Remembering Virginia

Marci’s maternal grandmother, Virginia Hettinger, died on December 5, 2018 after an extended decline in health. She was 94 years old. I was asked to deliver the message at her funeral yesterday. Here’s an adapted version of what I shared:

[Jesus said] “Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life. (John 5:24)

As we enter into the darkest time of the year and the Advent season unfolds around us, we remember Virginia Hettinger, who died last week. I’m married to Virginia’s granddaughter, Marci. I also serve as pastor for a Collegiate church at Kent State University called H2O — which was a frequent topic of conversation with Virginia in life. (she loved to “talk shop” about ministry).

Because of my work with college students, most of the funerals with which I’ve been involved have been very sudden, unexpected, and deeply-sorrowful affairs. It’s different in the case of Virginia, though. Her life was full. Her death came slowly, at the age of 94. And even before she made it into her tenth decade of life, Virginia had done a good bit of thinking about her life, her legacy, her death, and even her own funeral. In the week following her death, the family found a document that was written in April of 1957. This was just as Virginia was getting ready to deliver a baby, and she was fearful that the birthing process might not go smoothly. So she wrote up a sort of Advance Directive to be used in the case of her death. And even though she would live another 70+ years, this Advance Directive from 1957 seems remarkably consistent with the Virginia that I’ve known over the last 30 years. So I thought I would read it for you, here today.

To be opened in case of my death (Mrs. Wm Hettinger):

If I should die before the Lord comes I want that every one who comes to the funeral home or service in the church to receive in song and word the clear simple message of salvation, especially my relatives, neighbors, and parents of any school children who might come. Perhaps in large print could be John 20:31 somewhere on the casket.

Other verses to be used in the service are John 3:36; 5:24; 1 John 5:10-12 and 1 John 2:28; 3:2 and my life verses Daniel 12:3; Philippians 3:9,10; Colossians 3:1,2

For Hymns I want the one used at our wedding “It May Not Be on the Mountain Heights” and “O Love that will Not Let Me Go” to be sung. Also “For You I Am Praying.”

Definitely — announce in papers and to relatives — only one piece of flowers (from immediate family) and any other to go to help some part of Edith’s and Theresia’s work and visual aids for our [Sunday School] such as maps and flannel graph, strip film and slides and someone appointed to take care of them, please.

April 4, 1957

Virginia Hettinger

P.S. – Any of my flannel graph and books that family might not want (save some of nicer ones for Louise) give to Edith and Mrs. Shook.

Now, you might know that a preacher like me can easily fill up a whole sermon with a single dependent clause from a single sentence in a single verse… So Virginia has given me 20-30 hours worth of content here — in addition to some very explicit instructions about her flannel graphs!

I’m joking, of course, but there is some seriously great content in the passages of Scripture to which Virginia alluded in her Advance Directive. They’re passages that speak of the assurance we have when we trust Jesus to shield us from the consequences of sin and death… to give us eternal life… and to live whatever earthly life God may give us in bold, unabashed hope of eternal, heavenly things.

Bold and unabashed sounds like Virginia, doesn’t it? That one verse that she suggested including “in large print” on her casket — John 20:31 — was written towards the end of the Apostle John’s account of the life of Jesus. John saw and heard a lot as one of the Twelve Disciples who walked closely with Jesus throughout his earthly ministry. So as he was winding up his account, he conceded the point that his Gospel was not an exhaustive account of every message or miracle of Jesus. But he summarized his reasons for writing his Gospel as follows:

But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:31)

I can only skim the surface of a couple of those Bible texts, and I’m only briefly alluding to Virginia’s life and legacy here because there’s just too much to cover. But I do believe that all of Virginia’s favorite Bible verses were written… and the days of Virginia’s own life were lived… “that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” She wasn’t perfect. She knew that. But she was radically-committed to God, and she radically-desired to have His goodness proclaimed.

One of the “Life Verses” in Virginia’s letter came from the third chapter of Philippians:

…I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

In a time like this, it’s especially valuable to remember the bigger picture of heaven and earth, life and death: “the clear, simple message of salvation” spoken of by Virginia… God created us to walk with Him. In the beginning, there was no pain or dysfunction or death. But we’ve struggled with sin and separation from God and the fall-out from all our self-centered choices for generations and generations. The battle between good and evil, and between life and death is still very evident around us. All too evident. Still, despite all our best efforts, we cannot manufacture righteousness on our own. Fortunately, God loves us so much that He took the initiative to fix the problem. The Bible says that God loved the world so much that He sent his one and only Son, Jesus, so that whoever believes in Him doesn’t have to perish but can have eternal life. Our righteousness comes from God on the basis of faith.

Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t be stumbling through the darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life.” If you haven’t considered the state of your own soul, I (and Virginia) would encourage you to look for that light. Choose to believe in Jesus and follow him, so that you can overcome darkness and death and experience everlasting life.

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Frolicking and Hustling

Our family has included Canton’s Frosty Frolic 5K as a part of holiday traditions for five years, now. We don’t go all that fast, but we have a lot of fun.

This year, though, the 5K with family on Saturday night served as a warm-up for a longer race with friends on Sunday morning: Sandusky’s Santa Hustle Half-Marathon.

I’ve been training for the last several months with a group of Life Group leaders from H2O. None of them had ever run a half-marathon before, so we didn’t know quite what to expect on race day. As someone with experience running at different paces, I was fully prepared for our 13.1 miles to take as long as two hours and fifteen minutes, or as short as one hour and thirty-five minutes — depending on whatever it would take to give everyone in our group at least one running companion and provide for as positive an experience of the half-marathon as possible.

As it turned out, I ran the fastest half-marathon I’ve ever run!

My friend David was a cross-country runner in high school, so he was naturally inclined towards speed (like a 6:40/mile pace). But he thought it might be prudent for him to go for something more like a 7:15/mile pace). So I started out with him, running two seven-minute miles right off the bat before we separated. David surged ahead for awhile, while I kept chugging along at my 7:15/mile pace — but we boosted each other again from Mile 8 through Mile 13. So I ended up finishing in one hour, 34 minutes, and 26 seconds, within 10-15 meters of David.

It felt like a metaphor for the semester. This Fall has not been flashy; it’s felt rather pedestrian a lot of the time, in fact. I’ve mentally prepared for this to be one of the “slowest” or lowest-ranking semesters of all my time in Kent (and I’m still not completely sure what an accurate assessment of the semester should be). But the one thing that I have felt good about is the way that other leaders have been brought along.

My friends and colleagues Daniel and AJ have started to think through more of a pastoral lens, at least to a certain extent, and I notice some clear progression in the way they’re thinking about life and ministry. Lauren has been coming along, too; I’m proud of the ways she has developed as a Staff Manager and more “senior” figure on our Staff Team. Brooke is having a great first semester on Staff, and her enthusiasm seems to be building towards making a career of it. My weekday morning “Breakfast Club” with Dylan, Jake, Morgan, Luke, and Lauren has been worthwhile, if not “wow”ing. And I really appreciate the group of Life Group leaders I coach: the ongoing discipleship dialogue between Marci, Kairie, and Rachel… the friendships forged while training for the Santa Hustle… Breakfast Club… and other flashes of brilliance on the periphery.

So, in a way, I can see how this semester might be a kind of “PR” after all, albeit somewhat “accidental” and different from how I expected it might feel.

Posted in Ohio, Recreation, Running, Weather | Leave a comment

Favorite Ornaments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Turkey Trouble

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

The Gospel According to Cub Scout Troop 3256

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Purple at the Polls

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

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

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

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A Peek at the Peak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Light that Leads to Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Paper Generation

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

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

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

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

Why is this?

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

Posted in Culture, Nostalgia | Comments Off on Paper Generation