Monday, 13 September 2010

Early Football Season Potential and Tension

A new season of American football has just begun. This year, some are predicting the Green Bay Packers will be in the Super Bowl championship. The Minnesota Vikings could be quite good as well. So locally here there is some excitement – and tension. We have heard things like this before. Dare we hope?

We hear about the potential. But there have been many years with potential. And when the potential did not become reality, we were disappointed. There is a tension inside. Dare we hope for success this year?

Sports fan know all too well that potential does not always pan out in the way we hoped. And outside of sports, most of us experience some of the same.

Each day there is potential. Each weekday evening has potential. Each weekend has potential. If you are anything like me (and hopefully not too much), you may have mixed success. The To Do list goes on for years. And I keep dreaming up new things to do and accomplish. I make plans sometimes. But then…

I come home. I fix something to eat. I might catch up on some news, mail, and personal news on Facebook. And before I know it, it is almost bedtime. Some of the potential seemed to get lost along the way.

This past weekend was a mixture as well. I had some firm plans. I had a bit of success. But other things I hoped for did not come through. A class went longer than expected. There were some things at home. I took time to blog. And other stuff… Some aspects of the weekend were quite disappointing. But I also must share that some things were much better than expected. So I suppose it all averages out to a B grade or something. It wasn’t all bad. But it had the potential to be better.

And where did the summer go? How about the past year, the past decade? How about our lives? How about our relationships, our careers, our parenting, our impact on the world? There was tons of potential. What happened?

Sometimes there are external forces and circumstances that hinder us. But mostly, we made choices. And I, personally, do not always choose what is best. Perhaps you have made a few choices here and there that could have been better as well.

And at this point you understandably may be feeling, “This is quite a downer.” But Jesus did not come to condemn the world. He came to save it. Refer to John 3:17.

Yes, most of us have not always chosen well, in big and small ways. And we have sinned and offended God and other people. But it does no good for me or you to say “We are bad and will never amount to much. We blew it.”

You are forgiven. Hear it. You are forgiven. Say it to yourself, “I am forgiven.” As a Christian, I have authority to declare that over your life. (John 20:23) And I am forgiven too. Just as sports teams start out the new season, we now have zero losses.

We are set free. It is a new day. There may be some consequences from the past. But we cannot change the past. We start with this moment forward. We can walk in freedom, freedom to do right, freedom to go higher, freedom to think higher. In the next minutes, in the next days, we will have choices set before us. With a clean slate, we can choose well. The coming days and years have incredible potential for amazing things. Lord, help us make it reality.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Starry Night

Last weekend, I took some time to ponder the stars. The night was dark. And the stars were bright. I didn’t appreciate that enough when I lived out in the country. Without the light pollution of the city, you can see so many more stars. It is beautiful and awesome to behold.

Much of the time when people write about the stars, they write about feeling small and insignificant. But I felt that very little. I was struck by the grandeur and how big is our God. Like the Bible says, the heavens and skies really do declare the glory and awesomeness of God.

But the strongest impression I felt can perhaps be understood best with a bit of story:

Perhaps you have heard of brag books. When they officially go by that name, they are usually little photo albums targeted to mothers and grandmothers showing off photos of their children and grandchildren. But we have other kinds of “brag books” as well. It could be a photo album, scrapbook, collection of bumper stickers, a trophy case, mounted animal heads, a web site, an online photo gallery, competitive ribbons and medals, or something else. They all give a way to share a little about ourselves with a bit of healthy pride. The photos can be of children, a vacation, a project completed, an event, or something else important to us.

Imagine God showing you his brag book. He created all kinds of things and said “It is good.” Let’s start with the animals for instance. Consider the variety from alligator to giraffe, spiders to cows, honey bees to elephants, cats and rattlesnakes, and so many more. Even among birds, some can swim under water. Many migrate long distances. In a few cases, strangely, the birds don’t fly at all. Pelicans can scoop up fish. Eagles dive from great heights to catch a fish or field mouse. Parrots can mimic sounds. Owls can swoop silently for their prey. And each animal sings and talks with unique sounds. The variety is incredible.

On the next page, we explore the plants. There are tall pines and redwoods. There are fruit trees and vegetable plants. Many provide food or shelter for animals. There are flowers in all shapes and sizes and colors. Consider the propagation of seeds. Many seeds blow in the wind. Burs catch a ride to new territory. Animal feces bring seeds to new places, with fertilizer. Squirrels bury acorns and forget a few. Bees cross-pollinate to help some plants thrive. God can be proud of the way it all works.

And brilliantly designed weather systems and planet and moon rotations keep it all going. Tides, storms, occasional lightning fires, snow storing up moisture, it all works quite well in the long run.

And then we come to the page about the night sky. There are just billions of stars and planets, galaxies and more out there. And every time humans create a stronger telescope, they discover there is yet more to be discovered!

With all these things, God is justifiably proud. They are amazing. But wait for the next page. He has saved the best for last.

God slowly turns the page and reveals about seven billion people. There is a gleam in his eye as he shares how extremely proud he is of this creation. But you can tell it isn’t like the others. It goes deeper. He explains the difference. He is proud of all the creations. And many of them are grand. But it is only with people that he can love. If they had a personality, the stars might be a bit jealous. They know that we are his favorite.

It is only with us that he can have a meaningful relationship. He can love us. And he can feel the love back. We can communicate back and forth. We can actually choose to partner with him. He can call us his “Beloved”. We can live together forever.

The night sky and all of creation are awe inspiring. But we are the ones he loves.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Abundant Rains Stress Dam

Most years, the rivers around here are very low in late summer and fall. This year we have had plenty of rain in the North Central states much of the summer. Even in September there are flooding concerns.

As an example, when I was in New Ulm on Saturday, they talked about the Minnesota River coming up another seven feet in the next few days. And it was already high. There had been recent rains upstream.

On Monday in a state park, I walked across a dam that had washed out in a recent year. That day it held.

In my travels, I learned of another town concerned about their local dam nearby. It was looking a bit vulnerable.

When my son David becomes a civil engineer, he can educate me more about dams. But it seems most of the smaller ones have similar designs. Each end of the dam is L-shaped with one leg downstream to support the vertical middle section.

In this case, the end pieces are cracking and showing signs of weakness. If those L-shaped segments fail, the whole dam could collapse and release a flood. That could be catastrophic for people downstream.

They don’t have many funds available for repairs. They aren’t entirely sure what to do with all the high water. It sounded like they were waiting for some kind of wealthy Prince Charming to come in and save the day. After all, this truly is a dam’s L in distress.

Full disclosure: I made up the part about the dam cracking just to use the pun. But the rest is true.

It Only Takes a Spark… Or Does It?

Over the weekend, I sort of went camping. It wasn’t an ideal situation. My tent needs repairs or replacement. And the past couple of years I have stayed home more to save on gas expenses. So I haven’t gone anywhere overnight for a while. I am out of practice.

I had done a little research during the week for weekend options within 500 miles. I did not really decide until Saturday morning where to go Saturday. After getting home after midnight, I decided Sunday morning to head out and probably stay overnight somewhere Sunday night since I had Monday off.

Now that I live in the south metro, I have tried to explore more south of the Twin Cities. So I set my sights on south and west. Unfortunately, most of my camping stuff is an hour north in storage. I decided a sleeping bag and one thin pad would be enough. I did think to also grab a lighter in case I wanted a campfire. And I brought a small cooler for water and pop and a water jug. I have a station wagon. So I can sleep in the car if I am careful not to fill up the car with too many things.

So I took off with what I had. I headed straight south and went a little out of the way to get a picture I failed to take a few weeks ago when I was down there. Someday I’ll share my quirky photos from commuting and traveling in one collection. That particular county road sign said “Freeborn 1”. Are we? Anyway… I digress and detour and eventually get back on the main highway telling a story. I drove along the Iowa-Minnesota border for a bit. And then I got back on the freeway headed towards South Dakota.

I got to my destination, Blue Mounds State Park, early enough to thankfully get a camping spot on a holiday weekend. The offer of a bundle of firewood sounded good. So I got that. I dropped off the wood bundle and put it mostly hidden behind the fire ring. I put the card on the camp site post to indicate the spot was taken. And then I went hiking for a few hours and saw some bison up close, behind a fence. The sign said "Warning Bison Keep Out". But I guess they can’t read.

I finished hiking before dark. I headed into town to get something to eat. I had no cooking supplies. And I had been out of bread at home for sandwiches. So I got some food I could bring back to the campsite for later.

I realized my lighter may not be able to light big chunks of wood. And my hatchet and other lighting helpers were back in storage far, far away. I got the last bottle of charcoal lighter fluid at one store. They suggested I go down the street to see if another gas station had anything resembling kindling or fire sticks or anything like that. Other than big firewood, the best they could offer was old newspapers for free. So I got pages and pages of farm implement ads in one paper.

I only got a glimpse of a great sunset as I did errands in town. Slightly disappointed, I headed back to the campground before it got completely dark. I unloaded the lighter fluid, lighter, and the newspaper. And I can’t believe it. After all that running around for a fire, my firewood has been stolen. I wasn’t exactly angry. But it was definitely disappointing. I think all I quietly said out loud was "I can’t believe it."

Within a minute a young boy came over carrying my wood bundle. He said they thought the spot was open. It is true I had no tent up. But I did have a card on the post. And this time, for a change, I had reserved a spot well before dark. I told him "Thank you". And that was about it.

I proceeded to light the fire. With a little paper and some charcoal fluid it lit easily and was probably the most successful campfire I have ever had. I am learning slowly.

Besides the food, what was the trip into town all about? There was a small flame and large chunks of wood. The situation looked nearly impossible. It was as if the logs were calling out, "Come on here. Give us a little help. Create a small step in-between with a hot small fire we can use to get going." Like the situations in yesterday’s blog, the jump from small flame to big log was just too great. It wasn’t a realistic expectation. But once I created an environment for intermediate steps, it proved to be quite doable.

Most of my camping neighbors were quiet. The campers who had taken my wood were the only vocal ones around. They weren’t obnoxious or anything. They just had loud voices in the quiet of the woods. I only heard a little bit. They discussed if a parent should call their baby boy Jack Daniels or Johnny Walker. Hopefully, they were kidding. The radio came out for just one song: Only the Good Die Young. Honestly, I am pretty sure they only played one song and then put it away.

Fortunately, I am learning to usually let some of these situations slide by. They truly may have made an honest mistake and were just trying to be resourceful. Anyway, I was able to pray blessings over them. I wished them opportunities to see God’s glory and love. And I invited angelic visitations for them that night. Perhaps I should have visited them too. But it seemed to me that letting the wood incident just die quietly was most appropriate.

They were still sleeping, or at least still in their tent, when I left in the morning. So I’m not sure what may have happened that night or in days since. I wish them well.

For a treat, the food I got in town was the traditional camping meal of pizza. I hadn’t had good pizza in quite a while. And the pizza was very good. But it did seem a little out of place. Stranger things have happened.

Without a lantern for reading, for a change I actually relaxed some by the fire and enjoyed the stars. If there hadn’t been a full campground and a chance of rain, I may have slept out under the stars. But sleeping in the car went pretty well.

The next day I asked for and mostly expected God’s favor to bring the distant bison closer. My expectation wasn’t due to me being special. But it was because it is part of God’s character to do things for his children. And the far off herd of bison came right up to me. What I didn't know is that it also happened to be on the way towards a barn. But it was still cool to see them come near the fence only at the spot where I happened to be.

What do we expect God will do for us?

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Reality Check

Yesterday, I wrote a little about expectations. In particular, what are our expectations of God? How about our other expectations in life?

A friend of mine has written a great novel. I was fortunate to be able to read an early copy. We met as an editorial team the other night. A common topic there was about reality and the potential audience.

What is realistic? Is a family that all get along realistic? If a teen respects and is respected by adults, is that realistic? How about the way people interact with other people and circumstances? What is realistic?

How do you demonstrate what can be, and still be realistic? How far can you go and be believable? At what point do people stop relating to the characters and story? There aren’t easy answers.

What can a person expect from a teen or young child? Perhaps a scenario will help explore the question. In some churches and other organizations, you are mostly expected to be a sometimes contributing spectator until 20. Good luck getting a leadership position before 30. And people wonder why young adults leave the church? That is a whole other article or three on its own, for another day. I do understand there is some wisdom that is gained with years.

It doesn’t take a whole lot of discernment to figure out spiritual maturity often has little relation to years. Believers of all ages get a full-sized Holy Spirit in them. Spiritual gifts are gifts. You don’t earn them. So, young Christian children get spiritual gifts also. Like us older ones, all they have to do is ask.

So let me ask you, would you rather have a middle-aged pastor gifted in other areas pray for your illness, or a young child with the gift of healing? With whose prayer is healing more realistic? God does the healing and can do it anytime through anyone. But it happens more often through those with the gift.

Like us adults, the kids I know do not see healings 100% of the time. But they see it many weeks. And, unlike most of us, they have not learned to doubt. They have high expectations from their prayers and see results. What do we expect from God? What do we expect from young people? Because I have seen young children and teens live at such a high level spiritually, my realistic expectations are quite high. For many people, their experience has been quite different. And correspondingly, their realistic expectations are lower.

The school year has just begun. In some ways, teachers have it easy. A fourth grade teacher can pretty much assume nearly all students start out being able to perform on at least a third grade level. So the teacher can adapt the teaching content and style appropriately with those realistic expectations.

For those of us writing for the general public, it is not so easy. Nearly all assumptions are faulty. Book and Internet readers come with a wide variety of ages, world views, experiences, and needs. Good luck trying to write for everybody! I know not all of my readers are Christian. Some are men. I think probably most are women, partly because of numerous female relatives. Some of my thoughts, written and unwritten, are geared more towards leaders. At other times, I try to avoid churchy talk and meet people where they are at.

And that may be the key: Where are they at? What is their experience? As a writer, we have no control over that. Perhaps what is “realistic” is whatever is not too far away from our experience. The story or message is a relatively small step away from what we have known. It is close enough that we can say “I could do that!” or “I could see that happening.”

For a person growing up in a violent home, reading about a peaceful household may seem a stretch of the imagination. For others, that is just normal growing up for them. Some have difficulty imagining trying a new thing, speaking to strangers, praying in public, trying an unfamiliar food, being able to forgive quickly, joining community theater, having a great marriage, hosting a foster child, singing karaoke, going to college, or even writing out loud in a blog. We all have things that seem to be quite a stretch for us.

So how does a person write or teach or mentor in this somewhat random scenario? There are probably dozens of books on it. And I am no expert. But I believe that ideally, you challenge all levels to the next step higher. Perhaps it is a higher level in something familiar. Or it may be a challenge to a new experience. Or the challenge may even be to cut out something from our lives resulting in greater focus or flexibility in other areas.

Multi-level communicating can be hard. And I think it might be quite difficult within a novel. But I have no experience with that kind of writing. A gifted novelist probably has much higher expectations.

What is realistic? What could be our reality, if we chose to pursue it?

How about our dreams? Do we still dare to dream? How are we uniquely made? What can we do best? Do we perceive some of those goals and dreams as unattainable? What if we took small steps in that direction? We could discover our destiny and create a new reality for our lives.

What do we want our reality to be? Are we willing to take steps to make it happen? You never know. We could enjoy it. Stranger things have happened.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Stranger Things Have Happened

Stranger things have happened. A person with a blog may actually write once in a while. It is time to write and create a little once again.

What is strange? To some extent, a thing is strange if it is not what we expect. So what do we expect?

What do we really expect? That can be an important question in some situations. At my church, The House, a common saying is that Expectation = Invitation. What we expect from God is often an invitation for him to act in that way.

Are our expectations of God high or low? Is he a good god? Have our experience and disappointments become our theology? When we don’t get the “perfect” response from him, can we still say “God is good”? Do we honestly believe he can and will answer our prayers?

What do we expect? What will we expect?