The United States of America is a proud nation. We’ve deliberately cultivated that pride for a long time. “A Beacon of Democracy” and “The Greatest Nation on Earth” and all that sort of rhetoric. It’s a part of the national ethos.
So it shouldn’t be a surprise that we the people of the United States of America elected an especially proud man, Donald Trump, as our President in 2016. He bragged about his sexual conquests, his business conquests, and his political conquests as he campaigned for office. I found his braggadoccio off-putting and unconvincing. (I believe that many of those who present themselves as the most arrogant are actually the most insecure). Nevertheless, a lot of my fellow Americans appreciated Donald Trump’s “swagger” and “boldness.” His pride.
So it shouldn’t be a surprise to observe the way the last few years — and especially the last few months and the last few days — have played out. Prideful people do prideful things.
I believe — both from my own experiences as a Precinct Election Official and from my personal research of credible sources — that Donald Trump lost a fair election in November. Still, I recognize that 46.9% of my fellow Americans were hoping for a different outcome. And a subset of those 46.9% of Americans have been willing to play into Donald Trump’s pride and prejudice, sustaining his accusations of fraud. Sustaining his pride. So a subset of that subset heeded the proud President’s plea to march on the Capitol and protest the process of certifying the election results. And a subset of that subset were willing to violently force their way into the Capitol to disrupt the proceedings.
So, I know that we’re talking about a minority of a minority of a minority of a minority. Yesterday’s chaotic and violent events in Washington D.C. do not represent all Americans, or all Republicans, or all election skeptics, or even all those who gathered to demonstrate. Still, I feel it’s important to note that we’ve all fallen victim to pride and exceptionalism. And even the way that we are responding to current events reveals our pride and posture toward others. So we must all take heed:
Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall. Better to be lowly in spirit along with the oppressed than to share plunder with the proud. Whoever gives heed to instruction prospers, and blessed is the one who trusts in the LORD. The wise in heart are called discerning, and gracious words promote instruction. Prudence is a fountain of life to the prudent, but folly brings punishment to fools. The hearts of the wise make their mouths prudent, and their lips promote instruction.
Pride is what makes for bad losers. And bad winners, too. So no matter what our political persuasion might be, we all need to stay on the look-out for pride in our hearts and in our words.
I’ve also found that prayer is an important expression of heeding instruction, developing trust, practicing discernment, and promoting prudence. We need to pray for others, especially those we consider to be our “enemies.” So I’m sincerely hoping and praying that President Donald Trump will change course and stop sowing the seeds of doubt and discord to assuage his own pride. I resonated with the recent comments from Senator Mitt Romney, pointing out that yesterday’s chaos was “due to a selfish man’s injured pride, and the outrage of supporters who he has deliberately misinformed for the past two months and stirred to action” in the hours leading up to the breach of security at the Capitol. The way that Donald Trump responded to yesterday’s extreme events makes it clearer than ever that we need a change in the Oval Office.
But the trouble won’t stop, even if there were to be a miraculous, full 180-degree turn from Donald Trump in his last days in office. The trouble won’t stop, even with the inauguration of Joe Biden.
We need to continue examining our own hearts. Bernice King suggested, “We need to stop saying ‘This is not who we are’ in ‘America.’ Indeed, this is not who and what the United States should be, but denial won’t make the injustices and inhumane ideologies less so. We can’t change without truth.” I’m inclined to agree with Shane Claiborne that, “Trump didn’t change America. Trump revealed America. To those who say: ‘This isn’t America’… I wish that were true. The truth is this IS America… Not all of America, but much more than we want to believe. We have work to do.”
Morgan Park rests in the middle of Portage County, between Ravenna and Shalersville. I pulled into the park’s gravel parking lot right around the time the astronomical calendar listed as “sunrise.” It didn’t feel like much of a sunrise, though, because the sun was obscured by a wall of clouds. A whole sky full of clouds, in fact. The new day came as a slow fade from dark gray to light gray. Kind of sad and gloomy. Still, I found consolation in the fact that I had the desolation of Morgan Park to myself.
Morgan means morning, or tomorrow, or the future. So Morgan Park seemed to be a fitting location to consider the state of our world and the state of my soul at the beginning of this new year.
There wasn’t much color to the landscape. All browns and grays. Not even much in the way of evergreen trees or bright-colored berries attracting bright-colored song-birds (which can be typical in other nature preserves around here). It was just a drab, desolate scene. My boots squished deep into the mud as I hiked, and I found my soul sinking, too.
I thought and prayed as I hiked. It felt like God was coaching me, reminding me that the next two months may be the hardest months of the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ve got a sort of finish line in sight, now that people are starting to get vaccinated. But it feels like a moving finish line. And we’re tired from all the miles we’ve already logged to get to this point. January and February will continue to be cold and gray. Experts have been predicting that a lot of people will still get sick and die from this coronavirus before it’s all said and done. And my heart was further burdened by the suspicion that our church is going to have a hard time drumming up enthusiasm or building any kind of momentum in ministry until we can break away from our screens and spend time together in real life.
The desolation deepened. It became overwhelming. Until I turned a corner on the trail, and it dawned on me: “Wait a minute. I love desolation!”
Desolation means abandonment. Emptiness. And even though the word often has a negative connotation, I really do think it’s the word that matches up best with the reason I love places like Scotland, Iceland, and the western Dakotas. There is profound beauty in these places that are open and endless. They feel truly abandoned and empty — truly desolate — but these places leave me feeling refreshed. They give me space to feel my feelings and think my thoughts. The desolation makes me feel free and alive.
The longer I hiked, the more I noticed how the cool, gray, empty meadows and woods of Morgan Park provided perspective on who I am and who God is. The vast and timeless landscape reminded me of my smallness and insignificance, in the grander scheme of things. The smallness and insignificance of my problems, too. I am first and foremost an element of God’s creation, a child in His family. It’s not on me to bring about the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, or solve world hunger, or establish peace on earth. Those are God’s jobs. “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end” (Ecclesiastes 3:11).
I cannot fathom it or explain it, but I can feel it profoundly. The desolation of the landscape alerted me to signs of life that would be otherwise obscured. I noticed it in the moss growing on the rocks and trees. I noticed it in the variety of fall leaves suspended in pools of water. The long, slender tree branches reaching up to the heavens spoke to this deep sense of consolation in desolation.
Consolation means comfort in times of trouble. And it usually connotes someone to soothe, too. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve found that desolate places are incredibly effective in bringing me face to face with my Heavenly Father. When I walk with God in the woods, He reminds me of His Word, which lasts even longer than the grasses and the flowers. He speaks of eternal hope, in spite of trouble. And He soothes my soul with His beauty and wisdom.
I recently finished reading John M. Barry’s book, The Great Influenza. I’ve been hearing it cited all year (because of parallels between the 1918 Influenza Pandemic and the 2020 COVID-19 Pandemic). But a couple of months ago, I heard a more detailed description of the book on The Holy Post. So I reserved it from the local library (it had a wait time of several weeks). And when it finally came my turn to read the book, it coincided nicely with some time off. Consequently, I was able to get through this relatively large book in a relatively short amount of time. And I really learned a lot from my reading of the book!
There are a lot of similarities between the 1918 pandemic and the 2020 pandemic. Both pandemics affected significant numbers of people with both short-term illness, long-term complications, and death. Both pandemics brought society to a screeching halt. There was a lot of misinformation and fear in the case of both pandemics. And both pandemics brought out some of the worst in human behavior. Shaming and blaming enemies for the pandemic is one example. People acting in self-centered, self-preserving ways (at the cost of others) is another. It’s also interesting to see the way that political divisions sharpen in all the rush to deal with the pandemic. The similarities are remarkable.
There are also a lot of differences.
The viruses themselves are different, for one thing. The 1918 virus proved itself far more virulent (deadly) before it attenuated (became less powerful, in order to spread more widely). The group most affected by the 1918 pandemic was people in their 20s and 30s. The influenza virus cut these young people down in the prime of their life because of severe responses from their strong immune systems. In the case of our 2020 pandemic, however, older people are more affected because they have weaker immune systems. In both pandemics, scientists had to work hard to fill in the gaps in their knowledge. Still, the gaps were quite a bit greater in 1918. General knowledge of viruses and bacteria was less. And it’s really kind of crazy how many technological advances have happened over the last century. Things like microscopes and medications and ventilators…
I wonder, however, if the most significant difference between the 1918 pandemic and the 2020 pandemic comes in the way that information was / is shared. In 1918, the United States (and much of the rest of the world) was in the midst of the first World War. As a result, governments used their wartime powers to withhold information about the pandemic for fear of “hurting morale.” So the president of the United States (Woodrow Wilson) never publicly acknowledged the Influenza pandemic. Not once! Today, we have almost the opposite situation. News about COVID-19 is abundant and overwhelming. Both situations — not enough information and too much information — bring their own challenges. But I prefer access to information. I’m glad that I have access to all the latest numbers from the State of Ohio. Even if I choose not to look at it sometimes.
I feel like this book spent more time than I would have liked describing the individual scientists who worked during the 1918 pandemic. It got repetitive at times, and it was also hard to tell some of the scientists apart from each other. Still, I thought the book provided a lot of insight. It was particularly interesting to hear the author’s theory about Woodrow Wilson’s own encounter with Influenza and the way it may have affected his role in the peace talks at the end of the war. If you can get your hands on a copy of this book while the COVID-19 pandemic is still happening, I think it would be worth your while to read.
After posting my Top Ten Songs of 2020, Top Ten Books of 2020, Top Ten Hikes of 2020, and Top Ten Ministry Moments of 2020, I thought that I would conclude my lists with looking back on the Top Ten Family Moments of 2020. 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 2020, in ranked order:
Enduring Three Rounds of Quarantine
Family Vacation to “Europe” in our Backyard
22nd Anniversary Trip to Beautiful East Rochester
Cor’s Thirteenth Birthday Trip
Elliot’s High School Graduation
Birthday Letters to my Kids and from my Kids
Laughing in the Face of Winter
Sunrise at Indigo Lake
Traveling with my Children to the Center of the World
Creative Christmas celebrations
And again, for any who might appreciate more context, my explanations for each selection are included with the listing (reverse rank-order), below:
#10 – Creative Christmas Celebrations
I’ve already written about our outdoor, extend-family gatherings for “Driveway Christmas” (Eve) with the Asps and “Farmyard Christmas” (Day) with the Andersons. And I really do think those experiences will live long in our collective and individual memories. At the same time, I also appreciated the smaller, subtler ways that our family celebrated Christmas this year: making weird TikTok videos with Elliot… organizing our own Frosty Frolic 5K in the absence of an official event… going for a walk with Marci early on Christmas morning, while our teenagers were still sleeping… giving more space for our family Advent discussions, instead of church services… I love our holiday traditions, when we can observe them. But I also love the chance to be creative when necessary.
#9 – Traveling with My Children to the Center of the World
Did you know that our family happens to live just 35 minutes from the Center of the World?!? It feels surprisingly shabby, out-of-the-way, and rusty. But it’s got official road signs declaring it to be the “Center of the World,” so it’s hard to argue with that! We actually didn’t have high hopes for our visit to the Center of the World in February, but we truly and sincerely enjoyed ourselves there. We took pictures at the road sign and the dilapidated “Cones and Bones” barn across the street (where they apparently once sold ice cream cones and barbecued meats featuring bones). And best of all, we enjoyed a true American diner experience at the Short Stop restaurant attached to the town’s main gas station. The whole adventure was a bit campy, but lots of fun.
#8 – Sunrise at Indigo Lake
We needed the hope of the Resurrection as much as we’ve ever needed it this year. The COVID-19 shut-down was in its darkest, scariest days when Easter Sunday happened to come along. And without any organized church events (outside of online events) to mark the occasion, our family made it special by hiking to a spot overlooking Indigo Lake in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, where we hoped to watch the sunrise. Cloud conditions didn’t exactly cooperate with our plans for a sunrise / Son-rise celebration. But the heavy gray skies obscuring the new day served as a fitting metaphor for what we were all feeling at the time.
#7 – Laughing in the Face of Winter
This has become an annual event that my kids and I eagerly anticipate. We take the coldest, snowiest, wintriest Monday in January — and we lean into it, with activities that would more typically be characterized as “summer activities.” This year, we had a picnic on Gildersleeve Mountain, enjoyed ice cream from Handel’s, and played frisbee in the park. A foot of fresh snow and freezing temperatures made the experience extra-memorable. Thinking back on those experiences, I’m already starting to look forward to LITFOW 2021!
#6 – Birthday Letters to my Kids and from my Kids
I’ve written birthday letters to my kids for years. But this year, they returned the favor and wrote me some really meaningful letters. I remember Olivia’s especially, as her words of affirmation really hit home and she made another amazing drawing of us as father-daughter animals (this time: polar bears). And somehow, this strange year of the COVID-19 pandemic also happened to collide with Elliot’s 18th, Olivia’s 16th, and Cor’s 13th birthdays — all of which felt like special personal occasions cast in an extra-special light by world events. Letter-writing is one of those rare things that may even be improved in a pandemic!
#5 – Elliot’s High School Graduation
A high school graduation is something special to experience under any circumstances. But we witnessed the surreal experience of Elliot’s high school graduation ceremonies pieced together with video-taped footage of school administrators in face-shields handing over sanitized diploma-folders to Elliot and his classmates, while parked in a drive-in movie theater! Elliot also got to deliver one of the best speeches of the night. So it was a special occasion. We’re really proud of all he’s accomplished and all that he is still accomplishing.
#4 – Cor’s Thirteenth Birthday Trip
Man. Cor is growing up quickly. He turned 13 this year, so we planned a special trip to serve as a rite of passage to adulthood. He wanted to visit the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts. But I suggested that we round things out with some camping in the High Peaks area of the Adirondack Mountains and a summit of Mount Marcy (tallest point in the state of New York). I also have especially fond memories of trying to find a pizza place in Vermont, after hiking out from the wilderness. Cor is a fine young man and a very pleasant traveling companion.
#3 – 22nd Anniversary Trip to Beautiful East Rochester
Marci and I have enjoyed many anniversaries and special anniversary trips (we’ve always made it a goal to get away for at least one night). Through the years, we’ve had the privilege to visit exotic locations like Paris and the Bahamas and the Redwood forests of Northern California. But believe it or not, this trip to East Rochester, Ohio was a Top Ten — and maybe even a Top Five — anniversary celebration of all the get-aways we’ve had together. Maybe it was because this trip was our first foray into “public” after the COVID-19 shut-down… Maybe it was because it we were particularly fond of the cabin where we stayed… Or maybe there’s just some magic in the air of East Rochester.
#2 – Family Vacation to “Europe” in our Backyard
Our family had hoped that 2020 would be the year we could return for a visit to Europe: Wales, Scotland, and Holland, specifically. Unfortunately, COVID-19 scuttled our plans. Fortunately, however, we improvised a plan to visit places in our area that had the same names as the places we might have gotten to see in Europe. The Town of Wales, in western New York, is not that far from Holland, New York. And there’s a way to get to these points of interest that includes not one, not two, but three towns apparently named after Edinburgh, Scotland. So that’s how we vacationed in “Europe” this summer. And even though there was some disappointment about no trans-Atlantic travel this year, our time together in the eastern Great Lakes region was legitimately enjoyable.
#1 – Enduring Three Rounds of Quarantine
We spent a lot of time at home this year. With just the five of us. But they say, “You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.” And we experienced this first-hand when we dealt with a virus in our house for about two weeks back in April. We may never know if it was or was not the novel SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus (Marci did an antibody test in July which came back negative, although it was just outside the three-month window, and I’ve heard that there may be some reason to doubt the results of the antibody tests). In any event, we chose to undergo weeks of isolation and quarantine at the time. And we really and truly celebrated the chance to get back to being a family of five in the house together, after all the symptoms cleared. Later in the year, Olivia came into close contact with a friend to got COVID, leading to a two-week quarantine for her (our “princess in the tower”). And shortly after that, Cor had enough of a reaction to his flu shot that we were advised to isolate him for another four days until we got a negative test back for him. Each time we had to do without each other’s company, we were reminded of how special it is to just be a family.
After posting my Top Ten Songs of 2020, Top Ten Books of 2020, and Top Ten Hikes of 2020, 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 kind of messy and intangible. Especially in the midst of a global pandemic! Even in a “normal” year, ministry highlights 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 2020, in ranked order:
FaceTime conversations with M and J
Leadership Table Conversations on Tuesday Afternoons
The H2O Network ManMaker Weekend in February
Deliberate Step Forward for Racial Justice
H2O Network Summer Intensive
Fellowship of the Hawk Fall Retreat
Visits to Youngstown State University
November Baptism Celebration in the Cuyahoga River
Campus Prayer on Thursday Mornings
Continued Partnership and Provision from our Ministry Team
And again, for any who might appreciate more context, my explanations for each selection are included with the listing (reverse rank-order), below:
#10 – Continued Partnership and Provision from our Ministry Team
I was pretty worried, back in the Spring. When everything started shutting down because of the COVID-19 pandemic, I didn’t know how we were going to continue reaching Kent State students. I also didn’t know how we were going to maintain the team of ministry partners who would allow us to keep trying to figure out ways to reach those students. Wouldn’t they be hesitant to donate to a mission agency, when the mission field was so dramatically shifting? Weren’t many of them being furloughed from their jobs or losing income as the economy collapsed? The shut-down really did feel like an existential threat, and not just on the level of physical health. I worried for our livelihood. Fortunately, our team has remained committed and generous. So we’ve been able to keep pressing forward, even in this most unusual year. I praise God for His provision!
#9 – Campus Prayer on Thursday Mornings
Our Staff team decided to gather for prayer every day of the week leading up to Kent State University’s Fall Semester. And we managed to keep it up, rain or shine, every Thursday morning through the rest of the semester. We met underneath a stand of oak trees between Manchester Field and the Centennial Fields, with as many as fifteen and as few as three people praying together. It was quiet, slow-and-steady, behind-the-scenes ministry work. But I’m proud of that ministry work. I believe it made a difference throughout the semester, not least in my own heart.
#8 – November Baptism Celebration in the Cuyahoga River
On the last Sunday before Thanksgiving Break, the weather in northeast Ohio featured intermittent rain, 20 MPH winds, and temperatures in the 40s all day. Still all the different regions of our church gathered at the edge of the Cuyahoga River to witness our dear friend Dillon and my beloved son Cor publicly proclaim their faith in Jesus through baptism! “Because of your faith in Jesus, we baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” These words have accompanied the observance of baptism for thousands of years. So, in a way, our baptism in the Cuyahoga was unremarkable. At the same time, it felt special to affirm light and life in such a dark and dreadful year.
#7 – Visits to Youngstown State University
Back in the Spring Semester, before COVID, we hired a student-intern to prioritize the exploration of church-planting possibilities at Youngstown State University. I got to make that 45-minute drive East with “Intern Alec” several times before the pandemic shut things down. And we learned enough in those visits to see that there is great potential for ongoing ministry work on the campus of YSU. In the Fall Semester, our Staff took a couple of trips back to Youngstown to more seriously test the waters for an eventual church plant. And while nothing is certain at this point, it still feels safe to say that Youngstown State University is a leading candidate for an H2O church plant in the years to come. I’m going to keep praying this direction, at least! We’ll see what God does…
#6 – Fellowship of the Hawk Fall Retreat
Our Fall Retreat with H2O Kent was different this year. We felt it was important to minimize the risks of transmitting COVID-19, so events were organized with just a couple of Life Groups getting away together, instead of the whole church. Consequently, we didn’t pack out a whole camp-ground with a raucous crowd of college students. Instead, we camped out — each person in his or her own tent — in a grassy area behind the home of Regan’s grandmother in rural Stark County. And it was just seven of us from the collection of Life Groups we’ve come to call the “Fellowship of the Hawk.” Even so, we managed to hit all the hallmarks of a Midwestern Fall Retreat: s’mores, apple orchards (including apple-chucking), pumpkin patches, corn fields. Mostly, though, I’m going to remember simply sitting around the fire with Regan, Cam, Meg, Meg, Morgan, Cor, and Linda.
#5 – H2O Network Summer Intensive
Our network of churches was concerned about exposing our students to the health concerns associated with a Leadership Training program in Estes Park, Colorado. Instead, we decided to invest in our student-leaders through an online environment we called the Summer Intensive. We met three times a week on YouTube and Zoom, in various group sizes. Each church in the network took responsibility for recording one of the Thursday night large-group sessions (I thought the way we did our session in our downtown Kent office was especially well-executed). And I feel like this is where we really learned how to do online ministry. We learned what worked — and what didn’t work. We figured out ways to have meaningful interaction and invest in the lives of our student-leaders. And I hope that we’ll keep applying the lessons that we learned even after life and ministry gets back to “normal.”
#4 – Deliberate Step Forward for Racial Justice
We’ve learned a lot about racial justice this year! Our church had been slowly learning and growing over the previous couple of years. But we took a big step forward in May when we decided to have our Staff team and our student-leaders read through a book called The Color of Compromise. Deeper national dialogue was sparked by news reports of racial injustice in Georgia, Kentucky, and Minnesota. And then that national news became local news in September, after racist messages were painted on the large rock in the front part of Kent State’s campus. Consequently, our church felt this was an important moment to take another deliberate step forward for racial justice. We wrote a couple of open letters. We joined some demonstrations on campus. And we’re praying and planning for continued work to overcome a history of injustice, for God’s glory.
#3 – The H2O Network ManMaker Weekend in February
This event feels like it belongs to a different year — maybe even a different decade — because it was pre-COVID! Still, it happened in 2020. And I’m really proud of the role that our team from H2O Kent played in making it happen. We may not have fully understood just how complicated and labor-intensive it would all be, when we volunteered to coordinate everything. But after taking on the task, we put in a lot of work ahead of time to identify everything that would need to be accomplished. We delegated tasks among all the different leaders who would be on hand. We prepared carefully. And then we all executed the plans with excellence. We had about 350 young men, from 9 different universities, together for 24 hours. And it was a big win for our church and our network.
#2 – Leadership Table Conversations on Tuesday Afternoons
It’s been a year and a half since my co-pastor Matthew moved from Kent to Bowling Green and we cobbled together a team of Senior Staff to fill the gap. We’ve learned a lot about each other and about servant-leadership throughout our time together. However, the pressure-cooker of 2020 (the second half of this “Leadership Table” period) has been an extra accelerant to the development of our next generation of church leaders. It’s not always been easy or pleasant, but it’s definitely been worthwhile. Some of our conversations were in person, or fireside, or in nature preserves. A lot of our conversations were over Zoom. But I’m really proud of the way that God has been using this team to lead our church through a perilous period. And I look forward to seeing how He will use Lauren, AJ, Daniel, and Mark in the years to come.
#1 – FaceTime conversations with M and J
I have only the vaguest recollection of meeting the young woman I’ll call “M” before the COVID shut-down. We certainly weren’t close. But we got to know each other quite a bit better when I started texting through the list of people on my ministry GroupMe channels, back during the April COVID shut-down. She was very open about her struggles. With COVID, but also more generally. We quickly shifted from text messaging to video conference calls. And our conversations became so full of the Gospel that they became highlights of my week. Shortly after we decided to start studying Romans together, M asked if her boyfriend, “J,” could join. Later on, M’s brother joined us, and another friend joined a couple of times. I believe that M already had a relationship with God through M’s faith in Jesus when we started talking, but it was a young, untested relationship. And it was largely solitary. Until — of all things — the separation of COVID sparked a new level of community in Christ.
After posting my Top Ten Songs of 2020 and Top Ten Books of 2020, I’m following the pattern that I established in previous years, 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.
The COVID-19 Pandemic made it so I couldn’t travel as far or as wide as I did in 2019, but it did create more opportunities to “opt outside” for personal time and for time with others. Fortunately, we also happen to have several places of exceptional natural beauty right here, within a relatively short drive of Kent, Ohio. In particular, I made it my goal to hike every trail in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park (again) over the course of 2020. And I actually met this goal earlier than expected, in early September! Consequently, I got to hike several of my favorite trails more than once. And with a couple of trips outside of northeast Ohio, I feel pretty proud about the quantity and quality of hiking I got to do in 2020.
So anyway — without further ado, here are my Top Ten Hikes of 2020, in ranked order:
Marcy Dam to Mount Marcy, on July 28th
Chippewa Creek, on December 1st
Letchworth (NY) State Park, on June 18th
The Northern Bank of Tinker’s Creek, on September 18th
Blue Hen Falls + Buttermilk Falls, on October 12th
Johnson Falls, on June 20th
The Cuyahoga Valley Ledges, on April 10th
Towner’s Woods, on September 29th
Terra Vista Natural Study Area, on November 23rd
“My Mountain,” on August 11th
And again, for those who would appreciate more context, my explanations for each selection are included with the listing (reverse rank-order), below:
One of the upshots of pandemic life and pandemic ministry has been a lot of time in the Great Outdoors. Our H2O Church Staff Retreat in August was a good example. All three days of meetings were outdoors. The first day of the retreat was probably the best, however. We established a base for ourselves at the confluence of Chippewa Creek and the Cuyahoga River in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. During the morning, we soaked in the water and/or the sun, depending on individual preferences. And then in the afternoon, we split up into two groups to go for a short hike. My group went to a spot that is literally labeled “My Mountain.” The hike itself is not hard. The view out over the Chippewa Creek valley is pretty. But it was the time with my friends and colleagues that made this one extra-special.
I thought I had previously hiked every trail in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, but this year I actually discovered a couple of new trails. Some of these new trails had been developed after my last circuit of the park; others, it would seem that I just missed for one reason or another. The Terra Vista Natural Study area is one of those areas that I previously missed because it’s not contiguous with any other trails in the park. But I’m glad I discovered it! It’s got a lovely mix of forests, meadows, and wetlands — plus at early 19th Century Cemetery! Before the year was finished, I’d visited this “new” section of trails three times.
I hiked around Towner’s Woods eighteen times in 2020! Mostly, these hikes happened on Tuesday mornings with my friends Chad and Jason. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, we had a weekly breakfast appointment in Kent. When everything shut down back in the Spring, however, we needed to switch to something outdoors. I’m curious to see if we’ll eventually switch back to breakfast (stockpiling calories) or if we’ll continue with hiking (burning calories). Either way, I’ve cherished the time that I’ve gotten to spend with these quality men out on the trails of Towner’s Woods. It’s a particularly spectacular place to hike in the Fall.
This would easily be the best hike in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, except for the fact that it’s also the most popular. Sometimes it can be outright uncomfortable (even when nobody’s worrying about a pandemic) how many people try to cram into the tight spaces formed among these rocks. Back in April, however, the COVID-19 shut-down kept a lot of people holed up in their houses (not many had yet figured out that hiking is a healthy quarantine recreational activity). And April 10th happened to be a cold and rainy day, as well. So I had the Ledges almost completely to myself. It was also Good Friday, and something about the Ledges and the rain felt very evocative of the Crucifixion, the Tomb, and the Resurrection. I had a great time of personal worship and wonder.
I only happened across Johnson Falls because of a teeny-tiny road sign on a teeny-tiny country road serendipitously included in our family’s vacation to Western New York. Just 75 meters downstream from a two-car gravel parking lot, I discovered a beautiful 5-meter waterfall. Shortly after I got there, another set of hikers wandered up and used a rope to descend through the waterfall to the river below. I learned that their family owns much of the surrounding land — and they’d been the ones to install the rope (which they assured me was safe). They said the “really impressive” waterfall lay another 75 meters downstream. The second falls dropped maybe 12 meters into a hollow that felt like it belonged in another world. I never would have tried that rope if I hadn’t gotten to talk with its owner and installer. So that made this discovery extra-special.
These are such pretty waterfalls at such a pretty time of the year! Blue Hen Falls is a pretty popular destination in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Its sister falls just downstream, however, are not frequented by others. And I might argue that Buttermilk Falls is even more beautiful than Blue Hen Falls. In any event, I hiked to these waterfalls several times in 2020, but my favorite time was when I went with Olivia and Cor in October.
I almost never encounter other hikers in this northernmost section of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. It also happens to feature some of the most diverse landscapes of the park: forested hills… cliffs overlooking Tinker’s Creek… rolling meadows… and wetlands teeming with birds. It’s a lovely place to go exploring, especially in the Fall or Winter (probably a bit mushy in the wetland areas during the Spring and early Summer). Definitely worth a visit, if you live in Northeast Ohio.
It sounds like hyperbole to call Letchworth the “Grand Canyon of the East.” But it’s really not far off. It’s not quite as vast or as desolate (and I consider “desolate” to be a highly-desirable quality in landscapes). Still, it’s impressive in different ways: lush green forests… powerful waterfalls… and more moderate (comfortable) temperatures. Our family got to do this hike together on our vacation to Western New York, and it was definitely one of the highlights of that trip.
I love hiking in snow-storms. Partly because it’s beautiful to see everything covered in snow. Partly because it makes the woods exceptionally quiet. But if I’m being completely honest, it’s also partly because it makes me feel like I’m wandering the remote ice world of Hoth, like Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back. The Chippewa Creek trails are amazing under any conditions. But this hike was extra-special because the snow was coming down particularly hard and heavy as I hiked.
This hike would have made my Top Ten list in any year, even if I had been afforded the opportunity to travel to more exotic locations. Mount Marcy is the highest of the High Peaks area in the Adirondack Mountains of northern New York. It’s steep, rugged terrain that offers sweeping vistas, particularly at the summit and at Indian Falls. It was also super-special to do this with Cor, as a sacred rite of passage to mark his 13th Birthday and transition into adulthood. We finished our exhausting hike with a swim in the frigid waters of Phelps Brook, near our base camp.
After posting my Top Ten Songs of 2020, I thought that a list of my favorite reading material would be good. I’ve had the privilege to read eighteen books (and counting) over the course of the last year. So, I didn’t read as many books as I did last year. But it was still more than an average year (I’m a pretty slow and deliberate reader). I took time to reflect and write up a little “book report” on each one, shortly after finishing it. So, 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 eighteen books I read in 2020, here are my Top Ten Books of the year, in ranked order:
Earlier this month, I shared some observations supplied by Spotify regarding my and my friends’ music listening patterns from 2020. But, I don’t feel like frequency automatically dictates favorites. At least, I’ve been thinking about my picks for this year, and I can verify that my Spotify Top Ten is not the same as my actual, all-things-considered, comprehensive Top Ten for the year.
So I want to share my real Top Ten listing here, where I can provide more context and then (in the coming days) also segue into other “Top Ten” listings for 2020.
I’ll start with a simple listing. Here are my Top Ten Songs of 2020:
Fields and Pier (Avriel and the Sequoias)
It Would Be You (Ben Rector)
Rainbow (Kacey Musgraves)
A God Like You (Kirk Franklin)
Missed Calls (MAX, featuring Hayley Kiyoko)
2020 (Ben Folds)
Dole Teifi / Lliw’r Heulwen (Cynefin)
Whatcha Say (Havana Maestros featuring Jason Derulo)
Playing on My Mind (The 1975)
Opus 28, Number 15, in D-Flat Major (Composed by Frédéric Chopin, Performed by Susanne Grutzmann)
And for anyone who might appreciate more context, my explanations for each selection are included with the listing (reverse rank-order), below:
#10 – Opus 28, Number 15, in D-Flat Major (Composed by Frédéric Chopin, Performed by Susanne Grutzmann)
I knew about this song long before 2020. But I was reminded of it when the piece appeared in an episode of the series, The Crown. It was so somber, so melancholy, and it felt perfectly suited for the sad scene on the show and the sad scene of the COVID shut-down that we were experiencing at the time. So I kept listening to it, and it became a sort of anthem — or really, a dirge — for my experience of the pandemic. Those were sad and scary times, back in the spring, but the music was helpful. So I really do consider it a top song for the year, even if it represents a low point in terms of actual life experience.
#9 – Playing on My Mind (The 1975)
I’m not very good about keeping up on the latest musical releases. But fortunately, I’ve got other people in my life who are! I heard about The 1975’s new album on a run with my friends Mark and Tyler (both of whom have impeccable music taste). I really enjoyed a number of the tracks from this album, but my favorite was “Playing on My Mind.” Kind of wistful, but also a little bit cheeky like I’d expect from The 1975.
#8 – Whatcha Say (Havana Maestros featuring Jason Derulo)
I discovered this song on a collaborative playlist created by my friends, Meg and Dylan. The song samples its chorus from Imogene Heap’s “Hide and Seek,” which had been shared with me by my brother several years ago. But the reference was so camouflaged with Latin instrumentation and rhythms that it took me awhile to make that connection. When I figured it out, though, it took this from being a solid bop to being a Top Ten Song for the year. There’s nothing incredibly meaningful about the song for me. It’s just a fun and catchy tune.
#7 – Dole Teifi / Lliw’r Heulwen (Cynefin)
I have no idea what this song is about because it’s entirely performed in Welsh. Still, I love the sound of the language and the sound of this music. Cynefin might actually be my favorite new artist of 2020. I found him while searching for music to accompany our family’s trip to Wales, which never actually materialized because of COVID travel restrictions. But hopefully, someday I’ll be able to united this excellent music with that excellent country.
#6 – 2020 (Ben Folds)
I love Ben Folds. I’ve loved him for many years. But his take on this strange year has made me love him even more. Be warned that there’s one instance of profanity at a pretty central moment of the song. It doesn’t feel gratuitous, though, given the song’s subject. Overall, the song is clever, catchy, and a fitting tribute to this most unusual year.
#5 – Missed Calls (MAX, featuring Hayley Kiyoko)
I learned about this song through my oldest son, Elliot. It’s also got some explicit lyrics, and it doesn’t speak to my life in any particular way. But it’s such a catchy song. The main line of the chorus is also a pretty clever play on words. And for about two or three weeks in September, this was one of the first songs that I’d be playing on any drive in the car.
#4 – A God Like You (Kirk Franklin)
This song was featured in the introduction to the Michelle Obama documentary film, Becoming. It got stuck in my head so quickly, though, that I looked it up on Spotify. It’s got a fun energy. It’s straight-up Gospel Music, but it also feels like it could be pretty mainstream. It became the first song in our family’s summer road trip playlist, which is always a short track to Top Ten status in my way of absorbing new music. Its lyrics are also a generally-accurate statement of my beliefs and life philosophy (unlike a lot of the other songs in this Top Ten listing).
#3 – Rainbow (Kacey Musgraves)
I have no memory of how I found this song. But I do remember that I happened to be reading The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes at the time, and somehow both the lyrics and the tone of the song reminded me of the book’s main protagonist. It also feels like a ballad for 2020, with an encouragement to seek hope in the midst of life’s storms and to always be looking for the rainbows that come along with the rains.
#2 – It Would Be You (Ben Rector)
I have a vague memory of seeing two friends post their reaction to this song on the same day back in the Spring sometime. When I listened to it, I liked the tune immediately. Strong 1980s vibes, with a lot of synthesizer. It just felt like a “summer bop.” As I listened to it more, however, I started to appreciate more and more of the song’s significance for our year of quarantine, isolation, and pandemic apocalypse.
#1 – Fields and Pier (Avriel and the Sequoias)
Gosh. I don’t know exactly how to describe my feelings about this song. But it’s the best song. Not just from this year; maybe even from the last few years. It just feels like a velvety blanket to wrap around my soul on a cold, foggy day. My favorite part is the break after the first chorus, when the artist matches his voice to a cello for a magical little interlude.
We gathered together with Marci’s family in Richland County for Christmas Day. Which we always do. But we did it out in the farmyard this year, instead of inside the farmhouse. Which, actually, we have done under certain conditions: if it’s been a particularly warm, sunny day or if the boys and I have wanted to try out some new sports equipment.
This Christmas, however, did not happen to be a particularly warm day (wind chill probably made it about zero degrees Fahrenheit). The boys also didn’t have any new sports equipment to try out. Still, Richland County happened to be the only one in our state recently listed at Level 4 “Purple” coronavirus risk level — the highest level listed on Ohio’s Public Health Advisory System. And with some relatives who came from out of state to visit Marci’s parents for the holiday, we asked if everyone would be willing to have a fireside, Farmyard Christmas.
It wasn’t ideal. But we went for it: a Farmyard Christmas Day to go along with our Driveway Christmas Eve. So our household drove an hour and a half to spend an hour and a half together outside and then drive an hour and a half back to Kent.
We might be crazy. But we’re family. We made it work. No food, no gifts. Just family time. Still, it was nice. Our Farmyard Christmas turned out to be unique and memorable and hard.
We even took some time to throw around an old football for awhile, diving into the snow for extra-dramatic catches. Hopefully, though, none of us caught COVID from each other. And hopefully, we’ll get to have warmer, more comfortable Christmases together in the years to come.
My parents, my sister’s family, and my family gathered together for Christmas Eve. Which we always do. But we did it in our driveway. Which we never do.
I’m not going to pretend like it was “pure magic,” even with the rapid accumulation of an inch or two of snow while we were together. The truth is that it was awkward and uncomfortable. It’s difficult to sip a hot drink, open a present, hold a conversation, practice standard precautions against the spread of COVID-19, and keep an umbrella over one’s head all at the same time! God bless my family, though. They were troopers. We all managed to maintain positive attitudes and make the most of circumstances.
We kept warm with a combination of electric blankets, two fire pits, one propane heater, and layers of clothing.
We kept our germs to ourselves, following the advice of health experts with a combination of fresh air, staying six feet apart from each other for most of the time, and wearing coordinated masks (gifted to the family by my mother) over our mouths and noses for the times when we did find ourselves in closer proximity.
And we kept Christmas traditions alive, with a reading from the second chapter of Luke… the opening of gifts, one at a time, from youngest to oldest… and exchanging the elements of our traditional Swedish Meatball feast to be enjoyed back at home later in the evening.
In the evening, my parents and I reconvened on Zoom for a video conference with my brothers (one living in Minnesota, one living in Texas). It was good to check in with each other and know that we’re all doing fine, through this unusual year and this unusual holiday season.
The whole Christmas Eve experience was unique. Memorable, too, I expect. But I’m not going to over-romanticize it. It wiped me out. Still, I’m glad we persevered. And I’m hopeful that we won’t have to do it again next year.