I took this picture in Kent’s Mill District yesterday afternoon. Without any context, without any explanation, the sign says, “ATTENTION VISITORS: STAY 6 FEET APART FROM OTHER VISITORS.” One figure seems to represent a woman; the other figure a man, and a two-way arrow is drawn between the two figures, with an extra iteration of “6 FT” above it, for maximum clarity.
For some reason, when I saw this sign I wondered how it might be interpreted by someone stepping out of a Time Machine or a Space Ship, after having landed in one of these parking spots across from Scribbles Coffee Company. It’s really a pretty weird sign, if you think about it. How might one interpret it without any context clues?
Having lived in Kent for the last three and a half years, I understand the back-story of this sign. I know that it goes back to the days of the COVID-19 Pandemic, when the world was quite uncertain and insecure about the spread of the virus. The City of Kent did its best to set expectations for how the community would deal with the uncertainty and insecurity. And I seem to remember feeling grateful for their efforts at the time.
But now that some time has passed, it’s kind of funny that the sign remains with such a vague message to visitors. I’m glad that it all feels like such a distant memory this Fall. Still, I know that we all carry similar vestiges from those days in our hearts. They don’t all make sense in the present context. But they’re still there and may remain there for some time to come.
I have something to confess. It’s humbling and disappointing. Still, I need to get it off my chest:
I only drank 1.9 liters of water yesterday.
I know it’s ridiculous in the grander scheme of things, but I’m legitimately sad about this. Back in January, I set some goals for myself for 2023. I generally consider myself to be a principled, self-disciplined person. But one of those goals — to improve my Dutch language skills through reading Dutch news sources and studying a new Dutch version the Bible — didn’t even make it two months into the year. Even so, I was excited about staying on track with my goal to drink three liters of water per day. Even through trans-Atlantic travel days and a couple nights of chugging down a liter right before going to bed (and subsequently making extra trips to the bathroom later in the night), I held onto this one goal for 259 days of 2023.
But then I came up short. By 1100 milliliters.
The last week has featured a return to cooler weather, and I noticed that I just wasn’t as thirsty as I’d been throughout the summer. Still, I managed to keep drinking three liters of water every day. I admit that I had started allowing myself to think about the end of the year and a return to letting my body dictate the amount of water I consume in a day. But I didn’t think about giving up on the goal.
It just got lost in the shuffle of a busy Sunday in Kent.
I think I’m going to just pick up where I left off and try to finish the year with drinking three liters of water for 364 of the 365 days of 2023. Still, I’m chastened by yesterday’s 1100 milliliter shortfall. It’s highly unlikely that anyone else will care about this. This shortfall affects literally nobody else. But maybe that’s precisely why I feel it’s so necessary to add this confessional to the public record. I know that I didn’t finish what I started. And if you’re reading this, now you know, too.
I recently finished reading Erik Larson’s history Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania. I found the book while browsing non-fiction titles available from my local library, and decided to check it out since I’d enjoyed another one of Larson’s books a few years back. Anyway, Dead Wake is a multi-faceted account of the circumstances surrounding an historical event widely believed to have resulted in the United States of America joining the First World War (though I learned that it was actually two years and one day after the sinking of the Lusitania that the U.S. declared war on Germany). It’s well-researched, well-written, and a worthwhile read.
The thing that was most remarkable about this book was that it collected research from German sources, British sources, and American sources. It didn’t just come at it from one vantage point. It included newspaper accounts from the time period… and top-secret British intelligence reports… and personal letters from U.S. President Woodrow Wilson… and notes from the submarine commander’s log… and details from personal letters that washed up on the shores of Ireland after the sinking of the Lusitania. It was quite the collection of perspectives! And Larson really deserves a lot of credit for weaving it all into a coherent and comprehensible account of something that happened all the way back in 1915.
Reading the narrative itself felt a little bit like watching a mash-up of James Cameron’s Titanic and Jonathan Mostow’s U-571. The vantage point shifted from chapter to chapter, mostly between following the large passenger liner, the Lusitania, and following the German submarine U-20. But Larson eventually wove in some fascinating details from the love life of Woodrow Wilson (I’m something of a presidential history nerd, and I honestly didn’t even know that he lost his wife and remarried during the course of his presidency!). And the story also shed some interesting light on another key historical figure: Winston Churchill, who was second in command for the British naval forces during the First World War (which I know but had kind of forgotten). As the book shows, the sinking of the Lusitania really was a bizarre — and highly unlikely — confluence of events. But its implications ended up being very significant.
I don’t know why that “Gilded Age” of American history intrigues me so much. Maybe because it was such an important period for Northeast Ohio… maybe because the reluctant nascence of the United States as a global power seems so different from the world I’ve grown up in… or maybe I see something in that era that actually feels quite relevant for our times… But I think this might now be one of my favorite periods of history to study. Dead Wake was really just recreational reading: something to wind down at the end of the long days of a new year of collegiate missions. Still, I learned a lot as I read — so I would recommend it both for entertainment and education.
What an eventful Saturday! I got a running start. Literally. But it didn’t stop there. Shortly after returning from my group run with friends, I was off to help Fleta’s Cupboard make its third monthly appearance in the Kent Flea and Makers’ Market. It turned out to be a banner day for my wife and her sister, working the Fleta’s Cupboard booth, as their upcycled-wooden ghosts, pumpkins, cats, and Christmas trees sold far more quickly than expected.
After getting the booth set up, I had time to run home for a quick shower before heading north to watch Cor run in the Streetsboro Cross Country Invitational. He ended up coming in first for his team and second overall with another Personal Record of 17 minutes and 30 seconds!
It’s kind of amazing to me that he keeps getting faster and faster this season. I keep saying to myself, “He can’t possibly get a PR every week, can he?!?” But then again, maybe he can!
One of the most special things about this event, though, was the fact that the Kent Theodore Roosevelt High School men and women both came in first in the team competition, which hasn’t happened often for the Cross Country Team(s). The sweep was significant enough that the local newspaper ran a story on the team accomplishment, which even included a quote from Cor!
Cor’s day wasn’t finished when he crossed that finish line, though. This happened to be his high school’s Homecoming Weekend, and Cor had made plans to go with a few of his friends. So, we spent the afternoon picking out his accessories, ironing his shirt, and otherwise preparing for the evening. Then, towards the end of the afternoon, I helped Marci to pack up the Fleta’s Cupboard booth and bring everything home just in time to drive over to a nearby nature preserve for some photos.
All of us parents got a bunch of pictures of the high schoolers on a bridge out over the Cuyahoga River. And, as I’ve often joked in regards to my photography skills, what I lack in quality I make up in quantity. If you want to see more of the pictures that I took, they’re available on my Flickr account.
Last Fall, we started organizing a regular, recurring Friday Feast with Friends and Family (a.k.a. FFFF). It was a way for Marci, Elliot, Olivia, Cor, and me to stay connected as the kids grew increasingly independent with two-thirds of the next generation living outside of our house. We also enjoyed getting to know their friends and watching the ebb and flow of relationships over the course of the school year.
Last night, we resumed this tradition with a collection of family and friends. Some where old friends, some were new. Some were locals, or at least domestic (American) connections — but it was also super-fun to welcome a number of foreign friends to start this new season of Friday Feasts with Friends and Family.
We had guests from India, Jordan, and Brazil, in addition to guests from Illinois and Ohio. We ate Mexican-inspired cuisine, and we learned about each other’s lives. For instance, I learned that capybaras (the world’s largest rodent) are commonly found in the Brazilian city of Curatiba. Like, at least as common as squirrels in Kent. But maybe even more a part of the public consciousness because they don’t run away when humans approach. Anne and Rafaella said that it’s still not advisable for humans to pet the wild capybaras because they often carry ticks which carry Lyme disease. Still, that’s pretty amazing to hear about the capybaras, isn’t it?!?
Some of our Southern-Indian friends told us that they don’t often eat their dinner until 11PM or later, and they typically follow up the meal with a ten-minute walk before going to bed. Our Jordanian friend said that he sees a lot of similarities between the natural landscape of Jordan and the natural landscape of Utah (which seemed like a different planet when I visited). The world is a fascinating place, isn’t it?!?
I love the way that Kent State University attracts so many different people from so many different places. I love the way that our family learned to be culturally-curious during our years in Amsterdam. And I love the way that some food and an off-campus environment can create a spirit of friendship and and family, whether it’s on a Friday night or whenever.
I believe I just completed my quest to hike every publicly-accessible nature trail in Mahoning County! It’s always hard to know for sure with these sorts of adventures, since there isn’t any single, centralized source of information where all the different sorts of trails are collected and categorized.
Still, I’m pretty sure that I’ve done every trail in the Mill Creek Metro Park system (even some for which I needed to secure a special permit). I believe there’s only one site from the Ohio State Park system in the county, and I’ve done all of the trails in that one. I’ve done all the trails I could find in the various municipal park systems I could find within the county. And I’ve even done a few trails within private spaces like the Boy Scouts of America’s Camp Stambaugh (where I just so happened to finish today).
It took me over a year: 47 different hikes totaling 167 miles. I spent 60 hours and 6 minutes out on these trails, largely during extended times of practicing spiritual disciplines, and all the ups and downs of the Appalachian foothills amounted to a total ascent of 4,121 feet.
Even without all the facts and figures, though, I’m pretty proud to have finished what I set out to do.
I don’t know what it is about my personality that makes these sorts of quests to intriguing, so motivating, so satisfying. I tend to be an “over-achiever,” and my heart can struggle with pride — but I don’t really think that I do this sort of stuff for others, or for any sort of “bragging rights.” I suspect I’d do this sort of thing even if I didn’t have a blog or a Strava account (though I recognize that somehow sharing the accomplishment does add some element of joy).
I feel like the main motivator is enculturation — feeling like a really know a place, having intimately experienced its natural landscapes, its roads, its restaurants, its people. This particular quest is certainly linked to the H2O YSU church plant. I feel a sort of familial pride and concern for the team we sent out. So I guess I want to know that they’ve landed in a good place, where they can grow and thrive. And thankfully, that’s proved to be the case throughout the Mahoning County hiking quest. The Mahoning Valley is a beautiful place with lots of joy to discover.
There’s some scuzzy, rusted, rotted-out stuff, too — but even that tends to have this post-industrial, post-apocalyptic, shabby-chic, abandoned-warehouse appeal to it. The grit is part of the glory. In addition to that, though, the restaurant scene in Mahoning County is probably the best I’ve experienced in Ohio: everything from all-American favorites like pizza and hot dogs and fried chicken to some really great places for Italian cuisine and Greek cuisine. And Mill Creek Park, proper, is legitimately one of the finest urban parks I’ve ever seen. Like, on the level or even better than New York’s Central Park or London’s Hyde Park or the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. It’s been truly a privilege to walk its trails.
What comes next for my questing heart? I’m honestly not sure. Trumbull County, Stark County, and Summit County are the three other counties that are contiguous with my “home turf” in Portage County (having already done Geauga County and, now, Mahoning County). Trumbull keeps me East, where I’ve got a standing weekly appointment with H2O YSU friends. Summit’s got the Fall Hiking Spree, which times up well with September. Or maybe some combination of these two? We’ll see…
If you know of any trails that I might be missing in Mahoning County, please let me know. This would not be “raining on my parade,” but rather bringing extra “sunshine” into my life. Eventually, I hope to post my Top Ten Hikes from Mahoning County, and maybe some other observations from the quest as well. For now, though, I’m just happy to register this achievement and see if there might be any loose ends to tie up.
I have got a long history of writing birthday letters to my children: a letter every birthday for each of my three kids, since the Spring of 2006.
Elliot didn’t get letters for the first three years of his life. And Olivia didn’t get one until her second birthday. But our youngest child received a letter on his first birthday: To Cor, on the Occasion of His First Birthday. And he’s continued to receive annual epistles every year since then.
I think it’s a good tradition, and my kids generally seem to appreciate the letters — generously sprinkled with images from the last year of the person’s life — as well.
As the kids have gotten into adolescence and young adulthood, however, it’s become less and less comfortable for these birthday letters to be posted for the general public to read. Their consciousness expands with each year of life, and at a certain point it just becomes awkward for the fatherly admirations and admonitions of one’s life to be posted on the internet.
So, I’ve been experimenting with these dynamics over the last couple of years: writing a personal version of the birthday letter (delivered in private) and a public version of the birthday letter (posted on my website)… asking the Birthday Boy or Birthday Girl for personal preferences to determine if letter stays public or private… that sort of thing.
But now I’ve finally decided that the default setting for all birthday letters, from this point forward is “Private,” not “Public.” If one of my children were to specifically ask me to post his or her birthday letter on my website, I would be glad to do that. But I want to diminish any element of my kids wondering about my motives for writing these birthday letters… or trying to please me and give me what I want for their birthday letters… and just default to “Private.”
I hope my kids will feel loved by this.
But to serve as a place-holder and a celebration marking another year in the life of my child, I’ve decided that I want to post the pictures from the birthday letters — without any of the associated text.
Cor’s 16th Birthday is definitely something to celebrate. I love him very much, and I’m looking forward to watching him continue to grow in the year (and years) to come.
Now go, and remember that I am sending you… (Luke 10:3)
Greetings from Kent! We’re in the middle of the most exhilarating and exhausting season of the year. Kent State University students are already halfway through their fourth week of classes, but things won’t really settle down until after our Fall Retreat at the end of this month (September 29-30). Even so, I wanted to pause to provide an encouraging update from campus.
Every year since the start of the COVID-19 Pandemic, we’ve celebrated the ways that “things are better than last year.” And there have already been several times when we’ve optimistically suggested that we were “back to normal.” Looking back, however, it is clear to see how the echoes of the Pandemic continued to reverberate through 2021 and 2022. So, I want to be cautious in reporting conditions from the Fall of 2023 — but at the same time, I’m feeling more and more confident in saying that things are even better than last year! And it really does feel like we’re fully back to normal! Maybe even better than “normal.” Many of our key metrics are even running ahead of what we saw in 2019, and almost double the numbers that we ran at this time last year: double the amount of students surveyed for spiritual interest… double the amount of students expressing interest in spiritual community… and double the amount of students attending our H2O events! It’s such a joy to see God renewing this place!
We’ve made a ton of new connections this school year: not just relying on social media or large-scale events, but actually interacting face-to-face and smile-to-smile. We’ve been going out of our way to make ourselves visible — and friendly. And it’s honestly kind of amazing to see the responses to a simple smile and invitation. But all of this takes a lot of sweat: both literally and figuratively. It can be emotionally exhausting. And even under the best of circumstances, we do it knowing that it’s a low-percentage ministry. Even when we succeed in handing out 5,000 Welcome Week fliers, we don’t expect 5,000 people to show up for our Kickoff event. Still, we want to do everything we can to meet new people and start new conversations. By God’s grace, it all seems to be having a meaningful effect.
We feel like the Lord is really calling our church to “Go!” this school year. To shake off the dust of the COVID-19 Pandemic and resume normal, healthy, Christian patterns for making new connections, building relationships, and sharing the Good News of God’s Kingdom breaking out all around us here in Kent. And again, by God’s grace, we even experienced this on the first day that students moved into the residence halls for this school year.
It was a rainy Tuesday evening, and the campus was relatively quiet. A group of us from H2O had initially planned on making new connections through playing sports and using sidewalk chalk to promote our worship gathering on campus, but the weather didn’t cooperate with that plan. So, we decided to simplify operations and just hand out our H2O Cards (with discounts to local businesses on the one side, our student organization’s name and website on the other). We stuck a few surveys in our back pockets, in case we met people who were sincerely interested in follow-up, but we didn’t know what would come of it all. Our team of volunteers paired up and set out for different parts of campus. But there was an odd number of people, and I also felt that it might be beneficial to start by doing some work to organize things on the front end of our first week of meeting new students on campus. So I did my organization, and then I was on my own for the first ten minutes of handing out H2O Cards.
Until I met Yusuf. I found him on the basketball court just outside of Tri-Towers, and I quickly learned that he’s a graduate student from New Delhi (India). He told me that he had been incredibly bored since he’d arrived in Kent three days earlier. As a result, he seemed very eager to talk with me. And when I explained what I was doing, he volunteered to walk around with me, basically becoming my partner in handing out H2O Cards for the next 75 minutes. As we walked and talked, Yusuf told me that he comes from a culturally-Muslim family, but he had actually been wondering about checking out a Christian church in Kent. We talked about religion… about culture shock… and student employment opportunities… and traffic safety… and social media… And it all felt refreshingly natural. Easy. We exchanged telephone numbers, and we’ve already seen each other several times over the last few weeks.
We ran into each other again at the University’s Freshman Convocation and Blast-Off events (both of which feature massive crowds). At the end of the first week of classes, the two of us took a hike together to see the Ledges in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. He came over to our house for dinner one Friday night, along with some other friends. And he even visited one of our Sunday morning worship gatherings to hear me preach! I love that we’re developing a genuine friendship, but also that Yusuf is developing deeper friendships with other Christian students and peers here in Kent. Please pray with me that God will keep pursuing Yusuf. We’ve already had several conversations about spiritual things, but he’s kept things pretty superficial up to this point, so please pray that our conversations will keep going deeper and deeper. And please pray for all of the new students at Kent State University! Yusuf’s story is only one of 7,000 stories being written in the lives of first-year students at Kent State.
There are so many good things happening! If you want to see more pictures and get more details about the last month of life and ministry, I’d encourage you to check out some of the other things I’ve been posting on my website. In any event, though, I just want to say thank you for being a part of our ministry team. We honestly couldn’t be doing this without your support. We’ll be in touch…
Green, Blue, and White are the colors of the new Kent City Flag. The eight-pointed star featured on the ball cap (and also in the middle of the flag) recalls a symbol from the history of the city. This eight-pointed star was sewn into quilts that served as a guide symbol for people running away from slavery in the Deep South of the United States, during the first half of the 19th Century. More specifically, it represented the North Star, guiding people on their way to freedom in Canada via secret stops along the “Underground Railroad.” As such, it’s a powerful symbol that I’m proud to wear today.
The new ball cap represents the City of Kent, a community that prides itself on being a Safe Haven for those in need, and ultimately Freedom. We need these things as much today as we did in the 19th Century, so I’m excited by this low-key way to honor such a vision and mission. For our community, for the people of faith living in this community, and for my household.
Check out this picture of last year’s leftover Welcome Week Fliers (in forest green) and this year’s leftover Welcome Week Flier (in orange). I saved one of this year’s fliers purely for archival purposes. The other 4,999 have been given away. I’m not sure if we’ve ever succeeded in doing this (because it’s always easier to print materials than to distribute them) — but this year we did. Thanks to a super-strong “Ground Game” powered by our Staff and student-leaders.
We mostly hear about the “Ground Game” in political contexts, but it’s not just a political thing. It’s a way of connecting one real human being to another real human being. Not just relying on social media or large-scale events, but actually interacting face-to-face and smile-to-smile. We get out of our comfort zone and approach strangers. We go out of our way to make ourselves visible — and friendly. It’s honestly kind of amazing to see the responses to a simple smile and question, like, “Would you like to get one of our Welcome Week Fliers?” The vast majority of people mirror the smile and say “Yes,” even responding with gratitude a lot of the time.
But it takes a lot of sweat: both literal and figurative. It can be emotionally exhausting. And even under the best of circumstances (like this year’s efforts), we do it knowing that it’s a low-percentage ministry. We don’t expect 4,999 people to show up for our Kickoff event tomorrow evening. It’ll probably be more like a five- to ten-percent return on investment. Which can be discouraging. Because none of us on Staff went into full-time ministry so we could hand out a bunch of H2O Cards and Welcome Week Fliers. Still, the “Ground Game” gets us meeting new people and starting new conversations.
And that’s really where we want to be. We feel like God is calling our church to “Go!” this school year. To shake off the dust of the COVID-19 Pandemic and resume normal, healthy, Christian patterns for making new connections, building relationships, and sharing the Good News of God’s Kingdom breaking out all around us here in Kent. I think we’ve got a lot of reason to be hopeful. And proud of our “Ground Game.”