Further still

This is a photo of me with my small group here at Paz de Dios, singing “Santa la Noche” at the church Christmas concert. I’m the tall, white guy on the left end…

It seems strange to think that Christ is actually present in such a saving way in that little wafer of bread or in the small sip of wine. Or that God speaks to us in a literal book of ink, paper, and binding. Or that the pastor’s sermon is used by the Holy Spirit to create faith in our hearts. These are rather spectacular claims for what goes on in an ordinary church service, with its weakly sung hymns, crying babies, and fidgeting people in their pews. It is hardly credible to think that such a mundane and frequently dull setting could be the scene of such high and holy spiritual presences.

One might say the same thing, of course, about the central event in Christianity.
— Gene Veith, The Spirituality of the Cross

Tell me it isn’t a little odd that people can get together around some choppy CCM, creaky folding chairs, a beat up leather book, stale bread, and grape juice from a plastic container, and God is there. God. God is in that place. That name, and those words, don’t shake us like they should. It’s astounding. He’s in the stale bread. He’s in the beat up book, and the people’s hands, and mouths, and hearts. It sounds like it should be blasphemy, but it’s just the Gospel. I’ve had this- this mundaneness of the holy- heavy on my mind and heart these past couple weeks. It’s heavy because it’s hard, and heavy because it’s good. And it’s hopeful.

My English class concluded for the semester this last Wednesday. (I know; we were starting the last time I wrote. Timely updates are my Achille’s heel.) We had some brief exams, plastic mugs of hot chocolate, Christmas cookies on napkins, and a viewing of the 1966 version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. I spent this whole semester learning how to teach in a way that’s helpful, with words small enough to slip through the gaps in the language barrier. It’s been a fun challenge, but I feel pretty wrung out.

Luckily, Christmas is for wrung out people. “Christmas is for everybody!” retort my inner editor and biblical studies, theological watchdogs of the interwebs (maybe), Hallmark movies (probably), etc. Yeah—I believe this. Thank God. The tired and the sick, though? The weak-at-the-knees people, “even the dogs” people, “Son of David, have mercy” people? I think Christmas is for them in a way that maybe only they’re looking for. Advent, even more so.

This year I’ve been particularly aware of how much I need a season like Advent, for remembering who I’m waiting for, and that I’m not waiting in vain. I’m ready and excited for Christmas, but I’m sustained by the greater truth outshining the lights draped over my dresser: I’m coming, he says. I came, and I’m here, and I’m coming. Hope like that is air in my lungs, and peace on days when I can’t figure out how to get the vocab to stick—for the days with more confusion than comprehension.

It’s a strange peace, because to find it, you have to know that you’re blind. It’s strange because it tends to grow where blood is sown. (My girlfriend wrote about this beautifully and at greater length. She articulates things that matter more clearly than I can think them.) Veith, the author quoted above, related the story of a man hospitalized, with kidneys failing, and yet peacefully crossing himself in the midst of his debilitation. How mundane is that? He crosses himself. How radical? There’s peace in the eyes of the sufferer. That image won’t leave me.

I hope you’re celebrating Christmas with people you love. I hope there’s good food, and a beautiful tree, and (should you be so blessed) snow on the ground outside. But I hope, more than any of those things, and especially if you’re feeling their absence, that you can see the plain, brown crucifix that stands beyond the plain, brown manger.

… and the empty grave, standing further still.


An update, for those wondering about support needs: They are still substantial, and in fact have actually grown. I’ve got some new ministry opportunities that I’ll be writing about here very soon, but in the meantime, know that every prayer and every financial gift is a huge help. Thank you, thank you, a thousand times, to those of you who have already contributed so generously in both of these ways. God bless you as you have me.


I don’t have the words

My friend Christian, who I met in Minneapolis, took this photo. I live in his hometown, now.

“I love you so much I don’t have the words…” The sentiment is beautiful, but if you stop there- let it trail off- set the pen down before the attempt is made- the beauty is lost. “I love you so much I don’t have the words” is how you begin, or conclude, or bridge the gap between two particularly wordy paragraphs of a long love letter full of insufficient verbiage.

I don’t have the words yet, though. I mean, I can talk about being here, sure. But I don’t know how to say it in their language. They ask me, “How do you like Cuenca?” And all I can manage is, “I do. I like it. It’s beautiful. The people are good. The church is very good. [My hosts] are kind.” That takes me a minute or two… more, sometimes, and with a handful of extraneous dondes and disculpas thrown in for effect.

How do I like Cuenca? It’s unreal. Someone planted a city between mountains, and it lights up at night. Loud children on the busses speak better Spanish than me. Rain falls twice in a day, or thrice, and five times some days to show off. Heaps of fresh produce spill out of stalls in sprawling markets full of people with whole lives, and I’m still struggling with “What is your name?” I’m living in a city full of souls, and I can’t remember how to ask people their name.

I drummed with the worship team for the first time on Sunday. This was also my first week of teaching English club for a whole bunch of 12-18 year olds, and they’re considering a group for older people that may start up later on. My brain is sore from learning and living so many new things, but it’s a welcome soreness, from growing. The last few weeks have felt like checking out the weight rack in the gym and trying different sizes one at a time. I know what I can lift, now. I just need to pick up the weights.

Would you pray for me? Please do. Pray that Spanish keeps coming, not just for my own sake, but for the kids and teens and adults I’m ministering to and with. Pray that I quickly learn to teach, and that I have the wisdom to teach things that matter. Yesterday my English group listened through “Open the Eyes of My Heart, Lord.” We talked about what it means for God to be holy. What it means that he’s “high and lifted up.” Man… pray that they remember that more than the “Directions Song.” [aside: I wrote the “Directions Song.” I’m actually pretty proud of the “Directions Song.” It’s just not as important as Jesus.]

Pray, too, that my heart and head can settle here for the time that I’m called to be here. It’s been a few weeks now (woof… three, as of tomorrow), but I’m finding it’s taking a while for my system to adjust. I still wake up some days trying to figure out where I am. I still stumble through cultural customs and “How are you”s and “How long have you been here”s with the grace of an elephant on skates. I don’t mind embarrassing myself so much as making other people uncomfortable. Pray that my head can catch up with my heart.

And thank you, thank you for listening, reading, and praying. Thank you all for the encouraging messages you send, and for your calls. They matter. They lift me up on harder days, and launch me on better ones. And thank you also to those of you who have given money to help with this mission. It means more than I can say, but I will certainly keep trying.

Spanish is coming, coming, poco a poco. I can talk longer and more specifically with my hosts every day, and new words come with every conversation. The word for mercy sounds like misery, and so coincidentally reminds this foreigner of the cross every time I sit through a church service. And the words for naming someone and loving someone are too similar for me to ignore.

I don’t have all the words, yet… but I’ve got the ones I need. And more come every day, by the grace of God. That’s enough.

I am still raising funds for this trip — and in fact, have a little way to go before I’m done. Would you consider helping me in this? It would mean the world to me. The link below leads to Journey Missions’ website, with options for either single or monthly donations. Please make sure to put my name in the “name of STA” field. Thank you, and God bless you. >> bit.ly/seth_ecuador


If you’ve been following along since I started writing here, you might have noticed a recent change in the heading. Muse is gone. This isn’t because I’ve become a less thoughtful person, or my mind is any less prone to wander. (Those of you who know me personally are certainly aware that this is not the case.) It’s a change in direction — I mean, it’s a direction. I’m still wandering. But I’m going somewhere.

Home feels less like my house in Illinois since the last time I wrote. It’s less like the pub table and benches, the screen door to the deck, or the lights that skirt its railing and line our driveway like a runway. I’ve been away from this place, and I’ve missed this place, but I haven’t ached for the place like I’ve ached for the people. Maybe people could be home.

Anyhow. I’m heading out for a bit.

[All of the photos above are courtesy of the absurdly talented Ruth Gunderson.]

When my friend Adam mentioned Ecuador, I knew that it was right for me. That’s not in a, like, “ah yes – this is how life will be now. And I will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and make a profit” kind of way. I mean that the idea rang the right way in my chest and between my ears. I called mom and dad immediately, on a whim; they told me to go for it. (That wasn’t outlandish. Mom and dad like crazy ideas.) Then I called my admissions counselor at the college I’d been considering attending for more than a year prior, and she told me to go for it. (That… was a little outlandish.) I talked to the missions recruiter at school, and he told me that there was a position available. He’d speak with authorities at the church there as soon as he was able.

That was six months ago. Since then, I’ve prayed, sought counsel, and been approved as a Short Term Assistant (that’s STA, in Journey Missions-speak) to Iglesia Luterana Paz de Dios in Cuenca, Ecuador. Lord willing, I’ll be flying out of Chicago at the end of September, not to return until the beginning of next summer. People usually call this kind of venture a “new chapter,” but I’ve got an English professor uncle visiting this weekend who would slap me upside the head if I perpetuate the cliché. Thus, in lieu of the typical colloquial: I’m transplanting. I’m breaking apart, and I’m taking part of me somewhere else.

Would you pray for me? Specifically, would you pray that the breaking doesn’t hurt more than it needs to, and that whatever I need for the work ahead would be there when I need it? Even more, would you pray that God would shape me for ministry that He is already preparing in Paz de Dios, and open the hearts of people I’m supposed to meet, and know, and love? Missions books warn against thinking of yourself as a savior, or some kind of catalyst; I’m not there. (At least, I’m not consciously in that mindset- nor subconsciously, God help me.) I feel weak. I get tired. I know that this isn’t about me. Pray for wisdom, strength, and courage for me, from outside of me, because I need it.

Thank you for listening, and for waiting so long since the last time. And thanks for beginning to listen, if you’re new here. I’ll keep writing home.

– Seth

p.s. Missions work is expensive. I’m saving up a lot of money on the front end of this trip, but the total cost is going to be about $6,500 dollars — more than I’ll be able to personally raise before the end of September. If you’re following along here, and you’d be interested in helping minimize that cost, I’d be deeply grateful for any help you’d be able to give. The link below leads to Journey Missions’ website, with options for either single or monthly donations. Please make sure to put my name in the “name of STA” field! >> bit.ly/seth_ecuador


My youth and my age are turned on their heads in me.

There’s a young man in me – not the type with a slackened jaw and wide eyes at the world, who listens, and reaches, and aches for every feeling and sight – but the kind you hear in the other aisles at the grocery store, whining for things in a tone many years too childish for his evident age. He is dirty, not because because he has been discovering things, but because he does not like to be clean. He is loud, not singing, but because he does not like to listen. He squints at you, not because he wants to see you any better, but because he has already decided you’re probably the type he doesn’t like. (He’d turn up his nose at you if he were any taller.)

I’m trying to shake him off.

There’s an old man in me, also, and he wants to sit down – not because he is tired, but because he just doesn’t care to exert himself. (Thus, his limbs grow weak from inaction, rather than the alternative.) He is quiet in conversation, not for humility, but for apathy instead; and besides, he’s above conversation with most folks (or thinks so, at least). He does not care if you hear his muttered critiques. They won’t do you any good, anyways. He pauses his grumbling to chuckle when you fall. He has read more books than you have (or at least better ones), he speaks more convincingly than you (or would, if he deigned), and he’s an influential(/persistent) voice in whatever community he graces.

I’m wrestling with him.

I’m sorry if these are the voices I let speak: the whiner and the grumbler. They are the louder voices in my ears, and I’ve a bad habit of parroting their mantras.

I’m praying for the youth and age the Father asks of me: that which stares, listens, feels, and wants to sing at what it sees; that which discerns, and is calm, and wise, and acts righteously for its wisdom.

Please be patient with me when I fail. Part of me is only human.

Q &

Why is it that I think so much more than I feel?

I’m not concerned about it. (Or I try not to be.) But I’m curious. (Or I try to be.) On the playground of my conscious life, my Mind is a quick and cackling imp, running circles around a ponderous and distracted older child: the Heart. He’s looking off into nowhere particular and ignoring the probing jabs and shouts of the younger boy. His eyes focus and unfocus with frustrating irregularity (frustrating not to he himself, but to the imp, who begs incessantly for the older boy’s help with random this-or-that’s and all too rarely rarely receives it).

I wonder why the older boy won’t focus like the younger wants him to – and whether or not it would be good for him to do so.

What is a waste of time, and what is esoteric, and why am I afraid of the both of them?

I don’t know if it’s valuable to record these wandering monologues. Do they help us think more clearly, or muddle us further? I think they help me; I hope they help you. Writing is like taking a picture of thought: every idea which once flew or flickered, promenaded or snuck about, is suddenly frozen and on display. Writing is like wrestling: difficult, sometimes sweaty, and dangerous around fire. Writing is like vomiting: one feels as though one must get something out, and feels better for it, afterwards.

I wonder why thinking feels so effortless, and is so difficult to present proof of.

Why do I feel I must anchor myself with legalism, and fly with liberality as fuel?

I rest and find peace in rules. (“I must make myself sleep for a given amount of hours.” “I need to balance play with study.” “I have to-“) But I am joyful and reinvigiorated when I break them. (Have you ever walked out to stare at the stars at two in the morning? Have you skipped school? Do you know that gut feeling that you are doing something right? Do you distrust it?) Would Icarus have flown more safely with a pair of heavy boots? I can’t tell if balance is supposed to be the careful weighing of extremes against each other, or a steady stream of pleasures and inconveniences so mild that they need hardly be weighed at all.

I wonder if I am procrastinating, or preparing.