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Reading Mary Oliver Essays--1: Who are your great ones?

I'm reading Mary Oliver's book of essays Upstream.  In a few pages I read earlier this week, I came across two passages I wanted to comment on.  First, this:

For it is precisely how I feel, who have inherited not measurable wealth but, as we all do who care for it, that immeasurable fund of thoughts and ideas, from writers and thinkers long gone into the ground--and, inseparable from those wisdoms because demanded by them, the responsibility to live thoughtfully and intelligently.  To enjoy, to question--never to assume, or trample.  Thus the great one (my great ones, who may not be the same as your great ones) have taught me--to observe with passion, to think with patience, to live always caringly.

Yes.  Quite rightly stated.

She goes on to list some of her great ones who include early Wordsworth, Shelley, Blake, Emerson, Carson, and Leopold.  She adds, "I go nowhere, I arrive nowhere, without them."

Who are your great ones?

Mine include Alfred North Whitehead, William James, Wendell Berry, Walt Whitman, Gerard Manley Hopkins, C. S. Lewis, James McClendon, Beethoven, Bach, and R. E. M.


Reorienting the Soul

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And Brooks continues discussing the ways that love reorients in the soul, in what may be the best few pages of the book.

First, love humbles us.  "Love is like an invading army that reminds you that you are not master of your own house."  "Love is a surrender.  You expose your deepest vulnerabilities and give up your illusions of self-mastery."

Love "decenters the self."  "A person in love finds that the ultimate riches are not inside, they are out there, in the beloved and in the sharing of a destiny with the beloved."

"Love infuses people with a poetic temperament."  Love is not utilitarian.  "To be in love is to experience hundreds of small successive feelings that you never quite experienced in that way before."  "Love is submission, not decision."

"Love opens up the facility for spiritual awareness.  It is an altered state of consciousness."

"Love impels people to service."  "In no other commitment are people so likely to slip beyond the logic of self-interest and unconditional commitments that manifest themselves in daily acts of care."

 

I have always spoken of how marriage is a spiritual discipline, and I experience parenthood as such as well.  Being a dad has done more to make me a better person than anything I've ever done precisely because it is the one thing that most aggressively works against my own self-interest.


The jobs I've held

My friend Mark Christian asked on Facebook yesterday for people to list their first seven jobs.  I enjoyed reading the answers so much I posted the same question.  The idea has compelled me to say more than simply listing the jobs, so here are the jobs I held (not just the first seven).

  1. Mowing lawns--I had been mowing our lawn since learning how to use the riding lawn mower in 2nd grade.  My dad bought me a new push lawnmower for my birthday when I was in 4th grade.  That year I began mowing lawns for my grandparents at their house and their rental properties.  I would ride my bike to their house and back.  That summer I also worked for my grandparents when they were remodeling their lake home.  This job included mudding and taping, painting, and other tasks.
  2. Library clerk--My first job outside the family was working at the Miami Public Library when I was 15.  I worked at the front desk and restocked books.  I also learned how to repair bindings.  This was also the only time I've been fired (at 15); and I'm still not sure why.
  3. Painter--When I was in high school my summer job was painting dorms at the local college.  This was when I learned my disciplined and precise painting skills.
  4. Dishwasher--My freshman year at Oklahoma Baptist University I needed a job for spending money and the only thing left I could find was working in the dishroom.  Washing college student dishes is not a pretty task.  We also cleaned the cafeteria tables and mopped the kitchen.
  5. Pizza delivery--The summer after my freshman year I was a pizza delivery boy for Pizza Hut and really enjoyed that job.  Tips were okay, it was fun driving around listening to the radio, and the best part was when kids would get all excited when you arrived with the pizza.  My favourite story was the one time two boys, clearly home alone, had ordered a pizza and paid for it by handing me a mason jar full of change.  And they had the exact amount included.
  6. Philosophy department grader and tutor--My sophomore through senior years at college I worked for Professor Don Wester grading quizzes and exams and also tutoring all Intro to Philosophy students with a weekly session that reviewed the material in the class, which was when I first began learning how to teach philosophy.
  7. Odd jobs--For a summer job in 1994 and 1995 I worked for Ed Walker, a member of my home town church, running errands and doing all sorts of odd jobs from painting his wrought iron fence to delivering appliances for his son's business.
  8. Graduate assistant--In grad school from 1996-2001 I was a graduate assistant, first grading for professors and later teaching my own classes.  My final year I was a research assistant for the Current Bibliography of the History of Science.
  9. Camp counselor--As a summer job from 1997-1999 I worked as a YMCA day camp counselor and ultimately directed the program for 1st-2nd graders.
  10. Minister-- I began working as a full-time Associate Pastor in 2001 and Senior Pastor in 2005.  I've served Rolling Hills Baptist in Fayetteville, Arkansas, Royal Lane Baptist in Dallas, Cathedral of Hope in Oklahoma City (and originally also the founding church in Dallas), and First Central here in Omaha.
  11. Columnist--In 2005 I began writing a column for the on-line, Oklahoma City-based, LGBT newspaper Hard News Online and in 2008 changed and began writing for The Oklahoma Gazette until we moved in 2010.  Maybe what I miss the most about living and working in Oklahoma City was my Gazette column and getting to contribute to the larger social debate on a variety of issues.
  12. Lecturer--Since 2014 I've been a lecturer in the philosophy Department at Creighton University.  This semester I'm teaching a course entitled Philosophical Ideas: The Foundations of Science.

So, what, in particular, were your early jobs?


Ken Harvey

Ken Harvey has died.  Ken was my high school chemistry and physics teacher and also one of the coaches of the quiz bowl team.  The team often traveled out of town for matches and tournaments, so I spent many hours riding in the school Suburban as Mr. Harvey drove and we debated every topic imaginable.

But Mr. Harvey was more than one of my old high school teachers.  He was also one of the most influential persons in my life.

In high school I was a rather conservative Republican and Southern Baptist who, like most kids, thought he knew more than he actually did.  Harvey was one of those people who revealed a wider world.  He espoused no religion but was the most ethical person I knew. When I'd state an opinion, he might offer a different way of looking at the topic.   My many hours in conversation with Harvey both inside and outside the classroom opened my mind to new possibilities. 

While home from college one break Juan Penalosa and I once took Ken and Kay Boman, the other quiz bowl coach, out to dinner to say thank you for their roles in our lives and educations.  Years later when Ken and Kay married, Michael and I were able to be there.  Last year they visited us in order to meet Sebastian.  I told my son that these people helped make me who I am.

That I'm a more open-minded person, a more inclusive person, a more peaceful and just person is partly Ken Harvey's contribution to my life.  A gift so great that though I tried I never could adequately thank him for.  And so I grieve the loss of this teacher I deeply admired and respected, such a good and wise man.


The Face in the Mirror

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One of the unexpected experiences of adulthood has been looking in the mirror and seeing the face of my father looking back. What was initially surprising has grown familiar. I turn 42 tomorrow, an age that Dad did not reach. I will have to become familiar with a new experience--seeing what Dad would have looked like.

Note: this earlier post of how 41 didn't turn out to be the weird year I expected.


Challenger

The only interest in the Challenger voyage was that a school teacher, Christa McAuliffe, was included.  Other than that, shuttle launches had become rather routine.  Back in Kindergarten we had gathered with all the other students in the school to watch the liftoff of Columbia, the first shuttle launch.  After that we continued to watch launches for the next few and then they ceased to be something that drew us out of the routine of a normal school day.  Now we were in sixth grade and only the first and second graders were going to be watching the launch as such things were still new and exciting to them.

We were in the middle of some classroom free time is Mrs. Astin's sixth grade.  In her class you could earn certain privileges to use during free time.  One was the ability to listen to music on your Walkman, which Angie Adams was doing that day.  Suddenly Angie, a tall blonde, stood up from her desk, pulled off her headphones, and said, "The shuttle just blew up."

Startled sixth grade faces all turned to Angie.  "Isn't that the one with the teacher?" someone who had been paying attention to their Weekly Reader asked.  Mrs. Astin looked alarmed.  She told us to wait a moment as she stepped outside into the media center which occupied the middle of Rockdale Elementary.  She quickly returned and told us that indeed the shuttle had exploded, and then our class went to sit in front of the television where the first and second graders had been watching, though they had already been ushered back to their classrooms.

That day was a Tuesday and an election day in Oklahoma, school elections I believe.  Our elementary was a precinct, so just inside our front doors were the elderly women who usually staff polling places.  As citizens came in to vote many were startled to see the coverage of the explosion on the big screen television and would join us momentarily to watch.

One element of the coverage that day has also stayed with me.  It was reported that when Nancy Reagan saw the explosion she said, "Oh, God."  

Until September 11, 2001 this was the moment when Gen-Xers remembered precisely where they were when they heard the news (the JFK assassination had been that for Baby Boomers).

A coda.  My parents, both school teachers, had been among the many thousands of educators who had initially applied to the program that eventually selected Christa McAuliffe.


Favourite Place in Autumn

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Today I spent the afternoon at my favourite place to be in the autumn in Omaha.  It is at Memorial Park, on a warm day, when the leaves are at prime color.  There is a spot where you can sit under trees with bright yellow, red, and orange leaves and bath in the colored sunlight.  The view is over the west lawn toward the university and the Catholic school, with their towers in site.  

Our second autumn here, on a really nice day, I went out there and found this spot and enjoyed an afternoon drinking wine and reading The Varieties of Religious Experience.  I've tried to do the same every year, but the weather doesn't always cooperate (we don't always get a warm, dry, clear, sunny day when the leaves are at their prime).  

But this year, today, was the best so far.  

This is a good experience to have in the autumn, because winter is coming, and this lovely memory will help to buoy my spirits through it.


Fall Vacation 2014

In 2011 I went to Virginia to tour Civil War battlefields and Presidential mansions and to drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway and through Shenandoah National Park.  In 2012 I went to Paris with Rob Howard and Tom Saylor, and we spent our days lounging in cafes people-watching.  In 2013 I drove to Dallas to attend the OU-Texas game with Eric Brooks, visiting friends and family in Oklahoma, Texas, and Kansas going and coming.

So, what did I plan for my 2014 Fall vacation?

Basically nothing.

The main focus of this week is going to be writing.  This summer, after I returned from Yale, I was very disciplined in my writing, but that has suffered since the fall semester began and my teaching philosophy at Creighton has occupied much of my creative energy and time.

The secondary focus is resting.  I look forward to sitting under trees in their full autumnal color and reading books while drinking wine.  And the weather is going to be excellent this week.

And the final goal of this week is to spend some time each day catching up on some personal and household projects that I'm behind on.  

So, hopefully, come Monday, I'll be rested, renewed, caught up, and ready for the second half of the semester and the beginning of the church holiday season.

 


Why some committees feel like a waste of time and others don't

I've served (and currently serve) on many different committees or as a part of coalitions and groups.  I've also attended lots of gatherings and conferences.  These have included school, university, church, and denominational committees, civic and neighborhood groups, and coalitions for various causes.  Some of these I've participated in because I felt a duty to, while others it has been because I genuinely enjoyed it.  Serving on a sub-committee planning an upcoming denominational meeting and also preparing for wasting my Saturday at meetings this week, I'm left pondering Why is it that some of these groups are incredibly engaging and others are a waste of time?  

Here are the things that have distinguished the two types for me?

  1. We actually got something done.  Nothing is more mind-numbing than a meeting in which nothing of any substance is accomplished.  And, generally, discussing policies is not getting something done.  Denominational meetings are often really bad about this one, especially if all the time is spent on reports and bureaucratic activities and next to no time on vision, mission, and ministry that actually changes lives and the world.  They ought to be some of the most interesting and engaging meetings one attends and the let down from what they ought to be is one reason they can feel like such a waste.
  2. The meeting is efficient.  The second worst thing is a meeting or event in which conversation rambles or there are gaps in time between the scheduled activities.  Most meetings I attend could be at least half the length they are and actually get more accomplished.  One requirement for an efficient meeting is knowing what should be done outside the meeting.  The best example of this I've been a part of is the Equal Omaha Coalition where we met, generally, at 7:30 in the morning and everyone had to be at work by 9.  We never wasted time introducing ourselves but always got right to business.  There was always an agenda, but oddly we had no chairperson (which is usually required for an efficient meeting).  Almost everyone had laptops, tablets, or mobile devices open and used them to take notes, work on shared documents, or send e-mails during the meeting.  If you had a specific question for someone else in the room that the entire group didn't need to hear, you sent them a message and they responded.  And anything that needed more discussion or work than the time alotted was assigned to a person or group to follow up on before the next week's meeting.  Meandering conversations were reserved for social time and not the meeting. The efficiency was glorious and ultimately part of our success in passing the Equal Employment Ordinance.  I should also note that at the busiest times of the group's work, up to 100 e-mails were exchanged in a day, so much was accomplished before and after the meetings, which brings me to:
  3. The activity was accomplished without meeting in person.  This, of course, is a relatively new thing, as now so much can and should be accomplished via e-mail, phone calls, or Skype.  One of the boards I was on almost always met via conference call, often with one or more of us away from town or even on the road during the call.  Calls are often much quicker (though that's not always true).  It didn't feel like a waste of time if everything was e-mailed and digested ahead of time and in fifteen minutes we discussed and voted. 
  4. You are part of something bigger.  It is much easier to be engaged when the meeting is part of some bigger cause that generates meaning.  An example is when I was the gay community representative on a coalition of minority groups in Oklahoma City.  Our meetings weren't the most efficient nor did we accomplish much during them, but that was made up for by the feeling that we were creating something important in building relationships among the various communities represented (Muslims, Jews, LGBTs, African-Americans, and Latinos (for some reason we never were able to secure an Asian representative)).  
  5. The meeting isn't taking you away from something else that is a higher life priority.  This is my continual complaint in Omaha when the meetings are held in what I consider (but it seems most midwesterners don't) the dinner hour without food present or are held on Saturdays in a season other than the winter, early spring, or late autumn.  Nice spring and summer days, particularly here where there are so few, should be enjoyed and not wasted in a meeting.  And that probably even goes for the ones that meet all these other qualities.  One thing I appreciated about many of the groups I was part of in Oklahoma City is that they met immediately after work, around 5:30 or 6:00, so you could go to the meeting from work, get it out of the way, and then still have time for dinner afterwards and once you were home you were home for the evening.  If the meeting was going to be longer, it would often be at a restaurant or in someone's home with food.
  6. The meeting or gathering inspires or teaches.  This is more about conferences and big denominational meetings.  Some of them are inspiring and informative.  You learn new skills or leave with your imagination running wild with new ideas.  And others are mind-numbingly boring, even sometimes when they've tried to do those things.
  7. The people involved are diverse, creative, and interesting.  I've come to understand how important this factor is the more I've reflected upon it.  For instance, Oklahoma UCC gatherings often failed at all these other factors, but the people were so diverse and interesting that it made up for some of the other failures.  We had, just among the clergy, three gay men, one bisexual woman, three African-Americans, two Marshall islanders, a Samoan, a Japanese-American, and a member of the Muscogee tribe.  One was a member of the Jesus Seminar, another was completing her Ph. D. on Marxist political theory, another ran a non-profit bringing clean water to villages in Nicauragua, another was working on bringing attention to the environmental racism of the Tar Creek Superfund site, etc.
  8. You are fed.  Ultimately what makes the difference for me is that I leave the gathering or meeting feeling fed in some way--in my relationships, in what I've learned or imagined, in what I've experienced, what I've accomplished, or how I've contributed to a better world.