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Advent: Day 14

“‘The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the LORD of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity, says the LORD of hosts.'”
Haggai 2:9, Revised Standard Version

It’s always dangerous to take Scripture out of context and say, “This is what it means.”
But sometimes I like to court danger, so today I’m going to lift a snippet of Scripture right out of context and play with it: “in this place I will give prosperity.”
I don’t have the authority to say to my readers, “This is what it means.”
But I do have the authority to speak from experience and say, “This is what it means to me.”
I teach in a school in a remote area of the United States. It’s hard for me to be “in this place.” I have a long litany of complaints, but let me focus on just one: The principal gives lip service to supporting teachers, but in practice some teachers get thrown under the proverbial school bus.
Friday Mrs. D, the teacher-advisor for student council, received an e-mail from the principal, saying that she was no longer allowed to ask one of the office staff to make the nearly 100-mile round-trip to the nearest town for snacks to sell at basketball games, even though this has been the practice for many years at this school.
Mrs. D demanded, and got, an audience with the principal. “I don’t have time to make that trip. If you don’t let Ms. So-and-So help me, I’m not going run student council anymore.”
“Fine,” the principal said. And that was that. Mrs. D is no longer the faculty advisor for student council.
I have other complaints as well, but as I sit here thinking about them, the words of the Advent Scripture keep interrupting me: “…in this place I will give prosperity.”
Wherever “this place” is, God is able and willing to give prosperity. The place may be a prison. It may be a hospital bed. Or it may be a school nearly 50 miles from the nearest town, a school with an unsupportive administrator.
The place may also be an unemployment line, or a house that’s about to be lost to foreclosure, or a marriage that no longer seems tenable.
Every one of us has been in “this place.” It goes by different names, but we’ve all been here.
And it is precisely here—not somewhere else—that God promises prosperity.
If I am quiet and open my eyes, I will see the prosperity of God, what one of the New Testament writers calls “the unsearchable riches of Christ,” right where I am. In this place.

Advent: Day 11

Lord, all my longing is known to thee, my sighing is not hidden from thee.
Psalm 38:9, Revised Standard Version

There are times when I long to do something else besides teach. Why should I be stuck in a classroom with recalcitrant and surly middle-school students day after day, when I could be doing something much more exciting?
For example, one of my longings is to become a tour leader. I have fallen in love with Mexico, and one little-known city in particular: Zacatecas. I long to take groups of people to this wonder-filled silver-mining city and introduce them to the local culture, customs and climate.
It seems odd that I have developed a fondness for Zacatecas, because my trip there in June was, in some respects, a disaster. First, someone stole about $300 from my hotel room. Then I caught a nasty case of Montezuma’s Revenge from some fresh figs I bought from a street vendor. As a result, a private tour that I had scheduled to visit some nearby ancient ruins had to be cancelled because I was forced to stay close to the bathroom.
Still, there is something enchanting about this little city nestled among the hills in north central Mexico.
Perhaps it is being able to wander the labyrinthine streets and the little callejóns, knowing that sooner or later all ways lead back to the cathedral.
Perhaps it is the magnificent view of the city from Cerro de la Bufa, high above the houses and shops.
Or maybe it’s just the friendliness of the local toward a gringo who speaks only enough Spanish to ask how much something costs.
Whatever it is, I sigh when I think of Zacatecas, and I long to go back to that enchanting city again and again and again.
God knows my longings, God hears all my sighs, and perhaps sometime my longing to lead tour groups to Zacatecas will become a reality.
During this season of Advent, however, I am learning the contentment of prayer and the grace of offering all my sighing and longing to God, in whom I live and move and have my being.

Advent: Day 10

Prove me, O LORD, and try me; test my heart and my mind.
Psalm 26:2, Revised Standard Version

“We’re going to have the district benchmark test next week,” I announce.
All my students groan.
Inwardly, I do too. We seem to be testing our students incessantly. Sometimes it gets to be overwhelming, for the teachers as well as the students.
The district benchmark test, a grueling affair, is based on state academic standards, and is given three times every quarter.
The pre-test is for the purpose of guiding instruction: What do the students need to know?
The mid-term test continues to guide instruction, but the question teachers ask themselves changes slightly: What have the students learned, and what do they still need to learn?
The post-test, or final benchmark exam is a summative assessment that shows how well the students have mastered certain state standards during the quarter.
Teachers and students may despise testing, but it’s one of those necessary evils of the education system. Without testing, both students and teachers flounder aimlessly in the classroom.
Unlike a teacher announcing the date of a test, God makes no announcement, but is testing us continually.
And unlike the district benchmark test, which may contain as many as fifty questions, God’s test has only one: Do you love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind and all your strength, and your neighbor as yourself?
Students know that the only way to pass a test is to study. The psalmist knows that the only way to pass God’s test is to pray, and so he does: “Prove me, O Lord, and try me; test my heart and my mind.”
As I pray with the psalmist during the season of Advent, and beyond, may I be able to answer God’s test question with a confident yes.

Advent: Day 9

Good and upright is the LORD; therefore he instructs sinners in the way. He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way.
Psalm 25: 8-9, Revised Standard Version

Despite having a new heating system in the sixth-grade wing, there is no heat in my classroom today—and it’s cold. Outside, it is barely 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Inside? I’m wearing my coat.
I call Mr. S the maintenance man. He comes to my room, apologizing that he hasn’t been trained to fix the new heating system, but he calls his supervisor. To his dismay, he discovers that his supervisor is helpless too. The furnace installers have taken a crucial piece of equipment with them, and they won’t return until tomorrow.
Mr. S sits at one of my tables. “I need to rest for a few minutes,” he says.
“Even though it’s cold in here?” I ask.
“It’s warmer in here than outdoors,” he says.
It turns out that Mr. S really wants to unburden himself.
“I don’t like my job,” he says. He shakes his head, and then tells me why he’s so frustrated. “I wish I could retire,” he says with a sigh. Suddenly he asks, “How about you? Are you thinking about leaving or are you going to stay?”
It’s the question that arises frequently in this chaotic school district, where the annual turnover of staff is among the highest in the state. In fact, one of our middle school teachers is leaving in a few days for a new job in Iowa.
“I’ve thought about leaving,” I say to Mr. S, “but where would I go?”
What I don’t tell him, because I’m not sure he’d understand, is that the only thing keeping me here—besides the children—is my sense of being placed here by God. Like the psalmist, I have found that God leads people who are willing to be led. If it weren’t for that, I’d be filling out as many applications as it takes to get out of here as quickly as possible.
However, until it is clear that I am supposed to move on, I listen for God’s instruction right where I am, confident that God will teach me the way to go, and lead me when the time is right.

Advent: Day 8

Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath! Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil.
Psalm 37:8, Revised Standard Version

In any given day in my classroom, I can find plenty of things to be angry about.
J-Girl and C-Boy are chattering and giggling together in the back of the room as I try to show the class how to write haiku.
For the fifth day in a row, N-Boy comes to class unprepared. “Can I have a pencil?” he asks.
S-Boy won’t stay in his seat for more than five minutes at a time. Then he jumps up and starts wandering aimlessly around the classroom, poking at the computer keyboard or rummaging through my desk drawer.
Sometimes these kids get under my skin. Sometimes I feel like venting my wrath. But will it do any good for me to get angry at my students?
Will my anger change J-Girl and C-Boy from chatterboxes into quiet, serious scholars? More likely they will become sullen and resentful.
Will my anger convince N-Boy that he should come to class with pencil and paper in hand? More likely he will figure out a way not to come to class at all. There are plenty of hiding places in the building for the student who wants to play hookey.
Will my anger change S-Boy, who has ADHD, into a student who sits in the same spot from bell to bell without moving a muscle? More likely he will become even more hyper.
The psalmist knew that the venting of anger and wrath is likely to unleash evil into the world, so he strongly counsels his readers: “Refrain from anger and forsake wrath!”
During the season of Advent, God shows us once again that the way of love is more effective than the way of anger.
May God help me to remember, not only during Advent, but every day, that refraining from anger in my classroom is wisdom, for human relationships grow and flourish when wrath is set aside.

More Psalm Challenge #37 posts here

Advent: Day 5

He brought me forth into a broad place; he delivered me, because he delighted in me.
Psalm 18:19, Revised Standard Version

There’s probably nothing more unnerving than being in a narrow place, especially if there seems to be no way out. One’s chest tightens, it’s hard to breathe, and panic sets in.
Apparently the psalmist found himself in that kind of predicament, yet God came to his rescue and made it possible for the psalmist to breathe easily again.
What God did for the psalmist—brought him into a broad place—we special education teachers attempt to do for our students.
Most of the kids I work with have learning disabilities. They need accommodations in order to access the curriculum. They need modifications to the assessment process so they can show what they know in alternative ways.
For example, B-Boy apparently has dysgraphia, the inability to write coherent sentences—or much of anything at all. One of his modifications is to be tested orally instead of with pencil and paper.
C-Girl doesn’t write well, but she has artistic talent. Instead of writing research papers, she shows us in drawings that she understands what we have taught.
D-Boy, an eighth-grader, is reading at about a kindergarten level—maybe. Over the years he’s learned to compensate for his inability to read by listening carefully. He pays very close attention to books that are read to him, and if someone also reads multiple choice tests about a particular book to him, he can usually make a respectable grade.
Many students with learning disabilities have test anxiety, especially when it comes to taking district benchmarks or other standardized tests. To help alleviate their stress, we test them in small groups and allow them more time than other students to complete the exam.
In all that we special education teachers do for our students, our aim is to deliver them from thinking that they can’t do much of anything at all (a narrow place), and help them to discover and use their hidden strengths (a broad place).
During Advent—and beyond—God works in the world to bring people out of narrow places into broad places. May I continue to see that work in my students’ lives, and in my own life as well.

Advent: Day 4

Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law.
Psalm 119:18, Revised Standard Version

Anyone who reads Scripture knows that it’s not always an easy task. There are some things in the Bible that are hard to understand.
No wonder the psalmist asks God to open his eyes. He knows that without divine intervention, the words he reads probably won’t make much sense.
The longer I’m in the classroom, the more certain I am that without divine intervention, teaching doesn’t make much sense either.
If I were to pray, then, as the psalmist prayed, my prayers would probably sound something like this:
Open my eyes to see beyond the rude and crude exterior of C-Girl, and to find the hidden gems of gentleness within her.
Open my eyes to ways to meet the needs of my two eighth-grade students who cannot read.
Open my eyes to the gifts that each of my students brings into the classroom every day, even if it is something as simple as a “thank you” or a smile.
Open my eyes to ways that I can reach B-Boy, who pays no attention and who constantly seeks new and inventive ways to disrupt my class.
Open my eyes so that I can get through to J-Boy, who was busted today for having—and using—drugs on campus. He’s been suspended for ten days and stands a good chance of being expelled.

The Advent season is the perfect time to begin praying for open eyes. But if, when Advent ends, so does my praying, then my eyes will be closed again, and my praying will have been in vain. So there’s one more prayer I need to utter in all seasons:
Open my eyes—and my heart—as my journey in this middle school classroom continues into the year 2012, and into the years beyond.

Advent: Day 3

I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping.
Psalm 6:6, Revised Standard Version

Teaching may look easy to the uninitiated, but it is really hard work, and I don’t know a teacher who doesn’t know weariness.
I read a book several years ago about some newly-minted teachers in New York City, who figured they had finally become “real teachers” when they looked in the mirror and saw that they had “raccoon eyes.” They were so weary from lack of sleep—staying late after school to tutor students who needed extra help, grading papers at home at night, and planning lessons on the weekends—that they had dark circles under their eyes.
If you’re a teacher, weariness goes with the territory. Maybe it shouldn’t be that way, but it is. There just don’t seem to be enough hours in the day to do everything that needs to be done.
One night not long ago I was so tired that I couldn’t even read the latest John Lescroart thriller to unwind. I wasn’t moaning or flooding my bed with tears or drenching my couch with weeping as the psalmist seems to have done, but weariness was weighing me down, and I finally surrendered to it and crawled into bed at 7:30 p.m. I fell asleep immediately. When I woke up the next morning, I felt like a new person.
Advent is the spiritual antidote to the frenzied holiday shopping season. It’s also God’s invitation to shed our weariness and become reinvigorated. During Advent, God whispers, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest,” (Matthew 11:28). By coming to God and accepting the divine offer of rest, we are made anew.

Advent: Day 1

Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.
1 Thessalonians 5:11, Revised Standard Version

Everyone needs encouragement, especially teachers.
I have a friend who teaches special education students in a neighboring state. Hers is a particularly challenging situation in a low-income school. She lives, breathes, eats and sleeps stress practically every day of the week.
Typical of most teachers, my friend works long hours. She stays late after school and puts in time on weekends, so that she can plan effective lessons that meet her students’ needs. However, those long hours sometimes take a heavy toll, and then my friend feels depressed, apathetic and ineffective.
Several weeks ago, my friend and I agreed to encourage each other with daily good-news e-mails. These messages are not lengthy pedagogical ruminations, but simply little uplifting notes to remind us that no matter how difficult teaching is, we are not incompetent and we can do what needs to be done for the good of our students.
Here are a few excerpts from recent good-news e-mails:
My friends came last evening. They left a whole bunch of homemade soup for me.
End-of-day good news: managed to get two naps today. Maybe I’ll stave off the worst of the sickness!
I get along very well with my new department chair.
I’m having to stretch today: It was rough, yet I’m still alive!
I have some very sweet kids, particularly the 3rd graders. We were discussing the weekend, and after listening to their plans, I said, “Well I have a lot of paperwork to do, so I will be working a lot this weekend. “Juan” who has a speech impediment due to cleft palate (but he talks a lot and quite confidently) said, “I think you should take a break.” And when he left for the day he gave my aide and me a hug. Kids like that make everything worthwhile!
As mundane as some of these brief e-mails seem to be, they are real sources of encouragement to both of us. By focusing our attention on what went right that day, we remind ourselves that no day is entirely devoid of something good. Bad news may have predominated, but seeking out the good news gives us hope and renews our spirits.
Advent, the four weeks before Christmas, is God’s invitation to us to experience spiritual renewal by looking forward with hope. The difficult events of a given day may tear us down, but those who accept God’s invitation will be built up again by the Spirit.