Tag Archives: books

The Teacher

IMG_0452“I had my first racial insult hurled at me as a child. I struck out at that child and fought the child physically. Mom was in the kitchen working. In telling her the story she, without turning to me, said, ‘Jimmy, what good did that do?’ And she did a long soliloquy then about our lives and who we were and the love of God and the love of Jesus in our home, in our congregation.  And her last sentence was, ‘Jimmy, there must be a better way.’ In many ways that’s the pivotal event of my life.” – Reverend James M. Lawson

It took me nine days to read a 700+ page book from cover to cover. The bulk of that was made possible by a cross-country flight that included an unexpected six-hour layover, but it was the captivating story and skilled story-teller that really did the trick. I would steal a few pages when I awakened each day, and at bedtime, and any time possible in between.

When we accepted the opportunity to move to Nashville, I stumbled across The Children and purchased it immediately. I am fascinated/humbled by the civil rights movement and wanted to know the history of my new community, of course, but more than that, Halberstam wrote one of my all-time favorite books (October 1964), and I could not believe that he was a young reporter for The Tennessean assigned to cover this story when it happened.

The book cover states, “On the first day of the sit-ins in Nashville, Tennessee, eight young black college students found themselves propelled into the leadership of the civil rights movement, as the movement—and America—entered a period of dramatic change. The courage and vision of these young people changed history.”

Our move has been hectic but good, and I had been simply intimidated to open the cover and start on such a hefty book. But wow, all it took was reading the first page. I was immediately embarrassed not to know the significance of what occurred in Nashville. I knew of the horrific murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi, of Rosa Parks in Montgomery, the Little Rock Nine, Freedom Riders, the Selma marchers, and the murder of Dr. King in Memphis, among other famous events, but I was stunned to discover that what took place here in Nashville was at the heart of it all—because “the children” (aka college students)—were the heart of it all.

I knew some of Diane Nash’s heroism but had no idea that John Lewis started his amazing journey in Nashville, and I was especially shocked to know that the infamous Marion Barry was a part of that early group. I somehow knew nothing of Jim Bevel or Bernard Lafayette, Rodney Powell or Gloria Johnson, Curtis Murphy or Hank Thomas. But I will never forget them now.

However, what may have had the greatest impact on me was not one of the children—but their teacher, Jim Lawson. Lawson is now ninety years old and lives here in Nashville. Some of my new friends have met him, and though I am envious of that honor, it is almost too much to imagine.

Lawson grew up and attended college in Ohio as a young man with deep faith and convictions. Lawson was fascinated by Gandhi and conscientiously objected to serving in the military, which for his time in history, sent him to prison for two years. Afterward he was a Methodist missionary in India where he studied Gandhi more deeply and then returned to pursue graduate work in religion at Oberlin College. It was at Oberlin in 1957 that Lawson met a like-minded (and aged) visiting speaker in Martin Luther King, Jr. He told Dr. King of his plan to pursue graduate degrees and then come to The South to work for reconciliation, but Dr. King told him that he was needed now and not to wait.

So Jim Lawson moved to Nashville, where he started teaching nonviolence training workshops to a small and eclectic group of college students—who changed the world.

There are a thousand things to note about Jim Lawson’s life, not the least of which being that he was the Memphis pastor that hosted Dr. King’s fateful trip, and I am sure that many have wildly different opinions about the stances he has taken along the way. But what I will never get out of my mind is Lawson teaching that group of young college students there in Kelly Miller Smith’s church in Nashville. He absolutely knew the dangerous road these “children” were embarking on—and did not hide it from them. How did it feel to know that? But it was the road to a better way, so he taught them anyway.

I live in a different Nashville today because of Jim Lawson’s courageous teaching. But Nashville, as with any other city, is nowhere near what Lawson described as the “beloved community” that inspired his teaching. With his example forever imprinted on my mind, I hope in some small way to teach courageously, too.

Educated

tara-westover-educatedI love reading books but hate writing book reviews and yet I must take the time to recommend Educated by Tara Westover. Not since reading Angela’s Ashes years ago has a memoir so affected me. Read the ridiculous list of accolades to discover that I am not alone.

The story is almost too much to believe, much less summarize. Tara grew up in the Idaho mountains with survivalist parents and six older siblings. Her mentally unstable father was the unmistakable (and very religious) family leader who operated a junkyard and prepared his family for the end of the world by stockpiling food, fuel, and weapons. He distrusted all things government as well as the medical establishment so, shielded by their isolation, none of the children attended school or visited doctors. With time and forced practice, Tara’s mother became well known as a midwife and healer. Miraculously, with not even a semi-serious attempt at home schooling, Tara got into college at Brigham Young University—and to shortcut the full mind-blowing story, now has a Ph.D. from Cambridge. But it is the full story, and in fact, the journey itself, that produced words in the promotional blurbs like remarkable, breathtaking, heart-wrenching, inspirational, brave, and naked.

I dislike clichés like “it’s a must read.” So I will quote what Bill Gates said about the book instead: “It’s even better than you’ve heard.”

What I am struggling with now is what to do with this powerful story. It has thrown me for a loop, and in my disoriented state I am trying to recover some measure of equilibrium to see what it has done to me.

My life in no way resembles Tara’s life. I can’t even imagine. And yet we read ourselves into every book—or at least I do—and I suspect that part of its power is my identification with growing up in a rather self-contained world and later moving to radically different worlds and trying to make sense of it all. I, too, love my roots and yet have been “educated” by a journey that I never even imagined. Further, I continue to work in the heart of an institution of higher education and see this sort of thing play out day after day. As the book review in The New York Times concluded back in March 2018, “She [Tara] is but yet another young person who left home for an education, now views the family she left across an uncomprehending ideological canyon, and isn’t going back.”

Tara shares mixed feelings, and I get it. Not only does she value education, she values her education. Read the story: Not only did it probably save her physical life, but it also saved her—her very self. But the sacrifice was great — and painful.

I check the box for “Christian” on surveys, but the word the Bible uses for self-description instead is “disciple,” a word that means “student.” Jesus made it quite clear that the call to discipleship requires sacrifice, possibly sacrificing your very family. Jesus didn’t even pretend this would be easy. But he said it was good. And ultimately worth it.

Maybe that’s what Tara’s story is doing to me. Thankfully, I never had to give up family on my particular journey, but maybe her story serves as a dramatic illustration for Bonhoeffer’s “Cost of Discipleship.” An education can cost you everything. At times that may very well be worth the price.

Resolute (Or, 17 for ’17)

happy-new-year-resolutions-quotes

I resolve to do the right thing even if it appears illogical.

I resolve to laugh more often and at inappropriate times.

I resolve to spend more time with people and less with screens and devices.

I resolve to see otherwise invisible people.

I resolve to spend more time with my eyes closed listening to good music.

I resolve not to listen to music when I’m driving.

I resolve to go for long runs in new places.

I resolve to spend more time outdoors in familiar places.

I resolve to try something new.

I resolve to treasure something old.

I resolve to feed my mind, body, and spirit healthy things.

I resolve not to give anyone or anything the power to choose my attitude.

I resolve to replace a noisy, busy life with a simple, smooth rhythm.

I resolve to read books and learn stuff.

I resolve to use my talents to make the world a better place.

I resolve to love my wife and daughters more than ever.

I resolve to live resolutely.