The Charleston Aftermath

Last week's shooting in a Charleston church produced a wave of discussion about homeland terrorism, gun control, and racism. It was a horrific act that took the lives of too many. It remind us that after nearly 150 years since slavery ended and after all the work of the civil rights movement that we still have a long ways to go to end racism. 

One of the bright spots--if I dare even say that in proximity to such a tragedy--was hearing the words of the loved ones of the victims to their killer. Their words matched the church meeting that their loved ones died at: words of forgiveness and love, even in the midst of such pain and sorrow. 

I was grieved to see the response of many Christians as echoed in an article by FOX News that the soluution to this tragedy was for those who were at the church that night to have been carrying concealed guns. Did Jesus call us to respond to persecution with retaliation? Did He tell us to kill those who persecute us? Where is it written in the Scriptures that we should strike down our enemy?

It seems to me like Jesus' words and commandments always involved love. He had the plenty of chances to smite His enemies: the moneychangers in the Temple, the Romans who would kill Him as well as forcefully occupying the Promised Land, the religious leaders who wanted Him dead. He had opportunity and probably even righteous reason to smite those ungodly enemies. 

Why loving others so difficult? We are much more likely to be judgmental, vindictive, condemning and even hateful at times. 

I don't believe we can overcome racism or solve our violence problems without love. Carrying conceled weapons won't do it. Violence will only beget violence. 


Upon Turning Forty

I haven't blogged much since the divorce, but today I turned 40, so I thought that deserved some reflection. Turning 40 is one of those milestones in life. Supposedly. Of course, it's just another day. 

But sometimes days are easy to dread or anxiously anticipate or long for or avoid. 

There was part of me that was dreading turning 40. Mostly because of feeling like I don't measure up for having two score years under my belt. It's easy to start comparing where I'm at in life to where it looks like others are at. Feelling a little worthless because of having a failed marriage, because of my issues that were a big part of that, because of feeling unsuccessful or not having a notable career or not being financially successful. Feeling lonely and friendless. Those kind of thoughts easily creep in. 

I've talked with a good friend a bit about these feelings and thoughts. A good thing about getting older is that you learn to listen to others and not just play out the craziness in your own head. He reminds me that the world's version of success isn't what God measures success by. And so often the world's version of success doesn't produce happiness. And when I judge myself against others, I'm only judging by the outward things I can see--or that I think I see. I don't know the inner struggles or reality of their lives. 

So I didn't dread today. There was plenty to look forward to. Or at least I knew I didn't need to fear it. 

Yes, the school day started with a child saying I looked old in the new glasses I got yesterday. But the kids all wished me happy birthday at various times throughout the day. Some even proudly told their parents that I was 40 today. 

I got to go out for supper with my kids tonight. They were really fun to be with. They even had a present for me. 

So much of life isn't found in the grandiose, but in the little moments that only reveal their specialness when you stop and become present. And success doesn't lie in what you amass or accumulate, but within the eternal marks you make in the lives of others. 

And no matter how the past 40 years went, each day was only a stepping stone for the days to come. Days to learn from and grow upon, days to savor and days to put aside. But each one has shaped me, and each one has given me the potential to continue living life more fully as I journey on the path with Jesus. 


Lenten Journeys

Lent is always a difficult season of the church year to enter into--for me at least. I feel like I've got enough suffering going on within and around me that I don't really want to intentionally focus on more suffering. 

At our Ash Wednesday service at church we were led through a visualization exercise with death--just thinking about the reality of death, what our feelings are surrounding it, and the spiritual implications of it. A father and husband at church died unexpectedly yesterday I learned tonight at the Bible study I'm a part of. It was on our minds as we discussed the Beattitude: "Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted." I was also reflecting on my grandmother's funeral this past fall. 

There's the sense where my grandmother's funeral was a blessing. She had been living with the cripling and silencing effects of a stroke for many years. All our family was gathered together for the first time in many years. We heard many stories about her that opened a floodgate of good memories. We mourned her loss, but at the same time were paradoxically surrounded by blessing. 

But I don't know that I could be the widow from church losing her husband so unexpectedly and find blessing in the mourning. I don't know that if something should happen to one of my children that I could find blessing or comfort. Yet death is unescapable.

* * * * * * * 

The week after Ash Wednesday our church had a week of prayer. People could sign up for an hour slot during the week and go into church and pray in the prayer chapel. I signed up for a slot. I don't remember that I've done something like that before, though I've led prayer retreats and set up prayer stations before.

Honestly, my prayer life has felt dry for a while. I was a little apprehensive about going in to church that day. Seriously--what was I coing to pray about for a whole hour. But the team who set it up laid out several different stations in the prayer chapel that were engaging. From confession with a bowl of water and dissolving paper, to communion with cup and bread, to intercession with paper and sand, to artistic prayer, to a map of the world, to pictures of staff and ministries in church, to a piano and worship cds. There were options. I found myself wanting to engage in more than an hour's time in the room. I was reminded that prayer doesn't have to look and feel like I think prayer should. Whatt I was apprehensive about was a blessing.

* * * * * * * 

Two weekends ago I was blessed (there's that word again) to be invited to go up north (that's what we call heading to the woods or lakes or Lake Superior region north of the Twin Cities) with a friend to join him at his parent's time share. I heard a guy I know share last night how he was excited about his family's move to New York City this coming summer. He said that's the place his stress melts away and he feels comfortable and at home. I'm the opposite. I need to get out of the city. Lake Superior is a special place for me that way (as are many other bodies of water, rivers, forests, and mountainous areas). Driving north I could feel my body relax as the interstate started its descent toward Lake Superior as I approached the outer limits of Duluth.

I love that area, even in the winter. It has its own magic covered in snow and ice. The shoreline was spectacular with its broken chunks of ice heaved up in minute mountains as if tectonic plates were forming a new landform. Behind Gooseberry Falls I enjoyed the wonder of a waterfall frozen in time. 

I also enjoyed time hanging out with a friend. I haven't had as many of those opportunities recently. It was hard to come back home.

* * * * * * * *

There are plenty of little journeys at home that are enjoyable, too, though. Last Sunday afternoon the kids and I went and explored a nature center I had discovered weeks ago when lookikng for a place to hike on a warm winter's day. It has a fun nature play area. 

Afterward we headed to the conservatory at the local zoo. The zoo was closed, but the conservatory was open late for the last of a winter concert series they'd been putting on--another free opportunity. Amidst fragrant blooms in a warm glass room, the boys and I had each brought sketch pads and enjoyed doing some drawing while listening to some pleasant live music. Having those sorts of opportunities around us are blessings--and help make city life bearable. 

It's still several weeks until Easter. I'm not ready to focus on more suffering and death. I know it's inevitable. I know the One who is by myside through it. But sometimes I need to live more. And maybe that's a big part of the Lenten journey--those little reminders about life. 


The (Almost) Spiritual Discipline of Sketching

Earlier this week I met a new friend from church at a coffee shop to pick his brain on career ideas (he has background in English and theology as I do). We didn't talk that much about career because we keep finding things we have in common. We both like to bicycle, do photography, dabble at the guitar, paint, and draw. 

I recently received a book on sketching to review and have enjoyed looking at it. I tend to sketch a bit--especially Sundays at church in the margins of my sermon notes--and the book has been encouraging to do it frequently. In the past I would draw a lot of nature scenes or other landscapes that I could just imagine and make up--I paint that way too. But the book encourages looking at what's around you and drawing that. 

My friend has been doing it daily--he plans on keeping that up through this new year. He post them on his blog: Dumb Sketch Daily (https://dumbsketchdecember.wordpress.com). He, too, is focusing on the things he sees. 

We had a good discussion about drawing. I decided it's almost a spiritual discipline. For tthe sake of not being branded a heretic again (I'm not sure when I was last, but I'm sure I have been), I won't directly call it a spiritual discipline. But almost a spiritual discipline--especially when drawing what is observed around you.

It makes you slow down and be present. That in itself is a spiritual discipline. But there is something added when using your eyes and moving your hand to create. I remember someone saying once that to be created in the image of God is to be given the ability and even need to create. We are not fully human if we don't create (whether it be art, clothing, woodworking, or a meal). 

The motion of drawing is almost prayer like in a way. As is the being present and noticing the details. Sometimes part of my problem is being in my head too much. Sketching gets me into reality. 

Below are three sketches from today. The first was the purse of the woman sitting ahead of me in church. It was under her chair. I  didn't get it all done--and there were parts the seat was obscuring, but I consider it a success because I typically would not draw something like that. Too many folds and creases and such. So just attempting it was a big step for me.

The second and third sketches were done at a concert at the conservatory at the Como Park Zoo tonight. The boot was on a woman standing near me (I was sitting). She and her friend noticed I was drawing it...that was a little awkward. But she didn't mind. She asked to see it later. I assured her that I didn't have a foot fetish or anything, but was just praticing sketching. The lasst one was of an older woman on the other side of the room from me. I didn't get much done before she took off her coat and then moved out of my line of sight, so there isn't much detail in her face yet. They're all incomplete, unfinished works. That would bother me at times. But I don't mind right now. It's a process. Progress, not perfection, as the old adage says. 

Which is also something I'm working on with my spiritual life. I grew up feeling I had to be perfect for God. Otherwise he might go Old Testament on my butt (even though I know He's not really a vengeful, wrathful God). And that need for spiritual perfectionism paralyzed me in some ways. But the spiritual life is a journey, not a final exam. Again, progress, not perfection. 

So to end in gratitude (which is always a good way to end anything): I'm thankful for creativity, for a sketchbook and pencils, for the ability to use my senses to take in the world around me, and for God's patient love and mercy. I'm thankful for lessons learned over a cup of tea and over graphite on paper. There is much to learn and see when I just take the time to sit and be present. 


Of Exercise and Self Care

After high school where we had gym pretty much every day and I did basketball and a year of cross country, regular exercise wasn't a part of my life. That's not to say that I didn't do anything. I did a few intramural sports in college, an ultimate frisbee group in seminary, and plenty of big games while working at camp. But regular exercise was not a part of my life. 

But a few years ago I started realizing I needed to do something more. It was hard to fit something regular in as a poor stay-at-home dad. I woould get in a bike ride when I could, but they were often with the kids which didn't amount to much real exercise. 

I also noticed I was getting more depressed during the dark winter months north of the 45th parallel here. So about three years ago we decided to get a YMCA membership for the winter months. I took the boys after school a few times a week for swimming after school. When they were in swim lessons or on the occasional time I'd get to go by myself on a weekend, I'd do some time on the stationary bikes or an eliptical. Andd in the summer months I'd try to swim and bike as much as possible. 

I still try and bike as much as possible, though that hasn't happened since early November I think. But my apartment building has a clubhouse with an indoor pool and a small exercise room. When the boys are with me, we try and go over to swim every other day. When they're not with me I try and go over to the exercise room as often as I can. Along with some weights, there's a treadmill and an elliptical.

I learned in high school that running and I do not get along well. And I'm fine with that. Running is not the only form of exercise despite how prevalent it seems to be. Anyway, I use the elliptical. It fools me into "running" enough that I don't mind it. I've been doing between 4-5 miles in the half hour I usually do. 

I think the electronics help. I can challenge myself: going further, maintaining a certain speed, getting my heartrate into key zones, etc. It's probably a guy thing, but that helps me I think.

I'm reminded that Paul tells us in the Bible that our body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. In his time there was debate over whether or not the physical mattered for the spiritual realm. Paul insisted that you can't separate the physical from the spiritual. God created it all. Andd since the Holy Spirit lives in us, we need to take care of ourselves. 

I still don't do the best. I know my eating habits--especially when I'm alone--need work. But I'm proud that I'm keeping it up and of my distance and rates I've been doing. It's not much to speak of, but it's still something to me. 


A New Year

When I was little I thought that if I could stay awake until midnight on December 31, I would see something miraculous: the coming of a new year. I assumed there would be some spectacular natural light show as an old year ended and a new one was ushered in. Of course if I could have managed to stay awake that late I would have seen nothing unusual. The night goes on like business as usual. 

And truly there is nothing inherently significant about this night other than it causes us to have to remember to write a new date on our checks (on those rare  occasions I write one). In many cultures this is not even their new year. 

Still, it may be helpful to acknowledge the former year--the blessings and the trials, the joys and the sorrows. Personally, I am glad to have the pain of this past year behind me. Yet I cannot have life without pain. Those are the moments that shape us. Even in the midst of tough years in looking back I see that God was still present. His hand still guided me through it safely. 

A new year brings hope. Changes will occur most likely. And maybe there will be more hardships ahead. Actually, this is quite likely. But there is also the hope of making better choices, of learning from mistakes, and of knowing that pain is a reminder of the joy awaiting in Heaven. 

So goodbye 2014. Goodbye to the pain and the joys, the tears and the laughter. You won't be forgotten, but you don't need to hold me down, either. And hello 2015 with your possibilities and potentials. May God make a path through the year ahead that is clearly marked, and may my feet quickly return to it if they stumble off course.  


The Second Day of Christmas

In Canada (as well as the United Kingdom and other palces in their commonwealth), today is Boxing Day. It's traditionally a day when people put food and other things in a church box for the poor--extending the giving of Christmas. It is more contemporarily a day when people box up their leftovers and take them to a friend's house to share a meal together. However it gets celebrated, the focus in on others. Thatt's the Christmas spiritl.

In the church it is the Feast of Stephen. As in the day when Good King Wenceslas looked out. The carol tells of the king aiding a poor man. Stephen was the first Christian martyr. Paul/Saul was there giving approval to his stoning because of his faith in Jesus. Stiill today many people die because of their faith. I don't pray for them enough. I also don't pray often enough for my faith to be that strong.

I decided that I want to try and make one of my goals to be doing something creative each day. Even for 12 minutes. I find it too easy--especially on evenings when I'm at my apartment without my children--to sit and watch some television or be online and suddenly find that the whole evening has passed by. And I may have gone out and gotten some exercise before that, but otherwise I don't feel built up to have accomplished nothing. 

So I'm going to make this happen. I started to type "try and make this happen" but as Yoda has instilled in me, "Do or do not. There is no try." It may not happen every night. I recognize there may be some extenuating circumstances. But as much as it can happen, it will. 

Yesterday I got out a canvas and my paints for the first time since I moved here. I also stopped downtown on my way to my sisters house last night to look for interesting photographs to take. I haven't written as much since I moved. And my guitar hasn't been unpacked yet even though I've been in the apartment for almost four months now. I've toyed with learning to knit for a long time. And I've always enjoyed just drawing, but I haven't opened my sketch book in a while either. So I have many options for creative outlets.

What's the connection between my creative goals and the second day of Christmas you ask? Good question. I didn't have a connection at first. Both were on my mind was all. But as I have been writing and my creative juices flowing (there it is--my creative outlet for today!), I remembered the greatest commandment: To love God with all  my heart, soul, strength, and mind; and to love my neighbor as myself. 

I can't be loving my neighbor well if I'm nont loving God, first of all, but also if I'm not loving myself. And loving myself means taking care of myself: eating well (I'm hit or miss there--I make healthy meals, but I also snack too much), exercise (I'm doing better at fitting that in--I even did 5 1/4 miles on the eliptical machine this week; I haven't gone that far outside of bicycling since high school), and doing something good formyself like something creative. 

Now, hopefully, this creative outlet tonight will help me fall asleep. I was in bed over an hour and a half ago because I'm feeling a bit under the weather, but was finding my brain and body wouldn't cooperate with the need for sleep. Hopefully now I can.


The Loneliness of Christmss

Last night the boys and I went to the Christmas Eve service at church. The pastor reminded us of the signs that told of that first Christmas. It wasn't a star in the sky or angels singing. The sign that the angels tell the shepherds to look for was a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes (no surprise there--even our children were swaddled when born) laying in a manger. There's the real sign--and a surprising one. The Son of God in an animal's feeder. 

I grew up on a farm. Feed troughs tended to be noisy, dirty places, surrounded by manure and buzzing flies. They are no place for a baby. Especially a baby who is God incarnate. He should be born in a palace like the royalty He is; or at least a temple where the religious gather. But God was born in a barn. How many times did your parents ask you when growing up and you left the door open or some similar faux pas, "Where you born in a barn?" It's not a compliment. But such was the birth of Jesus.

That was the sign to look for: the manger. It is a sign of hope. A palatial birth would have meant God came for those in power. A temple birth would have meant God came for the righteous. But a manger means He came for everyone. Princes and shepherds, the righteous and the heathen, the Jew and the foreigner. God put on flesh to be like us all--and so all could come kneel before His infant bed.

* * * * * * * * * * * 

This morning I found myself sitting in the glow of the Christmas tree lights crying a little. The boys had just left for Wisconsin with their mom. I was alone on Christmas Day. I knew it was coming. I had already done a holiday alone, so I thought I could handle it. Butt after they left some of the emotions hit. I'm good about being in solitude; apparently being alone is still a struggle for me.

But that manger birth is also a hope-filled reminder that I'm not alone. God came to earth. Emmanuel: God With Us. He knows what it is like to walk in human skin, experiencing all that we experience. There is solace in that knowledge. 

I have a hard time grasping that fact sometimes, though. Obviously. If I had that fact internalized, I wouldn't ever feel alone. I guess that's why I need all these reminders. Advent and Christmas. The tree and it's lights. The carols on the radio. The friends who send an encouraging word through facebook. All are reminders that I'm not alone. Jesus was born. God is with us. Amen.


Divorce, Advent, and Gratitude

I haven't written much for a long time. I want to. It's probably good for me to be writing more now. But I haven't, and that's just how things are.

The holiday season is in full force. I've never had hard holidays before. But they are when you're divorced. 

Thankksgiving was my first one without having the kids. I went to my sister's and had time with her kids, who are growing up too fast. So  the time there was nice, but traveling distances alone isn't as fun. 

And now we're in Advent. Today is St. Nicholas Day. Both events have had many traditions for us in the past. But those have had to change. We're not together at the table every night for lighting the Advent candles and reading a devotional. Money is tighter, so the St. Nicholas gift was absent today (there will be gifts later, though) as was the shoe boxes that we typically deliver for going overseas. 

But we still had a good evening of decorating the tree (though I need to get a tree skirt, an extension chord for the lights, and a star for the top). We listened to Christmas music all day long, and we had time together watching Back to the Future III (we had seen the first one this summer in a park with DeLoreans there, so we've been finishing the trilogy). Tomorrow we're going to partake of a family meal after church followed by gingerbread house making and other activities. There are new memories to make, new traditions to try out. 

But it's not the same. There are memories with each ornament on the tree. There are fewer stockings to be hung. There are activities at which I'm alone. 

So I go back to gratitude. Gratitude recenters me.  It changes my attitude.

And I can be thankful of the hope of Advent. The hope of the returning Christ. Hope of change. Hope of better things. Hope of love, and grace, and mercy, and forgiveness. 

That's why I need Advent. As much as I love Christmas, I can't rush to it. I need the reminder of the goodness of waiting in hope. For that I am thankful. 



I have written a few times about thanksgiving and gratitude. Going to last night's Thanksgiving Eve service at church and thinking about thanksgiving today was not the first it's been on my mind. But I still am in need of those reminders and promptings. 

Gratitude gets me out of my head where I can induldge in self-pity or selfishness or greed or fantasy. Giviing thanks reminds me of reality: that I have more than I need, that God takes care of me, that I am not in control.

Gratitude changes my emotions. If I am fearful or frustrated or envious, giving thanks recenters me and replaces those feelings with serenity and joy.

Gratitude changes my thinking from temporal and earthly to eternal and spiritual. Giving thanks reminds me that God is in control and that He gives me more than I need and that He loves me deeply.

I know that gratitude is good. But I often forget to practice it. I find myself complaining and grumbling about circumstances and the things I lack sometimes. This morning I was getting frustrated when traffic on the interstat came to a standstill after three and a half hours in the car and being within a half hour of my destination. But I was reminded that instead I could be grateful that I had safe travel thus far--no car issues, no accidents. A little delay in traffic was nothing compared to where I would be if I had an accident. 

Even after a tough past several months, I was reminded at church last night of all the things I have to be thankful for in life. Things can always be worse, of course. But being kept from disasters in not the only reason to find reason to give thanks. Giving thanks is not to keep us from worse situations, but it remindsd me that no matter how bad things are, I am still taken care of and provided for in ways I often can't comprehend. 

Gratitude is good. I am thankful for reminders like today, for time to reflect and give thanks.