He knew.

I was just sitting here thinking how amazing God is. If I didn’t believe He was active in my life before, He is making it impossible for me to doubt it now.

You want evidence? Ok.  Here is today’s evidence.  About a month ago a Saudi Arabian student contacted me through my Wyzant profile.  Would I please help her with her graduate work in English literature; she needed help with three classes.  She didn’t tell me what the classes were, but I said, sure, I would meet with her and see if I could help.

All she knew from my profile is that I have an MA in English, that I have taught high school and community college English, and that my specialty is composition.  She didn’t know that for all the years that I was teaching in St. Louis I was immersed in African American culture or that much of my graduate work focused on African American literature and literacy practices. She couldn’t have known of our links to the Jewish community through Cultural Leadership or of the fact that I had taught Holocaust literature as part of my senior seminar class. She had no way of knowing that one of the college-level classes I have taught for years is poetry. She couldn’t have known these things.

But God did.

He knew before she sent me that first message that I would be fascinated by the three syllabi she would hand me: Literature of the Romantic Era, Literature of the Holocaust, and Twenty-First Century African American Literature.  He knew I had background knowledge and a love for these subjects that would allow me to do more than merely proofread her essays.  He knew that I would be energized by entering into a conversation on Wordsworth’s use of blank verse.  He knew that I would be so interested in the portrayal of hegemony in Ishmael Reed’s Flight to Canada that I would likely purchase the book after reading about it in my student’s writing.  He knew that when she asked me if I could help her narrow down her research topic for her Master’s thesis my pulse would accelerate out of joy!

He knew.

And he connected us.  That is the only explanation for a young woman living worlds away from her home studying in a language not her own to be working side by side with a middle aged midwesterner in a small apartment in Ypsilanti.

The only reason.

Only God sees into her life and sees into my life and knows that we would make a great team.  Only God draws together two so seemingly different people for a common purpose.  Only God knows that I will likely benefit more from this relationship than she will.

Only God.

Ephesians 3:20-21

 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

Students of the Week

Eleven days since my last post?  How can that be?  What did I do with eleven days?

Well, a quick glance at the calendar tells me I’ve done a lot with eleven days.  We spent three of those days traveling to see a grand baby.  Two days were spent hosting our daughter and her boyfriend for a quick visit.  And the rest of the days?  Well, friends, I’ve seen a lot of students.  Wanna meet some of them?

Let’s see, maybe we’ll start with the youngest.  About six weeks ago, a mother contacted me and asked if I would work with her two daughters on writing; they are in the the third and fifth grades.  I told the mother that I typically only work with older students — as in high school and college — but she persisted.  So, I met these two little Chinese girls who I could easily carry around in my pockets with me, and I fell in love.  They are precocious — the fifth grader’s writing is laced with sarcasm and hyperbole; the third grader is wise and obedient, wishing that all of her classmates would see the error of their ways and comply with her teacher’s wishes as she does.  We work on writing and grammar and I try to absorb some of the academic pressure that their hardworking parents are piling on top of them.

Next in terms of age is a student that I have had almost from the beginning.  She is a a seventh grader who works closer to eleventh grade level.  The pressure from her Indian immigrant parents to do better/work harder is palpable, but she is able to resiliently shrug off what she can’t carry.  She steps to her own beat.  She wants to please her parents, of course, but she also knows what she does and doesn’t like.  Our challenge this past week was ignoring her deep ‘need’ to change the wallpaper on her laptop so that we could work on test prep exercises.  Yes, the seventh grader in her shines through.

I have another sister pair.  They are the fifth grade and eighth grade daughters of  a Taiwanese mother and an American father.  They have lived in China, Chicago, and little old Northville, Michigan.  They are bilingual, as are many of my students.  They are also quite bright.  Their parents, like so many others I have met this year, want their children to succeed academically, which means they will need supplemental instruction in Standard English, not because they don’t speak it very clearly, but because their parents don’t consistently model Standard English structures.  This seemingly small factor, can impact standardized test scores and hinder clear written communication.

I know; I started by saying I don’t typically work with younger students, then I introduced you to five.

I’ve got a couple of high school boys that I see weekly — same scenario as above — bright guys with international parents who need additional work in English.  These boys are taking honors classes, playing sports, and participating in myriad other pursuits, then sitting with me for an hour doing test prep, writing essays, and talking about sentence construction.  I don’t think I had this kind of work ethic in high school!

I also have adults.  I must say I love my adults.

The first is a twenty-year old whose first language is Farsi and second language is English.  He has struggled his whole life with reading and comprehension, so we are meeting twice a week to work on these skills.  He hopes to be one day be successful in college.

Then there is the thirty year old Brazilian woman living in California.  She and I meet online once a week to improve her writing.  She already has an American MBA, but she wants to become a blogger to promote her startup and to discuss issues of marketing.  Yes, as you can see, all of my students are slackers.

My other thirty year old is from Romania.  After twelve years in the country, she decided to become a nurse.  We spent four months preparing her for the pre-nursing exam. She passed the test and was accepted into a program. She’ll start in January, so we are meeting weekly to continue to improve her English skills.

My personal favorite at the moment is a young woman from Saudi Arabia.  She is here on the government’s dime to get a degree in English literature so that she can return to her country and teach in a university.  She’s taking three graduate level classes — Romanticism, Literature of the Holocaust, and 21st Century African American literature.  She reads, thinks, and writes about these very different topics.  I get to talk her through some of her ideas and make sure that her writing reflects what she is thinking.

This week I will meet a Hispanic man who is about to graduate from the University of Michigan.  He needs some support preparing for the Michigan teacher certification test, you know, since English is his second language.

Guys, I get to do this.  Each week I get to sit across the table from (or in front of the screen with) a person who I never would have come into contact with if I didn’t have a degree in English, years of teaching experience, and an online profile.

I am learning from each of them, perhaps more than they are learning from me.

Just a part of my life in this next chapter — way more than I could have ever hoped for.

Ephesians 3:20-21

20 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

Juxtaposition

The other day I was trying to explain the term ‘juxtaposition’ to a student.  I think I said something like, “when we juxtapose two items, we set them side by side in an attempt to highlight their differences.”

I’m sitting here this morning, having just read my devotion, seeing the glaring differences when I juxtapose my life with the life of Christ.  It’s embarrassing, really. Especially when I consider myself to be not only a Christian, but a leader in the church. It’s humbling, and sobering, to think that others look to my husband and I as examples of what Christians should be.  In a perfect world, we would be mirrors that merely reflected the love and grace of God to all those around us.  In reality, this mirror is warped, cracked, and positioned in such a way that the reflection is sometimes unrecognizable.

Let’s add a little object lesson.  Yesterday, I pridefully posted on Facebook that I had used inappropriate language to deal with a medical insurance agent regarding some services for one of our children.  “I showed her who was boss, yes I did.” As people liked that post throughout the day, I had a mixture of feelings — the satisfaction that others had experienced the same emotions that I had in similar experiences, the pride that I had written a post that others ‘liked’ (yes, I am that shallow), and, a hint of shame.  “Really, Kristin, you are celebrating the fact that you resorted to low means to achieve your goal? Would you have had the same outcome if you had remained calm and gracious? Was it really necessary to get so charged up?”

Now, to be fair, the situation I was confronted with was a bit ridiculous.  A change in policy was, in my opinion, unjustified, irresponsible, and unnecessary.  However, did my response also need to be ridiculous?  And, after I had apologized to the innocent agent I was dealing with, did I really have to haughtily post my poor reflection of Christ for all the world to see?

Yeah, I’m often a poor reflection. Juxtaposition would now show Christ’s reaction in a similar situation. He would be sitting in his office on the phone, calmly listening to the agent, asking questions, probably speaking directly into her life, picking up on nuances of her tone and reaching out to her need. He might ask who He could talk to about this recent policy change, but would He raise his voice? utter a vulgarity? or celebrate His breech of character on social media?

I doubt it.

When we juxtapose ourselves with perfection we find ourselves looking like a hot mess, because indeed we are hot messes. And that is why, my friends, God is the covenant keeper. (See my recent post ‘Didn’t He do it?”) We can’t keep the covenant. We can’t keep our commitment to be image bearers for Christ because we are a bunch of warped, cracked, misshapen mirrors.  We reflect His image poorly.  All the time.  Even when we think we are getting it right.

And yet, every once in a while, He uses these imperfect mirrors, tips them at just such an angle so that others get a glimpse of His fabulousness.  And in those moments, we don’t haughtily post on Facebook, but we drop to our knees in humble gratitude for having a front row seat.  Because when we juxtapose ourselves with Christ, and take our eyes off of our own imperfection, we see what true perfection looks like. And we are amazed.

I Corinthians 13:12

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face.

Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.

This is Now

I wonder how many times I am going to write the same content in this blog before I finally get it.

I’m knocked down again, because I was probably trying to do too much.

We had dinner with friends last week.  The couple asked me, “So how are you feeling?” I answered, “Well, I was doing great until I sat on the bleachers in the cold at the football game for three hours.” That was nine days ago.  Yes, it can be something that little.

I went on to explain the frustration I have with this because I used to be able to do so much.  So much.  But, as I’ve written so many times in this blog — that was then, this is now.

I knew I was in trouble last weekend when I had difficulty moving around the day after the football game.  We went to church then came home and rested.  I fussed and whined for a bit, then my husband suggested we go for a walk.  Movement always helps.  After we walked, we came home to make it an early night.

I didn’t adjust my schedule last week to allow myself time to recover, after all, I teach two hours three days a week and see a few students outside of that.  What would I need to pare down? I am already pared way down.   So, I was moving a little slowly, big deal.  Surely I could still teach and see a few students.

Well, a few students turned into ten hours of tutoring.  Add that to six hours in the classroom and five to six hours of prep and I still had a work week that was fewer than twenty-five hours.  However, we also went to dinner and a play on Thursday night. Then, we drove to a neighboring town on Saturday for a wedding.  Yesterday we spent the morning at church.  Finally, I uncharacteristically agreed to meet two students on Sunday evening.

And this morning? Well, I pried myself out of bed at 8:00am to take my meds and send messages to my doctors to see what I can do about the fact that I feel like I’ve been hit by a truck.  My body aches– neck, hips, knees, back. My eyes are the worst — aching, irritated, sensitive to light. And fatigue?  Yeah.  I’ve made a promise to myself that I will shower at 11 this morning so that I am on time for my noon class. I will probably force myself to stay dressed long enough to drive out and refill my medication at the pharmacy, otherwise I won’t have pain meds tomorrow morning.  And, I will likely make an agreement with myself that I am only allowed to watch television and crochet if I do twenty minutes of Pilates first.

And, I know I’ve got to do some preparing because I have four students tomorrow — one who is new.  Wednesday I teach and then I will see four more students. And even that, folks, is sounding like a lot right now.

It sounds like a lot to a girl who used to arrive at school before 7am, prepare for students or attend meetings until 8, teach, observe other teachers, mentor students, run with the cross country team, and still go home to make dinner, do laundry, and attend events with the family.

That was then, this is now.

I have to remind myself of what I wrote just a few days ago.  This opportunity to slow down has afforded me the time to reflect and find meaning in the ways that I have lived my life for the past forty-nine years. This new pace, this pace of now, is a blessing and an opportunity.

But today I don’t like it. At all.

Psalm 55:17

Evening, morning and noon I cry out in distress, and he hears my voice.

Didn’t He Do It?

It dawned on me yesterday that I’ve been a little hard on myself in this blog lately.  Not unjustifiably so, but still…

Sometimes people comment that they find my willingness to ‘bare it all’ refreshing.  I guess we should thank my stepmother.  (Are you reading this, dear?)  Years ago I used to write a Christmas letter proclaiming all the wonderful things that had happened to our family throughout the year. You know the kind: My husband’s job was going great.  My life was picture perfect.  Our children were gifted and talented (really, they were!), and nothing could have gone better!  Really!

After having sent one such letter, we were visiting my father and my stepmother. In my memory, my stepmother was standing next to a pile of Christmas letters when she said something like, “I can’t hardly bare to read one more letter about how perfect someone’s life was this year!”  I have no memory of the rest of that visit.  That’s it.

I never wrote a letter the same way again.  In fact, for the past several years, I haven’t even penned one.  I can’t bring myself to do it!  Of course I want to gush about all the good stuff from the year, but it doesn’t hardly feel honest if I don’t also include the struggles!  And, as you know, our struggles are many!

I really didn’t set out to write a blog that was a baring of my soul.  In fact, if you go back to day one, I believe I was just mystified, and a little scared, about the major change I was going through — leaving a career to move to a place of stillness — and I needed an avenue to process it.  Little did I know that this season of rest would afford me some soul-searching time to process not only this change, but perhaps the last forty-nine years of my life!!

Although all this processing has been, at times, difficult, it is one of the most precious opportunities I have been afforded in my life.  After all that trudging and surviving, I now have a chance to look back and find meaning in all of it.  Really, all of it. Now, as you know if you read my blog regularly, all of the meaning ain’t what they call ‘cute’.  Some of the stuff I have done and lived through is down right ugly, mostly due to my own choosing.   And that’s where yesterday’s Bible study comes in.

The battalion and I are reading Malachi, but we took a brief field trip to Genesis yesterday to ‘watch’ the covenant between God and Abram (Genesis 15).  As was the way of covenants, God directed Abram to cut a number of animals in half and spread them on the ground.  Our Bible teacher, Lisa Harper, told us that way back in the day, the covenant makers would both walk through this bloody mess in their bare feet as a way of signifying their agreement to keep whatever promise they were making.  The blood on their feet was to show that if they didn’t keep their end of the agreement, then they would expect to be cut in half just like these animals — killed as their payment for failure to keep the promise.  Harper went further to say that in those days, if a poor man was making a covenant with a wealthy man, the wealthy one was not required to walk through the bloody mess.  After all, he had all ability to ‘pay back’ any debt or make up any loss that might be incurred if he didn’t follow through with the agreement.  The poor man, however, had nothing but his life as collateral.  He had to put his life on the line.  Now, when God directed Abram to arrange the bloodied animals on the ground, He did not also require Abram, the poor man, to walk through.  No, He told Abram to go to sleep.  And, while he was sleeping, while he was helpless, God Himself walked through the bloody mess, promising to pay with His own life if either participant in the covenant couldn’t follow through on the agreement. And, as my friends in St. Louis like to say, ‘didn’t He do it?’

God knew that Abram (and I) was poor and weak.  He knew that Abram (nor I) could hope to keep any kind of covenant.  He knew that Abram (and I) would make his own arrangements to create a legacy, to work out the details, to figure it out by himself when it seemed that God was not acting.  And still, still, He walked through that bloody mess knowing that He would keep the covenant — both sides of the covenant — for Abram (and for me).

And didn’t He do it?

When I have been unfaithful, hasn’t He been faithful?  When I have gone my own way, hasn’t He pursued me?  When I have soldiered on, hasn’t He protected me from myself.  When I have demanded my own way, hasn’t He watched and waited with open arms. When I have refused to call on Him, didn’t He send messenger after messenger into my path.  When I continued, didn’t He gather me up and carry me to a place of rest so that I could take a long look at how He has kept His covenant relationship with me?

Indeed He has, He did, He will.

Psalm 51:12

Restore to me the joy of your salvation

and uphold me with a willing spirit.

I’ve been wrong

I hate being wrong.

Early in our marriage, my husband and I attended a workshop on personality types.  Everyone in the room was broken into four groups based on responses to a questionnaire.  The four groups were illustrated on a four-quadrant chart.  Each quadrant had a catch phrase.  My responses landed me in the quadrant labelled with the catch phrase, “I’m right.”  My husband landed in the quadrant labelled “I know.”  I reflexively looked over at him and said, “As long as you know that I’m right, this marriage should work out beautifully.”

Yeah, it has been a long painful fall from that kind of pride.

During my first year of teaching, I was making mistake after mistake.  The seasoned teachers on my hallway were keeping their distance from me.  One morning, after a huge mistake resulted in catastrophe, I indignantly marched down to the other teachers and said, “Why didn’t you say something? How could you let me do this?”  They quietly replied, “Well, you seemed to have everything figured out for yourself.”

Ouch.

In the early years of parenting, I was confident that I was the perfect parent.  This belief evidenced itself in my judgmental glances toward others who ‘didn’t have it all together’.  I harshly judged another mother whose son punched my daughter, but winced weeks later when my daughter bit every other child in the church nursery.

Yup, it happened.

I would like to say that it stopped there, but ‘being right’ is a tough characteristic to shake.  Often in my classroom I joke, “I could be wrong; it happened once in 1973, so I imagine it could happen again.”  Of course my students roll their eyes.  In fact, I have had students who document in their notes every time I make a mistake specifically for the purpose of reminding me whenever I tell that joke.

You have to laugh at yourself.  At least I do.  I mean, really, it’s ridiculous to think that I would be right all the time. Yet, I’m always shocked when my humanity shows through.

The most painful falls have come through parenting, of course.  I guess, as a mother, much of my identity comes through my children.  It shouldn’t, but it does.  I pride myself on their accomplishments — their success in school, sports, the arts, and their careers.  I harshly corrected their failures when they were young — failing to turn in assignments, treating friends poorly, or –gasp– sassing their parents.  They are, in my mind, a reflection of me.  So, it becomes very painful when I see them struggling because of something that I have directly, or more often indirectly, taught them.  When they adopt the patterns that I have modeled for them, the very ones that have caused me so much pain, I ache. I tend to see these times not as their failures, but as mine.  If only I would have taught them that it is ok to fail, that it is healthy to admit our mistakes, that it is freeing to apologize, that it is not helpful to rationalize your sins.  If I had done that, then they would have learned to apologize quickly and forgive quickly.

When they were toddlers and misbehaved toward one another, I taught them to say, “I’m sorry,” and “I forgive you.”  I prided myself in that.  My kids were going to learn how to forgive quickly, darn it.  But here’s the thing — kids don’t learn what you say, they learn what you do.  So, when they misbehaved and I stomped through the house slamming doors and muttering under my breath, they were not learning that I would readily forgive them.  When I explained away my misguided parenting decisions instead of admitting my error, they learned how to explain away their decisions — to rationalize them, to somehow make them seem ok.

Let me just say here that they have taught me so much about apology and forgiveness.  Kids do that.  They teach us the lessons that we most need to learn.  They are worlds ahead of me in this process.  However, from time to time I see my stubbornness in them — the stubbornness I taught them.  That breaks my heart.

So, let me go on record and say, I’ve had it wrong, guys.  I haven’t always admitted that I have made a mistake.  But here let me say that each of my days are full of mistakes.  I am hobbling along in life, sometimes trying my best, sometimes doing my worst.  And, I’m sorry.

Psalm 86

For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving,
    abounding in steadfast love to all who call upon you.
Give ear, O Lord, to my prayer;
    listen to my plea for grace.