Frank and Ace

It’s been an honor to share with you this semester.  Thanks for reading.  I wanted to leave you with a Christmas thought for this final entry.  Blessings to you all.  Hope you have a wonderful Christmas!

 

I’d just marked Thanksgiving off the calendar when suddenly Santa Clause and reindeer and wise men and shepherds marched into my neighborhood.  A plastic Joseph and Mary and baby Jesus even showed up across the street. But on this particular morning, none of the good cheer or “peace on earth, good will toward men” could penetrate my Scrooge-like armor.  This may have been because I’d just finished teaching Sunday school, and my wife was dragging me to Target to buy a gift for a bridal shower she was attending later in the afternoon.

I was hungry.  But Sharon was ready to shop. I feared lunch was going to be a long time away.

We entered the store and headed to the gift registry computer where Sharon typed in the bride’s name.  The machine spit out seven pages of possible gifts.  In situations like this, my buying strategy is simple. Get the list.  Locate the cheapest gift.  Buy it.

My wife’s approach is, of course, profoundly different.  First, Sharon examines the list and comments on the various items—“Oooh look, she wants sterling silver flat ware.  And steak knives with cherry wood handles.  Oh, and look at this, a Hamilton Beach blender . . . and she wants a red one!”

After commenting on each possible purchase, the browsing begins.  “We’re shopping,” she explains, “not hunting.”

I picture myself hunting.  I picture myself in the great outdoors cooking lunch over a campfire.

My wife’s voice pulls me back to reality.  “We’re looking for the perfect gift,” she reminds me.  Then she asks if I can hold the seven page printout and mark off the items we’ve examined so far.

About an hour into our excursion, my Sunday morning just-taught-Sunday-school smile was beginning to fade.  And when we finally approached the check-out line with our gift selection, I had only two thoughts left in my head: How much is this going to cost me and where are we going to eat?

We left the store and headed for a cafeteria down the street. We entered the restaurant only to confront a line winding around the aisle dividers reaching all the way to the front entrance.  I was not in a good mood.  A family near the front couldn’t make up their minds whether they wanted their fish baked, grilled or lightly breaded.  My stress level was escalating.  And then I heard a voice behind me.  I turned around and saw an older gentleman wearing a powder blue jump suit.  “I was trying to beat the church crowd,” he explained, “but I don’t think I made it.”  I acknowledged his comment by mumbling something indecipherable and then refocused my attention on the slow-moving line.  My plan was to ignore the man in the jump suit.  My wife, however, had other ideas.  Sharon turned around and struck up a conversation.

I listened half-heartedly.  And after about five minutes, Sharon asked the question.  She voiced it suddenly and without warning.  And it went something like, “Would you care to join us for lunch?”  Those eight words lined up like the box cars of a swiftly moving freight train, and before I could derail them, they rumbled over the tracks right past me.  But then something extraordinary happened.  I watched as the man in the powder blue jump suit grabbed each one of Sharon’s words and held onto them tightly.  The invitation was a treasure to him—a precious gift.

His name was Frank.  He’d been married twice.  He lost his first wife to cancer after 25 years of marriage.  And his second wife of 34 years had just passed away.  Her death had left him reeling.  I asked him if he went to church, and he said that he didn’t anymore.  He was having a rough time making sense of the loss.  And he was having a rough time making sense of God.  Then he said quietly, “You know, my boy—my only son—he told me the other day, ‘Dad, you just seem mad at the world.’”

I looked at Frank and wondered what it would be like to be 84 years old and suddenly alone, and during the Christmas season, no less.  The sadness that settled in my chest tightened its grip.

But then the conversation brightened.  I looked up and Frank had a smile on his face for the first time.  Sharon had asked him if he had any pets.  He did—he had Ace—a white miniature schnauzer.  “In fact,” Frank explained, “Ace goes everywhere I go.  He’s in my truck right now.  I leave the engine running with the air conditioner on to make sure he stays comfortable.  It eats up all the gas, but it’s worth it.”  The tone of his voice seemed almost cheerful, and his eyes danced a bit as he talked about his little white dog, the only companion he had left.

After lunch, we all walked outside, and Frank invited us to meet Ace.  When we got to the truck, he opened the driver’s side door.  There, with feet planted firmly on the leather seat, stood the little schnauzer.  Sharon reached out to pet him and Ace snapped at her hand.  She screamed and we all laughed.  Frank dared me to try.  I approached Ace with my hand outstretched in a non-threatening manner, the back of it turned toward him.  Ace sniffed my hand.  I felt smug.  But when I attempted to stroke his head, he went for me too, with bared teeth and a gutsy growl.

The little thing was protective.  But it made sense.  After all, Frank needed protecting—he’d been hurt and was suffering deeply.  As we said our goodbyes, Frank climbed into the truck, and Ace settled onto his lap.  Sharon smiled, waved gently, and said, “Merry Christmas, Frank.”  He looked at us one last time, and softly closed the door without saying anything.  I watched Frank back out of the parking space and drive away.  Suddenly I wanted to run after him—I wanted to yell out—“God loves you Frank.  No matter how mad you are.  No matter how far or fast you run, God’s love is running after you.  God’s love wears sneakers Frank, and that love won’t rest until it catches you.”  Sharon and I both stood in the parking lot until Frank’s truck was a distant speck on Loop 281.  Finally, Sharon took my hand and we walked quietly back to the car.

On the drive home, as we passed Christmas lights and nativity scenes, I thought about God—the giver of gifts.  And I pictured God commenting on each item on His gift list—meticulously choosing the best ones for us.  I pictured Him as a shopper, not a hunter. And I thought about that first Christmas 2,000 years ago when God gave us the ultimate gift—not under a tree but in a manger.  Not wrapped in red and silver paper but in swaddling clothes—“good news of great joy for everyone” (Luke 2:10).

So, Frank, if I could see you again, I would tell you, “God is so in love with you.  Accept His gift this Christmas.  Open it.  Embrace it.  A Savior.  The Lamb of God.  The Wonderful Counselor.  The Prince of Peace.  Peace, Frank.  Real peace.”

 

skc

This Side of Heaven

Sharon and I stayed close to home this Thanksgiving.  My parents were traveling, so we invited a few friends over for dinner.  My wife can cook.  And she can decorate.  The table was perfect.  The food was too.  And at the end of the evening, Sharon prepared to-go boxes and sent everyone home with leftovers to enjoy the next day.

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays.

But for the families of two of my friends, sadness found its way into the week.  And Thanksgiving Day did not go as they had planned.

Last Tuesday, in the Ambulatory Surgery Center at Good Shepherd Hospital in Longview, a man went on a stabbing spree—leaving four people injured, one critically.  A nurse lost her life in the confrontation.

The man’s name was Harris Teel.  He was stabbed in the heart while waiting for his son to come out of surgery.  He is the father of a friend I used to teach with.  He is still fighting for his life.  And I know that his family is on their knees praying for his survival.  I am lifting up prayers for Mr. Teel and his family as well.

The nurse was Gail Sandidge.  When she heard the disturbance, she left the patient she was caring for to be of assistance.  She too was stabbed in the heart.  She was related by marriage to a dear friend who is a member of the church where I worship.  Gail was a wife, mother, sister and dear friend to so many.  And besides being a devoted nurse who loved her patients, she was a believer who walked close with God.

I didn’t know Gail.  But I have been in that part of the hospital as a patient before, and the nurses on that floor have been a blessing to me.

As I reflected on this tragedy, I remembered a day six years ago when I was having a catheter surgically implanted in my chest just above my heart.  The catheter would serve as the entry point for my chemo drugs.  The morning of the surgery, I was apprehensive.  But then a nurse breezed into my cubicle and smiled warmly.  She asked me about my cancer and I told her I had lymphoma.  Then she told me that she was a stage 3 breast cancer survivor. “Your oncologist,” she said, “was also mine, and he’s the best.”

Then she did something extraordinary.  Something I will never forget.  She looked at me and said, “I had the same procedure you’re having today.  I had a catheter placed in my chest too—Here, let me show you my scar.”  And she pulled the collar of her uniform down just enough to show me where the catheter had once been.  “You don’t have to be afraid,” she said. “You’re in God’s hands.  It’s up to us to fight the cancer, and it’s up to Him to do the miracles.  And He can do miracles.  I’m living proof.”

She didn’t know me.  But she knew how to bring calm into that cubicle.  She expressed vulnerability.  She showed me her scar.  She made the unknown known.  She didn’t waste her cancer.

And when she left the room, Sharon whispered, “Little angels.”

Last Tuesday, when Gail went home to be with the Lord, heaven certainly gained another precious angel.

I know Gail’s family is mourning her death.  But as he reflected on the loss, Gail’s minister, the Rev. David English, said this: “We grieve, but not like those without hope.  God can and will redeem this loss somehow, although we may not be aware of it this side of heaven.”

His words struck me.  Each one of us, after all, is living just this side of heaven.

I am mindful, always, that my life is a vapor.  Six years into remission, I understand that each day is a gift from God.  And each day is filled with gifts for us to treasure.

I live a blessed life.  And I am grateful—for my wife, my family and friends, and for the students on this campus that God has entrusted into my care.  Each day, I have the opportunity to invest in their lives, with the dream that they will, in turn, invest in the lives of others.

And so, while I’m still this side of heaven—

May I be a faithful servant to the students in my classroom.

May I be a man who reveals the heart of God.

May I be willing to share my scars with others.

And may I remember that someday on the other side—“. . . there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain.”

(Revelation 21: 4)

 skc

 

Grumbling or Gratitude

In her book, One Thousand Gifts, Ann Voskamp says this: “If authentic, saving belief is the act of trusting, then to choose stress is an act of disbelief . . . atheism.”

For someone who was born stressed, this statement struck me profoundly.  Worrying, for me, comes so easily—trust comes so hard.  But if I believe that God is good and in control and that He is present in the details of my life, then this should drive me not just to trust but to gratitude.  And gratitude is the ultimate expression of trust.  “Thanks is what builds trust,” Voskamp explains.  “Trust is the bridge from yesterday to tomorrow, built with planks of thanks. . . . I can walk the planks—from known to unknown—and know: He holds.  I [can] walk unafraid.”

I love Voskamp’s words and I can intellectualize them.  But fear and doubt and ingratitude still crouch in the corners of my heart.

When my wife and I married 15 years ago, I inherited a cat.  Christopher (an orange tabby) and Sharon had been together for 12 years. She picked him out of a litter of kittens when he was still so small that he fit in the palm of her hand.

That cat was fiercely loyal to Sharon, and, over time, Chris and I grew close as well.  But one thing Chris and I rarely agreed on was meal time.  When it came to food, Chris had high expectations.  He preferred his food fresh from the can.  And if the food happened to come out of the refrigerator, then he liked it warmed in the microwave for exactly seven seconds.  Chris also like his food “fluffed.”  I’d mix it in his food bowl just so with his special spoon and then top it off with his favorite crunchy dry food. These were the rules and I tried hard to obey them.

But most of the time, my meals fell way short of his expectations.  I’d warm his food and fluff it and garnish it—and, still, I failed to meet his five-star dining expectations.   He’d look at the bowl and then look at me as if to say—“Really—this is all you got?”  Exasperated, I’d look at Sharon and she would look at Chris.  And then Sharon would say in a stern voice—“Christopher!  That’s perfectly good food.  Eat it!”  And the funny thing is—Chris would!

He’d lower his little orange head and eat, his I.D. tag clanging against the food bowl.  But that didn’t mean he was happy about it.  And to make sure we knew this, with each bite of food he took, he’d growl—a low constant rumbling coming from his throat. He’d eat, but he wasn’t grateful.

Still makes me laugh.

But, here’s the thing—my ingratitude isn’t quite so funny.  And my grumbling can cast a dark shadow across my life.

In a chilling passage in C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, Lewis explores the character of an unhappy woman possessed by a critical spirit.  And the speaker in this chapter is distressed that such a woman might not enter heaven simply because she is a grumbler.  He voices his concern to another character.

“I am troubled, Sir,” said I, “because that unhappy creature doesn’t seem to me to be the sort of soul that ought to be even in danger of damnation. She isn’t wicked: she’s only a silly, garrulous old woman who has got into a habit of grumbling . . . .”

“That is what she once was. That is maybe what she still is. If so, she certainly will be cured. But the whole question is whether she is now a grumbler.”

“I should have thought there was no doubt about that!”

“Aye, but ye misunderstand me. The question is whether she is a grumbler, or only a grumble. If there is a real woman—even the least trace of one—still there inside the grumbling, it can be brought to life again. If there’s one wee spark under all those ashes, we’ll blow it till the whole pile is red and clear. But if there’s nothing but ashes we’ll not go on blowing them in our own eyes forever. They must be swept up.”

What we need to be careful of, this second character explains, is becoming a grumble, “going on forever like a machine.”

Sobering words.

Am I a grumble?  Am I an atheist?  Have I chosen ingratitude?  Have I chosen not to trust?

Jesus says—“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me” (John 14:1).

And Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18—“Rejoice always. Pray continually.  Give thanks in all circumstances.  For this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.”

Rejoice.  Pray.  Give thanks.  Always.  Continually.  In all circumstances.

Some of the most convicting words I have ever read.  And appropriate for this Thanksgiving season.

Clearly, I have a choice to make. I am not a victim.  I am not powerless.  And even though I was born stressed, I don’t have to live stressed.  I hope that there is still “one wee spark” in my heart “under all those ashes” that can still be blown into a fire of faith and trust.  I hope that this Thanksgiving season I choose gratitude over grumbling.

May we all choose well.

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The Fear Factor

I went to an academic conference over the summer.  Several of the speakers zeroed in on an area of research that is finally getting some traction.  The question they addressed concerned student success in college.  One survey, taken at the Community College of Baltimore, discovered two primary reasons students drop out of school—They are overwhelmed by life problems.  Or they are overwhelmed by affective issues, mostly centered around “fear, anxiety, and a suspicion that they are just not college material.”

In other words, ability is usually not the problem.  Life is. The fear factor is.

So, how do we help these students?  The suggestions given are common-sense ones—“Create a safe atmosphere” in the classroom.  Find a balance between “flexibility” and “tough love”—between “compassion” and “firmness” (a lot harder than it might sound).  Implement “confidence-building experiences” early on in the semester.

And be aware of mindsets—because students will have “fixed mindsets” or “growth mindsets.”

Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck says that a fixed mindset is “the belief that intelligence is fixed [which] dampens students’ motivation to learn, makes them afraid of effort, and makes them want to quit after a setback.”

So when classes get hard, students give up.  Because when they struggle, Dweck says, they “feel dumb.”

Do I have students who have this mindset?  Of course.  But my confession is this: Sometimes I have the same mindset.

I fear failure.  And in my profession, where performance is evaluated and measured each semester, I often feel like I’m not measuring up.  And when I struggle, I feel dumb.  This doesn’t motivate me to be better.  It discourages me and makes me want to give up.

I guess the question is this: How do we establish growth mindsets?  How do we establish the belief that just because something is challenging and causes us to struggle, this is not a reflection of our intelligence or ability?

I’m pretty sure that most of the speakers at the conference did not embrace a Christian world view.  If there is such a thing as grace, I learned, it is merely a human grace we extend to each other.  And as teachers, we know the expectations of gracious teaching.  Help students to realize their potential and to be true to themselves.   Encourage.  Uplift.  Reinforce.  Reaffirm.  We do this because we care about them.  But we do this too because we care about retention, and we must always be looking for ways to keep students from dropping out.

But is this all there is to teaching?  Just getting students to finish college and get jobs so we not only identify them as successful but ourselves, as well?

I worry a lot about leaving God out of this equation.

Do I care for my students? Yes.  Do I want them to graduate?  Yes.  Do I want them to get good jobs?  Yes.  But. . . .

If this is all we are about as educators, we only address part of the need.  Because each one of us has a soul.  And souls don’t have expiration dates, like milk.  We will all live forever.

I take education seriously.  But I take eternity much more seriously.

I admit to my students that college is a big thing.  But it is not the whole thing.  God has opened this door of opportunity for you, I tell them, so seize it.  Work hard and be successful, not to bring honor to yourself, but to bring glory to God.

And when they get scared.  When they start to struggle.  When the challenges seem insurmountable.  I remind them that they can do all things through Christ who gives them strength.  Trust Him, I say.  Lean on Him.  Because He is real and He is relevant.

I work hard in the classroom.  I take the material seriously.  But I am also serious about modeling a life that glorifies God, the author of grace.  If they don’t see that life in me, I have failed.  Measure me all you want.  Evaluate me all you want.  But I have a greater judge.  And when I stand before Him, I hope I hear these words—“Well done, good and faithful servant.”

I want that for me. I want that for you.  I want that for my students.  Because that is true success.  

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The Quest

I pulled The Hobbit off my bookshelf  this summer.  Hard to believe that Tolkien first introduced us to Bilbo Baggins—a little furry-footed creature—on September 21, 1937.  I still love the opening line—“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

When we first meet Bilbo, life is comfortable.  His round belly offers proof of his affection for raspberry jam, apple tarts, mince pies, cold chicken, pickles, eggs, cheese, and cakes.  Not to mention red wine and coffee and tea and ale.  Dinner twice a day is just fine with a hobbit—as well as predictability and routine.

But one day, Gandalf shows up at Bilbo’s front door.  The little hobbit has been chosen for an important mission involving treasure and a dragon.  Bilbo doesn’t look like the adventurous type—and the company of dwarves Bilbo joins is suspicious of him.  But Gandalf reassures them—“There is a lot more in [Bilbo] than you guess.”

The idea of treasure and dragons excites Bilbo, just a little.  But when trusts are betrayed and goblins appear, the adventure suddenly becomes a dangerous quest.

And quests always exact a price.  They involve sacrifice and bring deep weariness and exhaustion.

Bilbo does grow weary.  And often he wishes that he was back home—“by the fire with the kettle just beginning to sing.”  But, ultimately, Bilbo chooses to confront his greatest fears.

At one crucial point in The Hobbit, after the goblins have taken Bilbo’s pony and all of his supplies, Bilbo assesses the dire situation that he and his party find themselves in.  And his conclusion?

“Very well then, we must just tighten our belts and trudge on. . . .”

I like Bilbo. When things get hard, Bilbo doesn’t give up.  He trudges ahead.  Bilbo brings to life the choices we confront when things get challenging. His journey is a metaphor for our own.

For many of my students, as we enter our twelfth week, this semester adventure has become a quest.  There is something we want and there is something that doesn’t want us to get it.

I know I wrote about complacency last week.  But I guess it’s still very much on my mind.

Last Friday, almost half my class was absent.  And yesterday, during our workshop time, one of my students just sat in her chair—doing nothing.  When I asked her what was wrong, she said she was fine.  When I told her that she needed to work, she ignored me.  Finally, I said, “Are you coming back next semester?”  She shook her head no.  And so I asked, “So, have you just quit trying?  Are you just waiting for it to be over?”  And she shook her head yes.

This is the hard time of the year.  The mountain with gold and treasure looms before us.  We are so close.  But there is that whole dragon thing.

And along the way—temptations and fatigue threaten to derail us.  To reach the goal, there must be sacrifice.  We must be willing to give up something of ourselves to attain something greater. And sacrifice and deferred gratification are never easy.

“Don’t leave the path!” Gandalf warns Bilbo and the dwarves.  But they stray anyway.  Just like my students.  And some find themselves in grave danger.

So what do we do?

Well—I tighten my belt and trudge on.  And I hope my students will trudge with me. I hope the dragons don’t deter us.

We all face them—these obstacles that seem so big and so overwhelming.  They breathe fire and have sharp claws. The key is whether we will stay on the path and confront our fears, or whether we will wander off.

We are all facing dragons, I tell my students.  We may as well face them together.  And we might even pray for each other.  For strength.  And self-direction.  And protection.

And with the help of God—you never know—like Bilbo, there may be a lot more in us than we might guess.

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Bourbon Street Cat

Here’s the reality—It’s week 11.  The semester is two-thirds of the way through.  And my students are weary.  Any enthusiasm they displayed on day one is now long gone.  Even more distressing, they are beginning to ignore class room rules.  While I’m teaching, I catch them texting on their phones.  When we workshop, they can’t resist the temptation to check Facebook.  Some of them even put their heads on their desks and go to sleep.  Does this irritate me?  You bet.  Does it impact my enthusiasm?   Yes.  But, more than anything, it just makes me sad.

I want my students to feel safe in my classes, but I don’t want them to get complacent.

So I tell them—Sustain your intensity.  Maintain your momentum.  Stay self-directed. 

Don’t get comfortable. 

Don’t be a Bourbon Street Cat.

And, of course, they know a story is coming.

My wife and I recently visited the French Quarter in New Orleans.  We enjoyed French cuisine at a beautiful restaurant and browsed elegant boutiques.  We walked on brick sidewalks and held hands and imagined that we were in another country altogether.  The French Quarter is, without a doubt, a romantic spot. 

Then we found ourselves on Bourbon Street. 

It was around 10:00 p.m. and the street shook with music.  People jammed themselves into clubs.  They spilled out onto the sidewalks and finally into the narrow street itself.  Boys lined the balconies above.  They dangled beads in their hands, ready to throw them to the young women passing beneath who would stop, look up, and then casually lift their blouses.  People carried drinks in their hands as they passed shops peddling adult-themed t-shirts.  Explicit posters covered the windows of sex-oriented clubs.  One man we talked to described Bourbon Street as an adult state fair. 

We veered down a side street where we passed palm readers, knuckle readers, and a voodoo bone lady.  She called out to us.  The beat of the Bourbon Street music vibrated beneath our feet. 

And then, out of the darkness, we saw a man walking towards us. 

He wore ragged jeans and a dirty grey t-shirt.  I noticed something on the man’s shoulder.  As he got closer, I whispered to my wife, “It’s a cat.”  It was black and sleek—and comfortable—its front legs stretching down the man’s back.  As the man passed by, we turned around for one final look.  The cat gazed back at us—its eyes calm, its body relaxed.  We watched the man with the cat on his shoulder head straight for Bourbon Street—directly into the crowds, the noise, and the chaos. 

“You know what’s wrong with that picture?” my wife asked.

I didn’t know.

Cats aren’t social creatures, she explained.  They don’t like noise and chaos.  A cat on Bourbon Street is a cat out of its element.  A cat on Bourbon Street can be summed up in one word—desensitized.   And this cat was comfortable.  This cat was complacent.  This cat had lost its edge.

So, don’t be a Bourbon Street cat, I tell my students.  Don’t lose your edge.

I want this to be true for my students in the classroom.  And I want this to be true for them spiritually as well.      

Peter writes in his first letter—“Be of sober spirit.  Be on the alert.  Your adversary, the devil, prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour”  (5:8). 

Peter’s words haunt me.  Peter knew a thing or two about Satan.  He knew a thing or two about being devoured.  He had denied Jesus.  Three times.  Much worse than texting in class or checking Facebook. 

But Peter also knew something about Jesus.  He knew love.  And forgiveness.  And grace.  And because Peter knew Jesus, he wanted us to know Him too. 

Peter’s message is simple and straight forward.  Pray.  Keep your focus.  Don’t get comfortable. 

And don’t take anything for granted—not college or family or friends or Jesus.

Don’t be a cat on Bourbon Street.

 

skc

The Story of My Life

As I pulled into the campus parking lot the other morning, a colleague was just getting out of her car.  As she hurried past me, I tossed out a quick, “Hi, How’s it going?”  And without slowing down, she replied, “If I wasn’t late, I’d be doing fine!!  I’m always running late,” she said, her voice fading into the distance—“It’s the story of my life. . . .”

Her words stayed with me.  And as I climbed the stairs to my office, I began thinking—

What’s the story of my life?

We all have a story to tell.  Each one of our lives, in fact, is a story.  And people are reading us every day.

Earlier this semester, I invited my students to write about the stories of their lives, and I received some thought-provoking responses.

One student wrote about traveling to a war-torn part of Africa.  As she was talking with a fifteen-year-old boy who had seen more violence in his life than most of us ever will, she asked him—“So what do you do when things get dangerous?”  He looked at her bewildered, and without hesitating, answered, “We just pray.”  This simple expression of faith and dependency on God changed her life.

One of my students wrote about hiding in her closet when her parents fought—“the yelling as loud as thunder.”  She remembers a dad addicted to drugs.  She remembers the divorce.  She remembers living with her grandparents and her struggle to reconcile God’s goodness with all of the badness surrounding her.  “My earthly father isn’t perfect,” she writes, but my Heavenly Father makes up for what he lacks.”

Another student traveled to Nicaragua on a mission trip.  She wasn’t prepared for what she encountered.  “Barbed wire filled the one foot spacing between the walls and the roof of my new home, piercing the only ventilation it had.  Dirt from outside coated the concrete and clay floors . . . . Looking out the front door, the busy streets were filled with dirt, trash, and animal feces creating an unforgettable smell that stained our clothes and skin—still lingering after harsh scrubbing in the bucket powered shower.”  And yet, in these surroundings, this student discovers an unexpected treasure.  The believers she meets are content and joyful.  “If these people could still be happy as bees in a field of dandelions,” she writes, “why should I ever complain?”

Some of my students are writing really good stories. . . which made me think of the prophet Jonah.

I’m haunted by this tiny book in the Old Testament—because Jonah doesn’t write a very good story.  When he confronts Nineveh (an impossible situation in his eyes), he runs—in the opposite direction.

And it’s interesting—as Jonah’s story concludes, it ends with a question mark.

God asks Jonah, “Shouldn’t I feel compassion for such a great city?”

And Jonah doesn’t answer.

We just have that question mark—lingering there on the page. 

I hope I’m writing a good story—with my life.  I keep thinking there’s a better story inside of me, waiting to get out—a story that God is still wanting to write.  That’s the one I want.  I don’t want to end my story with a question mark.

I want to end my story with an exclamation point.

I want to trust—not run

I want to be better—not bitter

I want to forgive—not hang on to the hurt and the pain of the past.

I want to wrap my arms around more and more of Jesus every day that I’m alive

so that I may know him more fully

trust him more completely

follow him more closely and

love him more deeply.

I pray the story of my life is a good one.

Chasing Bunnies

I tell them to stay focused.  I tell them that their essays need to be coherent and concise.  Make an assertion, I explain, and then support it—clearly and specifically.  Don’t drift.   Don’t veer off.

Don’t chase bunnies.

They look at me strange.

“Don’t chase bunnies,” I say.

And then I tell them about Sheba.

Sheba was a Doberman Pinscher.  I picked her out of a litter of puppies that I visited almost every day for two weeks.  One afternoon as I approached the pups all huddled together, a little black one with a caramel chest broke free from the pack and came toward me on wobbly legs.  The next day she did it again.  And I knew.  She was the one.

We were inseparable.  As a puppy, she’d snuggle into my lap each evening.  When she got big, she’d stretch out on the sofa, making it impossible for anyone else to sit there, her head resting on my thigh.

My parents used to own 50 acres of mesquite tree-covered land in West Texas.  Whenever I could, I’d take Sheba there, and we’d explore the property together.  She was built to run, and I loved seeing her break loose, her chest and legs rippling with muscle just under her shimmering black coat.

She rarely left my field of vision—unless she spotted a rabbit.  Then she was off—crashing through the brush, her high-pitched doggie excitement yelp fading into the distance.  She’d stay gone for a long time.  And when she returned, she’d usually be hopping on three legs, one paw lifted in the air.  So, I’d sit on the ground and pull out the thorns and cockleburs from the pads of her feet.

She never caught a rabbit, I’m glad to say.  But despite the thorns and the trouble, she never could resist the temptation.

Chasing bunnies was just too much fun.

So, don’t chase bunnies when you’re writing your essays, I tell them.  Don’t be like Sheba.  Stay focused.  Don’t veer off the path.

This is my advice to them as writers.

But it’s also my advice to them as individuals—as my brothers and sisters in Christ.

Because it’s what I did for far too long.  There was a time in my life, that I chased everything but God.  And I ended up with nothing to show for it, but a broken life.  Chasing bunnies will do that to you—it will leave you empty and sad.

But one day, I came out of the brush from the side of the road.  And I’d had enough.  And I let God sit down next to me and pull out the thorns one by one.  Painful—but worth it.

I finally discovered the peace of yielding to God.

I’ll never forget asking one of my students why she’d come to college.  I was expecting a response like—“Well, I want God to transform my mind and renew my heart.”  But instead, she looked at me with earnest eyes, and said—“To be honest, I just want to have fun.”

I’m not naïve.  I know there are temptations here on this campus.  And I know some of my kids are already chasing bunnies.  Others are going to.

I don’t want them to, but it’s going to happen.

And all I can do is pray for them.  All I can do is ask God to reveal Himself to them.  All I can do is hope that the spiritual presence on this campus will reveal to them that God is both real and relevant.

It took me awhile to figure this out.  I look back on my younger life with much regret.  I’d give anything to do things differently.  I wish I hadn’t squandered precious time.  But, it taught me this—God is gracious and merciful.  And no one is ever so far away that He can’t bring them back.

I know there are people who thought I was hopeless.  But, to God, I was still worth pursuing.

If you can help it, don’t chase bunnies, I tell them.  But if you do, know this—there is always a way back.  Never shut the door when it comes to God—He’ll never shut the door on you.  Ever.

Squirrels and Scars and God

They have scars.  Already.  I read it in their eyes.  And in their essays.  Divorce and addiction and suicide have broken into their homes and torn apart their dreams and their families.

Some have been brought up by grandparents.  Some still don’t have a place that truly feels like home.  But they are here.  Now.  On this campus.  Scars and all.  They don’t like looking behind.  So, they look ahead.  They have hopes.  And dreams.  And goals.  They want to be different.  They want to make a difference.

Physical scars are one thing.  Emotional scars can scale a whole other flight of stairs.

In some ways, I can relate to my students.  Cancer has left its mark on my body and on my psyche as well.  And over the past few years, I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about scars.  And, strangely enough, when I do, I almost always end up thinking about squirrels.

Yes, squirrels.

We have about 20 squirrels living in the live oaks and pine trees that surround our house.  They descend on our back yard each day—early morning in particular—to look for food.

Most of my friends consider squirrels to be overgrown rats that scrounge in the garden and dig in potted plants.  And while that’s true, my wife and I like having them around.  And we even encourage their behavior by feeding them.

In addition to the two squirrel feeders attached to a live oak and a dogwood, we scatter squirrel food in the back yard by the bird bath. We enjoy their company, and we’ve grown quite fond of two of them.  One is brave and sports a jagged scar on his back—the mark of a serious wound—where the gray hair that covers his little body has refused to grow back. Thus, the obvious nickname—Scarback.

For Scarback, we buy peanuts from the feed store and keep them in a bucket just inside the back door.  He knows where the bucket is, and in the mornings we leave the back door open so he can come on in and help himself.  Yes, Scarback is a welcome guest in our sunroom.

And Shorttail, who is missing half of his tail, as you might have guessed, also comes.  He’s a bit shy and prefers the feeder on the live oak, but sometimes he comes to the back door, with his scraggly poor excuse of a tail, and we’ll pitch a handful of peanuts his way.

Scarback and Shorttail.

I wonder about their wounds—especially Scarback’s. I wonder how he got it.  Maybe falling from a tree.  Or, maybe from a sparrow hawk’s sharp talons, a near miss with death. Whatever the cause, it seems to have made him fearless. He is the bravest of all the squirrels. My wife and I have even watched Scarback face off with our youngest cat who loves to flatten herself in the grass and stalk him. Scarback turns the tables and fearlessly chases her, sending her running for cover. It’s Scarback who has the courage to enter our home and head for the copper bucket.

I was thinking the other day that of all the squirrels that we feed and tend to, we have only given names to two. And we’ve named them for their scars.

Their scars set them apart from the others and make them special to us. My wife and I look for Scarback and Shorttail and love seeing them in the morning. It’s their scars that give them a special place in our hearts.

I wonder, sometimes, if God is the same way with us. I wonder if He knows us, not so much by our strengths, but by our scars. I wonder if it’s our wounds that make us so precious to Him.

I am proud of my students.  Those with the most scars, have the deepest faith.  And they are telling their story and they are trusting God and they are helping others who have scars too.

God has to love that.  And be honored by that.

When Jesus walked out of the tomb and appeared to His followers, they were terrified and thought they were seeing a ghost.  And to prove that He wasn’t, He showed them His scars.  His hands and His feet.  His scars were proof that He was alive and that He was real.

I have to believe that God cherishes our scars.

And I have to wonder if early in the morning, He sees us coming—scarred backs and short tails—and smiles as He opens the door to his sunroom, so we may enter as His special guests.

Exploding Biscuit Dough

We were in the middle of it.  The cancer, that is.  It was the morning of my surgery to have the catheter placed in my chest, just above my heart.  It was the entry point for the chemo drugs and would stay inside me for a year.    

That morning, we got up early and prepared for the trip to the hospital.  On our way out the door, Sharon realized she’d forgotten her breakfast.  She ran back into the kitchen, grabbed some orange juice out of the refrigerator, gave the door a gentle push, and turned out the light.  What we didn’t know was that the refrigerator door didn’t close.  It stayed open.  All day.    

The temperature in the refrigerator had climbed to 61degrees by the time we got home.  And we began dumping foods that hadn’t survived the heat wave.    

After a few minutes, I started feeling the effects of the anesthesia.  So Sharon ordered me to the couch, set the frig on turbo cool, and left the kitchen behind her. 

But while I was dead to the world, and to all that was going on in the house, Sharon slipped back into the kitchen and confronted the refrigerator alone.  After sniffing the milk, she declared it spoiled and tossed it.  She kept tossing.  And then she noticed something on one of the lower shelves and at the back.  It was a can of biscuit dough.  And it had exploded.  Biscuit dough was everywhere—on the shelf it was sitting on, on the shelf above it, and all over the back of the refrigerator.

It must have exploded while the door was open.  And when Sharon came home and adjusted the temperature to turbo cool, the dough hardened.  It wasn’t easy to clean.  That dough was happy where it was and wasn’t going anywhere.

While I slept, Sharon got on her hands and knees, trying to scrape hardened biscuit dough from the back of the refrigerator.        

Sharon’s job is stressful.  Add to that a husband—with cancer, who had undergone two surgeries in less than a month—and I’m not sure the word “overwhelming” adequately describes the situation.   

While I slept, Sharon cleaned hardened dough from the back of the refrigerator and cried.

It’s an image that still tugs at my heart.  I can see her—a sick husband on one side—a stressful job on the other.  And in between, exploding dough.

We talked about it later and even laughed a little.  And she made the comment that she felt bad for crying over something so small.  “I know,” she said, “that exploding dough is the tiniest of events in the scheme of life and eternity.” 

“Maybe,” I said.  “But you still have to walk through it.  You still have to face the stress of work and my illness and even the challenge of exploding dough.”

These seemingly insignificant moments, must be met and overcome.  And it’s these moments that define us—that reveal our character—and that push us toward or away from God.  These moments can have eternal implications.

Sharon and I made it through.  We hung on to God.  And to each other.  And in the biggest storm of her life, she trusted. 

I’ve been thinking lately about my students and the pressures they face.  It’s at this point of the semester that many are learning the hard lesson—sometimes, the dough just explodes. 

The other day, one of my classes had major papers due.  I had talked to the students early on about the importance of having essays completed and ready to turn in when class began.  We talked about being prepared for the unexpected.  We discussed power failures, and printers that run out of ink, and alarm clocks that fail to ring, and dogs that eat homework—but I forgot to mention locking yourself out of your room 5 minutes before class—which is what happened to one of my students. 

Exploding dough. 

And so sometimes, I tell them a story from my life, to let them know they are not alone in the tough times.  And I let them know that there’s a way through the exploding dough.  Always.  God is with us.  Each one of us.  “Do you believe this?” I ask them. “Do you believe God is good and that He will not give you more than you can bear?”

Sometimes they aren’t convinced.  And so I remind them.  “Don’t forget,” I say . . . .

“You can do all things through Christ who gives you strength” (Philippians 4:13). 

All things, I remind them.  You’ve got to hang on to that.  Even when the dough explodes.