Olivia and Cor had a choir concert yesterday afternoon. And they sounded great!
Olivia had an especially prominent role in the concert, as a senior. She sings in the top choir and the top ensemble, but she also serves as the co-president of the choir — so she has some speaking roles and leadership roles during a concert. So it was fun to see her shine on the stage.
Cor was great, too, in his role as a freshman in the lower choir. But one of the most amusing aspects of Cor’s performance was his invisibility. He chose to wear a Santa hat that went down below his brow. And he also had to wear a special choir mask that rides higher on his face than most other masks. So from the audience, it looked like he was wearing a black morph suit covered by a tuxedo and a Santa hat!
COVID keeps finding a way to make things weird! Still we’re glad they can perform, in any event. They sure do make us proud, whether they’re visible or invisible.
We baptized seven people today, just outside of Bowman Hall. And honestly, it felt even more special than I expected.
I mean, it’s always exciting to watch people publicly proclaim their faith in Jesus. And every time, I’m encouraged by the story-telling and celebration and symbolism that make any baptism memorable. But this one was extra-special because of (1) its place in history, (2) the way that it felt, and (3) the involvement of some specific individuals who are particularly special to me.
The “place in history” piece is significant because the last time we had a baptism celebration just outside of Bowman Hall was on Sunday, March 8, 2020. Later that week, everything shut down due to the Coronavirus. Of course, we found other ways to continue cultivating faith and fellowship. And we even had some really special baptism celebrations. But being back at Bowman for baptisms again this weekend felt like a homecoming. And it made us realize that we don’t want to take these sorts of experiences for granted.
It’s harder to describe the way that it felt at this baptism celebration. Let’s just say that the atmosphere was electric. Many of the people who got baptized invited their friends and family to come watch. So the crowd was bigger than usual. And maybe there was some pent-up energy from the COVID hiatus. But in any event, it felt like there was this pregnant pause when each person was lowered beneath the surface of the water — representing the death and burial of one’s self-centered, sinful ways…
And then there was an explosion of noise and joy when each person came back up out of the water — representing the person’s resurrection to new life in Jesus. A renewed identity for a renewed era. I don’t know. I can’t exactly explain it. But it really felt like we got to celebrate seven resurrections! Seven triumphs of God’s grace. Seven new starts — both for the individuals involved, and for our church as a whole.
I’m so glad I got to be a part of it. It was an honor to watch Sabrina, Maddie, and Hannah take that step to follow Jesus during their time at Kent State University (even though I don’t know any of them very well). But it was next-level special to celebrate the baptisms of Maddie and Bryce (who are almost like a niece and nephew to me) and Luke (who has become a dear friend and co-laborer in the Gospel).
Best of all, Marci and I got to baptize our own daughter, Olivia! I was so proud — both as a pastor and as a father — to hear Olivia share her story of choosing to follow Jesus and proclaim her faith through baptism.
Olivia even invited a bunch of her friends to come and witness the occasion because she wanted them to experience the H2O church community and hear her story, along with everyone else from the church. She’s a lovely young woman, both inwardly and outwardly, and I’m excited to see what God is going to do in her and through her in the years to come.
Our family does not just “deck the halls” at Christmas time. We also “sing the Yuletide carols.”
Fa La-la-la-la La-la-la-la.
Olivia is especially busy these days, as one of the Kent Roosevelt High School ACEs (the top ensemble of the school’s choir system). They’ve got several gigs this month, doing Christmas carols at local festivals, elementary schools, a nursing home, a Rotary Club meeting, and such. And we like to go and listen when we can. Yesterday, the gig was in the town of Peninsula, in the heart of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. They sang for a tree-lighting ceremony. Then they did a short set in a small chapel. And they finished by wandering throughout the shopping district, singing Christmas carols as they went.
More than just the official performances, though, we find ourselves doing a lot of singing as we go about our everyday lives. We sing in the car and around the house. When we went to my parents’ house for decorating on Monday, our whole family sang in four-part harmony as we did our decorating work. I’m not sure if it’s a “Church People” thing, or a Scandinavian cultural thing (I have anecdotal evidence to suggest both could be at play). But we’re kind of into choral music. Year-round — but especially at Christmastime.
This week has also been an interesting week for analyzing trends related to the way our family listens to music. Because, as you may know, Spotify (our family’s preferred music streaming service) released its annual “Wrapped” reports.
Our family’s group text was far more active than usual, as we each shared the insights into each other’s listening trends throughout the last year. I learned that my “Audio Aura” is apparently “chill and confident” — which seems a little bit silly, but also something fun to discuss.
There weren’t any big surprises for any of us. Still, it’s fun to share our lives, through sharing our music. I’m grateful for ears to hear and a voice to sing. I don’t think any less of you if you interact with music in a different way. But in any event, I do wish that you “have yourself a Merry little Christmas.”
We started decorating our house for Christmas on Friday, but it took the rest of the weekend (and even a bit of the beginning of this week) to finish. The place looks beautiful now. Bright and cheery and Christmassy…
But then my parents needed some help to decorate their place.
My sister, my nieces, and my nephew drove down to Kent on Monday night to help Marci, Olivia, Cor, and me to decorate my parents’ place. “Many hands make light work,” they say. And that seems especially applicable when stringing up Christmas lights! In just a couple of hours, the halls were fully decked.
But then Elliot needed some help to decorate his apartment.
Today, I came by with some tools and hardware to help with hanging a few items at the place that Elliot rents (along with some friends) near the Kent State University campus. But I was surprised to find that there were already quite a few Christmas decorations spread throughout the apartment.
They used red duct tape to hold strings of colored lights in place.
They used a couple of mismatched command hooks and the wire from an old coat hanger to put Elliot’s Advent Calendar on the wall. The decorations were — by far — the least likely to appear on the front cover of a home decorating magazine. But they might have actually been my favorite decorations of all.
I was able to make myself useful with my tools and hardware, but I think the boys actually brought all the Christmas spirit that was necessary. While I helped install some drywall screws in their “Vibe Room,” they played an old vinyl record of Andy Williams’ Christmas album. And then I flew off, like the down of a thistle.
We’ve had snow flurries drifting in and out of our area for the past few days. And I think it’s lovely. In a similar way, we’ve had all three of our kids drifting in and out of our home over the Thanksgiving Break, on break from school, mixing time with family and time with friends. And it’s also been lovely.
It’s all come to feel more special now that Elliot’s spent some time “away” (in an apartment on the other side of town) over the past few months. During these times when he flies back to our “nest,” the place just feels more full, more lively, more warm. The sensation will be multiplied again next year, when Olivia starts her college education. So we’re just learning how to embrace the experience of having people “Home for the Holidays.”
I’m not complaining about the way that our nest is emptying. It’s actually really gratifying to see our kids become adults, testing their wings and flying greater and greater distances. There have been some tears shed since Elliot packed up his things and went back to sleeping at his apartment near campus. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It just means that we have a good thing going when we’re all able to be home for the holidays.
Over this little Thanksgiving Break, we had a blissfully light itinerary. We did a family feast at the Farm on Thanksgiving Day. But even that was a lot of sitting around and talking and enjoying each other’s company. We went to the local Christmas tree farm on the day after Thanksgiving to cut down the blue spruce that now sits in our family room. But mostly, we stayed home and relaxed.
It was lovely. And it made me look forward to the longer Winter Break, coming in just a few weeks.
I read Psalm 75 when I woke up this morning, and it felt surprisingly fresh and relevant for Thanksgiving Day 2021.
We thank you, O God! We give thanks because you are near. People everywhere tell of your wonderful deeds.
God says, “At the time I have planned, I will bring justice against the wicked. When the earth quakes and its people live in turmoil, I am the one who keeps its foundations firm.
“I warned the proud, ‘Stop your boasting!’ I told the wicked, ‘Don’t raise your fists! Don’t raise your fists in defiance at the heavens or speak with such arrogance.’”
For no one on earth — from east or west, or even from the wilderness — should raise a defiant fist. It is God alone who judges; he decides who will rise and who will fall.
For the Lord holds a cup in his hand that is full of foaming wine mixed with spices. He pours out the wine in judgment, and all the wicked must drink it, draining it to the dregs.
But as for me, I will always proclaim what God has done; I will sing praises to the God of Jacob. For God says, “I will break the strength of the wicked, but I will increase the power of the godly.”
The last couple of years have often made me clench my fists. I’ve wanted to raise those fists in the air and challenge someone — anyone — to a fight. But the Thanksgiving holiday was a much-needed break from regular life, from the struggle, from the fight. And it was helpful to remember the blessings in my life. Especially the people in my life.
My father-in-law didn’t say much yesterday. His Alzheimer’s Disease limited him, pretty significantly. So it was interesting when he came out of his living room lair, out of his armchair, to say “Blessings to you.” It honestly felt like some kind of oracle.
When I relayed the anecdote to Marci, she clarified, “Oh, that’s just his way of saying he’s ready for you to leave!” Kind of an old-fashioned farewell. “Blessings for your journey,” or something like that. It was a little bit disappointing. But also hilarious.
Of course it’s good to count our blessings. It’s extremely beneficial to practice the spiritual discipline of giving thanks. But it’s also good to remember that these blessings are portable. They are most effective when pulled into everyday life and carried along with us on our journeys. So I’m going to try to keep giving thanks, even now that we’ve come to the end of another Thanksgiving holiday.
My Mom called a few minutes before seven o’clock. “I think I need your help,” she said.
Within three minutes, I was on my bicycle, headed towards downtown Kent to look for my Dad. Apparently, they had pulled up to the Erie Street Kitchen to pick up some food. And in the time that my Mom had reached down to find her purse and pull out the credit card to pay for the take-out, my Dad put on his coat and started briskly walking east on Erie Street. Even though my Mom noticed and tried yelling for him to come back, he was already out of earshot. She has enough mobility issues from her Multiple Sclerosis that she wasn’t able to physically pursue him, herself.
My Dad’s behavior was concerning because he’s been getting more and more confused, lately. Over the weekend, he temporarily forgot who my Mom was. He was still able to acknowledge that “Jan is the boss.” But he wasn’t able to make the connection that my Mom is Jan. He worried about conspiracies: something about a whispered conversation between a pen and a dish towel. And he kept seeing people who weren’t there. A lot of the disturbing trends I’ve been noticing with my Dad’s Parkinson’s Disease were amplified and multiplied.
So when I rolled up to the scene, I told my Mom to keep waiting there in case Dad came back. But I would go looking for our runaway. I trawled up and down Erie Street, peering into the brightly-illuminated windows of every café and shop. I went up and down Water Street, looking for any sign of my Dad — and at one point, I darted across traffic when I saw an older gentleman on the opposite sidewalk. But it wasn’t him. I continued my search up and down Main Street.
And then my Mom called.
She had just gotten off the phone with the police. Fortunately, my Dad had wandered into their downtown station. And they were taking care of him until we could come and get him. I helped guide my Mom to the police station parking lot and told her I’d go in to get him. Dad was trembling in the waiting area, holding onto a Styrofoam cup of water. He was physically unharmed. But still pretty shaken up by the experience. He couldn’t explain why he had walked away from Mom and the minivan. But as soon as he realized he was lost, he proved himself surprisingly capable of finding his way to the police station (though this involved crossing a busy four-lane road). Together, my Dad and the police were able to figure out how to reach my Mom by telephone. So everything turned out all right.
Still, the whole experience felt like a wake-up call. It was the classic family runaway story, except our roles were reversed. The father was the runaway; the son was the one “worried sick,” frantically searching everyone for him. This is a new phase of life that only seems to be getting deeper and harder: caring for aging parents. I know I’m not the first to deal with these dynamics. But it still feels scary and unfamiliar. It’s one thing to read about such situations, or to hear about friends overcoming these challenges. It’s another thing to live it out in everyday life. I’m comforted to remember similar learning curves with marriage… and parenting… and moving… and starting new jobs… I’m hopeful that I’ll figure things out, with the help of God, and family, and friends. But at the moment, I feel like I’m in over my head.
So if you think about it, please pray for me. And for my Mom. And my Dad. We don’t want to run away from this challenge. Even if it means we do sometimes have to deal with a runaway.
When I chose to be vaccinated against COVID-19, I felt relieved. Relieved that I was less likely to get sick, myself, and relieved that I was less likely to infect others. And I honestly thought that I was simply at the leading edge of a movement towards vaccination that was going to usher our society out of the pandemic. It seemed like time, reason, and public policy were going to keep us moving towards societal immunity.
So I had to sift through some complicated emotions back in May when it became clear that others were actively resisting vaccination efforts. It didn’t make sense to me. Still, I noticed that there were fault lines extending across the tectonic plates of our society. Conservatives were less likely to be vaccinated than liberals. Midwesterners were less likely to be vaccinated than people living on the coasts. I noticed that a lot of white “Evangelicals” resisted the vaccine (though I feel like that had more to do with being conservative and Midwestern than with any theological position). And many people of color resisted the vaccine, too.
Ultimately, I feel like God led me through a process of extending grace and accepting other viewpoints. I was particularly persuaded by the biblical admonition to “Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters.” I made peace with the détente over the COVID-19 vaccine because I reasoned that other adults were free to make their own decisions. We would each have to live with the consequences of our decisions. But I wanted that freedom for myself, and I wanted to respect the freedom of others in a similar way.
The last month, however, I’ve had a resurgence of complicated emotions. Mostly because the consequences of others’ decisions have become more clear.
Almost all of the severe cases of COVID-19 that have been weighing on me over the last week have been the result of people actively resisting the COVID-19 vaccine. And as I’ve processed my emotions, I’ve realized: I’m mad. Not so much mad at the individuals; more at the social pressures that are causing people to make unfortunate decisions which are now having unfortunate consequences. People are dying. And their loved ones must grieve those deaths. People are racking up huge hospital bills. And the financial implications of those decisions will hang around for years. It’s terrifying and heart-breaking and infuriating to see what this is doing to others.
But the consequences of others’ decisions affect me, too. I’m a mess, emotionally, these days. I feel like crying and yelling a lot of the time. I constantly wonder and worry about my friend in the hospital. It’s hard not to empathize with others and absorb some of their pain. My work as a pastor is (and will continue to be) more challenging because of all the grief and financial hardship of people under my care. I fear that our network will lose momentum for church planting and special events because of the people taken out by COVID (hopefully just temporarily). The consequences are widespread. And that makes me sad. And mad.
Why have the fault lines settled where they are? Why must we suffer these consequences? When will we break the cycles of distrust and end this pandemic? I know that my perspective is still just one of many. I want to trust God through all this. But it’s hard right now. The consequences are such a heavy burden to bear.
I contemplate my own mortality more during the month of November than any other time of the year.
Here in the Northern Hemisphere, the natural world is losing all its color and entering into a period of dormancy. The light is losing out to the darkness. And it just feels like a struggle. Simply getting up in the morning — just going about daily tasks — feels like a battle.
This year, however, I find this season extra-challenging because of a resurgence of COVID-19 in our area.
One sophomore in H2O’s Centennial Life Group has been out of commission for three weeks with COVID. She had a week of symptoms (and quarantine), even though her COVID tests were negative. But then she tested positive for COVID and went home to recover. Over the course of the next week, her symptoms worsened, and she developed a case of pneumonia in one lung — so she was briefly hospitalized to treat the pneumonia. Even after her pneumonia started to improve, however, her other symptoms continued to worsen — and she was hospitalized a second time to deal with dehydration. Her blood vessels were so weak that the medical staff had trouble getting intravenous fluids into her. And it seems like her recovery was in serious doubt, at least for a minute or two.
Fortunately, she’s recently turned a corner and returned to Kent. But she’s still far from full-strength. Even a short walk leaves her out of breath. And it’s uncertain how long it will take her to recover.
Another junior in the same Life Group has also been out of commission for most of the last three weeks because of family members struggling with COVID. At one point, there were seventeen people in her family who tested positive for COVID. Several members of their family had to be hospitalized at one point or another. And now, three members of the family have died from COVID: all in the space of just one week. Her uncle died last Thursday. Her great-aunt died over the weekend. And at the beginning of this week, another aunt died. It just feels like so much grief, so much sadness, for one family to carry. And an especially heavy burden for a college student to carry.
Fortunately, she never got sick herself. She came back to Kent for a little while this week, between funerals. And she’s faithfully walking with God through all of the heartache. But still, it’s so sad. Such dark days to endure.
I have another friend who is a pastor at a different church in our network, and I recently learned that he has also been hospitalized with COVID-19. We’re hoping and praying that he will recover — but he’s in his 50s and has some other complicating factors, so it feels scary. Somehow, this friend’s illness has hit closest to home. I know his wife and his kids. I know a lot of people from his church. So any long-term implications of his struggle with COVID-19 would have direct effects on our network and on me, personally.
I’m praying. I’m trying to walk faithfully with God through these dark days. But it’s harder than usual these days. I just want to keep looking for the light in the midst of the darkness.
It rained all morning. I was worried that we might not be able to follow through on our plans to organize a group of volunteers from H2O Church at Kent State University for a leaf-raking service project. But fortunately, conditions cleared about an hour before the time we were scheduled to start. And it actually ended up being a beautiful day for raking. We were a group a seven men, and we all arrived at the work site eager to serve.
I handed out the rakes and gave some brief instructions, and then everyone got to work. Part of the way through the project, I asked everyone to pose for a picture. And when I finished, one of the guys said, “Caption: It’s a bad day to be a leaf.” It was the perfect sentiment for our situation, because with seven of us working hard, we really were able to bully the leaves into submission, quickly piling them up by the curb.
We had budgeted two hours to help this one elderly couple clear their lawn. But we actually finished their place in thirty minutes! So we decided to move to my street and do some of my neighbors’ lawns. And by the time we were finished, we’d done six lawns in an hour and a half!
It’s super-satisfying to watch this five-minute time lapse — shrunk down to thirty-two seconds — of our work at my across-the-street neighbors’ place (the third lawn we finished in the first hour). Honestly, though, I think it felt even more satisfying to do it. To realize the power that we possess to love and serve our neighbors.
I can sometimes feel like I’m a little ol’ pastor of a relatively small church in a relatively small town with a bunch of mercurial college students. But experiences like to day prove that wrong. Both to me and to the people in my church. In truth, we are strong. We are capable. We get to use our strength to serve others. It feels like such a valuable lesson for the students of H2O Kent. Maybe even more than a Bible study or a Sunday sermon.
I hope we can build on the successes of this year’s Week of Service. I hope that we can fill the vision gap and get more students to participate in future service projects. And prove that with our people mobilized for mission, it’s a bad day to be a leaf… or poverty… or homelessness… or whatever.