Jul 8, 2015

Flashback: The GC Trip

Looking back on 30 years of Journal-keeping

Thirty years ago this summer.  June 1, 1985, right after my fifth grade year, I began writing a journal.  The project lasted the summer then went on hiatus until the following spring of 1986, when I began writing again.  I haven't stopped since.

Over the next 10 months, I'll be sharing "Flashback" entries from my paper and pen journal.

The Superdome in New Orleans, LA, site of the 1985 General Conference session of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.  I was there.

As the 60th General Conference session continues this week, it seems appropriate that my first Flashback entry recounts one of the highlights of the summer of 1985, our family's trip to the 54th General Conference session in New Orleans, Louisiana.  There are some interesting parallels between that General Conference session thirty years ago and the one going on now in Texas. Neal C. Wilson had just been reelected president of the world church for another five years.  This past Friday his son, Ted N.C. Wilson was reelected president of the church.  The church had recently been racked by controversy over the ideas of "FDR", (Ford, Davenport, and Rea, a trio of men who had introduced radical challenges to established Adventist orthodoxy).  Thirty years later, our church is once again in the throes of controversy, with a key vote on the ordination of women to pastoral ministry to go to a vote today.  The session was held in the Superdome--a site that would gain infamy in another twenty years as a place of chaotic refuge in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.  This year, the church convenes another "dome", the AlamoDome in San Antonio, Texas.

But in the summer of 1985, I was just 11 years old and had no idea of or interest in the business of our church.  For me, it was just an exciting road trip with family.

Herewith the final weekend of the 1985 General Conference session of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, as seen through the eyes of an eleven year old kid:

The Journey

I remember well leaving in the dead of night, sleeping and waking and sleeping on the bench front seat of my grandparents Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme.  I'm guessing we left in the middle of the  night so that my aunt and uncle could work a full day and we'd arrive in New Orleans in time to check in to our hotel.

This entry was typical of those written during this period of my life.  Terse, factual sentences.  Little to no overt emotion, reflection, or commentary, and virtually no description. In short: pretty dull reading.  Mercifully, the entries are short. And if you read carefully you can learn a lot about what was going on with me.  See if you can guess what I was really excited about in regards to this trip (Hint: It was worshiping with 60,000 other fellow church members, though there might have been some hero worship going on).

I've left the original spelling, punctuation, and grammar intact.

Friday, July 5, 85

I am in Louisana now. Last night we played mad till Uncle Roland and Aunt Colleen came to pick us up.  Then we left.  I sat in the front. Every time we stopped to get gas I woke up.  Finally when it was 6:00 o clock in the morning we stopped again, but I went back to sleep.  We stopped at rest area and then went on.  We ate breakfast in Alabama at McDonalds.  Then we went on we had a little snack. We went into Mississippi then into Louisiana. It was about 1:00 o clock when we got to New Orleans.  We went to N.O. airport so Lois [my mother's cousin in law] could rent a car.  Then we went to our hotel. our room had 2 beds a tv and desk and more.  We ate lunch at our hotel at about 3 Then we went to the Superdome.  We wandered around waiting for Nabih and William [my cousins, Nabih 3 years older than me and 14 at the time, and William two months older than me and thus already 12. Those two months seemed like years, as William always seemed so much more sophisticated than me].  We found seats. Then William came he lead us to the rest of the family.  Then we ate supper then we went to a meeting.  I showed William my Transformers.

"It Was All Boring"

I guess I was #notimpressed.  Tens of thousands of voices raised in united song?  A sermon by one the church's most dynamic speakers? The parade of nations?  "It was all boring."  The only excitement seemed to be the various harassers who always seemed to be "bothering" us (One can only wonder how much we bothered others, especially during one of the prayers--I think this was actually Friday night--given in a foreign language, which had my brother and cousin and me in stitches. I had never found anything quite so funny as this person praying with a straight face in what sounded to my childish mind like total gibberish).

Saturday July 6, 85

This morning after breakfast we got ready to go to the Superdome.  Then we left. We met Nabih and William. William took me to the junior services.  First there was Sabbath school then a Junior church service.  There was a freckle-face behind us he was bothering us.  We played with Transformers. It was all boring. We ate lunch in the parking lot.  After lunch we were going back to the meetings.  William and me didnt want to go.  First we went to see William's uncle. He was staying in an RV.  Then we went to the Superdome.  We saw a boring musical while these people behind us were bothering us.  Then we saw the parade of nations.  Then we went to Williams hotel.  We ate supper and played games with grandma while the adults were at a banquet.  We're going to spend the night [at William's hotel].

A Rushed Departure and "Some Street Called Bourbon"

To this day I'm not sure why the sleepover was cancelled, or why breakfast and supper were skipped.  Bourbon Street, though, is burned on my brain to this day.  I guess the family was entirely aware of what one might find in the French Quarter.  They figured, hey this is THE tourist site of New Orleans; we have to see it. Among the many NSFC sights I saw that day the one that sticks with me the most was the souvenir t-shirt depicting a garrulous looking man wearing a white lab coat with flaps you could open and close.  Innocently I opened the flaps of the lab coat to reveal a massive, highly detailed penis, voluminous pubic hair and all.  I still can't unsee that.

Sunday, July 7, 85

Last night we went back to our hotel instead of spending the [night] I never got to say bye to William he was asleep. We didn't eat breakfast.  .  .Then we went to some street called Bourbon.  It was "smutty."  Then we ate lunch and started traveling. I went to sleep. I woke up when we were in Alabama.  We saw the USS Alabama.  Then in Florida we got refreshments.  Vincy and Dawny got comic books.  Then we lost Lois car mummy was in it I was worried about her. We had no supper. I went to sleep.  I woke up in Gainesville. We dropped off Jerel [I don't remember who this person is, though the name is familiar]. Then mummy came and joined us when we got home we went to sleep.

It's 30 years later.  I'm not at the GC this year, though I wouldn't mind going again. (I also attended the 1995 GC session in Utrecht, the Netherlands as a youth delegate; that is a story for another Flashback entry right there).  I love my church, even when it's boring; even when it's wrong. It's still my church, my family, and I'm glad to be a part of it.

Jun 23, 2015

My Sister's Serendipity: Snugglins

Every Sabbath afternoon I Skype with my mom and sister.  Almost four months ago during one of our regular Sabbath afternoon Skype chats, my sister, Dawn, mentioned a brainstorm she’d had for a new product.  It was an animal-shaped bean bag with an attached blanket.  She can—and likely will—share her story of how she came up with the idea, but what she wanted to know was if I’d ever heard of a similar product.  She wanted to patent the idea and copyright the name--Snugglins, but wanted to be sure it hadn’t already been done.  The idea sounded interesting and when she showed me the prototype for her product, a kangaroo beanbag with a pouch perfect for snuggling in, it proved ingenious.  

The idea was so brilliant, I figured someone must have done it.  It’s a terrible thing to say but one tends to think audaciously inventive new products are created by magical strangers, not people you actually know.  But as it turns out this amazing new product is my sister’s creation and I couldn’t be prouder.

So what makes the Snugglin’s concept special?

Creativity:  The idea of attaching a soft blanket to a cozy bean bag to make the perfect nest to snuggle up in with a good book (or your favorite device) is innovative in and of itself.  But it’s the execution that really stands out.  Dawn came up with whimsical, charming ways to incorporate the blanket into each unique Snugglin.  Of course theres the pouch of the Kangaroo, and wings of the ostrich, bat, and cardinal.  But there’s also the tail of the peacock, the pig’s mud blanket, and the “water” that shoots of the elephants trunk to create a cozy aquatic wrap.  There’s also the legs of the large birds that serve as a storage stand. One remarkable aspect of this artistic approach to her chairs, is her willingness to take custom orders.  She told me that she loves the custom orders because they give her opportunity to continue creating.

"Desi" the camel started out as a custom order.  One of my sister's customers wanted a double beanbag so that she could hang out with her son in their Snugglin.  This awesome couch of a camel is the result!

Craftsmanship:   One of the things I love about Snugglins is their lifelike appearance.  Rather than stick with a simple, cartoonish design that I’ve seen on other animal-style bean bags, Dawn chose to create creatures that feel like they could come alive.  Her attention to detail is fantastic from the gorgeous, long eyelashes on the giraffe to the sparkling sequins embedded in the peacocks tail, each  Snugglin is a work of art. 

Quality:  Snugglin’s are not factory-made.  Instead each one, is hand-crafted by Dawn.  Rather than choose one type of fabric, buy it in bulk, and make multiple animals with only slight variation in material and design, she selects materials based on what she needs for each Snugglin.  I’m not sure how she’ll keep this up as her business inevitably scales up, but I do know that she is committed to being involved in and overseeing every aspect of her business right down to the tags on each Snugglin.  I have no doubt that this care and  attention to quality will remain long after Snugglins have become a household name.

"Ossie" the Ostrich on his storage stand and snuggling up to his pal below

Be sure to Like Snugglins on Facebook  and check out the Snugglins website to place your order to snuggle into your very own Snugglin.

Jun 21, 2015

Days of Elijah

"Behold He comes. . ."
There are moments that happen without warning and end just as abruptly.  You realize you're experiencing something truly special and you want to hold on to it and never forget it.

One such moment happened back in early May when Barbara and Ezra went down to Dayton for her Uncle Jim's funeral.  We didn't want Elijah to miss school and I couldn't take off work so it was just the two of us for two days.  That evening after school, we were in the kitchen listening to some songs he liked.  He asked to hear "10,000 Reasons (Bless the Lord)" by Matt Redman, and as the song started playing we both started singing along.  We both knew the words and sang fervently.  It was a moment of impromptu worship--father and son, singing our hearts out to the Father and Son and Spirit.  I'd never shared anything like that with my oldest before and I treasured it, even in the moment.

When that song was done, Elijah asked to hear one of his favorites, "Days of Elijah" and we sang that one together too.  I'm not sure why Elijah likes that song so much (though I'm sure having his name in the title has something to do with it!), but I know why it's come to mean so much to me.

I first heard this praise and worship standard as I walked into the Worthington Adventist Church one Sabbath when my colleague Tamaria Kulemeka was leading in worship.  She was belting out this tune with the infectious joy that she always has, and the song became an immediate favorite of mine.  But "Days of Elijah" became truly close to my heart in the hard, dark days immediately after my father-in-law died.  Throughout that time, whenever the family traveled, my brother-in-law Matt drove the Leen women in his car, and I followed with the boys in our car.  I drove the boys to the visitation, to the church for the funeral, and in the funeral procession to the cemetary and then back to the church.  Sometime during those drives, we started listening to "Days of Elijah."  The boys kept asking for it, and in truth, it soothed my ragged, grieving soul.  The joy in the song took on a fierceness, determination to hold on to hope, even in the face of death. It reminded me, that indeed even as we followed the hearse to the cemetery, there still is "no God like Jehovah." It reminded me that the day is near when "behold He comes, riding on the clouds, shining like the sun" and then even death will be powerless before Him.

It's not the kind of music Dad enjoyed, but I can't help but think of him every time I hear it.  I think of seeing him again, at the trumpets call.  And on this first Father's Day without my father-in-law, I can't wait for the day when we'll both "lift our voices, it's the year of jubilee," for "out of Zion's hill salvation comes."

We have two versions of the song and we generally listened to both versions back to back while we drove around together.  One is the version by Twila Paris embedded above.  The other is the live Donnie McClurkin version below:

Jun 20, 2015

Memorial Day

Hyde Park square in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Cincinnati, Ohio.  Babs last sat in this little park with Dad, Elijah, and Ezra on a beautiful afternoon last summer.  This was her first time back since he died.

For some time, Babs had been contemplating taking her first pilgrimage to Cincinnati since her father's death last Thanksgiving.  The Cincinnati Pilgrimage has long been a part of the Leen family tradition, at least in the 20 years I've known them.  I blogged one such Pilgrimage during a Christmas visit to Ohio right after Elijah was born.

In recent years during the summer while Mom Leen was at work and I was away on the class trip or some school conference, Babs, Dad, and the boys had begun taking an extended version of the Pilgrimage that included the Cincinnati Art Museum. For a long time, Dad seemed able to take or leave the Pilgrimage, but in the last years of his life, he came to really look forward to these trips, even asking Barbara when they were going to go to Cincinnati.  Those beautiful summer days are some of Babs' most treasured memories of her time with her dad, and I know they meant a lot to him too.

Naturally, it was with no small amount of anxiety that Babs considered returning there for the first time without him.  She didn't want an audience or the hassle of the children for the first visit, but she didn't want to exactly go alone either. So I agreed to accompany her, and less than two weeks before what would have been Dad's 92nd birthday, on a sunny Sunday morning, we headed down to Cincinnati.  It was Memorial Day weekend, as fitting a time as an any to spend some time remembering Dad.

I expected our journey to be sad, and there were tears from time to time throughout. But what I didn't expect was how peaceful the trip turned out to be.  I've always been the type of person to have a book or magazine at hand, and with the advent of the internet and mobile technology my desire to always be engaged is constantly being met.  I almost never take the time to "just be" as Barbara likes to call it.  But on this sojourn, I took the time to just be with my thoughts.  I won't say I never took out the phone to review my daily Huffington Post, The Week, and Rolling Stone updates and Facebook feed, but those moments were rare.  I spent a lot more time, just being quiet.  And it was deeply restful, rejuvenating, wonderful.

First Stop: The childhood home on Broadview

The next stop was green and tranquil Alms Park.  The last time Barbara visited Alms Park, she and her dad brought pizza from LaRosa's for the boys and let them eat a picnic lunch at the table below before they ran off to play

We sat here for a long while together, just remembering Dad.  Then Babs took some time alone, while I waited in the car.

Alms Park overlooks a small commuter airport.  I love to just sit and watch, keeping an eye out for a plane coming in for a landing or taking off.

One of the old-fashioned, pedal-operated drinking fountains at Alms Park.  The water is cold and delicious.

After Alms Park we headed over to LaRosa's for lunch.  Green olive and onion pizza and a side of buffalo wings. If Dad had been here, he likely would have declined to order anything. But that was par for the course any time we went out to eat.  He came for the fellowship.  We missed that.

After LaRosa's it was on to Graeter's in Hyde Park.  Dad would definitely have ordered something here.

We  ended our day in Hyde Park square, eating our ice cream across from the bench where Babs last shared this special time with her Dadi.  There was a woman sitting on the bench, reading, almost the entire time we were there.  It would not have honored Dad to ask her if we could have the bench; that wasn't his way.  So we sat, enjoying each other's company and missing Dad. There was sadness to the day for sure, but beyond that also beauty and peace.

A little less than two weeks later, on Dad's birthday, June 5, 2015 we returned as a family to Cincinnati to spend the day. Like our earlier visit, it was less a celebration and more a remembrance.  I'm sure there will be more Pilgrimages in the future.  They will never be the same without him there, but they also will contain a similar bittersweet joy to our Memorial Day weekend visit, because those familiar places will bring to mind beautiful memories of the times we shared with him.

The boys on the long concrete slide at Alms Park. June 5, 2015. I played with them at the park while Barbara, Jenny, and their mom toured the houses.  We then completed the rest of the Pilgrimage together, and then I took the boys home, while the Leen women went on to the cemetery back in Dayton to spend some time at Dad's grave.

May 23, 2015

How Are You?

So this afternoon I was browsing through Quora, one of my favorite websites for fascinating answers to interesting questions, and I came across the question "Platitudes: What are some sweetly comforting things that people say that are factually incorrect?"  The top answer was "You deserve better", which I found to be an interesting and counter-intuitive response that made me curious to read more, a prime example of what makes Quora so much fun.  Usually, I just stick to the top answer and move on the next question, but this time I decided to look at some of the other responses.   At first it was interesting and thought-provoking, but after awhile I began to notice that many of the answers had a dispiriting, bitter, and cynical vibe.  I finally exited the thread feeling a little gloomy.

I understood that many people were coming from a place of grief or pain, and in those situations particularly, platitudes can be useless at best, hurtful at worst.  But still, a world in which phrases such as "It will get better" or "If you work hard, you will succeed" are banned for being factually incorrect would seem a very bleak place.  I guess, part of it is that these platitudes and many others are not always (and may not even often) false.  We can't speak them with certainty of course, but because they have turned out to be true often enough we rely on them.  In some cases platitudes can't be proven true, but really can't be proven false either.

This brings me to the critique of "How are you?" (which appeared on the thread).  I am well versed in the phrase, as I use it with every customer during my weekend/summer job at Kroger.  I often hear this greeting dismissed as insincere.  After all how many people really are interested in an honest answer?  And how many people actually have the time and inclination to give an honest answer, often to a complete stranger?

But I think this is an overly (and often curmudgeonly) literal interpretation of the greeting "How are you?"  I think most of us understand that the question is not to be taken literally, and the standard answer of "I'm fine, thanks" is also not to be taken literally.  To me "How are you" is a simple, polite way to acknowledge the existence and importance of another person.  While we might not really want to know how the person is, our inquiry indicates a general feeling of well-wishing.  In asking, it's my way of pronouncing a sort of blessing, a hope that is all is well with you.  And the expected response of "Fine" is really a way of saying "Thank you for your well-wishes towards me."    When you think about it, what more supposedly honest and truly caring way, would there be to interact with strangers that is socially acceptable and not invasive? I suppose you could just decide that you will not say "How are you?" to anyone unless you really want to know, and in a job like mine and really any time contact with strangers is necessary you will simply come across as aloof and maybe even rude.

Of course with people we are close to, and with whom we have some insight into what struggles they may be facing, "How are you?" has an entirely different meaning and will generally get a different response (although, even then a person might respond, "I'm doing okay" as a way to ease into the truth of the current difficulty).

So, I for one, am not going to get too tangled up in how sincere my literal inquiry on your well-being is.  Instead, I'm going to keep saying "Hi, how are you today" to acknowledge your presence, let you know that you matter, and communicate that I hope you are well.  My question might not be genuine, but the sentiment behind it most definitely is.

Apr 17, 2015

Dealing with Death

Pictures are all we have left.  Pictures in albums and pictures in our hearts. This photo of the photos was taken at Dad's visitation, Monday,  December 1, 2014

Death is the negative image of birth.  And as with birth, when death comes home it feels like it's never happened in the history the world until now.  Though rationally you know that birth and death happen to millions every single day these events barely touch you. But when it happens to you it feels like the world has stopped turning--that the impossible has happened to you and your family alone.

As Mat Kearney sang, "we're all one phone call from our knees."  For me those phone calls came on the mornings of November 5 and November 26 respectively.  Mom reached me around 8:35 A.M.  I was in the staff bathroom at the school, about to brush my teeth when I got the news that grandma was gone.  Three weeks later, Barbara woke me up around 5:30 A.M. with the words that I'll never forget:  "My dad died this morning." (My first response had been a comforting, certain "No, that's not true.  That's not true."  For next week or so my mind kept returning to that nightmarish moment and to the utter disbelief I felt.  It's as if my mind had to replay that moment over and over until I could accept it's awful reality).

I never really knew what to do when dealing with death as it happened to the loved ones of friends and acquaintances.  We spend so much of our lives running from death, convincing ourselves that we are somehow immune from it, that we often don't know how to deal with death, when it touches people we know and care for.

I don't feel qualified to expound on how to deal with death of someone close to you.  I'm still figuring that out  myself.  And each death is different, with the circumstances, the amount of preparation one had for the death, the age of the person, and your unique with relationship all coloring each individual grief in it's own terrible way.

  "What should I say?" and "What can I do to help" were two questions I always had when someone I knew had experienced a loss. While I don't know that I can answer those questions with absolute certainty, I can share what meant a lot to me.

What to say

"I never know what to say," is a common dilemma for those acquainted with someone who is grieving.  And the truth is, even having going on through losses of my own, I still feel the same way.  We want to make things better, and the honest truth is nothing that anyone can say can accomplish what we want most--to bring back the person we lost.  We also don't want to make things worse. But again, the loss itself is far worse than any clumsy comments we might make.  Nonetheless, in my experience there were words that were comforting and those that. . .well, let's just say they didn't help.

Say something.
Often times it seems easier to just not say anything about a recent loss.  It's awkward and fraught with the worry over saying the wrong thing.  But ultimately pretending the loss didn't happen is really for the one's own benefit rather than for the benefit of the grieving person.  If you can, share a memory or a positive impression about the person who died.  I found I really treasured anything specific and non-generic people shared, even in a Facebook comment, about Grandma or Dad.  But even if you draw a blank on something special to say about the deceased don't let that stop you from expressing sympathy.  "I'm sorry for your loss" might be a cliche' but you really can't go wrong with it, and it is so much better than acting as if nothing happened.

Don't offer advice or explanations. Be careful about asking questions.
"Try to trust in God,"  "It was God's will", "Oh my God, how did he die?"  These are all risky routes to go.  Some might find solace in your counsel or perspective or find themselves eager to go over the painful details.  Many won't.  Instead, do let them know you care.

Don't presume you know the closeness of the relationship or the extent to which someone is mourning.
"Well, at least he was just your father-in-law."  No-one ever said those exact words, but there were a few well meaning folks who suggested something along those lines, and it hurt.  The official relationship between the mourning and the deceased doesn't necessarily tell you about how grief is being experienced.  Policy at the office may determine what losses are "worthy" of bereavement leave, but we aren't bound by those restrictions.  It's better to assume someone is mourning deeply and find out they weren't that close to the deceased after all, than the other way around.

Don't forget to check back in.
In some ways the hardest part comes after the funeral is over and everyone has moved on.  The death of a loved one, at least in my experience so far is not something you "get over" but that you gradually learn to live with.  We've been blessed by the people who were insightful enough to ask weeks and even months after Dad's passing how we're holding up.  A simple, heartfelt "How are you doing" allows those that don't want to to talk about their grief an easy out: "I'm doing okay." But it also opens the door for those who have a deep need to share their grief.  Just keep in mind that you might get the latter, so if you're going to ask, be prepared and willing to commit some time, a listening ear, and a sympathetic heart

How you can help

While it is important to say something to a grieving friend, and even the "I'm sorry for your loss" can be comforting, the other big cliche' "Let me know if there is anything I can do to help," can be dispensed with.  No one is going to actually let  you know, so it's better to offer to meet a specific need.  Indeed if you are close to someone who has lost a loved one but you didn't know the loved one well enough to be deeply grieving yourself, you are in the perfect position to be a real help and genuine support.  Here are two things that people did for us that really helped a lot and meant a lot.

Make food.
Thanksgiving Day we ate hot dogs.  No one felt like cooking a big feast just over 24 hours after we'd lost Dad, and we didn't much feel like eating fancy fixings either.  But even after the holiday, we were busy planning the funeral, still taking in the shock of the sudden loss and we had neither the time or the inclination to cook.  The soup, the fruit and vegetable  plates that people brought really helped.  After the visitation, my friend J and his wife Evelyn brought Chinese take-out over to the house and it hit the spot.  What a blessing!

Help with the kids.
Joy Lacorte, as I've shared on this blog, was a lifesaver in the days immediately following Dad's passing.  And when she left, J, Evelyn, and J's parents Dr. John and Grace Carlos stepped in to save the day.  J and Evelyn took the boys out for supper and entertained them for a good portion of the visitation hours.  Then on the day of funeral, they kept Ezra through the service since he was hollering and making a lot of general commotion, not understanding what was going on.  My boss Brenda Arthurs gently took Elijah out when he started getting antsy near the end of the funeral service. These friends generous willingness to take on our kids allowed us the time and space we needed to say good bye and we'll always be grateful.  If you can "take the kids" you can know that you are making a real and meaningful difference.

It's only been about five months since Dad died.  I still look for him.  It still seems like perhaps he's just gone away for a bit and will be back soon, as if he's just taking a really long nap (and I suppose in a sense both of those things are true).  We're still in the early stages of living with a loss that will last our lifetimes or until Jesus comes.  But I'm thankful for those that have stepped in to be support us as we mourn.  And I have a renewed personal commitment to trying to support others in their time of grief as well.

Mar 14, 2015

Is Greatness Really All That Great?

"And I can't stop till the whole world knows my name" 
                                                      --"Centuries" by Fall Out Boy

This past week I had the chance to watch Whiplash, a movie about an aspiring jazz drummer and his sadistic mentor.  J.K. Simmons, who won an Academy award for best supporting actor for his performance has the flashier role.  His character, the music teacher Terence Fletcher uses abusive, highly suspect "motivational" methods to draw greatness out of his students.  But for me, the real thought provoking character is the student Andrew Neiman (played by Miles Teller).  It's really his ambition, not Fletcher's abuse that drives his rise to greatness (and the movie as well).  He succeeds not because of but in spite of his teacher's methods, which in the end are morally and practically bankrupt as well as dishonest. A less driven student would have been broken by Fletcher's abuse.  So the film raised an interesting question for me: What does it take to be truly great? Is it worth the cost?

I'm not sure that the striving for greatness is a Christian imperative.  Personal excellence?  Sure.  But what about being the Best, as in better than anyone else in the world?  As far as I can tell, achieving that means that everything else must be sacrificed, including and perhaps especially relationships.  After all, isn't  it people that most often get in the way of achieving legendary greatness.  Of course there are all the people who must lose so you can win, those whose talents must prove less than your own.  But there are also the people who demand time away from your pursuit of greatness.  The spouses, the children, the parents, the less motivated peers.  If it's possible to achieve singular greatness while maintaining a "work-life balance," I haven't heard about it.

The drive for this kind of greatness at its end is truly a drive for significance that will last beyond this lifetime.  It is a push for immortality.  Nieman articulates this well during a dinner table scene in which he scorns his brothers' accomplishments and ambitions.  His family members argue for the importance of people who love you, who know you personally.  He retorts that we don't know Charlie Parker personally but we are still talking about him.  This is the kind of greatness he aspires to.  But for those of us who believe in Jesus, this is not our only path to immortality--indeed it is a poor substitute for actual immortality.  Jesus' definition of greatness was not about the acclaim, honor, or notice of the masses, but about great service.  The servants are the legends of the Kingdom of God.  Sure there are those who dedicated their lives in service to others that have become household names--Mother Teresa and Jesus Himself are two that come to mind. But I have a hard time believing that their dedication to the poorest of the poor and the lowest of the low was motivated by a desire to be recognized as the world's greatest servant..

My goal in life is to strive for personal excellence on a daily basis.  For me that means being fully present, not wallowing in the past or obsessing over the future, but appreciating and giving myself fully to the now.  It means giving my best to whatever the day brings. It means remembering what is most important: That the greatness I achieve in my relationships--with my family, friends, students, and colleagues are the accomplishments that will mean the most to me at the end of my life.  It means trying to make a positive impact in the world not for the personal glory it will bring me for centuries to come, but the for the personal difference it will make in the lives I touch.  These goals may not be compatible with the strive for singular greatness in a particular field of endeavor.  I might strive for excellence as a teacher, writer, or whatever else, but not at the cost of these things.  They are simply more important.  In a way Andrew Neiman was right.  Greatness can only be achieved if everything else is sacrificed.  It's just that sometimes greatness itself may be what needs to be sacrificed to achieve a life of true substance, richness, and eternal significance.

"Whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant."
                                                           Matthew 20:26