get to know” God in the intimate, personal way? For sure. But studying and cross-referencing and analyzing them to intellectually know and delineate the finer points of Christian theology? That’s tougher.
So one of the things that I chose to pass along to our church this weekend was a tool that I picked up this past summer from another church in our network, out at Illinois State University. It’s a thing that their pastors do regularly, when they sit together to talk through church leadership stuff.
It’s a communal practice for worshipping God through the Psalms.
It doesn’t really require a leader or facilitator. It doesn’t even require any advance preparation. These pastors in central Illinois will just sit together and decide to read a Psalm together. They’ll see if anyone has a particular suggestion, but they’ll often end up just picking a number at random. They’ll go through whatever Psalm they choose together: one reading the words out-loud while the others read along silently. And when they get to the end of the Psalm, they’ll just sit in silence.
After some unspecified amount of time in silence, someone will start by sharing an impression. An observation of something special or personally-meaningful from the Psalm. That impression might trigger affirmations or other questions or observations from that part of the text — or it might just stand on its own and trail off into another time of silent reflection. Someone else might chime in with a completely different impression from a completely different part of the Psalm. And again, it might prompt group interaction, or it might not.
The process will continue for as long as it continues to yield new thoughts or feelings. Or as long as the time frame allows. And then, when everyone feels ready, the group will close in a prayer of worship, emotionally echoing the essence of the Psalm back to God as a living prayer.
It’s not groundbreaking. It’s quite simple, in fact. But I’ve really enjoyed it, in my own life. We’ve started doing it occasionally as church leaders, too. So maybe it’s something to try with your community, as well. It could provide a way to more easily access the wealth of emotional wisdom that’s offered to us in the Psalms.
I must admit that I don’t have a keen understanding of physics. But I do know a little bit about spiritual health, emotional health, and church-planting. And I’m wondering if there might be some benefit to borrowing the term “center of gravity” for these contexts.
I’ve been thinking over the last couple of months about the way that an individual and a family seem to hold an emotional-yet-also-geographical center of gravity. I’ve started talking about it with friends, too. And it really does seem like there’s something to it. Where did you grow up? Where did your parents grow up? What about your parents’ parents? Where did you go to college? Are your closest friends from the same place? Where did you get married? Where do your kids most feel at home? All of these factors influence one’s emotional center of gravity.
And when trying to chart out the direction of one’s life, it can be really helpful to consider these dynamics.
I started noticing some of these trends a couple of years ago, when I was researching my ancestry. I discovered that my ancestors tended towards inertia, but even when migration happened there was a momentum that came into play. All of my ancestors started in northern Europe. Every indication was that they stayed in the same towns in Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands, and Great Britain (depending on the branch of the family tree) for centuries before they emigrated to North America. But when they moved across the Atlantic, they congregated with other people like them. They gradually drifted westward but then settled and put down roots in Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, and North Dakota. Eventually, the bigger cities in these regions — Minneapolis and Chicago — became funnels for successive generations.
It’s interesting to watch these patterns emerge over time.
For me and Marci, we’d both say that our “hometown” is in north-central Ohio. But aside from Marci’s mother’s family, the roots don’t go too deep there. We both ended up going to college in northwest Ohio — closer, actually, to extended family in Illinois, Minnesota, and North Dakota — while still being very much within striking distance of north-central Ohio. When we graduated, it would have made a lot of sense for us to move to any of the larger cities in the Midwest.
But because of a significant spiritual transformation in college, we ended up staying in Bowling Green. I started working for H2O Church. And when our spiritual family started talking about starting something new, we were excited to dream about the possibilities with them. We visited and considered a number of cities around the Great Lakes — all pretty close to our center of gravity. But when the idea came along to plant a church in Amsterdam (way back on the other side of the Atlantic), we were both excited and uncomfortable. Mostly because it was pretty far outside our center of gravity. We chose to accept the uncomfortable elements of moving to the Netherlands because we were doing it with spiritual family and because we were pulled by the sense of mission.
In retrospect, though, I can see how our involvement in Amsterdam50 had a shelf-life — largely because of the tensions that were introduced by our family living so far extended from our emotional center of gravity.
While we were in Europe, my sister and her husband moved to northeast Ohio (the southwest suburbs of Cleveland). A few years later, some of our closest friends from Bowling Green moved to northeast Ohio (Kent) to start a new H2O Church. Marci’s parents and my parents both stayed planted in north-central Ohio. So when we decided to move back to the United States, we felt like northeast Ohio would be a good fit for us. Closer to our emotional center of gravity, where things are more stable and not as prone to “injury.” And over the last eight years, that center of gravity has only strengthened as my parents decided to retire to Kent, as our kids settled into the local school system, and as we built and rebuilt relationships in this part of the world. It really feels like home now. It’s increasingly difficult to see how we might ever leave this area. But I’m not bummed about that.
We’ve found our emotional center of gravity. At least for now.
Working with college students and recent college graduates, I’ve recently started to see how one’s emotional center of gravity plays into one’s life decisions. My friend Nick grew up near Dayton, Ohio. His fiance Kelly grew up near Erie, Pennsylvania. They both graduated from Kent State University a couple of years ago, but they’ve stuck around in Kent because it’s a pleasant middle ground between their families’ two centers of gravity. My friend Aaron, on the other hand, has strong connections to his hometown of Sandusky, Ohio. Most of his closest friends and family members live there, and he’s regularly traveling back to the area to be with them. So even though he’s temporarily a college student, living in Kent, it seems pretty clear that he’s about to bounce back to Sandusky, like a bungee cord, after this school year.
Neither one of these situations are good or bad. It just seems like a person’s emotional center of gravity has a far stronger effect than I previously thought it might. So I’m starting to think more about this, now, as I counsel students about what they might do after graduation. I’m talking about emotional centers of gravity, as I strategize with young staff leaders who are thinking about church planting. I’m thinking about it with my own children, as they prepare for college and careers.
Do you think I’m onto something? I don’t want to be some sort of fatalist or limiter-of-possibilities. But I also want to be realistic about phenomena like this. And it seems to me that there’s something to be learned from figuring out one’s emotional center of gravity.
I ran the Run to Read Half-Marathon in Fairmont, West Virginia, this weekend. And it ended up being a much tougher race than I expected — but, oddly, not for any of the reasons I might have expected.
I had to pretty significantly adjust my expectations (and my pace) for this January half-marathon as the race unfolded because — get this — I got OVERHEATED!!! 🥵
I had been a little worried about the elevation — but it ended up being quite a bit flatter and 100’ closer to sea level than any of my runs in Kent. I was slightly concerned about trail conditions, knowing that snow, ice, and mud were all possible — but the trails were great. I thought gastrointestinal distress might be a concern, with a post-lunchtime, 1:00 PM, start time (whereas most races, and most of my training runs, start early in the morning) — but that didn’t seem to cause too many problems. I even briefly wondered about the potential for strong headwinds — but I didn’t even notice any wind until the last couple of miles.
The temperature, though, was a balmy 73° Fahrenheit! Warmer than the vast majority of other half-marathons I’ve done (because even the summer races I’ve done have typically started in the early morning, in the coolest part of the day)! It was just crazy that the second-hottest half-marathon I’ve ever done happened to take place in the second week of January!!!!
The heat really took a toll on me as the mileage mounted. I felt pretty good for the first quarter of the race, even getting ahead of my target pace of 7:45 minutes per mile. I started to feel the heat getting to me, though, through the second quarter of the race. By the time, I hit the half-way mark, I was still averaging 7:40 minutes per mile. But I felt awful. I knew I had to slow down, even though I really didn’t want to. I dropped back to about 8:30 minutes per mile for the third quarter of the race — but even that didn’t prove to be sustainable. The last quarter of the race was pure willpower — using all my mental and physical resources just to avoid walking or laying down beside the trail. I felt miserable by the time I crossed the finish line.
But I ran “with perseverance the race marked out for me.”
Those words from Hebrews 12 have been a regular item of prayer over the last year, as I’ve interceded for a friend (and fellow athlete) fighting a particularly aggressive form of brain cancer. Even as I was suffering through the Run to Read Half-Marathon, I thought a lot about this friend, John Drage. My last half-marathon (another steamer) was with him — the third leg of the Ironman 70.3 Ohio triathlon. John was six months into his fight with brain cancer at that point. But his body seemed to be responding well to treatment. He even beat me to the finish line in that race, by a pretty wide margin.
Last week, however, John learned that his cancer has recently spread to his spinal column — and doctors are telling him that he may only have “weeks to months” left before his “finish line.” It’s pretty devastating news for all of us who know him and love him.
John’s race has far higher stakes than the one I ran this weekend. And that helps to keep everything in perspective. It really doesn’t matter that I over-heated and under-performed for a half-marathon on an unseasonably-warm day in January. It matters that the race is run with perseverance on the course that’s marked out by the Great Race Director. I’m going to keep praying Hebrews 12 for John and his family — and for all of us. And I’d encourage you to do the same, if you feel so inclined.