Sunday, October 8, 2017

Good Grief





Enjoy is not the word I am looking for, but good might be close.


Back in the 1980s I attended the first funeral I remember. A young man from our church community died unexpectedly in his home. Even though I didn’t know him, I asked my dad if I could go to the funeral. My strongest memories of that service in First CRC are sitting next to my Dad in my favorite yellow dress, and watching Mrs. Boender sing all the verses of My Jesus I Love Thee. I imagined what it would take for my beloved Sunday school teacher to sing this hymn of hope at such a time. I did not understand how she could make it through all those beautiful verses without choking up.


I most remember Diane’s funeral and the weeks that followed by the knee-collapsing, chest-pressing emotions of unexpected death. Those were dark days of crying alone and facing doubts about God that I was too ashamed to admit. I still think of her twenty-five years later, and miss her.


As the millennium turned and Y2K captured world-wide news, I faced the even more private griefs of infertility and miscarriages. My first, long-awaited pregnancy came to a screeching halt as the doctor announced, “I am sorry. There is no longer a heartbeat.” Days of grief turned into months. I grappled for the first time with how poorly most of us “do” grief, how much misunderstanding there is in grief, and how pain in relationships is magnified during the throes of grief. Could we compare grief to war? During that time I discovered the retreat of hunkering down for survival, and often prayed for ceasefire.


Those many griefs in our lives--lost dreams, broken relationships, death itself--do not feel good. Ever. My heart asks the question before my mind can filter, “God, where are you in this?”


A few weeks ago I challenged my students to choose the top ten events of their lives so far and consider where God might show His desire for relationship with them in those events. What courage one student showed to admit, “I am not in a place where I can see God at all.” I gave the student full credit on the assignment. Oh how I have been in those places, but sadly, was too scared and proud to admit it.

Monday, my Grandma Grace died. Her life mattered, and her life mattered to me. Two summers ago when I visited with her she shared, “Jennie, I want you to know I am ready to go. I don’t understand why young people die and I am still here. God must still have a plan for me.” I believe that she was right. I wonder if perhaps God’s timing for her to enter eternity included the students who would walk this journey with me at this particular time. These wonderings do not bring me joy in the bubbly sense of the word. But deeper than the tears and loss and sadness, something within me feels hope in believing that God’s mysterious ways are good. And perhaps the 95 years and 25 days of Grandma’s earthly life ended at just this time not only for the work God is doing in me and my family, but also for my students who are now walking this journey with me. Oh how I will miss her.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Mindset Mixer




Over the summer Mrs. Thompson challenged each of the SJCS faculty to read Carol Dweck's book, Mindset. Teachers came back excited about what the book meant to them both professionally and personally. The middle school teachers decided to end the first week of school with a mindset mixer to frame the year and emphasize the mindset we want in our community.

In her book, Dweck categorizes the way we think about things into two mindsets: fixed and growth. Fixed mindset believes people are the way they are. It says, "I am who I am, so working hard is not necessary." In times of fixed mindset, challenge feels hard, and success seems to have no guarantee. Criticism is viewed as personal attack, so in a fixed mindset we stick to what we know to avoid failure. In contrast, growth mindset believes intelligence and skills can be improved. When we approach something with a growth mindset, we embrace challenge as a way to grow, and are inspired by others' successes. Growth mindset sees failure as a way to learn. Effort and hard work are necessary and good in growth mindset.

Five middle school teachers shared personal mindset testimonies. Mrs. Coetsee shared how Apple became what it is today through the growth mindset of Jobs and Wozniak. One teacher shared her fixed mindset around her artistic ability. This mindset served her well until she was challenged by a high school teacher to hone her craft. This wise teacher and role model helped her shift to a growth mindset that realized all gifts require work to develop. Other stories were more current such as my celebration that this summer, I finally took the courage to go to swimming lessons and "blow bubbles" underwater for the first time. In 3rd Grade I did not pass swimming lessons. And in my teen years I needed to be rescued from a farm pond and, later on, a Lake Eerie undertow. A growth mindset helped me face my fears and see this challenge as a way to grow.

During the mixer students interacted with two different activities. Over the hour together we looked at a variety of middle school opportunities where mindset matters. One group of students noted that we can have a fixed mindset in our walk of faith when we feel that God is not present or hearing us. However, they saw that growth mindset in our walk with God chooses faith, even in difficult situations. Another group found that group projects and science experiments are greatly affected by mindset. "I can't do it" and "this is too hard" mark a fixed mindset, while a growth mindset asks for guidance when needed, and takes studying seriously as a way to make a positive impact in the group. Students looking at mindset in sports quickly realized that a fixed mindset gives up easily, acts superior, takes more credit than the rest of team, and blames others for losses. Team players who work well with others and take advice help their team improve to something even better. Groups explored mindset as it relates to study skills, bullying, music, relationships with peers and parents, writing, and test preparation.

Already I have seen fruit of the mindset mixer in my 8 Bible class. We spent the last week writing a sermon summary of Nouwen's Being the Beloved. With great trepidation students shared their writing each day. As they discovered new writing skills, they also discovered that our classroom is a place where we learn together as we turn setbacks into growth opportunities.





Thursday, August 31, 2017

Liturgical Audit Part 4


After the meaningful work last year's 8 Bible class discovered in doing "liturgical audits",  I decided to return to this activity this year. Jamie Smith, Professor at Calvin College, coined the phrase "liturgical audit" in his book, You Are What You Love. A liturgical audit looks at activities, experiences or "liturgies", if you will, in our lives, and considers what is entailed in that activity as well as how that activity shapes us over time.

One example I gave was hiking with my friend. A typical hike for me is 3-5 miles on local trails with a dear friend. When I consider what those Saturday morning hikes to do me, connection is at the top of my list. I connect with God, nature, myself, and my friend. Seeing beautiful places resets my mind and gives my soul life. The physical exercise relieves stress and helps keep me healthy. Over time, the list of positives far outweighs the list of negatives. Sometimes my hiking ritual, or liturgy, comes with guilt. After a long week of work, I feel guilty being away from my family. Or perhaps I should be doing something more productive with my Saturday morning such as cleaning my house or mowing the yard?

After students brainstormed a list of ways we spend our time, they divided into groups with each other. Each group spent 10-15 minutes creating two lists: one list of what they "do" in that activity, and another list of what that activity "does to" them as they are involved in it. Activities such as sports, homework, and video games were the top picks.


 

The hardest part of the lesson is when we put all the boards up in the front of the room and looked for themes or observations. I could see the wheels turning, and a few courageous students shared the following:
  • God created us with unique interests and abilities.
  • All of the boards seem to mention stress--stress is a part of everything we do, whether positive or negative.
  • Spending time leads to improvement. In other words, what you choose to spend your time on determines what skills you will improve.
  • We choose activities that give us joy.
  • Most activities have difficulties--some challenge our skills, others challenge us to work hard or persevere.
  • We approach the activities in our lives with unique opinions and a variety of feelings or emotions.
Wow. Amen. We will continue our liturgical audit work this year in some unique ways. Stay tuned.






Saturday, April 15, 2017

Liturgical Audit Part 3

A favorite hiking spot near my house

Giving up something for Lent came in a unique form for our Bible class this year. We started each class during Lent with two minutes of silence. We gave up precious class time to be still and lean into the quiet. This silence is a bridle of sorts, keeping me from charging ahead in the day's lesson. All year, but especially at the end of the year, I feel a sense of urgency with the 8th graders to experience and explore and equip. As a teacher, giving up time at the beginning of class is a discipline of being reminded that God knew these students before they were born, and He will hold them unto eternity. For me, communally taking these two minutes of precious class time reminds me that God is God.

At first, the students were giggly. Some chose disrespect, and spent the time making eye contact with friends. Once the awkward newness wore off, we settled in. And on this last week, I noticed that the silence came easily and completely. After our last day of silence for Lent, we did a short liturgical audit. As students reflected on WHAT they did during the silence, some typical answers came to the surface. "I prayed." "I relaxed." "I sat with my thoughts." One student shared that he "listened for God's voice." And I love that one student "prayed for strength against temptation."

These 13 and 14 year olds discovered some beautiful truths about what the practice of silence can do to us. Silence connects us with God in the midst of a busy life. Silence brings balance. Silence before God brings peace. Silence calms. Silence gives space for gratitude to God. One student shared that silence is necessary for him to make wise choices. He shared that when he was quiet, his stress level went down, and he could think more clearly. I resonate with one student's perspective that "silence allows a Christian to open their heart to hear God's voice." All of that, with only two minutes a class period.

As a Christian teacher, I am partnering with God in doing His work. I believe that within those few minutes of silence this Lenten season my students discovered something about God and relationship with Him that the other 7,200 minutes of my plans and objectives might never teach.

Be still and know that I am God. 
Psalm 46:10 NIV

Cease striving and know that I am God. 
I will be exalted among the nations; I will be exalted in the earth.
Psalm 46:10 NASB

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

God Speaks Life Through A Tulip Tree


Last week I noticed this tulip tree (Magnolia liliiflora) outside my classroom. Something in me stirred. And each time I step out my door and see it again, this tree ministers to me. In San Jose, the tulip tree blooms in mid-winter, when the dreary, rainy days cluster together and the nights get colder. In the middle of seemingly lifeless days, this tree opens her hands in beauty and splendor. Just as the first robin under the Iowa bird feeder speaks the hope of spring, this tree stands brilliantly for all to enjoy even as winter continues. 

Sometimes the life of faith is like that. In the middle of a trial, or a test of faith, or a conflict, God speaks life to those with eyes of faith to see Him. God’s life-giving Spirit captivates our hearts, reminding us of God’s beautiful presence and work in our lives. SJCS continues to focus on our theme, SPEAK LIFE. And while often speaking life happens with well-intended, carefully crafted words, let us not forget that the Holy Spirit speaks life, too. The Spirit speaks to us without words in the stillness of a heart, with a thought not our own, giving unexpected hope or beauty in the midst of a storm. God's ways are mysterious--and what a wonderfully mysterious gift they are! We cannot control the Spirit. We cannot force the Spirit. We cannot demand the Spirit. We can only receive the Spirit. 


I think deep down, when I see this tree and my heart swells with all good things, I am reminded to live with my heart open to the mysterious and beautiful life-giving work of God. For indeed, it is God's work. God has been using this tree in my faith walk this week to speak hope, speak life, speak courage in the storm, and speak perseverance in those places where the sun is hard to see.

"As the rain and snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands. Instead of the thorn bush will grow the pine tree, and instead of briers the myrtle will grow. This will be for the LORD's renown, for an everlasting sign, which will not be destroyed." Isaiah 55:10-13

    

Monday, December 5, 2016

Between Revelations


Bedouin Camp in the Negev

“Shalom (peace) is not the absence of conflict, but the presence of righteousness.”
Daoud, Tent of Nations

Throughout the Bible God and His angelic messengers spoke to God’s people. You might recognize some of these quotes from God or his angels:  “Do not eat from this tree...Where are you?” (Adam) “Why are you angry? Do what is right.”  (Cain) “Make an ark...Go into the ark, you and your whole family, because I have found you righteous...Come out of the ark.” (Noah) “Go from your country to the land that I will show you...Your offspring shall be as the stars...I am El Shaddai, walk before me faithfully and be blameless...Take your son, your only son, whom you love...Sacrifice him.” (Abraham) “Where have you come from and where are you going?” (Hagar) “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you. Do not be afraid, you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus.” (Mary) “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born...Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” (Shepherds)  “Peace be with you. I am sending you.” (Disciples)

So God appeared and spoke specific words to His people. I have been thinking of these words from God as revelations--facts revealed in a dramatic way, or a previously unknown truth that surprises the hearer, or even divine disclosure to humans. In some of the stories, after God reveals or speaks, we are told that he “leaves."
  • Gen. 17:22 "When he had finished speaking with Abraham, God went up from him."
  • Gen. 18:33 “When the LORD had finished speaking with Abraham, he left.”  
  • Luke 1:38 “The angel left Mary.”
  • Luke 2:15 “The angels left the shepherds and went into heaven.”
  • Luke 24:51 “While Jesus was blessing [the Eleven and those gathered with them], he left them and was taken up into heaven.”

This makes me wonder, what did God’s faithful people do between revelations, or words, from God? Although some made choices against what God revealed or directed (I am thinking of Adam and Cain, for example), let's look at those who showed themselves to have a “going forward in faith-ness” quality; narratives where someone heard what God said, and chose, in faith, to walk forward in obedience. In Genesis 7:5 “Noah did what the LORD commanded Him.” Genesis 15:6 records “Abram believed God’s words, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” In Genesis 16 Hagar GOES BACK to Abraham and Sarah, knowing the difficult place she will be in when she gets there. And in complete obedience Genesis 22:3 tells us that Abraham obeyed God whole-heartedly by leaving “early the next morning” with Isaac. In this light, the everyday ordinary becomes extraordinary.


Perhaps some of these other “between revelations activities” recorded in the Bible sound like what we anticipate for our Christmas break? After God speaks, Abraham returns home; Mary takes a trip; Noah builds; Isaac chooses not to move. Others settle disputes, work the land, live God’s way among the ungodly, help troubled family members, call on the name of the Lord, worship, travel to see family, and entertain guests.

Christians believe God speaks to us today. Consider God speaking to us. When God speaks to me, do I take time to listen? Do I accept God’s words? Do I respond in obedience between revelations? Do I walk forward in faith?

When we obey God as He reveals Himself to us, we are part of God’s kingdom here on earth. It is in the midst of walking in faith that we find shalom, right-living, peace on earth. And, as in the biblical narrative, right living happens even while difficult situations surround us--hard calls that require trust in a loving God despite setbacks, rejection, family tension, temptation, or the ungodly choices of others.

Let's take a short detour to Luke 22:39-44. "Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives, and his disciples followed him. On reaching the place, he said to them, “Pray that you will not fall into temptation.” He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground."

God sends an angel to strengthen Jesus. God “SPEAKS LIFE” if you will, through a celestial being. Although we are not told what the angel said or did, we are told in that as Jesus, God Himself, prays for the Father to remove His suffering, the angel appears and then strengthens Jesus. Afterward Jesus’ prayer is so intense that the Son of God profusely sweats as the Son of Man. Jesus, God himself, the Prince of Peace, submits to God’s righteousness (right-living). John tells us in chapter 20:19-23 that three days later “the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. Again Jesus said, ‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ And with that He breathed on them [the very breath of life from the creation of the world!] and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you are forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.’” When Jesus chose to submit to God’s righteousness (remember, God’s angel strengthened Jesus for this task), Jesus brought peace to our world.

This month's theme, SPEAK SHALOM, reminds us to live righteously amid difficulty. As God, the Prince of Peace, SPEAKS LIFE to us, we have what we need to make right choices and bring shalom. Let us keep our eyes and hearts on what God has revealed to us. Let us embrace the quality we see in the Bible of “going forward in faith-ness."

"Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart." Hebrews 12:1-3



Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Spearmint Teaches Teshuvah


If you have ever grown spearmint, you know that it takes on a life of its own. Roots spread underground, only to be discovered when lovely little green leaves start sprouting up in new and surprising places. Even though the spearmint growth habit is a bit obnoxious, I let it grow as it does. I absolutely love the smell of it as I pull it, and the bees enjoy the flowers which bloom in late summer and early fall. Once a year, I pull out as much spearmint as I can find. And this past weekend was my 2016 "once a year." (If you look closely at the back of the photo, you might feel the joy of this once-an-Iowan-currently-Californian with year-round rhubarb!)

Fourteen years ago we had bender board installed to edge the grass and narrow pathway. The bender board shifted over the years and became a tripping hazard. Pulling spearmint and removing the bender board are great jobs to complete in tandem. As I replaced the bender board with edging bricks, I was reminded again how the protective line of the hard bender board seems to guide the spearmint roots in a communal direction. The board provides a hard surface beside which mint roots thrive. In just two feet of bender board I pulled out quite a pile of thick, vigorous roots.


And then my heart heard God whisper, "Teshuvah." "Yes," I thought, "teshuvah." The past few weeks I have been reading Bible passages around this act of turning, or repenting. A friend and I have wrestled with God's teachings of obedience to the Israelites in Deuteronomy, God's prophecies and promises to His people through Isaiah, and the teachings of Paul to the faithful believers in Rome and Ephesus. 

"Even if you have been banished to the most distant land under the heavens, from there the LORD your God will gather you and bring you back. He will bring you to the land that belonged to your ancestors, and you will take possession of it. He will make you more prosperous and numerous than your ancestors. The LORD your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live." Deuteronomy 30:4-6

"See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees, and laws, then you will live and increase, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live, and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to His voice, and hold fast to Him. For the LORD is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob." Deuteronomy 30:15-20

"Give ear, and come to me, listen, that you may live. I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my faithful love promised to David." Isaiah 55:3

"Seek the LORD while he may be found; call on Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts. Let them turn to the LORD, and He will have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will freely pardon." Isaiah 55:6-7

"Instead of your shame, you will receive a double portion, and instead of disgrace you will rejoice in your inheritance. And so you will inherit a double portion in your land, and everlasting joy will be yours." Isaiah 61:7

"For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved." Romans 10:10

"Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For He chose us in Him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in His sight. In love He predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with His pleasure and will--to the praise of His glorious grace which He has freely given in the One He loves. In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God's grace that He lavished on us." Ephesians 1:3-8

Over the past few weeks of study, the desire to teshuvah or "return" compels and consumes me. And then I see it.


A tiny little root of disobedience in my heart that, when I pull on it, has branched into the unsuspecting places.



Like that hard bender board, my hard heart has protected my disobedience from the light, and it has grown thick and strong, joining other vigorous roots along the way. No matter how much I try to pull all of the roots out, the truth is that there will still be proverbial spearmint growing in the garden of my heart in the not-so-distant future. To look at and consider this truth feels overwhelming, unending, exhausting.

And yet, it is in the continuing decision to return to God, teshuvah, that I find LIFE. This annual practice of pulling spearmint, although I will do it again and again, year after year, allows the other plants space to grow and become. (There is hope for that little rhubarb shoot!) On this particular morning, the need to continually confess and turn to God did not leave me feeling hopeless like I failed once again. Instead, God used spearmint to teach me the freedom and beauty in returning to God, even though I will have to choose to return over and over again. Teshuvah is not easy. Teshuvah is not tidy. Teshuvah takes courage. Teshuvah humbles me. Teshuvah fills me to joy overflowing as I am reminded again of God's mercy toward me. "In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God's grace that He lavished on us."