Archive for December 2022

The Litter Guys

December 29, 2022

On a number of Saturday mornings, when I’m heading back home from the Starbucks stool (that I’m sitting on as I write this), I pass a man and a woman, mid-fifties, who are walking along the curbs of Austin Bluffs Boulevard. Austin Bluffs is a four-lane street that borders the east-side of our sub-division. It is heavily traveled Monday through Friday. dead-ending a few blocks away at a hospital and just a block west of Liberty High School.

Both the man and the woman carry trash bags and are wearing gloves. One of them also has one of those grasping devices that picks up objects without the person having to bend down. They make their way down the street, spotting what passing motorists have discarded. I’m not sure how much of Austin Bluffs they cover. It could be a couple of blocks or a mile, but sometimes when I pass them by their bags are taking on that puffed-out look that indicates the amount of trash they’ve collected.

A couple of times I’ve lowered my car window and shouted a “Thank you” to the couple. They look up, give a “You’re welcome” reply, and then immediately place their attention back on the asphalt for what needs to be picked up.

I don’t know the names of the couple. I’m assuming they are married to one another, but they could be siblings or next-door neighbors. I’m assuming they don’t do this on Saturday mornings because they’re bored, but rather because they see a need, and a negligence. Instead of responding, like most of us would, with a question that points fingers at who did this and who’s going to take care of this, they felt the nudge to be the litter guys for a small patch of a very large city. It isn’t about compensation or recognition. The only compensation they receive is getting their steps in and having a nice workout. The only recognition that comes their way is an occasional car horn from a speeding car, warning them to watch out. For this nameless couple, it’s about seeing a need and knowing that they can help meet it. It’s about being willing to clean up other people’s messes.

Cleaning up messes that other people make is a calling. At the middle school where I teach and coach, we have an incredible custodial crew. They each have unique personalities that I enjoy bantering back and forth with. Each school day they go about the never-ending task of cleaning up after careless kids and getting the building looking good for the next day, when the same sweeping, mopping, scrubbing, wiping, and vacuuming will happen again. I admire their resolve, their grit, and their dedication. They don’t do it for the recognition. Most of what they do happens after the students have let the building, but, like The Peanuts’ Pig Pen, their dust trails linger behind them.

I launched into one of my students one day when he started to leave the classroom without picking up a couple of pieces of trash that he had left behind. When I asked him if he expected the custodians to pick up his mess, his response hinted at his entitled personality. He said, “That’s what they get paid for.” I did not respond well!

The world has enough mess makers. What we need is more “litter guys” who are committed to making our surroundings a bit more tolerable, even though they don’t have to.

Worshipping With An Older Crowd

December 26, 2022

On Christmas Eve, Carol and I went to one of the worship services offered by our oldest daughter’s church. It was nice. The Christmas carols were upgraded with a more contemporary version that were close enough to the original to still be recognizable. The praise team offered a hint of Trans-Siberian Orchestra to the melodies. We felt sufficiently connected to the Reason for the Season and hip at the same time.

The attenders were a mix of ages, young and old, visitors and regulars, many enjoying a cup of hot chocolate or coffee in the sanctuary that, thankfully, does not have carpet. (My mom would cringe at the thought of bringing a cup of coffee into the church service. Of course, she and Dad always drank Maxwell House from coffee mug in the kitchen at the table…with Coffee Rich creamer and a teaspoon of sugar. Never in church where the careless singing of choruses might lead to a drip on “Break Thou The Bread of Life” in the hymnbook. I digress!)

With Christmas Day being on Sunday this year, I decided to venture to downtown Colorado Springs and attend Sunday morning worship at First Baptist, a congregation 150 years old whose pastor and associate I’ve come to know. Although First Baptist is an older congregation, it is a church that has a number of young families, young adults, some racial diversity, as well as a mix of well-dressed adults and others in overalls and jeans. The small congregation in the smaller town of Simla on the Colorado eastern plains, where I speak once or twice a month, was not having a service this Sunday. Two of the families were traveling out-of-state, which would have left the number of us in attendance less than the fingers on two hands.

The service at First Baptist was great. They engineered the playing of “Silent Night” on handbells BY THE CONGREGATION. Very creative. The carols that were sung were traditional, accompanied by piano and organ. A fifthysomething woman stood up and interrupted the sermon to admonish the congregation about the decorated tree, a sign of apostasy and worldliness. The associate pastor who was speaking let her say her piece for 3-4 minutes, before she was lovingly helped to the exit. The pastor masterly transitioned from the disturbance back to the delivery, even drawing something from the lady’s rant into the morning message. It was so smooth, I wondered if it had been rehearsed, but when I could still hear the lady going-off from outside the building, I knew it hadn’t been.

The Sunday morning gathering was noticeably older than the Christmas Eve crowd. I mean, there was no one under thirty, except the associate pastor, and the average age was higher than the speed limit on I-25. You see, Christmas Eve is about families being together in a service as a part of the family’s activities. Christmas Day, when it occurs on Sunday, is about church families being together. The diversity of ages at one is noticeably missing at the other. Christmas Eve worship is about a church putting its best foot forward: quality music, free chocolate, a brief pertinent message, and clear directions on where the restrooms are located. Sunday Christmas Day worship is about being with others who have been travelers on the same spiritual journey with the worshipper, familiar faces who one would go to Cracker Barrel with after church…if it was open.

To be clear, First Baptist also had a Christmas Eve service the previous day at 6pm. Although I wasn’t at that one, I’m sure that’s where the young families had gathered. The Christmas Day crowd was composed of those who had not been awakened at an early hour by young ones, although several may have arisen due to their aches and pains.

Interesting. Going to church on Christmas Eve has become the tradition, and yet, Christmas Day is traditional. Christmas Eve is more fashionable and festive; Christmas Sunday is about the fellowship. Neither is better than the other and both meet a need.

Spreading Jeer or Cheer

December 24, 2022

The past few days have seen a severe cold spell sweep the country. Even the college football games set in traditionally warmer climates haven’t escaped the plunge. The “Frozen Tundra” of Green Bay has been re-enacted in places like Fort Worth and Mobile. I tried to find an attendance figure for the First Responders Bowl that Air Force and Baylor played in at Fort Worth, where the temperature went down to 10 degrees during the game. One site listed the attendance as “0”. Although the figure was a bit higher than that, it looked like there were more players on the field than people in the stands.

Such it is in mid-December. Unfortunately, the plunge into winter came as travelers made their way across Interstates and lugged their luggage into airports. Roads were closed (My youngest daughter, husband, and two little ones were glad that there was still room in the inn in Loveland, when they discovered I-25 was closed going north) and flights were delayed or canceled. The weather brought out the Grinch and Grump in many folk.

One lady expressed her anger on social media for anyone who was desperate for reading material. She blamed the airlines, the airport, the ground crew, and the customer service agents. In essence, she blamed anyone she could think of who had nothing to do with the fact that it was 20 below. She was irritated, kinda like someone eating the last cookie and then complaining that there aren’t any more cookies.

Inconvenience and interruption have a way of bring ing our the jeers, don’t they? I admit I’m a jeering Johnny if things I plan on get side-tracked. If I discovered the water for my morning shower wasn’t hot, watch out! Or, no morning cup of coffee makes turns Billy into a bully. It’s easy to turn grumpy.

However, the stories of Christmas jeer have been counter-balanced with accounts of Christmas cheer. Our youngest daughter’s brother-in-law and his wife, stranded in Wall, South Dakota, were taken in by a family for two nights while the interstate was closed. Yesterday, the Colorado Springs Rescue Mission fed more people a hot Christmas meal than they ever had. Lily Dubose , a 13-year-old who lives in Houston, has been collecting toys for kids going through hard times since 2017. Her heart for kids has been the pulse that has seen over 30,000 toys contributed.

There’s three cheers that have impacted a helpless, the homeless, and the hurting. Christmas may bring out the Grinch, but it also causes the Gracious to emerge in unexpected ways.

Keeping Baby Jesus Safe

December 21, 2022

My nephew tells the story about a nun of the Pallottine Sisters who is all about keeping Jesus safe. The hospital that my nephew works at was begun by the Sisters in 1924 and is now the largest private employer in their West Virginia county. It almost did not come to be, since the first group of Pallottine Sisters would have been passengers on the Titanic, but their paperwork wasn’t in order yet, delaying their departure.

One of the five sisters who now provide spiritual comfort, prayer, and presence at the hospital, has taken upon herself the responsibility each Christmas of keeping the Baby Jesus safe. The hospital’s nativity set has been displayed for decades and is showing the signs of old age. The Baby Jesus as been around for so long that an AARP card could be tucked into His bed of hay.

And so the sister, well along in years herself, puts Him under lock and key each year until His “birth day”. For one day a year He appears in public, celebrating His birth, surrounded by all of the other participants of the Christmas story.

And then He disappears again, gently carted away by the sister to His place of residence for the next 363 days. If something would happen to the sister in the coming year, my nephew isn’t sure if anyone else knows where the Christ Child has been stored. In essence, each Christmas could be His last.

Depending on one’s spin of the situation, the analogies could be positive or negative. A person could take it in an adverse direction. That after Christmas, many of us put Jesus away in storage for the next year. We let the cuteness be displayed for a crowded Christmas Eve service or on the side table of the living room for the grandkids to play with, and then wrapped up and put safely away in a box, carried down to the basement.

Or we can take the direction that my brother-in-law (our nephew’s dad) took in the telling of the story to his Sunday School class. He ended it with the words, “So, remember to take Jesus with you, not just leave Him in the manger.” An excellent teachable moment filled with wise exhortation. Take Jesus with us and let His presence and person grow within us.

Lottery Ticket Gift

December 18, 2022

This past Friday was the last day of school before our Christmas break. It’s a day that has a weird blend of dread and anticipation stirred together. The dread is due to a few of natives running wild, pre-sugared before arrival and re-sugared as the day advances. The approaching couple of weeks of non-academic life tends to tempt a few of them to release their energy and excitement in unintelligent ways. The picture analogy that comes to mind is one where people riding a roller coaster keep their hands up as “The Beast” or “The Magnum” plunges toward their deaths. Whee!!!!!

On the other hand, the anticipation that flows through the staff is one that includes a respite from any 13 and 14 year old asking immediately after the assignment directions have been explained three times and displayed in bold print on the classroom screen, “What are we doing?” Teachers are ready to Saturday and the anticipation of keeping their comfy slippers on for like…the day!

The last day of school before the break also brings with it a few gifts from students and their parents as a way of saying “Thank you!” or, in some cases, “My condolences for putting up with our son!” My desk received a few offerings of chocolate, cookies, candy canes, Starbucks gift cards, and one interesting jar of pancake mix.

And then there was the lottery ticket!

The student, who I have in two classes, wrote a nice note and placed it in an envelope, along with a lottery ticket. It wasn’t a Mega-Million ticket, but rather one that could bring as much as $35,000 to the winner.

And it got me to thinking! Were the parents of the student hoping I’d win, take the money and take a hike? You know, so the school could get a REAL teacher into the classroom. Or did the parents fall one gift short of Hershey’s Pot-O-Gold box of chocolate as they were buying gifts for their child’s instructors, and had an extra lottery ticket laying around?

Or, did the student get into his parents’ stash of tickets, like I use to get into my dad’s loose change, and take just one. They wouldn’t notice that there was one less!

Getting a lottery ticket and a gift has a number of ramifications attached to it. A plate of cookies doesn’t cause me to have nearly as much mental anguis

And here’s the other thing. I don’t play the lottery. I don’t even know how I’m suppose to scratch off something on the card. It looks a lot more complicated than the scratch off card they used to give you at Kohl’s, that revealed what percent you would received off your purchase. This card, however, has rows of unrevealed riches, unrealized possibilities.

And so it’s laying on our kitchen counter at home, staring at me, itching for a scratch, whispering to my innocence. I can’t decide what to do, but I have to figure it our soon, I’m down to the piece of chocolate in my Pot-O-Gold box.

Unwrapping Jesus

December 18, 2022

This past week one of the middle school students gave a teaching friend of mine a wrapped gift. My friend said thank you and commenced to tearing off the wrapping paper. She discovered that there was another wrapped gift underneath, and then another one underneath that one. It went on like that for several more unveilings, each new package a little smaller than the previous until the last teeny-tiny gift revealed a sweet surprise.

Christmas is like that, numerous layers of verbiage, traditions, illuminated homes decorated with lights, reindeer and inflatables, bells, music, and fruitcake. Christmas has become multi-layered, which isn’t necessarily bad, but the teeny-tiny gift at the center of the festivities sometimes becomes a byproduct, kind of like the Double AA batteries that get forgotten until it’s too late.

I love Christmas. People share their love with others through homemade fudge, family Christmas letters, and being Secret Santas. Charitable organizations plan to be the beneficiaries of that spirit of generosity and people being concerned for others. Christmas has so much to offer. And the reason for the layer after layer of wrappings is because of Jesus.

There are some folk who celebrate the Holidays and follow all of the traditions that are rooted in Jesus, but they don’t mention His name. They unwrap all the presents that encapsulate the Messiah, but don’t believe in the fulfillment of the last gift, God’s gift. There’s a callousness in many folk about the spiritual dimension of the season. They are more endeared to the peanut brittle than the newborn Baby.

God’s wrappings…outcast shepherds, foreign visitors with gifts, a weary first-time father, angelic hosts…are the crowd gathered around the reason for this season. They are the unlikely invited layers of humanity and the holy who have come to the place of the Incarnate.

I confess that I often forget that as I look at the reduced price for A&W Root Beer these next two weeks, think of the Prime Rib Roast our son, David, is bringing on Christmas Day, and worship the event called the afternoon nap. I am blessed by Jesus. May I be a blessing because of Jesus. A wrapping that signals the grace of God, if you please, around the Savior.

The Gift of Irresponsible Loss

December 10, 2022

I lost a few things when I was a kid…a sweater, a few combs, my Popeye lunchbox. It went with the age, an unwelcome step toward maturity and becoming one of those responsible people. Losing things is as old as the first wacko perspective someone had on an issue.

Teaching middle-schoolers has opened my eyes to the fact that losing things is still prevalent amongst our early adolescents. I pick up more pencils in our school hallways than dandelions on a May afternoon from the school’s side yard. I have a section on my bulletin board called “The Lost Kids”. It is often populated by assignments handed in without John Henry’s name on that line at the top of the paper that says NAME. Those two things, pencils and unnamed assignments, are as normal as Velveeta Cheese was in one of my mom’s casseroles.

However, today’s emerging adolescent has upped the value of the items they lose. Cellphones and those white AirPods seem to be the new targets of those mischievous gnomes, the same ones who hide our car keys. Cellphones get laid down for a moment and the student’s attention goes elsewhere, never to return. AirPods lose their grip, wind up in some weird place, causing more panic in the young person than concern over the math test that he bombed.

The most frequent forgotten possessions are coats and water bottles. I can’t quite get my mind around the number of lost coats and hoodies that populate our lost and found area. Maybe in August and September…okay! But in the chilled November and December afternoons? I mean, if it’s 30 degrees with a strong wind, making it feel like 20, why do another truckload of coats get deposited by our awesome school custodians that evening as they clean the rooms and hallways? Did Jane and Jimmy walk home and then realize they had forgotten their coats?

The one that really mystifies me is that “village of water bottles” that have become crowded inhabitants of the lost and found area. I’m talking expensive water bottles. Hydroflask, Yeti, Camelbak, and other brands that are a bit more expensive than that plastic bottle that was picked up from the “free pile” at the neighborhood yard sale this past summer. I mean, these are $30, $40, $50 water bottles, left behind, deserted, abandoned.

BUT the story has a good ending…I guess! At the end of a school quarter, usually every two months or so, all those water bottles and coats are gathered up and taken to find new homes through the local Goodwill stores. The gift of middle school irresponsibility will bring warmth, hydration, and value to someone else’s life. That $60 Hydroflask will find new life and be a better fit in someone else’s backpack. That unappreciated Columbia coat will be embraced and bring warmth to a kid who’s old coat has sprung holes.

Even irresponsibility can bring some good. Even the trials of left-behind possessions can create a bit of hope in a kid, or a family, that faces the challenges of trying to just get by.

Leading 13 Year Olds To Water

December 4, 2022

Since I’m a Johnny-Come-Lately to teaching, perhaps my observations about “what is” has always been. Okay, I’m just going to say it! A lot of middle school students are functionally needy! Maybe back in 1967, I was the same way. 55 year removed from the awkwardness tends to fog up the clarity of my memories.

Middle school students are socially, emotionally, intentionally, and common-sensiky needy. The pandemic stunted their growth in a boatload of ways. And now they hang around with other stunted young adolescents who are also trying to catch up with the wagon train of youth that has moved on down the trail.

But how do they catch up? I see the confusion evident in many of them. How do they catch up on missing work? How do they catch up when their a missing link in their educational chain? It reminds me of a young guy I had in track a few years ago. He had come around to the end of his third lap in the 1600 Meter Run. The leaders had lapped him, which was not unusual, but when he crossed the finish line after Lap 3, he stopped. He thought he had run four laps and was clueless about what he had missed.

Many of our middle school students are like that. They’re missing something, but they’re clueless about what it is. They are floundering in a sea of uncertainty.

I see it in what they place value in and what has gone by the wayside. An eighth-grader’s mantra is “Friends will come and go, but my AirPods are here for ever.” Come January they will discover how quickly AirPods will make an exit during the school day. One AirPod in a kid’s ear is the updated version of a pierced ear. It’s a fashion statement that also allows them to focus on the consistent rhythm of the music, instead of facing ands talking to people.

I see it in the inability to prepare for tests and finish assignments. It didn’t occur to me until this past week. They had a study sheet with the definitions of poetry terms. They had filled in the answers from the previous day’s classroom presentation. I know they wrote the definitions because they told me to not go to the next slide yet. They were still writing down the definition and explanations. However, I’m pretty sure that only a few looked at the study sheet again before the test was administered. It hit me like the poetic punch of a couplet that I’ll be needing to teach many of them, maybe reteach, how to study and prepare.

The pandemic hit different kids in different ways. Some kids who are academically efficient had a hard time relating to their classmates, while others have become incredible artists but displaying incredible chasms in their core subject performance. Some students are erratic in behavior and mood swings, while others gravitate to whatever was consistently there for them in the pandemic times.

In sports and physical exercise, you can see the wide gap between those who founds ways to develop their understanding of a sport, whether it was by playing on a club team of some kind, having a personal trainer, or having the desire to work on their skills on their own time versus those who discovered the softness of the couch, the ease grip of the video game controller, and the lack of attention from parents who were also trying to figure out what was going to happen next in their lives.

As a coach in three different sports, I’ve never seen such a lack of fundamental skills in so many. Physical exercise took a sabbatical from a lot of students and it hasn’t returned.

And then there’s the behavior, or as I call it, “The tendency to do stupid!” The lobby areas of our school administers and counselors resemble the waiting rooms of ER’s. Johnny threw Jimmy’s backpack across the room because Jimmy wouldn’t share a Tootsie Roll with Johnny. Jenny started a disturbing rumor about Joanie because Joanie hadn’t given Jenny a hallway hug for there twentieth time one day. Judy got caught on security video taking a piece of pizza and smashing it on the hallway floor. My crime back in high school was to skip class one day when Ms. Rolfe was our substitute teacher for a class. I went to the gym and shot baskets. I don’t know if Ms, Rolfe ever discovered my breech of conduct, but I do remember avoiding her for the next two Sundays at church, since we both attended First Baptist Church. She sat on the right side and I veered to the left.

These last several weeks of my classroom adventures have been eyeopening, humorous, as well as tragic. We have a habit of thinking that nothing affects us, nothing touches and alters our inner core and outer actions. The truth, however, is that we are vulnerable, and extremely vulnerable if there is not something in our life that we is a firm and strong anchor.

Pray for middle school kids, and pray for their teachers and administrators who are becoming prematurely gray.