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Let's Have Empathy for Lunch! 

I was pretty young when I first heard that one of my siblings sat alone during lunch at school. It still makes me hurt to think of it. Why would other people do that? Students can be so cruel. But they don’t have to be. One of the centerpieces of Touchstone’s CiViL initiative is teaching empathy to students. Empathy starts when I ask myself how I feel. Then I ask how that other person might feel. Then I act kindly toward that other person. It doesn’t have to be difficult, but it does have to be intentional. That’s why we teach it. No one has to sit alone at lunch. 

Want to make lunch a safe place for students? Help us teach empathy through CiViL! 

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Feeling Something 

I have not yet felt much of anything about the NYC truck terrorist, but I think I should. Today’s attack took place within blocks of where my daughter would have been going to school, had she not felt bad and skipped class. What a blessing a little sickness can be! But even if she had gone to class, I’m not sure what I would feel right now. 

I am blessed with a rational/emotional filter that allows me to not feel things that I don’t have sufficient reason to believe are real. I am not afraid of the dark. I am not afraid of ghosts, though I think they probably do exist. I don’t fear heights, unless I am up very high on the edge of something and perceive the likelihood that I will fall. At the same time, unlike many American men, I can feel deeply, and I am not afraid to openly express feelings. I have been known to weep in church, weep in movies, weep while reading books, and to weep while driving – which I don’t recommend for safety reasons. I can feel. I just don’t feel something today. Not yet. 

That may be partly because tragedy has been normalized to me. I paid close attention to Hurricane Harvey, but it did not upset me. I watched Hurricane Irma more closely because I know more people in Florida than in Houston. But Irma didn’t upset me either. I have watched a parade of tragic shootings and terrorist attacks projected across my consciousness through the ever-present news media, and I have become numb. They are all tragedies. My mind knows that, but my mind also knows that some huge number of people die every day, a fact over which I have no control and to which I have no connection. Death is part of life and always has been. Getting upset over it would mean being upset every second of every day of my whole life. I can’t do that. I have my own life to live. 

Does that mean I don’t care? Perhaps, but not because those deaths don’t matter. I know they matter. They matter infinitely to the loved ones who must grieve their children, siblings, parents and friends. They matter deeply to the neighbors who say to themselves, “That could have been me.” And they matter to community leaders who ask, “How can this happen? Why did this happen? How do we stop this from happening?” I have a touch of the neighbor’s thought. That could have been my daughter. But it wasn’t my daughter, and there are enough real emergencies. I don’t need to imagine that a near miss could have been a hit. And I have pondered the leaders’ questions. But I have no new answers for this tragedy, just as I and the leaders’ had no new answers for the last tragedy or the last hundred tragedies, or all the tragedies that make up Human history. We are, after all, a tragic species, killing ourselves at a shocking rate, capable of killing ourselves forever. It is wearying to think of how suicidal we are as a species, and I am weary of thinking of it. 

Tonight there are people weeping over the eight fallen loved ones. Were I with them I would likely join in because their sorrow would be real as air to me. But I am miles away from their sorrow.. I suppose could try to imagine their grief and work myself up into an artificial cry, but that would be as useless as it would be false. My daughter survived. She is well in her tiny Brooklyn apartment, probably reading for one of her classes or stir-frying some vegetables. I can see her blue hair and her clever thrift-store outfit, laughing, talking with friends, snoozing on her bed. She is my darling girl, and if anything should happen to her, it would wreck me, just as the loss of those eight innocents has wrecked their loved ones. But mine is ok. I am so sorry others feel loss tonight. I wish I knew how to make their loved ones safe like mine is safe. I don’t. All I know to do is to pray God’s mercy on this world of self-killing humans and thank Him for letting me keep my dear one this time. I am as grateful as those people are grieved. I am sorry, and I am relieved – all at the same time. I do feel something after all, and it makes me want to pray, God have mercy on us!

Jewel's Mandolin 

It was a little unnerving to see a headless mandolin on Renee's kitchen table. The strings were still attached at both ends, but the neck was broken in between the place where you finger it and where the strings wrap around the tuning keys. I couldn't help picking it up, but it dangled in a crazy, creepy way when I did. Renee, my sister-in-law, said her friend Jewel owned it before she died some years ago. She doesn't know who played it or how often, but it does look like it has had some hard years. Renee said, "You can have it, if you want it." And I thought, "Well, I don't know how to fix a mandolin, but maybe I can learn," so I took it home.

It sat in my studio for about a month while I looked up how-to articles and videos on the internet. I read about putting it together with clamps before gluing, just to be sure it would all fit. I watched people apply the glue with an artist's brush to be sure the glue made it into every crack. And I studied up on what kind of glue I should use. There are different opinions on everything, even glue. I built a gluing rig out of old boards, towels and clamps. Then I practiced the whole gluing set-up several times, painted glue on both broken pieces, clamped them together and left them alone for a day or two. After the glue dried I put the strings on and applied tension. This was the first test. If the head busted off right away, I might try again, but the prognosis wouldn't be good. Low and behold, the glue joint held! Step one to the mandolin revival was complete.

Jewel's mandolin was missing a few necessary parts, so I ordered the cheapest replacements I could find. No point in making a big investment until I knew the head would stay on.  By the time they arrived it seemed likely the instrument wasn't going to lose it's head, but I found out right away that these parts didn't fit this mandolin. So I had to improvise. I recarved the base of the bridge, the structure that holds the strings at the bottom end of the instrument, using a piece from a walnut log that had been in my basement for about a decade. It took multiple fittings to make it work, but I eventually trimmed it to the right size. 

Then I stole an old beef bone from our dog Misty, one she'd been ignoring in the living room for over a year. I knew it would be dry and still solid. I spent two or three hours cutting it down to make a bridge saddle, the light colored piece that holds the strings at the top of the fretboard. I made a couple of bad versions before I got it right, but I finally got one that fit.

After that I had to move the bridge around to get the intonation just right. You can't play an instrument that isn't in tune with itself, so this trial-and-error process had to be done just so. Jewel's mandolin is now playable, but it's not quite right yet. If I try to play very far up the neck the strings buzz on the frets. They have to be raised up a little. And after that, who knows? I'm not even sure this is a great sounding mandolin. I'm still using those old strings that held the head and neck together on Renee's table. Once I put new strings on, I'll have a better idea what I have. Either way, the thing can now be played. And that's what a mandolin is for. 

Somewhere in the process I began to identify with Jewel's mandolin. I'm not the best instrument on the shelf, and I have made some awful sounds, metaphorically speaking. My hope is that my maker is restoring me to what I was meant to be. The process is not nearly as quick and painless as I wish, but I have hope. These thoughts became conscious during worship a few Sunday mornings ago, and I wrote down the line, "I will sing like Jewel's mandolin." After church I wrote the song. Here's a video for all of you who are being restored and those of you who were blessed to know Jewel. Her mandolin is coming alive again, and someday, she will too. 

Please support the work of Touchstone Youth Resource Services, Inc. We specialize in restoring the hearts of students. Learn more!

My Mountain Home 

For those traveling from the west toward East Tennessee, I-40 makes a sharp curve at the eastern edge of the Cumberland Plateau where it drops steeply to Rockwood. From that height, one can see the Smokey Mountains towering on the horizon, and all the wooded hills and valleys spread out between. Coming around that curve, I always feel a visceral thrill of homecoming. In August 2016 I made my quarterly trip to visit family in Knoxville and was inspired by that view to write this song. 

Through an exceptionally dry autumn, news of forest fires in the mountains concerned many in the Appalachians. Then on November 28, hopes of rain turned tragic as wildfires were spread by gale force winds. Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and surrounding areas of the Smokey Mountain National Park were devastated by fire. Many were killed and injured. Hundreds of buildings burned. And the beautiful mountains turned black with ash. 
  
The tragedy inspired a third verse for this song, and an urge to make it available quickly in order to honor the suffering region. This recording is the raw song, as it first came out. But it is dedicated to all who live in and love the Appalachians, and especially to those who grieve losses and hope for new growth. 
  
Thanks to the heroes who have battled these blazes for months with little thanks and less sleep, and to the preservers of the mountains who work tirelessly to defend, protect, and celebrate their beauty and heritage. Please pray and give to help those who have been displaced by these fires. Respond to specific needs by searching “East Tennessee Fire Relief.” 
  
“My Mountain Home” was written by Jim Weber. 
© Copyright 2016 Desperate Heart Music (ASCAP). All rights reserved.

Pictures of Africa, Part 9 – Plans to Return 


One of the most exciting things about my trip to Bulembu was the continuous sense that I had work to do there.  As I have already mentioned, I first felt it when I met the student musicians, even more so when I met with them to talk about song writing. But I was quite surprised when a lunch conversation turned to social emotional learning (SEL) in education. My non-profit, Touchstone Youth Resource Services, Inc., provides SEL to high school students in Nashville through an initiative called CiViL. To put it in simpler terms, we inspire change by helping youth envision a hopeful future, embrace positive options, and engage in real steps toward a better life (find more information about Touchstone), and it turns out that one of my team members serves a similar organization. 
  
We brainstormed about how we could provide services to students in Bulembu.  After several conversations with the director of Bulembu and the headmaster of the school, we made a plan to pilot CiViL in Bulembu next summer.  During the coming year we will be raising the funds necessary to bring a team back to Swaziland.  The cost of that trip will be in the thousands, so please consider supporting our efforts on behalf of Bulembu between now and then. 
 

Pictures of Africa, Part 8 – Just A Little Light  


Making connections is the best and most uncertain part of a mission trip. We all hope to meet people, get to know them, and, maybe get to understand and love them, but who can guarantee that will happen? All one can do is be available, reach out, and hope someone reaches back. I had many moments on this trip in which people reached back in powerful ways. Here’s one of them. 
  
We had finished helping with after school clubs at the primary school. We had played board games and helped with crafts. We had danced and played drums with the girls’ and boys’ Swazi dance teams. Now it was time for us to walk up the mountain to the long building where we would help children with their homework. As I sometimes do, I sung a line of a song, just for fun. The boys and girls near me said, “You can sing!” Then they asked me to sing something. I agreed, on the condition that they sing with me.  Then I taught them the chorus of a song I had written earlier in the week. We sang it together all the way up the mountain.  You can listen to it on the link below. Do you hear me huffing and puffing up the hill, as we sang? It was a magical experience for me. I hope you enjoy it too! 

Listen

Pictures of Africa, Part 7 – Hard Work!  


I cannot say enough about the hard working people who came on this trip. They paid money to sweat. The childcare services of Bulembu are partially funded by cottage industries, including a bakery, spring water bottling, honey production, a dairy, and a guest lodge. They painted the town bakery, mixed and poured concrete to make a hilly road passable during the rainy summer, helped cook for the 365 children, built two fences to keep free range cattle off school property and to keep soccer balls on school property, engaged in after school clubs and sports with students, tutored primary students after school, and cared for babies in the nursery. 
  
These team members were of all ages, from five to seventy. They came from Tennessee, Alabama, Texas, California, and Washington, D.C. Each one pitched in, worked hard, engaged with children and their teachers, and received the weary rewards of their labors. As I looked at them every evening from behind the worship leader’s microphone, I couldn’t help thinking, “These are some of the best people in the world. I am proud to know them.”

Pictures of Africa, Part 6 – Where They Live  


Every child in Bulembu lives in a house like this, six to a house with a house mother called an “Auntie.”  Meals are served cafeteria style, so the houses only have to be large enough for beds and living space. Still, by our standards these buildings are small. Of course these block houses were originally built for mine workers and their families, and there are many more buildings than the children need, so some of them have been rented to other families.  Once again, I am reminded of the place where I grew up. Oak Ridge, Tennessee was a company town too. 
  
We didn’t get to go in any of the houses, but we did share a meal with the students. I sat with my family at a long folding table in a room full of families. The Auntie was at the far end of the table from me, so I didn’t get to talk to her, but I had a nice conversation with the older boys. We talked about how they spend their non-school time. They do chores and wash their own clothes on weekends. They go to youth group and play sports. And, like any kids, they relax.  I found them to be just like students I know in Nashville, quiet or talkative, funny or serious, happy or preoccupied. Kids are the same everywhere.

Pictures of Africa, Part 5 – Faces  


The children of Bulembu are like children everywhere. When we wave at them from our van, they flash beautiful, unguarded smiles and wave back.  When we greet them in class, they reply, “Hello visitas!” There is a polite formality about them, but there is also a wide-eyed guilelessness.  The ones I met don’t seem to be hardened by their difficult histories. Instead, they seem open to new connections and new joys. Is this part of Swazi cultural, or is it what they have learned in Bulembu? I don’t know, but I like it. 
  
On evening of our first day in Bulembu we were entertained at dinner by a group of high school musicians. They played for us on guitar, synth, and drums, and one of them performed a song he wrote. It was good! That inspired me to offer to meet with the songwriters in the high school during after-school club time the next day. We had a two-hour discussion about writing, and because some of them wanted more, we scheduled a second meeting the following Friday. We talked about some specifics of guitar playing, as well as writing, and I discovered that these budding songwriters have no way to record their own songs.  I want to do something about that. I don’t think it would take much to provide a simple recording set-up for them, so I plan to look into it. Please pray that God will provide!

Pictures of Africa, Part 4 – Feels Like Home  


It never occurred to me to think of Africa as a mountainous land, but it is. In many ways, it looks like East Tennessee where I grew up. The peaks have been blunted by time, and though the mountains are not naturally forested like the ones I used to know, logging companies have planted and harvested thousands of acres of pine and eucalyptus trees on these mountains, making them look just like home, at least from a distance.  So when we arrived at the town of Bulembu, nestled in the Swazi mountains, it felt strangely familiar. 
  
I am fortunate to have found a familiar place 8,500 miles from my front door. It must be harder for the orphan children of Bulembu.  They all came from somewhere  else too, so this valley was strange to them. And they all had someone to call family at one time, but now they live in a city-sized orphanage. What must they feel about all that? Lost? Abandoned? Alone?  Or perhaps they feel a sense of refuge. I hope they do. We came here to help make that happen.  Our work this week is to support them any way we can. We are strangers here, but our mission is to make this foreign city feel like home for those children for whom it must be home.  I can’t wait to meet some of them!