The Gift of Death

Short-lived but all the more beautiful.

It is one with this gift of freedom that the Children of men dwell only a short space in the world alive, and are not bound to it. – The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien

Anguish. Pain. Suffering. Weapons of war rip through one who was once healthy. Disease eats the body. Poison seeps through the blood. Lives are taken. Death comes as the dark of twilight, consistent and cold.

Tears. Sorrow. Mourning. One that was loved is now gone. The one who loved has passed away. Their memory is but a phantom in the place where they once stood beside us. Lives are broken. Death comes as the robber in the night, without warning and unstoppable.

Ending. Shattered. Final. Their great works shall be left undone. Dreams come to an end. Carefully wrought plans come unraveled. Lives are stopped. Death comes as the thunderstorm, halting the day’s work.

This is the context that colors our lives. It is the lens we see through. And though it is often filled with pain and suffering, the perspective death brings enriches our lives. It is, as J.R.R. Tolkien put it, the gift of men.

Rich. Sweet. Beautiful. Death makes our time scarce. But that makes it valuable. Each moment is worth treasuring. Every relationship deserves cherishing. Life is worth celebrating.

We forget this sometimes. In the rush of our lives, in the blur of doing, the end gets forgetten. Life loses its magic. But when death walks so near that we can see his black robes, we remember.

For all the reputation and chaos of Kenyan roads, the closest I’ve come to death has been in the United States. One day, while walking down a sidewalk near home, a car flashed out of the alley. Two steps further, a few heartbeats, one less pause to look at my lovely wife, and my life would be drastically different today – or maybe not at all.

I went on with my day, but it felt distinct somehow. Little things were more significant. Each smile was extra special. In the light it all being nearly gone, life was worth more.

Limited. Useful. Important. You can only do so much, so why not do something worthwhile? Why not create something that will last? Time is short, but you still have it.

You have unmatchable talents.
You can be the best in the world in some way.
You can give gifts that cannot be repayed.
You can create something worth remembering.

I hope you do something with all that you’ve been given. You have an incredible opportunity. You are alive.

Others. Community. Friendship. That something is other people. It is the lives we touch, even if they only be a few. Acts of kindness and gifts of abundance trickle through the streams of history, multiplying into a great river.

Helping other people is an investment that lasts. True, those people will eventually pass away. But the legacy of your generosity, the memory of your friendship, the stories of your wisdom will live on, echoing through the generations.

Invest in relationships. Build people up. Make other people matter.


Someday death will indeed come. With it will be pain and sorrow and works left undone. When it does arrive, my hope is not just that people will remember you – they will – but that your life will be worth remembering. I’m confident you will make it so.


Short-lived but all the more beautiful. I made this photo at the Frederik Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids.

The Humanity of Hospitality

It's not the house that matters, but the people.

“Karibuni. Karibuni. Come in.” Our group – seven students and one teacher – files through the low doorway. The host, an elderly widow who we call “Mama”, greets us with a smile.

We are here to visit. For several months now a group of us have been getting together with the widows in the surrounding community. Lacking family, many of these men and women live alone. Time and attention are gifts of great worth.

The house is small and plain. Only a kitchen and narrow bedroom branch out from the now full living room. Last month’s newspaper covers walls of mud and stick. Sheets of tin provide both the ceiling and the roof. But though the house is small, there is much room.

There is space for conversation. Close quarters increase intimacy. Food and chai add warmth to our words. The music of the rain on the tin roof beats in rhythm to our fellowship – its song a sweet echo of our shared humanity.

There is space for connection. In the exchanging of our stories, bonds of trust and understanding take hold. The celebration lifts up the dignity of the owners. Differences of race, economic status, and education fade away like the print of the yellowed newspaper on the walls.

There is space for blessing. Although we came with an attitude of a giver, it is us that receive. Mama blesses us. She serves us food out of her poverty. To such unmatchable generosity, all we can do is draw closer. She gives us her story, enriching our stories in the process. Above all, she gives us joy. Her smile is contagious.


I now have the opportunity to show a similar hospitality. On many occasion, guests dine at our table. There is abundance. For a recent dinner with two friends, my wife prepared a feast. It was so much so that it could have fed the four of us three times over. The bounty of food celebrated life’s generosity. Sharing food is sharing life.

Over a cup of tea, we fellowship. Sitting on chairs and cushions, we exchange stories. And though I am the giver this time, I am still the one that receives.

For guests grant the gift of deepened relationships. In inviting someone into your home, you invite them into your life. They are allowed a window into who you are. And in that openness, they share more of themselves than they might otherwise. Relationships grow stronger.

Burdens are lifted. Some worries may be light or seemingly insignificant, but sharing them brings relief nonetheless. Sometimes the concerns are of pain and suffering, and telling them produces peace. But most often, it is a freedom from your weaknesses that brings the greatest joy. In the openness of your home, another sees your imperfections and still thinks of you highly.


Hospitality is a manifestation of humanity. Life fills it. Love overflows. Joy abounds. May your lives and homes ever echo the Tanzanian proverb, “There is always room for the people you love, even if the house is crowded.”


It’s not the house that matters, but the people. I made this photo on the train to Mombasa, Kenya.

Taekwondo – Training in Humanity

Martial Arts for Life

“Hana, Dool, Set, Net . . .” Our movements flow in the rhythm of the count. Punch transitions to punch as we alternate fists. The flowing motion is broken only by the final snap as we batter the air.

For the last year, I have been a student of Taekwondo. Its blend of physical activity, challenge, and utility has brought much benefit. I’ve grown stronger and more confident. The lessons below are a glimpse into what I’ve learned.

Respect is unconditional.

We bow when we walk into our training space. We bow when we leave. We bow when we start class. We bow when we finish class. We bow to our seniors. We bow to our juniors. We bow throughout the entire class. In each bow is an explicit statement: I respect you.

Our instructor told us that in some martial arts, the masters withhold certain techniques to prevent students from usurping their power. In Taekwondo, teachers are revered and respected. Such a challenge of power is unthinkable. This attitude creates an environment full of positivity, encouragement, and growth. It is the foundation from which we train.

There is a saying that says respect must be earned. I believe that’s the wrong approach. It should be given without condition.

You control how you respond.

I once heard this story. A Taekwondo class had no heated building or smooth floor. They trained on the beach. One day was particularly bitter. Wind whipped in typical Chicago fashion. Sand was everywhere. A cold rain fell, chilling to the bone.

“What’s wrong,” asked the teacher.

“It’s cold,” a student replied.

“No,” the teacher said, “You are cold.”

Nothing could be done about the rain and cold. But the choice of response was up to them. Likewise, we cannot always control our circumstances. We can, though, choose how we react to them.

Your face can control your attitude.

“You looked like you were trying to punch through water. Relax.” I had just completed a Taekwondo promotion test and my instructor was making suggestions of where I could improve.

Then he gave some interesting advice. He told me to pay attention to my face. If my expression was relaxed, he explained, the rest of my body would also loosen up.

The next class, I tried it. As I punched, kicked, and moved, I focused on keeping my face loose. It worked. My movements felt smother and my muscles were not so tense afterwards. My face had directed the rest of my body.

But could that principle apply to life as well? Could a small part of our body steer our attitudes and feelings? I’ve found that it does. Smiling more, by the help of reminders, made me happier. In times of tension, loosening my face relaxes me. If you want to feel a certain way, try mimicking the expression associated with that feeling.

When you get stuck, keep pushing.

I had been training for months. Still, my pattern evaded me. Sometimes, I’d turn the wrong way. Other times, I’d punch when I should have blocked. Most often, I simply forgot what came next. Giving up would not have been too difficult.

At the end of class, Grandmaster Connelly told us how there are times in training when you don’t feel like you’re getting anywhere. He said that if you push forward, you’ll discover you were really close to mastering the technique.

So I kept going. And then, a few classes later, it all fell into place. I understood what to do, and I could complete the pattern without missing a step. Surprisingly, I had been much closer to getting it than I thought.

When things get tough and you want to quit, don’t. Push through. Success is likely closer than you think.

The fastest way to learn is to help others.

“This is how you do this pattern. Down-block. Punch. Turn…” In almost every class we spend time helping each other. I greatly appreciate the advise offered to me by my seniors. It’s helpful. But that doesn’t mean I should only train with those above me. I often get just as much, or more, out of working with someone of equal or lower rank.

In teaching someone else how do to do something, you internalize the lesson yourself. The beauty of this is that not only do you help yourself, but you help someone else at the same time.

The basics never go away.

About 70% of every class is the same every week – practicing the foundational techniques. We punch. We kick. We move in our stances. Without a mastery of the basics, anything more complex is impossible to do well.

Life is the same way. Skills like communication, showing respect, encouragement, listening, offering love take practice to master but are universally used. The basics are important.

Your greatest enemy is yourself.

In martial arts such as Taekwondo, you learn how to fight an aggressor or opponent. But the most deadly of all is yourself.

“I can’t do this technique.”
“I’m not good enough.”
“It’s too cold.”
“I’m going to get punched.”
“This board won’t break, and I’ll hurt my toe.”

Such limits and excuses often come from within. Yes, technique and experience is important. But confidence is what allows for mastery.

Each milestone is but the beginning of another journey.

It feels great to complete a promotion test. Getting the next level belt is a moment of pride. But it’s not the end. It’s a beginning. The journey still continues.

So often we get lost in the milestones – as if they are the whole purpose for the work. Don’t forget the journey. Life is made of the moments when you are doing.


Martial Arts for Life. I train under Grandmaster Connelly. My friend, Patty Peebles, made this photo of me at my last promotion test.

Work is a Platform

We didn't get that much snow.

We had a blizzard last week – 20 inches of it. I still went into work. The train, despite running a touch slower, was no different than normal. What I found interesting though, was a conversation with some of the other people who came in.

We had been advised to take the day off, but were not given paid time. It was up to us to take a personal day. That wasn’t completely clear at the time though. A few coworkers of mine, who also took the ‘L’, were worried that they were wasting their time by coming in. They didn’t want to be there if they didn’t have to.

I understand that. It wouldn’t be the fairest thing if they came in, worked and got paid, but the people who didn’t come in also got paid. But behind the sentiment was something that made me think. The assumption was that the exchange has to be even. We expect an equal return for our work.

Again, I understand it. That’s part of why we work in the first place. But what if that’s the wrong reason? What if the reason we work is to make a difference in the world? What if the reason we work is to make people’s lives better? What if getting paid was simply a response to our own generosity?

I’m not advocating working for free and going bankrupt. The money is still important. I’m suggesting that if we were to place the energy we spend worrying about fairness into being generous, we would find that the fairness doesn’t really matter.

The idea of a job being a platform for making a difference is relatively new to me – at least in terms of working in an engineering firm – and I’ve got a lot to figure out still. Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

It’s a choice. Like almost everything in life, how we approach our work is up to us. I have to decide everyday if I’m going to make a difference or if I’m just going to do what I’m supposed to do.

To be generous you can’t expect anything in return. You may get rewarded for it. But, just as likely, you may not – at least not immediately. That’s OK.

Generosity builds upon itself. One act will lead to another. Furthermore, your generosity inspires the generosity in others. Both Frances and Josephine remarked last week on how one act of delight created a ripple effect, which spread to more people than the original act did by itself.

Share what you have. It may have more impact than you think. On the last project I was working on, we had to do a lot of manual computer work. I despise such work nearly as much as I despise mosquitoes – OK, maybe not that much. Using my knowledge of scripts, I created a program that did much of that work automatically. It saved me a lot of time.

But then I shared it. A simple program that I spent 40 hours writing for myself ended up saving over 1000 man-hours for the group. The effect was far beyond anything I could have imagined. Moreover, others were appreciative for not having to do the manual work themselves.

Most of the time, it’s all about the little things. The humble smile can brighten someone’s day. Exceeding expectations, even in a small way, brings delight to supervisors and customers. Over time, such acts add up.

It helps to learn from other people. If you work in a big company, or a small organization for that matter, go check out a website made by a friend of mine, Rex Williams. His site, grootship, is full of all kinds of good ideas for how to use your work as a platform to make a difference.

Work is an opportunity to improve the lives of others. Even if you don’t work for a charity or as a social worker, your work helps people. For example, if you are a pillow maker, life is better because of what you do. Simple as they may be, pillows make a difference. Another example is my work. While my engineering doesn’t directly touch people’s lives, the power plants I design provide electricity so people can see each other after sunset, connect with people around the world, and read this website.

Work is a big part of our lives. Why should it be disconnected from our humanity?


What about you? How do you bring humanity into your work? What ways do you use it to make a difference in the lives of others?


We didn’t get that much snow. I made this photo in Chicago, Illinois – my current home.