Deep Thoughts on Swearing
I remember quite a few years ago when Gospel singer Sandi Patty was on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. He was trying to get her to admit swearing, but she wouldn’t. Finally, he asked, “What would you say if you hit your thumb with a hammer?” She replied, “I’d probably yell my husband’s name very loudly!”
I’ve been around a lot of swearing in my day. There was no swearing around home (okay, there were a few instances with my dad and big brother), but I never heard much until I started school. In particular, riding the bus gave me quite an education in the fine art of cussing. I don’t know how Bus 19 compared to other school buses, but as an impressionable little elementary kid I learned a lot of new words while riding to and from Lincoln School. Once at school, the playground was another source of fertile ground for four-letter words kids couldn’t say around adults.
Although I started to hear a lot of naughty words, I didn’t swear. I had been taught that it was bad, and I didn’t want to be bad. Sadly, I have to admit that as I grew up I was known to utter some of those words, though never publicly.
I’ve spent time around some people who make swearing an art. They use cusswords like Shakespeare used the English language. Okay, that’s a really bad comparison…I once worked with a guy on a golf course who found it very difficult to complete a sentence without vulgarity. I once tried keeping a tally of how many times he swore per minute, but as is usually the case with something like that, he suddenly toned it down, as if he subconsciously knew I was counting.
So why do people swear?
In adolescence it’s a sign of “maturity,” just like trying cigarettes and alcohol. It also seems to form lifelong, unhealthy habits, just like smoking and drinking. So do adults regret their swearing addictions like most do with nicotine and alcohol addictions?
Is it anger? Are these people just so mad and frustrated with the world that they have no choice but to cuss to show their disdain for the status quo?
Maybe it’s a sheer lack of creativity. Some people use the “F-word” like Smurfs use the word “Smurf”: “That sure is smurfy!” It also reminds me of the “Backyardigans” episode where they go to Mars and learn that “Almost everything is ‘Boinga!’” Some people I know could sing, “Almost everything is the F-Bomb!”
Do you ever wonder if chronic swear-ers cuss when they’re all alone? Or do they only do it when there’s an audience?
It’s one thing when guys swear, but I really don’t understand why females swear. There are plenty of un-ladylike things to do, such as belching, but swearing may top them all. Why would a girl or woman want to be as ugly and unrefined as a guy? Don’t they realize they’re taking a huge step backwards?
Ultimately, it’s my observation that swearing is almost entirely a symptom of insecurity.
Anytime you’re around a bunch of boys (grown or un-), you’ll see a pathetic amount of posing. Guys will practically beat their chests and grunt in their attempts to avoid any sign of weakness. Bragging and know-it-all behavior are a huge part of this, but swearing is one of the most popular ways to appear manly. It requires no thought or skill—just drop a few F-bombs and you’re one of the guys. What a deal!
It’s really kind of pathetic and even sad. Does swearing make people feel better about themselves?
Some Christians I know will intentionally swear from time to time. The impression I get is that they’re trying to show their “street cred,” as if to say, “Just ‘cause I’m a Christian doesn’t mean I’m some little ninny!” I think it’s the opposite. It takes a lot more strength and maturity not to use those kinds of words than it does to use them.
I’ve become much more sensitive to swearing since having kids. Throughout my adulthood I used slang words that were basically second-tier cuss words. I peppered my speech with words like crap, sucks, and so forth. When the kids came along, I started to notice this. I told them to use their mouths for good, but I realized that, even though I wasn’t technically swearing, the intent of my heart was the same. There’s really no difference between furiously saying, “This frickin’ car won’t start!” and using the “real” F-word.
In telling my kids not to swear, I’ve also felt compelled to tell them why they shouldn’t use those words. Life and death are in the power of the tongue (Proverbs 8:21), and it’s true that out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. (Matthew 12:34). I remember a rock guitarist I admire saying he doesn’t like swearing because it sounds like death to him. That really struck me.
Our words are powerful, and I tell my kids as much. I encourage them to use their words to speak life, not death. I never realized just how ingrained some of those words can become, and it’s been a challenge to clean up even my “second-tier” cuss words.
Well, it’s time to go. I’ve got a lot of <bleep> to do today!
One of the trendiest things for evangelical Christians to do these days is decry what people call the “Prosperity Gospel.” It’s nearly as hip to rail on proponents of “Prosperity Gospel” as it is to have a bushy beard and wear plaid. I’ve been hearing an awful lot about this topic lately, from the pulpit to social media to news outlets, so I thought I’d offer my two cents.
I guess you already know what I think by my title. My observations are merely my own, and aren’t based on any sort of legitimate research.
What really prompted me to write this was a column I read in a newspaper a few days ago. It was written by a lady who writes on “Religion,” which sounds terribly boring to me, but it had the term “Prosperity Gospel” in the title, so it caught my attention. In particular, it asked the question if a well-known Bible teacher who recently held a conference in our area preached the “Prosperity Gospel.”
The writer was a woman who apparently comes from a more traditional denominational background than the speaker she wrote about. In her column, she told the story of a male friend who said something to the effect of, “[This speaker] is going to be talking about ‘abundant life.’ Sounds like ‘Prosperity Gospel’ to me.” I have to admit, this set me off, and I thought, What a judgmental jerk! He’s obviously never read John 10:10! (In that verse, Jesus said He came to give us abundant life.) Now I’m not saying my reaction was appropriate, but that’s what I was thinking. Apparently the speaker in question was charging a fair amount of money for attending the conference, so that made her suspect in the columnist’s eyes as well.
Anyway, the column continued as the writer told how she attended the conference, and, though it was an “unusual worship style” for her, she had nothing bad to say. She concluded that she doesn’t know if this speaker is into the “Prosperity Gospel,” but admitted that it was an inspirational event. In case anyone is wondering, the speaker is a well-known evangelical Bible teacher who isn’t considered a proponent of the “Prosperity Gospel.”
As near as I can understand, the anti-“Prosperity Gospel” line goes something like this: People who preach the “Prosperity Gospel” have an evil Western [i.e. American] mindset that’s selfish and focused on their own comfort. They teach that if you stay close to God, you’ll never have any problems, and will be healthy and wealthy. They essentially rob poor people of their money by promising earthly riches as a reward for faithful giving.
Interesting. I’ve actually listened to a lot of preachers over the years who’ve been branded with the dreaded “Prosperity Gospel” label, but I’ve never heard anything like that from any of them. I’ve read books by some of them, but haven’t read anything like that, either. I’m not saying there isn’t anyone out there saying stuff like that, but I’ve never actually heard anyone say that.
I have heard repeated admonishments from these types of preachers to spend daily time with God in prayer and reading the Bible. I’ve heard them say that a life of faith is a lot harder than the alternative, but it’s worth it. I have heard them blame the devil for what he does (steal, kill, and destroy—John 10:10), than blaming it on Jesus, who came to give us the aforementioned abundant life (John 10:10 again).
I have heard things such as “God delights in the prosperity of his servant,” (Psalm 35:27). I’ve also heard, “I pray that you may prosper in all things and be in health, just as your soul prospers” (3 John 2), and so on. I once did some research on the topic of prosperity, and filled up a page and a half in my notebook with the scripture references of verses similar to those, so it doesn’t appear to be a case of “cherry picking” scriptures to make it say what you want.
A lot of Christians seem to think it’s bad to be rich, and that it’s more spiritual to be poor. To paraphrase the guy quoted in the article above, that sounds like Buddhism to me. Come to think of it, that whole philosophy sounds a lot like Eastern religions I’ve studied. On the other hand, what reputation do Jews have? I’m thinking wealthy, successful business people.
Personally, I believe godliness with contentment is great gain (I Timothy 1:6). Jesus said to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you (Matthew 6:33). The impression I get is that we should follow God, give as He leads us, and He’ll take care of business for us. I’ve certainly found that to be true in my own life. I’ve heard the same thing from some of the “Prosperity Gospel” teachers.
I do find it interesting that the Christians I know who seem to be the most focused on money aren’t adherents to the “Prosperity Gospel,” but tend to be disciples of people like Dave Ramsey. I observe an obsession with money—some of these people seem to be consumed with worrying over every penny that comes in or goes out. I’m not condemning financial prudence in general or Mr. Ramsey in particular; I’m merely stating what I’ve seen.
This may sound harsh, but pretty much every Christian I’ve heard speaking against the “Prosperity Gospel” is a hypocrite, because they all live in nice houses, have nice cars, own a smart phone, etc. I think that if someone really believes prosperity is bad, they should put their money where their mouth is and live in poverty themselves. Could it be that some people feel guilty for their own prosperity, so they condemn the “Prosperity Gospel” types to make themselves feel better? I don’t know, but it’s interesting to ponder.
My suggestion would be to look into something before flippantly condemning it. I know how frustrating it can be as a Jesus follower to listen to people rip on Christianity without studying it for themselves; let’s not be the same way to each other. Don’t listen to what some flaky blog says (ahem); check out some ministries and find out for yourself what they’re actually teaching. Is what they’re saying Biblical or not? Also, consider the fruit of that ministry; Jesus said, “By their fruit you will recognize them” (Matthew 7:16).
I think the devil invented the term “Prosperity Gospel” to drive believers apart and prevent unity in the Body of Christ. I think it’s working very well. As long as there are two or more Christians, there will probably be at least two doctrinal viewpoints, but most of us agree on the big stuff, so let’s stop biting and devouring each other (Galatians 5:15).
It’s God’s will that we be brought to complete unity (John 17:23), so I say let’s examine how each of us can work toward that!
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Terrible Christian Music
A vital part of my growth as a Christian has been music. I’m the youngest of five, and from a young age I was exposed to the music my older siblings were discovering as they grew in their faith.
I’ve observed what used to be called “Contemporary Christian Music” since around 1980, and it’s been fascinating to watch. As a rule, Christian music in the ‘80s was bad. There were exceptions, of course, but overall it was bad. I remember my mom listening to the local Christian radio station and being annoyed with the cheesy songs that were often sung by children who were out of tune. If you look up “Jesus is my Friend” on youtube, you’ll get an idea of how bad Christian music could be in those days.
Over time it gradually got better, thankfully. My own musical journey started with a Scandinavian singer named Evie, progressed to Keith Green (who, in my opinion has yet to be matched for his fiery/prophetic messages), and Carman, an Italian-American guy who sang lots of crazy story-songs.
Then one day I heard Resurrection Band (aka Rez Band, aka REZ), and my life changed forever. They were the Led Zeppelin of Christian rock, and they ushered me into the world of hard rock and metal.
In general, Christian music in the ‘80s tended to lag about ten years behind their “secular” (or “mainstream,” if you prefer) counterparts. For example, about ten years after Van Halen burst on the scene, Whitecross came along, giving Christian rockers a genuine guitar hero in Rex Carroll (yeah, I know Phil Keaggy had been around for a while, but he didn’t shred like Rex).
But by the end of the decade, the Christians were starting to catch up. Throughout the ‘90s, it seemed like Christian music matured, if not lyrically, at least musically. Several bands and singers started to make an impact in the mainstream scene (I don’t have time to get into that), until finally I remember hearing a Limp Bizkit song and thinking how much it sounded like POD. Finally, the Christian bands were influencing others!
Then there’s the church music.
I grew up singing hymns in Lutheran church, and unlike most many from my generation, I love them. While there are plenty of hymns were, as C.S. Lewis put it, “fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music,” many of the classics are usually musically and lyrically far superior to most of the “contemporary” music out there. That being said, I’ve been singing and playing the “contemporary” stuff in church since the mid-‘90s.
Back then, songs tended to be pretty simple and featured a chorus of singers, as opposed to an individual leader. The songs had drums and electric guitar, but tended to be pretty “safe”—no threat of exploding into rock ‘n roll mayhem. As the decade wore on, the music reflected the ‘90s vibe of “earthy” music, and made one want to drink coffee and be contemplative.
After the movie Titanic came out, suddenly there were tin whistles and other Irish-sounding things everywhere. People also started to take old hymns and set the words to new music. Nine times out of ten the music was inferior to the original.
Overall, however, the music started to get better. For instance, Darlene Zschech’s “Shout to the Lord” got annoying because it was sung so much, but anyone would have to admit it’s a very well-written song.
As we got into the 2000s, the music still tended to be acoustic-guitar based and kind of folksy, but now the songs tended to be sung by a single leader. For a while it seemed every song on Christian radio had a string section (as in orchestral) included. In the past several years, there have been an awful lot of songs with big “Whoa-oh” choruses. Maybe the songwriters have been listening to old Bon Jovi albums…
Now suddenly bluegrass has become very hip, and I’ve started hearing banjoes, mandolins and fiddles in many of the newer songs. It’s also cool for guys to look like they stepped out of 1980, with bushy beards, seed caps, plaid shirts and vests. I wonder what’ll be next?
Okay, so I entitled this “terrible Christian music,” and that’s more to get your attention than anything else. I don’t want to offend anyone, but I’ve got some strong feelings on the matter. There’s actually a lot of great church music out there these days, but there’s also plenty of songs that leave something to be desired.
A popular song in recent years is “How He Loves,” also known as the “sloppy wet kiss” song for its most controversial line. I personally sing “passionate” instead of “sloppy wet,” but my beef with this song isn’t that line. It’s the fact that the verse is utterly un-singable by a congregation. Many times I’ve sat behind the drums and watched the congregation stand there, mute, as the leader sings the song’s overly-syncopated rhythms. It’s like trying to sing a Dream Theater song together, or maybe Rush or Yes.
To be fair, the pre-chorus and chorus of “How He Loves” is great, so at least half the song is singable. This same problem plagues another hugely popular song called “Oceans.” I think it’s an awesome song, but it’s not easy to sing—again, there are tricky rhythms. Maybe Christian songwriters should be required to listen to some Beatles songs before they write…
Music is one thing; lyrics are another. I recall my mother-in-law cringing at having to sing “Yes, Lord, yes, Lord, yes, yes, Lord” at our church. Then there’s the popular “Blessed be your Name,” in which everyone sings the bridge, “You give and take away,” which quotes Job after all that bad stuff happened to him. Never mind that even the most conservative commentaries state that Job was unknowingly in error, blaming God for what Satan did…
A few years back a song entitled “Above All” was frequently sung on Sunday mornings. It’s easy to sing, but the lyrics equate the sacrificial death of Jesus to a boxer cheating by going down intentionally (“you took the fall”) and that Jesus was thinking of ME more than anyone when He died on the cross. That seems the theme of many modern worship songs: ME. Just look at the lyrics you sing this week, or check out your local Christian radio station. Many of the songs spend a lot of time focusing on how I feel about Him.
Finally, there’s “All I Have.” The first line is, “What have I in this life but the love in your eyes.” Huh? Then the chorus proclaims, “Jesus, all I have is you!” What about God the Father? What about the Holy Spirit? What about the Word of God, other believers, the gifts of the Spirit, etc., etc.? And since it say “in this life…” What about a car or a house? A family? A pet goldfish? How can someone sing this song with a straight face?
I apologize if I’m being too harsh, but this gets on my nerves. Let me reiterate that there are some great, well-written songs out there, so I’m not saying all modern church music is bad. A few weeks back, I was at an event where the worship leader, who was highly skilled, played some great songs. The lyrics made sense, they were easy to sing, and I was actually able to focus on God, rather than figuring out the music.
And do we really need so many new songs? I wish there was a rule stating that no more than one new song is allowed per month in any given church. Worship team members need to find their musical fulfillment elsewhere. This is about the people entering into worship, not the Top 40 countdown of today’s hottest worship songs. Start your own band for that, but make it about Jesus in church.
Have you ever noticed what they sing about in the Bible? They don’t constantly mumble about how “beautiful” God is (another overly-used word in worship songs as of late). They specifically tell of God’s deeds, such as parting the Red Sea, driving out Israel’s enemies, and so on. I know that can seem clumsy and un-poetic, but maybe our songwriters need to lay aside the tired formulas of the Church music hit machine, talking about how beautiful God is and how they feel about him, and instead try their hands at telling of God’s exploits.
I can hear it now: “The Lord said to Noah, there’s gonna be a floody, floody....”
My aunt died this past summer.
If you’re like me, you’ll stop reading right now. I strongly dislike sob-story tear-jerker things. Some people are strangely drawn to stories of tragedy and loss. I’m drawn to fun, interesting stories.
This is not intended to be a tear-jerker, but hopefully it is interesting!
My aunt’s name was Frances, but we all called her “Auntie.” We call her our “aunt” (not “ant”), but we pronounce “Auntie” like “Ant-ee.” I don’t know how this got started, but it was before my time, so don’t blame me.
Auntie was my mom’s only sibling. My mom died on May 2, 2001, which was my grandma’s birthday, and was just two days before Mom’s sixty-ninth birthday. Auntie was a special connection to Mom, the closest surviving relative other than my dad and siblings.
Arthritis robbed Auntie of her golden years, confining her to her apartment on “water tank hill” in town for years. She never married, nor did she drive. Auntie lived with my grandma until she passed away in 1987.
After years of living as a shut-in, Auntie finally ended up in a nursing home four years ago. Usually that’s a sign that the end is near, but as it turns out, this was a new beginning for her. She flourished in the social atmosphere. The staff absolutely loved her—I had several students who worked there, and they’d exclaim, “Ohh, Frances is so sweet!” when I told them she was my aunt. Though the arthritis had crippled her body, her mind was still sharp, which as you probably know is kinda rare in a nursing home.
My siblings and I were the only family she had, other than a cousin in Wisconsin, so she cherished any visits we paid, which, for some of us tended to be rare. It’s tough, because life is so busy, and we still have our dad to spend time with, so Auntie tended to get less attention. Some of us also struggled with the fact that Mom died in the room across the hall from Auntie’s at the nursing home. Visits had a tendency to dig up painful memories.
Things went along like this most of the time Auntie was at the nursing home. Then, this spring, she started to decline. We noticed when we visited her at Easter. She seemed a little “out of it” and disconnected.
A few weeks later, my sister Joyce contacted everyone to tell us Auntie had possibly suffered a heart attack and was in the hospital. This was a shocker, but even more so was the news that soon followed, sent via a group text message: “They think she’s dying.”
At eighty-nine years old, that shouldn’t be too shocking, yet it seems one is never prepared for news like that. We all rushed to her bedside, where she had been returned to her room at the nursing home. Memories of Mom came rushing back as I looked at her shriveled, unresponsive form. I got emotional, but realized it had more to do with Mom than Auntie.
I loved my aunt, but was impacted more emotionally by the fact that losing her seemed like losing a special connection to my mom.
After an emotional couple of days, Auntie surprised us by bouncing back. She became lucid again, and we could converse with her, albeit in a more halting manner. Still, I was so thankful to have her “back,” and to be able to interact with her again before she left us for good.
She spent another couple weeks in this condition before slowly slipping away. Joyce spent most of her waking hours with Auntie, which was remarkable. I got in there when I could, but it wasn’t easy.
Finally, we got word that the end was imminent. Late on a Saturday morning, we returned to the nursing home. I paused to look at her name on the directory inside the front doors, knowing this would probably be the last time I’d see it there.
We strolled by the common living room area where we had sometimes visited with Auntie Sunday mornings after church. We passed the dining room where we’d sat with her in the sunshine, past the lady in a wheelchair who’s always holding a stuffed animal, down the hall to the room across the hall from where Mom died.
There lay Auntie, amid her few remaining worldly possessions and pictures of family, looking again like Mom at the end. Joyce was sitting at her side, gently stroking her hand and hair, and speaking softly to her. Auntie’s Bible sat open—Joyce would often read it to her.
We said a few things to Auntie—I don’t remember what—and settled in to wait. The kids eventually went out into the hall to play “Minecraft” on the Kindle. We chatted with Joyce about nothing too important. I was trying to affix a screen protector to Kendra’s new cell phone when we noticed she wasn’t taking breaths. There had been some long pauses between them, but this pause seemed longer. Joyce and I looked at each other with expressions I can’t describe, but that communicated the question, “Is this it?”
As it turns out, it was. Kendra actually saw her die, though at the time she didn’t realize it. She had drawn a breath, and then her mouth twitched, and then she didn’t move.
I had never been with anyone when they died. We had gone home to sleep when Mom passed. I was always kinda scared of it, wondering what it would be like. I hope this doesn’t sound morbid, but it was really cool.
Auntie was ready to go. She’d suffered long enough with a body that was becoming more and more of a burden. She knew Jesus, and was ready to be with Him. It was so peaceful when it happened—she wasn’t in pain or anything. Like my mother-in-law (who’s a nursing home chaplain in another town) said, “Sometimes you can almost hear the angels’ wings!”
We went through the customary stuff one does with something like this. I was choked up through the entire funeral, again with memories of Mom and my childhood (the funeral was in the church in which I grew up and where we also said goodbye to Mom). It was so encouraging to hear Auntie’s chaplain speak, telling how seriously she took her faith, rarely missing a Bible study or worship service. My heart leapt as he said emphatically, “Frances loved the Lord!” She was very Lutheran and kept to herself about spiritual things, so it was encouraging to hear that.
I wish we would’ve spent more time with Auntie, but I cherish the memories of her, my grandma, and Mom.
Triathlon: A Humbling Experience
A few years ago, Kendra (my wife) was invited by some friends to participate in a unique triathlon that consists of fourteen miles of canoeing (no swimming), twenty-nine miles of biking (a good deal of it mountain biking-type stuff through the woods) and seven miles of running. Afterwards she said it was “so much fun!” I thought it sounded awful.
She continued doing it the next couple of years, when, in a moment of weakness, I decided that I too should give it a try. After all, it would be a good challenge and would provide motivation to get in shape. My friend Klay agreed to be my teammate, and thus I began my training odyssey. It generally consisted of alternating days of running and lifting weights. By the time of the race, I was running (okay, slowly jogging) about a mile and a half, and lifting weights casually for about half an hour at a time, being careful not to do enough to actually make me sore or anything.
When race day arrived, it was uncharacteristically hot for early June in northern Minnesota. By the end of the race it was eighty-nine degrees Fahrenheit, with plenty of humidity.
Neither Klay or I can steer a canoe for anything, so I had him do it, thereby avoiding the stress of knowing it was my fault when we didn’t go straight. I’m pretty sure we added about four miles to the canoeing by zigzagging. The biking was an endless death march on wheels during which we ran out of water and wondering if we were lost. When at long last we finished that, I tried to call my wife (who, along with her sixty-something friend was way ahead of us) to tell her I was done. Sadly for me, my cell phone had gotten wet and wasn’t working, so I had no choice but to complete the “run.”
Klay and I ran a total of about forty-five seconds the entire way, and when we finally stumbled across the finish line (after nine hours of agony), a race official asked him if he was Klay J., to which he responded, “sadly.” We were the last finishers, about an hour behind my wife and her friend. At one point during the “run,” some young ladies came up behind us. We said, “You can pass us,” to which they responded, “no, that’s okay.” We later realized they were the “sweeps,” people who come through the race course after the competitors to make sure no one’s hurt or anything. Embarrassing.
In addition to a barrage of dark thoughts in my head throughout the race, I often uttered things like, “This is the dumbest thing I’ve ever done!” and “I’m never doing this again!”
So of course, two years later I decided to try it again. I had two reasons: motivation to get in shape (sounds familiar) and the need to redeem myself after my pathetic performance last time.
This time I vowed I’d get in better shape. My partner this time would be Kendra (I couldn’t bear to subject Klay to it again), who is great at steering a canoe. Her former partner was again participating, this time with a co-worker. Since they’re both older than us, I was hoping they wouldn’t embarrass me this time around. My goals for this race were 1) to finish, 2) not to be last, and secretly 3) to beat our friends. Oh, and 4) have a good attitude (Kendra insisted on that).
In preparation for the big race, I bumped up my running (jogging) to two-and-a-half miles and actually started going on bike rides in the fifteen-mile range. Hardcore!!!!! I also prayed that it would be “cloudy, cool, and not too rainy.” I wish I would’ve been more specific, because race day dawned cloudy, cool, and pretty rainy. Kendra and I neglected to bring any rain gear, because isn’t it hot and sunny on triathlon day?
We were fairly soaked by race time, and the course had been altered because of the weather. The entire canoe leg took place on one lake (there are typically several portages), and it was very windy. No matter—I was determined to have a good attitude this time. I actually enjoyed the first two thirds of the canoeing. But then the wind gusts and realization that our older friends were actually gonna beat us in this leg made me miserable.
Finally, after over two hours of sitting in a canoe, we staggered ashore like so many drunken sailors. After a quick restroom break and change into dry shoes, we were off on our bikes (ahead of our friends!). At this point, I was freezing, wet as I was, and flying at what I’m sure were Olympic-rates of speed on my two-wheeler. Again I was having a great time, relieved to be done with the canoeing.
I enjoyed the mountain-bikey parts through crazy woodland terrain, but soon learned to dread the nicer paths and roads, because it was there that Kendra earned my new nickname for her: E.B. That stands for “Energizer Bunny.” My self-esteem sunk lower and lower as it became harder and harder to keep up with her. I’d worked out more than her, so I thought she’d have trouble keeping up with me, but here I was, giving everything I had, barely clinging to her. Humbling.
There were a number of parts where we had to ride through puddles (signs assured us that the bottom was firm, so it was safe). I loved doing this, as the water sometimes came up to the bike axles. There were a couple parts where a small stream blocked our way and we had to carry our bikes across it. Fun, but wet.
Again, the last third or so of the biking ceased to be fun, but I didn’t complain. Finally it was on to the run (it had long since stopped raining, thankfully). I was feeling good and wanted to actually so some, er, jogging, but Kendra didn’t want to. She strongly dislikes running, so most of it was a fast walk. We did frequently run for a minute or two at a time, and I actually did have to slow down for her, which made me feel a little better about myself, though the final third of this leg again felt like a death march.
We ran triumphantly the final hundred yards or so, and finished two-and-a-half hours earlier than I did last time, and not in last place. I do have to confess that about five miles were trimmed off the course (mostly the canoeing), so it was a little shorter than last time, but still I was happy with how it went. We did beat our friends by an hour (though one got lost at one point—it’s a remote course).
It was so cold that we took refuge in a state park building with a fireplace as we waited for our friends. Quite the contrast from two years ago! I’m now satisfied with how I did and can permanently retire from triathlons with my head held high. Just don’t let me ever do this again.
Do You Understand Me?
NOTE: I wrote this over six months ago, not intending to use it as a blog entry. It's written for people who have no clue who I am, but most of you know me. Just roll with it. Also, it's pretty long, but it's so awesome that reading it will make you smart and popular, so it's totally worth it.
Do you ask for directions when you’re lost? What about if you can’t find something in a large store, such as Walmart? I’ve always been the guy who never asked for directions or approached store employees for help. Whether it was pride, fear, laziness, or a combination of all three, I’ve always disliked those types of interactions.
Now I no longer have a problem. Why? Because I can understand what they say! That might sound really weird, but a year ago I dreaded even approaching the cashier at our local grocery store. The reason was that almost no one spoke English.
My family and I were living in Kiev, Ukraine. We were advised that the language would probably be our greatest challenge, and that was very true. Since we only had about three months from first considering going until we arrived, we didn’t have time to learn the Russian beyond just a few internet lessons.
While Ukrainian is the official language, Russian is what’s spoken on the street in Kiev. When we stepped off the plane, we knew only a few words. Sadly, when we got back on a plane to come home nine-and-a-half months later, we didn’t know a whole lot more. My wife and I were both teaching full time, and between our jobs and our own kids, there just wasn’t much time to dedicate to learning the language. Not only that, but we taught at an English-speaking school, so I can’t say we were immersed in Russian.
Russian isn’t an easy language for Americans to learn. Not only does it use entirely different alphabet (Cyrillic), many of the sounds are difficult for our Anglicized tongues to articulate. Many of the missionaries we worked with in Kiev dedicate their first couple of years in the country exclusively to studying the language, and now we know why.
Week after week of passing billboards and street signs in Russian and Ukrainian, seeing television in restaurants and on the metro (subway), and trying to decipher labels on unfamiliar items in stores impressed upon me how there’s an entire culture I know very little about, and language is central to understanding that culture. There are endless stories, songs, poems, and expressions—all of them completely foreign to me. I’d pass two people having a conversation and have no idea what they were talking about. They’d laugh at jokes I didn’t understand and roll their eyes at clichés about which I knew nothing.
It can be overwhelming to consider all I don’t know about Ukrainians because I don’t speak the same language, but there are somewhere around 7,000 languages in the world. That leaves me clueless to about 6,999 of them. Would my life be more fulfilling if I understood those languages?
And what about my own language? Some people dedicate their entire lives to understanding English, while some don’t know the difference between your and you’re and seem to think the sentence “I seen him yesterday” is perfectly fine. Now, I admit English can be fairly ridiculous, so it’s easy to see how one can make mistakes. Take homonyms as an example: is it to, two or too? Should I use there, they’re or their? Still, if we don’t even understand our own language, how can we ever hope to begin understanding others?
So much of language goes beyond the basic meanings and pronunciation of words. To realize how overwhelming all this is, I don’t have to look any further than my own rural Minnesota community. Beyond the territorial differences (pop vs. soda, hotdish vs. casserole, and every Minnesotan’s favorite game, Duck, Duck, Grey Duck), there are some bizarre expressions we use across the United States.
Can’t you just picture a confused foreigner when you declare, “You’re barking up the wrong tree” or “Stop beating around the bush”? What about when you tell them you have to cut up that tree you cut down in your backyard last week?
Several years ago I worked on a golf course, and one day my co-worker and I had to stop and wait for some golfers who were coming through our work area. My co-worker was a golfer, so he watched with rapt attention as one of the golfers hit a drive. Impressed, he declared, “That dog’ll walk!” Huh? I of course was able to translate his message: “That gentleman did an excellent job of hitting the ball. The accuracy of his shot will help ensure a successful score.”
That brings up something I sometimes wonder: Who comes up with these sayings, anyway? Wouldn’t it be cool to be able to tell people you meet, “Yeah, you know the expression ‘high on the hog’? I came up with that!”
One of my friends in Kiev told me about a colleague of his from Israel who tried very hard to use American sayings, only to fall short. When he wanted a response from someone else, he’d say, “The nickel’s in your court,” and he’d often attempt to encourage others by urging them to “Take the bull from the horns.” I’m sure I’d sound just as silly if I tried to use another language’s idioms.
It’s easy to find plenty of similarities among different languages. For example, listening to one side of a typical phone conversation between two Ukrainians often sounds something like this: “Allo? Da. Dobre Dien. Da, da, da. Horosho. Da. Da, da, da. [possibly a couple more Russian words I don’t understand, and then] Da. Horosho. Da, da, da. Das vay donya.” So they pretty much said “Hello” and “Good day” before saying “yes” and “good” a lot. Then they said “goodbye.” Seems kinda weird, until you consider a Midwestern-American phone conversation: “Hello? Oh hi. How’s it goin’? Good. Uh huh. Yep. Oh yeah. Yeah. Uh huh. Yep. Okay, cool. Sounds good. Yeah. Okay, see ya later. Bye.”
While my Ukrainian friends repeatedly say da, we also say yes a lot, but in a variety of ways, usually none of them actually using the word yes. Think of a poor foreigner trying to learn our language. They think yes is all they need to know in order to answer in the affirmative, only to learn it’s only one of several words we use, and then only in more formal situations. Think about it: How often do you say yes to friends or family members?
As if all these differing languages and sayings weren’t enough, some people feel the need to make up their own languages just for fun. This is scary, but what’s scarier is that some of these have actually caught on, such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s various Elvish languages, and of course Star Trek’s Klingon. Who has time to figure out languages that some random guy just made up?
So here I am, still amazed at the wealth of languages in the world, and realizing that I know very little. I admire those who can navigate languages beyond their own. Last year I had teenage students who could converse in two to four different languages, and that was humbling. At this point I’ve got my hands full just trying to “talk good” in my own language. Uff da!
Homeschooling is one of those topics that really seems to get people riled up. I kinda feel like I might just as well write about something like abortion. Nonetheless, I’m gonna give it a try.
Right up front, I admit that we homeschool our kids. When I first met her, Kendra (my wife) was fairly negative on homeschooling, being a public school teacher and all. But over the next couple of years, she observed a few different homeschooling families, and was very impressed. The next thing I knew, she announced that she was interesting in giving it a try. By the time our firstborn was of school age, she took a leave of absence from her job to teach him at home. He’s now finishing fourth grade, and our daughter is finishing third. Kendra has since resigned as a public school teacher. Aside from the Christian school they attended in Kiev last year, our kids have been taught at home.
I was happy when Kendra got interested in homeschooling, but I’d never given it much thought myself. The first couple years I figured we might do it for a while and then send the kids to public school. But as time goes by, both of us have become increasingly dedicated to homeschooling and determined that our kids will never attend a government school.
So how can we be honest about our passion for homeschooling without offending our many friends who are public school teachers and/or send their kids to public school? That’s the tricky part, but again, I’m gonna give it a try (expressing our perspective, not offending them!!!).
It is kind of strange when two public school teachers (we have over twenty years combined experience teaching) decide not to send their kids to public school. We didn’t make the decision to homeschool because we thought public schools were terrible and we didn’t want to subject our precious babies to that. The main reason was that Kendra really wanted to do it. She had a vision and a desire. Most people seem to get this and aren’t offended. On the other hand, we both feel pretty qualified to know what goes on in public schools, from the classrooms to the hallways to the teachers’ lounge. And frankly, we’re very happy not to have our kids in that environment.
Over the years, we’ve heard plenty of arguments against homeschooling. By far the number one reason skeptics use is socialization. My initial response to this is, “If I were you, I’d be a lot more concerned about the socialization my kid is getting in the government school than the supposed lack of it for a homeschooler.” Are you aware of the social climate in the typical public school? You may want to research this.
There is a stereotype of homeschooled kids as strange Amish-like little drones who can’t interact with other humans. I used to work with a public school teacher who repeatedly referred to homeschooled kids as “social retards.” Those are his words, not mine. As is often the case with stereotypes, it has a basis in reality, but is also not entirely accurate and, in fact, quite discriminatory. I’ve observed a lot of homeschooled kids over the past five years, and I can tell you that not only are they usuallynot socially awkward, they’re very much normal. In fact, it seems to me that many homeschooled kids are better able to relate to those both younger and older than they are. I look at adults who were homeschooled and they appear to be completely well-adjusted socially. I’m sure there are exceptions, but there are also plenty of kids in public schools who aren’t well-adjusted socially, either (I’ve had a lot of those in my classes!).
I haven’t been able to figure out what makes public schools such great institutions of socialization. When in one’s adult life will they ever spend all day sitting in a room with twenty-five other people their exact age? I personally learned a lot of very negative social behaviors on the school bus and the playground (swear words and dirty jokes come to mind). I even had a kid put a knife to my throat one day at recess (this was before the days of zero tolerance for weapons). He was joking around, but I was scared. I think I would’ve been okay not being around people like that.
Another argument against homeschooling is the lack of a quality education from Mom & Dad, versus trained professionals. As experienced, licensed teachers, Kendra and I obviously are not the norm. I do know of one family that tried homeschooling and it was a disaster, so after a couple years the parents sent their kids to public school, where there was a lot of remediation. That’s the only example like that of which I’m aware. Most homeschoolers actually receive an excellent, one-on-one education that is at least as good as what they’d get in a public school. Again, you may want to research this. I once averaged 36 students in each of the classes I taught. It’s awfully hard not to have kids slip through the cracks there. As a student, I had teachers who were awful, and I worked with some teachers who were awful. But I also had and worked with some amazingly awesome teachers. Most were somewhere in between.
Finally, I’ve talked to a lot of parents who tell me something like, “I wish I could homeschool my kids, but they’d drive me crazy/I wouldn’t do a good job, etc.” My response to this is to ask you if parenting is hard work. If you’re honest (and a good parent), you’ll admit that it is. But is it worth the trouble? Hopefully again you’ll say yes. Well, homeschool is simply an extension of that. And if you feel under-qualified, there’s a ton of amazing resources out there. There are quality curriculums that make it easy to teach. There are increasingly effective online resources to help you. And, there are more and more other families homeschooling to look to for support and encouragement.
We belong to a large homeschool group, and there are a wide variety of activities every day of the week. Our kids have a lot of friends they enjoy hanging out with at these activities. Some are educational, some are athletic, some artistic, and some plain fun. Another advantage we have as homeschoolers is flexibility. If we want to take a day to do something non-academic, we can. If we’re behind on math or something, we can buckle down on that for a while. It’s great!
Our family has not only quality time, but quantity time. Relationships need both. This is a wonderful way for us to grow together as a family. It’s not always easy, but it’s very much worth it.
Finally, there’s the faith aspect. Kendra and I are followers of Jesus. That’s the most important part of who I am, and it’s my highest priority for my family. My children will not only not be nurtured in their faith in a government school, they will indeed come under attack. It’s subtle, but institutional. Religion is to be kept in church. Your faith and your education are completely separate, according to the doctrine of public schools.
Christian parents often justify sending their kids to government schools by saying that they need to be “salt and light.” I’m not sure how a little five-year-old is gonna save her school, but I do know that bad company corrupts good character. I know that adding clean water to muddy water only dirties the clean water. I remember reading what someone said about all the Christian musicians in Nashville. To paraphrase, “Nashville’s changed the Christians a lot more than the Christians have changed Nashville.” As a teacher, I wanted to be salt and light, but if I got very salty at all, I’d lose my job. I teach my children about drugs, alcohol, etc. Do they need to be in an environment that pressures them to engage in behaviors contrary to God’s Word in order to be socially well-developed?
It’s one thing to go on a “rescue mission” to save those in danger. It’s another thing altogether to send a vulnerable child on such a “mission.” Lifeguards will tell you that it’s best to save a drowning person by throwing them a floatation device, because actually going to them is a last resort, because the victim is liable to drag their rescuer down with them.
Without sounding judgmental, I do want to ask my Christian friends this question: What scriptures are you standing on as your mandate to send your kids to a secular government school? I can share a ton for my justification to homeschool my kids, and I encourage you to search the scriptures in regard to this.
Finally, I want to reiterate that, although I obviously have strong opinions about this, I have nothing against people who send their kids to public schools or to those who work in them. There’s a lot of good stuff happening there. But there’s also a lot of good stuff happening in my home every day, and for that I’m very thankful.
One of my favorite rituals is taking out the garbage. I know that’s kinda weird. Sunday nights I walk the 200 feet down our gravel driveway, pulling the black two-wheeled plastic garbage can behind me. I park it next to our mailbox at the side of the road, and often stop to take in the evening. We’re blessed to live where there are no streetlights and almost no traffic.
In summer, I look to the west and marvel at how the sky is still light so late. In winter, I often turn and trudge right back up to the house, the icy wind taking away my desire to savor my surroundings. I love to look up at the stars and moon when the sky is clear. I love walking back up the driveway beneath the canopy of trees and seeing our cozy little house perched around the corner at the top of the hill.
It was late April, 2012. I brought the garbage down and turned back up the driveway. About twenty feet into my journey I stopped, looked up at the night sky, and thought about how content I was with life. Things were going well. I felt a twinge of fear--does this mean something bad is about to happen? I grew up thinking that way, which is not a good thing.
The next day I was called into my principal’s office and informed that my contract wouldn’t be renewed the next year. That thumping sound you hear is me being thrown under the bus.
A year later, on that same late April Sunday night, I took note of the date as I brought a couple small plastic bags of garbage into the hallway of our apartment in Kiev. I crept up the half flight of stairs to the garbage chute, looking to see if anyone was sitting at the top of the next flight smoking, as was often the case. I opened the chute and stuffed in the bags, being careful not to inhale. Shuffling back to our apartment, I thought of how much I missed my garbage runs back home.
Last Sunday night I wheeled the can down once again. Twenty feet up the driveway, I froze in my tracks, realizing it was this same Sunday two years ago when I stood at the same spot and contemplated my contentment with life, while pushing down that fear of bad stuff happening. It was almost overwhelming to think about where my life has taken me these past two years. I felt thankful to be back home, and very content and happy with my life.
The big difference between last Sunday and two years ago was the lack of fear. I actually said out loud, “Thank GOD I got delivered from that job!” My life is so much better than it would’ve been had I not been thrown under the bus two years ago. Something that seemed so bad at the time turned out to be a huge blessing. Sounds a lot like Genesis 50:20.
Fear, Pride, and Downhill Skiing
A few days ago I went downhill skiing for the first time in my life. Although I live in a part of the world that’s frozen over at least five months out of the year, there aren’t mountains around here, so the opportunities for downhill skiing are limited.
When I was growing up, there was a ski hill in my hometown. It was called “Detroit Mountain,” which is embarrassing, because not only is it not a mountain, it’s hardly a hill. It’s more of a big bump. It closed down around twenty years ago, but a group has formed to resurrect it, and next year it’ll be back in business! But I digress.
For our skiing adventure, we went to a ski area near Alexandria, Minnesota, about two hours away. Kendra and the kids have some experience, but I always managed to avoid going. Downhill skiing is one of those things that’s always kind of scared me.
Downhill skiing has brought two of my uglier qualities to light: fear and pride. First of all, fear that I’ll run into a tree and die (I couldn’t stop thinking of Sonny Bono each time I ventured down the hill) and fear that I’ll look like a fool. That of course reveals my pride. I don’t want to look dumb or like I don’t have it all together. But there are few things that reveal how un-together one is than skidding down a sharp incline on two slabs of plastic (or whatever the skis are made of).
The fear part was made worse by an experience earlier this winter involving cross-country skis. In my younger days, I’d plod around our property on a pair of wooden skis made by my brother. They had bindings into which any boots could fit. They were functional, but nothing to bring to a race. So earlier this winter, we went cross-country skiing, and the conditions were icy, which is not good. At one point I struck off by myself, with no little kids to tie me down. I imagined flying through an Olympic course, ahead of some random Norwegian, on pace for a gold medal and world record. I was feeling pretty bold, so when I came to a big hill, I went for it. It didn’t take long for me to lose control and skid halfway down on my bottom. No harm done, and I obviously didn’t learn anything from that, because I soon came upon another drop-off. This one was shorter and not as steep as the other, so I went for it. Oh yeah, there was also a big curve at the bottom, but I felt brave, so away I went! After going about ten feet (no exaggeration), I realized I was losing control. I panicked, which involved locking my knees and becoming rigid. I soon plummeted straight off the trail and into the deep snow, my skis catching the snow and my body plunging in face first. I really don’t remember where my arms were. I felt a “snap!” where my right leg attaches to my body, and cried out in agony in spite of myself.
Thankfully, I recovered surprisingly quickly from that injury, but the memory of it kept creeping into my mind as I looked down that foreboding mountain (okay, bump) and contemplated skiing down it’s deadly face. But as scary as that was, it came in third on my scariness scale.
The scariest parts were the ski lift (“don’t look down!”) and watching some of the many elementary-age school kids who were there come rocketing down the hill, and trying not to get hit. They were supposed to go side-to-side, but instead they just flew straight down the hill with little or no control. My only falling incident was a reaction to one of those human missiles bearing down on me.
As far as pride goes, one thing that helped me cover up my insecurity was the fact that my eight-year-old daughter was scared, so I stuck with her, encouraging and “protecting” her. “It’s okay, Katja, I’ll stick with you!” Never mind that I didn’t want to go any faster than she did. As the day progressed, I became more confident, so I started to think I probably looked fairly cool while snowplowing down the easiest runs.
The Bible tells us that pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall, and just as I was getting a little puffed up, Katja decided she had enough of the big hill. So I courageously volunteered to accompany her on the bunny hill. It was here that I almost fell—twice. That was a great help in keeping my pride in check.
Oh, and that one time I did fall? As I was struggling back to my feet (again a wonderfully humbling endeavor), my 10-year-old whizzed by, casually calling out, “Hi, Dad!” Embarrassing.
So, my downhill skiing experience was full of lessons (I also learned that it’s really hard to use the restroom when wearing ski boots—at least if you need to sit down) and opportunities to overcome fear and pride.
In all, it was okay, but I don’t think I’ve found a new life-long passion.
Small Town Drivers
Just like John Mellencamp (or Cougar, or Cougar Mellencamp), I was born in a small town. And just like John Denver, I thank God I’m a Country Boy. I really don’t like living “in town,” much less in a large city. I lived in Moorhead, Minnesota (Population 39,000), for a few years while attending school. I didn’t like that. I lived in St. Paul, Minnesota (population 275,000) the first couple years Kendra and I were married. That was okay, but mostly because I was a newlywed. After two years we returned to God’s Country. Finally, I lived in Kyiv, Ukraine (population who knows? Three to five million). I liked that even less.
I’m so thankful to live where I do. The air is fresh, it’s quiet, the nights are dark and stars plainly visible. Ahh…. But it has its drawbacks. One is the lack of any non-government jobs that pay a half-ways decent salary. The other is drivers, specifically small town drivers.
North Dakota is infamous for its drivers, and rightly so. We Minnesotans brag that we’re better drivers than they are, but I live only fifty miles away from the Red River, and if we’re honest with ourselves, drivers here are almost as bad as North Dakota drivers.
There are the usual offenses, such as pulling out in front of an oncoming car and then driving fifteen miles per hour below the speed limit, failing to use turn signals, and tailgating. I have to admit I sometimes don’t use my signals either, but only when there are no other cars around—gotta save on the blinkers, you know.
But one thing people around here are utterly incompetent at is using intersections that have stop signs. The concept is simple: if two cars arrive at a four-way stop at the same time, the vehicle on the left yields to the vehicle on the right.
Apparently this is too complicated for a lot of people. How many times have you pulled to a stop even a second after the person to your right, and yet they sit there? Then they wave you on? Or better yet, you each make lurching stops, seeing who’s gonna make it across first?
Many people try to circumvent these awkward situations by slowing to a crawl when they see another car approaching the stop sign at about the same time. It’s like a race to see who can get there last.
The past eight months of driving at home has caused me to make a paradigm shift in my thinking. In the past, I’ve been adamant about how awful roundabouts are, having experienced them at length while living in Europe (see my book "Kyiv Diary"!).
I now have to admit, however, that there are certain intersections where roundabouts are a good idea. For you Detroit Lakes people, a couple prime examples are the intersections of Willow Street and Roosevelt Avenue, and the dreaded Frazee Street/McKinley Avenue intersection (by Central Market and Holiday). You don’t need long to observe all the behaviors I’ve described at either of those spots.
Let it be known that I don’t want to be like the British, who think a roundabout is necessary for every single place where two roads intersect. Ukrainians wisely use a combination of roundabouts and “regular” intersections (although they don’t have uniform rules for their roundabouts, which is confusing as can be). I still prefer stops signs and traffic lights in most situations, but there are places where it’s better to herd people through like cattle, rather than trust them to remember traffic rules they learned thirty years ago in Driver’s Ed.
Drive carefully, and remember to use your blinkers!
I've included some old blogs along with the new. Should you ever find yourself suffering from insomnia, this is the place for you! That's as poetic as I get...