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Choose hope, choose joy

You will never figure out your own life by sitting still and staring at it all day. Focusing on your own problems is the most obvious way to waste your life. There are people out there who face unimaginable hardships every day, yet they choose hope and joy. My niece, Ella, is one such person, as is the young man in this video. Hope and Joy are always a choice. https://youtu.be/iuYxGtuBSgk

10 Years!

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I did not know Gina was the woman I would marry the first time I met her. In fact, that did not become clear to me for a few years. I've written about this before, so I won't bog this post down with the details. However, the more I got to know Gina, the more I knew she was the person I would spend the rest of my life with.

I will admit, getting married was a shock to the comfortable little world I had created for myself. I was 31, teaching school and coaching, and basically hanging out with my buddies from high school every weekend. Life was simple and I had pretty unambitious goals for myself. As you can imagine, Gina came into my life and shook things up quite a bit. She's passionate and ambitious. She sets goals and works tenaciously to complete them. She says what is on her mind and is relentless when it comes to standing up for what is right and true. Oh, and she is wicked smart. Some of these traits I share with Gina (OK, maybe one or two), but as I said, I was comfortable.

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Our first few years of marriage brought a lot of changes. We got a dog, changed jobs, sold our house, moved across the country, started graduate school, welcomed twins into the world, graduated, sold another house, moved again twice before settling here in Texas, and continued to change jobs and houses once we arrived. Each change has brought stress into our lives but somehow made us stronger and closer than ever.

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With all of the changes, some things have not changed. Our faith in God and His son Jesus Christ has remained a constant through all these years. We know that his grace and love is sufficient to sustain us through all life's challenges and victories. More than mere provision, God continues to use us to share His love with others. We have been blessed with faculty positions at TCU where we can influence and mentor the next generation of nurses and teachers. Most importantly, we have been blessed with the opportunity to raise Sam and Nate. We are continually amazed at the amazing, compassionate, insightful, intelligent young men they are becoming. They are learning to love each other, the friends, and the Lord. Of all the experiences we've had during the last ten years, raising boys has been the most special.

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After 10 years, I can still say with no hesitation that I love Gina more than I did on November 22, 2003. For this 31-year old, set-in-his-ways, comfortable bachelor, I have to say I hit a home run. I cannot wait to see what the next 10 years has in store. I am eager to see who the boys become as they grow and mature. I am eager to see who we become as we join hands and experience life together, married, husband and wife.

You can see some photos from our weekend at The Adolphus Hotel in downtown Dallas in our photo album.

Bike Lessons

With every new step in the lives of Sam and Nate comes a new lesson. Sometimes the lessons are meant for them to learn, and some of them are for us, the grown-ups. One such event happened in our house over the weekend. The boys had been asking when they could take off their training wheels for quite some time. In their minds, they were ready the minute we got the bikes home, but Gina and I had other plans. After a few spills and near-misses, we knew this would have to wait. In fact, we both discussed using our time off over the summer to teach them how to ride without training wheels. I guess we both thought it would take long stretches of time to accomplish this new skill.

We were both wrong about that. We walked over to the church across the street from our neighborhood, and within 15 minutes they were both riding in circles. This was a pretty amazing moment in their lives, and a memory I will never forget. In the midst of all the excitement, I was struck with a few big ideas that have continued to resonate with me a few days after the thrill of bi-pedaling has subsided.

  1. Have a goal. This is probably the best place to start. Everyone needs to have something to shoot for, whether it is riding a bike or writing a book. I have always assumed everyone has some big goal they hope to accomplish, but this may not be true. Everyone has something they can work on, so what's holding you back? Write it down, tape it to your mirror, tell someone, start blogging. Giving your goal a name is the first step in working toward it.
  2. Don't quit. This is a cliché, I know, but this is a lesson I think we all need to be reminded of daily. When we fall, fail, hurt, forget, miss, drop, or miscalculate, don't use it as an excuse to revert to your comfort zone. The comfort zone, I have found, is a dangerous place. I have tried to settle here more than once, whether it was my teaching, exercise, or relationships, and every time I have been left with a lack of growth and emptiness. This affects not only me but everyone connected to what I'm doing. On more than one occasion, Sam and Nate lost their balance, or couldn't stop, and fell off their bikes. This got to be quite frustrating for them, and they would show signs of giving up. With some encouragement (and the promise of a snack from Sonic) they tried it again, and they did better the each time until they were riding around the parking lot with no help from anyone. Later that evening, when I asked Nate what he liked best about riding his bike, he told me, "I like that I didn't quit and never gave up!"
  3. Keep pedaling. The first thing the boys noticed when they started pedaling without training wheels was the value of momentum. At first, they would just stop pedaling when they got tired. With training wheels, this is no big deal. The bike stays up and essentially becomes a chair. Without training wheels, you fall over. I was constantly telling the boys, "Don't stop pedaling, don't stop pedaling!" This may seem obvious, but the lesson is pretty important. Eventually, no matter what you are doing, moving forward and staying upright has to be the result of your effort, not someone else's. We all have moments when we want to coast and rely on others to prop us up, but once the training wheels come off this is no longer an option. We must keep our legs moving in a steady motion, one after the other, until it becomes part of our lifestyle. The good news is, when we ride without training wheels, the bike actually becomes easier to maneuver and we experience a completely new level of freedom.
  4. Look where you want to go. I learned this lesson as a kid when I was learning to ski in the trees. My friend, who had a lot more experience skiing than I did, would tell me, "Look at the space between the trees, not the trees themselves. If you look at the tree, you will hit it." This lesson was reinforced in college when I took a mountain biking class. The instructor told us to always keep our eyes focused on where we wanted to go, not on what we were trying to avoid. Sam and Nate experienced this truth when they started riding their bikes. They would get close to a curb or the edge of grass and start staring at it. Eventually, they would drift into the very thing they were trying to avoid. I kept telling them, "Look ahead, look up, watch where you want to go!" The simple rule of biking and skiing applies to life as well. Keep your eyes on where you want to go and don't focus on the obstacles. They aren't going anywhere, trust me, and it's wise to know they are there, but don't make them the center of your attention. Whether your goal is to uphold a standard, maintain a healthy relationship, or be more like Jesus, don't focus on all the things impeding that goal. Look straight ahead and watch where you want to go.
  5. Celebrate. The most memorable thing about this experience for me was Sam and Nate's reaction to riding independently. Rather than shrugging it off or asking what's next, they both had the same reaction. They yelled and squealed with joy! Nate kept yelling, "Daddy, look at me! I'm riding a bike! I'm riding a bike!" Sam's response was similar: "I can't believe I'm doing it! I'm not using training wheels!" There was no hint of coolness or inhibition. Just pure joy and getting lost in the moment. It's amazing how easily those of us who are supposed to know so much forget this. There is so much in life worth celebrating, worth cheering about. Don't act like something doesn't matter when it does. You never know when your next victory will come.

This experience has been good for everyone. Sam and Nate know how to ride a bike. Gina and I got to experience yet another milestone. I also was given a reminder that every day, every event, is a gift. The only thing we have to do is recognize its presence and take some time to unwrap it.

A Living Hope

This Easter, as we sat in church listening to the message, I was reminded of our dear friend Dawn from Charlottesville. We got to know Dawn through our bible study group at church. We met on Wednesday evenings, and it was a wonderful time each week of renewal and fellowship. Dawn was a special part of this group, and when I think of her I see her standing in our living room praising the Lord with her arms raised high. She loved to stand and sing and lift her voice to God in praise. When we met Dawn, she had already had cancer twice. She had fully recovered both times and seemed healthy in every way. During our final year in Charlottesville, she was diagnosed with cancer once again. In many ways, she did not seem to be affected by the cancer, though the effects of the chemo on her energy and body were evident. Her spirit never faltered based on what we saw each week as we met with her. She would give us weekly updates at bible study, and from what we could tell the cancer was not spreading or getting worse. She continued to be involved in church and work until we moved in July 2009.

The next couple of years were a whirlwind for us, with two major moves and job changes. We still kept in touch with our friends from Charlottesville, but it was sporadic and infrequent. In November 2010, we got the following message from a friend in our bible study:

Many of us from Dawn Whipple's homegroup got to spend a sweet time with Dawn & her family in their home tonight.  She looked so feeble and weak, but smiled the most heartfelt, warm smiles we'd ever seen.  What brought the most joy to her heart was hearing each one read Scripture and worship the Living King!

She treasures worshipping God and wants Him to be glorified, lifted high, exalted.  Through such physical pain and frailty, a huge grin spread across her face when we stood up in her home & worshipped God wholeheartedly. She adores the book of Romans, so we read from that to her, as well as some passages from Psalms.  What an honor to spend time with our sister, Dawn!

Pray that God will be exalted through this time in her life.  Pray for her as God leads you, for God to heal her, comfort her, strengthen her.  Please pray God will be merciful in His timing of bringing her home.  As Zach said, He is waiting like a groom to welcome His bride, Dawn, to Himself.  Join us in praying that she'd be comforted by God, who is her Sabbath Rest.  As she abides in Jesus, may she know His deep peace and have comfort.

That message was followed by this one, which was sent early the next morning:

We just received news that our sister Dawn fell asleep last night, finishing the race, and going to be with her Father.

I must have read these e-mails 10 times. I couldn't believe the picture I was seeing. The thought I kept having was that Dawn died as she lived. This has not been the case for too many people I have known, whose dying self is only a faint shadow of the person I hold in my memory. Lives slowly stolen by age or disease, so that all we are left with is a person we recognize but not the person we knew. This was not the case for Dawn. She lived with an eternal hope, a worshiper of a living King and devoted follower of a true Friend. She was ushered from this life as she lived every day. Standing, praising, encouraging, singing, letting the water of the Word wash over her and flood her innermost being. In her final hours, she left her friends and family with a picture that showed who she really was.

I think this is what Easter means to me. Many people thought this was the end of Jesus's story, when it really was the beginning. His life on earth ended so His life in us could begin. He was the fulfillment of hope, a reason for living, a purpose worthy of us giving everything. He takes our tired, misdirected, burned out, addicted lives and replaces them with hope for a lasting Kingdom. Dawn knew that, and more importantly, she lived it. Her future wasn't something she was storing up. It was every moment because she knew her eternity wasn't in the future; He was alive inside of her, and that was not changed by physical conditions or the daily ebb and flow of life. Easter represents God's invitation to live with this hope forever, starting on earth and stretching into eternity.

When I reread the e-mails from our friend yesterday, I was reminded about the life God has invited us into. I am thankful for friends like Dawn who lived with such boldness and courage. I am encouraged to let God be my hope and strength. Eternity does not start when we die. It starts when we make Jesus our source of life.

Saying Good-bye

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I knew when I came in from running on the treadmill that something was wrong. My sister called three times in a matter of a few minutes, which is not something she normally does. I called Katie back and learned that our grandfather, Big Daddy, had passed away early that morning. He had been in declining health for some time, and he had recently developed double pneumonia. Still, the news was a shock and I didn't even know what to say.

After a whirlwind of planning for the services, we gathered in Farmersville to say good-bye to Big Daddy. A lot of family and friends came to the viewing and funeral, which meant a lot to the family. In honor of the Bigs, we all stayed at the farm together. Katie, Joe and Ella had flown in from Washington, D.C., my parents flew back from Europe, and our crew drove in from Fort Worth. After the services were over and the dust settled, we got to spend some time hanging out on the farm together. Uncle Clay burned one of the tree piles in the pasture, and we just stood around and enjoyed being with each other. The boys got to ride the tractor and bull dozer with Uncle Clay, Joe and I shot skeet, and we hiked around exploring the land. You can see pictures of our day at the farm in our photo album.

When I think about Big Daddy, I think about how much he enjoyed the simple things in life. I think about him telling me "This is good, with 100 O's between the G and D." I remember his smile and how he was always happy to see us when we walked in for a visit. He would spend hours with us out in the shop. One summer, I got the idea that I wanted to refurbish a box for my dad to keep his gun supplies in, and Big Daddy helped me with every detail of the project. The next summer, I decided I wanted to make a bread box. Rather than slapping together pieces of wood, Big Daddy taught me how to measure out the parts and create patterns. We carefully put together each piece of the bread box, and he let me do most of the work. He didn't overlook any aspect of the project, and I will never forget seeing the bread box when it was finally finished. It was something I could really be proud of. In fact, we still have it at our cabin in Wyoming.

Big Daddy was someone I was really proud of. He was a veteran of World War II. He survived a major burn when he was in his 80's. He was not ashamed to show how much he loved Big Mama, and they were a model couple in their community. He never had anything bad to say about people, and he loved to sing. I can remember him walking outside first thing in the morning and singing, "Great is Thy Faithfulness" with all his might. He loved the Lord and never wavered in his faith. We all miss Big Daddy very much, and I am comforted by knowing he is with Jesus and Big Mama. More than anything, I'm grateful to have known him and love him as my grandfather.

12.12.12

01.01.01

Many people believe this was the first day of the 3rd millennium. Most of us got way too excited about the Y2K, but apparently this date was the calendar equivalent of counting to 10. I don't remember much about this day, personally, other than spending the day hanging out with family at my grandparent's farm in Texas. Things were quite different then. My grandparents -- Big Mama and Big Daddy -- were still living in their house on the farm, they could drive pretty much anywhere they wanted, and they still hosted large family gatherings. There were no great-grandkids in the picture, and only one of the Gooch cousins was even married. I was about to finish a Master's degree at Colorado State, and I had no idea what I was going to do after that. There was also about 3 inches of snow on the ground, which is pretty remarkable for Texas. I had tried to drive to a New Year's Eve banquet the night before in Plano, but I almost slid off the road, so I turned around and came back to my Aunt Kay and Uncle John's house to celebrate the New Year with board games, good food and conversation. Not much else happened on this day, other than a young, brash wide receiver from Oregon State, Chad Johnson (i.e., Ochocinco), repeatedly mocking the Notre Dame players in a 41-9 rout of the Irish. Now Ochocinco is Johnson again, he can't find a team, and ND is set to play for a national championship in less than a month.

02.02.02

I was a sixth grade teacher in Casper, Wyoming, my hometown. I had recently bought a home and just moved in. In fact, this day would have been my first morning waking up in my new crib. I celebrated by running a 5K race, part of the Windy City Strider's Winter Series. The race series consisted of a 2 mile, 5K (3 mile), 4 mile, 5 mile, and 10K(6 mile) race over the course of eight weeks. I took second in the 5K, running the course along the Platte River in 18:45 and getting edged out at the finish line. I ended up being one of about 10 runners to run in every race, which earned me a spiffy knit hat. I think I still have it somewhere. The country was still in shock over the events of the Enron scandal, and the next day the New England Patriots, led by no-name backup quarterback Tom Brady, would upset the "Greatest Show on Turf," the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI.

03.03.03

I was coaching soccer with one of my good friends at Kelly Walsh High School. We were the defending Class 4A State Champions, and we were about to begin the season that would lead to our second state championship. In a few weeks, I would lose my Aunt Kay to cancer, the end of a valiant fight and a beautiful life. A couple of weeks after that, my grandfather, PawPaw, would also pass away. Under very sad circumstances, I made two trips down south that spring. However, this dark cloud did have its silver lining. While at my grandfather's funeral, I found out I had inherited my great-grandmother's ring, and I was able to talk to Don and Karen Johnson about taking their daughter's hand in marriage. We were married that November, and she wears that ring to this day. In world news on March 3, 2003, North Korea was still attempting to flex its international muscles, this time by sending 4 fighter jets to intimidate an unarmed U.S. spy plane flying in international air space over the Sea of Japan. As is the case today, their antics reaffirmed what everyone already knows: They are crazy.

04.04.04

Gina and I were still getting used to married life. We had tied the knot about 5 months prior, and everyday was a new adventure. She worked about two blocks away from my school, and we would eat lunch together everyday. Gina had just interviewed for a teaching position at Casper College, and she won the job. This was her first introduction to teaching, and the beginning of her career in Nurse Education. I took a year off from coaching soccer, which turned out to be a wise choice. This also happened to be a leap year, and Gina helped me celebrate my 8th birthday with a surprise party. The U.S. was still occupying Iraq, even though they finally admitted there was no threat of weapons of mass destruction. The U.S. Border Patrol began using unmanned drones to police the border, and Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat were the two leaders trying to figure out who really "owns" the Gaza Strip.

05.05.05

Gina and I had just made the announcement that we were leaving our jobs and life in Casper, Wyoming to pursue doctorate degrees at the University of Virginia. I'm pretty sure everyone thought we were crazy. I had that same thought myself quite a few times. The Kelly Walsh boys' soccer team was about to win its 3rd state championship in 4 years. I was recognized by my school district as an Influential Educator, and the clock I got as an award still sits on my desk. In Kansas, law makers, educators and religious leaders sat to discuss whether or not Intelligent Design could be presented to students as an alternative explanation for the origin of life. It was found to be not supported by the First Amendment and subsequently banned. Our country refuses to acknowledge the presence of God in schools, and we are starting to see what has replaced Him.

06.06.06

Gina and I were living in Charlottesville, Virginia, and we just finished our first year at the University of Virginia. We also just completed our first cycle of IVF, which we learned was not successful. I was teaching a technology workshop in Bedford, Virginia, and Gina came with me to enjoy the mountains while I taught a group of teachers how to make digital movies and podcasts. In sports, a relatively unknown relief pitcher for the Arizona Diamondbacks, Jason Grimsley, had his house searched for performance enhancing drugs in an ongoing BALCO investigation. He quit baseball the next day.

 07.07.07

Our niece, Joella Gale Murray, had been born a few weeks earlier, and she was being cared for at Children's Hospital in Washington, D.C. Ella, as we like to call her, was born with epidermolysis bullosa (EB), a rare genetic skin disease in which the body doesn't produce vital proteins that hold the layers of skin together. People born with this disease get deep, painful wounds and blisters from seemingly everyday bumps and friction. We had been up there a couple of times to see Ella, and my sister and brother-in-law were going there every day to hold her, watch the bandage changes, sing to her, read from the Bible and make sure she knew there were many people outside the walls of the hospital who loved her and were praying for her. On July 7, 2007, the New7Wonders Foundation announced the winners of its massive poll, in which people could vote by phone or internet for their favorite existing world wonder. The New Seven Wonders of the World were The Great Wall of China, Petra in Jordan, the Christ the Redeemer statue in Brazil, Machu Picchu in Peru, Mexico's Chichen Itza Mayan site, the Colosseum in Rome and the Taj Mahal in India. I tend to think Ella should be on this list. She is amazing and most definitely wonderful.

08.08.08

Life in the Alexander home had changed quite a bit by the time this date rolled around. What used to be a small house at the end of the street occupied by two grad students and a dog was now a crowded, joyful, amazing, busy, sleepless, who-knows-what-will-happen-next home full of laughing, tickling, crying, diapers, bottles and love. Sam and Nate had arrived the previous February, and Gina and I were completely caught up in the wonder of raising twin boys. We were also in the beginning stages of researching and writing our dissertations. On this particular night, after we put the boys down for bed (yes, they were sleeping through the night by now), we took some time away from our busy lives to celebrate "higher, faster, stronger" with the rest of the world. It was the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China, and it was inspiring. We would need inspiration, as well as Olympic-level endurance, to get through the next several months.

09.09.09

We were no longer living in Charlottesville. Our graduation from UVa and subsequent job search brought us to Springfield, Illinois, where I had just begun my first faculty position at the University of Illinois Springfield. We still had a house in Virginia, no money, one car,  or no friends in our new city but I still look back on this time as one of the most joyful in my life. The boys were in full-blown toddler mode. They were running everywhere, saying more words every day, and something as simple as walking down the sidewalk was an adventure. On this day, U.S. Representative Joe Wilson from South Carolina interrupted a speech by President Barack Obama by screaming, "You lie!" This was in response to the impending health care reform the president was trying to -- and eventually did -- push through. The representative's lack of etiquette caused quite a stir, and it became yet another sign that Democrats and Republicans might be losing their desire to even appear as if they were getting along with each other. Now, there is very little doubt about that.

10.10.10

This day held special meaning for many people around the world. Couples from the U.S. to China to Australia to Norway rushed to get married so their anniversary would be on 10.10.10. In England, a massive celebration was held for a boy who turned 10 on the 10th minute of the 10th hour of the 10th day of the 10th month in the 10th year of the new millennium. As for us, there were no celebrations on this day. We had just moved back to Texas, and Gina had just started a new faculty position at TCU. I was working part time at UNT as a lecturer and research associate, and part time at Good Shepherd Episcopal School as a Technology Specialist. This day was a Friday, which meant I left my house at 6:00 to be at Good Shepherd by 7:30, then I left Dallas at 3:30 so I could be at Pebbles by 5:00 to pick up the boys. Life was pretty hectic, but we were happy to be back in Texas with friends and family (and warmer temps).

11.11.11

I was still working at UNT, teaching two classes and continuing to help with research projects. There had been rumors of new faculty positions opening up, one at UNT and one at TCU, but neither had materialized. I had also just interviewed for, and been offered, a position at Tarrant County Community College as a Faculty Technology Director (or something like that). As far as I was concerned, this was going to be my next job, and I was looking forward to it. The last year and a half had been a whirlwind, career-wise, and I was ready for some stability. Internationally on this day, the popular first-person shooter video game Modern Warfare 3 had just been released and sold 6.5 million copies almost instantly. Considering the recent events at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, this seems very disturbing and dark-hearted. I wonder if our culture should reconsider shooting people (even virtual people) as a form of entertainment?

12.12.12

This will be the last date like this in my lifetime. Honestly, I hardly paid attention to most of these dates. But it's still strange to think that something will never happen again. Our lives are quite different than they were on January 1, 2001. Some people would call us lucky, others might say we're blessed. I choose to believe the latter. Both Gina and I are on faculty at TCU, and the boys go to school across the street. I often walk over to pick them up, and we walk together back to my office. We stop at the big swing in front of Jarvis Hall to play if the weather is nice. The boys watch cartoons on my iPad under my desk while I finish up e-mails or lesson plans. We then take the shuttle to my parking lot and come home around 3:00. The weather today was cold, quite a shock compared to the mild temps we've had this fall, so we didn't get to swing. I know it won't be long before they don't go to school across the street, and they won't care about the swing. They will stop thinking the space beneath my desk is a fort, and I will ride the shuttle alone so I can drive to pick them up wherever they attend school. Just like our culture has a tendency to count days, I count my blessings. They are never to be taken for granted. Simple blessings are among the few sacred things left in our culture, for those who choose to acknowledge them. The big news on this day was a charity concert given by many big name stars (many of who I did not even know) to raise money for families and communities devastated by Hurricane Sandy. Celebrities blessing ordinary people. Also, for the first time in history, the Pope sent a tweet all by himself. Like me, he wants to connect with people, even when it means adapting to a new technology to do it. His message seems like a great way to end my story, "Dear friends, I am pleased to get in touch with you through Twitter. Thank you for your generous response. I bless all of you from my heart."

Sunset

We had to make our last day in Casper one to remember. When you only get to go back once or twice during each trip around the sun, you want to create a final memory with some weight to it; a memory that creates a wake that lingers on long after the bags are unpacked and you have the taste of real life back in your mouth. Sometimes you can create those memories, and sometimes they're given to you.

On the morning of our last day, we all gathered for a family portrait. Compared to the last time we took a family portrait (when Ella was 1 year old and the boys were almost 5 months), this was a walk in the park. No crying children, tired parents, or frustrated photographer. Our portraits turned out great, and if it weren't for pesky copyright laws, I would post them here.

After the portrait, we went home and changed clothes for one last trip up the mountain. Ah, the mountain. My mountain. A place where the rest of the world ceases to exist. A haven seemingly untouched by time and motion. A place where I can eat as much red licorice as I want, and no one says a word to me.

As trips to the cabin often do, this one started with a hike down to Elkhorn Creek. If I could only count the hours and miles I've spent exploring up and down this creek and along the walls of the canyon. The boys loved bounding from rock to rock, splashing in the cold water. We even met a wild friend along the way.

There was some rock throwing, boulder heaving and even a little cliff scaling (which I reluctantly let Sam do, despite the fact I've scaled just about every rock face in this canyon a dozen times or more).

While some of us strive for majestic views from a high-up perch,

others in our fold can find beauty and amazement in those treasures that hide right beneath our noses.

After  gorging ourselves on delicacies that can only be justified in a setting such as this, we knew the day was ending and our time out West would soon be ending. We packed up our gear, loaded up the truck, and made our last drive up the canyon.

I've often wondered if God takes blessings He has designed just for us and hides them among the easily-overlooked details of our lives, hoping He can catch our attention. In the faces of strangers, the laugh from a child, the warmth of a breeze that barely tickles your face. They are there all day, waiting, but we tend to look past them for deadlines, agendas and duties. But when we do find them, God is there watching to see our joy and amazement. Knowing that a whole unique set of blessings have already been prepared for the next day, perhaps God doesn't want today's blessings to be wasted. So, he bundles them all up, tosses them high into the heavens and watches them splash all over the horizon.

Just like God's light display as we descended our beloved mountain, our final day in Casper was filled with getting to do everything we loved about our vacation just one more time. We took all of our favorites and splashed them all over that beautiful Wyoming backdrop. One more wonderful day with family. One more romp in the dirt. One more s'more. One more night on the buffalo rug. One more canyon view. It's just about enough to make a guy want to come back for more.

 

I didn't even get to write about some of our best memories from the trip: Edness K. Wilkins State Park, sleeping in the tepee, going to Washington Park with all of my old soccer buddies, seeing puppet shows at the library, going to the planetarium. I guess every writer at some point has to make a choice, either write about memories or go make them. Thankfully, Gina takes a lot of pictures, so you can get the visual in our photo album.

The birds and the lillies

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.

~Jesus of Nazareth, Matthew 6:25-29

When people started to find out that I was leaving Springfield, IL for Fort Worth, TX, with nothing more than a verbal agreement about my new employment, someone told me I was committing career suicide. Actually, he told me he hoped I wasn't committing career suicide, but I knew what he meant. I had found out just one year prior how hard it can be to find an academic job. I applied for over 3o faculty positions as I was finishing my doc program, got three interviews and one job offer. Secretly, I wondered if I would ever be a college professor ever again. As it turns out, that should have been the least of my worries. Over the next two years, I would have to make some of the hardest decisions of my life, literally putting my faith to the test.

As it ended up, I had more job options in Fort Worth than I could logistically handle. I was working half-time as a technology specialist in a private school in Dallas, and I worked the other half of my time at the University of North Texas, teaching classes, doing research and basically trying to not let my scholarship go stale. I was spending a lot of time in my car -- way more than I ever had in my entire life -- but overall, it was a pretty good arrangement and I was learning a lot of new things. After weighing the pros and cons, Gina and I decided the commute to Dallas two days per week was too much. On days I was at the private school, I had to leave the house by 6:15 in order to be there when the work day began. At the end of the day, I would leave the school at 3:45 and barely make it to the preschool by 5:00 to pick up the boys. It made for a very long day, and the boys were in aftercare much longer than we wanted. I submitted my decision to resign from this position in hopes this change would ease some of the burden on my family.

Rather than accept my resignation, the school offered me a full time position. The salary and benefits were excellent, and the school was an amazing work environment. Everyone associated with this school -- the administration, the staff, the teachers, the students and parents -- was everything you could hope for as an educator. Gina and I spent an entire weekend talking through the options. We pulled up Google Maps to find out how far it would be to Good Shepherd and TCU from different areas around the metroplex. We could live in Dallas and Gina would commute a long distance, we could live in Fort Worth and I would commute a long distance, or we could live in the Mid-Cities and both commute, leaving Sam and Nate isolated from both of us for most of the day. We talked and prayed about it, and at the end of the weekend I told the school I would not be coming back the next year. Once again, I felt like I was committing career suicide. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I never even had to interview for this job. But Gina and I were committed to our priorities, which meant we put the boys and our family before career.

This move at Good Shepherd meant I would be working full time at UNT ... as a part time person. It's too complicated to explain here, but the folks at UNT were gracious enough to help me piece together several part-time positions that would add up to a full time salary. I was still commuting during the week, but it was much less and Sam and Nate's preschool was on the way. I had been teaching classes the year before at UNT, and now I found myself acting as the coordinator and lead teacher for a large required course in the teacher education program. I was also playing an instrumental role in a large grant-funded research project between UNT and the University of Virginia. I was even able to make a couple of trips to Charlottesville for meetings, observations, interviews, etc. Things were going great, but my position was funded by "soft money," which meant as soon as the grant period was over, the money was gone.

As I was working, I had also been applying to positions around the metroplex: community colleges, public schools, private schools, universities. I wasn't desperate, but I wanted to make sure I had something in place when my job ended in May 2012. I actually got several calls from a local school district to come teach elementary school, but Gina and I both felt this was not God's plan for me. I politely turned down each interview. I also got an interview for an administrative position at a large community college in Arlington. About two questions into the interview, I knew I was in over my head and tried to finish strong without hurling all over the table. It came as no surprise that I was not offered that job. About two weeks later, I interviewed for a different job in the same community college system, and this job seemed like a pretty good fit for me. They even told me before the interview started that I had nice teeth. Seriously. The interview went great, and before the day was over I was offered the job. So, there I was, on the brink of a new career. My boss at UNT knew I had been offered the position, and he announced to everyone on our team that I would be leaving. It seemed that career suicide had been averted.

The community college said there was some bureaucratic nonsense to address before they could officially offer me the job, but I should hear something in a week or two. Well, a week or two came and went, and I still had not heard anything. I followed up with the chair of the search committee, and she said the job had been put on hold because she, my future boss, had quit her job and they were freezing all of the positions she was in the process of filling. Standing in the parking lot of the public library down the street from our house (Gina and the boys were inside looking at books), I was completely speechless. I didn't even want to go into the library and tell Gina what just happened. I had essentially quit my job at UNT, and now I had no job at all.

Thankfully, I was already on the books to teach a class in the spring at UNT, and my boss was gracious to let me step right back into my old job. I was also able to pick up another class to teach, so my income was still intact, and I was able to continue working on my scholarly pursuits. My future, at least for the next 4-5 months, seemed to be stable. Until, that is, the new head of the department at the community college called me and asked if I still wanted the job I had originally been offered. I went to the campus to talk with her about it, and Gina and I discussed it over the weekend. (Not every weekend in our home consists of discussions about my career, by the way). Here I was, yet again, faced with the potential of earning a very good salary doing something I love, but it would essentially throw a wrench into our family priorities. I told them I could not take the job immediately because of my existing obligations to UNT. They asked if I could work 10-20 hours per week until the end of the semester in order to get a head start on the upcoming year. I said no, and just as quickly as it materialized, that job was off the table.  Family 3, Career 0.

While all of this was happening, I had also applied for faculty positions at UNT and TCU. Either one of those jobs would have been amazing, but I knew the competition would be very stiff and there were no guarantees about either job. I was called about a phone interview at UNT first, and I promptly accepted. The problem with applying for a job at a place you already work is that you know too much. One might assume this would make the psychological mind games of job searching less prominent, but in fact it made it worse. People were constantly telling me things I shouldn't know, like "Your application looks good compared to everyone else's," or "Don't get your hopes up; this pool of candidates is really strong." People would drop hints about things I should say or emphasize in the interview. One day I would think this was my dream job and I would envision myself becoming the most awesomest college professor ever. Other days, I wanted to take my name out of the candidate pool and never go to Denton again. The phone interview actually went pretty well, and I was invited to be among three candidate to interview on campus. I found out later that I made the final cut from an original 65 candidates. Several of my friends from grad school also applied and didn't even get phone interviews. Besides constantly being grilled on why I don't have more publications (I never once mentioned my blog as a reason, but perhaps I should have), the two-day carnival went pretty well. I had yet to hear anything from TCU about that position, so I thought this might be my best chance of being a college professor again. At the end of the process, I was told I would hear something either way in 2-3 weeks.

Soon after the UNT interview, I heard from TCU, and they also wanted a phone interview with me. This was the call I had been hoping to get since we moved back to Texas. I knew this was also a long shot, but I was thrilled at the opportunity. I had a chance to meet the chair of the search committee at an academic conference that year, and I knew some other folks in the College of Education. I also knew this was the best chance we had of pursuing career goals AND keeping our family together. In case you don't know this already, Gina is on faculty at TCU, and the boys' new preschool is across the street from the university. This would have put us within a couple of blocks from each other during the day.

Well, the phone interview came and went, and after a few days I was contacted for a campus interview. The campus interview also went well, and within a week of my visit to TCU, I was offered the job. The best job out of all the jobs I had applied for. The only job that didn't require Gina and I to sacrifice our family priorities on the alter of career. The job I hoped and prayed for before I even finished my doctorate. The job I actually remember telling someone was the university God put on my heart when I was in my first year at UVa.

This morning at church, the pastor referenced this verse at the beginning of his talk:

Now, Joshua sent the people of Israel home. So each family went to take possession of the territory they had inherited.

~Judges 2:6-7

Experiences like the one I just described remind me that when God inspired Samuel (or whoever) to write Judges, He wasn't just talking about people who lived 3,000 years ago, and territory isn't always land. As usual, God was talking to all of us about whatever circumstances we happen to be in. I wouldn't call this experience the worst I have ever had to live through. Throughout this whole ordeal, I have had a consistent salary and I have stayed quite busy. I have been able to do some great things and meet some amazing people. I have made connections that may well last for the rest of my career, or life. What these two years have forced me to do, however, is stick to my guns. I knew exactly what I was and wasn't willing to give up, and family sits at the top of things I will fight to preserve. I had to say No to some great opportunities, and I was actually prepared to tell UNT "No" if I was offered the job. We decided that job was also not in the best interest of our family. In many ways, this process was not about me finding a job at all. God had that one covered. This process actually turned out to be a chance for me to see if I was really willing to honor the commitment Gina and I made to God about our family and doing everything we can to pass on a spiritual legacy to our children. When everything pointed in one direction, would we choose our commitment over the potential of a great opportunity?

I always tell my students that learning takes place in the process, not in the results. The results are the goal, but the process is what changes us. Even if I hadn't gotten the job at TCU, this process has taught me so much. Be thankful for what you have. Be a good steward of that for which you're responsible. Don't compromise things that matter the most. God cares more about your heart than your title or status. Be patient. Stay faithful.

Thoughts on writing

Writing is probably the most dysfunctional relationship in my life. On one hand, I can't resist it because I seem to always have something to say. I am fueled by creative expression; it's like air to me. So, thinking about myself going for long stretches without writing is like having that dream where I go to work only to discover I am not wearing any pants ... or anything period. I'm not myself when I'm not crafting my thoughts into some sort of tangible expression. On the other hand, I have a tendency to psyche myself out when it comes to writing. When I wrote my Master's thesis, I would avoid it for days, even a week, at a time, as if it were my dentist asking me why I don't floss everyday. Then I would panic and start to freak out because I wasn't making enough progress, and I would shut myself up in my room for 1-2 days and hammer out 60 or more pages. Then I would be mad at myself because I would have missed out on something I wanted to do in order to finish something I had to do. The truth is, I made that project much bigger than it really was by running from it all the time, then forcing myself into stare-offs with the computer screen until I finally gave in and just started writing something. My dissertation went much better, mainly because the twins were here by then, and I knew I would not have large blocks of time to write. After my wife and I put the boys to bed each night around 7 p.m., we would eat dinner and talk for a little while, then I would go to my office and write for 3-4 hours. I kept this up 5-6 days per week for about 7 months. I actually finished my dissertation well ahead of schedule and never really had any of those panic moments I did with my thesis paper. Or maybe I have just blocked them out.

I have come to a similar place with this blog. The last month has been a whirlwind, and I have a TON I want to write about. But the more I think about it, the more I get overwhelmed. The more overwhelmed I get, the more I put it off. The more I put it off, the farther away those events seem to be. The farther those events sink into the past, the more senseless it seems to write about them. Who wants to read about old news, right?

Thankfully, I ran across a great little post by Gretchen Rubin which has provided me with the kickstart I need to get back on track. Not only do I want to get my blog up to date, but I have several manuscripts that I want to finish by the end of the semester. She did a great job of stating what I already knew, which is that some progress each day is better than putting the pressure on one day to make up for several days of no progress. My personal tendency is to waste time if I think I have a lot of it to spare. When I block out a whole day to write, I don't think twice about checking my e-mail, looking at Facebook or reading a blog or two. I mean, what's half an hour when I have all day? The problem is, I may take several of those breaks throughout the day, then I start to feel hopeless because I have not made the chocolate-covered, massive, award-winning progress I envisioned myself making. If I commit the non-green sin of leaving my computer on and the document open, I am actually more likely to come back to it and write for 15-30 minutes. It's much easier to keep the ball rolling than it is to start it rolling. (I suck at cliches.) I just needed a gentle reminder to get back to what I love.

Which is what I have done here. I have a lot I want to say, but I don't want to start saying it right now. So I wrote about writing for a minute, and I will resume the blogging tomorrow. Then I will write a few lines on the manuscript with the nearest deadline. Then I will go to bed content that I did one of the things that makes me happy without making it a drag.

Thankful

I was very fortunate to know 4 of my great-grandparents, all on my mom's side. I knew each of them well enough that I remember conversations we had, meals we shared, holidays at their homes, stories they told. My mom's maternal grandfather was PaPaw Wance (short for Lorance). I asked him once if he ever fought in the war, and he told me he was too young for WW1 and too old for WW2. That means he was a young man with a young family during the Great Depression. He was a Texas farmer from a long line of Texas farmers. He worked really hard, from what I remember, even after he had retired from farming. I'm pretty sure that what he considered to be "all in a good day's work," would bring me and most of the people I know to our knees. He had a huge garden that always yielded much more than he and Nanny could eat. He loved animals, and was especially keen at training horses and dogs to do tricks. He stopped going to school after 6th grade, yet he was able to manage the books for his farm, buy and sell several cars and other pieces of farm equipment, and he read the paper everyday. I'm pretty sure he never took a standardized state test for math and reading. When I was 12, PaPaw suffered a stroke and stopped being able to do many of the things he loved. He was still able to get around and visit with people, but I remember him being much quieter than he used to be. During Christmas of my 7th grade year, we spent the Holidays in Texas with family. This was our first Christmas in Texas in several years, and I was really excited to spend it with our large extended family. Junior high had been a huge eye-opener for me in so many ways, and traveling South just added to the magic of this very transformational year. We spent our time in Texas and Louisiana going from place to place, seeing this or that group of people or exchanging gifts with some different part of the family. It was exciting and exhausting, and I didn't want it to end.

One evening of the trip was devoted to "doing Christmas" with PaPaw and Nanny. My family, my aunts and uncles and cousins, and my grandparents all met at Nanny and PaPaw's old farmhouse early in the evening and proceeded to to what we always did when we got together. We ate, we laughed, we told stories, we ate some more, and unfortunately for me during this particular era in my life, I breakdanced (brokedanced?) for the entire family. But before any of these events had commenced, we gathered together as a family to pray. We stood in a circle holding hands, and my grandfather (Big Daddy) asked PaPaw to pray for the food and our time together. I remember him getting one or two words out before he got choked up and was unable to continue. This moment was profound for me. This was one of those heavy moments that left a massive wake, and the waves still wash up on my shores from time to time.  I didn't understand this at the time, but PaPaw showed me what it looked like to truly be thankful. He was at the end of his time on Earth, and he had the only thing that can truly make you happy. Acceptance, belonging, love. He was surrounded by it, and it was overwhelming.

There seems to be a lot of attention these days on acquiring stuff. Some people even cut their day of Thanks short to stand in line and get the best deals on more stuff. It's all stuff that will get old, break, slow down, become outdated, be sold. Even so, we can't get enough. We even buy stuff to help organize our stuff, then rent space to store it. I'm thankful to have memories like the one with my PaPaw that help me cut through the fog and see things as they really are. More than that, I want to live with a thankful heart for what I have found in the Lord and through the people he has put in my life. Acceptance, belonging and love. I want to see what PaPaw saw: To be surrounded by those things that truly fill my cup and bring peace to my soul, and to be left speechless.

Dear Old UVa

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One of the benefits that potentially came with my job at the University of North Texas was the opportunity to travel to Charlottesville. My boss had just written a big grant with my former advisor at UVa, and I knew there would eventually be some site visits to the various schools involved in the project. After a full year at UNT, I had begun to think that the possibility to visit Virginia was just talk and I sort of forgot about it. Then out of nowhere, my boss told me he was going to be visiting Virginia and wanted me to come. I ran this by Gina, and she was OK with it. So, the trip was on and I was getting to visit dear old UVa once again.

Most of my visit was filled with meetings and site visits to different schools in Crozet and Charlottesville, but I did manage to visit some old haunts and see some great friends. The list includes my former advisor and some other colleagues and students from UVa, our old neighbor and his wife, and several great friends from Christ Community Church and ISI. I have included some pictures so you can see for yourself. I was not in Las Vegas spending the family fortune on gummy bears and pixie sticks.

As I expected, I experienced a lot of emotions during my 2 days in Charlottesville. Not really teary emotions, but mainly gratitude and amazement. The gratitude came from knowing none of this would have ever happened if Gina hadn't encouraged me to apply to UVa, then visit after I'd been accepted, then accept the fellowship that was offered after that visit. Our time in Virginia required quite a sacrifice on our part, and there were more than several times when we questioned whether or not we should be, or stay, there. It wasn't cheap, it wasn't easy, it wasn't lucrative, and it wasn't always certain. But then again, life can be like that no matter where you are. I learned that having each other, a strong community of believers, and faith that God was more faithful than our ability to predict the future went a long way in sustaining us through our 4 years there. Oh, and there's that little detail called "Sam and Nate." We met them in Virginia. So, I was very grateful to have Gina, and I wished at every turn that she and the boys could have been there with me.

The sense of amazement came from walking around Grounds at UVa and driving from place to place in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It seemed like every time I looked up, I was hit with "Wow! This place is beautiful!" Not only was it beautiful, but because we took a leap of faith to go there, it is also inextricably woven into our story. I drove around town and walked all over Grounds like I was on autopilot, and it felt as if it were more than just knowing Charlottesville. I felt like Charlottesville knew me. I didn't hear any applause or feel any pats on the back, but it did my heart good to be somewhere familiar, a place that housed some of my most life-changing events.

I will end with that. My hope is that everyone has a place that is forever part of their heart and story. God created the Earth, then He placed us in it, and I think He knew that the places we occupy would help to shape us. Charlottesville and UVa definitely did that to me.

Girl finds Boy

In June of 2002, I went to visit my sister in Boston. She had been living there for about a year as a missionary, and I was very excited to see her. I had never been to Boston, and there were so many things I wanted to see. I have always been somewhat of a Red Sox and Celtics fan, and given the fact that the Patriots had won the Super Bowl earlier that year, it was kind of the cool city to be in. Katie and I spent about a week hanging out and seeing many of the sites around Boston. We hung around the downtown area for a day and had lunch at Cheers. We went to a Red Sox game (that was worth the trip alone), and we even drove to Maine for a day to see a friend of mine from grad. school. It was a great trip that I will always remember. But the thing I remember most about that trip was the e-mail I had waiting for me when I got home. Yes, I went the whole week without checking my e-mail and I lived to tell about it. I had about 100 e-mails, but the message I remember most was from Gina, and she was wanting to catch up with me. I found this very strange because the last I'd heard she was very serious with her boyfriend, the one who moved to North Carolina to be closer to her. She explained to me that they were no longer together and that she was half-way done with her graduate program at UNC-Chapel Hill.

I think I wrote her back later that day or the next day, and she almost immediately sent a reply. Things went on like this for about a month or so, when Gina finally asked if I had any interest in talking on the phone. I have to admit, I was a little nervous to talk to Gina on the phone. I mean, when you are sending e-mails back and forth, you have some time to think about what you are saying and how you say it. You can manage your identity in just about any way you want. Want to be funny? You can carefully craft your wit. Need to be serious, or intellectual, or spiritual? You have time and space to think about what you want to say. When you enter the world of real time conversation, you have to be on your toes. And this is a problem for me, because I have a tendency to say really stupid stuff when I'm talking to people. Really stupid stuff. So, I had this gnawing feeling that this might be the beginning of the end of our correspondence.

We eventually exchanged numbers, and I finally got the courage to give Gina a call. Looking back, things went really well, but as is customary for me, the conversation took some very awkward turns. I have this really bad habit of taking conversations into really bad directions. I think we ended up talking about how people in Utah get married really young, and that when I was in college there I was usually the only single person in any of my classes. Who talks about that with a girl during your first real conversation? I can't even recall what led me down that rabbit trail, but I remember thinking to myself when we hung up, What was THAT all about?

That first phone call should have sent up all kinds of red flags, and it may have, but it didn't scare Gina off. We spent the rest of the summer e-mailing and calling each other. She sent me some pictures of her trip to Texas and Louisiana that summer, and I sent her this picture of myself (kidding!). I was starting to really like this girl, and I kept wondering when I would screw it up. I wanted to see if she was feeling the same way, so I decided to put some bait out there. At the end of one my e-mails, I dropped a little hint that I liked her. I won't tell you the line I used, but it wasn't as bad as, "Hey baby, do you like honey? 'Cause I bee thinking about you all day."

Had I known then what I know now about Gina, I would have known that my little hint became a major deal for her and she pretty much thought for a whole weekend how she was going to respond. At the time, though, I thought she just blew me off and she only wanted to be friends. So, besides feeling kind of silly for writing something so corny, I just moved on and thought I would still write and call her as long as she replied.

The next time  we talked on the phone, she actually mentioned my little hint and we talked about it. That is another thing I now know about Gina. She would rather just talk about something instead of dancing around it. I'm the dancer in the relationship. By the end of the night, we both admitted that we liked each other and wanted to see where this relationship was heading. I was feeling pretty good about this.

Every story has a moment of truth. I remember in 7th grade when a kid I was kind of friends with came to my house and tried to roll a joint in my room. I physically picked him up and shoved him out of my house. I believe that moment influenced the course of my life. Well, this story had a moment of truth, too. The circumstances that led to this moment were, well, strange, but it was a moment of truth nonetheless.

That summer I was teaching a couple of classes for Casper College, Public Speaking and Interpersonal Communication. Most of my students were non-traditional students who were coming back to college after working and raising kids for several years. It was not uncommon for my students to be my age or older. Well, I must have made quite an impression on one student because about a week after the class was over, she called me and asked me out. I was in total shock. Speechless. I said the first thing that came to my mind, which was, "I am very flattered, but I have a girlfriend." The funny thing was, I didn't feel like I was making an excuse. I actually felt like I had a girlfriend.

And from that day on, I did. I still do, except I married her so now she is my wife. But she is still my girlfriend. Actually my best friend would be more like it.

There are many more details in this story, but this seems like a good place to stop because from that point on a new story started. Like the story of our engagement. Or the story of our wedding. Then there was the Virginia story. Oh, and twins. We have twins. So, that's another story. Isn't is amazing? God has written us into an epic story, and if you stop to write about it you realize how amazing it is. All of these fantastic stories that weave together, and when you step back and look at the big picture, you see a life.

How I Met Your Mother

There were more than a few people surprised to hear I was getting married. It's not because I used to come across as completely un-marry-able. I think most people actually thought the opposite. I also don't think it's because my relational skills are completely lacking, though they kind of are. I think it was because most people I knew and interacted with at the time didn't know I was dating anyone. So, when I began introducing Gina as my fiance, there was usually a noticeable degree of  "What!", even if they didn't actually say it. But our story started long before I began calling Gina my fiance, or my girlfriend, or my anything. Our story kind of started on a Sunday morning in the fall of 1998. I was teaching a Sunday school class for young singles, which I was myself, and everyone was mingling before the opening ceremonies. Opening ceremonies? Well, if you have ever been to singles Sunday school at a big church, you know it goes something like this:

  1. Arrive early and visit with other singles. Some guys, who aren't afraid to look too obvious, will look for attractive young ladies to arrive, especially those who appear to be new, and rush to "welcome" them to church and get the 411 (does she have a boyfriend, and all those other details)  before anyone else.
  2. Everyone sings a few praise songs as a whole group. I always found this odd, because we all just came from the worship service, where we did plenty of singing. Of course, only a dyed-in-the-wool Southern Baptist like myself would even make such a ludicrous judgment, as if praising the Lord has some sort of quota that must be balanced with bible study and potluck luncheons. We Southern Baptists must be careful not to sing too many praise songs, or people might start closing their eyes and lifting their hands.
  3. Someone with a lot of energy and enthusiasm stands up and makes announcements, such as where everyone will be going to lunch afterwards or what the next singles' event (or as I called it, the next "group date, but not really") will be. Steps 2-3, when combined together, are "opening ceremonies" for the large singles' department.
  4. Everyone splits up into smaller bible study classes. You can choose your class based on: the topic, the teacher, the person you are trying to convince to go out with you, or whether they have donuts.

Anyway, back to my story. So I was mingling with some friends and contemplating if buying donuts would increase my class enrollment, when a friend of mine introduced me to one of her friends from college. The friend was Sherri, and her friend was Gina. I immediately thought Gina was attractive and thought, "Wow, I should try to get to know her a little more." But, by the time I had finished that thought, she was gone and being introduced to someone else. Well, it just so happens that she also came to my class after everyone split up, but that really didn't mean anything at the time. There were still about 40 people in the class, and I didn't talk with her again. Shortly after this particular Sunday, I began teaching a different class, and Gina started attending another class altogether, so I really never got to know her.

Fast forward about more than a year. By this time I was pursuing my dream of going to graduate school in Colorado, and my time as a member and teacher in the big singles' group was becoming a memory. One of my other friends, Charmaine, had called me and told me she would be in Colorado with the big singles' group in January to go skiing for a week. This was right before the spring semester started, and I was able to drive down and meet her to ski for one day. I actually drove down the night before and went to dinner with everyone before skiing the next day. My plan was to crash on the floor with some of the guys. That night everyone was supposed to pick up their ski equipment at the rental shop, so I stood in line with Charmaine and got caught up on all of the happenings in Texas since I had moved. Right in front of us was another small group of ladies (Gina, Lua, and some other people I can't remember). We all began talking, and I recognized Gina right away (though I couldn't remember her name). I still thought she was cute, but I thought it might be a little strange showing a lot of interest in one girl when I was there to go skiing with a different girl. So, everyone got their ski equipment, and that was that. I had a great day of skiing with Charmaine the next day, which was an excellent way to start the semester.

Almost one year later, I was in Texas visiting family for Christmas and the New Year. By this time, I was one semester away from graduating with my Master's and I was looking for a job in Colorado. It just so happened that during my visit, one of our good friends from Wyoming (Gregg) was getting married to a gal he met in college (Rachel). It was a great ceremony, and I was so glad it had worked out that I was able to attend while visiting Texas. I don't think I would have come down for the wedding otherwise. The pastor who married them was also a good friend (Jeff) who was a youth minister in Casper when I was in high school. The thing about weddings for me is that no matter how good the friends and the ceremony are, my real motive for attending is the reception. I mean, where else are you going to find an endless supply of mystery punch, party mints, mixed nuts and both chocolate and white cake? A baby shower, perhaps, but no thanks. As I was waiting in line for my second helping of cubed cheese, crackers and pineapple, I heard someone say, "Curby?" Actually, she may have said, "Kirby?" but I couldn't tell.

I turned around and there she was, Sherri's friend who I saw in the ski rental shop. But what was her name? Jenlaurmarallikatessica? Or something like that. Well, she obviously remembered me, and I would be able to put the pieces together after visiting with her for a minute. (She later confessed that she remembered my name but couldn't recall how she knew me). Well, that minute turned into about an hour, and before I knew it the reception was wrapping up. And I didn't get any cake. And I didn't seem to mind. Our conversation ended with us exchanging e-mail addresses because there was another ski trip coming up and I might be able to meet her to go skiing for a day. Oh, and her name was Gina.

Well, this serendipitous meeting almost ended tragically when my dad blew his nose in the napkin on which Gina had written her e-mail, but thankfully she followed up with me later that day. So, now I had her address in my contacts. Isn't 21st Century romance wonderful?

This wasn't exactly a romance at this point, though. I missed the ski trip because I had to teach. We wrote back and forth for awhile, though the messages were getting further and further apart. I graduated. My cousin was getting married in Texas, and I asked Gina if she would like to have dinner while I was in town. I considered this a date; she just thought we were having dinner. She paid (in celebration of my graduation, she said). We talked for a little while longer that night, then I flew back to Colorado. I think I e-mailed her when I got back, thanked her for dinner, etc. We may have written a little more, then she told me she was moving to North Carolina for graduate school. I was moving back to Wyoming to be a teacher. I wrote her sometime in November to see how graduate school was going, and she said her boyfriend was moving to North Carolina. Her who?! Oh well, I had papers to grade and kids to coach, and I was buying a house and we didn't really write that often anyway.

So, that seems like a good place to end for now. Let's recap: boy meets girl, boy teaches girl, boy moves away, boy sees girl on a trip, girl is very cute, girl sees boy at a wedding, boy finally learns girl's name, boy and girl decide to keep in touch this time, boy drops the ball, girl gives another chance, boy still can't hold onto the ball, girl decides to pursue a different happily-ever-after, boy settles into a new life.

What good is a story without some suspense? You will just have to come back to find out how this one ends. Wait, you already know how it ends. Well, it hasn't actually ended. It's still being written. OK, I'm confused now.

Stars

As I was clicking through some of the blogs I follow, I came upon a post in which different people were sharing their favorite documentary films. I don't usually pick a documentary as my first choice, but when I do watch them I almost always love them. Anyway, I began reading about each of the films, and I even watched a couple of trailers. One film that really caught my attention was The City Dark. This documentary is about the disappearing night sky due to light pollution, and the effect of this phenomenon on humans' physical, emotional, spiritual and even collective health. I have always been a star-gazer, so this is very interesting to me, but I was also drawn in because sleep has been a topic of much discussion in our house lately. Anyway, one of the experts (whose name I didn't catch) said this:

If our civilization didn't see the stars and see how big the universe was, would they  come to believe that they're more important in this much tinier universe (the world around them) because that's all they see?

This was very poignant to me because I have been thinking a lot about the "big picture" lately. Maybe it's because of the end of the year, or because I am truly in a state of limbo. Who knows. But that quotation really made me think about how big our world is and how small my worldview seems to be. I think generations in the past had a much deeper sense of awe when it came to the vastness of the universe, and maybe this is because there was much less here on earth distracting their view of the heavens (both figuratively and physically). Relatively early in Abram's life, God had some big news to tell him, and He did what many of us do: He used something we can see or understand to illustrate something we can't see or understand. I can just imagine God leading Abram outside and making this statement:

He took him outside and said, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” Genesis 15:5

How easy is it to get wrapped up in our tiny little universe around us? This was a great reminder that our lives are part of a bigger story that envelops the number of years we occupy this tiny planet. What if our lives aren't about us at all and they are much bigger than we ever imagined? Maybe it's time to turn off the lights and look to the heavens.

 

 

 

 

Rise up and call her blessed

[kml_flashembed publishmethod="static" fversion="8.0.0" movie="http://www.curbyalexander.net/family/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/mothers_day_2011.swf" width="400" height="300" targetclass="flashmovie"]Get Adobe Flash player [/kml_flashembed]

The boys and I are extremely blessed to have Gina in our lives. If you are reading this, chances are pretty good that you know Gina and love her as much as we do. One of the greatest joys for me is watching Gina be a mommy. It is definitely a role she has taken up with full gusto and puts everything into. We wanted to make sure she knew how much we love and appreciate her this Mother's Day.

The boys and I got a (relatively) early start on the shopping this year and had a fun time looking for presents we thought she would like. Shopping with the boys is getting progressively easier, though they still like to run around the store like wild animals from time to time. I can usually talk to them before we go in and tell them to stay with me, etc., and they understand. Anyway, they behaved themselves on half of the shopping trips this time, which isn't too bad.

On Mother's Day, we started the day with breakfast and letting Gina open her gifts. Then we went to church and came home for an early lunch and nap. The boys slept for a really long time, which was good because the rest of the day was full of activities. Tommy and Carol and their kids, as well as Granny and Granddad, met us at our house for lunch. We had prepared pot roast and vegetables, and I made an angel food cake (from a box!) for desert. Everyone else contributed to the feast, and ate until we were stuffed. We spent the rest of the playing at the park and hanging out at the house. We had a really nice time together, making it a memorable time for everyone. The only challenge during the day was getting Sam and Nate to settle down for bed after so much activity.

The truth is, Gina does so much for us guys in the house that everyday should be Mother's Day. We are so very blessed to have her and look forward to a wonderful summer of fun and family time.

Thoughts on killing, death and revenge

I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that. -- Martin Luther King, Jr.

Sam and Nate have never heard of Osama bin Laden. The numbers 9-1-1 mean nothing to them yet. They don't know that two huge towers used to fill part of the NYC skyline. I'm sure that one day I will tell them all about that. I will recall for them how I was walking into my school to teach on a Tuesday morning, and the janitor stopped me at the door. I will probably try to mimic his voice when he said, "Well, you might as well cancel any plans you had for today. Terrorists just flew planes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon. One tower already fell and other one is about to go." I will see the faces of my 6th graders looking at me for answers, and I will remember not knowing what to say. I am pretty sure no matter what I tell Sam and Nate or how their teachers address this event in school, the horror of that day will never transcend the years and mean as much to them as it does to people who watched it all happen before their eyes.

But this I do know. Sam and Nate know who I am. They watch how I respond to the little details during the day, how I react when they do something they know they shouldn't be doing. They know it makes me sad when they are disrespectful to Gina or mean to each other, and they know that there is only so much of Sydney, our dog, I can take before I make her go outside. They know because they watch me. They are always watching me. It's scary sometimes, when I hear them say something I may have muttered under my breath a week before, or when they send each other to timeout for "not listening." And it is for this reason that I have a hard time feeling happy about or celebrating the events of yesterday, when a small group of highly-trained soldiers dropped into a massive compound in a suburb of Islamabad, Pakistan, and killed one of the most hated figures in the history of the world. Was I relieved? Yes, very much so. Have I read the details of what happened and what this means for the war on terror? Multiple accounts from many different perspectives. But none of it makes me happy.

You see, I believe that there isn't that much difference between Osama bin Laden and myself. On a grand scale, there are lots of differences. I'm not Muslim. I'm not from Saudi Arabia. I have never killed anyone or masterminded an attack on an entire country. I haven't been in hiding for the last 10 years, or at least my hiding hasn't taken place in caves and compounds. My hiding has always taken place behind degrees, knowledge and achievement. But that's a different story. The truth is that at some point in the past, there existed in bin Laden's heart a deep hatred that consumed him. I don't know this for sure, but I'm sure this hatred filled his every thought.  He would carry on dialogues with himself about what he might say if he confronted the object of his hatred. He would fantasize what he might do if he met it. Before he planned any attacks or killed anyone, he hated. So, he and I have more in common than I like to admit because I have the same capacity for hatred. I don't currently have any hatred this deep, but the potential is there. I believe the capacity for hatred exists within everyone, even though it has never been tapped.

So, this is why I am so saddened by the death of Osama bin Laden. Not because he died. That was bound to happen, either at the hands of U.S. forces, disease or age. I am saddened because his hatred for us is being responded to with more hate. And I know that in millions of households, little eyes are looking to see how their grownups respond to this event. If they see hate, they learn hate, and the cycle is perpetuated into another generation. I can't control how other grownups respond, but I know that this grownup is very humbled by this news. I know that just like I used to ask my dad to tell me about Hitler, my boys will want to know about bin Laden, and they will learn from my response. Something Jesus once said made an impression on Matthew, so he wrote it down:

I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you. (Matthew 5:44)

This doesn't seem like the natural thing to do. It definitely isn't the cool thing to do. Just take a quick stroll through Facebook or Twitter and you will get an eye full of macho, tough-guy rhetoric. I am thankful to live in a country that seeks to end evil, but I also pray that people will take a long look at their own hearts and examine the degree of their own hatred. I pray they will choose to end it here and now. And I hope our children are watching as we pray.

Blast from the past

Gina and I were recently looking through some old videos of when the boys were about 9 or 10 mos. We found this gem and wanted to share it with everyone.

It reminds us of another popular video on YouTube that features twins.

More on Sierpinski's Triangle

I didn't choose to become a teacher. Teaching chose me. I know, a lot of people say that about their careers, relationships, and even cars. But for me, it really is true. As a student in elementary and high school, I would watch what the teacher was doing and think, "This would be pretty cool. I think I could be a teacher." Then I would look around me at how the other students in my class were behaving, and think, "On second thought ..." I even was that student, at times. Then there was the issue of ability. I was mainly a ritually compliant student who did what I was told. My work was turned in on time, I usually didn't talk or cause problems for the teacher, and I got along with everyone in my class. But I wasn't really good in any particular subject area, unless you count music. During my first year of college, I got a job at a grant-funded preschool on my campus. My first responsibility was to come in and wash the lunch dishes. This was pretty easy, and it gave me a chance to snack on their seemingly endless supply of cinnamon Life cereal. When that task was done, I would move into the main room and sit with kids who were taking a nap. I usually ended up reading to kids who had outgrown naps or couldn't fall asleep. Then I would come back in the afternoon and supervise the children playing until their parents came to pick them up. It wasn't a bad job, and it started to grow on me a little each day.

This job just so happened to coincide with an English class I was taking. As I said earlier, I really wasn't that good in any one content area, but I was a decent writer. I wrote for the school newspaper, and worked on the yearbook staff. When registering for my first semester of college courses, I decided to challenge myself and take an advanced English composition class. This was the only subject in high school in which I took advanced or AP courses, so I felt up for the challenge. The instructor challenged me alright, but more than that she helped me find my voice and a love for writing. I actually looked forward to writing assignments, a trait I carried with me into graduate school.

At the time all of this was happening, there was a part of me that was very discontent. Most of my friends had left my hometown to attend college in other parts of the country. Some went to big state universities, while others went to private schools in places such as Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa, Colorado, Nebraska and California. This wasn't a big deal during the summer before everyone left, but when they came back for Thanksgiving and Christmas, I heard them talk of their adventures and was able to see for the first time what I was missing. You see, I was attending the local community college in my hometown, which was not only less than five minutes from my house, but was also where both of my parents taught. It is a really good school, but it was like going to summer camp in your backyard. In the span of a couple of weeks, I went from thinking my situation was pretty good to being miserable, wanting nothing more than to go somewhere else ... anywhere else.

My parents finally conceded to let me look into some different schools that we thought were affordable, far enough from home to satisfy my wanderlust, and had programs of study in which I was interested. After extensive research and number crunching, I chose Utah State University as my next destination. And this is when all of the circumstances in my life seemingly lined up. I had already made up my mind that I didn't want to be a teacher, but I thought that I could leverage my love for writing and of children by majoring in education, with the intent to become a curriculum specialist. With the correct training and experience, I thought, I could write text books.

As anyone who has taken education classes can attest, schools of education don't really train people to write text books. They train people to become teachers. My school just so happened to believe that extensive field experience was a major ingredient in this training, so rather than learning how to write text books, I spent a lot of my time in classrooms throughout the Cache Valley. Sometimes it was for a couple of hours, and all I did was observe. Other times it was for whole days, even weeks, at a time, and I would work with students in a variety of settings. I even got to plan a couple of lessons and deliver them to the whole class. And if the teacher happened to leave the room, I would try to be funny, disrupting whatever level of compliance she had been able to establish. Just as the preschool job grew on me the longer I worked there, these field experiences actually began to shape my self-perception. I started to see myself--dare I say--as a teacher.

One of my friends from high school had graduated from college a year before me, and during my student teaching year she was teaching music at an elementary school in Colorado. I had gone to visit her one weekend, and I found myself being envious as she showed me around her school and introduced me to her students that we happened to see around town. A year earlier I would have told anyone that I was going to apply for law school and try to get a job in the FBI (What happened to writing textbooks?). Now, here I was actually wanting to be a teacher.

As I drove home from this trip, I remembered an e-mail from my mother telling me she was going to have a long layover at the Salt Lake City airport. She had been in Dallas leading a Christian ladies conference, and she gave me her flight information in case I was able to stop in and have coffee with her. Normally I wouldn't have made the hour and a half drive to Salt Lake City to have an hour-long coffee break, but I happened to be driving through town around the same time as her layover, so I stopped in and waited for her flight to arrive.

I will never forget her first words as she got off the plane: "You will never believe what just happened." These words are not uncommon coming from my mom. Her life has been one of chance encounters and divinely arranged relationships. She proceeded to tell me that while at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport with my uncle, her gate was suddenly changed to a different terminal. My uncle decided to go with her to the new gate so they could visit some more. While on the tram, the conversation shifted to me. My uncle wanted to know what I was up to, and more importantly, what I planned on doing after graduation. She began to tell him that I was about to complete the requirements for my degree in elementary education, but no one, including me, knew what I was going to do after that.

Just then a man on the tram looked up and walked across to where my mom and uncle were standing. He asked, "Did I just hear you say your son is an elementary education major?" He then introduced himself as the recruiter for the Grapevine/Colleyville Independent School District, and they were looking for men who were interested in teaching elementary school. He told her a little more about the school district and handed her an informational packet to give me. Just as he was handing her the packet, the tram stopped and he got off to catch his flight. All of the recruiter's claims about this school district were confirmed by my uncle, and he emphasized to my mother that if I had any interest in coming to Texas to teach, this was one of the best school districts to be in.

This is when my mom handed me the folder she had received just two hours earlier. She told me this man would be at the job fair I was to be attending in a month or so, and he wanted me to look for him. I stuffed the folder in my backpack, and basically forgot about it for several weeks. As is the case for many college students, items that go in the backpack didn't always find their way out again. Thankfully, this folder eventually found its way out.

Several weeks later I was standing in line at a teaching job fair to speak with a representative from a large school district in the Denver area. I was now engaged full throttle in the job search, and I was pretty sure this job fair would yield the golden ticket. My goal was to teach in the Denver area, where I could still be fairly close to home and in the backyard of my beloved Denver Broncos. I had gotten interviews with six school districts, and I was trying to make it a lucky seven. But as I was standing in line, I happened to see an oddly familiar poster. It was for the booth across the aisle from where I was standing, and there was no one there. I quickly jumped out of line to investigate. Perhaps I had already stopped by this booth, and I was experiencing a bout of deja vu. I dug through my backpack to see if I already had an informational packet from this particular school district, and sure enough, there at the bottom of the pile was a folder identical to the poster hanging above my head. Only, I didn't pick this folder up earlier in the day. This was the folder my mother handed to me in the Salt Lake airport.

Just then, a man sitting behind the booth stood up and introduced himself to me. He proceeded to tell me a little about the school district, information I had already heard from my mother, and he asked me to tell him a little about myself. He mentioned he had one interview slot open for the next day, and wondered if I was interested in coming back to talk with him some more. Despite the interview being at eight o'clock in the morning, I agreed, shook hands and walked back to where I was staying for the evening. I never got back in the other line.

Without giving too many boring details about the interview, I will say that the man behind the booth was the same man who met my mom on the tram in Dallas. He told me he might contact me in a couple of weeks to follow up, which he did. He then flew me to Grapevine to interview with 12 different principals, in one day nonetheless. The weekend concluded with him offering me a job, which I accepted.

You see, this is my Sierpinski's Triangle. Each of these points in my life, if observed in isolation, seem random. I mean, do any of us really see order in the tram we get on or who we stand behind in line? What if I had gotten a job at a local store or restaurant instead of the preschool? What if I had taken basic English composition, cranked out my three or four essays and moved on? What if I had not gone to see my friend in Colorado, or forgot to print the e-mail with the flight information, or decided I didn't have time to stop at the airport? What if I had forgotten about that folder in my backpack? What if my mom and uncle had talked about something else other than me? What if one of them had stopped to get a drink or tie a shoe and sat on a different tram with different people?

I guess this is why God refers to himself as "I Am," and not "What If." If you truly believe that God is sovereign, then you must choose to believe that everything is on His radar and nothing escapes His attention. Oswald Chambers put it this way, "It is only a faithful person who truly believes that God sovereignly controls his circumstances. We take our circumstances for granted, saying God is in control, but not really believing it." I am one of those folks who struggles to believe that God is paying attention to the details of my life in such a way that even the trivial choices I make really aren't so trivial. This unbelief exists even though my personal history is filled with evidence of what God is doing in and through me.

So, if you ever wonder how I stumbled into this profession known as teaching, well, now you know. I didn't stumble at all. It was there all along just waiting for me to show up.

Need. More. Coffee.

One thing has been evident since February 4, 2008. I need more sleep. Gina would echo my thoughts here, I'm 99% sure. Although we were not necessarily models of good sleep habits before the boys were born, we normally got enough so that we didn't feel tired all the time. But now that Sam and Nate are in the picture, we are pretty much always behind on our sleep, even though the boys go to bed early and stay asleep all night. Here's a rundown of my routine from the time the boys go to bed: fall asleep in Nate's room while he is falling asleep, wake up after 30 minutes or so and go into the office, check my e-mail or begin working on whatever I need to work on, watch TV for a little while, go back to the computer, eventually go to bed way too late. Not a good routine. I go through mini-cycles of being exhausted then getting over-stimulated all evening. Well, I recently read an article about sleep habits that may explain why I feel tired all the time. It seems that my old friend technology is not such a good friend after all.

So, I am going to try the advice given in this article, which is not to use any electronics (TV, computer, etc.) for one hour before I plan on going to bed. I can tell you now, this is going to be a hard pattern to break, but I think I can do it. I will definitely keep everyone updated on hhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh

Sierpinski's Triangle

While at an education conference several years ago, I listened to a math educator talk about a gadget he developed that would simulate what he called the "chaos game." In his demonstration, he started with an equilateral triangle and plotted a point randomly inside. He then measured half way between the point and one of the 3 vertices, where he plotted another point. One after another, he plotted about a dozen points halfway between the previous dot and one of the vertices. He stopped the demonstration and asked everyone to predict what would happen if he did this 100, 1,000 or 10,000 more times. The existing points looked random to me, so I predicted more points would just look like a huge mess. Using his gadget, the presenter sped the process up to plot 10,000 points in a matter of seconds. The result was not only surprising, but it was also beautiful and amazing. He called this phenomenon Sierpinski's Triangle, and the result was an intricate design of perfectly symmetrical equilateral triangles, facsimiles of the original shape. You can play with a pretty neat little gadget that simulates the process of creating a Sierpinski's Triangle (also called Sierpinski's Gasket). I have to admit, the mathematical and technological objectives of that demonstration were totally lost on me that day. But God used that presentation to speak to me in a profound way. I don't remember the exact thoughts I had during the presentation, but when I walked away I could hear God telling me, "Curby, that is your life. You are Sierpinski's Triangle." Parts of this revelation were not that hard to comprehend: a triangle, Jesus, God and the Holy Spirit. I figured that part out pretty easily, although I am pretty sure that is not what God was trying to teach me. The real learning objectives from that day are something I have struggled with for years and continue to wrestle with. My life has been anything but settled since I was in high school. Since I graduated in 1990, I  have lived in 6 states and moved 7 times. I have been in school, taught school and now work behind the scenes at a school. I have encountered just about every variety of human you can imagine. I have taught at a university that I would not have been admitted into as an undergraduate, and I have taught 6th graders in a school that, as a student, I would not have survived. I've lived in a variety of different dwellings, from a one-bedroom apartment to a fixer-upper in a minority neighborhood. And at some point in every stop on my journey, I have asked myself the same question, "What mistake did I make in life that led me to this place?"

But my encounter with Sierpinski's Triangle that cool September day in downtown Washington, D.C. quieted that question forever. God changed my thinking about my life, which is that nothing is random. Just like the dots in the triangle, my life is being lived inside a context that is bigger than me. My choices, my moves, are connected to the last move, most often in ways that I cannot see or interpret, which in turn, is connected to the next move, which I don't even know about yet. The end result is something beautiful, bearing purpose and mission, and definitely not random. So, if you will indulge me for a few weeks, I would like to use this forum to occasionally share some of the points within my Sierpinski's Triangle that have shaped who I am. Gina and I write a lot about Sam and Nate, and trust me, there is nothing in the world I would rather write about. But I also think it's important to reflect on the events that got us to this place. God has written us into His story, and it's worth telling too.