Tag Archives: faith

Never mind. It doesn’t matter.

But it does matter, somehow.

We have these thoughts, these experiences. We think about writing about them. And then we stop, thinking “Is everything a post? Never mind. It doesn’t matter to people what I’m thinking.”

But maybe, this time, it does.

Sitting in a room. A moderate size room on a college campus. A room with big windows, white boards, display cases, a sign that says, “Trustee Board Room.” And 20 high school kids. And 30 parents. And innumerable admissions personnel. And a few faculty. And one faculty member standing behind a lectern, reading, not looking up from his manuscript.

The college really wants these students. The student have great test scores. They have great grades. They have lives full of music and sports and drama and service. And dreams. They have lives full of dreams.

The college wants these students enough to pay for them. They are “Trustee Scholars.” They get good money. By coming to this day they may get even more. A handful of kids from this day and another day like it will get enough money to go to classes for free.

And so the college brings these students with the hope of free classes. The college tells them to read a couple essays. The college tells them to come and discuss those essays with a small group from this group. The college tells them to be interviewed by a faculty member. And the college makes them sit in a room and listen to a faculty member read from a manuscript.

Ah, but what a manuscript. He is forgiven reading. He is forgiven not looking at the students, except occasional glances.

It is a memoir of inquiry. It is a course description for life. It is a commercial for a major in humanities. It is applied literary analysis of “The Odyssey.” It is an invitation to and incarnation of the quest. In one forty-five minute lecture, it is everything that faith and teaching and liturature and marketing and teaching memior can be.

And for most of the time, tears gather in the corners of my eyes. Sometimes, they escape and I capture them with my fingers.

I can be forgiven, I suppose, these tears in the back of the room. One of those students is our daughter. She will be at this college with these students in seven months. That, for a sentimentalist, is cause for crying.

But it’s not why I cry. Not this time.

As I sit in the back of this room, I see me. Three decades ago, I would have been one of those students. High test scores, good grades, active in music and service. Two decades ago, I would have been that faculty member, articulate, thoughtful, challenging.

The faculty member takes us on an odessey of our own, as he speaks of a quest for home. He describes the ache of Odyssus on a beach, far from home, long into his journey. He describes the years of wasted time. He tells stories of people who have decided.

And I think, as I look at these two views of me, of wasted time.

Not that what I have done these years has been a waste. Far from it. I have been involved deeply in three precious lives and deeply, but too briefly, in another. I have been able to shape the lives of others with words, with touches.

I know this.

But I, more than you, also know of the waste, the moments spent on nothing. Not on working, not on resting, not in delight, but on nothing. I, more than you, also know of the waste, the energy spent on worry, on avoiding the expectations of others. I, more that you, also know of the waste, the easy B, the easy laugh, the easy tear.

And at fifty, watching this thirty-something challenging teen-somethings, I long for home. Not a home of geography or biology or family. I have those and am grateful. More than I acknowledge. Not a home of faith, either, for I have that in a relationship with both my Creator and my Redeemer and my Friend.

But there is something more that today I remembered. Again. A glimpse of something. A reminder of how it feels to wrestle well and carefully with faith and learning, how it feels to not slide by.  And before it disappeared this time, I wanted to mention it to myself. And to you.

Because I don’t have nearly as much time to waste as I once did.


what we do to ourselves

“There are four people coming in right now. They are going straight to the hyperbaric chamber.” That’s what the nurse said late Saturday night. “It started about 11 Friday morning,” she said.

She was talking about people coming to St Joe Hospital (Fort Wayne) for carbon monoxide poisoning. We were at the hospital, Nancy and I, to visit friends from our congregation that were in for that same reason.

Fort Wayne got iced on Friday. Up to half an inch of ice. Everything was covered. And at one point, 70% of the houses in the city were without electricity. As a result, people turned to alternate power and heating sources. Generators, kerosene heaters, fireplaces, charcoal.

Yes, even charcoal.

While we were there, a family of three came in; parents and a 4-year-old. While we were there, four more people were coming in.

And in many cases, people were there because, in desperation, they did what they knew wasn’t wise. People know that charcoal gives off carbon monoxide. People know that the garage door should be open when you are using a generator. People know that you shouldn’t leave a kerosene heater burning all the time without adding fresh air.

We know lot of things that we don’t do.

And that’s the other part of the story.

We were there to visit our friends, but I ended up in an emergency room bed myself. About 6:30 on Saturday evening I started feeling pain in my chest (right side, not left side–relax and keep reading). There was a knife under my arm and a band of tightness all around. We got dressed to go to a concert and had to stop twice on our way because of the nausea and choking feeling. We got to the concert venue, picked up our tickets (free), went inside, and got a call about the aforementioned couple in the hospital. Because we were already unsure about sitting through the concert with this pain, and because a hospital seemed to be a great place to be at that moment, we went visiting.

They ran all the tests (everything was fine), gave me a delightful muscle relaxer that didn’t make me drowsy but targeted those particular muscles, and let me go home.

Here’s what happened: shoveling ice on Thursday made the chest muscles tense. And then the stress of  power out on Friday, major car repairs on Thursday, backlog of self-imposed deadlines, running behind on shopping, and several other internalized pressures all tripped the switch on the tense muscles and I ended up with a huge muscle spasm.

Here’s why I tell you this: I’m as bad as people using charcoal in the kitchen. I know better than to let stress pile up. I know better than to try to solve every problem, than to blame myself for repairs that cannot be foreseen, than to worry about having enough resources when we know that we have the money in the bank right now.

In fact, I talk all the time about having a conversational relationship with God, about asking him for advice, about not worrying. I talk all the time about talking with others. I talk all the time about community. It’s just that when things seem particularly desperate, we ignore what we know to be true and we revert to…the things that make no sense.

I’m doing fine now. So is the couple we went to see. So, I hope is the family of three and the four people in ambulances on their way to the hospital that night. All of those people will do everything they can to be wiser about how they add heat to their lives. I will be doing everything I can to be wiser about actually trusting the God I try to point to…and accepting the fact that he loves me even when I try to take his place.

a reflection on lights.

This morning, I didn’t know what DMX 512 was.

I mean, I knew it was part of stage lighting, but I had no idea how it worked.

Tonight, I still don’t know how it works.

I do know, however, how to work it.  I know how to assign numbers to each circle of color in some of our new stage lights. I know how to assign those same numbers to little switches and make them get brighter and dimmer. I know to connect four of the lights together and mix the colors. I know how to connect any of 512 sources of light to any of 48 of those switches. I know that there is a lot more capacity that I don’t understand and that we aren’t going to use for a long time. But we could.

I know that understanding the connection took a willingness to look at the instructions and a willingness to accept that there was the possibility of connections in an invisible digital world that I didn’t know anything about. I know that there are people who would have given up because it was just too abstract. I know that I understand that.

And I know that the lights look both like a LightBrite board and kind of like Christmas.

Which also takes a some understanding.

Giving it away

Seth Godin wrote a book called Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us. Lots of people ordered it in advance. I didn’t.

I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to buy it or not. I had downloaded other books of his. I had read a couple in the library. But I don’t actually buy many books. And certainly not many thin ones. ANd I likes his ideas but I wasn’t sure I was willing to invest in them, to make them mine.

On the day the book was released, so was an audio version. Unlike the print version, the audio version was free. Lots of people fussed (maybe the same people that had ordered it in advance). I didn’t fuss. I downloaded it.

And then I listened to the book. While driving. When I couldn’t take notes.

Except I did take notes. I scrawled the main points of how to start a micromovement on a receipt: (write a manifesto, make it easy for people to connect to you, make it easy for people to connect to each other, make it about more than the money, track progress toward the goal – all just typed from memory). I wrote the chapters about the difference between faith (essential) and religion (often restrictive, sometimes helpful for supporting faith) on my heart.

I finally gave in. I used my Borders coupon and bought the book.

He gave it away…and I still bought it. Because now I knew that it was worth the money. I knew that there was no way I was going to get everything I needed, all the benefit possible, without finally buying in.

Jesus told this story about people who been hired early in the day and worked all day. Some other people got hired at the end of the day. The guy doing payroll gave them the same amount. The early people complained that it wasn’t fair. The payroll guy said, “That’s what you agreed to, right?” They said yes, but, it’s not fair.

But they had what they needed to live. And that was the point.

And I have the book because I was able to taste and see that it was good.

And, after all, the author gets to make the rules. Not the tribe.


My advent ebook is now available as a FREE downloadable pdf, advent2008, (Right click on the link to the left and save the file to your computer). Or leave me a comment and I can email it to you. It’s also a digital book on yudu.

did it make you cry?

Irene asked me that question Saturday night.

We walked up the aisle, Nancy and I. Irene looked at us and said, “Did it make you cry? Did you smile?”

I didn’t cry. I did spend most of 35 minutes grinning, first with recognition, then with anticipation, then with exhilaration.

Irene had asked a couple of weeks ago if Nancy and I and a bunch of other people wanted to come to the Fort Wayne Philharmonic concert. Irene was going to be playing with the orchestra. I said, “sure.” Irene is a friend, the orchestra is good, and we seldom attend.

Having said yes, I wasn’t sure what to expect. To be honest, I am not always as excited as I ought to be by orchestral music. I understand the concept (quite well, thank you), but don’t always have the attention span nor the appreciation that I should have for more traditional pieces.

Having said yes, however, we were committed.

And that, often, is how we work. We have friends ask for help, ask for advice, ask us to come over. And we agree, because that’s what friends do. And we aren’t begrudging the time, but it is more for them than for us.

And then I looked at the program for the concert. There was Bernstein. There was Beethoven. And then there was Saint-Saens. My heart jumped. And so did the rest of me.

Symphony No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 78. That’s what the program said. Which says little more than an address. “Organ Symphony” is what the program had in parenthesis. That says a bit more. One of two or three pieces of music that Jon Swanson listened to over and over while trying to write papers and read and study while an undergraduate is what the program didn’t say. But should have.

I’m not sure why I first heard this piece. I won’t even try to describe why it resonates so deeply for me. You have your own pieces of music, works of art, expressions of creativity that have deep emotional attachments.

What I know is this: I said that I would do something out of deep affection for a friend. In return, I got to hear that friend play a piece of music incredibly well working with an orchestra of people who played it incredibly well in a room that sounds magnificent.

Sometimes we take steps of faith and discover not obligation but absolute delight. As if someone knew exactly what our heart needed.


My advent ebook is now available as a downloadable pdf, advent2008, and as a digital book on yudu.

i want to serve

I walked into her room. She recognized me and started to cry.

I pulled up a chair and took her hand.

“I want to serve.”

That’s what she said.

She’s dying. Colon cancer. Four years. A couple remissions.

Fran and Phil Mortensen have lived in Fort Wayne for a long time. They have spent forty years focusing on people with needs. To use Phil’s words, he stirred up the riot and Fran got it organized.

They started a church called Love Church. In time, they started Love Community Center. They started a church that would actually care about people who lived at the margins of downtown Fort Wayne. They had services, which is what most people think makes it church.


They provided meals, they gathered clothing and had a clothing bank with racks and hangers and smiling faces. Tthey built a workshop to teach people how to make stuff, they gathered food, they taught people how to use computers, they loved. While Phil went around to other churches to get support and then preached and cared for people at Love Church, Fran made it work.

She kept track of money. She made it stretch. She called people. She organized. She planned. She set things up. She laid things out. She could be as tenacious as a bulldog, but because she cared so much, because she loved Jesus.

I got to know her about four years ago through a monthly networking thing for nonprofit ministry leaders. I spoke occasionally.  She decided she liked me. She constantly encouraged me. During a job transition for me, she prayed, yes, and she told me. And she talked about being encouraged by talking with me.

To be honest, I didn’t understand that.

Jesus talks about loving the unloved, caring for the sick, visiting the prisoners, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry. I acknowledge the concept. Fran did it. She never had any college training, but her understanding of practical love was at the graduate level. Anything I’ve thought about doing that would be about caring, Fran did or made happen.

For Fran to care so much about me was like an ant being noticed by, well by anything.

I don’t think she understood how much I was in awe of her. I think that she would laugh at me, a laugh of affection and modesty and incredulity.

Because here she is, after 40 years of pouring out her life into serving, in her last days, likely her last hours, saying “I want to serve.”

I assured her that she was. I assured her that she had. I assured her that she had been all the Fran that God built her to be. I assured her that she would be serving again in a little bit, this time without the cancer, without the pain. I talked to her about Martha, a person who worshiped by doing, who organized, who planned, who was practical.

And I let her sleep while I held her hand.

Fran gets “so what?” Fran decided that living a life of caring for and about others, making the name “love Church” true, was a so what that matters.

I prayed. I kissed her forehead. I stood up.

“I love you, Jon.”

I love you, Fran.

Shiphrah and Puah

I was reading the first chapter of the book of Exodus this weekend. It is painful prose.

A nation of people are forced into hard labor. The treatment of these new slaves is horrible. When some of them are in labor, the resultant boys are to be killed.

The subjugation of a million people or more and the mandated infanticide is a result of fear. The king is afraid of all these people who are different than he is. The king is afraid of losing power, of losing land, of losing everything.

And so he lashes out.

I was reading the story thinking about what happens when people in  power are afraid. They react, we react, the way that everyone who is afraid reacts: by doing anything possible to preserve what power there is.

As we read about Pharaoh, we read about a person who has the power to destroy lives, to change everything. Because he was treated as a god, what he said was done.

But really, all of us can, in fear, destroy lives, to change everything. Perhaps not on the scale of Pharaoh, but we can lash out with words regardless of the cost. We can micromanage. We can tear ourselves and others to shreds.

There were, in the story, a couple of women who stood up to power. They could have feared losing their lives. They, however, respected the authority of God more than the authority of Pharaoh.

And they saved lives.

They were midwives, nurses who helped in the delivery process. And these two women, and perhaps a whole system of midwives, decided that they wouldn’t carry out his orders.

I know. This is an odd way to start the week. I should be saying something cheery. something upbeat, something to make us smile. But as I think about it, lots of us spend a lot of time in fear. It’s killing us.

But these women. One by one, individual choices, faith rather than fear.

Maybe there’s hope.

what is your challenge

A good friend asked me that question this week.

I answered, “helping provide people with simple clear next steps.”

The question came as I was thinking about what I need to do for and with people around me. The question came as I was thinking about what our church community could do. The question came early in the morning before I could figure out what I was really thinking.

But my answer was pretty accurate for what I think would be helpful. Rather than constantly telling, constantly broadcasting, constantly selling, constantly talking about whatever, what if I spent time listening to people and then helping them identify the one next step for them to take, the one part of the process to implement, the one phone call to make, the one relationship to start?

I am good at providing a firehose, at giving the plans for the whole house, at writing the whole story. And sometimes that’s good.

But I bet that if I could tell you clearly and simply the next thing to do and then let you wrestle with the risk and the challenge and the consequences…while sitting quietly with you…that you might find that helpful.

Particularly if the next words were simple, “follow me.”

I mean, it worked in the past.

The changing course

Robb managed plants. Not like a horticultural kind of guy. In fact, Anna is the plant person that way. No, Robb managed plants and parts of plants that made parts. Car parts. The plastic kind of car parts.

He ended up with tough projects at times. He was the guy who would go in to manage the closing that someone else decided would happen. Because of his style, which values people and minimizes ego, the closing process could take awhile because, well, because productivity ended up improving. He was good at financial analysis and listening and suggesting.

A couple of years ago, however, he knew that changing the way production lines work wasn’t what he wanted to spend the rest of his life doing. He wanted to teach. More specifically, he wanted to teach junior high math. Or that’s what he thought he wanted.

We met one day to look at the results of some testing we were doing at the church. We were trying to help people find the thing that they were made for, the way to serve best. Robb and I talked, and he talked about this idea of going back to school on weekends to get a teaching certificate. We decided to get together that Friday at 6:30 am to talk to each other and to God about the decisions.

That one time became almost weekly. When I changed jobs, we moved our time from early Friday to noon on Monday. And two and half years later we met for the last time, last Wednesday. On Monday, tomorrow, Robb and Anna and their three children fly out of Chicago heading for Cascais, Portugal. Robb will be teaching math and science and maybe Bible in an international school in that town near Lisbon. Anna will spend part of the day taking care of their son, and part of the day teaching art. She’s also finishing her degree, online. Their two daughters will energize the school.

When we last talked, they weren’t sure exactly where they would be living….the school has people looking. They don’t have all of their salary raised (part of the salary is from the school, part of it is from supporters). They haven’t had more than six weeks from the official invitation to the time they leave.

They are, by the way some people measure, nuts. Great career. Gone. House. Left. New house. Unknown. Exact courses to teach. Unknown. Salary. Uncertain.


Robb and Anna trust God. They trust each other. They have survived challenges that make this seem small. They will learn and grow and thrive. They will change lives. They will change the world. Of this I am confident.

However. I’m going to miss our times together, Robb. You changed me, too. See you next summer.


To follow Robb and Anna (rawbanana) visit their blog.

and you may recognize Anna from twitter (alenardson) or from Lent2008.

preach what you practice

The old scholar is near the end of his life. He has one last time, as far as he knows, to talk to his favorite student. It is, as far as we know, his last lecture.

They have spent much time together. They have spent much time apart. The teacher has done more than talk to his student. They have traveled together. He has put the student in several internships. He has left the student in charge of his own classes. The teacher has written to his student before, providing lecture notes and teaching strategies and personal advice.

And now, near the end, he is winding down his comments.

“You know all about my teaching,” he writes. And in that, he is consistent with what most of us would say. “Do what I’ve said.”

But he goes on.

You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecutions, sufferings—what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured. (2 Timothy 3:10-11)

As a teacher, he was willing to point to his teaching. But he also pointed to how he lived, what he was about, what his character was like, what he went through. Paul, this teacher, was willing to open his whole life to this student, willing to be ruthlessly transparent.

He knew he wasn’t perfect. But that was part of the point. It wasn’t his perfection that he was arguing for anyway. His message was that God had worked in his life…and the only way he could make that claim is if he opened up his life. In fact, that’s the next phrase:

Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them.

The challenge for me is simple: can I preach what I practice.  It’s easy to say almost anything. It’s easy to write, to tell, to say. And then try to get what I live in line with that.

But if I laid out what Paul does…say, live, believe, suffer. That’s a tough standard. But if you are talking about how to live, I guess it would be a fair test.

Time to think a bit more.