Receiving the Stranger

I tend to feel I am a fairly hospitable person. We have people over weekly. Just a couple nights ago we had several people in our yard. We grilled out and picnicked. Then we roasted marshmallows over the charcoal embers. That's when the neighbor kids started poking their heads over. Which isn't unusual. As I've said before, the majority of the week we have neighbor kids around.

But the kids in the duplex next door have been a harder gang to work with at times. They don't have boundaries--not many at least. And we tend to have issues with the people in the rental. Right now the ones in the half closest to us are very cordial and friendly. They're quiet and don't give us trouble. They've asked for favors, and we've helped them out when we can. They're moving soon because the family on the other side has driven them out.

To be honest, I don't know the other family well. I know a few of the kids. And, to be honest once again, I was a bit annoyed the other night when they "crashed" our marshmallow roasting. I didn't want them around. I wanted a nice evening with our friends.

So tonight, when our friend Lisa preached on hospitality at church, I didn't like listening to the message. Hospitality isn't about how we treat our friends. It's about opening our doors to the stranger and receiving them in (we were looking at Romans 12:9-21). Lisa said that hospitality is "an open posture of the heart that results in a practice of welcome." Clearly, my heart hasn't been that open.

I realized that my heart sometimes--not always, but sometimes--hardens when the neighbors are around. Sometimes I guess I don't always believe that if I share, there will be enough for me at the table. After all, the WIC checks only get food for our kids--not the other two or three who show up. Sometimes I feel angry that their parents aren't more involved in their lives. Sometimes I just want some time when I don't have to be responsible for anyone other than my own kids. And during most of those times, I'm not focused on receiving the stranger. I'm not looking at how I can be blessed through them.

Now, hospitality doesn't mean being a door mat and letting yourself be walked all over (much like as I said during the wedding last weekend that submission isn't about being walked all over, but about being strong enough to serve). Part of being hospitable will mean setting up boundaries. It likely will mean having some lessons in manners and respect. It will definitely involve patience and grace and love.

So I'm especially thankful for the prayer time at the end of worship tonight so that my partner ( bless you, Ardie) could pray for a more open posture for my heart. But as I'm working on it, our picnic table and/or guest room are (almost) always available. Of course, you never know who will poke their head over the fence.


Pleading for Summer to Come

Our warmest days so far this year were in May: before school was out, before the wading pools in the public parks were filled. It has, for the most part, been a cool and rainy June.

We in Minnesota (as well as our neighbors around the upper Midwest) have a deep fondness of summer. It's rooted in the Scandinavian blood most of us have. We put up with (and even learn to enjoy if we're willing) long, five to six month winters for the pure delight of the three months of summer.

When summer comes, we revel in it. We stay up until the sun goes down, being outside as much as we can. We grill our food and eat outside. We move to the porch or patio instead of the living room. We doing more biking and taking walks. The lakes are our sanctuary on hot, humid days.

And that is why I'm begging for "real" summer to come. I'm praying for sunshine and warmth (heat up those lake waters, please).

We're still taking advantage of what we can. We've been cooking out and eating in the yard. Friends have been joining us.

Last night we took in one of our favorite summer events: picnicking and enjoying a concert at Lake Harriett. Friends joined us there, too.

We still have to go camping yet. That is one of our "musts" of summer. It'll happen. We have some dates scheduled for later. Our schedule has just been fairly busy for getting away to camp. But we will. Right now is actually the best camping weather (aside from the rain). But I'm still praying for sunshine and warmth. We'll make the most of the next few months no matter what weather is handed to us, but it sure helps if we have some sunny days.


The Tornado: A Month Later

I drove through the neighborhood where I took pictures after the tornado damage several weeks ago. A lot of clean up has been done. There aren't trees lying in most yards any more. Roofs are being worked on. But there is still a lot of damage and unlivable houses. It's easy to forget how long the clean up can last after a natural disaster (when was the last time you saw pictures from the tsunami in Japan or even the earthquake in Haiti?). Months (even years) later, lives are still effected. Sometimes we just need those reminders.


Marriage is What Brings Us Together Today

This last weekend I officiated at a wedding in Iowa. It was the seventh wedding I've done, I believe. The majority have involved people who were on my staff at Bible Camp (and they almost all happened to also be in the youth group we used to be volunteer leaders of).

I enjoy doing weddings--especially when I know the couple. It's fun to get to know them during pre-marital counseling and hear their stories. It's a blessing to get to be a part of their journey as they begin a new life together.

After the reception we headed two hours up the road to a second wedding (another camp couple). This one we just got to sit and watch. Which was nice. The boys did really well for sitting through two weddings. And it was fun to see a lot of people we hadn't seen in a while.

Marriage, as I see it, is something ordained by God to be done in the church. The government can issue civil unions to anyone, as far as I see it, but marriage should be the church's business. I preached off of Paul's text in Ephesians where he compares marriage to Christ's love for the church. Marriage is where--among other places--we practice God's love for one another, putting aside our selfish will. Through it God uses us to bless others.

May God use you to be a blessing to many, Anndee & Billy and Tyler & Molly. And may He bless you for years to come in your marriage.
(Picutre by Courtney Wall)


An Anniversary of Our Home

It was a year ago yesterday that we signed the papers and moved into our home. We extremely grateful for it. We have so much space to move around in compared to our apartment. And a yard! Urban Homeworks did a great job fixing the house up; we haven't had to worry about anything major. We're able to host people and open up our home (which we did some in the apartment, but this is a lot more comfortable)--hardly a week goes by where we don't have people in our house at least once. And if you count the neighbor kids playing with the boys, there's hardly a day where someone isn't over. And somehow, we're able to pay all the bills on what little income we have (seriously--if you knew what a miracle this is).

Still, sometimes it's rough in the hood. Tonight as I was biking home from church, some teenage boys threw a rock or two at me as I was going past the corner they were hanging out on. Beth's bike was stolen out of our garage shortly after we moved in. I dislike having to make sure every door is locked. I don't like not being able to have the windows open at night because of the noise. I wish we didn't have to deal with some of the seedy tenets in rental houses near us.

I don't like cleaning up the constant stream of litter and broken glass on the sidewalks and in our yard. I get tired of having to teach our neighbor kids boundaries at our house. I wish it wasn't uncomfortable being the only white guy in the neighborhood at times. And I probably miss out on some of the bad things that go on because I'm a bit naive in some of those areas.

Yet, it is a good place to live. We've got several nice parks close by--including wading pools, a splash pad and a water park if we so choose to buy the pass some day. We're near a couple nice bike trails through parks and along the Mississippi. We've got a nice library a few blocks away where some of the staff know us by name. There are a lot of fun and free activities around. We've got a great school just a couple blocks from our house. And we have some good neighbors.

I know that I probably won't be able to live in the city forever. I yearn for the country at times. But we're here for a few years. Beth is starting her grad school program in the fall. And we've got some loans that we don't have to pay off if we're in our home for at least five years.

We moved here intentionally. There were other areas we could have looked to live. But we wanted to be a part of bringing life into hurting neighborhoods. One of our friends were told when they moved into North Minneapolis years ago with their young kids that what they were doing was child abuse. There are times when we would feel the same with raising kids with suburban values.

If everyone runs when a neighborhood is "bad," you will end up with bad neighborhoods. And those "bad" values will keep creeping into the "good" neighborhoods, and people will move and the cycle will continue. At some point we need to be neighbors and help each other and look out for each other. We need to invest in the kids who have no one in their lives except other kids without people to give them the attention they need. We need more people like our neighbor James who goes up and down the block with his broom and dust pan. We need to work at bridging the gaps between the Hmong family and the Somali family and the African American family and the Euro-American family. We need to learn from one another. And care for each other and look out for one another.

And so we'll be in our house for a while longer (though I still have this vision for a church and community on a farm out in the country that I hope to bring to fruition one day). We still getting to know our neighbors (there are some language barriers with several houses--not to mention all the homes that are empty right now). But the people in the the side of the duplex closest to us told me recently they're still in the place because we're next door. Honestly, I don't know them that well, but we talk and help out when we can. I'm glad we can be an influence in our neighbor boys' lives (even though it gets tiring at times) because I don't think they have a lot of male adults who give them consistent attention otherwise. I'm thankful for all the people and organizations who are working to help get people back on their feet and give them respect and hope.

My wife has printed on a curtain by our door this prayer which I hope we may always live by:
Dear Lord,
Swing the doors of our hope wide so all people will feel welcome and loved. May the floor and the walls be strong enough to carry the burdens of those who come. We pray no one leaves feeling less than when they entered. May your love and peace cover and protect as each one departs. Amen.


Working at It

Today I celebrate 14 years of marriage to my wife. That's no small feat in today's society. And I'd be lying if I said it was all wonderful. And I'd also be lying if I said I always did my best to love my wife. But I can also honestly say I'd do it all over again.

Right now I'm in the midst of preparing to officiate a wedding this weekend. When we met with the couple a few weeks ago, we talked about the usual stuff that you talk about with people who are about to get married: communication, love/romance/sex, money, etc. Basically, we talked some about the old axiom that marriage is work. And this is true. Just as life is work. In order to maintain your house, improve at your job or grow spiritually you have to work at it.

Sometimes I don't understand that well enough. It's easy to convince yourself that having to go through tough times is work. But working at marriage is more than that. You work each day at doing things that show your spouse your love. You work at becoming a better person. You work at improving your marriage. Without that work, your marriage grows stagnant--even dies.

And so, I try to remember each day to work. Not because I have to, but because I want to. And sometimes I fail at doing it. But that's no reason to give up. My bride is reason enough to keep trying and trying. Because we're going to keep celebrating this day for years to come. I love you, Beth.



Pentecost in the Park

Today was the observance of Pentecost. It is kind of the kick-off of our summer season at church. So we picnic in the park. We worship there. We serve ice cream to those in the park. And we play a game of kick ball.

It is conspicuous. Many of us wore red (though sweatshirts ended up covering up some of that red). And a circle of people in a park--doing actions as we sang the Lord's prayer, singing together, giving each other hugs as we passed the peace--is hard not to notice.

But sometimes the church hides too much behind its walls (and sometimes it is too present in unloving ways, but that's another discussion). Pentecost celebrates the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (whom Jesus promised would be sent to give us power to be His witnesses). Pentecost celebrates the birth of the church (not just to one small group of people--there were people present that day from Africa, Europe, Asia, Arabia). It celebrates the outpouring of the gifts that the Holy Spirit bestows upon us for building up the church.

I love worshiping outside in the park. Yes it is sometimes uncomfortable as we are very noticeable--but that is part of the point. We're there in the community. I love being out in creation. I love being together with our church family as we eat, worship, serve and play.

We were gathered together in prayer, asking God to continue to pour out His Spirit upon us. The truth is we still need the Spirit's empowerment in our lives. Too often we neglect it, trying to do God's work on our own. And maybe we're running on empty too often. We need to be filled. We need the Holy Spirit to continue the work Christ puts before us. Even if it is something simple like serving ice cream to neighbors in the park. Maybe especially then.


The Prayer Journey

Tonight we celebrated Jesus' Ascension (last Thursday marked the day). Jesus is with the disciples for forty days after His resurrection. He tells the disciples to wait in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit is poured out. He tells them that power will come upon them and they will be His witnesses. Then, almost out of nowhere, He rises up into the clouds and is gone.

The disciples, apparently, do wait in Jerusalem. In the upper room. Praying. Waiting prayerfully until the Holy Spirit was poured out.

And so tonight at church we prayed. Our friend Heather, who was leading tonight's teaching, set up three different prayer stations. One was praying out loud together, one was listening prayer, ad the third was walking through a labyrinth. I chose the labyrinth (partly because we had been driving back from Wisconsin all day, and it was an opportunity to not sit more; partly because I had been at a family reunion in Wisconsin and some quiet time to myself sounded nice).

I have walked a prayer labyrinth before on a few occasions. One of my first was when I was a counselor at CHIC, our denomination's national youth conference, several years ago. It was a multi-sensory experience with several stations that you interacted with through the walk (a labyrinth is different than a maze in that it only has one path with no dead ends; it reflects a journey inward and outward). On the way in, the stations helped you look at your relationship with God. The center of this labyrinth involved several pillows on the floor around a three-
wicked candle with bread and grape juice, where you could experience communion with God. The path out of the center focused on the journey into the world.

One of the last labyrinth experiences was in Alberta several years ago at a retreat. I haven't looked for my journal that would contain the details of it, but I remember at one point talking with one of the spiritual directors about the labyrinth. She was a wizened woman who suffered from a limp caused by polio, I believe. I think she mentioned something about feeling like a child (in a good way--like a child of God) going through the labyrinth. I had this image of a child running through the labyrinth--for that's what one would do, they would play in it. So I tried it. I ran (which wasn't easy with all the sharp twists and turns). It was freeing (and tiring). But it wasn't prayerful in the traditional way.

As I walked the labyrinth tonight I imagined being there when Jesus ascended back into Heaven and walking back to Jerusalem. I imagined the questions the disciples had after Jesus left--wondering what was going on, wondering what this power would be that was promised and what to do with it, wondering what was next. It was also the first time I'd walked a labyrinth in close proximity to others. We stopped and bowed to each other when we would pass on the same or an adjacent path. It was, admittedly, a little awkward. But it was also a good reminder that we travel not alone. As I walked out of the labyrinth, I was assured of Jesus' promises--both to give us the Holy Spirit's power to be His witness and of the assurance of His return.

Our experience tonight (having three different prayer groups at church) is a reminder that there is no "right" way to pray. God wants us to talk to Him, to listen to Him and to walk with Him. We do it on our own and corporately. We do it at set times and randomly. We do it because we want to and because we need to. Prayer is not just a time to go before God and tell Him what we need. It is a time to go into His presence and be transformed as we journey into knowing who God is and who we are to Him.



I'm a big proponent of living in such a way that others see the difference in your life. That seems to be the way the earlier church worked..."they'll know we are Christians by our love." Our words can have an impact, yes. But it's the way we live that really is our witness. The draw of Christianity is supposed to be the way we live differently (I preached a couple weeks ago on from the text of the stoning of Stephen and touched on this witness lifestyle).

Right now there are about 30 women sitting in our yard. They're having a baby shower for a couple of the new babies in our church. I'm sure it will be the talk of the neighborhood for a while. I think a couple guys have already walked by trying to shock the ladies with their "hood" talk (I think an ice cream truck was also hoping for some extra business as it drove by).

We've often got people over at our house. A couple families were over last night for supper. Our neighbor boys who are frequently (and I mean frequently) over sometimes get frustrated that they can't play all the time because we've got people coming over. But I think they also want to be a part of it (and sometimes they get to be).

I hope that how we live--with an open home, by reaching out to friends and neighbors, by keeping our yard and street clean--is a witness to those around us. It's not enough that our neighbors know we go to church. That isn't much of a witness. We must live differently and in such a way that people desire to have what we've got. And not because we "have to" or we're "supposed to" but because God has changed and transformed us. Because He has. And He does. And when we live through His Spirit, we do live differently.

Memorial Day Weekend

This past weekend we went up to Covenant Pines Bible Camp for their Work & Worship Weekend. For a very minimal price, we help get the camp ready for summer by working for a day and a half, and we get Sunday to enjoy the day. It's the place I'd most prefer to be on Memorial Day Weekend...other than with my Grandmother planting graveside flowers.

Most of our church attended the weekend. It happened to be my birthday on Sunday as well. That day we, along with several other families from our church, signed up for "The Big Switch." In this version we canoed across a couple lakes and partway up a river and switched with the other half of the families who met us there on a hay ride. Along our paddle we came across a bald eagle sitting in a tree and two trumpeter swans gliding across the lake.

There was quiet nature and fun with friends. That combination makes for a great weekend. Of course the weekend is meant to be fore remembering those who have died--especially in war. It was originally formed on May 30 shortly after the end of the Civil War. That day was chosen because no major battles had been fought on it. It was a day to remember and reconcile, striving toward unity together. I guess spending a weekend with people from church is a decent way of working toward unity together--at least in my book.