Monday, November 16, 2015

Reflection: Tending The Fire And Tending Our Spirits

Yesterday evening, Jamie and I decided to take some of the brush that had been slowly accumulating around our house over this summer, and burn it. So, we pulled out a small portable fire pit we bought on clearance last summer, and began to build the base of the fire. Memories started flooding my mind as I first gathered small twigs for kindling, and took a few seconds to light this bundle. And as the kindling was consumed, I quickly started adding larger sticks until we had a small, strong blaze going. At the same time, the sun was slowly setting over the hills to our west.

Gathering sticks and adding them to the strong fire, I thought back to many memories and lessons learned from starting and tending fires from some of my tribe's ancient ceremonies. I thought back to the importance of a clean fire, and how the fire itself consumed, refined and purified. I reviewed and relived the process of methodically building the fire and tending the fire so that it didn't go out and so it didn't blaze out of control. I remembered occasions where an old fire would be stamped out, so that a new and fresh fire could be built, as a symbol of a new start, a new year, and of leaving the past.

After the fire was built up, and the brush began to burn down into a peaceful and deep bed of blazing red coals, it brought me back to many memories of tending fires for sweat lodges and other occasions, and the high degree of care and contemplation that always surrounded these activities in the past. Sitting together by the fire, Jamie and I took time to pray. We prayed for ourselves to grow in our love for Creator, our care for His creation, and our capacity to serve our fellow humans. We prayed for growth in capacity and discipline. We prayed for friends who are going through incredible challenges. And at the same time, we soaked in the rhythm of the day. We watched the sun slip silently behind the hills and daylight transition to dusk. There was something amazingly restful as the last moments of "the weekend" disappeared, and we gave ourselves a small space for reflection.

Just as I learned during my younger days that tending the fire demands extreme care, respect, and discipline, tending our spirits also demands the same. After our time by the fire in quiet reflection and savoring the tranquility of the fireside peace that probably all of our ancestors have enjoyed, I found myself refreshed and energized for the week ahead. Now I realize that we probably don't have enough wood around the house to enjoy a quiet moment by the fire every evening, but we could cultivate a habit of tending our spirits into our daily and weekly rhythms. And, this tending is critically important work! Without tending our spirits we run the risk of letting the interior fires grow dim, or we could let our lives run out of control.

It seems like every one I run into feels incredibly busy and tired and that there's very little space in life for reflection. Surely, it wasn't always this way. As each of us lives out our calling faithfully in this world, it is quite easy to erase margins and lock ourselves into both a sense of apathy (that this is just the way it is) and complacency (content to be on cruise-control with our lives), but this will rob us of incredible joy, and in many ways rob the world of each of us bringing our very best selves into our work, family, and community.

May we each carve out space in our schedules for rest, for reflection, and for tending our spirits. And by so doing, may we keep our inner fires steady burning and bring our very best into each day.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Reflection: Marine Corps Marathon 2015

Last month, Jamie and I joined over 30,000 runners from around the world to run the 40th Marine Corps Marathon in Washington DC. We were part of a team that has run the marathon to raise funds and awareness for Nuru International over the last three years. Each year, on the afternoon before the race, we gather with runners from Team Nuru to share some laughs, tell our stories, and a little bit of the transformation taking place on the other side of the world as a result of our combined efforts. We also take a moment to grab a team photo. Not everyone can make it, but for me and Jamie this has been one of the high points leading up to the race. There's something powerful about seeing people come from all over the country (but especially West Virginia) not only because of a shared commitment to run a long distance, but also because of a desire to be part of making the world a better place. And this year, we had a couple of interesting additions. We had a second married couple run as well as a father and son duo. And one guy raised money for Nuru by selling sponsorships for his race shirt. Donate a certain amount, and he would put your name on his shirt. Donate a larger amount, and he would place a photo on his shirt. Donate a $1,000, and he would run the first mile with a cardboard cut-out of you (unfortunately no one took him up on the last offer).
The morning of the race the weather was slightly warmer than it had been over the last couple of years...and it was raining. It was a light rain, and actually was a bit refreshing as we began to build up the miles in the cool, humid morning hours along the tidal basin. As we ran, we looked around us, and there were just so many people running and working to encourage people around them (and themselves) to dig a little deeper, to consider others, and keep pressing onward. All along the course, there were men, women, boys, and girls holding signs, cheering, and spurring on the crowd of runners. We ran through Rosslyn, and across the bridge into Georgetown, and all along the way we were feeling good. 
And then we arrived at Mile 12 which is called the blue mile. A nonprofit that encourages runners to run in support of fallen members of the military and their families had placed sign after sign along this stretch of the race. Mile 12 is the point where you are almost half way through the race. You have left the crowds in Georgetown and DC, and you are making your way along a long solitary stretch of the race. And then you see the signs that serve as a reminder and memorial of the young men and women who gave their lives in service. Each year when I hit this point I get a bit emotional, and this year I found myself more emotional than I had ever been. As I passed by each sign, I thought about these individuals, their families, their friends, their aspirations, and the reality that their lives were cut short because of evil in this world. I silently prayed as I ran, and then I came upon a long column of American flags and men and women holding those flags cheering each of us runners onward. 
As I ran through this memorial, my mind went from those who had served and died to those who Nuru was serving--our farmers and their families. I began to get more emotional as I considered the challenges of my neighbors who are needlessly suffering in extreme poverty. I thought about the folks who had donated to Nuru because a group of us had decided to run the Marine Corps Marathon. I was overwhelmed with gratitude that running a race could be a catalyst for many people to join the fight to end extreme poverty.  As the weather got warmer, and the miles kept adding up, I thought about the other folks who were running for Team Nuru, and I was really inspired. 
There was my friend Justin who has known me for a long time, and who was probably close to the finish as I hit the blue mile. And then, I thought about Erinn, one of our neighbors, and a woman who is passionate about justice, about the good things coming out of our great state, and who is one of the most disciplined and determined people I know. Then my mind went to Aaron--this guy (unbeknownst to him) had three of his buddies secretly sign up so they could run their first marathon together just a few days before he got married. Imagine his surprise when his three friends showed up the morning of the race to support him, and then, as the howitzer fired, they revealed their race bibs, and crossed the starting line with him (by the way, none of these guys had trained--they just wanted to support their brother!). And then, there was Andy. Andy was Jake's roommate during plebe year at the Naval Academy. Andy and his wife have been supporting Nuru's work from the beginning. And I knew he had approached his training with discipline and rigor--as he approaches all of life. I knew these folks and many others were out there running and sharing Nuru's story so that one day we might see the end of the desperation caused by extreme poverty!
Jamie and I continued side-by-side all the way to the finish line. When she and I started training for our first marathon in 2013, we made a commitment to each other as we trained that we would train together, and run the race together. I believe that this commitment helped us to be successful in our endeavor. As we closed in on mile 26, we committed to each other that we would run the last two tenths of a mile with whatever we could muster for the quarter mile uphill run to the Iwo Jima Memorial. We crossed the finish within seconds of each other, and we celebrated together. We had finished the race.
When I think about the time all of the runners put into preparation and even the race itself--its a powerful testimony to discipline, endurance, and perseverance. Each of these runners committed at least six months of their lives to preparation. I can attest to the fact that life is busy, and there were many mornings I did not feel like running or putting time in. But, just like all of our runners, I did it anyway. And that translates well to other areas of life. Whether you are preparing for a marathon, preparing for combat, or simply preparing for another day of life, developing discipline and endurance helps you persevere. And as I stand on the other side of the race, I feel a sense of pride (in a good way) as I've come through the challenge, I've tested my mettle, and I know I have what it takes. And so I look to continue the trend of discipline, goal setting, and quality routines for life. 

And I want to encourage you to do the same. I've been reading a book by a couple of Navy SEALs, and in their community they have a saying, "Earn your trident daily." I like the sound of it. What if you and I made the decision each morning to bring our best to shape the world around us? What if we pushed ourselves just a little harder to make certain we are the kind of folks that those around us can count on?
May each of us apply discipline and rigor to our lives so we can bring our best to the world around us and spur others to do the same!

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Reflection: A Long Obedience In The Same Direction

Today, celebrates the twenty-first anniversary of a special day for me. While I remember the event and the occasion clearly, I think I'm more aware of the changes the time wrought in me. In many ways they were unanticipated and unexpected, and honestly they have been pivotal in shaping me into the person I am today.

I was attending an inter-tribal gathering at a 4-H camp, Camp Muffly, near Morgantown. I was the president of the Organization for Native American Interests (ONAI) at WVU, and our group was invited to this gathering. It was my junior year at WVU. My good friend, Matt Thorn (ONAI's VP), had let me borrow his tent as me and my other friend Reza Marvashti would be camping for the weekend and representing our group. We were going to be connecting and spending time with members of the local indigenous community and exploring opportunities to serve. And that happened, but something more transformative and unexpected also happened that weekend. I became a Christian.

I had engaged in many conversations about faith and Christianity over the years with friends and family members, but when I came to college, I would say that I became a deep searcher. I really wanted to know God, and I wanted to live my life for Him. But the funny thing about it is that I didn't really grow up in church. I do feel like my family had a number of rich traditions grounded in a deep sense of right and wrong, but I don't think I gave a lot of thought to the why of those traditions.

But in college, I had a number of friends who were starting to explore a life of faith, and in their explorations, they were seeking to live out what they were learning. These weren't people who just attended a religious gathering on Sundays, but they were daily people of prayer and they were daily reading and applying the sacred text. And as admirable as their discipline was, I thought it was misplaced, and honestly, I was pretty judgmental of Christians--the irony was that I thought they were judgmental.

But that all changed on a weekend in November 1994 at Camp Muffly. To be clear, there wasn't an altar call or someone nudging me toward a decision--it was not what people refer to as a 'revival' weekend or 'camp-meeting'. For reasons that only God knows, he was choosing this particular weekend to illuminate to me His deep love for me, and that the very thing I had been searching for was Him. I had been praying earnestly for months that the Creator of the universe would reveal His truth to me and lead me in living out the ultimate purpose for my life. In all of my considerations about a life of faith, I was reticent to think about Christianity, but, that weekend, I found myself more and more convinced that Jesus was the person who I was looking for.  That somehow, there was something powerful about His death and resurrection, that in Him was hope, light, life, and redemption, and more importantly I was growing more and more cognizant that I was a sinner and I was in desperate need of the Savior. There were a few conversations that happened that weekend with various tribal leaders and friends that touched on areas of faith, but that was not the center of the purpose of the gathering. The gathering was about service and community among native people.

And yet, God was reaching out to me, and letting me know that I was loved. More than that, he was impressing upon me that my ultimate purpose was to be found in love. That my highest purpose was to love God with all of my heart, mind, soul, and strength, and in the wake of that love, that I was to love my neighbor as myself, and further, that there is no greater love than this, that a man would lay down his life for his friends.

The weekend of November 11-13, 1994, I began to walk in obedience to this radical love, forgiveness, and mercy I received from Jesus. I became a Christian. And from that point in time I have been continually blessed with an amazing group of fellow sojourners on the journey, mentors and spiritual guides who have helped me to grow in my discernment and my capacity and desire to serve, and a deep and abiding relationship with my Creator who relentlessly loves me, forgives me, leads me, and guides me to be the best version of myself that I can be, and to be an ambassador of the love, mercy, forgiveness, and restoration that can be found in Him.

As I celebrate this 21st year of life in Christ, I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the ways that God has given me a greater capacity to love, and a greater desire to keep following His gentle but strong leadership as I seek to make the most of my limited time on this earth. And my prayer is that we would all grow more deeply aware of incredible love, mercy, and hope that are continually being extended to us by the Creator of the universe.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Reflection: Veterans Day 2015

Each year, whether I write a post or simply set aside time, I find myself reflecting on Veterans Day. It's actually a bit inescapable if one is connected to social media. I see images posted by many of my friends as they take time to remember with pride the time they served and the people they had an opportunity to serve with. For those who have retired, and for those still serving, the rest of the nation turns its eyes, thoughts, and attention to these incredible acts of service.

Uncle Bill (left) with Dad and Jerry West.
Over my adult life, I have had the privilege of serving with and learning from many veterans. My Uncle Bill has always demonstrated the value of serving others first. He and his late wife always practiced hospitality and generosity when we would visit his house, and even today, I know that none of his family or their friends ever lack when there is a need. When I visit home, I always want to make it a point to visit with him and listen to the amazing stories of his more than 80 years of living.

Okima. Mentor, leader, wisdom-keeper, and human being.
The foremost veteran I learned from was/is the former Principal Chief of my tribe. Okima (which I called him as a term of respect), served during WWII in the US Navy, and was not only an incredible spiritual leader and mentor, but wonderful role model with regard to service, discipline, respect, and honor. He was hard but fair, stern but compassionate, and resolute but gracious. He taught me much about what it means to give of one's self, and to never relent when it comes to hard work. He also demonstrated one of the most wonderful relationships with Jesus that I have ever seen. He set the standard for me to understand what it means to be a human being. He was a real human being.

And over the last several years, I've the privilege of working with some amazing veterans at Nuru. When Nuru was beginning, Jake Harriman, Gaby Blocher, and Don Faul brought the rigor and discipline that they had learned at the United States Naval Academy and in the Marine Corps to the work of fighting extreme poverty, and over the years, I've had the proud honor of learning from additional veteAlex Martin, Mike Bigrigg, and Brian Von Kraus are each bringing the fight to extreme poverty with a level of rigor and tenacity that is inspiring to see.

rans who have transitioned from military service to bring their skills, experience, and leadership to fight extreme poverty.

Additionally, over the last few weeks I've been reading a book by Leif Babin and Jocko Willink called Extreme Ownership. I hope to eventually write a formal review of the book, but one of the big take-aways I've had so far is that most of us in the civilian world have very little idea the level of chaos our brothers and sisters are working to bring order out of. Most of us live with a distorted sense of what a 'bad day' is. A bad day is losing a teammate, a friend, a member of one's tribe. A bad day is knowing that even when you bring your best, there are scars that we gather and gain, and losses we simply cannot prevent.

And when I think about the veterans I have had the honor of rubbing shoulders with, I am in awe at the resilience, the tenacity, and the discipline that each one of them continues to bring--whatever team they are serving on and wherever life's journey takes them.

On a day like Veterans Day, we remember those who have fallen, those who are still down range, and those who are working to transition into so-called 'normal' life. Businesses and individuals offer their thanks for service and their applause for sacrifice. But, I can't help but wonder if there is a better means for expressing gratitude and honor than words and applause. What if more of this world operated by a code of honor? What if more men and women chose to live their lives with an others first mentality?  What if we chose sacrifice over self-indulgence? What if we chose to emulate the example of those few who have set aside their own comfort for the sake of their fellow humans? To me, I feel like that would be the best gesture of gratitude that could be bestowed upon those who have served, those who have fallen, and those who are still down range.

May we all aspire to live courageous lives of sacrifice, service, courage, and commitment, and may we demonstrate honor and respect as we seek to build a better world.