Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Turn the corner to Christmas

And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn Son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. Luke 2: 6-7

Mary and Joseph turned many corners on their journey to Bethlehem. All the way from the acceptance of the news of the impending birth of a savior to a virgin, to turning the corner behind the Inn only to see the feeding trough that would hold the Savior of the world.

And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Baby lying in a manger. Luke 2:16

The shepherds in the field that quiet night did not even know a corner was in their future. They traveled from their field around the twists and turns of Bethlehem in order to be the first visitors to see the Baby born to bring us peace.

And going into the house they saw the Child with Mary, his mother, and they fell down and worshiped Him. Matthew 2:11

Think for a moment of all the turns made by the magi as they followed the prophesies turning down the road to Bethlehem. What did they think of the Toddler whose face peeked around the corner? Were their hearts filled with joy upon the realization that this Savior sought them, too?

Two thousand years later our children are turning a corner to see the splendor of Christmas. We approach this season, each year, knowing that whatever the year has brought us, the love of God, as seen in the tiny babe wrapped tightly in a blanket, can turn our hearts to joy and hope.

He said to them, "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. Mark 16:15

In our world, today, there are many who hide behind the corner of despair. This is not God's plan for any of His people. The saving work of His Son brings us forgiveness and salvation. The faith-building work of the Spirit moves us to take the Gospel message to every corner of the earth.

Abba, Father, Amen.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Walking in a straight line

Lead me, O LORD, in your righteousness because of my enemies; make your way straight before me. For there is no truth in their mouth; their inmost self is destruction; their throat is an open grave; they flatter with their tongue. Psalm 5:8-9 ESV

Humans can't walk in a straight line when blindfolded. We may think we can, but 80 years of research has found otherwise. We need a reference point, such as a building, or the warmth of the sun on our face; without such aides, we walk in hopeless circles until we end up, in the best case scenario, back where we started.

Check out the National Public Radio story on this topic here.

Yup, without help, the best we can do is walk in circles. If you are still not sure this is true, ask someone who grew up a generation ago on a farm, to tell you about walking in fog or blizzard conditions. I remember driving to teach at my country school in the fog and while I did find my way, I felt most disoriented by not being able to see landmarks. I got to school only because the road got me there.

While you may grumble about the useless nature of some avenues of research, (no evidence that government money funded this research) you have to admit that as a Christian this strange tendency to veer to the right or left should not come as a surprise. If left to our own ability, our desires, misperceptions and sins lead us off of the straight path and onto a circular path that leads back to our starting point. We are hopeless without God's guidance; we are hopeless without God's correction; we are hopeless without God.

The image of me walking in circles, blindfolded, arms fruitlessly flailing around, is a strong and troublesome one. It describes so much of my faith life. It is the image that comes to mind when I think of the many times when I was sure that I was in control. I ignored God's guidance, or refused to trust that He knew best the path before me and struggled on in my own darkness.

Watch out for that tree!

Ouch, that's gotta hurt.

Let's think, instead, about taking the blindfold off and taking the hand of God. With God's guidance the distractions of our own desires, the misinformation in the world around us, the temptations, designed to lead us astray, become ineffective.

Anything is possible:

So the people shouted, and the trumpets were blown. As soon as the people heard the sound of the trumpet, the people shouted a great shout, and the wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city, every man straight before him, and they captured the city. Joshua 6:20 ESV

When we walk in God's wisdom and grace we walk straight. Here the soldiers walked around the city of Jericho. Every day, for a week, they walked in circles: a tireless, seemingly endless trek. They did so with their trust in God and He led them straight into a stunning victory.

Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, holding on until Friday, and then after the weekend we are back, again, to Monday it may seem like our life goes round in circles. Here it is Thanksgiving and Advent reminds us that Christmas is coming, soon. Didn't we just celebrate the Epiphany? Even my years go around in circles.

As long as those circles travel around my Savior and His Word, then they are circles I don't mind traveling. God's Word, His sacraments, His abiding love, lead me straight to Him.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

If it ain’t broke

One of my classes is a Special Education class on Autism Spectrum Disorders. It is a fascinating class for me because it is out of my department so I am in class with people working on different degrees. It also includes virtually no stats; right now that is a big plus.

Autism is tough to nail down. We typically think of the child who is a non-communicator, calming himself down with repetitive motion or a savant who can perfectly play a piano piece after hearing it only once. But, Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) can also include the child with weak social skills who constantly reads and talks about one particular topic as well as a whole host of symptoms somewhere in-between these two extremes. The first part of the course covered a long list of characteristics so now I have a hammer that says ASD and every problem I see is a nail. I also find myself worrying that my lack of enthusiasm for social situations means I might be afflicted, as well. How on earth do medical college students make it through school without diagnosing themselves with every illness they study?

There is an interesting debate in the world of autism, including those with milder forms as well as parents with children severely affected. One group wants a cure and the other insists they don't need to be fixed. Depending on the type of autism and its severity a child can be disabled or merely different. For those who work with such children it can be a challenge to identify which skills need work. Certainly a child needs to be able to communicate with other people, but do they all have to have the same level of social skills? Sometimes something viewed as a disability can actually be an ability in a different setting. I remember speaking with a friend who told me her husband had dyslexia but that it was an asset on his job because he could create a mirror image as a tool and die maker. If we "cure" every symptom of autism, will we lose some gifts as a result? Maybe some characteristics of autism do not indicate brokenness.

The struggle with the difference between what is different and what is broken can creep into my faith life, too. I agonize over my looks, my age, my style of dress, gray hair, weight or whether or not my peers think my opinion is valuable, or if my students think I am a good instructor. These are not things worth my worry as they are differences, not brokenness.

What is broken in my life? My worry over differences is a sign of a lack of trust and that is brokenness. My daily, hourly, minute by minute sins are a sign of my brokenness. My misdirected time and attention toward my petty problems and away from God's word, His work and His people, is a sign of my brokenness.

These are the things for which I need a cure.

But the person who does anything with a high hand, whether he is native or a sojourner, reviles the LORD, and that person shall be cut off from among his people. Because he has despised the word of the LORD and has broken His commandment, that person shall be utterly cut off; his iniquity shall be on him. Numbers 15:30-31 ESV

We sin, we doubt, we neglect, and in so doing we create our own brokenness. God our Father picks up the pieces of our brokenness; the saving act of Jesus in His death and resurrection restores wholeness; the Spirit grants understanding allowing us to worship God with a whole heart.

When our brokenness meets God's mercy and forgiveness our differences no longer matter. We are His and we are whole.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of His will, to the praise of His glorious grace, with which He has blessed us in the Beloved

In him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which He lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to His purpose, which He set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in Him, things in heaven and things on earth. Ephesians 1: 3-10 ESV

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

A wake up spill

I pulled a super klutzo the other day. I just set down a full glass of pop on my desk. I went to reach for something and slipped and knocked over the glass. 12 ounces of ice cold liquid spilled all over my work, all over my pants and almost all the way across the room as the glass slid on the floor. The good news is I spilled it all over my textbook on multiple regression so I had to wait until it dried to read about single linear regression.

If I were a psychology student I would probably call that a Freudian slip.

I got much from that experience: a temporary reprieve from reading, a heightened awareness of my lap, and enough wakefulness that I may be able to forgo the need for caffeine for awhile.

I also got a good laugh and laughter is good for reducing stress. When you laugh at yourself you put your situation into a better perspective.

I need to take a shower in diet Coke more often.

Life has many conundrums but one I have been considering lately is how even though I know myself better than anyone else on earth knows me, I can't really know myself because I can't step back and see me from a better perspective. I know only what goes on in my head. I see the world through a dark glass and cannot know, completely, how my actions affect others.

I also can't see the big picture; my memory of the past is highly selective and I have no hope of seeing what is around the corner.

But I do have hope. I have a hope that is an assurance and that comes from knowing that God has that perspective. He has that perspective of the bigger picture and He uses it to our advantage. He knows, now, what we need and He knows the best way to provide it for us so that we have what we need for our lifetime. He has the big picture perspective and He shows it to us as we need it.

The other day I was driving home after a long day of rain and classes. I saw a piece of a rainbow that periodically would show itself as traversing across the sky. For a few seconds I could see a triple rainbow and then suddenly just a small piece of the arc.

When we see just a piece of the rainbow we know it has the potential to be much more. We trust that the rainbow really goes all the way across the sky and sometimes God lets us see that beauty. Even if we can't see the whole rainbow, we know that God can.

I don't know what God is teaching me about statistics. Apparently from the results of my last test it is not very much about confidence intervals. (sigh) But I do know that He has the big picture and that the perspective is a good one.

Our cat got a wakeup call the other day. My husband dialed his cell phone in order to locate it only to see a strange expression on the cat's face; she was sitting on a vibrating phone.

May God bless your day with laughter, perspective, rainbows, pleasant wakeup calls and HOPE!

Know therefore that the LORD your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations. Deuteronomy 7:9 ESV

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Apple of His Eye

I started reading my text book for the stats class I am taking. I kid you not—this is what it says:

We wanted to write a brief manual for our students. And we started to do this. We soon realized, however, that it did not seem possible to write a brief exposition of multiple regression analysis that students would understand. We then decided to write a book. (Pedhazur, 1997)

This precedes 1028 pages of numbers and words that will define my life for the next semester.

I know I am stressed because I can feel it in my temples, jaw and neck. I presume this means I am clenching my teeth. I know I am stressed because I have a persistent ache in my shoulders that sometimes travels down my arms to my fingertips and cascades down my back. I know I am stressed because I have a headache all the time.

And I know why I am stressed.

Sure, it is true that I am in way over my head in this stats class. It is also true that I have a stressful semester as I am teaching two new classes with a total of 85 students. And I am equally sure that a complete change of routine – even moving to a new office, increases stress; at least until I get used to things.

But, that is not why I am stressed.

I am stressed because I think I am in control and that makes me panic. But, I am not in control, God is.

God loves me, no matter what. He doesn't ask me to do anything to earn that love. He just loves me, because He is God; He is my creator; He is my Savior; He is my Comforter.

And He knows about multiple regression analysis because He created it.

He doesn't look at me and shake His head. He doesn't grumble to Himself "If only she would trust me. It's not like I haven't solved problems for her before. Will she ever learn?"

He doesn't do this. Instead He loves me, forgives me, comforts me.

Because of this all encompassing agape love, He teaches me to trust.

If it is God's will, I will pass this class. If I can get my teeth to stop clenching I might even learn something. If it is not God's will for me to pass, He will bring good out of it.

I have seen Him do it before; He will do it again and again and again.

Because He loves me.

Show the wonder of your great love, you who save by your right hand those who take refuge in you from their foes. Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings. Psalm 17: 7-8

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Does Teacher Know Best?

I have been reading the textbook I was given for the class I will be teaching at UNL this fall. I have moved on from study skills to teaching a sort of Educational Psychology 101. I am pretty excited. The text book is well written but reading it has reminded me of a big question I have had since starting graduate school: "why is research so ineffective in influencing practice?" In other words, even though there is a ton of research being done on children, teachers and learning, very little of that research seems to trickle down into the classroom.

One thing I have noticed is that much of research suffers from OTS (omniscient teacher syndrome). It is not that the research is useless, that it doesn't make sense or that it is wrong; it is just that the suggested practices that come from much of research would only work if the teacher was omniscient.

For example, we are supposed to teach with intrinsic (natural desire) rather than extrinsic (rewards or punishments) motivation. However, in order to do this correctly we have to know what intrinsically motivates each child. For many, it is just easier to use extrinsic motivation because we can pretty well predict what rewards or consequences will work. Extrinsic motivation does work – in the short term; in the long term – not so much.

Reading instruction is another good example of OTS. Almost any reading method works with equal success provided we know what is best for each child. Most children will do well if the reading material they have to work with is in their instructional level, meaning it is not too hard and not too easy. This is easier than it sounds, of course, as it requires teachers to know exact reading levels. Even tests can't tell us exact reading levels because it is not just a matter of the number of words per paragraph, but also the interest level, and whether or not the child is intrinsically motivated to read that book.

Discipline is another huge OTS area. In order to teach perfectly, a teacher needs to be able to apply law and gospel perfectly. So that means we have to know what motivates each child, whether the child genuinely repents, what is the best way to redirect, what is the most effective consequence, and does that child in "time out" really think about what he/ she has done?

Then there is the need to be omniscient where parents are concerned; let's not even go there.

Teachers have a tough job. Find a teacher and give him or her a hug,

and some chocolate,

and maybe some bath salts, or a beer or something.

I mean really, how many of you have to be omniscient at your job?

Think, for a minute about the blessing of God's omniscience. He knows everything about us, our sins, our wants, our needs. Jesus died and rose again to work our Salvation even before we started sinning because He knew it would be necessary. The Spirit intercedes for us when we don't even know our prayers well enough to put them into words. God knows everything about us and He still loves us.

When we are extrinsically motivated; He still loves us.

When we don't know the right answer; He still loves us.

When we think and do evil, nasty, shameful, embarrassing things; He still loves us.

He knows what we need: forgiveness, grace, mercy and love. He knows this perfectly. He knows and loves us perfectly and completely.

My Teacher knows best.

Abba, Father, thank you!

So that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Ephesians 3: 17-19

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Thursday, June 10, 2010

Working hard at play

I have been reading journal articles for a paper I am writing on play.

Yeah, the irony of working on play has not slipped past me.

I spent many years teaching parents about the value of play. It is an easy thing to see, when you spend hours observing children play, but it is a difficult thing to explain to parents when they are worried about how their 5 year old will do on standardized tests in three years. It seems to make sense to cut back play time and spend more time teaching the facts and figures that will be on the test.

It seems to make sense, but it doesn't.

I usually explained to parents how learning is a social thing and their children are developing social skills when they play. Still, I wondered if play helped children develop social skills, why did I spend so much of recess dealing with arguments over playground territory?

I had better success pointing out that children talk when they play, which means they develop language skills. Well developed language skills are the basis of any good learning; especially math and reading.

These are good reasons for defending play, but as it turns out there are more important, more fundamental, more urgent reasons why children play. Play develops something called executive function which allows children to self-regulate. Three of the skills involved in executive function include inhibitory control, cognitive flexibility and working memory.

And you thought they were just playing tag.

You see, stopping yourself from running after the ball when you are playing goalie in soccer, so you will be in the right place when the ball comes to you, is the same skill you need to ignore noise in the hallway when you are working on a test. The same skill that lets you predict what a friend will do, and change your actions to adapt, is the same skill you need to realize that you should be dividing those numbers from that story problem instead of adding them. And it seems that the same skill you use to remember your role in the game of "house", as well as the roles of all other participants, is the same skill you need to monitor your comprehension while reading.

In other words, if we don't let children play, they may not learn the brain skills necessary to learn what else school has to teach them. They need to play so they can learn. If they don't get to play, learning is harder and less efficient.

Wait. . .what? In order to be better learners, children should study less and play more? Who invented that system?

God did.

I just love how God created a way for the brains of children to develop that works naturally. We don't have to take extra time to help them to do better on a test. We just need to let them do what their brains were designed to do. For every hour they spend playing, the more they will get out of teaching and studying. Cool plan; someone ought to package that, get government funding and sponsor legislation that forces every school to follow this.

Hmmm, I'll get right on that; as soon as my work is done.

In the meantime, I feel blessed to see a new way that God works in my life. God gives children the desire to play and play prepares them for learning and eventually ministry. I know, too, that the work God puts before me, is preparing me for learning and ministry.

I have developed a pretty strong ability to delay gratification. I suspect this is a genetic thing – being able to put off play, reward or rest. While it can be a good think in terms of meeting goals, it is probably not a good thing in terms of living a healthy life. Still, the opposite, to turn to immediate gratification, does not seem right either. That is selfish and just as harmful.

I think what God is teaching me, here, is to be gratified with what He has planned for me to do. I do not have to wait to be happy until I get this next paper done; I can be happy in the act of writing the paper. I do not have to wait to relax until the last stats final is handed in; I can rest in the assurance that God is working with me and providing me with all I need to learn. No matter how I much I delay, there will be no reward this side of heaven. Working in the here and now is instant, long-term gratification. Working in the here and now is preparing me for what is ahead.

Woe to those who draw sin along with cords of deceit,
and wickedness as with cart ropes,

to those who say, "Let God hurry,
let him hasten his work
so we may see it.
Let it approach,
let the plan of the Holy One of Israel come,
so we may know it."

Woe to those who call evil good
and good evil,
who put darkness for light
and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet
and sweet for bitter.

Isaiah 5:18-20

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Gospel According to Cats

I am trying to leash train my cat.

Don't ask.

No, really, there just isn't a good explanation. Trust me.

She was quite calm and compliant as I put her in the harness, but the mood changed dramatically when I set her down on the floor. She frantically crouched down and crawled backwards trying to get away from the leash. I suspect she figured that if she got into the harness head first, she must have to back out of the thing.

It was hilarious. Okay, now we see the real reason behind my trying this.

I didn't get hissing or growling, but I didn't get purring either. Walking with the leash didn't happen but she did explore outside for a bit. Curiously, she spent most of the leash time sitting on my lap. Normally this cat is not a lap cat; as she generally prefers to sit on my shoulder.

All in all, it went well as I got only one dirty look. We may try it again in the future.

I suspect she sat in my lap because she didn't feel safe with the unfamiliar. The ironic thing is she was safe because of the leash.

I was involved in a strange face book conversation where a participant insisted that God acted immorally when He granted us free will, because He knew we would get ourselves into trouble and cause pain and suffering in the world.

That was a first. It sounds like the circular reasoning of a child: "You knew I was going to hurt myself when I fell off the slide, so why didn't you stop me from breaking the rule about not standing on it?"

In fact, I think I heard a kindergartner say that once while I was putting a bandage on his knee. My response: "Go and stand on the slide, no more."

I like to let our cat out into the backyard every now and then. There is so much entertainment there for both of us. I know that being outside is not safe for cats so I put her on a leash. She doesn't happen to know it is possible to be outside without a leash so she adapts and enjoys the smells, sights and sounds she finds outside. She has a little bit of free will, with a whole lot of loving safety.

Think about our confusion regarding freedoms and expectations. God does not put us on a leash, but He does give us His law for our own safety. We certainly can't earn our way to heaven by following the law, that bus has already left the station. However, following the law will result in the blessing of a happier life. Even though we chafe against the law and try to back out of it, we know it is a loving good thing from the heavenly Father who cares for us, dearly. We are free of the burden of the law and free to obey its tenents.

How strange is it, then, when we are out in the world, held lovingly by the protection of our God, that we are afraid to use our freedom to serve him. My cat sat on my lap for the duration of our outdoor adventure. I prefer to sit snuggly in God's lap, instead of venturing out into His world.

Miss Maggie will learn how to explore the backyard while on a leash. She will get used to the hug of the harness and the limits of her range. I suspect she will even learn how to explore without getting tangled around the table and chairs.

May her courage serve to encourage me to get out of my Father's lap and venture into His world; I am in the harness of God's love and tethered to the blessing of His law, all while being showered in His grace. It's time to get moving.

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit. Romans 8:1-4

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Blessing of Trust

The phone call left me with a worrisome heart. I turned to Paul and informed him that the church treasurer was coming to visit. I was one of two teachers at this lovely country church school and I knew that especially for a female church worker, a visit from an official of the church was not likely to be a good thing.

As he walked up to our door I noticed he was not dressed as a farmer; he was in a suit and tie and a concerned look on his face. I searched my brain for what I might have done or said to cause that concern and then welcomed him in.

As it turns out he was going over the records of tithing and noticed that Paul and I were among the church families that gave the most for the previous year. Out of concern for the fact that he knew Paul was out of work and starting school, and because he was well aware of my income, he wanted to encourage us to tithe less.

Yes, you read that correctly; the church treasurer was encouraging us to give less money to the church.

I heaved a heavy sigh of relief and thanked him for his gracious concern. But, Paul and I did not change our giving habits.

You see, I married a tither. My faith in this area has always been weak. I want proof that God will take care of me before I step into the arena of risk taking. But for Paul, this issue has never been worthy of discussion. He remembers a professor preaching at our childhood church. This preacher leaned over the pulpit and shouted: "God doesn't NEED your PENNIES. He could write the Gospel in letters of fire across the sky." Both the words and the shouting made quite an impression on him! God has made it easy for me to give in to the directive to tithe, and in that process, something interesting has happened. Through word sacrament and the nurturing work of the Spirit, my ability to trust God has increased. My faith has grown.

Now, a bit of a warning is necessary, here. This is not a formula for successful trust development. God does not say first you tithe and then I will bless you.

The blessings God bestows on us have everything to do with Him and nothing to do with us.

Because of His powerful all encompassing agape love, God has blessings already planned for us. He does not wait for evidence of worthiness. He knows we are not worthy of these blessings but extends them because of the worthiness of His Son.

The blessings are there, but we often do not realize them because we prefer to stay in our own little worlds where we believe in our false sense of control. Accepting the blessing of God's provision, means we trust enough to let God be in control.

The blessings are there; so often we walk right by them with our heads bowed in our own worry and grief.

I have always worried about money issues. I usually blame the fact that I am a first born in a family that struggled financially due to medical bills. The truth is I am a sinner in a sinful world. When God used Paul to teach me to tithe, the trust came slowly. I remember weeks of eating only government issue cheese and those cute little pullet eggs. I remember checking the gauge on the propane tank and wondering if we would have enough to heat the house until the next paycheck. I remember worrying and I remember God providing.

Trust came slowly for me and I still struggle on that journey; yet I can see how God has worked in my heart. Leaving teaching and enrolling in graduate school has been a huge change that brought with it many, many risks. Some of those risks are financial and that is where my faith is still at its weakest; and yet God still provides. I believe that if God had not led me to tithe, and used that to help develop trust, I would not be enjoying this blessing, now.

He doesn't wait until I trust first, to bless me. He just takes me by the hand and brings me along. The blessings are there, the Spirit stands ready. I just need to lift my head from my own worries and look up to see what is set out before me on the table of blessings. By providing me with the opportunity to tithe and by caring for me through met needs, forgiveness and the nourishment of His word, God brought me to a place where I could trust Him for bigger things. I have a long way to go in terms of trusting. I know I won't ever get there, this side of heaven. However, I am grateful for the opportunity to tithe; not only because of the blessings of what is done with that money, but also because of the blessing tithing brings to my heart.

God doesn't need our paltry change. He doesn't need our money. Instead, He knows we need to give. He knows we need to trust Him for all things. He knows we need to look up, away from our worries and into the face of His blessings.

Let your steadfast love, O LORD, be upon us, even as we hope in you. Psalm 33:22


Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Good Books

This has been a huge math semester. I spend more time in the computer lab than in the library and that is less than comfortable for me. A week or so ago, one of the professors suggested a book for me to read. I think he is a bit surprised that I took up that suggestion when the book is not required for anything. I am just so desperate to hold a book in my hands; especially one that relegates numbers to where they belong—to the corner of the page. The book I am reading is on friendship and peer culture in the early years. It is a report on research done by a sociologist who spent a year watching children in a pre-school. It sounds a bit creepy by today's standards and phobias but it was a new approach at the time. Who would have thought you could learn more about kids by watching them where they work and play instead of theorizing about them in a lab on campus? Go figure!

The book is pages and pages of dialog of children playing interspersed with the author's observations. He identified three play themes that were a foundation for most play demonstrated by the children: 1. lost/found 2. danger/rescue and 3. death/rebirth.

Lost and found games can be formal such as "Hide and Go Seek" or just part of an on-going routine: "Teacher, we are looking for the magic fairy, have you seen her?" Lost and found games have safe suspense and predictable joy, when whatever one is looking for is found.

Danger and rescue games up the ante just a bit. While still carefully orchestrated they involve a higher level of suspense as well as a higher level of relief and joy at their conclusion. "Okay, you are caught in the building that is on fire and I am going to rescue you. Remember to scream."

Death and rebirth games are just as common but not always as noticeable. They can happen in the midst of a lost and found or danger and rescue game. An observer will notice this type of play when a character is "dead" but can still talk and direct the game. Or if a character dies but is alive again the next time a game is played.

It is fascinating to watch children play and to see how many versions of these three games they can create. It is important to remember that children do not play these games randomly. They play them for a purpose. Just as a child who wants to hear the same story over and over, is learning something in the process of that story, a child who plays the same game over and over is learning, too. These young minds are grappling with ancient issues.

I had a class that struggled with the realization that a classmate lost a parent to death. They played the same death/rebirth game for the rest of the school year. They played it happily as if it was a game of tag. I watched and prayed over them, and developed a better understanding of how God was helping them.

The author of the study was interested in young children and play but I see these same themes in the lives of adults. Just like in the Margaret Wise Brown book "The Runaway Bunny" we want to know that no matter how far away we run from those who love us, we will always be found and welcomed home. Just as in Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. We want the thrill of exploring our wild side but we want to know we are always safe. And just like Eric Carle's The Very Hungry Caterpillar we want to know that there is a different life waiting us when this one is finished.

Are we really surprised by this?

Our children are working, in their own way, to understand the same things we worry over as adults. We want to know that no matter how far we stray, God will come looking for us and will bring us back to Him.

Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? Luke 15:4

We want to know that no matter what danger we face we will be safe in His arms:

I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of My hand. John 10:28

And we want to be assured that the life we currently live is not all there is. We want to be transformed in heaven and here on earth:

For this Son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found. Luke 15: 24

From before we were born, from our early childhood years until now and into the future, God knows our needs and meets them perfectly.

If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. John 8:36

I think I need to go back to my favorite book and read those stories again.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Will this be on the test?

I am writing a test for my study skills class. It is 44 questions with both multiple choice and short answer. It is eight pages long and there are two forms. This is a big project for me as I wrote very few tests during my tenure as an early childhood teacher. Last year, when I taught an undergrad measurements class, instead of giving a final I asked the students to write their own.

What better way to find out if students in a class, teaching test writing, have learned how to write tests?

I am not a big fan of tests and because of my graduate level educational measurement class I know all too well why high stakes testing is a bad idea; a very bad idea, indeed.

I could tell some stories that would make your number two pencil curl.

My professor in the measurement class just gave us a stinker of a test. It was a take home test that took every spare minute over three days. When I finally finished the last question I realized that question, alone, took me an hour and a half. When he told us about the test, the professor bragged that no one had ever gotten 100% on the test before.

Really??? Srlsy?? No one?

So what does that say about the test and/or his teaching? I had the nerve to ask him what the reliability coefficient was on this test and he turned a bit pale and mumbled something I couldn't quite get down into my notes.

Dear Lord, grab my tongue and hold it down.

When I gave tests to elementary students, the test covered what we had studied and I considered it a good thing when all, or at least most of the students did a good job. Now, when I write test questions, I am supposed to write them with seductive distracters so they discriminate between poor learners and good learners. In other words, I should want some of my students to fail.

Hmmm, sounds like an excuse for poor teaching to me. But, then, what do I know? I am just a graduate student.

The issues surrounding testing in education are complicated and contentious. Are tests being used correctly? Are they telling us what we need to know? How much learning time can we afford to sacrifice to make room for more testing? Are tests really making education better, or just more competitive? Do test prepare students for the real world?

God's view of testing is very different. He allowed Job to be tested and then stepped in and gave Job the answers. God does not use testing to weed out the unbelievers from the believers; He will do that on the last day. God uses testing to teach and to bring about growth.

When our faith is tested, we become acutely aware of our need for answers. Although it is a good thing to participate in a study group; we can't prepare for our trials and tribulations. And although it is a good thing to study God's word; we can't study enough to be ready for a test of faith. We need our Teacher to give us the answers. We need our Teacher to complete the test for us.

And in that process we learn and grow in our faith.

It is not God's desire for us to fail. In fact it is His command that we succeed, and do so perfectly. God is the instructor who knows that we are not up to the task. We do not compete with each other; we compete with our own sinful nature. We fail at the test, we learn to trust in Him, and at the end of our semester the grade is reported as 100%.

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. James 1:2-3

More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. Romans 5: 3-5


Friday, March 5, 2010

Orchid Children

Paul pointed me toward a great article in the December 2009 issue of The Atlantic: Orchid Children, by David Dobbs. The article is his explanation of a recent collaboration between geneticists and psychologists. The basic point of the article is that most of us are dandelions; we grow just fine wherever we are planted. We just need the basics to bloom and grow. Some of us, though, are orchids; we need special care or we will wilt and die. The good news about orchids is that with a bit of tender loving care, they grow into exceptional people.

It seems that the same gene variants that can make us susceptible to depression, anxiety ADHD, risk taking, anti-social or aggressive behaviors, can lead to highly creative and successful lives, if the right care is given. Whether or not the genes will lead to depression or creativity has a great deal to do with the child's life experiences and what care was received during formative years. In the past we have only seen the behaviors of depression, aggression, etc. as being a deficit; we have never seen them as being potential for greatness. Yet, the evidence is strong. I can think of several highly successful people who didn't adjust well to their school environments (Einstein, Edison, F.L.Wright) and many many creative people who suffered from depression (Lincoln, Dickenson, Van Gogh) or other mental illnesses. We have assumed that these negative behaviors, or conditions, are only negative, but maybe they are the reason for the success of these individuals.

The article describes a research program that studied toddlers who had issues. They studied children who had high levels of externalizing behaviors. "Externalizing behaviors" is nothing but a fancy way of saying these kids whined, and kicked and refused to obey. It is known that toddlers with especially high rates of these behaviors are more likely to have difficulties later on. The research program showed that when the mothers of these children were given specific techniques to use and training to detect when a fit was about to happen, that when they applied these techniques these children made huge progress in being able to self soothe and stay calm. The mothers found that if they persisted they could teach their children to enjoy activities, like reading a book together, which previously was deemed impossible. It took a lot of work, perseverance, patience and love, but the result was these orchid children bloomed.

Apparently you can undergo a genetic test to see if you carry these specific genetic alleles. I don't think this is a good idea as I believe all children should be raised as orchid children. In fact, I believe in God's eyes we all are orchid children. We carry the gene for sin. We follow our own whims and lead ourselves into trouble. We persist in trying to get our own way even in the face of God's wisdom and plan. We are all orchid toddlers, whining and kicking and screaming through the trials and tribulations we cause ourselves. Others lose patience with us, we even lose patience with ourselves, but God perseveres.

God's love covers a multitude of sins. He applies law as we need it but never hesitates to shower us with Grace. He knows that alone we have no potential to do anything right, much less anything exceptional. He knows that through the redemptive work of the Son and through the faith giving power of the spirit, we are exceptional in His eyes.

A parent's love for a difficult child covers a multitude of behaviors. When that love is correctly and gently applied, God creates a change. My husband, Paul, expressed this beautifully in his song "Love Covers a Multitude."

Remember today, that we are simultaneous dandelions and orchids. God can create growth wherever He plants you. You are forgiven and loved. You are exceptional.

Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God's grace in its various forms.

I Peter 4: 8-10

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

I Corinthians 13:7

Monday, March 1, 2010

Green Eggs and Homer

When I was little I used to wonder if my Uncle Homer was Dr. Seuss. I suppose it was the last name of Eggers and the whole green eggs and ham reference, but, it was probably a little bit due to the fact that Uncle Homer was just as I imagined Dr. Seuss would be like: kind, loving, funny, interested in kids as if we were real people, and plenty goofy when the situation called for it. Now, that I am old enough to know better, I still suspect that Uncle Homer was an even better Dr. Seuss than the real one.

When I went to family reunions I would always look for Uncle Homer. Now don't get me wrong, I loved my pastor uncles and wonderful aunts; I admired their vocabularies, their discussions, and many accomplishments but, you see, Uncle Homer was interested in me. He would put his hand on my shoulder and ask me. . .really ask me, how I was doing. Because of the wonders of Grace and Homer, I very much wanted to be like their children, Tom, Susan and Nancy, when I grew up. I hope I am, at least a little bit.

When I think of Uncle Homer and Aunt Grace I am reminded of a particular characteristic: humility. Homer and Grace did not boast. This was not a surprise because those of us who teach know that the people who brag are usually the ones who are least secure. They feel the need to remind people of their importance. They worry they might be deemed insignificant if others aren't hearing about them or imitating them. No, Homer and Grace did not boast. Still, they didn't put themselves down, either. The folks who criticize themselves in front of others aren't any more humble than the people who boast. It doesn't really matter if you are bragging or dragging, you are still thinking about yourself. Homer and Grace showed humility because they didn't feel the need to be thinking about themselves. They were too busy thinking about others. They were too busy loving others. They were too busy doing the work God set before them. In this way they showed us what it means to be a servant.

A few days ago, Jesus came, put his hand on Homer's shoulder and took him home to heaven. I am imagining him holding Grace's hand and looking into the eyes of his Savior. I know that both Homer and Grace went to heaven very proud of their children. I know both Homer and Grace will be missed. And, because of their humility and love, I know my Savior's love a little bit better.

Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves. Romans 12:10

However, as it is written: "No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him"— but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. I Corinthians 2:9-10

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Doors, cats and blessings

Our cat, bless her heart, cannot abide a closed door. She may avoid my office all morning, but as soon as I shut the door I see her paw poking around underneath. She is especially intrigued by the bathroom. Most cats that have taken up residence with our family have learned to avoid the bathroom. While there are rolls of toilet paper presenting interesting entertainment possibilities there are also several serious water hazards to contend with.

This cat, however, cannot walk past the bathroom door without inspecting the other side. She is especially curious if the door is open just a crack.

Can't. . . .walk . . . .past . . . .must . . . .get . . . .in. . . .somehow. . .mew.

We have noticed that she has not been able to figure out the door for this particular room. All she has to do is lean on the door, ever so slightly and the wonders of the bathroom are hers for the taking. All she has to do is lean on the door, yet she still reaches her paw around the corner in order to gain entrance, which only serves to move the door toward closing. It is a curious game.

Apparently, in this house anyway, cats and their owners are easily entertained.

I wonder how often I am that cat trying in vain to open one of God's doors for my life? The door is open; all I have to do is walk in. Still, I struggle with the door, certain that there is some trick I must perform to gain entrance to my God and His gifts for me.

Hmmm, maybe if I try my other paw? Nope, that's not working either.

Grace, forgiveness, mercy, unconditional love, they all sound too good to be true. Is God really going to give me all these things without my earning them first? Has He really gone to the trouble of leaving the door ajar so I have complete and easy access? My faith knows the answer is a resounding yes. Yes, God loves me no matter what I do, or what I neglect to do. Yes, Jesus reaches out with His nail scarred hands to forgive me over and over and over again. Yes, His Spirit lives in me, nurturing my faith and reminding me of His grace and mercy. My faith says yes.

But my pride says no. No, I need to do good works to stay on the right side of that door. No, I need to worry over my own troubles because God is too busy to bother with me. No, I need to complete a list of activities that will result in advanced Biblical understanding and superior prayer performance. My pride says no, no, no, because in my pride, I think it really is all about me.

And yet, the door stands ajar; my Savior on the other side with open arms of comfort and love. God's plan for my life progresses even while I waste my time trying to pull at a door that doesn't even need pushing.

Our daughter Anne has walked through one of God's doors. The opportunity to teach at a local Catholic school was presented to her. She spent the previous week getting the room ready and living, breathing, sleeping curriculum. This week the teaching has begun and as her family we are the beneficiaries of many good stories about her students. She is learning how to share God's love while being careful not to step on Catholic toes. She is learning to love her students. She is feeling God's love. I am so very glad she has walked through that door and stepped into the beginning of the ministry God has planned for her.

"Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

Matthew 7: 7-11

I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture.

John 10:9

There is so much goodness to be had by leaning on that door and walking in.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Stress and unbelief

I read a book over Christmas break by John Medina called: "Brain Rules." John Medina is a brain scientist but this is not a neuroscience kind of book; it is a normal people kind of book. It was my vacation, after all.

I was especially interested in the chapter on stress and the brain. Stress can be good for the brain or it can be bad for the brain; it depends.

Research is like that. Welcome to my world.

Stress is good when it is short term. Chemicals are released in the brain to enhance performance. One famous example is a group of high school students taking the SAT test while a hurricane raged outdoors. The testing company assumed they would have to toss the scores and do a retest. The scores turned out to be higher than expected. Even though the students were worried about family and traveling home, they still did better on the test than expected.

Don't even get me started on high stakes testing in our schools.

Stress is bad when it is chronic. When you are under stress for a long period of time, those performance enhancing chemicals can interfere with your ability to learn and can cause untold harm to your brain and body. People who provide long-term care for chronically ill loved ones have shown us this phenomenon.

The other curious thing about stress is that one person's performance de-enhancing stress is another's performance booster. The event itself is not the stress. Stress is more likely to be damaging if the person experiencing the event views it as adverse. Running a marathon, although physically tiring, would be an enhancer for some. For me: not so much. We are talking major de-enhancing stress.

A big part of stress is how we view the situation, how we react to the situation, and whether or not we are prepared for the situation. If we view the stressor as enjoyable, if we react positively and are prepared for the stressor, the results will be enhancing. If, however, we are unprepared, see the situation negatively and react poorly, the results will be detrimental. God created our minds to be able to deal with stress. Furthermore, He knows how much stress we can take before it is too much. He knows this because He created us. Not only that, He knows us so well He can give us a minute by minute count of the hairs on our heads.

So, why can't I get rid of my anxiety? I sit in class and listen to the professor go on and on about effect sizes and formulas and I feel the knot in my stomach spread to become a migraine in my head. I doubt this reaction is performance enhancing. If I were to contact God on my way out of class regarding the number of hairs, He would report at least a 5% loss. It is a good thing I can't do that because then I would worry all the way home about whether or not that number of hairs was statistically significant. As my stats prof would say: "are we in the critical region?"

Uh, um, maybe.

In spite of all that God has done for me, I am an Israelite wandering in the desert of graduate school wondering if He will send manna, again. Never mind the fact He sent it every day before. Forget the miracles, forget the covenant, forget the awesome power of my God, forget the absolute strength and consistency of His promise to me; I am anxious because today might be different; today He might forget to send the manna.

Really? Seriously?

Think again, who does most all of the forgetting in this relationship? Yeah, that's right: me.

What is keeping me from letting go of my anxiety? What prevents me from viewing these classes as a positive thing? Why do the chemicals released in my brain cause harm instead of enhancement? Hmmm, could it be a faith issue?

Ya' think?

12 men went into Canaan to do reconnaissance. Ten reacted to the stress by clinging to anxiety:

And they told him, "We came to the land to which you sent us. It flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. However, the people who dwell in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified and very large.

However, two did not:

But Caleb quieted the people before Moses and said, "Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it." Numbers 13: 27-28 and 30 ESV

God had prepared all twelve men equally. They had all been beneficiaries of God's strength and fidelity. They had all been to the same Canaan and seen the same fruit and the same fortifications. It was faith that made the difference between what was performance enhancing and what was anxiety causing.

I am venturing into the Canaan of statistics and measurement. I am not seeing the fruits of the land because I am preoccupied with the giants that haunt me. This stress is not any bigger than any other stress I have experienced before. Furthermore, my faith potential is not any less.

"I believe; help my unbelief!" Mark 8:24 ESV

One of those two men who saw Canaan as potential was appointed to replace Moses as leader of God's people. Now there's a stressor for you. He was to replace Moses; he was to lead an especially difficult group of people; and their job was to conquer a land full of giants. God strengthened his faith by commanding him, three times, to be strong and courageous.

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go." Joshua1:9 ESV

Abba, father, Amen.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A Hiding Place

Our cat has found a new hiding place. She tucks herself in between the wall register and the portable radiator heater that actually keeps my office area warm. She finds this spot a great place to sit; occasionally turning around to warm her other side.

When she is feeling adventurous she sits up in the window sill to watch over our backyard. The window sill is much more entertaining and she has a soft spot to sit. But, the windowsill is cold so she eventually returns to her hiding place.

When the temperature situation is at an extreme low, and she is in need of significant cognitive inhibition, she burrows under the blankets on our bed. I can relate.

We all need a hiding place at some point in our lives. Some of us need one nearly every day. I am an introvert who has learned to interact like an extrovert, but, it takes a lot out of me. I retreat to my room at night and settle in with my computer so my brain can process all the face time I experienced during the day. Some days it is all too easy to spend time in my hiding place. It seems odd to me because I love talking to people and I especially love teaching, but when I think of my "dream job" it usually involves staying at home and working, by myself.

I have been identifying with Moses, lately. Moses would have loved nothing better than to be a shepherd for the rest of his life.

Now the man Moses was very meek, more than all people who were on the face of the earth. Numbers 12:3 ESV

Extroverts are the ones who would enjoy running for public office, yet God chose Moses. A leader of thousands planning to escape slavery and begin a new nation would need oratory skills that could persuade, yet God chose Moses. This job was going to require someone who could influence, inspire, and interface, yet God chose Moses; a man who was more comfortable leading sheep than a nation. Moses didn't want the attention; he wanted long hours alone to think. Moses didn't want the prophet's staff that performed miracles; he was happy with the shepherd's staff that guided sheep. Moses, who as a young man, walked away from a position of great power and leadership; begged to not be appointed to the task of God's calling. Yet, God chose Moses.

One of my advisor's favorite research topics is the development of talent and expertise. We assume that the truly great performers of our time where born with great talent. There is nothing to indicate that is true. Research done on people with great expertise points instead to arduous work and years of practice before any expertise even begins to show. Even Mozart, who began composing at the tender age of six, did not produce anything of merit until he had worked at it for 10 years.

God shows us that He can take any one of His children and create a leader, an expert, a servant of God. He can provide us with the abilities we need and He makes use of not only our hard work, but our miserable failures.

We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. Isaiah 64:6 ESV

Here is a paradox of our faith and life: all our work is polluted, all our talents are useless, but, God uses us anyway. He turns our flailing efforts into success for His kingdom. And He does this even if we would prefer to be in our hiding place. Hit fits us for the task he sets before us. So when people remark: "I don't know how you can do it," you know that God is the reason behind your work and ministry. And when you lament: "I don't think I can do this," you know that the simple fact that God chose you, is why you can do the work.

You are my hiding place and my shield; I hope in your word. Psalm 119:114 ESV

As you can imagine, while I am writing this I am sitting in my hiding place. My brain and heart are calm and my God is with me as I walk through his word. In a few hours I will need to go to class and tomorrow I teach. I will come home tired and wanting to retreat. I cannot speak for my efforts in either classroom. I see God working in the lives of my students, but I also intensely feel my mistakes. I sit in class and feverishly take notes, but my current classes are all statistics classes and I am afraid my math skills are on a par with Moses' speech impediment. Yet, God chooses for me to be here. He is my hiding place. He is my strength. He is your strength.

"Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid; for the LORD GOD is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation. Isaiah 12:2 ESV