Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Review: Unchained by Noel Jesse Heikkinen


A couple of weeks ago, I was skimming through my Twitter feed, and I noticed somebody writing about a book that Noel Jesse Heikkinen wrote called Unchained: If Jesus Has Set Us Free, Why Don't We Feel Free. I thought that the title was intriguing, and I have known Noel for several years and I have always been impressed by the thoughtful ways he communicates our common faith. While we have never had any lengthy one on one conversations, I have appreciated his authenticity and his unconventional speaking style. David C. Cook Publishing sent me this copy and I really wanted to read the book quickly and get a review up. Noel is primary preaching pastor at Riverview Church near Lansing, Michigan, and serves as the board chair for the mission agency I used to work for, Reliant.

First off, I'm grateful for the fact that Noel writes in the same style that he speaks. His wit is ever present, and his way of providing a fresh look at faith in practice has been one of the best aspects of this book. The focus of the book is looking at multiple facets of freedom that come from faith in Jesus, and the irony that many who practice the Christian faith are not experiencing this freedom in their daily lives.

But the book starts a few steps before this freedom to talk about what it is to not be free, and what we have been freed from and for. Noel shares both personal story, examples from pop culture and history, and quite a wide array of scripture to ensure that his points are made. The book walks through what exactly Jesus has freed people from, and also explains some of the ways we exchange our freedom for various forms of slavery. Noel provides counterarguments for some of the popular misunderstandings and errors in thinking that lead people to submit themselves to what amounts to slavery to new activities, slavery to guilt, and slavery to shame (among other forms of slavery). He also differentiates a popular definition of freedom that is very self centered from a definition that opens up the fact that our freedom exists in a place where we have never been, and makes it hard for us to comprehend what it even means.

Noel unpacks very thoughtfully and thoroughly the challenges experienced by what theologians call our positional and our conditional realities, and he unpacks these not as an academic, but as a fellow sojourner and "recovering hypocrite" who wants to see others set free from guilt and shame so that they can live a more joy-filled life of faith. He doesn't prescribe a list of practices that make this transition possible, because that in itself can become another form of slavery; rather he points out the fact that this freedom is the Christian's reality, whether they feel like it or not.

As good as the text itself is, I really love the fact that this book has discussion/reflection questions at the end of each chapter. Sometimes, it is really easy to speed through a book, but not take time to consider deeply what one reads. I know that unless I intentionally carve out space to reflect, it is all too easy to be on to the next topic, book, blog, or activity.

In addition, the afterword of the book was very different from any afterword I've ever read. I won't tell you what it says--you'll have to read it yourself, but the content of the afterword really says something about Noel's faith, and his desire for other people, especially but not only his friends, to experience it and experience it richly.

Regardless of one's faith perspective, I believe readers will enjoy Noel's writing style, his heavy (but not overwhelming) use of scripture to make his case, as well as his wit and humor as they take time to savor the truths being presented by the text.


Monday, August 21, 2017

Reflection: Squash Blossom 2017


This year marks ten years of keeping a small vegetable garden at the house and of enjoying its produce. But there's something more than the productivity of this truck patch that I have enjoyed over this past decade, and that is the beauty of the growth. Each year I have carved out time (even if it is just a few seconds) in the early morning to savor the beauty of the emergence of the squash blossom. My Shawnee ancestors and many other indigenous peoples have also made a practice of enjoying this natural beauty, and even incorporating it into jewelry, beadwork, and quillwork designs. It is also a tasty delicacy that can be enjoyed during the summer as a portent of more food to come from the various plants of this small garden.

These flowers are a gift that are shared most readily with those who wake up early to see the blossom fully opened. As the day progresses, the blossoms close, and so not everyone gets to witness these plants in their full splendor. Not everyone wakes up early. The squash blossoms do not grow alone, but there are clusters of these flowers along each squash vine, some of the blossoms have squash attached, and others are simply the blooms themselves. And yet, each one contributes to the strength, growth, and development of the plant.

I savor the early morning moments I have each year with the squash blossom as well as the rest of the garden. In a college town, things seem to get moving pretty quickly, and there are many blessings to be found in the stillness and the quiet in the early morning hours. The blessings don't stop as the day moves forward; they just change in their shape and texture. Like the blessing of watching my ten month old daughter enjoy a tomato fresh from the vine.


Seeing her enjoy this makes me wonder if that was part of why my dad worked so hard in our gardens growing up. Not only did he get to watch the blessings of growth and development happen after seeds were planted in the garden, but he also had the joy of watching us kids run out to the garden to grab a tomato or a green onion or some other snack after school. There's a blessing that comes from being able to provide for others, especially when we can see that provision savored. It kind of reminds me of this video that Nuru made a few years ago highlighting the story of one of the farmers in Kenya with whom we worked, Joshua.



There are many blessings to be discovered and enjoyed as we spend time with the earth, and learn to be better stewards of the small corners where we live. I don't know if you have ever planted a garden or not, but there is a bounty beyond the early and late harvests to be found in working with the soil. Whether or not you plant a garden, may you find time in your day to savor and enjoy the beauty that the Creator has strewn all around us!



Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Remembering Mom And Celebrating A Legacy



It's been exactly ten years since family and friends were called to say our final goodbyes to my mom as she fought tenaciously for ten months in a battle she finally lost to stage four breast cancer. As I think back to those last few days with her on this earth, there was so much of who she was becoming being manifest to each of us. She was looking forward into eternity and encouraging us with every step as her time in this world was drawing short. A few days after the announcement had come that she had a maximum of six months without treatment and a maximum of 18 months with treatment, she shared with one of her fellow church members during a time of church-wide prayer for their healing, "No matter what happens, we win!" Her attitude was infectiously positive even in the middle of trying circumstances. She always set her sights on what was possible and encouraged others to do the same in every aspect of life. She was the kind of person that people write songs about, and in fact, my best friend in the whole world, Willie, did just that.



My mom left this world at age 61 after 43 years of marriage, but I can't really bring myself to say that she died. As the philosopher Dallas Willard has said, "We are each unceasing spiritual beings with an eternal destiny in God's great universe." And as another philosopher and writer C.S. Lewis has said, "You have never met a mere mortal." When my mom left this world to be with Jesus, we mourned her departure, and celebrated the small part of her life we witnessed. And in those few years from then until now, I believe that each of us who knew her has tried to imitate her faith. You see, we can't live our lives in exactly the same way, but we can be imitators of the faith that we witness in those around us and those who have come before us. In some ways, that is one of the most beautiful gifts we can carry, and we can pass on to others who will walk this world long after we have breathed our last.





So much has happened in these last ten years. Her oldest grandchild graduated from a prestigious institution of higher learning, and her youngest grandchild only recently was born. My dad, my sister, my brother, and myself have each sought to deepen and enrich our own walks of faith, and live as a sign, a foretaste, and an instrument of God's Kingdom come, and His will being done on earth as it is in heaven--to the best of our ability.

There have been so many incredible experiences I've had over these last ten years that I wish I could share with my mom. I wish she would have been able to spend more time with Jamie, and celebrate with us on our wedding day. I wish she could have been able to meet Sylvia, and hold her and be one more experienced voice encouraging my wife as she entered into the joys and anxieties that are unique to motherhood. I wish I could have shared just a few of the photos, stories, and adventures I've been privileged to enjoy over these last ten years.

But its not just the stories from my life that I'd love to share. I wish she could see what a disciplined athlete my sister has become, and how her life has flourished over these last few years as she started running and winning trophies for her exploits on roads and trails. I wish she could have seen Dad heroically come back from a heart attack that would have killed most people. She would have loved to have seen the way he fought back and strengthened his heart, and how he gives so generously of himself to care for each of us kids and for so many others. And I wish she could see what a servant leader my brother has continued to be as well. She would have been so impressed with his recent 90 mile bike ride and the way he has led the carpool van for his work by waking up a little after 4AM every weekday for nearly 20 years to drive 8-10 coworkers over an hour to work.

Not that she wasn't proud of us before these last ten years, because she definitely was. She was a huge source of encouragement and inspiration for just about every person with whom she crossed paths. Moments of loss, as painful as they are, remind us to walk gently on this earth, and to love others deeply while we can. Seeing my mom in those last hours, unrelenting in her care for each of us as friends and family gathered in prayer, mourning and strange as it may seem, laugher, those images have become seared in my memory and in my own internal compass as I continue to seek to imitate her persevering and unshakeable tenacity and faith. Even until her last breath, she loved deeply, she ran her race strong, and she never wavered in her care for the rest of us.

If you knew my mom, you know what a special lady she was. And if you didn't, I hope you get the privilege of meeting her one day. Mom's have a special relationship with their children, and while each of us continues to live out our life with zeal and determination, I think each one of us kids (and Dad too), has those moments to this day, when all is quiet, and we have at the same time a deep sense of loss, and a deeper sense of appreciation for each moment we have.

May each of us walk gently on this earth, filled with compassion for others, and with a deep sense of awe for this beautiful place and the wonderful relationships with which the Creator of the universe has blessed each of us. And, may He give each of us space, as we need it, to grieve fully and fearlessly for those, like my mom, who have gone on to be with Jesus before us.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Celebrating Six Amazing Years of #TeamWilliams


It is a rainy Saturday morning as I sit down to write. Jamie is sleeping in after a long night where sleep was not her friend as she did what she always does so incredibly well. She gave of herself to serve others—this time it was for our precious daughter Sylvia. And, right now, Sylvia is in a Líllé carrier strapped to my chest, sleeping restfully as well.

It was a rainy Friday on the day when we made our vows before Jesus and a small gathering of family, and friends. God gave us so many incredible gifts that day! First and foremost, He gave us the gift of each other. I don’t think either of us had any idea of the adventures God had in store for us as we stood on the shore of Lake Floyd looking at each other with tears of joy as we began this incredible journey. And, although it was a rainy Friday when we made these vows, God opened the skies over our outdoor wedding festivities while it continued raining in communities all around us. What an incredible gift! What an array of incredible gifts He has carefully placed along the path we walk together, always following His lead!

Earlier this morning I sat down to read my Bible, and the story was of Jesus’ first documented miracle. He was celebrating at a wedding in a place called Cana in an area called Galilee when He turned water into wine. And it wasn’t just any wine, the master of the feast said it was the best wine—and it was strange to him, because this best wine was being served last instead of in the beginning of the celebration. Jesus did his part to enable the celebration to continue (if he had not intervened, the wedding party would have run out of wine), and not only did He do his part, but He insured that this feast had the very best He could provide.

And now as we celebrate the anniversary of our own wedding, we are so filled with gratitude. Jesus continues to lead us in our celebration, and as we follow Him we are blessed with so much more than we could have ever imagined. And this year, we celebrate in simplicity close to home, enjoying our growing family, and cherishing gifts we have been given that are too many to count, especially the wonderful gift of each other.



My best friend in the whole world, Willie, wrote the song in the video above for us on our wedding day, and the words ring as true today as they did on that warm spring evening six years ago amid the flourishing of the Creator’s beautiful world.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Earth Day 2017



I would say that it all started forty-seven years ago with the first Earth Day celebration, but that kind of short-sighted view of history might miss the bigger picture. It was 47 years ago that people around the world "officially" started setting aside a day to think about and take action with regard to creation care and stewardship,  but I feel like that day and those continuing practices have been taking place throughout history with human beings working in relationship with the land, and trusting this relationship, to a degree, to yield a bountiful harvest among other things. I believe this is a remarkably old idea; the Bible's opening chapters tell the story of a man and a woman working in a garden, naming the animals, and being entrusted with the care of creation, so again, it seems that this practice is not new as much as it is one of the most ancient practices of the world.

Each year Jamie and I try to think about ways we can "lower our footprint," live a little more simply, and do our part to care for the environment. We always have done this with a thoughtful focus not only on our own lives but on those of future generations as well. But now, with the arrival of Sylvia in our life, these steps have a more immediate and tangible inheritance being considered. What kind of world are we stewarding for our daughter's generation, and her grandchildren's grandchildren?

Here are a few practices we have historically engaged in as well as some new ones for 2017. It is my hope in sharing them, that there may be one or two you would want to start as well.

1) Consume less energy in the home. This takes various forms in our home, but one of the simplest is that we strive to turn off lights when we are not in the room. We also have devices that operate by remote like our TV plugged into a power strip, so we can turn off the power strips and reduce "phantom charge" as these appliances are constantly using a trickle of electricity any time they are plugged in. We have also converted many of our lights from incandescent to CFL and then to LED bulbs. Doing this is not only good for caring for the environment, but it also saves money.

2) Walk and spend time outside when possible. You know what else saves money? Walking instead of driving when possible. Thankfully, Jamie and I live in the middle of a town where we can walk just about anywhere we need to go locally. By doing this we are not only saving money on gas, but we also are getting regular exercise. And there's so much cool stuff to see outside!

3) Buy locally. Since 2013, Jamie and I have been members of a local CSA called Mountain Harvest Farm. The farm is run by a former Peace Corps worker (who also happens to be friends with one of my teammates at Nuru), and her husband. Buying locally means that we are supporting local businesses, the food we eat does not have to be shipped hundreds (if not thousands) of miles for us to enjoy, and as funny as it might sound, it tastes better too!

4) Plant a garden. Since 2007, we've had a little truck patch outside the house where we grow corn, beans, squash, zucchini, tomatoes, collard greens, brussels sprouts, and sundry other foods. Similar to buying local food, growing your own food tastes better. There's nothing quite like being able to pick and eat a tomato right off the plant. Also, as Sylvia grows, spending time in the garden with her will help her develop an understanding of our relationship with the land.

5) Buy renewable energy certificates. A little over a month ago, thanks to a friend's post on Facebook, we discovered Arcadia Power. This company allows you to purchase renewable energy certificates. We made the switch to paying our electric bill through Arcadia Power, and have seen very little difference in our monthly bill while we are investing in renewable wind energy. Switching to Arcadia from your current provider only takes about five minutes, and you can either switch to 50% wind power for FREE (you read that correctly), or go to 100% wind energy for typically $5-10 more than your current bill. Intrigued? Check them out!

6) Use an electric or reel mower. The year we got married, I bought a high-powered gas mower, and it was plagued with problems over the five years we kept it. Four years ago, we transitioned to a reel mower, and while we love it, our travel frequency made cutting grass (particularly in the spring) a bit more labor and time intensive. My friend Stu told me about his electric mower, and offered to let me borrow it and take it for a test drive. After that experience, we drove to Home Depot and invested in an E-Go Mower. That mower doesn't need gas, and it cuts better than any mower I've ever used!

7) Repair or replace heating and cooling units. With the addition of Sylvia to our family, we decided to take a look at replacing our furnace and air conditioner. I called Grogg's Heating and Air Conditioning, and they came to the house and gave us an estimate for replacing/repairing. During the visit we found out that our furnace was nearly 50 years old, and our air conditioner was nearly 30. We also learned about how much units have improved in efficiency over the last 30-50 years and we have invested in replacements from Grogg's. In addition to having more high efficiency units, Jamie and I have also practiced keeping the set temperatures a little higher in the summer and lower in the winter to both save money and reduce energy use.

These are just a few of the practices we have in place in an effort to practice good stewardship, and I thought I'd share them as an encouragement to you on Earth Day. In my view, stewardship is a daily practice, but days like Earth Day help us each to stop and consider ways we can make improvements. May we each continue in the longstanding tradition of stewardship, and may this Earth Day find you celebrating family and this wonderfully created world in which we live!

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Reflection: International Women's Day 2017

Today is International Women's Day, and all over the world people are advocating for and celebrating various endeavors aimed at improving the lives of women and girls, and because of that, I was tempted to not write and add to the mix, but then my conscience got the better of me. You see, the world needs every one of us to raise our voices for what is right and just and good for all. As the ancient Hebrew prophet Micah has said, "What is required of you but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God." 

When children do not have the opportunity to receive an education, and specifically 130 million girls, that's an injustice. When a person's place of birth can mean the denial of basic opportunities to have meaningful choices and improve their livelihoods, that's an injustice. When we choose to do nothing when we have the tools and the resources to literally transform lives, that's an injustice. 

Jamie and I have been privileged to be able to travel to Kenya and Ethiopia with Nuru International and witness firsthand the impact that programs are making in the lives of women and girls. Last year on International Women's Day, Jamie was able to meet with Feven Yimer, one of Nuru's Ethiopian staff members who has been leading the design and implementation of Nuru's programs to address education in the southern highlands of Ethiopia. Feven moved from her nation's capital into a remote, rural area of Ethiopia because she was very aware of the opportunities that open up for children and girls in particular when they have access to basic education. In her team's design of programs she has successfully advocated for sex-segregated latrines in the public schools in the communities where Nuru is working. This gesture which may seem small, will open the door for more girls to come to school. Feven and her team have established book banks in local schools as well as in community cooperatives where children can check out books and practice reading and developing literacy in their native tongue, in their national language, and even in English. Feven is one of many champions for justice and incredible women Jamie and I have met in our travels.

Back in 2012, we had the privilege of meeting Mama Susan in her butcher shop in Mabera, Kenya. Mama Susan was skeptical and distrustful of Nuru when it first launched in her community, but then she witnessed the life change wrought in her neighbors' livelihoods when for the first time they had a surplus of food that they had produced, they had developed savings, and they were sending their children (boys AND girls) to school because they could afford uniform and book fees for the first time. Mama Susan began participating in Nuru's programs, and through the training she received, she not only improved her family's livelihood, but she was able save money to launch her own business, a butcher shop. She is just one of thousands of people whose life has been changed for the better by Nuru's work. 


Last week, Jamie, Sylvia, and myself were able to spend time on Capitol Hill visiting the offices of our elected representatives as part of our efforts with an incredible organization started by Bono called the ONE campaign. Our purpose was very simple. We wanted to encourage our representatives to support legislation to make education more readily available for girls everywhere, AND we wanted to encourage them to not cut federal funding (which makes up less than 1% of our budget) for poverty eradication efforts globally.

Speaking of Sylvia, when I think about her in light of International Women's Day, I find myself desiring even more to be an advocate and encouraging others to do the same. Just by the grace of where she was born, she has access to incredible healthcare and education opportunities. I know that family and friends would rally to support us no matter where in the world she was born, because that is part of our shared humanity and part of what I believe it is to be made in the image of our Creator. But if we were born in another place, her education opportunities would be a question mark. If we were born in another place, we might have a significant hike just to arrive at a healthcare facility, and then, we might be disappointed and desperate to find that they had run out of medicine while we were waiting. Because we have access to a variety of healthy foods (some of which we have grown ourselves), Sylvia is able to receive nutritious meals from her mom through exclusively breastfeeding during these critical first six months of her life.

So today, if you are looking for an action to take in honor of International Women's Day (and even if you aren't), I want to give you three actions you can take. Truthfully, you can take these actions any day, but why not today? As an ancient proverb says, "Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and He will repay him for his deed." So here are the three actions.

1) Join ONE. Just sign up to become a member, and they will let you know additional steps you can take to be an advocate wherever you are.
2) Record a #GirlsCount video. Join the count and help create the longest film ever AND advocate for the 130 million girls who do not have access to basic education.
3) Donate to Nuru. Jamie and I have both directly witnessed the impact of financial support to Nuru's work, and we would love to have you join us in supporting this work.

Whatever you choose to do, Jamie and I thank you in advance, and we look forward to seeing the outcome of our work together to bring meaningful choices to even more of our brothers and sisters around the world. May your own life be enriched by your choice to make a difference!

Monday, February 13, 2017

Reflection: Making Space



Every year, Jamie and I spend time together setting goals and reflecting on how we fared on our previous year's goals. In past years, I feel like I have personally been able to get those goals to paper with a moderate degree of speed, but this year, it seems that we both have been carrying our goals and our reflections in our head more than we have been putting them to paper. It has been a time of major transition as we adjust to what it means to be a father and a mother, but we still have our goals, and we are making some headway. I'm sure every parent transitions into this new role in a series of adjustments, and maybe those adjustments become more accurately described as adaptations as life takes on new color and dimension with new life.

One theme of our goals that has endured as long as we have been together has been the theme of simplicity. One could also call this goal the goal of making space. As I think about it, that's definitely an aspect of simplicity, and one which it seems there is dire need of in our lives. Whether it is making space in our homes or in our habits, all of our "habitations" or places and spaces in which we dwell, are very easily filled.

We each have been granted a gift (among many) from our Creator limited in scope from our birth. That gift is time. We have a limited number of days in a week, and hours in a day, just like we have a limited amount of space in our homes. Without some degree of intentionality and development, our time and our spaces become packed, congested, cluttered, full, and sometimes even suffocating. We can get caught up in checking our Twitter feeds, our Facebook streams, and our emails as our mobile devices continue to send us notifications from a wide array of apps and tools. We can gather more and more activity and more and more material goods, and crowd out the space for enjoyment of these activities and goods.

So what is the solution to the problem of filling our habitations with activity and clutter? I believe the answer lies in simplicity. What do I mean by simplicity? For me, I believe simplicity means exercising my ability to say no to busyness, say no to activity, and say no to holding on to items that could be bringing joy to others, and that have served their purposes in our home and life (books and clothes probably rank highest here). Simplicity also means saying no to distractions. It means refraining from checking email, Facebook, Twitter, or other 'news feeds' before or after a certain hour of day. (Jamie just recently made me aware of how I've slid into this habit over the last few months, and I'm grateful for her insight.) It means keeping the TV covered up for the most part, and making watching television into a special occasion or treat.

As a result of this line of thinking, Jamie and I have (among other things) made a habit of going through clothes and books and giving them away so they can have new life and bring more people joy. Each year, we give away bags of clothes, and the incredible thing is that we have never seemed to run short of something to wear. Each year, we take a hard look at the goods we have been blessed with, express our gratitude for them, and say goodbye to some of them.

And while this is healthy and good, I'll have to admit, that making space, whether physical or in time, is also challenging. When we looked back on our year last year, there was so much happening. And after a time of incredible busy-ness, at least for me, one of the hardest things to do is to slow down and to make space. Busy-ness becomes the norm, and then it feels weird to have space where something isn't happening whether it is a project moving forward or a new goal to conquer. But, I know that I need that space--we all do. It's probably one of the reasons that God gave humanity the practice, the space, and the commandment of Sabbath.

May we all create space for enjoyment, for reflection, for simplicity, and slow down on our desire to fill all of our moments with activity and acquisition. May we each slow down for a few moments to enjoy being present to what is happening in us and around us, caring for our souls and our world in the process.