Vacation Lessons

We weren’t fully prepared for the cold and wind.

I mean, we knew the weather forecast ahead of time and packed sufficient layers. We had talked to park rangers and mapped out our plan. We were logistically prepared. But we weren’t emotionally prepared for 4.2 miles of hiking with temperatures in the mid-40s, with winds about 20 miles per hour.

Still, we zipped up our jackets and forged ahead.

My boys whined like the wind for the first mile. There were several moments when I legitimately wondered about scrapping our plans and turning around. And that was just in the first quarter-mile. Cor kept worrying about being attacked by bears. Elliot kept fussing about the way he’d rather be in bed. Olivia was stoic and silent for the most part, but the hood of her sweatshirt was so tightly drawn around her face that only her nose, lips, and the brim of her cap were visible.

Marci and I did our best to keep everyone moving, ascending the slopes of Yellowstone’s Bunsen Peak. We hoped that we could persevere through the mental and physical barriers to experience the sublime joy and refreshment of hiking through some of the most beautiful natural scenery on God’s green earth. Still, we didn’t know. We were walking — or hiking — by faith.

About halfway up the mountain, though, something shifted.

The boys got a look in their eye and started serving as the “gas pedal” for our group, instead of the “brake.” Olivia noticed a grove of dwarf pine trees, smiled, and suggested we call it the “Tiny Piney Forest” (later to be lovingly rebranded the “Tiny Piney Whiney Forest” because of its position at the tail end of our Ascent of Complaint). Elliot chucked a snowball at me on a corner of the trail. Marci and Cor practiced their specially-choreographed handshake for a mountaintop celebration.

By the time we made it to the top of Bunsen Peak, the temperatures were even colder and the wind howled even harder than at the trailhead — but our experience of the elements was entirely different. We yelled and laughed into the wind. We took a few photographs. We found a sheltered spot and ate some Lemonheads and special trail mix. And then we enjoyed a happy hike back to the car, noticing things we had failed to observe during our whined-ing way up.

Our hike up Bunsen Peak this morning was a special experience that seemed to capture echoes of our family vacation as a whole.

The first few days, as we started driving out west, we were all irritable and argumentative. Sure, we had fun swimming in hotel swimming pools, but then we squirmed and squawked about the way our skin felt itchy and tight. Of course we enjoyed treating ourselves to rich meals in special restaurants along the way, but our digestive systems were unsettled by it all. We had other memorable moments, too.

We soaked up the sun in the Badlands of South Dakota…

We played basketball in the shadow of the Devil’s Tower in Wyoming…

We watched the prairie grasses waft and wave across the hillsides at the historical site marking the Battle of Little Bighorn in Montana…

But we didn’t have a rhythm. Honestly, we didn’t really hit our “vacation stride” until the last couple of days. Almost a week into our road trip. It’s surprisingly difficult to go from a sprint to a standstill in life. But it’s so, so worth it.

I know that our family is privileged to have a good amount of vacation time, and to be able to take it in relatively long stretches. Not everyone is so lucky. But I’m learning that there are (unintentional) statements being made in the way that a pastor practices rest and recreation.

I know of another pastor who was once asked, “How much vacation time should a pastor take in a given year?” And his response was, “All of it.” He claimed it was necessary for his own soul, for his family’s well-being, and for the well-being of his church. He elaborated: “We come and develop this complex that our church can now no longer live without us for a week or two.  Using all your vacation time given to you forces others to step up in your absence, shows them they can make it without you for a time, and reminds the pastor most of all that God is not utterly dependent on him for this church to function. We are expendable and we need regular jolts of humility to remind us of that.”

I’m glad that Jesus is the Creator, Sustainer, and Savior of the world. Not me. Resting well is an act of Gospel proclamation. I don’t always do it perfectly, but I’m glad for those moments when I can persevere through the mental and physical barriers to experience the sublime joy and refreshment of a good vacation.

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Memorial Day 2018

Out in the farmlands of Richland County, there’s a cemetery labeled with a simple wrought-iron sign: “Revolutionary War Cemetery.” As the name suggests, a few well-weathered gravestones go all the way back to the 1700s, when this part of the country was first settled — in part by veterans of the American Revolutionary War.

But there are newer graves, as well — several of which belong to members of Marci’s extended family. We visited the cemetery to place an American flag on the grave of Marci’s grandfather.

He wasn’t killed in action, but he was a veteran of the U.S. Armed Services — and we thought Memorial Day was a good opportunity to remember him. So, we placed the flag, shared some family stories, and spent the rest of the day like so many of those before us loved to celebrate such summer days: with farm-work, food, and family.

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20 Years of Marriage, 63 Photographs of Trees

Marci and I flew out to San Francisco last week for a four-day getaway. We arranged for the trip because this month marks our 20th wedding anniversary, and we wanted to do something special together.

Northern California was appealing to us because it provided relatively easy access to both culture and nature. Once we got there, however, we found the city considerably less appealing than the natural areas outside the city. Part of this was due to our natural inclinations towards introversion. Part was due to the fact that we just finished a busy school year, which had taken an emotional toll on our family. And part was due to the fact that we let ourselves be talked into upgrading from our compact economy car rental to a brand-new, fiery-orange Mustang convertible.

We had such a lovely time: cruising the Pacific Coast Highway… watching wildlife (pelicans, crabs, starfish, sea lions, deer)… eating delicious meals in unusual settings… talking together about our past, present, and future… But of all the things we saw and did, the trees of Northern California may have been the most impressive elements of our trip. The Coastal Redwoods and Giant Sequoias, especially. I ended up taking 63 photographs of the trees out in Northern California — and I didn’t get a single shot that fully encapsulated the awe I felt when I looked at those trees with my own eyes.

 

The pictures simply don’t do the experience justice. But I’ve been thinking about this, and I appreciate the way that it’s kind of similar to the way that saying “20th Wedding Anniversary” doesn’t do the experience justice. Maybe there’s some sense of perspective from the aggregate, the juxtapositions, the volume of snapshots each depicting a slightly-different point of view. But not really. It doesn’t feel satisfying for me to attempt encapsulating these experiences in snapshots, but it also doesn’t feel satisfying for me to leave them unmentioned or seemingly-unobserved.

      

I’m immensely grateful for the two decades that Marci and I have spent together. I wish I could show you. I wish I could tell you. But it’s fine. Psalm 115 struck me recently: “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name goes all the glory for your unfailing love and faithfulness…” It’s easy to make an idol out of romantic relationships, instead of celebrating the way our human love reflects the Heavenly love that gave us that ability in the first place. “Our God is in the heavens, and he does as he wishes. Their idols are merely things of silver and gold, shaped by human hands… All you who fear the Lord, trust the Lord! He is your helper and shield. The Lord remembers and will bless us…”

That’s our prayer for the next twenty years. We want to keep trusting the Lord, relying on him for our help and protection from life’s storms. Whether that’s in Northern California, or Ohio, or Europe, or wherever, we’re thankful for God’s blessings and our ability to keep on walking in wonder.

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Grown Up, But Not Really

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Our youngest child is finished with elementary school! We’re very proud of Cor, especially because he worked really hard to make the Honor Roll (for the first time) this year.

At all of their end-of-the-school-year activities — a “graduation” ceremony, field trips, and such — we parents were inclined to look at each other and say things like, “They grow up so fast” and “We just can’t believe they’re Middle-Schoolers now!”

But I know better.

I know better because I was there earlier in the day, before the “clap-out” and the last of the “last”s, at the celebratory Pool Party / Sports Day at the Kent State University Recreation and Wellness Center.

I know better because I heard the way the boys giggled about seeing the “thing” of a guy in the locker room, while they were getting ready to swim.

I know because I watched them crack each other up with jokes and physical comedy centered around the sign advertising a workout class called “Butts & Guts.”

They’re still growing up. The whole maturity / immaturity thing is fun, in its own, silly way. I’m glad to have kids who are still getting older. But I’m also glad that it takes awhile.

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Mother’s Day Poetry for my Mother

A Haiku for My Mother

Positive, Patient.
Inclement weather check-ins.
I love my Mother

A Limerick for My Mother

So, my Mom’s fav’rite color is red,
Like the rose, like the blood Jesus shed.
Beauteous Grace personified
Mom’s made it as if I’d
Been twice born and twice by her fed.

An Adjectival Acrostic for My Mother

Maternal
Others-Oriented
Thoughtful
Hopeful
Enduring
Resplendent


I’m not a great poet. It doesn’t come very easily, and the material I produce isn’t all that great. Still, I love the way that poetry helps me to distill my thoughts and focus in on the essence of why I love my Mom so much — both on the tangible / practical level and the figurative / big-picture level.

She’s a great Mom, and I love her very much!

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Summa Cum Laude

It’s Graduation Day at Kent State University!

This year is extra-special because we have a graduate in our household (thus, our version of the Dutch “backpack on the flagpole” tradition). As of this week, Marci has earned another degree: her Master of Arts in Teaching English as a Second Language!

She’s not the type to make a big spectacle of the achievement. She chose to stay away from the commencement ceremonies at Dix Stadium (even though I was encouraging her to participate). She won’t have any of the formal, cap-and-gown portraits to remember this milestone in her life. The closest she’s gotten to any kind of external celebration was a party we hosted yesterday evening for all her friends and colleagues from the TESL program at Kent State.

Despite the lack of fanfare, though, I’m really, really proud of what Marci has accomplished over these last two years. She’s not just earning another diploma. She’s not just been doing it with honors. She’s done it with the highest of honors! Summa cum laude!

This graduation genuinely feels like a mountaintop, or “summit,” experience. It took a sweat and strategy to get to this point. Exhaustion has been a factor from the very first month. Graduate school is a significant challenge for anyone, but especially so when one is a wife and mother — trying to fit teaching responsibilities and school work in around our family’s transportation needs, and nutritional needs, and emotional needs, and a host of other roles and responsibilities.

Still, Marci has come through it all with flying colors. She’s an amazing academic achiever and an even more amazing person. I’m highly-honored to be her husband.

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Finishing the Race

The Glass City Half-Marathon was hard.

I went out fast, and I stayed fast through the first ten miles: splits consistently between 7:00 and 7:15 minutes per mile. I was pushing the pace, keeping myself in the upper echelons of my ability, but I felt decently strong. My confidence grew as I ran, and I was happy to think that a new Personal Record (PR) was within grasp.

Around the ten mile mark, however, my pace started to sag. It’s not like I hit a distinct wall. I wasn’t in doubt about my ability to finish, or even the likelihood of a PR. But it definitely didn’t feel as fun at that point in the race. My legs were tired. My gut felt uneasy. Mental fatigue set in, too. I kept on slogging, even though there weren’t many spectators — or even fellow racers — in view. I was determined to suck it up and gut it out… But it wasn’t going to be enjoyable. I decided I would lose a bit of pace, if that’s what it took to survive.

Just around that time, on the long straightaway down Dorr Street, I got a boost from a friend of a friend — a guy named Scott, whom I’d just met the evening before, at dinner. He started with a group of guys I had hoped to join, but we couldn’t find each other at the starting line. Thus, we each ran our own races… until that moment on Dorr Street.

Scott came up from behind, and I could tell he had fresh legs before I even recognized him. The cadence of his feet sounded quick and bouncy. He started up a conversation about the home stretch, even as a stranger, when most people at that point on the course were not breathing easily enough to hold a conversation. When we recognized each other, despite our lack of deep familiarity and our different conditions at that point on the course, Scott insisted that we run together — and he basically went on to pace me for the next two miles. I kept telling him to run ahead and finish his race at his own pace, but he wouldn’t have it. He even encouraged me to try and draft off him.

Crazy enough: It worked!

I maintained — and even increased — my pace. When Scott finally surged ahead with a little more than a mile to go (at my insistence), I found that I had enough fuel in the tank to finish strong — even surge to my fastest split in the whole race! And even though my legs started seizing up after I crossed the finish line, I felt grateful and proud to have finished in one hour, thirty-five minutes, and eight seconds. Almost five minutes faster than my previous PR.


What’s most interesting about all of this, to me, is the clear parallel I feel God has shown me in regards to this school year of ministry with H2O Kent. (Beware: another Mara-meta-phor-athon is on the way!).

We started this year of ministry at an ambitious, record-setting pace. Our first worship gatherings of the year were huge. Multiple Life Groups were averaging something like 40 people each week (totally surpassing our expectations or abilities). We set records — by pretty wide margins — for The Well… Fall Retreat registrations… Baptisms… Spring Break trip participation… Estes Park Leadership Training applications… and even new Staff applicants and Pastors-in-Training. All of our metrics have been up this year — and in the early going, it felt pretty fun. We seemed strong. We had (and still have!) plenty of good stuff to fill our prayer letters and such. There have been a lot of reasons to feel enthusiastic about the future, too.

It’s been hard, though. The fatigue started setting in about a third of the way into the school year (even sooner than the physical fatigue of my race set in). By late-October, I felt weak, discouraged, and lonely. I didn’t know what to do about all the people who seemed to be slipping through our fingers as the school year wore on (percentages relatively comparable to most years, but still a larger overall number). It felt like bad shepherding. Depression set in, and I struggled to stay engaged with family, ministry, and my own walk with God. By the time Spring Break rolled around, ministry roles were producing pretty significant levels of insecurity: feeling old, out of touch, unwanted, unloved, ineffective… Even though all the metrics were up, I felt pretty discouraged about H2O stuff. I didn’t feel like I’d given my best to the Life Group leaders I’ve been coaching or the interns I’ve been managing. Many weeks, it felt like I put in the bare minimum to keep things moving and mediocre.

In the last few days, though, it seems like God is allowing me to get a broader perspective and push to the “finish line” with one last surge of strength I didn’t know I had.

Looking back at the year of ministry, it really is remarkable what God has accomplished. I knew (and should have remembered!) that it was going to be a stretch to just turn in passing grades, or to function as a serviceable part of the rotation. With Marci in her last year of graduate school and our kids scattered across three different schools and a couple-dozen extra-curricular activities, it was never realistic to make the “Honor Roll” or turn in an “All-Star” campaign. It just wasn’t. Compound our family’s situation with the situations of my co-pastors’ families (new babies, shifting job responsibilities, financial stresses, etc.) — and it’s really pretty unbelievable that the church even survived, much less thrived in the way it did!

Praise God!!!!!

We had key contributions from the rest of our staff, interns, and student leaders — even so, it’s really quite illogical that we had such a good year. A record-setting year! Clearly, God is bigger than our limitations. It’s just good to be reminded of God’s glory. 2 Corinthians chapter four says, “Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart… But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”

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Spring Break in the Great Smoky Mountains

We’re back from H2O’s Spring Break trip to the Great Smoky Mountains! Fifty-four of us traveled from Ohio to Tennessee to learn and practice spiritual disciplines in the wilderness, like Moses, and Elijah, and John the Baptist, and countless others before us.

One of the fringe benefits of the trip was a flash-forward to Spring, getting a sneak preview of the climate conditions that should be filtering into Ohio over the course of the next month. The grass was noticeably greener. Wildflowers were blooming. The sunlight and air temperatures even made it comfortable to walk around in short sleeves a couple of afternoons!

And just as the natural world came to life, so did our spiritual lives, as we practiced the disciplines of reading the Bible, praying, solitude, community, rest, serving, and worship. One of my most memorable experiences during our week in the Great Smoky Mountains was a 9-mile hike from Newfound Gap to Charlie’s Bunion and back. We got to see why they call them the “Smoky” Mountains, but we also got some clear views of some pretty dramatic vistas — all while talking about the intricacies of our lives and working through the things we were learning during the week.

We spent an hour each day together in worship and Biblical reflection. In the middle part of each day, everyone was encouraged to seek God individually or in unstructured community time. And then at the end of the afternoon, people met with a handful of others to process their experiences with the spiritual disciplines.

Over the course of the week, one young woman decided to get baptized (in a very cold mountain stream!), and another young man made a decision to start following Jesus. It was everything our leadership team was praying the week would be — and then some!

Of everything that happened in the Great Smoky Mountains, I’d have to say that one of the most encouraging developments for me, personally, was to see the way that God was made real to my kids and through my kids. They practiced the spiritual disciplines along with the college students, and the experiences seemed to affect them in a meaningful way.

But it wasn’t just limited to them having their “kids version” of the week. They took the things they were learning and applied them with everyone else who was there for the week. They served others. They prayed for others. They worshiped with others. They offered emotional support and practical help for others. And they had so much fun, being welcomed into full-fledged community.

I think we’re all glad to be back in Kent now, sleeping in our own beds and enjoying reliable internet access and such — but I pray that the week left an imprint on each life that will carry into everyday life here, and beyond. At the very least, I got some good pictures! For anyone interested, I’ve created an online album with all of my best pictures from the week in downloadable form.

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To Elliot, on the Occasion of His 16th Birthday

Dear Elliot,

It’s a pretty decent possibility that this is the last year of me being taller than you. Probably also the last year (and maybe even the last month!) of me being a faster runner than you. You’re already more advanced than I am at hair-styling… soccer skills… abdominal muscle definition… affinity for contemporary musical trends… and all the strategy, tactics, and technique in the gaming world of Fortnight.

You’re surpassing me.

In my line of work, I guess I’ve kind of gotten used to the sensation. Sometimes it feels as if I’m merely jogging in place while all these young college students race past me in their social, emotional, and physical development. It’s weird, though, when this happens with a young man who used to be a young boy in our household, and even a tiny infant in our arms. What an absolutely breathtaking experience, to watch your life unfold in real time! In just a minute, it would seem, this cycle will reset and you’ll get to experience some of these same dynamics for yourself.

For now, however, you are sixteen years old. And even if another sixteen — or even sixty — years pass, I’ll still be proud to call you my son. My beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.

I really do love you, Elliot. I am proud of the person you are, and the person you are becoming. No matter how much adolescent angst, aggression, impatience, indecision, and insecurity may occasionally get layered upon our interactions in these short years of our lives, I still see greatness in you.

I know about the difficult decisions you’ve made to steer clear from the classic pitfalls of high school social life. I’ve been observing at the way you treat the young women you’ve taken to school dances and such. You are a man of character.

I’ve watched you bear the burden of difficult decisions and absorb criticism from others like the time when your classroom geopolitical strategy backfired, as you tried to bring Portugal to the brink of world domination. I’ve seen you set goals, establish new habits, and push towards those goals. You are strong.

I love to watch you light up a room with your social energy. And on a more subtle level, I’ve observed the way you look out for your sister when she’s in an unfamiliar environment. I’ve seen how you throw your brother a rope of laughter, when he needs to be pulled out of a pit of discouragement. You bring peace and joy to others.

You’ve set yourself apart at Roosevelt High School, in academics, and music, and sports. You play a key role in the youth ministry at Riverwood Community Chapel. You take command of neighborhood sporting activities. You are a leader.

You are something truly special — and I’m not just saying that because it’s your birthday! I probably don’t tell you these sorts of things often enough, but it is evident to me that You are full of the surpassing power of God.

“But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Corinthians 4:7). We’re all too aware of our imperfections, aren’t we? Even as I was writing out the thoughts above, it occurred to me how it can be tempting to dismiss words of affirmation, when we’re painfully acquainted with our deficiencies and shortcomings. I know that you’ve got cracks in your earthenware, Elliot. You’re not perfect because no one is perfect. But God is with you and in you, my son. You are a vessel for his glory and power.

I’m praying for you, this year, that you will be able to keep God at the center of your universe, more than yourself, or a girl, or an academic pursuit, or whatever… I’m praying that you will invite Him into your areas of insufficiency and insecurity, to remind you of His truth and power… I’m praying that you will use your areas of strength to serve others… I’m praying that you will continue to grow and surpass all of us in more and more ways.

But I am hoping that I can keep beating you in basketball for one more year.

Happy Birthday, Elliot. I love you more than words can ever say.

Much love and prayer,

Dad

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