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