Memorial Day

Today is the day selected on the calendar when our nation is supposed to take time to remember the sacrifice made by the men and women who have lost their lives in the service of our country. Hundreds of thousands have paid the ultimate price while wearing the uniform of the Minute Men, the Continental Army, the Confederate or Union army, or the United States Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines or Coast Guard. This the day when we are supposed to pause to remember that freedom is not free.

Unfortunately, for many people in our nation it is simply a day off from work, a day to have a bbq or to go to the beach. There is nothing wrong with those things, of course, and the greatest celebrations and remembrances often involve times of sharing a meal. The trouble is, though, when people see today as for those activities only. Yesterday our pastor shared some of the history of Memorial Day, and I have to say that far too few of us really take time to remember what has been done on our behalf.

I suspect that those who have served in the armed forces and those who have lost loved ones in the service of the nation have no trouble remembering what Memorial Day is really all about. My grandfather served in World War II and, as I understand it, was injured and assumed dead by his unit while in Italy. He was on top of a building that was hit by a shell, causing the building to collapse. He was buried in the rubble. Though his unit moved on, some other soldiers (not American) later found him, and stitched him up with hemp that came from untwisting a rope. I say “as I understand it” not because I have any reason to doubt the veracity of this account, but because I never had the opportunity to hear it from my grandfather. Of the ten grandchildren my father and his brother and sister gave to my grandparents, I am the only one who ever saw my grandfather at home, and that was only when I was very young. The remainder of his years were spent in a nursing home or a VA hospital, and rarely was he in full possession his faculties when any of us visited him. He passed away while I was in high school. Were the injuries he sustained during the war the direct cause of his poor health and mental powers later in life? I don’t know. I really never knew him, and what I have learned about him since he passed away leads to believe there were other causes, too. Regardless, thinking about my father’s father standing on top of a building half a world away when that same building was hit by a shell fired by an enemy determined to eliminate America and what she stands for helps to put into perspective what the men and women of the armed forces do, and do willingly.

My father was in the Navy. He was never involved in conflict, though the Vietnam War was still going when he enlisted. He has talked some about his service, and has shown us his white sailor’s cap and pictures of him in uniform and the ship he served on, but his time in the Navy was short and, I suppose, relatively uneventful, and it has never been the subject of lengthy conversation. Still, I am proud to think that my father wore the uniform of the United States Navy and was willing to do so. I have a step-nephew who recently returned from his second tour in Afghanistan.

War during my lifetime has been completely different than any previous war. During the first Gulf War I, along with millions of others, watched the action on the television. We could literally watch the path of a missile as it sped toward its target, the screen going white and then black when it hit. We could listen to daily briefings from General Schwarzkopf or General Powell. We had unprecedented access to the realities of war. And yet, at the same time, I think war has also seemed more remote and disconnected to our daily lives that conflicts of the past. We never hear air raid sirens, we don’t own gas masks, and we have not been subjected to rationing. There is no push to buy war bonds. In other words, unless we know someone who is in the war, we have not been inconvenienced by war other than at the gas pump.

Except for September 11, 2001, I have never known what it was like to feel like our nation was vulnerable. The possibility of an attack has always been a remote possibility during my lifetime. Even though I can remember the last years of the Cold War, and I remember being aware that the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. possessed hundreds upon hundreds of nuclear weapons and that, at least in theory, nuclear war could bring the world as we know it to a sudden halt, it was always such a remote possibility that I do not remember ever being afraid that it might happen. I have never wondered if I would be drafted to serve in the military, and when I turned 18 our nation was at peace and there was absolutely no push or pressure for me to even consider service in the military. While I grew up respecting the men and women who serve, and recognizing the value of their service, there seemed little need for me to even think about the armed forces.

Yet, the reality is that there seemed little need because there have always been enough men and women willing to serve. Other than 9/11 and the completely unorthodox tactic of turning commercial airliners into weapons of mass destruction our country has never been attacked during my lifetime because we have men and women who stand on the proverbial wall and keep me safe. The freedoms I so often take for granted were purchased with the blood of patriots who gave their all to gain freedom and to protect it. The liberties I have grown up accustomed to have been defended by men and women who thought they were valuable enough to give their lives for. And I am grateful….

Not So Common

One of my favorite professors in graduate school used to say, “Sometimes common sense is not so common.” We all see abundant examples of that on a regular basis, I know, but one example I read about recently seems to be crying out for a comment…and I feel I simply must oblige.

If you have ever lived in or visited a large city you have likely seen homeless individuals. I am not suggesting that homeless individuals reside only in large cities; I am well aware that that is not true. However, they do seem to be more evident in large cities, and there are often sizable efforts and ministries in place in those cities that seek to help meet the needs of the homeless.

I am not interested here in exploring the reasons why someone may become homeless. I am well aware that some are homeless by choice and some are homeless through no fault of their own, and some are somewhere in the middle. Regardless of the reasons, the fact is that if someone is homeless there is no reason why in the United States of America such individuals should not be able to obtain shelter, clothing and food, at least temporarily.

In New York City, however, there is an egregious example of a lack of common sense. (Not that that in and of itself is much of a surprise, I suppose. After all, NYC, if you recall from a not-too-long ago post, has also banned churches from meeting in public schools out of fear that the students will be unable to discern between the doctrines/positions of the church and the secular nature of the school). The example to which I am referring now pertains to feeding the homeless. The powers that be in NYC have passed, and are enforcing, a regulation that bans homeless shelters in the city from accepting donated food because there is no way for the shelters to determine if the donated food meets the standards established by NYC for fat, salt and fiber content.

Milne wrote that Winne the Pooh was a bear “of very little brain,” and yet I bet even Pooh could figure out that when the choice is between no food and food that might not be as nutritious or as healthy as the NYC politicians/bureaucrats think it should be, the choice should be obvious.

The irony of all this is that the very same people who would claim to be “bleeding heart liberals” and would under most circumstances bend over backwards to protect rights and provide services for the homeless are the very same ones who promulgate such idiotic regulations. And the truth is, such regulation is one more example of the absence of a true market-driven economy in the United States.

I read an editorial recently–I cannot remember where, but I am thinking it may have been in WORLD Magazine–discussing the fact that there are so many regulations, limitations, subsidies, and other artificial influences on the economy and every industry in the U.S. that we cannot truly claim to have a free market economy. And that’s sad, because as we stray from free market principles we necessarily find ourselves wandering closer and closer to government control.

Is it a good idea for government, at any level, to regulate the amount of fat, salt or fiber in food that is served, whether in restaurants, food stands, or homeless shelters? That’s a lengthy debate that should probably wait for another day, since it goes far beyond the realm of restricting food access for homeless individuals in NYC. For now, I just have to echo Dr. Jones…”Sometimes, common sense is not so common.”

I’m Still Here

Wow…I cannot believe more than a week has gone by since I last posted a blog entry! I’m still around…things have just been very busy with the end of the school year and all of the activities that go along with that. Today is the last day for teachers to work, and so I should start to see things slow down a bit, meaning I should have time to blog again! Good thing, too…because I have plenty of ideas for things to blog about.

A few thoughts for graduates

I suspect we may be able to find more than one, but let’s suppose we could find only one thing that everyone reading this has in common. Every one of us, from the youngest to the oldest, has hopes and wishes for the future. There may be absolutely nothing that we can do to make some of them come true no matter how hard we might try. There’s nothing wrong with wishing for those things, but we ought not to spend too much time thinking about them either. Instead, we should focus on those things which we can influence.

I have always been a fan of Mr. Rogers. He had this to say about wishes: “What makes the difference between wishing and realizing our wishes? Lots of things, of course, but the main one, I think is whether we link our wishes to our active work. It may take months or years, but it’s far more likely to happen when we care so much that we’ll work as hard as we can to make it happen. And when we’re working toward the realization of our wishes, some of our greatest strengths come from the encouragement of people who care about us.”

Mr. Rogers hits a couple of very important points. First of all is our willingness to actively work toward the accomplishment of a goal or a wish. In “the real world” wishes only come true by hard work, dedication and self discipline. No matter how long it takes to make the wish come true, it is much more likely to come true when “we work as hard as we can to make it happen.”

The other important thing that Mr. Rogers said was that, “some of our greatest strengths come from them encouragement of people who care about us.” Never underestimate the importance of the people who care about you. The people who care about you are the people who will be there with you and for you through the rough times and through the good times. When you want to give up they’ll be there to help you keep going. When you reach the top they’ll be there to help you celebrate your success. When your success goes to your head they’ll be there to remind you where you came from. When you start to lose your temper they’ll help you stay cool. When you feel like you’ve reached the end of your rope and no one cares anymore they’ll be there to remind you otherwise.

We all have dreams and wishes. Some of them are more realistic than others, but what they all have in common is that we will have to work for them. Mr. Rogers also tells the story of wanting to learn to play the clarinet when he was eight or ten years old. “I just didn’t practice the clarinet,” he wrote, “so I didn’t learn. I think I wanted to learn by magic. I think that I had the idea that if I got the clarinet I would somehow know how to play it. But magic doesn’t work with learning, not with anything worthwhile.” Anything you’ll ever accomplish in life that is worth accomplishing will take hard work, self discipline and dedication. Don’t give up. Don’t stop dreaming. But don’t limit yourself to dreaming, either. Be willing to work to make your dreams come true. And don’t forget the people along the way who help you get there.

By Way of Introduction

It is interesting to listen to introductions, I think. When people are introduced to a crowd–a speaker, for instance–the introductions are often long and flowery and, even when entirely accurate, seem to present the individual as “the best thing since sliced bread.” I have been asked on more than one occasion to provide a biography when I have been scheduled to speak somewhere, and I am well aware that those asking fully expect me to provide a page-long description of what I have accomplished and why people should care to listen to anything I have to say.

Even in person-to-person conversation we tend to introduce ourselves by saying one (or more) of three things: what we do, where we are from, and/or to whom we are related. The setting sometimes makes a difference. For example, if I am visiting my brother’s church I might introduce myself and then add, “I’m Phillip’s brother.” If I am at an educator’s conference I would likely say my name and then add, either on my own or in response to the inevitable question, that I am the superintendent at Sunshine Bible Academy. And, over the past year, as a newcomer to South Dakota, I have been frequently been asked within the first few minutes of meeting new people, “Where are you from?”

If we look in the Bible, though, at the way that the writers of the New Testament epistles introduce themselves we find an approach quite unlike those described above. James starts his letter with, “James, a servant of God and the Lord Jesus Christ…” (ESV). Notice James does not say, “James, half-brother of the Lord Jesus Christ,” or “James, pastor of the largest church in Jerusalem.” Peter begins 1 Peter with, “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ,” and 2 Peter with, “Simeon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ” (ESV). Paul starts Philemon with, “Paul, a prisoner for Jesus Christ,” begins Titus with, “Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ,” and starts both 1 and 2 Timothy by referring to himself as an apostle of Jesus Christ. The same basic introduction is used in 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians and Colossians, too. 1 and 2 Thessalonians simply identify Paul, Silvanus and Timothy; there is no other qualification mentioned.

What is the point of all this? Quite simply this: we ought not think too highly of ourselves, our accomplishments or our positions (Romans 12:3). Those things should not define who we are. Who we are and what we have done is not nearly as important as WHOSE we are. That is the point that James, Peter and Paul were making. Any one of them could have rattled off titles, accomplishments, positions, and experiences that would have rivaled any we have heard in our churches, schools and civic gatherings, yet they chose to introduce themselves simply as servants of Jesus Christ.

Would that I too might remember that My God is more important than my grades, my Savior is more important than my salary, and the propitiation for my sins is far more valuable than the position I hold. I want this to be my introduction: “I am Jason Watson, a follower of Christ.”

Christian Teacher Appreciation

Yesterday I shared about the value of teachers, shared some recollections of the best teachers I have had, and in general shared about what makes a great teacher. Everything that I said yesterday would be true of any teacher, at any level, in any setting. There are some additional opportunities and responsibilities that Christian school teachers have, though, that those in secular settings do not have.

A Christian teacher, in a Christian school, has the wonderful responsibility of presenting everything he or she teaches from a biblical perspective, integrating biblical principles into each and every lesson. The Christian school teacher has an opportunity that even Sunday school teachers, youth group leaders and pastors often struggle with, and that is the opportunity to make clear connections between what the Bible says and what the textbook says, between the Bible and every day, real world life.

This does not happen by accident, and it does not even necessarily happen in every Christian school. Sadly, some Christian schools look much the same as their secular counterparts, with the only difference being the word “Christian” in the school’s name and perhaps a prayer or two scattered throughout the day.

I was involved once in trying to start a Christian school. The name selected for the school did not include the word “Christian” and as I was talking about the school around the community several people asked me why it did not. I told them that a large part of the reason was that “Christian” means different things to different people, and there are a lot of people who claim to be Christian yet provide no evidence of that claim in their daily lives. Our goal was that the school and its faculty/staff would speak for itself and that the “Christian-ness” of the school would be evident even if not “advertised.” Actually, the absence of the word “Christian” in the school at which I currently serve is a plus, in my opinion. Instead of Christian School or Christian Academy, this school is Sunshine Bible Academy. I like that a lot, because being true to the Bible and its truth is far more important and more distinctive than what some people mean when they say Christian.

In his book A Christian Paideia, D. Bruce Lockerbie addresses the importance of teachers this way: “A school isn’t ‘Christian’ because it says so on the cornerstone or signboard. There is no such thing as a biblical brick or a charismatic chem lab or a sanctified schoolroom. Only people can be a Christian. A school is Christian–or not!–because of the living members of that school’s population.” I could not say it any better than that. The teachers are what makes any school great or not great–not the facilities, not the textbooks, not the technology. Those things are wonderful, and they are valuable tools, but if you have the grandest facilities, the newest textbooks and the latest technology, but you do not have teachers–specifically, excellent teachers–those things will not amount to much. Likewise, if a Christian school does not have Christian teachers, who are walking with the Lord, growing in their relationship with Him, seeking His guidance and discernment for their daily responsibilities, modeling His love and grace through their interactions with students, and integrating biblical truth into their lessons, the school will be Christian in name only.

I did not attend Christian schools. I was in public schools my entire life, and I had some very good teachers in those schools. And even though I recall very few of my teachers ever being antagonistic toward a biblical worldview–and I am confident that some of them had such a worldview themselves–I was never in a classroom where I was taught how math can demonstrate characteristics of God, how God’s hand is evident throughout human history, how so many elements of the study of science testify to the evidence of a Creator….

Lockerbie goes on to say of Christian educators, “Our role is to teach girls and boys how to read, how to count, how to write, how to listen, how to discern, how to interpret, how to think, how to analyze, how to synthesize, how to critique, how to know. And in that act of knowing, how to acknowledge who God is and what His claims on one’s life may be.” Amen. If you are a Christian educator, thank you. If you are a parent who makes sure that your child gets an education from Christian educators, thank you. And if you received or are receiving an education from Christian educators, thank God for that blessing.

Teacher Appreciation

This week is national Teacher Appreciation Week. As an school administrator I take note of this week specifically because it serves as a great reminder to tell the teachers in my school how much I appreciate them, but it also prompts to think about the importance of teachers.

Yesterday I was reflecting back on my own teachers, trying to see how many of them I could remember. I can remember, by name, every teacher I had for every subject through sixth grade. For seventh through twelfth there a handful whose names I cannot remember (and in some cases even whose faces I cannot remember!). Like anyone else, I could tell stories of teachers that I loved, and teachers that I loathed. The first teacher I remember loving was Mrs. Irwin, my second grade teacher. I can remember a lot of things about my second grade year, from the layout of the classroom, to some of the spelling words I had, to how I somehow managed (with a little help from my mom) to plan a surprise birthday party for Mrs. Irwin, complete with cake, balloons, and a gift that the entire class contributed toward. I can still clearly remember playing “Around the World” with vocabulary words in second grade. I always did quite well, but for some reason that year I had a mental block on the word “head,” and every time Mrs. Irwin would flash that card I would say “heed.” It got to be a bit of a joke in the class, actually.

I could also tell stories of teachers I did not expect to like, but did. Ms. Nelson, my third grade teacher, was one of those. My elementary school had an open design, so there were no walls between classrooms. Their spaces were delineated by changes in carpet color and by shelves and cabinets on wheels that were arranged to provide semi-walls between classes. Thanks to this arrangement, though, I could hear Ms. Nelson quite often while I was in Mrs. Irwin’s class, and I thought Ms. Nelson was quite possible the meanest teacher in the school. Turns out I very much enjoyed her class, though, and she wasn’t mean at all so long as I did what I was supposed to do.

I had some wonderful teachers in middle school, high school, college and graduate school, too. I also had some that were not all that great. Or at least I didn’t think they were. Quite possibly some of those teachers were able to connect well with other students. The worst teacher I ever had is a no-brainer; my fourth grade teacher, hands down. In order to protect the guilty, though, she shall remain unnamed. But it was the teachers like Mrs. Irwin, Mr. Urbain (one my high school history teachers), Mr. Marty (one of my college professors, who had his doctorate but preferred to be addressed as Mr.) and Dr. Jones (one of my grad school professors) who immediately come to mind as the best teachers I ever had.

Why were they the best? For one or both of two reasons, I think. They took an interest in me as an individual, not just as a student, and they loved what they did. All of them were very knowledgeable in their field, but knowledge by itself is not enough. I have been through lectures given by teachers who were undoubtedly brilliant, but they had absolutely no personality, no enthusiasm, and/or no inclination of how to make whatever it was they were droning on about relevant to me or anyone else in the room. Great teachers connect with their students, get to know them, care about them and not just about their grades. They also teach their classes in a way that makes their students look forward to finding out what they will learn next.

It was not until college, in Mr. Marty’s classes, that I ever had a teacher give any indication that he desired to learn from his students, not just to have his students learn from him. That, too, is a mark of a great teacher. A great teacher is well aware of the fact that he does not know everything, and is not afraid to say so. He never stops learning. He learns because he enjoys learning, and he teaches because he enjoys sharing what he has learned with others, and helping them learn, too.

Great teachers also stretch their students. They take them outside of their comfort zones. They do not do it obnoxiously, and they do not put students on the spot and embarrass them, but they do help their students expand their horizons. Mr. Marty was really good at that, too. He had high expectations for each of his students, and he would not let them shy away from a challenging task or take the easy way out when he knew they could do more. He never did let up on me when he learned that I had taken the easiest math class the university had to offer to satisfy my math credit requirement. During one honors class, entitled “Lincoln at Gettysburg: Propositions of Equality,” Mr. Marty instructed us to bring to the next class a question about Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. It could be any question, so long as it was something we thought it would be interesting to know about Lincoln and the speech. Well, truth be told, I did not put a lot of planning or forethought into the assignment. At the next class, we had to write our questions on a 3×5 card and turn them in to him. He then read them out loud to the class. Before doing so, though, he said that we were going to use the questions submitted as the topics for a research paper that we were to write. We could select from any of the questions submitted. At least that’s what he said. Then he came to my question: “Lincoln’s speech includes the line, ‘The world will little note nor long remember what we say here.’ How, if at all, would Lincoln have changed his address if he knew that it would still be studied and quoted more than century later?” Guess what? After reading that, and commenting that it was a very interesting question, Mr. Marty looked and me and said that he was going to require me to write my paper on that question. Wow… I was less than thrilled. Quite frankly, I thought it was an interesting question for a parlor game discussion, but I could not imagine trying to actually answer it. And yet, I did manage to answer it. I got an A on the paper, too.

Great teachers also help their students find answers without necessarily giving them answers. Another of my college professors did this most memorably after TNT aired a movie called Andersonville, about the Confederate prison of that name that held Union POWs. I asked Dr. Summerhill one day if he had seen the movie, and he said he had seen some of it but had not watched it in its entirety. I said I had asked because I was curious as to the historical accuracy of the film. His response? “Why don’t you do some research on Andersonville and then you can tell me how accurate it was.” See, I had wanted the quick and easy answer, and he called me on it. So, I did. And three or four books later I had learned that movie actually did a respectable job of sticking to the facts. My mother used this approach, too, from as long ago as I can remember. “Mom,” I might ask, “how do you spell [whatever the word was I needed at the time]?” Her response? “Look it up.”

So I am grateful for the great teachers that I have had, and I have admiration and respect for every teacher who goes into teaching for the right reasons and does his or her best to provide an excellent education for the students in his or her class. If you happen to still be in touch with any of the great teachers you had, perhaps this would be a nice occasion to make a phone call, send an e-mail or drop a note letting them know how much you appreciate how they influenced your life. Next time I will talk more about teachers, and Christian school teachers specifically.