Thursday, October 30, 2014

A Life and Death Rivalry

My first memory of the Michigan State University and University of Michigan rivalry ended in defeat.  In the first grade, I began to build a pattern of green and white linking cubes to represent the Spartans' school colors.  Gary Parsons, one of my best friends and a Michigan fan, used the Wolverines' colors of maize and blue to start a rival pattern.  Within minutes, Gary recruited several other boys from our class to assist with his chain of cubes.  I desperately tried to recruit classmates to help my cause.  When I said, "Go Green!" no one responded with "Go White!"  My throat lumped as the maize and blue pattern dwarfed my Spartan chain (pun intended).  I burst into tears and ran to my teacher, a Michigan State alum, for comfort.

The athletic rivalry between the two schools pretty much followed the same script for my entire childhood.  Michigan owned Michigan State in basketball for the first 15 years of my life and dominated the Spartans in football for the first 25 years of my life.  Occasionally, Michigan State would pull out a surprise win, but overall the rivalry was quite one-sided.  As an annual rite of autumn, I could count on trudging onto the school bus on a Monday morning in October with the hood of my Michigan State Starter jacket pulled over my head to drown out my buddies' taunts after the Wolverines won yet another football game against my beloved Spartans.  I still wore that jacket with pride.

During my last year of high school, I faced the choice of choosing between the two rivals not on the athletic field, but in the classroom.  For a couple years, I begrudgingly assumed that I might end up going to the University of Michigan.  I excelled in math and science, earned the grades and standardized test scores needed to gain admission, and wanted to pursue a degree in engineering.  I attended a county-wide magnet school for math and science that heavily advocated, over-emphasized in my view, attending the most prestigious university possible, regardless of other factors that might influence the decision.  Honestly, in the view of the guidance counselor, the University of Michigan was a fallback in case you didn't get accepted to an Ivy League school, MIT, or Cal-Tech.  So imagine his surprise when I told him that I had decided to enroll at Michigan State despite holding an acceptance to Michigan.  He said that he had never seen any student make that decision.

What he didn't understand was that I didn't choose Michigan State, I was born into it.  I was born into green and white onesies.  I was born into trips to research farms with my grandfather, a retired animal science professor at Michigan State, to see sheep, pigs, and cows.  I was born into family hockey games at Munn Ice Arena, where my uncle was the equipment manager for the Spartan hockey team.  I was born into attending late autumn football games with my grandpa, where I learned to sing, "Fight!  Fight!  Rah, team, fight!  Victory for MSU!"  The devotion only grew stronger as I proudly wore my Starter jacket and sewed a green and white football in home economics class despite the overwhelming opposition of my peers.  Fittingly, green and white thread was also interwoven through my life and choosing to attend Michigan over Michigan State would have seemed like taking scissors to all that stitching.  Of course my family would have loved me the same, but we are Spartans.  It is who we are.

What my guidance counselor also didn't know was that choosing Michigan State would end up being one of the best decisions of my life.  I received significantly more scholarship money from Michigan State, immediate entrance into the Honors College, and the opportunity to work with professors on research projects.  The College of Engineering's strong internship program offered me the opportunity to work my way through college and graduate debt free.  Attending the "family school" enabled me to enjoy regular Sunday brunches with my grandparents.  Through the influence of Spartan Christian Fellowship, I dedicated my life to Christ and started deep, life long friendships.  I love Michigan State University.  I love all the memories, thoughts, and feelings that it conjures in my mind.  Yet, I still haven't forgotten the opinion of my high school guidance counselor: Why would anyone choose Michigan State over Michigan?

Similar experiences and the perceived hierarchy of the schools is why it matters so much to Spartan fans when Michigan State battles Michigan on the athletic field, particularly in football and basketball.  I know it might be hard to fully understand for those who didn't attend Michigan State, particularly for those who aren't from the state of Michigan.  There is more history to the rivalry than could ever fit in this post, but there is a perceived history of institutional arrogance from the University of Michigan on the field of athletics and in the halls of academic.  There is an assumption that the only people who go to Michigan State are the ones who couldn't get into Michigan, who weren't "the leaders and the best."  When the Spartans play against the Wolverines, they are in part playing to refute that opinion.  They are playing for the man who loves his school and the life transformation he experienced on the banks of the Red Cedar.  They are playing for the twelve year old boy who is unashamed to wear a green and white jacket.  They are playing for the first grader with tears dropping on green and white linking cubes.  They are playing for all those who are proud to be Spartans.

You might not guess it by reading what I have written so far, but I actually take rivalry much less seriously than some Spartan fans.  My uncle won't even wear blue.  Maturity and my faith in Christ have taught me that there are far more important things than who holds the Paul Bunyan Trophy, the prize awarded to the winner of annual football game.  I know that may not seem like the most profound lesson, it seems pretty obvious actually, but it is one that I need to be reminded of from time to time.  At my best, I am able to appreciate the passion, teamwork, drama, and sacrifice that are displayed in college athletics.  At my worst, even in adulthood, I can slip from a fan to an idolater and the enjoyment of competition can become an obsession.  In these times, the rivalry seems like life or death.

Which is why it is ironic, or perhaps providential, that real life and death has intertwined with my experience of the rivalry in the last couple years.  Now, I am not narcissistic enough to suppose that God has ordained the outcome of the Michigan-Michigan State football game just to teach me a lesson, but I do believe in a God who works all things for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28) and who lets not one sparrow fall to the ground outside his will (Matthew 10:29).  God is big enough to use the same event to impact my life in one way and in the life of players, coaches, and supporters of the University of Michigan in a completely different way.  God is also creative and omniscient enough to build purpose into seemingly minor and insignificant events, such as the outcome of a sporting event.

Two years ago, my daughter Evelyn was born on October 20, the day of the big football game.  I was actually able to watch the game since Evelyn was born at 12:15 in the morning and Becky appreciated a little bit of rest time by mid-afternoon.  The Spartans lost on a field goal as time expired, another agonizingly close defeat in a season full of "almost" and "only if."  Needless to say, on the day my daughter was born, I did not waste a lot of emotion and mental energy bemoaning the defeat.  Instead, I prayed that the Lord would sow seeds of faith in her heart and spring them to life by his Holy Spirit.  I longed that she would be filled with love, hope, faith, generosity and kindness.  I hoped that Christ would do more in her life and through her life than I could ever hope or imagine. 

This year, as I sat and watched the game in our basement, I kept the phone nearby wondering if my grandpa, the same grandpa who took me to football games as a boy, would live to see the end of the game.  He is currently receiving hospice care and is still with us as I type this post.  Michigan State completely dominated the Wolverines, and while I enjoyed watching the Spartans' performance, I did not invest a lot of emotion and mental energy relishing the victory.  Instead, I prayed that the Lord would help my grandpa finish his race strong with his eyes fixed on the cross of Christ.  I thanked God for my grandpa's long life filled with love, hope, faith, generosity and kindness.  I longed that my grandpa would soon taste eternal glory that is beyond what I could ever hope or imagine.

On the day Michigan State experienced a crushing defeat to their rivals, I welcomed new life into the world with great joy.  As the Spartans soared in victory, I solemnly prepared for the loss of my grandfather.  The outcome of the Michigan-Michigan State football game still matters to me.  It matters to a lot of people.  Yet, it is greatly overshadowed by the things that truly matter in life, that make life joyful.  Smiling at my daughter and reading her the Chronicles of Narnia during her first day on earth and cherishing beloved memories with my grandfather are realities that are far greater than the outcome of any football game, whether victory or defeat.

In the same way, those realities are also viewed and experienced through even greater realities.  At many football games, fans hold signs proclaiming one of these realities: For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).  That reality, God's sacrificial love for us, changes how I view both the life of my daughter and the death of my grandfather.  Evelyn is not just a cute, cuddly little baby, but an eternal soul created in the very image of God.  Jesus calls her, and all children, to come unto him and admonishes others to model her childlike faith.  The Lord promises that he will not lose any that have been given to him and that he will continue a good work in her life.  My grandpa's death is not the end, he is more than mere bones and tissue that will decay and return to the circle of life.  He too is an eternal soul created in the very image of God.  While he lived a good and honorable life, it is not his righteousness that gives me hope in this valley of death, but Christ's righteousness for God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21).  It is also the unchangeable and unconquerable nature of God's love that fuels my hope.  In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul writes:

What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?  He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:

"For your sake we face death all day long;
    we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.  (Romans 8:31-37).

I think Paul sums it up best, what shall we say in response to these things?  If God is for us, who can be against us?  God is for me in the birth and life of my daughter.  He is for me in the death of my grandpa, as I ponder all the ways that the Lord has blessed me through my grandpa's life and in his eternal promises for my grandpa.  Yes, there are eternal realities that are greater even that the first cry of a newborn and the last breath of an aging man.  These realities are found in the unfathomable love of God shown to us in the sacrifice of Christ on the cross and in the ongoing work of God in our lives.  These realities are far greater than any outcome on this earth, even life or death.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Confessions of a Data-Driven Teacher

As a teacher, I was born into the age of No Child Left Behind.  Aside from two years that I spent teaching at a Christian school, my effectiveness as a teacher has hinged on teenagers ability to select the correct bubble and make their marks heavy and dark.  This is not why I decided to become a teacher.  When I was weighing my options after graduating with an engineering degree from Michigan State University, I decided to join Teach For America to teach in Baltimore to impact the lives of students, particularly the lives of students most in need of positive influence.  In hindsight, I probably started my teaching journey with too much of a savior complex.  As a leader within Spartan Christian Fellowship I had been able to positively influence many college students, so I assumed that my leadership in my classroom would have the same effect.  I was capable, creative, and confident.  How hard could it be?

I quickly found out that teaching, specifically teaching in Baltimore, was a lot harder than I ever could have imagined.  It would take a long blog post to reflect on all the complex factors that have created this situation, so all I will say is that teaching in Baltimore was the first challenge in my life that I felt that I could not overcome.  My visions of a transformative classroom symbolically crumpled up in paper balls scattered around my classroom.

The first semester of that first year saw very little success of any kind.  However, as spring dawned my students started to show some academic progress and this carried over into my second year at Northwestern High School.  I rigorously tracked students' mastery of learning objectives on each quiz and test and rejoiced when they hit our "Big Goal" of 80%.  During that second year, 55% of my freshman algebra students passed the state standardized test, a massive increase over the school-wide pass rate of 12% from the previous school year.  My classroom was still not the transformative oasis that I had envisioned.  It was a less chaotic pocket in a sea of lawlessness, but at least the numbers showed that students were learning, right?

After I taught for two years at Northwestern High School, I needed a break from the storm.  Becky and I were about to get married.  I felt myself becoming jaded and needed a different perspective on teaching, which led me to teach middle school math and science at Mountain Christian School.  While still driven to strive for excellence in my craft, I did not track data as rigorously as I had at Northwestern High School.  My prayer for my students was that of the Apostle Paul's for the church in Ephesus:    

I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:16-19)

While at Mountain Christian, I felt my teaching practice align with my motives for entering the profession, to not just have a positive influence on kids in a general sense but to point students in the direction of knowing and treasuring Christ.  Obviously, being at a Christian school made it easier to make Christ the center of my teaching.  Culturally, it was easier to form relationships with students, which in turn made it easier to find more fulfillment in those relationships than in academic progress (not to discount the importance of that element of teaching).

However, after two years at Mountain Christian, I felt called to return to teach in Baltimore City Schools for a myriad of reasons which again are too complicated to wander off into in this post.  One thing I did thirst for was a positive experience teaching in Baltimore, centered around transformative relationships with students.  I opted to teach in a public charter school, hoping for a more productive school climate and teaching environment.  Following my experience at Mountain Christian, I felt better prepared to relate to and influence students at Afya Public Charter School.  After the first day of school, I thought, "Oh, boy!  What did I get myself back into?"

At that point, Afya PCS was in its third year of existence.  My eighth grade students had been the charter class of sixth graders two years earlier.  As a result, they had been the guinea pigs as the administration and teachers ironed out school policies and worked on building a positive school culture, which resulted in significantly worse behavioral habits than subsequent cohorts of students.  I struggled to form the relationships that I had hoped for and was spending incredibly long hours just preparing for two different 90 minute preps each day.  It was easy to fall back into the habit of finding my success in my students' assessment results.  My algebra class regularly exceeded my goal of 80% mastery on learning objectives and increased their proficiency by 8% on the state standardized test.  In the absence of the spiritual fruit that I truly desired, I found at least a measure of success in these results.

This long winded introduction is all to set up my thoughts about one of the students in that algebra class.  His name was Keith.  He was murdered in the streets of northeast Baltimore early on the morning on August 20th.  I moved on from Afya PCS at the end of last school year, but returned one evening during the first week of school for a candlelight vigil to remember Keith.  In the days leading up to the vigil, I pondered over what I might write in response to this tragedy, an event that stirs up a similar response in almost everyone.  It is not right for a seventeen year-old's life to be snuffed out by mindless violence.  It just isn't right.  It disturbs us, as it should since there exists within each of us a knowledge that we were not made for this sin-stained world.  We were created for so much more.  We were created to walk with God.  I thought that I would write about how this gut level disturbance tends to drive people in one of two ways, either to call out to God for intervention or to run from God reasoning that the senseless event only solidifies the folly of believing in an all powerful and loving God.

However, as I stood there holding my candle and listening to the grieving of Keith's peers and my colleagues, I was overcome with a wave of an emotion that I had not anticipated: meaninglessness.  Everything seemed meaningless.  I can't say that I have enjoyed reading Ecclesiastes in the past, but the words of Solomon rang true at that moment.  The wise man, like the fool, will not be long remembered; in days to come both will be forgotten.  Like the fool, the wise man too must die! (Ecclesiastes 2:12).  I am not sure how much wisdom I had imparted to Keith.  He was one of only a few students in that algebra class to not pass the state standardized assessment, but any mathematical knowledge that I had passed to him had now perished.

I know that teachers often don't see the immediate fruit of the seeds that we sow into the lives of students.  It isn't often until years later, if at all, that students return to thank a teacher for the profound impact they had on their life.  I am not minimizing the impact and effectiveness of teachers.  It is anything but meaningless.  Paul touches on this concept in his letter to Corinthian church saying, "I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow." (1 Corinthians 3:6).  As teachers, particularly as Christian teachers in public schools, we are planting seeds but we may never see the fruit.  We also serve a God who calls others to join with us and follow behind us in watering these seeds and we serve a God who ultimately brings these seeds to life.

So teaching is far from a meaningless profession, yet there is a form of teaching that is meaningless, at least in the lens of eternity.  It is a form of teaching that is easy to slide into because it is easier to measure and yields much quicker results than transformative life change.  Jesus chastised the Pharisees and teachers of the law stating, "These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules. You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions." (Mark 7:6-8).  In some ways, I empathize with the Pharisees.  While there certainly was pride and a desire for the approval of man wrapped up in their lives, I also think that some of them must have genuinely wanted to know if they were on the right track.  I believe that some of the Pharisees genuinely wanted to please God.  Am I pleasing God?  Am I bearing fruit?  Will I hear the words, "Well done, good an faithful servant."?  In my own life it is tempting to answer these question using measures similar to the traditions and rules set up by the spiritual leaders of Jesus' day.  True transformation in my own hearts is so much harder to gauge and I may never witness the transformation in the lives of others for which I hope and pray.

As a teacher, I also want to know if I am on the right track.  Like the Pharisees and teachers of the law there are certainly teachers who have become hardened and should have stepped out of the game years ago, but I believe that most teachers still desire to have a positive impact on children.  Am I making a difference?  Am I having a positive impact on students?  Just as it is easier to measure spiritual progress using legalistic benchmarks, it is easier to measure effective teaching based on academic growth measures and standardized tests.  Add to this the immense pressure that educational policy places on teachers to produce these results, and it is easy to see how teachers can slide into this mindset.

Yet, we can do so much better.  I can do so much better.  I firmly believe that providing rigorous academic instruction is part of my mission as a Christian teacher.  However, that can't be my measuring stick for my ultimate purpose as an educator.  I don't know what impact I had on Keith or have had on other students, but I do know that during that difficult first year at Afya it was far easier to strive for academic mastery than to push on towards the goals that God has placed on my heart to reflect his love and truth into the lives of students.  By God's grace, I was blessed to experience stronger relationships with students in my subsequent years at Afya and now find myself in a favorable position teaching in Baltimore City School's advanced math and science program.  With some other stresses removed, it is easier to refocus my motives for stepping into the classroom each day.  Nonetheless, as I stood holding my candle, I fought back tears thinking about how meaningless Keith's ability to solve a two-step equation or determine the slope of a line seemed in that moment.  I still have data on all the assessments Keith took that year.  What do they mean now?  All I can do is hope and pray that maybe a seed that I had sown in Keith's life or that someone else had sown in his life was watered by the Holy Spirit and brought to life.  When I feel myself slipping back into data driven tendencies, I can remind myself that I am called to scatter seeds of hope, love and truth into the lives of my students and take great comfort knowing that it is God who causes them to grow.


Sunday, August 24, 2014

Rooting out the Rats

I suffer from musophobia, the fear of mice and rats, although I am only afraid of the later.  I have been for almost 25 years.  Aside from the pet rat my friend Matt had when I was a kid, I don't think I even saw a real city rat until I moved to Baltimore, so my fear did not develop from any actual encounters with rats.  Instead there are two people to blame for my phobia: George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg.

The scene from Indiana Jones: The Last Crusade in which Indy swims through a sewer teeming with rats as he explores the catacombs beneath the streets of Venice permanently scarred me with rat fear as child.  Mom, when you read this post please don't blame yourself for letting me watch the movie.  I think the fear was destined to eventually develop.  I couldn't find the entire scene on YouTube, but if you go to 9:46 in this video you should get the gist of it.

Since moving to Baltimore, my rat phobia has improved significantly.  It turns out that they are afraid of me and are not going to crawl up on me and gnaw my eyeballs out or give me the Bubonic Plague.  I used to recoil in fear even if I just saw a rat even a block away.  Now, I would just rather avoid taking the trash to the back alley at night, but I don't freak out every time I see a rat.

A few weeks ago, I had a large rat problem (in both the size of the rats and the scope of the problem) that I needed to deal with.  There are rats in our neighborhood, that is just a fact of living in most areas of Baltimore.  The piles of construction materials from the renovation occurring next door and the trash in the yard of the house owned by a negligent landlord two houses down haven't aided the situation. Unfortunately, I had also been making my own contribution.

It all started a few years ago when I built a 12 foot by 4 foot raised garden bed out of cinder blocks in our backyard.  We filled the bed with about a foot of rich soil from Baltimore County.  Unfortunately, our yard ended up being too shady for crop production and the garden bed went unused, except as a place for our chickens to take their dust baths.  Last year, I wanted to move our rabbit hutch from its location near the back of our house to the fenced back half of the yard where the chickens reside.  The only place to set the hutch was on top of the garden bed.  I knew that I would need to rat proof this area, but the school year started and the project slid off the to-do list.

As a result, the rats found a lovely home for themselves in the dirt beneath and behind the rabbit hutch.  Summer finally provided some time to tackle this problem.  I asked my parents for birthday money to fund the supplies (anyone else asking for rat proofing supplies for their birthday?) and set to the task.  As I worked, I reflected upon how the inhabitance of rats in my rabbit hutch parallels the presence of rats in our lives.

Before I share my reflections, I want to preface them with a couple of points.  First, we all have rats in our lives, by which I mean attitudes of the heart, thoughts of the mind, or habitual actions that are not pleasing to God.  The Bible says there is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:22-23).  No matter how saintly we may appear on the outside, we all have rats that lurk hidden within.  Second, I am writing this first as an examination and exhortation to myself.  Jesus warns, "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?  How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?" (Matthew 7:3-4).  This could be paraphrased as do not point out the rats in others' lives and pay no attention to the ROUS in your own life (ROUS = Rodent of Unusual Size...sorry to the readers not in a generation influenced by Princess Bride references.  You can see a ROUS for yourself in this clip if you like).

As a result, I am primarily going to speak vaguely about specific types of rats that appear in our lives, except when it is necessary to be more explicit to communicate effectively.  I will speak directly about some of the rats in my life, most notably anxiety and pride.  Mostly, I will allow the Holy Spirit to speak to each person about the rats they want to expunge from their own lives.  With those preliminaries aside, let's talk about how to get rid of some rats!

1) Don't invite rats in

Let's be honest.  I basically rolled out the red carpet leading to a rat honeymoon suite: a foot of loose soil perfect for burrowing, cover and protection provided by the hutch, and bits of rabbit feed falling from the cages.  It's no wonder there were rat tunnels all through the garden bed.  Luckily, I saved myself some embarrassment by forgetting to take a before picture to share with you.  When I went out to start the project, I told Becky, "Don't be alarmed if you hear screams."  I knew what I had brought on myself.

Unfortunately, we sometimes invite rats into our lives by the movies or TV that we watch, the music we listen to, or the situations that we place ourselves in.  Anxiety burrows into my life when I invite it in by dwelling on a situation or obsessively searching the internet for some nugget of information or development that might help improve the current state of affairs.  I also struggle with pride.  I love documentaries about current issues that I am passionate about, however, if I am not careful, watching them can lead me to think that I am superior to anyone who does not share my views.

I am not saying that we should all retreat to a monastic lifestyle and live as hermits.  Jesus prayed that Father God would not take [his disciples] out of the world but he also said that they are not of the world (John 17:15-16).  We can not consume everything that the world has to offer and expect to not digest the things the world values.

2) To force out the rats, you need to dig deep

The first step in my rat proofing strategy was to excavate all the soil from the garden bed.  In order to get rid of the rats, I had to remove the medium for their digging and all the trash they brought along with them.  I needed to dig down to remove the root cause of the rodent invasion and get down to a solid foundation.

In the same way, we need to dig down into the inner workings of our heart, soul, and mind to determine what is attracting rats into our lives.  At its root, I am anxious because I do not trust the promises of God or the goodness of God.  Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.  If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith!  And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them.  But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.  Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom (Luke 12:27-32).

At its root, I am prideful because I would rather exalt in my achievements and greatness than the achievements and greatness of God.  I would rather receive praise from men than give all glory to God.  I forget the words of the psalmist:  Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere; I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked (Psalm 84:10).

Rooting out rats in our lives is not easy.  It requires honest introspection and faith that God will beneficially prune these dead branches in our lives if we willingly draw near to him.  Jesus said, "I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener.  He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful." (John 15:1-2).

3) Protect against future invasions

During our first summer in our house, we started keeping chickens, our first venture into urban livestock.  I read a couple of books in preparation and extensively researched chicken coop designs.  I spent weeks building a rat proof chicken fortress, preventing burrowing by burying hardware cloth one foot deep all around the perimeter of the coop.  For the most part, rats have not been able to penetrate my defenses.

The original rabbit hutch had no such protections, but rabbit hutch 2.0 does.  I laid hardware cloth over the bottom surface of the garden bed and sealed every possible seam with concrete.  I also fortified sections of the hutch with the same treatment.  Afterwards, I only returned a few inches of soil back to the hutch so that there would not be enough dirt for burrowing.  After several weeks, I have not seen any evidence of rats burrowing under the hutch.  I plan to construct a hardware cloth reinforced covering for the front of the hutch to add even more protection.

Hardware cloth along the foundation of the hutch and any possible opening, along with concrete on every seam, should hopefully keep my furry little friends at bay.

To prevent rats from invading our lives, we must likewise plan and construct defenses.  Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it (Proverbs 4:23).  I want to share a few ways to proactively deter rats.

A) Claim the superior promises of God

A lot of people view Christianity as just a bunch of rules that you need to follow to be a good person.  Often, these "rules" are viewed as restrictive and basically a drag on enjoying life.  Given the way that the church has often legalistically fought against rats, it is easy to understand how this perception developed.  However, as the Apostle Paul shared with the Colossians, these rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence (Colossians 3:22-23).

I am not promoting licentiousness or saying that God does not call us to pursue holiness, but I believe the best way to fight rats is not by trying to follow a set of rules, an effort that is often in vain, but by pursuing that which is superior and infinitely more satisfying, namely pursing the presence of God.  I am indebted to Kevin DeYoung, my college pastor, for giving me a weapon that has repeatedly triumphed over the rat of lust: Blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God (Matthew 5:8).  I flee from lustful thoughts because I want to see God - something better and more beautiful than any fleeting glance or thought.

B) Worship God

When we worship God, whether singing praise to his name, reading his word, or simply living in a worshipful state throughout ordinary daily tasks, we receive two benefits.  First, we are drawn into God's presence in which we are transformed.  And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:18).  Second, in worshiping God we experience the greatness of God and recognize that being with God is better than any pleasure a rat may offer.

C) Seek accountability

We need each other.  As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another (Proverbs 27:17).  Find someone in your life who you can honestly share the rats that your are struggling with.  When anxiety creeps into my life, openly sharing this struggle with Becky or members of our small group from church makes it much easier to take next steps to strengthen my faith and kick the rat out of my life.

Unfortunately, rats are persistent little buggers and they reproduce at a remarkable rate.  We won't be able to eliminate rats from the physical world.  I am pretty sure they would survive the apocalypse without any problem.  However, we can take actionable steps to remove them from our lives.  My hutch is better without them.  Our lives our better without them.

Monday, August 18, 2014

A Camping State of Mind

I’m at a stage in my life where my concept of “camping” has required a bit of adaptation.  If I had my choice, I would camp in the most remote location possible.  Somewhere that can only be reached by backpacking is preferable, but even when “car camping” I gravitate towards small, hidden state forest campgrounds with outhouses over large state park campgrounds with all the amenities.  Of course, by “amenities” I mean flush toilets and a place to wash your hands.

However, now when I think of camping there is one question on my mind: Does the park have a swim area?  Evelyn, who is approaching her second birthday in October, loves to be active, loves to be outside, and absolutely loves to go play in the water or “waka” as she calls it.  In mid-July, Becky and I were interested in escaping the urban jungle for a short family camping trip.  We only had two days and one night to spare so we wanted to stay fairly close to Baltimore.  We ended up finding a gem in Greenbrier State Park, a place that I am sure that we will become well acquainted with over the next decade.
The beautiful swim area at Greenbrier State Park
Greenbrier State Park is nestled into the South Mountain range a little bit west of Frederick, Maryland and only an hour from our house.  While no one will mistake South Mountain for the Yosemite Valley, the park features beautiful wooded areas and views of nearby summits and ridges.  We could see Greenbrier Lake from our spacious campsite and could follow a hiking trail to the nearby beach area.  Aside from the campground host, we essentially had the entire campground loop to ourselves as no one was camping on a Thursday night.
A view of Greenbrier Lake from nearby Annapolis Rock.  A month before Evelyn was born, some friends and I hiked to this popular ridge on the Appalachian Trail as fatherhood's equivalent to a bachelor party. 

We enjoyed a lovely afternoon of playing with Evelyn in the water, lounging around our campsite in the afternoon, and strolling on the well-maintained hiking trails, although our hike was cut short by Evelyn’s pleas to go back to the swim area.  At this age, we can barely squeeze out a mile with her in our hiking backpack, yet another reason why backpacking would be completely illogical for the moment.  Throughout these activities, I reflected on the peace of mind and restful state that I enjoyed.  During this part of the summer, I had been focusing on trying to raise funds for Whitelock Community Farm, the urban farm that we help to run with other neighbors to address the lack of access to affordable, healthy food in our neighborhood.  Along with some roadblocks and resistance the farm was facing as we attempted to expand to two additional vacant lots, my fundraising efforts had been the source of a lot of anxiety.  Becky jokes that I will always find something to be anxious about, but cold calling local businesses seeking financial support definitely forces me out of my comfort zone, only amplifying my fretfulness.  I found myself trying to avoid the task with all sorts of excuses, yet still worrying about the financial future of Whitelock Community Farm.

My reflections led me to compare my mindset during our day at Greenbrier State Park to my mindset over days that preceded it.  I think the difference in my anxiety level goes deeper than the fact that I love swimming with my daughter, puttering around our campsite, and hiking in the woods while I hate calling unknown people to ask for money.  I think at its root, my anxiety is not the product of the level at which I enjoy an activity, but instead is directly correlated to what I perceive to be the certainty of the activity's outcome.

When we are camping, I know with fairly high certainty that the activities that I am engaged in will lead to successful results.  I will play with my daughter at the beach.  No problem.  I will go on a hike and enjoy it whether the sun is shining or the heavens open.  Got it.  I will start a fire so that we can cook our pizza sandwiches and roast marshmallows for S’mores.  Actually, that one is a bit uncertain but that is why lighter fluid regularly appears in our camping supplies. 
Evelyn is ready for S'mores if Mommy and Daddy can start the fire!
However, when I am serving on the board of a non-profit organization, attempting to inspire and educate middle school students, or even trying to share the love of God, the potential for positive results seems much less assured.  Let’s look more closely at my trepidation over fundraising.  Yes, it makes me nervous to ask people for money, but that is not the root of my anxiety.  Ultimately, I fear that if I am not able to raise enough money the farm will dissolve and if the farm folds then the farm board members will be scorned and derided in the neighborhood and city.  At its root, my anxiety stems from the pleasure that I take in receiving the approval of other people and my dread at the thought of catching their disapproval.  This reflects a lack of faith in the goodness and power of God and misplaced hope in the glory of man as opposed to the treasure of knowing Christ.

These reflections led to a resolve to adopt a continual “camping state of mind,” which I have coined to mean a state of purposeful activity without fretful anxiety over the unknown.  This term does not refer to a state of relaxation that is achieved through self-indulgence or pursuing the “easy life.”  I believe that the Lord created us for more than this.  God’s word contains many paradoxes such as whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it (Matthew 16:25) and whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant (Matthew 20:26).  We do not find lasting joy and peace by building our own personal empires, but by pouring ourselves out for God’s kingdom and for his people.  Seeing and then responding to the real problems in the world, whether it be a lack of access to healthy food, inadequate health care, child sex trafficking, or extreme poverty is the right action for a follower of Christ.

The camping state of mind also goes deeper than embracing the common mantra “Let go and let God.”  Let me preface this by saying that there is nothing we can do to earn our salvation or God’s favor.  We are saved by the gift of God’s grace not the work of our hands.  We also do not work in our own power or strength, but in God's power and strength.  Yet, in another one of the gospel’s paradoxes, we are also called to work out our salvation (Philippians 2:12).  We are called to an active faith.  Paul instructed the Thessalonians to respect those who work hard among you and to follow their example as they help the weak, encourage the timid, and pray continually (1 Thessalonians 5:14-17).  When faced with a throng of hungry followers, Jesus told his disciples, “You give them something to eat.” (Matthew 14:16).   After initial protests, that is exactly what Christ’s disciples did with a mere five loaves of bread and a couple fish.  In fact, God's miraculous provision yielded twelve full baskets of food when they were finished.

Later, the disciples only remembered to bring one loaf of bread as their crew boarded a boat to cross the Sea of Galilee and discussed this fact among themselves after Jesus warned them to beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Herod.  Christ’s response to their whispers cuts to the heart of my anxiety issue and clarifies what it means to maintain a camping state of mind:  “Why are you talking about having no bread?  Do you still not see or understand?  Are your hearts hardened?  Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear?  And don’t you remember?  When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?” (Mark 8:17-19).

Often, I fall into talking about having no bread.  I see the challenges, I focus on the worst case scenario, and the waves begin to rise higher than they looked when I took my first enthusiastic step into the water.  The camping state of mind is not about ignoring the problems of the world nor is it about passively trusting that God will work everything out.  Instead, it is a call to roll up our sleeves and start building, knowing that God will provide the bread we need to accomplish the good works to which we have been called.  Consider the scope of his promises.  His power that works for us is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms. (Ephesians 1:20).  If God is for us, who can be against us? (Romans 8:31).

When we are camping we are active.  Living the camping state of mind calls us to actively live out our faith in Christ - to love, to strive, to seek, to pray, and to respond to the things that break our heart knowing that God is for us, he has called us to this work, and he will provide all that we need to do it.  When I set up our campsite, I do not fret whether the task will be a success or failure.  I am making a resolve to keep that camping state of mind so that whether I am promoting healthy food in our neighborhood, teaching Baltimore’s youth, or seeking to build God’s kingdom in this city I will not look at my single loaf of bread and worry about the outcome.  Instead, I will live with confidence that he who has promised is faithful and able to provide and that he will not let my foot slip.  Please join me in taking up the camping state of mind.  Don’t be afraid to ask me about my anxiety level and when the waves seem to be crashing in remind me that God’s bread box is never empty.  

Saturday, August 9, 2014

What's in a Name?

Nothing beats a good campfire.  The warmth and light coming from the burning embers immediately melts all stress and anxiety.  I wish I could bottle the feeling of gathering around the campfire after a day of outdoor activities to share stories and laughter with friends and family.  Even mere acquaintances seem to be transformed into trusted friends in the campfire's glow.

It was this quality of the campfire that led The Rend Collective to record an album, entitled Campfire, around, well, a campfire.  One of the band members articulates their motivation in this video.

If you haven't heard The Rend Collective yet, I highly recommend turning it up while doing household chores and letting the lively music add a pep to your step.

When I told Becky that I was titling my blog "Tales from Around the the Campfire" she replied, "That's perfect!"  She was likely thinking about my love of nature and summer nights spent around the campfire, as previously described.  That affinity no doubt factored into the name, but there is a deeper spiritual meaning as well.  When I explained this to Becky she said, "Oh, does it have to do with the passage you like from John?"

At the end of the gospel of John, Jesus has risen from the dead and appeared to his disciples a couple of times.  Nonetheless, his disciples still appear to be unsure of the next step in their lives and are out for an afternoon of fishing.  John describes what happens next.

Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus.

He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?”

“No,” they answered.

He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” 

When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.  Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards.  When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread.

Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.”  So Simon Peter climbed back into the boat and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn.  Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord.  Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish.  This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead. (John 21:4-14)

I love the image of Jesus standing on the beach as Peter scrambles to shore, a broad smile on his face, ready to throw some fresh fish over the hot coals.  In the current age of relativism, I think it is important to explain that I don't gravitate towards this passage because it presents Jesus in the way that I like to see him.  I'm not trying to say, "You can have your sweet baby Jesus, others may like to see Jesus as a good moral teacher, yet others as the justice seeking Jesus, but I'll take my campy, outdoorsy Jesus."  We can't just picture Jesus in the way that we want to view him.  He has revealed that he is the Good Shepherd, the Living Water, the Son of God, the Son of Man, the Son of God, the Way and the Truth and the Life, the Bread of Life, the Alpha and Omega.  He said, "Very truly I tell you, before Abraham was born, I am!" (John 8:58).  

Who Jesus is stands outside of how we would like to picture him in our minds.  It is true that due to my personal preferences, I would love to gather with Jesus around a campfire.  However, beyond this enthusiasm for burning logs, I cherish this passage for three elements of the gospel that it reveals: God takes initiative in showing his grace, invites us into a relationship with him and others, and calls us to follow him in showing his love to others.

1) God takes initiative in showing us his grace

Before this meeting, the disciples, especially Peter, may still have been questioning their standing with Christ.  They deserted Jesus in the hour of his suffering and Peter openly denied the Lord three times.  Yet, Jesus calls to his disciples while they are still far from shore, inviting the restoration of their relationship.  After sharing a meal, Jesus asks Peter three times, "Do you love me?"  His question implies that he still loves Peter despite his lack of faith in the court of the high priest and symbolically forgives Peter of his three acts of denial.  In the same way, Christ graciously forgives the times when we have denied him by our words, thoughts and actions and asks us, "Do you love me?"  His love is free to all who accept him.

2) God invites us into a relationship with him and others

Becky enjoys reading a series on the blog A Cup of Jo that chronicles the experiences of American mothers in different countries around the world.  I admit that I enjoy reading that series too, just like I used to like browsing through the recipes in Real Simple when Becky used to receive that magazine.  I am not ashamed.  All joking aside, in one entry a mother living in England describes how hard it was to get to know English mothers and that it would take double-digit interactions before you would even consider inviting someone to your house for dinner.  Dinner? Whoa! That is just too much, too fast.

Similarly, in the ancient world it was considered to be a big deal to share a meal with someone.  Throughout his ministry, the religious leaders of the time chastised Jesus for breaking bread with sinners, prostitutes,and tax collectors.  Those meals demonstrated that he was willing to enter into relationship with those who were viewed as unholy and unclean.  On the night that he would be betrayed, Jesus told his disciples that he was eager to share the Passover supper with them.  This meal, with its lasting symbols of sacrifice and forgiveness, also signified his relationship with his closest followers.

On that beach, we see Jesus once again inviting his friends to share a meal with him.  If any doubt of the status of their relationship lingers, it is not coming from his end.  We have received the same invitation.  Jesus invites us to bring our fish ashore and take a seat around the fire.

3) God calls us to follow him in showing his love to others

The passage does not end with the fish fry.  After the meal, three times Jesus asks Peter, "Do you love me?" and three times Peter confirms his love for Christ.  Jesus counters with these commands: feed my lambs, take care of my sheep, feed my sheep.  He follows up these commands with these words:

Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”  (John 21:18-19)

I wonder what thoughts floated through Peter's head as he left that beach.  His relationship with Jesus had just been restored and he had been entrusted with the responsibility of caring for Christ's followers, yet his martyrdom had also been prophesied.  Was he relieved to know that Jesus still considered him a friend?  Was he anxious about the responsibilities that lie ahead?  Was he fearful of his ultimate fate?

Hopefully, Jesus last words were the most resounding.  "Follow me!"  Most of us will not face a martyr's death.  We will not carry the responsibility of being tagged the rock of the early church.  However, like Peter we are called to feed and take care of Christ's flock.  I have to admit, this sometimes makes me a little bit anxious...actually more than just a little bit.  The responsibility of living a life that glorifies God by making a difference in the lives of others can sometimes seem crushing.  It seems like it would be a lot easier to just focus on myself and building my personal kingdom.  These moments come when I forget Jesus last words to Peter..."Follow me!"

Peter didn't have it all figured out when he left that campfire.  He would go on and make mistakes as the leader of the early church (See Galatians 2:11-14).  We will similarly sometimes stumble as we try to care for others and demonstrate the love of Christ.  Yet, we must remember that God has already taken the initiative in showing us his grace and inviting us into a relationship with him.  He who has already done all of that will certainly give us all that we need to follow him and to share his love with others.  When the darkness looks overwhelming and we begin to fear, let's remind ourselves exactly who it is who has called us to join him at the campfire.

Hopefully this entry sheds a little more light, emanating from the campfire of course, on the thoughts that went into naming my blog.  Hopefully the stories and reflections that I share will be seasoned with God's grace, deepen our relationship with Christ, and provide exhortations to love others and follow Jesus.  Now, someone throw another log on the fire!

Saturday, August 2, 2014

The Joy of Blogging

I have decided to start a blog.  I actually made this decision at the beginning of the summer.  Since the calendar flipped to August yesterday, I figured it was time to follow through on my decision.  What led to this decision?  Did I believe that the blogosphere was missing my insights and opinions?  Certainly not.  This may sound completely selfish, but I am starting this blog for me.  Now don’t get me wrong, I am not starting the blog for my own fame, fortune, or ego, but I am starting it for my own joy. 

Is this a right motive?  The great mathematician Blaise Pascal reasoned, “All men seek happiness.  This is without exception.  Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end.  The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended from different views.  The will never takes the least step but to this object.  This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.”  Mathematicians are brilliant, aren't they?  If Pascal is correct, then the pursuit of pleasure is not a selfish motive, depending on where that pleasure is found.

If seeking joy is a right motive, how will writing a blog accomplish that end?  I believe that true joy is found when I am using the gifts that God has given me to bring glory to His Name.  The Apostle Paul encouraged the church in Corinth with the following words: “We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.” (Romans 12:6-8).  Last summer, I completed an online course on incorporating writing into math instruction and I created a series of blog posts on the topic for my final project.  The facilitator of the course suggested that I should consider publishing the posts and maintaining a blog, a thought that simmered in my mind throughout a busy school year.  I thought that I would launch this blog earlier in the summer, but procrastination reared its ugly head and a playful one year old with a propensity for not wanting to go to sleep commandeered many an evening.  However, this is it.  I am taking the plunge.  It is as if Paul is saying to me, “If your gift is writing, then write for the glory of God.”

Even if writing is a gift that I can use to glorify God, why should I demonstrate that gift in a blog?  Why not a journal or something more private?  A couple months ago, I had the opportunity to share part of my personal testimony at church, something that for a variety of reasons I had not had the opportunity to do for several years.  The process of verbally sharing my faith and exhorting others reminded me of the words of Paul to his friend Philemon: “I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.” (Philemon 6).  This circles back to my primary motive of writing this blog in pursuit of joy.  When I share my faith, in this case through writing, I have a greater understanding of the grace that God has shown me in my life through Jesus Christ.  The redemption, forgiveness, and freedom that I have as a result of Christ’s all sufficient sacrifice on the cross seeps deep into my bones and results in joy unending (My friend Courtney would probably say that I am sounding very Presbyterian now!).  Sharing God’s faithfulness through trials gives me courage that his provision and future grace will continue to sustain me no matter what challenges lie ahead.  Sharing my faith through writing increases my joy because it ultimately reminds me of the source of my joy.  I hope that my writing will point to Christ and not to me, so that while I may be starting this blog for myself, I won’t be glorying in myself.  I hope that my reflections are an encouragement to others as well.  

As the name of the blog suggests, I will attempt to incorporate my love of the great outdoors into some of my tales.  However, I have to admit, it is hard to venture too deeply into the wild with a toddler.  I am not planning to hike the Appalachian Trail anytime soon.  Nonetheless, there have been a couple camping trips this summer and Baltimore offers the prospect of many urban adventures.  Did I mention that I am a middle school teacher? Now that's an adventure!  Most of my future posts will be tied to a story, hence the name "Tales from Around the Campfire."  The full meaning behind the naming of this blog is the subject of my next post.  Feel free to write back with any comments that you have.  God Bless!  Justin.