Erring on the side of love

Amazing words from my brilliant roommate on SCOTUS’ historic decision to honor marriage equality. Whatever you believe, please take a moment to read this. I hope you feel, above all, loved and called to love others.


A big thing happened this morning. The US Supreme Court ruled that all states must license and recognize same-sex marriage. Many of my friends are celebrating this, some because it means that they will have the right to marry now. And I’m celebrating too.

But I’m also holding my breath and waiting for the backlash to start. I’m waiting for the Christians to speak out in anger, to appeal, to condemn. It’s certainly coming—that (hopefully small) tide of blog posts and articles that will wash over my Facebook newsfeed. I’m battening down the hatches for the ones explaining why marriage should be defined as one man with one woman. The ones proclaiming that Christianity is under attack in this country. The ones that willfully forget that while their target may be a court ruling, the shrapnel of their vitriol wounds real people. I’m prepared for the thoughtless reposts, for the…

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The Hand We’re Dealt

This is a slightly revised version of a talk I gave at the Campbell Church of Christ and Northlake Church of Christ. A few people asked for a transcript, so I wanted to add it to my blog and make it available to anyone who wanted to read it. This talk has been on my mind again recently because I’ve been struggling with depression again. It’s frustrating to feel like you’ve come so far, and made so much progress, but still fall on your face from time to time. What has been true, though, is that I’ve taken the lessons I’ve learned from past experiences to better help myself this time: identifying symptoms sooner, applying medication proven to work in the past, and relying on the boundless love and support of my blood and church families. I hope that if these words resonate with you, you will take hope from them, as I am attempting to do now.

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Throughout my life I have struggled with depression. This has been a brutal journey at times, but I’ve had amazing support from my family and my counselor, Dr. Griffin. Dr. G and I first met when I was in high school, and he’s been a formative part of my life ever since. He helped me to get to the root of my depression and figure out how I could help myself get better, which came, in large part, by learning to see myself as God sees me, not as I see myself.

Let me explain. There was a time in my life where I was very uncomfortable with the person God made me to be. I didn’t understand my quirks, my gifts—the way it all fit together. Because of that, I couldn’t believe anything good about myself and began tearing myself down, discounting different aspects of my personality. Dr. G helped me understand what I was doing to myself with the following illustration:

Every person is dealt a certain hand of cards in life. My “hand” makes up all the gifts and abilities that I have, to whatever degree I have them. Now, not every gift is going to be an Ace. To me, though, if it wasn’t an Ace, it didn’t count, and any cards that didn’t count were tossed away. I told myself, “Well, I’m never going to be in the Olympics, so I’m not a good athlete. I’m never going to be ‘Hollywood’ pretty, so I’m ugly. I’m not as funny or popular as my younger sister, so I’m boring and plain. I’m not as smart or responsible as my older sister, so I’m stupid and a failure.” As I discounted more and more cards, my arsenal with which to handle life dwindled, and it became completely unmanageable. Dr. G put it this way: “No wonder you’re depressed. Life’s just too painful with only two cards.”4530227761_f1ba6dee88_z

Now, what Dr. G really helped me understand is that all of those cards, in their varying degrees or intensities, were purposefully crafted together to make me the best version of myself, and that, by discounting them, I was hamstringing myself—making it impossible for me to do the things I was designed to do. Furthermore, Dr. G convicted me of the fact that I actually had no right to throw all of those cards away. Those gifts were entrusted to me by God, and I do not get to ignore them just because I think they don’t count.

One Biblical story in particular has been a powerful reminder of this realization: the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25. Now, I know that it’s just a coincidence of language that the ancient currency is called a “talent,” but that’s precisely what I’m talking about: the talents that God has entrusted to us. If you remember, three servants were all given charge of differing amounts of “talents.” Two servants used those talents and were able to show to their master a good return; they were productive. One servant, however, hid the talent he received—literally buried it in the ground—and then returned it to his master unused and with nothing to show for the gift—and the responsibility—he’d been given.

I’m here to confess today that I have been the wicked, lazy servant who hid my gifts in the ground.

I was greedy; I wanted more talents.

I was arrogant; I exaggerated my talents.

I was resentful; I coveted the gifts others had.

I was ungrateful; I didn’t appreciate what I had been given.

I was cowardly; I didn’t want to face my limitations.

Most of all, though, I lied. I lied to myself about what I could or could not do, what abilities I had and what abilities I didn’t, and I let that eat away at my spirit like a cancer until I was too sick to accomplish the tasks God expected me to accomplish.

This is written in my Bible under the story of the talents: “We aren’t let off the hook just because we don’t think our gifts are great. Whatever we have, in whatever measure we have, we are EXPECTED to use.”

I needed to come to grips with myself, and I needed someone who saw me more clearly than I saw myself to wake me up—to shake me from my distorted way of thinking and get back to the business of being the Grace God intends me to be.

One other small story of a slightly harsher reality check: when I was still working on my Bachelor’s at Pepperdine and was in the midst of my worst depression, I had a professor I really look up to tell me that maybe I just wasn’t cut out for college. Far from being mean, he was forcing me to face that very real possibility—a kick in the rear I needed to help me resolve that, no, I was meant to finish college, and I needed to get my act together in order to do that. Now, it took me a while, but I eventually finished my Bachelor’s, and once that first hurdle was cleared, a whole world of opportunity opened up to me. I went on to get my Master’s, taught full-time for a university, and now I’m in Atlanta working on my Ph.D.—none of which would have been possible without some hard truths.

Once I told myself the truth about the gifts God has given me, I was able to accomplish all I was meant to do, but was afraid I couldn’t do. None of this would have been possible, however, without an entire team of truth-tellers… and for that, they have my gratitude and a place of high honor in my heart.

Composition: Techne or Technical?

One Last Trip
Photo by Hannah Dewey

“Pied Beauty”       Gerard Manley Hopkins

Glory be to God for dappled things—
  For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
     For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
  Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
     And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
  Whatever is fickle, freckled, (who knows how?)
     With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                                                Praise him.

The question remains: what do we teach? Is our field primarily techne or technical? Are we artists or scientists? Can any good essay be compiled by checklist, or must there be something of the heart—something of art about it?

Hopkins is my favorite poet. The way he plays with language is captivating, and his message always speaks to the very core of who I am, what Hopkins might call the “deep down things.” He reminds me that, though I’m not studying literature anymore, great literature is what my new field, composition, is capable of. At its best, its most powerful, composition moves nations, changes minds, and touches hearts. These are all qualities of art.

That’s just poetry, you say. Composition as a field in its own right is more straightforward and less frilly, you might argue. Isn’t there a certain art to a well-written journal article? Isn’t there an art to a well-written first-year essay, a science report, an internal memo, an op-ed piece? At the very least, can’t we all agree that there exist (and we have seen) written pieces that were utterly artless?

A few years ago I was helping grade research papers for a huge biology class. I was given a strict rubric to follow that took into account the number of sources, the correctness of the citations, the cohesiveness of the argument, and (of course) grammar and punctuation. Students were penalized for each and every instance of a mechanical error in their papers, so students who only made one mistake, but who repeated the mistake fifteen times throughout the paper (as often happens), were penalized not once, but fifteen times. The end result of this was that I ended up giving a higher grade to a student who wrote a dreadfully dull, unimaginative, dispassionate, painful-to-read paper that only used simple sentences (that’s right, eight whole pages of simple sentences), and a lower grade to a student who wrote compellingly about a fascinating topic but had minor issues with commas.

There was no space on the rubric to indicate artistic merit or the sophistication of the writer’s work. It was writing according to rubric, grading according to grammar, and it in itself was artless.

My friend Cole is the Director of the Writing Center and the Chair of the English Department at ACU, and we had a conversation about this once. “I never use a rubric to grade essays,” he said. “I know what good writing is, and I know what good writing isn’t.” He went on to draw a comparison to his friend Dan, who teaches art at ACU: “When Dan puts a grade on a student’s work, he doesn’t have to sit there and justify his grade according to a checklist. He’s the expert; he just knows.” This isn’t to say that Dan and Cole don’t give clear feedback on the work they receive, because they do; they just don’t constrain themselves to assigning a grade on a rubric.

My readings this week for my Composition Theory class convinced me that those of us in the comp field need to adjust the way we teach writing, particularly when it comes to first-year writing. An article by Mina P. Shaugnessy outlined the four styles of teaching that occur in developmental classes, and argues that teachers need to make adjustments to their teaching styles and their understanding of the material itself: “he will begin to see that while his lessons in the past may have been ‘simple,’ the sources of the error he was trying to correct were often complex.” In another article, Richard Braddock conducted a survey of published writing from 1964 and 1965 (which was in the heyday of the stoic, right/wrong, black/white, current-traditional method of composition) and found that topic sentences were not nearly as widely implemented as your high school teacher told you. Topic sentences were also not nearly as simple and straightforward as you’ve been told. Even in the early 60s, when expressivism was still just a twinkle in Peter Elbow’s eye, there were topic sentences that started at the beginning of the paragraph and found their completion at the end of the paragraph, there were implied topic sentences, there were two topic sentences in a single paragraph or none, and they appeared variously throughout the paragraph, not just in the first sentence. In short, these writers wrote as artists, engaging complex forms and being guided by their feel for the piece as well as their ideas.

What we do in composition classes may not be Hopkins, but I’d argue that it’s closer to Hopkins than it is to an Excel spreadsheet. We treat writing, and the instruction of style and grammar, as a simple matter of observing rules and following forms… only to be disappointed by tedious student essays. I envision us teaching grammar the way Dan might teach brushstrokes. There is an element of the technical to it, but there is room for variation, room for perceived “error” that is actually a stylistic choice, and room for personal expression. After all, if we could teach grammar as a matter of simply memorizing some rules, wouldn’t we have seen better results in our classes by now? If we want students to engage, don’t tell them this difficult thing is “simple;” tell them it is a complex art we are here to play with, and let them see the possibility of beauty in bucking conventions. Give them Hopkins and let them see that a few well-matched words can invoke the image of embers tumbling in a fire better than any five-paragraph essay.