Dec 31, 2014

The Eighth Annual Inspirations List: 2014

This year's heroes come in just under the wire, as 2014 comes to a close within mere hours of the posting of this entry. Had I completed my entry in late summer as is my usual practice the last four names might not have been on the list, though all four have continually inspired me.  Indeed Grandma and Dad were both recognized as major influences in my life in my 2007 Influential People series.  Though not specifically held up as heroes at the time, I honored both of them as such at the heroes receptions I held with my students a few years back, and I was honored that Dad, at least, was able to attend the reception and be honored publicly.  And Joy joins Virleshay Gayatin (2007 and 2009) and Keisha Paez (2007 and 2011), to make a rare trio that have been twice honored as inspirations.

But this has been a year that has ended in grief and loss, and in the midst of this mourning, there is Joy, and peace and inspiration that has come out of this painful time. I have been inspired anew by these four and so they have a place of honor on this year's list.

My nominees this year are professionals and laymen, unlikely runners and  improbable philanthropists, superintendents and students, old and young, distant strangers and family close to my heart.  They are four women and seven men.  Together they offer determination in the face of adversity, encouragement and counsel, generosity and grace, wisdom that comes from experience and wisdom that comes in innocence.  These qualities are just what I have needed to inspire me in often difficult year.

Herewith, my heroes and  inspirations for the year 2014:

Paul Wood
Tamaria Kulemeka
Ruth-Ann Thompson
Dick & Rick Hoyt
Keith Rodman
Andrews Acheampong
William Leen &  Enid Thomson
Joy Lacorte
Ezra Maycock

A brief note on the photo accompanying my father-in-law Bill Leen and my grandmother Enid Thomson.  I have chosen photos of them in their youth, though I wasn't even born when they looked this way because this how they will see each other when they meet for the first time.  I can't wait for that day!

Paul Wood
I'm inspired by his achievement of his life-long dream

Only a realist like Paul could have made his dream come true. We all fly in our dreams. But for Paul, flying in his dreams wasn't enough.  As long as I've known him, since we met as third graders, Paul has wanted to fly, to be pilot.  And he didn't just want to fly a little Cessna and be a weekend flyer.  He wanted to pilot the big planes, the jet airliners.  He knew all the planes, memorized all the flight attendant and pilot chatter he heard on planes.  It's one of those career goals kids tend to have: cowboy, firefighter, astronaut, pilot.  But Paul never let the childhood dream die.  While all the doctors and policemen, movie stars and athletes fell away in the face of reality, Paul transformed his dream into reality.  Earlier this year Paul finally earned his stripes as a full-fledged captain, earning his left-seat privileges and command of his own plane with JetBlue Airlines.  I admire Paul for his focus, dedication, and effort in achieving his dream and I am in awe of all he has accomplished.  He inspires me to believe that if he can fly high,so can I.

Tamaria Kulemeka
I'm inspired by her encouragement

Tamaria reminded me that I am writer.  After five years as a math and science teacher, most people don't even know that writing is something that I love and something that I do well.  But Tamaria Kulemeka, my colleague at Columbus Adventist Academy and an oustanding English teacher and writer in her own right knows. And she has encouraged me, just as she would one of her students in whom she sees a special talent, to keep on writing, even though writing is not currently a major part of my professional life.  Once earlier this year during some down time between teacher meetings she read through the first few pages of my unpublished novel and her enthusiasm and encouragement in reaction to the story, got me thinking about writing again.  She did more than compliment the work, she encouraged me to keep at it, to not let my gift atrophy.  Thanks to Tamaria, I've started making more of an effort to keep up with my pen & paper journal, I've started mulling over how to move my novel manuscript to the next step, and  I've even been jotting down notes for a new book idea.  And if one day you see my name on cover of a book in Barnes and Nobles or an Amazon web page, you'll likely find Tamaria's name inside in the list of acknowledgements.  Tamaria, you're encouraging spirit may not only change the lives the students in your classroom, but also the lives of your colleagues as well!

Ruth-Ann Thompson
I'm inspired by her generous heart

I can't begin to tell you all that Ruth-Ann has done.  And that's not because her generosity has made such a difference (though it has).  It's because Ruth-Ann's generosity has largely been in secret where only her Father in heaven sees and where I know He rewards her daily in ways untold.  She will never trumpet her own giving, but I want to shout it from the roof tops, if only to let her know how deeply grateful I am and to let her know that she has made an lifelong difference in the lives of many.  One example I can share is the Brandon Je'Zhon Williams Mathematics and Science Scholarship fund she established in the name of her son who was tragically killed in an auto accident a year and a half ago. She awarded the first recipient of the scholarship from my graduating class this past June.

Ruth-Ann has gone through unimaginable tragedy in her life, and yet she has still found the strength and heart to extend grace, even in her grief, to those around her.  For this, I applaud her. And I believe on that final day when she once again holds her son in her arms, heaven will applaud her too with the words, "Well done, Thou good and faithful servant."

Dick & Rick Hoyt
I'm inspired by their mutual determination

I can't watch this father-son team without getting choked up.  To watch the joy on Rick's face and the satisfaction on his father's face is to experience something truly beautiful.  These two men have blessed each other over the years as they have completed marathons (including Boston multiple times), triatholons (including the Iron Man Triathalon), and even a trek across the United States.  Dick gives his son his sturdy legs and arms so that Rick can experience what he otherwise could not.  Rick gives his father the immense reward that comes from his son's joy, not to mention the physical benefits of a highly active life.  It is a synergy of grace that can't help but remind me of my own heavenly Father who carries me all the way.

Keith Rodman
I'm inspired by his wise counsel

If a wise man once said it, there's a good chance Keith Rodman was talking.  Through the years while he was education superintendent for the Guam-Micronesia Mission during Barbara's tenure as principal of the Saipan Seventh-day Adventist School, I saw his deft handling of the multitude of fires that seemed to continually erupt across his jurisdiction in the far-flung Pacific.  While others feared and fretted, Keith was always calm, reasonable, empathetic, practical, patient, with just the right amount of humor to leaven a tense situation.  In a word he was wise.  I had the opportunity to see that wisdom in action again this past year, and was personally blessed by his listening ear and sound advice.

Andrews Acheampong
I'm inspired by his achievement against the odds

Nothing is impossible.  This is the caption to the picture of Andrews' life thus far.  Andrews ability to overcome obstacles, to achieve when all hope seemed lost, is a source of true amazement and inspiration to me.  In his academic achievements, in his onstage performances, in his success on some key undertakings during his 8th grade year at CAA,  Andrews astounded those around him time and time again.  I'm so proud of Andrews.  He is my hero because he has inspired me to never say never when the apparently impossible looms ahead.  I can hear his voice in my head saying even now "Don't forget, Mr. Maycock.  With God all things are possible."

William Leen & Enid Thomson
I'm inspired by their close walk with Jesus

They never met. And why would they ever have?  This Midwestern man out of Dayton, Ohio and this Chinese woman from Trinidad.  And yet the trajectory of his daughter and her grandson brought them into near orbit. And they had so much in common.  Bill and Enid were born on the 5th of June and 6th of October 1923 respectively.  Both were humble, quiet people who spoke little but served greatly.  They were both industrious and hard-working. Both had a gift for art. Both died in the morning at home, exactly three weeks apart, and both were found in death, as they had lived their lives, felled while on the move.  Both Grandma and Dad meant the world to me.  But the most important similarity they shared is that they both walked closely with Jesus.  Dad and Grandma were giants of faith.  They knew their "Big Brother" (as my grandma called Him) Jesus well, they conversed with Him often, and they trusted Him with their very lives.  They brought the names of their loved ones daily before Him and because of that we were prayed for, buoyed by their faith. Indeed who is to say that it might not have been their very petitions along with those of our mothers that brought Barbara and me together.  They were faithful unto death, and their faithful lives inspire me to walk more closely with Jesus too.

 Dad and Grandma never met, but I know for certain that one day they will, and undoubtedly it will be their mutual Friend who will make the introductions.

Joy Lacorte
I'm inspired by her gracious service

Joy has a strength that can't be found in mere happiness (pun definitely intended).  And I can think of no person who better demonstrates the truth of this statement than our former student and lifelong friend Joy Lacorte.  When I first honored Joy as one of my inspirations five years ago, I described her as a rock, a person of steady character (Read her tribute here).  At the time, I had only observed her faithfulness from a distance.  But the view when she is bearing you up in a time of unimaginable sorrow is a whole new experience.

Joy had come up from Southern Adventist University where she is earning her nursing degree to spend a week with us during her Thanksgiving vacation.  Early on the vacation hit minor snags as Barbara fell ill for a few days and I had to work, often leaving her stuck in the unplanned role of baby sitter.  By Tuesday things were looking up and we had a fun day in downtown Columbus eating at the North Market and treating her to Jeni's ice cream.  The plan was to head down to Dayton on Wednesday for Thanksgiving with Barbara's family.  But early Wednesday morning our world shattered and Joy's relaxing vacation evaporated.  Barbara and I rushed to Dayton when we got the call of Dad's sudden passing, leaving Joy to watch the boys alone.  I returned that evening to pick them up and bring them to Dayton.  There Joy spent the rest of her break on permanent babysitting duty watching the boys, feeding them, and generally helping out where needed while we were caught up in a whirlwind of grief and funeral planning.  The work for her was not fun or easy, of that I am sure.  But she did it all without a complaint and even with a smile. So often we ascribe a turn of events to God's leading when things turn out nicely for us.  But Joy seemed to find reward in events that turned out poorly for her, but allowed her to be a blessing to others. Indeed God brought her to us for such a time as this, and for that we will always be grateful.

Ezra Maycock
I'm inspired by his simple faith

This is something my two year old son understands far better than I do. Ever since his PaPa, my father-in-law Bill Leen, died, he's been asking after him.  Any time the names of family are mentioned, any time we announce we are going to Dayton, whenever I shared with him who would be joining us for a more melancholy Christmas in Florida, he would always ask in his innocence and profound wisdom if PaPa would be there. And it used to break my heart.  The poor child.  He doesn't understand, I would sigh.  He doesn't understand that PaPa is gone for good, that we will never see him again.  Until one day not so long ago it hit me that it was I that just didn't understand.  Oh I know the theology of heaven and the concpet of death is lost on him.  But in his own simple way Ezra knows, what I often forget in my grief, that PaPa is not gone for good, that indeed we will see him (and Granny and his great-grandfather and his great-aunts and so many others) again.  We don't know exactly when, and so in faith Ezra asks every time, just to check:  ". . .and PaPa?"  And when he receives the sad answer that no, PaPa won't be there, he accepts it peacefully, without complaint, and with certainty that if today is not the day, tomorrow may very well be.  Oh, that I could have faith like that!  For while I can almost hear the trumpet, Ezra can hear it loud and clear.

Dec 23, 2014

Take the Picture

This is one of my favorite (and one of the very few, I might add) photos of Dad, the boys, and me, taken in the summer of 2013.  It's a miracle Barbara got the four of us to sit still long enough for this gem.  None of us were typically enthused to have our photo taken.  I'm so glad she got us to go along!

If you're lucky you have someone like my lovely wife Barbara in your family.  Of course there are many reasons one would be lucky to have someone like Barbara, but in this case I'm talking specifically about her penchant for pictures.  Every time the family gathered Babs would insist on taking pictures.  Lots of pictures.  Multiple pictures of the same pose.  I have to admit I often griped about all this photo-taking and I probably wasn't a very cooperative subject. ("Are we done yet?  Okay that's enough.  We have enough!")  But now I'm so glad she pushed to get the shot.  We have a treasure trove of photos of Dad, many of which we wouldn't have had without her determined insistence.  Here are just a couple of my very favorites.

Pure joy.  Elijah and his grandparents, early 2010.

Ezra and his PaPa, Summer 2014

Nap time for grandfather and grandson. Not all the photos Barbara took were posed.  She was great at capturing spontaneous special moments too.  

This photo of the Leen family, taken on Sunday, September 28, 2014 has special significance.  Not only is it the last photo taken of the complete Leen family, but it also appears to be the last photo we have of Dad.

This holiday season, there will likely be ample opportunities to take a picture with loved ones.  My advice is go ahead and take the picture.  Whether you opt for top-shelf photo session with a pro (check out my friend Heather Rice; she's one of the best in the business), the budget shoot at Wal-Mart or a DIY at home with your iPhone,  let 'em take the picture.  Sure some pics will be destined for the pages of Awkward Family Photos (Heather can help you avoid that fate!), but there will be others that will bring a smile and tear in the years ahead.  And if you're always the one behind the camera, be sure to get in some photos too.  Those pictures of you will mean a lot to someone who loves you when the day comes that those photos and the memories that go with them are they'll have.

So quit griping, strike a pose, smile, and take the picture!

This photo was taken at Dayton area photo studio in March of 2012 (a session arranged, once again at Barbara's insistence).  I cropped this image to make it a solo portrait of Dad and it became the photo we used for the obituary and funeral program.

Dec 21, 2014

A Gentle Man's Rules

As lived by William F. Leen

There's no doubt about it.  Dad was a gentleman of the old school.

He dressed well. . .

Dad in his senior year of high school looking sharp as always

And  in his younger years, especially, he was positively dashing.

Dad in one of his World War II photos, a gentleman in uniform

Working as a commercial artist in the fifties and early sixties, he would have fit right in the world of Mad Men, at least visually. . .

Dad (second from right) during his years as a commercial artist working in Cincinnati doing advertising art work for companies like Kroger and Proctor & Gamble.  We still have his portfolio and his talent is incredible. 

But far more importantly, Dad was a gentle man. . .
Dad with the love of his life, my mother-in-law Carol.  At the time this photo was taken Dad was a small business owner, having started his own commercial art supplies store, Sterleen's, which he ran successfully until the early 1990s,

Still a class act at 84, in the summer of 2007 with Babs, his elder daughter
 Bill Leen lived out the gentle spirit of Christ.  He understood that "life is more than food and the body more than clothing."  And when his daughters, his wife, his friends, the people whose lives he touched talked about him this past month at his visitation and funeral and in the times in between there was little talk of his personal sense of style or what a charmer he was.  Instead we spoke of his love, joy, peace, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, goodness, patience, and self-control.

Herewith four rules of a gentle man as lived out by my father-in-law, Bill Leen:

Keep your counsel

Dad wasn't a big talker.  Of course he was uninterested in gossip but even beyond that, Dad wasn't one to volunteer a lot of advice.  He didn't moralize or pass judgement.  His wisdom was lived out, quietly and without commentary or exposition.  He listened well, which made him easy to talk to.  As a result I don't have the the typical postmortem regrets about "things I never told him."  What I do regret is not asking him more questions, drawing more from that deep well of wisdom I know he had.
Dad at his 90th birthday party last summer enjoying conversation with his best friend since they were in high school, Charlie Whistler.  He later told Barbara he chose to spend most of his time with Charlie at the party because he knew that Mr. Whistler didn't know anyone else there.  A true gentle man.

Be of service

Though Dad was always gracious in receiving help from others, he didn't really care to be waited on.  He didn't want to put any one out or trouble anybody.  Instead he wanted to serve, he wanted to be of use.  He wanted to carry his own weight and pitch in to help you with yours.  Even as he advanced in years he remained determined to help himself and help others.  Whether it was carrying bags from the car on a visit to our home in Columbus or doing the dishes, Dad lived to serve.

A gentle man at work. Dad raking the lawn the day of  his 90th birthday party, June 9, 2013

Treat people as people

In these heated days of #ferguson you'll find folks on every corner who claim they don't see race.  But Dad never said those words, and yet I believe he was one of the few people for whom this was actually true.  I found in him (and in his family) a true obliviousness about race.  Not once did I find even a hint of reservation about me being his son-in-law.  I see his influence in his daughters, both of whom have always seemed to find color irrelevant in way that is almost odd in comparison to most people.  And Dad's indiscriminate spirit wasn't limited to race.  No matter your socioeconomic status, social position, or personal foilbles, Dad seemed to do more than just be nice.  He seemed to genuinely view all people as valuable and worthy of his time.

Dad at 82 with his daughters and me, summer 2005.  I imagine many 82-year olds would have looked askance at the long-haired black fella who snagged his oldest daughter, but I never got even so much as a disapproving vibe even during the years following the photo above when that hair grew out into full on dreadlocks!

Live well by living simply.

As far as I can tell Dad didn't have a bucket list.  He didn't spend his time rushing to have this or that "big life" experience.  His greatest adventure was as a soldier during World War II where he moved with the Allied troops from North Africa to Italy to France, along the way having once-in-a-lifetime opportunities like shaking hands with Pope and being billeted on the Champs Elysee.   But since then he's lived a quiet, simple life.  I think he understood that  the best memories don't need a spectacular backdrop.  Dad was both very hard and very easy to buy Christmas presents for (he truly disdained birthday gifts, and his habit of giving his wife a gift on his own birthday is legendary).  He didn't seem to want anything, which meant finding the perfect gift was nearly impossible.  But he was also very gracious and appreciative for whatever he received and so in this sense buying a present for him was easy as we knew he'e like whatever we got him.  As long as I've known him, Dad was the picture of contentment.  He was content with simple food (peanut butter, crackers, raisens, walnuts, crarrot sticks) and ate only when he was hungry.  I can't count the number of times we went out to eat and Dad politely declined to order anything.  He didn't need to eat or drink in order to merry.

Dad at 84 clowning around at the Cincinnati Art Museum, Summer 2007.  A trip to Cincinnati with his family brought Dad as much joy as a trek around the world. 

A gentle man's true riches: Dad with grandson Elijah above, December 2008 and below with Ezra in March 2013.  The boys loved their PaPa, and he loved them back.

During the homily at Dad's funeral, Pastor Baldwin noted that the world would take little notice of a man like Bill Leen, but in heaven he was a star, a celebrity.  And this rang so true to me.  Dad was a star, and stars are often eclipsed by the glaring, gaudy, short-lived lights of this world.  But they shine on nonetheless, into eternity.

William Frederick Leen
June 5, 1923-November 26, 2014

Dec 2, 2014

Dear Dad

Dear Dad,

I thought I’d write you a letter.  It’s been awhile since I’ve done that.  In fact, I think I’ve only written you one other time in my life:  A little less than 18 years ago when I wrote you asking for your blessing for my intent to marry your first born daughter.  I remember putting that letter in the mail and being a state of such anxiety and dread as I waited the few days for the letter to reach you.  And then how absolutely terrified I felt as Barbara and I huddled around the telephone receiver waiting to hear what your reply would be.  Of course, by that time I should have known I had nothing to worry about.  You welcomed me with joyous, open arms.  You trusted me with one of the three most precious people in your life, and from that moment on you’ve never made me feel like anything less than your son.

And that means a lot to me. I have a father, who gave me life.  I had a grandfather who helped raise me when my father wasn’t there.  But there’s only one man who I’ve ever called Dad and that’s you.

There are so many things about you that I admire, and it feels good to know that I didn’t leave much unsaid with you.  I know you knew how much I admired you, how much you inspired me, how much l love you.  So today, all I want to say is what I would have said two weeks ago this past Sunday as we got ready to head back to Columbus after another weekend visit.  What I would have said, if I’d known that the next time we talk would be a little further down the road than we planned. 

It’s about the dishes.  Well, not the dishes exactly.  But about what the dishes represent.  One of the greatest things that can be said about you is that you took care of your family. I know how hard you worked and the sacrifices you made to care for Barbara and Jenny.  I know how you treated mom like a queen and did everything you could to make life easier for her.   Even though you’d been retired for a number of years by the time I met you, you were always doing something to take care of the people you loved whether it was doing a paper route to bring in extra money or working on the never-ending lists of projects mom always had to do.  Some of my favorite memories of our time together were working on some of those projects with you, like tearing down the shed in the backyard.

As the years passed and backbreaking labor in the yard became less practical you continued to find ways to take care of the people you loved.  It was simple things like helping mom with the bulletin on Fridays at church,  saving up our mail and passing it on to us as soon as we arrived for a visit and preparing our bedroom for our visits, with fresh sheets on the bed and towels laid out for us.  And there were the dishes.  I’ll always remember you standing at the kitchen sink, often in your bathrobe and often on a lazy Sabbath afternoon or late at night when everyone else was napping, working carefully and methodically to wash the mountain of dishes six adults and two kids generated.  And I have to confess, Dad, I often felt like I should get up and help you. Or that I should get them done before you got to them so you could have a break.  But I was lazy. I always loved coming to your house because it was such a relaxing, peaceful place to me.  And so most days, I left the dishes for you and indulged in being able to read or blog or watch a video.  And I told myself that I probably should leave them for you, because I knew you liked to take care of your family and that was one way that you probably gained a lot of satisfaction in doing so.  And I guess that was probably true.  One of your greatest joys was to take care of your family.

But now you’re resting, and I feel that the best tribute I can give you is not in words—you were never big on a lot of talk, but your actions spoke volumes. The best tribute I can give is to do my best with Jesus’ help to do what you did, to take care of our family.  My tribute to you is to work hard and sacrifice whatever needs to be sacrificed to care for your Barbara as you did.  And I will do the same for your grandsons “Little Elijah” and Ezra as you called them.  My tribute to you is to do my part to look out for mom, as you did, to treat her like a queen and do everything I can to make life easier for her.  I know I can’t ever replace you, but I can do my best to do what you did for the people you loved.  So I wanted to let you know the dishes are done.

I’ll see you later, Dad.  Soon, I hope. 

Until then, rest well.  I love you.

Your son-in-law,


Nov 10, 2014

Remembering Grandma

I did not know the shy, beautiful Chinese girl who caught the eye of Willie Thomson. . .
My grandparents, William and Enid Thomson not long after their marriage in 1944

  I didn't know the mother of four--two boys and two girls--raising her kids as a pastor's wife in Trinidad. . .

Grandpa and Grandma when they were still just Daddy and Mummy, with their children in the early 1960's.

 And I knew little of the frail, withdrawn woman longing for Jesus to come as she worked at her computer and  watched the birds in the feeder outside her window in the final years, months, days, and perhaps hours and minutes of her life.

Grandma working at her computer on her 91st birthday, October 6, 2014, just less than a month before she passed.  The day before she died she was posted up at her computer working like always.  Grandma lived and loved to work, helping mom with her court transcribing buisness. When mom found her she was not resting in bed, but collapsed on the floor, felled on her way to somewhere.  She died as she had loved to live: on the move.

This is the woman I knew Enid Thomson to be during my growing up years:  a strong woman, a fiercesome woman, a force of nature, of love, of God.
Grandma and Grandpa as I remember them in my formative years.

She was a second mother to me (one who could, and in rare cases, did trump my own mother's authority.  I'll always remember the day that mom said I could walk over to Zayres and grandma vetoed the permission).

My grandma often had a stern countenance but always had a twinkle in her eye.  She had firm hand but a penchant for fun and even a little mischief too. She was unsentimental but unwavering in her love.  I remember her singing songs and dancing (a kind of Adventist-approved sashay that I can see clearly see in my head but find it hard to explain) She loved God and trusted Him completely.  To the very end her life was in His hands.

This video, added to my blog in one of my earliest entries is mainly about Aunt Coleen's famous mac and cheese, but there is a very brief snippet of grandma greeting the camera, which is the only video I can find of her right  now.  Still, so much of who she was is captured in that brief greeting--her shyness, her humor, her spunk.

We feared grandma growing up, in the way that I think we are intended to fear God.  Respect and honor, most definitely. But also, just a little bit scared too.  Just a little.  And not because she ever raised a hand to us, ever said a hurtful or abusive word. It was inconceivable that she would ever hurt us in any way.  Yet we feared her none the less.  She carried a marvelous moral authority like no one else I've known--even more than Grandpa.  It was her righteousness that we found fearsome.  Even as adults, wise grandchildren understood that wayward ways must be kept from grandma.

But here's the thing--at least for me--when grandma busted us doing wrong there was a kindness and grace in her reprimand that if we thought about it, we should have known was there all along.  When I was in college grandma came across a racy story I'd written on her computer  At least I'll always believe that's what happened.  I was living in the room above my grandparents garage and while they were away in Florida for the winter, I had the run of their house. I typed the story on her computer--which in itself was a piece of foolishness--and then somehow lost it after printing it.  I couldn't find the file, and eventually gave up figuring it I must have somehow deleted it.  But I think grandma must have found it because in the spring of 1994 when she and grandpa returned from their sojourn in Florida, I found a letter from grandma slipped under the door of my room.  At the time I thought this was a unique experience, but in later years I lerarned grandma had a habit of writing "letters of counsel" to her children and grandchildren as she saw the need.  Little did I know that I had been privileged to recieve a Letter from grandma.  In it she explained that she was aware of my choices to have sex outside of marriage and lovingly urged me to reconsider my path.  She assured me that she wouldn't tell anyone else, not even my mom or my grandfather. But she urged me to reconsider the lifestyle choices I was making.   I was horrified.  I rushed to explain to grandma.  "Grandma, is this because of the story I wrote?  Because that was just a story.. .I just made that up. . .I'm not actually, well you know. . .[awward pause].. .sexually active,"  Grandma would neither confirm nor deny that the story was why she believed I was fornicating, but it was clear that she wasn't buying my protestations of virginity either.  Nonetheless, she remained patient, kind, loving and firmly maintained her encouragement that I keep myself pure from this point on.

The funny thing is, I wasn't offended at all by grandma's Letter, her refusal to say whether the sexed-up story was motivation behind the letter, or her declining to believe my denials.  Instead, I was touched by her concern.  Maybe I would have felt differently if it was actually true or if our views on the issue had actually been different.  I'd like to hope that even if I had been sleeping around (something not entirely unappealing at the time, thus the reason for the story in the first place) I would still have felt as I do today, that this is one of my most precious memories of my grandma. I feel lucky to have recieved my Letter from grandma, and my only regret is that I don't still have it.

Grandma liked to work. It was one of the things she did almost to the very end. She played the organ.  She taught Sabbath School for many years and volunteered at the local SDA elementary school.  She made grape juice and had a garden that she worked with grandpa.  I remember when she had very long hair that she wore up most of the time,  I remember when she cut it short, and when she wore wigs. I remember her driving to the conference office in St.Croix every morning in their Volvo station wagon and the tan and brown uniforms she wore.  I remember that she gave Barbara and me $100 to spend at EPCOT.  Grandma had simple, childlike faith that had power like I've rarely seen.  When she prayed, mountains move.  She never ever doubted that God would listen and act on her behalf.

I look forward to seeing her again one day soon.  And very soon, if her prayers are answered (And her prayers were always answered)  She won't look like I remember--more like those pictures of the quiet, beautiful Chinese girl who caught Willie Thomson's eye (and will be catching it again!), but I'm sure she'll have that same twinkle in her eye,, that little smile tugging at her mouth and she'll say "I'm so glad you are here, grandson.  This is what I prayed for."

Grandma, at the age of 82, with two of her granddaughters, my sister Dawn and my cousin Yvette.  June 2006.
Grandma with one of her eight great-grandchildren, my oldest son.  July 2009.

With her great-grandchildren.  July 2013.

Grandma and me

There were two songs that I've always associated my grandparents and my life with them as a child.  The first "Lord in the Morning", I noted in my tribute to my grandparents in my 2006 Influences series on this blog.  The other, "The Day Thou Gavest", usually sung at the end of the Sabbath seems to hold an added depth and meaning with grandma's passing.  The first verse is below, modified ever so slightly:

The day Thou gavest, Lord, is ended,
The darkness falls at Thy behest
To Thee her morning hymns ascended
Thy praise shall hallow now her rest

Enid Agatha Yip Thomson
October 6, 1923-November 5, 2014

Aug 23, 2014

The Challenge

So today I did the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge in response to a challenge my good friend J Carlos who did it with his class of seventh graders after being challenged by a former student who in turn had been challenged by someone else.

The ice bucket challenge is a fad that is currently sweeping the nation.  It's a piece of genius awareness-building, fundraising tactic if you think about it.  It's cheap and easy to do, takes little time so anyone from the high and mighty to the low and unknown can participate.  It is visually entertaining to watch so it draws attention (half the fun is watching to see how various people respond to the shock of a bucket of icy water).  The challenge aspect multiplies it's spread through the various forms of social media.  All of this has come together in a viral movement that has done a phenomenal job raising awareness and money.  J informs me that 42 million dollars has been raised for ALS research this year in comparison to 1.8 million last year.  Those incredible results must have the boosters for various other charities wishing they'd thought of it first!

Which brings us to the inevitable backlash that comes with any successful undertaking today.  I remember seeing a video posted by a guy with ALS to all the ice bucket challenge haters and wondering how could anyone have an issue with something as innocent and helpful as this.  What would be the argument?  Well, it didn't take long for me to find out.  And as this fad reaches it's peak and then begins to fade I imagine the chorus of critics will only grow.

But, at least so far, I've not seen any criticism of this fad that holds water (pun intended).   I've seen one post that compares fat and happy Americans dousing themselves in ice water while a poor African child sips from a cup--the suggestion being that while Americans are wasting gallons of water on a silly ice bucket challenge millions go without clean water.  But the fact is you can do a lot more to conserve water by forgoing those long hot showers than you would by sanctimoniously declining the ice bucket challenge "on principle."  Save your dirty dish water to answer your bucket challenge if bothers you that much.  I heard about another critic, some celebrity I guess, making a video that suggested that our thoughts would be better directed towards the tragic events that have unfolded in Ferguson, Missouri in the wake of the police shooting of Michael Brown than on the ice bucket challenge.  Another video features an Australian newscaster highlighting the multiple needs and charities that need our support, and seems to suggest that it would be better to support those causes than to do the ice bucket challenge.  That makes no sense to me.  I would counter that most of us are able to hold more than one thought in our head at a time, and we can be concerned about racial injustice in this country, the situation with ISIS, the tragedy of human trafficking, the Ebola virus, spreading the Gospel, our own personal challenges and the challenges of those we love, and still have some concern and a few dollars to contribute towards a cause like ALS.

In the end, I don't think the haters really intend to say that the very real struggles sufferers of ALS have to face are unimportant, or are less important than the suffering of others, all though that is essentially what they are communicating.  I think, if they're being honest, most criticism comes from a place of smug annoyance at a trend that happens to be sweeping the nation.  It is not the cause, or the activity itself  but the fact that "everybody's doing it" that sticks in their craw and raises their ire.  And I get that.  But this isn't the Macarena or planking.  It's a fad that is actually helping people who need help.  And it is a fad.  In a month it'll be gone.  But the awareness it's created and the funds that it has raised will remain long after the ice has melted and we've all moved on the the next thing.

Jul 22, 2014

A Lesson in Grace

Grace is one of the words we like to throw around.  We feel like we understand what it means.  We say "but for the grace of God" and so on.  We say grace before meals.  We believe we are the beneficiaries of God's grace, and indeed we are.  Every day we experience grace extended to us, but more often than not we are insensible to it.

To actually feel what it is to be a recipient of grace is a truly humbling and beautiful experience.

To experience grace is to receive something that you did not earn.

To experience grace is to receive something that is a gift of great value but that is not your due.

To experience grace is to receive something that is so valuable  that you cannot possibly match it in kind with your own resources.  Any thank you that you can devise will be paltry in comparison to the magnitude of the gift you have received.

And so thankfully, to experience grace is to be given a gift with no strings attached, with no expectation of repayment.  All that is expected is that you will be grateful, that you will enjoy the gift, make good use of it, and when possible share the gift with others.

I, like all of us, have received grace from God.  But, it is in receiving grace from others, that I have come to better understand the grace God has shown me.

To the forty-three people that found they had the resources to extend a gift of grace to my family and me this past spring, I can only say a heartfelt thank you.

We had our "Columbus Support Team" over for lunch on Sabbath, May 10, 2014.  I think it was  late afternoon of Thursday, April  18 when we were relaxing at the Mandi  Asian Spa on the north end of Saipan that Babs and I started talking about this special group of hometown supporters:  Albert & Anastasia Bailey, Benin & Renee Lee, Marc & Lisa Lavalas, Ruth-Ann Thompson, and Pat Fountain (not pictured, unfortunately she couldn't make it to the meal).  As we looked out at the Philippine Sea from our perch in the Mandi's infinity pool we concluded that this group would really love visiting Saipan, and we decided if we ever, someday, somehow had the funds to do it, we'd surprise this entire group with a trip to Saipan  with us.  Of course we'd felt like in a sense we were taking all forty-three of our supporters with us to Saipan, through our regular Facebook status updates and photos.  But this group, unlike many of our donors, had never been to Saipan.  And as we thought about each of these special people we realized that they would especially love visiting our island.  While it's true that the grace they showed us cannot be repaid, in our dreams we imagined being able to truly share the Saipan experience with them.  That would be a thank you worthy of their generous support.  But in the meantime, we figured we'd bring a little Saipan back to them with a special island-themed lunch and sharing pictures and videos from our trip.  

Chamarro-style red rice.  Babs and I decided to do something we'd never done in all our eleven years living in Saipan, despite being  adventurous cooks and dedicated foodies:  We decided to cook local food.  This was a risky proposition of course, but one we could get away with since there wouldn't be any actual Saipanese in attendance to "ai adai" our humble first-time efforts. 


Grilled eggplant with coconut milk 

Chicken kelaguen (vegetarian chicken. . .heresy, I know)

Babs made a good Mid-western Adventist favorite, special K loaf just in case the island food was too much for our guests' palates, but in the end they loved everything we made, including my famed peach cobbler for dessert (which has nothing to Saipan food other than I made it all the time there and it became a favorite among my students there).  While it was a far cry from when our Saipanese friends do it back on the island, we thought it turned out pretty well for our first try.

Jul 12, 2014

The Uncertainty Principle

Putting the pieces of the puzzle together means being at peace with uncertainty.

Rich Mullins once said  "I think if we were given the scriptures it was not so that we could prove that we were right about everything. If we were given the scriptures it was to humble us into realizing that God is right and the rest of us are just guessing. Which is what makes them so much fun to read, especially if you are not a fundamentalist."

I always loved that quote, but I don't think I ever fully understood it until the other day during my morning devotions.   I've always had the sense that every time I read the Bible, I should be able to: 1) understand what the passage means  and 2) understand how it speaks to me and my situation.  When that doesn't happen I've tended to feel discouraged, like a spiritual failure.  I've wondered if my connection to God is as strong as it should be, and sometimes I allow doubt to creep in, assuming that if I can't figure out what this scripture means then perhaps it has no meaning at all.

Which is pretty arrogant when you think about it.  It's like when a students says "math is stupid" mainly because he doesn't understand it.  In the learning process, our ability to understand something says nothing but it's intrinsic value.  The same is true of the Bible.

The fact is that we won't always understand everything we read  (yes, even if we ask for the Holy Spirit's guidance. Sometimes it's the Holy Spirit's guidance that keeps us humble enough to say--hmmm, well I don't really understand that rather than forcing an interpretation or creating a self-serving lesson).  We don't always need to have an Answer, and we especially don't need to have a little lesson to take away from each time we open God's Word.

I've long felt it a mistake to treat the Bible as a history or science textbook (which is not to say that there isn't any history or even a little science in it), but more recently I've also come to be wary of the Bible as prescriptive "guide for living."  The whole "Biblical approach" to managing finances or  marriage or child-rearing or health feels a little suspect.  I'm just not sure that we're using the Bible correctly when we approach it that way.  To me the Christian Bible is a narrative that reveals the story of God and His interaction with His wayward creation.  It begins with God shrouded in mystery. The picture is often cloudy, unclear and maybe even inaccurate, but the narrative climaxes with the clearest picture we have of the character, nature, intentions, and heart of God towards us in the person of Jesus.  The Old Testament is primarily the back-story to Jesus, but it is a rich back- story, filled with flawed and colorful characters clumsily seeking after God, various dead-ends and misunderstandings, but also myriad hints of Jesus and foreshadowings of the Savior to come.

The primary purpose for reading the Bible is to be in the presence of God and to look for Jesus.  Sometimes in our meditation on Scripture it all seems to come together to create a clear picture.  Other times the pieces of the puzzle just don't seem to fit--and here as with a jigsaw puzzle, it's important not to force a fit when one isn't there. Just be patient.  Accept and even rejoice in the humble realization that we just don't have an answer now.  Have faith that just because I don't see the solution, doesn't mean that there isn't one.

Jul 11, 2014

The More Things Change. . .

Change is the one constant in Saipan (except when it comes to the weather, which is record-setting in it's sameness).  People, buisnesses, fortunes, and even the contours of the land itself come and go, like the ever shifting sands of the shore washed by the sea.  Naturally, a lot has changed in the five years since we left Saipan permanently. Some of the changes are good, some are sad, but either way Saipan felt very much the same when we returned if only because so much had changed.

The new school and the growth of the Adventist church in Saipan.
The Saipan Seventh-day Adventist School

I thought we would miss the old school.  I mean I knew the new campus would be great and all, but we're talking about 11 years we spent in that little building down in San Antonio. Certainly, in the months and weeks leading up to our trip, I could only picture myself speaking in that tiny little lunchroom chapel space. Surely we'd feel a pining for the old building, a nagging nostalgia for the old stomping grounds.  But, I found that I adjusted very quickly to the new school location.  Of course, it was already familiar.  I'd spent countless sports association meetings in one of the second floor classrooms and innumberable volleyball and basketball games out on the athletic fields back when the campus had been the home of Calvary Christian Academy.  But I was amazed by how quickly I acclimatized to the places as the current Saipan SDA School and not the former CCA.  It is truly a wonderful campus and we instantly felt at home.  So little was our longing for the tiny old campus that we never got around to visiting it until the night before we left!
The very impressive sign at the entrance to the campus.  Most of the following photos were taken on Sabbath, April 19 after church.  We drove by the campus specifically to get some proper photos of the place.

From the school parking lot, looking back towards the road

This photo was taken during the school week.  It was nice to see that they moved the playground Barbara purchased from the old campus to the new one.

Liah Wabol, one of my former students at Saipan SDA School, and now one of the pre-school teachers, with her students at recess.

The Adventist church seems to be finally beginning to flower after years of germination on what had seemed to be fairly unfriendly soil.  There are now three Adventist churches thriving on the island.  The old San Antonio school campus has been reborn as the home of the San Antonio Seventh-day Adventist Church.  And the Kagman church plant that began about seven years ago as the seed of an evangelistic campaign in the village has taken root.  Most of the members of the churches are still non-indigenous, but slowly but surely a local presence is growing in the membership.  It's no longer possible for all the church members to fit into the main sanctuary, the Central SDA Church--which says a lot.  The satellite churches are now a necessity and not a convenience.
The old school campus and the new church building in San Antonio village.  These pictures were taken on our quick visit to the property the night before we left Saipan.  Saturday, April 19, 2014.  The sign covers what in various years was the music room, the library, and classroom.  Below is the former principal's office.

A little bit editing and the school sign originally donated by the Saipan SDA School  8th grade class of 1993 became the sign for the church.

The sanctuary of the San Antonio Church.  This space formerly housed three classrooms.  When we first arrived in Saipan, two-thirds of this space was used for our weekly joint worship services. It is worship space once more (although this time the worshipers don't have to sit on the floor!)

The rise in tourism.
P.I.C. (Pacific Islands Club), Sunday, April 13, 2014.  We had a great time relaxing at one of our favorite resorts.  The place was packed.  At lunch, we actually had to wait for awhile before we could get a seat at Magellan's, P.I.C.'s main restaurant.

One thing that really did my heart good was to sense that there was finally a glimmer of good news for Saipan's economy which for so long has ranged between bad and horrible.  Tourism seems to be picking up.  We noticed it right away on our first night time drive through Garapan, the main tourist district.  The place was actually. . .bustling!  Shoppers were in the stores and spilling out on to the sidewalks.  Visitors were out and about taking in the nightlife.  It seemed a hopeful sign and made me glad.

The decline of San Antonio.
This was the former home of the Marianas Medical Center and the New World Market right across the street from the old SDA School campus in San Antonio.  Now everything is gone, except for the poker joint, which seems impervious to the surrounding decline.

While some parts of the island seem to be pulsing with new life with the uptick in tourism, others seem to have missed out on the good fortune.  Particularly sad, was the noticeable decline of our old neighborhood--San Antonio village on the southern end of the island. In the past I found most Saipan neighborhoods looked more or less the same, but this time there was an immediately noticeable difference from San Antonio and other parts of the island.  The boarded up shops, the abandoned factories, ghostly barracks that used to house the workers of the now-defunct garment industry.  Most places from the Marianas Medical Center to the Labor and Immigration offices to our favorite mom and pop shop, New World Market have packed up and moved away.   P.I.C. seems to be one of the few exceptions.  Though under new management, it still seems to be going strong.  I imagine the tourists rarely venture into the surrounding neighborhood though.
During our years on Saipan, this place was the beautiful Pacific Gardenia Hotel and Restaurant.  I had more than a few good breakfasts at this place in it's heyday.

The road to our old apartment in San Antonio.  The overgrown bushes and high grass on the right almost completely obscure the empty barracks and  defunct garment factory that once thrived here.

Our first apartment on Saipan (the door on the left).  And just a few steps away in the other building on the compound.  . .

.  . .our second apartment on Saipan (the screen door on the right).  The screen door and the awning are new additions since we moved away, as are the bars on the windows.  I guess break-ins became too commonplace and the bars were added as a deterrent.

Great new places to eat.
With former students Neischangapi Satur ('00) and Myla Capilitan ('02) at Saipan's hippest joint for a healthy crepe or shake, The Shack. Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Saipan has always had a disproportionately large number of great places to eat.  Since we left some new places have opened up.  The Shack is an ultra-bohemian place literally yards from the former Oleai Beach Bar & Grill.  They specialize in crepes and a variety of healthy, trendy offerings in a very laid back, friendly environment.  It is a must-visit on your Saipan culinary itinerary.  Shennanigans, located in the Garapan tourist district opened up mere months after we moved away.  They hired on the old Coffee Care chef and it shows in their delicious menu.  Babs and I splurged there on Thursday evening, May 17, our one date night of our trip after an afternoon at the Mandi Asian Spa.  It was perfect.

Other joints aren't new but  have moved and/or reinvented themselves.  Spicy Thai  Noodle House moved out of San Antonio to Garapan where the action is.  They've got spacious new digs in a tucked away corner across from American Memorial Park, but the food is every bit as good as it's always been.  You can't go wrong with lunch buffet and a Thai tea with milk.   The Naked Fish is now the new It place to eat on Saipan, with a new, larger location in Susupe near the World Resort.  We never made it there, unfortunately, but everyone talked like it was THE place to eat.

Though Ebisuya is closed, the Kimawari Japanese bakery in Garapan sells similar food: great bento lunches, the best Danish pastries, sushi.  It's not new, I don't think.  I know I went there at least once with Ken Pierson after a dive, but it was a regular stop for us on this trip, and so felt new to us.

Some great grub is gone.

 With the exception of Spicy Thai, all of my favorite restaurants in the whole world have closed. Or in the case of Coffee Care, is now a mere shell of its former self.  The place was virtually empty when we went with our friend and former SDA School parent Michelle Zayco (Bless her and her sweet daughter Danielle for being willing to eat there with us) and with good reason.  The menu was the same as it always was, but the food was barely palatable.  Barbara's favorite dish the sun-dried tomato pasta, was missing many of the purported ingredients: the ricotta cheese, the olives, and even the sun-dried tomatoes!  Our Saipan friends couldn't sympathize with us on Coffee Care's sad state; most of them hadn't been there in years.

The view is still delicious, but the same can no longer be said of the food.  The empty tables tell you that Coffe Care's days of glory are long past.

The people.
 There were many familiar faces: Virle and Joeie, the Piersons, Bev, the Lacortes, the Quinns, the Kosacks, Galvin former students like Nei, Myla, Michi, Kei, Kono, Joy, Liah and the Wabol clan and many others but not as many as before.  We imagine there will be even fewer when next we make it out to Saipan.  There were many new faces and we made some new friends:  Bill & Sarah Jane Shearer, Silvia and Tina, Sharon Nguyen among others.  But all of these new friends have either already left Saiipan or will be leaving the island shortly, and they add to the growing list of names, faces, and friendships that we associate with Saipan that are no longer there. Most have served there time and moved on.  We were disappointed to miss Manny and Kathleen Serrano who had moved to Guam just weeks before we arrived.  The Staffords had moved on about a year earlier. The majority of my former students have grown up and moved away.  And then there were those who we know we won't see again in Saipan or anywhere else this side of eternity.  Mr. Chinen and Ronnie Ringor both passed to their rest in the recent months before our visit.  It was nice to see Emer and the rest of the Chinen family, and to see Ronnie's sons, but the absence of these friends was keenly felt.
Lunch with the Kosacks at Capriciosas (another favorite restaurant that is still going strong). Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Joeie and "Lil' Mister" as we've taken to calling our youngest

The boy clowning around with Russ Quinn

Kanae and Russ Quinn with Elijah and Elephant Elephant.  The Quinn's treated us to delicious home cooked lunch at their beautiful home on Wednesday, April 16, 2014.

Former student Yuko Takayama ('08) stopped by for a visit

Our kids chillin' witht Pierson kids.  Can you believe we neglected to take a single picture with the adult Piersons!  They had us over for dinner Wednesday evening, April 16.

Virle and the her not-so-Little Feller.  Both our boys just loved, loved, loved being with Joeie and Virle throughout the week.  Having our guest lodging right next door to their apartment was such a treat for them.  Both boys would walk right next door whenever they could just to hang out with their favorite aunties.

Babs and I with Joeie, Sylvia, and Virle.  Meeting Silvia and Tina was sort of like meeting celebrities. We'd "known" them via Facebook for years. What a treat to finally meet them and find out they were every bit as cool as they seemed on social media!

Before Mama Sandy, before Ms. Palmer, before Ms.  Rose. . .there was Venus.  This was Elijah's first babysitter, Venus Zietzke.

The boys with Antonee and Girlie Aguilar.  The Aguilars now live in our old apartment, where this photo was taken.  Sabbath, April 19, 2014.

The friends that came to see us in the wee hours of Sunday morning, April 20.  With each departure this group grows smaller as more and more of them take their own Long Walks and close the chapter on Saipan in their lives.  I wonder how many of those in this picture will still be in Saipan by the next time we visit?

Saipan is life writ large.  Enjoy it the way it is now, with the people currently sharing your journey, because one thing is certain.  In far too short a time, the places and people you now know will be gone.  Other people and new places may take their place but like a tropical sunset, the unique today you are currently experiencing will only happen once and never again.  Make the most it!