Advent: the Already and the Not Yet

Advent

We’re entering the season of Advent. I never understood Advent as a kid. We lit some candles on a wreath on Sunday at church, and I waited with anticipation to rip open the gifts under a tree, but this idea of preparing for Christ didn’t make sense to me. How were we preparing?

Now I understand. Before the beginning of the world, God had a plan to redeem it. The moment the world fell, God set in motion the plan of Salvation. He told Adam and Eve that a Savior was coming, and the world waited expectantly with bated breath. And when the Christ child was born on that Christmas morning, heaven and earth were fused in a glorious, horrible, powerful, ordained act where the Godhead left heaven to crawl through the dirt. The world exhaled. Salvation was here.

But creation still groans. We still wait. Because even though Christ’s death and resurrection was final and total and completely enough, we are still flesh and bone, still marked. It is the already and the not yet, the tension of the promise and what has not yet been realized. God’s Word will not fail. But the fullness of His glory is not complete. This is Advent. We celebrate the Savior while we look forward to final glory.

Sometimes the burdens that we carry feel so great. How long will we wait? I see the afflictions of those around me and my heart feels heavy in the waiting. There is cancer and illness, poverty, hatred, discourse, division, anxiety, judgement, hopelessness, and loss. Sometimes it seems like there is no way forward. How much longer can we wait, can we groan, can we suffer, can we cling to the edge before our fingers give out?

But then I remember Abraham climbing the mountain with his son Isaac. It seemed there was no way out, but just as he raised the knife to sacrifice his son, God stopped him. God provided a ram for the sacrifice. I remember Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego standing before the fire, and God did not let the flames burn them. I remember Moses lifting the serpent in the wilderness, and those who looked at it were healed. I remember God closing the mouths of the lions after Daniel is thrown into their pit.

Over and over, I see God pursuing and rescuing His people. I see him shouldering their burdens. God never lets the darkness overwhelm the light. What I am waiting for, God has already promised. It has already come. I cannot see it. Sometimes I cannot feel it. But it is as real as the sunrise. So I wait. I prepare. This is advent.

Are you hurting? Disappointed? Bleeding? Broken? Curl up in the arms of the Savior this Christmas, the one who left the throne of heaven to be broken for you. Christmas is the birth of hope, of glory, of life. And one day we will make it home. One day. But not yet.


When Dreams Die

I heard it said, “You don’t have dreams. Dreams have you.” Sometimes I think the dream that has me is slowly dying and I’m caught up in it, fighting like a drowning swimmer fights for air even as the waves break over my head again and again. When your dream dies, you die, crumpling like a car in a crash, explosive and shattered, with the world spinning out of control so quickly and yet moving slowly, glass flying, pain streaking through every limb.

The dream that owns me started out noble. I remember it sitting on my chest, stealing my breath in wonder and awe. The calling was so strong that even though I was petrified, I never doubted. It was ministry. It was mission. It was water pouring from a rock, and I held the staff.

There were warnings along the way of burn out and apathy. Those were for the weak, and I forged ahead because I had the passion of a dream that owned me. It didn’t matter if I slept or if I felt supported or if I had resources because it was ministry. There were moments beneath the stars where again, I couldn’t catch my breath for the wonder of it all and I never doubted. It was hard. So hard. I took so many punches, so many beatings, but I always stood back up because the dream carried me.

It started to feel less noble and more like work. Every time I fell, the bitter, metallic taste of blood in my mouth, I could feel the exhaustion hedging my vision but I fought back. Sometimes the only way to struggle back to my feet was to lean into anger. There was no other support, no one to carry me when my legs gave out and the dream was fading. The dream was dying.

I was dying too, slowly, each breath leaving me lost and out of control. Each day brought a new challenge, added a new block to the tower until it all came tumbling down around me. Fighting back tears, alone, begging for relief from this dream that was dragging me like a weight to the bottom of the darkest, deepest ocean. Standing at the edge of a grave, watching the casket lower into the earth, and no one came to ask if I was okay. Listening to the shattering crash, metal on metal as two cars collide, and being unable to go to the injured. I was drowning in a dying dream and no one stopped to help. They crossed to other side of the road and kept going.

This, too often, is ministry. This is the Church. Covered in marble and gold, it looks beautiful, but it is held up by the most broken and the most needy. And we leave them there to suffer and struggle and bleed.

The dream that owned me has been blown out like a candle in winter’s coldest wind, but I am still here. I am still here, and now I see it all around me. I am surrounded by people owned by dying dreams. If you need someone to sit Shiva with you in your pain, call me and I will be there. We can bleed and grieve together. Because we have been formed in the dust and forged in pain. We have a Savior who suffered with and for and through and by and because of us. And when our dreams die, He is there. It is the most painful part of life, but we don’t have to be alone in it. Don’t walk alone in it.


To Die Is Gain

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Grandpa helping me blow out my candles on my second birthday

“For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Philippians 1:21

These words from Paul have been repeating themselves over and over in my head. Ever since I received a call Wednesday afternoon to tell me that my grandpa had passed away. Ever since I got in the car to drive home. Ever since I whispered goodbye in the living room of his home. Ever since countless conversations and arrangements with family—phone calls and tears and laughter and raised voices and moments when the words won’t come. I keep thinking of memories, recent and distant, and of all the things I knew about the man my grandpa was, and these words from Paul are interlaced throughout it all.

O death, where is your victory? Death, where is your sting? Death can hit you like a sucker punch, the knock out you never saw coming. And in that moment, you lose everything. You lose every belonging, every possession, every penny you ever earned. It’s that age old saying: “You can’t take it with you.” Death separates loved ones and offers no second chances. The sting of death is felt here, among the living, among those of us who are left to piece together what remains, who are still supposed to sit together around the table for Thanksgiving despite the painfully obvious empty seat.

Grandpa's Wedding

Grandpa and the grandkids at his wedding to Cal

I am incredibly thankful that even as I entered the same home that death had just departed, I did not have to enter in despair or hopelessness. “For me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Only with Christ can we gain anything in death. And in fact, in death, we gain everything. I can rejoice because the moment my grandpa fell asleep in this life, he woke up in the presence of his Savior. He woke up whole and new, with no sickness or pain or heartache. Right now, at this very moment, even as we grieve and as our souls ache with sorrow, he is dancing before his Lord and King. I am swallowing tears, but my heart is singing with joy.

This is a broken and sick world. Today, I am feeling the sting of death. I look at my family and I see the pockmarks and scars of pain and hurt and anger and fear. There has been more weeping and tears and sadness than has ever been shared around a Thanksgiving table. We grieve because it hurts, because this was not the plan, because death has stolen from us someone who we love dearly. We rail against death and against the brokenness that divides us, but we do not do so in hopelessness. Our sorrow comes from a seat of joy. “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”

Shannon's Grad

Shannon’s high school graduation party

I broke the rules this year. I started listening to Christmas music before Thanksgiving. The whole time I was driving home, after I received the news, when my heart was just breaking and I didn’t yet know how to corral my thoughts into a coherent sentence, I listened to the song O Come, O Come, Emmanuel on repeat. I was comforted by this, that my Savior, God With Us, had come, had walked through this same grief, had shared this same ache that permeated my being. “Disperse the gloomy clouds of night; and death’s dark shadows put to flight.” When I considered the reality of eternity, I couldn’t help but rejoice for Emmanuel had come. There is no pain that the incarnation has not borne, no hurt that heaven has not healed.

Death has no victory. There is pain now, but it has a defined end. I’ll hold on to that truth, rejoice in that truth, live in that truth. “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”

http://www.leonardfuneralhome.com/notices/Paul-Hoppman


Summer Camp Ministry

I’ve just finished my eighth summer working at Camp Wyoming, which for those of you who don’t know, is a Christian summer camp located in Wyoming, Iowa. Summer camp is ministry like no other. You are immersed in a specific location, set apart from the rest of the world. Each summer brings new campers, new staff, new traditions and relationships and conversations. Your day begins when the sun rises, but it does not end when the sun sets. You are always on-call, always working, always laboring and pressing onward, and when you are completely exhausted and can do no more, someone calls and needs you to take one more step. It can be lonely, though you are constantly surrounded by people. It can be heartbreaking and inspiring and uplifting and frustrating, sometimes all in the same hour. You would think, after eight years, that there could be little that would surprise me, but I know better. There is never a dull day at summer camp. There is no such thing as typical or ordinary or average.

IMG_3681I love so many things about summer camp ministry. Just looking back at this past summer, there were so many moments that filled me with elating joy and wonder. As someone who loves the outdoors and adventure, teaching canoe-tipping in the swimming pool, sliding down the mud slide in the creek, and getting soaked with paint during Paint Wars are some of my favorite parts of my job. I love using the camera to capture that moment a camper scores their first goal in Human Foosball or holds up the giant frog they finally managed to catch or wiggles through a tight passage in a cave. I love laying on my back in the Meadow and admiring the starry display in the night sky as the fireflies fill the fields and woods with blinking lights and the words of Psalm 19 echo in my mind. “The heavens declare the glory of God, the sky above proclaims His handiwork.” God’s presence almost feels tangible in these moments, and I can’t imagine working anywhere else.

There are some things about summer camp ministry that are less than ideal, however. Everyone always seems surprised when they find out it’s a full-time job, and I know, in their minds, they are questioning the legitimacy of my position. When the summer starts, I bid good-bye to any semblance of a normal life. I tell my friends and family good-bye as I move to camp and live in isolation and seclusion, only reappearing again in August once the campers and staff have all left and the days are growing shorter and cooler. I give all of myself to a ministry that is unforgiving and tirelessly demanding. By the time summer ends, I am beaten and bruised and just longing for my own bed. It takes weeks to recover from the long hours and constant demands and pressure and stress. It is not a ministry for the faint-hearted.

Each year, at the end of the summer, I start to ask myself, ask God, if this is where I should be. Somehow, I don’t feel like summer camp ministry is a place I will be forever. Eventually, I think, I will run out of the stamina and endurance it takes to survive a summer. I will miss it horribly, though. I will miss the summer staff and the way they amaze me with their talents and creativity and personalities. I will miss the kids and their curiosity and love. I will miss the chance to worship Jesus daily, immersed in the world that He created, with all of creation joining in the song. I’m asking that question again this year, but I don’t have an answer yet. This past summer was hard, harder than I wanted it to be. There were so many moments where I wanted to just give up, where sleep seemed elusive and answers so out of reach. I was pushed to and past my breaking point. But there were also so many moments of elation and love and laughter. The song below carried me through some of the low moments and reminded me to fall back on my Savior and Redeemer when I couldn’t see a way through.

I wrote the following piece at a moment of exhaustion this summer, and I share it with all of you only with the hope that maybe you can catch a little glimpse of how wonderful and amazing this place called Camp Wyoming is. For my fellow friends in ministry, all I can say is, keep holding on. Cry out when your strength is gone. Savor the moments where God whispers in your ear and reminds you of why you labor. Look for the helpers, those who will lift you up and carry you, who will fight for you and pray for you when the work of ministry beats you down. Remember that all that you do is for His glory, and He will work all things for the good of those who love Him, who are called according to His purpose.

If all the world was before me, I don’t think I’d choose to be here. But it’s astounding how these acres of woods nestled among the corn fields hold me fiercely in their grasp. Every summer, twenty or so young people show up to work and I am amazed at the chance to know them, at the personalities and stories and strength that they bring, and I wonder how it is that all of these stunning people chose to be here at a summer camp named after a distant, unrelated state. How is it that this summer and these people came together, and something beautiful and wonderful and inspired was created? They think I am the conductor of the symphony, but I only stand in awe as the music swells and soars. I wave my arms and tap my feet and the result is bigger than me, bigger than any one of us. The cicadas sing along and the birds chirp a melody. Fireflies light up the dance hall and bull frogs call out the beat. It’s the kind of show that keeps you on the edge of your seat, barely daring to breathe. The Milky Way fills the night sky and as you gaze upward you can’t comprehend its vastness, can’t conceive its beauty. How is it that this place with its stinking pond and wobbly bunk beds and crumbling structures can produce something so profound, so holy, so filled with meaning? I’m lost in it. And it’s so terribly difficult. Every day is a struggle, a leech of my energy and time and strength, but there are these perfect, tiny moments where the stars shine brilliantly after the storm has passed, where the laughter drifts across the meadow, where a hundred voices echo higher and higher in song and I can’t tear myself away. Every year I think will be my last. But it’s not so easy to leave, not so easy to forsake the gravel roads and wooden crosses and sense of adventure that lingers in the air. My chest hurts when I think about staying. My chest hurts when I think about leaving. 

“I don’t know how much I have left to give to this place. I don’t know what I will do without it. Who would I be if it weren’t for these woods and these people? If all the world were before me, I can’t imagine going somewhere with more meaning and challenge and possibility. There is a power in these acres that is unexplainable and incomprehensible. For now, it’s mine to possess and to hold. For now. But not forever.”


The Answer I’ve Been Waiting For

It’s been almost two years since I published a blog on this site. Then, I shared about my battle with an illness that plagued me, an illness that no doctor could seem to find an answer for. I shared about my struggle to remain content in the plan that God had for me even as the list of medications that I was on grew longer and longer, as my symptoms grew worse, and as there seemed to be no end in sight. I wanted to be healthy, but God was asking me to rest in Him in my sickness.

Sick

This is a picture of me in June of 2011 (I am standing at the far right), after I had already had the first surgery. Every time I see it, I can’t help but think how sick I still look. I thought the illness was over, but it was going to get a lot worse.

After I published that blog post, I was still sick, but I was determined to learn to be content in illness. I decided that I didn’t want my life to be limited. I didn’t want to spend my time waiting around for a diagnosis or an answer. So, I started training for a triathlon, which I completed in June of 2014. I went out with friends, even when I wasn’t feeling the best. I volunteered every week with Youth for Christ, an organization which I love. I took a trip to the Wisconsin Dells with my family. I was sick, but that didn’t mean I had to stop living.

Triathlon

Here I am in June of 2014, getting ready to complete my first triathlon. I would have surgery 2 months later.

However, in the Spring of 2014, something happened. I went to the doctor for a routine allergy appointment. As I was waiting for the test results, which typically take about 20 minutes, the nurse handed me a magazine to read: Ladies’ Home Journal. It’s nothing I would have chosen to read on my own, but out of boredom, I flipped it open. A headline caught my eye: “20 Years of Mysterious Pain: How I Was Finally Diagnosed with Endometriosis.” I turned to the article out of curiosity. I had been diagnosed with Endometriosis in 2011, but a surgery in April of that year was supposed to have corrected the problem.

I read the story of Adina Kalish Neufeld. For years, she suffered with many of the same symptoms I had: food intolerances, extreme pain, vomiting, weakness, and more. She finally found a doctor who diagnosed her with endometriosis. She had surgery, but within a year, all of her symptoms were back. Determined to find an answer, she finally ended up at the Center for Endometriosis Care in Atlanta. There, she underwent an aggressive surgery to remove all Endometrial tissue. It was the answer she had been waiting for.

I left that allergy appointment that day with a list of things I was allergic to, a prescription for seasonal allergy medication, and a question. Could all of my symptoms be from Endometriosis? And if so, could the Center for Endometriosis Care help me, too? My doctor had insisted that vomiting and food intolerances were not symptoms of Endometriosis. She said that since I already had the surgery, I couldn’t still be suffering from the disease. But what if my doctor was wrong?

I spent the next month researching the Center for Endometriosis Care. I collected all of my medical records, copies of scans, test results, and a personal description of my illness over the last five years, and then I sealed it all up and mailed it to them in Atlanta. And then I waited.

A few weeks later, my cell phone rang. It was Dr. Sinervo from the Center for Endometriosis Care. He explained that he had reviewed all my medical records, and he was pretty sure that he could help me. He explained the surgery that he would need to perform and how it was different from treatment that I had received in the past. He told me he thought the chances that I would walk away symptom free were 80%. It was the best news I had received in years.

In August, exactly one year ago, my mom and I arrived in Atlanta. On Monday morning, I met Dr. Sinervo for the first time. He explained again how the surgery would work. As my bed was about to be wheeled back to the OR, he asked my mom and me if he could pray for me. The three of us held hands as he prayed for answers and healing. Back in the OR, he held my hand as the anesthesiologist put me to sleep for the surgery.

I woke up in the recovery room several hours later. I was scared. What if it didn’t work? What if this whole trip was a waste of time, and I was going to go home just as sick as when I came?

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This is me in Atlanta. The surgery was 4 days prior. I was able to get up and walk around at this point, so my mom and I went out and explored the city a bit. I was still in some pain, but I was on the road to being healthy again!

But that’s not what happened. It’s been a year. None of my symptoms have returned. I feel healthier than I have in a very long time. All of those trips to the ER, the phone calls to my mom for help in the middle of the night, the vomiting, the being scared to eat because I didn’t want to be sick again- it’s all over.

I saw God work so many times throughout that illness. I saw God in my friends who sat in the hospital with me and brought me food when I was too sick to get out of bed. I saw God in my parents who always took my phone calls when I was sick and needed help. I saw God that day when the nurse handed me the Ladies’ Home Journal to read with the article that would lead me to the diagnosis and answer I had been longing for. I saw God in Dr. Sinervo and his care for me. I saw God in Patty, the woman who assisted me in my appeal to my insurance company and helped me get the surgery paid for.

God asked me to be content in illness. And now, I can celebrate that God has brought me to a place of healing and health. In the past year, I finished my second triathlon. I just got back from a trip to Cedar Point where Shannon and I rode 20 roller coasters (some were repeats) in 3 days. I did an Inflatable 5K with friends. I’ve eaten tons of ice cream and popcorn, drank lots of coffee…all foods that would have made me sick before the surgery.

Roller Coaster

Shannon, my parents, and I after just riding the Rougarou Roller Coaster at Cedar Point. It has a 137 foot dive, takes you upside down 4 times, and sends your through high speed twists at 60 miles an hour. Pre-surgery, I’m not sure I could have done this. Today: I rode this roller coaster and 19 others in three days! I even followed up the ride with an Oreo ice cream shake at Johnny Rocket. I never once got sick!

God gave me the answer I had been waiting so long for. And I know that not everyone gets that answer. Some people remain in illness and never get the chance to be healthy again, like I have. My heart goes out to them, because I know how hard it is to be in that place, wondering if it will ever end. It is my prayer that maybe my story can help someone else find an answer they have been looking for. That maybe my story can help encourage others. And that I would take the health that God has blessed me with and use it for His glory, always.


Learning to be Content

I am 23 years old and I take more medications on a daily basis than most adults twice my age. Every couple of weeks I find myself sitting in a waiting room, in a doctor’s office, and answering the same questions, talking about the same problems. When I think I’ve finally overcome one illness, another surfaces, and I can’t help but be disappointed and discouraged time and again.

Of course, when I hear about the life threatening illnesses that others face , I feel guilty that I ever lamented over my own health problems. I have never had to sit and listen as a doctor explained my cancer diagnosis or impairment or paralysis. In comparison to those, I am a healthy, fit 23 year old. Every morning I get up and go to work or to the gym or to church or to meetings with friends, and I lead, for the most part, a fairly average life.

However, behind all the normalcy, I feel like I am constantly struggling. I eat the wrong food and feel sick for days. I wake up with splitting headaches that leave me tired and unfocused during the day. I am plagued by nausea, stomach aches, pain, insomnia, rapid heart rates, anxiety, and muscle tension. I always seem to be covered in unexplained bruises. Running instantly causes shin splints. Exercise causes neck pain. Sitting causes restless leg. An imaging scan reveals tumors on my liver. My jaw constantly clicks and dislocates. Whatever I do, wherever I go, I always seem to be sick.
Perhaps the worst part is that there is never an answer. There’s never a cure, just symptom management, more medication, and more side effects from medication. And then there are the comments. “Maybe you’re just faking it.” “I think you’re making it up.” “You’re so dramatic.” “It’s all in your head.” I think it’s the skepticism from others that is the hardest. I know they grow tired of my constant pleas for help, my having to admit that today, I just can’t make it. I just can’t do it. I get tired, too. I want to be able to eat a full meal without growing nauseous later, to go on a trip without worrying about whether I have enough meds to cover all the emergencies. Over and over I’ve pleaded with God, “Just make me healthy.”

Contrary to how it may appear, I do not write all of this to complain or elicit sympathy. I actually write it as a confession. For years I have struggled. For years I have felt angry and upset as symptoms grew worse, questions went unanswered, and test after test came back inconclusive. I looked to God for answers and grew discouraged each time He seemed to stay silent. I craved to rid myself of the pain and panic attacks and regular visits to the doctor.

This week I was struck by a passage in Philippians, one that I have read countless times before. “Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:11-13 NASB)

I cannot say that God has not provided for me. He has given me great doctors. He has blessed me with a mom who takes my phone calls when there is an emergency in the middle of the night. He has given me friends who pray for me and care for me. He has allowed me to still graduate from college, work full time, and pursue a career I love despite my health problems. He has walked beside me through every scary moment, every discouraging appointment, and every test. However, despite all of this, I cannot say I have responded as Paul did and wrote about in Philippians. I have not learned to be content in whatever circumstance. I have not learned the secret of being filled or going hungry. I wanted to be healthy, not suffer in illness.

This is my confession. And it is also my first step forward. I want to know what it means, not to be healthy, but to be satisfied in the One who is healer. I want to know what it means to be content in the grace of a God who is so much bigger than a test result. I want to look to Him as my strength, not a medication or a cure. I want to understand the secret Paul spoke of. As I look at all the blessings around me, I cannot help but be grateful. God has give me more than enough.

So I’m inviting you to take this journey with me. What is standing between you and contentment? And is God bigger? I know there will still be days when I feel discouraged. However, I want to be intentional about learning to be content in every circumstance. I want to thank Him for the medications that do bring some relief, for the doctors who help, and for the victories and failures along the way. I want to stand with my family and friends, knowing that whatever the problem, my God is enough. I am satisfied. We are satisfied. And He will carry me through.


Iowa

I’m from Iowa.  I’ve lived in Iowa most of my life.  Most people who aren’t from the Midwest, when I tell them where I’m from, say something like, “Iowa.  Isn’t that where they grow the potatoes?”  No, it’s not.  That’s Idaho.

There’s something about this small state in the middle of the country that I find beautiful.  I’ve said that to several people, and usually I get weird looks and maybe a chuckle.  They think I’m kidding.  I’ve been to Israel and stood looking out over the Mount of Olives and the Kidron Valley.  That’s a beautiful sight.  I’ve been to the state of Washington and watched the sun set behind the mountains, camped in the Boundary Waters and watched a thunderstorm roll powerfully across the lake at twilight, stood on the shore of the Atlantic Ocean and gazed at the miles and miles of water stretched out before me.  I’ve hiked in the Lake District in England, walked the National Mall in Washington D.C., and glimpsed the Promised Land from Mount Nebo in Jordan.  All of these are absolutely beautiful places, but there’s something beautiful about Iowa, too.  It’s a different kind of beautiful.

I drive about forty-five minutes to work and back each day.  It’s not a very exciting drive, but most days, I find myself marveling at how beautiful this state is.  And it’s always changing.  During the Fall, it’s awash with colors that take your breath away.  In Winter, the trees sparkle with ice and frost.  Spring always reminds me how much I’ve missed the color green as the leaves and grass begin to grow again.  And then there’s Summer, where day by day the corn grows taller in the fields and the sky seems more blue than I imagined.

There’s something about Iowa—the wide open spaces, the run-down farm homes and red barns, the grazing cows, towering silos, and of course, rows and rows of corn.  All of this I find beautiful.  Maybe it’s simply because all of these things represent home to me.  I love running outside during a thunderstorm as lightning streaks down from heaven or lying in bed listening to the rain on the roof and the thunder rattling the windows.  I actually like the heat and humidity that wraps around you like a blanket during the Summer.  I enjoy the rambling creeks and rivers, the slow rolling hills or flat farmland stretched out as far as you can see.  Sweet corn stands set up along the side of the road, farmer’s markets spanning city streets, bike trails through the forest—all of these thing are part of Iowa, part of home.

I’ll admit, I hate the winters, hate the cold wind that sucks the breath from you and freezes your lungs, hate donning my heavy coat and boots every time I walk outside.  But it does make Spring all the more wonderful.

Perhaps even the simplest, most ordinary things can be beautiful.  I know most people don’t think much of Iowa, but I don’t know that I will ever stop marveling at the acres of farmland and the dilapidated barns that dot the landscape.  This is home to me.  And that makes it beautiful.