Derek Johnson Muses

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Christmas is Coming…Wait, that Sounds Foreboding


3 hours into first big snow fall of winter 2012-2013

I am grateful I went advent service this morning instead of tonight-well, I couldn’t have gone this evening anyway, given that the first big snow of the year has started. As of right now, I’m packed in; time to get a photo show ready for the Noyes Focus room in February.

In the business of Blue River Hybrids, Christmas is time to close the office for a week and take a break from the fall test sample-grind. In my world, the only luxury of the Christmas season are the Starbucks seasonal lattes I enjoy. The world’s Christmas, for the most part, is a world that I am oblivious too. Every couple of years, I jump on a sale or two, but sales are for suckers.

It’s not intentional. For the most part, I lead a modest life, and the season of Christmas doesn’t alter that. I will buy gifts for my immediate family at the gallery (plug-Noyes Art Gallery offers a number of great gifts, and they are all originals), and I’ll give some people my pictures as presents. But if you were going to give me a gift and can’t decide, donate the money to a charity that helps needy families or feeds children, or to a missions society in my name. Tom Unger, you may have Christmas solved.

And I don’t care for how Christmas always seems to be celebrated two weeks before it actually happens. While it hasn’t been as bad this year, the networks have been trotting out Christmas programming the day after Halloween over the past five years. With school programs being moved up to December 17, Christmas feels over before it even arrives at times. Please, everyone go to Facebook and like Occupy Advent.

Over these next couple weeks, my family will eventually come back and leave. I’ll make some cookies and few other good meals. My father’s two brothers will cover for a meal, or we will go over there. We’ll exchange gifts, and may have some extra snow. At church, I’ll have some extra duties for Worship Committee, as we will be down to one service with few ushers over the next couple of weeks. Christmas doesn’t feel huge for me; it just feels like a big message in a small world.

In mid-December, I choose to live in Advent rather than look forward to Christmas. The picture in my mind isn’t garlands or trimmed trees, but of repentance. We studied Philippians 4 this  past Sunday in Bible class, and two words struck me: Paul’s exhortation to “rejoice” and his commendation of peace to the believers. At church this morning, Pastor Bruick finished our advent series on notable births, including Benjamin and Obed. Both themes welded themselves together: every birth is a time to rejoice and a time for peace, how much more so the birth of Christ! Thanks be to God!

(Christmas meditation)

Concordia: The Open Road Back

After I finished my tour of our Wisconsin Test Plots, I took a swing by my alma mater, Concordia University Wisconsin. I attended there from 2003 to 2005 and never quite felt that I grafted in. Since my graduation, I had returned the campus twice before, both times in the spring; once in 2007, while I was on a pleasure trip with my friend Tom, and again in 2008, when I was on a business trip, I walked campus one night among the students. I don’t really get sentimental about my school or consider it my personal height, but college is a time that enters my dreams frequently, and I relish the chance to kindle old memories

They now make you get a permit at a guard booth at the turnoff into campus, if you just want to go down and look at the bluff. The campus itself requires an access card to get inside, but after my walk on the lakeshore and around campus, I found a propped door and walked the hallways I once did as a student. In contrast to the new buildings, the halls are still lined with grossly obvious mosaic tile. The whole building is really just a contrast between shiny new buildings and un-updated doors, floors, and what have you. When I unwittingly ascended the fire-well of my old dorm, I saw the doors of the Augusburgh rooms remained the same pale shells with privacy glass they’d always been.

The dorm I lived four semesters in.

After I’d strolled my old stomping grounds, I took a seat by the bluff and wrote the following:

I’m sitting here overlooking the bluff at CUW. Beautiful summer day. This is like San Francisco in that there’s a huge structure next to a body of water.
Nine years ago in the fall, I came here to study to be a pastor. I’m not that guy any more, but a part of me never left here. The boy that was here was praying by a thread that he’d make it through seminary, that he could hold his mind together that long. (In retrospect, that boy never died). In the spring of 2005, I declared the enterprise a failure. Everyone around me had friends, and I would leave here with no social life to speak of. The embarrassment was unbearable; in the years that followed, I realized a lot of that was because I didn’t have the support structure a lot of people here had in terms of family. (Upon further reflection, there are two ways I didn’t have support. One, from my family, and two, I acted like a snob when I got on campus, not recognizing how getting to know people was important to personal development.)
I wish I would have taken more time here to get to know people and impact their lives. I do hope over the years I can reconnect with some of the people from that time, just to see how things have changed with them, and may be remember a good part of myself I lost.
It’s odd how much has changed here at CUW. When I went to school here, there were two buildings that looked semi-modern, Regents Hall and the athletic center. Now there’s the pharmacy school and the Center for Environmental Stewardship that has replaced the Peace Center dorm, the last rustic CUW building. New Coburg dominate the skyline. (The new buildings make the campus feel likes it’s a campus for a digital world, leaping off a crystal clear screen.)  I was shocked by the money they put into the baseball stadium, plus the soccer field (although I really shouldn’t be). But the only thing I wish I could have enjoyed in my day is the restored bluff leading down to Lake Michigan. Things are moving fast here, as well they should.
But the one place where the majority of my memories reside are in the Rogate Chapel. Today, I went in there and prayed for strength of faith until death. If that the only thing I learned here, it was worth it.


The hard part for me now, as I alluded to above, was the fact that I was studying to be a pastor and decided February of my senior year, that it wasn’t worth it. The decision not to go to seminary was a hard one: I was a very successful student in Greek and Hebrew, and everyone expected that I would go on to a doctoral program. But a lack of social support combined with a personal breakdown lead me off the course I was on.

It was over five years until I really felt like I had accomplished something outside of CUW. When my Dad gave me a lot of responsibility with testing seeds and I pulled through on it, I knew I really could do something right. That was a point in my life I found a self outside of my college self and began to realize that my life now was about what I had become.

Going back to my alma mater is hard, but making something out of that history into what I am is daunting. Because that place is part of what I am.


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