I'm Older Than I Was, But Younger Than I'll Be...

It was my birthday yesterday. It was a good day...I worked, but after work some friends came over and we had East Indian food and ice cream cake. It was one of the first birthdays I've celebrated that we've had friends to come over for (to be fair, many have been with family and many, many more have been while I've been working at camp or away at a family camp event). After years of being a bit of an isolationist, it's nice to have friends to celebrate life's milestones with.

I guess as I get older I recognize the poor choices I have made and the things I have missed out on...and some days I wish I could go back and do things differently and live my life better. But of course that's not possible (yet, at least--if comic books and science fiction have taught us anything). So I live moving forward trying to make better choices now for better enjoying the rest of my life. Surrounding myself more closely with friends (and opening myself up to them) is one of those choices. Being less self-centered and more God/other-centered is another. So is biking, hiking, camping, and canoeing more. There are many more, but my point is that I can live in the past and wallow in self-pity, or I can move forward and live each day more fully. That's what I want. I may not always succeed, but I'm writing this as a reminder to myself to keep moving forward when those failures come. And hopefully, through what I learn, I can pass those lessons on to my kids so they don't have to have the same regrets. But we often need to go through those tough times (sucky as they may be) in order to learn the lessons better ourselves. But here's to living the next 37 years with less regrets and a fuller life.


Work & Worship (Ora et Labora)

We returned late this afternoon from a weekend up at our church's Bible Camp. This is the third year we've gone. Four years ago we had gone to Des Moines and had accompanied my grandmother to the cemetery to clean up and put flowers at family members' grave sites. That was a special way to spend Memorial Day, and since my grandmother is now in a nursing home, I'll cherish the memory of doing that.

But spending the weekend at Covenant Pines is very memorable as well. When I was growing up our family would usually spend this weekend at our Bible Camp there (Twin Lakes). The camps have an almost-free weekend (you often give a little money to cover the cost of meals) where your family comes and works to help get the camp ready for summer. It's part of our church culture (we met our church family there a few years back while we were up for the weekend and discovered that half the people there were from Abbey Way).

One of the fun things this year was that the boys were big enough to work with me. Usually they do the kids' project of picking up sticks. This year Anders started with me staining the wood on a shed on Saturday morning. He did really well. It rained, though, and we had to find something else to do which ended up being building a railing for a cabin (the old one had been damaged by a tree falling on it). This wasn't as much up Anders' alley (between the threat of slivers from the wood--which was negligible, but looming in his mind--and broken glass from a window, he stood by drawing and helping when I asked for it). We got the railing built before lunch, and after lunch Nils wanted to join in helping. So we installed the railing (they helped pass the screws and held it in place). Since the rain had stopped we were able to finish staining the shed.

Sunday is a free day with worship together in the morning and time to play/have fun/relax the rest of the day. After a rainy morning, the sun came out enough for us to enjoy some canoeing and paddle boating. Nils wanted to try the climbing tower, which he succeeded at and enjoyed the zip line ride down from it. Anders had fun playing with sling shots.

This morning, because of yet more rain, we couldn't do any more staining projects, but we worked with another family in hauling cut firewood from the woods to where it needed to go. I think having other (older) kids to work alongside helped Anders stick to it (normally he would have complained a bit about picking up logs).

One of the other neat things of the weekend for me was a couple who came up to me after lunch on Saturday because they had seen my name on the sign up sheet for a job. Their family had been up to use the family cabins I was in charge of 16 years ago when I was on summer staff there. They had remembered me and said they had really enjoyed that week there.

Sometimes it feels because of the messiness and imperfections in my life that I had wasted a lot of time in ministry; I know there are plenty of thing I would have done differently that summer 16 years ago. But despite my mess, God can still work. That's encouraging.

Our whole family had colds (or some unpleasant illness) while we were there. I had been sick the week leading up to it, needing a lot of rest. So we spent a lot of time in our cabin (which was separate from most of our church group, which ended up being nice in this regard--also, it was right on one of the lakes and we enjoyed listening to the loons at night) going to bed early. So we didn't get the relational time that we enjoy with our church family, but we still enjoyed it. We had toyed with staying home, but it was good to get away and get some fresh (albeit damp) northwoods air.

And it was good to work and worship (St. Benedict called it ora et labora--prayer and work--which was at the core of his monastic rule). Our souls need the accomplishment of getting hard, physical work done, and our bodies need the pause to get hard, spiritual work done. The work and the worship/prayers go well together (our church gathers before each meal to pray corporately). Someday I'll get better at that in my everyday life...


The Tornado: A Year Later

Today the Kindergarten/1st Grade class I work with in the afternoons at school took an impromptu "field trip" to deliver a thank you gift to Urban Homeworks, the organization that spearheaded clean-up efforts after the tornado that hit our neighborhood a year ago today. The children decorated little paper houses with words of gratitude and peace, cut them out, taped them together and placed them on cardboard which they decorated with streets, lawns and flowers. It was a simple act of gratitude for the efforts done by the people at Urban Homeworks (who renovated our house before we purchased it).

Our tornado wasn't the worst. It was overshadowed by much more sever tornado outbreaks that same day (Joplin, Missouri, namely), but it impacted our community and our city. Ours is about the poorest neighborhood in the Twin Cities. Foreclosures have hit hard here (I've heard various facts). According to MPR, 80% of the households affected by the tornado were on public assistance of some kind. 3700 homes were damaged or destroyed; all but a small handful haven't been touched (I was told today only 16 haven't been touched at all). FEMA denied any assistance to individuals, but the community moved forward (with the help of a lot of great volunteers). 

Many homes have been fixed. Some were just torn down. The city has replanted trees on the blocks that lost so many. But there is still a lot of work to do. There are still houses that are abandoned. Still tarps covering roofs. Business lots that stand empty. 

The pictures I took today were from the same street I took pictures from last year following the tornado. I could have shown worse pictures, I could have shown better; these were the scenes on those couple of blocks. The nakedness of the streets without trees is the most visual reminder of the tornado--Minneapolis has trees providing a canopy on almost all its streets. 

The economics of our neighborhood come into play, of course. Many people didn't have insurance. One-third of the residences affected were rentals. Landlords often live in the suburbs and don't care much about what happens in the inner city (maybe that's a bit cynical but I think it's fairly accurate). 

And it also reminds us that recovery takes time. Haiti is still recovering from its earthquake in 2010. Japan still shows much devastation and lack of progress from the tsunami that hit it almost a year-and-a-half ago. Recovery takes time. And fixing outward appearance doesn't mean that the deeper issues are taken care of yet. Many people still have traumatic responses when the emergency sirens go off. 

Recovery seems to have happened the quickest with those who were ready to stand fast and move forward. Some turned inward in anger ("why did this happen?") and others chose not to partake in recovery. Some reach out for help; others expected help to come to them. Some had the money for moving forward; others will continue to have to work hard to come up with the funds to restore their property. We needed to be ready to do the work ourselves, but we also needed help from outside. Maybe our neighborhood is a good analogy for people and how they choose to deal with the things that affect them (I'm feeling it is for me at least)...

(do a word search for "tornado" on this site to see pics from last summer)


On My Sister's Upcoming Wedding: Change and Relationships

My youngest (younger than her twin by 11 minutes, I believe) sister is getting married in a couple of weeks. I've been working on the message for the wedding. It's not easy. It's always a little difficult to find the right words to say to a couple during a wedding...marriage is such a big event. Plus, I'm more aware lately of my own failures of almost 15 years of marriage, that I know I'm the one who needs advice as much as anyone.

One of the common pieces or relationship advice is, "Don't change who you are for anyone." This has elements of good advice in it as you shouldn't try to become who someone else wants you to be. But if we never change in a relationship, then we've failed ourselves.

Life is a balance of finding who you truly are and becoming that--the unchangingness of yourself with the need for change. We need change in order to grow--to work through our faults, to get rid of the things that hold us back, to accept our weaknesses and let God work through them.

There are days when I hate doing this. I am comfortable with my faults; I don't like all the work of getting better. But I also don't like who I am when I don't put the work into myself. In my marriage I can be all too selfish. I desire to be more focused on my wife than I am. And I know I won't get there without change.

So, that's one of the things I hope to impart to my sister (and soon-to-be brother-in-law Caleb): discover who you are, but work to become the best you you can be. Marriage is a great place for this to happen when you have a spouse who also desires for you to become your best (without nagging you or forcing you to change). Encouragement is the key. Like a lot of life lessons, these are things I know, but have to work at hard to actually life out. I hope it comes easier for you, Sis.


Hold Ups, Guns and Trust

So this afternoon, as I was getting the grill ready for supper, a young man behind the lilac bush next to the garage said, "Pssst," getting my attention. Then I heard, "I have a gun, give me your money."

I didn't have any money on me (I had a dollar earlier in the day, but Beth used that to get a coffee while we were out earlier). I seldom carry much if any. I told him such.

He said I should go in the house and get some money for him (which made me suspect he didn't have a gun or experience, as telling me to go in the house would just give me opportunity to lock the doors and call the police, but of course I couldn't be sure if he had a gun or not). I said that I didn't have any money (honestly--all you would find in our house is a bowl of coins and a jar of my foreign currency collection) and (loud enough for Beth to hear it) that my wife was in the garage calling 911 right now. Then I ran into the garage and shut the door where Beth had dialed 911.

I could feel my legs shaking a little as I talked with the dispatcher. We headed back to the house (the boys were in there), knowing that the guy had most likely fled right away--and if not, that we should make sure the boys were safe (which they were). When the police showed up a while later, they said they had searched the area (I had given them a pretty good description, apparently--which surprised me since I'm terrible at remembering descriptions of people) and hadn't found him. He was probably just a local kid (he had to be around 20 give or take a few years) wanting some money--most likely didn't have a gun (I only saw his hand in his jacket).

While I've had people steal from me before (money missing from my wallet while at another school's locker room for high school basketball and CDs from my dorm room in college), I've never been threatened in person by someone claiming to have a gun. It was scary. And I felt a lot of anger.

I don't like being violated. I don't like being threatened. I don't like having to worry about my (or my family's) safety in our own yard.

I know that some would say that this is why we need the second amendment and to not put so many restrictions on gun control. And while there was a brief moment of thinking that if I had a gun, I could have faced the guy and told him not to do something like that again to anyone in the neighborhood, that wouldn't have solved anything. Gun threats would just beget more gun threats. Violence begets violence. And I couldn't live with myself if I had shot someone--even in self defense.

And, while not intending to to sound holier-than-thou and admitting that I violate plenty of commandments, there is something idolatrous about trusting a gun to protect my family instead of trusting God to do it (and I do acknowledge that there are plenty of areas where I don't trust God fully). For me, carrying a gun will never be the answer.

So, I'm left with the fear and anger I feel (which is understandable). While I don't know who the guy was or if I'll ever see him again, I couldn't help but think about Jesus' command to love my enemies. How do you love a guy who threatened to shoot you? I don't know. I don't have the answers. I just have more to life to wrestle with...and I don't necessarily like that, but a lot of the time, faith is just walking and trying to trust God to show the way ahead.

It's not always an easy walk. I need to forgive this guy (which, I can rationalize that he's had a rough life without a father around to teach him to do right and such, but that just causes me to stereotype him). He didn't hurt me or my family, but it's still not easy to forgive someone who has violated your sense of security. And we forgive, not necessarily for the sake of the other person, but for ourselves--to release us from the bondage of bitterness and hatred.

I don't know that all of that will come right away. As I was finishing grilling for supper, I found myself constantly looking around to make sure no one was sneaking up on me. But I'm safe and my family is safe and I have that to be thankful for. I'm going to have to trust that the rest will come.



Today the boys' school celebrated Teacher Appreciation Week. It was just a short assembly (and I didn't get to see it because another teacher was talking with me then), but the kids had been practicing a thank you song and writing thank you cards to teachers the last couple weeks during Spanish. I ended up getting four cards (which I knew I was getting some because I sit in on Spanish class with the Kindergarten/1st Grade class I work with). I felt a little guilty because I've only been working there as something other than a substitute for a week and a half (when there are so many other good teachers who have worked with the children (I almost said kids--a Montessori no-no) all year).

Of course, it feels good to be appreciated. We all like to receive positive feedback and gratitude for the work we do. In a perfect world, we wouldn't have to dedicate days/weeks to do this to specific people--it would just happen. And it should just happen. More than once a year.

And gratitude is a good thing to practice. It's one of the things we do with the boys each night before bed (they each say something they're thankful for from the day). When they're jealous, resentful or in other sorts of bad moods we often have them stop to think of a few things they're thankful for in their lives. It's something I need to do more. And so, to put my words into practice:

I'm thankful for (mostly in no particular order):
- my incredible wife
- my amazing kids
- my grace-filled pastor (and her family)
- my sons' teachers
- the teachers & staff I work with
- sanitation workers
- the volunteers who worked on our home before we even bought it
- loving friends
- the check-out people at the grocery store who remember me
- the street cleaners
- police and fire fighters nearby
- my church executive council
- the boys' teachers at church
- our neighbor, Jimmy, who picks up litter down the block
- the parks & rec. department
- my postal carrier
- our local librarians--especially Kathy who always stops and says hi to the boys
- my neighbor, Manuel, who is always helpful
- our friend, Terry, who I saw at a thrift store this week and she dropped off a strawberry planter for us a couple days later
- for friends who will watch the boys when we need

That's the start of a much longer list. It's good to see my connections with so many great people in my life.


The Force, Free Comics and Fun

This weekend is one of my kids' favorite holidays. Friday was Star Wars Day (since it was May the Fourth--as in May the Fourth be with you--clever, eh?). We don't actually do anything for it (though we did end up watching a Clone Wars movie), but they have fun just knowing that it was Star Wars Day.

Today is Free Comic Book Day. We visited Twin Cities Comics in Columbia Heights (we also often go to Hot Comics in Crystal). Many comic book stores offer various comic books for free so that people can explore and find a comic book they might like. Yes, not all comic books are kid-appropriate, but most publishers rate them (A for all ages, T for teens, etc.) and there tends to be a pretty good selection of kid-friendly comics (Nils picked up a Donald Duck one for example).

Afterward we hit Home Depot for their first Saturday of the month Kids' Building Project. Today it was a wooden planter box, so each of the boys nailed together the little pieces. They received a project pin to put on their little apron they received the first time we went. As a bonus, our Home Depot was offering some free plants to go with the planters for the first 100 kids, so the boys each brought home a nice strawberry plant.

We haven't done these things for long (I think it was just a couple years ago we figured out Star Wars Day and discovered Free Comic Book Day, and it's only been a few months that we've done the Home Depot projects), but they're fun and the boys already look forward to them. Sometimes it's good to do goofy little holidays to make memories for your kids (as well as having good family time together).