On Our Way

Anders and I were up by 2:45 this morning to get to the airport. We’re on our way to Ecuador with our youth group from church. We’re heading to the same church and school our youth group went to three years ago. I’m excited to view the trip through his eyes as much as I can. 


Prayerful Lessons from Hiking

Since my children have different Spring breaks this year, we weren't able to do a trip. And as I was sick when I had intended to do a solitude camping retreat last fall, I headed up to our Bible Camp for a couple days of solitude.

Today I headed to explore the trails at Savannah Portage State Park. I intended to have the time for prayer for my upcoming marriage, family, and life. After four hours of hiking, I don't feel like I did that much significant prayer time. I feel like most of the time I was distracted or mindlessly looking at my surroundings. I don't often feel like I'm a good pray-er.

The hike was also not what I expected. There was little wildlife around. Granted, it's the beginning of April in the North Woods of Minnesota. It was near 60 degrees today, but there was still ice on the lakes. But all I encountered were a couple of robins, a couple of crows, a couple of geese, and, surprisingly, a few butterflies. No moose (sad face). Not even a single squirrel.  
(Okay, as I was leaving I did see a chipmunk and a pair of swans as well.)

Also, my map did not correspond well to the trails. I picked up the park map at the park office to know the trails. The maps along the actual trails were for the winter cross-country ski and snowmobile trails only. They did not show any hiking trails. My map did not show any winter usage trails. More than once I wasn't sure what trail I was actually on. It wasn't easy to compare the paper map to the ones on the trail, since the trails didn't often overlap.

Which is how I ended up on the trail to the bog. Which was not on my intended route. But I found myself headed that way nonetheless, so I decided to explore.

Bogs are mainly formed in colder climates where geographical conditions prevent water drainage. The cold and lack of water outflow prevent plant decay so few nutrients exist in the ecosystem. A ten foot tall black spruce tree with a trunk that I can almost encircle with my hand may be close to 100 years old because its growth ends up being so slow. This is where carnivorous plants like pitcher plants and Venus fly traps grow because they need insects to provide the nutrients they're not getting from the soil.
I eventually found the trail to the Continental Divide Overlook. It's the shortest distance between waters that flow to the Gulf of Mexico via the Mississippi River and the Atlantic Ocean via the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway. The park is named after the portage fur trappers had to make with their goods between those two riverways. It's a 5.5 mile hike from the West Savannah River which flows directly into the Mississippi and the East Savannah River which eventually flows into rivers that go to Lake Superior.

At some point in the recent past strong winds felled most of the trees along the ridge. The trail was all mud (most of the trails had been wet and quite soft, but they often had plant growth covering them--at least dead pine needles). Little plant life grew. It was all brown with dead trees and no grass or moss. The overlook wasn't accessible. Bulldozer and logging truck tracks created large pools of water. I finally made I to the next trail intersection. Only to find that trail was in the same condition. I was frustrated.

Then God reminded me that this hike is a lot like marriage/a relationship. It's a journey. Sometimes it's beautiful. Sometimes it's not. But I'm on the path with the one I love, just as God was on the trail with me.

The trail isn't always going to be great. When it's messy and muddy and not where I want to be do I give up, or do I forge ahead? (The trail did get better again.) There will be storms that come through, so will I clear the damage to foster new growth? Sometimes I will choose the wrong path. Sometimes God leads elsewhere. Do I submit to the map or be stubborn and continue on my own way? Do I trust God with the trail ahead?

And that bog--am I going to encourage bog-like conditions in my marriage--cold and devoid of nutrients--or do I nurture growth and a warm environment?

I was also reminded of the Lenten journey Jesus took to the cross. He took the path forward, even when it wasn't easy, even when He didn't necessarily want to. But He was focused on His purpose. He was focused on love. He put His selfish desires aside and focused on a selfless ambition.

So my hike wasn't what I hoped for. I didn't stumble across a moose. I didn't explore the trail I initially planned on. I didn't spend four devoted hours in strong prayer. But I have to trust that my hike was what God intended. He let me experience His creation. He heard the prayers I offered, but He also got me to listen to Him. He taught me what I needed to be taught.


Milestones of Gratitude

Several years ago (regrettably, I did not date things at the time) a friend from church gave me the book One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp. It challenged me to count my blessings, so to speak. Gratitude, as I have blogged about several times before, has been a central focus in my life. Keeping a gratitude journal was a logical step. Ann Voskamp shares in her book about how being thankful is essential for carrying you through tough times and keeping focused on God.

I have not been diligent in writing in my journal every day. Often I get to a place in a weekend where I have a moment to breathe and catch up for several days of things to be thankful for. Tonight was one of those times. And tonight I breached the 1000 mark (1003, to be exact).

I know there has been much I have overlooked. I could easily be at 5,000 or even 10,000. I could also neglect giving thanks and spend much more time being bitter, resentful, or sad. I will continue to focus on thanksgiving as much as I can. It is good for the soul. And good for the heart.


Post Election Blues

I'm a pretty staunch independent voter. I woke up with a lot of disappointment today. And not just centered around election outcomes.

There was a lot of hate today. A lot.

This election was marked by hate. And fear. They tend to go hand in hand. One leads to the other.

Hate/fear of women. Hate/fear of Muslims. Hate/fear of Mexican immigrants.

But today he sides switched. Many of those who were voting against the hate became hate themselves.

That was the sad part of all this. Few people did not succumb to the hate.

"Fear leads to anger.
Anger leads to hate.
Hate leads to suffering."

Today at school I saw it's effects in my students. All they have taken in from the rhetoric of this election is fear and hate. My class is about 75% students of color. Our school is over 50%. There were comments about fear about how they're afraid their family or even themselves won't be able live in this country any more. They're afraid that their parents won't be able to stay married. They're afraid of threats against themselves. They're afraid that as girls they won't have a future.

Fear and hate aren't getting any of us anywhere.

The only way we as a nation can move forward is in love and kindness. To see the good in the other. To disagree without castigating. To listen. To hope.


Table Manners

I just spent a week with around sixty 4th - 6th graders at a YMCA camp in Minnesota's North Woods--just outside of the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area. It was a great week away from technology, surrounded by the beauty of lakes and woods. The students were great, but I noticed a few things that we (as a society, as parents) can work on.

1. Self-regulation. Students need to develop an awareness of how their actions effect others. Talking while one person is speaking (I notice this among adults, too), using indoor voices, words that aren't helpful.

2. Self-reliance. I don't mean this in the typical sense, but in the sense of not needing to constantly be entertained. The students did pretty well without technology for a week, but even while hiking in the splendor of the North Woods I heard a few students say, "I'm bored." This isn't a surprise to anyone who has been around children. They have a need to be entertained and lack the ability to do it on their own.

3. Table procedures. Every meal we ate was served family style. You know the one: large bowls of food on the table that get passed around as each person serves themselves with the amounts they actually think they can eat. The camp talked with the students about taking appropriate amounts of food to work toward having little food waste at the end of a meal. Students had to work on this. But I noticed as much of a struggle with knowing how to pass food around a table.

I suppose this isn't much of a surprise in a society where we're too busy with activities that we seldom have the time to eat a meal together. Even when there is time to eat together, families are smaller and we seldom eat family style where there is a need to pass dishes of food. Maybe the rare holiday with families.

I believe that this is the best place to start work. It takes intentionality, of course. And time. And work. But these things are typical for any work in a family. But in spending time together as a family, teaching children how to pass food around a table so that each member of the family receives everything, opportunities exist to talk and teach about how to handle time without entertainment and how to think about others.


Taking it Slow

"Go slow."
"Take your time."

This is some of the most admonished advice given to the dating divorce. And I understand it--or the intent behind it. Kids are in the picture. There's already been pain. No one wants more hurt.

But it's also a load of crap.

Time is not a guarantee. I just read a story by a pastor who was paged to a hospital ER during her CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) while she was in seminary. A 30-year old mother lay dead on the table while here two preschool aged sons were in the next. Last year I read another story by a Midwestern writer and volunteer EMT in his small town community about being called to the scene of a fatal accident and finding it was his sister-in-law who had only recently married his brother. I'm already 41. I hope to have a long life, but there is no guarantee. And time passes more quickly than I'd like.

And none of us (speaking in generic terms on behalf of other divorced people) honestly know what going slow means anyway--other than the well-meaning warning not to get too physical. Nor do we know what guarding our hearts means either--at least not in practical terms.

I was teach the senior high Sunday school class at church today. We talked about discipleship in the ancient Hebrew setting. If a young Jewish male wasn't chosen to become a disciple of a rabbi, he went home to learn the family trade and start a family of his own by age 14 and 15. Scholars believe that Mary was likely around that age when she and Joseph raised Jesus. Did anyone tell them to take it slow?

I think the proper aphorism is to make the most of your time and use your head as well as your heart. I know there are plenty of mistakes we make when dating after divorce. I've made several. But in relationships sometimes you have to give things a try. It's a learning process of trusting your heart and your mind--and learning when to question them.

What I'm discovering is that when things are right and meant to be--when a lot of prayer goes into the relationship and God's hand is clearly at work--that you know when and how to proceed.

There is plenty of advice out there on when to take the next steps in dating--especially with children involved. And it varies quite a bit. It's all well-intentioned. It's also frustrating and confusing as you try and figure out what's best. Sometimes you can only trust God, trust the other person, and trust yourself. Which is what a good relationship needs anyway.


Summer Reflections

Summer is one of those sacred times for me. I think it's because I grew up on a farm and my mother was a teacher. Summers were about family time. Working hard, playing hard. I love the outdoors as well, and summer is prime time to be outdoors. Hiking, biking, swimming, camping, sitting under a tree or on the grass by a lake.

This summer didn't go as planned. At the beginning of the summer I thought I'd be working at our church's Bible Camp. Within a couple days of when I was planning on leaving to head up, I learned that those plans had fallen through. I was disappointed. I love camp. It's a special place. My boys were looking forward to being up there for half of the summer as well.

But being around meant I got a chance to develop a friendship with a woman I had gone out a few times, but where the relationship had been delegated to just being friends. After not too long we clearly saw God's hand at work bringing us together, and that our friendship had become more. It's been a relationship I didn't expect but have longed for.

I also had the blessing of going with our youth group from church on a missions trip to Ecuador. It was an amazing experience. One where I saw God at work, where I learned much. I learned about hospitality and seeing the other.

The kids and I had a couple really good camping trips. We enjoyed the outdoors. Hiking, picking wild raspberries and gooseberries, swimming. They were moments where summer was at its prime, where the boys were boys. Exploring, playing, enjoying.

I had a few trips to the North Shore. It's my happy place. My spiritual place. It renews me.

I had somet time with my extended family. Watching fireworks, cheering on family runners in a 5K (including my son and nephew for their first race), sitting at a parade, playing lawn games, laughing.

I didn't get to many outdoor concerts. Only one movie in the park. Only a few bike rides.

Meanwhile school starts this week. I've already been there for staff training for two weeks. Fall will come soon. Seasons change. More opportunities to be had. Many will be missed. But I'm learning more and more to be present in the moment wherever I am, whoever I am with.

I will take the space to reflect on the blessings of each day, to make note of what I'm grateful for. I will see those around me, noting their presence. I will live, and worship, and love.


Missions Trip Overview

I recently returned from Ecuador where I was on a missions trip with our church youth group. It was been a blessing beyond words. We had to be at the MSP Airport at 3:30am on Tuesday, July 19. It was a long day. We had a long layover in Miami so we hopped on the bus to go to the beach for an hour. We arrived in Guayaquil quite late, and stayed at a hotel near the airport. The staff from Merge Ministries (a part of the Evangelical Covenant Church that helps facilitate missions trips) met us at the airport. The next morning they briefed us on our schedule and things to remember. Then we headed to the church and school where we would be spending most of our time.

When we arrived we were welcomed with an hour long assembly by the schol we were serving at during the day. They performed dances, sang songs, led us in worship, and treated us like celebrities. Students would come up to us with paper and pens and ask for our autographs. Some would even have us write our names on their arms.

During the day part of our group leads worship services and part goes into classrooms to help students practice and learn English. Some students knew English fairly well and wanted to talk and ask questions. Some didn't know it at all and didn't want to try. Most had some interest in interacting with us regardless of their proficiency in the language. Most of our group, however, only knew the rudimentary basics of Spanish (some knew none), so at times communication could be an issue. Still, we usually found that we could communicate far beyond what words allowed.

We stayed in groups with local families. Three of the high school guys and I stayed in an apartment building where our hosts lived. We had our own flat. We missed out on living with our family, but it was also nice to have our own space and be able to go to bed when needed. Hot water is a rarity in most homes. Toilet paper cannot be flushed into the sewers. The water isn't safe to drink for North American stomachs. The windows don't have screens and parts of the apartment are open to the outside or hallway. Doors are metal and have several heavy bolts. Cats roam the sidewalks outside at night and pigeons do during the day. We had a lizard show up in our bathroom the first morning. And we thoroughly loved our "Ecuadorian Bachelor Pad." 

The first two evenings we went into neighborhood churches and ran outreach programs for children. We sang some songs, acted out the Good Samaritan, memorized a verse in Spanish, made some crafts and played some games. We had initially been told that we would be doing three nights of this as a whole group. We ended up having to split up our group into two and doing two churches each night. It wasn't what we had planned for, but flexibility is a needed quality in Ecuador, and things still went well. The youth did great in reaching out to the kids who came.

On Friday the students at the school had assemblies to celebrate three upcoming holidays over the course of July 24-25: a celebration of Armada (defeating Peru), the birthday of liberator Simon Bolivar, and the founding of Guayaquil. The youngest students dressed up in traditional outfits (the girls often in dresses that reflected the pattern on the city flag) and performed skits or sang songs. The junior and senior high students had a pageant to vote for Miss Guayaquil, enacted skits about the founding of the city and traditions, and had another pageant of outfits made from recycled material. That evening we played games with the youth group from the church.

On Saturday the local youth group joined us as we boarded busses to drive two hours to Salinas to play at the beach that day. The students from both countries got along together remarkably. At this time of year the water in the Pacific was much colder than what we experienced in the Atlantic.

On Sunday we attended the two morning services at the church. The Holy Spirit was very present. Our group led a few worship songs and Pastor Mark preached the sermon. Right after church we left with our host family. They had a family obligation that day that we were invited to. It ended up being our host father's parent's 55th Wedding Anniversary. We drove out to the wealthy suburbs where his brother (a doctor) had a home. The parents and along with the brother and his wife renewed their wedding vows. We were welcomed as part of the family and enjoyed time with them.

There was no school or work on Monday because of the holiday, so we had the day to tour the town with our family. We went to the Park de las Iguanas were scores of lizards roamed freely. Then we went to Malecon 2000, a park that stretched along the riverfront. We visited two soccer museums, hiked to the top of Santa Anna where we climbed the lighthouse and saw 400 year old houses and cannons that were used to defend the city from pirates, and visited a firefighting museum. The brother-in-law of our host dad picked us up and took us to their home where we played soccer with some neighborhood kids, swam in the pool, and enjoyed a meal and their hospitality.

Tuesday was our last day at the school. We did some English classes and the youth did three assemblies teaching the students about Minnesota life and culture, focused around the four seasons. Before the final assembly, the school and church gave us a farewell. It was very touching. That night they decorated tables and chairs in linens with gold trim for our supper. After a reflective debriefing, we headed to the hotel we stayed at for the first night and had a short night's sleep as we had to be ready to leave for the airport by 3:30am the next day. After hours in the airport and on airplanes and delays of our final flight, I was finally home by 1am Wednesday night/Thursday morning.

The trip was a huge blessing. I was blessed by getting to know people from church better. Blessed by the guys in my group. Blessed by the hospitality of our hosts. Blessed by the welcome and sending off from the school. Blessed by the worship there. Blessed by the ministry we got to be a part of. Blessed by the people.



My oldest turned 12 this week. We went camping. He wanted to explore a new place, so we went down to Whitewater State Park. We got, set up camp, and explored. We did some hiking up the bluffs, got really hot and went for a swim.

We had some rain after supper (thankfully the storms held off). We almost always have rain when we camp. My youngest dislikes camping because of the rain we always get. But this time it was a nice light rain. We played bocce in it. And they slept though the night well.

The next day we drove down to another state park. We checked out Mystery Cave and historic Forestville. It was fun to see the boys ask questions of the naturalist in the cave and to interact with the historic actors who took the boys back to 1899. I enjoyed watching them ask questions, answer questions and pretend they lived back in that time.

After playing some molkky (a Finnish lawn game) after supper, we all sat around the campfire and drew pictures of our campsite (unarranged--we just all ended up drawing the tent at different points). While the oldest read in the tent, the youngest and I took a walk and looked at the stars and fireflies.

On our last day we took another hike. It was supposed to be a short hike before lunch. It took us over two hours. We took a hike up to inspiration point for the view. Then we continued back on the trail we were on because there were lots of wild raspberry bushes (and a few gooseberries). The boys really enjoyed fresh fruit and ate their fill.

They were happy to get home after a couple nights away (we had only been home two nights before that after a 4th of July trip to be with family in Iowa). I wasn't as excited to be back. It was nice to be in the wilderness, seeing the stars at night, away from traffic. It was nice to have the time with the boys, making memories (I'm about to go into a long stretch without them around). Life is good when camping.


A Wetland Walk in April

I abandon the city in search
Of a hillside forested in birch;
But find myself in a marshy wetland,
Ground seldom dirt, mostly sand
And where the land changes
So does the scenery and vegetation:
Fewer willows and more evergreen,
Basswood, larch, birch to be seen
When the path goes from sand to soil.
The tiniest of purple flowers
Polka-dot the land in places.
Reeds and sedges fill the open spaces.
Canada geese take wing;
The redwing blackbirds sing.
I happen upon a pool with
Several fallen logs upon which
Upwards of two score turtles bask
Until I walk close by
Then they all dive
Into the safety of murky waters.
Spring peepers sing their chorus;
Bullfrogs croak along the shoreline.
Cranes circle overhead, trumpeting their cry.
Shot gun shell casings litter the ground;
Red, yellow, teal, even purple, abound.
I want for shade, as the day is hot,
But leaves are just budding, so shade is not
To be found upon the dusty, dry land,
And when I try to sit or even stand
For a short moment, ticks emerge
And crawl from my socks to exposed skin
Upon my legs seeking a place to dig in
And feast upon a meal of life-giving blood.
Dragonflies zoom around, also looking to feed
But not on me--I am not what they need.
But though it is early spring, insects are about.
Even the butterflies flutter
And a bumblebee buzzes.
This place did not have the hills I desired,
Yet still my walk has made me tired
And yet renewed and refreshed
And feeling wonderfully blessed
To be able to experience solitude
And yet I was not alone at all
But surrounded by life and the presence
Of the One who created it all.