Monday, August 7, 2017

MORNING (althought late in the afternoon) Joe: Yokefellows

The second of three sermons (edited for my blog), preached at Fremont United Methodist Church, Portland, Oregon, 7/23/17. This one is based on Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30.

My son and I recently traveled in northern New Mexico and parts of the Oklahoma Panhandle in search of my mother’s family history. It was a great trip through beautiful high desert country, and we actually found the marked graves of my great grandfather, William O’Donnell Cochran, his wife, Nancy, and a couple of my granduncles, Achilles and Doc. They are buried in Kenton, in OK, home to about 18 folks—but once a thriving ranching community where my great grandfather and grandfather lived, worked, raised horses and cattle, and tilled the earth. Thanks to the records of the Bureau of Land Management, we found their homestead. Along the way we visited a few museums, searching for information; one common display in those museums is a yoke. I always knew what a yoke was but I guess I never realized how important they were. Most of our trip paralleled, crossed and re-crossed, the Santa Fe Trail—still visible to the eye. My vision of the west was formed largely by Hollywood’s cowboys and Indians. Contrary to that vision of horse drawn Conestoga wagons racing away from the bad guys, most of the wagons were pulled by oxen.

Have you ever looked at or touched a yoke? We used to have one in a meditation garden where I work. A lovely symbol, but they don’t look very comfortable; they are heavy and many are quite rough. But the technology is really simple. A carved, contoured beam that fits behind the ox horns laid over the necks of oxen. There are actually several different kinds of yoke but the one we are most familiar with looks like this. They have two U-shaped attachments that fit around the necks of a team of oxen or other draft animals, with a central ring for hitching the team to a cart, plow, or other load.

In one sense, the early history of the US, perhaps even the world, can be linked to this technology. Yokes were pervasive in Jesus’ day; while in this Matthew passage, Jesus is speaking metaphorically, no one in Jesus’ crowd needed a photograph. Most of his listeners understood what one was and how it worked. But Jesus’ listeners also understood yoke in an oppressive way—the yoke of slavery and oppression. In the Bible yoke is usually a metaphor for slavery and the hardships people must bear. When the yoke of bondage or slavery became severe, it is termed “a yoke of iron upon your neck” (Deut 28:48). Sometimes the term is used to describe the burden of a person’s sin and its punishment: “My transgressions were bound into a yoke; by his hand they were fastened together; they were set upon my neck” (Lam 1:14).

But they would also have understood it in terms of liberation and hope—at least a broken yoke. Isaiah states that the Messiah will break “the yoke of his burden” (Isa 9:4) for all. “The yoke will be destroyed from your neck” (Isa 10:27). When God delivered Israel from Egypt, God said, “I have broken the bars of your yoke and made you walk erect” (Lev 26:13).

So, what’s going on here? What’s Jesus doing? In the early part of this reading—and in the Matthew passage from two weeks ago—Jesus is discipling his followers about living faithfully in a complicated, often perplexing and oppressive world:

“But to what will I compare this generation?” He asks. “It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,

‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not mourn.’

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’”

Some suggest that Jesus seems perplexed here. They rejected John the Baptist and are rejecting him—two very different men who went about ministry in very different ways. He seems to ask, How will they hear that God wants us to live differently? To live with gentleness and humility. I like this idea that Jesus might have been genuinely perplexed. Certainly, he seems sad and maybe even a little or a lot frustrated.

But we might also paraphrase these words this way: You’re never going to make everyone happy—no matter how hard you try. Then, he says, again my paraphrase, if this is how it is, what can be done about it? How can we live as disciples in this setting? Well, his first answer is: Stay focused: “Remember who I am and stay focused on that”: I am God’s son and God loves me, and I reveal God to you. I reveal to you as loving parent.”

Typically, Jesus turns the metaphor of work, bondage, and oppression upside down and says, “Take my yoke.” At first glance, not a pleasant offer and one that begs the question: What kind of yoke are we offered? He describes it for us: it will provide rest; it is a teaching yoke—yoked to Jesus we will learn what we need to know to live in the world. What does this teach us about Jesus? We need to consider that there are two sides to this yoke. We are not only yoked to him; he is yoked with us. Jesus is not driving the oxen; Jesus is not walking alongside the oxen, goading us on; Jesus is not pulling us forward by a ring through our noses; Jesus is yoked with us. He not only wants to be with us, he wants to be joined with us, which is why St. Clement called this “the yoke of grace.” So, to be yoked with Jesus is to be in relationship with him but this also begs a question: Who is this Jesus we are yoked with? Everything hinges on this question. Who is this Jesus with whom we are to be yoked?

At the heart of both the health and unhealth of all of us—and the church—is the image of Jesus we carry in our hearts. Who Jesus is; how Jesus relates and cares; our unhealthy and non-biblical pictures of Jesus—each of these contributes to our own sense of esteem, how we relate to others, and how we relate to God. If we are yoked with a Jesus who is judging, angry, and finger pointing, our yoke will be anything but easy and light. If our view of Jesus is of one who is excited to be with us, who is, welcoming, accepting, encouraging, compassionate, embracing, and yes, lovingly confronting Jesus, then our lives and our ministry together will be connected, healthy, compassionate, and open to God and others.

This yoke means this: We are not alone; we don’t have to live alone; we don't have to work alone; we don’t have to do anything by our own strength. It is grace. It also tells us something about the kind of relationship we are invited into because, Jesus says, my yoke is easy [good, helpful, kind, profitable], and my burden is light. A well-made yoke, evenly distributes the burden; there is an equality about a yoke; each ox is worthy and each ox is necessary and each ox eases the burden of the other.

I grew up in a church where we sang the following with some regularity; I wonder now how true it was for those folks and how true it is for me. (It was written by D. S. Warner and published in 1893.)

The words matter and I remember the music as light and fetching:

I’ve found my Lord and He is mine,
He won me by His love;
I’ll serve Him all my years of time,
And dwell with Him above.

His yoke is easy, His burden is light,
I’ve found it so, I’ve found it so;
His service is my sweetest delight,
His blessings ever flow.

No other Lord but Christ I know,
I walk with Him alone;
His streams of love forever flow,
Within my heart His throne.

He’s dearer to my heart than life,
He found me lost in sin;
He calmed the sea of inward strife,
And bade me come to Him.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

First Cup: "Fighting Words"

“Fighting Words” or “Finders Losers; Losers Keepers”
Matthew 10:24-39

Recently in conversation with my friend, Bill Dobrenen, he asked me why I’d quit blogging. Well, I said, hadn’t really quit; I just sort of stopped. But the real reason is that I am basically a dialogical person. I love being with people and I love conversation—and, nearly completely, my blogs are answered by silence. I know that people are visiting this site—and another friend complained that the blog site rules made it difficult to respond—but I don’t know if what I offer has any value beyond the value that I receive from thinking things through in this manner. But he encouraged me; even sent me a response. So, once again, into the fray, hoping that the words I write are words that help someone on life’s journey.
The following is a modified for blog “sermon” I preached recently at Fremont United Methodist Church, Portland, Oregon.

If you’re like me, you prefer spending your Bible study time with the happy news passages—the reassuring ones that tell me how much I’m loved, cared for, and known. Sometimes I think Thomas Jefferson had the right idea: Let’s just cut out the hard passages and the demands; you know, like the Matthew judgment passages; let’s just keep the parts that talk about when we do the good things, it’s as if we are doing them to Jesus and ignore those parts that talk about how uncompassionate behavior is mean spirited and in some important ways directed at Jesus. Sadly, but for the better, we don’t get to do that and must pay attention to the hard texts.

They are so demanding; they are so “in your face.” They make us uncomfortable because we see ourselves in them—well, I do. They make us think about how we live our lives, individually and collectively, in the light of Jesus’ call. As he so often does, these passages remind us that it’s not all about us. At the same time that they make us squirm and hunt for rationalizations, they invite us into an ancient conversation. What we call the early church had a problem—one we share with them. They may have felt it more particularly because it was so close to them—so on top of them, but it is still one we struggle with. I call it the Now what problem.

Jesus showed up; Jesus died, Jesus rose; Jesus left, sending something called the Holy Spirit to inspire his followers to figure it out—no blue print provided; it’s something more like a one of my mother’s recipes: a pinch of that and a bit of this. In important ways, Acts and the epistles are extended conversations about the how what; I think the history of the church is the history of people trying to figure this out. Matthew 10:24-39 provides words that challenge us on so many levels, it’s hard to find a starting point, but it is essential to that quest. Since those days, the followers of Jesus, aka the church, has turned to these hard passages asking now what? How does a group of Jesus followers live in a confusing world that provides so many conflicting answers?

There is a context that must be considered before going further. The context always matters and, I think, the context that needs to be considered is the largest one. The central figure of the Bible is God; God self-defines as love; God desires to be in relationship with us. God is love and we are loved, and we are to be like God as lived by Jesus in plain view. We, too, need to be with others, which is especially true with faith because there is no private faith. It is personal, yes, but also communal. So, we are not alone; we live in a world as Jesus followers and with others—others who think as we do, live as we do, believe as we do—and who mostly don’t.

The Bible is full of the loving words we love to hear and read and talk about; the Bible is full of the hard words and challenges that we’d just as soon ignore. Matthew 10:24-39 is one of those hard texts. I’ve given this blog entry the title “Fighting Words” or “Finders Losers; Losers Keepers.” I don’t think Jesus was always fun to spend time with. He was a revolutionary. He drew lines in the sand.

Sometimes it feels as if we are standing with Colonel Travis at the Alamo: “I now want every man who is determined to stay here and die with me to come across this line.” You are with me or not. No one lukewarm welcomed here. This good news doesn’t feel much like good news, does it? Even though Jesus could be amazingly tender—and thank God for those tender words—these difficult words fall from those same lips. It’s hard to make them palatable, isn’t it?

My growing up years were spent in a holiness congregation that defined Christian more by what we didn’t do than by what we did or who we were. There was a long list of don’ts. This made things pretty easy; to be a Christian, toe this line. The whole-hearted life commitment that Jesus calls us to is so much harder because it has more to do with who you belong to and how you live as a believer in a difficult world. It feels more like living in the gray interstices and palimpsests than in the bright glare of unequivocal day. Yet Jesus does draw a line in the sand here. Jesus does say you are with me or not. Jesus does say to pick up his cross and follow. Jesus does say, if you are my disciple you should expect what I received—and perhaps more. He even says that if you care more for family than you do for me, you are not worthy of me. Finders losers; losers keepers. Whew! This is hard stuff; hard to read; harder to practice; harder to write about.

Where is the positive in all of this? Well, I hope I can find some this is going to be one big downer of a blog. I think Jesus is simply recognizing that—no matter what—we are going to serve somebody—it’s our DNA—even Bob Dylan says we can’t escape it. We don’t get to say no; we are going to serve somebody even if it is ourselves—and we all know how well that works out, right? Where is the hope in this?

In two places; first, right in the middle of all this hard stuff Jesus says, in The Message paraphrase:

What’s the price of a pet canary? Some loose change, right?
And God cares what happens to it even more than you do.
He pays even greater attention to you, down to the last detail—
even numbering the hairs on your head!
So, don’t be intimidated by all this bully talk.
You’re worth more than a million canaries.

So, first, we are known and we are loved—we are counted and named and have more value than canaries. God is love and we are God’s. The hard stuff must be heard in this context—or all is lost.

Second, we are not alone because we are with others who are also trying to figure it out. That’s one of my definitions for the church: a bunch of Jesus followers, sitting at his table, trying to figure it out.

Some have correctly suggested that this passage is part of the commissioning and discipling of his disciples and that he is urging them to boldly proclaim a new way of living based on peace and love. Verses 37-39 sound challenging but are really saying “Love your God with all your heart, mind, and soul.” But this doesn’t really let us off; the Great Commandment is pretty challenging as well. Furthermore, we cannot escape into the that was then, this is now argument. The Bible is the church’s book and its authority and relevance still informs all that we are, think, and do. So, while these teachings of Jesus are addressed immediately to his disciples, we, too, are disciples of Jesus and so he says it also to us.

Shane Claiborne, in a recent tweet, said this: “This is the church: a bunch of imperfect people falling in love with a perfect God…and trying to become more like the God we love, every day.” So, where do we end up with this? We choose. Life is all about choice, isn’t it? It is what we do–we choose. We choose to follow Jesus, and we choose to embrace the consequences of that choice. In some respects, we choose every day; perhaps, every moment. We do not choose by ourselves, hiding in a closet, if we know what’s good for us. In the open light of day, we choose with others who are also choosing to live this way. And we ask, what now? So what? How, then, shall I live? Who we choose to serve and how we live out that choice, empowered and enlightened by the Holy Spirit, in the company of others who share (and some who don’t share) the same choice we make—herein is the answer. As Christians, as Jesus followers, we choose Jesus in all his revolutionary, line in the sand, stance, we watch him and listen to him and to others who also choose him; then we stand before him and invite his Spirit to open us up and travel with us on the journey of living into this choice.  

Many years ago, Helmut Thielicke, in response to a question about how Christians are to answer questions when the Bible is ambiguous. What do you do when the Bible does not give us a clear “Thou shalt” or “Thou shalt not”? His response never left me and has been one of the formative guides on my own journey. He said, “You stand before the question.” I take that to mean that you do not jump to conclusions; you do not immediately build a fort (or draw a line in the sand) to defend your conclusion. I take it as another way of saying what Rilke said to a young poet even longer ago: “You learn to love the questions and live into the answer.”

The older I get the more questions I have than answers; I always thought it would be the other way around. Maybe it’s an occupational hazard for a teacher who necessarily spends more time with students’ questions than most. Maybe it’s just a curse or even borne out of fear of answers and what they might mean for my life. Yet, I have found that while The Answer List has gotten shorter, it has gotten more certain and more determinative. At the heart of that certainty is this ever-deepening conviction that Jesus lives with me as I stand before the questions of my life, that I trust his presence in my life, and have faith that daily I move forward with greater hope and charity.

Friday, April 14, 2017



As I was driving to pick up my great granddaughter this morning, I was praying for these poems. It occurred to me, as I prayed, that I really don’t know where my poetry comes from. I desire to be a poet, yet in some odd way I feel more like a transcriber than an originator. (I do not mean by this to say that these poems are written by God or carry some special godly authority. I do mean to say that these poems are the result of a nearly life long conversation with God about God and me—and, in that conversation, suddenly, often without expectation, as a kind of surprise, a poem emerges, as it were, “out of the blue.” Lewis was “surprised by joy”; I am often surprised by poetry.) I rarely sit down to write a poem; I am often compelled to write a poem. An idea or turn of phrase occurs to me and, then, there it is. These that follow are the result of that conversation and have been in some sense brewing for quite a while.

[Crucifix by Will Johnson]


These are not the last words;
He has much more to say along the way:
Next to the beach over a cooking fire,
Walking along a road after Jerusalem,
In locked door rooms; in a garden
outside a tomb. Ascending. These, instead,
are his dying words.

People once listened and carefully recorded
Last words; it is possible to find collections
Of famous last words. I’m told persons,
Thoughtful about their deaths, once composed
Such lines in anticipation. A legacy of famous words.

These seven words are spoken by a dying man, hanging
From a cross. These words are from a used cross
Rooted in bloodied rock. These words, not his last,
Ring a surprising tone of compassion.
For all others; perhaps, even for us; for his mother’s
Well being; for a repentant random other
Crucified alongside him. Human words.
Words you might expect from a dying man—
Abandonment, thirst, yielding. Ordinary words
For the most part made holy by
Circumstance and speaker.

Word 1. “forgive”

This is no execution looked away from, locked
Away and seen only by a few official witnesses.
This is no lethal injection administered with
Clinical correctness in a sterile room on a gurney.
No chair wired for quick startling death.
This is public death. Officials and passersby can
Chat as they watch and lay odds about the certain,
If eventual, outcome. Not odds on if, only when.

Nothing hidden here. No modesty. The pain.
The blood. The nakedness. The anguish. The blood.
Thirst. Death displayed in front of God and everybody.

Then, this word—“forgive.” It must have silenced the
Noise momentarily, at least. Passersby stood, perplexed,
Mouths open. (Such perplexing irony. The one unlawfully
Condemned—a victim of power politics and privilege—
Says “Forgive them.”) Yet, unwilling to consider what this
Word means, too quickly return to idle chatter
And easy mockery, missing this cosmic moment
when dying God intervened
For mercy on those who have accomplished his death.

Word 2. “paradise”

A conversation on crosses.
A conversation in extremis.
Straining for breath, rasping out words,
Like after a hard run or a steep climb.
Parched words. Hoarse.
Straining muscle to pull up, to take a breath
To expel words with one who speaks words
Of anger and escape and one who
Speaks words of hope and release.

As they hang dying, they discuss their fates.
One, at least, regardless of the obvious, senses
Something more here, something else and begs.
Asks to be remembered. Re-membered.
Remember these bones. Remember me.
You will be remembered, the One says, and it
Will be paradise. A garden. You will be remembered
As you were…no, as you were intended. As we all
Were intended in that place of rivers and peace,
Of beauty and order where all was as it was meant to be:
“with me.” Today. With me. In paradise. As once
I walked with the father and mother of us all
In the cool of the evening, so we, today, in paradise,
Will walk.

Word 3. “Behold”

What do you notice when you are dying? A fly?
An unfamiliar noise? The smells of dying?
In moments of anguish, what do you hear
While other friends and family hide?

Two are near, a woman and a man.
One you call mother and one you call
Beloved. You notice, in midst of your pain, they
Are alone. Bereft. Your cross, your death, creates a
Welcoming space where two alone can meet
And embrace and find connection in face of
Such anguish.

Anguish shared is anguish borne and loss
Is found begins to fill:
Mother, your son; beloved, your mother.

In the midst of such startling pain, such desperate ache,
Such dangerous despair, two meet and secure a
Sacred space and begin their journey to peace. The
Sword piercing her heart is slowly released and
Healing begins.

Word 4. “forsaken”

He begged to be spared this.
He begged to avoid the deep pain of deeper loss.
He begged for another way to sidestep this valley.
This well of loneliness, a lightless hole that sucks
All light and life leaving more absence of light
Than dark. He begged and bled through his pores.
He tasted this tasteless bread and drank this flat wine.
No surcease. Nothing. Absence. Forsaken. Abandoned.
He, once one with his father, is now alone, alone, alone.
All, all alone.

Yet, still, he calls on the abandoning father to
Understand why such despair is necessary.
What does he learn in this absent light?
What we all know as existential loss—
An untethering from the source. Anchorless.
An unreachable pier. A severed rope to which we
Clung. A rootless tree.

Word 5. “thirst”

The incarnation in a simple sentence. Subject Verb.
In the midst of a cosmic-everything-changing-moment,
This essential human need. Stretched between
Heaven and earth—never more human.
Never holier. The word made flesh
And thirsted among us. We are 60% water.
An ocean flows in us, yet
We know thirst. Headaches. Muscle aches.
Dizziness. Dis-oriented,
Thirst focuses our attention more than any
Other need—all consuming thirst.
We die more quickly from thirst
Than hunger. The body drains and must be


He who said I have food you know not of as
He sat by Jacob’s well; he who spoke and
Bound the sea that covered the world,

Word 6. “finished”

In every beginning, there is an end. Death has
Stalked this one since the age of two. The end arrives;
Death closes in. Eagerly. But why? What is needed?
A fulfilled sacrificial ritual to satisfy and pay off
An angry, hurt God demanding ransom? There are
Those who say so. Is it nothing more than
The end of a life, well, yes, it is that.

But is there more to this word?

I have done all I know to do.
I have been all I know to be.
I have loved courageously, even recklessly.
My heart has bled and my pores as well.
I’ve given sight; I’ve straightened limbs;
I’ve settled spirits and made mad men sane;
I’ve brought the dead to life—after days
Of stinking flesh. What more might I have
Done that I did not do? What more can I have
Been than I am?

Nothing, I think, nothing more than this:
That I lay down my life for my friends—
And foes. Why? Because I love you with the fierce
Love of my Father and want the world to know,
To see the wild beating heart of God.

Here it is—I show it to you even as it slows and stops.
This is God’s heart broken for you—all of you
Who hate me and who love me. The father’s
Heart for you. It is enough.

Word 7. “reunion”

A God has one son and sends him away
To a far country where the son works
Hard on the God’s behalf to help all see
The God’s heart. The son walks and walks.
Talks and loves; heals and feeds multitudes
And individuals. The son goes far and
Wide and says, pointing to his heart,
“This,” this is the heart of God
And not that bloody temple.” The son loves
Recklessly, at risk and in danger, always
Misunderstood, because the God had been
So misunderstood, more feared than respected
And more feared than loved.
What God wanted was to love and be loved.
The son wants all to know the God and to see
God’s wild beating heart.

Yet fear instead emerged; a fear so great of
undermined position and loss of power and
Prestige. And fear kills: Either the one who fears
Or the one who causes fear—or both. And, so,
Here we all are, at the foot of a cross watching
The agony of the Son, who only wants freedom to
Love, dying for love. Love of God; love of others.

Finally, this son sent on a long and dangerous journey
Goes home. And as we stand before that cross, at
Last, we see it—there on this particular cross
At this particular time and particular place, we see it.
The passionate, wild, beating
Heart of God who risks all for us and invites us
Home, back to the garden.

Prodigal God.
Prodigal Son.

Together in an embrace wide and strong enough
To hold each of us and all of us—the whole
World of us.

World without end. Amen. Amen.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Morning Joe: Fifty Years and Counting--Part Two

Well, I am sorry. I meant for this to follow more quickly upon the heels of my first entry in this new exploration. But time and the beginning of another academic year intruded and I am just now getting to follow up. I should say that the academic year has begun--actually into the fourth week already!--and has brought its usual supply of old and new challenges. As I have made a practice to share my classes this year, I'll do that now and then get on with "part two":

Rel 320: Spirituality, Character, and Service
EN 95: Writing and Grammar
EN 200: Advanced Composition: Argument
HUM 410: Senior Thesis

And I'm also teaching an adult on line class right now:HUM 310: Faith, Living, and Learning.

So, yes, obviously, I've got a bit of a load. Glutton for punishment? Nope: Glutton for the pleasures of teaching.

Now, back to 50 years ago and to...

Sally Hrdlicka. I want to begin with the story of Sally. I hope it is okay to tell this story; it is mostly about me and a little about her. But it is a crucial story for me. I want to tell this story because it marks an early conversion point for me. Perhaps baptism is the better word. But this moment started my life long journey with the question that has dominated most of my life as a teacher: What is this really all about? I am an English teacher; is that where it begins and ends—or is there something more to all of this? The context for this story is a deep desire to be a good teacher; I really wanted that. To be honest, I also need to say that I wanted to be a popular teacher, too. I think what I meant by popular is liked; I wanted to be liked. And, yes, I know that sometimes those two desires are in conflict with each other. Sometimes I had to choose to be disliked, although in the long run, I think I’ve been liked more often than not.

To be clear, I had no idea what it meant to be a good teacher. Outside of ideas like classroom management, following the adopted curriculum plan, providing well-planned lessons and grading carefully and fairly, nowhere along my journey as a student aspiring to teach did anyone ever suggest to me that good teaching is about more than those kinds of things—in fact, I came to learn that good teaching is often about sacrificing those things. Since teaching is an art more than a craft and a classroom is often more about surprises and serendipity than a well crafted lesson plan, my experience is that the lesson plan is often tossed out the window in favor of something far better and, usually, more important. (At least it is in a constant state of rearrangement.)

What does all of that have to do with Sally? Sally was sophomore student in my first year as a full time teacher; she was blond, with what I thought of as Barbra Streisand looks. I wish I could post a photo of her, but would do so only with permission and since I don't know how to reach her... She was a good student, but my story with Sally is about something more than being a good student. I’ve often wondered what happened to her. I’d like her to know what a life changer she was.

The particular story I want to tell begins on Friday because Friday meant spelling and vocabulary day. The students had a list of words they were to master each week of the year. On those days, I honored the traditional spelling test mode: Say the word, say the word in a sentence, and repeat the word. Wait a short time and move on to the next word. It was an easy day for a teacher. In addition to that, the time-honored process also required that I wander the classroom to discourage cheaters. I remember the admonition to be random in my selection of rows to walk on—and to walk quietly. Always best to walk from the back of the room to the front—I actually was taught that. It felt like a hunting expedition. Stay out of sight and downwind so they neither see nor smell your arrival. I think the idea is that it would be a good thing to catch your prey.

Well, I did that; remember I wanted to be a good teacher. I caught Sally pulling a small cheat sheet out of her left sleeve. And I remember my panic because, honestly, I really hoped to never catch a cheater. Now, the prey was in my sights; do I pull the trigger? At the moment I was about to make her an example, she sensed my presence, turned her face toward me, great tears in her eyes, and silently begged me not to say anything. Please! I can still see her face.

I didn’t pull the trigger. I didn't want to say anything anyway; I’m the hunter who intentionally makes a noise so my prey will escape. (What a horrid metaphor, by the way: “prey.” Student as prey. Sad and even shameful—but it was what I was taught. Oh, no, not explicitly; but it is an apt metaphor.)

I didn’t say anything. We met after class and I asked Sally what that was all about. Tears and tears and real remorse. (She was not a student who cheated after all; I knew that.) “Last night,” she told me, “my parents told my siblings and me that they were getting a divorce—and our lives came undone. I could not think to study and really didn’t remember that today was spelling day until I sat down in class.” Nothing more came of that moment; I mean I left it and reassured her that we would get beyond this. She was grateful.

But I learned something in that moment that never left me. Sally is one of my most important teachers. I learned that there is more going on in the lives of our students than we can possibly know. I learned that the person sitting in front of me has a life outside the classroom—that is, outside of my frame of reference. I learned that I’d better be aware of that fact. A student is a person with a life. With family. With friends. With lovers and spouses and partners. I learned that sometimes I may get a glimpse of that world and when I do I’d better pay attention to it. Because in those moments real teaching happens—or might happen.

I should have known that, right? I mean I’d lived through all those years of schooling and certainly carried my own secrets and struggles with life, but I think I thought I was really the only one. Everyone else seemed to have life figured out and knew how to work it. I didn’t (still working on that as a matter of fact). Sally didn’t see it coming. She was blindsided. She was reeling from the loss of certainty and from the need to figure out how to live in the reality of that lost certainty.

I hope she walked away from that moment feeling cared for and understood; I walked away certain that I’d done exactly the wrong thing and fearful that once the word got out my teaching career would come crashing down around me before I’d reached the end of my first semester.

Beginning that day I began to pay more attention to the connection between life in and out of the classroom. While it would take me years to realize just how important that connection is—and for it to change how I hope and try to be in the classroom—this is the beginning of a journey with students to discover what I eventually came to call relational teaching.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Second Cup: Fifty years and counting….

In 1966 I walked into my first classroom.

Well, technically, I’d been in a classroom of one kind or another ever since I started kindergarten with Miss Allen at Lowell Elementary on S. Flower Street, Santa Ana, California.
At the end of second grade, I moved to Glenn L. Martin Elementary; after sixth grade I moved on to Julia C. Lathrop Junior High School and from there, in 1957, to Santa Ana Senior High School—home of the Saints. I graduated from high school in 1960 and enrolled for the next two years at Santa Ana Junior College—the Dons. In 1962 I enrolled at Warner Pacific College, Portland, Oregon, graduating from there in 1965. On to Cal State at Fullerton and Chico; Anderson College School of Theology, Indiana; and Lewis and Clark, Portland. Back to WPC in 1972 where I served on the faculty and as an administrator for 23 years. In 1995, we moved to Anderson, Indiana, where I joined the teaching church for 15 years. Even during the years working for the national offices of the Church of God, I was involved in teaching at the University and in the life of the church. The reality is that I’ve rarely been out of a classroom—or away from my calling. I’m now (2016) back at WPC and again teaching. On Monday I will walk into AF Gray 11 (once part of the WPC cafeteria) and begin my fiftieth year.

The key word, however, in that first sentence is my. In all of those other too many to count classrooms, the owner was someone else: Miss Allen (Kindergarten); Miss Boyd (third grade); Mrs. Duke (fifth grade), and Mrs. Lilly (sixth grade)—to name my truly influential and unforgettable elementary teachers. No one, really, stands out at Lathrop, which is probably more my fault that theirs. (I had other teachers during that time: at Lathrop Branch Library, there was Miss Leona Calkins, Betty Wimpress, and a few other marvelous librarians; and at church, there was Sister Bessie Peterson, my Sunday school teacher until junior high) and various pastors, but especially the pastor we called Brother Shackleton.)

Until that day in September 1966 when I walked into my classroom at Red Bluff Union High School, the classrooms I was in always belonged to someone else. But I remember this particular day with particular clarity.
(I'm pretty sure that the door just to the left of the "breezeway" in this photo is the door to my classroom.)

I remember a deep sense of achievement when I crossed that literal and liminal threshold. It was a relatively new classroom. One half wall of bookshelves, a desk, and a closet. The windows were transom and there were only two because of air conditioning (for which, in Red Bluff, I was always grateful). Two walls were pretty much covered with blackboard. Yes, we still used chalk. The fourth wall was the window and door wall. There was nothing really remarkable about the room; I think the empty walls were covered with wood paneling and some space for bulletin boards. And, of course, the ubiquitous neon lighting. Oh, yes, and a podium where I leaned and rows of movable desks (that were seldom if ever moved). As plain and utilitarian as it was, that room became sacred, liminal space for me and, sometimes, for my students. I crossed that threshold and said, I think aloud, “Yes, this is it.”
I don’t remember being nervous, although that would come later when the students showed up and I began to doubt that I had anything to offer them. At that moment, however, I was home—this was the place for me to be whomever and whatever I was or was becoming. I was there for five years and, as I’ve written elsewhere in this blog, I think I could have stayed there. I think I could have retired from there, as my friend Dennis Allwardt did.

Those were hugely formative years. I came to be comfortable there. I became increasingly at home. I began a life long pilgrimage as a teacher, thinker about teaching and learning, and a discoverer of the joy and terror of teaching. Living into my calling. Many years later I read this by Parker Palmer—

Vocation at its deepest level is not, “Oh, boy, do I want to go to this strange place where I have to learn a new way of life and where no one, including me, understands what I’m doing.” Vocation at its deepest level is, “This is something I can’t not do, for reasons I’m unable to explain to anyone else and don’t fully understand myself but that are nonetheless compelling. (Palmer, Let Your Life Speak, p. 25)

And I thought, “Yes, this is it.” I cannot conceive of my life out of the context of teaching and learning and helping others learn and teach. At times my courage has failed me and anyone who has ever read this blog or talked with me about teaching knows that I often feel like a failure—and a fraud. Yet, when I think about giving up and walking away, my knees quake, my heart constricts, and tears form. Teaching is one of those professions in which the doing and the being are one. Yes, I am a human being but my essence and my expression of my essence is summed up in this one word—Teacher.

My idea of what a teacher is has changed over the years and certainly my sense of what a teacher does has changed over the years. I’ve always tried to pay attention to my teacher-friends and teacher-colleagues; I’ve always tried to pay attention to my students—what concerns them, what they are seeking, and what they are hoping. And, in light of paying attention, I’ve tried always to ask, “How, then, shall I live?” “How, then, shall I teach?” “How, then, shall I connect and relate?” I’ve always tried to ask, “What is it about what I’m doing that matters most—and how can I do it better?”

Over the next several entries, I’m going to attempt to think “out loud” about what I’ve learned—or think I have—as I’ve stood before and walked alongside those questions, my students, and my colleagues. I’m not sure why I’m offering this in my blog—I know that I think better when I write it. Perhaps a discussion will develop, although I have no real hopes for that because my blog just sort of hangs out there and none to few have ever responded; in fact, this blog is really my personal effort to tentatively answer those questions for myself. I do not presume to have anything to teach anyone else about teaching; the only presumption I have is that I might provide a kind of model or direction for how to live into and out of a vocation—any vocation, really—but teaching in particular.

No order to this; it’s randomly developed and written…. From time to time there will b a poem or two—some new and some old (because the old seem to fit again in this new context).

So, then, the question is “What have I learned?” Beginning with the next entry, I’ll introduce you to the first of my student/teachers—Sally Hrdlicka.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Second cup: Hope, faith, and dancing in the dark

Not that anyone has been pounding on my virtual door begging for my take on life and politics, but I have been silent about the state of our world, now more clearly defined by the word Orlando. I have been silent for mostly good reasons—I have not had much to add to conversation and certainly did not want to add to the irrationality, polarization, and politicizing of our current reality (perhaps realities). I have "liked" a few things on Facebook and have felt my heart beat in rhythm with Ben Irwin’s articulate outrage and several other voices who are equally articulate and thoughtful—and often recoiled from and sometimes shut down (i.e., unfriended) the voices of anger and hate directed at victims and the president.

Yet, now, here I am writing to post on Facebook. Why? I’ve been struggling with an idea that will not go away and, finally, sat down recently with a friend at Starbucks and asked, “As dark as these days seem—and are—and without any desire to take away the pain, anger, shock, or bravery of people in response (and I certainly do not want to diminish it), I wonder if we are not in one of those times that Thomas Cahill calls “hinges of history?”

We normally think of history as one catastrophe after another, war followed by war, outrage by outrage—almost as if history were nothing more than all the narratives of human pain, assembled in sequence. And surely this is, often enough, an adequate description. But history is also the narratives of grace, the recounting of those blessed and inexplicable moments when someone did something for someone else, saved a life, bestowed a gift, gave something beyond what was required by circumstances….

"[a time when] everything was at stake, when the mighty stream that became Western history was in ultimate danger and might have divided into a hundred useless tributaries or frozen in death or evaporated altogether. But the great gift givers, arriving in the moment of crisis, provided for transition, for transformation, and even for transfiguration, leaving us a world more varied, more beautiful and strong than the one they found." (Cahill, Thomas. (1995). How the Irish saved civilization. New York: Doubleday)

Here we are, perhaps, in one of those times. The hate is very strong and the fear often feels stronger. We are all struggling to understand how we came to recite such a growing litany of places and names where hate lashed out and claimed lives and destinies. I know I am. I find myself fighting against—as I hope all of us would—the fear in my own heart. The fear in my own heart that makes we want to run away and hide even as I know there never has been and never will be such a place to hide—“No hiding place down here.” This fear that makes me angry enough to want to inflict pain somewhere. I hate that I have to sit on the couch with my great-grandson as I once sat on the couch with my son during another war and attempt to explain why people want to hurt each other so badly.

I have to make myself watch the evening news, listen to NPR, and read The Oregonian because I’d rather pretend that my little bubble will protect me—even as I grow anxious; anxious every night when I double check the locks on our doors; anxious nearly every time I walk into a classroom, have a difficult conversation with a student, or walk out of my night class into a dark and empty parking lot. Anxious that nearly every time I am in church, at least once, I think about Charleston and how vulnerable we are. "No hiding place"—but oh how I wish there were.

Resistance is a term that is usually associated with unfair governmental practice: the French underground resisted the Vichy Government as the Polish underground resisted both the German and Russian war machines and governments. After Rick Blaine and Captain Louis Renault sent Ilsa and Victor to safety, they marched out to join the Resistance. The civil population resisting the government. Resistance also means a refusal to comply. I resist and I refuse and J’accuse!

I must practice another kind of resistance. I must resist my desire to avoid; I must not run from the darkness; I must not yield to it; I must not give ground to any hate monger who asserts his or her “biblical” conviction or second amendment right or wall building plan or “better than anyone else” rhetoric. However deeply I may fear the stranger, I must resist my desire to run from the stranger. I must work to turn strangers into friends. I must try to see through and beyond the strange and unfamiliar and faithfully maintain that not all is as it is presented on the news. I must even understand that there are reasons why others hate my country and, by extension, me. I must try to understand and live out of my conviction that “love is love” and that I am called to love God and love others without condition.

I must keep my eyes open, tuned to the eyes of God, to see where despair butterflies into hope and hope into faith and faith into action. “Hope is believing in God’s future now. Faith is dancing to it”—this quotation, a beautifully calligraphed aphorism was given to us by some very dear friends; it hangs in our dining room, impossible to miss.

I want to dance.

Even though this is a time when it is hard to conceive of light at the end of the tunnel let alone to actually see that light, I am wondering if, maybe, something more is going on. I remind myself of the time when our country in conflict with itself almost came permanent divided; the times when we found “strange fruit” hanging from our trees; the times when we thought the country was about to fall apart, again, over race; all of the times when the best and brightest of our youth marched off to war never to return—or never to return whole; the times when the water cannons were brought out and turned on those who said can’t we be better than this; the time when our own were killed by our own on college campuses.

Sometimes it feels to me that what I should ask is what Yeats asked in “The Second Coming”: “What rough beast slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?” I know the dangers of romanticizing and the risk of trivializing—but is it possible that we are living in one of those times when we will look back and see another kind of story altogether. A time when we again discover our better selves and repent and change our ways?

I am thinking of the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., summarizing Theodore Parker:

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

I keep thinking we are better than this. And I remind myself that we used to call the Middle Ages dark because we couldn’t see beyond plagues and fears to the real and emerging brilliance of that time. I remind myself that there was a time when the early Christians had every reason to expect to be destroyed, even while God was at work calling faithful Jesus followers to something more and greater. I remind myself that as dark as it may be—and as it has been—we discover that we are better than we thought we were.

We discovered that we can be better when we owned again our own values. A statue in a harbor still sings, “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, / I lift my lamp beside the golden door!" From time to time it surprises me to realize that my father was an immigrant and that on his side, I’m a first generation American. True, my father came from England through Canada at a different time; still, he was an immigrant who chose to become an American and stood, like so many other thousands, and pledged allegiance.

Shall we now build walls and say "Go home, stay away, we don’t need you"? Shall we turn away from those who have always given us new hope, new vision, and new purpose (not to mention new good food)? No, I don’t think so. I want to affirm hope and faith and the promise of our own lives—and our lives together. I want to appeal to our better selves. I want to call us to remember our own stories and our own story. I want to remind us that the journey is often hard and always demands courage (heart strength), but that we need to be on the right side of history—the side Martin Luther King was moving on when he called us to remember that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” The side of history described by Jesus when he told us "Blessed are the poor in spirit, the sorrowful, the gentle, the hungry for the right, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers..." (Matt 5:3-9 REB).

Monday, February 8, 2016

First cup: Thinking about saints or Saints I have Known

Saturday I attended the memorial for Sharon Skaggs and listened to friends and family share their warmest memories about their friend and mother. She was a remarkable woman. I worked with and around her for 15 years through the last days of the old national regime, through the challenges and disappointments of the transition to the new, into the strange new world of Church of God Ministries. She was a remarkable woman. We all struggled with these changes, some more than others. I think we all worried about what was going on and whether or not we would find a home in this brave new world that was rich with disenchantment, hope, and irony; I know most of us worried whether or not there would be a welcome mat—would there be a place for me and will I want it.

The journey was difficult for everyone, but I think no agency had greater challenges than what was once called the Board of Foreign Missions, now Global Strategies. A pioneering agency of the church, it carried the distinctive teachings of the Church of God reformation movement into the uttermost parts of the earth. A remarkable history. A remarkable story. Not without error and not without floundering along the way—still, an amazing story of vision and true grit.

I think I’ve known a lot of saints in my day. I’m going to name a few even though I know that most of them would get angry at this designation—even though once upon a time we in the Church of God used to call ourselves “The Saints.” Yet, here they are, some living still and some part of the cloud of witnesses: my pastor Al Shackleton; my dean and friend, Tom Smith; my boss and friend, Sherrill Hayes, and his boss and our friend, Don Courtney. My professor Irene Caldwell; my mentor, dean, and, at times, pastor, Milo Chapman; my friend and pastor, Jay Barber; and many another friend and colleague at WPC, AU, Park Place Church, and Church of God Ministries. Oh, I could name many more. I’ve been blessed (and cursed) with saints in my life.

Cursed? Well, we tend to idealize saints, don’t we? We tend to enshrine them in stained glass, build monuments, and name buildings. But my experience also says that saints have rough edges, sharp elbows, and deep, deep commitments that are often visionary and in the service of those commitments and vision can be fierce and dogged and uncompromising. Saints can be very, very difficult to work and live with.

Which brings me back to Sharon. I heard her described Saturday as a saint—which is what got this rumination going—and I would tend to agree with that. But only if we scrape away the stained glass and the haloes and remember that all saints were humans—really seriously human, being transformed by the call of God on their lives, and focused on living into and through that call. Someone, I think, said that a saints are persons who live on fire, gloriously open to God, which, I think, makes them difficult and wonderful. That’s Sharon. I worked with her for 15 of those difficult years I wrote about earlier, leaving the soon to be forsaken halls before she did. At first, three halls separated us—she was in the Outreach hall and I in Resource hall. As time went on and we all kept trying to figure out how to make this new thing work, our halls came closer together and increasingly there were opportunities to see her at work and to work with her. She was all of the characteristics we heard about in the eulogies—funny, kind, compassionate; she did have a great laugh, although I have to say that we didn’t hear it often in that building. She was also the best friend a missionary ever had; if it’s possible for one person to do this, she had their backs, individually and collectively. That’s where the real saintliness came in: She was determined and uncompromising and tough when it came to the life and needs and times of the field missionary. I had the opportunity to sit at some tables with her and I saw that compassion in full color—and I saw the uncompromising tough and determined woman. And I’m grateful that she was there. As her son-in-law, Patrick remind us Saturday, it seemed at times that the whole enterprise of global missions was at risk. I’m pretty confident when I say that Sharon would have done her work for nothing if she understood that was necessary for missionaries in the field to do their work.

The church would be well-served by more such difficult saints.