Archive for November, 2011

Title 1, High Priority

When we were first house hunting in Nashville, the area we were looking at was zoned for a really great public school with a sterling reputation and sky high test scores.  I was excited because it seemed like, as good as Luke’s school in South Carolina was, this one was going to be significantly better.  Thus, when my husband called to tell me that he had found the perfect house in that area, I was ecstatic.  There was just one catch:

“It’s zoned for a different school.”  

He had spent the past five minutes gushing about the house, so I was not initially alarmed.  I was already on a real estate site on the computer looking at the house, and I asked him what the name of the school was, so I could look it up.

The first statistic I saw made the blood rush from my head:  “99% of students qualify for free or reduced lunch.”  There was kind of a roaring sound behind my ears when I read that.  I also saw the statistic that said that my child would be very much in the ethnic minority, but I was more hung up on the first one.

Greg told me I was a racist.

Classist,” I corrected.  “I’m a classist.

This was another “rubber meeting the road” moment for me.  I like poor people, and I want to help them.  But to send my child to their school, which I could only imagine had the host of societal problems that I had come to see were associated with poverty?  Yeeesh.

Then I looked at the test scores.  Double yeesh.  They were not good.

Greg, who was still in Nashville, said that he would suspend judgment until he toured the school.  I, on the other hand, immediately began researching “school choice” in Nashville.  Turns out that they do have a school choice option…if  your school is a “Title 1, High Priority school.”  I looked it up.

My child’s potential school was a Title 1, High Priority school.

Even the city of Nashville recognized that I would not want to send my child to that school if I could help it.

The next day, Greg toured the school and was actually pretty impressed.  He talked with the volunteer coordinator and with the principal, who was new and very enthusiastic.  He saw the big map on the wall that highlighted all 27 countries from which these students came (like, they were born in those countries).  He saw the well-behaved students sitting “criss-cross applesauce” on the floor while the teacher read to them.  His report was heartening, but to say that I was still hesitant would be an understatement.

Now, you might be wondering my son’s education situation would be featured on a blog about Kingdom Civics.  I really do believe that every part of our life should be lived to the glory of God.  And I know that God probably doesn’t care whether I have pancakes or waffles for breakfast, but I think that something as big as the education of my child would fall into His purview.  I think He cares about those kind of decisions, and while there may not be an objective right and wrong in every case, I believe that the reason we make such decisions does matter to God.

I also know that many Christians believe that our number one goal as Christian parents is to protect our children from the world.  I understand that belief, I respect it, and I even agree with it…to a degree.  I also believe, however, that as Christians, we should not make decisions out of fear, and that we have an equally important goal to teach our children how to interact with the world around them so that they will be equipped to reflect God’s glory to their culture in a way that their culture understands.  That is my personal understanding of “IN the world, but not OF the world.”  As such, I am a strong advocate of public schools.  I think that Christian families need to be participating in the public school system, especially in the early grades, and that it provides maybe the best way for Christians to get involved with their local community, their “neighbors.”

You can agree or disagree with that assessment.  What is relevant at this time is that those words represent my firm conviction, and that Luke’s school situation was testing it.  Far from making a fearless decision, I was actually quite terrified of sending my child to that school.  I’m not justifying the assumptions behind that terror; I’m just being honest.  And though in theory, I want my kids to be well-versed in other cultures, the idea of my son being the only white kid in the class was boundary-stretching for a mom who has spent all her years comfortably in the majority.  Again, it is a great idea in theory, but when it comes to your child, your child…well, let’s just say, the theory gets tested.

When we got to Nashville, we toured a couple of the schools with the higher test scores and then headed down to the Board of Education to explore our school choice options.  Turns out, that was a total bust.  The “choice” we were given was for two schools that seemed no better than our own, and were further away!  So our real choice turned out to be between “our” school and scrimping to make our private school option work.

Greg and I talked about it, and we both agreed that if we had no safety concerns about the school, then we should at least give it a shot to see if it would meet Luke’s educational needs.  One reason the test scores were so low is that they had to teach many of the children English, so they were already starting behind.  If, however, they could find a way to also challenge students like Luke, who not only knows English, but also knows how to read, then we would continue sending him there, as long as he didn’t have any huge social problems.  We figure that since the children are given standardized tests at the end of every year, we could see if Luke was falling behind, compared to other schools in Tennessee.

We toured the school.  It looked very much like my own elementary school, right down to the antiquated lunchroom.  There was definitely a melting pot of children there, and Greg even saw a girl wearing a hijab that lit up like those light-up shoes.  We both laughed at what seemed like a clear influence of American culture on foreign traditions, for better or worse.  We saw whole classes of “newcomers,” who spoke no English, and learned about the distinctions between the Kurds.  The principal gave us a tour and candidly answered all my very frank and decidedly politically incorrect questions.  It’s funny how you don’t worry about being “pc” when the best interest of your child is involved!  She was open and honest, and we really liked her.  Later, I took Luke back to see it, and the secretary took us around.  Her daughter had attended a similar public elementary school with great success and was now attending high school at the same private school we were thinking of for our children.  She was great to talk to, and I asked her lots of questions, too, including things like, “Would you send your child to this school?”  Without hesitation, she said, “Without a doubt.”  Both she and the principal marveled at how little discipline problems they had, especially when compared to the other schools where they had worked.

So this was the bottom line:  Luke liked the school and the kindergarten classrooms.  The school seemed safe.  The children in it seemed happy and well-behaved.  There were no red flags that suggested that their method of educating children was inherently faulty.

We had a choice to make.

What would you do?  Would you send your kindergartner to that school?  What if you had the same beliefs about public school that I do?

God on the Job

In January, I am going to teach a couple of classes at my alma mater.  Because it is a faith-based university, I had to write a statement explaining how I was going to incorporate my faith into the classroom setting.  I had been prepped beforehand that the wrong answer was to talk about starting class with a prayer or a Bible reading.  I’m teaching English, not a Bible class, and they were looking for something a little more subtle.

It was honestly a little bit of a stumper:  

How do I subtly integrate my faith into teaching English?

Basically, I concluded that since my whole life was to be lived to the glory of God, teaching English fell into that category.  I determined that I would try my best to imitate Christ in my personal interactions with the students.  I would treat them with love and compassion, recognizing that as college students, they are at a very vulnerable time in their lives.  Many of them have been displaced from their homes and everything they know, and are in a completely new place, where perhaps the only adults they know are their professors.  I will be mindful of that and try to support them personally as they navigate their brand new existences as college students.

Furthermore, as a Comp teacher, one of my main objectives is to teach critical thinking skills, which I believe are absolutely vital, both to a student’s personal development, and to the future of the church.  As Christians, we are called to interact with the world around us in a way that it can understand.  We need to know how do deal with different perspectives and different worldviews, and we can not effectively do that if we have not seriously examined our own worldview.  I have found that many students lack the critical thinking apparatus that allows them to do that; thus, one of my main jobs as an English teacher is to equip students to effectively engage with the “texts” around them, be they on paper, on the television, or coming from a pulpit.  The critical thinking skills they develop in Freshman English can serve not only to strengthen their own faith, but also to help them share that faith with the world.

That’s sort of the gist of what I wrote.  Maybe it was lame.  

But honestly, it’s harder than it looks.  Try it!  If someone were to interview you and ask how you integrated your faith into your job, what would you say?

My First Trip to the Hippie Stores!

One thing that made me excited about moving to the Nashville was that they had organic-y stores in a decent driving distance from my house.  It’s odd that having a Trader Joe’s and a Whole Foods nearby would make me excited b/c I’m really not that into buying organic.  However, I have recently been convicted about buying chocolate after reading this blog, and I have decided to buy start trying to buy fair trade chocolate.  I know, I know, it sounds crazy, especially for a penny pinching, coupon clipper like myself, but I just have this thing about child slavery.  I just don’t like it.  Like, at all?   And hearing about the child slavery used by the major chocolate brands kind of led to a little crisis of conscience.  I know that there is so much I don’t know about the chocolate industry, and so many systemic problems involved that I don’t know how to fix.  I know that one person buying fair trade chocolate doesn’t make any kind of difference.

But here’s what it came down to for me:

The whole purpose of my life is to bring God glory.

God loves children.  (And all people, but it is clear that children have a special place in his heart, both because of their vulnerability and because of their trusting nature.)

I also love children.

I will answer to God one day for all of my choices.

So…if I knew beyond a reasonable doubt that there is a high probability that the chocolate I purchased was made in part by children who were forced into slavery…

…and I knew that there were alternative brands of chocolate that cost a few dollars more, but were not made using child slaves…

…and I still bought the slavery chocolate to save a few bucks…

could I answer to God for that?

The answer I came to was no.  I tried to mentally weasel around it in a thousand different ways, but my conscience would not play ball.  To knowingly buy the slavery chocolate was simply unjustifiable in my mind, and I would fully expect God to hold me accountable for my willful selfishness.  Like I said, I love children, and the thought of one of them being hurt because of my casual purchase of a (let’s face it) luxury item was just unconscionable.

So that’s how I found myself in Trader Joe’s for the first time on this rainy Tuesday.

I walked in and wandered around aimlessly for a minute or two, honestly a little overwhelmed, before I ran into a sales rep.  Of course, I could not think of how to say what I was wanting, and it came out like this:

“Excuse me, I’m looking for the…you know, the…the non-child-slavery chocolate?”

Nice.

She blinked, but didn’t miss a beat:  “You mean the fair trade chocolate?”

Yep, that’s what I mean.

I was mainly looking for chocolate chips, and I told her that.  Surprisingly, she said that she wasn’t sure if they had any, and went to ask a manager.  A few minutes later, she came back with the news that they had NO FAIR TRADE CHOCOLATE.  What???  It’s Trader Joe’s!!!  Man, I thought, if Trader Joe’s is not with me, then how hippie am I?

They also don’t have sales.  Did you know that?  Nothing ever goes on sale at Trader Joe’s.  What kind of place is that?  As someone who literally plans her family’s whole menu around the weekly grocery ad, that just made my heart hurt.

Thankfully, they did have a good selection of fair trade coffee, which I was also looking into, and she told me that the nearby Whole Foods would most certainly have the chocolate.

On the way out, I did find some crunchy green beans and tried them out:

I was actually looking for something more like these

Snapea

which my neighbor, Molly, had at her house.  They were uhhh-mazing.  The green beans weren’t as great (too green-beany, if you can imagine), but they were an okay substitute.

Next it was off to Whole Foods.  They did have one brand of fair trade chocolate chips, but it was quite small and cost *sniff* $5.69.  They had all these other brands of chocolate chips, including the Whole Foods brand, which were cheaper.  Were they seriously not fair trade?  I was beginning to think that I really had these stores on too high of a pedestal.  I found a worker and asked him about it.  Together, we scoured all the bags for some sort of indication that they were fair trade.  The big mystery was the Whole Foods brand.  I mean, I just couldn’t imagine Whole Foods using slavery chocolate, not necessarily b/c of innate morals, but b/c of their clientele.  Aren’t they supposed to be super ethical and conscientious?

It’s sad, considering the magnitude of the evil involved in child slavery, but I really did not want to pay $5.69 for a tiny bag of chocolate chips.  This was where the rubber met the road for me.  It’s one thing to think, “Oh, I love the children!  I want to be like Jesus!  I want to stand up against slavery!”  It’s another thing when you are actually standing in the store holding the outrageously priced bag of, like, seven chocolate chips while living on a youth minister’s salary.  Especially when the Ghiradelli’s brand is on sale for *sob* $2.79.  Get behind me, Satan!

I told the guy my qualms and concluded with, “I mean, if this is all you have, I’ll buy it for the good of humanity, but is there any way I can find out if the Whole Foods brand is fair trade?”  He had already talked to a couple managers and came back with nothing.  But he said, “You know?  I really want to know, too.  Let’s look it up.”  He went to the computer and searched the Whole Foods website.  While he couldn’t find anything definitive, he did print out their brand’s official commitment to ethical standards and such.  It was comforting, but if I’m going to pay extra for chocolate chips, I really want to be certain.  Before I left, though, he asked if he could see one of my fair trade bags.  He used a marker to “x” through the bar code and said,

“I’m going to sample this one out to you.  You can just have it.  You know, for the good of humanity.”

That was so nice, and it made my purchase a lot easier…because I also had (yes, had) to have some fair trade cocoa mix, and, shockingly, it was not super cheap, either.

As I drove home, I pondered my emotions, especially the fact that I was feeling a little guilt at spending so much for chocolate chips and cocoa mix.  Yes, I know they are luxury items, but right now, they are not something we are willing to give up.  Plus, one of the benefits of Nashville is the superior grocery situation:  better coupons, better dairy prices, and the presence of Kroger stores.  I figure that if I double down on my couponing efforts, I can make up the difference in price between the fair trade chocolate and coffee.  And even if I can’t, I see this new purchasing move as one tiny step closer to living fully in God’s kingdom.  I want His kingdom to come, His will to be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  And surely it isn’t His will that other children suffer so that my children can have chocolate chip cookies.  Surely taking the time and money to buy fair trade advances His Kingdom and His will on earth, even if in the tiniest bit.

What do you think?  Am I crazy?  Do you make any purchasing decisions for moral reasons?  

A Great Description of our King

I’ve been working my way through the first chapter of Ephesians, and I came across an intriguing description of Christ as King.  Ephesians is very “flowy,” with one section melding seamlessly into the next, and so Paul’s prayers for the Ephesians in 1:17-19 quickly becomes a description of God’s power.  In verses 19-23, he says:

“That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only tin the present age but also in the one to come.  And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in very way” (1: 19b-23).

Whoa.

The church is the fullness of Christ, who fills everything in every way.  That sounds like a big deal.

I’m going to be mulling that over today and praying about what it means.  In the meantime, if you have any insight about how the church is the fullness of Christ, feel free to share!

Citizenship 101: What is the Kingdom of God?

What is the kingdom of God?  The short answer is:  wherever Christ reigns.

There is a degree to which Christ reigns already on this earth.  The kingdom of God is active and present within the hearts of those who follow Christ (Luke 17:21), and it comes on earth whenever God’s power overcomes darkness (Luke 11:20).  Jesus says that the Kingdom is near those who have been healed of their diseases (Luke 10:9), and He tells His followers to pray that God’s kingdom would come and His will would be done on earth (Matt. 6:10).  In terms of timeline, it seems that the kingdom of God came when Jesus came to earth (Luke 16:16).  Or perhaps it came when Jesus was crucified for our sins (John 12:31-32).  Or maybe when He was resurrected (Luke 22:18).  Regardless, it seems clear from the gospels that Jesus brought the Kingdom with Him, and that it is actively present in this world.

The Gospels are equally clear, though, that the Kingdom will only come in its fullness when Christ comes back and reigns completely.  In that sense, the Kingdom of God, though already here, has also not yet come.  That phrase, “already, but not yet,” has often been used to describe the dual nature of God’s kingdom.  There are many reasons that the Kingdom is not fully present, mainly because of God’s allowance of the continuation of sin and of man’s free will to choose who or what will rule him.  While Jesus was on earth, He warned His followers that the kingdom would not fully appear “at once,” and urged them to use their resources to further it in any way they could while they waited for it to come fully (Luke 19:11-27).  He also explained that the kingdom on earth is tied to the church (Matt. 16:18-19), which was a bold decision, since the hypocrisy and sins of the religious can actually serve to keep others out of the kingdom (Matt. 23:13).  Also, Satan’s presence on earth undercuts the kingdom’s progress, and God’s injunction against making judgments about who is in and who is out keeps the kingdom from coming fully until Christ Himself comes to judge (Matt. 13: 24-30).

I don’t think that anything I’ve written so far is that controversial since almost everyone agrees, at least in theory, that God’s kingdom is “already, but not yet.”  The controversy comes in when people start discussing where exactly on the spectrum God’s kingdom is between the “already” and the “not yet.”  Some Christians, using Luke 17:21 (“the kingdom of God is within you”) view the kingdom as a completely spiritual entity that will not have any physical component until Christ returns.  Others downplay heaven and say that Christians should be trying through their faith and actions to bring God’s kingdom physically to earth right now.  The picture of what “God’s physical kingdom on earth” looks like varies from person to person, of course, but it usually involves the attempted eradication of poverty and injustice.  Between those two extreme views of “already, but not yet,” lie a myriad of degrees of beliefs about the nature and presence of God’s kingdom on earth.  These differences matter because what one believes about the kingdom determines how one interacts with the suffering around him.  If he believes that the kingdom is purely spiritual and that it will never come physically before Christ comes back, then he is most likely less inclined to make real efforts toward ending physical suffering, instead focusing mainly the state of people’s souls.  On the other hand, the degree to which one believes God’s kingdom can physically come on earth “as it is in heaven” corresponds with the degree to which that person will work to see it come.  Those who fall on the “already” side of the spectrum also tend to be more optimistic about the power of their efforts, while the extreme “not yet’ers” tend to be pessimistic about the degree to which any real progress can be made on this earth.

The “already, but not yet” aspect of God’s kingdom is but one of its many quirky characteristics.  Another odd feature of the kingdom is that it is upside down.  If there is a “hierarchy” in God’s kingdom, it is almost the direct opposite of the natural hierarchy on earth.  For example, in the Beatitudes, Jesus says that the poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who are meek, and those who are persecuted, are blessed.  In Luke, he takes it a step further, showering blessings on those who are poor, hungry, weeping, and hated, and woes on the rich, well-fed, happy, and respected (Luke 6:20-26).  When Mary finds out she is pregnant with the Christ, she sings a song that is decidedly unflattering to the rich (Luke 1:53).  In another “upside down” moment, Jesus tells the ethnocentric Pharisees (not to dog the Pharisees; we are all naturally ethnocentric to a degree) that foreigners will enter the kingdom ahead of them (Matt. 8:11-12), and announces in a patriarchal society that the kingdom belongs to children (Matt. 18:1-5Mark 10:13-16Luke 18:16).  And lest we miss all of that, Jesus repeatedly asserts that the last will be first (Matt. 19:30Mark 9:35), capping it off with a parable that vividly demonstrates that concept in a seemingly unfair way (Matt. 20:1-16).  Furthermore, Jesus declares that those who are great in His kingdom are the ones who make themselves servants and slaves to others (Matt. 20:25-28Mark 10:41-45Matt. 23:11-12).

Perhaps most notably, Jesus kicks off his earthly ministry with a reading from Isaiah, which declares that His main ministry priorities are the poor, the prisoners, the blind, and the oppressed (Luke 4:18-19).

So, my reading of the gospels tells me that God’s kingdom is quirky.  It is “already, but not yet,” and it is “upside down.”  But it is also powerful.  My favorite description of the kingdom’s power comes not from Jesus, but from Paul, who declares that the “kingdom of God is not a matter of talk, but of power” (1 Cor. 4:20).  For some reason, I tend to forget that simple fact.  In my natural pessimism toward humanity, I forget that the kingdom of God is powerful enough to change and transform lives, including my own.  Jesus compares its expansive power to crops that grow on their own, without the farmer even understanding how (Mark 4:26-29).  He also compares it to a tiny seed that grows into a large tree, or a little yeast that works through a whole batch of dough (Matt. 13:31-33Luke 13:18-21).  We have to remember as citizens of God’s kingdom that we serve a powerful entity that is far beyond our understanding or control.

Even though this synopsis barely scratches the surface of the kingdom of God, it does address some fundamental questions of its nature.  I have lots more to write about the high price of citizenship, as well as its benefits.  The thing is, as much as I’ve studied the kingdom of God, I still have so many questions about how to live as a good citizen in it in my day to day life.  I am certainly not a teacher on the kingdom of God; I am more like a really bad student who struggles to grasp a concept that is beyond her mental capabilities.  That’s the main reason I am writing this blog.  I want to put down what I actually know about the kingdom from reading the Bible, so that I can better figure out how to live in God’s kingdom in a practical, tangible way while on earth.  I want to do this, not out of fear or a quaking desire to “be right with God,” but because I love God, and I am firmly convinced that my life has no other purpose but to serve Him and to give my life fully to Him.

I’m still learning how to do that…

So what about you?  What do you think the kingdom of God is?  How present is it on earth right now?  How do you live in God’s kingdom in your day to day life?

Juuusssst Like Jesus

I think we heard it on the John Boy and Billy show.

It was back in high school, and I was driving to school with my brother while listening to our favorite redneck radio show.  One day, they started making fun of some human efforts to walk on water.  Apparently, there was some kind of tourist attraction somewhere, where a bridge was submerged just under water, so that people could walk across it and feel like they were walking on water, “just like Jesus.”

John Boy and Billy had a good time with that idea, laughing and repeating sarcastically, “Yeah, just like Jesus!”  My brother and I got a kick out of it, and from then on, whenever we heard of someone doing something ludicrous in the name of Christ, we would look at each other and laugh, “just like Jesus!”

That picture of someone walking on a bridge and pretending they are walking on water makes a good object lesson for a lot of reasons.  For one, I think it could be used to provide a vivid contrast between surface imitation and the inner transformation that God desires in us.  But right now, what strikes me is the ridiculousness of trying to imitate Jesus in ways that you simply cannot.

Listening to the John Boy and Billy show was one thing I did back in high school.  Another thing I did was wear a WWJD bracelet.  I thought that trend was great, and I loved the idea of asking myself, “What would Jesus do?” and using it as a guide to life.  I soon realized, though, that as much as I loved the idea in theory, it often fell flat in practice.  For example, if I was getting dressed and wondering if my shirt was modest enough, I couldn’t find much help from “WWJD.”  I doubt Jesus ever wondered if His shirt was modest enough.  He wasn’t a girl.  And there were several other issues and decisions I made that I seriously doubt would have interested a Galilean carpenter in the least.

The thing is, I wasn’t Jesus.  I wasn’t going to walk on water, or clear the Temple, or heal people, or go around teaching as a lifestyle.  And so, if I was going to live the way Christ wanted me to live, I was going to need a little more than an interesting thought experiment in which I mentally replaced myself with a 2,000 year old Jewish man and acted accordingly.  I needed a larger framework, a larger code of ethics around which to order my life.

That’s one of the (many) reasons I have fallen in love with the idea of the kingdom of God.  I have read the New Testament several times in the last few years, and the kingdom of God is the one idea that has jumped out at me over and over again.  Jesus’ teachings about the kingdom of God provide the paradigm that can center one’s whole life, every moment, around God’s will.  It gives me a whole new way of looking at the world, one that is radically different, from both the prevailing culture and my own selfish practicality.

In the next few days, I am going to explore the idea of the kingdom of God in a series of posts called, “Citizenship 101,” which will hopefully become the backbone of this blog.  Although Jesus talks about it a lot, there is much debate about what it is and how fully it is present in this world.  In fact, despite the fact that I have studied the idea of the kingdom for a few years now, I myself am often torn in my opinions, and I welcome lots of feedback and differing ideas.  I would love to hear from some of my sisters and brothers, to see what they think of this radical, often controversial kingdom that Jesus spends so much time talking about.

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