My front row seat

I’m a big fan of school (especially ZLO!).  It’s no secret.  I love the heft of a textbook and all the backpacks, papers and pencils.  Better than that are the kids who are interesting, friendly and funny.   And even better — is watching them learn.  Usually, this happens in subtle increments but on precious days, I get to be witness to some huge leaps and then it’s awesome!!  Some, well most, people don’t get it but if you could see what I see, you might get just as jazzed about it as I do.

Most recently, I had the pleasure of listening to my freshman class give informational speeches.  Simply put, they were phenomenal.  My role is to listen, critique, give encouragement and feedback, but I found myself just being a comfortable audience member, taking in their knowledge and able to relax as they had the time well under control.  What a pleasure to not only hear their speeches but also to be assured that we have some fabulous adults on the way to our community.  They’re articulate, caring people who have a keen eye on the world.  Sharp and smart, these kids give me enormous confidence and I trust them completely – not only in my classroom but in their future roles.

In other classes we’re reading novels and I see their wheels actively turning.  My 8th graders thought they had a pretty good idea of what went on during WWII in Europe, but as we read, layers upon layers of stories are just waiting to be discovered.  They often begin with, “You mean they…?” when hearing about mistreatment of Jews and other victims of the Holocaust and learning about the lengths Hitler and his ilk went to dominate the world.  I can see their mental appetites whet and they eagerly go home to research other heroes who took a stand against evil.  In Sophomore English we just finished The Grapes of Wrath.  At the beginning of our reading I told them, “You might love this book; you might hate it, but you certainly won’t forget it.”  We found ourselves experiencing both emotions while reading it but oh, have we learned!  Beyond the story is always something more (and more and more) and with a little poking, I heard their insights just yesterday.  One student put his finger right on the pulse of the novel when he made connections that many adults wouldn’t have.  With delight, I praised him.  Yes!  For years I’ve been reading with these kids and slowly showing them how to read fiction with their Christian eyeballs and to hear their insights as we sifted through a truly sad story, was heart-warming.  (See what you’re missing?!?)

Then there are those moments when I get to learn from them. I had the pleasure to see kindness in action when a student was feeling overwhelmed with a new concept.  Before I could reach her, the girl sitting next to her gently said, “It’s okay, you’ll get it.  Here, let me show you.”  Some days, an astute student will ask me a question that makes me re-think how I’m presenting something and I’m so thankful.   I must teach for how they learn, not necessarily in the way that I think will be more effective, but in a way that will actually help them grasp the concept.  Thankfully, they’re patient with me.

Beyond that are invitations to games, goodbye waves before they leave for the day, a hearty laugh at one of my puns…life is good. So I gladly sit in the front row, facing them, but also taking in all the goodness that sits in front of me.  Kids who are capable learners in so many ways…but more than that, they’re really cool people!

A crown of righteousness

Many students have left an impression on me but recently I thought of Kathryn, a girl with weekly-changing hair color, piercings and a sullen look that challenged anyone from getting too close. Could I give her a ride? Sure! When she muttered something about how annoyed I must be with teens like her, I was quick to say that nothing could be farther from the truth. “I love teenagers!” Her look said she didn’t believe me. I assured her: it’s true. I think they’re the most fun, exciting and interesting people around.
“No one likes us,” she muttered.
“Ha! Not so. I do.” I hoped my sincerity came through. My young friend left my van a little perplexed but hopefully more affirmed than when she got in.
I feel blessed to see teenagers differently. I see their potential as future adults; as kids with caring hearts, desirous of being themselves but also wanting relationships with accepting adults (though they’re often loath to let adults know that). God has created my heart to be drawn to them. Most of the time, when people learn that I’ve spent my entire adult career working with teens and love it more with each year, they are completely befuddled. It’s usually because they remember their own teen years fraught with heartache and confusion; a time where one foot is in adulthood while the other still resides in childhood.

As a former teen, I remember what it’s like to have a teen’s energy and stamina but also what it feels like to be young and foolish. I’m not young anymore but I have a clear perspective of those incidences that showed me in a less than flattering light in my youth. I keenly remember feeling embarrassed or ashamed or confused after a flub; sometimes getting yelled at, sometimes just feeling the sting of silence. Mostly, I puzzled things out on my own because as a Christian young lady, I “should have known better”; however, I was still a kid and needed someone to put their arm around me and tell me how to correct myself, make things right and then to soak in forgiveness and restoration.
As a mom of three kids, I’ve witnessed their own navigation of their teen years and cherished those times when a trusted adult loves them in their awkwardness or embarrassment. If you’re working, ministering or living with teens, you will have myriad opportunities to love them after a mistake.
I recently had a front row seat to a situation that brought this all to mind. As you could guess, it involved a young person and foolishness. Teens are not yet adept at interacting with people and they’re bound to hurt others – usually unintentionally. And so this girl did. She hurt others by her actions and felt terrible about it. Eventually, by the grace of God, things smoothed out but what a lesson for her! In this case, she made a mistake, was forgiven and then restored. Throughout this experience, what was loud and clear is that we’re not princesses born wearing a crown.

Because of what Jesus did, we’ve earned a crown of righteousness, but in our humanity, we forget and behave otherwise. We make mistakes; we offend; we frustrate. That’s to be expected. But those of us who’ve lived through our years of doing the same have a huge responsibility: to remind the younger person that the crown is there, they just have to live up to it.
It’s not just teenagers. Sometimes we all just need someone to hold that crown aloft for us to want to stand up high enough for it to rest on our head. The best, most wise people hold it a few inches above us and when they do, almost everyone will rise up to it.
I’m not always going to get it right, but I want to be the one who holds the crown over a teen’s precious head. I want to inspire them to be better and to forgive them when they’re not. After having so many students through the years, the most special to me are the ones who tell me years later that I did that for them. They don’t use those words, but it’s more like, “I knew other adults were annoyed by me or saw me as trouble. You seemed to like me.” Hey kid – I did. You’re amazing, fun, spunky…and full of potential. And I can see that crown hovering over your head. It was a little askew sometimes, but that’s okay. In His mercy, God let me adjust it every once in awhile. Now, go do that for someone else.

I give myself back

Last night I watched “The Passion of the Christ” again and just like the first time I saw it, had a visceral response.  Even though it’s a film, it’s hard to watch someone I know be beaten and flogged for my sin.  Each time I hear/read/watch the story, I’m reminded of what He did for me and how badly I’d like to do something, anything in return.  But what do I have?  Today, the day between Good Friday and Easter, seems like the ideal day to reflect on giving back to the Lord for all He’s done for me.

George Macdonald wrote, “The last act of our Lord in thus commending his spirit at the close of his life, was only a summing up of what he had been doing all his life.  He had been offering this sacrifice, the sacrifice of himself” during His entire time on earth.  And, I’m reminded, He didn’t do it because he had to, but because he wanted to, which is why He’s called a Servant King. How does one give back?  What could possibly be good enough?

I’ve recently been frustrated with all the things I can‘t do because of a condition that sidelines me – this year more than most.  But this year, I have begun two new volunteer opportunities.  Guess that’s God’s way of telling me that even with less time, I still have time to give.  And He knows I love it.  It’s probably because I grew up with a volunteering mom.  When I was in 6th grade we spent dozens of hours each Christmas holiday wrapping presents at the mall for our school.  It was so tiring but we loved it.  I remember Wednesdays was the day she volunteered at the hospital and later, a number of other organizations over the years.

I’m not sure how intentional she was in thinking that her time was the Lord’s but I believe that strongly now.  He gave me gifts and inclinations.  He’s shown me that when I use them with people who give me a joy-jolt, it’s super fun.  Recently I read about a man who told the Spirit, “All that I am I hand over to you for you to live in it the life you please…Help yourself to it.”  When I’m volunteering, that’s how I feel.  ‘You gave me the desire to be here, you opened the doors and on top of it all, it feels good.’

Now before anyone writes that I don’t have to perform for Him, I know.  No one can ever accomplish or do enough to earn His love.  But because He loves me, I give my time and talent back to him.  So Happy Easter, Lord.  I give myself back to you this year.

A Buddhist and a Christian walk into a room….

I met a new friend a few years ago who I liked instantly.  I hoped that we would be able to know each other for a long time.   Then she shared that she was a Buddhist.  Oh.  I have no problem with that; it’s just that I’ve never known a Buddhist before.  This was new and it was a good new. We talked openly about things and what was most appealing were these words: “I’m not going to judge you.”   How refreshing!

I know all about judging because I feel like an expert some days.  It’s so hard for us NOT to judge and we do it so sub-consciously that it becomes our default setting.  Granted, some are better at this than others, but I’ve also heard from some amazingly honest people lately about how opinionated they are, how they find it easier to gripe about people than listen to them and they seem to have more fun with friends with they’re criticizing others. Hhmmm….

After thinking about these comments, I prayed about trying a different approach with people:  to assume the best more often, and to not judge but ask about what else might be going on so I can have a more complete picture than the one I knee-jerk guess.  Or, just praying for them. As a Christian, I have prayed for forgiveness many times for my critical spirit and my lack of grace with others.  There’s no excuse when Jesus has been generous to the point of giving His life for me.  But I also know I’m a sinful woman who can look Him full in the face and His mercy covers me anew each day.

And to that end, this morning my Buddhist friend called and left me crying when I hung up.  Not tears of sadness but from a weight of compassion.  She asked the right questions, listened compassionately and understood my vulnerability generously and accepted my honesty graciously.   That kind of love brought me to tears.  I don’t claim to understand a thing about Buddhism; and I have a long way to understanding the complex mysteries of my God and Father, but I know for certain when He brings two women together to bless each other.

So here I am, a committed Christian, wanting to be a little more like my Buddhist friend in her acceptance and openness of people.  It makes me think of others who aren’t Christians but have something about their natures that I want to emulate.  Speaking only for myself and not for Christians at large, I know that I live in a bubble of my own making.  To my shame, I can’t rattle off a list of non-Christian friends.  It’s not because I’ve intentionally avoided them, but because my orbit is a little too small.  I’m working on that – and excited about it.

When we first met, my friend asked me if it would be a problem for me to befriend her and I said No immediately.  For one, I rarely think of her religion and, I also believe God can use anyone and He clearly is using her to bless me.  As we approach Easter, I’m reminded of the new life that He gives us and I’m thankful that sometimes a new turn of heart comes from unlikely places and people.

Okay, that doesn’t help

I know that generally, people mean well.  Really, they do, but there’s some real ham-handedness going on out there.  This week I’ve had a hand-full of people mention how they cringe when they are offered cliches when what they were really looking for was some compassion or understanding.

Okay, okay, I know not everyone is a counselor, nor should they be but can we not say to people who have just lost a loved one, “Well, at least they’re in a better place,” or to someone who’s struggling in a relationship, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” or how about my most loathed, “It is what it is.”  Ugh!!!!

That last one frosts me because I heard it said too many times from someone who used it as an excuse for his ineptness, his tardiness and his apathy.  Schedule a meeting (you’re supposed to lead) and not show up? Well, it is what it is.  Disappoint and frustrate a dozen people because you continually over-promise and under-deliver?  Well, it is what it is.  Actually, no.  What it is is rude.  It’s a cop-out.  It’s lame.  Own it and treat people better, buddy.

The words we use are a good indication of what’s important to us.  Want someone to buck up?  Tell them Kelly Clarkson’s ‘if it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger’ line.  (not that she’s the originator of the line) Want someone to get over grieving already?  Tell them their loved one is in a better place.  Sick and tired of someone being sick and tired?  Give a flip story about how you just get up and get on with the day, as if that’s so easy for everyone.  Usually our trite responses just make our listener wish they hadn’t said anything.

Everyone will be in a situation in which we just don’t know what to say, but I vote for saying something kind and loving as opposed to trite and harsh.  Saying “I don’t know” or “I’m so sorry you’re struggling with that’ is better than posturing that you’ve figured their problem out and have a flip answer for them.  Sometimes we want to rush people to the end of the story.  We want people to just get over it already.  Don’t we?

Many, many years ago, I went through a particularly long relapse of Chronic Fatigue.  Throw in a few other complications and I was barely slogging through my days.  It was obvious I needed help and there were those who wanted to help so a cleaning crew of ladies came in and went over my house with invigorating energy.  It was such a boon.  Wanting to thank each of them personally, I called each one over a series of days and expressed my gratitude.  The first few I called were confusingly cool to me on the phone.  A few more were a bit warmer but I was puzzled by their clipped “you’re welcomes.”  Attributing it to anything else but my inklings, I made one last call and out it came:  after they left my house, they went out for coffee and all decided that what I really needed to do was tackle one little project at a time.  Other bits of advice came out but what I heard loud and clear was judgment.  I didn’t hear compassion for being an ill young mom.  I didn’t hear any kind of leeway given for having to tackle these things and more while I feel like I have the flu every day.  It was just a ‘you-really-should….’ list that just plain hurt.

Experiences like those make us clam up.  They make us determine never to reveal a need again.  They make us distrustful, because what’s behind our words are values and assumptions and those can lead to some profound misunderstandings.  Misunderstandings lead to hurt.  When someone is told something as unhelpful as the above comments, we hear what they’re really saying loud and clear and it’s not loving, kind or wise.

As the years tick by and the hurts stack up, so do the occasions where people get it right, thankfully.  I think of my neighbor Sherri who had only a faint hint that I wasn’t the image of health and one day she came onto the yard to see me barely awake and as limp as last night’s spaghetti.  God bless her, she didn’t ask anything, she just took in the scene of two little boys running around and said, “I’ll have the boys at my house this afternoon, go get some rest.  I’ll bring them home in time for dinner.”  I could have cried.  No judgment, just help.  It still brings tears to my eyes.  That scene is a model for me that I refer to often.  I don’t always get it right, but I try, and it helps to know that when people disappoint us on earth, we can lean into a Savior who was an expert at suffering.  He knew it all: betrayal, pain, sleeplessness, rejection….and he chose it.

Everyone’s going to have a weak day or week or month or year and when we do, I want to lean into a Lord who gets it and not rely too much on people who don’t.  I also am reassured that there ARE folks out there who know exactly how to come alongside others and just do what needs to be done, with kindness and love.  So if you know someone who wouldn’t be helped by a ham-handed remark, keep it to yourself and reach for something a little more gentle.  Better yet, just listen without judgment – one of the most beautiful gifts you can ever give to another.

I’m meant to be me

Many years ago I hosted someone for coffee and was a bit in awe of all she’d accomplished. Her resume was long and contained so much of what I wished mine would contain.  Half my mind listened to her talking, the other half cataloged my very short list of accomplishments. (why do we do that?)  That wasn’t the only time I’ve listened to an impressive list of works cited but I’ve noticed that each time, it’s more okay.  I’m not sitting there green with envy or seething with jealousy as much as I’m a little impatient with myself.  I’m not much of a visionary where I’m concerned, but I would like to add to my list of credits.  And, I like to think that it isn’t because I want my own name glorified, but because He’s given me gifts that I wholeheartedly believe must, and will, be used as He intended.

Well, it’s been 7 months since I declared this the year of courage and I realize that sometimes the most courageous thing we can do is accept ourselves and get going with using our gifts.  It’s my impression that most of us struggle with that.  Clearly, it takes some courage.  We’re quick to look at our flaws or our short list of accomplishments or worse, think we’re less than the next person.  In our minds we know that’s not right.  But in our hearts, we’re guilty some days.  Since then, I’ve also met with other accomplished folks and each time they’re gracious and friendly and warm.  And not only that, inspiring.

It’s a new concept that I’m embracing:  liking me and how I’m made.  It’s been a long time coming, but I’m getting it.  For many years it was more like an extra-large shirt that didn’t fit.  It felt inside-out, the color was wrong, the buttons didn’t match their holes…now I’m starting to think that I’m rockin’ this shirt!  I’m so glad it’s mine!!  At this rate, I’m expecting to find it quite flattering, even.   I can only expect that because He’s allowed me the courage to accept myself.

Paul Tillich says, “Trust is the courage to accept acceptance.”  So in this year of courage, I’d like to accept that the Lord has me firmly in His hand and is working out exactly what He has for ME to do.  My role is not going to be what someone else’s is, obviously; it’s tailor-made for me.  Not only does that inspire me to believe that exciting adventures await, but it also allows me to be genuinely happy for others when they become who they’re meant to be.

Foretaste of heaven

Roger Ebert, famed Chicago film critic, passed away this week and although I wasn’t a devotee, I do remember seeing his show many years ago.  As I read the article in homage to him, I read about how, in the later days of his cancer, his mouth and jaw were eaten away enough that he couldn’t use his mouth in the same way you and I can and this caused him to turn to writing to express himself, especially creatively.  When he did that, he could forget about his disability for awhile and feel like the “me I was meant to be.”

Isn’t that a foretaste of heaven?  To feel so utterly you when doing something?   I reflected on that and wondered when I most feel like the me I was meant to be, as God created me to be.  When do I feel joy?  I immediately thought of two places/activities: when I’m at the whiteboard in front of teenagers that I love, [hopefully] illuminating a concept for them; and when I’m in my kitchen at my mixer, making something with sugar, flour, butter, chocolate.  Other places come to mind, like in the arms of my sons/husband, reading a good book (especially in a hot tub or on a beach)  texting a friend, or singing with my daughter.  These all show how the  Lord gives us innumerable tastes of joy and sweetness right here on Earth.

What I like the most is how my former list is not just a receptive act, like the latter one is; but how He allows us to participate in our joy.  I don’t know why teaching and baking come so easily, but I’m thankful they do because it’s so fun.  I’m in my ‘happy place’ when I’m engaging in those ways. And did you notice how when you’re experiencing joy like this, others vicariously do too?  We get swept up in others’ passions and especially where frosting is involved, then we’re all having fun.

Thankfully, our first son is noticing this as he recently decided that school is not the place for him.  He was born on the go and he’s stayed that way, exhausting his parents along the way.  Now our little busy body is a grown man who is finding joy in his work and using all his gifts that coalesce each day.  Thank God for his energy, his quick adaptability and his likability.  He, like me and you, is discovering that when we do what God has gifted us to do, we echo Roger Ebert and feel the “me I was meant to be.”