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.