I fully believe and affirm that “all Scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” But as I prepared to preach through Psalm 40 this weekend, I was freshly reminded that studying the Psalms can be tough.
They’re a different sort of Scripture, aren’t they?!? They’re not narrative. They’re poetic. They’re not necessarily linear, or literal, or logical. They’re episodic, and evocative, and emotional. They don’t necessarily have a central lesson to teach. They impart an impression. They typically train our feelings more than our thoughts.
For all of these reasons, I’m not sure that studying the Psalms is really the most meaningful approach to the Psalms. Pore over them as master works of literature? Yes. Learn something of a language for your heart? Absolutely. “Get to know” God in the intimate, personal way? For sure. But studying and cross-referencing and analyzing them to intellectually know and delineate the finer points of Christian theology? That’s tougher.
So one of the things that I chose to pass along to our church this weekend was a tool that I picked up this past summer from another church in our network, out at Illinois State University. It’s a thing that their pastors do regularly, when they sit together to talk through church leadership stuff.
It’s a communal practice for worshipping God through the Psalms.
It doesn’t really require a leader or facilitator. It doesn’t even require any advance preparation. These pastors in central Illinois will just sit together and decide to read a Psalm together. They’ll see if anyone has a particular suggestion, but they’ll often end up just picking a number at random. They’ll go through whatever Psalm they choose together: one reading the words out-loud while the others read along silently. And when they get to the end of the Psalm, they’ll just sit in silence.
After some unspecified amount of time in silence, someone will start by sharing an impression. An observation of something special or personally-meaningful from the Psalm. That impression might trigger affirmations or other questions or observations from that part of the text — or it might just stand on its own and trail off into another time of silent reflection. Someone else might chime in with a completely different impression from a completely different part of the Psalm. And again, it might prompt group interaction, or it might not.
The process will continue for as long as it continues to yield new thoughts or feelings. Or as long as the time frame allows. And then, when everyone feels ready, the group will close in a prayer of worship, emotionally echoing the essence of the Psalm back to God as a living prayer.
It’s not groundbreaking. It’s quite simple, in fact. But I’ve really enjoyed it, in my own life. We’ve started doing it occasionally as church leaders, too. So maybe it’s something to try with your community, as well. It could provide a way to more easily access the wealth of emotional wisdom that’s offered to us in the Psalms.
I must admit that I don’t have a keen understanding of physics. But I do know a little bit about spiritual health, emotional health, and church-planting. And I’m wondering if there might be some benefit to borrowing the term “center of gravity” for these contexts.
I’ve been thinking over the last couple of months about the way that an individual and a family seem to hold an emotional-yet-also-geographical center of gravity. I’ve started talking about it with friends, too. And it really does seem like there’s something to it. Where did you grow up? Where did your parents grow up? What about your parents’ parents? Where did you go to college? Are your closest friends from the same place? Where did you get married? Where do your kids most feel at home? All of these factors influence one’s emotional center of gravity.
And when trying to chart out the direction of one’s life, it can be really helpful to consider these dynamics.
I started noticing some of these trends a couple of years ago, when I was researching my ancestry. I discovered that my ancestors tended towards inertia, but even when migration happened there was a momentum that came into play. All of my ancestors started in northern Europe. Every indication was that they stayed in the same towns in Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands, and Great Britain (depending on the branch of the family tree) for centuries before they emigrated to North America. But when they moved across the Atlantic, they congregated with other people like them. They gradually drifted westward but then settled and put down roots in Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, and North Dakota. Eventually, the bigger cities in these regions — Minneapolis and Chicago — became funnels for successive generations.
It’s interesting to watch these patterns emerge over time.
For me and Marci, we’d both say that our “hometown” is in north-central Ohio. But aside from Marci’s mother’s family, the roots don’t go too deep there. We both ended up going to college in northwest Ohio — closer, actually, to extended family in Illinois, Minnesota, and North Dakota — while still being very much within striking distance of north-central Ohio. When we graduated, it would have made a lot of sense for us to move to any of the larger cities in the Midwest.
But because of a significant spiritual transformation in college, we ended up staying in Bowling Green. I started working for H2O Church. And when our spiritual family started talking about starting something new, we were excited to dream about the possibilities with them. We visited and considered a number of cities around the Great Lakes — all pretty close to our center of gravity. But when the idea came along to plant a church in Amsterdam (way back on the other side of the Atlantic), we were both excited and uncomfortable. Mostly because it was pretty far outside our center of gravity. We chose to accept the uncomfortable elements of moving to the Netherlands because we were doing it with spiritual family and because we were pulled by the sense of mission.
In retrospect, though, I can see how our involvement in Amsterdam50 had a shelf-life — largely because of the tensions that were introduced by our family living so far extended from our emotional center of gravity.
While we were in Europe, my sister and her husband moved to northeast Ohio (the southwest suburbs of Cleveland). A few years later, some of our closest friends from Bowling Green moved to northeast Ohio (Kent) to start a new H2O Church. Marci’s parents and my parents both stayed planted in north-central Ohio. So when we decided to move back to the United States, we felt like northeast Ohio would be a good fit for us. Closer to our emotional center of gravity, where things are more stable and not as prone to “injury.” And over the last eight years, that center of gravity has only strengthened as my parents decided to retire to Kent, as our kids settled into the local school system, and as we built and rebuilt relationships in this part of the world. It really feels like home now. It’s increasingly difficult to see how we might ever leave this area. But I’m not bummed about that.
We’ve found our emotional center of gravity. At least for now.
Working with college students and recent college graduates, I’ve recently started to see how one’s emotional center of gravity plays into one’s life decisions. My friend Nick grew up near Dayton, Ohio. His fiance Kelly grew up near Erie, Pennsylvania. They both graduated from Kent State University a couple of years ago, but they’ve stuck around in Kent because it’s a pleasant middle ground between their families’ two centers of gravity. My friend Aaron, on the other hand, has strong connections to his hometown of Sandusky, Ohio. Most of his closest friends and family members live there, and he’s regularly traveling back to the area to be with them. So even though he’s temporarily a college student, living in Kent, it seems pretty clear that he’s about to bounce back to Sandusky, like a bungee cord, after this school year.
Neither one of these situations are good or bad. It just seems like a person’s emotional center of gravity has a far stronger effect than I previously thought it might. So I’m starting to think more about this, now, as I counsel students about what they might do after graduation. I’m talking about emotional centers of gravity, as I strategize with young staff leaders who are thinking about church planting. I’m thinking about it with my own children, as they prepare for college and careers.
Do you think I’m onto something? I don’t want to be some sort of fatalist or limiter-of-possibilities. But I also want to be realistic about phenomena like this. And it seems to me that there’s something to be learned from figuring out one’s emotional center of gravity.
I ran the Run to Read Half-Marathon in Fairmont, West Virginia, this weekend. And it ended up being a much tougher race than I expected — but, oddly, not for any of the reasons I might have expected.
I had to pretty significantly adjust my expectations (and my pace) for this January half-marathon as the race unfolded because — get this — I got OVERHEATED!!! 🥵
I had been a little worried about the elevation — but it ended up being quite a bit flatter and 100’ closer to sea level than any of my runs in Kent. I was slightly concerned about trail conditions, knowing that snow, ice, and mud were all possible — but the trails were great. I thought gastrointestinal distress might be a concern, with a post-lunchtime, 1:00 PM, start time (whereas most races, and most of my training runs, start early in the morning) — but that didn’t seem to cause too many problems. I even briefly wondered about the potential for strong headwinds — but I didn’t even notice any wind until the last couple of miles.
The temperature, though, was a balmy 73° Fahrenheit! Warmer than the vast majority of other half-marathons I’ve done (because even the summer races I’ve done have typically started in the early morning, in the coolest part of the day)! It was just crazy that the second-hottest half-marathon I’ve ever done happened to take place in the second week of January!!!!
The heat really took a toll on me as the mileage mounted. I felt pretty good for the first quarter of the race, even getting ahead of my target pace of 7:45 minutes per mile. I started to feel the heat getting to me, though, through the second quarter of the race. By the time, I hit the half-way mark, I was still averaging 7:40 minutes per mile. But I felt awful. I knew I had to slow down, even though I really didn’t want to. I dropped back to about 8:30 minutes per mile for the third quarter of the race — but even that didn’t prove to be sustainable. The last quarter of the race was pure willpower — using all my mental and physical resources just to avoid walking or laying down beside the trail. I felt miserable by the time I crossed the finish line.
But I ran “with perseverance the race marked out for me.”
Those words from Hebrews 12 have been a regular item of prayer over the last year, as I’ve interceded for a friend (and fellow athlete) fighting a particularly aggressive form of brain cancer. Even as I was suffering through the Run to Read Half-Marathon, I thought a lot about this friend, John Drage. My last half-marathon (another steamer) was with him — the third leg of the Ironman 70.3 Ohio triathlon. John was six months into his fight with brain cancer at that point. But his body seemed to be responding well to treatment. He even beat me to the finish line in that race, by a pretty wide margin.
Last week, however, John learned that his cancer has recently spread to his spinal column — and doctors are telling him that he may only have “weeks to months” left before his “finish line.” It’s pretty devastating news for all of us who know him and love him.
John’s race has far higher stakes than the one I ran this weekend. And that helps to keep everything in perspective. It really doesn’t matter that I over-heated and under-performed for a half-marathon on an unseasonably-warm day in January. It matters that the race is run with perseverance on the course that’s marked out by the Great Race Director. I’m going to keep praying Hebrews 12 for John and his family — and for all of us. And I’d encourage you to do the same, if you feel so inclined.
I’m running my first half-marathon of 2020 on Saturday. I’ve followed a twelve-week training plan to prepare for the race. And I’ve done enough of these races to know that my mileage needs to decrease this week. There’s not much to be gained from a hard work-out at this point. Instead, my main goals for this week need to be nutrition, hydration, and rest. I want to avoid gastrointestinal distress while also loading my system with as many carbohydrates as possible for quick-burning fuel during the race. I’m trying to stay topped up on water, in order for all physical systems to operate with maximum efficiency. My as far as my legs and lungs are concerned, my training goal is to maintain strength and flexibility, to prepare my system for maximum effort on Saturday.
Most of a training plan is built around gradually increasing mileage from Week 1 to Week 11 of a Twelve-Week Training Plan. But because of the priority of resting and preparing muscles for maximum effort on race day, it’s typical to run shorter distances at the end of the training cycle. The last two runs on my current training plan, in fact, are just two miles each (whereas I’m typically running from three to five miles on weekdays, with a longer run on the weekend). The running community is quite united on the wisdom of this practice of “tapering” at the end of a training cycle. But the running community seems to be a bit divided on what to call the last little runs that characterize this phenomenon.
Are they “Shakeout Runs” or “Shakedown Runs?”
Shakeout seems to be the more common phrasing among running publications. Doing an internet search for “shakeout run” yields more relevant results than “shakedown run.” But the etymology behind the phrase is not as clear. The only, other, decently-common use of the phrase “Shakeout” is in the field of Economics. Dictionary.com defines a shakeout as “an elimination or winnowing out of some competing businesses, products, etc., as a result of intense competition in a market of declining sales or rising standards of quality” or “a rapid decline in the values of certain securities sold in stock exchanges or the like.” But neither of these definitions provide any indication of why the term might apply to running. No runner is trying to increase stress during the last week of training, in order to force only the strongest parts of one’s system to survive. I suppose the term “Shakeout” might be just trying to describe a process by which any pent-up twitching or adrenaline is literally shaken out ahead of the big race, in order to help the muscles run more smoothly. But that strikes me a bit strange, as running and shaking are not often paired together like that.
Shakedown is a less common term in the running world, but it’s more common in the English language. And I actually wonder if it’s more meaningful. Dictionary.com defines a shakedown with several common usages: extortion, as by blackmail or threats of violence; a thorough search, like a shakedown of prison cells to uncover hidden drugs; a bed, as of straw or blankets, spread on the floor, or any makeshift bed; or — and this is the one that really interests me the most — a shakedown cruise or shakedown flight, meaning a cruise or flight intended to prepare a new vessel or aircraft for regular service by accustoming the crew to its features and peculiarities, breaking in and adjusting machinery, etc. To me, that last definition is the most interesting. It seems to describe what’s happening in the final runs of a training cycle — just swapping out a body for a machine.
So I like the story of a Shakedown Run better. But I’m sensitive to the fact that most of the running community seems to lean towards the terminology of a Shakeout Run. It’s obviously not that important of a consideration. But I’ve enjoyed thinking about these dynamics as I’ve prepared for the race on Saturday.
It’s not exactly a New Year’s Resolution because its scope is longer than this year. But I’ve been thinking of a new quest: completing a half-marathon for every month of the calendar. The half-marathon is my favorite racing distance. It’s just hard enough that training for such a race is a multi-month challenge, but it’s not so hard that the preparation for it takes over one’s life. And because I like the distance so much, I’ve been running an average of two half-marathons per year for several years now. It also just so happened that my last few races added three new months to my “collection,” putting me within striking distance of “completing the set.”
So I’m starting to experience the thrill of the quest and looking to find obscure marathons in less-than-ideal times of the year to “complete the set” eventually. Maybe in 2020, maybe in 2021. Here’s what my “set” looks like at the start of this year:
January: Currently registered for the Run to Read Half-Marathon in Fairmont, West Virginia, this Saturday: January 11, 2020.
February: Still looking for a race to complete the quest!
March: Still looking for a race to complete the quest!
November: Ohio Amish Country Half-Marathon (11/25/17), Philadelphia Half-Marathon (11/22/15)
December: Sandusky Santa Hustle Half-Marathon (12/9/18)
I’m pretty hopeful about finding a decent race in August (though, honestly, the weather at that time of the year will likely be more miserable for me than the winter months). But it’s not so easy to find half-marathons within a reasonable distance for January, February, and March! I’ve found one in West Virginia for this month (as indicated above — and ironically, it looks like the weather will be warmer than some of the May races I’ve done). I’m really not sure if my body would be able to handle half-marathons in three consecutive months. But I might give it a try.
Seriously, though, if you have any leads for interesting races in these months, please let me know! We’ll see how much I can accomplish in 2020!
My third (and final) Christmas Break book this year was Erik Larson’s non-fiction work, The Devil in the White City. It was recommended to me by my friend Mark. The book is a history of Chicago’s World’s Fair, “Columbian Exposition,” of 1893 following two primary plot lines. The first plot line follows an architect named Daniel Burnham, who was responsible for overseeing the fair. And the second primary plot line follows a serial killer who went by the name of H.H. Holmes. Burnham’s concept for the fair came to be known popularly as “The White City.” Holmes’ murder of 27 men, children, and (mostly) young women — during the time of the exposition — branded him as “The Devil.”
I was fascinated by the events themselves, of course, but Larson’s writing of the story makes it all the more compelling. It reads almost like a crime novel, with the chapters alternating between the two primary plot lines, with a few smaller sub-plots scattered among them. The end notes reveal meticulous research that was used to establish the events of the story. At the same time, Larson supplies just enough connective tissue that the scenes he sketches are graphic and visceral. At times, it really feels like the author is recording things that could only be known by an omniscient narrator. It’s a fascinating piece of writing giving life to this event that happened 127 years ago. And I feel like it may even provide some insights for current events.
Chicago’s World’s Fair was a significant event in American history (even if it might not seem like it). Larson presents a compelling case for the way that this exposition affected the way that American households currently use electrical lighting… the way fairs, festivals, and amusement parks are so frequently marked by Ferris Wheels and Midway games… the architectural styles preferred by so many banks, libraries, schools, and government buildings throughout the 20th Century… and the relationship between corporate powerhouses and their laborers. This book demonstrates the ways that a broad cast of historical figures — from Walt Disney to Woodrow Wilson to Buffalo Bill Cody to Helen Keller to Frank Lloyd Wright — can trace at least some of their “DNA” from Chicago’s World Fair. It was a big deal in the emergence of the United States of America, on the world stage.
But at the same time that such “progress” was being demonstrated at the World’s Fair, dozens and dozens of young people were simply getting swallowed up by industrialization. Single, young women, especially, made their way to Chicago at the end of the 19th Century because it represented a sense of freedom and forward-thinking. But they were easily lost in the crowds, losing touch with their families and communities before getting the chance to root themselves in the new environment. As a result, they were extremely vulnerable. And the darker side of human nature was waiting to take advantage of that vulnerability.
I’m really glad that I got the chance to read this book. Both for its educational insight and for its enjoyable artistry.
After posting my Top Ten Songs of 2019, Top Ten Books of 2019, Top Ten Hikes of 2019, and Top Ten Ministry Moments of 2019, I thought that I would conclude my lists with looking back on the Top Ten Family Moments of 2019. Like the ministry moments I recalled yesterday, family life doesn’t fit neatly into a summary like this. Even so, there’s really something to be said for the way that a retrospective exercise like this helps to heighten my awareness and appreciation of life as it goes by. So I’m giving it a try, even if the results might be imperfect…
So anyway — without further ado, here are my Top Ten Family Moments of 2019, in ranked order:
The Blue Hole of Santa Rosa
Road Trip from Kent to Chicago to Rapid City to Estes Park with Olivia
The Frosty Frolic 5K in Canton
Elliot’s Last Soccer Home Stand
Living out of a Camper-Van in Scotland with Jay
Anniversary Getaway to the Gorges of Ithaca
Spring Break Trip to Southeast Ohio
The 2019 Christmas Circuit
Elliot and Olivia go to Homecoming
‘Twas the Night Before Thanksgiving Story Walk through Downtown Kent with Elliot, Olivia, and Cor
And again, for any who might appreciate more context, my explanations for each selection are included with the listing (reverse rank-order), below:
#10 – ‘Twas the Night Before Thanksgiving Story Walk through Downtown Kent with Elliot, Olivia, and Cor
This happened on an unseasonably warm Monday afternoon in November. After the kids got home from school, I took them downtown 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. 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. 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.
#9 – Elliot and Olivia go to Homecoming
Our household sent two teenagers to the Kent Theodore Roosevelt High School Homecoming Dance this year: sophomore Olivia and senior Elliot. Olivia went with a group of friends (and friends of friends). Elliot took a date: a young woman named Kaylie, from the year below him in school. I’m proud of the way Olivia and Elliot are navigating life, including school dances. They were both out quite late, but I didn’t worry about anything except for two of Olivia’s friends who were at odds with each other earlier in the week and the funny way that Elliot’s tie kept skewing to his right.
#8 – The 2019 Christmas Circuit
Our family has a pretty established routine for celebrating Christmas with our families. Christmas Eve, we get together with my side of the family for a worship gathering, an evening meal, and a gift exchange. Christmas morning is just the five of us in Kent for an Advent devotional, exchanging gifts, and eating a nice breakfast. And then in the middle part of the day, we drive down to Marci’s side of the family for a late lunch, a gift exchange, and then hanging around watching movies and/or putting puzzles together. It’s a very clear pattern with only minor deviations from year to year. But I noticed this year that I really like it. The time with family and the delicious food are lovely. And our kids were super-enthusiastic to receive their (and our) present this year: a summer vacation to Wales, Scotland, and the Netherlands.
#7 – Spring Break Trip to Southeast Ohio
We stayed in Ohio for Spring Break this year. But we did do something special. We took Elliot on a college visit to Ohio University, in Athens, Ohio. And while we were there, we also took some time to do other fun family stuff like hiking a few trails at Hocking Hills State Park and eating pizza while sitting on the floor of our hotel room. Elliot ultimately decided that Ohio University was not very high on his list, but it was still a fun trip together as a family.
#6 – Anniversary Getaway to the Gorges of Ithaca
Marci and I celebrated our 21st wedding anniversary this year, with a trip to the Finger Lakes region of New York back at the end of May and beginning of June. We rented an apartment overlooking Keuka Lake for two nights. And during the days, we spent our time together walking quiet trails and roads, eating interesting food, and lounging around the apartment — just resting and enjoying each other’s company. It was lovely.
#5 – Living out of a Camper-Van in Scotland with Jay
I’ve only been to Scotland twice, but it might be one of my favorite places on earth. I just love the feeling of freedom and “elbow room” like my brother and I had from the grocery store in Perth to the parking lot of Eilean Donan. I don’t think we encountered any other tourists during those four days! We ate good food. We saw beautiful elements of God’s creation. We enjoyed time together as brothers. And even though the sleep wasn’t great in Scotland — partly because we were sleeping in a camper-van, and partly because of my brother’s snoring — I appreciated those nights in the camper-van and the way they actually gave me space to do some thinking about everything that’s happened in my life over the previous seven years, since our first trip together to Scotland. It was a great week of reflection and renewal.
#4 – The Frosty Frolic 5K in Canton
Our family has done this race for six years in a row now. It’s become enough of a tradition that I wrote this year’s Asp Family Christmas Story about it. Even so, I have to admit this is a holiday tradition that’s kind of weird and hard to explain. We are not a family of runners (we don’t do 5K races at any other time of the year). Registration for the race, alone, is relatively-expensive. The event is in Canton — 45 minutes away, by car, from our home in Kent — and it almost always leads to a lot of stress about the logistics. Still, the Frosty Frolic is something that’s just come to feel like us. I’m grateful that our health and circumstances still allow us to do this together.
#3 – Elliot’s Last Soccer Home Stand
Our friends and family in Kent helped to make this special. They swarmed the stands and surrounded Elliot for his last two home soccer games and affirmed him for all the right reasons. It was wonderful to cheer when he was exhibiting his quick feet and tenacious toughness on the field, during the surprisingly-meaningful minutes that he got to play. But it was also wonderful to cheer at the end of the games, at the end of the nights, at the end of the home stand — with the rest of Elliot’s life in front of him. I look forward to cheering him on for many years to come.
#2 – Road Trip from Kent to Chicago to Rapid City to Estes Park with Olivia
Gosh, I love a good road trip! I have a special affinity for the Great Plains. And to be able to experience this with my one and only daughter, Olivia, was a true delight! We both had job assignments out in Estes Park, Colorado, which required us to travel ahead of Marci and the boys — but instead of trudging out there, duty-bound, we made an adventure out of it. And I’m really glad we did.
#1 – The Blue Hole of Santa Rosa
Family vacation time was limited this year, due to unusual circumstances with my job and Elliot’s extracurricular activities. But we did get to have one particularly special day together in New Mexico, on our way to a family reunion in Texas. I have a particularly fond memory of rolling into Santa Rosa, New Mexico, right around sunset that day. We drove directly to a spot we’d heard about called the Blue Hole. It’s a natural spring in town: 81 feet deep, 60 feet wide, with a constant, cool temperature of 61 degrees Fahrenheit. At the end of a long day on the road, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to go through with it. But God bless my wife! Marci sized up the situation and said, “I think you guys should just change really quick and do it now.” So we did. We leaped into the Blue Hole several times, from several different jumping points. The water was very cold, and the encroaching darkness made it difficult to see very far down into the water. Still, we had fun splashing and playing in the dusk. As we drove away from the Blue Hole, my arms shivering from the cold, my swimsuit soaking the driver’s seat of our minivan, I looked in the rear-view mirror and smiled broadly. “This is why we travel,” I thought to myself. We sift through the mountains of dust and dirt to find the sapphires, shimmering faintly in the darkness of the desert. So we can swim in them and make memories as a family.
After posting my Top Ten Songs of 2019, Top Ten Books of 2019, and Top Ten Hikes of 2019, I thought that I would turn my attention to things that might be considered more substantial, if perhaps not as tangible. Like ministry and family life. Ministry, in particular, is messy. The highlights of a year in ministry cannot often be represented by a single image (if indeed there are images at all) or a single paragraph, like the other categories I’ve considered. Still, I appreciate the way that a retrospective exercise like this helps to heighten my awareness and appreciation of everything God has been doing. So I’m giving it a try, even if the results might be imperfect…
So anyway — without further ado, here are my Top Ten Ministry Moments of 2019, in ranked order:
Receiving the Hospitality of Syrian Refugees in Stockholm
Leadership Transitions at H2O Kent
Coaching H2O Kent’s Off-Campus Life Group
The Collegiate Mentoring Program
Celebrating Twenty Years of Ministry with Reliant
Walking with Jake and Delaney through their Preparations for Marriage
The H2O Kent Teaching Team
Focus on Ministry Team Development
Ministry at the Rec
The Aspen Project
And again, for any who might appreciate more context, my explanations for each selection are included with the listing (reverse rank-order), below:
#10 – The Aspen Project
One of the things that led to the establishment of H2O Kent in northeast Ohio was the area’s density of college students. Of course, we loved the idea of reaching out to the 30,000 students at Kent State University. But we also recognized that there were over 150,000 students at 44 institutes of higher learning within roughly a one-hour drive from Kent State University — and we wondered if God might want to use H2O Kent as a launching point for further missional initiatives at some point. Back in September, we borrowed the imagery of an Aspen grove, from nature, and started talking about how to send out “runners” to other parts of the Northeast Ohio “forest” to see new life sprout on new campuses. This “Aspen Project” took a significant step forward when we secured commitments from ministry investors to fund four student-internships to focus on four different test campuses. Not much has actually happened at this point, but it’s exciting to think about what God might be starting to do through this.
#9 – Ministry at the Rec
Back in January, I bought a membership for the Beverly J. Warren Student Wellness and Recreation Center. This was partly because I wanted access to a swimming pool, where I could start training for a triathlon. But it was also partly because I was intrigued by the ministry possibilities that could come with spending more time at this hub of activity on campus. In August, we experimented with some Welcome Week outreach at the Rec — and it ended up being one of the most effective ways to make connections with international students that we’ve experienced in recent years. I’ve also gotten to know more students through regularly playing basketball on Saturday mornings. In this, I’ve had to dial in my level of intensity for the sake of prioritizing my own health and maintaining relationships over winning basketball games. But I’d say it’s been a good process of practicing 1 Corinthians 9:22-23, “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.”
#8 – Focus on Ministry Team Development
Fund-raising is a part of my job. This can be challenging; and in the darker moments I can feel scared to make new contacts, frustrated by the amount of time it takes to build a ministry team, and anxious to find a different job where I just get a paycheck without stressing about raising support. But it can also be rewarding; and when I’ve got a healthier perspective I feel incredibly grateful for the relationships that undergird the work we do in prayer and financial support, freshly-envisioned for the strategic implications of ministry to college students, and encouraged by the freedom and flexibility that comes with support-based ministry. God has met me in my renewed focus on Ministry Team Development (MTD) through 2019. We’ve seen almost $800 in new monthly support commitments this year, and even though we still have about $700 in new monthly support yet to raise, the last year has given me confidence to pursue the remaining shortfall in the year to come.
#7 – The H2O Kent Teaching Team
In May, we bid farewell to one of my co-pastors: Matthew McClure (more about that coming up). One of his key responsibilities during his years in Kent was the H2O Teaching Team. So without Matthew, others (including myself) have been forced to step up. And it’s been really beautiful to watch the way this has worked. I’ve enjoyed the slight uptick in my own teaching responsibilities — but even more, I’ve enjoyed helping other, younger, leaders develop their skills in teaching and preaching. For example, I think of feedback sessions with Daniel, who’s preparing to lead a church plant from H2O Kent in the next couple of years. Or I think of co-teaching a session of The Well with Nick, in his first year on staff with us. The process doesn’t always go smoothly, but it’s a great privilege to see our Teaching Team grow and develop.
#6 – Walking with Jake and Delaney through their Preparations for Marriage
This has been a big year for Jake and Delaney. They’ve both graduated from college (Delaney in May; Jake in December). They’ve both started their careers (Delaney with a non-profit called Rahab; Jake with Progressive Insurance). They’ve gotten engaged to each other. And in January, I will be officiating their wedding. All along the way, they’ve continued to pursue God in really beautiful ways — including Jake’s baptism this fall — and I’ve especially appreciated the ways they’ve invited Marci and me to walk with them through all these significant life developments. Pre-marital counseling (a pretty standard practice in our ministry) has been great. But we’ve also been invited into other aspects of their lives along the way, and Marci and I have really enjoyed the opportunity to do ministry together with these guys.
#5 – Celebrating Twenty Years of Ministry with Reliant
I went to our mission agency’s New Staff Training in January of 1999 and was released to assignment at Bowling Green State University in May of 1999. That means 2019 marked two full decades of ministry through Reliant Mission (formerly Great Commission Ministries)! I’ve stayed with Reliant through a couple periods of organizational restructuring (including a process of rebranding in 2015), a transition to Amsterdam in 2003, and then another transition to Kent in 2012. Each step of the way, I’ve seen God work in powerful ways. Twenty is really just a number, but it felt significant to mark this milestone in 2019.
#4 – The Collegiate Mentoring Program
This summer, I was invited to assume a bigger ownership stake for our network’s “Collegiate Mentoring Program” in Colorado. I worked together with Mike Klunke, a pastor at Illinois State University, to mentor six emerging leaders from across the country. The group sessions were great, learning theology, spiritual disciplines, and practical ministry skills. The Wilderness Retreat was powerful (as I’ve gotten to experience in previous summers). But the individual mentoring sessions proved to be the most meaningful spaces where I saw God work this summer. Wow! I still get chills to think of the way the Holy Spirit moved in some of those conversations on the balcony of the Leggett Center at the YMCA of the Rockies. I’m eager to see how God will use these young leaders in the coming years.
#3 – Coaching H2O Kent’s Off-Campus Life Group
Ministry among Off-Campus students is more challenging than ministry On-Campus. The students are older. They’re further along in their studies, which requires more intensive focus on class projects and professional development. They’re more spread out, in terms of their geography, their commitments, and their relationships. It’s very common for Off-Campus students to start out strong, in their commitment to Christian community, but then fizzle as the school year continues. This year, however, I feel like we’ve had an exceptionally strong Off-Campus Life Group. Almost every Thursday night Bible study has felt lively and meaningful. Relationships actually strengthened over the Fall Semester, and I’m curious to see how the rest of the school year will unfold.
#2 – Leadership Transitions at H2O Kent
Over the summer, my co-pastor Matthew moved to a different city. We dropped from a plurality of three to a plurality of two: Jason and me. We were still plural (more than one). But we also recognized that our plurality was smaller, older, and more homogenous. Matthew was five years younger than Jason and me. His personality and leadership style were significantly different from mine, and Jason’s. And even though I’m sure we would have been able to muddle forward with the two of us — it didn’t feel as healthy for us, or for the church. So we started praying and talking with God about how to move forward. And over time, it seemed like the Holy Spirit was directing us to invite not just one (or two, or three) new person (or persons) to join us at the Leadership Table for H2O Kent. It felt like God envisioned us to invite four others to join us: Mark, Daniel, AJ, and Lauren. Leading with this group of six has been clunky at times, but it’s actually gone much more smoothly than I would have expected. We work well as a team. And I feel like the best elements of this leadership transition are yet to come.
#1 – Receiving the Hospitality of Syrian Refugees in Stockholm
I was a part of a small mission team from H2O Kent who traveled to Stockholm, Sweden, in May. Our visit happened to coincide with the Muslim observance of Ramadan. Over the course of our week in Stockholm, we actually got several opportunities to break the Ramadan fast with Muslim friends. But my favorite was the Syrian dinner prepared for us by a family we met in the park that week: Feras, Jasmina, Nadia, Mohammed, and Leah. We played with the kids while we were waiting for the sun to go down. We heard stories of the life Feras left behind in Damascus. We listened to the story of how Feras and Jasmina met each other. We learned about their process of moving to Sweden. We talked about Jesus. It was amazing. Feras and Jasmina were remarkably open, and I felt very welcome in their home. I hope to see them again in 2020!
After posting my Top Ten Songs of 2019 and Top Ten Books of 2019, I’m following the pattern that I established last year, turning my attention to hikes that I’ve been privileged to enjoy in the past year. Hiking has remained one of my favorite ways to experience the world, and to experience intimacy with God. And this year was special because I got to visit several new (and familiar) U.S. National Parks, plus several other places of exceptional natural beauty around the world.
So anyway — without further ado, here are my Top Ten Hikes of 2019, in ranked order:
Chasm Lake, on July 7th
Delicate Arch, on July 15th
Vaxholm’s Eriksö, on May 13th
Taughannock Falls Rim Trail, on June 1st
Loch Moraig to Carn Liath, on March 7th
Headlands / Lakeside Trails, on October 10th and 11th
Camp Asbury to Hiram, on September 13th
Ute Trail, on June 29th
Arizona’s Slide Rock State Park, on July 17th
Buttermilk Falls to Columbia Run, on December 19th
And again, for those who would appreciate more context, my explanations for each selection are included with the listing (reverse rank-order), below:
After the completion of my quest to hike the entirety of the Northeast Ohio Loop of the Buckeye Trail, I started spending more time at the Cuyahoga Valley National Park again. Neither Buttermilk Falls nor Columbia Run are official trails — or official destinations — in the park (though I used a portion of the Buckeye Trail that runs through there). I mostly found my way by following natural draws up the hills and animal trails through the woods. It felt like being a kid again, “discovering unknown places.” I liked it.
Linda Kitchen is one of our oldest and dearest friends from Amsterdam. So it was extra special to visit her new home in Northern Arizona, back in July. We only got to spend a day with her, but we actually did a couple of hikes in a couple of very unique settings. The most unique setting, though, was the river canyon that’s been designated as Slide Rock State Park. The red sandstone has been eroded smoothly, and a thin layer of moss has grown in the river bed — so there’s a sort of natural water-slide running down through this beautiful canyon in Arizona. It was a really fun place to visit. Especially since we got to enjoy the experience with Linda.
Probably the best cost:benefit ratio of any hike I can remember! The trail-head is high above tree-line, just off Trail Ridge Road (we were lucky to find a parking place). So right from the beginning, there are spectacular panoramic views of the Rocky Mountain National Park. There’s also a minimum of elevation change over the course of this hike, as it mostly follows a plateau — so even though the air is thin it’s not too hard to handle, physically. Since it’s an out-and-back, hikers can also choose how far to hike. It’s a pretty ideal way to experience the beauty of Rocky Mountain National Park.
This was part of my Buckeye Trail quest for the year. It’s one of my absolute favorite hikes in Northeast Ohio! It includes a beautiful bike path (built on top of a former railroad) tunneling through trees, a beautiful little waterfall, Aspen groves, and lovely rolling hills with farm fields.
Also a part of the Buckeye Trail system. These sections of trail were so beautiful I had to go back — two days in a row — even though it took longer than an hour to drive, each way! The Headlands section (the Eastern part of the lake-front trail) had the best forests and marshlands. The Lakeside section (the Western part of the lake-front trail) had better lake views. When I get the chance to do it again, I’ll park by the Mentor Harbor Marina and then hike all the way to Headlands Beach State Park and back.
I got to travel to Scotland with my brother Jay in March. It felt like we had the country to ourselves — especially on this hike up our first Munro (peak at 3000′ above sea level, or higher). It was super-windy on the day we completed this hike, but that made it all the more memorable.
Marci and I celebrated our 21st wedding anniversary around (and in) the gorges of Ithaca, New York. Even though the weather wasn’t cooperative, we decided to do some hiking together. Taughannock Falls was the most spectacular site that we got to see while we were there, but all of our meals and walks and talks together were lovely.
I don’t know what to say about this hike except that I encountered God on the trails of this small island in Sweden. I already wrote a whole story about my experiences on Vaxholm — and they still don’t do the experience justice! This hike will always have a special place in my heart for the spiritual journey that took place. But it was also just a beautiful, serene walk — and kayak ride — through whispering groves of Aspen and lakeside solitude.
This was the hottest hike of the year — even with waiting until sunset to go out on the trail — but it was a great experience of an entirely-different landscape from what I’ve previously hiked. Arches National Park was beautiful. I hope we get to go back and explore it more thoroughly at some point in the future.
My new favorite hike in the Rocky Mountain National Park! Wow! The last mile of this trail includes some of the most spectacular scenery that the Rockies have to offer: craggy cliffs, roaring waterfalls, glaciers, lakes, and snow-capped mountain-tops. So beautiful! I got to share the experience with my friends Dylan, Peter, Laura, and Kaitlyn. It was a great way to cap our family’s time at Estes Park Leadership Training this summer.
After posting my Top Ten Songs of 2019, I thought that a list of my favorite reading material would be good. Reading seemed to be a bigger focus for 2019 than it was for 2018, so I had more books from which to choose this year. Blogging also happened to be a bigger focus for 2019 than it was for 2018 — so I took time to reflect on each book shortly after finishing it (which enhanced both my reading and my writing). I’ll link to my full write-up for each book, in case you want to read more — but for the purposes of this retrospective post, I’m going to limit myself to five words for each book.
Anyway: Out of the 25 books I read in 2019, here are my Top Ten Books of the year, in ranked order: