Following Christ: Lessons from Japan

Silence and Beauty

In his book Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering, artist Makoto Fujimura explains that the Japanese ideogram for “beauty” is a combination of two other symbols: one representing a sacrificial “sheep” and the other meaning “great.”  This concept of beauty as “great sacrifice” not only brings insight into Japanese culture, but can also deepen our understanding of what it means to follow Christ.

Fujimura’s book is a wide-ranging reflection on Japanese culture, history, and art, and is based on another book, Silence by Shūsaku Endō.  Originally published in 1966 in Japanese, Silence is becoming recognized throughout the world as a “great book,” a work of literature that conveys timeless truth.  Fujimura’s exploration can further assist readers in understanding the meaning of Silence, Japanese culture, and how the story of the Japanese Christians might provide an antidote to more worldly versions of Christianity.

Silence is historical fiction based on real missionaries who followed the Biblical command to spread the Gospel to “the ends of the earth,” as Japan seemed to the Europeans.  These efforts to teach Japanese about God sending his son to atone for human sin were initially successful in a culture that had already connected beauty with sacrifice. But 17th century Japanese authorities instituted a harsh and effective persecution that forced even the most dedicated believers to publicly renounce faith.  This public renunciation required Christian leaders to trample on “fumi-e,” images of Christ or the Virgin.

Fumi-e
A Fumi-e

Convicted Christians, if not martyred, were required to trample on fumi-e not just once, but at the onset of each year. The missionary priests were not permitted to leave Japan, but kept under house arrest and frequently paraded to the people as examples of the failure of Christianity.

A number of American Christians who’ve read Silence have described it as dark and depressing, and have condemned the fictional character Father Rodrigues as a failed witness.  But while the book is certainly haunting, Fujimura helps readers to see that Rodrigues is much more like the Apostle Peter, and perhaps even more like Christ than we first perceive.  In the modernized, Western church, we prefer more comfortable versions of Christianity.  Some adhere to a politically correct and respectable church that stays relevant by keeping up with cultural trends and progressive values.  Others overtly or subtly embrace forms of prosperity gospel, in which the right prayers and behavior lead to material and social success. We boast of faith heroes like Billy Graham, who led many to Christ and was popular, well-loved, and respected.

In contrast, Father Rodrigues, loses everything.   Despite his prayers, God remains silent and does not spare Rodrigues from suffering.  Like the Apostle Peter, Rodrigues denies Christ at the crucial moment.  He becomes a despised apostate of the church and a target of ridicule for the Japanese.  Even the children taunt and throw rocks at him.  And yet, in a completely broken and disgraced way, he retains his faith and nurtures the faith of others.

As Fujimura explains in Silence and Beauty:

“By stepping on the fumi-e, Father Rodrigues inverts into his genuine faith, faith not dependent on his religious status or on his own merit, but a faith in grace…” (p. 147)

Fujimura asserts that Rodrigues only then really sets aside his former identity.  He is no longer a Portuguese priest, but one of the broken and oppressed Japanese.  (The authorities even require him to assume the name of a dead Japanese man and become husband to the dead man’s wife.)  Rodrigues truly becomes one of the people he came to serve, and shares in their lives, sufferings, and temptations.  Rather than attaining worldly glory,

“He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.  Like one from whom men hide their faces, he was despised and we esteemed him not.”  (Isaiah 53:3. ESV)

While Rodrigues and the Japanese Christians appear to have failed by worldly standards, the final pages of Silence indicate that Christian faith inexplicably survived in Japan, both for Rodrigues and for a covert group of hidden Christians. In fact, groups of Kakure Kirishitan, or “Hiding Christians,” were rediscovered by priests visiting Japan in the mid-nineteenth century.  (p. 44)

Perhaps many modern American Christians do not understand Silence due to cultural and historical differences.  Sometimes American Christians are like those who greeted Jesus by waving palms and cheering at his “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem, but who misunderstood his mission. They expected an earthly kingdom resplendent with glory and prosperity.  But when the events of Good Friday came, they scattered and turned away.  It is fitting that in the traditional Ash Wednesday observances, which emphasize confession and repentance, the ashes consist of burned palm fronds from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebration.  How appropriate to repent of those misguided Palm Sunday ambitions before entering the season that will include remembrance of Jesus’ suffering and death on a cross. As Americans, we would rather ignore Good Friday in favor of Easter, but Endō’s story presents a stark reminder of the role and reality of earthly suffering.

As Fujimura explains:

“Show me my cross” may be a statement that every Christian needs to say to the world.  In chapter 16 of the Gospel of Matthew, Christ warns his followers, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24 ESV).  For each follower to “carry his own cross” means to expect persecution, betrayals and exile from the world.  The values of the “world” conflict with the key message of Christianity. (p. 46)

In Silence and Beauty, Fujimura helps us to further “translate” the lessons of Silence.   He helps us to understand Endō’s message that God does speak in what seem to be silent times, places, and cultures, but we must be ready to accept that what God values is often in sharp contrast with what the world values.  Living out a Christian faith requires taking up our own crosses, but suffering and sacrifice are essential to God’s beautiful plan for our sanctification and eternal joy.   In this we have hope.

 

Postscript:  While I am not typically a fan of “abstract” art, I have fallen in love with Makoto Fujimura’s paintings.  There’s a lovely, short video about his work at his website, as well as more information about him, his work, and his faith.  He’s also launched Fujimura Institute, which “spearheads broad initiatives that integrate art, faith, and beauty.”   

Fumi-e Image credit:  This Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons image is from the user Chris 73 and is freely available at //commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jesus_on_cross_to_step_on.jpg under the creative commons cc-by-sa 3.0 license.

Rights and Responsibilities: Parents, Children, and Government

Caesar

You’re not the Boss of Me!

Most parents have heard some version of the above childish response to authority.  At age five our own strong-willed child announced, “When I grow up I’m going to declare myself Supreme Emperor so that no one can boss me!”  Although highly amused by the expressed ambition, as his parents we endeavored to teach him that as a “grown up,” he would certainly enjoy greater autonomy but also greater responsibility.  In addition, we advised him that throughout his life some person or entity would exercise a measure of jurisdiction over him, and much of the time we should respect appropriate authority.

Even as adults we have a complicated relationship with authority.  Like our children, we often balk at attempts to restrict our freedoms, but at other times we would rather someone else take responsibility for tough decisions or difficult challenges.  Judeo-Christians know well the story of the ancient Israelites who demanded that God provide them with a king, despite prophetic warnings that this would lead to more suffering than peace.  Likewise, Socrates (via Plato) proposed that a powerful but enlightened and benevolent “Philosopher King” would offer the best form of government. Now, although the framers of the U.S. system prized individual liberty and less autonomous forms of government, we seem once again to be moving towards more authoritarian structures.

Nowhere is this more troubling than in the arena of parental and familial rights.  In some cases parents seem to assume that certain “professionals,” such as teachers or health providers, have the authority to dictate on a variety of issues.  Lately I’ve heard from mothers who believe they’re required to send children to a sexual-preferences-based story-time because the teacher said it was “mandatory,” or who thought they had to submit to a dentist who prohibited parents from the exam room.   In these cases parents are often unsure of their rights and afraid to assert authority and responsibility for their own children.

Parents vs. Government

Of course parental rights have become controversial as lawmakers attempt to determine the line between the rights and responsibilities of parents v. those of government.  For example, while all fifty of the United States recognize parents’ rights to educate children at home, the European Court of Human Rights recently ruled that German law superseded a family’s right to home school.  U.S. Lawmakers also struggle to balance parents’ rights to refuse immunizations with the need to promote public health and safety.  And high divorce/single parenting rates, combined with societal confusion on sex and gender, are adding to the legal dilemma over who has jurisdiction over children.

Government Replacing Families

As more Americans look to government to solve societal problems, the number of jurisdictional conflicts will inevitably increase.  The late Harvard sociologist Nathan Glazer wrote,

“Every piece of social policy substitutes for some traditional arrangement… a new arrangement in which public authorities take over, at least in part, the role of the family, of the ethnic and neighborhood group, or of the voluntary association.  In doing so, social policy weakens the positions of these traditional agents.”

Glazer’s warning is relevant to multiple areas of policy debate.  The proposed expansion of government-funded education to include pre-kindergarten students at age 4 or even 3 years, will continue to erode family rights and reduce familial responsibility to children.  (Leftists make no secret of this goal in calling for “cradle to career” government institutions.)  Already many educators lament the lack of parental involvement in K-12 public schooling, without recognizing the psychological impact of our quasi-imposed system.  Parents are relieved of the role of making any choices about their child’s education, and therefore distanced from the educational process.  This dynamic will only worsen under expanding programs.

Adults Dependent on Government

In addition to weakening family structures and reducing parental investment, increasing the role of government often turns adults into child-like dependents.  Although lawmakers in the past have often crafted welfare initiatives to serve as temporary “safety nets,” some recent leaders seem unconcerned about long-term dependency.  President Obama sought to reduce accountability and work requirements for certain welfare recipients, and there are a surprisingly high number of able-bodied adults without dependents utilizing programs like SNAP.  More recently, Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez appeared to call for economic support of those “unable or unwilling to work.”

And yet, Leftists like Anand Giridharadas justify government solutions that include willingly stifling private philanthropy by invoking an interesting and disturbing semantic sleight of hand; instead of “private charity,” they reframe such efforts as “private redistribution.” Girinharadas and others such as Chiara Cordelli, un-ironically claim that such private redistribution treats adults “like children.”   Girinharadas and company are unwilling to acknowledge the destructive dynamic of government programs, which often reduce adults to long-term wards of the state.

The best welfare programs, whether public or private, are like good parenting: they create pathways to independence.  Rather than “redistribution,” such programs engage, teach, and assist. Also, private efforts arguably allow for greater innovation and less bureaucracy.  One Texas-based example is S & B Engineers and Constructors ‘earn while you learn’ program, in which unemployed and underemployed women are paid $17/hour while learning welding and pipe-fitting, after which the women obtain jobs starting at around $60,000 per year.  Such private sector programs not only create a skilled and needed workforce, but assist voluntary participants in gaining financial independence.

Render Unto Caesar Only That Which Is Caesar’s

Unfortunately, an increasing number of adults are calling for government solutions to all societal problems.  In their utopian visions, a benevolent government will serve as parent to people of all ages and will meet all needs.  They seem unable to grasp the idea that said government will not be composed of angelic and benevolent creatures, but…of flawed human beings; some of whom will be ethical and competent, some who will be ethical but incompetent, and worst of all, some who will be unethical but deadly competent.  While we should not be afraid to “render unto Caesar,” we should also guard that which is not the rightful jurisdiction of “Caesar,” by defending and reinforcing parental rights and responsibilities, and encouraging able adults to enjoy the dignity of self-sufficiency.

As for our aspiring “Supreme Emperor,” I am happy to report that he is a working college student who pays for his own car, gas, and auto insurance, and who participates in elections.  He still gets “bossed” by his bosses and professors, but he understands his rights and responsibilities, and we celebrate his continued progress towards full adult independence. Hopefully he will be able to pass these values to his own children.

A Picture Paints A Thousand Errors in Judgment

By now surely everyone in the country has heard of the confrontation between Native American veteran Nathan Phillips and a Catholic school student Nick Sandmann that occurred last weekend. While the initial news stories portrayed the younger Sandman as a hostile actor invading the space of the elderly Phillips, longer videos and additional testimony illuminate a more complicated narrative. Mr. Phillips himself seems to have initiated the contact and engaged the students in a confrontational and antagonistic manner. Some pundits have suggested that Sandmann could have done more to defuse the situation, but even so, it is clear that the teen was not the evil monster the first reports portrayed. By Monday morning, many people had apologized for erroneously condemning Sandman, but there are still a few clinging to a preferred narrative despite contradicting evidence.

Those first reactions were largely based on a still photo and very short video clip. “A picture paints a thousand words,” the old saying goes, but this picture encouraged a thousand incorrect assumptions and confirmations of bias.

For one thing, many of those who immediately condemned the student, and who now continue to justify his condemnation, are incensed by his “Make America Great Again” hat. Since he is a supporter of the President, they reason, he must be an evil person.

Likewise, Mr. Phillips is an elderly Native American, whose ancestors endured great injustice at the hands of white Europeans. As such, he is immediately an object of compassion and sympathy. Therefore, some reason, he must be a victim of the above-mentioned evil person.

But the reality is that both Phillips and Sandmann are human beings whose actual lives and motivations defy our gross generalizations and stereotypes. In his written public statement, the teen describes his confusion at the confrontation, and his idea that being still, quiet, and smiling would convey a non-aggressive and friendly attitude. As for Mr. Phillips, additional video evidence contradicts his testimony, and there are numerous questions about his previous activism and military service. Neither man can be effectively judged based on a still photo or 20-second video.

In seeking the truth about this situation, or any other, we must go beyond first appearances and prejudices. The chain of events, or history, prior to the moment in question, matter very much. In addition to history and context, we must consider the humanity of each participant. Instead of seeing them as “Trumper” and “Noble Native,” we need to understand that each man is a unique creation, made in the image of God, but also imperfect and prone to error. As such, each has the capacity to behave prudently or scandalously regardless of their ancestry or political viewpoints.

donatello,_maddalena_nella_nuova_collocazione_03[1]In pursuing truth, we often find our initial perceptions were misguided, especially those formed on the basis of appearance. In an example from the world of art, on first exposure to Donatello’s sculpture “The Penitent Magdalene,” we might recoil at the physical ugliness of the wretched woman portrayed. But the story and idea behind the sculpture is that even the most sinful and afflicted life can be redeemed by life in Christ. The Magdalene’s hands moving to prayer tell us that her ugliness is not the end of the story. It is only in pursing the history, context, and ideas behind the image that we can appreciate the truth and beauty of Donatello’s exquisite rendering.

Although this week many pundits are repenting their reactive critique of Nick Sandmann, there is little doubt there will be many future occasions in which we will be tempted to make a hasty judgment. The initial “picture” may be ugly, but over time additional information and testimony will bring a more accurate perspective and greater understanding. Perhaps we all need to exercise the somewhat lost virtues of prudence and patience while we seek the truth about any matter. This will take great self-discipline and maturity, but these virtues are essential elements in restoring civility to American public life.

Update: A reader noted that I had used the British spelling: “judgement” instead of “judgment.” I’ve corrected to the American spelling.

Education’s Misplaced Priorities

480px-austin_texas_state_capitol_building

What will your School District Lobbyist do in Austin this year?

In preparation for the biennial Texas legislative session opening on January 8, school districts and other local government entities have created “legislative priority” lists for their respective lobbyists to take to the state capitol. While legislative wish lists may not carry the entertainment value of say, analyzing various political Twitter accounts, citizens would do well to scrutinize the stated priorities of our local, but less visible politicians.

Unfortunately, these published priority lists can be misleading.  For example, Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District’s recently published list, (which like most districts largely mirrors that of the Texas Association of School Boards), includes a call for the state to “restore” its “share” of formula funding to at least 50%.  This wording gives many readers the impression that the state has cut education funding, when in fact education spending in Texas has increased by an inflation-adjusted 29.7%.  Under the current “Robin Hood” system, when local revenue goes up, the state’s proportion goes down for some districts, (even though Texas increased education spending by $5.2 billion last session).  As it stands, the funding structure is contributing to an increasing property tax burden for Texas families, and has not effectively incentivized either efficiency or improvements in student achievement.  While there is little doubt that the legislature will increase education spending in 2019, there is an urgent need to accompany increases with meaningful reforms.

While calling for more funding on one hand, several priority lists include an apparent demand to diminish accountability standards for public schools.  Although the new, more understandable A-F grading system has not yet been fully implemented, these districts are demanding a return to the previous vague and opaque ratings in which schools are rated as either having “Met Standard” or “Improvement Required.”    The new A-F system takes into account not only standardized test scores, but also yearly student growth and the progress of racial/ethnic and economically disadvantaged groups.  Unfortunately, some administrators do not want this more fine-tuned scrutiny, and in addition to opposing the A-F system, are also lobbying for a curtailing of the state’s standardized testing program known as STAAR.

The STAAR tests, created in collaboration with Texas teachers, have both ardent supporters and passionate opponents.  Some opponents claim the STAAR itself is problematic and should be replaced, but national measures (NAEP) reflect the same student achievement trends, and only about 16% of Texas students are earning college-ready scores on the ACT and SAT.  A small, but surprisingly vocal minority of Texans seem to believe we should stop testing altogether and “just trust teachers.”  In that public education in Texas constitutes a $60 billion program and is responsible for more than 5 million students, or “souls,” that solution is both unpalatable and highly unlikely.  And while a significant number of people do not actually enjoy taking tests, tests of many kinds are an ever-present factor of the adult life for which schools are purportedly preparing students.

As for the Texas STAAR, despite the horror stories about overly demanding and stressful tests, it turns out that students earn a passing score even if they are performing below grade level.  Which explains why a “highly rated” district like Cy-Fair ISD might be asking the State to throw out the new grading system and reduce student exposure to the STAAR tests.  Although CFISD boasts an 83% pass rate, of the 189,364 CFISD students tested in 2018, only 57% actually met or mastered grade level.  Therefore, approximately 43% of CFISD students are testing below grade level.  Broken down by demographics, 56% of African-American, 51% of Hispanic, and 55% of economically disadvantaged students in CFISD are actually testing below expected grade-levels.

And perhaps these sobering numbers also explain Cy-Fair ISD’s antipathy towards public charter schools.  Among the various successful charter operators in Texas, are models that have proven successful with minorities and economically disadvantaged students, as well as models that offer a more rigorous curriculum that brings “at grade level” students to mastery and beyond.

If the goal is to increase student achievement for every demographic, why would we not welcome charter models that seem to better serve some segments of the population?  Sadly, CFISD and other districts plan to lobby against the expansion of charter schools into “high performing” districts; a moniker they may not enjoy under the closer scrutiny provided by the new A-F school rating system.

There are no simple, easy solutions when it comes to education policy.  State lawmakers in Texas will have a limited window of opportunity in 2019 to craft remedies for Texas children and families.  But in light of the challenges of lagging student achievement, funding difficulties, and increasingly burdensome property taxes, the status quo is unacceptable, (as is merely increasing funding without reform).  Hopefully, our representatives will endeavor to represent not districts, but students, and create opportunities for greater student success at every level.

Eighth Day of Christmas Resolutions

499px-XRF_12days

I’ve been told that New Year’s resolutions are garbage, so I’m making some Eighth Day of Christmas resolutions to pursue during the next 365 days.  Hopefully these won’t be garbage.

Among the goals regarding my spiritual life and physical health, I have resolved to return to writing on a regular basis.  For a variety of reasons, I had taken a hiatus from public writing that was supposed to be a year, but stretched into nearly four.  Now I believe it is time to begin again.

My goal has always been to tell the truth.  Unfortunately, the truth does not always make people happy, and it certainly doesn’t engender affection for the speaker.  Like most humans, I do enjoy being approved and liked, but I also suffer from a strong inclination to question popular mantras and seek underlying reality.  Deconstructing a popular mantra makes one, well, unpopular.

The challenge of course is in presenting perspectives in a way that does not alienate and which might be persuasive.  While I am certain that photo-shopped memes and personal attacks do little to persuade the persuadable, even presentation of cold data can upset readers.  This problem has accelerated in the past few years, and as Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt note in their 2018 book “The Coddling of the American Mind,” many young people see themselves as fragile and interpret any intellectual challenge as a literal, physical threat.  Not only do many of them expect to be kept “safe” from diversity of opinion, they perceive challengers as “evil” individuals who must be silenced by any means.

I would suggest that even before the trend described by Lukianoff and Haidt, many of us have been guilty of over-generalizations.  If we hear certain headlines or bumper-sticker-length mantras frequently enough, we begin to accept them as facts, even the “truth.”  We may not only believe in them, we actually invest in them on both an intellectual and literal level.  Therefore, a challenge may not just interrupt a mere perception, but an entire life-path.  Hence the animosity towards those who challenge our beliefs.

But I am resolved on this Eighth Day of Christmas to try to tell the truth anyway.  Sometimes, of course, I will get it wrong, and I can only beg for grace in those inevitable circumstances.  Sometimes my readers will disagree with my assessments, and I hope they will engage in non-personal, open-minded debate of any issue on the table.  Although it may be at times with fear and trepidation, I am resolved to write about what I have learned, and what I see.  To paraphrase Thomas Merton, if a writer is too cautious to write what may be criticized, he (or she) will never write anything that can be read.

If you want to help other people, you have got to make up your mind to write things some men will condemn.
Thomas Merton

My prospective readers will no doubt criticize, but hopefully find my offerings worth reading.

May your Eighth Day of Christmas be blessed.

 

School for the School Board

shutterstock_1176339898

What is the primary duty of local school boards?

I recently asked this question of a seven-year Texas school board trustee.  She answered:  1) to maximize student learning achievement, 2) to hire and supervise the superintendent, and 3) to set and manage the district budget.  She followed up by emphasizing, “In that order,” because, she noted, “ nothing is as important as student learning.”

While these may sound like obvious goals, many school boards spend an inordinate amount of time on everything but student achievement, and often during a confusing array of closed and open meetings that may last an excruciating eight hours or more. Former TEA official, Kara Belew, now senior education policy advisor at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, notes that she spent nearly a year observing one board that never once addressed student achievement issues.  School boards across the state may be touting spectacular sports stadiums and water parks, or worse, crafting “legislative agendas,” (for which the district often spends taxpayer dollars to lobby the state for more taxpayer dollars), but few boards are even talking about whether district students are learning reading and math.

One solution is to send school boards back to school.

Under current law, elected school board trustees must undergo training, but the state has permitted a number of outside groups to provide these trainings; the most prominent provider being the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB).  Now, under Commissioner Mike Morath, the Texas Education Agency is offering an optional board training and certification through “Lone Star Governance,” a program that directs focus on one primary objective:  Improving Student Outcomes.

Why is this important?

While there has been some good news for Texas students, such as the drop in the number of low-performing schools and increase in SAT/ACT pass rates, there’s still plenty of troubling news.  At a recent education policy summit in Austin, Commissioner Morath shared that while there has been improvement, only about 43% of third-graders are meeting grade level in reading and math,  around 50% of 8th graders are on target, and less than 20% of Texas students are attaining college-ready scores on the SAT/ACT.  Clearly, there is still plenty of room for improvement.

As always, there is the perennial call for more spending, but state education funding has increased from $43.1 billion in 2007 to $60.6 billion in 2017.  Also, at $11,349 in per-pupil spending, Texas hovers around the national average and still with better results than big spenders like New York and California.

In light of these hard numbers, many taxpayers and parents are calling for greater efficiency and purpose in education spending, including a focus on the issue that really matters: student learning.

Enter the TEA’s Lone Star Governance program.

During LSG’s two-day training, elected school board trustees and superintendents are taught to set an achievable number of publicly-stated goals and constraints that focus on improving student outcomes.  Attendees learn to track progress, properly empower and constrain the superintendent, and to conduct regular evaluations of both the superintendent and the board itself.  Boards are also encouraged to adopt policies that prevent conflicts of interest and promote transparency.   And, to the great rejoicing of ISD observers everywhere, boards are given time-tracking tools, taught to minimize “closed” session meetings, and limit regular and public meetings to three times a month and two hours each.

The Lone Star Governance program is not the silver bullet that will fix everything in public education, but I do see cause for cautious optimism. Under the previously mentioned TASB trainings, newly-elected trustees are taught that the superintendent is the “quarterback,” who directs the activities of the board.  This dynamic is alarmingly at odds with the original democratic structure in which school boards are answerable to both the voters and the state (since the state is the entity constitutionally responsible for a system of public education).  In a properly aligned district, the superintendent is an empowered employee of the elected board, but not the ultimate authority.  By equipping boards to find the happy medium between micromanaging and giving superintendent’s carte blanche, the LSG program restores an appropriately constitutional governing mindset.

Also, although TASB purports to share the same goals, trainers been known to convey a contemptuous attitude towards reformers, parents, and taxpayers, and to encourage boards to engage in lobbying the state legislature to protect the status quo and oppose reforms.  Lone Star Governance actually mentions “empowering parents,” and seeks to return board focus to the students, or as Commissioner Morath calls them, the “5.5 million souls” in the Texas education system, and whether or not they are learning.  Of the boards that have adopted student achievement as the primary goal, there seems to be an increased willingness to allow innovations such as in-district charters and parental choice programs that have been so successful in other parts of the country.

One cause for concern in the LSG materials is the heavy emphasis on board unity and teamwork. Not that unity and teamwork are bad things, but one problem with many school boards is that misguided notions of “unity” have sometimes stifled the kind of debate that leads to better outcomes. No trustee who questions the efficacy or cost of proposed policy should be labeled “rogue” or “maverick” as TASB has done.

School boards should focus on the real purpose of public education, which is not to maintain institutions or provide jobs, but to educate children.  Real children, or as Commissioner Morath describes them, “souls.”  That distinction makes all the difference in the world.

In Defense of November

 

In which I stand athwart November yelling, “Stop!”

The day after Halloween I was horrified to discover some of my social media friends announcing that it was time to start playing “Christmas” music.  Some of these friends are even putting up a tree, baking cookies, and enjoying hot chocolate.  Sure enough, on November 1st some stores began blaring the musical news that “Santa Claus is coming to town,” and rushed to deck the retail halls with boughs of imitation holly.

Bah, humbug.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not really a Scrooge when it comes to Christmas.  I love the season as much as anyone else.  But here I raise my Ebenezer: in order to really keep Christmas, we need November.

In the years before Halloween became a multi-billion dollar industry, November 1st was the day most Americans packed away costumes and sent the jack’ o’ lanterns to their eternal rest on the compost heap.  Some of the less-desirable candy may have lingered for a few days, but for the most part, we moved into the next season, which was not Christmas.

But it was more than “not Christmas.”  Although I grew up in central Florida, which features little, if any, seasonal change, our school teachers punctually changed the bulletin board decor on November 1st to reflect the natural beauty occurring in more northern regions.  Out were pumpkins, bats, and ghosts, and in were colorful leaves, turkeys, pilgrims and Native Americans.   We learned about our history, both good and bad, and prepared to celebrate an official day of thanks-giving.

In addition to Thanksgiving celebrations, in some years November general elections bring at least a temporary reprieve from political campaigning (unless you live in Broward County, Florida), and we pause to remember our service men and women on Veteran’s or Remembrance Day.  The month seems to be filled with opportunities for reflection on less material values.

We might consider November as a kind of fast.  Although fasting has a negative connotation, it has many benefits.  Scientists have learned that fasting from food improves health, and when I’m fasting from social media and ‘screens’ I’m very productive in other ways.  Without the smart phone in hand, I experience quality time with real live humans, read good books, and think out my next article.  When we fast, or set something aside, we do not enter a void.  Rather we replace one thing with another; fasting can lead to deeper contemplation, insightful prayer, greater appreciation of nature, and cultivation of our relationships.

And when our fast is completed, our celebration is so much richer and genuine.  The Christmas celebration is for the birth of a savior.  But unless we recognize our need for a savior, perhaps through remembrance, contemplation, or metaphorical time in the wilderness, the Christ-mass is reduced to a meaningless, materialist celebration of consumption.  If you want to really understand Christmas, you need to set aside a November.

Properly observed, November allows for a more thoughtful, reflective, and thankful season; a much-needed pause between the excitement of Halloween and Christmas.  Please don’t Christmas our November; November is a rich and beautiful time of year filled with its own observances and customs.  And if we keep Christmas in its rightful place, we can truly keep Christmas in our hearts.