Flying South for the Winter

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Ever since my struggles with seasonal depression in northern Europe, I’ve become a big proponent of “flying south” for the winter: even if just for a week or two. It’s really amazing how much some regular exercise, some vitamin supplements, and some extra sunshine and rest can help with beating the winter blues.

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A couple of days after Christmas, our family loaded up our minivan for a long drive south and west: to visit my brother and his family in north-central Texas.

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We got to watch my nephew play in a basketball tournament. We played hours of basketball with the boys on the court in my brother’s backyard, while the girls took a trip to visit the Magnolia Market in Waco. We played family games every night. We visited the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, the Stockyards in Fort Worth, and the Civil War battlegrounds in Vicksburg. We ate elaborate homemade breakfasts and some really good southern barbecue (one incredible meal at Central City Barbecue in Memphis, and another even better meal at Cooper’s Barbecue in Fort Worth!). We brought in the New Year with many of our favorite people in the world.

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It was delightful.

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Now we’re back in Ohio. We’ve packed up all our Christmas decorations. We’ve gone back to work and school. We’ve carried on with life while the temperatures have plunged far below freezing, down around zero degrees Fahrenheit. Yet somehow, it all feels bearable because we’ve stocked up on sunshine and smiles. There are still many weeks of winter to come, but we’re going to survive.

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Do I take my faith too seriously?

Do I take my faith too seriously?

I’m saying “seriously” in the sense of solemnity, sobriety… Maybe “joylessly?” I’ve recently been considering Jesus’ words from the 9th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, and I’ve felt challenged to get more serious about joy and celebration.

I think there is something in the human psyche that yearns for a certain element of solemnity and ritual — particularly when it comes to births, marriages, deaths, and holy days. We don’t want to always be silly and superficial. But does the antonym of “silly” have to be “solemn?” How can we combine depth, meaning, joy, and celebration?

I can tend toward criticism of Christians and churches that talk about “leading with love” and embracing the rag-tag crumbs of civilization that show up on our doorsteps. Think: Anne Lamott and her San Francisco friends (even though I always love reading about Anne Lamott and her San Francisco friends!)… They can seem so “soft on the Gospel,” forgetful of the hard truths and high stakes that might get overlooked by those “mired in a loose lifestyle.”

What if they’re really onto something, though?

Established religion, it seems, pulls hopelessly toward legalism and dynamics of inclusion and exclusion that are decidedly different from Jesus’ M.O. Today’s religious establishment can be eerily similar to the Pharisees and Sadducees of the New Testament. It doesn’t seem to matter too much if the theoretical framework is “the traditions of our forefathers,” or “the Law of Moses,” or “the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” Religious people can spend a lot of time thinking and talking about the sacrifices that must be made for ministry… the rending of garments that must be enacted in the face of the world’s misery… the fasting from food and drink (at least certain kinds of food and drink) that must be observed in the light of the current religious realities…

But Jesus says, “It is not sacrifice I want, but mercy.” Jesus feasts with the tax collectors and other sinners and says, “It’s time to celebrate,” when he’s around. He says we need new wine skins to go with new wine (and yes, he uses wine as his best analogy!). And don’t we believe that Jesus is alive?!? Aren’t we living in the time of New Wine?!? Shouldn’t we be following the example of those who follow the example of Jesus?!? I’m angry, anxious, and excited — all at the same time — to think of the differences between our current religious realities and the Jesus of Matthew 9.

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Sinterklaas in Holland (Michigan)

UntitledOur family started Friday morning in Kent, Ohio, with kruidnootjes in klompen (crunchy, gingersnappy, cookie-buttons in old-fashioned, Dutch wooden shoes). We realize this pairing is not typical for most American families or Dutch families — but it’s pretty typical for us (blending American traditions, Dutch traditions, and Swedish traditions) at this time of the year. The kids went to school, and the adults went to work: humming along, on-track with our typical lives.

At noon, however, we jumped the rails.

We knocked off work early, pulled the kids out of school, and drove five-and-a-half hours north-west to participate in a local festival we read about in a single paragraph of a single magazine article from “Midwest Living.”

Our destination: Holland, Michigan. They promised a Sinterklaas processional, and that was enough for us. We didn’t know how authentic or Americanized their version of the Dutch holiday would be. We didn’t know if there would be mobs of people (like what we used to experience during our days back in Amsterdam), or if we would stand out in an uncomfortably-thin crowd. Would there be Sinterklaas songs or treats that we would recognize? How would Americans handle the Dutch tradition of Zwarte Piet, which has racially-charged overtones with the “helpers” in minstrel-show blackface (vestiges of the Netherlands colonial history)? Would our grand excursion be fun and worth the time, money, and energy we invested?

We didn’t know what to expect.

The streets of Holland were beautiful, but quiet, when we rolled into town around 6:30 PM. I’d say it was above-average holiday lights and garlands decorating an above-average Midwestern town filled with brick buildings and brick pavers. We had no trouble finding a parking spot just a stone’s throw away from Centennial Park and the Armory, which were supposed to be the epicenter of the town’s Sinterklaas celebration. We were the only family to be seen on the streets, even though preliminary festivities had supposedly started a half-hour earlier and the grand processional supposedly started a half-hour later. When we got into the Armory, however, there was a pleasant hum of voices and activity. We were greeted by seven or eight teenaged helpers dressed in decently-authentic, probably homemade, Zwarte Piet costumes. And it turned out they were just fine without any face paint at all. Some of them called themselves “Elves,” but we were OK with that. They gave us Tootsie Roll Pops and fun-sized Snickers and Milky Way bars for treats.

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Each of our kids was given supplies to create their own paper lanterns: a small dowel-rod, a rubber band, a paper-and-metal frame, and a small battery-powered flashlight. Most Dutch children do the lantern thing in early November, for a different holiday (Sint Maarten’s), but we learned that the lanterns were supposed to be a part of the Sinterklaas processional, so we were glad to go along with it.

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After ten minutes or so, we decided to walk a couple of blocks to Holland’s Market Square, which they designated as a “Kerstmarkt” with perhaps a dozen wooden stands selling food items and hand-made crafts (only a couple of which were Dutch- or Sinterklaas themed). And there: at the end of the market, we saw Sinterklaas himself. His costume was decently-authentic, probably store-bought, and he sat astride a white horse, very similar to the sort of horse that he would ride in the Netherlands. A Piet / “Elf” held the reins to the horse, much like he would in the Netherlands, as a small crowd of families stood around taking pictures.

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At 7:00 PM, the processional started. It felt a little bit strange that there was no music (which would be a pretty significant element of such events in the Netherlands), but it was fun to walk through the streets of Holland with Sinterklaas, a couple hundred people taking pictures, carrying lanterns, and chattering happily. Around 7:15 PM, we arrived at Centennial Park. Sinterklaas dismounted and proceeded to the central Gazebo. Local dignitaries said a few words, Sinterklaas was introduced, he taught the crowd to count to three in Dutch, and then we all counted: “Een… Twee… Drie…” And (after a slight delay due to presumed technical difficulties), the town’s big Christmas Tree lit up to a round of cheers and applause.

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After the tree was lit, the crowd disbanded fairly quickly. We didn’t know exactly what was happening, but we followed the crowd to a grand old building, flanked with marble pillars, just across the street from the park. There everyone crowded the steps up to the building, which turned out to be the Holland Museum. Over the course of perhaps half an hour, everyone filed into the building. Inside, we snaked through the exhibits — a mix of Dutch artifacts and items from the town’s history — until we got the chance to meet Sinterklaas himself. The people standing in line with us were a mix of locals and visiting Hollandophiles, like us. Some were Dutch citizens; some were married to Dutch citizens or children of Dutch citizens. Several used to live in the Netherlands, so we got to speak more Dutch than I expected. It was a fun camaraderie that made the wait a highlight of the evening. Towards the end of the line, we were served hot cocoa and Dutch butter cookies, which were not very authentic, but still a nice gesture.

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At the end of the line, we got our chance to meet Sinterklaas and take our picture with him. The coolest thing of all was that the American Sinterklaas actually spoke Dutch! We asked if we could sing him a Sinterklaas song, and he suggested “Sinterklaas Kapoentje!” The streets of Holland were quiet again, when we emerged from the Holland Museum. We said good-bye to some of the other families that had been standing in line with us, and then we drove back to our hotel for some swimming and sleep.

It was fun. Nothing life-changing, but a very enjoyable excursion. Our family enjoys our connections to Dutch culture, but we’re also happy to be American Midwesterners — and this weekend felt like the perfect combination of the two worlds.

Posted in Culture, Family, Nostalgia, The Netherlands, Traditions, Travel | Comments Off on Sinterklaas in Holland (Michigan)

Beloved Brothers

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Shopping for groceries… Sharing the gospel… Applying for jobs… Falling in love… Saving for retirement… Negotiating purchase agreements and employment contracts… Raising children… Officiating weddings and funerals… Getting suits tailored… Maintaining fitness as our bodies age… Leading churches in Bowling Green, Amsterdam, and Kent…

It’s amazing to think how much Jason and Chad have meant to me over the last twenty years that we’ve walked together, figuring out our way through all sorts of life experiences.

We forged a spiritual brotherhood as young men. Now we’ve advanced together to a place in life that was unimaginable to the teenagers we were when we first met. Sometimes our paths have diverged; other times, the paths have been so congruent that it’s been hard to distinguish one from the other. Other people have journeyed with us (Matthew McClure, our co-pastor at H2O Kent, is one particularly-notable brother with whom we have walked many meaningful miles). There is nothing to which I can compare these relationships, outside of perhaps my marriage.

It’s impossible to find friendships of six months or six years which approximate the effect of a twenty-year friendship.

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We flew to southeast Texas for a Pastors Conference this week, and we got to enjoy new experiences together: Torchy’s Tacos, Buc-ees Gas Station, Rudy’s Barbecue… It was special. Still, it was not unlike previous experiences we’ve had together on Michigan Avenue in Chicago… in the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto… at the Ancient Roman Wall in Nijmegen… on the ferry to Alcatraz in San Francisco… (Man! What glorious history we’ve had together!). The traveling destinations are different, but the traveling companions are the same. Thus, we’re privileged with a curious continuity that provides a glimpse of a more profound phenomenon.

What’s changing with us is us.

We’re aging. All three of us are turning 40 this year. And even though I’m not willing to write any of us off as “over the hill” just yet, it’s hard to deny the fact that our hair has thinned and grayed. Back injuries and vestibular irregularities are a part of our lives now. Our children are far closer than we are to the “wonder years” of high school sports championships, college adventures, and youthful romances. It feels weird enough for me to notice about such things myself; but for Chad and Jason to notice that in me, and for me to notice that in them… It’s especially bizarre.

I’m not complaining. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. I’m extremely thankful for these long-term friendships. I just wish I knew how the next 20 years of our friendship were going to play out. I guess we’ll figure that out along the way. Just like we always do.

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Raking Leaves

Scrape, skritch, scratch, rake. Scrape, skritch, scratch, rake.

I drag my bamboo rake along the lawn. I gather the leaves into piles. I gather the piles onto a tarp. I pull the tarp to the front of our property. I dump the leaves along the curb. And then I repeat the process again and again. It takes almost two hours to do our whole property.

Scrape, skritch, scratch, rake. Scrape, skritch, scratch, rake.

We have so many trees in our part of town. Raking takes place in multiple stages. First the oaks dropped their acorns. Then the locusts dropped their leaves. The maples flamed the brightest and most beautiful shades of yellow, orange, pink, and red before dropping their leaves. And finally, the stubborn old oaks give up their leaves in batches, as prompted by winds and rains.

Scrape, skritch, scratch, rake. Scrape, skritch, scratch, rake.

I don’t resent the chore. In fact, I find it therapeutic. I especially love to be out in the yard when the sun is shining but the air is cool. A few minutes of activity with the rake works up enough body heat to offset the chill. The crisp fall air feels good in my lungs. I smell the leaves and the scent of a distant fire. I hear the hum of gas-powered leaf-blowers from my neighbors. I love the solitude, yet simultaneously I love the bond with my neighbors.

Scrape, skritch, scratch, rake. Scrape, skritch, scratch, rake.

Raking gives me time to think. I think about my children. I think about my church. I think about baseball, how my team lost. I think about politics, how my candidates lost. I think about the way that my emotions about the baseball loss and the political loss carry a similar weight — not much — and I wonder why that is. I think about the way other people seem to feel very differently.

Scrape, skritch, scratch, rake. Scrape, skritch, scratch, rake.

One of the things I love about raking is that it’s seasonal and cyclical. Every year, for years and years and years, the trees have dropped their leaves at this time of the year. Every year, for years and years, people have gathered the leaves with rakes at this time of the year. This is already my fifth Fall in this house. Already my 25th World Series, since starting to follow the sport. Already my fifth Presidential Election, since gaining the right to vote. The names and faces come and go, like leaves on the trees, but the cycle continues.

Scrape, skritch, scratch, rake. Scrape, skritch, scratch, rake.

It feels good to clean up my little corner of the world. Scrape by scrape, raking all the debris into tidy piles along the curb. I know the job is not finished. I’ll be doing it again next week, and for years to come. But I take satisfaction in the moment of clarity.

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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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