Letting Go – Moving On

Welcome from Estonia

Hello on the last day of Spring,

Currently I am sitting outside Panera waiting for a former colleague, a treasured friend, and one of the most intelligent people I know to join me. I met them my first fall at Bloomsburg, and we have managed to stay in touch for all the time I have been at the university, in spite of their leaving the academy and now living almost entirely on the other side of the country. To maintain a meaningful friendship takes work, intentionality, and perhaps most importantly, an honest foundation from the outset. It will be nice to spend time with them.

Pondering what constitutes a friend is something that has caused me pause throughout my life, but even more so in the past year. Certainly those who have known me all my life have a different place, but how many of those who knew me since the single digits of my existence are still actively part of my daily world. As I go through the Rolodex of people, I think there is one. Seriously, one; and ironically, we did not grow close until perhaps 10 years after high school. There are the Facebook connections from childhood, and some for whom I am very grateful, but we are not friends.

If I consider my early 20s, there are two people, and one is still beyond special in my life. The two together remind me of the time I struggled mightily to figure how who I was. If it were not for their family, I am not sure where I might have gone. The group of people perhaps most important to me, though not really friends per se (and this is not the case across the board) are what most will refer to as their Dana family. The people at Dana I was closest to as a student are not really the closest to me now. The Dana people I closest to, in my estimation, were the people I acquainted with my senior year. That is more because of the changes I went through while I was at the University of Iowa. In fact, I am perhaps more connected to come faculty and others. As our lives transform, we alter preferences. We reimagine our own lives in a manner which at one time would have seemed unimaginable. Much of my life seems to be that as I reflect; and yet there are profound differences. I have had an oxymoronic week. The exchange student who began the year with me and was required to reassignment is leaving. The period of time since he left has been a rollercoaster of emotions and experiences. It has been a time of pain and growth for everyone. Over the last five days it has been a privilege to meet his mother and sister as well as his life-long best friend and the friend’s mother, which has been a friend to the exchange student’s mother for a quarter century. Trips to Jim Thorpe, Ricketts Glen, a swimming day, movies and meals have often some nice insight into his past 10 months. Conversations with the friend’s parent have been profound, insightful, stimulating, enjoyable, and even humorous. What a wonderful, albeit unexpected, joy. My hope was regardless the possible stress from the last 4 months I wanted to make sure the fetching contingent had a good time. It has taken some thought and patience, but I am thankful for the discipline I learned as a young person in the Marine Corps. It has served me well on a number of occasions and probably will into next week. It is amazing what observation can accomplish. A little critical thinking and analysis, as I tell my students, can do wonders.

I am grateful for another visit in July when Anton and his family will come to Bloomsburg. There are a couple of other trips on the horizon, but some planning yet to accomplish. Letting go of something is often related to a person and realizing what it is and the difference between the something and the someone can be difficult. It is tremendously or profoundly troublesome when emotions affect our thoughts. Age and experience should make it most possible, but that seldom translates into simplicity. I remember my father telling me after my divorce that those we love the most can hurt us the most profoundly or deeply. That is most certainly true. From time to time I have noted that my anger is most often felt when I hurt by someone I love. And yet, life without love would be devastatingly sad. Sometimes I wonder what it means to truly love someone. Is it that I am either merely mystified or that I am intrinsically incapable of this concept or feeling? During the visit, through conversation, observation, and perhaps even some transformation, I believe I have a much clearer understanding of many incidences, of responses (or lack there of) or even some genuine appreciation for what happened during the past year. The cultural differences were more significant, and those specific differences are so engrained in both cultures that even foundational elements of our daily practices did not seem logical. Perhaps I needed more understanding from the outset. On the other hand, some of the differences were worth chatting about. Some of the questions were never articulated on either side.

However, the reality that shone through this past two-week period is the differences that exist, in spite of familiarity. What is it that creates such a disparate process or reaction? Culture is certainly part of it. And the historical underpinning of that culture also shown through, and yet, in spite of profound similarities, the differences were as extreme as those resemblances. It is not about right or wrongs for me, it is about trying to comprehend. We are such amazing creatures in our humanity. One of the things I have had to spend considerable thought on is how to let go. It is possible to value people or experience too greatly? It is possible to feel some need that creates some irrepressible desire to keep us holding on to that which could do us disservice? More simply, is it misguided loyalty? And it that loyalty to person or event or to a concept?

Perhaps it is appropriate that I continue this post on Independence Day. The reality of my life is that I have few personal obligations, and that has been more true than not for over two decades. The concept of letting go, of moving on, has been something I have done pretty well. That is not necessarily something to be proud of, just so you know what I am thinking. There have been some exceptions, and I am grateful for both people and circumstances who or which have caused me pause. It is always good to be pulled out of one’s pattern. I can think of three or four people who still create an interruption of sorts in my daily practice or plan (if I can call it that). Perhaps yet another irony: none of them are American (well, one is, but I think I identify her as more from her ancestral homeland than from the States. I ponder how that has happened. What I know is there is so much more out there; so much that is more critical thinking, careful analysis, and yes, globally aware. Please do not think I am disavowing my patriotism or my citizenship, in spite of my current disillusionment with many significant things. I think the Founders of the country would be appalled by our current national persona, but I am still an American. Perhaps it is my age; perhaps it is my appreciation for yet another country and people. There is so much to learn; and learning is what rejuvenates me, what inspires me. This past two weeks I have been in spired to work and learn even more, even imagine other possibilities. While there is moving on, and to a degree letting go, the last 11 months have taught me a great deal. It has sometimes been joyful, sometimes painful, but investing in another person will create those situations. As with the first experience, a person came to me as a boy and leaves as a young man. My life is better for it. The meeting of cultures and others these past two weeks has been something I will forever remember. Each one of them has given me something important. I am blessed by all of it.

Thanks as always for reading


Half my Life; and In Four Weeks

Hello on a warm and humid afternoon.

Over the past few days, the humidity, the billowing, cotton ball clouds, and the sweltering temperatures remind me of my Midwestern roots or my summer working wheat harvest in Northern Texas, Oklahoma, or moving up through Kansas toward the eventual Canadian border. A 4:00 a.m. thunder explosion of about a half hour or last evening’s downpour are proof that summer is ready to commence. It is interesting how weather also has the ability to evoke memory. One of my most vivid weather memories growing up was around the age of 13-14 when we had tornados in my hometown. I was at a cast party following a community theatre performance when sirens, toppling trees, and torrential rain took out the electricity. While I remember the storm, what I remember more profoundly was the girl I was more than enamored with was stuck across town and did not make it to the party. I was beyond sad to put it mildly.

The past week has been a myriad of things. My former exchange student’s mother and younger sister are coming to visit, a visit that has been in the plans for almost a year. All the changes in the year and how that has affected the relationship with the student have been troublesome. Consequently, how everything will shake out is a bit unnerving, but it seems the parents, even a 12 year old sibling and I are on the same page generally. The change in a 17 year old will be something to experience in person. It will be an experience unlike anything I have done up to this point. It also precedes a second visit from a previous student and his family in July. I am excited for their visit as so much time has passed since COVID called Anton back to Denmark early. It will be a busy time. Then today I booked a flight to San Jose, Costa Rica. I will spend a week scouting things out and seeing what my first impressions of this southern county of Central America has. Everything I have heard is stunning, so again something new. The first of a number of steps to see what might happen in a year or so.

Last weekend I was blessed to attend the last service of an incredible person and organist. She is the person providing the first half of the blog title. She applied for the position of music director of the church I had just been installed in, and my senior pastor and I interviewed and together agreed she would be a wonderful fit for that congregation. That was half our lives ago as she and I are the same age (within two months of each other). Hard to believe it had been the same number of years since before she decided to retire. She had followed somewhat of an institution when she took the job and has more than become one herself. She was an amazing addition to the staff, and she has provided more of a steady hand to that parish than most will realize. I have been blessed to reacquaint with her after returning to Pennsylvania, and attending her retirement service was quite the walk down memory lane. I saw people whose wedding I officiated at. Relatives of people I baptized, and people who were on my call committee, members still in (or on – as they say there) the choir. Additionally I saw the majority of two families who made being the pastor their a joy. They have aged; things have changed, their children are already beyond high school and college, and yet one’s voice still gives me goosebumps and is as close to angelic as I have ever heard.

What I was reminded of is the faithfulness of people, something I have struggled with since leaving the clergy roster. I understand the need for order, for hierarchy, but it seems to often bureaucracy does more to damage one’s faith than assist or cultivate it. On the other hand, I still stand in awe of the profound effect clergy have on a parishioner’s faith journey. I realize how I failed in ways to manage that responsibility. I realize the truth of the words I said when I asked people to not put me in a pedestal. I noted that I could only fall off. And indeed I did. I still struggle to believe and certainly hope I was more of a faithful servant than I often times feel. I miss, at times, the preaching element, and I miss the sacramental role that does so much more to support one’s faith than often understood. I remember telling a bishop once that the best of the church was those individuals who faithfully attend worship, struggle to live faithful lives, and give of their time, talents, and yes, treasure (as it is referred to) supporting parish life and the congregation. Those earthly angels who do more to spread the gospel than those who have authority or take authority. Attending this service as well as attending services here are again part of my own faith journey, one which has been hiding, but is still nonetheless significant. I have, even as a pastor, not been one to wear-my-faith-on-my-sleeve. Faith has always been something profound and personal. I know my frailties and I know my failings. Yet, attending this retirement service reminded me of the profound faith that occurs through continual service to a congregation.

Additionally, this week was the final week of an intensive four week summer class, a class that is usually taught during a 15 week semester (including finals). Writing is not something someone can cram into one third the time and do it effectively. I believe it is a disservice to all involved, the student, the professor, and even the university, in spite of the tuition generated. Things that usually are covered over three weeks are shoveled into three days. There is no time to reflect or ponder; it is simply pushing things toward them and they are pushing it back. The grades are lower, and this is due to much more than a shortened time period. Students in general struggle to write proficiently for a myriad of reasons, from simple lack of skills when they enter college to the lack of writing across the disciplines or making writing more intentional through their curriculum. I know this statement will rile some, but studies and 30 years of experience demonstrate a pretty clear sense of what students know about writing, the importance of audience and purpose, and managing issues of syntax, grammar, citation, and the list can go on and on. Before you blame it on their phone, their texting, or other aspects, don’t. We simply do not teach writing consistently, continually, or perhaps most significant, saliently. The struggle to write well is at issue. Anyone can put words on a screen or on paper, but to so successfully, professionally, usably is more difficult. I feel a bit curmudgeonly, and, indeed, my provost told a student I was old school, but I care deeply about the writing process. Cramming 14 into 4 allows for little attention to process. Consequently the product is more often than not substandard. I also realize that students take an intensive writing course believing they can survive anything for 4 weeks. It is much less about improving skills and more about checking a box. This is, for me, where the disservice occurs. When classes are merely boxes to be checked off, the real purpose is educating, of mentoring, of supporting goes out the window. And yet, the course, while valuable and important is relegated to surviving something; it is like knowing you need a root canal. It is required, painful, but you will survive. The process goes against my teaching philosophy, but then there is the current reality that five different curriculums require this course and I am, at this moment, the only person teaching it. So . . . summer cram it is. Yea, I get paid, but I feel a bit guilty for that happens in this summer school practice.

Why might I reveal such a struggle? It is an ethical issue for me. I want students to succeed, but I believe what is taught in this class is not a course, it is a life-long skill. It is developing both insight and ability that provides students a foundation that will assist them throughout their lives. Short changing them because we can make a lot of money in the summer is wrong. So my struggle as I finish grading is that I have committed to presiding over a process that is untenable. It would not matter if I stayed awake for the entire month and tried to add more feedback, more information prior, or less work to make it easier for all. There are still objectives and assessment. There is still trying to provide even a modicum of help that will provide students something they will realize helpful down the road. I believe for maybe one or two, this might have been apparent, but even with dropping a major assignment, the work requirements were brutal on both sides. I am feeling a bit guilty that I could not do more. I am feeling disillusioned that we somehow believe 4 week classes are ethical. I care deeply about what I provide my students. I am feeling a bit like I failed them. I wish it was different. I do not want to become this.

Thanks for reading,

Dr. Martin

Music as a thread of Life

Hello on a cloud, humid, almost-summer morning,

I have been working in my office and it is almost noon, so I am going to be out an about doing other work for a bit. As I meander about my daily routine, seldom does it occur that there is not some music in the background. I mentioned that aspect of my existence in a recent blog, and perhaps what most amazes me about music is a combination of the lyrics and actual sounds, sound, sounds that succeed in creating an experience and emotional connection. Those connections can transport us back to the time of our life when the song was popular, and by extension open a cornucopia of memories, people, or places. I can see faces, hear the voices, and even re-create (to some degree) the feelings that I had at that time, or remember so clearly that it emotionally connects over the years. I am not sure if that is non-sense, but I hope so.

Some of those songs are periodic, corresponding to times in my life. As importantly, the moods of the song create some sense of parallelism to what occurred in my life. I remember a song by the Guess Who titles “Share the Land.” It might be my first remembrance of a sort of social justice, which a central component of who I am now. I am not sure how that resonated with me at that time. A second song (for which I had the 45) was Edwin Starr and was titled “War,” which might be ironic for a future 17 year old who would enlist in the Marine Corps. I remember sneaking out of house to Grandview Park to see the Five Man Electrical Band and listening to the song “Signs.” What do these songs have in common? They were against the status quo, and the only way this undersized, insecure little guy could find his voice. Indeed music become my voice, and, of course, the higher the volume, the more emphatic I became. The first two albums I purchased were Jethro Tull Aqualung (which was a biting assessment of the Roman Catholic Church) and Black Sabbath Paranoid, and of course Ozzy was fearless in pushing the envelope.

The other musicians influential as I went through high school were because of my older brother, an amazing trombonist, whose band made quite a name for themselves in the early 1970s. The first Chicago album (and particularly “Beginnings” and “Questions 67 and 68”) the album by Chase or BS&T and their music have me sitting on the basement steps of my parent’s house listening to the band practice, the drums and Dennis Brunssen’s bass rattling my mother’s cans out of the cupboard. Listening to my best friend singing “Let it Be” for homecoming or being exposed to the incredible music of Tommy Bolin, the profoundly talented hometown guitarist who would play with both the James Gang and Deep Purple, was central to my growing up. Music was central to my feeling positive in the years I grew up. It was one of the places I found both a sense of accomplishment and a place I could find words that made sense of my life. Growing up, my involvement in high school choir, an All-City Children’s Choir, an All-City Orchestra, church choirs, singing in both The Messiah or Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem were times I felt music did more to sustain me than most anything in my life. Learning to play the guitar during the year I traveled on a Lutheran Youth Encounter Team and working with Campus Ministry Teams while a student at Dana were important because of the music as much as the development of the teams.

There are two specific times I felt transported back into even another century by the music I listened to. The first time was when I was in college and I sat in a cathedral in Lubeck Germany. I listened to an organist play the music of Dietrich Buxtehude, the Danish/German composer. I could have sat there for days. Some years later I was back in Germany, Leipzig to be exact. We were in the Thomas Kirche, where Bach is buried. My seminary group was treated to an incredible recital of sorts by the German organist Holm Vogel. He played excerpts from Bach’s Organ Concertos. It was stunning, not only because of the setting, the music, or the incredible instrument. Mr. Vogel was one of the most accomplished organists I have ever heard or witnessed, but that is only the beginning of the story. He was so accomplished he was commissioned by the East German Government to record these concertos. Yet, even that was not the most amazing thing about being able to hear Mr. Vogel, it was that he was blind from birth. They led him to the organ, helped him get situated, and away he went. It was perhaps the most incredible musical moment of my life. It seems that whenever I consider some part of my life, the music of that period is barely below the surface and sometimes it is front and center.

As noted, music often offered the words to the emotions, the struggles, the hopes, or the concerns that characterized my life at that point. Even now, yes, it is possible for me to hear a song and remember amazing things that seem incongruent or impossible to connect to that music, but songs like “Song for America” by Kansas, “Dreamweaver” by Gary Wright, or the album Night at the Opera by Queen remind me of a 1971 Chevelle and my times out of the service and two friendships that shaped much of my life at that time. They were brother and sister, and I am blessed by their presence in my life yet today. The early music of Heart will push me to remember the incredible love I felt for one, which I was so unprepared to feel or manage (if I can use that word). I love her to this day. Songs my KC and the Sunshine Band, Art Garfunkel’s solo album (and his song “I Believe”) were more consequential than I could have ever understood. In spite of my struggles to understand who I was as a 22 year old, what I know now is I grew more in that time than I also realized; in fact, I think I am still realizing the importance of that. As write this and reflect on that time in my life, I remember music being one of the things that gave me a sense of being grounded. That was so important because I was floundering in so many ways.

Sometimes it is through the writing and reflecting about the music that I am allowed to connect and rediscover what the music meant to me then, and even now. Often when I am working in my office, where I have three monitors on my desk, it is not uncommon for me to YouTube so many of those songs and listen again, feeling, and yes, reconnecting. Nostalgia is an interesting thing. I have studied the idea of nostalgia academically, but it is a much different thing when I consider it personally. One of the things I am guilty of, and it is not uncommon, is remembering things with a sort of rose-colored glasses, not to sound too cliché. It is easy to fool one’s self believing the ideas of it was a simpler time, a kinder time. Nostalgia is emotional and perhaps that is why it connects so seamlessly to music because music evokes emotion. And if music creates a thread, as I argue in a title, there is an intrinsic connection to what was. Ralph Harper, the person credited with developing existentialism noted that nostalgia has a rather dichotomous aspect, taking both the good and the bad, the positive experience when reconsidered allows for a sort of loveliness because of our enchantment with it (“Nostalgia: and Existential Exploration . . . “). Perhaps that is what music does for me. It returns to me to those times in my life when I wish something different might have happened. It allows me to ponder the possibility that never happened, but then again it provides a happier reminiscing. The fair question is it helpful or less than? I am not sure there is an easy answer. As I researched this idea of memory of nostalgia, it caught be off guard a bit that another term used consistently was melancholy. If you have read my blog for sometime, that is a word I have often used to describe more of my life and a sort of basic emotional element of who I am. It is something I wonder about from time to time.

What I realize more and more is there is a certain introspective propensity I possess. It is consistent with my wondering the why of things. It is, for me, the practical side of reality. It is also how I allow the identity that is constantly evolving to find the real person I was, I am, or perhaps the person I still aspire to be. Aspiration . . . what is it I aspire to be? Have I made it? How might I know? I think what I aspire to be is a difference maker in other people’s lives; not always in some profound earth-shattering, life-altering manner, but rather in a way that makes their life better. And to return to where the blog began, that is what music does for me that is perhaps so important. It connects me to the past, but it inspires me to move forward, holding on the important memories that are significant to my life, but also containing the thread that is still developing a new fabric, a new garment. The video below is another song that connects be to the time that where was profound change in our world, but one that connects us to what is currently occurring in Ukraine and because of the Russian invasion. It is a reminder that the world in which we live is dependent on each other. I hope music can create a new wind of change for all. The initial picture is also an important memory for me. It is three years ago I had the opportunity to visit Moscow and Ana, my Russian adopted daughter of sorts. It was an incredible experience and ironically connects to the video below. Again, the threads are apparent.

Thanks as always for reading.

Dr. Martin

deoch don doras

My cousin, Suzanne, and her husband, Randy (Photo from Facebook)

Hello from Starbucks in the Commons,

We are in the throes of the end of the semester, and I am doing a boatload in individual student conferences. The days have blended together so much that earlier today I was quite sure it was Thursday instead of Wednesday. Part of my cluelessness is the craziness of the overloaded semester and part of it is a combination of a lack of a vehicle, obstinacy in terms of asking for help, the closure and relocation of my medical clinic, which have all resulted in no B12 shots for four months. Then there is the vertigo, which has returned over the last couple days. Perhaps the good thing is it has compelled me to focus on my health a bit more thoughtfully than I have as of late. While I have flippantly noted growing old is not for sissies, it is a truism. And then there is doing what one should to maintain their health . . . it takes time and intentionality, and it requires a commitment. My reality has been that is is such a commitment that requires so much time that I find myself annoyed, and at times overwhelmed. Part of that means slowing down, and those who know me are aware that is not really in my nature.

For those who do not know, the most significant, or greatest, percentage of my ethnic heritage is Irish. The phrase that titles this post is Irish and it means “a drink for the door” or “the parting glass.” It might initially seem apropos because of the stereotypic Irish-person, but the lyrics of the song reveal something much more poignant, “and since it fell into my lot that I should rise and you should not . . . “ These words push us to realize the frailty of our lives. It seems that somewhere around this time each year, my body struggles to manage some homeostatic balance because of the long-term consequences of Crohn’s. My next week and a half or so is filled with numerous doctors’ appointments, seeing a variety of specialists. Nothing overwhelming, but the results of bloodwork and other tests offer some insight into a body my gastroenterologist describes as an upside-down jigsaw puzzle. At this point, initial bloodwork shows some treason for concern. The problem areas seem to indicate continued and perhaps elevated issues. I am pretty sure another appointment with a doctor is on the horizon. Additionally, perhaps more discipline and attention is also needed from me. The visit to the Balance Clinic was quite the experience. I detest nausea more than any possible thing, so 20 minutes of trying not to vomit was great fun.

This week I had a conversation with a graduating senior, a Marine Corps veteran, and an all round exceptional person. We were discussing at what age might a person be categorized as old. Even though I am probably four decades older than this student, we had a incredibly similar idea of who would be considered as officially old. For the student, it was 80 and for me, 90. I think what surprised me most, reflecting on this conversation, was the personal reality that old, regardless the age is getting more and more unavoidable. Of course, there are the arguments, it is a number, it is an attitude, and all of that is certainly valid, but each day the amount of time used or lived versus the time that remains moves indiscriminately toward the older side. I am reminded of my father noting that things will move forward and time will pass more quickly. As usual, he was more than correct! As I write this a couple of weeks have flown by, the semester is completed, grading is in process, and I am realizing the summer will be a whirlwind.

Last night I was shocked by a Facebook message about the health of someone for whom I have incredible care and appreciation. I have spoken of the pair many times, and I have been blessed to have them in my life for many years. They have never seemed to be their age, and certainly did not appear to be the age they are. In the period of 36 hours or so, all of that changed. There is progress, but that progress has taken weeks into months. And the health issue was profound. I am poignantly reminded of the frailty of our taken-for-granted daily lives. I am feeling confounded by the reality of mortality. It is not something I know nothing about; it is not something I do not even expect, but I am profoundly aware of how it always seems to take us by surprise. Certainly the loss of someone in a way or time that seem premature is always alarming, but even when someone has lived a full life (and I realize premature and full life are subjective), there is no less alarm . . . I often told parishioners and family members who struggled with even an expected loss, we are never ready. Why is that? Perhaps that is a moot point. Perhaps it is not the question. Perhaps it is merely we need to seize the fact that we are merely mortal and live with an appreciation of what the day offers. And yet, that seems so frickin’ (my half-hearted attempt to be rhetorically appropriate) cliché. It that all there is? Indeed, it seems my Irish heritage is more thoughtful about all of this than I might realize.

But since it fell into my lot
That I should rise and you should not
I'll gently rise and softly call
Good night and joy be to you all

Fill to me the parting glass
And drink a health whate'er befalls
Then gently rise and softly call
Good night and joy be to you all

What are we guaranteed? Nothing, actually . . . what do we deserve? Nothing actually . . . What are can we expect? Nothing, actually . . . and I could continue, and some would argue I am merely being cynical or morbid, but I am not. I see this realization as freedom. If we have no guarantees, we are provided an opportunity to make something happen. What makes a life successful? What makes a life one that one might believe well lived? Easy questions, right? Perhaps they are more answerable than we often believe. I was once told if you significantly influence the lives of 10 other people you are successful. Certainly, there are a number of questions that one can ponder about that statement, but I prefer to take it as general face-value for the moment. If somehow people are better off, and realize that change that moves them into a new successful place, and then connect it to something they received from you, you can count that person. In terms of life and success, it is difficult to not equate success in our free enterprise world as something related to possessions or value, but I believe success is something that is way beyond what is found through a routing number of an account; it is something that is far beyond the stuff we have. For me success is related to contentment, to a sense of tranquility, to a feeling of accomplishment, not in some grandiose, overly-recognized manner, but as an internal sense of enjoyment of a peaceful process that allows one to go about their life without a need to keep accomplishing. Perhaps it is a reminder of that phrase, well done, good and faithful servant. Perhaps it is as noted above – – – good night (or day) and joy be to you all.

I am reminded of the novel, The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak; he makes the narrator of the novel Death. Yes, you read that correctly. I have used this novel in my freshman writing class a few times, and it is always interesting to see how the students react to such a narrator. What I believe is so profound about the novel and its macabre voice is that you could easily find yourself feeling sympathetic to Death. That is not something most would imaging possible. I sometimes find myself wondering why death is so frightening? I understand the separation; I know what it is to feel the pain and sorrow of loss; I realize there is the complete finality of absence, at least in this existence, and if you have hope or faith in something beyond, we are told there is a reunion, but that does little in the midst of the loss felt when death comes to pay its visit. Perhaps death is only an event, the cessation of living. Perhaps it is something kinder than the Grim Reaper. As Zusak writes, Is death as amazed or haunted by us as we are of it? It is something to ponder . . . why you might ask? Perhaps if we can come to terms or some understanding of this event (this person?), our struggle with, our fear of, our fascination with and of could become somewhat non-consequential. Perhaps our often, non-successful attempt at a celebration of life would indeed be more appreciative life our deceased loved one or acquaintance actually had.

Perhaps the words “gently rise and softly call” offer the spirit needed. Again as my memory serves, there was a particularly poignant episode where the members of the 4077 believed Colonel Potter was ill because he had called them all together, but it was instead to toast the memory of his comrades of the Great War. He wanted to toast the memory of those who had passed with those who were living. In his gentle, wise, and caring way Sherman Potter reminded us that death cannot take away those memories, those experiences, this life-creating moments that are embedded into our being. Earlier this evening, as FB is so capable of doing, I was blessed to see images of my beautiful cousin, Suzanne. The images brought to life again the unparalleled beauty, the captivating goodness, and the wonderful empathy I remember of her as we grew up. She was angelic, almost other-worldly, and yet she was as strong and capable as she was gentle and ethereal. Those are the things I see even today in her eyes, her smile and her beauty. In early June, she would be 65. I know her sisters and Randy miss her deeply and profoundly, but she is part of them; they live their lives in a manner that provides more to enhance her memory than they might know. Suzanne, if you know from where you are what I write, may I offer this humbly: I too miss you and your kindness and beauty were more important to me as I struggled to find joy as a child. Your acceptance of your small, meek, and frightened cousin, and the love of you and your sisters did more to give me hope than I ever realized. I was in awe of all of you, but we (you and I) were closest in age. I remember your voice, your indefatigable smile, and your gentle goodness. I am still realizing how astounding you were. Thank you for those memories. Thank you for the goodness you imparted to your remaining sisters. They are incredible ambassadors of your goodness, and simultaneously amazing each in their own way. My life is profoundly better because they are back in my life. The choice of the video below, which is a from the group Celtic Woman, reminds me of listening to music that was not always mainstream with Kim, the now matriarch of the Pilgrim girls. What I have re-learned about them in the last year and a half is how incredibly talented and aware they are of their world. The intro to the sound is moving apropos. This is in that spirit.

In spite of all the health issues in my life, I continue to live. I have been blessed, for reasons unbeknownst to me, to continue on this side of the line between here and the other. Perhaps one of the reasons is to write about what crosses my mind about this life. As I finish this post, all I know is I believe we are all called to gently lift a parting glass. Suzanne, to you, your wonderful parents, Don and Virginia, and your beautiful sisters: good [day] and joy be to you all. I love you.

To everyone else, thanks for reading.


Attempting to Understand our Inhuman Behavior

Hello from my office on a day that seems to hint a seasonal change,

The desire for Spring only grows more fervent as each day seems to say we’re not there yet. It is amazing how easily we are spoiled by a few warm days and the incredible natural motivator, also known as the sun. This winter has hung in there in ways I do not remember recently. We have not gotten the snow, but the bitter, cold, damp reality of Pennsylvania in March has been front and center. It is now almost the middle of April, and while I see daffodils, hyacinths, and other Spring flowers, little on my daily walks to the university has felt like we are on the summer side of March 21st. These days only push my intentionality to move somewhere outside the states when I retire. Some would argue I do not need too many more reasons, but I will add to my rationale anyway possible.

Over the past week, while watching the news, reading various opinions, and trying to wrap my brain around all that is going on, I have come to one conclusion, and it is a startling one for someone who is generally optimistic in my views of human nature. I want to believe in the goodness of people, and generally I do. I believe when people are offered an opportunity to stand up and make a difference, to do something for the common good, most often they will. I witnessed that these last weeks when so many people stood up to assist a family when they lost everything to a fire. I have witnessed it in my classes when I speak with my students and they offer their sense of what is happening and how they hope for better. That very ability to yearn for goodness is an important thing. I see it when people are willing to spend over $12,000.00 to support students who are often maligned for their choices, their identity, or their stance on individual rights. Indeed, there is goodness in the world. The millions of Ukrainian citizens who have been forced to flee their homes, cities, and country have been supported by other countries, opening arms, buildings, supplying food, clothing, and other things (and I realize there is much more that needs to be done). My heart hurts for my friends, acquaintances, and others throughout the European continent, and for those I care about in Russia also. It is easy to become overwhelmed, disillusioned, or to come to the conclusion that the entire world has lost it, but I do not want to allow for such pessimism.

As some of you know, my dissertation is on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor who was hanged for his involvement in the plot to assassinate Hitler. My work in trying to understand the incredible effectiveness in the communicational processes of an Austrian and his unparalleled ability to convince one of the most gifted nationalities in history to exterminate another group is mind boggling to me. And now, another group of people, under the spell, or so it seems, of a 21st century madman, who seems hellbent to destroy another group of people, and those profoundly close ethnically, linguistically, and religiously. How does this happen? How does one person convince the great majority of an entire country that what he is doing is reasonable, justifiable, necessary? All of these are difficult and complex questions, and there will be books written about this time, but allow me to offer some initial thoughts. First, Ukraine is much more complex as a country than most Americans realize. There are those who are probably supportive of the Russian invasion, and yes, those in the Donbas region. There are those who live in the southern part of the country that do not consider what is happening in Ukraine to be completely wrong. Ukraine is a complex compilation of people, religions, and ethnic connections. It might even be said that some of what Vladimir Putin has argued about Ukraine as a country has some validity. All that being said, what about the Russian mindset as they find themselves in the midst of being named country non grata? The 19th century Russian scholar Boris Grushenko noted this about their ability to suffer. “To love is to suffer,” he said. He would continue noting the only way to avoid suffering is to not love, but to not love also is a type of suffering. Consider what that says. It matters not whether we love or fail to love, we suffer. To suffer is also to suffer . . . we are happy when we love, but we will also suffer . . . is there any escape? If Grushenko is accurate, we have no options. And yet, are we that doomed? What happens when we consider this sort of self-reflective understanding of our psyche? Experiments about the consequence of self-reflection seemed to indicate the opposite (Wray Herbert). Interestingly, the difference between Russians and Americans seem to be more about the communal versus the individual. Russians, according to the experiments, are more focused on harmony in terms of their interpersonal and therefore the individual is thoughtfully connected to the larger context. Americans’ love affair with this sense of rugged individualism focuses on the personal. Again, according to the experiments performed, this immersion within one’s oself can more regularly lead to distress and depression. So what are we to say about the current state of Russia and its decisions?

While America is a relatively young country in the scope of civilized nations, we have been stable (for the most part). Our Civil War is the only real significant upheaval in our society since our independence (I realize some might argue our current situation post- January 6th is important, but hear me out for the moment). Russia, in just the 20th century went through two revolutions, two World Wars (they occurred on their soil), and a Civil War . . . and their own socioeconomic struggles and political upheaval in the 1990s has left them disillusioned. It has also affected their national and individual identity, created uncertainty about their future, and a simultaneous concern or melancholy as well as a nostalgic hope and connection to their socialist past. This is an oversimplification of their politics, but it is offered to provide some foundation. This does not even begin to consider their ethnical or national identity. In the United States, we have created this unique idea of State’s rights under the overarching idea of e pluribus unum. In spite of our current struggle with what occurred in our last election, we have managed to maintain this idea of 50 cats, but all cats, under a big umbrella, so to speak. The size of Russia as a federation (as they call it) is enormous, and it is a country of conquest. The 2010 census showed that there are 200 ethnic groups within the Russian Federation. Those most are Slavic, there are Turks, Mongols, Tatars, Ukrainians, Bashkirs, Chechens, and that is just the beginning. The Russian poet, Fyodor Tyutchev (1866) once said, “You cannot understand Russia with your mind . . . you can only believe in it.” In my reading, and in my experience, Russian people are respectful and emote little initially. Additionally, they take pride in their appearance. They are honest about their opinions, and are more than willing to share them, seeming to be more bold than perhaps they really are. They are incredibly connected to family and they desire to make personal relationships to be willing to trust, but there is still a caution they employ. There is a reason for networking and it is generally to create opportunity. I believe there is an authentic element to my Russian acquaintances that is refreshing if you will . . .

So a week has past and the world seems to be on a crash course for something. If I were to put all the events in the past eight days into some kind of box or storyboard, I think the cartoon Family Circus might appropriately characterize my life. From an amazing dinner to an Elton John concert, from school meetings and grading to Zoom meetings with other faculty and alumni, from celebrating Easter to waking up to a mid-April snowstorm, and finally from remembering the passing of my best friend on this date to worrying about another as they struggle to manage their life, it seems each day has created some collage of experience, thought, and consequence that has the appearance of an entire room of stuff thrown into a toy box haphazardly. Any attempt to structure it all will require significant thought, consideration, and effort. Perhaps that is the real truth to our lives. Structure is fundamental to our health, be it physically, mentally, or emotionally, but creating structure requires constant effort. It is hard work, but it is also habitual. The more careful and consistent we are the more we become habitual ironically by habit. That is just the way I seem to function most effectively. The consequence is also important. Those around us know what to expect; they know just what our capabilities are. I have witnessed once again what happens when one seems to have no capability to manage things. In spite of our incredible resilience, there is a threshold, a point when our body cannot respond to our actions. This is the case for us both individually and societally.

Inconsistency creates chaos. That is my mantra for the moment. The chaos one can create be they a single person in a relatively small group or the leader of a country is self-evident in my own view at this moment. As importantly is the domino-like fallout or consequence of their action. Perhaps this is the most poignant element or truthful aspect of our being inhumane. Our selfishness, or self-centered desires, for assuaging our wants, our needs, our irresistible habits create hurt for others. This narrow-sighted process leaves destruction both visible and unseen. Selfishness and abuse of power changes the hopes and dreams of those far beyond what can be understood or imagined. Perhaps selfishness is the ultimate example of our inhumanity. There is much more that could be said, but I have other work to do. Working on a summer syllabus and CMS work needs to occur so my students can know what is coming more than a day or two ahead. In the meanwhile I find it necessary to pray for those both near and far, hoping our inhumanity might be lessened.

Thanks as always for reading.

Dr. Martin

When it’s more than hypothetical; when it is beyond and something somewhere else

Hello on an evening at the end of a long week,

The past few weeks have been a whirlwind of emotions, events, and the wondering of how we have created the world we have. I started a blog post about my older brother who has been gone for two score plus five years, which is still in process. How did so many years pass? Seems like so much longer at moments and simultaneously like merely a few. I can ponder that Thursday, February evening, and picture it in my mind and feel it in my heart as if it happened yesterday. What I remember most about my brother’s death was how tragic and compassionate it was, all at the same time. A second profound element of his passing was the experience of seeing my father cry for the first time. My attempt to hug him seemed so inadequate at that moment. I had never experienced a death in my family, and for the first experience to be a 26 year old man was not something I imagined possible. The hypothetical became real. And as significant, I had not even fathomed the hypothetical at that point in my life. The experience changed a number of things for me.

Since that time, between simple reality, experience as a parish pastor, and living for the spans of time I have, death is a part of life. It happens. That is not to understate it’s finality or our frailty when confronted, but it seldom shocks me anymore. I remember the first time I was in an emergency room with a deceased person or the first time I convinced a person to put a gun down in the waiting room of a hospital. The reality of death is something I never expected to know so well, but perhaps I am fortunate. I also realize some might interpret that statement as I have a healthy dose of morbidity, but fear not, I love life. Yet in my piety, I still am astonished by the ironic reality of the liturgical statement “this is the gate to eternal life.” It is pronounced as a casket or urn is readied to be lowered into the earth. Again, depending on one’s faith, there is an incredible questions about what happens on the other side of life. Beyond life is hypothetical, but life is something we hold on to ferociously.

The other thing astounding me presently are the actions of President Putin and his decision to attack his Ukrainian compatriots. I use this word intentionally because ethnically the connection between Ukraine and Russia is profound. Etymologically, they are strongly connected. Religiously, they belong to the same Orthodox family, under the umbrella of Christianity; and it appears they have the same profound sense of nationalism. This is something the Russian President seemed to overlook or misjudge. Since the actual invasion by the Russian military, my own images of streets in Lviv on an Orthodox Christmas, my sitting at lunch with four incredibly talented young musicians from Kyiv while in Kraków the summer of 2019, and my being blessed by the friendship of one who is unparalleled in both his brilliance and his kindness are real experiences. Therefore, my heart aches. As I read the news articles, by the dozens, consider the opinions of those much more learned than I, or as I have conversations with others, I am compelled to remember those who are ethnically and politically on the opposite side. Indeed, there are of Russians not supportive of their President’s decision. As I read about a fire at a nuclear facility, I am reminded of my former student’s mother who grew up around Chernobyl, and her life-long struggle for health. I am reminded of their dinner in my own home in Bloomsburg. I am reminded of three perfectly wonderful Russian students who are caught in the middle of this political and military morass. I visited them in Moscow the same summer I met the Ukrainian students. None of this is hypothetical. These are my life experiences; so the indiscriminate bombing and killing of so many is abhorrent to me on a personal level. As I read the morning news of increased shelling, even this is not something imaginary to me. I am frightened because my own military background informs me of the consequences of what is happening. Being a member of an artillery battery, I am well aware of the destruction of such firepower.

Furthermore, and perhaps even more disconcerting, I am embarrassed by my own country’s continued flirting with a past President, one who, in my opinion, exhibits too many characteristics akin to the Russian ruler, one who has noted the Russian’s authoritarian style or creating of rules to make him ruler for life is to be admired. And most recently said things about his genius, which might serve only to embolden this despot, as if that is needed. Information discovered and revealed by the Congressional Committee investigating the infamous January day should serve the populace, pushing us to see and ponder what the disregard for democracy does. The insurrection at the Capitol that January day should serve as a wake up call in a myriad of ways, and yet I fear it is used too often to drive the wedge of partisanship only deeper. I realize before I write this next section, there are those who will disagree with me vociferously, and I am fine with your disagreement, but I would simultaneously ask you to explain with facts why you disagree.

In the last week I have read opinions, focused on foreign affairs, on military strategy, or on global economics, those positing an argument I believed to be true as soon as Vladimir Putin crossed into Ukraine. Some have questioned the timing of this invasion. Why did he wait until President Trump was out of office? One might argue President Biden is weaker. I respectfully disagree. In fact, I believe that the current administration is managing this global disaster better than we managed Crimea. So again – why now? One could come to the conclusion he did not want to create an issue with President Trump. Surprisingly to some, I believe that is correct, but not for what would usually be a logical reason (you do not want to raise the ire of another super power). I believe the reason President Putin chose to wait until our former President was out of office is simple. Wait and see if the President you helped elect would be re-elected? Нет – did not happen. So NATO in concert with President Biden is a new concern for Russia. This means the unwitting ally President Trump was is no longer able to dismantle NATO as he inappropriately tried to do. If NATO is reinvigorated the likelihood of Ukrainian membership would be elevated. The weaker NATO, which played into Putin’s plan was no longer as likely. Even a hypothetical of a World War under our previous Commander in Chief petrifies me. While I am frustrated with prices, with other issues, President Biden has an extreme dossier of foreign policy experience. President Trump was unwittingly helping Russia (or perhaps there is more to Russia – or President Putin having the self-proclaimed master of “the art of the deal” over a barrel and consequently President Trump was being dealt) or he was a stranger bedfellow then we want to know. All of that is for another time.

As we move into the reality of present-day Europe, I believe we (or at least my parents) have witnessed this situation before. When Hitler invaded Poland in September of 1939, the world was stunned. Of course, from the time Hitler became chancellor until his actual blitzkrieg of Poland, the entire intervening period revealed how Hitler made pacts with various entities or governments to limit resistance. Additionally, he claimed the persecution of Germans living in Poland as a pretense for his decision to invade. The present parallel between Putin and Eastern Ukraine is impossible to overlook. Additionally, he accused France and Great Britain of moving to encircle Germany. The parallel of Putin accusing NATO of the same as well as enticing Ukraine to become part of NATO and the EU again is unavoidable. Third, the non-aggressive nature or response to the annexation of Crimea in 2014 is similar to what Hitler did to the Sudetenland, that area of the Czech Republic earlier in 1939. What is referred to as Chamberlain’s policy of non-aggression, mostly out of fear of Germany, and our present resistance to militarily respond to Vladimir Putin is not again all that different. I am well aware of international norms and managing within parameters, but when is the time to be preemptive? As I write this, the latest news is that the Russians have cut the power to the Chernobyl nuclear plant. According to sources, 48 hours is the window until there are more profound consequences. This affects the entire world, but certainly all of Europe, including Russia will be immediately affected. I am not a war monger by any means, but it is time to act. Something needs to happen to save the world from a person who seems to have no regard for anything or anyone. During this week I have spoken with a friend, somewhat-colleague, and brilliant person I was blessed to work with in Kraków. Within a single phone call/video chat, she taught me more about Ukrainian/Russian history than I have ever known. I wonder how the Russian President can make the decisions he has, and she explained things more clearly than anyone. Bottom line or the ultimate consequence of what she shared is we need to be profoundly concerned about what Vladimir Putin is willing to do. In numerous ways, the seeming strategy of Russia pushes us back to medieval time. Indeed the idea of scorched earth is a more recent term, but the idea of siege goes back to Biblical times. It seems this is Putin’s strategy, and certainly the result is a Ukraine that will take decades and trillions of dollars to rebuild. What does Putin prove? That is a tougher question. While sources seem to indicate 50% of the country still supports him, it also appears that support is generational. The fact that the majority of younger people do not support the present policy is also of consequence.

This past week, almost daily, I have reached out to my young friends on both sides of this geo-political mess. It is at times difficult to remember I care for all of them. And yet, I do. I am continually astounded by the selfishness of our human nature. I want to hold on to an idealistic hope that we have some innate goodness in us, but as I see the pictures, listen to the news, watch the videos, it is hard to believe one person can convince so many that such disdain for life is appropriate. In the meanwhile, I will continue to reach out to those who matter to me: I will not cease in my raising of prayers, still hoping that a God might divinely intervene into our inhumanity; I will support as I can to make whatever small difference I can. It is the beginning of break for us. I am hoping to get some medical issues managed, get my semester squared away for the remainder of an academic year, and get ready for the whatever life might offer yet. The video below is something I have I posted before, but as thousands of young people, civilians, and soldiers are losing their lives because of a madman’s ego, this Sting song from his album Dream of the Blue Turtles seems apropos. For all who have lost their sons or daughters, my heart again aches. Indeed, the rich wage war, but it is often the poor who die.

“If the Russians Love Their Children Too”

Thank you as always for reading.

Dr. Martin

Clear and Present . . .

Hello on a Winter’s Evening,

It has been Estonian chilly out, and as I write this most of the Eastern seaboard is getting pounded by a nor’ easter. We have a flurry or two, a biting wind, and some iciness, but for the most part, we escaped this round. Of course, for what will be the third weekend in a row, next weekend seems to be another possible storm. Since our somewhat I’ll-fated, but adventurous Christmas trip, it felt like I was back in the Upper Peninsula at times. I love freshly fallen snow before humans mess it up. I love a beautiful, scenic, postcard-like view of trees draped in snow, muffler-like against the winter elements. I remember driving the two-lanes highways in the Keweenaw on early Sunday mornings as I headed to a rural parish to serve as their Sunday morning pastor. The beauty of the day often masked the clear and present danger of sliding off the road. In fact, one particularly beautiful, but snowy morning I did slide off the road in my Toyota 4-Runner. The 4-Runner was buried in snow 1/2 way up the doors. Someone stopped and took me to church. As I got out of the last church service my vehicle was there; it had been pulled out by an 18 wheeler. Amazing, and there was no damage. I have never really worried about driving winter roads, but our recent trip might have instilled a bit more cautiousness.

The phrase “clear and present” implies a number of things depending on circumstances. I remember the phrase all the way back to my time in the Marine Corps. I remember doing simulations in Field Radio Operator’s school where we were in foxholes calling in fire-strikes. I remember working on what were called hip shoots with 105 and 155 howitzers. I remember sitting in an embassy compound. While we were not always sure exactly from where the problem might come, we did realize the constant possibility of the danger. Indeed there was some clarity about our present situation. Certainly, there were variables, but my training and the world (even in the chaos of Saigon) seemed predictable. Predictability is fundamental to feeling safe or comfortable. I actually addressed that struggle in a recent blog. The clear and present of anything seems oxymoronic in our current world.

It seems the last five years have taken away any reasonable chance of predictability. And before you believe I want to blame it all on 45, I do not. What I do believe is 45 capitalized on the unpredictable atmosphere of our country. What I feel with every ounce of my being is former President Trump is a genius in using people’s fear to generate anger. However, what is more important to understand is from where does our societal fear come? What has created that sense of trepidation among us? This is a difficult question, and one where I am unsure if the answer is profoundly complex or unexpectedly simple. For the sake of the blog, I will go down the simple route. Yet, let me offer a disclaimer: simple is not synonymous to easy. The answer might be simple, but the effort needed to accomplish the task is extreme; it is life altering; it is continuous. I believe much of our fear comes from selfishness. One of the first things we are instructed about as small children is to be polite and share. It is not always something that comes easily, or perhaps naturally, but it is learnable, manageable. While it is perhaps more than the Golden Rule, that is a good place from which to begin. It is the embodiment of be gentle, and be kind. Gentleness is not weakness; and kindness is not naïveté. In fact, an argument can be made that both attributes require incredible resolve and strength. Too often we choose the easier path of becoming angry. Earlier in my life, when pushed too far or hurt, I became angry. Looking back, the times I lost the most or caused myself the most grief were when I did not control my anger. Clearly, and in that particular moment, my inability to be gentle or kind created hurt both for the other and myself.

Over the last week I looked forward to getting the car returned (it is still in Nevada) from an ill-fated problem with a cabled-tire (used to manage ice and snow). As of the moment, a second attempt to get the car back to Bloomsburg has hit a snag, so it’s on to Plan C. What is that plan? Presently, I have no idea. It is 12:45 a.m. and I am waiting for a phone call. I have a couple logistic issues to clarify, and then a couple possibilities to chase down in the morning. Clearly, and presently, I am scrambling to figure it out. Who could have predicted such a snowstorm of unexpected events? Those acquainted with the saga will understand the pun in this account of “the adventure of Bruce.” Only heaven knows what will happen next. It has been a significant reminder of how little control we have of external factors, even when we plan well. And then there is perception . . . Most of my adult life, I have said, “Perception is reality until proven otherwise.” One of the things perhaps most significant is the love and care I have observed between a parent and their children. It was a remarkable thing as I listened and then experienced that concern over the last week plus, and then just how much over the last 36 hours or so. It is really heart-moving. Those times show me what I might have missed in my life where I have never been a parent.

This week at school, as we are back in person, meeting students in various modes is always like starting from scratch. Every semester is a new experience; every class has its own personality, regardless of whether it is a traditional face-2-face course or remote; regardless of whether it has a number of students previously in another class or two or not. It has been a busy week and then, unexpectedly, YFU, the sponsoring agency for Georg, decided because of my rule violations (my decision to get him home quicker, safer than my trying to travel across the continent again, and on time for school, albeit with his parents’ knowledge and support) have removed Georg from my home for the remainder of the year. A new host is being sought. There have been tears on both sides of the Atlantic, messages and emails to and from, but the State Department has rules. The consequence of what it does to Georg (as he is safe, sound, and was content) is irrelevant. Platitudes of we realize this is hard on him, but . . . They are only worried about their reputation and accreditation. I guess I can understand that, but I certainly do not appreciate it. Individually, I have been discarded like a leper with COVID. People who a week ago still were inquiring if I would host again (which was three weeks after I was severely admonished, but told just behave going forward) push their collective action on higher ups, and spout the corporate mantra. Again, not a surprise. The fact they were not on the same page, or their communication either by phone or web is inconsistent, while also not surprising is swept aside, all in the cover of compliance. I have had to work with alternate possibilities to get things posted or communicated even back with Anton. I understand the idea of clear and present here also. There should have been better clarity on my part as the circumstances in California were changing hourly, but trying to call every few hours during a holiday week seemed to be a bit unwieldy and even more so problematic. It is also clear in the present moment, YFU does not care about the situation on the ground, they care only about their rules and reputation. Yet, even now, I can even find some empathy for them in that response. I might have to dig a bit, but I am able to do so. Additionally, it makes it possible for those delivering the message the opportunity to not really be involved with the individual student or host. The infamous don’t kill the messenger syndrome is alive and well. Just follow rules. It is not about people, it is about compliance. What that does, however, is make their entire idea of working toward understanding a sham. Am I frustrated and angry? Of course, there was no additional communication or questions after they told me just do not do it again. The next communique 30 days after was “we are removing him.” I am angry because of what it does to Georg. They have made a choice that hurts someone I love. I am frustrated and angry because I feel betrayed and lied to. The YFU representative hid behind the decision was made above their pay grade. Incredible, that it matters not what I have done up to now which would be seen as stellar – which is what I have been told. Amazing, that what I was assured of going forward was garbage. And as is often the case, “but I didn’t do it” was the blanket response, from here in Bloomsburg on up. So now what?

Georg will be moved temporarily to the place this entire difficulty began until there is a permanent family. Perhaps a phone call to speak with us before escalation might have been a reasonable thing. As I tell him, it is ultimately my fault because I did not make phone calls. How ironic- a person with a penchant for rules called others before calling me . . . that started the ball rolling. And now in the present, we clearly have a new circumstance. Georg will be in a new home, but fortunately on campus everyday. He will be incredibly busy with the play and other things until the middle of May. In the meanwhile, I will do my best to let him know he is just as important to me. I will be available as appropriate, but as I told him, he will need to be as wonderful in his new host home as he was in mine, a home which is now ours. Tonight our little family chatted, perhaps for the last time in the upstairs where we have watched movies, one of Georg’s favorite things. Tonight we watched Dead Poets Society. How apropos to illustrate that conformity does not serve everyone equally. Perhaps being taught how to think rather than told what to think might still be preferable. Seems that might have been useful in the present. Life is about choices and obviously, in spite of best intentions, my choices created a profound consequence for a number of people, Georg, his family, Kelli, and for those with whom he will now live. In spite of the change, Georg, Kelli, and I have created an incredible little family. The bond will remain. Georg’s family will be my family also. We (his parents, sister, and I) actually spoke about that this morning. Sometimes lessons are difficult. Sometimes they are painful. And yet they can provide opportunities. I am not sure what is the most important lesson here, but I am sure some want to say “just follow the rules.” Generally, I try to do so, though sometimes with a bit of attitude. That has really been the norm. I am not one to purposely get in trouble. At the moment, my desire to be rhetorically astute is waning, and quickly. And yet, there is something more important. He is 6’3”. He loves OJ. He detests broccoli and Brussel Sprouts. He is an intelligent and reflective young man. He is a dancer, a soccer player, and a dog lover. And regardless the actions of an organization, he is my Estonian son.

Georg, you know how I feel. Please continue to be the amazing young man you are. I love you. To everyone else, thank you for reading.

Dr. Martin

Well Done Good and Faithful Servant

Hello from my kitchen island,

To say I have spent significant time here at my kitchen island since returning from our Christmas adventure would be a profound understatement; it is after 10:00 p.m. on a Saturday evening, and here I am. I have been diligently working on both the current Winter Term class and preparing for a semester that begins on Monday, albeit online for the first week. It changes some things, but it is manageable, though it is a pain for some situations, but the need to be cautious in our current world makes the inconvenience bearable, at least for me. It is an amazing thing to get ready for a semester. It seems not matter how hard I work at it, I never feel as prepared as I would like. It reminds me of something I wrote in a recent blog about working and never feeling like it is enough or that it will get easier. I am not sure whether or not that is a good thing or not, but it seems it is the reality of things. Maybe that is why people hope for retirement, work toward retirement, consider retirement a victory of sorts. I am not sure.

When I was a parish pastor, there were different elements of the liturgy that spoke to me and to my soul in a way that was different than all the other scriptural things that are tied to the propers and ordinaries of each week. It is the phrase that is the title for this blog. It is a phrase that is used for a number of instances and settings within the church, but the time it is most poignant is when someone passes from this life. This past week, such an occurrence happened; it happened unexpectedly and tragically. And yet, it happened. Life is something precious, and there are few who would argue that sentiment. Life is something miraculous, and again, few will disagree. And yet, life is fragile and fleeting, and too often we fail to consider that reality. I think about those who passed when I was a parish pastor. Certainly, there were those who lived a long and incredible life (those around them even used such phrases). On the other hand, there were those who left this worldly existence long before we were ready to let them go. In those instances, we feel cheated; we feel disillusioned, and we might feel as if it is all senseless. And yet, who are we to question?

This evening, Georg and I attended the dramatic and stunning The Mountaintop, by the playwright Katori Hall, who is from Memphis, so her decision to develop this incredible piece about the last two days of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis was perhaps a labor of love in a very different manner. If you have not experienced this profound dramatic interpretation of Dr. King’s last moments, you should. It will leave you with some profound questions. While there were several things that caused me pause, the specific issue which affected me the most was Dr. King’s struggle with what his role on earth was and how he understood his life. There were other elements, but I do not want to be a spoiler. Suffice it to say, there were elements (many quite unexpected) that relate to the title of this blog. How do we understand these profound words? What does it mean that lives can be understood in their totality as well done? I ponder this idea more often than not. It was something that struck me every time I officiated a funeral or committal service. It is something I still ponder when someone I know (or even someone I might hear about) passes from this life to beyond.

What allows for the profundity of that statement to be a truthful one? How is that decided, or by whom? Undoubtedly, those who know us have opinions or beliefs about the life we have led. Most assuredly, there is some sense of what we have done as well as what we have left behind. And yet, who really knows or is capable of deciding either our goodness or faithfulness, and to what or whom? One of the things I was very careful about when I worked with end of life situations was to avoid any statement that projected some sense of what happened after life. Some might argue I was waffling or being unfair. I would argue that I am not God, nor do I wish to be. And of course, then there are those who believe there is no such thing. And yet there is the finality that occurs when someone leaves this world. Is it that we will never again interact with them? Is that all there is? If so, the idea of “well done” seems to be merely a human evaluation and the second element of the statement seems much more temporal. It loses the need to ponder, at least in my eyes.

This week I reacquainted with a young amazing person I have known for about 7 years or so, perhaps more, but I am unsure. She was a server at a local restaurant, and incredibly kind. She ironically lives close to my old Wisconsin stomping grounds, and we ran into each other three times in a week. It was an unexpected blessing to be able to speak with her and hear more about her life now. She also told me some of her own faith story, which I found fascinating. She is a profoundly talented and exceptionally good person. I told her that she gives me hope in a world where there is so much difficulty. It was a time that made me smile. On the other hand, it was a week of mourning and a profound sense of loss. The tragic passing of an amazingly talented, dedicated, and profoundly kind and thoughtful colleague has our campus community reeling and trying to figure out what next. There are so many questions for many, but it seems unlikely there will ever be sufficient answers. That is the very nature of loss. Rational and irrational questions, rational and seemingly irrational emotions sweep over us in a tsunamic manner, often taking away our breath and leaving us feeling disillusioned or frightened.

For me this is precisely the time, much like the Psalmist lament that I realize I am incapable of making sense of the nonsensical. It is indubitably the moment when discernment pushes me to believe in something much larger than myself. It pushes me back to those times when I was a seminarian sitting in Dr. Fred Gaiser’s class and he reminded us of how dependent we were on the mercy of a loving God to find some sense in our pain and anguish. It reminds me now of how Dr. Gerhard Forde wrote in his book, Justification: A Matter of Death and Life (It was reprinted in 2012, but I read it in the seminary in the mid-1980s), “theologically, the answer to the question what must [we] do to be saved is nothing. Shut up and listen for once in your life.” While I do not have the page number, I have this passage memorized since I first read it as a student, and in his Confessions class. It profoundly affected my theology and what I would call now my pedagogy or practice as a pastor. I think it is a particularly significant statement when we find ourselves feeling overwhelmed, despairing with no sense of help, or managing such pain that is appears it can never end.

This week I looked at pictures of my colleague from earlier in their life. I listened to stories of their ability to see both the big picture and realize the minute consequences of an action. I recounted my own experiences with them and how they made a difference for a student, allowing them to travel and experience things that I imagine changed that student’s life. I watched, and my heart ached, as people I respect and admire were brought to tears because of the gargantuan change this loss brings to their daily lives, perhaps more profoundly on a personal level, albeit professional as well. My mind races and my soul yearns for a do-over if one could allow such a thing, but much like the drama of the play I watched this evening, death allows no do-overs. In it we have a closure, and simultaneously we are torn open by the loss of one loved. There is a ripple effect of this loss that is, at present, too overwhelming to realize, and yet, we have no options to stop the work, ignore the realities of the change, or dismiss whatever our own lives require us to manage. This reality forces us to face our own fragility and realize we do not live in isolation. We affect each other more profoundly than we often imagine. If we can see the positive in that mutuality, perhaps we would be more able to help each other with the words of this title. Perhaps the idea of being understood as a good and faithful servant is something for this life as much as the next. Perhaps the words or kindness of telling someone well done could make the difference needed.

We are mutually dependent, profoundly delicate, and intrinsically flawed in our humanity. If there was anything I was reminded of this week it is that. The play tonight that focused on the last days of Dr. King’s life; the loss of an exceptional person, who was first human and then a spouse, a parent, an offspring, and a colleague has left me shaken and hurting. It pushed me to reconsider my journey in this world and reminds me that there is nothing guaranteed. There are no certainties in my world. It is up to me to live in a way that I hope others might believe is well done, that I have been good and faithful, and yes, that I have served others. I am grateful for the interactions I was blessed to have with my colleague. It is profoundly evident that they loved the university and were excellent in their work. All accounts spoke about the importance of the two sons and how much they were adored. And yet, we are fragile and life is terminally tenuous. There is so little I am assured of as I write this, but in my own fragile faith, I want to reach out in my own individual way and offer this: Well done, good and faithful servant. May you be at peace.

Thanks for reading.

Dr. Martin

Traveling through the Decades

Hello from the porch of my home away from home,

During two weeks during the month of July I managed a driving “walk about. It was a journey ultimately covering 3,800 miles and some interaction with things that cover the entirety of my three score plus almost six years of existence. From specific dates as early as 1958 to dates including 1970, 1973, 1978, 1983, 1984, 1993, or as recent as 2019 and memories in between, those 15 days were engulfed with long-forgotten images reimagined and a deluge of emotions that have connected me with every phase of my life. The opportunity to meet with relatives, extended families of those relatives, former classmates, childhood friends, mentors, and simply other people, who made my breakfast at a coffee shop was life-giving and rejuvenating. To return and walk around places from my past, to drive highways that once were commonplace has been comforting in ways unanticipated. It has freed my mind of clutter and spoke to my soul in a way seldom experienced. Contented and peaceful are perhaps the two best adjectives to describe my daily mood as I traveled. While there was a plan, there was no required schedule during the interludes from place to place. To be able to interact with no pretense, to reacquaint after decades seemed effortless. Effortless accurately describes much of how I have felt this entire trip.

As I initially wrote this I was sitting on the back porch of 721, as I fondly and lovingly refer to that location in Newton, IA. Lee and Judy, my first host family home from the year I traveled on a Lutheran Youth Encounter team have become a life-long gift. I cannot help but contemplate that it was 2/3s of my life ago I was introduced to a couple I now warmly refer to as my older siblings. Lee and Judy Swenson welcomed John and me into their home in June of 1978. I can state with complete surety that a breakfast conversation in that kitchen changed the course of my life. As I returned to Newton late last night, Lee and Judy were waiting for me. I walked in and exclaimed, “I’m home!” As gracious as any 50s television show family, I walk into such incredible ambiance and care. I have told Judy more times than I can count, there is no home like 721. This morning we reminisced about the various times I have stopped over the 4 decades. And that does not count the three times we were in Newton during our travel year of 78-79.

As I return to this post, I am reminded of the peripatetic aspect of my life. Paragraph to paragraph, chapter to chapter, this year of my long and winding journey was particularly poignant as I reconnected with extended family over the 12 days, the reality of life’s twists and turns was front and center. In spite of the many trials we have all faced, it was profoundly evident. that I come from an incredible resiliency. The hurdles some of my family face daily humbles me. It compels me to first be grateful for the blessings I too often take for granted. While I have had significant health struggles, and will likely have more, there is so much for which I am grateful. I have been blessed to establish a life that has been rewarding and enjoyable. The other thing that astounded me was the unequalled level of patience I saw demonstrated. That too was (and remains) humbling to observe (to understand).

As the calendar informs us of a new cycle the changes from leaving a home I loved as much as anywhere I have lived, to moving and creating a home with two wonderful people, and with it schedules, dinners, soccer games, writing assistance, motorcycle trips to surrounding diners for Saturday breakfast, and being closer to a family most dear have made for a memorable fall. Trips and events like The Nutcracker have reminded me of the amazing world that is in my own backyard.

And now as I write this it is December, and almost New. Years That gives some indication of life since then. On the 19th of August, Georg, my new exchange student from Estonia, arrived. School began the following week and it never slowed down since. I am not complaining as it has been incredibly productive, but the juggling act that is life has been a bit overwhelming at times. Kelli, my senior supply chain student, and another surrogate offspring, has been a joy to have in the house. She and Georg are like siblings and it is actually sweet and enjoyable to observe their interaction. It was very nice that they both texted me more than once in an evening to check on my schedule as they wanted to wait for me so we could eat together. There have been moments when I realize what I missed never being a parent. While I am content with where I am, there are still glimpses of what might have been. I think the most interesting thing for me is that I believe I could have been a good parent. Something I always worried about. I have been asked a number of times over these past years about my not having children. I have been asked about my being single. I have been asked about if I wished my life to be different than it is. I think I can say quite assuredly that I am content with where I am. Is there a sense of solitariness or loneliness at times? Most certainly. It might be why most of my life is centered around people-oriented tasks. Are there times I wish I had some large family or kids, grandchildren, and perhaps even great-grandchildren? The simple answer is yes, but I ponder if it is because we often imagine the things we do not have.

This summer into fall, a number of decisions were made, and perhaps as importantly, I realize that when I make decisions, and particularly decisions of consequence, I seldom reconsider or even revisit that choice. I am not sure if that is a benefit or detriment, but at the moment, I am inclined to see it as something positive. Moving forward and doing the best I can with the choices made allows for progress, and it minimizes regret. Some of those decisions are significant like giving up my sabbatical, or deciding on a retirement date. All of that has long-term consequence and has resulted in making profound changes. As noted other places, one of those changes was in selling my home, fondly and lovingly known as The Acre. That decision is one of the most momentous ones made in my entire life. The reasons for that profundity are multi-layered, but a number of people have asked if I feel sad. I do not. Are there things about that house I miss? Of course, but I know why I made the decision and I believe in terms of moving toward where I want to be or go, it was the best path forward. One of the things I know is that I have too often become attached to things, and things are only that – things. They do not make us or provide any real intrinsic value. People often identify us by those things, but that is a surface identity. What I realize now is I am more affected by the relationships I have and not the stuff I have. As I noted in the title here, the decades have created the person I am. Some of the most important things I have are what I have been able to re-establish this past year. Those were not things, but people. As I began this blog, way back in July, the opportunity to reacquaint with my cousins might be the most important thing I have done in decades (and that is a literal statement). I was in my early thirties and they were still in their twenties. We are now all septuagenarians. First, how did that happen? Second, why did I take so long? I have no adequate answer to either question. As I have been explaining to my freshmen as they have worked on their Google Map/memoir project, we do not become the people we are by accident. We are molded, often without our realizing it. We are imbued with values and morals, with hopes and dreams often subconsciously. Nevertheless, we are products of a canoecopia (and considering I went kayaking and paddleboarding with them the first night there) of a paddling journey if you will, as we navigate our way through experiences, relationships, and emotions. The things we were influenced by are those things we believe have value. As I consider each of the sisters, I am in awe of their kindness, their loving care for each other, and of the profound beauty they bring to other people’s lives. The admiration I had for them growing up grew exponentially as I spent time with them this past summer. In some more than others, the physical resemblance to their mother is beyond apparent. The kindness, hospitality, and inquisitiveness that was in both of their parents permeates each of them. It is humbling to be their relative, but it is also inspiring. It reminded me of why they were so integral to my life as a child. One of the things that comes through my blog as a recurring theme is the feeling of safety, the feeling of acceptance. What I realized this summer and as I have reflected into this fall is they made me feel valued and accepted when we visited and shared time as children. When I was around their family, even in spite of my mother, I felt safe. That was, and is, an important thing for all people. Those same feelings of love and acceptance were foundational to our summer visit. While we have not chatted as often as I wish in the midst of our busy fall schedules, a text, a quick phone call or sharing a Facebook post has established a continuing thread, reaffirming our life-long connection as family. It is ironic that for many years I have isolated from so many, and simultaneously remained involved with many others. Sometimes I created new families if you will.

New experiences create new memories, new opportunities, and ultimately help us continue to grow regardless our age. I have outlived 4 siblings, and I was neither the eldest or youngest of them. I have been blessed to have people pass into my life from around the world. I have been fortunate to travel and experience more than I could have ever anticipated. I am not sure how all of that came to pass, but again I return to the concept of place and the rhetoric of place. My first real journey was to move to a new family as an adopted 4 year old. Perhaps it was that very move and it’s consequence that provided a foundation of needing to explore and experience. Certainly that nascent foundation was solidified when I was given an opportunity to travel to Europe with the late Dr. John W. Nielsen. Additionally, my desire to understand humanity as simply that – other humans, instilled a desire to learn, experience, and grow from that leaning, that experiencing. There is so much more to life if we merely give it a chance. It took six months for me to finish this. Since then I was back on the very porch I began this blog, back in Newton, IA where Lee and Judy still greet me with open arms. They are as much family to me as anyone. An older brother and sister of sorts, they have been a blessing for four decades plus. The journey continues, and the blessings seem infinite. As another year concludes, one can only imagine what comes next.

Thank you for reading.


My Struggles with being OCD

Hello from a quiet moment.

I am sitting in the loneliness of a quiet house at the moment and realizing how much I obsess on little things and how much I sometimes need to understand the why if something. I did not always comprehend my obsession with seemingly minuscule things, but I have been well aware of my ability or need to question things. I understand my questioning as a different issue than my liking order, but lately I see them as more of an extension of each other. Ironically, one of the things that has helped me manage either element of my daily existence has been through my teaching of freshman writing. That might seem counter-intuitive, but hear me out. First, I need to thank my colleague in the College of Education,

It started with a conversation during our providing snacks and coffee during finals week, something our faculty union did for students. While attending this event with a colleague, one who ironically interviewed here the same day I did, a third colleague, who teaches Business Law courses, questioned me about issues of grammar. As one who is in his 60s, who diagrammed sentences in junior high and beyond, was corrected when he misspoke as a child (and all those things some who read this understand), and as noted is OCD, an interesting conversation ensued. While my immediate instinct was to lament the incessant tearing down of grammar rules near and dear, I realized the world was no longer the same. Additionally, one of my former linguistics colleagues professed adamantly that language is post-modern by its very dynamic nature. While this is a bit of a bitter pill for me to swallow, I have been somewhat swayed to fall into her camp. Language is the consequence of personality, culture, and education. All three of those components are more complex than you might imagine, and when you put them together the complications multiply. And yet there is an order; there is an expectation; and those are the things than mystify and excite me. Those are the things that create some of the most interesting expectations and experiences in my classes, particularly my Foundations of College Writing sections.

As I ponder my own personality or practice, my propensity for needing neatness and order began early in my life, before the age of two. I remember as a two year old trying to make my bed and get myself dressed. My Great-aunt told me about those events also, so it was not merely my two-year-old imagination attempting to alter reality. Throughout my life my desire to structure and order was implemented to create a sense of security. If you have read my blog over the years, my need to feel safe and secure is a central need. And yet, what offers security? What provides my inner-self the feeling of safety? Predictability is part of it, and feeling sure of what might happen next allowed no possibility of anything that seemed remotely calculable. Looking back, perhaps taking control of the minutiae was my initial attempt to feel safe. If I had even a modicum of order, of certainly, I could find a glimpse of hope that my life would make sense. These are difficult connections and realities for me yet today.

The last 24 hours most definitely are defined as unexpected. Plans made and revised with intention were scuttled by an unanticipated mechanical dilemma. However, in an attempt to maintain as much of a plan as possible, alternative plans have been secured. There are still things to manage, and there will be some consequences, but an very different experience and new things for me too. Perhaps what astounds me most is I have taken most of it in stride and did not get overwhelmed by such significant issues. I am quite sure that would not have been the case earlier in my life. And yet, there are things I see myself doing to keep some sense of structure and order to the present experience of organized chaos. It is helpful that Georg has been quite chill about all of it. I just told him thank you and his response is this is not the first time, so I may need to investigate. One of the things I have worked hard to put into practice is if I cannot control it, I cannot waste energy on it. I am much better at that now, thank goodness.

The past year has prompted me to ponder beyond the semester and realize the reality of living life beyond the working to live, which is what most of our life consists of. We get up; we have a routine; we go about our daily tasks as if they are thrust upon us and we are the victims of our daily existence. I do not think I have spent my life as such, but I think that is because I am always pondering the why. Why does this or that happen? More importantly, why does it matter? For me making sense of the non-sensical or perhaps it is more needing structure to manage the non-sensical has been my life’s task. And yet, more importantly it has allowed me to live my life as more of a giver. Indeed, for me, the line from the Prayer of St. Francis is what has sustained me more often than not. – hoc dando accipimus – it is giving, we receive. It is a simple adage to understand, but one difficult to establish or practice. My human selfishness gets in the way at times.

It also relates to the practice of forgiveness. Between my seminary studies and my life experiences, I’ve come to realize how powerful the gift of forgiveness is. It is something we need to provide each other regularly. It is something that is too often withheld because of our own weakness. It took me 25 years to forgive a person who caused incredible injury to others, myself included. However, I am still blessed that it finally occurred. That ability to give, even that long after the fact, released me from so much pain, resentment and anger. It changed my life. And it has changed my outlook on so much more. I still need my structure and my predictability. And yet through the freedom of forgiveness, be it given or received, I am able to understand the possibility of another avenue. I am able to compromise more freely and openly. It amazes me how both structure and freedom, seemingly oxymoronic, are to essential qualities for my happiness. As I ponder, I realize some of that initial structure or understanding of structure came from the very person I needed to survive. Ironic that even now as I sit in the quietness of the morning, in the afterglow of what Christmas has become all to often, I am content in the silence. I am blessed by a gift given that has given back so much more, and unexpectedly. In my piety, I am hoping that all who were once part of my human existence and have left this worldly life celebrate a holiday of the ultimate forgiveness and giving together.

I miss those memories and those experiences. In the meantime, I will ponder and organize, but I realize in that structure I do have security, safety, and possibilities. Blessed holidays to all of you. It is nice to post after so long.

Thanks for reading,