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.

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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.

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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. 



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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. 

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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.

6/02/2014

Music and Almost-Ten-Year Olds

Anders has been taking violin lessons for about a year now. There's a great organization, Hopewell Music Cooperative North, that provides free and reduced lessons to qualifying students in North Minneapolis (click on that link if you feel led to donate). Nils has recently started taking piano lessons with them, too. While practice isn't their favorite thing, they're both pretty good.

Anders had his first concert yesterday. Hopewell started up a Children's Festival for Minneapolis (there's a big one in St. Paul). His beginning orchestra group played a few songs. He's had opportunity before, but he's inherited his father's shyness. I remember as a child, being afraid to go up front of church for the Christmas program. I think I even backed out of taking palm branches up front on Palm Sunday once.

Thankfully, he went through with it this time. And though he was nervous--who isn't?--he enjoyed it. 
I think It gave him a sense of pride. He's a first born who I think has that sense of perfectionism; he can get down on himself and be afraid to try things at which he might fail. I'm familiar with those qualities, I hate to say.

It was his last time for beginning orchestra; tonight he started with the regular orchestra group. He's one of the youngest ones there, and I think it'll be good for him to have some older students and adults to learn from.

Music is good for both of the boys. Finger dexterity improves, math skills improve, self-esteem is built. I think they're discovering the joy in playing for other people and giving them the gift of music.

I recognize that not everyone has musical talent. There are members in my family who are notorious for not being able to sing on pitch. But I also know that music is still a part of their lives. Every once in a while I pick up my guitar and play. Not often enough. I need to make more time for it. Playing music is relaxing and speaks to the heart. It's never too late to start, either. One of the women in Anders' orchestra group tonight is probably around retirement age, I would guess. She started violin just a few years ago.


5/26/2014

Work



We spent the weekend, like usual, at Covenant Pines Bible Camp. Over Memorial Day weekend they have a Work & Worship camp where families and individuals go and help get the camp ready for summer while having a lot of fun. While many churches go from the Twin Cities area, our church kind of makes it our church retreat.
I had attended a similar camp with my family growing up in Iowa. It was a good memory for me. So before we even attended our church, we were going to Work & Worship. It's where we met our church, actually. 

The Benedictine monks use the phrase "ora et labora" to describe their calling. It's how our church refers to the weekend. It means to pray and to work. Work and worship.

Our pastoral associate spoke on Sunday morning at camp. She used Psalm 127 as her text.
Unless the Lord builds the house, / the builders labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city, / the guards stand watch in vain.
In vain you rise early / and stay up late,
toiling for food to eat—/ for he grants sleep to those he loves. 
Children are a heritage from the Lord, / offspring a reward from him. 
 Like arrows in the hands of a warrior / are children born in one’s youth.
Blessed is the man / whose quiver is full of them.
They will not be put to shame / when they contend with their opponents in court.
She reminded us that God is at work. No matter where we're at. Whether we're working at a Bible Camp or at a gas station. If we're not working alongside God, that work doesn't matter.

Then the Psalm switches to talking about children. An odd transition. Maybe. I wonder if it's not getting at the importance of viewing our parenting as worthwhile work. That if we see where God is at work in our children's lives and join in, we will find rich blessings. 

(Now, I know the church unfortunately often elevates marriage and families and disregards singleness which Paul lauds as the higher calling, but I don't think this Psalm intends to diminish  being single. I think the children thing is just an example. Possibly. Maybe it's not even related. But no matter what your relational status, God wants to you to rely fully upon Him and not your own efforts.)

My oldest son wanted to paint this weekend at camp. So we found a job painting. It turned out to be inside, instead of out--which was maybe okay since it turned out to be really hot, and we probably would have ended up with bad sunburns. He took a few breaks, but worked alongside me most of the day. My younger son joined for a short time, too. 

For some reason I can't always get them to work with me at home. But at camp they're much more willing. It was good to get to talk with them as we worked. It wasn't necessarily deep conversation, but it was getting to know them more. In the afternoon, the oldest and I went out in the woods behind the building we were painting and took a peanut break--just sitting and eating some peanuts together. 

On Sunday there was a lot of free time. Both the boys wanted to try a new activity called "crate stacking." You simply stack milk crates as high as you can while standing on top of them. I was proud of my oldest for wanting to try it. He doesn't often want to try new things--especially activities with a potential for failure. But he did it and did great. 

One of the hard parts of parenting is that you never know how your kids will turn out. No matter how much you invest in them, they're still independent souls who will make their own decisions one day. They might not always be the right decisions, either. 

We can only trust that by investing in where God is at work in our children that He will build the house.