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.