Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Blessings and Curses

Sometimes we inadvertently reveal in our speech what is really hidden in our hearts. 

Case in point: today on Christian radio, I listened to a woman talk about how, as a schoolteacher, God has blessed her this year with a good class. A teacher myself, I understand the 'blessing' of a good class, but as a word person, I started thinking about what she really meant. Her well-behaved class is easier to manage and teach than an unruly one, so she ultimately sees it as good. Good, for most people who call themselves Christians, is equivalent to blessing. Good = blessing. Good = easy? Good = what we desire? Good = the life we want? If God blesses us with 'good' things, does that mean He curses us with bad? 

From a whole lot of Scripture and a whole lot of personal experience, I can tell you unequivocally that God does not curse us who are His children. He does not send us the "bad" as the opposite of the blessing. In actuality, the 'bad' often is - or leads to - the blessing itself.

The hard situations of life - the challenging times, the difficult people, the situations we can't change or fix - these are not the opposites of blessings. These are not curses, though they may feel to be. They are exhibitions of His favor that we can't yet see as blessings because our timelines are immediate and His favor extends into the unseen.

When I look back to the times I felt 'cursed,' I remember desperately wanting God to intervene with blessing. I remember begging for favor and yearning to know why He allowed such hardship for His child. I didn't see any of it as good, easy, or what I desired. Now, though? I see. Now, I understand that the initial hardship led to the eventual good. The immediate pain allowed for the ultimate joy. The 'curse' of the time made way for the 'blessing' to come.

None of this is to say that difficulties are enjoyable. We shouldn't wish for them, and I know firsthand that it's nearly impossible to count them as joy. But in the midst of them, they become bearable when we remember - and believe - that anything that comes into our lives has met with approval from our Maker. He allowed it, has seen it to the end, and will use it for our good. We can rest in the knowledge that what feels like a curse now is simply a blessing that remains unseen. 

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Imagined No

I never imagined the response I would get to a simple question posed on social media. I simply asked, "What do you think keeps people from doing what they would love to do and being who/what they'd love to be?" Apparently I struck a nerve - people sent me their responses electronically and told me their stories in person, and I was relieved because of what I felt was confirmed in their answers.

I am not alone.


"Obligations and responsibilities."

"Definitely money."

"Guilt for putting themselves first."


"Fear of failing."

"Fear of the unknown."

"Fear--of failure, ridicule, looking like a fool."

"Fear of not knowing they would be able to succeed in what they love..."

"Fear of failure or fear of success."

Over and over, the word "fear" was repeated in nearly every answer. Fear of failing, fear of what other people will say and think, fear of how life might change... Even the fear of success. I was blown away at the fact that so many of us want something else - might even feel called to something more - but stay where we are in spite of the feeling that we're not supposed to be there. Our fear, its many shapes and sizes, paralyzes us. We remain where because of the fear that anything else will be a colossal failure.

Certainly there are responsible reasons why we deny ourselves and our longings. Having a family requires money to buy things like food, so sometimes a paycheck takes precedence over a dream. Plus, we need insurance, don't we? And dreams require a significant time investment. Then some of us over-spiritualize and assume that we are not good Christians if we are not content in the current. We think there's no way Jesus would want us to step out of the situation we're in. After all, he put us there, right? So we don't go, don't change, don't allow ourselves to believe that the dream deep inside is really from God. We convince ourselves that we are simply selfish and that pursuing the more - whatever it is - is an act that is wrong.

Sometimes we use our responsibilities as our excuses.

Sometimes there is comfort in the fear because at least it is familiar.

I've begun to see that we live in the disappointment of an imagined "no" to a question we're afraid to ask.

That imagined and presumed "no" is the reason we don't take risks. 'Am I supposed to take this leap of faith, Lord?' 'Is this dream I've had since I was a little girl your true calling on my life?' 'Will I finally be content if I pursue this crazy dream?'

We imagine the worst, assuming that "no" is inevitable. We call it "responsibility" and "taking care of obligations" when sometimes it's really just fear and excuse-making and - this is my greatest fear - we miss why we were created. When we deny our callings and just call it being selfless, we are denying this world of the gifts that only we have to offer. We are not doing what is noble; we are doing what is comfortable. We are not taking the path God set before us; we are taking the path of least resistance.

When we assume the answer is "no" before we ever ask the question - we are limiting the life we were created to live. We call it many things, but sometimes it's just being faithless. It's time we call it what it is.

I am not giving you carte blanche to do whatever you want; I am giving you permission to do whatever you're supposed to. Can the misery of pretending that you're fine in the place you are in be enough to move you out? Can the nagging feeling that there has to be more for you be what allows you to search for it? Can my urging you that your dream is your calling be what it takes to move you from complacency to complete abandonment?

It is not selfish to be what God called you to be. Rather, friend, it is selfish to deny the world of the beauty that you will bring when you are who you were created to be.

May we all believe that today.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

To Those Kids I Taught My First Year...

Dear Students,

I met you guys 13 years ago this August. You were 12 - not quite little children, but not quite young adults, that awkward stage now known as the "tween years." I was barely 21, a new college graduate with a head full of knowledge and a heart full of uncertainty. On the day we met, I was more nervous than I had ever been before. I had spent weeks shopping for and decorating our classroom, and to this day, I can remember exactly what it looked like. I remember the bulletin boards I painstakingly decorated and the curtains I hung in the windows. I had pored over the textbook, carefully choosing the stories I would teach and the projects you would complete. My lesson plans for those first weeks were impeccable, and my welcome letter to you was thoughtful and full of my hopes for our year together. In short, I thought I was ready for you. In fact, I have never been more wrong. Because, even though I was a magna cum laude graduate with a degree in Secondary Education who had aced the Praxis exam and received great feedback on my student teaching, I was not prepared. I had no idea what I was really doing, and I had no idea just what was really expected of me as your teacher.

You're 25 now, perhaps college graduates with families of your own, and you might not even remember your 7th grade Language Arts teacher at Dutch Fork Middle, but if you do, this is what I want to say to you.

I am so sorry.

I feel now like I failed you.

It wasn't on purpose, and I didn't exactly realize it at the time, but now as an experienced teacher, I know the mistakes I made and the many ways I didn't give you what you needed. I saw you as students, but I forgot that you were people. I focused on the content, and I didn't consider your character. My priority was your performance, but I excluded your needs. Will you - can you? - please forgive me? I hope I didn't derail your education and make you despise school. I made it all about the academics - and regardless of what politicians, Common Core standards, and high-stakes testing say - it isn't. School isn't just about what you learn, but who you become. And I did nothing to help you become what you were meant to be.

I am so sorry.

That first year, I did not have kids of my own yet, and as a result, I didn't know how kids work. Sure, I had studied theories about child development and I had been lectured to about Maslow's hierarchy of needs, but I didn't understand you. I never stopped to think about your home life and how it affected what you did in my room. I never considered that some of you were hurting or that you couldn't learn because your bellies were hungry. I was so naive, and I assumed that some of you weren't learning because you just weren't trying. Now I know that maybe you couldn't.

To you, sweet red-headed M, the first autistic child I ever taught, I beg your forgiveness. I had zero experience with autism, and you suffered as a result. I did not know what to do to help you. I felt helpless and scared. I pray that you are successful now anyway.

And you, little C.B. Your anger is what I remember all these years later. I never tried to understand where it came from, and I only added to it by staying on your case. I don't know where you are now, but I'm hoping that you encountered a teacher who knew and therefore cared more than I did.

G.H. - I heard that you brought a gun to school after I taught you. Thankfully, you didn't do anything with it, but I want you to know that I have questioned myself often about what I could have done to turn your life around when you were 12. It haunts me sometimes that I didn't try harder for you. I know I don't deserve the blame for the choices you made, but I wonder if I could have intervened back when you were in my care.

To all of you, the now-adults I will always picture as the then-children: goodness, do I wish I could have that year with you back. I would put down the legal pad of information I taught myself the day before I taught you, and we would just talk. I would ask about your dreams and tell you that they could come true. I would tell you about myself - the person, not the teacher. I would encourage you in your failures, not berate you for your lack of effort. I would care about your after-school activities, knowing that for some of you, they meant everything. I would be your safe place, because I know now that some of you didn't have one.

I haven't seen most of you since you were in the 7th grade, but I want you to know that my failures with you then have been the cause of some of my successes today. Anything good I do in my classroom today is because of the bad I did in yours then.

You might not remember me, but I will never forget you. You, my first students, deserve my apologies, but you also deserve my thanks. You changed me, and every student I encounter now benefits because of how you affected me. Wherever you are now and whatever you are doing, know that I'm thinking of you. I'm wishing you success, and I'm sending you "I'm sorry" all these years later. Learn from me now the hardest lesson I've ever learned myself - that the places where we fail and the times when we feel inadequate can also serve as the greatest stepping stones to finding where and what we need to be.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Girls, Girls, Girls

Each day as I drive down a certain highway in my hometown, I see a sign advertising in bold black letters, "Girls! Girls! Girls!" As I watched a pseudo-news program on television last night, it featured 'the sexiest Halloween costumes for women' and showed a video-gone-viral of a young woman receiving over 100 catcalls just walking down the street. When I opened up CNN's website just now, the featured headline read, "Women Sold, Raped, Enslaved by ISIS."

No matter where I look, it looks really bad to be a female.

Maybe it's because I'm the mother of a little girl who is rapidly growing older, or maybe it's just because I am growing older myself, but day by day I am increasingly saddened at just what it means to be a female in 2014. Sure, we have the right to vote, and yes, the glass ceiling has begun to crack and shatter, but in many ways it still dangerous and/or a liability to be a female.

Every day at the high school where I teach, I see young ladies violating the dress code and displaying their bodies in a way that makes me cringe. Their tops are low-cut, their shorts are unbelievably short, and their skinny jeans are impossibly skinny. Those 15 year old girls probably don't understand, but the way they display their bodies says a lot about the way they feel. And the feeling that most of them seem to feel is this: "I am my appearance. My self is my looks." Maybe, for some of them, they just dress like their friends, but maybe, just maybe, they have learned that even in 2014,  in much of the world, a young lady is the sum of her parts. And those parts need to be shown.

I am not - hear me, please - blaming these girls. I am blaming us - our society. We collectively have allowed females to be 'less-than.' We have reduced them to parts and demanded that those parts appear a certain way. We have caused a girl's worth to be dependent on so many things other than who she really is - the person inside with a heart and intelligence.

I have realized that in many ways, and in many places, girls are a commodity. They are still treated as though they are inferior to males, and they still are fighting for equality. I know that I, personally, have felt this way. I have felt 'less-than' simply because I am a female, and I have been told that I cannot do what males can do - even though I am more qualified and would likely do quite well.

When will this end, and how? I wish I knew. The scary thing is I'm not convinced that it will. Seeing females merely as sex objects and pawns in a man's world has become so ingrained in our culture that a perspective shift will not come easily. Especially as long as we females who know better don't do better. If we continue to allow ourselves to be demeaned and discriminated against, nothing will change. If we don't fight for ourselves - and our daughters - no one will.

I want to be able to tell my little girl that she can do anything - and mean it. I don't want there to be businesses in my hometown where men can pay - in any capacity - for women and their services. I don't want her gender to essentially be a disability that prevents her from achieving her dreams. I want her to see a world that so far hasn't existed: a world where being a female is more positive than negative.

Image courtesy of http://www.lettherebeneon.com/?page_id=892