2014 in pictures

It was a crazy, snowy, busy, snowy, beautiful, and snowy year. Here are some photo highlights…


Grand Rapids had the distinction of being the fourth snowiest city in America last winter, clocking it at 116 inches for the season. It was nice getting reacquainted with our front steps in April.



I logged 785 miles in 2014, some of them in the aforementioned snow. Mostly just running around the neighborhood, but there were also a few scenic runs, including the Manitou Incline (assuming we use the word “run” in the loosest sense) and the 8-mile loop around Mackinac Island.




In March, I traveled to Haiti to visit a World Vision ADP (area development program). There I saw Haiti’s future…a future where children are valued, protected, and empowered by the community.




Ways my wife is awesome…

Because she left encouraging notes like this in my office this year…


The preschooler

Somehow our firstborn became a preschooler in 2014. We’re trying not to blink.



The newbie

In 2014, we welcomed our son Oliver James into the world. He has brought more joy and light into our family than we ever could have imagined.



Oliver came a few days early. As it happened, I was brewing with a buddy the day before he was born. I decided to name our red rye ale in honor of Oliver’s first documented smile…


We had Oliver baptized on All Saints Day. And yes, bowties ARE cool.


Pure Michigan

As a family, we got to explore some of northern Michigan’s beauty this fall. (It was an amazing fall in our part of the world.)



And finally…

Winter strikes again

We rounded out the year with the snowiest November in Grand Rapids’ history. At least one person in our household was happy about the return of snow…


Happy new year!

Under the Banyan Tree

So, you know how it goes. You make new friends at church… get to know them a bit… discover you have a lot in common… think to yourself, we should totally hang out more… and then they announce, “Oh hey, we’re moving to India!”

What the heck, guys?

Seriously… our friends Nathan and Abby are heading to the border of India and Nepal to spend a year serving, learning, and discerning. Abby grew up in the region. Her parents have spent almost three decades (and counting) providing education for children and rehabilitation and support for exploited women. Trafficking, illiteracy, and poverty are all serious challenges affecting the region.

Over the next year, Abby will offer counseling for at-risk women and students (she has a master’s degree in counseling psychology). Nathan will work with indigenous ministry leaders, focusing on leadership development, theological training, and what he likes to call “life-on-life discipleship.”

I mentioned in my post yesterday how Nathan and Abby had shared their vision with our church. We’re not just supporting them because they’re our friends. We’re supporting them because we believe in the vision they have for doing compassionate work in a cross-cultural setting.

They don’t see themselves as “coming to the rescue.” They don’t see the people they’re going to serve as “helpless.” They’re going to India and Nepal to discover—and amplify—the good that’s already there. In the people, their communities, and their culture.

In other words, their vision starts with Genesis 1, not Genesis 3. God made the world good. The people of India and Nepal are good. Their culture is good. Nathan and Abby see that. They also understand the tremendous challenges facing extraordinary the people of this region. Abby and Nathan have spent the last several years equipping themselves to help others overcome these challenges. But the important thing is, they are starting where God starts. Like they said when they shared their vision with our church, “We’re not going to bring light where there isn’t any already. God’s glory fills the earth. It’s already there.”

We need more people who will go out and serve from this vantage point. If you are looking for a good cause—people who are not only doing the right things, but doing them the right way—I encourage you to visit Nathan and Abby’s website, Under the Banyan Tree. Watch their video to hear more about their vision for serving the people of India and Nepal. They deserve your support.

You can also go here to make a gift to support their work. 

How my 3-year-old helped me to find my voice

You know those people who mouth the words to all the songs in church, who move their lips, pretend-singing while no actual sound escapes from them? Yeah, that’s me.

It’s not because I can’t carry a tune. While I’m not expecting a recruitment letter from the choir anytime soon, I can usually find the general vicinity of the right notes if I have to.

It’s more that growing up, I didn’t like the sound of my own voice. I still remember the first time I heard a recording of myself. It wasn’t fun.

Add to this the fact that I’ve always worried more than I should about what others think of me — especially those I care about. I’ve always craved their approval. I’ve let it hold me back from being myself, from expressing what I really think, feel, and believe. I had this blog for years before I worked up the nerve to share it with any of my friends. Putting myself out there for others to see is like a sort of cathartic torture for me.

And so I’ve never really sung in church — convinced, apparently, that if I don’t like the sound of my own voice, surely others will feel the same. I don’t think my lip-syncing performance has caused me to worship God any less, but it has kept me from being myself — or more precisely, from being OK with myself.

Something changed the day my daughter was born. She was a fresh start, a blank slate. Her only impulses were to receive love and give it back in return. It’s easier to be yourself around a squirming infant who just wants to be held. So I started singing to her. Silly made-up songs, lullabies, even the occasional U2 song. (We must’ve sung and danced to “Stuck in a Moment” a dozen times a few nights ago.)

She doesn’t care how my voice sounds. (Unless I start singing in a parody opera voice; then I get told off.) She doesn’t care if I get the words wrong. (Unless I change the lyrics to “Stuck in a Moment”; then I get corrected.) She just likes to sing and dance with her dad. She helped me find my voice. More precisely, she helped me to be OK with my voice. I figure if she’s all right with it, then I can be too.

We all need people who accept us unconditionally, whose love proves the folly of changing who we are out of fear for what others may think, who give us permission to be ourselves, who teach us what real acceptance looks like so we can extend it to others. That’s what my daughter has done for me in her first three years of life on this earth.

So the other day in church, I sang. Actually sang. I didn’t just move my lips. Mind you, I didn’t sing loud. But it was loud enough that that sound escaped my mouth. Amazingly, no one asked me to pipe down or kindly move to the back. No one in the vicinity shuffled a few feet away from me. The choir didn’t stop mid-tune to discover the source of the unholy racket.

It felt good to actually sing for a change. That was my daughter’s gift to me: the gift of unconditional, unhesitating acceptance, squirrely voice and all.

All Saints’ Day, the falling leaves, and my dad’s last gift

All Saints’ Day.

I had a few moments to spare on my own before the church service, so I sat and watched the unbroken waves lapping the shores of Reeds Lake. A young man scolding his partner for letting their dog off leash. An old man cleaning his boat one last time before stowing it for the season.

The brilliant colors of fall — impossibly, still clinging to branches. The leaves have hung on longer than usual this year. But they can’t hold on forever.

Back at the church, we marched outside in solemn procession. Standing in the columbarium, surrounded by memorial plaques, we honored the dead and remembered that we too are destined to become dust. The choir sang of our mortality as I held my three-year-old close.

I thought about the leaves still clinging to their branches. Some faded brown, some still alive with red, yellow, and orange. It’s strange how leaves reach their peak of beauty just before they die.

I wondered if the same could be said of us — whether we give our greatest gift to the world as our hour approaches, or whether the inevitability of death drains the color and life from our veins long before our hearts give out.

It’s been hard not to think about death, ever since my dad passed away. When he was my age, he didn’t know it, but his life was already more than halfway done.

In the final weeks before the cancer reached his brain, my dad was the very best of himself. He knew his leukemia meant there wouldn’t be any bedtime stories with his first grandchild, born a month to the day before he died. But instead of becoming paralyzed by the injustice of it, he poured his strength — some of the last he had — into recording himself reading his favorite children’s book, The Little Engine That Could, for my daughter. His voice wavered at times, but it was strong and full of affection. He wouldn’t let a little thing like dying stop him from reading to his granddaughter someday. He wouldn’t allow the inevitability of his death to keep him from giving her this priceless gift.

On All Saints’ Day, we remember yet again that we are destined to return to dust. There is nothing I or any of us can do to escape this fate. But we can decide what kind of gift we’ll leave the world before we go.

The epicenter of progressive culture

Earlier this year, Newsweek magazine identified America’s top 10 dying cities, one of which was my very own Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Having lost $30 million and close to a million readers in a single year, Newsweek knows a thing or two about dying.

In response, Grand Rapids’ own Rob Bliss decided to do this, with the help of locally-based Creo Productions and about 5,000 Grand Rapidians (is that what we’re called?)…

Had to give a shout out…especially to my friends at Creo. I’ve gotten to work with them on a couple video projects and am always impressed.


Update: Newsweek is distancing itself from the original “dying cities” story and showing some love for GR on their Facebook page. Thanks, Newsweek. We hope you don’t die either.

new site

Crashed hard drive + forgetting to back up a few key files = excuse to update your website finally. Same address as before . . .  www.benirwin.net

the thing about blogging…

Well, I did it.

I finally turned the switch on and started blogging.

With a good bit of hesitation (and procrastination), I might add. The thing is, so many blogs are little more than therapy sessions held in cyberspace—one person pouring their virtual heart out to only-Tom-Anderson-knows-who* and inviting the rest of the world to engage in a kind of verbal voyeurism. Pretty soon people begin measuring their self-worth by how many comments their latest post received or how many friends they have on their MySpace page.

This is not one of those blogs.

* Tom Anderson is the creator of MySpace. Sorry, these are the jokes. Love ’em or hate ’em.