The Lenten Journey: Of Hens and Chicks

I have a hard time addressing God non-masculine terms.  It's not because I have a problem with God having a feminine side--I totally get that we were created male and female in God's image; therefore, He has a male and female side. This totally makes sense to me. But Jesus usually calls Him "Father" and uses mostly masculine terms. And I guess it's just how I relate to God. So forgive me if in using "He" and "Him" I alienate you.

I'm sure the disciples viewed Jesus as a man's man. Most of us do. He's the guy who took the whips and drove the money changers from the temple. He hangs out fishing with the guys. He calls Himself God's Son. What could be more manly than that?

So, it probably came as a shock to the disciples when Jesus said that He longed to "gather [Jerusalem's] children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings" (Luke 13:34, NIV). That's what we heard in today's Scripture message at church. 

And it wasn't a new thought. There are several places throughout the Bible where God is referred to in similar feminine terms--including like a hen. Psalm 94:1 says, "He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart."

So, it's a weird passage to come up in the Lenten journey (okay, there was more to the passage than Jesus being a hen), but sometimes--maybe most of the time--the Lenten journey is about discomfort.  The feminine side of the Trinity might be a bit upsetting of our normal perceptions. But we need to know the gentleness of God as well as His strength (though St. Frances de Sales would say there are the same). Maybe the discomfort is in seeing Him sacrifice His own Son (because He loves us, of course, but we still need to deal with the uneasiness of the fact). Maybe it's simply trying to understand how God can love us when we are so unlovable sometimes. For some it might be the whole image of God as Father--especially if your earthly father was absent or abusive.

Whether the feminine side of God is something you struggle with or not, let the image of the hen and her chicks bolster your perception of your standing with God. He loves you deeply. He covers you with His love. He shelters you. He is close enough to you that you could hear His heartbeat as His feathers brush against you. For me, the struggle is more of experiencing God in that way. I know this is there because I struggle with that in my human relationships--that others can't love me because of my shortcomings. 

I think oftentimes our struggles with our image of God come from our struggles with humans. We don't often see the feminine in a strong way among men our our Western culture (Eastern cultures sometimes do better with this). Masculine men have to be manly. Feminine men are labeled in homosexual terms (derogatorily, of course). Our cultural models don't exhibit strength through gentleness or power through caring. In God the best of masculine and feminine is present. And all of that is wrapped up in love.

* * * * *

What's struggles do you have with how you view God? How do they connect to your human relationships?


Winter Blooms

One of my favorite places to go in the winter around the Twin Cities is the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory at the Como Park Zoo. I would often take the boys there a little more frequently when we were all at home. It doesn't happen much now that we are all in school, but we had Monday off for Washington's Birthday, so we headed over in the afternoon. 
The boys love the zoo, of course. Even in the middle of winter, there is plenty to see. Even a few minutes in the small tropical rainforest is nice and warming. 

But the conservatory is where it's at--especially on the coldest of days. Under the glass dome, it remains quite warm. The Fern Room has it's unique appeal. The North Garden has appealing scents and sights as it features plants that bear fruit or are used for spices. But I love the Sunken Garden where each the flowers change each season. The bright blooms are quite cheerful.
The flowers are a hope-filled reminder of what is to come in the midst of winter--that there is still the promise of spring and the growth of new life again. Sometimes--especially in February in Minnesota--we need that hope.
I tend not to plant an abundance of flowers in my garden. They're not as practical as vegetables and herbs. Put sometimes practicality needs to take a backseat to beauty. Sometimes in the bleakest moments of life we need the hope of beauty as well as of springtime to come.


Wilderness Temptations

Yesterday at church, as the first Sunday of Lent, you may have heard the Scripture passage about Jesus being tempted in the wilderness by Satan. Jesus gets away to be with His Father, fasting for 40 days. During this time, as His body and spirit are weak, Satan tempts Him. Interestingly, this falls on the heels of everyone (presumably even Satan himself) hearing God say that Jesus was His beloved Son in whom He was well pleased right after Jesus was baptized by John. Jesus is re-assured of who He is and of His value to God. But it is then that Satan tries to tempt Jesus.

And the Bible says Jesus was tempted. There was a part of Him that wanted to give in to Satan's offers. Sure, He was hungry. Some bread would have been very tempting. Having all the nations as His? Well that would have just made saving humanity all the easier. We like to think of Jesus being so pious that nothing could sway Him from obeying God's will. But He was tempted. Just like we are. Unlike us, He didn't give into the temptation. Still, He knows what temptation is.

It all happened in the wilderness. Pastor Jan said last night at church that we experience wilderness in two ways: 1) we enter into it or 2) it comes to us.

I've had many times in my life where the wilderness comes to me, where I'm going through life and suddenly I find myself in a difficult place. A place I don't want to be. And, I admit, that a lot of times it is my actions that have brought it about. But not always. Sometimes it just happens. And I'm tempted. I'm tempted to turn from God. I'm tempted to give in to coping with the difficulties in unhealthy ways. I'm tempted to give up. But it is often in those wilderness moment where I find God more deeply if I just persevere.

There are other times I enter into the wilderness. I've never been to the arid desert. It is usually those dry places that we think of as the wilderness where Jesus was tempted. When I enter into the wilderness it is usually a lush, wooded area. Often water is prominent, like in the Boundary Waters. It is a place where I want to be. It is a place where I often meet God.

I think my temptation there, in the wilderness I love to be in, is thinking that it's the only place I meet God. The temptation is to want to stay there and avoid the numbing routines of life, to avoid civilization.

The wilderness, by definition, is wild. It is not always safe. But it is good (sounds like a certain Aslan I know). Whether it is a time of hardship, or an uncivilized location, the wilderness is a place where temptation happens, but where we draw closer to God.

* * * * *

What is your wilderness? Where does wilderness happen for you?


Gentle Strength

"Nothing is so strong as gentleness; nothing so gentle as real strength."
- St. Francis de Sales


What I Learned from Praying with the Monks

This weekend is my third visit to a monastery. We are here for our men's retreat from church. We gather together in their guest house on our own, leading our own discussions, gathering in prayer, etc. But we also walk over to the Abbey Church and join the monks for their daily prayers: 7 am, 11:30am, 5pm, and 7pm. We don't have to; it's optional. But I've come to appreciate the richness and depth of time with God available in those monastic gatherings.

It is an unusual place for an Evangelical to be found. We tend to shy away from the Catholic traditions. Often we've been taught that they just aren't "Christian." They're almost cult-like or heretical at best. But I've found that most of the traditions are almost as old as Christ Himself (at least the incarnational Christ). Some of the practices date back to ancient Judaism which birthed the Christian church. There are plenty of things that the larger Protestant church as a whole needs to reclaim that we missed out on when we separated ourselves from the first 1600 years of Christian history.

A monastery is an unusual place for most Evangelicals to go it seems. But I am enriched by my time here. As we joined in prayer times with the monks I became aware of the things I was learning from them:

Reverence for Christ. As we enter the choir stalls, as we leave the choir stalls, whenever we pray the Gloria Patri, anytime you sing a verse that praises the Trinity you bow. Anytime a monk approaches the altar, they bow. Of course, some people just do it because they're supposed to. But if you keep before you the Lordship of Christ, the act of bowing is a humbling, worshipful act of acknowledgment of who Jesus is.

The Centrality of the Cross. For whose who follow Jesus, the cross was a turning point in history. It changed everything. I don't know if I'll ever understand churches that avoid using symbols of the cross in worship spaces. When the monks gather to pray, the cross is at the center (hanging above the altar at St. John's). Several times during prayers they make the sign of the cross over themselves. I admit to not being comfortable doing it for most of my life. I grew up with the impression that it wasn't a ritual fitting for Evangelical Christians. We couldn't be further from the truth. Marking myself with the cross reminds me that I have submitted myself to Christ. I have died. It is no longer me who lives, but Christ who lives in me.

All Scripture Matters. In many churches, we tend to avoid the parts of Scripture that aren't pleasant to read. There are many Psalms that deal with anger, vengeance, sorrow, bitterness, doubt, and other emotions we don't like to talk with. The monks hear every Psalm several times each year.

The Need to Slow Down. It took me a while to get used to the rhythm of reading the first time I visited a monastery and prayed with the sisters. The Psalms and other readings are laid out line by line--not sentence by sentence. And after each line there is a short pause. Very short. But noticeable. And not natural. It forces you to slow down and focus.

Silence is Golden. It is in being silent that we can hear God and hear ourselves. We don't take those opportunities to be silent enough. When I get in the car, I like to turn on the radio. When I'm alone I distract myself with the computer, television, or phone. We miss moments to hear God and hear ourselves. These happen for the monks each time they gather in prayer.

Everyone has a Voice. Each side of the choir where the monks gather takes a turn reading at times in the Psalms. Our side reads. Then we sit and listen to the other side chant. Scripture is participatory.

Worship Works Best in Community. We cannot worship God alone the same way we can in community. That is not to say we should not worship Him by ourselves. We should. Be we need the deep intimacy of a community that knows, understands, accepts, and forgives you.

Ritual has Meaning. We all know plenty examples of places where ritual has replaced worship--where the tradition has to be done for the sake of being done. Ritual done meaningfully, however, takes the participant before God--even if they are unable to get there on their own. We all have times when our emotions, circumstances, or other outside forces block us from wanting, or even being able to, come to God in worship. Meaningful ritual is able to take us before Him in those times--again, when we do it in community. Ritual has the negative connotation of just going through the motions. This isn't all bad (as long as there are times you enter into it purposefully). Sometimes we need the repetition of the motions to help us enter into holy spaces when we're feeling unholy. And when we are able to purposefully enter into good rituals, they help to connect us more deeply to God, as long as we are able to focus on the reason for the ritual itself and not just the act.

The Importance of Living Well. One of the monks came and talked to our group this morning about the journey of faith and life; we were able to ask questions. It's a blessing to get to hear their stories. He shared about some anger he had at one point in his life when he was reassigned to a job he didn't want to do in a place he didn't want to be. But he recognized in a few older monks how holding on to anger had twisted them. He didn't want to end up that way, so he prayed through it. Each day. For a few years. And God delivered him. As the monks gather, it is evident which ones are living well--making those life choices that keep them focused on Christ rather than becoming bent and twisted. We all have those choices to make each day.

(I also learned that staying up talking with a friend or playing games until well after 11pm and being up for 7am prayers with the monks does not make a restful weekend. Good, but not restful.)


Ashes to Ashes

My son went with me to the Ash Wednesday Taize service at church tonight. He had expressed interest in it earlier in the week when I mentioned it (he hasn't gone to one before). Tonight he was a little resistant to going (it may have had something to do with the Valentine's Day cards my wife brought home from Target tonight that contained mustache tattoos). I drug him along anyway (he has a tendency to not want to do something when it's actually time to do it).

He sat and drew during most of the songs and scripture, but he tends to listen well that way. I think he sung most of the chants as he drew. And he was interested in going up to have the ashes crossed on his forehead.

I asked what he thought of it on the way home. He liked it, but he wasn't sure he got all of it. But who among us does? Even in understanding the meaning behind all of it, there's a lot of it that eludes us on this side of the grave. Which is good. Mystery keeps faith alive.

He liked the candles. He said he wanted to paint a picture of the ones hanging on the wall (so I took a picture of them for him). As we were leaving he also spent some time looking at the crown of thorns and the icons of Jesus that were in the front of the chapel.

* * * * *

On Monday morning I woke up to news that a friend from church had died. He was the father of a good friend of ours. I've only known him for less than three years. I had hoped to get to know him better. He was the kind of man you wanted to be around. He had joy. He had happiness. He had wisdom. He was an outdoorsman. He had an air of mystery to him.

His death came suddenly--and thankfully, fairly painlessly. But it was too early (or so it feels on this side of Heaven).

We gathered together at church last night for our Shrove Tuesday pancake supper (fine--we just call it Pancake Tuesday). It's an old tradition, a way of using up all the rich and fattening (hence Mardi Gras--Fat Tuesday) food in your pantry--butter, sugar, eggs, milk--before Lent. We pile on the traditional sugar with lemon juice, fruit and whip cream, Nutella and whip cream, or whip cream and whip cream. Sometimes we have pancake flipping races.

Last night we gathered outside afterward and had a short prayer service for the burning of last year's palm branches, creating the ashes used tonight. Afterward we said some prayers for our friends who had last their husband, father, grandfather.

* * * * * 

We begin the Lenten journey by hearing the words
Ashes to ashes,
Dust to dust,
In dying we rise.
We are reminded of our mortality ("you are dust"). Death is before us. We can't escape it. But their is hope. We have a choice. Eternity stands before us. 

Tomorrow, as friends gather for the memorial service for our friend (I unfortunately can't get away from work to be there), they will likely hear reminders of this. They will celebrate the life of a godly man who is with his risen Savior now.

Along with our mortality we hold before us in Lent our identification with a suffering Savior. This is the intent behind "giving something up for Lent." We fast (if we do) in order to hold before us the journey Christ went through to the cross. It is a journey of death, a journey of life, a journey of love.

* * * * * 

I'd love to hear your comments on what Ash Wednesday means to you.


Up North, Part 2

A lot of my time when we go up to Covenant Pines is spent reading or writing, generally being restful and contemplative. Which isn't the whole time, of course, when we go as a family. The boys are pretty good about doing their own thing. They like to read and draw. This time we took a large baggie of Legos with so they played with those for a while. We often play a few games while we're there; one of the closets in the living room contains a few donated games including Life, which apparently has become their favorite. So while they're doing those activities, I can usually get in some down-time (and my wife usually knits or, more recently, spends her time studying).

But we also try to get out some. The camp has a gym area where we go and play carpet ball (a camp favorite), foosball, or ping pong. There's a playground the boys like to spend some time at, along with a zip-line. And there's a tubing hill. I don't think I need to say more about that.

This year my wife also tried introducing them to cross-country skiing. Nils tried it first while Anders and I were on a hike (we made tracks in the snow for playing Fox and Geese--a tag game that's usually played on a basic course, but we like to make our own. It also becomes really good exercise with just one person chasing the other trying to tag them it).

Nils does a lot of complaining and whining, as most six-year olds do (at least we like to hope it's not just us dealing with it). So at some point while on the skis, he tends to flop down and complain that he's tired. Or if he falls, he'll lay in the snow and cry. Which of course is very tiresome for the parents. But overall, he did pretty well for his age. He was even willing to try and go up small hills, knowing he could ski back down them.

Anders became a Nordic fanatic. It was his thing. Which was fun to discover. He tends to not like many athletic endeavors. So we'll have to start keeping an eye out at the thrift stores and at sales. Maybe four sets of skis will become our family Christmas present next year.

* * * * * 

Before going up we were warned there was going to be a big snowstorm over the weekend. We decided to take the Blazer, which we seldom drive because its a gas guzzler, but it does have 4-wheel drive. We were (not-so) secretly hoping we would get snowed in an extra day and not be able to make it back for school and work on Monday.

This, of course, never happened. We kept hearing from friends in the Twin Cities that they were getting hit with icy rain, then ice pellets, then snow. All the while we didn't see a single flake.

Until we got on the road to go home. Then it snowed the whole way. Thankfully many other people were headed back from Up North to the Twin Cities, so we could follow the car ahead of us--otherwise it was difficult to see the lanes on the road.

We managed to get back just in time for church, only to hear that it had been cancelled. Oh well...at least we had time to unpack and unwind after a good weekend up North.


Up North

There's this state of being in Minnesota called "Up North." Many families here have cabins on a lake or in the woods somewhere in the north half of the state. We don't. But we like it up north. We like the woods and the lakes. Generally we go camping. This time of year, we don't (I know some people do, but that would not be a pleasant weekend with children).

So our version of "Up North" is going to our church's Bible camp. We've actually been coming here since before we went to our church. I worked here the summer before we were married. And when I worked at a camp in Iowa full-time for almost five years, we came up to Covenant Pines Bible Camp every February for a few days.

Now it's our family's camp. It's not the camp I grew up at, nor did I spend much of my time in ministry working here. But for the last four years now, it's our family's camp. When we drive north, the boys note that we're getting closer when the woods get thicker. They recognize the turns that get us here. When we pull into the driveway, one of them often asks if they can drive the rest of the way (it somehow became a tradition when we get away at a camp that they sit on my lap and help steer the vehicle to where we park).

When we arrived at the guest house where we're staying the boys began saying to each other, "Remember when..."

We arrived around 8pm. It was dark. It was well past their bedtime when we got everything unloaded from the vehicle. But we decided to take a late night walk in the woods (well, not so much in the woods as over the hill and back across the lake).

When we got to the top of the hill we stopped and looked at the bright stars and the ribbon of the Milky Way. Nils even pointed out Jupiter.

There is no loon's cry this time of year, of course. In it's place is the scent of roasting tree sap as pine and cedar logs blaze in the fireplace of the lakeside chapel where a men's group was gathered. We trudged through the snow out on the lake, gazing at the stars again. The boys jumped over snow drifts. The door to the chapel opened as the men began singing.
Strength will rise as we wait upon The Lord,
Wait upon The Lord, as we wait upon The Lord.
Our God, You reign for ever.
Our hope, our strong deliverer.
You are the everlasting God....
There was something about standing on the frozen lake, surrounded by a carpet of white snow, gazing up at a bright starry sky, and hearing words of praise being sung.

We've heard a winter storm is coming this weekend. We may see upwards of six inches of snow up here. I think all of us are partly hoping we might just get snowed in an extra day. There's just something about being "up North." Even in February.


Requiem for a Tadpole

Just over a week ago I wrote about Anders' new tadpole. After much deliberation, he ended up choosing the name "Kitty" for it (since it's a leopard frog and he likes irony).

Maybe I shouldn't have written about the tadpole and how pets teach us about life and death. My wife just noted how I foreshadowed it's demise by doing so. If gods of fate exist, I apparently taunted them with that post.

A couple nights ago, my wife and I were noticing the tadpole wasn't moving. Now, it's not easy to tell with tadpoles if they're alive or not. They don't move much in the first place. It's also not easy to detect movement on something the size of a pencil's eraser. The next day it was evident that the little guy hadn't moved from the spot he had been in previously.

We had carefully approached this with Anders, knowing he would take it with great sensitivity. As we were looking in the water together and I was noting that Kitty wasn't moving, he just said he didn't want to hear any more--acknowledging the possibility, but declaring that he wasn't able to deal with it at the moment.

We finally got around to having a funeral tonight. He didn't want to go the route of flushing it down the toilet or anything like that. He wanted to bury the little amphibian in the yard. Which of course isn't really possible in Minnesota in February.

So he and I walked out to the garden. He shoveled down as far as he could--still hopeful that he could reach dirt, but only hitting ice beneath the snow. There we placed Kitty. I said a little prayer on Anders' behalf. He wanted to say a few words. I wish I had a better memory to be able to repeat what he said. It dealt with missing Kitty...how Kitty was a good pet...how he hopes his next pet will live longer. It's probably for the best that I can't remember his eulogy verbatim. Those are sacred words best left for the moment.

Anders took it all fairly well. He shed several tears, of course. We explained that it wasn't because of anything he did--that tadpoles seldom make it to the frog stage--though I think he has some self-blame. He's disappointed that he's allergic to cats.

* * * * *

My wife visited a pet store the night we suspected that Kitty had passed on. I confess that the thought of just replacing Kitty with another tadpole crossed my mind. They didn't have any in stock.

The lady at the pet shop told my wife that it is very rare that a tadpole lives long enough to become a frog. This, of course, is something that the sellers of the tadpole habitat don't tell you. We'll maybe try to find a tadpole in a pond this summer, or just a grown frog.

Rethink it if you're ever considering buying a tadpole habitat for a child. Stick to sea monkeys or ant farms. It seems with smaller animals, you're better off with something that comes in numbers.

* * * * * 

Anders asked something about if Kitty would be in Heaven. We talked about how after God created animals--and everything He made--He said it was "good." We decided that all good things would be in Heaven.

I think there's a place for Kitty in Heaven. I think God would even enjoy having the fun of having a leopard frog named Kitty around. I think God would delight in the life of a frog (and pre-frog) as Anders did. I believe God loves life--even the life of a miniscule little tadpole.

May we do the same.


Welcome to North Minneapolis, Mr. President

The President of the United States was in town today, speaking just 10 blocks from where I work, across the street from a colleague's home where I occasionally drive him and his children to after school. Now, it's not a big deal that the President was in Minnesota or even Minneapolis. This happens often enough, it seems. But it is a pretty big deal that he was in our neighborhood--in North Minneapolis.

North Minneapolis does not often get portrayed in a good way in the media--and often it seems like our racial socio-economic demographics are the cause. We do have our share of crime. In the almost three years since we've lived here I experienced and attempted robbery once, my wife got her bike stolen from our garage, and most recently our shovel was stolen from our back door. To be fair, I should point out that I had money from my wallet stolen at least two times in junior high and high school while my clothes were in a locker during away basketball games in small town Iowa.

President Obama was here to discuss gun control issues. We are in an area effected by gun violence. We've seen several families lose young children by getting shot, often as unintended victims. Minneapolis police average taking one illegal gun off the streets each day. I do think there should be more enforcement of existing laws as well as stricter regulations on assault weapons (while allowing freedoms for hunting and such), but I'm not writing this to get into the gun control debate. I just think it's pretty cool that the President would come to a neighborhood that much of the rest of the city looks down upon.

I was at school while it all happened (I only heard about it's location because my colleague had a hard time getting to school today because of the increased security around his house). I haven't seen the news coverage of the event yet. I've heard of a few friends who went to try and see a glimpse of the President. I haven't seen as much coverage overall as I would expect. The news just came on, and the event was largely pushed aside for local gun control debates. But it's a big deal here.

I am acutely aware of the division over approval of the President.  Regardless of how what you think of him, it's still pretty cool to have the President of the United States a few blocks away. I enjoyed being aware while outside at recess of how near our nation's leader was.

The picture to the right was posted on our local hardware store's facebook page. The officer sitting next to the President is one we see in our neighborhood occasionally. He, along with another colleague, started a Bike Cops for Kids program, bicycling through the neighborhood, handing out bike helmets to kids in need.

Like any neighborhood, there are good things going on here. There are also many things that can improve. What matters most is a willingness to move forward together and not to get stuck in the negative stereotypes that others impose.


A Multitude of Questions

I helped at church tonight in our Kid's Chapel. The story read was about Jesus feeding the 5,000. If you've been around the Bible at all, it's a familiar story. It's the only miracle outside of the resurrection of Jesus that is mentioned in all four gospels. It's been renamed "The Feeding of the Multitude" more recently as the 5,000 people numbered were only the men, not the women and children. The people in attendance probably numbered in quintuple digits.

It's one of those stories I'd love to have more details about--what we have leaves a lot of questions. Like, out of all those thousands of people, was that one boy the only one who thought to have some food with? I doubt it. But if not, why was he the only one who volunteered to share? And where were his parents? Were they somewhere else? If so, why did they send him with five loaves of bread, let alone two fish? Isn't that a lot of food for a boy? And if it was his lunch, where were the veggies? Was anyone in the audience who didn't believe in Jesus after being in the crowd? And what happened to all the baskets of leftovers?

Regardless of the questions the story brings, it's point is fairly clear: give what we have to Jesus and let Him use it, not matter how small and insignificant it seems. Like many things, that is easier said than done. I still struggle at times with letting Jesus use my little--possessions, time, talents. Sometimes it's because I'm not willing to give it up. I mean, if I give Jesus my fish and loaves to feed 5,000, what guarantee do I have that I'll get anything? Selfishness gets in the way. Sometimes it's because I don't think my fish and bread are significant enough to matter; I don't think that Jesus can use the small things I have to do anything worthwhile. Small thinking gets in the way. Sometimes it's just because I don't think Jesus can do anything with it. My lack of faith gets in the way.

I'm sure these same thoughts were going through the minds of everyone else in the crowd who happened to have had a few morsels with them that day. The long and short of it is that Jesus can only turn our small things into big things--He can only use what we have--if we're open to giving what we have to Jesus. In many ways, it's a matter of posture as much as it is a matter of giving what we have.