Monumental Days

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Cor got braces, Olivia celebrated her 12th birthday, and Elliot went to his first high school dance. All within the space of about 36 hours.

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Life is passing quickly, yet these are monumental days for our family. So today, I felt compelled to get out our old D-SLR camera and started snapping photographs which provide a depth that just doesn’t come across in my smartphone pictures (as beautiful and sharp and accessible as those images may be).

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The above two images of Olivia gazing upon her Birthday (Cup)Cake(s) are great examples of the way that focus and exposure can be manipulated to capture special moments in special ways.

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The D-SLR shots can be troublesome, though. I feel like my smartphone may have actually fared better for the Homecoming group shoot — where a lot of my exterior shots turned out over overexposed, my interior shots turned out blurry, and it takes extra steps to share the images with the other families whose kids were a part of the group.

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In any event, I’m glad for the opportunity to watch my kids have these experiences and be a part of documenting the process. What a privilege it is to have this front row seat to three really amazing life-long shows! I’m praying for wisdom to make the most of these monumental days.

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Tugged

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My thoughts have been tugged back to last Thursday night for more a whole week now.

The air was cool with the first hint of autumn. A group of young women stood in a semi-circle. They wore strappy, stylish clothing — ideal for catching the eyes of young men in the clubs, but poorly suited for keeping warm on such a cool night — so they stood around our table to warm themselves with hot pancakes and ambient heat from the griddle upon which the pancakes had been made.

“These pancakes are a-maz-ing!” said one of the women. The others nodded, mouths full. They were all smiling, laughing, and rolling their eyes back in exaggerated ecstasy at the exquisite flavor of our just-add-water-to-the-mix Hungry Jack pancakes.

We’re the toast of the town on nights like this. Our pancakes are the “best” food in the world! We are the “nicest” people in the world! It’s fun to be in the middle of the festive atmosphere, even though we know that most of the people on the streets are too intoxicated to remember much of us the following day. More than the fun, though, we sincerely believe that our presence participation in Kent’s “Thirsty Thursday” downtown nightlife has a deeper purpose: bringing pancakes, prayer, and the love of Jesus to a place of darkness, drunkenness, and spiritual thirst.

Seriously, though,” said another one of the women. “You have no idea how good these pancakes are.” She looked at me, her eyes starting to well up with tears. Something deeper was happening, underneath the layer of pancakes, underneath the layer of alcohol, underneath the frivolity of the moment.

“I’m glad you like them,” I said. “Our gift to you.”

“No, like, for real.” She said and leaned in closer to repeat herself. “You have no idea how good these pancakes are.” Her voice dropped in pitch and power. Her eyes, too, dropped to the pavement. “And you have no idea how bad I am.”

The rest of her group was starting to stir, wiping off their mouths, throwing away their plates, getting ready to hit the next watering hole. I could tell that our time was limited. Still, I leaned in closer as well and said, “Tell me why you say that.”

At that moment, the other women started tugging their friend away from the table. “C’mon Kaylyn.” It might have been Katelyn or Kayla or Katie; I don’t remember clearly. “Let’s go. Let’s go.” They moved like shepherds pulling along a flock of stubborn goats. Two of them grabbed their friend by the arms and literally tugged her away from the table.

“You’re welcome to stay and talk.” I tried to hold her gaze and offer reassurance. She returned the gaze and resisted the momentum for two or three seconds, but the tug of the group was too strong. She stumbled down the sidewalk with her friends, like tumbleweed in a western ghost town. I prayed for God’s grace to intersect her life at some other moment.

Looking back, I’m not sure there was much else to be done in that moment. Still I’ve been haunted by the interaction ever since. Tugged into prayer. And anticipation for the day when that young woman’s thirst will be quenched in Christ.

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To Olivia, on the Occasion of Her 12th Birthday

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Dear Olivia,

You’ve probably noticed me organizing our family photographic archives recently. I mean, how could you not notice me, camped out at our family’s desktop computer, blocking you from access to the latest YouTube episode of Good Mythical Morning?!? The archiving project has been a big job — bigger than I expected it to be — but it’s been so worthwhile. Especially knowing that your birthday was coming up. It’s been fascinating to look at the pictures of you through the years: glamming in your crazy outfits… goofing off with funny faces… turning your head just so… Such a cutie! It’s been amazing to watch you grow from a newborn baby to a twelve-year-old girl, right before my eyes.

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Speaking of which: You’re a twelve-year-old now! Happy Birthday!!!

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Not that you should pay all that much attention to the numbers. Numbers can produce unnecessary anxiety, like on Sunday nights when you’re thinking about needing to get up for school the next morning and worried that you’re not feeling sleepy enough at the right time. I think it’s great how you’ve learned to just put a washcloth over the alarm clock on those types of nights. Ages can be similar, especially as you get older. “Oh no, I’m turning forty now! I should be far more accomplished by this phase in my life!” Or, “Oh no, I’m turning eighteen now! I’m legally an adult, but I don’t feel like an adult at all!” Or, “Oh no, I’m turning twelve now! I can’t order off the kids’ menu any more!”

Just throw a washcloth over it, if the age thing stresses you out.

You just need to know that you’re doing well, Olivia. In fact, you are crushing the “growing up” thing: staying true to who God made you to be, while also staying mindful of others… listening to the wisdom of those who have gone ahead of you, while also keeping yourself flexible and open to new experiences… maintaining a strong sense of responsibility while also recognizing your limitations… Just don’t go too hard on yourself, Olivia. Don’t worry about things. Remember our adaptation of the sixth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, and take your cue from the birds, lilies, and chipmunks. As long as you can keep that in mind, Livy-Girl, I think you’re going to do just fine.

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I’m so proud of the person you are and the person you’re becoming. You are smart. You are kind. You are beautiful. You are fun. You are trustworthy. You are loveable. You are my daughter!

Always the archivist, I also recently looked back on some of the other birthday letters I’ve written for you through the years. And in particular, I was struck by the letter I wrote for you on the occasion of your sixth birthday. This was half a lifetime ago for you, but some of the thoughts from that letter still feel relevant:

I love you so much, Olivia. I marvel at the ways you reflect the beauty of God, your Creator. Your smile has a spectacular radiance. Your jumps and skips and twirls show your grace and exuberance. Your keen attention to colors and patterns and textures of clothing demonstrates a special care for beauty. And I’ve noticed you several times, recently, noticing yourself — beautiful and unashamed. Just this past Sunday, I saw you catch your reflection through the sheer curtains in the full-length mirrors at the front of the H88, just after our church’s worship gathering. You went up to the wall, parted the curtains so you could see yourself more clearly, and you practiced your smile. You raised and lowered your eyebrows. You adjusted your hair and the position of your neck, and you practiced your smile some more… And then you bounced off to frolic again in the big pillow pile with Amke and Aude and Cor…

The years have tempered some of the ways you appreciate, accentuate, and express your beauty. Still, I’m regularly amazed by the glory that you carry with you and cast about, wherever you go. You’ve still got those gorgeous blue eyes and honey-colored hair. You make beautiful fairy gardens with the neighbor girls. You craft the best wedding cards and birthday cards I’ve ever seen (exponentially greater than any store-bought card for a fraction of the cost!). You. Are. Beautiful. You reflect God’s glory in a way that amazes me.

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But it’s not just external beauty! You have — and have long had — a genuinely beautiful heart. Back on the occasion of your sixth birthday, I wrote:

You know one of the other things I really appreciate about you, Olivia? It’s your kindness and consideration for others. I’m so proud to see the way that you take care of your little brother, for instance. You offer practical assistance… But I’ve also noticed that you offer key emotional support to Cor as well: making him laugh when he’s tempted to cry, being a friend to him, and sticking up for him when he’s getting pushed around (albeit inadvertently) by other kids at school or church. It’s amazing to me that you do these things naturally — that me or Mom never really had to teach you. You just do it because you’re that kind of person. A kind kind of person.

That’s still you, Olivia. Now, Cor has gotten better at taking care of himself since 2010, but I love the way you look out for Maddy and Brooklyn, Lila and Ally, Morgan and Reese and Claire… Now that you’ve finally reached the legal age for babysitting, the world had better pay attention! You’ve got a lot to offer the world, Olivia.

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“You then, my daughter, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Timothy 2:1-2). Stay strong through the upcoming storms of adolescence. Keep anchored in God, and keep thinking of others, and you’ll be fine. I love you so, so much — and I wish you the very happiest of birthdays.

Yours forever,
Dad

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Cadence

I pulled on my socks (gray Thorlo Experias), I tied my shoes (blue Saucony Guide 9s), and then I sat down to a quick bowl of cereal (Honey Nut Medley Crunch).

On the table in front of me, I opened my Bible (Holman Christian Standard Study Bible) to the very beginning — Genesis, chapters one through three — and I read the story of God’s creation of the world, bringing clarity and order to chaos, followed all-too-quickly by the story of Mankind’s undoing of that created order, reintroducing chaos and confusion, ultimately leading to the loss of paradise.

Then I went out for a three-mile run in the tropical heat and humidity.

As I ran, I started thinking about the ways that Genesis 1-3 point to the Gospel. The story of our ancient ancestors calls all of us out for our stubborn, independent streaks. Our self-centered choices illuminate the ills of insecurity and identity that need to be redeemed and restored. The concessions of chapter 3 make it evident how far we’ve strayed from God’s original design: covering our nakedness with animal skins, preying upon other sentient creatures for our sustenance, subjecting ourselves to hard labor, missing out on the opportunity to walk daily with God…

Light bulbs flashed in my consciousness as I ran, illuminating all the connective tissue in the Bible, from the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden to the Trees of Life prophesied in the New Jerusalem, from Genesis to Revelation, but then I also realized that I was dwelling an awful lot on the recognition of- and repentance from sin in my understanding of the Gospel. Not so much on the hope, glory, and beauty of the rescue from that sin, which God has enacted for us.

Such a typical pattern for me. When I try to impress upon others the power of the Gospel, I often come across as overly sober, serious, and heavy. The joy of salvation doesn’t always carry as well as the sorrow of sin. Today’s run was not the first time I’ve realized a need for growth in that area. What occurred to me on the run, however, was the way that everything I do in life — either positive or negative — can be an opportunity for Gospel proclamation.

If I experience some element of “success” or “heroism” — showing God’s love in some meaningful or practical way, speaking an especially-insightful truth in an opportune moment, making something look easy for me even if it may be challenging for others — then these are opportunities to make much of God’s glory. His Spirit gives life and power to my body and soul, which would otherwise be dead and weak.

If, however, I experience some element of “failure” or “villany” — messing up in some subtle or spectacular way, perpetuating lies, acting from insecurity, reverting to the same sins again and again and again well after I “should” be past them — then these are opportunities to make much of God’s grace. I may well be a wretch, in my natural state, but God’s amazing grace has saved me! And is still saving me, day-by-day!

Glory, Grace… Glory, Grace… Glory, Grace…

Like the cadence of a run beside the river, along the Main Street bicycle paths, around the corner and onto the sidewalk — Left, Right, Left, Right, Left, Right — God’s Glory and Grace carry me through the life I lead here on earth. All of it goes back to His work in my life! He propels me forward, much like walking and running are really just an elaborate system of systematically losing- and regaining one’s balance.

Something about this feels revolutionary to me — that even the “downer” parts of the Gospel can be reclaimed as avenues for celebrating God’s grace, goodness, and sufficiency. Sometimes, I don’t have to mention my guilt, impurity, and inadequacy. Sometimes I do. But either way, there is much cause for celebration! God is so good. The Gospel is such Good News. We just have to keep running in it.

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To Cor, on the Occasion of His 9th Birthday

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Dear Cor,

Happy Birthday, my boy! You’re nine years old. Wow! I find it hard to believe that you’re a 4th-grader, already in your second-to-last year of elementary school. Your growth really stood out to me when we visited the amusement park as a family this summer, and we discovered that you’ve finally grown taller than 48 inches: allowing you to ride on almost all the rides. And you’re nowhere near finished with growing!

By all objective measures, you’re a big kid now. Certainly a lot bigger than you were on the day you were born back in Amsterdam. Still, I have to say that you are the cutest, cuddliest, treakest Chuka-Bear I know! Seriously: I love your tender heart. You embody Ephesians 4:32 better than most people I know, instinctively following the Bible’s instruction to, “Be kind and compassionate (tender-hearted) to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” It’s not just your youth; it’s a beautiful part of your character. Still, I love the way that you’re still relatively young, cuddly, and tender. Even when you get taller and heavier and stronger than me — which, honestly, may not be all that far from now into the future — you’ll still be my baby boy.

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I love you very, very much, Cor.

Your ninth year of life was a monumental one, wasn’t it? It was a year for winning championships and climbing mountains and developing friendships.

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Do you remember how cold it was on the fields of Edinburg Park last October, when your Kent All-Stars won the league trophy?!? Do you remember how hot it was in the Rustic Cafe, there at the YMCA of the Rockies, when the Cavaliers finished off their amazing run to the championship?!?

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I will always cherish the memories of our hiking adventures in the Rocky Mountain National Park this summer. Do you remember how beautiful the snow-capped mountains looked from the top of Bible Point? Wasn’t that a crazy adventure: looking for moose — but finding only mosquitoes — as we hiked together with the rest of the family along the Green Mountain Trail to the Big Meadows? Do you remember what it felt like to stand in the cool spray of Ouzel Falls? Even though you may have needed some convincing to go along with the adventures at times, I was proud of the way you hung with more grown-up hikers.

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It also seems like you experienced quite a bit of social development this year: making friends with all your soccer teammates, with Tyler at school, with Luke in Colorado, and with Max, Gavin, and Garrett right here in our neighborhood. You’re such a delightful person. Your presence is a present, or gift, to those around you. I’m excited to see the ways that you continue to bless the world — simply by being you.

I’ve recently been reading Philippians, from the Bible, and the following verses from the first chapter seem appropriate to your situation: “I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:3-6). You’re God’s workmanship, his masterpiece! You already display so much of God’s goodness, and I am so thankful for all that you do and all that you are. The mere thought of you makes me smile. Still, I’m also excited to think of what it might look like when your development is carried through to its completion in Christ.

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How will this happen? God will do it! You don’t have to struggle or strive to be loved by God — just like you don’t have to struggle or strive to be loved by me! God is the one who completes the work that needs to be done in your life. I do hope, however, that you will cooperate with God’s work and let Him do what needs to be done. This is where all the perseverance and mental toughness we’ve been talking about come in. Like winning a championship or climbing a mountain or loving people, we often have to go through uncomfortable stuff in order to get to the place God has prepared for us. Growing up will be uncomfortable at times. School, sports, spirituality… all worthwhile pursuits demand patience, perseverance, and mental toughness. You’ll have to endure difficulties, regardless, but if you face the challenges with a positive attitude and a refusal to complain you’ll have a much more enjoyable experience along the way.

I know you’re up for the challenges, as you head into your 10th year of life. You’re a remarkable person, Cor, and God is living within you. Carry on in the strength and joy you possess, and know that I’m cheering for you each step of the way.

Love,
Dad

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The Strength of Sophomores, the Joy of Juniors

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When Anna walked out of Kent State University’s Memorial and Athletic Convocation Center, she was just following the crowd. Not that there were any other options. The Class of 2019 was pressed shoulder-to-shoulder, rolling along in an ocean of events designed to initiate freshmen to campus life. The Convocation was all speeches and songs and school spirit: classic college stuff. Still, it was an awfully long time to sit — so the concluding invitation to lunch at an adjacent building motivated students to surge out onto the walkways.

“Did you get your H2O Card for this year yet?”

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Anna had not. Everyone was grabbing a card, though, so she reached out her hand and took the small piece of plastic. It offered discounts to local businesses on one side with a simple H2O logo and website on the other side: www.h2okent.com. It was the first time she had ever heard of H2O. But it wasn’t the last.

Over the course of the following days, weeks, and months, Anna learned a lot more about H2O: a church on campus, specifically designed to support students’ spiritual journey during their university years. She worshipped with H2O on Sunday mornings. She got involved in a Life Group. She participated in the church’s seven-week discipleship experience called The Well. She even went on a short-term missions trip to Mexico over Spring Break. From that first day at the Convocation to the last day of her freshman year, Anna’s collegiate experience was significantly shaped by her involvement with H2O.

So it makes sense that Anna has been highly motivated to participate in H2O’s Welcome Weekend activities, as a sophomore this year.

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These students aren’t just serving sacrificially. They’re serving enthusiastically! They put in hours and hours of ministry — often while logging significant time working another job and/or engaging in full-time study — and they do it all with joy. I’m amazed at how much we’re able to accomplish during Welcome Week each year. The sophomores really do seem to provide the strength: combining availability with enthusiasm and a touch of experience. Juniors bring the joy that undergirds everyone’s experience of Welcome Week. And even though I don’t have alliterative words for the pieces that other players bring to the table — there’s no replacing the wisdom and commitment of seniors and graduate students. Staff bring institutional memory and a strong backbone of support. And the people from the city-side of our church provide sacrificial service that makes everything feel more stable.

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It’s magnificent to see everything come together during this time of the year. And, to whatever extent God allows us to influence incoming freshmen, for many years to come.

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First Day of School 2016

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Today is the first day of classes for Kent City Schools, and this year we’ve got three kids in three different schools.

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Elliot is starting 9th grade at Theodore Roosevelt High School.

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Olivia is starting 7th grade at Stanton Middle School.

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And Cor is starting 4th grade at Walls Elementary School.

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I’m very proud of all three of our kids and the ways they’re growing up. They left for school with eager, enthusiastic attitudes, and it seems like there’s a lot of potential for good things to happen in the year to come.

Our family will likely be stretched at times, especially once the Kent State University academic year starts in another week and a half. But we’re mindful of the advice we’ve received from several friends to “Enjoy it while you can” — and we’re looking for ways to rejoice along the way.

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Establishing an Accurate Sense of Ohio

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In Amsterdam, we got lots of visitors. They were prepared to be impressed. Inclined toward romanticism, if anything. Consequently, my inclination would be to show them “the real Amsterdam” that lay off the beaten path. I’d bring people along for the bicycle commute from our apartment to our kids’ school, winding through the busy bicycle paths of our working-class, immigrant-laden neighborhood. I’d take people to stand in line with me and the locals at the bakery which served the best raisin bread in town. Not that there was anything wrong with visiting the Anne Frank Huis, or watching the street performers on the Dam, or taking pictures of the windmills and 17th Century canal houses. I just thought that visitors could get a more complete, more rounded picture of the city by seeing the nitty-gritty, everyday stuff that couldn’t be found in the travel books.

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Kent, Ohio, however, is not as much of an international destination. If anything, northeast Ohio has a poor reputation or negative connotation for a lot of people. Certainly not much in the way of travel books that have been written about this corner of the world. So how does one show the subtle beauty and brilliance of “the real Kent” allowing a visitor to get a full picture that’s not just nitty-gritty, everyday stuff?

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These were the questions on my mind when we welcomed our dear friend Claire, from Amsterdam, to Kent for the weekend. We took her out to Handel’s for generous portions of Spouse Like a House ice cream, served in fresh waffle cones. We relaxed and talked about old times in our living room, while images of the summer Olympics played in the background and Marci and I folded laundry. We went for a hike up Brandywine Creek, in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. We had lunch at the local orchard as it hosted a Sweet Corn Festival. We worshipped together with a couple dozen friends from H2O and then went out for Claire’s first taste of Chipotle. And we putzed around at my parents’ house, along with my sister and her kids, doing home improvement projects and catching up on life. And then we took her on a long car ride through the state’s rolling farmlands, stopping for cheese samples at Grandpa’s Cheesebarn and milkshakes at Porky’s Drive-In.

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I felt insecure about what we had to offer (though it should be said that Claire was an absolutely lovely house guest). I wanted our friend to enjoy our corner of the world, even though we had nothing approaching the architectural wonders of Amsterdam or the majestic mountains of Colorado (where many others of our old friends from Amsterdam have settled). I don’t know how much I can control of other people’s perceptions, though. As I reflect on the weekend, however, I realize that those 48 hours really did include a lot of the elements that I’ve really come to love about Ohio: fun with family, living faith, peach pie, peanut butter milkshakes, and deep conversation with friends.

What more could a person want? Whether other people are able to see it or not — I’m glad that I can see the joys of life in Ohio. If other people can see it as well, so much the better.

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World Names

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Our family loves the Olympics (we even created themed snacks to mark the occasion!). They’re such an interesting study in cultural dynamics. For example, this year’s Opening Ceremonies, in particular, reminded me of a strange quirk of international protocol: Naming conventions.

Why do countries have to use different names for each other? Couldn’t we all use the names for each other’s countries, similar to the way we use each other’s first names? I’ve never been one to anglicize “Juan” or “Johannes” to “John,” so why would I do the equivalent for groups of people?

I thought of this more often when I lived in Amsterdam: Why can’t we all call it “Nederland” instead of “The Netherlands?” Or is “Italia” really that much harder to say than “Italy?” Why do we have to spell the Olympic host country’s name as “Brazil” when they clearly prefer the spelling “Brasil?” I know it gets a little more difficult when we step into other language groups that use different alphabets, but still… Why can’t we all call China “Zhōngguó?” Or Egypt “Misr?”

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Conceptual names like “The United States of America” or “République démocratique du Congo” may be some of the trickiest — but I think we could figure out some workarounds, like “USA” (universally pronounced “You-ess-ay”) or “RD du Congo” (universally pronounced “Air-day-doo-Congo”). Sure: we’d probably mispronounce each other’s names sometimes, but it seems like that would be preferable to the alternative we have now.

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Things I Miss about Colorado

It’s been a week since our family’s departure from Estes Park Leadership Training (EPLT), and I’ve noticed there are things I miss about Colorado.

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The people. Our family built some great relationships at Leadership Training, and already — after just a week of being away — we find ourself missing all the friends we made (as well as all the existing friendships we strengthened) out there. Fortunately, 16 of these LT friends will be coming back to Kent in a few more weeks. Even so, I imagine things will never be quite the same as they were over the summer of 2016.

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The mountains. I’m actually not complaining about Ohio’s landscape. As a matter of fact, I think that the lush, leafy, green woodlands around Kent are absolutely beautiful. But there is something awe-inspiring about the mountains. It’s amazing to look out from the top of one mountain and identify all the other places one has visited, throughout the course of a summer. I didn’t understand it at the beginning of the summer — why others would ritually point out the mountains they could identify — but by the end of the summer I came to understand how there’s a unique personal story for each mountain that one gets to climb.

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The weather. I took it for granted a lot of the time — but the weather in Estes Park was ideal! We woke up to brilliant blue skies every morning. Seriously, I cannot think of a single overcast morning during the time we were there! High temperatures most days were in the 70s. When rain showers came, they would quickly blow through in the course of an hour or two. And my typical seasonal allergies were negligible, especially compared to the sinus-centered misery I’ve experienced in the last week since coming back to Ohio in full, late-summer bloom.

Colorado had a lot of things going for it, but to be fair there are also things I do not miss about Colorado.

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Communication problems. We had a hard time keeping in touch with people while we were out in Colorado. I’m kind of embarrassed to admit how nice it’s been — but the last week has allowed me to rediscover how lovely it is to have reliable access to mobile telephone and internet services. Phone calls… text messages… point-to-point directions… Wikipedia and IMDB at my fingertips at all times… Communication works much better without mountains and with a higher population density to motivate service providers. The battery in my smartphone lasts all day now, when it doesn’t have to exhaust itself searching for a signal! It feels like we’ve rejoined the 21st Century.

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Separation from neighbors, friends, and family. This goes along with the communication problems outlined above, but there were a lot of people who mean quite a lot to me — but with whom I did not have a lot of interaction over the last two months. I finally got to play basketball with my Dad again this morning. I talked to my sister today for the first time in months. And even though it’s funny how popular the last week of July seems for Ohioans to go on family vacations, I’ll have a lot more people with whom I can finally catch up when everyone else gets back from all their traveling!

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The beds. I have to admit that our lives are a lot more comfortable here in Kent, with our beds, our couches, our cooking implements, our dishwasher, our two vehicles (plus bicycles), a wider array of clothing choices, and a bunch of the other “creature comforts” that I tend to take for granted here at home. It may be shallow to rejoice in these shifts toward the more familiar and more comfortable — but I do rejoice in these things.

All in all, I’m really glad that we got to spend such a significant portion of our summer in Colorado; but I’m also glad that we’ve gotten to come home.

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