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.

 

 

Time to Ride!

Of all the things I will miss about being the Wesley Foundation director at A-State, helping plan and lead Tour de Faith may be at the top of the list. We are on a mission this week to learn to see our world at not only a different perspective, but also a different pace. The crazy thing is that the biking has as much to do with our spiritual formation as helping at an ESL class or working at a food pantry (two of our bigger “mission projects” for this trip).

A few of our TdF bikers made it to the Clinton Presidential Library. We have no idea what Dave and Josh are doing in this picture.

A few of our TdF bikers made it to the Clinton Presidential Library. We have no idea what Dave and Josh are doing in this picture.

It’s hard to explain TdF if you’ve never done something like it, but it’s a thing worth doing if you ever have the chance. We will be worn ragged by Thursday, empty in virtually every aspect of our being. But it will be worth it, and God will fill us anew, and we will leave TdF knowing that the line of impossible is further out than we thought.

We appreciate your prayers for our staff and students this week!

 

Thomas

I am a recovering cynic.

I can admit it to myself, now that I have some clarity about my professional future. The decision to move to Dakota Wesleyan University this coming June is a huge one for me, but also the right one. And now that the weight of uncertainty has been lifted off me, I can see that I had been traveling down the dark road of cynicism.

That’s not to say it wasn’t an honest path. I have blogged and written for several years about the dangers inherent in the new systems adopted in my current annual conference, and in many others across the country. In my observation, those dangers have manifested themselves in both administrative chaos and a loss of collective identity, clouding not only our mission, but also our very way of relating to one another.

But just because something is true doesn’t make it good mental fodder. And as I prepare to leave for a new ministry setting, I realize that, while I still think my observations are true, the way I held them was toxic.

Somewhere along the way, I became a cynic. I reacted to the systemic problems I saw by assuming that everyone involved (myself included) is caught up in self-interest. I gave up on people. I lost hope.

But, as he has done in many other ways, Thomas brought me back into the light.

Last week’s lection belonged to John 20, the story of Thomas and his doubts. I have always hated that this reading appears the Sunday after Easter. Perhaps it’s inevitable, though. The disciple known mostly for his doubts about the resurrection gets assigned to a week in which few people show up to church, and probably fewer pay attention.

But Thomas is the most important disciple in my spiritual journey. We forget that, when Jesus set his eyes on Jerusalem for the Passover, Thomas was the one who urged the other disciples to go with their Lord, despite the dangers. “Let’s go,” he said, “so that we may die with him.” Loyalty and courage. That’s what I want to be known for.

I even count Thomas’ famous doubt to his credit. He has the intellectual honesty to stand on what he sees, despite the pressure of his friends. He was not one for cheap buy in, which never leads to anything good anyway.

Thomas was a skeptic. He needed to see the story, not just hear it. I can relate entirely.

But this year, I see something new in Thomas’ story. Although he did not believe his friends, neither did he stop believing in them. He did not write them off. The next time they met, Thomas was still with them. If he had not been, he might never have seen Jesus alive again.

Throughout my adult life, I have clung to Thomas as my patron saint. I have questioned, doubted, been skeptical, asked questions. I think that is a part of my calling from God, and I will continue to do so.

This year, however, Thomas says something a little different to me. He reminds me to keep the faith, to not lose heart, to not give up too soon. To be a skeptic, but not give in to cynicism.

That may not be an easy path, but it’s one much better lighted. And so far, the going is infinitely more pleasant.

Footprint

Last night, winter left us what I expect will be its parting gift for the 2014 season. We don’t usually get much snow in my part of the world (a half inch is enough to close the schools), and so the winter weather is something of an adventure when it comes.

The real beauty often lies in the smaller view.

The real beauty often lies in the smaller view.

When it snows at my house, I try to be the first one outside. I want to be able to see the ice on the branches before the sun melts it away. I want to watch the birds and the animals taking in the strange sights. Most of all, I want to see the smooth layer of untouched snow before it gets chopped up by dogs and children and sled runs down our modest hill. I want to see the world as it has been made new.

The irony, of course, is that to see it new means to disturb its newness. I try to walk the perimeter of our land so that its interior will remain pristine, at least until I’m discovered by kids or animals. But my footsteps change the landscape and, when I look behind me, alter my view. I suppose that can’t be helped, but it still makes me a bit sad.

Footprints in the snow tell us something about the nature of our world. We pass through it and explore it and make our mark as best we can. But in time the snow will melt away and the mud and grass will erase all thought of where we had been. In fact, this usually happens in a matter of days, if not hours. It’s a sobering metaphor.

Still, the beauty of snow (at least in northeast Arkansas) lies in part in its transience. If it stayed around forever, we would not appreciate it. Its impending disappearance makes us pay attention all the more.

Here is where I was when I moved again.

Here is where I was when I moved again.

The same is true of footprints. They do not testify to accomplishment so much as to motion. They show that we moved through a particular place at a particular time and then kept going. As William Faulkner put it, “A monument only says, ‘At least I got this far,’ while a footprint says, ‘This is where I was when I moved again.'”

May the footprints you make today leave a beautiful impression.

Necessary Destruction

Part of re-building is tearing down. That, it seems, is an unavoidable lesson, and one that I’ve learned through water.

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We spent a lot of time destroying the old at Wesley Foundation in the past few weeks, all in preparation for something new.

Once it gets into a place it is not supposed to be, water can do all manner of damage. It ruins fabric, rusts metal, warps flooring. It rots away wood and seeps up into drywall, inviting mold and mildew that can range from unpleasant to toxic.

Before anything can be put back in its place after a flood, the ruined material has to be taken out, lest it weaken or corrupt the new. The first step in reconstruction is necessary destruction.

This, I think, provides a pretty strong and pretty clear metaphor for the way life goes: we can’t fully move into something new without tearing out something old. It’s the same advice the Apostle Paul gave. Consider the past rubbish. Throw it aside. Forget what is behind, and full steam ahead.

I have to admit, however, that I am uncomfortable with the metaphor of destruction, true though it may be. For one thing, it feels like a lesson in theoretical physics: just because we know (or think we know) something doesn’t mean we can put that knowledge to any practical use. That, in fact, is one of Paul’s laments, that he cannot seem to bring himself to banish evil and do the good his heart desires.

I’m also hesitant to talk about destruction because we deal with so much of it already–loss and fear of loss that take away precious things or people, or that steal the joy found in those things. I confess that I sometimes cringe when I hear rhetoric of change, especially in church settings, because I know it will mean imposing yet another loss on someone else.

Still, the metaphor of destruction holds, regardless of how much I dislike it personally. So I try to think of it in a more positive light.

My favorite example is from a book we read to our youngest son at least six times a week when he was a toddler. In it, a group of friends plants a garden together. Everybody’s plot grows except one–that is, until another friend harvests his sunflowers, allowing light to fall on the empty strawberry patch. Once the sunlight hits the bare plot, it too begins to grow and produce fruit.

The thing that was keeping something else from growing had to be removed, but that could be done with a celebration of what it had produced.

I try to present this to my college students when we talk about relationships. A breakup doesn’t necessarily invalidate what was a good thing. It may only be a time of tearing out–painful, yes, but necessary to allow for a strong rebuilding. Other examples abound.

It’s not a neat process, of course. Some necessary destruction looks downright awful and feels even worse. And truthfully, most of us experience tearing down and rebuilding as overlapping processes.

Then again, I’ve lived through enough changes (my own and those I care about) to know not to expect tidiness, not when it comes to internal or external change. Necessary destruction is still destruction, but by God’s grace it doesn’t have to destroy us. Rather, it can pave the way for something new.

Germs and Seeds

This $0.29 clamp cost our ministry $15,000.

The clamp, which had fastened the water line to the back

The ice machine clamp that destroyed 2200 sq. ft. of Wesley Foundation

The ice machine clamp that destroyed 2200 sq. ft. of Wesley Foundation

of A-State Wesley’s ice machine, gave out quietly on a Saturday evening last October. By the time we discovered the failure on Sunday morning, the open line had dumped hundreds of gallons of water into Wesley. Several volunteers pitched in to clean up, attacking the problem with a veritable army of mops, shop vacs, and even repurposed dust pans.

But the damage was done. By the time Wednesday rolled around, we had gutted the building—baseboards, laminate, carpet, cabinets, and half our drywall reduced to a dumpster full of mush and mildew. We lost the space for nearly three months while we made plans and organized work crews. Our community had to meet elsewhere. Our staff worked in chaos.

All because of a half-inch clamp that didn’t hold on quite tightly enough.

This has made me reflect a lot in recent weeks on the impact of little things. I come at it from two perspectives.

One is, for lack of a better word, a destructive perspective. It takes into account the loss that results from little things. A tiny virus invades cells and causes widespread suffering. A penny costs double its value to mint, and adds up to a yearly deficit of $55,000,000 in monetary productoin. A cheap clamp wrecks a campus ministry for an entire semester.

Much of the religious jargon in my part of the world reflects this perspective. “Give the devil an inch and he will become a ruler,” so the bumper sticker has it. Allow for the smallest of sins, and you open yourself up to an avalanche of ruin.

And this perspective is, in a sense, true. But it’s also incomplete.

Another way to consider the little things is from a constructive perspective. Under the right conditions, a tiny seed can grow and bear fruit, from which more seeds emerge. The seed can be a choice, an idea, a kindness, a photograph. The form does not matter so much as the premise: every good thing, from love to life itself, first manifests itself in the smallest of ways.

I think it’s significant that Jesus chooses this second perspective to talk about the kingdom of heaven. He did not shy away from calling out evil, either in individuals or in socio-political structures. But his teachings about God’s great endeavor among us usually focused on the potential held within something small: a healed woman, a recovered coin, a mustard seed.

Here’s another way of looking at our Wesley flood: a $0.29 clamp provided new opportunity. We were (thankfully) insured for the mini-disaster, and so had enough to fix the damage. We found ways to use what space we had left in a more functional way, and we learned that much of what we had in storage really wasn’t worth the space it cost us.

The tiny clamp, which I have cursed with a thousand curses while cutting laminate and grouting tile, gave this generation of Wesley students something no amount of planning could ever provide: a uniting memory. The flood will forever be something that brought us together.

It just goes to show not all tiny things are germs. Some are seeds.