I recently finished reading Penelope Wilcock’s book, The Long Fall. It’s the third book in The Hawk and the Dove series, and the conclusion to its original trilogy. (The trilogy was later expanded to a series of nine). These books were recommended to me by my friend Jason and purchased for me as a birthday gift from my parents. So I already treasure them for those reasons. But I’ve also found so much joy and meaning in these stories about a group of men living in a Benedictine monastery in 14th Century Yorkshire. I know; the setting sounds like it would be esoteric and unappealing. Yet somehow it resonates strongly with my life in 21st Century Ohio.
In The Long Fall, the action of the story is even more zoomed in than it was in The Wounds of God (Book Two in the Trilogy). It focuses almost entirely on two characters: Brother Thomas and Father Peregrine. And it would seem that all of the events in the book supposedly happened within the space of a single year. So it’s a much more intimate, more drawn-out story of these two men and their relationship with each other. I really enjoyed the brief episodes and character sketches in the first book in the series. But this third book in the series is lovely in its own way.
The power of this book comes in its depiction of human frailty. I don’t want to give away too much. (I hope that others reading this might decide to follow my strong recommendation to read the series). But Brother Thomas and Father Peregrine provide a powerful example of living with limitations. Physical limitations… emotional limitations… relational limitations… spiritual limitations… They struggle on so many different levels, but still they persevere. They walk by faith. Brother Thomas and Father Peregrine learn to love each other (to the point that another member of their brotherhood wonders about their vow of chastity). And they learn to love God.
I expect this is a book I will come back to in the future. Even though its characters are entirely fictional, their portrayals of human emotion are very real. To the point that this work of fiction might even be truer than many works of non-fiction. I highly recommend this book and this series. And now that we’ve officially transitioned into the summer season, I’m eager to keep reading the rest of the series.
I recently finished reading Henri Nouwen’s book, The Way of the Heart. It was given to everyone who helped to staff the H2O Smoky Mountain Retreat. The book was not exactly assigned ready, but strongly-suggested. And I admit that I had some reservations. These were mostly due to the fact that Christian publishers are notorious for taking a ten-page concept and turning it into a 200-page money-maker. Fortunately, this book was a radical departure from that model. The Way of the Heart was actually a very impressive book. Somehow, it captures many of the deep mysteries of communion with God that I’ve learned to experience through the years.
In just 95 pages, Nouwen walks through the spiritual disciplines of Solitude, Silence, and Prayer. Somehow, he succinctly summarizes so many of the things that have taken me thousands of hours spread across several years of walking with God. Almost to the point where, if someone were to ask me why I’m so fond of my Friday walks in the woods, I could just hand over a copy of this book. “Here’s a good explanation,” I’d say, while walking away.
This book gets to some of the hang-ups that I’ve recently been considering about the Christian obsession with sermons and songs and books and podcasts… Just this endless stream of words that pile up like floodwaters! They never get the chance to soak in and do the life-giving work of softening soil and supplying water to the vascular tissue of plants. I often feel insecure when I admit that I’m not interested in seminary education or conferences or online resources.
I just want to escape to the woods and walk with God.
But it’s always been hard to explain this to others. From reading this book, however, I understand that I’m really seeking to pray with my heart, more than my mind. When I walk with God in the woods, I’m tuning out extraneous distractions. And instead, I’m tuning into God’s Creation, letting it awe me, inspire me, and open my heart to God’s heart.
Today, for instance, I felt close to God when I watched a killdeer defend its “nest” (four small, speckled eggs laid directly onto a bed of gravel). Sometimes the bird charged at me with feathers flayed. Sometimes, it led me away from the eggs with an elaborate broken-wing act. It was a magnificent display of sacrificial love and creative care. It reminded me of the love God calls us to in 1 John 2-4.
Shortly after my encounter with the killdeer, I saw dozens (maybe even hundreds) of tadpoles. They swarmed a mud puddle no bigger than a hula hoop. And again, my heart drew nearer to God’s when I wondered at all the complex layers of the universe. A universe where my footprint could be an amphibian’s whole world and where my whole life good be a “footprint” to a volcano or glacier or a grove of oak trees.
How do I share impressions like these with others? How do I instruct others to encounter God in this way?!? I’m not sure I can. But I appreciate the fact that Nouwen made a pretty good run at it with this book.
One might say we stepped out of the frying pan and into the fire. A lively week in the Great Smoky Mountains with our church family concluded with a 5AM departure on Friday. We headed back north, in order to immediately join a frenzied farm rehabilitation project with family in Richland County. It was extra-helpful to have a couple of college students in tow (one of them being my own son), and they were delightfully willing to lend a helping hand at the farm. As Farm Hands.
We joined forces with Marci, her two siblings, a sister-in-law, a nephew, and Marci’s parents to clean out the barn that’s been collecting dust for decades. The property was already quite distressed when Marci’s parents moved onto the land as the fifth generation of family occupants about fifteen years ago. But we’ve been slowly fixing things up since then. And this weekend, we were finally ready to clean out the barn and consolidate materials.
One might say that I’ve got two “left hands” when it comes to farm work. That is: I grew up in rural communities, but I never carried actual responsibility for the ownership or operation of a farm. I’ve driven tractors and trucks on occasion, but I’m not good at maneuvering a vehicle with a trailer. I get tongue-tied when farm folks start talking about the need for “tongue weight” when hauling cargo. I don’t always know what needs to be done on a farm.
Even so, I genuinely enjoy hard physical labor. So my job at the farm this weekend tended to be hacking down weeds and hauling burnable stuff from the barn out to the burn pile. Humble farm hand work.
My most valuable contribution to the farm clean-up project may have been when I served as the right-hand man for my father-in-law, Ross. He suffers from Alzheimer’s Disease, and he doesn’t always know quite what to do with himself. So to save both him and the rest of the crew from frustration, I volunteered to let him take me for a drive (he’s a little slow behind the wheel, but still generally a pretty safe driver).
First, we dropped off some scrap metal at the local recycling center. I provided him with turn-by-turn directions (pretty similar to what I’ve done in training my teenaged children how to drive). And we had no issues getting in and out of the recycling center. Even with his Alzheimer’s, Ross is better at navigating a vehicle with a trailer than I am!
It took us about 45 minutes to finish our business at the recycling center. After we finished, I asked if Ross might like some milkshakes from Paul’s Drive-In. He hadn’t said much up to that point, but he perked up at that suggestion and said, “Yes!” I asked him what flavor of milkshake he would like. And answered surprisingly-quickly: Vanilla. So we used up another half-hour getting milkshakes. After filling our bellies with milkshakes, we filled up the truck’s gas tank with fuel. After gassing up the truck, we went to the grocery store to pick up supplies for dinner.
We succeeded in spending almost two hours away from the farm. And in staying away from the farm for that long, we may have helped more than if we’d stayed.
It’s been a great week in the Great Smoky Mountains. The weather has been nearly perfect, with no rain and temperatures mostly in the 70s. The size of our group has felt ideal for this experience. There are a lot of things to celebrate from our church‘s Smoky Mountain Retreat. But two of my personal highlights would be the “Clunks and Dunks” we’ve gotten to experience.
Don’t ask me why, but we call our retreat-specific small groups Clunks (this has been a Smoky Mountain Retreat tradition for several years now). This year the Clunks carried even more weight than usual because of COVID precautions. We tried to develop a system that would firewall trip participants from virus transmission. So we used Clunks to figure out transportation, accommodation, meals, clean-up, and spiritual dialogue. And honestly, I think it made the Clunks even more special than usual! There were five men in my Clunk this year: Kyle, Nick, Cam, Luke, and me.
We were an eclectic group. Two students, two on staff with H2O, and one working as a school-teacher and involved with the “City” side of H2O. I’ve been following Jesus for decades; Kyle just decided to follow Jesus this week. I really enjoyed the chance to bond with this group, though. Even when we were crying while cutting onions and trying to muddle our way through cooking up a chili recipe for a community meal, we enjoyed each other’s company and worked well as a team.
As for the “Dunks” we got to experience in Tennessee, we got to finish our week together with baptizing two of the trip participants. Kyle and Danny both felt like God was leading them to make this public declaration of their decision to follow Jesus. So we went down to the Little Pigeon River yesterday afternoon and pulled together an informal baptism celebration. The hot sun and the cold water made the experience extra-memorable. Friends watched from the rocks on the riverbank.
We stumbled on slippery rocks as we waded to the middle of the stream. Which seems like a metaphor. Still, we made it. We said “Because of your faith in Jesus, we now baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit!” And then we dunked them into the water.
Afterwards, we celebrated like it was their birthdays: a celebration of spiritual life. Some people swam to nearby rocks and jumped into an eight-foot pool in the stream. Other people just talked and smiled on the shore. When we went back to the camp where we’re staying, we even had balloons and cupcakes.
I’m thankful for the Clunks and Dunks we’ve gotten to experience in the Great Smoky Mountains. I pray we can build on the momentum of this week as we head back to Northeast Ohio.
Yesterday was our free day for hiking and such. But it seems to me like more ministry happens when we’re not “in session” (i.e. organized group activities). Singing, teaching, and leading small group discussions are great. But sometimes, it also helps for things to sift and settle in more organic conversations.
I joined a group that decided to do a more ambitious hike. Our destination was the top of the third-highest peak in the Great Smoky Mountains: Mount Le Conte. On the way up the mountain, I had a great conversation with Griffin and Gillian. They’re a part of the team from H2O Kent who is hoping to start a new church in a new place next summer. They (and the rest of the team) are still praying for clarity on the church plant location. They’re also working through a slew of team dynamics. So it was good to just have some time to walk and talk together. I appreciated the opportunity to hear more of their perspective. And I hope I was also helpful in stretching their perspective and finding enthusiasm wherever God might lead the team.
We talked about seeing the church plant play out like our hike. We don’t want it to be too fast, nor too slow. It cannot be for personal glory of achievement. The top priority is to build relationships and enjoy the journey, not just the destination. Mount Le Conte happed to provide a helpful illustration. Namely: the summit felt like an anti-climax. Trees covered the summit, blocking any spectacular views. If it weren’t for the pile of rocks, we wouldn’t have even known it was the top of the mountain. But there was plenty to see and enjoy along the way.
On the way down from the summit of Mount Le Conte, I kept pace with Kyle, Rylee, and Griffin. Throughout the week, Kyle has been contemplating his own relationship with God. He grew up in a non-denominational church in Stark County. Recently, however, he’s felt compelled to make his own decision about faith. He doesn’t want to just go along with a cultural understanding of Christianity. So we talked a lot about faith, and particularly about baptism. In the first mile or two of the descent, he said that he just wasn’t sure that he was ready. He felt like he hadn’t developed enough of a track record of truly following Jesus to “qualify” for baptism. So I got to spend the next couple of miles sharing and re-sharing the Good News with him.
We focused particularly on Ephesians 2:8-9. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast. We also talked about Romans 6:23. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. I was trying to reinforce the idea that faith and salvation and a relationship with God are all gifts, not a payment for our labor.
I told him that I definitely didn’t want to pressure him into a decision to follow Jesus or to get baptized. But I also didn’t want him to pressure himself out of these things, either! I told him the story of Paul and the Philippian jailer, where the Bible provides an example of belief and baptism all happening on the same night. I told Kyle the story of Jesus welcoming children to come sit with him — and then using them as an example of the child-like faith needed to belong in the Family of God.
Kyle seemed to get it. Even as we hiked, it seemed like some light bulbs were coming on. I challenged him to follow up on our conversation by reading through H2O’s Baptism Guide. So I’m praying that he will experience a significant break-through in his walk with God. And in the meantime, I’m hoping that we can all enjoy the journey, not just the destination.
I have the privilege of helping to staff H2O’s Smoky Mountain Retreat this week. Eighteen of us from H2O Kent have travelled together. Now we’re near the national park on the border between Tennessee and North Carolina. We get to spend this whole week practicing Solitude, Silence, and other Spiritual Disciplines throughout the day. And we still get lots of time for community over meals, in the evenings, and on free days.
In our group sessions we’re studying the Armor of God, as described in Ephesians chapter 6. With each piece of our Spiritual Armor, we’re providing instruction and encouragement to learn a new Spiritual Discipline. For instance: contemplating and clothing ourselves with the Belt of Truth and the Breastplate of Righteousness through Solitude and Stillness… Or learning to wield the Sword of the Spirit with balance and skill, through a handful of methods for studying the Bible… It feels like the purest form of ministry. I feel honored to be able to do this as my job.
Believe it or not, I’m spending a majority of my Solitude time in an old cemetery tucked just inside the northern boundary of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. A pleasant hike of about three-quarters of a mile brings me to this little clearing in the forest. The clearing provides sun for when it’s cold, tree cover for when it’s hot, and minimal disruptions from insects. So I’ve made it my habit to hang out here — literally, hanging in a hammock. Or I sit in my hiking chair. Hours at a time in Stillness and Silence with God… and the (deceased) Frasure Family.
Encounters with the Spirit
Some people might think that would be creepy to spend hours at a time in an old cemetery. But I seriously think it’s lovely. It helps to just to have a simple destination, a little clearing in the relentless rhododendron canopy of the forest. And the only ghost I encountered was the Holy Ghost!
God’s already done quite a bit of work in my heart in this cemetery. He’s convicted me that I regularly drift into self-righteousness. I become judgmental and struggle to be compassionate. Consequently, I fail to genuinely love others unconditionally. In short, I fall into sin. Fortunately, through reading 1 John 2:1-6, I’ve been reassured that I have an Advocate, a Defender, a Helper, an Intercessor, a Comforter, a Counselor. Jesus covers me and defends me with His righteousness, like body armor (to pull in some of the imagery from our study of Ephesians 6). He helps to reconcile the register at the end of the day, making up for my shortfalls with his righteousness. And he comforts me in my weakness. What a gift!
I’m full of gratitude for what God has already done this week. Still, previous experience suggests that this Smoky Mountain Retreat is still just getting started.
I recently finished reading Bruce Barcott’s, The Measure of a Mountain. I found it while browsing the travel section of my local library. Our family plans to travel to the Pacific Northwest this summer, so the subtitle is what really caught my eye: Beauty and Terror on Mount Rainier. We’re planning to spend a week in the (figurative) shadow of this behemoth, so I was curious to learn more about it.
The early parts of the book felt like standard “book about a mountain” stuff. What the mountain meant to the indigenous peoples of that region… What the first white settlers thought when they first saw the mountain… The geological history of the mountain… Written in a way that was more interesting and more compelling than a Wikipedia article. But that’s not saying much. Overall, I’d say that the first half of the book read like an extra-long feature story in the Akron Beacon-Journal (which is, honestly, pretty good for a newspaper, but not so great for a full book).
Somewhere around the middle of the book, however, Barcott started writing himself into the story more meaningfully. He shared stories of his own experiences with beauty and terror on Mount Rainier. He used the mountain as a tool for examining his own life, his relationship with his father, and the great ontological questions of human existence. By the end of the book, I actually felt invested in the book. And ultimately, I’m glad I read it.
I’m not sure if it would hold nearly as much appeal for those not traveling to the region in the immediate future. But if you’re planning a visit to the central Cascades, I think it’s worth checking this book out.
I felt like the “weird new kid” when our family moved to Kent in 2012. I wasn’t a part of the church-planting team who moved from Bowling Green in 2008. But I wasn’t the traditional 18- or 19-year-old freshman on campus either. I had three kids in elementary school. I was a 35-year-old newcomer who preferred to measure distance in metric units and said “Indeed” too much.
It felt like I was always going to be the “weird new kid” forever.
But the seasons kept changing. Kent State University students came and went. I remember two students, named Rachel and Caleb, who were a part of the church when we first arrived. They were siblings, and their younger brother, named Nathan, was thinking about coming to Kent State University. I remember meeting Nathan and playing basketball with Nathan. We became friends over time, even though he was a college student and I was a middle-aged pastor.
A couple of years later — after Caleb and Rachel had graduated and Nathan became an upperclassman and student-leader in our church — I learned that another still-younger brother, named Seth, was thinking about coming to Kent State University. He was just as delightful as his older siblings. And I was glad to get to know him, too.
In the summer of 2016, Nathan and Seth joined the group from Kent who traveled to Colorado for our summer Leadership Training project. We went on hikes together. On one of those hikes, I remember talking with Nathan about a young woman to whom he was thinking about proposing. And eventually, they did get married. Rachel got married, too. Nathan and his wife Kailey started having kids. Rachel and her husband Tim started having kids. And then, yesterday they all came together. For the wedding of Seth and Julia.
Somehow, watching that wedding ceremony felt like a mile marker for me. Nathan, Kailey, Seth, and Julia were still in high school when our family first moved to Kent. But now I’ve watched them all start college. I’ve watched them all finish college. I’ve watched them move on to careers and marriages and families. And I’m still here, a pastor of H2O Church at Kent State University. Not the “weird new kid” any more! I’ve watched so much life unfold over the course of these last nine years. The effect is exaggerated because everyone else is moving, while I’m staying the same. I’m not young any more. But I enjoy watching youth flourish and mature into adulthood.
I feel happy. At peace. And I’m thankful that I’m not the weird new kid any more.
I’ve been thinking, praying, and processing some pandemic recovery stuff lately. And I feel like I had an epiphany this morning while walking in the woods.
I started by praying for a nurse who’s recently been hospitalized for COVID-19. She has two little kids, and she’s already missed more than a week of work. She had to get a lung drained of fluid already. Now she’s receiving anti-viral treatments. So it’s pretty serious (but hopefully not life-threatening). Apparently, two other nurses from the same department have also recently tested positive for COVID-19. They’re also struggling to varying degrees, but fortunately not hospitalized.
It all got me wondering. All of these people are medical professionals. They’ve had access to the COVID-19 vaccines for months. And they’re still getting sick. I don’t know if it’s because they’re breakthrough cases. Or maybe because they liked their chances against the virus better than their chances against the vaccines. I started doing some internet research on my smartphone. And my hunch was confirmed that the situation at this local hospital is not unique. A very helpful February article from the New Yorker confirmed that many health care workers are hesitant about the vaccines. Not Medical Doctors (MDs). Approximately ninety percent of them are in favor of the vaccines and are (or plan to be) vaccinated themselves. But other health care workers — like Registered Nurses (RNs) and Certified Nursing Assistants (CNAs) — and are far more reluctant. About 50/50, in fact, regarding the vaccines.
The article reminded me of similar statistics reported by the National Association of Evangelicals. Apparently 97% of pastors are in favor of the COVID-19 vaccines. But only something like 60% of parishioners. Why would this be?!?
Looking through the Lens of Injustice
I thought of the people I know who are hesitant about the COVID-19 vaccines. I thought about the way that the New Yorker article noted how a large percentage of CNAs are young; over a third are Black; and ninety percent are women. It also said that hesitancy is more common among Republicans, rural residents, and people of color.
I recently heard a podcast in which a scientist advocated for art and music as avenues to assist science by helping people’s brains to look for patterns. And as I thought through the people who tend towards vaccine hesitancy, a pattern emerged. A pattern of injustice, oppression, and marginalization.
I’d previously been inclined to feel angry about people who were choosing not to get the COVID-19 vaccine. I suspected they were being stubborn or self-centered. Maybe unsuspecting political pawns. I just wanted them all to get the vaccine so there wouldn’t be such a burden on our health care system… so the economy could fully recover… so older people wouldn’t have to suffer and die… so life could get back to normal for all of us.
But looking at the situation through the lens of injustice, I felt far greater compassion. Much less anger. And even some level of understanding. I thought about those nurses and nursing assistants generally disadvantaged because of their age, their gender, their race. Their disadvantage doubled at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Affluent college fraternity brothers insisted on enjoying their Spring Break trips to Florida and passed the virus around without consideration for others. Meanwhile, the RNs and CNAs cleaned up their messes. When these health care workers got sick or died on the front lines of the pandemic, their families were further disadvantaged. Their insurance companies wiggled out of financial responsibility whenever they could. (In many cases, insurance coverage for part-time health care workers was so poor to begin with that they didn’t even have to do much wiggling).
When Getting Back to “Normal” is Problematic
Nurses and Aides are often pegged as underlings to the Physicians who can come across as having something of a “god complex.” So perhaps hesitation is a survival mechanism! They’ve been victims of injustice for so long: the working class… people of color… women… the young… the “yokels” at the butt of so many yuppies’ jokes. It makes sense that they’re not too concerned about their vaccine hesitancy gumming up the works a bit. They’re not about to do any favors for “The Economy” or “The Health Care System” after they way they’ve been treated by these higher powers in our society.
Their bodies are one of the few realms in which they can exhibit autonomy. So it somehow makes more sense to me, now, why they might hesitate.
I need to check my privilege. Again and again. Getting back to “normal” works out pretty well for me. But that’s not the case for everybody. And when all of this came together in my mind and in my heart today, I experienced peace. Something like scales fell from my eyes. I was able to have charitable thoughts towards those who are reluctant to get the vaccine. I shifted from a posture of anger and impatience to a posture of repentance for my own pride and my (subconscious) complicity in the systems that have caused others to view the rest of the world in the way they do.
I’m still glad that I got the vaccine. I hope that others will come around to the idea of being vaccinated — for their own benefit and for the benefit of others. At the same time, I’m very thankful for this fresh wave of understanding that allows me to approach others with greater kindness, gentleness, and empathy.
This month marks our 23rd wedding anniversary! So we decided to celebrate with a two-night getaway to the New River Gorge of West Virginia. It truly felt like a getaway — a four-hour drive from home, in a different region of the United States, with a very different topography — but it wasn’t too far. We didn’t have to spend too much time in transit. We were able to gently stretch our traveling muscles again. And we let our kids take care of themselves while we were away (which truly feels like the beginning of a new era).
We got to visit the New River Gorge National Park and hike a few miles on the Appalachian Trail — which are some of my favorite things. And we also got to visit Black Dog Salvage in Roanoke (Virginia) — which is one of Marci’s favorite things. We also spent a good bit of time relaxing in our cabin, too. We ate good food. It was a time for recreation and reconnection, and it was just lovely to spend so much time with my lovely wife.
Our relationship is not perfect. We’re learning a lot these days about how to work together through our “sandwich years” — where we’re still providing some level of care for our children as they transition from adolescence to young adulthood, while also starting to care more meaningfully for our aging parents. We’re aging, ourselves. And we’re all learning how to adjust to life, post-pandemic. But at least we get to figure these things out together. I don’t want to ever take Marci for granted, and these annual anniversary getaways help to keep that from happening.