Anna

I looked at my class roster today, and cried.

There was one less name than there was yesterday. And although I barely knew the student taken off my list of students, it crippled me emotionally.

I love getting to know my students. It’s why I became a teacher. It’s why I choose to teach at a small college. By the end of the semester, I get to know all my students — some more than others, but a little about each person. And they learn a little about me. But I’ll never get that chance with Anna.

I met Anna three times, to be precise: summer orientation, fall orientation and in the first meeting of the freshman experience class I teach. That means I called her name three times, and she responded each time, either by saying “Here,” but more likely by simply raising her hand.

I take that simple process for granted. When I call a student’s name, most will usually be present. There’s always some absences, but I never worry about the missing student. Whether they’re legitimately missing class or just skipping it, they always come back.

But Anna, who’s still on the class roster I printed out at the beginning of the semester, will never come back. Of course, I could print out the new roster with her name removed, but that doesn’t seem right. She didn’t drop the class. She didn’t change majors. She didn’t fail.

She died on her way to class. Tragically killed by another driver who hit her car head-on after crossing the center line on a busy highway.

She’s no longer on my class roster. She’s not on my list of advisees. Her seat will be empty in my classroom. But even though I never got to know Anna, I get this sense that I’ll never forget her.

Devotional: Recognizing God

Originally published on oconeestreetumc.org

March 16, 2018

Psalms 27:4: One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple.

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“Wow. That is so cool that you have your own flower blooming just for you,” one of my advanced writing students said as she walked into my office.

“What are you talking about?” I asked

“Out your window. You haven’t seen it?” she said as she pointed out my office window.

“Oh. Wow. Yeah. That is really cool. I love that!” I answered.

Of course, this was the first time I ever recognized that flower, or any flower that blooms outside my window. Honestly, I can’t even remember the last time I looked out that window. My attention has been laser-focused on the 1,000+ unanswered emails on my computer screen, the stacks of papers and tests to grade sitting on my desk, and countless students coming in and out of my office for writing one-on-ones.

I had to lie to my student. We just spent the last class discussing the importance of taking in scenes and environments when conducting in-person interviews or covering events. Journalists have to be the eyes and ears for their readers, and in some cases the nose, hands and taste buds. It’s important that writers recognize the entire scene around them, always observant, like a detective looking for clues. But here I am, failing to recognize the scene around my own office, where I spend several hours each day.

Carla often tells me I have “tunnel vision.” I’m good at reaching the finish line, but bad at recognizing the environment along the way. Although this tunnel vision can serve me well in some situations — such as meeting deadlines or coming through in the clutch — it does impair my ability to recognize God’s beauty around me.

Our church has been focusing on “listening” this Lent. I’ve realized that if I take the time to listen, my sense of hearing will not be the only sense impacted by this practice. Focusing on listening allows my other senses to come alive. As I write this on the bleachers of a baseball field, I feel God’s presence in the gentle, cool breeze interrupting the still air. I smell God’s creation in the freshly cut grass. And I can see God’s miracles as children run around with pure joy.

God has flowers blooming for me, all around me. But one place they’re not growing is in my tunnel. I need to make more conscious efforts to peek outside my tunnel and take in God’s beauty with all my senses.

Prayer: God, you are all around me. Arouse my senses so I can enjoy your beauty. Amen.

Devotional: God appears

Originally published on oconeestreetumc.org

March 1, 2018

Philippians 2:13 (NIV): For it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.

 “Third place: Georgia Highlands College.”

This is good news, I thought. We finished second last year in the Georgia College Press Association contest, the first time Piedmont College’s student newspaper was named a “General Excellence” publication in more than a decade. And my students worked really hard in 2017. Another second-place finish would solidify our reputation as one of the best small-college newspapers in the state.

“Second place: Berry College.”

Holy smoke! Berry is consistently at the top! When I arrived at Piedmont three years ago, my goal as adviser of the newspaper was to elevate it to the top of the rankings within five years. Could we be two years ahead of schedule? My heart started racing. I could barely contain my excitement. I am the best college media adviser in the history of the world! Here we go …

“First place: Abraham Baldwin College.”

What? My heart sank. As Abraham Baldwin students celebrated and rushed to the stage to collect their award, I could barely make eye contact with my students. I don’t understand this. Over the past year our newspaper raised its standards dramatically, covering issues such as domestic abuse, transgendered student discrimination, guns on campus and the challenges faced by a Piedmont student about to lose DACA protections. What could Abraham Baldwin possibly have covered to earn first place? Was there a cow tipping scandal?

Honestly, I should’ve seen it coming. It was a fitting end to a crappy week. I was on my fifth consecutive 12-hour workday, I unintentionally ditched two important meetings the day before and I was furious at a couple students who bailed at the last minute to make the trip. I was also struggling to get along with anyone in my family – even the dog would snap at me.

I had to hold it together for my students. They needed a good leader, and a good time. We ditched our per diem and drowned our sorrows in overpriced pasta, ultra-rich chocolate cake and gourmet coffee. It was a truly great dinner. The camaraderie of the team overshadowed any disappointment we had.

But the inevitable happened a few hours later. I was alone facing a 55-mile drive home. And the emotions hit me.

I tried to ignore the voices telling me I was a loser and I let my students down. But they persisted.

I tried praying, asking God to help me, but the voices grew louder. Why is God abandoning me?

Tears were streaming down my face, and I was heading down a familiar spiral into depression.

Then I received a text alert on my phone. It was from one of my students.

“Hey Joe. Did you make it home?”
“En route,” I replied.
“K. Don’t text while driving, Just wanted to tell you you are the best. Thanks for being the best.”

My tears of self-loathing turned into tears of pride, and even laughter. How could I get so upset over something so trivial? What’s really important is how incredible my students are, and obviously I’m making a positive impact on them.

The text was from Page, my news editor. In hindsight, I know it was also from God.

Prayer: God, thank you for always being there for me. Thank you for working through other people to influence my life. Help me be a tool for you to impact others.

Devotional: Listen

Originally published on oconeestreetumc.org

Feb. 15, 2018

Mark 4:9: “Let the person who has ears to hear, listen!”

When I learned the theme for our Lenten season is “Listen,” my mind couldn’t help but recount the song of the same name from Atlanta band Collective Soul …

Hey, you now wander aimlessly around your consciousness.
Your prophecies fail, and your thoughts become weak.
Silence creates necessity.
You’re clothing yourself in the shields of despair.
Your courage now impaired.
Hey, why can’t you listen?
Hey, why can’t you hear?
Hey, why can’t you listen as love screams everywhere.

As a former rock radio disc jockey, I’ve probably heard this song more than 1,000 times (it was a #1 rock radio hit in 1997). Its mesmerizing guitar hook and catchy chorus made it a popular song. Ironically, through all those times I’ve played the song, I never actually listened to the lyrics of “Listen.” But as the song was replaying in my head, it took on a much deeper, spiritual, meaning.

I’ve been “feeding my mind with selfishness” for a long time. From the iPhone to the Echo, I’ve always tried to have the latest gadget. From HBO to satellite radio, I’ve always afforded myself with as many entertainment options as possible. From announcing UGA hockey games to joining yet another committee, I’ve always attempted to keep myself busy.

And at the end of the day, before my “thoughts become weak” and I clothe myself in “shields of despair,” I take two different antidepressant drugs and fall asleep … before waking up and doing it all over again.

I haven’t talked to God in a long time.

“Silence creates necessity,” but I haven’t given time for the silence I need to hear God. I haven’t listened to God.

This Lent, I’m going to make the time.

Prayer: God, I know you’re trying to talk to me. But I keep shutting you out by occupying my life, my mind with a million other things. I promise to try, but I’m also asking for you to help me open up, and listen.

I just wanted to swim with the other kids

Originally published on Patriot Not Partisan

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Me in 1980 – 4 years old.

When I was growing up, our neighbor had an above-ground swimming pool, a rarity in the tiny backyards of the homes on the Southside of Chicago. We could see the pool from our kitchen window.

I often played with the kids who lived in that house and considered them friends. But come summertime, they naturally spent their days in the pool. On any given day, lots of neighborhood kids could be seen playing in that pool. I wanted to play, too. After all, I was a neighborhood kid. But my parents said it would be impolite to ask — I needed to be invited. I watched them play from our kitchen window, sometimes even wearing my swimming trunks just waiting … but that invitation never came.

That’s the first time I learned that I was different from the neighborhood kids. Chicago was — and in many areas still is — highly segregated.  We lived in a white neighborhood. As a half-Filipino, half-white child, I was generally tolerated in my neighborhood, but never fully accepted (outside of my best friend and his family). At my Catholic elementary school, a few of my classmates would call me a “Filipino fart.” In high school, the kid who sat behind me in homeroom would often tell me to “go back to your country, wherever that is.” When I told the teacher about this, he told me to “just ignore it” and asked if I had finished my work. He completely dismissed my concerns, instead of addressing the situation.

Although I brushed off the racist rhetoric and actions, it did significant damage to my soul. I was severely wounded. I would bury myself in writing poetry, listening to heavy metal and dabbling in whatever substance I could get my hands on. One day, I wanted to end it all. And I almost did.

Twenty years later I found myself surrounded by people who accept me — and even celebrate me — for who I am. Of course, I knew there was still hate in the world. I wasn’t naive. I knew many people, especially blacks, Hispanics and gay people, still faced significant discrimination. And I always tried to stand with them. Although an ally against racism, I no longer felt like a victim. The wounds I endured in childhood were permanently healed, I thought.

Then Charlottesville happened, and more specifically, President Trump’s response. Like most Americans, I was shocked and saddened by the events of Saturday. And I was stunned by the tepid response given by the President. But I dug into my diversity training playbook and gave him the benefit of the doubt. As someone who has always been rich, white, straight and male, he cannot possibly understand what racial discrimination feels like. And on Monday, Trump at least made an effort to say the right thing.

Then his press conference on Tuesday happened. And the wounds in my soul that I thought were long healed began to flare up. When President Trump said, “there are bad people on both sides,” that little boy in his swimming trunks staring out the window occupied my mind. When the President said, there are “many fine people” among the neo-Nazis calling for an ethnic cleansing of our nation, the faces of the boys calling me a “Filipino fart” appeared. And when Trump promoted his winery in Charlottesville — “one of the largest wineries in the United States” — that teacher who dismissed my concerns was back.

In my diversity training, I learned there are actually very few racists in the world. Most people are just ignorant. I always thought our President fell into the latter category. But after his passionate statements Tuesday, and his continued unwillingness to consider the hurt his words have caused, it’s difficult not to consider him a racist.

And if you’re willing to overlook this fact and still support him, then you are no better than my high school teacher.

Chris Cornell’s suicide rooted in depression

Everything appeared to be alright.

Reunited and on tour with his original band, Soundgarden, Chris Cornell tweeted at 8:06 p.m.:

#Detroit finally back to Rock City!!! @soundgarden #nomorebullshit.

The band roared through a blistering 17-song set, playing the grunge sound they helped invent, including hard rock radio staples like “Outshined,” “Black Hole Sun” and “The Day I Tried to Live.” Much has been made about the telling encore the band performed that night, “Slaves & Bulldozers,” that includes a snippet of Led Zeppelin’s “In My Time of Dying” with Cornell belting the eerie lyrics:

In my time of dying, I want nobody to mourn.
All I want for you to do is take my body home.

However, Soundgarden performed that same song combination two weeks earlier in Concord, North Carolina. And if fans are seeking foreshadowing of his death through song lyrics, several of Cornell’s own songs provided such insight, such as the closing verse of “Searching With My Eyes Closed,” in which he verbalizes the battle inside his mind:

Stop you’re trying to bruise my mind,
I can’t do it on my own.
Stop you’re trying to kill my time,
It’s been my death since I was born.
I don’t remember half the time if I’m hiding or if I’m lost.
But I’m on my way.

Like the many rock lead singers who committed suicide before him, Cornell turned his depression into beautiful music, and his deeply personal lyrics were treasured by fans who were suffering alongside him.

Everyone has internal demons — that voice in the head that is constantly telling a person to take the dishonorable, destructive and/or selfish path when confronted with a dilemma. Most people are able to silence that voice. But for someone suffering from depression — when in a depressed state of mind — that voice can become overbearing. There are multiple ways to deal with this. Drugs and alcohol are highly effective at silencing that voice, albeit temporarily. Another effective way is to somehow dispel that negative energy through activity, whether it be physical or artistic, such as songwriting and performing, as Cornell did beautifully.

But you never know when that voice will come back. And if it comes back when you are mentally susceptible, you never know what you are capable of doing. For Chris Cornell, like thousands of others every year, the permanent solution was suicide.

Contemplating suicide? Call 1-800-273-8255.

Trump, America about to deny Jesus

Deuteronomy 10:18-19 – “For the Lord your God…loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”


Donald Trump is likely going to sign an executive order tomorrow banning child refugees from Syria from entering the United States. Unlike his bans on other nationd that will last 100 days, his ban on Syrians is indefinite, a.k.a. permanent.

This means the families that are in the process of adopting parent-less Syrian children will not be allowed to proceed with their adoption. This means that Christian organizations that relocate child refugees to families in the United States, like Samaritan’s Purse and World Relief, will no longer be able to do their work. These children will likely die.

There is a lot of ambiguity in the Bible. Even contradictions. But the Bible’s stance on welcoming immigrants is clear.  There are more than 50 references in the Bible regarding “aliens,” “immigrants,” “foreigners” or “strangers.”
Remember, baby Jesus himself was a Middle Eastern refugee. And throughout his life, he was very clear on how we should treat refugees. In every instance Jesus comes across the downtrodden, he welcomes them.

His expectations of us in dealing with refugees is clear in Matthew 25: 34-46. This is the well-known passage where Jesus tells us that the key to pleasing God is to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, etc. In verse 35 he tells us to “invite in the stranger.” Here, it’s important to note that Matthew was written in Greek, and the original word for stranger was “Xenos,” which can be translated to English as “immigrant,” “foreigner” or “stranger.”

Donald Trump is going to sign an executive order denying refugees tomorrow. And in the process, our nation will be denying Jesus.