Here we go again…another school massacre

It was during second period on a Wednesday. I was sitting at my desk during my planning period when the announcement was made over the PA that we were in a stay-in-place lockdown. This usually means that students and teachers need to stay in their classrooms, but the likelihood of an active shooter in the building is pretty low. Sometimes this lockdown announcement is made because there is a student concern in the building (mental health breakdown, medical concern). Other times, this lockdown occurs because the police department is in the building with the K9 unit, checking lockers for drugs.

This time, however, there was a potential threat in the building: a student had brought what looked like a handgun on the school bus and had made multiple threats against students and staff. As the lockdown continued with no new information, I sat in my classroom attempting to find something to do to ease my anxiety. The urgency to use the restroom increased as the minutes went by, and I kicked myself for not going between classes after first period. I decided to check the hallway, knowing full well that we were in a stay-in-place lockdown. I opened my classroom door, looked down the hallway to the left and saw what I assumed to be a police officer holding what looked like a semi-automatic weapon. Freaked out, I flinched back into my classroom and returned to my desk, hoping that no one would come knocking on my door.

I went back to my desk and did a quick Google search of my school to see if there was any information. Thankfully, the local news had a brief, explaining that a student had brought a pellet gun on the bus that had been mistaken as a handgun. Shortly after I read the brief, my principal contacted the staff through email, updating the situation and attempting to relieve our fears. I continued to sit in my classroom, hoping the situation would end soon, but thankful that it seemed that the potential threat was not too big of a concern any longer.

Eventually, the student was arrested off campus, but he refused to tell police where the alleged weapon was stored. For several hours, police checked every single room, bathroom, and closet in the building. At the time they did not know if the student was acting alone, or if there were potential explosives in the building. Finally, I heard a key unlocking my classroom door, but a face was not what I saw first. A police officer used his weapon to open my door, not showing his face until the door was completely opened and he had done a quick visual search of the classroom. He told me to leave the classroom and follow the police officers who were stationed at ten-foot intervals down to our school gymnasium where students and staff were waiting to be released. The gym was chaos as students and staff stood in line for the restroom. Staff members urged students to find a seat in the bleachers, but anxiety was thick in the room as no one really knew exactly what was going on or when we would be able to go home. Eventually at about 1:45 pm, parents and guardians were allowed to pick up their children.

This is one lockdown in my twenty years of teaching. Thankfully, this was the most precarious situation that I have experienced, but that doesn’t make the situation any better. During my first year of teaching, there were several bomb threats and we were required to evacuate to the school stadium. During my first year as a middle school teacher, a lockdown was called because a man was walking on the street near the school with a crossbow. Several times, my school has been put on lockdown because of some other disturbance in the neighborhood. I am grateful that I have never faced an active shooter in my building, nor have I lost a student or colleague to the senseless violence that we have seen yet again in an elementary school in Texas.

To be honest, I am numb. Since the 1999 school shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, CO, it seems like there is an increase in school violence. Yesterday’s shooting is eerily similar to the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012 – another unreal example of what students and educators face today: the possibility of a gunned intruder, blindly killing whoever is in the way – even innocent seven, eight, and nine year children.

I honestly don’t know what to say. I could comment on the fact that we need policy and change, not thoughts and prayers. I could criticize the lack of mental health services across the nation. I could argue that students and families need more support from local authorities. I could complain that our nation is going to “hell in a handbasket.” But none of my words will change anything. Yesterday, at least nineteen children were killed while they were in what should be one of the safest places in our cities: an elementary school. They were looking forward to summer vacation – sleeping in, going to the pool, eating popsicles in the front yard, watching TV, playing video games until the early morning hours, relaxing after a long school year that was “back to normal.” I guess it was back to normal since gun violence at schools has increased once again since students and staff returned to “regular instruction” in 2021.

All that I can do today is be grateful that it wasn’t at my school. All that I can do as I look toward the next school year is pray that it won’t happen again, not anywhere.

One thing that I ask is that people stop trying to simplify this problem by blaming it on gun control, mental health instability, bullying, family breakdown, or any other single issue. This evil in our society is so much bigger than any one problem. Any ill in society is so much more complex than that.

The other thing that I ask is that you would pray: pray for the students, pray for the teachers, pray for the support staff, pray for the administrators, pray for the communities, pray for the families, pray for our nation. We need to stop blaming one another – our political polarization is not helping nor is our nationalistic view of our faith. Living in a world that mostly preaches division, hatred, power, and position is exhausting. We need to remember that love is the greatest commandment. LOVE.

So today, LOVE your neighbor even if you don’t look like them. LOVE your neighbor even if they are slightly weird. LOVE your neighbor even if they stand on the opposite side of the political divide. LOVE your neighbor even if they worship differently than you. LOVE your neighbor no matter what.

TBH: Teaching in a Hostile Environment

Recently, I have had a few conversations with fellow teachers that have caused me to, once again, consider why it is that I have dedicated my life to public education. To be honest, I don’t know if I would stick with teaching if I was just starting out today. The pay on average is not as good as it once was. For example, when I started teaching in 2002, my starting pay was $42,000. This was a decent salary for a teacher fresh out of college with no kids and cheap rent. When I left California in 2007, I was making just over $50,000. However, as I have moved to a new state and have started over in a new school district, next year I will be making just slightly under the salary I was earning in 2007. Over the last fifteen years, I have gained fifteen more years of experience as an educator and a Master’s degree. Yet in my current school system, only nine years of previous experience are accepted for salary placement. By starting in a new school system, I lost ten years of experience in regards to my salary. In looking at the salary schedule for the next school year, I would be making $63,000 a year in comparison if my years of service were accepted.

Even though this pay is quite a substantial bit more than what I will be receiving, the pay is not commensurate with the cost of living in the area of the state where I currently reside. Many people in local communities often forget that teachers often have to work multiple jobs just to be able to make ends meet. With the cost of living increasing along with inflation, many teachers cannot afford to buy a house, let alone live in the community where they teach. This has caused a disconnect to happen between public school educators and their students along with the school community. Because of the distance between where I live and where I teach, I am unable to attend football games, school musicals, and choir concerts. Last week, one of my students even offered to pay for my gas just so I could attend her final choir concert. This is a sad reality for public educators today.

Because of the low pay across the nation, many teachers are choosing to leave the classroom for higher paying jobs. Over this last year, I have heard of several teachers, many of them new to education, who are leaving the craft because they have been offered positions in higher paying industries. Some are going to be working for yearbook companies, others will be taking positions as administrative assistants, and others are beginning to sell real estate. Unfortunately, many of these new teachers have had a large impact on their student populations. Students across the nation are losing the opportunity to learn from some of the best and the brightest teachers, but because teachers are often seen as glorified babysitters, the pay is not significant enough to retain these educators.

Along with the low pay, teachers are often mistreated and misunderstood by many in their school communities. This sometimes start within the school itself. At my previous school, many of my colleagues were mistreated by the administration in the school building. Sadly, many of these teachers were women and several of the administrators were men. This is not always the case; however, in this specific situation, some of my colleagues were told that they were hysterical or too emotional simply because they were expressing their concerns about certain situations happening both with other teachers and with parents in the community. In the midst of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, one close friend left teaching altogether because she was bullied by school administration by teaching at home instead of in the school building due to health concerns that would be exacerbated by close proximity with those who may be carrying the virus. During this last school year, another friend left the school where we taught together because over the last five years, she has been overlooked as a strong educator and has been the victim of a narcissist who surrounds himself by “yes men” and “yes women.”

Along with conflicts within the school building, many teachers become victims of parents and members of their school communities. Unfortunately, not all parents reach out directly to teachers when they have a conflict about grades. This is especially true in high performing schools, such as the one where I currently teach. A few weeks ago, I was confronted by one of our guidance counselors with a question about a student’s grade. Ordinarily, I have no problem with this type of conversation. However, instead of contacting me directly, this parent chose to reach out to the counselor. The situation could have been handled between the two of us directly, but sometimes parents do not trust the teacher or feel that they need to go above the teacher’s head to get the answer they are looking for. This demonstrates a severe lack of connection between school and home. I concede that not all teachers are easy to communicate with, and in fact, some take a bit too long to even respond to parent concerns. However, for most of us, we want to communicate with parents, and when parents bypass direct communication it can cause teachers to feel that they are not seen as professionals who are able to handle conflicts with students directly with parents.

To be honest, most teachers are afraid to publicly express the frustrations that I have listed above. They are worried that someone from their local school board will find out about their grievances and find a way to tarnish the teacher’s reputation to the point that they will be forced to resign. Others are concerned that an administrator will hear about it and will begin to make the life of the teacher miserable (trust me, I’ve seen it happen too many times). Sadly, as I write this post, I have anxieties of my own. I work in a community of mostly upper-middle class families, and unfortunately, these areas of the country are often the worst in the way that they view teachers. To some, we are seen as second class citizens who can be threatened with our pay, our benefits, our retirement, and our reputations in the community.

So if the pay isn’t that great, why do I teach? If the community doesn’t always value what I do for students, why do I teach? The simple answer is that this is my calling and always has been. Teaching is not just a job for me; it is who I am. As I wrap up the school year for the twentieth time, I am looking forward to next year. I am already beginning to plan how I will revamp my American Literature curriculum to meet the needs of primarily vocational school students. For the first time in my career, I will be teaching the concurrent composition class with our local community college. So, over the last few days, I have been rereading a rhetoric textbook as a way to prepare for next year. Based on my experience in my new school this year, I am beyond excited for what next year will hold as I enter my twenty-first year of teaching.

So, why do I stick with teaching when so many of my colleagues are leaving the craft? It’s not because I have a martyr complex, and it’s not because I can’t do anything else. Teaching gives me purpose as I help my students to develop skills that they will use in their futures. Teaching energizes me to expand my own understanding of my discipline. Teaching challenges me to find ways to reach students who are consistently on the margins of society. It is never boring. Everyday is different. It is a challenge, but it is more rewarding intrinsically than I could describe.

As I reflect on the conflicts I see with public education and the way that teachers are viewed by many in society today, I hope that more teachers will express their concerns. I hope that more teachers will be able to communicate publicly their passion for the craft in such a way that others will be inspired to support public education and those of us who have dedicated our lives to the benefit of not only our students but also our future as a nation. Ultimately, teachers determine the course of our society. We teach history, we teach mathematics, we teach reading and writing, we teach the sciences, we teach practical arts. Beyond these academic subjects, we teach empathy, kindness, grace, forgiveness, patience, and joy. As long as our nation continues to downplay the value of teachers, we will continue to lose some of the best educators who cannot accept being mistreated, underpaid, and underappreciated.

I hope that I will continue to hold on for several more years, but I have to be honest, in this political climate it is becoming more difficult to balance the benefits with the costs of teaching in secondary education. If things do not improve, I will probably move out of K-12 education into higher education, a transition that I am beginning next year. However, as I look forward to another graduation ceremony with the amazing class of 2022, I am choosing to focus on today, a day of celebration. A celebration for our students, for their parents and families, for our school community, and for our educators. Despite the hostile environments in which we teach and learn, we have done it yet again. Job well done!

The Pattern of Death and Life

Over the last year, I have been thinking about getting a tattoo. Most people who have tattoos start when they are pretty young. My brother, for example, got his first tattoo (as far as I know) when he was seventeen while my sister starting tattooing herself (with India ink) at a much younger age. I have thrown around the idea of getting a tattoo for a number of years, but it has only been recently that I have been much more serious about it.

I have discovered that many people who do not have tattoos have avoided doing so because of a fear of pain. That was my number one reason for not getting a tattoo for most of my life. However, a few years ago, I had two basal cell carcinomas removed from my face while I was completely conscious, so the fear of needles is definitely gone.

So now that my fears of pain and needles are gone, I am planning my first tattoo. But why? If I have gone on this long without a tattoo, why do it now in my mid-forties? There are a number of reasons, but for me, the most important reason is the reminder that a tattoo can serve for the person. And in my life, I want a constant reminder of the transformation that God has done throughout my life, especially in the last five years.

I have been exploring the concept of resurrection over the last few months in my reading of Richard Rohr’s The Universal Christ. One of the insights that I have gained through this book is that resurrection first requires a death. Now, that sounds like a fairly elementary concept – of course resurrection requires death. However, I don’t know how much we meditate on the different types of death that happen throughout our lives. Sure, we experience the deaths of loved ones or family pets, but there are other types of death that exist, sometimes on a daily basis.

Throughout my life, I have experienced many types of deaths. Some of the most tragic deaths have been students who died far too young. Recently, I lost my stepdad to congestive heart failure, a loss that my family and I are still grieving (and I foresee, that we will feel his loss for quite a long time). During the midst of COVID in 2020, my family and I had to say good-bye to two beloved dogs who were suffering from different forms of cancer. Their deaths were only two months apart!

Besides the deaths of students and loved ones, I have experienced the loss of relationships, the loss of comfort, the loss of jobs, and the loss of love. Even though these things were difficult at the time to lose, I have also lost things that I do not miss: depression, anxiety, fear of not being understood, toxic relationship, toxic work environments, and toxic church ministries.

Each of these losses, those I miss and those I do not miss, have created opportunities for new life. Resurrection can only occur when there has been a death. Daily we can put to death certain habits, dangerous thought patterns, and unbridled emotions. When we put these things to death, we allow the opportunity for the Holy Spirit to guide us to new growth. When we surrender our will and our desires to God’s will and desires, we are able to see more of His plan for our own lives and the lives of those around us.

It is ok to sacrifice your comfort, your convenience, your time, your head space as long as you are leaving room for God to lead you into a new part of your journey. Resurrection requires a death but it promises new life. I think that is the most beautiful part of Easter each year – the promise of new life.

So, what’s the story with my tattoo? As an avid fan of Flannery O’Connor, I have found an affinity for peacocks since she raised them on her family farm in Milledgeville, Georgia. Peacocks are an interesting creature because they are beautiful, but they also scream at night – a great example of a spectacular horror in the world. Peacocks are also symbolic of resurrection because each year they lose their feathers only to grow new ones.

As I have been thinking about my peacock tattoo, I have looked into scriptural references and O’Connor quotes that reflect the trade off of death and life that God promises to each of us when we surrender to Him. In 2 Corinthians 12:9, Paul writes the words that I feel represent the promise that each of us can experience in Christ: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Each time we surrender to Christ, a part of us dies so He can live in us. His perfect grace gives us the power to change. And as O’Connor writes: “Grace changes us and change is painful.”

I may not be looking forward to the pain of a tattoo, but I am looking forward to the reminder of the pattern of death and life that we experience with resurrection. And more than that, I look forward to sharing this story of resurrection with all who ask me about my tattoo.

Accept death so that you can experience the promise of new life. This is not easy to do. However, Christ demonstrated that resurrection is possible so that we can trust that we will be given new life as well. And this resurrection is not just at the end of our lives when we are in eternity with Him, but we can experience resurrection each and every day as we surrender our will to His.

A Balanced Christian in a Public School Setting

For a Christian woman, I have an odd job. I have been teaching in public schools as an English teacher for twenty years. Now, on the surface, that might not seem like such a strange job. Plenty of Christians are public school teachers. However, I am not your usual Christian public school teacher because I don’t have any problem talking with my students about difficult topics. Or better yet, I am willing to have conversations with my students about topics like racism, sexuality, politics, and religion. Topics that are typically pretty taboo in most classrooms, but especially those led by Christians in America.

Some people may be concerned that I use my platform as a teacher to spread my own beliefs and ideologies about the aforementioned topics. However, nothing would be further from the truth. I see my classroom as a forum for students to broach these subjects and others because they need to have a space where they can safely express their opinions. Where someone will not allow them to yell at one another. Where someone will ensure that everyone feels safe. Where someone will let them know that it’s ok to think differently than the crowd.

Over the years, I have become more and more comfortable with these conversations happening in my classroom because I have become more comfortable with my own point of view on some of these topics. I don’t feel threatened when something thinks differently than I do, so I want my students to have the same experience before they leave high school. Once they leave high school, who knows whether or not they will be given opportunities to build skills in respectful public discourse. From my perspective, it looks like most people on public media and social media never learned these lessons. They haven’t learned to listen when someone else is speaking. They haven’t learned to let someone have an opinion other than their own. They haven’t learned that it’s ok to agree to disagree. They haven’t learned that just because someone thinks differently than them that doesn’t mean that the other person is “wrong” and they are “right.”

During this school year, I have been challenged more in this area because for the first time in my career, I feel that I am working with a group of students who are able to have difficult discussions. Sure, this has happened occasionally over my career, but I have never had a class that is able to regularly have discussions where most people openly participate with no feelings being hurt. This last week is a great example of this. In my senior English class, we are currently studying A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. I know, a surprising book choice for a Christian teacher whose husband happens to be a Nazarene pastor. As we were discussing Burgess’s personal history with the trauma of the sexual assault of his wife, my students began a discourse about the complexities of the justice system, the backlash of women falsely accusing men of sexual assault, the concept that the courts often look at who punched second rather than who punched first. It was interesting that at some point in the conversation, one of the students was able to express the frustration she experiences when people assume that because she is atheist that she is immoral. Another student commented, “Just because someone is a Christian doesn’t mean that they are moral.” It was a beautiful experience to see these seventeen and eighteen year olds communicate their observations of the hypocrisy and injustice in so many institutions of our society today. What amazing citizens these students are, and what hope I have that they will take these skills with them into college and their lives ahead.

I have a complicated job. I desire to fully reflect Jesus Christ every day as I interact with my students and my coworkers. I feel that my vocation in life is to be a public school educator and with that responsibility comes the overwhelming task of balancing my personal faith with the complex issues that are raised in literature and in contemporary society. However, I have learned that I do not have to sacrifice either of these aspects of my life on the altar of anyone else’s expectations. I do not fit the stereotype of a Christian, let alone a pastor’s wife. This is because I have learned that I have to be who God has made me to be. Sometimes this means that I will give references in class to Game of Thrones as it relates to Medieval literature. Sometimes this means that I will ask my students if they are familiar with Deadpool because I’m teaching the dramatic convention of asides. And sometimes this means that I am willing to listen to the often cringey narration of your humble narrator Alex in A Clockwork Orange because I want my students to explore the concepts of free will and government control. Some people might look down upon these examples, especially those who are always concerned about being “right.” However, as I’ve been discovering in Richard Rohr’s, Universal Christ, “It is no longer about being correct. It is about being connected” (168).

Through my teaching career, I hope that I have been more concerned about making connections with my students than I have about being correct. I hope that they will remember the awkward teacher who openly pointed out the sexual innuendos of Romeo and Juliet because if you are going to teach Shakespeare, you can’t leave out the bawdy humor. I hope they will remember when we discussed the disgusting racism of Bob Ewell in To Kill a Mockingbird and how sadly we still see low-key racism permeating parts of our society today. But more than anything, I hope they will remember that I saw every one of them and valued each of their opinions even when they didn’t line up with my own worldview. My job is not just to prepare students to write and read academically but to help them to grow as human beings who are more concerned about making connections with other human beings rather than whether they are correct.

A New View of Suffering

About ten years ago, I started writing reflections about my journey with God and focused my attention on the concepts of sacrifice and surrender. This was based on an understanding of joining together with Christ in His suffering. Peter addresses this issue when he explains, “Don’t be surprised at the fiery trials you are going through, as if something strange were happening to you. Instead, be very glad – for these trials make you partners with Christ in his suffering, so you that you will have the wonderful joy of seeing his glory when it is revealed to all the world” (1 Peter 4:12-13 New Living Translation”). I believe that we enter into Christ’s suffering when we understand the gravity of what He did for each of us on the Cross. However, I also believe that some of us stop there as if our relationship with God is just based on sacrifice and suffering of Christ for our individual benefit. This sadly, bleeds into the way that we view what Christ did on the Cross for each of us, and it negatively impacts our relationships with others.

Recently, I started reading The Universal Christ by Richard Rohr, Franciscan priest and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico. While studying Flannery O’Connor’s work and meditations, I became interested in the writing of Catholic writers, and Rohr was highly recommended by a new friend. Although Protestant by conviction for several reasons, I believe that the Church would benefit from learning from one another rather than continuing to argue about our differences. This would help to heal the Church and to help the secular world to see the church universal, or Catholic.

There have been several challenging concepts in Rohr’s book, but over the last few days I have meditated on chapters regarding Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross and our need for one another. In essence, Rohr suggests that Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross was not about a need for God to be paid “in order to love and forgive God’s own creation for its failures” (Rohr 144). Instead, Jesus’s sacrifice on the Cross was an invitation for humanity to enter into Christ’s suffering so that we could enter into suffering with others.

In a crime and punishment society, this concept of God’s invitation for each of us to demonstrate love through joining in His suffering doesn’t make any sense. If we commit a crime, there is a consequence. If we break the rules, we are punished. The idea of entering into someone’s suffering with them may cause us to ask, Why should I join in someone’s suffering when their personal choices caused their suffering? Why should I suffer when I have done everything “right”? Thankfully, Jesus did not ask these same questions because if He had, we would not have any hope for salvation! Instead of selfishly looking at his blameless life in contrast to our wretched lives, the only perfect human to ever walk the earth, prayed, “‘My Father! If this cup cannot be taken away unless I drink it, your will be done'” (Matthew 26:42 NLT).

If we are able to accept the truth that Christ suffered so that we would suffer with others, I believe that this would change the way that we love others. Rohr explains that as we meditate on the crucified Christ, we understand that He “became the victim so we could stop victimizing others or playing the victim ourselves” (Rohr 155). Christ’s sacrifice was not about crime and punishment but about perfect love. This means that when we suffer with others, it is not because of a need for punishment but because we desire to walk alongside of them in their darkest times just as Christ walks alongside each of us in our darkest times.

Suffering is not punitive. Surrender is not giving up. Sacrifice is not denying. Fully embracing Christ’s suffering means that we fully embrace others. Fully accepting Christ’s surrender of His will means that we fully accept others. Fully understanding Christ’s once for all sacrifice means that we fully understand others.

All of this is grounded in love. Imitating Christ is about love. Following His leading is about love. Living as He lived is about love. All of our suffering, our surrender, our sacrifice is for, and through, and because of love.

Works Cited

Rohr, Richard. Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe. Convergent, 2021.

Feeling a Little Blah…

I’ve been in a dry spell for the last few months. This spell is so bad that even words are difficult to conjure out of the air. I usually write to figure out what I think, like Flannery O’Connor. However, lately the creative process just isn’t fruitful. In fact, it’s pretty nonexistent.

I used to say that I used all of my creativity during the school year through lesson planning. And there is some truth to that. But I would like to get back to where I was a few years ago when I was working on my degree. I would come home, rest for a little bit, and then get to work. Even though I was tired, I loved every minute of it – yes, all of the papers and constant reading.

I imagine that this dry spell has been caused by several factors.

  1. I am teaching in a new school with new students, new colleagues, and two new classes. Most days, I am exhausted because of the planning and grading, not to mention actually teaching.
  2. I have moved three times in the last eight months – from Virginia to my parent’s house in Colorado, from my parent’s house to an apartment, from the apartment back to my parent’s house.
  3. I lost my stepdad less than four months ago. His loss has been great for my family, and I am still figuring out how to manage my grief.
  4. I have a fractured relationship with my son. Since we moved to Colorado, he has been distant and moved out permanently a month ago after several months of not really living with us.
  5. I am trying to make new connections at work and at church while maintaining relationships with friends back in Virginia. I’m an introvert; this is a struggle every day.
  6. I am living with my mom. She has her good days and not so good days as she is trying to find her place in her own grief. It has not been easy as we have recently given away my stepdad’s clothes and we are trying to determine how to manage all of his model trains.

I know all of these things have a great impact on my creativity and energy, and I know I need to give myself space to settle in, to rest, to figure it all out. But I am impatient with myself. I have so many things that I want to say, so many ideas that just toss around in my mind throughout the day. But when I get home, I just want to sit for a few minutes with my mom. I just want to lay down for a few minutes with my dogs. I just want to eat a good meal with my family. I just want to watch a few mindless comedies with my husband. And I just want to go to sleep so I can start over.

I trust that this is a temporary season. God has always been so good. He never wastes anything. This time of dryness will end. The work will resume.

Be encouraged in your times of joy, your times of grief, your times of turmoil, and your times of peace. Be encouraged that you are loved, you are not forgotten, and He is near.

Death: A Strange Part of Life

Death is such a strange part of life. Most of us spend our lifetimes trying to avoid our own death, and when someone we love has died, we struggle to know how to respond. This last week, my stepdad passed away suddenly overnight. We knew it was coming, but just not so soon. He went into hospice care about two weeks before he died, and his health had been declining. However, we had hoped along with him that his health would improve. But last Tuesday, that phone call came at about 7:15 from my mom, telling me that he was gone.

This last week grief has come in waves for me and the rest of my family. I typically grieve alone, but today during church, tears just fell from my face as we sang about Jesus’ love for all of us. Despite the fact that we all miss my dad, we know that he is no longer suffering and that he was welcomed into heaven by Jesus. There is this bittersweet feeling with death that is so strange. We are glad that the person we love isn’t in pain any longer, and yet we want to hold onto them as much as we can.

Tomorrow my mom is going to take clothes to the mortuary for my dad. Yesterday, we sat in her living room looking at hats that he used to wear. We discussed which one would be best for Les to wear – his knit hat that he wore most of the winter, his Maple Leaves hat that was falling apart, or something newer. It was a weird discussion because we are the only ones who care. Those he has left behind.

As I sat in the funeral home with my mom on Friday, the funeral director went over all of the possibilities for arrangements for my dad. She focused on what she knew that my mom wanted to do for him, but she also went over some of the more extravagant things that people do for their loved ones. Apparently, we can now send some of our loved one’s ashes into space so that they can orbit the planet and then eventually reenter the Earth’s atmosphere like a shooting star. We can also memorialize our loved one’s fingerprint on a piece of jewelry that we can wear around our necks or on our fingers. And we can take our loved one’s ashes and turn them into a diamond that we can carry with us. Strange…and yet these are the things we can do when someone dies.

Why is death so strange? Is there something within us that believes that we will live forever? There are some who try to control their fate in life by eating the same things every day, by following a strict exercise regiment, by limiting where they go to avoid any potential accident or mishap. And yet, despite our best efforts, we will all die. And death doesn’t come pleasantly for everyone. Death isn’t always kind. And sometimes death is awkward and humiliating.

Over my lifetime, I have lost several loved ones. My grandpa was the first when I was only about five or six. The cemetery was strange and eerie. The funeral home was somber and creepy. The whole thing freaked me out. Then, my grandma followed him almost ten years later. At that time, I was a little more comfortable with the concept of death, but seeing her in an open casket was weird and I knew then that she wasn’t there. Accepting my grandparents’ deaths was not difficult for me because I knew that they were both in poor health.

Later in life, I experienced the deaths of two of my students that were sudden: one was a drug overdose and the other an apparent suicide. Because of the brevity of their lives, I grieved for weeks, questioning why these young men died with so much to look forward to in life. Jason’s funeral was so traumatic for me that I could not get up enough courage to attend Andrew’s memorial. Their lives were precious, but they were lost so early. Death was violent with these two, and I was not as accepting of their passing.

This last week, I have grieved alone and in front of others. I have sobbed in my bed and in my car. I have let big, fat tears roll down my face in public. I have cried until my eyes were swollen and my head hurt. But I have also laughed and remembered the amazing man who helped to raise me. His death sucks – there is no way around that. We were not ready for him to go even though we knew that death would be better for him given his declining health. We all wanted him to improve, but we reluctantly accepted that it wouldn’t.

And even though I have accepted his death, the whole thing is still strange. There he was, but he was not. His body was there, but he was gone. His blue eyes twinkling with some new story to tell, his smirk just waiting to tell some tale. Those were gone. His kindness when he married my mom and took in four children not his own and yet now his. His love of hockey and his fanaticism over trains. His care and compassion for children in his years of education. Those were gone but still present in the lives of those he loved.

Death is a part of life that we have to accept. It is strange and uncomfortable and awkward and humiliating and terrifying. But be encouraged that by living a life of love that we will never be gone. We will live in eternity with Jesus and we will live in the hearts and minds of our loved ones. We cannot live forever in bodily form, but we can live forever through our good works and through our faith in Christ.

A Reflection on the Seven Ages of Man

A few weeks ago, I watched a stage production of Shakespeare’s comedy, As You Like It, put on by Stage Door Productions in Fredericksburg, VA. The actor portraying Jacques did a wonderful job with “The Seven Ages of Man” in Act Two, Scene 7, lingering in his description of the stages that many endure throughout their lives. Like many others, I have always been struck by Shakespeare’s parallelism of the first and final age of man: “the infant mewing and puking in the nurse’s arms” and the “second childishness and mere oblivion” of older age (2.7.147, 167). As a society, we do a pretty good job making sure to take proper care of the infant who we understand is weak and in regular need of help and affection. Sadly, we are not even adequate when it comes to the care of those in the “second childishness” of life, forgetting that toward the end of our lives that we need the same amount of help and affection as newborn babies.

Over the last year, my husband and I have felt the need to help my aging parents in Colorado. My family and I have lived on the East Coast for about fifteen years, making a trip out to my parents very difficult due to time constraints and available finances. My husband and I made it to Colorado in two days last summer, but we are aging along with everyone else, and fifteen hour days in a car just aren’t as fun as they were in our early twenties. After much prayer, we packed up all of our things and moved to Colorado a few weeks ago, hoping that we could be of some help to my parents who are in need of more regular help from family.

To be honest, we didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into, which I think is a concern for many middle-aged people wanting to help their aging parents. This isn’t something we learned about in school. There aren’t many classes or workshops on how to be available for those who are trying to balance doctor’s appointments, and grocery shopping, and housekeeping. I guess we just forget how important it is to be dependent on someone else. And I guess we want to believe that our parents are never going to get older, and they will enter into the final age of man with little struggle or pain.

The harsh reality is that this age of man is one of the most difficult, for the person in this stage of life and also for those who want to come alongside and help. I do not want to minimize anyone’s personal experience with aging. I do not want to pretend that I know what is best for anyone in this situation. I just want to be open to the process so that I can help my parents the best that I am able. There have been tears and some hard words that probably shouldn’t have been spoken. However, sometimes to get down to the real need, we have to be willing to face some difficult realities. Sometimes these difficulties might be past hurts. Sometimes these difficulties are current expectations. And many times these difficulties are fears and anxieties about what is next.

We don’t know what we are doing. We don’t always know how we can help. But we are here because at this stage in our life, we can be. This sacrifice that our family is making is one that many people are experiencing today because in this life, relationships are what matter. Connections with others are eternal. I hope that for now, my family and I can provide the help that my parents need and to give them some sense of peace and comfort in this final age of man.

Be encouraged to love in a way that might hurt at times. Be encouraged today to say, “I’m not going anywhere.” Be encouraged to accept that you don’t know all the answers. And be encouraged to just be available for those in need, especially your aging loved ones.

The Heroes of the 20/21 School Year

This school year has been incredibly difficult for so many reasons. Teachers needed to learn new ways to reach their students, including learning management systems and virtual conferencing. For those of us with technology flowing through our veins, that wasn’t the difficult part. The difficult part was figuring out how to maintain relationships with our students when roughly 50% or more of them were at home 100% of the time. We had video conferences, we sent emails, we made phone calls, and some of us set up face-to-face home visits when appropriate. Much of the relationship between student to teacher hinged upon whether or not students or parents kept the lines of communication open. Those who reached out more tended to have an easier go at their education this year. And there were those who did reach out, but they struggled for different reasons.

As a high school teacher, one of my responsibilities (outside of actual teaching) is to help identify when students are struggling. This might include when a student is struggling with addiction, when there might be abuse or neglect at home, or when there might be a mental health concern that needs to be addressed. Because so many of my students were at home this school year, identifying those areas became incredibly difficult and nearly impossible. I can only imagine the problems that went unidentified and untreated this year because many of our students across the country lost their ability to be at their one safe place: school.

Throughout this school year, it has been brought to my attention that some of my students struggled with severe depression, anxiety, and even suicidal ideation. A few of them wrote about their depression and anxiety as a way to heal from their crises. A few of them talked to me about it in class or in our video conferences. Sadly, at least two of my students were in the hospital this year because of suicide attempts and/or suicidal ideation. And another turned in a suicide note for an assignment due to stress and anxiety. Thankfully, all of these students have gotten help, but it still breaks my heart that this school year made many of our students slip through the cracks, unnoticed and alone.

Photo by Tammy Gann on Unsplash

During my senior year of high school, I dealt with my own battle of depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. I missed at least forty days of my senior year because my panic attacks were so severe that I developed an eating disorder focused on controlling my environment and my body. Fortunately, my family helped me to get help early through therapy and medication. I am blessed to say that through the support of my family and friends, God’s grace, and therapy that I was able to graduate on time with my class despite the number of days that I missed.

Given my own personal circumstances during my senior year, I cannot imagine going through a mental health crisis in the middle of a pandemic without the daily encouragement from my friends and teachers. Even though my home life was very encouraging and loving, part of my recovery was due to my classmates who listened to me when I just needed to whisper, “I’m having a panic attack.” I am so appreciative of my teachers who wrote countless passes to the bathroom or to the nurse’s office when I just needed to step away from the stress of every day. And I am more than happy that on my good days when I went to school that I had the distraction of my classes to get me through.

There are so many people to call out as heroes this school year. Educators and our school communities did the impossible this year. We taught in so many different ways that were new to all of us, but we maintained high expectations, we demonstrated grace and patience, and we kept our students, ourselves, and our families safe. This is nothing short of a miracle!

But I also think that our students are heroes. They overcame adversity that none of us would ever expect our children to face. They developed grit when they struggled to even care about their education. They reached out for help when they were having a crisis. They did the things that they needed to do to get through. That is heroic given the circumstances that each of our children faced this year.

We have a lot of work to do as we look forward to the 21-22 school year. However, I believe that we have learned how resilient we can all be. I believe that we have gained essential skills that are necessary not just in the classroom, but in life. Grace. Patience. Integrity. Grit. Humility. We have learned that we need each other to get through, so let’s continue to lean on one another. And let’s celebrate all of the amazing things that our children did this school year to get through and to thrive. They are the heroes of the 20-21 school year!

Photo by Keith Luke on Unsplash

Corporate Repentance: A Look to the Past

Over the last few months, I have been reading through the Bible in a different way than ever before. The Bible plan that I am using this year is thematic: Genesis with Romans, Isaiah with Mark, and now Leviticus with Hebrews. I have greatly enjoyed seeing how different sections of the Bible relate to one another in ways that I had never seen in the past. I am always amazed at how God’s Word is weaved together through the Holy Spirit’s guidance and wisdom.

A few days ago, I was reading Leviticus 4 which discusses the sacrifices necessary for unintentional sin by individuals and by the entire Israelite community. I was struck by vv. 13-14 which clearly show that there are times when corporate repentance is absolutely necessary. God directs Moses and the priests:

“If the entire Israelite community sins by violating one of the Lord’s commands, but the people don’t realize it, they are still guilty. When they become aware of their sin, the people must bring a young bull as an offering for their sin and present it before the Tabernacle” (New Living Translation).

God acknowledges that there will be times when the community of faith will not understand that they have been disobedient as a group to God’s commands. This does not let them off the hook, though. Instead, this passage shows us that the people are still guilty even if they don’t realize they disobeyed God. God further sets up the expectation that when the people realize their guilt, they must atone for their sin by bringing an offering to God.

The need for repentance is difficult for many believers to accept because repentance requires responsibility for sins. Repentance for an entire group of people requires even more humility because there are few times when a community of believers agrees that what they have done or what they are doing is sin. The examples of corporate repentance that we see in Scripture are usually prompted by a prophet or king who calls out the community’s disobedience to God and urges the community of faith to repent so that God will once again bless His people.

Today we are feeling the consequences of hundreds of years of sin that has gone unatoned for. The Church has allowed great atrocities to take place but has not urged the community of faith into repentance. Pockets of American Christians are seeking repentance and reconciliation for the sins of our predecessors. However, the need for corporate repentance is much bigger than a few Christians scattered throughout the world who have acknowledged their own sin and the sins of the Church universal. If you are questioning what sins have been committed on behalf of the Church, just read the news from any news outlet, and you will see people speaking on behalf of God with words of hatred and confusion. People are promoting politicians in the name of God. People are casting out the alien and the outcast in the name of God. People are spewing words of violence in the name of God. People are oppressing those in need all in the name of God.

As a pastor’s wife, I often see the challenge of leading God’s church today. People are either preaching a false gospel or they are afraid of speaking the true Gospel. People are distrustful of anyone who counters their political viewpoints, mistaking politics for faith. People hide in the dark, waiting for the end to come because they don’t know how to reach out to a world that is full of sin and suffering.

The way out of this darkness is repentance. Some people don’t believe that a community of faith should repent for the sins of the past. I disagree. In Scripture we see Daniel seeking God’s forgiveness for himself and for the people of God. Daniel was an upright, holy, righteous man who challenged the confines of his society by living his life completely for the Truth. There are not many Christians today who could say that they live their lives like Daniel. We are all in need of repentance, and they only way that we can truly reveal God’s Kingdom now is if we repent together. We need to cry out to God, seeking His mercy not just for ourselves but for those who have stained the purity of the Church with centuries of sin.

Repentance first takes acknowledgement of sin. Then it requires a plea to God for His mercy. And finally it ends with a turning away from sin. If we cannot first acknowledge our own sin and the sins of our predecessors, then we cannot expect God’s mercy on His Church. We must act first through seeking His mercy not because we expect it but because we desperately need it.

Be challenged today to seek out God’s guidance for repentance not just for your own sins but for the sins of the Church universal, now and in the past. We need Him to heal us so that we can reveal Him.