Friday, December 30, 2011

War Crimes and the American Conscience Part I

During downtimes for my training with Farmers, I was able to read an interesting book from 1970 entitled “War Crimes and the American Conscience.” The book was an analysis of US war crimes committed in Vietnam in the light of the principles of the Nuremburg conference; the recorded notes of the 1970 Congressional Conference on War and National Responsibility. Below are some excerpts.

“If we work up to the level of our technology in terms of the wars we are prepared to fight, the sky is the limit; There will be absolutely no control over what the United States can do, because it is the most powerful nation in the world and has the most advanced military technology. We will use other tactics, we will fight ‘clean’ Vietnams, where our hands don’t get dirty, where we fly in the stratosphere, not seeing what we are hitting and killing. - Hans Morgenthau Pg 27

“It is also a reality, I think, that no American President will look upon himself as a possible perpetrator of war crimes. It could not occur to him, it could not occur to the American people – except to the young – that war crimes are something that can be charged to Americans. – Daniel Ellisberg Pg 31

“The blind destruction of whole villages with artillery or from the air, on the grounds that one had drawn fire from somewhere in these villages, would seem on this basis [Nuremberg Conference Definitions of War Crimes] to be a war crime. - George Wald Pg 75

“As a nation, we have abdicated our responsibility to differentiate between means and ends in the execution of our foreign policy. We turned this responsibility over to an Executive who is not bound in the conduct of foreign policy by much more than his own perception of the world and the consciences of those who surround and advise him. – William R. Corson Pg. 91

“Can any country such as the United States, with its predominant military and economic power, with a position so commanding in the world, carry out warfare against a weaker state, without in fact pressing its advantage to the limit of its own assessment of its own security? When the United States has exercises restraint, it has done so only in response to perceived threats from a stronger or equally strong power.
The basic issues is the permissibility of basing a foreign policy on our unilateral determination to use violence whenever and whenever we see fit, to achieve ends as we determine them. This basic notion of how we use our military power really has to be attacked before we can work out ground rules for managing the violence on the battlefields. – Richard Barnet Pg 98

“Turning now to the rest of the American population and its response to My Lai, we can identify at least three psychological mechanisms called forth to avoid facing such unpleasant truths. The first is denial, ‘The massacres didn’t really happen or have been exaggerated.’ The second is rationalization, ‘War is hell.’ And the third, in a way more politically dangerous, is the mobilization of self-righteous anger; ‘Stop picking on our boys. The Vietnamese had it coming to them. You [the bearer of the news] ought to be sent to Vietnam to fight.’ - Robert Jay Lifton Pg. 106

“When we go into a village, we classify all the people into different categories. But these categories do not depend on something we perceive about them; they depend on what we do to them. If we kill them, they are Vietcong. If we capture them and tie them up, they are Vietcong suspects. If we grab them and move them to a camp, they are hostile civilians. Having don this to many people who are in fact innocent, the definitions we have imposed become real. The men who have been tied up or tortured actually become our enemies and shoot real bullets at us, but still we are facing the shadow of our own actions. – Robert Jay Lifton Pg. 111

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Red Pill, Blue Pill

"[It is a shock] to learn that in every nation where we now have terrorism, the USA had first done terrible things. We've overthrown their governments, installed dictators, undermined their economies - all to strengthen our business interests. The terror attacks are retaliation for what we've done to their countries.
Chomsky [an author] shows how our corporate media have created an image of fiendish terrorists who 'hate us for our freedom.' But they really hate us for dominating them. Since we started the aggression, the attacks, detestable as they are, son't end until we change our policies.
The most pathetic thing is that we Americans still believe it's 'our' country, when it and both political parties are firmly in the hands of the corporations.
This view went against everything [we] have been raised to believe. We've all been subjected as children to patriotic rituals that caused us to connect the nation we live in with our family and then with God - the founding fathers, our own father, and the Heavenly Father all joined in patriarchy. Because of this emotional identification, we react to criticism of the country as an attack on our family. This hurts our feelings on a deep personal level, so we reject it, convinced it can't be true. It's too threatening to us. We tune it out and often resent the people making it."

"Western propaganda uses this to whip up war fever. The media in Europe and North America have seared all sorts of atrocity stories- some of them true, some of them not - into people's minds to justify invading the country and bombing the people.
The Taliban are bad guys, no doubt about it. I'm not fond of them at all. They killed hundreds of people, including friends of mine. They would've killed me if I had stayed.
But the USA has killed fifty thousand Afghans just in this current war... and more every day. They're devastating the country. They make the Taliban look like boy scouts."

It's when you've learned enough to "take the red pill" that the above comments make sense.

I think what finally put me over the edge was Walter Wink's The Powers that Be. While reading that book, all the other biblical and extra-biblical study I'd been doing all came together.

Here are some other red pill-esque quotes.

"One of the most persistent ambiguities that we face is that everybody talks about peace as a goal. However, it does not take sharpest-eyed sophistication to discern that while everybody talks about peace, peace has become practically nobody's business among the power-wielders. Many men cry Peace! Peace! but they refuse to do the things that make for peace." - MLK Jr.

"Naturally the common people don't want war... That is understood. But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or not voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country." - Hermann Goering

A Radically Patriotic 2011

Last night, Erin and I watched the movie The Help. It was a great movie! Without giving too much away, I'll share that the basic premise of the movie involves some of the characters intentionally breaking a law of the State of Mississippi (1950's Mississippi) in order to work to bring racial equality to the nation. Watching that movie made me thankful for those patriots who love our country enough to engage in the civil disobedience necessary to create a more just and right society.

I'm also reading another book that is challenging me to help make this nation a more just place, though more on that later.

But here's to a more radically patriotic 2011. More to come...

Monday, December 26, 2011

Loving Our Kids on Purpose

I just finished a powerful book on parenting, Loving Our Kids in Purpose by Danny Silk. It's very much in the Love and Logic thought framework of empowering kids with choices and letting them live with the consequences of bad decisions. Erin and I are able to implement some of the stuff proposed by the book, though we've still got a lot of learning to do. When I find myself wanting to yell at Dawson to make him do what he "needs" to do, I'm reminded that controlling my son through fear will become less and less effective the closer to my size he becomes.
I'd certainly recommend the book.

Here's a great quote from page 166:
"The right answer can only come with the right question, which is 'What are you going to do?' IF your child is truly sorry, she'll clean up her mess. But she can only get there is you have a paradigm in which you expect her to be able to find the problem and take responsibility for it. So many people don't expect that from others. They expect that when you make a mess, it is theirs to clean up, and they have to order you through the steps to clean up the mess. They need control of you in the problem. Your job is to comply or rebel. But nothing on the inside ever changes. It's a paradigm of external control."

Friday, December 23, 2011

War and Peace

In the spring of 2006, as Erin and I were preparing for a trip to Europe, I thought it would be fitting to start reading a great novel from European history, "War and Peace". Tonight, Dec. 23, 2011, I have FINALLY finished the book.

Overall, I felt it was a pretty mediocre read, not even close to as gripping as Hugo’s “Les Miserables” nor as powerful as Dostoevsky's "The Brothers Karamazov. It was better however, than Dostoevsky's “Crime and Punishment.”

I did enjoy the character development of Pierre as well as Tolstoy’s musings about why Napoleon was the product of dumb luck or fortunate circumstances rather than genius or great leadership. Tolstoy liked to point out that the people who first declared Napoleon a glorious hero for France and Europe later declared him an insane criminal who was a danger to civilization, therefore exiling him. Not surprisingly, this opinion of Napoleon differed from the opinion Hugo expressed in “Les Miserables.” The last 50 pages or so was a whole bunch of historical philosophy of which I had trouble understanding. I did find a few quotes toward the end of the book that are worth sharing.

“In the first place the historian describes the conduct of separate persons who, in his opinion, lead humanity (one regards as such only monarchs, military generals and ministers of state’ another includes besides, monarchs, orators, scientific men, reformers, philosophers and poets). Secondly, the goal towards which humanity is being lead is known to the historian. To one this goal is the greatness of Rome, or the Spanish, or the French state, for another, it is freedom, equality, a certain sort of civilization in a little corner of the world called Europe.
In 1789 there was a ferment in Paris: it grew and spread, and found expression in the movement of peoples from west to east. Several times that movement is made to the east, and comes into collion with a counter movement from east westwards. In the year 1812 it reaches its furthest limit, Moscow, and then, with a remarkable symmetry, the counter movement follows from east to west; drawing with it, like the first movement, the peoples of Central Europe. The counter-movement reaches the starting-point of the first movement – Paris – and subsides.
During this period of twenty years an immense number of fields are not tilled; houses are burned; trade changes its direction; millions of men grow poor and grow rich, and change the habitations; and millions of Christians, professing the law of love, murder one another.
What does this all mean? What did all this proceed from? What induced these people to burn houses and to murder their fellow creatures? What were the causes of these events? What force compelled men to act in this fashion? These are the involuntary and most legitimate questions that, in all good faith, humanity puts to itself when it stumbles on memorials and traditions of that past age of restlessness.
To answer these questions the common-sense of humanity turns to the science of history, the object of which is the self-knowledge of nationals and of humanity.” – Pg. 1112

“For causes, known or unknown to us, the French begin to chop and hack at each other. And to match the event, it is accompanied by its justification in the expressed wills of certain men, who declare it essential for the good of France, for the cause of freedom, for equality. Men cease slaughtering one another, and that event is accompanied by the justification of the necessity of centralization of power, of resistance to Europe, and so on. Men march from west to east, killing their fellow-creatures, and this event is accompanied by phrases about the glory of France, the baseness of England, and so on. History teaches us that those justifications for the event are devoid of all common-sense, that they are inconsistent with one another, as, for instance, the murder of a man as a result of the declaration of his rights, and the murder of millions in Russia for the abasement of England. But those justifications have an incontestable value in their own day.
They remove moral responsibility from those men who produce the events. At the time they do the work of brooms, that go in front to clear the rails for the train: they clear the path of men’s moral responsibility. Apart from those justifications, no solution could be found for the most obvious question that occurs to one at once on examining any historical event; that is, How did millions of men come to combine to commit crimes, murders, wars and so on?” – Pg. 1130

Just FYI, “War and Peace” is split up into 15 different parts each containing around 50 – 70 chapters that are from one to four pages long. This allows the book to be read in tiny little snippets over a long period of time. Long as in almost 6 years. So if you’d like to broaden your cultural and historical horizons, I’d recommend you change your bathroom reading from the newspaper to some Tolstoy. If only for about six years.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Dang, it feels good to be a .... Preacha'

After almost half a year away, a couple of weeks ago I finally got back into the rhythm of preaching; the reflection, study, preparation and delivery. And what better way to get back into the swing of it than with the tension, history, despair and hope of an OT prophet.

Here is my message at Indian Creek - Gardner from a few weeks ago. The passage is Isaiah 7 and the message is entitled, "The Wonder of Hope."

Also, I talk about my TFA experience in the last 1/3 of the message.

The Wonder of Hope - Gardner Campus from Indian Creek Community Church on Vimeo.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

A Lingering Legacy - Part IV

So I thought I'd end with three posts, but here's another good one I needed to share.

Last Thursday night, I went to an open house for Trinity Family Midtown. The open house was a chance for this missional community to share about their new initiatives and to share testimonies of people who have come to Christ through this ministry. It was an incredible evening. While listening to one of the stories, I had a tear or two come to my eye, thinking about how just over 7 years ago, we started TFC in order to reach people far from the church and God. While a ministry to reach the LGBT community centered in midtown KC wasn't on my radar in 2004, a single-minded focus to do whatever it takes to reach people turned off to God and the church was certainly in the forefront of my mind. So while TFC is no longer in Gardner and I'm no longer the pastor, the church is still reaching people for Christ. And they're doing it in a way that almost no other church in the denomination is doing.

My old DS, Jeren Rowell was at the open house and I got to enjoy the moment with him. I told him of a story I'd just heard the day before about a Nazarene pastor who tried to start a similar ministry in the urban center of a city but because he couldn't make it fit into the Nazarene box that his DS wanted, he was forced to start it as a non-denominational church. After that decision, the DS stripped him of his credentials (the pastor regained them through the Methodist Church) and the church began to do great things and reach people for Jesus. I thanked Jeren for having a Kingdom vision that is much broader than just a single denomination and being the type of leader who supports new and unique ministries.

I also told Jeren that TFC Midtown is set up the way I was trying to move TFC Gardner toward, but just wasn't able to do so. The church is lead by several volunteer pastors, is very low on programming and very high on community and is finding new ways to serve the poor of the surrounding area. While I'm really proud that TFC became what I was hoping it would be, I feel a bit disappointed that I wasn't the one able to take it there. But as Jeren said, "that's just the way it goes sometimes."

Finally, I kept giving props to Brian Hupe that entire evening. Brian, Sara Armstrong and Bill Melvold (TFC Gardner's last church board) all deserve some serious recognition for having the boldness and foresight to vote to start the Midtown campus. It was a bold move because 1) TFC Gardner was losing people fairly quickly and 2) It was a unique ministry that no other church was doing. It was so unique that we had some people leave TFC because they couldn't reconcile a ministry that reached the LGBT community through love and compassion and not judgment and condemnation. I honestly believe that the leadership decisions of that church board will continue to have a Kingdom impact in ways that won't be fully known in this life.

And the legacy continues...

Saturday, November 26, 2011

A Lingering Legacy - Part III

This is the final edition in a three part series on how the unique ministry of Trinity Family Church is still having a kingdom impact.

This post doesn't need much writing from me. In fact, all we need is the writing of my good friend Michael Palmer who is quickly becoming a better writer and blogger than yours truly.

Strippers and Saints

Update: The above link is now correct.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A Lingering Legacy - Part II

This is part two of a tree part series on some of the lasting legacies of Trinity Family Church in Gardner. Of course, TFC still lives on in midtown Kansas City.

Last week, a group of ladies from Indian Creek Gardner helped Erin create and deliver the gift bags for this month's Love Wins ministry outreach. It's been great to see the Love Wins ministry find a new home and a new life with ICG. What's maybe even better was the conversation I had with our old pal, Guido who was impacted by our Love Wins ministry back when working at one of the clubs.

Guido called me the other night excited to share a story with me. After playing phone tag for awhile, I finally got to hear his story.

Guido is now working with a club in Topeka. There just so happens to be a large church near that club. That church has taken the relational approach of most Conservative Evangelical church in interacting with groups who don't share their morals; they don't have a relationship and try to use power overcome that group. Guido says despite his offer to get together with the pastor, the church refuses to talk with them and have used the Christ-like approach of picketing the club.

While the employees of this club have been complaining about the judgmental Christians, Guido has been passionately assuring his co-workers that not all Christians are like that. He then went on to tell them about how much TFC and Love Wins changed some of his views on Christians and even on God. "You guys had a really big impact on me, more than you know." A ministry like Love Wins, however was not just in Guido's past, but soon to be in his present.

A little while later, some timid looking ladies knocked on the door of their club and nervously explained they were from a church in town and wanted to pass out gifts to the dancers in their club. Guido burst out laughing, instantly shattering the confidence of the ladies at the front door. Guido quickly built their confidence back up, though by telling them all about his experience with the ladies from TFC. He shared the positive impact we'd had on them, shared with them the address to this blog, how the TFC ladies had become comfortable in the club and even how they'd thrown us a baby shower.

It looks like there's about to be another positive relationship developing between some church ladies and some workers in the adult entertainment industry. And because this pastor and wife are adopting, there might even be another baby shower.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

A Lingering Legacy - Part I

I'm going to be posting a short series of some ways that the legacy of Trinity Family Church's unique ministry is still having a Kingdom-sized impact.

A few weeks ago, I had dinner with Scott Sidusky. Scott and I had a tough final few months of ministry together. Mostly because I was living with fear and guilt (fear of the church failing and guilt over burning people out) and Scott was had stretched himself really thin and was feeling that pressure (something I became all too familiar with during my short stint with TFA and KCMSD).

So while we had about three great years, the last few months left us both feeling a bit apologetic toward and frustrated with each other. As a side note, it's sad that the system creates guilt, fear and burn-out. But during our dinner the other night, it was clear that all the bad memories had faded into the appropriate position of a distant second to the all the good experiences we shared together.

Scott is now helping with worship and leading the teen ministry at Faith Journey Church of the Nazarene in Olathe and during our dinner, he told me all the ways that his time with TFC is positively impacting his current ministry.

Scott also let me know how much he misses TFC. A couple of lines that stuck with me were, "We had a really good thing going" and "we reached a lot of people." We were having such a good time reminiscing that for a few minutes I considered doing it all over again.

But it's TFC's uniqueness that made it unsustainable, at least in the small-town context we were in and the in the traditional model of a full-time pastor.

But as I like to say, "we did more in 7 years than most churches will do in 70."

Monday, November 14, 2011

I Swear my Unquestioning, Unthinking and Blind Allegiance

I went to the Chiefs-Broncos game this past Sunday and had a great time. During the day, however, I was struck by how many ways we are manipulated by the Empire in which we live. There are so many different ways we are either brainwashed by ritual, emotional manipulation, displays of power or group-think.

As at all public gatherings, we started with the National Anthem. Just think of how many times you have sung that song. It's a ritual meant to burn the anthem into our minds. Immediately after the the anthem, a Stealth Bomber flew over the stadium in order to remind us of the awesome power of our Empire. We then had a stadium card stunt in which "thank you veterans" was spelled out across the stadium in red, white and blue. There were many different soldiers celebrated during the game, causing the crowd to both applaud and cry. A pilot who flew missions over Iraq was introduced. Among all the applause, there was no mention of the international illegality of the US' preemptive strike on Iraq nor any mention of the Iraqi children who undoubtedly died as "collateral damage" during the air strikes. Of course, were I to even suggest that those two omitted realites get mentioned, I would've been called all kinds of terrible things.

While it was, obviously Veterans Day weekend, this isn't going to slow down anytime soon. During Thanksgiving football games, we'll be shown messages from soldiers posted overseas. Christmas commercials will show soldiers coming home to the surprise of their families. The Superbowl will highlight veterans as will Memorial Day, Independence Day, Patriot's Day. We're never too far away from another holiday in which Facebook will be full of posts about soldiers to whom we basically owe our very existence.

Before going on, I'd like to state that a couple of my closest friends are veterans. I'd like to validate the self-sacrifice of people who leave their families and put their lives on the line for a cause in which they believe.

But there is a reason that soldiers are almost always the ones who carry out the flag for the national anthems preceding sporting events, instead of firemen, teachers, Peace Corps Members, Red Cross aid workers; people who also put their lives on the line in service of their country. The reason these other national servants are omitted is simple; they are not actively expanding the economic interests of our Empire. All throughout history, Empires have relied upon their military might to funnel the world's resources into their own economy and the American Empire is no different.

So if the Empire can create an automatic emotional response of gratitude to the (mostly) good intentioned but misguided service men and women who carry out its wars of expansion, then the Empire is freed from teh need to be accountable for the waging of unjust wars.

If a person dares to even question the Iraq war, the common response will be "support our troops" or "freedom isn't free." We're a bunch of Pavlonian dogs. There is absolutely no room for a citizen of the Empire to critique the way government's military policies while still caring for our soldiers. It's either one extreme or another.

And that's not by accident.

The Empire knows what it is doing.

And it's nothing new to our history.

By now, most Americans know that Vietnam was our nation's most heinous atrocity of the 20th century (though likely not worse than the 19th century atrocities of the Indian Wars and the Mexican War). But the phrase "love it or leave it" started during that era in response to those calling for an end to that evil war.

I’m current reading a book entitled War Crimes and the American Conscience, which is an analysis of US war crimes during the Vietnam War (particularly the My Lai Massacre) in light of the principles of the Nuremburg Conference. This book is a collection of the notes from the 1970 Congressional Conference on War and National Responsibility.

“There is ample evidence that high officials in our government have participated fully in the practice of portraying the ‘other side’ as an aggregate of evil demons. This imagery has become so prominent and routine in official pronouncements and in the media that only people with some determination to think for themselves can resist adopting it as a matter of course. Among high officials, as among the general public, the dehumanization of ‘the enemy’ tends to spread, so that now those who dare to demonstrate against our Vietnam policy are called by the Vice President ‘parasites,’ ‘goats,’ and ‘creeps.’

The implications of public utterances like those of the Vice President are not far to seek. ‘I think,’ a nineteen year-old infantryman told a reporter, ‘someone ought to kill those long-haired, qeer bastards back in the world. Anyone who demonstrates against the war ought to be lined up and killed, just like any gook here.’ I know from personal experience that this is not an uncommon sentiment.” - Dr. Edward Opton, reprinted in War Crimes and the American Conscience from a 1970 issue of The New Republic.

The Iraqi war is my generation's Vietnam but to say Bush mislead his nation and broke international laws by invading Iraq is heard by many as "you hate America/ soldiers/ freedom/ etc." But would we be any less free if we hadn't invaded Iraq? Not likely. What is clear, however is that Vice President Dick Cheney's companies profited greatly from the Iraqi war.

While most of our nation's wars have been offensive rather than defensive, we are taught to see our military's actions as a "defense of freedom." While we may have the legal right to offer dissent, critiquing our nation's war is social suicide.

And it all starts with the National Anthem we'll sing this Friday night before the Trailblazer's playoff game.

"Hail Caesar! The Son of God, the Prince of Peace!" - citizens of the Roman Empire

"You shall have no other gods before me." - Exodus 20:3

Friday, October 28, 2011

A Celebration and Reunion 96 years in the Making

Yesterday morning, I had the incredible privilege of preaching my Grandma's funeral. Grandma lived a long and godly life. She was the physical matriarch to a clan of about 100 and a spiritual matriarch to, well, a number that will be revealed in the next life.

As usually happens with funerals, this one was a great reunion. For the first time in years, all of my cousins were in the same place. And as we all recognized with a melancholy acceptance, it was probably also the last time that will ever happen. There were some great pictures taken and great pictures shared from my Grandma's long life and if I ever get access to them, I will share them.

Below is the message I shared.

If I were somehow able to talk with Grandma after the service today, she would say, “you did a great job, Tim. I mean… Dean. No, Eric. Danny. No, Donnie.” Even though she couldn’t get my name right, there were some things she always got right for me. When I was little, whenever I sat in a pew with her, usually right around there, she always had saltine crackers for me and a blue motorcycle. Sometimes they were a bit stale from being in her purse for a long time, but she always had them for me. When I got older, she saved the Sunday comics for me. She always had a stack for me to read. And from the time I was little, up till the last couple of years, if Grandma knew I was coming over she always made me mashed potatoes and gravy and had a peanut butter cookie with a Hershey kiss in the center.
She was there when I preached my first sermon. Dad said she cried through the whole thing. It was pretty bad. She endured one Ft. Madison football game and several Denmark Elementary Christmas concerts. We hadn’t been married long when my wife, Erin got in a wreck and totaled the car. A few days later, Grandma sent me a letter. In addition to the usual update on the weather and Uncle Henry’s activity in the garden, was a check for $100. Dad about fell over from shock when I told him. “Your Grandma is tighter than bark on a tree.” Grandma just wrote, “I felt like I should send this to you.”
All of those things, especially the cookie, were ways Grandma let me know she loved me. We could all tell stories of the ways she let us know she loved each one of us. Knowing that, think of how big her heart must’ve been – to be able to share so much love with so many of us. No wonder she couldn’t remember my name. I was one of a jillion. A group of kids. Bunch of Grandkids. Platoon of great and great-great grandkids. And for good measure, add the stepkids, step grandkids and step great-grandkids. Oh yea, two husbands that she loved. And we loved her back. Especially both husbands. Those who visited Mildred at the Hospice House know of all the loving ways Henry took care of her. Patting her arm, holding her hand. Being with her till 3 AM. Henry, we offer you our deepest sympathy. Grandma had such a big heart. A huge love. An incredible legacy.
Legacy is one of the two words we could use today, in our celebration of Mildred’s life. Is there a much better word than legacy? All 5 of her children-in-laws are still married to her children. Think of all the different things her grandchildren have done. All the different ways we have served God, other people, our families. I couldn’t remember the exact year of all my cousin’s weddings. But my best estimates are that we have collectively been married for 225 years. Those 225 years of marriage have produced a lot of great grandchildren. Mostly from the Ortons.
There is a passage of scripture that thoroughly summarizes Mildred’s life and her legacy. She lived this out. Proverbs 31:10-31. Vs 28 – we could all rise and call Mildred blessed
Grandma ran a tight ship. The hard-working farm wife and mother. Took care of Roy. While helping on the farm. While taking care of her other kids. While cooking for the farm-hands, paid and unpaid. She was a multi-tasker way before that term was in use.
Her kids remember her working in the basement, sorting and casing eggs, doing laundry and praying all at the same time. She would share at church that the time in the basement was her opportunity to talk with God. Pray for her kids. Grandma wanted other people to know God’s love.
One day she was talking with me about the church I was pastoring at the time. She asked, “are people being saved?” When I told her yes, she smiled and tears welled up in her eyes. In that tearful smile, I could see years of prayer. Layers and layers of love for her family. And an incredible desire to help other people know the love of Jesus. Grandma didn’t have to talk a lot about a God-honoring life. She just lived it. For decades. It was her legacy.
It’s her relationship with God that brings about the other word that is appropriate for today. It’s the word “reunion.” When Grandma was in the hospice house, she went back and forth between the present and the past. During visits with her, eventually she would have a moment in which she looked at you and really knew you. You could see the recognition in her eyes. “You are my son. You are my granddaughter.” Recognizing her living legacy.
At other times she would ask, “Who is taking care of Roy? Grandma knew that Danny was too young to take care of Roy. But when she was told that Jesus is taking care of Roy, she was calmed.
Mildred would also say, “I want to see Levi.”
On Monday morning, for the first time in decades, she got to see Roy. She got to hug Levi. And the past Grandma had been slipping into actually became her present reality. Her present reality right now.
But it wasn’t the only reunion Mildred had on Monday morning. She also got to see, face-to-face, the Savior that she and Levi first met years ago. Years ago, when Levi and Mildred were living down the lane in the house at the other place, Levi’s brother Wes invited them to a Sunday night service at this church. They attended several Sunday nights. Even attended a revival. One Sunday morning, when they got to the end of the lane, Levi and Mildred asked their kids whether they should turn right to their usual church on Sunday morning or left to the church of the Nazarene. The kids stated, “left.”
And here at the Fort Madison Church of the Nazarene, my Grandma and Grandpa came to know Jesus Christ in a personal way. They came to know for themselves, in a real and life-transforming way, these two verses. John 3:16 and 1 John 1:9
Levi and Mildred came to know that it isn’t just about living a decent life and attending a good church. But that the life God wants for us, created us for, involves a turning. A 180 turn from a life that is going in our own direction, to a life that is lived in God’s direction. A life in which sin and self-centeredness are exchanged for a life dedicated to the pursuit of God. What the Apostle Paul called being a “new creation” in Christ Jesus.
Grandma and Grandpa made that decision to live for Jesus, in this church, years and years ago. And then they lived it out – the rest of their lives.

In the gospel of Matthew, there is a record of a parable Jesus told to his followers. The story of a rich man, a venture-capitalist, who entrusted some of his money to various servants and then left for a long journey. When the rich man got back, he called a meeting with his servants to find out what they’d done with the money he’d loaned them. One servant wimped out, just buried the bag of silver. No return on the money. This rich man was not happy. But the other two servants were able to give their boss more bags of silver than they had originally been given. They were faithful with what their boss had given them. The boss responded by saying, Matthew 25:23.
Imagine Mildred standing before Jesus on Monday morning. Surrounded, in heaven and on earth, by people who came to know Jesus because of missionaries Mildred supported. Or Vacation Bible Schools she helped with. Or kids and grandkids she prayed for. And imagine, because we can know it happened, Jesus saying to Grandma Matthew 25:23
And imagine Mildred, her son, the father of her children, and her sister all celebrating before the throne of God in their now perfect and eternal bodies. No dementia. No heart problems. No mental handicap. Healthy. Whole. Beyond the curse of death. Forever.
Last Monday, Mildred and Henry celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary. After everyone else left, my mom and Aunt Karen were taking care of Grandma. Grandma asked mom, “will I get better in this life?” To which my mom answered, “no.” Mom then asked whether Grandma was ready to see Jesus. She just answered, “yes.” Then fell asleep.
The next Monday, Grandma fell asleep for the final time in this life. The day that Mildred went home to be with Jesus, Uncle Pete summed it up pretty well. He said, “Now, we can celebrate.”
And that’s exactly what we get to do today. We get to celebrate a reunion. We get to celebrate a legacy. A legacy that will bring about more heavenly reunions, when someday we get to stand in the same place Grandma is standing right now.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

(Un)Luck of the Draw

There is so much more I could add about my experience in the KC,MO School District. I do, however feel as if I've given a good summary of what it was like. I do have one more thing I want to share, though.

There was a group of KC Corps Members who taught in the same "LA summer school" (actually a TFA training school) during institute. A group of us had the amazing benefit of being placed in KCMO schools that are somewhat functional. One guy, a big guy who wrestled in college and also earned a high school teaching degree, is in one of the few elementary schools who are proficient in their tests scores. This guy has 15 kids in his classroom. And if that isn't amazing enough, his kids actually listen to him. And to top it off, his principal is even effective at her job. Seriously, that is just mind-blowing compared to what I experienced. Another friend says her biggest challenge is that the kids (16 of them) in her classroom is getting her kids to raise their hands and not just call out. She told this problem to another friend who continually had fights breaking out in her classroom and even had a student molest another student in the hallway. That teacher, who is an incredibly sharp and talented person who became a close friend of mine, also quit last week. She just couldn't handle it the emotional and physical deterioration brought about by the stress of being in charge of wild kids she couldn't manage.

One of the TFA directors, who herself taught in an elementary school in Harlem, said that of the 30 some regions TFA is in, classroom management is the worst in Detroit and Kansas City. Think about that, it's worse in KC than in Harlem and Compton. A combination of corrupt politics, insufficient public transportation, school boundaries breaking up neighborhoods and a School District with a nationally known reputation for dysfunction and ineptitude work together to create a hell-hole for the poor kids of the Kansas City. An entire city ignoring (at best) and exploiting (at worst) their own poor.

Even with the insane environment of the KC schools, this director told me that the elementary schools in KC tend to be somewhat functional. She then added, "there are two exceptions, though." Guess which two schools in which the bulk of the TFA Corps Members whom are quitting were placed?

So why did this happen? Why was I assigned middle school and then pressure into signing an elementary contract that was thrust under my nose in front of the entire KC Corps and the KCMSD School Board? I'm not sure. I could've been put in a functional school with at least a chance of survival or even success but I was placed in one of the worst schools in one of the worst districts in the US. It's possible that it was just an unfortunate event, that I got the raw deal in a random process of placement, just bad luck. It's also possible that this was the answer to my two year prayer of, "if you don't want me to go into teaching, please stop me." It's possible that I wasn't able to fulfill the calling God gave me or that the calling changed in response to human decisions. Wherever God's hand is to be seen in this unfolding of events, I know that this isn't the end. That failure (if it really is a failure) isn't final with God and that faithfully answering God's calling isn't a one-shot deal.

So while working the new job that I start tomorrow, I'll have plenty of time to sort stuff out. I'm glad I'll be able to do the sorting-out while also earning a paycheck.

On that note...

I've been pleasantly surprised by all the support and affirmation I've received since leaving that terrible situation. I was at my parents' last weekend and a friend of my mom said, "I'm so glad you're not working there anymore, for your health's sake." A friend who is a principal at a rural school with 54% reduced lunch was even shocked at my stories and could understand my reasoning. He said that he actually works less as a principal than as a teacher and coach. To all of those affirming comments, however I always add that I hate that I was compelled to walk away from those kids. There is always some response meant to take away some false guilt and to affirm my commitment to my family.

Maybe the best affirmation however, is that I start a new job tomorrow morning. I'll be a Claims Rep for Farmer's Insurance. Basically, I'll be sitting at a cubicle and working the phones to determine fault in car accidents and the amount of insurance pay-outs. I'll be working - get this - 40 hours a week. While getting paid exactly the same as the teaching job! The fear that I was also hurting my family by quitting a job during a recession turned out to be over-dramatic as I spent only three weeks in the ranks of the unemployed. And what a great three weeks it was!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

America = Needs Farmers

Check out this great video from Kinnick Stadium last Saturday night. Most of the video is during the national anthem, but after the anthem, the cards are reversed displaying "America Needs Farmers" spelled out on one sideline and "Go Hawks" on the other side. There is a round ANF symbol in the endzone, too.

Ever since Hayden Fry put the ANF on the helmets in the 80's, that sticker has been my dad's favorite part of Hawkeye football.

And due to the fact that the 2011 Iowa Football Team is in the midst of a mediocre season, no shot at an undefeated season or Big Ten Title, they actually beat Northwestern. Imagine that...

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

I Saw What I Saw

A friend of mine who is also a teacher and shares a similar heart for the oppressed our our country, sent me this song after reading my recent blog posts. I think it's a pretty accurate summary of what I experienced. In that message, this friend wrote this to me, "You have had the opportunity to see what many pretend does not exist. I will pray that you heal, but I hope you never "get over" this experience--I hope we will all be haunted by these children until the Church does something."

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

7 Weeks and an Apology - Part II

Friday was an amazing day for me. My last day teaching in KC,MO brought the return of some things I had taken for granted. During lunch, I found that I was actually hungry. The stress of my job robbed me of my appetite, causing me to lose 20 pounds. On Friday night, I hung out with some friends and felt like a normal human being. I was told by said friends that it is good to have Donnie back with us. Finally, on Friday night, I laughed for the first time in a long time. I watched Dumb and Dumber and laughed almost as hard as the first time I watched the movie. My job was literally taking away my life.

Dawson's biological Grandma, Kim, told me that she was watching me whither away. I was whithering away not only physically but emotionally as well. She said that she was watching helplessly as I was emotionally withdrawn from my family. I didn't do so on purpose, but I had nothing to give my family during the few hours each week I was able to be with them. For that reason, I had to break my commitment and walk away from the mission I had joined.

Really though, I had made that decision years ago at a Promise Keepers convention I attended just before leaving for college. At that convention in Indianapolis, I made the commitment to never put ministry before my family. A former pastor would often share his own similar commitment, asking us "what is the point if I save everyone else's kids but lose my own?" And that is where I finally came down in this most agonizing decision I've ever faced.

I have been miserable since I left for training on June 26th. My heart was torn apart as I watched Erin and Dawson walk away at the airport. While the two free days and the single week of normal working hours that I enjoyed upon returning home were wonderful, they weren't enough. With the exception of that one weekend, I have been emotionally and physically detached from my family since June 26th. And while I'm not working now, I'm still pretty detached. I've got to work through the depression and PTSD while rebuilding a healthy and balanced relationship with my wife and son. I have a counseling appointment on Friday to start the healing and rebuilding process.

I spent the past three weeks seeking guidance from a large number of friends and family members. The overwhelming consensus was "this is too much and you need to put your family first." One notable exception however, were my superiors at Teach For America although I'm not sure whether I'll share the ways they tried to influence my decision. So I did it. I walked out on my classroom because I couldn't be the teacher I was expected to be while also being the father my son needs me to be. With that said, Teach for America is a wonderful organization that is working to keep our nation from becoming an apartheid state. But I have learned the hard way that there is a reason TFA recruits young and single people. The demands of TFA are not sustainable for a parent living in the suburbs. I greatly regret that I wasn't aware of that before I signed up.

The haunting question though, is whether or not putting family first is really biblical. Yes, it's very Focus on the Family-esque and North American Christianity-esque but is it biblical? The call to the gospel put forth by Jesus and Paul is much more radical than what our North American Christian culture would lead us to believe. Sure we find ways to explain it away or ignore it, but Jesus did say "“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple."

And Paul was always letting the churches know about the trials he was facing. From 2 Corinthians 11, "24 Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, 26 I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. 27 I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. 28 Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?"

And Philippians 3, "10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead."

But what about the boy I chose to adopt? What about being able to have friends, laugh and serve in my local church?

It is quite possible I made a bad decision and put my own desires above God's plan to use me up and break me for his Kingdom's sake. It's also possible that this is finally God's answer to my almost 3 year long prayer of, "if you don't want me to leave full-time pastoral ministry, please stop me."

I don't have a lot of answers right now. I know that while I have some leads and some savings, I really need a job. I'm quite sure that 10 years from now I will have some regret for all of this but that I won't regret stopping the 14 weeks I missed out on being a dad from turning into 2 years. I also know that if I am walking away from what God has for me right now that doesn't mean he won't open up another door in the future. I also know that having my family taken away from me has awakened me to the need to love them in a better way.

Monday, October 3, 2011

7 weeks and an Apology - Part I

I have an apology to share with everyone who reads this. I'm not apologizing for the fact that I haven't blogged in 5 weeks. Nope. I'm apologizing for the fact that I'm done. Last Friday was my final day at George Melcher Elementary.

I'm not exactly sure how to go about sharing the pressure all the teachers are under. In my last post, I shared the emotional pressure of trying to manage kids with so many issues. But what broke me was all the other expectations placed upon us by the school district. The collapse of the KCMSD has been all over the news lately. First the Superintendent bails, then the state of Missouri strips KCMSD of its accreditation. All of this just adds to the air of desperation around the district, though "desperation" doesn't begin to describe the atmosphere.

The veteran teachers at Melcher said that teaching was always difficult, but the last few years the district has piled more and more work upon the teachers in the hope that the district could climb out of their hole. These teachers, teachers who work 12-14 hour days, stated it is simply impossible to do everything that is asked of them. Two or three times a week, we would get emails from our principal with long lists of things we were supposed to do; things that we were given very little, if any, training on, things that would take a lot of work to complete and that sometimes contradicted what we had just been doing.

Some examples: 1) The schedule changed about every two weeks. Even Kindergartners would have to figure out their new rooms, teachers and schedule. On my last day it was also the last day I would've been with the group with which I started the school year.
2) We were expected to do a six hour online training module for FEMA. Seriously. In order to pass the training, we had to take a detailed test regarding the organization of the National Incident Management System.
3) Due to student violence, we were expected to have a minute-by-minute behavior plan for about half of our students. Before we could send a student to the office, we had to go through a 5 step, several day long process that concluded with a parent's meeting. I often didn't even have the phone numbers for student's parents.
4) One of the other TFA teachers had 3 fights in his room last Friday. He worked until 12:15 that night, was back at school the next morning at 5:15 and still didn't get all of his work done. He was greeted that morning by a lecture from the principal for not getting enough work done and a chewing out by a parent for having an unsafe classroom. Seriously.

It's rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, but at a life-destroying pace.

It seems like there are people sitting in office chairs in the KCMSD central office making impossible demands of over-worked teachers and getting paid quite well to do it. And how suffers? Of course, it's the kids. The kids who are doomed to a life of poverty simply because they were born into a school district vacated by the rich who could change things but can also afford private school and run by people who find ways to sneak an extra $20 million into a contract to help out a friend (allegedly).

What finally broke me was the requirements for Master's Degree I was expected to finish by the end of these two years. When I saw my first syllabus, I had a nervous breakdown. I've never had anything happen to me like what happened to me the past two weeks. I'm a bit too proud to share all the details but my wife was quite worried for my health. And last Sunday afternoon, while planning for the next week, we came to the conclusion that while it might be physically possible to continue the cost to our family's health would be too great. So last Friday, Sept. 30th was my last day.

Every single teacher at my school who had kids advised me to put my family first. Some of them stated, "if I could afford to do something else, I would, because I only see my kids one hour a day."

Most of my students were pretty upset. As I shared in my last blog post, I was determined not to be "that guy", yet another male walking out on them. I wish they all had dads who would put them first, but it simply isn't the case. When talking with a group of 5 students, here is what I learned about their dads: 1) My dad was shot in the head 2) My dad is in prison 3) My dad just got out of prison after 8 years 4) My dad is in Mexico. Ultimately, I had to shut of my emotions, let go of those kids and do what I believed to be the best thing for my family and my overall health. Which is why I was able to read through a heart-felt letter from a girl who asked why I had to leave like all the other teachers. Of course, Friday was my last day having her in class anyway, since the administration changed up our classes for the 4th time since the start of the school year.

While I'm certainly not responsible for creating this terrible system, I am responsible for breaking my commitment. I'll have to work through that guilt but I know it is possible. This was not the most noble moment in my life but the decision might have been the lesser of two evils.

I wanted to confront the powers but the powers ended up destroying me. I wanted to be a part of the solution but I was only a part of the problem. There will however, be other problems I can address and other solutions I can embody. This was a terrible and frustrating chapter in my life but it's not the end of the story. Neither is it the end of my blog posts on this subject. I've got a lot more to share and now that I'm unemployed, I've got the time to do so.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Two Weeks

It's Friday night and I'm finally going to get a full night's sleep. All I can really say about these past two weeks is that I've survived. That's all. I have simply survived. Everything inside of me wants to quit and walk away. When kids are mocking me or fighting in the hallways, I think, "I don't need this _____" and I want to just walk out the door. I want to leave WITH ALL THAT IS INSIDE OF ME. However, there is Someone else inside of me, spurring me on. I can't walk out on what God has called me to do. And as one of just three male teacher in this school, I don't want to be like almost every other male in almost every student's life and just walk out. Honestly, the desire to not walk out on these kids is the ONLY thing keeping me here. I have NO IDEA how I'll EVER teach anything.

I have seen things these past two weeks that I can't even begin to explain. I can't believe that the richest nation in the history of the world can allow their kids to be in a system like what I'm seeing. Dear God, how can we treat our poor in this way?

Of the past 14 days, I have only NOT cried for two of them, tonight being the second. I don't mean just a few tears, I mean pounding the table and sobbing. I just can't explain what I've experienced. Last Saturday, it took everything I had to just get off the couch, make breakfast and take Dawson to the park.

To try to summarize a few things, I've got some categories that might give a tiny glimpse of what I've experienced.

One of the other male teachers, a TFA teacher, has an interesting group of 6th grade girls. These girls enjoy calling him a "dumb cracker."

I had a kid turn and flash me a half cute, half devilish smile and try to sprint out of the school building. He got caught at the door, though.

On Thursday, as I stood in the midst of the swirling hurricane that is my classroom at the end of the day, I had the thought, "no one would ever believe what I'm seeing if I told them." So, I decided to get out my camera and record it. I just stood there, video recording my classroom. Of course, kids freak out because I could show their parents the video, so the kids started crawling back out from under their desks, releasing their classmates from headlocks and actually doing part of what they were supposed to be doing. Due to liability issues, I can't post the video online.

After spending two weeks with one group of kids, I will now begin teaching the kids that are at a 4th grade reading and math level. I have a classroom full of 5th grade textbooks and nothing for 4th grade. I don't know who is in my class or where my 5th grade kids will be going. It all starts Monday. I wish I could also video the mass chaos, and I mean mass chaos, that will be happening in the halls of our school on Monday. Sometimes the only way to deal with the stress and anxiety is to just laugh.

My fellow 5th grade teacher had a nervous breakdown. She got two days off and went to the doctor. She tried to quit, but TFA wouldn't let her. She's back and looking better. After school today, I said, "you usually look like you've been hit by a MAC truck, today you look like it was just a pickup that hit you. So it's getting better."

Two days ago, as about 200 kids were squeezing through a tiny opening in a chain link fence to get onto the bus, the older kids literally trampled the kindergartners. Seriously, ran OVER them.

Last week, while I was having a breakdown and sobbing in the office, I saw a girl try to attack our principal. It took about four people to restrain her.

I'm not eating much because of the stress. I'm losing a lot of weight and looking pretty sick. But I'm just not hungry because of the tension that is always in my body. I REALLY need some anti-anxiety medicine. I have trouble breathing when picking my class up in the morning.

The Superintendent of the KCMO School District, who had been working very hard to bring about reform, resigned on Tuesday night. And the poor continue to be forgotten and ignored.

The kids have no playground equipment. I did however, thanks to some money that one of Erin's coworkers gave to us, buy them some playground balls.

There are roaches and rats in my classroom.

Kids have to walk across major intersections, along busy streets with no sidewalks and through parks full of drug dealers to get to school. Seriously. How can that be okay?

Two kids who are way behind and really need to learn are about to get suspended for fighting in my classroom, putting them even further behind.

During worship last Sunday a line from one of our songs made me sit down and begin weeping. It was the line, "break my heart with what breaks yours." If I hurt to see how these kids are treated by our system, how must the God of justice, mercy and compassion feel? Who will have to answer for how we've treated our nation's poor?

My wife. Seriously, I would not still be standing if it wasn't for her. She's running the entire house, planning all kinds of things for my lessons, packing my lunches and ironing my clothes while also propping me up emotionally. Erin has always been a great ministry partner, but she has gone beyond even what I knew she could do. She is also supporting and encouraging the other 3 TFA teachers on my hall, too. She is simply amazing.

Just kissing Dawson's blond head and hugging his little body keeps me going. I've been home by 7 amost every night to spend an hour with him. I need to be with my boy.

Just little things here and there. Last Friday, I got them all to walk in a line without talking, for about 2 minutes. Also last Friday, when I said, "I have an announcement to make" (regarding reading to a Kindergarten class) one student blurted out, "Mr. Miller, are you quitting?" I was so shocked by the question, I just laughed. I just can't be another male who walks out on them.

I greet the kids at the door, have them look me in the eye and shake my hand. One boy refused to do it. "I don't touch other guys' hands." I told him that in my classroom we shake the teachers hand and until he's ready to do that, he needs to sit in the back of the room. About a half hour later he came up and shook my hand. I almost cried. I then had a big classroom celebration to "welcome" him to our class for the day.

As the two kids about to be suspended stormed past me leaving school today, I gave them the candy I had just given to the rest of the class. They were so angry and wouldn't look at me. I had them stop, gave them the candy and said, "this is for no reason other than you're my students and I care about you. I'll be back on Monday." I saw a tiny crack in that hard exterior.

People whom I haven't heard from in a long time (and close friends and family) call or text me to reassure me they're praying for me. Honestly, I feel almost forgotten by God sometimes. But things like the financial gifts, prayers and other really simple acts of kindness are the tiny shreds of hope onto which I cling for strength. God has NOT abandoned me, nor these kids and I'm where I'm supposed to be.

The speech teacher across the hall who watched 5 different teachers rotate through my classroom last year keeps reassuring me that I'm doing a good job and that she's seeing progress. When she saw me break down and cry the other day, she slipped note in my door that said, "you're doing a good job and I wouldn't say that if it weren't true."

I watch a few of the veteran teachers who can really do it. I sit in their classrooms during my plan time. It's so amazing to watch.

At art class, I watched my 17 boys act like little angels. The art teacher assured me, "I've been doing this for 20 years, you've been doing it for 7 days. Just keep going."

Most of the teachers there are Christ-followers. The other day, as I broke down and cried as soon as my students left, a veteran teacher put her arms around me and prayed for me. These "vets" are always praying for us "newbies." They are amazing to watch. They pray for us, give us advice and mostly just refuse to let us quit. One teacher told me I not only need to pray before and after school (and I do pray during my 50 minute drive, I pray to have the strength to just walk through the doors of the school) but to pray during the day. To ask God to give me wisdom and strength. Today, I was staring at some kids who were "acting the fool" and thinking some not nice thoughts about them. I started praying, "Jesus, show me how you see them." And my brow softened, I stopped glaring at them and I saw hurting little kids who are loved by Jesus. Then someone did something stupid and I got pissed again. But I saw them with the right eyes, for just a moment.

I could write all night, but I've got to go to bed. I am finally going to take a Sabbath rest tomorrow. I must do it. Sabbath is a reminder that even when I stop working (and I have SO MUCH to do) God continues to run the world. Of course, very few of my plans ever work anyway.

So tomorrow is cleaining the house, taking Dawson to the park and spending the evening with my wife. Last weekend showed me how much strength I can get from just sleeping, eating and talking with some friends.

Not sure when I'll be able to post again...

Monday, August 15, 2011

My Last First Day

It is 11:15 and I've FINALLY finished planning for tomorrow. Even though I have to get up at 5:15, I wanted to take the time to journal about today.

Today was my last ever first day of teaching. Thank goodness.

I cried a bit on my way to class, out of the excitement and vision for my kids. I cried on the way home out of sheer frustration, exhaustion and sense of being overwhelmed.
Since last Monday, I've probably only had about 5 hours that I wasn't sleeping or working. I'm NOT exaggerating.

This is insane.

And today was insane. We started the day with an incomprehensible crash course in how the day would work. The day ended with me releasing my students at the wrong time to the wrong places. In between we had cockroaches coming from the ceiling, indoor recess because of rain, a flooded boys bathroom, a boy punching the chalkboard, several kids sleeping on their desk and a terrible feedback (due to Friday's lighting strike) from the PA every time the Principal spoke, hurting the kids' ears and preventing us from knowing when and where to release the students.

But a bit of good / funny news. 1) I got asked twice if I was the Principal. Both times I laughed. One mom said, "you just look like a Principal."
2)In the one stretch in which all kids were paying attention, I got to give a speech about the importance of succeeding academically so one can graduate from college.
3) The SPED teacher across the hall told me that compared to last year's first day, I had GREAT first day. Of course, the classroom I'm currently in had 5 different teachers last year.

I can't promise I'll ever get my students to behave or even learn something. But I can promise I'm not going anywhere.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

My Boy is Reading!

Dawson is reading!

I wrote down this great memory of which I wanted to hold on to on Dawson's blog. Link

Still Lifting

Over the past year or so, the intensity of my weight-lifting has dropped significantly. I still lift but not as frequent and not as intense as before.

About two months ago, my sister showed me this article from the Hy-Vee corporate magazine. I was glad to read that my former work-out partner is still going strong. Interesting read.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

I Dreamed a Dream of Comfort

My first week working in the KCMSD has been a difficult week. We are being trained to teach in a way that is going to require, to quote a TFA teacher about to begin her second year, "A TON of work." Without going into a bunch of details, I'm going to be overseeing the academic growth of about 100 students and spending crazy amounts of hours developing projects and recording student performance in various tracking devices while writing my lesson plans from nearly scratch. Just one of those three challenges would be difficult, but all three will be... Well, I'm still in denial.
Add to that a salary that will barely allow me to pay our mortgage and a 50 minute commute to and from work. Well, it's going to be a VERY difficult year.

This rather stark reality reminded me of some daydreaming I was doing about 3 or 4 years ago. I can vividly remember taking a first-time guest coffee mug to a family who lived in a large house just south of town. Their house and the others around, were nestled into some clearings in a beautiful wooded area. At that time, Erin and I were a DINKS couple (Dual Income No Kids). And while neither of us were earning a very large salary, we were being very intentional about saving and investing every possible dollar. While visiting that house, I remember thinking, "if Erin and I continue on our current financial path (at that time we were both working full time - not making a lot but being very careful with our money and making some serious financial headway) we could eventually buy a house like this." Pre-parenthood vacations and Dave Ramsey-inspired attempts to pay extra on our house was getting me in the mindset of "live like on one else now, so that later you can live like no one else." A Dave Ramsey line that basically means scrimp now and live-it-up later. At that time, we were definitely on the "like no one else" path toward the American Dream. Honestly, I was quite blinded by that dream.

But while I was busy dreaming about the future, God was using our "years of plenty" to prepare us (like Joseph and Egypt in Genesis) for "years of want."

In the book Crazy Love, a book which has impacted me greatly, author Francis Chan observed that when travelling, Christians often pray for a "safe travel." And while Chan didn't write that there is anything wrong with a safe journey, he did point out that many Christians are concerned with taking the safe path. But if you look at Jesus' teaching, his examples and the examples of the early Christians - a life of following Jesus is to be anything but safe. I was getting too focused on safe and comfortable and God needed to bluntly remind me of the type of life he's called me to. A life that will do the crazy, risky, outside-the-comfort-zone type of things that will reach the people no one else is reaching. Things like starting a new church with no money and no people because I knew it was the best way to reach those not yet in a church.

The reality I need to continue to accept is that God never intended for my life to be simple and comfortable. I am to be living in such a way that I can sense his guidance toward the next Kingdom adventure. I am to be sensitive enough that when he re-directs me, a re-direction like this teaching gig, I obey. I am to be selfless enough that I follow his guidance, no matter the personal cost.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer stated, "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die."

In Matthew 16:24 we read Jesus' statement, "If anyone wants to be my disciple, he must deny himself, pick up his cross and follow me."

These thoughts had been going on in my head but it all became clear for me last night while watching the Les Mis 25th anniversary concert, I had a bit of an epiphany. I had a bit of an epiphany while watching "I Dreamed a Dream." This song is sung by Fantine, one of the many tragic characters in Victor Hugo's novel.

To say that Fantine's life was neither easy nor comfortable would be an understatement. And while Fantine was a fictional person, her character is based upon many of Miserable Ones who lived in extreme poverty during the European revolutions of 1848. I've been reading the book 1848: Year of Revolutions about this time period and it's hard to imagine the gap between the "haves" and the "have-nots" and the desperate poverty that caused the Miserable Ones (English for Les Miserables) to revolt.

Not only was a I reminded that my life is not to be comfortable. I was also reminded that even with our current financial situation, I am still among the "haves" of the world. I am tempted to feel sorry for myself only when I compare myself to the few in our world who are more comfortable than myself.

I didn't have to fight for survival in a 19th century Parisian slum. I don't have to eek out a miserable existence as one of the underclass in modern-day India. Most relevant to my current situation, I wasn't born into the inner cities that are forgotten by (at best) and oppressed (at worst) by the "haves" of our society. I wasn't born into the financial, educational and social situations into which most of my soon-to-be students were born. I wasn't born as the subset social group of the richest nation in the world destined to be ignored and trampled on by the rest of society. I've heard it said that if the gap continues to widen, our nation is headed toward an apartheid existence. No matter what my paycheck may read, I was born into privilege.

I was also born again into the Kingdom of God. And for that reason, I must continually reject comfort and move toward the cross. The life of following Jesus is not a life turned in on itself. Rather, it is a life lived with an outward-focus. A life lived in the footsteps of the crucified Savior.

I'm glad God woke me up from that dream before it was too late. I'm glad to move out of my comfort zone and into a life that matters.

Just for kicks, here is the
Glee version of "I Dreamed a Dream."

A letter I sent to my congressmen

In response to this blog post, I printed out the letter below and sent it to my 2 senators and 1 congressman.

Aug 6, 2011

Representative Kevin Yoder
Cannon House Office Building, Room 214
Independence Avenue and 1st Street, SE
Washington, DC 20515-1603

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++ Representative Yoder,

As people of faith, we are committed to fiscal responsibility and
shared sacrifice. We are also committed to resist budget cuts that
undermine the lives, dignity, and rights of poor and vulnerable people.
Therefore, we join with others to form a Circle of Protection around
programs that meet the essential needs of hungry and poor people at
home and abroad.

1. The nation needs to substantially reduce future deficits, but not at
the expense of hungry and poor people.

2. Programs focused on reducing poverty should not be cut. They should
be made as effective as possible, but not cut.

3. We urge our leaders to protect and improve poverty-focused
development and humanitarian assistance to promote a better, safer

4. National leaders must review and consider tax revenues, military
spending, and entitlements in the search for ways to share sacrifice
and cut deficits.

5. A fundamental task is to create jobs and spur economic growth.
Decent jobs at decent wages are the best path out of poverty, and
restoring growth is a powerful way to reduce deficits.

6. The budget debate has a central moral dimension. Christians are
asking how we protect "the least of these." "What would
Jesus cut?" "How do we share sacrifice?"

7. As believers, we turn to God with prayer and fasting, to ask for
guidance as our nation makes decisions about our priorities as a

8. God continues to shower our nation and the world with blessings. As
Christians, we are rooted in the love of God in Jesus.

Affirmed and signed by,

Mr. Donald Miller
31310 W 172nd Ter
Gardner, KS 66030-9202

Monday, August 1, 2011

I'm awake

Saturday afternoon, as I was driving home from the Kansas City airport with my wife beside me and my son in the car seat behind me, I experienced a somewhat familiar sensation. I experienced the sensation you get when you wake up from a terrible dream and slowly come to the realization that it was only a nightmare and that you are laying in the warmth and comfort of your own bed. I had that sensation Saturday afternoon.

It's as if I fell into a nightmare filled sleep on Sunday afternoon, June 26th as I watched my wife and son walk away from me at the Kansas City airport. I was awoken from that nightmare in almost the same spot in the aiport, staring at a mom and boy for a couple seconds before realings, "that's Erin and Dawson" and then holding them and crying with joy. In between those two events was a five week long nightmarish blur of insanely difficult, confusing, frustrating and exhausting days broken only by naps in the middle of the night (rather than a full-night's sleep) and a few hours of light and rest on Saturday afternoons. The common thread of all those days however, being the variation of dull ache to all-out heartache of missing my family. But while driving home my car, with my family, to my house, I awoke to the safety and warmth of the real world again. I turned to Erin and told her everything I just posted above. While I know that my time at the LA institute was more than a terrible dream, I'm glad it's all in the past now. I've survived and I'll NEVER do that again.

On Tuesday begins my actual job as a 5th grade teacher for Goerge Melcher Elementary. I'm about to experience the agonizing ordeal of being a first-year teacher. But I'm ready. Bring it on. I just read a line from War and Peace that fits this new challenge. It was stated by Pierre while recounting his terrible but life-altering experience as a prisoner of war in Napoleon's army. "They say: 'sufferings are misfortunes.' said Pierre. 'But if at once, this minute, I was asked, would I remain what I was before I was taken prisoner, or go through it all again, I should say, for God's sake let me rather be a prisoner and eat horseflesh again. We imagine that as soon as we are torn out of our habitual path all is over, but it is only the beginning of something new and good. As long as there is life, there is happiness. There is a great deal, a great deal before us. That I say to you,' he said, turning to Natasha."

Friday, July 22, 2011

Those who can...

Whoever coined the phrase, "those who can, do and those who can't, teach" has never tried to teach fractions to fourth graders.

It's been a challenging week. I hope I've accomplished some good.

Here is some inspiration.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Happy TFA Day!

Thursday was a much better day than Wednesday. I re-taught the writing lesson that bombed on Wednesday, And since that first assignment was foundational for rest of the writing unit, I’m getting my students back on track for their summer objectives. While I was glad to have had a better lesson, it was still difficult to make that quick switch from teaching to learning how to teach ELL. In that 10:00-11:15 session, I was struggling to hang on and wondered how I’d make it through the afternoon ELL session that was still to come (according to our daily schedule).

But the workload is still relentless. At 12:45, we started trying to grade assessments so as to enter the tracking data that was due to our adviser by 2:00. But we were starting a 90 minute session on read-aloud strategies, so I had to prepare myself for the bright orange slip my adviser would give me for turning in an assignment past the deadline. Multi-tasking doesn’t begin to describe what we’re trying to do here.

The read-aloud instructor was modeling for us by reading his favorite book, The Lorax by Dr. Seuss. Two pages in, he asked us to check out the notes up on the power-point. Point #1 read “I’m not really going to read The Lorax to you for 90 minutes.” Point #2 read, “All Friday deadlines have been pushed back to Monday. Afternoon sessions are canceled. Enjoy our free afternoon. Happy TFA Day!”

The fact that Point #2 was met by wild cheers, spontaneous hugs and tears of joy (I’m serious) shows just how hard we’ve been pushing ourselves. When we got back to the LMU campus, we found a carnival atmosphere; bouncy houses, lobbies converted into movie theaters, cotton candy and snow cones, pool parties, volleyball games and trips to LA places like Manhattan Beach. In typical TFA style, they did the free afternoon up big and thorough. Also in typical TFA style (they give acronyms to EVERYTHING) TFA day means “Totally Free Afternoon.”

So I’m finishing my lesson plan for tomorrow, hitting the gym and then taking the bus down to Venice Beach where I’ll spend the evening walking along the boardwalk, biking up and down the shore or maybe just have a nice dinner in beach-side restaurant.

Happy TFA Day!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Nope, Not Broken Yet

While I’m still not broken, I came pretty close today. During this “teacher boot camp” (my nickname for Institute), we are being pushed to our limits physically, emotionally and mentally.

Physically – the amount of work we have to do everyday is devastating. I work as hard as I can each day, allowing myself 25 minutes for a (sometimes) working dinner and yet I still can rarely get to bed before 11:30. The fact that I don’t function well on less than 7 hours of sleep and the fact that my alarm clock has to go off at 5:35 are taking their physical toll on me.

Emotionally – As soon as the students left the room yesterday, I laid down on their reading rug and pounded the floor in frustration. While I was venting another lady in the room was crying. One of our mentor teachers, who observes us and gives us great advice, just kept telling us “teaching is hard, hard work.”
My emotional outburst was due to the fact that EVERYTHING I tried that day, from my writing lesson plan, to the reading assessment to the individualized instruction I was giving to a student years behind grade level – COMPLETELY failed. Even though we only have 35 minutes for our reading lesson, I had to ‘reset’ the lesson TWICE, while having to exert my will to regain disciplinary control of the classroom each time (students act out when they’re confused). After leaving my classroom and walking to a instructional session, I asked my fellow 4th grade teachers if they could smell anything. “Those are Mr. Miller’s ashes,” I told them.

Mentally – We are learning by on-the-job immersion. We’re learning both a foreign language (teaching terms and philosophies) and foreign skills. There is precious little time to decompress and reflect. After my lesson plan blew up yesterday, I had to rush out of the classroom to be sitting ready to go for a session on phonics instruction. We push ourselves to the limit only to have to mentally turn on a dime to try to engage instruction on yet another teacher skill set to which we’re just being introduced. Those new skill sets are piled on top of the ones we learned the day before and we’re expected to start implementing them the next day. While I’m only retaining about 10% of what the content I’m engaging with (and our sessions are pretty much hands-on) my hunch is that TFA assumes their Corps Members are smart enough that when they’re re-exposed to a teaching strategy later in the year, they will recall that initial instruction so as to begin implementing it in their full-time classroom. It’s mentally exhausting, though.

So after hurriedly tidying up the classroom during the five minutes I had between a lesson planning clinic and getting on the bus (which leaves promptly at 4:35, meaning those who miss it have to pay $65 for a cab ride back to Loyola Marymount) I squeezed into my bus seat in a very bad frame of mind. There was too much emotional and mental overload going on. I vented to my wife for awhile, graded some papers during a vegetable dinner (the food is making some of us sick) then headed to the resource room to get help on math methods from some master teachers. But someone in the middle of my 6:30-11:30 working session, I started to get back into a good frame of mind. Maybe it was from the guitar chords of Green Day pumping through my ipod as I entered info from a writing assessment into our class tracker. But sometime during that time, my brokenness was melded back into a determined spirit.

I will NOT be broken. I WILL push through. I WILL do my best to grow as a teacher since, “good teachers are made, not born”. And I WILL help overturn the systematic oppression of our nation as manifested through our inequitable public school system.