Faith that Works

Teaching middle schoolers how to live and practice their faith

“I am the way, the truth, and the life.” John 14:6

Praying the Stations of the Cross has always been one of my favorite Lenten practices. One of my earliest school memories was gathering in the auditorium on the Fridays of Lent to pray through the stations together. As we walked from station to station, our voices would join together in the Stabat Mater, the beautiful Marian hymn that begins with the words “At the cross her station keeping.” To this day, when we have a more normal lent in school, teaching my students how to pray the stations is one of my top priorities.

This I am statement reminds me that the way of the Christian is the way of the cross. When we say yes to Christ, we are asked to pick up our cross and follow him. While I’ve heard all sorts of cutesy stories about God tayloring our crosses to us, they don’t match the way I see God. I don’t see God and Jesus poring over my life looking for the perfect way to strengthen me through hardship and pain. Instead, because our world is broken by sin, I see a God who knew we would deal with much hardship and pain, so he became one of us to show us the way through our suffering, the truth about how much he loves us, and the life he has planned for us.

In this I am statement, Jesus reminds me that while finding my way in life can feel murky and unknown, as long as I know him, I know the way. I just need to keep living and loving and trusting. When the world offers me many versions of “truth” I can remember that truth is a person, and he promises me that knowing the truth will set me free (John 8:32). And like he said just after the previous I am statements, Jesus came that I might have life, and an abundant life in him. Jesus offers me a path of clarity and renewal. All I have to do is follow.

For today: I will look for the ways Jesus is with me in this time of hardship and quarantine. I will celebrate the abundant life I have by gratitude and time with my family. I will pray the Stations of the Cross with my husband and son.

“I am the resurrection and the life.” John 11:25

The last few years have been filled with a lot of loss in our family- my father-in-law, a dear friend from grad school, my husband’s aunt, my friend’s daughter, two friends from our parish, and a much hoped for baby. Many times in the last two years I’ve found the words of Mary and Martha in this bible story- “Lord if you had been here…” Both sisters know that God could have spared them this pain and don’t know why he didn’t. But Martha’s next sentence is truly inspiring- “But even now, I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” A few moments later Jesus gives her the promise of this I am statement: resurrection and life.

To truly understand and believe the promise of Jesus’s words, I need to have Martha’s faith first. Even now, Lord, I believe. Even in the pain, I believe. Even in the uncertainty, I believe. Even in the heartbreak of loss, I believe. The hope of eternal life is an incredible promise, and certainly a large part of how I see this I am statement. But I think Jesus also promises that we will have resurrection and life in the present moment. Through the loss of my friend, I reconnected with many amazing people who I hadn’t seen in years. It resurrected old relationships I didn’t even know I was missing. God gave our family new life in a baby due at the end of the summer. I’ve seen the people I love building lives around the empty spaces left by their losses and ministering to so many in the process. Jesus really is the resurrection and the life, both in this life and the next.

As I go through the rest of Holy Week alone at home with my family, I am going to keep both sets of words with me…even now I know that in this time of sickness, pandemic, fear and lonliness, you are here, bringing resurrection and life. Already I’ve seen a new level of appreciation for my neighbors and neighborhood. Already I’ve seen new life breathed into struggling relationships as we seek to connect with one another. I am looking forward to celebrating the Resurrection at the very first mass I can attend after quarantine. Even now Lord, I believe that you are the resurrection and the life.

For today: I will reach out and call, text or write to someone in my life who is experiencing a loss. I will pray for all the lives being loss to sickness, hunger, and violence throughout the world. I will pray for those who are struggling with doubt in the face of grief.

“I am the good shepherd.” John 10:11

When I was in college, I had the opportunity to study abroad in Salamanca, Spain. One morning, super early, I woke in my dorm room in an old Carmelite convent to a very loud, very unfamiliar sound. When I made it to the window, I saw something I had never seen before. Thousands of sheep were making their way down the street right below my window, right through the middle of the city. With them were dozens of shepherds making sure that they navigated this strange new environment safely.

While it was certainly incongruous to see sheep running through the middle of a city, the image reminds me a lot of what Jesus the good shepherd means for us today. Often the images that accompany this I am statement are of an idyllic hillside with sheep peacefully grazing. Only rarely do you see sheep in a storm, or fleeing from predators, or in the middle of a city or town. But in reality, being a shepherd requires being with your sheep ALL the time, not just the peaceful times.

And that’s what Jesus promises us. Not that we will be his peaceful sheep on the gorgeous pastures all the time, but that he will be our good shepherd. When we face danger, we can turn to him and trust that he will lead us safely through peril. When the environment is new and frightening, he will show us the way. A good shepherd keeps his sheep from wandering off, and if we trust him, Jesus will keep us close to him. As a good sheep, I want to be honest with Jesus and others about the ways I am struggling with fear and anxiety, or when I have stepped off the path the shepherd has chosen for me.

For today: I will try to trust Jesus completely, especially in the areas of my life that cause me fear and anxiety. I will share honestly with others about my struggles, not just about the peaceful times. I will ask Jesus the good shepherd for direction and discernment about the path ahead of me.

“I am the gate.” John 10:7

This is the I am statement of Jesus that I probably know the least, and in my research for this post, I realized/learned that this I am statement is very connected to tomorrow: I am the good shepherd. They both come from Jesus’s words to the Pharisees immediately after healing the man born blind. The Pharisees have asked Jesus whose sin has caused the man’s blindness. When Jesus implies that their own sin is keeping them spiritually blind, the Pharisees are offended and Jesus launches into this extended metaphor of the shepherd and his sheep.

I learned an interesting thing about shepherds and sheep at the time of Jesus. At night, several shepherds would bring their sheep from the pasture and keep their flocks together in the same pen. One of the shepherds would sleep across the entrance to the pen, keeping the sheep from predators and thieves who would try to enter the pen by night. In the morning, the sheep, knowing the sound of their own shepherd’s voice, would follow him to the pastures, separating back into their own flocks.

In this I am statement, Jesus is telling me he will be my protector, provider, and guide. When temptations or fears sneak over the wall to try to steal my joy, I need to remember that Jesus is right there, ready to save me. He wants me to have an abundant life, and this abundance comes from believing in and following him. He will call me by name to the pastures he has prepared and provided for me.

Right before school closed on March 13th, my seventh graders and I had been studying the truth of God’s providence as revealed through the parables of grace. I am the gate is a beautiful example of God’s providence. Even when he appears to be sleeping, God has placed himself in the position to protect, provide, and guide. That’s a truth I am choosing to cling to right now.

For today: I will be aware of the fears, dsitractions, and temptations that make it harder for me to hear the shepherd’s voice. When I am afraid or distracted or tempted, I will say a quick prayer for trust. I will make a list of all the ways God is protecting me, providing for me, and guiding me during this difficult time.

“I am the light of the world.” John 8:12

Right now the world is very dark. We feel alone, anxious, afraid. Some of us have been home for weeks, some for days, and some head out into the darkness each day, performing essential jobs under new and difficult circumstances. As I read the news each day, sometimes despite my best efforts to avoid it, one of my favorite bible verses comes to mind over and over again: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” John 1:5. No matter how dark it gets, darkness cannot overcome light.

Many of my favorite books as a child focused on this battle between darkness and light- The Lion, the Witch and the Wardobe, The Dark is Rising, A Wrinkle in Time* are just a few of them. In all of these books unlikely heroes need to choose their side- light or dark? The choices look different for everyone- temptation, fear, and exhaustion are all reasons the characters in these books could choose the darker path, but in each, someone reminds them of the light and gives them strength to be the light themselves.

That’s what Jesus wants to do for us. Not only is HE the light of the world, but he also tells us in Matthew 5:14 that we are the light of the world too. He goes on the say that our light should shine before others, that they may see our good deeds and give glory to God. (Matthew 5:16) This is a big expectation that Jesus has for us, and once again, he doesn’t leave us to do it alone. He is the source of the light that we share with others. He is the light of the world.

One of my favorite moments of the Easter vigil is watching the light spread through the darkness of beginning of the service. If you’ve never been there, it’s truly one of the most beautiful moments of the liturgical year. The new Easter candle is lit, and one by one the light is passed from candle to candle until the whole congregation is bathed in warmth and light. That’s what this I am statement makes me think of- light spreading through darkness and cold. People choosing to follow the light of the world instead of being overwhelmed by the darkness in the world. “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”

For today: I will spread light by making a card for someone who is experiencing darkness in their life. I will read stories of people who are being the light in a dark time. I will reread a favorite story of light overcoming darkness.

*the links provided for the novels are affiliate links. This means that if you purchase the book using my link, I receive a small commission at no cost to you.

“I am the bread of life.” John 6:35

Happy Palm Sunday! Like me, many of you are probably spending this Palm Sunday in semi-isolation, away from your worship family. In our town, this will be our fourth Sunday without the ability to go to mass in person, our fourth Sunday without the gift of the Eucharist. And while this is difficult, and I appreciate the sentiments of loss and grief I see in the Catholic online community, this time away from the physical presence of the Eucharist, the bread of life, has given be some new perspective on the gifts Jesus gives us each and every day.

in Therese of Lisieux’s Story of a Soul she talks about the day of her first communion as one of the most important in her life. She also writes of looking forward with eager anticipation to her second communion, which she alo remembers in detail. Throughout the book she talks about the occasions when she was able to receive communion. Being able to receive communion weekly, or even better yet, daily, is a very recent privilege. For Therese, she was only allowed to receive communion when granted permission by a priest or spiritual director.

We are so lucky that in normal, non pandemic circumstances, we can receive Jesus physically every single day! But even when we can’t, Jesus is STILL the bread of life. In the Lord’s prayer we ask God to give us this day our daily bread, and Jesus the bread of life is just that- our daily bread. Jesus is here to feed us, to fill us, to nourish us, every single time that we ask.

The image of Jesus as bread of life reminds me that bread brings people together. Almost every culture and feast that I know of has some type of special bread to it. In my community, I’ve been blessed to share pan dulce and fry bread with people very different from me. I’ve gotten to break bread with friends as a part of their Sukkot Shabat celebration. I’ve made bread and pastries for the feast of St. Joseph and shared them with students and coworkers. Jesus, the bread of life, wants to bring people together. In this time apart from others, I find a lot of comfort in that.

For today: I will pray for all those who are suffering from hunger and isolation in my community. If I can, I will make bread for someone. If that won’t work, I will donate to local food banks to help my neighbors who are struggling in this difficult time.

The link for Story of a Soul is an affiliate link- this means if you click through and buy the book using my link, I receive a small commission at no cost to you.

Somehow, in the Lentiest Lent I’ve ever had, Holy Week snuck up on me. Maybe it’s because I haven’t been able to go to church in person for several weeks. Maybe it’s because my “classroom” is currently whatever portion of the dining room table isn’t covered with playdoh tools and watercolor supplies. Maybe it’s because I spend large portions of everyday with only a 3 year old for conversation. (3 year olds are not known for keeping track of dates in the liturgical year.) Whatever the reason, Holy Week is only days away and I’m not SURE that I’m ready. Scratch that. I’m sure that I’m NOT ready.

For the past few years I’ve posted daily reflections during Holy Week. You can read last year’s reflections on the 7 sorrows of Mary or the reflections from the year before about the 7 last words of Christ by clicking on the links. (You won’t find all seven there, but it will give you the starting point for the series.) My amazing coworker Corinne turned these reflections into retreat booklets for our students, which you are welcome to use with your teen or middle school student as a Holy Week journal. There are a few markers that will indicate our school or the year we used them, but other than that I hope that they will be a helpful resource for you and your family during this Holy Week at home.

Just a note- these were designed to be printed or photo copied back to back. When you first print them, if they are single sided, don’t be alarmed- they will form a book! Just imagine you are photocopying two sided and arrange the pages like that.

And this year, starting on Palm Sunday and going through Holy Saturday I will be reflecting on and writing about the 7 I am statements of Jesus that are found in the Gospel of John: I am the bread of life, I am the light of the world, I am the gate, I am the good shepherd, I am the resurrection and the life, I am the way, the truth and the life; and I am the true vine. In a time of isolation and uncertainty, I find the images of Jesus that he gave us in the I am statements to be very comforting, and I hope you will too.

Everyone knows it’s a strange and difficult time for our country, and especially for students, families, and teachers as we adjust to the current “normal” of covid-19. Something that has been helping me keep positive and productive as I balance working from home, parenting a 3 year old, being pregnant and trying not to worry about my husband, (an essential worker) is keeping lists each day. I’m a huge fan of Gretchen Rubin and her work, and one of the things she does every year is create a list of 18 for 2018, and 20 fo 2020 etc. So I have decided to start keeping some 19 for covid-19 lists to help me stay grateful and connected to the good things that are happening every day.

So here are 19 things I am grateful for today: teaching edition. Keep reading to the end of the post for some free gratitude journal templates you can use at home or at school when we get back.

19 things I am grateful for: teaching edition

  1. My students. As much as I sometimes get frustrated with them, I really miss seeing them every day.
  2. My coworkers. I work with amazing and supportive people and I am so blessed by the way we really work as a team.
  3. My principal. As we struggle to grow and adapt to this new way of teaching, I feel grateful to have a principal who has the best interests of everyone at our school at heart.
  4. Our pastor. Right now, just like many priests in our country, he is working hard to stay connected with all of us and keep the sacraments available in any way he can.
  5. Formed.org. This website has so many amazing resources for faith formation. Each week I am sending ideas to families of things to watch and listen to.
  6. Zoom. Zoom has made its meeting platform available and free for teachers and students during the school closures and it’s amazing.
  7. Professional development opportunities. Our local educational service district is offering teachers chances to learn and grow from home too.
  8. Technology. With email, phones and online options I’ve been able to talk to almost all my students in the last week.
  9. Books. On the last day I was allowed in my classroom I filled a crate full of the books I’ve been wanting to read from our classroom library but just haven’t had the time.
  10. Independent book stores. Our local bookstore started offering free books for people once the libraries closed. Unfortunately the bookstore is closed now too, but they are shipping books. Check them out at https://www.inklingsbookshop.com/.
  11. Working in sweats. This one speaks for itself.
  12. Time to work on some cool religion resources. Slowly but surely this year I’ve been trying to design more of my standby resources into visually pleasing ones. Right now I am in the middle of a Beatitudes unit for my class and I am really excited about it.
  13. Flexible work time. I am still struggling with parenting/teaching balance, but in general I am enjoying spending mornings with my husband and son before William heads to work and I settle down at the computer.
  14. Working outside. It’s been beautiful, so I’ve been grading in the back yard while my son digs in the dirt. Everyone is happy with this arrangement.
  15. Finally being caught up with grading. Right now I have no pile of doom!
  16. A chance to explore new curriculum. I brought some prospective religion books home and am marking lessons I want to try when we are back.
  17. All of the companies making things available online. Many great educational resources are available to suddenly homeschooling families free of charge.
  18. Seeing people come together and help one another. All over our town people are making the best of this bad situation by spreading kindness.
  19. Knowing that this will pass. It mas not pass as quickly as I would like, and there will be a lot of suffering, but it will pass. Praying for those fighting this virus gives my small inconviences a purpose in the grand scheme of things.

What are you grateful for today? Taking some time to think about all the wonderful things in my life right now has given me a lot of perspective in this challenging time. To help you and your middle schoolers focus on the positive, these gratitude journal templates may come in handy. Let me know if you use them, or even better, share as a picture in the comments! Stay healthy and peaceful!

As promised, I want to share some of my favorite online resources for middle school aged kids. Many of the amazing resources floating around on Facebook right now seemed aimed at younger children or for other academic subjects than religion. So here’s what I’m going to be sending to my students in the days ahead.

Formed.org is a treasure trove of faith based movies, talks and books for Catholics of all ages. While you do need an account to access the information, many parishes and schools have this available for their students. My son and I are checking out their saint cartoons, and there are many beautiful prayers and reflections to listen to.

Magnificat magazine is a beautiful prayer resource, and normally not super cheap, but during mandated church and school closures, they are making the magazine free online. Each day features morning and evening prayer, a reflection (often from a saint), the mass readings, and often the story of a saint. It’s such a rich way to pray with scripture each day.

Look to Him and Be Radiant is an amazing blog by Katherine Bogner, a middle school teacher and DRE from the Midwest. All her resources span those middle grade ages beautifully- nothing seems “little kiddy” to my students. And best of all, her resources are totally free!

Dynamic Catholic is an online resource for short videos and books on faith formation. Some of the resources cost money, but a great many are free. Their Best Lent Ever videos and some of Matthew Kelly’s videos were big hits in my 8th grade religion class this year.

Busted Halo is a great website with all sorts of offerings- from podcasts to videos to articles, they have great graphic design to support their mission of “faith shared joyfully”. They also have a weekly newsletters and fun photo contests on Instagram- for your students on social media, a religious photo contest could be a nice change from TikTok.

For families with littles, I am going to cram my 3 favorites into one paragraph because I said that this would be resources for middle schoolers. But I am a mom to a three year old, so these merit a mention. Catholic All Year is Kendra Tierney’s blog about liturgical living, which could really help all of us homebound Catholics during this season without mass and the sacraments. Catholic Icing has tons of great craft and homeschooling ideas. Catholic Family Crate is a monthly subscription box filled with things to help your family live the Church year. It can be pricey depending on your budget, but it was a family gift to ourselves when I got a raise this year. Each month you get a box full of crafts, celebration ideas and a spotify playlist sent to your family. I love it so much. (By the way, I’m not getting paid to advertise them- they just are really wonderful and I want everyone to try it out.) Their special Lent and Advent boxes are even better and are also available as a separate subscription.

What are your favorite online resources? Share them in the comments to help families out in this tricky time for education!

If you’ve somehow missed all the coronavirus posts, recommendations and people generously sharing teaching resources, I’m pretty impressed with your persistance. And while I don’t intend this to be a coronavirus post, the reality for many teachers is similar to mine. We are facing a different type of teaching than we are used to, many while juggling having our own children home with us.

Friday was a strange day for me. Life in Washington State had been tense all week, and on Friday we found out that we needed to shut down immediately rather than wait for the end of the school day or our Governor’s subsequent announcement mandating school closure. So at 11 am I was checking out scared students, some of whom were in tears. I was struggling with my own emotions- because of how the virus has spread here, I no longer felt that I could in good conscience travel to my sister’s wedding, which is scheduled for this weekend.

Then there were ALL the internet posts about homeschooling- the kind ones from people wanting to help, the self-righteous ones from people assuming that regular schooling parents would be horrified at all this time with their children, and the silly ones promoting unlimited screen time and a real life reenactment of Lord of the Flies. ( I chose to mostly read those.)

Here’s the truth all teachers know: we never totally have the situation under control. But every day we do our best to reach each student and to help build their knowledge in appropriate steps. The same is going to be true for all of us moving forward. Teachers will be figuring out how to teach remotely and parents will be figuring out how to manage this new normal. And we will all make mistakes. That’s ok. I’ve made a million mistakes in my ten years of classroom teaching, but learning from those mistakes has helped me become a stronger and more empathetic teacher.

I don’t know what my next six weeks as a distanced teacher will look like. But I know that I will learn how to be a better teacher through it. I know that I will continue to want the best for my students, wherever they are learning. I will also try to post as many awesome ideas, book reviews and products as I can here, to help those of you on the front lines of home education. I will pray for all of us, for our health and safety. Please pray for me and my family too.

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