Yesterday started off the wrong way. My 9am Saturday class is my biggest class, and also my most difficult. Because of a number of things—the earliness of the hour, the large size of the class, the personalities present in it, the fact that half the students don’t show up till the class is half over—the students rarely want to participate, and getting them on their feet and moving feels like pulling teeth. Our class is called “Creative Expressions,” but it’s often far from being either creative or expressive.
Mostly, this just makes me sad. The students in the class are all excellent listeners, highly intelligent, and eloquent writers. We’ve been exploring social issues of their choice, and last week, when I assigned them each to write a monologue and a poem expressing their views on their topics, they turned out incredibly thoughtful pieces on difficult topics such as police brutality, domestic violence, bullying, and homelessness. But when it comes to sharing their writing or standing in front of each other, it’s a flat no.
I asked them why, this week. One girl looked at me and said, “I don’t like people’s eyes on me. It feels creepy.”
“But life is all about being in front of others,” I said. “And in here, you’re all on the same plane. You’re all sharing your work, so you’re all equal.”
But it didn’t make much difference. They’ll share because I tell them to, but they won’t like it.
I suspect that in different circumstances, many of them would want to share. I can read the tells, as several of them give dirty looks to their classmates when they talk through their performances, or take just a little longer than a nanosecond on their still images. I opened it up for discussion at the end of our class yesterday, asking the students what could improve the class next semester.
“Less people laughing at the people performing,” one of the girls said.
I can’t force participation or trust, which is perhaps the most frustrating thing for a teacher to face. In contrast to my difficult 9am class, my 11am class is totally on board with performing their work. One of the most important differences is that the class has only 4 students, and even though they started the semester in the same place as my 9am-ers, we’ve built trust.
Yesterday we ended our work on their chosen social issues by presenting short performances that used the words they’ve been writing over the course of the semester and ended with a call to action. Several of the students improv-ed an entire scene on the spot, and two of them shared very personal stories about racial profiling and domestic abuse out loud, standing in front of the class—not hiding behind their pens. When the class ended, one of the girls turned to me.
“We didn’t write any of that down, Miss,” she said, speaking about the improv scene. “We just created that off the tops of our heads, right on the spot.”
I praised their work, and then I mourned for my 9am class. People often don’t know how badly they want to be seen—seen in a positive way, and not the negative way we’re so used to—until they’ve experienced it. It’s certainly a risk to open yourself up to being seen, and it's one that my 9am class hasn’t tried yet. But my 11am class has, and once you get a taste of it, you never forget it. My goal, for the spring semester, is to find a way for my 9am-ers to build that same trust.
Maybe it's because for the past few months I've been in such an uncertain period of my life, but I've recently been thinking quite a bit about joy. Unlike happiness, which is something that cannot be called upon or chosen, joy is something that we can, in fact, choose to have.
That reality has always kind of confounded me. Because my understanding of joy is usually a false one (mixed up with the idea that it is the same thing as happiness) I've always viewed verses that discuss choosing to have joy, or being overcome with joy, as quite difficult. I want someone to just tell me exactly what it means to choose joy. Joy is slippery, because it must be sincere, but it is also a clear decision.
In addition, the Bible not only encourages us to be joyful, it commands us. One passage that has been a stronghold for me for many years is this one from Romans 12:12:
Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. (NIV)
I don't know exactly what it means to be "joyful in hope," but I know that I'm commanded to do it. And as with so many other things, that is a good place to start. CS Lewis wrote a whole book that told the story of his journey to joy, called, appropriately, Surprised by Joy. In it, he discusses the ambiguous nature of joy, and explains what he thinks joy is:
Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with [happiness and pleasure]; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again... I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and Pleasure often is.
And later on Lewis writes:
All Joy reminds. It is never a possession, always a desire for something longer ago or further away or still "about to be."
In Lewis's opinion, then, joy is something just out of our reach, something that we receive only when in communion with God. And yet we are clearly commanded, throughout the Bible, to rejoice, as in Philippians 4:4:
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! (NIV)
So what does it mean to choose joy? How do we separate joy from the health and wealth gospels and the wrongness of expecting Christianity to bring prosperity and happiness?
I think it has to do with the first verse I quoted. Being joyful in hope points to the fact that this is not something we can pull from inside ourselves, or manufacture. It is a constant choice to call ourselves back to the truth of hope--a reminder to fix our eyes on the grace and promises of Jesus. On a super practical level, it probably means reciting the words of the gospel to myself, meditating on the work of Jesus, speaking with God. It means questioning my motivations and assumptions, and forcing myself to weigh my words and my thoughts before sliding to extremes.
In this season of life, it means being grateful for the blessings poured out on me, and being patient in the uncertainty. It means trusting in God's provision, and not being cynical about my dreams. It means being faithful to wait, and pray, and cry maybe, and not giving in to the frustration of constantly being in a state of uncertainty.
The times in my life when I have had the deepest awareness of both the fragility and the beauty of life are when I've had to wait, and be joyful in hope. Especially during this season of Advent, let us rejoice in the goodness of a God who commands us to pursue something so very good for us.
Last year my brother Daniel released an EP with five songs on it. It was called At Last - Far Off, and it has some of the most beautiful worship arrangements on it. One of my favorites is Psalm 77--it is such a simple refrain, but one that is refreshing and humbling.
Worth listening to, especially during this time of advent. Or check out his new single just released for Christmas, Puer Natus Est.
Basically, just listen to his stuff. It's all good.
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~ Hannah and Ruthie
I've recently been thinking about the Christmas season (for obvious reasons). It seems like it always sneaks up on me, despite the way I roll my eyes when I hear Christmas music playing in mid-October. Maybe it's because for most of my life, the Christmas season has corresponded with the busiest time of classes and finals, and when I come up for air at Thanksgiving, I'm always left saying, "Wait--Christmas? Already?"
Yesterday the pastor of my church back in Pittsburgh preached a really wonderful sermon about what it meant for the second person of the Trinity to come down to earth and become a human: God with us. That phrase has always made me feel a little spooked, in a good way. It should feel mysterious and unfathomable, for God to become human. But often, I don't think it does.
Growing up in the church has some interesting side-effects, one of which is not truly realizing how outrageous the claims of Christianity are until much later in life. There are beliefs that I've held my entire life that I've finally stopped and actually thought about, and then found myself thinking, "You have to be crazy to be a Christian." And yet I often feel that the outlandishness of the tenets of Christianity provides some of the most compelling proof of the reality of the gospel. At its core, Christianity is not a nice religion--not a clean religion. It is not sanitized, though many perceive it that way, and many have tried to portray it so.
The belief that God became a human and walked among us is high on the list of inconceivable, and quite messy truths. I've spent a lot of time thinking about it in a philosophical sense, and pondering what it meant for God to become human. How could it be? How could a God we claim to be so immense and immeasurable become so small and inconsequential? To take on the life of a human, a speck of nothing in comparison to the vastness of the universe? The implications of that truth are profound.
Yet, as my pastor called my attention to yesterday, perhaps what is even more astounding and outlandish are the further implications of what it means to be human. Jesus not only humbled himself to become a human, he humbled himself to become a human. And all that entails. I've spent time reflecting on Jesus' human form, from time to time, when faced with temptation (because we are told that there is no temptation he did not also endure), but I'm not sure I've ever really let it land that he dealt with everything humans deal with. Things like diarrhea, and insomnia, and sweaty armpits. The Son of God had to get potty-trained.
I'm not saying this to be flippant. I'm saying this because it matters. It matters a lot. We all have an intimate knowledge of the filth and the unrest in this world, and God did not enter the world as a human surrounded by a sterile bubble. He breathed in the breath of the woman at the well, and touched the puss coming out of the blind man's eyes. He walked through this world catching colds from those who clung to his clothing, and in the end he died a death where he lost control of his bodily functions, just as every human does when they die. He hung on the cross sweating and bleeding and crying, as his body betrayed him unto death.
That is what we celebrate at Christmastime. Not the happy glow of an idyllic manger scene, but a woman bleeding on straw while she birthed a savior who knew the ins and outs of pain and struggle. We have hope because God was not above or around us, he was with us. He knows our suffering, because he suffered. Our hope, in this world that is so clearly wrong and sloppy and ugly, is that Jesus knows the world, and he knows us. He doesn't just love us on the days when we've eaten right and done everything on our checklist, he loves us when we're bloated and cynical and crying in our beds. And he has redeemed us. We have an entire month dedicated solely to reveling in this reality, and to celebrating this outlandish, absurd, crazy beautiful truth--so let us celebrate.
For to us a child is born.
A Long Obedience in the Same Direction
Eugene H. Peterson
The Devil in the White City
Peter A. Pitzele