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!

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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.

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.

Temporary idiocy

Since I spend the majority of my time with teenagers, I sometimes get the honor of being a friend, too.  And when they get hurt, I offer my love through a listening ear.  Recently, a few of these dear people have unburdened their hearts with stories that leave me sad but thankfully, not confused.  Here’s how it goes:

As adults, we know that it doesn’t take long on this planet before someone’s going to hurt us.  Well, these friends of mine were hurt so badly and couldn’t understand why the people who they previously thought were friends were behaving so, well, unfriendly!  In one case, they were unrepentantly snubbed with merely a shrug and in another, were the scapegoat for someone else’s sins.  People on the periphery did nothing to help, just left them stranded in cold water.

In talking to them, one observation made us mildly cheered and that is that most people are just temporary idiots.  The periphery people, especially teenagers, are basically good, solid kids.  Their hearts are in the right place and they want to do the right thing, but when friends’ relationships sour, the folks on the fringe don’t know what to do.  So, they end up doing nothing, which can hurt in its covertness as much as the original hurt in its overtness. Saying nothing is sometimes the wisest route, but other times, saying nothing hurts terribly. This is where temporary idiocy comes in. Their silence or hurtful actions are hopefully temporary.  Usually when the dust settles, they can see they were in error in stranding their friend.  The true friend will tell them that later.

I know this because I had a friend do something similar to me.  She had distanced herself with giant bounds because she guessed I wouldn’t like a decision she made.  I had no idea why she was so cool, but I gave her space and didn’t freak out.  Almost a year later, she called me and shared that she had changed course and now wanted to talk.  It was one of the best talks ever because I could honestly tell her that ignoring me didn’t help either of us.  She had assumed incorrectly.  I was completely indifferent about her decision so her fears were ungrounded but just having her say she was a temporary idiot made me admire and love her more.

In a recent movie, I heard this wonderful line: The heart is not so easily changed, but the head can be persuaded.  Isn’t that true?  Our hearts and minds get entangled so easily, but our heads have hope!  When we give each other some time, and talk openly, we can confess that we all mess up.  With time, we come around.  May we all have the grace to give to each other generously through warm hearts and listening ears.

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.

The smallest taste of homelessness

Every year I teach my students what juxtaposition is.  It’s a big word for something we all do commonly: look at two things side by side.  We don’t necessarily compare them, but we certainly note differences.  Right now, I’m humbled to be part of a group of compassionate folks who are caring for a homeless family.  At the same time, I’ve just returned from a trip to the Midwest.  Let me point out the juxtaposition that struck me today.

I like traveling but some aspects get old really fast: carrying all our stuff around,  not having our usual beds and bathroom and home-y comforts.  Oh yes, let’s not forget the hours of waiting at an airport with little to do.  Was it worth it for who we visited?  A resounding YES!  However, this morning it struck me: these minor inconveniences were temporary!  That was chosen!  We were warmly greeted and fed and cared for and housed everywhere we went by amazingly wonderful people.  Though not flush with money, if there was a need, we could buy it.  We rented a car and they upgraded us- for free- to a 2014 model no less. We ate well and never wondered how that might happen.  Before, during and after, our family was keenly aware of the hand that gave us these gifts and we thanked Him often.

Today I’m humbled.  This homeless family is drifting….carrying around all their stuff, having need for essentials and not being able to buy it.  They have to ask for housing, for beds, for socks, for Pete’s sake!  The source of their meals is a question each day.  I can imagine that not everyone treats them solicitously.

Sometimes in our middle class world we forget those who are not as rich as we are.  And we are.  I’m guilty of it, too.  In fact, I think this is a blind spot of more of us has than we realize.  A song I’ve been listening to lately has this line: “When all you’ve got is nothing, there’s a lot to go around.” Since we all have a whole lot more than nothing,  why don’t we spread it around a little more liberally?  Answers usually point to looking out for our own, but God’s already doing that so the job’s taken.  When I was making the meal I’m sharing tonight, I felt Him ask me to do it for Him and I do so gladly – and I’m thankful for the opportunity.  In this Christmas season, I hope I can re-assert my belief in giving with an open hand….and doing so liberally.   Won’t you join me?