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.

Advertisements

Time, not our time

It is August 18. The summer is drawing to a close and, for those of us who are educators, September is dawning as a time of new beginnings, new mercies, new possibilities, new realities. It is also a time of renewed rhythms, rhythms of time put on hold during the summer, rhythms that can sometimes seem restrictive or less ours than the rhythms of summer. But as T.S. Elliott so famously wrote, no time is our time.

We like to think that time is ours, that we have some control over time. We are addicted to our planners and calendars. As educators, we feel most peaceful when our dayplans are organized and we have a clear vision for what is going to happen when. Even in summer, a less restrictive season of time, we often plan each moment of the day just as intensely as if we were working in a factory with a clock to punch and a quota of fun to fill. We so easily forget what the Psalmist is constantly reminding us, “Yours (the Lord’s) is the day, yours also the night.” We forget what our experience teaches us — that we have no control over the rising or setting of the sun, the number of our days, the plans we pursue that easily go awry in the time we are given. We ignore the rhythms always present, the rhythms of each day and each season, of everything under heaven. We refuse to listen to these rhythms we know nothing about anymore. We start to take time into our own hands and find ourselves living unnatural and unbalanced lives. We don’t see that our hyper-ordered days are actually disordered and hellish.

Time is a gift, every moment. It is not ours to use, but ours to enliven. Thomas Merton said, “Many lights are burning that ought to be put out. Kindle no new fires. Live in the warmth of the sun.”

I am learning to be thankful for time – for its coming and going, for the joy of the morning and the grief of the evening. I love the brightness of the dawn, the heat of noonday and the beauty of each sunset. When I open my hands and let go of the delusion that I control my time and the time of others, I am more attentive, more grateful, more creatively responsive, and hopefully more loving. I am especially more patient. I have discovered that my desire to control and to plan time arises from a lack of patience with God, with myself and with others. Time can so easily irritate. When time doesn’t go our way we so quickly blame others, we forget that time is God coming to us disguised by our life. God is hidden and revealed in time–in every occurrence and rhythm. Time is given to us to discover we are not God. When we are grateful for each moment, those moments that fill us with joy and those moments that we endure patiently, we find God’s steadfast love and mercy, His beauty, goodness and presence. Better is one day or one moment in the presence of God than a thousand days or moments of absent and fragmented efficiency. May God rescue us from days of evil, days spent forgetful of time as a gift. How lovely it is to be God’s guest!

“From one person He made every nation. That they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should lie. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. for in him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:26-28)

Time is not ours, but it is ours to enliven through God’s grace, the sharing of His Spirit with us. I am not suggesting that we plan nothing for our days. We do best with a rule of life – the rhythms given to us in time teach us that. But our plans should be held lightly so that we can be surprised by the abundant life God is always sharing with us and so that we learn to see interruptions as gifts of presence. Our plans should be spacious so that there are openings of silence, times when we can hear the present moment, look at the real with a long and loving gaze, and beauty, goodness and truth can take deep root in us. Our plans should be sketches in pencil that we draw and erase in communion with others. Our plans should reveal what is most important because the plans we make become a liturgy and teach us and others what cannot be taught. Our plans should deliberately help us remember God, remember we are not God. “Only hour by hour gratitude can overcome all temptations to resentment.” Our plans should be filled with self-offering and love because “Love makes space into paradise, and brings the timeless and eternal into time.” (Archimandrite Vasileios of Iveron)

This day, this September will not come again. Thank God for it. Begin it with prayer, continue with hope, end with thanksgiving.

Deignan, K. (ed.). (2003). Thomas Merton: when the trees say nothing. Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books.
Rohr, R. (2011). Breathing under water. Cincinnati, OH: St. Anthony Messenger Press.
Vasiljevic, Bishop Maxim (2014). Archimandrite Vasileios of Iveron: The thunderbolt of ever-living fire. Alhambra, CA: Sebastian Press.

Back to school

Tomorrow is the day!

Please note the exclamation mark at the end of the previous statement.  I felt compelled to put it there because I am an educator and I am supposed to be excited about going ‘back to school’.  And I am excited and hopeful….but I have to confess that mixed in with that excitement and hope is a little fear and a struggle for peace.  I share these feelings here because I know I am not the only one feeling these things and it may comfort some to know that even very experienced teachers continue to have these feelings at the start of a new year or semester.  I am expecting some kind of classroom based nightmare tonight and when I meet my students for the first time tomorrow, I will have all of the nervous energy that any ‘performer’ would have.  The semester stretches before me and also rises above me like a mountain.  I know the hike will be hard and every peak I climb will lead to a new peak.

I think there is a healthy aspect to feelings of fear and a struggle for peace.   They can imply that you understand the nature of your work – that you are ‘turning souls’, that what you do is very complex and challenging, that even though you have many years of doing certain things ‘again and again’, every year is new because your students are new, that you understand peace is required to do the work well and truly, and that you understand peace requires a spiritual struggle.  To teach is to offer yourself wholeheartedly to others.  It is not wrong to think about who it is you are offering, or to wonder if you will have life to offer.  It is good to take Christ’s warning about teachers seriously.

There are also very unhealthy aspects to these feelings of fear and a lack of peace.   I know this from experience and from the wisdom of wise counsel.  These feelings can represent a false sense of pride – that everything that happens between me and my students is up to me.  This pride or “queen/king of the classroom syndrome” could be a symptom of my unwillingness to accept my smallness and weakness, which will, in turn, make it impossible for me to seek support from God and others and leave me locked in a mask of falseness pretending all is well.  I will then offer a false self to my students.  I may also seek security in being very certain or controlling, rather than open to the possible and seeing.  There is a significant tension here for all educators because it is hard to be small and weak and yet have SO much responsibility, SO many expectations.  However, I have learned that it is even harder to pretend you aren’t small and weak, and to have only yourself to rely on.  Admitting that I am small and weak opens me to a dialogue and interrupts the monologue of destructive thought patterns running through my head – thoughts from my false self, blinding me to my true self as a person eternally embraced by God through ongoing communion and participation in His life.  Knowing I am fearful and struggling for peace gives me the opportunity to reorient myself.

The phrase ‘back to school’ is a reflection of our cyclical understanding of time, but hope and excitement require us to have more than a cyclical understanding of time.  Cycles can lock us in, making us feel imprisoned or mechanical.  Like a clock’s hands, we are always moving but going nowhere.  Cycles make us feel like we undergo time rather than live it.  For me, hope and excitement arise when I reorient myself to the eternal present – trusting that each moment in time has the potential of opening up into another dimension, a dimension of salvation and grace and abundant life.  This is my prayer for all of us as teachers – many eternal moments and the eyes of faith to see those moments.

Again and again, in peace, let us pray to the Lord.  (and sweet dreams tonight!)

%d bloggers like this: