A Million Possibilities and Infinite Desires

A Million Possibilities and Infinite Desires

A few days ago, I attended my sixth high school graduation as a teacher.  The following day, I attended the first funeral of a former student.

I had wondered before, briefly, at a few sporadic moments, what it would be like to go to the funeral of a former student.  Of course, I hoped that it would be several more years before I would find out.  At the graduation, I watched the students parade by, diplomas in hand, with an unknown future filled with a thousand moments they couldn’t expect.  As a whole, they were excited, ready to leave the halls of their high school and venture into a bigger, bolder world.  The next day, I stood before a woman who had crossed that same stage three years earlier, but, too quickly, now rested in a coffin.

My beautiful, wonderful, frustrating, and interesting students have a million possibilities in their lives.  Some will go on to achieve great things, things that will cause them to be well-known and highly esteemed.  Some will go on to achieve small things, things that will make them loved by a few and yet will impact the world in an authentic way.

And some won’t last very long at all.  They get caught up in addiction or depression or violence.  It was no secret at the funeral that we shouldn’t be there and that there should be a very different ending to the story that was before us.  It was also no secret that drugs were responsible.  As I watched her mother in a mournful embrace with her husband, I wanted a picture to show my students.  I wanted to tell them, “This is how drugs impact your family.  This is what you are doing to your parents.” Continue reading “A Million Possibilities and Infinite Desires”

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When Small-Hearted Meets Magnanimous

When Small-Hearted Meets Magnanimous

Small talk isn’t really my thing.

In fact, I  have respect for people who have the gift of being able to chat about different things casually.  Some of the students I know better are easier to talk to, but I have to force myself to generate conversation with others.

The other day, I asked a student how his snow day was the previous day.  His lack of response prompted me to say semi-teasingly, “Come on!”  To which he responded with an annoyed, “No.”

Suddenly, frustration and anger filled me.  Here I was, making an effort and he couldn’t even give the common courtesy of responding to a non-invasive question.  I wasn’t asking him to share the depths of his soul, just to have him share about something from the previous day.

While small talk doesn’t come easily, quick retorts generally do.  So I struggled to keep back all of the sharp responses I wanted to give and I forced myself to continue to acknowledge him during the rest of class, even though I childishly wanted to ignore him.  I had the desire to demonstrate to him just how rude he was being…by being equally rude myself.  You have a question?  Too bad, I don’t want to answer you, just like you didn’t want to answer me.

I didn’t do those things, yet I am continually surprised how deeply small-heartedness is ingrained in me.  God is justice and mercy, but I naturally favor justice.  Old Testament eye-for-an-eye justice.  It isn’t what I want to receive, but it is definitely what I want to mete out. Continue reading “When Small-Hearted Meets Magnanimous”

The Grace of Lesson Plans That Get Overthrown by Questions

The Grace of Lesson Plans That Get Overthrown by Questions

The lesson plan for the day was to discuss the argument from efficient causality.  Yet they managed to completely derail that plan.  When students ask questions that are about the faith and yet truly interest them, it is nearly impossible for me to continue with class as planned.  Interiorly, I am torn between following a schedule or curriculum and the desire to answer questions that organically spring up in their hearts.

Nine times out of ten I go with the questions they present to me.  I don’t believe I’ve ever regretted it, I only wish that each class would then magically divert itself in the same way.  Genuine curiosity and ponderings aren’t things you can manufacture in other classes.

“So is this argument saying that all things are caused to be by other things?  Or it is saying not all things are caused to be by other things?” I asked.
“I have a question that kind of relates but is off topic.  If God is caused or even if He isn’t caused, what is the point of life?  Like why did God make us?  What is our purpose?”

Those questions, dear readers, will definitely sidetrack me.  When senior boys are curious about why they were created and the meaning of life, I will dropkick lesson plans to spend time answering some of the biggest questions of life.

This is the class that argued with me about gravity objectively existing.  The day before this class, instead of working on an assignment they chose to ask me a thousand inane questions about my car, my hometown, and where my parents live.  So hearing one student start a conversation about the purpose of their lives and why God made them, and then hearing several other students jump in with follow-up questions, was a pure delight.  The only problem was the lack of time before the bell would ring.

To begin to answer their questions, I went back to the beginning.  The Trinity.  I spoke of how the Father and Son pour out a love that is so strong that it is another person, the Holy Spirit.  Within this communion of love, there is nothing that is lacking.  God was perfectly satisfied within this exchange of love.  Therefore, we are not needed.  God didn’t need us. Continue reading “The Grace of Lesson Plans That Get Overthrown by Questions”

To Make People Fall in Love with Jesus

To Make People Fall in Love with Jesus

“If I could do the last thirty years over again, I would do it differently.  I would try to make people fall in love with Jesus.”

A story was being told about a conversation with an elderly priest nearing death, but it pierced my heart and filled me with a great desire to do the same thing.  In teaching Theology, I feel these seemingly conflicting pulls on my heart.  I desire to teach them concrete information yet I want to show them how to fall in love with the Lord.  These two desires aren’t mutually exclusive, but the balance is a difficult thing to ascertain.

While I wish we could have daily conversations about the matters closest to their hearts or the questions they really want answered, I also have a curriculum to follow.  We need to take quizzes and tests.  I am required to give them assignments and to grade their work.  Yet, somehow, in the midst of the formal education, I am also supposed to provide an education of the heart.

How?  I’m uncertain.  I know it sometimes happens when their sincere questions spring from the topics at hand.  Or during unplanned times of heart sharing and depth.  The Holy Spirit will surprisingly show up and elevate my lesson to something far beyond what I could do on my own.

I want to answer all of their questions about the Catholic Church and Jesus Christ.  Sometimes they don’t know how to phrase the questions or are uninterested in engaging in a conversation that may challenge their status quo.  Despite my desires to help them encounter the Lord, I cannot manufacture an encounter in a 50-minute class period.  I attempt to provide opportunities and share experiences I have had, yet with 25-30 students in a class, I am unable to personally reach each person as they need to be reached. Continue reading “To Make People Fall in Love with Jesus”

Overjoyed

Overjoyed

It is human nature to have favorites.  As a teacher, the same holds true.  I often tell my students I’m not supposed to have favorite classes or students.  Several classes will guess that they are my favorite, but I can never tell them if they are correct or not.  Usually, there are multiple things I appreciate about each class as well as aspects I wish they would change.  Yet, as a human, I look forward to some classes more than others.  Gone are my first year teacher days of feeling ill at the thought of a particular class.  For a variety of reasons, some classes make me a little less excited to teach them.

A couple of weeks ago, I was facing this feeling of not looking forward to a particular class.  It wasn’t dread, but I was definitely not excited for them to fill my classroom with their boisterous selves.  On Tuesdays, I have “contemplative time” with my classes, ten minutes of silent prayer with a reflection or Scripture passage given as the means to enter into prayer.  I’m a little dense, so it took a while, but after a few classes, I recognized that this meditation was speaking to me about that less-than-ideal class.

My dear friend, I am overjoyed to see you.  I am with you speaking to you and listening to you.  Realize that I am truly present.  I am within your soul.  Close your ears and eyes to all distractions.  Retire within yourself, think my thoughts, and be with me alone.  

My Other Self: Conversations with Christ on Living Your Faith*, Clarence Enzler

The word overjoyed stood out to me after several readings.  Clarence Enzler wrote this book as though it is Jesus speaking directly to us, that we are Christ’s other self.  After considering the beauty of Jesus being overjoyed to see me, I began to desire that this was my response for that particular class.  When I come to the Lord with all my worries and failings, He is always pleased that I have entered into His presence.  I want this to be my attitude toward this class.  Each day, I want to be overjoyed that these particular students are coming into my classroom and sitting in my presence.  Recognizing Christ dwelling within them, I want to respond to them as Christ responds to me, even with my less-than-ideal heart. Continue reading “Overjoyed”

The Gift of Good Men

The Gift of Good Men

Good men, the ones who know what it is like to fight the battle for virtue, are deeply hurt when other men don’t see the dignity in women.  I have found this to be true in personal experience and the glimpses of truth that entertainment sources can provide.  Real men value the unique role women have and they do not respect men who fail to protect women.

I was watching a TV show the other day and the plot centered on a woman who was found in a forest, badly beaten.  Uncertain of the ones who committed the crime, the people aiding her were able to find her husband and sent word to him of her location.  The woman revealed, however, that her husband was the one who had beaten her.  The central male character in the show was profoundly disturbed by this reality.  When given the chance to protect the recovering wife, the main character did so.  He was overly vehement in his defense, the protection spiralling into beating the man himself, but that beating I could understand, even if not condone.  Real men want to defend women, not manipulate or abuse them.

The numerous accounts of sexual harassment that have made the news over the past several weeks has been a bit disheartening.  Last week, my class was reviewing an informational quiz they had taken about tech safety.  One of the questions asked them to define objectification.  Many did so accurately, speaking about how it means you treat a person as though they are an object.  Then I asked a simple question, “Do you think men objectify women more or women objectify men more?”  There was no statistic I had in mind; I simply wanted to see what they thought.  Most people said men objectify women more, but some students argued it was equal.

In one class, however, the conversation continued and they began sharing how men objectify women in different ways than women do.  They spoke of unwanted physical contact, vile words in catcalls, and other scenarios.  Several of the young women in my class had situations or opinions they wanted to share.  After a few shared, I began noticing the faces of the young men in my classroom.  They seemed a bit defeated.  I asked the women to pause their sharing for a moment so that some of the men could chime in.  I didn’t want it to be a man-bashing session because good, virtuous men are as appalled by this behavior as women.

More than the words were the young men’s faces that produced an ache in my heart.  There seemed a vulnerability in their faces.  They couldn’t argue for what the men did because they knew it was wrong.  But hearing about man after man hurting women dampened the natural exuberance they exhibited in my classroom.  I was fine with the gravity of the situation, yet I didn’t want them to feel to blame simply because they are men.  Feminism often takes the unnecessary step from desiring to be seen as equal to bashing men.

In social media and in the world at large, young men are seeing many examples of what not to do.  I told them that men aren’t looking very good in the media right now and that it hurts because we know there are many, many good men.  I challenged them to be the virtuous young men that our culture needs.  A world that continues to tell us to “do what we feel” is now experiencing the results of doing what we feel.  Unsurprisingly, most don’t like the results.  I want my students to be the ones who change the cultural perception of what it means to be a man. Continue reading “The Gift of Good Men”

A Grateful Mission

A Grateful Mission

Like a mother who gushes with affection over a sleeping child, I often feel particularly fond for my students when they are taking tests.  They seem so quiet, so studious, and so devoted to the task at hand that I find myself gazing at their little, intent faces and being so thankful to be a teacher.

In all honesty, that isn’t the only moment I am thankful to teach, but it is one continually recurring theme.  Moments of quiet, moments of humor, and moments of profound learning make me grateful to teach.  The inside jokes we share and the relationships that are built over time make me thankful to interact with so many high school students.  When I am able to step back from the late papers, endless questions, and constant repetition of directions, I see young people seeking.  Seeking just like I am–for happiness, for joy, for love, for peace, for life.  When I see that perspective, I am grateful for the time to be with them, accompanying them for a short while on their journey to eternity.

It makes me wonder if I have any type of impact.  This little heart inside of me longs so much for a great mission.  And then I remember that I teach.  I interact with young people daily and if that isn’t the rich soil for a great mission, I don’t know what is.  Grades, dress codes, and attitudes can make me forget the mission that is in front of me every day.  Yet every now and then, I will get a glimpse of what God might be doing in souls.  I see that perhaps my littleness might be in the midst of something great right now and completely unaware of it all.

Still, the heart longs to know a difference is being made.  Thankfully, God gives me reminders in little moments.  There is enough to assure me that it isn’t for nothing and yet little enough so that it doesn’t all go to my head.  It is found in class camaraderie when one class writes me up for a detention when I return a little late for class.  I see it in a small group of women who enter into conversation about pursuing true beauty.  It is experienced in random after school conversations and hearing that my class is teaching something.  The look on some students faces as we tackle the problem of evil and honestly question how a good God could allow awful things to happen.  Brief moments, easy to pass by, but ones that remind me that something is happening here and now.

It isn’t because of me.  It is because of God’s grace.  Continue reading “A Grateful Mission”

Is there free will in Heaven?

Is there free will in Heaven?

“Do people in Heaven still have free will?”

Our conversation started with evolution and gradually meandered to angels, free will, and humanity.  I told them that angels had free will and they asked if angels could still rebel.  Explaining that angels will their decision to follow or not follow God with their entire beings, they then asked if people in Heaven could sin.  When I said they wouldn’t, they wondered how free will could be found in a place where there was no sin.

“It seems like free will would just be an illusion,” they said, when I told them that in Heaven we would be purified and would always choose to follow God, even while exercising our free will.

I needed to make a correlation that they would understand.  One student compared it to pizza.  If he said he would eat pizza for the rest of his life, he wouldn’t be free to eat anything other than pizza.  That wasn’t quite the comparison I was looking for in order to explain the situation to them.

I’m not always very quick on my feet.  Sometimes, I want to beg them for more time and to consider than I am a slow thinker, a muller of thoughts and ideas.  Instead, I tried to think of something tangible that they could understand.  How could one make a particular choice that was forever and yet still exercise their free will?

Now that I consider it, I could have referenced Jesus or Mary.  Instead, I used vocations.

“Priests, religious, and married persons make vows that they intend to follow forever and yet they freely choose to will those decisions daily.  Our free will in Heaven is kind of like that, but we are able to perfectly will it always.”

A couple committed to marriage make vows to love the other in a free, total, faithful, and fruitful way.  They still have a free will, but they have publicly voiced their desire to always will the good of the other.  This doesn’t make them less free.  Instead, their commitment allows them to experience the freedom of total gift of self to another.  Yes, they could choose to cheat or leave or lie.  But if they follow the vows, they will freely choose to not do those things. Continue reading “Is there free will in Heaven?”

Seeking the Face of God, Even in Tragedy

Seeking the Face of God, Even in Tragedy

“We live in a crazy world,” I told my class near the beginning of a class period.

“One of you asked if I had heard of the truck bombing and I thought I had, but I wasn’t sure if it was from last week or this week.  Then I looked it up.  Two hundred and seventy people died and it just sounded an awful lot like several other events.  We live in a world where it is possible to be uncertain if a tragedy like this is news or something from a couple of weeks ago.”

This particular class period, we were reflecting on the Ignatian theme of finding God in all things.  It is easy to find God in bits of beauty–in the sunset, the splendor of fall foliage, or the smile of a newborn.  The difficulty is found in seeing the face of God in tragedy–the shooting in Las Vegas, the 9/11 attacks, or the truck bombing in Somalia.

Practice makes perfect, though, right?  Or, at least, better?

So our class time was spent in small groups brainstorming a few tragedies and then considering how we can see God in the midst of these situations.  I challenged them to go beyond the cliché lines they hear or the standard Theology class answers.  Instead, I wanted them to delve into these painful situations and to truly seek the face of God.

This class period had the most somber tone of all my classes and I found myself telling them that I viewed this exercise in a hopeful way.  Yes, we were talking about a loved one being diagnosed with cancer, terrorist attacks, natural disasters, and struggles in relationships, but we were doing so because we believe God can be found even there.  Perhaps, especially there.

After a group presented how they found God in a particular situation, I opened it up to the entire class.  Time after time, I asked, “Anything else?  Any other ways you can see God in that situation?”  There wasn’t a particular answer I wanted from them, I just wanted them to deeply reflect on all the possible ways God could be found in difficulty.  My hope was that if they did this while a bit removed from some situations, they will be able to try to do it in the midst of suffering.  I want them to remember that God can be found in all suffering.  And I want them to know it in a visceral, heart-wrenching way and not simply a pat answer on a Theology exam. Continue reading “Seeking the Face of God, Even in Tragedy”

Are You Envious Because I Am Generous?

Are You Envious Because I Am Generous?

The Gospel reading from this past Sunday is one that I find intriguing.  Jesus presents a parable that speaks to the nature of God.  Yet it is a nature that we struggle to understand since it is far beyond what seems natural to our humanity.  The line that stood out to me was near the end.  It was a lovingly spoken parting blow from Jesus, aimed at the egos of His followers down through the ages.

“Are you envious because I am generous?”

Sometimes.

The situation that came to mind was from a recent class as we discussed a few attributes of God.  We spoke of the limitlessness of God’s knowledge, love, and power.  As we waded into what it means that God knows all, questions arose, as I was certain would happen.

“If God knows everything, then why did He…”

You can fill in the blank with whatever you would like.  Sometimes they questioned why God would create specific people, knowing the hurt and pain they would inflict.  Other times they questioned if we truly have free will since God knows everything we will do.  They are interesting questions and ones I try to wrestle with for my students.

The closer to home I can make the examples, the more they seem to understand.  Why would God create people who do evil things when He knows they will do them?  I connected it to free will and asked, rather than answered, another question.

“Is it free will if God only chooses to create the people He knows will be good?  What would it mean if God surveyed our lives and then only created the people who would follow Him anyway?”

While still a difficult concept, I believe they began to see that God loves and creates people regardless of their future actions.  As humans, we are quick to separate ourselves into different groups.  There is Hitler and other really bad people on one side.  On the other, good people like you and me.  So I decided to pose another question to them, one that tries to pry into their idea of “good people.”

“If God chose to only create the people who were good, would we have been created?”

Our instinctual reaction of “I’m a good person” kicks in, only to be checked by, “Am I?”  I do not know what I will do in my future, maybe it will be something awful.  From my vantage point of the present, I can see the mean and sinful things I have done in the past.  I want my students to realize that appearances can be deceiving and goodness difficult to measure if we use subjective standards.

“I am uncertain that I would have been created if God only made the good people.”

This is where I think it connects to St. Matthew’s Gospel from Sunday.  At times, I question why God permits certain things to happen, certain atrocities to be committed by other humans.  Why does He create them at all?

Granted, this is a different situation than the Gospel, but it makes me pause and wonder.  Am I envious that God generously creates everyone, even when I find it difficult to love people who willingly hurt others?  Do I wish He applied a stricter test to people’s futures before He made them?  I don’t think I do, but I question His level of generosity. Continue reading “Are You Envious Because I Am Generous?”