Turning the page

Recently, a reader asked me to post on something we had talked about – that, as teachers, we have to get really good at ‘turning the page’. The reader was hoping the post would coincide with the beginning of the new semester, recognizing this as a time when we do get that chance to ‘turn the page’. In fact, in the cyclical pattern of education, we get that chance, again and again – each year, each semester, each new curriculum focus, each Monday, each day, a new page to write on. This is a great mercy because we all know how infrequently we live up to our ideals as teachers, how most of the time our vocation is so much bigger than our abilities, how often we wish for a redo. So God gives us new beginnings, ones mainly beyond our control, so that we have to turn that page. These new beginnings teach us to remember that time is not ours, that it is always a gift to be received with gratitude and humility. They also teach us to have compassion on our students, who also need fresh beginnings and the willingness of teachers to refuse to categorize them and, therefore, give up on them. Instead, they need teachers who invite their students into a new day, a new beginning, forgetting what is past and pressing on to what lies ahead. We are all beloved children of God. He doesn’t give up on us, He just keeps calling us forward in our purpose to become more like Him. We don’t yet know who any of us will become. 1 John 3:2

So this is my posting for that reader and for all high school teachers beginning their second semester. It is one day late. But I am ‘turning the page’ on that lateness, admitting my weakness, yet still offering, with hope, the words that re-member me, bring life to me.  As usual they are not my words, but words that are a pattern of truth from those much further along the path than me.

We must learn to live each day, each hour, yes, each minute as a new beginning, as a unique opportunity to make everything new. Imagine that we could live each moment as a moment pregnant with new life. Imagine that we could live each day as a day full of promises. Imagine that we could walk through the new year always listening to a voice saying to us: “I have a gift for you and can’t wait for you to see it!” Imagine. Is it possible that our imagination can lead us to the truth of our lives? Yes, it can! The problem is that we allow our past, which becomes longer and longer each year, to say to us: “You know it all: you have seen it all, be realistic; the future will be just another repeat of the past. Try to survive it as best you can.” There are many cunning foxes jumping on our shoulders and whispering in our ears the great lie: “there is nothing new under the sun…don’t let yourself be fooled…”

So what are we to do? First, we must send the foxes back to where they belong: in their foxholes. And then we must open our minds and our hearts to the voice that resounds through the valleys and hills of our life saying: “Let me show you where I live among my people. My name is ‘God-with-you’. I will wipe away all the tears from your eyes; there will be no more death, and no more mourning or sadness. The world of the past is gone.” We must choose to listen to that voice, and every choice will open us a little more to discover the new life hidden in the moment, waiting eagerly to be born. (Nouwen, 1999, p. 84)

God bless your new beginnings and send the cunning foxes away, and may His spirit be upon you, revealing the new life in each moment.

Nouwen, H.J.M. (1999) in Greer, W.G. (ed.) (2014) The only necessary thing: Living a prayerful life. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company.

What to do in a fiery furnace

Fiery furnaces seem to abound in education – those circumstances beyond our control, places we get thrown into whether we like it or not, either perceived or real threats we experience if we aren’t in agreement with the current thinking, system or action. And then, just when one fiery furnace is cooled, another seems to take its place – out of the fiery furnace of job action, into the fiery furnace of 30 children with so many needs, curriculum that demands coverage and measurement, and so many dysfunctional relationships. Most intense of all is the fiery furnace beyond our circumstances, the furnace of our inner burning thoughts and ego that are best at leading us where we don’t really want to go – down paths of anger, frustration with ourselves and others, doubt, impatience, righteous indignation, self-satisfying demands, ingratitude… We are always being coerced into worshiping some kind of false idol and those who coerce seem all-powerful. We are taunted by the words of Nebuchadnezzar, “Then what God is there who will deliver you from my hands?” And all seems fearful and hopeless.

What to do?

The three young men say there is no need to answer for there is a God in the heavens, whom they serve and He is able to save them. They don’t take things into their own hands, they don’t even tell God what to do. Their silence speaks volumes.

The three young men treasure their faith, putting their hearts into nothing except God, walking in his commandments, seeking His face continuously, turning towards Him and away from the things that are lifeless. Their faith is precious, practiced, transformative; and, therefore, a source of strength in weakness. They are steadfast.

The three young men pray with their eyes open, solving their riddle (in the midst of the flame) with psalmody, ‘singing the Lord’s song in a foreign land.’ (Ps. 49)

The three young men overcome all temptation to resentment with gratitude and worship. Their hymn in the midst of the furnace is remarkable, exhorting every created thing in heaven and on earth to bless the Lord, to see all things and all circumstances as communion with God.

The three young men are the blessed meek, handing over their bodies to be burned. They are like innocent Susanna who said it was better to fall into the hands of evil ones than to sin against God, but who still looked to the heavens because her ‘heart trusted in the Lord’.

And then…the three young men are not destroyed! They find life, they inherit the earth. A theophany occurs! God incarnate is with them! The Angel of the Lord makes the furnace “as though a dew-laden breeze were blowing through it.” And then others see that the Angel of the Lord is walking with them and realize that no other God can save in this way – sharing His abundant life in the midst of a fiery furnace, participating in their suffering and transforming it, removing even the smell of the fire on their clothes and replacing it with the fragrance of God.

When we wonder what to do in the midst of a fiery furnace, may we be like the three young men. May we see God walking with us and saving us the way no other God can – sharing His life of peace and righteousness in the midst of all of our fiery furnaces. And then…may others experience the healing presence and fragrance of God through us.

Horizons and hope

I recently read that there is a very real biological reaction to looking towards the horizon. “Lifting our eyes to the hills” has an actual impact on the endomorphic system which is connected to ways we respond to pain and stress. It seems that we are biologically wired to benefit from a bigger perspective, to focus on more than what is going on in front of us or close around us.

I found this fact so interesting because I have definitely experienced this physical reaction myself and I think it also reflects a spiritual reality so often encouraged by the Psalmist. We are the ones God continually rescues out of the “pit and darkness” of our inability to lift our eyes, to see beyond ourselves and our circumstances. Lifting our eyes reminds us that we are little persons against a great landscape of God’s love and presence. Lifting our eyes renews our hope, helps us breathe, reconnects us to the light that can help us see our situations more clearly and hopefully. Our troubles are not as great as the enemy makes them out to us to be. (St. Anatoly)

I think there are many ways to think about horizons in education, many places we can lift our eyes. There is the horizon of all that is good, beautiful and true in education – the timeless aspects of our practice. I was reminded of this horizon during our graduation ceremonies on Friday and Saturday. Listening to beginning and experienced educators talk about why and how education makes a difference in the lives of others was encouraging and inspiring. These ideals, if not imposed harshly or rigidly, can keep inviting us further up and further in with new energy. They remind us of what could be and sometimes is, in the midst of all that is not. Teacher education programs deliberately teach ideals because they are a vision/horizon that continually beckons.

There is also the horizon of the present moment, when we find the strength to lift our eyes up and out. There is always some little good to do until the rest is revealed. There is always a more gentle or kind way to be with our students and our colleagues. There is always, even in the darkest, saddest moments, evidence of love and some small beauty or joy to celebrate. Being present to the moment is impossible when we are focused on our own needs, locked in our minds in frustration, anxiety, helplessness or sorrow. We may not know exactly what we are doing every day as educators, but moments open wide in front of us and lead us if we are attentive and willing. The kingdom of heaven is found in every microcosm – it isn’t far from us. A turning of our eyes is often all that is required.

Another horizon is the horizon of discipline, or routine or structure. In a sense these observances function like a rhythm, helping us be part of the music even if we can’t sing. Students need these rhythms as much as we do. Peaceful moments become possible against a horizon of discipline. Spiritual disciplines and the liturgical cycle function in the same way, they keep us connected, keep us turning, keep us lifting up our eyes.

The horizon of presence is experienced when we lift our eyes to our students and our colleagues and to the One who sees us and hears us. This lifting is also a lifting of our hearts in love and gratitude. We turn our eyes to the Other and all others because we know where our help comes from. We are reminded that we are not independent, that we need one another and the mercy of God. Gratefulness is always a going up, never a going down.

Each glimpse of a horizon is a gift. Whenever we are experiencing a lack of hope, tightness in our chests, difficulty breathing, when we need rescuing from the pit, may God give us a glimpse of a horizon, renewing our strength and filling our hearts with gladness, setting our feet in a wide place.

The purest gold, the hottest fire

A high percentage of teachers quit after just a few years of teaching.  For a select few, it might be the right choice.  For the majority, more perseverance could have seen something miraculous occur.

The learning curve is steep, just like on a hike, but the view from the top is worth it.  We feel our reserves dwindling away during the climb, but at the top of the mountain, our confidence, strength, and vision are refreshed.  We return conquerors.

I empathize with those tempted to quit.  Feeling absolutely spent one afternoon after a very hard day during a very hard term, my head hurt too much to focus and I was getting nothing done in the supposedly productive after-school hours.  I locked up my classroom and started my drive home.  I am blessed with a beautiful drive over the Golden Ears Bridge.  It’s worth the money as God continually surprises me with breathtaking clouds painted with gold, silver, and red on their pilgrimage up the valley.  Today it was grey, like the rest of my outlook, and on the inside I was arguing with myself, testing whether fight or flight would win out.

“Look, God”, I told God, “I need you very much right now because I feel I am at the end of my rope.  I need your perspective and I need a reason for continuing to do this.”  I felt without hope and wasn’t in the mood for positive-self-talking myself out of it.  That’s why I knew that the next phrase I heard wasn’t me.  “Aren’t you honoured that I trust you, out of everybody, with my beloved children?”  God said some other things as well, but he had me at “trust“.  The tears began to flow and a weight lifted from me.  I returned the next day with refined perspectives, having rested in God.

Many people give up on the process they are going through because it is hard.  They sacrifice long-term growth for short-term ease.  Failing to appreciate the big picture, they mistakenly focus on the temporary discomfort they are experiencing.  But the purest gold is produced in the hottest fires.  Paul the apostle knew that well.  What is happening is refinement, and we will be better for it.

“I lift up my eyes up to the mountains, where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, maker of heaven and earth.” (Psalm 121:1,2)

by Craig Ketchum ’10

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