catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 10, Num 17 :: 2011.09.30 — 2011.10.13


The Fourposter

Human honors are a natural by-product of heaven’s honors.

Professor Kenneth Brashier, 2006 National Professor of the Year, Reed College

Karen and I met at Greenville College. The theatre professor there was Margo Voltz. Margo cast Karen and me as Amanda and Tom in The Glass Menagerie, and the embers of our friendship grew bright as we whispered backstage during the long Jim and Laura scene in Act II.

Margo was married to David Mellick, a philosophy professor at Greenville. Margo and David opened their home to us. Rehearsal would move naturally from the theatre to their living room for tea and conversation. While Karen and I were falling for each other, we were learning about the intertwining of love and faith, art and worship, and learning and living by watching David and Margo up close.

By the end of my junior year, Margo had mentored me into a desire to study theatre seriously, but there was no theatre major at Greenville. In addition, the temporary assignments David and Margo had at Greenville were coming to an end. They would be looking for work elsewhere. It was a time for transition. (Little did I know it was one of the last times we would see David on this earth. At age thirty-nine, he would die of cancer. Suddenly. But that is mostly a separate story.)

Karen and I got married and moved to Seattle where I could get a theatre major at Greenville’s sister school, Seattle Pacific University. For our first apartment, our brother-in-law had given us an old table top with no legs. We put it on a large cardboard box, and it became our kitchen table. I built kitchen chairs out of two-by-fours, modeled after chairs I had seen at the Pier One Imports store down near the Pike Place Market. I actually went down there with my tape measure to filch their design. I built a matching sofa out of two by sixes. Karen made some cushions. For our bedroom, we had an old mattress, but no bed frame, so we slept on the floor. We were poor, but happy.

Another year passed, and we found ourselves returning to Greenville for Karen to teach at the high school where she had earlier done her student teaching. We brought along our motley collection of furniture, but now that we were both working, we were ready to make some changes.

During this time, we started a little theatre company and produced the two-person play The Fourposter. We received permission to use the college’s theatre which was dark during Greenville’s January term. We needed a fourposter bed to do the play, and we still needed a bed for our own apartment. We decided to solve both of these problems by purchasing a bed. We would first use it in the play and then take it home after striking the play. But we did not have enough money to purchase an antique fourposter bed that would fit the period of the play, and we agreed that, for this project, we could not depend on my skills with a circular saw and knotty pine. Then we heard that the college’s chemistry professor did a little woodworking on the side. We went to him and explained our situation. As I recall, he was teaching a special January term class on woodworking. He said if we would pay for the lumber, he would give the bed to his students as a project, saving us a great deal of money. We agreed, as long as he would have the bed delivered by first dress rehearsal. We were set.

We went into rehearsal, and the professor, whose name was Frank Wiseman, went to a local sawmill and picked up rough-hewn walnut, which he and his students took home and planed. They glued the boards together and cut them and lathed them. This process took a long time. The students were done with their class before the bed was done. The professor said he would finish it himself for no extra charge. All of us had clearly bitten off more than we could chew. I was in over my head doing everything that it takes to start a theatre company, learn my lines and sell a few tickets. I could not afford to help Frank or let him off the hook. We would all just have to do our best.

I do not know how many nights Frank was up late building that bed, but he did deliver it on time. It didn’t have any varnish yet, but every night after dress rehearsal, he came and applied more varnish. On opening night, the bed was finally shiny and dry, and it turned out to be a lovely production. On closing night, we took the bed home.

At the end of that year, we moved away to start graduate school. We took all that cobbled up furniture and one beautiful bed. We crafted a life combining teaching, theatre and worship leading. We disposed of all our start-up furniture except that bed.

We have that bed to this day.

Now the story jumps ahead three decades. In 2006, I received a letter telling me I had been selected Iowa Professor of the Year. The award came with an invitation to Washington, D.C. for a special luncheon with all of the other state winners and also the four national winners.

Professor of the Year. What do you do with that? One does not expect such things. Might as well try to win the lottery. And then you win it. You roll your eyes, knowing there are so many teachers more deserving. But it is an opportunity to attract attention to one’s college and colleagues. Our college’s public relations department struggles long and hard to point out that this institution is not only viable, but remarkable. Awards provide a palpable symbol of that reality.

But what of God? How does this bring God glory? What do human honors have to do with honoring heaven? How does worship of God continue when the applause is directed toward you?

I have seen some Christians answer the above questions by waving down the applause. I have heard of singers who chastised audiences at their concerts when they applauded. And I have had performers say to me, “Don’t thank me! Give the praise to the Lord!” I have wondered what it is like to live in relationship with such folks. Pass the peas, please. Here you go. Thank you. Oh, don’t thank me, praise the Lord who made these peas for us to enjoy!

I prefer a simpler response to the world’s honors: you just say thank you. There are many reasons to be grateful when someone reaches out to you with care and graciousness. These gracious words are the currency of relationship. And once we have relationship, then there is opportunity to explore where we have come from and where we are going. Values and beliefs can be shared and affirmed. Then the truth can come into focus. I am speaking now of the truth that it is not really we who sit in the seat of honor. We sit there on behalf of the One who gave us life and ability, and also on behalf of those leaders and teachers who gave of themselves so we could flourish. When we can deflect the light of this truth backwards, then joy will follow.

Let me show you what I mean.

Remember David and Margo? As I was being interviewed prior to my trip to Washington for this award, I mentioned David and Margo. They were a shining example of the interplay of learning and living that guides my model of education, and I wanted to acknowledge them as one of the primary sources of my own understanding of what it means to be a college professor. On the day of the announcement of the professors of the year in the nation’s capitol, media outlets around the country released their stories. My own story showed up in a few Iowa venues, most especially the newspapers in what we who live in this area call “Siouxland.” It was across the Missouri River in the Sioux Falls Argos Leader that Jill Callison, the religion editor, included my mention of David and Margo.

I know my story is a bit rambling, but hang with me. It will pay off.

On the morning of the luncheon in Washington, the Argos Leader posted their story to the web. When I saw that the article mentioned Margo and David, I quickly sent the following email to New Mexico:


If you’ll click on this link and scroll down to the bottom article (Sioux Falls Argos Leader), you’ll see your name in the article, and I’m so proud that it’s there.

With gratitude for you and David in my life,


I was too late. Through the magic of search engines, a person can have the web automatically find any new mention of their family name and send them an e-mail about it. David’s brother received one of these emails, and contacted Margo before I did. Here is part of her response to me:


I am overwhelmed. But someone “scooped” you. One of David’s brothers, Gary, called me this morning at about 6:45 to tell me that I should get on the computer to check out what “some student” had to say about David and me. After Don and I had checked it all out, I went back to the inbox and discovered your message.

You and Karen have been busy since I saw you last — to say the least. I am so proud of you both! Sometimes I feel a little blue about the turns my life has taken and wish that I could have taught longer than the 2 wonderful years David and I spent at Greenville.

I had planned to get my flu shot today but I don’t want to spoil this kiss of Heaven….

Give my love to Karen and save some for yourself.


Do you see what I mean? We can deflect the light back. But there is more. Later that day, I received this email from another of David’s brothers.

Dear Jeff,

My brother, Dr. Gary Mellick, sent me a Google Alert relating to the newspaper article concerning your award and the mention of brother David’s name. It means so much to us to hear from others the impact David (and Margo) had in their lives. I miss David every day and as a brother, he was my primary mentor. When I make art or music, it’s as though I’m working for two.

Congratulations on your award and thank you for sharing it with my brother and sister-in-law. In this way, you have shared the honor with us.

Jim Mellick

Why would you not want to win all sorts of awards if you could use them to honor those who gave so much to you? One of the reasons God teaches us to worship him is to turn us outward and thus become conduits of gratitude in every aspect of our lives. This patterning of gratefulness is gospel work, for the watching world says, “Look — how they love one another!”

Back to Washington. We met so many lovely people. Efran greeted us from behind the front desk at the Melrose Hotel on the western end of the same street that goes past the White House. Vivian was the hostess that night at The Landmark restaurant where Rose served us so graciously. It had been a long couple of days getting ready for the trip, so Karen slept in the first morning. I walked across the street and bought her a chai latte from Sam, the Asian man who runs the little coffee shop there. After getting ready for our big day, we sat on the sofa and prayed together as we do almost every day. Karen prayed that we would be a blessing to each and every person we met that day — hoping toward that wild ideal that they might look at us and catch a glimpse of Someone else.

On the way to the Willard Intercontinental on the eastward end of Pennsylvania Avenue, we chatted with the driver, Ahmed, an electrical engineer from the Sudan, currently between freelance jobs in his main field. Since I had written a play about the Sudan, I enjoyed asking about Nasir and the Sobat River.

At the Willard, we were allowed to choose our own seats at the luncheon. We spotted a table with two young boys and went straight for them. They turned out to be Trenton and Parker, sons of Jennifer and John, and grandsons to Trina who was also with them. Jennifer was the state winner from Texas. Parker drew a Star Wars picture in my journal during the speeches. When Parker said goodbye to Karen he said, “I hope I get to see you again.”

After the festivities, they asked all the state winners to gather at the front for a picture. I ended up in the center of the middle row, and the photographer asked us to angle toward the middle so we could all fit. This put me nearly nose to nose with the senior professor who was the winner from Kentucky. Then a fuse blew, and the photographer said to wait just a minute. It seemed an appropriate time for conversation. It went as follows.


Where do you teach?


Georgetown College.


How long have you been there?


Twenty-six years.


And where before that?


Oh…a little school in Illinois. Not too far from St. Louis.


            (getting a glimmer of suspicion)

What college?




Greenville College! I was a student there.


            (raised eyebrows)

Oh. When?


I was there in the early seventies. What’s your name?




            (still not getting it)

What did you teach?




Oh. Well, that explains why I don’t remember you. I was into theatre.


Oh. I didn’t often go to the plays. But I built a bed for a play once.


            (Suddenly it’s clear.)

That’s our bed! You’re Frank Wiseman. You built the bed that’s still in our bedroom today.

And suddenly the photographer was back. And we were smiling for that picture.

Frank and I rushed together to the back of the room to share this story with our wives. That night, at the congressional reception, Frank found me again and said he had told his brother-in-law our story. His brother-in-law, who loves mathematics, said, “Frank, figure the odds.”

Jesus said he would prepare us a place, and when he has it ready, he will welcome us to it. My sense is that one of our great activities in that heavenly place will be telling stories, connecting the dots. And God will delight, receiving our storytelling in honor of what he has been up to forever.

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