Archive for April 2017

Adventures In Substitute Teaching: The Cell Phones

April 30, 2017

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                             April 30, 2017

           

I was driving to school last week for a day of substitute teaching. I’m like an educational handyman…science class one day, language arts the next, physical education the day after, and social studies right before those. On this day I was headed for another day of language arts. As I approached the school I noticed one student crossing the street while looking at his cell phone. My first thought was “That kid could get hit and he wouldn’t even know it!” My second thought was “What is so urgent that it needs to be texted by a middle school kid at 7:00 in the morning as he’s crossing the street in heavy traffic?”

I’ve noticed it quite often. Students walking to school with their eyes focused on their cell phones. Cell phones have become what could best to described as “technological alcohol!” They are tech crack! People can’t live without them, but more than that, they can’t live without them for the next five minutes.

The school I mostly substitute teach at has a program called “Face Up/Face Down.” Students know that “face down” time means their devices are face down on their desks. When it’s ‘face up” time they can use their devices to look up information for class assignments or view relevant videos connected to their study focus.

But, you guessed it, the addiction to their electronic devices has resulted in “sneakiness” as a developed student skill. One young lady was sitting at her desk with her backpack in her lap trying to look studious whenever I looked at her. But I wasn’t born yesterday. Her backpack was in her lap, for crying out loud! I knew she was using the backpack to shield her cell phone from view. I let it slide for a few minutes and then in one practiced move she simultaneously put her backpack on the floor and slid her cell phone into her pocket. She asked if she could go to the restroom, and I said yes. In essence, she probably had to text someone about where they were going to sit at lunchtime in the cafeteria. When she came back and started to place her backpack on her lap again I told her to put her cell phone away…that, even though I’m old I’m not entirely clueless. I didn’t just fall off a turnip truck! In fact, I was once gifted in the art of sneakiness!

In a different class I confiscated three cell phones- placed them on the teacher’s desk for the rest of class- because one was posting on Facebook and two others were playing video games. Here’s the thing about a student using his cell phone to play a video game in class! Others become interested in watching him play the game. There becomes this little audience behind the student! It’s not bad behavior, just behavior that students know is not allowed in class.

The two students who were playing video games ratted out the girl who was posting on Facebook. I hadn’t noticed her!

A study conducted by the psychology department of UCLA on a group of sixth graders concluded that students who were deprived of all digital media for a few days did much better in recognizing emotions than students who were allowed access of digital media. One researcher made the comment that a student can’t learn emotional cues from a screen like he can from face-to-face interaction.

Digital media has its benefits, but, like anything that is consumed too much, it has become destructive. It’s like Lay’s Potato Chips…you can’t eat just one…and suddenly you real;ize that half the bag is gone! MIT sociologist Sherry Turkle agrees with how our digital addiction effects other things. In her 2015 book Reclaiming Conversation she makes the argument that cell phones are greatly affecting people’s ability to have deep conversations. She says that 89% of Americans took out a cell phone during their last social interaction, and 82% say that it resulted in a deteriorating of the conversation they were in.

A friend of mine who manages a hair salon told me that she instituted a digital devices ban for her employees when they are working. She had noticed that their focus wasn’t on the customer entering the store, but rather on their cell phones. They fought her tooth and nail on the ban, but now are realizing how much more interaction they are having with the person whose business they need in order for the store to stay in business and continue handing them pay checks.

Back to middle school! Let me tell you! Students think that substitute teachers are essentially clueless and won’t pick up on their device activity. But you know something? I’ve been there many, many years ago. Oh, it wasn’t a cell phone used in forbidden ways, but rather “the passing of notes” in class. I could pass notes with the best of them and not be discovered. Back in the day this Wolfe was a sly fox!

Adventures in Substitute Teaching: The Hot Sauce

April 29, 2017

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                        April 29, 2017

                           

The students slowly entered the classroom, uninspired examples of adolescence. It was Wednesday…”hump day”, as they say, and they resembled marathon runners who have already run thirteen miles, but realize they have another thirteen to go. Weariness was setting in.

The lesson plan had them listening to a chapter of the book they were running through as they followed along page by page. I took attendance and started getting my bearings. It’s always interesting to me that I can figure out who the “suspects” are in the first five minutes of class even before we begin studying the material for the day. After all, they are thirteen year old adolescents who are prone to test the limits and explore the dangers, like a kid who has just learned to swim and is standing at the deep end of the pool…considering!

“Mr. Wolfe, can I go fill my water bottle?” asks a young lady who looks like she is wilting.

“Sure!”

Water bottles are part of the middle school student essentials now. Companies realize that and have made them stylish. When I was growing up our water bottle was a thermos with that cup on top that you unscrewed, poured the beverage into, and then sipped from. I don’t remember ever carrying a thermos of water with me, but most students lug their water bottles around all day…because it’s cool! They are the name brand jeans of the water world!

“Mr. Wolfe!” The voice comes from my right and I look around to see one of my basketball players standing there with tears streaming down his face.

“You all right?”

“Yes,  but could I go get a drink of water?”

“Sure!”

I notice a couple of students snickering, a sure sign that some non-curriculum activity is developing. Students don’t snicker at novels! Snickering is a reaction to their actions. It’s a hypothesis that has been proven!

Two minutes later two other students ask to be allowed to hydrate. I recognize that some of these students have just come from physical education class, but since I’ve subbed in that class I’m familiar with the physical inactivity that is prevalent.

When student #5 and #6 ask for water relief I decide to investigate a bit more as soon as we get done reading the chapter in the novel.

“Hey! Before we go on, who has the Flaming Hot Cheetos?” All eyes zoom in on one young man. He plays “the innocent card!”

“Where’s the Cheetos?” He gives me the shoulder shrug, but I watched a lot of Perry Mason episodes in my younger days and I recognize that look. He’s still proclaiming his innocence when the Assistant Principal walks in and puts the heat on! The pressure gets to him and the bag of Cheetos emerges from his backpack. Not a snack size bag, mind you, but the family size bag, or in this case the school size bag. He’s reluctant to part ways with them and his heightened sense of ownership results in him having to follow the Assistant Principal back to the office. The last words of the condemned are a lamentation of injustice. “I’m going to get in trouble because of Cheetos!” he wails as his classmates suppress their laughter.

“So…tell me the rest of the story here. Why didn’t he want to give up his bag of Flaming Hot Cheetos?” I’m looking at the class, inviting them to fill in the gaps for me.

One young lady’s hand goes up.

“Yes.”

“Mr. Wolfe, it wasn’t just Flaming Hot Cheetos. He had doused them with “Devil’s Blood.”

“Devil’s Blood?” I ask cluelessly.

“Yes, it’s an extremely hot hot sauce.”

I turn to my basketball player whose eyes are still steamy. “And you ate them?” I look at the whole class. “Why would you eat something like that?” The shoulder shrugs pop up around the room. The answer is clear! They would eat something like that because they are kids who have just recently arrived at being teenagers…and if Flaming Hot Cheetos were around when I was growing up I probably would have done the same thing…and cried like a baby!

Out of Shape Churches (Part 3)

April 23, 2017

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                               April 23, 2017

                             

Jesus’ words to his followers at The Last Supper have new meaning for me this morning. This morning my body feels broken. Don’t worry! I understand that the kind of brokenness I’m feeling is different than the heartache-filled brokenness of Jesus, but I am “feeling it” today!

I got on a treadmill yesterday and ran a couple of miles, and then did some weight-training. My hips and shoulders are having temper tantrums this morning! They are like the stiff wind that was blowing through our middle school track practice on Friday. Besides the 41 degree temperature, the wind blowing in the faces of our runners as they did 200 and 300 meter intervals around the track was biting! What do you tell a 70 pound seventh grader trying to sprint into the wind…and he forgot to bring his school-issued sweats with him? He’s thinking of a dozen reasons why what he is doing is stupid. I’m urging him on each set of sprints. A couple of our more manly coaches ran alongside the sprinters. There’s something about having a coach run with a student that causes the runner to grit it out!

I realize that today is “a quitting point” for me! Even as I write this I’m constructing my list of reasons as to why I should be “unmoved” this morning. Everything from “hip replacement”, to Sunday being a day of rest, to needing to catch up on my bible reading…as well as a few other excuses…are coming to my mind! My hips are warning me “Don’t go past this line or else!”

Years ago I ran the Chicago Marathon. At the 22 mile mark I “hit the wall!” Not literally! that’s just what they call that moment of decision. It’s when a runner is physically fatigued and mentally tired. I had cramps in both legs. I had to convince myself that I could go on, when my body told me to lay down and die! I took my inspiration from the people who lined the streets cheering the runners on..plus the embarrassment of the sixty year old woman who passed me by!

I take these recent and distant memory examples into my understanding of out-of-shape churches. Out-of-shape churches will without question face “quitting moments” in their journeys to wellness. Avoiding pain in the present will lead to debilitation in the future!

Here’s the thing! The uncomfortableness of the needed moves and decisions toward getting in shape have the enormous potential of keeping a church from seeing the long-term. It is the most tempting quitting point. It’s “the wall” moment, and it is “the wall” moment that causes churches to give up and stay unhealthy.

Rough comparison! When I was growing up and had to go see the doctor to get a shot our doctor would give me, the one who just suffered the agony, a sucker at the end of the appointment. It was a reward…and perhaps a way for the physician to ask my forgiveness for making me cry! In out-of-shape churches it would be like giving the kid a sucker and never administering the shot!

Churches are very good at avoiding life-and-death decisions. And even after deciding to move on, the lists of excuses continues to be constructed. Remember! If put to a vote the Hebrew people would have most assuredly voted to return to Egypt! Egypt was what they knew and were familiar with. The journey out of Egypt was the unknown. If put up for a vote they would have voted to return to bondage rather than walk towards the unfamiliarity of freedom!

That Biblical story is still getting played out in hundreds of churches today!

In a personal way, this morning my hips are voting to return to Egypt!

Out of Shape Churches (Part 2)

April 22, 2017

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                           April 22, 2017

                          

I heard a presentation a couple of years ago from a state high school athletic association commissioner who expressed the growing concern about the number of one-sport high school athletes who were getting injured. I remember him referring to the NCAA’s growing concern about this. More athletes, who were coming to college with full-ride athletic scholarships, were missing some or most of the competitive seasons because of injuries. The sports affected the most were volleyball and baseball. The main cause of the injuries was “over-use” of certain areas. In those two sports it was appearing in the rising number of shoulder injuries. Bottom line,  those muscles were overused and exhausted.

It doesn’t take too much intelligence to figure out that out-of-shape churches are susceptible to injury for the same reason. The saying that has been heard to ad nauseam is that “20% of the people do 80% of the work.” The truth of that statement also leads us to discover a couple of things. When twenty percent, or less, of the people are doing almost all of the work their spiritual exhaustion makes them vulnerable to hurt and injury. In the workout world a common term is that a certain body part, like a knee or a lower back, “just gave out!” A sudden movement or moment changed everything. In churches “the twenty percent” is in danger of the same thing happening…”just giving out!” Someone who has been heavily involved in a ministry- one of those constants that people just take for granted- suddenly stops showing up. In simple terms, they just pooped out! Exhaustion mixed with frustration frequently results in absence!

The other dilemma of the twenty percent is that some of those people are a bit warped to begin with. They may volunteer for anything, but no matter where a psycho church member is serving he/she is still a psycho! Put another way, if an elephant volunteers to work in a china shop there is bound to be damage!

Several years ago I injured my lower back. To be more precise I herniated a disc. The injury was because of lifting some heavy objects and putting too much stress on that area of my back. In my physical therapy sessions the therapist showed me some safer ways to pick up things that won’t cause injury, and some exercises that would help strengthen a weak area. Looking back at that, now it is evident to me that I was doing things wrong. Injury was bound to happen at some time.

I’m helping with the middle school track team right now. We spend a lot of time stretching at the beginning of practice and then at the end of practice. In other words, we do a lot of prep work before we start depending on various muscle functions. Years ago when I was planning on running the Pike’s Peak Ascent, a 13.2 race UP Pike’s Peak (affectionately referred to by my wife as “The Death Race!”) I would go over to Barr Trail, which runs up the mountain, and train. I’d run up five miles and then back down the five miles. On other days I’d run around our neighborhood for a few miles. Although the Ascent was a challenge my training preparation was essential in getting me to the top of the mountain…and surviving!

Out of shape churches are too quick to press a warm body, or an overly-committed body, into ministry work. They expect their volunteers to attack a mountain when they still breathe hard just going upstairs.

Healthy churches do a lot more preparation before the ministry race starts! Healthy churches understand the value of the Holy Spirit in the functioning of ministry.

Out of Shape Churches (Part 1)

April 21, 2017

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                    April 21, 2017

                                

My eyes were wide awake this morning at 5:45, so I pulled my AARP body out of bed and went to the YMCA to get some exercise on the basketball court. It was the second eye-opening moment I had experienced within the past twenty-four hours. The first one was when I stepped onto a scale and weighed myself. I thought I heard a cow mooing behind me!

So I laced up my Adidas’ and played some roundball…ooo, that term “roundball” has a different definition for me today!

It’s been a while since I’ve played with the early morning geezers. My substitute teaching gig has affected my physical well-being. Two times up and back and I was gasping…and that was playing cross-court! Understand that I used to run marathons! I captained my college cross-country team. Now I shoot baskets in my driveway. It slopes downhill so the ball usually even rolls back down to me!

I’m out of shape! It happened…one candy bar and Dr. Pepper at a time. So today was my first day of trying to recover some of what I lost…or should I say “lose some of what I gained!”

It hit me as I was searching for oxygen this morning that my physical condition mirrors where a lot of churches are. They are wheezing and thinking more about what once was than about what might still be. Now…I can’t take the comparison between my physical condition and a church’s state too far. I’m not suggesting that a daily regiment of activity is the cure for out of shape churches. Filling up the church calendar with church activities may lead to death faster than anything else.

Let me suggest a couple of parallels, however! I slowly came to this point where I am. It didn’t happen overnight, or even in a month. When I ran cross-country in college I weighed 120 pounds my senior year. I wouldn’t say I was chiseled, but I also didn’t have to wear any clothes that had an “X” in front of their size. My energy level was high. I remember one Saturday morning in the Spring three other teammates joined me on a 25 mile run for charity. I think we went out for dinner afterwards. In like manner, most out of shape churches don’t get to that point overnight. It occurs over a period of time. I fondly remember my 120 pound physique, but I also realize that it was who I was FORTY YEARS AGO! It is not the reality of who I am now. I’ve been in a number of congregations that talk about how it was “back in the day!” But some of them don’t realize those days are long gone. It isn’t who they are anymore, but perhaps they can begin a new journey that will lead to a new kind of health and wellness.

This morning the first step for me was to get out of bed. I’ve played a lot of basketball recently…in my dreams! For me to recover some of my physical conditioning required my willingness to take that first step, that first roll out from under the warmth of my blanket. Out of shape churches need to take that first step before they take a second step. What that first step is differs, but it must emerge out of a willingness to change. We advance a gospel that transforms, but we so often think of transformation in regards to those people who aren’t walking with Jesus yet. Transformation, however, relates to congregations just as much…and maybe even more…than individuals! Transformation comes out of a congregation that has a willingness to recognize what kind of shape they are in, admit to it, and roll out of bed!

Two hours after my early morning exercising my body is saying to me, “What did you do to me? Never do that again!” Getting back in shape, especially for a guy who turns 63 in two weeks, will not be without discomfort. The Advil bottle got opened this morning! My willingness to change will be tested tomorrow when I do some kind of exercising…or not! Getting in shape will involved some pain and suffering.

Out of shape churches face the same dilemma. Are they willing to endure some discomfort to recover their ministry and realize their purpose? Most are not that willing! Many would rather die in peace than lose the fat that has accumulated around their calling.

Some hard words for today that might tweak our warped understanding of reality, just like my knees will remind me all day long that I don’t run like I used to!

Stay with me, and I’ll try to get to some more encouraging words tomorrow…if I’m able to roll out of bed!

Seventh Grade Social Responsibility

April 19, 2017

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                            April 19, 2017

                                 

In my substitute teaching experiences I’ve recently been teaching in the “Portable Village”, a series of four classrooms outside of Timberview Middle School in Colorado Springs. I’ve worked my way down the classroom line, starting with math last week and following it up the next day with science, and then teaching social studies yesterday, and in line to finish the classroom course with Language Arts next Tuesday.

The Social Studies class I taught yesterday is the same class I did the January long-term substitute position for. I’ve gotten to know these 125 students of “Portable Village”, and enjoy them immensely!

Yesterday my assignment was to show part of a video that dealt with world poverty and possible solutions to it. In the midst of the video I was to stop and get into some discussion about our understanding of what poverty is and looks like. All four classes I taught had incredible discussions. (It also looked impressive when the assistant principal walked in and the class was quietly engaged in the discussion. What a miracle! A classroom of seventh graders quiet for a substitute teacher!)

All of the students were aware of poverty, locally and worldwide. A few of them had encountered poverty first-hand through church mission trips to distant lands, and one student who had recently moved to Colorado Springs from Uganda had experienced poverty first-hand in his family. Hopefully he will teach his classmates about the effects and struggles of poverty.

The struggle I sensed in the midst of these students is the “tipping point”…knowing about the issue and being concerned about it compared to knowing about it and being committed to being a part of the solution of it! What will cause them to tip to the side of commitment?

Unfortunately, the older generations of our society have frequently modeled behavior and attitudes that communicate life purposes of accumulation and being self-absorbed. We are elated to be in America, and separated geographically and life style-wise from the poverty of the world. I sit on my Starbucks stool as I write this, recognizing that the two dollar cup of coffee I’m sipping costs more than a vast number of people in the world will have to feed their families with today. A few minutes ago a mom pulled up in her Expedition, ran in, grabbed her mobile order of four $5.00 drinks and four pastries, which she handed out to her kids in the back seat. Doing the calculation I figured she had just willingly shelled out $35.00 for minimal nutrition. I make that judgment and then realize that I’m about twenty pounds overweight myself!

The challenge will be to bring this group of seventh graders, as well as other students around their age, to the point that they willingly want to make a difference…without injecting Baptist guilt into the equation or catchy gimmicks or celebrity endorsements. Part of the solution, in my belief system, is spiritual. Followers of Jesus are called to care with more than distant sympathy. I come from a tradition (Baptist) that emphasizes personal salvation through a relationship with Christ while we gorge ourselves at church potlucks. Having social responsibility has not been as important as having enough casseroles for people to feast upon. We talk about poverty and hunger even less than we do about tithing.

But maybe this group of seventh graders will glean some things from the new boy from Uganda that will allow them to take a step in a responsible direction! Maybe, just maybe!

Redefining What Resurrection Means

April 16, 2017

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                        April 16, 2017

                             

It’s Easter Sunday! As followers of Jesus we point to this day as the changing agent in our faith journeys. It gets referred to as Resurrection Sunday, sometimes with conviction and commitment…and sometimes because we’re paranoid people about the Easter Bunny! In about two hours I will be standing in front of a small town congregation of about 25 people proclaiming the hope of life after death, and life out of death. It has caused me to reconsider what resurrection means for this group of faith journeyers, and for myself.

When my friend Steve Wamberg and I started traveling out to Simla, forty-five minutes east of Colorado Springs, a little over a year ago, we encountered a church that had experienced its heyday two or three…or four decades ago. Some of the people still recall the Sundays when the sanctuary pews were filled in a place that seats about one hundred and twenty-five.

But things changed! The main industry in town shut down. Kids grew up, went off to college, and didn’t come back. Other people grew old and passed away and there were no others to take their places. Baptists did battle with Baptists and left for the Southern Baptist church on the edge of town. Other Baptists just turned on the TV and watched Charles Stanley.

When Steve and I started driving out and speaking on Sunday mornings we encountered a church that had a fear of closing. They can’t afford a pastor, even though there is a parsonage right next door to the church. I’m not sure if and when they will be able to afford a pastor.

As the weeks and months passed, however, there was a growing sense of hope in the midst of that small group. We’ve found what I like to call “the rhythm of community.” There’s been a couple of conflicts along the way, but you know what they say about Baptists…where there’s two Baptists there’s at least three opinions!

It has caused me to redefine resurrection. Whereas in many churches the success of Resurrection Sunday is tied into how many showed up, in Simla resurrection is tied to the growing hope of new life in the midst of an aging building. It is intimately tied to the hope of new life in the midst of impending congregational death hanging over the people.

Personally, it has brought new life into the spirit of a tired and fried pastor. You see, resurrection isn’t just about the people in the pews. It’s also about the people who lead the people in the pews.

Last summer we were able to get a few kids to go to church camp, the first time that has happened in recent memory. This year there is a congregational effort to get each of the children who are age-eligible to camp. Resurrection can sometimes grow from a seed of hope into a tree of determination.

This morning I look forward to hearing a ninety year old man named Henry lead one of the prayers. In his speaking to the Lord he anoints my soul. I look forward to seeing the five or six kids we have enjoy an Easter egg hunt after church. I look forward to hearing of this week’s farm stories from two sisters who run the family farm. I’ll chat with a former county commissioner named John about how blessed he and his wife are and how thankful he is for the grace of God. Victor, a fifth grader who comes by himself, will show up in his Sunday suit. Three year old Eric will arrive with his Minion hat on and be cared for during the children’s story by the older kids as we sit together at the front of the sanctuary. We’ll endure the music from a music machine that is about as Mayberry as you can get! The church moderator- a man named Ray who talks kind of like Andy Griffith- will lead the worship.Two of the kids will take the offering up.

Resurrection gets experienced in the shared life of the saints, and this group of saints has come to understand the hope of an empty tomb in an entirely new way.