“Get to” vs. “Have to”

I’ve been thinking a lot, recently, about the benefits of a “get to” mindset instead of a “have to” mindset.

It started with the snows that came on Thursday and Friday. It continued through H2O’s Senior Retreat on Saturday. And it’s flowed into today’s H2O responsibilities as well: staffing our “Prayer Team” (which happened to be a team of one today)… counseling a young couple through some turbulent times in their relationship… and Life Group coaching at the end of the day.

The truth is that it’s been a busy week. I’m tired, and I fear the coming week (at the Collegiate Conference) will deplete my emotional reserves even further. The weather is making an unmistakable pivot towards winter right now. These things are a given. They’re out of my control.

So I really just have to choose my mindset. Do I have to do these things? Or do I get to do these things?

Winter is cold. Daylight is scarce. But there is also a beauty to the frost, the snow, the austerity of the landscape, and the flat, low light. There’s also something lovely about a fire in the fireplace, a hot soup on the stove, and an evening full of family and blankets in the Family Room. I get to rake leaves this afternoon! I get to wear the thick Carhartt flannel I inherited from Bill Hettinger! Between now and the end of the year, I get to continue attempting to complete the Northeast Ohio Loop of the Buckeye Trail when the trails provide a beautiful solitude and stillness! These are privileges that I just cannot enjoy as thoroughly through Spring, Summer, and early-Fall.

I’m working a lot of hours this week, and next week is going to be comparable (if not a heavier workload). It’s my job to shepherd the flock that’s been entrusted to my care: praying, preparing, counseling, preaching, presenting… But I love our church! I love our Staff Team! I get to play a crucial role at a crucial moment in the relationship of a young couple that I love — and I get to do it together with Marci! I get to build relationship, make blankets, sip tea, and pray for the people in our Life Group while sitting fireside in our Family Room this evening, for Life Group Coaching! I get to play key roles at this week’s conference: stimulating interest in European missions, promoting the Collegiate Mentoring Program from the main stage, pitching the Aspen Project to potential investors (and a whole room full of potential practitioners). And all week long, I get to do all this meaningful ministry while dining on tasty food in a really cool college town.

A significant part of what’s helped to shift my mindset is the prayer of Jesus from John 17:1-5. Even though Jesus is in the Garden of Gethsemane, on the eve of his Crucifixion — and even though it’s a highly emotional moment — his prayer doesn’t come across as weepy or woe-is-me. He doesn’t even mention the bloody scourging, shameful mockery, or death-by-suffocation he’s about to endure. Instead, he prays a prayer of glory! “Glorify… glorify… glory… glorify… glory…” Isn’t that amazing?!? Jesus prayed with a “get to” mindset instead of a “have to” mindset!

We can do the same. From day to day, season to season, we can choose gratitude and hopeful anticipation. I don’t always succeed in doing this, of course, but I want to keep trying.

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What’s to Gain from Grumbling?

We Ohioans love to complain about the weather. November makes it easy to complain, with its colder temperatures and shorter hours of daylight. A couple of snowfalls this week have prompted even further fussing… But I went out for a run this morning, with the landscape shrouded in the first snow cover of the season, and as I ran my mind started drifting towards the poetic. When I got back to my house, I jotted down a few quick couplets (#StravaStanzas):

A thought precipitated
as I ran out through the white.

I could decide to hate it.
I could choose fear, flight, or fight.

Or I could celebrate it,
And in the snow delight.

Seriously, though, there is beauty in this time of the year. And honestly, there’s not much we can do about the weather anyway. The climate conditions will persist, regardless our attitude. We can choose to grumble about it, or we can choose to enjoy it.

So I’m trying to enjoy the beautiful things about the snow, and the gray skies, and the frosty air. It would be an awfully long wait until April, if I’m just gritting my teeth and bearing it between now and then.

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Back to Special Things

Last Monday, we went searching for a hidden waterfall. Today, we went searching for cinnamon-sugar mini-donuts.

In both cases, we experienced some success and some failure.

The fall foliage and waterfalls were beautiful in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. But the path to the waterfall was a wild one: crossing the creek several times, leading us up and down steep hills, slipping and sliding on mud all along the way.

This week, we drove half an hour to Garrettsville, Ohio, where I recently saw a restaurant advertising a favorite carnival midway treat. Unfortunately, once we got there, we learned that the cinnamon-sugar mini-donuts were a special, short-term, offer. No longer available. So it seemed like we drove all that way for nothing.

But then we decided to follow the trail of James A. Garfield.

Garfield was the 20th President of the United States of America and the 1st President of Hiram College (just north of Garrettsville). The high school in Garrettsville is named James A. Garfield High School. There’s a small storefront on Main Street that advertises itself as being the James A. Garfield Historical Society (though it never seems to be open). And Hiram College features several statues and plaques commemorating their connection to James A. Garfield.

He wasn’t that memorable of a President, assassinated just six and a half months into his term in office. But he’s still an interesting point of connection to the Gilded Age of Ohio. And we occupied ourselves for an hour or so, wandering in his footsteps — and playing in the football stadium at Hiram College.

No matter what we do on Monday afternoons, I appreciate the chance to spend time with my kids. We’ve got a weekly tradition going back to when our kids were very little. We started by calling it “Special Thing with Daddy.” More recently, it’s been shortened to “Special Thing.” But we try to maintain a variety of museums, parks, cafes, playgrounds, historical sites, and whatever else catches our fancy. As my kids have gotten into middle school and high school, our “Special Thing” has been compromised by after-school activities (especially soccer practices). When soccer season ends, though, it’s all the more special to get back to Special Things.

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Elliot’s Senior Portraits

Elliot

We recently completed the process of shooting Elliot’s senior portraits, and we’re thrilled with how they all turned out.

Elliot

Our friend Jana was the photographer, but hiring her for the job wasn’t just a case of nepotism. She’s a legitimate professional, and she made this an incredibly positive experience for all of us.

Elliot

We took pictures in three different places around Kent, with each location featuring a wardrobe change.

Elliot

Each scene captured a different aspect of Elliot. He’s handsome in a suit, ready to study business at a university starting next year. In addition to that side of him, though, he’s also an enthusiastic athlete, who loves soccer and basketball. He’s a social butterfly, always making friends wherever he goes.

Elliot

He’s a good kid, and we’re proud of the way he’s turning out. That was never in question. Still, it takes some skill and luck to reveal a person’s inner qualities through portraiture.

In addition to the three “scenes” in Kent, we also had the privilege of shooting two times in the Rocky Mountains this summer. We’ve spent three of Elliot’s four high school summers in Estes Park, for my work, so it felt appropriate to include some portraits from there as well.

When I was getting ready to graduate from high school, it was customary to print out a few dozen wallet-sized photographs to include with graduation announcements and hand out to friends in one’s graduating class. But I don’t know if that’s as common these days.

Even if the pictures are just for us, though, I’m glad we took the time and paid the money to capture this season of transition in our son’s life. In case you do want to see more pictures, though, you can see the full gallery of Elliot’s senior portraits at Jana’s site.

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Buttermilk Falls

I consider it a point of pride that I’ve hiked “every trail” in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park (you’ll see why I put some of those words in quotation marks, shortly). Seriously though, I made a quest of it for a couple of years, and I thought I finished around this time last year. My quest included all of the trails officially maintained by the National Park Service. But it also included quite a few others that I found on alternate maps and just while wandering throughout the park.

Still, I hear about secret caves and waterfalls every now and then — and as soon as I become aware of such hidden gems, these destinations become highly intriguing to me. Not too long ago, I heard about a waterfall called Buttermilk Falls. So this afternoon, on a beautiful October day, I decided to set out with my children to “discover” this location.

Blue Hen Falls is a pretty well-known location in the Cuyahoga Valley. It’s a pretty little waterfall, just a quarter of a mile from a parking lot — so even casual hikers can get a lot of “bang” for very little “buck.” But where the official trail to Blue Hen Falls ends, the unofficial trail to Buttermilk Falls begins, largely following the creek as it tumbles downstream.

It’s only about three-quarters of a mile to get from Blue Hen Falls to Buttermilk Falls — and there’s enough of a trail that we never worried about getting lost — but we did have to cross the stream several times. A few sections of “trail” were quite muddy and steep. We lost the trail a few times and found ourselves in thorny patches of briers and burrs.

But eventually, we made it to Buttermilk Falls, and I have to say it’s even more impressive than Blue Hen Falls. Probably twice the height, with a very different sort of stair-step effect (as opposed to the pure free-fall of Blue Hen Falls). We also had Buttermilk Falls completely to ourselves, whereas Blue Hen Falls was overwhelmed with people taking pictures of every angle. It really was a hidden gem, and I’m glad we found it.

If you know of any other “secret” locations in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, which are off the beaten path but still worth some bush-whacking, I’d love to know what you know (feel free to look me up via any of the Social Media profiles listed to the right >>>). I also love to serve as a hike-master for other friends who are looking to discover the Park for themselves. Just let me know, and we can keep digging up treasures together.

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How Kanye West Made a Believer out of Me

I listened to Kanye West’s new album Jesus Is King today. I guess you could say that I’ve casually admired Kanye from afar for the last few years. I’ve appreciated some of his previous hits — just as someone who’s had a soft spot for hip-hop since high school — but I’ve definitely never been steeped in Kanye culture. My friend Aaron, however, has been talking with me about this album for weeks. He’s been sharing with me about the growing mountain of evidence that Kanye has experienced genuine spiritual transformation in the last couple of years. So as someone who’s been a very big fan of Kanye and a very big fan of Jesus, Aaron was very excited about this album’s release. He’s been telling me that it’s all of Kanye’s musical genius with none of his crude language or narcissistic bravado.

I admit that I felt a bit skeptical. He has carved out a niche for himself by being brash, outspoken, self-centered, and a little bit crazy. When I first heard that Kanye was doing “Sunday Services” for people from the music industry and film industry, I thought it was an act of cultural misappropriation. Delays in the release of the album added to my trepidation. Still, I wanted to give the new album a try while out for a run this morning. It was perfect conditions to run: overcast skies, temperatures in the low-40s, fall foliage at its peak. I picked one of my favorite seven-mile routes, and I ran the new album as I ran my route.

I ended up listening to it three times in a row.

I love this album! Seriously! I never thought I’d be saying this about a Kanye West album, but it nourished me. It powered my run with its beats, but it also powered my soul with its lyrics. It was a pretty short album (coming in at just 27 minutes), still it didn’t feel like there was a wasted track.

Selah” and “God Is” made me cry. They gave some of the clearest descriptions of the transformation in Christ that Kanye has experienced. They were worshipful. They were personal. They were multidimensional — speaking to themes of loneliness, addiction, marriage, parenthood, faith, hope, and love. They’re also just really well-constructed songs. “Selah” has a cinematic, almost-operatic quality to it. “God Is” plays like more of a Gospel song. But I’m not as much of an expert in evaluating music, as much as I’m a pastor. So, I think it’s worth stating that the messages of these songs — and the whole album — demonstrated a remarkable consistency with the Bible and with the historical practices of Christianity.

There are a few spots on the album where there are just the slightest sniffs of a prosperity gospel that makes me a little bit uncomfortable. “On God” talks about Kanye’s shoe deals and his need to charge high prices because of the way that the IRS and tithing to his church otherwise threaten to “starve” his family. “Water” includes a long list of prayers which are mostly consistent with Scripture, except for one line in which he asks, “Jesus, give us wealth.” That being noted, there are other places on the album where it’s very clear that Kanye considers suffering, opposition, and poverty a part of the life of faith. So I’m not going to get too hung up on these very minor points of concern.

Most meaningfully, I felt a personal connection to the way that Kanye talked about his relationship with Jesus. His walk with God seems real (as far as I can tell from a great distance). I think my favorite music and message on the album might be featured in “Use This Gospel.” Kanye’s description of faith bears strong similarities to the Apostle Paul, acknowledging his missteps in the past and recognizing that he still has a long road ahead of him. My second-favorite song is probably “Closed on Sunday,” whose haunting melody seems to speak to issues of prioritizing faith and family in a way that’s more consistent with ancient Jews and 16th Century Puritans than the modern, Evangelical practices that are evoked with the title and references to Chick-Fil-A (which I think are actually a metaphor for his wife and family).

Follow God” sounds like classic Kanye, and it provides some valuable background on his faith journey — including the ways that it’s still not easy being Christlike, even after choosing to follow Christ. “Hands On” was also really convicting, particularly given my aforementioned skepticism towards Kanye West coming into this album. One section of the song relates his conundrum in choosing this life of faith: “Told people God was my mission. // ‘What have you been hearing from the Christians?’ // They’d the first ones to judge me. // Make it feel like nobody love me.”

Later on in the song, he says, “If I tried to lead you to Jesus, we get called half-way believers.” But then, he wryly suggests that these naysayers “only halfway read Ephesians.” One of the effects of this song is that it definitely made me want to pray for Kanye. And I would encourage other Christians to do the same, too. After and as they continue listening to this amazing album.

Posted in Culture, God, Introspection, Music, Prayer, Recommendations, Recommended Listening, The Bible | Leave a comment

Library Musings

I feel like my lifetime has given me an interesting vantage point on issues of education, popular culture, and technology.

I remember a primitive sort of coding that I used to make our family’s Commodore 64 mimic the sound of a slide whistle or the howl of a wolf. I remember the early days of the internet, when even the concept of e-mail seemed revolutionary. I remember the introduction of the Video Cassette Recorder (VCR), Compact Discs (CDs), and cordless telephones.

I remember openly scoffing at the idea, shared in an Introduction to Telecommunications lecture in 1995, that each individual would someday have his or her own telephone that they’d carry with them wherever they went. My thought at the time was, “Who’d want to be available at all times?!?” Just a few years later, though, I was an eager part of the crowd transitioning to Palm Pilots (electronic organizers), and eventually to Blackberries and iPhones (smartphones).

My generation is made up of digital immigrants. Our ranks have included a lot of innovators — but the analog world is our native land. We’ve become naturalized citizens, as we’ve adapted to the new world of electronic technologies and internet activity.

But today’s teenagers and young adults — like the college students in the church I pastor, and even my own children — are digital natives. Using electronic devices is second nature for them. So this makes it extra-confusing for me when I realize that there’s one area of electronic, internet-enabled technology that I’ve embraced but most of today’s younger generations have not.

Why haven’t today’s college students and twenty-somethings latched onto e-reading technology? I personally think it’s amazing! The ability to consolidate a whole library to a single device seems so practical and pleasant that I’ve gone “All In” with checking out e-books from the library and purchasing e-books when adding to my own personal library. Especially when it comes to studying the Bible (the book around which I’ve built my life and my career), I’ve found it so nice to keep all my study resources in my pocket at all times. At any given moment, I’ve got multiple versions of the Bible in my phone (not even dependent upon an internet connection) that can be displayed in split-screen format for everyday reading!

Today’s younger generations are different, though.

Their preference for analog-format books is a consistent trend I’ve observed. If I’m ever buying a book for a younger person (which I often do, because of my vocation), and I ask if they’d prefer a digital copy or a hard copy — they almost always choose the hard copy! And even though I’ve asked many people why they prefer paper to the screen, it doesn’t seem like there’s a really clear answer to the question.

They’ll say they like the tactile sensation of a book in their hands, their fingers on a page. They’ll say they get enough screen time in their life through other activities that they prefer alternative means of ingesting information, when they get the choice. They’ll say that a hard copy just feels more “authentic.” But none of these arguments make a whole lot of sense to me. They can’t even come close to convincing me (the “old school” guy) that “old school” books are better than the new technologies available to us.

And I can’t seem to persuade them to my point of view, either.

I’m curious to see if the reasons for these generational preferences get more clear over time. I’m curious to see if our attitudes will further diverge or more-closely converge over time. I’m curious to see if the e-reading industry will be able to survive the lack of interest from younger people.

I certainly hope so. But then again, I’ve bet on the “losing team” plenty of times before. So we’ll see.

Posted in Culture, Introspection, Reading, Technology | Leave a comment

The Goldfinch

I just finished reading Donna Tartt’s book, The Goldfinch. It was one of two books recommended to me at the beginning of the summer, by my friend Stephanie. I didn’t get around to actually reading it until after the school year was already started, but I’m glad I waited to return the book (even if it felt like my delay was accruing a “friendship fine”). I understand, now, why the book is so critically acclaimed.

The Goldfinch is a powerful story, with a highly-compelling plot. The characters are well-crafted, multi-dimensional, life-like figures. The deeper themes of the book — masked, mostly, until the last couple of chapters — are thought-provoking and worthwhile.

It’s just about everything I would hope for in a book. Except, perhaps, for its length.

The paperback edition I borrowed from Stephanie was 771 pages long. And while some sections read quickly — driven by intense action, with explosions and life-or-death drama — there are more sections that read slowly. These sections are where the characters really get their life and depth, however, so it’s hard to fault the book for its technique. I’m just saying: it took me almost two months to get through the book. I don’t regret the time spent, but it did take some time.

The story centers around a character named Theo Decker. He lives in New York City with his mother until one day when he and his mother were visiting an art museum to see an exhibition of Dutch masters. Carel Fabritius’ painting, Het Puttertje (The Goldfinch), was her favorite. While they’re at the museum, however, a bomb is detonated while Theo is separated from his mother (presumably some sort of terrorist attack). Chaos ensues. Theo picks his way through the rubble and ruins to find a grandfatherly figure who’s mortally wounded. He stays with the man as he breathes his last breaths, and the man draws his attention to the same painting his mother had admired. Theo understands that he should take the painting and the man’s special signet ring. And after the man’s death, Theo crawls through more rubble until he finds a way out of the museum’s ruins.

The next few years of Theo’s life coincide with his adolescence. He moves between family friends, a deadbeat dad, and a series of social workers for the next several years, and the only constant in his life is the painting. But as he matures, he also learns that his possession of the painting amounts to a multi-million dollar theft. He’s plagued, for years, by indecision, instability, guilt, fear, and tension.

He travels between New York, Las Vegas, and Amsterdam at various points in the narrative. (I especially appreciate the way that the author wrote the sections set in Amsterdam). He falls into addiction. He falls in love. There are moments of clarity and building a better life, but there are also moments of indiscretion and careening towards devastation.

The way the book resolves itself, however, is masterful. Some of the closing soliloquy is genuinely haunting. I think of the statement, “Sometimes you have to lose to win.” And the realization that “the pursuit of pure beauty is a trap, a fast track to bitterness and sorrow, that beauty has to be wedded to something more meaningful.” And there are genuine echoes of the Gospel in there! I’m being purposely enigmatic, here, as I consider the book’s closing themes — because I don’t want to give anything away to future readers of the book (and I hope that my reflections will give others cause to read this book for themselves!). But I like the way Theo looks back on his own story and makes sense of it all.

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Miserable, Glorious Night

I’ve sat through a lot of soccer games in all kinds of weather. I’ve endured blistering heat and glare from the sun and freezing temperatures with snow whipping across the field. So it means something when I say that tonight’s home play-off game was among the worst.

The temperature was in the upper-40s, Fahrenheit. A stiff wind of 15-20 miles per hour was blowing across the field and into our faces. And the rain kept coming in sheets and sheets and sheets that soaked us throughout the entire game. It was miserable.

But it was also glorious, because Elliot and his Roosevelt Rough Riders teammates won the school’s first play-off game in years:

Kent Roosevelt, 1 – Akron North, 0.

There was a moment, with about 20 minutes left to play in the game, when it seemed like we were going to die. The game was scoreless, and we dreaded the specter of overtime and a penalty kick shoot-out: for the anxiety and uncertainty of it all, and for the fact that it would keep us out in that miserable weather for even longer. The wind swirled across the field. The players were slipping and sliding everywhere. Then, Akron North put together a few passes, and they were suddenly right in front of our goal.

Our goal-keeper was off-balance, out of position. One of their forwards put a shot on frame, towards the right side of the goal, away from our goal-keeper. It looked like a long, slow, wet slide to our doom. And then, from out of nowhere, one of our center-defensive midfielders slid across the goal-line, blocking the shot. An Akron North player rebounded the shot with a quick volley to the left side of the goal. And again, seemingly from out of nowhere, our goal-keeper made it just far enough off the ground to block the shot back towards the top of the box. Another Akron North player gave it a try, managing to get a solid foot on the ball, but his shot hit the left post. And finally, their fourth consecutive shot was blocked by one of our back-line defenders, and the ball was cleared.

It was an unbelievable sequence of events. I yelled until I was hoarse.

Five minutes later, one of our forwards was taken down inside the box and awarded a penalty kick. He slotted his penalty kick, to provide the only score of the game. And then, it was just killing time until the end of the game and our suffering in the stands.

Elliot got to play the last six minutes of the game, and he made a few good plays to help kill time. On one particular play, he charged the goalie as he prepared to boot the ball deep downfield. Players at his position are supposed to do this, but it almost never amounts to anything. This time, however, there was a solid thud as he blocked the shot beautifully. In the two seconds of scrambling that immediately followed, it looked like Elliot might have a path to an open goal. Akron North’s defenders rallied, though, and they closed the gap — so Elliot just kicked a crossing shot from a long way out. A goal at that point in the game would have been amazing, but the twenty seconds of game-time that he milked were also valuable.

It was a proud moment to celebrate with the boys, following their victory. Elliot was elated. But we were also very glad to get out of the cold, wind, and rain. Hopefully, the weather will be better on Saturday, when they travel to Stow for their next play-off game.

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Glimpses of Fall Break

I could pretend that our family’s Fall Break was all corn and pumpkins and sunshine and magic. Because those things were a part of our extended weekend. The weather provided those crisp, clear October days that we dream about all year round. We slept in for three days in a row. We got to puzzle our way through a corn maze, together. We even ate Giordano’s pizza for dinner (they just opened a new branch of this beloved Chicago deep-dish pizza place in North Canton)!

But we also had to call for emergency roadside assistance for our mini-van, totally disabled, in the dead of the night, on a busy four-lane highway. We had to spend some time trying to fix our broken washing machine. Our refrigerator’s freezer started showing signs that it will need some attention soon, too. We experienced unusual levels of irritation and argumentation between the five of us. We had to deal with a child writhing in stomach pain, at one point.

It was not all fun and games.

But we got to at least enjoy some fun and games.

So how does one present a balanced view of such a weekend of family life?

We live in a visual environment — and the photos of pumpkin patches and pig races and hay rides are clearly the better visual images. Honestly, I didn’t even think to take pictures of the wet floor in our laundry room or the grumpy adolescent whining in the corner. There’s something about the human condition that makes us want to hold fast onto- and feature the beautiful things. The fun and games.

I’m still trying to decide if that’s a good thing or a hypocritical thing.

Honestly, it’s probably a bit of both. So I will say that it was ultimately a good Fall Break — even if there were some bumps along the way. We succeeded in spending some extra time together as a family — even if we didn’t love every minute of it. I’m not going to paper over the unsavory parts of the weekend. Strangely enough, I think one of the things we’ll remember and talk about the most — for years to come — is our broken-down minivan, Marci and the kids taking an Uber home, me hitching a ride with the tow-truck driver. It was stressful while it was happening, but the challenging stuff feels like a part of what made the weekend exceptional.

Posted in Children, Culture, Family, Home, Introspection, Ohio, Recreation, Traditions, Weather | Leave a comment