Year End

2009 is rapidly coming to a close, just a few hours left. Every news provider likes to do a rundown of events from the past year. We remember the passing of people like Michael Jackson, Oral Roberts, Ted Kennedy, John Updike, Paul Harvey, Walter Cronkite, Farrah Fawcett and many others.

We remember (or are often reminded of stories we thought were dead) of events like the Presidential Inauguration, the miracle on the Hudson, the continuing wars overseas, the birth of octuplets, pirates seizing ships off the African coast, cash for clunkers, Supreme Court Judge Sotomayor, the adultery committed by governors and golfers, the resignation of an Alaskan governor, the freeing of journalists held captive in North Korea, Jaycee Dugard found after 18 years in captivity, health care debates, the ever-looming economy, H1N1, the massacre at Ft. Hood and many other events both local and abroad.

Many things we forget about until we get reminded of them in a look back at the year gone by. Many received far more attention than they deserved--and many events that are noteworthy globally get neglected in the US.

I'm reminded of a line from a poem by C. T. Studd. He penned, "Only one life, ’twill soon be past, Only what’s done for Christ will last."

2009 may be a year some will miss; many will be ready to move on to a new year. No matter what circumstances come our way, we have the opportunity to live life to the fullest (Jesus offered us abundant life as recorded in John 10:10). Attitude is a choice that given for the sake of make our lives better--as well as the lives of those around us. Resolutions will likely lead to disappointment down the road. Only being transformed daily by the Holy Spirit will get results.

Take time to reflect on the things you need to learn from this past year, on the things you wanted to accomplish but didn't, and especially on the ways God was present throughout your year. Keep in mind His promised goodness and faithfulness for the year ahead and enter it with gusto, resolved to make the most of each day, making a difference that will impact eternity.

Many blessings upon you in 2010.



Yesterday the boys and I went to the Bakken Museum, an old mansion that now houses the world's only medical electricity museum. It was founded by Earl Bakken, the inventor of the pacemaker. The boys are a little young to care about the history of electricity and electromagnetism, but the museum had a lot of hands-on displays and exhibits, so they enjoyed the time there.

One exhibit was a 12-minute multi-media presentation of Frankenstein. Nils was a little scared (mostly of the thunder and lightning), but they had fun. Anders enjoyed having confetti dance in his hand with static electricity (I don't know who the girl is in the picture--we just thought her hair stood out better than Anders' did).


The Scandal of This Day

We made it out to to a Christmas Eve service last night at Emmaus Road Covenant Church--just down the road from us. The message touched on something I've been thinking of lately: the scandal of Christmas. It's something difficult to wrap my mind around. God came to earth, clothed in human flesh, for the sole purpose of expressing His never-ending, never-changing love for us. The Creator of all the universe, the King of kings, was born not in a palace or even a temple of the gods. His parents weren't royalty or even of any importance. His lineage was of the line of King David, yes, but it also contained a prostitute, a incestuous relationship, a Moabite (who tainted the bloodline) and plenty of murderers and other sinners.

The King of kings was instead born in a barn (most likely a dark, dank cave) to unwed parents. He was surrounded by animals, his bed was a feed trough and he was miles away from home. His heavenly birth announcement wasn't sent to the governing officials or the elite. It went to shepherds out in the field in the middle of the night.

As the speaker at church last night made the point: the Light of the world came into a lightless cave, but the cave could not contain the Light (just as the Easter tomb cold not contain the Light).

In every major religion, the gods are untouchable. But on Christmas we celebrate that God came to earth to walk among us, to be one of us. He came in poverty, in an occupied nation, amidst suffering people. He would know our struggles and pains.

That is our God. That is Christmas. A celebration, a mystery, a scandal.


The Snowstorm

We've had nearly a foot of snow over the past 24 hours with more on the way. They're saying we could accumulate 20 inches by Saturday. But it's a beautiful snowfall: light and fluffy, the light reflects off it illuminating the night sky. It's ruined plenty of people's travel plans, but we're enjoying it:

A Holiday Juxtaposition

My devotional reading lately is nearing the end of the Gospel of Matthew. Caiaphas and the other religious leaders have begun their plotting to do away with Jesus. The woman has poured perfume over Jesus' head, preparing him for burial. Judas has thirty new pieces of silver in his pocket. Golgotha is approaching.

It's interesting going through these events during Christmastide. Bethlehem is approaching. For that tiny baby whose birth we are about to commemorate, His destination was already written down in the prophecies of old. The manifestation of God's love for us--God Himself incarnate, dwelling among us, lowly and humbly--will one day experience one of the most cruel and brutal forms of execution ever invented.

Jesus came to us, born in a creche (which many say was probably a cave of sorts), lying in a feed trough, straw for bedding, lowly shepherd for visitors. He would end life similarly: laid to rest in a tomb (another cave in a hillside), swaddled in cloths, lowly women for visitors. And His entire life was about love. All He did was done in love. Indeed, He was love made flesh. What other gift can we ask for?


Christmas Memories and Traditions

The Christmas season began with the Christmas program at church. I remember being terrified of being up front when I was young. I remember learning a few songs in Swedish from the older men in our congregation (Julen ar inne). After the program we always received a brown paper lunch bag filled with peanuts, an apple and either M&Ms or a Hershey's bar.

My family almost always gathered with my dad's side of the family on Christmas Eve. Always at my grandparents' house. There were certain things we almost always had: my grandma's Swedish rye bread, dup i grytan ("dip in the pot": basically the juice from the meat used to dip the bread in--it's not a major Swedish tradition at all, but it was something I looked forward to having), lutefisk, homemade potato bologna, roast beef, an assortment of salads, spritz cookies and a bowl of nuts. My grandfather always read the Christmas story (Luke's version) to us all before we opened presents. My grandmother always had a bag of presents in her bedroom she'd remember after everything was opened. After it was all opened, my grandfather would pass out an envelope to each of us (usually starting with the youngest) which contained a crisp bill from the bank (the amount increased over the years). On year my younger brother and cousin closest in age received Dukes of Hazard underoos which they modeled for everyone. Visits from my California aunts and uncles were always special. Occasionally one of my great uncles would dress up as Santa and pay us a visit. I remember once when I was quite young thinking I saw Rudolph's red nose as we were driving home (I suppose it could have been an airplane in retrospect).

My home church rotated between a 5pm Christmas Eve Service, an 11pm candlelight service on Christmas Eve and a 7am Julotta (Swedish traditional Christmas service) on Christmas morning. All the family would go (usually before or after the Christmas celebration with my dad's family. All the extended relatives on my dad's side would be at the church service (it was a small church in a small town and a lot of my grandfather's siblings lived in the area). The service always ended with the lights being turned down and each of us lighting a candle, passing the light down the pew row as we sang Silent Night.

On Christmas Day we would usually drive down to Des Moines (about a three hour drive) for Christmas with my mother's family at my grandmother's house. When I was young, no gas stations were open on Christmas Day, so my father had to make sure the car had a full tank before then. Since gas stations weren't open, there weren't bathrooms available on the drive either. That problem was more easily solved for us boys. My grandmother insisted presents were opened one at a time so that she could see what each person received. She always had envelopes for us as well--hers were placed on the boughs of the tree. My grandmother had a good hill behind her house. We always looked forward to sledding if there was enough snow.

My dad often left out a bale of hay on Christmas Eve for Santa's reindeer. He always gave the livestock plenty of extra feed that night, too. I remember our stockings containing such things as Fisher Price Little People (we called them Kiddles for some reason), Mr. Bubble and peanuts. We children were always the first awake and we rushed downstairs to see the newly arrived presents from Santa.


Christmas with the Wenells

After Anders was done with school on Friday, we headed down to Iowa for Christmas with my family. We all gathered at my brother's house near Dallas Center, Iowa (the one house that has enough room for all of us). We arrived in time for supper (good timing on our part). Afterward we piled all of us into vehicles (5 people each in 3 cars) and drove to downtown Des Moines to see Jolly Holiday Lights in waterworks park. It was three miles of Christmas lights--some of them in impressive displays. They gave you some "3-D" glasses to use. 3-D was a bit of a misnomer, but they were fun. One of them formed a snowman around each light bulb.

On Saturday morning we opened presents. It's fun to see the excitement on their faces. Afterward we bundled up and went outside for some sledding and fun in the snow. That, of course, was followed by rest time. Climbing up those hills pulling a sled (and sometimes a kid) is tiring. That evening, my parents took us all out to America's Incredible Pizza Company. It's one of those pizza buffet places (with the sort of food you expect from a buffet) with all sorts of games and activities (and the prizes you'd expect). This is something they would have never done for us when we were little. Things sure change when grandkids are involved. The boys haven't really played arcade games before (for that matter, neither have I much). They had a good time--especially since you practically get a ticket for a prize no matter how well you do. The go-karts were a highlight.

On Sunday we all went to church together and tried to get my brother's house cleaned up some. We stopped in Des Moines on the way home to go swimming with my sister at her apartment. It had been a while since the boys had swam in a pool (we usually go to a lake), so they enjoyed the time (and we enjoyed the exercise after all the food consumed over the weekend). We all had a great time together. It's nice to have a family that gets along well together (oh yes, we have our dysfunctionality and issues, but for the most part we can have a good time). And now to rest up and recuperate for the next family gathering . . .


Emails to a Christian Nation

Every once in a while my wife and I will receive some of those forwarded emails. You know the ones. They come uninvited--usually because someone thinks they have a thought that everyone should believe in or something cute that's supposed to pick you up or something that's supposed to be inspirational (am I sounding too cynical?). They've become the technological equivalent of a chain letter. They may not promise you money for sending it to your friends, but sometimes they tug at your conscience, saying that if you believe in something then you must forwarded it to everyone you can.

We've seen a couple lately that are in the same vein but from different directions. The fist is the one that warns you about all Muslims, because the Islamic faith calls all followers to kill any infidels.

The second one urges all Christians to fight for America staying a Christian nation. It became especially popular after President Obama reportedly said in a speech in Turkey that "We are not a Christian nation."

Before I respond, can I point out that if we're supposed to do all we can to help America remain a Christian nation, how is that any different that Muslims fighting for Islam?

In order to believe that all Muslims are on a jihad against Christians, you have to live in such a way that you have not every met a Muslim and spent any meaninful time with them, getting to know them. And I know that there are places where you may never come in contact with a Muslim. There aren't any that I'm aware of in my neighborhood. So I don't permit myself to make generalizations of a people group that I have no contact with. My wife works with several Muslims and can attest that they're not all bent on killing Christians. In fact, none of the ones she's met are extremist in any way.

I also know that America can in no way--nor should--be labeled a "Christian nation." Yes, it's true that many of the founding fathers were believers, and they founded America with many guiding Christian principles. We may be a nation where historically the majority of its occupants have been Christians. But if we are a Christian nation, then Christianity has failed miserably. Poverty, homelessness and starvation are everywhere. Orphans are neglected, the unborn are being murdered and we're at war. America is very good at looking at for itself, but I see little of it loving its neighbors. The church has lost its influence and its prominence. And, as we have more and more people from different cultures and faiths in our country, the more we are a reflection of the whole world.

Christianity is not relegated to geo-political boundaries or systems. It is personal. It is communal. It is transformational. It is salvational. It is redemptive. It is about grace, righteousness and peace. Above all else it is about love. There is little in that list that is the job of a nation. Those come from being a follower of Jesus Christ.

Those emails will keep circulating, I know full well. One blog post is not going to change that--just as one email is not going to influence me to change my beliefs. But maybe it can spur some dialogue. Discussing these things with others is much more productive than filling up someone's inbox with propaganda. I've never encountered propaganda that comes with love; I believe, though, that we followers of Christ are to speak the truth in love. Let's give it a try.

Scenes from the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory


Thrid Sunday in Advent

The third Sunday in Advent traditionally focuses on Joy: specifically the joy found in the coming of Jesus. One of my favorite Christmas movies is Elf. Buddy the Elf approaches Christmas with such joy. Everything about it excites him. And when he is working at the department store and hears that Santa is coming, he joy overflows. "SANTA'S COMING! I KNOW HIM! I KNOW HIM!"

Isn't that the same kind of joy we should be experiencing at Christmas? Nay, not just at Christmas, but everyday? Jesus is coming--and we know Him! Sometimes all the cultural, family and personal traditions and demands placed on us during the holidays drain us rather than bring us joy. We need to develop habits that let us revel in the joy of Christmas. Making Christmas cookies with the kids can be a time of joy. Watching holiday events through the eyes of a child can bring joy. Taking time to sit and marvel at the scandal of the Christmas story--that God sent His Son to earth for you and me--should be the root of our joy.

May you find the joy in this time of year, awaiting the coming of our King and Savior.

Tiger Woods and the Beloved of God

Pastor Efrem asked a very poignant question today: Has the fullness of Christ is impacted the limitations of who you are? Recent "events" have reminded us once again that celebrity, status and athletic ability can't help us overcome our limitations. We need something bigger, something outside of ourselves.

The Tiger Woods scandal of the past weeks have have reminded us that we all have our weaknesses that we can't overcome on our own. (I won't get into how one man's affairs became the top story in the news, despite everything else going on in the world.) No matter how much we achieve in life, we have our limitations.

Without being too terse or religious in saying this, Christ is the answer. Pastor Efrem suggested that in order to overcome our limitations that we need to find our identity in Christ. The angels told the shepherd that Jesus is our Savior. That's where we must start: we must recognize that we are inneed of a Savior, and that person is Jesus. God sent His Son long before we came on the scene--He knew back them that we would be in need of a Savior, that we wouldn't be able to do it on our own.

When Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the temple to be dedicated, Simeon told them that Jesus was the Light. He calls us to be in the Light and of the Light. When we are in the Light, we see more of Christ and less of us.

When Jesus was baptized by His cousin John, God Himself told those present that Jesus was His Beloved. And so are we.

Tiger Woods isn't the only one with indiscretions, shortcomings and sins. We all have them. His wife has them, his mistresses have them, I have them. Success, fame, money, ability or power aren't going to change that. I am a sinner, saved by grace--a child of God, one of His beloved, created with a specific purpose and with specific gifts.


Open Arms

Anders has this thing he likes to do in his bedtime routine: it usually happens after we're done reading books, doing our devotion and saying prayers, when it's time for hugs and kisses. He'll say, "Just a minute . . . . I forgot something." Then he'll leave the room and come running back, jumping into my "unsuspecting" arms.

Nils has picked up on it lately. He's not as subtle about it, but it's still heart-warming just the same. They did it a few times during a commercial during Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer tonight.

In some ways it reminds me of Jesus' parable of the Lost (Prodigal) Son (not that I'm equating myself with the father in that story, or that my boys are prodigals). I just see God welcoming his children in the same way that I wait for my boys: with arms wide open, awaiting their arrival, smiling when they come.

I also suspect that God loves it when we come running to him like my boys do to me. They come with a huge smile on their face, giggling as they leap at me. I have a hard time getting beyond my reserved, Scandinavian upbringing to picture myself doing that with God. But the image is desirable. I want to be that kid, running with abandon into the arms of God. I know I can, and I know He'll be waiting for me.


Things You Won't See at Gimbel's Department Store

Yesterday one of Beth's college roommates came to visit us on her day off. We had thought about seeing the Holidazzle Parade again, but decided it was way too cold to sit outside for it. So we went downtown to Macy's to take in their Santaland display. It's one whole floor of Christmas-themed animatronics. This year it was "A Day in the Life of an Elf."

Nils was in awe the whole way through. It was fun just to watch him looking at each display. They sat down at the end to write a letter to Santa. Nils' letter read "N-i-l-s." He wrote it himself. Anders' said "I hope your elves do a good job."

When I was young we did a yearly pilgrimage to see Santa's Castle in Storm Lake, Iowa. They had department store animatronics from the 1940s through the 1960s. This was my first time to Macy's. If Christmas movies have taught us anything, it's that going to Macy's is a Christmas tradition. They did do a good job with the display--I'll give them that. And their Mrs. Claus and Santa were pretty good, too.

But personally, I felt some of the elves they employ were downright scary.


Snow in the City

Yesterday we received our first big snowfall of the winter--we hadn't seen any on the ground since October. We received around 6-8 inches. We were on the north end of the storm--it was much worse in Iowa. We had it light in many respects. I'm not used to experiencing snowfalls in the city yet. It's beautiful in many ways. There's a beautiful glow at night that the city lights create when the snow is dropping. It's a lot nicer to watch the snow fall that way rather than just seeing darkness.

We also miss out on the wind. Mostly. There were drifts but they weren't as prolific as we used to experience in the country. Which is fine. That means we miss out on some of the wind chill as well. It was still cold enough that I didn't feel like bundling up the boys to take them sledding yet. I knew Nils would not be excited about having snow fly in his face.

Winter in the city also means that Anders doesn't get to experience the thrill of having a snow day. It would take a large dumping of snow to cause the school district to close. Which means he also won't experience the disappointment of having to make up a day of school later.



I was preparing some sourdough this morning to bake. I had it going in the KitchenAid. The last time I made bread I had resolved to knead it by hand instead of using the mixer to do it for me. I was realizing as I stood there, holding the mixer so it didn't vibrate off the counter top and watching the dough whack the sides of the bowl as it spun around that I was missing out.

My wife and I have tried to embrace simple living for our family as much as we can, trying not to complicate our lives (and our home) too much. I was realizing that while using the KitchenAid is an easy way to mix the dough, it's not the simple way. I was missing out on the exercise I get by kneading by hand (and adding to the electric bill instead). I was turning homemade food into processed food instead of being more connected to the process.

It's easier for me to complain about the busyness of life. But it's more rewarding to make the effort to live more simply. The choices we make do make a difference. I believe God created our lives to be full, but that means we're to live them fully, not to make them more complicated.

And so this morning, after first being stubborn to my wife's suggestion to knead the dough by hand, I sucked up my pride and did what I should have done to start with.


St. Nicholas Day

When Anders was little we talked about how we wanted to do something different with our family at Christmas. Something that highlighted the meaning of it more--not making Christmas a drudgery. Something that wouldn't develop a sense of greed with the boys where the would be disappointed with presents they didn't get instead of what they have, where they focus more on making a list of things they want instead of thinking about those who don't have anything.

We settled on celebrating the model of St. Nicholas instead of Santa Claus, so a couple years ago we started honoring St. Nicholas Day and not having a visit from Santa. So on St. Nicholas Day (December 6th), we share the story of who Nicholas was, how he loved Jesus and how he gave to those in need because of that love. The boys each get one present. They each have made up a shoe box for Operation Christmas Child. In the future we hope to incorporate some sort of family service project (possibly serving at a soup kitchen on Christmas Day). At Christmas the boys get one more present from us and some small things in their stocking. They will remind us that Jesus is the greatest gift of all.
The new challenge this year is teaching them to be respectful of others' beliefs. We've had to coach them not to tell others that Santa isn't real. And we're in a community where there are other holidays celebrated by people (they don't even bother trying to do a holiday concert or anything at Anders' school; I think because it's so much work to incorporate all the celebrations of the different families this time of year).
Today, it was nice that St. Nicholas Day fell on a weekend. After rest time the boys came out of their room and we played a St. Nicholas game: each person took turns rolling a dice and with each number their was a different part of Nicholas to draw (head, beard, eyes, robe, miter, staff). We made some ornaments to give to others. We shared the story of St. Nicholas again (I got games, craft ideas and stories from The St. Nicholas Center). The boys got their presents. Then, since both presents were building sets, they took time to put them together. We finished off with some popcorn and nachos while watching a Veggie Tales video (unfortunately we didn't get the new St. Nicholas one yet).
Today is the 2nd Sunday of Advent. Traditionally the second candle is the candle of peace. Part of why we try and celebrate Christmas differently is that we want it to be a peaceful time of year, rather than a stressful and hectic holiday that ends up being resented rather than cherish. There is still busyness for us, but it tends to be more meaningful and fun rather than something we have to do. In the midst of all the parties, preparation and general hecticness, may you experience the peace that a small child, God incarnate, desired for all people to experience in Him.

First Communion

I remember the first time I took communion. I was at an Evangelical Free Church winter retreat at Twin Lakes Bible Camp. I was in Junior High. I was supposed to have gone to camp a week or so before with my church (it was our home camp), but the weather was bad and camp was canceled. So I ended up going with the Free Church where I went to youth group. On Sunday morning they had communion, and I felt ready to participate. I'm not sure why I did it then and not before, but I guess I was ready to make the decision to do it.

Anders took communion today at church for the first time. It was a little unplanned (mainly because I was forgetting it was happening today). He had commented to Beth a few weeks ago that he would like to partake of communion sometime. She talked with him about it--he knew what it meant and why we did it--and asked if he had accepted Jesus' forgiveness and decided to follow Him--he said he had prayed that at some point. He knows Jesus is God's Son who came to earth to show us God's way of love and died on the cross so that our sins might be forgiven and we might live with God. He gets that. At least as best as a five-year old can--which I think is as good as any of us can.

So when it was time today, he asked if he could do it. We briefly talked about what the bread and the juice meant. Our church is fairly big, so they get the pre-wafers and we dip them in a chalice with the juice (his assessment afterward was that it was "crunchy."

In some churches the first communion is a big deal. In some, it's not noticed at all. It all kind of just happened (I almost hesitated doing it because Beth was in a Sunday School room prepping for the lesson, so she wasn't there with us). But we've talked about it, and he gets it, and we pray for him and his spiritual journey ahead. Sometimes things with faith just happen. I'm not sure Anders has a specific day when any of us can say he was "saved." He just has grown up hearing about Jesus and His love for us. He's always known he answers and the stories. He gets it. And, no, he's not perfect--he's got a lot of growth ahead of him. But so do I. Salvation isn't an instant transformation but a daily decision to be renewed in Christ. It's a blessing to see that he's making those decisions already.


A Holidazzled Evening

Today we took our shoe boxes full of gifts for a couple young boys to the Operation Christmas Child center to be sent somewhere around the world. It's part of our focus on Christmas not being about what we get (but there'll be more on that tomorrow).

After an early supper, we bundled up and headed downtown to take the boys to the Holidazzle Parade. Believe it or not, I had not spent time downtown since I was ordained there several years ago (almost 5?--Beth reminded me it was over 5. We saw the restaurant we had a Father's Day meal in the month before Anders was born). I tend to not have reason to go there and generally hate downtown traffic. Though, I do plan to explore more sometime in the future. We're hoping to get back to see the Macy's Christmas display soon.

Today's high was 27, so it was a cold evening after the sun was down. The last light parade we had been at was The Spirit of The Sea parade in White Rock, BC. That was in the summer. We had to wait until well after 10 for the sun to be down enough for the lights to be fun. Here the sun was down by 4:30, but it was cold. Only in Minnesota can you do a parade outside in December and have people excited about it.

The theme was fairy tales/nursery rhymes/children's stories (with the exception of a Joe Mauer snowman--he's a baseball player for the Twins). It was fairly well done: Pinocchio, The Wizard of Oz, Captain Hook (Peter Pan was mysteriously absent), Hansel and Gretel, etc. Though the floats were spaced out a minute or so apart as each one had to wait for traffic lights to change going down Nicollet Mall. Nils didn't want to be there at first, but by the time the floats started coming, he was brimming with excitement (almost enough to keep him warm).