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Showers, Miracles, and Faith

     imagesIt was a gray day with intermittent light and heavy showers.  We needed the rain and I found myself humming, perhaps about the rain, perhaps about the call.

 

 

There shall be showers of blessings
This is the promise of Love.
There shall be seasons refreshing
Sent from the Savior above.

Showers of blessings.
Showers of blessings we need.
Mercy drops round us are falling,
But for the showers we plead.

     I was again waiting for a call. My now eleven-year old great niece was diagnosed with Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma (DIPG), a rare and devastating brain tumor, almost three months ago. She tolerated the six-weeks of focused radiation treatments very well and with occasional medication has been fairly symptom free. The doctors say she is doing better than any child they have ever treated with DIPG. We are thankful!

     Last Friday she had an MRI to see if the radiation had had any effects on the tumor and as a prerequisite to possible participation in an immunotherapy clinical trial at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston. From the initial diagnosis we have been keenly aware of the devastating statistical prognosis for DIPG patients. While there has been no denying the science of the disease, we have steadfastly prayed along with possibly thousands of others in our social media and home communities for God’s grace and healing for our girl. Family, friends, community members, total strangers have reached out with love, concern, compassion, and generosity. From the Make-A-Wish Foundation who sponsored a trip so that our girl could get her wish to “swim with the dolphins” to the local community sponsoring an event to raise funds for medical expenses and contributions to DIPG research there has been an outpouring of support that has confirmed our belief in God’s work of grace and goodness through good people. We’ve prayed for a miracle of healing while we’ve experienced the miracle of God’s love and grace everyday since the diagnosis.

     The call came from my sister. “Are you ready for this?” she asked.
     “Yes, what does it show?”
     With a trembling voice she replied, “They can’t see it. It is not there!”
     “What! It’s gone! We prayed for a miracle. Praise the Lord!”  She was waiting to hear more from my niece so we quickly hung up amid tears of joy.

     These last months as I have prayed for healing, grace, wisdom, comfort, and strength for our girl and her family, I have been continually reminded of and prayed John 11:4, a verse I claimed for myself during some difficult days many years ago.

This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.

     Yes, to God be the glory! While trying to soak in the reality of our answered prayer and this miracle, I found myself somewhat incredulous. Before the diagnosis I had prayed for the best even as I prepared for the worst, which is exactly what we got. Perhaps this time we have repeated that scenario, but with a different, positive result. Now that our prayer for the tumor to be gone is the reality, why does it seem incredible?  Is it some flaw in our faith? Do we lack the capacity to fully believe in God’s power and grace? Are we so steeped in the modern science of medicine that we dismiss the Great Physician? Is incredulity inherent in miracles? I am reminded of the words of the tearful father with the epileptic son in Mark 9:24.  Lord, I believe; Help my unbelief!

     I have read the MRI report stating, “There are no focal areas of abnormal signal, restricted diffusion, or abnormal enhancement within the brain. No mass, hemorrhage or acute infarct is present.” I have seen the before and after MRI images confirming no presence of a tumor. The doctors in Austin, Houston, and Boston have described the report findings as “rare, very rare.” One stated she has never seen this type of results following radiation treatment for  DIPG. Doctors have conferred and are confident they did not misdiagnose. The consensus is that the original diagnosis of DIPG was correct, and there is no disputing that the once large, entangled, inoperable tumor is now gone. Lord, I do believe; help my unbelief.

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The images on the left are pre-radiation. Those on the right are post-radiation.

     This is not the end of our girl’s medical treatment. As scientists, the doctors are encouraging continued immunotherapy treatments in clinical trials to combat any possible remaining cancer cells. Only time and periodic MRI’s will tell if the tumor returns. Regardless of what the future may hold, in the here and now, we, and thousands of others, are celebrating and giving God the glory for this miracle of grace and healing.

     As the showers continued outside, my heart was flooding with song:

There shall be showers of blessings
This is the promise of Love.
There shall be seasons refreshing
Sent from the Savior above.

     Thank you, God, for your showers of blessings—your miracle of healing, the miraculous medical interventions and technologies that you have allowed man to develop, your grace that sustains our faith, your faithfulness even as our faith falters with doubts, the love and support of friends, family, and total strangers—your kingdom here and now on earth. Thank you for the faith of a child who told her parents as they were driving home from the doctor visit: “You all just didn’t have enough faith. I knew it would be gone.”

     We continue with prayers of thanksgiving and for sustained healing and good health for our girl.

 

 

 

 

 

When Our Leaders Fail to Lead

I sat in the Tyler ISD School Board meeting last night anticipating a vote and a decision that I would support–whatever the outcome–out of respect for the leadership and authority of the school board. I came away incredulous! The motion to change the name of Robert E. Lee High School and begin the new name selection process was followed by stony silence. The board president reminded the members that seconding a motion did not infer or require an affirmative vote. More silence from the dais and the crowd of approximately 100 citizens. The motion was allowed to die for lack of a second. What was going on? In the July board meeting, just two weeks previous, board members had expressed frustration with continued focus on the name change issue and rejected the ideas of more community input meetings or a subcommittee for further study. Instead, they urged an up or down vote on whether to change the name as a means to bring closure one way or another to the entire issue. I was not the only one bewildered after the board’s refusal to allow a vote in this special meeting called for that purpose. Though not the movie setting, “dazed and confused” would be an apt descriptor for many faces in the crowd.

Approximately a year ago after the incident surrounding the controversy of a Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia, a grassroots effort focused on changing the name of the south Tyler Robert E. Lee High School sprouted and grew. Equally as quickly a counter group took root, and Tyler, once again was a divided community. More accurately the racial tensions that have long remained lumps under Tyler’s beautiful public carpet of roses and azaleas were exposed. The carpet was ripped up and the dust flew!

In September 2017 board members initially signaled support for a name change with one member asking, “Is it fair to make African-American students attend a school named for the leading figure of the Confederacy?” Another stated in reference to the name change, “This is not changing history, this is making a positive impact today,” and urged the board to “do the right thing. . . It’s time for a change.” So what happened? What changed in eleven months?aid1378688-v4-728px-Form-a-Board-of-Directors-Step-1

Unfortunately as the year progressed, the public and, I can only assume, the private discourse was not always civil and respectful. Dueling Facebook groups logged on and petitions swirled. Honestly, when I saw some of the posts, my heart broke and I thought, Oh, no, no! Let’s not go there! Attendance at school board meetings skyrocketed. Items regarding the name change issue were on the official board agenda four times during the past year. Approximately 150 to 200 citizens made public comments at these and other board meetings with the numbers for and against the change fairly equal. Needless to say, it was at times ugly.

Yes, the nature and tenor of the discourse changed.  It became louder, more fractured, less civil, and at times plummeted to accusation and name-calling. Regrettably, some folks on both sides allowed their emotions and passions to cloud and disrupt their reason and respect. Interestingly, as the board members spoke moments prior to the “vote, but no vote,” their primary focus, with a couple of exceptions, was on the community. They expressed, sometimes loudly, their disapproval and disappointment in the process and chastised folks for the divisiveness, the disrespect, the lack of courtesy and civility. They argued that the name change issue was a political and social issue and not germane to the function of the board—to focus on successful student outcomes. They took offense to this issue “being forced upon the board” and “the predicament that we have been placed in.” They argued that a name change would be a betrayal of the taxpayers who approved a bond to construct and renovate John Tyler High School and Robert E. Lee High School and changing the name was equated to a “bait and switch” scheme. (Note: The actual proposition on the May 6, 2017 Official Ballot-Bond Election did not include the names of the two high schools.)

What I found even more interesting and unsettling was that again, with only a few exceptions, the board members did not talk about what they believed would be the impact of a name change or no name change on current or future students. Although they espoused their focus as a board was to work toward positive, successful student outcomes, I did not hear, “I believe changing the name would have a negative/positive impact on student achievement because. . .”  I also did not hear, “I believe changing the name would have a positive/negative impact on our community because. . .” Logically, every issue before the board should be viewed through the lens of how will this impact student outcomes/achievement. How will it impact our community as a whole and thus our community of students? With few exceptions specific answers to these vital questions were not a large part of the board members’ discussion at this or any previous meeting to my knowledge.

Maybe, to the detriment of all, some in the community allowed their emotions to guide their discourse, and in the end, perhaps the majority of the board members did as well. As school board members and leaders of the community, they failed to lead. They failed to remain objectively focused on the issue—a school name change—and how that change would or would not impact student outcomes, now and in the future. Granted, it is a difficult, highly charged, emotional issue with prospects for a general consensus being very bleak even in the process of extended civil discourse. Surely, the board members knew this. Also, I would hope they knew when they ran for office that there would be times of difficult decisions, contentious personalities, unhappy people, and they could possibly, most probably, at some point be the target of someone’s ill-temper.

The community expected a vote. The board members had lead folks to believe that they wanted a vote, a decision. Why didn’t it happen? Why did our leaders fail to lead? I have my ideas, which are purely speculative and probably, for now, are best kept to myself. As I left the board meeting amidst the dazed and confused, I heard various descriptors–cowards, shameful, no moral courage, gutless. Well, I don’t know about all that. I do believe, in this instance they failed to rise above the fray, maintain their focus on the best possible student outcomes, measure the issue through that lens, and vote on a difficult issue. On this occasion, they failed to lead. One board member stated prior to the “vote, no vote” that no matter what the board had done up until this point this is how they’re going to be remembered. Unfortunately, I believe he is correct!

 

 

 

 

An Open Letter: Tyler ISD School Board (and Citizens)

Dear School Board Members:

I was glad to see the news that a vote on the school name change is on the agenda for the school board meeting on Monday, August 6. I realize this has been a very difficult and divisive issue for our community and to some extent the school board.  I agree, it is time for the board to vote on the issue and for our community to commit to respectfully abide by the board’s decision.

Unfortunately, this is one of those situations fraught with highly charged emotions and opinions with folks unlikely to come to any general consensus even in the process of an extended civil discourse and dialogue. It truly saddens me that our community’s discourse on this issue was not always civil or respectful. Thus, you seven, as members of the school board, are tasked with making a decision which will have a significant and lasting impact on our students, both current and future, and on our community as a whole. I respect your leadership and your courage as you do this, knowing that whatever decision you make, there will be those who will not be pleased.

As you consider your individual decisions, I sincerely hope that you come to the conclusion that a name change, particularly the Robert E. Lee name, is in the overall best interest of our students and community. I believe a name change would:

  • assure a school that the students could be proud of and want to attend, and  ultimately have a positive effect on student achievement. This is our ultimate goal—student achievement.
  • promote a positive, progressive image for our community, a community committed to the well being of all our students and excellence in their education.
  • be an enticement for families and businesses considering moving into the Tyler area.

In all honesty with you, I think it is unfortunate that General Lee’s name has become such a lightning rod for issues of race in our country, but it has and that is the reality in which we must live and make our decisions. In light of this reality I think it would be unwise to carry the Lee name forward into our new school. Let’s take advantage of our new school situation and move forward with “a brand new thing.” (Isaiah 43:18-19) 

I ask each of you to vote in favor of the name change. As leaders in our community, your making a unanimous vote would be a model of unity for our community and influential in promoting community healing and reconciliation. After a vote to change the name, it would be my hope that a diverse group of stakeholders—community members, school representatives, students, parents—would be tasked to come together and begin the process of new name selection and determining an appropriate means to remember and recognize the school’s history. . Perhaps this process can be the mechanism for community reconciliation—a coming together and discussing shared hopes and visions for our students, schools, and community. We have spent a year focusing on our disagreement, which never brings forth a solution. With your leadership, our community can turn its focus to the future and all the possibilities of this brand new thing. 

Thank you for your service and dedication to excellence in education for all our Tyler students. I want you to know that I will respectfully abide by whatever decision the board makes on this issue and encourage others to do so. During my 38 years in education and counseling I always told my students that it was okay, and sometimes even understandable, if they did not like the rules or decisions made by their parents or teachers, and they were expected to respect the authority represented by their parents and teachers by abiding by the rules and decisions. I see this situation as somewhat similar. You, as the board, are the current elected leaders of our district and vested with the authority to make rules and decisions for the district. I hope and pray that once your decision is made Monday evening that all the good folks of Tyler ISD will respectfully accept your decision, come together, and continue to work toward providing our students with the excellent educational opportunities they deserve.

Respectfully

Brenda McWillaims

bmc1105@gmail.com
www.psheretic.wordpress.com

“We will honor creation and human life together, across religions, nations, and cultures, or we will perish together.  Treat life as Sacred!  This is God’s command—to all humanity.  The response is up to all of us.”

From: The Sacredness of Human Life by David P. Gushee

 

When Nothing (Else) Seems to Matter!

I had projects waiting to be completed, letters to write, and activities to plan. I was eager to get started or get back at them. Today, I don’t seem to care. They are trivial and seemingly unimportant. What has changed?

I got the call a week ago on Thursday evening. I had waited for it all day. After nearly two weeks of symptoms—headache, vomiting, and general fatigue and feel bad—numerous doctor’s appointments, and countless medical tests, we were waiting to hear the results from the MRI. The ENT doctor had discovered the nystagmus, uncontrolled eye movements, Tuesday afternoon and immediately set up an appointment with the pediatric neurologist for Wednesday afternoon. The neurologist saying, “Let’s not wait until tomorrow,” scheduled the MRI for 9:30 that night. Prayer mode kicked into higher gear!

After learning of the nystagmus, I did some googling—not necessarily a good thing to do. While praying for the best outcome, an old “what if,” worst-case scenario habit, kept haunting me. She, my ten-year-od great niece, was exhibiting five of the six symptoms of a brain tumor! The call came. “It’s a brain tumor.” Okay, I was somewhat prepared for that. What came next had never entered my mind. “It is inoperable, on the brain stem and too large and entangled with other tissue. They will do some radiation to hopefully shrink and stop the tumors growth.” The projected prognosis is the worst imaginable. The emotions came quick and hard even while I said my goodbyes, “We are praying. Keep in touch. I love you,” and clicked off the phone.

I fell into the sofa crying. I wailed, “Oh, God, no!” I cried more. My wife held me. We held each other. We cried. My chest hurts, I can’t get my breath. Am I having a heart attack? The sobs and pain lessened momentarily only to come roaring back again and again. It felt like a vise was tightening around my chest. Just breathe. Just breathe! Is this what a broken heart feels like?  My heart breaks for my sweet little niece and her family—her mama, daddy, big brother and big sister. My heart breaks for her grandmother, my sister. I am heartbroken.

In the week since the call, I am not crying as much, but there are still times that I feel myself “going down” and tears welling up. I have asked “Why, God!” No answers other than we live in a fallen imperfect world in flesh and bone imperfect bodies. Don’t know if that is God’s answer or mine. I haven’t been able to focus on much other than staying in touch with the family, keeping others posted on what is happening, joining the wonderful “tribe” of folks who have come together to support my niece and her family, and reaching out to friends asking their prayers. I have learned a lot—more than I would want to know–about Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma (DIPG), a rare and the most devastating pediatric brain tumor. I have researched numerous clinical trials. We are hopeful and thankful that she has seen the doctors at MD Anderson, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital has called, and there seem to be some options for clinical trial participation. Outside physical labor has provided some respite and distraction. I have weeded and spread 60+ bags of mulch in various beds this week. Good sleep seems to only come with total exhaustion. I could retreat into total aloneness. I know that would not be a healthy choice for me so I try to balance alone time and being with friends that I care about and I know care for me. I continue to pray even as I have no words. I am reminded of James Montgomery’s hymn “Prayer is the Soul’s Sincere Desire.”

 Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire
     Uttered or unexpressed
The motion of a hidden fire
    That trembles in the breast
Prayer is the burden of a sigh,
   The falling of a tear;
The upward glancing of an eye
   When none but God is near.

Yet, every time I turn to other interest that I have been passionate about—social justice issues, civic organizations, ministry and advocacy work—they just don’t seem to be important or matter anymore. My head tells me they are important and maybe the passion will return in time, or maybe not.

In my heart right now, nothing else matters!

 

 

Tyler ISD: Remembering Recent History and Moving Forward

I was awake before 4 am this morning with these thoughts banging around in my head. I could not go back to sleep so I got up and wrote them down. 

Tyler ISD: Remembering Recent History and Moving Forward

I want to review a bit of history, not the history of decades ago that has been the focus of much of this name change discussion, but more recent history.  Beginning in 2004 Tyler ISD began a phased trajectory of building improvements. Bonds were passed in 2004, 2008, 2013, and the most recent in 2017. To date, through the leadership of our forward thinking school boards and our citizens’ commitment to quality education for all our students, we have built, replaced, or renovated 13 elementary schools, three middle schools, and one career and technology center. We are in the process of remodeling and making additions to our two high schools, which in the case of REL High School is tantamount to a new school. With the completion of the high school projects, our community will have invested $579 million in schools for our current and future students – Tyler’s future! 

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T. J. Austin Elementary School

Tyler ISD student achievement is also on the rise. Twenty-three of 25 campuses met the state standard for accountability in 2017. The number of TISD campuses rated “improvement needed” has declined rapidly from a high of 14 in 2014 to only 2 campuses in 2017. The leadership of our board, the efforts of our administrators, faculties, and staffs, the hard work of our students, and the support of our community are moving Tyler ISD forward into a better future. Good things are happening in TISD!

It has not always been a smooth course. A bond attempt failed in 2010. The school board took considerable flack about the design and appearance of the new school buildings. I think some of us will remember the “Taj Mahal” conversations and the criticisms for spending tax dollars on such grand building facades. If I remember correctly, in defending and promoting the building designs the board argued that they were to:  

  • project a positive, appealing image for the school and community.
  • assure a school that the students could be proud of and want to attend, and  ultimately have a positive effect on student achievement.
  • promote a positive, progressive image for our community, a community committed to all our students and excellence in their education.
  • be an enticement for families and businesses considering moving into the Tyler area. 

All were valid arguments then and are still valid arguments today.

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Moore Middle School

Now as we ponder the name change for Robert E. Lee High School, let’s keep our recent history in mind, continue to be forward thinking, and focus on our goal — meeting the needs of our Tyler community by providing a quality education for our students, those of today and in the decades to come. I believe changing the name of REL would be a grand step in striving toward that goal. This is an opportune time to make the change. We have a new school so let’s find a new name that is a better reflection of the student body and the image we want for Tyler moving forward.

I know that an item to change the name to Lee High School has been placed on the board’s agenda for this Monday’s meeting. This is touted as a “compromise.” My questions at this point are “Do we really want to compromise where our students’ education and best interest are concerned? Do we want to compromise with regard to our best hopes for our community’s future? Did we compromise and scale down the grand designs as our building projects continued? I think a quick look at our new Career and Technology Center answers a resounding  “No!” to these questions.

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TISD Career and Technology Center

Will the change to Lee High School bring any recognition for Dorothy Lee, a Tyler community leader and a staunch advocate for education and equality?  If not, my next question, “Then why compromise now?” Why have we moved from making courageous, difficult decisions for the best interest of our schools, students, and community–as we did with our building designs–to compromising in the hopes of what–appeasing the masses, quieting difficult public discourse, political expediency, avoiding a public stance (vote) on a controversial issue?  

I have heard those opposing a name change speak of REL as their heritage. REL is part of my heritage as well. I began my 38-year career in education student teaching at REL under Kay Andrews. My sons graduated from REL. I remember great times at football games, band and chorale activities, booster meetings, and even working the concessions. I fondly and firmly hold on to my REL memories and traditions. Now, I hope we all can move on to our legacy – what we want to bequeath for the future to our students and community.

I hope that you, members of today’s TISD school board, remember the board’s courage and leadership in the recent past, and leave a legacy of a new school with a new name for a better Tyler. Changing the name of Robert E. Lee High School will:

  • project a positive, appealing image for the school and community.
  • assure a school that the students can be proud of and will want to attend, and will ultimately have a positive effect on student achievement.
  • promote a positive, progressive image for our community, a community committed to all our students and excellence in their education.
  • be an enticement for families and businesses considering moving into the Tyler area. 

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    Architectural drawing of the new high school

          We are at a pivotal time and place in our school and community history. Robert E. Lee is a different school. Tyler is a different, growing, and diverse community. Let’s focus on what is best for our future–for the school and our community? It is my sincere hope in moving forward with a new name that we remain grounded in our respect for one another, guided by our “better angels,” and that our sense of loss will be softened by the promise of a new beginning, a new chapter with new possibilities for our beloved school and our community. Thank you, each of you, for your continued service and leadership.Tyler

Good Answer, Mama!

I went into our Tyler Public Library this morning to take some photos of our East Texas PFLAG June PRIDE Month display. In between shots I stepped away to make some camera adjustments. As I did this I noticed a young girl—the library was swarming with children for story time—maybe three to four years old, enter the library and make a beeline to the display case. Apparently she was not new to the library or the display case that is always filled with information or projects related to local organizations. Good for you, Mama! I assumed the young woman right behind her was her mother.

DSC_0022The little girl placed her hands on the edge of the case and stood on her tiptoes as she looked at its contents. Mama was standing quietly behind her and looking as well. Inside the case, displayed over a red cloth and rainbow flag, was an assortment of booklets and pamphlets published by our National PFLAG (formerly known as Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) organization. Some of the titles included: Faith in Our Families, Safe Schools, Our Trans Loved Ones, Be Yourself, Our Daughters and Sons. There were also various buttons and decals with words and symbols promoting diversity and equality. Also included were a couple of family/children’s books, A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo, And Tango Makes Three.DSC_0025

After a few moments on tiptoes, the little girl reached up and mama picked her up. “Oh, you can’t see.” They continued to look at the display. I remained at a distance and overhead this bit of conversation:
“What is that?” asked the little girl.
“It’s equality,”
“What does that mean?”
“It means being fair to everyone,” answered Mama. My thought, Good answer, Mama! There was some indecipherable conversation, and Mama said, “But we can’t take the bunny book (Marlon Bundo) out of the case.” They walked away from the case, and I moved up and finished the photos. I was thrilled. I couldn’t wait to share what I had just witnessed.

A bit of the backstory might shed some light on why I was so elated with this small interaction between child and parent. This is the fourth year that the public library has had some type of LGBT display during June PRIDE Month. Three of these years—2015, 2016, and 2018—PFLAG has been responsible for the set up with the contents pretty much the same. The only additions this year were the two family/children’s books. In 2017 the library staff set up a display of library books on LGBT issues.DSC_0029

Tyler is a city of approximately 100,000 residents in conservative Smith County in east Texas. 2016 was the only year that the display was not the target of opposition from a small yet vocal number of library patrons. Other years when complaints were lodged, the city administrative personnel directed the library staff  to move the display to a less trafficked area of the building. Actually, the first year, the display was summarily dismantled; however, after an outcry and a barrage of phone calls and emails to city hall, it was restored; yet still moved. Last year, there was only one complaint lodged claiming that many of the library’s displays are not informational but reflect social agendas that are not necessarily inline with community standards. After this complaint the book display had to be moved upstairs. A consistent complaint each year is the location of the display—purported to be “too close” to the children’s section.

My initial response in 2015 to the “too close” to the children’s section complaint was:

I would think that if a child were old enough to be inquisitive and ask a question, then this would be a wonderful opportunity for parenting. The parent(s) could answer the child’s questions and offer information and guidance as they, the parent(s), deemed appropriate.

That is still my opinion today, and I was thrilled to the point of joy as I watched this morning’s interaction play out before me and heard the mama’s truthful, age-appropriate response to her child’s question, “What is equality?”

“It means being fair to everyone.” Good answer, Mama! Great parenting!

 Many thanks to our library staff for continuing to be a center for learning and informational resources as well as a beacon of inclusiveness and equality in our community. I wonder how many complaints will be lodged this year??

 

 

 

REL Name Change – I Get it! (Updated)

Through these past months I have listened carefully to all those speaking and sharing their opinions and positions on the issue of changing the name of Robert E. Lee High School. I wanted to hear what those opposing the change are saying and thinking. I wanted to hear what they are feeling. I wanted to hear from those in favor of the change. What are they feeling and what are their motives for change? I have stated earlier what my initial thoughts and feelings were on this issue, and I was struggling. I was not “on the bandwagon” for changing the name!
     Through my personal processes of questioning and consideration, I have moved to a position supporting the name change. As I have listened to the speakers opposing the name change,I consistently hear arguments defending the traditions of REL High School and how important those traditions are to its alumni – in some cases two to three family generations of alumni. I hear defenses of the life, legacy, and character of General Robert E. Lee. I hear admonitions that we can’t erase or forget our history. And, I hear the often-used “slippery-slope” defense. “If we change Lee’s name, what’s next – John Tyler, the City of Tyler, Hubbard Middle School, etc.? Where does it stop?” Amidst all the words I hear feelings of loss, fear, and anger. And, you know what, I get that! I hear and understand those feelings.
      For now, let’s consider the feelings of loss-an intense core emotion that can fuel fear and anger. Robert E. Lee High School has a storied history that has often been stellar even though dogged at times by the legacy and accouterments of its namesake.images-1

But more importantly, tens of thousands of students have walked it corridors and filled its classrooms. They played on athletic teams, marched and performed with the band, sang in the choirs, participated on debate teams, performed in dramatic productions, danced with the drill team, cheered in the cheer squad, and so much more.They made friends and sometimes enemies. They excelled academically, and they sometimes faltered.

 

They made memories. Maybe that first kiss came while secreted in a hallway corner or leaning against SMIL_090613_REL_Lufkin_02-Sa locker. Maybe that high school sweetheart is now one’s spouse. Who ever forgets the first Belles Dance, Junior-Senior Prom, or the excitement of Homecoming Week? Yes, Robert E Lee High School is a place that has molded and influenced so many young lives, and the traditions and stalwart school spirit lives on in each of these lives even if they are not so young anymore.

So I think I get it! I understand that sense of loss that might come with a name change. The sense of losing a place that holds memories and so much of what was our youth. I get it! I understand! I started my teaching career at REL. I have two sons who graduated from Lee. I have albums of photos and mementos recalling Belle Dances, band performances, choir concerts, and certificates of achievement. I get it! My question is — At this pivotal point in time, and given the current context of our school and community, can we acknowledge our feelings of loss, move through them, and focus on the future of our students, school, and community? What is best for the common good, today? What is best for our future tomorrow and in the years ahead.maxresdefault

      REL High School is no longer about us, the middle-aged plus folks. We will always have our traditions and history with REL. It is true! We cannot erase our history. We carry it with us. Hopefully, we learn from it. Sometimes we love it, sometimes we don’t. We decide, individually, and subsequently corporately, what we do with our history and whether we remain steadfastly stuck in it or allow it to guide us into new eras, new beginnings, and new possibilities. Most histories I have read are written in chapters. What will be the next chapter for our school and our Tyler community?
      Changing the name of Robert E. Lee High School could be like finishing a chapter in a good book. The information and events in this chapter are vital in giving context to what comes next. Hopefully, the reader is excited and eager to keep reading and discover what the next chapter holds. Or, we might want to think in terms of those inevitable “chapters of our lives.” We know them because we have lived them! Some of our life chapters are natural ends followed by new beginnings – CPUR_060217_Robert_E_Lee_Graduation_008-Mhigh school graduation, college perhaps, entering the work force, career moves, getting married, having kids, the empty nest. It is my experience that coming to the close of a life chapter brings some natural feelings of loss and accompanying sorrow. Yet, I move to the next chapter with hope and anticipating the new.
      In moving forward, it is the desire of my heart that all of us with meaningful ties to REL hold on to our personal memories and recall with fondness the traditions we enjoyed even while moving beyond them and focusing on our present and future young folks and our best hopes for our community. We are in a different time and place than we were in 1958. Robert E. Lee is a different school. Tyler is a different, growing, and diverse community.  Can we focus on what is best for our future-for the school and our community? Can we feel our loss and move forward in support of our new school with a new name and all the new possibilities that brings to our community.
      It is my hope and prayer moving forward that our sense of loss will be softened by the promise of a new beginning, a new era, a new chapter for our beloved school and our community.

Questions & Considerations: Robert E. Lee HS Name Change:

You don’t get unity by ignoring the questions that have to be faced.
                                                  — Jay Weatherill

     logo-robertelee I am going to jump into the fray of the REL name change dialogue for a bit. Why? Because I have questions. I don’t necessarily have the answers, but the questions, I believe, are worthy of consideration. By the way, I have a habit of asking “Why?” and other questions. You’ll see! I don’t know that it is a desirable habit, but I do know that it sometimes keeps me awake at night.

      Admittedly, my first inclination with the REL name change issue was “Oh, geez! Do we want to go there? Do we need to go there? It’s history! Let it lie!” You know, “Sleeping dogs don’t bite!” Yet, as I struggle with my own questions and my heart for loving and honoring all persons with the respect and dignity they deserve as sacred human lives, I continue to ask “Why?” And, specifically, “Why did our city fathers, all white men, name the school after the Confederate General Lee, who, to my knowledge had not particular, specific, or sentimental ties to the City of Tyler?” Let’s think about it!

      In 1958, in the rising tide of the Civil Rights Movement, in the wake of the 1954 Brown vs, Topeka School Board of Education ruling making school segregation the law of the land, and in the midst of increased racial tension and violence, our city fathers name a modern, new school after a “historical” Confederate general, Robert E. Lee, who for all his good attributes had some unsettling character problems. Were there any good reasons to do this? Or, were our city fathers, like much of white America at the time and especially the South, recoiling and resisting the changing times, “the writing on the wall” with regard to segregation and the emerging voices and political power of our African American citizens? Our city fathers had grown up in the Jim Crow south of East Texas, and their world of separatism and “white supremacy” was being turned upside down. Were they fearful? Were they angry? Was the Robert E. Lee name a subtle, or not so subtle, means of defiance? Were they “thumbing their noses” at the new wave of authority. Excuse me, but in East Texas vernacular, “We’ll do what we damn well please, just watch us!” I don’t know the answers to these questions. I do not dare claim to know the hearts, thoughts, or motives of our city fathers in 1958. The questions simply come from my habit of asking “why.” I do believe they are worthy questions that we all should consider. I repeat, I DO NOT know the answers! If anyone has more insight and/or personal experience with the Robert E. Lee naming process, I would welcome your thoughts.

      I do know that Robert E. Lee High School has been and continues to be an exceptional school with achievement in all areas–academic, music, art, theater, and athletics–worthy of community praise. I commend the past and current faculty, staff, administration and students. I began my career in education as a student teacher at Robert E. Lee. My two sons attended and graduated from Robert E. Lee. I was the ever-present, proud band mom in the stands and out supporting our students and cheering for the football team. Our schools in so many ways are the epicenter of our community and family activities. We need and must rally in supporting them.

      I do know that Robert E. Lee High School has been impacted by the racial implications of the name, the Rebel mascot, and the Confederate flag. We know the history, a court mandated mascot change and the banning of the use of the Confederate flag. This occurred in 1972 after four African American football players refused to run onto the field under the huge Confederate flag. Think about it! Can we blame them? Here’s my habit again, “Why was the name not changed then?” Was Judge Justice seeking a compromise action that would in some ways appease all sides of the community in the context of that point in time when Lee was a majority white school? Again, I do not know? I simply ask the questions and encourage consideration.

      Again, I ask “Why?” Why would we not consider a name change for Lee High School at this time? Given the tenor of the unseemly, ugly rise in white supremacy groups and racial tension in our nation, why not be proactive and consider the good that we can propagate with the name change. If, and again, I Do Not know, but if the Lee name selection was motivated in any way by the anger, fear, and defiance of a threatened Jim Crow South mentality, do we want even a hint of that legacy prominent in our community? With a thoughtful, considered name change could we not chalk up many positives for our community? We can acknowledge and be respectful of the history and feelings of the current student community at Lee. We know that Lee is now a minority majority campus with the majority of the student body being non-white. Being a teenage student these days is stressful enough, if the name change is beneficial to the students and the overall morale of the school community, then let’s change it. Let’s get some student input! What are they thinking? What do they want for their school? Don’t we want what is best for our students-all of our students? There I go, questions again! We, a community of the whole, can model reasonable dialogue along with considered and respectful actions in our community and for our children to witness and learn from and hopefully repeat in generations to come.

     We do know that REL, thanks to the good folks of Tyler, is slated for an extensive remodel and renovation project. Again, I ask the question, “ With the opening of this “new” school, will there ever be a more opportune time to recognize the thousands of students that have passed through Lee’s corridors, applaud the gigantic efforts of its students and leaders, and celebrate the multitude of student accomplishments during its 60-year history while dedicating a “new” school with a new name. A new name does not erase the past, but offers an opportunity for an authentic narrative of the history, and can usher in a new era, a new chapter, championing and promoting all that is good in and for a beloved school and the community it serves. Another question! Can we do this as a united community? I don’t know? The answer is only within each of us individually.

      Again, I DO NOT know the answers. I simply succumb to my habit and ask the questions. Questions, in my opinion, worthy of consideration. My final question, and I am still questioning, “Are there any good, rationale reasons not to move forward with a name change for Robert E. Lee High School, or at the very least initiate an exploratory process focused on a possible name change?”

 Let’s just breathe, ask the hard questions, consider answers together, and explore the possibilities before us.

You don’t get unity by ignoring the questions that have to be faced.
                             — –Jeff Weatherhill

The BGCT – Welcoming and Affirming

1460028409100 As the dialogue and apparent divisions within the Baptist General Convention of Texas and local congregations over the issue of a welcoming and affirming stance toward their LGBTQ members continue, I encourage us all to stop and ask ourselves, individually and congregationally, this question: Who are we welcoming and what do we really want to be the focus of our affirmation? The “who,” I believe is relatively simple. We want to welcome ALL peoples into the love of Christ and the fellowship of His Body, the Church. Answering the question, “What do we want to be the focus of our affirmations?” may be a bit more complicated. Or, maybe not!

     I sometimes wonder if we, christian folks and congregations, have not allowed ourselves to be overly focused on the sexual orientation and same-sex marriage issues. Do we really want to spend our time and energies squabbling over these issues and in the process threatening our unity in and ministry for Christ? Enough is enough already! Let’s truly practice our belief in the priesthood of the believer and respect the spiritual discernment of our brothers and sisters in Christ and our congregations in these particular matters. If we continue contentious dialogue or debate, insist on being right or winning the other side over to our “right” way of thinking, or denying fellowship, we are all wrong, and we all lose with the greatest loss being the cause of Christ. We can respectfully state our beliefs and our respect for the others discernment process, acknowledge our disagreement, and agree to disagree. When we do this, we can then turn our energies and cooperative efforts toward focusing on far more meaningful areas of affirmation.

      What might be the affirmations of a welcoming and affirming congregation? Here are a few suggestions for starters:

    — Let’s affirm God’s sovereignty over all our lives.
    –Let’s affirm our love of God and our love for our neighbors.
    –Let’s affirm the sacredness of every person – every human life. Let’s live out that affirmation by treating everyone with respect, seeking to listen to and understand their stories and struggles, and participating in their lives in ways that engender human flourishing, spiritual growth, and opportunities to reach one’s God-given potential.
    –Let’s affirm the sacramental nature of all relationships for every relationship has the potential to be a portal of God’s grace in and to our lives.
    –Let’s affirm and encourage fidelity and commitment in marital, covenantal relationships.
    –Let’s affirm the value of our children and our families by offering support, encouragement, and guidance to parents as they nurture and guide their children.
   –Let’s affirm our desire to follow Christ and be His Body and Presence in and to the world.

     I believe the BGCT and local congregations can be both welcoming and affirming. I believe this as I recall the first scripture verse I ever committed to memory: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” — Philippians 4:13

     Can’t we?

 

The Sacred: Part II-Reflections and Ponderings

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          “Brenda, if you learn and know nothing else, know this:  the sanctity of life, the sacrament of relationship, and the sacredness of death.”

          In reflection, it seems ironic that the night I heard these words ended my CPE training. I continued to have difficulty with the retina, needed additional surgical procedures, and was not able to return. However, I continued, and to this day continue, to revisit and ponder upon the events of that night and the words I had heard. Given the manner in which I had received them they were much more than mere words. It felt as if they were more like an edict, a proclamation, a lens through which to view all of life.

          “Brenda, if you learn and know nothing else, know this: the sanctity of life. . .”

          I know that sanctity is the quality or state of being holy or sacred; thus life itself is considered holy and sacred; inviolable — to important to be ignored or treated with disrespect. The origin of “sanctity” is the Latin word “sanctus” meaning sacred. 

          I believe the “sanctity of life” message that I heard was a foundational theological and spiritual truth based on the sacredness of life — all lives.  It was not the “sanctity of life” political message that was being touted then, and we hear often today in the Pro-Life/Pro-Choice debate. Again, it was a universal truth based on the sacredness of life — all lives. We hear today the expressions — Black Lives Matter, LGBT Lives Matter, Cops Lives Matter — and they do because ALL LIVES MATTER. Oh, that we might embrace ALL LIVES MATTER and SANCTITY OF LIFE as spiritual truths and live them out in our daily lives and not simply use them as catchy slogans to promote our political, racial, or cultural biases.

          Christianity’s foundation for sanctity of life is grounded in the doctrine that God is the Creator and God chose to create man in His image. Man is God’s image bearer. It is also quite relevant and important to notice that this valuing, worthiness, sacredness of life is universal to the traditions of all major world religions and perhaps represents their deepest teachings, roots and values. Sadly, we, all of us, are not living up to our traditions.

         “Brenda, if you learn and know nothing else, know this. . .the sacrament of relationships. . .

          What does that mean? Being brought up in the Baptist faith tradition, I was more familiar with the term ‘ordinances’ than “sacrament” so I had to do some study.  I knew of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper as “sacraments” in the Protestant faith traditions.  I quickly learned there are seven sacraments in the Catholic faith tradition. But,what exactly is a sacrament? What is the meaning and purpose of a sacrament or sacramental rite.

          Well, I read a lot about sacraments, their meaning and purpose.  Most of which I understood, some I did not as I am not a theological scholar.  I was able to grasp that sacrament is derived from the Latin word sacramentum and means “a sign of the sacred.” A sacrament is also a portal of grace in and to our lives.  Sacraments not only come from God, but they also make God present in our lives. Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote, “Sacraments are visible signs of invisible things whereby man is made holy.”

            So, in my ponderings, I have come to understand sacrament to be an outward expression of the sacred/the holy, that which points us toward God, and/or that which invites God’s participation in our life. I had learned long ago that in a sacramental marriage God’s love is manifest in the loving, grace filled, covenant relationship between the couple. God and His love are mirrored in that relationship. Thus, the sacrament of marriage is intended to be an outward sigh of God’s love and grace, the sacred and holy.  Now, that is in theory, at least. We know from experience that that is not nearly always the case.

          As I continued to ponder on “sacrament of relationship” I began to ask myself could it not be possible for us to manifest/mirror the love of God in all our relationships from the loving, covenant relationship between life long partners, to the kind, helpful, affirming relationship between intimate friends and family, to the courteous, respectful relationships with our co-workers, to the respectful acceptance of differences with those we call our enemies. If we accept the premise of the sanctity/sacredness of human life — all human life — then it is not a huge jump to conclude that if I am sacred, and you are sacred, then how we relate and treat one another should be “an outward expression of the sacred” — a sacrament, if you will. Can our relationships not be a “portal of grace” to one another? The sacred in me recognizes, respects, and responds to the sacred in you in a sacred fashion. Can not the sacred and grace be expressed in how we relate to one another? Thus, the Sacrament of Relationships–all relationship.

          “Brenda, if you know nothing else, know this. . .the sacredness of death.”

          What is sacred and holy about death? For so long in our cultural history we have not talked about death and dying and what it means for us individually and as a people. Thankfully, we are beginning to move toward conversations regarding death, even our own deaths. As Michael Dodd, a religious naturalist, says, “Death is sacred, necessary, and real.”

          As I studied the word “sacred,” the definition “worthy of or regarded with religious honor and respect” caught my attention. Certainly through my experiences that evening in the hospital, I began to view death with a worthy regard and sense of honor – sacredness. I suppose that, in the first place, if we view the individual life as sacred then the death of that life is no less sacred. Death is a necessary and inevitable part of the cycle of life. As surely as we have birth and life, we must have death. In our natural world, death is life-giving.

          Just a little aside here: I have an affinity for dead trees, and my partner gives me grief about that at times, especially when I am taking photos of them. I see a dead tree still standing tall or fallen, and I am in awe at the growth and change that has occurred from tiny seed to towering trunk. I envision the life that the tree has exuded and nurtured from the insects it has fed, to the nests and young is has held, to the seeds and seedlings it has propagated. Even in its dying it will decay and continue to provide sustenance and return rich, life-giving nutrients to its mother earth. For me, that is a sacred process.

           Then even more so would not the death of a person, any human being regardless of race, creed, or culture, be a sacred thing. Consider with wonder the growth and change the person has experienced in his/her lifetime. Note with awe, perhaps most strikingly, at the deathbed, the lives, the family, the relationships the person influenced and nurtured. Yes, and even as much as we don’t like to think about it, and however we frame it –“dust to dust, “ashes to ashes,” “coming from God and returning to God,” that person’s remains will in some fashion return to the earth and become life-giving. Death – a sacred/holy thing in the cycle of life.

          Now, in my opinion, what makes us as humans different from the tree is our attribute of soul or spirit. What I have come to believe regarding the human soul/spirit — and I believe it is undeniable and universal — is that it is “eternal.” In our christian faith tradition the soul/spirit of the deceased has eternal life with God. And, perhaps an additional way of viewing eternal life is that the soul/spirit of the deceased is carried and lives on within us — in our hearts and souls and in our minds and memories. And that is a sacred/holy thing—coming from and perhaps an extension of our sacramental relationships.

          “Brenda, if you learn and know nothing else, know this – the sanctity of life, the sacrament of relationship, and the sacredness of death.”

          Those words have become transformative in my life – my beliefs, my thinking and my sense and expression of my spirituality. I had begun to move and grow from a more rigid, perhaps fundamental, spiritual worldview a couple of years prior to this experience. You might say this night and these words somewhat “sealed the deal.” I am, and always will be, a christian (with a small “c”), a Jesus-follower, and a member of the church catholic – again small “c.” However, much of the dogma and doctrine of faith traditions no longer fit into my new found paradigm of what is truly sacred and holy.

          What I heard that night was a universal spiritual truth of the sacredness of life, relationships, and death common to all peoples, cultures, and faith traditions.   In all our differences, we as the human race hold, at the very least, these three things in common. We all have life. We are living, breathing, and capable of thought, emotion, and action.

          We all have relationships. We are born into relationship. You and I are someone’s son or daughter, perhaps mother or father, or brother or sister. So is our neighbor that aggravates us at times, our Muslim co-worker, the immigrant, perhaps undocumented, that does our yard work, the adorable grocery clerk, the annoying taxicab driver, the soldier we would call our enemy. All people are in relationships, and someone loves them and they love others. Think about it.

          We will all die, at some point, and that death will be sacred as it marks the passing of a sacred life, a shift in sacramental relationship, a return to that from which we came. In death we all participate in that natural circle of life. In death, a life is mourned by others, and others will continue to carry the soul/spirit of the deceased within themselves.  

           We can’t escape it. The sanctity of life, the sacrament of relationships, and the sacredness of death are elements that unite us with one another. It is my hope and prayer that we can come to realize this at both the head and the heart level, come to truly see others as “sacred” beings, and seek a respectful, peaceful unity in sacramental relationships with all peoples.

 

 

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