All Hail the Storm King

img_20160914_180955254_hdrThere’s something monstrous and all-encompassing about New York City, as though the longer you’re there, your memory of the way the world works elsewhere is slowly cached until it fades into oblivion. Everywhere about the City, nature prevails. The pigeons come close and tilt their heads to look at you as though you’re the one that doesn’t belong amid this concrete, not them. The mice and chipmunks and squirrels are perfectly content to live among the steel-and-glass ignoring you, mostly. The trees manage to climb surprisingly high, a wooden skyscraper unto themselves, their roots searching the dirt beneath until it slams up against the concrete veins and arteries of the Metropolitan Transit Authority. Everything here unnatural seems to have grown together so well that it may have become one with Mother Nature herself.

Until, of course, you leave New York City and discover that this is not the norm, that – in fact – it’s a kind of beautiful, artistic and architectural blasphemy unmatched the world over.

img_20160917_104720302_hdrSuffice to say, it is still jarring to me that less than an hour away, the signs of the City are replaced with countless acres of trees and farmland, of mountains and lakes, of the River Valley where the remnants of the Appalachians come crashing into one side of the Hudson and pick up again on the other as though there’d not even been a creek in the way or perhaps as though Moses learnt to part rocks the same way he’d parted water. In the early days of autumn, just when the dog days of summer have tired out, and there’s a light breeze whispering to some of the trees that dying is a part of living, you can escape here and forget there ever was any concrete or steel or glass or plastic or car horns or subways. This is the land of towns with names like Fishkill and Beacon and Doodletown and Stony Point. It could just as easily be Tennessee.

It is not a place without its reminder that New York City is close by, of course. The train to Montreal whistles off the Hudson and churns on the tracks like a tornado rolling through, and the traffic and passers-by are a diverse lot of run-down hooptie cars, the people packed-in tight on their way to the next ‘job,’ juxtaposed with an occasional Tesla driven by a lone Frenchman who wears G Star Raw and is environmentally-conscious. And yet, in the same way the City can make you forget this place over time, this place – this dance with Mother Nature – manages to flood back over you singing, lulling that this is the real America. Cue Paul Simon on a search.

img_20160917_113923636And what is the real America but that hard, tried juxtaposition, that reminder that nothing is simple or can be easily broken into ‘this vs. that’ but is instead some mosaic of anything-and-everything we’ve ever done, imagined, or desired – the best and the worst of us – all thrown into the same mixing pot we once celebrated in this country.

Here is the Catskills, and here, maybe ten minutes west of the river and buried in its rolling hills there is an art gallery stranger than most. Imagine an outdoor museum, five hundred acres of it – something akin a postmodern Stonehenge with giant architectural feats planted like seeds that grew uncontrollably large in a river valley. It is the exact opposite of New York City: these structures that seemingly don’t belong actually make a very good case that they were born and grew up here and couldn’t reside anywhere else but a garden ‘that rivals Versailles.’ Against a backdrop of perfectly groomed green grass, knolls perfect for sledding, and oak and pine, these artistic gods – like a Picasso come to life – tower toward the pristine blue above to kiss the clouds. Their rusted metal – black and red – screams to the sky, but it’s somehow overwhelmingly peaceful. Once again, what didn’t belong found a home, and at home, you can scream loudly and find peace in it.

img_20160917_121225180The name of the place is fitting, too: Storm King, as though just around the mountain to the east there lurks Zeus ready to fire his bolts directly at the towering metal structures. I half-expected a postmodern ‘Night at the Museum’ were I to hang around until after dark.

Maybe that’s because seeing a giant, rusty metal structure next to a pond gives it life. But I think, too, its wild shapes, its shadows, the way the light might hit it at different times of day, leaves you to imagine that this one stationary structure could be a million things to a million people across a million eons. Somebody throws one gargantuan slab into the pasture, sculpted in steel, calls it art, and it tells a vastly different story at sunset from what it told at sunrise. Could it be said to be the same thing on a cloudy day when the sun doesn’t give it its sharp shadow that, arguably, is as much a part of the sculpture as the body the artist built? Or does the absence of its shadow breathe into it new life altogether?

img_20160917_121025271We small creatures who look upon such vastness are made somehow smaller still by this place. What of life is any different? Is not everything we look upon equally as complex? I am caught often, chained even, by my very limited perspective: that how I encounter you or the things you and I have made depends on just how the light hits us, just where we’re found in it, and just the time of day (or week or month or year) that your life and your creation may have graced mine. It is difficult, sometimes, to wait through the cloudy days to see again the shadow. It is that much more difficult, should they remain, to not let the clouds skew our view of what we know or once knew to be true. We are the storm kings and queens tasked to wade through the layers of our limited perspectives, to call out with humility precisely what those layers for us may be and to view it all as the birds of New York City might: looking curiously on and wondering what belonging is while knowing and claiming, this is our home.

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Beyond Resolutions, or looking for more out of life than simply achieving a few nice goals

When 2014 started, everybody setting resolutions and goals, everybody staking claims to the potential of the moment, some with certitude that this year could be theirs, I couldn’t let go of the thought that we don’t always make our own luck. There’s something ingrained in the American spirit, this old Protestant work ethic of sorts that you can have the whole world if you work hard enough to gain it. Mix in a little faith, and you have a recipe for success.

It’s not always that simple. The whole notion, in fact, that by our own hand (or with a wing and a prayer), we can change our circumstances is at least somewhat selfish. When things work out, too many are too quick to say a prayer has been answered. What of those for whom no answer ever came? And where’s the empathy in assuming God is on our side when far too many others are apparently lacking his concern?

On the other hand, I suppose if your only goal this year was to lose thirty pounds, that’s well within reach (and not to be scoffed at by any means). Hopefully, you won’t even need God’s help for that one. But I suspect that when people make goals to lose physical weight, there’s something deeper they’re striving for, a real goal hidden underneath those pounds to find human happiness and a sense of self-worth. And it’s precisely that search that doesn’t end, even once we’ve shed the extra fat.

Whether the new year, then, or perhaps mid-July, we’re all too often bumbling around wanting and needing more than what and who we are. For me, many of my friends know, so much of that has been tied to my desire to just be hired, as if a job would suddenly provide me with a greater sense of purpose, and once it comes (and it will), it may give me a sense of purpose for a while, but I’m not naïve enough to think I, too, won’t look for more in time. Anything less wouldn’t be very human, would it?

I’m not one to believe that a job or a person we’re in love with or a car or house or even the company of friends can guarantee lasting happiness. On some level, to search for lasting happiness is itself a vain and pointless search. Maybe it’s better to strive for balance so that in our worst moments we’ll know and believe that something better is ahead – not because we can make it happen ourselves but because life just is that pendulum guaranteed to swing its back-and-forth as the forces of gravity bring us both joy and tragedy.

And as for answered prayers? While I have my opinions, I’m not a smart enough man to contest God’s role (or lack thereof) in our lives. But I’ll say this: the longer we live with a kind of smug certainty that God will act on our own behalf, the less likely we are to act as we should, as we all too easily forget we are our brother’s (and sister’s) keepers. So, resolutions, goals, and prayers are all well and good, but they’ve got nothing on striving to live every single day a little bit beyond our hopes and dreams for just ourselves and maybe with a little more of the world in mind.

What brought me here.

When we were little kids, we were told – by guidance counselors and teachers, by youth directors and parents – to follow our dreams. No surprise there, really; the American way was for us to have it better than our parents. That logic is nice and dandy, but I’ve watched one too many art and music majors come to harsh realizations about what kind of sacrifice is required of someone who really wants to follow a dream. I don’t think it was wrong of our elders to feed us the “follow your dream” line, but I couldn’t help wondering over the years whether or not that path of dreams was actually the wrong path for me, whether or not that path of dreams was actually an incredibly selfish life.

If you think about it, that’s what college is for so many of us. We’re thrown into a system meant to shape us for our own, personal dreams, and the hope is that we come out on the other side ready to seek fame or wealth, a big house, lots of land, a beautiful wife or husband and three lovely kids – you know, the American dream. Of course, somehow, in there, “God” was a part of that for so many of us, ready to bless us with all this… stuff. When the economic meltdown happened a year ago, I couldn’t help but think the health-and-wealth gospel so many Christians had used to justify their entitlements had everything to do with the housing crisis and the eventual economic collapse. But I’m getting off topic.

The thing is, I grew up in that culture, the culture of dreams, and as a child, I wanted to be an archaeologist and then later, an astronaut. So, I went to Space Camp, which was probably as close as I was going to get to space (at least until Virgin Galactic starts offering affordable trips to the upper atmosphere).  Years later, I played Junior Archaeologist and was even in charge of the tools for a dig through Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Dor, Israel, and more recently, the teacher in me pursued Ph.D. programs and taught classes at Belmont University.  All the while I was pursuing these dreams (and loving every second of it), it was always, always about me. Even a few of the relationships with the girls that I loved ended largely because of my “plans” for my dreams. My dreams, or at the very least, my desire to do things my way, stood at the center of me hurting countless people I called my friends. Some of them don’t talk to me anymore. Some of them do. All of them, I think, would agree with that previous statement.

I tried to temper that egotistical path through ministry, whether it was working at Lakeshore United Methodist Assembly or working as a Youth Director at Rehoboth United Methodist Church, and both of those jobs gave me a chance to give back and to love people, something I felt I wasn’t very good at since most of my time was spent pursuing my dreams. Seeking ordination became another way to “serve” and “love,” but it got in the way of my desire to get my Ph.D. It was as if, over the past eight years or so, I was in this constant struggle between serving myself and serving others, and when I actually did serve others, I loved it and it had a powerful influence on my life, but at the end of the day, I had my sights on me, on the Ph.D., on following my dream.

I don’t think that’s a bad thing, you know, to want a Ph.D. or to want to teach; I mean, I’m a great teacher, and it’s at the heart of my gifts. I may even return to it one day. But to let that goal consume my life so much that I stopped listening to all those other things I loved, to all those other things that loved me back, meant that I wasn’t listening at all. It was like I was on some cookie-cutter path, an escape of sorts, from what I really needed to be doing and what would make me truly happy.

Then I woke up. After all seven of the Ph.D. programs I applied to turned me down, I got really tired of hearing people tell me that God had closed those doors to open another one. And I had to hear that line from multiple people every time a school turned me down. I have firm faith, but it’s not a faith that will ever believe in a God who hovers over my life guiding my path, making my decisions. If I’m going to be anywhere near God’s path, it’s a matter of me deciding I need to be on that path and has nothing to do with God opening or closing any doors. That’s not the way I believe God loves me, meddling with my life like the gods and goddesses of ancient Greece, and while I believe deeply in God’s providence, it’s more of a big picture kind of providence that extends far beyond me and the everyday life. To me, God’s “plan” is made evident via the Cross and not through whether or not I got into a Ph.D. program. Even that statement, though, I could tear apart theologically.

None of that is to say that I don’t appreciate or feel the influence of God’s presence in my life over these many decisions that have come my way these past few months.  I just don’t think of myself as God’s puppet.

And although a door of sorts has opened now, I still believe that it was a matter of me choosing what was right (and something more selfless) and not so much a matter of God yelling from the mountaintop, “Thou Shalt Now Go Here.” Life is about those kinds of choices, and for far too long, I avoided making them. I just stayed on the cookie-cutter path and did what I thought was best for me instead.

In the midst of all those graduate schools giving me their rejection letters, my grandfather (my last living grandparent) died. I had been to visit him the week before, and he wasn’t even sick at the time. He had this half-crooked smile – you know, the kind that said he was always thinking something funny that he wouldn’t say. When that smile did turn into a laugh, it was usually only a few chuckles followed by his signature line, “Oh me,” which was spoken while shaking his head. He was a quiet man in the time I knew him, even reserved at times, and I suppose, in young age, those are negative traits, but at that tender age of ninety-three, this man of few words had more to say in his silence than any advice any of us could have dreamed up. There is true wisdom in silence after all.

He had the walk of a farmer (and he had raised chickens and roosters, horses and tomatoes, sheep and oranges); it was an ancient stride, a slow step not because of lack of energy but out of shear, tender care for the very ground that humbled him. He was, after all, a man easily overwhelmed by simple things, but I guess when you were born in a world where the primary mode of transportation was still horse-and-buggy and the most whiz-bang mode of communication was the one town telephone two miles up the road at the market, it’s no surprise that this world of today, so fast-paced as it is, would be overwhelming.

He was a man of war, a member of the Greatest Generation, as they’ve been called, a packrat of the Great Depression, and an airman – a Sergeant – of the 1252 North Africa Division of the Air Transit Command of the United States Army Air Forces in Casablanca, Morocco during World War II.

A son, a brother, a husband, a father, a grandfather.

I guess it’s a bit obvious by the way I talk about him that I admired the hell out of the man. The week before he died, he had opened up to me sharing stories about his war experiences in a kind of detail I don’t know if he had ever shared with anyone. Then, he got sick, and in the following days, I learned a tough lesson, that waiting on someone to die is one of the hardest and most sacred things we ever do in this life. Waiting on someone to die is the measure of love we keep.

At the visitation for my grandfather, I was very quiet. I shook the hands I had to shake but remained fairly reserved (my sister even had to introduce me); it’s a socially awkward side of me that’s very much there, but not many people have seen it very often (or at least, that’s my deluded perception of it). As I stood in front of the casket, with my mother and sister and father and countless other family, I kept waiting on my grandfather to show up and make things better. After all, he was always the person who I could sit next to or watch television with at Thanksgiving and Christmas, and we would escape our sometimes awkward family gatherings by just chatting with each other in our own little world. When it finally hit me that he wasn’t going to “show up,” I won’t lie, I was deeply disheartened.

But then I started hearing stories, stories of his life. I heard one story my mother told about a silly plastic ring or something even less minuscule she once left in a hotel room as a little girl, and my grandfather, as President of the Farm Bureau, put his meeting on hold to drive a few miles and miles in hopes the ring would still be there, all for my mother.

I heard another story about his request to be sent overseas during the war the day after nine of his friends were tragically killed in a plane crash on a plane he had been responsible for repairing. He wanted and needed to honor their sacrifice.

Then, there’s the story of how, when my grandmother had lost her memory and for nearly five years couldn’t put two and two together, he took diligent care of her, feeding her every morning, wholly devoted to loving her even in the midst of her confusion and loss of memory.

Then, I heard a few of his friends telling me how last October, at ninety-two, he stayed outside with them making soup for over six hours, long past the time that the forty-somethings had gone home.

There are good people in this world – people who live good lives, and the part of me that had been sad was able to cheer up, not only because I had had the privilege to know Jewell Francis Jones but because the things he had taught me were my way to carry on his legacy, my way that he would always be with me (maybe not physically, but he is there). I think we’re even given a chance in this life and a choice to learn from who they were and carry out what they were. When I think of the part of me that’s quiet or the part of me that loves to paint or the part of me that seeks ways to make sacrifices or love the people around me in a way that shows true devotion, I know that my grandfather is still very much with me, and he always will be. I want to be that kind of good and make that kind of difference.

In the days after my grandfathers death and with the realization that my life was going to be different from what I had planned, I started realizing that for far too long, I had avoided really serving, really making a difference. I started to think about ways to serve my country (like him), and for a while, I considered (and am still considering) military service (as a Chaplain). When I applied to the Peace Corps, I just kept thinking, “This wasn’t one of my dreams; it wasn’t even on my plate or so much as a passing thought just two or three months ago.” But since it’s come to fruition, it has grown into more than a dream and into a calling. I’m sure it will come with highs and lows, as does anything in this life, but one thing I learned was that dreams are not just childhood hopes that we chase. Dreams grow with us. They follow us; they change; they can be even better than we ever thought, and there’s beauty in that, especially when old dreams seem to die away temporarily. It’s proof that nothing in this life has to be stationary or keep us stuck in a place we don’t want to be, and there is always hope for a better future. If I can share that vision with someone who doesn’t know what it is to have a dream, I’ll be doing what I’m supposed to be doing.  Then, when I come back, I can hopefully continue to better this world through that calling, that ministry, that no matter where I am, I live into the man my grandfather was to so many.

And that’s what brought me here.  To this little world of Morocco, my little world for the next two years.