Skip to content

20 Years Later: Some Thoughts on Engage Youth Rally in Davenport, IA

December 13, 2012

This last weekend I was blessed to be asked to speak at a youth rally held in my hometown of Davenport, IA called Engage.    A few dozen people showed up from all over Iowa and parts of Illinois to take part.  Coming back to my home congregation I had a fascinating realization: it was 20 years after the time I myself had planned and taken part of youth rallies in exactly the same spot.  It’s not often you come to the exact same place you once were.  Doing so gives you clarity in seeing how your life is going because you can measure yourself against your former self.  By taking part in Engage I had a moment to assess my path in faith over the last 20 years and the path of the church as a whole in Iowa over that same time.

So I, somewhat reluctantly, took a trip down memory lane to the brain of 17 year old Todd Tipton.  I say reluctantly because I wasn’t so sure I’d be proud of what I’ve become!  I pulled out old, faded photographs of memories I had of the Davenport church  and the church as a body in Iowa as well.  A random flood of thoughts and feelings came over me.

17 year old Todd wasn’t too sure where he was going or what he was doing.  I had faith, yes, but no vision of what I was trying to accomplish.  Well, maybe there was a vision, but it was simplistic.  I believed I was meant to go to college, get a good paying job I liked, get married, pop out a few kids, and come to church while doing so.  Maybe invite a few people along.  That’s what seemed fulfilling to me.  I was pretty sure that that was the case because the adults around me were so confident and had an air of purpose and accomplishment.  As a church body in Iowa, I felt I had friends who I was close to.  They helped me in my individualistic pursuit of being faithful to God.  The kept me strong so I said no to drugs, drinking, sex, and other sinful mischief so I would not be disqualified from the prize of heaven.

I’ve learned something in 20 years that I would’ve been shocked to find out then: adults mostly have no idea of what will make them happy or content either!  Even in the church.  One consistent theme that has emerged from other adults I’ve talked to now that I am one is that, for the most part, that I have no idea what they are doing in life.  This is not just unsuccessful (in the world’s eyes) people.  I see eyes laden with discontent in the wealthiest people.  In marriages where the people are good to each other.  Even in people who’ve dedicated their life to charitable work.  A sneaky discontent – hidden behind the surface – lurking there even in the trophy room of attained goals.

I realized after 20 years that I’ve learned that Christianity isn’t just a moral compass – it’s a new way to do life.  Entirely.  Its end goal is not about our purity or limiting sin.  It is by essence a new divine life lived in harmony with the Trinity through Christ.  When I think about the church 20 years ago – many positives came from it.  However, the focus was not necessarily to bring us into a new divine life participated in by community in Jesus – it was focused to define sin and try to mentally and physically prepare you to stop it as an individual.  God’s desire is not simply to make us sin free.  He could have created us in heaven that way.  His desire is to make us who choose it by free will, as a group, a building where he lives (1 Cor. 3) and a bride of his son (Revelations 21).

That purpose can be participated in now by letting him break through into earth by participating in assembly where his Spirit reigns (the church).  So, after 20 years, I’ve realized the focus needs to be shifted from preaching people to come to church so they won’t fall away and be sinful, but, instead, to be a part of a church who willingly gives up things for each other so that they can participate in Jesus and make him manifest in this world.  Life isn’t the compilation of a spiritual resume of what you’ve achieved – it is measured in Christ being manifested through what is sacrificed.  This body that is being knit together (Ephs. 4) is the entire focus of life.  It is richer than any individual can give from his wealth.  It’s deeper than any marriage.  It is the embodiment of charity.

At Engage I ran into a demographic that was a mishmash ranging from junior high students to adults.  That was very positive.  However, there was a glaring hole: older high school students and college students were barely present.  These are the ages, in particular, where people expand to see if they believe what they are taught.  It’s not entirely surprising or bad.  However, it shows me that a) those people do not see themselves as an essential cog of the body they should have been being built into, b) that they see their faith as individualistic, and c) that they are not entirely grasping the deeper purposes of life as defined by Christ.  If these things were so, we would have a group of people hungry not just to serve, but to be around each other- their peers – in the realization that being knit together with people of their same age in Christ might be the most important thing they can do.  Even considering that some people may be furthering Christ in a different way at home, I’m sure there are a lot who did not participate because a lack of connection to a greater purpose.  For some, viewing their life in sin and realizing they are not accomplishing personal purity, they may feel too guilty to come or like they don’t have anything to offer.  This is a negative consequence of substituting the deeper purpose of life for individualistic purity before God as a purpose.

In light of this, I issue a challenge to myself and to the church across Iowa (and really not I, but the message of Christ).  One, let’s stop lifting up personal, individualist purity as the goal of life.  Two, let us place a community who sacrifices for each other and lives to manifest Jesus and commune with him in its place.  Let that purpose seep into both in our home congregation and, in oneness, in the community of Christ across Iowa and ultimately across the face of the earth.  Three, let us take the consequences for those actions as they cut out or limit good things to make room for best things.  Four, if you are a young adult or teenager late in their high school years – invest in the events around you that create space for you to be in the same place as each other.  Doing so will repurpose you in an eternal rather than temporal way.

To do these things we need to seek Christ powerfully in community with each other.  MWBC is one such thing.  Some of it happens in your congregations.  Other than that, I see remarkably few things exist to tap into that purpose.  We need to create space for those.  We need to do that in our homes, in the homes of other people around us, and in created space for such things as a body across the US.  We need to stop being ashamed of our greater purpose and talk about it – in real ways in the real world – to each other.  Maybe we need to stop asking “How’s your spiritual life?” so much and instead ask “How’s our spiritual life?”  We need to not be ashamed to live a counter cultural life that sometimes puts us in poverty in the eyes of the world or sacrifices things that the world thinks is awesome because Christ, really, truly, is better.  We need to stop putting the emphasis on worship leaders and such to make us feel spiritual and, instead, create space to love each other daily which leads to spiritual outpouring from an overflow.  Above all, let’s stop faking it.  Let’s stop acting like we’ve got everything together when we don’t.  Let us, instead, daily seek to manifest Christ with each other, authentically being led as a group by the holy spirit as a church that is bringing Christ by its mere existence into the world around it.

I sincerely hope I’m back in another 20 years and I see the results of these things have come to pass.

Much love in Christ,



MWBC 24-7 365

November 30, 2012

1 week of camp.  51 weeks of waiting.

At least, that’s how it felt for me as a camper.  MWBC 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year sounds pretty much like what I’ve been trying to get my life to ever since!  MWBC (and Senior week in particular) not only connected me to Christ in way that was different than anywhere else, it connected me to some of the best people I’ll ever know – people I seriously love to this day.  I always hated speeches at the end of camp talking about “going back to the real world” because, to me, what happened that week felt more real than anything I felt the other 51 weeks of my life.  I dreamed for this experience I had to invade my life, swallowing up more and more weeks with its reality.  The rest of this letter is dedicated to you who are reading this who feel the same way.

Humor me with a few assumptions.  One, God has a plan for the world that he cares for intensely.  Two, God places people exactly where he chooses to further that plan.  Three, he makes each person with His purpose in mind – you aren’t an accident.  Four, that purpose isn’t centered on a physical job you are to do or an income class you are to earn yourself into.

You need to ask yourself why God placed you in Iowa.  You need to ask yourself why the community at MWBC produces the spiritual results in you and others around you that it does.  I’ve learned something in the years after camp.  Those connections I made through that experience and the spiritual fruit they bore in my life were much more important to the purpose of my life (and my contentment) than any day of work, anything I bought, any class I took, and any hang out I had with my friends.  Now that I look at it, I wish I had explored it more – took more time to grow that community.  That community and the way it lived Christ when it got together was more important than most of the spiritual things I’ve set out to achieve in my life.

Now let’s make a fifth assumption.  Let’s assume that God’s purpose involves bringing all of those people out of being their own selves and into one thing – Christ.  Let’s assume that that people expressing Christ as a community is the most important thing we could ever do and is, in a lot of ways, exactly what we will be doing in the afterlife.

MWBC is only one week because we allow it to only be one week.  We allow only one week to be consumed with putting everything we have in learning Christ in a community and giving our all.  Assuming the things above, what are we waiting for to make this thing something that is a bigger part of our lives?  How important would that be to our lives and the lives of people around us if we did that?  Could taking this oneness we feel during that week and expanding it to more of our life and across our states be one of the most important things we do –not just during high school – but in life in general?

Engage is coming up next week.  You who feel the same way should come.  Find someone to cover your work.  Miss a game.  Come from college to help out.  Do whatever you can to get there.  Why?  Because this one week you have that is so special can expand and be bigger but it’s going to take sacrifice – especially from you older ones.  There is always something else important you can do.  Sacrifice inspires.  The one week can expand in your life and the lives of others around  you if you take ownership where it is allowed.  That’s the ultimate plan of Engage.  There is a strong desire to make this community you experience grow into this time in your life – to bond you together and create space in those weeks outside of camp.  This is a point where you can own whether you will peak at camp and slowly decline until you get back or you can grow and bring something new the next time.

If it wasn’t for a girl who was willing to be nice to a nerdy guy in a four square line at MWBC, my life wouldn’t be the same!  People I connected with at MWBC came with me to Australia, paid for me to go there, moved to Michigan to be a ministry force, and have taught me about his amazingness through their lives from one end of the earth to the next through my entire life.  I hope even better things for you.  I hope you choose this good and communities of you rock the foundations of society around Iowa and the world.

I plan during free time to have a group time where we talk, take your ideas, and formulate a plan (and a team) to make this a greater reality.  Send me a message on FB or to if you want that.  Much love to you all!


The Necessity of Giving Thanks

November 22, 2012

An attitude of thankfulness is not simply the polite thing to do, it is necessary for mental and spiritual health.  Thankfulness brings a variety of wonderful things in your life!  Thankfulness fills your life with a focus on the positive.  Thankfulness frees you from being a victim to the negative things and negative people in your life.  It puts you in control of your welfare instead of circumstance.  Thankfulness puts the focus positively on others, not you.  It chooses to see the good in them and to be impacted by it more significantly than the bad.  It combats the poison of pride.  Thankfulness helps you see the eternal in the temporal.  It is realignment to the truth that our end, if it is in Christ, is becoming one with the being that fills everything in every way.  Thankfulness helps us understand that everything up until that point is just progress.

We live in a world that is anxious.  Anxiety is the most common mental illness in america.  The funny thing?  I think anxiety makes sense.  Anxiety is a flash of true, deeper understanding of the way of the world.  It is touching it.  It is feeling it.  And it is realizing that this world is going to come to an end, so are we, and there is little we can do to control it.

Thankfulness combats that.  Thankfulness is a sudden flash of true, deeper understanding of the unbelievable will God has to bring us into his goodness.  It is touching it.  It is feeling it.  It is realizing that God’s life is bigger than the world’s death.  It is realizing that with him in control our destiny is beauty and glory.

Scripture is filled with eloquent exhortation to give thanks.  The giving of thanks, often seen as an onerous command, is actually exhorted because of the beautiful things it gives us.  Paul instructs Timothy in 1 Tim. 2:1 to give thanks for all people.  Why?  So that “we may live peaceful and quite lives in all goodness and holiness.  This is good …” (vs. 2).  Paul tells the Thessalonians  to give thanks “in all circumstances” for this is “God’s will for you in Christ Jesus”.  In Philippians, Paul cites thankfulness as part of the cure for anxiety.  In fact, Paul mentions being thankful in nearly all of his letters to churches, perhaps most powerful explaining its life giving attributes in Colossians by connecting its use with the message of Christ dwelling richly in us, the peace of Christ ruling our hearts, and unity of peace amongst the body of believers.

Thankfulness is ultimately empowering.  It is a balm for the soul and gives freedom to its users.  In our own society it palpably brings vigor to our country and a desire for the good.  Let’s pause and reall take time to properly give thanks during this year’s Thanksgiving.  It will do wonderful freeing things for our souls.  As Charles Hodge said, “Thanksgiving is the language of heaven, and we had better start to learn it if we are not to be dumb aliens here.”

Much love in Christ and thanks for all of you,


Within Walking (dead) Distance

October 31, 2012

 * Hi all!  To celebrate Halloween this year I decided to post an excerpt from Within Walking Distance of a  slightly frightening and fully hilarious experience Daren had during his quest to walk around the world in 7 years.  Enjoy and happy halloween! *


(From the chapter: “North Carolina and Tennessee“)


“I love pot and I love Vodka.”

Dave leaned forward and offered a drink to me.

Dave was the only other guy at Groundhog Shelter.  That was refreshing because I had been staying in ridiculously packed shelters the last several days with smelly hikers.  Over the past two hours of coffee and dinner, Dave and I spoke like we were old friends.  He basically shared his whole life.  He told me he was homeless.  When I asked how he survived, he cryptically told me that he made money “Canning”.  I was curious as to what “Canning” was, but the only explanation I got was a little song he played from a flute he had apparently made.

Once the delightful flute song/Canning explanation was over, I asked about his past girlfriends and then about his spiritual beliefs.  Dave sadly did not let the flute do the talking for those subjects but he did give me some relief when he told me he believed in the bible, Jesus, and the Spirit of God.


He then explained to me that he could speak through psychic connections all over the world through the spirit of God, chasing that revelation with a story about some people in New Mexico that had slipped him a Mickey and tried to kill him by smashing in his face with a roofing hammer.

He leaned forward at the end and looked into my eyes.  “The armor of God saved me.”

Now that I think of it, it was kinda weird that nobody else was at that shelter …

Dave tilted the drink at me and looked into my eyes with expectation.

I guess there is no better way to try your first shot of Vodka than with a homeless guy in the woods who just told you that someone tried to kill him by slipping him a mickey and bashing his face in with a roofing hammer.

Not a regular hammer, mind you: a roofing hammer.

I grabbed the drink and swallowed it whole.  My eyes immediately started to water.  I wondered if that was normal or I was passing out from a date rape drug.  Dave looked at me with a light in his eyes as he raised his flute to his lips.

Thoughts on the church that having babies will make you think.

October 15, 2012

(Over the next couple of weeks I plan on blogging about some of the stuff the birthing process got me to thinking about with the church.  Hope you enjoy!)

The birth of Asher was mind blowing!  Throughout the process, many thoughts occurred while being a part of it that made me think of the parallels is presents to the nature of the church and just what on earth we are doing here.  In a day where the church is manufactured, marketed, efficiently planned, and modeled, it seems that we’ve forgotten that scripture teaches that the kingdom of God exists and grows organically: by birth.  In particular, John loved talking about our new birth, recounting how Jesus told Nicodemus in John 3, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born … “, and expounding on this birth extensively  in his first letter.  Peter too used this language in his first letter.  Jesus equated trouble in the world in Matthew 24 to the birthing pains of his church.   There are many other references.

My eyes have been opened to the amazing nature of the birthing process through Asher.  If these passages are accurate, it is in much the same way that God tells the story of how he conceives and grows his church.

Before Asher, there were many acts of love, but, mysteriously, one of those through no choice of our own, led to his actual conception – the planting of a seed.  Throughout Kara’s pregnancy, Asher grew in the womb, developing eyes, ears, a body, a heart, and all of the other things he would need to be fully formed.  We did not shape him ourselves, nor could we, but we could provide a good atmosphere, food, love, and love for each other to give him the environment to grow.  In particular, love for each other was the most important thing we could do to affect him.  When he was born, he was born through pain, blood, and water.  Kara felt the pangs of death, but through that new life emerged.  Kara’s body knew the time to bring him out – even though it was a few days earlier than predicted by doctors.  He became an immediate part of the family – someone we love very much despite how much he can contribute.

In the same way, acts of love abound in the church.  Mysteriously, some of those lead to conception through the planting of a seed through that love.  God grows that person spiritually in a womb, developing a spiritual body in just the right times.  We help that simply by loving each other, providing food, and safe atmosphere.  Love for each other is the most important thing we can do.  Birth into the kingdom came organically through pain, blood, and water.  Jesus birthed us into being on the cross – a spear thrust into his side producing blood and water symbolized that birth.  We reflect that in our process because being born into the kingdom requires death (blood) and new birth (represented through water).  Those added to the church are born when the Spirit chooses, which was eloquently stated by Jesus when he told Nicodemus that “The wind blows wherever it pleases.  You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.”  This new birth becomes an immediate part of the family, despite how much he or she can contribute.

Working with the church for quite a long time now, I’ve been taught that churches grow through talented human leadership.  Leaders have a vision that must be executed efficiently and that will build the church.  Growth in the church can be achieved by methodology, hard work, and planning.  “Worship” services are planned and executed with every note and rote in perfect order.  The church, effectively, is inorganic.  It is a machine that can be built through an assembly line and who’s stock will go up through American business ingenuity.  Furthermore, its individual parts are easily replaceable.  If a person leaves, it makes little to no impact on the church itself.  The Spirit of the Lord could long have left a church that continues to seem as if it is still there through an amazing marketing campaign.

Contrast that inorganic, machine like image with the flesh and blood image above it.  Is our image of the church and how it grows accurate?  Does this change the nature and scope of how we go about our faith?  I know it is something I will think long and hard about after seeing my son born!

Love to all,



Zoo Ministries is a community of young adults who have chosen to live out the life of Christ in their greater community.  We focus on the practical aspects of what it means to be devoted to one another in Christ while living in a world that more and more feeds self absorption.  The focus of our community is to share the love of Christ with each other and with the world around us.  This blog updates and explains this ministry as well as being a spot to share thoughts, generally on spirituality, about the events of the day.  We hope it provides something good for you!

Here is our house motto:

“We are a community of Christ-followers who believe in living a life of love. That loves drives us to comfort the hurting, serve the needy, befriend the lonely, accept the rejected, and challenge the status quo. We understand that love is risky, and we are compelled by Christ to take that risk. If people needs a place to belong, they can belong with us.”

We currently function partly of donations (we have a 2 year plan to cut the need for donations down significantly and, actually, be able to start funding other things).  If you want to contribute financially to help this develop, go to  or send check payable to East Main Church of Christ with my name in the memo line to East Main Church of Christ 2528 East Main St. Kalamazoo, MI 49048 .  If you don’t care about tax write offs you can send it to me at Todd Tipton 5727 West Q Avenue Kalamazoo, MI 49009.  We are always looking for roommates and helpers so contact us if you want to move here and be a part of this!

5 Quick Thoughts I’ve Had This Summer While Running

July 24, 2012

So … I run.  One of the things I like about running is that it creates space in your life for God to speak to you.  I’ve written a time or two about some of the things I’ve learned in the process of running.  Here are some things that have struck me recently to the cadence of pounding feet on a sidewalk.

1.  God is a long term planner. 

I’m running.  It’s facemeltingly hot.  95+ degrees.  I want to stop it’s so hot.  And then … glorious, beautiful shade.  A perfect patch of trees on the road with a shadow stretching across the road.  It reminds you of something simple but important to your life: God prepares areas of shade and rest to help you on your great journey.  Some farmer somewhere or God himself planted those trees long ago so that they could be used at this moment.  Noticing these things opens your eyes to the fact that you are a part of a greater narrative that is happening over the course of humanity.

2. Sometimes you have to ignore shiny objects for great things.

The other day I was running and I noticed a quarter on the ground.  I’m a cheap guy.  Really, really cheap.  I thought about stopping and getting it but the problem was that I wasn’t sure I could get going again.  As I considered getting this quarter I thought of the people without clean, accessible water that I was running for.  That was a much greater prize and more than worth not being distracted from my task.  The enemy makes a killing by distracting you with shiny things in the here and now to get you to forget the  worth of the greater task.  Sometimes we must ignore the less to obtain the more.

3.  I’m not satisfied.

I’ve run miles and I’m tired, sweaty, worn out.  But, I’m not satisfied.  I’ve helped people.  I’ve sacrificed.  But I’m still not satisfied.  My feet are blistered.  My toe nails are coming off.  I’m still not satisfied.  A desire has grown in me.  I had to control it.  Challenge it.  Grow it through trial.  It’s there.  The desire to not be satisfied with small things.  To not be satiated until others are filled with water like I am filled with living water.  Jesus provides complete satisfaction.  In response to that I desire to satisfy others thirst in proportion to that.  I will take no less than Him.  I choose to be satisfied with no less than him in all for all.

4.  Running with a backpack on is stupid.

I’ve been running with weight on to simulate a water walk and I’ve found out something simple: running with weight destroys your back and knees.  It only makes sense that if you try to spiritually run without first removing your burdens, the same will happen.

Guess who’s going to do something stupid?!? Me-e-e-e-e!!!!! I sure hope it’s 100 degrees out!

5.  The world is a beautiful place.

I often run by a farm that has a gazebo in the front yard.  In that gazebo – morning, noon, or night – is usually an old man, drinking a cup of coffee.  And I love this guy because I know he sits there looking out across his field because it’s better than anything that is on television or the internet.  It’s more beautiful.  It’s more amazing.  Something happens when you actually run through a place rather than drive through it: you see it in a completely different way.  It is more complex, more wonderful, and sweeter than you could possibly know driving through it with a window up and the a/c on.

Love and a great run to all!



What’s up in the ‘Zoo?


I haven’t updated in a little while so let’s do that.

The biggest news is we are currently in the summer o’ love.  Or so it seems!  Last weekend, Harold and Marissa celebrated their nuptials in the great city of Chicago!  It was awesome to be a part of their wedding ceremony.  But, they aren’t the only ones around where the love is flowing.  Daren and Danielle married a couple of months ago and Mr. Christopher Allen Merches is in a dating relationship.  I’ve been working about 20 years on that one!  It really is awesome to see the answer to prayers we prayed so long ago at the beginning.  We often pray about healthy relationships forming – and God has been gracious!  Since the beginning, we’ve had 4 marriages and a couple of relationships that are still in the works.  We love it!

We also have baby fever going on around here with 4 young couples all pregnant at the moment.  A little petting zoo ministries seems to be forming in the Zoo Ministries.  Pretty awesome stuff.  These things really are special.

One of the most awesome things of late was a visit from a girl in the youth group in the Sydney church of Christ – Natasha George!  We had a great time catching up with her 6 years after we left (yes – 6!)  It is awesome to see how she’s grown in her faith and we were very relieved and joyful to hear of the faithfulness of the group that we worked with in love for so long there.  They are amazing people doing amazing things.  We love that God let us be a part of their life and that we had the chance to express Christ to them!

Natasha very evilly gave the three year old in the Hippie Commune Vegemite. She learned to never trust adults again. Thanks Tash!

Monday Night Dinners are still cruising along, powered by Chris’ delicious food.  We always to have a person or two stop by from the neighborhood.  Tonight was no different when a 13 year old boy named Darion stopped, ate some spaghetti, and talked WWE with us for an hour.  It is awesome to bring the love of Christ into the neighborhood in that way.

Kara is getting super pregnant.  Daren is about to do an ironman (I think he should do the ironman in an Ironman suit – how awesome would that be?).  Kara is still quite into volunteering at Active Water.  I’m still having a chance to talk to my co-workers about Christ.  I have a couple of blogs up – one specifically focused to further our efforts from MWBC that involves my camp class for the year.  That’s pretty cutting edge and cool!  Harold and I bible study with some other guys.  All in all – pretty good regular stuff.

Rest has been really enjoyable and I’m super thankful to the people who come share Christ with me and others.  We are trying in a very focused way to put Christ at the very center of our purpose and universe.  I can’t wait until next week!

Kara’s ready to protect the baby … Michigan style.

Please pray for us.  Pray for Monday Night Dinners.  Pray for our group cohesiveness.  Pray for our love to abound.  Pray for people to come to us.  We really do believe we are doing something so needed here – reaching out to young adults, restoring a function of the church, and being restored to function as the church.  In this day and age where are young people wander off in droves we function not only as the shepherd going into the wilderness to find the lost sheep, but also to restore the sheep to the shepherd and give them a valued place in the flock.  This ministry is urgently needed and we love so much that you see that!  We have ups and downs but the goal must be achieved and we will toil to see it through no matter what the cost.  Your love in Christ sustains us.  Your financial support gives us the opportunity to offer this free of charge.  We love you.  Thank you.

Love to all!


Hi!  Zoo Ministries is a community of young adults who have chosen to live out the life of Christ in their greater community.  We focus on the practical aspects of what it means to be devoted to one another in Christ while living in a world that more and more feeds self absorption.  The focus of our community is to share the love of Christ with each other and with the world around us.  This blog updates and explains this ministry as well as being a spot to share thoughts, generally on spirituality, about the events of the day.  We hope it provides something good for you!

Here is our house motto:

“We are a community of Christ-followers who believe in living a life of love. That loves drives us to comfort the hurting, serve the needy, befriend the lonely, accept the rejected, and challenge the status quo. We understand that love is risky, and we are compelled by Christ to take that risk. If people needs a place to belong, they can belong with us.”

We currently function partly of donations (we have a 2 year plan to cut the need for donations down significantly and, actually, be able to start funding other things).  If you want to contribute financially to help this develop, go to  or send check payable to East Main Church of Christ with my name in the memo line to East Main Church of Christ 2528 East Main St. Kalamazoo, MI 49048 .  If you don’t care about tax write offs you can send it to me at Todd Tipton 5727 West Q Avenue Kalamazoo, MI 49009.  We are always looking for roommates and helpers so contact us if you want to move here and be a part of this!

Swimming Lake Michigan

July 4, 2012

(This article has a special place in my heart.  I interviewed Daren after this Swim and wrote this article immediately afterwards in one of those magical writing flurries where you just can’t seem to type fast enough.  This story was alive before I even wrote it!  Daren and I took a long journey trying to find a magazine to publish it but, alas, it appears it was not meant to be.  Although we had positive feedback on the initial stages of finding a home for it we just couldn’t find someone who would actually read it.  Coming up on the one year anniversary, it seemed now was the time to bring it to the world.  I hope this story finds a special place in your heart like it has in mine.  If it does so, share it with others.)

Swimming Lake Michigan
by Todd Tipton


On August 5th, 2011 Daren Wendell destroyed his body on a 35 hour, 50.6 mile swim from New Buffalo, MI across Lake Michigan to Navy Pier in Chicago, IL to raise money for and awareness of the water crisis in Zambia, Africa.  This is why we don’t care.  And this is why he compels us to anyway.

“People often say to me when I do something like this, ‘I could never do that.’  What they really mean is ‘I WOULD never do that.’  They’ve been blessed with the same body I have, they just don’t have the same desire.”

Daren Wendell, whip thin and every day handsome, leaned back slightly to watch me weigh that statement.  It was as if he knew before he said it that I wouldn’t quite believe him.  Normally wiry, Wendell had lost 8 pounds during his 35 hour, 50.6 mile swim across Lake Michigan making him look slightly gaunt.  He wore a baggy button up brown shirt with short sleeves that gave plenty of room for the wicked burns under his arms to breathe.

Earlier he had taken off his shirt to show me his wounds.  It looked like he had been scourged.  Deep, thick, ruler-straight cuts ran on his back from his shoulders to his tailbone, each spaced 4 inches from the next.  He told me they were from the seams of his wetsuit.  His front was no better.  Burn scars crisscrossed his torso with no identifiable pattern leaving it up to the imagination how he got them.

Worst of all were his armpits.  They were so scarred he could not put his arms down to his side.  I could give no better description than that of one observer who quipped upon seeing them, “It looks like a raccoon has been nesting in your armpits for 2 weeks”.

Wendell’s face had not escaped unscathed.  He had a deep, irregular tan.  Surrounding his eyes were perfect white circles from his goggles.  The top of his head was the same from his swim cap.  His right cheek was more tanned than the left, testifying to the side he pulled air from during the swim.  It all gave the impression of someone who had gone through a harrowing ordeal.  Still, Wendell’s sharp features carried unmistakable charisma.  It seemed to come from his eyes.  Slightly large, a quality in them shown with an inner smolder tempered with pain.

Wendell continued.  “It’s all mental.  How much pain are you willing to endure”?  This was the question that I feared.  It is the one that keeps me from wanting to know too much about these kinds of things.  It’s easier to imagine that people can do these things only because their DNA allows them, or better yet, demands that they do so.  I am in no hurry to be guilted into testing the limits of my pain.  But, this is the mesmerizing quality of Wendell.  Even with his broken body, he can make you want to give into that part inside of you that really does want to know how much you can endure and really does want to know how much you can care.

“Most people unconsciously set a limit in their mind for the pain they are willing to endure.  That’s what I mean by stating that what they are really saying is they wouldn’t do that.  They’ve set a limit they are not willing to endure for any reason. ”

“Most people sell themselves way too short”.Image

On Friday August 5th, 2011, Daren Wendell zipped up his wetsuit, lowered his goggles, and strode out into the calm Lake Michigan waters in New Buffalo, MI.  If you squint hard enough on a clear night you can sometimes see the red lights on top of Willis Tower, formerly Sears Tower, over 40 miles across the lake.

It’s hard to wrap your brain around what it means to swim across Lake Michigan.  Far more people have climbed Everest or been to outer space than have done it.  Wendell’s route was over twice the length of one of the more famous swims, the English Channel, and only 1% of the amount of total people who have swum the Channel have swum across Lake Michigan.  If you broke it into laps in an Olympic pool, Wendell’s course would have been 3,562 laps.  Michael Phelps record swim of the 200m was 8 laps.

Still, all of these examples fail to grip what he did in a way that actually means something.  Swimming like this is just so foreign to the mind.  There is nothing to measure its dimensions against in everyday experience.  Only in standing on the beach looking at the expanse of water stretching seemingly endless to the horizon– only in watching the water lap placidly with the strong hint of a powerful wildness under its surface – only in standing in Chicago under the shadows, feeling the weight of its massive buildings while  looking towards a mass of seething blue – only in seeing with your own two eyes the toll on his body – only then can you get a sense of the extent of what he did.  True distance in this case was measured in pounds of flesh ripped, not freely given, from his body.  8 Pounds to be exact and that is more than in a metaphorical way.

Wendell began swimming in a northwestn direction.  “I’m not a swimmer”, he told me in the after interview without a hint of understanding the irony of his statement.  What Wendell had meant was that he had relearned to swim over the last year with the help of swim coaches.  He decided to do the entire swim in the forward crawl.  He had abandoned kicking as too energy wasting.  It would be his arms and mind that would carry him.  “My body will do what I tell it to do”, Wendell said just minutes before entering the water.

Wendell’s arms started, falling into an easy rhythm that he had practiced in swimming pools and lakes during a year of arduous preparation.  Support kayakers monitored his health.  A 50’ support boat volunteered by Captain Craig Harden with Co-Captain Dean Sparkman coasted ahead of him with supplies, a support team, Wendell’s girlfriend, and the campaign manager, Amy Napier.  Wendell was not the only person who had sacrificed himself during a year of rigorous preparation.  Napier and the Public Relations Director, Kara Tipton, among others had dedicated a year of their lives in the gamble that anyone would actually care about this.

“There are a ton of variables that can keep you from succeeding”, said Wendell.  “We didn’t even have a boat in the beginning.  Our window for swimming was only 2-3 weeks.  Consistent bad weather would put the swim in jeopardy.  And even if that all fell together, in the end people could still say ‘Who cares?’ ”.  This is where the compulsive magnetism of Wendell is in its full glory.  Wendell can tell you the size of the obstacles in your path and, then, not only can he get you to still sacrifice, he can actually convince you it will be worth it.

5 miles.  10 miles.  15 miles.  Wendell’s arms pulled him toward Chicago robotically.  He averaged 1.5 miles an hour.  The kayakers switched in and out while Wendell surged on toward the setting sun and the deep, ever darkening expanse in front of him.  Wendell ate every half hour.  Eating enough was a significant early issue the team faced.  Many endurance athletes had ended in a long hospital stay due to eating too little.  Kayakers threw him bottles of smoothies, water, and coffee.  Wendell even managed to eat burgers, olive and cream cheese sandwiches, and Doritos that were thrown to him in ziplocked plastic bags.

Wendell followed open water rules.  While he was allowed a wet suit, he could not touch a boat or another human being during the swim.  That meant that if he was in trouble any rescue attempt would have instantly disqualified him.  He couldn’t find a music player that could handle the length of his swim so his only company was the occasional comment by kayakers, his mind, and the sound of bubbles rushing by his ears headed toward the surface.

Just after 9 pm the first 4 foot wave hit.  This was one of the teams biggest concerns: the rough waves that are all too common in Lake Michigan.  A kayaker flipped over and the boat had to turn around to get him.  Wendell swam on.

The support team was faced with its first difficult decision.  If a kayaker were to flip under full darkness they might not be found in the rough waves.  It could mean a long delay for Wendell.  If he continued swimming it would mean help was farther away.  A decision was made.  The boat would pull directly ahead of Wendell and spotlight him.  The kayakers were pulled.  Wendell would swim through the rolling waves monitored only from the small dinghy.

For the next 4 hours, Wendell swam through 4 to 5 foot waves.  He had a new unexpected problem though.  He was now breathing the heavy diesel fumes from the boat ahead and it was making him nauseous.  A web update stirred anxious friends and supporters from their beds to action back on land.  Prayers and well wishes poured in encouraging Wendell through the difficulties.  Your faith will determine how you interpret what happened next.

“It was incredible.  You could see the calm approaching the boat from afar.  Within minutes the lake went from rough to almost completely still.  We were stunned”, said Captain Sparkman.

In the calm, Wendell swam on toward the dawn with the sun rising behind him.  Despite being in the water nearly 24 hours he kept his sense of humor.  He swam up to one of the kayakers and said through a grin “Excuse me sir.  Do you know the way to Chicago”?

The day was warm and the water was now perfect for swimming.  Wendell’s arms continued in cadence through midday.  The long swim, however, had finally started to take a toll.  Wendell could no longer keep his fingers together.  He was now forced to claw his way through the water.

More problems came.  Serious ones.  At 3pm Wendell started to vomit uncontrollably.  Every 30 minutes he would experience what felt like severe heartburn.  The support team reported that he would let out a ear piercing scream each time and then vomit.

This was just the start.  The seams on his wet suit had created horrible burns all over his body.  Wendell described the feeling as being like a lighter held to the skin.  Furthermore, Wendell’s left rotator cuff was breaking down.  He was now swimming at the elbow, almost dog paddling his way as the sun slowly sank toward the horizon.

It was at this time that Wendell let out another ear piercing scream.  He had urinated and the wetsuit had forced it into his open wounds.  Wendell told me that it felt like someone had thrown acid on him.

Despite all of this, he swam.  “I like to quote a line from the movie Prefontaine.  When people asked him how he could be so sure he was going to win a race, Prefontaine would tell them, ‘Because I can withstand more pain than anyone out here’.  That is my mindset.  I never thought of quitting”.  As proof of this, at this point, Wendell could have swam straight for shore and touched down in southern Chicago.  However, he decided to continue 5 more miles to Navy Pier.

The medical technician, Mike Wilson, now refused to leave Wendell’s side.  He would kayak the last 8 hours with him to monitor his health.  Wendell could clearly see the Chicago skyline in the ever deepening dusk.  Despite his pain, he swam up to a kayaker and said, “Sure is pretty”.  After swimming a stroke he looked up again with a grin and said, “Wish I could get there … ”.

The final hours were torture.  Wendell stopped eating to quell the vomiting despite the pleas of the support team that he must eat.  He now made another potentially life threatening decision.  He decided to strip his wet suit half way off to try to ease the pain of his burns.  This would cause him to eventually get hypothermia.  He would risk it.

3 miles from the end, Wendell started to hallucinate.  He believed he saw people standing on top of the kayak and that fish were chasing him.  Wilson watched him worriedly.  Because of his injured left rotator cuff, Wendell was pulling to the left as he swam causing him to go off course.  He was not responding well to directions given by the team.

Complicating matters, the team was contacted by the Coast Guard because, being off schedule, they now wanted to re-route him due to fireworks set to go off above Navy Pier for the music festival, Lollapalooza, a stone’s throw away.  The support team pleaded with the Coast Guard to let him stay on course.  After a tense hour, the Coast Guard agreed to let Wendell swim in with a fire rescue and police escort.

A half mile from shore, things got desperate.  Wendell was stuck in a powerful current.  Exhausted and sick, he could not punch through it.  The team anxiously waited as he seemed to be swimming in place for nearly an hour.  Because he was not responding to directions, the team informed him that he would be pulled.  Wendell, however, would not be pulled.  He convinced the team to let him give it all he could before they took him out of the water.  Interviewing the support team afterwards, awe was on their faces as the described what happened next.

Wendell exploded in the water sprinting with all of his remaining might towards the Navy Pier breakwall.  At this point he had far surpassed the 42 miles he had trained to swim.  He had now swum nearly 50 miles.  He sprinted 5 minutes, 10, 15, 20 … The breakwall grew nearer.  In the end he sprinted 45 minutes.

200 feet from the break wall he became stuck again in another current.  The crew calculated that he would have to swim the equivalent of a mile to get through the final feet.  This time he felt something wrong with his body that he had never felt before.  The campaign manager, Napier, came near and Wendell said, “You’re going to have to call it.  I can’t.”  Napier was forced into a terrible decision.  Wendell had already made it to Chicago.  He could have touched 5 miles back.  However, would anyone care if there wasn’t the iconic picture of him walking out of the Lake on to a beach or off the pier?  Looking at him, though, it was obvious that keeping him in the water may kill him.  Napier made her decision.  There was nothing left to prove.  She called it.

The fire team grabbed Wendell.  He screamed.  Their hands felt like fire.   As soon as his body touched the dinghy, the fireworks started directly over him.  Members of the team broke into tears of joy.  The fire boat brought him the final 200 feet and laid him on Navy Pier.

Wendell denies this, but after talking to members of the team, the consensus was that if Napier hadn’t called it Wendell would have swam until he made it to the Pier or died.

As it was, a good case could be made that Wendell nearly did swim himself to death.  He was rushed to the nearest hospital, Northwestern Memorial, just blocks away from Navy Pier.  The emergency room went silent  and stared when they saw the state of Wendell’s body as he was wheeled through it.  Medical personal sprang into action.  Wendell had hypothermia, severe wet suit burns, anemic red blood cell counts, and double normal white blood cell counts.  His blood work came back so strange that the hospital ran them again to check their accuracy.

Wendell’s most serious condition was hypoglycemia.  His blood sugar count was below 40.  Blood sugar levels measure the energy stores available in a body for use.  Normal levels are typically in the 90’s.  Below 65, the body starts to suffer.  Symptoms include vomiting and disorientation.  40 is the bench mark for serious concern.  This is the point that seizures and unconsciousness can occur.  If levels below 40 continue for 2 hours or more, heart attacks are a real possibility.  It is not known how long Wendell swam with his blood sugar level below 40.

Wendell’s father, who had been nervously pacing the destination beach for over 6 hours, was one of the first to arrive at the hospital.  With evident weariness and pride in his eyes he told his son, “No more swimming”.  Other members of the welcoming party streamed into the waiting room.  After an hour they were allowed to see him two by two.  Wendell rolled his eyes over to them, smiled, gave each a weak fist bump, and said “We made it … We made it.”


After Wendell finished recounting the story, he leaned back, his eyes searching mine for the question he knew was coming next.  “Why?”  
When asked, Wendell answered in the low tone of professional ease.  He had clearly answered this question many times before.  Wendell co-runs a non-profit organization called ActiveWater which holistically brings safe, clean drinking water to Zambia.  In a plain way he told me of the plight of many ordinary Zambian children, mostly young girls, who are forced to walk 2-6 miles a day to get the water from a river to survive.  Their jugs are heavy, weighing 40 pounds or more and the water is dirty.  It makes them sick.  Often, children can’t be in school because they are retrieving the water their family needs to live for the day.  ActiveWater holistically provides sanitation training, wells, and filters to help.  Besides directing the non-profit, Wendell does endurance events to personally raise money to help.  Endurance events make sense because each of these children participates in their own endurance event day after day to bring home water. The Swim to Chicago was one of these events.  So far the Swim has raised $13,500.  “A life lived for others is the best life”, he finished with the calm surety of a man who had tested that statement under fire and found it true.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure I wanted to ask the “Why?” question.  This is usually the point where I turn off a little bit.  I sometimes go to the grocery store and, after the cashier rings up $100 worth of hot pockets and pepsi, I get asked if I want to donate a dollar towards some charity or another.  I call it a charity ambush.  Looking down at my pile of junk food I am easily guilted into giving money but I always resent it.  It’s not that I don’t care.  I do.  It’s just that there are so many things to care about: orphans, cancer, Africa, Japan, Haiti, New Orleans, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, homeless … it’s all overwhelming.  I’ve internally set the threshold for the amount of the world’s pain I am willing to feel and I don’t particularly like my calibrations being challenged, especially since I feel like a charity case all on my own.  After all, is anyone looking out for me?  This is why I don’t care.  I don’t want to care because it all seems impossible.

Yet, instead of leaning away, I found myself leaning towards Wendell because his answer had a fascinating undercurrent.  It is obvious that Wendell cares about Zambia.  However, there is a quality to his tone that leads you to believe that solving the water crisis in Zambia is a somewhat arbitrary target to him.  It’s almost as if he picked it out of a hat.  What drives Wendell, that slow burn evident in his eyes, is genuine concern and love for people.  It seems that Wendell realized that he could be most effective if he targeted one problem at a time and that just so happened to be the water crisis in Zambia.  Once committed, it was not enough for Wendell to simply send money to fix the problem.  He decided that he needed to share in their suffering.  Looking at him with my own two eyes I can testify that that sharing is compulsively powerful.

“Sacrifice inspires.” Wendell said to me.  I tried to circumvent that with more questions but he kept coming back to it.  “Sacrifice inspires.”

Wendell’s sacrifice has already inspired thousands.  One of the special attributes of ActiveWater is that it partners with the passions, sacrifices, and abilities of others to bring safe drinking water to Zambia.  This is not a charity where you simply give a dollar.  ActiveWater asks you to give of yourself in any way you choose.  Besides from other endurance athletes, ActiveWater has partnered with a girl who gave up every drink but water for a year (and donated the money she would spend on other drinks), kids giving out $1 hugs, unicyclists, magicians, and many others.  All have one thing in common: they involve personal sacrifice.  They then share in the suffering of fellow humans across the world.  That sacrifice of theirs inspires others to do the same.  Wendell’s knows his greatest endurance event – bringing safe, accessible, drinking water to Africa and around the world – can only be accomplished with others.  At the end, his life may be spent, he may be weak or old, but he will be there with a smile and a weak fist bump saying not “I made it … I made it” but “We made it … We made it.”

“I hate that question” Wendell said to me with a laugh when I asked “What next”?  He’s already walked the United States, started an expedition to physically walk the world (which is now halfway through Australia), biked across the U.S., ran marathons, hiked the Appalachian trail, completed ½ iron mans, and, now, swam Lake Michigan.  He’s working on a book about selling everything he owned, quitting his job as a youth pastor, and walking the United States called Within Walking Distance.  He’s running the Goofy Challenge at Walt Disney World Resort to raise awareness of the world water crisis.  ActiveWater is taking off and his duties have gotten more and more pressing.  In October, the organization will expand holistic action to Poipet, Cambodia.  Yet, as he says that he hates the question, a sparkle remains in his eyes to let you know that he is thinking about what next.

He is thinking about greater challenges.  He is thinking about those that are suffering in the world.  He is thinking about how his body can be painted in their suffering.  He is thinking about how much pain he will have to endure to make it right.

In quiet times, when it’s dark and the world is a murmur, I’m surprised to find my mind has wandered into thought about that same thing.