Last Sunday I drove southwest on 59 from my home in southwest Houston into the suburbs, almost into the country. In Richmond, I exited the freeway and turned right, down a paved road, another right into a dirt parking lot. The gravel crunched beneath my tires, and I found a spot near a chicken coop. Through the poultry netting and in addition to chickens, I discovered peacocks. On the other side of the coop, sunlight shone down on baby goats with their mothers. Beyond all of that lies a beautiful lake with ducks on the water and then River Pointe Church.
I always say, “You can choose HOPE, or not.” And churches and cathedrals, temples and holy places, farm animals and wide open spaces give me HOPE. I find God in these places—and myself, like the me I hope to be.
Life is heavy. I don’t believe any of us are exempt from challenges, but I do believe in the power of prayer. I keep a list of friends and family in my prayers for surgeries and illnesses, dependencies and dysfunctional relationships, the trials of life and inevitable death.
I believe in the power of believing, and I believe in the power of words. Sometimes the wrong words and the wrong beliefs become trapped inside our heads. That’s when I like to have an arsenal of the right words and the right beliefs. I lifted some lines from church last week—for my arsenal—because they lifted me:
Nothing has been wasted, no failure or mistake.
When I doubt it, remind me I’m wonderfully made.
When the world starts to blur and your soul feels heavy,
know that you’re loved.
It’s gonna be alright.
It’s gonna be okay.
We often believe that admitting we’ve failed makes us less Christian.
Confession makes us more Christian.
“Therefore, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (James 5:16)
If the words above don’t lift you, go find words that do and places that do and people who do. You don’t have to believe everything you think, especially the bad stuff. And if you find yourself dwelling in the negative, find a new place to dwell.
Sidenote: A couple of weeks ago the pastor challenged us to read Samuel 1 and 2. These books contain the history of Israel leading into the story of David, as in the chosen-by-God David, who slayed the giant Goliath with his unwavering belief and a single stone. This same David later became king and committed adultery with Bathsheba who became pregnant. King David had Bathsheba’s husband murdered to cover up the sin. The sequence of events displeased the Lord, but King David confessed, and the Lord forgave.
Now, I am no bible scholar, and I don’t understand all of the wartime killing and all of David’s wives and concubines in the context of the Ten Commandments. What truly displeased the Lord was that King David took something that didn’t belong to him amidst everything he already had. Based on this temptation, David is probably the most relatable character in the Bible. (Hello, my name is human.) If an adulterer and a murderer can be forgiven, well then, there’s hope for you and me.
Confession to God grants us forgiveness. Confession to one another makes us whole.
Back in Houston last Sunday, I tried a new church, River Pointe, by recommendation of my friend Mary. Like my Chase Oaks back in Dallas, the music was outstanding, a mix of contemporary and traditional, and for the second time in a week, I sang “It Is Well With My Soul.” This time the minister referenced the songwriter Horatio Spafford and said, “You should Google him.” I remembered the story from last week’s service in Oklahoma (Thanksgiving Episode 1) and silently wondered if God was trying to tell me something. I mean, my soul still felt pretty darn good. As pastor Ryan Leak spoke, I heard the boom of God’s voice and a special Thanksgiving message crystal clear.
Regardless of what you think about Jesus, you have to admit he has a common sense approach to relationship restoration. And while some of us can’t wait to gather with our families at Thanksgiving and throughout the upcoming holidays, some of us have some relationship issues that strike discord and darken spirits.
As I typed up a few sermon notes to keep for myself, I decided to share with you if you so choose to read on. Let us now turn to the New Testament.
“Then Peter came to Him and asked, ‘Lord,
how many times will my brother sin against me and I forgive him and let
it go? Up to seven times?’ Jesus answered him, ‘I say to you, not up to seven
times, but seventy times seven’” (Matthew 18:21-22).
Did you see the italicized and? It’s
not just about the forgiveness. We must also let it go.
“If your brother or sister sins against
you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against
you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying, ‘I repent,’
you must forgive them” (Luke 17:3-4).
Before you sit down to the Thanksgiving table, remember the words. You see, faith allows you to do what sometimes seems impossible…like letting go and moving on. It is impossible that no offenses will come. We are human. None of us are perfect, but it’s so much easier to point the finger in blame rather than to let a wrongdoing go. Jesus says, “Let it go. 490 times. Let it go.” Did you notice the imperative statement, also known as a command (ment). Ask God to give you an opportunity to be honest (rebuke them), then be generous with your forgiveness and discerning with reconciliation. That is God’s message. The message I needed to hear.
As I left the sanctuary that day, the woman sitting next to me turned, looked me in the eye, and said in a lilting Nigerian accent, “And to think that God would give us the grace to forgive every family member.”
The winter break approached, exam stress visible on the faces of the students. Of my four sections of Advanced Placement Language and Composition, one class tested Monday, one on Tuesday, one Wednesday, and one Thursday. On my white board I wrote: Happy Holidays! Do your best! Be your Best! The underlying message—Don’t Cheat! I would be naive to believe that students wouldn’t try. Yet I want to trust them, really I do.
Monday’s scores were consistent with student averages and other tests taken throughout the semester. Tuesday’s test had two paradoxically high scores, but the students missed different questions, so I didn’t think too much about it as I was still grading my brains out with essays, which would comprise 50% of test scores. By Wednesday after walking in on five girls just hanging out in my office, which connects to two other classrooms besides mine, I knew in my gut that my test had been compromised. There was nothing I could do in the minutes leading up to the test that day.
After passing out Wednesday’s exam, I noted the darting glances from “Felicia.” Every time I looked at her, she met my gaze, and even though this test consists of reading passages and comprehension, “Felicia” failed to even fake read as she bubbled her answers. I monitored like a hawk. She wasn’t copying off of anyone. However, after tests were submitted, I discovered four more inconsistent scores including Bad Faker “Felicia” and three of her friends who had seemingly coordinated well enough to miss different answers.
So (1) there was the situation with unsupervised students in the office where tests were not visible but also not under lock and key. And (2) I did not physically collect phones or Apple watches during this testing season though none were visible. And (3) normally I give more than one version of any test, but this time, with keys having to be entered into an unfamiliar computer system and too much to do and too little time, I did not. This time I stapled a cover sheet on top that either said Form A or Form B and copied Form A in white, Form B green. Lame, I now know.
So on Wednesday after school with one semester exam to go, I assembled a new test and made copies with the same cover sheet, Form A in white and a green Form B.
Before the test on Thursday, I made eye contact with every single student as I handed out scantrons. To each one of them, I said something like, “Good luck today” or “May the force be with you” or “I’m thinking of you as you test today.” Some of them probably thought/think I’m creepy, but most of them were amused. I added a new note to my white board next to Be Your Best—No Cheating. Before distributing tests, I didn’t mention anything about the suspected cheaters or the new test, I just said, “It’s been my pleasure to be your teacher this year.”
“What? Aren’t you coming back?” they asked.
“Of course, I mean, 2018 has been great, and I’ll see you next year. I hope you all have a wonderful break. Are you ready? Do your best! Please keep your eyes on your own test and keep your answers covered.” Then I passed out the test and proceeded to walk up and down the aisles for two hours.
Immediately I recognized two scantrons with the same bubble pattern—A, B, B, D—the answers from the original exam. These two students weren’t even trying to read and see if those answer choices made sense, and they weren’t keeping their answers covered either. However, I had left one clue that this test was different. The first test had 37 questions, and this one had 39. I kept my eyes on the two, and about an hour into the test they both exuded an air of defeat—heavy exhales, eyes rolling, corners of mouths turned inconsolably down.
Fast forward to the scantron machine that sounded off like a machine gun and left six scantrons bleeding red. Six. Six students had stuck to the familiar A, B, B, D pattern, their scores to the tune of 10-20%.
Skip ahead once more past me telling some co-workers and my dean. Our math teacher had a similar cheating scandal, and I heard many a conflicting opinion on dealing with my cheaters. If I gave these six kids zeroes, they would all fail for the semester, and six more whom I suspect also cheated, but couldn’t outright accuse, would get away with it. If I gave my little cheaters their 10-20% and averaged that score with their essay scores, they will still pass for the semester. The math teacher and I both entered zeroes into our grade books and left the school that Friday, December 21 for a two-week respite. Grades would not be officially due until our January return.
In the meantime, I’ve reflected on the times I’ve cheated in life. I remember my freshman year, still in junior high. It was just math homework. I’m sure I was too busy with my ninth-grade life to worry about school, so I borrowed the homework of a very smart, kind, and well-respected friend who had diligently completed hers and whose name I will protect to this day. I proceeded to copy her assignment in my history class, and my teacher Mr. Watkins, also the dad of one of my classmates, walked over to my desk, picked up both papers, scrutinized the names, and handed them back to me without saying a word. And I felt ashamed of myself. That’s not to say that I didn’t find a way to cheat my way through business calculus in college, and I don’t relay my own dishonesty with pride.
I say this to illustrate the imperfection of humanity. I realize that the pot should not call the kettle black, and I ask myself, “What would Jesus do?”
I remember the story of a prostitute kissing the feet of Jesus and anointing them with perfume and her own tears and wiping them with her own hair.
I remember Simon saying, “If this man were a prophet, he would know this woman was a sinner.”
I remember Jesus saying to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven…go in peace.”
(It’s all in Luke 7:36-50 with a powerful parable in between*).
There will always be Simons who say, “Let them fail. Teach them a lesson.”
There will always be Jesuses and Mr. Watkinses who teach lessons in other ways.
There will always be people, like me, who choose wrong from time to time, but continue to try to be better than who they were before. Isn’t that what we all do in January? Resolve to be our best selves?
When I go back to school, I’ll give my students credit for their essays and say little, maybe even nothing like Mr. Watkins, and like Jesus, I’ll forgive with grace and peace for new beginnings in the new year.
*Luke 7:40-43, New International Version, biblegateway.com
40 Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.”
“Tell me, teacher,” he said.
41 “Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”
43 Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.”
I’m not saying this would work every time, and I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t have dealt with a mall parking lot robbery in this way, but apparently my daughter Lauren has a gift for dealing with purse snatchers.
On December 24th, Kody, Drew, and I packed our bags, loaded my Mazda, and dashed up I-45 from Houston to Dallas. We swung by Lauren’s house to pick her up, looking all adorable in a little black dress with wedged ankle boots to match, and we were almost on time for the 3:30 Christmas Eve candlelight service at my home church, Chase Oaks. Merry Christmas to me! One of our traditions, our family together for carols and a Word in the presence of God. (The sixteen-minute sermon is linked, just click on Chase Oaks).
Afterwards, Kody and I would run to the grocery store, so we dropped Lauren at her home and car so that she could make one more run to the mall. Little did she know that she would need her tennis shoes. Lauren found what she needed as the mall closed, and back at her car, a girl approached her and asked, “Do you have a dollar?”
Lauren said, “No, I’m sorry. I don’t have any money, just my debit card.” And with that the girl snatched my daughter’s purse, her Louis Vuitton with her new iPhone inside, and ran. I suppose Lauren looked like an easy target in her cute dress and heels, but a competitive soccer player in her day, her instinct kicked in and said, “Oh, no, you didn’t.” Lauren chased the thief through the parking lot in front of oncoming traffic, and talk about a foot race—in her wedges—she ran as fast as she could. The other girl was bigger, and Lauren knew she would outlast and catch her in a matter of time. Lauren also knew she couldn’t fight her.
When the crook could run no more, Lauren said, “What is wrong? Why are you doing this?”
The other girl said, “I’m just going through a really hard time.”
Lauren said, “We all go through hard times, and I’m crazy, too, but I would never snatch anyone’s purse. How can I help you? Do you need a ride? Do you need a hug?”
And that’s how Lauren retrieved her purse from a thief. On Christmas Eve, Lauren showed this girl forgiveness and kindness, and she got her purse back.
And yes, Lauren did hug the girl and give her a ride, which wouldn’t have been my instinct, but maybe I will rethink future interactions gone wrong. This purse snatching worked out, and I couldn’t be any prouder of my little girl or any more thankful for the angels watching over her.