At the intersection of writing and life with the author of the Cameron Ballack mysteries

Sunday, May 25, 2014

A Long Obedience in the Same Direction

For having lived in Maryland for a good chunk of time, it's somewhat odd I never warmed up to being a Baltimore Orioles baseball fan. But I did grow to admire the O's shortstop, Cal Ripken Jr. Ripken hit for decent power, was renowned for his leadership and guts, and was a peerless fielder who positioned himself well to anticipate each batter. Yet for all his accolades in those areas, Ripken is know most of all as "The Iron Man". Ripken played in 2632 consecutive games in his career, shattering the previous record held by Lou Gehrig. That's the equivalent of over sixteen baseball seasons of showing up for work every day and doing his job.

In 1980, Eugene Peterson wrote his timeless classic A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, which outlined the good life for modern pilgrims of everyday existence. In an age of instant fixes and gratification, Peterson used a cluster of Psalms from the Bible (more specifically called the Psalms of Ascent) to point people to growth "in worship, service, joy, work, happiness, humility, community, and blessing." The secret to success, says Peterson, is not a quick solution but rather a willingness to "show up" regularly to do God's will.

So what do Ripken and Peterson have to do with one another? Simply because they remind me of two other people: George Stulac and Deborah Clarke.

It was soon after we moved to St. Louis in 2008 that we attended Memorial Presbyterian Church for a season of two-plus years. A magnificent structure of Gothic Revival architecture on Skinker Boulevard just south of the Delmar Loop, Memorial's physical beauty is matched and surpassed by the sincerity of its parishioners and the simple, pastoral warmth of George Stulac, who has served as the church's senior pastor since 1981. The first thing that strikes you about George is his quiet and inviting nature. A self-confessed introvert, he nonetheless is passionate about the relationships he enjoys with people. Soon after I began at Westminster Christian Academy, he asked to have lunch with me, which turned into a wonderful hour of encouragement and blessing. George's preaching was straightforward, clear, and drawn from both study and experience. George was a steady hand on the leader's wheel: Memorial has had a few minor quakes over the years that come from growing together as a spiritual family, but George has never complained about any potential threats. Instead, he knows that suffering is something to be moved through and learned from, that endurance (as William Barclay once said) is the ability to bear a hard thing and turn it into glory. When our little Jordan died in November 2008, there was no one else we would want to officiate his funeral than George. From Psalm 86, George reminded us that God is merciful, gracious, and good; he confessed the mystery that had caused us to know more suffering than he could imagine. His words meant more than we can properly express.

Now George has announced his time as pastor of Memorial is coming to an end. August 17th will be the occasion of his final sermon, and you can bet the Davis family will be there at Memorial Presbyterian for the 10:45 service that morning, six years to the day after we first met him, thirty-three years after he began there as senior pastor. Faithful, dependable, and consistent…those are words that come to mind regarding George Stulac.

Also, this week marks the end of another era. I have commended my high school English teacher, Deb (Harbaugh) Clarke in another post from last year. At the close of this school year, Deb will retire from teaching in the Carroll County Public School system. When she does, it will bring to an end an amazing streak of forty-one years in the same school district. Think about that: forty-one years…one hundred, sixty-four marking periods…hundreds of books discussed…scores of test review games (by the way, how did they always end in a tie?)…and thousands of papers graded. But beyond that, Deb taught a vast army of serious students how to write, how to communicate…in short, how to love language and to make music with words, whether it be a compare-contrast essay, a persuasive essay, or an expository paper on Great Expectations. Her approach was not a system of lathery compliments tossed indiscriminately into a student pool. Her comments--both for praise and correction--were carefully chosen and intended to make her students great communicators. No matter what background, no matter how much or little apparent potential, Deb believed that every one of her students could--nay, should--be phenomenal writers. Humans should be masters of the glory of words, she believed, and every student has the opportunity to shape the mosaic of exposition, the tesserae of story, the pieces of clarity into a tapestry that reflects the human spirit and experience, simply because we should want other to know what is and what the joy of living can be.

Now that era is coming to an end. Deb is retiring, and the world of teaching is suffering one of the greatest losses imaginable. But I will always remember that she showed up every day to teach me, to insure that each paper I did was better than the one before, and that I would be an excellent communicator. And thus, whenever I look at a copy of Litany of Secrets or any of the subsequent manuscripts of my yet-unpublished sequels, I see Deb Clarke. I am a writer because of her.

A long obedience in the same direction. Faithfulness and doggedness are qualities often overlooked today. But they are the characteristics that often make the biggest difference. And by showing up with Ripken-like determination, George Stulac and Deb Clarke have made maximum impact, watering the soil of hearts they have touched over the long haul. And those efforts are deserving of deepest thanks.

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