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.