Monday, February 12, 2018

Of War and Darkness

It was W.B. Yeats who once wrote,
"It takes more courage to examine the dark corners of your own soul than it does for a soldier to fight on a battlefield."

While I have never served on the battlefield, I have taken a peek at those dark corners and, on the basis of that experience, I might believe that Yeats’ words are true.  But I also suspect that the battlefield and the darkness of the human soul are less counterpoints and more connected than Yeats' writing might suggest.

For I am inclined to believe that to kill another human being, even for a good reason, does damage to the human soul.  And, to kill for a bad reason is evidence that the damage is already done.  For our soldiers who have been made to fight, the corners of their souls may be very dark in deed.

As we see the rhetoric of war heating up here and around the world, it is my prayer that we will keep these thoughts in mind.
“Maybe the ultimate wound is the one that makes you miss the war you got it in.”
 - from War, by Sebastian Junger

Thursday, December 21, 2017

What's In A Friend?

This December 2017, I had the great privilege of wandering around the lower portions of Chile and Argentina, hiking and camping and hosteling in the Patagonia region of South America.  Of a different kind and even greater privilege, I shared this wandering with an extraordinary friend whose presence gave each of our encounters with the world around us a deeper and more personal meaning.

Chris and I are a lot alike.  We both love the outdoors, love to hike and climb and capture the view from high places, love to push ourselves to always go further, always do it better.  We both love to read, love to stay in shape, love a good craft beer, and we love each other’s company.  But mostly what makes us alike is our faith and that, more than anything, is what transformed our great adventure into a spiritual journey.  When the 50+ mph winds gusts thundered like a train down the side of the mountain next to our campsite, startling us into consciousness at 3 AM and tearing our tent’s fabric and breaking its poles, we thought of it as “the hand of God” pressing the tent down into our bodies and presenting us with “a change of plans.”  Later we would realize that by leaving Torres Del Paine a day earlier than planned, we had just the right amount of time (and a new more wind resistant tent) to take in the even more spectacular experience of Fitz Roy.  And, three days later, when we finally crested the rise that would give us the close-up view of Fitz Roy that we hoped for, the clouds parted as if just for us and we together knew what we wanted and needed to do.  Standing in awe of the breathtaking extravagance of God’s creation, we couldn’t help but hold each other side by side and pray.  The grandeur of the world around us was made personal by our shared sense that all of this was the expression of a Creator who loves us….. an exhibition of grace.

But Chris and I are also not alike.  Perhaps most immediately obvious is our difference in age, him being 28 and me 64.  I tend to think that this does not matter much (actually, I tend to completely forget about our age difference!) but during our trip I began to see this a bit differently.  Our age difference meant that we had and were growing up in different times, and we saw the world differently from each other because we had, in a real sense, grown up in radically different cultures.  I remember life before color TV, computers, the Internet, and cellphones.  I’ve never played a video game and as a result have limited dexterity in my opposable thumbs.  The world I grew up in bears the indelible marks of the Vietnam War, and the Civil Rights Movement.  Chris‘s world bears the indelible marks of the Great Recession, the exposure of the Internet, and the “always in touch and on stage” nature of Facebook.  He’s more connected than me, more social than me, more entrepreneurial than me, more driven than me, more real-world than me.  He’s a man of action, whereas I’m more a man of thought.

It is this combination – this balance – of being like me and being different than me that makes Chris such an important and valued friend.  He drives me deeper into the ways in which we are the same – our faith, our sense of place and purpose in the universe – and he broadens me in the ways in which we are different – encouraging in me a more adventuresome and entrepreneurial spirit.

One of the things that Chris and I did on our trip was read the same book – Bonnie Ware’s The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.  While the title might sound a bit depressing, the lessons from the book were anything but, providing the two of us with insights not on how to die, but instead on how to live.  One of those insights was on the potential of friendship to give our lives meaning and purpose and hope.  Bonnie Ware gave powerful examples of the kinds and qualities of friendships that are best at enriching our lives, and both Chris and I thought and shared about this in terms of our friendship with each other, with others, and especially with our wives.

As Bonnie Ware and others have pointed out, in a very real sense we are defined by our friendships, by the friends we choose to have.  The question is, do our friendships reinforce who we already are, or encourage and support us in moving toward who we might become?  Do they emphasize security, or opportunity?  Do they inspire us, or deaden our hopes?  Do they energize us, or anaesthetize us?  Do they hold us back or propel us forward?  Do they love us, or do they simply find us convenient, comfortable, like the shape of a beer can in their hand?

In one of the best and hardest books I have ever read, A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, I find this advice:
 “The only trick 
of friendship, I think, is to find people who are better than you are — not smarter, not cooler, but kinder, and more generous, and more forgiving — and then to appreciate them for what they can teach you, and to try to listen to them when they tell you something about yourself, no matter how bad — or good — it might be, and to trust them, which is the hardest thing of all. But the best, as well.”

Like the extravagance of God’s creation, like the prayer offered because it is the only meaningful response, my life is given meaning and purpose and value by the friends with which I am blessed…… friends like Chris.

C. C. Lewis writes, “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art…. It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.”  Like the kind of friend we all need, Chris helps give it all value…….

Friday, October 13, 2017

Hunting Camp and Inclusion

About 18 years ago I found myself at the annual hunting camp of my friend Bruce, who was at the time the Under-Sheriff for Park County, Wyoming.  Both Bruce and I are originally from Minnesota so, when I moved to Wyoming he took it upon himself to orient me to Wyoming culture, at the center of which was elk hunting.  I had never hunted for anything bigger than a pheasant before so my “orientation” proved to be a steep learning curve.  Nevertheless, having successfully shot a cow elk in my first season, Bruce felt I was ready to join him and his buddies at his hunting camp for my second hunting season.  By “buddies,” I soon found out, Bruce meant a gathering of about 10 law enforcement officers, most of whom were also from Minnesota.  Among them was Jim.

Jim was maybe 10 years older than I was, a retired officer of the Minneapolis Police Force, and a great storyteller. We hit it off almost immediately and were soon sharing our stories of life in Minnesota: fishing, farming, hunting and, of course, the weather.  But, when Jim began to tell his stories about providing police coverage for anti-war protests on the University of Minnesota Campus, it was more than his great storytelling that made me feel as if I had been there too………  because I had been. 

Jim sat there quietly as I shared with him that I had been one of those protesters and that it was highly likely that he and I had been on the UofM campus on the same day, on opposite side of the protest lines.  When I finished, Jim remained silent and I wondered if this would be the quick end to budding friendship.  But then he said “those were different times” and then he and I went on to share more stories and a great hunting weekend….. and I felt included.

Inclusion.  A foundational part of our LBCC Mission, one of our five Values and one of the seven Strategic Initiatives in our Strategic Plan.  Obviously, Inclusion is important to us at LBCC…. but it’s also hard.  Inclusion is easy when we all see things the same way, say things the same way, walk down the same road the same way…. but we don’t.  Instead, we bring – we embody – differences in history, culture, beliefs, economics, race, gender, sexual orientation, and hundreds of other differences that tend to separate us into camps, place us on opposite sides of issues, and on the opposite sides of protest lines….. like Jim and me.

Nonetheless, Jim and I saw each other across those lines and included each other in each other’s lives.  Perhaps it was the vantage point that comes from being a decade or two away from and older than we were at our first “meeting,” but what we realized in our second meeting at that hunting camp was that there were good patriotic Americans – and good people - on both sides of those protest lines.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

I, along with many scholars, suspect that the writers of the Declaration of Independence did not fully appreciate all that would come to be understood in these words, but few would suggest that they would be anything other than pleased with the expanding and absolute understanding of Inclusion that the word “all” has come to mean for us as Americans… and for us here at LBCC.

“To engage in an education that enables all of us . . .”

Whether we wave a peace sign or an American flag, whether we stand or kneel or lock arms in solidarity, whether we know God’s name as Jesus, Yahweh, Allah or some other name, whether we are Native American, European American, Latino American, Black American or some other American, whether we are gay or straight or something else, and whether we are liberal or conservative or something else, there is nothing in these differences that make us anything other than good people who have a right to and a place in our country, our community, and here at LBCC.  This is what Inclusion means…. “all of us.”

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Driving In Ireland

I have to admit that I approached the prospect of driving on the “wrong” side of the road with a bit of trepidation, faintly remembering some less-than-stellar vehicular maneuvers while attempting to drive in London about 30 years ago.  But, with some initial “learning experiences” behind me – some right hand turns that inexplicably put me back on the right (not correct!) side of the road, an attempted U-turn that looked more like a figure 8, and then adapting to shifting the 5-speed transmission with my left hand instead of my right - I actually began to enjoy it.  REALLY enjoy it!  The roads were so very narrow and winding, and measuring speed in Kilometers instead of Miles per hour added to the sense of going fast….. faster than you could imagine as the shrubbery (or a stone wall!) on the left and the oncoming traffic on the right were both less than a couple of feet from the sides of my car.  Intense!

But, as I was driving down the left side of a two way road that was just barely wider than a single lane back home, and doing so at 100 kilometers per hour while oncoming traffic was doing the same, I came to a realization……. My safety was dependent not so much on my own driving skills as it was on the skills (and intentions) of the 100’s of drivers around me and heading toward me.  This is not something I would be terribly aware of in the rather monotonous driving environment we have created for ourselves in the U.S.  But here in Ireland, where the roads demand every bit of your attention – even for the locals (no one thinks of texting while driving here in Ireland…… no one’s that crazy!) – I was acutely aware of my dependency on those around me.

This awareness of our “dependency” is something that the capitalistic, competitive, hyper-individualistic culture of the USA has bred out of us – perhaps even taught us to loathe – and it seems to me that every time I’m outside the U.S. and experiencing something else, I see the tragedy of this loss all over again.  One of my dear friends accuses me of romanticizing these other cultures, and I know that he is correct in his doing so.  Every society must have its own blind spots, but still, the contrast that these foreign travels present to my culture of origin make me acutely aware of a dependency that I long for……. and for which I now believe we were made.

In Steve Martin’s classic film, The Jerk, there is this ironic parody of our fear of dependency on each other that I will never forget.  Navin Johnson (played by Steve Martin) has decided to leave his girlfriend/lover (played by Bernadette Peters) and, as he is about to go out the door he says:

“Well I’m gonna to go then.  And I don’t need any of this.  I don’t need this stuff, and I don’t need you.  I don’t need anything except this.  And that’s it and that’s the only thing I need, is this.  I don’t need this or this.  Just this ashtray.  And this paddle game, the ashtray and the paddle game and that’s all I need.  And this remote control.  The ashtray, the paddle game, and the remote . . . “

What do we really need from each other? What do we need to give and receive and share? And who do we need to be to each other?  More than someone to safely share the road with? 

Sebastian Junger, in his new book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, writes "Humans don't mind hardship. In fact, they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary."  It seems to me that what we need to rediscover, and share with, and be to each other is “necessary.”

Thursday, January 21, 2016

A Little Life


Just finished reading the book "A Little Life" by Hanya Yanagihara, and feel the need to write something while it's still fresh in my mind..... although it may remain "fresh" forever.

This is not a book for the timid, the impatient, or those who like happy stories with happy endings. At 720 pages, it takes some endurance to read and, with every new chapter, we learn a bit more about lives - and especially one life - that are filled with tragedy and abuse almost beyond comprehension. As such, this is a graphic story about the corruption of our human spirit, and it sometimes takes courage just to turn to the next page.

But it is also a story about the power of friendship and love to heal some of the damage that is brought upon us, that we bring upon each other, and that we bring upon ourselves too..... (but the damage we do to ourselves is the hardest to heal.)  I want to believe that true love and friendship, when fully given and received, can heal all wounds.  As the main character's adopted father tells his adopted son:

“You won’t understand what I mean now, but someday you will: the only trick of friendship, I think, is to find people who are better than you are—not smarter, not cooler, but kinder, and more generous, and more forgiving—and then to appreciate them for what they can teach you, and to try to listen to them when they tell you something about yourself, no matter how bad—or good—it might be, and to trust them, which is the hardest thing of all. But the best, as well.” 

But, while many, many wounds are healed through amazing expressions and relationships of love in this book, some are not.  I cried over and over again, both for the damage done and for the healing love..... but mostly for when the damage was too great, where even love was not enough.

I think this book is about our own lives, on steroids so we don't miss what is more muted in our own day to day, so we can more clearly see the ways in which our lives connect and collide with each other in both damaging and healing ways, so we might choose to heal and love as much as we can.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Brokenness and Love

Between the searching and the need to work it out
I stop believing everything will be alright
We are broken
I'm walking uphill being turned around and round
Secret in motion when my feet are on the ground
We are broken
In my mind's eye
One little boy anger one little man
Funny how time flies
Tears for Fears

How are we to understand and respond to these recent tragic shootings in our world?  What are we to do to protect ourselves from further and future harm?  Polarized political positions that present themselves as mutually exclusive when democracy depends on compromise only add fuel to a fire that has already burned too long….. and I feel the heat rising.

With each new shooting, both sides use the tragedy as evidence to support their intractable stances in a standoff debate while obscuring the deeper truth that the real problem is not in our having too many or too few guns.

The real problem is us…….

The Bible tells us that “hardship does not spring from the soil, nor does trouble sprout from the ground.  Yet man is born to trouble, as surely as sparks fly upward” (Job 5:6-7).  Looking for something or someone outside ourselves to blame, we fail to see that the brokenness out there in the world is nothing more, and nothing less, than the brokenness within us, writ large. 

If we only see the brokenness of the world “out there” without acknowledging the brokenness of the world "in here,” inside ourselves, we can never really understand.  And, in the absence of knowing this brokenness personally, we are doomed to living in the fear of that which we do not understand.

But, when we acknowledge our common human condition, our common capacity for both good and evil, both light and darkness; when we acknowledge that there were 10 tragic losses of life and not 9, embracing our common future and common fate in a world that is unavoidably ours to share, then – and only then – can we see our way forward, see our way out.  For the answer to darkness in not more darkness, nor is the solution to meet violence with more violence.  Instead, the only “force” that can bring light to the darkness and healing to the brokenness that is both within and without, is love.

Not a Pollyannaish Love, not a Hallmark Card Love, but instead……………

A love that holds a person accountable, but more as a son than an enemy

A love that reaches out with friendship so that no one’s thoughts can lead them to a sense of isolation or abandonment

A love that reaches out with generosity so that no one’s poverty can lead them to desperation

A love that reaches out with forgiveness so that no one believes themselves to be beyond help, or hope

A love that reaches out with balm for body and mind because no one is beyond healing

A love given to enemies as if they were friends, a love given to others as we would want to be loved ourselves

Because, when we really know the brokenness, and when we really know the power of love given or withheld, we will at the same time know that the heaven or hell of this world is of our own making.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

At Our Best

So here I am, sitting in a folding chair on the putting green at Mallard Creek Golf Course, writing my monthly President’s Report during my break between my welcome and closing comments while everyone else is playing 18 holes of golf at our LBCC Foundation Annual Golf Tournament.  In front of me are a couple of large lawn tents under which we will have our closing luncheon and program at somewhere around noon, while off to my right is the burned out shell of the lodge that was supposed to be there for us….. but now isn’t.

Stuff happens (there’s another way of saying this that perhaps makes for a more powerful statement but, for my purposes here, the word “Stuff” will suffice).

Buildings burn down, budgets are cut, adversity comes from unexpected places, the sun clouds over and the rains fall.  This is the “Stuff” that happens and, for some, this is the stuff that defeats.  But here I am at a golf tournament fundraiser that feels more like a family event because the challenge of pulling this off has pulled us closer together….. players and sponsors and volunteers and golf course staff all together because it isn’t really about the game or the prizes or the lodge that is a total loss.  Instead, we gather on this beautiful crisp morning because we believe in the difference that a particular community college makes in students’ lives and in the communities that are ours to share. 

Over this summer I finally had the time to read Malcolm Gladwell’s most recent book, David and Goliath, and in it I saw the characteristics that I think contribute to LBCC’s success: the right size for being nimble and quick on our feet, a passionate sense of why we are here, and a willingness to draw together when “things” happen.  Like a golf tournament that rises to the challenge and finds something deeper and wider than just a game, like David who defeats Goliath because he believes in something more than Goliath does, we at LBCC find our success not in our circumstances but in our character.  And it is in this realization that we are at our best.