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.

Verses and a verse: Courage

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**Sandinista Avioncitos

The little airplanes of the heart

with their brave little propellers

What can they do

against the winds of darkness

even as butterflies are beaten back

by hurricanes

yet do not die

They lie in wait wherever

they can hide and hang

their fine wings folded

and when the killer-wind dies

they flutter forth again

into the new-blown light

live as leaves

–Lawrence Ferlinghetti

 

These are difficult days that we are experiencing.  Sometimes, it feels as if we are buffeted by the winds of the hurricanes that have recently traversed our world or by the flames that scorch our west coast.  We need to take heart in the Scriptures that uphold the righteousness that God has planted in us.  We need to surely know that righteous lives soften the paths that others must follow in the future.

Deuteronomy 31:6 Be strong and of a good courage, fear not, nor be afraid of them: for the LORD thy God, he it is that doth go with thee; he will not fail thee, nor forsake thee.

** Although this title seems negative to me because of the reference to Sandinistas, I have chosen to leave it in so that the poem can be properly identified.  The poem itself is very sweet.

There is only one way out.

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There is something fundamentally wrong with us.  In what country does someone just nonchalantly walk into a church and shoot up men, women and children?  We don’t need terrorists.  We have our own nutcases and they are armed with assault rifles.

There is only one way out of this plague of shooters and victims.  Scripture tells us that if the country which is called by God’s name will repent and turn from its wicked ways, He will repent Himself of the evil and stop it and heal that nation.  We need repentance now.  We have become a violent society.  Why does our country continue churning out violent movie after violent movie and violent computer game after violent computer game?  Many of our young people are addicted to violence and others among us are becoming desensitized to it.

Years ago, if someone wanted to see violence or pornography, they had to get up and go somewhere to see it.  Nowadays, they just turn on their computers and it’s all available right in their living rooms.  Violence and lust will not beget anything but violence and lust.  We allow our children to fill up their brains on a continuous stream of this junk without making a peep.  Do we then expect them to turn out to be kind and caring individuals?

I am heartbroken.  Why does another mother have to bury her young daughter?  A newlywed bury her husband?  Or a baby lose its mother?  How can one family lose eight of its members in one instant?  How many more will we tolerate being slaughtered in their pews?  Or in their restaurants?  Or on their bus?  Simply living a quiet life.  One minute they’re here and the next they are taken out of this life by some angry or demented soul.  Why do we continue to allow it?

We need to turn this around.  We can do it as a society if we forego focusing on our differences and instead unify in our repentance. We can change.  We can stop future mass shootings.  They are not inevitable.  However, there is only one way out.  We have to find the violence, the anger, the hate inside of ourselves and eliminate it.  Cast it out.  Refuse to give in to it even when people make it so enticing for us to hate.  Do the opposite in our daily lives.  Live with conviction in love with God and with our fellow man.

Jesus said: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.  This is the first and great commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”  Matthew 22:37 – 40

 

 

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.

United we stand?

On September 9, 1776, the congress representing the group of colonies that made up this country at that time decided to call it the United States.  However, ever since its inception, this country has been tested as to the meaning of its name.  Although the founders held deep convictions and high ideals for this country, there were already deep divisions in our unity, specifically over what to do about slavery.  That crack widened until we fought a bitter civil war over the issue.  Even since the end of that war, the divisions have persisted.

Over time, those divisions have branched out from the issue of slavery and new divisions have been created.  Nowadays, our congress cannot even agree on the simplest of issues.  I read in this morning’s paper a comment by a young man of 27.  He said, “My generation can’t talk to each other.  They don’t want to hear another perspective.  If you label yourself a conservative or a libertarian, they don’t want to talk to you.”  (“What of Civil War Re-Enactments,?” Hartford Courant, 9-5-2-17)  What is wrong with us and why can’t we even have a civil conversation to discuss the issues?! The crack is widening and there seems to be no way to bridge the gap.

However, God is giving us a chance.  Unfortunately, the times that we come together end up being the worst of times and yet the best of times.  Disasters somehow make us forget politics and opposing opinions and bring us together in a common goal of survival.  The experience of Houston, Rockport, Wharton and Port Arthur has both horrified and softened the hearts of Americans across the nation.

I believe that everyday Americans would welcome a change from the divisive rhetoric streaming off the airwaves.  Another huge storm is heading our way.  Hurricane Irma.  Hopefully, we will rise to the occasion once again and pitch in to pick up the pieces that are left in its wake if indeed it ends up taking direct aim at us, but why do we need a monster storm to force us to do that?

A house divided against itself cannot stand.  We know this to be a truth.  We have to come together.  We have to be willing to listen to one another.  We have to work together if we want to ensure the survival of our country for the future.  We can do it without another storm.  Teach young people to discuss.  Be an example of civil discussion. Listen first.  Listening doesn’t cost a thing.