31 December 2014


I had a long conversation this week with a young man who is trying to reconcile the traditions of Christmas with his Christian faith.  He's taken it to heart and has pages of notes from his research on the origins of Christmas as the holiday we observe.  He became very serious and asked me "what do you think of Christmas?"  Not exactly sure what he was getting at, I said, "well, it's over-commercialized, and of course, it wasn't when Christ was actually born."  More than a half hour later we parted and I mentioned that I had this post rolling around in my head and that our conversation encouraged me to frame it a little differently.

Now this isn't going to be a "put Christ back in Christmas" post, nor is it about the idea the holiday has been hijacked by retailers.  In looking for the true spirit of the celebration, in an aspect of the Christian faith that truly should be celebrated, I wonder if we've let the hype steal what could be, and I think was, one of the most meaningful emotions of the season.  Have we lost the feeling of anticipation?

From the time the angel appeared to Mary, then Joseph, the anticipation of the Christ was nurtured by these two individuals who God chose to reveal his plan of salvation and reconciliation of the fractured world.  And when Mary gave birth, the angels carried that message of hope to shepherds in the fields around Bethlehem, who hurried with anticipation to see this savior-child.  And some time later, having been revealed to magi, these wise men followed a star in anticipation to see who they knew had been foretold in ancient prophecies.  What would be next for Jesus?  His father and mother must have wondered, and then the young men He gathered to His side must have felt such great anticipation in their hearts as Christ healed the sick, made the lame to walk, and opened blind eyes.  And when all hope must have seemed lost on Golgotha, imagine the anxious hearts when they learned the stone had been rolled away.  What great feeling of wonder and anticipation must have filled those with whom Jesus had walked the streets of Jerusalem.

Christmas Eve at the 'ol homestead
When I was a kid, I know full well what the root of anticipation was for Christmas.  Presents.  However, as I grew older into my teens I began to recognize something else about this time of the year.  The warmth of family and friends, the simple joy of being together....and rest from the long year behind.  Growing up in a non-traditional church, I felt more "enlightened" without the trappings of liturgy found in more traditional congregations.  Advent sounded like ritual, which of course must be far from the heart of God.  But as I consider these things today, I wonder if ritual and tradition shouldn't bring our hearts back to the feeling of anticipation for what the meaning of Christ's birth is to this world.

Christmas Eve is my most favorite point on the calender.  There seems to be an almost palatable feeling of peace that envelopes the world around us.  I can walk through our house and feel warmth, hope, and peace in a way that is hard to put into words, but I am sure you understand what I am attempting to convey.  And maybe it is the lights on the tree, or the traditions of family before me that pull my heart to that place.  But from my late teens until now-it has been the most sacred of times as I consider the sacrifice, born in a manger, that brings hope to the world.

Frankly, I don't know that I care that the Church landed on December 25 to celebrate the birth of Christ eons ago.  To me, it is less about celebrating a day than it is about celebrating what the coming of Christ as a baby means to the Christian faith.  I choose to celebrate, with anticipation, what God has already prepared for me in the year ahead.  So in that vein, celebrating at this point on the calender makes perfect sense.  Redirecting our hearts and thoughts during this time should start with the feeling of anticipation borne out of reflecting on the blessings God has provided in this last year and looking forward to fulfilling His calling on our hearts in the year ahead.

This isn't a post about the appropriateness of Christmas trees or lights, or greenery or Santa.  And it isn't about deciding how many gifts cross the line from making this Christmas commercialized or not.  Maybe this is a call to re-frame our thinking at this time of the year to that of anticipation.  Block out the noise and don't worry about whether or not a manger scene is on the courthouse lawn, don't try to make the story of Christ's birth more hip with clever sermon titles or cute phrases.  Just share it and ask yourself the pointed question for the year ahead, "am I living in anticipation of the Savior of the world?"

17 December 2014

Peace on Earth

One of the most quoted scriptures during Advent is the message the angles carried to shepherds tending their flocks outside Bethlehem:  Luke 2:14 "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace good will toward men."

Two thousand years later, while some still hope for peace, it seems an elusive concept in so much of the world.  And where violence doesn't shadow the hope of peace, the busy-ness of life, angst, greed, and what-have-you tends to steal the peace that is ours for the asking.  We must only seek it in the One whose coming was wrapped in its message.  Too often, in many churches, we don't even bother with the hope for peace, much less in being peacemakers as is found in the Beatitudes, because we feel somehow the reality of sin and our disconnection with those who do not profess Christ, provides a waiver from our responsibility to this world.  A world that needs to know the peace of God....I should hope that we're not so broken a vessel to carry that message.

For a few generations the words "Peace on Earth" hung near the top of my grandfather's barn.  His family, who left the Amish church, did not know war until he served in the Pacific theater during World War II.  Was it any wonder after his service ended that he should have that message proclaimed from on high?  When the farm left the family, my mom noticed the words had disappeared from the barn, so she stopped and asked the owner if he had kept them.  He did, and they found their way to our home.

About 10 years ago we used the words, and our kids, to send the message of "peace on earth" on our Christmas cards.  When we arrived in the country, I think my mom thought they'd be placed on our barn.  Instead, we had the perfect place for them inside our home and they stand as a constant reminder of what our responsibility is in this world:  agents of peace, peacemakers, as we've been called to.  I think that means giving up our rights, or the need to be right, in so many circumstances.  I think it means finding ways to get people talking with each other, to work toward compromise and understanding.  It means speaking less, and listening more, and being more inclusive in how we go about doing our Father's will.

So, in this week leading up to Christmas, let's determine to find an inward peace and contentment and then in the year before us, let's commit to being peacemakers, healers if you will, to the broken world around us.

10 December 2014

Michigan City: Vision to Capitalize on its History

1869 bird's-eye view of Michigan City, the Michigan Road is the main angled street not conforming to the grid
 A few years ago I met one of Michigan City's movers and shakers while developing the Historic Michigan Road Byway.  The guy had a vision for how Michigan City could reinvent itself and capitalize on its history and location on Lake Michigan.  Working with the redevelopment commission, an aggressive plan was put into action which would seek to list a major swath of the city into three National Register districts.  The city went from 0 districts to 3 in three years, the last being listed this year, in the hope that economic development would follow.

The Warren Building, under redevelopment as the new Artspace project
And it has.  Significant tax credit projects are being developed, or are under construction, that took advantage of the benefit of having the districts listed on the Register.  But the vision went far beyond just preserving old buildings-it has included the concept for creating a central arts district in the historic downtown, advocating for keeping the South Shore running through the downtown, despite efforts to reroute it.  And the vision better connects the lakefront to the downtown.  Investment in near east and west side residential districts has seen a general improvement of the neighborhoods, making them a more desirable place to live with easy access to new businesses opening up in the downtown.
First Congregational Church, 1881, on Washington Street
In 1831 Isaac Elston of Crawfordsville, Indiana purchased the land that would become Michigan City from the State of Indiana.  A year later he platted the town of Michigan City.  The new town was platted at the location surveyed by the State of Indiana in 1829 as the northern terminus of the Michigan Road, though the road was not constructed through LaPorte County until 1834.  The road connected Madison, on the Ohio River, with what was believed would be the best harbor on Lake Michigan for the state.  The mouth of Trail Creek at Lake Michigan was thought to offer an adequate harbor although only small boats were able to moor until improvements were made in the harbor between 1836 and 1852.  The first settlers arrived in 1833 and by 1836 over 3,000 people lived in Michigan City.  By 1880 the population was over 7,000 and it more than doubled to 14,850 by 1900.

The former Zorn Brewery complex, c. 1870, in the Elston Grove District
The three districts include Elston Grove, named by the town's founder, on the east side of the downtown from Michigan (Road) Street to Pine Street.  The Franklin Street District is the historic central commercial corridor once revamped as one of those nasty 1970s pedestrian malls, but now the heart of the arts district.  The third district is the Haskell-Barker District on the downtown's west side, stretching to the street bordering the outlet mall, and named for the former train car manufacturer in the city.  The three districts, combined, now have nearly 600 buildings that are eligible to receive rehabilitation tax credits.  The two most promising large projects include the Warren Building, an Artspace studio/residential venture in the downtown, and the former Zorn Brewery on the old Michigan Road, which is being considered for an upscale spa.

This is what happens when a community rallies around its historic resources = economic development.

03 December 2014

Sweitzer Barn on the Van Reed Farm, Warren County

Levi Van Reed House, Warren County
 I had the great fortune of writing a National Register nomination for the Levi Van Reed farm of Warren County, Indiana. Here is a little history of the family and what makes the farm unique. The Van Reed family moved to Pine Township, organized in 1830, when they purchased this property in 1856.  It's unclear if Levi Van Reed constructed the house or other buildings on the property given his former occupation in Mississippi as a carpenter.  Van Reed was elected to the board of Warren County Commissioners in 1867.  He served one three-year term, after which he retired to his farm.  His wife Amelia died in 1873 and Levi died in 1877.  Both are buried in the cemetery that the Barto family, from whom they purchased the farm, established in the 1830s.  The cemetery is located southeast of the farmstead and is known as the Van Reed cemetery due to the number of Van Reed family interments at the cemetery.

Sweitzer barn on the Van Reed farm
After Levi’s death the farming operations were carried out by his sons John and Levi, Jr.  The vast estate was divided among Levi’s living children, each receiving hundreds of acres.  Levi Van Reed, Jr. inherited the family farmstead which included 240 acres on either side of Old U.S. 41.  Levi Van Reed, Jr. was born in 1860, likely at the farmstead.  In 1895, the Levi Van Reed, Jr. family retired from farming and moved to Williamsport where they were involved in other business interests.

Spoon mold on the farm.....just kidding, what a great splash block design!
The barn is a great example of a type of German bank barn known as a Sweitzer barn.  Its origins are decidedly Pennsylvanian, like those of the Van Reed family.  It is the only example of a Sweitzer barn and one of only three bank barns in the county .  The size and quality of construction of the barn relate to the prosperity realized by the Van Reed family’s agricultural pursuits.  The barn has four bays and is considered large for the time period and region in which it was constructed.  German bank barns are divided into two types:  Pennsylvania and Sweitzer.  In a Pennsylvania barn, the peak is centered on the gable while the Sweitzer barn's ridge is off-centered, like that of old salt-box style homes of New England.  These are pretty rare in Indiana, and the Van Reed barn has an impressive charm sitting in the pasture on the edge of a rolling hill.  The house is an impressive example of Greek Revival style architecture, with some Italianate influence, all neatly apportioned to an I-house.  The farm was a great save by Indiana Landmarks.