More than Gold Jewelry

Something struck me in church this past Sunday. It hit me before the sermon even began--I think the thought may have come out of a song. Maybe it was the jewelry someone was wearing. It was probably connected to something my wife asked a few weeks ago: when did the cross become a pretty, gold item instead of an instrument of death?

Christ told His followers to pick up their cross and follow Him. For many people, that has become hanging a 24 karat gold chain around their neck. The prosperity gospel being preached reinforces that for us: if we follow Jesus, we'll get the gold.

When Jesus told us to pick up our cross, He knew full well that the cross was a cruel instrument of torture and suffering. He also knew it was the way He was called to give God's love to each of us. The cross isn't about us getting wealthy; we're called to the cross to love others as Jesus did. The way of suffering is to bring love.

The sermon on Sunday was a strong reminder that we are called to love each other--that being a neighbor is an activity, not just a state of proximity to someone. We are told to not love with words or tongue, but to love with actions and in truth. Sometimes--maybe more often than we realize--that means we need to give up somethings: time, our comfort, our own agenda, even our money and possessions.

Christ's call to follow Him is a call to share in His sufferings. Don't let anyone convince you otherwise. He calls us to weigh the cost of following Him. But the way of the cross is also the way of love. Love for God, love from God, love for us, love for our neighbors. Sounds like a way to make life a little better for everyone--even if there is some suffering along the way.


Happy New Year!

If your church (or you personally) follow the church calendar, you're aware that today was the first Sunday in Advent (of course, a few branches of the church are on a slightly different calendar). Advent actually begins the new year on the church calendar (happy new year!). And we begin by awaiting the coming of the Christ (which is what Advent means). Our church doesn't typically mention the church calendar, but our family tries to take some note of it.

We're still developing our traditions (some years the tree doesn't go up until mid-December or later, some years its up when Advent begins), but we try to make Advent one of our traditions. We try to follow a family advent devotional to go through each day and talk some about the waiting for Jesus to come (not only as a baby at Christmas, but to come again, and to come into our hearts). One year we had an advent wreath that we lit each night with devotions. Traditions aren't always good--they can become too legalistic, doing them just for the sake of doing them--but they can also be very beneficial in helping you focus on the deeper meaning behind things.

Typically, the first Sunday in Advent focuses on Hope. Hope accompanies faith. We hope for the fulfillment of what we believe. We hope for the return of our Savior. We hope for a new heaven and earth where sin is completely washed away. We hope. And we cling to that hope.

When Mary was told she was carrying the Son of God, I'm sure she spent months simply hoping that He would be born healthy and well. She hoped that she could fulfill God's plan for her to be His servant. She hoped that Joseph would stick by her through an awkward situation. As we await Christmas day, what are your hopes? For me, I hope to be drawn deeper into my relationship with God. And the promise of the coming baby is a good reminder of that: His name shall be called Emmanuel, which means "God with us." God desires to have an intimate relationship with us. That is the main reason He sent His Son--to show us, in the flesh, how much He loves us.


Thankful, Part IV

I was reminded by a friend and former co-worker today of a saying we used to share at the Bible camp I worked at: "gratitude evaporates frustration." It's true--when you focus on the things you have to be thankful about, any frustration you have in life goes away.

The opposite can also be true: frustration evaporates gratitude. The more we focus on what we don't have, have people mistreat us or what we consider to be "injustices" in our lives, the more our spirit of joy and thanksgiving gets replaced by anger and frustration.

So, be grateful--even for small, everyday things. Here's some of the things we're thankful for around our house:

Tom & Jerry cartoons (Anders)
Sofas and beds with bouncy springs (Nils)
A lost hand-knit hat that was found (Beth)
Swiss cheese and smoked gouda (me)
The Muppet Show
Cary Grant & Audrey Hepburn
Anders' enjoyment of school
Nils' recognizing the alphabet
homemade bread
The Como Park Zoo (free!)
The free museum passes at the library


Thankfulness, Part III

More things I'm grateful for:
  • lightly falling snow on crisp winter day
  • the rustle of autumn leaves under feet
  • the smell of fresh spring rain
  • refreshing lakes in the summer
  • fresh raspberries and strawberries
  • new books to read
  • stories to tell
  • supplies to be able to paint and draw
  • being able to have some time camping this summer
  • kayaking at Covenant Park
  • God's love and grace
  • accountability partners
  • a space online to share with others
  • morning walks around the pond


Teenage Mutant Ninja Jesus

A few minutes ago Anders put a yellow blanket around him with a blue scarf around his chest like a sash and said, "Look, I'm God." I said, "Why, yes, you do look a little like Jesus" (trying to correct him subtly and avoid a lightning bolt of blasphemy). His next step was to look for a red marker to put on his hands and feet. He just had me come look at him in--he was standing on the edge of the tub in the bathroom. "Doesn't it look like I'm rising into Heaven?" (He's suffering from some allergies, so his eyes look like he's been through quite the ordeal. Currently he's drawing with a marker on a wrapping paper tube. I believe he just said, "I"m going to make it into a ninja stick," and, "Nils, go get my Ninja Turtle undies." (Did Jesus wear boxers or briefs?) I guess we'll just wait this one out and see where they go with it. It could be quite the afternoon . . .


Thankful, Part II

Tonight was our church's annual meeting. During the budget part the statistics for our tithing were pointed out: stuff like how 3 families are contributing nearly 20% of the budget and how if all the member households tithed at the poverty line, it would be a huge jump in the budget's income. Truthfully, our family budget would cover more if we didn't give 10% to church. It's a big chunk of money for what we're dealing with right now. But we've always made it a priority to tithe. I was reflecting recently on how we would go beyond our tithe if God provided us with a job with a more substantial income. He hasn't seen fit to do that yet--no matter how much I try to convince Him that it'd be in the best interest of our church's budget as well as some other ministries.

Yet, even though we'd like things to be different with our income, we know we're in God's hands. Just this weekend, our neighbors let us borrow their old desktop computer (indefinitely) so that Beth can use it to do practice tests on for the GED (which isn't usable on her Mac). Another friend of hers gave her a box of some food she had picked up at Costco. Along with a membership for the store. Another reminder that God is in control. And that we need to be humble enough to accept His provision in whatever generous forms it may take. The weekend before Beth was given the gift of a massage and some time at a retreat center.

Among other things, I'm also thankful for:
Nils' hip hop dancing
the way Anders makes up songs
my wife's creativity
the farmer's market
a tiny space for my own produce
free movies from the library
having a nature center within walking distance


Fresh Farm Air

I heard about Gale Woods Farm a few weeks ago from a friend of church and have been wanting to go out and see it sometime. We took advantage of the gorgeous November weather (under the assumption that there won't be much more of it) and took a drive this afternoon. It's a pretty cool place--they run it as sustainable as possible and sell the meat, eggs, produce and wool they produce; they also run a lot of classes through their folk school on working with wool, cooking from the garden, composting, raising chickens and the like. It's a great program to have going for kids from the city (and even from rural areas anymore) to learn where food actually comes from, as well as teaching how to be more sustainable in agriculture--the way our it was done a century ago. They had a "maze" through the round bales, but the highlight was running across them and jumping across them. (The exercise ended with a nap for one of the boys on the ride home!) The fresh air was good for us, too.


Thankful, Part I

I can get into a rut of envy--focusing on the things I wish I had in life, rather than what I do have. And I hate falling into that mode. My best solution is to make myself a list of things I am thankful for--it also helps me remember God's faithfulness. Some of my friends are posting things they're thankful for daily on Facebook. It's a great exercise. So, here's my start--the basics:
  • A loving, gracious and forgiving wife
  • Two healthy boys
  • A roof over my head
  • A paid-off car that runs well
  • Good, supportive friends--both new and old
  • A Bible-teaching, God-worshiping, diverse church
  • Good neighbors
  • Parks and playgrounds
  • Our extended family
  • A cupboard and refrigerator that never gets to the point of being empty


Green with Irony

I don't watch Jay Leno much, but I happened to have it on tonight while I was painting (I know--how inspiring for art, eh?). Apparently he does this segment where he has guest stars drive a Ford hybrid car, trying to beat previous guests' times. They do two laps--the first one they drive the course as fist as possible, the second lap they throw in some obstacles. The irony is that while they're promoting this environmentally safe car, they shoot a bunch of streamers out as part of the obstacles. Maybe they recycle those streamers; it's possible. Maybe they also recycle the Al Gore and Ed Begley Jr. cardboard cutouts as well. Possibly they turn those into pulp to produce some biofuel that runs the car.


Of Icy Ponds And Chilly Nights

I was able to get in a brief, brisk walk this morning before my wife left for work. In addition to the frost on the grass and windshields, there was a thin layer of ice in several places as I walked around the pond.

Tonight the boys and I grabbed our next door neighbor boy and went down to the park for a little while before the sun set. Once the sun started dropping beneath the leafless tree line, the temperature started dropping noticeably.

Despite the warm days recently, the reminders are around that it's autumn and winter is coming soon. You can't escape the fact that seasons bring change. And the changing of the seasons always reminds me that God is constant. He will always love me, and I can't change that. His love will always reach out to others. His word will always speak. His grace will always abound.

At the same time, I am reminded that the world changes, and so must I. I've said it before, but I must keep reminding myself of this. My calling is to grow into who God created me to be, to grow into the image of His Son.

No Such Thing as Alone Time

Me: Anders, I can't play with you right now.
Anders: Why not?
Me: It's rest time. I need some time with God and you need some alone time.
Anders: But I'm not alone. God is with me.

Los Angeles Office Movers


Parks & Parties

We were in Iowa over the weekend at my parents' house for several days. Beth had a retreat she was at for a couple days, so the boys and I hung out with their grandparents and aunt. We headed to one of the nearby parks one afternoon (after Dad was done with fieldwork)--one I hadn't been to for a while. The boys enjoyed the old-school playground equipment (we all did, actually).
We also celebrated Nils' birthday with my family. We brought my grandma out from the nursing home.

Enough Already

I was just searching for some lyrics to a Chris Tomlin song. In the margin on the website that posted the lyrics was a picture of a bikini-clad woman. The ad focused on zooming in on the bikini-covered areas. It apparently is for an online game called Evony. I checked it out on wikipedia--not wanting to give any more traffic to the game's site. As far as I can tell, it's a civilization-building game, and it looks to be set in medieval times (when there were definitely no women in bikinis around). Wikipedia even talks about the controversy over the site's ads (which show up all too often in innocent places). If your game isn't good enough to attract people to it on its own, please don't bring us down with you by polluting our screens with your lust-driven images.

This weekend we were watching television at my family's house when an ad for pistachios appeared. It featured a dominatrix, clad in leather, of course, flourishing a whip which was used to crack open a pistachio. Really?! I know that sex sells, but do we need to use it to sell pistachios now? Apparently that's their new marketing technique: innuendo can sell nuts. Shame on you, Wonderful Pistachios. Please don't ruin a food I love.

Sex only sells if we let it. And we've let it for far too long. What would happen if we stood up to such advertising instead of letting in infiltrate our homes? What if we turned off that commercial? Or went so far as to rip that ad out of the magazine and send it back to the company telling them we don't want that around? What if we installed those ad-blockers that many servers (like Firefox) offer? What if we tell companies that we've had enough?

Many of us struggle with those images. While we know they're disgusting and offensive, we're drawn to them at the same time. We want to look away, but we can't entirely avert our eyes. It doesn't help when we keep getting messages telling us that it's okay. It's not. Women are not objects. They're people. Sex is meant to be an intimacy-building expression of love between a married man and woman. You may debate me on this, but I know that when sex gets treated as something recreational, we hurt ourselves and those we share it with.

The more we allow advertising to confuse our minds, telling us that our libido can be satisfied through the things we buy, the more broken our society will become. And the more we try to satisfy our libido rather than build real relationships, the more broken we become. Let's stop letting sex sell. And let's let "the marriage bed be kept pure" (Hebrews 13:4) so it can be a place where sex can flourish as God designed.


The Birthday Party

Nils had a construction theme birthday party. Which basically just meant the cake was decorated that way. Beth did a great job making it look like a work site. And it was very tasty.
He did get some construction toys as well--and a knight dress-up set from MorMor.

It was just a small celebration: Aunt April, Uncle Wilder, Cousin Riley and our neighbors (including Charlie in the picture above with the boys). We're headed to Iowa this weekend for some more celebrating (among other things).


Do Unto Others

Anders apparently told his bus driver that it was Nils' birthday today. When she dropped Anders off after school she yelled, "Happy birthday!" to Nils.

Nils returned the favor and yelled "happy birthday" right back.

Mr. Three-Year Old

Three years ago this morning we drove through the first snow of the season to the hospital in Lake City, Iowa, so that Nils could make his way into the world. Cindy Freeberg stayed with Anders at our house when we left, and Lisa Aljets came later to bring Anders to the hospital to meet his new brother. Beth's mom came as well. Anders brought a present for his new brother (a little bear) and Nils had one for his big brother (a John Deere tractor). And Beth and I began to learn how to raise two boys instead of just one.

Since then Nils has lived in a farm house near Pomeroy, Iowa, a town house in South Surrey, British Columbia, and an apartment in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. Nils has lived by corn fields, oceans, mountains and lakes. And of coursek we've seen a lot of growth in Nils.

Nils likes to ride his bike, play with trainsets and race cars. Nils has learned his alphabet and can count well past twenty. At times he can sit and look at a book for a long time. Nils LOVES to climb and jump. No sofa is safe. He loves to run, skip and turn summersalts (even uphill). Nils loves to get into whatever he can, take things apart, dump things out and make messes in general. Nils can bring huge amounts of frustration and joy at the same time. He's got a face that makes it impossible to be upset with him. He's got a lot of determination. And he's the best 3-year old hip hop dancer I've ever seen. He marches to his own drumbeat. And I love him--and thank God for the last three years that he's been a part of our lives.


Things That Go Bump in the Night

While I appreciate the light/darkness metaphors used in the faith sometimes, there are plenty of times where it's not a helpful word picture. Too often white gets associated with good and black with bad--which is helpful to distinguish people in old movies, but isn't helpful for racial righteousness.

Also, darkness isn't always bad. After all, God formed the darkness before He created light on the first day. And His creation was good.

Pastor Efrem pointed out in the sermon yesterday on God creating the world, that when we're in crisis, we shouldn't begin by focusing on the challenge itself, but with God the creator. Maybe what God wants to do in our darkness is to adjust our sight, not pull us out of our situation. The longer you stand in darkness, the more vision you regain. Just like when you turn out the lights at night, you're likely to bump into something (especially if something in the room is out of place with our familiarity), but later in the night you can walk around in the darkness just fine.

However--here's the catch; there's always a catch--that regaining of vision can only happing if we're completely trusting in God. Often times we trust the chair that we're sitting on more than we trust the God who created everything.

So I'm learning in the midst of some darkness--uncertainties about what is next, trying to keep our budget working, etc.--to trust God to increase my vision. It's not easy. I try and figure out things on my own far too often. I need more trust. And to be content in the darkness, knowing that there is beauty there as well. The light will come in its own time, but the darkness isn't a bad place to be. For now.


A Difference of Perspective

So the announcer on the radio station this afternoon make some statement about how you're going to have to be walking forever from your car to get to the Mall of America now (I don't know if something is going on or just because of increased traffic for the holidays--couldn't tell you, don't care). So she said that shopping online makes all the difference.

Walking is the one reason I might consider shopping at a mall. The put offs for me are the brash materialism, the messages sent to try to get you to buy something and just the fact that I feel my soul being sucked dry when I'm there. But let's face it, most of us (myself included) need to go to a large shopping area and park at the very last spot in the very last row. Just for the sake of the exercise--you can even skip the shopping (I would probably end up convincing myself to by some sugary snack on sale in the checkout line which would just negate the walking). I often try to park wherever a spot is open, even intentionally a bit away from the building, and not circle the parking lot waiting for the closest spot possible to open up. I prefer to walk a bit (unless the wind is bitter--then it's front row if I can).

I guess that's just a difference of perspective between me and the radio announcer.


Into the Woods

Fall was finally here again. It was a beautiful day, so the boys and I headed out to the park while some Hearty Bean Chowder was on the stove. It was good to be out there again, playing some soccer with the boys (I was in big need of some aerobic activity after the last couple weeks of rain and cold).

When we first cot down there, a young teenage boy rode his bike out into the middle of the park and sat on a picnic table. Not long after a young teenage girl rode up. Shortly they were walking toward the woods on the side of the park (not really woods, as they're only about five trees deep). Now I didn't go over to check out what they were doing, but I'm fairly certain that making-out was on the agenda (though with all the leaves missing off the trees, I'm not sure why they bothered--there wasn't much they could hide behind). After all, what else would two young teens of opposite genders be up to in the woods after school?

Remember your first crush--how exciting everything was? The thrill of just being around that person, the tingle down your spine from the touch of their hand on yours, the power the gaze from their eyes had on you.

Why do we let familiarity push out that excitement? Admittedly, there are few times when I recover that with my wife--though when I focus on her, and how amazing her love for me is, I can rekindle some of that awe.

The same goes with God. St. John warns the church at Ephesus in Revelation 2 that they have "forsaken their first love." We let our relationship with God become too commonplace that we forget how amazing His love for us is (or at least I do). We can take our relationship with our Savior, like our relationship with our spouse, for granted too easily.

Relationships require work if we want the most out of them--and if we want to give our best to the other person. We live in a culture where we want to get the most out of things while putting the least effort into them. There is no long-term satisfaction in that. If we want our loves (whether with a person or with God) to keep their thrill, we need to work on them (we also need to work on ourselves in the process, but that's another post).

So, if you have the opportunity, take your love and sneak off into the woods for a make-out session. And, take another trip with your Bible and prayer journal and spend some time with God as well. Rekindle those loves.


Life Wisdom

Beth and I heard this in an ad on the radio once: "You don't have to be a chic magnet as long as your car is." I felt sorry for that guy in the Yugo with a "Le Bra" on the front who we passed shortly after.


Liberal, Conservative or Jesus-Lover?

Pastor Greg Boyd did a pulpit switch with Pastor Efrem today. He noted how we tend to have two main groups of Christians. Most get lumped as being "liberals" or "conservatives". Conservatives look down on the liberals for making faith about what you do, tending to morph into salvation by works. Liberals look down on conservatives because they make faith too individualistic and forget about the social justice issues God calls us to stand up against.

Admittedly, those are the pejorative stereotypes. But there is some truth--or at least warning. "Liberal" faith can cling too much to Micah 6:8 and turn everything into ethics, or falling into the trap of being prideful about involvement in justice issues and boasting about their works.

"Conservative" faith uses Ephesians 2:8-9 as their banner. And it's right--faith comes through grace, not by works. But the pitfall is to use salvation as a "fire insurance" and resting on the fact that we don't have to go to hell. But we forget Ephesians 2:10 which tells us that though we aren't saved by works (so that no one can boast), we are saved so that we can do the good works God created us to do.

I feel that most of the churches (mainly Evangelical Covenant) that I've been a part of find balance between liberal and conservative theology. But that doesn't mean that I haven't leaned too much in one direction or the other through my walk at times. So I need to make sure that I'm getting my life from God by abiding in Christ--not by my righteousness or my involvement in the church or my relationships with others or anything else. A good gauge is how I look at other people: do I compare them with myself, with my faith, with my good works? If I am being judgmental (which I can easily do), then I'm not abiding in Christ as I am operating out of my own faith system.

Does faith require anything of us (or do we just say a prayer and make a confession and that's all)? Are our good works flowing from our relationship with Jesus as the outpouring of His love in our lives?

If I'm loving Jesus, both social activism and personal piety will flow out of that relationship. And that's what I'm working on growing into. Day by day.