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.


Sunday Night Musing: Gates and Sheep

Here was the passage we studied tonight at church:

Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. (John 10:7-10, NIV)

The first summer I worked at a Bible camp was before my senior year of high school. The theme that summer dealt with sheep, education, and life and was built around the John 10 chapter. John 10:10 was our theme verse. I still remember it (with the actions we taught the campers). It was a central verse in my book.

John 10 also includes the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. It's a complicated chapter with a few different metaphors: Jesus as the Gate, and Jesus as the Good Shepherd. I read once (or heard in a lesson or something) that there could be a combined reason for that. I haven't done much research on this to verify facts, but I heard that the sheep fold didn't have a physical gate that shut the opening back in those times. The shepherd would lay across the opening so that sheep couldn't get out without his knowing. Thus the shepherd would also be the gate.

Most likely though, Jesus was just acknowledging that He has many roles, and both of the metaphors applied to Him. He is the Good Shepherd who calls His sheep (I'm told that the sheep would be separated after being in a fold together by their own shepherd calling them--they knew their particular shepherd's voice and would go to him).

He is also the Gate (admittedly, not a metaphor or name of Jesus we use too often). In the passage above, Jesus says that the gate is the way to salvation. The gate would be the entrance to the boundaries that separated the fold from the pasture. The pasture is the place where the sheep spend their day. They graze and drink and socialize as only sheep can do. There are dangers in the pasture, though. Wild animals. Cliffs, caves, and other landforms that can cause injury or where sheep can get lost.

The fold was a secure place of rest. All the sheep were gathered in one place. The shepherds knew clearly where each sheep was and that they were accounted for. They watched over them through the night and kept them safe.

We heard the idea tonight about the importance going to Jesus for rest. Sabbath isn't something we (I) tend to do well. And I don't think it's just about one day of the week. Maybe part of the gate metaphor is that Jesus offers us a place of peace, safety, and rest. That's exactly what I need during my intense weeks quite often, but I seldom remember to go to Him for rest.

So that's what I'm working on: not getting buried in frustrations or stress or other issues that come my way, but to remember the Gate. To pray for the things that come up, to give thanks, to find peace in Christ.

So, in looking at the Lenten question of "Who is Christ?"I think tonight I've been reminded that He is a place of security and rest. Those are two things I generally need during each week--each day even.


Sunday Musings: Light and Darkness

Our lenten scriptures at church are taking us through the Gospel of John. The phrase, "Who is Jesus?" provides our framework as we're reading through passages in which Jesus often says, "I am..."

Last week we looked at Jesus' saying, "I am the Bread of Life." Jesus is nourishment.

Tonight's passage was John 8:12. "When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, 'I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life'” (NIV).

As a child--as with most children--I wasn't always the fondest of darkness. My imagination would go to places of fear. Mostly because of the unknown in the darkness. You can't see what's there. I could imagine things being there weren't even real. 

I'm going to admit that even as an adult that sometimes happens still. Last fall I was out camping by myself in a state forest. No one else was around me within several campsites. I was sitting around the campfire in the dark. I had been doing some reading and journaling and my lantern's batteries were dying. Wolves had been howling off in the distance. When I heard a noise that sounded like it was right next to me, I freaked out. It was probably a squirrel or a raccoon. It was probably some distance from me. But at the moment, in my mind, a wolf was right there next to me. When I am alone the darkness is intensified.

Of course darkness is also a place of fun. As I grew older I enjoyed playing games like Ghosts in the Graveyard, Hide and Seek, or Sardines. The darkness hides and conceals which are useful for some of those games. 

Darkness induces blindness--at least temporarily until one's eyes adjust. Darkness hides; it hides you from being seen and it hides other things from being seen by you. Darkness is a place of fear, lies, shame, fear, and death. Darkness happens when a light source is taken away. It happens when something comes between you and the light. Darkness happens when you distance yourself from the light.

Light illuminates. It expels the darkness. Lights gives life--without it nothing could grow. In the light we can see. Light shows what is real, what is true. It exposes and frees. 

The darkness is a place where I say, "I am not good enough." "I am not a good enough husband." "I am not successful enough." "I am not..."

Jesus says, "I am the Light of the World." "I am life." "I am truth." "I am the way."

In Jesus' words and claims we find that there is grace in the light. As it exposes what was in darkness it helps us see the truth.We discover that though we are sinners, we are saved. Though we sometimes go astray, we have a Father who always welcomes us back with wide-open loving arms.

The hard part of what Jesus says is, "Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness." I feel like that means that there shouldn't be any darkness in my life when I follow Him. And I know there is. I know there are still dark areas in my soul. And I can choose to live in the shame of that darkness or to ask the light to come pouring in and illuminate those areas.

But it's not easy. As we already discussed, darkness is a place of fear. Though we want the light, we are also afraid of the things it might expose. At least I am. But that's shame and fear talking. Those things don't exist in the light. The light is a place of truth, grace, and life.

So I cautiously and sometimes hesitantly pray that the light will continue to expel the darkness and shine on those areas in my life that may still try to hide in darkness like a game of Ghosts in the Graveyard.

But after coming through a long, dreary winter, I am excited about the longer daylight hours that come with spring. I am excited about the warmer temperatures. I know that light is good. So shine on, Jesus. Shine on in my life. Just maybe not all at once...I may need time for my eyes to adjust.



Last week we kicked off Lent with Ash Wednesday. At the service we had the opportunity to go forward to receive the imparting of ashes on our foreheads or palms if we chose. In doing so we heard the words, "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in dying we rise."
The lenten season is usually associated with Jesus' temptation in the wilderness by Satan preceded by 40 days of fasting. We go through these 40 days of Lent to identify with Jesus' time in the wilderness as well as His preparation for the cross.

It also reminds of us of our mortality. Which isn't usually our favorite thing to think about. 

Tonight our pastor said we were going to do something different during Lent this year. During the blessing--the last song we sing--she will be having ashes available each Sunday during Lent. Along with the lenten associations already mentioned with the ashes, it also reminds us that God makes all things new.
My 9 year old went forward of his own volition tonight to receive the ashes. He had chosen not to go with to the Ash Wednesday service, but thought he'd get his forehead marked tonight instead. I was proud of him for doing so. I gave him a wink while he was in the line.
I didn't get a good chance to ask him about going forward tonight. I don't know what he gets out of it; I don't often know what I get out of it or if I understand the lenten journey much. I guess that's why it's a journey. I hope its the beginning of a good journey for my son as well.

Retreat: First Night

I'm at our church men's retreat at St. John's University and Abbey. It's my third time here. I left school slightly early to meet my ride and hand off the car and kids to my wife. 

We arrived here in time for supper, and then we walked over for Vespers prayers with the monks. It's quite different than what I'm used to. But it's also a good way to start the retreat. 

The monks have a set of prayer books they use for their prayer times (three each day). The first order of business is to find the correct books (3 tonight) and the right pages. 

Some of the psalms are said; some are read. Always antiphonally (back and forth between one side of the chapel and the other). Always slowly and methodically. It is not a dramatic reading. At first I am annoyed by it. 

Then it sets in. It is purposeful. It slows me down from my hurriedness of the day and attempts to get worship done. It focuses me on the words. It brings me out of myself and into community.  

The worship space is dark except for the altar. It is still. It is peaceful and calm. It is everything my day was not. 

I don't know what the weekend will behold. I am thankful to be here and to have the time to readjust my spirit. 


Ash Wednesday Worship Service

I enter the chapel in darkness--
No, not darkness, but dimness
Which seems dark after a busy day.

Sights and sounds fill my senses:
Flickering votive candle lights within
Multi-colored glass,
Purple cloth adorning the walls
And draping over the cross,
The harsh reminder of
The crown of thorns,
Icons with glowing halos,
Crude, simple, poignant sketches
From the last week of Jesus' life,
Guitar strumming,
Violin bow hauntingly gliding,
Ancient words of the prophet read,
From the Psalms confession said...
Create a new and right heart.

Sorrow, tears.
Hope, love.

Ashes imposed,
Forehead dirtied,
Trinity named,
Sign of the cross made.



Sunday Night Musings: Hope Sunday

Last night at church was Hope Sunday. Covenant churches are encouraged to choose one Sunday to designate as a Hope Sunday for Covenant Kids Congo (partnered with World Vision). The Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) was one of the first mission fields of the Evangelical Covenant Church (and its parent church in Sweden). The church there has flourished, despite civil wars and oppressive conditions (or maybe because of them?). In fact, the Covenant church in the Congo is larger than it is in North America.

But the Congo is currently one of the poorest nations in the world. AIDS and other diseases that claim the lives of too many are common place. Therefore, so are orphans. Many children lack education because they spend most of their day walking to get water for their family. Water that is often dirty and filled with bacteria that ends up making those same children sick.

So part of Hope Sunday is awareness of those things that are going on in the Congo. It also encourages families to prayerfully consider sponsoring a child in the Congo for $40 a month that helps the child's village develop through clean water, agriculture, and educational improvements.

We heard a message given by Richard Stearns, President of World Vision US, lat night as well. He acknowledge that often it is overwhelming, even paralyzing, when we look at all the need, injustice, and poverty in the world. The world has so much need that we feel like we as an individual can't make a difference. And maybe we can't change the world, but we can change the world for one person.

I confess that I feel guilty that we financially can't sponsor a child well right now like we have in the past. That'll probably change once my wife is done with her doctorate, but right now we're on a tight budget. So it's not easy to see those faces and not be able to help them. But I don't have to send money to the other side of the world to make a difference. I can bring hope to my neighborhood. I can bring hope to the children I work with at school. Maybe I'm not able to provide them a warm meal or needed clothes, but even a kind word can make a difference. Giving them my time can make a difference.

We heard the Scripture passage from Matthew 25 where Jesus separates the sheep from the goats based on who fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and visited the imprisoned. Sometimes I feel guilty and scared when I read or hear that passage. I feel like I pass up opportunities to help those in need too often.

I don't think Jesus' point is condemnation, though. I think it is about hope. He reminds us that when we take a moment of our time or use a little of our resources--even if it's giving a cup of water to someone who is thirsty--we're serving Him. We're making a difference in someone's life. We're having an impact. We're giving hope.