Monday, November 23, 2015

Love Me at my Darkest


Do you ever wonder if the work you're doing is meaningful?  For me the question comes up all too often.  It is easy to get lost in the monotony of grading papers, sending emails, and reminding kids, to "please get on task," again, and to forget the purpose of it all.  So much work goes into what I do every day.  I am pouring my heart and soul into this.  But is it worthwhile? Teaching kids to find characters' different Points-of-View.  Helping them to memorize new words.  Making sure they are able to tell a good story.  Does any of it matter in the end?

A couple of weeks ago, I bought myself a bracelet that reads "I loved you at your darkest," as a reminder of how Jesus feels about me.

The typical response I get when I tell someone I teach Middle School is, "Oh.  I can't imagine doing that."  In some ways Middle Schoolers are delightful.  I enjoy them every day.  They are old enough to not need me to wipe their noses, but young enough that they get excited when I bring out a game or put on some Disney music.  But in many ways, my students are at their darkest.  Their little awkward bodies are changing.  Did you know that Middle School boys have 1000x more testosterone running through them than adult males?  The world around them is constantly shifting.  Their lives are controlled by teachers, parents, more dominant peers.  They are questioning who they are.  They are wondering if they are loved.  Sometimes the way that comes out is making jokes at each others' expense--talking someone else down in a desperate attempt to build themselves up.  That often means that they forget nearly everything.  They throw things.  They make messes.  This can be frustrating when you are the one who cleans up after them.  They have the immaturity of children, and the angst of teenagers.  Being patient, kind, and gentle with them is a choice I have to make over and over again throughout the day.

Looking at my bracelet I am reminded that I am doing important work.  I am doing the--sometimes exhausting--work of loving people at their darkest.

The C-Word

No, I'm not talking about that C-word.  I am talking about something much worse:  cancer.  Reading that word today it feels so different than it once did.  I used to hear "cancer" as if it was a word spoken underwater.  Cancer was this blurry thing that happened on TV, or to people's distant relatives.  Cancer couldn't touch me.  It couldn't come near the ones I love.  It was off in the distance.  I didn't give it a second thought.  Until cancer forced me to pay attention.

Grandpa and Grandma with some of their grandchildren last Christmas.

First, cancer attacked my grandfather.  It was a few years ago.  He went through chemotherapy and everything was okay.  Until it wasn't.  See the thing about cancer is it can linger.  One day you think it is gone forever and the next you might find out that it has launched a full-scale attack on you.  "Grandpa isn't doing well," my dad vaguely said, "He's not doing well at all."  Chemo didn't work the second time.  The cancer has spread.  We don't know how long he has to live.    When I last visited my grandpa, he didn't look like my grandpa.  My grandpa has a light in his eyes.  He sneaks me popsicles.  The man I saw was pale, and thin, and hairless:  a picture of suffering.  Walking, talking, everyday life was painful for him.  He spent much of his time in the bathroom battling nausea.  But he still called me darling, still told me I was beautiful, and still made me laugh.  My grandparents are active.  They love to travel.  They golf together.  My grandpa takes photographs.  My grandmother paints.  Aside from this, they love each other.  I'll often see them holding hands or snuggling or teasing each other.  My grandfather once said about his relationship with my grandma, "Whatever we do, we like to do together."  I don't know what she'll do when he's gone.

Philip and I wearing purple for my brother, Joey who has pancreatic cancer.

The next victim was my brother.  My wrestling, red-meat-eating, veteran brother.  An unlikely candidate for a deadly disease.  He is all height, beard, and muscles.  One day, he felt a grapefruit-sized lump near his stomach.  We first heard that it was benign, but they were going to remove it just to be safe.  Then I got the call from my mom.  She said it.  The c-word.  It felt like the world became a silent film.  Like I couldn't hear our conversation.  I could only see it written in white font on a black background, and it flickered every once in awhile.  Nothing about cancer makes sense.  You hear things like, "They found more lymph nodes with cancer in them,"  and even though you have no idea what lymph nodes are, your mind instantly goes to death.  Everything means you might lose someone close to you.  Even if that someone is a perfectly healthy twenty-six year-old.  Or, rather they were perfectly health.  As I watch Joey suffer from a distance I see him maintain his sense of humor, dignity, and quiet eloquence even through great adversity.  I believe he is going to beat this!  Will you believe with me?

Callie and her sister, Becca.

Finally, cancer did the most unfair thing.  Like a sharp frost that withers a white rose, it went after the most perfect, innocent, untouched thing it could find.  Cancer found Callie: my friends' two-year-old little girl.  I have known Scott and Tabitha since high school.  We have attended and served at Ross Point Camp together for many years.  One time when Tabitha was a counselor and Scott was a camper, they asked me to walk them to campfire so that they would be "chaperoned."  On a worship night at camp, Tabitha held me for hours as I wept.  Years later we watched Scott and Tab get married at Ross Point camp, and dreamed about the day we would do the same.  Callie is one of the few little people that gives me baby fever.  Her demeanor is so laid back.  She is always smiling.    She enjoys the presence of anyone that she meets.  The last time I saw Callie, though, something was different.  She was grumpy.  She was tilting her head to the side.  She was stand-offish.  Her parents attributed this to a normal part of toddler life:  teething.  Because who would suspect something more serious?  Then they had to hear something that no parent would ever want to hear:  Callie has a tumor in her neck.  It turned out to be, you guessed it, cancer.  The community of support that has risen up around them is a testament to how amazing and loved this family truly is.

I wish I had something profound to say now.  All I can cling to is what I always cling to.    My hope is in Jesus.  God is bigger than cancer.  I can't make sense of this.  But I believe that one day we will be in a place where there is no suffering.  Where there is no pain, no disease, and Jesus will wipe away all of my tears.

If you want to support Joey or Callie as they fight the good fight--first pray!--second, here are links to their Go Fund Me pages:

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Springs in the Valley

Psalm 84 is beautiful.  If you don't know what I'm talking about, you should drop your computer right now and go find a bible and open it up to that passage.  Ok, since I don't want you to go breaking your computer on me, I'll just give you the passage:

How lovely is your dwelling place,
O LORD of hosts!
2My soul longs, yes, faints
for the courts of the LORD;
my heart and flesh sing for joy
to the living God.
3Even the sparrow finds a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may lay her young,
at your altars, O LORD of hosts,
my King and my God.
4Blessed are those who dwell in your house,
ever singing your praise! Selah
5Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
in whose heart are the highways to Zion.b
6As they go through the Valley of Baca
they make it a place of springs;
the early rain also covers it with pools.
7They go from strength to strength;
each one appears before God in Zion.
8O LORD God of hosts, hear my prayer;
give ear, O God of Jacob! Selah
9Behold our shield, O God;
look on the face of your anointed!
10For a day in your courts is better
than a thousand elsewhere.
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
than dwell in the tents of wickedness.
11For the LORD God is a sun and shield;
the LORD bestows favor and honor.
No good thing does he withhold
from those who walk uprightly.
12O LORD of hosts,
blessed is the one who trusts in you!

See what I mean?  So much goodness in there!  One part in particular, though, is really speaking to me lately.  Verses five and six say:

"5Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
in whose heart are the highways to Zion.b
6As they go through the Valley of Baca
they make it a place of springs."

Being the nerdy English major that I am, I had to unpack the figurative language in there.  Let start with the springs.  A spring is the place where water comes from.  There is a lot of water imagery in the Psalms.  Water is refreshing.  Water allows people, animal, and plants to live.  You could say it brings life.  Water represents baptism--entering a new life with Christ.  Water represents the Holy Spirit.  Water can be peace, or joy, or refreshment, or renewal, or change.  

 Then there is the valley.  A valley is usually referring to something bad.  Mountain tops usually mean success or good times or closeness with God.  A valley is in between the mountain peaks.  It could represent the good times between the bad.  The bible relates a valley to death and darkness.  A valley could be a place that seems far away from God.  A place where evil is occurring.  A place that is unholy, and broken.  

When I put that together, I read this passage as people who abide in Jesus can pass through a dark place, and make it a place that is life-bringing.  They get in the midst of hardships, and brokenness, and evil, and bring the Holy Spirit, and peace, and joy, and refreshment, and growth.  

That is my desire.  I desire to go to a broken place and bring life.  I desire to get my hands in the messiness and watch God's Spirit work.  I don't know what that will look like.  Maybe that means helping to bring hope to a broken school.  Maybe that means bringing the Holy Spirit to a bad part of town.  Maybe that means moving to the inner city and interacting with the poor, needy, and broken.  

All I know is that God has given me a desire to go through the valley and make it a place of springs.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

I Am Not Enough

Dear Students,

I am not enough for you.  Every day I come to school with carefully considered plans.  I do my best to allow you to move--because I know you need it--to give you opportunities to share yourself, to make sure that you get what we're learning.  Even if you are still learning English.  Even if you have a learning disability.  Even if English is just tough for you the way that Math is tough for me.  Yet I look into your needy eyes and I am so aware of it.  You are desperately seeking love.  I know because you tell me your stories.  I know because you act out in class.  I know because, if I'm honest, I'm desperate for love and attention just like you.  Students, even though I wear myself out every day trying, I cannot give you the love that you are looking for.  Only Jesus can do that.  So, I pray that one day you will meet him.  That you will know, feel, experience his love.  That his grace will soak into all your broken places and make you whole.  But until that day, I will keep trying to show you just a glimpse of him.  I will pray over your desks.  I will smile at you and greet you at the door.  I will try my best to listen to your stories, to help you grow, and to not lose my patience with you.  And on that day when I let you down, I will remind myself that it's okay, because though I am not enough for you, my Jesus is more than enough.


Your (especially-tired-this-time-of-year) Teacher

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Would you like a slice of humble pie with that?

If you are feeling sad about how small your bank account is this month, the Lord just might put someone who is experiencing homelessness in front of you at church.  If you are annoyed with someone, the Lord just might use that person to pray for you.  In short, Jesus ain't afraid to serve you up a slice of humble pie when you need it.

Sometimes, what I get out of church has very little to do with the sermon.  I have recently been grieving our financial situation.  You see, Philip got a very small summer school paycheck last month.  He won't get his real teacher paycheck until the end of September.  That means roughing it for a couple of month.  Plus, little expenses come up.  Or maybe they're little to you.  They would have been little to me a few months ago, but at this point they felt colossal.  In a serious of freak events we had two flat tires in a row, which added up to a bill of close to $400.  To top that off, Philip and I have been irresponsible with our budget lately.  We've gotten used to having money.  If we wanted something, we bought it.  (okay by we, I mostly mean me).  If we wanted to go do something that costed money, we did it.  Because we usually have money.  This lead to draining our savings and even some of our Emergency Fund.

Fast forward to church.  I looked up and I saw him.  A young man who I know is currently living in a car.  Philip met him a couple of Sundays ago, and he spilled his guts about everything he was going through.  Seeing him sitting in front of us wrecked me.  I began to weep. This time, not in sorrow for my poor self, but mourning my selfish, materialistic heart.

Then, I knew I wanted to ask for prayer because the school year was coming and I was experiencing a lot of fear.  I looked up and saw her.  A woman who got on my nerves.  I didn't have a reason in particular.  It was just something about her that seemed fake to me.  She was the woman nearest me on the prayer team.  Everyone else quickly filled up, yet she was available.  That's when I knew that God wanted me to get prayer from her.  So I reluctantly made my way to the front.  She began to pray for me and I felt encouraged and loved.  My hope for the school year was restored.

Jesus gently reminds me when I am kind of being a brat.  I'm thankful that he doesn't just let me go on being prideful.  He often turns my perspective upside down.  He disciplines when I need it.  What a good dad.

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