Tuesday, August 12, 2008

One person needs to make a difference

A friend of mine works in an intercity, interracial church. Her church has an old and fairly common history. It was a large city church that peaked membership before the demographics of the neighborhood changed. Now in a neighborhood too often characterized by crime and violence, they are trying to understand their place in the world. They have several ministries under the roof of the church to try to cover expenses, and they are consciously working on issues relevant to the surrounding community.

One night, my friend contacted Cindy and me, rather upset, because her church was considering a difficult vote. It seems one of the large, predominantly white, churches in town wanted to start an African-American mission in her area. This large church was extending an "offer" to my friend's struggling church. The big church would "allow" the struggling church to donate their facilities to the large, white church since they were "clearly dying." There would be no money for the current membership to begin a new church. There was no provision or severance for current staff. They would simply be out of work.

My friend's church was trying desperately to provide an important voice for racial integration in the area. Still, that is hard work, and I think many in the church were tired. Whether or not to accept this "offer" was a matter of some inner struggle for the church as well. Quoting my friend, "There are some people in our church who think we need to do this because it will mean the building is refurbished and continues in the Southern Baptist tradition. But, most people in our church DO NOT believe that we are done here with our mission of reaching out into our inner-city neighborhood. There are 16 African-American churches in our neighborhood in a 1 mile radius and we believe one of the reasons we are here is to provide racial reconciliation and hope to beautiful people who God loves but the world does not. "

The motion was before the church, and the vote was to be taken the next Sunday. My friend was running out of time and options and didn't know what to do.

From the title of this article, you might imagine it is going to be a story about my friend. Actually, it is a story about me. You see, I was deeply troubled by this situation. I felt that this was bullying—plain and simple. I listened to the situation, and I tried to imagine what I might do from hundreds of miles away. Then, it came to me. This might be a story the local news might be interested in. So, I sent an email to the editors of their local paper, and I suggested that if they got involved, they could prevent a great wrong from taking place.

A few days later my friend called to tell me that the religious editor from the local paper had called her church and had called the large, white church. Once the questions were asked, it turns out that this was not a move by the big church, but by an over-zealous pastor who was trying to find facilities for his church's new African-American mission. After all the attention they started getting, he called to tell the little church that there was no offer, and they should take the claims of an offer off the church website (the same offer he had three days before called "correct").

Thankfully, this story has a happy ending. The little church is still working hard. The big church is still looking for facilities for their mission.

This story has stuck with me though. It hasn't stuck with me in the "Oh, look how great and smart I am" way. It has stuck with me in a much more haunting way. I keep asking myself, "What happens if I don't send that email?" I am just one person out of the thousands affected by this decision. I was the only one who thought to involve the press. What happens if I don't? What happens a few days later when the church votes?

Hurrah for me. For once in my life, in one shining moment, I was smart and sensitive and courageous enough to do what God was asking. But, if I am honest, when I think about this story, I don't think about it that way. I keep thinking about the myriad other times when I am too selfish, too cowardly, or too deaf to hear what God calls me to do? If I don't send that email, the world unfolds differently . . . and not in a better way. How many ways have I affected the world in a negative way by my inaction in the little things? Sending an email seems like such a small thing, and it had far-reaching consequences. I have found myself paying more attention to the little—seemingly insignificant— things I am doing every day. Maybe, this one moment of success that affected so many people can remind me to be more faithful in those little things.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The Agony of God

I got the chance last week to visit the Abbey of Gethsemani in "Trappist," Kentucky. This was the monastery of Thomas Merton. It was the location of his hermitage and his only escape. If you don't know the work of Merton, I encourage you to find it. It is worth digesting. As with most monasteries, the brothers encouraged me to wander the grounds with its woods, lakes, streams; to pray; and to "store up some silence" so that I could spend a little each day when I go back to my world.

Though I couldn't visit Merton's hermitage (it was being used as a retreat for a brother), I desperately wanted to see the "statues." My first attempt to find the statues was a failure, but after talking to Bro. Seamus, I got directions (and a walking map), and set out again. It was quite a walk on a winding path through the woods. As I walked, listening to the sounds of the jar flies and crickets, I was immediately transported to my childhood when I would tromp through the woods near my grandparent's house. It was a soul filling time, and I felt my stores of "silence" begin to fill up a little.

Finally, I reached the statues. A nearby plaque lets the pilgrim know the history of the statues. In 1965, a twenty-six year old Episcopalean seminarian from New Hampshire named Jonathan Daniels went to Alabama to aid in the civil rights movement. He was killed in August of 1965 by white supremacists. The statues depict the Garden of Gethsemane and remember his martyrdom.

The statues are impressive. You first encounter the life-size representations of the disciples sleeping. Then after about 20 more yards, you find Jesus praying in the garden. I have often been troubled by common representations of Jesus in the Garden. Too often, we see a Jesus serenely looking to heaven, at peace with the road that leads to the cross. Yet in Matthew, Jesus told the disciples in the Garden, "My soul is very sorrowful, even to death." The Jesus of the Abbey of Gethsemani doesn't suffer the common misrepresentation. The artist brilliantly conveys the agony of Christ in the Garden while the disciples sleep. You can see the sorrow of Jesus in that place.

I sat there looking at the statue and pondering the night before Jesus was crucified. I thought about the disciples. I thought about Jesus. I thought about the difficulty of walking a road that you know God has called you to—even when you don't want to. It was a nice moment of reflection.

Then something happened that I didn't anticipate. I sat there looking at the agony of Jesus, and I remembered the reason for this garden. I thought of that martyred young man—killed because he believed that everyone is created in the image of God and everyone deserves respect because of that. I thought of that injustice, and I saw Christ in agony over that—and the disciples are still sleeping. Of course, immediately, I came under conviction. How many injustices—how much sorrow is in this world? How often am I sleeping through it? The Sudan—Zimbabwe—or the hungry in my town—how often is God in agony over their suffering? How often am I sleeping right nearby?

Nicholas Wolterstorff hypothesized in his book, Lament for a Son, that the reason no one can look on the face of God is because no one could bear the agony on the face of the divine as God looked on this world. Sitting in that remembrance of the Garden, I felt the tears of God for this world. I pray that I do a better job staying awake and crying some of my own.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Different Views of the World

A few weeks ago, I got the chance to have dinner at the Norwegian embassy in Washington, D.C. It was a lovely evening. The ambassador and his wife hosted a group of International Educators in their residence, and they were gracious hosts. The residence was decorated with objects which represented the best of Norway. There was a very old Norwegian Bible on the table (the ambassador's wife is an ordained Lutheran minister). There were pictures of the King and Queen of Norway. What was most interesting to me, however, was the artwork. He had several pieces by Edvard Munch. Munch is probably most famous for his work "The Scream."

The works in the embassy were even more troubling than "The Scream," if possible. They were all self-portraits, and the artist was obviously in various states of despair while women were depicted as the cause of his problems. As I was looking at the works in the drawing room, the ambassador came up behind me and said, "He was insane, you know." I said, "Really?" He said, "Oh yes, he also had serious problems with women . . . obviously . . . in fact, twice in his life, women tried to kill him." He then instructed me to make sure and see the works by his student. Apparently, Munch had only one student. There was only one individual that he could tolerate, to whom he taught his technique.

I walked over to the works by Munch's student, and I was immediately taken aback. Where Munch's pictures were tormented, his student's were serene. There was a lovely picture of a lagoon with sailboats and a peaceful picture of the Norwegian landscape (naturally featuring a fjord). I was immediately amazed. How could the one person this deeply tormented man tolerated have a vision of the world which was so different from his mentor? As I was standing there, marveling at the disjunction, the ambassador came up and said, "See, he has the same technique." I could only reply, "Wow."

To be honest, I couldn't tell whether he had the same technique or not. I will trust individuals more educated than I to speak to that. I do know that they saw very different worlds when they looked out their window, and I found myself hoping for the ability of Munch's student. I pray that I am able to learn from those who went before and by the grace of God transform that ability into something which brings peace . . . rather than despair. Of course, despair is a part of this world as well, but that is a different entry . . .

Monday, June 2, 2008

Memory Lane

I just got back from Washington, D.C. last week after attending a conference on international education. While I was there, I called a friend of mine that I hadn't seen in a while . . . and when I say a while, I really mean it. I saw him a year and a half ago for five minutes and prior to that, it was over 17 years ago. To fully appreciate this lunch, you really have to understand what my life looked like 17 years ago.

I was completely without direction. I was undisciplined and unmotivated. I was getting ready to leave Purdue (partly at my choice and partly at Purdue's). My father's dream of my being a rich engineer was lying in ashes, and I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. I was battling my second bout with clinical depression, and it looked like the best I would be able to accomplish with my life . . . my dream goal . . . would be management training school at a fast food restaurant (which if that is what you love is a wonderful goal . . . let's just say, it wasn't what I loved). My first true love had just dumped me (on the phone after I moved her to an internship), and I felt as though I had no prospects and no future. Certainly, I would never reach all that "potential" that so many had told me that I had over the years.

Now, nearly two decades years later, Greg comes back into my life to discover that I am actually, "Dr. Robert Wallace." I am happily married with two wonderful children.

As I sat there reminiscing with Greg—laughing nearly to the point of tears as we remembered the good times—I couldn't help but be overwhelmed by the course my life has taken. Think about those people who only knew the you from 10 or 20 years ago. What would they think now? That same guy, for whom the high point of the day was Mutant Ping Pong in the BSU basement nearly two decades ago, was representing Shorter College and having dinner at the Norwegian Embassy on last Wednesday night. It really strained belief as I thought about it.

After our great lunch, I began to think about what "Dr. Wallace" might tell that amazing Mutant Ping Pong player of 17 years ago. As I look back, I see plenty of areas which need improvement. It would be difficult to pick just a few bits of advice to give. I look back and see wasted opportunities and mistakes, and I am tempted to want to rewrite history—change the course of my life. I want to pull on those loose threads to make the tapestry of my life look neater.

But, I also remember that I like who I am now, and who I am now is connected to who I was then. If I pulled on those loose threads, I might discover that I those threads are connected to more than I bargained for.

Still, I think I would like to give Rob of 17 years ago some advice. I think I would say the same thing to that Rob that I try (and will try) to say to my children, "Have the courage to make the hard decisions. Follow the call of God no matter how crazy it seems. Savor each moment of each day because it will never come again."

Of course, if there had been a Mutant Ping Pong Professional League, I would have said to leave for the pros years ago . . .

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Updates from Jordan

Here are the daily updates that I sent the PR office while I was in Jordan. These can also be read (and the pictures viewed) at http://www.shorter.edu/

May 8

Things have gone safely and smoothly. Jordan is nice. It is not quite as Western as Israel (though as I say that I am looking out the window at a KFC and Fuddruckers), but the people are very friendly. I think I would say that it feels more relaxed than Israel.

I haven't done much touring yet, but I did get to the Jordanian Antiquities Museum yesterday. I got to see the Copper Scroll and some other cool things. I had heard that the Hezekiah's Tunnel Inscription was there, but I couldn't find it. You know some people believe this is the first area that Paul ever preached in. In Galatians he talks about going to Arabia for several years. Some think that this is the part he went to.

The program here has earned a great deal of respect in the Amman community. They teach and evaluate Arabic for a number of individuals and businesses in the area. Philadelphia University here in Amman accredits the academic program, but it is Fred and his staff that make it a going concern. The opportunity for students to get 12 hours of Arabic (both spoken and written) out in one summer is very impressive. They do some classroom work in the mornings and use their Arabic in the afternoons. It really does feel like this would be preparing our students for the world as it is rather than as it was. Mandarin and Arabic are two of the fastest growing languages today. If we want our students to be in good position for jobs, I think we need to continue to investigate programs like this. And, besides, it is hard to love our neighbor when we can't speak to our neighbor.

Once again this trip has reinforced the idea that people are people everywhere. Children laugh and play. And we all have five fingers as the nice man in Jericho reminded us. Sitting in this place and with these people it just eludes me why we can't find peace in this world.

I can send some pictures when I start touring more earnestly. In the meantime, I am attaching a photo of the Temple of Hercules in Amman. Probably around the second century AD. It is also located on the spot that David and Israel may have been fighting for when he had Uriah killed (so that he could have Bathsheba). Remember this area is the region of the Ammonites, which is after all where Amman gets its name.

May 9

I had a breakthrough today. For years I had heard Arabs use the phrase "I love Americans. I hate your government," and I never really understood it. I am finally beginning to understand. In most Arab countries, the government is invested in one person. In the case of Jordan, a king. The people have no say in government policies and programs. The king makes the decisions. Viewing the West with that eye, it is easy to divorce people and government and "love Americans and hate the American government." Having a government "of the people, by the people and for the people" is an alien concept.

Unfortunately, while Americans benefit from Arab naiveté, Arabs suffer from American naiveté. We look to the Middle East and assume that all Arabs reflect the policies of Arab government and extremist groups. I think unconsciously (I hope unconsciously), we assume that the actions of a few with power reflect the feelings of the majority.

I suppose the realization of that has let me feel even safer in this place. Remembering that people are people everywhere. Most people are decent, hard-working individuals who love their family and love to make new friends. Some are open and friendly. Some are rude. It doesn't matter if you are in Rome, Ga., or Amman, Jordan—people are people.

Stereotypes are hard things to lose, especially when you don't even realize you are doing it. I suppose that is why study abroad is so important for our students. It is really only away from home that you can truly see yourself. Once you are away from a culture that shares your perspective, you can better see what you believe. Sometimes it isn't pretty. Maybe these trips can help remind us that every individual is created in the image of God and is loved by the divine.

BTW, the photo with food is at a Yemeni restaurant. The food was glorious. You tear off a piece of bread and then pick up some "laham marroum" which tastes like sloppy joes with onions and tomatoes. Yumm. The students in the photo are from California Baptist University.

May 10

Today the group went out to see the baptismal site of Jesus. This was Bethany "on the other side" of the Jordan River. So, the Jordanians can lay claim to the best location for the site. This site was venerated back before the fifth century AD, so this site has a lot of history on its side. As you look at the picture, you can see that at this place, I am standing about 15 feet from Israel.

Jordan's banks aren't so stormy these days. Even as late as 1967, the Jordan River was 50-75 feet across. Now, with Syria, Israel and Lebanon using the sources upstream, you can see the trickle that the Jordan has become here, near the entrance to the Dead Sea.

It made me think about our consumption and the recent drought we faced in Georgia. We have seen wars fought over oil, but I am certain in the very near future we will see wars fought over water (hopefully, not between Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama). It has made me ask myself a couple of questions. Am I a good steward of God's gifts to me? Or, do I waste?

I think sometimes I do pretty well. After all, I turn off the water to brush my teeth and during my shave. But, I do waste a lot as well. I might stay in a shower too long or forget and leave the water hose on. But, I as have experienced this VERY thirsty land in Jordan, I hope I am more keenly aware of the gifts that God has given me, and I am a worthy steward of them.

May 11

Well, I attended my local Baptist church today. I decided to attend one of the local mega-Baptist churches. There were about 25 people in the worship service today. This is one of the larger congregations. They have eight worship services during the week, so the congregation is really about 150-200. Also, since Sunday is a workday in Jordan (not a day of rest), it would be as though I went to church on a Monday from 10 a.m. - noon.

The service was beautiful. They sang songs. Men and women prayed from their hearts. The sermon was passionate and challenging. Of course, it was all in Arabic, and I understood about five total words in the service (thankfully, they used those five words several times). I truly understood what it means to "join our hearts" in worship. Though I didn't understand the words, their love and hospitality was evident.

Of the 5.5 million people in Jordan, only about 6,000-7,000 are evangelical Christians. These Christians memorize scripture because they don't know if there will come a time when they can't have a Bible. They want to own church buildings (not just rent) because it is easy to close down a rented church, and they want their congregation to endure. They are Christians in a land that is hostile to them – where secret police roam college campuses to make sure no one is evangelizing, and pastors are hauled into police stations to answer questions about evangelism.

Somehow my faith seemed small sitting in worship with them today.

May 12

It seems fitting with the new Indiana Jones movie coming out that we should visit Petra today (site of the climax of the last Indiana Jones movie). Indiana Jones fans will want to know that I was inside the Divine Treasury at Petra (in one of my photos), and there was no knight, no booby traps, and no Holy Grail. There were, however, lots of tourists. Petra is Jordan's no. 1 tourist destination and a wonder of the world.

After spending the day there, I can safely say that it is everything it is cracked up to be. Imagine a city carved out of the rock faces. If you look closely at the picture, you might notice that this building was not "built." It was carved. This is a giant sculpture to look like a built building. There are facades like this all over the site.

I also rode a donkey up to the Edomite high place (also one of my photos). I don't think I will ever read the book of Obadiah the same again. This was the region of the Edomites, who "hid in the rocky places." It was an experience I won't soon forget.

The trip is almost over, and I can say that I have learned a great deal about this country and its wonderful people. The standard conversation in every taxi cab is:

"Where are you from?"
"America! Oh, welcome, welcome."

Jordanians are a hospitable and gracious people.

I may be able to squeeze in one more update before I get on a plane. I look forward to seeing family, but I will miss these new friends. I can't wait for students to meet (and learn to speak to) these people.

May 13

Well, my time here has come to a close, and I am getting on a plane in a few hours. It would probably be helpful for me to review a little of what I have learned this week.

I have learned:

- A few necessary Arabic phrases
- The CGE (Consortium for Global Education) program here offers exceptional Arabic instruction.
- The leaders of the CGE program here are good people who care a great deal about the students and Jordan.
- The Jordanian people are hospitable and friendly. They love Americans and go out of their way to be helpful.
- Jordan is the safest country I have ever visited.
- Christians in Jordan are a loving, welcoming people with a faith that I look up to.

When you consider over 300,000,000 people speak Arabic, the importance of this program seems obvious. If we are truly committed to excellence in education, we need to prepare our students for the world as it exists. If we are truly committed to be Christians in the world, what better way to show love for our neighbor than having respect enough to speak our neighbor's language.

I look forward to coming home and seeing my friends and family.

Until then,

Sunday, May 4, 2008

‘Twas the Night before Graduation

After several requests, here is the poem I wrote for the baccalaureate service.

'Twas the Night before Graduation, by Robert Wallace


Twas the night before graduation and all through the school,

Some students were packing and acting like fools,

The graduates were nestled all snug in their beds

while dreams of diplomas danced through their heads.

Where professors in regalia and Tam-o-shanter hats

just pray and hope the speeches aren't flat.


But just before bed, they had all said their prayers

Because some of them still had a touch of despair

For years now they had labored, with no end in sight

But, this year they graduate. They really just might!

They no longer cared about becoming wise or sage

Now it only mattered to get across that stage.


They prayed that Steve Sheeley and all of his staff

would find them all worthy and not simply laugh

when they looked at the transcript they had amassed.

Surely they wouldn't make me take just one more class.

"Dear Lord," they would pray, "Heed this prayer of mine,

Don't let Dr. Sheeley pull me out of the line."


So they went on to bed with anxiety and doubt

Just hoping and praying that all had worked out.


But what they didn't know was that faculty pray too.

They pray something else before they bid you adieu

And, despite what you think, some prayers are quite sad,

As we begin to think of you new Shorter grads.


We pray you'll be faithful, and truly fulfilled

We pray you keep working and improving your skills

We pray you savor each day that you find

In this world that can so often be so unkind.


We pray you know love, and that whatever you do,

You'll always love others with love God gave you.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Worship wars

I am tired of the worship wars, and I am tired of them on both sides. I am tired of positions that are fundamentally idolatrous. On the one side of the debate, we seem to have people who believe that God cannot and will not appear if drums are on the stage. On the other side, we seem to have people who believe that God cannot and will not appear unless there are drums on the stage. If I were God, I would give up on ALL of them (yet one more in the list of reasons that we are all thankful I am not God). We make these arguments as though we have control on the appearing of God. How arrogant and how idolatrous.

From the biblical perspective, worship is what happens when individuals encounter the presence of God. The church when it gathers as a community represents a miracle of incarnation. We are the body of Christ! Just as Christ was 100% divine and 100% human, the church is at the same time a body of believers and the body of Christ. It seems unfortunate that the 100% human side seems to show so often. Divisiveness and personality conflicts supplant ministry and supplant true worship.

The church needs to ask itself what it can do to manifest the divine to the world, so that worship might actually take place. This change in focus would be pretty healthy. Moving the discussion from "What do I need to experience God" to "What can I do for you to experience God" would seem to be the more biblical perspective. It would be particularly nice if the "you" in that sentence referred to the "least of these."

I am sure the crowds were drawn to Jesus because of his Sandy Creek traditional worship. No wait, I am sure people were drawn to Jesus because of his electric guitar. No wait, people were drawn to Jesus because Jesus loved them. He loved the "least of these." There were people who had no hope and no help from anywhere in the world. Jesus said, "You are of value to me."

People will come to a church when they feel loved. People will come when they find a community that loves them. Part of loving them is giving them a way to experience God, and that is done differently for different people in different places.

So, the challenge is to be like Jesus. Maybe we would move beyond "3 points and a poem" and "hymnbooks vs. overheads" to a relevant expression of Christ to the world. If we aren't willing to do this, the only difference between churches of America and the empty cathedrals of Europe will be that the cathedrals are prettier and already paid for.


Friday, April 4, 2008

Tale of Two Birthdays

This time of year, I always reflect on the events that surrounded my hiring at Shorter College. This water into wine miracle is worth sharing. So . . .

It was the worst of times. It was the best of times. It was Monday, April 4, 2005, Rob Nash's birthday. "Meet about the position," he said in his email. Since I had been ABD, I had applied to every open Biblical Studies position in the country. Now . . . miraculously . . . providentially . . . a position had opened at Shorter College, and I was on the short list.

I drove over to Shorter anxiously . . . growing more anxious as I went. After all, the rule is "good news you can phone, but bad news you would want to give in person." I quickly dismissed the thought, "No, I was just being negative."

Think of the advantage I had over the other candidates. I had taught here for two semesters as an adjunct. I had 6 years of adjunct teaching experience at three institutions. I had become friends with the people in the department. The stars have lined up. After a half dozen short lists, if I don't get this position, what position will I get?

To calm my nerves, I decided to turn on some music. I put in my classic rock MP3 CD and hit "random." Seven hundred megabytes of songs to calm my nerves.

The first song began to play . . . CCR began to sing, "I see a bad moon rising . . ." Quickly, I hit the button again . . . that wasn't helping. Second song . . . the Beatles, "Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away. . ." Okay, not funny anymore. Next. Ben E. King, "When the night has come and the land is dark and the moon is the only light you see." Next. Brook Benton, "Rainy Night in Georgia." Next. James Taylor begins to sing, "When you are down and troubled, and you need a helping hand, and nothing . . . oh, nothing is going right." Looking back, I wish I had continued the exercise to see how long my CD player would mock me. But, needing Imodium now more than when I started the process, I turned off the radio.

I parked and went to Rob's office. We went in, and I sat down.

Rob took a deep breath and said, "Well . . . we have decided to offer the job to the other candidate."

I don't think he ACTUALLY kicked me in the stomach. But, things are kinda blurry after that. I remember responding with, "Well, (long pause) . . . dang."

Rob said, "There is really no way in the world that this doesn't stink. You have become part of the family here. I am really sorry, and I will do all I can to help. I will happily write recommendations if you need them."

"Thanks," I remember saying meekly.

Rob continued trying to soften the blow, "I wish I could say that there was something you could have done better or something you did wrong. . . It really is just that in light of the department's need for denominational diversity right now, the other candidate is the better choice."

"I understand," I replied.

Rob continued, "I wish that we could hire both of you. I am very sorry."

So, I left the campus feeling like I had let my family down. I went home and shared the news with my wife. Like Deborah of the Old Testament, Cindy is a "fiery woman." Now, someone she loved was hurting, and she was ready to storm the Bastille.

"Please. Please don't do anything I am going to have to apologize for later," I said to calm her down. "I just want to go to class tomorrow and try to move on."

"GO TO CLASS TOMORROW!" She said incredulously. "Just cancel class and take the day. I think they would understand."

"If I had gotten this position, I hope I would have accepted it with graciousness. Now that I didn't, I hope I can still be gracious. I am going to meet with my students tomorrow and do my job."

I drove onto campus the next day, and it was absolutely beautiful. It was that perfect time of spring. The whole campus was bursting with blooms and color and birds and squirrels. I had never a more beautiful campus. "Great," I thought, "first my radio, now the campus is mocking me."

I spent the next two months working twice as hard to finish my dissertation, trying to understand where we would go, and hoping this didn't affect my wife's ministry too much.

Then, on May 23, the ruling came down. The GBC is going to control Shorter College. "Wow," I thought, "Quite a surprise for folks." I sent a note of encouragement to Rob, trying to show that there truly was no ill will between us (and trying to convince myself that there truly was no ill will between us).

Two days later, Rob calls me. "Our first candidate has withdrawn from consideration, would you still like to come work with us." I don't remember much after that part of the conversation. I am pretty sure I said, "Yes!" and I think that Rob can still hear out that ear (though I am not sure). The final irony. He called to offer me the position on May 25 . . . my birthday.

I can say now, looking back, that I love the people at Shorter College. I love the students. I love the job. It turns out many people in this world don't love their job and get rather irritated when I keep sharing about mine. I can honestly say that teaching at Shorter College is a far, far better thing I do, than I have ever done before.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

A World Apart

I have been to Israel several times. Each time I have learned something new. When I was an undergraduate, it was my first truly international experience. This most recent trip, however, provided a different experience and a new learning experience for me.

In the middle of the trip, we began our trip down the Jordan Valley, and we had two nights in pretty isolated areas. We spent the night on a hill overlooking the Dead Sea and in the desert on the Bedouin experience. Following these two nights incommunicado, we drove into Bethlehem to see Herodium and the Church of the Nativity which commemorates the place of the birth of the Prince of Peace.

As we drove into Bethlehem, I noticed things were different. Everything was closed. On a Friday, it wouldn't be unusual for a number of shops to be closed, but everything? My bus driver made some calls and determined that all the shops were closed as part of a protest. Four Palestinian men had been identified as terrorists by the IDF (Israeli Defense Force). The IDF sent in an undercover agent who killed all four men in Bethlehem. As we got out of the bus and walked to Manger Square to the Church of the Nativity, we began to see the crowds gathering. We watched a young Palestinian boy (10 or 11 years old) so full of rage that he began to throw rocks at a Palestinian policemen. Across the street from the Church of the Nativity was what looked like a rally of a couple of thousand people (we later found out that the bodies of the four men were in the tent—it wasn't exactly a rally). Inside the church, we found ourselves in the middle of two separate Arab Christian memorial services for these men and the political situation—illustrating just how complicated the Middle Eastern situation is.

I don't believe that we were ever in any danger. We were nervous, and the situation was very uncomfortable. Afterward, when we were back on the bus, it was very quiet. Each of us was left to our thoughts as we were going through the checkpoint. Some were journaling. Some were crying. But, everyone's heart was breaking for the people of Palestine and Israel. We understood why the IDF did what they did. We also understood why the people of Bethlehem would feel singled out by Israel. And, we understood (and commended) those Palestinian Christians who were able have a service in which they would pray for their enemies—however they defined them. Most of all, I think each of us understood the tragic nature of the land called holy by so many.

In Jericho, several Palestinians said to each of us, "Please tell the people of America we want peace. Please don't let a few radicals make them think we are all like that." One man whose words will stay with me for a long time said, "How many fingers do you have?" I replied, "Five." Showing me his hand, he said, "Same as me. Please tell them we want peace. We need peace." In Bethlehem we saw just how hard it is to live without peace. I, for one, will never be the same for the experience.

Though I was grateful that the students truly did gain intercultural competency as a result of turmoil in Bethlehem, there was still a part of me that felt guilty. I know some of the students were scared. I told myself, if we hadn't been in the desert the night before, I might have seen the news on the internet and avoided Bethlehem. I felt guilty all the way to the hotel in Jerusalem thinking that my poor planning (putting Bethlehem, which has the potential for difficulties, after the two nights away from news) led to an uncomfortable situation for the students.

Then, something happened that placed an exclamation point on this experience for me. I got to the hotel room and looked on the internet to find out what had happened. I COULDN'T FIND IT! I looked up the Atlanta Journal Constitution, New York Times, Drudge . . . nothing. Even the Israeli news services didn't have the story. I couldn't find it on the Jerusalem Post, Haaretz . . . nothing. Finally, I searched on Google News and found the story. It was the third story under a search for "Bethlehem."

On the one hand, I felt better than I hadn't missed it as a result of my scheduling, and I felt better than parents wouldn't be worried about us. On the other hand, I couldn't believe that this event that had such a profound effect on each of us on the trip would be page 17 news in Israel and not even make the papers at home. People were hurting. People were enraged. People were desperate. And, if we hadn't been there, we would never know. How can it be in this age of globalization when the world is getting so small that NO ONE would know?

How myopic are we? It seems that if we can ignore it, we will. We will just cross on the other side.

Even if we don't want to care because human beings are suffering, what about the Palestinian Christians? These are people in my church who claim my savior. They are ostracized by Israelis for being Palestinian and by Palestinian Muslims for being Christian. We are the body of Christ and one part is suffering, shouldn't the whole body suffer? Shouldn't we care?

Friday, March 14, 2008

It’s good to be the king?

It has been two years (almost to the day) since I was last in Israel. A lot has changed in two years. Sure, many of the sites have been further developed. Many have been further neglected. But, I guess what has changed the most in two years is my role. Two years ago, I helped the group leader . . . a little . . . when necessary. This time, I am the group leader . . . all the time.

My mentor told me years ago that traveling is different when you are the leader. I am finding him to be right (again). Though I have traveled to Israel several times, this trip is a little different. Part of the disorientation of this trip is the nature of traveling with a group unfamiliar with the area. I am mama duck with all my baby ducks in a row. I decide where we go and how long we stay there. That is an awesome responsibility that still overwhelms me to some degree.

I also find that I am not enjoying the trip in the same way I once did. I still find the Caesarea theater magnificent. I still enjoy Tel Dan and the Cliffs of Arbel. But, some of the "wonder" is gone. I am sure part of the loss is that these sites are familiar to me. But, I believe that most of my wonder has been replaced by concern for all of these traveling with me—these college students who have been placed in my trust. I worry about keeping them safe—keeping them fed—keeping them on schedule. Is it any wonder I have to remind myself to take pictures? The longer I write this, the more I think I should have focused on parenting instead of travel.

This has forced me to frame what Mel Brooks said with confidence in History of the World as a question, "Is it good to be the king?"

I have prayed for an answer to that question while getting this trip ready. There were times when I considered what I was doing—adding a class to my teaching load without compensation, the budgetary concerns, and the travel concerns—and I had to ask myself, "Is it worth it?" "Is it good to be the king?"

Now that we are traveling, I think I have found the answer. I have discovered that there is one sight that I can enjoy that no one else can. Though I may have lost some of the wonder of the places, my reward is seeing their wonder at these places. Everyone in this group has truly made an effort to drink in the history that surrounds them. On occasion I will say something in just the right way (professors are always searching for "just the right way"), and I will see a connection made. You can see it on their faces. Something you said changed them, and they are not going to look at the world the same way ever again.

I suppose it is that reward that got teachers teaching in the first place. We pray for the revelations to take place. In that dynamic dance that takes place between teacher and student, sometimes the steps fall just right, and you really feel like you teach. You always know you when you really teach because you have found your life enriched as much (if not more) than the students.

That is the new wonder that I have found—not in places, but in faces. And, considering that, I do think, "It's good to be the king."

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Joy in the Journey

I am getting ready for a trip to Israel. Every group I have gone with is different, and these students are proving that true again. Many of the individuals on the trip don't have any international experience. Some have never flown over water before. Some have never flown before. Right now they have all sorts of expectations.

Getting ready to lead this trip has taken me back to my first trip to Israel many, many years ago. One of the things I noticed was that we spent a lot of our time traveling to the places we wanted to see. First there was the nearly 7000 mile flight. Then, we would drive (sometimes for hours) to the site we were touring. We would spend an hour at the site, hop back in the vans, and drive some more. Even seeing 5 sites a day (which is more than your typical Holy Land tours), we spent most of our time driving. Of course, when I think about Israel, I don't think of the times on the van or the plane. I think of Dan, Masada, the Church of the Nativity. . .

I have discovered that we often live life like that. We mark our lives by the important "sites": high school graduation, college graduation, first job, wedding, and children. We find out that those destinations don't last very long. The marriage takes longer than the wedding. Yet, people put more emphasis on the wedding and too often the pay the price. Childbirth doesn't last nearly as long as raising them, it just feels that way. It seems that we are so often waiting for the next milestone so that we can start living life. Life is some elusive "out there"—forever out of reach.

In truth, "Life is what happens when you are busy doing other things." Most of life we spend on the journey. If we focus only on those milestones, we miss most of the trip. I pray that I sincerely try to enjoy the journeys that I take in my life. I try to enjoy daily being a father and husband. I try to enjoy being a professor. I try to find joy in the world around wherever I might be and whatever my situation (with varying degrees of success). I try to enjoy the ordinary because I know it won't last forever, and I know it won't come again.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

That’s What Faith (and Stupidity) Must Be

Anyone who knows me knows that my best stories usually start out "Mike and I were . . ." This story is no different. Mike and I were visiting some of my relatives in Eastern Kentucky. We had a good visit and were driving home through the winding roads in those beautiful hills. It was late, and anyone who has spent time in the mountains can tell you that fog can come up quickly and without warning.

It was dark, and we ran into what is to this day the thickest fog I have ever experienced in my life. I quite literally could not see the end of the hood of my little car. Of course the rational and responsible thing to do would be to pull off and wait for the fog to clear.

Being neither rational, nor responsible, but 20 years old and indestructible (we assumed), Mike and I hatched a plan. We discovered that although visibility was about four feet, it was only about three feet to the ground. So, Mike hung out the passenger side window where he could see the edge of the road and shouted, "Right, Left, Right, Left . . . Left . . . LEFT!!!" We drove that way for about an hour and half until we were down the other side of the mountain and the fog lightened up.

Now, I am the first to admit. This was a dumb thing to do. It was dangerous and foolish, and it makes no sense. For that reason, it has become the perfect metaphor for faith. We all live in this world trying to find the direction God would have us to go with our lives. We all strain to see the road and the turns. Luckily we have the voice of God—manifested in others, the biblical text, and the quiet of our soul—screaming, "Right, Left, Right, Left . . . Left . . . LEFT!!!"

We follow that voice because we know that voice is trustworthy. Even when our instincts say otherwise, we know that voice knows better and will lead us on.

It looks crazy. It looks stupid. People may make fun of you for doing it. But, the "wisdom of God is foolishness" to the world. Just as the wisdom of two twenty-year-olds looks like foolishness—only in our case, it really was foolishness.

Monday, February 25, 2008

“Where am I?”

All this week I have been reminded of something that happened several years ago. I was teaching as an adjunct at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor. At the end of the semester, I needed to go to UMHB and drop off my final grades for the semester. So, I packed my youngest son in the car and drove the 40 minutes it took to get to campus from Waco. Thomas was about five or six months old, and like most babies, he fell asleep about 30 seconds into the trip.

When we arrived at UMHB, I had the unpleasant task of waking him up. Thomas was not (and still is not) a morning person. So, I gently tried to wake him. As he roused, he had this look on his face that was a cross between confusion and anger (Cindy says she knows the look . . . apparently he got it from me). I tried to console and encourage him, but he was still very disoriented. Then, I leaned down in front of him so that he could see me. When I did, something happened that I will never forget. The confusion and anger melted off his face into the sweetest smile I have ever seen.

Thomas taught me a humbling lesson. As far as he was concerned, it didn't matter where he was as long as his father was there.

I suppose that is a lesson that I learn more slowly. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that the Kingdom of God must be lived out among our enemies. Thankfully, God has never asked me to face down the Nazis. But, when God does ask me to be and go places that make me uncomfortable, I need to remember that. When I wake up and look around and feel confused and angry, I need to be able to be at peace by simply gazing into the face of my heavenly father and remembering that wherever I am it is okay because my heavenly father is there.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Can you Hear the Rocks

I must confess that it is strange to think that anyone would want to spend their time reading random musings that I might have. There is that great insecurity—that I am finding so many of us carry around with us—that says, "What do you have worth saying?"

That said, I have seen people enjoy devotions or thoughts that I have had in the past. So, I thought I would join the bandwagon and start a blog. Maybe it is part of wanting to live an authentic life and allow people to know who I am—maybe it is part of wanting to leave something of "me" so that my children and others will know who I was and what I was like—maybe it is pride in thinking I might have something to say . . . whatever the reason, I am going to try to record some thoughts.

It seems it has always been easy for me to see God in the world around. The Chris Rice song, "My Cathedral" has always resonated with me because I, too, find it easy to experience the presence of God in nature--in the hills of Kentucky near my grandparent's house, sitting by a creek near Cindy's family in Mississippi, or listening to a rain storm. Powerfully and mystically, God seems very real to me in those moments.

One of my favorite "holy" places is in Israel. I love to visit the Cliffs of Arbel. Standing at the top of those limestone cliffs as they tower 1000 feet above the Sea of Galilee . . . watching the sunset (before we drive down to Tiberius to get some Chinese food), I am reminded that it isn't just the heavens that "are telling the glory of God." The earth does too.

In Luke 19:40, Jesus warns that if the people don't praise, "the rocks will cry out." If we listen close, I think we can hear that they already are.