THE EARLY YEARS (1976-2000)
Where I Came From
I grew up in the country. A small farm in northern Minnesota ten miles out from the nearest town. My childhood memories are of summertimes and holidays, mostly. My mom’s garden, my dad’s trucks, swimming lessons, and Narnia. My mom read the Chronicles to my little brother and sister and me summer evenings before bed. Sometimes my memories of that world are so intermingled with memories of our own that I’m not always sure which is which.
Our church turned a hundred years old while I was still in grade school. It was a rural Scandinavian-Lutheran congregation that switched its liturgy from Norwegian to English sometime just before my dad was born. In the 1960s it became affiliated with the Association of Free Lutheran Congregations. There and at home I learned early that God could be known, and intimately known in Jesus.
I would pray with my parents before bed. I understood the Cross-Bearer to be my best friend – the biggest best friend a guy could have: able to change world events (we prayed to him like he could), in charge of every single detail there could be to be in charge of, and able to love people like only an Almighty and Forgiving God could.
So when my 14-year-old cousin (role-model/best friend/big brother) and his dad were killed in a car accident when I was ten, my worldview was wrenched out of the cradle and onto the scales. In my little mind, the tragedy called an all-powerful, loving God into question. Was He really in charge? Could He be trusted?
In the months that followed the accident, my little brother was routinely troubled by fear. We shared a bedroom, and out of necessity, I learned how to counsel and calm him each night after the lights went out. There was something about helping him be okay that helped me find peace for my own fears. Only mine were less about losing our parents, and more about whether or not I had lost my God. Could Jesus still be who I had thought him to be?
The answer to that question has been dawning in my life ever since – like a slow and steady sunrise for the last twenty years. And there’ve been reasons to ask it again and again. Yet as sure as that moment every morning when the darkness begins to crack and the sun warms the air, Jesus arrives regularly in the midst of my grief – as I thought He was and so much more.
The Shape of My Life
When I was confirmed at that rural Scandinavian Lutheran church three years after my cousin died, the verse that I chose to best serve as the banner over my life and heart came from the first chapter of Job.
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”
When I was fifteen I began reading the Bible for myself. I’d learned it and memorized it before, but this was when I first remember having the feeling that God was inviting me into the adventure – the Story – He had been preparing me for all along. I began to rediscover that same intimacy with Jesus I had known as a child. And I started writing songs. A summer Bible Camp afforded me my first glimpse of what a faith community could be like. And the school year provided ample opportunity to experience just how hard it was to live life rightly without one.
Some Things I've Done
I graduated from high school with a good number of poor choices and subsequent evidences of God’s grace behind me. Being the oldest, I was the first from our family to leave home, moving seven hours south to the Twin Cities (Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN) for school and other things.
Music was one of those other things. I’ve been writing and recording, producing and performing now for half my life. I managed somehow (by the absurd grace of God) to live as an independent fulltime musician for five years. I’ve had my hand in bringing to life ten fully produced albums, written a bunch of songs – everything from introspective coffee shop laments to worship choruses used by a number of congregations here and there – I’ve performed for college campuses, churches, coffee shops, youth camps and conferences across the country – as a solo act and with a full band. I’ve opened for and done concerts with several of my favorite songwriters, and submitted my music for professional critique enough times to have become intimately acquainted with the subtle rejections of the music industry. Nonetheless, there are people who enjoy what I do, and enough of them, apparently, to keep my rent paid and my belly full – when I’m well enough to do what I do (which I haven’t been always – more on that later). Thankfully, music isn’t all God’s given me a hankering for.
I mentioned school. I’ve done some of that, too – on either side of and in the midst of doing music. Honestly, there’s nothing that’s even tempting to brag about here. It might sound impressive if I just said four colleges, three majors, and stopped there. But if I went on to mention that I graduated from the first one – a two year school – dropped out of the next two, and finally got my act together for the fourth – a local community college – one may be less impressed. Nonetheless, there was an education imparted, degree or no. I studied Bible for two and half years, mass media and interpersonal communication for a year, Human services (psychology/sociology) for two “quarters” (remember those?), and the history of U.S. and Ancient Civilizations. Someday I may see if I can’t wrap all those credits and a whole lot of experience into some sort of degree, but for now, I’m glad at least that they happened.
I’ve also served two different congregations as their youth director. One was smack dab in the middle of North Dakota (a place I don’t mind being, unless it’s January), and the other was here in Bloomington, Minnesota. The first stretch was when I was three years out of high school. I was young, healthy, and oozing with zeal. The means by which God brought me to their bunch is a pretty good story – one that I won’t tell here, though it’s a story worth telling – my stay was determined before I arrived: I was only to be there for four months, with the specific goal of jumpstarting their youth ministry. They were a good four months. I’m not sure I’ve been a part of a move of God like that since.
BIG CHANGES (2001-2005)
Bury the Bachelor
Except perhaps me getting married to Jen – another miraculous story. I’d learned how to live life as a single – miserably succeeding – and had a strong inclination to pursue the solo life of an apostle called of God. Like Paul, Augustine, Merton, or Mullins. Whatever. God knew I needed marriage. He knew I needed Jen. She knew it, too. After three years of me wandering and her waiting, I “finally got it,” as she would say. I asked her to marry me, and three months later (in January 2002) we were mister and misses. I wrote much in the months between our reunion and our wedding. Filled a leather bound journal from cover to cover. There’s a lot that needs to happen in the mind and heart of a twenty-something, solo-artist, “I’m-gonna-be-single-for-the-rest-of-my-life” kind of guy before he marries. And praise God he did it! I’d like to make some of it public someday. I’ve shared the journal with a few single friends of mine and they not only wagged their heads at what a fool I was, but also admitted to a certain degree of being helped along by it.
So the bachelor was buried and up came a husband. Jen and I took to the road together for our first year of marriage. It was really good, and it was sometimes hard. For our first four months together we were really together. 24/7. We were married in January, and I remember the first time we were apart for more than a few hours didn’t come ‘til April. If you’ve got a nine-hour drive, and you get into a disagreement about something in the first ten miles, and you’re the only two in the car, no matter how many hours pass in silence, you’ve eventually got to talk it out. So we did. Often. And occasionally it was hard, but it was always good.
More Big Change
A year into things I began getting sick. I’d already been experiencing pain and weakness in my jaw and wrists on account of performing too much and exercising too little, so we’d already cut back on the number of concerts I was doing. But in January of 2003, I started losing weight and having trouble sleeping and all. We had to call off even more. The docs took five months to diagnose the problem: a chronic illness of the gut’s immune system called Crohn’s Disease. Once we knew what it was, we were able to get along alright. Medications were effective. I produced “To Entertain” that summer – my first solo album in four years – in the span of three weeks, on account of hyperactivity that came as a side effect of one of those drugs. Nevertheless, on account of the Crohn’s, I had slowed down a little, and life necessarily had to change.
That fall I returned to school, and just before Thanksgiving, life changed again. We had a baby. Baby Aedan dressed up our lives with colors neither of us had ever known. And I grew up just a little bit more. Being a dad began to teach me things. Things that I needed not just to know, but to feel deeply at the core of my being. Aedan helped me with that.
For several years God had been cultivating my heart for His Church. Four years earlier, after spending so much time alone and on the road – from church to church, camp to camp, evangelizing and edifying God’s people here and there – it had become evident to me how badly I needed to belong to a community of believers in one place, and for a long time. That was when I moved back to Bloomington and made Emmaus my home. I had already spent much time there since moving from home – having been their youth director for a season and playing with their worship band – but while on the road I would more or less just swing by from time to time. This changed then as I began to intentionally invest myself in the life of the congregation.
Then nearly a year after Aedan was born, the opportunity arose for me to serve Emmaus again as their youth director. While I hardly felt young enough or spry enough for the job, I had the heart for it, so I began just two weeks before the kick-off in the fall of 2004. For four months I did all I could just to keep up with the pace of the previous program, and the pace of the kids. That winter I spent another four months fulfilling a prior commitment by producing a worship album for the 2005 Free Lutheran Youth Convention, while maintaining a steady course with the youth ministry.
A NEW LANDSCAPE (2005-2008)
Life Gets Rearranged
The weekend after the last mastering session for that album, I went on a solo, three-day, silent retreat. I needed what I felt to be a rebuilding of my insides, and an affirmation of the sense of calling I had known the year before. I’ve told the story of that weekend elsewhere, and I believe it’s posted somewhere on this site, but suffice it to say what God did in me that weekend was necessary for a reason I couldn’t have then expected or hoped for.
He planted in me a deep faith in His sovereignty, and an affectionate love for His ability and intention to use all evil for His good purposes for those who belong to Him.
Three weeks later I was diagnosed with Cancer. Much of that story is told elsewhere as well. But again, to state it briefly, the type of cancer that I had required eight to nine months of intense chemotherapy. I spent three months in a hospital bed, and many more at home in my own. I lost a quarter of my body mass, and my muscles atrophied after all that time in bed. I was sick often. And except for when the treatment included steroids, I was tired all the time.
As the suffering got worse on account of the chemo, I went from having much to say about the goodness and grace of God to near total silence. My mouth was stopped for months. I just wanted to be better. But then in the midst of the darkness, the thing that God wrote most deeply and most clearly into my heart was that I was His and that I was loved. I often feared that I might somehow waste the season of suffering and the opportunity to grow through it. In the end, I believe that if this deeply felt assurance of His claim on my life was the only good thing to have come of the cancer, it really was worth it. (Still, I wouldn’t have minded an easier way.)
The River Runs Again
As the cancer cleared out of my body, a new life was growing inside of Jen. We’d found out we were pregnant just weeks before my diagnosis. Eli was born early December. In the weeks following his birth I slowly regained some strength, and as we settled in for the last intense round of my treatment, for the moment at least, the darkness began to lift. I found words again, and things to say with them. The mysteries of the previous year began to find explanation in the context of a bigger story. The story that is still being written, and mysteries that are still being explained.
There Must Be More
And these are the days that I live now. With the meaning of much trouble still veiled beneath a shroud. Our church took care of us while I was sick. And they cared for us while I healed. Their presence in our pain was God’s goodness on parade. I had to resign from my position as youth director in 2006, and the church did not disappear. Since then we’ve had to lean into the provision of Social Security and the good graces of a few key people.
I completed chemotherapy cancer-free in May of 2007. Recovery from the slow and subtle onslaught of the treatment has been just as slow and just as subtle. Pain in my wrists and my back and a good portion of the rest of my body makes all efforts to get well slow and laborious. As well as severely limiting the extent to which I can do the things I love to do. Music and writing. There is much rebuilding to be done in my body, and a slow reentry to be had in life. Cancer changed the landscape as much as it changed me. And Crohn’s is still a constant companion on the journey.
In the midst of this God gave us yet another boy. Jo Isaac was born in June of 2008, a surprise in the medical realm and for our family, too. And with his arrival we prayed again for better seasons to come. His name is a prayer: Joseph Isaac: “May the Lord add laughter.”
The story God tells with our lives is a mysterious thing. And mine is no exception. The most beautiful thing about it is that it’s not about us anyhow – it’s about Him. Hoping you see Him here. Trusting He’s on display in the details. This is, in the end, a story about His faithfulness, and not mine.
Thank the Lord it’s not about mine.
THE YEARS IN BETWEEN (2009-2012)