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Archive for the ‘Christianity’ Category

Death and Life

For the last few hours I’ve been sitting outside and staring. Just staring. Tonight I was informed that one of my students died on Friday night. Yes, I’ve been crying a bit. Shayne is my first. I can’t say I’d ever considered this scenario. If you’ve read some of my earlier blogs you know that there was a period of my life when I thought death followed me and struck down the people I cared for most. But that period has long since passed and now I’m struggling with what I’d only heard people talk about: how can someone so much younger than me, with so much potential, be gone.

I only had Shayne in one class last year. It was the fall semester and he immediately distinguished himself as a curious student who was intellectually gifted. But his curiosity extended beyond the classroom as he sought to understand the world and people. Shayne came by my office frequently. Sometimes we would just talk about politics or music, while other times we would talk about life. We spent hours talking. Our backgrounds were different. I’m a country boy from South Dakota and he is a second generation African-American from Zimbabwe. He grew up in the ghetto in Indianapolis. Ironically, what we shared in common was death. His father had died before he was born. After moving to the states, he saw friend after friend die. We talked a lot about this, especially after Shayne realized that I am a Christian.

Since he was very young he looked after his mother, who had a bad habit of picking cruel men. He told me stories about when he was a child, her boyfriends would beat her. And there Shayne stood. He told me about her choices and how he had to grow up so very fast. And he did. He didn’t return to school this year because of finances. He told me of his dilemma this last spring, he asked me to pray for him: that he would have wisdom in knowing how to best protect his mom.

I can’t imagine all that Shayne faced. I can’t imagine the circumstances leading up to his death. But it has made me pause to think about the people in my life and how much I care for them. I think of my students. I think of life. But death seems to have that impact: causing us to look down, rather than up. Rather than looking at the forest, I see the blade of grass. I see a student with so much potential struck down before that potential could be realized. It’s heartbreaking.

What is interesting to me now is how this is the first time I’ve reflected in the midst of grief.  Shayne and I weren’t best friends. Our interaction was very much as a student and professor. But in that relationship something grows that I hadn’t realized before tonight. This relationship goes beyond attachment and extends to seeing someone for who they could be. I wonder if parents feel similarly.

But death comes and we go on, however slowly. To feel the loss of one student makes me hope for the others. I’m not one to think of tragedy as purposeful, as if it happened for a specific reason. That kind of fatalism has always bothered me and doesn’t seem very Christ-centered. In a fallen world there is death and that death is the result of sin. Can tragedy result in triumph? Absolutely. Death reminds me of the purposefulness of living a life of reconciliation and redemption. It reminds me that a life of shalom is a difficult life and prompts us to act in defiance of “logic” and social norms. I’m reminded once again that the difficulty of living shalom is also its beauty. As a friend of mine once told me, “It’s the struggle that is beautiful.” And, again, I must agree.

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The Breadth of Joy

This week school begins. I did have several mornings and afternoons of meetings this past week but the slow trickle of students back on campus didn’t register until Saturday as the freshmen class arrived with their parents. I do realize I’m getting older but this years freshman look so very young, which is due to the fact that they were born in 1991. As some of those interested in speech and debate have dropped by my office, they are filled with so much anticipation for the next four years. They want to be involved in everything, get good grades, and be the very best. They hope to change the world or, at the very least, make a difference. I like freshmen like this because their minds and hearts are open to the education they are about to receive.

Compare this with one of my neighbors, Al. He’s 80 years old and his health is quickly deteriorating. He’s having an operation on his back in a couple of weeks to do something very similar to what my grandfather just had done. Al’s problem is a kind of arthritis that deteriorates his spinal cord. He has been in pain ever since I’ve known him. He has difficulty walking or lifting. He calls me his young professor because I help him carry in his groceries, take out the trash, or any host of tasks that have become unbearable for him. I love talking to Al.

Al’s wife passed away several years ago. He worked in one of the many now defunct factories that populate our town. And he talks about the past with laughter and nostalgia, which I’ve found is very rare in older people. He loves life but knows that he’s not going to be around for many more years. He and his wife were not able to have children but he has dozens of grandchildren in our apartment complex, albeit non-biological.

Last week I got home from a very long day of meetings. I just wanted to go upstairs to my apartment and take a nap but there Al sat on his porch. He smiled and I walked over. We talked for the next couple of hours. As we sat there, I realized that I’d never asked him why he always has a smile on his face. So I did and he told me, “Because life is grand.” There he sat, in pain, but  happy to be living. Yes, he’s a Christian, Southern Baptist to be exact. Maybe our conversations will be the subject of a future blog.

Al and my freshmen have something in common that I’d never noticed: joy. Freshmen are just so happy to be there. Yes, they are scared out of their mind but they are happy, as is Al. The difference between the two is the depth and breadth of their joy. I’ve been thinking about this issue over the weekend and I don’t have a nice and tidy way to end. Maybe you can help me.

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My blogging hiatus has come and gone. I’ve visited family and spent a signifiant amount of time not doing much of anything. In fact, I haven’t even read very much. Instead, I’ve done a lot of hiking, sleeping, and sitting. I’ve gotten the rest that I’ve so desperately needed. In fact, this past weekend I had dinner with a few friends I hadn’t seen since the spring. After a few minutes they remarked about how I seemed so much calmer. And I feel like it.

A couple of years ago I got an unexpected call from my grandfather. My extended family and I had just celebrated his 90th birthday over the Christmas holiday and he was in the midst of planning his funeral. He asked me to give the eulogy and help one of my uncles with the service. In his words, “You’re good at speaking in front of people.” But he failed to take into account that I will probably be balling my eyes out. Again, over this past Christmas holiday, my extended family got together to celebrate his 92nd birthday and after it I started thinking about the reality that he will die. I’ve written parts of his eulogy in my head but the rapidity of doing so has increased with his quickly deteriorating health. This was especially true on Tuesday.

Tuesday he went in for back surgery and I was preparing myself for a phone call that said he didn’t make it. The cardiologist told my family that “If he were my father I would NOT allow him to have this surgery.” All morning I waited, with a couple of e-mail updates from my brother, and only when evening came would I allow myself to believe that he was going to be ok. And he’s ok.

When I think of my grandpa I have many wonderful memories. Smoking cigars together, a family vacation to Disneyland when I was young, sitting at his table listening to stories about farming, WWII, and the Great Depression. But my best memories are of hearing him laugh. He has the kind of laugh that comes from his gut. A laugh that doesn’t allow him to breath at the same time. His face gets red. The veins in his head take on a life of their own. His laughter is what I’ll always remember and I’m thankful for that.

Laughter is such a powerful thing. I remember one particular night in Charlotte, NC visiting Scott and Tami several years ago when we sat on the deck and laughed. I remember Christmas with my immediate family and looking over to the couch to see my mom and my sister laughing so hard that they couldn’t speak. I remember my brother hiding behind a door a few weeks ago to scare me (which he did) and the goofy smile on his face when i nearly hit the cathedral ceilings in his living room. Those are the images that stick with me when I remember my friends and family.

I can’t help but think that there’s an aspect of shalom that inextricably linked to laughter. There seems to be a kind of healing and harmony that occurs when people laugh together. My thoughts are probably premature but I can’t help but think that shalom is about living and laughter is an amazing part of our lives. What would our lives be without laughter? In my 32 years on earth I’ve never thought of that question. Laughter is an important part of the human experience, of the Christian experience. Does the Bible talk about laughter? I really don’t have any idea and would LOVE to hear about it! On another note, do you have any stories about laughter?

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Have you ever ran straight toward two coyotes who were in pursuit of dinner? Well, I did a few weeks ago on the ranch I was taking care of for nine days. I was sitting outside one evening and Bianca, the dog, had been wandering around the 60 acres, as she so frequently does in the afternoon and evenings. The view from the patio is of a few acres of grass with woods surrounding three sides. It’s a beautiful view. All of the sudden, Bianca was running faster than I had ever seen her run. I noticed, through the grass, that there were two dogs chasing her. At first I thought these were neighbor dogs and they were playing. Then I noticed the tail on these other animals and I knew exactly what they were: coyotes. Growing up in South Dakota I had a few experiences with coyotes, and these were not the kind of experiences that instilled a love or, at the very least, toleration.

The next thing I know, with cat-like reflexes, I jump a wooden fence four feet high and find myself running straight toward the coyotes. Bianca was only about three feet in front of these wily wolves of the prairie and the only thing going through my mind was something to the effect of “Oh no, you are NOT going to kill my professor’s dog!” Given my past experiences, I assumed that the coyotes would, at some point, decide that I’m too big to fight and run away, but part of me wondered what my first move would be. Kick them with my boots, hoping that Bianca could handle herself well enough to take care of one of them. As I got about ten feet away, the coyotes stopped and ran in the other direction. Then the unthinkable happened. Bianca turned around and began chasing the coyotes. oy.

After I got back to the house, with Bianca by my side and the coyotes out of view, I couldn’t help but begin to laugh. What in the world was I thinking?! The past few days I’ve been doing a bit of reading and writing but mainly watching movies that have come out not so recently. So, I went to Blockbuster video for the first time since living in this town, only to find out that it costs $5 to rent of movie! Thankfully, they had a special going and I could spend $15 for a week of as many movies as I’d like. Nice.

I thought about talking specifically of movies that I’ve seen but I don’t want you to hate me by giving away the endings. One of the things that I noticed today is how many of the recent movies are about sacrifice and redemption. There are a couple of movies in particular where a person sacrifices themselves for the redemption of a community. These beautiful stories, while different, are so very similar because they tell a story of personal loss that leads to bitterness and hatred of the community. Then, after personal encounters with those around them, they are reborn into a position that allows them to choose to sacrifice for the good of that community. These endings always make me a bit sappy.

I wish I could say that this is a trend in American culture, where someone so selfless would be willing to run straight at two coyotes to save a poor helpless dog. Oh wait, that was me. But then I began thinking about all of the movies that I really enjoy; you know, the movies that I watch over and over again. Movies like Finding Forester, Remember the Titans, Die Hard, Armageddon, Braveheart, and all of those other awesomely bad movies that make me feel good. This isn’t something new but something that goes back to movies like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life. But this theme goes back even further in American literature to The Great Gatsby and Sister Carrie. The idea of sacrifice and redemption is a powerful theme that gets me every time because it is so wonderfully human, yet there is something else about it that attracts me to it.

I am attracted to the narrative of sacrifice because I hope that I would act the same way. I would like to think of myself as someone who would take action that would better my community, even if it meant personal harm. When I told my brother the story of the coyotes he laughed at me. He did a bit of research and informed me that coyotes have killed the same number of people as Cocker Spaniels since 1980: 1. He then made fun of me because I was in no real danger, rather I just thought I was in danger. Then I asked him a simple question: What would you have done? His response: “I think that is something you only know when you’re confronted with that situation.” And I completely agree.

In life we never know what will come our way until we face it. We can imagine all sorts of scenarios where we do what people do in the movies or books, putting ourself in the position of sacrifice. The difference is that we never know what we will really do until we confront that situation. But isn’t that how it is in all things? We see who we really are, rather than how we would like to think of ourselves, when confronted with choices? What we choose to do and how we choose to act tells us more about ourselves than how we think or want to act. While this revelation may not be all that profound to you, it is to me. The question, then, is how do I put myself in a position to choose appropriately when faced with a choice. I feel another blog ruminating …

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Whenever I think about patience I hear a friend of mine singing in the background: “Have patience/Have patience/ Don’t be in such a hurry/When you get, impatient, you only start to worry.” Growing up, Nate would sing this song in particularly tense situations, which led to unspeakable laughter because he is tone deaf. There’s something about hearing someone who is tone deaf, and knows it, belt out a song in a public place to ease the tension. So, this kids song has remained a part of my everyday litany of internal song options thanks to Nate.

Today at the post office, this song came rushing back to me as I waited to get to the counter, with ten people separating me from the rest of my day. The postal worker was doing her best taking care of the person standing in front of her without rushing. But I wanted her to rush. At this moment the children’s song came rushing back to me and I couldn’t help but laugh. The man standing in front of me gave a little glance backwards and as I kept laughing a smile crept across his face too.

As I completed all the things on my list, driving around town, this song kept going through my head. Then I asked myself if I’m a patient person. Of course, I’d like to think that I’m patient. That I’m not in a rush or willing to wait. Then I thought about all of those situations where I am infinitely patient: teaching, airports, conversations. Then I thought about all of those situations where I have little patience: bad drivers, check-out lines, relationships, ignorant people. As I thought about different areas of my life I realized that I am patient and impatient all at the same time. It’s amazing to me how, for so long, I’ve always thought of myself as a patient person, only to realize that there are areas of my life where my impatience can only be described as like a petulant child.

Patience and waiting are two-sides of a similar coin. Scott’s last blog talked about the longer view, which is a view that I have when it comes to most of the important things in my life. Yet, at the same time, it is a view that I often fail at achieving. I can’t help but ask myself why it is that I sometimes don’t have this longer view, a view that embodies patience when I want something and I want it now. When I got home I searched for a verse that came to mind and found it in Psalms 38:15: “I wait/hope for you O Lord! You will respond, O my God!” I’m not a Hebrew genius, like Scott, but “wait” and “hope” are both used, depending on your translation. I think it’s interesting how wait and hope are used in similar ways but, when taken together, we get an idea of expectation. To wait is to hope in expectation. At least this is how my untrained perspective sees it.

Patience requires a willingness to wait. But I find my ability to be patient completely dependent on the situation and circumstance. It’s hard to be patient when you are expecting something. This is where the train comes off the rails for me, like at the post office: I know what I am expecting but I just want to get there faster. At the post office, I knew exactly what I wanted and was impatient waiting for it. In relationships, I know exactly what I want and am impatient waiting for it. My willingness to wait, to have patience, goes out the window when I know what to expect. What’s funny about expectations is they are rarely in reality.

My thought process over the last few hours has led me to think that my expectations have nothing to do with waiting. To be able to rest in the fact that I don’t know what to expect is freeing and allows me to wait with confidence and contentment. Confidence and contentment are two things that I have more of than I should most of the time. But there are always those things that make us impatient. Those things that others don’t struggle with but I do. Things that make me wonder if I’m an impatient person rather than a person who can be impatient. However, shalom helps me to think about patience, hope, and expectation in a very different way. To be content with any situation, as Paul implored the Philippians, requires one to rest in the knowledge that I am waiting because I trust. And remembering how important it is to trust our Father has added a dimension to my rest that gives me hope that an uncertain future is beautiful and full of possibility.

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Rest

I’m a perpetual fidgeter. Thankfully, I’m not alone in this affliction as I know that Scott fidgets at least as much as I do. I’ve never looked up “fidget” in the dictionary, well, until about thirty seconds ago. Evidently “fidget” means to make small movements through nervousness or impatience. I’ve been this way my entire life. I could write about how the circumstances of my life have made me this way, but all the rationalizations I could muster would not be unique to my experiences as a human being living in a fast-paced world. Why I fidget isn’t important. When I fidget isn’t important. Where I fidget isn’t important. Rather, the fact that I am a perpetual fidgeter leads me to a realization that a friend of mine recently told me: You need rest.

Over the past few days I’ve been thinking about rest. I’ve been realizing how I am in desperate need of rest. All the things that have consumed me are good things but don’t lend themselves to rest, just like most things in life. For so long I’ve been chasing an educational goal, which now lurks at my doorstep. My PhD dissertation has been submitted and my oral defense is eleven days away. I’m not anxious about my oral defense, understanding that I will get beaten up by my review committee for a couple of hours but resting in the fact that my advisor thinks it is good and will pass without a problem. My education is coming to a permanent end and, after six years, I have the ability to slow down without the constant pull of all the things that I should be doing. Compounding the problem is the reality that I’ve been teaching while writing. Students demanding my time just to talk or grade or read essay drafts or write letters of recommendation or the multitude of other things students require. Teaching at a college, I’m required to attend numerous meetings a week, most of which seem pointless to everyone except the administrators who require them. The pull of friends and the circumstances of life pull me in so many different directions that I have developed a “what’s next” attitude of divide and conquer.  In graduate school that seems to be an attitude of survival, not domination. To survive you must constantly be moving from one project to the next, from one e-mail to the next, from one lecture to the next. Survival requires one to constantly and consistently ask, “what’s next?”

Two days ago the first verse of Psalm 57 came to my mind: “Be gracious to me, O God, be gracious to me, For my soul takes refuge in Thee; And in the shadow of Thy wings I will take refuge.” One of the things Scott has challenged me to do over the past several years has been to participate in regular meditation. I do hope he will talk about meditation in the relatively near future. This is a topic I know little about other than the obvious, common sense understanding. But the last two days I’ve been meditating on the first line: Be gracious to me, O God, be gracious to me.

This verse positions me on my knees before my Father in an attitude of trust. I was in Colorado this past week and yesterday, on the plane flying back to Indiana, a little boy and his father were sitting in front of me. Throughout the flight the little boy and I were entertaining one another. I was making funny faces and playing peek-a-boo with him as his big smile helped me to stop and see the beauty in the passing clouds and the carefree spirit only a child can possess. As we were about to get off the plane, the boy exclaimed, “Daddy! I have buggers in my nose!” His tone was one of desperation and his father responded, “Just wait a bit longer.” In that moment the boy gave his well-being to his father. Something so banal as buggers had been frustrating and annoying him for so long that he just wanted relief. And he turned to his Father for that relief. “Be gracious to me, O God, Be gracious to me.”

Meditating on these ten words has turned from a screaming prayer for relief, to a peaceful whisper of rest. My gratitude comes from an ability to trust; to lay all that I have and all that I am at my Father’s feet, knowing that my rest will come … if I wait a bit longer. To rest is to trust; and slowly, very slowly, my rest is overtaking me in a way I haven’t experienced since I began this PhD. I don’t expect rest to come quickly but I know it will come. But I must rest. I must look to the heavens and simply be.

The kind of trust I’m talking about only comes when I’m comfortable to lay all that I am at the feet of another. To have the kind of openness and honesty about who I am and who I want to be requires an irrational trust that regardless of who I am, I can always rest in His arms when I’m weak and don’t have the strength to stand. But what’s funny about rest is that we rarely get to a point where we can see that we are lying flat on our back, not standing any longer. For so long we’ve had to be strong that we don’t even see our weakness, our need to rest, our need to surrender all that we are to our Father. Rest doesn’t come easy for me because I’ve always had to immediately move on. Complete trust doesn’t come easy for me because I’ve had to depend on myself for so long. Surrender seems like an impossibility because to survive graduate school I’ve had to conquer all that comes in my path. But my prayer will continue to be one that seeks rest in spite of myself. To find rest is to find peace in whatever comes; to trust that God’s timing is perfect; to trust that my humanity will one day be made whole; to surrender all that I am because I know redemption will come. To seek rest is to find peace; to find peace is to live redemption and reconciliation; to live shalom is to rest in the healing arms of a Father who works in and through us in spite of yet because of myself and who I’ve become.

“Be gracious to me, O God, Be gracious to me.”

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Absence and Presence

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this yet but I’m an almost PhD. Last year I accepted a teaching job with an unfinished dissertation (the big bookish thing I’m required to write as a final project). While most of it was written prior to moving to my college town, I just haven’t had time to focus on it. So, the last few months I’ve been hunkering down to write amidst my other responsibilities at the college like, you know, teaching and grading.  Tonight I was thinking a bit about absence because I haven’t even visited our blog in a couple of months, yet the blog still goes on without me.

I’ll have you know that I was shocked beyond all recognition that our blog still exists without my presence. As if to say that my presence is necessary for the continuation of life as we know it. But that’s often how I think, that somehow I’m necessary for the world around me to function properly. Call it ego or narcissism or whatever seems appropriate but I’d be dishonest if I said I didn’t think this way sometimes.

In my apartment complex my neighbors are a mid-twenties couple. He works construction and is in the National Guard. She is a server at a local restaurant. He was just deployed to Iraq for a year. Absence. She doesn’t talk about it much but when she does all she can seem to muster is the strength to say, “I just want him to come home.” The absence of someone leads to questions of when we will see them again or when we will hear from them, maybe even for the last time. Absence can make us go a bit crazy. I’m a testament to that small fact.

Then I think about my mom and the way that absence and presence confront her on a daily basis. I’ve mentioned my dad before, how there was a car accident 32 years ago and he is mentally and physically disabled. Every day she confronts the absence of the man she married yet his physical presence. Absence and presence are experienced simultaneously, which I can only imagine makes life so much more difficult. The disappointment that must come from experiencing absence and presence on a daily basis makes my head (and heart) hurt.

Yet, maybe my neighbor’s experiences are not so far away from my mothers’. To experience the presence of a person in our thoughts and prayers, in the images we have scattered about our homes, may be almost as vivid. I think we all experience absence differently, yet our emotions are probably pretty similar. We hope for the absence we experience to be transformed into presence, yet often we know that presence will never return again.

I really don’t know where this blog is going. It’s a relief not to have a point sometimes, especially when I’ve had to write with such intention and purposefulness for so long. But I do wonder how absence makes us into the people we are today. Whether it is from the absence of a parent, sibling, or friend who is no longer living or chooses not to be a part of our lives. Or maybe it is a relationship that you hoped would work out but ended in heartache. Absence tends to make me wish for what has been rather than hope for something different. I’m not sure why but I hope for a return, from absence to presence, rather than a transformation in my own life and thought. Yet, this transformation is impossible if we hold on so tightly to the memories of those we’ve lost that we aren’t willing to allow ourselves the space to live once again. We are blinded by our desire to return to a past we remember (and often idealize), stripping ourselves of our ability to live right now.

Maybe this is all about living. If you’ve read my other blogs I’m sure this comes as a shock to you, that the question of living is central to my thoughts. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, so the cliche goes. But absence makes me tired. Very, very tired. I wonder if creating space to live despite those absences is one of the most difficult things we’ll face. This struggle is so intensely personal that it’s hard to share it with others. Absence can’t be overcome but rather must be transformed into gratitude, hope, peace. Transformed into the very thing that we didn’t think possible.

I’m curious if you’ve thought about absence and presence in your life.

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