12/06/2014

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. 

11/27/2014

Gratitude

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. 

11/23/2014

Year End: Direction

I went to bed last night and woke up this morning feeling at a loss of direction in life. After a divorce hearing earlier this week and my grandma's death a month ago and a lot of new begnnings and restarts, I find myself wanting more goals in life. 

Todaay at church the pastor gave us the image of canoeing across a large lake on a windy day. It's not easy. The wind blows you off course, and it's hard to get to where you wantto be going. His illustration remind us that you need to pick out an object or landmark--such as a tall tree--at your destination at the other end of the lake and keep that as your focus for where you're going. No matter how much you get blown off track, you know where your goal is. 

It's also easy to feel like you're not getting there. The pastor also recommended picking out a nearby object, such as a rock along the shoreline, as a mile marker. That way you can tell that you're progressing. 

It's the same in life. We need a focal point and milemarkers. Paul tells us to keep our "eyes fixed on Jesus." Pastor Mark reminded us to keep our eyes focused on the cross; that is our ultimate destination in life as a follower of Jesus. 

He also encouraged us to have milemarkers: goals along the way to help us know we're getting closer to our destination. It might be a milemarker of actions: choosing to love our neighbor. Or a milemaker of words: stopping gossipping, or standing up for the person being picked on.

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 
Today is Christ the King Sunday in the church. It''s the end of the Christian year. Next week marks the beginning of a new year and a new season of Advent. 

The traditional gospel story reading for the day is where Jesus tells the parable of the sheep and the goats: He will separate those who gave to the poor, visited prisioners, feed the hungry, etc. from those who didn't. It's a jarring, uncomfortable story of living a life of love directed in service of the marginalized. Jesus says when we do these things, we are serving Him directly. 

All this is tied in to the reminder that we call Christ our Lord. That means we give Him rule over our lives. 

Here is where I fail. Not all the time. But enough. I choose my own direction. And this gets me in trouble. The path I choose seldom ends up being the right one for me--at least one that is good for me. But when I follow Him, I don't have to worry about that. Sure, the path isn't always easy or pleasant, but I don't regret it when I walk on that path (I'm mixing metaphors now, I'm aware...canoeing, hiking...but it's all about the destination and how we get there, so bear with me). And that sounds good--a life without regrets. 

So, forward I paddle, eyes focused on that cross at the end of the lake, marking my progress in getting closer to my mark. Today, I'm trying to set some of those milestone markers as I take a look at what I want my life to look like. I know I want a fruitful life, one with no regrets, one that I'm proud of. I can't change the past, but I can reset my course for the future. 

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When Jesus begins His ministry, He starts with one word. It is the same word His cousin John used in preparing the way: "Repent." At it's core, the word repent means to turn 180 degrees in the opposite direction. The Greek word used in the New Testament refers to a changing of the mind. It is a course alteration. 

I'm thankful for the reminder this morning of the need for periodic course corrections in life. I may not know what will be along the path ahead, but I know how to get there: with eyes fixed on Jesus. 

There will be times in the future when I need a course correction. I wiill make mistakes. Thankfully, not only is the Lord, but He is Savior and Forgiver. And He gives me the Holy Spirit to aid in not making those same mistakes again--because I'm very inclined to do that. 

Thank God for grace. And for direction. 

11/02/2014

An Ode to Small Towns

I was back home this past weekend for my grandma's funeral. I was reminded throughout it how lucky I was to grow up in a small town, and hopefully will someday return to one. 

The farm to the east of my dad's is owned by a man who was killed in a motorcycle accident this past summer. The day after I arrived, six combines along with several tractors, wagons, and semi trucks showed up to harvest the field for his family.
Many people brought food both to the church and to my family's home. Others served in the kitchen during the visitation and the funeral. My dad's cousin made several pans of lasagna to feed the family (dad's four siblings along with all thirteen grandchildren, their spouses, and thirteen great grandchildren as well as some exctended cousins and great-aunts and uncles and such) after the visitation. 

My childhood best friend's grandfather let my brother and I use his home (he's in an independent living apartment now) for our families to stay in while we were there.

I can't even tell you how much money was given in sympathy cards in memory of my grandmother. My aunts from California were stunned. That doesn't happen elsewhere. 

All of this happens in big cities, of course, but I think small towns are the breeding grounds for generousity, service, and love. I'm grateful to be a byproduct of one such place. I hope the seeds of those characteristics continue to work their way through me. 

10/20/2014

Grandma

I just received a phone call from my father telling me tht my grandma died. She had a stroke several years ago which robbed her of a lot of living, so it didn't necessarily come as a surprise. There have been many times when my father has called and I was fearful it was going to be "that" call. As soon as I answered the phone tonight I knew. I could hear it in his voice. I'm thankful she's whole again. I'm glad she's in God's presence with Grandpa there, too. 

But loss is never easy. I feel alone in it right now. I feel like there's been too much crying of late. 

I'm grateful for all the good memories, though. When I was little, my grandparents watched me on their farm during the times my mom was teaching. I spent a lot of formative years with my grandma. Her kitchen is at the front of my memory. The smell of Swedish rye bread and molasses. The cookie jar which was always kept filled, and which I learned to open steathily to sneak out an extra treat. Sitting around the table and learning to pray "Come, Lord Jesus." Her bringing "lunch" (the mid-morning and/or mid-afternoon snack) out to the men as they worked in the field: it was often cinnamon rolls, coffee cake, or cookies along with a thermos of coffee. Those were the only times I drank coffee (with plenty of milk, of course). Her garden--especially tomatoes in the summer. For some reason, tomatoes were sometimes sprinkled with sugar instead of salt. 

She was a quilter. For my high school graduation she quilted together scraps from my grandfather's jeans and coveralls. I still have it. She loved her family. We spent many holidays and family birthdays together. Often it was a picnic with fishing involved. She was a hard worker. She was a woman of faith. Even though she couldn't carry a tune, she still sang the hymns. 

I wish she had been well to play with my sons. She had a stroke before they were born. Still, when they would visit her, she would often smile. When my oldest was younger, he would occasionally sing her a song like "Jesus Loves Me" or "Away in a Manger" and she would sometimes sing along--she seldom spoke otherwise. 

I wish my memories were clearer. I had so many good times with her. She will be missed; she loved greatly and was loved much in return. Esther Wilhelmina Christoffers Wenell, you were a great woman. I was lucky to call you "Grandma."

10/04/2014

Transitions

This is going to be a super honest post. And not an easy one to write. I haven't blogged in almost three months. Theyve been a difficult three months. Seventeen years of relationship has come to an end. A month ago I movved into an apartment. It's been the first time almost since I was a baby that I haven't shared a room with someone. It's a big change. And more changes are on the horizon. I never expected myself to be in this place. It's hard, it sucks, it's good, all at the same time.

A large part of the hardness of this (other than what the children are going through--which is by far the hardest to witness), is the loneliness. And not just because of the marriage ending. I lost a church family (which they've made it clear that I'm still welcome there, but it would be a very awkward place to be together still). I feel like most of my friends are gone. And I know the reality is that things are just different. Many came and helped me move. Many visited and called or texted when this first was happening. But I presume what the reality is for most of them, is that they were once friends with a married couple, and now that's not the case. I'm guessing some are more familiar with my sins in the marriage, and though there are two sides to the story--two partners in a marriage and very seldom is only one guilty. And that's okay. I don't need people to be on my side. But it's been hard at times to see her get support (though I'm thankful she has some) and not feel much.  

Thankfully, we've been civil. We divided up things pretty well. We have always parented well. But I don't know how to relate any more. 17 years feels like it didn't matter any more. Those plans for the future don't matter any more. There's a grieving process involved. I'm not sure if I've done that fully yet, but I have done a bit of crying. A lot of crying.

Part of me needs to move forward. Part of me needs to remain in this place of grief and transition and healing and pain. There is so much uncertainty, yet a level of freedom I haven't experienced. 

I'm trying to do the right things and make the right choices. I still fail at times. I will always have moments of failure. These are turning points--of learning from mistakes or of ignoring it and keep on going on paths of my own choosing. That's how it always is, though...we have a choice to learn or disregard or mistakes and keep on repeating our mistakes. I am not perfect, nor will I ever be on this side of eternity. Sometimes I get wrapped up in trying to be perfect which just leads to trouble for me because I can never be perfect--and I don't learn and change enough. So I'm trying. 

So that's where my life is at. In transition. I don't seek pity. I'm not a victim. Nor am I the perpetrator. Just a human being who makes mistakes and has opportunities to learn and live. Even if life isn't headed where I thought it would be. 

I was reminded at church this morning of the old call and response we used to use with summer staff at Bible camp all the time: God is good; all the time. And all the time; God is good. There are opportunities, even in hard transitions, for God to be good. I just need to keep my eyes open and seek them and not get sidetracked by feeling victimized by life's difficult transitions.

7/15/2014

All Stars

The MLFB All Star Game is in town. I'm not big into professional sports or big crowds, but I needed to get out of the house today, so I headed on my bike toward downtown to check out the Red Carpet Parade. I haven't kept up with baseball since high school when I collected baseball cards. I recognized only a couple of the current players' names (retiring player Derek Jeter for one)--and was thankful for the retired players that lead the parade: Rod Carew, Paul Molitor, Tony Oliva, Bert Blyleven.

A few things I noticed:

Family. Of course, there were plenty of families at the parade. Parents who brought their children to see a athletic hero. But almost all of the players had their families riding with them: wives, children, parents, siblings. 

Technology. Most of the people in the parade had out their phone, tablet, or camera taking pictures and videos of the crowd. Even though they're famous, they're still just people who want to preserve the memories of the moment. 

Hype. I grew up playing baseball. While I don't watch it often, I enjoy the game. But it's amazing how much fame and fortune we give to men who hit and throw a ball. There were a couple trolleys at the beginning of the parade full of "all star teachers." It was nice recognition for them, but its sad how much we pay those who entertain us compared to those who shape our lives. 



But despite it all, baseball is a great sport. I almost said all-American, but a big chunk of players aren't from America any more: Cuba, the Domincan Republic, Japan. Though it doesn't have the reach and popularity of soccer, it's still a pretty accessible sport. 

While few of us could afford tickets to an All-Star Game, I appreciate how they make the experience accessible for almost everyone. Free concerts, free baseball movies outside the park, free activities, free parade. I know that the All Star Game did some philanthropic activities in town, too (there was a sign in our front yard the other day directing media to parking for an activity room unveiling provided by the All Star Legacy Project). It was a pleasure to have the All Star Game in town.

7/14/2014

Of Water and Tombstones

I went on a long bike ride yesterday. There's a fifty mile path around Minneapolis. I went from our house to the Mississippi River along downtown, down to Minnehaha Falls, along the Minnehaha Creek past lake after lake: Hiawatha and Nokomis, Harriet, Calhoun, and Cedar, back to home. 

We've had a wet summer. A really wet summer. The falls were flowing more than I've ever seen. Along the creek, the path was flooded. In one place I had to pedal through about a foot of water for a hundred yards or more. 

Water is at the core of life. It was there at the beginning of creation. The flood cleansed the earth. The Israelites passed through the waters of the Red Sea to escaped slavery; they passed through the Jordan to enter the Promised Land. Jesus gave us the sacrament of baptism--dying to self, rising in Christ. 

Without water, we cannot llive. But water is also destructive. When concentrated, it destroys. It washes away. The flood plains along the river smelled of dead fish, a smell found pleasant only by scavengers. Undoubtedly, the flooding brough death, just as the waters bring life.

* * * * * * * *

A week or so ago, we were camping at Jay Cooke State Park. I explored an old pioneer cemetery there from the latter part of the nineteenth century. Only a few tombstones remain with recognizable names. The bodies beneath are now a part of the soil. 

Death consumed them. For now at least. There will come a time when those old pioneers are given new bodies. Whole, unblemished bodies. 

Someone picked wildflowers and put them on one of the tombstones. It's an odd practice--killing a living them to mark the burial place of a dead thing. We do that, though, trying to beautify death. 

And there is a beauty in death, but it's subtle and hard to find. It's there in the hope of eternal life. It's there in the continuation of generation after generation. It's there in memories. 



* * * * * * * *

I have had much death in my life. Not so much in people I have lost (though there have been plenty), but in myself. Dark things that bring me death. Places where the light does not reach.

Paul says, "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body I live by faith in the son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me" (Galatians 2:20).

Dying is something I need to choose to do each day. Dying to my self. Dying to my old patterns and habits. Dying to my selfish desires. 

I have failed to do this all too often. It leaves me with more death in my life--it leaves me with a life that smells like dead fish and earthworms on a flooded plain. 

* * * * * * * *

On Sunday I visited the church of a friend I went to seminary with. It's just a short bike ride from my house, but I hadn't visited before. It turned out to be the one year anniversary of an arson attack on their church building. It is a diverse church where reconciliation takes place. Not everyone likes that. But they didn't let the attack on them and their lack of a building for most of a year stop them from being a church. 

The message that morning was about new beginnings, about letting yourself be open to being changed and used by God. Like a phoenix, rising from the ashes, life comes through death.

Paul tells us to "put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry" (Colossians 3:5). He goes on in that chapter to tell us to rid ourselves of things like anger, slander, filthy language, and lying. 

This is not a one time thing. At least for me it isn't. I need to put those things to death daily. Death only begets more death. 

Instead, Paul tells us to put on compassion, kindness, gentleness, humility, love, and forgiveness, as if they were articles of clothing that we dress ourselves with each day. New life. The raging waters have washed away the filth and carried it far downstream--as far as the east is from the west. 

So I'm working to get the death out of my life. It's not easy. I've got long-established patterns and habits. But I want to choose life each day. I'm sick of the smell of decay. I want the smell of freshly fallen rain. 

6/08/2014

A Pentecost Church Apology

Dear World,

Today we celebrate the birth of the church. Around 2000 years ago people from all around the known world at that time (Asia, Africa, Europe) were gathered for the Jewish festival of Pentecost. God poured out His spirit on a group of people who were followers of Jesus. They began to speak in the languages of the people gathered there. The apostle Peter spoke to the confused crowd of onlookers, explaining that what was happening was foretold by the prophet Joel hundreds of years before. Three thousand people decided to become disciples of Jesus that day. And they stayed in the city and spent time together every day, in worship, praying and eating meals. What they had as a church at the beginning makes me envious. But I would also be a bit apprehensive of being in a similar situation. They shared everything they had, they gave a lot (sometimes all) of their money and possessions away to help the poor, and they knew each other intimately. I'm not sure I could do that, honestly.

So with that the church began and continued, spreading and growing through history. It's not an illustrious history, of course. There are plenty of shameful moments. They still happen, unfortunately. We in the church can be our biggest hindrance.

It's to be expected, I suppose. Though we follow God, we're still sinners who make stupid, selfish choices sometimes. I've made stupid, selfish choices in my life as a follower of Jesus...as a minister and leader in the church. I'm not proud of them. But God still loves me and offers forgiveness.

I think that first church on Pentecost holds some good pointers for us today, that if we try a little harder to follow, maybe you'll see us as a positive source for change and for good in the world.

1. More Diversity. It has been said that Sunday morning is the most segregated time in the week. This saddens me. I understand it--we're most comfortable with people like us. But the early church was comprised of people from every known continent. Africa. Asia. Europe. All together.

2. Gender Equality. When Peter explained what was happening by quoting from the prophet Joel, he mentioned that God's Spirit was to be poured out on all people--men and women alike. I don't see that God pours out His Spirit more on one gender than the other. His Spirit is His Spirit. With it men and women (all people) are equipped to do God's work. Just as the American workplace still has a way to go to overcome issues with gender equality, so does the church.

3. Intentional Community. People were in Jerusalem from all over the world. Those that witnessed the pouring out of the Spirit on Pentecost stayed. They spent time together every day. Meals were central to their fellowship. Too often today we go home after church on Sunday and have little contact with our faith community during the week. We need each other.

4. The Holy Spirit. Pentecost changed from a Jewish festival to a Christian holy day. It emphasizes that God has now chosen to dwell within us through His Holy Spirit. I don't fully get the Holy Spirit. It's a bit of a mystery at times. But I know that God is with us and in us and empowers us to do His will. Not our wills, but His.

Forgive us, world, for not always doing well at these things. We'll still have our failures, but we'll have some great successes, too. Give us some grace. Listen to our stories. God can do some amazing things. And He utilizes failures like us to do so. Is it His best move? Maybe not, but if He can utilize failures, then we've all got a chance and being part of something big.

Sincerely,

A Failure

6/05/2014

Backyard Hospitality

I recently signed up to review the book Strangers at My Door by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. In it he tells of the failures, successes, and surprises of treating everyone who comes to the door at their house as if the person was Jesus. This is an ancient practice, outlined by St. Benedict in his monastic rule over 1500 years ago (and was likely around before that, but the Benedictines have kept the practice alive).

Tonight I had the opportunity to practice treating the strangers in my yard like Jesus. This is where people interact with me more. My youngest and I were out in the yard throwing around a football tonight. First, a woman approached the fence. She said she had been walking through the neighborhood trying to find some work...her check hadn't come today and she had a young one at home to feed.

In our part of the world, there are a lot of people out there asking for food and money. On weekends I can see several people on street corners in a short drive. Sometimes we keep food in the car to give them; sometimes I turn a blind eye.

It was easier to help the woman tonight. She wasn't asking for money or a hand out. She was asking if she could do some cleaning or some other work for us and afterward we'd take her to the grocery store for food. We're low on food in the house, but we put together a bag of somethings to hopefully help her and her family. She was grateful at least.

A little while later an older man came along and was commenting on how nice it was to see my son and I playing catch. He was encouraging Nils to keep getting better. Apparently he had seen him rollerblading and playing street hockey with Beth a few weeks ago. He was encouraging and appreciative that we were spending time together as a father and son.

Even from a few yards away, I could smell the alcohol on his breath. It would have been easy to dismiss him as just some drunk. And if he had been surly, or cursing, or loud, I probably would have. But it was easy to engage him and be respectful in hearing what he wanted to say.

Not long afterward our neighbor from down the block brought her dog up to play catch in the yard with the boys.

I am not always good at engaging the person walking by my yard. Sometimes I'm caught up in gardening or yard work. Sometimes I don't want to acknowledge them. Sometimes they don't want to be acknowledged. I've had my share of really bad experiences with people on the other side of the fence, too. But I'm finding that I need to see the other and treat them as Jesus as best I can. Tonight was rewarding in ways that I wouldn't have been looking for.