Monthly Archives: September 2015
West Dallas Community School is well acquainted with grief. Our students have suffered pain and loss unthinkable in my own childhood: incarceration, deportation, and murder are among the experiences of our WDCS families. But this summer we mourned a loss that was new to our community – the death of one of our teachers.
Mrs. Sharon Rizzo was our beloved Explorers/Pre-K teacher who passed away on July 27th after an 8-month battle with cancer. In December, Mrs. Rizzo learned she had cervical cancer. After her diagnosis and throughout her treatments, her love for the Lord and her students motivated her to be at school as often as possible. Nothing seemed to slow her down. But eventually, the cancer overwhelmed her and Mrs. Rizzo spent the month of July at home on hospice care.
In her brief time here at West Dallas Community School, Mrs. Sharon Rizzo left a lasting impression on students and staff alike. She taught here only a year and a half, making us wonder if God orchestrated her time at WDCS so we could provide care and community for her during her trial. It is clear to me now that Sharon’s time here was for us—not for her. We were the fortunate ones. We were the ones blessed by her joy and energy, her exuberance and her smile. During her last several months, Sharon modeled for us how one bears suffering with courage, grace, and faith.
After her death I was left asking, how does one make sense of death within a faith community? The “Problem of Evil” is not easy for theologians and philosophers, much less 4 through 14 year olds. How does one hold up the image of a “loving Heavenly Father” or the vision of a “Good and Gracious God” in the face of such grief and loss? These questions are ones with which I regularly wrestle.
Sharon had not taught at WDCS very long – only 20 students knew her well, and with her death occurring over the summer, we weren’t sure how best to honor her life and process her loss within our community. Ultimately, we elected to dedicate our first chapel to her memory – a service of scripture, song, and sweet memories. Our own Shanell Rusk sang, “In the Midst of It All” and we enjoyed a video of Sharon’s students sharing their favorite stories of Mrs. Rizzo. West Dallas Community Church Pastor and WDCS co-founder Arrvel Wilson spoke comfort to the children from John 17, including an invitation to know Jesus as their savior and redeemer. And we sang—we like singing at West Dallas Community School. We sing every morning. Each month we sing a different song, but the same song for an entire month, each and every morning – it’s our “Hymn of the Month” tradition. Last May we ended the year singing “In Christ Alone”, so it seemed fitting to select a song the students were familiar with, and includes words such as these:
No guilt in life, no fear in death,
This is the power of Christ in me;
From life’s first cry to final breath,
Jesus commands my destiny.
No power of hell, no scheme of man,
Can ever pluck me from His hand:
We also sang what is probably our students’ favorite hymn, “Christ is Risen.” I wish you could have heard their voices soar with:
How can it be, the One who died,
Has born our sin through sacrifice
To conquer every sting of death?
Sing, sing hallelujah.
And then burst forth even louder with the chorus:
Christ is risen, He is risen indeed!
Oh, sing hallelujah.
Join the chorus, sing with the redeemed;
Christ is risen, He is risen indeed.
It was a service of laughter and tears, of song and silence, and I pray that both Sharon Rizzo, and the Lord who loves her, were honored.
Another of our distinctly Christ-centered practices, in addition to singing hymns, is our daily scripture study. The teachers begin each morning with their students opening the Bible, digesting a portion each day, and within a few years, slowly but surely, they read the entire grand narrative from cover to cover. Last year we ended our readings in Revelation, so this year we went back to the beginning – Genesis. Within the first few weeks of school our students had read the account of God’s good creation, the unique call given to Adam and Eve, their temptation and Fall in the Garden, and the tragedy of brother killing brother. It is hard to escape the tremendous sense of loss that what was created to be good and beautiful was so quickly cursed and sin-stained. And it seemed to me providential that we would begin the year, in the midst of processing Mrs. Rizzo’s death, reading these opening chapters of the Bible.
The following week I was assigned to deliver the chapel message for our middle school students and I took that opportunity to look at suffering and loss through the lens of Genesis and another of our school’s favorite hymns. Despite the steady stream of news reminding us bad things are in the world, and the pain they might be experiencing in their own life, I wanted the students to latch on to a few clear thoughts from the opening chapters of the Bible.
- God created the world and he created it to be good
- God loves us and God gave us freedom – with our freedom we rebelled
- Rebellion is sin and sin soured everything
I then reminded them of the truths found back in the book of Revelation.
- God had a rescue plan and his plan was a person – Jesus.
- Jesus saves us from sin and death and invites us to partner with Him in this rescue mission
- God doesn’t make junk and He won’t junk what he made
- Jesus will return and proclaim “I am making all things new”
Simplistic? Perhaps. I really don’t want to be in the habit of reducing the complicated stories found in scripture to bullet points, but I think these ideas are critical for our students to understand as they reconcile the God of the Bible with their experiences living in a broken world.
We undeniably live in the shadow of the fall. We suffer. We hurt. We fail one another. Our hearts break. But that isn’t the end of the story. And that is where our hymn comes in, another favorite at WDCS: “This is My Father’s World.”
This is my Father’s world:
Oh, let me ne’er forget
That though the wrong seems oft so strong,
God is the ruler yet.
This is my Father’s world,
The battle is not done:
Jesus who died shall be satisfied,
And earth and Heav’n be one.
The hymn writer reminds us of life’s great tension – we live in the beauty and grandeur of our “Father’s world” and yet we hurt and can easily grow despondent because “the wrong seems oft so strong.”
How do we respond to death and sorrow at this little Christ-centered school?
Well, I don’t think it is helpful to tell students that it was “God’s will” that their teacher died, or that the Lord just wanted another angel by His side and needed Mrs. Rizzo in heaven. Those responses honor neither God nor our suffering. What our students need—what they deserve—is the truth about Immanuel, “God with us”, God expressed in Jesus who wept over the death of his friend Lazarus. Our students need to know the truths found in Genesis, that this world is cursed and does not reflect God’s perfect will – not yet at least. But God is with us in our pain. God is near us in our suffering. God promises never to leave us or forsake us. Sin doesn’t have the last word. The story isn’t over!
We are weaving together a thick fabric of practices and beliefs for our students, equipping them with the truths found in scripture and in song, to think aright about creation and the fall, sorrow and death, sin and redemption. We are providing our students with the strength found in Christian community. We are giving them the practices of mourning properly, a mourning over Mrs. Rizzo’s death that eventually gives way to hope. At West Dallas Community School we are practicing resurrection.
Head of School