Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Wrong Stories

"Well, David, after some of the stories you've told, I'm not sure I think Christians belong in the public schools."

Stunned, I could not believe I had just heard this statement.

Worse than that, I couldn't believe the statement had been inspired by my own words.

I've given my entire adult life to the public schools, and have no plans of ever doing otherwise. The passion I feel for my mission as a public school educator, as a leader of teachers, is fervent and self-sustaining; if you were to ask me for the top three things I would want a stranger to know about me, this mission would make the list.

And my devotion to Jesus finds itself not stifled, but beautifully channeled toward countless hearts in this arena in which I learn and lead and make an imprint I am usually unaware I am making.

To quote one of my early career mentors, "There is so much more good than bad" about working with students in the public school setting, and I would never want anyone to think differently, especially as a result of talking with me.

But there it was.

I, as a public school principal, had led a heart to conclude the public schools were no place for a Christian.

How could this have happened?

It happened because I had chosen to hold the attention of loved ones at holiday gatherings by regaling them with horror stories and battle scars, tales of mayhem and depravity, chronicles of incidents that represented only the smallest proportion of my dealings, but created the bug-eyed response that is so validating to create in others.

Instead of impressing upon the audience my faith in my students' future, which drives me daily but takes forever to yield fruit, and which I can barely explain without tears, I chose quick shock value instead, dime novel drama over the fulfillment of a classic story.

I never meant to lead my listeners to the place they went, but I did nonetheless.

I think almost everyone does what I did.

Of course, some people honestly hate what they do for a living, and that is tragic. I insist on believing, however, that most have at least the potential for joy in their work. But how many people do you know, who work in fields you have little or no knowledge about, whose stories about their work always seem to come from this same sliver of negative experiences with rotten people?

Why do we do this?

Why do we, especially those of us who dearly love our work, so often represent it to others as more trouble than joy, tangled with aggravation, and stressful beyond measure? Why do we give this impression to people who have no context in which to place the horror stories in perspective?

Am I saying we shouldn't vent our frustrations?


I am saying we are telling the wrong stories to the wrong people.

My fellow principals and I have most of the same challenging experiences, and we should share these with one another, encourage one another, and develop the camaraderie that will make these hard times easier to work through. I should share these difficult stories with these individuals, and they with me, because we instinctively understand that these stories are not the real story, but diversions from it, not the dominant characteristic of our work, but critical moments that exercise our leadership and make us stronger, placing into sharper focus the joys we work for every day.

Lots of other folks just don't have a way of making that distinction.

On the other hand, how many of my non-educator friends, acquaintances, and family members have no real familiarity with the forces that drove me into this field and continue to drive me today? No personal knowledge of the mission story I take for granted and assume everyone knows about me? No awareness of the daily joys, big and small, that lift this principal's spirits, renew his faith, and fill his heart?

How many have never heard?

And more to the point:  How many have not heard these things, but have heard dramatic tales of woe, even from me?

Why are you doing what you're doing with your precious life? What is the story? Does it move you? Could it move others? I pray it does, and I'm confident it can. And if it doesn't move you, or not anymore, I pray God will open a different door, and you'll have the faith to step through it.

Tell the story. The real story, even if you can't control your emotions. We want to hear it! Tell us what it's really all about, so we'll know whatever war stories we might hear later on are just part of a larger picture that's more than worth the momentary trouble to you.

We're telling the wrong stories to the wrong people, and it's time we got it right.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Simple Kind of Life

Too busy.

Too messy.

Too fast.

Too complex.

Many of us would describe our lives this way, while admitting this isn't what we wanted, right? Who hasn't felt some of the most basic wishes of life have gotten lost in the shuffle of work and Wal-Mart, traffic and time?

Some of the most haunting lyrics I've ever heard come from No Doubt's "Simple Kind of Life", a lament over a lost love and a lost time:

Now all these simple things are simply too complicated for my life;
How'd I get so faithful to my freedom, a selfish kind of life?
When all I ever wanted was the simple things,
A simple kind of life?

And, centuries earlier, one of the most haunting responses from Jesus:

"You are not far from the kingdom of God."
Mark 12:34

For a long time, I read this response as a rare compliment from Jesus toward His constant questioners among the religious elite, and it certainly is an acknowledgement that this particular "teacher of the law" was on the right track when he agreed with Jesus that loving God and loving neighbor outweigh all burnt offerings and sacrifices. 

However, Jesus does not tell this man, "You are thriving within the kingdom of God." He tells him he's close. 

How can this be? How can someone identify the very simple priorities of Jesus, and yet only be "close"? 

Well, most of us can probably relate, and would probably say it's...complicated.

These simple things are often simply too complicated for our lives, aren't they? Or, if we are to be honest with ourselves, our lives are simply too complicated for these simple things.

Love the Lord your God
with all your heart and with all your soul
and with all your mind and with all your strength.

Love your neighbor as yourself.

What needs to give, what needs to be diminished, what needs to go away, to give these simple priorities the time, space, soil, sunshine and rain they need to flourish and fill us up?

Jesus doesn't think it's complicated.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

In Weapons We Trust?

I've had the courage to ask the question publicly only once before.

I responded to a Twitter debate about the idea of teachers carrying guns in school by asking what the plan would be if a well-meaning educator accidentally killed an otherwise safe student in an ill-fated attempt to stop an intruder.

I received only one response, but it was enough. A stranger without a real name jumped to the attack, demanding to know what difference it would make, since the shooter would be killing everyone anyway, and expressing disdain for "you people", I assumed meaning those who questioned the wisdom of just anyone packing heat in a public place.

I considered answering that it would, in fact, make a significant difference to the family of the hypothetical, otherwise-safe-but-dead-at-the-hands-of-a-teacher child, but decided to let it go. There was clearly no conversation to have there.

But my question has never gone away, and I have never heard an answer for it:  What are we going to do when a civilian, attempting to stop a crime, real or perceived, or to defend himself/herself against a threat, real or perceived, inadvertently makes the situation worse than it would have been without their intervention or without the introduction of their firearm? And when their legal justification emboldens other would-be heroes to pull guns when they shouldn't?

I'm not saying no one should have a gun, and I'm not talking about anyone's home. And I'm as enticed as anyone by the scenario of a would-be mass-murderer being stopped short by a bullseye through the crowd from a sane, stable individual with the moral compass of the Lone Ranger and the aim of Doc Holliday, who never wanted to hurt anyone, but knew he or she had to be ready in case this ever happened.

But aside from that one perfect scenario, what happens when:

*A civilian correctly perceives a danger, but misses the target and shoots someone who otherwise might have escaped, or had already escaped? Or fires a shot through a window, across the street, and through the head of someone who was nowhere near the threat? Or multiple civilians all do these things at the same time?

*A civilian perceives something incorrectly and draws or fires when there is no need? Trained and experienced soldiers and police officers kill people they aren't supposed to kill more frequently than we would guess, but we don't think this will happen when scarcely trained and probably panicked civilians attempt to respond to what they perceive in the heat of a moment?

*A civilian attempting to intervene is mistaken for a perpetrator by police who are also intervening?

*A criminal seizes a firearm right off the person of a civilian who is caught off guard, or has overestimated his or her reflexes? Carrying a gun doesn't make you Chuck Norris.

*A gun falls into the hands of a child in a crowd, the way all kinds of things fall into the hands of children?

*A clinically sane, but aggrieved, misguided hothead, a person you wouldn't want teaching your child's Sunday School class, is the first in line to strap on a holster at church? (Of course they will be, and you know you thought of someone! If you can pack heat, so can the person whose judgment you trust the least.)

In a story that needs to be dwelled on, a board member from the NRA posted comments online recently, waiting scarcely long enough for the bodies to become cold, criticizing the murdered pastor of Charleston's Emanuel AME church for not supporting a concealed carry law in his role as a South Carolina state legislator. The NRA board member was bold enough in the moment to blame this pastor for the deaths of eight members of the congregation, but not bold enough to leave his comments posted after they triggered a backlash.

A sad detail of this story is the fact that the board member's criticism was posted in response to comments from an individual using the pseudonym "ShootDontTalk". Seriously. An influential player in one of the most influential political lobbies in our nation engaged online and thus lent credibility to someone who called himself "ShootDontTalk".

And this leader, who thought "ShootDontTalk" was a good person to engage with online, is presumably telling us, with his claim that these murdered worshippers should have been armed in Bible study, that the perfect scenario at the beginning of this post is all that will ever happen if we all just carry loaded weapons everywhere we go.

Maybe there is a good answer to the six scenarios I posted above. Maybe a critic would point out the long odds against any of these scenarios happening, as though their chances are any slimmer than the deadeye-Annie-Oakley scene we all hope for. Or, maybe the NRA board member from the story above would acknowledge, "Yes, any of those terrible things could happen, and if they do, we will be very sorry, but that's just the tradeoff we need to make to be safe today."

Being sorry and having a meaningful answer are not the same thing. Maybe I am uninformed, but I haven't heard proponents of concealed carry and open carry laws publicly address these unintended scenarios and how our society might respond if they should occur.

But maybe none of these things is the worst danger or most difficult question the followers of Jesus face in all this.

Maybe, just maybe, a congregation of worshippers carrying loaded guns while singing "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" isn't a picture consistent with a Lord who told Pilate that if His kingdom were of this world, His servants would fight, and who rebuked Peter's swordplay and restored Malchus's ear.

Could it be that a family of disciples keeping one hand on their pistols while they worship, actually discredits the gospel of Jesus Christ?

In whom (or what) will the followers of Jesus place their trust?

Our answers may not match the perceptions of those we are trying to reach for Him.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Essence of Cool

"We're on a mission from God."

If your lips don't stretch into a wry smile as your mind conjurs up Dan Aykroyd's voice delivering this perfect line, then you have no idea what I'm talking about. But you will.

One of the great gifts I received from my Dad in my youth was a fondness for a sanitized-for-TV version of The Blues Brothers, a 1980 movie I later learned, with great surprise, was actually littered with profanities galore. But not the version I watched, the version I came to love and have quoted from often. The characters, the dialogue, the implausible plot, my first sighting of Carrie Fisher outside of Star Wars, all made impressions on me, but nothing from this movie has stuck with me like the music. From James Brown to Aretha Franklin, from Ray Charles to the Peter Gunn Theme; it just never stops.

Does it seem to you that Dads are blessed with a very special task:  to pass along to their children at least one piece of cultural rot that Mom finds especially heinous? Mom tolerated The Blues Brothers fairly well, but on one occasion, when I took my obsessive Jake & Elwood routine a little too far, Mom responded with, "David, that was a terrible movie. Nobody even liked it when it came out....except your Dad."

And that was all I needed to know.

Moms, there are not enough words to capture the imprint you leave in the hearts of your children, how deeply you influence who they are. But Dads, among all the things you do, there is one thing you do better than anyone else while your kids are little: You define cool. You are the essence of hip. Your cred is beyond question, your playlist the ultimate, your language of anger the boundary of acceptable, your lens the litmus test for good taste. Yes, you fall hopelessly out of touch with anything resembling cool for awhile, but it always comes back to you, and your kids who believed they would reinvent the wheel end up resembling you in more ways than their physical features and mannerisms.

Why would God entrust you with this kind of influence?

He had to have known that millions of Dads around the world, throughout all of human history, would take this Kitchen Aid hand mixer of children's minds and do terrible things with it. But there it is, nonetheless. The opportunity to write in a language we scarcely comprehend, stir and season a stew we barely realize is cooking, and be the conductor on a train ride whose track we build as we go, and most of us end up wishing we could build over again.

The opportunity to capture the slightest glimpse, for a fleeting moment, of God's perspective on His creation is one of the most amazing gifts He gives. He actually lets us see what it's like to be Him, to love someone else so fully, so selflessly, not because of anything they have done to deserve it, but because they are yours. To want to be in communion with them so badly you are willing to give up anything...anything, to build the bridge to make it possible.

Dads, whether or not you realize it in the moment, you are being held up by your Father so you can reach your face to the telescope to look through and just barely make out things He sees with perfect clarity, and wants you to see so you can understand Him.

And that's your job now with your sons and daughters.

Hold them up so they can get a glimpse of the Father you see more clearly than you ever did before, now that you're a Dad. They will listen to you, if you will show them. Even if they don't listen now, your words will never be forgotten, and they will take root someday, Dads. Have faith, plant the seed, water the soil.

Look to your Father, and make sure your kids see you doing it.

A mission from God, indeed.

Sunday, June 14, 2015


A big day for an 8 year-old, packing up for a friend's birthday sleepover.

He gets sad for a moment, and I comfort him: "It's just one night."

We hug goodbye, I get sad for a moment, and he comforts me:  "It's just one night."

Putting away laundry later, and his room is not the same without him in the house.

What am I gonna do someday when it isn't just one night anymore?