Saturday, September 20, 2014

NO GREATER JOY: Arrows Crafted in Truth

The other day, I had an interesting conversation with another homeschooling mom.  We were discussing career paths and college admissions.  We shared our reservations about pursuing some less-guaranteed areas of study.  She has one child and I have five.  One of mine is already in college.
She said, “Well, at least you have five chances, I only have one.”

Did you ever wish you hadn’t intercepted a conversation because you missed where it was going? My interception was, “Chances?, it’s not like I have an option to allow three or four of my chances to be near-misses.”  I only wish I had asked her to further explain what she was thinking……it has been gnawing at me ever since.

3 John 2-4 says, “Beloved, I pray that you may prosper in all things and be in health, just as your soul prospers.  For I rejoiced greatly when brethren came and testified of the truth that is in you, just as you walk in the truth.  I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth.”

When we read the well-known passage in Psalm 127:3-5, there are a couple very familiar verses that are often quoted with regards to children:

“Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb is a reward.  Like arrows in the hand of a warrior, so are the children of one’s youth.  Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them…..”

Clearly, we draw from this passage that children are given as a blessing, a reward, in fact. With the word, “heritage”, we understand that the blessing will pass on to further generations and connect the parents’ lives to the further successes our children enjoy.  

Many look not only to the accomplishments of Charles and John Wesley, but to their amazing mother, Susanna, who spent separate hours with each of her many children, imparting the Word of Truth and intensive teaching.  She had a great “heritage”, and her arrows were well-directed.

I think my friend’s funny “chances” concept may reveal that we may somehow think we are given each child to prove our homeschooling “muscle”.  Many of us may be tempted to benchmark that we are going to hit the “target”.  However, the challenge with homeschooling is that there are years when we are hidden in the butterfly’s chrysalis, the quiet, hidden place where the most important work is happening, the time when no one can judge whether the butterfly will emerge with the anticipated form or not.

The “arrows” verse tempts us to consider whether some arrows hit the target, and others disappoint.  Surely, our Lord has no intention for us to live in the fear of misdirected arrows. He intends diversity in their destinations, for the sake of His immense purpose.  There is not only one red target in heavenly warfare; but there IS one common design for a spiritual arrow.

We desire for our children to have doors of opportunity opened to them by way of their education.  If, as may be the case with some, their souls don’t prosper to the degree we hope, we would want them to have the opportunity to prosper as adults until His kindness shepherds them to a place of personal discipleship.

A good honest question for parents today is: Which things cause “no greater joy” in our hearts? Academic achievement?  Shielding them from difficulty? Prosperity? Health and safety? Spiritual well-being?

When the day comes for us to pull back on our “arrows” and release them, have we been careful to assure that the truth is in them?   As the passage in 3 John says, we, as parents, pray for our children to “prosper in all things and be in good health AS their souls prosper”.  Our arrows need to be crafted with truth.  Let us take heart and remember that there is NO GREATER JOY for us than that our children “walk in truth”.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Pack Light!

Our fourteen checked bags, seven carry-ons, and the backpacks on our shoulders seemed a bit much for a late summer vacation.  However, when you realize this was all we were taking with us to our new life in Puerto Rico, you will agree that the seven of us packed lightly.

As with anything new and especially different, I remained rather objective those first couple weeks in Puerto Rico.  I was only mildly annoyed every morning when my neighbor's chickens would fly over the fence, station themselves right below my bedroom window and crow. Quickly, I took finding creatures of every sort in-stride. Creatures ranging from fire-ants to lizards to tarantulas could be found anywhere and everywhere, including in the shower.

Upon acquaintance, beautiful Puerto Rico was charming enough to endear any objective mind.  Mine, however, was only temporarily clouded by objectivity.  In my determination to dislike Puerto Rico, every less-than-ideal characteristic became a charge that justified my case.

I had over-packed.  I had stowed away all sorts of burdensome articles: my pride, misconceptions, prejudice, unreasonable expectations, and close-mindedness.  They were in my pockets, in the soles of my shoes, and in my heart. Even TSA did not pick-up on these forbidden pests, and I bore their weight into Puerto Rico, and all the way through those first years.

This miserable existence needed to end; it was time to give Puerto Rico a chance.  Slowly but surely, I opened the blinds on my heart, to see things in a new light.  No, I did not dismiss the faults of Puerto Rico.  I still heard when a total stranger would scold me, saying, “You live in Puerto Rico, so you need to speak Spanish!”  I was still affronted by countless stories of government corruption and my firsthand experiences with a broken healthcare system.  I considered it a crime against humanity that, in this infernally hot place, the starting price for ice cream was eight dollars per half gallon.  
The difference came when I began to acknowledge the strengths of Puerto Rico.  For every rude stranger I met, there were others who went out of their way to befriend me.  While I do not prefer being assaulted with kisses by everyone I meet, I have grown to appreciate Puerto Rico’s courteous yet outgoing cultural practices.  Even its unpardonable failings I now consider eye-openers to what it is to be from a very different cultural setting.   I empathize with an immigrant who comes to the U.S. unable to speak English, receives insensitive remarks and feels the same loneliness.
Six years later, I am still disposing of my excess luggage.  In its place are some lighter substitutes: good memories, funny stories, a newfound love for Puerto Rico, and plenty of sand.  For whatever journeys of the heart that lay in the future, I have learned one thing: to “pack light,” and leave room for souvenirs, memories and priceless lessons gained on my adventures.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Homeschooling to the Last Stretch--College!

We were blessed to have our first daughter receive notice that she has been offered admission to Williams College in Massachusetts via Early Decision. Williams is a highly selective “Little Ivy”, and recently ranked #1 among Liberal Arts colleges by U.S. News and World Report.

Our homeschooling journey began when Abi was ready for Pre-K/Kindergarten and our third daughter was on the way. We were living on a tight, one-income budget in Baltimore City. We undoubtedly wanted to avoid sending the kids to public school, and the private Christian schools would have been too expensive if I hoped to stay home with the younger kids. We were also attracted to homeschooling because it was “portable”, and could be brought to the missionfield. Since that first year, our family increased to five children, and we relocated to Puerto Rico 6-years-ago as church-planting missionaries.

For me, homeschooling has been an amazing faith-journey. I actually miss the yearly check-in/evaluations that we had in the states because I felt assured by the other set of eyes to encourage us. I struggle with wondering if we’re doing enough, just as all homeschooling parents do. We focused on extensive reading and rigorous writing via programs like Sonlight and IEW. Our other favorite curriculum choices include: Apologia science, Math-U-See, All-American History, and Notgrass. Abi read most of the books in our sizable library.

She spent a semester in a private, Christian school when she was in junior high. A generous family offered to sponsor her, sensing that it would be “best”. I didn’t feel anything was broken about our homeschooling at the time, but thought it would boost her Spanish and give her some more friends. The experience was a mixed one and I would recommend the school without reservation. But when she confided that she thought the way we studied history and science was more interesting, I became concerned. I also noticed that she came home with so much memorizing/homework, that we would probably no longer find as much time for extra-curriculars, no less, leisurely reading. She did, however, receive straight A’s, and that was reassuring. In the end, we decided to bring her back home, and the Lord did an awesome settling work with me as I trusted Him for the finishing stretch.

Our four oldest are very blessed to be given the opportunity to participate in a government-sponsored, after school, music institute. I will admit that I think activities like this were very important to having sufficient extra-curriculars and recommendations. Abi also worked at a library through a youth employment program for a short time and volunteers at a library now. We were unable to take dual-enrollment courses as many homeschoolers do, but we added an online literature course in the junior year and two online AP courses this year. In hindsight, these should have been taken earlier. She was limited in her recommendations for scholarships and applications, both due to extra-curricular/music teachers who only spoke Spanish, and few other “academic” recommendations. The online courses were our best provisions and it would have proven even more helpful to have taken more in the junior year instead.

The PSAT was a springboard from which to shoot high. Her scores were high enough for her to begin receiving materials from very selective schools. As a low-income family (missionaries), a program called QuestBridge has been very encouraging. QuestBridge targets students with high PSAT and/or SAT scores, and has an extensive application for two stages of scholarships. This process included transcripts, essays and recommendations. Receiving this honor was an important catalyst, and their student forums and materials kept us well-informed of many opportunities. She applied for “fly-ins”-- college-sponsored, all expenses paid visits to campus and was awarded one to Dartmouth and another at Trinity in Hartford. She was disappointed when she didn’t receive the Williams fly-in grant, but they extended the Early Decision to her upon further review of her application, which led to her admission. We came to learn that more than 40% of Williams’ incoming freshman class were accepted through the Early Decision program. Therefore, being decisive about your first choice school can really give you a cutting-edge.

We allowed her the freedom to truly concentrate on standardized test preparation during the end of the Junior year, as well as early this year. She increased her SAT scores by more than 10% between the spring and the fall. She also took three SAT subject tests and had one high score, one “average” score, and one not-so-amazing score.

Our children began submitting entries for the VFW Voice of Freedom and Patriot’s Pen scholarships about 4 years ago. Abi was given first place for the Latin American Division last year. Not only did she receive a scholarship, but VFW sponsored her for two enriching trips and provided her with friends from every state and territory in the U.S..   Homeschoolers are well represented in these competitions. Additionally, she participated in the local American Legion competition last year (lots of work!). I reflected these on her transcript as both Speech and Constitutional Law.

Essays were probably the strongest part of her applications for QuestBridge and Williams. The years put into emphasizing reflective, well-crafted writing were well worth the effort. Within the QuestBridge forum group, she was given a “coach” from an Ivy League school, as well as an opportunity for peer review of her essays. These were very helpful. Her writing has developed beyond her mother’s expertise (along with many academic areas. ie., Calculus, Chemistry, Economics!!), so a network like this helped immensely. I would add that I feel exegetical Bible study and reflection, as demonstrated by her father, a missionary/pastor, has developed an analytical, reflective thinker, and no other “curriculum” could have done as well as Christian apologetics seen through real life experience.

Allowing our Christian daughter to attend a “liberal”, secular college can be controversial. She made her decision to attend Williams very carefully. Among some of the strong factors were her proximity to family, and a sister-church with a pastor who is a long-time friend. We also came to understand that financial aid is perhaps more comprehensive at selective schools. Many are discouraged by the overall “price”, but Williams is one of the schools that promises to meet 100% of financial need. Her proposed financial aid package includes no loans.

During the process, Abi completed six live or Skype interviews with school alumnae. One recurring question was: How do you think you will adjust to the social life on campus after homeschooling? We chuckled about this, concluding that the interviewer felt this showed they had done research on the “issues” with homeschoolers. She felt she was successful in making a case for her “fit” at liberal arts schools, due to her self-directed flexibility in homeschooling. Multiple times, after explaining our “tutorial” methods and independent coursework, the interviewers admitted that her education seemed to be a good fit for a liberal arts education.

I write about our experience to encourage homeschool parents and students. It is by faith that we trust God for the provision when a toddler is attempting to eat another crayon under our feet, while we are trying to teach the older child to read. By faith we choose the materials that work, as well as the ones that disappointed us a bit. I am in awe at how homeschooling has become a lifestyle where we love learning. As the “teacher”, I have learned more during these years than I did during my own school and college years. More than anything, we’ve learned to have the confidence to actively answer our own questions and seek answers--trusting Him with it all.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Remembering Their Service: An Interview with a Veteran

About the Interviewee: 
Idelfonso “Pancho” Colon Jr.  is the commander of the American Legion department of Puerto Rico.  He is a young veteran, only in his early fifties.  He was severely wounded while in combat in Iraq, and was honorably discharged.  He served for twenty-five years in the Marine Corps, and was First Sergeant at the time of his injury.  Today, he devotes most of his time to serving veterans here in Puerto Rico.  Below is a transcribed version of a phone interview from November 7, 2013.

Abigail:  What was your role within that capacity [as First Sergeant]?

Pancho : Really, I’m kinda brain-washed.  Haha.  I was part of Mission Accomplishment, you know, taking care of the people under me, and trying to get them home.

A: Why did you decide to join the Marines?

P: Oh, well it’s a two part thing. 1) The patriotism I had growing up, and I had a lot of family members in the military, and they were an example to me, and I followed their footsteps.  And 2) everyone talks about how hard it is to be in the Marines, so I thought I’d take on that challenge.
Everyone chooses to join for different reasons… One of my company commanders… he was a Harvard grad, and I used to say “what the heck are you doing here?” because he could pretty much write his own checks [with a civilian job].  But he would tell me, “I’m here because this is what I want to do-- serve my country.”  And I was like, wow, we’re talking about a man who could pretty much pick out what he wants to do in life, and… he was serving his country for peanuts.

A:  You know young people like me are looking to go pretty far in life, and sometimes we can be, even with the best intentions, selfish in those desires.  But no matter what, it’s important to find a way to give back.  And maybe that’s not what he did, but some way to give back.

P: Exactly… By the way, today is my ninth “Alive Day.” Today is the day I was wounded in Iraq, exactly nine years ago. 

A: So this is a day you kinda commemorate each year?

P: Not really commemorate, but it’s hard to forget, but you know, wounded soldiers, they always call the day [that they were wounded] their “Alive Day.”

A: Was there one time, for you as someone serving in the Marines, when you suddenly realized the gravity of your role in the armed forces?

P: Oh yes, yes.  I can give you an example.  It’s a little horrific, but it’s a great example for your question.  You know, nobody really wants to go to war but it’s one of those necessary evils I guess.  When we were in Talusha, we entered this torture chamber, and just to see that kinda vindicated the reason I was there.  I had my doubts, but when I saw these places with knee hooks and blood on the cement floors, I knew we were doing the right thing.  It was a pivotal moment… I was questioning my will to follow orders, but when you actually see the reality, these places where there are mass graves, where recently, they were still torturing people, and you liberate people from that, and it’s like “wow.”
One of the companies that I was first sergeant in was the one that liberated the POWs (Prisoners of War) at the beginning of the war—the two pilots, the woman-- they were a part of that group.  When you actually see something like that, it puts it back in perspective-- that what I’m doing here is really worthwhile. 
Not only that, but the schools that we built while we were there, the infrastructure that we helped build.  We brought water to places that never had water, never had electricity.  Even though we destroyed stuff, we actually did some humanitarian, “good” things too.

A:  Right.  It’s interesting to hear that perspective because there’s been a bit of a backlash about U.S. intervention, going into other places, but I watched this really interesting documentary recently called “The World Without US.”  This British professor did a study, and he concluded that if the United States stopped being the world’s, if you want to call it, “police,” we’d have a very different place. 
Sometimes the armed forces get a backlash for taking on things that aren’t directly related to defending the country, but who’s going to do it if we don’t?  There hasn’t been another country that’s stepped up to it. 

P:  That’s a great point, because in the two world wars that were involved in, our foreign policy was isolationism. We wanted to stay out of everyone’s business, but we answered in World War I, and we entered again in World War II.  Both times, we didn’t really want to be there, but it happened. 
You’re gonna hear it all the time. “Ah, we can’t be the world’s police.”—we didn’t ask for that job, you know.  It’s just the way things turned out.  And really, when we turn a blind eye, we’re just as responsible as the people who committed those atrocities.  I believe, granted, our country has done a lot of bad things, but I believe the good intentions were there.  It’s just how some of those things worked out.

A:  Going back to your experiences, was there something particularly that made you question yourself, what you were doing, something that you saw that made you ask “why am I here?”

P:  Yeah (the anniversary of that happening is in two days) [it] is when I lost my first Marine in combat.  As a leader, it’s kinda unrealistic, but it’s there: your goal is to bring everyone back [with] you.  But the very definition of war is that you’re gonna lose someone. 
So anyways, I kinda took that hard [losing the Marine]. You want to come home with everyone you left with.  When you look at reality, you realize that’s impossible, but still, you blame yourself.   “What could I have done differently?  If we had left five minutes later [would he have made it]?”  You start questioning yourself, but at the end of it all, you realize this is war, and this is what happens.  That  took a long time for me. 
Especially since he was only 19 years old, and I’d already lived a full life, and he was just in the prime of his. 

A: Nineteen years old.  Some of us [civilian] nineteen year olds (I’m not too far from that age), [are] not that responsible.  We’re just going to college or getting our first jobs.  But someone out there is defending our country…
This doesn’t even really have to be related to combat, but what was one of your best memories as a part of the armed forces? 

P:  The camaraderie.  The togetherness.  You live in a structured environment, and not many people question authority, but there is a bond.  Even though we come from all walks of life, it brings us all together, because that’s what our country is.  It’s something that my wife [she’s a veteran as well] says is the “most perfect, imperfect society that there is, yet it works.”  We’re dysfunctional, but it works.  It worked for us
A:  Do have one more story [that you want to share]?

P: I do.  There’s an old saying, like World War I or World War II, and they used to say “there are no atheists in foxholes.”  And let me tell you, that is true…

When I was evacuated for my medical evacuation, the first person who carried my stretcher was in the Airforce, but remember, I was in the Marines.  Still, he looked down and called me by name.  “Colon!” 

He was one of my recruits ten years prior, not of the Marine Corps, but he joined the Air Guard, and he was in Iraq, carrying my stretcher onto a plane and taking me to Germany. 

A second person was put in my [path] and that was a Marine next to me who was about 18-19 years old, and he had been badly wounded, and he had all kinds of hoses connected to him.  He was conscious and he was crying, and I put my hand on his shoulder and said “hey, look, we’re gonna be okay.”  Through that conversation with him, I found out that my son had trained him [in the military]. 

I don’t think God deals in coincidences. 

The plane landed in Germany, and the door opens, and I hear someone say “is Colon onboard?”  The air nurse said yes, and he comes over to me, and he shakes me by the shoulders, and says “Son, it’s me, Luis Serrano.”  Five years prior, he had been one of my trainers, but Luis Serrano had gotten out of the Marine Corps, and joined the Army Reserve to be a medic.  Here he was, taking care of me. 

Anyways, I get retired, I get sent to Puerto Rico.  All returning veterans have to go see a counselor, and they assigned one to me.  So [my counselor], she looks at my records, and says  “Hhmm, are you from New York? You’re from the Bronx?” 
I said “yah.”

“And your mother’s name is Judy, and your father’s name is Ildey.” 


“Yah, I used to go to your dad’s store [in the Bronx] when I was eleven years old.” 

I didn’t remember her, but this woman knew me, my family…

Going back to what I said, “there are no atheists in a foxhole,” God put an angel in every step of that journey to bring me back home.  Spiritually, I think that’s the best thing that happened to me on the way back.  And it’s also sign of the camaraderie…  If anything, I know God put those people there for me so I could make it home okay.  And that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

Interviewer’s Note: 
I have known Pancho for a number of years through various youth programs with the American Legion.  Both he and his wife are incredibly inspiring individuals, and it was a great honor to interview him.  His story is rather unique, since we usually characterize veterans as old, wizened gentlemen with their stories of the triumphs and horrors of the armed forces half a century ago.  For Pancho, he was on the war-front during this recent, and arguably controversial, War in Iraq.  His insight on the motivations behind this war and the actions of the armed forces is rather interesting as it differs from many civilian opinions. 
Secondly, we often don’t realize what a profound effect active combat can have on a person’s life, even years later.  I remember attending a birthday party and noticing him standing at a distance from the crowd, at the front of the room.  I jokingly asked him if he was on sentry duty.  He told me that ever since he was injured in combat, he can’t handle being in the crowd; he feels claustrophobic and trapped because it reminds him of when he was stuck in a mangled tank while in Iraq. 
Hopefully, as civilians learn the stories of our veterans and active soldiers, we can learn to thank them, not just for what they did on the front lines, but also for what they continue to endure on the home-front for the rest of their lives.    

Monday, February 13, 2012

Hope for Otters- by Anali

Otters are smart, playful animals, but they are fighting for survival. The giant otter is one of the mammals that wasn’t even given and chance to be known in the world and is now the most rare otter. We say we need animals, but no one says they need us. We are the reason many of them are gone.

In the past we’ve seen animals vanish so suddenly it seems they never where there. Because we have power over animals no matter how big they are, or how excellent at hiding they are, it it’s our will, animals could be wiped out. Some are almost there, but if people were to just see their beauty in being in the wild, maybe they would have a better chance. Otters are one of the animals that are on the edge of extinction. They were the ones who were hunted because of their fur. Mercilessly, sea otters were slaughtered, but that was not enough. There was a great oil spill, and many otters were killed by thousands. Where these funny, furry sea otters done for? Slowing the trade down made people start to realize the truth about sea otters. People went on trips to learn all about sea otters. Now they are on a comeback. Those flipper-feeted, blubber-less sea otters are giving hope back. So stop staring and start saving all otters everywhere.

Within the rushing water swims a giant dog with webbed feet and a rudder-like tail. It is not a dog, but a giant otter, swimming happily in the South American rivers. Giant otters are the most rare otters known today. Also killed for their fur, which decreased their numbers frantically, they are curious and shy animals that have a taste for fish, and their most favorite one is the patak. The most dazzling and amazing animals are the ones who get pushed to the limit carelessly—animals who care about life as much as we do. Why?

Are these water-loving, playful otters really done for? Without care they could be. Hoping is not enough, acting is the only way; so why say goodbye to them when we can stop it? As fast as we’ve seen animals vanish, we’ve also seen them return. It is not impossible.

Friday, December 30, 2011

The Christmas Attack- by Julian, age 7

Once, years ago, there were Vikings and the people of England had to keep on giving them gold for them to stay away. The English wanted to stop giving them gold.

It was Christmas day, and the English didn't fight in the winter, especially not when it was Christmas, but the Vikings came on Christmas day and attacked!

The English king, Alfred, had to flee! He worked in a lady's house like a servant, but she didn't know who he was. She told him to watch the cakes on the fire while she went to get firewood. He was concentrating on what he would do about the Vikings so much that the cakes burned!

He decided to send messages to all his warriors to plant their crops and then come to headquarters.

So then, they attacked the Vikings and the Vikings were surprised! The Vikings surrendered and then the English won!


Thursday, December 29, 2011

Let’s Go See - by Avrynn, age 8

Along the hills near Bethlehem, lived a shepherd’s family.

Hannah was an eight-year-old daughter.

Hannah calmly helped her dad, because mom had a baby.

Hannah enjoyed counting the sheep to make sure that they were all there. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven and on and on.

Tenderly, she held the tiniest sheep of all, because she cared about her.

Every night she watched the lights go out in Bethlehem.

Suddenly, a bright light appeared!

Hannah could tell that her brave dad was scared.

The angel said, “Don’t be afraid, for the Lord Jesus Christ is born this night, in the land of Bethlehem.”

Hannah thought "I actually saw an angel!”

“Let’s go see!” Hannah brought her baby sheep. Delightfully, they walked to town, then they saw the manger. As they walked closer, they saw the baby’s bed. It wasn’t a bed, it was a feeding-trough. Hannah, the 8-year-old learned a lesson: Christmas is about Christ.