Surprise!

Today I was getting ready to do a lesson with one of my students when our office manager informed me that one of my coworkers had gone home sick.  Would I mind combining two students’ instruction —  one, a nine-year-old doing language arts and one, an eleven-year-old who had a math assessment to finish?  Both of these students have specific learning needs and both typically receive one-on-one instruction.  I answered  I would be happy to combine them while thinking to myself, “well, this could get interesting”.

It is for good reason that most of our students receive one-on-one instruction.  They have all struggled in school and have the scars to show for it — low self-esteem, a tendency toward frustration, and the constant and desperate need for encouragement.   How was I going to juggle their needs?  No way to find out but to step into it.

I was almost immediately surprised.  “Hey you two,” I said, “Why don’t we find a space with a large table so that we have plenty of room?”  “Yeah!” they said almost in unison.  While a change in routine or venue can sometimes signal distraction or disruption, they surprised me by rallying and seeing this as an opportunity.  They helped me gather all their supplies — laptops, files, paper, etc — and we relocated so swiftly that I barely had time to register the change.

Still, I was cautious.  I wondered if we would get anything done at all.  Both of these students tend to need a lot of direction and re-direction; I pictured an hour plunked between them, dividing my time between getting each of them back on task and squeezing in little spurts of instruction.  Again, I was surprised.

The eleven-year-old almost immediately located the online assessment that he had to complete and announced that he could do most of it on his own.  The nine-year-old found herself a “special pen” to work with and then, looking at her ‘classmate’, decided to find him one, too.  “What a good idea!”  I said.  Her classmate received the pen, said “Thank you!” and got right to work.

While I guided the nine-year-old through her lesson, the eleven-year-old worked diligently on adding and subtracting fractions.  He politely asked me once if he had reduced the fraction as far as it could go. After I checked his answer and said,  “yes, good job,” I turned back to the other student.  She looked at him and added her own “good job!”  When the older student heard me tell the younger student, “You got it,” he chimed in with “Way to go!”

Guys, I did not script this.  They were genuinely delighted for one another.  He watched her jump up and down when she heard two target words in a song that I played.  She waited patiently when he and I worked through a more difficult problem together.  They even teamed up to good-naturedly poke fun at my singing ability! I praised them and rewarded them for their cooperative spirits and strong work ethics, but I truly believe that the opportunity to work side-by-side was a reward in itself.

The three of us were elbow to elbow smiling at one another at a table buried under two laptops, paper, pens, scissors, and scraps.  I said, “Hey, guys, I think we should do this more often.  What do you think?”

“Yes!” they agreed, in unison.

If you are not a teacher, you might not know that school doesn’t always go like this.  Classmates aren’t always encouraging toward one another.  They certainly don’t always celebrate the small accomplishments of students with learning differences.  In fact, it is often the opposite.  Students who struggle often have the added discouragement of being teased by their peers and even, I’m sorry to say, their teachers.

Not today.

Today was a sweet surprise.  Perhaps these two who have struggled so much have learned the value of being kind.  I learned a little myself.

Surprise!

Isaiah 11:6

“a child will lead them”

 

The Occasion

As a student, I hated group assignments.  I dreaded the moment when the teacher would put me with two or three other students and give us a task to accomplish.  I would groan, shoot the instructor a micro-glare, and reluctantly move over to join the others who were equally ‘enthusiastic’.  Why did I hate it so much? Was it because every group has a slacker and I hated the imbalance of effort? Or because I truly am an introvert?  Or was it the fact that I would have to approach a problem in a different way than I was familiar with?  Because if a teacher gave me a page of math problems, I could fly through them pretty quickly and end up with fairly accurate results.  If I had to answer comprehension questions on a chapter in US History, no problem.  Zip, zap, zoop. However, if a task involved more complexity and I had to sit in that complexity with a group of people who approached problems in different ways than my slam and jam method, that was uncomfortable for me.  I didn’t like it.

You might think that in my role as teacher I have avoided assigning group work because it made me so uncomfortable as a student.  Not true.  It’s been a bit of a psycho/social experiment for me to watch my students obediently trudge from their desks to the groups that I have put them in.  The ones who are like me grab the paper and just ‘get it done’, huffing and rolling their eyes the whole time.  They are missing the point — just like I was.

Often learning is not about the product, but about the process.

Teachers don’t put students into groups so that they can find the answers.  The answers have already been found.  Teachers put students into groups so that they can witness the processes of other people and so that their own processes might be refined.

In my current position, I am working with two students on a course of elementary science.  [If you know me well, just take a moment to digest that last sentence.] One student is a nine-year-old who is sitting beside me in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  She has pretty dramatic difficulty with reading and paying attention. The other student is an eight-year-old with less dramatic learning challenges who is sitting in front of a laptop in London, England.  We meet every day from 10-11am EST, which is 3-4pm in London.  As you can imagine, this arrangement requires involved technology, elaborate communication, and creative scheduling.  Why go to all this trouble for two little girls? We go to all this trouble because — and I have witnessed this first hand — the girls learn better together than they do apart.  Not only that, they share their lives with each other — tales of pet cats, horseback riding, and celebrating learning accomplishments. They giggle together as they squish clay to discover the properties of a solid, pour water to measure the volume of a liquid, and watch a steaming kettle to see a gas. They are learning about science, yes, but they are also learning how to learn and that the process of learning does not always have to be drudgery.

As a student, I was always pretty good at learning.  Give me the problems; I’ll find the answers.  I could figure things out on my own, thankyouverymuch.

I’m writing about this like it’s ancient history, but as you might’ve already guessed, not much has changed.  I still think my systems are working pretty well. Give me a problem; I’ll try to find a solution. Slam, jam.  I don’t go out of my way to find the refining process, nevertheless, it finds me.

Recently, our pastor, Gabe Kasper, referring to the writing of Kirkegaard, said that in moments when we meet a challenge to our preferred way of thinking and living we can find opportunities that produce personal transformation. Kirkegaard called such moments ‘the occasion’.

I am not a fan of such ‘occasions’.  I do not like change, perhaps because in order to change I have to acknowledge that my system wasn’t the best one after all.  My slam and jam method of getting assignments done wasn’t (isn’t) really teaching me anything other than how to check off boxes.  It wasn’t (isn’t) allowing me the space to sit in the complexity of a problem. My box-checking was (is) productive, but not transformative.

I recently stumbled upon a book by Barbara Brown Taylor called Learning to Walk in the Dark.  I had requested the book from the library because another author I love, Jen Hatmaker, often refers to Taylor in her own writing and speaking.  I didn’t know what I was asking for when I requested the book, but I was a few pages into the introduction when I found myself face to face with ‘the occasion’.  I was staring down a challenge to my preferred way of thinking and living. I had grabbed the book in the middle of a sleepless night, so I faced a choice at 2am — step into this transformational space or put the book down and forget I ever saw it.

I stepped in.

Taylor’s premise is that we are conditioned from childhood to avoid dark spaces.  Our parents tell us to come into the house when the streetlights come on.  We have night lights beside our beds.  We know where the emergency flashlight is for when the power goes out.  When things go dark — literally and metaphorically — we rush to grab a light.  My approach to getting caught in the dark is similar to my approach to math problems–I quickly find a solution. I turn on a light. Taylor suggests a different approach.  What if, she says, we sit in the dark spaces for a while? What if we acknowledge the complexity of difficult situations instead of rushing to find solutions? After all, she says, “when, despite all my best efforts, the lights have gone off in my life (literally or figuratively, take your pick), plunging me into the kind of darkness that turns my knees to water, nonetheless I have not died…Instead, I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again” (5).

I have another student who reminds me of me.  He wants my help super-fast so that he can score well on the test and get a good grade on the paper.  I sometimes get frustrated with him.  I say, “I know you want a good grade on the test, but I am more concerned that you fully understand the concepts.”  He sometimes blurts back, “What? You don’t care if I do well on the test?”  I do. I do care about his test, but life has taught me that the test will be over in a blink; the lesson might matter for much longer. If we don’t master the concept, we are going to have to revisit it over and over until we finally have it.

If you’ve been reading my blog for any amount of time, you know that this concept of sitting — literal sitting or figurative sitting — is not easy for me.  I want a super-fast solution to every problem.  I don’t know why, because each time I find a solution to one problem, another one takes its place as though it had been waiting in the wings for its turn.  I continually find myself standing in the dark.

In fact, at this very moment, I (and maybe you) face several circumstances that are pretty dark.  I would really like to turn on some lights, clean up some messes, and make everything perfect.  However, I’ve been using that system for most of my adult life, and I’m beginning to see that it’s a flawed strategy. So, I’m going to get comfortable here and just observe the space.  I’m  hoping that “the things I learn” here will “save my life over and over again.”

But guys, I’m not approaching this lesson alone.  I’ve assigned myself to a group project.  I’ve asked a few of my dear friends to join me because I know that although it’s not my preferred way of learning — I’d rather hunker down and check off all the boxes myself — they have different approaches that I can learn from.  What’s more is that they are willing to sit in the dark complexity with me for a while — not trying to turn on lights and clean up messes, but just to sit and observe and learn from the dark.

Exodus 20:21

The people remained at a distance,

while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was.

 

 

 

Pacing

Last semester I was teaching three classes — three different classes. I loved it.  I interacted with students almost every day.  I was teaching writing, literature, and even a methods class — a class of future writing teachers.   I was steeped in theory and practice and I was loving every minute of it.

I had agreed to teach the methods class first.  I considered it a great honor to work with students who would one day be teaching others how to write.  I had high expectations of myself for what I wanted to expose these future educators to — instructional strategies, cultural considerations, and personal practices that I feel are important to instruction.  From the moment I agreed to teach the class I was fully committed to creating a high quality experience.

I had cleared the month of August to prepare for this class when I received a request to also teach one section each of composition and literature.  I opened the envelope and instinctively said, “You’ve got to be kidding me! Three preps?! That’s too much!”  But, instead of saying, “Thank you so much, but I think it would be best if I just taught one or the other,” I signed on the dotted line saying to myself, “It’ll be fine!  I’ve taught these two classes before; they shouldn’t require too much preparation.”   I was then informed that the English department had adopted a new textbook for the literature class which would necessitate a new syllabus and a new plan.  And, once I wrapped my head around the fact that I was going to be essentially creating two courses from scratch, I went totally rogue and decided to re-craft the composition class, too.

It just snowballed from there.  As I read composition theory to prepare for the methods class, I discovered strategies that I wanted to try with my own writing students.  As I tried new strategies with my writing students, I convinced myself to alter instruction in my literature class, too.  That’s kind of how I am as a teacher; left to my own devices, I keep tweaking and re-tweaking.  I don’t ever really find a groove to settle into.

So, as you might expect, the whole semester I was reading, thinking, planning, reworking, teaching, scoring, and conferencing.  I think it’s as close as I’ve come to being fully in the classroom again.  I loved the relationships I was building with students, I loved speaking into their writing, I loved leading classes, but guys, I gotta admit, it was too much.

I don’t think I even acknowledged it was too much until November, when I was asked if I would take a couple of classes for this semester and I reflexively answered, “Nah, I don’t really like that schedule.” I was only being asked to teach two classes three days a week, but I was sitting in the midst a mountain of work of my own making, and I instinctively grabbed the white flag and started waving with all my might.

Of course, three weeks later, when the semester ended, I second-guessed that decision  and heard myself asking the same old question,  “Well, then, what will I do?”

[Stop laughing at me!]

A weird series of events involving a car ride to Detroit, phone conversations with both of my daughters, and a few emails with a friend landed me back at Lindamood-Bell where I worked in the summer of 2015.  Lindamood-Bell is a private agency where students get one-on-one intensive instruction.  The incredibly rewarding work is based on brain research.  It’s quite remarkable — I have watched students improve their reading and/or comprehension by several grade levels in a matter of weeks!  On any given day, I might work with four to six different students, for an hour each,  performing tasks that are prescribed by a learning consultant based on the Lindamood-Bell model of instruction.

You read that correctly — I implement the plan; I do not actually write the plans.  Further, I do not do any grading or scoring.  I punch in at the beginning of my shift, work with one student each hour, then I punch out and go home.  Once home, I work on puzzles, I read books, and I find time to write.

All last semester, I found it very difficult to get to my blog.  I wrote with my students, as I always do, but that is a different kind of writing. When I write with my students, I model the process and produce whatever type of writing that I am asking them to produce — a narrative, a research paper, an argument.  That kind of writing builds my skill, of course, but it isn’t the kind of writing that I produce for my blog.

The kind of writing I produce for my blog is very personal and very restorative.  It’s the kind of writing that grows from deep reading, purposeful thinking, and sitting. (I discuss this in an early blog post you can read here.) I can’t produce this type of writing when I am overcommitted.  It’s just not possible.

When I started back at Lindamood-Bell in early January, I  committed to working no more than 20-30 hours a week.  Almost immediately, I found that I had space in my days, so I returned to my blog.  As I began to write again, I saw, almost immediately, how God continues to work in my life.

He gave me the option last semester to commit to one, two, or three classes. I chose three.  He let me see, again, what it is like to fully commit to the classroom for a season.  He allowed me to run on all cylinders as I tend to do so that I could see what I exchange for that kind of pace.  And then, he allowed me to have a moment of clarity last fall to say “no” to more adjunct teaching so that I could stumble back into the pace that He has been offering me since I moved into this next chapter. Finally, He nudged me toward the keys.

God works through my writing.  He speaks to me.  He says, when you slow yourself down long enough to put your words on a page, you finally hear what I’m trying to tell you. And what is He telling me today?  I think He’s saying, settle in.  Enjoy this pace. And, you know, I think I’m gonna listen.

Psalm 46: 10

Be still, and know that I am God.

 

 

 

Carrying Sorrow and Finding Joy

Brené Brown says in Braving the Wilderness says we “can lean into pure joy without denying the struggle in the world”  My husband says, “two realities can coexist.”  In other words, a person can simultaneously be devastated by a school shooting and cheer loudly at a basketball game.  We can hold two things at the same time.

This is hard for me to wrap my mind around.  If I am really hurt, I want to really be sad.  I want to grieve, mourn, and wail.  I want to go all-out Old Testament and rend my garments, put on sackcloth, and smear my face with ashes.  I want to fully commit to my feelings.

I remember a time in junior high when I felt betrayed by a friend.  I ran through the front door of my house, flew up the stairs to my bedroom, flung myself on my bed and wailed — audibly wailed.  My mother came into my room, heard my tale of woe, rubbed my back, and commiserated with me.  She tried to get me to shake it off and laugh a little, I’m sure, but I would have nothing of that. I needed time and space for my grieving.

Of course as is true of most middle school devastations, my grief was short-lived.  In fact, in the words of my great grandmother, “everything looked better in the morning”.  I likely laughed with my friends at the bus stop the next day.

However, life doesn’t stay as simple as middle school.  Some devastations don’t right themselves overnight.  Some griefs have staying power.  I am thinking of the families of this week’s school shooting victims, for example.  They will carry grief with them for the rest of their lives.  I’m thinking of sexual assault survivors, too.  That kind of devastation does not go away when the sun rises.  And, I’m thinking of the kind of aches that many of us carry with us every day — the pain of childhood abuse, the darkness of abject poverty, the burden of overwhelming debt, the brokenness of divorce, and the cumulative scars from years of neglect and unintentional hurts.

What do we do with that kind of grief?  How do we simultaneously hold that kind of pain and still find moments of joy?

Years ago we were very close with a family that had suffered great loss.  The mother and father had had four children — their oldest child was killed in a motorcycle accident in his early adulthood and their youngest child died in an early-morning car accident during her senior year of high school.  We met this family years after these devastating losses, and I can remember listening in stunned shock to the recounting of the stories. I felt the ache of our friends’ loss, yet I also noticed, as we spent more time with them, that the members of this family were often initiators of celebration, of gathering, of laughter.  In fact, the patriarch of the family, the father of the four children, was known for his practical jokes and for his annual elaborate Easter egg hunts. The mother was one of the sweet grannies of the church where we belonged — she was a smiling presence in the kitchen for every function from Vacation Bible School to funeral luncheons to holiday gatherings.   The remaining two sisters (mothers and grandmothers themselves) often hosted huge gatherings at their homes — hayrides, pool parties, picnics, and the like.  The family embraced and even cultivated moments of joy, yet certainly they still carried the sorrow of loss.

Ann Voskamp says “There isn’t one of us not bearing the wounds from our own bloody battles.”  It’s true. I forget that sometimes, especially when I am walking around in figurative sackcloth and ashes.  I look at the people around me and I think, “look at that perfect life.  Certainly they are not suffering.”  But everyone carries pain.  Everyone.  We don’t often see one another’s brokenness because we like to keep it under the thin veneer of Facebook profile pictures, Instagram images, and the other public faces and masks that we wear.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing.  I mean, pain can be paralyzing.  Some losses seem so devastating that we are tempted to lose hope.  We are tempted to stay on our beds wailing at the top of our lungs.  Most of us don’t.  Usually we find the wherewithal to wash our face, comb our hair, and get back to the business of life — work, school, groceries, and laundry.  However, not all of us find a way, like my friends have, to simultaneously hold sorrow and experience joy — the joy of a birthday party, of a new baby, of a basketball win.

Even if we do find a way to be happy for a season, “old scars can break open like fresh wounds and your unspoken broken can start to rip you wide open and maybe the essence of all the questions is: how in the holy name of God do you live with your one broken heart?” (Voskamp 15).

How indeed?

I’m not entirely sure. I have my own unspoken broken and the only remedy I’ve found is a moment by moment lifting of it.  It’s as though I’m a small child and I’ve just fallen with my most prized treasure in my hand.  It has been marred beyond recognition and I am inconsolable. I cry.  I weep.  I wail.  And then, in exhaustion, I hold it up as high as I can as though to say, “See?  Do you see what happened?  Can you fix it? Can you make it better?”

When I was a little girl, I would hold broken items up to my dad.  He was over six feet tall and very calm.  He didn’t react in anger or disappointment when something was broken.  He quietly took it from my hands and said, “Well, let’s see.”  I knew if it could be fixed, my dad would find a way.  He would bring the situation in close, examine it thoroughly, and determine if indeed the item could be restored.  He might grab a pair of pliers or some crazy glue.  He might take off his glasses to get a better view.  And usually, after a few moments, he would had back my treasure and ask, “how’s that?”

I can still feel wonder at my dad’s ability to make things whole again.

But, as we’ve all learned, some broken things can not be made whole.

And so I’m standing here holding my unspoken broken in my hand.  I’m reaching up as high as I can and I’m saying, “Do you see this? Can you fix it?” And in the moments that I calm my desperate cries, I can almost hear a still small voice:

Behold, I am making all things new. 

I cup my hand around my ear and listen:

Sorrow may last for a night, but joy comes in the morning. 

“But what about right now?” I yell.

Fear not, I am with you. 

Yes. Yes, you are.  You have never left me nor forsaken me.  I’m sitting here trying to be strong and courageous because you are with me wherever I go, but this is a pretty dark and miserable place, you know?

I know.  I see.  I’m here.  

And for that reason, today I will try to cultivate some joy.

Psalm 56:8

You keep track of all my sorrows.
    You have collected all my tears in your bottle.
    You have recorded each one in your book.

Brown, Brené . Braving the Wilderness. New York: Random House, 2017.

Voskamp, Ann.  The Broken Way. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016.

How the Health are You?

A friend of mine used to ask me this every time she saw me. It made me laugh.  I was just a kid, and I liked how she, an adult, was playing with language and ‘getting away with’ saying a ‘bad word’.

Who knew, way back then, that questions of health would one day dominate my life?  Who knew that I would spend years trying to discover what the health is wrong with me and how I can remedy the problem or at least minimize its effects?

But guys, I have relatively good news!  After five years of trial and error — testing, medication, treatment, side effects, etc. — we have discovered a strategy that, at least for now, is reducing my symptoms!

Let me pause here and give my disclaimer that every body is different, no one treatment works the same for every person, and certainly this is just my story.  I am in no way suggesting that your strategy for managing your health is inappropriate or that you should alter it in any way.  

I haven’t written about my health since last summer when I was doing a trial of Cosentyx.  After a over a year of no medical intervention for my illness, which had been labelled psoriatic arthritis and/or fibromyalgia, I had gone to a new rheumatologist who, at least initially, promised hope for reduced pain, better mobility, and less fatigue.  She felt that Cosentyx was a miracle drug and that I would certainly see dramatic results perhaps even with the first dose.  I was so excited!  After four years of pain and fatigue that limited my everyday life, I was looking forward to ‘getting back to normal’!

Well, I did see a dramatic effect, but it was not the one I was looking for.  Cosentyx made me an emotional wreck — I mean a serious emotional wreck.  I could barely function, particularly when the doses were back-to-back in the initial ‘loading’ period.  I was irrational, depressed, impulsive, and downright mean.   Nevertheless, I continued through that initial phase hoping to strike the promised gold; it never surfaced.  I stayed on Cosentyx for six months with no real improvement.

My doctor, suspecting a different diagnosis of degenerative arthritis, next recommended that I visit a pain management clinic.  I have been very opposed to this from the start.  Remember that prior to this illness, I had been a pretty avid runner for about 10 years.  I had run 5-6 days a week and completed two half-marathons.  I was in pretty great shape up until I started noticing joint pain and extreme fatigue.  I did not want to resign myself to a life of pain meds — I wanted to get better!  I wanted to find the source of the problem, fix it, and get back to my life!  My previous doctor had also recommended pain management; that’s when I had decided to try  homeopathy.  Homeopathy offered me hope and agency but no true change.

Anyway, I digress.  Last fall, when my current rheumatologist recommended I go to the pain management clinic, she suggested I try a steroid shot in my sacroiliac joint — the biggest source of my pain.  This sounded different to me.  She was not suggesting that I take NSAIDS for the rest of my life or that I take opioids or some other form of pain medication.  She was just suggesting a steroid injection.  I was willing to give that  a try.

With the very first injection I noticed a change — I didn’t have such a high degree of pain or such dramatic fatigue.  In fact, I was moving around more easily and having more energy.  After my second injection a month later, my chiropractor and physical therapist both noticed structural differences — my spine adjusted more easily, my muscles seemed more relaxed, and my posture was more erect.  After the third injection just two weeks ago, I notice that I have more endurance as I move through my days and I sleep more comfortably at night.

For the first time in five years, I have noticed a significant change in my ability to function!

Now, I will say that I am cautious in celebration.  First, I am only two and a half months into this treatment.  I do not know how long it will last.  In fact, after the third shot, the medical team said that I should call them “as needed”.  What does that mean?  Will my relief last a month? Two months?  a year?  What I am told is that everyone is different.  Some people get relief for months; some get relief for much longer.

The second reason that I am cautious is that I do not want to go back to my soldiering ways.  My illness has helped me, through trial and error, find a better pace for my life. I don’t try to cram twenty hours of living into every day any more.  I find time for work, but I also find time to rest.  I have built boundaries into my life that never existed before. I have more time with my husband, more availability for my kids and grandkids, and more margin to manage the unexpected stuff that arises in life.  I don’t want to lose this balance as my health improves.

I still believe that this journey of the last five years has been a lesson designed uniquely for me.  The way I was living my life previous to this illness was a path of my own making — I was kicking butts and taking names. I was not caring for the others in my life or, least of all, myself.  I don’t want to lose what I’ve learned in any level of recovery.

So, for now, I will continue the practices that have sustained me this far:

  •  A commitment to daily Scripture reading — this has been a calming anchor to my days.  I listen to a daily ‘dose’ on a YouVersion Bible reading plan every morning as I move through my routine.  It’s a small thing that makes a huge difference.
  • Regular visits with my chiropractor and physical therapist who have been my coaches and supporters for going on three years now.  I can’t say enough good about these two.
  • Yoga, a healthful eating regimen, and walking.  Daily intentional care of my physical body helps maintain both my physical and emotional health.
  • Writing — putting my thinking on a page with a commitment to total transparency has been an accountability that contributes to my emotional and physical health.
  • Psychological therapy — a once a week discussion with a trained professional who helps me sort out the healthy and unhealthy messages I am giving myself.  I am always surprised by the interrelationship between physical and mental health; it cannot be overstated.
  • A renewed commitment to prayer — this seems to be the hardest for me.  I am so used to muscling through and finding my own solutions.  Turning to prayer is a highly intentional act right now.  I am praying that it becomes more automatic over time.

I sometimes joke that taking care of myself is a part-time job.  It takes a lot of effort.  However, I have learned that if I have any hope of caring for the people I love or for being effective with my students, I have got to oxygenate myself first.  It’s not selfish; it’s a healthy practice that enables me to do the things I love.  It honors the Creator to care for what He created.

Jeremiah 17:14

Heal me, Lord, and I will be healed; save me and I will be saved, for you are the one I praise.

How hard can it be? pt. 2

So, it seems like the turning would be the hardest part, doesn’t it?  If you are headed down a road of your own choosing, recognizing that you are going the wrong way and deciding to turn around should be the most difficult step, shouldn’t it?  I have not found that to be so.  I have found two other parts of repentance to be much more difficult — 1)  keeping my eyes from looking back, and 2) continually stepping forward.

Here’s the thing — walking down the road of my own choosing causes a ton of collateral damage.  You would think that once I realize this, I would want to turn quickly toward a path of safety and run just as fast as I can.  Not so.  I am drawn to looking back at all the wreckage.  I get lost in regret and what ifs.  I keep thinking, “Oh my gosh, why did I do that? Why couldn’t I see how much I was hurting myself and others?”  My eyes turn back and guess what happens next; my feet follow.  Just that quickly I have lost my way again.

I can lose hours of my time paging through the photo albums of poor choices and missed opportunities.  I mean, I can still lose sleep over the way I treated a childhood friend in 1972.  A terse word with a student can occupy my thoughts all evening.  I can make myself physically sick by rehashing parenting decisions and formulating ways to do things differently.   It’s as though I think I can rewind the movie, cut out the scenes I don’t like, and splice in a version of how I wish it would’ve played out.  But we can’t do that.  What happened happened. I can’t undo what I did, and I can’t undo what others did.  I can’t, but for some reason, my brain still wants to pretend as though I can.

And I think I know why. My mom and I were sitting side by side last week, watching the Olympics and lightly chatting.  I mean, I thought it was light chatting until she said something about getting lost in her regretful thoughts.  She said that she can spiral downward very quickly when she starts thinking about the mistakes she has made in her life, but when she feels herself doing that she says, “Get behind me, Satan!” I about jumped out of my rocking chair — she had hit the nail on the head!  If the enemy can get my eyes turned toward regret, my feet follow.  He just has to grab my chin and turn my gaze toward what I did wrong in 1983 or 1998 or 2004 and pretty soon my whole body has made its way back to a path of my own choosing and I am no longer aware of Jesus walking beside me.  I can’t hear his voice any more.  I don’t care to look into his eyes.  I am a soldier on a mission to make things right, and you’d better get out of my way.

But, guys, I can’t make things right.

It won’t work.

I can’t undo what’s been done.

And I’m not supposed to try.

In these moments, I need the second part of the clause, but, so often, I miss it.

I hear, “repent,” but I don’t seem to hear “believe the gospel.”  Or maybe I hear the words, but I don’t understand the message.  I mean, what is the gospel, after all?  It’s God’s commitment to me — He already knows that I am human, that I am bent on turning, and that I cannot of my own strength follow Him.  He knows that I am going to continually walk down a path of my own choosing, and yet He has promised to be with me wherever I go.  He doesn’t leave me or forsake me.  He has seen all my lousy decisions.  He has watched me ignore the people in front of me.  He has seen me choose myself over others time and time again.  And yet, He loves me.  He has patience with me.  He forgives me.  He continually chooses to walk beside me, to reveal himself to me, and to allow me the time and space to choose over and over again to turn away from my destructive path and toward His Way.

And that is not all.  He is in the business of redemption and restoration.  He takes the wreckage from my past and transforms it into beauty.  It’s beyond my comprehension.  I thought my parents’ divorce was the end of my life, but God used that experience to prepare me to be the wife of a divorced man and the mother of his child.  I don’t hold my husband’s past against him. It’s just part of his story, and now it’s part of mine.

In the mid-80s, I was anorexic.  My whole life revolved around reducing the amount of food I ate and thereby reducing the amount of me.  I was on a path of destruction that many never walk away from.  However, God, in his grace kept walking beside me, he kept talking to me, and before I knew it, I had turned around.  I was worried that I might have done irreparable damage to my body and that I would never have children, but my worries were for nothing, because God is in the business of redemption and restoration.  Not only did he restore my physical and emotional body, he has used my path to minister to others who have similar stories.

Time and time again, I’ve heard stories of people who have witnessed God transforming much greater disasters into stories of restoration. It is what God does.  He creates, he redeems, he restores.

Lately I’ve been spending way too much time in the photo albums of regret.  There is a time and a place to look back and grieve.  Sometimes we need to spend seasons in mourning.  However, when mourning turns into self-blame and punishment, it’s time to close the album for a bit.  It’s time to turn around, walk down the path that has been designed for me, listen to the voice of the One walking beside me, gaze into His eyes, and recognize that He is in the business of redemption and restoration.

God is faithful, and He will do it.

Psalm 30

11 You turned my wailing into dancing;
    you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy,
12 that my heart may sing your praises and not be silent.
    Lord my God, I will praise you forever.

How hard can it be?

It sounds pretty easy.  I mean, it’s really just one independent clause. I’ve read it, or had it read in my hearing, certainly dozens of times in my life.  I have an image of Jesus peacefully walking along a dirt path, probably next to the Sea of Galilee, wind blowing through his hair, gazing lovingly toward his hearers.  His voice is gentle, and he’s giving the simplest of invitations, “repent and believe the gospel.”

How hard can it be to do two simple things: 1) repent, and 2) believe in the gospel.

Pretty darn hard it turns out.

If you have been with me since the beginning of this blog you are aware that I have spent a fair amount of time writing about repentance.  It’s such an archaic sounding word, isn’t it?  Kind of King James-ish, if you ask me.  Why in the world would I want to utter a word like repent in 2018?  It conjures another image, one of a wild-eyed, locust-eating John the Baptist, shouting at the top of his lungs, “Repent and be baptized!”

Can’t we just all hold hands and sing Kumbaya?

We could.  We could all gather together, hold hands, and sing kumbaya. It might be soothing for a moment,  but it wouldn’t provide the healing and restoration that true repentance gives.

Perhaps way back in confirmation class was the first time I heard repentance described as “a turning”.  I have imagined myself walking down a street of my own making headed toward a future that only seems bright, and then, realizing that the path is truly headed toward my certain demise, I turn on a dime to head in the opposite direction toward a future hand-crafted for me — one that I don’t have to manipulate myself into.

Doesn’t that sound blissful and so “one and done”-ish? Yeah, true repentance isn’t like that.  True repentance is realizing that I keep ending up on that same darn street and I have to keep turning around and heading in the other direction.  I am bent on turning.  I keep figuring out a better plan, a more exciting path, a way that seems right to me.

The road I typically end up on is one that promises to make me happy.  In my younger years, it promised make me thinner.  Over the years it has offered financial security, family peace, work satisfaction, physical healing, or some other sort of relief from some other sort of stress.  It promises an escape from the troubles of this world.  But guess what  — it has not once delivered.  Oh, sure, I walked a path for a while that certainly made me thinner, but it also left me empty.  I have patched together short-term fixes for all kinds of messes, but none have lasted.  All of my efforts lead me to the same conclusion — I do not have the answers.

So, I turn.  I walk away from my own path, and I promise myself, and God, that I’ve learned my lesson.  I’m done trying to soldier through. I’m done coming up with my own solutions.

About two seconds pass, and, whether I realize it or not,  I’m back on my own path.

Why?  Because I forget the second half of the clause — “believe in the gospel”.   I know, I know, more John the Baptist, but guys, the dude was running around shouting because he understood the good news!  He knew what has taken me a lifetime to learn — all my answers are crap.  They set up me to be my own rescuer and they inevitably fail.  Good ol’ JTB understood that Jesus was the answer, and not just in the Sunday school answer kind of way.  He was the solution. The remedy.  The Way.

But ya know, even though I believe that, I don’t always believe that.  Instead I believe that I need to solve my own problems, pay for my own mistakes, and forge my own path.  I get confused and think that repentance means guilt and punishment.

It doesn’t.

Let’s picture the scene a little differently.  Let’s have Jesus walk right up beside us wherever we are today.  Let’s have him walk with us on our path for a little while; let’s hear his voice and begin to trust him.  I see him walking as quickly or as slowly as we want to go.  I imagine him making a lot of eye contact, so much so that I stop looking at whatever it is that I’ve been chasing at the end of the path of my own making.  Before long I  want to go wherever He is going, just so that I can continue to see those eyes and hear that voice.  I imagine hearing him say things like “don’t worry about tomorrow, I gave the birds their clothing, I’ll make sure you have things to wear,” “follow me,” “I love you,”  “I forgive you,” and “I’m going to prepare a place for you.”

Turning isn’t so hard when you know that you are turning toward love, when you recognize where you belong, and when you understand, finally, that he’s had you all the time in the palm of his hand.

Isaiah 30:15a

In repentance and rest is your salvation; in quietness and trust is your strength.

 

 

 

The Assignment, #2

This is #2 in a participatory series. From time to time, I will blog with the heading “The Assignment”.  I will respond to one of  300 Writing Prompts*; you can read the prompt and my post here and then decide whether or not you want to post your own response to the prompt.   You can reply in the comments on WordPress or in the comments on Facebook where I typically share blog posts. 

The Prompt: “Have you ever spoken up when you saw something going on that was wrong? Were you scared?  What ended up happening?”

Hahahahahahahahaha.  Have I ever spoken up when I saw something going on that was wrong? That’s a good one!  1) I’m a teacher and former school administrator, 2) I’m a parent, 3) I’m a bit of a know-it-all.  Yes,  Yes.  I have often spoken up when I saw something going on that was wrong.

I might even say I am compelled to speak up when I see something going on that is wrong.  It can be a problem, actually.  Particularly if I get confused about the difference between “what is wrong” and “what I don’t agree with”.  Sometimes the distinction between these two categories is pretty clear; sometimes it’s rather subtle.

For example, the other day I watched an eleven year old dump about a quarter cup of Red Hot into a baggie full of Doritos.  I used all the restraint I could muster to hold myself to “Wow!  That’s a lot of hot sauce,” rather than saying “Dude, what’s the matter with you?  No one needs that much hot sauce!”  This was an instance of “what I don’t agree with” rather than one of “what is wrong”.  Although I myself am not a fan of hot sauce, this kid did nothing “wrong”.

On the other hand, if I overhear one teenager cruelly making fun of another teenager, I will most definitely step in and correct the first teenager. I am not a fan of bullying in any form.  It’s unnecessary. And cruel.  And wrong.

Not all issues are so clear cut.  Sometimes I can’t immediately distinguish between what is simply a matter of preference and something that is most certainly wrong.  I once saw a college student walking to class barefoot.  We chatted for a minute, and I did ask, “Where are your shoes?”  She responded, “I really don’t like shoes.”  Hm. Ok, I thought,  I wouldn’t go into a public place with no shoes, but I guess you would.  Later I learned from my Dean of Students husband that students are not allowed to go into buildings without shoes — it’s a health code issue.  Being barefoot in school is wrong.  So noted.

Further muddling the topic are situations that are “not under my jurisdiction”.  I have had more than one boss tell me, “that’s not your problem.” Hmph.  I will admit here to reluctantly walking away sputtering under my breath on such occasions.  I have a hard time believing it’s not my problem if 1) it’s wrong and 2) I’ve seen it.

You can imagine my struggle with living in a world that is full of “wrong”.  I watch the news and say to the TV from my couch,  “What?  You’ve gotta be kidding me!”  Last weekend during a basketball game between the University of Michigan and Michigan State, I yelled, “why do you keep throwing the same shot?  You’ve missed it all the other times, why will this time be different?”  Driving on the highway, I reprimand other drivers, “Really?  You’re gonna cut him off like that?”

Am I scared to speak up? No. My response when I see the wrongs of others is reflexive. I am not afraid of confrontation.  The fear comes in when I realize that I myself have been “wrong”.  And, let’s be honest, this happens regularly.  Someone with such a compulsion to call out “wrong” will certainly see her own flaws.

Last week I was sitting in my therapist’s office recalling a scenario from my holiday experience with my family.  I told her that I was lying in bed one night almost frantic that I hadn’t created the “right” Christmas.  Maybe I should’ve done something different — offered more activities, participated in more conversations, created more ‘magical moments’.   What if I had done everything wrong and had missed some opportunities?

My therapist said to me, “your expectations of yourself are so high, I can’t even see them.”  Indeed.  I really don’t want to get it wrong, especially when it comes to my family. But here’s the thing.  I’m going to get it wrong.

After my last blog post wherein I discussed my realization that I am sometimes driven by prejudice, a friend made a relevant and kind comment on Facebook.  I responded, “thanks for the grace,” and she replied, “We all need grace, but do you know who we need it from the most? Ourselves.”

It’s true.  While I am quick to call out wrong when I see it, I am also quite dedicated to offering others fresh chances.  The student who I dressed down for picking on a peer might be forgiven and encouraged by me within a few moments.  My Spartans, who kept missing shots against the Wolverines, still have my undying support and devotion. The kiddo who downed that whole baggie of dripping Doritos received high fives from me moments later when he read some difficult words in his lesson. I don’t let anyone else’s behavior determine my love for them because I know their actions do not define them.

However, I am not as quick to offer that same grace to myself.  I tend to revisit my sins and pile them up into the shape of my identity.  My failure to cover a learning objective makes me an ineffective teacher.  My inability to offer an appropriate emotional response makes me a bad mother.  My tendency to share my personal stories makes me a narcissist.

I get so carried away with “seeing”  all the “wrong” in my life that I become paralyzed. I can’t seem to offer myself the same grace that I would be more than willing to offer a friend or even a stranger.

I don’t think I’m alone.

So here’s to calling out what’s wrong,  to being defenders of the those who can’t defend themselves, and to being willing to look in the mirror and acknowledge that I don’t get it all right myself.  And in the same breath, here’s to offering forgiveness, to holding out hope, and to offering grace to the people in our paths and to ourselves.

I think we can give that a try, can’t we?

 

Ephesians 4:32

Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.

 

 

*300 Writing Prompts. Picadilly, 2017.

Tell Me Your Story

I am a hypocrite.  Although I have stood on my soapbox pointing out injustices and crying out for equity, I am a prejudiced person.  I’m racist. I’m classist. I’m sexist.  And that’s only the beginning of it.  I’ll judge a person based on one Facebook status.  I’ll incriminate a whole group of people for their stance on whether they think athletes should stand for the National Anthem or not. I’ll sort you into a group so fast, it’ll make your head spin.

It’s embarrassing, actually.  I’ve lived my professional life encouraging students to write narratives – to tell their stories of defining life moments — their parents’ divorce, the death of a sibling, a betrayal of friendship, a proclamation of love. These stories cross all lines of race, class, gender, political affiliation, music preference, and lifestyle choice.  Our stories reveal our humanity; they bind us to one another.

In my classroom I have made space for students to laugh with one another, cry with one another, challenge one another, and embrace one another.  I, too, have laughed, cried, challenged, and embraced.  I have revealed my humanity to an audience of twenty or so students at a time.  I have met and loved kids who are rich, poor, black, white, Asian, Hispanic, Arabic, Christian, atheist, Jewish, Hindu, male, female, gay, straight, fat, thin, extroverted, introverted, funny, serious,…

It’s not hard to love someone – anyone – once you have heard his or her story.  But you’ve got to take the risk of getting close enough to hear their story.  That’s the challenge for me, because I’m prejudiced.  Before I even hear your voice I have made all kinds of assumptions about you.  I have looked at your hair, your clothing, your skin color, and your car. I have seen who you hang out with, what you share on Facebook, and what you retweet on Twitter. I know who you are, I think to myself.  You are ‘that kind’ of person.  I sort you into a clump and make assumptions about you before I have even asked you one question.

Last week I returned to a job that I left about two and a half years ago.  Since I left, my former supervisor, who I loved, had to leave her position for health reasons.  I had had a couple interactions with the woman who took her place, but before I had even worked with her one day, I had decided that since she wasn’t my previous supervisor she would be not as amazing, not as on top of things. I pre-judged her.  The other day, for the last hour of a two-day-long training, the new supervisor partnered with me for some role-playing activities, and I got my first up-close glance at her personality and heard the first few lines of her story.  My prejudices were confirmed but they were also dashed – She isn’t, actually, exactly like my previous supervisor; rather, she has her own unique personality and gifts. (Shocking, I know.)  I wasn’t anticipating laughing out loud with my new supervisor as she pretended to be a rather precocious nine-year old to my role of reading instructor, but there we were – giggling like close friends lost in make-believe.

Brené Brown says in Braving the Wilderness, “People are hard to hate close up.  Move in.” From a distance, even the length of my arm, I can keep you handily sorted into a category – liberal, conservative, educated, ignorant, friend, or foe.  However, if I take the chance to ask you, “what’s your story,” everything can change.  My beliefs can be challenged, my assumptions destroyed, my heart opened.

Years ago I picked up my first Jodi Picoult book; I believe it was My Sister’s Keeper. It’s the story of a girl who was conceived by her parents in the hope that she would be a donor match for her critically ill older sibling.  Gasp!  One glance at that premise and I formed an opinion.  How could they?  What kind of parents….? However, Picoult, I soon learned, is a master at using narrative to bring her readers in close to see issues in their complexity – issues that most of us find ourselves firmly positioned on – euthanasia, gun violence, infidelity, and the like.  She weaves her narratives, often from multiple points of view, to expose these issues as more than dichotomies.  She can move me from my Gasp! How could they? to a Wow! I can’t even imagine what kind of love that is! in 400 pages or less!

Real-life stories are no different from fictional narratives – they are full of complexity and factors that don’t appear on the surface. If I judge someone based on her skin color, clothing, language choices, or friends, I am missing out!  I am missing her story – all the characters and plot twists that have led her to today.  Not only that, I am diminishing her humanity – I am relegating her to a category rather than appreciating her individuality. Most importantly, I am denying the connectedness that she and I share as members of humanity – children of the Creator.

On Sunday (Jan 7, 2018), our pastor, Gabe Kasper, spoke about the necessity for genuine relationships in the church (read or listen to the full-text here).  He said that genuine relationships are characterized by vulnerability, empathy, love, and the willing of good for the other person.  Often we don’t enter into such relationships because 1) we are afraid of getting close to people, and 2) we don’t want to take the time.  However, if we are willing to take the risk to move in just a little closer, to ask others to tell us a little piece of their story, everything — EVERYTHING – can change.  Story has the power to transform us – our understandings, our experience of life, and our relationships. Imagine the impact of a couple hundred people who have chosen to be vulnerable, empathetic, loving, and supportive of one another. Intentionally and consistently. What ripple effect might that have?

Are we willing to, knowing better, do better.  Are we willing to call out our prejudices and stereotypes?  Are we willing to set those aside, move in a little closer, and take the time to hear the stories of people who may not be just like us?

Consider this: Because I am a 51 year old white woman who has been a teacher and a pastor’s wife, you may draw some assumptions about me.  You might be pre-disposed to believe certain things  – that I’m Christian, heterosexual, pro-life, Republican, and financially secure. You might believe that my family is immune from tragedies such as chronic illness, sexual assault, alcoholism, eating disorders, family conflict, depression, or anxiety.  Some of your assumptions may be right; some would certainly be wrong.  How will you know which is which? You will have to lean in and listen to my story.

Some of the things you learn about me might be confusing.  They might challenge you.  You might not agree with me.  You might choose to walk beside me anyway, and in that walking, I might learn some things about you that are confusing and that challenge me.  I picture us taking lots of long walks together, learning about one another and growing together.

I am picturing that if we are willing to take the chance to move in close and learn the stories of those who we might have previously sorted into categories, our assumptions will be destroyed, and we will never be the same again.

Romans 12:10

Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.

 

The Sum of the Lesson

In education, when teachers have identified a learning objective, they design instruction in such a way that the student encounters the content in multiple settings using multiple modalities so that the student’s likelihood of achieving mastery is increased. For example, when a child is learning the alphabet, he might see the letters, say the letters, and sing the letters.  He might write the letters with his finger on his desk or in the air before practicing with a pencil on paper.  In life, I have found that the lessons I most need to learn are presented to me across various contexts through various means until I finally throw my hands up and declare, “Ok, Ok, I see what’s happening here!”  At that point, I typically sit down and write about these observations so that 1) I can fully process them,  and 2) I can create a public record of my learning in an attempt to hold myself accountable.

Today’s Lesson: Time, Tension, and Technology

Sometime last fall, I discovered that I often felt anxious around bedtime.  I would lie down and begin to have restless thoughts about stuff that hadn’t crossed my mind during the day or even during the past several months or years.  I’d begin to wonder if I had been a good enough mother — if I had made enough home-cooked meals, had enough candid conversations, or provided my kids with the lessons and assurances that breed confidence and independence.  Then I’d move on to wondering whether I’d been a good enough wife, friend, sister, daughter, teacher, etc.  I would fuss and stew over conversations and decisions that had taken place years ago, coming to no peace, of course, but rather escalating my anxiety further.  I wouldn’t say I ever had a full-fledged anxiety attack, but these anxious thoughts were keeping me awake at night.

About this same time, I started seeing studies and reports about the increase in anxiety among teens, children, and young adults and some researchers’ theories that such anxiety was tied to the amount of time that kids spend on social media now that practically everyone always has a Smartphone in his or her hand. I got to thinking — I have a Smartphone in my hand most of the time, too.  In fact, I often play Words With Friends, scroll through Facebook, read my Twitter feed, and check emails right up until bedtime.  What if I took a break from that habit to see what impact it has on my bedtime anxiety?

To answer that question,  I began to conduct some rather informal research of my own — a private and inconsistent case study.  It didn’t take long for me to come to the conclusion that I feel less anxious when I don’t use my phone right up until bedtime.  I know, I know, this is a mind-blowing discovery.

In the midst of my ‘study’, I kept finding myself encountering content reinforcing my conclusion.  I heard a podcast that, among other topics, talked about the need for boundaries in the use of technology.  I had a conversation with my therapist about technology addiction. A friend shared a YouTube video about the impact of devices on our sense of peace. I read articles.  I examined my life. I was convicted.

However, although I realized the benefit of using my phone less, I routinely fell back into old habits. And I’ve continued to have anxious thoughts.

One thread of anxiety I have been experiencing is related to growing older. At 51 I am hardly old, but I’ve begun to have thoughts (late at night when most unsettling thoughts plague me) that I’ve already lived more than half of my life, that my body will never again be as fit and agile as it once was, that other people must look at me, seeing my gray hair and aging body, and think thoughts about me that I probably thought about people older than me when I was much younger.  I’ve begun to think about what I want to do with “the rest of my career” and to discuss retirement options with my husband.  For some reason the thought that time is running out and the realization that life actually comes to an end sometimes pop up even when it is not my bedtime.

Ironically enough, one thing I do sometimes to ‘quiet’ the anxious thoughts is to get out my phone, play a game, check social media sites, and respond to emails.  It’s a Catch-22.

For Christmas, one of my children got me a book, Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman.  The other night before bed, I lay down and opened to the first tale. Reading stories has always been  a calming way for me to end the day.  Much of what I read at bedtime is what I call “candy bar fiction” —  stuff I can consume and forget about.  The goal of such reading is not to get deep; it’s to fall asleep.  To that end, I opened the book and began to read the two-page tale “Sum”.  The tale suggests that when we die we relive all of our life experiences but that they are re-arranged so that similar events are clumped together.  “You spend two months driving the street in front of your house,” it says, and “six days clipping your nails. Fifteen months looking for lost items. Eighteen months waiting in line.”  As I read, I started thinking, If this really happened, how much time would I spend scrolling through Facebook, playing Words With Friends, having a cup of tea with my husband, reading good books, appreciating the sunshine?  

It wasn’t a particularly good story to read for falling asleep, but it was an excellent concluding activity to nail home this learning objective, which is not that all technology is evil or that I (we) should shun all forms of social media but rather that if my (our) days and minutes are numbered, I want to consider my choices wisely.  I am still going to check social media and play Words With Friends, but I am also going to be intentional about turning off my phone at day’s end, I’m going to engage with the people in the room, I’m going to have a cup of tea with my husband, I’m going to read good books, and I’m going to appreciate the sunshine.

 

Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.

Psalm 90:12 NIV*

 

*I finished writing this blog and went to find the address for this very verse on Biblegateway.  To my surprise, it is the verse of the day.  Perhaps this lesson, too, will be ongoing.