Greater love has no one than this…

…that someone lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13)

Today my family is celebrating the birthday of our son; he’s been our joy and delight for the past twenty years and now he’s a senior in college.  Today I also taught a room full of college students studying to be teachers and we had a lively discussion about their plans to be the next generation of educators and their hopes and dreams for their lives and the lives of their students.

Today is also the day that the parents of Riley Howell suffered what no parent should ever have to endure.  And I am sick with grief over what they are facing. Riley was the heroic young man who sacrificed his life at the University of North Carolina by tackling the sniveling cowardly scumbag murderer who thought he was a big man because he had an assault rifle in the sacred halls of learning, and then who mockingly bragged about it as he was arrested.

In that moment, when these two lives collided, Riley Howell showed what he was made of, as did the gunman.  As did our society. Riley should NOT have had to make that courageous choice. He, and all students, should feel and be safe when they are sitting in their classrooms, as should all persons of faith in their houses of worship, and as should all Americans.  Something is deeply wrong with us as a culture.  How did New Zealand respond after the massacre at Christ Church? Their lawmakers passed a ban on most semiautomatic rifles within 30 days of their tragedy.  Twenty years after Columbine and seven years after Sandy Hook, we still have done nothing, other than to continue to allow the NRA to buy our politicians and pick our elected officials.

I pray that our leaders in Congress will find a measure of the raw courage shown by Riley Howell, and finally do the right thing. #Guncontrolnow.

*Photos from the grieving Howell family

They are precious in His sight…

Even as a lover of words, my vocabulary fails me in expressing the frustration, grief, and RAGE I feel about the thousands of families that my nation’s government has torn asunder: children ripped—in some cases permanently—from the arms of their parents. The federal departments overseeing this human rights violation have not kept records and have no plans for reunification. 

The brand of evangelicalism from which I originate has heretofore called itself “pro-life.”  But that is a name which the movement should no longer claim unless it rises up against this outrage. I keep waiting for all of my pro-life friends to come out and vehemently renounce the child separation policy of the Trump administration and insist that our government immediately begin reunifying families, no matter the cost.  You’ve made your voices heard—loudly—against abortion, now how about directing some of that righteous fervor to life outside the womb? Now is the time for Christians to ‘focus on the family.’ This is a travesty of justice and human values on a level I cannot reconcile with what I thought the United States to be, as well as antithetical to the teachings of Christ.  I appeal to every American parent—who has cherished holding your child in your arms—to contact your Congressional representatives and demand that these families be reunited.

These are anguished families who came here seeking that which America has always promised: freedom and the hope of a better life. Instead of giving them that, we took the only thing they had: each other.

I believe you would be hard pressed to find a father, anywhere, who loves his kids more deeply than I. But if I were faced with the choice of having one of my own precious children aborted in the womb, or ripped from my arms… in a foreign country…taken to a detention center… thrown into the foster care system…never to be returned home again?  I would take the former; I would rather they never enter this cruel world in the first place and have to encounter such an evil nation.  God forgive us. #FamiliesBelongTogether

“What else should I have done?”

Yesterday was my rebirthday. I spent last November 20th having open-heart surgery to repair a badly malfunctioning mitral valve. My cardiac rehab specialist told me in February how lucky I’d been.  “The first symptom for a case as bad as yours is often collapse and many don’t live long enough to make it to the operating table.” A combination of luck, providence, and skillful medical care gave me a much happier ending to my story. This Thanksgiving I feel as if I have more for which to be thankful than most do: my family and friends, a wonderful new job that I love, and something that many people don’t get: a second chance at life. A lot of things that seemed really important to me last October didn’t seem very important at all by last December; I was still alive! I’ll be around to see my grandchildren! Poet Mary Oliver asks, “tell me, what else should I have done?” November 20, 2017 gave me the chance to answer that question.

In the past year I joined a couple of facebook support groups for open-heart surgery survivors.  We offer advice and comfort to those about to have/just having had surgery and we celebrate each others’ rebirthdays, or “valveversaries,” as only others who have been through it can really do. One of the groups is called “The Zipper Club” in honor of our matching scars. Before the surgery I dreaded wearing–for the rest of my life–the big ugly scar that would accompany the surgery.  A year later the scar has faded and I ended up not being bothered by it anyway. It feels more like a badge of honor. It’s a souvenir of where I’ve been, and a reminder of where I’m going. 

So this year I celebrate and give thanks for survival. Last year’s Thanksgiving dinner was a hospital tray with my beloved Samantha and JonDavid perched on the sides of my bed. This year I’ll be able to sit down at the big family dinner at my sister’s gracious home, with my two-year-old grand nephew–who will amuse and delight us all with his irrepressible toddler charm–and with my 85-year-old mother–who will probably get mixed up and call her children by her siblings names–and with 30 family members in between.  We’ll eat so much pie for dessert that we’ll go for a walk at the college with some combination of the nine dogs in the family and then come back and giggle and play silly games until we’re ready for more pie. And in those ordinary and extraordinary moments, I’ll pause and become aware of my 59-year-old heart still faithfully pumping away in my chest and I’ll give thanks and celebrate my “one wild and precious life.”

Come, ye thankful people, come, raise the song of harvest home; All is safely gathered in, ere the winter storms begin…

(Quotes from “The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver, and “Come Ye Thankful People, Come” by Henry Alford)

Because you taught me…

I’ve come to see my identity, my sense of self, as the sum total of all the encounters I’ve had across nearly six decades: each friend, family member,  student, colleague, and teacher has uniquely touched my life. Most encounters have benefited, taught, or improved me in some small or large way.  Others have wounded or diminished me. An iconic lyric from the Broadway musical, Wicked,  proclaims “because I knew you, I’ve been changed for good.”  In honor of American Education Week (November 12-16, 2018) I’d like to  update it to “because you taught me, I’ve been changed for good.”  

I had forty teachers between kindergarten and 12th grade, and I’ve lost count of the number in college and grad school.  A couple of them were dreadful, most of them were OK, and a few of them were great. I have the great privilege–especially at my age–to be facebook friends with a couple of them, including my second and fifth grade teachers.  I’ve only recently reconnected with my fifth grade teacher, after not having seen or heard from her in 40 years. And something that astonishes me, is how when she “likes” something I post, her approval means a great deal to me…to the little boy inside the man.  I feel like she has stuck a proverbial gold star on my facebook page.  The imprint of a good teacher on our lives is an enduring legacy.

It is the great privilege of my life to work as a college professor, preparing future members  for the ancient and noble tradition of teaching. I like to challenge them to consider the broader enterprise of teaching and of its enormous potential to improve the world at both the micro and macro levels.  We have almost come to take it for granted that teachers will come alongside our children and guide, direct, instruct, and support them. Yet along the way we tend to also ask teachers to take on even greater challenges.  “Dear American teachers: Can you help future generations to pollute less, to abstain from drugs, to treat one another more fairly, to stop bullying, to be less racist, to be better informed citizens, oh, and would you also mind keeping a gun in your desk and stop our children from being shot?”

A year ago, to my great surprise, I found myself lying on an operating table in Virginia having my chest cut open and my defective mitral valve repaired in a complicated, five hour-operation. My surgery was a great success in that my valve was repaired and my life was saved and I’m healthier than ever. My brilliant young surgeon described my condition as a forme fruste, because it was atypical and a confusing puzzle to solve. I think of him as one of my life’s heroes now.  But then I also find myself reflecting on my doctor’s teachers. Who were the ones who inspired him to study hard? And who was the teacher who put an arm around his young shoulders, led him through an experiment, and helped him to recognize his enormous potential in science?  In rare instances, like Helen Keller’s Anne Sullivan, teachers get the recognition they deserve. But more typically they are lost to history. Who were the teachers who helped to shape and form the world’s great artists, scientists, political leaders, authors, and humanitarians?

Who were the teachers who did that for you? Who helped to make you who you are today?  For those of you who are working in America’s classrooms, I salute and thank you. Who are the students who will pass through our doors who may need that word of guidance or encouragement to find their calling and attain their true potential?  If a teacher did that for you, pass along the favor to the next generation. If you lacked that in your life, then be that teacher to someone else that you needed as a child. And for everyone….observe American Education Week by thanking a teacher this week. I believe the old adage, “if you can read this, thank a teacher” should be updated to “if you like who you’ve become, thank a teacher.”  For my part….Thank you Mrs. Riggin, Mrs. Sells, Doc Haltunen, Mrs. Lager, Dr. Lindley, Dr. Sellers and all of the rest of you who made me who I am today. I’m forever grateful.

I resign.

I have always considered myself to be “Pro Life” because I believe that all lives matter: black & white, born & unborn. Further, I believe that some lives are in greater need of care and protection than others.  It has been repeatedly and horrifyingly proven that black lives–particularly young black male lives–are at much greater risk than their white counterparts. Similarly the lives of unborn babies, who cannot speak for themselves, are in greater need of societal protection.  My pro-life stance is so deeply entrenched that I  believe that even animal lives matter and that these defenseless creatures should be protected from the horrifying treatment of modern factory farming which condemns them to wretched living conditions followed by gruesomely painful deaths.  My deepest desire is that all of God’s creatures be safe, loved, and treated kindly. I’ve always longed to find a home in a political party that respects all aspect of life and rejects all forms of violence.

As such, I have longed struggled with placing myself under the umbrella of the pro-life movement which seeks to protect the unborn, but then immediately ignores them once outside the womb. Those same adherents of protecting unborn babies, refuse to fund the programs that benefit babies, children, and unwed mothers: programs such as Headstart, food assistance, and welfare assistance. It also tends to be the same group that refuses to deal with gun violence and takes no action other than “thoughts and prayers” to protect the most vulnerable among us who are sitting ducks in their school classrooms.  I have (barely) hung in there even when the movement went so far as to murder an abortion provider standing at his kitchen sink, and when they have cruelly ignored the anguish of women seeking to end a pregnancy with an abortion by verbally and physically harassing them as they enter abortion clinics.

Now, most recently, the pro-life movement has determined that Brett Kavanaugh MUST be confirmed onto the Supreme Court at all costs, that due process will be ignored, and that his judicial records will be hidden from Congress.  Are we worried at all because a president under serious investigation is attempting to hurriedly place his man on the court? A judge who believes that presidents can’t be subpoenaed and that the Supreme Court erred in US v. Nixon? A judge who has signaled that race can be used to exclude immigrants? Most grievous of all is that the Republican leadership is determined to dismiss charges of past despicable behavior, and instead have chosen to attack the credibility of his accusers. Yesterday, at best, Kavanaugh proved himself to be temperamentally unfit to serve on SCOTUS and at worst he may be a rapist, but we’ll never know, because the Senate Republicans and their base will force him onto the Court, at all costs, before the midterms.  That is why they refuse any attempt to have the matter cleared up with an FBI investigation. If I were an innocent man, wrongly accused, whose good name and family had been “destroyed” I would  INSIST on an investigation to clear my name. Instead I predict that by tonight Brett Kavanaugh and Mark Judge will be sitting on some deck, overlooking some beach, raising a glass and toasting, “We got away with it!”

I must have missed the part of scriptures–which incidentally do not mention abortion–where it says “Thou shalt ignore EVERYTHING else in this book in order to get the judge you want on the Supreme Court.” Congratulations Pro-Life Movement, you may have won this battle, but you have lost me:  I resign.

The things we brought from Indiana

In the summer of 1968, a big orange Allied moving truck picked up our belongings from our campus housing at Ball State, stopped in Fort Wayne for the household items we had in storage in our house there and made the trip across Ohio to New Wilmington, Pennsylvania, where we would grow up and my parents would live out their lives. 50 years later we are closing up Mom and Dad’s house and disposing of most of their things. Dad died 16 years ago and Mom has moved into an assisted-living facility.

I walked through Mom’s house one last time when I was there in March and collected a few mementos, promising myself I would take no more than would fit in the backseat of my little VW Bug, remembering, after all, that it won’t be all that much longer until my own children are having to sort through my things.  As I looked over the record of their lives and thought about which pieces I would like to have, my choices were not based on value– Mom and Dad never had expensive pieces of furniture, antiques, jewelry, or art–it was instead odd little souvenirs of our lives together, a melmac serving dish, my seventh-grade shop project, Dad’s college yearbook, a couple of memorable toys from my childhood, some piano music and some photographs.  

I found myself thinking about possessions and the role they play in our lives. We were flat broke in 1968, after years of full-time grad school for Dad.  I think we were mostly living on credit cards and money borrowed from my grandfather. Dad and Mom, understandably, dropped a lot of money on the moving van.  And yet, 50 years later, those treasures and accoutrements of life–that they deemed significant enough to make the 300-mile trip to our new home–are all nearly gone. Most of the furniture, all of the appliances, all of the decor, all of the clothes, about 90% of the toys. All that remains of the contents of the moving van are a couple pieces of furniture, a large and useless collection of record albums,  a few books, some favorite toys, and photographs.

Of course, we’ve collected a much larger store of items in the five decades in Pennsylvania and as we’ve moved out, we’ve all left things behind in the old homestead. We’ll divide up the sentimental pieces among the four of us; Mom has a few things at her new residence; we’ll store a few items in Sally’s barn; and the rest will end up in dumpster.  What was the point of all those things? I’m a much bigger packrat than my parents and already have such a large collection of treasures and the ‘stuff’ of life, that it makes a move seem like a logistical impossibility. If anything reminds me of the growing-up years of my children it becomes impossible for me to dispose of; I am attached to those mementos on a cellular level.  My original family lived in seven different homes during my growing-up years, but–and probably because of that–I’ve never moved since we got married. So without a move to force a purging of possessions, I have 26 years of accumulation: a 3000-square foot house and two garages full.

When I was younger, I used to ponder the question of which objects I would grab in the event of a house fire, after the people and pets were safely outside.  That would be a torturous decision for me. The baby books? The negatives for the pre-digital pictures? A box of favorite Christmas decorations? In all likelihood I would burn up while I stood there trying to decide. Do I own my things? Or do they own me? Dad and Mom rented an expensive moving truck for a houseful of things that would all eventually wear out and be thrown away.  My own children will one day have to dispose of my gigantic treasure trove, wondering all the while, “Why in the world did Dad keep THIS?!”

More than anything–when they are going through my things someday–I want my children to realize that they were what mattered and that so many of my “treasures” are associated with them. In the meantime I’m going to work on parting with some of my collection so that I don’t look like an episode of “Hoarders” by the time I’m an old man . And I will strive to remember that plastic bins in the garage cannot store the true treasures of life.

What you have done to the least of these…

Eighteen years ago this fall, I accompanied a group of college students on a retreat over at a beautiful camp in Angola, NY. The setting was on the bluffs high above the Lake Erie shoreline.  We had a delightful time there except for one terrifying incident that is still burnished into my memory two decades hence. I had five-year-old Anthony and four-year-old Samantha with me; they played happily with the students at a variety of games and activities, but at some point on Saturday evening, I realized I did not know where Anthony was.  At first I searched calmly but as the minutes dragged on I became increasingly frantic and non-functional. The world suddenly seemed like such a dark and foreboding place. The cliffs down to the water seemed higher and steeper, the other people using the beach and building bonfires below seemed sinister and dangerous. As I descended into hysteria the sweet students took over and began systematically searching the camp and the beach below for my lost son. After what felt like hours but was probably less than 30 minutes, he was located, he’d been off playing happily with a couple of the boys. I still remember how my legs collapsed under me as I clutched him tightly to me, vowing to never let go of him again.

A and S

Every parent who has ever been separated from a child surely knows my terror. In my instance it had a happy ending and only I was frantic – Anthony never even realized he was lost. But it gives me a tiny glimpse into what refugee parents are experiencing now at our borders and at the hands of my own government, having their children ripped from their arms! Our Immigration and Naturalization Service is intentionally inflicting this horror onto adults AND CHILDREN as a deterrent to undocumented immigrants. This human rights violation is being undertaken by the nation which was supposed to be the shining city on the hill, leading the rest of the world to freedom, democracy, opportunity and liberty.  I teach my high school government students that our republic is based on “the will of the people as expressed through their elected representatives.” When the Trump administration enacted this family separation “strategy” it is doing so with my implied consent, which it absolutely DOES NOT HAVE. I have objected to so much that has been done by this administration but this hideous policy exceeds all other egregious behavior by this so-called president.

Trump won (sort of) the presidency by appealing to the most base fears and prejudices and greed of the electorate. There has been no appeal to us as a more caring, generous, and inclusive society.  He plays on fears and where there are none, he creates them. (Wait, is that a Mexican rapist I see lurking outside my window?! Oh wait, sorry, never mind, it is my lilac bush.) While I have come to expect this sort of behavior from the president, and some of his ill-informed followers, it horrifies me to have to engage in arguments with other believers, even Christian parents, who somehow find themselves willing to support this new horror at our borders.  Then to add insult to injury, Sarah Huckabee-Sanders, that great lighthouse of truth and honor, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, both attempted to distort scripture to back up their support for this heinous policy.

I implore my fellow believers to consider the message of love and social justice that Jesus brought to this world and his admonition that “what we have done to the least of these, we have done unto him.”  Do you not see that our arbitrary national boundaries–with or without a $30 billion dollar waste of our tax dollars–is entirely invisible to God? He is looking at our hearts, and calling us to welcome the strangers among us as were the Israelites and the Holy Family in Egypt.  Instead of counting ourselves blessed to have been born on this side of this imaginary line and all of the advantages and abundance that go with that, we are greedily trying to be sure that we don’t have to share any of that abundance with others in need. I’ve had a terribly hard time recognizing my own country for the past 18 months, now I also can’t even recognize my own faith.   As a father, as a Christian, as an American, and as a human being, I beg you to join me in petitioning Congress to stop this and to work to bring an end to this cruel, unjust, and vindictive policy. We are the richest nation on earth and we should be better than this.

Out there, full of shine and full of sparkle…

…close your eyes and see it glisten, Barnaby.

During my boyhood, my parents belonged to an old conservative holiness denomination which eschewed–among many worldly influences–movie theaters. We did have an old black & white, fuzzy, three-channel television, but, for the most part, we lived in a black and white world. By age 12 I had never seen a single movie and for a variety of reasons, including lack of money, had also never seen a play.  That was all about to change on a stage at Westminster College in Pennsylvania.

My mom worked at the student union of our local college and one evening, the ladies she worked with invited her to join them to see the play, Hello, Dolly! Mom came home enraptured and convinced my dad that we should all go back and watch it the next night. By the time we’d finished seeing the timeless story of Dolly Gallagher Levi Vandergelder unfold on the stage–played by an enchanting young actress named Louise Ammerman–my siblings and I had been transformed.  The play was sold out, but they allowed children to sit on the aisle floors for free. So we returned to our free floor seats for the remaining three nights of the production, trying to learn the songs and dialogue and cultivating our first-ever celebrity crush on Ms. Ammerman. In the weeks and months ahead we recalled and quoted “Dolly” as often as we could, my sister perfected her impersonation of the “So Long Dearie” scene. And the greatest excitement of our young lives was seeing Louise Ammerman walking in town or on campus, whereupon we would get flustered, giggle, and try to get up the nerve to wave at her.

Sometime in the months after the play, the Barbra Streisand movie version came to our small town theater.  Dad and Mom somehow reached a momentous decision: the Nichols family would, at long last, darken the doorway of a movie theater.  The first movie we ever saw was also spectacularly expensive: the last of the old-time lavish Hollywood blockbuster musicals.  When that extravaganza exploded onto the screen we were mesmerized, never having seen anything that big, bright, and colorful on a screen. The parade (which had up until that time, passed us by) was this larger-than-life recreation of 1890s New York, the booming orchestration filled the theater, the excitement pulsed through our impressionable young minds.  If the play had imbued us with a love for Dolly’s story and for live theater, the movie version began a lifelong love affair with movies in general and for Barbra Streisand in particular. I got the soundtrack of it for my birthday and we kids spent our summer months trying use my parent’s old console stereo to blast the music out the windows, as best as one could in 1972. By summer’s end we knew every word and lyric by heart. (Counting that record I had one LP at the time.)

So many aspects of childhood have faded away in the decades since.   My siblings live far away and gone are the carefree summer days when we would reenact the movie in the backyard. But the Hello Dolly thread in our DNA has remained strong. In those magical nights at Westminster we discovered the treasure of live performance.  All four of us acted in all of our high school plays, My sister went on to major in theatre. Her husband, son, and I all direct high school plays. My sister and I each made it to Broadway last year to see Bette Midler storm the stage in the latest incarnation of Dolly Levi.

Which brings us to 2018 when I’m realizing my lifelong dream of directing Dolly. About four years ago I started watching a young freshman girl who had such a strong stage presence in the chorus, and she read so beautifully for Juliet when I was teaching Shakespeare.  Could she be Dolly Levi? Could a school as tiny as the Academy put on a musical as grand as Dolly? I would need about a third of the student body to be in it and I would have to strong arm every English-speaking male (and a few English Language Learners) to be waiters and chorus members. Most of them, when asked, said “Sure, Dr. Nick!” When I had to have emergency open heart surgery last Thanksgiving I was afraid my Dolly dreams were down the drain, but I recuperated and spent the long days in bed dreaming and scheming of how to stage it.  And last night, it burst to life on the Academy stage and Elise and the cast were brilliant! They made me laugh and cry for two hours even though I’ve seen the show 200 times in the past three months.

And one of the most magical parts of the experience? Guess who has been cheering me on all along in this endeavor? Louise Ammerman herself, whom I rediscovered 40-some years later on facebook, and explained, that unbeknownst to her, she had cast such a influential shadow on my life.

As I stood in the back of the auditorium last night, I was reminded anew of the transcendent power of storytelling, and of the powerful shared experience that an audience can have through the mystery of theatre.  Tonight it transformed a disparate group of inexperienced high school students– including the soccer team who had never sung or danced before–into a company of players who made magic happen for themselves and for their audience and nearly a half century ago it opened the eyes of a small-town boy to the whole world outside of Yonkers.

Hello, Dolly, and Louise, and Barbra, and Bette….and Elise.

It’s so nice to have you back where you belong…

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A walk to remember…

I love visiting the grand old city of New York: the sights, the sounds, the smells, the energy that permeates the place; it is a paradise for a people watcher such as I. In particular I enjoy watching people walking dogs and pushing strollers, I suppose because those are two of my all-time favorite activities.  And yet 15 years or so since I last pushed a stroller, it is a bittersweet experience; how I miss those precious days. In recent years I’ve noticed that parents are typically also looking at a cellphone as they stroll along the city streets and it makes me happy that my own stroller years were before the distraction of cellphones.  Mind you, I am not passing judgement on today’s parents, I’m similarly addicted to my cell phone and if I’d had one back then I’d have probably been on it too. But instead, those days–of strollers, snuglis, wagons; pushing, carrying, hand-holding and piggy-backing my kids–were precious times of interacting with them. Before they could talk I would talk for both of us, sing songs, point out interesting sights, and invent stories for them. Later when they could talk those times became even more precious.

As I look back on those days, they feel like they were the times when I felt most fully alive and engaged.  There is something so all-consuming and fulfilling about parenting young children. You are entirely in charge of the safety, well being, and happiness of another human life, one that is more precious to you than anything in the world. When both parents are present, we back each other up, but other times I’d be alone with one or more of my kids and every fiber of my being was on full-alert.  Obviously I needed to be sure that they were comfortable, fed, and happy, with binkies and sippy cups at the ready. But more importantly I needed to be sure they were safe.  It was the closest I ever came to feeling like Superman.  Even as I was enjoying my time with them I was ever vigilant and on guard against danger.  I’d gameboard a car jumping the curb, a crazed kidnapper attempting to snatch the stroller when every second would be of the essence. I knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that if any harm befell my children that it would literally only be over my dead body. There aren’t many things I am absolutely sure of in life, but that was one of them.

15 years later those same kids are spread across the country; if they are in any danger I am powerless to help. When there was a terrorist planting bombs in Austin, Texas, there wasn’t much I could do to protect my son. (“Uh, Anthony, don’t pick up any packages outside your apartment, OK?”) Or I get automated text alerts from William & Mary or Gonzaga or Yale about a campus alert about a possible gun or bomb, and I can do nothing but offer up a prayer for safety. In fact these days it is more likely that my kids will have to come to my aid, as they’ve done when I had cancer or open-heart surgery.

Each stage of parenting is wonderful in its own unique way–including and especially adult children–but once a stage is passed it can never be reclaimed. Do the parents on the sidewalks realize how terribly brief these days will be?  Probably not, but there’s nothing I can do about it, for them or for me. And so I watch wistfully and cherish the memories of giggle from the stroller or a chubby little hand clutching mine. Sigh….


On the Shoulders of a Giant…

Across my 22 years of schooling I was incredibly fortunate to encounter three remarkable women educators who fostered in me a love of learning, lighted my path, inspired me with their wisdom, and prepared me as an educator. This past week the world lost one of these luminaries: my favorite college professor, academic advisor, and in later years, my Sunday School teacher, and friend. As a transfer student many moons ago, the college registrar, upon learning I was considering a major in history, kind of blithely announced, “Oh, then I’ll put you in Kay Lindley’s Russian History class; you’ll enjoy that.” “Ugh,” I thought to myself; “no, I won’t.” Happily enough he was entirely right and I was entirely wrong. It turned out to be the most fascinating college class I ever took.  Sitting in Professor Lindley’s classroom I truly learned what a liberal arts education should be. Her lectures never failed to be fascinating and insightful; I was never bored in her class.  But more than that, she knew which questions to ask, how to inspire discussion, and–more than any other teacher I’ve encountered–how to integrate faith and learning. Her faith informed her scholarship and inspired ours.

As is probably often true with young believers, I went through periods of doubt as a college student, never more so than in 1981 when six of my friends were killed in an automobile accident.  There were times when the world in general, and God in particular, didn’t make sense. I remember on one occasion of soul searching I came to this comforting realization: “Dr. Lindley is the most brilliant person I’ve ever known, if Christianity makes sense to her, then I guess I’ll continue to hang in with it.”

Throughout my life I’ve been blessed with strong female role models who helped me to reject gender stereotypes, who expanded the narrow confines of my conservative evangelical upbringing. I believe these women, Katherine Lindley chief among them, helped me to be a more progressive believer and in later years, a better father to my daughter.  If seems a fitting postscript to her remarkable life that she died on International Women’s Day. Long before Hillary Clinton, Kay Lindley broke down barriers and shattered the glass ceiling at a small Christian college by always being the smartest person in the room. She knew how to combine mental toughness and acuity with a tender love and devotion to her students.  Every time I sat down with her as my advisor I was astonished by 1) how unfailingly happy she was to see me come through her door and 2) how astonishingly she recalled my story, my coursework, my hopes and dreams. Many years later when I served as a college student advisor I realized anew how truly remarkable were both of those attributes. In all my years of knowing her, I only ever heard her become emotional one time.  In much later years, as my adult Sunday School teacher, she was working through the gospel of Mark with us and her voice cracked as she tried to describe the love of Christ, That rare display of emotion made such a deep and lasting impression on me.


Nearly forty years after I sat in her Russian history class I find myself a member of that ancient and noble profession of teaching and wishing that I could somehow channel the wisdom and greatness of Katherine Lindley, or at the very least that video cameras had existed in 1979 so that I could go back and better study her transformative pedagogy that I somehow took for granted as a nineteen-year-old sophomore. Bernard of Chartres observed that anything we are able to accomplish is only because we are like dwarfs perched on the shoulders of the giants who have gone before us.  So today I remember and celebrate the life of Professor Kay Lindley and the generations of students who can see further into both the past and the future because of her pioneering work, brilliant historical mind, and caring heart. I’m forever grateful that my journey brought me through the classroom of her life.