Thoughts on Willow Creek

The news coming from Willow Creek Community Church in the last week is incredibly sad. Allegations against long time pastor Bill Hybels from multiple women have turned out to be far worse than originally stated. The blowback resulted in two pastors resigning and last night the entire board of elders announced they would be resigning. For those not in the evangelical world, Willow Creek is a huge megachurch near Chicago which has many different sites where their church meets. To have the entire leadership resign is truly tragic and shocking.

I must admit however that ten years ago I would have been even more shocked than I am today. Ten years ago I was on the periphery of a situation that, while not abuse or harassment, was no less damaging to a Christian organization. I wrote about this story on this blog a number of years ago but I feel like I should retell it today briefly. I’ll use even fewer identifying details than when I first wrote my blog. I admittedly only have one perspective on the matter and want to be kind to people who lived it out much more closely than I did.

Tens years ago after college I lived overseas for a year as an intern with a Christian ministry. The organization had been started by a couple who soon got married after founding it. During my year both the husband and wife taught classes and preached sermons that I enjoyed immensely. I can’t express how much I respected each of them.

We lived on a somewhat sprawling missions base. Basically it was a big, incredibly beautiful piece of land with some buildings in the middle. The husband had an office right in the middle of everything, surrounded by windows. We called it the fishbowl. During the year the husband and wife had to travel back to the US for a couple months and for various good reasons, the husband ended up coming back a couple months early.

The ministry had a number of North American mission staff. One worked closely with the husband as his assistant among other roles. Her desk was in the fishbowl with him. I had to fly back for my sister’s wedding midway through the year. When I got back the husband and assistant picked me up from airport, a 2-3 hour car trip each way. Today such an extended time alone would set off alarm bells for me. Ten years ago I suspected nothing. I think often evangelicals “suspect nothing” because sex is largely taboo and we do not discuss it very openly. We also put pastors and leaders on a pedestal where they surely can do no wrong. This should change.

At the end of my fantastic year I got an email the first week I was home. The husband wrote that he had fallen short in a number of ways. Basically an emotional affair but nothing physical. He and his wife were returning to the States for counseling. I believed the email because why wouldn’t I? This guy had been a tremendous leader who had spoken into my life repeatedly. I shouldn’t have.

Less than a year later we get another email from the wife. The husband had an affair and had decided to get divorced. The marriage was now over. Again it should not have shocked me at the time but it did. When the allegations against Willow Creek’s Pastor came out I had a feeling they were even worse than what had been released. This past week has confirmed my feelings.

I do not mean to say we should speak out or judge before all facts are in. But if the #Metoo movement has shown us anything it is that we need to consider allegations with eyes wide open and at the very least not summarily dismiss them. The man who ran my ministry did not abuse or harass anyone but what began as a significant personal failing became a full-blown affair that destroyed a marriage.

It is really hard to write this. Even now, ten years later I hate to come off as disparaging. It feels both very close to me because I was there when it happened but also very far away. I was just a lowly intern who had no idea what was going on. The Board at Willow Creek does not have my lack of accountability. The fact that the Board did multiple investigations and found that Hybels did essentially nothing wrong is incredibly damning to their credibility. The fact that further, credible accusations only just now led to their resignation means all churches need to look even more carefully at their policies regarding leadership.

I learned a lot in my year overseas. Once during a lesson on leadership, the husband told our class of interns, “The greater the sin and the higher in leadership, the greater the consequences.” This is playing out tragically today for the Willow Creek community. May this sad sequence of events lead to greater accountability for church leadership and greater care for all church staff and members.

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What I’ve Done So Far on my Summer Vacation.

It is a well-known fact that most teachers get a summer break. For me, a public school teacher, that equates from about mid-June to Late August. Obviously having a huge summer break is different from most industries. I thought it would be nice to list (in extremely rough chronological order) what I have done in my first month of summer vacation.

  • Had friends over to catch up and meet our daughter.
  • Watched my 2 month old daughter while my wife went to work.
  • Fed my 2 month old daughter.
  • Played with my 2 month old daughter.
  • Changed my two month old daughter.
  • Gone to a wedding of good friends.
  • Gone running a lot.
  • Completed a class to earn graduate credit to increase my salary in the fall (one more class to go!) Note: the only way for public school teachers to increase their salary is to show up for another year or take further education classes. If this sounds like a terrible system to you I applaud your motivation to attempt to make it better!
  • Taken my daughter to a friend’s July 4th party and watched fireworks (we have cute ear protecters.)
  • Watched my 3 month old daughter while my wife went to work.
  • Fed my 3 month old daughter.
  • Played with my 3 month old daughter.
  • Changed my 3 month old daughter.
  • Taken my family to two professional soccer games.
  • Napped
  • Read half a book.
  • Drove up to Maine last Wednesday and said goodbye to my 91-year old grandfather as he passed away in the hospital. My dad and I made it with two and a half hours to spare. The nurse noted that he was waiting for people to show up to be with him.

Many Americans for various socioeconomic reasons can’t take much time off from work. Many who can do not take what they are fully allowed. How much vacation one takes is a personal one between them and their family. I will say I am really grateful I was able to  hop in a car (my wife graciously watched our daughter the whole day so I could go immediately) midweek and get up to Maine to be with my grandfather. If it had been during the school year I would have likely already been at school and getting up there in time would have been impossible.

Summer vacation can be a difficult time for many kids and families. Many kids have zero of the supports they enjoy during the school year. Many parents (and various family members) work long hours, often leaving kids to (literally) their own devices. But I think the general principle of a longer break in the summer (maybe 4-6 weeks) would not just be good for teachers but for other workers too. More time to relax and reboot. Time to do activities one enjoys. Time with family. Last Wednesday was challenging but I am beyond grateful that I was able to see my grandfather one last time.

Thoughts on Fatherhood.

The moment had arrived. My wife was ready, after three location changes and over a day of waiting and hospital care, to deliver our first child. I look over at the first doctor on the scene and rather sheepishly ask, “Do I have time to go to the bathroom?” I did and I did. Less than 30 minutes later I was a father.

I’ll be frank about this entry. It is more for me than for others. My first child was born just under two weeks ago and I simply want to remember everything. The memories I write here may seem a bit all over the map and disjointed but they are glimpses of the monumental experience we had in four days at a hospital in Boston.

We went to the hospital Tuesday morning, a day I completely thought I would go to work.    Instead we spent the morning in sort of a holding room as we began the process of inducing a pregnancy. Within the first two hours of sitting there two women were wheeled out for C-sections and than wheeled back in, babies in their hands. There unseen cries made me impatient. I was ready to meet our little one!

A brief aside about my in-laws. They are fantastically intentional and supportive of their kids. They showed up at 8:30AM that first morning and were there until the moment of birth the following afternoon. They spent that first night in the hospital in incredibly awful chairs in our delivery room. In retrospect, they could have gone home that night, but my wife told me she needed them and so they stayed. I’m so grateful they were there but also grateful that they happened to have a vacation planned for a few days later!

I confess to having felt fairly sheepish in the hospital. I know I was the impending father and had an official visitors sticker and totally belonged there but I couldn’t walk through the Labor and Delivery unit without feeling completely in the way. I really didn’t want to bump into a doctor or nurse who were about to bring a life into the world as I was fetching more water for my wife. This is a good time to give a shoutout to our hospital and how good our experience was. Nurses are unsung heroes, full stop. They do so much, work 12-hour shifts and not once did I percieve that they were tired. I feel very fortunate that we live near Boston and were able to deliver at such a well-regarded hospital.

It’s hard to express how I felt those first moments as the delivery process began. I ran competitively in college and have run in countless road races, long and short. I’ve traveled overseas and got married four years ago. None of those experiences came close to the pure rush of adrenaline that flowed through me as I put my hand on my wife’s forehead and waited to meet our daughter.

I did not know the gender of our baby until birth. My wife did but was able to resist telling me for months. I know that this provokes a lot of questions and interest but I’ll just say this: From the start I was going to be ecstatic with either a boy or girl. It did not matter to me what they were as long as he/she was healthy. And so in the minutes after her birth I went over to where doctors were cleaning our baby off and had to identify the gender. With all the emotion and adrenaline of the moment it was a significantly more difficult task than I might of thought. I focused really hard, looked at our child and made the announcement: we had a baby girl. Her name was Eleanor Joy.

She was pink, and crying, and healthy. She was perfect. After two hectic days in the hospital we were able to go home as scheduled. I won’t go into all the details here but this was a miracle baby. I couldn’t have expected how perfect she is and yet knew it all the same. The amount of prayer and support that brought this little girl into the world is too numerous to mention but know that it mattered and know that we are so grateful for you all. It gave us so much comfort and even confidence as we prepared to welcome our little one.

There is so much left to say but I’ll finish with this. We are home, adjusting to life with our little one. She is eating, and growing, and crying, and that other thing babies do. It is tiring but awesome. It’s still hard to believe but I’m a dad now. I’m grateful for almost a month at home before returning to work and the many visitors and gifts that have graced our address. I’m mindful that many do not have the support or resources we have enjoyed. Thank you to everyone who have supported us so well. I’m just starting this journey but I can’t wait to continue.

Four years in.

One of the most surprising things about adulthood is the number of things you experience for the first time and than you feel like you have become an expert on. You knew absolutely NOTHING about something and then suddenly you are able to carry on a conversation for a solid 20 minutes about it. If I can find someone else with the same experience? Well this introvert just became a Nobel Prize winning orator. Mortgages, sump pumps, or lawn mowers? Please let me regale you with my knowledge.

The topic that most exemplifies this trend though in my life is my marriage. Being married is still something that pervades our society with expectations and advice even as many are uncertain about and delaying the experience. While I realize that people get many messages about marriage from their family and society it’s funny how blind you can go into it. It’s hard to envision exactly what it will look like to commit your life to someone and then make good on it. Despite the inherent difficulty here, it’s my fourth anniversary on Thursday so I thought I would offer a few thoughts based on my experience.

Four years in it is my conviction that my decision to make a lifelong commitment to my wife in marriage is the best I have ever made. Endless caveats could be made here before I continue but I’ll just throw out a few that feel more obvious to me. Plenty of people get married who probably should not. Plenty get married but for the wrong reasons. Many single people may feel the need and desire to get married but in fact being single is perfectly OK for the time-being or perhaps their life. My goal here is not to encourage anyone to get or stay married who should not but simply to relay a brief slice of my experience.

Four years in my wife and I know each other really well. We have learned our likes and dislikes. We have established routines. We find ways to compromise on many things. We even fight better than we used too. My wife especially has made it a huge value to establish ways to grow our relationship and communicate that have allowed us to love each other while avoiding lasting resentments. If I had one piece of advice in this entry it would be that communication is absolutely critical. There are a million reasons your partner might not realize something they are doing grates at you. Talk to them about it. Over time, I think good communication breeds countless dividends.

Four years in we support each other (and get support from others) in countless ways. We look out for each other. We cook for each other. We comfort each other. We pay for things for each other. We worry about each other. As a relatively not anxious person this has been one of the most ridiculous things to happen to me in marriage. One moment I am bingeing on Netflix blissfully unaware of anything and then, suddenly, my wife hasn’t texted me enough during the day and so she must be in a ditch on the side of the road somewhere. Just as we support each other, our commitment has also brought together a incredible network of family, friends, and church folks who love us so well. So many examples could be said here but I’ll simply say I’m grateful and thankful for all of you.

Four years in I’m writing this in a hospital awaiting the birth of our first child. Children don’t fix marriages and it will certainly make ours more complex but damn am I excited for us to be parents. There are a wide array of families in society today and all have value but I am so grateful and fortunate to have my wife by my side as we start this new adventure. Marriage is not a panacea for the unhappy or a goal for all but, four years in, I can’t imagine doing life any other way than what has happened so far.

Grasping at Straws in Times of Grief.

School is a very strange thing when you get down to it, especially as a teacher. You see these kids for 45-50+ minutes a day, for 180 days. They populate your mind extensively for these 180 days. You spend many hours thinking about where they should sit, how they might respond to a certain lesson, and grading their work. The bells rings, and they come in. The bell rings and as stressful as the class may have been, they disappear again. The days go by, the seasons change, and June (Finally!) arrives. And they disappear for one final time. They may or may not come by to say hello again but the massive investment that you had in their life for 10 months is done. In my case they move on (in 1-2 years) to high school, out of my building. As memorable as many students have been it always surprises me how quickly I forget many of their names.

I write all the above because last week a former student of mine unexpectedly passed away. He was 16. I got an email from my department head saying there had been a death at the high school and she could not make meetings today. Twenty minutes later in the middle of first period our principal emails the news with his name.

I read the email, paused in bewilderment, and had to go back to teaching my class.

I taught him two years ago and confess to not knowing him all that well. He was a quiet student. He did his work (usually) and kept to himself. He was a strong athlete and seemed well-liked and popular. He was not the type of student who would ever come back to the Middle School to say hello. I wouldn’t either when I was a kid.

Usually before I write a blog entry I have a plan, a spine, a piece of inspiration. I know what I want to say, I just need to get the words down in the right order. This is not an entry like that. I have no idea what to say or think. He simultaneously feels very close and very far away all at the same time.

I went to his wake on Sunday. I waited in a line for 2+ hours to pay my respects and hug his family members. I’m grateful for the former students I saw and that his mom remembered me.

I suppose this entry is just a fleeting attempt to try to honor him and his memory. He may be gone but he was my student and he mattered. I hope he is at peace now and I hope his family, in the awful months ahead, can find little glimpses of peace and even joy as they remember him. I also hope for all my students: past, present, and future that they can find the support they need to have a good life long after they disappear from my classroom.

 

 

A Teacher.

The news of Harvey Weinstein’s decades of sexual assault has spread like wildfire in our society in recent days. It is heartrending and horrific to hear not just the myriad number of stories that so many women are bravely bringing up but also to see clip after clip of Hollywood elite dropping references to Weinstein’s lechery in years past. It’s also not all that surprising. To explain a bit of what I have been thinking and feeling I want to discuss a story closer to home that broke before Weinstein’s did.

Last month in a town near where I teach, a teacher was killed. Murdered actually. Her husband is alleged to have committed the deed. This woman was a beloved elementary school teacher. She was the proud new mother of a one year old. She had been married less time than I have been. They had recently bought a house. And now she’s gone.

Preliminary findings indicate that she suffered, “blunt force injury to the head, sharp force injuries to the neck, and asphyxiation.” This was a crime of domestic abuse. Her husband, rather than loving and caring for her, likely was her executioner. Masculinity run amok.

I cannot really speak as to why this crime has resonated with me so deeply. It might be because I’m a teacher only a few towns away. It might be because I am more aware of how women are treated daily having been married a few years. Whatever it is the horror of domestic abuse came home to me with this story.

After the obligatory 3-4 stories about her life and funerals the stories about her death seemed to have stopped. Then Harvey Weinstein broke and the full scale of all this came rushing at me again.

Far too many men think it is their god-given right to control, dominate, lead, and yes, even abuse women. If not explicitly so than implicitly, too many men demand women capitulate to their every desire. If a women is too independent or free-thinking at best she is worthy of being ignored. At worst, she winds up dead.

My wife teaches me something everyday about the reality of being a women in our society. The #MeToo campaign has taught me much as well. I feel in this moment I can’t do much beyond my marriage except to say women deserve our support. They deserve to be believed. And men who seek to dominate and destroy deserved to be stopped. We have lost too many mothers, sisters, daughters, and teachers to not make an effort.

STEP

A few weeks ago my wife and I were able to attend an early showing of the movie Step. What made it extra exciting is our friend was one of the executive producers in the making of the film. Step highlights the senior year of a high school step team at an all-girls charter school in inner-city Baltimore. It was an extremely well done and thought-provoking film and as it had to do with a group of young women’s experiences in school and life I had a few thoughts come to the surface that I thought I would process here.

My first thought (which I’ve written about before here) was to reinforce how absolutely crucial public schools are to the development of the average American young person. The charter school in the film facilitates countless activities to get all their students graduated and into an institution of higher education by the end of their senior year. They start the year with a convocation ceremony that reminds the student body of the importance of senior year (which will be this school’s first graduating class after starting 7 years ago). They have informational meetings for parents to keep them up to date on college application details. The school has an entire day dedicated to filling out all those college applications and financial aid forms. The school guidance counselor is striking in her relentless drive to push these young women to do what they need to do to get into college.

What I saw in Step was a public school serving its community in critical ways. It goes without saying that without their school community, a large percentage of these young women would have not made it to college, at least not immediately. A school like this is why whenever I hear the phrase “government schools” I cringe. This school was not out to indoctrinate children. It was there to serve them and to assist where their families were unable or unwilling. This is to not to fault their families, many who are portrayed in the film as hardworking and supportive people but to note that where society can often ignore the needs of communities, schools often fill those gaps. I believe parents have a right to choose the type of school that’s best for their child but denigrating public schools never helps.

The second thing this film made me process was my feelings toward charter schools in general. We had a heated, publicized, and grossly over-funded ballot question debate in Massachusetts this past fall about whether to expand charter schools. As a public school teacher and union member, I voted (without much enthusiasm) against the expansion, which ended up failing. I did not think the charter school proponents were clear enough about their ultimate aims and who was actually funding them and my bias for traditional public schools ultimately won the day. But this is hardly an issue I would write a polemic about and after watching Step, I have a newfound appreciation for the good many charter schools do. In many inner cities, charter schools are the best option for students. Where that is the case they should be supported and expanded all the while continuing to find ways to make the public districts improve as well.

My final thought is that in a time of utter polarization anything that can be seen as “bipartisan” is probably worth reaching for. Incredible, supportive, and innovative public schools of any type are surely one of those things. Go see Step. I suspect you’ll enjoy it. And afterwards maybe check out what the schools in your town and city are up to.