Thursday, August 28, 2008

Trying to Impress

*The following story is true. The names have been changed for privacy.

I'll never forget the day Coach Garza brought Jason to my office.

I was an Assistant Principal at the time, a role which offers a close-up view of the good, the bad, and the ugly of everyday life in American households. And, a lot of the strangest things happening in those households walk through the school doors with the students each morning.

Once Coach Garza and Jason were seated in my office across from my desk, the scene went something like this:

"Mr. Dominguez, we've got a problem. I'm getting reports that Jason here has been telling the other kids in PE that he smokes crack."

Without even having to communicate, Coach Garza and I knew we were both about to fall over laughing. Jason did not exactly fit the "crackhead" mold, to say the least. In addition, I had already worked with Jason's mother on previous occasions, and knew her to be a caring mom who tried her best to stay on top of Jason's comings and goings. But, we carried on. I took up the questioning from there.

"So, Jason, you smoke crack?"

"Yes."

"How often?"

"26 times."

"You've smoked crack 26 times?"

"Yes."

"Who is giving you crack?"

"My uncle."

"What's his name?"

"Freddy."

"What's Freddy's last name?"

"I don't know."

"You don't know your uncle's last name?"

"I've been trying to find out, but no one ever tells me!"

At this point in the conversation, Coach Garza and I made eye contact, and we both knew it was time for a break. I excused myself, stepped out of the office for a few moments, had a good laugh in the hall, and returned to resume my interview with troubled young Jason.

"So, Jason, do you mean to tell me that your uncle Freddy, whose last name you don't know, has smoked crack with you 26 times, and your mom has never found out?"

"Yes, but the last time we did it, my older brother caught us."

"What happened then?"

"They fought."

"Who fought?"

"My uncle and my brother."

"So, you've smoked crack with your uncle 26 times, and on the 26th time, your brother and your uncle had a big fight, and after all this, your mom still doesn't know anything happened?"

Jason ran out of answers at that point. His story was circling the drain, and couldn't be retrieved.

Coach Garza took Jason back to the locker room to change out of his gym clothes while I called Jason's mom.

It took me a little bit to explain this whole story to her, but her reaction still rings in my ears:

"I told him to stop trying to impress those kids!!"

I was able to establish with whatever certainty I could get in that situation that Jason's story was, indeed, completely false, totally made up in an effort to look tough in front of his peers. I couldn't help but feel sorry for the kid, especially considering his mother's immediate assessment of his reason for saying what he said. She knew her son, had probably been over this before with him, and had a good sense of what motivated him.

It's easy to chuckle at Jason's story. I know I do when I recall it.

But it's worth pointing out that young Jason is not alone. He's certainly not the only young adolescent to care more about his peers' perceptions than his own well-being. But, he also has good company in any age group.

How many times have we all struggled with this tendency, well into our adult lives? Haven't we all worried too much about people's opinions? Haven't we all been motivated by a desire to impress?

Scripture addresses this issue plainly:

"Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them." (Matthew 6:1)

"[The hypocrites] love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men." (Matthew 6:5)

"...they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting." (Matthew 6:16)

"...they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God." (John 12:43)

Your relationship with Christ is the only thing that will matter when your heart stops beating.

Not what a neighbor thought about your house. Not what a friend thought of your wardrobe. Not what a motorist thought of your car. Not what a colleague thought of your career. Not what folks thought of your wild and wooly days before you became a Christian. Not what those same folks thought of your repentance. Not what a brother or sister in Christ thought of your work in the church.

Paul takes it a step further by boldly stating that living in Christ and trying to impress others are mutually exclusive: "If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ." (Galatians 1:10)

Live in Christ, or live to impress people. You can't do both.

To be sure, none of this should be taken as a license to disregard other people's rights or feelings, or to be rude or inconsiderate. The point is to do what we know to be right, and not to be distracted from this by a desire to gain the approval or admiration of other people.

Our worst sins, our greatest triumphs, and all we do in between are opportunities to pull closer to Jesus. They are also opportunities to make a splash in front of our peers.

Why do you do the things you do?

Sunday, August 24, 2008

2008-2009

At 8 am tomorrow morning, I will address my campus's student body and launch the 2008-2009 school year.

One of the reasons I love working in education is the cycle of each year's beginning, ending, and new beginning. Each year has a personality and feel all its own. Each group of students has a chemistry all its own. And, each year brings joys and sorrows, triumphs and challenges no one could have foreseen.

My prayers for this school year are:

*That our campus will be safe.

*That our students will truly experience what I will be promising them tomorrow morning: A Fresh Start.

*That our students will learn and enjoy success.

*That every adult who works with our students will do so with a loving spirit, even when they don't feel like it.

*That our focus will remain on students first.

I love the phrase "Times of Refreshing" from Acts 3:19. May tomorrow morning be a refreshing start to a successful year.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Replacing & Being Replaced



I'm not a Packers fan, but I'm rooting for Aaron Rodgers this NFL season. This young man will tread the minefield of replacing the immortal Brett Favre as Packers quarterback, after serving as Favre's backup the last three seasons.

I have a soft spot in my heart for anyone called upon to replace a legend. For that matter, anyone coming into any organization to replace someone faces a difficult challenge. So does the person who is leaving. So does every other stakeholder affected by the transition.

So far in my career, I have come in as the "new guy" seven times. I've moved on and been replaced by someone else six times.

On some of these occasions, I replaced someone who walked on water. Other times, I replaced someone not as highly esteemed. Either way, it's tricky.

In the first case, there is no shortcut to bypass the time it takes to win over the grieving fans mourning the loss of your predecessor, whose legend only becomes more golden with the passage of time. ("There just haven't been times like those since...[sniff]...I'm sorry, I just get so emotional....")

In the latter case, a ticker-tape parade is thrown for you at least once a week, and the no-good louse you replaced ("Oh, thank GOD for you!!!") becomes lazier and even more grossly incompetent in people's memories with every passing day. (This can go to your head if you're not careful.)

I'll never forget my arrival at my second teaching job. I took over in mid-year for a saintly teacher who left for another job. A fellow teacher showed me around the school, introducing me to everyone, and we came upon a parent volunteer in the workroom. Knowing this parent had a child in what was soon to be my class, my tourguide decided to introduce me to her.

"Mrs. ______________, this is Mr. Dominguez. He's the new teacher taking Mrs. _____________'s place."

It was suddenly clear Mrs. ________________ had not seen the memo about Mrs. _____________'s departure.

It was as if my tourguide had told this woman that her son had been caught with a thermos full of vodka. Her cheeks flushed. Her eyes bulged in horror and welled with tears. Then, right in front of me, Mrs. ______________ blurted to my tourguide, "But, I don't want Mrs. ____________ to leave!"

Welcome aboard.

Through these experiences, I've developed a sort of etiquette to abide by whenever these transitions take place. These rules have kept me out of hot water so far:

*When you're the new guy:

Ask a lot of questions and do a lot of listening.
Do the very best work you can do, quietly.
Be honest about your shortcomings.
Speak of your predecessor only when it is unavoidable to do so, and only in positive terms.
Overlook the insensitive remarks of those who fault you for not being just like your predecessor.
Call upon your predecessor for help or advice if needed. Don't let your pride get in the way.
Have faith. Time is the only cure.

*When you're the one leaving:

If you get to meet your successor, be kind and express confidence in his/her ability. Share all relevant information.
Understate your importance, but make yourself available, just to your successor, should he/she desire contact.
Praise your successor in the presence of your grieving fans.
Unless your successor requests otherwise, clear out and stay out. Don't haunt the place.
Do not allow yourself to become a depository for complaints from your grieving fans about your successor.

*When you're the grieving fan:

Grow up! Prepare your mind for a mature transition.
Be kind.
Never say, do, or even think, anything that would harm the new guy's chances. Make a special commitment to this.
Do not remind the new guy how the predecessor did things, unless you are asked for this input.

*When you're the one who celebrated the predecessor's departure:

Keep it in perspective. The new guy isn't perfect, either.
Don't badmouth the predecessor or exaggerate the new guy's greatness.
Take a look in the mirror. Any chance you were part of the problem with the predecessor?

What all this comes down to is the matter of how we treat others, and how we want to be treated, when we are at our most exposed and vulnerable. Every rule listed above is directed against the temptation to take advantage of someone else's vulnerability, and serves as a reminder that we're all likely to be vulnerable sometime.

No matter how many times we conquer new territory, no matter how confident we become in our ability, we will all face a moment sometime, somewhere, when we are made to feel like this:

"The scribes and Pharisees brought to Him a woman caught in adultery. And when they had set her in the
midst, they said to Him, "Teacher, this woman was caught in adultery, in the very act. Now, Moses, in the
law, commanded us that such should be stoned. But what do you say?" -- John 8:3-5

Of course, this story condemns self-righteous hypocrisy, and the men who brought this woman to Jesus did so out of false motive, but imagine how the woman felt at this moment. Does the word "humiliation" even suffice here? Yes, she was indeed engaged in sin, but she didn't deserve this treatment. She was vulnerable. She was exposed. She was alone, although she should not have been. (Where was the man she was in bed with, again?)

Consider how she was treated at her most vulnerable moment. The men who brought her to Jesus took advantage of this woman's vulnerability to use her for their own purposes. Jesus, on the other hand, restored dignity in a moment of shame. He did not allow the sin to pass unchallenged, but neither did he allow a soul to be abused.

How did you feel in your moment of unflattering exposure? That time when your faults were on display for the world to see and judge? That time when you threw the interception that cemented the opponents' victory, that interception your predecessor never would have thrown?

If you've lived through a moment like that, did it change your approach to moments when the shoe is on the other foot? When it is you with the advantage, and someone else who is exposed? When you are the interviewer asking the questions, instead of the nervous job-seeker scrambling for the right answers?

How do we treat people who are vulnerable? How did Jesus treat them?

"Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted."-- Galatians 6:1

"Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy." -- Matthew 5:7

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Common Ground, Across the Centuries

It's human nature to seek familiar company.

Some people can relate to each other because of a specific experience they share. War veterans are a prime example.

But, not everyone can be a war veteran. So, how does a civilian who loves his country find common ground with a veteran who fought to defend it? First, by showing gratitude, and by openly acknowledging his inability to understand firsthand the experience known only to the veteran. False familiarity with a veteran's experience would be just as insulting as any failure to respect the veteran's sacrifice. A grateful civilian will appreciate and thank a veteran, and a gracious veteran will accept these warm thoughts, and consider his civilian friend just as much his countryman as any fellow veteran.

Deeper than all this, however, lies the most important way a civilian honors a veteran's sacrifice. A truly appreciative civilian will live in such a way as never to bring dishonor upon the sacrifice of the veteran. A grateful citizen will live up to all the ideals for which the veteran fought, and never treat the veteran's experience as commonplace. Then the veteran can enjoy the peace of knowing his sacrifice was appreciated.

Common ground is found in shared allegiance, even when experience differs from person to person, and even between people separated by decades or centuries of time.

Hebrews 11 is a source of inspiration for any Christian. The tales of God's faithful from centuries past serve to motivate today's Christian to strengthen his own faith and demonstrate that faith in action. Every Christian reading Hebrews 11 should feel a sense of familiarity with the people cited in the text. These people are not just historical figures; they are family. They lived and died before our time, but we will meet them in a time yet to come.

Imagine the stories they will tell us!

Along with several major figures listed in Hebrews 11, such as Abraham, Joseph, and Moses, are other believers, unnamed personally, but immortalized for their faith, in particular for the way in which they died.

Easy to overlook, disturbing to contemplate:

"...others were tortured, not accepting deliverance...they were stoned, they were sawn in two...they were slain with the sword...they wandered in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth." -- Hebrews 11:35, 37, 38

How does a Christian today, in a developed nation, enjoying the protection of the law rather than the persecution of the government, relate to a brother or sister whose last sensation in this life was the terror of flesh and organs being ripped apart by the teeth of a saw? How does a Christian concerned with keeping his house cool in the summer relate to one of God's children driven to take refuge in a cave?

Of course, every person's experience is different, and no one is expected, in any area of life, to have lived firsthand the experience of every other person he knows. And, no one should expect to comprehend fully the life and experiences of people from another time.

But still, we have to wonder: Would our lives and concerns make any sense at all to our nameless family in Hebrews 11? More importantly, would our faith be recognizable to them? Would they understand, as people who were murdered for their faith, how hard we try to avoid even being made socially uncomfortable for ours?

Not everyone can be a martyr, any more than everyone could be a war veteran. It's not possible, nor is it necessary, or even helpful to the cause. But, today's Christian must take something from the stories of these unknown martyrs. The thought to be taken is the utmost necessity of today's Christian living a life that would bring honor upon these people's sacrifice, and that would never treat their sacrifice as commonplace.

While it is Jesus' sacrifice that saves us, these sacrifices of our spiritual ancestors also serve to inspire us to be less attached to this world and more attached to Him.

Common ground between an ancient martyr, and a 21st century Christian? It can be found only in allegiance to Christ, even if it should cost everything else.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The Cost

I never thought I would be happy to see gasoline priced at $3.69 a gallon.

But I saw it today, and I was happy. A few months ago, I was horrified at this price. But, after riding gas prices up to $3.99 (So far, I've managed never to pay $4), I've been glad to see a 30-cent drop, at least where I live, over the last few weeks.

Someday, we'll all be telling these stories to our kids, but I remember paying a little over $1 a gallon in the early 90s, when I owned my first vehicle. At that time, gasoline was a modest portion of my monthly expenses, not even something I had to watch very closely.

Today, of course, it's a whole different story. Just about everyone in America has had to rearrange the household budget to accommodate the cost of fuel.

As frustrating as it is, and as unfair as it feels, it just costs what it costs, and we all have to drive, so we all find a way to pay.

I've spent most of this week interviewing candidates for open teaching positions at my campus.

One of the qualities I look for most in a teaching candidate is the commitment to remain positive and joyful, even when things get tough and people complain. Especially when things get tough and people complain. I'll take a joyful rookie over a grouchy veteran any day. I'm not easily impressed by years in the business. I'm impressed by the spirit that makes for good years in the business.

Teaching is a joy, but it's tough. Kids of any age require a deep well of patience. Anyone considering the teaching field must understand this.

Effective teachers have an inner source of renewable joy that allows them to remain positive in the face of constant challenges to their patience. Ineffective teachers lack this quality, thinking someone, somewhere is supposed to be doing something to keep them happy. They don't realize no one can do that for them.

A great teaching career costs a lot. It takes all the patience and love you have, and then some.

Is it fair that it costs this much? Maybe, maybe not. But, that's just what it costs, and anyone who desires the role must commit to paying the cost in full.

Consider these words from Jesus:

"If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters -- yes, even his own life -- he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple...any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple." -- Luke 14:26-27, 33.

Who could ever claim to be comfortable with these words?

We so often focus on what we receive as Christians, and rightly so, because we receive a lot.

But, do we think often enough about what it costs to follow Jesus?

There are deeper waters in which to dive for more complete answers to what Jesus says in Luke 14, but the bottom line is this: Being a disciple of Jesus means living a life in which you are no longer the center. Your wishes and preferences are no longer the rules that govern your world. Your pleasure is no longer the goal.

An effective disciple understands the cost in this life, and looks toward heaven. An ineffective disciple is shocked by the cost, and lives in frustration, thinking someone, somewhere is supposed to be doing something to keep him happy.

Jesus has paid our debt and freed us from sin.

Now, all He asks for is everything we are and have.

Are we ready to give it all to Him?

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Something I Just Don't Get

My mother was pregnant with me at the time of the Roe v. Wade decision. Abortions happened before my time, of course, but I've always found it disturbing that my generation was the first to be declared dispensable, and that if my mother had been of a mind to have an abortion at the time, I might never have been born.

The abortion debate is ongoing, but is not particularly hot this election season.

Most everyone has his mind made up about this issue one way or the other, with views ranging from opposition in any circumstance, to opposition with a few exceptions, to support with some exceptions, to support in any circumstance.

Most discussions of this issue dissolve quickly into emotional fiascos, but when rare civil debate occurs, it usually centers around the questions of whose choice outweighs whose, and whether or not we're dealing with actual life in the womb, and at what point in gestation a developing baby should be regarded as a living being with rights of its own that trump the mother's rights and choices. The most informed people on both sides have answers ready for their opponents on all of these points.

Just for the record, I regard a developing baby in utero as a life of its own, from the earliest stage, with rights that override mom's preference as to whether he or she should live. And, just for the record, so does my mom. She has three sons, loves us all dearly, and there was never a chance she would have had an abortion.

We've all heard the arguments on both sides, but there is one aspect of abortion and pregnancy that I've never heard anyone tackle. It is a simple, practical point that doesn't even require faith in God to consider. It's something I just don't get.

I just don't get how 40 weeks outweigh a lifetime.

40 weeks is the length of time of a normal pregnancy, with many pregnancies actually being a little shorter. Most pregnant women, in fact, don't even learn they are pregnant until some of this time has already passed. By the time we celebrate a child's first birthday, that child's lifespan has already exceeded the time he or she spent in the womb.

I know, I know. I'm a man, not a woman. I don't understand what pregnancy is like, and I never will. I'm not claiming I do, nor minimizing the drama and trauma a woman endures in a normal pregnancy and delivery, let alone a childbirth complicated by medical issues. Pregnancy and delivery involve a lot more than watching 40 weeks pass. Of course, an abortion involves a lot more than a mere removal of tissue, to be sure, although few abortion advocates want to talk about this.

The fact is, a pregnant woman faces mental and physical trauma either way, whether she delivers her baby or has an abortion.

Another fact is that a pregnant woman who does not wish to raise her baby has no obligation to do so, and never has. With countless couples longing to adopt a child, even an unhealthy one, it's amazing to me that any woman sees no option but to abort an unwanted baby.

Isn't it funny how different people are when they have to account for their actions face to face, rather than being able to do what they want without explanation? I have found that the "toughest" person, by this world's standards, often becomes nervous, vague, and shifty when faced with an eyeball to eyeball reckoning for his actions. The tough talk in front of his peers disappears in an instant before even the most unassuming and non-threatening questioner.

How different would the abortion debate be if someone choosing an abortion had to explain the choice to the baby, or more intimidating still, to the adult that baby would eventually grow into? Or, even, to the preschooler that baby would be in just a few years?

How would you explain to someone that, for the sake of 40 weeks out of my adult life, you can't have any life at all? (And, no, the fact that I freely received my own mother's 40 weeks makes no difference...)

Who would make such a claim to someone who could respond?

Who would accept the short end of such a trade-off, in any area of life?

For that matter, how many abortion advocates would accept the short end of that stick? I daresay they would run for relief to the same court that gave them Roe v. Wade.

40 weeks vs. a lifetime.

I just don't get it.