Giving Thanks

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.

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Runaway

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.

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Consequences

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.

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Dark Days

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.

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It’s a Bad Day to Be a Leaf

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.

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The Hour Before Dawn

I recently finished reading Penelope Wilcock’s book, The Hour Before Dawn. It’s the fifth book in The Hawk and the Dove series, marking the exact midpoint in the nine-part series. I’ve been steadily reading through these books over the course of 2021, since they were recommended to me by my friend Jason and purchased for me as a birthday gift from my parents. So it should be obvious that I’m already a pretty big fan of these books about a group of men living in a Benedictine monastery in 14th Century Yorkshire.

The most notable feature of The Hour Before Dawn is that it actually doesn’t focus on life at the monastery. At least not to the extent that the other books in the series do. Most of the story’s most meaningful action takes place off-site, in the hometown of Saint Alcuin’s abbot, John. The early chapters of the book are dominated by a horrific tragedy involving John’s mother and sister. This sets off a redemptive arc both for John and for John’s sister, Madeleine. And I appreciated the journey undertaken by each of these characters.

But I think the most powerful part of the story came in the middle of the book, with a tertiary character named William. He’s another monk who was transplanted to Saint Alcuin’s in the previous book from the series. He’s not a major player. In The Hour Before Dawn, however, he plays a helpful role in the stories of John and Madeleine. But the most meaningful part of the whole book (for me) happened around two-thirds of the way through the book, when William experienced an intensely personal encounter with Jesus in prayer. The description of William’s encounter with Jesus was so beautiful that it made me cry. It made the whole book worth the read.

Otherwise, though, I have to say that The Hour Before Dawn was my least favorite book in the series. I’ve found the interpersonal dynamics between the brothers at Saint Alcuin’s to be the best stuff in these stories. And there just wasn’t much of those interpersonal dynamics in this one. It focused more on the characters’ internal processing of trauma and grief. Furthermore, most of the action took place away from Saint Alcuin’s. So I hope that future books in the series will return to those things that made me fall in love with the characters and settings to begin with.

I definitely plan to keep reading the series. My heart is too invested in the stories to quit now. Still, if you’re looking for a book recommendation from me, I would say that you’re better off with the original trilogy of The Hawk and the Dove. And then you can decide for yourself what you want to get to do when you reach The Hour Before Dawn.

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Virtue Signaling

I got my booster shot at a local grocery store on Saturday. So now I’m triple-protected against COVID-19. Some studies seem to indicate that a “mix-and-match” approach offers additional immunity. So I’ve now had two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine back in the spring… and one dose of the Moderna vaccine here in the Fall.

The process was super-easy. I didn’t have to make an appointment ahead of time. I didn’t have to wait in a long line. I’ve been dealing with some of the side effects of my activated immune system over these last couple of days: including a headache, a slight fever, and some discomfort at the injection site. Still, I feel really grateful that this option has been afforded to me.

Honestly, I’m kind of proud about being triple-vaxxed. That means I take COVID seriously. I don’t just do the minimum. I trust the science and choose for the most robust protection against the virus I can get. Not just my own immune response to the pathogen. Not just the one-and-done J&J Vaccine that’s preferred for University students and other skeptics. But two doses of one of the leading mRNA vaccines, followed by a third dose of the other mRNA vaccine at the six-month interval. And if all that wasn’t enough, I’m even willing to wear a mask, when social circumstances dictate it.

But it just recently occurred to me that I’m falling into a sort of “virtue signaling” with these steps (or at least with my natural pattern of communication about these steps).

I’ve been subconsciously trained to use coded language to compare and contrast myself with others. Consequently, my language leans to the left more than I do. And it doesn’t help me to get along with others who think or feel differently. My left-leaning virtue signaling really isn’t all that different from others who talk about woke mobs and cancel culture on right-leaning media. Or those who say, my body, my choice or think for yourself in regards to COVID and its mitigation strategies (though the double-standards with some of these phrases feel particularly challenging to me).

So even though I’m writing a blog post about my vaccine status — for the whole world to know — I also want to wave the white flag. I want to end the culture wars, to whatever extent possible. I’ve legitimately made my peace with the understanding that different people come to different conclusions regarding COVID-19. Especially now that kids are able to be vaccinated, if desired. The American ideal is autonomy. We all have to make choices, and we all have to live with the consequences of those choices.

So I’m going to cool it on my own virtue signaling. And hope that in so doing, others will feel safe to do the same.

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Trend-Spotting

I love to observe trends in culture. I discovered this passion during my years living in the Netherlands, trying to fit in as a foreigner. But one doesn’t have to live in a different country to become a student of culture. Trends change all the time! And I just think it’s fun to observe these cultural patterns, like an anthropologist studying some previously-unknown people group.

For instance, I’ve observed that Fall weddings have become very popular. At least here in Northeast Ohio. The ceremony and reception are usually held at the same location now. Usually a place with a name like “White Fence Farm”). They serve barbecued pulled pork for the reception. And the dessert is something clever, like ice cream or s’mores or cookies (not just cake).

Or, there was a trend on social media about a month ago (though it already seems to be fading). Anyway, in this trend, a person layers his or her voice singing all the different parts to a song called “Grace Kelly” by MIKA. Often, the musical element is accompanied by a text element sharing something amusing or meaningful from that person’s experience.

Chunky white sneakers are also very popular with high school and college students these days. I mean, like, seriously, maybe 75% of the people on campus are wearing these sorts of shoes at any given moment.

Have you ever noticed any of these trends? Or any other good ones?

College ministry, of course, provides another very interesting space for trend-spotting. Especially with the unusual circumstances of the last couple of years, predicated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Generally speaking, I’d say that the Fall of 2021 is much more similar to the Fall of 2019 (pre-pandemic) than to the Fall of 2020. Still, church attendance numbers have consistently been around 75 percent of their pre-pandemic levels (and I’ve heard similar observations for the leaders of other churches and ministries). Furthermore, students seem much more reluctant to commit to volunteering within the church.

There are elements of discouragement in that, of course, but it’s actually been helpful to realize that we’re not the only ones experiencing these difficulties.

We just need to keep watching and waiting for the opportunities God puts in front of us. We need to encourage each other towards patience and persevere in the meantime. And we need to trust God to do his work of renewal.

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Graves from the Gilded Age

John Hay 1

I’m fascinated by the history of northeast Ohio. Especially its “Gilded Age,” in the last decades of the 19th Century and first decades of the 20th Century. So when my friend Jason texted me with a link to a story titled “Where to visit the eternal resting places of Northeast Ohio’s most famous souls,” I clicked over to the story eagerly. I don’t really care about Halloween all that much. The macabre has always been a weird aesthetic to me. Still, I appreciated the article as a reminder of the crazy confluence of people, places, and ideas with intimate ties to this region.

Northeast Ohio has played a significant role in the Industrial Age. The steel industry, the oil industry, and the rubber industry, in particular. So it makes sense that the titans who established and built those industrial empires are buried in this area. Lakeview Cemetery, in Cleveland, is a particularly interesting case in point.

But I love how the article demonstrates the way that Northeast Ohio has served as a center of innovation. In particular, the electrical lighting industry and the invention of the three-light traffic signal. It’s been a center of political power, with numerous presidents and cabinet members. And even broader cultural movements like Planned Parenthood and Alcoholics Anonymous. The thing that may have been most surprising to me, though, was Northeast Ohio’s connection to the food industry, including frozen foods (the Stouffer company), canned foods (Chef Boyardee), and “mystery meat” (Salisbury Steak)! The article also outlines a number of large-scale tragedies that have happened in our area, which I don’t think I’d ever heard of previously.

All in all, it’s a lot of interesting information for a single “fluff piece” on the local news media. Worth checking out, if you ask me.

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Congestion and Confusion

I woke up with some congestion this morning. No fever. No other symptoms.

In the Fall of 2019, I would have labeled it as “a little cold” and just powered through… In the Fall of 2020, I would have labeled it as “concerning symptoms” and shut myself off from society… But it wasn’t as clear to me what the protocol should be for the Fall of 2021.

I actually felt pretty good, except for the congestion. And I’d been looking forward to a day trip to Youngstown with Olivia and some other friends. Still, I felt like I needed to share the situation with everyone else, to see how they felt. One friend said that he was personally fine with hanging out under such circumstances. Another friend suggested that it might be a wise precaution to get a rapid test for COVID-19. A third friend said she was doing her best to avoid knowingly being in close contact with anyone who has any sort of symptoms suggesting sickness (primarily because she’s pregnant), but she was fine with having me meet the group in Youngstown — as long as we shifted around our previous plans for car-pooling.

I ultimately decided that I should try and get a rapid test for COVID-19. Someone had once told me that take-home tests are available at the Kent Free Library, so I drove to their pick-up / drop-off window and asked about it — and within literally fifteen seconds, I had two COVID tests in my hands!

I drove home and followed the instructions on the box. This involved downloading an app and checking in online for a proctored test (via webcam) — but there was no wait-time, once I had all the software and user credentials sorted out. The proctor walked me through step-by-step instructions for how to position the webcam (so she could see the test kit at all times), prepare the disposable testing strip with the reagent liquid, and swab the insides of both nostrils for the test. After everything was settled on the desk in front of the webcam, the proctor started a fifteen-minute timer and told me we would check in again at the end of those fifteen minutes to verify the outcome of the rapid test.

Fortunately, the test results were negative. Really easy-to-read, clear results. Consequently, I felt more confident about keeping my plans for the day. Still, knowing that I didn’t want to pass around any virus (even if it wasn’t the SARS Coronavirus-2), I ended up wearing a mask for most of the day — just to keep my germs to myself.

And honestly, the whole experience made me feel more positive and more prepared for the coming cold and flu season. The steps I took were not hard to take. And I feel good about the way that I was able to make an informed decision and minimize the spread of sickness. So, I’m wondering if we might learn things through our experience with COVID-19 that could be more broadly applicable in years to come. Can we keep testing easy and affordable for the viruses of greatest concern at a given moment? Can masks be a more regular part of our social interaction with viruses of lesser concern? I know there’s plenty of reason to doubt positive answers to these questions. Nevertheless, I choose to hope — and heal from my current (minor) illness.

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