09 September 2016

Kingdom of Heaven/ On the Borderlands

Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee (Luke 17.11)

As I studied this text in Bible study this week, I noticed for the first time the setting of Christ's confrontation with the Ten Lepers. Luke carefully sets this scene in time and place.

The opening word, "Now...," puts the reader in the moment, joining the throng that follow this Galilean messiah to make his mark in Jerusalem, ready to trade petty exchanges with local pharisees (14.1-14) and synagogue leaders (13.14-17) for far-more-daunting challenges with Jewish and Roman elites in the big city (13.31-35).

But Jesus travels slowly--at least in the way Luke tells it. All the way back in chapter 13, Luke had shown that "Jesus went through the towns and villages, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem" (v 22). Three chapters later, Jesus is still moving, glacially, toward his destiny, following "the border between Samaria and Galilee," probably no more than ten miles from his hometown of Nazareth and fewer than five miles from Nain, site of one of his greatest miracles (Luke 7).

The borderlands would seem a strange place for a messiah to walk. There are no highways there. Few people. Most borders follow mountain ranges or rivers. Perhaps Jesus had taken the warning of Galilean pharisees seriously after all--"Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you" (13.31). There were only two routes to Jerusalem from Galilee, the broad seaside highway along the Mediterranean coast, and the route down the Jordan Valley, the latter of which Jesus would follow.

Borderlands are places for wild animals, not teachers. I live in a town near the border between Kentucky Tennessee. Until a few years ago, the only buildings one actually found close to the border of the two states were roadside bars and honkey-tonks. The border was a place to sneak away to, a place to imbibe things that couldn't be consumed in town. When I note that Jesus was following the border, I remember a famous quote from another frontier, border town in Star Wars:

"Scum and villainy," indeed. The border lands are home to bandits, exiles and--apparently--lepers.

"Jesus, Master," they cry out. Close enough for the group to hear, no closer, they continue, "have pity on us" (v 13). 

Jesus makes no move, he makes no incantation. He simply directs them to get a new opinion on their condition from the priests. "And as they went, they were [all] cleansed" (v 14).

I have written elsewhere about the Jewish obsession with cleanliness. This obsession continues in the Christian rites of baptism and Maundy Thursday footwashing. It would seem that the diseases of the time had two explanations--demons and a lack of cleanliness--and the final word on healing lay not with doctors but with priests. 

I'm going to skip the most obvious detail--that only one of the lepers returns to thank Jesus, and this leper appears to be a "foreigner" or Samaritan. That's for others to recount. What struck me as the Bible study finished was a peek ahead to the next section in Luke--another Kingdom of God reference.

I imagined the Ten Lepers as something other than a real event, but as a Kingdom parable. "The Kingdom of God is like unto Ten Lepers who came upon a Healer in the border lands and called out unto him for mercy...."

What strikes me about this story is this: while one of the lepers returned to thank Jesus, "Were not ten cleansed?" (verse 17). This seems like a minor point, but all ten lepers receive healing, because they are healed at the moment they believe Jesus and turn around to find a priest for confirmation.

The grateful leper, commended by Jesus for returning to thank and praise God (Jesus mentions God, not himself), remains just as healed as the other nine.

Perhaps this is because the other nine were in a hurry to get confirmation from the priests--this foreign Samaritan may not have felt the need of institutional confirmation once he saw for himself that he was healed. The border lands were always in flux. Messiahs might appear, so might murderers. There were plenty of reasons not to return for the other nine, grateful or not.

But there may be something more that Jesus is revealing about salvation here--something surprising to me. It seems like there is a two-tiered version of redemption in the story that may help us understand other events and parables in the book of Luke. There seems to be "saved" and "better-than-saved."

In the parable of the Prodigal Son, for example, both brothers remain in their father's house. Nine coins are safe in the bank along with one that was lost. Ninety-nine sheep are safe in the pen, along with the one who which was found. So much for good guys and bad guys.

21 December 2014

Reading for the Year, 2014

OK, it's time for a victory lap of sorts. If you're wondering what's on my mind, take a look at the books I read this year. I'm at 66, and while I'll finish a few over the Christmas break, I'm not sure I'll make it to 70 before 2015 begins and brings with it new experiences (trips to New Orleans, Germany, the Republic of Georgia, and a return to Philadelphia and New York City) to read up on.

Looking back at 2014, I spent a month reading fiction from countries competing in the World Cup--Germany's win was capped by my reading of five novels by German writers:Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther, The Mussel Feast, A Minute's Silence, Thomas Mann's His Royal Highness, and Peter Longerich's massive biography of Josef Goebbels. Looking back, though, I think my favorite World Cup-related novel was Paolo Giordini's The Solitude of Prime Numbers, a thoughtful love story.

My trips to New York were aided by Kevin Baker's Dreamland and John Dos Passos's Manhattan Transfer. I read four Dos Passos books this year, and he just blew me away. He is truly America's greatest modernist writer.

My favorite novel of the year was Henderson Smith's Fourth of July Creek, which was lyrical and which vividly described themes that began during the book's historical setting (Reagan's first two years in office) and which resonate today.

The best nonfiction I read was Timothy Egan's Short Nights of the Shadowcatcher: the Epic Life & Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis. Curtis's quest to capture the images and ceremonies of the remaining Native American tribes in the American West in the 1910s rendered him divorced and penniless, but it preserved traits of those cultures that were dying out, and they allow Americans today to appreciate them. Egan is one of the best writers working in America today, whether you read his columns for The New York Times or others of his fine books, the best of which might be The Worst Hard Time about the Dust Bowl.

I crossed a few more classics off my list of to-reads: Alex Haley's Roots, Kate Chopin's The Awakening, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (yes, that's right), Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence, and the Goethe book (my Audible subscription really helps me to get through these). I also got to re-read John Steinbeck's East of Eden and The Old Man and the Sea.

A few other books that I would recommend that I didn't mention above:
1. Two historical novels, Sue Monk Kidd's The Invention of Wings begins with the gift of a slave to a Charleston teenager, and follows her repulsion to slavery to Philadelphia and a prominence in the abolitionist movement. Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See was an epic tale and brought back to me a visit I made to St. Malo, France, hitchhiking over my spring break in 1991.
2. Books that I put right to use in my teaching included Edgar Sawtelle, The Smithsonian's History of America in 101 Objects, Where'd You Go Bernadette (a delightful surprise), and Boy, Snow, Bird.

If you have any recommendations for 2015, post them below. I'm already building a collection, and I'm looking forward to sharing some recommendations with my brother-in-law, Don Gates over the Christmas holiday. I can't wait to read more!

07 December 2014

The "We Three Kings" Wormhole into another Time and Space

At choir practice today, I was assigned a solo to sing along with our Three Wisemen.

The thing about getting into your mid forties is this: the space-time continuum starts to break down. We're in the church, getting ready to go over the song, and all of a sudden, I'm in my home church in Athens, Ohio, eleven years old, with a towel on my head, with several extra-large rubber bands clamping the towel to my cranium, with my buddies, Seth Jasovsky and Eric Jasovsky, getting ready to walk down the aisle with me, singing "We Three Kings" for the Christmas pageant.

I'm not sure if the space-time continuum is fuzzy or if it was just too long ago, but I can't see how ridiculous I/we must have looked in our costumes that night. At the time, we either thought we were cool--or we just didn't care. What was cool was this: hanging around ANYWHERE with Seth & Eric and Julie Dittes Gates and Sonia and  Paul Jasovsky that Christmas in the "magical land of Ohio," or any other for that matter.

In church, reveling in the memory, I was grinning so much, I missed the first note or so of the solo. It's OK. I have until the weekend to get it right. I just know that my solo will NEVER top the trio singing "We Three Kings" that shuffled down the main aisle, dragging the hems of fathers' bathrobes, that unforgettable Advent evening at the Athens Seventh-day Adventist Church over 30 years ago.

30 November 2014

Some Tips I've Learned for the College Bound

This blog is in response to the New York Times article, "For Accomplished Students, Getting into a Good College Isn't as Hard as it Seems"

Bottom line: 80% of top students get into the schools they want, and ridiculous acceptance numbers (<7% at the Ivies) are because of students applying to too many schools. Ellie is at the end of the application process now. She targeted four schools, applied to three, and has been accepted by two of the three (we're waiting on the last one, which also happens to be her dream school--Penn).

Most of my Facebook friends have kids who are younger than Ellie, so let me break down the college process for you, to save you some stress and ensure that your child controls their educational & fiscal destiny.

1. Any school is a be-all, never an end-all. "Be all you can be" is no longer the motto of the U.S. Army, but it is the key to successful education in every kind of school. The value of a school isn't in its tennis courts or travel programs; it's in the teachers, the curriculum, and the range of classes offered there. More importantly, it is in that school's ability to prepare the child for the next step: elementary school for middle school, middle school for high school, high school for college, college for career, and career for the next career (today's students will work for 10-14 different employers by the age of 38). A smart parent doesn't say, "My kid is at a great school," anymore. They say, "My kid is getting great opportunities."

2. Connect present with future. It wasn't good grades that made Ellie think she could attend the top schools. It was her school business club--especially when she placed first at nationals in International Business as a sophomore. "You punched your ticket," I told her at the time. I said it a lot--every time she brought back a high test score or excelled at competition. Good schools, whether they are public or private, prepare kids to compete and excel, and having the word "champion" on a resume moves the student to the front of the college application line.

3. Every dollar spent is an investment. I'm not just talking about tuition here. How much is the family spending on books, classical concerts, museum visits? When there is travel, is there learning, too? Some technology investments--computers, music players--are better than others. A trip to Yellowstone National Park or a week at music camp is a better investment than Disney. A lot of the money I saved by putting my kids through public schools, I spent on travel, music and books. The money is all the same, it all got spent, but I had more control over the quality of the spending.

4. Tests are tools, not lotteries. Ellie took every practice test she could: the PLAN in 10th grade, the PSAT in 10th & 11th grades, and, of course, the ACT, which she took three times from December of her junior year to June before her senior year. Together we shamelessly used the testing companies to build interest in colleges (who buy the testing information) and increase her scores, knowing that above a certain level, every added point on the ACT is worth $1000-$2000 more in scholarships. If colleges are going to make it that easy to game the system, we'll take it!

On her first ACT, Ellie scored a 29, which was the score both her mother and I earned on our single experiences with the test. Ellie hated the score and acted like ACT had sent her a poop sandwich instead of a ticket into 95% of American colleges. The score included a perfect 36 in reading, but showed room for improvement in writing and math. She was already in AP Writing, so we knew the score would go up. We added a community college precalculus class to her schedule that spring. In the March ACT, her score was up a little, but she hadn't matched that perfect 36 in reading from the original test, while the other scores were higher. In the June ACT she came back with a 32 (which to her still wasn't high enough, despite she was up to qualifying for 98% of universities). It wasn't until we met with a Penn recruiter and learned that Penn "superscores" the ACT results, meaning that they take the highest grades from among the various tests, that she was satisfied. The 36 in reading held up, and added to her final test score, meant that she how had a 33 composite: another ticket punched.

A final thing about testing: I disagree with those who say they "don't test well." Tests are timed exercises in reading, writing and computation. They are not a mysterious portal between the world of high school and that of college. As a teacher, I know that if I can prepare my students to read every word of the prompt, or write an outline in preparation of a written prompt, their test scores will go up. I pity the poor kids who have been coached in "testing strategies" and spend more time gaming the answers than actually reading or computing the questions they're given. These kids "don't test well" because they haven't been taught well, because they believe that test results are 'magical' and not 'earned.'

5. Talk, talk, talk. Every college has a floor filled with offices and cubicles known as The Admissions Office. People go to work there every day, and they're there to recruit prospective students from specific regions of the state or country. They love to talk to kids. They answer e-mails in less than an hour. They record every interaction, hoping that it will result in an application. It was through talking with recruiters that we learned about the superscore. Through talking with a South Carolina recruiter, Ellie learned she needed a 3rd lab science, allowing her to drop an easy class and add Anatomy & Physiology to the Chemistry and Biology grades on her transcript. Through talking with a Penn recruiter, she learned that they prefer students with a calculus background for their business school, so she added an extra math class and devoted considerable time her senior year to AP Calculus. Without talking, she would have a solid transcript (a better GPA perhaps), but she would have gaps in her record that might cost her a place at her dream school.

6. Tour, tour, tour. No one would spend $5,000 on a car without test-driving it. No one should spend $50,000-$200,000 on a college education without visits. Every college visit offers an opportunity for learning, whether it's a drive-by or a full college tour. And you're not just touring the community and facilities, you're looking at the kids who go to school there--and want to go to school there. We toured NYU and Georgetown together, but didn't find either a good fit worth the price of application. We drove by Ohio University, West Virginia University and Temple. Ellie made two official visits to South Carolina and three additional informal visits. Interestingly, Ellie wasn't sold on Temple until she had both toured the campus AND worked out ways to use the Philadelphia subway to find her way around the city by herself. She felt at home there--without Daddy's help--and it helped her see herself studying and living in the city. Another ticket punched.

7. Dream, dream, dream. The final determination of where a student attends is NOT the college admissions or financial aid office. It's the parent or student who signs the deposit check. It frustrates me to hear finances brought up during the Talking Phase, the Touring Phase, or the Dreaming Phase, which should be about students reaching for the best opportunities available and preparing themselves to be successful in life. (When Ellie learned to walk, I imagined her in the Olympics; after her first piano lesson, I started thinking about Carnegie Hall; when she played soccer, I took her to see Mia Hamm and the US Women's Team.) It wasn't for me to tell her she would never be great because we. just. couldn't. afford. it.

Parents should identify students' strengths, help them identify programs or careers that will let them use those strengths, and take them to the colleges/ locations of their dreams. (Parents, this also makes an indelible impression on your child as to the depth of your love and respect for them.) The local community college or commuter state school will still cash the check, whether you've toured Harvard or not. A student who says, "I was accepted to X Unversity, but I chose Y College," is a student who is in control of their destiny and one who will live their life looking forward without regret.

Let me be clear. Ellie is an extraordinary kid. I'm not here to toot my horn, or act like anyone else's child has the same drive and dedication that she has shown over the past four years.They might. We have learned some important lessons over the past two years of looking at and preparing for college admission, and I just wanted to share them with all of you.

24 May 2014

Last of the Jims

I can think of three dates that determined the outcome of these 43 years I have spent so far on this wonderful green globe:
  • 22 May 1997 I became a father.
  • The weekend of 3-7 May 1991 Destiny thrust me into the great love of my life
  • In January of 1984, just a few weeks shy of my 13th birthday, I moved from Amesville, Ohio, to Portland, Tennessee. 
Uprooted in the middle of 7th grade, I was planted in a new school, a new community. The experience marked me for life--my best friends and my boyhood were boxed up back at home--a place I tell my kids was "the Magical Land." My awkward teenage years and the longest chapters in the unwritten book, JD's Book of Blunders, would take place in a strange land of Tennessee.

A story from those first days in Tennessee came back to mind this week, when I learned that my classmate at Highland Elementary, James "Bobo" Ayers, had passed away due to cancer. Like me, he was 43.

I have always had a problem with my name. Growing up, my family called me "JD," which always seemed like a baby name to me. To make things worse, my mom tells the story that the name had been given to me while I was still in utero, given by a man who assumed I would be "Junior Dittes."

When I was ready for 1st grade, I came up with a plan. I was going to leave "JD" behind and become "Jimmy." I remember writing "Jimmy" over and over on my wide-lined, elementary writing book, curling the y's this way and that. It didn't phase my parents--nor did it seem to matter to the other seven kids in the one-room Adventist school I attended.

A Return to the Question of Satan

A couple of events this week led me back to explore the topic of Satan.

I have admitted earlier in this blog my difficulty in really believing in the Evil One--or at least with the certainty that many of the Lucifer-wielders seem to have for him.

Two events this week brought Satan back to light and led to some interesting new takes on the subject.

First, at a Bible study this week, a group leader resorted to Satan to prove a supposition that cannot be supported by the Bible: in this case it was the erroneous belief that Paul and other early Christians didn't worship on Sunday, among other days.

"The Devil wants us to believe," he began. My blood began to boil. "It's all part of Satan's plan." I wanted to walk out. This was a blatant logical fallacy--as if I made decisions or interpreted scripture with any care what some made-up entity really wants!

Later, a friend posted on Facebook a question about  atheists and Satan. Two brushes with the Evil One in one week. I took to Google to figure out the term for "a person who refuses to believe in Satan."

The answer I found was "atheist."  An atheist, I learned, rejects any form of the divine, whether good or evil.

13 March 2014

Living My Grandpa's Life

Woke up this morning in my grandpa's bed.
Put the kettle on for coffee on my grandpa's stove
Took a walk down Grandpa's driveway
     looking up at constellations--
     the very ones I learned from him.
I paused next to Grandpa's arched, white mailbox,
Stared up at Venus to the east-southeast.

That was when I realized
Today, March 13
Is the day I lost my grandpa--
Seven years ago,
     the world at this very point in its wide orbit
     end-of-winter stars in these places overhead--
     a Universe eternal save his heartbeat.
He died
On a Tuesday

24 December 2013

Playing for Peace on Christmas Eve

So this is Christmas: Fort McAllister, Georgia, the Confederate fort that marked the end point of General William Tecumseh Sherman's epic, two-month scramble from Atlanta to the Atlantic--the "March to the Sea" that gutted the Confederacy, ensured Abraham Lincoln's re-election, and gave to humanity the phrase, "War is Hell."

So this is Christmas--or almost so: a short battle raged for fifteen minutes on the 13th of December, 1864. Thirty men died, including twelve of the fort's defenders. Over 200 were injured (the Confederates had laced the woods with land mines. One hundred ninety-five of the fort's defenders were taken prisoner. When the battle was over, a Union soldier raced to the ramparts and waved the Stars & Stripes, informing the U.S. Navy gunboats that the fort had fallen. By water and by land the way was now open to Savannah. Confederate forces quickly, humanely--abandoned the city and slipped into the swamps of South Carolina. Sherman entered the city on December 21 and sent a message to President Lincoln, presenting him the city as "a Christmas present."

So this is Christmas: four boys advance on the fort, 149 years after Sherman's forces did. They advance at a run--double-time as Sherman might have ordered. But there is no order in their assault. One advances through the open gate, the others leap into the moat, slide through the palisades, and climb the sandy walls.  "One, two, three...not it!" one of them calls. A chorus of "not it" replies, and a game of hide-and-seek commences.  A fort is a great place to play hide-and-seek.

So this is Christmas: the prophet Isaiah thunders: 
"Every warrior's boot used in battle
    and every garment rolled in blood
will be destined for burning,
    will be fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given,
    and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
    Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
    there will be no end" (9. 5-7)
I find myself drawn to this kingdom--this government--where swords are used only as plowshares, spears become pruning hooks (2.4); where "the wolf will live with the lamb" and "the young child will put its hand into the viper's nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain" (11.6-9). 

But I am not living in the Era of Isaiah, nor is it 1864. I circumambulate the fort, walking between the rampart walls and the river, trying to imagine the sight of ironclads in the water, tuning my ears to the echoes of guns. 

My thoughts are invaded from time to time by calls from the battlements, "Dad?" 

"I'm over here," I call back. 

"Uncle JD?" 

"Don't worry."

So this is Christmas: I think of Isaiah again, and I grin. I think of a new poem:
The field of glorious battle will become a ground of hilarious fun
    Your ramparts will become jungle gyms
Shouts will sound from children who use your cannon as see-saws
    Your artillery shells will roll like bowling balls
In the place where your ancestors were killed and imprisoned
    Your sons will hide and seek, your daughters will run and shout

So this is Christmas: a time when the Prince of Peace haunts the grounds of war.

So this is Christmas: war is over--at least here in Georgia it is.

And this Christmas Eve, in a prayer for peace, I long for boys to play in Afghanistan and Syria and in South Sudan the way I have seen my sons and my nephews play here.

So this is Christmas.