On Tuesdays, Harvey, and Learning in War-Time

Twenty families from my school were flooded during the storm. Others lost power for several days, and all of us watched helicopter and boat rescues happening just a few miles from our homes. Time seemed suspended for a week; by Tuesday, August 29th, few Houstonians knew what day it was, and the foreseeable future only extended as far as Labor Day, with the entire workforce of Houston wondering when it should report to duty.

For most teachers and students, that day was yesterday, September 11th. Two weeks after Harvey’s devastating rains pummelled Houston, the schools opened their doors again, only to remember another heartbreaking day for Americans with flags at half-mast and videos of planes crashing into towers. And as Florida and the surrounding islands face 15-foot storm surges and the West Coast prays for some sort of salvation from the flames, teachers around Houston welcomed their students back to school.

Last Tuesday, September 5th, was my first day back to school as a teacher, and at first it didn’t seem right. We anxiously asked colleagues how they had weathered the storm; many of us left work that afternoon to volunteer at shelters or clean out homes; some returned to places that weren’t home, without any possessions they could call their own. Yet, there we were, planning curriculum and preparing our classrooms.

What do you do when the most routine part of life—the school day or work day—is interrupted by events outside of your control? When it’s not just your personal day, but an entire city’s? For days, Houstonians watched volunteers drop everything and head our way with boats and supplies, eager to respond to disaster quickly. Many people literally saved lives during the storm for no other reason than seeing the water rising on the news and deciding they had to do something about it. The situation repeated itself with work teams reporting for duty in Houston neighborhoods, tearing out drywall and wood floors and cabinets.

But now, Houstonians must return to work, even while the disaster continues. Many spend their weekends tearing apart flooded homes or volunteering in shelters or cooking meals for those in need. But this question has haunted me for the past couple of weeks: How can we devote ourselves to life as usual while so many are trying to recover and others are being hit by new disasters? Is there such a thing as normalcy in a world with Harveys and Irmas and fires and terrorists?

C.S. Lewis addressed this during World War II. In a speech given to Oxford students in 1939, he reminds us that there is no such thing as normalcy; we’ve merely convinced ourselves that every day we live in security. Students in 1939 were obviously concerned about their own responsibilities, their own families, their own survival. Why go to school? But Lewis reminds students that there is something much larger at stake: “But to a Christian the true tragedy of Nero must be not that he fiddles while the city was on fire but that he fiddles on the brink of hell.” After apologizing for the language in his polite British way, he goes on: “…we can see that every Christian who comes to a university must at all times face a question compared with which the questions raised by the war are relatively unimportant. He must ask himself how it is right, or even psychologically possible, for creatures who are every moment advancing either to heaven or to hell, to spend any fraction of the little time allowed them in this world on such comparative trivialities as literature or art, mathematics or biology.”

For Lewis, war merely aggravates the normal human situation: that all things come to pass. He claims that there will always be a distraction to study—whether it be love or war or politics or jobs.

As a teacher, Harvey has only increased my desire to read great texts with my students. A few weeks ago, I addressed how Charlottesville made me consider my curriculum in light of my students deciding which rally to attend or protest to join. The same goes for Harvey—my students are the future first responders, the future mayors and city officials, the future generation that will be calling the shots and saving lives during the next Harvey. I want to equip them to make those decisions.

Lewis, as always, has a broader, more eternal vision:

 “All the animal life in us, all schemes of happiness that centered in this world, were always doomed to a final frustration. In ordinary times only a wise man can realize it. Now the stupidest of us know. We see unmistakable the sort of universe in which we have all along been living, and must come to terms with it. If we had foolish un-Christian hopes about human culture, they are now shattered. If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon. But if we thought that for some souls, and at some times, the life of learning, humbly offered to God, was, in its own small way, one of the appointed approaches to the Divine reality and the Divine beauty which we hope to enjoy hereafter, we can think so still.”

It is Tuesday, September 12th, and our city has gone back to work. The tension within all of us, of doing our jobs or learning or teaching post-Harvey’s destruction, is one that has been there all along: there is no promise of tomorrow or of security, and yet we go about our lives each day. May we humbly offer ourselves to what we are called to do each hour, whether that be engineering, cleaning out homes, serving food, or learning.

Sabbath Tuesday: An Education 

This week, I’m in Colorado with my students from The Covenant Preparatory School. We’ve been whitewater rafting, hiking, eating, fellowshipping, and sometimes sleeping!

Initially, it seemed like an odd time to take a week-long trip; the students have only had classes for three days, then we headed north to Buena Vista. Classes will resume when we return, but teachers have already had to deal with the curriculum struggles that come with a week away from the classroom, right after school has begun. 

I’m quickly realizing, however, that this week is as much a part of my students’ education as sitting in the classroom discussing The Iliad. If I’m truly concerned with the whole person that I’m teaching, a week in Colorado should be considered an indispensable page of my lesson plans.

As I was hiking with my seniors today, I noticed their reverence for God’s creation around them. I saw them encourage each other, become better listeners, and grow in their friendships. Most people consider trips such as these “bonding times.” And though that is a great benefit, the best thing about this particular trip is watching my students learn how to contemplate the beauty around them. They aren’t allowed to have any sort of device with them, so in these few unplugged days, they are learning how to see. 


I’m off to dinner! Happy Tuesday. 

Sabbath Tuesday: Summer’s End

You may protest my title, as summer isn’t officially over until mid-September, but for teachers and students August marks the beginning of a new season. As a student, I’m excited to get back into classes and a routine.

And yes, this year I’ll also be a teacher. I’m thrilled to be teaching upper school English at The Covenant Preparatory School while I finish my masters. I’ll be teaching in the morning, studying in the afternoon, and going to night class once or twice a week.

Though I couldn’t be more excited to get back into the classroom, August feels like one long Sunday night—it’s a season marked with apprehension and planning and making sure everything is in order. Bring on the syllabus-making, the book ordering, the stress dreams…get ready to meet new students, new colleagues, a new classroom.

The easiest way to compensate the nervousness is to overwork. I’ve stayed up until 2am before organizing notebooks and lesson planning. I’ve spent 12 hours straight in a classroom hanging posters and boxing up old books. And though August will bring some long work days with it, my desire to control every details reveals a lack of trust.

A few months ago, Will and I started a new project on the back porch of our apartment. It may look like a science project gone awry, but it’s a hydroponic plant grower. When we first picked out the small vegetable plants, I don’t think either of us really believed we’d harvest a couple of jalapeños, a tomato, and a banana pepper in two months time. Though there were some difficulties in the beginning, and Will had to recalculate the water mixture, most of our time has been spent waiting and hoping.

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This is how I’d like to think of my new teaching assignment this August—as a garden. What needs my care? What will just take time? Where might I need to make adjustments? When will I realize that I can’t control the growth of another living thing?

In Wendell Berry’s poetry (which inspired these posts in the first place), he reminds workers that

And yet no leaf or grain is filled

By work of ours; the field is tilled

And left to grace. That we may reap,

Great work is done while we’re asleep.

My job as a teacher (and often as a graduate student as well) is not about measured outcomes and production—it is about the faithfulness of tending a garden even when I don’t have complete control.

So if you’re a teacher, or someone whose August is stress-filled, don’t let this be a month dictated by work alone. We must remember to maintain moments of rest, to let August be a time of tending gardens and leaving it to grace.

Rest is not death; it is life, and all life bears fruit.

-A.G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life

Sabbath Tuesday: Summer Days

fullsizeoutput_75dSummer always seems glorious to me at the outset. When I was teaching full time, it meant days when I could read what I wanted, days without grading papers, days of sleeping past 5:45 a.m. Now that I’m a student, it means days of reading what I need to read for my own studies instead of classes, days not spent on campus, days free from responsibilities of essays and deadlines. And for most everyone else, even if they are not on an academic schedule, summer often means time off, traveling, a change in workload.

But summer comes with its own troubles. As carefree as it may appear, the absence of routine and work can take its toll. In past Sabbath Tuesday posts, I’ve written about the beauty of work paired with rest—something Wendell Berry often explores in his poetry: “When we work well, A Sabbath mood/ Rests on our day, and finds it good.” So what happens to us, those whose lives are dictated by the academic calendar, whose work suddenly subsides for a few months?

At the beginning of the summer, it is easy to think that the time off will be one long Sabbath after the difficult academic year. But there is a difference between a break and an intentional rest. Sabbath moments during the school year were a breath of fresh air in the midst of the heavy workload, but now, summer is just one long break. How I choose to spend my time can determine how much rest actually happens during these three months.

The difference between a break and a rest reminds me of the difference between fast food and a well-prepared feast. Fast food (for those of us who like deep-fried things) is something we look forward to, something we crave. If you’re a Texan like me, you probably agree that summertime and Whataburger go hand-in-hand—it works for late nights, post-river trips, and after you’ve climbed up Enchanted Rock. And it tastes good. But we are aware that it is a quick fix that doesn’t contribute to our long term health or nourishment.

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At a cabin in North Carolina with good friends, feasting and resting.

On the other hand, summer is also a time when hospitality blossoms. Cook outs and barbecues abound, extended families reunite, friendships deepen. The slowing down of work welcomes the thoughtfulness of day-long meal preparations before friends arrive. These kinds of meals—I mean the slow-cooked brisket, side of beans, watermelon salad, coleslaw, peach pie—have a different impact on both our bodies and souls than those quick Whataburger stops. They are deeply nourishing to both our relationships and our bodies.

So far this summer, I’ve struggled with the idea of Sabbath, and I assume that some other academics have too. It is difficult to crave nourishment when you’re already in the midst of a break. Sabbath looses its attraction when work subsides, and the importance of rest and renewal and remembrance fades. This morning I was reading in Jeremiah about the house of Jacob that turned their back on the Lord. They were said to “go after worthlessness, and become worthless.” This is my greatest fear for the summer: that I’ll only eat Whataburger, go after worthlessness, merely “take a break,” and not be renewed when the school year starts again.

May we pursue Sabbath and the nourishment it brings even in times of less work.

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Tubing on Lake Travis in Austin, TX with my little brother Austin. 

Sabbath Tuesday: Our Unruly Affections

Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly
wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to
love what you command and desire what you promise; that,
among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts
may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found;
through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with
you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

From the Book of Common Prayer 

This prayer was part of Sunday’s service, and it won’t leave my memory. If you skipped over it to read my words, go back and read it closely.

The liturgical calendar, like nature, works in cycles: Advent comes in winter, Lent coincides with the approach of Spring, and ordinary time sets in each summer. And our weekly practices work this way, too, as we labor for six days then worship and rest on the seventh. Part of the idea behind Sabbath Tuesdays is to make these cycles of life even smaller. Just as we get in the habit each year of looking forward to Easter, and the weekly rhythm of celebrating the resurrection each Sunday, these reminders should come also in our daily pauses and practices.

The prayer above, meant for the fifth Sunday of Lent, reminds me what Lent and Sundays and daily disciplines are for—re-ordering our hearts away from the “unruly wills and affections of sinners” and towards “where true joys are to be found.” Perhaps the season of Lent focuses on this re-ordering more than other seasons; it is, in fact, one of the main reasons to fast. But Lent is not the only place that God brings into order our unruly hearts. This yearly practice becomes one echoed each Sunday as we again confess and break bread together; this weekly practice becomes daily as we turn to God in prayer, asking Him to continue the re-ordering process. Even in the midst of the “swift and varied changes of the world,” this new order becomes a refuge of cyclical constancy, forever reminding us of what should be.

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Sabbath Tuesday: A Hymn

Stuck in my head from this Sunday. I had to include the notes–it is one of the most beautiful hymns I’ve ever heard.

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Refrain:

Seek the Lord whose willing presence

moves your heart to make appeal.

Turn from wickedness and evil;

God will pardon, cleanse, and heal. 

Sabbath Tuesday: Hunger

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Last week, Will and I started watching a new Netflix series called Chef’s Table. After the first episode about a famous Italian who created modern Italian cuisine, we were hooked. The second episode started out with the same promise of celebrity—the chef featured is a leader in the farm-to-table and sustainable food movements. But the close of his story ended on a dissonant note. Instead of seeing him in celebration with his family because of his success, he reflected on a feeling of emptiness that he has experienced his entire life, and explained that his workaholism is a way to fill the void. He connected this void to the death of his mother, but then added that he thought he could never rid himself of it.

As I’m thinking about and participating in Lent, I’m beginning to realize that much of Lent is about recognizing our voids and how we fill them. The most basic way is fasting from food—an experience that everyone can participate in. It reminds us of our frailty as humans. Another way people often observe Lent is partaking in times of silence that they would otherwise fill with noise, whether that be music or television or talking. This silence becomes a sort of void, and we easily recognize the habitual ways that we provide noise.

Lenten observances not only point out our voids, but magnify them. The ashes on Ash Wednesday remind us of death and our fear of it, the practice of fasting reminds us of our weakness, and the act of repentance reminds us of our moral culpability. One of the messages of the season is “You are not whole, you are not well.” And hopefully, this both convicts us that our current ways of dealing with emptiness may not be healthy, and that Christ provides grace enough.

The farm-to-table chef that is aching with a void spends his life considering what should be consumed by his guests in a way that will benefit not only them but the world around them. He looks for the healthiest and most sustainable crops to feed his customers. But his soul will never be satisfied by the workaholism that defines his career; he is constantly seeking for something that will satisfy like the wholesome plates of food he offers. I hope to develop his perspective on food, but even more than that, I hope to consume wholesome offerings that actually answer the ache of emptiness, to feast in Zion, to drink of the wine and eat of the bread, to taste the living water.

May we recognize our voids, and may we consume that which is life-giving.

Sabbath Tuesday: Confessions about Lent

 

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Lent is a period of 40 days before the Easter celebration, in which the church traditionally fasts in remembrance and reflection of Jesus’ time in the wilderness. The central images of the season are the desert, dust, and ashes, as Christians remember their mortality, sinful nature, and dependence on God. Though it is a darker season than Advent, it is a journey that has a bright destination: the Easter feast that celebrates Christ’s resurrection, and humanity’s salvation from death and sin. 

I’ve never understood fasting. I easily get light-headed from hunger, I see food as an important factor in relationships, and not eating means not dancing, so fasting doesn’t add up in most cases. But Lent is just that: a season of fasting, created for the act of fasting. And suddenly I’m thrust into a practice of the church that humbles me and challenges me, and Lent becomes a season of change.

Over the past few years, as my interest in the church calendar has increased, I have dabbled in Lenten practices—praying the divine hours three times a day, fasting from a particular habit, contemplating pieces of art—but I’ve failed a full commitment to the season. There are many resources that can help you define goals for Lent, but those will only take you so far. Here’s what I’ve learned in my few years of thinking about—and attempting—Lent.

Lent is meant to be practiced in community.

I can’t tell you what a relief it is to my liturgically-drawn soul to be in a church community this year that is digging deep into Lent. I’m already anticipating the altered sanctuary as the colors change from green to purple, the focus on lamentation and confession, and the imposition of ashes that will take place tomorrow night.

Even if you’re not in a church that practices the season of Lent, find fellow believers that share in your desire to walk through this time of fasting and confession with you. Not only do you need people to be praying for you and encouraging you on your journey, but you need a community of believers to discover together both the darkness and the beauty of this season. I tried doing it alone in the past, and regret it.

Lent requires a plan.

And “not eating any chocolate” isn’t it. I’ve realized through trial and error that if my Lenten sacrifices are merely a dieting plan to lose those last five pounds, then I’ve made it into a season that supports my own desires, rather than one that recognizes the power of self-denial.

The Book of Common Prayer invites believers into the three common practices of Lent: “by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s Holy Word.” Health is the goal of Lent, but not a shallow health that is merely concerned with the physical—a spiritual health, which is closely connected to our physical state, is the aim.

Lent is supposed to make us uncomfortable.

The early church practiced a fast a few days before Easter to mourn the crucifixion of Christ before celebrating the Resurrection. Over time, this extended to a forty day fast—an obvious reflection on other forty day fasts in the Bible, but particularly a remembrance of Jesus’ time in the wilderness. If you think about Christ’s own fasting and temptation in the desert, and the challenges he faced there, Lent is a way for the church to participate in that. This wilderness of the soul, of facing our own demons, of discovering our inability to overcome and Christ’s power—these are the underlying assumptions of the season.

Have you ever wondered why fasting is particularly related to food? Because it is a common human need. Physical fasting is not to say that the body is not important, but fasting does reflect our spiritual need for God, just as we have a physical need for nutrition. More to come on this later, but as you consider how you might participate in this season, realize that the long-standing tradition in Scripture and the church of fasting from food has a particular value.

 

Here are some questions to reflect on as we begin this season:

  • Do I have a community, large or small, that will walk through this season with me?
  • Is there a fast that I can commit to in order to deepen my experience?
    • (a day of fasting a week? a particular type of food? a certain meal?)
  • Is there a habit that leads me away from Christ instead of towards, and needs to be broken?
    • (this is where “fasting” from other items—social media, shopping, etc. comes in)
  • In what ways can I deepen my prayer life during this season to practice self-examination and grow closer to God?

 

 

How to Practice Examen

One of the most fruitful times in my teaching career was practicing daily examen during Lent in 2015. The day would end (and that could be anywhere from 3:40 to 6:00), and to my habit—or obsession—of cleaning off my desk before going home, I added the habit of reflecting on my day at school.

Examen is a practice found in St. Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises. If you Google it, or talk to those who practice it, you’ll find countless variations—but it all comes down to this one simple act: reviewing your day in prayerful reflection. Some practice it weekly or monthly, others practice it daily, and others pray through Examen during particular seasons, like Lent.

I’ve found examen particularly helpful in terms of vocation. In addition to the general reflection of God’s presence in your day, I like to ask questions that address my own roles: Was the Holy Spirit welcome in my classroom today? Did I take opportunities that were placed in front of me to participate in God’s work? Did I treat my students as children of God?

Setting aside this much time at the end of long day can be daunting, but even doing this once a week is helpful. However, practicing examen daily  can be a great way to re-focus your spiritual life during a particular liturgical season—like Lent, which begins in week!

Click the links below for three ways to practice examen: a general examen, an examen specifically for teachers, and another specifically for students. Examen should be done at the end of the day, and for teachers, I think it is most helpful to practice it at the end of the work day while still in your classroom.

examen for everyone                  examen for students                examen for teachers

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Sabbath Tuesday: A Reflection on Marriage [and some punny valentines]

I obviously have to follow the Valentine’s Day trend and say something about love. Actually, Will and I don’t really celebrate Valentine’s Day, as it makes Will angry that so many are “manipulated by Hallmark to further participate in our consumerist culture,” according to him (I generally agree). And he’s too hipster to buy me flowers on the day you’re supposed to buy people flowers, so he surprises me on random days instead.

We celebrated our fourth anniversary about six weeks ago with a bike ride on the Galveston beach in freezing 45-degree weather, where our relationship was defined in the simple act of me trying to ride through the McDonald’s drive thru on my bike, but being unable to because I didn’t have my wallet with me, and Will refusing to condescend to such a level (“It’s illegal!!”).

There’s a line in an Andrew Peterson song that has deepened my views on marriage this past year. In “My One Safe Place,” Peterson sings:

I know that you’re broken, too,

But you are a sacrament that God has spoken through.

 I’ve heard over and over again the comparison between marriage and Christ and the church, but that line made me realize that is exactly what we’ve been experiencing in our own marriage over the past four years: each other’s brokenness, love, sacrifice, and faithfulness. Will and I loved each other when we walked down that aisle together in celebration four years ago, but I’m not sure I understood the depth of love that two human beings could experience together.

Marriage is a microcosm of the triune love, a small way for us to experience just how deep Christ’s love for us can be, for us to know the power of forgiveness and faithfulness and sacrifice. I’ve credited the renewal in my spiritual life to many things—praying daily prayers, reading Hopkins, teaching high school students… but the gift of marriage is one of the many reasons I have a better understanding of God today.

I’m forcing Will to celebrate with me this year, because I surprised him with movie tickets to Lego Batman, so suddenly he sees Valentine’s Day as a valid excuse for a date night. Here’s to love, Hallmark holidays, and the joys of marriage.

 

MY FAVORITES THIS YEAR
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