Jun 10, 2016

Starlight: Thoughts from the Far Orbit

Yesterday,  Beth Michaels passed away after a long, brave battle with cancer.

She was the editor of the Columbia Union Visitor.  She went to school with my wife; they were both on the gymnastics team together.  They were friends.  I did not know her well, and I'm sure she didn't know me.  We met once, at a friend's wedding 19 years ago.

And yet:

She inspired me.  She touched my life in a meaningful way.  And I'm genuinely sad that she's gone.  I realize that it would never have occurred to her that she might have impacted someone so far removed from those close to her.  And then it occurred to me that none of us have any idea of the distance our light travels.

We tend to think of the Great Ones, the Ali's.  The preachers and the Princes, and we know that these supernovas impact the whole world.  Everyone, it seems, knows of their lives, and mourns their deaths.  It's a common thing, these days to want to be famous.  And with Beth's passing, I've come to realize that we are all famous, we are all stars.  All of us touch the lives of people who are virtual strangers to us.   What's sobering is to realize that those in the far orbit don't really know us, and so it may be just one thing that we've said or done, one aspect of  what we do with these days God has given us that make up the only visible light in their far-flung orbit.  It's worth thinking about what it is they see, what kind of impact we make.

If I can shine like Beth did, I think I'll be doing pretty well.  Her incredible faith, courage, and sheer passion for life in the face of implacable death has inspired me.  I can't speak with authority.  I wasn't there.  But I can tell you what I saw from my distant orbit:  the light of a woman who was not dying.  She was living, right up to the end.

For those who knew and loved her well, a blazing sun has gone out.  Their entire solar system has been devastated with the loss of warmth, light, and life.  For me, a shining star has winked out, and every time I look at that patch of dark sky in my universe, I will miss her star.  And I'll look forward to the day when Beth, and all of us, will shine like stars in the summer night, forever.

May 30, 2016

Only Chicago

Two of my students looking taking in the spectacular sunset over the Chicago skyline. The Odyssey dinner cruise, Sunday, May 15, 2016.  Only Chicago offers this particular view.

One of my goals when I came to CAA was to gradually open the minds of my constituents  to what an 8th grade class trip could be. Most 8th grade trips range from a fun day or two at local theme park to a tour of Washington D.C.  I've always felt that 8th grade is the perfect age to take students on a  trip of a lifetime.  I articulated this vision in a blog entry not long after our somewhat controversial class trip to the Bahamas in 2011. Interestingly enough, this year's close-by destination met all my criteria mentioned in the blog post for an unforgettable 8th grade class trip.

And after several years of trips to awesome destinations from Canada to Hawaii to Puerto Rico, it appears I've succeeded.  The epic, exotic 8th grade class trip has come to be the expected norm rather than an oddity.  So when people asked me where my class was going this year, they seemed surprised and a little disappointed that we were only going to Chicago.

But here's the thing. Distance has nothing to do with the quality of the destination, particularly if you've never been there.  If you've spent your entire life two hours from Paris but never visited the city, your visit would be every bit as remarkable as someone visiting from across the Atlantic.  Only one of my students going on the trip had spent time in Chicago, so for most of them Chicago might as well have been Paris.

And Chicago is a truly amazing city.  It's one of my favorite places in the world, and though I've been there many times, I feel like I discovered it all over again on my most recent visit with my students.  Herewith some highlights from the trip that only Chicago could provide.

The Odyssey dinner cruise
Dining in style.  We lucked out and got window tables without paying the extra upgrade to guarantee a window-side table.

The boys and I on the top deck taking in the scenery

The city skyline early in the cruise (above) and later on (below) as the sun set.

Sunday evening, May 15, 2016, we had our first activity of the trip, a luxury dinner cruise on Lake Michigan, with stunning views of the Chicago skyline. It was a great way to kick off our trip.  The kids looked sharp and carried themselves with grace and maturity throughout the evening. One plus to choosing Chicago was that it was close enough to drive rather than fly.  The money we saved on airfare we were able to put into ensuring we had a premium experience.  We stayed in a mid-range hotel, Springhill Suites by Marriott, Downtown Chicago,  but right downtown where we had easy access to the sights, instead of paying less for a hotel in suburbs that would have required a lengthy commute every day to get into the city (and Chicago's traffic is not one of its selling points!).  We were also able to afford the most expensive cruise option, the Odyssey line, rather than the less formal (and less expensive) Spirit of Chicago or Mystic Blue lines).  This was the first class trip I've ever had in 17 years where I didn't worry about the money.  We had enough to meet our generous budget and then some.  While we could have had a similarly plush budget at any one of our fine Ohio cities, only Chicago was close enough to budget our money towards activities rather than travel and still  provide our students that new and exotic experience.

Two of our boys looking debonair, with our cruise ship, the Odyssey II in the background.

The Museum of Science and Industry
I didn't take any pictures, I don't think, while we were there, but I would describe it as COSI (our local science and industry museum) on steroids.  It was an absolutely fantastic experience from the Coal Mine interactive experience to the massive U-boat on display to the Mirror maze (which, incidentally was the site of our one and only mishap during the trip).  We purchased the City Pass for the trip which allowed us access to five top attractions in the city during our stay.  The Museum of Science and Industry was the first attraction we used with our City Pass.  As far as I know, only Chicago has a science museum of this caliber in this part of the country.

Willis Tower
Willis Tower: The view from the ground up

Chicago at dusk as seen from the 103rd floor of the Willis Tower

Willis Tower: The view from the sky down

Monday evening, after a supper of classic Chicago deep dish pizza at the famed Giordanos, we headed next door to the Willis Tower.  For me, it was a point of personal satisfaction to finally make it to the 103rd floor.  The last class trip to Chicago I attended was my own senior class trip way back in 1992.  I, along with three other classmates missed the Sears Tower, as it was then called.  We somehow failed to make our connection with the rest of the group, and ended up abandoned on the steps of the Field Museum for hours in the vain hope that someone would come and pick us up.  We finally realized no one was coming and hailed a cab to take us to the Tower, knowing that was the next stop on our itinerary.  We arrived just as the class was leaving the building.  24 years later, I finally made it to the top.  We got there in time for sunset and spectacular views of the city from dusk to nighttime.  Besides New York City, only Chicago has a building this tall in the Americas.
24 years later, here I am back on the steps of the Field Museum where my classmates and I were left behind, causing us to miss the Willis Tower.  It was a bit warmer than it was the last time I sat on those steps and the wait was much shorter.  I had one of my students snap this photo, as we were on our way to catch a train to Hinsdale, Illinois, Wednesday afternoon, May 18, 2016.

Architectural Paradise
On Tuesday morning, it was time to learn about the architectural treasures that only Chicago holds.  The main group took a boat tour of the city on the Chicago River.  (Ms. Pat led three students who had had their fill of boats after the dinner cruise on a horse-drawn carriage tour of the Gold Coast mansions.  Sadly, we found out after the fact that there was no tour guide for their tour, so it was mainly just a nice quiet ride).  On my senior class trip we also took a boat tour on the Chicago River and what I remember most about it was that we took a lot of pictures of ourselves on that tour.  For my group, I booked with SeaDog, an outfit that includes a speedboat ride on Lake Michigan along with the more sedate tour on the river.
Chicago skyline as seen from our speedboat on Lake Michigan, Tuesday, May 17, 2016

I wish I'd taken more photos of the buildings, but it was very cold and I didn't feel like taking off my gloves and fishing out my camera to take a lot of pictures.  I did get this strategically placed building as we entered the Chicago River.  The guy who built this clearly has a strong instinct for self-promotion.  Any guesses as to who it is? 

Waiting for the locks to fill with water from Lake Michigan before leaving the Chicago River at the end of the tour.  Lake Michigan is clean and is the source of the city's drinking water.  The Chicago River, according to our tour guide has been upgraded from horribly polluted to heavily polluted.  The locks are in place to keep the river water from getting in to the lake. 

On the boat.  You can tell it was pretty cold. Low 50's and windy, in keeping with the city's nickname.  I've just noticed that the same two students have been in almost all my photos.  I actually took 12 kids on the trip, not two. It's just coincidence that these two boys appeared in almost all the photos I picked for this entry.

I found the speedboat ride a little underwhelming.  The steady clip along the shoreline hardly got the adrenaline going.  There were no hard turns or spray splashing on us during the "ride." (Which was just as well, as it was bitterly cold).  The architectural tour on the other hand was fascinating.  Our tour guide was both knowledgeable and entertaining and I think even the students found the tour interesting, as we learned the interesting stories behind the many unique buildings we saw, and the history of this remarkable city.  I'm pretty sure my  eighth graders learned more, and took more pictures of the buildings (and less of themselves) then my classmates and I did as high school seniors.

Millenium Park and Maggie Daley Playground

Two (different!) students in front of "The Bean"

"The Bean" up close

Tuesday afternoon we had intended to go over to the Field Museum, but we lingered too long at Navy Pier after the boat tour and by the time we finally got going we realized we'd really have no time there.  So we went to Millennium Park instead.  We enjoyed the photo ops at the Cloud Gate sculpture, also known as "The Bean." but I think the real treat for the kids was the nearby Maggie Daley playground, an epic playground that only Chicago has.  This group has always simply loved to play, and after days of being mature, dignified, and calm (with the exception of the aforementioned Incident at the Museum of Science and Industry Mirror Maze), I think it was a relief to be freed to go wild for a bit and just do what kids love to do--play.

The Blue Man Group
I found  out after the fact that my students were dreading this portion of the trip.  They had looked up the Blue Man group on Youtube, and I guess the internet doesn't do it justice.  The show looked weird and boring they concluded.  They even went to my principal, Mrs. Arthurs, with their concerns, and I guess she opted to trust that I knew what I was doing.

It turned out to be the highlight of the trip.  The Blue Man Group is like nothing I have ever seen, and impossible to describe (or to capture on video, apparently).  The best I can say is that it was inventive, creative, unique, witty, and often down-right hilarious.  It is family-friendly for sure (though young children might be a little freaked out by the Blue Men who never smile or speak; I know some of the older children in my group were at first).  The show incorporates ingenious percussion, art created on the spot--and often given to audience members to keep, improv, a little bit of science and even a thought provoking look at the impact of technology on our society.  The show is heavily audience interactive, and throughout there was the feeling that literally anything could happen.  One special treat for us, was that one of our group members, Dynell Macklin, the mother of one of our students got randomly picked from the audience to be part of one their onstage bits.  She was fantastic, an absolute hit.  She got right into the spirit of the moment and handled all the unexpected, funny moments with aplomb and class.  Afterwards, I heard people were asking if she was really randomly chosen, or was an audience plant associated with the group.  She was that good! The show ended with a giddy dance party featuring massive inflatable balls bouncing around the theater (trust me, you had to be there).  We left the theater totally amped and talking about all the amazing things we'd just seen.

Some of my students and I,  along with some other theater-goers, and one of the Blue Men after the show.

I highly recommend going to see the Blue Man group if you get the chance.  We paid extra for premium seats near the front, but the venue was so small that anywhere in the house was a great seat.  Indeed I can't see a show like this working in a big arena.  The Group is based in only seven cities in the whole world (though they have gone on tour from time to time), and only Chicago has the Blue Man Group in this part of the country (Las Vegas, New York, Boston, and Orlando are the  only other U.S. venues).

Shedd Aquarium and Go Back Day
We only ended up using three of the five attractions on our City Pass--that was my one big disappointment from the trip (Surprise, surprise it wasn't the Incident as my students would likely have guessed.)  I still think we got our money's worth from the attractions we did see, but I really wanted to get in at least four.  We just didn't have enough time.  On Wednesday, we visited our third and final attraction on the City Pass, the Shedd Aquarium.  The kids spent much of their time at the Aquarium completing a 10 Fun Finds activity sheet that took them on a tour of the entire place.  The activity was part of their final exam for science class so they were quite diligent in completing it.

One of my students snaps a photo of a shark at the Shedd Aquarium, Wednesday, May 18, 2016

A sea lion at the aquatic show at the Shedd Aquarium.

A beautiful view of Lake Michigan from the aquatic show pool at the Shedd Aquarium

In the afternoon Mrs. Arthurs and the other chaperones took the kids on our standard Go Back Day round of events.  The last day of the class trip is Go Back Day when the students have the opportunity to go back to some of the places we visited that we couldn't get enough of the first time around. It's also a last chance for the group to do some shopping before we go back home.  Most of the group headed over to the Hershey Chocolate Factory near the Water Tower and then back down to Navy Pier. In the meantime, I, along with two of the boys who had been most centrally involved in Monday's Incident in the Mirror Maze , took a train out of the city to Hinsdale to pick up the shuttle.It was decided that missing out on the Go Back activities would be part of the consequences for their poor choices in the maze.

By 8:00 P.M. we had picked up our bags from the hotel and the group from Navy Pier and were on our way back home.  It had been an amazing, memorable experience that  could only  happen in Chicago.

Apr 24, 2016


This weekend marks the 10 year anniversary of this blog, Here in America.  My first post was dated April 14, 2006.  There were a few posts from March detailing our recent 8th grade class trip to Seoul, South Korea, but these were copied and pasted from my now-defunct journal on Interference, the U2 fan site, and I'm pretty sure I uploaded them at the same time that I posted my first official entry.

Me in a photo originally posted in one of my first blog entries from April, 2006. With me is my former colleague and always friend Vince Asanuma Starmer.  For me ten years and whole lot less hair means more than just a changing hairline!

Ten years.  A lot has changed in the past decade.  When I first started this blog, high-speed internet was a luxury,  not a given.  I mentioned in that first post that we had dial-up internet at home and so uploading pictures for the blog would not be practical there.  I also mention linking to my Myspace page (though even then, I think Myspace's relevancy was already fading) and to Interference.  Facebook was still in its infancy and I wouldn't get an account for another two years.   Even the concept of blogging was different then.  It was hot thing to do back then, to be blogging.  Since then the blog has been eclipsed by Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat.  I'm sure there are even newer, hipper social media platforms that have passed me by in my middle-age.

I've also recently reached my third decade milestone of journaling.  Last summer I blogged about my 30th year of keeping my paper and pen journal which I began in the summer of 1985.  However, once I started school my daily journal writing came to a standstill before picking up again at the end of March 1986.  Since then, I've been writing more or less continuously.

While it's much has changed in the past decade, much more is still the same.  I'm still a middle-aged adult, I'm still married.  I'm still a teacher.  Perhaps the biggest change--and it is significant--is that when I began this blog it was just me and Babs and now ten years later we havetwo sons aged  seven and 3 and a half year old.  But beyond that and a 7,000 mile change of address, I feel pretty much the same now as I did a decade ago.  The last ten years feel like they've flown by.

On the other hand, it's incredible to note how much had changed at the end of my first decade of writing in my pen-and-paper journal.  When I began I was twelve years old, soon to turn 13.  I was a sixth grader, living at home with mom and my grandparents.  A mere ten years later I was a 22 year old adult living on my own, dating the woman I would soon marry.  Maybe the only thing entries at the start of the decade and at the end of decade had in common was the lack of commentary or insight into my life at the time.  My early journal entries were a rather dull, straightforward listing of every single thing I did from after breakfast each morning to bath time each day.  Here's a sample, written exactly 30 years ago yesterday (originally it was all one giant paragraph, but I've broken the entry up for easier reading at each point where I've inserted commentary):

Wednesday, April 23, 1986, At Home

This morning after breakfast I read. [In those days every entry began with "This morning after breakfast"] 

Aunt Colleen came earlier than usual and we got to school at 8:15.  I played soccer.  Bell rang and I went in. I read. Worship. She read from "Cheaper by the Dozen". [I always referred to my sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Taylor as "she"--the literary equivalent of Charlie Brown's disembodied adult voice]

Did Reading. Had recess.  We won 15 to 8. Finally! [What game were we playing? I can't recall. I guess all that mattered as that my team won.]

Read. Did Spelling.  Did Math.  I missed 5 and got an eighty percent.  We had lunch. She read from "Cheaper by the Dozen."  Did Language. Read. Did SS. Did Math. We gave our science reports orally.  I wrote one on Louis Braille.  A lot of people didn't do it. [Sounds like the work habits of many students haven't changed an thirty years, if my classmates then and my class now are any indication].

School dismissed. Dean cut his finger so I carried his book bag. I took it to his bus.  Went home. Did exercises. Grandma taught piano. I  didn't pass on to the next song.  I told mummy and she told me to use a different note system. Looked at "Time" magazine. [That hasn't changed in 30 years.  Back then it was my grandfather's subscription, now it's mine].  

 Made school lunches.  Watched "Donald Duck Presents" and "New! Animal World."  Hung up school clothes.  Supper.  I washed the dishes.  Read Dawny her story.  Read "Rebel Raider".  It's good. [Civil War  non-ficiton undoubtedly.  I was major history nerd.]

Played stick game with Vincy.  I fell on a stick and hurt my side.  But I finished the game with him. It still hurts. Bath. Journal. Had the Hay Fever all day.

It was a simpler time, without question.  While I provided little emotion and virtually no reflection, reading between the lines, you can learn a little about what I was like as a child:  Studious, nose always in a book. I seem to have been quite aware of success and failures, wins and losses.  My few commentaries were on winning or losing at a game, my score on my math, and my failing to move on to the next song in piano lessons.  After school was a healthy balance of chores, piano lessons, and free time to play some sort of "stick game" with my brother.  It's interesting to note the lack of homework and how little screen time I had. As far homework goes,  I don't know if I just did it all at school, or we weren't assigned any.  I know in other entries around this time I often mentioned working ahead in spelling, reading, or social studies during the school day.   As far as TV goes, don't get me wrong, we loved TV.  There just wasn't that much to watch.  We had just gotten cable TV, including the Disney channel, and had also purchased our first VCR, so a lot of the time we were watching programs that had been recorded.  Still our entire screen time consisted of two shows, probably less than 30 minutes each.

 It seems idyllic in my memory, but there's little to indicate how I felt at that time to determine if my life felt as soothing and peaceful then as it seems to now.

The house I grew up in: 905 Hart Blvd, Orlando FL. We lived here with my grandparents from the summer of 1983 to Christmas 1987, not quite five years.  I took this photo last summer while visiting Mom in Florida.  My grandparents, both gone now, lived here for a few years more after we moved out and then sold the place.  My grandfather custom-built this house for our family's unique needs (note the two front doors. One opened to the living room, the other to the home office that my mom and grandmother ran their court transcribing business out of).  I think he'd be pleased to know it's still standing and in good shape.  Those trees in the front yard were planted when we moved in also. It's amazing how big they are now.

Fast forward ten years later, and my journal entries still provide little color, although this time for an entirely different reason.  By the spring of 1996, my journals had become mostly devotional reflections with writing on what was actually going on my life being quite rare.  Still, reviewing my entries from April 1996, some 20 years ago, there are clues to who I was and what was going on in my  life.  On April 19, Barbara and I celebrated our six month anniversary as a dating couple, and marked the occasion with a small spat and some soul-searching over how things were proceeding in our relationship:

Barbara and I have a special, beautiful relationship--one I can praise God for--but one that like everything else, needs the power of the Holy Spirit to keep from going astray.  In the end our calling is much higher than this.  Through Christ we will be found worthy.
                                                                                              --Journal, Friday, April 19, 1996

Young Love: Babs and I, Spring 1996

This entry is accompanied by several pages of notes written back and forth between Babs and I as we worked through the issues in our relationship.   A later entry, dated April 27, is a passionate prayer for a deeper, closer walk with Jesus and a heartfelt plea for God's closeness to a classmate from high school who had lost his fiance in a horrible car accident the night before and who himself had been seriously injured. Looking back now, it's gratifying to know that prayer was answered as my  friend made a full recovery and eventually found love again.  As for me, the journey with God is still in process.  There are days when I read these entries from two decades ago and feel I've not progressed much at all, and indeed I fear I've lost some of that innocent fire for Jesus that I had then.  But I also see how He has never let me go, and blessed me in ways I could never have predicted back then.  My prayer is still the same, and perhaps it always will be:

Finally, Lord, be with me.  Bring me into a passion to know and serve You.  Lord, I don't have it and yet when I try to have it, I just feel end up feeling guilty. Lord, God, I need you and I ask you  to come into my life.  Do whatever it takes to bring me closer.  Lord, without you, everything else in my life is unsure. Help me to seek you and know you.
                                                                               --Journal, Sabbath, April 27, 1996

Looking over the decades past, I mostly feel grateful.  And when I consider the decades to come, I trust that He'll continue to lead me and care for me as he has so far  along this journey.

Dec 31, 2015

The Ninth Annual Inspirations List: 2015

This years heroes are all about commitment.  The six women and two men on this years list epitomize the spirit of dedication. Dedication to young athletes, academic achievement, and excellence on the job; commitment to friends in need and to one's own unique vision.  They are people, that when faced with life's challenges respond with cool heads, calm hearts, and renewed determination to get the job done.  If you find yourself in a jam, you couldn't hope for a better group of heroes to ride to the rescue.

This year I'm proud to honor the following heroes and inspirations:

Shawn Robinson & Sonya Hart
Anastasia Bailey
Andrea Offei
Dawn Maycock Brothers
Jessica Peterson
Valerie Green
Dr. Donald Burden

Shawn Robinson & Sonya Hart
I'm inspired by their investment in their teams

They are savvy investors that could give Warren Buffet a run for his billions.  If the return on the investments Shawn and Sonya have made were paid in money, these two could retire as billionaires tomorrow.  As the reluctant athletic director at Columbus Adventist Academy, I'd always been grateful for whatever I could get from the volunteer coaches that came and went.  These were people who had jobs, kids of their own, other commitments, and yet were willing to take a little time to work with our athletic teams. My goal was always to keep the coaches happy, because if I lost my coaches, my kids lost their team.  But it never even occurred to me that I might have a coach who would fully commit to these kids.  Someone who would organize the practices, find assistant coaches to help him,  take the team to see the Ohio State team play, supervise an after-school study table for two hours everyday before practice, and even plan an awards banquet all on his own.  No, that would be too much to ask.  But, unbelievably, I didn't have to ask.  Shawn Robinson showed up and did it all and more.

I'd never seen anyone so dedicated to a volunteer commitment.  And then, with Sonya Hart, lightning struck twice. She's not a CAA or conference employee.  Her kids don't go to our school.  She's not an Ephesus member (or a member of any of the other Adventist churches).  She's not a friend doing me a favor (in fact I never met her until the semi-final game of the girls volleyball tournament).  She had no ulterior motive that I could find for investing her time and effort in our girls.  And yet she showed up all season long for them.  Taught these girls how to play (none had any previous experience) and led them all the way to a league championship.

Why do they do it?    The only thing I can conclude is that Shawn and Sonya see their time with the boys and girls of CAA's basketball and volleyball teams as an investment, An investment that pays returns not in temporal wealth but in the lives of young people, young people's whose future success may have begun underneath Shawn Robinson's hoop and at Sonya Hart's net.

Anastasia Bailey
I'm inspired by her compassionate friendship

You don't have to know what to say to say just the right thing.  That's something I learned from Anastasia in the sad months that followed the death of my father-in-law last November.  One of the things that mean the most at times like this, is when people genuinely reach out to you.  It's not as common as you'd think, and I understand why.  It's hard to know what to say, hard to know what to do, and it's awful to contemplate maybe doing or saying the wrong thing.  It seems a safer bet to just say nothing. I'm sure Anastasia felt that same discomfort but somehow she made the courageous choice to reach out anyway.  And it meant the world.  For Barbara especially, but for me also, Anastasia's thoughtful concern, listening ear, and words of care have helped us immeasurably as we learn to live life with loss. No one can say the right thing.  No one can make everything okay this side of eternity.  But, those, like Anastasia, who understand that they can offer words of encouragement and support, that they can make the journey a little easier, are a blessing indeed.

Andrea Offei
I'm inspired by her academic accomplishments

I never was sure if she was kidding.  It's one of the things I enjoy most about my former student Andrea.  Her dry sense of humor and her deadpan delivery often left me wondering, "Wait, was she serious. . .or was she joking?" But when it came to her focus on her schoolwork last year, Andrea left no doubt. She was absolutely serious.  I marveled at her sudden transition from acceptable achievement to top-notch performance.  She worked hard, studied harder, and asked for help repeatedly until she got what she needed. She ended the year with the same inscrutable sense of humor but a very different report card.  Andrea has inspired and encouraged me to believe that I can continue to improve my craft as a teacher, as a husband, as a father.  Andrea reminded me that growth is no joking matter.

Dawn Maycock Brothers
I'm inspired by her creative achievements

You can't create something truly unique by being like everyone else.  My sister has seemed to intuitively understand this throughout her entire adult life. She's always taken the path less traveled, and has experienced tremendous highs and lows along the way.  I confess many times I wished she'd do things a little more conventionally, but Dawn has always preferred the beat of her own drum to latest pop confection the masses are chasing after. Dawn has also always been good with her hands. For example, when she wanted a kitchen island for her house, she built it herself.  Dawn's unconventional approach to life and her uncanny ability to create beautiful things came together in this year in the brilliant brainstorm for her new product and business, Snugglins.  It's as if every decision she'd made and every thing she'd ever built was leading up to this beautiful, ingenious invention.  The road ahead is still long, and but I'm certain that in time, Dawn will realize that she's no longer alone on that less traveled path. She will turn around to discover the world has beaten a path to her door.

Jessica Peterson
I'm inspired by her commitment to excellence

She never seemed to consider herself too good to do great work.  For many people, working a job like Kroger is a stepping stone to somewhere else.  It's what you do to pay the rent until you can get a so-called real job. And in some ways that was Jessica. She was a credentialed high school English teacher, subbing during the days and working the closing shift at Kroger on the weekends while she looked for a full-team teaching position.  But in the ways that mattered most, Jessica treated her work at Kroger like it was her career. She was the consummate professional in every aspect of her job.  When I first started working at Kroger as a night cashier, Jessica trained me, and for all of the two years that I worked there she was my gold standard of excellence on the job.  More so even then my actual supervisors, if my work met her approval then I knew I was doing well.

  The night cashier assignment required a lot of extra work beyond ringing up customers.  In fact, we did very little of that.  Instead we closed all the regular lanes by 11 P.M., requiring the few late-night customers to use the self-checkouts. Meanwhile the night cashier was responsible for stocking bags, cleaning the registers, and myriad of other tasks. At 10 the managers went home, and 11, usually the last regular cashier left so the night cashier essentially had the entire front end of the store to themselves.  It's the kind of position that would have been easy to abuse.  It wouldn't have been hard to do a lackluster job and spend the majority of the time on your phone or flipping through the tabloids.  But Jessica never did that.  Her cleaning methods were rigorous and the results were flawless. Her closing routine was a model of efficiency and effectiveness.  And in the rare case that Jessica somehow finished everything on her list, she found other ways to be useful--organizing the cigarette case or cleaning out the storage drawers at each register.

Jessica finally got that full-time job, a great gig teaching high school English out in Colorado.  Though she's no longer working at Kroger, I have no doubt that she's bringing the same spirit of excellence, high standards and high expectations to her classroom and that her students, her colleagues, and her world is better for it.

Valerie Green
I'm inspired by her calm and positive spirit

I always feel reassured after talking to Valerie. As the administrative assistant and right-hand to our principal, Valerie is often dealing with stressful situations, doling out or receiving bad news, constantly confronting the unexpected.  But no matter what's on her plate, her demeanor is always positive and her spirit is always peaceful.  she has a unique way of being serious without being gloomy, dealing with urgent situations without panicking, Just being around her, I feel more relaxed and more capable, more certain that whatever crazy thing is going on is actually manageable.

Dr. Donald Burden
I'm inspired by his cool head and compassionate heart

 "We'll handle it," was his mantra. If Pastor Burden felt the pressure, he never let it show. His job couldn't have been easy:  Managing the "flagship" church of the Allegheny West Conference in Columbus, a church with a rich heritage and history and the accompanying political battles that are an inevitable part of a church that has become an Institution. I'm grateful to be blissfully unaware of what challenges Pastor Burden might have faced shepherding the flock at Ephesus.  But I did have the opportunity to experience his deft handling of situations that came up at the school over the years.  He's been unstinting in his support of our school, our principal, us teachers, and the students at CAA.  Stop and think for a moment about what an incredible achievement that balancing act is!  What I appreciate about Pastor Burden, is how unflappable he is.  Whatever storm is raging, whatever crisis erupts, he always keeps his cool.  He never has time for idle talk and gossip, and he isn't thrown by bad news.  Yet his even-handed, business-like approach to leadership is matched by his sense of humor as well as his deep compassion.  I'll be forever grateful for his decision to drive from Columbus to Dayton to Dad's funeral to offer condolences on behalf of himself and our home church. The gesture truly touched us in our grief.  In his new pastoral position in Florida, I have no doubt that he's still the same. Cool, collected, compassionate, handling the Lord's business.

Dec 5, 2015

True Story

The chatter over Fifty Shades of Grey seems to be fading away these days. I haven't heard much about it's self-proclaimed rival, Old Fashioned either.  I haven't seen either of these films so I can't fairly comment on either them.  But I do know that both films were savaged by the critics, and Grey, at least was typically not well-received by viewers (Old-Fashioned on the other hand, was almost universally loved by those who saw it, at least according to Rotten Tomatoes).

To me, all great art strives to tell the truth. This is not to be confused with telling true stories.  There are true stories that can be terribly dishonest in the telling, and fictions that express some of the greatest truths.  The definition of the poorly made film, TV show, or book (and there are many) is a failure to or disinterest in telling the truth.  There may be many reasons for this.  We all enjoy a momentary escape from reality.  We all like to laugh, to be thrilled, to be lost in fantasy for a little while.  But the greatest fantasies, the thrillers and comedies that become classics rather than occupants of the bargain bin at the grocery store, each in their own away inevitably tap into some truth about the human experience.

Truth can be dispensed with for a lot of reasons.  In Hollywood as far as I can tell,most of the time the only truth that really matters is the box office reciepts.  If it makes money, it's good and truth is often sacrificed in a race to the lowest common denominator.  Another way truth can be placed on the sidelines is when it inconveniences the presentation of a more important Message, say a spiritual or moral Truth, that one wants to get across.  While ostensibly all about getting the Truth out there, the stories and their characters are as false, unbelievable, and inauthentic as an action movie sequence in a Hollywood blockbuster.  Whether for base or noble reasons, the end result is the same.  A poor quality, cynical product shoved at an audience willing to consume junk food.

Anyway the furor earlier this year over the two movies got me thinking about how Christians appear in the arts, in particular the storytelling arts whether film, television or books. I feel there is a real lack of authentic Christian characters in the stories our culture tells.  Most often Christians are simply absent from the cultural mainstream.  Even on the rare occasions where Christians do appear, their portrayal feels a little off.  Speaking as someone raised in a Christian culture, and who has had a fair amount of interaction with the different "brands" of Protestant and Catholic culture,  I don't recognize myself or people I know in the characters I see on screen.   Exhibit A of this not quite right portrayal of believers in mainstream media would be the character of April Kepner on the other "Grey", "Grey's Anatomy."  Barbara and I have been long-time fans of the show.  We DVR the program during the week and it's our Saturday night treat after the kids are in bed.  Dr. Kepner is a Christian, but with all due respect to the acting skills of Sarah Drew (who, incidentally, is a Christian), she doesn't seem familiar to me at all.  You can almost sense the writers trying to figure out what a Christian might say, do, and believe.  And I appreciate the effort, I really do.  It just doesn't quite ring true.  The way she talks about Jesus, about her faith, and her convictions, which are very central to her choices just doesn't sound like the way I or the Christians I know would express themselves.

It's almost like they need a committed Christian to write for her character. And maybe they do.  It may not matter.

Because it seems Christians do no better themselves.  When we have a chance to write our own stories, to make our own movies, to sing our own songs, with the world as our audience, we seem to drop the ball as well.  For us, the Message overwhelms the demands for authentic characters.  And I don't think that serves the story (or the Message for that matter) well.  While we might cheer on stories and characters that promote our values and beliefs, too many of us feel that the quality of the story being told, the authenticity of the characters is of little importance.  Our stories are sanitized, family-friendly, and tie up neatly with righteousness triumphant in the end. Our characters are romanticized, speak in sermons, and feel wooden and forced.

What we need are stories of believers that are honest and real.  Stories that may sometimes be gritty and sometimes definitely not family-friendly.  Stories that end in an ambiguity more true to the real life faith journey we are on.  We need characters who are rough around the edges and who talk like real people.  We need stories of followers of God, who fall down, get mixed up, make the wrong choices and suffer the consequences (or not).  We need stories that focus on telling the truth about the human experience as a believer in God, not simply easy-to-swallow morality tales with a happy ending.

If only such stories existed.. . .

Oh, wait.

They do.

It's an anthology actually.  It's called the Bible.

It tells the truth, honestly.

Nov 14, 2015

Lord, In the Morning

Some time ago I predicted that this blog would enter a lean season, but I had no idea it would be this lean.  Until last weekend, it had been almost 4 months since my last entry.  There are numerous half-finished entries in the pipeline and others that are just topics that never made it passed the title stage: the 2015 8th grade class trip to Puerto Rico (the first class trip I’ve failed to document since I began this blog with a series of entries on our 2006 trip to South Korea). An epic pair of U2 concerts in Chicago, an enriching trip to Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon, the 20th anniversary celebration of the day Babs and I met, all have gone unrecorded here. It’s reached the point where I’m no longer sure what I should blog about it now that I’ve missed so much.  I’m feeling like I’ll be doing pretty good if I can get my 9th annual Heroes and Inspirations entry under the wire before year’s end.

So what’s happened?  How did blogging come to a virtual standstill?  A lot of it has to do with early mornings:

I'm not a morning person.

I know that mornings are the most productive time of day.  I know that many of the great men of history and the high achievers of our current day are early risers.  But when I contemplate Psalm 127, I tend to focus on the "it is vain to rise up early" part the scripture.  I find it hard to relate to people like the peppy morning folk in this song.

  I listen to this song.  I enjoy it, though the little spoken word at the very end is the only thing that keeps it from being just too much.  I understand what she's talking about it, and a couple hours after I've woken up I can even kind of relate. But really. . .this is not me.

Rich Mullins' take on rising early resonates much more with me.  While the Pathfinders might vow to "keep the morning watch", I'm more than happy to take the night shift.

My ideal situation is to never, ever have to wake up earlier than 7 A.M.  But my life is such right now that getting up late is 5:30 A.M. and early would be 4.  Between making and eating breakfast and getting the boys ready for school and being at work by 7:30, early mornings have been a necessity.

Of late, my mornings have been even earlier still.  Recently Ezra has taken to waking up once (if we're lucky) or more (if we're not) a night.  I don't know how long he's been doing it, but it's been at least a month, I'd say with only a brief respite during the week after the time changed.  Anyway,he'll come bursting into our bedroom, come up to the bed and asks us to rub his back.  Babs and I take turns dealing with him when he does this.  When it's my turn I'll walk him back to his bed without a word or a light turned on, and rub his back to he falls back asleep.  Most times, he'll be out in 10 to 20 minutes and I can go back to bed.  But there are other nights, more often than I'd like, when he can't seem to go back to sleep.  He's just restless, drifting in and out of slumber, tossing and turning.  I know that if I leave when he's like that he'll just come bursting into our room again five minutes later.  So I just stay with him.  In the worst case scenarios, this can last for hours. The other night, I was with him from 1 to 3 (and this after an brief wake up around 11:30 and prior to another awakening at 4:30).  On other nights, if he's still awake by 4 or 4:30 we both just get up and start our day.

It's during these times, squatting down next to Ezra's toddler bed rubbing his back, that I pray. For awhile those prayers would be articulate and lengthy, and I found I embraced the opportunity to come close to my God in the darkness and stillness of my sons' room.  But lately, I've been so sleep deprived that I have trouble focusing my thoughts.  My prayers are now little more than a "Jesus, help me. I'm so tired."  I've even started falling asleep on the floor next to Ezra's bed (and then he climbs out of bed crawls onto my chest and sleeps there, and that is special in it's own way).

I've realized that early mornings have always driven me to my knees. I remember back in our earlier years in Saipan, back before we had kids and had no good reason not to get as much sleep as we liked.  In those days I woke up, utterly deplete before the day  had even begun.  The only thing that got me out of bed on days like that was replaying His promise over and over in my head, "My grace is sufficient for you, My strength is made perfect in weakness."  His grace was and is enough, and I think it's the early mornings that keep me cognizant of that.

Make no mistake.  Most days I'm in some state of exhaustion.  On the worst days I medicate with a large sweet tea from McDonalds, but I hate to make caffeine a regular thing in my life.  By the weekends, I'm utterly spent, which is a big part of why my blogging output has diminished.   It’s not just that my sleep deficit is so great that I sleep away the times on Friday evening or Sabbath when I might normally blog, it’s that even when I’m awake I’m so mentally spent that I have nothing left to focus on organizing coherent thoughts for a blog entry. 

As weary and heavy-laden as I often feel, I need an easy burden and light load, and He gives me that. If arose at my leisure it would be far easier to go through the day in my own strength.  But when I'm forced to awaken before the dawn, I have no choice to but to let Him carry me through.

In morning when I rise
In the morning when I rise
In the morning when I rise
Give me Jesus

My boys in the morning light.  This is on our way to school.  Elijah has always been an early riser, while Ezra  at least used to be more inclined to sleep late.  Hoping those days return soon!

Nov 7, 2015

The Presence

There’s this song on Christian radio:

Holy Spirit you are welcome here
Come flood this place and fill the atmosphere
Your glory, God, is what our hearts long for
To be overcome by Your Presence Lord

The song seems to be mainly about the worship experience.  It’s a very evocative song.  One can see upturned faces, eyes closed, hands and voices raised in ecstatic worship as the faithful feel the presence of the Spirit wash over them.  Honestly, both musically and lyrically it seems intent on addressing the emotions. It’s seeking a feeling, a visceral awareness of the Presence of God.  And I suppose this is good, so far as it goes.

As a member of a faith tradition that has always been wary of an emphasis on the emotions, I’ve been taught to view knowledge and right teaching as more important than feelings.  Indeed in our religious culture an appeal to an emotional religious experience, one that over rules and supersedes reason and understanding has typically been viewed as downright dangerous. This article recently shared with me by a friend articulates well the suspicion I was raised with about the dangers of an over-reliance on emotion in worship.  Though not written by an Adventist, it could have been.

This song both musically--with it’s stirring electric guitar riff that would seem to announce the entrance of the Spirit (“Or is it lower-case, spirit, of questionable origin?” the elders of my youth would warn) and lyrically--with it’s pleading to be overwhelmed and overcome, would be a red flag in of itself.

But lately I’ve been listening to this song with different ears, and in the process I’m thinking about a third way in which the Holy Spirit is made manifest.  Instead of associating the lyrics with a church service, most likely at say Azure Hills, in California (fellow Adventists will get the joke ;), I associate them with my classroom.  Instead of relating the words and music to typical worship activities such as singing and prayer, I associate them with the mundane tasks of my workday--teaching, talking to a struggling student, attending staff meetings, all the things I do through the school day--even planning instruction and grading.  And suddenly the song has a much richer and deeper meaning to me.

Some would say that the Holy Spirit’s presence is all about how you feel in that moment of worship.  Others would say that one can only trust the Holy Spirit’s presence when it is grounded in the study, knowledge, and right understanding of the Bible.  But if the Holy Spirit’s presence is limited to either of these arenas, I question how valid the Presence really is.  If the Spirit is truly Present in our lives, then it must be revealed in our actions, in our daily lives, in the work we do, and most importantly, in how we treat other people.

Take a listen to the song, and picture your workday life, wherever that it is.  Associate it’s desire for the Holy Spirit’s presence with that arena and see how it transforms your view of what you do and what it means to have His precious Presence with us.

Let us become more aware of Your presence

Let us experience the glory of Your goodness