Monday, November 18, 2013

Mr. Keating Goes to Public Education

"Let me be really clear: Great teachers are wonderful. They change lives. We need them. The problem is that most schools don't like great teachers. They're organized to stamp them out, bore them, bureaucratize them, and make them average."
- Seth Godin, Linchpin

I'm offering a few brief thoughts on public education today.

My wife teaches second grade. She is good at it. She possesses--has always possessed--an extraordinary social gift. She connects with kids, spreads love, makes people feel valued, creates inclusion, and spawns the desire to please. She has the God-given ability to inspire children to believe in themselves and want to learn. It is the very essence of effective classroom teaching. Without even trying, she is a teaching genius.

She works in an environment in which these essential qualities are overlooked, and worse, buried under the demanding expectations of test scores, conformity, and bureaucracy.

I'm not sure whose fault it is--parents, politicians, the faceless entity known as Public Education? I'm not casting blame, I'm making an observation, and a biased one at that. I'm a simple-minded observer. I know that Karen is a great teacher. I also know that she feels like a failure much of the time, unable to complete her work in a reasonable amount of hours, under constant demands of prodigious amounts of record-keeping and educational gobbledygook, forced to attend a multitude of meetings labeled by initials that no-one can explain, judged by the test scores instead of the personal success of her students. Every day she faces incredible challenges to keep up. She gets up at 4:30am and goes to bed after 11:00pm. She is never finished. I admire her more than she knows.

She taught many years ago, before we had children, and she's been back at now for about eight years. Each year the job gets harder. Each year it changes just for the sake of change. Each year it requires more loyalty to technology and less to common sense. Each year it becomes less about the teacher as a human, and more about the teacher as a factory worker. The creation of curriculum flows ever more upward and loses touch with the needs of each child. The pressure of meeting the political demands of a failing system flows downward, squashing people who simply love to teach under its weight. I have a brother who is a principal, and a sister-in-law who is a teacher. Both are, like my wife, exceptional at what they do. I think they would agree that public education has become widget-making instead of art, and what is lost in this Faustian transaction is the intrinsic value of the social genius who can unleash the dreams and talents of each unique child under her charge.

Remember John Keating? He was the Robin Williams character in Dead Poets Society whose unorthodox style inspired his buttoned-up prep school boys to pursue Carpe Diem instead of Carpe SAT. They learned to love poetry and dream big dreams while studying engineering to please the establishment. Well, Mr. Keating is dead. He didn't last at Welton. He would never get hired in Frederick County, and if he did, he'd be exhausted from the bureaucratic beat-down.

I wonder if, at some point, the whole system will break down. The world is changing. There's no longer a need to create a society of corporate minions. The days of working 40 years for one company in order to build your pension are over. The new world favors movement, creativity, art, and entrepreneurship. It favors those uncontrollable, outside-the-box thinkers whose gift isn't good test scores, but new ways of thinking and seeing the possibilities. It won't favor those who succeed within public education, but those who succeed in spite of it. I don't know how or when it will happen, or what it will look like, but I believe it's inevitable. Great teachers cannot be kept under wraps forever. Mr. Keating will rise again.

Monday, November 11, 2013

It's good they stink

I have my Sundays back!

The life of a youth pastor revolves around Sunday--at least it does for me, since our youth ministry meets on Sunday evenings, and of course we have church in the morning. Every fall Sunday since I've been at Mountain View, I've felt the frustrating tug of my other career -- being a Pittsburgh Steelers' fan.

Yes, I know it sounds trivial, but one of the challenges of the life I've chosen is that Sunday afternoons in the fall do not allow me to watch much football. Both my location (Maryland -- few Steeler games on TV) and schedule (Sundays very full) make it difficult to indulge one of my primary hobbies. With the Steelers being so good the past 10 years or so, I've constantly wrestled with getting ready for youth group while wondering what my beloved team is doing.

Imagine the inner tension. There have been many times when I've had a meeting after church, or had to leave home at 4:00, just as the rare televised game was beginning. There have been many nights I had to turn the TV off in our youth room--right in the middle of the 4th quarter of a close game--because it was time to start worship. Two years ago, I heard about the fateful Tebow playoff pass to beat the Steelers from one of the kids checking his phone during my sermon. Twice in the past six years, I've had to make a difficult choice between watching the AFC Championship Game or teaching a lesson about Jesus. (The game won once; Jesus won once)

But this year that's not an issue. The Steelers are bad, really bad. They won yesterday, but they are 3-6 and have little hope of making the playoffs. They have lost to perennial also-rans like the Raiders, Titans and Vikings. Their defense had the all-time worst day in franchise history against the Patriots. It's embarrassing. It's sad.

But it's also a bit of a relief! You see, this fall, instead of worrying about what the Steelers are doing, I've been set free. With defeat mostly assured before the game starts, I've been more focused on my work. I've been able to get fully prepared. I've been able to hang out with students without being grumpy or distracted. I've been able to look a taunting Ravens fan in the eye and say, "How was your week." I've been "in the zone"--and not the red one, unless you mean the words of Jesus printed in my Bible.

So for now, it's good the Steelers stink. It makes me a better pastor and maybe a better person. Here's hoping next year's NFL draft will make me a worse one.

Monday, September 2, 2013

The Pirate Child

First of all, if you are not a baseball fan, please humor me for a few moments. Surely there is something from your childhood--an experience, a hobby, a passion of some kind--so precious to you that you cannot imagine growing up without it. It's part of who you are, your history and your identity.

Then imagine that it disappears, becoming a source of pain, disappointment or embarrassment, or getting buried so deeply by the passage of time that it doesn't even feel like it ever really existed.

For me, this was Pittsburgh Pirates baseball. I was a Pirate child.

I grew up in the 70s, and more than anything else--from the time I was a little boy--I loved baseball, and particularly, the Pittsburgh Pirates. My first game ever, at the age of 6, was Game 5 of the 1971 World Series. I don't know why my dad got tickets--he wasn't even a fan--but he did, and my two brothers and I missed school to watch Nelson Briles pitch a 2-hit shutout against the Baltimore Orioles in the cavernous Three Rivers Stadium. It was like entering Oz. I was hooked.

The next year, as my card collection was growing even faster than I was, I was sitting in the left field bleachers, enjoying my friend Kim Steiner's 7th birthday party, as Roberto Clemente stood proudly on second base, enjoying his 3000th hit. Even at age 7, I understood the significance of his accomplishment and the nobility of his character. I learned the agony of allegiance quickly when a wild pitch cost the Pirates the pennant that year against the hated Reds, and learned it even more deeply when I heard the devastating news a few months later, while putting away the Christmas tree on New Year's Day, that Clemente's plane had disappeared off the coast of Puerto Rico.

I cannot separate my childhood from the Pirates. It was a glorious time to grow up in Western Pennsylvania. The Pirates were really good, winning the division six times in the face of worthy rivals such as the Big Red Machine and the Carlton/Schmidt/Bowa-led Phillies. Their team boasted such iconic stars and zany personalities as Steve Blass, Willie Stargell, Al Oliver, Dave Parker, Manny Sanguillen, and their gravel-throated narrator, Bob Prince. I loved the Steelers and their four Super Bowls, but nothing, NOTHING, was more important to me than the fortunes of my beloved Buccos. As the decade drew to a close, and Stargell's arcing home run fell into the bullpen at Memorial Stadium, giving the Pirates a fantastical come-from-behind World Series victory and second championship of the decade (1979), I was in heaven, my life and meticulously-kept scorecard complete at the impressionable age of 14.

That night, basking in the glory of my hero's greatest moment, I did not know--could not possibly have known--how badly things would unravel and how misery and humiliation would replace pride for a very, very long time.

The Phillies won the World Series in 1980. Stargell retired in 1982. In 1985, the city was humiliated by drug trials involving in-stadium cocaine purchases by numerous members of the team and even the team mascot, the Pirate Parrot. By the late 80s the team faced a changing economic landscape, and fears of a departure to another city were real. There was a brief respite in the early 90s--three division titles--but that period ended with a crushing, pennant-losing bottom-of-the-9th single to left in Atlanta, and the free agency departure of stars Bonds and Bonilla. My oldest son, Jonathan, could hear my agonizing wails from inside his mother's womb.

That night, I knew it would get bad, but I had no idea how bad. Beginning in 1993, the Pittsburgh Pirates embarked on a period of ineptitude unprecedented in professional sports history. One bad season turned into two, into five, into 20. There were bad drafts, horrible trades, inexplicable free agent signings, bored managers, poor effort, and the most inept period of upper management in the history of upper management. Every spring I pinned my hopes on self-deceiving propaganda--a litany of players so bad it produces retrospective groaning laughter--and every year my hopes were crushed, usually by the middle of May. Twenty consecutive losing seasons culminated in legendary late-season meltdowns the past two years that left me without the heart to carry on.

Early this season, after a miserable opening week and a team batting average of .100, I shared my anger on Facebook. I couldn't go through this any more. I was finished. For real this time. I had been the hopeful, loyal apologist and optimist when none could be found, but I'd had enough. I no longer wanted to be associated with losers. These weren't the Cubs, and they weren't loveable. They were the Pirates, and they humiliated me and all who followed them.

From that very moment, things changed. The team began to win. They won big games. They climbed in the standings. They won with spirit and style. They pitched better than anyone, hit just enough to be dangerous, and out-managed most. They developed a team chemistry second to none. Now it's September 2nd, and the Pirates just won two out of three from their competitive rivals in front of sellout crowds. They have a legitimate MVP candidate (Andrew McCutchen), a roster filled with true big-leaguers, and a real chance to win something. They are only 3 wins away from ending "The Streak" and are actually tied for first place. Now I watch the games at night on my iPad, and chat about them with my boys, now all older than I was when the Pirates last won anything, in hopes that it's not too late for them to rewrite their Pirate memories.

The Pirates are formidable; they've won a lot of games, and they've won me back (it wasn't hard--I'm so easy). I feel like I felt in 1978, the year before the Pirates won the World Series, when the baseball universe was filled with anticipation and good cheer. I feel like a child again.

I hope whatever you have lost from your childhood--joys and memories buried by failure, misery, humiliation, embarrassment or just the passage of time--springs back to life and makes you feel like a Pirate child again.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The True Audience

Yesterday afternoon, Rafael Nadal and John Isner, two of the world's top tennis players, squared off in the championship of a tournament in Cincinnati. They spent a few hours hammering serves, diving for balls, and smashing great shots in front of thousands of people in the stands and hundreds of thousands of TV viewers. It was a spectacle. Professional tennis is a great spectator sport.

Meanwhile, I was playing tennis with a good friend in Urbana. We are the same age, and he always beats me because he stinks a little less than I do. I joked to Joel, my opponent, "You know, each of us has the advantage when the other guy is hitting." We were playing in front of no one, moving like three-legged deer, hitting the ball with the authority and confidence of inebriated monkeys. It's a good thing no one was watching. Old man tennis may be a spectacle too, but it's not a spectator sport.

This morning I'm reflecting on the power of being watched, and I'm asking myself a few questions: Is my life a spectator sport? Is anyone watching? Does the size of the audience matter? Does my level of play--the consistency of my life--remain the same whether I am alone with God or in the company of many? I think they call this integrity.

As a pastor, I know I am being watched. People expect certain responses and behaviors. They watch my interaction with others, or with my family, and they form opinions, good and bad, about my character and my worthiness for "ministry." I don't know if it's fair, but it's normal and I've come to expect it. People who know me well realize how normal and screwed up I am, but I confess that there are times I find myself acting a certain way just to impress strangers who might be watching. I want to please the crowd and make it look like I am something more than I really am. It's stupid. Poser.

On the other hand, there are lots of times when I fail to live up to my own expectations in the privacy of my own heart. Those are the days when my integrity is more embarrassing then old men playing bad tennis. While nobody else may see the nonsense being played out on the court of my interior life, I see it. And more importantly, my Heavenly Father sees it. He is the truest, most discerning audience of all. And while he convicts me of my failure and desires my improvement, he also loves me in spite of it all. His mercies are new every morning. I am thankful that he watches me not with judgment, but with forgiveness, compassion, and maybe even a sense of humor. It's an audience I can play before without fear, no matter how bad I look.

I hope you can play better than I do, and I hope you hear the encouraging applause of your biggest fan no matter how well or how poorly you think you are doing.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Can't Buy Me Love

"I don't care too much for money; money can't buy me love." - The Beatles

Tomorrow is payday.

It's a good thing, too, because this has been an expensive month in our household. We've had car repairs, plumbing issues, and the normal costs of raising three sons with shoes on their feet and pizza in their bellies. Let's just say that our checking account is lower than the Potomac in August. It's causing me more than a little stress.

Here's a crazy thought. What if I was due to earn $114 million over the next five years?

Wouldn't that be awesome? Wouldn't that relieve my stress? Wouldn't that bring me joy and happiness, peace and love?

Just consider the enormity of that figure. Can you even imagine how much money that is? The math is breathtaking! It represents what Karen and I would earn in 1520 years. If I had $114 million, I could pay off my house, my car, my credit card, and have 113,882,234 left. I could put the remainder in a CD paying a paltry .001% and be so flush with cash I could buy us all not only new shoes, but new socks as well--maybe even those really expensive over-priced Nike ones that would make me look cool!

Yes, if I was due to make $114 million in the next five years, I'd be the happiest man in the world. I'd be the most popular man in Frederick County. My beautiful wife would be adorned in the latest fashion, and I'd have so many friends--true and committed--I wouldn't know how to divide my time. All my worries would be over, a memory as distant as my last paycheck.

Or would they?

Maybe we should ask Alex Rodriguez.

Perhaps you've heard of him. He is one of the greatest baseball players in history. Top ten all time in homers, RBIs and runs. 15-time All Star. Finished in the top 10 MVP voting 14 times and won 3 of them. Baseball's first $250 million man. Yeah, that guy. At age 38, he is still set to make another $114 million.

He is also a steroid user and one of the most despised players in sports. His wife left him. The fans hate him. His teammates ignore him. His team would do anything to get rid of him. The media hounds him. The Commissioner's office is about to suspend him. Despite his enormous fame, talent and wealth, he never received what is most valuable--joy and happiness, peace and love. Baseball writer Buster Olney likened him to Charles Foster Kane, magnate of Citizen Kane fame--a man whose crash from the pinnacle of success left him broken and alone, without a single ally. At least he'll have his $114 million to keep him company. Too bad it won't buy him what he really needs.

So tomorrow is payday. Another day, another pizza on the table and a pair of sneakers on Thomas's feet. I'm happy about that. I'm even happier I am not Alex Rodriguez.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Not-So-Super Choice

As a lifelong, passionate Pittsburgh Steelers' fan, tomorrow's Super Bowl presents a terrible dilemma. Do I root for the hated Ravens to win and celebrate Ray Lewis' retirement party on the 50-yard line of the Superdome in front of millions? Or do I root for the 49ers, whose victory would tie them with the Steelers for most Super Bowl rings, and take away my go-to comeback for every Steeler taunt I've ever heard? It's a gut-wrenching, throat-gagging choice. I've been dreading this decision for two weeks, and I've finally decided to do what's best for yours truly. So, even though I love football and am hosting a youth group party at church, I'm going to skip the game altogether. Instead, I'm going to choose one of these options, all of which are preferable to the agony of watching this game, and worse--the specter of that too-painful post-game show. Here are some ideas I've come up with.

1. Try out that new liver and corn syrup recipe I got from Taste of Home.
2. Read War and Peace. In Russian. Backwards. Out Loud.
3. Take a cold shower, then sit on my chimney naked with some iced tea.
4. Ride the Metro with my plunger to see if I can find any public toilets that are clogged.
5. Try out my new staple gun on my forehead.
6. Mix some organic perfume from what I can find in the litter box.
7. Try to startle my dog with my face.
8. Shave my entire body with a cheese grater.
9. Download and listen to every Air Supply album ever made.
10. Join the Team Edward Fan Club.
11. Have a dance-off with Kids Bop 24.
12. Edit all the Nicki Minaj clips from American Idol into one video.
13. Start a Chihuahua collection.
14. Baste a camel.
15. Start training for a barefoot marathon.
16. Grind some glass and make a smoothie.
17. See how far I can get in my car wearing a blindfold.
18. Take the SAT practice test.
19. Watch highlights of all the Super Bowl halftime shows of the past 10 years.
20. Make some holiday garlands out of snakes.
21. Call the IRS just to make sure they haven't missed anything.
22. Smoke some used dryer sheets.
23. Walk to England.
24. Watch Mister Rogers Neighborhood: The Complete Collection.
25. Iron my back.

Those are just the first things that come to mind. If it wasn't for the small glimmer of joy I'm going to experience from being with good friends and chomping some tasty chicken wings at our party, I'd probably just sit at home and watch replays of Super Bowls IX, X, XIII, XIV, XL and XLIII. Someone, please take my iron before I hurt myself.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Church Shopping Network

“Good morning! Welcome to Faith Church. Is this your first time here?”

Yes. We were out shopping and decided to stop by.

“Oh. Well, what brings you to our church today?"

I said we were out shopping. We are looking for the best deal. You know, doing some test-driving to find the right one for us.

“Test-driving? I don’t understand.”

We are test-driving churches. Churches are like cars, you know. Every so often we need a new one. So we are comparing all the features, looking for the right one for our family. It's a big investment, so we want to find the one that is perfect for us and meets our every need before we fork over a lot of cash. Haha

“Hmm. That’s interesting. What are some of the factors you are looking for, if I may ask?"

Well, we have a checklist of sorts. We rate each church based on five things. The first thing we look for is what we call the Refrigerator Door Test.

“That’s an interesting term.”

Yes. You see, our weekends are very full and our lives are very busy with other things. So we are looking for a church that is open when we need it, like a refrigerator door. It’s good to know there always something tasty inside when the mood hits. Our church needs to have all its services at times that are convenient for us.

“Hmm. Ok. What are some other factors?"

Well, there’s also the Porridge Preaching Test.

“I don’t understand.”

You remember Goldilocks, don’t you? Some porridge is too hot, some is too cold, but some is just right? Well, we like our preaching to be convicting, but not too convicting, challenging but not too challenging, a little Jesus, but not too much Jesus. I think the Bible says something about eating the word, so we want it to be just right.

“I hope you don’t burn your tongue. What else are you looking for?”

The next thing on our checklist is the XM Radio Test.

“I bet I can guess what that is. You want to pick the music yourself?”

Of course not! We want the worship pastor to pick the music, as long as he chooses what we like. Goodness, we aren’t in charge here, are we?

“No I suppose not. Is there anything else you are looking for?”

Yes, there’s the Youth Group Snuggy Test.

“That’s a new one. What does it mean?”

You know what a Snuggy is, right? When you are in your Snuggy, you just feel so warm and content because the Snuggy revolves around you! Our teenagers don’t like to be out of their comfort zone even for a moment. So we are looking for a youth group where there’s not even a second of awkwardness or discomfort. We already make them go to school, so do you think we are going to make them go to church or youth group, too? It’s all about them, you know.

“I wonder where they got an idea like that. So, is there anything else?”

Well, there’s one last thing, actually. It’s called the Perfect Brownie Test.

“The Perfect Brownie? I think I saw that on TV. It’s that pan that turns our perfect brownies every time without sticking, isn’t it? No messes to clean up.”

Yes, that’s right. You see, in other churches we’ve been to, there were, well, difficult people. Some who were kind of strange and some whose lives were kind of messy. I know this is hard to believe, but there were even some people we didn’t like that much and who didn’t like us! So we are looking for a place where everyone is just like us and perfect every time they ‘come out of the pan,’ so to speak. Haha.

“Hmm. Well, I can see why you are still shopping. I wonder what God thinks of your 'shopping list.'"

What God thinks? I'm sure he approves. He certainly wants us to go to church and be happy, right? I mean, this is America, and we did pray about it once.

"I suppose so. Anyway, I'm sure it’s hard to find a place that meets every single one of your very reasonable needs. I don’t know if we can do it here at Faith, but you are welcome to come in and see for yourselves. The service starts in ten minutes. We have a nice coffee bar. The youth room is amazing. And we have a great nursery. Would you like to sign our visitor sheet?"

No thank you. We never sign in until we are ready to make a commitment...

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Brian Kelly -- Savior or Schmuck?

Three years ago, Brian Kelly became the head coach of the Notre Dame football team. I wrote in my blog at the time that he displayed a terrible lack of integrity by abandoning his team, the Cincinnati Bearcats, right before the biggest game in their history, a BCS bowl game. I predicted Notre Dame would regret hiring someone whose loyalty extended only to his own interests. Tomorrow night, Kelly's team plays for the National Championship. I'm sure Notre Dame fans are ecstatic at this prospect, and think hiring him was the greatest decision the school could have made. I say he's still a schmuck. I say character matters and will prove itself true in time, especially when coaching young men. Perhaps he has changed. Perhaps not. Here's a re-posting of my blog from December 2009.

Yesterday, a man named Brian Kelly accepted the head coaching position at Notre Dame. I had never heard of Brian Kelly before a few weeks ago, when I watched his former team, the Cincinnati Bearcats, beat Pitt in a miracle comeback, 45-44, to finish their regular season undefeated and win the Big East championship.

Brian Kelly seems to be a very good coach. He took Cincinnati's football program and built it into a national power in just three years. This year they are ranked third in the nation and will be playing in the Sugar Bowl in front of millions of viewers.

In that game, however, they will not be coached by Brian Kelly. He's already left for South Bend. He grabbed the money and the prestige and headed for the promised land faster than any of his players can run the 40.

This displays a lack of character that I find disheartening and shameful.

It's not his leaving that I find offensive. He's Irish and he's Catholic. Being the head coach at Notre Dame is to Irish Catholics what being being the quarterback of the Steelers is to boys from Pittsburgh. It's how he did it that I cannot fathom.

He accepted the job and agreed to leave his post while his team prepares to play their biggest game ever. He left his assistant coaches and more importantly, a group of young men he invested in and supposedly cared about, right before their greatest challenge. He's like a ship captain abandoning his vessel right before the battle. His actions demonstrated incredible lack of tact, shameless cowardice, and a frightful sense of narcissism.

This is how he did it. He met with his players after their football banquet (what should have been a happy time) and told them he was grateful that they made this possible for him. Then he told them he would not be coaching them in the Sugar Bowl and then snuck out the back door, with a police escort, leaving them to answer questions for the media. On the way out, he had time to change his Twitter and webpage, replacing Bearcats with Fighting Irishmen, red and black for green and gold.

Some of his players cried. Others were angry. All of them had to ask themselves a very legitimate question: Couldn't he have stayed for the Sugar Bowl, and headed off to his new job with a sense of completion? Couldn't he have taken some time to say goodbye to everyone he purported to care so much about? If he had done so, he could have left with honor and good will. He could have left with unburned bridges and relationships intact. He could have taught his team a lesson about commitment. He could have ended well. Instead, he made it all about him, left under the cover of darkness as a coward, and alienated everyone he purported to care about so deeply these past few years. In doing so, he revealed his true character as a selfish glory chaser and not a leader of young men.

Good luck, Notre Dame. I have a feeling you will regret this decision. You hired a good coach, and a lousy person.