Sinterklaas Kapoentje

Sinterklaas Intocht 2009 - Stoomboot in All its Glory

“It’s Sinterklaas weather.”

It’s a reference to a December 5th holiday in the Netherlands. But the first time I remember hearing this phrase was actually in the month of August, in Amsterdam. It was a joke. But any cool, wet, gray-skied day feels like “Sinterklaas weather.” Amsterdam is capable of such weather almost any time of the year. But especially late November.

And that’s the kind of weather we’ve settled into this week. It prompts a sense of melancholy, but also some nostalgia. Particularly when it comes to remembering Sinterklaas celebrations.

Marci and I started singing some Sinterklaas songs to Cor before school this morning. We translated as we sang. And while none of the songs contained the kind of lyrical depth that could be characterized as inspirational, we came across one that was particularly silly in its superficiality: Sinterklaas Kapoentje.

Here’s our translation:

Sinterklaas, the little capuchin monk,
Throw something in my little shoe.
Throw something in my little boot.
Thank you, little Sinterklaas!

That’s it. That’s the whole song! We actually had to look up one word, ourselves: Kapoentje. I had always assumed it had something to do with Sinterklaas’s cape or hat — but it actually refers to the Catholic order of monks whose name is also invoked in the espresso beverage we call a cappuccino. But aside from that translation quirk, the main thing that strikes me from this song is how short and meaningless it is.

Sinterklaas will always hold a special place in our family’s hearts because of the role the holiday played in Elliot’s, Olivia’s, and Cor’s childhoods. But looking at it now, from afar, it seems to be all of the things that I dislike about Christmas — the self-centered commercialism and gluttony, the dark days of November — with none of the deeper spiritual significance.

But at least it’s entertaining to notice the weird stuff that goes along with the season.

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The Last Week’s Worth of Photos (and Happenings)

A week ago, we picked Elliot up from a visit to the College of Wooster.

After returning from Wooster, the first significant winter storm of the season rolled through Northeast Ohio. It dumped about three inches of snow in our area. I had to shovel less our driveway less than twenty-four hours after a big batch of raking leaves.

The driveway had to be cleared, so I could drive our H2O Kent staff team to Columbus for the annual conference of our Collegiate Church Network. While there, we worshipped, networked, learned, listened… and presented an idea for a new initiative to plant churches in Northeast Ohio (modeled after the way some trees replicate themselves).

My favorite part of the time in Columbus was the time our team from Kent got to hang out together. Hound Dog’s Pizza just north of the Ohio State University campus was an especially lovely spot to sit and eat and talk.

It was a lot of sitting and eating and talking (and listening). But my early-morning runs helped to keep me fresh and engaged.

Coffee helped, too.

Still, by the time I got back to Kent, I was ready for some rest, some time with my family, and some time to myself (a ten-mile run along the Buckeye Trail was especially refreshing and — believe-it-or-not — restful).

Yesterday (Sunday) morning, I kicked back into ministry gear… And it was an especially celebratory Sunday, including six people proclaiming faith in Christ through baptism!

At the end of the day, though, I was pretty wiped out. Emotionally, spiritually, and physically.

Today, I “cleared my desk” of a few administrative tasks that had built up — which felt good. But I also took a deliberate break in the middle of the morning to spend some time back on the Buckeye Trail, soaking up the sunshine and spending time with God.

So, when the kids got home, I was ready to do something special with them (as is our Monday tradition). I decided we’d try to follow a StoryWalk set up by the city of Kent — even though none of us were in the target demographic for story-books any more.

The kids were more agreeable than I though they’d be, honestly. They genuinely went along with the StoryWalk, each person taking turns to read a page of the story at each participating location in downtown Kent.

It helped that each person got to choose his or her own snack, from whichever downtown location they chose along the route.

And we also had a lot of fun taking pictures along the way.

I seriously worried that I was going to figuratively “crash and burn” at numerous points throughout the week: from sickness… or social super-stimulation… or lack of sleep… or failing to come through on certain responsibilities…

But with God’s help, I made it through the week. And now I’m ready to start a new week, depending upon God.

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Fade to Black

I’m not sure how much longer I’ll be able to keep enjoying football.

I grew up with the sport. In middle school, I lived and died on the outcomes of NFL games featuring my favorite teams. In high school, I played wide receiver and defensive back for the Shelby Whippets (suffering a broken arm, a broken collarbone, a concussion, and a dislocated finger throughout the course of my playing days). I learned to love college football as a student at Bowling Green State University.

When I lived in Amsterdam, identification with the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Cleveland professional teams became a point of pride. It felt like a connection to home (even as I became more interested in the sport that the rest of the world called “football”). We asked relatives to send us video recordings of big games that we could watch with our Thanksgiving celebrations. We used early internet streaming technology to tune into live action, in the wee hours of the European morning. It still felt fun.

When I moved back to the Land of American Football, though, I was strangely disappointed. Football culture wasn’t exactly how I’d remembered it or idealized it. There was a lot more of the ‘Murica Mindset, wrapped up with the sport. The commercials for pick-up trucks and light beers bothered me more than they ever had before. Fantasy Football swelled in popularity, while I was overseas — and I just felt left behind. There was still an element of nostalgia and genuine appreciation for a recreational activity in the darkest days of the year. But football just didn’t fit me like it used to.

Americans have also started talking more about the violence and physical trauma associated with American football. The long-term affects of concussions are increasingly apparent. My own father wonders if his days of playing running back and linebacker through high school and college have contributed to his current struggles with Parkinson’s Disease. It seems that a disproportionate number of athletes from the NFL carry physical violence into off-the-field environments, as well. Night club arguments, domestic disputes, sexual assault charges, car crashes… It’s becoming increasingly uncomfortable to call myself a fan.

Most NFL Sundays go unobserved in my house, now. I still watch occasionally, but not religiously. I got excited to watch the Browns / Steelers game this week — especially because I was able to watch it with friends — but two players had to leave the game because of head trauma (most likely concussions). And then, at the very end of the game, a big fight broke out which included one player ripping the helmet from another player and swinging it, round-house, at the player’s uncovered head. It was ugly. It took all the fun out of a Browns win. And, I fear, football in general.

I remember the tail end of boxing’s glory days, in my childhood. Heavyweight fights were big news. Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, George Foreman… boxing was a part of our culture. But somehow, it’s faded over the last 30 years. Not completely. There’s still a strong sub-culture of people who pay to watch big fights. But it’s not mainstream anymore. And I wonder if football is headed that direction, too.

I know that youth- and high school football is already having a harder time filling its rosters in Kent (in Northeast Ohio’s “cradle of football” no less!). I’ve heard news stories that suggest it’s a national trend, as well. Soccer and basketball are on the rise, both internationally and domestically. To me, it feels like it’s just a matter of time. I’m not boycotting football or anything like that. I still watch from time to time (college football more than professional football). But I’m just not sure how much longer I’ll be able to keep enjoying football.

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“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.

Posted in Children, Family, Recreation, Traditions | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Children, Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio, Photography, Recommendations, Recreation | Leave a comment

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