Behind the Scenes


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.


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.


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.


The Wenells


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. 


Holy Week

Crown of thorns, candle light, purple cloth

Palm leaves, ashes, cross


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.  


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.


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.