Thursday, December 21, 2006

Food Art

Others make beautiful truffles. But come Christmastime, me and my son, we prefer fudge.

And the best part -- at least artistically, if not gastronomically -- is greasing the pans with butter.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Ghost of Christmas Pluperfect Subjunctive

In Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol, Ebeneezer Scrooge is visited by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future -- ghosts revealing to him what once was, what now is, and what will soon be. As a result of his encounters with these yuletide apparitions, Ebeneezer turns from his miserly ways and determines to live life differently from that day forward.

At this time of year, as much as I enjoy Dickens and the numerous TV and film adaptations of his short story (kinda prefer the George C. Scott version), my preferred holiday haunting comes not from the ghosts of past, present or future, but from the angel Clarence, from Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, or as I consider him, the Ghost of Christmas Pluperfect Subjunctive.
Clarence gives the movie’s protagonist, George (who is having a very, very bad day), a “great gift”: an imaginative exercise in the pluperfect tense (past completed action), subjunctive mood (contingency or hypothesis). George gets to see what the world would have been like if he had not been born.
Deb and I love this movie, but we haven’t seen it in a few years because the kids are often around when we watch something on the tube, and we don’t want them to see it just yet. We think you need a little more wear on life’s tires before you can really appreciate Capra’s message. You have to have lived awhile with some precious dreams, and some dreams deferred. You have to have seen some tragedy up close, and some tragedy averted. You have to have stood up for what’s right when it cost you something. You have to know the love of family, and of loyal friends. You have to have had some very, very bad days.
The kids aren’t there yet.
But we are.
I think it’s fitting, especially during this season of reflection, to spend some time following George’s path of wonder. I don’t usually go so far as to consider the state of my hometown in my absence (let alone a broader world -- I can’t imagine things would be much different), but simply to consider my own life and the choices I’ve made, and to imagine my life:
  • if I had joined choir instead of orchestra in junior high
  • if I had been a better friend to Craig in college
  • if I had continued working in advertising instead of going to seminary
  • if I had let someone else teach my kids to read
  • if I had studied Latin in high school (sigh)
  • if I had prayed more each day
  • if I had prayed less each day
A small choice here, a tweak there, and the trajectory of one’s life changes altogether. I can imagine an alternate universe – one in some ways perhaps better than the one I’m in now, and in other ways quite a bit worse.
The exercise is tinged with some regret, but as I look at the particular path I’ve walked these 40-odd years, with its adventures and accomplishments, its sorrows and celebrations, I mostly agree with Clarence: it’s a wonderful life.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

You Make Me Happy, Snow!

I just got back from dropping Pip off at the bus stop. Though it is reasonably cold right now (21 degrees), and we had been waiting 10 minutes for the bus to come, we were both disappointed when we saw it round the corner and head down the street in our direction. We were having too much fun.

Remember that Pip hasn't seen snow in something like three years. Already in October he was asking me "Dad, when is it going to snow? I want to see snow again!" Well, he got his wish this past weekend -- and then some. The kids had their first snow day of the school year on Friday. They went sledding that day and again Sunday afternoon with our friends the Muyskens.

Then this morning at breakfast he asked me about icicles. That led us into a conversation about snow being water that has crystalized. (Crystals, apparently, are inherently cool to 2nd graders). He'd heard elsewhere that each snowflake is unique. And of course, he's done the kindergarten scissors & paper decorative snowflakes. But nothing prepared him for an up-close look the real thing on its own terms. And today the conditions were perfect: the snow was falling delicately from the sky, and it rested gently on our gloves and coats in single flakes and small clumps, where it practically posed, inviting close inspection, admiration, wonder. Pip was flabbergasted at the beauty and complexity of this stuff that we blithely trudge around in and stomp off our boots when we come in the house.

"Wow! It's got so many points!" he said. "It's so tiny! It's so beautiful!"

"Look at this one!" I'd say, and we'd look. "Oh! Look at this one!!!" he'd say -- and we'd look together, each of us sharing each little gift as God dropped it down.

It reminded me of a winter years ago, when little Miriam had just acquired language and was eagerly awaiting the first snowfall. The December day it came, we bundled her up, and then she went outside, skipping through the front yard and praising God with with a direct address full of delight and joy: "O snow! You make me happy, snow!"

Let's face it, snow is not always something you can appreciate when you're shoveling it, or driving in it, or even sledding on it. And I think my friend Kent is mostly right when he says that snow in Michigan is about as exciting as Tuesdays in Michigan. But this particular Tuesday morning, through the eyes of my youngest, I found it pretty exciting.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Rienstra Family Jumping the Shark?

AP - Grand Rapids -- The Rienstra Family show, after many successful seasons, may finally be jumping the shark. As the children get older, the daily family cute-o-meter has been seeing a steady decline, despite compensatory gains in chore accomplishment, musical advancement, and political humor. Mia is now fully entering her cranky adolescence, and Jacob and Philip are growing in testiness (or testosterorneriness).

It was long ago that a toddling Pip asked for a hug by saying "Pweease?"...

...and even longer when a cuddly Jacob hid by climbing into his clothes cubby...

...and back in the mists of pre-history that Miriam put a stick in her mouth and asked Dad to play fetch on the beach.

So, in what some see as a desperate bid to recapture the prized 'grandma' demographic, we have been seeing more and more of next-door neighbor and Cute Overload poster boy, Nathan Williams. With his big brown-eyed wonder at the world, his precocious vocabulary, and his only-child forthrightness, he's become a regular and delightful visitor in the Rienstra household at playtime.

Whether this old ploy will work remains to be seen. The cultural consensus is that the classic family show, the Brady Bunch, jumped the shark when they brought onto the show the way-too-cute-next-door-neighbor Oliver. The same fate could await the Rienstras. Or they could go even further in their desperate bid for cuteness: rumors suggest that negotiations are currently underway for a permanent addition to the family -- a puppy.

Is that a dorsal fin I see in the water?

Friday, November 17, 2006

The Big Game

We are pretty giddy with anticipation over here in U-M land, eager for the biggest of all big games tomorrow. We'll be heading to my folks' place to watch the game on his HighDef ginormous flat-screen TV. I'm tellin' ya, the detail you can see on that thing is unbelievable: you can make out individual blades of grass, the sweat hanging off a lineman's nose, the terror in Troy Smith's eyes. I can't wait to see the color of the lipstick on the Buckette the 10th row up as she yelps in dismay when Mario breaks the long one, and to count the number of ice cubes in the cooler as they pour its over Carr's victorious shoulders at the close of the game.

My brother will be joining us. He lives in Illinois, but is he a Meeeechigan fan? His AOL name is Wolverienstra. I was thinking of him yesterday as I read a really good article from
on the game. At this quote in particular, I was quite sure Johnny ghost-wrote the whole thing:
Buckeye fans are probably counting on Troy Smith, a shoo-in for the Heisman at this point, working the same magic he used on Michigan the last two times he faced us. Don't count on it. The Wolverines' last defensive coordinator, who peed down the side of his leg every time he faced a mobile quarterback and whose name I cursed every morning when I awoke and every night when I went to bed, is finally gone. Our new coordinator plays a far more aggressive style.

I am not the sort of fan who remembers offensive and defensive coordinators, but Johnny could pretty much name the entire U of M coaching staff for the past 20 years.

And speaking of coaches, this afternoon, after the sad news of the passing of UM football coach Bo Schembechler, I received the following email, which I found altogether too funny not to post so that the rest of world can learn why I think my friend Todd Kleinhuizen is one of the funniest guys in the world.
O.K., Ron, tell me how you and the rest of the Wolverine nation managed to orchestrate Bo Schembechler's death on the eve of THE BIGGEST OSU/UM match up ever?

If ever the stage was set for a story-book game, the stuff of which hoary college football legends are made, this is it.

Imagine this scenario: Michigan leads by two points with a couple ticks remaining. The Buckeyes are lined up for a very makeable 32 yard field goal to win. The kick is up ... suddenly, an inexplicable zephyr puffs across the field pushing the kick ... just ...the tiniest bit ... WIDE!!!

Pandemonium ensues. The Michigan victory will be credited to the intervention of Bo's spirit wafting that pigskin away from the uprights. From then on, whenever Michigan faces a critical field goal attempt from an opponent, the Michigan faithful will solemnly chant: "Oh, Bo ..., Oh, BO!" seeking his benevolent intercession from beyond as on that fateful November 18, 2006.

(c) 2006, Todd "Wolfgang" Kleinhuizen


Tuesday, November 14, 2006


A few weeks ago, after a long illness, Thedford Dirkse, the husband of my maternal grandmother ("Great Ted," the kids called him), joined the Church triumphant.

The days surrounding his death I spent with family -- especially with my Grandma. The funeral was really quite good (a solid sermon, a comforting prayer, and dixie-land trumpet playing "When the Saints Come Marching In"). And there was something fitting about the cold fall day we interred his body; after the morning ceremony, I worked the rest of the day in the yard, putting other things in the ground in hope of new life in the not-so-distant future.

We know God works all things for good -- and one good thing to come from Ted's death is that we are spending lots of time these days with Grandma. She comes for dinner at least once a week, and we get to see her some weekends, too. She is a lively conversationalist, a wise and godly woman, and she enjoys rather than shuns the sometimes...shall we say... vigorous sociability of the children.

I was thinking about what a great woman she is when I remembered a piece Debra wrote 15 years ago (the last time I was in grad school!) for a Princeton Seminary community publication called Testament. It's about grandmothers -- Debra's own, and the two she inherited when she married me. I looked it up in our files, and thought it deserved to see the light of day again, in honor of one great Grandma. (Click on the thumbnails for a readable size .jpg file.)

My one ambition for my old age is to be a church lady. Not the kind who has turned bitter, complaining, and judgmental, but the kind who has grown nearer to wisdom and peace. I will be the lady in the same pew (or whatever we sit on by then) every Sunday, and I'll know all the little kids' names. I'll show up at the potlucks and volunteer to tutor the neighborhood kids. I'll sing loudly even though the people standing around me will secretly wish I had retired my voice years ago. Mostly I will pray, pray for people even when they haven't asked for prayer.
-- Debra Rienstra, So Much More, p. 181

Friday, November 10, 2006

Amo Augustinum

OK, it's kind of a pain learning another language at my advanced age, but as I'm studying for my Latin exam (the last step before I take my comprehensive exams), I'm realizing some interesting things. Among them: Augustine was a pretty fair writer.

Here's a choice couple sentences from the Confessions III.i

Veni Carthaginem et circumstrepebat me undique sartago flagitiosorum amorum. Nondum amabam et amare amabam et secretiore indigentia oderam me minus indigentem.

Even if you even if you wouldn't know an imperfect indicative if it bit your nose; even if you don't catch the subtle pun between Carthago (Carthage) and sartago (frying pan); even if you don't really understand what he's saying, even after you've translated it,* it's still undeniably cool word-work.

And I'm just geeky enough to think it's pretty cool that I'm learning to appreciate some 1600-year old rhetorical artistry -- artistry and appreciation both offered in service of the one God who is, according to the Bible, Love.

*Literal: I came to Carthage, and (there) crackled on on all sides of me a cauldron of shameful loves. I did not yet love, but I loved to love, and
(from) a secret want, I hated myself wanting little.

Less literal:
I came to Carthage, and on on all sides of me frizzled a frying pan of shameful loves. I was not yet in love, but I was in love with love; and (from) a secret want, I hated myself in want of wanting.

OR ... from a hidden hunger, I hated myself for my small hungering.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Carving our favorites

The boys designed and carved their own Jack-O-Lanterns this week in anticipation of tomorrow's festivities.
Miriam had lots of homework to do, and so didn't participate; but she found pleasure later on in her own sort of carving.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Autumn Leaves

In honor of the colorful season we missed while in California for two years...

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Just in time for Halloween: a Ghost in the Machine

I haven't been blogging much lately for a number of reasons, chief among them the sorry state of my computer, to which the picture below testifies.

All that silly Halloween stuff that is supposed to be scary at this time of year -- skeletons and vampires and boogie-men -- they have nothing in the fright department over the dreaded blue screen of death. Fortunately, I keep my data thoroughly backed up. My mama didn't raise no dummy.

If you’re a techie, you’ll note that the above blue screen indicates both an IRQL and an NDIS error. That should be easy to fix – just identify and uninstall the offending driver. Ha.

I repeat: HA.

If only it were that simple. It’s been a week now working on this sisyphusian task and I've seen just about every blue screen message there is. I’m on a first-name basis with everyone in the Dell office in the Philippines (who all seem to have oddly American names like Bob and Ann and Sue. Go figure). I’ve replaced the hard drive and the motherboard. Replaced the memory twice. I’ve reinstalled the system software from scratch three times.

But like some bizarro-world phoenix, this machine dies again and again and again. It’s an undead zombie computer, an inferni doing the bidding of some malevolent power. I can’t kill it, and I can’t revive it either. Its soul is trapped in between the tangible world of the machine and that great electronic ether where all good computers go.

So yesterday I realized that I had to stop the madness. I had to let my little Inspiron go. I politely but insistently told the good folk at Dell that I was done doing free work for their tech department, and that they needed to honor their contract and just send me a new machine. Either that, I told them, or they could send the tech person of their choice to my house to try to figure out the problem -- they'd pay his hourly rate, and I'd supply him with all the Red Bull and Cheetos he wanted.

They opted for the new machine.

It should arrive in two weeks -- at exactly the time when ghosts of all sorts are looking for new haunting grounds. On Halloween.

Go towards the light, little Dell, go towards the light!

Friday, October 06, 2006

Ron Goes Archetypal

"Normal people could not kill Humbaba. That's why this is a task for heroes like us. The people will revere us for doing this deed. " -- the Epic of Gilgamesh
Whenever Ron completes a long, difficult, intellectual task--such as, for example, finishing his last course paper--some weird power comes over him. His eyes turn fiery and he gets the urge to ... cut down trees.

Bizarre? No, he's just getting in touch with his inner Gilgamesh. Fortunately, his wife understands him because she has read the story of Gilgamesh and his hairy friend (or second self, depending on how you read these sorts of things) Enkidu. In one of the main episodes in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the two friends tromp off into the forest to conquer Humbaba, a sort of scary nature demon dude.

"Enkidu finds his voice, 'Finish him, Gilgamesh. Do it quickly, before the Gods consult each other. Remember, how the people will honor us. They will forever remember us as the slayers of Humbaba and the emancipators of the Evergreen Forest.'"

After a dramatic battle, full of snarky dialogue between Humbaba and his two challengers, the friends finish off Humbaba and cut down the Cedar of the Forest. Out of this they make something civilized: a big door. So I guess Gilgamesh and Enkidu are the first strip-mall developers of the ancient Near East.

So when Ron gets this urge to conquer Humbaba, I just let him go with my blessing. Surely, the neighbors will honor us and remember him as the emancipator of the Rienstra's overgrown backyard.

After conquering Humbaba and cutting down the Cedar of Mulford, my modern-day Gilgamesh had fun with the neighbor's chipper, creating bushels of mulch. He piled it all behind the garage in and around our composter. Now if you were a small rodent, you would take one look at this and say to your mate....

"Baby, we are movin' on up! Look! A five-star, high-rise rodent Marriott. Woot!"

(Of course, they don't know the ancient myth of the backyard neighbor cats of doom. Their loss.)

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Go Eagles!

Six weeks into the school year, Miriam and Jacob have happily transformed into eagles--Grand Rapids Christian Middle School Eagles, that is. From soccer to history class to orchestra to (gasp) art class, GRCMS feels like, in Jacob's words, "being released from a prison and led into a beautiful woods." The prison, apparently, was their old school in California where (significantly) they had to wear uniforms.

Of course, GRCMS is not perfect in every way, but Mia and Jake are grateful for
1) an approach to the spiritual life emphasizing lifelong growth and service
2) commitment to the arts: choir is required, orchestra and band strongly urged
3) everyone has art class: for Mia, this week is acrylic landscapes; for Jacob, etching
4) teachers who know everyone individually and care about each kid, no matter what their grade point average
5) a relaxed atmosphere emphasizing the fun of learning together
6) refusal to assign "busy-work" homework
7) let's face it: eagles is a way cooler (and more appropriately Christian) mascot than the (gulp) crusaders.

Besides, Mia's 8th grade girls GRCMS-blue soccer team is currently undefeated. And guess who their leading scorer is? You know!

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Like Father, Like Daughter

Except Mia's got WAY better fashion sense.

Friday, September 15, 2006

A Lived-Out Parable

Whoever said the Bible's agricultural metaphors are out of place in our post-modern world?

Saturday, September 09, 2006

superb surprises

This past summer, I spent two wonderful weeks directing a Calvin Seminars in Christian Scholarship seminar. We gathered 17 incredible writers from a variety of disciplines including publishing, academia, and the pastorate. Our seminar was titled "Writing as Christian Proclamation in Contemporary Contexts: The Truth's Superb Surprise." We spent our time together reading excellent books and discussing the Christian writing "scene," trying to figure out how to speak the big truths in rich, relevant ways.

The entire affair spoiled me as a teacher. When else in my teaching life will I show up with one or two little questions to launch the discussion, which will then take off and go on for three hours while I just relax and enjoy?? We reached some intriguing insights, I think, many of which are available in our daily summaries, posted here and here.

We came away from our time together having launched a little service project called "Write on the Money." This project has encountered some unexpected and humorous drama over the last two weeks. We are thinking perhaps the project should be called "Write on the Money We Thought We Had." The whole story is now emerging on our group blog.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

What do they teach those kids in school?

Miriam came home from her first day of school on Monday with a list of possible elective courses she could sign up for. Every six weeks the school offers another passle of "exploratory" courses, and each student identifies a #1 choice and a few tolerable others.

Mia's choice for the first exploratory was Weight Training. Seriously. Maybe in the next section she'll learn Hapkido. Unwelcome suitors, beware.

Other options available to her classmates include Liturgical Dance, Needling for the Needy, Shadow Puppetry, Calligraphy, Bubble-ology, and Mia's second choice, Wood Finishing.

Now, we're thrilled that the school promotes learning for its own sake and for delight and enrichment. I'm not a champion of an exclusive "Great Books" curriculum. Not every class has to be a mental marathon, nor must it necessarily have a practical payoff. Still, rather than, say, "Bubble-ology," as a busy parent I can think of a few classes I wish my middle-school eldest could take:
  • Landscaping 101
  • Basic Auto Maintenance
  • Understanding the U.S. TaxCode
  • Making the Most of What You've Got: Closet Organization
  • How to Make Those Windows Sparkle and other Household Tricks
  • Supplementing Your Parents' Income
  • In-depth Bible Study: Exodus 20:12
Further suggestions?

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Shaniqua on the Job

One of our favorite children’s books is Julius Lester’s “What a Truly Cool World,” which features the wonderful character, Shaniqua, the “angel in charge of everybody’s business.” When something fortuitous or especially providential seems to happen (e.g. a parking spot opens up right next to the entrance as we pull into the mall parking lot), we will often give the credit, tongue-in-cheek, to our friend Shaniqua.
So a couple weeks ago this fellow comes to my door, giving me the "opportunity" to "win" $1000. I'm not the brightest bulb in the chandelier, but I'm not quite that dim. Still, I was polite while the fellow urged me to sign up, and explained that if I didn't win the 1K, there was a "consolation" prize: to have the carpets in my house cleaned.
I’m not exactly sure why – it had something to do with the tiny chance of winning some money, something to do with confidence in my ability to say “no” to products I don’t want or people I don’t want in my house, something to do with… well, with the cosmic order of things. I signed the card.

The following week, I received a phone call, saying I'd "won" the consolation prize, and when would be a good time for Mr. Vacuum Guy to do my household carpets.

"Well, we don't have any carpet in our home," I told her. "We have wood floors and a few area rugs."

She replied, "An alternative would be for him to shampoo any upholstery you have."

"Nope. None of that neither," I said. "But I DO have a car that desperately needs some shampooing, after a chocolate something or other exploded in the back seat and sprayed the car with gunk."

Undeterred, she began to set up an appointment. We settled on a possible time, and I then asked if the fellow would be ready not to shampoo the carpets, but to clean my car.
"I'll have to check on that," she said.

"You check on it, then," I said. "When you do, and have confirmed that my car is what he'll do, call me back and we’ll put the appointment in ink." She agreed and I figured that was the end of that story.

Imagine my surprise the following week when Mr. Vacuum Guy showed up at my house, 30 minutes before the time we had sort of arranged, ready to step inside and show me the collection of dust and insect doots and who knows what carpet-loving evils I subjected my family to each day -- and of course, his marvelous solution.
Well, we were just sitting down to eat, I told him, and I hadn't really agreed to a visit for carpet cleaning. But I did have a nasty car that needed help. If he were eager for my attention, I could observe him cleaning my car and give my opinion of the machine he used to do it. He was unsure what to do, so he went away, apparently called his boss, who gave him permission to give me an “outside of home” demonstration. When he returned after dinner, he was ready to clean the car. "It's pretty bad, I said. You’d be surprised.”

"No problem," he replied. "I used to do auto detailing. We'll get 'er in shape right away." I got him some lemonade, and we spent a nice hour, chatting pleasantly as he did a spectacular job on my car.
Then I mentally checked off a huge item off my "to do" list.
Way to go, Shaniqua!

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Mr. Hollander's Opus First-Draft

The CICW posted this week their latest feature story about 'contemporary' worship planning and structure. I was heartened to see that all the good folks quoted and mentioned in the article -- Shannon Sisco in Chicago, Dean Kladder in New Jersey, Peter Armstrong in Seattle, Allison Ash and Guy Higashi in California -- all of them have, at one time or another, been students of mine. They're all out there doing great work and teaching others and serving the kingdom. I'm proud to be part of this network of creativity and inspiration, but of course, I've just handed on to them what I've received myself.

Thursday, August 17, 2006


You know how there's that point in the life of your mortgage when you're finally paying more towards equity than you are toward interest? When you turn the corner and feel like you are really beginning to reap the benefits of your investment?

Well, we're a long way from that point with our real mortgage.

But I think we may have reached that point with Miriam. Here's what I mean: for the past few weeks she has stood up at the conclusion of our end-of-the-meal prayer and made her way into the kitchen. Then, un-urged and even un-asked, she will turn on the water and begin WASHING THE DISHES!

The first time she did it I asked her who she was and what she had done with my own daughter. Now we still make that joke, but she just rolls her eyes and keeps scrubbing. And she does a good job of it, too -- probably better than I'd do.

Oh yes, life is lush.

Now if we can get Jacob and Philip to do the yard work I could become a man of letters and leisure.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Birthday Bashes

This past week was a big week of birthday celebration. Jacob turned 11 on August 1 (see the picture: candles 7+4=11), and on the 7th Deb turned... well, look at her. About 29, I think.

For Jacob's special day we went to John Ball Zoo where Jacob got to ride a camel, watch a Pacific tide roll in, and generally having some cool animal adventures. (Not quite as cool as his Aunt's, but cool nonetheless).

Deb's big day involved a trip to Meijer gardens and a family gathering in the evening which included a bit of gift-giving and lots of laughter courtesy of Dad Rienstra, one of the world's worst joke-tellers (which makes him doubly funny as we all wait for him to flub the punch line).

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Splish Splash

A couple weekends ago the whole family went to Chicago for the baptism of my namesake nephew, Samuel Ronald. John and Michelle honored me by inviting me to perform the baptism, along with their own pastor, at their own church, Pilgrim Congregational in Oak Park.

At their request, we splashed Sammie good with freshly imported water from Lake Michigan. As I looked at the somewhat murky pitcherful on the table, I thought that we were certainly following the ancient advice to use "living" water when baptizing (that's Johnny and his oldest, Gabriel, laughing at the abundant moisture).

John and Michelle (Sammie's parents) were eager to use real Lake Michigan water for the baptism because both sides of the family have summer cottages and deep connections to the "Big Lake" as home. So in the service I pointed to the link between family initiation and initiation into the larger family of God.

But more than that, I suggested that using water from this natural resource -- so dominant and precious to us in the midwest -- highlights the deep connection between the grace of God offered in baptism and the responsibility we gratefully take on as Christ's disciples to care for the world in which that grace is manifest. It says something damning to us if the water in our great lakes (or backyard streams, or rivers, or oceans) is so polluted that we cannot in good common sense bathe in it, or in good conscience call it "living" water. Perhaps my nephew Samuel will grow up, in service to Jesus, to be a biologist who concerns himself with the health of Lakes Michigan, Superior, Huron, Ontario, and Erie.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Assault on Par

The 7th Annual Worship Wonk Invitational -- a regular golf outing I take with a handful of good friends and liturgical geeks -- was, as usual, a fabulous success. You can read more about it here.

The one thing Mary forgot to mention in her post is the score of the game. Yes, we were playing best ball, and so were not playing to compete with one another. But at least three of us are fierce competitors; and so our goal was to beat -- or at least make a serious run -- at par. On a day when the heat index was in the triple digits, I feel like we did pretty well, then, to end up at one over for the day.

Of course, while keeping score, I did note whose shot we played for each stroke of our glorious 73. In this way, there is some comparison that can be made between our team's individual players. Who had the most stokes deemed "best" as we played? Who had the most putts? The most of our drives? The most of our chip shots?

I won't reveal the results here. Suffice to say that my most significant contribution to our effort was as the cameraman.

Monday, July 31, 2006

West Michigan piety

Now that we are back in West Michigan, we need to make many cultural adjustments, including to our personal piety. Out in California, expressing one's faith meant putting on a Hawaiian shirt, driving the SUV to the megachurch, and raising one's hands in praise to the amplified beat of the praise band.* Life was good, we had God to thank for it, and Jesus was our super-cool friend, kind of like a surfing buddy. But back in Michigan, we have to remember the truth: faith is about suffering.

No, actually, all of this is a caricature. California isn't all surfing and praise, and neither is Michigan all deprivation and depravity. In fact, we've been thrilled to be back at our old church, singing in harmony with our full-voiced congregation and enjoying the communion of the saints with old friends and family. God is good here, too. Overwhelmingly good.

Anyway, there's still enough truth in the following send-up of the old "Footprints in the Sand" poem to make it funny. Thanks to Marilyn Rottman of the Calvin Seminars in Christian Scholarship office for passing this along to me.

Footprints In The Snow

One night I had a dream.
I dreamed I was walking along the snow-covered beach of Lake Michigan.
As I looked back at the trail my feet left in the snow,
I saw my life clearly marked along my trek.

At all the high points of my life - when I made the church consistory,
when I completed my Precious Moments collection,
when my son chose Calvin over Dordt -
I noticed there was but one set of footprints dotting the frozen landscape.

But, at the low points - when our church had a series of seminarians for
seven months because no one would accept a call to Hudsonville,
when Zondervan’s sold out of my favorite Sandi Patti tape,
when my car broke down on Sunday in Holland, Michigan -
There were two sets of heavy footprints, marring the pristine flakes of the trail.

Puzzled, I cried to the Lord -
“Lord! Why this inconsistency?”

Suddenly, a cloud above the Grand Haven beach parted,
and John Calvin appeared in a single shaft of light.
“My child,” he said, “God sent me as your guardian theologian, to guide you
along life’s rugged pathways. When the burdens of the world plagued you,
when life’s heavy burden was almost too much to bear,
I was there beside you, holding your hand,
and whispering catechism quotations in your ear.

But, when you seemed to be enjoying yourself,
when happiness was the emotion in your soul,
it was then that I jumped on your back and made you feel guilty for having a
good time.

Remember, my precious worm,
fun is not an option for you.”

I awoke in a cold sweat, glad to know Truth.

Published in the April 8, 1991 edition of The Banter

*Yes, the ambiguous grammatical order of this sentence is intentional.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Membership Requirements

In preparation for writing a paper next week, I've been doing some thinking these days about church membership. In a previous post, I remarked -- in a tangential sort of way -- about the sorts of professions that the early church saw as incompatible with living a Christian life (prostitute, musician, soldier, etc.), and wondered what sorts of professions we might put on that list today. Lately I'm wondering if the church would have the disciplinary wherewithal to make use of such a list even if we had one. If someone of the "wrong" profession wished to join, what church would or could say "We'd love to have you, but you'll have to make these significant changes before you can be part of us, starting (but not ending) with your job."

On the one hand, the gospel seems to mandate a rather inclusive attitude about belonging to the church. Jesus' circle was drawn with the wideness of God's mercy, encompassing many people who the offical religious leaders of his day rejected. On the other hand, what sort of group is it that expects and asks nothing of its members? That doesn't comport with the gospel either. Jesus talked about laying down one's life to follow him.

Some have articulated this tension by speaking about the "low stoop" but "long aisle" on the house of the church. It doesn't take much to get in the church, but it takes a while to walk up to the front and make the life-changing promises of discipleship to Jesus. Different church traditions seem to emphasize these two sides of the coin, with infant baptizers focusing on the low stoop, and those from the anabaptist traditions emphasizing the long aisle. But of course, in whatever Christian tradition, both these elements should find some expression.

As I was thinking about all this, I uncovered a piece of paper while doing some archeological research in an old basement file cabinet. It is a list of the steps down the aisle that were once part of my home church's membership process, way back in the day when I first got married and Debra and I joined the church together. The document is entitled "Joining (CHURCH NAME HERE): Steps toward Assimilation."

It includes a checklist with the following items:
  • Attend membership inquiry class (three sessions)
  • Attend council meeting (the governing board of the church)
  • Attend committee meeting
  • Attend fellowship event
  • Meet with the pastor
  • Meet with district council member

It also provides some well-written rationale for these requirements (to be introduced to a broader segment of the church than you could come to know during worship services alone; to find ways to use your unique abilities within our congregation), and encourages potential members to see the "requirements for membership not as hurdles to be jumped, but as steps toward fuller participation in the life of the church."

I wonder what the membership process is like these days at my home church.

Or at yours.

And I wonder whether the requirements -- if there are any -- have more to do with the perpetuation and health of the institution, or with the steps individuals and groups need to take to become more Christlike. And whether those two things should seem like such radically different categories.

"I wouldn't belong to any club that would have me as a member" -- Groucho Marx

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Grand Garage Gin-Rummy Give-Away

How did this happen? How did we move from our house in G.R. to a smaller place in L.A., and then return to the original home only to find that all our stuff won't all fit in the house any more? I mean literally, it won't fit.

I am now in the second week of sorting through stuff and putting those items which we no longer want into a grand give-away pile in the garage. The stuff here isn't crap, it's just, well, to paraphrase the name of a local second-hand store, it's just crap to us. Two very nice sets of cross-country skis and boots, for example. Or a "vintage" Sony Walkman, circa 1984. Or a genuine vintage stereo cabinet, circa 1955. We've also got three boxes of theological books I don't want any more (Mary, want any more conversation partners?); a color TV; lots of kitchen, workbench, and babyroom stuff.

Anyone want to lay claim to the lot of it? We're giving it all away for free -- but the catch is that you have to take the whole pile. No picking and choosing. It's kinda like playing Gin Rummy and picking up a very large discard pile for the sake of a few cards you can genuinely use. If you've ever played, it's actually not a bad strategy...

Tuesday, July 11, 2006


Anyone who watched the World Cup these past weeks cannot have helped but notice that amongst the fine football competition, there was a disheartening over-abundance of fouling -- and faking. The Portuguese in particular seemed adept at the finely honed technique whereby a player barely gets brushed by an opponent, and then flops to the ground and flails about as if he'd been sideswiped on the 405 by a Hummer. Of course, it's crucial to be certain the referee is looking at you -- otherwise your thespiantics go for nought.

It got to the point where our kids found it funny. In fact, they've been practicing a bit, and now, every once in a while, if, for example, Jacob and Mia accidently bump into each other while negotiating some precious real-estate (e.g. the one square yard in front of the refrigerator), one will go down in faux agony, rolling on the ground and looking with pleading eyes and arms towards Mom or Dad for the foul call.

But the kids decided that the referee needed more than just yellow and red cards to deal with the players' variety of objectionable behavior. So they devised an entire scheme of cards to be given away for various offenses. So, for example, an orange card comes when someone makes a bone-headed play; a black card for missing an outstanding opportunity; a green card for a phantom foul. There were some colors in their system that seemed to apply more directly to themselves: a purple card is to be shown when someone exhibits extreme bossiness; a turquoise card for dissent when a foul is called. To be fair, the kids also wanted to give away gold cards for great plays, and rainbow cards for... well, for no reason at all. Just because.

I think Debra and I may take to wearing whistles and keeping some of those purple and turquoise cards in our back pockets. And maybe a few gold and rainbow ones, too.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Home Chaotic Home

We have landed. It's good to be back in Michigan, but we are still in the throes of chaos after several days and it's wearing on all of us. Even after moving six times in three years, I am still amazed by the sheer amount of work it takes to put together a household. And the emotional ups and downs of moving, for all of us.

Small problems seem overwhelming: the air conditioning blew out yesterday, we do not at present have a dining room table or chairs, Miriam found bugs in her hair, and our perpetual question: in which d*** box will I find the [fill in urgently needed item here]??

People ask, "So are you settled in yet?" Uh... never mind.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Aiding the Forces of Evil

When we got sick of mysteries (see last post), we also listened to the Prairie Home Companion joke show, which aired just after the 2004 election. Keillor's bitterness was, shall we say, palpable, but it led to a lot of great jokes.

Here's the one Miriam and Jacob adopted as their favorite. Even if you have Republican leanings, you'll have to admit this is funny:

How many Bush administration officials does it take to change a light bulb?

None. There is no reason to change anything. We made the right decision to stick with that bulb. Those who say "it was burned out" are aiding the forces of evil!

Of course, this got adapted to fit any situation on the road. To wit:

Dad: "Miriam, are you going to wear those shoes?"
Mia: "There is no reason for me to change my shoes. I made the right decision to pick these shoes. Those who say they are "impractical" are aiding the forces of evil."
Dad: (sigh).

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

A Singular Solution to an Extraooordinary Problem

All the long way home from Wyoming to Michigan, we kept ourselves sane in the car through a time-tested method: story-telling. However, it was not we who told each other stories. No, we let Garrison Keillor, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Mark Twain do that. It's amazing what you can get for free if you troll the internet. We especially appreciated the surly Russian dude who announces the disk headings at After a time or two, we half expected him to say "audio-books-for-free-dot-comrade."

The Sherlock Holmes mysteries were our favorites. None of us had ever read any before. "Why are people so crazy about mysteries?" I have always wondered. Now I know. After a while, we all started to adopt the speech conventions of Mr. Holmes, especially the word "singular" which seems to be used for every occasion. We liked the way Holmes can take one look at a person and then astound them by telling them their entire life story: "you are near-sighted, you type for a living, you have recently been to China, you left home in a hurry this morning, your financial situation has recently deteriorated, and you take two lumps with your tea." This serves to freak out the client so that they will do whatever he says.

I began to think I should use a similar approach with my students when they come to see me in my office: "I deduce from the circles under your eyes that you have been up all night working on my paper. However, I note that you consider perfect nails, hair, and make-up more important than running a spell-check. From your bibliography, I deduce that you have never set foot in an actual library, you are in the habit of IM-ing while you do 'research' on the internet, and you drink lattes. Note the stain. Now, about that grade..."

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Everything changes, everything stays the same...

While taking a tour of Yellowstone's "Thermal Features," our guide was keen to let us know that the park is constantly changing due to alteration in the volcanic plumbing below the surface (he must have said this no less than 17thousand times).

But it seemed to me that nothing has changed in decades and decades. Just like every other American family's trip to Yellowstone National Park for the past umpteen years, ours included the following:

1. Old Faithful doing its faithful thing

2. Complacent Bison blocking traffic

3. Purple Mountain Majesty

4. Scuzzy campers enjoying sticky s'mores