Year End

The end of 2013AD draws nigh. A year of ups and downs. Of good memories and things I'd prefer to forget. But isn't every year that way? As I look back, I can choose to focus on the bad or the good, the regrets or the lessons.

The boys and I embarked on an adventurous camping trip during spring break when we still had snow on the ground at home. The entire family took trips to the Trumper family reunion in Pana, Illinois; to Eagle River, Wisconsin; and various state parks for camping. We attended the weddings of a niece and a nephew; my sister gave birth to twins. My wife did a bit of traveling for her studies/work (including to Iceland!) and finished up her coursework--she's now halfway done on her doctorate. We spent time at Bible Camp--including Anders' first full week. We saw a lot of family and friends, near and far, old and new. We did a bit of biking, swimming, sledding, painting, drawing, playing board games, playing lawn games, going to outdoor concerts, and having fun. Anders started violin lessons. Both boys had new teachers this year in school (they keep their teachers for three years typically in Montessori). And there's probably a lot of stuff I'm forgetting that happened.

I learned that in the winter I need to exercise more (when it's difficult to bike and near impossible to swim outside), so we've been doing a YMCA membership in the cold months.

I learned I need to journal more. I also learned that I need to be more conscientious about being grateful (which goes along with journaling sometimes). Both things help me reflect and keep focused on God's sovereignty.

I learned that publishing a book is rarely a money-making job. (I also learned that I'm not good at marketing or networking and could put more time into learning how to do both well.)

I learned to say no a little more to some commitments and say yes a little more to relationships.

I learned that being a father and a husband are jobs not to slack off on--that there is plenty of work to do and things to learn with both.

I learned to seize the moments as they come and not have regrets of "I wish I had..." Or I learned to seize the moment during last year's spring break and take do something I normally wouldn't do.

I am reminded to be more forgiving and gracious, less resentful, kinder, more patient, and more loving.

I don't know what 2014 will hold. Some things are pretty certain, I suppose:
Likely some ups, some downs (that seems fairly consistent). Plenty of mistakes. Opportunities. Challenges. Sadness. Joy. Times with family and friends. Things I'll be proud of; things I'll regret.

No matter how the year progresses, I have the potential to make it a great year. I can learn from my mistakes, but I don't need to dwell on them or beat myself up over them. I can look on the positive side of things ("always look on the bright side of life" as the Life of Brian reminds us). I can be hopeful and not fearful. I can learn to give thanks in all circumstances. I can be mindful of God's continuous loving presence with me. I can help my family to grow and take on new challenges.

As 2013 closes, I give thanks. I thank God for bringing me through another year. I thank Him for the opportunities we had: beaches to swim at, outdoor concerts to attend, friends we hung out with, camping and hiking trips, seeing the beauty of God's creation, the free cultural venues in the Twin Cities, moments with family, biking along the river and around lakes, playing together, laughing together, and sharing love with family and friends. I thank God for His grace and forgiveness, His mercy and love.

May God bless you in the New Year!


Sunday Night Musing: Christmas

Christmas? Christmas is over you say? Nay, my friend. Today is only the fifth day of Christmas. We still have seven more days to go my friend.

Our extended family Christmas celebrations were done last weekend (though I still miss the extended-extended celebrations with my aunts, uncles, and cousins, but there is only so much traveling we can fit into a season). Our own Christmas observations began on Christmas Eve with worship at church. Carols, the Christmas story, children doing their songs, candles glowing: peacefulness and joy.

We went from there to a friend's house along with several other families from church. We had potluck hors d'ouevres and sugary confections and played games together until late into the evening. Two others from church took me to my first midnight Christmas mass at the Basillica downtown. It was my first time there; it was a special night to experience it. The lights of candles, the smells of censers, the sounds from the choirs: it was a memorable way to ring in Christmas.  

The morning came late for us. I guess without anticipation of Santa's arrival the boys didn't feel the need to wake up super early. Honestly, I was the first one up at 8. I got the batter made for Swedish pancakes, put dishes away, washed some others, and got a few other things done before anyone else came downstairs. 

Baby Jesus found His place in the manger in our nativity scene. We opened the presents we gave each other and spent the rest of the day enjoying them and time with each other. The boys built Lego sets and spun their Beyblades. We all played a game of The Settlers of Catan together, and then we did a little ping pong on the kitchen table. 

Tonight we held the 1st Sunday of Christmas worship at church with three other local churches. They joined us for supper, games, carols, and worship. While us introverts may have a hard time interacting with new people, joining together was a reminder that the scope of Christmas goes beyond our family or congregation. It's huge: throughout time and place.

We still have one more week of Christmas. Our tree is still up, and while the radio stations have stopped, we're still playing Christmas carols. Our nativity scene's magi are a little closer, but they still haven't arrived. And I'm glad to see Christmas lights still on in our neighborhood. We even discovered that the Lowry Bridge over the Mississippi River had changed it's colors to red and green (it was still blue when we drove across it on Christmas Eve). 

One of the songs the choir sang at the Basillica on Christmas Eve was from the area of the Congo. The translation from the Kituba dialect is:
Noel! Jesus has come to live with us.
If you want to know the Child,
You have to come kneel.
A wonderful reminder that it's not about us. It's not about the presents we receive or even how well we did at picking out meaningful gifts to others. It's really not even about our family or the other loved ones we spend time with this season. 

God has come to live with us! We can know Him!

I don't do very well with kneeling. I find that even when I spend time squating at school as I work with a student, my knees ache when I stand up. But I know the more I kneel or squat the better my body can handle it.

I don't do a kneeling posture with my heart very well either. It's hard to bow. Not because the Christ isn't worthy, but because I don't always like to give up my perceived right to do what I want. But it's always good for my heart to take a position of humility, even thought it sometimes hurts at first. 

One of the messages I heard at Christmas was that the Light has come. I know I still have areas of darkness within me that I need the Light to expose. This world has plenty places of darkness. But the Light will overcome it. Someday. Soon, I hope. 

Emmanuel! God is with us!


$anta: Another Advent Rant

I saw this sight on the way to the Y today. Don't tell me Santa isn't about consumerism! I guess he's traded in his pipe for some e-cigs.  That's my problem with Santa's brand of Christmas--it's just a branch of capitalism.

Don't get me wrong. I like the image of Santa. They jolly, old, bearded man who provides gifts to children. I like the Father Christmas image. Santa brings a lot of childhood memories, of course.

Truth be told, I don't have an issue with the lying/make believe. A little imagination and play is good. Honestly, I tend to be more like Calvin's dad sometimes. Which is dangerous because I can be a bit believable.

But Santa's brand of Christmas is very different from that of the Christ whose birth we celebrate.

Santa: keeps a list of naughty and nice; you have to behave in order to get a present
Jesus: His gift is for anyone who would believe, regardless of what they've done

Santa: encourages us to make a list of what we want; the focus is on getting
Jesus: gives us our every need; is our example in giving

Santa: comes once a year; our only interaction is possibly sitting on his lap in a mall, sharing our list with him
Jesus: with us every day; desires a relationship with us; wants us to talk with Him any time

Santa: advertises e-cigarrettes
Jesus: doesn't

I do honestly wonder if most companies would survive if it weren't for the economic boost of Christmas.

What would happen if instead of buying gifts for people who already have enough if instead we bought a meal for a homeless person? Or helped a refugee family? Or sent a shoebox of gifts to children overseas? Or bought a cow, medicine, or educational supplies for people in a developing nation?

Giving gifts isn't wrong of course. We do it because of the magi's example in giving gifts to the baby Jesus. My children have a gift under the tree. I love them. I like to give them gifts. We all do it for our families for the same reason.

But let's not confuse the Christmas ideologies of Santa with the Christmas of the Christchild.


Advent Rant

Nils and I were at the Holidazzle Parade a few weeks ago, braving the chilly Minnesota temperatures to stand outside and watch lighted floats slowly go by. One of the men in front of us at one point heckled, "Where are the menorahs? Where is the Kwanza float? This is the Holidazzle Parade, not the Christmas Parade!"

But it wasn't a Christmas parade. The floats were all from storybooks for the most part: Peter Pan, Hansel and Gretel, The Wizard of Oz, Pinocchio. And of course Santa Claus.

Nothing in the parade was focused at all on the Christ-mass. No shepherds. No angels. No Mary and Joseph. And definitely no baby Jesus. It wasn't truly a Christmas parade.

But it's not even Christmas yet. Soon. But not yet. It's Advent.

I heard a Christian singer being interviewed on the radio the other day. He was saying how he gets legalistic about Christmas. No decorations should be up until after Thanksgiving and then it's all down by New Year's Day. But if he wants to get legalistic, shouldn't he wait until Christmas Day, or at least Christmas Eve, and keep everything up until at least the twelfth day of Christmas?

Over the past few years there has been some outrage over stores telling their employees to say "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Chirstmas." Recently the GOP had been selling a t-shirt which reads on the front: "Only liberals say 'Happy Holidays;'" and on the back: "Merry Christmas!" As if Christmas were a political platform. (Apparently they removed that shirt from their store this week.)

Should the church be upset with people saying "Merry Christmas" before December 25? Instead we should all be wishing each other a "Peaceful Advent!"

Of course, even in the church, not everyone agrees on Christmas. Many Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on January 6. Some branches of Protestantism don't even celebrate Christmas at all, believing it's not proper to have a day to celebrate the birth of Jesus.

I don't mean to go all Pope Francis on you, but if we're going to advocate for "putting Christ back in Christmas," shouldn't we also advocate for "putting the mass back in Christmas" as well?

My point? I'm not sure. I guess I just felt like a good rant (just wait until my Santa rant tomorrow). But I think it may be that we all have different approaches to celebrating this season. It's not a battle ground or a political ideology.

I happen to like Advent. We have our Advent candles on our kitchen table along with the devotion we read from. We often don't put up our tree until St. Nicholas or Santa Lucia Day (though we went earlier this year because of my wife's travels). Our magi and camels are no where near the nativity yet. They're traveling until Epiphany on January 6. Baby Jesus won't be in the manger until Christmas morning.

It's important to make this season meaningful for you and your family. And not in a gift-giving or holiday event way. (And I don't mind using the word holiday because I know it's root is "holy day." A day set apart. If anything, let's reclaim the "holy-days." Make them sacred. Make them holy. Remember why we observe them. Whether it's St. Nicholas Day, Christmas, the feast of the Holy Family, or Epiphany.

Until then, have a peaceful Advent.


Advent 4: Waiting for a Sign

In Isaiah chapter 7 we come across the familiar prophecy that the virgin shall give birth to a child and name him Immanuel. This, of course, is part of a larger passage. In it Isaiah goes to King Ahaz of Judah. The empire of Assyria is trying to conquer more of the world including Syria, Judah, and Israel. They're in the middle of the Syro-Ephraim War (what? You didn't get that one in any of your history classes?)Alliances were made, and a long story short, King Ahaz found himself and his kingdom with not too many friends.

So the prophet Isaiah comes along and assures Ahaz that everything will work out if Ahaz just trusts God. Isaiah even lets Ahaz pick what sign he would like God to give him to show him that these words are true.

Ahaz, however, refuses. With some false religious humility, he says he won't put God to the test.

That's because he has already made an alliance with Assyria so that they'll protect Judah. With the temple gold and silver as well as royal treasury, Ahaz made Judah Assyria's indentured servants. When he could have just let God take care of things.

Isaiah says that since Ahaz won't pick a sign, God will do it Himself.  If you clicked on the link in the first paragraph and read that portion of Isaiah, you'll know that in addition to the virgin giving birth to a child named Immanuel, that by the time he is eating curds and honey he will know enough to reject wrong and choose what is right. By that time God will have laid waste to Ahaz's enemies.

The child would be the sign.

Ahaz had opportunity to ask for any sign he desired. God could have moved a mountain, made a camel fly, or done any number of miraculous things. Ahaz was full of fear, however.

God knew what was needed: something small, humble, personal. A child.

What sort of sign do you and I need to know that God's promises are true? To know that He loves us?

If we take the time (which I haven't been good at doing) to slow down and wait during the Advent season, do we even need a sign or will we find we've been given all the signs we need? I think that's why the juxtaposition of our American Thanksgiving holiday right before the Advent season is so wonderful. We acknowledge with gratitude how well God has been taking care of us.

Surely He will continue to meet all our needs both now and in the Kingdom to come.


Advent: You Need Jesus (Why Preaching Doesn't Work)

I hope that if you ever hear me preaching that you need Jesus, it's because I'm talking to myself. While I believe that we all need Jesus, I'm the only one I need to tell that to right now.

Tonight Nils and I ventured downtown (Anders was a little under the weather so Beth stayed home with him). This is an adventure in and of itself. I'm not a fan driving into the downtown of any large city. Even when I live a couple miles from it. The traffic was terrible, and we had to find a place to park which took way longer than I liked. Somehow we still managed to be at Nicollet Avenue in time to see the first float of the Holidazzle Parade coming down the street.

It's the last year of this Minneapolis tradition, so we wanted to see it one last time (we'd only been once before, several years ago--Nils didn't remember it at all). It's not all that terrific, but it's fun for the kids. There are maybe a dozen floats, but they're all lit up with lights. The people walking with the floats are lit up with lights. Even the marching band has lights. And the street is lined many rows deep with people standing in sub-freezing temperatures (tonight was a balmy 12 degrees Fahrenheit), plus all the people watching from the sky-walk and building windows.

Yesterday was Santa Lucia Day, so it was fitting to take in the lights as we near the shortest daylight hours of the year. Part way through the parade some one with a sandwich board comes up behind us and starts preaching. It wasn't the "You're all going to hell" kind of preaching at least. The guy talked about how everyone needs Jesus. How Jesus is better than any present under the tree. How it doesn't matter if you're naughty or nice, you need Jesus.

For the most part, what I didn't tune out was at least a pretty decent message. The problem is no one cared, no one cared to listen anyway. The comments from people around me were either of an eye-rolling-"oh brother, here we go" response or of a joking, ridiculing nature. While the message may have been right on, know one wanted to listen to a man yelling religious platitudes at them in the middle of a parade. Not that I can think of many situations where people would want to hear that.

After the parade finished, a group of four men with plastic pails and drumsticks sat in the same place and started knocking out some foot-tapping rhythms. People stopped and listened.

I don't know the man who had stopped to preach earlier. I'm sure it was a brave act of faith of some sorts. Maybe God told him to go and do that, but I doubt it. And I know my judging him isn't much better than his preaching. But I think we need to take note of what works and what doesn't work. Preaching at people doesn't work. Giving them moments of joy does. Condemnation doesn't work. Helping someone out does. Telling people what they need doesn't work. Loving them does.

Advent is about being still in the quietness and waiting, listening.

In that waiting and listening I am reminded that I need Jesus. You may need Him, too, but I don't know that it's my place to tell you that. It's more my place to try and make this world a little better, which I can do because I've got Jesus. Sometimes a little plastic-pail-pounding rhythm is the best way to share that. Sometimes it's a plate of cookies for your neighbor. Sometimes it's just a friendly smile.

One of my facebook friends coincidentally posted a picture tonight that said, "You can preach a better sermon with your life than with your lips." May it be so.


Advent: More Waiting

I didn't get to church tonight. I intended to; I tried to. I spent the day finishing up the artwork on a prayer station for the O Antiphons (I had O Rex Gentium/O King of the Nations) as well as getting the ingredients and making the desert we had for after church. When the time came I readied our dishes and eating utensils, I had the boys get ready, and I changed my clothes. We got our coats on and left the house. When I went to deadbolt the back door, I discovered that I didn't have my keys. I had set them on the dresser upstairs when I changed my pants. Along with my wallet which has my spare key.

It was cold outside, and we couldn't get into the garage or a vehicle. Thankfully, I had my phone with. I called our friends who have a spare key of ours. But they couldn't find it. They brought over several keys, but none worked. We drove back to their house to double-check if there were any other keys around. There was one. We went back to our house. It didn't work. So I sent the boys with them to church so they could get supper and be warm while I tried to hunt down a locksmith who would be available on a cold, snowy Sunday night. 

I called my wife (who is in San Francisco with keys to the house) to see if she had given a spare key to anyone else. She hadn't. I pulled the map up on my phone and typed in locksmith. I called the one nearby. They weren't open, of course, but their message said to press 2 for an emergency. I did. I left a message there. I didn't hear back. I called the second closest place. Their message said to press 1 for an emergency. I did. I got a call center (at least that's what it sounded like). They took my information and said someone was near and would call me back in 10-15 minutes. This was at 4:36.

I wasn't clear if that meant the person would be at our place in that amount of time or just call to confirm the information. Meanwhile I texted some nearby friends. They said I could walk down to their house to stay warm if needed. I figured I'd stay close by since it didn't sound like it would be too long a wait. After the 15 minute mark I saw the lights on at our neighbor's across the street; I went over to wait there. 

At 5:01 I received a call from the locksmith. He verified the address and that I was locked out of my house and said he'd be there in 25-30 minutes. I hadn't had a chance to catch up with our neighbors other than on facebook in a while, so it was nice to chat. After 30 minutes, I headed back to my house so I could direct the locksmith to the back door which wasn't deadbolted. And I waited. Longer than was wise of me to. 

At 6:04 I called the locksmith. He said he was 15 minutes away. 

At 6:28 he called to doulbe-check my address and said he was 3 minutes away. This time he was at least accurate. Five minutes and later I was in the house wondering if it would have been cheaper to just break a window and let myself in (I'll have to look into that for next time). 

By this time I was cold and hungry. And sad that I missed getting to church because of a dumb mistake. I love church during Advent season. And we have family celebrations coming up that may mean that we miss the next two Sundays as well. 

Advent is about waiting. Tonight I did a lot of waiting. I discovered that I don't wait well. I get anxious. I get worried. I'm typcially a patiend person with most people. I'm not when I'm locked out of my home and it's cold outside. I did get kudos from my son for not swearing when I discovered we were locked out. That's one thing I can do alright. 

I think I act the same way sometimes in my waiting for Christ. His Kingdom isn't here yet. I get anxious. I don't feel His presence the way I'd like to. I worry.  I want Him to answer my prayer. I get anxious. Our finances are tight. I worry. 

As much as Advent is about waiting, it is also about the assurance that God keeps His promises. He always comes through. 

The prayer station I finished today talks about how Jesus is the King of the nations and their desire, the cornerstone who will come save humanity. His Kingship means He is Lord, in control. I don't have to worry. I don't have to be anxious. When I do, I am taking His Kingship away and trying to claim it for myself. 

And so I learn to wait. Patiently. Seeking Him instead of my own fears. He is in control.

At 8:12, while I was putting the boys to bed, a man from the first locksmith place called and left a message. He could be at my place in an hour. For that, I'm glad I'm not still waiting. 


Celebrating St. Nick

If you've been around us, you know that we don't celebrate Christmas with Santa Claus and all those trimmings. Today is our day. Kind of. 

Today we observe the celebration of St. Nicholas: the real saint whose image and life lent itself to forming some of the modern day Santa Claus image. St. Nicholas grew up in a wealthy family in Greece in the late third century. His parents died when he was young, but he continued with his pious upbringing. He is said to have given away much of his wealth (including a story of leaving gold coins for three young, impoverished virgins whose family had no money for their dowries; in one version the coins are dropped down a chimney, in another they are placed in the ladies' hanging, drying stockings).

So we observe the day by talking about his life, trying to find ways to give to others, and giving a family present that will provide time together. My wife flies out of town in the morning, so we enjoyed an evening home together making pizza for supper and mixing up some gingerbread to pass on later (plus, the temperatures were dipping into negative temperatures, so we decided to skip Holidaze on 44th, a nearby neighborhood mile-long festival of hayrides, ice carving, hot cocoa, and other fun activities). The gift was a new board game which we played together. 
Yesterday my wife took the boys shopping to finish purchasing a few more objects for the shoe boxes we send overseas through Operation Christmas Child. It's our way of giving to children who wouldn't don't get presents otherwise; hopefully they experience the gift of Jesus as well. The boys and I will deliver those tomorrow to the local collection center (thankfully there's one in the Cities or we would have to prepare way ahead of time).

Hopefully our children learn to keep giving and serving others (as they get older I hope we can fit in some service work during this season). Hopefully they find that giving is a good thing, and that this time of year doesn't have to be filled with materialism. While they enjoy looking at the occasional Target circular we might receive (which is rarely), they don't pour over toy catalogs making lists of things they expect to be given at Christmas. They do get a present under the tree from us on Christmas morning as well as a stocking of smaller treats, but hopefully they are finding that the waiting part of Advent isn't about waiting to open presents. We can only try to instill in them those values at least. 

So may you discover the blessings of a life like St. Nicholas: of following the Christ Child and giving to others.


Advent 1: Waiting (Hope)

Tonight's passage:
Isaiah 2:1-5 (NIV)
1 This is what Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem:
In the last days
the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established
    as the highest of the mountains;
it will be exalted above the hills,
    and all nations will stream to it.
Many peoples will come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
    to the temple of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
    so that we may walk in his paths.”
The law will go out from Zion,
    the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He will judge between the nations
    and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
    and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
    nor will they train for war anymore.
Come, descendants of Jacob,
    let us walk in the light of the Lord.

Waiting. That's the main theme of Advent. It's not an easy one, either. We live in an instant-gratification society. As we lit the candle and read the Advent devotional tonight, my youngest was frustrated that tonight had us put together the background that we'll be putting stickers on rather than getting to put a sticker on tonight. He didn't want to wait one day. So of course that presented an opportunity to talk about the importance of learning to wait.

The Bible is full of waiting. Noah waited over a year for the flood waters to go down. Sarah waited through old age to become a mother.  The Israelites waited for deliverance. Then they waited for the promised land (albeit it was their own fault they couldn't enter right away because of their grumbling). The prophets waited for the Messiah to come and fulfill their prophecies. Mary waited for the Child to be born. John waited for the one whose sandals he was unworthy to untie. The disciples waited to know what to do after Jesus was crucified. We all await His return.

As we look back at those stories, we are given the hope that what was waited for came to pass. Even if what we are waiting for (like the coming Kingdom) seems like it may never arrive, we are given hope knowing it one day will.

Isaiah promises us that there will be a day when the Lord's path is clear and all will know it, and this will bring peace. Clearly we're not there yet. That is the tension we live in. We know that the Kingdom will come, and that it is already here in many ways, but not to the fullest extent of what is promised.

I have those tensions within me. I confess my sin and repent of it, but I still mess up plenty. I know that one day God will transform me completely--that I will be washed as white as snow. But I'm not there yet. I'm not fully made into the likeness of Christ. But I know that one day, God willing, I will be.

We put up our Christmas tree today--much earlier that we usually do (we typically wait until St. Nicholas Day or Santa Lucia Day to do it). My youngest couldn't wait (he really likes to appropriately decorate at celebrations), plus my wife is going to be gone next week. It, along with our advent devotions and candles each night, remind us that Christmas isn't here yet. The world waited for the Messiah to be born. We await His return. The lights on the tree give us hope in the darkness of winter. He will return. We can handle the wait.

Indeed, we live in the waiting. That is where life happens. And the better we learn to wait I think the better we learn to live.

Haiku prayers based on tonight's text:


Thanksgiving: The Good Life

However you feel about the history of the First Thanksgiving, I find it a laudable example of colonists and Native Americans coming alongside one another. The history afterward between the colonists and natives may not be exemplary in all occasions, but neither were the histories between the Native American tribes.

First, some historical facts I was reminded of today:

The first national observation that George Washington called for was to be a day of fasting and giving thanks. "Humiliation" was a common term used with proclamations of thanksgiving by the Continental Congress and later. It is a stark contrast to our feasting followed by shopping gluttony today.

Abraham Lincoln was the first President to institute Thanksgiving as a national holiday (upon the insistence of the woman who wrote "Mary Had a Little Lamb"). In the midst of the Civil War, Lincoln declared a time of giving thanks to help bring the nation together.

As I was listening to NPR on our drive to be with family today I was reminded in the midst of interviews with Anne Lamott and Julia Sweeney how wonderful of a holiday Thanksgiving can be. It's something everyone can celebrate. We all have something to be thankful for. We also don't need to have a specific deity that we follow in order to be thankful (though, of course, I have my thoughts on the God who provides everything).

I've written before about how "gratitude evaporates frustration" (as learned from my old mentor in camping ministry). There have been scientific studies on how gratitude increases our level of happiness. In short, gratitude is a good thing. It gets us out of ourselves and reminds us that we need others.

I know I need to be more thankful through out my day--every day of the year. I don't take enough time in the midst of work and parenting and life to look at all I have and be thankful for it all. I'm more apt to focus on the things that are stressful, annoying, or bothering me. And focusing on those things gets me back inside myself where it's all about me in a selfish way. But when I'm focused on gratitude I realize how blessed I am and how I have nothing to worry about, complain about, or fear.

I'm getting some time this holiday with my new twin nieces whom I'm finally getting to see for the first time. My sister (herself a twin) had some complications toward the end of her pregnancy and the girls were born a bit early and spent time in the NICU. But they're both beautiful and growing well.

They can't take care of themselves; everything they need is provided for them by their parents. I have a Father who provides everything I need as well. More than I need. Certainly more than I deserve. For all I have been given, I am grateful.

Thanksgiving reminds me that life is good.


Sunday Night Musings: Christ the king

What's there to say about Christ the King Sunday that I haven't said the past few years? Mainly, it's that I don't have it down yet. Each day there are plenty areas of my life that I need to keep surrendering to the lordship of Christ. There are plenty of areas of my life that I think I should retain lordship of for some reason. Like I know how to do things better than God does. Like my way ends up turning out so well.

Needless to say (but I will anyway), He does know better than I do. He does things with love, wisdom, and justice. And besides, being His follower means that I don't do what I want to do unless it's what He wants me to do. Not that I'm a mindless robot or that He's a puppet master. But I turn my will over to Him because He loves me and I love Him. It doesn't mean I don't think for myself or have any say in things (why else would we pray?), but that I put all areas of my life under His lordship. Everything I have is His anyway...why not let Him use it for His glory? Why not let Him multiply the blessings?

So each day I try and remember to surrender my will to Jesus, to lay my crown down before Him. It's not easy. I need to keep it in check.

Years ago at a youth conference I was with a group of students at Candi Pearson from Passion taught us her song, "Sing to the King." The video below is from a different gathering, but the song still says the things I need to remember:

Come, let us sing a song:
A song declaring that we belong to Jesus;
He is all we need.


Prayers in School

Our classroom had a lot of changes this week. Some hard changes, many good changes, but changes which of course can be difficult as we all know.

One of the changes is that the students are eating lunch in our classroom instead of the cafeteria. This is common in some Montessori schools. Until this year, only the toddler class and a children's house had done this before. The children learn how to set a table and eat together. It definitely creates a different atmosphere as compared to eating in the cafeteria (which is our gymnasium).

One of the interesting things that has happened is that I have seen at least two tables of students praying for the meal. Not just an individual student praying, but the whole table (one was four student, the other was six students). Because I'm dishing out food for students then, I'm not able to stop and listen in on the prayers, but they're still interesting to come across. At least one of the tables held hands together. After one of the tables prayed today I heard several of the students say, "Hooray for God!" (Or something like that.)

I'm fairly certain that not all the students come from Christian backgrounds at those tables. I believe there is at least one or two Jewish students participating, probably a few more students from families with no spiritual tradition. But they all seem to get into giving thanks.

I'll be clear that no one from the school is encouraging or starting the prayers. The students are doing it: 1st, 2nd, and 3rd graders.

I've heard people complain about how the government has taken prayer out of school, and that it's part of the downfall of our country. I disagree. I believe students' faith will be at its best when it's not given to them, but when they're able to develop it on their own.

Prayer has never been dis-allowed in schools. It's more that we seldom have taught children how to pray on their own. And why are we so concerned about prayer in public? Didn't Jesus laud the kind of praying that is done in private that doesn't get attention from anyone but God?

Now I've been there before. I "saw you at the pole." I even wrote a pretty conservative paper on prayer in school when I was in high school. 

But the older I get--the longer I've been a parent--I realize that I don't want that for my kids. It's one thing to be led in prayer and pray together at church. It's another thing for that to happen in non-religious settings. I want my children to have the kind of faith where they feel comfortable praying on their own in different situations outside of meals at home or bedtime routines. 

I want my kids to be able to be thankful to God before meals at school if that's the place their heart is at. I want them to take a minute to pray for a friend who's sick or hurting. I want them to be able to pray before a test or after a lesson or while on the playground. 

I also want my chlidren to respect the faith and beliefs of others without belittling or making fun of them. I want others to do that for my children as well. 

So I support prayer in schools like that. 


Fingers on A Sunday Night

Strong fingers grasp my
Hand as we sing together
The words of the ageless,
Ancient prayer that Christ
Taught His followers.

Bony, aged fingers struggle
At the hardened crust of the loaf,
Trying to break it enough
To rip off a piece of the bread.
Delicately, they place the morsel
In my outstretched hands,
Blessing me with
The body of Christ.

Short, soft fingers that have
Only seen a few years of life
Grasp the chalice and
Lift it to me, offering
The purple juice,
The blood of the Lamb.

Unseen fingers touch my back
At various heights as
Young and old behind me
Extend blessing as I touch the
Back of another in front of me,
Praying blessing and healing
Upon them and others
Within the gathered circle.

Multiple fingers wrap around
Me in embrace as their owners
Share prayers of peace;
Touching each other,
Connecting, blessing, loving.


Sunday Night Musings: Stories

Unless your church is into Left Behind books and such, we don't tend to talk about the end times much--other than that we know Jesus will return. We especially tend to gloss over that discussion when it involves mentioning that believers will be persecuted in the last days, like tonight's passage, Luke 21:5-19, briefly mentions.

It wasn't our focus at church tonight. Which is fine. But I think our churches in the West tend to gloss over those passages because they're not a reality for us. And we can say that's the blessing of the freedoms we have in our part of the world--which is true--but I wonder if it's also because we're not living out our faith that boldly. We don't have to. We like to think of ourselves as a "Christian nation."

We also tend to not want to rock the boat. We tend to think of issues of justice as either the government's job or the church's job, but not ours. We tend to not be very radical in our love for others--at least not in the way Jesus radically loved. We sometimes like our Christianity to be safe, accompanied by a security of knowing that we'll escape hell.

I know this is sometimes true for me. I like to keep my faith safe so that others won't judge me or think I'm a religious freak.  So I think this is our cultural challenge: to live more like Jesus lived. Radically loving.

*gets off soapbox

Jesus says that His followers will be put on trial someday, but not to worry. "This will be your opportunity—your opportunity to tell your story" (Luke 21:13, The Voice). We focused on that tonight at church. 

Jesus encourages us to "stand firm, and you will win life" (21:19, NIV). We discussed tonight how stories bolster us for standing firm. During the infant years of the church, they didn't have sermons in their worship times; they told stories. Everything was passed down by oral tradition. Only the scribes had the Scriptures written down. 

So tonight we told some stories. They reminded us of God's faithfulness. They helped us to recognize the people God used to minister to us unexpectedly when we were in need. They connected us to others. They opened our eyes. 

Stories are good. We don't share ours enough. 

I remember a time several years ago when I was working at Twin Lakes Christian Center. I was putting on a winter retreat for jr. high and high school students and I needed volunteer counselors for the cabins. It was my responsibility for every retreat and camp I programmed to make sure we had all the volunteers and staff we needed. At this retreat a former camper and summer staffer brought a group of friends up from the college he was attending. It was a huge help.

One of the times before free time started, I was showing a group of them how to load up campers on wooden toboggans and send them down the toboggan chute we had that went out onto the frozen lake. While the five of us were standing in the wooden "silo" that sheltered the top of the chute, one of the college students asked about our stories. 

So we took turns sharing a brief recounting of how we came to know Jesus. I can't remember any of the specific people who were there with me or their specific stories, but I remember the sacredness of that moment. 

We were each encouraged. We were each strengthened in our faith. We were each reminded of why we were doing what we were doing. 

Today at church, the leader for our story activity shared how each time when we gather together at the beginning of our evening and circle up for a prayer before we eat, she is bolstered by the fact that she knows each of our stories. We are connected. We are testimonies to what God can and does do.

Stories are good. We need to share ours more.


Sunday Night Musing: The Sadducees' Question

When I hear the scripture at church and the subsequent passage, I try to ask, "So what?" So what does that passage mean for my life? Sometimes that's obvious: "Love your neighbor." Yes, I may need to take the extra effort to do that and figure out what that looks like in my particular context, but I get that my response from the passage would be to go and actually love my neighbors--not just stare at them from behind curtained windows. 

That's my whole goal for encountering God's word through sermons--to figure out what it means for my life. I believe they're transforming words--not just good teachings. Often in Jesus' teachings it's not to difficult to see where my life needs to be transformed by His words. Sometimes it's not so easy.

Like tonight's passage (Luke 20:27-38). A group of Sadducees approach Jesus. They happen to be a Jewish sect at odds with the Pharisees (who were also at odds with Jesus most of the time), especially regarding the afterlife. The Sadducees didn't believe it existed. Death was the end. There were no rewards or punishments for life, just finality. I haven't studied them much, but it seems that they come to Jesus to know if He's on their side or the Pharisees' side.

So they tell Him a story: Supposing there's a man who dies before he has children, and he has six brothers (now in ancient Jewish culture, it was crucial that a man have offspring. If he died before he had any it was his brother's obligation to marry his wife and produce an heir for him. It's a little twisted, I know, but that's how it was). So the next brother marries the woman, but again dies before a child is conceived. So the next brother marries her, but dies, and so on until all seven brothers have been married to this woman at one point or another.

Thinking that this story will entice Jesus to point out the ludicrousness of the notion of an afterlife, they ask Jesus which man will be the woman's husband in the afterlife.

Jesus sets them all straight:
“Marriage is for people here on earth. But in the age to come, those worthy of being raised from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage. And they will never die again. In this respect they will be like angels. They are children of God and children of the resurrection.
“But now, as to whether the dead will be raised—even Moses proved this when he wrote about the burning bush. Long after Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had died, he referred to the Lord as ‘the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.' So he is the God of the living, not the dead, for they are all alive to him.” (Luke 20:34-38)
Jesus gives a new perspective. There is an afterlife and it's not at all how you imagine it will be. Our life here is messed-up and burdened with laws meant to help us find the right path, but the point isn't the laws or our theology--the point is God and life with Him.

Now, this is a good teaching. It's one of the first times in the Bible that we get a little more detail about the afterlife.

But I, along with the majority of Christendom, believe in the afterlife. Two millennia of church doctrine has reinforced it's existence for us.

So what? What does this passage mean for me? How does it transform my life?

I've come up with two thoughts for me:

1. That it isn't good to spend too much time thinking about proper doctrine and codes of conduct. That was where the Sadducees were at. They wanted what they believed to be correct, and they wanted their opposition to be taught a lesson. Now proper doctrine is important, of course. But not for the sake of proving others wrong. It's important for the sake of living it out. It's important for knowing God and how to follow Him.

2. The fact of the afterlife should transform my daily living. At least, it seems to me that since there is an afterlife--a Heaven and Hell, a place where we'll spend eternity, judgment and an ever-after with God--that my daily life should be influenced by that thought. Not that I live a good life to be rewarded, but that I live knowing that the messiness of life now is not how it's supposed to be. Knowing that the pain and suffering will end and one day everything will be set right.

I can react differently when an injustice happens to me because I know it's not the end. I see the student at school who is being mean to another student differently because I know she has a soul meant for eternity with God--instead of being angry at her, I can find out what's troubling her. I don't always think this way, of course, but the passage helps remind me of this. I guess that's the "so what?" for me.

The Story

"God writes the Gospel not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and in the flowers and clouds and stars."
     - Martin Luther (born this day in 1483)


Sunday Night Musings: Wee Little Men

Sometimes there a Bible stories that I have heard from childhood that I know well, but I don't know what to do with them. Tonight's passage was from Luke 19:1-10: the story of Zacchaeus. By now you may have the Sunday School song going through your head ("Zacchaeus was a wee little man..."), but if you don't, let me give you a quick refresher:

Zacchaeus, a tax collector (hated by the Jews, considered traitors with the Romans), heard that Jesus was in town (Jericho) and wanted to see him. He was of short-stature, however, and couldn't see Jesus through the crowd, so he climbed up in a sycamore tree. Jesus sees him, stops, and tells him to come down because Jesus is going to Zacchaeus house. The crowd begins to murmur at the thought of Jesus eating at a sinner's house (gasp!). Hearing them, Zacchaeus declares that he is giving up half his possessions to the poor and will give anyone whom he has cheated four times the amount in return. Jesus said, “Today is salvation day in this home! Here he is: Zacchaeus, son of Abraham! For the Son of Man came to find and restore the lost" (vs 9-10, The Message). 

So we know that Zacchaeus is a sinner (who isn't!). He wants to see Jesus (good for him). Jesus assertively invites Himself over to Zacchaeus' house (so we learn Jesus isn't a passive Scandinavian). The crowd is upset (after all, God should only be concerned with religious do-gooders, right?). Zacchaeus repents and says he'll make amends (a great example). Jesus declares that Zacchaeus has found salvation. It's a good story. A sinner finds redemption. I just don't always get what it has to do for me in the here and now. 
As we talked about the story tonight, however, I think part of what I need to hear is the reminder that assertive Jesus comes to seek the lost. And let's face it, there are a number of times in life when I'm lost. I need Him seeking me.

I think my religious upbringing sometimes hinders me here, though. My Protestant work ethic sometimes gets in the way of letting Jesus seek me. I think I must work, work, work, do, do, do in order for me to be found. And yes, Zacchaeus makes the effort to climb the tree. But that's all he needs to do--to place himself in a position to be found. Sometimes my doing--even good, religious activities--gets in the way of that happening.

I also grew up knowing that God is omnipresent. He's everywhere. This knowledge can cause me to swing between to extremes: 1) I ignore that knowledge and act as if He isn't present, or 2) I take His presence for granted thinking that because He's present, I don't need to let Him find me. 

The Zacchaeus story reminds me to be mindful of the posture I have with Jesus. Am I willing to do something ridiculous like climb a tree with a crowd around in order to see Jesus? Do I place myself in a position to be found? Do I notice when He stops and calls to me?

I, too, am a wee little man. Maybe not in stature (thought compared to my college roommates I was), but spiritually I am. I can't always see Jesus in my day. I want to. Or at least I want to want to. 

It's good to know that He's seeking me out.


Van Gogh's Mistake

I'm a frist-born child. As I understand things, first-born children tend to be perfectionists. Now, I'm not the kind of perfectionist who freezes up for fear of doing something perfectly. But I don't like the flaws I have. I don't like to admit I have any; I try to hide them instead of acknowledge them.

A while ago I heard someone talking about a Vincent Van Gogh painting that is in the collection at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (for the life of me I can't remember if this was overhearing a tour going on there or hearing someone else talking about it). There's a painting of his called Olive Groves. Van Gogh made a glaring mistake with the painting. 

I didn't notice it until it was pointed out. Look closely (this isn't the whole painting, but it shows what you need to see). Do you see it? No? Look at the sun. Now look at the shadows that fall from the trees. 

They don't lie in the right direction. According to the direction of the shadows, the sun should be on the left side of the painting, but it's right over head. Van Gogh made a mistake. And his mistake hangs in a museum. 

The Amish traditionally always include a mistake in the quilts they make. They do it under the premise that only God is perfect. 
This isn't a bad thing to remember about myself as well. I don't need to be perfect. I can still be a masterpiece wiith flaws and mistakes. God is perfect; I am not, but that doesn't mean I'm not worthwhile. These are lessons I need to keep in front of me, otherwise I forget them. 
I have people who know my character defects--they hear about them often. It doesn't matter to them, though. I always think that if people know those things about me, then they'll not like me any more. But that's not true. People still like the authentic me--flaws and all. 
I often fear that those character defects make me so flawed that I'd be undisplayable. Van Gogh's art, mistake and all, is still displayable. Whenever I'm at the art institute, I try to make it to the room the painting is in. It's still a masterpiece; I still enjoy looking at it. 
Sometimes I need the reminder that God feels the same about me.


Sunday Night Musing: Humility & Prayer

The boys and I were in Iowa this weekend for a wedding. It was the daughter of one of the people I worked with at camp for almost five years. Most of the other camp friends were there as well. Of course, there isn't a lot of catch-up time at a wedding, but it was fun to see everyone.

They didn't remember most of the people (other than the few whom we had seen in the past year and a half). The boys and I drove around the camp on our way back to my parents' house. They didn't remember living there (of course Nils was just a few months old when we lived there). Anders commented on how it would be fun to live there. Sometimes I wish we still were. Sometimes. I loved the ministry. The hours made it hard to do with family.

We also stayed this morning and went to church with my parents. It's been a while since I've been to the church I grew up in. I enjoyed seeing the people who were there when I was growing up; it was also enjoyable to see people who were children when I left home now leading worship.

The guest preacher preached the lectionary text from Luke 18:9-14 (which was nice because we didn't end up making it back home to church in time). In the text Jesus tells His disciples a story about two men who are at the Temple praying. One was a religious scholar--the looked-up-to guys who make the rules about how to follow the Law; the other was a tax collector--the hated collaborator of the Romans.

The Pharisee stands where everyone can see him, praying out loud (the text says to/about himself rather than praying to God). He is thankful--thankful that he isn't like sinners. He lifts himself up by stepping on the backs of those whom he looks down upon. He justifies himself through his actions.

The tax collector stands meekly aside, not able to even lift his head up. He beats his chest before God, saying a short, seven-word prayer: "God, have mercy on me, a sinner." He acknowledges his place before God, and pleads for mercy.

Prayer is not a place of self-promotion. It is not about elevating ourselves and putting others down. It's not about justifying ourselves through our actions.

Prayer is about a relationship with God. It is acknowledging our place before Him. It acknowledges His Lordship and that He is the one who justifies us.

It's a good reminder that prayer doesn't need to be lengthy or eloquent. It's a simple act that flows out of a sincere heart.

It's also a good reminder that I need to do it more. And saying "God, have mercy on me, a sinner," is a good place to start. Even just simply "Lord, have mercy." Those three words cover a multitude of situations: during a stressful time at work, while the neighbor is yelling at her kids, when a friend is hurting, when I'm a sinner in need of grace. In short: all the time.

Lord, have mercy.


An Autumn Hike with the Boys

Last Thursday and Friday, we had off from school. It's an annual Minnesota tradition called "MEA Weekend." It's supposed to be a time for Minnesota educators to get together for workshops and such. Our school has sometimes held it's own in-services during those days, but this year, we got them off (hooray!--it's been a bit of a stressful start to the school year, and I think our administration was cognizant of that fact when deciding to scrap the workshops). Apparently it's the most-traveled time in Minnesota--more so than Thanksgiving or Christmas.

The week had started out pretty nice--a pleasant autumn week in Minnesota. I was keeping an eye on the weather forecasts and knew it would get cooler. But still a few degrees above freezing. Barely. I had already been camping myself the week before and woke up to frost, and was willing to take that chance again. But I wasn't sure if the boys would be up to it. They'd camped in cold temperatures on our Spring Break trip, but they're sleeping bags aren't rated for as low temperatures as mine is. So I went back and forth between going and not going.

But I really liked the idea of going. Especially up north to a campsite on the north shore of Lake Superior where I hadn't been for a while. And getting out of the city again sounded good. I was convincing myself in my head that winter would be here soon and we'd be trapped in the city for a months upon end (which isn't really true, but I was capable of believing it was). So on Wednesday night I hastily pulled out all our camping gear and some food items that could get us by for two days. All we would need to do was grab some clothes and put everything in the car.

Thursday morning, though, reality hit. We were all a bit tired and needed extra sleep. And it clearly was a cold morning here; it would be a lot colder up north. I was doing this all for my own selfish reasons. There was a chance of rain coming through as well. Wet and cold aren't a pleasant mix for being outside for over 36 hours.

So I compromised. I put together a quick lunch for us and we left for a nearby state park that we hadn't explored yet. Of course, it wasn't that speedy of a process. The boys were in their mindset where they didn't want to go out. They just wanted to sit at home and play with Legos and video games. They get in this funk sometimes. Nature was their enemy. It was my desire. Knowing the weather wasn't going to get much better over the weekend, I pushed them into the car, praying for a change of attitudes.

By the time we got to Afton State Park, surrounding a ski hill nestled along the St. Croix River, their attitudes were only slightly better. A little food helped. A little time in the visitors center helped slightly more. Playing with leaves in a stream and finding sticks in the woods helped a lot more. By the time we reached the river to finish our lunches, they were in pretty good spirits.

After forty-five minutes of hiking along the beach and up the river, Anders discovered his best stick got left behind on the bench where we sat and ate (his brother's fault--not his--of course).

Admittedly, I was being a bit stubborn and didn't want to hike back there again--I wanted to see some new sites. He was also throwing a tantrum about it, and as a parental rule we don't give in to tantrums. It didn't matter to him that there were thousands of other sticks in the woods (we were standing right by a pile of several hundred at that instant). The one that got left behind was the perfect stick. There wouldn't be another one like it in the forest.

After many, many minutes of trying to get him to move on, we resumed our hike. Anders ran far ahead, showing he was mad, and we had a couple more tantrum stops, but there's nothing like a good hike uphill through the woods to help someone move on from a slump. The good thing about Anders being a poop is that Nils compensates and puts on his best behavior. But by the time we got up out of the woods into the upper prairie lands both of them were back into good moods. We enjoyed milkweeds, orange and red leaves, acorn collecting, spying turkey vultures high in the thermals rising over the river, and time together.

Swimming season has been over for a while now (though I guess it's been just five weeks or so since our last swim)--and it'll be a few months before we pay for the gym membership. It's been a few weeks since I've gotten in a good bike ride (for me I guess it's not as enjoyable to do long rides with a lot of clothes). For me the fall is hiking season. Beautiful sights, good exercise, and good time together with the boys (sometimes a solo hike is good, sometimes a family hike is good--you take what you need).

Snow flakes fell a few days ago. Just a few white specks in the sky that hit the windshield and disappeared before reaching the ground. But they were a reminder that autumn doesn't last long in this part of the country (last year we went straight from summer to winter it seemed).

The boys may say they hate hiking when I suggest we go, but it's creating good memories. And I think they secretly enjoy it. Fresh air, some exercise, natural beauty, and time together make it all worth it no matter how they feel.


Sunday Night Musing: Persistent Widows

In Luke 18:1-9 Jesus tells this story that is often labeled "The Persistent Widow" or "The Unjust Judge." In the parable a widow comes to a judge to ask for justice with some unfair dealings that have happened to her. She keeps asking him for justice against her adversary. Over and over again. The judge admits to being godless and not caring what other people think. Eventually, however, despite his lack of sympathy, empathy, compassion, or justice, he gives in. Her persistence has worn him down. He can't take any more of her, so he gives her justice. Most likely the story should be titled "The Annoying Woman and the Jerk of a Judge," but it's not (it's only Bible publishers that title the sections--they weren't originally there of course).

We're told at the beginning of the passage that Jesus told His disciples this story "to show them that they should always pray and not give up" (Luke 18:1). It's always nice to know the actual intent of a parable. We are to pray often and not give up. And our persistent prayers should be seeking justice it seems.

We're also told that God is not like the judge. He's not uncaring or unjust. He's loving and righteous. 

"And will not God bring about justice for His chosen ones, who cry out to Him day and night? Will He keep putting them off? I tell you, He will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8-9). 

Jesus is concerned that when He returns, He won't find faithful people--people praying persistently. Ouch. I see the finger pointing at me. I fail here. 

A) I don't pray persistently.
B) I don't pray persistently about issues of justice.
C) When I do pray persistently it's usually about me (mostly along the lines of "I want to get over this cold" or "Let today go well").
D) I don't pray persistently.

Now, Jesus taught this, I do believe, not to shame or point fingers, but to encourage His followers. God does want to bring justice for His chosen. Seeking justice is a good thing; I will try to be more faithful. 

Orphans, widows, the imprisoned, the homeless, those going through foreclosure, those in war-torn areas, the persecuted, the oppressed, the immigrant, those discriminated against, the hungry, those with sickness and disease. These are all people who need justice. I can be an instrument to help bring that about. Actions are good; prayer is the first step, though.


Thinking Ahead

"How we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life."
                      - Admiral T. Kirk (William Shatner), Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan


Sunday Night Musing: Thankful Lepers

In Luke 17:11-19 we hear the story of 10 lepers living on the border region between Samaria and Galilee. It's kind of a line of demarcation between two bitter enemies, each considering the other to be outcasts. And this group of lepers were outcasts of outcasts.

They approach Jesus and ask to be healed. Jesus tells them to go see the priest (a requirement to prove cleanliness for being able to be in society as well as worship after being "unclean"). They go. Then they are healed. It's an interested sequence of events. They are healed after they obey Jesus.

One of them notices that he was healed and turns back. He happens to be a Samaritan (ie. "the bad guy"). He falls at Jesus' feet and praises God. Jesus tells him that his faith has saved him (some translations use "healed" but I'm told the Greek word is more than just a physical healing).

I've written before about a former mentor's quote: "Gratitude evaporates frustration."

I think we could also add: "Gratitude propels blessings."

When we give thanks, it opens our hearts. We become aware of the blessings around us. I think there may be occasions where it also places us in positions to receive fuller blessing. All ten were healed. Only one was saved.

We try and make it a practice each day to reflect on what we're thankful for with our children. I don't do it enough during the day, though. And I tend to look at the surface level: Thank You for the nice weather, for our food, for our home, for our family, etc.

Sometimes, even in the midst of something amazing like being healed, I can forget to give thanks. Sometimes I can focus on the negative in an event and forget to give thanks for the positive that also happened.

The one who came back didn't just say thanks in his heart; he said it out loud amidst a flurry of worship. So I'm trying to let the Samaritan remind me to give thanks more, and also to pray for mercy. Both are good. Both are needed.

* * * * *

How about you? What are you thankful for? I'd love for the comment thread on this post to be a place to list our thanksgivings.

Camping Alone: A Story of Solitude

I'm doing something I haven't done since college: camping alone. And back then it was for RA training. We all got dropped off in the woods (okay it was really an old cattle pasture) for a night of solitude.

My wife's been encouraging me for a while to take some time by meals for retreats since I'm with the kids all the time and she gets to do several trips for her work. I'm bad at relinquishing my duty of parenthood, but part if being a good parent is self care. 

I've been wanting to go camping this fall but it hasn't worked out to do yet. So this  weekend my wife said why don't you go camping by yourself. And I finally listened to her. 

After lunch I loaded up my backpack with a few clothes, camping pillow, mat, sleeping bag, and tent. I gathered the camping bin to extract a few supplies from and some reading material. My wig had made me a hobo dinner packet for supper and I gathered some hard boiled eggs and fruit for breakfast (though the banana apparently got left at home) and some sunflower seeds for snacking on while hiking. 

It started sprinkling about a half hour before I reached the state forest where I planned to camp. It continued for almost four more hours. 

This is not what I had in mind. I had hoped for time to hike and sit around the campsite reading, writing, and talking with God. I was able to get the tent up before it started coming down harder, but as I sat in the car seeing the drops roll down the windshield I wondered if I should just head back home before paying for a night. 

I had looked at the forecast in the morning. That 30% chance of rain was feeling more like 30% of the day. But it wasn't too heavy and it said it would let up before night so I decided to stay and go for a hike. As long as it wasn't too heavy of a rain I should be able to stay relatively dry under the forest canopy. 

I hiked for about 3 hours. I never encountered another person (though I did hear gunshots a few times). Even the wildlife was silent. I only heard birds twice. I never saw an animal--not even a squirrel. 

This was solitude. So why wasn't I hearing anything from God?  I wanted some spiritual direction, some healing, some psychological break through. I got nothing. 

I called a friend who I check in with weekly. I needed to talk. I got his voice mail. But as I left a message I realized that I was mostly struggling because my expectations weren't being met. 

Yes, the weather wasn't great but I was still getting time alone. And maybe God wasn't speaking in the way I wanted, but His creation was beautiful. I was getting some good exercise, taking some fun photographs, and breathing fresh air in deeply. God was present. 

I am sitting around the campfire now allowing myself this technological moment to type since it is too dark to read or write and my lantern didn't charge for some reason. 

Wolves or coyotes had been howling in the distance. I love the sound. But apparently I've read too many stories of Pa getting surrounded by wolves in the Little House on the Prairie books because I just got freaked out when I heard some breathing and rustling next to me. That's when I discovered that the lantern didn't charge. Once I got my phone unlocked and found my flashlight app I saw something black wandering back in the woods. Probably just a raccoon. Little bugger. 

That's one of the downsides to solitude: no one to talk you out of your irrational fears in the dark. Still, the sign about bears didn't help. At least the moon is out now. It's quite chilly though and the fire is slowly dying down so I think I'll head to my tent soon. 

Old Blue is the second tent I ever owned (the first being a pup tent my parents got with green stamps from the grocery store when I was going into 6th grade). She's just a cheap 2-person dome tent (really cheap) and she's been around since college I think, but she didn't leak any rain. She now has a set of large nails for tent pegs and most of the poles have at least one crack. Still, she held up. Thankfully my sleeping bag isn't cheap. My fingers are starting to get numb outside. Time to go bundle up and listen to the wolves howl at the moon.

It got cold overnight. I went for a hike around 8:30 or 9 and there were places with frost. As sunlight hit the trees, the leaves began dripping the melted frost.

I stayed fairly warm overnight. But the two problems of camping in the cold are: 1) having to get up and pee in the middle of the night (and with a good sleeping bag, generally you stay warmer by wearing fewer clothes, so I'm usually in my undies and a t-shirt) and 2) trying to get clothes on in the morning while staying within the confines of your sleeping bag--especially a mummy bag. Thankfully, I managed both.

I headed home wishing the time alone was more. Maybe I should have prayed more. Maybe I have more I need to confess to unblock something between me and God. Maybe I should have left my camera/phone in my pocket so I wasn't distracted by using technology and looking for pictures to take. These thoughts all crossed my mind. I had wanted to hear more from God.

I can come up with my excuses and find reasons to blame myself for the time of solitude not going the way I desired. I don't know why it wasn't the deeply spiritual experience I hoped it was. But I'm sure plenty of dessert fathers and mothers experienced that almost every day as they spent years in solitude. Sometimes it's just about obedience and taking the time away to listen.

I wonder if listening with my ears was less important than listening with my other senses. I did see God's awesomeness through the colors and sights of autumn. I breathed in the freshness of the woods, being reminded of God's provision for life each day. While reading around the campfire, I was reminded of God's crazy love for me. Maybe those things were all I needed to hear.


A Hike with Eloise Butler

On Saturday I had an opportunity to go for a nice long hike. Nils was at a birthday party, Anders was at a friend's house, and Beth was getting some studying/work done.

I am grateful that right in the middle of the Twin Cities, we have some nice hiking opportunities. Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden and Bird Sanctuary in the middle of Theo Wirth Park (the largest park in Minneapolis) was my destination. I spent close to two hours hiking and didn't cover all the trails (including the ones outside of the sanctuary's fenced-in zone).

I never park at the pay meters by the Garden, but prefer to park down the road where it's free and you have to hike a little further through somewhat unmarked trails to find the Garden. It's a win-win if you ask me.

While most of the trees are still greenish, the off-beat trails took me past leaves of orange, red, yellow, and mundane brown. Acorns covered the path in places.

I entered into the Sanctuary's back gate. Several trails branch off from there and reconvene near the front gate. It's not a huge area, but the trails take you through woodland, wetland, and prairie.

From the Minneapolis Parks & Rec website:
The 15-acre garden is the oldest public wildflower garden in the nation. Its legacy dates back to 1907 when Minneapolis botanist Eloise Butler and botany teachers successfully petitioned the Minneapolis Park Board to create a natural botanic garden to preserve native flora as the city grew.
It started sprinkling a little during the hike, so I stuck to the woodland paths for a little longer. The canopy of trees kept me from getting very wet, but also provided a soundboard for the raindrops to splat against.

As the rain abated, I climbed up the hill to where the grassland sits. Somewhere in the nearby distance (if I may use that oxymoron), church bells tolled the coming of a new hour. Nature and church bells are two of the things that enable me to find some peace in the midst of the city. Together they were a brief moment of bliss.

After trodding most of the trails in the Garden, I left via the front gate and explored trails hoping to get back to my car. It was much easier to serendipitously wander across the Gardens while hiking than it was to keep myself headed in the right direction of the parking lot. I kept finding myself circling back along the Garden's perimeter, so I did pull out the compass app on my phone a few times.

At one point a young stag wandered out of the woods about 15 yards away from me. I stood and watched him for a while and he watched me. He let me follow him along a path for a while, but then he headed down a steep ravine which I decided against following on after the slippery conditions from the rain. So I continued on the noticeable trail--only to find myself back along the Garden's perimeter. I doubled back and got on a trail and after a few more minutes of walking came across the deer again. Maybe I should have just followed him...

I appreciate the work of Eloise Butler to preserve such an area with native flora (as well as habitats for the fauna), as well as the work of Theodore Wirth for whom the larger park surrounding the Garden is named. The "dean of the local parks movement in America," Wirth became the superintendent of parks for Minneapolis at the turn of the century. His goal was to have a playground within a quarter-mile of every child and a recreation center within a half-mile. He helped keep the land around the Mississippi River, Minnehaha Creek, and all the lakes within the city limits public. Most suburbs have homes surrounding their lakes, but ours have pathways, parks, and beaches. Everyone has access to them.

I'm a country boy. At heart, I always will be. I've learned to live in some rather large metropolitan areas, but I need time in wild, open places. I'm thankful there are opportunities for me to have that right in Minneapolis. And after starting back to school, I needed that hike.


Sunday Night Musing: Surrender

Tonight we heard the story of Lazarus and the rich man. Sometimes I just want to hear about how the Scripture applies to my life, telling me what to do. Sometimes the debate of commentaries is tiresome. Tonight, my friend Toyna taught on this passage having us think about the places where we don't see the needs of others and how we may use our resources (time, talents, possessions) to help them.

She also shared that there used to be old Jewish folk tales about a rich man and a poor man who die like in the story Jesus tells. But the folk stories have the poor man going back to the living to give the rich man's family a warning about the after life and living well. Jesus, however, doesn't have that happen. He says that the living have the words of Moses and the prophets. If they don't believe them, then they won't believe even when someone rises from the dead. 

Jesus seems to be saying that we have all we need for faith. We've had Him rise from the dead. Even that wasn't enough for everyone to believe. 

Faith isn't about having enough proof. It's about where our heart is. If we're not ready to give up our own will and follow God's, then no amount of proof of His existence will matter. If we're not ready to surrender all to God, faith isn't really attainable.

I'm learning that surrender is a daily thing for me. Just because I gave my life to Christ once (okay, actually several times over the course of several summers at Bible camp), doesn't mean that I'm living like it each moment. Every day I have to choose to follow Jesus over doing what my own will wants to do.

Each morning I try to remember to pray a prayer of surrender. I don't always remember, but I try. Days seem to go a bit better when I do remember.

And while I'm surrendering I'm keeping my eyes open for the people God places in front of me to reach out to in what ever way they need. Or at least I'm trying.