A Mortality of a New Pet

For his birthday this past summer my oldest son received a frog habitat from my parents. We waited until summer travels where done to order the free tadpole that came with it (which of course, we had to pay shipping on, of course)--actually, it may have been more like October when I got around to order it.

Apparently, the tadpoles only hatch/ship in the winter and spring months. It just arrived today (it doesn't seem to me that shipping a tadpole in January in Minnesota is the best idea, but it arrived just fine).

Anders couldn't sleep tonight. He just came down a little after 9pm. He was worried about his tadpole (which he spent his reading time thinking up names for in bedtime). It's supposed to be in non-chlorinated water, which we didn't have on hand so we melted some snow to use instead. He's worried it's going to die.

* * * * *

Several years ago a friend left us a baby painted turtle that wandered into their house. Anders called it "Muddy" thinking initially that it was a mud turtle. We had it for a few weeks before it died.

Anders is a sensitive child. Most movies make him cry. He has a caring, tender heart. He cried most of the day that Muddy died. That's one of the hard parts of having a pet.

Allergies and asthma exist in our household so we haven't had pets around. I grew up on a farm and all of our pets were outdoor pets (with a few rare exceptions) and we tamed a couple outdoor kittens when we lived on a farm when Anders was very little; I don't want to deal too much with having a pet in the city. So, the tadpole will be our first household pet.

I hope it teaches him some responsibility--feeding, changing the water, etc. A tadpole/frog isn't a very cuddly pet, obviously, but I know he'll come to be attached to it. At some point we'll have to deal with death, which is always a good thing for a child to learn about and discuss.

He hasn't experienced the funeral of a close relative or friend since he was young. He's already fretting about his tadpole dying. He knows about death on a more-or-less impersonal basis. He hears about it on the news. It's come up in church--especially at Easter. We seldom address it with children, but I think it's always good to not hide the fact of our mortality. It is best to teach children how to live in the face of death, rather than denying it exists. It isn't easy--tears will be shed at some point. I think, however, that that sadness shows us that death isn't meant to be the end of it all. It's an opening discussion for the afterlife.

However long this tadpole lives, it's going to give us a few lessons in life--as well as joys and tears. All because of a little frog.


Pausing to Bring Freedom

So according to Luke, early on in Jesus' public ministry, He goes to the synagogue as was His regular custom (which seems odd to me that Luke says this--don't we expect Jesus to be at the synagogue on the Sabbath? or is it just a reminder for us to follow His example?).  Anyway, Jesus picks up the scroll for the day's liturgical reading and reads from Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
     to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 
                   (Luke 4:18-19 which is from Isaiah 61:1-2)

Jesus then sits down and tells the congregation that this prophecy has now been fulfilled. He kind of takes it on as His mission statement in life. And as His followers, it's not a bad mission statement for us either. Proclaiming good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners, sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and the year of the Lord's favor for all.

So the question was posed at church last night: "Where do you join God in bringing freedom to others?" It was said not that we look for new ways to join God's work, but that we notice where it's already happening in our lives. A friend shared with us her story of doing OT work in a hospital and her revelation of where she was bringing freedom to others. We were then asked to reflect in our own lives where this happens.

It's not an easy question to answer. When I was thinking about it I felt like I was trying to come up with examples just to look like I do bring some sort of freedom to others.  I'm not sure we can always know where we bring freedom, but more likely we can come up with places we hope we're bringing freedom. For me it was:
  • helping the struggling student find the tools to move forward
  • encouraging the student who doesn't believe they can do it
  • empowering the student with special needs
  • talking with my immigrant neighbors
  • giving my son faith in himself 
 We don't all need to do prison ministry or smuggle Bibles into North Korea or the like in order to bring freedom to others. We do it in our daily work, in our daily living, where God has placed us. 

* * * * *

Our friend who was sharing about her experience mentioned needing to take "pause moments" during the day. She tries to do these during times when she feels her emotions getting out of sync with the fruits of the Spirit (you know the ones: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control).

I like the thought. It's been something I know I'm in need of--I've reflected before that I need to be more intentional about God's presence throughout my day. I just don't do it well. Those "pause moments" get brushed aside by life moving ahead...or at least it feels that way as the busyness keeps on going and I give myself pause to stand still for a moment. But a pause is what I need. Just a few short seconds. And so begins the goal to become more disciplined at doing that: first, being more aware of my emotions; second, allowing for a brief moment to re-align my spirit.

I've got a ways to go, but I know that I can best work with God when I'm centered and bearing fruit. Then I can join in the mission. Many people need freedom. I can join in bringing it to them, one small action at a time.


Inauguration, Interpretation, and Ideologies

My boys and I were driving back to Minnesota from Iowa yesterday after a weekend with my parents and grandmothers. We turned on the radio in time to listen to some of the inauguration.

Now, Barack Obama is not in office because I agree with everything he believes. I'm a strong independent. While I find parts of both political party platforms I agree with, I get annoyed with both parties equally. Both think it is  I think being independent makes for better politics. It requires being able to see the good as well as the bad in both platforms.

Obama fittingly drew on the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. throughout the speech, reminding us that King fought for the constitutional assertion that "all men are created equal." In a country where economy was once built on the backs of slaves, it is no small matter that a black man is our President. We've come a long way--not easily, of course--and we've got a ways to go.

Obama reminded us frequently about our need to move forward and work together. I'm aware there are political nuances in much of what is said. I think, however, that a mature listener can find places of agreement in some of what is said whether you agree politically with the President or not.
"That is our generation’s task – to make these words, these rights, these values – of Life, and Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness – real for every American. Being true to our founding documents does not require us to agree on every contour of life; it does not mean we will all define liberty in exactly the same way, or follow the same precise path to happiness. Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time – but it does require us to act in our time."
We have our differences, that is undisputed. But do those differences mean we can't work together? Are we able to move forward? I think we can, but mainly through action and not debate. (The transcript of the President's speech can be found here.)

* * * * *

Politics has the same problem as theology. It is dependent upon interpretation. Our nation is in the midst of debate about gun control. People on both sides of the argument desire to uphold the constitution, but the problem lies in how they interpret it: is the second amendment  in place to grant full freedom of bearing arms, or is it meant to be limited in the nature of those arms? Both sides, I would assert, have the country's best interest in mind. They just differ in what that means.

The church has the same problem. We divide ourselves over how we interpret certain passages of scripture.

* * * * *

Unity cannot happen if were are unwilling to hear the other side. Ideologies often prevent us from listening; we believe there is no room in the world for anyone who doesn't believe the same as we do. When we don't listen to the other side, we wedge the divide further. We have to assume that the other side has the best interest of others in mind, even if we don't agree with their approach.

I heard a well-known preacher demean the President for taking an oath on "a Bible he does not believe to a God he likely does not know." I'm not sure how that blatant judgmentalism moves us forward at all (this same preacher said that stay-at-home dads like myself were sinning, so I don't put much credence in his words).

None of us have to agree with anything the President believes or says. But he is our elected official (and I do believe the Bible tells us to respect our governing authorities, whether we believe they know God or not); complaining and arguing over our differences does little to move us forward. Actions do. Actions like praying for the President and all elected leaders. Actions like not depending upon the government to care for the poor, the widowed, and the orphaned, but to take care of them ourselves. Actions like standing up for the marginalized and loving the alien among us. Actions like writing to our elected officials and asking them to take the same actions we are while encouraging and supporting them in their offices.

May God bless America. May we also bless America through our actions, words, and prayers.


Using Gifts

So I wrote a blog while at my parents house on Sunday afternoon after church...or so I thought. It's not there, so I guess I'll attempt it again. It's usually good for me to reflect more on a sermon or God's word to make it more applicable to my life anyway.

If you grew up in a fairly liturgical church, you may be familiar with the lectionary--a cycle of biblical readings used on certain days of the year. The common lectionary goes through most of the Bible in a three year period and then repeats.

The practice of following a lectionary, or cycle of readings, date back to ancient Judaism. The early church fathers drew upon that practice incorporating Christian texts. The lectionary notes the church calendar, observing holidays and holy feasts, and it allows church attenders to hear the majority of the Bible over a three-year period. Each Sunday an Old Testament passage, a Psalm, a Gospel text, and a selection from the Epistles or Acts is read.

Usually the four texts are built around a theme. Often, understanding that theme takes time in prayer, study, and meditation to discover; sometimes it is quite obvious--especially during a church season like Advent or Easter.

When I worked in a church that followed the lectionary, and when I was doing pulpit supply and would use the lectionary to give me direction, I enjoyed the challenge of "connecting the dots" between the texts, of finding the common threads in what God is saying.

I was at the church I grew up in this past Sunday while we were visiting my parents. The texts were from Isaiah 62:1-5 and 1 Corinthians 12:1-11 (you can click on those passages to link to the text). Isaiah prophecies that someday, God will make things right for Israel. God says, "I will not be quiet,
until her righteousness goes forth as brightness, and her salvation as a burning torch" (Is. 62:1, ESV). 

The 1 Corinthians passage is probably more familiar; Paul addresses how God gives each person different gifts and though our gifts are different, we are all part of one body. To me these passages together say that we need to use our gifts so that others see God's righteousness and the salvation He gives us. 

Some church leaders place a lot of emphasis on the importance of knowing our spiritual gifts. We are encouraged to go through a class, fill out an assessment, or take a spiritual gifts inventory. This is not a bad thing, but I think that knowing our gifts is less important than using them. And the text from 1 Corinthians shows us that we need to work together. Whatever our gifts our, whether we know them or not, they become most usable in community. There our gifts become part of a whole. And I think that is the full intention. Not that I'm using my particular gift (say teaching, for example) on my own, but I'm using it alongside people who have other gifts like evangelism, wisdom, and healing. One on its own does okay, but when it works together with other gifts then God's righteousness and salvation are manifest more fully. 

We are different, yes. We have different gifts. But gifts are never meant for individuation, but for unity. They are not gifts to us, but to the recipients of our actions. These thoughts aren't new. But what struck me this time is the idea that our gifts work best in community, with others. I feel like too often I hear about "my" gifts with the idea of me using them in specific ways. But I don't feel that I hear too much about working with others, even though we all know that each gift is a part of the body. I think the body metaphor is used mainly to show that we need each individual part, but seldom do we focus on them all working together. 

But maybe this has been said many times and I just haven't heard it. It just happens to be what I heard this past Sunday. God is glorified, and the world will notice, when I use my gifts in community. Together, with others who have different gifts than I do. It's not as fruitful if I try to do it on my own.

MLK Day Weekend

We had Martin Luther King Day off from school so we decided to take advantage of a longer weekend and go to Iowa to see my grandmothers (my wife was headed out of town as well). We hadn't seen them since last fall. They are both in their 90s, so I don't like it when the time between visits gets too long.

We spent Saturday morning at the nursing home where they both live. They were doing bowling as an activity that day, so we took them to the activity room and the boys got talked into helping set up the bowling pins. They did great at helping--especially Anders. He even recognized which people liked using the heavier ball.

And the residents like seeing the boys there, too. I overheard one comment on how she doesn't see many kids. Which is sad. They thoroughly enjoy seeing children. Their faces actually light up.

It's not easy for the boys to visit there, I know. Nils doesn't like the smell of the place. My one grandmother had a stroke a few years ago, so she is unable to communicate or do much. My other grandma has short term memory loss, so the boys get asked the same questions several times while they're with her (though she'll also keep offering them a treat, forgetting that she's already given them one). But they know that it brings their great-grandmas a lot of joy to see them. Grandma Wenell may not be able to communicate very well, but she usually breaks out a rare smile when she sees them.

And the other residents smile as well. Many don't get visitors very often. I heard one woman sharing with another visitor during the bowling that she had a female gym teacher when she was younger, which was very rare back then, who taught them bowling (the resident got almost all strikes, I believe). I heard her share that story at least four times while we were there. But that's what she needs--just someone to hear her stories, even if it's the same story.

It wasn't intentional to be there to volunteer--we had just planned on seeing the great-grandmas. But we're encouraged to volunteer somewhere for Martin Luther King Day, and even if it's just visiting a shut-in or a nursing home resident, I think that's worthwhile.


It was nearing 50 degrees that day, so we took advantage of the weather and went hiking in a county park with my parents. It was a beautiful day--actually a little dangerous as it was muddy which doesn't mix well with hiking up and down hills (especially since my mom had been to the chiropractor that day for her back).

We enjoyed supper at a Chinese restaurant that night (well, the adults did--I'm still working on expanding the kids' palate beyond pizza and hot dogs). The wind switched, and a strong cold front moved in.

On Sunday it snowed. Not much, but just enough to coat the brown, barren earth. After church, we stayed inside the rest of the day, playing games with my parents.

Temperatures kept dropping. We didn't experience anything above zero today on our drive home. That produces gratitude for safe travel and a secure house to come home to (even if it's still chilly as the furnace is trying to get it warmed back up). Indeed, there is much for which to be thankful.


Book Update

My book is now available on Amazon ($19) in addition to being available through the publishers ($15.20).

And if I may toot my own horn, it's getting good reviews (at least the one from my good friend who has read it--and she's in the process of working on her own book, so she knows her stuff). Thanks to all those who have supported this process and the book. I'm not very vocal about my own work, but I'm the marketing and publicity guy on this one, so I'm working on getting the word out there.

And if you've read it, I'd love to hear your feedback (and be sure to place some reviews out there!).


Chaff and Baptism

Today's text was about John and the baptism of Jesus (which is fitting as this is the Sunday we commemorate the baptism of Jesus). It's one of those texts, I admit, that I have questions about. Like, why did Jesus get baptized? John was preaching for people to repent of their sins and turn to God, being baptized to show they had turned from their sins and been forgiven. Jesus didn't have sins to repent. Was it as an example for us to follow? Was it to start His ministry? Was it to fulfill John's prophecies? I don't know. A lot of scholars try to give some answers, but the text is pretty silent.


In my denomination we baptize both infants and adults. It's a choice left up to the individual/parents based on their beliefs and interpretation of the texts. As an ordained minister, we may have our preferences, but we are supposed to agree to perform both types of baptism. And I appreciate the freedom. Their is evidence--both historically and biblically (whole families being baptized)--for both.

When a child or adult decides they want to be Infant baptism is done on the basis that is a sign of God's (prevenient) grace. His grace for us existed before we were even born and we can do nothing to earn it. Believer baptism is done as a response to deciding to follow God. Both are worthwhile expressions of faith. I was baptized as an infant. Our children were dedicated, and we have left it up to them to decide when they want to be baptized.

I have only had the privilege of officiating at one baptism for a good friend (for whom I also officiated her wedding). It truly is a privilege.

Repentance almost always precedes baptism in the New Testament. It was John's message about the Good News. In today's passage in Luke 3, John mentions that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. He gives the analogy of a farmer harvesting his wheat, separating the chaff from the grain and then burning the chaff.

I think because of burning images and other analogies of separating grain from weeds elsewhere, we tend to think of the chaff as sinners and the grain as believers. But the passage says Jesus will baptize with the fire. It is the recent repenter being baptized who is having the grain and chaff separated in their lives.

It was pointed out tonight that the farmer removed the chaff from the grain because it was the weeds and other things that grew up in the field that would have been poisonous (or at least very unappetizing) for the consumer to digest with the grain. Jesus desires to remove the poison in our lives when we repent of our sin.

Of course, we have to be willing to let go of that chaff and let it burn. It's not easy. A lot of it has been in our lives for a long time. But Jesus offers to separate it from the good in our lives and help us to get rid of it.


I think part of the reason why Jesus was baptized was because He needed it. Not to show penitence or as a witness to forgiveness or any religious reason; He needed to do it because it was a blessing to Him. When it was done, a voice came down from Heaven saying, "This is my Son with whom I am well pleased."

What an affirmation! Of course Jesus was ready to start His ministry after hearing that.

I think that's the witness for us as well. Yes, in baptism we identify with Christ dying and rising to new life. Yes, we give witness to our turning from sin, turning to God, and being forgiven. But we also are told, "You are my child. I am fully pleased with you." Isn't that something we need to hear?


At the YMCA

I joined the YMCA today. This is a big deal. I have never been a part of a gym or a fitness club. I like to get my exercise outside--biking, swimming, canoeing, walking, hiking, kayaking. Many of these things are not convenient to do in Minnesota in the winter. Some just aren't possible. Others just aren't as enjoyable. I grew up on a farm, so exercise happened a lot though work. Now that's merely relegated to gardening, shoveling show, mowing the lawn, and a few other random odd tasks.

I admit that I'm not much of an exerciser, either. The things I mentioned above I would do whenever I could. Which, with kids, isn't as often as I'd like. I'm not a weight lifter. And I confess that I am self-conscious about doing a class (not that I won't at some time).

But I know I need to get more exercise--especially in the winter. And we did try to look into the Y before; for some reason the quote my wife thought she got last year was way more than we were given this year. We finally got around to checking things out again. It was more affordable (I have a feeling we just misunderstood what we were told last year). It honestly has nothing to do with the New Year--I know membership tends to go up a lot this time of year. It's more of a winter thing--needing some exercise to get through these darker, more sedentary months.

I'm not sure how it's going to work out...it's going to take some adjusting in the family schedule. Figuring out how to do family meals, errands, and all the other things to fit into that time after school before the kids have to get ready for bed.

I know I can also make my family an idol. I know that sounds weird, but I easily put my family ahead of my own needs sometimes. I don't always take care of myself in the name of having time with my family, but I can't love others as I love myself if I'm not taking care of myself. And there may be times that I use my family as an excuse.

Anyway, we checked out the local Y (which isn't as local as I'd like)  this past week. At least for the winter, I hope to do a bit of swimming. The boys--especially Anders--enjoy swimming with me, and it's good exercise. They also are enjoying the the kids' place, and I get in some time on the stationary bike.

So we'll see what happens. I plan to try out a few new things at some point (it's amazing how full some of the machines constantly are), maybe even sneak in on the back of a class. If nothing else, I'll keep swimming and doing some biking. I'm hoping to at least feel a little better through the winter months--hopefully lose a little weight along the way. At least take care of myself a little better.


Epiphany: of Stars, Wise Men, and the Insignificant

Epiphany. A word than means manifestation or revelation. The church celebrates today--after twelve days of Christmas--when the magi visited the young Christ-child and worshiped Him, when the Messiah was revealed to people from around the world.

We like to think of three men from eastern Asia who visit the stable with the shepherds and give the baby their gifts. Like the account of the Christmas story, a lot of what we picture happening isn't actually in the Bible. So, here's the text if you haven't read it recently:

Journey of the Magi by James Tissot,
from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
Matthew 2:1-12, NIV (from BibleGateway.com)

Here's what I notice is different from what we typically think happened:

Epiphany stars at Abbey Way Covenant Church
  • The wise men weren't kings. Magi comes from the same root as magician; they were likely royal astrologers, Zoroastrians from Persia.
  • The Bible doesn't say there were three of them (the number comes from the gifts they bring).
  • The star first leads them to Jerusalem, not Bethlehem. 
  • Despite not being Jews and likely being Zoroastrians, they come to worship Jesus.
  • Herod knows this is the fulfillment of biblical prophecy.
  • All of Jerusalem was afraid at these events, not just Herod.
  • Still, it is Herod who sends the magi on to Bethlehem.
  • The star appears a second time. This time over Bethlehem.
  • Jesus is no longer at the stable in a manger. The text says He is at a house. Some scholars think He may have been two to four years old at this point.
  • The text says only Mary and Jesus are at the house, not Joseph.
  • God talks to these pagan magi in a dream.
So the story is a little different than often depicted. Sometimes I think it's good to let our stories be shaken up a little. The visit of these magi was a big deal. They showed us, right away in Jesus life, that the Messiah wasn't just for the Jews. This was big news (though many prophets said that the Gentiles would receive salvation as well) at the time. Judaism was very, well, Jewish-centric. But here we have pagan foreigners, likely adherents to another religion, recognizing Jesus as the king of the Jews and bowing before Him. That doesn't happen often to babies born in stables. 

They give the Christ-child three ordinary, yet unusual gifts. Gold is a gift for a king. Frankincense is a gift for a God, burned in worship, it's smoke symbolic of prayers going heavenward. Myrrh is an embalming oil used on the dead--a gift for a mortal (and not your usual gift for a baby). King, God, and suffering mortal. ("Glorious now behold Him arise / King and God and sacrifice.")

The story reminds us that God is the revealer. He gives epiphanies. We need to be seekers to notice them. He uses His creation (including stars, including us) to reveal Himself to others, to point them to Jesus. It reminds us that God uses the insignificant (including stars, including us) to reveal the magnificent. Think about it: the light from Proxima Centuri, the closest star to our sun, takes over four years to reach earth. If the star the magi saw was a regular star (not a comet or some other astronomical phenomenon), things had to have been in play years before Jesus was born for the magi to see it. If it was a star, it was one out of a billion. Nothing special, yet it was. God works ahead of events, putting things in motion to reveal Himself to those who are ready to find Him.

Mary was insignificant (and I'm sure she never expected magi, let alone shepherds, to show up to visit her son). The stable was insignificant. Bethlehem was insignificant. A wooden cross was insignificant. Bread and wine were insignificant. Yet God used them all to reveal his glory and love.

You and I are insignificant. But, if we're willing, we can be used in very significant ways.

A light has shone in the darkness. God-with-us has been revealed. Light still shines in the darkness: of our neighborhoods, of our work places, of our schools, of our homes, of our souls. Keep seeking: the presence of the King will be revealed.