Praying for Schools

It was an interesting conversation.

It happened after church.

I had filled the pulpit for a pastor on vacation.

During my sermon I had encouraged the congregation to pray for their local schools.

It was an innocuous enough request, even if a bit self serving – full disclosure I am a public-school administrator.

I don’t want to say it was a throwaway line, but it was a simple request- it wasn’t like I was asking folks to move to the Congo to do mission work.

But after church a little old lady shook my hand and told me it was a nice message.  But then she said seriously, “Now what specific things should I pray about for the schools?”  It caught me off guard.

My answer was poor. I said with a chuckle she could start by praying for me.

We both laughed, and she moved on, but I could see in her eyes my response wasn’t what she wanted. She wanted to pray for real, specific needs.

I gave her none.

It’s bothered me, so I have decided to create a few answers so that next time that preacher goes to the beach I can take them to her. (Assuming they’ll have me back.)

  1. Pray for the students. Pray they live in a kind and loving home. Pray their basic needs are met. Pray their families value education. Pray they value education and see it as the single most important opportunity they will ever have.
  2. Pray for teachers. Pray they remain enthusiastic in-spite of the many obstacles they face. Pray they remain patient with students, with their colleagues and with themselves.
  3. Pray for the support staff—custodians, bus drivers, secretaries, paraprofessionals, food service workers, and so many more. They are underpaid and under appreciated, but their work is essential and can make or break a school day.
  4. Pray for administrators – they are asked to have the wisdom of Solomon, the financial ability of Alexander Hamilton, the stamina of a marathon runner, the ability to stop evil like a superhero, the compassion of Mother Teresa, and the ability to make everyone happy—all while keeping test scores well above average. Oh, and they need to be sure they take care of themselves, so they aren’t found dead at their desk. (Which sadly is happening more and more around the world.)
  5. Pray for policy makers and politicians. May they do what I ask of those I work with at my school do. Keep Kids First! If we really think kids are society’s most important resource, we must find the money to make our schools an environment where students do not simply survive but truly thrive.

Five specifics. I could give lots more. However just praying these 5 things will make a difference.

Of course, Pope Francis reminded us that “You pray for the hungry and then you feed them – that’s how prayer works.”  So yes, pray and then do. Because from my 5 specific prayer requests I know you can find something—or lots of somethings—to do.

PS – if you want to throw in a bonus, I really will be glad for all the prayers I can get.

When Dreams Die

What happens to dreams when they die?

Are they buried in a polished mahogany coffin with brass handles and satin lining?

Or are they cremated and spread across the waters of a quite brook whose waters slowly carry them to the sea?

Are the remembered on a granite tombstone. Etched with a born and deceased date and relegated to the cemetery of one’s mind?

Or does the heart contain a columbarium with prayers for their remnants to be placed in and memorialized?

Perhaps they are left to decompose like grass clipping. Discarded so they blow away.

Or maybe the turn amber red and fall from the tree of like to fertilize the soul for more dreams to rise from the ground.

Maybe the death is just a checkmark in the book of life. Or perhaps each death of a dream simply moves us forward one more square – getting us ever closer to the end of life’s game.

What happens to the life that those dreams held? Are the lost or recycled?

Of course, the same could be said about our entire life.

Are we remembered or just discard.

Is our impacted really remembered or is that just a dream?

And if a dream the question is…

What happens to dreams when they die?

Erev Yom Kipper

While I am a frozen chosen Presbyterian and not Jewish I have a great deal of respect for the Jewish faith, as well as all people of faith.

I must admit I am especially fascinated by Jewish traditions and holidays knowing that the Jewish faith was that which Jesus followed while on earth.

I have been reminded both by my Google calendar and Facebook feed that today is Rosh Hashanah. The Jewish New Year. It’s celebration leads to the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur.

Yom Kippur is probably the holiest of Jewish holidays this day is known to many of us as the Day of Atonement.

Anytime I think about Yom Kippur, I always remember the scene from the West Wing episode “On the Day Before” where President Bartlet discusses Yom Kippur with his staff:

President Bartlet: This guy at the dinner, he told me something I didn’t know. On Yom Kippur, you ask forgiveness for sins against God. But on the day before, you ask forgiveness for sins against people. [looks over at Toby] Did you know that?

Toby: Yeah. It’s called, uh…I can’t remember…

Josh: It’s… Erev.

Toby: Erev Yom Kippur.

President Bartlet: [nods] You can’t ask forgiveness of God until you’ve asked forgiveness of people on the day before.

It always makes me wonder who all I need to seek out and ask forgiveness from and who all I need to forgive in my own heart and soul.

As Martin Luther King, Jr. said so well –

“We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.”

May we all seek atonement from God and one another.


Humanity’s Demise – Scattered, Smothered, and Covered

Humanity’s Demise – Now even Scattered, Covered, and Smothered

I have a confession to make. Well it is only a confession for those of you who don’t know me well. I love Waffle House. Eggs scrambled light with cheese, double hash browns scattered well covered with cheese, white toast, and a diet coke. It is the breakfast, lunch or dinner of champions. Available 24-7 it is a perfect analogy and reminder that God’s love and grace is always available.

Actually, the other part I love about the Waffle House is its ambiance. I know ambiance and Waffle House rarely go together in the same sentence, but I love sitting at the counter. Whether or not I was dining with someone or alone I know I can sit at the counter and not only watch but converse with the chef.

The ambiance also allows for conversation with everyone in the place. You can talk with a mechanic or roofer. A lawyer or teacher. An accountant or hairdresser. Newlyweds or retirees. Families. Teens and college students. Black, White, Hispanic, male, female, gay, straight and so much more…everyone loves waffles.

The conversations were rich and typically civil. The topics were as diverse as the people in it. And anytime it got heated a waitress put folks back in line in a hurry. Alas if you planned it right you could pick the correct background music via the jukebox and suddenly it felt like an episode of Friday Night Light’s or Parenthood.

And then last night I realized it may have all changed.

I sat next to my daughter. I had ordered my usual but added bacon – cause sometimes
you just got to live life to the fullest.

I conversed with the cook while he was cooking. I added salt, pepper and the perfect amount of ketchup. I took that first bite and was ready to give a compliment when I saw the chef looking down on his cellular device. I looked over at the waitress who was waiting on a waffle to be done. She was staring at her cellular device and then I began looking around at the rest of the diner.

My daughter was snap chatting – no surprise. Everyone wants to see a picture of her taking a big bite of a waffle with chocolate chips and peanut butter.

A booth with a family. All looking down and not in prayer unless it was a prayer app.

Another table with folks watching Netflix.

A lady on her tablet.

A construction worker texting.

Everyone staring down, and no one engaged with anyone.

Other than the clicking of keys and the sounds of texts going and coming it sounded like a funeral home. Actually quieter.

Looking at this scene I nearly teared up.

Is this now our world?

Are we no longer able to connect with one another unless through a screen?

It is scary when you can no longer connect even over hash browns -scattered, covered and smothered.

I don’t know the answer and I have been guilty myself of doing this, but I wonder about question that was popular a few years ago. WWJD – What would Jesus Do or at least What would Jesus Think?

Jesus was a gourmand which is a person who is fond of good eating. (Yes, I had to look that up)

Think about it – Jesus was often eating a meal, on his way to a meal, preparing a meal for a lot of folks, or talking about eating.

Spending time around the table was a religious experience for Jesus. It was important, and all were invited (which often got him in trouble.)

But unless Jesus was the chef (such as The Last Supper and Feeding 5000) the menu isn’t what was mentioned. What was filing at the table where the conversations. And if Jesus wasn’t sympathetic with Martha for her sister not helping in the kitchen I doubt he would be happy about folks staring down at their glowing screen. I don’t know if Jesus would dump over the table like he did in the Temple, but he might.

I do believe a parable about smart devices making us dumber about the Kingdom of God might appear if Jesus had been subject to cell phones like we are today.

So, I am going to do better myself by putting the phone down when at table. I will still go to the WoHo to work sometimes. But when with others I will try to look into one another’s eyes and hear their words. As such I will know a great deal about their heart and soul.

There are many other hours to be connected to the world with my device. Just not while putting food in my mouth at table.

I am sure I won’t be perfect at this, but I am going to try because I refuse to let my humanity become smothered and covered by a bunch of microchips surrounded by glass and aluminum.
Clay Gunter

Cooking Scrambled Eggs

Cooking Scrambled Eggs

I can see him still in his worn and faded overalls
Slowly cracking each egg
Placing them one by one in the bowl
Each slowly whisked together
A pinch of salt
A touch of pepper
A bit of milk
Deliberately mixed and then added to the pan
Its heat is so very low
And the stirring continues
So very gradually they cook
This old gentleman, with the little grey hair he has left, works at this job like every job I’ve ever seen him do
– unhurried
With a content smile
Consistency in his approach
His labor untroubled
The cooking finally completed even in that ultra-low heat
And alas they are delicious
Light and fluffy
Masterfully seasoned before they are ever plated
They melt in your mouth
They bring joy
Quite frankly are perfect

The eggs I cook are scrambled…
But often have a bit of shell included
Cooked in a hot pan
They are done quickly
There is little wait before you can eat
But they are dry
You better add seasoning before you taste
and alas
They bring little joy
The job is done…the meal prepared but…
Like most of my life they are done in a rush
and without a smile…
hurried along as “What’s Next” seems to be ever looming

The aged retired millworker, church sexton and lifelong farmer (and master breakfast maker) seems to know so much more about line than this man I am
– with my fancy certificates and degrees
Maybe the secret he whispers in his slow South Carolina drawl is to take it slow.
Be deliberate.
Perhaps the old man’s lesson to me – that I have never learned – is that the pleasure of life is found in the journey and not in crossing off “to do’s”

AND by choosing to really do the job right
with a slow, deliberate and gentle shuffle full of grace and not a flustered and panting sprint to be done

Only in living in the moment will joy indeed be realized
Hope appreciated
And life, love, and beauty fully savored

It’s a simple lesson that sadly I’ve been in too big a hurry to learn

My breakfast is done but not enjoyed
and my life is lived but not experienced
A life not well lived but hurried along as tasks are finished and a living accomplished
but the love of life lost…

Perhaps someday I will master this…
Unfortunately, there is no time to do it today…
Or is there?

Clay Gunter
August 2nd and 3rd, 2014 updated/completed 4/26/18

(In loving memory of Harold Foster – “Mr. Foster”)

Why I am No Longer Trying to be Happy – Seven Thoughts on Contentment

“I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” Philippians 4:11-13 New International Version (NIV)

Why I am No Longer Trying to be Happy.

Seven Thoughts on Contentment

When asked about what they really want for their lives, many people will respond that they want to be happy.  And for a long time I would probably answer that question the same way.  However, I have discovered that while it sounds like a great answer, seeking happiness has some real problems.  Happiness is often subject to a variety of exterior factors.  This often makes happiness quite fleeting.

The dictionary defines happy as “delighted, please or glad, as over a particular thing.”  The problem is once that particular thing is gone, the happiness often disappears with it.  This leads to the emotional roller coasters on which most of us live our lives.  We continually move between ecstasy and agony.  While I recognize that some of this is unavoidable, I have come to realize that the issue is our attempt to seek this fleeting idea of being happy.  I am now no longer seeking happiness, but instead, I am trying to gain contentment.  Unlike happiness, contentment is defined as the state of being satisfied and having a mind at ease.

Contentment is not easy; in fact, it is often quite a struggle.  Happiness can appear out of nowhere.  Even people who consider themselves unlucky eventually have something good come along that makes them feel happy.  And most of us have those things come along quite regularly.  While the old adage might remind us that the sun does not shine on the same dog’s butt every day, it also reminds us that eventually the sun shines on everyone, no matter what we do or do not do.

However, contentment is different from this – it relies on no one but you.

As I have begun to recognize and struggle with this truth, I have discovered several rules that are helping me in my efforts to achieve contentment.  I hope by sharing them, they may help you to find a life of satisfaction where your mind is truly at these.

Please note that while I am phrasing these statements in terms of “you,” that these questions are the ones I ask myself daily.

  1. You are responsible for your own joy. No one can create your joyful life but you.  It is not up to your spouse or parents or siblings or friends or colleagues or boss or spiritual adviser.  It is up to you.  If you want a joy-filled life then it is up to you. Henri Nouwen reminds us that, “joy does not simply happen to us.  We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.”

What will be those things that bring you joy, again is up to you. Everyone finds joy in different area. Some find that joy in doing triathlons – that is not me. Others find it in gardening or music or cooking or in many other ways! The possibilities are limitless, and while I cannot even start to guess what your joys will be, I can offer one thing that I have always found to bring joy. This is the joy found in service to others. If you are not sure where to start in finding your own joy, start by simply giving of yourself. I assure you that it will bring joy.

And finding joy is the starting point for creating a life of contentment.

  1. You are responsible for your own growth. Your growth personally, professionally, and spiritually is up to you and your efforts. If you want to improve at your work, you need to find those professional development activities that will help you grow. If you want to be better at your hobby, then you need to practice and push yourself. Want to get closer to God? Then you must set aside time from prayer and scripture and worship.

As human beings, we are at our best when we are striving and growing. It is why we are explorers. It is why we are inventors. Contentment of the heart and soul means we are never content with where we are. Alas, we either grow or die.

  1. You are responsible for your own health and wellness. Exercise, proper nutrition, getting the sleep you need, brushing and flossing, getting checkups, taking prescribed medications, and taking time to engage in mindfulness are all up to you. Certainly there are supports available for all of these things both from others and even apps on your phone! However, at the end of the day it is up to you.

While an app can remind you to brush your teeth, doing so is up to you. Scheduling workouts is great but showing up and doing them requires your effort. Support groups and counseling require you to both show up and follow through with the advice.

The choice about all of this is yours and mine. In John’s Gospel, Jesus asked the paralyzed man if he wanted be well. I often imagine that question is one God is asking me. Do I really want to be well – if so I know what to do – the question is do I really want to do these things. Do I really want to be healthy enough to find contentment?

  1. You are responsible for how you see the world.

Are you grateful or are you bitter?

Do you see the glass as half full or half empty?

How you view life is up to you.

If you want to find the bad, it is always available.

I must admit this is probably the area I struggle with the most. I struggle with finding possibilities in the midst of problems. Yet I recognize this is a key area for my own growth.

Now I am not saying to go out and buy a set of rose-colored glasses. But finding the potential in times of troubles is what contentment is all about. Making choices to find hope is essential to a full life.

  1. You are responsible for creating your own vision. Too many people go around from day to day with no direction – no vision. Scripture reminds us that where there is no vision the people perish.

To find contentment you must find a vision, set goals, and create a plan. Your vision may change over time and it can be very simple. In fact, the speaker and author John Gordon encourages an individual’s visions to be just One Word. Whatever your vision is, make it easy to remember and worthy of your effort.

Having a vision will be a powerful step towards a contented life.

  1. You are responsible for being part of a culture that provides affirmation.

Business leaders often remind the managers they work with that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Without a culture that provides positive energy, your strategies will always struggle. A life of contentment will be difficult, if not impossible, to obtain.

You must find those people who help you to be your best. Those people will also bring you joy. They will help you see a hopeful future. It is as your parents said – choose your friends wisely.

Sadly, this will sometimes mean moving on from those who are hurtful and not helpful.

And sometimes it may be hard to find those who are on similar paths.

Nevertheless, just as a bad apple can spoil the bushel, one negative relationship can prove to be a disease on your soul.

  1. You are responsible for discovering your whys.

The whys are the big questions of your life. Often you will need to ask them again and again in order to find the bottom line real and truthful answer.

It is essential to keep asking why as you make decisions. If the answers fit your vision, help you grow, and bring you joy, then you are on the right track to helping find your state of contentment. If it does not, then odds are you need to do something else.

Contentment is like sitting on a quiet beach and watching the sunrise or rocking a newborn who has curled up in your arms. It is a feeling that you wish would never end.

This is what I encourage you to seek. It will bring peace to your life and allow you to face both good times and bad times with grace and hope and joy.

A Prayer about Medical Care

O Lord for those of us who complain about having to wait in rooms with heating and air, cushioned chairs, and big screen TV’s in order to see highly qualified doctors. While forgetting about the millions who will never see a physician. Forgive us.
We dread mammograms, colonoscopies, physicals and fasting blood work while the idea of preventative care is unknown to so many. And fasting overnight is not a choice but a condition of one’s life. O Lord forgive us.
We grumble about nurses waking us up in the night as they make their rounds to provide care while so many lie alone each night dying.
We object to orders to rest and heal and take our medication while so many will never heal from injuries to their bodies and wounds to their souls.
We whine about co-pays and deductibles while so many die each day from diseases that are curable if you only have the money.
O God have mercy on us.
Help us to be grateful for all the gifts we have been given.
Allow us opportunities to help those in need of care.
Give us the courage to advocate for those who have been forgotten
– for those whose pain we would rather not see.
– who cries we would rather not hear.
And as we remember the amazing grace we have be given – may we seek to share that grace in both our words and actions – so that your world might become one where all of your children are given the compassion that was demonstrated to us by your son Jesus Christ – in whose holy name we pray.
Clay Gunter
June 28, 2017

Some Rules for Teachers when Communicating with Parents

1. Be Proactive – make the first call. Make a call anytime there is something going on in your room a parent might need to know about. Share everything all the time. It is hard for a parent to call the administration and complain that the teacher is reaching out too much.

2. Speak with Kindness…Remember you are talking about someone’s flesh and blood. Speak kindly and with great respect. Use very good manners. Remember to address parents as “Mr.” or “Ms.” until they tell you otherwise. Kindness is the most important thing to remember.

3. Be honest, but remember that the parent may not agree with you. Speak the truth…with kindness…but do not ask the parent to agree with you. Maybe the child cannot sit still in your room but does at home. Many times, you can avoid conflict by saying, “I see this” or “this happens with me.” (I statements rock!)

4. Document, document, document…you must note every conversation and communication…there are lots of ways to do it from apps on phones to paper and pencil…choose whatever method you want—just do it.

5. Make a point to call with good news…try to make one positive call every school day. This way when the time comes for a concern, the parent will know you are also seeing the good in their child.

6. If a conflict is inevitable in a face-to-face meeting, be sure other people are in the room. Another teacher…a counselor…an administrator. It’s not just about safety in numbers; it is also about having someone less emotionally involved to keep it focused on the child/student.

7. If whatever you need to tell a parent will take more than a couple of paragraphs, or if you aren’t sure how it might be received, then DO NOT USE EMAIL. Either call or do the face-to-face meeting.

Bonus – Keep your admins and supervisors up to date – especially when conflict is occurring. Admins would rather have too much information than not enough.

The Most Important Thing a School Administrator Can Do

I was recently asked what one thing I would tell a new school administrator that they should do to support the staff they work with each day.

Now I am sure some folks could give impressive statements about unpacking standards, interpreting data, or recognizing which interventions provide the most impact for student achievement. The idea would be that helping teachers with efficacy is the very best thing and administrator can do for the entire School community.

Others might say helping teachers take care of themselves and their mental and physical health is the most important thing an administrator can do. Or perhaps that helping teachers to feel supported in both word and deed is of central importance. Or maybe doing the very best that one can do to keep “nonsense” things off of the teacher’s desk if they can be handled in the office so that teachers can concentrate on teaching and not paperwork.

Now each of these things is important and could be the correct answers to the question. I am also sure that there are other ideas far more impressive than what I have considered that could be noted however none of these are my answer.

My answer probably sounds quite simple and I guess that it is but the one thing that I would tell an aspiring school administrator that they should do for their staff is simply this…

Pray for them!
Pray for them every day.
Pray they have patience and wisdom and strength and enthusiasm.
Pray they show tenderness and mercy.
Pray they share compassion and love
Pray they listen with their heart.
Pray they have courage.
Pray they teach boldly!
Pray they push each child to become their best.
Pray they help students learn and that they teach students to love learning.
Pray they remember to take care of themselves and their own families.
Pray for their health – physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.
Pray for them as individuals.
Pray for them by name.
Pray for their unique needs.
To offer these prayers you must get to know the people you work with.
You must learn about them and their families.
Their past and their present.
Their hopes and their dreams.
You must be available.
You must seek conversations.
You must take time to be present.
You must listen. Listening not to respond, but to really hear.
And then you must pray…every day.

There are a lot of other things a good administrator should do for those whom they have been entrusted to serve.

But the most important thing I do (and that I doubt most of my staff even know about) is pray.
And that is what I would encourage any school administrator to do – be they new or old.

As in so doing you will connect in a very different way.

And you will remember that any impact you have and, any leadership you provide comes not from you, but from a partner located in a place much higher than your building, the district office, or even the state department of education.

And I would tell any aspiring administrator God is the very best partner anyone can have.

Why I must support #BlackLivesMatter

I am a member of the privileged class.

I am a white male. I am a college-educated professional…a member of the middle class who works a white-collar job with benefits. I am a married with kids…heterosexual and a Protestant Christian. I am a US citizen. This is my reality…my world. And I live and work in a world with folks similar to me.

None of this is my fault. It’s genetics and birth; thus it is luck.

I can give myself some credit for not screwing up the advantages I received at birth, but that is about it. Yes, I did some work and made some good choices. There are those whose terrible choices screwed up the same advantages I have had from birth. But before I pat myself on the back too much, I also must admit my advantages included systems and safety nets that helped keep me on the right path and helped me to succeed.

However, when I think of these advantages I have, it causes me to struggle. I struggle to remember that the world I live in is not the “real world” for most…that our society is anything but equal and just. And if I don’t intentionally look outside my bubble, I fall into the trap that movements like #BlackLivesMatter are really the problem.

Fortunately (or really unfortunately), I don’t have to look hard to see that my world view is not the view for our nation.

Recently though, this reminder that my world view comes from the perspective of privilege happened by accident.

I was doing research on poverty in America. And the things I found reminded me that we still have a long way to go if we are to be a nation where liberty and justice are to be reality for all.

The United States has over 9.8 million children living in poverty. This is over 21% of the children in America. That number is definitely sad and disturbing. But it gets even worse, and indeed points to the fact that we are anything but a fair society.

Statistics don’t lie –
The poverty rate of White children is 12.3%.
The poverty rate of Hispanic children is 31.9%.
The poverty rate of African-American children is 37.1%.
Put simply, if you are born black instead of white, there is a better than 300 percent chance you will enter the world in poverty. As a white person that bothers me, but if I were a person of color, I’d be angry.

And if I were black and discovered that 1in 106 white men were in prison, but that 1 out of 15 black men were incarcerated, and that the greatest factor of conviction and a sentence of jail time is poverty—then I would be mad as hell. (FYI 1 out of 36 Hispanic men are in jail.)

So the odds are simply this: if I am born a person of color, I have a far greater chance of being poor and spending time behind bars.

Now I know I can’t change who I am. I am the demographic I have described. However, I can remember that my privilege provides an opportunity. It provides an opportunity to speak up for those who do not have the same advantages I have had since birth. It gives me the opportunity work to for justice, so that one day Dr. King’s Dream might become an actuality. It affords me the opportunity to remind the world I am in, that while the Edmund Pettus Bridge may have been crossed, the bridge that will transform our nation into an oasis of freedom and justice still stretches before us. And when I hear folks speak the language of hate and intolerance based on ignorance of a world they don’t know and will never experience, I can share what I do know—that as long as some are born in privilege and some with a handicap based on the color of skin pigmentation, we must do better in both word and deed and know that before it is only #all lives matter, that #Hispanic and #Black Lives and #all of those with disenfranchised lives must matter.