July 2018 Prayer Letter


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Vacation Lessons

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

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

Still, we zipped up our jackets and forged ahead.

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

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

About halfway up the mountain, though, something shifted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Memorial Day 2018

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

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

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

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20 Years of Marriage, 63 Photographs of Trees

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

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

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

 

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

      

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

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

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Grown Up, But Not Really

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

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

But I know better.

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

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

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

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

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Mother’s Day Poetry for my Mother

A Haiku for My Mother

Positive, Patient.
Inclement weather check-ins.
I love my Mother

A Limerick for My Mother

So, my Mom’s fav’rite color is red,
Like the rose, like the blood Jesus shed.
Beauteous Grace personified
Mom’s made it as if I’d
Been twice born and twice by her fed.

An Adjectival Acrostic for My Mother

Maternal
Others-Oriented
Thoughtful
Hopeful
Enduring
Resplendent


I’m not a great poet. It doesn’t come very easily, and the material I produce isn’t all that great. Still, I love the way that poetry helps me to distill my thoughts and focus in on the essence of why I love my Mom so much — both on the tangible / practical level and the figurative / big-picture level.

She’s a great Mom, and I love her very much!

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Summa Cum Laude

It’s Graduation Day at Kent State University!

This year is extra-special because we have a graduate in our household (thus, our version of the Dutch “backpack on the flagpole” tradition). As of this week, Marci has earned another degree: her Master of Arts in Teaching English as a Second Language!

She’s not the type to make a big spectacle of the achievement. She chose to stay away from the commencement ceremonies at Dix Stadium (even though I was encouraging her to participate). She won’t have any of the formal, cap-and-gown portraits to remember this milestone in her life. The closest she’s gotten to any kind of external celebration was a party we hosted yesterday evening for all her friends and colleagues from the TESL program at Kent State.

Despite the lack of fanfare, though, I’m really, really proud of what Marci has accomplished over these last two years. She’s not just earning another diploma. She’s not just been doing it with honors. She’s done it with the highest of honors! Summa cum laude!

This graduation genuinely feels like a mountaintop, or “summit,” experience. It took a sweat and strategy to get to this point. Exhaustion has been a factor from the very first month. Graduate school is a significant challenge for anyone, but especially so when one is a wife and mother — trying to fit teaching responsibilities and school work in around our family’s transportation needs, and nutritional needs, and emotional needs, and a host of other roles and responsibilities.

Still, Marci has come through it all with flying colors. She’s an amazing academic achiever and an even more amazing person. I’m highly-honored to be her husband.

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Finishing the Race

The Glass City Half-Marathon was hard.

I went out fast, and I stayed fast through the first ten miles: splits consistently between 7:00 and 7:15 minutes per mile. I was pushing the pace, keeping myself in the upper echelons of my ability, but I felt decently strong. My confidence grew as I ran, and I was happy to think that a new Personal Record (PR) was within grasp.

Around the ten mile mark, however, my pace started to sag. It’s not like I hit a distinct wall. I wasn’t in doubt about my ability to finish, or even the likelihood of a PR. But it definitely didn’t feel as fun at that point in the race. My legs were tired. My gut felt uneasy. Mental fatigue set in, too. I kept on slogging, even though there weren’t many spectators — or even fellow racers — in view. I was determined to suck it up and gut it out… But it wasn’t going to be enjoyable. I decided I would lose a bit of pace, if that’s what it took to survive.

Just around that time, on the long straightaway down Dorr Street, I got a boost from a friend of a friend — a guy named Scott, whom I’d just met the evening before, at dinner. He started with a group of guys I had hoped to join, but we couldn’t find each other at the starting line. Thus, we each ran our own races… until that moment on Dorr Street.

Scott came up from behind, and I could tell he had fresh legs before I even recognized him. The cadence of his feet sounded quick and bouncy. He started up a conversation about the home stretch, even as a stranger, when most people at that point on the course were not breathing easily enough to hold a conversation. When we recognized each other, despite our lack of deep familiarity and our different conditions at that point on the course, Scott insisted that we run together — and he basically went on to pace me for the next two miles. I kept telling him to run ahead and finish his race at his own pace, but he wouldn’t have it. He even encouraged me to try and draft off him.

Crazy enough: It worked!

I maintained — and even increased — my pace. When Scott finally surged ahead with a little more than a mile to go (at my insistence), I found that I had enough fuel in the tank to finish strong — even surge to my fastest split in the whole race! And even though my legs started seizing up after I crossed the finish line, I felt grateful and proud to have finished in one hour, thirty-five minutes, and eight seconds. Almost five minutes faster than my previous PR.


What’s most interesting about all of this, to me, is the clear parallel I feel God has shown me in regards to this school year of ministry with H2O Kent. (Beware: another Mara-meta-phor-athon is on the way!).

We started this year of ministry at an ambitious, record-setting pace. Our first worship gatherings of the year were huge. Multiple Life Groups were averaging something like 40 people each week (totally surpassing our expectations or abilities). We set records — by pretty wide margins — for The Well… Fall Retreat registrations… Baptisms… Spring Break trip participation… Estes Park Leadership Training applications… and even new Staff applicants and Pastors-in-Training. All of our metrics have been up this year — and in the early going, it felt pretty fun. We seemed strong. We had (and still have!) plenty of good stuff to fill our prayer letters and such. There have been a lot of reasons to feel enthusiastic about the future, too.

It’s been hard, though. The fatigue started setting in about a third of the way into the school year (even sooner than the physical fatigue of my race set in). By late-October, I felt weak, discouraged, and lonely. I didn’t know what to do about all the people who seemed to be slipping through our fingers as the school year wore on (percentages relatively comparable to most years, but still a larger overall number). It felt like bad shepherding. Depression set in, and I struggled to stay engaged with family, ministry, and my own walk with God. By the time Spring Break rolled around, ministry roles were producing pretty significant levels of insecurity: feeling old, out of touch, unwanted, unloved, ineffective… Even though all the metrics were up, I felt pretty discouraged about H2O stuff. I didn’t feel like I’d given my best to the Life Group leaders I’ve been coaching or the interns I’ve been managing. Many weeks, it felt like I put in the bare minimum to keep things moving and mediocre.

In the last few days, though, it seems like God is allowing me to get a broader perspective and push to the “finish line” with one last surge of strength I didn’t know I had.

Looking back at the year of ministry, it really is remarkable what God has accomplished. I knew (and should have remembered!) that it was going to be a stretch to just turn in passing grades, or to function as a serviceable part of the rotation. With Marci in her last year of graduate school and our kids scattered across three different schools and a couple-dozen extra-curricular activities, it was never realistic to make the “Honor Roll” or turn in an “All-Star” campaign. It just wasn’t. Compound our family’s situation with the situations of my co-pastors’ families (new babies, shifting job responsibilities, financial stresses, etc.) — and it’s really pretty unbelievable that the church even survived, much less thrived in the way it did!

Praise God!!!!!

We had key contributions from the rest of our staff, interns, and student leaders — even so, it’s really quite illogical that we had such a good year. A record-setting year! Clearly, God is bigger than our limitations. It’s just good to be reminded of God’s glory. 2 Corinthians chapter four says, “Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart… But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”

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Spring Break in the Great Smoky Mountains

We’re back from H2O’s Spring Break trip to the Great Smoky Mountains! Fifty-four of us traveled from Ohio to Tennessee to learn and practice spiritual disciplines in the wilderness, like Moses, and Elijah, and John the Baptist, and countless others before us.

One of the fringe benefits of the trip was a flash-forward to Spring, getting a sneak preview of the climate conditions that should be filtering into Ohio over the course of the next month. The grass was noticeably greener. Wildflowers were blooming. The sunlight and air temperatures even made it comfortable to walk around in short sleeves a couple of afternoons!

And just as the natural world came to life, so did our spiritual lives, as we practiced the disciplines of reading the Bible, praying, solitude, community, rest, serving, and worship. One of my most memorable experiences during our week in the Great Smoky Mountains was a 9-mile hike from Newfound Gap to Charlie’s Bunion and back. We got to see why they call them the “Smoky” Mountains, but we also got some clear views of some pretty dramatic vistas — all while talking about the intricacies of our lives and working through the things we were learning during the week.

We spent an hour each day together in worship and Biblical reflection. In the middle part of each day, everyone was encouraged to seek God individually or in unstructured community time. And then at the end of the afternoon, people met with a handful of others to process their experiences with the spiritual disciplines.

Over the course of the week, one young woman decided to get baptized (in a very cold mountain stream!), and another young man made a decision to start following Jesus. It was everything our leadership team was praying the week would be — and then some!

Of everything that happened in the Great Smoky Mountains, I’d have to say that one of the most encouraging developments for me, personally, was to see the way that God was made real to my kids and through my kids. They practiced the spiritual disciplines along with the college students, and the experiences seemed to affect them in a meaningful way.

But it wasn’t just limited to them having their “kids version” of the week. They took the things they were learning and applied them with everyone else who was there for the week. They served others. They prayed for others. They worshiped with others. They offered emotional support and practical help for others. And they had so much fun, being welcomed into full-fledged community.

I think we’re all glad to be back in Kent now, sleeping in our own beds and enjoying reliable internet access and such — but I pray that the week left an imprint on each life that will carry into everyday life here, and beyond. At the very least, I got some good pictures! For anyone interested, I’ve created an online album with all of my best pictures from the week in downloadable form.

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