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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."

Monday, May 7, 2018

Not all those who wander are lost

One of the themes that has been romping around in the back of my mind the last few months is this: I've been thinking about stories and how they shape us, and specifically I've been thinking about characters in stories and how we read them in ways that give depth and meaning and structure to our own lives. I've just finished rereading Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy and I've been pondering a couple characters specifically. The first is Aragorn, or Strider, who comes off as one of the main heroic characters by the end of the story. The other is Eowyn, and I'll write about her in the next few days.

Through much of the narrative, Aragorn is a guy with lots of potential, a fantastic backstory, and wonderful dreams. But throughout the story the likelihood that Aragorn's dreams will be accomplished seems so, so far away. Tolkien sets things up so that as readers, we yearn for Aragorn to get what he wants -- for the One Ring to be destroyed, for Sauron to be defeated, for Middle Earth to be protected, for the free peoples of the world to unite in opposition to evil, and eventually for Aragorn to be crowned king and almost as a tag line at the end, to marry Arwen. When all of this happens by the end of the story, the reader feels gratified and satisfied.

Here is where the danger lies for the inattentive or surface-level reader. It looks like those things are Aragorn's goals, and he is a lofty, capable, highly motivated character who is almost impossibly pure in pursuing the good, true, and beautiful. I don't think Tolkien saw him this way at all, and for the reader to see Aragorn in this way provides little that is helpful to ponder, as this caricature of Aragorn gives the average reader nothing to grab hold of -- only a noble ideal to aspire to, but nothing that can be honestly reached. Aragorn (who without doubt functions as a sort of Christ-figure in the stories) is, like Jesus, too good to be true. And like Jesus, if we interpret Aragorn this way, we miss so much.

I've been reading this time through with an eye to wondering what Aragorn would be like if Sauron was defeated but a few other details were not accomplished. You see, dig deeper and you find that throughout the story Aragorn is motivated by a relatively simple desire: He is desperately in love with Arwen, the daughter of Elrond, and Arwen loves him back. Reading the details, I believe it is this love, pure and simple, that motivates Aragorn in all the challenges and trials he faces. Granted, he's born into the line of the Numenorean kings, and he is born at the time when the One Ring is rediscovered so it is possible for him to lead the movement that defeats Sauron. These are what we might call the "accidents" of his existence. But hidden away in the appendices of Tolkien's trilogy is a story of Arwen and Aragorn meeting and falling in love, and Elrond -- Arwen's father -- being quite unhappy about her loving a mortal man. (It's complicated, but basically Arwen lives as one of the Elves, with immortality and the possibility of sailing over the sea with Elrond her father to enter a sort of this-world heaven, and marrying a mortal would mean she gives that up.) Elrond declares that he will not permit Arwen to marry any mortal unless that man is the king of not only Gondor (the southern kingdom) but also of Arnor, the northern kingdom that has long been chaotic and unruled. He must possess the scepter of Annuminas, the traditional symbol of the authority of the northern kings. He must rule with the White Tree growing in his courts, and the last living White Tree had died many years before. If you read Tolkien carefully, all these are the things that Elrond has set out as requirements for Aragorn to marry his daughter -- and Aragorn works throughout the story to achieve these ends for the sake of his great hope and his great love. So the great defeat of Sauron is in a sense, for Aragorn, a means to an end.

Tolkien was a bit of a romantic. This theme of great love, even what Shakespeare termed "star-crossed" love, as the motivator for great deeds, appears over and over in Tolkien's work.

Imagine for a moment if Aragorn had not achieved all his desire. It requires rewriting the entire epic, sort of like those "imagine if" books that say what if Hitler had not been defeated in World War Two. Aragorn's character would not be any less -- he would still be an incredibly strong, incredibly driven man with deep loves. He might still achieve much that is good, and he might still have people who love him deeply. But in the end, his character might frighten us for no other reason than that we see too much of ourselves in it -- we see our own frustrations, our own unfulfilled desires, our own almost-but-not-quite lives, our own disappointments. The inspiration of LOTR lies largely -- and Tolkien himself talked about this -- in everything turning out right. By the end of the story we may well cry out, overwhelmed with joy along with Sam the hobbit, "Is everything sad going to come untrue?"

The trouble is, like Aragorn before the War of the Ring, we judge ourselves harshly and we see ourselves as less than we truly are. Like Aragorn, we need others to name us and describe us and believe in us so that we might see ourselves accurately, because even what we see in the mirror is rarely factual. The reality is that we are far more glorious than we usually believe. We filter and interpret, most often in a way that damages us. We are reluctant to receive the word God speaks to us along with Jesus, "You are my beloved son, my beloved daughter, in whom I am well pleased." We are reluctant to read all the present tense truths of Ephesians 1 and believe that they are true about us. We are reluctant to read Colossians 2:8-9 and believe that we are included in this strong statement about who Jesus is and about what we have been given. Each of these powerful statements is most often met with a wistful "yeah, but ..." because we know ourselves better -- better than God knows us. We know our fallibility, our failure, our untrustworthiness, our ugliness, and who is God to tell us any different?

In the end what makes Aragorn a noble character is that he knows his potential and he is willing to risk greatly. In the beginning of the story, he is only a wanderer of great lineage, great possibility. Bilbo has written him a poem that begins,

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost

But it seems like Aragorn does indeed wander purposeless, spending his days tilting at windmills and wandering the face of the earth without ever really accomplishing much, a hunter and a traveler. "Stick at nought Strider" is one of the names he's given by his detractors. His real worth and his real strength is hidden from others, and sometimes even from himself.

So what do we do with Aragorn? And more important, what do we do with ourselves? Is it possible that you are who God says you are, not who you imagine yourself to be? Is it possible that God is right about your strength and potential? And who has described you, who has named you, who has offered you feedback (what an odd pop psychology term) about who you truly are in a way that agrees with what God says about you?

It's worth pondering.