“Four Eyes”

I find it rather fascinating that certain memories remain crystal clear in our minds, no matter how old we get. And even though I have 26 year’s worth of memories stored, that moment in the Franklin High hallway, where Fellowship Bible used to meet, is as vivid as ever. 4th grade. He was this goofy looking kid with big teeth and glasses. And he was funny. And despite all my best efforts to come off as tough and mean, I was secretly in love with him. And it hurt so much when he said my freckles were ugly. But I mean, I can’t really blame him for saying it. I kept calling him “four-eyes” and he hated that. The name calling only stopped because we made the Sunday school teacher cry. Such a devastating moment as a 9 year old, then, is now remembered fondly, even with laughter. Who makes their Sunday school teacher cry? Well, I guess Leland and I do.

But it’s a good thing she cried that day.

Because as the name calling ended, a friendship began. And Leland became a staple in my life and a staple in our group of friends. A group that would remain intact all through middle and high school. A group that went on every church retreat together, rode bikes into the lake, sat under the teaching of incredible youth pastors, participated in the epic food fights, taught each other how to drive (or not drive) a stick shift, and even follow each other to different schools. Those years shaped me. Those friends were a part of all of the awkward “figure out who the heck you are” seasons.


One such memorable, awkward night was Brentwood’s Homecoming dance, our sophomore year. I was Leland’s date. Ok, but really, all six of us just went as a group. And we showed up, all primped and polished (or as much as sophomores in high school can be) and our mouths fell open as we walked into the cafeteria. Loud rap music, very short dresses, dancing we had never seen in real life. The boys turned and looked at each other and without hesitation said, “We’re getting out of here!”

I went back through some of my old journals this weekend and I opened up to the first journal entry in one of them. Lo and behold – it was an entry about this very homecoming night in 2005. The best part is that I documented the moment we were leaving and the three of us girls were lamenting that fact that the guys had just spent $10 per ticket to get us in and we were literally turning around and leaving again. The entry reads, “And then Leland said, ‘Ten dollars is not more important than Jordyn’s innocence!’ and I’ve never wanted to hug him more.”

I kid you not. That happened. It still makes me chuckle when I read it.

But that was Leland for you. Quick on his feet with the funny comments, but also secretly (or not so secretly) the sweetest guy you would ever meet. Aware of what his friends needed. Quick to value people first and foremost.

And that never changed. We didn’t stay as close of friends after we graduated high school. I guess that happens right? We’re off on the college adventure, making new friends, trying to figure out this thing called a career path. But even so, whenever I would see him, it was like we hadn’t missed a beat. And there was always something comforting and familiar about his hugs, bright smile, and genuine questions about how I was doing.

The last time I saw him was a few Christmases ago, when I ran into him at Starbucks early one morning. I was home from Kenya for a few weeks and he was so excited to hear about the work I was doing there. It was always so good to see him and catch up, even if for a few minutes.

So when the phone call came on Monday that he was gone, it felt like someone had just punched me in the gut. And in so doing, had punched a hole in my childhood and all the memories from the age of 8 to 18. And if I’m being honest, I’m still in denial that this is true. This time eight days ago, Leland was alive, but now I’m in some sort of twilight zone and he’s no longer here.

As with any loss, you want the world to stop. But it doesn’t.

And you still have to go to work and be a responsible adult. And make decisions. And actually get out of bed when the alarm goes off. And stand in front of your students and try to teach them the lesson you prepared. And you brace yourself for the next wave of emotion that’s going to take you under. And all you can do is let out a cry of pain, with words that are not understandable, and fight off the feeling that you’re suffocating. Fingers tight on your throat.

I know this is a process. And I know that I need to acknowledge the feelings I have, which is in part why I am even writing all of this down. This pain is real. This loss is real. Things are not ok. And that’s ok to admit.

I also want to declare the fact that there is good that can come from such a horrific situation. And the way Leland’s death has brought all of those who love him together. Reuniting a community of believers. Reminding us of what is most important – Jesus. And the people He came to save.

Life is fragile. We hear that all the time. And I think somewhere in our brains we kind of get it. But we don’t actually live this way. We take our hours for granted and we assume tomorrow is coming. But what if it doesn’t? Have I lived fully? Loved deeply? Did I choose people over projects and to-do lists? Did I say what needed to be said, even if it was scary? Did I persevere in the difficult and frustrating moments, because the end goal was worth it? Did I look a little more like Jesus today than I did yesterday?

And if the answer is no to any of these questions, how do I make some changes and live differently?

It’s been said many times over the course of this week, but I’ll say it again. Leland lived with reckless abandon. At 110%. No regrets. No holds barred. The kind of guy that entered the room and everybody knew it. And it wasn’t because he demanded the attention, but because it was given authentically. You couldn’t help but be drawn to his vibrant smile, ridiculous jokes, and contagious laugh.

 

It sucks that he’s not here. And I can’t help but grieve the loss of his future. 26 is simply too young.  I ache to think about his siblings because he was SUCH a great big brother and they deserved to have more years of his influence in their lives. But I am incredibly grateful that God is not surprised by any of this. He knew Leland’s days before he took his first breath. And He promises to work all things for good, for those that love Him. And so I rest in that.

I don’t at all pretend to have this figured out. But I can trust in a Creator who does.

Frankly, Leland had a better day today than I did. You have to stop and think – what is he seeing right now? Experiencing? I get goose bumps just thinking about it. Eternal perfection.

So for those of us he left behind – we can rest in the knowledge that his life is not over, simply relocated to a much better place. Singing praises to the Savior of the world. And I’m sure telling Jesus a few corny jokes too. 🙂

Gosh, I miss you Leland. But I am so incredibly grateful for the memories we shared. And for this wake up call to live more passionately, intentionally, and fearlessly than ever. Your life continues to ripple through the countless people you’ve impacted and your love for the Lord did not go unnoticed. Thank you for loving others so well.

I will see you soon, “four eyes.” 😉


 

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Steadfast.

  

 I’m not a procrastinator. Actually, I’m the exact opposite of a procrastinator when it comes to most areas of my life…do they have a word for that? Anti-crastinator? Ok, stupid joke, I’m gonna stop now. But what I do know is that I have been an epic procrastinator of writing this blog post.

At first, I used the excuse that I was just too worn out and I had just gotten back. I wasn’t settled yet. And then school started, so life got (shall we say) hectic. And now that it’s October and I finally feel that I have my feet on the ground, I am running out of excuses.

The truth is that I like writing well-worded, awe-inspiring, self-glorifying blog posts. “Ew look at me!”  And that is not going to be the content of this blog post. Mostly this post is going to be about the fact that I am an epic sinner and God is an epic God who somehow loves me anyway.

To say that these last few months have been difficult would be an understatement. Little did I know that God was calling me into the fire as I said “yes” to moving back to the States. Don’t get me wrong! There have been so many incredible blessings with moving back, including priceless time with family and friends. Oh and finally getting to experience  an American autumn for the first time in three years. However, in the midst of these incredible moments, I am also being completely pulled out of my comfort zone.

I’m not going to spend too much time on this, but just to quickly sum up this season of my life: 1. I am deeply grieving the end of this chapter in Kenya. I miss it every day. I often intentionally choose not to think about the people and memories there because it physically hurts too much. 2. I keep feeling this unnecessary internal pressure to “have it all together” and “feel normal” since technically I’m back home and should know how life works here. 3. My new job is incredible and challenging. I have received more professional development, support, accountability, and rigorous expectations than I had ever dreamed were possible! But with that comes my desire to do everything perfect the first time and that’s just simply not realistic. 4. My students come from very difficult home and family situations and it is thus an up-hill battle to get them invested in the curriculum and to respect the discipline system that is in place for their own good.

I could spend pages and pages just digging deeper into these four things, but just know that is has been a rather earth-shattering few months of me wrestling both with myself and with God.

Now, ON TO THE GOOD STUFF.

I am more convinced than ever that we are NEVER done growing as Christians. I’m pretty sure I wrote a whole blog post about this one time, and yet I still have be reminded of this truth daily. Just when I think I’ve got it figured out of “have enough faith”, Christ calls me  back out onto the water. And as crazy as this may be to say, this season of moving back to Nashville has required more faith than moving to Kenya ever did.

So with that being said, here is the bullet point version of what God has been teaching (and re-teaching) me these past few months.

  • The most necessary endings are often the most difficult. If God can redeem the most horrific ending in history (His son’s death on a cross), than He can certainly redeem my endings.
  • Community is vital to existence. We were never created to “grind it out” on our own. I am more convinced of my need for people every single day.
  • Margin and boundaries in my personal life are crucial. Sure, I could work myself to death. But then there would be no joy. It’s not sustainable. There have to be boundaries in place to just stop. Just rest. Or grab dinner with a friend. Or go for a long run. And that’s ok.
  • Faith is direction, NOT perfection. Oh man – this one really hits home. I just want so desperately to have it all together, to get it right  the first time. But God is not calling me to be perfect. He’s calling me to trust Him with the next step. And then the next one. One inch at a time (mistakes and all).
  • I am really bad at extending grace and patience to others, as well as myself. I am slowly grasping the reality that it’s going to be a while before I feel normal here. And that’s ok! I need to have grace for myself on the days when everything is hard and unnatural. Grace for others when they don’t understand where I’m coming from or don’t care to find out.
  • And finally – my Savior is steadfast. It seems that every time I open His word, the phrase “steadfast love” pops out at me. This concept of hesed love is plastered all over scripture. Maybe God is trying to make a point? Strike that. I know He is! He does not change.  He is ever-faithful. And this steadfast love is not dependent on me (Praise God for that!).

So, in this season, I am clinging to His steadfast love. Trusting Him with the next step and not trying to rush this grieving/adjusting process. This is a season. And, with all seasons, it will come to an end. But for now, I rest in the certainty that God is stretching me in ways I never knew were possible. He is calling me to deeper dependence. And He is with me every step of the way.

“Because Your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise You!” Psalm 63:3

Obedience

When I first considered the possibility of teaching overseas, two years seemed like an eternity. Could I even make that long of a commitment? What about all the things I’ll miss back home?

The irony is that once you actually move overseas, the two-year stint is often viewed as amateur or “not real commitment” by many other long-term ex-pats (live here for 5, 10, 15 years, and then we’ll start to take you seriously!). I even found myself feeling that way. Once I was actually in Kenya, two years didn’t seem that long after all. It would be so “wimpy” of me to go back after “only” two years! I just got here and now I’m leaving again?

I know that this quick turn around is particularly painful for my Kenyan friends and co-workers. I even had one of the men who clean my classroom ask, “What is wrong? Don’t you like us?” Ouch – dagger to the heart. Two years, to them, is just long enough to get attached to people and then have them ripped out of your life again. And I get that! What an emotional roller coaster!

But I’m not staying. I am just one of those wimpy “two-year missionaries” and now it’s back to burgers and cable TV. My time of missions is done.

Pause. Rewind.

Ok, that’s not true. Here is what I know to be true – yes, two years went by really quickly. And yes, it is SUPER painful, both for me and the people I’m leaving behind. This is my home. This is my community. And I am a different person because of my two years here in this beautiful country. I have been stretched, shaped, broken, remade, humbled, encouraged, loved, re-broken, put back together, challenged, and overwhelmed by God’s faithfulness. I will not be the same… and I’m ok with that.

I also know that I could not have taught and lived here without all my amazing friends and family back in America, praying for me and encouraging me. You guys are wonderful! And I can’t wait to share some of my stories with you when I return. 🙂

Another truth I am certain of? I am far from done being an instrument for God’s will. Obedience does NOT look the same for every Christian. And obedience does NOT stop because I am back in American borders. I can honestly say it took more faith to explore the option of returning to the States than it did to continue teaching in Kenya. That may sound weird, I know! To stay would, in many ways, be easier – comfortable, familiar. To go back? Kinda scary. But here I am – it’s my last day in Kenya. My bags are packed. My new home is waiting for me in Nashville. And I have NO doubt that God has orchestrated this next step, despite my apprehensions.

I have no idea what my life will look like in the coming year. Or the years that follow. But I do know that I want to spend the rest of my life being obedient to what God has for me. He’s knows what I need a lot better than I do and He knows where I’m needed most. My contract in Kenya may have been a 2-year stint, but my “contract” of obedience to the Creator of the Universe? Life-long.

I am so incredibly grateful that God allowed me to live in Kenya – to give me experiences and relationships that I will cherish forever. To open my eyes to new cultures, new countries, and new, deeper understandings of who He is.

It really is hard to believe that these two years are over. Didn’t I just move here? But wow – look how much has happened in these 24 months! God is so good. I’m not going to attempt to recap my whole time here (please feel free to look back over my old posts to get a good taste! That’s what I’m going to be doing too, don’t worry. haha) But man, I have been one lucky (blessed) human being and it’s going to take a VERY long time to fully process all that has happened and all that I will continue to experience with my changed perspective. I intend to continue to blog, with at least one more post about re-entry. So stay tuned!

So – here’s to the next adventure! One that may look very different than this one, but is nonetheless exciting and nonetheless guided by my Savior, who stands next to me and says, “Come on, let’s go!”

In Awe

Psalm 92 says, “It is good to give thanks to the Lord, to sing praises to your name, O Most High; to declare your steadfast love in the morning, and your faithfulness by night. . . For you, O Lord, have made me glad by your work.”

It’s fine. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I will be crying every day between now and June 4th. And they’re not all sad tears. There are happy tears too. Because I DO have so much to thank the Lord for, to sing praises about. I could declare His steadfast love and faithfulness every moment and that still would not be enough. His work does make me glad because somehow I have had the privilege of witnessing Him in action, in the lives of my students.

The beauty (and curse) about language is that it is always changing. And one such word that has experienced a terrible downgrade in meaning is the word “awesome.” When “awesome” first shows up in the 1600’s, it means “profoundly reverential” or “inspiring awe.” But today, it just means “that’s kinda cool.” So indulge me just for a second, because I want to use the term “awesome” in its original 1600’s meaning. And I’m not going to attempt to tell you about all my latest awesome moments, but instead focus on three: an ant invasion, harvesting kale, and tear drops on the tile floor of my classroom.

I had the privilege of being one of the chaperones for the 8th grade trip again this year. Each year, the 8th graders raise money and take a 3-day trip out to Sagana (about a 3 hour drive from Nairobi) and have a blast rock climbing, kayaking, white water rafting, etc. Needless to say, we have a lot of fun. 🙂 However, Nick (the other chaperone and science teacher) and I also had other hopes for this trip besides just having a good time.

We had planned some devotional time for the second night we were there. We started with a few worship songs, Nick on the guitar and me singing, and within the first 2 minutes, the kids were utterly distracted. There were ants. EVERYWHERE. All over the seats where they were sitting, on the floor, etc. The couldn’t sit still or even really sing. But we plowed through. And even as Nick and I shared our testimonies about how God had really shaped and grown our faith as middle schoolers, they still were distracted by all the bugs. I thought for sure this was all just a lost cause. So much for having a real impact on their spiritual lives….I was pretty discouraged.

We sent them off to different parts of the camp with a piece of paper, a pen, and their Bibles, telling them to write down their own story up to this point. Did they have a testimony? Did they see God shaping their futures? etc. I just knew they were all going to go off and chat and nothing significant would happen. But as I walked up to a group of about 5 girls sitting under the dim light of a picnic table, I saw that raw and real things were actually taking place.

The conversation that followed was awesome. We wrestled together with tough questions about faith and Jesus. How can we really know that He can forgive my sins? What do I do if I can’t understand parts of the Bible? Isn’t the Bible supposed to be easy to understand? Is it ok to have doubts and questions? Or does that mean I’m not really saved? What do I do when I’ve really screwed up and disappointed God? And on and on it went. It was such a sweet and vulnerable time as I sought to dispel some false understanding and encourage them in asking tough questions! We should wrestle. We should doubt in the sense that we seek to find the answers. We should know for sure  what we believe, not just assume certain things because our parents are Christians or we go to a Christian school. We prayed. We cried. It was….shall I say it? Awesome.

I then ventured over to the “trouble-makers” table, where I knew I would find them goofing off. But as I got closer, I was amazed to hear them talking about God too. How can we know He’s really there? How can Christianity really be the only right religion? What would happen if I went and searched out other religions instead? Why does a Christian life seem so boring? Why are there so many rules? And man, did I have a good time talking to them about all of this. I, by no means, had all the answers, but I could help them on the right track. And I told them – by all means! Please go look into other religions! I’m not scared that you’re going to go and do your research only to find that we’ve been lying to you or that it’s all been a big deception. I am confident in who my God is and what He has to say that I know what truths (or lack there of) you will find elsewhere. I won’t re-hash the whole conversations, but again – awesome.

I even found several of the girls with their Bibles out, still talking about all of this, later that night in their cabins. Something was actually happening. Their hearts were stirred. They had questions. And no ant invasion was going to keep God from working that night.

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8th grade trip shenanigans 🙂

Just a few weeks later, I went on a community service trip with this same group of 8th graders. And something was different about them. There was a new level of unity in the class and even a freedom to be themselves. Less judgement. More love. 

We went to Tania Rehabilitation Center, about an hour away, in the Ngong Hills. We had been there a few months earlier to work, so it was nice to see familiar faces and places. I went with the group assigned to harvest the old, dried up kale to feed the chickens. Pretty amazing that even the gross stuff can have purpose, huh? The children there were so gracious to my bumbling students, who had never really worked hard for anything in their lives. Even gardening has a learning curve.

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Gardeners unite! 🙂

IMG_3810But the coolest part was not the kale harvesting. It was watching these 8th graders interact with the other students, after all the work was done. Soccer matches were happening out in the field, a game of volleyball in another corner, and a whole section of hair-braiding, hand-clapping, and lap-snuggling taking place near me. I witnessed genuine selfless love that day. And not just because they were forced to go on this trip. They truly loved being there and did not want to leave when the time came to get back on the bus. It was awesome. 

IMG_3825And as if my heart was not exploding enough, the middle school “Lock-In” happened last night and now I’m just an over-loved, in-awe mess. After many hours of crazy games, we finally had the kids (6th-8th) settle down and we spent some time in prayer. One of the teachers introduced the idea of corporate prayer and I immediately thought it would be a flop (are you seeing a pattern yet?). Middle Schoolers are shy, insecure, and awkward. Praying out loud is a nightmare for such a person. And yet, as soon as we got started praising God for who He is and thanking Him, we couldn’t get them to stop praying! “Awesome” even seems to fall short of this moment. They were crying out to God, thanking Him for His love, His forgiveness, for joy and hope and life. They thanked Him for their family and friends. I was already in the back, crying, but then they began to thank God for the opportunity to go to this school. For their teachers. For English class. And then I was just done. How in the WORLD am I so blessed to be a part of these students’ lives and witness them pouring out their hearts to God? I am not worthy of the joy that I receive from them. And certainly not worthy of the thanks they were giving. 

We broke into small groups after that and I took five 8th grade girls to my room where we discussed the incredible talk we had just heard from a former WNS teacher, about our stories and the impact that each of our lives has on the world (for better or for worse). And we talked. And we cried. And we prayed for each other – for the courage to stand up for our faith, to love our friends well, that our story would have Kingdom impact. The blue tiles on my classroom floor were washed clean that night by the tears of my girls. Tears that came from hearts, burdened by the desire for their friends to know Christ. For their life to have meaning. For courage to live boldly for God’s glory.

I am in awe. Broken. Remade. Humbled.

I am not worthy of the experiences I have had – to witness God at work in the hearts of these young men and women. To actually be a part of their story. Because each and every life DOES change the world. There’s no way around it. The question is – will that change be for God’s kingdom? Or against it? There is no middle ground. I pray that my life will reflect the former, despite all of my short-comings and sin-filled actions. I need my Savior to make that possible, to get over myself long enough to see the bigger story. And to soak in these awesome moments. IMG_3535

And I can’t help but here the incredible truths of Psalm 92 ringing in my ears: “It is good to give thanks to the Lord, to sing praises to your name, O Most High; to declare your steadfast love in the morning, and your faithfulness by night. . . For you, O Lord, have made me glad by your work.” Amen. And amen.     

6 Hours

The zippers were clanging and crashing so ferociously against the metal tent poles that I almost couldn’t make out what Robert was saying. “Everything we’ve done so far, all our days on this mountain, were for THIS MOMENT! This is it!”

And as the words were still leaving his mouth, our guide, Mndeme, stepped into our flailing tent. When we asked him about all this crazy wind, he simply remarked that is was “too much.” Now, for a guide who has been to the summit of Kilimanjaro over 300 times to tell us that the wind is “too much,” I became pretty concerned. Lauren and I locked eyes for a moment, a feeling of apprehension sweeping between us. Are we going to be blown off this mountain? Or is something going to come flying at us? Is it going to be too cold to move our legs?

But before I could voice any of these concerns, Mndeme spoke two simple words that launched our midnight journey to the top of Africa – “Let’s go.”

I’ve definitely had some inner dialogue with myself over the past 25 years, but I’m not sure I’ve ever had an internal conversation that lasted for 6 straight hours. I tried to go into auto-pilot and just put one foot in front of the other, but it just wouldn’t happen. Obviously, I’m not going to tell you all the thoughts I had while inching my way up this incredible mountain, but I will share a few.

The first one has to do with dependence. With my small headlamp strapped to my forehead and my poles in hand, I knew absolutely nothing about where we were going in the pitch dark that night. I had no idea which path to take, the good places to stop and rest, or how fast our pace should be in order to be at the peak by sunrise, BUT I did know one thing – Mndeme knew all of those things. And I knew that I could trust him. I just had to show up with my 5 layers on, boots strapped tight, and be willing to place my feet on the path he chose for us.

Utter dependence.

And in those hours of trusting another person with my life, I was also very aware of how utterly dependent I am on my Savior. Oh sure, in everyday life I am much better at pretending like I have it all under control, that I can see clearly, that I am not so desperate for direction and guidance, but that is all an illusion. I am just as dependent on God’s wisdom in saying, “Jordyn, step here next,” as I was that night on Kilimanjaro. I am not capable of knowing what the future holds, BUT I do know one thing – God knows. And that’s enough. Actually, it’s more than enough! It’s amazing! I just need to wake up each morning, strap my boots on tightly, and be ready to put one foot in front of the other. My eyes fixed on the Creator of the Universe, looking to see which direction He takes next. And I think that is one of the many reasons I love Him so much. He doesn’t stand at the top of the mountain and say, “Hurry up!” He walks each step with us.

Secondly, His mercies are immeasurable! I am fully aware of the fact that the sun has been coming up each morning for thousands of years, but I don’t think I have ever loved the orange glow infusing the clouds as much as I did that day. In the midst of the biting wind, icy temperatures, and heavy darkness that we had been enduring for 6 hours– there was hope! As the sun began to rise, it was like new life was breathed into my lungs. I was going to make it to the top, without question. We were so close.

And how true and tangible is His mercy in other areas too? There is a sunrise at the end of our earthly journey. The story has a happy ending. This world will be redeemed, He will sanctify and glorify His children, and we will spend eternity in His glorious presence (Romans 8:16-25). What greater hope is there? And with that kind of certainty and security, why in the WORLD do I spend so much time fretting and worrying? Why am I doing anything other than radically loving other people? I know who I am and whose I am. I am so humbled that I have the privilege of knowing THE climbing guide. And I don’t just kinda know Him as an acquaintance, He’s my dad. And He loves me immensely. So, with the warmth of the sun on my windblown cheeks, I was also soaking in the warmth of the Son and the promises He has kept and will keep.

My final thought to share has to do with beauty. Wow –God is creative. I mean, I knew this, but I have never been more aware of His jaw-dropping creation than witnessing the ever-changing landscape of Kili for 7 days. (On that note, you should check out my brother’s blog. He does a much better job of describing the amazing things we saw that week.) Without question, the whole world – from the moss on the trees to the towering glaciers – are declaring the majesty of the One who made them. Designed them. Desired for them to be beautiful in their own way. And He did it so that we could enjoy it, soak it all in, and then turn to praise Him for His handiwork. His beauty cannot be calculated or contained.

Needless to say, I had an amazing experience hiking Mt. Kilimanjaro. I was so blessed to be able to share that time with my brother, Robert, and one of my good friends and housemates here in Kenya, Lauren – that is something we will cherish forever. And more than anything else, I will cherish that moment of standing at 19, 341 feet – overlooking the African sunrise that was turning the ice different shades of orange and pink – knowing that we had completed the hardest part of our journey, and standing in awe of who God is as my Creator and my Guide.

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Here comes the sun…

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Robert, Lauren, and I – all smiles!

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The sunrise over Kili’s crater.

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On top of the world!

A Modest Tribute to an Extraordinary Life

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/284/47276055/files/2015/01/img_2665.jpgAlthough this post will fall far short of the tribute she deserves, I find that it is necessary for me to take a few minutes and write about one of the most incredible women I have ever known. A whole book should be written about my grandma, Harriete Elrod, but I guess a blog post will have to do for now. (Biographers of the world, take note – I have your next subject right here.)

A few months ago, I had my sixth graders write a paper, telling me about their hero. They needed to tell me who their hero was, what made them a hero, and qualities in that person that they wanted to imitate in their own lives. I got up to introduce the brainstorming section of our writing process and, without a second thought, I began a brainstorming web about my grandma. “Now, if I were writing this paper, this would be the person I would write about.” I began to describe Grandma to my students and they all sat there with their mouths open. And for good reason.

Harriete Elrod taught history for over 50 years. And she didn’t just teach, she LOVED her students. She told me countless stories of difficult students in her classroom, or impossible teaching situations (like being given a “catch-all” class of failing students her first year teaching that met in a storage closet) or terrible principals etc, but in all her stories, she came back to the good that came from the difficult. She told me of the dozens of students that came back, years later, to thank her for the positive impact she had on their lives. Or seeing changes in educational perspective because she wouldn’t sit idly by and watch teachers mistreat students with special needs. However, most of her impact went unacknowledged by the world. But she didn’t care! She wasn’t teaching because she wanted recognition, success, or power. She taught because she KNEW the power of changing one child’s life. She spent her days showing her students a love of learning, instilling confidence that they could succeed, and proclaiming the mighty power of Jesus to anyone who would listen. I truly cannot fathom the number of lives she has touched with her strength and joy – thousands and thousands would be a modest calculation.

Somehow, in the midst of this incredible teaching career, she was also a faithful wife and a loving mother. Her oldest daughter was born with a mental handicap that would keep her dependent on Grandma for the next 60 years. And yet, in the midst of this and other situations that could have seemed overwhelming or bleak – she remained faithful, loving, and even joyful. The greatest testimony of her faith in Christ was never in the words she spoke or the church services she attended, but in her actions – her selfless, servant-hearted, patient, constant love for the people that God had placed in her life. Never giving up. Never turning away. Always seeing the good. Always trusting God and His sovereign plan. I am forever grateful that she raised her son the way that she did – I couldn’t ask for a better dad and I know she had a major part to play in that.

I will always cherish my memories with this amazing woman. The many, many hours sitting at her kitchen table, listening to her stories. The way she would spoil us when we came to visit for a few days – buying all our favorite cereals and having more desserts than we could eat in a month. Listening to her play the piano and sing hymns. Saying “The Lord’s Prayer” before bed. The trip we took to Washington DC, just the two of us, when I was 7 years old – what an adventure that was!. Her countless trips to come visit us in the many states we lived in, making the effort and time to be a part of the big events in her grandchildren’s lives. Her wit, humor, and contagious laugh. And most recently – the precious phone calls we had while I was here in Kenya. There was no one I would have rather talked to on the nights before my first day of school. Or tell my teaching stories to. She just got it. She knew. We didn’t even have to say anything to each other and we would be on the same page…./home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/284/47276055/files/2015/01/img_2659.jpgI will spend the rest of my life trying to be more like Harriete Elrod. To love as she loved. To teach as she taught. To have faith and contagious joy in the midst of hard circumstances. To give each endeavor all of my best efforts and leave no opportunity untried. To support, encourage, and take pride in the accomplishments of others. To love Jesus with every fiber of my being.

Life is short. A vapor in the wind. I am so glad that I took the time to know my grandma, to listen to her, to call her, and I’m especially grateful for the trip I was able to take this summer to visit her, not knowing that it would be the last time I would see her in person. I feel challenged more than ever to tell the people that I care about how valuable they are and how loved they are. To not waste chances to be with the people I love. To make sure they know how I feel about them. Because what are we doing if not pouring into the people around us, encouraging them, and pointing them to Christ? There is no time to waste.

I guess I will stop here. There is so much more I could tell you about Grandma (and honestly I was feeling a lot of pressure to say just the right things in this post, as if this is the end-all, be-all of celebrating Grandma.) But then I realized something – I’m going to be talking about this amazing woman for the REST OF MY LIFE. People will be hearing about my hero as long as I have breath in my lungs. Her legacy continues on.

God,
Thank you for creating Grandma. Thank you for sharing her with us for over 85 years. I rejoice in knowing that she is in heaven with you right now, seeing you face to face – the best place she could possibly want to be.Your words in Colossians 3 ring more true to me now than ever before: “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”  Thank you for providing a happy ending to the story of life through your work on the cross. Your sacrifice and redemption make it possible to see joy in death, to find peace in heartache, and to see purpose behind the loss. That is amazing, radical, and worthy of praise!

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What I Learn from 6th Graders

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Just a few of the many sweet faces that greet me every morning.

I can hear them before I see them. Their pencil cases rattle against their binders, their shoes squeak against the pavement, and their not-so-quiet giggles interrupt my pre-schoolday routine. I look up and see that it’s only 8:10 AM, but they are already outside my door, waiting for me to let them in.

I love my 6th grade class. I feel that I have probably learned more from them this year than they have learned from me. 

So I figured I would share the Top 8 Things I’ve Learned from 6th Grade.

1. Approach each day with eager expectation.

When I open my classroom door each morning, I find wide-eyed 10 and 11 year olds looking up at me, their binders clutched to their chests, and big smiles on their faces. You would think that I was coming to let them into Disney World instead of English class. But that’s my sixth grade class. They wake up each day, eagerly awaiting what life has in store for them. And their enthusiasm is contagious. No matter what mood I show up with, I open my door and receive 22 greetings of “Good morning Miss Elrod!” and I can’t help but smile back. I am challenged to be excited about my day, no matter what is on the agenda. Because what kind of joy could be experienced if I learn to wait with eager expectation on the good things that God has for me?! I want to be just as fervent, wide-eyed, and excited for what is ahead.

2. Be sensitive to those around you.

My sixth graders don’t just have buddies to hang out with at recess. They truly love each other. They are immediately aware of a fellow classmate’s distress or anger. They don’t shy away from finding out what is wrong and doing their best to comfort them. Tears are shed, hugs are given, and smiles return once more. Selfless love is a powerful force and I desire to be more sensitive to the needs of those around me, no matter what is going on in my own life.

3. Share.

Of course the one day of the week that we were headed to the library for class was the day that it was pouring rain outside. As I was trudging through the gravel, and using my umbrella to shield my face from the pelting raindrops, I looked up to see that one of my girls has managed to get two more girls under her umbrella and all three of them have their arms around each other, walking in step to the library. I couldn’t help but marvel at such a simple truth – the blessings we have are meant to be shared with those around us. I know that this should be obvious (and maybe sharing has been a little damaged by its cliché use), but I’m grateful for the reminder of the delight that comes with keeping a few other heads dry under your umbrella.

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4. It’s ok to get excited about the small things.

I never knew that a spelling review game could be so awesome. Or checking out books. Or a grammar lesson. But my sixth graders have proved me wrong. I kid you not – no matter what I throw at them, they not only embrace it as a responsibility of being a student, but they let out shouts of joy or quietly utter a “yes” under their breath or just flat out can’t sit still in their seats from the excitement of it all. I will never look at “Rules for Capitalization” quite the same way again. 🙂 It’s makes me wonder – what things in my life, no matter how trivial, could I be getting more excited about?

5. Don’t underestimate a good sense of humor.

Being in middle school is tough. You are learning what it means to be an independent student, you’re receiving more homework than ever before, and, oh ya, your body is doing crazy things. There are all these new emotions and your limbs are super gangly and awkward, not to mention your voice squeaks and you can’t seem to manage the whole not-running-into-things maneuver. Tripping and falling on the way to lunch could be a devastating event. That is, unless you have a sense of humor. I have never seen so many students run into chairs, knock books off of desks, or simply run into each other. But my sixth graders never skip a beat. They dust off their almost-too-short pants, laugh at their clumsiness, and keep going. And, best of all, they aren’t afraid to give the wrong answer in class! I love that they are willing to put their best guess forward and aren’t embarrassed if they are a little off track. As a teacher, I am beyond grateful for this. In an environment where it is safe to laugh at mistakes and try again, freedom exists and real learning can take place. And there is freedom to be found in taking MY mistakes a little less seriously too. To laugh off the embarrassing moment and to learn from what didn’t work. A good sense of humor could get me a long way, instead of constantly expecting things to go according to my perfect plan and being upset when it doesn’t work. No one ever said that you wouldn’t trip and fall sometimes. Time to dust off my knees, pick up my gangly, awkward self, and keep going.

6. Ask questions.

Within the span of 10 seconds (aka the time it takes for me to open my classroom door and then return to my desk), I am bombarded with at least seventeen questions. My sixth graders have no shame in asking any and every question that pops into their heads. The funniest questions are the ones that spontaneously happen in the middle of a lesson and have nothing to do with what we are talking about. I just have to stop and wonder what large, complex thinking is happening in that small brain. And even though there are times when their hundreds of questions can be exhausting, I can’t be mad at them. They are so curious. So hungry to know more. So zealous about finding the answer. And I want to be just like them – in a constant state of wanting to learn more, to ask questions, to search for truth. It seems that the more I learn, the less I know but with a little help from some sixth grade enthusiasm, we can keep asking lots of questions, together. 🙂

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Also, giant bugs are cool.

7. We can be too hard on ourselves.

We’re not supposed to have favorites, but let’s be honest, it happens. One of my favorite students, K, walked up to my desk one morning. Her eyes were larger than usual and her usually confident voice was shaking as she let me know that she had left her pencil case at home. I told her not to worry about it. She could borrow a pencil from someone else and it would be fine. A few minutes later, I looked up to see that K had her head down on her desk and her shoulders were shaking from how hard she was crying into her arms. I asked her to step in the hallway to catch her breath, wipe her eyes, and explain the problem. It turned out that her Rhino Card (our system of discipline in middle school that is supposed to be with them at all times) was also in her pencil case and she was petrified of getting detention. I calmly explained that she would be fine, just try to avoid getting in trouble today and there would be no need for the Rhino Card anyway. All seemed to be right in the world again, until later that week when K informed me that she had detention. However, when I went to ask the other teachers why K had detention, I discovered that no one had actually assigned it to her. She had assigned herself detention. We couldn’t help but laugh at this sweet girl who sought her own punishment even though we had not given it to her. And after some more explaining, she finally understood that she was not in trouble. It made me stop and think – are there things that I beat myself up for too much, when God is offering His grace freely to me?

8. And finally – it’s ok to be silly. (And a good dance party is necessary every once in a while.)

Not much else needs to be said about this one. Just dance. Who cares who is watching right? This is the part where I wish I had video footage of the silliness that happens in my classroom before class gets started. Just envision small boys break-dancing in all their goofy glory and that should get you pretty close.

So yes. I love these silly, awkward, curious human beings that eagerly stand outside my door each morning. Because we are on this journey together. I may be teaching them English, but they are teaching me about life and I am grateful for every lesson I learn. Anyways, I’ve got to go. It’s time for a dance party.