Archive | Commentary

Lessons Learned From the Classroom

Though it’s taken some time and too many complications to count, I can finally say with confidence that I’ve arrived at what I consider a teacher’s professional nirvana. To say this another way is to say I get it. Not part of it. Not even most of it. I get all of it and I have come to appreciate my life through the fortunate lens of the educator.

While many admire and respect what I contribute to society through teaching (considered “noble” by many), others believe there’s more to my life than a classroom. Perhaps the inspiration for these questions is my demeanor, the way I question life and reality, or find ways to put on a smile and bring people together. All of that is only quantifiable if we could create a way to measure attitude and perspective, but make no mistake- I love what I do because it’s all about the life of a teacher. It’s where the magic begins. And ends!

Justifying my role as a teacher to others who assume I should have aspirations beyond a classroom is sometimes taxing. Since when has enough been enough? I feel isolated by this question because it implies that even though what I am doing is seen as good and giving, there must be some ambition within me to become something more. Whether for financial gain or to become more “professional”, what is the motivation for anyone to ask this question? It’s somewhat demeaning and not acceptable. I don’t ask my postal carrier if she aspires to become the PostMaster General. Nor do I see fit to ask the line cook at my favorite restaurant if he wants to work at a Michelin starred restaurant. As if this “noble” profession of teaching needs justification! Let us do what we do in peace and allow our energies to be spent on classroom instruction or placing post in a box or dropping frozen fries into the fryer and not on developing a plan to instruct the inquisitive around us why world economics and democratic consumerism don’t necessarily relate to a profession that is a calling to too many.

I once heard that a teacher will begin to feel like they know what they are doing after three years. While I have repeated this idea, I don’t believe in its truth and wonder if other professions have similar time assumptions. There is joy in finally understanding teaching so fully that to retool and redesign lessons happens instantaneously. More profound is the need for collaboration to bridge ideas and branch expectations beyond what is common to our own lives.

Each year I have come to expect the world from my classroom and its’ learners, but it’s the classes themselves- the living and breathing network of thinking souls- that drive where they end up. I can’t imagine being a teacher bound by curriculum so strict that to stray from a lesson would lead to alienation to others in the department or district. At the same time I wonder how often those teachers do stray from their designed standards to teach what’s common, what’s human, those ideas that connect the mind with learning. It’s why each 4th quarter I begin to look ahead to the next school year and starting fresh with another group of world changers.

This profession of teaching is not an anomaly nor is it beyond the realm of the common. We are all learners which means that our interactions with this world become the fodder for everyone’s ability to educate and teach. My teaching experience gives me the insight for opportunities that I would have either overlooked when I started or was too uncomfortable to discuss. Earlier this school year riots erupted in Ferguson, Missouri, after the death of Michael Brown. As protests spread across the country I became enamored by the passion I saw in the faces of those seeking justice and equality. This is not a new concept, but each time we are faced with the painful reality that we aren’t as removed from the past as we thought then we each need to pay more attention to what we contribute to a solution. All of this learning isn’t about an us versus them (and when I hear anyone term others as “them” I cringe), it’s about us. Sometimes education needs to be simple.

Would I have the same impact on students and thinking as an administrator or district representative? It’s unclear. Very few of the dozens of administrators I’ve worked with possess the magic of connection. Meanwhile I sit in my classroom every day and interact with thinkers, observers, students who have a future filled with endless possibilities. My concern is not based on a state test or multiple choice exam. My concern is with seeing this world and all we interact with through a critical eye. It’s a human right to question. To think. To consider how our choices impact where things come from or where they are going. To find a space where we fit and connect. Because we do.

And there’s the beauty. Love where you’re at and make the impact you have on others positive and refreshing. I know the joy that comes with biting on crispy too-hot-to-eat-yet fries and from letters received from friends and family. These jobs and the humans that bring them to life are the heartbeat of our society. So next time smile when you walk to the mailbox for the surprise that might be awaiting you. Next time you’re out to dinner peer into the kitchen and give some thumbs-ups to the line cooks and dishwashers who are putting the pieces of a meal together exactly how you want it. Their impact on us reflects our impact on each other as we deliver respect as crisply and as quickly as we can.

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You can’t love someone you don’t like

Among religious folks, we like to make up little sayings. Among our kind it can help to expedite conversations, and convey a big truth in a simple way. Something like longform technical jargon.

The problem is, these sayings tend to experience a drift away from their original intention. Or lose their context. Or were never all that helpful in the first place.

Here are some pretty common examples of what I’m talking about: God helps those who help themselves. Spare the rod, spoil the child. What would Jesus do? Hate the sin, love the sinner. Love is a verb.

There is one more I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about lately. It’s not quite as snippy or concise, but it seems to be planted in the advice religious folks give in some form or another: “you can love them without liking them.”

This disconnect between like and love sounds like really solid advice. It seems like something you tell a buddy before he goes off to a family holiday and has to deal with his crazy aunt and his drunk uncle.

But I’ve tried this one, and it just doesn’t work. It’s all smiles in the open and sneers behind closed doors. How can you love someone you can’t stomach to be around?

Here is where I think this advice is rooted: it’s a cop-out solution for enemy-love. This sort of love-don’t-like posture seeks to free us from the need to share a table with our enemies.

At the root of what we describe as “liking” somebody is really more about finding value in a person. It’s like this: I once had a friend tell me off for saying I don’t like the Beatles but I respect them. He said I had no business pretending I respected them if I didn’t enjoy listening to them.

Years away from that conversation, I realize that I just wanted to feel important by saying I respected the Beatles, but I really didn’t want to identify as a Beatles’ fan.

I wanted all the glory with none of the responsibility.

Let’s face it – it’s a hell of a lot of work to love somebody you desperately want to be with. Think about your relationship with your spouse, your best friend, your close family. It’s no easy thing to love well.

And it’s even harder to love enemies well, even if the degree of enmity is relatively mild. It’s really nice to have a get out of jail free card, right? Ok, all I have to do is smile and be polite to people I don’t like and – voila! – I’m a loving, awesome person.

The love-don’t-like strategy make us feel super good about ourselves, but it misses the whole point. Love is an incredibly powerful tool for bringing goodness into the world and driving out the ugly garbage that requires us to call out for justice.

Love is a force that can build bridges across deep and painful divides. It can bring alignment where there was only division. It can forgive the unforgivable.

Love requires that we sit at the table with people, and in the fullness of love, we eat, learn and listen. Even drunk uncles and crazy aunts are worth eating with.

And we are worth eating with, those of us who have held to the facade of love-don’t-like. Drunks and crazies, have mercy on us who have been uppity and unwilling to give ourselves fully to a world that needs fewer platitudes and excuses and more whole-hearted peacemakers.

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How Do WE Abolish Sex Trafficking: Insight from a Trafficking Tour through Greece

In the summer of 2014, I had the awesome opportunity to spend a week in Thessaloniki, Greece with the amazing team of The A21 Campaign learning more about the global problem of human trafficking, but more specifically in the context of Greece. Honestly, I was extremely honored to have rubbed shoulders with the dozen or so expat laborers in Greece from all over the world (US, Denmark, Sweden, Greece, Australia) that God has called as abolitionists for this season in time.

As the reality of 27 million slaves worldwide is coming to the light, people (like you and me) want to ACT. We want to DO something. This reality is powerful because awareness without action is useless and honestly just poor stewardship. Some of the best ways that we can act are to educate ourselves, help others become aware through our own giftings and creativity, and pray.

Education:

Here are a few things I learned or was reminded of that are worth highlighting in regards to properly educating oneself on human trafficking.

There are six main trafficking methods:

1. abduction (least common)
2. fake job opportunity (girls promised opportunity in a different city to make money)
3. lover boy scenario (a trafficker will pursue a girl and then once he has her trust, sells her)
4. family (family member will sell their daughter(s) in order to make money)
5. false immigration
6. false friendship

It is extremely difficult to prosecute traffickers because the girls that are trafficked are very rarely seen as victims. Most girls who are trafficked are prostitutes. The problem is that most people assume they chose to be a prostitute, when in reality most of them were sold, beaten, threatened and forced into a life of prostitution. In my personal, non-professional opinion, I think that the next big awareness piece after people understanding there are 27 million slaves in this world, is the understanding that girls who are prostitutes are most likely victims of sex-trafficking.

Greece Specific Information regarding Demand for Sex:
1. Prostitution in Greece is legal and socially acceptable
2. Of the 600 brothels in Athens, only 6 are legal
3. 60-70% of men use prostitution on a regular basis
4. 20,000-40,000 women are in the Greek sex industry
5. Women can serve up to 40 men daily
6. 50% of married men use prostitution
7. Prostitution a social activity
8. At age 15, dads take their sons to brothels as a rite of passage for manhood

Because of the Schegan Zone (borders/customs agreement) Greece is considered not only a transition country for trafficked girls but also a destination country. Basically, if they can get the girls in Greece, then they have access to all the other countries. It is similar to the problem we have in Houston; if they can get them to Texas through our Mexican border, then they can traffic the girls to any other part of the US with no problem or need of passport or papers. Also, the problem of sexual immorality in Greece is an ancient problem from as early as Biblical days. Prostitution and acts of sex have always been a part of worship and Greek culture. Rulers were known for having a wife, their lover, and then a harem of prostitutes. Nothing has changed. The sexual culture passed down throughout the ages (literally) is the main catalyst and sustainer of sex trafficking and the demand for sex.

Prayer:

So how do we abolish slavery when the root of this kind of slavery is in the thread of ancient civilization and culture? Where’s the hope, especially in light of the fact that less than 1% of the 27 million victims are actually rescued? I don’t know if we will ever see slavery abolished, but I am even more convinced the deeper I get into the trafficking fight, that the only hope is Jesus. He is the only one who can provide hope in the desperate and dark places that these girls are in. He’s the only one who restore identities; He’s the only one who can heal them. He’s the only one that can restore, redeem, and provide a platform for forgiveness and life. Christ transforms cultures and societies. Evil will always be present, but Jesus is bigger. As a pastor, I am more and more convinced that trafficking ministry or outreach at some level has to involve the proclamation of the Kingdom and inviting people to know the ONE who can give them life, redemption, and wholeness. Therefore, Church, we are the solution to abolish trafficking. It’s not the job of great organizations, or great campaigns, or even good hearted people…it’s the job of the Church to champion the cause of abolishing slavery. Church, we can’t back down from offering the Kingdom and abundant life to those entrapped or those victimizing. Therefore, Church, prayer is essential and the catalyst and the ground work for all activity for seeing slavery abolished. When we pray, we go to war. Don’t discount your prayers or minimize it to “not enough”. Prayer is the most effective and powerful action step we all can take to abolish slavery in our generation.

Creativity:

When we became followers of Christ, the spirit deposited literal gifts in each one of us to build His body- these are commonly known as spiritual gifts. He has also given us gifts of creativity through the arts, professional skill sets, and pure talent. Whatever gifts God has given us, we must leverage them for the Kingdom and towards the cause of seeing slavery abolished. Use your gift of photography, video, organization, administration, communication, etc and see how you can come alongside great organizations who are fighting trafficking. Put your gifts into play. Leverage them for the kingdom. We were designed to create. We are most alive and most like Him when we contribute our gifts for the purpose of the Kingdom.

Resources:

Girls Like Us: Fighting for a World Where Girls are Not for Sale: A Memoir: I read this book about a year and a half ago and it was probably the best and most informative book I have ever read on trafficking and really understanding this billion dollar industry.

Human Trafficking Video: We watched this 3 hour movie in Greece. It offers a great understanding of how girls are trafficked and more information about trafficking rings around the world.

Nefarious: This is my favorite documentary on human trafficking. It provides great research and ends with hope.

The A21 Campaign: They of course are rockstars. Visit their website, learn, and be inspired to get on your knees and get going by using your gifts!

**All stats and information provided I received from the A21 staff in Greece.

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In Praise of Biased Educators

When discussing education today, everyone seems to agree that it needs to be reformed, although there is often a disagreement on how that should be accomplished. No matter what a person’s opinion may be, one thing is in common: everyone uses standardized testing data as the jumping off point for these discussions. Pundits worry about America’s international standing, districts worry about scores that may or may not signal a government intervention, and administrators worry about whether or not they will be called on the carpet by the district office for test scores.

Although teachers and districts have begun refusing to give these tests (here and here), those efforts, in the context of the hundreds of thousands of standardized tests that are administered every year, are relatively few and far between. Those teachers, and many more of them, should continue to resist standardized testing as a waste of instructional time when teachers should be teaching. Yet, that begs the question: instead of using time for testing, what should we be teaching?

The new catchphrase on everyone’s lips is “college and career ready,” a popularity that is in large part due to the new Common Core standards. The idea is that whether a student is destined for college or a career, that student will be ready for the intellectual and academic demands (i.e., problem-solving and critical thinking, analytical reading, and articulate writing) of his or her chosen path. However, in reality, many high schools focus only on the college part, to the detriment of everything else. Electives, the category that includes shop and technical classes, fall by the wayside during budget cuts and are rarely replaced in times of plenty. As shown here, state and local districts are so focused on college preparedness that career education is becoming extinct. So, schools really, for the most part, focus on preparing kids for college.

But, let’s assume that schools really are preparing our students for college classes and for careers. We condemn students to sixteen years of school (K-12 and 4 yr. BA/BS), constantly telling them that it is in their best interest. Educators rarely listen to students who say that college isn’t for them, telling them that they need to be prepared and go anyways. Why is that? Because we, as educators, know the statistics that students do not know or care enough to consider: that people with more education generally make more money than those with less. So we try to convince them that the monotonous and often irrelevant almost two decades of schooling is for their own good. Often, the AP and Honors students buy into this idea hook-line-and-sinker. A few years ago, I had a conversation with a student in an English III Honors class that went something like this:

Student: Sir, I need an A.
Me: You already have a B+. That’s a really good grade, too. Why do you need an A?
Student: So I can have a good GPA (grade point average).
Me: Why?
Student: So I can go to a good college.
Me: Why?
Student: So I can get a good paying job.
Me: Why?
Student: So I can support my family, and have a comfortable place to live.
Me: But, will any of that make you happy?

(student pauses for thirty seconds to a minute, clearly perplexed)

Student: I don’t know. No one has asked me that before.

The typical student in his or her junior year in America is sixteen or seventeen years old, and about a year from graduating into the adult world of college and/or careers. In all those years and all those teachers, no one asked this student about what the student wanted. Instead, the educational system kept telling that student, along with the hundreds of thousands of others in the nation, that money should be the primary goal. Get money; then, and only then, think about your happiness.

Giving educators the benefit of the doubt, they are trying to do what they think is best for their students. It is becoming increasingly clear that America is being governed by two separate set of laws: one set for the rich and another for the poor (see Matt Taibbi’s The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap). Additionally, the “rags to riches” ethos has been part of American culture for a long time, as we see by Horatio Alger stories and the success stories of people like Bill Gates. So, education has been reduced to telling students, “Set your dreams aside. Get good grades. Go to college. Make money.” Many of the educational reforms of the past decades deal with giving students the skills needed in a college or career, to aid in the effort of making money; they deal with the what of teaching, not the why. Yet, is that enough?

Resoundingly, I say no.

In the essay, “Objections to Objectivity,” historian and social activist, Howard Zinn, discusses a similar concern with education. Educators are expected to be objective disseminators of received facts and information, uncolored by personal belief or bias, so that students will be “educated” and “smart.” However, Zinn argues that being objective is a disservice to students. He writes:

Surely, how “smart” a person is on history tests like the one devised by the Times, how “educated” someone is, tells you nothing about whether that person is decent or indecent, violent or peaceful, whether that person will resist evil or become a consultant to warmakers, will become a Pastor Niemoller (a German who resisted the Nazis) or an Albert Speer (who worked for them), a Lieutenant Calley (who killed children at My Lai) or a Flight Officer Thompson (who tried to save them). (41)

Whether or not a student gets good grades or gets a well paying job says nothing about the kind of person that he or she is or will be in the future. It was those with the highest paying jobs at the biggest of national and international banks that created the subprime mortgage crisis that adversely affected the lives of millions and the economies of dozens of countries. The pursuit of money and grades is no indicator of whether or not these students will be a boon or a burden to their neighbors, families, communities, and nations-even the world. Telling students to make money and a job their goal is to encourage them to get onto the “winning” side of our society, instead of doing something about the injustices that pervade it.

Instead, writes Zinn, “Everyone needs to learn history, the kind that does not put its main emphasis on knowing presidents and statutes and Supreme Court decisions, but inspires a new generation to resist the madness of governments trying to carve the world and our minds into their spheres of influence” (41-42). To his statement, I would add corporations right next to governments as entities that must be resisted. Zinn was a historian, so naturally his remarks pertain to the teaching of history, especially at the college level since he was a professor. In high school AP History classes, rote memorization of facts is often emphasized. But, in my own field, English Literature, I couldn’t care less if students remember what a synecdoche or chiasmus or a metaphor or a plot mountain is in ten years’ time. Any novel I teach, I choose with this idea in mind: “How can it help these students question accepted values and ideas? How can it help teach students compassion for others? How can I open them up to the problems and suffering of the downtrodden that they would rather ignore?” I will not tell them what to think or how to solve a problem, but I refuse to accept the status quo in the name of objectivity. It isn’t good enough.

Do I want them to read and write well? Of course I do. But I want them to be able to read and write well so that they can make sense of their surroundings and not be manipulated by governments and corporations that would gladly grind them into dust in order to make a quick buck and maintain power. I want them to read and write well so that they can each fight the injustices of our society. The teaching of literature, of anything, should be to open them up to the problems of the world and encourage them to solve them-to fight them-to resist; education cannot be about money. Insofar as education is about money, it becomes a tool in a system that regularly kills creativity and oppresses the poor.

To be objective is to accept the political and societal goals of a curriculum that is part of the system. That is why I am, and always will be, a biased educator.

– Zinn, Howard. “Objections to Objectivity.” Failure to Quit: Reflections of an Optimistic Historian. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2013. 29-42. Print.

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Are you an American?

What makes you American? Is it simply the fact that you were born here in America, or legally became a citizen? I think the answer is far more complicated. Does being American mean that you pay taxes? Is it a sense of duty to your country? Alternatively, is it simply just an indescribable inner part of you? Being “American” is an amalgamation of so many things beyond just being born within the United States. In fact, for many, being born in the U.S. is hardly a defining characteristic at all. What makes you American is one of the questions Jose Antonio Vargas seeks to answer in his film, Documented. Furthermore, Vargas wants to show viewers that “illegal immigrants” are not faceless and nameless, but human beings like everyone else.

Jose Antonio Vargas is a Pulitzer Prize winning, American journalist who also happens to be an undocumented citizen. Vargas has been living in the United States illegally since he was 12. Vargas considers himself a law abiding, tax paying, and productive member of American society. He decided to make Documented in order to show the face of undocumented America, chronicle his own experiences after coming out as “illegal,” and to show that there is no clear path to citizenship for these undocumented citizens, citizens that have been “American” for years. According to Vargas, the system that allows for legal immigration is broken, and needs to be changed.

Documented follows Vargas as he comes out as an “illegal” immigrant, shows his work with “Dreamers,” or supporters of the Dream Act, as well as chronicles his journey to reconnect with his mother. This film is best for the citizen with limited knowledge on immigration, because the film opens viewer’s eyes to the perils of immigration and gives a face to what is often treated as an abstract issue. Since I consider myself more progressive when it comes to immigration and immigration reform, I was excited to watch this film. However, despite my open-mindedness, there were many concepts and ideas Vargas discussed that had just never occurred to me. For example, Vargas raises the question of what is the connotation behind calling someone an “illegal.” For me, and I am sure others, when you think of an “illegal” immigrant the image of a person of Hispanic decent pops into your head. This is certainly the face the media has put to the term “illegal” immigrant, especially here in California. However, Vargas brings to light the fact that a large portion of “illegal” immigrants come from Asian countries, African countries, and, surprisingly, European countries as well. While this is not a mind-blowing piece of information, it needed to be said because this is an aspect of immigration that is easily ignored in light of the more local concern of Mexican immigrants. Furthermore, Vargas pushes for the term “undocumented” rather than “illegal,” because of the negative connotation that “illegal” carries. For many of the undocumented citizens living in the United States, they consider themselves American. The “undocumented” have lived in America for years, and while here, have graduated high school, found jobs, and pay taxes. Essentially, they are American. They are good people who do not deserve to be dehumanized and treated negatively with the term, “illegal.” Vargas also takes a closer look at the process for legal immigration to discuss how it is a flawed system that has people waiting for decades to immigrate legally to America, and offers no clear path to citizenship for those that have been here for years.

It is because of both the personable nature of the film, and it’s inclusion of little mentioned facts that makes Documented a must watch, regardless of your stance on immigration. Documented puts a face to the process, and makes it easy to become just a little more informed on an issue that is currently a hot topic within our American culture. So, the next time you define yourself as an American, take a moment to think of what it really means, because maybe then we can change the way our culture thinks of undocumented citizens.

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Becoming a White Ally

Not enough white people have seriously thought about what it means to be a white ally. Too many white people think they are allies because they “aren’t racist”. “Not being racist” is a passive act that doesn’t make you an ally. You can say you think all people are equal regardless of their skin color and that we live in a post-racial society because we elected a black man as President. These comments are problematic, and they also don’t make someone a white ally.

First off, if you haven’t read it, check out “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack“. Seriously, I think each white person should read this text. It lays out how privilege is inherent in society in very practical terms and that white people, whether they are out and out racist or not, benefit from the systemic racism that is alive and in many ways driving our society.

It’s important to know that being a white ally is an active part of life. It’s not a one-time event or simply being friends with people of color. It’s a way of life. It’s making an effort to be informed on racial events and the racial history of the places in which those events occur. It’s about actively discussing those issues in the correct context and challenging the popular media coverage. It’s about leveraging your privilege as a white person to advocate for marginalized people. It’s about being willing to be “that person” in your social circles on a regular basis, not just when there’s a hot news story. Racism is systemic and constant. If you think otherwise, you’re not a white ally.

It’s also important to fight feelings of defensiveness and the inclination to make the whole thing about you when discussing racism with people of color. What you, the white person feels, when a person of color tries to talk about racism with you, shouldn’t be the focus of the discussion. Listen and try to understand. Remember what’s in your knapsack that the person of color will never have. Do not make the discussion about you.

Finally, don’t expect people of color to do all the work for you. It’s not ok to go straight to one of your friends or acquaintances who identify with a marginalized group and ask them to tell you all about how to be a white ally. That isn’t their burden. Take the time and effort to read on your own. Ask informed questions. Be willing to be told you are wrong and do not understand. Listen and don’t assume that you know what you’re talking about. Learn from reading and learn more from asking based on your reading.

We can put this all into the Ferguson context. Suppose I am a white person whose initial reaction is of disapproval based on the way that some blacks have chosen to react to the killing of Michael Brown. I’ve watched news coverage and have seen several reports about rioting and looting. I may feel as though the reaction of the black community is inappropriate because of this coverage. A friend might tell me I am making the situation about me and my feelings, I am being distracted by one-sided media, and I am not being a white ally. I might be offended for being told this. I would argue that looting and rioting are wrong and destructive, and I am justified in my disapproval. My friend might say that I am still making it all about me, that I need to diversify my news sources, and that if I do some more reading I may start to understand more about what’s happening.

If I want to be a white ally, I should instead do my homework to try and understand why some people are reacting the way they are and be aware of how many peaceful protests are occurring. It is important for me to understand the racial history of Ferguson and what may lead people to act in rebellion before I start judging. If I did my homework from various and diverse coverage, I might start to understand that what mainstream media is portraying as looting and rioting is actually a justified reaction to police terrorization. I may also find out that the violent reactions are sometimes in reaction to police action and that the number of peaceful incidents are far greater than my normal news source may lead me to believe. In my research, I may also learn more about what I can do as a white ally. Taking the time to do this research might change my initial reaction to what’s happening in Ferguson. I might start to understand more of what is happening and why. I may find a variety of news sources I should start to read to get a well-rounded story. I may start to understand that becoming a white ally means that I actively work to understand the racism inherent in this society, that I do my homework from a variety of sources, and that I engage in conversations that might not make me the most popular. Being a white ally means being properly prepared to and acting on opportunities to use my privilege as a white person to fight the system of oppression.

The system is big, and it favors whites. White people who do nothing enable the system to continue to oppress people of color. We need to each be doing our parts. White allies are crucial to changing the system. Do your homework, be vigilant, and leverage your power to help others see the same.

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Reasons Need No Seasons

My mom is the most difficult person to shop for. When any holiday or birthday was on the horizon, her response was always the same because she didn’t want anything and if she did she would have already bought it herself anyway. This is all true, of course. Still, it was always for a birthday that I felt something should happen even though she treated it like any other day.

As I started my teaching career I realized that my students always wanted to know when my birthday was. Usually they found out when a poster was brought into my room on November 6th to wish me a happy day. It’s a topic I easily brushed aside in hopes that getting to work would free their minds of the mundane reality that is my birthday. Even as a youngster it was clear that it was another day that was rarely more special than any other day I woke up healthy for. Again, I blame my mother and Sandra Cisneros is the writer who put my feelings to text. The short story “Eleven” begins like this:

What they don’t understand about birthdays and what they never tell you is that when you’re eleven, you’re also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and six, and five, and four, and three, and two, and one. And when you wake up on your eleventh birthday you expect to feel eleven, but you don’t. You open your eyes and everything’s just like yesterday, only it’s today. And you don’t feel eleven at all. You feel like you’re still ten. And you are—underneath the year that makes you eleven.

My birthday life made sense when I read this piece because it was like an onion that’s nothing more than layers or years of life. Each layer wraps around and encapsulates what’s inside by using it both as a frame and protector. Even the layers don’t know any better because they, like days, don’t distinguish themselves against opposition or through comparison. There’s a symmetry found in the addition and building up from the middle that occurs whether against or with our will.

Recently I’ve started celebrating my birthday by throwing myself a party. Instead of my guests bringing something for me, I provide most of the goods in the form of sour beer and stinky cheese and only ask for peripheral items like plates, napkins or waters. After throwing the first such party in 2009 it became apparent that this was the way I wanted people to celebrate me with them. Let’s get together and make memories.

My students are NOT invited to these gatherings, of course! Nor do they know of their existence (until they read this… oh the shock). A few years ago I learned of an organization that builds wells and/or filters and provides communities with clean drinking water. This organization forced me to rethink how I viewed my birthday and gave me a way to invite them into my sense of giving.

Charity: Water operates under a simple principle that asks individuals to give up the money they would receive on a birthday and donate it to a community in need. If you are turning 11, you ask for donations of $11 from your family and friends and set a goal. Simple, right?

Not until 2013 did I decide to make the push to donate my 41st birthday. I decided to ask for 10 donations to make a goal of $410. Having fundraiser before, this was not enough so I doubled it up and set my sights on $820. I challenged my five classes to raise some money and received support from family and friends alike. I even made cakes and cookies to sell in support. All said and done- $511 dollars was raised to help build water filters in Indonesia.

This year I vowed to do better. For my 42nd I came up with the same formula and was fortunate to see that Keurig Green Mountain offered funds to match this year’s donations until their $740,000 was equaled. Before I knew it I not only sold more cake and cookies than I had planned, my grand total surpassed my expectations at $1288. Not only did I enjoy the idea of my birthday, I found my students feeling good contributing to my fundraising. It became a season of giving, because it’s what every season should be.

So why give something like my birthday to an organization like Charity: Water? I grew up with a mother who gave me everything she had to see that I had what I wanted when I got home from school. In my younger years I wanted Superman shoes. My memory sees me pitching the ubiquitous fit only to see my mom find the money to take me to the store to get them. If I was craving cake, there was a slice. Cookies? They were ready when I got home from school with cold milk on the side. I felt like Santa after sliding down yet another chimney at times. And that’s the connection: I give to others because it is what I saw and continue to see my mother do and it is what brings me the greatest joy. She is a giver and often gives too much because it’s what brings her joy and happiness. Now I see her helping her younger sister and her nephews, hems my grandma’s clothes and shaves her corns- even helps with makeup before a Thanksgiving feast. It’s giving at its greatest and not because she has to, it’s because she want to and is happier because of it.

So this is, in a blog, the story of my life. I give to others what I can because I have the ability and access to. Like any nonprofit, the awareness of what can be done is known only when others can see an impact. After I started my 41st birthday campaign I watched a Charity: Water documentary from 2012 about Rachel Beckwith. More than anything it confirms that we give to others because we can and that is the most beautiful gift of all. In the thought of Zach Sobiech, “What makes you happy is seeing someone smile because you put it there” and that is what giving should be whether you see it or not – in any season – for any reason.

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Go Forth and Make Projects of All Nations

I live in a spiritual tradition that’s addicted to fixing people.

When I was a kid, trying to figure out how to own my inherited faith, I had a bizarre and upsetting experience with my buddy’s older brother. I was trying to explain to him why I didn’t think lying was such a big deal. We went back and forth, and when he couldn’t change my mind he lost his temper. As a good conservative religious person, he couldn’t cuss me out. Instead threw out the biggest threat he could think of: “Good luck explaining this to God when you die.”

Now I’m sure I’m not the only person who had a bad experience with an older brother. But that sort of attitude is indicative of the fix-it lifestyle. Where do you think he learned that conversation stopper?

The fix-it lifestyle is easy to spot. Fixers foist their particular paradigms on you. They do a lot of talking, and they do a lot of doing. And they hurt people. More often than not.

Tonight a friend told my wife and me about a recent bombardment of missionary support requests. They had their scripts and set up their coffee meetings and did a lot of talking about mission and money. Some peddled more than others. But none of them listened. They were so focused on their mission that they couldn’t see my friend, who by the way is doing kind of crappy right now.

At the end of our chat, my friend told me: “It’s hard to be positive about people when they don’t know or love me.”

As she processed with us, we wondered together how people can expect to go and fix somebody “out there” when they don’t even know how to love people around them.

The problem with “mission” is it pulls us from the present. If we are always on mission for people we are never in relationship with people. It’s too easy to look past human pain when you’ve got a job to do.

It’s like when you’re late for work. You’re focused, you’re determined, you’re going to stop for nothing.

Imagine living your daily life like that, being late to work. That’s the mission-first life.

Have you met someone like that? It’s exhausting. They come off really self-centered. And be honest, you kind of wish they would go away forever.

I’ve spent enough time in the world of faith to wish they would go away. Because I’ve watched people sent through the meat grinder in the name of mission.

The worst part is this people-eating machine lives inside so many cause-driven people. It doesn’t matter what the cause is: God, guns, climate change, health, feminism. The tyranny of the mission-first life crosses all ideological boundaries.

In the religious world we use the language “idolatry.” It’s when you find something good that makes your life a little more beautiful, but then you get stuck and think it’s the only way to see beauty. And then you think it’s the only thing that’s beautiful.

The mission, for many, blinds people of faith to the beauty of God. I think it’s what Jesus of Nazareth was pointing to when he said “The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath.”

He was pointing out the stuckness of his critics, and their myopic devotion to something beautiful that had become more like a prison.

There is a ton of important important work to do, plenty of justice causes to champion and plenty of worthy campaigns to wage. But none of it matters if you live a scorched earth life on your way there. You end up making a bigger mess than the one you’re trying to clean up.

So let me offer a mantra that I find helpful to avoid stuckness and unnecessary injury: “People, not projects.”

And I offer this out of personal experience. I’m a fix-people addict in recovery.

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Circling Syria

At the close of this evening’s #GivingTuesday, I find myself wondering, when I wake up tomorrow morning and troll through to the end of the internets, what will I find as the new commercial theme? #BOGOWednesday? #EtsyWednesday? #BuyHandmadeWednesday? Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great that somewhere this year America decided to redeem the mass consumerism of Black Friday and Cyber Monday with more selfless schemes like Small Business Saturday and Giving Tuesday; it definitely at least shifts the perspective a little more on others and a little less on self.

But, still. I mean, really? Is the whole month of Nov. 28th- Dec. 28th (my birthday, btw) going to transform into some kind of daily gimmick for money, capitalism, and the commercialization of national and religious holidays?

If I might, can I suggest a potentially more powerful way to focus your days and time and right clicking for the rest of this merry month?

It’s called Circling Syria, and a friend of mine shared it with me the other night. I’m not one to just push products or apps one’s way, but when I opened the link she sent, I was immediately impressed by the design of the initiative, the scale of the idea, and the urgency of the need.

Circling Syria is essentially a site, complete with all the social media links, dedicated to enabling people worldwide to intercede prayerfully on the behalf of the Syrians in crises. The idea of course, is that these global prayers would literally encircle the Syrian people and those prayers, in turn would powerfully mediation for the Syrian people, begging heaven to provide them with protection, provision, and mostly, hope. For so many of us who keep a semi-watchful eye on global events, the plight of people, like the Syrians, seems so distant, so far away, as real as Mars and about as feasible to get to in any kind of tangible way as well. And so, our hearts break, and our wallets may send a few dollars, but ultimately we’re left sickened at the thought of our own inadequacy to change the reality for millions of people suffering from the effects of war, sin, corruption, and downright evil.

And unfortunately, the news for Syria is not looking any better. Just this week, the UN announced their inability to continue providing food for Syrian refugees, of which there are 1.7 million who will be affected by this shortage. The situation is grim to say the least.

And yet, looking through the Syrian Circle website, I was reminded that these are lies. I’m not unequipped. I’m not helpless. I’m not inadequate. This world is not without hope. I have a plea I can make daily, hourly, moment by moment at the throne of heaven. God can do what the Red Cross cannot, what the UN cannot, and what refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, and other middle eastern countries cannot. Jesus can provide hope and healing and new hearts. He wrapped Himself in flesh and arrived in an anything but peaceful middle eastern nation 2,000 years ago as a baby and we celebrate Immanuel this month. How much more can He wrap His Syrian children in His love and peace and joy and hope?!

And I, well, I can ask. I can bang down heaven’s doors. When I was first struck by the depravity and tragedy of ISIS’s barbaric actions this summer, I cried and I prayed, and I blogged. And then, while I did not forget about the people trying to scrape together the crumbles left of their lives after unthinkable personal and national devastation, I did forget to pray. What Syrian Circle offers me, offers all of us who believe that our prayers and that our people matter, is a focused, real, and tangible way to pray daily throughout December, specifically for the people affected by the Syrian Civil War.

There are presents to be purchased, there are cookies to be made, trees to be cut down, pinterest wreaths to be made, and countless parties to attend. But this, this opportunity to pray intentionally for a hurting people is free, and easy, and reminds me why that baby came in the first place. And, if you are already a social media addict, CirclingSyria posts their prayer focus daily on their instagram account. Simply follow them, and daily we can all be reminded to pause our holiday busyness, and pray “O come, O come, Immanuel, and ransom not just captive Israel, but Syria too.”

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Violence Matters

The month that my wife and I moved to Chicago, there was a fatal shooting at the end of our block. The shots woke us up.

A few weeks later, there was a fatal shooting across the street from the apartment that hosted our Bible study.

After that, things seemed to quiet down in our little corner of the city. And I got caught up in the stress of life, and for the most part forgot about our early experiences.

But a couple weeks ago, as we rounded the corner heading to Bible study, we were bombarded with blue flashing lights. Half a dozen cop cars, a fire truck, an ambulance, and police tape. When we made it inside our friends’ place, they looked relieved. Multiple gunshots just minutes before. It explained the weird text message they sent: “Be safe.”

In that moment, I experienced some serious nostalgia for my old life of automobile-slavery, settled in the shadow of Los Angeles. And then I had some visceral urges for cul de sacs and SUVs.

I mean, we moved across the country to join a church, not have our life shaken up.

So why a church in Chicago? What’s so wrong with cul de sacs and sunshine? Everything? Nothing? Honestly, I don’t know anymore and I don’t think any of the reasons matter. What matters is we are here; Chicago is our home.

And violence matters to us now, in a way it never really did before.

To be honest it’s still the same numb detachment when I see the numbers on Twitter from a different part of the city: 5 dead in Southside neighborhood over the weekend.

But it’s different when it happens in the neighborhood my kid plays in. It’s different when I look up and see the blue light of a Chicago PD CCTV surveillance camera, and all I can think sometimes is “Jesus.” In the swear sense, and the prayer sense.

And I don’t really know what to do other than pray. And the praying is so hard, because prayer always connects my reality to the reality of others. And my experience is just a small piece of the bigger violence that our world is enduring right now: Ukraine, Gaza, Iraq and Syria. The woman just hung in Iran. And last I read, we’re over 10,000 confirmed cases of Ebola.

While the prayer is painful, it’s what helps me stay rooted.

When I was looking at pictures from the early days of Euromaidan in Ukraine, I remember this Eastern Orthodox priest, in full vestment (plus winter gloves) standing in the gap between angry protesters and riot police, praying for peace.

Standing in the gap between life as it exists and future hope, well that takes faith and belief and grit and a small dose of incurable insanity.

It took me a long time to learn this, but the discipline of prayer isn’t about twisting the arm of a reluctant deity to fix all our problems. It connects us to a bigger reality, even broader than the reality of suffering — the groaning of humans for peace.

I can’t say this for sure, but my hunch is that crazy priest in Ukraine didn’t step out between the fighting because he assumed he could fix everything. He just stepped into a higher truth of human reality, in that moment. In the midst of conflict, he was in the midst of peace.

Peace is bigger and truer than violence, but we need eyes to see it. And we need the solid footing to stand for it.

I’m awake, thanks to a shooting that finally mattered to me. My eyes are open, because now I live outside the numbness of numbers and the coddling of cul de sacs. Now i’m learning how to stand.

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