A Weekend in New York

My family celebrated my grandmother’s 80th birthday this past weekend in New York City and I’m currently almost caught up on the show This is Us. I cannot say if those two things are related but it’s said that writing is therapeutic so I decided to write about this weekend.

Over thirty family and friends were invited to come together for dinner to quasi-surprise a woman who has gone by many different names in her life. My sisters, cousins, and I have always called her Nanny. She lives in Florida year-round now and regrettably I have not been able to see her as often as I would like in recent years. But 10 seconds with her this weekend and she was the Nanny I have always loved and had fun with. Her laugh, her quips, her personality. One needs not be old to have waves of nostalgia wash over them on occasion.

She technically is my step grandmother but I only mention that to recognize how nonsenical and unnecessary that extra word is to me. She has always been the one who bought giant packs of kids mini-cereal boxes she would never touch because she knew her grandkids would like them. She taught us how to eat a whole lobster properly in Maine. She took us to the beach and flea markets in Florida. She would always be kind and nice, hilarious and generous. She has always been Nanny.

Family is such a complex multilayered thing. It is so vital for folks and also so easy to screw up. Every family, even ones who are not particularly close, have the memories and shared experiences that come from the times when they had to be close because that’s what families do. You grow up together. You learn together. You share meals.

This weekend we shared an amazing meal in a stunning restaurant in a world class city. But as great as it was the setting was truly secondary to being able to spend time with family and Nanny. At a smaller gathering the night before the main meal, she noted herself that an occasion like this was “very special.” Simple words but, in an awareness I rarely show toward others, I could sense the affection she spoke them with.

It has never been easy or natural for me to really show my feelings or emotions outwardly. Safer to keep things hidden inside right? But this weekend I felt a great freedom to hug and talk with my grandmother openly. And it was great. Family can be messy and uncomfortable sometimes. But it also runs deep. This past weekend we celebrated my Nanny’s birthday. I cannot wait to do it again.

 

 

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A Fairy Tale?

A few months ago a student I had in the Czech Republic messaged me on Facebook. Our conversation was brief but at the end she said, “It seems you are living fairytale life.”

Tomorrow is my wife’s and my third wedding anniversary. By all accounts we have a very blessed life. We love each other, we have meaningful employment, we have close and caring friends and family. I am very thankful. But on an occasion like this it seemed appropriate to write about, while I deeply appreciate my former student’s sentiment, I do not think I would use the term “fairy tale” to describe any marriage, let alone my own.

Marriage is hard because you voluntarily decide to give up a life of doing basically whatever you feel like as an adult and live with another adult. Ideally for the rest of your lives. It literally not about you anymore but about US. You sacrifice your freedom and independence because you think your life will be better living with this other person. I’ll explain in a bit why it is worth it but it is certainly not a fairy tale.

When I got married I was waking up at 5:15AM and driving an hour to teach a group of students who gradually over six months became almost impossible to teach. If I rushed home for school I could get home by four but I was not happy newlywed Matt. I was an exhausted, emotional wreck. I did not know all that marriage required and even if I did I was not in a place to give it. That was our first three months of marriage.

Life is complicated. In the past three years we have moved once and gone through multiple job and position changes. My knees decided to start hurting when I run for the first time in my life. My wife got a cat. Going through all this change (we both detest change) is inherently stressful. We have had to lean on and support each other all the while learning how to do that. Every time I mention I’ve gone to therapy people act a little strange so maybe this is not normal but we have both been to therapy. Together and separate, during engagement, and off and on during the past three years. Marriage takes work and if you don’t invest in the relationship it will not work.

I feel like I have been profoundly negative so far so lets get to the good part. Three years in I can say with absolute confidence the following: marriage is worth it. I can hardly do justice to the commitment I feel to this woman who I decided to marry. Every step of the way as we progressed from dating, to engagement, to marriage I expected to feel worried and unsure. But I didn’t. I simply made the calculation that my life would be so much better with her in it. So I kept going. And it has.

Those first few months when I was a braindead zombie teacher? My wife made my lunch almost everyday and often woke up when I did. Just because we were married. And solidarity or something. I still don’t always get it. Everyday my wife pushes me to be a better man and husband. We don’t always hit the mark. We disagree, we fight, we irritate the crap out of each other. That is life. But our commitment to love each other is still there and we push through.

Our society likes to push the idea that getting married is a fairy tale. That’s a lie. You can be happy and fulfilled single and you can be miserable and frustrated married. The reality is more complex. Marriage takes a lot of work to be successful and to weather all the storms life brings. But, fairy tale or something else entirely, tomorrow my wife and I will be celebrating.

Changing Church

I have attended the same church about half my life. In 7th grade my family finally completed a move after my dad switched jobs and we started attending Grace Chapel. I grew up in the youth group and except for a break when I was in college and then living overseas I have been a regular attender. All told I have been there around 14 years.

I loved Grace Chapel. I was an active member of the high school youth group when I was a teenager and always enjoyed it. For the past seven years I served in the middle school and high school groups as a small group leader. I’ve gone on retreats and events and gotten to know many students, parents and other leaders. Most notably I met my wife while volunteering and we are approaching our 3rd anniversary next month. When I look at my experiences at Grace Chapel I feel elated, excited, and blessed. However, despite all these positive feelings toward this community and place, this coming Sunday I am changing churches.

Why on earth am I doing this?

My wife was not any lowly church girl. She was a church staff member. The first time I saw her she was speaking in front of the huge group of middle schoolers. I had never really personally known anyone who worked at church but soon I was dating someone who did. As I relate to in a previous post I have learned a lot. But because we met at the church we both attended I did not have to worry about changing where I went every week.

This did not change that my wife’s career was still developing and changing. Earlier this year she accepted a new position at a different church. It is a little farther away but we do not have to move which is great. But it does mean on Sunday I won’t be at Grace but someplace totally new.

This is undeniably bittersweet for both of us. We both know and love many people at Grace. Both our parents go to Grace and it is a place with many great memories and experiences. At the same time this church and position feels like the perfect next step for her and her development and we are excited to see what happens.

Even with the excitement of a new journey about to begin it is apparent in the recesses of my mind that if I was not married I would probably not be attending this new church on Sunday. So to be very clear at the end of this blog: my wife is totally worth changing church for. I think our society values the idea of marriage a lot in our society. We certainly still value weddings. Despite this value we ascribe to the ideal of what marriage can be I do not think we acknowledge as much what is absolutely required in any strong marriage: mutual sacrifice from both parties. In getting married we combined our lives. My wife married me, a school teacher. I married her, a (youth) pastor. Whether or not I processed what that fully meant on our wedding day, changing churches this Sunday is in a small way a fulfillment of that commitment I made three years ago to us.

I am going to a new place on Sunday. It will be new and different and maybe even a bit weird. But I’ll be sitting next to my wife so I think I’ll be ok.

Where then shall they go?

This week transgender people were in the news again as the Trump Administration recscinded an Obama administration order that mandated schools allow such students to access the facilities they identify with. The complexity and controversy of this issue has me mildly terrified to write about it. However my experience as a Christian and a public school teacher makes me feel I can offer a perspective that hits at the heart of this issue.

Students enter my classroom from a myriad number of backgrounds. Some are rich, some poor. Some from the US, some are immigrants. Some love school, some hate it. Some have strong and loving families, others do not. Some are popular and athletic, others are less popular and studious. My job when they enter my classroom is to educate them and convince them it is worth it to do so. To do that I need to create a space where my students feel safe enough to trust me. If I lose that trust, I’ve lost them.

Transgender students force educators like me to look them in the eyes and answer the question “Is it safe for me to be around you?” How we answer that question can make my classroom a refuge from whatever else is going on in their lives or tragically, a place where they literally dread to return to, day after day.

I personally cannot in good conscience call a transgender student by their non preferred pronoun or first name. I cannot in good conscience force them to use a bathroom they feel unsafe or misidentified in. To do so would go against everything I am seeking to create in my classroom and build in my career. I refuse to stand aside while explicit discrimination and the accompanying trauma takes place.

I understand how complex this issue is when you consider locker rooms, field trips, and general public accommodations. But what has truly grieved me over the past few days is seeing various conservative Christian leaders completely ignore the reality I need to walk everyday as a teacher.

Many are quick to lead with all the right one-liners. All students deserve respect, support, and dignity. No one should suffer under bullies or bigots. We can find win-win accommodations for all students. All this is wonderful but try as I might I cannot find one who actually gives a tangible example of what these accommodations might look like in a real school.

I hesitate to assume what they are after but I’m left to ponder if the only accommodation they are looking for is “separate but equal” bathroom facilities that force transgender students to use restrooms apart from the rest of the student body. The outcomes of this “accomodation” are not in question. Students forced into this setup will feel disrespected, unsupported, and undignified. They will feel bullied. They will feel less than and unsafe at school. Some will attempt suicide.

I understand why conservative Christians are upset. They have a very clear theology that says transgendered people cannot possibly be ok. A healthy, happy, well adjusted transgender person confronts their religious beliefs and worldview explicitly. As schools become more accepting of transgender students their beliefs become less and less mainstream. This process is challenging. But a public school is not a church or religious establishment. It has to accept every student eligible to enroll AND provide a safe learning environment.

This very issue will be heard by the Supreme Court this spring. Regardless of how the court decides this I can only see this issue going one way long term. Transgender students will be allowed to access the bathrooms and facilities they identify with in every public school nationwide at some point in the future. This is what is best for them, the schools and society as a whole. This should ultimately be more about doing what’s right than being right.

I recognize that some (perhaps many) will not agree with me here but I remained locked in to doing what is best for all my students. To those who disagree with me on religious grounds I’ll simply asked they following question: What use is perfect theology and Biblical proof texts if the outcomes for so many students are still so tragic?

 

 

 

When Churches Do More than Preach.

Over the past 10 years I have become decidedly more liberal in my political beliefs and general worldview. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when and how this has happened but nonetheless it has. Today I typically find liberal solutions to issues more feasible, just, and factual accurate than many conservative ones. I try to read sources from both sides regularly but everyone has their biases and I think I’m fairly well aware of where mine lean.

However, one thing I have been uncomfortable with as I have driven ever deeper into a liberal worldview is the often clear animus toward religion. Sometimes this is subtle, sometimes it is blatant. Many liberal writers (or bloggers, or facebook posters) are quite clear that religion is a pox on humanity and if we just got rid of it the world would be a much better, kinder, tolerant place. I can understand where that view might come from but I also see it as hopelessly out of touch with where many people still are and where society might continue to go.

Given the divisive nature of American society at the moment and the dangerously cruel and incompetent nature of our current president I want to explain a little bit about what many churches do on a regular basis to help society. If religious and irreligious people can understand each other a little bit better I think we can not only achieve more in the future but also avoid political leaders like the one we recently elected.

Churches do far more than just preach a message on Sundays. Many give away significant portions of their money (which is usually exclusively donated by church members) to missionaries doing health care, relief, and leadership training in countries many Americans have never heard of. Many operate food banks. Many can, with one special offering, give thousands of dollars to charitable groups both domestic and international. Many churches have small groups and ministries that not only preach a religious message but offer folks support for all sorts of issues, addictions and emotional baggage. Churches are often small (or enormous) networks that provide things like childcare, education, or just a place to talk to each other. During the holidays many churches do more than just typical charitable giving but go beyond to provide a place where people who do not have family can spend time together. At their best churches want to make the world a better place not only by preaching an “exclusive” message but by helping the poor, downtrodden, widow, and orphan.

To be clear churches also all too often have many significant problems. There is homophobia in some churches. There is Islamophobia in some churches. There is sexism in some churches. Uplifting the institution over the people can create environments where abuse has been tragically too common. Churches are made up of flawed people just like the rest of society. Just as government and society are far from perfect so churches often (regrettably) miss the mark. But I also think if every church closed tomorrow our world would be much poorer from it.

I understand that any entity that preaches an exclusive, religious message may be a bridge too far for many people to accept.  But in a divided society I think it is essential that we at the very least seek to understand one another. Many God-fearing religious folks do not want to bestow theocracy on the US but simply want to help others. Maybe in my attempt to bridge these divides I am being too kind or naive. But in these times I think it is essential that we see and call out the good that we can in others.

When Schools Do More Than Educate.

One habit I have forced myself to get into since I became a teacher is to read news articles about education. I used to glance over these headlines without much thought because education is one of those issues where everyone has an opinion and until the past few years I could not begin to offer up a coherent view of where I lay on the spectrum. However, as I completed graduate school opinions finally started to coalesce in my brain and if you ever want me to wax poetic on the state of education in America please just ask. With this entry however I want to expand my focus a bit.

Education policy, especially with public schools, invariably comes back to money. Taxes, dollars and cents, overrides, teacher salaries etc. Educating every child equitably is a profoundly expensive task. What gets lost I think in this endless conflict of how much is needed to educate our children is what schools do beyond simply reading, writing, and arithmetic (and social studies! *cough*). Schools do much more than educate.

This past holiday season my school had a food drive for about six weeks. In that time teachers and students collected over a hundred boxes of food for our town’s food bank. We had a “pajama day” where students could pay $5 and wear pajamas to school. That raised over $1700 that went to a fund to help families struggling in the community over the holidays. Our guidance counselors, who work year round serving particularly tricky student situations, sent an email to teachers asking about students we suspect might need some extra support materially over the holidays. Our school nurse provides free healthcare  daily to students. Our cafeteria staff provides meals to students everyday. Our school psychologist and other therapists provide invaluable services to students so they can succeed in the classroom. My middle school is but one school in a small town. But this support happens across the country.

In recent years I have seen the term “government schools” used to deride public schools for their failings and missteps. No public school, including my own, is perfect and I strongly support parents right to choose which school is right for their child. But opposing public schools on the basis that they are simply lackeys of government severely misses the vital work so many schools do. Public schools are not merely “government schools” but community schools. They reflect the community they are in and often the communities and state that surrounds them. The best way for a public school to get better is to have their community get involved and support it.

There are many ways to improve education in this country. Schools and teachers should never stop innovating. But to deride their existence as so inept that they are not be worthy of support risks doing a great disservice to millions of children across the country. This past holiday season I was reminded of all the ways schools do so much more than educate. I hope that as a society we can be mindful of this as we seek to iron out policy and improve our schools and communities.

Confessions of a Youth Pastor’s Husband

One of the most interesting things I learned about church culture after I got married to a youth pastor was that there was such a thing as “Pastor’s Wives Conferences.” Apparently it’s just a bunch of pastor’s wives going to a conference to learn about such topics as… well… I have no idea. Two and a half years in and I have not been invited to one yet.

I mention that because 1) I think I’ve learned a lot about church in the last two+ years and 2) I think I have a perspective as the somewhat rare “pastor’s husband” that might be of interest. I have to warn you though that at the start I do not come off very positively. At all. But don’t worry! It gets better I promise.

When I first started dating my future wife and learning more about her weekly ebb and flow I confess to feeling just a little confused. She often seemed very busy and at times stressed and judging by what she told me of her colleagues they often seemed busy and stressed too. Apparently burnout is a huge thing for church staff from pastors to support staff. That seemed reasonable to me but I also figured that in the 40 hours that full time jobs typically require a youth pastor can pull together two meetings for kids a week and whatever other meetings and planning required.

Yes, I told my wife what I figured. Yes, I am a poor, little, unintelligent man.

Don’t worry I moved past my woefully inadequate understanding of what the typical youth pastor does. Today I continue to have a deep and abiding respect in the work my wife and her colleagues (many of whom I count as dear friends) do, week in and week out. I hope to explain just a little of this work during the rest of this entry. She is called and blessed to do what she does, and while it’s a lot of work and hard at times, a simple acknowledgement or thank you from time to time I know is enough.

First off, hours. At my wife’s church, employees are typically asked to work 40-50 hours. Although much of the work is planning, figuring out logistics, coordinating volunteers, etc. at the center of the work is people. This isn’t a clock in/clock out job; where there are people there are needs and struggles and the work can seem endless, there is always more to do.

Second, retreats. A youth pastor does far more than two events a week. They plan two retreats a year. These are massive weekend events where all the kids go to a camp where they have tons of fun and learn a lot about their faith. They are amazing and vital but also a planning nightmare, totally exhausting, and cost a ton. Camps are typically booked out a year beforehand and as soon as the Fall retreat is done, you need to start thinking about the Winter one. These are always on the horizon.

Third, mission trips. These go by different names depending on the church but most people know about them. Youth trips, usually in the summer, where a group travels somewhere else (often overseas) to assist another ministry. This might be ministry, construction or something else. To do these well takes endless planning, meetings before and after, as well as leaders willing to give up a week of their summer to be on call for the kids 24 hours a day. Typically for five days to two weeks. These again are vital and deeply rewarding but also exhausting beyond all measure.

Lastly, intangibles. My wife was asked to preach at our church on a Sunday morning for the first time ever this past August. She had been waiting and hoping for this opportunity for a long time and was beyond excited. She preached twice in a row to four different campuses, probably over 2,000 people altogether. She did amazing. But the work beforehand was intense. She wrote, edited, practiced, reedited, and practiced again. All the work paid off but this type of intangible and deeply intense spiritual labor is far more scary to me than perhaps any work I have done in my past.

This only scrapes the surface of the work my wife does but I did want to give a snapshot of what is asked of church staff today. It is good work and deeply rewarding but it is also difficult and all too often, unappreciated. One more thing too, and I wish I didn’t have to write it but is something that frankly needs to be acknowledged. There is a large segment of Christians who think women like my wife should not be leading in the roles she has. Our church has and continues to grow in support of women pastors, leaders and now elders. I’m deeply grateful for this for so many reasons. But to ignore the fact that some Christians don’t think my wife even deserves a seat at the table, just because she’s a woman, is something I cannot begin to imagine dealing with. She overcomes it every week she walks into the church offices.

All this to say, I’m deeply proud of my wife. I’m proud of her care for the kids she’s responsible for. I’m proud of how hard she has worked over the last seven years at our church. And I’m proud of her steady and unrelenting leadership in a place that too often says, implicitly and explicitly, you do not belong. I confess to not understanding all of this a few years ago but as I continue to grow I’m very grateful to be alongside with her.