The Gift

At this very moment I am sitting in my kitchen with a pile of rocks spread out across my countertop, crying my eyes out. A strange thing to be doing on a Sunday morning, to be sure.

But there is a good reason.

You see, as I entered the sanctuary for worship this morning, a dear friend approached with a gift bag.

A retirement gift.

A good-luck-as-you-pursue-the-pulpit gift.

“You’ll understand it when you read the card,” she said.

Reading through the card, my eyes immediately teared. But it wasn’t until I got home and actually opened the gift that I understood the magnitude of love that had been poured out on me.

At first glance, it was a lovely glass vase filled with colorful river rocks. But as I looked closer I could see there were words written on them. Her card had told me it was a “Rock of Encouragement” jar.

The accompanying card had said,”…with any new experience there can be ups and downs…when you need it, reach in and find a word on it that describes you! Not just any words, but words I received from your family, friends, co-workers, students and church family.”

I emptied the jar and began to read, smiling with each adjective.

“Witty”

“Faithful”

“Angelic” Hmmm…does that person really know me?

“Loving” Aww, so sweet.

“Partner in Crime” Now that’s more like it.

“Blonde” Perhaps some interesting implications

Then I came to the one that stopped me short.

Cue the waterworks.

Because as I read it, I heard the still small voice of the Spirit say, “That one’s from Me.

“Chosen”

The last three weeks have been emotionally and physically grueling.

I packed up twenty-two years of teaching and officially retired from public education…

Endured two weeks of bronchitis and pneumonia…

Wrecked my back by repeatedly picking up and putting a two year-old on the potty…

Made a quick trip to Kansas City to help out my daughter…

And had my first eight-hour License to Preach class.

By yesterday evening the only word that I would have picked to describe myself was

OVERWHELMED.

And yet here I am, on Sunday morning, tears running down my face knowing that is not how I am defined by the Maker of the Universe.

I am chosen.

Like each of us are.

I am not alone in my journey. Yes, I am called to be light and salt to the world. But I do so in the presence of a great cloud of witnesses that have gone before me and those who walk beside me in the here and now.

To the one who is reading this right this very minute, please know my friend, you are precious to the One who made you.

And no matter what other adjectives you may have picked to describe yourself at any given moment there are ones that supersede them.

Loved

Redeemed

Chosen Child of God

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Bitter and the Sweet

I know it’s been a while since I’ve posted.

Months really.

It’s been a crazy, busy year. Transitional, in many respects. No excuse for not writing though, except that maybe I wasn’t sure what to say.

But today I woke up knowing I needed to write.

In the next few weeks I will put a final period at the end of a creatively fueled twenty-two year-long-run-on sentence that has been a central expression of who I am. After spending my entire adult life actively engaged in the lives of little ones – teaching, nurturing, laughing and loving – I’m going to step away from the public school arena. And as the day draws closer, my emotions seem to be stuck on overdrive.

Elation

Sadness

Excitement

Nostalgic

Grateful

Humble

So very, very humble.

But don’t think that this reflection is going to have an ideological veil thrown over it blanketing the past two decades in fairy dust and magic. I won’t profess that every child in my class clawed her way out of the D range to make it to the honor roll. That every broken spirit was miraculously repaired with a well-timed smile, a hug or a kind word. Trust me when I tell you, not every parent signed up to be my biggest cheerleader.

But even so, most of those twenty-two years were so very, very good. In many ways they were excellent. And in truth, those pruning years, the difficult ones, were the years I grew the most.

Personally

Professionally

Spiritually

And for that, I am forever grateful.

This summer I will pressing into a new space. After a few years of wrestling with the call God has placed on my life, I am stepping into new ministry.

Is being obedient scary?

Of course.

Is it going to be worth it?

My heart of hearts says, “Totally!”

My want-to-worry flesh says, “Hopefully.”

The Spirit within me calls out, “Trust Me.”

So now my life seems to be a simultaneous process of excitedly looking forward, while steadfastly trying to remain present to all the moments I’ve been given now.

As in today.

It’s tough. Trying to live the Matthew 6:34 principal rubs against my teacher planning, “think ahead” self. So I’ve had to make a conscious choice to remain present. To let tomorrow worry about itself.

Every day people ask me, “How many more days?”

And every day I can truthfully answer, “I’m not counting.”

I’m not counting, because I don’t want to cheat even one little one out of the best I have to offer.

I’m not counting, because even in these last few days I’m trying to soak up every bit of the bitter and sweet that is left to be savored.

Because I know that’s the real blessing of obedience. The awareness that it takes both the bitter and the sweet to experience the beauty of the journey.

 

 

The School Bag

School has been out for nearly a month and my school bag has not been touched.

Those first few days of summer break were spent in frenzied, family fun – trips to the zoo, birthday celebrations, cook-outs, and long-awaited dips in the pool. Then there were days of catching up on those built up, back burner household chores.

Factor in a trip to New York City and there you have it. It is now officially four weeks past the last day of school. My overburdened school bag occupies the same place in my closet it has since being plopped down on the last day of school. Granted, every once in a while I might have shifted it around a bit to reach something behind it, but for the most part it has stood its ground, neglected and forlorn.

But never forgotten.

Trust me.

Every time I saw it sitting there in its unattended disarray I felt a guilty twinge.  Staring at me from the corner of the closet floor each morning it practically begged me to put it out of its misery.

So today was the day.

I pulled everything out of it.

It was not a pretty sight.

There were fifteen pens. Fifteen. A disproportionate amount of them were red. Who in their right mind carries around fifteen pens? There are not enough papers in the entire second grade to warrant that amount of ink.

More sensible were the fifty or so family pictures I had. You never want to miss a chance to have those on hand in case someone asks to see a picture (or fifty) of your grandchildren.

Two mismatched winter gloves, a whistle, my badge and an umbrella – recess duty remnants.

My emergency kit of spare reading glasses, breath mints, hand lotion, emery board, lip balm, Kleenex, Tylenol, and deodorant. I’m not sure why the deodorant was in there. I promise that without fail every morning I use antiperspirant. Perhaps I had stowed it for back up during parent teacher conferences. (Just in case things got a little tense.)

Two unopened CD’s. I just never found the time to rip off the cellophane.

A steak knife. Guess I should have used it to open the CD’s.

Three paper clips, a quarter, and a mysterious envelope into which I had shoved $25.00. I’m sure at the time I had a reason.

This year’s yearbook and next year’s class list. Both gave me pleasant pause; one as a happy reflection and the other as a hopeful future.

A black silk bag of small river rocks. I think I had used them as a children’s sermon illustration at church and yet somehow they found their way into my school bag.

At the very bottom were three handwritten thank-you notes, a black Sharpie and a single Reece Cup.

Job completed, I thought.

But then I noticed one more thing covering the bottom of the bag.

Glitter. Lots and lots of gold glitter.

And oddly enough, it made me happy.

Happy because I knew as I had sorted through that bag, my year had been a plethora of precious memories. And now, as a sort of delayed punctuation mark, had officially ended with a glint of gold.

Schools begins in a little more than a month. I’ll be bringing my bag with me with its special coating of glitter in the bottom. Hopefully it will be a sign of good things to come. The new year beginning like the old one ended.

With a classroom of little ones and the golden promise of sparkle and shine.

Why I Teach

This past week was National Teacher Appreciation week and I was blessed to be on the receiving end of a lot of love. It was so encouraging and very humbling to be acknowledged for just doing my job.

No doubt, teaching has changed dramatically over the years. This is my twenty-first year at my present school. And although I couldn’t ask for a more supportive environment, it’s definitely not the same job I originally signed up for two decades ago. Much of the professional autonomy is gone. Curriculum is driven by educational law largely lacking in common sense. Testing is out of control.

But the one thing that hasn’t changed is this – children still need somebody to love them and invest in them. They need someone who will care enough about them to hold them accountable. To say no to unacceptable behavior and yes to putting forth the necessary effort to succeed. They need somebody who will help them push past failure and cheer them on even when its hard.

Learning isn’t about perfection. It’s about progress.

Over the years, I’ve rejoiced in my students’ successes and agonized over their failures. And still I feel like I’m the lucky one. The one, who for at least a short while, got to walk that path of progress alongside them.

A few weeks ago a child in my class wrote me a note on the back of her math homework. She was moving to another state on short notice and on her last day of class she handed in her homework along with these words.

To the best 2nd grade teacher anybody could ever have.

School is very important. That is not why I like it though. I like it because of all of the people you can meet and the things you are able to learn. People become teachers. They take the time to teach us new things. Mrs. Gatts, yes, my teacher, helped me. She and all my teachers helped me learn and know what I do know. I love my teacher. I love you, Mrs. Gatts.

That’s why I do it.

That’s why I teach.

That’s why any loving teacher teaches. We love learning, but more than that, we love the learner.

Happy Teacher Appreciation week to all my fellow teachers! Keep loving the learners. They are so worth it.

 

 

Pooh Man and Baby J

Immersed in the task of scraping filth from the kitchen floor, an audience of two suddenly appeared. As I looked up, two pairs of inquiring eyes peered in from the open door.

Pooh Man and Baby J

It was Englewood and here in the ‘hood nobody used their given names.

The two brothers lived downstairs from the apartment we were cleaning and painting for the Chicago Urban Youth Ministry. They had heard the racket we were causing and had come upstairs to investigate.

After inviting them in, I learned that Pooh Man was ten and brother Baby J was six. They were very curious about what I was doing on the kitchen floor with a putty knife. After explaining that I was scraping up the grease and dirt left behind so somebody else could move in they were eager to help me.

We became fast friends in the fight against grime.

I showed Baby J how to position the scraper against the floor and with my hand over his we applied steady pressure to plow up the layers of grease. Each time we managed to move some of the sludge I would say, “That’s so disgusting!”  Baby J would gleefully echo, “Disgusting!” in the way that all little boys do when they revel in getting dirty.

As we worked, we played games and told riddles. Practiced spelling words and addition facts. Every answer, correct or incorrect, received praise and encouragement. That morning I knew I was there to work on the apartment, but recognized that my divine assignment was to lavish love and encouragement on those two beautiful little boys.

As our rapport grew, Pooh Man told me about his family. One of his brothers had passed as a result of the violence in the neighborhood. Another was in jail. He spoke about it without emotion as if it was another ordinary fact of life.

The following day we returned to the apartment to bless it. Pooh Man and Baby J tore up the stairs to join our prayer circle. As we held hands and prayed aloud the Spirit of God descended upon us like a cloud. When I opened my eyes, Pooh Man’s tear-filled eyes were locked onto mine.

And I can’t get them out of my mind.

That little one, hair full of dreads, pants hung low, will never know how deep a place has been burrowed into my heart for him.

But God knows.

So I will continue to lift up prayers of intercession that the God of this city will rescue him.

And I am confident.

Confident that God who loves this child and every other child with an all-consuming love will hear my cries and answer.

Jumping for Joy

An unusual blur of motion caused me to look up from where I was seated at the back of my classroom  One of my students was standing beside his desk, leg flung high, with his hand cupped around his heel. He was gleefully hopping up and down on one foot. I caught his eye and asked the obvious question, “What are you doing?”

To which he gave me the obvious answer.

“I’m hopping up and down on one foot.”

Honesty.

It’s one of the things I love best about kids. I wanted to laugh, but instead asked another obvious question, “Is that one of the assigned activities you should be doing right now?’

“No.”

I gave him THE LOOK. You know which one I’m talking about. The one that says I-really-don’t-have-to-say-anything-else-because-you-know-where-I’m-going-with-this-so-maybe-you-should-get-busy-on-something-else.

“OK,” was his reply and back to work he went.

There was a big part of me that admired him for standing up in the middle of class and hopping up and down on one foot for no other reason than he was feeling joyful. I even wished that I felt like doing that. It had been a tough couple of weeks with a particular student in my classroom and I was feeling anything but joyful about it.

Later in the week as I was getting ready for school I noticed that three little figurines on my bathroom countertop were arranged differently. Normally they spelled out J-O-Y, but on this day they spelled out Y-O-J. Evidently my sweet husband had cleaned off the counter the day before and had put the figurines back without paying attention to their order.

YOJ- that pretty much described how I felt. Somehow that nonsense word seemed to perfectly articulate the

Yucky,

Overwhelmed, and

Just plain tired feeling I was experiencing.

I’d had it with the yucky prolonged winter weather that never seemed to end. I was overwhelmed with spending an exhausting amount of energy on trying to fix a student’s problem that was beyond my control. And basically, I was just plain tired of being tired!

And then it hit me. I didn’t feel like kicking up my heels in joy, because my letters were out-of-order. If JOY was an acronym for how we should live our lives then I had it all wrong

It should be Jesus-Others-Yourself and not way I had been going about it.

I had been focusing in on Y instead of the J. Instead of taking it all to Jesus, I had been trying to solve my dilemmas on my own.But here’s the tricky part.

I had been praying about the problem I was having with this student. Multiple times.

But if I were being honest, I had never really, fully relinquished control to Jesus.

 Not on purpose, of course. Every prayer had been sincerely offered up for help. But in the end I had yanked it back.

I guess I’m not the only one to feel like she is missing the mark. After all, in Romans 7:15 the apostle Paul writes about doing things that are totally opposite to what he wants to do.

I especially like the way the Message Bible puts it, “What I don’t understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise.”

Bingo.

I pour out my heart to God and say I give up control, but the before the amen is barely off my lips I’m thinking about it again.

Clearly I am a work in progress. No surprise here.

But in the meantime, I’m forever grateful for the grace Jesus pours out on me. The grace that allows me to start over whenever I let my Y get in front of my J.

The grace that inspires such love and blessing that despite my circumstances I feel like kicking up my heels and jumping for joy.

Who knows? Next time, one of my students feels the need to hop around I might be the one leading the conga line.

We’re making progress

Only a first grader, he had been in multiple schools before being expelled from the last one. The comments that followed him to me were that they had never seen a child like him and didn’t know what to do with him. Before he set foot in my classroom, I began praying.

He was a simmer pot.

The little guy whose emotional lid was clamped so tight that when the heat got turned up, the lid blew. Regrettably, both of his parents were incarcerated so it’s no wonder that at the age of seven he had learned that adults were not to be trusted.

Defiant and angry, this wounded soul entered my classroom lashing out at anyone who dared enter his space. His outbursts were frequent, but slowly we began the work of building a relationship. Even though it sometimes seemed that his daily progress was at a snail’s pace, after four months I could say we that we had indeed made progress. However, this particular week I was reminded we were not done yet.

It was usually the little things that set him off and most often it centered around control. Having so little of it in his own life he found every opportunity to assert his control over someone else. This day he refused to cooperate in a small group of children. He was preventing anyone from taking a turn in the game being played by throwing the game cards up in the air. After an attempt to negotiate, I asked him to come sit at a table with me. Instead he crossed his arm, puckered his mouth and paced behind the table.

Soon he was kicking the chairs, then throwing them. It was at this point I draped my arms around him and asked him if he wanted to take a cool down break in the hallway. He refused and began flailing around, yelling, and punching. So with my arms still wrapped securely around him we headed out of the room toward the dean’s office. I’m sure we were quite a sight. I had him tucked up against me like a smuggled diamond while simultaneously avoiding being head-butted.

We ended up seated in a conference room in the main office. As we waited, I held him on my lap and spoke quiet, soothing things into the nape of his neck. And as I attempted to administer comfort, I suddenly got a clear picture of God doing the same thing for me. In the middle of all the chaos, I was seated in the lap of the Father. He was whispering the words into my own heart that I was voicing. “You are safe. It’s going to be all right. I’m not mad at you. I’m sorry you are hurting. I love you.” Eventually peace came to us both.

It occurred to me that I am not so unlike that little one. I get wounded by the world. There are days when I feel out of control and strike out in frustration. What a mystery it is that on those days the God of the universe is still concerned with me. That in that struggle He still chooses to He wrap His arms around me and tell me I am loved. And the by-product of that all-consuming-love is an amazing one. It produces a grateful heart in me that fuels my desire to try to love the unlovable. I’m not always successful. I fail and I fall down. Alot. Thankfully, He’s not done with me yet. But after a lifetime of relationship building I can say this – we’re making progress.

Back to the Brady Bunch

I caught an old episode of The Brady Bunch the other night. It took me right back to elementary school when all my friends and I wanted to emulate the cool and popular Marsha Brady. Unfortunately, most of us knew we were more likely to be misfit, middle sister Jan-material.

In this particular installment Marsha had been uncharacteristically called into the principal’s office and accused of drawing an unflattering picture of her teacher with an equally unflattering caption. As she flung back her lovely locks in protest and disbelief, her principal sentenced her to an hour of detention every day after school for a week. The injustice continued at home as her parents actually- shocker alert– backed the principal! Carol Brady told her distraught daughter that surely the principal was a reliant source of information and if he said that Marsha had done the dastardly deed then she must have done it. They even had the gall to punish her by taking away her upcoming slumber party!

Granted, by the end of the episode the real culprit was discovered and Marsha got to have her sleep-over, but her parents never apologized for taking the errant principal’s side. In fact, Marsha had falsely accused one of her own friends for the picture and Mr. Brady pointed out that she had jumped to conclusions just like the principal. Instead of either calling the school on the phone to rant about it, reporting it to the local newspaper or phoning the television reporter help line, he turned it into a lesson for Marsha.

Interesting approach.

Hey, I am not totally insensitive to poor Marsha for having to do the time without committing the crime. When I was in junior high school I also experienced a teacher initiated injustice. Our choral director was the new sheriff in town that semester and our class of seventy-plus singers had become unruly. She turned choir into a study hall and gave us an explicit no-talk rule for the remainder of the class time under the threat of paddling.

I was and always have been a rule follower so I got out my spelling book and began copying my spelling list in my notebook. A boy behind me tapped me on the shoulder and whispered, “Is that our assignment?” Without uttering a single syllable I simply nodded and pointed to the lesson in my book. Immediately I was called on the carpet for talking. There was no use in trying to defend myself because in those days the teacher was always right. I knew she was trying to make an example of me. I was a straight-A student and on that particular day I was even wearing my cheerleading uniform.

Into into the hallway I went to stoically receive my punishment.  Two humiliating whacks of a paddle that I will never forget. Was it fair? Absolutely not. Would I ever do that to one of my own students? Never! But did my parents call the school to complain about the unjust treatment of their honor student. Nope. Because it was a different time and parents had a different attitude about teachers.

I will be the first to say that I am so very glad that corporal punishment is considered to be an archaic and abusive form of punishment that is no longer tolerated in schools. Fear and intimidation should never be a legitimate tactic when trying to manage a classroom. But I do wish that the time when parents and teachers were on the same side was the norm and not the exception.

I have been blessed to have many, many wonderful sets of parents who have backed me up through the years. As each year passes and attitudes about school continue to change I am even more grateful for parental support. I don’t think that parents should blindly accept what the teacher says about their child, but when there is a question I do think that the place to start is with the teacher. Not the principal, superintendent, local newspaper or television station. Nobody is perfect and we all make mistakes, but I would pray that when there is a problem that a parent would give me the benefit of the doubt and first speak to me.

As a believer, if a miscommunication arises, I have to take special care in my response to the children and to their parents. If I am Christ’s ambassador to the world I must present God’s love even in the most difficult of situations. I must remember what the Word tells me.

Proverbs 15:1 “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.

Proverbs 29:11“A fool gives full vent to his anger, but a wise man keeps himself under control.”

By taming my tongue and taking on the garment of humility and love I can trust God to lead me into the most difficult parent-teacher conferences and strive toward resolution. And although I may not be able to neatly wrap it all up like a thirty minute Brady Bunch episode, in the end I hope my attitude can bring glory to the One who loves us all, the parent, the child and the teacher.

Pity Party

Shortly after attending a teachers meeting this week I threw myself a big ‘ole pity party. I began inviting my colleagues to join me in my party lament of “too-much-to-do-and-not-enough-time-to-do-it-and-furthermore-nobody-appreciates-what-I-do-anyway.” Throwing out complaints like confetti I began cataloging all the things that make my job seem impossible – increasingly higher expectations with larger class sizes, diminished prep time, increased duty time, and no classroom aides. I come to school early and stay late, but there is never enough time to do everything that is required of me. My discouragement-o-meter was pointing to HIGH by the time I got home that night.

My husband lent a sympathetic ear as I continued to complain that talk was cheap. “People can say they appreciate what you do, but unless they really do something to show you it means very little.” Even as I fell into bed that night trying to sleep the party racket went on. Finally, in the war between spirit and flesh I gave in and began praying. “Lord, you know I don’t want to feel like this. I want to be a woman after Your own heart and be thankful in all circumstances. But sometimes it is so hard when it seems like nobody cares that you are doing your best. Nobody shows you that it matters what you do.

And then before I could get another word out, the Holy Spirit began reminding me of the ones who did appreciate me. Little Allie who’d met me at the door that morning with a beautifully drawn picture of flowers and butterflies with the words “You are the Best Teacher” written in crayon across the top. An orange pipe cleaner heart placed in my hand by Katelyn. “I made this for you,” she’d said with a smile. And two bear-sized hugs from the two Justins in my room before they had left for the day. The remembrance of these heart-felt expressions brought me to tears. How could I have been so blind to the appreciation that was right before me? The appreciation that meant the most to me! “Forgive me, Lord! You showed Your love for me through a child’s pure devotion and I almost missed it.

The pity party was over and in its place I threw a big “I love you, Jesus” celebration. I am so thankful I serve a God who loves me so much that He comes to my lousy self-centered parties and changes the atmosphere just by being there. For when Love enters, there is no room for anything else.

Philippians 1:3 I thank my God every time I remember you.