A Teacher’s Tears- Often the Best Words He Can Say

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It’s all good, except for the crying, of course.  Or maybe the crying is what makes it good.

For a couple of weeks now, I’ve been reading through Gary Schmidt’s Okay for Now to my 7th graders. If I have a literary hero, it’s Schmidt.  He has the ability to position words squarely, neatly, like a lexical mason.  Well, and pull on the heartstrings at the same time.

Never underestimate the power of a few key strokes to move a person in power ways.  (Photo by Carla S. Hiemstra)

Never underestimate the power of a few key strokes to move a person in powerful ways. (Photo by Carla S. Hiemstra)

Though I hate the term “spoiler alert” because if someone wants to read a story or watch a movie, he or she should just do it, regardless of whether someone’s going to spoil the fun for them, I should give a fair warning about the plot detail that I’m going to unveil. But then again, if you have no idea who Gary Schmidt is and if Okay for Now has been out for four years now and you haven’t read it, you’ve got much deeper problems than simply dealing with spoiler alerts. Stop right now.  I mean it. Stop reading this blog and go to Amazon and order The Wednesday Wars and Okay for Now without thinking.  As soon as they come in, block off a couple hours and enjoy the blessing of story as well as the skills of someone who knows how to tell a good one.

So in this story that I’ve been reading in class, Doug Swieteck moves to a new town and endures the whole stupid place, and a loud-mouth father with a heavy hand and a gym teacher who squelches any threat to his alpha dog status.  And in Coach Reed’s PE class, what he says goes, no matter what, without discussion.  When Doug refuses, through deceit as well as through outright defiance to be on the “skins” team, Coach Reed doesn’t take kindly to Doug’s rebellion, even going so far as to take a swipe at Doug, missing Doug’s person but grabbing his PE shirt which rips right off, shocking the adolescent masses with what’s on Doug’s back.

Let me pause right there and admit that we never read a piece of literature in a vacuum.  Each time a book fills the gap between our hands, we come to that encounter with a context, a situation, a series of Events and Interactions that shape our relationship with the text.  To today’s reading I brought some Coach Reed-style leadership from yesterday’s class. I exploded at a student. I used words like “asinine” and “galactically stupid” and other much-too-mature vocabulary to belittle the student in both tone and degree of difficulty. Never mind that the student had it coming or that the student managed to put a vise grip on a nerve quite close to home or that the student’s belief system resided in a neighborhood a few miles shy of Christ-like Village or that I’m simply human. The fact is that I chose anger. I chose rage.  I chose to recreate Vesuvius, even though I don’t teach history.

That’s the baggage I lugged to my reading of Okay for Now today.  Following Doug’s embarrassment in PE class, he faces the tyranny of whispers and hushed, muffled laughter. He feels the stares.  He hears the thoughts.  And just before another class, he runs towards the front doors of the school.  And his teacher, Mr. Ferris, runs after him. He doesn’t let Doug leave. He doesn’t let Doug live in silence. He drags him to a quiet room and simply says, “Tell me what happened.”

And Doug does.  The whole, naked truth spills out of him. The Family Secrets and Horrible Atrocities. The Unmentionable.  (Okay, I could tell you all about it, but it turns out that I don’t have to in order to make this post work, plus I don’t have to use that asinine “spoiler alert” warning. And, regardless of whether I tell you or not, you still should read it. I wasn’t lying about it earlier; in fact, if you haven’t read the book yet, your eyes shouldn’t have even wandered this far down the page.)

Doug lays bare to this teacher the wounds he’d never uncovered to anyone else. Ever.  And then Schmidt follows Doug’s confessional with these simple words:

“Mr. Ferris didn’t say anything the whole time. He sat next to me and listened.  And when I finished, I looked at him.

“He was crying. I’m not lying.  He was crying.”

And by the time we finished reading that section, Doug and Mr. Ferris weren’t the only ones crying.

Sometimes a piece of literature has the power to convict a person, to help him see the error of his ways, to deepen the wells of empathy.

And to cause a few tears.

And maybe those tears are the best words a teacher can say some days.

The Answer

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Though I likely shouldn’t, I can’t help but mine the treasure of adolescents’ responses during class in the quest for blog material. But with today’s class, I feel no guilt. Only awe.

We’re in the midst of studying Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust memoir entitled Night. For most kids, it’s their first real literary foray into the sobering world of concentration camps. The journey proves enlightening in a stark, eyes-wide-open type of way. The swift voyage through the slim volume provides ample opportunity for engaging dialogue, especially with the open-book minds that belong to middle schoolers.

Photo by Marcus Grossalber, Creative Commons

Photo by Marcus Grossalber, Creative Commons

Since we trace Elie’s faith journey as we read the book, I started today’s class with a simple question for them to ponder in their journals: What would or could cause you to lose your faith in Christ?  Though kids wanted to clarify or answer audibly, I hushed their inquiries and simply bade them pour themselves into their writing.  As is the case with some of their writing endeavors, they trended towards the more personal side of the sharing spectrum. Thus, some kids seemed reluctant to share.  The answers that surfaced, though, put their nascent faith on display and set the stage for a good discussion about the nature of belief:

  • If both of my parents were killed within the course of a year . . .
  • If something horrible happened to my family . . .
  • If I ended up in jail for the rest of my life . . .
  • If I was paralyzed for life . . . 
  • If we lost everything that we had . . .

Responses similar to these flavored the dialogue for the next few minutes of class.  While the Bible talks about the testing of faith producing perseverance, many kids spoke about the ability of serious trials to loosen their grip on the ultimate relationship in life. While I was a tad disheartened to hear their theorizing about what might make them abandon faith, two students’ answers affected me more deeply, one causing me to cock my head in wonder at her wisdom and the other giving me reason to raise my fist and shout, “Amen.”

The first girl raised her hand and stated with wisdom beyond her 14 years, “If God made a promise and didn’t keep it.”  Theologians might consider taking a course from this young lady. If we examine the core of who God is, he’s a covenant-keeping God.  Even when we fail to keep a commitment, he pays the price for our indiscretion.

As providence would have it, in my third class of the morning, the final student’s offering of an answer happened to be the most definitive.  When I canvassed the class for what might cause them to lose their faith, one bright young lady raised her hand straight towards heaven. When I called on her, she offered two words with the confidence and assurance of a stumping politician:

“ABSOLUTELY NOTHING.”

Amen to that. There’s one girl living the “conviction of things not seen” who knows the truth that “nothing can separate us from the love of God.”

I love how classrooms can be holy places sometimes.

Being Used

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God is amazing.

While such a definitive declaration violates Hiemstra’s rule #7 for effective introductions (“give me something novel or new, something we as the world have never heard before”) sometimes there’s simply no other way to say it.  Moreover, how he works is amazing.  The prophet Elijah found him not in the earthquake or fire, but in the whisper.  I saw God not so much in the crescendo or spectacle, but rather in the tears.

Last weekend our school had about as perfect of a pair of days as it could possibly have.  To celebrate its 35th anniversary we had a weekend dedicated to honoring the great work that our great God has done in the life of this school. Friday night featured a gala dinner with 350 supporters feasting and celebrating in word and song the greatness of our God. It was a night to remember.  The following evening we gathered again, this time for a celebration concert of praise, featuring faculty and friends of the school.  The songs flowed and the Spirit wove, moving hearts and minds to worship and praise.

The two evenings featured enough wind and fire to wow the audience, but what astonished me were the whispered tears. After the concert Saturday night, I milled around the auditorium’s lobby, chatting with a few folks when an older couple came up to me holding a book they wanted me to sign.  (The weekend also marked the launch of a labor of love called Rooted: The Story of CVC, a book I authored for the occasion of the school’s anniversary.)  The couple, two of the original founders of the school, wanted me to inscribe their copy of the book.  They’d only read the first part, but the weekend’s events as well as their little taste of the book had moved them to gratitude. With tears welling up behind his glasses, the gentleman said to me, “Thank you for writing this book.”

Photo by Evgeny Pavlov, Creative Commons

Photo by Evgeny Pavlov, Creative Commons

Tears often fall like dominoes, one causing another, and his tears provoked my own. Such words moved me. To think that the simple act of clicking keys in solitude, the rhythm of which formed the soundtrack of my summer, might somehow, someway impact someone else and cause tears of gratitude, well, that was humbling. And it reminded me in that moment of the greatness of our God. He takes our meagre talents, as benign and uninspired as the ability to put words together on the page, and uses them to fall like new rain in the life of fellow pilgrims on this planet.  What made the moment even more poignant was the fact that this gentleman’s talents with his hands and his mind sculpted the first physical buildings of the school.  For the better part of four decades, kids and teachers alike have benefitted from his willingness to be used by God as they’ve sat in classrooms put together under his direction.

Sometimes the Creator’s design for this world amazes and humbles me, how he uses the variety of gifts and talents of his creatures and weaves them all together in a tapestry that blesses the world.

Sometimes it’s just simply fun to be a part of this grand drama. As the teacher John Keating in the greatest movie of all time, Dead Poets Society, puts it: “That you are here – that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.”

 

 

Praying for Strangers

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Of all the books that passed before my eyes during 2014, perhaps my favorite was Markus Zusak’s I am the Messenger. (Disclaimer- At some points in the story, his invective is a bit on the rainbow end of the colorful spectrum. Expect an encounter with an expletive or two should you decide to read it.) He wrote it a few years before The Book Thief took the world by literary storm.  The story intrigues, but it pales relative to Zusak’s prose. He hijacks words, marionette-style, pulling adjectives and verbs on taut strings like a grand, lexical puppeteer. Here’s an example:

We both laugh and run and the moment is so thick around me that I feel like dropping into it to let it carry me.

Or look at this one that puts the “Pro” in “prose:”

Crowds of questions stream through me like lines of people exiting a soccer ground or a concert. They push and shove and trip. Some make their way around. Some remain in their seats, waiting for their opportunity.

I’d trade two of my fingers for that skill. (The pinkies, of course.  They do little for me, except aid in snooty tea-drinking.)  He writes like veal-lean, tender, flavorful.

But what stays with me beyond the final curtain is not his prose, but the theme of random kindnesses. In the book, Ed Kennedy, the main character, receives the addresses of random people -messengees, if you will- and he is the messenger, but it’s up to him to discern the message. Thus, he studies these strangers and discovers what they need, be it a friend, a protector or a conspirator.  Without unfurling any plot lines, I’ll simply say he helps the helpless, or delivers the messages.

Even a few months after reading the book, I find his interaction with strangers fascinating. Every day on this journey on planet earth my life weaves in and out with nameless pilgrims, teammates, if you will, of the human race squad. The ease with which I glide past each one with limited interaction proves interesting, if not chilling. I cruise on auto pilot, completely content to coast rather than engage. When I stand in line at the bank with a dozen other debiters, I feel victorious if I leave having only conversed with the teller, and even then, only if necessary.

Going Ed Kennedy seems extreme, but what about venturing beyond my own personal orbit of the universe and simply noticing others?  What if standing behind the grocery store lane mom with three diapered munchkins in tow became an opportunity to loft a prayer for patience over her instead of using the time to send a frivolous text to one of my buddies. What if the few minutes spent pumping gas turned into a few moments to pray for the straggly old vet with the pronounced limp and the duct-taped bumper?

What if I prayed for strangers without them even knowing it?

Author River Jordan tackled this same goal when she resolved one New Year’s to pray for a stranger every single day.  The motive changed her life and launched a book (Praying for Strangers) and a movement.  Maybe there’s power in secret supplication.

Maybe such an aim allows for the redemption of dead time, those brief snatches of time when we bounce between items on the to-do list. Maybe it changes a person’s general navigational orientation from the arrow pointing inward to the focus being on others. Maybe it’s a simple application of Paul’s command to “Look to the interests of others.”  Even the others we don’t know.

Maybe the next time I hit the pavement for a pre-dawn run, I need to simply pray for the strangers who I share this planet with. Maybe doing so will change their lives.

Maybe doing so will change mine.

 

The Morning Cup: Pruggling

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Though it’s been a while since the Morning Cup made a guest appearance on the blog, it’s back this morning, with the full arsenal of holiday cheer and glad tidings.  If you’ve lost track of what “The Morning Cup” means, check out this previous post (https://writeproject.wordpress.com/2013/09/19/the-morning-cup-gratitude/)  to get the necessary 411.

The Write Projects feels a bit nostalgic today, so to nurse the wistful itch, let’s go back to 1972 and take a look at a classic TV commercial that introduces the Morning Cup in a whimsical but intriguing way.

Life on this planet teems with all sorts of pleasures: a fresh, unblemished crossword puzzle and a half hour of uninterrupted time to engage it.  A steaming mug of decaf mocha.  A new, hardcover Grisham.  A date night with my wife involving a table full of tapas to sample. A family game of Spy Alley. A fantasy football title game reservation.

You could add your own list of amusements and diversions that bring delight. To live in this world is to be the recipient of monsoon-like blessings in daily pleasure storms. Each one tickles the soul and spills light into our lives.

Sometimes, though, the blending of two blessings produces a delight far greater than the sum of either part. When the wizards at Reese’s combined chocolate and peanut butter together, the culinary world rejoiced. Few morsels in this world take me to Taste Bud Heaven quite like PB. And chocolate is, well, chocolate. Put them together and hop on the bullet train to Flavor Village.

Such is the case with Pruggling. Most non-hermit, non-monk-like citizens of planet Earth know the bliss of the snuggle. Whether a couch snuggle with a terry-cloth-robed two-year-old or a late afternoon spousal snuggle following a Sunday nap, a nice cuddle warms the heart of even the most resolute human glacier.

Even the animal kingdom knows the joy of the snuggle. (Photo by davedehetre, Creative Commons)

Even the animal kingdom knows the joy of the snuggle. (Photo by davedehetre, Creative Commons)

By itself a snuggle serves as one of life’s joys. Combine it, though, with the blessing of the most intimate form of communication, and voila, you’ve got a gift worthy of raising the Morning Cup.

To be a Christ-follower in this world is to know the delight of open communication with the Savior of the World. We serve a God who loves it when we talk to him. Truly, one of the greatest joys in this world is the opportunity to openly pray to the God of the Universe, voicing the concerns and blessings of our lives and knowing that he hears us.

When that blessing mixes with the joy of the snuggle, the result is an uncommon pleasure often unequaled in life: Pruggling. And pruggling is the joy that I know sometimes when I put my girls to bed at night.

Few sweeter words exist in the English language than, “Daddy, will you pruggle with me?” Snuggling up close to my daughters before they drift off to sleep, I get to cover over them in prayer, thanking God for their uniqueness, asking Him to bless their lives and praying for their future husbands, wherever they might be right now. The last one seems a bit freaky, probably more so for me than for them.

The pruggle is a blessing outstripped by few gifts in this world, and simply, in this season of giving and receiving, it’s a present I’m grateful for. To the pruggle, I raise the Morning Cup.

A Tender, Frenetic Christmas

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As any parent who’s walked this twirling planet for any length of time can attest, during the Christmas season the globe seems to make like a swiveling figure skater, spinning faster and faster, almost dizzyingly out of control.   The to-do list swells like an unfurled scroll.  The calendar  teems with more colored scribbles than a Jackson Pollock original.  Cookies to bake. Presents to shake.  Decorations to take.  All, of course,  before Christmas break.   And those are just the things we plan for, besides the last-minute dinner invitation or the earnest eleven o’clock entreaty, “Mom, I really need three dozen bars and a reindeer costume for tomorrow morning.”   Thanks, Junior.  I’m not sure what I would have done with the nuisance of those unused sleeping hours tonight.

Normally during the rest of the year the busyness of life gets decried by the pulpit and the populace as evil and worthy of contempt, antithetical to the quiet, contemplative, Christian life.  It’s hard to be still and know God when rushing through life.  But in the Christmas season, there’s a sense of holy hysteria; the hoopla and histrionics connect to the Savior of the World after all.   Thus, the parties and presents and decorations and demonstrations all fall into the redemptive realm;  they exist squarely under the umbrella of the celebration of the birth of Christ.  The question though that’s begged to be asked by the wearying Christian world driving the sleigh running only on fumes is a pressing one: is it worth it?  Are the febrile, frenzied pace and the extraordinary effort we put into this season worth it?

The birth of light deserves celebration. (Photo by Markus Grossalber, Creative Commons)

The birth of light deserves celebration. (Photo by Markus Grossalber, Creative Commons)

The answer is a resounding yes.   There’s nothing more worthy of celebration than Christmas.   After thousands of years of wallowing in the murky enslavement of sin, God initiated the rescue plan.  God sent his own son into the world.   As we travel this swiftly tilting planet and traverse the hills and valleys of life, we don’t journey alone.  God stands not detached and aloof.  God is with us.  Immanuel.  God has entered the fray.  He has brought about the salvation of his people.   Amen. It’s time to celebrate.  In a world that celebrates sports titles and honor roll students and everything else in between with pomp and circumstance and a smorgasbord of culinary treats, surely Christmas deserves a celebration worthy of a papal visit.  Be not ordinary or blasé or apathetic with Christmas.  Strike up the band, roll out the red carpet, set the fine China.  Celebrate that which is worthy of celebration.

No, I’m not advocating burning the Nativity candle at both ends.  Surely a frenetic pace worthy of Grand Central Station doesn’t necessarily equate with a Christ-centered advent celebration.   This devotional is simply trying to instill perspective, that Christmas is surely worthy of any energy and acclaim we can muster.  It is most definitely worth it.  And what’s more, it makes everything we do in this world worthwhile.    Christmas infuses our lives with purpose and meaning.

What would be the point of memorizing the dates and causes and the cast of characters of history if history itself wasn’t divided by the birth of Christ?  Why put the energy into mastering the intricacies of the English language if there was no love of Christ to communicate with the world?  Why study the laws of science if there was no answer to the fallen creation’s groaning?  In short, why life without Christmas?  By converse the answer to every “why” question we pose is simply “because of Christmas.”

As we celebrate Christmas in various ways and forms, may we never lose sight of the weight of holy joy.  Let us never temper expectation.  May we never choose apathy over ardor.  Let us celebrate and sing and dance and shout the forever truth- that God is with us.  And may we never lose sight of the fact that it is not a mortgage, nor a vision, nor a bottom line or a family gathering or social graces that makes us go.  We are empowered and fueled primarily because of Christmas, because  God is with us, because hope was born so long ago in a tiny stable in a place called Bethlehem.

Beauty from Ashes- A Lesson from Steinbeck

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They actually pay me to do this job.  Just don’t let that word get out; I’d hate to battle the stampede of eager adults fighting for the chance to spend most of their waking hours teaching middle school English.

It’s true. I get an actual check twice a month in exchange for discussing books with kids and seeing what those books have to do with our lives as Christ followers. It’s a pretty good gig. I mean, there’s more to it than that, but I won’t regale you with tales of glamour and wealth and riveting faculty meetings. I’ll just say that I love this job, especially when we’re faced with a good book and an even better discussion.

Sometimes out of the ashes of our lives, beauty emerges.  (Photo by Jason Burmeister, Creative Commons)

Sometimes out of the ashes of our lives, beauty emerges. (Photo by Jason Burmeister, Creative Commons)

In class, we’re in the early stages of John Steinbeck’s The Pearl.  Perhaps you remember it from your own middle school days. Kino and Juana, a young peasant couple living in Mexico, enjoy the idyllic blessing of a simple family life until a scorpion bites their baby son, Coyotito. Fearful and desperate for their son’s life, they lead a somber procession of villagers to the doctor’s abode, where he refuses to see them because while they have Hope and Passion in abundance, they lack the essential ingredient required for his attention: money.  Denied an audience with the physician, Kino does the only logical thing in the midst of despair and anger: he punches the doctor’s gate, bloodying his knuckles and releasing his frustration, albeit in an understandable yet utterly pointless way.

As readers we relate to this type of frustration-induced personal destruction.  As a youngster I recall cracking into pieces a brand-new kite because none of the adults I beckoned for help rushed to my side the moment I asked. It simply feels good to release anger with physical aggression, even if it results in fractured knuckles or permanently-grounded kites.

To assuage his pain or perhaps do what feels familiar and soothing, Kino loads his family, launches his boat and dives off in search of treasure.  While I should issue a spoiler alert for the Steinbeck-uninitiated playing along at home, even the darkened bulbs on the literary Christmas tree could likely surmise that Kino finds . . . a pearl.  Not just any pearl, of course, but The Pearl of the World.  At the end of chapter 2, Kino holds up the pearl in his hand, throws back his head and howls a primal roar of gratitude/relief/jubilation.  Before the roar, Steinbeck notes a key but subtle detail in the way Kino holds the pearl:

Juana came near to stare at it in his hand, and it was the hand he had smashed against the doctor’s gate, and the torn flesh of the knuckles was turned grayish white by the sea water.

While he could have held up the pearl with the other mitt, such a description would compromise the beauty for ashes realization echoing through the line.  Kino’s hand, the symbol of all his anger, frustration and hurt, wraps itself around the new-found symbol of hope, prosperity and future. Gone is the crimson hue indicative of the wounds to his flesh and his psyche. In its place sits the glowing, shimmering luminescence of hope.

If this particular turn of events sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the exact play that the Divine Scriptwriter’s been composing for the past two thousand plus years.  He takes the ashes of our lives- those scattered, charred remnants of bitterness and heartache- and grows beauty out of them.  The boy born amid scandal and tears who grows up to be a dynamic missionary.  The heartache of a congregational split that births a new vibrant church community.  The relationship frayed to a final, single thread that teaches never-before plumbed levels of empathy and compassion.

Essentially, he molds beauty from the ashes of our lives.

And when he lifts the scales from our eyes as Christ followers and allows us as a class to witness such subtle redemption even in the pages of a secular novel . . . well, maybe there’s an even greater redemptive endeavor at work in our lives.

Okay, time to hush. I’ve already said too much.  I fear I can already hear the stampede of aspiring adolescent educators filling out application forms.

Email Etiquette

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Often times I write on this blog for the express purpose of spreading the light, sharing those snippets of grace in the form of laughter or merriment that God allows my eyes to witness on this planet. I try to lessen the load and sprinkle a little cheer in your life, to hopefully ease the burden and make the journey a bit more enjoyable.

But not today.

Today I write in the employ and service of intelligent mankind everywhere, pointing the collective finger (the index one, that is- I’d like to keep the blog G-rated) at those of you who hoard gross negligence like it’s a precious gem. This has to cease. Stop the madness. Let me say this in the plainest English I can utter: Drain the Inbox.

Allow me to explain. Though some might view me as obsessive, if not maniacal, even borderline compulsive, I endeavor each day to empty my email inbox by day’s end.  I do this not only to practice courteous correspondence, much the same way a doctor practices good medicine, but also to enjoy the fulfilling satisfaction of an unblemished email reservoir.  I’ve been following such a plan for quite a while, but the other day, it hit me anew. With only one little conversational suitcase on the email turnstile, I clicked a quick reply on my phone, archived the message and then Google rewarded me with the following screen:

photo (5)

I’d like to think the two are related. Even Gmail recognizes the beauty of such organization.  Having no messages translates into having a great day.  Notice there’s no unprompted happy face from Gmail that says, “You have 1000 messages in your inbox. Rejoice and be glad.”  No, that imaginary message would look more like, “Caution: Inbox Full. Happy life disappearing. Many folks awaiting a response are quite disappointed in you.”

You think debt is crushing.  Try existing under the weight of 550 unopened messages. Even burly debt collectors recoil from that kind of burden. If email debt was a person, we’d fondly call him “Mr. Chapter 11.”

Incomprehensible to me, some folks seem to collect messages like sea shells or souvenir trinkets, thinking there’s some value to the grand collection. And yes, if every message represented an Andrew Jackson or a Ben Franklin, then great, stack ’em on top of each other and savor the holdings. Contemplate the condo you’ve always wanted in Maui. Retire and be glad. Maybe you’ll find the intestinal fortitude to use the archive button from time to time.

A quick word of caution. Do not think for even a minute that I’m advocating an email purge, deleting messages willy-nilly just to have a clean inbox. When someone sends you a message, there’s a code of honor, of polite electronic discourse, that beckons you to send a message in return, even if it’s as simple as “Thanks. Have a great day.”  When talking to someone in person and he or she lobs a conversational softball your way, do you grab such object and run away with it? No, you toss it back. In the digital world that we inhabit, tossing the ball back is called “Hit ‘Reply.'”  It takes precious few brain cells and even less physical exertion. Plus, when you’re able to wipe away that pesky email that sullies your pristine inbox, a thoroughbred named Euphoria bolts from the starting gate and scampers up and down your soul.

And, of course, you’re engaging in the noble process of composition in order to bring about such personal serenity and well-being. File that under “No Brainer.”

I realize fully that I have issues.  I respond to mass emails.  I feel a compulsion to have the last word in a string of email conversations. An untended-to email sitting in my inbox for more than 24 hours initiates stomach ulcers. I eschew face-to-face conversations in lieu of digital discourse. I’ll likely require therapy with a registered email counselor at some point in the future.

But at least my inbox is clean. And if, as a result of reading this post, yours is heading in that direction, then I feel like I’ve done a sliver of good in the service of humanity.

Now on to more pressing needs, like attending to those of you who don’t read for pleasure.

Fantasy Woes: The Chosen One

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Disclaimer- Though never a good practice to open a composition with a caveat, this one begs explanation. At our school we’re preparing for a visit from Lisa McMann, author of The Unwanteds series.  To prime the pump with my middle schoolers, they’re each penning a fantasy story for their next blog entry.  I reluctantly (and perhaps foolishly) agreed to tell a fantasy story for my next post, even though I struggle to write fiction, and furthermore, loathe nearly all fantasy literature (with apologies, of course, to my fantasy-loving pastor). Thus, this whimsical tome is my meagre offering to the fantasy world.  Should you actually make it all the way to the bottom of the post, reward yourself with a mocha or a brownie or a token or the like. 

Huddled against the boat, we dared not sneak our hair above the height of the ship. Its horrid breath shot past our nostrils in snarling tufts of stench. Frozen with trepidation we looked at each other, fearing any sound to be fatal to our position. With a hand signal, I motioned to Finley that on the count of three we’d make a dash for the thrushes, hoping to camouflage ourselves and crawl python-like to safety in one of the caves.  Sticking my index finger in the air, I nodded affirmatively at Finley; he shook his head sideways in response. When my two fingers made the victory sign, the leviathan altered our plan. A violent jolt of his neck from left to right sent our boat flailing through the air, only to shatter against the monolith rising from the earth and leaving us both cowering, prey-like in front of this beast. Finley whimpered. I snorted. We both statued. Though teenage boys normally show bravado and machismo, we cowered and clutched each other, trying to shield our eyes from the monster before us. “This is it,” I thought.  “This is where it ends. This is the moment that everything in my sorry life has led to.  Two desperate brothers grow weary of life in Berkshire with a demanding father and take to the sea, only to wash ashore and meet their ultimate demise at the hands of a malevolent beast risen from the depths.”

Finley wept like a school girl. Being two years my senior, I expected him to be strong, to be the granite to shoulder my fear. To at least be decidedly less hysterical. I expected assurance. I expected fortitude.  His blubbering head on my shoulder testified to the contrary. I wrestled my own eyes open; if this beast sent me to my Maker, I wanted to meet him with my eyes open, undaunted, unafraid.  My quivering knees made the last part difficult.  As I unpeeled my eyes to take in this behemoth, saliva dripping like thick raindrops to the earth around me, I turn and looked into its eyes, as big and as dark as manhole covers. I saw not the residence of pure evil, but something deeper and decidedly less menacing. I saw something almost human. I saw loneliness, a fierce desolation born of a lack of companionship. Granted, lonely people rarely starve and Finley and I loomed more as lunch than as the answer to the creature’s personal woes. As his yellowing yet cleaver-like incisors parted and prepared to come back together around the fleshy bones of Finley and me, I did the only thing that seemed to make any sense in this completely senseless moment.  I yelled, “Stop!” with every last wisp of air in the distant corners of my lungs.  “Stop!” Startled perhaps more by my boldness than by any sense of wrongdoing, the beast cocked his head sideways, and for the briefest sliver of a moment, hesitated. Tearing Finley’s sniveling noggin from my shoulder, I stepped forward, even closer to the jaws of death, emboldened by Fate’s corkscrew. I shook my fist at this beast and conjured words that rolled through my vocal cords, creating a defiant, yet somehow benevolent howl. “You don’t want to eat us.”  This leviathan uttered a snort that sounded distinctly like “Hmphf” and drew back his head to take us in.

Considering that my bones remained intact and I still had the breath of life in me, my resolve grew. The beast lowered his head to the ground where his ebony eyeballs stood about as tall as Finley and I.  Seeing as how its jaw now clenched shut, I walked over to the beast. Finley grew decidedly more fetal as I left his side, but I needed to convince this behemoth to fast from eating teenage boy. I walked to his side, only an arm’s length away from his gigantic pupil. And I spoke, with a bit less volume this time. “Is this really how you want to live?  Terrifying the souls of shipwrecked human beings and then chomping on human flesh?” I knew not from where my boldness came, only that I had summoned it from somewhere and that now wasn’t the time to question its presence. I searched for the right words. Somehow I knew that I needed squelch any smoldering fear and face him unafraid.

YOU WILL NOT EAT US.” The words erupted from my depths, a tornado of passion and desperation and . . . confidence. For good measure, I balled the fingers of my right hand, save the index digit, which I straightened into an arrow and flung it defiantly in the beast’s direction, along with the words, “YOU GOT THAT?” As the words exploded, so did a jolt of electric zing, somehow bulleting from my finger to the beast’s eyeball. It landed square in his blackness, detonating in ripples across his massive frame. Every ripple infused the growing, electric, glowing web around his body with increasing fluorescence. The conflagration illuminated the dark sky until my eyeballs singed. The brightness assaulted me.  I turned away from the mushroom cloud of neon, ordered my eyes on lockdown and bolted them with my forearm.

The crackle of electricity crescendoed to a deafening whine.  Even with eyes vaulted shut, I could feel the brightness surging.  Nanoseconds ticked by until finally the glow and howl reached their pinnacle and seemingly dropped off the planet.  More seconds dripped by. The silence roared, well, except for Finley’s whimpering. Darkness enveloped us.

I heard my pulse tick. I peeled my forearm away from my eyes. I felt my chest, my legs. My body still felt intact. I uncurled my eyelids. Everything seemed the same. Though I hesitated to turn around and face this beast, or what remained of him, I knew Destiny always keeps its appointments. Still shivering in fear at my feet lay Finley, now sucking his thumb and rocking back and forth.  I slowly turned around, unsure what to expect. As my eyes faced the shore, shock overtook me.  There before me stood not a malevolent beast, nor even any ashes or evidence of its being. Instead, standing before me with a wry half-smile on his face was . . . my dad.

And yet, I wondered if it was really him. No longer did threadbare garments loosely hang from his frame, nor a brooding scowl adorn his face. I didn’t cower in fear at the upraised backside of his hand ready to swoop in and find its mark on my unsuspecting cheekbone.  Before me stood a proud man, resplendent with flowing robe, encapsulated with an aura of light.  Did my eyes really perceive this to be my dad?

“My son, you have passed the test. You are ready.” I looked at him quizzically. “Though it pained me to treat you so harshly as you grew up, the Emperor bade me rule the household with an iron hand.  It was the only way to prepare you for the noble task ahead. Long ago, forces decreed that my son would lead the rebellion and vanquish our foes. I long doubted the oracle’s pronouncement, but now no doubt remains. You are the chosen one.”

Though it should have been awkward to hug this tormentor of a father figure, this man who never even smiled in my direction, it wasn’t. I burrowed into his robe and felt his palm atop my head.

“Nigel, greatness lies before you.”

I soaked in the words of affirmation, hanging there in the gathering dawn. A few yards away the blubbering whimpers of my brother broke the moment.

Dad uttered, “For Finley, not so much.”

And that is how I learned my father’s true identity as a wizard.

And my destiny to follow his legend.

The Gospel in Flesh

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St. Francis of Assisi supposedly said, “Preach the gospel always, and if necessary, use words.” Sometimes the very words themselves are the gospel in flesh. They sure showed the beauty of Christ the other day.

This past week in my homeroom, right after we finished our devotions and started our day with prayer, I read an email from the office secretary explaining about a family tragedy that happened the night before and kept a fellow 8th grade boy from a different homeroom from being able to attend school that day. Right away I told my kids that we needed to pray again to lift up this family and pray God’s peace and protection over them. After a few minutes of prayer, we packed up and headed to the computer lab where kids needed to pen their poetic analysis essays about the magic of Simon and Garfunkel lyrics.

"Kind words are like honey- sweet to the soul and healthy for the body" Proverbs 16:24. (Photo by Carla S. Hiemstra)

“Kind words are like honey- sweet to the soul and healthy for the body” Proverbs 16:24. (Photo by Carla S. Hiemstra)

As kids settled in with their fingers flailing and keys clicking, I surveyed the premises from the back of the room to ensure that kids were dutifully engaged in the compositional quest of penning stellar essays. At quick glance I can usually tell which screens display academic progress and which screens testify to a short course in Time Wasting 101. A favorite, frivolous diversion of middle school kids involves emailing a tune to classmates sitting all of 13 inches apart from each other that has lyrics with the emotional depth of “Hey, what’s up?” As I scanned the room, I noticed two boys in the back, closest to me, with their gmail inboxes open, clicking out a message.

I started moving over to them, just about to open my mouth and intone my famed passive-aggressive line, “Use your time wisely,” when I noticed the recipient of both their missives: the boy absent because of the family tragedy. The pair in the back of the room both typed messages of prayer and condolence, letting the boy know that they were praying and supporting him. My mouth snapped shut in time, perhaps awed by the beauty of the gospel in flesh.

For The Write Project’s readers unaccustomed to encountering the middle school animal on a regular basis, such a degree of other-ness and compassion surface rarely. In the world of “Me,” in which adolescents dwell, a true melody of uncommon kindness makes the love of Christ resound harmoniously. To see two boys initiate an unprompted act of compassion and caring warms the heart and reveals that the Spirit of God is alive and well among the adolescents of this world.

Touchdowns might make headlines and curtain calls the front page, but quiet, selfless acts of caring undoubtedly stir the heart of the Father. With boys like these leading the next generation, the future of the Kingdom burns brightly. With boys like these flavoring my homeroom, my own heart churns gratefully.

Life is good.