October 2017 Prayer Letter


Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”(Isaiah 6:8)


​Greetings from Kent! This is such a beautiful time of the year here in Northeast Ohio! I’ve been trying to get out to the Cuyahoga Valley National Park whenever I can, to see the leaves change from green to yellow and orange and red, to hear the swish of the dried leaves beneath my feet, to smell the clean and crisp autumn air, to feel the wind on my face… It’s become a place of deep reflection and renewal for me.

I can’t exactly describe or explain it, but God is doing something extraordinary at Kent State University, and particularly within H2O Kent, this school year.

Just this week, I woke up to find a text message on my phone from a guy named Morgan, whom I’ve recently been getting to know. He wrote: “Wow wow. I’m SO AMPED UP! Hahaha. I just told my apartment-mates that I accepted Jesus / got baptized this weekend and we talked for like two hours about my journey and about God / Jesus. Now she wants to have regular discussions about God and to join for a Bible study that I usually just do by myself! Sorry for the late text, just had to share!”

Morgan and I met just two weeks earlier, when a friend brought him to H2O’s weekly worship gathering. I happened to be preaching from the book of 1 John that day — touching upon themes of love, regret, loss, and forgiveness — and something prompted Morgan to follow up with me. He sought me out in the lobby, afterwards, and we talked for a few minutes before arranging a separate time to meet up later in the week. When we resumed the conversation at Tree City Coffee that Wednesday, I found it really easy to connect with Morgan.


(Morgan is the tall, bearded guy in sunglasses in the back, on the right)

He exuded an easy-going personality, a warm style of communication, and a profound spiritual curiosity. As our conversation unfolded, I explained how God created the world to be a place of beauty, peace, and connection with Him… When sin and self-centered choices entered the picture, however, we started to experience separation from God: conflict, corruption, disease, death… Morgan soaked it all up.
I went on to explain how God initiated a rescue plan, culminating in Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and his resurrection three days later. I could tell that Morgan was processing a lot of different thoughts and emotions in the moment. He asked a lot of insightful follow-up questions, but he didn’t feel ready to commit to following Jesus right there, on the spot. He wanted to take some time to think about things a bit more and read the Bible using a simple method that I demonstrated for him that afternoon.

God kept pursuing Morgan over the course of the next ten days. We kept in communication, mostly via text messaging, and I could tell he was getting closer to a decision for Christ. The following weekend at our Fall Retreat (the biggest and best one we’ve ever had, in all my years at Kent State), God revealed Himself to Morgan through teaching, worship, time in solitude, and conversations with others. On Saturday morning, he approached me, saying he wanted to talk, and (you guessed it!) after another 20 or 30 minutes of conversation, Morgan prayed to place his faith in Christ. That evening, Morgan was baptized — along with 11 other students at the Retreat — and together we celebrated God’s work in his life.


(The picture’s not great, but the moment of Morgan’s baptism definitely was!)

The best part of Morgan’s story is the way that it’s spilling out to others. We asked him to share a “Snapshot” of his spiritual journey (a regular thing we do at our worship gatherings) on the day after his baptism — and “it just so happened” that some of his co-workers were in the audience, sparking a conversation with them that continues even now. When Morgan shared the news with his fraternity brothers, it prompted more Gospel conversation. And, as you saw in the text message I quoted earlier, his spiritual development is now catalyzing the spiritual development of his housemates, as well. God is doing something extraordinary! Would you please pray with me for Morgan to keep riding this wave of God’s Spirit? I can’t wait to see what God will do next! We’ll be in touch…

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To Olivia, on the Occasion of Her 13th Birthday

Dear Olivia,

Dear, oh dear! Happy Birthday, my dear! That word — “dear” — is really much more than a formality with you. You are genuinely dear to me: beloved, precious, treasured, special… You are dearly loved, Olivia! You’re my one and only daughter, my delight, my darling. You’ve so endeared yourself to my heart (not to mention everyone else who knows you) that I simply can’t imagine life without you.

Who else drops whatever they’re doing to give me a hug and greeting upon any entrance to- or exit from the house?!? Who else sings such beautiful melodies on top of my ridiculously-random bass lines? Who else appreciates my Dad Jokes about hair styling and hair products and hair problems?!? Who else could ever take the place of you?!?

I’m so happy to be celebrating another year of your life, Olivia. It’s funny how often you’ve said, “But I don’t want to be a teenager!” And, of course, I get it: the heightened emotions, elevated hormones, increasingly-complicated social dynamics, day-to-day drama, and general state of adolescent angst you’ve observed in your older brother and others around you… It’s true that the teens can be a challenging season of life…

But they can also be really fun, exciting, and meaningful. My teenage years were the time in life when I memorized the lyrics and melodies for every song ever written and recorded by Larry Norman… when I participated in my first political protest to support a ballot measure to promote funding for Shelby City Schools by (ironically) walking out of school… when I ate my first Philly cheesesteak… The teens were the time when I first started reading the Bible for myself and absorbing its radical implications for my life… when I learned how to lead a horse into a gallop… when I dunked a basketball for the first (and only) time in my life… and, of course, when I first fell in love with your mother.

I hope you’ll take it from me, my dear Livy-Loo: the teenage years can be pretty tumultuous, but they can also be pretty terrific.

Ready or not, the time has come to welcome you into your teens, into early-adulthood, into an age of greater awareness, accountability, and autonomy. As surely as the summer slips into fall… As surely as the leaves on the Maples change from green to orange and drift down to earth… As surely as the calendar hits September 21st every year — our lives move from one phase into the next. And that’s a good thing. “This, too, shall pass” is a useful refrain for life: never dwelling too long on either successes or failures. Just keep in mind the fact that, like every other season of life, Teenagerdom (Teenagerhood? Teenagericity?) is a mixed bag, and I sincerely believe that your perspective on the Teenage Experience will go a long way toward determining the outcome of these years.

I was recently leading the Gospel of Luke, in the 11th chapter, where Jesus said, “Listen: your eye, your outlook, the way you see is your lamp. If your way of seeing is functioning well, then your whole life will be enlightened. But if your way of seeing is darkened, then your life will be a dark, dark place. So be careful, people, because your light may be malfunctioning. If your outlook is good, then your whole life will be bright, with no shadowy corners, as when a radiant lamp brightens your home” (Luke 11:34-36).

And while I see these verses having some level of applicability in regards to your outlook on life (i.e. a positive view of your teenage years will result in a positive experience through your teenage years) — even more than that, I see these verses applying to your worldview (i.e. how you approach the great, cosmic questions in life, like the origins of the universe and the tension between good and evil). Your teens provide an unparalleled opportunity to process and establish your own worldview.

I hope that our family has laid a solid foundation for the Christian worldview — but honestly, Olivia, it’s your choice if you want to continue in that or not. I’m going to love you and remain your father no matter what. Whatever storms may come, whatever crazy ideas you may come up with, whatever mistakes you may make, I’m here for you. Mom, and Elliot, and Cor, too. I hope you’ll recognize that God is here for you, as well. So, don’t be afraid to stretch yourself and “put yourself out there” more and more, in this new phase of life. Make new friends. Try new things. I’m telling you, Olivia: You’ve got what it takes to succeed! You’ve got family and friends who’ve got your back, who all know you’re poised for greatness. I just pray that you’ll set your eyes — your perspective, your outlook, and your worldview — on God, and let Him lead you along the way.

Olivia, my dearest daughter, I love you more than words could ever say. Happy Birthday, my dear young lady, and here’s wishing you many happy returns of the occasion…

Lovingly Yours,

Dad

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The Hunt

The crowds were thinned by early evening rains, still it was a Thursday night in downtown Kent. Thousands of college students (with surprisingly sparse schedules on Friday)… Dozens of clubs, bars, and run-down rental properties hosting their own parties… An early-autumn evening cloaked in mist and darkness… Together, these elements combine to create a phenomenon known in these parts as “Thirsty Thursday.”

Our group of four started walking east, up Main Street, praying for the city and trusting God to provide opportunities to strike up conversations and friendships. A few of the fraternity houses were bumping, but it was mostly quiet. A walk across Lincoln Street and down College Street yielded few encounters, but when we circled back to Main Street we blended in with a crowd of a dozen students strolling towards campus.

Our chatter was entirely superficial: the score from the Cleveland Indians baseball game earlier that evening… which places everyone had visited around town… how drunk each person felt — or felt their companions might feel… One of the young women was particularly intoxicated, and particularly talkative. Dressed all in white, with very light blonde hair, she talked freely about all the dark deeds that went on in the fraternity houses.

“If a guy wants to get into the Sig Ep House on Halloween night, he has to have at least three girls with him.”

“And they give you whatever you want to drink!” Another girl chimes in.

“For free!” The Woman in White resumes. “But only the girls.” She gestures in an exaggerated way, like a teacher talking in front of a classroom. “The guys have to fend for themselves.”

I feel completely out of place: a 40-year-old pastor walking around at midnight with three of the students from my church and a bunch of strange, drunk teenagers. But I’m thrilled that we’re figuring out ways to engage with the party scene in Kent. We’re inspired by the way Jesus hung around with the outsiders, the gluttons, the drunkards, and the sinners of his day, and we figure this is a way to be out among the people of Kent State University. We’re making friends. We’re looking for opportunities to plant seeds of the Gospel into everyday moments. We’re bringing the presence of Christ to the outsiders, gluttons, drunkards, and sinners of our day. But I have to admit that I feel a little awkward in these moments. I wonder how much the drunken strangers pick up my awkwardness, but it doesn’t seem to be much of an issue. We traipse toward a string of fast food joints, where their garish lights cut into the darkness.

At the intersection of Main and Lincoln, several of the people at the front of our commingled cluster staggered out into the street, in the direction of the Wendy’s. Oncoming headlights cause them to scream and scatter — some to the far side of the street, some back to our curb.

The Dad in me couldn’t help but call out: “All right, everybody! Let’s be careful here.”

A bespectacled young woman glanced back at me before careening out into the busy roadway herself. “You be careful,” she slurred. Laughing, she kicked up her heels and made it across the intersection, without incident.

We rejoined our cluster as soon as the traffic conditions allowed. East on Main Street. North on University Drive. One of the guys at the front of the pack knew about another party. Up ahead on the left, the lawn was littered with debris and people talking in small clusters. Cars pulled up to the curb with stereos thumping to deposit more people. One young fraternity guy bellowed down the street toward one of his friends. But we didn’t stop for any of this. We just kept walking, swept up in the crowd: past the lawn, left up the driveway, around the back of the house, and down into the basement of the Kappa Sigma fraternity house.

It was a crappy, concrete basement. The space was pretty confined: maybe the size of a basketball court’s three-point territory, with the landing of the rickety old stairs about where the free throw line would be. It was the sort of basement one would expect from a house built in the 1930s. But what made the place exceptional was the crowd, perhaps 75 young people, throbbing to dance music. Stage lights provided the only illumination: red, blue, green. It silhouetted faces and shoulders, packed shoulder-to-shoulder, swaying and heaving like a living organism. The only place to stand was in a back corner of the room, by the beer pong table emblazoned with the fraternity’s ubiquitous alligator logo. I watched a ping-pong ball bounce twice on the table and then disappear onto the floor, hopelessly lost among the dancing feet.

At the far end of the dance floor, a rhythmic chant started building. “Weewo… weewo… weewo mmm mahee…”

I couldn’t make out what they were saying, but with each repetition of the chant it grew louder and spread further, back across the room to where I was standing by the beer pong table. “Weewo… weewo… weewo mmm mahee…” It was a fun moment, everyone so caught up in the chaos of the crowd, everyone chanting and swaying, arms in the air. I smiled and swayed to the rhythm of the chant.

Until the actual words of the chant hit me: “We want… We want… We want some pussy!”

In that moment of comprehension, I caught a glimpse of one of the H2O student leaders: a young woman whom I had brought into this environment. Our eyes widened. The chant echoed a couple more times before it started dying out. I noticed a trio of pretty young sorority sisters mouthing the words of the chant themselves, on one of its last iterations, though their faces betrayed an understandable level of discomfort and fear. Of course that’s what the fraternity guys wanted. But I felt overwhelmed with sadness and horror to hear it chanted so explicitly. The music was far too loud for conversation, so I motioned that I was headed back out onto the lawn. Out to get a breath of fresh air.

I started to pray for the city in a new way, out in the cool night air. It wasn’t long before the H2O students joined me, which is what I’d been hoping for and expecting. But what I did not expect was our Main Street Cluster emerging shortly thereafter, while we were still standing on the lawn. I’m not convinced we had a whole lot to do with their departure from the frat party, but there they were: the Woman in White, the Bespectacled Caretaker, the Guy Who Knew the Guy at Kappa Sigma… We all started walking back toward the fast food corridor.

As we walked, the Woman in White screwed up her eyes and stared under the brim of my ballcap. “Hey, how old are you, anyway?”

I took a breath and considered my response. “You’re not going to believe it… But I’m 40.”

“Whoa!” she said and staggered off to the right. It was clear that her Pervert Alert had been triggered. “What are you doing out here, then?”

“I’m with those guys,” I said, pointing to the H2O students. “I help to lead the student organization that they’re involved with. It’s called H2O.”

“Wait! You said you’re 40?!?” The Guy-Who-Knew-the-Guy-at-Kappa-Sigma interrupted. “What’s your name?”

“I’m Eric. What’s your name?”

My very existence seemed to blow his mind. “Wait! I have an Uncle Eric!” Clearly, my cover was blown. My awkward feelings from earlier in the night resurfaced and danced on the sidewalk between us. There’s only so much that a ballcap, a dark night, and a few drinks can conceal. My mind started wheeling with next steps for the conversation. I prayed that the Holy Spirit would fill me and use me. But then just as quickly as the flame of discovery had ignited it started to dim and dissipate.

“He’s joking, guys,” the Bespectacled Caretaker pronounced. “Seriously, I’m guessing you’re…” she sized me up as if she were a carnival midway guesser, “25.”

I don’t know how or why things shifted so suddenly, but I felt kind of relieved. Was the relief personal insecurity or the reassurance of God’s timing? That’s hard for me to say, but I spoke up: “That’s very kind of you. But I’m serious.”

“No way!” Another tall dark-haired woman on the left chimed in. “I bet he’s 19.”

I laughed at this. And honestly, I don’t know if they were sincere in their youthful revisions of the narrative surrounding my presence. In any event, these doubts from the others had the effect of calling off the hunt, stamping me as safe. We talked about plans for the rest of the semester, and when the group discovered that Gera was studying Russian at the University, everyone coerced her into a demonstration. We talked about plans for the rest of the evening. My H2O friends and I indicated that we were heading back downtown, where there were free pancakes at the corner of Main and Water (an H2O initiative). We said they should come.

When we got back toward the intersection where we had first joined forces, however, our new friends suddenly peeled off to the left, crossing the street, cutting back toward campus. I didn’t know quite what to make of their quick departure, but we shouted our farewells and kept walking toward the pancake table. Back up fraternity row, back past Kent Stage and the restaurants and shops of the Main Street hill, we prayed for God to water any seeds of friendship and the Gospel that may have been planted that “Thirsty Thursday” night.

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To Cor, on the Occasion of His 10th Birthday

Dear Cor,

Happy Birthday! There are some really nice things about having a birthday at this time of the year, aren’t there? This transition from summer to fall is just lovely: still warm enough to go around shirtless (as you clearly love to do!) but cool enough for jackets at night… We get to enjoy the start of soccer season and football season… You get to be one of the first kids in your class to bring in birthday treats, which is especially great when it’s your Mom’s yellow-cake-and-fudge brownies… And, of course, best of all, this is the time of year we get to celebrate you!

I love you so much, Cor. You’re smart, spunky, fun, ferocious, considerate, and kind. Any time of year that we get to celebrate you is a great time of the year.

That being said, I think there are also some challenging things about having a birthday at this time of the year. Especially in a family like ours, where we’re so tied to school schedules. You’ve got to get on the computer and do Spelling City every day after school before you’re off to soccer practice. Elliot is always at the high school, for soccer practice or band practice. Olivia is doing homework in her room. Mom is on campus. I’m making a mess of dinner preparations — cradling the phone between my ear and my shoulder to talk about H2O business, while wildly shifting pots and pans and plates from counter to counter… Insanity, isn’t it?!?! It always takes us a little while to find our rhythm, after the transition from summer to fall, and — for better, for worse — your birthday falls right in the middle of all that action and adventure.

Do you remember your birthday “party” from last year? You, Elliot, Max, Opa, and me? Driving down to Columbus with the car stereo blasting “Radioactive?” Getting into the soccer stadium just in time for that massive storm to be unleashed, water gushing from the sky well into the second half? We had a fun, memorable birthday experience — but man! We got wet!

Somehow that experience from a year ago reminds me of the way that the last year of family life has felt. Lots of energy, lots of action and adventure — but also lots of “thunder and lightning” and “rain.” Wouldn’t you agree that it’s been a kind of stormy season? Challenging for all of us! Yet, you’re such an emotionally-intelligent person that I think you’ve absorbed that deluge in unique ways. You’ve expressed sadness and loneliness at times. You’ve craved connection with each of us through all the storms. I love the way you are aware of these feelings, and I love the fact that you’re communicating these feelings. And I just want you to know that these trials and tribulations of your tenth year have have not gone unnoticed.

Just this week, I was reminded of the story of Jesus calming the sea and the storm.

I swear to you: I did not go looking for this passage! It seems like God came looking for me through this story. Jesus’ followers were all together with him, out on a boat crossing a lake, when this massive storm whipped up around them. Believe it or not, Jesus happened to be napping as the storm reached its climax, but Jesus’ followers were frenzied and frantic — and they apparently didn’t think to wake Jesus until the boat was about to capsize. As soon as they got Jesus involved, though, the situation shifted dramatically. Jesus spoke to the wind and the waves; he just told them to settle down, and they did. And then Jesus turned to his followers and asked: “What happened to your faith?”

This question, from Jesus to his followers, felt highly relevant to me in the midst of a rather stormy week. It helped me to remember that life works best when Jesus is the center of my day-to-day life and ministry, not when I try to make everything about me! It’s all about Jesus! He’s the author and perfecter of my faith. How could I ever forget that?!?

God is more powerful than any storm you will ever experience, Cor. He is strong and good — and I feel confident that He lives inside of you because you regularly demonstrate God’s strength and goodness. So let’s try to remember this, shall we? Let’s not fret or fear when the storms come along. Let’s trust God and let Him restore peace.

  

I love you so much, Cor. You’re growing up. You’re changing. I still love to scoop you into my arms and tousle your hair and tickle your ribs and kiss your neck. But it’s getting more and more tricky to do this as you keep getting bigger and bigger. Now that you’re ten, and counting, we need to keep learning and adjusting to express love and support for each other in meaningful ways. Change isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but we need to keep communicating and checking in with each other through all of it.

When I pack your lunch and unwrap the covers to wake you up and chat with you about sports headlines over a breakfast of Lucky Charms, that’s my attempt at saying, “I’m here for you. I’ve got your back. I’m standing by to help you succeed.” When I ask about your homework and help you remember to keep making progress on your preparations for soccer practice, that’s me trying to say, “I’m proud of you, Treaker-Boy! I know you have what it takes to succeed.” When I shout encouragement and affirmation at your soccer games (no more “parental coaching” from the sidelines), or when I applaud at your school performances, that’s like me going, “I love you, son! I’m excited to share these experiences with you.” And when I say, “I love you,” of course, that means, “I love you.” Because that’s the one thing you can count on never changing — no matter how many more birthdays, or even decades, we celebrate.

Happy Birthday, Cor. I love you.

Dad

 

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Obligatory Posts

The Bible says we should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.

I’ve gotten better at this as I’ve gotten older — maybe partially due to diminishing reflexes, partially due to accumulated wisdom — but I’m still challenged to know exactly how to live out these principles in everyday life.

It’s especially challenging when my quick(ish)-listening ears hear trustworthy people telling me that I need to quickly — not slowly — speak out. In anger! How do I balance these competing principles? I don’t want to be slow to listen. But neither do I want to be quick to speak nor quick to anger.

Suffice to say: I have been troubled by the last week of news and commentary, regarding the recent rally of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia and subsequent violence against those who came out to protest against the rally. In no uncertain terms, I want to be clear that I find the ideals and rhetoric of the white supremacists repugnant. Further, I think it’s especially reprehensible — and downright wrong — that the beliefs of Neo-Nazis and Alt-Right thugs get so frequently wrapped up with the beliefs of “Christians” or “Evangelicals” (to the point that I genuinely don’t know what to do with these terms of identification any more!).

At the same time, I’ve also been troubled with the idea that I have to make a grand declaration of my sense of repugnance and reprehension on social media. I’m not exactly sure why, but this pressure and sense of obligation works as a deterrent to me, more than an encouragement. It’s a broader phenomenon than social media; I have similar attitudes toward, say, American militarism, or Disney vacations, or vegetarianism, or the Harry Potter books (anything that others say I “must” do, say, buy, or endorse). Not that a social media denouncement is all that difficult or opposed to my principles. I’m just like, “Who am I to ‘make a public statement’ about race relations in the American South?” “Why should anyone care what I have to say?”

As I listen to the voices of minorities and activists, however, I’m convinced that there is benefit in voicing my vehement opposition to white supremacists, Neo-Nazis, and the Alt-Right.

I’m particularly compelled by historical voices: speaking into situations which have allowed some time for perspective. Being reminded of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail this week has been especially convicting: “I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be some of our strongest allies. Instead, some few have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.” But another point of compulsion and conviction came yesterday, from an unexpected source. I was taking pictures of my kids on their first day of school and preparing to post the pictures to social media when my first impulse to caption the pictures was literally, “Obligatory first-day-of-school photos.”

How can I be willing to oblige the social media standards for posting photographs of my (blue-eyed, blond-haired) children, yet stubbornly resist the obligation to say something publicly about the hatred and violence fomented against people of color in my country?

So here and now: I recognize that I am a part of the problem when I stay silent about oppression which ultimately has the effect of benefiting me, in a position of privilege. I recognize that the American Church has uncomfortably-deep roots in white supremacy, even though this is patently contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I repent of my own sins of omission (not talking about racism) and commission (even harboring racist attitudes in my own heart). To whatever extent I carry authority in the American Church — though my part feels so small — I repent on behalf of my people who have allowed these evils to persist among us. I commit to being active, not passive, when it comes to responding to white supremacy, fighting against voices of hate, and working against the systems of oppression in our country. And more than anything, I want to say that I’m here to listen: especially to people of color.

I may not always succeed in finding the right balance between quick-to-listen, slow-to-speak, and slow-to-become-angry. But at least I want to try.

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The Pact of the Waterfall of the Gods

The waterfalls in Iceland are awesome. Not “Awesome” in the sense that I used the word in high school (basically as a synonym for “Really good”) — but “Awesome” as in genuinely awe-inspiring, awe-inducing.

Reading through all the guidebooks, I’d thought the waterfalls in Iceland would be sort of interesting but sort of redundant or tiresome after awhile, like, “Yeah, yeah… Blah, blah, blah… Another waterfall… How many different ways could you possibly combine water, rocks, and a change in elevation?” But I was wrong with that way of thinking.

All the major falls I saw across Iceland were mesmerizing. Truly awesome and amazing. Some were slender and graceful, threaded between hillsides and rocky outcroppings. Some were shockingly broad, like the length of a football field of falling water. Some were incredibly powerful, with mist curling way back into the air, thunder filling our ears — but perhaps the most impactful thing about the falls was just how close we could get. The squareness and solidity of the rocks at Dettifoss allowed us to get within a foot of the main flow of the most powerful waterfall in Europe. The “responsible parent” in my friends and I would later look back and shake our heads, that we would ever allow ourselves to take such risks, at the edge of such powerful falls — but it was so fun and so awe-inspiring that our systems for processing fear or risk were overwhelmed. The awe overwhelmed us.

The Waterfall of the Gods, the Godafoss, was one of the last waterfalls we visited, on our last evening in the rugged northern parts of Iceland. The falls are reportedly so named because of its role as a dumping ground for pagan idols, in the days when Iceland first converted to Christianity, back in the Middle Ages. In the twilight, the falling water was silver and white — reminiscent indeed of liquified religious statuary — but at our feet it was as clear as a diamond. So we stooped and drank deeply from the ice-cold water. With wet chins, we fixed our gaze at the ring of falling water and started picking our way across the rubble to get closer.

While gazing at the falling water, we decided we needed to make a pact to mark the end of our trip. But what exactly? As we considered our options, we got out Cuban cigars purchased at the duty free shop and a lighter borrowed from our AirBnB host. The lighter didn’t work well, but we managed to get one cigar lit, and from that one we managed to light the other two: Three spots of glowing orange embers in the deepening darkness, like coals placed in our mouths by angels. The pact crystallized as we puffed and pondered. It went something like this:

We’re there for each other. We’ve got each other’s backs. We won’t let each other fall victim to the idolatry of wealth, or power, or sexual immorality, without doing our best to maintain accountability and purposefully intervene when necessary. If there ever is a stumble or fall, however, we’re still there for each other. We won’t turn our backs or disown each other in times of disgrace or difficulty. We’re brothers. We love each other. And if God allows us to keep our pact for another twenty years, we will come back to this place — to these waterfalls, or their emotional equivalent — to solemnize the occasion and re-up for as long as we may live.

After we affirmed our love and commitment for each other, we put out the stubs of our cigars and stooped for another drink from the river. We walked away from the Waterfall of the Gods and into a future of unknown opportunity and opposition, together as brothers.

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Midlife Cr_Iceland

I recently read a book by a pastor who used the Dakota Badlands as a metaphor for middle-aged life and ministry. It borrowed imagery from his family vacations, driving from Baltimore, Maryland (his adopted home and church) out to Kalispell, Montana (the place where his family had its roots). He described the slow transition from industrious factory-towns to fertile farmlands to wild grasslands and then barren rock as a way to understand a transition from early-career successes and the achievement of goals to a time of perceived stagnation and aimlessness. I appreciated and acknowledged the effectiveness of the Badlands’ name and barrenness as an effective literary device, but I pushed against the imagery because I personally love driving through the Dakotas more than the farmlands or mountains.

On our third day — and worst day — in Iceland, however, I found a new way to relate to these concepts. With apologies / credit to Eugene Petersen, I’m going to appropriate and adapt his imagery to talk about my journey through Iceland’s Grimsá River Valley.

We knew it was going to be a travel day, shifting from our southern base near the city of Selfoss to our northern base in the city of Akureyri with a relative dearth of tourist attractions to stop and see along the way — but we never realized how challenging the day would be. As we drove northwest, through one of the large national parks, we kept looking for a gas station. Based on the number of tourists we had seen the previous day in this national park, we figured it wouldn’t be hard to find a place to refuel. But we never did find a place to stop, and before long the pavement gave way to gravel and we found ourselves in the middle of nowhere.

I found it simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying to be driving across the interior of Iceland on Route 52. This was the rugged remoteness I had come to find! It was like my favorite drive from Wyoming, earlier this summer, with all the vast vistas and lack of traffic — yet even more so, on an island in the middle of the North Atlantic! At the same time, our vehicle was running desperately low on diesel. There was no sign of civilization for miles in any direction. And, of course, it started to rain. It would continue to rain for the rest of the day.

As the roads got rougher, I also started to worry about the dire warning issued at the rental car company: No off-roading… Avoid gravel roads… Driver assumes full liability… Insurance doesn’t cover gravel damage, etc… Combined with my concerns about fuel efficiency, we crept along at 50 kilometers per hour (about 35 miles per hour), trying to stay light-hearted and enjoy the scenery. But failing.

It was a massive relief when we made it to the Ring Road (Route 1) and the N1 Gas Station. After refueling we tried to enjoy some waterfalls. They were beautiful — super-wide, light-blue opaque water — but everything was dampened by more rain and gravel. A lot more rain and a lot more gravel. We had to eat our packed lunches in the car as we pushed back toward the north.

As we neared the northern coast, I suggested a detour to the hot tubs at Drangsnes, up a ways into the Western Fjords. My thinking was that it would only be an hour off our route (thus, two hours of total detour) — but it would allow us to get a taste for a whole other region of the country we wouldn’t otherwise get to see and why not enjoy the hot tubs when we’d be getting wet anytime we stepped out of the car anyway!?! Chad disagreed, however. He thought it would be better to just make it to Akureyri for a more relaxed evening. I persisted. Jason stayed out of it until a couple of miles before the turn-off, when he ultimately cast a reluctant vote towards Drangsnes.

The regrets started pretty quickly as we started climbing into the fjords. More rain. More gravel. Anxiety-inducing cliffs. All of the white-knuckled hairpin turns with none of the snow-capped peaks to show for it. Everything shrouded in gray mist.

The hot tubs were unique: three of them, right up against the water. A green square, a blue octagon, and a light-blue octagon. They were fun and free, in an otherwise-obscure village. They were popular, though. A young couple from Switzerland, a small group from Italy, two others who never spoke, and (later) a brother and sister from Buffalo (New York) plus the brother’s wife and a total of four kids. Not the traveler’s secret I’d thought it might be. Sure, it was a pleasant experience. We got some valuable intelligence on Akureyri from the Americans. But it wasn’t worth the two-hour detour.

We got dinner afterwards at Holmavik, across the bay from Drangsnes. One of two cafes in the whole fjord. The service was terrible: slow and rude. I ended up spending way too much for really bad fish and chips, and then we had to drive back through the fjords to the mainland and then on to Akureyri. It took way longer than expected. We didn’t make it to our destination until after midnight. Persistent rains through massive mountains we couldn’t see. Not at all the day we expected.

Somewhere along the way, however, I realized that the day was an apt metaphor for middle age. The coming — and current — season of life for us.

There was plenty of room for adventure (if anything, a bit too much adventure!), but things felt hard and heavy. Everything was coated in gray: overcast skies, dark-gray gravel on the road surfaces and stuck to the exterior of our rental car, mountains wearing trench coats of mist, a steady wind and rain in our faces.

We almost ran out of gas. We got dinged up by gravel kicking up off the ground. We experienced indecision and lost our way, resulting in more dings and more grime. I mean, it’s almost too easy — to clichéed — to make metaphors out of all these elements!

It’s sobering to think about middle age in this way, but it also feels like insight. Being “grown-up” ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. Adulting is hard (more clichés). At the same time, I find encouragement in the fact that there were three of us, close friends, sorting our way through it all together. I also take solace in the fact that we survived all the shenanigans. The middle-aged, middle-of-Iceland stuff didn’t kill us. It just challenged us to rise to the occasion, enhanced our appreciation of the other (more pleasurable) parts of the journey, and gave us a good story to tell.

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Glacial Perspective

White clouds tumble into white sheets of snow and ice, sliding down off the Öræfajökull, into the Fjallsárlón. It moves at a glacial pace because, of course, it’s a glacier. Still, I’m overwhelmed by the sight of this ice-covered volcano dropping its icy mantle into this iceberg-studded lagoon. All right in front of me.

I wasn’t fully prepared for the superlative scenery of Iceland. I’d read guide books and researched quite a bit on the internet. I’d talked to other people who had visited. Still, the actual experience overwhelmed me.

We set out for our second day in Iceland with simple objectives: Head for the black sand beaches at Vik (the southernmost tip of this most northerly country) and take whatever adventures may come our way. If we felt up to it, we might push on to the glacial lagoon at Jökullsárlón. But that was about as much as we dared to hope might happen on this, our first full day of touring Iceland for our 40th Birthday Celebration of Life, Friendship, and Adventure. #Iceland3x40 #MidlifeCr_Iceland

Before we even made it to Vik, however, we were compelled to clamber out of the rental car to spend an hour and a half climbing over, under, around, and through the four waterfalls at Seljalandsfoss.

Just a short drive further, we made another spontaneous stop to scamper into the spray at the bottom of the mighty Skógafoss and have a Spaniard take our picture before jumping back into the car and continuing southward.

Along the way, we found ourselves laughing at the other apparently-unnamed waterfalls and cataracts spilling down from impossibly green and impossibly steep hillsides.

As we passed cloud-covered volcanoes, secret lagoons, and other sites of interest, we kept saying to ourselves, “I hope we’ll have some time to stop and see that on the way back!”

Just before Vik, we crept up to the top of the cliffs at Dyrhólaey — in hopes of maybe, possibly, spotting an Arctic Puffin, likely somewhere in the distance — and we were delighted to find thousands of the birds out on the water, swarming the air, nestled into the cliffs right at our feet, and seemingly mugging at our cameras while we took photographs of them and their breathtaking surroundings.

Even when Vik was clearly in sight, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to visit the cave where medieval Vikings regularly met to hold council.

Then finally at Vik, we watched white waves crash onto black beaches and then found shelter in a cave as a brief rainstorm passed through. As we ate our lunches, we agreed that the adventure should continue: eastward to the glacial lagoons.

On the way to the glacial lagoons, we passed more hulking volcanoes with their heads in the clouds… A hitchhiker with a creepy half-smile on his face… Vast yellow plains stretching between mountain and sea… Strange green bubbles of grass- and moss-covered lava on either side of the road… An older couple stopped in the road, with a twitching, dying sheep lying on the pavement in front of the vehicle while the gentleman talked on his mobile phone and the lady sat wringing her hands in the passenger seat… So much to see, and so little time in which to see it all!

The glacial lagoons, though, made us forget everything else.

The shades of blue, green, and gray — reflected in the water, the ice, and the sky — were otherworldly. The icebergs drifted like clouds: some as big as my house back in Kent, some the size of a basketball. Seals ducked and dived in the water between the icebergs. Tourists scrambled for pictures (we knew we were visiting during a busy vacation season, but even so we were surprised to discover that Iceland is not the desolate, uninhabited wild lands it’s often purported to be). Even with all the crowds, though, it was somehow easy to tune them out. To feel like we had our own private wonderland for skipping stones, taking silly pictures, and quietly soaking in the scenery. We were all glad we traveled the extra miles, to see the Jökullsárlón. What’s Iceland without the ice, right? We shot a ton of pictures: the icebergs, the seals, the mountains, my friends, everything! It was other-worldly. Magnificent. Awe-inspiring. I kept muttering, “I can’t even…” Sometimes the muttering became bellowing. “I. Can’t. Even.”

The real coup de grace, though, was the second ice lagoon: the Fjallsárlón. We didn’t even know it existed. Even when we turned off the road to see it, on a whim, a glimpse, a road sign, we didn’t expect much. In fact, we told ourselves we were going to speed-walk our way there and back to the car, just to say we saw it, snap a picture, and move on.

But then we saw it, like a vision of heaven coming down to earth: the clouds, the glaciers, the icebergs, the water reflecting the setting sun. I simply couldn’t do the quick visit / tourist thing. I had to sit on a rock and breathe. The moment overwhelmed me and made me think — which was, actually, kind of the point of the whole trip. Our mid-life crisis. Our celebration of the passage of time. I couldn’t just snap-and-run. I had to sit down on a rock and breathe. Absorb the enormity and stillness. The blue of the water. The white of the clouds and ice. The gold of the fields off further to the east. I heard an echoing crack off to the north, high up the glaciated hill: a massive sheet of ice sliding, slipping, shifting, breaking, drifting, settling. At a glacial pace.

“It makes me sad,” Jason said, breaking the silence.

“Hmm?” I asked, with my eyebrows as much as my voice. I had a feeling of what he was getting at, but I wanted him to say it.

“I know it’s strange, but it’s sad because I know I’m never going to experience this again. Not in the same way, at least.”

“We never would have thought of that when we were 20 years old,” Chad adds. “But we couldn’t. We weren’t capable at that point in our lives.”

This is the thing about middle age. 40 years old. A couple of decades providing some time to love and to lose. To put beauty in perspective. I still haven’t completely figured it out, but it seems that the pacing is a part of it. The way time slows down and speeds up, it adds complexity. And complexity adds beauty. And beauty adds awe and submission to that which is beyond us. A life of worship.

It’s a hopeless exercise, isn’t it? Trying — fumbling — to put words to this inexpressible apprecation. For life. For time. For God. I can’t even. I. Can’t. Even.

Still, the moment is significant enough that I must try to capture it. To freeze it in ice and stop it up in one of the stillest places on earth. Even if it keeps sliding, slipping, shifting, breaking, drifting, settling. I take solace in the fact that it’s at least moving at a glacial pace.

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3 x 40

We were born within a year of each other. We graduated from our respective high schools the same spring and entered Bowling Green State University the same fall. 

During our college years, we spent hours and hours together on-campus as underclassmen. Then as upperclassmen, we signed leases to the same off-campus apartment complex and moved in together. We even traveled together for a Spring Break adventure in Florida in 1997.

All along the way, we pushed each other to grow spiritually, through our mutual involvement in H2O. We pushed each other to grow academically, each excelling in our respective fields — Communications, Physical Therapy, and Business Education — at BGSU. We pushed each other to grow physically, too, through working out at the Rec Center together and playing on intramural sports teams together.

After graduation, we kept in touch. We got married, had kids, developed our careers — and often enjoyed opportunities to celebrate with each other along the way. In the last decade, we’ve even become colleagues and co-pastors in ministry.

More recently, we’ve all turned 40 years old within a year of each other. And to mark the occasion, we decided to set out on another adventure: traveling to Iceland together. It’s a rite of passage in a place that’s rugged and manly and wild. I’ve always wanted to visit the Iceland, but it’s never been a top destination for a family vacation or an anniversary getaway… So this seems to be the time and circumstances for making this happen.

We’re squeezing the trip in during a busy season of life and ministry — but I’m so glad we’re making it happen. Together.

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Fun, Full Week with Family

My Dad retired this summer. His career spanned 40 years of ministry employment in three small church pastorates, in the Richland Correctional Institute (both as a business school administrator and as the President/Founder of Berean Institute offering Bible classes for inmates), and as a mentor/helper for pastors. I’m proud of what he was able to accomplish through all his years in ministry, and I’m honored to be following in his footsteps as a missionary / pastor.

Still, it seems like my Dad’s most enduring legacy (and hopefully mine someday, as well) may be his (and my Mom’s) family. We all converged in Kent over the past week, traveling in from Philadelphia, Fort Worth, and Cleveland: to celebrate my Dad’s retirement and to enjoy each other’s company.

It’s been a fun, full week.

We’ve eaten lots of good food (especially ice cream).

We’ve taken in a baseball game on an absolutely gorgeous summer evening.

We spent a day at the Munroe Falls Metro Park.

And we’ve sat around our houses, talking and playing games.

It’s been a lovely way to celebrate this milestone in my parents’ life, our family connections, and the end of the summer.

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