The Nightmare Lives!

Every teacher has a ‘night before school starts’ nightmare.  For years, mine has typically been that I show up on the first day of school late, in my pajamas, with no lesson plans. A more extreme version has me teaching elementary students — gasp! — in a school I’ve never seen before.  I usually wake up in a cold sweat before the details get too out of hand.

I am an over-planner — I typically have two hours worth of plans for a 90-minute class.  I write out EVERYTHING –sometimes even the exact words I plan to say. For each class period, I create a separate word document with start to finish detail.  If students miss a class, I send the document, and they know what they need to cover before I see them next time.

This morning, knowing that my first class started at 9:30, I set my alarm for 7:00am.  I rolled out of bed, showered, made sure all my documents were uploaded to Googledocs so that I could share them on the classroom computer, opened my attendance page so that I would have it ready to go, dressed, did my makeup and hair, and sat down to a cup of tea to work on my puzzle around 8:30.  I promised myself I would head to class around 9 to make sure the room was ready, log into the computer, and get the projector turned on WAY before students arrived.

So, when my phone rang at 8:48 and my husband said that a staff person was looking for me for my 8:30 class, I replied, “It doesn’t start until 9:30.”  I logged into Blackboard to prove that I was right, but while the page was loading, the chair of the English department (my former professor) called and said that people were looking for me.  That’s when my page loaded and showed me, for the first time that I had seen it, that the class started at 8:30!!

“I’m on my way!” Thankfully, I was dressed, my materials were sitting on the countertop, and my tea was already made.  I speed-walked the 100 yards from my door to the classroom and walked in to find 21 students and one staff member crammed into the classroom.

“Well, that’s embarrassing,” I said as I threw down my materials and tried to orient myself.  By some act of God I was able to open the attendance page, distribute syllabi, hear every student’s name for the first time, tell them how to log into Blackboard, and share my policies about missing class, late work, and plagiarism before I noticed that it was 9:19!  I had to let them go!

“But wait, let me give you the homework!”

“What? You were 20 minutes late and you are giving us homework?”

Welcome to life with Rathje, kids.  See you Wednesday at 8:25!

2 Corinthians 12:9

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

Just a little Crabby

I’ve been a little crabby lately.  I’m not new to this experience. In fact, my high school senior class voted me ‘moodiest’.  Yeah, nice of them; I know.

When I was a child, I was often scolded for crying too much, laughing too loud, and pouting too long.  I felt things — excessively.   I stomped, I slammed, I wailed, I jumped up and down, I yelled, and I screamed.

Most of these emotions were the response to the every day experiences of a kid — if my brothers picked on me or I didn’t get my way, I often cried to my mother, wailing about the injustices of life. If I got a good grade or a new pair of jeans, I likely beamed from ear to ear and informed everyone in my immediate vicinity.  If something was funny — I laughed. Loudly.  (I think my laugh will have its own blog post one day; I’m not sure I can contain it in one little sentence or paragraph.)

Anyway, early on I established myself as an emoter.  As time went by, I learned that not everyone is fond of such demonstrations of feelings, so I tried to contain them.  Really, I did.  I tried to bridle my tongue.  I tried to put the best construction on everything.  I tried to look at the bright side.  And guys, I have succeeded from time to time. I have; ask anyone!

But when the rubber hits the road, I am what I am.  And sometimes, friends, it ain’t pretty.

In fact, over the years, as I’ve mentioned in this blog, I have engaged in therapy to work through my feelings about all the events of life.  I wasn’t just sitting at home sipping tea when the idea popped into my head, “You know, I think I will go see a counselor and examine my feelings.”  No, it looked more like sobbing into a pillow feeling hopeless, yelling irrationally at a family member, or locking myself in the bathroom to rearrange a cupboard when we really needed to get in the car because we were expected at a social engagement.  I’ve gone to therapy because my feelings and my inability to appropriately process them mandated a change.

During a couple of those periods, my health care professionals suggested that I try taking anti-depressants.  Indeed, many members of my family have struggled with depression over the generations; I am a bit pre-disposed.  And, to be honest, these medications served their purpose for a period of time.  The first time, I only used them for about a year, if I recall.  Recently, I have been taking a low-dose of zoloft for about seven years. I like to think that this medication has dialed my emotions back a little and has allowed me to manage some very difficult periods.

Some people don’t like to talk about such things, but I think we’ve already established here that very few topics are off limits for me.  I don’t think taking zoloft is any more taboo than taking amoxicillin. They are both pharmaceuticals that work with the chemistry of the body to affect change. I’ve taken plenty of amoxicillin in my day; I’ve also taken zoloft.

On my current quest toward wellness, I have fallen out of love with traditional medicine, particularly the pharmaceutical industry.  (That’s a topic for another blog post.) I have found the most benefit for my personal maladies in less conventional methods –dietary choices, exercise such as yoga, pilates, and swimming, visceral physical therapy, nutritional supplements, and homeopathic remedies.   I took the risk of eliminating my biologic and anti-inflammatory medications at my doctor’s suggestion and found that my symptoms, after a period of adjustment, were no worse without them.   So together we decided that I would take the next step and gradually and cautiously reduce my anti-depressant dosage.

When I first eliminated my anti-inflammatory medication, I was pretty miserable.  My body, used to having that drug, rebelled when it was deprived.  My pain levels increased predictably.  My fatigue also increased.  My doctors warned me this would happen.  I expected two to three months of adjustment, and that’s about what I got. Eventually my body adapted and created its own response to the pain.  Now, several months later, my pain is at the level it was while on the medication.

So I don’t know why I didn’t expect a similar transition period when weaning off zoloft. Maybe because I was on a low dose to begin with.  Maybe because I am taking three months to totally remove it from my system.  Maybe because my life is so much different now than when I first started taking it so many years ago.  I expected to gently slide through the transition with little to no difficulty.  And truly, the first three weeks were pretty easy.  However, I’m no doctor, but I can tell you that the levels of zoloft in my blood are lower this week than they were last week.

I’m quicker to the snap.  I’m edgy.  I’m surly.  I’m easily irritated and slow to recover.

It’s to be expected.  So why do I judge myself so harshly for this?  I didn’t judge myself when my pain increased; why do I judge myself when my irritability increases.  After all, both changes are a response to a chemical change — a withdrawal from medication.

I want so badly to have a good attitude about all of this.  I want to be able to smile in the face of adversity.  I want to be understanding when Verizon can’t figure out my technical issues after an hour each on live chat, the telephone, and direct message. I want to laugh, loudly and often.  I want to smile, genuinely.  But guys, I’m a little (ok, a lot) crabby at the moment.  It is what it is.  This too shall pass.

Romans 8:18

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing

with the glory that will be revealed in us.

Moving into the School year

A few minutes ago, I sat down to read my Bible study.  Just as I was getting comfortable, I remembered what my husband said last night, “If we don’t move the car first thing in the morning, you won’t be able to get out of campus when you need to leave at 10:30.”

We live on a college campus.  Our home, a three-bedroom ranch,  is nestled between three residence halls.  One long, narrow driveway enters the east side of campus and winds past a large parking lot and between the buildings to land at our doorway.  We’ve got one way in and one way out.  This is typically not a problem.  Our campus is small, and most cars are required to park in the parking lot.  We’ve usually got a straight shot from our doorway to the highway.

But today is freshman move-in day.

When I leapt out of my seat a few minutes ago to go move the car, I walked outside and noticed that about a dozen student leaders clad in red “Welcome” t-shirts were gathered, waiting the arrival of the first students.  My path was clear, so I drove our little Suze-e Cruze-e straight to the  lot,  slipped in an end slot, and put her in ‘park’.  As I pulled the key from the ignition, I looked up and saw a line of cars snaking down the narrow drive from the entryway.

I was just in the knick of time.

All week, the excitement has been palpable. Our campus pastor embodies enthusiasm.  Even though I haven’t seen him in person since Sunday, I have ‘heard’ him over social media.  He has been posting pictures of dozens of student leaders meeting at his home. He’s been gushing over Twitter about how he and the leaders have prayed over every building on campus, how he witnessed the first class of nursing students gathering at our new North building, and how the campus is primed and ready for our newest students to arrive for a year that’s themed #togethersetapart.

And he’s not the only one who’s excited.  I’ve stopped by the Student Life Office a few times this week and have found bustling activity — the men and women in this office work hard all year, but this is one of their busiest times.  Not only do they make the housing assignments,  train the resident assistants, and coordinate the move-in, but they also plan multiple events for welcome week including meals, evening activities, and a campus-wide service event for Sunday.

The campus, that gets pretty quiet over the summer, is starting to pulse.  I’ve been sitting here now for about half an hour, but I know that when I get up and look out the window, I will see overloaded cars pulled close to residence halls.  Parents will be carrying Rubbermaid containers and laundry baskets and thinking to themselves, “What have we forgotten?”  Students will be bundles of emotion — excitement, fear, enthusiasm, wonder, anxiety — as they meet their roommates and urge their parents to leave, saying, “I’ve got it from here.”

My golden retriever is pacing from one end of our house to the other.  He’s pressing his nose against the glass because it’s just so exciting out there!!

All my life I have loved the start of the school year.  It’s a clean slate waiting to be written on, a blank planner begging to be filled, a new race waiting to be run.  A new school year screams possibility!  For the kids outside my door and the one sitting right here at this laptop, I pray for the fulfillment of dreams, the facing of challenges, and the opportunity to fully embrace what it means to be #togethersetapart.

John 17:21

that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.

 

 

 

Experimentation

Ladies and gentlemen, I am about to participate in an experiment.  After two years of limited part-time employment, I am gearing up for the next level of engagement.

As you may be aware, from 2005 to 2014 I was a full-time teacher and administrator at a small private high school in St. Louis, MO.  For at least seven of those years I was a very hard-charging,  responsible faculty member who worked long hours both at school and at home.  I managed that position while being married to a seminary student turned mission-planting pastor and parenting three teenagers.  It was a very busy life full of challenges and rewards.

When chronic illness started to impact my effectiveness in that position, my husband and I began to watch and pray for God to open a path to something different.  This blog began when God answered our prayers and transplanted us in Ann Arbor where he has been serving as the Dean of Students at a small Christian university for the past three years.

When I joined him two years ago, I rested for six months and then began to experiment with different levels of employment.  I started with occasional private tutoring.  I added a summer ‘internship’ at an educational agency before transitioning to adjunct instruction coupled with private tutoring.  I’ve been doing well for the past year balancing those two positions.  I have taught a few hours a week in the classroom while supporting several private students that I meet in homes, in libraries, or in coffee shops.  I’ve loved this combination.  So, I’m continuing it this fall — at the next level.

Starting next Monday I will have three sections of college composition. (All the writing instructors in the room just gasped.) Now, to be fair, two of those sections are small at just 12-13 students each.  The third section is a more average-sized class of twenty-one. So, do your math and you will find that I am going to have 46 composition students.  That’s a solid load.  Most English teachers would say, “That’s fabulous!  What a joy to have forty-six writing students!” (My last year in St. Louis, a staffing issue created a situation where I had about 80 writing students!)  And, indeed, I am thrilled.  I am also thrilled that entering my second year as a private tutor, I have a solid student base that easily yields 8-10 hours of tutoring per week.  God has indeed engineered a sweet gig for me.

However, I am a little anxious. My health is more stable than it has been in close to four years.  With the help of my medical team I have eliminated biologic and anti-inflammatory medications.  That’s right; I take nothing for pain!  I am also currently weaning off the anti-depressants that I started taking seven or eight years ago.  I walk, do Pilates, practice yoga, and get in the water regularly. I see a physical therapist and a chiropractor,  avoid gluten and dairy, and am following my doctor’s instructions for taking homeopathic and nutritional remedies. I’m doing all the things, yet I still have a measure of pain in my hips, neck, and back.  I still have psoriasis. I still have chronic eye issues. I still get knocked down if I do too much.

So how much is too much?

That’s why this fall is an experiment.  Can I teach forty-six students in the classroom and meet with a handful outside of the classroom without spending every weekend in bed? Will I still fit in exercise? physical therapy? time with friends?  time with family? What will happen if something unexpected pops up — an out-of-state emergency, a family crisis, a family celebration? I don’t know.  Have I created a schedule that allows for these variables?  We’ll see.

I do know that the success of this semester is more likely if I continue to practice the disciplines that I have re-discovered in this time of stillness — Bible study, blogging, prayer.   It seems I struggle to fit them in, when in truth, they are the most impactful moments of my day.  Writing the prayer reminders on my mirror and my fridge is a help, but I still need to choose to act on those prompts and actually pray. My devotional materials sit out in plain sight, but I have to move toward them and take the time to engage each day.  My blog is constantly percolating in my mind and begging to be let out through my fingers, and when I allow it the space and time, I become aware of all that God is working inside of me.  When I do these three things — prayer, Bible study, and blogging — I feel centered and purposeful.  I feel at peace.

So, on Monday, I’ll step feebly forth.  I won’t try to kick any butts or take any names, I will just show up and see what God has in store in this next chapter.

Luke 12:32

“Do not be afraid, little flock,

for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.

Pray continually

People who have read my blog often ask me if I mind being so transparent.  Does it bother me that everyone can see my thoughts, witness my frailties, know the specifics of my challenges? Nope.

I’m kind of a right-out-there kind of a girl.  I always have been.  I am sometimes jealous of those who are able to conceal their true feelings, withhold information, or refrain from commenting.  I mean, I’m learning…I am 50, after all…but at heart, I’m truly ‘what you see is what you get’.

And where else should this be so than in my personal blog?  I just pointed out yesterday that one of my main purposes in writing this blog is to reflect.  I do this best through writing and not holding back.  Now, I do realize that not everyone functions this way.  It’s just the way I am wired.  I often, as I have written numerous times, don’t know what is going to pop out of my fingers until it does. I surprise myself.  And while, at least for the sake of blogging,  some topics are off limits for me — such as what happens in the bedroom or the bathroom — I don’t want to suppress myself or compromise the integrity of my writing.

I read somewhere this summer — I’ve read so.many.books. about writing this summer — that writing is all about finding your truth.  And, for me, writing this blog is, if nothing else, an exercise in telling the truth.  Often that truth is framed by what I am studying in the Bible on a particular day, so when my devotion this afternoon was about prayer and Daniel’s faithfulness in his daily exercise of prayer, I knew I had to go there.

So here I go: I’m not a faithful pray-er.

It’s not that I don’t believe in the power of prayer — I do!  It’s not that I don’t know what to pray for — I do!  It’s not that people don’t share their requests with me — they do!  It’s not that I’m so busy that I don’t have time to pray — I’m not!  I have no excuses!! I just am not a faithful pray-er.

That is why I started reading the book by Beth Moore, Whispers of Hope: Ten Weeks of Devotional Prayer.  I started reading this book over a year ago!  I’m on my third time through.  The idea is that you read a devotion every day, and at the end of the devotion,you write out your prayers.  Wouldn’t you think this would be a great fit for me?  It is!  In fact, I have written about the effectiveness of this book in this blog before!

[Oh my gosh, guys, I just Google searched “Whispers of Hope” and “Kristinsnextchapter” and I found a whole bunch of blog posts written by … Me! That is super weird!]

So the concept is great, and when I am disciplined about reading my daily devotion, I am usually good about writing down my prayers in my little notebook.  In fact, I’m on my second notebook!  However, you can probably already guess that I’m not super disciplined about doing my daily devotion!  I’m about as disciplined with my devotion as I am with my blog.  And I’m a little less disciplined with daily prayer as I am with either of those!

This blog entry is turning into true confessions of the poorly praying pastor’s wife.

Gulp.

But I haven’t given up. I am a work in progress.

I have champion prayer warrior examples all around me.  I have mentioned before, our great pastor friend, Rev. Wm. Gatz whose life-long ministry is teaching others the power of prayer.  His prayer life is inspiring. I think he’s been praying for our family for well over twenty years at least weekly, if not daily.  I don’t believe I know anyone who prays more, with the exception, possibly, of our good friend, Laurel, who I haven’t seen in years.  We haven’t lived in the same state in over ten years, but I am confident that Laurel prays for me and my family regularly.  That is terribly humbling for someone who often forgets to pray for her own husband and children, let alone anyone else.

Just this week, a good friend, who recently received his first call as a pastor mentioned on Facebook that he is creating a prayer wall in his new office.  He was soliciting requests to put on his wall.  You know I was one of the first to submit a request, but it never occurred to me that I could create my own prayer wall.  (Ok, I do realize that it just occurred to me now.)

So, I just had an idea. While I was in Boston last weekend, I was standing in the kitchen of one of my daughters.  She and her roommates use the front of their fridge as a white board to keep track of what items need to be purchased and who did what chore last — brilliant.  I have also been in the bathrooms of friends who use the mirror to list the prayer needs of family and friends.  So, I’m thinking that if I use a dry-erase marker on the side of my fridge that faces the sink where I stand to do dishes several times a day and on the mirror I stand in front of to dry my excessively thick hair each morning, I would find two (or more) times each day to be reminded to pray.

That’s it.  I’m gonna go start my lists right now.  You know I’m gonna let you know how this goes, right?   Wanna give it a try with me?

I Thessalonians 5:17

[Start, and then} “pray continually.”

Reflection

After long absences from my blog, I never know what is going to come out of my fingers when I finally make the time to sit down.  Will I start writing about why I haven’t written sooner?  what we have been doing with our time? what kind of students I am working with? How my health is (or is not) progressing? Or how I am looking forward to what’s coming up in the next few weeks?

I don’t know.   Today I don’t feel a drive to write about any of the above, but I do feel compelled to get back to my blog.  I love the discipline of writing every day, and I love how it causes me to reflect on how I am living my life. Writing causes me to pause and take stock of what is happening and what I think and feel about it.

Last weekend, I visited our two daughters who are currently living in Boston.  We did some sightseeing, yes, but we also had chunks of time when we were just together. We rode in the car from the city center to where we were staying.  We visited coffee houses. We sat together on the couch and watched the Olympics and reality TV.  I found myself, in those moments of sitting with my adult daughters, reflecting on how my husband and I parented our children.  From time to time my musings became audible.

“I wish I wouldn’t have freaked out over the little things so much.”

“I wish I would’ve taken more time to show you kids how to do more things.”

“I wish I would have stepped into some situations more thoughtfully.”

My girls were very gracious.  “Mom, you had three babies in three years!  We were a lot to take care of!  You did your best!”  “Mom, we turned out pretty good.”

They’re right.  We did have three babies in three years and we were very busy for many consecutive minutes.hours.days.weeks.months.years.  And, our kids are pretty great.  We are blessed.

But, you know, twenty-five years flew by pretty darn quickly.  And sometimes I even wished that the moments would speed by. Parenting is hard work. It is exhausting and sometimes overwhelming.  And, in true Kristin fashion, I muscled through.

At one moment last weekend,  in the proximity of my girls, I heard myself say out loud, “You know what I wish the most? I wish I would’ve taken more time to reflect. I wish I would’ve been still long enough to say to myself, ‘How is this working out?'”

They were silent, so I said, “If I could give you one piece of advice right now it would be that: take time to be still and reflect.”

It took me a chronic illness and a six-month vacation from work to realize the power of stillness and reflection.  What began as a crutch to help me hobble through the unchartered territory of unemployment turned into a vehicle that helped me explore my thoughts and feelings about my current reality.  In exploring those thoughts and feelings, I have also explored my past and its impact on my life and the lives of those that I love.  These explorations have, I believe, contributed to my healing — if not my actual physical healing, then certainly my mental and emotional healing.

Over the past eighteen months, I have gradually transitioned from not working at all to working about 20-25 hours a week. This was part of the goal all along.  I love teaching,  and God has provided so many opportunities for me to work with students that don’t require me to have a full-time position. However, in transitioning back to more regular work, I don’t want to flush the lessons I learned during the stillness.

This is the challenge of real life, isn’t it? How do I find balance?  How do I get the fulfillment that comes from work while also taking the time to care for myself? How do I care for myself through exercise, healthy eating, and time for reflection, without overlooking the needs of the people closest to me?  How do I attend to the needs of my family while still finding time to connect with friends?  How do I make time to connect with friends and still have regular time to connect with God?

I sure don’t have a simple answer.  However, what I have learned is that, for me, one way to take the pulse on how I am doing with finding that balance, is to take some moments to reflect through writing.  So, here I am, returning and reflecting so that I can continue to heal and continue to grow.

Psalm 116:7

Return to your rest, my soul, for the Lord has been good to you.

Thoughts on a Sabbath

I’m sitting at the corner table in The Common Cup, the coffee house located in the basement of the church building where our congregation meets.  I often sit here in the mornings when my husband, a pastor, preaches two services on a Sunday morning. I like the dedicated time to think, grade papers, or write before I go upstairs for the second service.  The baristas brew me an extra strong pot of English Breakfast and I sip on it while I sit listening to quiet worship music and working on whatever is in front of me.

Today, I don’t really have any work.  I finished teaching a summer course on Friday.  I don’t start teaching again for almost a full month.  Yes, I have plans and syllabi to write.  Yes, I have grade books to set up. I have plenty of work for the week ahead of me, but today I am resting.  I am resting from duties to spend my day blogging, reading, puzzling, and breathing.

I highly recommend it — this kind of resting.  I do realize that many of you have determined to observe a Sabbath every week.  You regularly take a day to turn away from work to rest for a full day.  I mean, it’s Biblical.  However, it’s been a difficult concept for me to wrap my brain around.  For a long time, the concept of Sabbath felt like an obligation rather than an opportunity.  I have felt guilty for not taking a Sabbath rather than thankful to have one.

Perhaps you can relate.  My husband and I have long been church workers.  Making Sunday a Sabbath is a challenge for church workers.  How do you find rest on a day when you have a sermon to preach, lessons to present, needs to respond to, and expectations to meet?  Some church workers manage to do it; I’ve never gotten the hang of it.

Or, perhaps your weeks are so full with work and family obligations that taking a full day to rest simply seems impossible.  So many of my weekend days have been crammed full of grocery shopping, laundry, house keeping, errand running, and catching up.  Some of you manage to do all of those tasks and still find room for a Sabbath rest; again, I haven’t really figured it out.

Even now, when I am no longer working full time, I still struggle to keep a day completely free from ‘work’.  I usually slip in a little bit of grading, a little bit of editing, a smidge of house work, or a trip to the grocery store.

However, one thing my chronic illness has taught me is this — our bodies (at least my body) need time to recover, time to heal, time to restore, time to prepare for what is next.  If I power through, if I fail to rest, fail to take consistent breaks, my body often shuts itself down and mandates a day or two of bed rest.  This has happened over and over again; I am starting to get the message.  If I preemptively take a Sabbath, as God’s Word has recommended, then I don’t crash as often.

Not only do our bodies need consistent breaks from work, but also our minds, our spirits, our souls. On Friday, after five weeks of teaching a composition class, I got caught in a rain storm — twice.  I was soaked to the skin, but I was determined to run a few errands before I went home.  I was tired before I started, but I pressed on. I stopped at four different places before I considered going home.  I was hungry.  I was exhausted.  I was cranky.  Instead of taking consistent rest during the five weeks of teaching, I had tutored; I had taken weekend trips;  I had pushed myself to my limits.  Later Friday night when my husband got home from a business trip, I really wanted to welcome him back, but my fatigued, depleted spirit was edgy.  My tone was sharp.  My glance was surly.

We expect a lot from ourselves.  We push ourselves to do just one more thing — one more email, one more errand, one more social engagement.  But guys, what we really need so that we can more fully experience our lives — fully engage with the people in front of us, fully care for the people we love, fully attend to our work — is regular time to recover.

It’s funny, I was writing this post this morning at church.  I saw my computer draining of battery, but I thought, I can probably finish before it runs out.  I couldn’t.  My screen went black, so I had to rest from my blog about resting.

I went to worship.  I chatted with friends after.  My husband and I stopped at the grocery on the way home. (Insert eye roll here.) We ate some lunch, then I worked on my puzzle while listening to a book on tape.

Since it was time for my afternoon tea, I grabbed my laptop, moved outside to the patio, and sat in my reclining lawn chair to finish my musings.  It’s after 4pm and I truly have rested from work most of the day (if you overlook the groceries). My aspirations for the rest of the day?  Right now they include staying on this lawn chair a little longer.  I haven’t thought beyond that.

I could get used to this.

Leviticus 23:3

“‘There are six days when you may work, but the seventh day is a day of sabbath rest, a day of sacred assembly. You are not to do any work; wherever you live, it is a sabbath to the Lord.

Students of the Months

So it’s been a while, guys. If you’re my friend on Facebook, you may think I haven’t been writing simply because I’ve been putting together a particularly difficult 1000 piece puzzle.  That’s not really the reason.  The puzzle is my forced stillness in the midst of a pretty crazy summer lifestyle.

In addition to visiting family in Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio this summer, I have also had the opportunity to work with quite a few students.  While some of my regulars from the school year take the summer off, a handful have continued their lessons.  I have a Korean brother and sister who are transferring from a public school to a fairly rigorous private school this fall.  We are sharpening skills to ease the transition.  I have an Indian brother and sister who are entirely bi-lingual and whose parents choose to have regular English lessons to ensure that their English skills for academic purposes rival those of their native-speaking peers. I have a Romanian woman whom I’ve been working with for eighteen months now — we’ve done everything from grammar to pronunciation to reading to writing to nursing school assignments to spelling. I work with a young man, also bilingual, who has challenges in comprehension.  He and I work on vocabulary, test prep, and life skills including interviewing for jobs.  These ‘regulars’ are officially adopted into my heart and have become part of my the larger body I call “my kids”, but they aren’t my only students.

For a willing teacher, the summer also provides some temporary liaisons — opportunities for just a ‘touch’.  This summer I chose to be part of a program called Summer Discovery .  In this program, students from across the country and around the world, move to a university campus for 2-5 weeks to live in a dorm, experience campus life, interact with other students, and take some classes.  They don’t all take English.  In fact, of the hundreds of students who are attending the program at the University of Michigan, here in Ann Arbor, only 18 have chosen to take my “Essay Writing Workshop”.  I mean, they had over forty options — including  architectural design, business management, exploring medicine, sports management, and even a cooking class at Zingerman’s!   So, you can probably imagine that the seven students I had during the first three weeks of Summer Discovery and the eleven students I am working with during the last two weeks are pretty serious about improving their writing.  Most of them have one thing on their minds — completing and even perfecting the college essay that they will use in the admissions process this fall.

Although they have that goal in common, in many ways they are quite diverse.  I have met a competitive horse back rider from Chicago, one boy and one girl from Manhattan, a Japanese boy who happens to actually live in Switzerland, a Chinese boy who goes to high school in Korea, two IB school students — one from Turkey, one from Memphis, a poet from Southern California, a hippie from New Hampshire, and a bantam-weight Korean-American defensive lineman from Kansas City.

Our task?  Each needs to identify a dominant characteristic that he or she wants to convey through the college essay.  One chose ‘hard-working’, one chose ’empathetic’, one chose ‘creative’, etc.  Once each student has determined which characteristic to convey, he or she then has the job of creating a written ‘highlight tape’ in the form of a college essay that just happens to respond to one of five prompts required by the Common App.  Easy? Nope.  Possible? Absolutely.

Today, as part of our class, I invited students to read their first completed essay out loud to the class.  Keep in mind that we have read many models, we have examined the prompts, we have brainstormed and pre-written together, we have drafted, we have participated in peer review, and we have had opportunity for revisions.  Also keep in mind that ALL of these kids are high achievers.  They are planning on attending selective universities.  They have high expectations of themselves.  I just wanted them to read out loud the 500-650 words on the page in front of them.  I had a few volunteers, but most were reluctant.

I pulled out all the stops — I gushed over volunteers.  I gave specific praise.  I offered targeted tips to those who had taken the risk to read out loud.  And then the classic Rathje showed up, “I LOVE reading your essays.  On Monday you walked in eleven strangers that I would get to interact with for ten days, but as I read your writing, I get the inside view!  I get to see who you really are!”

I don’t know if they care, but I LOVE doing this!!  I love the privilege of meeting students from different backgrounds.  I love hearing their stories — of growing up in a family where everyone is taller than 5’10”, of organizing a fund-raiser to benefit children with autism, of interviewing Kevin Durant for a school newspaper, of the challenges of having one Arabic and one Jewish parent, of growing up in Puerto Rico where half of the classes are in English and half are in Spanish, of  experiencing prejudice, health issues, language barriers, and success.  Their stories, though very different from one another, remind me of what is common among humanity — the desire to be seen, the desire to be heard, the desire to be accepted, the desire to be loved.

For a teenager, these desires can feel like desperation.  Imagine the courage it takes to travel to a place you have never been, to live there for several weeks, to put yourself onto a piece of paper, and then to read it out loud in front of people you’ve known for just a short while.  For any of us that would daunting.  For a teenager, it can be terrifying.  Yet today, five students out of my eleven dared to expose themselves, because of that, they had an opportunity to be seen and to be heard, and quite possibly the opportunity to be accepted and loved.

Ephesians 4:32

Be kind and compassionate to one another.

Have Mercy

I’ve heard the story of “The Good Samaritan” countless times in my fifty years.  You know the one, the guy is traveling down a road when he is attacked by robbers and left for dead.  He’s lying there mangled in the dirt, gasping for breath, hoping against all hope that someone will stop and help him.

One of our pastors this morning set this story in the context of current events. He recalled with us the tragedies of the last week, month, year, years, and asked us the question, “What does it mean for us? for the church?”

Let me just go on record here and say that in the past weeks and months I have  NOT immediately gone to that question as I’ve witnessed all kinds of horrendous acts.  I have been more often found standing in front of the television, eyes wide, saying, “What the…”

It doesn’t take me long to launch into the words I used to hear my grandparents say, “What’s the world coming to?”  From there it’s just a short trip to quoting scripture about the end times and “wars and rumors of wars”.  Before you know it, I’m in a frantic outrage trying to find someone to blame.  It must be the Republicans.  No, it’s the Democrats.  Wait, I think it’s corporate America.  No, no, it’s the extremists.  I’m not really looking for what it means for me, or, to be honest, for ways that I could possibly help.

This morning, our pastor in his re-telling of “The Good Samaritan”  pointed out that each of us, like the man in the story,  is essentially half-dead, lying in the dirt, gasping for breath. He said, “Jesus is the good Samaritan.” Gasp! How did I get fifty years into my life and not realize that the point of the story is not that I would see myself as the good Samaritan and look for ways that I can be better than the priests and the Levites and actually help out the poor hurting soul?  How have I not seen that I am the poor hurting soul!?!?!?

Jesus was telling this story to a respected expert in the law.  The expert had asked him, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  He of course knew what was written, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and  mind and love your neighbor as yourself.”  He just needed a little clarification.  “Uh, Jesus, who, uh, exactly, would you say qualifies as ‘my neighbor’?”

Can’t you just see Jesus inhaling slowly, thinking to Himself, “This one is gonna take a story.” He doesn’t just say, “Every living human, you moron!” like I might. Nope.  He takes this expert in the law, pulls him onto his lap and has a little story time.

The Teacher tells the expert that, in the story, the Samaritan didn’t first check to see what neighborhood the hurting man was from.  He didn’t ask him his last name. He didn’t try to find out if he was an illegal immigrant.  He didn’t check to see if he had a conceal and carry permit.  He didn’t examine the color of his skin.  He didn’t determine if they spoke the same language.  He didn’t check his ID.  No.

He saw a dude in the dirt that needed help. He used his own wine and oil to cleanse the man’s wounds before he bandaged them. He put the guy on his own donkey and then walked with him to a place of shelter. He paid for the stranger’s care. Period.

The Teacher looks the expert in the eyes and says, “Who was a neighbor to this man?” The expert says, “The one who showed mercy.”  And the punch line? “Go and do likewise.”

Is it dangerous to meet the need of someone we do not know? Yes. Is it scary to reach out when we see someone hurting? It can be.  Is it uncomfortable to stand up for the oppressed, the wounded, the outcast?  Sometimes.

Our pastor’s challenge to us this morning was that we ask God to show us the people in our regular flow of life who need us to see them, share with them what we have, walk beside them, and befriend them.  His closing words? “Take the risk to love for the sake of the Gospel.”

Go and do likewise.

Be strong and courageous; do not be afraid.

For I, the Lord your God, will be with you wherever you go.

Joshua 1: 9