2017 Top Ten

I haven’t been great at writing about events as they happened this year. Nevertheless, there have been some great moments in 2017. I’ve spent some time over the last couple of days thinking through the most significant happenings of the past twelve months, and I thought it would be fun and fruitful to distill the essence of them here.

Early in the new year, in February, I celebrated my 40th Birthday — and I did it in style (if I do say so, myself) with a Disco party fit for 1977. My beautiful wife worked hard to make that Saturday night a really fun, memorable occasion, so I thought out of all the fun pictures from that night, it was most appropriate to post this one of the two of us.

I’ve really been encouraged to watch God develop a team of people from Kent (Ohio, USA) to be sent out to Stockholm (Sweden) for the sake of making disciples and planting churches. I started praying in just such a direction way back before I ever moved to Kent (at least since 2011). I witnessed some of the first seeds of this particular initiative get planted in 2015. And now the lead couple — Aidan and Chelsea Rinehart — are on the ground in Stockholm, preparing the way for the rest of the team to hopefully join them in the year (or years) to come.

In early June, I got to take an epic road trip from Ohio, through Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota, and Wyoming, to Colorado. The solitary drive time provided invaluable space for introspection, but I also got to meet up with some dear old friends along the way. The scenery along the way was spectacular — especially the wheat fields of Iowa, the rolling plains of Custer State Park in South Dakota, and the delightfully-desolate highways of Wyoming — and it all ended in four days with my co-pastors in the Rocky Mountain National Park, working through all our plans and prayers for the 2017-18 school year.

The summer was special, in general, because of all the extra time with family. Marci and I celebrated our 19th wedding anniversary with a trip to Ohio’s Hocking Hills in May. We took a family vacation by the shores of Lake Erie in late June. And we celebrated my Dad’s Retirement with an extended family gathering in late-July, featuring a party, a day at the beach, a baseball game, and lots of Handel’s ice cream.

Towards the end of the summer, I got to travel to Iceland with two of my oldest, dearest friends: Chad Frank and Jason Slack. The days were incredibly-long, and we packed them incredibly-full — but wow! What an experience! Iceland is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen with my own eyes. And to experience everything with Chad and Jason was especially meaningful.

  

All of my kids grew a lot over the course of 2017. With Cor, I think particularly about his recovery from a broken collarbone and the removal of his braces, at the end of August. He’s such a fun kid. He has such a warm heart. He endured his challenges like a champ, but it was fun to see him bounce back into full form as these constraints came off at the end of the summer.

In the last third of 2017, I found refuge and refreshment in new corners of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. I feel like God spoke to me in deep, meaningful ways through my Friday ritual of “coloring in” a new section of trail on my map, week after week. It’s still amazing to me that this beautiful window into God’s Creation is so accessible here in Northeast Ohio. I sincerely liked all of the different places and seasons I experienced, but the “back door entrance” to the Great Falls of Tinker’s Creek might have been my personal favorite this year.

The Fall Semester at Kent State University was a doozy this year. Absolutely breath-taking: both in terms of the beauty experienced in ministry and in terms of the way I felt out of breath at times, in all the action and adventure. The H2O Fall Retreat was a particularly amazing experience. We had record numbers of students attend the weekend conference and demonstrate signs of genuine life transformation.

Elliot got his learner’s permit at the end of September — and seeing him behind the wheel of our family mini-van just seemed to be emblematic of all kinds of personal growth throughout 2017. He’s taken well to driving, and I have a lot of confidence that he will succeed in becoming a licensed driver in 2018. But in addition, he joined a missions trip to the Dominican Republic in the summer. He took a girl to Homecoming in October. And it just seems to me that he’s generally looking at the world with more adult eyes: offering help around the house, taking responsibility in his various spheres of influence, and trusting God for new areas of development.

We celebrated Olivia‘s entrance into adulthood with her 13th birthday in September, and we’re really proud of the young lady she’s turning out to be. She started singing in the school choir this year — a break from the path her brother had blazed for her in the band program — and she has already been featured with several solos and special parts, starting with her first concert at the beginning of October. Her future is bright — in music, in academics, in art, in social development, and in her heart for God.

It’s hard to narrow things down to the Top Ten images / events / developments that happened in 2017… But I consider that a blessing and a privilege. Life has a funny way of speeding up and slowing down. This year was definitely a fast one, but a good one. I’m already looking forward to seeing what God will do in 2018…

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Holiday Dress Code

It’s been said that, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing.” And as much as I’m inclined to grumble about rain, slush, and cold (or high heat and humidity for that matter), I generally ascribe to this way of thinking.

I think about this quote when I decide whether to ride my bicycle (easily my preferred mode of transportation) or take the car. I think about this sentiment when I decide to visit the Cuyahoga Valley National Park (a favorite spot to get extended time with God) or sit in some cafe, instead, to practice spiritual disciplines.

Recently, though, I’ve been starting to think about “suitable clothing” for spiritual, emotional, and relational development. Especially these days, during the Christmas season.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I tend to live with one set of attitudes and behaviors that tends to be exhibited when the “weather” is fair (well-rested, happy, healthy, wealthy, and at peace with others), and another set of attitudes and behaviors that tends to be exhibited when the “weather” is foul (tired, stressed, sick, cash-strapped, in conflict with others). The trick with this way of thinking is that it assumes my ability to exude a pleasant demeanor is dependent upon my circumstances. It assumes that there’s such a thing as “bad weather.” But could it be that it’s actually an issue of “unsuitable clothing?”

The New Testament book of Colossians talks about this idea of considering — and intentionally changing — one’s spiritual, emotional, and relational clothing, in light of our faith in Christ. In the third chapter, verses 9-10 say it most clearly: “You have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.”

But what does this mean, practically? How should this dictate my thoughts, words, body language, and tone of voice in real-world situations? When I’m stuck in a long line at the store? When that one relative at the family holiday celebration does that one bothersome thing which has triggered me since my childhood? When I’m backed up in traffic? When other stressed-out people come at me with angry words or gestures? The preceding verses talk about unsuitable clothing: immoral behavior, self-centered actions and attitudes, varying levels of anger, and negative speech patterns… Honestly (embarrassingly), these verses read like a police report of all the negative actions and attitudes which characterize my typical response in these real-world situations.

Fortunately, there’s an alternative. More-suitable clothing. Almost like the spiritual, emotional, and relational version of a festive, warm Christmas sweater.

Colossians 3:12-15 says, “As God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.”

Just think about this in light of the holiday season (perhaps a stress-reliever for some, but more likely current stressor for many): How amazing would it be if our actions and attitudes could be marked by this wardrobe change?!?

If someone says something mean to me, I can respond with kindness. If I end up doing more than my fair share of the household chores to keep all the “Christmas machinery” running, I can practice patience. If I’m challenged to an argument or face any kind of aggression (active or passive), God’s Spirit can give me everything I need to react with gentleness and forgiveness. Love and gratitude go so far at this time of the year! I need to be regularly seeking God in order to maintain a freshly-laundered set of suitable clothing for these situations — but that option is available to me! I just need to stop myself when I feel my emotions rising, yield my heart to God and ask for His Spirit to fill me, and then “rock the runway” with the new clothes God’s given me.

That’s what I’m asking for Christmas, anyway — and something tells me I’m going to get it, as long as I keep asking.

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The Cuyahoga Valley National Park throughout the “Fall”

December 15

The Cuyahoga Valley National Park has been a place of sanctuary for me throughout the busy Fall Semester.


December 8

December 1

November 27

November 17

I’ve returned to park week after week to seek God and refocus myself on His love, His goodness, His peace, and His presence in my life.


November 10

November 3

October 27

October 20

October 13

Since the beginning of the “Fall,” I’ve watched the seasons change from Summer, to Fall, to Winter — and I’ve been awed by the consistent goodness of God throughout the changing of the seasons: both literally and metaphorically.


October 6

October 3

September 22

These walks through the woods have provided an incomparable refuge through work stress… family stress… times of wonder and awe at everything happening in, around, and through me… struggles with depression… and interactions with friends and family.


September 15

September 1

I look forward to returning a couple more times in 2017 and regularly in 2018. Lord willing.

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Frosty Frolic 2017

After I finished my first marathon — Canton’s Hall of Fame City Challenge — back in 2013, I started getting e-mails from their local running club, runCanton. On a whim, our family decided to sign up for their holiday-themed 5K: the Frosty Frolic.

The concept borrows some conventions from most other 5K races, but with some creative substitutions. The race starts in the evening, instead of the morning, to include the Holiday Light display in Canton’s downtown park. A race-shirt is included in the registration for all runners — but they’re long-sleeved, quarter-zip tech shirts, emblazoned with the Frosty Frolic logo, instead of T-shirts. All finishers get medals that match the theme for the year’s race (i.e. shaped like a sleigh, a snowflake, a snow-globe, etc.). And instead of Gatorade and a banana at the end of the race, Christmas cookie and hot chocolate are provided.

Even though we had to fight through some sickness and an unfortunate accident with locking ourselves out of our vehicle that first year, we enjoyed the tradition enough that we signed up again the following year. And every year since.

It’s become one of the fun, quirky things we do to enjoy special family time at this time of the year. We generally don’t concern ourselves with our “performance” in the Frosty Frolic (though Elliot’s pace is getting noticeably faster, year after year — finishing a respectable 23rd out of the 1,100 participants in 2017). Even so, the kids have enjoyed racking up the medals, year after year: now enough that they feel kind of like Michael Phelps at the end of the Summer Olympics.

More than anything, our family’s annual participation in the Frosty Frolic is about having fun and being a family.

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October 2017 Prayer Letter


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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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To Olivia, on the Occasion of Her 13th Birthday

Dear Olivia,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lovingly Yours,

Dad

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The Hunt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m Eric. What’s your name?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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To Cor, on the Occasion of His 10th Birthday

Dear Cor,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  

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

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

Happy Birthday, Cor. I love you.

Dad

 

Posted in Children, Family, God, Introspection, Nostalgia, Prayer, Traditions, Transition | Comments Off on To Cor, on the Occasion of His 10th Birthday

Obligatory Posts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in American Politics, Church, Culture, God, Introspection, Leadership, Social Issues | Comments Off on Obligatory Posts

The Pact of the Waterfall of the Gods

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Europe, Family, God, Introspection, Photography, Prayer, Travel | Comments Off on The Pact of the Waterfall of the Gods