Thursday, April 28, 2011

Henri Nouwen

I ran across this quote years ago and recently my friend Curt and I were talking about it. He found it, copied it, and handed it to me, and here I am sharing it with you. If you are in any kind of Christian leadership (including parenting) this is invaluable advice:

"Often we're not as pressed for time as we feel we're pressed for time. I remember several years ago becoming so pressed by the demands of teaching at Yale that I took a prayer sabbatical to the Trappist monastery at Geneseo, New York. No teaching, lecturing, or counseling -- just solitude and prayer.
The second day there, a group of students from Geneseo College walked in and asked, 'Henri, can you give us a retreat?'
Of course at the monastery that was not my decision, but I said to the abbot, 'I came here from the university to get away from that type of thing. These students have asked for five meditations, an enormous amount of work and preparation. I don't want to do it.'
The abbot said, 'You're going to do it.'
'What do you mean? Why should I spend my sabbatical time preparing all those things?'
'Prepare?' he replied. 'You've been a Christian for forty years and a priest for twenty, and a few high school students want to have a retreat. Why do you have to prepare? What those boys and girls want is to be a part of your life in God for a few days. If you pray half an hour in the morning, sing in our choir for an hour, and do your spiritual reading, you will have so much to say you could give ten retreats.'
The question, you see, is not to prepare but to live in a state of ongoing preparedness so that, when someone who is drowning in the world comes into your world, you are ready to reach out and help. It may be at four o'clock, six o'clock, or nine o'clock. One time you call it preaching, the next time teaching, then counseling, or later administration. But let them be part of your life in God -- that's ministering."

(from "Time Enough to Minister" by Henri J.M. Nouwen in Leadership, Spring 1982)

Lately I've been struck by how true this is for parenting. Whether it's a three year old asking, "Who created God?" or a sixteen year old saying, "Why doesn't God speak clearly today like he spoke in the Bible?", we need to be ready to invite people into our own life with God, into our own questions, into our own insights and convictions and prayers and struggles.

Truth is, you'll never be adequately prepared. You're just inviting them along for a few steps on your journey.

Sunday, April 24, 2011


I'm tempted to reflect here on the question, "What difference does it make that Jesus rose from the dead?" But thinking more about it, how could one even begin? This event is the historical root of the entire existence of Christianity. Without the resurrection, there would be no Apostle Paul, no Saint Augustine, no Martin Luther, no Joan of Arc, no Mother Teresa, not to mention millions of others -- billions of others -- whose lives have been transformed by the love and power of God because Jesus rose from the dead.

Our license plates would not have the number "2011" on them, but then we probably wouldn't have cars anyway because the entire scientific revolution that made the invention of the automobile (and so many other inventions, including the laptop I'm typing on) possible was itself made possible by a Christian worldview that saw the natural world as something consistent (due to God's immutable laws) and approachable (because Jesus was responsible for, but separate from, creation).

And I would likely not be living in a country with the freedom of expression to allow me just to write whatever I want ... Historians have made the claim (quite convincingly) that the American Revolution sprang from the translation of the Bible into English. So the very existence of America and its political foundations of freedom and individual rights owe their existence to the resurrection of Jesus.

What else? Think about all the hospitals that have been started by people who wanted to help others because they believed in the resurrection of Jesus. Think of the artists, poets, writers who have been inspired by Jesus. Think of thousands of people this minute who are living in small villages in Africa caring for AIDS and malaria victims and their orphans because they know the name of Jesus. Think of uncountable churches where Jesus' resurrection is lifted up week after week -- churches that provide a foundation for neighborhood involvement, for food shelves, for friendships, for neighbors caring for one another.

These things are chapter headings, but even so I haven't even begun to provide a beginning. Even thinking about just the changes I'm aware of in my own limited knowledge and experience, I could go on for pages.

It is staggering to try to get your mind (let alone your heart) around the impact of Jesus' resurrection. In the last decade or two it's become politically correct to bash Christianity as a "bad" religion because of the Crusades, or religious violence in Northern Ireland, or some other crime. These things are tragic and evil and should not be condoned. But that tide of political correctness often overshadows the inestimable good done day after day in the name of the risen Jesus Christ. Thank God for Easter!

Saturday, April 23, 2011


What did they do on the day before the first Easter? The Bible tells us they rested on the Sabbath. Imagine what that "rest" was like.

I have often sat with people in that shocked day after a loved one died. There's no rest involved. There are lots of half-gestures. He gets up to start making a pot of coffee and halfway through, forgets what he's doing and goes to sit in the living room. Ten minutes later he says, "Oh, yeah, I was going to make a pot of coffee." Or she lingers over photos, weeping over each one, stacking them into piles that will go on a memory board for the funeral. It's hard and heart-wrenching, this awful second day of grief. His hand begins to rise to scratch his ear, but halfway there it drops to his lap again. She starts to hug her sister, but just at the point of the embrace she turns away to pick up a discarded tissue from the floor.

The first day was horror. They prayed for justice in Jesus' trial before the Sanhedrin, then again before Pilate. But God's "definite plan and foreknowledge" (Acts 2:23) required the suspension of justice. So they watched Jesus flogged, watched him carry his cross, watched him crucified, heard the few words he spoke after that, saw him die in what must have seemed an unending agony for him and for them. The sky grew dark and an earthquake shook the city. They took him down from the cross.

Last night during our Good Friday worship service I thought of a detail I've never thought of before. How did they get Jesus off the nails? Did they have a giant crowbar to pull those iron spikes out of his wrists and heels? Or did they pull his limbs over the swollen heads of the nails, tearing muscle and sinew as they did so? Did the Roman soldiers do this task, or did Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus and the women struggle with the nails? I don't know, but it's one tiny image in a series of horrific details that made up Good Friday.

Finally they did some hasty preparation to his body and carried him, step by terrible step, to Joseph of Arimathea's tomb. The unbelievable horror they had witnessed that day must have exhausted them.

So Saturday would have been a day of trying to grapple with reality. I'm quite sure they had not slept much for the second night in a row. Jesus is dead. How did this happen? Jesus is dead. What do we do now? Jesus is dead. Are we next? Jesus is dead. Do I go back to fishing? Jesus is dead. If only I could turn time back to Thursday night. Jesus is dead. Jesus is dead. Jesus is dead.

It was, in the end, a day that demonstrates our utter helplessness and hopelessness in the face of death. It was a day we face our own sin, our own mortality, our own powerlessness. It was a day of half-gestures, of unfinished thoughts, of stifled sobs and interrupted breathing and impotent embraces that do not comfort us. The second day of grief. The day we bargain with God to no avail. The day we wish things had been different, but they are not. The day reality starts to set in.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Good Friday

Here is my Good Friday meditation, written many years ago but some of you may not have seen it. I wrote this for a theology class at Luther Seminary in 1998 -- the assignment was to write a paper expressing our personal theology. Being a little bit of a rebel (!) I decided to do my personal theology in narrative form. Partly this was a way to avoid boredom (ever been bored writing college papers?) but partly it was also because I truly believe that a story often captures theology better than an essay. Essays make truth about facts and arguments. Knowledge is about analysis, sort of like getting to know a frog by taking it apart in a dissection tray. In narrative, truth is about the story. Knowledge is about action and character and passion, sort of like a ten year old kid wading around in a springtime ditch trying to catch frogs. Who knows the frog better -- the biology student or the ten year old? Hard to say. But the two ways of knowing are radically different.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Mary of Bethany

I have been intrigued for several years by the stories in the gospels of a woman, or a couple different women, anointing Jesus with some kind of perfume. Actually I've become pretty well convinced that the story in Luke 7:36-50 is a different occasion and a different woman from the other three in Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9, and John 12:1-8, all three of which seem to describe the same incident. I believe the two incidents are closely related, and in fact happened in the same place, but probably a couple years apart.

The last few months this sense of being intrigued has grown into a sense of awe at what these women did in making themselves "contemptible" (see 2 Samuel 6:22) as they poured out their worship to Jesus. I wrote this first-person narrative to try to get inside the heart of Mary of Bethany in this situation. Her anointing of Jesus happened early in Holy Week, so this seems like a good time to post this piece.

Saturday, April 16, 2011


My littlest girl, Teya, turned sixteen yesterday. My wife and I had a great time invading Elk River High School with a tiara, a birthday sash, and a mylar balloon with a garish "16" on it. We sang to her at the end of her AP Biology class while all her classmates looked on in horror and awe. As we left the room, I overheard another student whisper, "I wish my parents were that cool!"

Tonight a gaggle of girls are gathered around my kitchen table playing games, inhaling pizza, and laughing uproariously. In the background The Doors are singing "Break On Through To The Other Side" and "Hello, I Love You," and the girls are singing along. (I love this retro music trend!)

It's already been a long day and I am catching cold, so it's tempting to be grumpy about the noise level in my house. But somehow I can't bring myself to do it. I just came from officiating at a wedding, and I watched the father of the bride struggle with the emotional load as he gave his daughter away to another man. I'm face to face with the fact tonight that my daughters are almost grown. Each time we do something as a family, a little voice in the back of my head tells me this won't happen too many more times, so I'd better treasure it while I can.

So I'm treasuring it while I can. One tremendous gift to me at this stage in life is that with rare exceptions, my wife and I get along fabulously with our daughters. The hours and days and years invested in building a good relationship with them has payed off so that when Julie and I are not actively setting limits or enforcing consequences, we can be pretty good friends with the girls. I love it.

There are seasons to life. Right now we are in a loud season, a talkative season, a season where I am genuinely excited to hear the details of classes, boys, and teenage angst. I never pictured myself being a chatty father. My own dad was a silent man. The last line of the sermon at my father's funeral was, "Watch and listen, lest we miss the witness of the silent ones in our midst." He could tell a good story when he wanted, but most of the time he was very quiet. So years ago when I looked forward to fatherhood, I never pictured myself in long, drawn out conversations with daughters about the vagaries of teenage friendship or the interpretation of various male winks, nods, grunts, and odd comments. But this art of conversation is a valuable skill if you want access to a daughter's heart. Therefore I have cultivated an interest in many things that have nothing to do with football, hunting, engines, or other traditionally male pursuits.

Yes, it's loud. There's a constant hum of conversation that I doubt happens as much with sons. But this is where I find myself, and more and more I realize that sooner, rather than later, it will be quieter at my house and in my life. There will be more time for Julie and me to talk about our own concerns and read our own books and reminisce about good memories of our once-noisy home. And from time to time the girls will come home and it will be wonderfully, chaotically noisy again and when they go back to their grown-up lives the quiet will come out of the corners again and I imagine us breathing a deep sigh of relief and the gentle grief of contented parents.

It's a season.

Right now it's April and many people I listen to on a daily basis are complaining because they want spring, by which they mean seventy degrees and warm sunshine. Trouble with this line of thinking is, we're having a perfect Minnesota spring. A little snow, a little sun, a few warm days here and there, a lot of rain and wind and overcast skies. But people are wishing for late May here in mid-April. I don't want to make that mistake.

So I'm loving this season.

Thursday, April 14, 2011


Realization: God wants us off balance.

I usually want to be able to stand on my own two feet. I like feeling strong and stable. I like feeling in control. And when I do, it means I have little need to depend on God.

Oh, I can enjoy God when I'm feeling stable, sort of like I enjoy getting together with a good friend for coffee. But if the friend needs to cancel, no big deal. I'm not that invested. I'm not needy or desperate or dependent. I stand on my own.

Lots of us relate to God this way. It would be nice if he showed up just so we could catch up and chat a little bit, but if he's busy, I'll just handle life on my own.

This is why God so often throws us curveballs (I'm playing with baseball metaphors here because it's that time of year) or gets a little crazy with some wild pitch that brushes us back from the plate. He's keeping us off balance, because then we learn to depend on him.

A friend reminded me the other day that you can't walk unless you lose your balance -- the act of walking is, in fact, losing your balance and catching yourself over and over again. Walking is a great metaphor for life. The only difference with life is that we lose our balance and God catches us, over and over again.

Saturday, April 9, 2011


First backyards bonfire of the season tonight. The wood, having sat out in the snow all winter, was wet and the fire never really took off. But Julie, Mathea and I sat out there for a couple hours. There's something about sitting around a fire. Even the dogs sense it -- they come up and hunker down with their people, acting for all the world like those wolves that we first tamed back in the Pleistocene.

You'll never have a conversation like that watching a movie, either. Sitting in the backyard with no ipods, no DVD players, no Facebook, you can really talk. Teya is at a great age where she regularly feels free to evaluate our parenting, and she's starting to make decisions about what she will do and what she won't when she's in charge. Part of the fun tonight was for Julie and I to talk about how we've set priorities on time management, earning, spending, vacations, and more, for the last fifteen years. Teya soaked it all in graciously, only making one comment late in the conversation about how her parents like to "monologue" at her, talking toward her like a podcast. Too true, I'm afraid.

But it's kind of fun to think about alternatives. What would life be like now if, back in the day, Julie and I had decided instead that she should work full time and we should try to buy most of the things we wanted, instead of living without many of our wants all these years? Life would indeed be a lot different. It would have impacted where the girls went to school, what we did for vacations, the cars we drove, the furniture we sat on, the food we ate and the table we ate it on. Perhaps most frightening, it would have radically changed what it meant for us to have time together as a family and what close-to-the-heart memories the girls look back on as important family times.

Worth pondering.

All this because I decided to start a fire tonight.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Small Hands

This is a Facebook post written by my daughter Erica. I share this (with her gracious permission) not because she makes me sound like a really wise dad -- she actually gives me credit for being much more articulate than I actually was in the conversation -- but because I think Erica has nailed something really important here. Enjoy!

by Erica Krogstad on Monday, April 4, 2011 at 3:40pm

The day was Friday. The setting, Dr. Johnson’s office. I was in the middle of piano lessons, struggling to reach an interval. I exclaimed in frustration that my hands are too small to play piano. Dr. Johnson vehemently shook his head, then stopped and looked at my pitiful wingspan. “You… your hands are…” He looked again at my right hand, which was struggling to reach a major ninth. “You make the best of what you have,” he finished awkwardly.

I found the whole incident funny, because I’m not at all sensitive about the baby-carrot stature of my phalanges. Reflecting on this exchange later, however, I grew slightly bitter. My fifteen-year-old sister has gloriously long and agile fingers. God created me knowing that I would love piano with a passion. Why could he not have used the same DNA pattern which he gave to my sister? I cannot remember ever meeting a full-grown individual with shorter fingers than mine. Most of my musically illiterate friends could easily reach a major tenth, and many could reach much farther than that. So why me? Obviously, this no “thorn in my flesh,” no ailment that threatens my life. But I know there have been days when, after hours of sitting at the piano bench and practicing, I lean against the piano and cry out at God. Why must I train my hands to stretch as far as my skin will hold just to hit intervals that most people wouldn’t consider taxing? Why must I learn techniques to “cover” and “make up for” the fact that I have to adapt nearly every piece I play? Why am I so passionate about an instrument on which I may never be able to achieve technical mastery?

Last weekend, I related Dr. Johnson’s funny quote to my dad. He chewed on it for a moment. His next statement caught me completely off guard and simultaneously triggered my defenses. “God did that on purpose, you know. He meant to create you with tiny hands.” I laughed and replied that no, it must have been a mistake. God needs to read the fine print more carefully before he signs on the dotted line. But Dad had a response ready. He told me that he knows that when I was younger, my dream was to be a concert pianist. As I have grown, and my hands have not, that dream has been replaced. God, he told me, has a different plan for me. God didn’t close the door; he made my fingers stubby to prevent me from going toward the door. And as I have pursued my replacement dreams, I have found new passions and talents and opportunities. I have met people and learned things I would have never discovered if I was pursuing a dream that required me to practice by myself for five hours a day.

I believe this story is universal. Something about you, something you cannot change, is just not good enough. For whatever reason, you don’t make the cut; you yourself are not good enough for what you want to do. That does not mean, though, that you are not good enough. You are good enough for God. In all your intricacies and imperfections and deliciously messy complexity, God looks at you and calls you beautiful. He calls you his handiwork. Do not call anything impure that God has made clean; others may label you, or perhaps you may label yourself, but know instead of those labels that God has a perfect plan for you, suited to your specific and delightfully haphazard quirks.

I do not let what can be perceived as inadequacy deter me from pursuing something I love. I will stretch my hands to the major ninth, and I will learn pedal techniques to cover awkward chords, and I will pursue God’s dream for me instead of one that doesn’t fit anymore. Yes, I have short fingers. But I don’t let that stop me from making the best of what I have.