Wednesday, May 21, 2014

For the Class of 2014

I'm not good at good-byes. In real life, like, away from this computer, I struggle with how to express emotions. So good-byes, which are so often filled with that peculiar mixture of sadness and anticipation, are not exactly my strong suit. In fact, I am so bad at good-byes that I often choke on them. A recent example happened on this year's trip to the Dominican Republic. Jack Horton, one of my students, asked me to say a good-bye on his behalf to a little boy he connected with on the trip. Since Jack wasn't going to get to visit the boy's village on the last afternoon of the trip, he asked me to give his good-bye wishes on his behalf. Jack, I feel like you should know me well enough to know that I would fail miserably at this, but, I suppose, that in the end, I really just have myself to blame. That whole afternoon in the village, I could feel the anxiety of the good-bye building up within me. I would have to find the right time, the right spot, the right words- in Spanish. But I wanted to do it. I didn't want to let Jack down. Finally, the perfect moment presented itself. I was walking along the dirt road just outside of the village, on the way to see what the villagers call "la laguna" (and what some gringos have not-so-affectionately named "the death pond"), when all of a sudden Jack's little amigo starts trotting along right beside me. I'm thinking to myself, "Wermel, this is your chance, you've got to go for it." And I did. I introduced myself, and asked the boy if he remembered Gato (Jack's Spanish name). He nodded his head and looked at me in anticipation. This is it Wermel. You can do it. But did I do it? No. Rather than saying "Gato says to tell you good-bye," I told this kid that Gato says, "hello." I was thinking good-bye, I knew to say good-bye, but when the time came I totally choked."Hello" is all that would come out.

Good-bye means the end. And when things are good, I don't like the end. So I don't like good-bye. And what I don't like, I'm usually not any good at.

In the next few days, there are going to be some good-byes. Maybe we won't say it to one another. God knows I probably won't volunteer to utter the words aloud. But, in my heart, probably in all of our hearts, we know that's what we're doing. These days are my last days with the people I've come to know and love the best since moving to Texas. It's finally time to say good-bye to the class of 2014.

I got my job at Hill Country Christian School on a stormy April morning in 2011. I'd been married for just over one year- and that year had been as stormy as the morning I was hired. People say that the first year of marriage is the hardest. I don't know if people say that for the same reasons that I claim it, but, regardless, in this case, what they say is true. Details don't really matter, and now is not the time for that anyway, but I will just say this, when I went in for my final interview, that morning, the clouds hung low in the sky, swollen and purple with rain. And if I could have drawn a picture of what my heart felt like at that time, then I would have drawn a picture of those clouds and said, "That'll do."

In that time of unexpected pain, I wondered what would ever un-do the hurt. I know relational pain. I've had my share in my past, a lot of it a byproduct of my own choices. But I don't know if I've ever felt a pain that was so surprisingly deep as the pain I lived in that year. And I don't know if I've ever doubted so much that God would act to remove it. During that time, I read something about the book of Ruth, and was taken-aback by a statement about how God works. For the life of me, I don't remember where I read it or who the author was, but it was said with such authority, that I wondered if it could be true. It didn't seem like it could fit all cases, especially ones like mine. The statement was about kinsman-redeemers. If you've read the book of Ruth, then you know this already, but in that story, Ruth and her mother-in-law, Naomi, are in a greater amount of a pain than I've ever been in. Their situation is pretty dire. They've lost everything, and don't have a whole lot to look forward to in life. Their disappointments are crushing, and Naomi is so depressed that she doesn't even really want to be alive. But then, in the midst of their despair, God provides Ruth and Naomi with another ending. They were alone and without hope or a future. And then God writes Boaz into the story. Boaz was their kinsman-redeemer, a family member in a position to deliver them from their troubles by marrying Ruth and starting a new lineage, a new story. I'm not a Bible scholar, but I'd put money on Boaz being a "type"of Christ- the rescuer, the giver of new life and new hope. Usually, when you're reading Christian books, that's the kind of thing that you run into- Christ is your own personal "Boaz." So, what was so shocking to me about the thing that I read was that, rather than just saying, "Put your trust in Christ. He's the real-deal Kinsman-Redeemer," this author said that God delivers His people, through His people. God is still in the habit of writing kinsman-redeemers into people's stories. He still gives people new hope and new futures by using his own people to bless one another. But at the time that I read this, I didn't see how it was possible for me. When you read Ruth when you're a single girl, Boaz is the husband that you desire. He's the "one," right? But I was already married. I already had a Boaz and I was still in pain. So who was God going to use to redeem me? And, for a long time, I dismissed the idea as bad biblical interpretation. Who can really make a claim like that anyway?

When I started to teach them they were sophomores, and, at that time, I think they reminded me more of children than adults. They were respectful and attentive. They worked hard, and were endlessly patient as I fumbled through my Chemistry notes. More than once, I came to class and had to admit that I'd taught them something wrong the class before, and that I needed to go back and re-do it. Such is life when you're teaching a subject for the first time. I really couldn't have had a more patient and respectful audience. I was lucky they didn't laugh me back into working part-time retail.

It was tough, though. They were so smart, and I didn't want to disappoint them. I tried hard, but it wasn't enough. I still made all sorts of mistakes and wished every day that I was better at teaching them. Just after Christmas, I was probably at my weakest. Exhausted from trying to learn two new preps and teach five classes, amazed at the emotional and spiritual intensity of teaching in a Christian School and bewildered by news of my dad's cancer and Andy's job loss, I remember the morning that I woke up (very early, as has been my habit these past three years) and decided to tell them the  truth. I don't remember exactly what I said. I don't know if they remember either. But I think I told them about my dad. And about Andy being unemployed. And I think that I told them that I was trying my best, and that I was going to keep trying my best. I hope that I told them that I was sorry that my best sometimes wasn't good enough. I remember that I was nervous. I hadn't ever been that vulnerable with any group of people, and these were sophomores, for goodness sake. And, though I don't remember exactly what I said, I do remember that I left school that day feeling, for the first time in a long time, that I had spoken what was true in my heart- in the deep parts- and that it was heard.

It's funny, but I couldn't tell you what happened next. What exactly happened over the next two and a half years? I can't put it into words. Not in one sentence, anyway, or even in a paragraph. But in my mind, I can see it-a series of scenes and conversations. I see...

Marshmallows flying and cheetos burning. A Periodic Table made of cupcakes. I see Paige in a blue prom dress at the Oasis. I see Grace when she realized she could exempt her Chemistry final. I see Courtney and Paige in side-splitting laughter after they sunk almost all of the lounge chairs in our old apartment swimming pool. I see Preston's eye-brows knit together, the tell-tale sign that he is learning something new. I see Jack at 6:45AM, lying on the porch of my portable, waiting for the AP Biology test review to start. I see Courtney and Olivia with their pipe cleaner "sex combs," coming at me to pollinate me. I see Nathan Brown's drawing of houses, a perfectly planned community, along the side of his guided reading. I see Armineh's sweetness- always that sweetness- a portrait of true beauty. I see Paige frustrated and Courtney defeated when hours and hours of studying don't produce the results that they expected. I see Baley making peanut-butter balls in the DR and then she is crying, her face between her knees in the back of Anyuli's restaurant, and then she is smiling when she sees Darlin Frid. I see Mitchell Butterfield's eyes moving involuntarily from the pain of his sunburn. And then I see him with his head down on my lab table, the headache so bad that he can't even look up. Then I see him smiling after beating me and Robin for the dozenth time at "Clue." I see Ashton and Mitchell and Robin and I playing Jenga at the high school retreat while everyone else is in the chapel. Our time was holy just the same. I see pizza boxes and junk food and strewn review sheets at 9:30PM the night before the AP Biology exam. I see Jack and Preston at the door of my apartment, ready to help us move. And then I see Preston discover Andy's sword collection. I see Bella. I miss Bella. I see Federico's scar on the back of his head, and I see him walking down the street toward the Mak house with a Red Rock in his hand. I see him kicking off his shoes to jump into the pond in Chichigua. I see Olivia's face when Ashton surprised her at prom. I see a group of them in my living room, playing telephone pictionary. I see Preston running, I see Preston biking, I see Preston rolling around on the carpet underneath his dining room table because it's so soft and he's so tired after we've ridden God knows how many miles in the heat of a summer morning. I see Jack catch and I see Jack pitch. I see Cale's cheshire cat grin. I see Macey and Courtney fighting. I see Grace finally getting angry because life is so not fair. I see a text from Baley and will respond, even though my eyes are droopy and I'm nearly asleep. I see what I will teach them tomorrow, what I want them to know, what I want them to value. I see Armineh singing and I see Karen playing volleyball, those forever-long limbs stretching toward the sky. I see Colin warming up before a basketball game, looking very nonchalant, but I know he knows we're watching him. I see Zach up to no good with Fernando again and I see him grateful for help and I see some of his anger fade into friendship. I feel one of Aimee's sweet hugs and I see Andi's smile and her long, yellow braid. I see Courtney's eyes- brown- and Justin's eyes-blue, and God help me, I cannot help but think of a Punnett Square. I see Preston in his crown with my pointer teaching an Anatomy lesson. I see Jack's handwriting- perfect in every detail- thanks for everything.

It's funny how life forms from seemingly random moments that begin to connect, not in any detectable pattern, at first, but one day, you wake up and you realize, as if by surprise- I don't hurt anymore. And that is how it happened for me. Three years, countless moments. I didn't have just one kinsman-redeemer- I had a whole class of them.

Class of 2014. I don't expect to ever love another class like I love yours. And that is well. God gave me you at just the right time- a time when I needed you most. Maybe, just a little bit, we all needed each other. It's time for good-bye. I am proud. I am hopeful. I am sad. I am relieved. I am thankful. You have been my friends, my students, my challenge... my people. Go forth into the world and continue to bless it, and remember, always, that you have been a blessing to me.

I love you.

Sunday, May 4, 2014


What do a hot air balloon, a posee of gnomes and a veritable army of hipsters have in common? Well, if you were one of the pastors, leaders or regular Joe's who converged at BentTree Church in Dallas this past week, then you already know. We were there for the Catalyst Conference- regular Joes, hipsters, and, yes, gnomes.

I've known about Catalyst since the days that I listened to Andy Stanley's podcast like it was my direct link to heaven. Catalyst was birthed in Andy Stanley's home city of Atlanta, and I would often hear a plug for it while I was waiting with baited breath for nuggets of wisdom from Andy's podcast. But I  never thought that I was really the type of person who would attend this conference. It's for pastors, for church leaders, for people starting non-profits... and apparently, for gnomes. But not for people like me. Fortunately, my principal thinks a little more out-of-the-box than I do.

One of the benefits of having a principal who is an Atlanta transplant is that some Andy Stanley has come into our professional lives. Our principal attended Andy's church in Atlanta when she lived there, and has been attending Catalyst Atlanta for years. She told us that one of her first thoughts when she became principal of our school was, "Now, how will I get these people to Atlanta for Catalyst?" It was good news for her when she found out about Catalyst Dallas. It was good news for me when she asked me to come along with a group of teachers this year.

Let me be the first to admit that I am skeptical about Christian "highs" that comes from conferences like this. I do not desire to personally experience them and I don't endorse them to others. When I was a youth leader in NC, I witnessed teenagers go to camp or youth events where they would stand with their eyes closed and their hands up to some really loud "worship" band, and then cry their way through forty-five minutes of some coolish looking dude smacking them upside the head with a "relevant" message, that they were, like, so torn up by. Then they would ask Jesus for forgiveness and be euphoric for like, a day. Only to come back home and have sex and drink like everybody else. At which time they would feel so burdened with guilt that we were lucky to ever see them again.

I also am just tired of the overdone  Christian worship "experience." I know that there might be people who get mad at reading this, but what does my opinion really matter to you anyway? Why do we need dark venues, strobe lights, and music that causes permanent hearing damage to raise our hands and worship the Lord? My husband used to work the sound booth at our old church. They told him that one of the reasons that they play the music so loud is so that men will sing. Apparently men don't want to sing if their voices can be heard. I'm sorry, but that sounds like a problem that needs to be addressed with discipleship, not increased decibels. Maybe I'm getting old. Maybe I'm concerned about permanent hearing loss now that I teach A&P (90-dB is the danger zone people!) I get that the goal of such an "experience" is to get people to engage in worship with reckless abandon. I'm for that, actually. I'm for clapping and hand-raising, and moving to the music. I don't think that worship needs to only be  hymns that we sing while holding the hymnal exactly 1 foot from our body and never moving from that position. But I do not see why darkness and loudness prevail every Sunday morning in churches across America. Are we ashamed of light? Afraid of quiet? Or are we just trying to keep up with the loudness of the world as it screams past us? Do we think we need our AV teams to "set the mood" for us to approach the Throne of Grace?

 One last word on my position as I approached this conference- and if you've read this far, you're picking up on this already- I'm tired of the religious stuff that Christians do. Last summer, I went to Six Flags in Dallas. Our first roller coaster was the Titan, which has one of the fastest and steepest drops in the world. As we crept up the track, Sara, my partner in this nerve-wracking experience, and I sang "Jesus Loves Me" nervously, excitedly until that moment when we lurched toward the earth, dropping 255ft and reaching speeds of 85mph. At first, it was kind of fun, we were screaming our heads off and laughing. But, the g-force on that thing is sickening. And, after even just a few seconds of it, I could hear Sara yelling, "I want to get off!" And, to be honest, I was thinking the exact same thing, and if I hadn't been so scared that my tongue was stuck to the roof of my mouth, I would have yelled it too. What started with a nerve-tingling sensation became a wild and uncomfortable ride. When you ride the roller coaster ride that is Christian work, you often experience these same types of feelings. Jesus loves you, so you get on, thrilled to start working for Him. You nervously sing His praises to the top and then, you lurch forward into His Kingdom-building work. The ride is tough, there are unexpected twists and turns. People are ugly. Plans fail. Your own pride sickens you, and, before you know it, you've stopped singing "Jesus Loves Me" and you're screaming "I want to get off!" When I was a younger Christian, and new to Christian work, I loved the bigness of it all. It seemed intimidating, but exhilarating. But in recent years, there've been plenty of times when I've just wanted to get off- and, more or less, have- sinking into patterns of work and distraction like everybody else.

And yet, I knew I needed to go to Catalyst. I needed to be fed. One of the things that anyone who shepherds in any capacity can understand is how easy it is to slip into a pattern where you pour out way more than you fill up. Parents, teachers, pastors- all of us have more demands on us than we have time to meet them. And the natural progression tends to always be that we let the intimate time with Jesus go first. Someone needs something, so we shorten our time with the Lord so that we can meet that need- so we can tend to that child or tutor that student or meet with those men. Maybe there's a Christian out there who doesn't fall into this, but I doubt it. And, if there is, it's certainly not me. I'm a doer. I like things to get done and be on time and be in order. And I definitely put my spiritual health on the altar and sacrifice it for the sake of what I perceive to be productivity. The good thing about Catalyst was that just about every speaker told us they do the exact same thing.

The theme of this year's conference was "Known." (The gnomes were a punny play on the theme- they were in costume to add to the craziness of the atmosphere, which, to be honest, was a little bit of a contradiction to the solidness of the teaching, but whatever.)  The booklet that we were given has this written on the front, "I am known. Because I am known by God, I may know myself, be truly known by others and know my Kingdom calling in this world." I could have just gone out in the hallway and meditated on that and would have still been fed, but Catalyst spares no expense at bringing together teachers, leaders and entertainers to consecrate that message in a two day time period. The first day alone we heard nine speakers, all who had different spins on this theme of being known by God and known by others and how this could impact our lives, our legacy and our leadership.

My brain was buzzing by the time I lay my head down on the pillow at the Comfort Suites on Thursday night. But when we arrived at the church Friday morning, one of the MC's said something about how most of us had probably heard something in the past day that made our heart "sing." And for all of the music and teaching from the day before- even being taught by Francis Chan in person, which was like, the holiest experience I've ever had. ;) I couldn't say that my heart had truly "sung" yet. And then came Louie Giglio.

When Louie stepped on the stage, he informed the audience that God had told him to change his message that very morning. He said that he was really excited about the message that he had prepared, and that he hoped he would be able to share it at some point. But that God had told him that someone in the audience needed to hear something else. Thanks for be being obedient, Louie, because I was one of those people, and what God wanted you to say made my heart sing.

Before Louie came on stage, a band called "Leagues" had performed. Louie loves their music, and actually funded the band personally when they were struggling to make ends meet. They have since made a turn-around professionally. You might actually know one of their songs, "Magic"- from a Taco Bell commercial that played during the Super Bowl. How strange that a commercial for Taco Bell's loaded grillers would have a connection to spiritual revival, but life's funny like that. The lyrics of that song say, "You and me, we've got something magic." And Louie started his message by asking us if we  remembered when we could say that about our relationship with God. What brought tears to my eyes was that Louie knew that we had once felt that way- and he also knew that we didn't necessarily feel that way anymore.

Louie, like everyone else, had been asked to speak about being known by God. But, in the end, he didn't. He said, "So you're known by God. Okay. That is good. He has always known you." Jeremiah 1:5 says that before God formed Jeremiah in the womb, He knew him. He knew what he was going to be, and the word that he was going to do. That thought is amazing- to think that God knows each one of us before we are conceived. How often do we look at new babies and wonder who they will become? What will they accomplish? What will their little personalities be like? These things that even the mother who carried them for nine months in her own body cannot fathom- God already knows them! So Louie said that there's really nothing that we can do that would catch God by surprise. He knows us intimately, more intimately than we can even know ourselves. And as good as that news is, there is a limitation to the relationship. Because though He knows us, how well do we really know Him?

In Revelation 3, Jesus is talking to a struggling church in the city of Laodicea, and He says to them that He's fairly disgusted with them because they are so lukewarm in their relationship with Him. He says that He'd rather they be hot or cold. As it is, He's on the verge of just spitting them out! It sounds harsh, but I can imagine the sentiment. If I felt that Andy's feelings toward me were lukewarm, I'd want to say the same thing- why would you ever have even chosen me if you weren't going to pursue me in love always? But He gives them hope- He says, "Here I am! I stand at the door and knock." Louie said that we so often use this verse to try to win people who don't believe. But the verse is out of context when used that way. This statement is to believers- to believers like me, who are tired and worn out by Christian work, to believers whose magic with Jesus faded a while back. To believers whose prayers have been unanswered, whose hopes have been dashed, whose hearts have been broken, whose dreams haven't been realized. He says, "Here I am! I'm at the door of your heart!" And how precious those words are to me. I'm so thankful that He realizes that sometimes we don't have the strength to come and knock at His door. Even though we could, even though the invitation to approach Him is always there and always open. Even though we are the lukewarm to whom He could and maybe should just throw up His hands and say, "Really!? With all that I've done for you, and all that I've let you see, you can't keep the faith!?" But that's not who He is. He says, "I am knocking. I want you to open the door and let me come in and dine with you."

One Valentine's Day years ago, when I was single, I actually planned a meal for me and Jesus. It sounds so goofy and embarrassing and there are plenty of reasons to make fun of it. But the thing is, back in those days, I actually wanted to eat Valentine's Day dinner with Him. He was the Love of my life. I adored Him and wanted nothing more than to spend time with Him. Sure it sounds crazy, but real obedience to God usually sounds crazy. Jesus actually says that He wants to dine with the lukewarm believers in Laodicea. Why not with a single girl in Fayetteville? After Jesus was resurrected, He would just randomly appear in different places and spend time with his disciples. Then He would disappear, which is a little creepy, but my BSF notes said that the reason that He did that was that He wanted His disciples to get used to the idea that He could be with them wherever they were, whatever they were doing. The first appearance that He made to all of them, though, was on a beach for breakfast. Jesus wants His disciples to dine with Him, and know Him- the resurrected Christ. I mean, this is challenging, right? He's not physical in this realm at this time. So it's hard. But so is the alternative. Not opening the door is worse. Not knowing Him, not spending time with Him leads to a life of futility, even if the work we're doing seems "good" from the outside looking in.

In Christian work, like in everything else, we can become obsessed with comparison. How many times have I envied others because they are doing something that looks more holy? I desire to be elevated and acknowledged because of my work. But my desire is for recognition from people. God forgive me, because I want to be noticed by people more than I want to be noticed by You. When you do that, though, when you compare your work to others, yours always looks so small and insignificant, and you're always a little angry because you want more. I feel jealous so often when I compare myself to others. I feel small because I look at others who are going oversees or writing or teaching or church-planting, or redeeming brokenness or creating great art or adopting or restoring relationships, and I think that I have nothing. No ministry. I'm not as popular as others, not as wise, not as productive. And I spend a lot of wasted time thinking about this and trying to justify myself. And when it all seems to overwhelming, I retreat into entertainment for a distraction from my disappointment with myself. But the whole time, God is saying to me, "Meredith, why? Why are you looking at others? Why are you looking into yourself? I knew you before you were born. And I made you to be mine and to KNOW me, and to make Me known." And when Louie reminded me of that, things in my life became crystal clear. Not what I should do- work schmerk. I have no idea what work I should do. But how I should be. Louie said that Christians really just have one thing to be doing- know God, and make Him known. And that seemed simple, and so necessary. Not just for me, but for the people who are around me.

Yesterday, I played two soccer games. I like playing soccer. When God was creating me when He knew me before I was born, He knew I would be a soccer player. Funny to me, because I would think that I would have something more important to be doing than soccer, but maybe He just likes watching me play. At one of our games, I was told something really sad. A lady who sometimes plays with us lost her daughter this week in a car accident. She was a junior in high school. I don't know this lady well, but I've played with her a few times, enough times that I knew she had daughter, and I knew she loved her. She was in a car with a group of other high school students. They were speeding through a neighborhood and hit a tree. Apparently they were going so fast that the car actually split in half, killing two of them. Did she know God? I don't know. Tragedy is very personal. And this tragedy is not mine. But tragedy also is a warning for others. It's the only sliver of good that comes from so much sadness.

To know God and to make Him known. It's serious. It's important. It's really everything. Not just for myself, but for everyone that I come into contact with.  

I don't know if I experienced a "spiritual high" this week as much as I was reminded, with powerful words from an obedient and wise man, to practice what I've known all along. He's at the door of my heart, and He's knocking. It's time to open that door again. It's time to dine with Jesus. It's time to stop trying to be productive. It's time to stop trying to make myself known for what I can accomplish. I'm going to open the door, so that I may know Him better once again. And, through that experience, that I will genuinely desire to make Him known.