Monday, May 23, 2016

In this room...

This is a picture of the lab set up for my last dissection. I'll miss this place more than these words can capture. 
I spent this morning packing up my classroom. I took down my street sign poster that says "U Turn in Homework, U get better grades." I plucked all of the graduation photo announcements, going back three years, from my bulletin boards and sealed them into Ziploc bags. I took down Planet Preston, carefully tucking the blue-and-silver Styrofoam ball into a box.

When I came to Hill Country five years ago, I was a decent enough teacher, I guess. I had the opportunity to watch excellent teachers in North Carolina, and I learned a lot from emulating them. I'll forever be in their debt. And I was a pretty passionate worker. During my time here, I've worked a lot of hours, and taught a lot of subjects. I told a couple of other AP teachers last week that I've gotten more sleep as a new mom than I did the first year that I taught AP Bio- they could relate. I leave here with more knowledge and more experience, but, none of that stuff was on my mind as I packed up today. Because the most valuable things I learned while in this room can't be packed up in a box.

So, in an effort to trap some of those intangible items, I'm trying to throw words around the things I've felt so deeply here, the things that have changed me into the teacher I am today. They're hardly duct tape, and they don't seem sufficient to describe all that has happened, but they're all I've got. Here are the most precious things I take with me when I step out of this room for the last time.

Comparison is the thief of joy. This wisdom was shared with the Hill Country staff at the first in-service I attended in August 2011. I think the context was in helping Hill Country identify who we are as a school, so that we can make wise choices as we grow. But those words have impacted every aspect of my life. They're the reason I sometimes take long breaks from social media. Who hasn't experienced something perfectly good, only to look on Pinterest and see someone else doing it way better, and then felt completely deflated? These words have encouraged me to continually go back to God to find my value, rather than looking around me to try to one-up or, more often, crumble under the pressure of the images that surround our lives.

It doesn't matter. No, this isn't an ode to apathy. It's an expression that Robin and I used to say to one another after we read Tim Keller's The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness. The gist is that according to the Bible, it doesn't matter what others think about you- good, bad or ugly. That message is fairly widespread these days, but what Keller emphasizes is that it not only doesn't matter what others think about you. It doesn't even matter what you think about yourself. What matters is what GOD thinks about you. And when you belong to Him, through faith in Jesus Christ, it turns out that He's crazy-nuts about you. Like two people madly in love. Or like a parent with a child. Now that I have Story, and I think about how I am crazy-nuts about her... especially when I first pull her out of the crib in the morning, and she is so wonderfully heavy and perfectly round and impossibly soft. The love that I have for her in that moment- it's unspeakable. And she hasn't done anything. She's just mine. It's all that matters between us. That she's mine. God feels that way about me, and there really is true freedom in that.

Margin. After watching some Andy Stanley sermons and reading a book with this title with the Hill Country staff, and after my own personal supplementation of some Tim Keller podcasts, and the encouragement of friends and family, especially my husband, I finally started to practice margin as a regular part of life. In our overly-busy, YOLO culture, margin is a concept that's not simply forgotten. It is, in some ways, risky. People who develop the habit of saying "no" risk the disapproval of others and the opportunity to get ahead. But, the principle of margin- in your time, your finances, your emotional health, your relationships- it's not really something you can actually live without. You can survive without margin, but you can't live. This year is really the first year that I've walked away from things- work, opportunities, "stuff"- to be able to live with a little more margin. Andy and I find ourselves healthier financially, mentally, emotionally and spiritually as a result of those choices.

Shalom. A couple of years back, our spiritual director chose this word to be sort of a "theme" word for the year. It turned into a joke of sorts because it was used so frequently in meetings and lesson plans, but it wasn't all for naught. Most people know that shalom means peace, but Biblical shalom is not just the absence of conflict. Shalom is a concept that involves a deep sense of spiritual, emotional, physical and relational wellness. Conflicts arise, and I've seen my fair share of conflicts while I've been here. In private education, conflicts come and conflicts go, but sometimes the resolution offers something hopeful and real that shows us something about the heart of God. In the Bible, God instructs His exiled people to seek the shalom of the city of their exile, to bless it with their presence, to build it up while they are there. This context is huge because it shows that, with God's help, we can build on ground that we didn't choose for ourselves. I've seen a lot of people at Hill Country be part of situations that have not been their choice- tough situations that have involved hurt feelings, misunderstandings, broken hopes and major disappointments. And yet, in so many of those situations, I've seen many different types of people, work in their unique way to create "shalom" in this community. I hope that I've been one of them.

Love does. Bob Goff wrote a book with this title, but his message was working its way into my life long before I read it for staff development. I think that, of all of the messages that I'm packing up today, this one is the most precious and also the most fragile. Because it's a lesson learned from brokenness- my own, and the brokenness of others. If you have any moment in your history where you have felt rejected, misunderstood, or betrayed by a Christian (and probably most people do), then you'll understand the shaky emotional and spiritual ground on which I stood when I first started teaching here. Life had dealt me an unexpected soul-wound that hadn't even really started healing. There were a lot of people God put into my life during this time He used to help me heal, but, two of the most important are a set of very different brothers. I remember when I met these boys, I would do a lot more talking at them than listening to them. I would assume things about them, try to "preach at" them- and tell them I was trying to "speak the truth in love" and "challenge" them. And that actually was true. I've always had a heart for them, and wanted the best for them, but I was absolutely terrible in my delivery. My pride was too tightly wound around my words for them to be life-giving. I came across as a "know-it-all," rather than someone gentle and humble, like the Lord Jesus. Gradually, I realized that my words and actions were the very type of thing that can turn people off from Christianity, leaving them feeling gutted and worthless. But by God's grace, these boys kept talking to me, telling me honestly how I made them feel, and each conversation was a chance to change. And I did change. Not just with them, but with a lot of kids. I learned to listen as much, if not more, than I talk. I stop what I'm doing now, and look into kids' eyes, and ask them the hard questions, but only when the time is right. I don't feel like I have to force that now. Somewhere in my lessons with the brothers, God taught me how to adapt my timing and my questions to the person, rather than expecting the person to meet my demands in my timing. Sometimes, when the occasion is right,  I do speak the truth in love. But I find that the truth that I'm speaking has a lot more to do with who God is, and what He has promised is true about these kids, than giving some angle on life that comes from my personal experience. Paul wrote to the Romans that they were supposed to really love other people. Not just to pretend to. He later told the Corinthians that even if they said wonderful, wise spiritual words, but didn't love in action, their words would amount to no more than an annoying, empty sound. I know that sound. It still reverberates in my life from time to time. It's a heart-breaking sound. But God gave me so many chances here, to learn the most excellent way. I learned to love in this room. And that is the thing that can't be packed up, but that's okay. There's been a lot of love in P1B. But it never stayed here. It went out with the lives that shared it with me. Such things were never meant to be contained.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

For the Moms

Last week I was talking to our AP coordinator about the upcoming AP Bio exam (stay with me, this isn't actually a post about AP Bio- I promise) In the course of conversation, I confessed to her that I had no idea where the four-function non-graphing calculators were. I had them ordered from Amazon for last year's AP Bio class, because the College Board restricts the use of graphing calculators on the exam, and few students, if any, have a non-graphing calculator once they hit high school. So the school footed the bill for a class set, and we used them last year, but I had no idea where I stored them after the exam was over. I blame pregnancy.

Telling her was a way to fully admit my own incompetence. Pregnant or not, I'd lost them, and I was ready to own up to my mistake and buy new ones out of my own pocket. I'm sure the school would have been gracious enough to have purchased calculators again, but I was too embarrassed to raise the issue. I had plans to make a trip to Office Depot and scout out calculators on my own time.

But on Tuesday morning, during my planning period, I noticed that a drawer in my classroom was ajar. I never use this drawer, so it was weird that it was open. I certainly hadn't opened it, and it's in an area of the classroom that's not really accessible to students. I looked into the drawer, which was empty aside from a cardboard box with black tape stretched across it, with the word "Amazon" typed in blue. I reached in and pulled the box out. There, written in my own hand, were the words "AP Bio Calculators."

I'm writing about this today because it's Mother's Day. And the appearance of those calculators was such a mom move. I'm not talking about mom-brain causing me to misplace them in the first place (though that might have something to do with it) I'm talking about the appearance of the very thing that I needed in the exact time that I needed it. I mean, I'm not an expert on being a mom, I'm still learning a lot about this role every day, but, from what I can tell, anticipating needs has a lot to do with mommyhood. I think it just comes with the territory.

Mothers anticipate the needs of their children. It's what we do. That's why our bags are stuffed with wipes and snacks and hand sanitizer. That's why we schedule our outings around nap-time. That's why we're always exhausted. But this week, I was reminded of where that instinct comes from.

I know that the Bible tells us that God is our Father. God decided to reveal himself through that chosen role, and I think there's a lot of significance in that. Jesus came as a man, too, and I don't take that lightly. I figure that a lot about God is best revealed through masculine characteristics. But, I think limiting God to our human idea of masculine characteristics and roles limits who He is.

I'm not saying that God is a woman. But I am saying that when God created humankind in His image, He created us male and female for a reason. He intended for there to be dads and moms. And I think there's something really significant in that. All of humanity has significance because all of it is made in His image, which means that women, especially moms, represent some aspect of who He is. And that's pretty amazing when you think about it.

I spend a lot of time thinking about Story's needs. She had chicken twice yesterday, should I give her something else today? How spicy is that? Does she feel warm to you? Does she have enough clothes for the summer? Should I put her in a sweater, it's sort of windy outside? Is the TV on too much? Is it too loud? How long did she nap? Does she need to stay up a few more minutes before I put her down so that she will be on schedule? Does she need some Tylenol before she goes to bed because that tooth is coming in? When was the last time she had a bath? Does she need to be changed? And on and on and on it goes. But that drawer getting propped open for me this week reminded me that Someone is thinking of me in a similar way.

When I get Story dressed up for church, I tell her that she is beautiful, that God made her fearfully and wonderfully. We love that part of Psalm 139, don't we? But today I'm reminded of a verse a little further along that tells us that God thinks of us so much, so often, that His thoughts outnumber the grains of sand (Psalm 139: 17-18). And that just sounds so maternal, doesn't it? Mommas are always thinking about their children. I am the one who tiptoes into the nursery and watches Story sleeping. I'm the one who sends Andy text messages mid-day saying, "I miss Story." I know that Daddies love their children, too. But it's just different. And I think it's cool that the difference tells us something more about the image of God.

Like, it's amazing to think of the Creator of the Universe thinking something sort of like this, "Meredith's students have that AP Bio exam on Monday. She still hasn't remembered where the calculators are stored. I need to make sure that she gets them. Did I prop that drawer open enough? Maybe just a half inch more? Is the box visible? Maybe if I show a little more of that Amazon tape?" It humbles me even more to think that I didn't pray about this situation. I didn't even think to. It's not like I even asked Him about the calculators. He just made sure that I had them, because that is His nature, as a Parent, as a Provider, as One whose thoughts are always for us.

Another reason it's important to remember this about God is that being a mom is super hard. It's exhausting, and, even though the whole #momfail thing is a joke in our culture, when moms actually do fail, it can be a pretty devastating thing. I know people whose lives have cavernous holes in them their mothers left behind. Moms, as people, we're infected with the same self-centeredness and insecurity that infects all of humanity. Even when our intentions are good, we can utterly fail our children. And yet, we are, in many respects, the foundation upon which lives are built.

So God, please help us. Keep up with us, so we can keep up with them. Pour into us your Spirit, your love, your energy, your peace, your understanding, your wisdom, your patience and your kindness. Help us to anticipate their needs as you anticipate ours. Give us eyes to see them, in all of the beauty with which You created them. Train us to worship You instead of them, because making them our idol is to inflict upon them a life-wound. They need to learn to worship You alone. Keep us from fearing failure or the criticism of others, and free us from the burden of comparison. And for those of us who have been wounded by mothers, heal us and give us a vision for what You would have motherhood look like. And thank you, for this incredible opportunity, to take part of this revelation of Yourself to the world. Thank you for letting us be moms.

Happy Mother's Day.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Shall I falter or shall I finish?

Sunset Beach Pier... just six weeks away... but how will I make it through the weeks ahead?
Happy May Day everybody! I looked at Andy this morning, and said, "It's May. I can't believe we've made it this far." For every exhausted student, parent and teacher out there- the end is in sight.

And yet... there are a lot of hours of a lot of days before we get to the finish line. I find myself tempted to just go off in a corner of my mind and day-dream about the summer. I want to indulge myself in happy thoughts and sail away on a tide of pins about first birthday party decorations and summer wardrobe must-haves.

But there's an AP exam on May 9. There are finals after that, and students will need tutoring. There will be dozens of meetings to wrap up loose ends. There's a lot of work to be done. And I find myself even more exhausted than usual. The added dynamic of switching roles from mom to teacher, back to mom has been utterly exhausting-(said every working mother ever).

Outside of my end-of-the-school-year tunnel vision, I catch glimpses of what's going on in the rest of the world. Our church has been encouraging its members to "love where we live," meaning that we reach out into our communities to love our literal neighbors. My BSF notes this week are strumming a similar chord- encouraging me to sacrifice and serve now, knowing that my inheritance in heaven is completely secure. This line resonated with me in my BSF notes, "Sleep can be sacrificed for the sake of early morning prayer, knowing that perfect rest lies ahead (in heaven)." The theme of sacrifice continues, as the notes encourage me to forgive, knowing that complete healing awaits me in heaven (last week's sermon was on this very same thing!) and to stand firm in my faith, even if the world turns against me,  because I know that there's safety in my eternal home.

Easier read than done. I am tired. Like, really, really tired. Life, relationships, work... there has been so much struggle this year. I am weary of mind, body and soul. I stopped getting up early to pray months ago. I'm just too tired, and my body wants to sleep until 6:30. Even if I try to get up, I fall asleep on the sofa before any quality prayer ever happens. I want a break from trouble, and freedom from responsibility. I want the beach and a page-turner and for my biggest struggle to be having to get up to re-apply sunscreen.

And all this business about forgiveness and standing firm and loving others? That's super scary. Has anyone else done that lately and gotten totally burned? My church shares encouraging stories on Sunday mornings about people who have reached out, loved their neighbors and seen amazing things happen. I know that possibility exists. Andy and I have built some real relationships with neighbors and it really is a good thing. But relationship building- whether in your workplace, your neighborhood or even your own family- it's a risky business. Vulnerability is a terrifying thing. People will take advantage of it, or completely ignore it, and, after a couple of rounds of that, you just want to draw back, get inside your comfort zone and hang up a sign that says "LEAVE ME ALONE."

Jesus has other plans, better plans, than mine. I believe in His plans, but I lack follow through on executing them. I believe that there's power in prayer- I'm just too tired to pray. I believe that there's safety in Jesus, that He will always love me, even when He allows me to be wounded by others. I believe that His words that tell me to put myself last are true and good, but they require courage to act upon. And, right now, I'm feeling like a coward. Like a very tired coward.

So, I ask my Heavenly Father this question- "shall I falter or shall I finish?"- I have it written on a little chalkboard in my classroom. But it's not just a question for the students. It's not even a question for me. I don't have what's necessary to finish. I'm too tired to pray, too scared and weak to love. So, Lord, what will it be? Will you supply me with energy and courage so that I can finish well? You've got a stronger track record of finishing things than I. Help me finish well this May, and then, yeah, some days on the beach would be really, really nice.