As a teacher, I’ve evolved, a lot.
When I began, I lectured almost the entire period. I believed the information – the facts – were so important. I used to frown at almost every professional development day that involved some “expert” strong-arming historical moments to teach “lessons” to the children. I fancied myself barely a teacher, mostly historian.
History was my focus, and it was my firm intent to become an esteemed professor of history down the road. Teaching middle school kids was just a stop along the way.
I did finish a graduate degree in history, and when I came to the precipice of doctoral study, had a choice. See, I’d worked for that M.A. while we had only one child, my oldest, Noah. Even that was a strain on my wife, and me, and surely Noah. We have four children now. So, part of my decision was about pragmatic concerns regarding family life.
A second part was about money. It always is a factor, in every decision, and we didn’t have any.
A final part was that the intense study of history was killing it for me, just like studying music theory had stymied my love for music during an earlier college career (I’ve had many short stops along the way, and I’ve had a total of five majors and attended six colleges).
My focus in history is on the ancient past – the Greeks, Romans, Goths, Vandals, etc. What I found was how much wasn’t to be found. How much speculation goes into all of the ‘facts’ in books.
It’s logical, really. How many people think Trump is the worst president in the history of America? How many think he is the best? In this historical moment, right now, our country is split, almost completely in half.
In the past they weren’t worried about tolerance or political correctness, so the histories written are chock full of bias. No doubt, much was exaggerated, and even more left out. Sometimes the winners just burned every single thing to dust.
Archaeology helps, of course, but it is also based upon a good amount of speculation and speculative comparison to other speculations. So, here’s the bad news.
We don’t really know what happened; it’s all just educated guess.
At least, not in a telling of the story kind of way, where we can know exactly what they thought and felt.
At least not way back. One day, our time will be way back, and who knows what they’ll think of President Trump, or if anyone will even know he existed at all. Perhaps the USA will be erased or minimized to a blip on the historical radar.
Why am I dropping this bad news? You’re probably asking ‘what is the point, Blake?’
There are concrete facts. However, when it comes to the human condition, the brain, anthropology, sociology, political science, philosophy, religion, and yes, history, facts are uncertain, and almost always in flux. Even in the harder sciences like biology or chemistry, we sometimes find our previous notions were incorrect.
Now, I like facts, just like you. They give us a sense of order, norm.
But, and this is where I may aggravate a few folks, I think sometimes facts can become a diversion that is just as dangerous as a fling with our passions, pleasures, sins, lusts, gluttony, etc. Those things inure us to our pain and sorrow, essentially stifling our own soul so we don’t have to hurt. I’d argue that our modern day infatuation with “facts”, particularly of a political nature, is a form of clinging to an idol. (As an aside, the media and big tech are making a lot of money selling this idol.)
Here is what I believe. We know almost nothing. We need to feel safe and secure, though, and so we go searching for a harbor. Some people try to make money, while others seek fame. Some hope they’ll find happiness in the perfect mate or family or job. Material possessions or sexual deviance are other favorites. Facts are too.
When I teach now, I still sprinkle in quite a few of those important facts, 'cause, you know, they have some value after all.
More importantly, though, I try to remind the children they have souls.
And that life will only make any sense at all if they can come closer to understanding and embracing that deepest part of themselves, no matter how painful it might be.
And that many things, facts included, will be temptations to ignore that part and move on down the road, oblivious to pain or fulfillment. Don’t do it, I say.
I am a person of faith. I say this unabashedly, though most of my life is a struggle with doubt. I believe there is One who knows all the facts, and He also holds me close, if only I’ll be quiet, and hear, and feel.
Last year - 12/21/19 – was a Saturday, and we had just begun Winter Break. Boy, did our family need that time for recuperation.
My three oldest were playing basketball, so we were all over the place each night. My oldest, Noah, was playing in the local recreational league, and also for his middle school. In the local league, his team was playing well, and was destined for a number 2 seed in the end of season playoffs. Sadly, those playoff games were never played, and it was Noah’s last year.
The Pond Road Middle School Knights Boys team was 5-0, having just beaten our league champs in their own gym by 14 points. I saw perhaps the best pass I’ll ever see, in that game. Our point guard and captain (Lucas) took down a rebound and threw the length of the court to our big man (Evan), who had run the floor and was at the rim, for a layup. The entire play took about a second and a half. It was a masterpiece that would have made John Wooden proud. I was having the time of my life coaching all those young-bloods, who are excellent people as well as ballers.
My wife was prepping to serve as interim Vice Principle in an excellent NJ middle school, and also throwing holiday parties as Homeroom Mom for our middles. All this while showing and listing homes as a real estate agent and being the wonderful CEO of the Kilgore homestead.
My youngest, well, he was mostly just cute, but still busy as a bee.
All this activity was wrecking our Advent family meetings, though.
A few years earlier Jessica (my lovely bride) initiated an evening meeting for the family to sit together, read Advent scriptures, discuss, and pray. I cannot put words to how valuable this has been to reorient our family meditation on Christ our Savior in the time of Joy.
But last December was crazy, and we frequently had to double up days we missed because I was just arriving home from an away game, or the boys had late games, or Mom was out showing homes.
December 2020 - there are no hoops or holiday parties, and that is a real drag.
Not everything is bleak, though.
This year our family has not missed a single night to sit together, pray together, listen to our son Luke read the scriptures, and hear each of our boys marvel and pray.
We added something new this Advent and I am so grateful!
One of the great blessings of my childhood was to have learned the joy and belonging of communal family singing. It is something I think has begun to dwindle in the world. I’ve done poorly making it a part of our family tradition, but this year my boys are learning the joy of lifting their voices together in hope, desperation and joy.
We’ve started singing Christmas Carols – Silent Night, Away in the Manger, O Come All Ye Faithful, etc - and little Seth starts dancing around while we sing, and he even has some silly little songs of his own – “Christmas Day, Christmas Day, Santa Claus is here, Here’s a deer, there’s his deer, what’s in Santa’s Ear?” Who knows where he got that?
Seth (5) loves to pray, thanking God for the Gingerbread men, the Snowmen, the Star, the presents, and no prayer ever ends without an - “I really hope I get a green car that drives real fast”. Okay, okay, we get the hint.
There is another thing he says in all of his prayers-
“God, thank you for sending the Angels to take care of Baby Jesus, and thank you for keeping Him safe.”
His little child-mind is wondering about that tiny divine bundle, out in the cold of a manger, surrounded by large farm animals and visited by strangers. He worries about Baby Jesus, and his safety. He’s glad God thought to protect him with Angels.
During my last December in Oklahoma, I went to confession. I was really down on myself, full of doubt and self-loathing. My priest (Father George Eber for all you Tulsans) heard my confession and offered this guidance. Go, he said, find a living nativity. Look at the babe, and see yourself there, vulnerable and pure. That is how God sees you.
It is the time of the Nativity, a time of Joy. For those of us who believe in the teachings of Christianity, it is a wonder that defies our notions of power and majesty. If it is true, and I believe, God became helpless, innocent, lovely and small. He submitted himself to the cold of our fallen world.
We faithful (poor shepherds or wandering wise) bow at the animal trough, and peek over the hay at the cooing Creator, and hope against reason that we can be made whole.
Bless you all and may you enjoy the fullness of the Nativity Joy!
I have a son that will “cut off his nose to spite his face”.
One day, driving 3 of my 4 sons away from home for an outdoor adventure, my wife called. The missing son was wailing at the window. He’d desperately wanted to join us, to go out for some fun, but when I did not agree to all of his terms (he likes to bring “stuff” – tons of it, most that will be lost or destroyed), he adamantly refused to join us. I asked him if that was really what he wanted, and that we would be leaving shortly. He was resolute, even a little snarky.
Okay, I said. I’m sad you won’t join us.
We packed up, departed, and no sooner than we’d pulled out of the driveway, my little guy was beside himself, falling apart with regret.
He was willing to lose the most important things in negotiations to achieve his particular vision for the day.
This week, I started my unit on the fall of the Roman Republic. We learned about the origin myths of the Romans a few weeks back. Legendary Brutus (not the one who killed Caesar; his forebear), fed up with the abuses of the Tarquinian Kings, destroyed their power, and established the Republic as bulwark against future Tyranny.
We Americans tell a similar origin story. King George III of England was a tyrant, and we overthrew his power and that of the British Empire. We tried the Articles of Confederation for a while, but those pesky young states couldn’t keep from harming one another and getting in each other’s business. Hmm.
Anyhow, you know the story – the Constitution was drafted, and a great many checks and balances were inserted to keep any group or person from becoming too powerful. Like the Romans, we set ourselves up as a nation against Tyranny.
So, this week, we started the unit in school where I tell the students about the Gracchi, progressive reformer brothers who wanted to raise the level of the Roman poor. Sounds nice.
Unfortunately, they decided their cause was righteous enough they could change the rules, break with tradition, norms, and even the law.
Later on we’ll talk about Sulla, who led the reaction against those progressive changes. He was the leader of a group derisively called the optimates “the best” by the progressives (populares). They wanted to take Rome back to its glory days, like, you know, Make Rome Great Again.
Anyhow, long story short, the optimates and populares had a series of civil wars because both sides had heroes for leaders (the populares had Gaius Marius – a war hero who’d become consul despite not being part of the ruling Patrician clans) who put themselves above the law.
Wait, you might be thinking, I thought tyranny was bad. What about King George III or Tarquinius Superbus (what a name)!?
But, with Marius and Sulla, it was different, you know. They had a cause, a righteous one, and it was worth it to break with tradition to get their “platform” across, right? No.
Marius and Sulla were responsible for thousands of deaths and hundreds of straight up murders. Sulla actually posted the names of people he didn’t like in the forum, and they were open game for bounty hunters. This amounted to government hit contracts on his political enemies. There were times when a visit to the Forum (sort of like the town square in Rome) meant you’d see heads on spikes while you were shopping for fresh produce.
Ironically, Marius and Sulla did not die by the sword.
The damage they’d done to the Republic was irreparable, though.
A new generation of political supermen was coming. The famous orator Cicero ordered the execution of a man without trial. Another politician named Clodius waged a campaign of mob violence in the streets of Rome, assaulting and killing anyone who stood up to his policies.
Everyone knows Julius Caesar. He had everything. Good looks, popularity and a family name to boot. Add to that he’d conquered the Gauls, an age-old enemy of Rome. He was at the top. He was also in debt, constantly, so he needed to stay in power. He was marching home with his army, and the leaders got nervous, and they reminded him of tradition. He thought that would lead to his demise, so he broke the rules and started another civil war. He won, and made himself dictator, first for ten years, and later, for life. Wait, that sounds like a tyrant?
The descendent Brutus, surely obliged by his family tradition of resistance to tyranny, led the conspirators who stabbed Caesar to death. Problem solved, right?
Nope. It was too late. Another civil war started.
When I get to this part, my students moan about how ‘could those foolish Romans not see they were destroying themselves’ – yup.
This time, however, the winner – who took the name Caesar Augustus (the nephew of Julius) – was smart.
He pretended to honor tradition and gave the people bread and games. He also created a massive Praetorian Guard (think Secret Service, but with numbers like an army) who quietly eliminated anyone who spoke out. He hired the best writers, poets, playwrights, sculptors, etc. to portray him as hero and later, god. The idea of the Republic was dead, replaced by an Imperial Bureaucracy that was the embodiment of Tyranny.
When I was a youngster, my parents put me in a bible study group called 2:7, based upon a passage in Saint Paul’s letter to the Colossians. It reads:
“Rooted and built up in Him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.”
I think the study was good, but only one thing sticks in my mind. We read this story called “The Tyranny of the Urgent”. It was an essay explaining how what we think is important at this moment becomes so powerful that it forces us to ignore those things that are most vital to our lives, notably our meditation on God – “rooted and built up in Him.” Lord, have mercy!
I hate to write anything political, because I love people who disagree with me on a number of issues, right and left. I don’t want to wound them, and I don’t want to sever communication with brothers and sisters.
I think we are in a dangerous time, though, and the watchman who doesn’t sound the alarm has blood on his hands.
When I think of the Gracchi or Sulla, I think of politicians who were committed to their vision, to winning, at all costs. When I look at our political circus today, I see the same, and I’m worried and grieved.
If what you’re fighting for requires you to ignore tradition, break the rules, turn to violence as an answer or secede, perhaps you’ve been wrangled by the “tyranny of the urgent”.
The Late Roman Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, and the British Empire all had something in common. They believed that God was on their side. They’re all gone now, only history.
We like to think America will last forever, that it is invincible because it is “under God”. Only if we are vigilant, if we have a clear focus on what is vital, and can also perceive what tyrannies are lies. Only if we are rooted and built up in the Author of all that is good, first and only.
I will vote soon.
Over two decades now I’ve been teaching history to middle schoolers. This position compels a deep sense of obligation regarding current affairs. I watch far too many speeches, interviews, debates, etc. My mind is filled to overflowing with politics, and trust me, it’s not a blessing.
My vote will be an informed one, is what I’m trying to say. And all that information doesn’t make me happy about my options. It can become a heavy burden. I’ll get to lay it down on Tuesday.
We all do, and I believe we should.
Mostly I teach about civilizations people don’t think about anymore – Romans, Carthaginians, Etruscans, Mongols, Vandals, Gepids, Goths, Byzantines, Huns, Numidians, Greeks, Macedonians, Seleucids, and on and on. It’s a long list, and some of the folks now reading are starting to feel the itch of boredom.
I love that stuff, and find it satisfying to think about all those interesting people, and how they lived their lives. But their time has come and gone. Their governments failed, for a variety of reasons, and they are no more, so people don’t give them too much thought.
The entire history of the United States could fit in a thimble’s worth of some of the histories I’ve mentioned.
We’re young, but we are also audacious.
During most of the history of the world, only a very few people got to talk, let their voice be heard and have the expectation of change or progress. Most people just took what came, whether it was prosperity or suffering, and it was usually the latter.
We’ll soon make our choices known, not just for President, but for everything up and down the line. Most people assume this will continue. I pray it will. History suggests that speculation might be too hopeful. During our lifetime, though, we get to be heard, and I believe this is one of those noble things about the USA.
Laws are important, and so should be our choice of those leaders who might impact their shape. I’ve studied a lot about the racial divide in America, and one of the things that is striking is the entrenchment of bigotry following progressive changes to law meant to achieve equality.
This can be seen in the antebellum South’s fight to protect slavery even while it was being abolished worldwide. When they lost that fight (a literal one, with well over 600,000 deaths), the laws were changed, the Freedman’s Bureau was created to protect those who had been liberated, and for the first time in American history, you had representatives elected from the African-American community, in the South of all places.
These laws were righteous, but there was a problem.
Hearts hadn’t changed.
So, racists began to work, craftily undermining all of the good in those laws, turning some back (the Freedman’s Bureau was abandoned in 1872), ignoring many with impunity, and reversing some by changing the rules. (Here is an article on a political coup that occurred in Wilmington, NC, after which major efforts were put in place to restrict voter rights for African-Americans. Here is another.).
ONE HUNDRED YEARS after abolition, the civil rights movement finally broke the grip of segregation, legally. The NAACP was founded principally as a legal foundation to dismantle discriminatory, racist laws and strive for racial equality under law. It had many great victories.
In 2008, we chose our first African-American president. It was a moment of the seemingly absolute conquest of racism in America. If you watched the news at all during this pandemic, you’ve seen this is not the case (even though some might like to pretend).
This Tuesday we will choose (some of you lucky dogs already laid down your burden early, perhaps at the mailbox), and we should do so as wisely as we can.
Some will choose the direction you believe will best protect the unborn, freedom of religion, expression, the right protect yourselves, and traditional biblical definitions of persons and marriage.
Others will choose a direction you believe will best protect those with preexisting conditions, marginalized and often abused populations, immigrants and people of color, the labor classes or indebted.
Make your choice, in good conscience, with the betterment of others and reverence for God in mind. Remember, though, that unless hearts change, any victory is temporary, and perhaps will lead to greater entrenchment, intensifying conflict.
I read some Jim Harrison (author of Legends of the Fall) this week, and he seems to have a keen grip on how we batter one another through prejudice. One of his best characters, named Brown Dog, uttered this gem – “As Grandpa used to say, it is not in the nature of people to understand each other.”
Then, after taking a selfie or just putting that "I voted" sticker on your shirt, walk out and love your neighbor - whether they are black or white or rich or poor or gay or straight or young or old or red or blue. We only got one hope for things to really get better, whether laws are good or evil. Love your neighbor.
Love conquers all.
One of my social media friends recently took an informal poll, asking if anyone had been swayed by political posts. I did not post my response, which makes me a poor online friend, I guess, but I did think about what I’d write. I also read the responses.
There were several typical snarky responses, of course. Sadly, my social media voice has not always been completely free of sarcasm and condescension. Please forgive me.
Most people in the poll suggested that no opinions really change, and I think that is probably true. Much of the attempted persuasion on social media feels sort of like an insulting carpet-bombing campaign. It conjures the fight or flight in us.
I’m a fighter, so I spend a lot of time typing, and then, by the grace of God, deleting some really jazzy replies.
One fellow observed that when you challenge people with information that dislodges them so violently from their existing world view, you’ve actually harmed them and your argument, if you are not, then, willing to walk along beside them in their disruption and virulent emotion. What wisdom!
When I was a kid in the Southern Baptist Church, whose stated goal is evangelism of the world, there were always mission trips to far off places. I went on a number of these, and I think they are very important, and good. It struck me, though, that some of that zeal might be better spent at home, in our city, with our neighbors.
Loving your neighbor can be difficult, though. Loving your husband or wife or children, your siblings or in-laws, can be a trial. There is no escaping their faults or annoying behaviors, and they can’t escape yours.
One of the most upsetting trends I see today is the rise of cancel culture.
There is something to be said about quieting reception of voices you know bring out your worst. There is something to be said for not answering fools according to their folly.
Cancel culture is more insidious, though. It devalues not only the errors, misjudgments or blatant lies that people tell. It suggests that they, because of their faults, no longer matter.
It commands acquiescence, backed by threat of the deletion of self.
When Saint Paul the Apostle wrote the church in Galatia, he was addressing two groups in conflict over who was actually living the Christian life well. One group was particularly concerned with following all of the old rules, and there was some cancelling going on.
Here is some wisdom in that letter for us:
“Brethren, if someone is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But let each one examine his own work, and then he will have rejoicing in himself alone, and not in another. For each one shall bear his own load.”
When I was younger, I thought (perhaps I was taught) that the temptation to worry about in the passage above was falling into the specific sin of the overtaken one. The context, however, suggests the temptation is actually to self-righteousness, which is perhaps the greatest threat any of us will face concerning the salvation of our souls.
On its face the text above also seems contradictory. Early it says “bear one another’s burdens” but it ends with the admonishment that “each one shall bear his own load.”
I believe this seeming contradiction is a call to mindfulness of one’s own failings, weaknesses, tendencies to be petty or snarky or mean, first. And then, only goodwill to those around us, an urgency to lift a finger to help them in any way you can, but not with patronizing condescension or insult. It says that if we feel we have the wisdom (if we consider ourselves among “those who are spiritual”) to address another’s failings, wrong perspectives, indulgence of evil systems or practices, we must do so with gentleness.
I believe in the mercy of God, and that it should be at the core of our behavior toward all of our neighbors.
Jesus smashed the money-changers tables in the temple, because he saw how humble, believing pilgrims were being scandalized.
Righteous anger - protest - is necessary.
However, I think we sometimes get the idea that Jesus did not care for the Pharisees, Scribes, Teachers of the Law, and that he only really valued shepherds and fishermen, ostracized tax collectors and sinful prostitutes.
If you look closely, though, he was showing mercy for the arrogant ones, too, over and over. His first sermon, given as a child, was a dazzling performance for the leaders in the temple. The gospels are full of him entertaining the questions of temple rulers, and trying to rescue them from pride.
We must share one another’s burdens, whatever they may be. This burden sharing must apply to all our neighbors, whether they be those oppressed by crooked and degrading systems or whether they profit from the illusion that everything is fair.
We all need mercy.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus commanded the most revolutionary idea ever – “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”
It is said that Saint Paisios of Mount Athos prayed earnestly for the repentance of Satan and his demons. If nothing else, that is a radical testament to his unwavering belief in the mercy of God.
Recently, I had a long DM exchange with a dear friend, about a matter on which we disagreed. I’m not sure I changed his mind, and while he certainly gave me richer comprehension of his perspective, I wouldn’t say it changed my mind. Yet, the discussion was a deep blessing, because at the heart of it was our love and respect for one another, and that made the conversation fruitful.
Saint James, the brother of Christ, who was thrown from a roof to a martyr’s death because he refused to cancel certain people, wrote for us this important warning:
“Judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.”
If we are to succeed this academic year, it will take teamwork, which requires humility and wisdom.
I will begin teaching 138 (for now) students tomorrow at 7:45am. Sitting in my empty classroom, behind a camera, I’ll look out to students on screens in their homes. This tenuous connection will be held together (hopefully) via Zoom. We will do this for approximately five weeks and then begin hybrid integration back into the physical learning space, for some. A portion of my students will remain distance learners all year.
This will be year 23 for me, and it feels like starting over. I remember when I was the youngster on my team at James Madison Middle in Tulsa, OK, with Ms. Wright, Ms. Washington, Ms. Wilkins and Dr. Colbert. They mothered and protected and taught me how to teach, and I am forever grateful. Their wisdom and example has proved invaluable.
Now I’m getting to be one of the old-timers, but I feel more like a newbie than ever.
I’m most proficient in two areas within my field. First, I strive to create an environment of order and intellectual challenge for my students, and they always know I care. Second, I’ve deeply studied history, and know how to connect it to their lives.
I have weaknesses too.
This year, one of those, my lack of technological savvy, is going to be right up front. This will be the thing my students get to see every day, and this is one of the reasons I need humility. When leading, we often feel the need to play the role of all-knowing expert.
We wonder if our charges - students, athletes, employees or parishioners - will begin to doubt us, and wander away from our group goals, so we contemplate trying to hold onto a facade of perfect proficiency.
It’s a compelling temptation, but I think it will cause us to fail.
So, I’ve decided to do what I’ve tried to do down through the years. When I don’t know something, I admit it, and ask somebody who does. In many cases, this year, those experts will be my students, who’ve grown up connected to tech.
They have something to teach us, too, and not just about tech.
One of the greatest blessings of the teaching profession is how much we are able to learn from our brilliant little idealists and cynics.
After we went virtual last semester, I had one lovely young student who would occasionally send emails gently explaining how my method of delivery in google classroom had extra steps that were confusing and unnecessary. When you get that message, there is a part of your nature that resists, wants to assert authority.
I beg my fellow teachers, and also parents, to pause and listen. For me, this year, I’ll start out inviting counsel from all my little tech whizzes. I’ll remind them that while I bring skills they need, their role is also vital , for me and for their peers.
We need one another.
This academic year will be memorable, and it will be difficult. I’m hopeful it will also give us a unique opportunity for meaningful connection, service, growth and wisdom.
There is a proverb that says “Pride leads to disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.” Saint James, the brother of Christ, reiterates this, asking “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.”
It’s circular. Wisdom and humility reinforce one another.
Pride and foolishness do too.
We’re in a troubling time, not only because of COVID, but also because so many of us get dragged into political shouting matches filled with vanity, scorn and bitterness. It is wearying, and it wounds. Sometimes, there are new wounds opened up on top of old ones.
We need the peace that passes understanding right now.
I pray a blessing on all educators and students and parents of students (also now educators) beginning this extraordinary year. Let us love, grant mercy, and listen with patience. Ultimately, grant that we may learn humility and wisdom from one another, finding peace for our souls.
A few years back I wrote a short essay called “Last Time-Next Time” about encountering memories of my father after his death.
I hope you’ll take the time to read that here, as it relates to this essay.
A month ago I was in Tulsa, visiting family, and one day we decided to meet up for barbeque at a place called Albert G’s. Taking corners and reading signs, I started driving slow, awakened incrementally to the fact that the last time I ate there was with my father, about twenty years before. Wow!
There was a period of around two years when I would work for my Pops all day on Thursday’s and Fridays, and then the closing shift afterwards at Hideaway Pizza. Workdays started about 6 am and ran until about midnight, from dark to dark.
I’d only be off my feet when Pops would call for a lunch break, his treat. Such moments of respite are a precious treasure to the weary laborer, I promise.
Anyhow, when Dad and I ate at Albert G’s two decades ago, it was in a lot different than here in 2020. They’d bought an old gas station and put picnic tables out front where the gas tanks used to be, under the coverings.
Pops was always concerned about us offending others with our peculiar landscaper’s aroma, so such an outdoor-in the blazing heat of the day-hey, at least that covering kept us out of direct sunlight-kind of place was a reasonable choice, and one things for sure, the food was filling and tasty.
So, back to 2020, I’m entering ol’ Albert G’s and the good thing is they’ve built around the picnic tables and now we’re inside, with AC! (On a side note, every time we travel back to OK, it lays out the welcome mat – 100+ temperatures almost every day.)
So I’m sitting down with my Mom and sister and wife and kids and nephew and nieces, and my soul is travelling back to that moment, late 90s/early 2000s, sitting on the bench (out in the heat), and suddenly, the memory hits me like a brick in my chest.
I’d been caught up with a girl back then, for a number of years. I was hoping hard, and grieving hard, because it wasn’t turning out like I thought, never would, but I was holding on anyway.
Sometimes it felt like a million pounds were sitting on my soul, and I might fall apart at any moment.
Pops was a blessing and a lifeline for me during that valley. I’d confess to him my sorrow, and he cared, tried his best to give me succor. His love and companionship helped get me through. As I remembered that blistering day twenty years earlier, those two elements snuggled up tight in that memory – my heartbreak and my dad’s presence and his love.
Summer of 2020 at Albert G’s – my heart was healed, blessed beyond imagining. I looked across the table at my wife, a lovely, loyal, smart and tough bride, and also at the four unique and wondrous sons she gave me. They were all laughing and talking, lots of smiles and silly talk. What a joy!
The heartbreak is gone, a memory that can barely touch me, certainly doesn’t weigh me down any longer. One thing didn’t change was the food – it’s still lip-smacking good.
My mom was there, too, and I love her, and I’m grateful. But, Pops wasn't there with us in the flesh.
He’s been gone for too long, and the weight of his loss is heavy. Only my eldest son Noah ever met him, and he was only two. There is heartbreak in that, too.
Right now, this pandemic is like, a major drag. Lord willing, it will pass, and we’ll be back to ballgames and shows, dinners and parties, at ease among the many. When it finally leaves us, we’ll rightly rejoice.
It’s not all bad, though.
I’ve been side by side with my nuclear family (some might suggest this is not-so-great) more than I ever have been. One day, when our nest is empty, I’ll ponder these days with fondness.
I doubt we’ll ever see this much time with family again.
No matter where you are or when, there are some things that are trials, and there are other things that bless. Hold on to the good. When it changes, when this chapter of your life ends, there will be losses and gains, always.
In 2000 I had a broken heart, but I was also carried by my dad. Today, my heart is full, but I can’t see my Pops, shake his hand, hug his neck, or hear his voice.
Don’t wait for your life to be perfect. It never will be. Instead, practice gratitude, and hold on to hope. These are the anecdotes to our sorrows.
Hold on to the good.
“Now concerning things offered to idols: We know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies.”
-1 Corinthians 8:1
Today we are having two really big discussions, with real consequences on either side.
Sickness and economic ruin can both devastate and kill. Also, oppression debilitates and wounds whether it is done in the shadows or in the light, from the left or from the right.
So - people are passionate, willing to push a little harder to make the other side see.
The debate in Corinth was also significant. Each side had important values they were fighting for. Reverence for God on one side, faith in the wholeness of sanctification on the other.
Saint Paul was a theologian at heart (remember he persecuted those who didn’t agree with his view; he was smiling at the murder of Saint Stephen – as a side note – this would have him cancelled today, hmm?), but God taught him a better way.
In his letter to the Corinthians the Evangelist has given us the secret to navigating the problem of intolerable disagreements.
There are arguments, reasons, facts, evidence, spirits of the age, etc. – Knowledge. But more importantly there are people, who we must love.
It might be said like this:
We are fallen creatures, and this affects how we see the world, because our perspective here in time and on earth is limited. This can and will lead us into many and endless controversies that will make us proud in ourselves but deprive of us life, which comes from our connection to others. Love is the anecdote, for me and for them.
Some of the things that I’ve gotten hooked by in recent years are all the little memes and lessons about introverts. My mom has since elaborated some of that by referring me to the enneagram categories. We all have tendencies, and there is some comfort in understanding our strengths and weaknesses.
I love visiting my family in OK. I need it, and it is always enriching. Yet, I am one of those introverts who needs to power up in solitude. I have four sons, so this is hard even when I’m home, but on the road for nearly three weeks, it feels nearly impossible. Nevertheless, I grind for the fam. One of those family members I was blessed to see was my grandmother, MaMa.
As an aside, I just want to loudly declare how very blessed and grateful I am that Ellen Gartrelle Vanderslice is my grandmother! At nearly 101 years old, she is still teaching me the most important lessons.
But not with words, particularly.
It’s about the way she lives.
We were in Tulsa over the last several weeks, and we visited MaMa several times. The facility where she lives was offering porch visits at the time. We’ve also had a couple of recent phone conversations.
Each of these visits is laborious.
See, MaMa’s short term memory is failing, almost completely. During a one hour visit, she will ask the same questions at least three or four times. The whole process is made more difficult because she has lost most of her vision and hearing. This requires repetition. It also requires one to think carefully about the most clear and succinct way to address any topic (another side lesson).
The long and short is that unless we can get MaMa into a good rut of an old memory that still holds (she has some wondrous stories and has written a multitude of songs she might suddenly sing, what a joy!), we will be painstakingly covering the same ground, over and over and over.
It is mentally trying at times for us, and we still retain our vision, hearing, and memories.
MaMa lacks these things, but she is like a Rottweiler about hearing and connecting to each word. Sometimes, once a word or phrase has been repeated multiple times without the connection being made, someone might say, “Oh, never mind, MaMa, it wasn’t that important.” She will then show a slight but sufficient amount of resolve to compel you to repeat just one more time.
It is important to her to be in the moment, present with you, her grandchild, or daughter, or great-grandchild, her neighbor or her nurse. A human being, a soul.
MaMa loves in each moment. It is all that is available to her now (sadly, many enter that phase simply to withdraw and die), but if my memory serves me well, this is how she always loved.
I interviewed my grandmother about her life several years ago. She has also written a short memoir. One thing that is certain is that MaMa has lived an interesting life. When I was a younger man, interested in being a “revolutionary”, I wondered at my grandmother’s wit and spirit and how she could be so mellow, so content, whatever the circumstances. I know the answer now. She had knowledge, sure, but more important, she purposed to love.
During these recent visits with my grandmother, I have felt a radiating goodness around my heart, a sort of supernatural high that is unexplainable. I mean, I’m saying the same words and information over and over. I usually have to delve into some deep, philosophical discussion that ambles over and through a hundred different lanes of thought to feel satisfied. Here I am, telling the names and ages of my sons, what I teach, etc. over and over, and the ecstatic glow in my heart is beyond explanation.
I believe it is love.
My grandmother, trapped in the dark cave of a dying body which has already lost sight and hearing, is fighting for each second of connection with another human.
My grandmother, trapped in the dark cave of a dying body which has already lost sight and hearing (she can’t read, watch Netflix, look at her phone – I mean there is almost no outside stimuli that can distract her), is fighting for each second of connection with another human. Simply, with joy and deep gratitude.
And she knows it’s temporal. She’s losing her faculties, and mentions it enough in the discussion to demonstrate that while she is not fixated and depressed, she is aware. When MaMa fights to be present, to hear you and love you, she already knows it will not last, that it is only for now, this moment, and will be gone in two or three minutes. She knows this, and she still fights to hold you for an instant, to hear the flame of another soul.
I am overwhelmed at MaMa’s simple and extraordinary wisdom, and wonder how I am so blind.
Right now there are people you love deeply who hold a different view on BLM or Covid. You have knowledge, and so do they. Beyond that, they are people, God’s children, in need of love, connection, and so do you. In the grand scheme of things, we only have a few moments. MaMa knows that, but we tend to forget.
Lord, have mercy.
My eldest son loves basketball like his pops. He’s had an uphill battle thus far, though, because, like his father, he's a late bloomer. He has almost universally been the smallest, thinnest kid on the court, and basketball is not a small man’s game.
But, he’s worked and worked, and through the years he’s developed a pretty reliable jump shot, and this keeps him in the hunt.
During our recent forced attempt at distance learning (I really missed seeing my students each day), I would conduct my classes from my basement office. This required me to block out the constant thundering herd of buffalo (my four sons) that was stampeding on the other side of my ceiling.
Another weird thing was happening. Every so often I would hear the voice of a grown man in the room above. I would think, hmm, do we have some kind of repairman here? I would sit still and listen – wow, it sounded oddly like my own voice, bellowing and deep. Then it would dawn on me that it was voice of my boy, my first baby, Noah.
He now has the voice of a man. Suddenly, it seems.
I am sad for this precious boy. Adolescents want nothing so much as to spread their wings, to leave the nest and find their strength. Our son, like so many other boys and girls becoming young men and women, has been quarantined with their "boring" parents and "annoying" siblings. They can’t see their friends. They feel caged, and this breeds some aggressive behavior.
So, this morning, my wife and I had a conversation with Noah about the benefits of a strong voice. I love to sing, and have done so many times before audiences big and small. When I control my voice just right, I can jovially subdue a classroom of radiant and unruly children in an instant. If I want to, I can induce real fear with my voice. It is powerful, and for this I am grateful. It has made certain parts of my life more rewarding and more productive.
Yet, such raw vocal power can also be harmful. Regretfully, there are a number of people I’ve harmed with the power and tone of my voice. I am so very sorry. My son, a captive fourteen year old who’s just had his voice drop an octave and round out like a bass drum, has not yet found control of his song, and in such close quarters, this can be trying.
Noah’s school load was heavy (a bright kid-he was an 8th grader in classes with 9th and 10th graders) and he was almost constantly at a desk these last three months. This means he wasn’t in front of a hoop as much as he should have been, and particularly while he was growing several inches and putting on twenty pounds. He’s stronger now, but it’s got his shot out of whack.
This past year my school basketball team was very good, nearly perfect. A great part of that success was due to size. I had several kids that grew, a lot. Two of my 8th graders were my height (6’1). Yet, part of their success was how tenaciously they worked through the awkwardness of their growth. They were able to find the way to new strength and new advantages, while they changed.
We are all going through something dramatic. It is ongoing. Very few of us have experienced anything quite like this before. Some of our old ways and comforts have gone, perhaps for good. We are being changed, and that can be extremely awkward, even painful. We are being compelled to learn new things, new ways.
If my son learns to control his voice, then he will know power. If he does not, he will bring pain. If he works on his hoops game while he grows, he will have a great chance to harness his potential. If he does not, then the hunt to play competitively will diminish.
Here is a moment, for all of us, of transition. Will we grow, be transformed into light and strength, or will we petrify and wither?
My first planting of vegetables was a fail. They froze and died. Yesterday, I saw these plump green arrivals from my second planting, the first fruits of something new and vibrant.
Father’s day was two days ago, and I was without my pops. Those days always make me wonder if I’m becoming all I need to be. Maybe you know the feeling.
If you have been deteriorating or perhaps stagnating during this trial, there is good news. You may be stumbling through, awkwardly trying to understand what you are to be. Press on, friend. You may yet learn how to fly.
Many of my friends have been posting “facts.”
We all deeply long for certainties, especially when we want comfort, protection from uncertainties, and expressly when those worries are about our own deeply held but fearful frailties and perhaps, guilt.
This is my twenty-second year of teaching. Wow, does that make me feel old, but nevertheless, it’s true. I’m a grizzled veteran in the teaching profession. And one of the things all us old-timer teachers have experienced is a never-ending cycle of new-fangled and “data-driven” silver bullets.
(Incidentally, I come from a family of teachers – my parents were both teachers; so was my 100+ MaMa – they all echo this reality – it is old).
And while it is true that some specialists, book authors, administrators, state education bureaucrats and standardized test creating CEOs swear by the conclusiveness of their “facts”, most teachers recognize in their souls and behold in the eyes of their individual young students that such concrete boxes fail to provide any foregone conclusions.
I’m working, ever so slowly, on the outline of a book on teaching. Its working title is “Don’t Forget They Have Souls: The Inadequacy of Data-Driven Education.” Lord willing, I’ll finish my rebuttal against the Standardized Testing Industrial Complex.
The reliance on data infiltrates every part of our lives, even entertainment. How about this - ask a Philadelphia Eagles or Phillies fan what they think about the data-driven coaching of Chip Kelly or Gabe Kapler. (Good luck, SoCal)
Atheists and other anti-believers hold fast to science and its facts, and regard faith as foolishness.
All of you out there who hold to some kind of faith are simpletons, they say. Blind, because you don’t have the facts. You cannot prove in a universal way (of course we all have personal anecdotes) that your faith system is real, beyond the shadow of a doubt.
The scribes and teachers of the law that encountered Jesus were able to site their facts, too. They called him false Messiah, because his actions defied their understanding (facts?) of scripture.
Today, religious fundamentalists tell us we must act a certain way, speak a certain way, must engage in some activities and must refrain from others. If not, we have no place in the Kingdom of Heaven. They have their facts, too.
Doubt is scary.
Variables, unknowns, left-outs (sometimes those who compile data have something to hide) – there is a lot that goes into a complete picture. I wonder sometimes if I’ll ever have an exact understanding of anything at all during my lifetime.
So, when we see mass mourning and protest (some of it violent/I believe the majority of the violence is that of opportunists and criminals using the protest as cover) about a cycle of destruction that traces its roots to the 1600s-a cycle of systematic degradation of enslaved people become freedmen become segregated and second-class-and-barely citizens who could be lynched at the whim of local and powerful racist leaders, who had to become peaceful marchers beaten and attacked by dogs and sprayed with fire hoses and teargas, who finally became theoretically integrated but still barred from the boardroom people, who at last got to send forth a token, but only if he (and much later she) would say and champion agreed upon topics, become in recent years tolerated folk, and when we finally see almost every single blessed black brother and sister that we know speak in unity and sorrow, it fills us with dread, because our souls know something heavy and desolate has gone down here in America.
So, some of us start searching for “facts” we can use to obscure and minimize the pain in the other, certainly, but also, in our own souls. We are, indeed, one human race. We are all God’s children. And when any child of God suffers, I believe the Lord grieves.
We should, too.