Monday, October 12, 2009

Groundhog Day (Charlottesville to Crozet, VA)

Top: Brennan, Nicole, Carolyn, Jason (Burke) and me on Sunday
Below: The crafty and elusive groundhog, peeking out from his burrow

I see a lot of dead animals by the side of the road. Squirrels and possums are high on the hit list. Skunks, deer and snakes aren't far behind. I see the occasional squashed turtle. Those look kinda cool actually. I even saw a dead fox recently. That was exceedingly rare. Foxes are fast little critters and can usually avoid oncoming traffic. Who knows, maybe he saw a box with some Green Eggs and Ham across the street and couldn't resist. I hear that is a weakness of theirs.

I haven't seen a single dead groundhog, which is a bit odd. They tend to be fat and a bit slow. I see living ones pretty much everyday in the nearby fields. How do they avoid being roadkill? I'm beginning to think they lead charmed existences. So I decided to choose groundhogs as the official mascots of my journey. I am sure there is great rejoicing in burrows all over the land.

That means everyday is a groundhog day. If you've seen the movie with Bill Murray that statement has even more significance. The movie is about a cynical and egotistical weatherman who is trapped having to repeat a day he finds tedious and annoying. It just so happens that day is Groundhog Day and he has traveled to Punxsutawney, PA to file a television report. There is a love interest (of course) and more than a few of Bill Murray's deadpan jokes, but the moral of the story is beautifully simple: the only way we can find fulfillment is looking beyond ourselves, appreciating the people who are in our life everyday and treating them as we would like to be treated.

My walk could be a take on the Groundhog Day plot. Here's the twist. I awake everyday and get to live out one of the best days of my life. I do the things I love - walk, write, share dinners with great people - and then do it all over again the next day. Of course, that wouldn't make a very good film. It's all third act and no set-up or confrontation. I guess that is what my book will have to provide - the context and conflict that led to this attempt at a climactic third act.

My conflict is internal rather than external. Yet like Bill Murray, I am having to re-learn certain basic lessons everyday. My inner challenge is one of honesty and complete self-acceptance. Those are big balls of wax, each with quite a few different layers. I guess it is good that I have plenty of time to devote to reflecting and working through how to live in complete honesty. It reminds me of the church sign that is among my favorite on this trip. "There are no degrees of honesty," it reads. Amen to that.

One of the purest pleasures of my Groundhog Day like existence is getting to spend time with people who also value reflection. On Sunday I was fortunate enough to stay with two of them - Jason and Nicole Burke. Jason and Nicole have two young kids, Carolyn (2) and Brennan (1), so that meant that the beginning of the evening was the beautifully hectic orchestra that is raising two preschoolers. I have to hand it to them. Jason and Nicole did an enviable job at being twin conductors. They orchestrated dinner, then playtime, then baths, then dessert and finally putting the kids to bed all while seeing to my needs as well. It was a symphony with significantly more than four movements.

The crescendo was the chance us three adults had to talk after the kids had been put to sleep. Our shared background is that Nicole and I both worked at Geneva Global for a couple of years. It was not "officially" a Christian organization but, other than a small handful, all those who worked there self identified as believers. When Nicole and I started at the company the staff meetings still began with devotions and ended with everyone counting off and breaking into prayer groups. I conceded that it had made me extremely uncomfortable when it happened on my first day. Jason joked that I could have feigned the need for a bathroom break. I smiled and admitted that is exactly what I had done. I ducked out to the bathroom and stayed there for about 15 minutes. Dishonest, yes, but very effective.

Even though 95% if the employees were Christians, I am sure there were stark differences in beliefs and theology. I've said this a few times now, but it is a theme my mind keeps returning to on this journey: I find myself much less interested in talking about personal beliefs and more curious about examining how we live out their lives among the challenges, joys and tedium of our own personal groundhog days. Who is able to model the traits that caused a dozen, then hundreds, then thousands, then millions of people to look to Jesus as a role model and a messiah? Nicole and I talked about the co-workers who impressed us most with their humility and their servanthood. She and Jason clearly think very deeply about their Christian witness and if the relationships they have in their life model Christ like behavior.

From where I'm standing, they are both wonderful witness to each other, to their kids and certainly to a certain former co-worker who emailed asking for a place to stay and a little fellowship. Like all my other hosts they are living, breathing examples of the Golden Rule, welcoming a weary traveler and friend as they would like to be treated.

And yet all of us can go further when we have the opportunity. Comparative theologians have pointed out that among world prophets there was one challenge Jesus made to his followers that was revolutionary. We all come into contact with people who aren't loving and are often outright malicious toward us. Jesus taught that we are to actively love those people too. Not just reciprocate love for love, but to return love in the face of open enmity.

Because that flies so directly in the face of human nature it is the rare person who can consistently model that kind of radical love. For the rest of us who are trying to learn to love with that kind of purity we have every single day to wake up and try again. Call it our Groundhog Day challenge.


  1. groundhogs are pretty enough to stay in the fields...or close to home. they must be family oriented and have been well taught by their parents to look both ways before they cross the street.

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