Teacher, Educate Thyself

I expected to be writing more often than this by now. In the culture of the moment, it seems that everything is public, but I keep finding things that I want to say that I cannot share with the world. Things about my past that I cannot share because they are still too raw within me, and I cannot trust that I will say them with balanced wisdom. Things about my present that I am realizing are not yet mine to speak, because they are experiences shared with people with whom I am still building trust, or because I do not yet know how to speak about these moments and people without being trite. So, I’m not writing much.

The old saw from the lips of uncountable teachers is that they teach because it is in teaching that they learn – one of those humble-brag things we say to make it clear that we’re just like everyone else (but maybe just a little more intentional about it). The truth in the aphorism is that for the teacher willing to learn, there are usually opportunities in abundance. Learn about the topics we teach, but also humility, and humanity, and endurance, and patience, and kindness, and turning the other cheek, and forgiveness, and attentiveness to small victories, and the art of properly setting and managing expectations, and how there is no end to learning even when we think we have finally come to the end. And learning about ourselves.

As a teacher, I am still in the stage of learning far more than I am teaching. I’m not putting myself down, either. In the early days of a new setting, there is so much to learn about the context of one’s teaching. Every environment is unique, as is every learner. There is so much to take in, but even as that is happening we must begin to teach, out of the poverty of our immense limits. Everyone must always start, somewhere.

Skill sets

My job title is Family Teacher (or, one half of a Family Teaching Couple), and as I’m getting used to that I’ve been thinking about skill-building of late.  The teaching which is expected of me is entirely practical, not at all esoteric, and so if I am teaching effectively, the people I am teaching will be gaining skills, or deepening and sharpening skills they already possess.

During this last week I realized that I wanted to be intentional about observing the skills possessed by the women who employ me as teacher*.  In taking an inventory of what these women can do, and cannot do, and want to do, and would be enriched by learning to do, I am getting to know them; I can also (humbly, to be sure) begin to learn their past in seeing what they do and do not know how to do.

*I am finding it important to remind myself that I am in the employ of these women.  Funds which the state of California provides for their well-being are used to pay for my services, and if these women or their families find that I am insufficient to the task of being one of their teachers, then my services will cease.  We often identify ways in our relationships in which we are the superior, especially when we deal with people who have some sort of obvious limitations or weaknesses.  It is valuable for me to remember that my bosses are three women who have not been considered fully capable of living independently.  They have real power, and that is as it should be. 

During these first two weeks, there have been plenty of instances of people not getting their way, and showing their displeasure about that.  This is not unexpected, especially since new people (me, my family) change the dynamics of a household, and there is inevitable testing of one another.   A partial list of the ways I have seen people act in their displeasure during these weeks would include: crying, hitting, screaming, slamming doors, biting, tattling, spitting, throwing objects, kicking, swearing, whining, emptying drawers and closets, soiling ones’ self, tearing clothing, running away, and self-inducing vomiting.

I’m not going to tell you which of those things have been done by the women who reside in the house, and which have been done by my children, my wife, or me.  Trust me when I say there is more than a little bit of overlap.  As you read that list, there are probably a few items you nod knowingly at, some that you chuckle about, and some that hook you.  Maybe they make you recoil, or feel a catch in your throat, or feel disturbed.  Maybe you felt pity.  Maybe you felt superior.  I’ve felt all of those.

A couple days ago, I realized something, during a moment when one of the most jarring of these behaviors was going on.  The person doing this really unpleasant thing, which they really weren’t enjoying, which was debasing them and threatening to put the distance of judgment between me and them, was doing this thing because at some point it worked. At some time in this person’s life, this act had succeeded in getting them something.  Maybe they got the tangible thing they wanted.  Maybe they got attention. Maybe they got personal space.  Maybe they got momentary power over the person who had to clean up. But this person learned to do this thing because at some point it was how far they had to go to get something important.

Think about that.

Think about the most desperate thing you’ve done to get something important.

In that moment, I realized that I hope I can teach with this person long enough and well enough that they can learn a new way, a healthier way, to get what they want and need.  I hope I can help this person let go of some of their current skills.

Learning What I Didn’t Know I Didn’t Know

I’ve been trying to decide how I’m going to talk about this season of life, and I’m still undecided.  That means (I think) that for a while I’ll be using this space to tell stories about the work I am doing with my wife Christy, and to share reflections I have on what I’m learning through the work.  Perhaps at some point on of those forms will take over.  Of course, I’ll likely also have some odd side paths along the way as well.

This blog has existed for a long time, but it hasn’t had a very clear purpose.  I’ve used it to share work I had done in my role as a Pastor, to give me a place to put pieces I gathered up while doing side projects as a speaker, and to just ruminate on things.  If you’re reading this, you’re probably either someone who knows me personally (Hi, Mom!) or you ran across one of these periodic pieces on church life in modern America or on disability and theology. From now on, though, this blog is going to have a more specific focus and purpose.  I want this space to increase the appreciation of people who aren’t “normal” (some of you know this is one of my least-favorite words) and how their lives weave into the everyday of American culture.  However, these people don’t need me to speak for them or to represent them, and that’s not what I intend to do.  Instead, I want to use this place to document my learning experience – as I learn about the people I work for and with, and learn from them, I want to put those lessons here.

This is really a blog about me learning the ways that I’m growing by the grace of being in community with people who have typically been put at the margins of our society.  You might learn something from it, too, and that’s great.  Or you might be able to teach me other lessons, and that’s great too.  You might just choose to cheer me on, and I’d take that, because we all need encouragement, don’t we?

So thanks for reading, and I want to really encourage you to share your comments.  You’re not reading the writings of an expert or guru.  I’m a traveler, and I’d love your input on the journey.

Thanks.  More to come, soon.


Some of you have known this was coming for a while, but now we are ready to talk about details: I have resigned as the Pastor of St. Paul Evangelical United Church of Christ, and in mid-September, Christy and I will be moving our family to Cupertino, California,  where we will be serving as the lead staff in a community home for three developmentally-disabled adults.

Our work will be part of an approach called the Family Teaching Model, which supports disabled adults seeking independence and community. These are individuals who have previously lived in a state institution, and now are being given the opportunity to live in local communities. Our work as a Family Teaching Couple will be to aid these individuals, and to welcome them into our family. We are excited about this model because it treats the men and women who are a part of it with dignity and respect.  We believe that people with disabilities or impairments still deserve to seek the kind of life that they want to live, and the FTM does that.  It’s not a new model; an organization in Kansas has been leading with this model since 1977, and is being used in a few other places.  We believe that it is both a great approach to the need of supporting disabled adults, and we believe it is a way in which we can make an impact in the lives of others.

As I’ve been reflecting on the decision to make this change, I’ve been thinking a lot about Willie French.  Willie was a man who was a part of St. Paul Church for several years before he passed away in late 2010. Willie found us because of his own initiative – he wanted to be a part of a church, and so he pushed his support staff (and former support staff who were still in touch with him) to help make it happen. They did, and so Willie became a part of the St. Paul family. When he decided that St. Paul was a place he wanted to be, Willie asked for people who would be willing to give him a ride to or from church.  I thought that was such a beautiful, humble and yet bold way of behaving.  He didn’t really know us yet, but he was willing to tell us how he needed our help.  And several people stepped up and got him to and from church – although he would also walk the 2-plus miles to church if he didn’t have a ride!  The people who got to know Willie welcomed him and became friends with him, which was especially beautiful to me because I knew that in previous settings Willie had been made to feel like a problem, like a hinderance or an embarrassment. Willie knew that he had limitations, but he was not embarrassed. People who took the time to get to know Willie were blessed by him.  I was one of those people.

I believe that serving the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven includes making sure people like Willie French, or my son Zach, or our new friends in Cupertino, are part of the community. 1 Corinthians 12:20-26 tells us that the people who seem to be “weak” (to some) are in fact essential to our well-being as a people, because of how they teach us to be together. In Matthew 25 Jesus teaches that those who serve others in need – be it the need for food or drink, a place to call home or a cloak to wear or someone to call a friend – are those who are doing the work of the Kingdom on earth.

That’s what I want to do – the work of the Kingdom.  I want to inherit the Kingdom! I want to learn the lessons that the least of these have to teach me! I want to teach my sons the values of the Kingdom. So, my friend Willie, my son Zachary, many more friends we have made along the way in recent years (especially my JAF Maranatha friends!) and my King Jesus inspire me to go make a new community. All of us will be grateful for your prayers.

The Beginning of Hope For Cub Fans?











That is the win/loss record for the Chicago Cubs for each of the 10 quarter-seasons since Theo Epstein’s regime took over (I put the last two games of each season in the final quarter, which is why those groups have 42 games). Nine quarters of bad, with the last two of those producing the worst records, and then suddenly an over-.500 quarter. It’s taken a while for anyone to notice the improvement.

This is probably because a .500 record just means the team stopped sinking. Staying at 10-14 games under doesn’t feel like progress, and the difference between horrific and average is almost imperceptible at the micro level. Consider this: the team achieved their record in the first quarter-season by going 2-4 in every 6 games (basically); they achieved their second-quarter record by going 3-3 in every 6 games. Do we really feel one extra win a week? A recent hot streak (7-3 in their last 10 after today) starts to make people notice that this team isn’t the same team that was giving away wins in the late innings and finding a way to be on the short side of every one-run game. What’s more, this isn’t the hopeless squads the Cubs trotted out in 2012 and 2013. So now that we’ve noticed, how is this happening?

The least impressive-sounding reason is that they’ve gotten luckier. That’s not cynicism, it’s an observation. A team’s success derives from many specific skills, but there are other ways that all teams are subject to random variation. Team records in extra-inning games and one-run games tend in this direction. Good teams can perform badly in these areas, and terrible teams can do well. Having a good, or bad, bullpen can tilt things a little, but these types of games are not much more than coin flips.

A few current examples illustrate the point:

Tampa Bay has the second worst record in the American League, but the second best AL record in one-run games.

San Diego is 9 games under .500, but at 8 over .500 in one-run games.

The worst extra inning records in the National League belong to the Dodgers and Nationals – both teams on pace to go to the playoffs.

During the first quarter of the season, the Cubs were 2-9 in one-run games. In the second quarter, they went 5-4. Did they get better? Well, the bullpen stabilized during that time, which might help, but it would also seem they reverted to the mean. Does that seem too simple? They also went 1-5 in extra-inning games in the first quarter, but 2-1 in the second quarter. These are all really small sample sizes, but that’s the point: given time, these numbers usually level out. The Cubs really weren’t as bad as their record in the first quarter – they just got few, if any, random breaks to go their way.

Another way to see this is in the team’s run differentials this season. A team’s job is to win games, and the way to win games is to score more runs than your opponent. During the first quarter the Cubs scored 159 runs, and allowed 167 runs. Pythagorean win calculators suggest that with those results the Cubs could have expected to have gone 19-21 during those games; they were actually 5 wins worse than that! So how did the next quarter go? 144 runs scored and150 runs allowed – which also produces an expected record of 19-21. Which is to say that the second-quarter Cubs were actually a little lucky, if not enough to compensate for their very unlucky first quarter. Even though the team’s win totals from one quarter to the next were very inconsistent, their actual performance at scoring runs and preventing runs was very consistent.  This is where luck, or random variation, shows up. And since their horrible start, the Cubs luck has been evening out.

Another place of improvement for this year’s team is the starting pitching.  Of course, since I starting writing this, the team traded Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel for the top prospects in Oakland’s farm system.  For some Cub fans, this move will trigger an autonomic twitch and recollections of the last two seasons, when the pitching staff became completely uncompetitive after the most tradable starters were shipped off for prospects.  Maybe I’ll write another post after this one telling you why I think this year won’t be quite so bad. But for now, let’s talk about the starting pitching up to this point.

Through July 4 (the day the Samardzija Era ended), the Cub starters were second in the Major Leagues in WAR, to only the Detroit Tigers:

1. Tigers: 9.7

2. Cubs: 9.0

3. Nationals: 8.6

They were also 12th in ERA, 2nd in FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching), and 8th in xFIP.  If you prefer traditional stats, the starters have nearly posted a .500 record (28-31)!

When you look at the individual performances, it becomes evident that this wasn’t just Samardzija and Hammel carrying the others.  Again using WAR from fangraphs.com, the Cub starting pitchers are currently ranked as follows among all of their MLB peers:

18. Jake Arrieta: 2.4 WAR

23. Jeff Samardzija: 2.1

26. Jason Hammel: 2.1

Let me stop here for a moment.  Remember that there are 30 teams; even distribution of talent would put one pitcher from each team in the top 30.  Instead, the Cubs have 3 such pitchers, which no other team can say (well, now that two of those pitchers are on the A’s, the A’s have that claim instead of the Cubs, but you see the point).

73. Travis Wood: 1.0 WAR

76. Edwin Jackson: 1.0 WAR

So, if you were doing a pitcher draft, 76 picks would mean you had gone through the league just over two and a half times.  However, all 5 Cub starters – even Edwin Jackson, who drives most Cub fans crazy – are in the top 76 starters this year.  We have no way yet of knowing how the new pitchers in the rotation will do, but we know that the 3 pitchers who remain are not worse than what most teams throw out there.  They are, in fact, better.  While everyone was complaining that the Cubs haven’t been drafting stud pitchers, and that the Cubs keep trading away their pitchers for prospects, the Cubs have been quietly keeping pitchers who fit with their plans (again, a topic for another post).  For the first time since the Epstein regime began, there is depth in the AAA rotation, with both organizational soldiers and prospects.  So fear not, Cub fan.  This year probably won’t look like the last two.

The final reason I want to suggest to you for why this team is better than the teams that have been haunting your dreams in recent years is that the bullpen is better, deeper, and more flexible.  Of course, at the start of the year, the pen performed terribly, as pitchers like Jose Veras, James Russell, and Brian Schlitter looked like the same kind of dreck that the team trotted out last year.  But then, pitchers started arriving from Iowa and other parts unknown – 12 different pitchers threw relief innings just in the month of April, as the brain trust tried to figure out who they could trust and who they couldn’t.  5 of those pitchers put up negative WAR, and 3 more put up 0 WAR.  But in May, things got a little better: 11 pitchers again, but only one had negative WAR (James Russell, with -0.1), and 6 gave positive contributions.  And in June, only 8 pitchers, with only one negative (Justin Grimm, -0.3).

Notice the three ways I said the pen was improved:

Better: This year’s bullpen has accumulated 1.6 WAR so far, compared to -0.2 WAR for the bullpen in the first half of 2013.

Deeper: 7 different pitchers have made positive contributions this year, and only one pitcher has been given meaningful innings while posting negative WAR (Justin Grimm, -0.1). Last year in the first half, there were actually 8 pitchers who made positive contributions, but three of the 5 highest inning pitchers were significantly negative (Hector Rondon, Carlos Marmol, Shawn Camp); in fact, those three had -2.0 WAR, which wiped out the 2.0 WAR put up by the 8 positive pitchers.

More Flexible: The failures of Rondon, Marmol, and Camp last year overwhelmed the rest of the pen, and management kept sending them out for more abuse.  This year, Ricky Renteria has moved far more quickly to shuttle out those who are struggling and give opportunities to new players.  8 relievers have logged 20 IP or more, and only Justin Grimm among them hasn’t righted the ship in some measure.  Compare that to last year, when 5 relievers shouldered most of the load for the first half, including the three busts we’ve mentioned.  This year, Jose Veras was given an opportunity, DLed to work out his problems, and then given another chance.  When he couldn’t figure things out, he was cut loose.  This more rapid response to poor pitching, and willingness to give significant innings to newcomers, has been a strength of this year’s team.

I’ve not said anything about the offense, and that’s because this team is better this year in spite of the offense, not because of it.  It is true that Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro have returned to form and taken big steps forward, but only Luis Valbuena is helping them regularly.  The offense is still waiting for the cavalry to arrive from Iowa and West Tenn.  But the evidence of a real plan on the pitching side of the game is the earliest reason to start to hope that the team has started to turn the corner toward success.