Archive for September, 2017

Biblical wisdom probes inconveniently into our multi-tiered strategies for bailing out.

If you faint in the day of adversity, your strength being small; if you hold back from rescuing those taken away to death, those who go staggering to the slaughter; if you say, “Look, we did not know this”— does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it? And will he not repay all according to their deeds? (Proverbs 24:10–12 NRSV)

Awash in a sea of refugees, newly awake to working-class seething of long standing beyond our earshot, bombarded by raw evidence that racial peace is not the settled shalom we had imagined, it is nice from time to time simply to look away.

The biblical witness follows us to our corners, asking nagging questions.

The wise are toned for the day of adversity, it insists. It is when their memorable work gets done.

Neither does a probing Watcher accept our pleas of ignorance. He discards the defense that we were busy elsewhere.

Where were you when … ? What did you do in that hour … ?

We might have saved some who were staggering to the slaughter.

Oh, here they are again. Through my window, just across the way.



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51j-zWJ4EUL._SS300_Evelyn Monahan’s and Rosemary Neidel-Greenlee’s And if I Perish is an exceptional—I am tempted to say ‘must-read’—book for two reasons.

First, the story of U.S. Army nurses in World War II’s European theatre is largely an untold tale. Who knew that these women, for whose work almost no forethought paved the way, played such a critical role in the Allied forces’ campaigns in North Africa and Europe? Once told, the story seems both inevitable and obvious. Yet it is alarming how much one can read about and ponder World War II history without ever giving a thought to the nurses who saved so many lives and provided final comfort to those whose bodies could not be repaired.

Second, the story is told in exceptional style. The authors weave in military strategy in unexpected volume, which provides a welcome context for the self-sacrificing labor of this nearly all-volunteer cadre of frontline nurses. One of the book’s virtues is that it is not a ‘soft’ history over against the ‘hard’ history of soldiers and generals. The result is compelling history and a very fine read.

I purchased and read this book as a small means of honoring the legacy of a nurse from my Pennsylvania hometown who died on the Anzio Beachhead. The poignantly tragic way in which Carrie Sheetz and too many others perished is told movingly in these pages.

Others lived, who perhaps reluctantly and nearly always self-effacingly relieved themselves of the burden they carried in late-in-life interviews with the authors.

The Greatest Generation was comprised of both genders. We have grown to know and honor the stories of the generation’s soldiering men. We are only now learning the deep debt we owe to our mothers and grandmothers. Daughters and sisters belonging to that same generation, they are no less great for the shadow in which they labored, sacrificed, died, and healed.

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51-77jM2bAL._SS300_Elizabeth George Speare’s fine novel of a Barbados-born teenager who lands in chilly New England—a bit frosty in more ways than one—makes for fine young adult reading. It was also a treat for this comparative geezer, who will soon live near Wethersfield, Connecticut, the principal location in which this novel’s drama plays out.

I would recommend this novel to any young reader. It packs in enough layers of real life without the added burden of tedious ideological pleading.

Even as it entertains, the book provides a helpful narrative introduction to America’s pre-Revolutionary life in the northeast corner of these colonies and even to some of our once-upon-a-time and enduring political dynamics. Instruction like this goes down sweetly.


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There is one in every class.

In my experience, this student is almost always a man, a slightly needy eagerness written across his face from the first minute. His name might be Carlos. Or Abdel. Or Phil.

He talks a lot. Too much, to be honest.

His hand is darting upwards in the middle of too many of my sentences as I try to craft the class, to shepherd a cohort of minds in the same conceptual direction, to establish an environment in which contributions from all parties are welcomed, even expected.

Nervous looks become meaningful glances as Carlos, or Abdel, or Phil speaks up for a third time and a fourth. Then we lose count.

There is a strong argument, advanced most firmly by this student’s fellow students, for shutting him down in the interest of the entire class. The learning experience of all, after all, outweighs the needs of the one to be heard, even to curry favor from the prof.

They have a point. I feel it deeply as Carlos, Abdel, or Phil unconsciously steers the class towards being his own session of self-esteem therapy.

Still, I choose gentle persuasion rather than pulling rank, no matter how just and community-minded the latter approach might sound.

Let me explain.

Carlos makes up his comment as he goes along, not sure at the beginning what he intends to say. Abdel is regularly hindered by a poor upbringing, sometimes involving an absent or belittling father. Phil is a tortured soul, needing someone—it’s even better if a captive audience is listening in—to tell him that he’s doing well, that he’s insightful, that he’s just asked a great question.

But here’s the thing: These guys and their future are not defined by who they are today, in my classroom. In our classroom. They are on their way to something else.

Sometimes it’s a remarkable good place. Even a fruitful place, from which we will be hard pressed to recall the immaturity that is awkwardly evident in my classroom—in our classroom—today.

I’m betting on that future, or at least on allowing it a space to take shape.

This means I’ll pay the political cost in our little class of directing Carlos gently towards an appropriate participation rather than shutting him down, even at the cost of optimal classroom dynamics.

It’s a moment, as I see it, for professorial humility. If that’s a thing.

I take some courage from the apostle Paul’s instructions to the Christian community at Ephesus, which—we might wager—had its own awkward members.

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4:1–3 ESV)

I don’t mean to trump all push-back against my classroom logic by quoting Scripture. I just think the shoe fits.

Because, over the decades of teaching and learning—the walls of which are spattered with some spectacularly boring failures and a small, bread-crumbed trail of minor successes—I’ve watched a knot of former students to which Carlos, Abdel, and Phil belong grow into life-long friends, thoughtful writers, and respected leaders.

Who knew?

So I discipline myself, or try to do so, to deal gently with these needy men who could take my best-laid classroom plans with them into a roadside ditch. As best as this sometimes self-absorbed old professor can, I bear with them in love. I see them as they might become, rather than as they quite painfully are.

I risk the class. Indeed, I place their fellow students’ experience at some degree of calculated risk, on that hunch that it may just be worth it.

Someday, Abdel may be in my church’s pulpit, week on week shaping the heart and mind of a community whose weal and woe are my business. I may be devouring every incisive word that Carlos writes. Pastor Phil may stand at my hospital bedside, a steadying presence as my weakening pulse tells family and friends that goodbyes are imminent.

No one will remember, then, their unpromising start.

You never know.


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