Archive for the ‘Grace’ category

Reading The Last Half of the Story

October 5, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                      October 5, 2019

                      

I’ve finished two weeks of a long-term substitute teaching position for a teacher who works with students who have special needs. It’s a day that, in basketball terminology, would be comparable to a motion offense. All the players are moving…and moving…and moving!

The calmest moments of my teaching day come mid-morning when I read for about 20 minutes to a small group of sixth and seventh grade students. They’ve been reading Percy Jackson: The Lightning Thief. 

I picked up the story on page 160, and I entered a world of confusion and cluelessness. That is, trying to figure out what’s going on halfway through a book is about as easy as the prep for a colonoscopy exam. 

Some books are painfully predictable, but Percy Jackson brings in Greek mythology, tour guides turning into monsters at the top of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, strange dreams, strange characters, and plot twists.

I’m sure that starting at the beginning of the book would clear up much of my confusion, but that option was not available for me. The students had already traveled through those first chapters. 

Two weeks into the reading I’ve been able to figure out why some things are the way they are, but the picture is still cloudy.

Beginning a novel halfway through is comparable to trying to understand people who are halfway through their life journeys. We have a multitude of questions as to why they think the way they do, their lack of emotion or being overly emotional, their addictions and passions, their propensity for making the same mistakes over and over again, their reluctance to talk about their past or their skepticism about the future. 

When we’ve missed the first half of the book we’re confused about the decisions, the unrest, and the attitudes. And let’s be honest! It’s hard for any of us to look at someone’s disrespectful behavior and think to ourselves, “I wonder what happened in his past that brought him to this display of behavior?” 

How someone became so self-centered and arrogant is a question that is usually beyond us. When did Jeffrey Epstein become so arrogant that he felt entitled to any woman he desired? How did he come to that point of committing reprehensible acts whenever he desired? Did his billions end up blinding him to what is moral and right, or did he have those behavior patterns before the billions insulated him?

On the other side- the compassionate side- of the character fence how did Mother Teresa come to the point where her life calling was caring for the “untouchables of” Calcutta? What put her on the path towards mercy? 

As I walk amongst the students, special needs and others, in Timberview Middle School, I try to keep my judgment to a minimum and grace to a maximum. I often shake my head in bewilderment about what I’ve heard or seen. 

On Monday I’ll read another few pages of Percy Jackson. More questions will pop into my head about “what in the world” is happening, but there will be glimpses of understanding. It will be better than the Latin class I took my first term of college. At no time, during that torturous ten week period, did the clouds part for me to the point that I understood! It was all Greek to me…even though it was Latin!

The Specialness of Special Needs Students

September 28, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                   September 28, 2019

                         

I’ve been looking forward to bedtime these past few days. By 7:30 I’m being challenged to stay upright until 9:00. I’ve been teaching special needs students at Timberview Middle School. Let’s just say that I’m getting my steps in during the school day.

It’s a three week assignment that they asked to take on while the teacher is away. One week is done and I’m down three pounds!

It’s been amazing, amusing, intriguing, and educational. Each of the students has their challenges and their awesome characteristics. Each is unique in some way and just like any other middle school kid in other ways.

For example, yesterday I was teaching a lesson to a group of 8th graders about the American Revolution. I mentioned the Declaration of Independence that was signed on July 4, 1776, and then strayed off with the question about whether any of them have watched fireworks. One girl shook her head yes and then said “Katy Perry, Fireworks.”

Being the old guy who is immersed in the middle school culture and yet totally clueless, I asked what “Katy Perry, Fireworks” meant. That led to us pulling up the song on a cell phone and singing it together. The young lady wants me to work on it and sing it solo-style on Monday. 

And then there’s the 7th grade boy who I do math work sheets with. Each time he gets a problem correct he becomes a drummer with his pencil and the edge of the table. His pencils literally take a beating each day. One 6th grade boy calls everyone “Dude”, even the school principal, but has added “Mr. Wolfe” to his vocabulary now. 

The para professionals who work with the students, go to the regular classrooms with them, help them to the bathroom, and do special feeding for the ones who require it…are incredible! I’m like a fish out of water that is being saved numerous times each day. They appreciate the consistency of my presence and my willingness to help, my conversation with the students and communication with classroom teachers about assignments and daily topics, but they know I’m a green rookie. 

It’s a new kind of education. I’ve discovered the specialness of their personalities, the challenges of keeping their attention, the variety of “paces”…from the young lady that required 28 minutes just to get to the physical education class outside, to the 8th grade boy who I can’t keep up with as he runs to give his mom a hug at the end of the school day.

I see the strain on the paras, who must constantly be alert to the sudden changes in their students’ movements and decisions- the chance of a sudden fall, shift in direction, changes in mood, and need to go to the restroom. There is no down time. A couple of them are often bruised by the unintentional blows that they receive.

And yet the work is rewarding. It is a reminder that the most rewarding moments of life are usually uncomplicated expressions of delight and discovery. Understanding algebra is one thing, but having a challenged student consistently being able to correctly add another number to an “8” is another. 

I see other students trudging through their school days uninspired and uninterested. Most of the special needs students look forward to their school days. It is their daily adventure into a place of discovery and relationships. They walk to class with their peer partners and engage in conversations about life. It’s the place where they are challenged, but also cheered.

For the adults that walk along beside them, it’s an opportunity to see life from a totally different perspective. 

And for me? Well…come Monday I’d better be ready with “Fireworks”!

The Guidance and Misguidance of Coaches

September 15, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                               September 15, 2019

                            

I think the first team I ever coached was the Arlington Heights, Illinois First Presbyterian Church boy’s basketball team that played in the community church league. We were mediocre at best, and probably the last basketball team experience for most of the players. But they had fun lacing up their sneakers and trying their hardest.

That was in 1979. Forty years later I’m still coaching. This year will see me coach cross-country, boy’s and girl’s basketball, and track at Timberview Middle School in Colorado Springs. It will be the first year in the last eleven that I won’t be on a high school bench for the basketball season, but the middle school teams will suit me just fine.

What I’ve learned over the years is that a coach can guide, motivate, counsel, and influence for a lifetime. The words we say and the message that our lives speak lead our athletes towards not only success, but also to what are the most important things in life.

On the other hand, coaches can misguide, destroy, and instill the wrong set of values in their athletes. The sports world is littered with stories of athletes who were abused in some way by their coaches. The sexual abuse situations make the headlines, but the verbal abusiveness rarely is heard about. 

Coaches have the opportunity to fan the flames in their athletes to become passionate about their sport of leisure, or to douse the desire with showers of destructive communication. 

Just as there are stories of helicopter parents who make life miserable for the coaches of their kids, there are tyrant coaches who bring misery into the lives of young athletes. How sad is it for a kid who puts in years and years of practice, looking forward to the time he or she can represent their school and wear the school colors, only to encounter a coach, or coaching staff, who operate from a completely different set of values. How tragic and confusing to have an adolescent from a solid well-grounded family experience a coach whose life priorities are on the other end of the spectrum!

I’ve had the opportunity to know some great coaches who are also great human beings. You can see them teach the game to their players, but also teach their players about life. And I’ve also known some coaches who are, quite simply, scoundrels. My kids were fortunate to have a number of coaches through the years who were also great human beings, the kind of coaches that your kids run up to years later and want to embrace, the kind of coaches your kids want to introduce their kids to!

Coaches whose personal lives and life values are a mess, more often than not, make a mess of things with their athletes and teams. 

Crotchety People

September 7, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                       September 7, 2019

                                     

The elderly man in front of me at Starbucks this morning looked like he had been chewing on some bad prunes. He scowled at the barista taking his order. She had misunderstood his mumbling words and he was not one to extend grace. Thinking the best of people, I thought maybe his disposition could be blamed on not having partaken of his coffee yet, but he ordered iced tea. Tea wasn’t going to help improve his personality. 

I wondered what had brought him to the point of being the stereotypical crotchety old man. Was it his diet of high fiber cereal, throbbing knee joints, or Washington politics? Had he always been this way? Would he always be this way?

Crotchetiness has no age boundaries. We may use different terminology for different age groups, but it’s still the same thing. For adolescent students I teach or coach, I instruct them to get an “attitude adjustment.” For young children we say they need a nap. For young adults we tell them to “get a clue!” 

Of course, we all have crotchety moments. I was substitute teaching each day this past week in the same class. One student tested my patience each day…the last class of the day! By 2:45 p.m. I could have been viewed by many as being crotchety. I have the same class this coming week. I’m going to suck on Jolly Ranchers to help my disposition even as my son-in-law dentist frowns at my sugar intake.

People who are momentarily crotchety I get! But people whose personality is defined by the term I have a hard time with. You know, people who can cause sunflowers to wilt by just walking by them. 

And they’re everywhere! In my 36 years of pastoring I could have filled a sanctuary with all the crotchety people I was the pastor for. Thankfully they were spread out over the span of the 36 years. Too many at one time in the church could make the pastor ponder new occupations. It always seemed like crotchety people were at the front of the church potluck line, laying their plate with excessive amounts of the offerings while those at the back of the line would be left with jello salad.

I knew a office receptionist many years ago who would have scowled at Jesus if he had come by. A friend of mine came by to see me one day and she looked at him like she was a TSA agent, all suspicious like. Like a San Quentin greeter she said to him, “What do you want?” In the time i knew her I can not remember her smiling. Her face was like a stone, hard and cold.

At the grocery store that my dad shopped at, right next door to his senior citizen living complex, the cashiers were about as agreeable as month-old cottage cheese. My dad, one of the most friendly people you could ever meet, would cringe every time he exited the check-out lane.

Some people don’t recognize their crotchetiness. They blame life circumstances…their hourly pay wage, lack of air conditioning, dry skin, noisy neighbors, bunions…there’s always something to blame their right to be grumpy. 

Each day of life is a gift that crotchety people seem to forget about.

Okay! I admit it! All this talk about people with a turned down smile is making me a bit crotchety. Unlike the man at Starbucks ordering iced tea this morning, I’m on my third cup of Pike Place. I should be close to ecstasy by now, not Mr. Grumpus! It’s not even decaf!

Sixth Grade Church Fidgeting

August 27, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                August 27, 2019

                    

My grandson, Jesse, is a great kid. More energy than General Electric, more creativity than a box of 120 Crayola crayon colors. He’s also a sixth grader who can’t sit still, except when he’s reading or watching TV.

Last Sunday he sat beside me in church. It was his first Sunday not in the special gathering for children, the setting where active energy is expected, even planned for. The sanctuary of adults is a bit more laid back and placid in its journey. 

Jesse fidgeted, slithered down in his seat a few times like a snake moving down a hill, set off his multi-functioning watch a couple of times, and even curled his legs up and sat still for a few moments. I chuckled a few times for several reasons. 

I saw the shadow of myself in him! 54 years removed, mind you, but I could see myself. I had that kind of energy once…a long, long time ago!

It’s different these days, though. In my childhood years our church, Central Baptist Church in Winchester, Kentucky, didn’t have a special program for kids to go to during the worship service. If you were of school age you went to the worship service in the sanctuary. it wasn’t even called “the adult service”. It just was! 

Every Sunday I would be positioned between my mom and dad, singing the hymns and snoozing during Pastor Zachary’s sermon. It was the one place each week where I knew my parents were captive. They couldn’t get up to go fix dinner or mow the lawn or go to work. They were my flanks for a good hour or longer. My dad’s arm often functioned as my pillow and my mom’s stern look as the controller of my movement. 

By the sixth grade I had been present for roughly 500 sermons, since we were “two-a-dayers” (Sunday morning and Sunday evening). My brother, sister, and I knew that good behavior translated into popcorn and The Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday night when we returned home from the evening service. 

But times have changed. Attention spans are shorter, TV commercials are now snippets, and things move faster. 

Patience is an ancient virtue. Just have a slow internet experience. It feels like you’re waiting in a long restroom line at a Broncos game. 

So I don’t blame Jesse for his hyper-ness. I don’t blame anyone. In some ways his restlessness in worship is the result of adults who don’t want to be annoyed by active kids. I remember a few years ago someone at the church I pastored complained about how disruptive it was to have kids in church. On that Sunday a mom had kept her children with her, instead of having them go to the special gathering for children.

I responded that it was nice to actually have children in our church. It was not the response that was wanted. Children, it seemed, were to be banished to the basement so the adults could learn a couple of spiritual pointers for the week ahead. 

So adults have gotten used to the little ones not being with us as we worship, and the young ones have gotten used to doing their own thing with their own mannerisms, methods, and activity level. 

It’s how it is, and Jesse is who I once was!

Taking Personal Irresponsibility

August 17, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                       August 17, 2019

 

Once in a while you’ll hear the words, although they are often uttered by the designated scapegoat. 

“I take full responsibility!”

Responsibility. It’s a word that gets thrown around a lot with middle school students. We tell them that they’re responsible for making sure they have all of their supplies, that their valuables are locked up, and that their classwork needs to be completed. It’s a big word for them, and they hear it so much that they begin to believe it’s part of our country’s DNA.

But then what gets emphasized actually comes into play. Something happens that the word goes from an emphasized principle to an actual life experience. As fast as someone can say “Not my fault!”, responsibility gets trumped by excuses.

I’m sure it’s been going on for a long, long time, but I remember a situation in 1997 when a young man killed several people and the defense set forward for it was that he had been influenced by video games. In other words, he did not bear responsibility for his actions. He was found guilty, but it put a seed of thought into people’s minds. That is, we are responsible for our actions and decisions, until they affect us adversely…and then it becomes someone else’s fault- a game company, a dog who munched on our homework, the alarm clock that didn’t work properly, or a certain coach who is so stupid he didn’t recognize talent when it was staring at him right in the face.

“Taking personal irresponsibility” is the mantra for a new generation of teflon excuse-makers who believe blame can never stop with them.

It comes at all levels. It’s the new math! The equation is no longer relevant for a lot of people. “Because of A and B, C happened” is not what the excuse-makers believe is true. “A and B” are disqualified from even coming before C!

For example, since Little Johnny didn’t lock up his $150 pair of sneakers in his assigned locker and left them sitting in the hallway, they were taken. Today’s culture abbreviates that statement to “Little Johnny’s sneakers were taken.”

When responsibility becomes simply a word we talk about, but not practiced we lose our voice. It’s like a person of faith emphasizing his belief in God until he has to live out that faith in a life situation. Then the shallowness of his faith becomes evident.

I’m amazed at the news stories that fill the daily paper or on the nightly news. There are only hints of responsibility, mostly when it’s advantageous to do so. More often than not, sparring matches take place of two or more combatants dodging punches as they throw one back in the other direction.

With that in mind, I take full responsibility for my cholesterol level (Although I could blame it on my taste buds’ infatuation with fried foods). 

I take full responsibility for my lack of academic success when I started college back in 1972 (Although 8:00 classes should be banned…as well as 9:00 classes! Was I REALLY expected to get out of bed in time to attend them? ).

I take full responsibility for walking through an airport unzipped one time (Although I think their should be a warning light attached in some way to warn me of my openness, maybe even a buzzer in my pants!).

I take full responsibility for my lack of video game knowledge (Although the blame should be on my thumbs…all ten of them!).

I take full responsibility for the bad financial decisions I’ve made (Although the advertisements have drawn me into making rash decisions. Consumerism is a temptation of the Deceiver!).

There…I feel much better about taking responsibility…unless most people!

Sermon Feedback…Unplanned!

August 14, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                   August 14, 2019

                              

I spoke to the Simla Saints last Sunday. Simla, Colorado is a sleepy-eyed town of a few hundred folk about 45 minutes east of Colorado Springs. First Baptist Church of Simla is composed of about 20 good natured souls of various ages between 1 and 92 (although the married 92 year olds moved to be with their daughter in a different town too far away). 

They are a congregation that enjoys laughter, potlucks, and after-service cookies.

And most of the time I enjoy being with them. Last Sunday was enjoyable…and then they started asking questions about the sermon!

I spoke about Mary and Martha after the death of their brother, Lazarus. Both sisters made the same statement to Jesus, but I suggested that their different personalities might have  caused their statements to have different meanings to Jesus. I talked about Martha’s attention to detail and getting the work done, and Mary’s interest in sitting and listening to Jesus.

They were with me! We traveled the sermon journey together, punctuated with laughter and an occasional nodding of the head (with eyes still open).

And then we went to talking about prayer concerns…kinda’!

After a couple of prayer concerns were mentioned one of the women said, “I’ve got a question.” She was looking at me. “It says that Jesus loved Lazarus and his sisters a couple of times. So why did he wait to go to Bethany?”

“Well, I think he…ahhh…well….ahhh…”

A “Martha” speaks up. “And Pastor Bill, if Martha didn’t do the work how was it going to get done? Fixing a dinner for a group was a lot of work. They didn’t have microwaves back in those days.” I nodded my head in agreement, hoping that she had put a period on the end of her point.

“Good point!”

From the right side of the sanctuary…”And Mary didn’t seem to be that concerned about how the food was going to get on the table. Seems a little irresponsible to me!”

I begin to come to Mary’s defense. “But Mary was focused on Jesus. It seems that she was often sitting at the feet of Jesus.”

Back at me! “And expecting her sister to do all the work!”

“Well…ahhh…I….ahhh….”

“And Lazarus is just sitting there, also. He’s not helping.”

“Well, he did just rise from the dead,” I suggest.

“…and isn’t doing anything! He’s had a four day nap, for crying out loud!”

“Well…ahhh…”

“I’ve got another question,” said the woman who had initiated this unplanned sermon feedback session. “Does Martha believe Jesus can change things, even though her brother has already died?”

“That’s a great question!” 

When a pastor is at a loss as to how to answer a question, affirming the greatness of an asked question is a good go-to.

Back to the “Martha”. “I think Martha gets a bad rap here and Mary seems to be exalted.”

“Great point!”

The unplanned sermon feedback session goes for another five minutes. It’s filled with me saying profound things like, “Well” and “Ahhh” and “Hmmm”.

And then, thankfully, we get back to the clarity of prayer concerns, where there is no debate. The congregation has enjoyed the unplanned. I have a hunch they enjoyed how they made me stammer and look clueless most of all. Maybe next time I’ll ask for the prayer concerns to be mentioned BEFORE the sermon.