Christmas Eternal

Bright lights and warm tones. I travel across time as my fingers wrap around the tightly woven, illuminated green strands. Inspecting each ornament hanging lightly from artificial branches, I savor the moment. Stopping to re-visit the past, I carefully step into my memories. I don’t linger here often. It’s rarely quiet enough to conjure it all. I am so far removed from that life now. Some of it was removed from me. Nevertheless, my recollections are always warm, carefree and happy. These days, I only remember snatches of Christmas past. Short sequences like the frames of old reel to reel movies. My mother’s love. Warm blankets. Shiny tinsel. Christmas dresses. My father’s guitar. My grandfather picking up wrapping paper and bows before they settle on the floor. Smiles and giggles. Sour cream pound cakes and five cup salad. It’s funny how gratitude sits, always on the edges of my memories, like a lamp post guiding me home. What a wonderful life this was . . . is.

No matter how joyfully you receive those reminiscent moments, Christmas is tinged by melancholy. Even the strains of its music can evoke sadness. Its life blood is infused by both memories and dreams. We grapple with the reminders of those long lost loved ones and confront those dreams silently buried in the fallow fields of our lives. Some of those unrealized aspirations may even still haunt us. Trying to push that grief aside is as futile as attempting to sweep the tide from the shore. No, that pain is real, visceral and necessary.

However, always nearby, sometimes too far in the periphery, is the manger. A silent tableau of memory. Mary and Joseph lean in, welcoming their infant son, the one who was born to shoulder death and defeat it. Jesus, the dream that never dies. The sadness of the season is simply our souls yearning for that permanence. Expectantly, we hope for that instant when our lives are no longer framed by goodbyes. When our poets find no compulsion to compose the sums of all we have lost. Persistently, our hearts pine for those sweet, endless days ahead, and for lives forever freed from the tyranny of time. Christmas come eternally.

Platform

Years ago, I was a part of a small group of teachers and administrators charged with the task of creating the school’s first policy regarding social media usage and guidelines for students.  I remember the process feeling something akin to identifying a new species of animal.  Studying characteristics, navigating the construct of this new medium, and predicting its impact both on teenagers and faculty were just a few of the challenges of interpreting this most modern form of engagement.  It was the beginning of a new century, the Osbournes on MTV were America’s favorite family, and everyone above the age of 30 was completely mystified.

Although I know it didn’t happen this quickly, it felt as if students awoke one day to discover that they could now literally shout their opinions to the world.  Platform.  It was more than intoxicating.  So, they abandoned their passed notes, all neatly bound in tidy little triangles, gazed into the face of the ghoulish blue light of their computer screens, and frankly, never looked up.  The first social media users that our school encountered were more than green.  They believed, wholeheartedly, in the privacy of their personal pages.  They fought valiantly for their constitutional rights.  Anybody looking in on their thoughts and posts were considered the equivalent of nosey parents snooping under the mattress for a private diary.  Their entries were raw, untreated, and often brutal.  All of those conversations and emotional outbursts that each one of us experienced in a school setting growing up were now broadcast for a remote audience to access.  They created fake faculty pages, spilled their guts about teachers and students they hated, and generally left it all out there for their friends to see and comment on.

The second point of navigation was the connectedness this platform provided.  In lightning speed and real-time, users could “meet” other users.  Their small, exclusive friend groups swelled with numbers as they interacted on-line with new personalities.  Everyone and everything taken at face value, there was no reason to suspect that anyone they encountered was anything but genuine.  They were mini pioneers . . . crossing the threshold into a brave, new world, while every adult in their lives were pulling on the reins and clicking their tongues at this new-fangled jump in the technological revolution.  With a massive eye roll, teenagers took a giant, fearless leap, and the social media age began.

It is astounding to me to note the changes in this internet based construct from those early days.  We all sensed we were on the brink of something spectacular, strangely alluring, perhaps because the dark underbelly of this platform was only beginning to unfold.  Soon this world we entered on a daily basis became its own distinct address.  Another country on the map, with seemingly endless street addresses and exotic locales to explore.  With every picture, status update and check in, our online personalities began to shift as well.  We adapted our personas in this virtual space, just as we often do in real-time, and the masks we adopted for our online selves were even easier to create.  Hiding behind a screen, we could become whatever we hoped or desired.  Utter transformation.  The students of today are products of an entire life lived in the glare of the camera lens.  They are much more polished and sophisticated, posting only the most flattering of filtered photographs, crafting online stories of their days complete with well-timed humor, wit and frivolity.  They know exactly when to smile.  Every once in a while, one of them will get out of line, revealing too much or posting with emotional intensity.  These unlucky few are quickly pulled back into rank and file, most surprisingly, by their peers.  Lest we forget, some still taunt and bully.  They are just better at it.  For the most part, their lanky, awkward adolescence has been processed and enhanced into a glittering existence, filled with the best of their everyday lives.  Even still, when they tire of their crafted, online personas, they create fake accounts to explore other sides of their fractured personalities.  Life in a fishbowl.

One thing has remained consistent in this grand social experiment, surfing the edges of the information highway all of these years now.  People really want to be known.  And when they discover that who they are on the inside might not be wholly accepted or their experiences not completely embraced, they recast their lives to meet social expectations.  This is neither new behavior, nor a consequence of the computer age.  It is just basic human psychology.  We need to be known.  We need to be loved.  We need to know that we, at our worst moments, are redeemable.  Period.  Despite the current climate we find ourselves in, my hope for the new year is that we re-discover our humanity both online and off.  That we embrace the power of forgiveness and the sheer beauty of redemption.  That we give each other some room to be the flawed creatures that we are.  That we find a little bit of ourselves in every one we meet.  Most importantly, that we treat others with the same dignity we demand.

 

 

 

We Are Teachers

Hey student, we see you.  Hunched over your paper, with that dazed expression on your face.  We see you slouched behind that screen pretending to work on something other than your fantasy football line up.  We see you.

I know this isn’t the easiest time in your life.  Things don’t always make sense.  You are traveling at the rate of hyper-speed through a tumultuous corridor in your development.  It’s bound to be a bit bumpy.  I wish I could tell you that everything is going to work out alright.  I just don’t know that.  What I do know is that you will make it through.  Of that I am certain.  I am standing at the other end of that hallway now.  It’s easier for me to see the light.

And I’m not going to tell you I’ve been there.  I haven’t.  I mean, I have been your age, but not your age now.  That’s different.  The forces are stronger.  They are more pervasive.  You are rarely completely still; you are driven to distraction.  That ray of light that emanates from that screen sends you adrenaline doses well into the night.  Your conversations with your friends really never end.  Communicating without any of the intimacy, you are compelled to respond and engage, fearing the oblivion of silence.  I would have been afraid too.

We see you.  I know you believe no one truly does.  You hide behind that mask.  You play the part.  Sometimes the performance is masterful.  Other times, you forget your lines.  When everything feels so immediate, it’s hard to separate fact from fiction.  Your emotions are an extremely important part of your DNA, but they are lousy decision makers.  Too often, you let what you feel dictate the next move.  You get better at discerning the difference.  I promise.

We don’t always tell you this, but we love you.  We really do.  We are human, not stone.  We get weary and worn.  Papers pile up.  Checklists get longer.  Objectives, plans, and test dates loom.  Preparedness.  Organization.  Repetition.  Too often, we let these inform the culture of our classrooms.  The stakes are high.  Believe you me.  We trade in souls here, not currency.  This is the marketplace of human development and social change.  We are on the front lines.  No, this job is not for the faint of heart.

We see you, student.  We don’t have to play games.  We know when you cheat your own potential and falter under the weight of unrealistic expectations.  We know the social sacrifices it takes to have integrity.  We see you struggling every day to become . . . .well, you.  Hang in there.

We are teachers, and we see you.

 

 

 

 

 

Leftovers

I hate it when I give the worst version of myself to the people who matter the most.

Pulling into the driveway on a Friday afternoon, I turn my car off and for a few moments, leave my hands on the wheel. Like most teachers at the end of the week, I’m fried. I can feel it to my core. Truth be told, I could go all slow motion, fall face forward onto the bed, and not get back up until Sunday afternoon. But through that door, responsibility awaits. Not the kind of responsibility that is informed by a salary. The kind that have arms and legs, the kind that have stomachs that need to be filled, the kind who desire you to engage with them, play with them, listen to them, and encourage them. Inside that door are rooms piled with the tornadic debris of an activity-filled week. Mounds of laundry. Uncleaned dishes. Mail . . . I mean, bills . . . piled up eye level, challenging you to look the other way. The water heater breaks. Your dryer lurches across the floor to no avail; it’s been working a “mostly damp” cycle for at least three months. You can’t remember the last time you opened the refrigerator and the light turned on.  Life, man.

You take a deep breath, get out of the car and open the door on that life you chose. The life you love. The only problem is there is very little of you living it. You drag your irritable, exhausted, mentally spent corpse into the house and attempt to weakly connect with the people on this planet, who by their very existence, make your life worth living. They get your seconds, your left-overs, your “maybe tomorrow, baby, I’m just so tired.” They get your zoned out stare, your pent up exasperation, your “I’m sorry, I’ve brought work home tonight.” They get the sick you, the worried you, the angry you, the frustrated you. And you know what?  They don’t deserve it.  Not even a tiny bit.

I’m not sure when we got things all turned around. When we decided to raise the value of our ambitions and diminish the vitality of our humanity. We haven’t always been this way. But we do it all the time. We bow at the altar of our busyness and call it success while sacrificing the only tangible evidence that we ever existed at all, our relationships.  So dumb.

So, here’s to dialing it down in the places that feed our egos and raising the volume in the places that feed our souls. Here’s to looking people in the eye and honest conversation. Here’s to lingering over a meal and hanging out on the back porch. Here’s to throwing the football or reading that favorite story. Here’s to uninterrupted interpersonal connection. Work to live, but don’t live to work.  Let’s be done with our self-righteous excuses.  If you take a quick look around the landscape of your life, you will find any number of reasons to give your very best to the people who love you when you don’t deserve it.  And believe me, they will always be worth it.

Disappointment

Disappointment makes a lousy companion.  He nibbles on your leftovers and drinks your last soda.  He never asks if it’s okay to visit.  He just shows up, unannounced, and lounges in your most comfortable pair of pajama pants that he donned while you weren’t looking.  He even grabs the remote and changes the channel in the middle of your favorite show.

Disappointment likes to whisper into your ear.  His lips too close for comfort, he knows how to give deception a sickening melody.  At first, the notes please you, resonating in your soul, reminding you how unworthy you are.  The strain binds you to other moments in your past when you have felt the same way.  You review them, revealing an obvious pattern:  failure.  He stops his loathsome anthem just long enough to remind you.  “You have had a lot of practice at failing,” he whispers.  “Inevitability looks good on you,” he chides.  You put it all back on like an old coat.  It fits just like you remember it.  In fact, shame might just be your best color.

He resumes his tune, but as he hits the chorus, the notes turn sour.  Bitterness washes the back of your throat as your anger erupts at this intrepid house guest.  You determine to fight back.  You have other friends too, you tell him.  Well-meaning supporters who sing you a different song.  Belonging, Kindness, Sincerity, and Grace come for regular visits when invited.  You show him the door.  Oh, he has worn out his welcome alright,  but he will not be silenced, nor will he be moved.  Not just yet.  He’s just getting started.  He puts his hands behind his head, and while resting his feet on your ottoman, he waits for your righteous indignation to wane.  Disappointment is a noble adversary.  He knows how to withstand your displeasure.  In that space and time, the voices of all of your other friends fall silent.  Your courage vanishes.  All you can hear is his excruciating voice begin his song anew.  In fact,  this ditty reaches its final crescendo.  His tone intensifies, soaring and strong.  It drowns out all reason leaving you vulnerable to his most fatal attack.

Your eyes turn heavenward.  Your wily companion tilts your chin.  New voices rise from despair.  God must not have heard you.  He never really cared.  He doesn’t even listen.  He must not be there.  Disappointment weighs in with one crowning refrain, “It was really just you all along.  Just you.  Only you.”   Abandonment rings the doorbell, Disappointment’s evil accomplice.  They sit next to you on the couch, one on either side.  No need to sing any more songs.  The tapes play on their own now.  They will always play.  Disappointment’s most insidious gift is unadulterated deception.  It pours from his lips into the porches of our ears.  And worse still, his voice eventually turns into our own, the most cruel trick of all.

 

Beauty

I’ve never considered myself beautiful. Not once. I don’t feel sad about it. It’s just not an adjective I would ever use to describe myself. Really,  it’s okay. I kill cute. It’s my lane, and I like driving in it.

Having said that, I love when I catch beauty peeking out from behind the curtains of our lives. She isn’t altogether shy; she just bides her time . . . waiting for those moments we are most unaware of all the things we have done to try to be beautiful. It’s really kind of silly. All the dressing up and the painting up. All the add-ons and enhancements. Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing inherently evil in a perfectly styled hairdo, a flawless complexion or that one in a million fashion find. No, not at all. However, beauty doesn’t live there.  Gratefully, she isn’t applied. She’s on her best behavior when discovered.

I see her in the brilliance of the orbed sun at dusk; lighting the heavens on fire, she hangs heavy in the evening sky. She screams in the explosion of uncontrollable laughter; the kind that tilts our heads, breaking our necks into unconscious angles. Suspended in time, we succumb to the forces of amusement, and merriment becomes our master. And when laugh lines expose those deep rivers of pure joy, we greet her. Yes, beauty lives right there. She bows her knee to two heads joined in unrelenting waves of grief. She is aware that sharing the pain dulls sharp edges. The ashes cool faster that way. She knows this so well because beauty is forged in that fire. Eternally. She also erupts from outrageous compassion. When one hand touches another in need, beauty gratefully and perpetually hits her mark.

No, beauty isn’t made. She isn’t even born. And most certainly, artists don’t create beauty. They are simply here to record it. No, she exists beyond time and space, altogether separate from the human experience. And even though she communes with us, her form and substance were inspired by the Creator. How else can we explain culture’s pursuit of her, as if she could ever be captured. Beauty is a force burning us from the inside out, cauterizing our weaknesses. Reminding us of what was once lost and is now found, forevermore.

Licking My Wounds

This week kicked my butt.  It was short and should have felt like a Sunday afternoon walk.  Instead, it felt like a beleaguered hike in the scorching desert . . . without a canteen.

It was a sick-fest.  A work piling up, late nights, 5th grade homework, dishes in the sink, laundry piles unattended, chores neglected kind of butt kicking.  And I am still not completely recovered.

I don’t know why some seasons of life feel different from others.  Or why at certain times our inadequacies take center stage with a spotlight and a microphone.  But they do.  Our circumstances overshadow us.  And they sing their own high-pitched squeaky melodies, the kind of song that puts our nerves on edge and sends the audience toward the exits.    Nobody wants to see the epic meltdowns these moments can produce.  Nothing but all kinds of scorched earth.

As I was licking my wounds this morning and prepping for my big return to the stage next week sans illness and insecurities, I came across a video on social media of the ocean bed surrounding Long Island, Bahamas in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma.  I say ocean bed because the water is . . . well, it’s gone.  Shoreline?  Check.  Sandy dunes?  Check.  Long pier into the middle of nothingness?  Check.  Wait, what?  Yes, the ocean waters have been completely sucked away leaving the ocean floor utterly exposed.

I’ve never seen anything like it, except maybe that moment in the children’s book entitled  The Five Chinese Brothers, when the first brother swallows the sea.  It’s stunning.  And it’s extremely rare, but entirely possible.  In some cases, it’s a sign of a tsunami, but in this case, it’s something altogether different.  Hurricane Irma is so powerful, it is upending the ocean . . . literally consuming the water.  Moses and the Red Sea kind of showmanship.

I sat back in my chair and took a breath.  Nature and its intensity splintering my computer screen.  This storm is making its devastating impact known but only for the moment.  The cost may be great, but eventually Irma’s powerful winds will be spent and the water will return again to those deserted shorelines.  These natural boundaries, however, were set long ago by a bigger force than the storms in our lives.  All of the waters of the earth know His voice, and cannot resist His celestial control.  Not even a beast like Irma can rend them entirely from His hands.

So, I will grow still and wait . . . wait for those roiling waters to strike calm.  And they will.  For all storms eventually obey His irresistible dominion.

 

The Wiggly One

When we picked Luca up from an orphanage outside of Tver, Russia in the winter of 2008, he had never been restrained.  Never.  There had been no need.  His unsteady legs failed him our first few visits, and he preferred to sit and stare blankly, rather than engage.  He was conditioned to a specific experience, and he acted accordingly.

I remember that first taxi ride back to Moscow from Tver sans car seat.  Child restraints in moving vehicles were not on the top of the priority list there.  We were making the final leg of our journey, and I felt like I had hopped in with a New York City cab driver on drugs.  Our quiet, reserved little boy was finding his momentum, and the idea of sitting in my lap for two hours while caged inside a metal torpedo did not compute.  It was all I could do to keep him from opening the back door of the car and tumbling out at 70 miles per hour.  After an additional two hour traffic delay on the outskirts of that grand Russian city, I was pretty sure I had lost my mind.

Then the 12 hour flight back to the United States happened.  The 12 hour flight.  The only two things that got us through that experience were a saintly Delta flight attendant and Benadryl.

From the moment Luca found his feet, he has been on the move.  I will never forget when I took him to a Wal-Mart for the first time.  He got down from the cart as we approached the check out stand and took off like a shot toward the front doors.  At full sprint, I had to slide tackle him beside one of the cashier stations.  One horrified man looked at me and said, “That little boy is going to need a leash.”  My cheeks burned.  That’s how this goes, I thought.  Instant judgment followed by a healthy dose of shame.  At a Wal-Mart.

I don’t exactly have to use my ninja-like soccer skills to keep him from running straight into traffic anymore.  He has grown up . . . some.  However, there has never been a time that he has found sitting still interesting.  I would watch other parents with their children at ball games and church services, only to see a sweet little cherub perched peacefully on his mother’s lap.  No signs of struggle.  No marks of resistance.  Just general, blessed compliance.  It would almost make me cry.

God, how did I get the wiggly one?

Even in double digits, he finds ways to confound me.  I will be standing up one minute, and the next minute he has leaped on my back dragging me to the ground.  He likes to belly slide down the aisles of Home Depot.  Just the other day, I was in a serious conversation with a friend about something terrible that had happened this summer, and Luca came up behind me and starting aggressively giving me the Heimlich Maneuver.  I knew he needed discipline, but he engages in guerrilla warfare, waiting until I am too engaged or pre-occupied to strike.  This kid is a military genius.

So, to all you parents of the wiggly ones.  I get you.  I understand your fatigue.  I know what it feels like to be on high alert in social situations, to avoid the stern gaze of the parental Pharisees, to take loads of good natured advice about essential oils and wraps and discipline techniques and dietary choices.  I know what it means when your child gets the “class clown” award at school every year.  I am a teacher, you know.  And as I type these words tonight, I pray for that kind hearted soul who will see past his busyness straight into his heart.  That mentor that will help shape him one day when he doesn’t want to listen to me anymore.  I pray for wise counsel and the patience of Job.  God blessed me with a wiggly one, and I mean that.  My heart smiles every time I think about him.  I may be tired, but I’m never bored.

 

 

 

Perspective

Soiled laundry. A son playing outside, cartwheels on concrete, summertime somersaults. A husband’s grass stains from a thousand fields freshly mown. And socks. My lord, the socks. Can you imagine it?  A pair for each day.

Dirty dishes. Family eating together. Or sometimes just near each other. No hunger pangs. No deprivation. The warmth of a full stomach and the energy to march on.

Stacks of papers to grade. Young men and women transferring thoughts to words, playing with the texture of their lives, exercising the volume of their voices. Learning to trust the glorious sound.

Early morning alarms.  An invitation.

Piles of trash. The sheer luxury of having more than we need, and in some cases, unnamed souls willing to dispose of it for us.

Exercise. The ridiculous extravagance of time set apart to burn away the excesses we never deserved in the first place.

Broken hearts. An inevitable product of a life well spent.

Life, in its fullest, will ever be how we think of it.

Insert Verse Here

I am beginning my 23rd year as a teacher in Christian education. I have made lots of teacher friends over the years in every arena: public, private and homeschool. I am thankful for all of them. My first principal, Frank Webb, used to say that education doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Somebody’s values are going to be taught. Somebody’s values are going to be caught. Those words still resonate with me now.
 
I’ve been asked over the years to think a lot about Christian worldview . . . defining, interpreting, integrating. I’ve been tasked with incorporating that worldview into daily lesson plans, curriculum guides, course maps, and a variety of different forms of documentation. As “not fun” as these parts of the job can sometimes be, I have grown to see their significance. They provide necessary accountability and most importantly, they are a road map to institutional memory.
 
However, Christianity is not a construct. It is a dynamic, breathing thing. I have always struggled somewhere with the idea that we “apply” Christian worldview or “treat” a lesson like we would a wooden fence. In fact, I have come to believe it is the most dangerous thing we can do in a Christian school. Students eventually derive from this practice that Christianity is merely a template for life instead of actual life. The “insert verse here” method of integration does little more than provide the box for our students to store their narrow spiritual understanding. They can spend years languishing in the shallows, sipping lukewarm water while slowly forgetting what it ever felt like to be thirsty.
 
I will always believe that the most valuable representation of Christian worldview in the classroom is best integrated by authentic, Christian teachers. Not technology. Not curriculum. Not programming. Messy human beings who are willing to be vulnerable and transparent; who demonstrate what a daily faith looks like and what ultimately happens when the unpredictability of life meets a sovereign God and His divine promise. I am praying for all my Christian teacher friends this year, wherever you are planted. May the relationships we build with our students produce rich conversations and model a life captured by the invincibility of Jesus Christ.