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: