12/31/2014

A New Year

When I was little I thought that if I could stay awake until midnight on December 31, I would see something miraculous: the coming of a new year. I assumed there would be some spectacular natural light show as an old year ended and a new one was ushered in. Of course if I could have managed to stay awake that late I would have seen nothing unusual. The night goes on like business as usual. 

And truly there is nothing inherently significant about this night other than it causes us to have to remember to write a new date on our checks (on those rare  occasions I write one). In many cultures this is not even their new year. 

Still, it may be helpful to acknowledge the former year--the blessings and the trials, the joys and the sorrows. Personally, I am glad to have the pain of this past year behind me. Yet I cannot have life without pain. Those are the moments that shape us. Even in the midst of tough years in looking back I see that God was still present. His hand still guided me through it safely. 

A new year brings hope. Changes will occur most likely. And maybe there will be more hardships ahead. Actually, this is quite likely. But there is also the hope of making better choices, of learning from mistakes, and of knowing that pain is a reminder of the joy awaiting in Heaven. 

So goodbye 2014. Goodbye to the pain and the joys, the tears and the laughter. You won't be forgotten, but you don't need to hold me down, either. And hello 2015 with your possibilities and potentials. May God make a path through the year ahead that is clearly marked, and may my feet quickly return to it if they stumble off course.  

12/26/2014

The Second Day of Christmas

In Canada (as well as the United Kingdom and other palces in their commonwealth), today is Boxing Day. It's traditionally a day when people put food and other things in a church box for the poor--extending the giving of Christmas. It is more contemporarily a day when people box up their leftovers and take them to a friend's house to share a meal together. However it gets celebrated, the focus in on others. Thatt's the Christmas spiritl.

In the church it is the Feast of Stephen. As in the day when Good King Wenceslas looked out. The carol tells of the king aiding a poor man. Stephen was the first Christian martyr. Paul/Saul was there giving approval to his stoning because of his faith in Jesus. Stiill today many people die because of their faith. I don't pray for them enough. I also don't pray often enough for my faith to be that strong.

I decided that I want to try and make one of my goals to be doing something creative each day. Even for 12 minutes. I find it too easy--especially on evenings when I'm at my apartment without my children--to sit and watch some television or be online and suddenly find that the whole evening has passed by. And I may have gone out and gotten some exercise before that, but otherwise I don't feel built up to have accomplished nothing. 

So I'm going to make this happen. I started to type "try and make this happen" but as Yoda has instilled in me, "Do or do not. There is no try." It may not happen every night. I recognize there may be some extenuating circumstances. But as much as it can happen, it will. 

Yesterday I got out a canvas and my paints for the first time since I moved here. I also stopped downtown on my way to my sisters house last night to look for interesting photographs to take. I haven't written as much since I moved. And my guitar hasn't been unpacked yet even though I've been in the apartment for almost four months now. I've toyed with learning to knit for a long time. And I've always enjoyed just drawing, but I haven't opened my sketch book in a while either. So I have many options for creative outlets.

What's the connection between my creative goals and the second day of Christmas you ask? Good question. I didn't have a connection at first. Both were on my mind was all. But as I have been writing and my creative juices flowing (there it is--my creative outlet for today!), I remembered the greatest commandment: To love God with all  my heart, soul, strength, and mind; and to love my neighbor as myself. 

I can't be loving my neighbor well if I'm nont loving God, first of all, but also if I'm not loving myself. And loving myself means taking care of myself: eating well (I'm hit or miss there--I make healthy meals, but I also snack too much), exercise (I'm doing better at fitting that in--I even did 5 1/4 miles on the eliptical machine this week; I haven't gone that far outside of bicycling since high school), and doing something good formyself like something creative. 

Now, hopefully, this creative outlet tonight will help me fall asleep. I was in bed over an hour and a half ago because I'm feeling a bit under the weather, but was finding my brain and body wouldn't cooperate with the need for sleep. Hopefully now I can.

12/25/2014

The Loneliness of Christmss


Last night the boys and I went to the Christmas Eve service at church. The pastor reminded us of the signs that told of that first Christmas. It wasn't a star in the sky or angels singing. The sign that the angels tell the shepherds to look for was a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes (no surprise there--even our children were swaddled when born) laying in a manger. There's the real sign--and a surprising one. The Son of God in an animal's feeder. 

I grew up on a farm. Feed troughs tended to be noisy, dirty places, surrounded by manure and buzzing flies. They are no place for a baby. Especially a baby who is God incarnate. He should be born in a palace like the royalty He is; or at least a temple where the religious gather. But God was born in a barn. How many times did your parents ask you when growing up and you left the door open or some similar faux pas, "Where you born in a barn?" It's not a compliment. But such was the birth of Jesus.

That was the sign to look for: the manger. It is a sign of hope. A palatial birth would have meant God came for those in power. A temple birth would have meant God came for the righteous. But a manger means He came for everyone. Princes and shepherds, the righteous and the heathen, the Jew and the foreigner. God put on flesh to be like us all--and so all could come kneel before His infant bed.

* * * * * * * * * * * 

This morning I found myself sitting in the glow of the Christmas tree lights crying a little. The boys had just left for Wisconsin with their mom. I was alone on Christmas Day. I knew it was coming. I had already done a holiday alone, so I thought I could handle it. Butt after they left some of the emotions hit. I'm good about being in solitude; apparently being alone is still a struggle for me.

But that manger birth is also a hope-filled reminder that I'm not alone. God came to earth. Emmanuel: God With Us. He knows what it is like to walk in human skin, experiencing all that we experience. There is solace in that knowledge. 

I have a hard time grasping that fact sometimes, though. Obviously. If I had that fact internalized, I wouldn't ever feel alone. I guess that's why I need all these reminders. Advent and Christmas. The tree and it's lights. The carols on the radio. The friends who send an encouraging word through facebook. All are reminders that I'm not alone. Jesus was born. God is with us. Amen.


12/06/2014

Divorce, Advent, and Gratitude

I haven't written much for a long time. I want to. It's probably good for me to be writing more now. But I haven't, and that's just how things are.

The holiday season is in full force. I've never had hard holidays before. But they are when you're divorced. 

Thankksgiving was my first one without having the kids. I went to my sister's and had time with her kids, who are growing up too fast. So  the time there was nice, but traveling distances alone isn't as fun. 

And now we're in Advent. Today is St. Nicholas Day. Both events have had many traditions for us in the past. But those have had to change. We're not together at the table every night for lighting the Advent candles and reading a devotional. Money is tighter, so the St. Nicholas gift was absent today (there will be gifts later, though) as was the shoe boxes that we typically deliver for going overseas. 

But we still had a good evening of decorating the tree (though I need to get a tree skirt, an extension chord for the lights, and a star for the top). We listened to Christmas music all day long, and we had time together watching Back to the Future III (we had seen the first one this summer in a park with DeLoreans there, so we've been finishing the trilogy). Tomorrow we're going to partake of a family meal after church followed by gingerbread house making and other activities. There are new memories to make, new traditions to try out. 

But it's not the same. There are memories with each ornament on the tree. There are fewer stockings to be hung. There are activities at which I'm alone. 

So I go back to gratitude. Gratitude recenters me.  It changes my attitude.

And I can be thankful of the hope of Advent. The hope of the returning Christ. Hope of change. Hope of better things. Hope of love, and grace, and mercy, and forgiveness. 

That's why I need Advent. As much as I love Christmas, I can't rush to it. I need the reminder of the goodness of waiting in hope. For that I am thankful. 

11/27/2014

Gratitude

I have written a few times about thanksgiving and gratitude. Going to last night's Thanksgiving Eve service at church and thinking about thanksgiving today was not the first it's been on my mind. But I still am in need of those reminders and promptings. 

Gratitude gets me out of my head where I can induldge in self-pity or selfishness or greed or fantasy. Giviing thanks reminds me of reality: that I have more than I need, that God takes care of me, that I am not in control.

Gratitude changes my emotions. If I am fearful or frustrated or envious, giving thanks recenters me and replaces those feelings with serenity and joy.

Gratitude changes my thinking from temporal and earthly to eternal and spiritual. Giving thanks reminds me that God is in control and that He gives me more than I need and that He loves me deeply.

I know that gratitude is good. But I often forget to practice it. I find myself complaining and grumbling about circumstances and the things I lack sometimes. This morning I was getting frustrated when traffic on the interstat came to a standstill after three and a half hours in the car and being within a half hour of my destination. But I was reminded that instead I could be grateful that I had safe travel thus far--no car issues, no accidents. A little delay in traffic was nothing compared to where I would be if I had an accident. 

Even after a tough past several months, I was reminded at church last night of all the things I have to be thankful for in life. Things can always be worse, of course. But being kept from disasters in not the only reason to find reason to give thanks. Giving thanks is not to keep us from worse situations, but it remindsd me that no matter how bad things are, I am still taken care of and provided for in ways I often can't comprehend. 

Gratitude is good. I am thankful for reminders like today, for time to reflect and give thanks. 

11/23/2014

Year End: Direction

I went to bed last night and woke up this morning feeling at a loss of direction in life. After a divorce hearing earlier this week and my grandma's death a month ago and a lot of new begnnings and restarts, I find myself wanting more goals in life. 

Todaay at church the pastor gave us the image of canoeing across a large lake on a windy day. It's not easy. The wind blows you off course, and it's hard to get to where you wantto be going. His illustration remind us that you need to pick out an object or landmark--such as a tall tree--at your destination at the other end of the lake and keep that as your focus for where you're going. No matter how much you get blown off track, you know where your goal is. 

It's also easy to feel like you're not getting there. The pastor also recommended picking out a nearby object, such as a rock along the shoreline, as a mile marker. That way you can tell that you're progressing. 

It's the same in life. We need a focal point and milemarkers. Paul tells us to keep our "eyes fixed on Jesus." Pastor Mark reminded us to keep our eyes focused on the cross; that is our ultimate destination in life as a follower of Jesus. 

He also encouraged us to have milemarkers: goals along the way to help us know we're getting closer to our destination. It might be a milemarker of actions: choosing to love our neighbor. Or a milemaker of words: stopping gossipping, or standing up for the person being picked on.

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 
Today is Christ the King Sunday in the church. It''s the end of the Christian year. Next week marks the beginning of a new year and a new season of Advent. 

The traditional gospel story reading for the day is where Jesus tells the parable of the sheep and the goats: He will separate those who gave to the poor, visited prisioners, feed the hungry, etc. from those who didn't. It's a jarring, uncomfortable story of living a life of love directed in service of the marginalized. Jesus says when we do these things, we are serving Him directly. 

All this is tied in to the reminder that we call Christ our Lord. That means we give Him rule over our lives. 

Here is where I fail. Not all the time. But enough. I choose my own direction. And this gets me in trouble. The path I choose seldom ends up being the right one for me--at least one that is good for me. But when I follow Him, I don't have to worry about that. Sure, the path isn't always easy or pleasant, but I don't regret it when I walk on that path (I'm mixing metaphors now, I'm aware...canoeing, hiking...but it's all about the destination and how we get there, so bear with me). And that sounds good--a life without regrets. 

So, forward I paddle, eyes focused on that cross at the end of the lake, marking my progress in getting closer to my mark. Today, I'm trying to set some of those milestone markers as I take a look at what I want my life to look like. I know I want a fruitful life, one with no regrets, one that I'm proud of. I can't change the past, but I can reset my course for the future. 

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 
When Jesus begins His ministry, He starts with one word. It is the same word His cousin John used in preparing the way: "Repent." At it's core, the word repent means to turn 180 degrees in the opposite direction. The Greek word used in the New Testament refers to a changing of the mind. It is a course alteration. 

I'm thankful for the reminder this morning of the need for periodic course corrections in life. I may not know what will be along the path ahead, but I know how to get there: with eyes fixed on Jesus. 

There will be times in the future when I need a course correction. I wiill make mistakes. Thankfully, not only is the Lord, but He is Savior and Forgiver. And He gives me the Holy Spirit to aid in not making those same mistakes again--because I'm very inclined to do that. 

Thank God for grace. And for direction. 

11/02/2014

An Ode to Small Towns

I was back home this past weekend for my grandma's funeral. I was reminded throughout it how lucky I was to grow up in a small town, and hopefully will someday return to one. 

The farm to the east of my dad's is owned by a man who was killed in a motorcycle accident this past summer. The day after I arrived, six combines along with several tractors, wagons, and semi trucks showed up to harvest the field for his family.
Many people brought food both to the church and to my family's home. Others served in the kitchen during the visitation and the funeral. My dad's cousin made several pans of lasagna to feed the family (dad's four siblings along with all thirteen grandchildren, their spouses, and thirteen great grandchildren as well as some exctended cousins and great-aunts and uncles and such) after the visitation. 

My childhood best friend's grandfather let my brother and I use his home (he's in an independent living apartment now) for our families to stay in while we were there.

I can't even tell you how much money was given in sympathy cards in memory of my grandmother. My aunts from California were stunned. That doesn't happen elsewhere. 

All of this happens in big cities, of course, but I think small towns are the breeding grounds for generousity, service, and love. I'm grateful to be a byproduct of one such place. I hope the seeds of those characteristics continue to work their way through me. 

10/20/2014

Grandma

I just received a phone call from my father telling me tht my grandma died. She had a stroke several years ago which robbed her of a lot of living, so it didn't necessarily come as a surprise. There have been many times when my father has called and I was fearful it was going to be "that" call. As soon as I answered the phone tonight I knew. I could hear it in his voice. I'm thankful she's whole again. I'm glad she's in God's presence with Grandpa there, too. 

But loss is never easy. I feel alone in it right now. I feel like there's been too much crying of late. 

I'm grateful for all the good memories, though. When I was little, my grandparents watched me on their farm during the times my mom was teaching. I spent a lot of formative years with my grandma. Her kitchen is at the front of my memory. The smell of Swedish rye bread and molasses. The cookie jar which was always kept filled, and which I learned to open steathily to sneak out an extra treat. Sitting around the table and learning to pray "Come, Lord Jesus." Her bringing "lunch" (the mid-morning and/or mid-afternoon snack) out to the men as they worked in the field: it was often cinnamon rolls, coffee cake, or cookies along with a thermos of coffee. Those were the only times I drank coffee (with plenty of milk, of course). Her garden--especially tomatoes in the summer. For some reason, tomatoes were sometimes sprinkled with sugar instead of salt. 

She was a quilter. For my high school graduation she quilted together scraps from my grandfather's jeans and coveralls. I still have it. She loved her family. We spent many holidays and family birthdays together. Often it was a picnic with fishing involved. She was a hard worker. She was a woman of faith. Even though she couldn't carry a tune, she still sang the hymns. 

I wish she had been well to play with my sons. She had a stroke before they were born. Still, when they would visit her, she would often smile. When my oldest was younger, he would occasionally sing her a song like "Jesus Loves Me" or "Away in a Manger" and she would sometimes sing along--she seldom spoke otherwise. 

I wish my memories were clearer. I had so many good times with her. She will be missed; she loved greatly and was loved much in return. Esther Wilhelmina Christoffers Wenell, you were a great woman. I was lucky to call you "Grandma."

10/04/2014

Transitions

This is going to be a super honest post. And not an easy one to write. I haven't blogged in almost three months. Theyve been a difficult three months. Seventeen years of relationship has come to an end. A month ago I movved into an apartment. It's been the first time almost since I was a baby that I haven't shared a room with someone. It's a big change. And more changes are on the horizon. I never expected myself to be in this place. It's hard, it sucks, it's good, all at the same time.

A large part of the hardness of this (other than what the children are going through--which is by far the hardest to witness), is the loneliness. And not just because of the marriage ending. I lost a church family (which they've made it clear that I'm still welcome there, but it would be a very awkward place to be together still). I feel like most of my friends are gone. And I know the reality is that things are just different. Many came and helped me move. Many visited and called or texted when this first was happening. But I presume what the reality is for most of them, is that they were once friends with a married couple, and now that's not the case. I'm guessing some are more familiar with my sins in the marriage, and though there are two sides to the story--two partners in a marriage and very seldom is only one guilty. And that's okay. I don't need people to be on my side. But it's been hard at times to see her get support (though I'm thankful she has some) and not feel much.  

Thankfully, we've been civil. We divided up things pretty well. We have always parented well. But I don't know how to relate any more. 17 years feels like it didn't matter any more. Those plans for the future don't matter any more. There's a grieving process involved. I'm not sure if I've done that fully yet, but I have done a bit of crying. A lot of crying.

Part of me needs to move forward. Part of me needs to remain in this place of grief and transition and healing and pain. There is so much uncertainty, yet a level of freedom I haven't experienced. 

I'm trying to do the right things and make the right choices. I still fail at times. I will always have moments of failure. These are turning points--of learning from mistakes or of ignoring it and keep on going on paths of my own choosing. That's how it always is, though...we have a choice to learn or disregard or mistakes and keep on repeating our mistakes. I am not perfect, nor will I ever be on this side of eternity. Sometimes I get wrapped up in trying to be perfect which just leads to trouble for me because I can never be perfect--and I don't learn and change enough. So I'm trying. 

So that's where my life is at. In transition. I don't seek pity. I'm not a victim. Nor am I the perpetrator. Just a human being who makes mistakes and has opportunities to learn and live. Even if life isn't headed where I thought it would be. 

I was reminded at church this morning of the old call and response we used to use with summer staff at Bible camp all the time: God is good; all the time. And all the time; God is good. There are opportunities, even in hard transitions, for God to be good. I just need to keep my eyes open and seek them and not get sidetracked by feeling victimized by life's difficult transitions.

7/15/2014

All Stars

The MLFB All Star Game is in town. I'm not big into professional sports or big crowds, but I needed to get out of the house today, so I headed on my bike toward downtown to check out the Red Carpet Parade. I haven't kept up with baseball since high school when I collected baseball cards. I recognized only a couple of the current players' names (retiring player Derek Jeter for one)--and was thankful for the retired players that lead the parade: Rod Carew, Paul Molitor, Tony Oliva, Bert Blyleven.

A few things I noticed:

Family. Of course, there were plenty of families at the parade. Parents who brought their children to see a athletic hero. But almost all of the players had their families riding with them: wives, children, parents, siblings. 

Technology. Most of the people in the parade had out their phone, tablet, or camera taking pictures and videos of the crowd. Even though they're famous, they're still just people who want to preserve the memories of the moment. 

Hype. I grew up playing baseball. While I don't watch it often, I enjoy the game. But it's amazing how much fame and fortune we give to men who hit and throw a ball. There were a couple trolleys at the beginning of the parade full of "all star teachers." It was nice recognition for them, but its sad how much we pay those who entertain us compared to those who shape our lives. 



But despite it all, baseball is a great sport. I almost said all-American, but a big chunk of players aren't from America any more: Cuba, the Domincan Republic, Japan. Though it doesn't have the reach and popularity of soccer, it's still a pretty accessible sport. 

While few of us could afford tickets to an All-Star Game, I appreciate how they make the experience accessible for almost everyone. Free concerts, free baseball movies outside the park, free activities, free parade. I know that the All Star Game did some philanthropic activities in town, too (there was a sign in our front yard the other day directing media to parking for an activity room unveiling provided by the All Star Legacy Project). It was a pleasure to have the All Star Game in town.

7/14/2014

Of Water and Tombstones

I went on a long bike ride yesterday. There's a fifty mile path around Minneapolis. I went from our house to the Mississippi River along downtown, down to Minnehaha Falls, along the Minnehaha Creek past lake after lake: Hiawatha and Nokomis, Harriet, Calhoun, and Cedar, back to home. 

We've had a wet summer. A really wet summer. The falls were flowing more than I've ever seen. Along the creek, the path was flooded. In one place I had to pedal through about a foot of water for a hundred yards or more. 

Water is at the core of life. It was there at the beginning of creation. The flood cleansed the earth. The Israelites passed through the waters of the Red Sea to escaped slavery; they passed through the Jordan to enter the Promised Land. Jesus gave us the sacrament of baptism--dying to self, rising in Christ. 

Without water, we cannot llive. But water is also destructive. When concentrated, it destroys. It washes away. The flood plains along the river smelled of dead fish, a smell found pleasant only by scavengers. Undoubtedly, the flooding brough death, just as the waters bring life.

* * * * * * * *

A week or so ago, we were camping at Jay Cooke State Park. I explored an old pioneer cemetery there from the latter part of the nineteenth century. Only a few tombstones remain with recognizable names. The bodies beneath are now a part of the soil. 

Death consumed them. For now at least. There will come a time when those old pioneers are given new bodies. Whole, unblemished bodies. 

Someone picked wildflowers and put them on one of the tombstones. It's an odd practice--killing a living them to mark the burial place of a dead thing. We do that, though, trying to beautify death. 

And there is a beauty in death, but it's subtle and hard to find. It's there in the hope of eternal life. It's there in the continuation of generation after generation. It's there in memories. 



* * * * * * * *

I have had much death in my life. Not so much in people I have lost (though there have been plenty), but in myself. Dark things that bring me death. Places where the light does not reach.

Paul says, "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body I live by faith in the son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me" (Galatians 2:20).

Dying is something I need to choose to do each day. Dying to my self. Dying to my old patterns and habits. Dying to my selfish desires. 

I have failed to do this all too often. It leaves me with more death in my life--it leaves me with a life that smells like dead fish and earthworms on a flooded plain. 

* * * * * * * *

On Sunday I visited the church of a friend I went to seminary with. It's just a short bike ride from my house, but I hadn't visited before. It turned out to be the one year anniversary of an arson attack on their church building. It is a diverse church where reconciliation takes place. Not everyone likes that. But they didn't let the attack on them and their lack of a building for most of a year stop them from being a church. 

The message that morning was about new beginnings, about letting yourself be open to being changed and used by God. Like a phoenix, rising from the ashes, life comes through death.

Paul tells us to "put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry" (Colossians 3:5). He goes on in that chapter to tell us to rid ourselves of things like anger, slander, filthy language, and lying. 

This is not a one time thing. At least for me it isn't. I need to put those things to death daily. Death only begets more death. 

Instead, Paul tells us to put on compassion, kindness, gentleness, humility, love, and forgiveness, as if they were articles of clothing that we dress ourselves with each day. New life. The raging waters have washed away the filth and carried it far downstream--as far as the east is from the west. 

So I'm working to get the death out of my life. It's not easy. I've got long-established patterns and habits. But I want to choose life each day. I'm sick of the smell of decay. I want the smell of freshly fallen rain. 

6/08/2014

A Pentecost Church Apology

Dear World,

Today we celebrate the birth of the church. Around 2000 years ago people from all around the known world at that time (Asia, Africa, Europe) were gathered for the Jewish festival of Pentecost. God poured out His spirit on a group of people who were followers of Jesus. They began to speak in the languages of the people gathered there. The apostle Peter spoke to the confused crowd of onlookers, explaining that what was happening was foretold by the prophet Joel hundreds of years before. Three thousand people decided to become disciples of Jesus that day. And they stayed in the city and spent time together every day, in worship, praying and eating meals. What they had as a church at the beginning makes me envious. But I would also be a bit apprehensive of being in a similar situation. They shared everything they had, they gave a lot (sometimes all) of their money and possessions away to help the poor, and they knew each other intimately. I'm not sure I could do that, honestly.

So with that the church began and continued, spreading and growing through history. It's not an illustrious history, of course. There are plenty of shameful moments. They still happen, unfortunately. We in the church can be our biggest hindrance.

It's to be expected, I suppose. Though we follow God, we're still sinners who make stupid, selfish choices sometimes. I've made stupid, selfish choices in my life as a follower of Jesus...as a minister and leader in the church. I'm not proud of them. But God still loves me and offers forgiveness.

I think that first church on Pentecost holds some good pointers for us today, that if we try a little harder to follow, maybe you'll see us as a positive source for change and for good in the world.

1. More Diversity. It has been said that Sunday morning is the most segregated time in the week. This saddens me. I understand it--we're most comfortable with people like us. But the early church was comprised of people from every known continent. Africa. Asia. Europe. All together.

2. Gender Equality. When Peter explained what was happening by quoting from the prophet Joel, he mentioned that God's Spirit was to be poured out on all people--men and women alike. I don't see that God pours out His Spirit more on one gender than the other. His Spirit is His Spirit. With it men and women (all people) are equipped to do God's work. Just as the American workplace still has a way to go to overcome issues with gender equality, so does the church.

3. Intentional Community. People were in Jerusalem from all over the world. Those that witnessed the pouring out of the Spirit on Pentecost stayed. They spent time together every day. Meals were central to their fellowship. Too often today we go home after church on Sunday and have little contact with our faith community during the week. We need each other.

4. The Holy Spirit. Pentecost changed from a Jewish festival to a Christian holy day. It emphasizes that God has now chosen to dwell within us through His Holy Spirit. I don't fully get the Holy Spirit. It's a bit of a mystery at times. But I know that God is with us and in us and empowers us to do His will. Not our wills, but His.

Forgive us, world, for not always doing well at these things. We'll still have our failures, but we'll have some great successes, too. Give us some grace. Listen to our stories. God can do some amazing things. And He utilizes failures like us to do so. Is it His best move? Maybe not, but if He can utilize failures, then we've all got a chance and being part of something big.

Sincerely,

A Failure

6/05/2014

Backyard Hospitality

I recently signed up to review the book Strangers at My Door by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. In it he tells of the failures, successes, and surprises of treating everyone who comes to the door at their house as if the person was Jesus. This is an ancient practice, outlined by St. Benedict in his monastic rule over 1500 years ago (and was likely around before that, but the Benedictines have kept the practice alive).

Tonight I had the opportunity to practice treating the strangers in my yard like Jesus. This is where people interact with me more. My youngest and I were out in the yard throwing around a football tonight. First, a woman approached the fence. She said she had been walking through the neighborhood trying to find some work...her check hadn't come today and she had a young one at home to feed.

In our part of the world, there are a lot of people out there asking for food and money. On weekends I can see several people on street corners in a short drive. Sometimes we keep food in the car to give them; sometimes I turn a blind eye.

It was easier to help the woman tonight. She wasn't asking for money or a hand out. She was asking if she could do some cleaning or some other work for us and afterward we'd take her to the grocery store for food. We're low on food in the house, but we put together a bag of somethings to hopefully help her and her family. She was grateful at least.

A little while later an older man came along and was commenting on how nice it was to see my son and I playing catch. He was encouraging Nils to keep getting better. Apparently he had seen him rollerblading and playing street hockey with Beth a few weeks ago. He was encouraging and appreciative that we were spending time together as a father and son.

Even from a few yards away, I could smell the alcohol on his breath. It would have been easy to dismiss him as just some drunk. And if he had been surly, or cursing, or loud, I probably would have. But it was easy to engage him and be respectful in hearing what he wanted to say.

Not long afterward our neighbor from down the block brought her dog up to play catch in the yard with the boys.

I am not always good at engaging the person walking by my yard. Sometimes I'm caught up in gardening or yard work. Sometimes I don't want to acknowledge them. Sometimes they don't want to be acknowledged. I've had my share of really bad experiences with people on the other side of the fence, too. But I'm finding that I need to see the other and treat them as Jesus as best I can. Tonight was rewarding in ways that I wouldn't have been looking for.

6/02/2014

Music and Almost-Ten-Year Olds

Anders has been taking violin lessons for about a year now. There's a great organization, Hopewell Music Cooperative North, that provides free and reduced lessons to qualifying students in North Minneapolis (click on that link if you feel led to donate). Nils has recently started taking piano lessons with them, too. While practice isn't their favorite thing, they're both pretty good.

Anders had his first concert yesterday. Hopewell started up a Children's Festival for Minneapolis (there's a big one in St. Paul). His beginning orchestra group played a few songs. He's had opportunity before, but he's inherited his father's shyness. I remember as a child, being afraid to go up front of church for the Christmas program. I think I even backed out of taking palm branches up front on Palm Sunday once.

Thankfully, he went through with it this time. And though he was nervous--who isn't?--he enjoyed it. 
I think It gave him a sense of pride. He's a first born who I think has that sense of perfectionism; he can get down on himself and be afraid to try things at which he might fail. I'm familiar with those qualities, I hate to say.

It was his last time for beginning orchestra; tonight he started with the regular orchestra group. He's one of the youngest ones there, and I think it'll be good for him to have some older students and adults to learn from.

Music is good for both of the boys. Finger dexterity improves, math skills improve, self-esteem is built. I think they're discovering the joy in playing for other people and giving them the gift of music.

I recognize that not everyone has musical talent. There are members in my family who are notorious for not being able to sing on pitch. But I also know that music is still a part of their lives. Every once in a while I pick up my guitar and play. Not often enough. I need to make more time for it. Playing music is relaxing and speaks to the heart. It's never too late to start, either. One of the women in Anders' orchestra group tonight is probably around retirement age, I would guess. She started violin just a few years ago.


5/26/2014

Work



We spent the weekend, like usual, at Covenant Pines Bible Camp. Over Memorial Day weekend they have a Work & Worship camp where families and individuals go and help get the camp ready for summer while having a lot of fun. While many churches go from the Twin Cities area, our church kind of makes it our church retreat.
I had attended a similar camp with my family growing up in Iowa. It was a good memory for me. So before we even attended our church, we were going to Work & Worship. It's where we met our church, actually. 

The Benedictine monks use the phrase "ora et labora" to describe their calling. It's how our church refers to the weekend. It means to pray and to work. Work and worship.

Our pastoral associate spoke on Sunday morning at camp. She used Psalm 127 as her text.
Unless the Lord builds the house, / the builders labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city, / the guards stand watch in vain.
In vain you rise early / and stay up late,
toiling for food to eat—/ for he grants sleep to those he loves. 
Children are a heritage from the Lord, / offspring a reward from him. 
 Like arrows in the hands of a warrior / are children born in one’s youth.
Blessed is the man / whose quiver is full of them.
They will not be put to shame / when they contend with their opponents in court.
She reminded us that God is at work. No matter where we're at. Whether we're working at a Bible Camp or at a gas station. If we're not working alongside God, that work doesn't matter.

Then the Psalm switches to talking about children. An odd transition. Maybe. I wonder if it's not getting at the importance of viewing our parenting as worthwhile work. That if we see where God is at work in our children's lives and join in, we will find rich blessings. 

(Now, I know the church unfortunately often elevates marriage and families and disregards singleness which Paul lauds as the higher calling, but I don't think this Psalm intends to diminish  being single. I think the children thing is just an example. Possibly. Maybe it's not even related. But no matter what your relational status, God wants to you to rely fully upon Him and not your own efforts.)

My oldest son wanted to paint this weekend at camp. So we found a job painting. It turned out to be inside, instead of out--which was maybe okay since it turned out to be really hot, and we probably would have ended up with bad sunburns. He took a few breaks, but worked alongside me most of the day. My younger son joined for a short time, too. 

For some reason I can't always get them to work with me at home. But at camp they're much more willing. It was good to get to talk with them as we worked. It wasn't necessarily deep conversation, but it was getting to know them more. In the afternoon, the oldest and I went out in the woods behind the building we were painting and took a peanut break--just sitting and eating some peanuts together. 

On Sunday there was a lot of free time. Both the boys wanted to try a new activity called "crate stacking." You simply stack milk crates as high as you can while standing on top of them. I was proud of my oldest for wanting to try it. He doesn't often want to try new things--especially activities with a potential for failure. But he did it and did great. 

One of the hard parts of parenting is that you never know how your kids will turn out. No matter how much you invest in them, they're still independent souls who will make their own decisions one day. They might not always be the right decisions, either. 

We can only trust that by investing in where God is at work in our children that He will build the house.

5/18/2014

Milestones


This weekend we were in Iowa celebrating my niece's graduation. Actually, she graduates next weekend, but she's also involved in a few state track meet events that same weekend, so her party was this weekend. High school graduation parties are a big deal in Iowa. The party involves a "shrine" to the graduate (pictures, awards, etc.--a small portion of which is shown here), gift giving (which seemed like pretty much people are just giving cards--presumably with money--in her area) and plenty of food (either small meat and cheese sandwiches with various salads and a cake or some creative theme--my niece had a chocolate fountain with various dip-able foods).

Because her cousin was also graduating, they both had their parties together at the same time. They were expecting around 250 people. I'm not sure if quite that many showed up, but it was a lot.

We don't have many rites of passage in our culture. High school graduation is one of the few. It should be a big deal. Generally, most schools in Iowa--the smaller ones at least--don't celebrate other steps (ie. Kindergarten graduation, 6th grade graduation, middle school graduation). So after thirteen years of school, and essentially becoming an adult--going off on your own--it's a noteworthy time to celebrate. 

* * * * * * * *

Tonight at church (we got back to Minneapolis with just a few minutes to unpack the car and get ready!) friends had their youngest son dedicated. It's another milestone of sorts--not that the child does anything to accomplish it other than being born. But it's a rite of passage nonetheless.

It's a big step for parents to dedicate their child. Essentially, they're saying, "God, you've given us this child to take care of as best we can, but ultimately the child is Yours. Whatever plans we have for this child take the back seat to Your plans. We know that someday we have to let go and give this child up to You."

I appreciate that along with the child's family, extended family, and family friends that we as the church body affirm the blessing of the child in our midst. We commit to being a part of their development.

* * * * * * * *

It's good to mark milestones in life. Especially in children. We need to celebrate children more. Not to build up their self-esteem, boost their ego, or pamper them; but because there are steps towards living an independent, interconnected life that are work marking. They need to know they're doing things well and that they have the support of many people who love them. 

5/04/2014

The Week




Here's how this week has played out so far:

On Wednesday my wife flew to Pennsylvania to work at her research site for 10 days. She flies home on Friday and then back out to a different venue on Sunday for three more days. So she'll be home for two out of fourteen days.

On Thursday, my class at school left for an overnight camping trip (in cabins, but no electricity or running water, so it was primitive for most of the city kids). We had two days of outdoor education. The weather cooperated, and it was nice to be outside in spring weather. My youngest son's class also was on the trip, so my oldest spend the night with friends.

Those friends invited us over for supper and a movie on Friday night, so it was nice not to have to come home after a trip and make a meal. Friends are a good thing to have.

I also discovered a cold was setting in that night. I can't tell you how many tissues I've gone through.

Saturday started with my oldest son having beginning orchestra and my youngest having hockey at roughly the same time. So I dropped of my oldest with his violin at the church where they practice, then ran my youngest over to the ice arena to get all his gear on. Then it was back to the church to finish hearing my oldest, and then back to the ice arena to finish watching my youngest play. Thankfully this was all about a mile apart at most.

Saturday was also Free Comic Book Day, so after practices were finished, we visited a few comic book stores for some new reading material.
 
Today we decided to venture out to the local May Day Parade. It's the largest in America, I'm told. It's put on by the Heart of the Beast Puppet Theater which helped volunteers make all sorts of creative masks and costumes.  It's not like anything I've ever been to before. The fresh air was good, though. And there was a fun spirit of welcoming in spring. After the long winter we've had, we need it--and after the long week of rain we've had, the sun was good. I think my youngest has a little bit of a sunburn on the back of his neck.

At church tonight I went to a session that looked at haiku as a way to pray the Psalm we were reading. The busyness of the week necessitated some good, quiet prayer time. Meanwhile, the cold is still raging. More prayer needed.
We didn't get in any good Star Wars-themed activities for Star Wars Day (May 4th--as in May the Fourth be with you--get it? terrible pun, I know, but it's nationally recognized). But the boys donned their helmets for a bedtime photo.


May the Force be with you--and me--in the week ahead.

4/27/2014

Sunday Night Musings: Praying with Pencil


During Eastertide (Pascaltide) we're looking at Psalms, and instead of sermons people can choose between three different options of interaction with the evening's Psalm. I was asked to lead one and had an opportunity to lead a session tonight. We looked at Psalm 16. One person lead a teaching on the psalm. Another lead a session where after looking at the psalm, participants went around the church and took pictures of images that captured parts of the psalm for them. I led a session I called "Praying with Pencil."

About a year ago I read the book Praying in Black and White by Sybil and Andy Macbeth (Sybil originally wrote a book called Praying in Color, which I haven't read; the former book is aimed towards men, the latter toward women and children).  In it they talk about using your pencil (pen/markers/crayons) to pray. Focusing on a word or phrase, you simply doodle, letting the activity with your pencil help keep you focused in prayer.

Sometimes when I attempt contemplative prayer, I have difficulty focusing in the stillness. My mind wanders. I can't sit that still. I want to take a nap. But I've found that if I have a pencil and can just keep it moving, I can keep focused on a word or phrase and enter into it prayerfully.

So I talked a little about that experience tonight and then led the group that was with me through a lectio divina (divine reading) exercise. I read the psalm out loud a few times, pausing after each reading. As I did so, I had participants pick out a word or phrase that stuck out for them, that God was giving them to focus on. They were asked to write it down, and then just doodle, focusing on that word or phrase as they did so.

I don't do it all the time, but once in a while during my quiet time I pull out my journal and doodle or draw with a verse I'm reading. I have found that I am able to focus on prayer a little more deeply sometimes when my pencil keeps moving.

4/20/2014

Sunday Night Musing: Resurrection


Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26, NIV)

This was the last of the "I am" statements of Jesus that we've looked at during church during Lent (and today's culmination of Lent with Resurrection Sunday).

It's not a typical statement. Most of Jesus' other "I am" statements were metaphorical ("I am the bread of life," "I am the light of the world," "I am the vine"). This one isn't. It's a statement of fact. Well, either you believe it's fact, or that Jesus was just a crazy man.

The fact that we celebrate His own resurrection 2000 years later convinces me that He wasn't crazy.
He spoke these words to Martha. Yes, that Martha. The one who was busy with all the housework and food preparation while Jesus was visiting her home. The one who was indignant for her sister for sitting and listening to Jesus rather than helping out.

Martha and Mary's brother, Lazarus, was dead. They had sent messages to Jesus telling Him that Lazarus was sick, but Jesus took His time in returning to their home. He does this on purpose. He could get there in time and save Lazarus. But Jesus believes God wants to use this moment for His glory.

A couple of centuries ago and more it was common practice to bury corpses with a fail safe. Medical knowledge hadn't gotten to a point where there was certainty in death. It wasn't unheard of for a dead body to turn out not to be dead. So strings were placed in the coffin attached to bells above ground so that if the person turned out to be alive, they could make themselves known.

Lazarus had already been dead for four days. There was an odor in the tomb. He was dead. Martha was upset, yet hopeful when Jesus arrives. Martha has come to know who Jesus is. She understands the power He has. She believes He is the Son of God.

Jesus confirms that His power extends over life and death. He proves this by bringing Lazarus back to life.

Lazarus, however, will still face death some day. He won't live forever.

Jesus, Himself, will provide eternal life. His death changed eternity. The grave no longer had power. Hell no longer had power. Love won. It still wins.

Easter is huge. (Sidenote: I dislike using the word "Easter." It is a meaningless word. We often use the name "Resurrection Sunday" for this day. But while Christmastide lasts for 12 days, Easter lasts for 50. Eastertide is the common name for the next several weeks. Paschaltide is also used, but not as common, unfortunately.) It's bigger than Christmas--theologically, at least.

For much of our culture, today is about candy and other gifts in baskets left by a rabbit. But it's so much more. It's about love and life and the ever after.

My tendency, though, is to make Jesus' statement to Martha about the future. Yes, I believe Jesus is the resurrection and the life, so that means I won't go to Hell when I die.

And while this is true--that my hope is now in Heaven--it's also not the whole picture. I believe it has to have relevance for the here and now.

I still have places of death in my life. I may not be fully aware of what they all are, but they're there. But they don't have to be. Jesus can bring life to those places. Each day I can live with a resurrection attitude--seeking to live life to the fullest, seeking to be a new creation renewed and transformed by the Holy Spirit.

I confess that I'm not great at doing this always. But Jesus offers it to me nonetheless.

He is not dead. He is risen! Alleluia! Love has won.

4/19/2014

A Holy Saturday Letter

Typically we have written and sent out (or distributed electronically, as the case often is) our Easter letter by now (our version of a family Christmas letter). It clearly hasn't happened this year. And it's not going to happen at this point.

I confess that I feel a little guilty not writing one. Especially not spending one back to all the people who sent us a card at Christmas.

But I also just don't have the drive to do it this year. I often feel that the letter--while intending to keep in touch and share our lives with our friends--sometimes just turns into bragging. And while there's a lot to brag about (Beth's immense success in her academic endeavors, Nils' taking to hockey quite well, Anders' fantastic job at beginning on the violin despite his hate of practicing), it kind of feels like there's nothing worthwhile to share. And the fact is that if you're reading this, you've probably kept up with our lives via this blog or facebook. I should probably put time into writing each of you personally (though at this point in the school year, I just don't have much drive or energy--maybe in six weeks!).

*  *  *  *  *

I sometimes feel this unsettling tension about Holy Saturday. We've often attended a Good Friday service (as I did last night) remembering the suffering Jesus went through on the cross. Tomorrow, of course, we'll attend the Resurrection Sunday service at church remembering that He didn't stay dead, but arose. Holy Saturday sits in the tension between those events. The Apostles Creed states that Jesus spent this day in Hell (theologically, I believe death/Hell is separation from God which Jesus seemed to experience on the cross and in the grave).

To Jesus' followers it was the Sabbath Day--a day of rest. Nothing to do but sit and contemplate the events that had just transpired, hoping for a different outcome, somehow finding a way to be present enough to worship God.

We don't know what they did or experienced following the crucifixion: fear? anger? disappointment? worry? hope?

It seems that they were gathered together as was their habit. Maybe worshiping God. Maybe sitting in silent fear. Probably eating. But they were together.

It's a good habit, gathering together. It's one of the reasons we try not to travel around this weekend. While I love and miss my family, I like to have this holiday to be in our church with our family there. We often open up our home to those who aren't having an Easter meal elsewhere. But we gather together.

I hope that through this past Holy Week and into tomorrow's Resurrection Sunday, you will have found places to gather together whether it be with family, friends, or the people you regularly worship with. May togetherness be a place of comfort during times of grief, sadness, tension, or hope.

*  *  *  *  *

I'll end this "letter" of sorts by wishing you and your family a joyous Eastertide. Stop by and visit if you're in the Twin Cities (stay the night if you need). We'll have some food, play some games, and have some good time. Gathered together.

Love,

The Wenells

4/18/2014

Good Friday

We are nearly at the end of our Lenten journey. Forty days ago my forehead was marked with the sign of the cross and the reminder, "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in dying we rise."  
Lent is a very counter-cultural concept. We don't like to focus on suffering, death, or our own mortality. Yet, we can't escape it.

This year during the Sundays of Lent our pastor has offered the opportunity to have ashes marked on our foreheads or palms if we so desire. I have been surprised that most of the young preschool and Kindergarten aged children are often the first in line.

For them, I'm guessing, there's something they connect with in the physical touch and symbol. Getting their head marked with an ashen cross is a way they can participate in worship.

Yet, it's also a disturbing juxtaposition: young life beginning to bloom being marked with death. I don't like to think about my own mortality, yet alone my children's. I don't want to think about the suffering and maybe even persecution that could face them some day.

Good Friday makes that inescapable, though. There is the cross. There is suffering. There is death. There is God's Son in the midst of it all, bearing it all upon Himself.

And it's my sins that put Him there. He died with the weight of my disobedience, lust, anger, fear, resentment, dishonesty, and pride holding Him to the cross. The cross was mine to bear. My actions are not always life-producing; my sins bring death to my soul. But He hung there in my place.

It doesn't make sense to me. I don't think I'm worth that. But Jesus did it not to shame or guilt me, but simply because He loves me. Love. Period.

As I see the Christ hanging there--bleeding, suffering, dying--I feel a deep sense of sorrow. Sorrow for my twisted nature. Sorrow that I don't quickly learn, but that I keep doing the same dumb things. Sorry for how I have hurt others through my sins.

But I also feel a deeper sense of gratefulness. I know I am loved. I know I am forgiven. I know that someday all will be made right. 

4/15/2014

Holy Week


Crown of thorns, candle light, purple cloth

Palm leaves, ashes, cross

4/13/2014

Sunday Night Musing: Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday. The start of Holy Week. The exultation of a King who will be crucified alongside criminals. He knows this lies ahead of Him, too. I don't think I would have that kind of courage to ride into the town where I was going to be killed. I would be turning and going the other direction.

Of course Jesus is the Son of God. Fully man, yet fully God. Of course, His Spirit lives in those who follow Him, too. So we have access to that same sort of courage. I just know I don't access it enough.

All too often I am trying to rely on my own strength to get me through tough situations. The reality is that I am often displaying my weaknesses in those situations. I'm more likely to avoid a confrontation.

Tonight's "I am" statement of Jesus is a familiar one. It's from John 14:6. "Jesus answered, 'I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me'" (NIV). It's so familiar to many Christians that we don't often hear it fully anymore. Most likely we hear it used for evangelical purposes, telling people that they need Jesus and that no other way is going to get them to Heaven--not Buddah, not a Hindu god, not performing many good deeds.

However, Jesus was talking to His disciples here. He'd raised Lazarus from the dead, entered Jerusalem on a donkey amidst shouts of "Hosanna," and was sharing His last meal with His followers as He told them that His journey was about to end in death. He comforts His disciples, letting them know that He's preparing things in Heaven for them and will return some day. Though He'll be gone, they already know the way. 

And Thomas says that they don't know where He's going, so how can they know the way. This is when Jesus responds letting him know that He is the way, truth, and life. These are words of comfort and compassion. 
 
They're also words of direction. 

I don't need to follow my own way. It won't get me anywhere but in trouble. Jesus is the way. His is the only path I should follow.

I don't need to listen to the lies the world tells me (or that I tell myself). Jesus is the truth. When He calls me His beloved, that's all I need to hear.

I don't need to worry about death. Jesus is the life.  

John 14:6 isn't words to tell people that they need Jesus to get to Heaven. They're words for me--that I need Jesus here in this life.  

4/06/2014

Sunday Night Musings: The Vine

The "I am" saying of Jesus we looked at at church tonight was from John 15:5 where Jesus says, "I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing" (NIV).

It's a saying I've heard preached on many times. But typically when I hear the passage talked about, the preacher at least indirectly says that I'm an individual branch on the vine. I need to stay grafted to Jesus. He is my source of life. If I'm abiding in Him, I'll do good works (bear much fruit).

These are all good and true ideas. But there's more to the passage than that. When Jesus said "you" He wasn't talking to just one person. It wasn't an individual "you", it was a plural "you all" (or "y'all" depending on where you're from). A grape vine doesn't have just one branch. It has many. 

We all are grafted together onto the true Vine. Jesus is a place of unity. He is the source of life and nourishment for all of us.

Pastor Jan noted tonight how hard that fact is that we're all one in Jesus. Some of those branches are our enemies, because the Vine is all inclusive. The branches include republicans and democrats, socialists and capitalists, the poor and the well-to-do, gay and straight, oppressor and victim, misogynist and feminist, fundamentalist and liberal, male and female, free and slave, those with health care and those without, etc. Jesus welcomes all sinners to abide in Him.

Jesus prayed for the unity of all believers (John 17). We're told that we're one in the Spirit. But often times it feels like the church is more separated and divided than united. 

Ideologies will never unite us. We will only ever be united by the vine: Jesus. Without Him we have nothing in common, we have nothing to unite us. Christ is our point of unity. 

I think what this means is that we as followers of Jesus need to talk less about theology and ideologies and more about what He is doing in our lives. Both our individual lives and our lives together as a community. Therein lies our point of unity. No one can discount what Jesus has done for you or for us. 

Yes, we need theology to help us understand our experiences. We need ideologies to help us guide our desire for justice, righteousness, freedom, and peace. But we won't ever all agree on theology or ideologies. The church, however, can and must agree on Jesus. We must abide in Him solely.

And we must do it together. Not as several vines with one branch on each, but as one vine with many branches. Abiding. Belonging. Connected.

Pastor Jan quoted St. Augustine from his Confessions: "Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee." Our hearts are restless looking for connection. We desire a place of belonging.

Sometimes we look for that connection in inappropriate, unhealthy, or unsatisfying places. I know I have. We all want to belong...we've wanted it since we were young children.

There is one place, though, where we can find true connection that will satisfy: The Vine. Christ is our place of belonging. And it is not just belonging to Him, but belonging to Him alongside others to whom we are connected through the Vine. He is the place we abide and can find rest.

4/03/2014

On Spring Break and Jealousy

I can be a very jealous person. Spring Break reminds me of that. I get jealous seeing friends' Facebook pictures of their trip to Ireland or Mexico. I get jealous knowing friends are in Florida or have been to Virginia. I get jealous because those options aren't possibilities for us financially right now.

Last year the boys and I did a camping trip that, while without any bells and whistles--just a lot of time in state parks, was probably still more than our budget should have handled. This year we stayed for free in a cabin in Wisconsin built and owned by my wife's sister and husband who generously let us use it when it's free (this was our first time there since it has been usable). Other than the food we brought with, we didn't spend money on anything extra--no special events or activities, no restaurants. We used the snowshoes at the cabin, played in the snow (the boys enjoyed jumping off a low-height roof into the snow), reading, playing games, and relaxing.

My quiet-time nook
I was talking with a friend tonight (who had been gone last week with his family to Virginia for a Spring Break trip to historic sites) about our spring break trips. We were both reminded in our conversations to be thankful for what we have. He wasn't much into historic sites. I was envious of all the opportunities he gets to travel.

But I was also reminded that people would pay thousands of dollars to have the virtually free experience that we had. We received a gift. And I am thankful for it.

I was also aware that there is a large percentage of children in my sons' classrooms (as well as my own) that don't get to even leave Minneapolis during Spring Break. Some of them are probably home alone (or with their siblings). Some of them are at school as part of the release day options.

That's how my mind works, though, if I let it. It looks at what everyone else has who is more privileged than I feel that I am. It doesn't think about those who don't have even the opportunities that I receive. It doesn't stop to just be grateful. My mind can be dangerous sometimes. Especially if I listen to it undiscerningly.

I've got to constantly keep myself in check, otherwise I all too easily can live in my head. And while I've got a lot of good stuff in my head, it's not a good place to live. My mind can easily twist reality into fantasy. Or I can make things worse than they really are--or think I'm worse off than I really am.

My heart needs to keep my head in check (and vice versa). I need to remind myself that my life is good. That I've got plenty to be grateful for. While I may not have everything I want, I've got more than everything I need.

A view of frozen Lake Arbutus
Once again I am reminded that gratitude is the antidote. Gratitude reminds me that what I have is a gift from God. It reminds me that despite all that I feel I don't have, I still have it pretty good. As my friend reminds me, if these are my worst problems--getting several days away in a beautiful northwoods cabin--then I have it pretty well.

Indeed, I do have it pretty well. No matter what everyone else is doing. I have much to be thankful for.

3/31/2014

Winter Hiking (in Spring)

Thanks to the generosity of my sister-in-law and her husband we're spending a little bit if spring break at their cabin in northeastern Wisconsin. Of course "Spring Break" is merely a technical pleasantly for its name. Snow covers the ground three feet deep here. But the temperatures have at least been above freezing during the day.


We're spending our days reading, drawing, playing games, rubber band loom weaving, doing jigsaw puzzles, sitting in front of the fireplace, and playing outside.

We discovered yesterday that I can lift the boys onto the garage roof, and they can jump off the back side into the snow. It's deep enough that at least once each of them got stuck and couldn't pull their feet out.

We've also been watching the deer that frequent the woods nearby. They walk near the cabin a few times a day. We've seen at least five together.

Deer tracks in the snow.
It's been beautiful weather to be outside. My youngest son and I went for a hike yesterday. We discovered that it was best to follow the deer trails. They use the same paths frequently, so the snow on the path is compacted and hard.

The moment is stepped off the trail I sank up past my knees in the snow.

My oldest son and I did some snowshoeing. Snowshoes don't allow you to walk on top of the snow as is often believed (though I suppose with the right snow conditions you might be able to). Snowshoes help you walk more easily through the snow.

Snowshoes spread your weight out over a wider area. With snowshoes on I sunk only eighteen inches instead of the three feet I sunk without them on. Without snowshoes boots easily got stuck in several feet of snow. Unless you happen to put one snowshoe on top of the other or get snagged under a hidden branch snowshoes don't get trapped in the snow.

Still, snowshoeing is hard work and good exercise. A short jaunt through the forest left my brow with beads of sweat. The hikes we took were good workouts.

Outside of the deer tracks and a few rabbit tracks (the squirrels and other rodents were apparently light enough that they didn't leave tracks in the heavy snow on the ground), it was clear that no one else had been in the woods recently. We had it to ourselves--except for the occasional nuthatch and chickadee that would swoop in and perch for a moment on a branch before flitting off to the next one.

It may not be like discovering something entirely new but there's a serendipitous feeling that comes with exploring pristine corners of creation. I get to see things that no one else has seen--at least in several months.

And it's peaceful. I don't hear sirens, and except for an occasional car on the nearby county road, there isn't much traffic noise. The air is fresh. I can smell the faint earthy smell of birch bark and the sappy smell of evergreens.

This is a good way to spend spring break. At least for me. I need the break from busyness and city life.