To Olivia, on the Occasion of Her 18th Birthday

Smoky Mountains Retreat: Olivia on a Sun-Soaked Rock

Dear Olivia,

Happy Birthday! My “little girl” is now officially, legally, an adult. And to be honest, that feels a little bizarre… sad… scary… surreal… but mostly — really and truly — amazing. You! Are! Amazing! I look back on the journey you’ve traveled through life — from your birth in the back bedroom of our little apartment in Amsterdam to your new beginning as a beautiful and brave young woman in her first year of college at Kent State University — and I am genuinely astonished to think about how much you’ve grown.

Olivia's Senior Portraits (Top Ten for Instagram)

I consider it one of the great privileges of my life that I’ve been a witness and chronicler of your life (especially considering the fact that my adventures in blogging started just a few months after you were born). My vantage point is shifting, as you become more and more independent. Still, I feel like I’ve had a pretty special perspective over the last eighteen years. In fact, the writing of this letter prompted me to look back on some old blog entries — and I was especially delighted by one poetically-rendered scene of us walking the streets of Amsterdam together, when you were four years old:

A fine Saturday morning. Holding hands, I walk — she skips.
I say, “Olivia, I love you.”
She smiles, unashamed: “Yes, you do.”

On the Way to the Butcher Shop with the Lively and Lovely Livi-Loo, December 2008

Even though everything has changed since those days, honestly nothing has changed. I’m still amazed by you. I am still so proud and delighted to be your Dad. Olivia, I love you. Yes, I do.

Olivia Moving in for Freshman Year at Kent State University

One of the things that seems particularly amazing to me on this occasion of your eighteenth birthday is the way you look like an adult now. Even comparing pictures from a couple of years ago, it’s clear that you’ve grown up. You’ve come into your own, on so many levels. And I love the way you confidently conduct yourself, as a grown woman, with your own sense of style and sophistication. You’re so cool that you even help other college students to look cool, finding the best threads to be thrifted.

Olivia's Senior Prom

And you rock the fancy dress-up clothes, too. You look great in formal ball gowns… and in a tuxedo… and in graduation regalia… You’re beautiful. And I just know that your four-year-old self would be so proud. Have I mentioned that I’m proud, too? You’re amazing, Olivia. A-ma-zing.

Olivia's Graduation from Kent Theodore Roosevelt High School

Your beauty extends well beyond your external appearance, too. You’re gentle and kind. Fun-loving and free-spirited. Enthusiastic and empathetic. You’re a loyal friend, but you’re not exclusive. I really appreciate the way that you’re sensitive to others, even after meeting them for the first time. I think about getting to watch you in action at the Portage County CARTEENS program back in July. You dove directly into conversation with the goth girl at our table, chatting her up about anime and other art forms. And then you put yourself out there with the jocks and nerds and authority figures, too, cracking jokes about the impairment goggles and the length of the “dot” in a dotted line. You were a wonder to behold. I knew then and there that you were going to do well as a freshman at Kent State University. And beyond.

Blastoff 2022

You’ve got a brilliant sense of humor, Olivia. Somehow, it seems to get better and better as you get older. I seriously adore your text messaging “voice” and your posts on BeReal. You find so many different ways to bring a smile to my face. And to others, as well. I hope and pray that you can keep on the sunny side of life as the disappointments and discouragements of this world mount up over time (as is inevitable for any of us who live long enough on this planet). Jesus said, “Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

Humor is a part of taking heart. An invaluable tool in your emotional “utility belt.” But so is sorrow… and anger… and fear. I think you already know this. You are actually one of the most emotionally-healthy people I know, Olivia. You have what it takes to survive and thrive, to keep your heart happy and healthy, even as you will continue to be tested in this in the years to come. There’s really just one thing I’m wishing for you on this, your eighteenth birthday…

Thrifting at the Hartville Thrift Shop

I wish that you would take it easy on yourself. You’re such a capable, competent, highly-responsible young woman. But that doesn’t mean you have to do everything for everybody! Galatians 6:2-4 demonstrates an interesting paradox. It says that we should “Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ.” But it also says that you should “pay careful attention to your own work” and that “we are each responsible for our own conduct.” I know you want to be a good friend, a good student, a good employee, a good daughter… But you also need to be good to yourself. You need to know your limits and express your limits — even when it might be disappointing to others.

There’s an old saying that “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” And I can certainly see ways that these tendencies sprouting up within you happen to fall under the canopy of my own tendencies. I often have to remind myself that “Jesus is the Savior of the world; not me.” And I just want to remind you that the same sentiment is true for you. Jesus is the Savior of the world; not you, Olivia. As wonderful as you are, Jesus is that much more wonderful. You can trust him with the things that you cannot accomplish.

H2O Baptism Celebration

Maybe you need to think about relieving pressure on yourself and being prepared to let others down like a kind of adventuring. Putting yourself out there by not putting yourself out there, at times. You know what I mean? Could that become a great adventure for you? Because you are an epic adventurer. Honestly, your adventurous spirit is one of my favorite things about you. A lot of eighteen-year-olds are pretty anxious about trying new things. But not you. You will eat that food… walk up to that stranger… dance that dance… and hike that hike. Maybe you just have to learn the adventurous angle to saying that “I’m out” when the situation demands it.

Bryce Canyon National Park

Leaning into such an adventure has its dangers, of course. But so does driving a car… or roller skating… or hiking among the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon… or pulling into the parking lot of the Chat-n’-Chew in Warren, Ohio… You didn’t stop yourself from having an adventure because you were worried about the potential for altitude sickness or food poisoning. You went for it. And even when you had accidents with the car or with roller skates, you came out wiser and more prepared for the future.

Presidents Day Visit to the Chat-n-Chew Diner in Warren

I want you to keep learning and growing, my daughter. I want you to keep putting yourself out there. Even when it means putting yourself out there by not putting yourself out there. You have so much to offer the world, Olivia. But don’t forget that accepting your limitations and trusting the outcome to God is another way to give something to the world. And to have an adventure of faith in the process.

Olivia's First Day of School 2022-23

Happy Birthday, Olivia. I love you. I’m honored to be your adventure partner whenever I can, and I trust you to discover many other great adventures besides. I can’t wait to see what the next year will bring…

Forever yours,

Thanksgiving at the Farm
Posted in Adolescence, Children, Family, God, Nostalgia, Prayer, The Bible, Traditions | Comments Off on To Olivia, on the Occasion of Her 18th Birthday

The Path Forward

Gorge Metropark

It’s the beginning of the best month of the year: mid-September to mid-October! I finally decided to join the Summit Metro Parks Fall Hiking Spree (“the largest and longest-running event of its kind in the nation”), and I always feel invigorated by a good hiking quest! So, it felt great to spend some extended time with God in the Gorge Metro Park this morning. The cliffs, caves, and waterfalls of the Cuyahoga Valley refreshed my soul and provided invaluable space to reflect. I don’t know how to differentiate between general fatigue and situational dynamics right now. But there’s been more discomfort and discouragement with this new school year than I would like to admit. I needed to talk with God about these things. I needed to find a path forward through the discomfort and discouragement.

Now that we’re increasingly post-pandemic, I’m noticing societal changes. Generational changes. Potentially-historic changes, working their way out through those in their late-teens and early-twenties. The observations are becoming increasingly hard to ignore. Today’s college students seem to be interacting with the world around them in different ways than the college students of years past. I perceive them as being slower to engage, slower to commit — walking through campus figuratively stiff-arming strangers, maintaining a protective bubble around themselves. Students are also talking far more openly than previous generations about mental health and sexual identity. And while today’s younger generations actually seem to be increasingly spiritual, they are less inclined towards organized religion.

But why are these changes happening? I can only theorize about the reasons. But here are a few scenarios I’ve been considering:

Gorge Metropark

The Pandemic Hypothesis

Seventy-five percent of today’s college students are products of the pandemic. They’ve never known college without COVID. During a very significant part of their social development, they were asked by all the institutional authorities around them to isolate themselves. To practice “social distancing” (even though “physical distancing” would have probably been a better term). They were instructed to monitor themselves for symptoms of illness and withdraw from the world around them when needed. So, of course they’re going to keep others at a distance! They’re obviously going to be more attuned to what’s happening in their own heads and their own bodies! And they’re naturally going to be more wary of group dynamics, societal structures, and institutional expectations that could be canceled or dramatically-altered at a moment’s notice.

We can’t blame COVID for everything. In some ways, the changes I’ve been noticing have been in the works for quite some time. So maybe the pandemic has simply provided a sort of strobe-lighting effect, where a movement that’s taking place gradually appears as though it’s jerking suddenly from one place to another. But I feel like the pandemic itself is at least part of the problem. We’re still discovering how much the world has changed in the last three years. And this process of discovery may continue for years to come, in ways both subtle and significant.

Gorge Metropark

The Post-Plant Hypothesis

It’s not just that the campus feels more aloof, less engaged this fall. Our numbers are actually down this year. Higher than 2020-21, for sure (the first full year of COVID, with the most restrictive policies)… but nowhere near where they were for 2019-20 (the seven months of school leading up to the COVID shut-down in March of 2020), or the last couple of years leading up to that.

The decrease in student engagement can be discouraging. But then again, it’s good to remember that we sent out a church plant over the summer! More than a third of our staff team moved to Youngstown, so it only stands to reason that our capacity would be reduced. Furthermore, the church plant team was composed of many of our most-entrepreneurial, most-apostolic, most-evangelistic leaders. We’re in a rebuilding phase. And it may just take some time before we get back to the levels of influence that we’ve experienced previously.

Gorge Metropark

The Post-Christian Hypothesis

For some time now, I’ve been wondering if we might be approaching a cultural tipping point, where we shift from being a “Christian country” to being a Post-Christian society. In a Post-Christian America, we won’t talk so much about our “Judeo-Christian values.” Instead, we’ll talk about our pluralistic society, where no one group of people can hold all of the power. This can feel scary for Christians, who’ve enjoyed a privileged position for several generations. But there are actually a lot of opportunities that come with following Jesus in a Post-Christian society. Far less nominalism; far greater ownership and engagement on an underground level — working more like guerilla fighters than like defenders of a castle besieged by enemy forces. It’s a return to 1st Century Middle-Eastern dynamics.

Very likely, the current trends I’m observing at Kent State University are caused by some combination of all of the above factors (plus some others, potentially, as well). Either way, the path forward will need to involve lots of patience, prayer, and perseverance.

Posted in Adolescence, COVID-19, Culture, Culture Shock, God, H2O Kent, Health, Hiking, Introspection, Kent, Ohio, Prayer, Social Issues, The United States of America, Transition | Comments Off on The Path Forward

NFL Idolatry

I used to live for the National Football League (NFL). Especially back in my middle school years. At least fifty percent of my wardrobe was NFL-branded. I doodled NFL logos in the margins of my class notes. And I felt like the trajectory of an entire week was determined on what happened on Sunday afternoons. A win by my favorite team (the Minnesota Vikings, at the time), and I could hold my head up high for the rest of the week. A loss, and I was down in the dumps. Looking back now, it’s clear to me that I had an idolatry problem. I was looking to my favorite NFL team (instead of Jesus) to save me, to define me, and to give my life hope.

Can anyone else relate to this problem, this addiction, this idolatry?

Things started changing for me when I moved to Europe in 2003. I stayed there for the second half of my twenties and the first half of my thirties (when I was in the sport’s primary demographic, during the dawn of the fantasy football phenomenon). And it was just inconvenient to try and keep up with NFL football. Over in Amsterdam, very few people follow the sport they call “Amerikaanse voetbal.” They consider it rather slow and boring. So, it would have been really hard to find live coverage. And even if I could have figured out some kind of streaming solution (during the dawn of streaming video over the internet), the games would all happen late at night. Consequently, I just lost touch with the NFL.

When I returned to the United States in 2012, the idolatry of the NFL smacked me in the face. I noticed how we spend inordinate amounts of money and time on our favorite NFL teams. Even if we don’t buy season tickets, we buy more expensive cable television packages to watch the games at home… We check our phones for score updates and statistics to measure the performance of our players in our fantasy football leagues… We schedule our social calendars around football games… And that’s just the “respectable” stuff that “normal” fans do. On top of that, there’s the hyper-nationalism… the racism… the toxic masculinity… the violence against women… the traumatic brain injuries… It felt weird and cultish.

And disappointing. I was honestly excited to be able to watch football games again, when our family came back to Ohio. I made an intentional decision to switch allegiances, to cheer for the Cleveland Browns, since they were local and accessible. Against my expectations, I just ended up feeling conflicted and uncomfortable. The other stuff surrounding the sport — the cult of NFL Idolatry — made it an awkward allegiance.

I knew I was in the middle of culture shock, reacclimating to my home culture. So I just kept sweeping the icky feelings under the proverbial rug. I tried to bond with friends over the Browns, and football in general. And there have genuinely been some good times! But now that we’ve been back in the United States for over ten years, I believe the culture shock should be more or less settled. And unfortunately, the irritation about the idolatry remains. So, I want to talk about it now.

But how can we talk about this in constructive ways?!?

I realize that a phrase like “NFL Idolatry” sounds super-religious — even borderline Pharisaical — but is it wrong? Looking around, I fear that it’s pretty close to the mark for many of us in the United States of America. So, how do we deal with idolatry in our lives? I think it starts with identifying the problem and addressing it in incremental ways. That is: it doesn’t usually work well to try and “take down the system;” an underground movement works better.

I’ve chosen to stay conversational in the NFL dialect, but not fluent. I watch the Browns’ game when I don’t have anything else going on, but I don’t generally schedule my life around game times. I’ll wear a brown-colored shirt to the H2O worship gathering on Sunday, but I won’t wear a Browns shirt (I don’t even own any officially-licensed Browns apparel). I’ll ask friends’ about their fantasy football teams, but I don’t participate myself. I know better, as a church leader, than to directly counter-program Browns games. But if our ministry schedule has to be adjusted, I try to redeem the time by focusing on outreach and/or building community.

I don’t usually bring up my frustrations about this NFL Idolatry in a first (or second, or third) conversation with a person from my church. But I do try to angle others towards self-discovery in uncovering elements of idolatry in their lives (self-discovery is so much more effective than directive communication). I hope to provide subtle examples of how to live in slightly counter-cultural ways. And I write blog posts. It feels like a drop in the bucket, but hopefully it’s better than nothing.

Posted in Church, Culture, God, H2O Kent, Introspection, Leadership, Ohio, Preaching, Recreation, Small Groups, Sports, The United States of America | Comments Off on NFL Idolatry

Street Preachers on Risman Plaza

I didn’t know that the street preachers were going to be on campus. But it just so happened that I made plans to go for a walk with a student, starting from the fountain on Risman Plaza. And there they were: two men in their late-50s, taking turns calling the sinners at Kent State University to repentance. But it didn’t seem like there were prompting much repentance. Instead, the street preachers were surrounded by student-protestors, many of them draped in Rainbow Flags and Transgender Flags, like phagocytes surrounding a pathogen. Every now and then, one of the student-protestors would say something that prompted a roar of approval from the crowd. But I couldn’t hear much of the rest of what was happening.

Even so, it was clear: No constructive conversation of any sort seemed to be happening.

I didn’t meaningfully engage with any of the people or talking points in this scrum today — but I’ve been around long enough to know that these street preachers have been coming to Kent for years. They usually try to start the conversation by telling people that they’re sinners, and that sinners go to hell. Regular themes include sexuality and abortion. And the street preachers will often leap to conclusions about other people. Almost all “you”s; not many “we”s. It seems to me like they’re being deliberately provocative. All for the sake of drawing a crowd. But why?!? What do they think they are accomplishing for the cause of Christ? Their strategy seems counterproductive, widening the gap between God and sinners instead of building bridges.

Suffice to say: I do not appreciate their methodology.

I imagine the street preachers think of themselves as disciples of D.L. Moody or Charles Spurgeon. And maybe such street preachers had some effect in the 19th Century. But even if that is the case, I’m doubtful that 19th Century evangelistic methods just don’t work for 21st Century college students. Back in the 20th Century, advertisers and communicators focused on finding some sort of “Magic Bullet” for communications. They hoped that mass media could work like mass production. And such ideas seeped into the Church during that time period, as well: “If I preach just the right words, in just the right setting, then everyone who hears my words will be immediately impacted in the way I intend…” In more recent decades, those theories have lost favor. But we’re still living with the vestiges of those ideals.

Personally, I’ve been wondering more and more about the emergence of a “Post-Christian America.” Not that there won’t be any Christians in America, anymore. But there may need to be a shift away from demanding a central place in civic society — towards envisioning ourselves as a sort of underground, resistance movement. It’s an identity that has served the Church well in many previous periods of history. And I think it could serve us again.

It is, however, something of an antithesis to the street preachers on Risman Plaza. In Post-Christian America, we must learn to embrace interpersonal communication within a pluralistic society — protecting and advocating for each other’s rights to exist and participate in the public sphere, while still sharing our understanding of the truth of Jesus. Relationship will trump rational argument. Empathy and discretion will be more important than didactic skill. And above all, we’ll need to lead with love. Jesus himself told us, “Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples” (John 13:35). So, I’m excited to see how we will learn and adapt to be the Church in this context for this time period.

Posted in American Politics, Church, Culture, God, H2O Kent, Kent, Politics, Prayer, Preaching, Small Groups, Social Issues, The Bible, Transition | Comments Off on Street Preachers on Risman Plaza

The Longest Journey

Even in his most-Parkinsonian, most-demented, most-psychotic state, my Dad’s vocabulary is impeccable. When he got on the phone last night, he said, “You know the ones who have been… my captors… I perceive that they have released me from prison… so I’d like to be taken home now.” His speech was slow and halting. He sometimes has to search for the words he wants to use. But when the words come, they can come in complex clauses. And they can speak of strange adventures (and misadventures). Alternate realities. The longest journey that covers the shortest distance. So, my mind raced with possible angles to crack the case and figure out what was happening in his world.

I’d gathered from Mom that he’d had a rough day: extra napping punctuated by extra restlessness, with increasing confusion and disconnection from reality as the day wore on. I also know that it’s common for people with Parkinson’s Disease to develop the sort of dementia where he sees people who aren’t there and hears whispers about conspiracies that aren’t real. I’ve also learned that my Dad has some recurring characters in his psychotic breaks: a younger man and a younger woman who talk like Baptists but are crooked as sin. My Dad believes they are continually scheming to take his money and freedom. So I figured this current “Release from Prison” situation was some variation on wandering down that same old path again.

But I also gathered a greater sense of urgency at this particular moment. Like this was his one chance at ridding himself of these tormentors, once and for all. My Mom added her voice to the telephone call, saying that Dad was on the edge of tears.

So, I said I’d be right over. I parked on the side of the road across from their condominium and let myself in at the front door. And when I walked in, my Dad was standing between the living room and the kitchen table, fully prepared to go: blue bucket-hat on his head, fleece jacket on top, slip-on shoes on his feet. He couldn’t tell me any more about where he wanted to go, but it was abundantly clear that he wanted to go.

So, I walked him out the front door and pointed towards my car: “It’s that red one over there.”

“I might be crazy,” he replied, “but at least I know that much.” He said it in a self-deprecating way, not in a way that would indicate the giving or taking of offense.

I helped him get in the passenger seat and click the seatbelt across his lap. Then I settled into my own seat, turned the key in the ignition, and turned to ask: “Where do you want to go?”

He muttered something, sotto voce, about the way that “these people don’t understand geography” like the two of us did. He rambled for a little bit, not making much sense. But I did gather a few key data points that I used to plot our course. He wanted us to head towards downtown Kent, by Main Street… Then he wanted us to head south… And at some point, we’d go past my house… These coordinates couldn’t possibly connect in a straight line. But all in all, he said, he knew he could trust me, and he felt fine with leaving things up to me.

So, we drove east on Fairchild, south on Water Street, past Main Street in downtown Kent and down towards the southern edge of the city. I kept asking to make sure we were on the right track. As we approached Ohio Route 261, I asked, “Is the place that you’re thinking of in the city of Kent, or someplace else outside the city?” Dad seemed confused at that point, so I went with the “Leaving Things up to Me” proviso and hooked to the west on 261.

Dad was disoriented by this section of the journey. He didn’t recognize many of his surroundings. In retrospect, I wonder if that sense of wandering through the southern hinterlands of Ohio Route 261 helped our overall quest, serving as something of a hard reset for his brain. At the time, though, I worried that we had veered off-course.

I ultimately decided to return to Kent via Middlebury Road. And when we got back to more familiar territory, I had my Dad help to make decisions about where we would or would not turn: straight from Longmere onto West Main Street… left onto Bryce Way (right past my house!)… left onto Fairchild… and then right into the Cottage Gate housing development!

When I pointed out his house and asked if we should pull in there, he shook his head, “No.” Instead, he directed me to park in the cul-de-sac at the end of the street.

When we got out of the car, he shuffled to the nearest driveway and seemed to be eager to reach the front door. But I told him, “We don’t know anybody in this house, Dad. I think we should go further this way.” I gestured in the direction of his house with a questioning look on my face.

“Is it the next driveway?” he asked.

“No, I don’t think we know anybody in that place either.”

He scanned further up the street and asked, “The one after that?” So, I started walking that way, with a wordless suggestion that it couldn’t hurt to wander in that direction.

As he shuffled along to keep up with me, my Dad’s mind seemed to shift further up the street, as well. “Have you seen Tillman lately?” he asked, referencing his next-door neighbor.

I told him I hadn’t seen Tillman, but I took this question has a hopeful sign of his brain getting back on track. And then, at long last, we were back in his own driveway. My Dad seemed to recognize their vehicle parked on the pavement and quickened his steps towards the front door. He opened the door and walked into the entryway with a smile on his face. I used my birthday-announcement voice to chime, “We’re back!” in such a way that I hoped it would communicate the actual situation to my Mom and the alternate-reality situation to my Dad. He hurried across the living area to my Mom and greeted her with a big hug. Again, it seemed like he was on the edge of tears. But this time it was tears of joy, not sadness.

It seemed to feel like a genuine homecoming to him. He sat down to rest on a couch, while I told my Mom an abbreviated version of our adventure. And when I asked my Mom if there was anything else that she needed before I went back to my place, she said, “I don’t think so. As long as you’re not planning on going anywhere else, Dave.”

We looked to him, and he smiled a broad, unguarded smile. “No, I don’t think I’ll be going anywhere else for a long time.” It felt like the longest journey he’d ever taken. But it ended in a happy place for him. And even if it was just for that evening, or just for that hour, I felt happy, too.

Posted in Aging Parents, Family, Home, Travel | Comments Off on The Longest Journey

Milan Melon Festival

Milan Melon Fest with Centennial Life Group Friends

I love small-town festivals. I grew up in a town that celebrated its Bicycle Days every summer. Marci and I had our first date at the Bucyrus Bratwurst Festival. And I’m always on the lookout for other interesting observances that celebrate some aspect of local history or culture on an annual basis. These small-town festivals are a place for all the locals to see and be seen by other members of the community. But they’re also a source of entertainment and economic activity for both insiders and outsiders. So, ever since I heard my friend Bri talk about the Milan Melon Festival, in her hometown, I’ve wanted to visit. And this year the stars finally aligned, and we got a group of people from our H2O Centennial Life Group to go on a road trip together to see the Milan Melon Festival for ourselves.

Milan Melon Fest with Centennial Life Group Friends

I don’t know why they center their local festival around melons in Milan. I imagine the climate could support the growth of various melons. But it doesn’t seem like melons are grown or distributed on any kind of industrial scale in the area. So I’m guessing it’s just a fun, summertime theme. Plus, the words “Milan” and “melon” go together nicely. I don’t know. I didn’t really press the issue.

Milan Melon Fest with Centennial Life Group Friends

The melons serve as a central organizing theme, more than anything. The town crowns local high school students the Melon Prince and Melon Princess. Local home owners are encouraged to decorate their houses, with a contest to see who could make their place the most melonny (melonish? melonesque? melonial?). And they serve melon treats on the village green: watermelon sherbet… cantaloupe ice cream… a watermelon frappe… a scoop of vanilla ice cream served inside of a cantaloupe…

Milan Melon Fest with Centennial Life Group Friends

Honestly, though, I wish the Milan Melon Festival organizers would have gone further. Melon rides… melon helmets for sale… painting the town crosswalks to look like slices of watermelon… There are opportunities for improvement, for sure. However, I mostly just enjoyed the festival for what it was: a lovely example of a local festival, with friends.

Milan Melon Fest with Centennial Life Group Friends

I had a watermelon frappe and an ice cream cone with a watermelon-cantaloupe twist. I really wanted to buy a Milan Melon Festival T-shirt, too, but they didn’t have the design I liked on a color of shirt that I liked. Even so, I think we had a pretty enjoyable experience at the Milan Melon Festival. We cheered Luke on as he played the Ball Toss Game. We listened to an excellent playlist curated by Meg on the ride there and back. And we even got to finish our visit to Milan with a quick stop at Bri’s house.

Milan Melon Fest with Centennial Life Group Friends

All in all, the Milan Melon Festival was a great way to close out the Labor Day holiday weekend. I’m really glad that we made this happen. And I hope that there will be other quirky small-town festivals to explore in the years to come, as well.

Posted in Food, H2O Kent, Music, Ohio, Recreation, Small Groups, Travel | Comments Off on Milan Melon Festival

H2O YSU Tailgate Party

H2O YSU Tailgate Party

A group of us from H2O Kent traveled to Youngstown, earlier today, to meet up with our friends who moved to Youngstown over the summer. Together, we hosted a tailgate party outside of Youngstown State University’s Stambaugh Stadium before their home opener against Duquesne. And it was honestly a lot more fun than I expected it to be.

H2O YSU Tailgate Party

Youngstown State University (YSU) has a way more lively tailgating culture than Kent State University. Even though the school is just a third of the size of Kent! The tailgate party vibe seems to be powered by people from the Mahoning River Valley, who went to YSU and now live and work in the Mahoning Valley. “Townies” more than current students. Still, there are plenty of students around. And I honestly found myself feeling envious about the partnership between the community, the University administration, and the student body in creating this College Gameday Culture. Kent could learn a few things from Youngstown.

H2O YSU Tailgate Party

What made today’s tailgate party special, though, was the way that it signaled the dawn of a new era for the H2O Church at Youngstown State University. We’ve been thinking and praying in this direction for years. And over the summer, the H2O YSU Team has laid a lot of groundwork, settling in and making connections. But the past week has been YSU’s Kickoff Week. And the tailgate party provided the perfect space for planting a flag, staking a claim in YSU circles, and celebrating with newfound friends.

H2O YSU Tailgate Party

We grilled hot dogs and cheeseburgers. Some people played croquet and tossed a football around. Others just sat around and talked. But all together, it almost felt like a sort of institutional baptism: a visible and tangible way to celebrate the fact that a new community of faith is coming into existence. So, it felt like an honor to be there. And I hope that I’ll get to go back again soon.

H2O YSU Tailgate Party
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To Cor, on the Occasion of His 15th Birthday

Bryce Canyon National Park

Dear Cor,

Happy Birthday, my son! Everyone seems to be talking about how quickly you’re growing up these days. People ask, “What grade is Cor in?” And I’ll say “He’s a sophomore in high school.” And they’ll say, “What?!? No Way!”

Or, they’ll say, “Gosh, how much did Cor grow over the summer?!?” And I’ll say, “Probably three inches. His feet grew a full shoe size between May and August, too. He’s growing like a weed.” And they’ll say, “Pretty soon he’ll be taller than you.” And I’ll say, “I know.”

Chasm Lake with Cor

These aren’t very original courses of conversation. In fact, I remember when my aunts and uncles would say similar things about me in childhood. Still, I’m intrigued by what these refrains reveal about us. I suspect that the observations about your advancement have to do largely with the advancing age of others. It’s a reaction to you being the youngest person in our family. You hold a position as “the baby” (even though you’ve been out of infancy for, like, fourteen years now). So, it messes with people’s understanding of the world to see that the ones we thought of as truly “little” are now indisputably among the ranks of the “grown-up.” And you’re just a particularly noticeable point of reference.

However, in your case, it’s actually true that you’ve grown a lot in the last year. Especially in the last few months. You’ve grown physically. But you’ve also grown emotionally, and you’ve grown spiritually. And I just want to pause and say right now that I’m incredibly proud of the young man you are and are becoming.

Golden Spike National Historic Park in Promontory Point, Utah

We had a weird tradition when I was a kid. My Dad would give me a “Birthday Spanking.” He would take me over his knee and pantomime a real whooping, with one smack of his hand against my rump for every year I’d lived on earth. And everyone else at the birthday celebration would count the spanks out-loud: “One… Two… Three… Four…” At the end, he’d squeeze his index finger and thumb together in a mock gesture to say, “A pinch to grow an inch…” and then he’d form his hand into a fist while finishing the phrase, “And a sock to grow a block!” It was a very different era: to have all of this enacted corporal punishment considered a part of the “birthday fun.” Still, there’s something in that ritual that I understand.

Don’t worry, Cor. I will not take you over my knee. I won’t pretend that growing up is something for which you must be disciplined. But I would like to let the world know that I encourage and even appreciate the ongoing acceleration your development. The proverbial “pinch to grow an inch” and the proverbial “sock to grow a block.” If people are flabbergasted by how big you’ve gotten now, I want to see the looks on their faces and hear the tone in their voices when they see you another year from now, or ten years from now — seemingly propelled into the future with a powerful punch of blessing that results in you growing on a scale that has to be measured in city blocks.

Cor and the RHS Cross Country Team at the Bill Heideman 5K

You’re growing up beautifully. You make me proud with your continued development. So, I want you to keep going. Stride confidently into that bright future, young man.

I love the way you’ve leaned into running over the last year: Track, Cross Country, and just running for the joy of running. It’s fun to connect with you about all of the running gear and running statistics and Strava posts about running. It’s a joy to have this interest in the sport in common with each other. And that we even get to go running together sometimes. We’ve had some especially epic runs this year: making ourselves practically die on the ascent of Bible Point… striding through the wheat fields of Honeyville, Utah… and running up the Lost Canyon near Great Basin National Park… You’re getting stronger than me and faster than me. But I don’t resent it.

This is how it should be for a younger man, in his teens, and an older man, in his forties. I’m looking forward to seeing you run forward with this “torch,” into the future.

Cor and the RHS Cross Country Team at the Bill Heideman 5K

As I pray for you on this, your 15th birthday, my mind is drawn to the New Testament Book of Hebrews, where it says, “let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith” (Hebrews 12:1-2). Cor, you’ve got the heart of a champion. You love winning, and you hate losing. So, let me just encourage you to keep your eyes on Jesus. His spirit already lives in you, I can tell. Still, you need to keep throwing aside the burdens of sin and self-centered thinking in order to keep God as the priority in your life.

You’ve got so much going for you, Cor. You’re smart, and funny, and talented, and social. You’ve got that “Scunge Factor” that allows you to persevere through difficulties and endear yourself to others (even though it can also, sometimes, drive your mother and me crazy!). Just keep running with Jesus — through sports and friendships and romantic relationships and school and college decisions and getting your driver’s license — and you’ll go far.

Cooling Down by the Stream at the Hole in the Mountain Cabin

I’m here for you, when you need me. And you’ve got a ton of other people in your corner, too. I love you more than words can ever say. To borrow the biblical words of blessing: You’re my beloved son, with whom I am well-pleased. I wish you a very Happy Birthday, with many blessed returns of the occasion.


H2O Staff at Cleveland Guardians Game
Posted in Children, Family, Introspection, Nostalgia, Photography, Prayer, The Bible, Traditions, Transition | Comments Off on To Cor, on the Occasion of His 15th Birthday

Parking Lot Portraits

Elliot at Riverwood Parking Lot and Don Joseph Storefront

Elliot asked me to meet him at a parking lot on the west side of town. We arranged to start right around the time that the sun was setting. I knew we were going to be taking some pictures. Still, I didn’t know exactly how the project was going to unfold. We just started playing around with the possibilities, mixing stillness and motion, light and dark, props and the human form. And I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by what came out of this “Parking Lot Portraits” session.

Elliot at Riverwood Parking Lot and Don Joseph Storefront

I’m not a professional photographer. I did all the shooting with the built-in cameras on my iPhone 13. Still, Elliot had some creative ideas. And I knew just enough about photography from my years in videography what we could play with the variables a little bit. So, we took some photographs in the parking lot of Riverwood Community Chapel and some in front of the Don Joseph Toyota Dealership. And it ended up being a really fun way to spend an evening together, producing these parking lot portraits.

Elliot at Riverwood Parking Lot and Don Joseph Storefront

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H2O Kickoff 2022

Kent State Student Center on the First Day of Classes

Today was the first day of classes for Kent State University students. And, as usual, we finished the day by hosting our H2O Kickoff event. But, in a more unusual twist, the venue for this year was the Student Green, outdoors, in the heart of campus. It was an interesting experiment. The set pieces (production, music, teaching, etc.) went about as well as could possibly be expected. The people part of our Kickoff night was more intriguing, so I’m still processing some of the interactions that I had throughout the course of the event. But all in all, it was a very successful Kickoff.

H2O Kickoff on the Kent State Student Green

At the front end of the event, I spent a while talking with a Fashion Design major who arrived early. The student came from the suburbs of Dallas, Texas: dark skin, long hot-pink hair, the stubble of a mustache and beard, bright make-up, spiky dog-collar choker around the neck. I didn’t ask for preferred pronouns, but now I kind of wish that I had. (I’m going to assume they/them pronouns in the meantime, even though the Grammar Geek in my has a hard time the singular they/them). Their name was Chandler — and they actually ended up winning one of our door prizes! They also filled out a Connect Card and indicated interest in serving on our Production Team… which is all great. But it also made me wonder what sort of conversations may lie in our future…

H2O Kickoff on the Kent State Student Green

Towards the end of the message, a quirky kid showed up. He made a bee-line towards the table that had a bunch of (mostly empty) boxes of Papa John’s pizza. The food was originally intended for our Production Team who arrived early. I think he ended up finding a slice of pizza. And he grabbed a half-full two-liter bottle of Orange Crush, as well. It wasn’t a big deal, really. (We probably would have tried to give it away anyway). But then, he came over to the H2O tent where I was posted. And he started leaning over the gift baskets, to the point that I thought he might help himself to one of them, too.

So, I introduced myself. He told me his name was James, and from just the briefest of introductions it became clear that he was somewhere on the autistic spectrum. He told me he was especially interested in the $25 Google Play gift certificate that was in one of the baskets, and he kept asking me when he might have a chance to enter the raffle to win it. I tried to be kind and polite, but it was hard to relax because of the way that he was so fixated on the gift baskets. Nothing significant ended up happening. Still, it made me wonder what kinds of conversations might lie in our future…

H2O Kickoff on the Kent State Student Green

After the Kickoff on the Student Green, we got to walk with some students back to Centennial Courts. And I was genuinely encouraged to talk to a number of new people who seemed really lovely, genuinely sociable. They all seemed like they could be promising new Life Group members. But it also became clear that many other aspects of college life were also vying for their attention.

One guy introduced himself to me as Cash. Because he’s so good at playing basketball. A little while later, when a random rapper named Luwop walked up to our group, Cash (another Fashion Design major) started telling him about the clothing line he was trying to develop called Certified Buckets. Because he’s so good at playing basketball. Cash said he was hoping to link up Certified Buckets with some up-and-coming influencers. In the course of our conversation, Cash also mentioned that he had narrowed down his options to five potential fraternities he might rush. And it all made me worry that his chances of “spiritual survival” — or at least fruitful growth in college — are sadly slim. It made me wonder if he would be around for further conversations in the coming weeks.

Today’s college students have so many irons in the proverbial fire. Questions about sexual identity… mental health challenges… career ambitions… competing influences… How do I walk with these students through all this?!?

This week of Kent State University’s Kickoff has felt far more like “pre-pandemic” than “mid-pandemic.” No masks. Nothing in the way of entire residence halls being reserves for students in isolation or quarantine. So that’s encouraging. Still, it feels like the world may have changed forever over the last few years. We may finally at the beginning of the “Post-Christian America” that I’ve been wondering about since Amsterdam. That’s exciting in some ways. But it also carries some sadness and nostalgia. So I’m still processing. And praying. And wondering… and watching.

Posted in Church, God, H2O Kent, Kent, Ministry, Prayer, Small Groups, The Bible | Comments Off on H2O Kickoff 2022