“Why do you come in here to be with us and teach us about Jesus when you could do that outside?” one prisoner asked during a meal on the prison retreat.
“I do teach about Jesus to people out there.”
“Why do you come in here?”
A few months ago, I would have said it was because my sister started getting involved in prison ministry. Or that I became interested when a priest I had known for a long time became the prison chaplain. Yet neither of those things really answers the question of why I keep coming back.
“Because I find God in here,” I said. “I guess it is actually a selfish reason.”
He looked at me, a bit taken aback. “You find God in prison?”
Continue reading “I Find God Here”
“The only part I didn’t really like was when she said that before she was a Christian she didn’t know what love was.”
After a recent talk at school, a few students were voicing their thoughts about the talk. The speaker had made a bold claim, one I hadn’t really thought about too deeply before my students offered their critique. Another student agreed and said he thought the speaker was being dramatic.
“Is it possible,” I questioned, “that being a Christian profoundly changes how she loved?”
“No,” said one student.
“Yes,” said another.
The one who said no came closer and continued with this question. The more I teach and the more I know about people, the more I realize that questions help answer better than arguments. Questions help clarify where exactly the person is, how much they know, and how much they have thought about the idea in the first place. So I posed another question, uncertain as I did so where exactly I was headed or what the next question would be.
“Is there anything different between how Hitler loves and Mother Teresa?”
Continue reading “For the Love”
For the past few semesters, I give something called ‘The Preference Test‘ as a way to lead into the Argument from Desire when speaking of God’s existence. This test gives a series of would-you-rather questions but proposed in a slightly different way. I understand why the students sometimes find it silly because it pits options like You are loved against You are not loved. It seems easy enough to be clear about what you would truly prefer, but so many times the students struggle to admit that they desire something when intellectually they are convinced it doesn’t exist or isn’t real.
One question asked if they would rather have their value be innate or dependent on their abilities. This one is always interesting, because the hard-working, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality comes out in full force even if it isn’t really what anyone would truly want. I asked what they preferred. Did they prefer to be worth something just because they exist or did they prefer to strive for worthiness?
So many of them argued that culturally our value is based on our net worth or the skills we’ve acquired or how gifted we are. I told them I understood that, but asked how do you want your value to be determined? Still some insisted that they would prefer that measuring rod of value.
Interestingly, some seemed to fear nobody would work hard if they just knew they were valuable. I wonder if it is because they work hard to be good and then they wonder what it would be like if everyone had value regardless of their skills. Perhaps it is because they feel validated by meeting certain expectations and don’t know what it would mean if those measuring rods were broken and thrown away. Who would they be without grades or athletic giftedness or money or determination?
And it just made my heart ache to see them striving so much. So many of our problems seem to stem from not knowing our true worth or identity. If we all fully understood it, perhaps we wouldn’t be compelled to step on other people or gossip or give up or lie or do whatever we do to get ahead. Or whatever we do to numb the feeling that we aren’t worth anything or can never amount to much. People suffer from not knowing their own true value more than being too full of their own giftedness. I’m quite confident that the ones who seem the most full of themselves are so because they recognize within themselves a radical insufficiency.
Continue reading “Quit Striving: You Are Already Valuable”
If you don’t often feel uncomfortable when reading the Gospel, you might be reading it wrong.
Between a Monday evening Bible Study and Friday classes, I have the great gift of looking at the upcoming Sunday’s Gospel at least six times during a typical week. Sometimes, I’m a little dense, though. It took until Friday afternoon or Saturday before I genuinely started applying it to me.
This past Sunday the Gospel was about the rich man and Lazarus from Luke’s Gospel. It is clearly a rebuke of the rich man’s lack of compassion for the suffering of Lazarus. Also, it emphasized the finality of death and the subsequent judgement.
At first glance, I felt pretty comfortable. I do not look at the suffering of my fellow man with zero compassion. Yet I was prompted to wonder: perhaps the rich man did see Lazarus, did see his suffering, did feel moved–just not enough. Maybe the idea of reaching out made him feel uncomfortable. Or he didn’t know what to do. Or he was nervous that the suffering of Lazarus would be too disturbing to experience up close.
The Gospel suddenly became something I could apply to my life as I remembered a situation where I saw someone suffering, felt bad for them, and then did nothing. There were about three times when I had witnessed a man sitting in a wheelchair in the middle of the sidewalk, well past a time when he should have been home or in a shelter. It was an arresting scene: the sun had set, it was a bit blustery, and there he sat in a wheelchair on the sidewalk with a blanket stretched over his entire body, from his feet to over his head. I saw it and I kept driving, every single time.
Continue reading “The Rich Man and Lazarus”
During “contemplative time” last week, I had my students reflect on the Resurrection account from John’s Gospel. Fresh from my own ponderings, we discussed the whole “John as the one whom Jesus loved” bit.
“Doesn’t Jesus love everyone?”
Yes, of course.
“Why does John even bring it up?”
I mentioned that perhaps it was because John had encountered the particularity of Christ’s love for him.
And they brought up something that is ingrained in us from our earliest years: the sense of things being equal or the same.
“Doesn’t Jesus love us all the same, though?”
No, He actually doesn’t. They seemed skeptical, perhaps because we automatically begin to assume that Jesus might love me less if He doesn’t love us all the same.
Continue reading “Particular Love”
Last week, fifteen years ago, my sister entered a Carmelite cloister.
At the beginning of the school day, I sat for a couple minutes, looking at my calendar announcing March 19th and remembering what had transpired other years on the Solemnity of St. Joseph. Fifteen years ago, we embraced, believing it might be the final time here on earth. Five years ago, we embraced as she moved north to establish a new monastery. And every year in between, I have recalled with tenderly fond pain the life we have been called to enter into as the family of religious.
I spoke about my sister’s vocation with my sophomores at great length this year. While I didn’t intend to spend so much time on it, they asked question after question and I found myself desiring to share this story with them. They were particularly struck by the great physical sacrifice that is found in the life of a cloistered nun. While I have been able to embrace my sister since her entrance, each time is a gift and never expected or something I can claim as my due. I explained that it is because my sister loves us that it is a sacrifice for her to not embrace us or be present for some of the big moments of life.
“But you didn’t choose that life. Why do you have to make that sacrifice when God didn’t call you to be a cloistered sister?”
Perhaps without knowing it, they stumbled upon the question that must be answered for each family member of a religious brother or sister. Why must I make this sacrifice when I’m not the one with the call?
Continue reading “Fifteen Years of Learning to Let Go”
In the movie Sweet Home Alabama, there is one line that has always stood out to me. The main characters Jake and Melanie are talking about their past and present, the ways life has changed from when they were high school sweethearts to their current situation of estranged spouses. Melanie expresses her confusion about loving her life in New York and yet returning home to find that her hometown fits, too. Jake then says, “You can have roots and wings, Mel.”
So often my own heart is caught in that same clashing of different longings. I want to fly away and yet I want to be home, grounded and steady. One moment I’m desiring to be a missionary in a far-away land and the next I want to stay in my cozy bedroom, reading and considering life. One day, I’m wanting to buy a home and make it my own oasis. The next day, I am wanting to be detached of all earthly possessions, living simply and being prepared to fly off to wherever whenever.
Roots and wings–the desire to be secure and the desire to be free–mark the desires of the human heart. We want to be home, but not confined. We want to be free to wander and yet not be lost. All of it, flying or remaining, hinges on the longing we have for happiness and contentment.
Not that I complain of want; for I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content. I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound; in any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want.
I am not quite like St. Paul yet, able to find contentment in whatever situation I find myself in. Perhaps my students would even be surprised with the restlessness that is within my heart. I am slow to act, yes, making changes at a glacial speed. And yet…change is what I often long for and deeply desire. What is the solution? Continue reading “Roots and Wings”
A lovely perk of teaching is that most of my work stops in mid to late-May and resumes in early to mid-August. It is a schedule I have held since I was about seven years old when I started school. Since I have never known anything else, I sometimes have to remind myself that this is not the norm.
People frequently ask me what my plans are for the summer. Sometimes they are curious about where I am traveling or what extra activities I will be involved in. Other times, however, I think they are questioning why I am not getting a job for the summer. Isn’t that what adults do? This lingering question is also mixed with the slight jealousy that I have a few months to not work a 9 to 5 job. I wish I had a job like that, I can almost hear them say.
Well, I’ve decided on a newer tactic this year. If people comment on wishing they had the luxurious schedule that I have, I will tell them a little secret: this dream can be yours, too! All you need to do is go to school, get the appropriate degree, and get a job teaching. Last I heard, there wasn’t a surplus of teachers in our state and teaching here doesn’t require advanced degrees.
But, you see, that is the thing–there just might be a reason schools aren’t overflowing with insane numbers of candidates, at least not where I live. I do get a summer to step away from it all, but that is a perk that must be taken with the less preferable parts of the job. I never argue that I have the most difficult or demanding job in the world. I don’t believe that I do. Yet I hear over and over again from various intelligent people, “I could never do your job.” Which I think is slightly exaggerated, but also quite telling. I think many people could do the job I do, it is simply that many don’t want to. Continue reading “In Defense of Summers”
Do you know what it takes to get a compliment from a senior? You keep them after class under the threat of a detention and listen to them try to get out of it.
Some students are just harder to love than others. It isn’t impossible to love them, but the effort that goes into desiring to love them is significantly more. So when a student that fits in this category pushes matters too far, I have to reflect more about the consequences that behavior should incur. Because part of me wants to go all out and give them a harsh consequence. The cumulation of past difficulties with that student or the tension of the particular day must all be weighed to guarantee that the punishment given fits that individual crime.
Yet I’m certain that just as some students are harder by nature to love, some teachers must fall into the same camp. I can definitely acknowledge that I’m not the most loved teacher and I am pretty convinced that I never will be. That doesn’t generally bother me because I’ve experienced life in a rather similar state. High school and college didn’t find me as the most popular person around; therefore, I didn’t expect something magical to happen when I started teaching.
Despite not being the most loved, I do find comfort in being loved by some. As an introvert, that is all I really need anyway–a few people who see under the often reserved exterior. Those glimpses of love and appreciation from students does far more to boost me than they know. At the end of the school year, a student stopped in with a present for me and she thanked me for my patience over the past year. A few students wrote appreciation letters when given the chance for teacher appreciation week. Another student chose to write his own addition to the journal entries I assigned.
That last one perhaps struck me the most. Continue reading “Gratitude Begets Gratitude”
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”