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Monday Merton

September 27, 2010 Leave a comment

There is hardly a nation on earth today that is not to some extent committed to a philosophy or to a mystique of violence. One day or other, whether on the left or on the right, whether in defense of a bloated establishment or an impoverished guerrilla government in the jungle, whether in terms of a police state or a ghetto revolution, the human race is polarizing itself into camps armed with everything form Molotov cocktails to the most sophisticated technological instruments of death. At such a time, the doctrine that “war is the will of God” can be disastrous if it is not handled with extreme care. For everyone seems in practice to be thinking along some such lines with the exception of a few sensitive and well-meaning (mostly the kind of people who will read this book).

– Thomas Merton, Thoughts on the East, p. 50.

Categories: Uncategorized

An Essay on Public School Teachers

September 27, 2010 1 comment

I am married to a public school teacher. My wife is incredibly dedicated to her job and to her students. She recently completed her Ed.D. and is highly skilled at what she does. So you can imagine how frustrated I get when I watch both how hard she works and the amount of our own personal money we sink into that high school, and what I hear in response is people doing nothing other than bashing the education system, most often taking aim at hard working teachers rather than at the politicians who try to dictate education policy from capitals around the country.

We need to stand with public school teachers. The article below is a reprint of one that appeared on the NEA website, and  encourage you to read it. Original article can be found here. Thanks to Cynthia McCabe for writing this awesome piece:

I am a teacher in Florida.

I rise before dawn each day and find myself nestled in my classroom hours before the morning commute is in full swing in downtown Orlando. I scour the web along with countless other resources to create meaningful learning experiences for my 24 students each day. I reflect on the successes of lessons taught and re-work ideas until I feel confident that they will meet the needs of my diverse learners. I have finished my third cup of coffee in my classroom before the business world has stirred. My contracted hours begin at 7:30 and end at 3:00. As the sun sets around me and people are beginning to enjoy their dinner, I lock my classroom door, having worked 4 hours unpaid.

I am a teacher in Florida.

I greet the smiling faces of my students and am reminded anew of their challenges, struggles, successes, failures, quirks, and needs. I review their 504s, their IEPs, their PMPs, their histories trying to reach them from every angle possible. They come in hungry—I feed them. They come in angry—I counsel them. They come in defeated—I encourage them. And this is all before the bell rings.

I am a teacher in Florida.

I am told that every student in my realm must score on or above grade level on the FCAT each year. Never mind their learning discrepancies, their unstable home lives, their prior learning experiences. In the spring, they are all assessed with one measure and if they don’t fit, I have failed. Students walk through my doors reading at a second grade level and by year’s end can independently read and comprehend early 4th grade texts, but this is no matter. One of my students has already missed 30 school days this year, but that is overlooked. If they don’t perform well on this ONE test in early March, their learning gains are irrelevant. They didn’t learn enough. They didn’t grow enough. I failed them. In the three months that remain in the school year after this test, I am expected to begin teaching 5th grade curriculum to my 4th grade students so that they are prepared for next year’s test.

I am a teacher in Florida.

I am expected to create a culture of students who will go on to become the leaders of our world. When they exit my classroom, they should be fully equipped to compete academically on a global scale. They must be exposed to different worldviews and diverse perspectives, and yet, most of my students have never left Sanford, Florida. Field trips are now frivolous. I must provide new learning opportunities for them without leaving the four walls of our classroom. So I plan. I generate new ways to expose them to life beyond their neighborhoods through online exploration and digital field trips. I stay up past The Tonight Show to put together a unit that will allow them to experience St. Augustine without getting on a bus. I spend weekends taking pictures and creating a virtual world for them to experience, since the State has determined it is no longer worthwhile for them to explore reality. Yes. My students must be prepared to work within diverse communities, and yet they are not afforded the right to ever experience life beyond their own town.

I am a teacher in Florida.

I accepted a lower salary with the promise of a small increase for every year taught. I watched my friends with less education than me sign on for six figure jobs while I embraced my $28k starting salary. I was assured as I signed my contract that although it was meager to start, my salary would consistently grow each year. That promise has been broken. I’m still working with a meager salary, and the steps that were contracted to me when I accepted a lower salary are now deemed “unnecessary.”

I am a teacher in Florida.

I spent $2500 in my first year alone to outfit an empty room so that it would promote creative thinking and a desire to learn and explore. I now average between $1000-2000 that I pay personally to supplement the learning experiences that take place in my classroom. I print at home on my personal printer and have burned through 12 ink cartridges this school year alone. I purchase the school supplies my students do not have. I buy authentic literature so my students can be exposed to authors and worlds beyond their textbooks. I am required to teach Social Studies and Writing without any curriculum/materials provided, so I purchase them myself. I am required to conduct Science lab without Science materials, so I buy those, too. The budgeting process has determined that copies of classroom materials are too costly, so I resort to paying for my copies at Staples, refusing to compromise my students’ education because high-ranking officials are making inappropriate cuts. It is February, and my entire class is out of glue sticks. Since I have already spent the $74 allotted to me for warehouse supplies, if I don’t buy more, we will not have glue for the remainder of the year. The projects I dream up are limited by the incomprehensible lack of financial support. I am expected to inspire my students to become lifelong learners, and yet we don’t have the resources needed to nurture their natural sense of wonder if I don’t purchase them myself. My meager earning is now pathetic after the expenses that come with teaching effectively.

I am a teacher in Florida.

The government has scolded me for failing to prepare my students to compete in this
technologically driven world. Students in Japan are much more equipped to think progressively with regards to technology. Each day, I turn on the two computers afforded me and pray for a miracle. I apply for grants to gain new access to technology and compete with thousands of other teachers who are hoping for the same opportunity. I battle for the right to use the computer lab and feel fortunate if my students get to see it once a week. Why don’t they know how to use technology? The system’s budget refuses to include adequate technology in classrooms; instead, we are continually told that dry erase boards and overhead projectors are more than enough.

I am a teacher in Florida.

I am expected to differentiate my instruction to meet the needs of my 24 learners. Their IQs span 65 points, and I must account for every shade of gray. I must challenge those above grade level, and I must remediate those below. I am but one person within the classroom, but I must meet the needs of every learner. I generate alternate assessments to accommodate for these differences. My higher math students receive challenge work, and my lower math students receive one-on-one instruction. I create most of these resources myself, after-hours and on weekends. I print these resources so that every child in my room has access to the same knowledge, delivered at their specific level. Yesterday, the school printer that I share with another teacher ran out of ink. Now I must either purchase a new ink cartridge for $120, or I cannot print anything from my computer for the remainder of the year. What choice am I left with?

I am a teacher in Florida.

I went to school at one of the best universities in the country and completed undergraduate and graduate programs in Education. I am a master of my craft. I know what effective teaching entails, and I know how to manage the curriculum and needs of the diverse learners in my full inclusion classroom. I graduated at the top of my class and entered my first year of teaching confident and equipped to teach effectively. Sadly, I am now being micro-managed, with my instruction dictated to me. I am expected to mold “out-of-the-box” thinkers while I am forced to stay within the lines of the instructional plans mandated by policy-makers. I am told what I am to teach and when, regardless of the makeup of my students, by decision-makers far away from my classroom or even my school. The message comes in loud and clear that a group of people in business suits can more effectively determine how to provide exemplary instruction than I can. My expertise is waved away, disregarded, and overlooked. I am treated like a day-laborer, required to follow the steps mapped out for me, rather than blaze a trail that I deem more appropriate and effective for my students—students these decision-makers have never met.

I am a teacher in Florida.

I am overworked, underpaid, and unappreciated by most. I spend my weekends, my vacations, and my summers preparing for school, and I constantly work to improve my teaching to meet the needs of my students. I am being required to do more and more, and I’m being compensated less and less.

I am a teacher in Florida, not for the pay or the hardships, the disregard or the disrespect; I am a teacher in Florida because I am given the chance to change lives for the good, to educate and elevate the minds and hearts of my students, and to show them that success comes in all shapes and sizes, both in the classroom and in the community.

I am a teacher in Florida today, but as I watch many of my incredible, devoted coworkers being forced out of the profession as a matter of survival, I wonder: How long will I be able to remain a teacher in Florida?

Categories: Uncategorized

Teens, Church, and Priorities

September 23, 2010 Leave a comment

In case  you have not seen this awesome article, please take a few minutes and read, “Your Kid’s an All Star? Wow! Someday He’ll be Average Like the Rest of Us.”

Categories: church life, parenting, youth

Why We Suck at Evangelism: 5 Theses for Consideration

September 22, 2010 28 comments

I have been a redevelopment pastor for almost three years now. Part of my call was to lead the parish in evangelism with hopes that we would see numerical growth. Now that my three year term call is about up, I can look back and say that – while we have done many good things here – evangelism has been an unmitigated failure. The new members we have are not the result of our outreach, but the result of people looking around for a neighborhood church or a Lutheran church.

When I first got here, I proposed we take the Servant Evangelism model and make it our own. Doing little things like handing out water bottles, or free newspapers to commuters, or flowers on Mother’s Day to strangers, or free gift wrapping during the holidays. Simple things, things anyone can do. This was met with an uproar of resistance. So what did we do? A direct mail campaign. We sent out about 10,000 cards advertising Easter. My son decided to be born that Easter morning so I am unsure how many people may have been visitors as the result of the cards, but no one else bothered to follow up either. Some in leadership (who are thankfully no longer in leadership) began to grumble about the cost of the cards and effectively blocked ever doing them again.

So what next? Let’s hand out branded materials at an area festival. We had reusable athletic beverage bottles made with our name and logo and website and we filled them with lemonade or water for thirsty festival patrons for free. We were a big hit, distributing about 1800 bottles. But no one showed up the next Sunday or two who said the bottle led them there, so complaints resumed. By Christmas I proposed again going door to door, which didn’t happen. So I made up some Christmas service fliers and attached envelopes, challenging people to at least mail some fliers to a friend. If they would do 500 as a congregation, I would personally hand out 500 on my own. Which I did. Some people took fliers and mailed them, but others acted with ambivalence. I followed this up with a postcard campaign. I had secured some free postcards with our name, logo and brief invitational message, and implored people during my sermon to take a handful and hand them out. The only taker was a 10 year old girl (God bless her courage in doing so).

I’ve tried to get them to do a few other things, but you get the drift. Very little effort leads to no results. And please don’t think I am writing this to shame my current congregation (though they should have some shame about some of the lack of effort in this area); I have witnessed this at many mainline churches. In fact, I tried to bring people in to do an evangelism seminar at my last church and the council scoffed at the prospect. We Lutherans have a major problem with evangelism. This has been really bothering me as of late, so in true Lutheran fashion, I offer the following theses as to why we suck so bad at this.

1.       We do not know what evangelism is. We confuse it with service ministries and anything else that may bring us into contact with people. But we don’t really get that it is about introducing people to a loving God who offers salvation.

2.       Evangelism requires opening up to someone else about your own faith, and we all know that faith is something that should be kept private and personal (note the dripping sarcasm).

3.       We have no real compelling reason to evangelize. When I was a kid in the Free Will Baptist Church, a group of men met weekly to go door knock. Every week without fail they were out in the field sharing Jesus with people because they were compelled to do so. What compelled them were many different things, not the least of which was concern for how a person would spend eternity. We as Lutherans don’t seem to have anything that motivates us quite like hell motivated these Baptist men. Come to think of it, when is the last time you heard the word “hell” from your pastor’s mouth during a sermon? (please note: i am not one of those people who likes the idea of using hell to frighten children and old ladies into believing, but we seem to stumble over this whole afterlife thing.)

4.       Perhaps all of this is due to the fact that we have no real doctrine of salvation anymore, leaving this idea that Jesus needs to save us back in the Lutheran dark ages. Do we even see Jesus as a savior anymore, or is he simply a moral exemplar for those of us who really aren’t so bad? I don’t know sometimes. i mean, you are ok and i am ok and we are all just ok, right? Well…I am not so sure.

5.       Many of our churches are membership enclaves, and are not focused on making disciples. We focus on making life comfortable for ourselves and catering to ourselves, usually without much regard for outsiders. We want everyone to be a member and then we try to avoid challenging or upsetting them for fear that they will leave and our institutional life would be weakened and our time as an institution shortened. So let’s avoid all that stuff that makes Christianity seem hard like taking up crosses and following Jesus and let’s focus on providing quality programming and music like we are a PBS affiliate.

Ok, discuss among yourselves…

Merton Monday

September 20, 2010 1 comment

Note: I hope to make Merton Monday a regular feature so that I have a good excuse to keep reading Merton, as if one needs a good excuse.

Kierkegaard has an interesting notion of a vow of silence necessarily imposed upon a man capable of the kind of faith shown by Abraham in the trial over Isaac.

This faith is beyond heroism because it is incomprehensible. Heroism is only possible in the real of the universal. This is beyond ethics, beyond the universal,beyond the intelligible, and once more particular. Abraham is an individual in the presence of an Absolute Personality. This relationship is incomprehensible.

To try to express it – for Abraham to try and express it, would be terrible temptation to hypocrisy or sacrilege. Hence the vow of silence. He has to endure the martyrdom of being incomprehensible, absurd.

-from Run to the Mountain: The Journals of Thomas Merton, volume 1, 1939-1941. Journal entry dated November 29, 1940.

Crucifix

September 16, 2010 3 comments

“Keep your eyes on the crucifix; for Jesus Christ without the cross is a man without a mission, and the cross without Jesus is a burden without a reliever.” Fulton Sheen

Categories: worship

Why is the ELCA Dying? Comments on “The Lutherans Sterben Aus”

September 7, 2010 10 comments

A short blog entry titled “The Lutheran Sterben Aus” appeared a few days ago and has made its way around Lutheran internet circles. I found that I was really unable to address it on Facebook due to time constraints, so thought I would make a reappearance here to discuss a few things. First of all, I will not rehash the whole thing, go read it for yourself. What I want to do is comment on a few things the author says.

“Lutherans don’t have enough babies.”

I agree in a sense that we don’t have enough babies if our stated goal in reproduction is the maintain the church’s membership numbers. However, I am not sure that this is the REAL issue. After contributing three little Lutherans I need someone else to step up.

Lutherans don’t retain enough of the babies they have.

This really hits the nail on the head. We suck at retention as a church, from clergy all the way across the spectrum. Why? I have some ideas, but I can’t say for sure. I do think part of problem is a combination of a warped way of viewing confirmation combined with competing social pressures. We need to stop treating confirmation like graduation from church. PARENTS…ARE YOU LISTENING???? This is mostly your fault, and I say that as the parent of a teenage boy and a pastor. Yes, even we they are confirmed we need to continue to gently lead them in the right paths. When they go away, connect them up with the local ELCA campus minister (if you can find anymore after the ELCA gutted campus ministry…don’t get me started here).

Lutherans have no clue how to do evangelism which leads to large-scale adult conversion and baptism. Some even have an “in principle” allergy against doing it.

True again. There may be some places that are good at this, there may be some pastors who are good at this. But in the ELCA we don’t seem to make it a priority. Why is that? When I listen to the pastors from our African National Churches preach about the number of adult converts they see every year it makes me both joyful for those souls who find Christ and saddened that we aren’t doing the same here. As a pastor of a mission church, I can tell you that my folks are resistant (almost to the point of wanting to walk away) to doing any evangelism that may stretch them out of their comfort zone.

Many of our congregations are led by informal juntas of empty nesters and retired people which sabotage every step taken to try to create a young-adult-friendly environment, young adults who tend to have babies, by the way.

I am going to say that this is true in a sense, but not nearly as malevolent as the author makes it sound. It is odd that some of the people who have been most open to me and my tattoos and crazy ideas have been older people. The voices I have heard call for change and for a fight against oppression are older people. The most vocal opponents I knew against the exclusionary roster were senior citizens. So they are open and ready for change in their own minds and even in their words. Due to time availability, you are most likely to see empty nesters and retirees serving in leadership on councils and committees. We are thankful for what they do. However, take a look over your church’s calendar for the past six months. How many of these events were family friendly? How many of them took place at a time when families with young children could attend? How often was nursery or other childcare available? You see, it is little things like timing and childcare that make something child/family friendly. I have had young couples leave over this sort of thing, and it is something that my dear wife complains about when I have to go out for functions and she cant because it is time to put down our 2 year old and our 3 year old. We as leaders need to watch this sort of thing.

Lutherans are clueless about the communications revolution. Most of them spend half of their office hours producing bulletins and newsletters which are among the poorest quality print media in America, and no one reads them. Most or our pastors don’t have blogs or a social media presence of any kind.

I’ve been struggling a lot with how to  more effectively integrate social media into ministry, and I am fairly tech savvy. I’ve been blogging for a few years and use both Twitter and Facebook. I am guilty, however, of producing a newsletter every month that hardly gets read and costs time and money. Really it should simply be put online rather than printed out. If people want a paper copy, let them print it out themselves.

Most Lutheran sermons are virtually impossible to understand.

I wouldn’t say it this strongly, but I would say that our preaching needs some polishing. I like how the late Aidan Cavanaugh once put it: If you have nothing to say about the Gospel, then don’t bother standing up. You aren’t giving a lecture or an Oprah-esque style monologue. You are preaching the Word of Truth passed onto us by the Holy Church in the form of Bible. Read it, know it, pray it, ingest it, and then preach it and nothing else.

We treat our successful churches like pariahs.

Why are we so damned afraid of being successful? At least, that is how it comes across when with look at places like Community Church of Joy and scoff at the way they do things, from the theatre seating to the projection screens. I don’t think a rock band and a jumbo-tron are the end all be all factor for attending church. But when our numerically successful churches use these tools (and they are nothing more than tools) to grow, we tend to scoff and hem and haw about authenticity and identity and such things, as if our Lutheran identity were solely based on being able to sing in four part harmony on hymns without being prompted to do so. It is little wonder that churches like Hope in West Des Moines, Iowa, seem to have buried the ELCA’s logo deep in their pages.

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