Super Saturday: A Teacher Regenerates

This post was published on January 1 of this year. This Wednesday marked exactly six months since my accident. When I get discouraged, I have to remind myself how close in time I am to the accident. It’s kind of remarkable that I’m only six months out and that this post was written only two months after my accident.

I have written about policy mainly on this blog, but talking about education reform requires a lot of reading outside of the blog, and I’m not at that level yet. It also hurts my ability to talk about education reform because the fact that I’m not in the classroom influences my inability to comment on education policies. Being a survivor of a horrific car accident in October of 2013 has got me thinking about using this blog in another way: as a way to document my recovery. My parents are super cool in helping me to think positively. I hear constant congratulations from my parents when they congratulate me on my improved decision-making and other things that show recovery. The visitors I’ve had have taken an instrumental part in my journey. Recently, I made a decision about how happy I am to be alive and re-chasing career/life goals. This inspired congratulations from my parents. It’s incredible how the shift into happiness has affected my social encounters. They are much better. I’m making a lot of other changes. Something that is not a change is my fandom of Dr. Who. I watched a lot of Dr. Who recently, and I made a recent tweet that said I must be in the middle of a Regeneration. And I think I am. My body has changed. I’ve gained a little weight since the accident. I weigh more than I did <i>before</i> the accident. And this blog will surely become something else as I move into recovery.

Thoughts about some things have also changed. Phrases that contain the word “death” or bring thoughts of it are annoyances. They didn’t bother me so much before the accident. I bought an Eminem album recently in a certain mood.  The phrase “Imma kill you” is prevalent in the album and annoyed me. The annoyance stems from how excited I am to be alive.

As people have remembered on Twitter: I made a permanent decision a considerable time back to get the following tattooed to me: “I am the dust of the earth. The world was created for me.” It’s scary how much my life came to fulfill that first sentence and how hard it is for me to stay focused on the second sentence.

I have earned my life back. “The world was created for me” begins to seem more believable. Sometimes, I talk about a future tattoo I might get. But I don’t need another tattoo when I have a scar.

What people don’t know (some may have seen my dad putting a picture on Facebook) is that while in Dodd Hall at Ohio State University Hospital I wrote on a white board beside a piano that I was playing—I was playing the song you think about when you read the lyrics — and my therapists saw the sentence “No mountain high enough.” My recovery and journey back to the classroom has totally taken that theme. Another theme I’m trying to remind myself about is the Detroit motto “We hope for better things; it shall rise from the ashes.” I hope for better things in my life.

In Detroit, I’ve learned a lot about education, students, and life. I hope I will be given a place to tell everyone that wants to know these things. This blog is my take of that place. Dr. Joseph Bianco, my thesis advisor at Ohio University sent me a book about a nurse who helped Vietnam veterans with their last minutes of dying, a lot of whom had been survivors of near-death experiences. They were in Hospice, getting ready to die, and the nurse helped them see their personal inner heroes. That’s the kind of attitude I want to bring into the classroom. Teaching is simply helping students discover their personal inner heroes.

God told me something in my moment that was amazing. I listened in the time.  For the rest of my life, I’m going to continue to believe in God because I’ve seen Him. My relationship with God before the accident was rocky. I didn’t always believe in Him. I am so thankful He ended up keeping me alive.

The list of things I tell my parents I’m excited for and the list of things God will certainly put in my life since He has given me my life:  being in charge of a classroom again, returning to my job, interacting with friends, being able to drive to their events, and being present at the important times in all of my friends’/family’s lives, and having similar times that I get to invite people to. My brother Tyler who has been crazy fun to interact with in my recovery is thought of here. I’ve been a huge joy to him as he is to me while I’ve been recovering. I went out with him when he practiced kicking. He’s his university’s football team’s kicker. I retrieved footballs for him. He got the biggest grin on his face when I would throw them back to him.

God’s last words to me were “I have to go, but I have a plan for you.” “I have to go” was one of the scariest things to hear in a near-death moment because I thought He wasn’t going to help me and those words have been the source of much of my confusion. It’s why I thought I was dying. It’s why that supposition has returned several times. God seemed out of it, in the moment, but in reality, I was the one out of it. Now, I realize “I have to go” was referring to my survival and that He had given the skills to emergency responders and doctors that would ultimately save my life. But “I have a plan for you” seemed more than a little crazy because I wasn’t ready to think that God’s plan for me was brand new. As I have discussed His words over with many people, they have helped me to realize that God’s plan for me did not have to be different than His first one. My first God plan was definitely to educate, think, and love people I was around. That’s what His current plan seems like, which means the life I’m currently living is not my own — an idea that is hard to swallow; the scar is a good reminder. Other people will gain life from it. It will be a life I devote to service-type things like teaching, loving, and learning. I am frustrated almost daily because I’m not actively meeting all parts of His plan. The support that I’ve received is all about heading back to the classroom.

Today is the welcome of 2014. I count on it being a great year where I manage to make it back to the classroom.

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Super Saturday: Reflections, or, He Shoots Lightning From His Feet

I’m constantly amazed at how applicable my posts before the accident are to me post-accident. This post was originally posted on April 22, 2013.

I want to pack up every thought I’ve had in a box and place it in a corner where I will one day forget about it and when I finally rediscover it I will assume it’s a box of old basketball trophies (the kind you get for participating) and because you can’t do anything with old basketball trophies I will put it out with the trash and never have to think about it again.

I want to pull back all the words I’ve ever spoken as if they existed on measuring tape and I could push a little button on the side of my head and they would all come back to me and even if the shock of all of those words hurt me a little and made me feel a little dizzy at least they would stop hurting anyone they have stung.

I want to walk backwards through life and watch as everything I’ve ever done unravels and I want to know how it feels for the pressure to decrease steadily steadily steadily steadily.

I want to line up every person I’ve ever known and I want to stand on trial before them so they can judge whether I have helped or hurt them not because I want to know if I am a good person or a bad one but because I want to know how to maximize the helping and minimize the hurting.

I want to write down everything and everyone I have ever loved so that I can chart it [love] and diagram it [love] and dissect it [love] and maybe figure out what it [love] means.

I want to curl up into God like He is a king-sized bed and I am a three-year-old child and I want to feel all of my secrets wash away under me deep under the covers into long-forgotten and never-traveled bed-spaces.

I want to gather all the people I have seen but whose names I do not know and feed them cake and throw a party with small talk and then later big talk and then much later tears and when I leave I will know many new names and I will have made many new friends and fallen in love perhaps twice or more.

And I want to dance so hard that I create a storm and no one will be able to get near me and they will look at me and they will say that storm used to be a boy but then he danced and now he shoots lightning from his feet.

A Teacher Regenerates

I have written about policy mainly on this blog, but talking about education reform requires a lot of reading outside of the blog and I’m not at that level yet. It also hurts my ability to talk about education reform because the fact that I’m not in the classroom influences my inability to comment on education policies. Being a survivor of a horrific car accident in October of 2013 has got me thinking about using this blog in another way: as a way to document my recovery. My parents are super cool in helping me to think positively. I hear constant congratulations from my parents when they congratulate me on my improved decision-making and other things that show recovery. The visitors I’ve had have taken an instrumental part in my journey. Recently, I made a decision about how happy I am to be alive and re-chasing career/life goals. This inspired congratulations from my parents. It’s incredible how the shift into happiness has affected my social encounters. They are much better. I’m making a lot of other changes. Something that is not a change is my fandom of Dr. Who. I watched a lot of Dr. Who recently, and I made a recent tweet that said I must be in the middle of a Regeneration. And I think I am. My body has changed. I’ve gained a little weight since the accident. I weigh more than I did before the accident. And this blog will surely become something else as I move into recovery.

Thoughts about some things have also changed. Phrases that contain the word “death” or bring thoughts of it are annoyances. They didn’t bother me so much before the accident. I bought an Eminem album recently in a certain mood.  The phrase “Imma kill you” is prevalent in the album and annoyed me. The annoyance stems from how excited I am to be alive.

As people have remembered on Twitter: I made a permanent decision a considerable time back to get the following tattooed to me: “I am the dust of the earth. The world was created for me.” It’s scary how much my life came to fulfill that first sentence and how hard it is for me to stay focused on the second sentence.

I have earned my life back. “The world was created for me” begins to seem more believable. Sometimes, I talk about a future tattoo I might get. But I don’t need another tattoo when I have a scar.

What people don’t know (some may have seen my dad putting a picture on Facebook) is that while in Dodd Hall at Ohio State University Hospital I wrote on a white board beside a piano that I was playing—I was playing the song you think about when you read the lyrics — and my therapists saw the sentence “No mountain high enough.” My recovery and journey back to the classroom has totally taken that theme. Another theme I’m trying to remind myself about is the Detroit motto “We hope for better things; it shall rise from the ashes.” I hope for better things in my life.

In Detroit, I’ve learned a lot about education, students, and life. I hope I will be given a place to tell everyone that wants to know these things. This blog is my take of that place. Dr. Joseph Bianco, my thesis advisor at Ohio University sent me a book about a nurse who helped Vietnam veterans with their last minutes of dying, a lot of whom had been survivors of near-death experiences. They were in Hospice, getting ready to die, and the nurse helped them see their personal inner heroes. That’s the kind of attitude I want to bring into the classroom. Teaching is simply helping students discover their personal inner heroes.

Most recently, I’ve been praying for Detroit (and getting the chance to go back there as well as for all the students and teachers who are currently there) and thanking God for saving me and praying for my continued recovery. He told me something in my moment that was amazing. I listened in the time.  For the rest of my life, I’m going to continue to believe in God because I’ve seen Him. My relationship with God before the accident was rocky. I didn’t always believe in Him. I am so thankful He ended up keeping me alive.

The list of things I tell my parents I’m excited for and the list of things God will certainly put in my life since He has given me my life:  being in charge of a classroom again, returning to my job, interacting with friends, being able to drive to their events, and being present at the important times in all of my friends’/family’s lives, and having similar times that I get to invite people to. My brother Tyler who has been crazy fun to interact with in my recovery is thought of here. I’ve been a huge joy to him as he is to me while I’ve been recovering. I went out with him when he practiced kicking. He’s his university’s football team’s kicker. I retrieved footballs for him. He got the biggest grin on his face when I would throw them back to him.

God’s last words to me were “I have to go, but I have a plan for you.” “I have to go” was one of the scariest things to hear in a near-death moment because I thought He wasn’t going to help me and those words have been the source of much of my confusion. It’s why I thought I was dying. It’s why that supposition has returned several times. God seemed out of it, in the moment, but in reality, I was the one out of it. Now, I realize “I have to go” was referring to my survival and that He had given the skills to emergency responders and doctors that would ultimately save my life. But “I have a plan for you” seemed more than a little crazy because I wasn’t ready to think that God’s plan for me was brand new. As I have discussed His words over with many people, they have helped me to realize that God’s plan for me did not have to be different than His first one. My first God plan was definitely to educate, think, and love people I was around. That’s what His current plan seems like, which means the life I’m currently living is not my own — an idea that is hard to swallow; the scar is a good reminder. Other people will gain life from it. It will be a life I devote to service-type things like teaching, loving, and learning. I am frustrated almost daily because I’m not actively meeting all parts of His plan. The support that I’ve received is all about heading back to the classroom.

Today is the welcome of 2014. I count on it being a great year where I manage to make it back to the classroom.

The Privilege of Thinking About Work: Timothy Keller’s Every Good Endeavor

I come from a relatively small, sheltered, largely Christian community thick in the suburbs of southwest Ohio. It was a great place to grow up. It was safe and mostly friendly. Because of my community’s size and its religiosity, I was more or less peer pressured into faith. A solid majority of my school’s best students (the peer group with whom I most identified) were all Christian and it seemed a natural progression.

I practiced my faith rather dutifully (or so I thought) in high school, and when I got to college I decided I would fix all of the things that had kept me from truly experiencing God in high school so I immediately sought out and plugged into a community of believers. Things quickly turned sour. My campus was filled with new experiences, new people, new beliefs. And that was amazing.

On the other hand was my Christian community. While there were many upperclassmen whom I respected and loved, there also wasn’t anyone who was graduating and doing the things I wanted to do with my life. The community seemed to be set up to encourage those students who were interested in ministry-related careers, and I felt very little support for figuring out how to engage with my passions that weren’t so obviously related to the Church.

So I stepped away.

I didn’t think this community, and, by extension, Christianity could give me the kind of support I needed for the work I wanted to do.

A year and a half later, I started to tentatively reexamine my faith, this time without peer pressure. And I found this community where almost no one was considering ministry after graduation. And it was the best thing. (Although, it should be mentioned that there is nothing categorically wrong with communities that encourage ministry. They just aren’t for me!)

I tell this story because I just got done reading Timothy Keller’s most recent book Every Good Endeavor. The thesis of the book is that any profession and any type of work will be affected by following Christ. I wish I had this book three years ago.

The book is on point. It lays out a logical argument in which work is central to God’s creation (Adam and Eve worked in the Garden before the Fall, wouldn’t you know), in which all work is a form of worship to God, in which sin creates the many problems and pitfalls we experience in work, and in which God redeems our work even when it’s not perfect and even when we feel like we have fallen short.

Keller’s prose, as always, is suitably simplistic when in anecdote but approaches dullness when in abstraction. It’s okay, though, because his anecdotes are so good and so representative of his points that his abstractions often read as afterthoughts. The strongest moments in the book come when he can marry anecdote and abstraction.

For instance, he talks about the importance of the story of Esther–how she has the privilege of being “in the Palace” and that being in the Palace itself is no sin, but failing to use that position to help others is. This helped me conceptualize, in a Christian perspective, how I should be thinking about my own privilege, how I should confront it, and what I can do maximize its usefulness.

Keller talks a lot about the importance of serving others through work. Sometimes, however, I got the feeling that this talk was undermined by catering to a specific middle to upper class ethos. Sure, Keller mentions jobs like doorman or janitor but only to say that if you are employed in these jobs you should give them everything you have, just like in any other job. He largely misses realities of poverty in several important places.

He mentions Hurricane Katrina at one point, and says that the need to lay blame–on the builders of the sea wall or the federal government–is not a gospel need. But placing the blame on the sea wall is more important than trying to explain away an unexplainable thing. A lot of the tragedy of Katrina could have been avoided. It wasn’t avoided because large portions of the levee were incomplete, specifically those in the Lower Ninth Ward, one of the poorest sections of the city. That is a systemic problem. It’s not a “oh Bobby made a mistake, we’ll fix it next time” mistake. It is important to talk about blame in this instance because it is related to justice and to ensuring everyone in the city has the same sense of security. That seems gospel related to me.

Later on in the book, Keller gives a brief history of philosophy, arguing that Christianity was responsible for the philosophical shift in personhood in which all people are important and equal. While that may be true in some very abstract and esoteric sense, it is historically misleading. Most of the Christian philosophers we read as part of modernism were extremely bigoted individuals. And these Christian philosophers were often (and are still often) used to justify inequality like slavery, the Holocaust, and other horrible atrocities. To gloss over this history and claim all of the good parts of human rights development over the past several centuries is dishonest.

There’s also this problematic passage near the end of the book:

Christians, you see, have been set free to enjoy working. If we begin to work as if we were serving the Lord, we will be freed from both overwork and underwork. Neither the prospect of money and acclaim, nor the lack of it, will be our controlling consideration. Work will be primarily a way to please God by doing his work in the world, for his name’s sake. (215)

This is a great sentiment, but it seems to make light of poverty, suggesting that people living in poverty are committing the same sin that people who live in opulence do–that is, approaching work for money. Which is a shame because there is an obvious difference between a single parent working three jobs to provide shelter and food for three kids and a CEO who wants a new yacht.

I got a lot out of this book. I learned a lot and it gave me a much broader idea of what it means to work for the kingdom of God, but I worry it hits maximum relevancy for people from the suburbs of southwest Ohio or the sky-rises of New York City.

Reflections, or, He Shoots Lightning From His Feet

I want to pack up every thought I’ve had in a box and place it in a corner where I will one day forget about it and when I finally rediscover it I will assume it’s a box of old basketball trophies (the kind you get for participating) and because you can’t do anything with old basketball trophies I will put it out with the trash and never have to think about it again.

I want to pull back all the words I’ve ever spoken as if they existed on measuring tape and I could push a little button on the side of my head and they would all come back to me and even if the shock of all of those words hurt me a little and made me feel a little dizzy at least they would stop hurting anyone they have stung.

I want to walk backwards through life and watch as everything I’ve ever done unravels and I want to know how it feels for the pressure to decrease steadily steadily steadily steadily.

I want to line up every person I’ve ever known and I want to stand on trial before them so they can judge whether I have helped or hurt them not because I want to know if I am a good person or a bad one but because I want to know how to maximize the helping and minimize the hurting.

I want to write down everything and everyone I have ever loved so that I can chart it [love] and diagram it [love] and dissect it [love] and maybe figure out what it [love] means.

I want to curl up into God like He is a king-sized bed and I am a three-year-old child and I want to feel all of my secrets wash away under me deep under the covers into long-forgotten and never-traveled bed-spaces.

I want to gather all the people I have seen but whose names I do not know and feed them cake and throw a party with small talk and then later big talk and then much later tears and when I leave I will know many new names and I will have made many new friends and fallen in love perhaps twice or more.

And I want to dance so hard that I create a storm and no one will be able to get near me and they will look at me and they will say that storm used to be a boy but then he danced and now he shoots lightning from his feet.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Rob Bell

Last week, controversial Christian thinker Rob Bell released his new book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God. Remarkably tame compared to his best-selling Love Wins, the book is perhaps less interesting than Bell himself. Bell has been in headlines recently more for his affirmative support for same-sex marriage than the release of his book. Nevertheless, the book represents an important idea. It is an articulation of the emergent church to both the wider Christian community and the general public. In Christian circles, the emergent church has been struggling against more fundamentalist and evangelical communities for popularity, but this struggle has been one mostly limited to theologians and church leaders. WWTAWWTAG will probably be the first book many people read with emergent church ideas.

Like most of Bell’s writing, WWTAWWTAG is more question-asking than question-answering. The content is never dense, which is generally good, but sometimes Bell fails to make the connections that would link his ideas together. He relies on a structure throughout the book where he tells a story and then jumps into the idea he wants to articulate. Often, though, it is not entirely clear how the story is related to the idea. And sometimes, it feels like we could learn more from his stories and personal experiences than we can from his existential graspings. For instance, he tells about an Easter Sunday when he was doubting the existence of God but had to deliver an Easter service to thousands of people, and he ends talking about that experience by saying:

That Easter was fairly traumatic, to say the least, because I realized that without some serious reflection and study and wise counsel I couldn’t keep going without losing something vital to my sanity. The only way forward was to plunge headfirst into my doubts and swim all the way to the bottom and find out just how deep that pool went. And if I had to, in the end, walk away in good conscience, then so be it. At least I’d have my integrity.

The metaphor is beautiful, but I want to know what he did. How does a pastor who hardly believes in God deliver an Easter sermon? That’s interesting.

Despite these sorts of shortcomings, the book manages to land on some really important ideas. For instance, Bell is convinced that God is constantly drawing people forward. He confronts the idea that Christianity is backwards-looking, trying to achieve a forgotten Golden Age. Troubling passages from Exodus or Deuteronomy, he says, should not be read as a tribal, ruthless God speaking to ruthless tribes. Instead, the immeasurably awesome God is providing these tribes things they can actually do that are just a little bit more just and more orderly than what other tribes do. So Bell makes us consider historical context, but then he also challenges us to consider that we are not as different from the tribe of Israel as we might think. It is here where Bell is at his finest–when he is applying concepts like context and historical criticism and subjectivity to transcend and actually make our view of God bigger rather than smaller.

The first major argument in the book is that God meets us where we are and then pulls us into the next stage of godliness. God is always a little bit ahead of us, reaching out his hands to carry us to the next place. 

Bell, then, makes faith scary again. Because if God is always a little ahead of us, it’s a little hard to think about how we should think about modern issues–like same-sex marriage, for instance. Same-sex marriage is never explicitly mentioned in the Bible, of course. Same-sex sexual relationships are condemned, even in the New Testament. But same-sex marriage is generally seen as a progressive, forward-thinking issue. And if it’s forward-thinking and God is always ahead of us, then He must be there also. But then is faith contingent on popular opinion? Are we supposed to believe Bell just because he says he is forward-thinking? Can we imagine a Christian leader who seems genuinely committed to progressivism but is against same-sex marriage or other progressive issues that are generally seen as in conflict with Christianity?

The second major argument in the book is that there is no distinction between the holy and the unholy or the sacred and the base.

And that the story of Christianity is about drawing us into understanding how everything is sacred. When Bell talks about this idea, it’s beautiful. And convincing. But it raises many questions. Like, is sin sacred? But there is this sense that if we were able to recognize everything that God has a hand in as sacred–our bodies, other people’s bodies, our minds, other people’s minds, the earth, resources, children, the elderly, married people, single people, Christians, non-Christians, priests, laymen, animals, and outer space–it would be next to impossible to sin.

I don’t think Bell is done with the world. I expect he will continue to be an important leader and will continue to turn people towards Christ. But I also think things are going to get worse in the Church before they get better. The more we hurl the insult of heretic on Bell, the more divisive things become and the more the Church backs itself into a corner.

Postmodernism tells us that everyone, in a certain sense, constructs God in his/her image. So Bell might be creating an overly-liberal God. But then what does that say about conservative Christianity?

Why Not?

I.
“Why?” she asks.

Her name is Emily. I met her five minutes ago. Her first question was “Do you like to dance or do you love to dance?” That turned into “Do you love to dance or are you in love with dance?” That turned into “If you are in love with dance, would you marry it?”

Now we are talking about my future. I tell her I’m going to be a teacher. And now we are here.

“Why?” she asks.

I mumble something about TFA offering me a placement. She seems content with this. Our conversation continues. When it threatens to die:

“Why?” she asks.

I appreciate what she’s doing. It makes a more interesting conversation than the typical party fare.

II.
In three months, I will graduate from college (Lord willing that I finish my thesis first). I enter the shortest commitment I’ve ever made with my time. Two years teaching. Many of my peers will have shorter commitments than that if at all. It’s weird.

I want to plan the rest of my life right now. I want to lay down a plan. I want to have an end goal and I want to plot the path that will lead me there. I want to figure out exactly who I am. Who is the “real” Spencer? What does he like? What does he do?

III.
In high school, I had a girlfriend, I played golf, and I was a practicing Christian. These things took up most parts of my identity. But I also did stupid stuff. I spent too much time on the computer, too much time watching television, too much time playing video games, too much time thinking life was hard.

When I went to Bible studies, though, we would talk about giving our lives over to God. But we hardly ever talked about television, video games, or the computer. Instead, the leader would turn to me and say “Spencer, what if God made you give up your girlfriend or golf?”

The conversation has evolved since then. No one puts it into quite those terms. We still talk primarily about the same thing, though. When we talk about wisdom, for instance, we correctly note the difference between wisdom and academic knowledge, but then we draw the wrong-headed conclusion that some academic knowledge, because it is not wisdom, is useless.

IV.
I want my life to have meaning. I try to achieve that through faith. If there are bigger ideas tugging at my soul like justice and peace and love, then it is easier to forget about the things that don’t matter. The problem is that, as a human, I must slog through the “thing that don’t matter.” I cannot instantly achieve justice, peace, or love. I must work at these things. I must chip away at the stones in my eyes that keep me from seeing them.

But what I hate about my faith is that it falls prey to the same things that the world falls prey to–namely, prescribed narratives. There are things in the Church that we assign importance to with no real explanation–mission trips, having a family, leading a ministry. We put up with the minutiae of our day-jobs and educations in order to be a part of these things. But these things, in and of themselves are not meaningful. Mission trips can sometimes do more harm than good. Families fail when members think their purpose on this earth is that family. The Westboro Baptist Church is a ministry. We lose justice, peace, and love for the American Dream. Or for the Christian sell-everything-you-have-and-walk-barefoot-around-the-world Dream.

V.
I believe that God has an intimate relationship with me. I believe He is talking to me even when I’m not listening. And it is for this belief, that sometimes, I gain enough courage to trust.

VI.
Emily walks away. I’m glad. She is fun, but the question “why” is beginning to become annoying.

I begin to walk around the party more freely, not afraid to talk to groups of people I only marginally know. When the iPod stops playing, I know that I want to turn on music that I want to listen to. Informed by both my own tastes and those of the people at the party, I turn on Aaron’s Party.

Emily, who has left the room by now, comes back to dance. This time she does not ask why.