Saturday, June 23, 2018

Savoring the taste of summer

If you're in Minnesota today, you already know this: It is one of those priceless, precious treasures of a day. Gorgeous, sunny, warm but not hot. So far today I've walked around with a quiet cup of really good coffee in the early morning sunshine checking on a few odds and ends, scared up a couple deer who bounded off into the brush, had a non-urgent phone call checking in with a good friend, spent time in my Bible and conversation with God, chuckled at a few online communiques, and wrote for a while on the novel I'm working on. I need to clean house for my daughter and son-in-law arriving later today and do a couple work projects, mostly involving computer stuff. Might well get the hammock out and read N.T. Wright for a bit later, throw a lure in the water and see if the bass are biting, take the 4-wheeler around the trails. It's a luscious, near-perfect day. Whatever you're doing, I hope you get to enjoy it!

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

In the Wind

This song came on Pandora this morning in that hinge moment between prayerful scripture reading, lifting up those I pray for each day, and turning to think about my own schedules and agendas for the day. The lyrics are powerful, especially if you've ever experienced separation from those you love, whether due to death or distance. Most recently it reminds me of a delightful evening with my daughter seeing this band in Seattle, but it calls to mind so many other memories as well. Especially in light of last night's post about Peter and metaphors of wind and calling and storms, it's good stuff.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Jumping out of the boat

Maybe it's because I've been spending a fair amount of time in boats lately. Or maybe it's because I've been working hard to bring some of the ecclesiological insights of the last year and a half to bear on the church I'm currently working in. Or maybe it's the Holy Spirit creating that sensitivity that only he can bring.

Whatever the reason, I was so struck by Oswald Chambers' reflections this morning on the story of Peter getting out of the boat and walking on water from Matthew's gospel. If you're a little rusty about the story (or maybe haven't ever paid attention to it) take a minute and read it from Matthew 14:22-33.

Please understand, a lot of my percolating on this story today has been wrapped around the metaphor that was so common in the early church, that a boat or a ship was so often used as a symbol of the church. Picking one thread out of a whole day's ruminations, let's play with that symbolism for a bit. There are a few provocative points if we grant the metaphor:

  1. Jesus is outside the boat precisely because he has been seeking God. 
  2. Jesus, coming from outside the boat through the storm, declares himself to be God -- that is the implication of his words, the same words from Exodus (in the Greek version of Exodus, anyway) that God speaks to name himself when talking to Moses at the burning bush. Jesus in effect says, "Take heart -- I am. Do not be afraid." Because that sounds awkward in English, most translations make it "It is I." That's linguistically okay, but we miss the Exodus associations. 
  3. Peter takes the initiative in what comes next. This is huge. Jesus honors Peter's initiative. This is also huge. 
  4. Peter's desire is to come to Jesus. To do so, he has to leave the boat. In Jewish understanding, large bodies of water represented chaos. Think of Jonah. So Peter is in effect saying (within our metaphor), "Lord, call me out of the safety of the church and into chaos so that I might come to you."
  5. Jesus, responding to Peter's request, tells Peter to come to him, outside the boat. 
  6. Peter, contrary to all common sense (this is where Chambers was so good today) steps out of the boat in radical obedience to Jesus. 
  7. Many people have made the point that it is when Peter's attention shifts from Jesus to the waves, but in fact the text says that Peter "saw the wind" (ESV) -- an interesting statement! Wind, in both the Hebrew and Greek languages, is identical to the word "breath" or "spirit." Obviously the literal sense here is that Peter observed the storm -- but play with the metaphors. What might it mean, metaphorically, that Peter sees the Spirit at work outside the church? Is it possible that churches are sometimes a refuge from the chaos of the Spirit's activity, and we get afraid and huddle together someplace where we can protect ourselves from the storm? And jumping ahead a bit, notice that when they get back into the boat the wind (spirit?) stops. What's with that? Is there more being said here than just Jesus calming a physical storm?
  8. It is the risk of being overwhelmed by the storm -- the wind and the water -- that prompts Peter to call out, "Lord, save me!" Maybe there's something about Peter being at risk out in the chaotic storm that puts him right where Jesus wants him. 
  9. Jesus never criticizes Peter for getting out of the boat, for sinking, for crying out. Rather, Jesus seems to focus on the fact that Peter's focus shifted to the storm, and his trust faltered. The Greek word for faith has gotten watered down in English to mean something like "cognitive assent" -- in Greek it has a lot more oomph, and has a lot in common with our words "trust" and "loyalty." 
  10. It is the sign that happens outside the boat -- outside the church, in our metaphor -- that causes those inside the church to worship Jesus and proclaim his identity. 

The above thoughts are especially pertinent to me these days because I've taken a lot of flak over the years -- especially in the last couple years -- for decisions I've made that have put me decidedly out of the good graces of the church, at least in some circles. (I am currently deeply involved in a church that is both biblical and gracious, focused strongly on Jesus and welcoming to broken people. So I'm not outside The Church, just certain expressions of it.) Trouble is, all along the way I was seeking God passionately, yearning to be obedient to him. Not that I followed his guidance perfectly by any means, and not that I haven't made mistakes. Huge ones.

But I believe all along the way, I heard God's Spirit speaking. I still trust God for the promises he spoke to me in those days. And some of the directions I chose to go put me in tension with those who have positioned themselves as the guardians of public church structures, or public morality. It stirred me fiercely this morning to read Chambers:
Never begin to say — “Well, I wonder if He did speak?” Be reckless immediately, fling it all out on Him. You do not know when His voice will come, but whenever the realisation of God comes in the faintest way imaginable, recklessly abandon.
The church in its public expressions will rarely if ever be comfortable with those who are "reckless immediately" in response to the call of God. Those who recklessly abandon in response to God's call make those who oversee pension plans and committee structures uncomfortable.

I believe with all my heart that God is astir in the world, that he is up to great things all around. When church structures become the "old wineskins" Jesus talked about that cannot hold the new wine he brings, he will find other ways to get his people to jump out in obedience -- even if it means (as it so often does) jumping out of the boat into a storm. Jesus is there already, and he is faithful to take your hand in the chaos. I've experienced that, too.

Post-event hangover

Yesterday was the "Share the Dream" event here at Decision Hills. It was a phenomenal day, and so much fun to put together, to see the beach crowded and scads of people getting tours of this beautiful land and to do exactly that -- share the dream of what God might be up to in this place. Today I am dealing with the aftermath -- dumpsters and leftovers and a house that hasn't been cleaned in two weeks or more and the pervasive wet-noodle exhaustion of a long day well done, now that it is indeed done.

And I am reflecting on Fathers Day, and treasuring the communications from those I love about that day, and rereading cards old and current, and being quietly grateful for my own father, thinking about how he would have experienced the tumult and delight of yesterday. I think he'd have enjoyed it -- the hayrides and the boat rides and the pulled pork sandwiches and conversations in the massive party tents and walking down into the forested RV sites at the south end of the property.

At the same time Oswald Chambers this morning was just stunning, and has me thinking at length about Peter getting out of the boat and what exactly that means, and God has been speaking some very encouraging words throughout about how he engineers our circumstances (one of my favorite phrases of Chambers) and what it has meant in different situations for me to be obedient with reckless abandon, and how he loves my obedience in those things, and how he is not focused on my failures but rather enjoys my eagerness to take on a challenge, to jump into something new. I'm hoping to take time later today to write another reflection about that, so keep your eyes open.

At the moment, however, I have to go check on a few things, run a few errands, and -- please, God -- clean up this pigsty. It's a good morning.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Psalm 67

Processing this morning after reading Psalm 67:

A few short months ago, I was ready to write off the world, to hole up in one small corner of it and build a shrine to happiness. I had overextended myself, gotten chewed up in fights spiritual, domestic, and vocational, and I was thoroughly bruised, thoroughly wounded, thoroughly disillusioned. All I wanted was a small corner of the world where I could heal up and build a life around love instead of around conflict.

Even in the middle of that retreat, however, there were voices that came like a bracing shot of reality to the face. One recurring story reminded me that I was called to the service of my King, that I had a responsibility to build for his sake, for his kingdom. I told myself that just maybe, building a tiny corner out of the way of the larger battles was better. Maybe the wars would pass me by.

It was the voice of my bruises, my fear, speaking. It was true that I needed healing, and God graciously provided it, and continues to lead me down those restorative pathways. I am coming to see that my corner of the world doesn’t belong to me, but it is a crossroads in the grander struggle. Reading Psalm 67 this morning was a sharp reminder that when God blesses us, it is not for our own sake, our own indulgence, though Israel made that mistake and the church through the ages has done so as well. God blesses us for the sake of “all the nations,” as he told Abraham and repeats throughout the scriptures. Looking at the original languages, that phrase -- “all the nations” -- is not about political borders but about groups of people, tribes and ethnicities -- so that all people may know the Lord. The trials leading up to the Exodus were as much for the Egyptians to know the Lord as they were for the Israelites to be set free. So my smaller struggles are not just for the sake of my own freedom or happiness, but they are part of the larger war God is waging against ignorance about his character and unbelief about his love.

One particular theme kept recurring in those days, in the days when I was realizing my shrine to happiness was not going to be built, at least in that moment or in the way I had envisioned. That conversation urged me to go find my voice, to take up the mantle of building things for my King. It wrenched me away from the desires of my heart and sent me into what was probably a necessary, excruciating exile, an imprisonment in a hospital room where I could begin to recuperate. Even in the middle of whisking me away to the forested hills where I live now, it’s clear God was also drawing me into a new stage, a new place where being blessed myself is for the sake of what he is up to, not just for the sake of my own healing. He is at work in a multiplicity of ways. Always.

The wisdom of God is in this, because as much as I thought I wanted to retreat from life’s battles, I’m not done yet, not done with the struggles, not done speaking, not done building. There are words to be spoken and kingdom work to be done, even while the bruising fades and healing continues. I’m not yet good at turning away from the needful battles. I’m not good at keeping silent. The words Tennyson puts in the mouth of Ulysses ring true also for me: “How dull it is to stop, make an end, to rust unburnished, not to shine in use. As though to breathe were life! Life piled on life were all too little.” It is, I imagine, a sign of progress, of healing, to be hungry for battles and building once more, even though I still weary easily and most evenings find me staring out at the sunset on the lake dreaming of that little out of the way life built around love. These days I imagine if it ever comes it will be as part of a kingdom-building community, as an outpost of the love of God set amid the great struggle to speak a word of truth into a falsifying world, to live the delight of the love of Jesus as he lived it, amid the great currents and migrations and within all the contests of the powers vying for supremacy.

And yet I don’t think it’s wrong to long for an island of peace. Lazarus and Mary and Martha lived in Bethany, in close orbit around the hairball that was Jerusalem in those days, and their home became a sanctuary for Jesus, a place of refuge and retreat, and even in some ways a base of operations for his movement. Peace and love and joy are all marks of the authentic presence of God’s Spirit, after all, and it seems reasonable to long for those qualities to be the warp and woof of a life that is lived in obedience to his calling, as much as the more public face of such a life is still lived in the presence of the powers, in the context of grander conflict.

Life is not a fairy tale. But if you read the book, even Westley and Buttercup got to settle down and build a home and raise their daughter, though that came with its own struggles. A life built around love is still something to hope for.

Meanwhile, I need to get to work. Sunday is our big “Share the Dream” event here at Decision Hills, and while I’ve delegated as much as I can, I have plenty to do and fewer and fewer hours to do it. Watching the weather forecast, getting the repaired dock put in the lake, mowing trails and repairing concrete foundations and coordinating first aid stations. There’s a joy in the work, a joy in creating an event that will hopefully speak a strong word to the local community and beyond about what God is doing in this place.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Under construction

These days is tempting to build a house in the land of my failure. In that landscape every bird, every breeze is a reminder of how I have fallen, how broken I am, how every action of every moment is tainted with the righteous indignation of those who know my sin and my weakness. No one else is building me this house, but I carry a weight that encumbers every moment. Like Bunyan's "Pilgrim" I bear a heavy burden on my back that needs to drop from my shoulders.

This morning as the sun cleared the trees beyond my meadow, a doe came grazing up through the early morning light. She shook herself in my front yard and the droplets of water flew from her like a misty cloud. I could see her chin whiskers highlighted in the crisp sunlight as she, head-down, examined a woodchuck that scampered out of the way of her curiosity. The sleek reddish-brown of her coat stood out so I could see every hair. Beyond her, the swamp grasses stand, seeded heads waving, growing inches each day, reaching for the light. Psalm 65 continues to ring in my eyes from my morning recliner:

"You visit the earth and water it; you greatly enrich it. The river of God is full of water; you provide their grain, for so you have prepared it ... the pastures of the wilderness overflow, the hills gird themselves with joy, the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain, they shout and sing together for joy."

Like dusty spiderwebs in the corners of my consciousness, I live with my frailty. Savoring the memory of quiet exploration, of shared reflection on the word God is speaking into this day, I long for free conversations that will reinforce to me the righteousness, the benevolence, the compassion of God. Instead I turn and turn and turn on the racetrack of my own isolate thoughts. The superabundance that is so evident in all my context goes unnoticed, and I carry an anvil in my heart.

Last night we had a work crew here at Decision Hills, something I had initiated and organized. People showed up eager to sweat, to trim back the brush at our north entrance and to clear the patch of thistles where our repaired dock will go in the water this week, to give themselves with joy to the needful tasks of stewardship. We trimmed buckthorn and blew piles of last winter's moulded leaves and repaired leaky roofs. Our work was lightened and deepened by joyful acknowledgement of God's gracious goodness in this place, by beauty set in a gorgeous landscape, by loons calling from lake to lake around us, by the anticipation of God's goodness.

Since Seattle, I am fighting a cold and the weight in my lungs, the scratch in my throat, the drip in my sinuses feels deserved, like I have earned this discomfort, like why should I complain? It's karma, it's reaping what I have sowed. The virus twists me, turns me in on myself, makes it hard to get outside my own head, hard to get beyond my own infected consciousness, hard to lose myself.

In my morning reading, Oswald Chambers bears witness to the goodness of God and speaks incisively into my circumstances: "If you will give God your right to yourself, he will make a holy experiment out of you. God's experiments always succeed. The one mark of a saint is the moral originality which springs from abandonment to Jesus Christ. In the life of a saint there is this amazing wellspring of original life all the time; the Spirit of God is a well of water, springing up perennially fresh. The saint realizes that it is God Who engineers circumstances, consequently there is no whine, but a reckless abandon to Jesus. Never make a principle out of your experience."

God's experiments always succeed. We wonder why God doesn't send burning bushes anymore, but perhaps our ears have grown dull and our eyes clouded. Maybe the glory of God is abundantly burning all around us, and it is our filters -- my filters, my whine -- that keep us inebriated on the toxicity of our own perspective. Maybe the majesty of God is all around, waiting to be absorbed, experienced, enjoyed, worshiped.

There's a good chance that if I can't find joy in days like these, I would be dissatisfied if all my longings bore fruit exactly as I wish. Joy is here to be seized, to be grasped. to be danced and delighted. The question on a gorgeous June morning is whether I can abandon myself to Jesus and let him engineer my circumstances, let him be the wellspring, be the Opener of my eyes and ears.

Monday, June 11, 2018

How do you sum up faithfulness?

One of my favorite lines from "The Princess Bride" is when Westley's been mostly dead and is resuscitated by Miracle Max's magic pill, and Inigo is trying to bring him up to speed, Inigo says, "Let me explain ... No, there is too much. Let me sum up." That's a little bit what this Monday morning feels like. Yet throughout, there's a thread connecting so much of the last several days, and it all has to do with God's faithfulness and his eagerness to speak, to guide, to live in intimate, loving relationship with us, to provide guidance in our choices and to share delight in the intricate details. So let me sum up.

  • Last Wednesday I drove to the Cities and had lunch with my daughter Erica, a last minute stop at a delectable Mexican restaurant across the street from her work that could easily become the standard place where we meet. It's so good. We shared great conversation and the joy of being able to spontaneously connect in a loving way, with what Wendell Berry called (paraphrasing here, as my copy of "Satisfactions of the Mad Farmer" is, sadly, out of reach for the moment) the conversation of friends, lightened and cleared by all that can be assumed. What fun to share such conversations with one's children! And this was a huge theme of the last several days with both my daughters.
  • Thence to the airport, flying out to spend time in Seattle for the grand excuse of my daughter Mathea's master's degree graduation, though she launches immediately back into two more years of school to get her Ph.D. I have deep roots in the Seattle area, and I was able to schedule in a few key conversations with friends from back in the day. These are the hard conversations, since so much in my life has changed in the last couple years and each reconnection requires extensive redefinition, and no matter how well they go these conversations always take deep courage and significant mental and emotional preparation. I have things to apologize for, and I am also learning to be honest in new ways about the past, about my relationships, and about myself at new levels. The gift in all this was that in every case, these reconnections were deeply joyful, healthy conversations. Challenging at times but always loving. That is such a gift. 
  • Time with Mathea was priceless. I got to see the life she has built during grad school, including school and home and roommates and friends and favorite hangouts and so much more. Favorites include 
    • King's Hardware, a bar/restaurant in Ballard that, countercultural for Seattle, has mounted deer heads and coyote pelts on the walls and feels more like someplace you might find in northern Minnesota;
    • the opportunity to sample beet-and-goat-cheese ice cream, which is not as horrible as one might think, though I don't think it will ever replace butter pecan in my affections;
    • learning the near-vertical tangle of streets in Queen Anne that Mathea navigates like a boss; 
    • a plethora of bookstores and coffee shops and breakfast places that a bit urban for my tastes but fit her like a glove;
    • so much more. There is too much.
  • We went to see Lord Huron in concert at the Moore Theater, and I'm still processing the experience. I've been listening to them quite a lot the last few months. I have so many questions about this experience. Why is my daughter's demographic so overrepresented in the crowd at this concert? What is it about this band, their narrative lyrics, their fascination with death and relationships and dabbling in, but not really getting mesmerized by, the paranormal, their intense rock-n-roll presentation that makes it hard to understand anything if you don't already know the lyrics, their complete sensory overload of sound and lights and projection and all the technical excellence you could ever ask for, that draws young adult women and the boyfriends who were so obviously most of the males in the crowd, in tow behind the women who really wanted to see this band? That gender imbalance in the crowd -- not just numbers, but also in what I can only call the power imbalance in the crowd -- is one of the pieces of that experience I am still pondering. The concert was incredible, excellent, technically flawless. And I recognize that in some ways I am on the outside of the whole experience. And how does this obviously spiritual-but-not-religious experience connect to that kind of shift in our wider culture?
  • One of the most obvious examples of God speaking -- what you might call a burning bush moment -- was the Über ride to the concert. Turned out our driver, a great conversationalist who was deeply curious about the people he was transporting, was a burned out pastor who had made some significant mistakes in his career and was now driving and rebuilding his life, regaining a sense of himself and his call to ministry through this radically altered life. We had a great eight minute conversation and when we got out of the car, Mathea said, "Well THAT wasn't relevant at all." 
  • Our conversations over the four days I was there included a lot about the research Mathea is working on, the NT Wright book I'm currently reading (his recent biography of Paul, which is excellent), her interactions with each of the different faculty leading her organizational psych program, and the personal struggles, failures and victories each of us is experiencing these days. It was fabulous conversation, and as I told her Saturday, I long for three weeks of time to dig deep into each of those things. 
  • I've never been a big fan of commencement exercises, but it was a joy to see a little knot of us gathered together to celebrate and encourage and revel in this high water mark along the way. Sometimes public celebrations are a good thing. 
  • All through my time there, in Wright's book and in scripture (the psalms still, the late 50's and early 60's these last few days), in conversations planned and random, in quiet solitary moments and in large public gatherings, there has been, as I said, a thread of God subtly speaking his love and wisdom, cautions and encouragements. Out of that, a word that has kept recurring is "trust." Corollary to that is the theme of God's faithfulness, his relational, loving steadfastness. 
  • I got back to Minnesota late on Saturday, and arrived back at my cabin (had Randy Newman's "Feels Like Home" running through my head as I drove in) and saw a doe bedded down in my front yard as though she was keeping an eye on the place in my absence. A few hours' sleep and I was immediately back into the very good grind of things here at Decision Hills. 
  • Last night I got to meet with my Life Group leaders, a group of excellent people in training to implement a model of home-based communities here. It's exciting stuff, and we spent time last night in Mark 4 where Jesus stills the storm and his disciples go from being afraid of the storm to being afraid of Jesus. The whole evening was like a perfect capstone to the entire trip, a neat chance to tie up the days of hearing God deal with my storms and refocus my attention on him. It's one of my favorite stories, and it was a joy to delve with these great leaders into the questions of how God shows up in the storms, how he speaks "Peace, be still" and what that might look like ... 
It probably doesn't come through as I describe the experiences as strongly as it was in my moment-by-moment living it, but there's such a strong sense for me over the last several days of being deeply connected to people and places, of deep, life-giving relationships, of webs of love that hold us and keep us, of God's faithfulness flowing through the invisible connections that carry us through the days. It's so good, even in the middle of the storms. 

And I will admit that I'm chuckling a bit about writing that last line as a massive thunderstorm is pummeling everything in sight. God has a sense of humor. 

Monday, June 4, 2018

God has a bottle

I've been working my way through the Psalms for a couple months now. This morning I am reading and pondering Psalm 56. David wrote this one when he was in difficult circumstances, when his enemies had taken him captive and were debating how best to do away with him.

The psalm is full of David's confidence in God's love and power. It's good stuff to read. But I'm taken this morning by a line near the end of the psalm:

"You have kept count of my tossings, put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book?"

I have to admit, the past year and a half, my life has included plenty of "tossings." Restless nights staring at the ceiling, fears of the past and the future, tears of shame and repentance and regret, longing for loved ones who are beyond reach ... tossings. Without exception, every day in all that time I've been in conversation with God, asking him to reveal himself, asking for guidance. Some days he has revealed himself in some significant way. Other days the heavens seem to be plastered over, closed off, locked up. More than anything else, he has found many ways to tell me he has not abandoned me. He's good like that.

Make no mistake, the evidence of his love and care, when I look around, is overwhelming. There is so much good in my life, and I give God full credit for every bit of it. He has been so faithful, so loving, so generous. Yet my days and nights are still, so often, full of tossings.

That's why it's comforting to me that God has a bottle. (Okay, I got into a long conversation yesterday about interpreting the book of Revelation, and the person I was talking with was quite concerned with what could be taken literally and what was symbolic. So let me say, I don't think it's helpful to get hung up on the literal nature of this bottle and how God fastens the lid / cork / cap / stopper on it, and where he keeps it ... does this mean God has shelves and pockets? Let's not go there. The bottle can be symbolic for the moment. But given our nature as incarnated beings, we need physical reality and it might be helpful just to imagine God having a real, physical bottle right now for the sake of argument without getting caught up in the metaphysics of whether it's an old mason jar or a beautiful alabaster flask.) And that bottle, according to David, is where God saves your tears. They don't fall without him paying attention. They don't drop from the curve of your cheek to the dust without God's knowledge, without his intimate attention. They don't just soak into your shirt-sleeve and evaporate, leaving a tiny trace of salt in the fabric. God tenderly holds your tears.

In my symbolic / literal mind, this means that all your angst, all your frustration, all your grief, all your longing, is tended and stewarded by God. This is a deep facet of his love for you. Like an attentive lover, God is paying attention, caring for your heart, caring for your mindset and your frustration and your hopes. He holds every twist of your tossings, every track of your tears.

And he does not squander them. It's not that God is just aware in some kind of banal benevolence. He is actively working out the details of your life -- engineering them, to borrow Oswald Chambers' phrase -- including all these uncomfortable bits, for the sake of a greater good that will bless you and bless the world through you. That's what God does. While we like to read the Bible for the sake of all the good parts, by which we mean the parts that tell us what we want to hear, the evidence in scripture is overwhelming that God is in the business of taking your sufferings and making something good out of them. In fact, that might be one reason he allows them in the first place. God could have prevented David from falling into the hands of the Philistines, but he allowed it -- and then he delivered David, proving his own goodness and increasing David's trust in him and strengthening David's capability to serve as an excellent king for his people.

God is doing things in your life. Part of what he is doing is that he's saving up your current frustration, your current fear, to build greater things in your and in the world. Because that's what his love does.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Today's Playlist

Because I am certain EVERYONE wants to know this information, here's the playlist I've been listening to driving around from meeting to errand and back again on this gorgeous day:

1. New Constellation - Toad the Wet Sprocket
2. Summer in the City - Lovin' Spoonful
3. Stay with You - Goo Goo Dolls
4. In Other Words - Nat King Cole
5. Learning to Fly - Pink Floyd
6. Kashmir - Led Zeppelin
7. Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone - James Taylor
8. Bohemian Rhapsody - Queen
9. Rabbit Heart - Florence & The Machine
10. Graceland - Paul Simon

That is all. Thank you.

Thursday, May 31, 2018


This might sound strange, but I've been pondering Winnie the Pooh lately.

Actually I've been thinking about all the well-known characters that inhabit the Hundred Acre Wood and how A.A. Milne did such a fabulous job of weaving together pithy, delightful stories about them. Who doesn't know someone a little bit like Owl, the out-of-touch, good-natured know it all? Or Rabbit, the holier-than-thou insecure critic? What makes these stories powerful is the personalities involved, and how we can bring those traits -- and the stories involving them -- into our own world.

For most of my life, I have struggled with joy. Being raised on a farm, the third son of Scandinavian Lutheran parents, joy was not a commodity I came by naturally. Make no mistake, I had a fantastic upbringing. But joyful exuberance wasn't something that was encouraged in my early years.

So as I think about the denizens of Milne's stories, the one I have pondered more than any other lately is Roo. Seem strange? Roo is quiet, most of the time, out of sight, innocent and childlike. Forgettable, even, if you're not paying attention. But what strikes me about Roo is the power of his joy. He is the epitome of the word "irrepressible" -- perhaps akin to Tigger, but less likely to knock people over. I think every time I've experienced a windstorm in the last few decades, I've thought -- and frequently said out loud -- "Can I fly Piglet next?" It is probably my favorite line of Roo's. And if you recall the time Tigger got stuck up in a tree and was too afraid to come down, Roo was right up there with him, making a game of the whole thing -- and thoroughly enjoying himself.

What gives Roo such consistency, such powerful joy? Maybe it is that he is loved well. Kanga certainly seems to dote on him in exactly the right balance of tenderness and discipline that a mother should have. Perhaps it is that Roo is, in fact, innocent -- though if you read the stories closely, he's had enough run-ins with nefarious (and hilarious) plots from the rest of the crew that he could well have gotten suspicious and fearful.

And maybe that is what it comes down to. More than anything else, I believe Roo has something that in this day and age seems like a luxury to most of us. He has trust. He doesn't get anxious, he doesn't wring his hands and get all fearful about things, he doesn't angst about the stability of relationships or about the future or anything else.

What happens as a result is that Roo is a little bit infectious, in the best of ways. He brings delight and warmth and, well, joy to the rest of the forest.

In the Disney animated versions, Roo is cute and cuddly. But in Milne's original illustrations, he's hard to see, little more than a pen-stroke. It's easy to miss Roo entirely. That, in fact, is often the way it is with joy. We take it for granted or set it aside or say there will be time for that later, but right now I'm busy. We do these things at our own peril.

Like all the most powerful things in the universe -- add, maybe, love and hope to that list -- joy is impossible to control, impossible to demand. And these things -- these intangible things -- are what makes life worth living, in every moment. These are the things that have power to transform, if we'll allow them to do their proper work.

I leave you with a picture, and the suggestion that you go to Google Images and do a search for "Roo" and just scroll through, glorying in picture after picture of well-loved, trusting, hopeful joy:

Image result for roo

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Share the Dream

One of the things I'm very excited about these days is the June 17th event here at Decision Hills to help people experience this amazing place and see the potential for what God might be up to in bringing The Open Door Christian Church on to this site. Here's the latest promo for this event, including some very cool drone footage of my backyard. (Sorry, you can't see my cabin because the oak trees are too thick.) Enjoy! And if you're in the neighborhood on Fathers Day, stop in!

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Observing Memorial Day

I'm lying in my hammock on the eastern shore of a small lake in Minnesota, suspended between an oak and an elm, relaxing, barefoot, my camp chair next to the hammock like a nightstand holding my books and a beer and a slab of sharp cheddar cheese and a notebook and a pen. I'm watching the circus of watercraft maraud the lake -- the fishermen and the skiers and the wakeboarders and the jet-skiers and the ponderous pontoonists -- all sharing a square mile of water with something approaching civility.

I'm thinking about Memorial Day. It's Saturday today, and Monday is a day set aside to honor those who gave their lives in service of our country. I remember as a child, going to Faaberg Lutheran Church every year for a noon meal, potluck of course, and afterward we all walked out to the cemetery. Even the dishes could wait. This was Important. And my family was always, always there -- though at the time I didn't understand why. Five men in uniforms stood around, the dark wood stocks of their heavy M-1 rifles held loosely, casually, carefully like chainsaws or scalpels or any other deadly tool that has to be respected in order not to do unintended damage. Once everyone was gathered, one of the five would bark out orders that my childish ears couldn't decipher, but the four men in line apparently knew, because they snapped to attention, raised their rifles, aimed at an unseen point above the trees to the south, and fired, and worked the bolts on their rifles ejecting the hot, empty casings into the grass, and fired, and worked the bolts, and fired, and worked the bolts. In the aftermath of the deafening explosions, we all -- all of us -- stood silent for a moment, and then the uniformed men carefully followed their orders to return to their cars, to put away their weapons, and to go have some coffee. We boys scrambled in the grass, seeking out those shell casings like trophies to be collected and kept. A few of the women wiped at tears. I didn't understand why.

We talk about how America is the Land of the Free Because of the Brave. At least I saw it on a t-shirt the other day. The idea being, I suppose, that all our chaos on the lake today is somehow a tribute to those soldiers who bravely gave their lives to preserve our ability to hoot and holler and wakeboard.

I sit up a bit in my hammock and look at the lakeshore. The Normandy landings were really a product of topography in many ways. The cliffs there, and the wide beaches here, and the roadways to the south ... I imagine what it would take to plan an invasion on my small lakeshore. With a little creativity, the old boat lift and the section of abandoned dock on the shoreline below me could be beach obstacles with Teller mines attached to their seaward parts. I imagine French families in Normandy lamenting the presence of the Nazis and really, the existence of this war, because the tourist season has been for crap for years now, and everyone is wondering if the Allies are going to make their landing here. But Calais would make more sense. It has to be Calais. Why would they come to Vierville-sur-Mer, or Sainte Mére Eglise? These are quaint, quiet communities, out of the way communities, small tourist spots between the bocage and the wide Channel. Calais would make a lot more sense.

A pontoon goes by, slowly, churning through the water holding a half dozen people bored with the adrenaline of the jet-skis and uninterested by the presence of bass in the shallows. Its outline, silhouetted by the sun, reminds me of the shape of the LCT-A's that carried the tanks of the 743rd Tank Battalion across the channel on the night of June 5, 1944. An LCT is a Landing Craft (Tank), a shoebox shaped ship built by the dozens to prepare for the invasion of Fortress Europe. An LCT-A is a Landing Craft (Tank -- Armored), which means you take a shoebox shaped ship and pour concrete into its hull, especially the forward end with the gate designed to drop down on the beach. The concrete is designed to provide a little more protection against artillery and heavy machine gun fire. You load three Sherman tanks on this tiny ship. Each tank weighs more than 30 tons, depending on how it's equipped. Two companies of the 743rd (B and C) were equipped with top-secret "Duplex Drive" tanks designed to be launched before H-Hour, first light, 6,000 yards from the French coast, so they could "swim," pushed by propellers. What allowed these tanks to float -- in calm water -- was an extendable fabric curtain supported by a flimsy metal framework and inflatable supports. This framework extended up several feet above the top of the tank's turret, so in effect what happened was that ideally, the 32 ton tank was suspended at the bottom of a massive fabric bathtub that displaced enough water to allow it to float so the tank's propellers could push it in to shore. Once the treads hit bottom, the tank commander could shift drive from propellers to the treads and the tank could climb up out of the surf, drop its fabric flotation, and begin to fire on German gun emplacements on the cliffs above. The trouble was, in anything resembling a swell, water came over the top of the fabric and the tanks didn't float. The 741st, which was equipped identically to the 743rd, lost nearly every tank of B and C companies as they launched, 6,000 yards out in the channel, and one after another sank below the waves. Google it -- you can see the barnacle-encrusted silhouettes of Sherman tanks lying at the bottom of the Channel to this day. Tank crews were issued primitive scuba gear and life preservers, but given the narrow hatchway and the frigid water temperatures, very few survived.

But my uncle Earl was in Company A of the 743rd. Company A was equipped with tanks using a kind of ductwork "snorkel" that allowed both intake and exhaust gases to freely supply the engine in up to seven or more feet of water. So the LCT-A's serving Company A of the 743rd -- just a few of the more than 5,000 ships that took part in the Normandy invasion -- were supposed to follow the first wave of Duplex Drive tanks in to shore, drop their ramps in the shallow surf, and offload their tanks. All of this was intended to be the very first wave, the initial terrifying specter to terrify the German troops -- tanks coming up out of the pre-dawn water to attack their positions without warning. They were to be there just ahead of that famous, terrifying scene that opens the movie "Saving Private Ryan."

The pontoon passes, and as it turns it looks less and less like an LCT-A. I have nothing against the people relaxing on that quiet boat. It offends me less than the noisy ski boats that do button-hook turns right in front of my dock, churning up the bottom and scaring the fish and the geese. These pontooners are people who are enjoying a lovely evening on a beautiful Minnesota lake. Relax. Have a beer. Look at the size of that house! I heard that place sold for ...

I'm thinking about Earl, still in training, taking a train from southern California where his battalion was, at that time in 1942, preparing to fight Rommel in the deserts of northern Africa. Earl was sent to Fort Knox, Kentucky, to take gunnery classes. He was offended by the civilians on the train who complained about rationing and acted for all the world "like there isn't even a war on." Earl excelled at gunnery school, and his Commanding Officer encouraged him to go to Officer Candidate School to become a lieutenant. But Earl was nervous about the responsibility involved in such a move, and he refused, choosing instead to remain a corporal.

So when the invasion came, after the cross-country train trip with all their tanks from California to New York, after being loaded on the Aquatania to cross the Atlantic to England in November, 1943, after rigorous training up and down the English countryside, after months of training and cross training and letters home that became ever less detailed, after the day when a skeptical U.S. Army officer insisted, demanded, that they demonstrate the top-secret DD tanks on a day when the surf was up and the English Coast Guard wasn't on duty because it was a Saturday and so the tank and entire crew were lost -- in June 1944 when it came time to load the tanks aboard the LCT-A's, Earl was a crew member, a gunner. So many ships were being loaded that they couldn't do it properly, and someone came up with the bright idea of cutting the side of the hull on the LCT-A's, pulling them up alongside a larger ship called an LST (Landing Ship - Tank), and driving the tanks on board that way, then re-welding the starboard hull back into place. Trouble was, that left the starboard side of the LCT-A weaker, and the night of June 5 the prevailing westerly winds were driving the surf of the English Channel hard into the starboard side of those LCT's as they churned southward through the darkness toward Normandy with the bombers flying overhead.

I look out at the dragonflies, hundreds of them, flying air cover over my beach. I'm grateful for them, for the lack of mosquitoes thus far this season. I got stung between my toes a few minutes ago -- some kind of small bee, I didn't get a good look at it -- but it doesn't hurt much, and I'm so glad we don't have very many mosquitoes yet. The gnats are a problem, though. As long as the breeze stays brisk, they stay back in the underbrush. It's okay.

The water skiers are a little leery of the cold water. One guy keeps standing up on the platform on the back of the boat out in the bay, shouting at the driver to give him a minute  because this water is "damn cold!"

Somewhere in the dark in the English Channel, 1944. This description comes from the After Action reports and firsthand testimony during the investigation into what happened to LCT-A(2229):

"We sailed out of Portland at 0230 Monday morning June 5, 1944. We had two 30 ton tanks and one 37 ton tank. We had 15 tank men on board, and demolition and engineers. We sailed all night and all day -- then about 1900 the sides began to break in. We had about one foot of water on the deck. The waves were coming over the side and going in around the engine room hatch. The engine room had about one foot of water on the starboard side. We had a starboard list all the time. The Skipper got some men to go down to get it out. One Fireman, Barry, R.W., refused; he said there was nothing he could do down there; the Skipper had to threaten him with a gun before he would go. The Skipper and myself were in the water all night trying to fix the sides; that might have been partly what caused him to die. We both were frozen when we went into the water (0555, 6 June). About 0430 the port engine went bad. We kept going; we lost the convoy but we could still see the convoy. Then all our engines went out; so we sent an SOS to a couple of ships -- one I know to be a destroyer; no ship would come. Finally the Skipper gave the order to abandon ship at 0555, 6 June. We all got in but two men before it started turning over. Two men slid off it as it went down; it took them with it; they didn't drown; one man got strangled and scared; he started hollering for help; the man who was with him kept hold of him and kept him out of the water but he froze later on ... There were all the tank men and the crew on the raft but two soldiers -- they were on a rubber boat. We floated around out there; no one seemed to see us. Then finally they started dying; I don't know who died first but they were in about two hours before anyone died."

As a child I knew that Earl had died in the Normandy invasion. I heard from my father that he died of exposure in the water, that he never made it to shore, but the details were unclear. After my father's death in 2000, I spent many hours transcribing Earl's letters home during his training and up until the eve of the invasion. That collection included a couple sympathetic letters from his commanding officer and another army official, both of whom affirmed that Earl had died in the water, not on the beach. He was buried in England, and later his body was exhumed and shipped home. I grew up with his gravestone right next to those of my grandparents, there in the northwest corner of the cemetery. As documents from the Normandy invasions have been declassified and with the advent of digitization of documents online, I've been able to learn far more than my dad ever knew about his brother's death. That's okay -- I think details like those above would have broken Dad's heart.

Though many of "our" boys had gone to war in the Pacific and in Europe, Earl was one of the few in our tiny little Minnesota community who didn't come home. In a deeply grief-stricken way, my family became a focal point of that Memorial Day gathering each year. The Memorial Day potluck and ceremony, the somber walks through the Faaberg cemetery, the men and women silently pondering flat rectangular gravestones that listed not only names and dates but units and ranks -- all of that was a way to honor and remember those who gave so much. Many came home and carried deep burdens the rest of their lives for what they had seen and experienced. Others, like Earl, lost their lives as a result of their military service.

Contrary to what movies and novels tell us, the loss of a single life, contemplated in isolation, is almost never glorious. Part of me wants to be bitter about the decision to cut the sides of already flimsy ships to load them faster. I want to be angry at the seasick Navy man who refused to go below and work on the engines until his commander, himself a Navy Reserve ensign, held him at gunpoint. I find myself hoping beyond hope as I read through these After Action reports that maybe somehow I'll find a way this time through as I discover the details and define the missteps -- maybe this time I can bring Earl, who died more than two decades before my birth, home alive.

I don't begrudge the boaters and the picnickers. I am planning to grill bratwurst this evening and maybe go back to my hammock for a bit. It's good, though, to take the time to reread these heart-wrenching reports of a small landing craft, damaged in the loading process for the sake of expedience, buffeted by stormy seas, caught up in the maelstrom of five thousand ships crossing the English Channel to invade Hitler's continent, and unable to attract any attention until it was too late. It's good to remember Earl, just turned twenty-five two weeks before LCT-A (2229) went down in the Channel, and thousands of others like him. It's good to be reminded that the smallest of actions can matter enormously.

Freedom is a costly thing.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Playing with poetry again

The wisdom to know the difference

There are the things you can change
and the things you can't
wind and trajectory and range
and the tremor

Entrust your soul to that far target
Know the things you can't
Fit your body to shot, don't forget
Discipline each quiver

Squeeze, the tripped trigger, let it go
and the things you can't
so you just release it, the flow
and the inevitable shake

Twilight on a covered bridge, breath
and there are things you can't
face beyond pictures, breath
trembling paths of touch

Textures, warmth, honey and wine
poured out, you can't
just be, just be there, be mind
shivering in the summer heat

Shut it down. Close your eyes.
The things you can't.
Be. Have. The silent bird flies
Away. For now. The far target.

The tremor.

Seeking the kingdom

Oswald Chambers yesterday was focused on Matthew 6:33. That verse -- "Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be yours as well" -- lies at the hinge point of my life. One evening in October, 1983, I sat in a tiny prayer chapel built by an order of Catholic nuns. One by one, in my heart and in the presence of Jesus, I brought out every love of my life and set them before him. My parents. Each of my siblings. The farm where I grew up. The girl I was dating at the time. Key friendships. Career ambitions. My sense of myself. One at a time, each was set before Jesus, and mentally / emotionally / spiritually I saw myself cutting the ribbon that tied my heart to each of those things. Snip. Snip. Snip. I sat on the stone floor with a bunch of severed ribbons tying my heart to -- to nothing at all, for the sake of Jesus only, Jesus alone. My prayer was, "Lord, now I have nothing -- you give me back only what you want me to have."

I wanted to spend my life for the sake of Jesus Christ and his kingdom. I wanted to give up all my smaller ambitions. I wanted to throw away every thing that was less than Jesus. That evening remains a defining point of my life, to this very day.

There have been so many echoes of that moment, so many times Jesus has called me back to that first love. At times, especially when he's called me to great risk, he's challenged me: "Are you turning away from that commitment?" He's asked me to do some tremendously hard things. Turn away from easy paths. Turn away from my own comfort and my own glory. Face up to my own brokenness and the brokenness of my life, my relationships. Speak the truth about that brokenness. Allow myself to be known, to be loved, to be treasured. Each echo, each turning point, has provided the opportunity to turn away from Jesus himself, or to turn toward him. There has been a very real choice at each turning. I can take the easy answer, the "right" answer, the appealing answer that will look good in the eyes of the world around me -- including, very often, the Christian world -- or I can have Jesus himself. And I have to say, not because I'm such a great person -- I'm not -- but because Jesus is so excellent, at each turning I've done my level best to pursue him. Nothing else comes close.

I don't believe I deserve any credit for staying faithful to him. He knows I've failed often enough, and my own brokenness has tainted every decision I've made along the way. But in each moment, as best I know how, I've had the opportunity to "seek first the kingdom of God." I've had the opportunity to discern kingdom possibilities in the mix of all that I could choose at any given moment.

I find myself these days staring out at the lake, staring up into the oak leaves, pondering where I am and how I got here. But looking back, there's never been a moment where I turned away from him, in spite of the people who have gotten up in my face asking how I could have missed God so badly. Every imperfect decision, every broken choice, every half-understood option, was weighed in the light of where I thought Jesus was calling. I think I understand the murderer, the persecutor, the arrogant Paul, a little better when he said, "I have lived my life before God in all good conscience" (Acts 23:1).

That's probably what Jesus himself meant when he talked about his kingdom being like a treasure hidden in a field, like one pearl of surpassingly great value. So many of Jesus' stories contain these imperfect anti-heroes. Maybe the guy making real estate deals, selling all he had to buy the field, was less than savory. Maybe the merchant fudged a little bit to be able to liquidate all his other goods in order to buy that pearl. Jesus himself, at the conclusion of one of the most unpleasant and confusing stories he ever told, said (Luke 17) that we should use worldly wealth -- "ungodly mammon" -- to make heavenly friends for ourselves. Maybe none of us really knows what Jesus is offering us at any given moment. He promises never to leave us, never to forsake us. He promises that in spite of the heartache, the journey will be worth it. He promises that if we surrender all for the sake of his kingdom, his all-surpassing love, revealed in so many profound, beautiful, excruciating ways, he will transform us into his image.

Hope is a funny thing. Christians are often guilty of tying our hope to an afterlife, pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by, and there's some biblical warrant for that, though not as much as we tell ourselves. I'm not saying there's not an afterlife, not at all, and I'm not saying that it won't be fantastic. I believe it will. But the Bible seems utterly focused on this existence, this life, far more than we often understand. Jesus himself says that those who give up comfort, relationships, respectability, and so much more will receive "a hundredfold now in this time ... and in the age to come, eternal life" (Mark 10, emphasis added). I'm with Dietrich Bonhoeffer who talked of the "profound this-worldliness" of Christianity, with Wendell Berry whose vision of God sees him as "a great relisher of the world, its good grown immortal in his mind." When Jesus described the kingdom of God, little of what he said had anything to do with an afterlife. Read the gospels. Jesus was talking about relationships, the healing of brokenness, abundant life here and now. That's the kingdom he came to establish. That is the work into which he sends his people. Biblically speaking, hope is not an optimistic glass-half-full dreaminess that someday things will get better. Biblically speaking, hope says that because Jesus is risen from the dead, our brokenness can be healed; love is real; the truth is worth speaking; abundant life is possible. Here. Now. And that someday, God will bring these foretastes to a fulfillment that exceeds our wildest imaginings.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Pondering Community

I've been asked to write a 350 word piece for the local paper, introducing myself to the wider community and introducing the idea of "Life Groups" that we're working to develop these days. Last night I had the privilege of meeting again with those who will be forming the nucleus of these groups. What a joy to sit with people who are hungry for more, who long to grow deeper into Jesus themselves but to do that as part of a loving community, who long to see the New Testament's vision of the church lived out in life-giving ways! (It didn't hurt that we were in a beautiful home looking out at a lovely lake eating some of the best cookies I've ever tasted. But I was there for more than the cookies. Honest.) 

Below is a first draft of the piece I'll be submitting in the next couple days. I've gotten to that point where I've written and rewritten my initial thoughts and I need to let it sit for a while, then come back to it. 

Here it is: 

Hi! My name is Jeff Krogstad. Since last August, I’ve been on staff at The Open Door Christian Church, working as caretaker of our new Decision Hills campus and helping with the development of community life in this congregation.

We toss that word “community” around like a beach ball without digging into what it means. In the New Testament, though, Jesus was very intentional about people sharing life together. In his excellent book The Triumph of Christianity, Rodney Stark argues that the formation of home-sized communities was key to the growth of the movement Jesus began. These knots of people sharing life together transformed their participants from consumer-driven “clients” of the pagan religions that dominated the Roman world to deeply committed “congregations.” These communities transformed their neighborhoods and eventually the world.

Perhaps the opposite of “community” is loneliness, which seems to afflict us like a 21st century plague. We are more connected than ever before, and lonelier than ever. How is that possible? Truth is, so many of our connections don’t lead to true community where we are known and loved as we are, where our gifts find a voice, where we live in the life-giving relationships that were the cornerstone of Jesus’ ministry. In contrast to the New Testament’s description of community, our high-tech individualism might well be the death of us.  

As The Open Door Christian Church grows, we want to be intentional about creating community. In the next year we’ll be implementing “Life Groups” -- mid-sized groups that meet in homes and try in multiple ways to bring the New Testament’s description of community into 21st century homes and lives, to build relationships that are life-giving and reflect Jesus’ love.

Where do you find community? Where are you deeply known, welcomed, loved? Who realistically recognizes the best and the worst of you, and still shares life with you? The New Testament is filled with this kind of community, of people bringing their real, messy lives into deep relationships rooted in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Such a shared life is still at the heart of Christianity today.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Paying attention?

I'm having one of those days when there are so many ideas / thoughts / feels swirling around inside, and I struggle to make sense of it all. Not in a bad way, not at all -- this is good stuff, but I wonder sometimes whether there are really profound connections trying to be made in this mixture or if it's just a chaotic jumble that needs to be shoveled out to make room for good stuff. It's hard to tell.

So here are a few of the ingredients involved:

I went biking yesterday. First 20+ mile ride of the season, and it was fantastic. Beautiful ride combining roads and trails up to Sibley Park (a gem) and back through New London. I took pictures that in and of themselves add to the chaotic jumble / potential profundity. Approaching the park, I saw a doe and her twin yearling fawns cross the road in front of me. Rode through the woods on a park trail, pausing to glance at plaques that identified the differences between red oak and burr oak and lots of other flora. Got to the interpretive center and found all kinds of delightful stuff, most notably a clear and coherent timeline of glaciation through this part of the world and how it formed the landscape I live in. Here's the one picture I took inside the interpretive center:

I biked around for a while exploring the park, but there's a lot more to see there than I had time or stamina to enjoy. I'll be back. As I was leaving, I found another plaque that I'd been watching for, knowing there was some info at the park about this topic:

As I was headed back south and east toward home, near the same spot I'd see the doe and fawns on my way in, another deer was grazing along the road. I thought, how cool! I'll stop and take a picture because I don't know how close she'll let me get!

She actually let me get pretty close. This deer is obviously acclimated to living in a state park where people on bicycles are a normal part of life, even when they almost capsize while trying to juggle a phone and take a picture while pedaling past. She was completely unfazed.

 So I shook my head about wild animals that aren't wild, and headed for home. Stopped to rescue a painted turtle crossing the paved road and got embroiled in a philosophical conversation with the turtle about why the swamp on the north side was better than the swamp on the south side, so much so that it was worth risking messy death under the wheels of a passing vehicle. He declined to explain, and I was so caught up in the conversation I completely forgot to take a picture of him. I left him on the north side of the road, facing downhill toward the water, hoping he'll have the good sense to keep going that direction rather than climbing back up on the pavement.

I turned eastward, wondering if I'm any smarter than that turtle. And a short way from the park, the deer, the turtle, the memory of oxcarts, just by way of contrast, people are building enormous houses and encouraging others to do the same:

I got home last night and sat for a while on the end of my dock, pondering the sunset and watching the minnows do their regular evening dance, jumping out of the water just at the edge of your eyesight, dancing on their tails for a fractional moment, falling back into the water and making tiny ripples in the lake. I wonder -- are they leaping out of fear? hunger? ecstasy? frustration? Related or unrelated, a half dozen bass cruised back and forth in the water like cool teenagers at the mall. A pair of great blue herons performed an acrobatic mid-course correction and swept down to take up station on the point at the north end of my bay. 

As I walked up from the dock, deer grazed in my front lawn. They were thoroughly offended by my intrusion and acted much more like wild deer, though they're still pretty acclimated to my presence. They didn't, after all, run off into the woods in a panic, but jogged off, then stood at a distance huffing and snorting and stamping, and when I went inside they quickly came back to resume their meal as the light faded and the stars came out. 

This morning as I stumbled around with my first cup of coffee in hand I glanced down in the meadow and saw -- for the first time since I moved here last August -- a skunk. I've caught a whiff of them a couple times (which I don't mind -- it reminds me of using skunk scent as a cover while deer hunting up at the farm where I grew up -- good memories of chill November mornings), but I haven't seen them. And this one was a looker. If there are skunk models, this one belongs on the red carpet in front of the paparazzi. Larger than most, with a beautiful plume of a tail held up like a banner, graceful black and white streaks trailing behind as she confidently worked her way across the grass and up into the woods. 

After coffee and time talking with God in my recliner-of-meeting (more on that momentarily) I went out and set up an old drag -- a harrow, really -- that I found last fall back in the brush. I hooked it up to the 4-wheeler and spent an hour dragging a patch of bare dirt where we're going to plant grass seed this week and pray for rain. The bare dirt lies over the area where we mined sand and gravel last fall to create a parking lot next to our worship center. That glaciation I mentioned before left huge deposits of sand and gravel all through this area, and we were able to dig out enough from that hill to build a sub-layer in our new parking area. Then we took the topsoil we'd removed from that parking area and covered over the pit at the top of the hill. Dragging and leveling it this morning is the penultimate step in creating a beautiful patch of lawn. 

Thus far you might be thinking I'm just writing a scattered journal of the last 24 hours or so, and you might be right. But what's got me pondering this morning is Oswald Chambers' reflection in My Utmost for His Highest

You must keep yourself fit to let the life of the Son of God be manifested, and you cannot keep yourself fit if you give way to self-pity. Our circumstances are the means of manifesting how wonderfully perfect and extraordinarily pure the Son of God is. The thing that ought to make the heart beat is a new way of manifesting the Son of God. It is one thing to choose the disagreeable, and another thing to go into the disagreeable by God’s engineering. If God puts you there, He is amply sufficient.Keep your soul fit to manifest the life of the Son of God. Never live on memories; let the word of God be always living and active in you. 
If Oswald is right, and God engineers our circumstances (and I believe he does), then none of the last 24 hours is an accident. There are enormous questions of stewardship, delight, engagement, relationship, vocation, dependence, sabbath, and so much more involved in all these things. Here are a few of the many questions sprouting like ferns in my mind: 
  • What does it mean, this fascination rumbling in me with the oxcarts that plodded their way from Winnipeg to St. Paul and back, some wandering through this Decision Hills campus? Why do they intrigue me so much, and is God saying something in that? What stewardship is involved in the traces of those old roadways from the 1800's that are still visible on this property?
  • Why am I wired such that the minnows, the deer, the skunk, the trees, the ferns are so life-giving to me? Is everyone really, deep down, like this, or is it just me? Why is too much concrete like kryptonite to my soul?
  • At 52 years of age now, what does it mean to steward my body well? I thrill to be able to make a 20 mile bike ride on a whim, and I look forward to more such this summer. Are there other things in my body-management that I'm missing? How to live in such a way that I'm not doing myself damage, that I'm maximizing the life given to me?
  • I am the servant of a church that owns these 70 acres, and I hear tons of opinions about how to steward it. How to balance the urge toward property development with the longing to keep wildness, if not wilderness, intact here on this 70+ acres I oversee? 
  • What does Christian faith have to say to those who are deeply engaged with the earth -- the man who has no desire to travel to Mexico to build an orphanage, whose faith drives him not to accost a neighbor about matters of heaven and hell, but rather to seek the deep satisfaction of growing things, of crops well tended, of rain at the right times, of animals nurtured not exploited? Is the work of Wendell Berry and others like him an aspect of Christianity we dismiss at our peril?
  • What is God saying to me as I look at the tracks he's left in my own history? I grew up a few miles east of the old Pembina oxcart trail, still visible in aerial photos of the fields southeast of Fertile. I spent my youth learning to work the soil, to tend the cattle in the heat of summer and the brutal cold of winter. The realities of that upbringing shape my days still. What of the intertwined extended family that imparted faith to me at Faaberg Lutheran Church? Why is this business of living with deer and skunks so gut-level important to me, so much so that the collection of essays, the book manuscript is still churning in the bowels of my computer and I can't for the life of me figure out what to do with it? Why am I fascinated with the life happening just below the surface of the lake? And what about that deep, deep sense that all of this belongs in the sphere of the church, not the church of chairs and new carpet and seminaries and taking attendance, but rather the church that is knots of people following Jesus into each other's homes and lives, caring for their neighbors and communities, knowing each others' children and allergies and heartaches and hopes? 
  • In all of this, what is my voice and what word am I called to speak, to write, to pray?
I am beset this morning with a sense that I'm caught up in the midst of something God is saying, God is engineering, and I don't want to miss it. I don't want to blithely, ignorantly go my way. How many shepherds were working the Sinai in 1400 BC -- but only Moses noticed that the bush was not burning up. How long did he have to watch to figure that out? My guess is that Moses was the sort of guy who was paying attention, and so he noticed when God was engineering his circumstances. 

Thursday, May 10, 2018


As the father of two daughters, and for a variety of other reasons, I feel strongly about female characters in literature. I've mentioned before on this blog that I was challenged some months ago by a friend's comment that it's very hard to find female characters who are both strong and tender. It's been a good filter for me as I read Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy this time through. There are few strong female characters in LOTR, sadly. I don't think J.R.R. Tolkien was any kind of a misogynist -- far from it -- but he was perhaps bound by his times, as are we all, and all the leading roles in his story fall to males.

The remainder of this post will be down in the weeds of Tolkien's work, assuming the reader has at least a passing familiarity with the various characters, or else is inordinately patient and dedicated to reading this for other reasons. At any rate, here we go ...

Having admitted Tolkien's perhaps unintentional bias toward males as leading characters, however, there are a few strong female characters to be acknowledged. Galadriel is perhaps the easiest to remember, and digging deep into the backstory of LOTR she has a long and important history, if undeveloped. Though by the time of LOTR she is long past, Luthien is another strong female character, notable for the way Aragorn speaks of her as he tells the tale of Beren and Luthien Tinúviel to the hobbits one dark evening on Weathertop. Christopher Tolkien has done all fans a service by bringing into print the deeper story of Beren and Luthien in the last few years, which shapes and deepens her character significantly. Even Rosie Cotton, though she comes into the story only at its end, is perhaps evidence that Tolkien understood both the strength and tenderness of his female characters. And of course Arwen, though she keeps mostly to the shadows in LOTR, plays an important role. One of the few things I really appreciated about Peter Jackson's version of the story in film is how he wrapped Glorfindel, an elf-lord of Elrond's house, into the character of Arwen for the sake of the movie, giving her depth and strength beyond what she has in the books themselves.

But this last time through the trilogy, I was so impressed with the way Tolkien himself wrote the character of Éowyn, who chafes at traditional roles, who finds creative and when necessary crafty ways to live out her strength and her love, and who is without question valiant in leadership and in battle. The scene in which she stands over the fallen body of Théoden and defends him as though she is staked to the ground next to him, and in her courage she helps to kill the leader of the Nazgul, at great cost to herself -- this may be the single boldest individual action in the entire story. At the same time, she exhibits an affection and a tenderness toward her uncle, King Théoden, and a deep love for her brother Éomer, as well as a passionate infatuation with Aragorn and eventually, a deep and abiding love for Faramir. She is certainly the most fully developed female character in the written text of LOTR.

Here are a few excerpts -- all too brief, sadly -- showing the development of Éowyn's character:

"'Go, Éowyn, sister-daughter,' said the old king. 'The time for fear is past.'
The woman turned and went slowly into the house. As she passed the doors she turned and looked back. Grave and thoughtful was her glance, as she looked on the king with cool pity in her eyes. Very fair was her face, and her long hair was like a river of gold. Slender and tall she was in her white robe girt with silver; but strong she seemed and stern as steel, a daughter of kings." (The Two Towers, 152)

"'Behold, I go forth, and it is likely to be my last riding,' said Théoden. 'I have no child. Théodred my son is slain. I name Éomer my sister-son to be my heir. If neither of us return, then choose a new lord as you will. But to someone I must now entrust my people that I leave behind, to rule them in my place. Which of you will stay?' No man spoke. 'Is there none whom you would name? In whom do my people trust?'
'In the House of Eorl,' answered Háma. 
'But Éomer I cannot spare, nor would he stay,' said the king, 'and he is the last of that House.'
'I said not Éomer,' answered Háma. 'And he is not the last. There is Éowyn, daughter of Éomund, his sister. She is fearless and high-hearted. All love her. Let her be as lord to the Éorlingas while we are gone.'
'It shall be so,' said Théoden. 'Let the heralds announce to the folk that the Lady Éowyn will lead them!'" (The Two Towers, 162-63)

But as Aragorn came to the booth where he was to lodge with Legolas and Gimli, and his companions had gone in, there came the Lady Éowyn after him and called to him. He turned and saw her as a glimmer in the night, for she was clad in white; but her eyes were on fire. 
'Aragorn,' she said, 'why will you go on this deadly road?'
'Because I must,' he said. 'Only so can I see any hope of doing my part in the war against Sauron. I do not choose paths of peril, Éowyn. Were I to go where my heart dwells, far in the North I would now be wandering in the fair valley of Rivendell.'
For a while she was silent, as if pondering what this might mean. Then suddenly she laid her hand on his arm. 'You are a stern lord and resolute,' she said; 'and thus do men win renown.' She paused. 'Lord,' she said, 'if you must go, then let me ride in your following. For I am weary of skulking in the hills, and wish to face peril and battle.' 
'Your duty is with your people,' he answered.
'Too often have I heard of duty,' she cried. 'But am I not of the House of Eorl, a shieldmaiden and not a dry-nurse? I have waited on faltering feet long enough. Since they falter no longer, it seems, may I not now spend my life as I will?'
'Few may do that with honour,' he answered. 'But as for you, lady: did you not accept the charge to govern your people until their lord's return? If you had not been chosen, then some marshal or captain would have been set in the same place, and he could not ride away from his charge, were he weary of it or no.' 
'Shall I always be chosen?' she said bitterly. 'Shall I always be left behind when the Riders depart, to mind the house while they win renown, and find food and beds when they return?'
'A time may come soon,' said he, 'when none will return. Then there will be need of valour without renown, for none shall remember the deeds that are done in the last defense of your homes. Yet the deeds will not be less valiant because they are unpraised.'
And she answered, 'All your words are but to say: you are a woman, and your part is in the house. But when the men have died in battle and honour, you have leave to be burned in the house, for the men will need it no more. But I am of the House of Eorl and not a serving woman. I can ride and wield blade, and I do not fear either pain or death.'
'What do you fear, lady?' he asked. 
'A cage,' she said. 'To stay behind bars, until use and old age accept them, and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire.' (Return of the King, 67-68)

(Eowyn disguises herself as the soldier Dernhelm and rides in Théoden's company to the battle before the city of Minas Tirith, where Théoden himself is struck down by the lord of the Nazgul, a wraith riding on a flying creature of some kind -- think maybe a pterodactyl. Meriadoc the hobbit -- Merry -- is struck to the ground and the following scene is told from his point of view.)

Then out of the blackness in his mind he thought that he heard Dernhelm speaking; yet now the voice seemed strange, recalling some other voice that he had known. 
'Begone, foul dwimmerlaik, lord of carrion! Leave the dead in peace!'
A cold voice answered, 'Come not between the Nazgul and his prey! Or he will not slay thee in thy turn. He will bear thee away to the houses of lamentation, beyond all darkness, where thy flesh shall be devoured, and thy shrivelled mind be left naked to the Lidless Eye.'
A sword rang as it was drawn. 'Do what you will; but I will hinder it, if I may.'
'Hinder me? Thou fool. No living man may hinder me!'
Then Merry heard of all sounds in that hour the strangest. It seemed that Dernhelm laughed, and the clear voice was like the ring of steel. 'But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Éowyn I am, Éomund's daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him.'
Suddenly the great beast beat its hideous wings, and the wind of them was foul. Again it leaped into the air, and then swiftly fell down upon Éowyn, shrieking, striking with beak and claw.
Still she did not blench; maiden of the Rohirrim, child of kings, slender but as a steel-blade, fair yet terrible. A swift stroke she dealt, skilled and deadly. The outstretched neck she clove asunder, and the hewn head fell like a stone. Backward she sprang as the huge shape crashed in ruin, vast wings outspread, crumpled on the earth; and with its fall the shadow passed away. A light fell about her, and her hair shone in the sunrise. (Return of the King, 143)

(After the defeat of Sauron, Éowyn is still in Minas Tirith, recovering from her wounds, in the Houses of Healing with Faramir, the Steward of the City.)
And Éowyn looked at Faramir long and steadily, and Faramir said: 'Do not scorn pity that is the gift of a gentle heart, Éowyn! But I do not offer you my pity. For you are a lady high and valiant and have yourself won renown that shall not be forgotten; and you are a lady beautiful, I deem, beyond even the words of the Elven-tongue to tell. And I love you. Once I pitied your sorrow. But now, were you sorrowless, without fear or any lack, were you the blissful Queen of Gondor, still I would love you. Éowyn, do you not love me?'
Then the heart of Éowyn changed, or else at last she understood it. And suddenly her winter passed, and the sun shone on her.
'I stand in Minas Anor, the Tower of the Sun, she said, 'and behold! the Shadow has departed! I will be a shieldmaiden no longer, nor vie with the great Riders, nor take joy only in songs of slaying. I will be a healer and love all things that grow and are not barren.' And again she looked at Faramir. 'No longer do I desire to be a queen,' she said. 
Then Faramir laughed merrily. 'That is well,' he said; 'for I am not a king. Yet I will wed with the White Lady of Rohan, if it be her will. And if she will, then let us cross the River and in happier days let us dwell in fair Ithilien and there make a garden. All things will grow with joy there, if the White Lady comes.' (Return of the King, 299-300)

Congratulations on getting this far. These few quotes demonstrate that Tolkien invested a lot of energy in developing Éowyn as a strong character, certainly. I suppose a person could make an argument that she is not very tender, but when we first meet her she is quite tender in her care for Théoden, even though his dotage frustrates her. And at the end of the story, the tenderness that grows between her and Faramir (as noted above, and in other quotes not included here) seems to indicate that Tolkien saw her as a woman who is both strong and affectionate, both tender and courageous.

It was fun to read this story again and see her in greater depth, to pay attention to her with new eyes. She's not a perfect role model, of course, but given the impact Tolkien's LOTR still has, it's encouraging to find a female character with such depth, grace, and strength.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Who knew?

Here's an acting opportunity I never knew existed. Sounds like fun, but I don't think I'll drive to Camp Ripley just for mileage reimbursement. Still ...

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

The view from here

I am captivated this morning by the change of seasons. Sitting looking out my window westward as I sip my coffee and read scripture (Psalm 30 this morning) and Oswald Chambers (his reflection today is just outstanding) and listening to the loons on the south end of the lake -- watching the first few raindrops coming down on increasingly green grass and ruminating on the fact that my birds don't seem quite so dependent on the feeder anymore, but it's still such a delight to see them flying in and out of view.

I'm struck by the changes. Just a few short weeks ago we had a foot of snow. There's a life-filled excitement in the woods these days. Yesterday I was watching three turkeys (the first turkeys I've seen here in six months) and several deer back on the trails in my woods. I'm eagerly waiting in the next few weeks for the appearance of new fawns. Because the winter has been relatively non-stressful from the deer's perspective, I expect to see lots of twins and maybe even triplets. Trees are leafing out and flowers are peeking out of the ground. It's a gorgeous time of year.

Pay attention. God is at work all around, and inside. I have to confess that over the last year and a half, too many times I've doubted that God is present and working. But those are momentary lapses, plunges into the abyss of self-pity. Fact: He is working for good purposes. He is keeping his promises. Here's a quick excerpt from Chambers this morning: "Faith is not a pathetic sentiment, but a robust vigorous confidence built on the fact that God is holy love. You cannot see Him just now, you cannot understand what He is doing, but you know Him."