It’s been a challenging year of ministry through the COVID-19 Pandemic. Last Spring, especially, we lost so many opportunities — including three Spring Break trips that would have involved 81 people from our church. We’re still not fully recovered. But I’m happy that we were able to pull off at least one Spring Break trip with sixteen participants for this year: a Spring Break Trip to Kent.
We stayed local, so we wouldn’t have to work through the extra complications of transportation and accommodations. We did all our group activities outdoors (even on a rainy Monday). And still, we found a number of ways to encourage each other on our spiritual journeys: Upward, Inward, and Outward.
We talked about prayer and took time to pray together.
We ate meals together, played games, and told stories together.
We worked together to pick up litter from a public trail in northeast Akron.
We studied the Bible together and worshipped together. And even though we managed to do all this in just three days, it felt like a week’s worth of community. I was really proud to see the way that our younger staff guys worked together to make this “Spring Break Trip to Kent” possible.
Some might say that a Spring Break Trip to Kent constitutes the “lamest Spring Break ever.” But when we’d crack jokes along these lines, our student-participants were consistently upbeat and even grateful for the opportunity. Some even said that our three days together changed the way they view Kent. They said they view it in a more recreational, more missional, more strategic way. And if that’s not a successful outcome for a Spring Break trip, I don’t know what is.
Today was my parents’ Day of Freedom. It came two weeks after their second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine against COVID-19. And we decided that we wanted to celebrate the occasion together with ice cream and hugs (bonus points to anyone who can correctly identify the movie quote I used to title this post!).
It wasn’t a completely mask-less afternoon because we were still out in public. But we got to spend most of our time together looking at each other’s faces, sitting close together, and just relaxing after a long time of being restricted and extra-rigorous about keeping the “Most Susceptible” generation (my parents) shielded from the “Most Social” generation (my children, who have still been going to school, playing sports, working in the public service sector, and maintaining some level of social life).
We also got to enjoy some Handel’s ice cream on a beautiful Spring day.
So to say it was a “pretty good day” would be a dramatic understatement.
I’m really glad that we’re getting through this pandemic. Bit by bit, inch by inch, I hope that life will continue to feel more and more normal.
I counted them this morning: 35 rocks. They were nestled inside the rotted-out trunk of an old oak tree. But I temporarily took them out to count them and clear some of the dust and debris. So that’s how I know that there are 35 rocks. And the 35 rocks are how I know that I’ve completed this prayer walk 35 times since August.
As the school year has gone on, I’ve just kept returning to the same section of campus for prayer. Once a week for almost every week since then. Some weeks were crazy-cold and snowy. Other weeks (like this one) were mild and sunny. But it’s been so good to have a way to stay connected to campus — both physically and spiritually.
I’m praying that next year will be more normal. But no matter what, I’m glad that we get to trust God in the process.
Could it be that we’re really getting to the end of winter and the end of COVID? Today it kind of feels like it.
Olivia and Cor went back to school today. They had an extra-long Spring Break, extended on the front end by their own bouts with the Coronavirus. For the rest of the school year, the plan is for them to be in class four days a week. The last year has taught me to not take anything for granted. Still, it’s hard to see what might derail those plans now. Kent City School District teachers have been vaccinated. Our kids have achieved natural immunity. We’re hoping for smooth sailing.
Elliot seems to have restarted his life, too, following his time with COVID. He and some friends have been apartment shopping the last few days. They seem likely to sign a lease this week. He is finally leaving the house to live on his own. It’s kind of sad and happy at the same time. His current natural immunity will dovetail nicely with his eligibility to receive the vaccine. Consequently, he has a much longer “leash” for extending his social, employment, and academic prospects.
Marci and I are now more than a week-and-a-half past our first doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Some studies suggest that we’ve already attained 80% protection. Next week’s booster shots should bring us up to 95% protected. With the kids back in school and everything, Marci is especially appreciative of our quiet house. And I’m really excited to have the world opening up for ministry and other pursuits. Our church finally has enough people registered for our Local Spring Break Experience that I can start to get excited about that. H2O’s Smoky Mountain Retreat in May feels similar. And with personal trips planned to the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Pacific Northwest, it feels like the world is opening up to us again.
My parents should achieve maximum immunity later this week, which will feel like another significant marker. And it just feels like the United States is getting ready to turn the page on this chapter of history. I’m still sobered by the fact that many parts of the world are not so fortunate. Our planet will be dealing with this pandemic for many months to come. Even here in the United States, there will be more who get sick and die. I don’t love all of the political tensions that we have to deal with. And I don’t love all the problems of regular life that will come rushing back to take the space of all the COVID problems.
Mostly, though, I’m thankful to feel some of the pressures of this pandemic abating.
I’m praying a lot these days, as the pandemic pressures ease. I’m praying that I can increase my capacity for grace. Specifically, I’m praying to understand, appreciate, and apply God’s grace for all of the brokenness we’ve experienced over the last thirteen months. Where do I need to have my own heart shaped by God’s grace? And where do I need to extend God’s grace to others for the ways they might have contributed to the brokenness of the last year?
We’ve all made difficult choices through this pandemic. We’ve taken different approaches. But the effect of these differences has not been neutral.
I think that 75% of my overall motive mix throughout the course of this pandemic has been good. God-honoring, others-oriented, solid motives that have minimized harm and maximized help. Maybe even as high as 80% or 85%. But I must confess at least some component of sinful, self-centered thinking in my approach to COVID. Many of my choices have revolved around what’s most convenient for me. As a result, I’ve come through this thing relatively unscathed. I’ve got my health and my job. I haven’t lost any loved ones to this virus. But I realize that not everyone has had the same luxuries.
Furthermore, I’ve realized that I’ve got control issues that have manifested themselves through this pandemic. More than anything else, I worry about being the culpable party in the event of any sort of COVID transmission. That might sound others-oriented. But it’s also kind of about me. I want to maintain a sense of self-righteousness. I might be a little too proud of the way I’ve handled this pandemic.
God is working on my heart. I want to prioritize others, especially now that I’m being vaccinated. Especially when others act differently or think differently or speak differently from me! I want to extend and exude a lot of grace and care and concern for others.
I still don’t understand why some people don’t want to be vaccinated. It doesn’t make sense to me why so many have preferred to pretend like the pandemic wasn’t a real threat. I may always feel like the alternative approaches to COVID have been driven by self-preservation, or self-soothing, or selfish ambitions. But it won’t help much to harp on the differences or the accusations. The main thing that will help us to pick up the pieces and move on with our lives is grace and forgiveness. I’m thankful that I feel healthy enough and privileged enough to be an agent of this grace — so I’m going to try and stay focused on this mission.
The Scriptures tell us that, “Very early on Sunday morning, just at sunrise,” some of Jesus’ closest friends “went to the tomb” where Jesus had been buried. They didn’t have a well-developed plan, but they wanted to pay their respects. I felt similarly this morning, when my eyes fluttered open at just the faintest hint of the skies growing ever-so-slightly brighter in the east. I looked to see when the sun was supposed to rise — about forty-five minutes from that moment — and I decided to go for a solitary sunrise hike on this Easter morning.
The Scriptures tell us that, “On the way [to Jesus’ tomb, his friends] were asking each other, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’ But as they arrived, they looked up and saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled aside. When they entered the tomb, they saw a young man clothed in a white robe sitting on the right side. The women were shocked, but the angel said, ‘Don’t be alarmed. You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He isn’t here! He is risen from the dead! Look, this is where they laid his body. Now go and tell his disciples, including Peter, that Jesus is going ahead of you to Galilee. You will see him there, just as he told you before he died.'”
Our family tried a Son-Rise Sun-Rise Hike last year, and it didn’t work out as well as we’d hoped. Thick gray clouds obscured the horizon, just as the start of the COVID-19 Pandemic obscured the rest of our lives. The kids were tired and grumpy. We didn’t know how to deal with all the chaos and disruption of family events, church events, school events, and such. This year, however, the skies were much clearer. And so was my perspective. I went to the woods for my Easter worship because I like going to the woods for worship (not because I couldn’t figure out anything better to do). I appreciate the stillness. My soul soaks up the clarity at the start of a new day. My heart rejoices in the hope of renewal.
I didn’t see any angels at Towner’s Woods this morning. But I did see a Bald Eagle. I heard the cry of a Pileated Woodpecker in the distance. I may have even seen a Porcupine (or, if not a Porcupine, a very large Skunk)! And I definitely saw the Sun rising in the east on Resurrection Sunday.
The earliest and most reliable manuscripts of the Scriptures finish their account of Resurrection Sunday with a cliff-hanger, saying that Jesus’ friends “fled from the tomb, trembling and bewildered, and they said nothing to anyone because they were too frightened.” I can’t really blame them for their confusion and fear. In fact, I was in a very similar place this time last year. But this year, I found reassurance in the fact that we’ve fought the good fight. We’ve kept the faith. Even if we responded poorly in the first flush of confusion and chaos, we found a way forward. And now the word is out: Christ is risen.
I sincerely thought that last year’s birthday letter was a one-of-a-kind letter. I figured a once-in-a-century pandemic would be just a blip on the radar of life. A 1% thing, right? I mean, I didn’t love the way that COVID-19 overshadowed the end of your high school years (and, eventually, the beginning of your college years). Still, I’d hoped that living through such a cataclysmic event would at least be memorable. Like, maybe you’d get a good story out of the deal, if nothing else. We knew so little a year ago that we didn’t have much of a choice except to roll with it.
Now, though, I just hate COVID-19. It pains me to think that by the time this is all likely to be over, you will have spent 7% or 8% of your life wearing a mask over that beautiful face of yours. I hate that this pandemic has taken up a full 10.5% of all your birthdays to this point in life. I’m bitter that roughly 20% of your adolescent years have now been characterized by limited social interaction — especially seeing how you’re one of the most extroverted, most social people I know. I grieve with you the loss of opportunities that we must remember from the last year of life.
Happy Birthday, right?!?
Fortunately, there is still much to celebrate, Elliot. I’ve seen you grow stronger, more creative, and more empathetic over the course of the last year. I’ve witnessed your transition into adulthood through the way that you’ve studied, worked, and spent your free time. You really have grown. And here’s one of the ways I know.
The photographic record shows it.
Some of the year’s best photographs I have of you were provided by you. Or they were clustered around our family’s summer vacation or our holiday celebrations. Almost like I’m the parent of a college student or something! Interesting, huh? It’s not bad! It just speaks to the fact that you’re increasingly independent. You’re spending more and more of your time outside of our home (which is a testament to your resilience, considering the pandemic). And I want to bless you in that. Go! Keep living your life! Find your way forward, even when life is unnecessarily complicated.
I love you so much, Elliot. In the smaller collection of Elliot pictures that I do have, I’m amazed at how much you look like a college student now. The funny expressions on your face… the way your hair flops and flows… the swagger and style of your clothing… You’re a natural at this whole “college student” thing. Even if your experience of post-secondary school life is exceptional, I’ve seen enough of people at this stage in life to know that you’re doing great. Maybe even ahead of the game from where most college students are at this point. I’m looking forward to seeing how you’re going to keep taking hold of your life and your future. One step at a time.
As I thought about you and prayed for you in the process of writing this letter, my mind settled on an encouragement for temperance. By that I mean an approach to life that’s not too hard; not too soft. Not too timid, not too aggressive. An approach to life that is temperate.
On this occasion of your 19th Birthday, I want to remind you and exhort you to strive for temperance, as you keep growing further into adulthood. Young men make a lot of mistakes swinging the pendulum too far in one direction or the other. They do it with beer, either going too hard, too aggressive, ignoring wise standards for pacing, social engagement, and enjoyment of the beverage… or going too soft, too timid, ignoring wise standards for pacing, social engagement, and enjoyment of the beverage. But young men also do this with sports, or relationships, or academics, or expressing their emotions…
Mature men learn how to be temperate. They learn to avoid passivity and embrace responsibility, and to walk in time-tested wisdom. If you read in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 2, you can find listings of qualifications for church leadership. And both of these lists (which are kind of the “gold standard” for spiritual maturity) include the word “temperate.” So I would encourage you to practice temperance, as well.
You’ve got so much power and potential, Elliot. Be confident as you step into the opportunities that life will bring your way (more and more, as this COVID crap clears). I seriously believe that you’ve got more reason for confidence than most! So be confident… but don’t be cocky. It’s a fine line, but I can see that you’re already learning to walk it.
I’m here to walk with you, as needed. I’m here to take pictures, as needed. But I’m also really happy and really proud to see you do it on your own, too.
It’s been a year of poor substitutes. Drive-by graduation is a poor substitute for traditional commencement activities. A vacation to “Europe in our Backyard” is a poor substitute for actually traveling to Europe. And while a “Driveway Christmas” may be memorable, it’s not nearly as cozy as gathering around a table for a holiday feast. So it felt refreshing this weekend to discover a COVID-caused adaptation of a familiar event that actually worked out to be a better substitute for the traditional experience! The way we did ManMaker 2021 was not only a workable alternative to the way we did ManMaker 2020. I’d say it was an innovation. An improvement upon the original.
COVID made us keep things smaller. It didn’t seem wise to organize an overnight, in-person, winter event with 350 men from our whole network. So instead, we did a day-trip in the spring with just 50 guys from H2O Kent. We kept everything outdoors, and even at that we spent less than half of our time together in large-group activities. Our workshops took place around a fire pit or on a hike. We set aside two significant chunks of time for men to seek God in silence and solitude. It was all very different from the typical ManMaker experience, but…
It was such a wonderful way to do ManMaker!
My favorite part of the weekend was the “mobile workshop” that I led on “How to Start a Fire, Drink a Beer, and Please a Woman in Bed.” (It’s a provocative title, I know; it was really just about teaching young men how to grow into mature men through practicing forethought, temperance, and selflessness). We did the workshop while hiking to three waterfalls, skipping stones, and scrounging for materials to start a fire. Our time together included elements of instruction, interaction, illustration, and individual reflection. And I think (or at least hope) that it was a really powerful learning environment.
There was unstructured time for hammocking, hiking, playing games, and enjoying meals. All of which was helped by beautiful blue skies and mild temperatures topping out around 68 degrees Fahrenheit.
The fun stuff felt surprisingly meaningful, too. It didn’t feel like there was a wasted minute. Our Staff guys worked hard to make this year’s ManMaker go smoothly, even when we invited some chaos with our “Manliest Man” competition.
This “Manliest Man” competition included some stereotypical stuff like a relay race and a hammer toss.
But it also included testing men’s gentleness with an egg toss challenge and racing through a broccoli eating contest (one of the contestants described his role in this challenge as being “one of the hardest things” he’d ever done in his life!).
As silly as it may seem, there really is a method to the madness. Guys connect with other guys through team competition. The physical release allows for sharper mental acuity over the rest of the day. And the ludicrous challenges somehow create a safer space for vulnerability and engagement with the Holy Spirit.
The end of ManMaker 2021 looked a lot like the beginning of ManMaker 2021. Huddling for warmth around a fire… Worshipping God through music… and having our hearts stirred by truth from the Bible… Emptying the parking lot in reverse order of how it was filled. In between those bookends, though, so much happened. I’ll be curious to hear more of the stories that come out of individual follow-up in the coming days and weeks. In any event, I pray that lives were transformed. I pray that men were made.
I made it a goal to blog for every day of our family’s time with COVID-19. Our family’s time with COVID-19 also happened to fall exactly one year after our societal shut-down for COVID-19. So I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting, praying, and writing about COVID-19 over the last two and a half weeks. Now, however, it’s time to move on. I’m stopping the streak after this post.
I feel like God has used the last half-month to remind me of my dependence upon Him. The most difficult moments from our recent COVID experience came when I felt like I was losing control. The whole year of this pandemic has been an experience of powerlessness. But I think I’ve adapted to that by finding and grasping tightly to the little things I can control: masking… distancing… hand-washing… disinfecting surfaces… adhering to protocol for isolation / quarantine when necessary. I’ve gained a sense of control by managing the H2O Staff team… running meetings.. keeping the family together… making meals… exercising regularly… The list goes on and on!
They’re all ways to cope. So when a couple of these things get taken away, for whatever reason, I struggle. I flail. I feel like crying. But then, thank God, I remember my dependence upon Him. God is a far firmer foundation than any of my routines or coping mechanisms. So I’m going to keep depending on Him. Whatever comes next. But I may or may not be blogging about it, as I go.
Our family is down to our last 36 hours before the end of our isolation and quarantine. When this is all over, I get to freely hug my children again. I’m very excited to get back to normal household life. Like, eating dinner together in the dining room. Or playing our next round of Hunt a Killer in the Family Room. It will be great to shop for our own groceries again. We’ll get to have the whole family in the same car… But that’s all basically just a reset to three weeks ago. It’s thinking small. What about the big picture? Which life lessons do we hope to take with us?
What are we going to do when this is all over?
Think about it. We’re in the process of a massive cultural reset. And I really don’t think it’s as easy — or even as desirable — as a simple reset to, say, June of 2019. We’ve got a special chance to blend the old with the new. So what exactly will change when we’re done with COVID? And what will stay the same?
Our church’s Staff team was recently talking about this. And there’s something empowering about the realization that we don’t just have to go back to the “old ways” again. Our church’s shift to smaller Life Groups has been really beneficial. And we like the way that our regional model provides support for keeping Life Groups smaller and more agile, but also easily mergeable when circumstances require it. Outdoor worship gatherings can honestly be more fun and more visible, when weather conditions allow. Like: Why would we ever want to do Welcome Week worship gatherings indoors again?!? Baptisms in the cold, cold waters of the Cuyahoga River were really memorable! And even on the more personal level, there seems to be something beneficial about defaulting to walks instead of just sitting across the table from each other at Tree City Coffee (or wherever).
We’ve learned that the Church is a group of people who stick together through hard things. Hopefully that will be easier when we can actually be together! But how can we minimize people slipping through the cracks in transition? It’s going to be so lovely to get “extra-curricular” ministry opportunities back. Like Saturday morning basketball at the Rec… Or packing thirty people into an IHOP at eleven o’clock at night… Or casual conversation in the lobby of Bowman Hall… But will next year’s underclassmen know how to do these things? Or will those of us who remember “the old ways” need to lead the way for next year’s underclassmen rediscovering these joys?
We’re wondering if we may need to develop a significant ministry of kindness and forgiveness to help fill in the gaps that have widened over the course of the last year (political divides, racial divides, epidemiological divides, etc.). How can we repent of the ways that we’ve helped to foster a culture of self-centeredness and consumerism? How can we choose to continue in conscious counter-cultural choices — even after external factors are taken away?
These are conversations that need to happen over a longer period of time. But it seems like now is the time to start wondering. We need to create intentional space to think about these things! So we’re ready to make the most of the opportunities that present themselves when this is all over.
We’ve had some beautiful Spring weather this week. It’s been helpful for getting through our family’s recovery from COVID-19. Yesterday, Elliot went and fetched some Dairy Queen treats for us. We enjoyed them together in our back yard, sitting on deck chairs and soaking up the sun. It almost felt like a normal Monday afternoon.
Even so, this week has different sorts of challenges. The kids seem to be finished with most of the dizziness, headaches, congestion, and loss of taste and smell. We’re thankful that we’re all feeling healthy now. Still, we’re following public health guidelines to keep ourselves isolation and quarantine. And it’s just getting harder, mentally, to deal with the hassle of staying away from the rest of society.
The Public Health Department worked with us to determine exactly when each infected individual noticed the first signs of symptoms, and established that as Day Zero. They said we must wait until the end of Day Ten to get out and about again. So Elliot finished his ten days of isolation on Sunday morning. Olivia will finish her ten days of isolation on Wednesday. And the rest of us will be free to go out again on Friday.
For my work, I followed our organizational policies to wait a week following my last close contact with the virus and then get tested. So I learned yesterday afternoon that I’m still officially negative for COVID-19. But to practice solidarity with Marci and Cor, as well as to protect the general public from the increasingly-miniscule chance that I could infect others with a late-blooming asymptomatic case of the sickness, I’m even minimizing H2O interactions until the end of the week.
It’s a weird week, and Cor is having an especially hard time with it. Still, I comfort myself with the knowledge that things could be so much worse. We’re making it through the waning days of our family’s time with COVID-19. God has been with us each step of the way. Our friends have provided key support again and again. Marci and I look forward to getting vaccinated soon. And we even find some appreciation for the fact that my kids should now have at least some level of immunity for the next few months. We’re curious to see if there will be any long-term effects. But even with that, we just have to practice patience and faith. So help us, God.