Sunday, December 30, 2012

Meditations on Mercy

"The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes."
          The Merchant of Venice  Act 4, scene 1

  We went to see Les Miserable yesterday and it was everything it had promised to be, as least as far as we were concerned.  It was a dark story in so many ways, with the depravity and cruelty of men front and center throughout the entire story.  The director and actors created a number of memorable moments, with Fantine's song "I Dreamed a Dream" being promoted as perhaps the most haunting. What has lingered in my mind, though, is the mystery and tragedy of Javert. 

  The theme of mercy, as everyone knows, is strong in this story.  It's not a Romanticized vision of mercy, though.  Those who receive mercy still struggle, still face injustice, still have pain and loneliness.  The transforming power of mercy is evident in the way it leads to life.  Mercy in Jean Valjean compells him to protect and help, to see the need in others rather than just his own need, and to grapple with the hard choices between doing what is right and doing what is expedient.  He learns to love because he is a man who has received mercy, but that transformation wasn't easy. He had to relinquish the very things that had defined him - his victimization, his anguish, his suffering.  In laying those things down, he finds his way forward in doing what good he can for others. Through this, he comes to love.  And it is this love which ultimately frees him from the fear of Javert.

   Javert's refusal of mercy is so hard for me to grasp.  How can a man stare mercy and love in the face and turn away to his own death?  This is where I think the story is the most profound.  The scope and depth of this refusal is in plain sight so we can't miss the reality of what's happening.  We can't ignore the consequences.  Javert doesn't go out as a strong individualist that we can admire.  He dies a pitiable man.  We don't rejoice at his defeat because he's a bad guy.  We hope, up until the last moment, that he'll change his mind, that he'll receive the mercy extended to him.  The choice, finally, is between life and death - a choice he sees very clearly.  His final refusal of mercy was, for me, the most heart-wrenching moment in the movie.  It took my breath away.

  I'm glad Javert's choice wasn't the last moment of the movie.  The last image in my mind is Valjean's prayer of blessing at the end of his life. This is mercy's work - to impart life.  And I find myself hoping that those seeing the film who, like Javert, might be on the precipice of choice will not follow his direction, but will, instead, open up to life, receiving and extending mercy.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Ten Things Good Teachers Know

Did you have a great teacher somewhere along the way?  I've been blessed with a few.  I've also had some real duds.  I've been thinking about the differences between really good teachers and mediocre ones, and here's one of my lists. (I'll have a longer entry later.)

10. Good teachers know they never leave work - or recognize that work never leaves them. :)

9.  Good teachers aren't afraid of students' questions.

8. A good teacher recognizes that the moment of achievement for a student should far outweigh the times of frustration.

7. Good teachers can patiently repeat and review.

6. Good teachers try to pinpoint and foster the creative strengths of students.

5. Good teachers are willing to say "I don't know;" followed by "I'll try to find out."

4. A good teacher is willing to say "I was wrong.  Here's the correction."

3.  A good teacher has a lively curiosity and is always learning.

2.  Good teachers are passionate about their subjects.

1. Good teachers care about the individuals they teach every single year! 

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Dignity and Beauty

This past week I took my mom to see a new doctor.  As we entered the office, we heard unusual sounds coming from the waiting room.  An elderly woman in a wheelchair was making, for want of a better description, animal sounds - growling, yelping, screeching.  As unnerved as my mom was, she took my arm and went on in to be seated and wait for her appointment.  It was clear that the woman in the waiting room was a stroke victim.  As the next few minutes went by, I gained an appreciation for the power of love and devotion in action.

There were two other women with her - a relative and a caregiver.  They were engaging her in conversation, checking with her to make sure they were correctly interpreting her sounds.  The caregiver was carefully feeding her bits of soft banana (she had no teeth) and cleaning her mouth as she finished chewing each bite.  She would say, "That's good, isn't it?"  and "I'm glad you like this banana."  In many ways, it was reminiscent of a mother with a child - articulating and interpreting an experience for someone who was non-verbal.  After a bit, the old lady waved at my mom and "spoke" to her as well, and mom, always a people person, greeted her with a "good morning!" 

I had time to observe these ladies closely in the few minutes we had together in that waiting room.  The caregiver and the relative had taken time to prepare her for this appointment.  She was in clean clothes, and her grey hair had been pulled back and a tidy hair-piece (bun) placed on top.  She didn't have much hair anymore, but I guessed that they had tried to arrange it in the way she used to wear it.  She had real shoes on - not slippers.  Most impressive to me, though, was her confidence.  Even though she couldn't talk anymore, she was still mentally active and wanted to be engaged with those around her.  More outstanding than that, though, was the dignity that she had, even as an incapacitated person.  The careful attention to the details of her care helped convey that.

 A quick glance through that waiting room that morning would not have revealed anything particularly outstanding, but witnessing the love and care extended to this old woman was like witnessing an unexpected rainbow - delightful and beautiful.  She will be in my mind for a long time.

Friday, August 31, 2012

The Stories We Live

  As an educator, I'm devoted to nurturing the love of good stories.  As a mom, I've read countless stories to my children.  As a person, I love getting lost in a good story myself. Readers and non-readers alike love a good story. 
   Much has been written about the benefits of story in nurturing virtue and imagination in our children. There's another benefit as well.  Being steeped in story gives us a framework for how we view our own lives.  People who see life as a story are able to see themselves in the context of something greater than themselves.  How is this a benefit?
   Every good story must have a plot, and the core of plot is conflict.  Conflict stems from a problem - either internal, external, or a combination.  It can be conflict with something that has a resolution (finding the thief) or conflict with something unresolvable (like the evils of war).  Either way, it is imperative that the main character meets the conflict in a way that we can relate to at some level.  It must be believable, and, in a good story, it should encourage us in our dealings with conflict.
  Beyond just encouraging us, though, a recognition of plot allows us to move through life without being constantly surprised by difficulties.  These are the things that can move life forward if we meet them well, or bring us to a standstill if we don't.  Knowing that problems are part of the "story" of life can give us a measure of grace and strength as we move forward.  Knowing that there is a next chapter and, finally, a resolution allows us to live in hope.  And knowing that we are just one in a cast of thousands in this great story teaches us to live with humility with others.

  In The Two Towers, as the main character Frodo is struggling against despair, his companion, Sam, puts it in perspective for him with these words:
            " It's like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn't want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it's only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. They meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand.  I know now. Folk in those stories has lots of chances of turning back, only they didn't. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something."

  Sam helps Frodo understand that the dark moment isn't the culmination of the story.  And that's a life-giving perspective.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Summer has finally arrived! It's been a long, difficult year and I'm so very grateful for this season of rest.  I began enjoying vacation this morning by picking up a new novel - Jayber Crow by Wendall Berry.  It has that lovely slow pace of Southern storytelling with lingering passages detailing nature and human nature.  This one will be in my mind all day, I can tell.

    The surface of the quieted river, as I thought in those old days at Squires Landing, as I think now, is like a window looking into another world that is like this one except that it is quiet.  Its quietness makes it seem perfect. The ripples are like the slats of a blind or a shutter through which we see imperfectly what is perfect.  Though that other world can be seen only momentarily, it looks everlasting.  As the ripples become more agitated, the window darkens and the other world is hidden.  As I did not know then but know now, the surface of the river is like a living soul, which is easy to disturb, is often disturbed, but, growing calm, shows what it was, is, and will be.

I'll be paying more attention to the beauty around me.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Getting Sober

Last night we were studying Romans 12, a very familiar chapter to me. Paul admonishes the Christians to have a "sober" view of themselves; to not think more highly of themselves than they should, but to recognize and energetically use the gifts they have been given. My thoughts at the time focused on the gifts, but the early morning hours brought a new direction to my thinking.

When Paul is listing the gifts and encouraging the people to be diligent in using them for mutual benefit, he never mentions that they should evaluate the success of their gifts. Instead, he follows the list with this statement - "Let love be without hypocrisy."

I'm afraid I do not have a "sober" view of myself. You see, when I speak, whether teaching or exhorting, or when I give, I expect to see change right away. I expect my words to open the doors of understanding and obedience, my gifts to build up and improve situations. I expect to be as God, who spoke and things came into existence. What arrogance! What a deluded view of myself!

God is a good, and He is patient. While He can (and did) speak things into existence right away, He also sovereignly presides over long stretches of time where the work is done quietly and behind the scenes. Like nine months of developing humans. Like years growing a redwood. Like hundreds of years for the fullness of time for Christ to come in His incarnation.

So while I am called to use the gifts He's given, I am also called to love the people He's placed in my life. I'm not to worry over whether or not they are responding appropriately to me and my gifts. I am called to let the results rest with the One who gives growth, who effects change, who brings life from death.

I'm praying for a more sober year this year.