Following Zu

A week ago, we celebrated your tenth birthday. You picked out a cake mix and we spent the afternoon baking it. There were presents. We watched a movie. I enjoyed celebrating the decade I have spent with you in my life.

You're a year older, chronologically speaking, but not much has changed. You are still the same bold and sweet young woman you were a few weeks ago. You are still as boisterous and compassionate as you were a year ago. You're a few inches taller but you are still you.

Of all the days between your ninth birthday and your tenth, there is one moment that stands out more than others.

Last summer, you and I had an afternoon to ourselves. Your brothers were occupied and we had a few hours before we needed to pick them up. I gave you the choice of how to spend our time and you asked to go to the beach. We didn't have any towels and you weren't wearing a swim suit, but you didn't care. All that mattered was how much you crave sunshine and water; both were available.

We were listening to The Beatles as we drove. I used to sing 'Hey Jude' to you as a lullaby when you were a baby and I always look for opportunities to keep you familiar with their music. We pulled up to the parking lot with the windows down and the song 'Got to Get You Into My Life' playing.

I exited the car and opened your door. As you stepped out, you looked up at me with those deep sparking chocolate colored eyes and asked "Daddy, did I tell you I need you every single day of my life?" Quoting the words of the song we just heard.

"No," I smiled and knelt down to your level. "But you did now."

Your question was a reflection of who you really are. You are the most observant girl I've ever met. You pay attention to everything even when it appears like you are focused on something else. Anyone who asks "How could she possibly know?" doesn't understand you. Your personality was full on display as a lover of music and as a daughter who adores her dad. You demonstrated that tightrope you walk balancing between bravery and vulnerability.

Then we walked, crossed the street, and followed the road to the beach. Your excitement carried you with a quickness uniquely reserved for youth. Nothing was going to stand in between you and the lake. Yet along the way, you still looked back to make sure I was there. I was and seeing me gave you the confidence to speed up your pace a little faster.

I was right there behind you. And I always have been. When you swing on the monkey bars or when you fall and scrape your knee. When you walk to class on your first day or school or get frightened by thunder on a stormy night. I'm right there behind you. Over the next few years, you will be facing a lot of new and potentially scary moments. For all those firsts, I hope to remain right there behind you.

When you attend your first day of middle school, go out on your first date, are crushed by your first broken heart, get your driver's license, and do all of those things kids do in their second decade of life, this moment on the way to the beach is the one I will always remember. You told me you needed me, then looked back to make sure I was still there.

I was. And I still am.


Conversations with the kids

Every day, after I pick the kids up from school, JJ asks the same question: "Are we going anywhere before we go home." Today, my answer was yes. I explained we needed to go to the grocery store to get more grapes and strawberries because within the last 24 hours, Zu ate all of the grapes and strawberries I had in stock.

As we turned left to go to Winco instead of right toward the apartment, Christian got confused and asked "Why aren't we going home?" This is a common occurrence. He doesn't pay attention to the conversation so he asks questions that have already been answered. To encourage him to engage more, I have stopped answering these redundant questions. Either he can keep up or he can be clueless. His choice.

Christian had another inquiry as we parked the car. It was also one that had been answered in the earlier conversation. "What are we getting?"

So I answered, "Iocane powder."
"Iocane powder."
"What's that for?"
"Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line!"
"Ohhhh," Christian finally caught on. "It's a geeky reference."

We walked in silence a few steps. But then Christian revealed that he didn't quite get it.

"Is that a Doctor Who quote?" he asked.
Clearly I have failed as a parent. "Inconceivable." I said.
"Is that from Doctor Who?"

He and I did this a few more times. Each time, I kept using that word at greater volume. And yes, it does mean what I think it means.

Finally, Zu interrupted, "No, Christian, it's not from Doctor Who. It's from The Princess Bride."

I gave her a high five. She deserved it.
"Thank you, my daughter, at least one of my kids knew of which I spoke."
"Duh, it's only my favorite movie ever."


If I ruled the Schools

The schools I attended growing up were not bad schools, but they were far from perfect. The schools my kids attend now are good, but are also in need of improvement. Nationwide, not all kids are as lucky. America’s education system is broken. How do we fix it? I don’t think anyone has the correct answer, but in an ideal world, here’s what I would do.

1. Make early education opportunities available to everyone and increase the accessibility for programs like Head Start in low income neighborhoods. Research nearly unanimously agree that investing heavily in the early years of education is a public benefit, even if those rewards are not seen for twenty years after the service is provided.
2. Instead of focusing on what traditionalists call the three R’s (“readin’ ritin’ & rithmetic”) emphasize what I call the three A’s: arts, athletics, and academics. For youngest groups, each of these areas should be given equal time in the daily curriculum. As kids age, more time should be allocated for academic study, yet some form of artistic and physical education should remain a part of every student’s daily routine. Incorporating music, theater, and art in classrooms help children with critical thinking and creative problem solving skills, increase student’s ability to participate in self-directed learning, and improves attendance. Physical education encourages kids to live healthier lifestyles and would fight our nation’s obesity epidemic; PE also increases a pupil’s learning capacity, attention span, and ability to concentrate. Participation in arts and athletics positively impacts traditional academic courses.
3. We cannot legislate parental participation but we should encourage and reward it. Students excel when their parents are actively involved. However, the government cannot (and should not) control how or what parents teach in their home, so schools must be prepared to fill the gap and support kids that are not getting parental support at home.
4. Encourage teachers and reward them if they can successfully incorporate hands on experience or technology into their lessons. Schools would save a lot of money on textbooks if text books can be digitally presented or other alternatives can be used.
5. Set national standards and minimum competencies but give states and individual school districts the autonomy of how to maintain those standards. What works in rural communities will not work in urban neighborhoods and each school should be free to do what works best for their students.
6. Students should be scored in both growth and proficiency. Students should not be able to move up a grade or continue to the next level until they meet the required competency. However, teachers should not be penalized for students who fail to meet the minimum competency if they can demonstrate student growth. The goal should be to help the student improve, not to help the student pass a test.
7. All schools, whether private or public, should adhere to Individuals With Disabilities Education Act and Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 to qualify for any government funding.
8. Enhance funding for rural schools and schools in depressed urban communities. Provide better incentives for teachers to work in these schools. We need to recognize kids in these locations deserve equal access to kids in wealthier neighborhoods.
9. Success for all schools would be measured from multiple sources to compensate from the shortcomings of using standardized test scores alone. Teachers and classes should be rated by students like the K1 assessment in the Kirkpatrick Model. Standardized tests or other standard grading should be used to measure both student proficiency and growth. Teachers should be reviewed by both their peers and administration so teachers can share best practices and leadership can hold educators accountable for meeting individual goals and district standards.

Would schools under my command be perfect? Probably not. But I hope it would be better than what we have now.


Maybe Both

Passion Week’s scriptures begin and end with a crowd. The first was the crowd laying palm branches on the streets of Jerusalem, the last gathered to watch an execution. The mood of the crowds shifted from celebratory at the beginning of the week to an angry mob a few days later. The first crowd gathered to honor Jesus and the next one gathered to condemn him.

At the time, Jerusalem was filled with people. Jewish people from all across Judea gathered in the city to celebrate Passover. As Jews, Jesus and his disciples also entered to observe the holiday. According to scripture, Jesus rode into town on a young donkey and the crowd covered the road ahead of him with their clothes and palm branches. They heralded his entry with a Psalm: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” They shouted a Hebrew term, Hosanna, which is a word meaning save, help, or rescue. It’s as if they are calling out to Jesus, save us.

A few days later, Jesus was arrested and put on trial. He was brought before the prefect, Governor Pontius Pilate. Pilate could not find any reason for guilt. His wife urged him to have nothing to do with the man. He even argued on behalf of the prisoner, urging for his release and how Jesus did not deserve death. But another crowd testified in opposition. They called for blood with more shouts: “crucify Him!” Pilate could not reason with the crowd. He washed his hands clean and caved to their demands.

As we look internally during the Easter season, we have to ask ourselves which crowd we would have joined. Had I lived in ancient Judea, would have been one of the citizens praising and blessing Jesus? Or would I have been a rioter throwing around false accusations and insisting upon his crucifixion?

If I’m honest?

Maybe both.

Because there are mornings I wake up and thank God for the breath that fills my lungs. And sometimes I’m on the side of the street in the middle of the night, yelling at God, like Bruce Almighty, “Smite me O Smiter.” With the same lips I sing praises and mutter curses. I am quick to say both “glory” and “dammit.” I credit God for the good things in my life and blame God for the trials. So which statement would I shout? “Hosanna” or “Kill him?” Would I join the party crowd or the protesting mob? Maybe both.

Scripturally, many of the people that gathered on what we now call Palm Sunday were likely a part of the crowd that gathered to observe Jesus’ trial. One day, they sang “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” Then a few days later they chanted “Crucify him.” When Jesus came to Jerusalem, everyone was there for Passover. The holiday is an eight day celebration, so by the time Jesus faced Pilate, no one had gone home yet. They were still in town for the same holiday. This is one of the biggest parties in Jewish tradition. It is only reasonable to assume many people witnessed both the triumphal entry and the sentence that condemned Jesus.

They were the same people. The same crowd. They both loved and hated Jesus. They asked for his help and demanded his death. They, like me, didn’t choose one or the other; they were caught up in the moment. When asked, what shall it be: a savior or a scapegoat? This crowd chose both.


About that snow

My daughter and I had very different reactions to the snow this morning.


The School Experience

My experiences in primary and secondary education were not the most enjoyable. Nor would I describe them as productive. It wasn’t completely bad, but all that was good is dwarfed by the negative aspects my time in American public schools.

My ability to learn (or at least learn effectively) was hindered by two forces. The first was the nature of how schools were structured. When I was younger, no one knew what to do with kids like me. I had that weird combination of a learning disability and above average intelligence. The extent of my capabilities was never expressed through grades or daily homework assignments. Curriculum was not formatted in a way that catered to my learning style. Teachers and administrators expected me to conform to meet their needs, rather than becoming creative to meet my needs.

The second force that made my education less than stellar was beyond the control of the schools. I had the intellectual capabilities to do what needed to be done. Yet socially, culturally, and economically speaking, I was disadvantaged – especially when compared to other students in my district. That left me with fewer opportunities due to financial restrictions or social ineptitude. It is hard to focus on the role of a learner when you’re constantly bullied or do not have the funds to attend extracurricular functions with the rest of you class.

After high school, and throughout my adult life, I have had to pursue my own learning to make up for what I missed through formal education. Even in college classes, I have thrived most in environments that were the least structured.

A lot has changed in the last twenty to thirty years. If educators knew then what we know now, I think my experiences could have been more successful and rewarding. Unfortunately, I look at the schools my kids attend now and not much has changed. The ridged application of lecture and homework is still designed to teach to the test. Budgets continue to shrink. And schools progressively see reduced value in arts and athletics.

Even with my disappointments, I see hope. Schools have better supports to help disadvantaged kids and students with disabilities. Classrooms are beginning to incorporate technology in daily lessons. And there are a variety of options from magnet schools to online education to meet a wider variety of student needs and interests. The more schools begin to shift their priorities to be student-centric and less focused on standardized test results, the better our schools will be suited to meet the needs of all students.


The Good Teachers

We all remember the horrible teachers. The ones who made us dread attending classes or soured our tastes for entire subjects. These figures remain in our memories for all the wrong reasons. But what about the good teachers? Or the great ones? Don’t we all have a few teachers we want to memorialize like Robin Williams’ character in Dead Poets Society?

When I look back at my formative years, there are a handful of teachers I consider good, perhaps even great. When I close my eyes and remember those educators who made me want to learn, these are the people I see.

Mrs. Funston: first grade teacher
Mrs. Wilson: Enhanced Learning teacher
Don: Sunday school teacher, wilderness guide, mentor, and hiking companion
Mr. Vandiver: junior high PE teacher and wrestling coach
Mr. Taylor: art teacher
K: high school US history teacher and theater director
Herr Hansen: high school German teacher

From the youngest of my elementary days, to my senior year of high school. These teachers taught a wide range of topics and possessed vastly different personalities. Yet there are a few traits all seven of them had in common.

1. They believed in me. More than just me, they believed in all their students. They pushed us to achieve greatness because they believed we were capable of greatness. Because they saw the best in us, we wanted to be better.

2. They knew more than what they were teaching. They also knew how and why. When they presented a lesson, they included a motivation and a reason why we needed to know what they were teaching. They taught in ways that were engaging, entertaining, memorable, and relevant.

3. They taught more than school lessons, they also taught life lessons. When they were teaching, their goal was to do more than help us pass a test or get good grades. They were teaching us to live beyond the classroom.

4. They stepped away from the front of the classroom and got down to our level. They interacted with us. They sat in desks next to us. They gave us the idea that we could do what they do.

I would hope my peers see these teachers with the same reverence. When I was a student in their classes, previous students would often return to visit and thank them. When I got older, I was one of those returning students. And twenty years later, in one of my alumni groups, I still see praise of a couple of these teachers. These were the good ones.


A Peculiar Learner

In 1990, I officially became a peculiar child. To know me now, that shouldn’t be much of a surprise. But back then, teachers didn’t know what to do with me.

A few years earlier, my parents and the school district put me through a series of tests; the result demonstrated that I was exceedingly smart. My scores revealed I had an IQ higher than most kids my age. Starting in the third grade, I was enrolled in a class called Enhanced Learning. One day per week, students who (like me) tested with exceptional IQs met for our own class separate from our regular courses to do things that smart kids do. It was like AP classes for elementary aged kids.

Fifth grade started in the fall of 1989. I was still in Enhanced Learning (which was the highlight of my week), but I was struggling to keep up with my normal class curriculum. By the end of the year, my folks took me to see a psychiatrist who gifted me an ADD diagnosis and told me I had a learning disability that was a cousin to dyslexia. After the new year, the school began adjusting my schedule to provide me additional support.

These changes put the school in a predicament, which is why I said I was officially a peculiar child. The only support the district had at the time was special education. I was the first student in the Marysville school district to be simultaneously enrolled in advanced and remedial classes. For an hour a day, I sat in the library with a few kids who had physical disabilities that prevented them from functioning in the standard classroom environment. The administration assumed I needed help learning science and mathematics and special education was their solution. But learning wasn’t my problem; I knew the material. My biggest issue was getting the work done. I was far more intelligent than they understood. They made a false equivalence between achievement and intelligence. If I was so smart, they assumed my grades should be better.

My learning disability caused me to write slower than most kids. My brain also functioned at a faster pace than the teacher could teach, so I grew bored and distracted. Neither of those issues were addressed through special education nor did it inhibit my ability to comprehend the lessons I was supposed to learn. My biggest challenge was that I didn’t do the work. Either I didn’t have enough time or attention. I literally couldn’t keep up.

These days, I consider myself a constant learner. Maybe it’s a rebellious act against those teachers who never thought it could be done, my way of proving them wrong. I've become an autodidact. I study even when it’s not required because I have a strong desire to learn and know more. As an adult, I still want to be the smartest kid in the room.


The Gorsuch Test

Every time I see the name of Judge Neil Gorsuch in a headline, my mind re-imagines the news story to be talking about Rorschach tests. It's an apt metaphor. A psychologist could slide a photo of Gorsuch in front of you and find your response just as informative as how you perceive Rorschach's ink blots and smudges. Two people can view the same image; one is inspired and the other discouraged. It depends on your personality and emotional state.

found on Pinterest

Before we talk about the current Supreme Court nominee, we need to take a trip back in time. So get in your DeLorean, your TARDIS, your phonebooth, your WABAC Machine, or any other time travelling vehicle. Our destination is the year 2000.

courtesy Team Coco

The vice president (a Democrat) was facing off in the presidential campaign against a governor from Texas. This Texan, Republican George W Bush, wanted to re-brand his party as compassionate conservatives. Like most Republicans - especially those from the Bible Belt, Bush Jr. described himself as ardently pro-life. As a presidential candidate, he stated, "I believe every life is valuable, even when it is unwanted, even when it is physically imperfect. I believe our society has a responsibility to defend the vulnerable and the weak. And I believe our nation should set a goal: that unborn children should be welcomed in life and protected in law." Bush wanted to create what he called a "culture of life" and frequently talked about reducing the number of abortions performed in America. During a debate against Al Gore, Bush said, "Surely this nation can come together to promote the value of life." Bush won largely due to the Evangelical vote who supported his pro-life stance. Many of those Christian Right voters believed George W Bush would be the one who would overturn Roe vs. Wade.

Jump back into your time machines and travel to the next presidential election. Abortions were still legal and Roe vs. Wade was still law. Yet President Bush maintained his pro-life views. During his acceptance speech at the GOP convention, he said, "a caring society will value its weakest members. We must make a place for the unborn child." And during his 2005 State of the Union address, Bush repeatedly mentioned building a culture of life.

Another trip through the space time continuum brings us four years closer to the present. Bush Jr was coming to the end of his presidency. Abortion remained legal and religious conservatives did not get their wish to see Roe vs Wade undone. Many right-wing advocacy groups criticized Bush's moderate approach to abortion. Prolife Profiles hold President Bush accountable for the deaths of over three million children. They described his mother, wife, and two daughters as openly pro-abortion. American Right to Life said, "far from being a pro-life hero, former president Bush is typical of the modern Republican hypocrisy on child killing and guilty of the mass murder of millions of innocent children."

The Democrat candidate that year was a young senator from Illinois named Barack Obama. He supported women's right to choose and the Christian Right campaigned hard against him due to his stance on abortion. Many Christians referred to Obama as a gleeful baby-killer as if he was excited to see women abort their babies. His actual beliefs were far from how conservatives thought of him. He didn't like abortion. His goal was to reduce how frequently they were provided in America while maintaining the right for women to choose to terminate their pregnancies. I even wrote a post about it and as a result was told that I should be ashamed of myself. A family friend said I was everything that was wrong with America and I was going to Hell.

A funny thing happened in 2008. The Christian Right lost. The little known liberal and rookie politician beat out the well known and established candidate. Obama became the president and right wingers everywhere predicted doom. Then another funny thing happened. What Obama hoped to see in the issue of abortion actually came to pass. During his presidency, less abortions were provided. According to the CDC, in the ten years spanning from the start of Bush Jr's second term through Obama's sixth year in office, the number of abortions dropped by 20%, the rate was reduced by 21%, and the ratio experienced a 17% loss.

Now let's return to the present time. Please leave all historical figures and companions in their own timelines and avoid any grandfather paradoxes.

Party on, dudes!

I don't know many people who like Trump. Even in Idaho (the reddest of red states) most people I encounter are disgusted by our President. Yet many of those same people voted for him. Some were straight party voters who refuse to elect a Democrat; these people would probably vote for Satan as long as there was the magical letter R next to his name on the ballot. Others voted for him because they couldn't stand the thought of another President Clinton. And there were those who voted for Trump because of one singular issue: his promise to nominate a pro-life judge to the Supreme Court and finally overturn Roe vs Wade. I even heard one local resident say, "I can't stand his policies, and I think he's a racist, but at least he's pro-life." Even that claim is sketchy. Trump's spoken stance on abortion changes as frequently as the seasons.

I wish to address this last group of people, the single issue voters. Are you happy now? Did you get what you wanted? This week, we've been watching the confirmation hearings for Judge Gorsuch. When asked if he and Trump had any discussion about Roe vs Wade, Gorsuch denied giving any indication that he would overturn the landmark court ruling. He adamantly stated, "That's not what judges do." Gorsuch admitted that Roe vs Wade has been "reaffirmed many times" and is a case with important precedence. If he is confirmed, he is the kind of judge that will continue to uphold, not reject Roe vs Wade. So dear Trump voters, those of you who only voted for him so you could get the judge who would outlaw abortion, it looks like Trump has broken his promise. If Gorsuch is your Rorschach test, do you like what you see? Do you have regrets?


Are We Learning?

I find it interesting that the classroom environments my kids experience has not changed much since I was their age. There have been some changes over the past 30 years as technology has been integrated into the curriculum and there seems to be less time and funding for arts and athletics. Yet the structure of how information is delivered, expected to be retained, and assessed is nearly identical to what I experienced thirty years ago.

Classrooms are still commonly set up with desks in rows. Instruction is still didactic in nature. Students are still expected to regurgitate facts and figures for the sake of a standardized test. And test scores are frequently more valued than actual learning.

It is discouraging to see how little education has changed while the rest of the world is radically different. There are glimmers of hope as school choices increase. Magnet, charter, alternative, and online schools give parents more options to find methods that work best for their kids. Yet even with a wider variety of places where students can be educated, we still need to recognize room for improvement in traditional schools.

Are our kids learning? And more than that, are we learning? Have we learned from past mistakes? Are we learning from education models that are working in other nations? Are we learning from experimental successes? What is the future of education?

I can’t answer all those questions but my experiences have led me to a few conclusions. Our schools need to recognize that not all students learn with the same method and find ways to connect with kids with more than one style of learning. This means greater inclusion of group discussions and collaboration. We need to understand that there are factors beyond a student’s desire to learn that affect their ability to learn and we might need to address their needs in ways that validate their family, health, and economic circumstances.

If we can abandon outdated teaching methods and focus on giving kids the tools they need to learn in today’s culture, then the future of education looks bright.


Evolution of a Writer

Before I was a blogger, I was a poet. Actually, I was a songwriter first. Well, that still isn’t accurate. Before I was anything, I avoided writing everything.

In my earliest memories, I did as little writing as possible. In preschool, when the teachers were teaching us to write our own names, I shortened Nicholas to Nic because I didn’t want to take the time to write my whole name. In elementary school, homework was often incomplete if it was done at all. My handwriting was sloppy. Other kids could write a full page in the time it took me to scribble one full paragraph; I was slow so I figured it wasn’t my thing.

There had to be something wrong with me. My grades were suffering because of it. I was smart (I tested into the highest tier of IQ for my age group) yet I was rarely able to focus in class and barely survived with grades somewhere between needs improvement and mediocre.

One summer, my parents tried to fix it. School was out and they were determined to turn me into a better student by the following September. On a warm weekend, we went over to some friends of my parents for a barbecue. I liked going there because their boys were close to my age and they had a ColecoVision with several games including my favorites: BurgerTime and Pitfall. During this visit, my parents set a restriction: before I could play video games I had to copy three pages word-for-word from a book called Medical Mysteries. It was a tortuous task and unforgettable experience. I complained the whole time and when I was done my hands hurt so much that I didn’t feel like playing any games. My parent’s efforts failed; I still hated to write and school continued to be a struggle.

In seventh grade, my friend Matt introduced me to grunge. Our math teacher allowed us to pick out the music to play while we completed our worksheets. Matt had a copy of the Sap EP that Alice in Chains had released earlier that month. Soon, like most other junior high aged kids in the Seattle suburbs, I thought grunge was the coolest thing in the world. A year later, Matt told me he was in a band. I asked him who wrote their songs and he said, “We do, it’s easy – think of a word and write about it.” As our eighth grade year was coming to an end, he told me that if I wrote a song for his band, they might use it.

Over the summer, I penned my first song. It was called Reach. I wrote it on the blank side of an offering envelope during a Sunday night church service while I probably should have been listening to the pastor. Of course, it wasn’t a complete song – just words. I could hear the melody in my head but since I couldn’t play any instruments, the music portion of the song was never created. When we returned to school to start ninth grade, Matt was still in a band but I never gave him the lyrics to Reach. I was insecure and filled with the self-loathing teenaged angst my generation perfected in the 90s. I was sure my work wasn’t good enough.

I kept writing though, suddenly finding enjoyment in placing words on paper. For a while, I stuck with the basic verse chorus verse song structure, fully intending to find a guitarist who could help add music to match what I imagined when I created the lyrics. Eventually though, the song craft morphed into poetry and prose. It wasn’t good poetry by any measure. I was a nerdy high school kids so there were limits to my talents. But it sustained me through the latter half of my teen years as I filled up notebook after notebook with my own creative work.

The poetic writing continued into my early 20s. Then I met a girl and I really liked her. Unfortunately, my creative spark vanished. I would try and write a poem but instead stare at a blank page wondering if I had run out of words. I couldn’t write a love song if my life depended on it. Apparently, heartbreak, anger, and frustration were better motivators than feelings of infatuation and romance. With the rhythms and rhymes gone from my imagination, my writings morphed again. I started emailing letters – essays to my dad. I wrote about people who were making waves in pop culture. I argued that if Christians really believed what the bible says, we should pray for these people instead of criticizing them.

That girl and I got married. We packed up everything we owned and moved to South Dakota. During the two-day drive from Coeur d’Alene to Sioux Falls, I was either driving or reading. My new father-in-law wrote fan-fiction and he had a short story he was going to submit into a contest. Even though his story was set in a universe fandom that I didn’t follow, I still read it. I thought it was good; the story was engaging and entertaining. Then somewhere between Sturgis and Wall, an inescapable thought hit me: I could totally do this. Not necessarily authoring fan-fiction but writing stories. I’ve always been a good story teller, all I had to do was commit it to ink and paper.

I tried. I thought I could write the next great novel. Unfortunately, I had a bad case of ‘Ooooh, Shiny.’ Every time I had an idea for a book, I composed a chapter or three then got distracted by other ideas. Even if I plotted out the entire story line ahead of time, I couldn’t create more than a few chapters before giving up. Life got complicated. We had a kid, and my wages were our only income so writing took a back seat for a while.

Then came this blog. I’ve already described how this thing I do evolved from a whim because a coworker was doing it to being The Faithful Geek. Now I’m making efforts to make this worth something and turn it into tangible income. (Speaking of which, help a starving artist and click on some ads.) I’m hustling to complete my work-in-progress so I can turn it into a marketable manuscript. I am a writer – four words my parents would have never imagined me saying that summer they tried to fix my school habits 30 years ago. It is amazing how this activity I once loathed has become my passion.

I’ve been thinking about my old poetry a lot lately. Thinking about digging it up, polishing it off, and rewriting some of it. Maybe publishing some here. This afternoon, I realized something. It’s only been the last few years I’ve considered myself a writer but I’ve been one for a lot longer. It’s been nearly 23 years since I wrote my first song. Now, blogging has brought me through adopting kids, corporate restructuring, divorce, and returning to college. I might not have much to offer, but I can write. I don’t know what the future holds for my craft, but I do know writing is the thing I can’t not do.


What We Get Wrong About Grace

Grace is simple, yet we still get it wrong. More often than not, we tend to believe that grace is available to everyone with some exceptions. How we qualify those "yes, but" exclusions vary. However, they usually fall into one of two categories.

The first group thinks: "Grace is good enough for me, but not for you." This line of thinking is why we are skeptical when death row inmates claim a religious conversion prior to execution. This is why we have a hard time celebrating ex-cons and parolees who express a new-found faith in God. This is why many Christians think homosexuality is a threat to the sanctity of marriage. It is why they stand on street corners with explicit signs to protest abortion. It is why they hand out tracts trying to scare people into attending church. It is why many Christians are wary of drug addicts, gang members, homeless populations, and people suffering from mental illness. Those with this view of grace want Christianity to be safe. They don't want their sacred walls to be threatened. They want heathens to clean up their act before coming to the foot of the cross.

Luke Skywalker, at the end of Return of the Jedi, spoke against such bias. When referring to Darth Vader, Luke said, "There is still good in him." How could it be? This dark lord could not possibly be good. He slaughtered the younglings in the Jedi temple and participated in the genocide of the Jedi knights. He murdered both allies and enemies in his quest to squash the rebellion. He ordered the destruction of Alderaan. He killed Luke's mentor Obi Wan Kenobi. Every shred of evidence available to Luke Skywalker should have shown that his dad was an evil man beyond the reach of redemption. There is nothing in Vader's resume that made him a worthy recipient of grace. Yet Luke believed in something more than what facts alone could prove. Vader's wrongs didn't matter. Despite his violence and reign of terror, there was something inside Vader that was good enough. Luke showed Vader the undeserved gift of grace.

The second group believes: "Grace is good enough for everyone, but not for me." We hear this rationale when someone jokes about how they would spontaneously combust if they ever stepped inside a church building. This is why people lament 'God could never use someone like me.' We insist we're such a mess but forget that everyone else is too. This failure to accept grace festers inside the church. We will gladly tell anyone "Jesus loves you," then wonder 'does Jesus love me?' We cycle through self-destructive thoughts that we are unlovable and the worst inhabitant of this wretched hive of scum and villainy.

We hear this sentiment permeating pop music. In Beck's breakthrough single, he sang "I'm a loser baby so why don't you kill me." Wheatus was a one-hit-wonder with a song declaring "I'm just a teenage dirtbag." And Radiohead created an anthem for guys like me with their song Creep: "I wish I was special. But I'm a creep. I'm a weirdo. What the hell am I doing here? I don't belong here." It's no wonder that I identify with the latter of these two categories. As Nick Hornby wrote in High Fidelity, "Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?"

I often malign myself as exempt from the grace I believe is available to everyone. It is possibly due to my melancholy disposition or my self-deprecating sense of humor. Or maybe I still have doubts. Even in human interaction, I afford others more grace than I do myself.

In recent years, I discovered (and subsequently embraced) a Latin phrase that has helped me reshape the way I see grace: felix culpa. Literally translated 'happy fault' or 'blessed fall,' the term derived from St Augustine who explained how God thought it was better to bring good from evil than to prevent the existence of evil. In other words, it is of greater benefit for us to experience God's grace when we sin than for us to have never sinned.

Kings Kaleidoscope recorded a song with the same name and it has become one of my favorite records. It is equally primal and vulnerable. Vocalist Chad Gardner admits his flaws, "I'm a torn man ... " then gives it a purpose, "A fortunate fall, my sins are stories of grace to recall." Every time I hear the song, I'm inspired. I see myself in the lyrics as the song continues, "And still I'm a wicked, wretched man, I do everything I hate. I am fighting to be god, I seethe and claw and thrash and shake. I have killed and stacked the dead on a throne from which I reign. In the end I just want blood and with His blood my hands are stained."

Perhaps grace is something most needed when least deserved. Perhaps grace is better in reality than in theory. Perhaps grace is a matter of fortune found in our own faults and flaws. What I know is that I do not fully understand the hows or whys about grace. And I know that I frequently get it wrong. My hope is when telling my story, it speaks just as loud as the closing phrase of Kings Kaleidoscope's Felix Culpa, "Grace upon grace upon grace upon grace."


What’s so Difficult About Grace?

Bono once said the concept of grace is what attracted him to Christianity. In an interview with Kichka Assayas, Bono said, "The thing that keeps me on my knees is the difference between grace and karma. ... At the center of all religions is the idea of karma. You know, what you put out comes back to you: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics; in physical laws every action is met by an equal or an opposite one. It’s clear to me that Karma is at the very heart of the universe. I’m absolutely sure of it. And yet, along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that ‘as you reap, so you will sow’ stuff. Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts the consequences of your actions. ... I'd be in big trouble if karma was going to finally be my judge. I'd be in deep $#!%. It doesn't excuse my mistakes but I'm holding out for grace." (Read the full interview in the book Bono: In Conversation with Michka Assayas)

Grace, in the way the bible describes it, is a beautiful thing. It is this grand idea that anything, no matter how heinous could be forgiven. Not only is forgiveness available to all who seek it, there is nothing anyone can do to earn it; we must only ask for it and accept it. We don't have to try to be extra good, we don't have to jump through hoops, we don't have to perform any acts of penance, we don't have to spend the rest of our lives feeling guilty for the errors of our past. Grace is just there, freely given, no questions asked.

Even secular culture recognizes the alluring power of Grace. Amazing Grace is one of the most famous hymns ever written. If you attend a funeral for a police officer or a firefighter, chances are good you’ll hear it played on bagpipes. People who have never set foot inside a church building could sing the entire song. 20th Century Fox used the hymn as background music in their Super Bowl Trailer for Logan; the screen flashed with images of rifles and adamantium claws while a hauntingly beautiful voice sang those familiar lyrics, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that save a wretch like me.”

For many Christians, it is difficult to take grace seriously. We see it as too abstract to fully comprehend it. Or we reinterpret it as if it is nothing more than wishful thinking. Free grace? Too easy. Our human brains want to make it more complicated than it really is.

It is as if we have forgotten what the bible actually says about grace.

“There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. (Romans 3:22-24)
“The law came to make sin worse. But when sin grew worse, God’s grace increased. Sin once used death to rule us, but God gave people more of his grace so that grace could rule by making people right with him.” (Romans 5:20-21)
“At the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace. And if by grace, then it cannot be based on works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace.” (Romans 11:5-6)
“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)
“I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly.” (Galatians 2:21)
“But God’s mercy is great, and he loved us very much. Though we were spiritually dead because of the things we did against God, he gave us new life with Christ. You have been saved by God’s grace.” (Ephesians 2:4-5)
“Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Hebrews 4:16)

We have scripture. We have testimony of great theological thinkers throughout history. We have powerful and moving sermons. They all preach the same message. Grace upon grace. Yet we still get it wrong.


Let’s Be Honest

Years ago, I attended a corporate luncheon with a few coworkers for some team building and skill strengthening. The seminar speaker was a renowned author who had published a few books about professional leadership. The topic he spoke on that day mirrored the subject of his most recent book in which he proposed we need to have a healthy ego to lead productively.

His big idea was how ego is a spectrum. On one end, you have over-inflated sense of self; it is an assuredness that comes across as cocky or egotistical. On the other end was extreme humility that borders on fake. He described the lower end of the spectrum as something born from either a desire to perform so that you’re seen as humble or from such sever insecurity that you believe you’re worth nothing. The speaker argued both ends were unhealthy and only weak leadership start from those polar forces of ego. Instead, he urged us toward a middle ground. Somewhere between overblown confidence and faux-humility is where a healthy ego resides.

This was a hard concept for me to grasp. I was raised to be a good Christian boy with years and years’ worth of Sunday school lessons are permanently fixed in my memories. Lessons like the beatitudes that taught us how the meek will inherit the earth, or the Proverb that says God mocks the proud but shows grace to those who are humble, or Paul’s letter that instructs us to do nothing conceited but act in humility and consider everyone as more significant than ourselves. There’s another proverb which has been seared into my psyche: Pride comes before the fall.

The church of my youth reminded me over and over. Don’t be vain. Don’t be conceited. Pride will destroy you. Be humble. At the same time, they were also inadvertently teaching me other lessons, stuff that’s not quite biblical. These were more destructive lessons that were a result of trying to teach us kids how to be humble in a self-centered world. These were lessons from the theology of total depravity: you’re worthless, you’re incapable, you are completely corrupt, and there is nothing good about you.

That’s heavy stuff to dump on an impressionable mind. As a Keanu Reeves character might say …

Now that I’ve grown up, I recognize some broken thought patterns in need of repair. This idea about having a healthy ego is one of them. It’s obvious we don’t need to go overboard with confidence in our own abilities. No one likes an egotistical jerk. There’s a reason that personality is often portrayed as the villain in movies. But what about being humble? If the bible instructs us to remain humble at all times, can we still have a healthy ego and demonstrate humility at the same time? If we examine what it means to be humble, we can see a clear difference between artificial and genuine humility.

With the rise of social media, we have witnessed the creation of a new form of boasting called ‘the humble-brag.’ The process of a humble-brag is to point out a huge accomplishment while simultaneously describing it as if it is no big deal or something anyone else could do. It’s the Christianese way of fishing for compliments while looking like we’re giving credit to God. We say words like “It’s a total God thing” while hoping people praise us for how awesome we are. Outside of social media, we do the same thing when complimented. We shrug it off. Instead of thanking people for their kind words, we tell them they’re wrong “Oh, I’m not that good.” We think we’re being humble, but we are not. What we’re really saying is that the talents God gave us are not a big deal. False humility is pride in disguise.

So let’s make it a big deal. There is a reason humility and modesty is synonyms. To be humble, you must be moderate in estimating your own abilities and accomplishments and the reason you exist. Let’s be modest. Let’s find that happy medium between annoying arrogance and the humble that isn’t humble. Let’s be humble for real by embracing a healthy ego.

The speaker at the lunchtime seminar said the way we develop this healthy ego is to fully know who we are. We need to understand and be wholly confident in what we can do and admit those things we cannot do. A healthy ego doesn’t brag in its strengths and it doesn’t overcompensate for its weaknesses. A healthy ego knows exactly who and what it is. A healthy ego is brutally honest and shines a light on both pleasant aspects of our nature and those areas that need some improvement.

Let’s be honest. Rather, I’ll be honest. Here is my healthy ego.

I’m short, a little on the chunky side, and I’m not particularly attractive. My teeth are messed up, my hairline is receding and turning grey, and (on most mornings) I wake up with aches in my neck or back.

I am not athletic. I am not mechanically inclined. I am not a handyman, although can fix most things if I can find a how-to tutorial on YouTube.

I am a divorced single father whose time is split between hanging out with my kids, earning an income, and volunteering at my church.

I have an insatiable wanderlust but do not have the budget to satisfy my longing to travel. I love to sing but I’m tone-deaf. And I enjoy playing the guitar but performing music is not my strong suit.

I am not a great conversationalist but I am a phenomenal story teller. Because I’m a perpetual student in constant pursuit of study, I am knowledgeable in a wide range of topics from history to theology to philosophy to theoretical sciences to politics to arts and entertainment. I have learned to use my learning and ability to spin a good story to prop up my lack of conversational skills. It’s difficult to lose me in conversation regardless of what you want to talk about.

If my kids are to be believed, I’m the best cook. If my son’s youth pastor is to be believed, I am a great dad. If my friends are to be believed, I am a damn good writer.

I am fully aware of who I am and who I am not. I know I’m not going to earn a modelling contract or win any popularity contests. My advice is useless if your car breaks down or your hot water tank malfunctions and floods your house. So, I play to my strengths. I study because I want to learn more. I cook because I like to eat. I love my kids because no one else on earth can take my place. And I write because it is what keeps me grounded.

This is my healthy ego. I won’t brag and I won’t fake being humble. But I will be honest about what I’m capable of doing.


Growing Old

The question caught me off guard: “Do you want to die young? Or grow old?” No small talk. No preparation. It was as if I had stepped into the middle of a deep philosophical conversation and was expected to keep pace with those who had been engaged in the discussion for hours without me. I felt like Donny in The Big Lebowski, butting in and it was a matter of time before Walter was going to tell me “You’re out of your element.”

The spotlight was on. The question was asked and all eyes were looking at me, awaiting an answer. I provided the quickest and most neutral answer I could think of: “Neither.” Although, I said it as a confused question, so it came out more like “Neeee-thurrrr?”

“Ah” came the reply. “So somewhere in the middle. Good choice.” Is it possible to accidentally win on a trivia game show? If so, I’d probably be that winner.

It is true though, I don’t want to die young. I want to live to see my kids graduate high school and college. I want to see them fall in love and get married. I want to meet my future grandkids. Growing old though is open for debate.

One of my biggest worries is that when I grow old, I’ll be one of those cantankerous old farts, standing on my porch yelling at those kids “Get off my dang lawn.” I don’t want to be that old dude but I fear it is inevitable. I’d rather be one of those adorably goofy old guys that everyone adores, the kind younger people look at and remark amongst themselves “he’s so cute.”

If I can age graciously, if I can become the latter of those two options, then I would welcome growing old with gleeful abandon. I would take the dance floor with my cane and fragile hips to show those youngins what they have to look forward to. I would tell stories of what life was like before iPods, Facebook, and Netflix. I would flirt with all the single female residents in my nursing home. If I can grow up to be that man? Bring it on.

However, that situation is unlikely. The elderly version of me will probably have more in common with Dennis the Menace’s curmudgeonly neighbor, Mr. Wilson. I fear my future self and other old geezers will be reenacting the feuds of the characters played by Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in Grumpy Old Men.

I don’t want to be that kind of old guy. I don’t want to spend the twilight of my life cranky, bitter, and pining for the good old days. If that is my fate, then I don’t want to grow old.

Maybe neither is the best answer. I don’t want to die young and I don’t want to grow old if I’m going to be the perpetual grouch. So somewhere in the middle. Please stop me before I become the man I don’t want to be.

Or maybe the best answer is to remain forever young. All I need to do is find the fountain of youth. Perhaps I could follow Woody Allen’s approach: “I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.”