A Willow or an Oak?

In the past few years, the supervisory positions at both of the higher ed institutions where I teach as an adjunct have changed hands.  Learning to adjust to new styles of supervision has been both difficult on the one hand and interesting on the other.  At one university, the change was devastating and, within a few months, led to drastic and unwelcome changes that in turn led to the removal of every single one of the longtime teachers (including me).  Thankfully, the changes at the other institution were not so dramatic.  Instead, what has happened there has been both fascinating to watch and amazing to learn from.

The former director of our program at a local community college was an incredible, kind, cheerful, organized and dedicated Christian woman.  Now, there’s a hard act to follow.  We all loved her so and were deeply sorrowful to see her retire to a distant location.  When the new director came on board, we were all skeptical.  I heard that she also was a Christian, but she apparently did not wear her Christianity on her sleeve.  The most visible difference in their styles was instantaneously obvious.  The previous director’s office was constantly and thoroughly organized and tidy.  There was never a stray paper or textbook.  The first time I walked into the same office under the new director, it looked like a bulldozer had come through and left heaps of file folders and books in disorganized and messy stacks on every surface of the room.  It was stunning to me that it could even be the same room.

Personally, my first semester with her did not go very well.  She observed me teaching one day and the class was not exceptionally successful.  It seemed that by the end of the first year, I did not know her much more than I had in the beginning.  Even so, whenever I had a problem with students or entire classes, as I was accustomed to speaking with my directors, I continued to do so with her.  By the end of that year, I felt that I was confiding in her too much and that she might think that I was being overly emotional and perhaps not quite capable of dealing with things myself.

The next school year started and because of another teacher’s sudden illness, she asked me at the last minute to change the class that I was going to teach.  I did and in the end, it worked out quite nicely.  We began to chat more often and she seemed to begin to trust me more.  Now, just this last week, something happened that has become a lesson in my life that I will need to meditate on and work on to implement for years to come.

I stopped by the office the other day to check on the status of a struggling student who had gone to the tutor.  It turned out that the tutor was out, but that my boss had tutored him herself.  We chatted and then the chatting turned to the books we would use for next fall.  She explained that she was studying the books currently being used by different teachers and told me of her frustration with how the books were not fulfilling the needs of the students.  Some were too difficult.  Some were not difficult enough.  Students were not talking enough.  They were not being required to improve their grammar.  Eventually, she shared her frustrations, without naming names, of some of the teaching styles and how some of the levels had no continuity among the teachers at that level and how some of the students were being passed on to the next levels without being ready.  Specifically, she was frustrated by some teachers who were more interested in being liked than in making the tough choices to hold the students to a standard.  I just listened as she continued on.  It seemed as though she really needed to talk it out with someone and it was very clear that she had a vision and she wasn’t going to let it go.  It was almost like a dress rehearsal for the topics to be brought up at our next meeting.

After listening to her express herself, I came to a realization about the two directors and about life as a Christian.  My previous director was a very nice Christian.  She lived her Christianity, listened to students who came to her with their devastating problems.  When they were very low, she was able to sympathize with them and help them get up off the ground.  She cried with them, went out of her way to help them, and prayed with them when it was clear that they wanted her to do so.  She prayed for new students to come and they came.  Just before she retired, I spoke with her and she told me her story, how she came to be director and some of the things that had happened while she was director.  I felt humbled, deeply moved and emotional about her story.  She was a willow tree bending with the wind.  In her own way, bending was her strength and many students responded well to her “willowy-ness.”

However, I can see now that she wanted so much to be a Christian that she allowed some things to continue on unchecked.  She allowed some teachers to have too much freedom in what they taught.  She allowed teachers at the same levels to have apparently different standards.  She was wonderful, but she could only take our program so far.  I’m sure that she prayed that we would get the best new director for our needs.  Our new director was the answer to her prayer.  Our new director is also a Christian, but she has principle.  She can discern what needs to be done and she has the strength to carry it through.  Although she needed to test out her ideas with me to get a little reassurance, or maybe just make it more sure in her sight, she has the strength to stand up to teachers who are used to getting their own way.  She has the strength to say that “this is what we need to do to improve the integrity of our program.”  She is an oak tree.  She sees what is needed and she will do it as kindly, but as firmly as she knows how.

So, there are different kinds of Christians.  Some have so much empathy that they can feel the difficulties that others are facing.  They can get people’s attention and help them to go in the right way just by feeling and understanding and demonstrating their love.  This is a start.  However, to make the nitty gritty changes that will produce real results, you need a Christian with back bone, someone who will stand on principle and not tremble or flee when the earth begins to shake.

I think that sometimes we need a willow.  We especially need a willow when we are at our most fragile.  The willow will give us encouragement and help us to recover from the sometimes seeming cruelty of life.  However, in order to truly progress, we need an oak.  We need someone who is willing to tell us that we’re wrong or that we’re behaving badly.  How can we know these things by ourselves?  Sometimes, when we don’t understand ourselves, we need someone willing to tell us exactly what we are doing wrong.  We need standards that we must abide by.  Only then can we attain to those standards and pull ourselves up higher, one step at a time.  Thank God for both the willow and the oak.  Taking it further, am I willing to be the willow when the situation necessitates it, but in other circumstances, will I be able to be the oak?  Either way, souls are at stake.

Time Passages

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I love the title of Al Stewart’s song, Time Passages.  It describes so well the amazing gift of time that we have on this earth.

My dear mother passed away in early January.  A parent’s passing is always a defining moment in a person’s life.  My mother was blessed with time.  She was 96 when her time came to pass on.  Although she had been afflicted with some type of dementia for several years, she was still cute, sweet and at times downright funny.

However, it wasn’t always so.  Helping to write her obituary, I realized a lot of things about my mom and ever since her passing, there have been conversations with siblings about her life and reflections on what she accomplished in life.  One single life on this earth is so complex and so precious.  Each life has a myriad of experiences to go through and so much to learn from those experiences, taking each lesson learned on into the next experiences.

Mom had a lot of challenges in her life.  She had a fairly controlling mother, eight children and not much money.  She lived through the depression years, World War II and the shocking 60’s when all societal rules seemed to fly out the window.  She spent hours dealing with her own mother when she herself had small children to take care of as well and later, when her father and her mother-in-law were old and needy, she spent all of her days caring for them and taking care of those needs.

My mother was an overcomer.  She met all of those challenges with grace and dignity.  Sometimes she had reactions as anyone would, but she did what she needed to do without complaint.  As we were writing our mother’s obituary, we realized that we couldn’t make it so flowery that she would seem to be a saint from the moment of her birth.  It wasn’t that way.  It never is, right?  Isn’t it more real, more adventurous, and more challenging to have a life long parade of situations that, through the passage of time, shape our nature?

Mom always had her own personality, but her character developed as she aged.  She became more patient, a better listener, more concerned with others.  As those qualities increased, others decreased: less anger and less worry.

Enhancing the positive qualities and diminishing the negative ones is what this life’s journey is all about.  We are all born with issues and we all encounter troubles along the adventurous road of life, but what an exquisite testimony there is when one of God’s children is at the end of their journey here, giving those who knew them the opportunity to look back at all the hardships along their route and to witness firsthand the growth of God’s life in that person.  What a solid evidence, sure and positive, that we can do the same in our lives.  Our situations may be different, but we have the same potential that they did.

When we witness a wonderful life, we don’t have to stand far off and feel dismal about our own existence.  This person was an ordinary person, just as we are, and he or she began his/her life with the similar challenges and similar skepticism about the possibilities of ever changing them.  Because we, like them, are born into the human condition, we too can allow our circumstances to mold our character and improve those things that require either a bit of touch up or a major overhaul.  We too can experience time passages and watch God’s handiwork in our lives.  Day by day, step by step, we come up a little higher and when time has finished its passages in our lives, hopefully others will say of us that we were overcomers and will, in their time, find inspiration to do the same in their lives.

A simple solution for a worn out world

There will be regular rains, the land will give you bumper crops, trees will be loaded with fruit long after the normal time and you will have as much to eat as you want and live out your days in peace.

Wow!  Regular rain, year after year of success in gardens and farms, plenty to eat and a peaceful world without fear.  Who doesn’t want that?  Who among us would say he or she wouldn’t want that?  Is it too boring to have peace and safety?  Is it too mundane to have bumper crops year in and year out?  So, what’s the catch?  Isn’t there always a catch?

Yes, there is a catch, but it’s not expensive, nor is it egregious.  All you have to do is to love God your Father who provides these things freely to his obedient children.  You have to obey his commandments.  You have to love your fellow man who is your brother and your sister, who also a child of God.

The first paragraph above comes from the book of Leviticus, chapter 26.  The Old Testament is filled with rules and regulations.  Jesus boiled all of them down to two.  “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind.”  “Love your neighbor as much as you love yourself.”  If you obey these laws, all those other ones fall into place.  You won’t steal from someone that you love as much as yourself because you don’t like to have things stolen from you.  You won’t punch him, kill him, hate him, lie to him, lie about him, take his wife or do other mean things to him because you don’t like those things either.

Our world is falling apart fast.  The daily headlines are enough to fill our hearts with terror.  We need to take hope and make that hope the anchor of our lives.  There are solutions but the ultimate solution always comes back to those two commandments spoken by Jesus.

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind.”  Love your neighbor as much as you love yourself.”  Jesus said it best.  You can’t improve on that.

The Kingdom of Heaven is within!

I have a relative that lives on an island in the Caribbean.  He has often said that he lives in paradise.  During the night on Tuesday, his paradise was demolished.  He lost everything but his dog and his life.  We are extremely grateful that his life was spared.

Many stories emerged this week that make it abundantly clear that the earthly places that we equate with paradise can be destroyed.  However, the true paradise, the Kingdom of Heaven, will never be destroyed.  If it dwells within you, it is your life and can never be taken from you no matter the circumstances.

It will be like the house built upon the rock.  When wind and storm and rain beat against it, nothing, no storm and no attack from hell, can tear it down.

Waiting for the world to change??!

This morning I heard a song on the radio.  “I’m waiting for the world to change.”  Really?  Is that like waiting for the cows to come home of their own accord?  And what if the world does change?  Where would that leave me?  Unchanged?  Left out?  There is no assurance that the world will change.  The only thing we can do in this world is change ourselves.  Jesus left us the template.  We need to change whatever doesn’t fit into that template.  God will not give us too much to do at once.  As we walk along life’s path, He brings just the right thing along that can be changed today. We can change that one thing today.  Tomorrow there will be another thing, but that can wait for tomorrow.

Two days ago God gave me one thing to change.  I was getting onto a flight to return home from a trip.  As I walked down the aisle, I realised my assigned seat was next to an enormous man.  Yes, I was in the middle seat, sandwiched between the rap man (music playing into his earphones so loudly that I could hear the words) and the fat man (who was actually using up a quarter of the space that I had paid for).  I was irritated and feeling nearly nauseous and definitely claustrophobic.  God was very merciful because it was less than a two hour flight.  However, I didn’t start thinking until well into the flight that instead of being annoyed at him and wondering whether I could be allowed to request a refund of 1/4 of my ticket price, I should be praying for both him and the rapper fellow.  In my heart, I was hating him because he was overweight and yet that was the only thing that I even knew about his life.  That was one thing that I could change that day.  I could stop the anger and irritation and just pray and it didn’t cost me anything. I feel bad that it didn’t occur to me at once, but that’s the way life is.  Something comes our way out of the blue.  We have a reaction and our reaction points us towards what we can change.

Let’s not wait for the world to change.  Let’s change the one thing that God brings into our lives today.

Election 2016

In the Bible story of Jesus’ crucifixion, the crowd is given the choice of Barabas or Jesus.  They all screamed for Barabas.  What about Jesus? They shouted for him to be crucified.  In this year’s presidential election, there is no Jesus in the choices.  There is only Barabas #1 or Barabas #2.

Political culture in the last several decades, even longer perhaps, has been completely hypocritical.  At the very least, we have had several philanderers and probably worse in the White House since the 1940’s.  However, as long as they have kept silent and kept their misdeeds completely out of the public view and earshot, we have turned a blind eye to it.

The entertainment culture in America has been completely hypocritical as well.  Hollywood churns out pornography faster than they do decent movies.  Now, it is available at the touch of anyone’s fingertips, including the fingertips of your children as they navigate the web on their personal computers.  We eat up salacious news about the latest starlets while paparazzi  hound the rich and famous, trying to get the most brazen photographs.

So, now we have a choice between a crook (at best) and a lewd (at best) person for our next president.  Why are we now suddenly shouting, “Foul?!”  Each side proclaims the other’s failings with self-righteous clamorings.  Do we deserve better after having allowed the other to go on unhindered for decades?  How did these two get past the primaries and the national conventions?  Their misdeeds were already known at those times.  Shouldn’t the political process weed out the unworthy?  It’s America’s choice because America has already chosen to allow it.  We have allowed it in our politicians, our entertainers, our priests (up to a certain point) and our elite.  We made excuses for the rich and famous and coined phrases such as “boys will be boys.”

Why are we surprised and outraged when someone who has been served up as entertainment for decades is now in the political limelight doing exactly the same things that we lapped up in the gossip magazines?

Living the love of Jesus?

This morning, the first day of the new year, I was reading a post (reblogged on this site) from Janie Kellogg about how changing our own behavior can help this poor world.  Her post inspired me and I suggest that you read her post before reading this one.

This is what I needed to face this year.  Maybe my story will inspire someone else out there.  Last year, I had a wonderful boss.  She was supportive, kind and helpful in showing us ESL adjuncts how to deal with difficult situations in our multi-cultural, multi-lingual classrooms.  However, she needed to move on to other endeavors.  In August, we got an interim director who quickly proved herself to be the antithesis of our previous boss.  At our first meeting with her, she informed us that we make too much money.  At subsequent meetings and in private talks, she pitted us against each other, creating an atmosphere of anger and suspicion.  She removed anything remotely associated with fun from our job and eventually informed us that starting next fall, she would be “forced” to either close our program or cut our salaries in half.  After some investigation, we discovered that everything she said to us was a lie.  Our program, instead of being broke, had the largest surplus in its history.  The list of both her underhanded actions and her lies went on and on.

So, where does changing our own behavior come into this story?  Well, I found myself not being able to look her in the eyes.  You know how the scenario goes.  She looks at you with those steely blue eyes and you quickly avert your eyes.  Why?  I discovered that I could not look at her because I hated her for everything she had done.  She had managed, in a few short months, to take away any pleasure I had in my job.  Why was she able to do that?  How did I give her that power over me?  It was a deeply emotional and spiritually tumultuous situation.  It threw my life into a constant upheaval.

I would like to be able to say that I totally overcame the situation and have no hard feelings towards her, but I’m not sure that is entirely true. I understand the problem and I pray for her and wonder what it was that caused her to become such a hard and mean person.  However, can I look at her without any trace of hatred in my eyes?  It makes me wonder: how did Jesus do it?  How did he look at Pilate, the one who could condemn him to death, and say “You could have no power over me unless it were given to you by my Father in heaven.”  How did he have such complete love that he could see, even in the probability of an excrutiating death, the love of his Father in heaven?  How can I get that same kind of love in a simple situation at work?

There is no easy answer for us.  I believe the answer lies in overcoming hatreds in ourselves, in continuing to pursue the love we see in our savior.  The hatreds may not go away in one day, but they can be eliminated bit by bit, layer by layer.  In the coming year, I’m sure that I (and we all) can do it, through step by apparent babystep, prayer and the love of the Holy Spirit’s inspiration.  We can overcome our challenges and let the life of God become an inspiration to others as well.  So, peace and prosperity to all this year, and may a wonderful overcoming spirit be ours through our loving Lord and Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.