Friday, February 12, 2016

lenten metrics

Years ago I had a fleeting career teaching elementary school. 

I went back to school for a grad degree in teaching when our first two children were toddlers and by the time I got around to doing my student teaching, I was working on child #3. (She was born one week after the end of the last semester…)  By the time I got around to (re-)entering the workforce, I ended up taking a job in the guidance department of the elementary school (instead of a classroom job) and worked with children with social and emotional needs. It was a great job and a launching pad, really, for my later ministry with children and families with special needs. 

While I worked at the school, there was a mini-revolution about report cards and the grading system.  Like many other mainstream schools, ours followed the usual metrics employing letter grades (A, B, C, D, F) with the added option of plusses (+) or minuses. (-).  I was very familiar with this system from my own 17 years in K-College and, more recently, the 3 years in grad school. (There were a limited number of courses in college that one could take Pass/Fail, but I never took the option- I wasn’t sure how I would operate with that kind of “freedom” and so I stuck to the traditional metrics.)

 In the elementary school where I worked, we voted to try on a new system of grading that gave me flashbacks to my own chaotic, “cluster-‘structured’ (sic)” years in 4th, 5th and 6th grade when we all sat in an open-space classroom singing kumbyah and playing with different colored rods and blocks instead of learning our multiplication tables.   In the elementary school where I worked, we decided to forgo letter grades and to offer, instead, “categories of learning achievement.”  I forget, now, but the categories were something like “exceptional,”  “demonstrating proficiency,”  “in progress,” and “not yet making progress or making minimal progress” toward meeting standards. 

Make sense?

Yeah, in some ways, the words just replaced the old “A, B, C, D” and the dreaded “F”… but the new system was supposed to be more supportive, ego-strengthening, upbeat and nuanced. It was the 1990s.  I found it confusing-  as a teacher and as a parent- and I longed for the good old days.  It wasn’t that I was opposed to change as much as I liked the familiar world of letter grades which had, as their underpinning, numerical ranges of test scores to support them:  ie:  a “B” and its neighbors, B- and B+ were assigned to scores in the range of 80-89. It was neat, tidy, and one knew exactly where one stood. There were no grey areas with the A-F system.

So.. swallow all that.  And the fact that I’m a rule-following-middle-child and an order-loving-Virgo to boot and then, imagine my reaction when a colleague recently quoted his priestly-Grandfather on the subject of Lenten Discipline:  If you do it too well, you'll miss the point.”*   

 That’s right.  If you get an “A” in Lent, you’re not doing it right.

I laughed when I heard this… and then loved the sentiment for its theological right-ness:  Lent is designed to be (partly) an experience of spiritual striving and even a bit of a struggle.  If we choose to follow our (self-selected) disciplines to perfection, (with an “E” for “exceptional”) either we haven’t selected a program rigorous enough or allowed ourselves the grace of living fully human.   What’s the point of making it 40 days without chocolate or wine?  What’s the pay-off for adding a new prayer practice or reading a new spiritual tome?  It’s not the successful completion of these things… it’s certainly not a superior smugness that comes with having “done it all right.”  The metrics of Lent are not measured in what we’ve completed with efficiency or unfailing competence.  The metrics of Lent are about embracing the ragged edges of our humanity that become softened by our very practice-  including our failings.

As I processed all of this, standing in front of my friend, I imagined that perhaps the coveted bowl of ice cream could be mine before Lent’s end.  But this theological nuance is not a “get-out-of-jail-free” card, either.   No, if I were to “fail” and dive into the Ben & Jerry’s it would be unplanned, unintended and forgiven-  like many of our sins that cut much deeper than the illicit bowl of forbidden ice cream.

I loved this new mind-bending, curiously wry twist to Lent:  “If you do it too well, you’ll miss the point.”

What do you think?

* these are the words of The Rev. Churchill J. Gibson  who was rector of St. James Episcopal Church, Richmond, VA from 1929-1957.


  1. Failure is necessary for learning to occur - it's one of the hardest things I need to convince students and parents of, especially those high achievers! So perhaps our Lenten discipline question isn't about what we are achieving or accomplishing during Lent but about what we are learning. It reminds of the line from "His eye is on the Sparrow": What if I stumble, what if I fall?

  2. My sermon for Sunday is all about Lent having morphed into a "thing" to achieve. I may have to add this quote from Gibson.

  3. My sermon for Sunday is all about Lent having morphed into a "thing" to achieve. I may have to add this quote from Gibson.

    1. It’s a good one, isn’t it? Gibson is related to Churchill Pinder, our cathedral dean at St. Stephen’s, as you may have guessed!

  4. This is wonderful. So much of our faith is paradoxical. Much of my clinical practice involves working with folks about their perceived "failures" of self in their lives and finding the possibilities of redemption, forgiveness, and deep growth therein.
    When I think about it, Lent involves intentional choice of a discipline which inevitably leads to missing the mark and starting over again. Aren't we a funny people? :)
    The educational story resonates with me.
    THe marking system at Kent School during my time there was 1 (top),2,3,4,5(failing) with the + and - qualifiers. THe culture was that
    a 1 was perfect, therefore rarely achievable, so a 2+ was really like an A. Strange business with wiggle room and gray areas.
    However, I still can't see that I learned anything from the 4 in geometry in my fourth form year except disliking geometry and the teacher......
    Lent brings new gifts every year for this introspective deacon, but your blog opens up new horizons.
    Thank you and thank Churchill!
    Jan Brown

    1. I think that I have the same geometry aptitude as you, Jan. Scarred for life when it comes to theorems and proofs.