Friday, February 27, 2009

"A Change Is Gonna Come" - On Listening to Sam Cooke

Yeah, yeah, yeah, you’ve heard it before, especially from teachers. It’s all a bout change, change the way we structure schools, change the way we teach, change the way we ask out students to learn. Yet, I am not seeing a whole lot of change. I still walk down the hallway in my school and see rows of students, preparing for the next test, listening to teachers say things that they probably said twenty years ago. Are students learning? I think they are, but not at the level they should be. I think teachers first are role models. And the very first thing that we must be modeling is learning. And if learning isn’t change, then I don’t know what change means.

Many have gotten kind of comfortable in schools. Many resist any program, duty, or event that lives outside of the pre-existing notions of one’s worldview. Teacher and student arrive each day to dance a strange little dance, a marathon in which only a few will be standing at the end of this contest. Those will be the ones who will be “successful.” Those are the one’s that we teachers will point to as evidence of our own “success.”

Change. It might be nice to think about what that means, today.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

James Baldwin and Me

I do have a special place in my literary pantheon for James Baldwin. I think it is mostly because he was a searcher, and understood the concept of love better than any contemporary literary figure of which I am aware. In his work during the civil rights era of the 50's and 60's he challenged all, letting no one off the hook for a society that was just plain ugly with racism. His solution was pretty simple: Love. This meant acceptance and letting go of ignorance.

He was once asked why there was so much time between his novels and his reply was, "That's the kind of writer that I am."

I find comfort in that response, if others do not. I find it necessary to periodically head for the desert, to listen, to observe the not-so-obvious, what William Least Heat Moon once wrote about in an essay called, "A List of Nothing in Particular." I come back a new man, energized and willing to speak once again.

Perhaps that attitude is not suited to writing a blog. Sorry to those who were wondering while I was wandering. Rest assured we were all thinking the same thing: Where is that guy? In the future, I will alert you of my wanderings before I go. Have a great day!


No, No... The Inner Me!

The first time I remember it, I was in first grade. Sister James Matthew said something that seemed garbled to me. Before I knew it, students were taking turns announcing something; what, I did not know. It seemed to me as each of my classmates announced things like, “Candy!”, “TV!”, “Dessert!”, that we were announcing our favorite things in the world. When it came to my turn, I proudly said, “Baseball cards!” Then we moved on to another lesson.

At recess, a classmate asked me how I was going to give up baseball cards.

“Why would I give up baseball cards; they’re my favorite thing?”

“You said that you would give them up for Lent,” my friend replied.

My friend explained to me that this is what we had been doing earlier in the day, announcing what we were going to give up for Lent. “No way,” I said. “I’m not giving up baseball cards; I didn’t know that’s what we were doing. What is Lent, anyway?”

“You have to give them up because you said you would. If you go back on what you said, you’re going to Hell.”

And this was my introduction to Lent. I remember years later, my father thought it would be a great idea at dinner one night if each member of the family announced what he or she would be giving up for Lent. Remembering my first-grade terror, I slyly announced something that sounded great but did not require much of an investment in my time or energy.

To this day, my non-Catholic friends will ask me with a chuckle what I plan on giving up for Lent. At least today with these friends I can explain how the concept of fasting and alms giving are connected. I tell them that I give up coffee, calculate how much money I save, and write a check to a charity for that amount. This tends to impress them, but it is still pretty shallow in my book, not much different than the roll calls of my childhood and youth.

I have found that there are many ways to approach fasting, but I do know that I would hate to skip the opportunity to fast during Lent by simply “giving something up for Lent,” even if I am writing a check. The reason to fast for Lent is far more important. I often turn to the example of St. Francis for my own inspiration. And if I need words, I do not need to go much further than St. Paul.

Fasting is not an endurance contest, something I would never win, anyway. It is a turning out to the desert, a wandering even. St. Francis tended to reject much of the surface of this world, and his trust in God was so great, he found great joy in his wanderings, in other words, in his own inner life. What St. Francis teaches me is that fasting, temporarily turning away from the worldly, directs me inward. And looking inward is where the real challenge is.

To be aware of the interior life is not the romantic image of quiet prayer and solitude, nothing of the world entering in. The reality of the Incarnation teaches me that we are both Internal and External. I often only think about the external because it is easy to see. The internal is messy; it is the home of all the things that make me feel uncomfortable. It is so much easier to give into the external and just stay there. But I’m more likely to find God in the internal.

Jesus hung out with the outcasts of society, all of the people who made society messy. Fasting allows me to face that messy part of myself, to dine with all of those parts of myself that make me feel like an outcast. It is there that I spend time with Jesus, man and Savior. When I know that God loves me regardless of the messiness I find inside, I find the outside becomes truer, more honest. And that is what I look for in fasting: balance.

I have found that Lent and fasting give me that balance in my life. It is the internal that needs work to balance with the external. Without balance I am not whole (or holy). St. Paul reminds me of this: “I know how to live in humble circumstances; I know also how to live with abundance. In every circumstance and in all things I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of living in abundance and of being in need. I have the strength for everything through him who empowers me” (Phil 4:12-13). God just makes sense of the whole me.

Fasting is a joyful time because I know that Jesus has come to the table to dine with me, in all of my imperfections. Fasting is not only giving something up. It is a time to look at the whole person. It is a time to balance; a time to remember that Jesus was both man and God. Fasting is a gift that brings me closer to Him.