Eating the Nativity

On our denominations ministerial Facebook page that I still belong to, someone was talking recently about the manger. Jesus was placed in a feeding trough--a place animals ate from. In French, the word manger means "to eat."

Here was the Son of God lying in essentially a large dinner bowl. In the middle of a barn. Surrounded by animals and their smells and their waste. Not a royal entry. But very earthly. Which is the point of Christmas--God came and dwelt amongst us.

But the eating aspect of the manger made me wonder if it was meant as foreshadowing of the crucifixion. More exactly of the Last Supper. Jesus offers up the bread and the wine to His followers telling them to eat and drink. Telling them to continue doing that after He us gone in remembrance of Him. Telling them to be thankful. And telling them that it is His flesh and blood they must consume.

It's a bit gruesome and cannibalistic to the outsider. Theologians have many interpretations regarding communion. But I think it largely comes down to letting Jesus be our sustenance. Feeding on Him--His words, His love, His example.

Christmas is often a time of coming together to feast. With my grandpa and grandma it was Swedish foods like potato bologna, lutefisk, rye bread, oostakaka, and other things we only saw at Christmas.

Eating is spiritual. It is communal. It is human. It is nourishing. It is life.

The same things can be said of faith and Jesus. Jesus: the God who came to earth to walk alongside us, showing us His love for us and how to love others. The one whose birth we celebrate the Christmas. The one born in a manger.

So feast. Love has come to feed us all.


On Thanksgiving Eve

I had the privilege of being asked to share at our Thanksgiving Eve service at church tonight. Gratitude--if you've read my blog much in the past this is no surprise--is something I have been learning more and more about over the past several years. Here's some of what I shared at church tonight:

Last year was my first Thanksgiving Eve service at Salem Covenant Church since started attending last fall. It was also my first holiday without my children as I had gone through a divorce just a few weeks earlier. It was not an easy time, but yet I found myself being able to sit by myself and find gratitude. And gratitude in the tough times has made all the difference. 

My journey with gratitude--like for most of us--began when I was young saying prayers around the table and at bedtime. That's where it has started for my children too--we end each day praying over the things we've said we're thankful for. I started discovering its fullness when I was in high school and college working at the Covenant Bible Camp in Iowa. The camp director had a saying that he often shared with the staff: "Gratitude evaporates frustration." I've found it to be true. But I've also been discovering that gratitude does do much more. 

A few years ago when I was going through a challenging time while working through tough issues in my life, a friend gave me the book "One Thousand Gifts." In it author Ann Voskamp explores lamenting loss, turning pain into poetry, and embracing a lifestyle of radical gratitude. Since then I started keeping a journal of gratitude, and I've found that even in some of the lowest points in life that gratitude can be found. And that finding gratitude changes everything for me.

The night before He was crucified Jesus took the bread and the cup and gave thanks. In Greek communion is called the Eucharist which means thanksgiving. It is related to the word charis which means grace and the word chara which is joy. Something that commemorates Jesus' death is filled with thanksgiving, grace, and joy. That still is an amazing thought for me--I don't fully grasp it yet I know it is true. 

Gratitude does not negate the sorrow or grief of a moment, but it can transform my attitude from one of inward moroseness to one of looking up toward hope. When I'm jealous, gratitude reminds me of all I have. When I'm turned in on myself, gratitude gets me out. When things go from bad to worse, gratitude reminds me that this too shall pass. A few weeks ago Pastor Jonna spoke on finding light in the darkness in the midst of tragedy. Gratitude helps me find light. It's not always easy, but it's good.

So in the midst of loneliness and desertion, I am thankful for new friendships and God's faithful presence. Amidst tears and bouts of depression, I have thankfulness for words of comfort and assurance, for places to walk and be surrounded by nature, and for those lucid moments where I choose exercise over my couch. In the midst of sorrow, I am thankful for the love of my two sons. In the midst of financial worries, I am thankful for all God has provided. In the midst of health issues I am thankful for medical care being available. Amidst heartache I am thankful for the joy my boys bring me. Amidst jealousy and regret of not being able to provide everything I want to provide, I am grateful for all God does give me. In the midst of fears and anxiety of the future, I am thankful that God is in control. And I'm also thankful for the little things, like Unexpected Cheddar from Trader Joe's, cheaper gas prices, and getting to see my nieces and nephews in Iowa tomorrow.


Single Parenting Gratitude

While the boys' mom has been overseas, I've been watching them for the past 2 1/2 weeks. During that time we've decorated our car for trunk-or-treating at church, gone trick-or-treating, started hockey practice, gone to youth groups at church, taken family photos for the church directory, celebrated Nils' birthday, gone to my Bible study, had a sleep over for Nils' birthday, gone hiking and played outside, been to urgent care three times (twice for me--I apparently have cellulitis in my leg and have another doctor appointment coming up), played with cousins and plenty of other household things. I'm thankful for good kids who make it possible to get through it all on my own.

Today at church, a woman came up to me afterward. I knew who she was, but we've never really talked much. She had read something I wrote in the church newsletter and had observed the boys with me on Sundays. She offered any sort of support she could give whenever I was in need. She also commeted on how well-behaved the boys were at church. It was good to hear.

The past year has had plenty of trials and challenges. We were reminded in church today that Jesus didn't promise us there wouldn't be trials and tribulations. Just the opposite. But He promised He would be there for us. That sounds trite, I know. But I've been learning to find Jesus in the midst of the hard times. He's there. 

I often find Him when I pause to be grateful. Like how in the midst of a long two and a half weeks with little time by myself, I can be thankful for two sons who, despite argumentative moments, are helpful and supportive. I am thankful for the woman from church who most likely stepped out of her comfort zone to give me some encouraging words--it was a gift. I am grateful to have the time with my kids and a schedule that works to be with them. 


A Walk in the Woods

Yesterday I took time to go for what has become my annual solo camping trip/spiritual retreat. It's just one night away, and I have so far always gone to the same spot (Sand Dunes State Forest). I almost didn't go this year because I have a cold going on, but I decided that I'd probably get slightly more sleep anyway since I'd be going to bed right after it got dark.

Typically I go and hike for most of the day, using that time to feel God's presence, to pray, to enjoy His creation and take photographs. I spend time around the campfire journaling and reading, too. I've said before that creation is a place I connect with God. 

The state forest has many trails through it. Signs along the way tell you where you are and help you know where to go next--how to get back to you started. I often stay on these paths. They are wide, easy to see, and well marked. 

There are also some narrow trails that go through the woods--especially in the sand dunes preserve. I often take the time to follow some of these, too. They're not marked trails at all. They're ones you just have to stumble across. They're narrow paths.  You have to pay attention to know where they're going to go. Sometimes a fallen tree blocks the way and makes the trail hard to see, but it can often be found again on the other side if you look hard enough. The narrow paths aren't used very much, so sometimes the flora creeps upon them rendering them nearly invisible.

I realized yesterday that I like the adventure that comes with narrow paths. I never know where they're going to take me or where I'll end up. I don't always know if the path will go anywhere, or if it has become so overgrown and unused that it just ends at some point (which has happened to me). Sometimes I am left to make my own trail until I stumble across another path.

The wide paths are easy to take. There is still much beautiful scenery upon them. They are well marked. 

But the narrow paths require an element of faith. 

I was reminded of Jesus' teaching, "Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it" (Matthew 7:13-14, NIV).

The analogy doesn't follow through, of course. The wide paths through the forest don't lead to destruction. There is much beauty along them. But the narrow paths are much less traveled. And the element that they require faith is very apt. 

My time away was a blessing. I spent a lot of time praying through relationships and about future decisions. I didn't get any clear answers, but I did the work that I have to do. Now it's in God's hands. Not that I won't have to keep relenquishing control of some of those things to God each day. 



Autumn. It's a wonderful season. Lovely weather. Colorful leaves. Harvest crops.

It's also a hard season. Plant life is dying. Temperatures are dropping. Winter is coming. 

After work I took a long walk to the lake across the highway from me. I love having such natural areas available to me in the city. Nature is relaxing and connects me to God. It's also a place where I can get some good exercise. 

Seasons of life come and go, too. The past few years have felt like the end of autumn for me. There's been a lot of dying and fading away. 

Sometimes I feel like that last leaf, alone and clinging hopelessly to the branch. Some days I feel like I'm surrounded by the beautiful colors of autumn. Most days I'm ready for the next season--but preferably skipping winter for spring. At least as far as life's seasons go.

The post-divorce years are not easy at first. There's a lot of loneliness--especially on the days without the kids. The future isn't as planned. Friends aren't there in the same way they were. New place to live. New traditions to figure out. 

Life isn't meant to stay the same all the time. Midwesterners know the joy of the changing seasons. Life's seasons change too. And they're not always the most enjoyable moments, but there's always beauty within each. And the changes will come and their will be trials and beauty in the next season too. 

I am learning to embrace each season that comes, and be willing to be the leaf that lets go of the branch when that time comes as well. 


Urban Nature

I'm a country boy at heart, having been raised on a farm in Iowa. Yet, I've lived nearing half my life in the city including large metro areas like Chicago, Vancouver, and now the Twin Cities. 

The Twin Cities has to be the best metro area for having a large amount of nature within the city limits. Plenty of cities have a lot of great outdoor spaces around them--mountains, oceans, etc.--but few have such a large amount of "wilderness" within the city. Part of it was the vision by early Minneapolis parks and recreation leaders to keep the land around all of the lakes public. Having all the lakes and the Mississippi River really helps the cause, but the area did a good job of setting aside and reclaiming wild spaces. 

I spent most of the afternoon at some parks. Sitting by the lake reading, hiking through a grassland, enjoying God's creation. The wilderness is one of those places where I go to recharge and to feel connected to God. 

I was reflecting on how I feel that connection because God's creation reflects His creativity, beauty, awesomeness and goodness. He is present everywhere, of course, but in the middle of the city consumerism and self-centeredness are more noticable. 

So while many times I long for the wide open spaces of the country, I am thankful to live in a metro area where wilderness is present. Even in the park across the street I can forget about the urban sprawl that surrounds me. 

And my spirit is refreshed (and I got some good exercise, too). 


The Charleston Aftermath

Last week's shooting in a Charleston church produced a wave of discussion about homeland terrorism, gun control, and racism. It was a horrific act that took the lives of too many. It remind us that after nearly 150 years since slavery ended and after all the work of the civil rights movement that we still have a long ways to go to end racism. 

One of the bright spots--if I dare even say that in proximity to such a tragedy--was hearing the words of the loved ones of the victims to their killer. Their words matched the church meeting that their loved ones died at: words of forgiveness and love, even in the midst of such pain and sorrow. 

I was grieved to see the response of many Christians as echoed in an article by FOX News that the soluution to this tragedy was for those who were at the church that night to have been carrying concealed guns. Did Jesus call us to respond to persecution with retaliation? Did He tell us to kill those who persecute us? Where is it written in the Scriptures that we should strike down our enemy?

It seems to me like Jesus' words and commandments always involved love. He had the plenty of chances to smite His enemies: the moneychangers in the Temple, the Romans who would kill Him as well as forcefully occupying the Promised Land, the religious leaders who wanted Him dead. He had opportunity and probably even righteous reason to smite those ungodly enemies. 

Why loving others so difficult? We are much more likely to be judgmental, vindictive, condemning and even hateful at times. 

I don't believe we can overcome racism or solve our violence problems without love. Carrying conceled weapons won't do it. Violence will only beget violence. 


Upon Turning Forty

I haven't blogged much since the divorce, but today I turned 40, so I thought that deserved some reflection. Turning 40 is one of those milestones in life. Supposedly. Of course, it's just another day. 

But sometimes days are easy to dread or anxiously anticipate or long for or avoid. 

There was part of me that was dreading turning 40. Mostly because of feeling like I don't measure up for having two score years under my belt. It's easy to start comparing where I'm at in life to where it looks like others are at. Feelling a little worthless because of having a failed marriage, because of my issues that were a big part of that, because of feeling unsuccessful or not having a notable career or not being financially successful. Feeling lonely and friendless. Those kind of thoughts easily creep in. 

I've talked with a good friend a bit about these feelings and thoughts. A good thing about getting older is that you learn to listen to others and not just play out the craziness in your own head. He reminds me that the world's version of success isn't what God measures success by. And so often the world's version of success doesn't produce happiness. And when I judge myself against others, I'm only judging by the outward things I can see--or that I think I see. I don't know the inner struggles or reality of their lives. 

So I didn't dread today. There was plenty to look forward to. Or at least I knew I didn't need to fear it. 

Yes, the school day started with a child saying I looked old in the new glasses I got yesterday. But the kids all wished me happy birthday at various times throughout the day. Some even proudly told their parents that I was 40 today. 

I got to go out for supper with my kids tonight. They were really fun to be with. They even had a present for me. 

So much of life isn't found in the grandiose, but in the little moments that only reveal their specialness when you stop and become present. And success doesn't lie in what you amass or accumulate, but within the eternal marks you make in the lives of others. 

And no matter how the past 40 years went, each day was only a stepping stone for the days to come. Days to learn from and grow upon, days to savor and days to put aside. But each one has shaped me, and each one has given me the potential to continue living life more fully as I journey on the path with Jesus. 


Lenten Journeys

Lent is always a difficult season of the church year to enter into--for me at least. I feel like I've got enough suffering going on within and around me that I don't really want to intentionally focus on more suffering. 

At our Ash Wednesday service at church we were led through a visualization exercise with death--just thinking about the reality of death, what our feelings are surrounding it, and the spiritual implications of it. A father and husband at church died unexpectedly yesterday I learned tonight at the Bible study I'm a part of. It was on our minds as we discussed the Beattitude: "Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted." I was also reflecting on my grandmother's funeral this past fall. 

There's the sense where my grandmother's funeral was a blessing. She had been living with the cripling and silencing effects of a stroke for many years. All our family was gathered together for the first time in many years. We heard many stories about her that opened a floodgate of good memories. We mourned her loss, but at the same time were paradoxically surrounded by blessing. 

But I don't know that I could be the widow from church losing her husband so unexpectedly and find blessing in the mourning. I don't know that if something should happen to one of my children that I could find blessing or comfort. Yet death is unescapable.

* * * * * * * 

The week after Ash Wednesday our church had a week of prayer. People could sign up for an hour slot during the week and go into church and pray in the prayer chapel. I signed up for a slot. I don't remember that I've done something like that before, though I've led prayer retreats and set up prayer stations before.

Honestly, my prayer life has felt dry for a while. I was a little apprehensive about going in to church that day. Seriously--what was I coing to pray about for a whole hour. But the team who set it up laid out several different stations in the prayer chapel that were engaging. From confession with a bowl of water and dissolving paper, to communion with cup and bread, to intercession with paper and sand, to artistic prayer, to a map of the world, to pictures of staff and ministries in church, to a piano and worship cds. There were options. I found myself wanting to engage in more than an hour's time in the room. I was reminded that prayer doesn't have to look and feel like I think prayer should. Whatt I was apprehensive about was a blessing.

* * * * * * * 

Two weekends ago I was blessed (there's that word again) to be invited to go up north (that's what we call heading to the woods or lakes or Lake Superior region north of the Twin Cities) with a friend to join him at his parent's time share. I heard a guy I know share last night how he was excited about his family's move to New York City this coming summer. He said that's the place his stress melts away and he feels comfortable and at home. I'm the opposite. I need to get out of the city. Lake Superior is a special place for me that way (as are many other bodies of water, rivers, forests, and mountainous areas). Driving north I could feel my body relax as the interstate started its descent toward Lake Superior as I approached the outer limits of Duluth.

I love that area, even in the winter. It has its own magic covered in snow and ice. The shoreline was spectacular with its broken chunks of ice heaved up in minute mountains as if tectonic plates were forming a new landform. Behind Gooseberry Falls I enjoyed the wonder of a waterfall frozen in time. 

I also enjoyed time hanging out with a friend. I haven't had as many of those opportunities recently. It was hard to come back home.

* * * * * * * *

There are plenty of little journeys at home that are enjoyable, too, though. Last Sunday afternoon the kids and I went and explored a nature center I had discovered weeks ago when lookikng for a place to hike on a warm winter's day. It has a fun nature play area. 

Afterward we headed to the conservatory at the local zoo. The zoo was closed, but the conservatory was open late for the last of a winter concert series they'd been putting on--another free opportunity. Amidst fragrant blooms in a warm glass room, the boys and I had each brought sketch pads and enjoyed doing some drawing while listening to some pleasant live music. Having those sorts of opportunities around us are blessings--and help make city life bearable. 

It's still several weeks until Easter. I'm not ready to focus on more suffering and death. I know it's inevitable. I know the One who is by myside through it. But sometimes I need to live more. And maybe that's a big part of the Lenten journey--those little reminders about life. 


The (Almost) Spiritual Discipline of Sketching

Earlier this week I met a new friend from church at a coffee shop to pick his brain on career ideas (he has background in English and theology as I do). We didn't talk that much about career because we keep finding things we have in common. We both like to bicycle, do photography, dabble at the guitar, paint, and draw. 

I recently received a book on sketching to review and have enjoyed looking at it. I tend to sketch a bit--especially Sundays at church in the margins of my sermon notes--and the book has been encouraging to do it frequently. In the past I would draw a lot of nature scenes or other landscapes that I could just imagine and make up--I paint that way too. But the book encourages looking at what's around you and drawing that. 

My friend has been doing it daily--he plans on keeping that up through this new year. He post them on his blog: Dumb Sketch Daily (https://dumbsketchdecember.wordpress.com). He, too, is focusing on the things he sees. 

We had a good discussion about drawing. I decided it's almost a spiritual discipline. For tthe sake of not being branded a heretic again (I'm not sure when I was last, but I'm sure I have been), I won't directly call it a spiritual discipline. But almost a spiritual discipline--especially when drawing what is observed around you.

It makes you slow down and be present. That in itself is a spiritual discipline. But there is something added when using your eyes and moving your hand to create. I remember someone saying once that to be created in the image of God is to be given the ability and even need to create. We are not fully human if we don't create (whether it be art, clothing, woodworking, or a meal). 

The motion of drawing is almost prayer like in a way. As is the being present and noticing the details. Sometimes part of my problem is being in my head too much. Sketching gets me into reality. 

Below are three sketches from today. The first was the purse of the woman sitting ahead of me in church. It was under her chair. I  didn't get it all done--and there were parts the seat was obscuring, but I consider it a success because I typically would not draw something like that. Too many folds and creases and such. So just attempting it was a big step for me.

The second and third sketches were done at a concert at the conservatory at the Como Park Zoo tonight. The boot was on a woman standing near me (I was sitting). She and her friend noticed I was drawing it...that was a little awkward. But she didn't mind. She asked to see it later. I assured her that I didn't have a foot fetish or anything, but was just praticing sketching. The lasst one was of an older woman on the other side of the room from me. I didn't get much done before she took off her coat and then moved out of my line of sight, so there isn't much detail in her face yet. They're all incomplete, unfinished works. That would bother me at times. But I don't mind right now. It's a process. Progress, not perfection, as the old adage says. 

Which is also something I'm working on with my spiritual life. I grew up feeling I had to be perfect for God. Otherwise he might go Old Testament on my butt (even though I know He's not really a vengeful, wrathful God). And that need for spiritual perfectionism paralyzed me in some ways. But the spiritual life is a journey, not a final exam. Again, progress, not perfection. 

So to end in gratitude (which is always a good way to end anything): I'm thankful for creativity, for a sketchbook and pencils, for the ability to use my senses to take in the world around me, and for God's patient love and mercy. I'm thankful for lessons learned over a cup of tea and over graphite on paper. There is much to learn and see when I just take the time to sit and be present. 


Of Exercise and Self Care

After high school where we had gym pretty much every day and I did basketball and a year of cross country, regular exercise wasn't a part of my life. That's not to say that I didn't do anything. I did a few intramural sports in college, an ultimate frisbee group in seminary, and plenty of big games while working at camp. But regular exercise was not a part of my life. 

But a few years ago I started realizing I needed to do something more. It was hard to fit something regular in as a poor stay-at-home dad. I woould get in a bike ride when I could, but they were often with the kids which didn't amount to much real exercise. 

I also noticed I was getting more depressed during the dark winter months north of the 45th parallel here. So about three years ago we decided to get a YMCA membership for the winter months. I took the boys after school a few times a week for swimming after school. When they were in swim lessons or on the occasional time I'd get to go by myself on a weekend, I'd do some time on the stationary bikes or an eliptical. Andd in the summer months I'd try to swim and bike as much as possible. 

I still try and bike as much as possible, though that hasn't happened since early November I think. But my apartment building has a clubhouse with an indoor pool and a small exercise room. When the boys are with me, we try and go over to swim every other day. When they're not with me I try and go over to the exercise room as often as I can. Along with some weights, there's a treadmill and an elliptical.

I learned in high school that running and I do not get along well. And I'm fine with that. Running is not the only form of exercise despite how prevalent it seems to be. Anyway, I use the elliptical. It fools me into "running" enough that I don't mind it. I've been doing between 4-5 miles in the half hour I usually do. 

I think the electronics help. I can challenge myself: going further, maintaining a certain speed, getting my heartrate into key zones, etc. It's probably a guy thing, but that helps me I think.

I'm reminded that Paul tells us in the Bible that our body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. In his time there was debate over whether or not the physical mattered for the spiritual realm. Paul insisted that you can't separate the physical from the spiritual. God created it all. Andd since the Holy Spirit lives in us, we need to take care of ourselves. 

I still don't do the best. I know my eating habits--especially when I'm alone--need work. But I'm proud that I'm keeping it up and of my distance and rates I've been doing. It's not much to speak of, but it's still something to me.