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. 

Flowchart Friday: Which European village should you visit?

When I travel, I tend to seek out the tiny corners of the world. Perhaps it’s because I grew up in the tiny town of Bulverde, Texas, which boasts of a post office, a bakery forever changing its name, an antique shop, a small library, and a corner store that offered take out pizza. It’s a bit bigger now, but I loved the small town feel, and knowing that no one could find it unless given specific directions, or perhaps stumbling upon it during a Sunday drive through the hill country.

If you’re planning a vacation, or maybe this is inspiring you to plan a vacation… here are five European villages that I’ve traveled to and loved. Don’t forget to look at the pictures below!

*Some of these “villages” are tiny (Weem, Binsey), while others act as getaway towns for the locals (St. Wolfgang, Gengenbach, Bellagio). Either way, there’s a small town for every type of vacation!

Click here to zoom in: European Villages

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St. Wolfgang, Austria

Weem, Scotland

 

Binsey, England

 

Bellagio, Italy

 

Gengenbach, Germany

*p.s. If you’re looking for more pictures of Gengenbach or St. Wolfgang, there are videos on my Facebook page!

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

Flowchart Friday: Which Netflix mystery you should binge-watch

Okay, some of you probably came to this post because of the provocative title: “Binge-watching?? Are you a fan of that?”

Let me give you a brief opinion on binge-watching. I’ve been binge-reading for quite some time now, and most of you would be okay with that. If I want to sit for three hours and read Hamlet, no one seems to have a problem. In fact, you’ll think I’m quite intellectual. However, if I tell you that I’ve been binge-watching instead of binge-reading…well, well… suddenly you raise an eyebrow. Here are some simple things to consider.

Is binge-watching any different from binge-reading? Sure, perhaps the amount that you imagine individually is less while watching a TV show, but you are still engaging with a narrative, and both books and television are types of technologies and–arguably–types of art.

Can anything be binge-watched? Goodness, no. Please no. But it’s the same with reading–I’ll raise all the eyebrows I have if you say you’ve been binge-reading Twilight.

Is binging anything inherently bad? Ah, there’s the rub. Something worth a discussion. Is anything in excess a bad a thing? What about reading poetry? Or binging on classical music? If you want to discuss this, comment on this post because I’d love to talk it through.

As far as binge-watching goes, there are a few things I think about. First, is the show that I’m watching worthy of being binged? How is the plot? Character development? Treatment of right and wrong in moral dilemmas? Secondly, if this show was a book, would I read it? Thirdly, am I avoiding any responsibilities by choosing to binge-watch for a few hours?

But why mysteries, you ask? Well, besides being wildly popular in our culture, mysteries do have some virtue in them. Thankfully, I don’t have to defend this much because Angelina Stanford and Brian Phillips did a great job of it in this podcast. Mysteries, especially murder mysteries, have some sense of wrongs that need to be righted, justice that needs to be enacted, and care for human life. Instead of settling into relativism, mysteries imply that there is both a good and bad side.

With no further ado, here are some Netflix mysteries you might want to binge-watch this summer if you happen to fall ill or be on a lousy vacation or just have a free evening.

Click here for a closer look. netflix

Cover image: from Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries

 

Flowchart Friday: Which Dickens novel you should read this summer

Welcome to my first flowchart Friday post! I’m putting aside my usual “What I’m Reading” series for the summer for something a bit more interesting.

My first flowchart is about Dickens. If you talked to me last semester, or kept up with this blog, you know that I took an incredible Dickens graduate seminar this spring and fell in love with everything Dickens. Sure, his books are long, and he does spend a lot of time bashing the English legal system, but his fame is not without reason! Some compare his popularity and impact on the English culture with Shakespeare’s.

So with no further ado, here are suggested Dickens readings based on some random assessments. Click here for a closer look. Dickens

 

Dickens

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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Blogs I Follow 3.31.17

What I’m reading this week isn’t that interesting or different from what I posted last time…so I thought, instead, I’ll give you some recommendations of things worth reading on the internet.

  1. G.C. Jeffers. Greg is a middle school teacher at a classical school, a friend of mine from ACU, and an excellent writer. He has been blogging about his faith for several years now, and his thoughtful responses to political and cultural movements are timely. Here are a couple of my favorite: 

    How Rote Worship and Ritualistic Prayer Saved my Faith

    Election 2016 Thoughts

  2. First Things. This isn’t really a blog, but a journal that also publishes articles online. If you want to keep up with the conversation surrounding Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option, this is a good site to keep up with. Peter Leithart, who writes often about faith and literature, also has his own blog attached to First Things. Here are two of the posts worth a read:

 Against Great Books 

Architectural Justice

 

3. Experimental Theology. Dr. Beck from ACU writes, well… a lot. And a lot of interesting    stuff, from theology to psychology to literature to pop culture to race. You’ll never get bored on this blog!

Summer and Winter Christians 

Series on Theology and Monsters 

 

4. Comment Magazine. Again, not quite a blog, but a magazine that also publishes online. James K.A. Smith, who wrote the popular Desiring the Kingdom, is the editor, and Comment’s goal is “renewing the North American social architecture.” Here are a couple posts (that I’ve probably shared before!):

By the Book

Habits of Mind in an Age of Distraction

 

5. Circe Institute. This is a great resource for educators, and book lovers, and humans. Their podcasts are also well worth a listen! Here are two posts I recommend:

What to Say When Your Students Hate a Classic Book 

Why Tolstoy and Dostoevsky Matter Now More Than Ever 

 

 

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.