Thursday, November 22, 2012


"Every Knee Shall Bow" by J. Kirk Richards

My children all lisp the letter s. I think it’s because we read so much scripture. Lydia says “sanctification” thanktification. A fitting word of the day. The process by which existence is rendered sacred through gratitude—thanktification.

The Spanish word for thanks is gracias—literally, “graces.” Thankfulness is one of the loveliest attributes, the most gracious. And we receive grace for grace. Blessings for thanksgiving. Grace upon grace.

Today and every day I am grateful for the infinite grace made graspable through Jesus Christ. That broken things may be mended. My friend Brandon—who I wrote about yesterday and whose second grade teacher’s love saved him from the small hell his parents created for him—tells students that things can change, people can change, but not by themselves. They need an outside power. Divine means of help or strength. As a teenager, once his life had been reclaimed by astonishing grace and he had been adopted into a real family, he one time saw his mom on the side of the road. He said her face was melting away from meth abuse. His friends made some offhand comment about this ragged and shabby woman, and he told them it was his mother. He stopped to pick her up and after a painful conversation he dropped her off in government custody, hoping against hope for an outpouring of grace for his mom.

After not seeing his father for years, Brandon went to the mental hospital where his dad was staying. He had destroyed his mind with drugs. “He was like a three year-old,” Brandon says. After a few minutes of helping his dad remember who he was, his father brought him a worn t-shirt and a small bag of beans. “I’ve been saving these for you,” he said, “for five years. I wanted to give them to you for Christmas.” Brandon said that his heart cracked and he felt grace heal his hatred for this man who had destroyed his childhood. He forgave him. He loves him. Praise God from whom all blessings flow. Praise Him all creatures here below. Praise Him above, ye heavenly host. Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Something Beautiful From God

"Flight Practice With Instruction" by Brian Kershisnik

During my freshman year of college, I one day sat transfixed as a teacher sang the world anew. I don’t know what the reality was, but in my mind’s eye Steve Walker stands in the middle of a room full of students, a radiant smile on his face, his hands uplifted. Swallows and some other small passerine birds shoot from his fingertips and flutter around the room, alighting on my head and arms, lifting me. Light emanated from him as he wove poetry into the air—a bright, warm covering.

Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

He was a magician and a miracle-worker. It was more than the words. His very being was poetry. His love and his enthusiasm and his gentleness and his humor. It was then I knew I wanted poetry flowing through my veins, quickening me and hastening my pulse. I perceived the igniting of a holy fire inside my immortal soul.

Teaching is more than mechanics and mnemonics; it is miracle and mystery. It is grace and a gift. A class is more than a system or a structure. It is soul and song and something else.

Professor Walker had memorized everyone’s name in a class of fifty students by the second day. He had us all up to his house for waffles and assorted jams. He loved us, and we knew it. He possessed an infectious enthusiasm. I have always loved the etymology of that word: en theos—God inside. One day he called me at my house. “Hi, this is Steve . . .” I racked my brain thinking of all the Steves who might be calling me. “You asked me a question in class and I didn’t like my answer. I looked into it.” He had done some research and spouted off three distinct sources for the answer he provided. No one knew about that call but me and him. He was genuine. He had a photographic memory and could read a ten page paper in five minutes and then quote back his favorite parts. My spirit stirred in that classroom. Tennyson’s “Ulysses” was the first poem I memorized.

This is my thesis: teachers matter. They make a difference. Mr. Jackson who surprised me by sincerely seeming to care when I dropped out of his calculus class. I still dropped the class, but his concern lingers with me. His gentle eyes. Mrs. Sillito, who asked me if I was alright one day as I slept through her Spanish class. Mrs. Black, who years after she taught me tracked me down where I work to tell me I was a bright and fun child in elementary school.

What was it old Nicodemus said to Jesus (who was the world's greatest teacher)? “Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him.” Sometimes teaching is thankless, but this Thanksgiving, I want to express my gratitude for teachers come from God.

My friend Brandon was born to drug-addicted parents. His mom was fourteen. His dad was fifteen. He had an older brother. By the time he was three, he was smoking marijuana. By five he was doing cocaine. He said that when he went to school, the other kids would make fun of him because he didn’t have any underwear and he was dirty and hungry and smelled like cigarettes and drugs. He would eat maybe once a day, at the local food shelter or at the school. His parents were dealing to fuel their addictions. One day in first grade he told his dad that he wasn’t feeling well and didn’t want to go to school. His father punched him in the six-year-old face, breaking his nose and making him bleed and vomit. Then he told him to go to school. He went.

As a small boy he watched eight police officers attack his father. His dad sent three of them to the hospital before they finally subdued him with a tasers, batons, and a bean bag round. One officer had led him away so that he would not witness it all. He told me that by second grade he was so tired of life that he began to consider suicide. He wondered if he would always hurt, always be lonely, always be unloved. He felt worthless. No one cared about him. By second grade he was stealing and doing heavy drugs, and his second grade teacher pulled him aside and asked what was going on. He told her nothing. His father had threatened his life if he ever told about home. She told him she wasn’t going to let him leave until he told her. She told him everything would be alright. She told him she cared about him and wanted to help him. For the first time in his life he felt a faint glow of hope. I love that second grade teacher. I wonder if she knows what her career meant. If all it meant is that Brandon is okay, it was enough. He got taken into foster care and changed. He had more teachers who encouraged him, especially in his artwork. He became a sterling scholar in art with a 2.3 GPA. He is now a teacher. He teaches ceramics and makes pots with his feet and does one-handed pull-ups and wins rock-climbing championships and changes lives. And his students love him because he loves them and he has a catching laugh and a lot of joy. And he knows that love matters and love saves us.

There’s another teacher who I don’t really know, but who I heard speak in a church congregation I visited a few weeks ago. He teaches elementary school music. He said when they invited him to be a crossing guard before and after school he wondered why he got a masters degree. But that he loves to see the kids coming and going. That he loves to hear them laugh, and he loves to make them laugh. That nothing is better than serving kids. When he was in high school in California, he had a music teacher with a lot of enthusiasm. He loved him and kept in touch with him. This teacher had no kids, and when he retired, he and his wife moved out to Utah to be close to this man who was speaking in church. And when the old teachers wife had died and he was dying, this former student cared for his former teacher like a son would. Because teachers matter. Because teachers are holy. Thanks be to God.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Memo to Mr. Alighieri

"A Conversation Seldom Heard" by Brian Kershisnik

Some days I don’t believe very much in hell at all. It just seems so incongruous with all this. Friday the skies dumped inches and inches of snow on my unsuspecting head, my car, my life. Warmed by miracle clothes, I lay on my back on the softened ground, watching the white. The flakes fell without relenting. Emerson, lying next to me, asked, “Do they get in your eyes, dad?” “Yeah,” I answered. A scattershot of birds flew overhead, light brown on white-gray. Such a stillness in the world. One by one as the play wore on, my kids came to me to have their hands warmed. I held their small red hands between mine and willed warmth. Julie showed up at the park with Eleanor bundled in a backpack, bright eyes gleaming. By the time we trudged home, Oliver was tired. I hoisted him onto my shoulders. As we walked, he said, “I’m like a angel sitting on your head.” An angel sitting on my head.

Then he leaned to the tops of fences to eat the snow. When it got in his nose, he laughed. When I set him down, he lay down in the street to eat some more snow. He marched and sang to himself. At home we made hot chocolate and had soup for dinner. Ellie on my lap tilted her head back to look into my eyes, to see who was holding her. She smiled at me.

“O how great the goodness of our God, who prepareth a way for our escape from the grasp of this awful monster; yea, that monster, death and hell . . . . Death and hell must deliver up their dead, and hell must deliver up its captive spirits. . . . O how great the plan of our God!”

I know that whatever hell there may be exists only with my permission, maybe even only at my bidding. I am among those who have “become free forever, knowing good and evil; to act for themselves and not be acted upon.” How did Goethe put it? “I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element.  It is my personal approach that creates the climate.  It is my daily mood that makes the weather.  I possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous.  I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration; I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal.  In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis is escalated or de-escalated, and a person humanized or de-humanized.” Or Lehi: “Wherefore, men are free . . . to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death.” My choice.  

When I was seventeen, I was in the mountains with my friends, back-country boarding. I aimed my snowboard at a cliff and woke up a few minutes later. My friends were looking in the bloody snow for my front teeth. We found them still inside my mouth, dangling from the roots hanging from my broken maxilla. I broke my jaw and my nose and my teeth and my maxilla. My teeth went through my lips—all the way through. My friend shot down the mountain and found a snowmobiler who came as far up to us as he could. He took me to a ranger’s station. The ranger called an ambulance. After reconstructive and plastic surgery, my parents took my puffy face home to rest. Lots of things sprang from this. I couldn’t eat for weeks, shooting Carnation Instant Breakfast down my throat with a water bottle. To fix my jaw, the orthodontist gave me a device that might have been invented by Dante himself to punish the purveyors of orthodontia. It was called a Herbst appliance. It was essentially these two metal shock-like things on the insides of my mouth to keep my jaw straight as it healed. It dug into my cheeks, and when it came unhinged if I laughed or yawned, it would either stick open (to the delight of my mocking friends) or come apart and stab the roof of my mouth.

Originally I was told it would be in my mouth for six months. After almost fifteen months, the orthodontist said to set an appointment to get it out. With great enthusiasm I sat in the chair to have it removed. As he pulled on the metal, the doctor asked me if I had taken my amoxicillin. “Thay wha?” No one had told me I needed to premedicate. He told me he could not take it out without the medication. He told me to set an appointment to come back. When I asked the secretary to reschedule, she told me it would be several weeks before they could get me back in for an appointment. I had not understood the concept of blind fury until that day. I was so angry my vision blurred. I tried to slam the door on the way out, but it was a hydraulic door and took its time closing. I drove home blindly, furiously. When I got home, my mom asked me what was the matter. I yelled and stormed to the basement to get a computer monitor. “Rob? What are you doing?” On my back porch, I swung the screen around my head and smashed it into oblivion. I needed to walk. I ended up at a convenience store near my house and bought a kiwi-strawberry Mistic. When I opened it to drink, I saw a little message inscribed on the bottom of the lid: “Happiness is a decision.” I laughed out loud imagining the angel sent to place that drink in that store on that day. I imagined God laughing. I kept that lid. Happiness is a decision.

I realize that my refusal to acknowledge hell might appear to spring from a sheltered sort of naiveté. I recognize that we have a whole lot of history attesting to the manifold hells created by mankind for mankind, but that’s just my point. It doesn’t have to be this way. We could choose differently. That’s all I wanted to say.