Monday, July 25, 2016

7 Things the Humble Need to Hear

In 2003 I remember watching a NFL playoff game between the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers.  At the end of regulation the game was tied, so a sudden-death overtime was called for.  At the coin flip, Matt Hasselbeck, quarterback for the Seahawks, called "Heads."  When it was determined that the Seahawks won the toss, the referee asked if they wanted to kick or receive to start the overtime period.  Hasselbeck leaned in close to the ref and said into his microphone, "We want the ball, and we're going to score."  A few plays later, however, near midfield, Hasselbeck threw the ball right into the waiting arms of a Packers defender who intercepted the pass and returned it all the way for a touchdown.  Game over.  Season over.  Suddenly, Hasselbeck's guarantee of victory seemed very ill-advised.  

When we think of the word "humble" we usually think of people who put others first, don't toot their own horn very often, or someone who is meek and mild, and that is certainly an accurate picture.  But there's another kind of humility - the kind that is forced upon a person when he or she experiences something that takes away his or her pride or self-assurance, and all of a sudden they realize that things aren't as great as they thought they were.  For instance, Matt Hasselbeck was made humble.  He wasn't humble to begin with.  On the contrary, he exuded pride and confidence in himself and his team.  But all of that melted away when Al Harris, the Packers defender, ran into the end zone with the intercepted pass.  

In Psalm 34.2, David says, "Let the humble hear and be glad."  The kind of humility that David is talking about here is the kind that is forced upon a person - the kind that you experience when you've been through the ringer.  What David is saying is that people who have been beaten down and who have been through difficult circumstances need to hear some things that he's going to tell them, and as a result, they will be glad.  "Oh, magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together!" David says.  Now that would have to be something pretty amazing, because it's exceptionally difficult to go from feeling like the world has walked all over you, to being glad and exalting the name of the Lord.  But David says it's possible.  In fact, in Psalm 34 he gives us seven things the humble need to hear - seven things that should cause the humble to be glad and magnify the Lord. 

1. Blessing comes during affliction (Psalm 34.4-7).  In Psalm 34.4-7 David describes experiencing the splendors of God's blessing and deliverance when he is at his worst.  It's when he's at his lowest that he experiences the blessing of God's deliverance; it's when he's poor and crying that God hears him and saves him out of all his troubles.  Put simply, you can't experience the blessing of deliverance without first being in a situation that requires deliverance.  So when you've been through the ringer, when you've been beaten down, you need to hear this: that's the place where you will experience God's blessing, deliverance, and help.  

2. God provides (Psalm 34.8-10).  Those who have been brought low by some kind of affliction need to hear that God will provide for their needs.  "...those who fear him have no lack." (Psalm 34.9)  God will always provide you with what you need.  Note that he doesn't promise to give you what you want but what you need.  God has not promised to protect you from feeling pain, but he has promised to provide what you need to get through the pain to the other side.  Check it out for yourself: "Taste and see that the Lord is good!" (Psalm 34.8)

3. Seek peace and pursue it (Psalm 34.11-14).  When you are humbled by your circumstances, one of the things you need to hear is a warning about your propensity to sinfully respond to difficulty.  If someone mistreats us, our natural inclination is get back at them and get even.  Or, if we are going through something difficult, we can be inclined to numb the pain through some kind of sinful means, or even be tempted to doubt or blame God for what we're going through.  During your time of difficulty, expect to be tempted to sin, and start planning now to respond in a way that honors God and seeks peace.  

4. God sees and hears, and he is near (Psalm 34.15, 17-18).  God knows exactly what people are going through because he is watching over them, and he is ready and willing to hear and respond to their prayers.  When I take my kids to the park, I tell them "Stay where I can see you."  I want to watch them so I can help them if they need it.  In a similar way, God watches over his children so he can help them when they need it.  And he isn't watching from afar, but he is close.  Sometimes we are inclined to think that God is far away, perched atop his throne in heaven, too royal and majestic and busy running the universe to be concerned with my puny little problems.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  God is intimately aware of and involved in the things that concern us.  He goes with us into the valley of the shadow of death.  He is near.  When you've been through the ringer, you need to hear and remember that.

5. The scales will be balanced (Psalm 34.16, 21-22).  When we fall upon hard times because of something someone else has done to us, it can be tempting to want to get even.  At those times, you need to know that God is just and righteous, and that he will by no means clear the guilty.  If we have been humbled by the words or actions of someone else, we don't need to concern ourselves with vengeance or getting even.  "Leave it to the wrath of God," Paul says in Romans 12.  If you have been humbled by someone or something, you need to hear this: God will see the scales balanced - if you have been wrongly treated, you will be vindicated, and those who have treated you wrongly will not escape justice. 

6. Your afflictions will end Psalm 34.19-20).  Unfortunately, a lot of people think that believing the gospel means an end to all of their problems, and that everything will be hunky dory from then on out.  But the Bible never promises that.  Instead, it shows us the reality that problems still exist, and even new problems are created as a result of believing the gospel!  "Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him out of them all."  The Bible tells us that we will still have hard times, but that the Lord will deliver us out of them all.  Either he will provide a means of escape in the here and now, or it might be that we won't find deliverance until we reach heaven.  I can't promise when your afflictions will end, but they most certainly will end.  One day, God's deliverance will be complete and total.  

7. Rejoice and be glad (Psalm 34.1-2).  While it sounds counterintuitive, it is not only possible to be glad during hard times, but it is right, because this is the God Christians serve: the one who will bless those who suffer, who provides all their needs, who will see the scales balanced, who is with you wherever you are, and the one who will deliver you.  These are more than enough reasons to catch more than just a glimmer of hope in the eye of a Christian who is suffering.  We do not suffer alone or outside of the knowledge of God.  He will come to our aid.  Always.  So the next time you feel like the world has chewed you up and spit you out, you can rejoice and be glad, because this is your God.  

A New Spot

Yesterday the Mrs. and I went and scouted out a new spot to pick agates.  It turned out great!  Here are some of our better finds.  Sorry for the picture quality, as the iPhone camera isn't great.

The Mrs. found this one - the biggest and best one of our exclusion.  Look at those bands!

I found this guy - probably the best one I found all day.  Not as big, but the banding is fantastic. 

A smaller paint.  You can't see it in the picture, but some of the bands have a blueish tint to them. 

There were several more besides these, but these few are the definite gems of the excursion.  I can't wait to go back!

Friday, July 22, 2016

Pulled Over

Over the past few weeks, as there has been much discussion in the media about the supposedly unjust rates that black people are pulled over by police, it has caused me to reflect on my own experience with local police and my alleged "problems with the law."  It may surprise you to learn that I have been pulled over by the police some two dozen or so times which, in my mind, calls into question the notion that black drivers are pulled over more than white drivers.  You may respond that my anecdotal evidence isn't worth much - and I agree.  But then I must also call into question those anecdotes of black drivers who have allegedly been pulled over for little or no reason.

To be sure, the vast majority of times that I have been pulled over were for nothing, or almost nothing.  Upon reflection, it is clear to me that the officers who pulled me over on almost every occasion did so because they had probably cause to do so based on my exceptionally minor infraction.  In other words, they used the occasion to do a deeper check into who I was and what I was doing.  Let it also be known that in almost every case, the officers in question were justified in pulling me over.  I had indeed broken the law, even if the majority were extremely minor offenses.  In all of the times that I have been pulled over, I have only been ticketed twice - one of which was thrown out in court.

I also feel like I should add that I am perhaps the safest driver I know - just ask my wife - and as a general rule, I delight in following traffic laws.  Seriously.  I'm one of those people who thinks that driving is an inherently dangerous thing to do, and the more everybody obeys the rules, the safer we all will be on the roads.  So I take driving and traffic laws very seriously.  And when stopped by police, I am of the mind that polite compliance is of the highest priority.  The police are the authority on the roads, and are to be respected.

The very first time in my life that I was pulled over was in South St. Paul, on the corner of Marie and 14th Ave. (I remember the location because it was on the corner of the cemetery in South St. Paul).  I was a junior in high school and was driving a 1982 Chevy Caprice Classic wood-paneled station wagon.  The car was quite old by then, and I thought it might be fun to dress it up by painting some ironic flames on the hood, which I did.  Soon after, I came to a four-way stop, with a police officer stopped to my left.  I had clearly arrived at the stop sign before he did, so I left the stop sign first.  As soon as I had made the turn, the lights came one, and I pulled over.  When I rolled down the window, the cop told me that I had "squealed my wheels" when making the turn.  Apparently this was enough to warrant a stop.  I don't recall the tires squealing, but I'll take his word for it.  He then proceeded to shine his flashlight all throughout my car windows to see what was inside (it was at night).  No ticket.

Another time I was driving a Chevy S15 pickup truck that was also old and was suffering from electrical problems.  These problems meant that most of my dashboard indicator lights weren't working - including my bright lights indicator.  While driving down Robert St. I was pulled over for driving with my high beams on, and I went through the usual background and license check.  No ticket.

Still another time, I was visiting my sister in Rosemount one night and began the trip back to South St. Paul via Highway 3.  A section of the highway in Inver Grove Heights is full of twists and turns in the road.  While navigating these turns, it's virtually impossible not to touch either the yellow center line or one of the white shoulder lines, but that's what I was pulled over for this time: swerving, and suspicion of drunk driving.  It was a Sunday night, and I told the officer that I hadn't been drinking, but was just tired.  "Did you wake up early for church this morning?" the officer sarcastically asked.  "Yes, actually," I responded.  No ticket.

While I could go on and on with story after story, I'll leave you with one final anecdote: while working as the janitor at Riverview, one morning on my day off I went into the church at about 8:00 to set up for a meeting that I had forgotten to set up for earlier in the week.  Since it was my day off, when I had finished setting up I went back home (it's about 3.5 miles from the church to where I was living at the time).  Going from West St. Paul to South St. Paul via Wentworth Ave., astute drivers will notice that the speed limit went from 35 mph in West St. Paul to 30 mph in South St. Paul.  The change takes place at the city limits.  By the time I crossed over into South St. Paul, I guess I was still doing the West St. Paul 35 that I was used to.  I was nabbed by an officer, who ticketed me for speeding.  He also informed me that my tabs were expired (which I didn't know at the time).  When he came to my window, he asked if I had been drinking, to which I replied that I had not (it was only 9AM after all, and I wasn't really a drinker).  "But I'm smelling alcohol," the officer said.  "I'm not sure what to tell you.  I haven't been drinking," I replied.  "Get out of the car please," he said.  And then I went through the field sobriety tests on the road.  I hadn't touched a drop of alcohol, so I have no idea how he was "smelling alcohol."  He gave me a ticket for speeding, a warning for the expired tabs, and expounded on the merits of sober driving, with which I agreed.  I got in my Ford van and went on down the road.  I didn't make it home, however, before being pulled over again.  Driving down Southview Ave., another cop passed me going the other way.  As I glanced in my rearview mirror and saw him quickly whip a U turn and turn on his lights.  At this time I wasn't sure if he was after me or someone else, so I just proceeded to turn into our alleyway.  He followed me, and I drove into my parking stall at the house I was renting with my sister.  He boxed my car in, so as to eliminate any means of escape I might take.  As he got out of the car I reached my hand out the window and said, "I just got a ticket."  Then he got back in his car and went on his way.  So yes, I was pulled over twice within a 3.5 mile drive.

Why was I pulled over for these offenses and many others which I haven't even talked about here?  It obviously wasn't because I was black.  Is it because I'm a mean looking guy who has a look about him as though he's up to no good?  I doubt it - at least I've never been accused of that before.  Is it because I drive souped up, fancy sports cars?  Hardly!  Every car I owned up until last year has pretty much been a beater.  So then what is it that has led to all of these pull-overs?  I can only answer that I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.  In other words, I did something that was technically against the law, and the police stopped me for it.  They were in the right and I was in the wrong almost every time - even if it was something minor and stupid.  Is it possible that a black person who has been pulled over several times was profiled and discriminated against?  Yes.  Is it also possible that they were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time like me and committed a minor infraction that the officer used to do a more extensive check?  Yes.  In fact, I'm pretty sure that's the story behind all of the times I've been pulled over.

I'm not necessarily trying to make a point by sharing my experiences, and I'm not trying to draw some kind of political conclusion or anything like that.  As someone who has been pulled over two dozen times, I find it interesting.  I should also note that for the past four years it has been my privilege to serve as a volunteer chaplain for the West St. Paul and Mendota Heights police departments.  I greatly appreciate the work our boys in blue do every day.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016


One thing I'v never noted on this blog before is one of my hobbies, namely rock collecting.  As a kid we would frequently walk my grandpa's driveway in search of agates - Lake Superior agates - but we didn't know that at the time.  A long hiatus from rock collecting later, a few years ago I picked up the hobby again and have been enthralled by it since.  It has now become a family activity in our house, and we frequently go on "Agate Adventures" (where we go find a gravel road and pick out the agates).  Anyway, I thought it might be neat to document the agates we find.  I have quite a bit of catching up to do, however, and it's not feasible for me to document all of the agates we've found in the last three or four years or so, so I figured I'd just put some more recent finds up here right now and then hopefully I'll be able to keep up with the new ones we find (click the images to embiggen).

At the end of April, 2016, my family took a trip up the North Shore for the express purpose of hunting for agates.  This was our haul on the last day of our trip.  

One night early this summer, while playing catch in the backyard, I noticed an agate in some landscaping rocks.  A little more digging revealed the rest of these guys. 

The Mrs. and I took a trip up the North Shore in early June.  This was our takeaway from a couple of beaches just north of Two Harbors.

I found this agate, loaded with quartz, at Gooseberry Falls at the end of June.

Found this one on the MN Waterfalls Road Trip, I think on the beach at Naniboujou Lodge.  Although small, this is one of the most unique agates I've ever found.

Also found this one on the MN Waterfalls Road Trip. 
A week after the MN Waterfalls Road Trip, my co-worker went on vacation on the North Shore and brought these home.  Since he knew I collect agates, he gave them to me.  

In mid-July I was visiting a church member after her hip surgery at a hospital in Burnsville.  There was plenty of landscaping rock outside the hospital that I quickly glanced at as I walked out.  Coincidentally, this agate popped out at me.  

Here's a plain, but larger agate I found in the landscaping rock outside Kmart in West St. Paul. 

For a couple years I brought my car to a local repair shop in South St. Paul.  A year or so ago the shop was razed to the ground.  The gravel heap that was left in its wake yielded this guy at the end of July. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Trusting God in the Midst of Tragedy, Death, and Confusion

Tragedy, Death, and Confusion
It's safe to say that in the United States, the last few weeks have been characterized by tragedy, death, and confusion.  Many in our society have risen up against the perceived injustice of the deaths of two black men at the hands of police officers.  This uprising has led to even more violence at demonstrations that are calling for justice.  Additionally, others have taken it upon themselves to seek a type of vigilante justice and have murdered innocent police officers.  The loss of life has been tragic, and as people who love life in all its forms, we grieve with those who have lost loved ones as a result of these events.

To make matters worse, these events have been drenched in confusion.  Our age has become one of instant access, in which news and stories are broken immediately, sometimes even as they are taking place, and therefore our ability to comment on the news has likewise become instantaneous.  When that which appears to us as injustice occurs, either in our lives or in our society, it is common for us to want to address it immediately and harshly.  This has led to many people making quick judgments based on little evidence, which starts rumors and incites anger, which in my mind has only compounded the problems that we are facing and has made the issues even harder to wade through, and the resulting questions even more difficult to answer.  As people who love the truth, Christians should seek out the facts of all situations before making determinative judgments in the public square.  

At this time, there is very little we can know about these situations, and how and why they occurred.  Investigations will be undertaken and more facts will come to light which will help authorities to know the truth and take appropriate action based on that knowledge.  In the mean time, we are a society who is left in the lurch - we want answers and action, and we want it now.  But answers have not been forthcoming - at least not yet - and in the meantime our God-given desire for justice is tingling within us, demanding that the scales be balanced in one way or another.  But even in times of tragedy and death in which confusion reigns, Christians have a solid foundation upon which they can place their trust: the all-knowing, all-seeing God of perfect righteousness and justice.  

Trusting in the Just Judge
While our knowledge of these events is limited to cell phone videos, eyewitness testimony, social media reactions, and other types of evidence, God's knowledge is not limited.  He does not need to conduct an investigation to find the facts.  He sees all and knows all (Psalm 33.13-15, Hebrews 4.13).  He is aware when an injustice has been committed (Psalm 31.7-8).  Additionally, God loves justice and righteousness and will always see it fulfilled (Genesis 18.25, Psalm 33.4-5).  We don't ever have to worry that someone who has committed an injustice will get away with it.  There are no mistrials or hung juries in God's courtroom.  In the cosmic balance of eternity, God will always see that justice is carried out, and that all people will receive the due reward for their deeds (Psalm 28.4).  Even those criminals who never face human justice will one day stand before the just judge of all the universe and hear their sentence.  God will always do what is right.  Always.  

There are two ways in which God will deal with evil and achieve justice.  The first way is through eternal punishment in hell.  Because God is good, he must punish evil.  All those who have transgressed his law will be found guilty and their deserved punishment will be hell for all eternity.  But this is not God's preference.  God would prefer to deal with sin through his own sacrifice of his Son on the cross (2 Peter 3.9).  Through Christ, those who are trusting in him can have their sin-debt taken care of.  The punishment that Jesus endured was on behalf of those who are trusting in him.  So God's own sense of justice is satisfied through the punishment that Christ endured on behalf of those who believe (Romans 3.26).  Because he is just, God will have justice - either on the cross or in hell.  

Responding to confusion with truth
These truths should help us answer some of the questions that have arisen over the past few weeks in our nation, such as:

Were the officers in the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile racially motivated to kill?  I don't know, but God does.  I don't have all the facts, and I can't see their hearts.  But God does have all the facts, and he can see their hearts (1 Samuel 16.7).  I can and should trust that he has full knowledge of the situation and will act accordingly.

How should we seek justice?  Pursue the truth.  As I stated earlier, when a perceived injustice occurs, our natural inclination is to respond swiftly and harshly because we have a God-given desire for justice in our lives.  Unfortunately, the advent of social media in our day and age has made it very easy for us to rush to judgment without pursuing all of the facts (truth) about a perceived injustice, and it is very easy for us to come to judgments that are in error, and may even incite anger or violence toward others.  Because God loves the truth, Christians are to love the truth as well.  In fact, there is no justice without truth.  Therefore, we should always be seeking the truth as much as possible in situations such as these.  To take a determinative stance on any perceived injustice without full knowledge of the issue would be exceedingly unwise, at best (Proverbs 18.2).  Our goal should be to have the understanding that God has in order to make a definitive judgment.  

What should we do if an injustice has occurred?  First, we should allow the process of justice that God has put in place in our country to take its course (Romans 13.4).  If, for whatever reason, our justice system fails, Christians should never seek to act as a judge and enact some sort of vigilante justice.  To do so demonstrates a lapse of faith in God's judgment (Romans 12.19).  We must rest confidently in the truth that God will see the scales balanced, even if we never see justice done in this life (2 Corinthians 5.10, Romans 2.6).  

How now shall we live? 
Through the Bible we can see that God loves life, truth, and justice.  As his people it is incumbent upon us to mirror God's own love for and pursuit of these things.  

We must pursue life.  God is a God who loves life, and his people subsequently love life in all its forms.  Therefore, we are grieved when any life is lost for any reason, and specifically, we mourn with those who mourn over the loss of their friends and loved ones.  May God give us tender hearts that will grieve over the loss of those who bear his image and fight for its protection.

We must pursue justice.  God delights in fairness and equity in any and all scenarios and circumstances.  Consequently, he shares this characteristic with his creation, and human beings likewise have an inherent desire for justice.  When an injustice has taken place, it shakes us to our very core and invigorates our desire to see the scales balanced.  It is right and biblical for Christians to pursue this desire and to pursue justice for all people in all scenarios.  

We must pursue the truth.  Indeed, our pursuits of life and justice are not possible if we are not pursuing the truth.  Lies like the sin of racism, which would have us believe that all people are not equally valuable, must be rejected in favor of the truth of God's word.  If we do not pursue the truth that all life is valuable and worth preserving, we will not be able to pursue life.  Similarly, in order to have justice, we must pursue the truth.  If we are not pursuing justice with full knowledge of the truth, true justice is impossible.  Without truth, calls for justice ring hollow, and a pursuit of justice without truth is no justice at all.  To take a determinative stance on any issue without knowing the truth is the height of irresponsibility, and is at odds with biblical wisdom.  The pursuit of truth is, perhaps, the most important thing a Christian can do during these times.  

May God empower us to trust in him and be his ambassadors of life, justice, and truth. 

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The God of Balanced Scales

Let me begin with three scenarios for your consideration:

Scenario 1: A mother and father have a child with a severe cognitive disability.  This disability impairs the child's ability to understand the message of the gospel.  The parents are concerned that their child does not understand the gospel to the extent that he or she can profess faith.  What will God "do" with their child?

Scenario 2: A skeptic objects to the exclusive nature of the Christian faith.  He says, "If Jesus is the only way to God, then how is it fair that there are millions of people in the world who have never heard of Jesus who will be condemned to hell?  What about people who live in remote parts of the jungle?  Will they go to hell simply because they were born in a remote part of the world and never heard about Jesus?"  What is the answer to this question?

Scenario 3: An elderly man is coming to the end of his life.  For years, his children have been pleading with him to believe the gospel.  Finally, he does - or at least says he does - and passes away.  Upon further reflection however, his children suspect that he may have simply told them what they want to hear, or that he was merely reacting to the fear of coming to the end of his life.  His children are devastated that they do not know if their father was a believer.  What assurance can you give them? 

Psalm 31 helps us to answer each of these questions in a roundabout way.  In Psalm 31 David finds himself in an unjust situation: people are telling lies about him, and it is affecting his relationships, and his emotional and physical health, and he's being unjustly accused to the point that his life is in danger.  In response, he calls upon God: "In your righteousness deliver me!" (Psalm 31.1)  We all have an intrinsic desire for justice and righteousness in our lives.  We want things to be fair; we want things to be just; we want the scales to be balanced.  This desire in our lives comes from our Maker, as he has shared with us his sense of justice.  As beings who have been made in the image of God, we long for justice and righteousness.  This is why the scenarios listed above trouble us.  We perceive an injustice in those scenarios, and it bothers us, and rightly so.

In David's scenario, he is counting on God to do what is right in his situation, and he appeals to God's righteousness.  God is a God of righteousness, in that he will always do what is right, just, and fair (Genesis 18.25).  In other words, God will always see that the scales are balanced.  He will never act in a way that is unjust or unfair, nor does he manipulate circumstances to achieve an unjust result.  In David's situation, this meant that David would find deliverance from his unjust treatment - if not in this life, then in the next - and that his oppressors would likewise receive justice for their oppression and wickedness toward him.  David called upon God to balance the scales in his life, and God will always respond - either in this life or in eternity - because he is righteous.  

There are at least four applications that we can make from knowing that God is righteous and that he will always act righteously: 

1. No matter what injustice we may experience, God will balance the scales in the end.  We might not experience his deliverance today, tomorrow, or even in this life, but God will always do what is right in every situation.  This is a difficult truth to latch onto, however, and it is one that we must continually remind ourselves of, especially when we are in the midst of suffering unfair treatment. 

2. Those who have disabilities to the extent that they are not able to understand and believe the message of the gospel will be treated fairly by God.  He will do what is right in their situation, just as he does in every situation.  Personally, I believe that God will not hold those accountable who are so limited by the diminished power of their minds to the same standards as those who are not.  In other words, I believe that God will be merciful toward those with mental disabilities.  But whatever the case, we can rest assured that God will do what is right. 

3. The same is true for those who live in remote parts of the world and have never heard the gospel.  God will judge them in a way that takes their situation into account, and his judgment of them will be just - it will be right, because God is righteous.  

4. Finally, we can have the same confidence when it comes to those who have died.  Even if we are uncertain about a loved one's faith at the time of their death, we can know that God will treat them fairly.  He will not give them something they do not deserve.  Even in the midst of uncertainty and sadness, we can praise God that he is righteous.  

Psalm 31.5 says, "Into your hand I commit my spirit."  David knew that God was so faithful - so trustworthy to do the right and righteous thing - that he was comfortable entrusting everything in his being to God.  And so should we.  

Monday, July 4, 2016

Free Citizens of Heaven

For most of us, the Fourth of July means a time of celebrating American independence, barbecues, parades, fireworks, and so on.  In fact, just a few hours after I finish writing this post, I’ll be hanging out with family members, eating grilled food, and enjoying watching my children play with their cousins, and we'll end the day with a resounding fireworks show.  We are inclined to use this day as a day of thanksgiving to God for his continuing providential provision of freedom for our country for more than 200 years, as well we should.  As we reflect on our country in a spirit of patriotism, however, the Fourth of July is also a wonderful occasion to reflect on the freedom and citizenship we have in Christ.  This reflection and celebration should trump (no pun intended) any that we give to a country – even the country of which we are citizens. 

First, we must remember that the freedom afforded to us by American independence is but a pale shadow of true freedom.  In America, we celebrate the reality that, to a large, yet ever diminishing extent, we are free to pursue our own desires in whatever way we see fit.  This freedom is certainly beneficial, and I thank God for it.  But let us not stop there.  Let us reflect on the freedom brought to us by Christ.  The Bible describes people in their natural state as slaves to sin (John 8.34, 44).  We have no choice but to follow the commands of our sinful nature.  Fight as we might, we are bound by its power.  The only "freedom" we enjoy as slaves to sin is to mine the depths of our wickedness (Romans 6.20).  But in Christ we are set free from such slavery (John 8.36).  We no longer have to obey the cruel master of sin, but instead are free to obey Christ.  

This freedom is a cosmic miracle, considering that our natural inclination is to remain slaves forever (Romans 3.10-18).  Instead of pursuing freedom, by nature we pursue more slavery.  Instead of pursuing the knowledge and understanding that leads to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (in the spiritual sense), we are inclined as slaves to pursue all of the things that only increase the cruelty of our slavery and lead to death (Ephesians 2.1-3).  Indeed, the fact that this freedom is accessible to us is no less amazing than the dead being brought to life (Ephesians 2.4-5).  

Secondly, let us remember on this Independence Day, that we are citizens of another country.  Jesus said that his kingdom is not of his world, and so those who would live in it are likewise not of this world (John 18.36).  Those who are following Jesus have been transplanted from their home in the world to their home in his kingdom (Colossians 1.13).  Our ultimate citizenship is no longer American, but heavenly.  In this sense, wherever we are at the current moment, we are not at home - we are strangers until we reach our true home (Ephesians 2.19, Hebrews 11.13, 16).  America is just a land that we are visiting.  Let's remember this as we light off fireworks tonight. 

It is these truths that, to me, will make the hotdogs taste all the better on this Independence Day, and will make the air feel fresher, the fireworks more astounding, and my enjoyment of God's many good gifts all the sweeter.  

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Minnesota Waterfalls Road Trip

Gooseberry Falls State Park
Several months ago on Facebook I ran across this article, or advertisement, or whatever you'd like to call it.  It's a trip to seven state parks all along Highway 61 on the North Shore.  Each of the state parks on the route has at least one waterfall on the river that runs through it, emptying into Lake Superior.  One of my favorite places on earth is Gooseberry Falls, so coming up with a trip that involved more state parks, more rivers, and more waterfalls was kind of a no-brainer - this trip was right up my alley.  Thankfully, my family was excited to do it too, so we began making arrangements for it a few months ago.

Falls on the Beaver River, Beaver Bay
Last week, the time came, and we journeyed north to spend the first day of the trip at Gooseberry Falls (click on any of the photos below to enlarge).  There really is no other place in Minnesota like Gooseberry Falls.  It must be one of the most majestic, interesting, picturesque, and fun places in our state.  It's magical.  We spent the day there, climbing the rocks along the waterfalls, looking for agates, and wading through the raging river (it really was raging - I'm not sure I've ever seen the rivers more swollen in the summer months than I did last week).  Later on that day, we went to Beaver Bay and explored the waterfalls that empty into Lake Superior there and, of course, looked for more agates.

High Falls, Tettegouche State Park
The next day, we went to Tettegouche state park and hiked back to the High Falls, which is actually quite a hike.  A bit of confusion led to an even longer hike to get back to our car, but it all worked out in the end.  This wasn't the first time I'd been to Tettegouche, so it wasn't a new experience, but the high falls are definitely impressive (it's the highest waterfall in Minnesota - more on that in a minute).

Falls at George Crosby Manitou State Park
From Tettegouche, we traveled to George Crosby Manitou state park and hiked back to those falls as well.  The hike was easier, and the view of the falls was even better than Tettegouche.  The falls at Manitou were, in my opinion, the most beautiful falls of the trip (aside from Gooseberry, of course).  I would like to go back to George Crosby Manitou and spend a lot more time there, hiking the trails and swimming in the river.  Some other year, I suppose.

Mouth of the Temperance River
From there we went on to Temperance River state park.  These falls are interesting, as there are some located almost right on the banks of Superior.  It's about a 30-second hike from the side of the highway to an observation bridge and you can see the falls.  (Little did I know, there is actually another waterfall located further back in the park called "Hidden Falls."  Unfortunately, the falls were sufficiently hidden and we never went back to see them.)  After Temperance, we wearily went to a nearby hotel, after about 8 miles of hiking.

Falls at Cascade River State Park
Bright and early on day three we went off to Cascade River state park and hiked the loop that went back to several waterfalls in succession.  The Cascade Falls won the distinction of "deadliest falls" in my opinion.  If one were to fall in the river and go down the several falls in succession, there would be no coming back.

Upper Falls, Judge C.R. Magnet State Park
Next was Judge C.R. Magney state park, with the Upper Falls and famous Devil's Kettle.  The Upper Falls were very impressive, as they were raging with immense flow, yet one was able to come within very close proximity of the falls.

The Devil's Kettle
The Devil's Kettle was also raging which, as it turns out, actually detracts from the viewing experience.  The Devil's Kettle is famous for splitting the Brule River in two, and taking one part of it down the "devil's kettle" - a hole in the rock that goes somewhere indeterminable.  No one knows where the water goes.  Legend has it that several have tried to determine its course by putting dye into the water to see if it comes out further on down the river, and even several hundred ping pong balls for the same effect, but to no avail.  Where the water goes is a mystery.  When we visited the Kettle, however, the water was raging so much that it was almost difficult to see the hole in the rock.  It would be more accurate to say that you could see water hitting a part of the rock and disappearing.  The Kettle wasn't visible from the observation deck.  Still, the hike to see the Upper Falls and Devil's Kettle were worth it, even though it involved a 180 stair climb!

High Falls, Grand Portage State Park
The trip culminated at Grand Portage state park, with perhaps the most majestic waterfall on the trip. The High Falls at Grand Portage are the highest falls in the state, although that statistic is misleading, as the falls are shared by Minnesota and Canada (this is what makes the High Falls at Tettegouche the highest waterfall in the state, whereas the High Falls at Grand Portage are both in Minnesota and Canada).  The hike back to these falls was easy, and was also paved - the only park we visited with a paved trail back to the waterfall.

Needless to say, at the end of our three-day journey, we had traversed some 150 miles, visited 7 state parks, and walked about 20 miles to see the waterfalls - we were tired!  But I, for one, would say that the effort was well worth it, and I would gladly do it all again.  In fact, I'd like to spend some time in the summers to come camping at each of these parks.

One thing that has occurred to me as a result of this trip is the magnificent thing that is the Minnesota State Parks.  If you think about it, you cannot get a better, cheaper vacation than visiting a state park.  All it costs is $25.00 for the vehicle permit, $20.00-$25.00 per night for camping, and however much you spend in gas to get there - that's it!  What a great deal.  And if you go to a good park, you will enjoy sightseeing that is quite simply top notch, and is not to be duplicated anywhere else in the state.  In the future, I want to take as much advantage of our state parks as possible.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Martin's Still Lost, but Taylor Came Home

A couple months ago my friend Martin was kidnapped.  Unfortunately, there has been no sign of him since the time of his disappearance.  I found a new friend yesterday, however, named Taylor.

Taylor was able to come and join our family because of the generosity of one of God's people who anonymously donated a significant chunk of money in order for me to be able to purchase a new guitar in the wake of my loss.  What a blessing!  Also, a friend kicked in an old gift card he had that was collecting dust that enabled me to get this particular guitar.

I knew I'd be getting a replacement for Martin, but I wasn't sure what it would be.  As I've said before, I have another Martin guitar, and I am very partial to the Martin brand.  They make great guitars, so my first choice was to get another Martin.  I went to ye olde guitar shoppe this weekend and tried out several that were in my price range.  I played a few Martins and a few Taylors.  Some sounded and played better than others.  Finally, I decided on a Martin that was made entirely out of mahogany, had a great tone, and had a very deep brown finish.  Then, the friend I took with me shopping told me to try the Taylor pictured above.  I had already played an almost identical guitar, but with a different finish, and decided against it.  The tone wasn't what I was looking for.  This Taylor, however, was different - it played and sounded almost exactly like what I wanted.  But there was a problem: it was a bit out of my price range.  That's when he pulled out his old gift card and insisted that I use it to purchase this guitar.  It was an incredibly kind gesture, and I'm grateful.  I told the salesman to wrap it up - I was getting that guitar.

While not a Martin, Taylor guitars are also very nice, sound great, and look great, as you can see.  I've never owned an acoustic guitar with a sunburst finish (one of my Strats has a sunburst, though), and the white binding on the edges makes it pop.  I got it home and did some more noodling on it.  I'm excited to play it more as time goes on.