Bucket List Travels with Suzanne and Michael

After my Uncle Jack, dad’s brother, returned from Europe following the Second World War, he told me, an eleven year old, about all the places he had seen. He did not tell me about the combat. He let me know that the world was a very different place than my small town. He lit a fire in me to see for myself that has only grown brighter through the years.

In May of this year, my son, Michael, and I fulfilled one of my major goals – to visit Russia. We took an amazing Baltic cruise. One of the major destinations was St. Petersburg. What a glorious time we had. Of course, we could have spent weeks. Michael is a wonderful, knowledgeable, inquisitive travel companion.

On October 4th. my daughter, Suzanne, steered our rental car over the border into Idaho, the remaining state to fulfill my Bucket List of seeing all 50 states. What a wonderful moment. Suzanne had driven almost 1,200 miles. What a trooper! What a great travel companion. Just as on our trip to Ireland she was thrilled with all the sheep. She tolerated her dad who knows less than nothing about wines. Oregon, the 49th. state, on my list is overflowing with wineries. She too is curious and determined. We tracked down every covered bridge and either drove through or walked through all of them.

All of my travel began with a train trip from Spartanburg, South Carolina to Kansas City, Missouri/Kansas when I was a senior in high school. Our senior class trip was to Washington, D.C. Liz and I, Suzanne and Michael’s mother, traveled to Puerto Rico and the American Virgin Islands when I was invited to speak to the Caribbean Speech and Hearing Association. She and I also went to San Francisco, New York, and Boston. After her untimely death, Suzanne, Michael and I went to Ireland when I spoke to the European Speech and Hearing Association. My brother-in-law, John Wallace, and I went to Australia when I spoke to the speech association there. That was a trip Liz and her father before her were supposed to make.

Nine years later, Carol and I went to England, Scotland and Wales on our honeymoon. We went to Alaska the following year. What an experience! She and I traveled even into her losing battle with Alzheimer’s disease.

What can I say other than how grateful I am to have two children who gave up their time so that their dad could complete his Bucket List? I hope they know that as much as I love travel, traveling with each of them surpasses anything I will ever see or experience. There is a great big beautiful world out there filled with people anxious to be friends. Don’t worry. I am compiling a new list.

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The Simple Gift of Attention an Antidote to Abstraction – Gregg Jarrell

On a Tuesday afternoon, Dave knocked on the door. His weathered face was covered in tears, his head held low. Dave is gruff even on his most pleasant days, always edges and elbows. This day, the sharpness was gone.

“I’ve hit bottom today,” he told me. “I’ve lived a rough 50-some years, and this day is the day I’m ready for it to come to an end.”

His head drooped lower. The dusty porch floor caught his tears. Between his sighs, he kept talking; the series of misfortunes, still piling up, had all collapsed into a single Tuesday afternoon. I just sat there, useless except to provide cool water and a snack.

And two ears.

Dave laughed at one point. He was holding the children’s book that was on the table next to him, which he had been reading while I was in the kitchen. Johnny Appleseed. He read me a page that tickled him. “That’s the first time I’ve laughed in weeks,” he said.

Concerned for him, and knowing my own limitations – I’m a pastor, not a mental health professional – I offered to take Dave to a crisis center where they could help him get reconnected with himself and treat any physiological or chemical issues before he returned home on his own. When we arrived, we walked in together and exchanged a hug. I watched as he shuffled behind a nurse, down the hallway and into a treatment room.

“Our attention is especially rich when lavished on those whom the world ignores.”

None of my actions was remarkable in any way. I just sat down and paid attention. And yet I’m aware of how rare attention is in this wired world. Attention is a gift, but I often withhold it, usually for reasons I cannot explain. That afternoon on my porch was an exception to the way I usually move about on my block.

I know I am not alone in this. The world constantly trains us into distraction. Buzzing, noise, notifications. “How’s that book?” my wife asks sarcastically, seeing the book lying open, face-down on the table as I stare at my mobile phone. Reading for a few minutes is not simple. It requires conscious effort – silencing gadgets, quieting children, hiding from the basket of clean laundry that needs folding. It is easier to drown in the distractions.

Sustained, uninterrupted attention is an unusual gift, both to ourselves and to others. It may be the thing that saves us. The moment of pure attention contains within it the possibility of a future worth having.

”Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer,” Simone Weil writes in Gravity and Grace. It is the seed of a revolution, a break from the fantasies of distraction and the alienations of rumination. Our attention is especially rich when lavished on those whom the world ignores. It makes us active creators of the world we want to live in, the one of justice and equity and beauty.

“An antidote – maybe the antidote – to abstraction and alienation is to return to the tangible: neighbor, porch, story; park bench, stranger, song; table, bread, wine.”

The future we long for begins in the present – often on a porch, or maybe a park bench or perhaps around a kitchen table. Along the way, true attention touches every place. It especially touches those places where the concentration of wealth and power have isolated people from themselves and one another. In those places, neighbors are an abstraction at best, and enemies at worst.

Culture and policy begin to reflect the impulse against neighborliness as the powerful exert their will through political and economic institutions and willful blindness. The current trajectory of the United States, moving headlong toward human rights atrocities, is fueled by the abstraction of neighbors. In the soul deadened by excess, there are no stories worth hearing, no life that matters but your own. There is no porch, no park, no commons.

The only place that matters is the balance sheet. Nothing is sacred but money, nothing worth sustained attention but the making of it.

An antidote – maybe the antidote – to abstraction and alienation is to return to the tangible: neighbor, porch, story; park bench, stranger, song; table, bread, wine. Paying attention to the details of the person nearby does not fix everything, but we won’t fix anything without that sort of careful attention.

Dave came back a few days later. He is better for now, but he is still alone. In a crisis, a trained professional will help. But for the mundane days, the ones where discontent simmers without boiling over, where folks stumble from one distraction to the next, what Dave needs is not a professional but a neighbor.

I suspect that is what we all need. The best neighborhoods are the ones that help us to tell good stories about ourselves. They are the spaces where we pay close attention to the details – where the birds nest, how long the pothole repair took, when we last saw Miss Evelyn on her porch. Our lives get caught up in those places. We get rooted in them, and they sustain us.

Neighbors know you with a casual intimacy. They know your schedule, how you greet your kids when they get off the bus, what music you blast while cleaning the house, what color flowers you tend to plant. Those daily acts of noticing – of attention – make the world a bit more gentle. They help us to tell better stories about ourselves.

“The best neighborhoods are the ones that help us to tell good stories about ourselves.”

A good neighborhood makes it easier to find someone who can tell you about the goodness of your story on the days you cannot see it for yourself.

Without neighbors, and without the careful attention that a good neighborhood encourages, people don’t know how to tell their stories well. A human needs to be seen, to be heard, to have a voice to sing in harmony with. For that, we have stories, and we have porches.

We have the choice to listen, and to live in the way of peace.


OPINION: VIEWS EXPRESSED IN BAPTIST N

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A ‘heretic’ returns to a formative place that once was home: Molly Marshall*

I did not expect the visit to be as poignant and memorable as it was. After being away for nearly 25 years, I recently returned to the campus of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. Over the past year I have been working on a podcast series produced by the Baptist Center for Ethics that will narrate portions of my life as a minister, scholar, theologian, seminary president and troubler of Israel – at least the Israel that Southern Seminary became as it lurched to the right over the issue of biblical inerrancy.

I taught at Southern from January 1984 until December 1994, and then I helped several Ph.D. students finish their work after I moved to Kansas and Central Baptist Theological Seminary in August 1995. Part of the deal I struck upon departing was that I might continue their supervision. After all, if one is not in teaching for the sake of the students, one does not belong. Nevertheless, I was soon barred from using the library even though I was doing work for the school.

As video producer Cliff Vaughn and I walked onto the campus, memories welled up as I remembered being there as a Master of Divinity student from 1973 to 1975 and then another stint as a doctoral student from 1979 to 1983. Studying at Southern had been transformative for me. I had come from conservative Landmark country in northeastern Oklahoma, and the larger view of Baptist origins – or even the Protestant heritage in general – was not in my area of knowledge. A new theological world opened to me, for which I continue to give thanks.

“The administration did not want me to ‘poison’ any more students since I was not theologically trustworthy to teach.”

I did know of the school through my maternal great aunt who had attended the WMU Training School, completing her work in 1920. She attended prior to the seminary’s relocation to “The Beeches,” its current campus, in 1925. So she studied at the “House Beautiful” located in downtown Louisville. Although they could not be enrolled in the same degree programs as the men, the women were allowed to attend lectures. My aunt spoke of sitting at the back of the room (quietly of course) when the famed New Testament scholar A.T. Robertson lectured. Sixty-four years later, I could stand (for a time) at the front of the classroom to offer my gifts as a seminary professor.

For the filming, we began at the library because I wanted to visit my old doctoral office, see if my dissertation was still on the shelf and view a historical display that chronicled the founding, theological drift, depths of heresy and resurgence of the seminary as interpreted by the current administration. Friends had told me of the tableau as I figured prominently as exemplar of the HEResy that required the drastic measure of my dismissal.

Entry to the library now required a driver’s license, and I had left mine in the car. I handed my business card to the young man protecting entrance and remarked that I used to teach here. He allowed me to enter, but soon the archivist was hot on our tail, helpful but perhaps a bit suspicious.

I told him what we were hoping to see, but he said it had recently been taken down. I had seen a picture of it; my name was not spelled right, and I was the poster child for what was wrong with Southern. He was not quite sure where the display now was and suggested that we might look in the historical area of the McCall Pavilion, a relatively new construction on campus named in honor of the late Duke K. McCall, president of the seminary, 1951-1980.

Our next stop was in Norton Hall, the main administrative and faculty office building. I wanted to see my old faculty office and reflect on the joy of lining up on the main floor according to rank prior to processing to the chapel for convocation or commencement. Our names were put on the wall to designate where we were to stand, and the goal was to move up the line as one got promoted. I did make it to associate professor, with tenure.

“Studying at Southern had been transformative for me.”

One memorable graduation when the forces of antagonism were at their frenzied heights, David Wilkinson, then the director of seminary relations, planned a wonderful tribute to President Roy Honeycutt and faculty. He invited churches to write notes of appreciation and then had them taped to the corridor walls for us all to observe. I remember one card, written by a GA group (Girls in Action), assured us that they “had been preying for Dr. Honeycutt.” It struck me that that was precisely what the newly-elected majority of trustees had been doing as they opposed and undermined Honeycutt’s many overtures to find a way through the controversy.

We visited my office on the second floor of the east wing, and I pointed out how we turned the men’s room into a unisex bathroom with state-of-the-art technology – a key. I also pointed out how one day I walked across the roof to my classroom, thanks to a structure that made it possible, even in a dress. The trustees were on campus that day, and I simply did not want to be interrogated by them, as some had a habit of doing whenever they encountered me.

We visited my favorite classroom where I taught many a theology class, which always began with scripture and a hymn. And then we went to the classroom where I was scheduled to teach in the fall of 1994. Just a couple of days prior to the beginning of the semester, I resigned under threat of a heresy trial, so my Master of Divinity courses were canceled. The stated reason was that the administration did not want me to “poison” any more students since I was not theologically trustworthy to teach.

I went to the first day of class anyway and told the students why I would not be their professor for that semester and commended them to the care of Dr. Frank Tupper, who had been my first theology teacher. I enacted the sacrament of defeat and left the classroom tearfully. I was allowed to teach a doctoral seminar that fall, ironically “Liberation Theology.” Evidently, the administration believed I could not damage the doctoral students further.

During my recent visit, I did have a memorable encounter with President Albert Mohler. But I will leave that story for another day.

*Dr. Marshall lectured at the Hamrick Lectures at First Baptist Church of Charleston twice. The congregation loves her and speak of her often.

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Hope – Suny Side Up – Rev. Susan Sparls

Here’s the thing that I hate about living in New York City: you can’t see the stars. Oh sure, you can watch movie stars sip their lattes in the hipster restaurants in Brooklyn. You can observe television stars through the glass walls of the talk show studios near Rockefeller Center. And you can see the Broadway stars on . . . well, Broadway.

But I’m talking about real stars. The kind that gleam from the sky. Sadly, those stars are hidden by the lights shining from the city. That’s why every once in a while, I have to leave the Big Apple and head to a place where I can actually see the stars. I need remind myself that they are still there.

Last week, I did just that in Dubois, Wyoming. There, at a spiritual retreat center named Ring Lake Ranch, the night sky exploded with more stars than I could ever have imagined. Pulsing overhead were constellations and shooting stars and the dazzling Milky Way that seemed to leap out of the sky in three dimensions.

There’s something about looking up at a sky full of stars that transports us past our tiny, limited worldview. To see the stars on the darkest night brings a sense of hope. In fact, I think finding hope is just like trying to find the stars in New York City.

Sometimes in life, hope seems so near and clear to us, like the stars in a Wyoming sky. But then, sometimes hope feels more like the night sky in New York City where the celestial light is dimmed. During those dark times, we must have faith that hope still exists, even though we can’t see it or feel it. It’s as Hebrews 11:1 tells us, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

A few years ago, a dear friend of ours, Ed Charles, passed away. Baseball fans may remember Ed as a member of the 1969 World Champion Mets and one of the first black players in the major leagues. Ed used to tell the story of when Jackie Robinson came to Daytona Beach where he grew up. Ed and his friends sat in the segregated section of the park and watched Jackie play, and after the game was over, they followed Jackie to the train station, running down the tracks and listening for the sounds of that train as far as they could. When they couldn’t hear the train any longer, they put their ears to the track so they could feel the vibrations.

That train carrying Jackie Robinson gave Ed hope, and he held on to that hope as long as he could. We, too, must hold on to hope. And when we can’t see the light of hope anymore, then we must listen for it. And when we can’t hear it, then in faith we must hold on to the memory of it through prayer, meditation, or scriptures such as “Do not fear, for I am with you,do not be afraid, for I am your God” (Isaiah 41:10).

Hope is always in our hearts. It may not seem like it, for the world tries its best to beat hope out of us, but the operative word is “tries.” We might have to dig, excavate, search, and wait for it, but hope is there—and if we have faith, we’ll find it. It’s just like living in New York City where even though you can’t see the stars, you know in your heart they’re still there—watching over us, shining down on us, and lighting our way.

This piece was also featured as a nationally syndicated column with GateHouse Media.
 

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