Dec 31, 2015

The Ninth Annual Inspirations List: 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anastasia Bailey
I'm inspired by her compassionate friendship

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

Andrea Offei
I'm inspired by her academic accomplishments

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

Dawn Maycock Brothers
I'm inspired by her creative achievements

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

Jessica Peterson
I'm inspired by her commitment to excellence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dec 5, 2015

True Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If only such stories existed.. . .

Oh, wait.

They do.

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

It tells the truth, honestly.

Nov 14, 2015

Lord, In the Morning

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

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

I'm not a morning person.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nov 7, 2015

The Presence

There’s this song on Christian radio:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let us become more aware of Your presence

Let us experience the glory of Your goodness

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