Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Going (Core Practice #2)

Intro Note: I have already written about our Plan on a Page, which lays out the four core practices that we consider the marks of discipleship according to the New Testament. In that document, we try to capture the "irreducible minimum standards" of our mission. 

Basically, I contend that there are many things you could not do and still be a Christian, or follower of Jesus. For example, you could not "go to church" or participate in a youth group or listen to Christian radio stations or become a missionary in a foreign land or tithe or...okay, you get it...and yet still be an authentic, sincere, passionate follower of Jesus. These examples may all be good things, but they are not the marks of true discipleship that Jesus gives us in the Bible. They are not the "make-or-break", non-negotiables of the Christian faith used to identify people as real believers.

Then, what are the non-negotiables?

The second one is GOING.

The idea here is to do good everywhere God sends us, individually and corporately. Although it's a little cliche, I like to say that our mandate is to choose what is right, and change what isn't.

The Great Commission tells all disciples to go and make disciples. Our identity in Christ is as a "sent" people. We are described in the Bible as ambassadors, reconcilers, and apostles.

The key is to see this practice as service in our everyday, real life contexts. We find ourselves in the mission field in our normal, daily lives in the marketplace, work, and home. This is one of the reasons the term "organic church" is used, because God plants us in all kinds of soil and we can organically respond to our natural surroundings. 

What is important to stress to children is that Jesus taught us to worship God by doing good everywhere we go. It is how we praise Him.

The guiding question for a disciple or church could be, Are we doing good works that help people and glorify God?

Monday, January 27, 2014

Expectations vs. Wishes (part 4) - Conclusion

(In last week's post, we discussed the principle for setting clear expectations school-wide. You can read Part 1 here, Part 2 here, and Part 3 here. This post is the fourth and final part of this series.)

Handling Disappointments

Have you ever heard a speaker say, "If you don't remember anything else I say, then at least remember this one thing."? Well, pretend you hear me saying that in your ear right now while you read this last part. I cannot stress the significance of this final component enough, and it is my opinion that not taking this point into account is what causes many educators to retreat back into the world of wishes instead of holding students to clear, consistent expectations.

Here is the truth. If you have expectations, then there will be times when they are not met. Young people need to learn that an unmet expectation leads to disappointment.

Now, you likely had no problem with the first sentence above. But if you are like me, the second sentence stirred the pot.

If expectations are consistent and don't go away, then I can confidently tell you another expectation (something I am sure of) I have of myself. There will be times I will fall short and fail to meet an expectation. And I am confident that I am not alone. We all mess up.

Perhaps an analogy of a doctor's visit will help explain. If I miss a doctor's appointment, there is usually a financial consequence (missed appointment fee) and a time consequence (re-schedule). Depending on the logistics that have to be worked out, there may be additional effects (securing childcare, missing more work, etc.). It does mean that I will have to make arrangements and change my plans (remember, this was our criterion of an expectation). There will be a cost, or inconvenience.

However, it does NOT have to mean that I just give up altogether. I do not quit going to the doctor or ignore health care needs forever. It is not the end of the world. It is only a setback.

We can help students (and colleagues - don't forget the "applies to us all" principle) mature as whole people if we help them equate "dis"-appointment" with "miss"-appointment. When a student fails to meet an expectation, then he needs to learn to "re-schedule an appointment" to make up for the disappointment. The more a student does this, the more he is able to take more ownership of "making it right" and grow from the experiences.

That is why this whole discussion of expectations and campus culture is critical. If we are too wishy-washy and inconsistent with expectations, then students have little direction and tend to make excuses for their own behaviors. On the other hand, if we compile a list of unrealistic expectations with no supports in place to help students meet them and then attach an equally long list of "gotcha!" punishments to it, then students will tend to disengage and resent the learning environment. Either way, we do a disservice to our primary stakeholders and run the risk of stunting their intellectual, social, and emotional development.

When it comes to building a school culture, it is necessary to keep in mind that expectations are aimed at creating an environment of safety and excellence for the whole community, not demanding perfection from individuals. To be honest about expectations (as they are described in this article/blog) means we must also be honest about disappointment, which is the logical result of failing to meet an expectation. It will happen. Fortunately, it provides us with one of the richest teaching moments in our careers working with children and youth.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Human Trafficking 101 Resource

Another resource full of information related to modern day slavery and human trafficking (aka. Trafficking in Persons) comes from our own government. There are numerous resources to help you learn about these issues here.

Check out the Human Trafficking Awareness Training. I have gone through this presentation. It is informative, yet basic. Should be required education for all adults.

Learn how you can help.

I'm proud to be an American...where at least I know I'm FREE!

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Praying (Core Practice #1)

Intro Note: I have already written about our Plan on a Page, which lays out the four core practices that we consider the marks of discipleship according to the New Testament. In that document, we try to capture the "irreducible minimum standards" of our mission. 

Basically, I contend that there are many things you could not do and still be a Christian, or follower of Jesus. For example, you could not "go to church" or participate in a youth group or listen to Christian radio stations or become a missionary in a foreign land or tithe or...okay, you get it...and yet still be an authentic, sincere, passionate follower of Jesus. These examples may all be good things, but they are not the marks of true discipleship that Jesus gives us in the Bible. They are not the "make-or-break", non-negotiables of the Christian faith used to identify people as real believers.

Then, what are the non-negotiables?

The first one is PRAYING.

There are many things you can decide not to do and still be in tight with Jesus, but deciding to avoid talking to Him or listening to Him is a deal breaker. This one falls into the common sense category. Trying to be right with God without ever praying is like marrying someone with the condition that you never communicate after the vows are exchanged. It doesn't work.

Another reason I would consider this essential is that Jesus commanded, taught, and modeled prayer for usSo far, these are the obvious reasons why prayer is important. 

There is one more truth, though, that needs to be highlighted in describing the necessity of prayer. It is, quite literally, how disciples are made. There is an illusion that people are persuaded into the kingdom of God, but it is probably more accurate to say that people are prayed into the kingdom. Receiving God's grace in Jesus is not a matter of the wisdom of the world, but is the response when are minds are "set on things above."

One of the interesting ironies of the gospel is that it cannot be shared by human means because it is SPIRIT-ual. The only way to make sense of the gospel or understand wisdom of the Spirit is to have Him reveal it to you. Prayer opens a channel for that to happen. It is how we know His mind, heart, and will.

What is critical to teach children is that prayer is how Jesus taught us to connect with God. We don't water down the message about prayer, but rather keep it simple because children can actually lead us in this area and have powerful relationships with God through prayer.

The final point about prayer is that it is a great example of the freedom we have in Christ. Prayer is not regulated. There is no requirement for a person to pray in a certain posture, at a certain volume, with certain words, at certain times, or in certain places. A conversation with God can be had anywhere. In fact, that is what is so great. I can talk to God or listen to Him at home, at my work, in my car, on the sidewalk, during a meeting, in a class, when I am alone, when I am nervous or happy or sad or confused, or even while I am at my computer typing the words to a blog. Thank you, Lord!

The guiding question for a disciple or church could be, Are we seeing prayers being answered?

Monday, January 20, 2014

Expectations vs. Wishes (part 3)

(In last week's post, we emphasized the need to be explicit with expectations. Go here to read Part 1 or Part 2.)

So, how can we create a culture built on common expectations that guide our daily work?

Here are principles to consider when clearly defining and stating expectations.

A great way to ensure fairness and safety in a school is to only create expectations that apply to ALL people, regardless of age, gender, background, etc. It is true that the actual behavior in response to an expectation might look different from one individual to another as there is certainly a need for differentiation. For example, a teacher will meet the expectation of being prepared for class in a different manner than a student. Still, the expectation of being prepared would apply to both teachers and students.
Some would challenge this suggestion by saying that adults and teachers should be held to different standards. Is it responsible, though, to expect something of children that you wouldn't expect of adults? Is it always appropriate to start a discussion about expectations on what we want to see from students? 

Rule of thumb: If breathing is not a prerequisite to following your rule or meeting your expectation for students, then change it. Too often, we define for students the exact behaviors we don't want to see from them. Don't talk. No horseplay. Don't get out of your seat. Don't be late to class. No running in the halls.  (All things a dead man can do.) Instead, we could clarify and model a positively stated expectation, and then, well, expect it.

Of course, we already do this in education. It is often just too late. I see positively stated expectations frequently on behavior contracts used as interventions with students for discipline reasons. There is nothing wrong with this practice. Indeed, it is helpful in many cases to offer students (and even adults) replacement behaviors. It is a quick way of telling kids, "Stop doing ___ and start doing ___ instead."

What about just having "placement" behaviors that are clearly defined up front for all students? Then, each person can know how to act in this "place" all the time.

This seems obvious, but can be tricky. Clarity with expectations usually is found in the action words. The most important words of our expectations might be the verbs and adverbs. The guiding question is, "What does that look like?" So, even with a broad expectation, such as Be Respectful, there need to be defined behaviors that demonstrate it.

In fact, a good check-for-understanding is not only asking a student to tell you what an expectation is, but to also show you. If a young person can describe it in words yet has trouble getting his body to physically act it out, then we still have work to do in defining the expectation. Again, although it might seem elementary, this principle applies just as equally to adult stakeholders (teachers, coaches, administrators, parents, etc.).

Another specific characteristic of true expectations is that they never go away. Sure, there are expectations that are particular to certain events or times, but in the context of developing a campus culture the emphasis should be on expectations that always guide daily routines. As educators, we might ask, "What is it that we expect from students and each other everyday, all day?" Consider these silly scenarios to make the point in the context of the following expectations.
Expectation = Be Productive: The high school principal is driving to work one day when he suddenly realizes, "Oh no! Today is Thursday! I forgot that my science department decided to not be productive on every other Thursday. I can't have that meeting with them after all." 
Expectation = Be Prepared: The teachers didn't bother gathering for the called meeting because last time the assistant principal wasn't prepared. After that, a decision was made by central office that this particular AP didn't have to be prepared for any more meetings this grading period.
Expectation = Be Respectful: The faculty has decided that since Fridays after lunch are when students are most riled up and have difficulty following directions and settling down, they will have a ten-minute period after each lunch where students can go outside and yell at one another and push each other around to release some of their energy.
Admittedly, these are absurd accounts. But that is the point! If an expectation is good enough to have part of the time, then it is good enough to have all the time. Without consistent expectations, there would be chaos. This leads to the final point about what to do when we fail to meet expectations. As shown here, the expectations can't be removed even when we fall short. So, what happens next? be continued next week

Friday, January 17, 2014

Ten Thousand Villages and Elephant Poop

My daughter and her friend on our trip to Ten Thousand Villages store in Austin earlier this month

Today, I am featuring Ten Thousand Villages, a fair trade retailer with stores all over, including AustinI went there for the first time around New Year's, and the fact that I am sharing about this enjoyable shopping experience is more incredible that you can imagine because I hate shopping! 

But this place is about more than shopping. It is about a cause, which they put front and center. It is about a story, or more precisely, many stories. Stories of real lives affected by their business.

It was not merely a shopping experience, but a learning and giving experience.

Wow! You can get a deal on everything here!

My daughter's favorite part was learning about the paper products that are made from elephant poop! 

Did you know that elephants poop about 16 times a day?! See, that is just one of the life-changing facts we learned while in the store! I tried to move on to more serious lessons, but my middle school daughter was kind of stuck on this one. Okay, me too, a little.

Poop to paper process

The whole world of fair trade markets is still new to me. I am grateful to Allies for inviting Becca to share with ordinary people like me about the concept of fair trade and the mission of organizations like Ten Thousand Villages.

These non-profits alter the lives of individuals and slowly make systemic changes to the international marketplace.
All this work requires countless hours of donated time because stores like this one are completely volunteer-run.

Here is the blurb about Ten Thousand Villages from their website:

Ten Thousand Villages is an exceptional source for unique handmade gifts, jewelry, home decor, art and sculpture, textiles, serveware and personal accessories representing the diverse cultures of artisans in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East. One of the world's largest fair trade organizations and a founding member of the World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO), the company strives to improve the livelihood of tens of thousands of disadvantaged artisans in 38 countries. Ten Thousand Villages accomplishes this by establishing a sustainable market for handmade products in North America, and building long term buying relationships in places where skilled artisan partners lack opportunities for stable income. Product sales help pay for food, education, healthcare and housing for artisans who would otherwise be unemployed or underemployed.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Plan on a Page

With our mission clearly set to Be a Movement Making Disciples That Make Disciples, it is time to shift to the plan to carry out this mission. In keeping with our theme of staying simple, a church's or ministry's plan does not have to be a complicated book full of rules and regulations if we intend to let Jesus build and run His own church. While we strive to communicate our mission in a minute or less, we also strive to capture all the essential aspects of our disciple-making plan on no more than one page.

Why a "Plan on a Page"?
I am coming from an institutional church (IC) background as part of a denomination. We had a pretty thick and comprehensive manual for our church policies, government, doctrines, sacraments, etc. There were rules and regulations from how to run a board meeting to acquiring property to membership requirements and dozens of other issues. There is nothing inherently wrong with all that. Organizations need many of those things in place to function, but one can get away from the fact that so many policies and guidelines have to be put in effect for the purpose of exclusion. It is often important for organizations to define what they are not willing to do or support, so the list gets longer and longer and longer. For them, it is necessary to identify who is in and who is out.

But I want to be sure that we are focused on simple, reproducible, non-negotiable norms for all disciples. Some people refer to them as the "irreducible minimum" standards of what characterize a group or movement. Our "Plan on a Page" is the how of our mission and consists of the core practices that will define us.

I cannot stress enough just how important this document is because of what it implies. There are only four components that we recognize as absolutely mandatory to fulfill the Great Commission that Jesus set out. By even creating this document and making the claim that this is all that is necessary to be part of the genuine church, it quickly becomes our doctrinal statement, too. All four items are relevant to ALL followers and are not reserved for selected individuals, such as pastors or priests. In fact, each of the following actions can be carried out by any disciple, anywhere and at any time.

Summary of what is on our Plan on a Page:

Our plan is to carry out four practices to make disciples that make disciples.

PRAYING - Because it is how Jesus taught us to learn to care about what God cares about

GOING - So that we can be doing good everywhere God sends us

BAPTIZING - Letting people know that Jesus washes away our sins and we want to follow Him wholeheartedly

TEACHING - Obeying and spreading Jesus' command to love

My understanding of what the church is and how it works has gone from a 399-page manual to something much simpler. In fact, it takes 397 less pages for us to convey the both the mission and plan that direct our simple church! I trust that puts my paradigm shift in perspective.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Expectations vs. Wishes (part 2)

(In last week's post, we clearly defined expectations and wishes. Go here to read Part 1.)

Do Our Actions Betray Our Words?

Now, we may hone in on the implications of this discussion in our school settings. Consider the following two scenarios in light of how we have defined expectations and wishes. Reflect on whether you believe the teacher in each case is expressing a wish or an expectation.

Scenario 1
A teacher encourages her students while passing out the unit test in math class, "I have faith in all of you. Remember, you have learned all the material on this test. Have confidence. I know you will all do well. I expect everyone to pass with flying colors!" Behind the teacher, on the front board, is a note including the date, time, and policy for test re-takes for those that fail.

Scenario 2
Students enter the classroom after greeting their teacher at the door. A starter, or warm-up activity, is projected on the screen. Most students quickly take their seats and begin working on the starter. When the bell rings, the teacher enters the room and closes the door behind her. She notices a couple boys standing near their desks with no supplies out, conversing about their favorite parts of a movie they saw over the weekend. She calmly says to them, "You know the routine for how we start class everyday. Now, instead of being able to take attendance right away, I am taking time to address you about what you should be doing." Then, she asks, "What is your assigned task right now?" One boy answers with an eyeroll, "Do the starter." The teacher responds, "Good. Then, please do so now. Thank you."

Let's approach it from another angle. Read the following statements and decide if each item constitutes a wish or an expectation in your mind.

  • Students should have clean, organized lockers.
  • Students should be in class before the tardy bell rings.
  • Students need to show respect to adults by addressing them with words like "sir" and "ma'am."
  • Students are responsible for their own learning.
  • If students don't turn their work in on time, then they should fail.
Well, how did you label them? Was it difficult to fit any of them in one category or the other? What were your thoughts as you analyzed these beliefs?

Explicitly Communicating Expectations

There is a simple axiom that I wish (yes, wish; I don't expect it) was written across the front doors of all schools (and stores, businesses, houses, etc. for that matter): People cannot be held responsible for information they do not have.

We spend a great deal of time in education, appropriately so, talking about learning targets and objectives. We stress the importance of clearly defining our expected outcomes. In fact, we have almost developed an entire vocabulary in our field just for this topic. But whether we call them aims, goals, targets, outcomes, objectives, or "beginning with the end in mind," the point is still the same. The purpose is for teachers and students to know when they have met a particular objective and what it takes to show that they have met it.

If we do this with academic behaviors, then should it be any different with other behaviors? If not, then our premise is that for students to recognize and correct misbehavior, they must first be able to identify the expected behavior. A person only knows he missed a target if he can locate the target in the first place.
I doubt anyone gets more frustrated than me at this idea of having to inform and re-inform students of expectations that I personally believe should be a part of common sense. How many times have you wanted to scream, "You know that's wrong! Knock it off!"?

Still, it might be worth taking another look at just how clear we are being versus how clear we think we are being. I can't help but get a kick out of faculty meetings and staff development sessions. You, too, can have this same twisted sense of humor. Try this. Next time you are at a faculty meeting, count the number of times that audience members (yes, us) ask for directions to be repeated or clarified.

Before listing specific suggestions to help ensure that expectations are clear and explicit, there is one more important point. Contrary to the superstition attached to wishes ("Don't tell anyone or it won't come true."), there is a guarantee that goes with expectations. Don't tell everyone and it won't come true! If you want to ensure that people won't follow expectations, assume they already know them. be continued next week

Friday, January 10, 2014

Free 2 Work Resource

Free2Work - The Story behind the barcode from New Creation Collective on Vimeo.

One of the things I will occasionally be using this blog for is to highlight or promote resources associated with ending slavery and human trafficking in the world today. I think this purpose fits perfectly with the overall theme of my blog of finding ways to see "how much greater" we can make the world for the next generation that comes after us. So, in reflecting on the world I want my children to grow up in and what I believe is dear to the heart of Jesus, I cannot think of a better cause to which we can put our time and energy and money.

Today, I start with the Free2Work app (see image below) and website (at this link). You can scan any product while you are at the store and get quick background information.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Great Church Programs...Oh, and Jesus too!

(This is a quick follow-up to yesterday's post about our "Mission in a Minute".)

One thing that is intentional about how I share our mission is how quickly I bring up the name Jesus. The mission is founded on the belief that if more people acted like Jesus and let Jesus love others through them, then the world would be a much greater place (tying in with the overall theme of my blog). Simply, if we want to raise healthy children, build better communities, change people's lives, etc., then start obsessing over Jesus.

Our mission forces me to define what a disciple is right away, which brings up another reference to Jesus. The whole point of everything we are about has to be Jesus. Otherwise, we become focused on man-made systems that have the power to save no one.

This is a paradigm shift for many churchgoers. What I have noticed about many folks in traditional churches (and I was this way myself) is that they are good at telling people about their church programs, but not as good at telling people about Jesus. The conversation usually includes phrases like these:

  • You should come check out the children's ministry at our church.
  • You should hear our pastor preach. He uses videos and props and doesn't make it boring.
  • There is a rock band coming to our youth group service this weekend. Want to come?

Again, there is nothing wrong with any of these things...unless they replace Jesus. This doesn't happen intentionally, of course. No churchgoer is going to say that Jesus is not important to them. However, I have experienced the subtle, gradual way Jesus can be pushed aside in the name of "outreach" or "worship" or "ministry" or "stewardship". Heck, I have been the one doing the pushing before. 

To be fair, I should confess that this can be just as big a problem in simple church or house church settings. I still struggle with it. I wonder how I can still have the King of kings and Lord of all be an afterthought.

Here is a challenge for you. Set a timer for one minute and begin to list and describe all the wonderful things you know and love about your church. Then, reset the timer and list and describe all the wonderful things you know and love about Jesus. See if you run out of time or have time left over in each situation.

Remember, the answer in the New Testament was never to go to church, but it was always go to Jesus!

(Note: Strangely, one of the tags you don't find for my blog posts is Jesus. That is because I hope that He is somehow influencing or embedded in every post.)

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Mission in a Minute

I will often use the term "simple church" (sometimes "organic church") as I try to orient someone to our church practices. From the outset, I want to clarify what I mean when I use that description.

(Note: Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger actually wrote a book by the title of Simple Church that doesn't exactly fit the description of what I am talking about here. Many authors and pastors use the term while still operating out of assumptions inherent in the traditional, or conventional, church structure. That system is, in and of itself, not that simple. On the contrary, it is inherently complex.)

For me, the distinguishing characteristic of simplicity is reproducibility. In other words, something is simple when it is easily reproducible by others. You will hear me return to this idea often, especially when it comes to practices or routines used in meetings and teachings concerning children.

Mission is the first and most critical issue for us to simplify and unite around. Because it should not take that long to express the supreme goal and priority of our purpose, I challenge myself to communicate our community's mission in less than a minute. It starts with a short phrase or sentence that explains why we exist.

(Note: As much as following a business model or corporate plan bothers me in the church world, I will concede that it has helped in one area. Businesses are better at narrowing and focusing on a single vision, and more importantly, communicating that vision in a simple way. That particular practice is one of the few things the church can hold on to, as long as it does not water down the message.)

As we move forward, here is our simple and reproducible mission and plan.

Mission in a Minute

We want to be a movement making disciples that make disciples.

We use the word movement to remind ourselves that we are advancing, progressing, developing, and mobilizing for action. We are going, not staying. The opposite of movement is indifference and stagnation.

We say that we are making disciples that make disciples because that is our fundamental call from God. It is our way of saying that we want to act like Jesus so that others will want to act like Jesus, which in turn will make a positive impact on the world with love, truth, and freedom.

Here is a video of me sharing our mission.

This is our mission - why we exist and what we hope to achieve.
How we carry out our mission is our Plan (that can fit on less than one page) - how we carry out the mission, which I will get to next time.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Expectations vs. Wishes (part 1) - What Do We Want for Our Kids and Ourselves?

INTRO: School leaders everywhere claim to hold high expectations of their students. Obviously, it would be ridiculous to claim otherwise. So, we see and hear the mantra in campus mission statements, speeches by superintendents, and campaigns by school board candidates. Of course, this is how it should be! The problem, as I see it, is not with the declaration that we should have high expectations of all students. My concern, quite frankly, is that we simply don't mean it.

Defining Expectations
Our problem is not that we intentionally hold low expectations of our students, but we fail to define exactly what it is we expect. By default, we go around repeating slogans that resemble "wishes" more than true, realisitic expectations.
To create an environment that truly nurtures high expectations, one must clearly define what expectations are in the first place. Being explicit about what an expectation is and is not, I believe, is one of the most concrete tasks that school leaders can perform to lay the foundation for successful student learning. Furthermore, this work at the "front end" will also support professional development and adult learning.
Therefore, let's begin with a definition of expectation. An expectation is something anticipated, something we can look forward to, an event that one not only hopes for, but also trusts will happen. In our minds, a true expectation is so certain to occur that we make plans accordingly. For instance, I expect the sun to set this evening and to rise again tomorrow. I am so sure of it that I plan my eating and sleeping patterns (sometimes not all that consistently) based upon this expectation.
The key criterion of an expectation is that it is worth arranging one's life (or work or play, or in our case, class or school) around. In other words, to expect is to fully believe to the point of acting. On Monday morning, for example, I expect to still have my job. As a result of this expectation, I plan to wake up early, dress a certain way, leave an adequate time for the commute (another aspect dependent on real expectations of traffic flow, functioning street lights, etc.) and so on in order to arrive at my job. There is an "expectation...action" conditional relationship just as there is an "if...then" relationship.
The practical point here is that there are very real consequences to our plans if expectations are not met. Continuing with my previous illustration, if an unexpected delay arises, such as road construction or a car accident that I could not have foreseen, then I will be late to work, or at the very least, I will have to find another route. In short, my original plan will be insufficient and must change. Therefore, the first test to tell if a true expectation exists is whether plans will have to change as a result of it not occuring.

This, in turn, becomes the litmus test to determine if you truly hold an expectation of your students. If you think you expect something of them, then ask yourself, "What changes in my plans does it create if they do not meet it?"

"Close Your Eyes and Make a Wish"
We've all been to birthday parties and know that "magic" moment when the celebrated person gets to blow out the candles on the cake. Following what is usually an off-key performance of the famous song in which most participants are lip-syncing "Happy Birthday to you," somebody reminds the aging individual of the ever-so-crucial directions about closing eyes and "don't tell anyone or it won't come true." The individual at the center of attention then forcefully exhales to extinguish all the flames, simultaneously covering a delicious desert with an invisible layer of spit. (We do like our strange traditions.)

But the most important part of this tradition, for our context, is what happens next. Nothing! There is not a single change to anyone's plans, including the birthday person, based upon the wish that was made. Everyone merely goes on as if nothing has changed.

A wish is what someone does when buying a lottery ticket or bringing in the New Year. A wish is almost the opposite of an expectation because it precisely deals with wanting things to be different than they really are. Wishes do not lead to action because there is no serious belief that they will happen. To make the point, let's return to my analogy of going to work on Monday morning. I may wish I didn't have to go to work the entire weekend leading up to Monday, but come Monday morning I will find myself carrying out all the necessary plans to meet my expectations and arrive to work on time.

Before analyzing our common practices in schools, here is the basic summary of our discussion. Expectations guide our plans because we are so sure they will happen. Wishes do not guide anything, but only offer distractions to the reality we face. Therefore, I submit that spending more professional time on wishes in our schools is a waste of time, at best, and more often worse, a hindrance to student learning. be continued next week

Friday, January 3, 2014

Happy New Year to Our Troops

I had a great visit with one of my best friends (he is more like a brother really) just recently after his return from service in Afghanistan. 

As I think of what many of our troops face during their missions and deployments, I see it as the very definition of courage. Here is the meaning of the word

Courage:  mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty

Being around members of our military is often awkward for me, and it is because of this word. I have never served in any of our forces, so I don't ever pretend to understand the sacrifice they have made. When I think of my own life, I simply and all-too-clearly see my lack of the things in this definition - mental toughness, perseverance, etc. Then, I compare that with what I see in a man or woman (regardless of age) in our military, where these traits seem to be in abundance. The discrepancy is overwhelming, and thus, the awkwardness.

I want to say, "Thank you." I want to say, "I appreciate you." I want to say, "What you do is amazing." But anything I want to say seems so insufficient.

So, to all troops, I start this year with an apology on behalf of myself and anyone else who feels the way I do. I am sorry that my words, our words, are so inadequate to express gratitude. They always will be. So, please just know that if we don't always say how much we admire and appreciate your commitment and bravery, then it is merely because we don't know how. There is no phrase we can share with you that conveys the value of the freedom we enjoy. It is deeper than that.

I pray for peace in 2014. Here is to a blessed New Year to all the men and women in uniform, and to their families.

Thanks, Dave, for sharing this version of the National Anthem:

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Will I Go to Church in 2014?

This time of year is when we contemplate resolutions for the next 365-day stint in our existence. I am no different. I reflect on goals in my life, constantly questioning whether I am doing something worthwhile or not. While I have figured (for now) that New Year's resolutions aren't all that effective for me, there is one area in which I want to resolve consistently to do a better job. It is actually how I answer one question that I am often asked: "Where do you go to church?"

It is such a simple question and the person asking is usually only looking for a word or phrase in response. It is merely meant to be a request for factual information, not an invitation to a philosophical discussion or a probe into my Christian theology. But see, that's the problem. It is all that for me. My wife is right. "Marc, you over-think things way too much!" (Like "over-think" - is it one word or two? I compromise with a hyphen, but it still bothers me.)

Enter the crazy world of my mind. If inside, you would find that when someone asks me if, or where, I go to church, my mental process  instantly generates a set of questions in response. What do you mean by "go to church"? Does anyone really go to church? Is the church a place? How do you define "church"?

Fortunately, I don't always say all these thoughts out loud. But what I have done before is not much better. At one point, I decided I would reply, "I don't go to church. I am the church." That only led me to stammer to clarify what I meant as the person looked at me like they had just stumbled upon a cult leader. Worse, as the words came out of my mouth, I felt like one.

Ultimately, there has to be a better way for me not only to answer a simple question in a simple way and still remain true to my convictions. I resolve to find it. I also resolve to do a better job of sharing why something seemingly so mundane is actually extremely important.

The truth is that the church is actually very dear to me. I have friends and family that I meet with regularly that I consider the church. The church is more about who we are than where we gather. I don't mean that in some kind of politically correct, New Age-y kind of way, but in a Biblical, historical, down-to-earth, real Jesus kind of way.

Simply, the church is empowered people on mission, or followers of Jesus in action. There is an identity piece and a practice piece. Both elements come together to define the church, and when done right, they always merge to honor the One who builds the church. It is beautiful because it exalts Jesus, not us.

So, if I don't "go to church," then what do I do? That is exactly what I need to get better at expressing to others, whether or not they ask me where I go to church.

In some ways, the people I share my faith with are not all that different from a typical church. We have a mission, plan, gatherings, habits, and metrics to evaluate how we are doing. In other ways, we are very different from typical churches because just about all those things I listed are understood on substantially and pragmatically distinct terms.