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.

“A-B-C-D-E-F-G…”

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.

A-B-C.

Ordinary Joe turned Extraordinary Joe.

We serve a very cool God.

 

 

The “Holy Spirit With Fur On”

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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.

2013 – Bummer Year or Great Year?

2013 – Bummer Year or Great Year?
Van Accident 2013
• I continued to work at about half of the income I used to make as a pastor, which, as you may know, ain’t exactly the lap of luxury to begin with. 
• I continued to be able to develop my dream of a faith-based drama ministry locally, and nationally. I am doing what I love to do and getting paid for it and making a difference in people’s lives, possibly for eternity. The dramas are being well received, the word continues to spread… and more and more offers are coming in. I worked with some amazing fellow performers this Christmas, producing the first local ensemble show. The dream continues to grow. (Also, a good number of days, I get to wear pajamas to work. This is a great added-bonus that cannot be ignored.)

• My wife was diagnosed with a recurrence of Breast Cancer and was in treatments from April through early September.
• My wife kicked cancer’s butt… for the second time.

• My family pinches pennies and gets creative to continue to pay bills and afford college. We work multiple jobs. We pull things together to cover insurance needs. Things break. Needed home and car repairs happen. Hospital bills skyrocket. We are on the road often and don’t always see each other as much as we would like. We sometimes fail to love each other well.
• At the end of the day, our family does love each other. We have jobs. Our girls are amazing. And healthy. And are actually crazy enough to still love and talk with and enjoy their parents. They have awesome schools, the greatest friends, amazing teachers and mentors. They were both honored with positions of “royalty” by their peers this year and are generally happy and blessed in life.

• My Mom died this summer. I/we miss her terribly. Christmas was harder than I would have imagined. Lots of silent tears. I have counseled people in grief for years, but that does not take away the pain when it happens to you.
• My Mom knew Jesus Christ as her Savior. I will see Mom again. This is just a waiting period. We cried hard at her funeral. We also laughed hard. This ain’t the end of the story.

• I was in a nearly fatal car accident that totaled our van.
• God saved me from a nearly fatal car accident that totaled our van.

• For any number of reasons, I was not cast in a show that I have been waiting to be in for nearly 28 years. My “dream” show. Easy to find or make-up excuses why or forget that it was also nearly every other actor’s dream show. Could also be easy to forget the fact that I did not do as well in the audition as I would have liked or am capable of doing.
• I have been blessed throughout my life to get cast, almost always, in the roles I hoped and dreamed for. I am blessed to live in a community with great talent, great fellow-performers for friends, and a nearly endless supply of performing opportunities. And did I mention the fact that I was in a nearly fatal car accident a few weeks ago? Puts not getting cast in a play (for whatever reason) in perspective.

Tonight, my wife, my two daughters and I will go to bed warm. We will not be hungry or sick. We will likely sleep well, in a very nice house that the majority of the world (outside the USA) would call a mansion. By more than two-third’s of the world’s standards (outside the U.S.), we are wealthy beyond imagination. It is only in comparing myself to other materialistically-minded Americans that I can be foolish enough to think life would be happier with “more”.

Bummer Year or Great Year?

Thanks for helping me rethink this thing, Lord. I will probably continue to need you to remind me, though, foolish man that I am.

Looking forward to 2014… and whatever rollercoaster life will continue to bring.

So bring it on, Lord. Let’s do this thing. Thanks for the ride this year, and thanks for keeping me around to ride it.

Happy New Year, friends. May you, also, know that you are blessed and may you always know that you, too, are loved. May God gives us all perspective.

See you in 2014.

+ Jonathan

Love is Patient, Love is Kind

Dad and Mom... Kissin'If I was not the stoic Swede and emotionally distant, unattached all-American male that I am, I would say that “The Notebook” is the most romantic movie I am aware of and that even though I was just going to put it in for a few minutes last night, I ended up watching the whole thing.

And, if I was being especially honest, I might even admit that I got choked up and shed a tear or two near the end,when I was reminded that my Dad is, right now, in real life, his own version of Noah to my Mom’s slowly increasing Allie… and he, my Dad, is every bit as heroic and amazing in his love for his bride in this tender moment of their lives … and she, my Mother, is every bit as lovely and still filled with the spark of life as these two characters are in the movie.

And I would tell you that I will never, NEVER forget watching their love in these moments. It is heart-breaking and amazingly beautiful and one of the greatest gifts they have given to their children and grandchildren to see and observe and experience.

And I would tell you how deeply I love them, and that I am so very proud of who they are and the blessing they have been in my life.

I would tell you… and, perhaps…

I have.

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”                           - I Corinthians 13:4-7

Gettin’ Started

I am finally getting started with a Blog.  For far too long I have chronicled my thoughts, reflections, statements (and questions) of faith and other ramblings … profound or silly… on Facebook.   Frequently enough, friends would tell me I need to blog.

Now they might have been telling me this out of encouragement… as in, “Jonathan, I really enjoy and appreciate your thoughts. You need to blog.”  Or… Option B… they may have, instead, been saying, “Jonathan, you are far too long-winded and that is an inappropriate use of Facebook.  You need to blog!”

I won’t ask you which category you fit into, but for better or worse, I am attempting to switch over, and I hope many of you will choose to come along for the ride.

My hope is that this space will become a place of…

* Faith Conversation & Reflection  – Not always with an easy answer, but with an authentic desire to discern how, where and when God is at work.  Humorous moments to celebrate, insight to contemplate and … when the hard moments come — a perspective that hopefully does not give cliche’ answers … but  DOES somehow manage to help us hold on in the midst of pain or doubt. God can handle both praise and question. Laughter AND tears both convey relationship… and authentic relationship is what God desires most.

* Appreciation for the Arts and reflection on that dynamic place where Faith and Art intersect and interact.  I believe the Arts are one of God’s great gifts to us… to help us learn, grow, stretch, inquire, question, doubt, dialogue, laugh, cry, respond, accept, refuse, explore, play, work, challenge, define, forget, escape, come back and renew our connection to God and our connection with each other.  I hope this blog will remind myself and remind those of you who read it that God is ALWAYS communicating with us.. and we will be told, often through the Arts, great and amazing and edifying things,  if we have eyes to see, ears to hear, minds alert to discern and hearts open enough to explore, ask and receive.

* Dialogue on Family and Life in General — Life is hard, but God is good. Uh-oh… I just went cliche’ on you, didn’t I? But it is true in this case… Life IS hard.. but, I believe, God IS good.. and God is in it all… the good, the bad and everything inbetween. So, let’s celebrate it here.. or let’s cry about it… or let’s just be a bit cynical and sarcastic or light-hearted enough to survive… and to keep the joy.  Life is too short to not hold onto God’s great gifts of relationship and joy… and the peace that comes with both.

So… here we go. Welcome to the Paraphrase Blog.  I have no idea how often I will write and whether or not anyone will actually read this.  But this much I DO know….

We’re gettin’ started.

Barabbas Crucifixion