What’s Good For Us

Curiosity and sentimentality are the mortal enemies of those who wish to live uncluttered lives. Despite my sincere effort to clean out the garage last week, I lost my battle with those enemies, thanks to an old Nike shoe box with “’98 Baseball” written in Sharpie across the top.

I found the shoebox in the first storage container I’d vowed to eliminate. Before I’d thrown away one single piece of junk, I found myself at the kitchen table, opening the box and shuffling through memories.

In the years since 1998, Alex Rodriguez has gone from cover story hero to morality tale. Strange, how prophetic this caricature seems now.

In the years since 1998, Alex Rodriguez has gone from cover story hero to morality tale. Strange, how prophetic this caricature seems now.

For baseball junkies, 1998 was the summer romance gone sour. Four years after a devastating labor strike that cancelled the World Series, baseball finally made a comeback, thanks to several incredible moments. The Yankees won 114 games. Kerry Wood struck out 20 batters in a game. Cal Ripken ended his consecutive game streak at 2,632.

But the story of the summer was the power. Mike Piazza hit is 200th career home run. Rafael Palmiero his 300th. Barry Bonds his 400th. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa embarked on an epic chase to eclipse Roger Maris’ single-season home run record of 61. Both did, Sosa at 66 and McGwire at 70.

And in record numbers, America watched it all.

Looking back, it all seems tainted—especially the power numbers. Of the top-ten overall home run leaders that year, seven have been linked to steroid use (Ken Griffey, Jr., being a notable exception).

Fans were crushed, and in some ways we never recovered. Most of the great players of the 1990s will never sniff the Hall of Fame. Even a decade after the Senate hearings that brought the problem to light, the outcry against players of the so-called Steroid Era sounds like the sobs of jilted lovers. I can’t believe we fell for that! You lied to me. It was all fake. Nothing about it was real!

Except that it was real—the experience, if not the authenticity of its creation. The game that year created intense drama, must-see TV. My shoebox was full of articles worthy of a Grantland Rice poem, gushing as they were over this new generation of heroes. Sports Illustrated wondered on its cover if this was the greatest year in baseball history.

And we baseball fans—both casual and devoted—loved it. Maybe we shouldn’t have. Maybe we don’t want to. Maybe—no, definitely—it was bad for us and for our kids. But we loved it.

Just like a lot of things that could kill us. Just like a lot of things that could cause us to be complicit in killing others. One way or another, we pay a price for willful blindness.

I wish we could undo all the steroids that were flushed into ballplayers’ bodies in 1998. We would have had a much less spectacular season. But I’d be able to let my son sift through this shoebox without having to explain why something so great turned so awful.

I can’t. But I will do what I can.

I can save the shoebox, and the memories inside. I can try to remember who I was then, and who my heroes were, and how we were all flawed and need forgiveness. But I can also remind myself to keep my eyes open, and to teach my sons to do the same, as much as they are able. If I can do that, maybe the next box they open will contain the memories without the guilt.

George’s House

After five years of home ownership, we are back to living in someone else’s house. And not just anyone’s house.

George’s house.

The George in question is former US Senator George McGovern, the most prominent politician in South Dakota’s history. Although most often remembered for his failed 1972 presidential campaign—a landslide loss marked by the Nixon-authorized break-in at the Watergate Hotel—McGovern was a tireless humanitarian, and the voice of the Democratic Party’s liberal conscience for five decades. Not only is he the subject of a Wikipedia article; he deserves it.

A view of the McGovern house, where the Van Meters currently reside.

A view of the McGovern house, where the Van Meters currently reside.

McGovern never owned the house I now live in. Dakota Wesleyan bought it from a Mitchell church and offered it to the university’s favorite son after his retirement. The McGoverns lived there off and on for about eight years near the end of their lives. After that, it became a dorm. Now it is once again a parsonage.

Officially, DWU refers to it as the McGovern house. But when I tell long-time staffers where I live, they say, “Oh! You’re in George’s place.”

The different terminology is significant. From an official standpoint, DWU wants to respect the Senator and his legacy. McGovern was important. McGovern belonged to everybody, to the ages.

But George was more than a powerful Washington persona. George was a brilliant yet approachable old man who was like a grandfather to the campus. When George was out and about, he conversed about the most important topics with whoever would engage him. Upon the death of his beloved Ursa, the giant black Newfoundland that was his constant companion after his wife’s death, the campus paper wrote an obituary.

Living in George’s house hasn’t brought with it any unusual pressures. Most of my congregation is made up of college students who were in high school when George died. Those that do remember him understand that I’m not George—that nobody is George—and they don’t expect me to be.

But living in George’s house has made me consider the notion of legacy, and how we get it wrong.

Most of the time, when I hear someone talk about legacy, it’s a matter of what they will leave behind when they die. Kids and grandkids. Businesses and buildings. Stories and snapshots. Legacy is a matter of how we will be remembered, or how we will remember those we care about.

As I walk the halls in George’s house, though, I’m realizing that such a definition of legacy is not only limited, but also frightfully self-serving. Attempts to control our legacy or to define someone else’s are inherently narcissistic.

In truth, legacy is not a static inheritance, whether bestowed or received. Rather, legacy is investment of one generation in those that follow it, who must in turn refine it and pass it down again.

True legacy is not about monuments, but about momentum. It’s about staying on the continuum. About letting go of our need to be remembered and instead working for a better world, regardless of whether or not our names resound within it.

I will never be McGovern, the social and political activist. That mantle is for someone else to take up.

But as I live in George’s house, I can’t help but feel responsible for living as a better citizen of this community. For as long as I’m here, I am tasked with inviting others into gracious conversation about things that really matter. That’s a part of George’s legacy that resonates with me, something I think I can live into.

In a few weeks, the house at 1200 McGovern Avenue will be buzzing again. My kids will be playing in the back yard. Students and staffers from DWU will be gathering with us for meals and games and general life sharing. It will feel more like my house by then, I’m sure.

But it will also always be George’s house, and rightly so. It is a tangible reminder of the legacy he passed on, and that I hope to contribute to, and that I hope someday to hand off to whomever is next.

 

 

Arrived but Not Landed

So Major Life Decision has morphed into Major Life Event. We are no longer leaving Arkansas. We are no longer moving to South Dakota. Both are accomplished facts, no longer part of our planning, now part of our history.

All quiet on campus for now. Great time to be reflective!

All quiet on campus for now. Great time to be reflective!

Now what?

I’m asking that question a lot in these first few days at my new appointment. DWU in July is quiet, to say the least. I’m reading through files and filling out forms and trying to learn the names of the buildings and the offices on campus. But that only fills up so much of the day. Ministry to me is always about people, not programming. No matter how much I plan, I still have to wait on students to arrive on campus before I can truly get to work on that part of my job.

I imagine this is at least somewhat true for my colleagues who pastor local churches. Those who moved this year began their ministries in their new settings in June or July, when church attendance is usually at its lowest. It’s almost impossible to get a true picture of congregational life in the summer, and those who try end up with a skewed understanding of what (and who) a church really is.

Maintaining perspective is one of the most important disciplines for those of us in new settings. We have lived in chaos for weeks in anticipation of the move. The temptation is to rush toward stability, to jump right in and declare ourselves landed.

But that approach only considers our need for order, not our duty to learn and love a new congregation. When the flight is turbulent, the ground looks awfully inviting. But the end result is good only if we have the discipline to grab the parachute first.

A new job—pastoral or otherwise—requires some floating. The first few weeks offer us a unique perspective from which to survey the terrain and decide where we will land.

So I’ve arrived at DWU, but I haven’t really landed yet. I’m floating toward stability and trying to not get in a hurry, trusting that solid ground will be here soon enough.

Release

Well, we made it to South Dakota. Even if some of our stuff didn’t.

Van Meter Move 2014 got off to a rocky start when, two days before we were to load up, Budget called to tell us our truck was cancelled. Thirty-six frantic hours later, I had located a slightly smaller truck—22’ instead of 24’—and got busy drawing up plans.

You wouldn’t think that those two feet would make that much difference in what did and did not make it onto the truck. According to my floor plan for packing, we should still have some room left over in the last few feet of truck to fit it all into.

My packing schematic--the source of no small amount of teasing from wife and friends, but a quite efficient tool, if I do say so myself.

My packing schematic–the source of no small amount of teasing from wife and friends, but a quite efficient tool, if I do say so myself.

That was before I realized some of the things I’d left off the schematic. Two dressers had been stuffed into closets beyond my consideration. Not in the plan. The basketball goal the boys’ grandparents bought them. Not in the plan. My table saw and the boys’ bicycles. My own fault for leaving those out, but still…not in the plan.

The schematic more or less worked for about 14 feet, at which point the left-outs began to show up. Five feet from the bumper, it became clear that we were not going to make it.

Looking at all the things we’d accumulated, I started to panic. How much had we paid for all this stuff? And how could we justify leaving it behind? For a few minutes, I felt like Steve Martin from “The Jerk.”

“I don’t need anything! Except this stapler…and the paddle game…and the ashtray…and the remote control…”

And these mower ramps. And the wheelbarrow. And my mountain bike…

The truth is that I don’t need any of these anymore. Our yard is too small for a riding mower. The grounds crew at DWU takes care of mulch and debris. I haven’t mountain biked in five years, not since I fell in love with road biking.

Not only did these things not fit in my trailer. They no longer fit in my life. So why would I hang onto them?

Good question. One answer is that I paid for them—earned them, in a manner of speaking. Another is that I might need them again someday. Another is that I might be able to sell them and use the cash to buy other stuff.

But, from garden tools to grudges, anything we earn can outlive its usefulness. Hanging on to old treasures are signs of living in the past, or of waiting for a past-like future. And which is more important: more cash to buy more stuff, or blessing a friend who still needs what I no longer do?

When we closed the door on the trailer, we left out a lot of things. I’m sure that time will prove that some of what we took with us is useless, and some of what we left we’ll wish we had. No matter. We got something of greater value: a lesson in releasing the past.

Don’t bring with you things you don’t need. And you need a lot less than you think.