What It Is


The thing is, it’s not about being good. Or good enough. Or better than.IMG_9998
It’s really not about a book of rules or a list of regulations, though so many think it is.
And the thing is, it’s not about dressing up, or posing or pretending to be something that you know you are not.

And it’s not about separating yourself from those who are seen as less than.
It’s not about avoiding the world.
(It’s also not about avoiding responsibility.)

And get this…It’s really not about “not being drunk” and “not cursing” and not “not doing” anything. (Though many of us think we were told that. Or were.)

And actually, and this is important: it is also not about “anything goes” or “it’s all relative.” Truth does matter. (Love is really love, not when it is blind, but when eyes are wide open.. and they see… and they love anyway.)

So, please know this: It’s not about condemning those who WE feel don’t get it. It is not about judgement. (That’s not our job.)
At the same time, it’s also not about ignoring sin. Or pretending there is no such thing. Or that sin doesn’t matter either. (It does. It kills us. And it kills our connection to each other. But notice, it does NOT kill our connection to God.)

It’s not about weakness or lifelessness or lack of joy (or fun, for that matter).
It’s not about perfect people or people trying to be perfect.
And it’s not about boredom, or lack of backbone or excuses to face reality.
That being said, it’s not about not having doubts.

The FACT is…
it is the most REAL relationship of truth you will ever experience.
And it is humbling and hard and exhilarating and challenging and joy-filled and frustrating and life-giving.

It is about getting over ourselves and giving it all away.

And it will take your heart, and mold it and refine it in the fire and turn you into a new person…
and you will die, a little… again and again and again.. through the course of your life.

And in this dying, God will…
forgive you
claim you
reshape you
mold you
and grow you.

God will grow you.

God will grow you into…
more love
more thought of others
more giving
less you.

More of HIM.

This is LIFE.

That’s what Christ is about.

That’s what Jesus is.

Christmas Show Live Performance DVD’s ARE HERE!

“Celebrate the Child” DVD’s Are Here!

Hot off the press, you can now order your own copy of “Celebrate the Child”… the Christmas drama I perform each year during the Advent and Christmas seasons. Written by Curt Cloninger and performed with his permission, this delightful and touching drama blends a variety of characters and carols for a deeply meaningful sharing of the Christmas story.  CtC Covers and DVD

I’ve added a bit of additional content and a message to this wonderful piece written by my friend and theatrical mentor, Curt. In the latter part of the program I speak about the reality of Jesus coming into our lives as Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father and Prince of Peace” and I encourage those listening to bring the gift of the Christ-child home with us to live in our hearts and lives throughout the year.

If you would like more information to consider bringing this production to your church, retreat or other event this year, please see the “TOURING PRODUCTIONS” page on this website and click on “Celebrate the Child”.

Thanks to all who came to the live performance this past December. It was a wonderful evening and I was so grateful to see so many friends and supporters there. You are a great gift and your encouragement and support is extremely appreciated.  DVD Front Cover

ORDER YOUR OWN COPY! If you would like to order your own copy of the DVD (or if you already ordered a DVD on the night of filming and have not yet received it!) please write to me at jonathan@paraphrasetheatre.com or call me at 319-431-9934 and we will get one to you immediately! The cost is $20 which includes postage. If you would like 2 or more, please lt me know and I will share discounts for multiple purchases. Some folks are already buying copies to give as Christmas presents next year. Fun idea.. and, of course, this helps to keep Paraphrase Theatre up and running. I appreciate your support, my fiends. Enjoy the DVD and Celebrate the Child!

Singing in the Rain

Singing in the RaidSinging in the Rain has always been one of my favorite movies.

I have a very distinct childhood memory of staying up late into the wee hours of the morning, with my Mother, watching Gene Kelly, Donal O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds sing and dance their hearts out in this movie during a PBS special broadcast. I was quite young at the time, but it made a permanent impression.. and helped shape my life-long love of musical theater.

Like everyone else who loves this movie, my favorite scene is the actual “Singin’ in the Rain” song and dance by Gene Kelly.  It’s a celebration of life that seems to be universally beloved.

Last night, as I sometimes do, I made a “spontaneous chat” video and posted it on my Facebook wall. Thought I would share it with you here as well.  If you watch it, you’ll see why my appreciation of this iconic scene runs deep. It means a great deal to me.

Hope you are doing some singin’ and dancin’ today yourself… whether in the rain OR the sun. It’s all good. And it’s all a gift.  Enjoy!

Here’s the video clip…

Singin’ in the Rain

The Moment

I think a lot of my non-Christian friends would love Jesus, if they met him. And I think a lot of my Christian friends might be surprised by who He is, when they do meet him, face to face, one day. I will be too. I have no doubt.  10494933_10154349376585711_6881386430041141523_o

I am guessing the whole “meet Jesus in Heaven” moment is going to stun all of us. Whatever box we’ve put God in… and whatever pre- or mis-conceptions we have, Jesus will surprise us all.

I think there might be some fear at first. Who are we to think there would not be? And then there will be a welcome love beyond anything we have ever known here on earth. Even the best of welcomes. A “flood of welcome.”

And more “life-per-second” than anything we have experienced thus far. An overwhelming sensation of being… ALIVE.

Reality and accountability too. An honest look-back at our lives, but with a driving force that looks to the future, not to the past. Accountability bathed in forgiveness. A radiant soul-penetrating forgiveness that does not deny the truth but immediately — after acknowledging — rushes in with an avalanche of grace.

And yes, this too: A transforming love. An “it-all-doesn’t-really-matter-as-much-as-I-thought-it-did-and-in-fact-I-am-not-even-sure-I-need-answers-to-the-most-intesnse-and-bitterness-filled-or-heartbreaking-of-questions-that-I-was-waiting-to-ask-God-when-I-got-to-this-moment” kind of heart-searing love.

What a moment that will be.

A little scary.

Out-of-this-world intense.

A whole lot of awesome.

“Pastor Jonathan” and “Pastor Jana” … 20 Years

Jana and I received cards from Luther Seminary this past week congratulating us (and honestly, reminding us) that June 28 was the 20th anniversary or our ordinations. I remember that night, two decades ago, at Roseville Lutheran, when so many of you joined us for that Holy moment. Thanks to many of you, family and friends…for being there then, and thanks for being there over the past twenty years.339120_10151121457525711_477638853_o

There have been some extreme highs in ministry, where one just sits back and is in awe of being called by God to the role of pastor. To those of you whom we were blessed to have as parishioners in the congregations where we served …. and now, to those of you we meet and do life with at Mount Carmel and through Kairos Consulting and Paraphrase Theatre … (and even, in its own way, those of you we keep up with and share life with here on Facebook) … thanks for inviting us into the moments of incredible joy in your life…. babies born, children and adults baptized, wacky unpredictable children’s messages, high schoolers confirmed, unforgettable retreats and mission trips, sharing the Gospel through spoken word, drama, music, art, and dance …. learning to serve in small groups and using our spiritual gifts. Learning to love and forgive. Weddings, anniversaries, renewed health, prayers for healing answered with a yes from God. What a privilege to be invited in to share those moments with you.

And what an HONOR it has been to be invited in to your darkest moments. Last days in the hospital, broken marriages — some repaired, some not… betrayals, self-doubt, addictions, questions, loss of faith, cancer, and of course… death. What an absolute gift.. hard as it may be at times… to stand beside you and pray as you say goodbye to those you love and lean in to the hope of the Gospel. We have laughed with you, cried with you, rejoiced with you, hurt with you, grown with you.

You have changed us, witnessed to us and made us stronger pastors through your honesty, forgiveness, patience and your faith in the midst of the tears.

And you… so many of you… have held us up in laughter and hugs and meals delivered and babysitting and financial support and sharing of scripture and songs when we could not sing and prayers when we could not pray.. and in private conversations of encouragement and words of affirmation when we could have given up… and oh, the outpouring of support as we walked through three very difficult journeys of serious health scares… first for me and then, twice, for Jana. Unbelievable support that reminded us that there IS a God of love, even when we might have, in our weakness been tempted to doubt. You have been there for us.

And for those who carried us through two very difficult times when fellow Christians and leaders in the church… or in the pew, in their weakness, failed to love well, with the love and faithfulness of Christ… you were there for us then too, and perhaps most powerfully. And you need to know that love and support is still very vivid in our minds and hearts, and we are eternally grateful.

Thanks, too, to my theatre friends.. both in the church and in the community theaters in the areas where we have lived and served. You often kept me balanced and healthy and laughing, when life and this calling could, at times, get heavy. You let me “play” and enjoy community and do the thing I love, with people I love. I am more grateful for that than you may realize. I VALUE our friendships and hope they will continue to grow.

Thanks, too, to Christina and Caitlyn. You have lived through one crazy ride… being a part of these callings, even though you never had a choice in the matter. You have seen your parents at their best and their worst.. using their strongest giftings and nearly giving in to their darker sin or pain. And yet, you have continued to love.. and to forgive and to understand that this is a very unique calling.. and your parents are human and often weak And yet, most amazing, you have kept the faith.. and continued to shine your lights for Christ SO very strongly in the worlds you run in. You have brought us, and SO many around you, more joy than you will ever know. Thanks for being the brightest spot in “Team Swenson” even though you had to grow up too quickly, at times, as a result of being pastor’s kids and as a result of the health struggles our family has endured. You are the greatest joy of our lives and the greatest reminders of God’s JOY and GRACE. Thank-you.

TH Lighthouse20 years. It has been the most joyful and most difficult of callings. We are grateful, still, to be called.. and grateful to share the journey with so many of you.

God’s peace and joy to you good friends. Carry on in Christ.

+ Jonathan

Ordinary Joe

Let’s just call him Joe. This would be appropriate, because his name is… well…. Joe.

But this ain’t no “Ordinary Joe.” Not on this night, especially.

Background: I am the Program Director here at Mount Carmel Family Camp and Retreat Center in Alexandria, MN.   It is my job, among a long list of other things, to schedule the events and activities of the week.  I try to line up a nice combination of silly fun, meaningful worship, Bible study, family time, music, drama, meals, games and planned joyfulness.  It is a crazy, stressful, exhausting and delightful gig.

And so, along with some wonderfully gifted young adults on staff, I create the weekly schedule.  And then, in the midst of MY plans, God shows up and does something far better than anything I, or anyone else, had planned.

Enter Joe. At the talent show. Wednesday night. Two-thirds of the way down the list.

Context:  This weekly extravaganza of “talent” can be counted on to feature the usual suspects: budding “not-yet-ready-for-primetime- but-you-gotta-start-somewhere” 8-yr. old singers, a soulful teenager on guitar, a silly skit from the summer staffers, a senior citizen telling a few jokes… you get the picture.  It is all great fun, but nothing too terribly profound.  And so it was this past Wednesday night. Until Joe showed up.  And God said, “Let’s turn this moment into something Holy.”

So I announce Joe’s number from the back of the room.  “Our next act is JOE STEVENS! (That’s not his real last name, but you get the picture.) I was using my best “Let’s get ready to rumble” announcer voice.  Everyone applauded. But no one came to the stage.  To encourage Joe, I started chanting into the mic, “Joe! Joe! Joe! Joe!” and encouraged the audience to join me.

Truth be told, I didn’t yet know Joe’s unique situation. I was just having fun encouraging whomever this next camper was, to get over what appeared to be a slight case of stage-fright.  I thought the audience might help me.  And they did.

“Joe! Joe! Joe!”  But still … no go for Joe.

I wait a bit longer. The chanting dies down and then I see a man…  not a child or teenager… a man… step up to the stage.  He looked normal.  A little shy, perhaps, but ready to perform.

And then, standing down-front center stage, he seemed to hesitate for a moment, then quietly blurted something into the microphone that I couldn’t quite understand.  I was later told that he had said, twice, “I think I need help.”

One of our other staffers who knew more about the situation than I did quickly whispered to our group of college-age staffers in the back of the room, that Joe needed some help.  To my surprise but great appreciation two of our guy counselors… both strong, well-liked, jock-types…. jumped up immediately and ran to the stage to help Joe out.

So, there they were… suddenly standing on either side of Joe, and facing the audience.. with Joe holding the microphone between the three of them.  I don’t think these two had a clue what was going to happen, or how they were going to help. I certainly didn’t.

And then, Joe started to sing.

It was not what I, or the two guys, or anyone else there, expected. It was the ABC Song.  No joke. No spoof or “camp skit” version where there was going to be a sudden twist or a surprise ending. Just the ABC Song.


I finally realized, hearing the pattern and tone of Joe’s voice and now noticing his demeanor more closely, that Joe has some sort of mental challenge that probably sets him back a bit, by academic and social standards… but puts him at the front of the class in God’s classroom.  (Not sure if you’ve noticed, but God tends to use the “less-than-expected” to do his coolest stuff.)

So, Joe starts singing the ABC’s. And to my .. and everyone else’s delight…. these two jocks start singing with him.  (Both of these guys DO have hearts of gold, by the way. I failed to mention that. But, still, this was unexpected.)  And suddenly, because these two are totally comfortable in joining in with Joe, the whole room starts joining in as well. And now, the entire place … the whole staff and all our weekly campers, young and old… are now singing the ABC Song.

And it is beautiful.

And I have to tell you, in all honesty, though my creative team of staffers and I planned some pretty cool stuff throughout the week, there was… at least for me (and I suspect I was not alone) no more “Holy” moment than THIS moment, in the silly little talent show… with this act called “Joe”… two-thirds down the list.

There is joy in Christian community when we love each other well and share the journey, and welcome and embrace and hold onto Christ at the center. In this particular moment, the way God did that was to have two young “cool-dude” men stand beside a man a few years older who probably never made the “cool” list back in high school.  And together, they sang the ABC’s. And everyone joined in. And God marked it as Divine.

Okay, I am a sap. We all know that by now. But I will admit, back in my AV booth, in the corner of the room, with my microphone now silent, I cried just a little. And I am fairly certain I was not alone.

God chooses the simple to work the profound. I love it when God does that. These things happen often here at Mount Carmel. And they happen in your world too, when you take the time to stop and look and listen for them. God takes the ordinary and makes it extraordinary.


Ordinary Joe turned Extraordinary Joe.

We serve a very cool God.



The “Holy Spirit With Fur On”



Note: Our beloved Beagle, Daisy, died yesterday.  She had been increasingly lethargic on Thursday. Eating and drinking nothing. We began to worry. I took her to the vet yesterday and we soon learned Daisy’s liver was filled with several small cancerous tumors, some of which were spilling blood into her stomach. The kindest (and hardest) thing we could do was to let her go. Tears, hugs, kisses and thank-you’s all took place in the afternoon.. and by 4:30pm, we were saying a final goodbye.  It was terribly, terribly hard.  I wrote the following thoughts this morning — the first morning without our dear, fuzzy friend…

It is 4:45am and I wake up.  

I wake up because it is completely quiet.

I wake up because there is no scratching at the door, no light whimpering and no pawing at my feet to let a little rascal with four feet out the door to pee…. and really, to have the excuse to force me to give her an early morning treat.  Anything for a treat… Daisy at Gooseberry Falls

I used to complain about these early morning wake-up calls.  Two days ago, I complained about this early morning wake-up call. 

I would give anything to complain about it again.  And to have that four-legged friend climb back into bed, her tummy now full, as we settled back in for a few more winks, together… she keeping me warm on a cold winter’s morn.

I must admit, even as one who has spent most of his adult life in a career that involves comforting people through loss, I underestimated the degree of grief one feels in this moment.  Everything so many of you have written is true. These little “people” with fur and four legs actually DO become one of the family.  And to lose her, so suddenly… 

Wow. It hurts.  257440_10150643129565711_7478786_o

Daisy saw us through a lot as a family.  Caitlyn was eight years old when we first got her, and she (Caitlyn) had been traumatized by a neighbor’s large black lab as a toddler. That dog had gotten into our back porch one afternoon where Caitlyn was playing and, actually just being playful, had jumped up on Caitlyn and knocked her down. Little Cait was scared to death and became quite frightened of any canine thereafter for several years. She used to climb up Jana or my legs like a telephone poll and scramble to nearly sitting on top of our heads when she would see any dog… even from a distance in the park. Because of that traumatic experience as a toddler, she was legitimately terrified of dogs.

Daisy was the dog that broke that curse for Cait.

Jana, Christina and Caitlyn were driving by a pet store in Apple Valley, MN in the summer of 2004… we were living in Lakeville at the time…. and they saw a “Last Hope Adoption” sign and decided, on a whim, to go in and check it out.  When they walked in the store, the first dog they saw was a lovable, beautiful little beagle … about 2 yrs old, who had apparently been mistreated by her owners and needed someone to love her well.  Little did we know the degree to which the tables would be turned, and the reverse would be true. She was about to love US so well. SO very well, indeed.

 I believe Christina was drawn to Daisy in that pet store first… but to Jana’s shock and surprise, Caitlyn also walked right up to this little Beagle, and was instantly, completely at peace. (She had a grade school friend who owned a beagle.. and apparently had started to get a bit more comfortable with this breed of dog… and this breed alone!  The future had been set. This was meant to be…) 

Between this shocking, sudden change in our little Caitlyn Grace … and Jana and Christina’s immediate love of this adorable little Beagle… the deal was done. They say they tried to call me at work to get my opinion, but I don’t think they tried very hard.  J When I arrived home that afternoon, all three ladies in my life were standing, waiting for me in the driveway with very curious smiles on their faces which I couldn’t quite interpret. They followed me, silently, as I walked into the house , down the hallway and into the kitchen where I saw the cutest little pup I can remember ever meeting.  I remember saying, “There is a dog in our kitchen. Why is there a dog in our kitchen?”  They laughed, Daisy cuddled up to me, and I was won over in 30 seconds flat.  Never looked back. I fell in love with her instantly, just like my three Blondies had. 

2677_151404790710_3694935_nDon’t get me wrong. Daisy was rascal. She was a Beagle through and through. We never really could get her fully trained to obey us much… and she loved to bolt out the door and run, run, run after anything that moved… anything that looked even remotely close to resembling a squirrel or a rabbit.  She could run for miles… and we spent many a summer night in that part of Lakeville, chasing her down after one of her breakaways out the front door.  She could be moody and loud and stubborn. Just like the rest of our family. So, I guess she fit right in.  And we loved her for it. 886471_10153530912685711_2045323255_o

We have been through some incredible highs in life these past ten years, but also through some very dark valleys. As the Blondies grew from spunky little kids to beautiful young-adult beauties, Daisy was there for all of us, through all of it. Though the good, the bad and the ugly, Daisy was a constant source of unconditional love, companionship, and comfort… SUCH comfort. She brought laughter and joy to all of us, but especially to Jana… as Daisy stayed by her side through not one, but TWO bouts with cancer… including two rounds of chemo and one round of radiation.  Their daily routine, for the past ten years, healthy or sick, was for Jana to get her cup of coffee, grab her Bible and sit down in her big cozy chair with Daisy by her side, as “together” they read the Bible and prayed through the valley of the shadow of death.

301347_10150857131210711_1774825935_nDuring the past 10 years Daisy also saw us through two very difficult battles in congregations we served where the human side of the church got ugly… and our family was, in some ways, hung out to dry. In those two experiences, where it would have been easy to lose our faith and wonder where God was in it all, it was a group of trusted Christian friends and parishioners, along with our family… and yes… very much the constant, and unquestioning love of God as shown through a little Beagle… that helped to pull us through and remain afloat… in the midst of the spiritual and emotional storm.  We used to call her “the Holy Spirit with fur on” and, I for one… do not think it is a coincidence … as silly as it sounds, that “DOG” is the same word as “GOD” spelled backwards.  :)

 So, we miss her.  We really miss her. Already.339120_10151121457525711_477638853_o

 And I will never underestimate, again, the pain of friend or a parishioner who loses a dear, beloved pet. As much of rascal and a character that she was… she represented a present, “incarnational” love from God that, quite simply, was and is irreplaceable. 

 So, it is now 5:30am… and I can’t go back to sleep.

Good-bye little friend who woke me up too early every morning.  We loved you so very much. And you loved US… SO very well, little “last hope” Beagle.

Thank-you, Daisy.  We will remember… YOU gave US hope.  335377_10150926459170711_2089841858_o

And we are forever grateful.