Saturday, November 23, 2013

A Case for Halloween

File:Paul C├ęzanne, Pyramid of Skulls, c. 1901.jpgWe may be coming up on Thanksgiving, but I've got Halloween on my mind. As a teacher, Halloween, like Christmas, is a holiday where I must tread with care. There are usually a few students whose parents have a real discomfort over Halloween, just as there are those who have issues with Christmas, generally due to religious reasons. I respect religious differences and therefore I try to walk a careful line around such holidays.

But this year, I found myself thinking about this reality, about why so many Christians take issue with Halloween. Actually, it's not just Christians. Many adults seem squeamish at the whole fascination with the evil and violent images that Halloween conjures.

Understandable feelings. Reveling in the dark side of existence can be bad for the soul. So, there may be a line that shouldn't be crossed. However, I would submit that acknowledging the darkness, and the power behind fear and violence and death, does not deny God or life. Even for those who believe in a life after death, death is a reality. The suffering, loss and grief of death are still real aspects of human life. Even Christ experienced them. True faith should not only be able to acknowledge death, and darkness and evil and fear, it should be able to incorporate them into a fuller, more complex understanding of existence.  Perhaps by facing the creatures born in the darkest corners of our imaginations, and embodying those fears, we actually strengthen our souls' ability to endure and survive the frightening and dark parts of human existence.

At least, those are my thoughts on this cold and dark November evening.

Friday, October 11, 2013

At Ease In Your Life



We live in a world that pushes us to fill every second and want things we don't need, a world that insists on the urgency of its demands on our time. We are saturated with messages about what we should worry over and fear and desire.  It can be hard to step back and find balance.  To be, as the Tao puts it, "at ease in your life."

I recently read an article about some research linking "grit" to success.  There's a short survey you can take that's apparently an effective predictor of later success.  Several of the questions seemed oriented to the kind of over-ambitious, over-driven, achievement-oriented personality that is, to be honest, the antithesis of the Tao. I found myself wondering, "Is it possible to have grit without being consumed by ambition and desire?"

Perhaps the greater question is "How does this research define success?"  Material possessions?  Career accomplishments?  Notoriety? Sufficient laughter and love and a sense of inner fulfillment?  A roof over your head and food to eat?  Making the world a better place?  After all, "success" and "happiness" aren't necessarily synonymous.

When I was a kid, I used to love the board game Careers.  It was the 1970's answer to Monopoly, a game in which each player defined success on his or her own terms.  You collected happiness points, fame points and money.  To win, you had to reach a certain total (I think it was 60), but you could make the total out of any combination of fame, money or happiness.  Different career paths would lead to different kinds of points.  Success was formulaic and achievable, which of course is not always the case in real life, but there was something so wonderful about a game that acknowledged this life truth:  There are many paths to success and many ways to define success.  In the end, it's a question of whether you are "at ease in your life," in the choices you've made, in your definition of success and your progress towards your goals.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

A Godly Act Forged from a Horror


I recently read A Sandy Hook Parent's Letter to Teachers on the Education Week website.  It is a profound and humbling and beautiful thing.  Sandy Hook has been on my mind during this back-to-school week.  Every year, part of the back-to-school process includes teaching my students the safety procedures for fireearthquake, and lockdown.  This year, we have "lock out" and "lock down."  We have new posters detailing what we're supposed to do.  "Lock out" means the danger is outside.  "Lock down?"  Well.

When I practiced the lock down procedure this year, it felt like no other year.  I found myself thinking and rethinking where the right place in the room was for my students to gather, and was there a better place to hide them, and what if, what if, what if ...?  Strangely enough, my students had less "What if" questions than in any previous year I can think of.  Perhaps they remember last year, when the Clackamas Town Center shooting (right near our school) was followed by Newtown.  Perhaps, like me, the what- ifs opened into a great abyss of fear so frightening and terrible and real that to speak it would give it too much power.  (I find I have a new appreciation for the idea of Voldemort as "he who must not be named.")  As I sat in the dark in the corner away from the windows with my students, whispering quietly to them about what a great job they were doing being quiet as we practiced lock down, the chill of last year's events was tangible.

When I got home that night, I searched online to see if there was anything about the psychological after effects of Sandy Hook on teachers like me, teachers who weren't at the school but felt that connection with their colleagues, and with the sudden reality of lock down what-ifs.  I found articles about parents who were concerned that lock down drills traumatized their young children.  I found articles about how teachers should be trained to look for signs of mental health issues in their students. I found articles about how teachers should be armed, and what new safety procedures schools should implement.  I found nothing about how teachers were dealing with this new emotional reality, how it had affected us.  Was I alone?  Were other teachers feeling like I did during their first lock down drill of the year?  I don't know.

Then I read this letter from the parent of a Sandy Hook victim.  It was as if she knew.  The letter left me humbled.  One section, in so many, stood out for its remarkable demonstration of the kind of forgiveness and open heart that I think of as Godly.  In her letter, Nelba Marquez-Greene writes:

While I pray you will never find yourself in the position of the teachers at Sandy Hook, your courage will support students like my son, who have lived through traumas no child should have to. 
Your courage will support students who are left out and overlooked, like the isolated young man who killed my daughter. At some point he was a young, impressionable student, often sitting all alone at school. You will have kids facing long odds for whom your smile, your encouraging word, and your willingness to go the extra mile will provide the comfort and security they need to try again tomorrow.

This parent, in a grief deepened by time, was able to think of the man who murdered her daughter as one who was "left out and overlooked" and in need of a teacher's love.  She was able to think of him, and ask us to think of him, as one of our charges.  She was able to take that chilling lock down drill moment for me and broaden it into a reminder of the great, overarching truth of my job, the calling that rises above test scores and bulletin boards and Common Core standards and funding problems.  I owe this parent a profound debt of gratitude.  From her own personal horror she was able to reach out and speak these words I so needed to hear.  That is a Godly act.  That is what "love thy enemies" can look like and what it can do.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Whale Spouts and Faith

This summer I had the amazing opportunity to spend almost two weeks at Oceanside on the Oregon coast, thanks to my wonderful parents.  One day while we were there, we went to the nearby lighthouse and were told "The whales are out today."  Now, it has long been a personal dream of mine to see whales in the wild and I knew that they sometimes made an appearance along the coast.  So, when I heard they had been sighted, I started watching the wide expanse of water in front of us, squinting with my eyes, peering into binoculars, struggling to discern if a particular patch of black in the water might possibly be a whale or not.  You see, I've never seen whales outside of television and movie screens.  I wasn't sure what to look for.  I had only the word of those around me that these magnificent, superhuman, awe-inspiring creatures were there, somewhere, hidden below the surface, making occasional appearances.

Then, just as I had given up the search, my Dad announced that two women with whom he was talking had spotted a whale playing near some rocks.  He pointed out the spot in the water.  I trained my binoculars on it.  Lo and behold, up shot a spout of white water, like a mini-geyser above the waves, followed by the all-too-brief appearance of a curve of black.  I kept watching and soon saw another spout, and a bit of black, and then another.  After a while, it seemed to have stopped, but it had moved towards the stretch of water near where we were staying.

Later that day, I saw the spouts again.  I now knew what to look for, and soon I could readily spot the signs of the leviathan's existence.  It was far away, mind you, and those spouts were small, easy to miss if you weren't looking for them, but so inspiring and exciting to me because they represented the real, honest existence of this magnificent, strange and incredible being right there in the same world as me, swimming in the same water in which I waded.

The whole experience got me thinking about faith.  I only knew to look for the whales because someone else told me.  I had to have patience and a certain amount of faith in what I was told.  Once I saw and knew it for myself, I wanted to tell everyone.  I wanted to run up and down the beach yelling "Did you see?  Did you see the whale spouts?  There's a whale out there!  Look!"  And the spouts, the signs of the whale's existence, were exciting to me because of what they represented, what my faith told me they meant.

I think it is sometimes this way with God.  We want to see God up close, in person.  We want signs that God exists.  When someone we trust points us to the signs, it can make a difference for us.  When we see and believe in a sign, it energizes our faith.  It makes us want to tell others.  But on the surface, those signs may not seem like much.  They may be easy to miss.  You may go about your business playing frisbee or beach volleyball and never know that just over your shoulder, an awe-inspiring being is sending up the signal of its existence.  And if you see it, if you believe in what it represents, the rest of the people around you may wonder what is wrong with you that you keep staring out to sea at some speck on the horizon as if it is the eighth wonder of the world.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

What Is An Enemy?

What is an enemy?  This question confronted me recently in contemplating the quote "If you love your enemies, you will have none."  The truth of this quote might fairly be called into question.  After all, you cannot change someone else's actions.  They may still treat you horribly, no matter how much you love them.  The world is full of examples to support that notion.

But what if "enemy" is defined not by how they treat us, but by how we view them?  If we seek to understand the root cause of someone's actions, and to forgive them and truly love them regardless of what they do, if we change our own frame of reference around that person, would we still call them "enemy"?

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Biblical Poetry: Genesis and the Creative Drive


Wallpaper - Dark Ocean
I've been working on revisions to a YA novel of mine, and it has reminded me how much truly beautiful poetry can be found in the Bible.  Take, for example, the opening lines of Genesis, which provide a magnificent description of the first moments in the creative process:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
Now the earth was formless and empty,
darkness was upon the surface of the deep
and the Spirit of God hovered over the waters.

What a stirring description of the start of everything, and the initial stages of any creation.  You begin with raw material that is formless and empty.  The depths that you will explore in the creative process remain in darkness, and the creative spirit, the creative urge, hovers over it all.

Next time you sit down to begin a creative endeavor of any sort, think back on these lines.  For me, they serve as a reminder that our creative drive connects us to something much greater, beyond ourselves, and deeply ancient.    


Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Declaration of Interdependence

Today in The Oregonian, columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. referenced the final sentence in the Declaration of Independence:
"And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor."
Dionne went on to talk about a new service-oriented project, but as I was reading his column, I was still thinking about that sentence and its broader implications for the way we treat one another in our country.  We have a tendency as a country, driven perhaps by our long-standing value of independence and individual initiative or perhaps simply by our capitalist foundations, to be selfish.  We focus on self-interest and individual gain.  We complain about taxes and the idea that our hard-earned money might go to some fellow citizen whom we deem undeserving.  We see our small businesses as models of the entrepreneurial spirit and we celebrate the myth of the self-made man and then when someone dares to point out that none of us are truly self-made, that most success at some point involves the help of others, and that basic shared services such as police, fire and infrastructure are in fact funded by those taxes we decry as evil, that person gets attacked.

And yet there, in one of the two greatest founding documents of our country, it says "We pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor."  It is both a declaration of independence and, paradoxically, a declaration of interdependence.  It is saying that those who participate in the great experiment that is the United States of America do so with the understanding that they will help one another and rely upon one another, that their fates are bound up together.  That they are a community.

Are we living up to that promise?  Are we still willing to pledge our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor to the ideals that all people are created equal and are endowed with the unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?  Are you willing to make such a promise in order to be a citizen of the United States of America?  To give your life, your money, your honor to support the rights of your fellow citizens, whoever they may be?

Happy July 4th, everyone.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Why The Arts Matter and Why We Still Have to Prove It

I was recently reminded that if something isn't part of the standardized tests and government mandated batteries of assessment and evaluation in public education, it will be treated as secondary.  Specifically, I was told the arts are not as important because we are not assessed on them.  This devaluing of the arts has been going on for years.  "The arts are a luxury. " "They're not one of the '3 R's'" (a phrase so fraught with irony I'd better just ignore it).  "They're not on the test."  "They don't build job skills (lie)."  "They should not or cannot be graded."  Therefore, they don't matter.  They are what gets cut when budget cuts hit.

Even efforts to counteract this trend tend to focus on showing how the arts boost "academics."  The arts become a tool for teaching math, reading and writing.  So, let's start there.  How do you make academics accessible to a wide range of learners?  How do you engage struggling learners in math, reading and writing?  How do we prepare students for the jobs found in the visually-oriented digital age?  With the arts.  How do we teach persistence and creative problem-solving and the kind of intense focus and discipline that will support achievement?  With the arts.  How do we develop teamwork and explore diverse cultures and render content accessible to kids from poverty and kids from a  variety of cultural backgrounds?  With the arts.

If we want to close the infamous achievement gap, we need to stop doing more of the same.  We need to look at ways to access multiple learning styles.  We need to recognize that the kind of enrichment experiences that provide background knowledge for kids from higher socioeconomic backgrounds are far less available to kids from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, and that a wide range of enrichment experiences and background knowledge is part of the foundation upon which academic learning builds.  The words kids read in texts and the math concepts kids learn in class do not exist in a vacuum. 

But let's go beyond this level of argument for a minute.  When we talk about the "achievement gap" we define it by dominant culture standards.  We define it by scores on a one-dimensional, highly limited, standardized test created by people from the dominant culture and driven by the standards, values and thinking of the dominant culture.  So, we need to admit that we are allowing the dominant culture to frame the discussion and values.  We are seeking to give students the tools and skills to succeed in the dominant culture.  That's just reality.

However.  Those of us who are a bit more subversive in our thinking believe that more can and should be taught.  I believe that learning what it means to be a human being matters.  I believe that learning how to think and explore your world matters.  I believe that great innovation and change and discovery, the hallmarks of human progress throughout time, do not come from the standardized test mentality.

More than that, I believe that the arts are just as important as any other area of the curriculum.  Every time and place in the whole of human experience is reflected in artistic expression.  Every human culture throughout history and throughout the world has engaged in artistic expression - music, dance, visual arts, storytelling.  Human beings have created art since their earliest existence, and under the most appallingly inhumane conditions (concentration camps for example).  The creative urge is a fundamental urge.  It is not a luxury.  It is part and parcel of our identity as a unique species.  As such, it should be valued equally with other parts of the curriculum.  Just because we are not assessed on emotional development and character, does that mean those things should be devalued as well?  No.  When we become a world that prioritizes intellectual achievement above all, we lose something fundamental to who we are.  To paraphrase, what does it profit a child if he or she gains the whole of the test but loses their very soul?

Kids in Title I schools suffer this excision of the arts more than any other group.  The pressure of No Child Left Behind and other standardized test-driven "accountability" movements weighs most heavily on schools serving low-income, high-needs students.  This pressure has forced more and more teachers and administrators to treat the arts as expendable extras.  We even treat science and social studies that way.  All else must take a backseat to reading, writing, math.  It shouldn't.

Look at the world we live in.  Look at the magnificent range of ways that human beings make their living and find their way in the world.  How on earth can we say it is right to narrow our educational vision and devalue something that engages kinesthetic learners, visual learners, auditory learners, problem-solvers, and more?  Why are we still having to prove the value of the arts?  Why are we still making these artificial distinctions from one subject area to another?  The best learning takes place when we build neural connections between different areas of the brain, a magnificently complex and non-linear process, not when we compartmentalize and segregate.

Something has to change.


Sunday, May 19, 2013

Allowing for Possibility

I have a nasty habit of trying to prepare myself for the worst.  "Expect the worst and you won't be disappointed."  My dear husband has tempered this habit in me by reminding me that until I KNOW the worst, I should enjoy the possibility of wonderful outcomes.  But I seem hell-bent on protecting myself from a great fall by psyching myself down and emphasizing realistic, often pessimistic, likelihoods.

When I was younger, I didn't handle rejection and disappointment particularly well.  I am someone who has what we in third grade refer to as "big feelings."  So, my reactions would often be out of all proportion with reality.  I would see something small as the end of the world.  I still struggle with this.  So it's understandable that, to contradict this tendency toward melodrama, I developed the habit of talking myself through possible  disappointment in advance in order to lessen the blow.

However.  However.  However.

However what?  Well, when you cultivate a habit of expecting the worst and preparing for the worst, sometimes you forget that your wildest dreams may still be possible.  You fail to allow for the possibility of wonderful, remarkable success.

This weekend, after spending a week preparing myself for the worst, I sat down and found myself experiencing the best.  The wildest dreams scenario.  I can't share the details just yet, since my pessimist still believes I might curse the next steps.  But whatever happens next, this weekend I experienced the best of all possible outcomes on something and it left me stunned.  Stunned at the realization of the possible.  Stunned by the reminder that possibilities include that which is wonderful, not just that which is disappointing or difficult.  I hope I can carry that realization with me and remember possibility.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

God and Parenthood

It being Mother's Day and all, I was thinking about that tricky balance all parents must struggle to attain, the balance between loving unconditionally and setting limits, maybe even providing the occasionally necessary swift metaphorical kick in the tush.  As a teacher, I have this same struggle - when and how to strike the balance between supportive loving encouragement and forceful demanding expectations.  I believe both are essential to a person's healthy development, yet both can go too far.

Loving unconditionally doesn't mean being a doormat and it doesn't mean endless permissiveness either.  Tough love doesn't mean brutality, nor does it mean the denial of love or a constant questioning and challenging.  It's way too easy to go too far in one direction or the other.  Most of us humans aren't so good at balance, finding the happy medium.  Maybe that's why having two parents helps.  We can balance each other, rather than attempting to achieve that harmony within one flawed person.  Of course, in our efforts to find the balance, sometimes we end up playing good-cop-bad-cop.

This brings me to God and parenthood.  In the Judeo-Christian tradition, we talk a lot about God the father.  But really I think we should talk about God the parent, since there are mothering and fathering aspects to God.  Likewise, the Bible seems to have examples of both a God who demonstrates the unconditional love of a parent and a God who demonstrates the tough and demanding aspects of parenting.  The struggle to understand how these two sides could coexist is often at the heart of our own human struggles to understand God.  Maybe that's because finding the balance between these things in our own lives is so very hard.

 Perhaps in clinging to the unconditionally loving God a little too much, I have failed to understand that necessary tough love aspect.  I wonder if any of us truly manages to understand the tough love side of our parents until we become parents ourselves.

Today, on Mother's Day, I find myself ruminating on this.  

Friday, May 3, 2013

Using God to Shame and Blame

I learned recently that my old high school has had 3 students die unexpectedly this year.  One was found hanged.  One jumped off a garage.  One "died unexpectedly."  All were athletes.  After reading about this disturbing news, I saw some of the comments attached to the post.  There were a string of comments about "This is why we need God back in our schools."  I was beyond puzzled by this line of thinking.  Would you say this to the families of the kids who are dead?  "If you had God in your lives, this wouldn't have happened."  This response makes me angry.  It is a callous response.  It is a self-righteous response.  It is a response devoid of love, compassion, empathy.  How in the name of all that is holy could this ever be considered a Godly response?

In a way, this is the Christian spin on the destructive thinking espoused by Deepak Chopra's THE SECRET.  "If you visualize positive outcomes and you think positively, good things will happen to you."  The corollary, of course, is that if bad things happen to you, it's your fault.  It's because you weren't positive enough, you didn't visualize enough, you weren't Godly enough.

Step into reality.  Bad things sometimes happen to good people.  That fact is probably one of the greatest stumbling blocks on the road towards faith.  To deny that fact, or imply that the answer is simply that those people weren't good enough or faithful enough, is beyond offensive.  It is cruel and hurtful and just plain false.

Who are we to measure what constitutes the right amount and form of God in our schools or anywhere else?  What makes us think we are so powerful that we can control our world through our prayers or thoughts?  We can't.  There is a great deal in this world beyond our control.  Recognizing that fact requires humility.  True humility.  The same humility that is required to accept that some aspects of God are unknowable from the vantage point of human life on earth.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

When Violence Hits Home for Us

It's been another week of violence and destruction.  Some friends recently reminded me that in many parts of the world, this is the norm.  Bombs and destruction and a permanent sense of danger.  In fact, some people are annoyed or angry that we in the United States make so much out of these events when they happen to us, while we ignore them in other parts of the world.

This attitude bothers me.  It's true that such terrible things happen with horrific frequency in many places.  But, that doesn't mean we shouldn't react with shock when it happens in the United States.  And carrying the shock and anger and despair of violence with us all the time is no way to function in our lives.  What's wrong here is not that we react when such violence happens in the United States. What's wrong is that the sense of safety we carry with us is so comparatively rare in the world.  What's wrong is that violence is the norm anywhere.

If we don't react with shock when it happens here, we are saying it's normal, or it should be normal.  Normalizing violence is no way to fight violence.  Denying people the right to feel shock and sadness and despair in the face of violence and destruction is no way to preserve our sense of humanity and compassion in the world.  Human beings have the capacity to be horrible, and they have the capacity to be magnificent.  When we feel shock and sadness and horror, and even anger, at violence, we are living up to our best selves.  When we ignore violence, sensationalize it, turn it into entertainment, glamorize it, indulge in it, we are living up to our worst selves.  The fact of violence in one place does not make violence acceptable in other places.  The fact that the level of destruction in one instance of violence is so much greater than in another instance does not make the lesser destruction any more acceptable.

It is human nature to feel most acutely that which touches us most closely.  When our own parent dies, we feel it in a way that we never will when our friend's parent dies.  That doesn't make us selfish.  It's honest.  So, yes, when a bomb explodes in Boston, I feel it more acutely than when a bomb explodes in a place I've never visited.  That doesn't mean I don't care about what happens in other places.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Wrath, Vengeance, and Smiting - Oh, My!

During my Easter hike this year, I wandered into the Old Testament prophets and was struck by the amount of anger, vengeance and violent feeling that was present in the Bible, especially in those sections.  It got me thinking about my recent post correlating different sections of the Bible to different phases of human existence.  So where do the "Lord, smite my enemies" sections fit?  Where do the "God is pissed at you for all your evildoing and he will wipe you from the earth" fit?  Where does this angry, vengeful God fit?  We like to pretend that sort of stuff isn't there in the Bible, that the folks whose spirituality finds its expression in wrath are fundamentally de facto wrong and misguided.  But it is there.  So, why?

God's anger is supposed to be righteous anger.  So, if something happens that seems to represent God's anger, some natural cataclysm or a defeat in battle, we then believe we can deem that event righteous.  We attack those we see as our enemies and if we are victorious, we claim that our cause was righteous, thereby justifying our own violence and anger.  Then we point to these many, many Biblical passages to further support our claims.

Perhaps all that bile is not there as a justification for anger and hatred and vengefulness.  The Bible is still brought to us through human instruments.  Perhaps those angry, vengeful passages are there simply to acknowledge the presence of such feelings in the fabric of human life.  To hold a mirror up.  When we see God that way, maybe we're trying to see him too much in our image.

Of course, that explanation flies in the face of those who claim the Bible is the inspired word of God, that the human instruments who recorded it didn't impact, filter or obstruct the divine messages it contained.  I don't take that view.

Like it or not, the Bible was written, compiled and translated by humans.  That's a lot of layers of flawed humanity between us and the divine.

Most of those passages are humans speaking on behalf of God, too.  The prophets are human beings telling others what God said.  The Psalms are human beings writing songs and poems to call upon God or thank God or comment on what they see as God's actions.  All of these passages read more like angry, vengeful, bitter humans pouring their pain into their own visions of God.

I can understand righteous anger, the anger I feel when I see what I believe is wrongdoing.  The problem is when humanity takes righteous anger as our due, it doesn't work.  Anti-abortion advocates believe their anger is righteous.  The religious zealots behind the World Trade Center attacks believed their violence was righteous.  Nearly every army who has ever fought a war and won has claimed God was on their side.  We humans just can't get it right.

Does this mean I've made God into some sort of wishy-washy warm-fuzzy universal energy?  Do I discount the true notion that God might get angry or vengeful?  No.  But I think we human beings have to be awfully careful not to assume we know what makes God angry, not to try to wreak vengeance on God's behalf, and not to believe that we ourselves have the right to engage in the kind of vengeful, righteous anger that would make us equal to God.  We are not God.  We can't see into another person's heart.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

A Few Thoughts on the Atlanta Testing Scandal

As you may have heard, there is a massive scandal in the Atlanta public school system involving 58 schools and 178 educators, 35 of whom have been indicted for criminal activity.  It is a scandal about cheating on the state tests.  It is chilling and sobering.  The Superintendent has been indicted, among others.

As a teacher, about to begin the process of the state tests with my third graders, I can't help reflecting on the events in Atlanta.  Cheating is wrong.  No question.  However, I know the pressures we're under to raise test scores, to meet AYP (adequate yearly progress) goals, and the constant criticisms leveled at our public schools.  I know the anxiety that builds in my gut as the state tests approach.  I know how crushing it is and how much I question my skills as a teacher, my worth as a teacher, whether I even deserve to be in the classroom, when my class does poorly.

During the past 2 years, after brutal rounds of budget cuts that left us with 10-14 fewer school days, class sizes of 35 and higher in the elementary grades, and less support staff, we were told the passing scores on the state tests had been increased.  My results were not good.  I worked hard all year to help my students learn what they needed to learn.  Then I had to watch as they struggled and failed.  And I had to pick up the pieces and encourage them after all of that.

I know what it's like to watch a struggling reader who has not qualified to take a modified version of the test, or a student who is still learning English, try their best to read a text that is way beyond them, try and try and wear themselves down, while I am forced to bear witness, and restricted in what I can say to them.  This year, the very words I can say to encourage them have been scripted for me.  As I watch a student struggle and drown, not because I have not taught them but simply because they are not there yet, it breaks my heart.  Then, while my heart is breaking, that drowning child raises their hand and tells me they don't understand what a word means.  One word.  The word "contain", for example, in the phrase "Which of these polygons does NOT contain a right angle?"  The child knows "polygon."  She knows "right angle."  But that word "contain" has stumped her.  Or the phrase "according to the passage" (a phrase I have learned to use with my third graders throughout the year because the people who write tests can't be bothered to use kid-friendly language).  That child turns to me with pleading eyes, asking for help from the adult whose job, all year, has been to provide support and scaffolding so she can learn.  And I must refuse her.  I must say "Just try your best and choose the answer you think makes the most sense."

Those of us who teach tend to be empathic people.  We tend to be helpers.  It is against our deepest nature to turn away from a child who is struggling and in pain.  But that is what we have to do during the state test.

I try to prepare my students for this reality.  When we take in-class tests, I try to create a similar environment.  I remind them that I cannot help them.  I remind them that the person who learns from the test is me, because I will learn where they still need help and  what they don't understand.  I remind them that a test is just a time to show what they know and what they need to learn.  I try to help them understand that they should do their best and take the test seriously, but they should not be anxious or worried or make too much of it.  Mixed messages?

I try to teach my students what they, as third graders, are expected to learn.  I try to help them overcome the gaps that result from poverty and language differences.  I try to give them skills to outwit the tricks of the test.

And then testing day arrives, and my role suddenly changes.  I warn them in advance that I'm required to read certain directions and that there are rules about what I can say and do during the test.  I tell them that it might seem like an alien teacher has invaded.  And then, I become a Test Administrator.  And I watch as the wheels fall off.  I watch as a student who struggles with attention begins to simply click on answers and whip through the test (In Oregon, we take the test on computer).  I can no longer tell him or her to slow down, take a break or take their time.  I watch as their video game muscle memories kick in and they click on answers the way they would click on moves in their favorite game, rushing to get to the next level, not stopping to think and problem-solve.  I bear silent witness, hands tied.

Eventually it ends.  Back in the safety of our classroom, away from the inviolate space of the testing room, I remind my students that, while I want them to do their best, the test is still nothing more than a test, one measure of their learning.  It does not measure who they are in their hearts, and that is what matters.

And then, in a staff meeting, we look at the data.  All I can see is how far I still have to go.  I find myself getting jealous and resentful of colleagues whose scores are better than mine.  Later, I sit alone in my classroom and wonder what I did wrong, what I could do better, where I failed, and I forget the very words I told my students.  I forget that I am not my test scores any more than they are.  I forget that it is just one measure of my worth as a teacher.

So as I read about the Atlanta scandal, I cannot help but pause.  Cheating is wrong.  I would never change my students answers or tell them which answer to choose.  But I'd be lying if I didn't understand, in some part of me, how so many educators found themselves going down such a wrong road.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Good Enough: Effort Without Desire or Fear

www.tollasart.com
Good enough.  These two words have been on my mind lately.  What does it mean to be "good enough"?  When are my achievements good enough?  When is my professional status good enough?  My students' test scores?  My writing?  My personal life?  Financial status?  Housekeeping?  Body?  Home?  Car?  Clothes?  Appearance?  Spirituality?  The list is never ending.  The list of things to be attained, the list that drives us to strive.

What if the here and the now, this moment, was good enough?  What if it was enough simply to be?  To be on this earth, to live the life you are given.

Some religions and philosophies believe that desire is the source of strife and even evil.  They teach letting go of desire.  Letting go of desire would certainly be one way to accept the here and now as enough.

But acceptance and resignation are kissing cousins.  If you give up desire, don't you run the risk of giving up on effort, on striving?  If "it's all good," as the popular phrase goes, then what's the point of getting up in the morning?  Is desire the only thing that can motivate us to put one foot in front of the other?  Desire, or fear?  Desire for achievement, recognition, validation.  Fear of rejection, failure, loss, loneliness.  They're powerful, powerful driving forces, and they can combat apathy; they can overcome indifference.  But they can eat you up inside.

What if the effort itself was what mattered?  I recently read an articles about the differences in cultural views of education between Eastern and Western cultures (This link isn't the exact article, but a similar gist).  It got me thinking about the value we place on the end result of things - who won the game, what score you got, whether your answer is right or wrong - rather than the process or the effort.  When we focus on whether you're number one, the best, the winner, first place, there is a vast savannah of failure attached.  There will always be somebody better or smarter.  There will always be times when you lose or fail, even if the only time it happens is when you fail to beat death.  When we focus on the end result, we focus on desire and fear.  What if we focused on the effort, the process, the journey instead?

If the effort is what matters, then making the effort has intrinsic value.  Striving is worthy simply because you are striving.  The end result neither validates nor strikes down the value of the effort.  It can't, not if the effort was the goal.  By valuing the effort, you can let go of desire without letting go of life, without sinking into apathy and indifference.

In religion, too, we often fixate on the endgame - the afterlife.  We use fear and desire about the afterlife as our spiritual motivator.  When we do that, we devalue this human experience itself, while giving death more power than perhaps we should.  We end up worrying about that final moment, rather than being in this moment.  Even when we say things like "Live life to the fullest" or "Live each day as if it were your last," we're giving the power to death instead of life.  We're placing a judgment of "good enough" on the very act of day to day existence.

But if we value the journey for itself, we don't have to let go of a belief in an afterlife.  We simply have to let go of the fear, the desire, the question of it.  If I live my life in a way that honors the journey of living, the process of living, the efforts, both great and small, that make up this human existence, do I not honor God and the God-given gift of human existence on planet earth?  And isn't that enough?  Every day to see what effort must be made and to make that effort.  Every day to look at the choices before me and to make the effort to choose rightly, whether my choice is ultimately the best choice or not, the effort to choose wisely and justly has value.

Perhaps valuing effort, while letting go of desire or fear, is good enough.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Genesis to Revelation - the Human Life Cycle.

Reviewing all these seminal stories from Genesis, I started wondering if Genesis wasn't really just a description of the stages of  human development.  Creation - from formless cells into a human being.  Finding companionship.  The development of language.  Basic needs and obedience.  The development of morality (a knowledge of good and evil).  Sibling rivalry.  Standing up to authority and declaring your independence.  Leaving home and starting your own tribe.  There is at least one section of the Bible that speaks  to every one of these stages of human existence.

It gets me wondering.  What are the Biblical stories that speak to the journey of middle age, old age, and facing death?  I imagine we first have to understand the developmental tasks of middle age and old age.  To me, the task of middle age is one of letting go of the past, making peace with my choices and accepting the role I have to play in the great world, a role that includes settling down and providing guidance and support to others.

In some ways, middle age seems to correspond most to the New Testament.  God taking on human limitations.  Jesus accepting the role that has been given to him, in spite of the sacrifices.  Mankind recognizing its failures and limitations, and God recognizing that as well, recognizing that we can never be perfect.  Then the church comes into its own and begins to act in a wider way in the world, faced with the cold realities of sacrifice, opposition and inner conflict, all for the sake of a greater long term vision.  In middle age, we have to have that view, that awareness of a greater vision, and the need to make sacrifices for it becomes paramount.

It ends with this wild, fantastical, allegorical, slightly incomprehensible, other-wordly vision of Revelations.  Maybe that's how life ends, too.  With revelations.






Saturday, March 9, 2013

A Bit About My Journey

I wasn't brought up religious.  My family didn't go to church.  Once I was too old for the Easter bunny, Easter faded in significance for me (until I found a different significance for it).  It's not that we were anti-religious.  My father was a deep seeker and has read the foundational texts for most of the world's religions.  The deeper things of the soul were highly valued, but there was a wide open view of what those might be when I was growing up.

Which brings us to the part of the story that I never seem able to fully convey to someone who hasn't been there.  Sometimes I just say, "I used to be born-again."  But that is a pale half-description of it.  Though it gets the gist across, for anyone who hasn't been there, they see it a bit the way you'd see the confession of a former cult member.  They joke about being "in recovery."  It's not that simple.  My understanding of faith and God has shifted, and the way in which I connect with the higher power has changed.  But "recovered" seems the wrong word.  And it makes me sad that I can't really convey what the journey meant for me, or that the entire notion of religion and Christianity has become so tainted with politics, so besmeared with human confusion, that it is reduced to something flat and bland when the exact opposite should be true.

Certain moments stand out in my mind for their depth and mystery - the moment when I "came to Christ," as it is most often described, the moment I was baptized, Easter sunrise services.  When I write, sometimes I am trying to find a way to convey the depth of such  experiences, without veering into the known, overused, misunderstood words, phrases and perspectives.  Whatever God may be, it is far, far beyond what we can capture.  The effort to reach for that understanding should be rich, textured, layered, anything but simplistic.


Saturday, March 2, 2013

When the Bottom Falls Out

Yesterday, I had another one of those reminders that it's better not to go it alone in this world.  As I've mentioned in other posts, it's been a rough couple of weeks.  And I've been noticing a kind of numbness, an odd disconnect between my intellect and my emotions, two entities that have always existed in an uneasy detente to begin with.
Overwhelmed, by Ursula Vernon

Then, yesterday, after a week at school that contained more potential stressors that I managed to store in the "shouldn't I be feeling some feelings?" compartment, the bottom quite literally fell out.  I have this foldable cart with wheels that I use to transport stuff to and from school.  It's been around the block and is held together with mini-bungee cords after one too many overloaded episodes.  Yesterday, I pulled up in front of my house, got out of the van, and opened the side door.  The guinea pig was waiting on the front seat.  On the back seat was my wheelie cart filled with papers to grade, piles and piles of papers to grade, all carefully organized by subject and priority in hopes of streamlining the long-overdue process, plus binders of assessment information and scoring rubrics, all topped off with a tub of guinea pig supplies.  Weary and already feeling overwhelmed, I grabbed the wheelie cart and hefted it out of the van.  The bottom fell out and all those binders, supplies and carefully organized papers poured into the street.

I stood in the road by the side of the van with the metaphor of my overwhelmed brain made manifest at my feet and the floodgates opened and I began to sob.  "You okay?" called my dear, dear husband, waiting by the door for me.  "No," said I.  So, he came down the steps and around the side of the van and coached me through picking up the pieces.  

It was upsetting to me how incapacitated I became in this moment.  I knelt on the asphalt moving papers from one square of street to another.  I couldn't think clearly.  I couldn't act.  I'm not sure what I would have done just then if my husband hadn't been there.  But he was, and we got all the papers gathered up and the wheelie cart jerry-rigged back to one piece and together we carried it all, plus the guinea pig, inside the house.

When the bottom falls out, having someone you love to help you pick up the pieces makes all the difference.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Stepping Outside Your Age Zone

When I was in my early twenties, I always felt I had something to prove.  Too often I thought everyone older than me was looking down their noses at me, questioning what I could possibly bring to the table.  Left to my own devices, most of my friends were within my age range.  I'm sure my bristly desire to prove myself was annoying.

Now I'm in my late forties, and I see the generation gap with a different light.  I want my experience recognized.  I want to share what I've learned with others.  When I run into the age gap via movie references, technology or other experiences, I pull up short, nonplussed by this unexpected disconnect.  I have an odd need to point the disconnect out to others when it happens.  I suspect this is annoying, too.

However, I'm developing a real appreciation for the value of connecting with people of different ages and experience levels.  After all, every one of us has the potential to experience life at a variety of ages.  There is a common foundation there.

A younger person's perspective actually heightens the flavor of my own youthful experiences.  It gives me new insight into that version of myself, and reminds me of things I don't want to lose.  It's healthy for my mind and emotions, whether that perspective is an 8 year old or a 28 year old or something in between.  The effort to understand that person's viewpoint and learn from them provides an excellent antidote to encroaching codgerdom and judgmental stereotyping.

On the other hand, my relationships with folks older than me have taken on a new kind of poignance and significance, as the distance between myself and them shrinks.  The outer container of face and body loses some of its relevance.  I'm more keenly aware of the existence of an entire lifetime of memories inside that person.

Beyond the one-sided benefits, there is a certain positive, engaging creative chemistry born from cross-age interactions of all sorts.  When the generational walls come down and we actually connect on some other common ground (literature, writing, favorite activities, music, family), the best of every contributing age seasons the soup that is our shared humanity.


We humans tend to hang with people our own age.  It's hard to understand people who are at a different stage of life.  But there's much to be gained when you step outside your age zone.  

Friday, February 15, 2013

Thoughts On a Sick Cat

Our cat was very ill recently.  We learned that cats tend to hide their illness.  When he was at his worst, he spent most of his time hidden under a table in a corner sleeping.  Apparently, cats seek to be alone when they're sick.  I imagine they are protecting themselves because they are vulnerable.  I wonder if this is because cats are mostly  solitary animals by nature.  If you don't travel with a pack, you have no one to protect you when you're weakened, so you have to hide alone in a dark cave somewhere and hope you can heal.

This got me thinking about human beings and how we deal with hurt, whether physical or emotional.  Some of us react like cats.  We hide ourselves away, cut ourselves off, don't want anyone to see us or come near us.  And yet, human beings are social animals, meant to live in communities.  At least, I've always believed so.  Still, some people may have enough of that loner in them that their instinct prompts them to respond to hurt the way loner animals respond.  Meanwhile, the pack-instinct folks seek out company and support and maybe even yowl at the moon.

When our cat was going through his illness, he didn't want to be pulled out of his cave, but sometimes we had to do it to for his own good, to give him the medicine that would help him heal.  At other times, I'd just lie down outside his hiding place and rest my hand on his paw so he knew we were thinking of him.  If our cat had been left to his own devices, he wouldn't have survived.  But, like it or not, he's become part of our small pack, and we nursed him back to health.

You can probably see where I'm going with this, since the extension to people is pretty apparent.  If you know a cat-type who's hurting, give them some time in their cave, but let them know you're nearby.  And when healing or survival requires it, pull them out of their cave.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Studying the Greatest Mystery

Death is an experience at once entirely universal and utterly personal.  It comes in so many forms and nuances.

Death is the ultimate mystery.  We might taste death's varied flavors from the outside many times during our lives, but we only experience it from the inside once.  No one truly knows what that one and final moment is like.  We try to understand it.  We have stories of "near-death" experiences.  If we sit vigil with someone who is dying, we watch for signs and signals that can send us some message about the journey.  We attach meaning to the signs.  We look for metaphors and significance everywhere, because we want so desperately to know what has happened to that person, and what will happen to us.

I have been thinking about death recently because my family has been dealing with death.  As we deal with this one death, we find ourselves revisiting other experiences of death in our lives.  The sudden and unexpected deaths.  The quiet deaths at home after a long life.  The deaths we met when we were young and it was new.  The deaths that came in cycles or came too early or too brutally.  We strive to sift this one experience into the larger understanding of the great mystery.  

We must study death.  We become deeper people by studying it.   Since every one of our stories ultimately has this same ending, we are compelled, each in our own way, to try to understand this thing that we all must face.    

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Revisiting the Tower of Babel

In my other blog (Writer's Wavelength), I referred to twitter and other social media as a new Tower of Babel.  That got me thinking about the Biblical story behind that phrase.  The story is in Genesis Chapter 11.  The community of man, with one language, working together, builds a tall tower.  "Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth," they say.  Then God sees it and says, "If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them."  So He decides to confuse their language and scatter them over the world.

The image of God here, as in so much of Genesis, is a little troubling.  He seems spiteful, much like in Eden.  "Uh-oh.  They're getting too much like me.  Can't have that!"  Why not?  If humanity is made in God's image, if God wants us to strive to be pure and good, to be like Him and therefore worthy, why not celebrate the way His children are reaching, the way they are working together towards a common goal?  Worse, God seems to inherently mistrust his children, assuming that being able to accomplish whatever they put their minds to is automatically a bad thing.  (Knowing human beings, God is right about this.  If we could accomplish whatever we planned without struggle and effort, it might lead us down a very dangerous and destructive path.)

The story is often interpreted as a cautionary tale about hubris, much like Daedalus and Icarus in Greek mythology, who were punished for flying too near the sun.  I think there's a subtle difference.  The key is in the phrase "so that we may make a name for ourselves."  The people building the tower aren't seeking divinity; they're seeking fame.  They also seem to be seeking the common good of togetherness ("and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth"), but their primary aim appears to be getting noticed.  Celebrity.  Narcissism.  Vanity.  Perhaps this story calls upon us to examine every lofty human endeavor through this lens, questioning whether the motives are altruistic or narcissistic.

What's also interesting to me, though, is God's absolute certainty that, if human beings  can easily communicate with one another and work together "as one people," then "nothing they plan will be impossible for them."  There's something oddly hopeful in that, a kind of confidence.  After all, God thinks we can literally accomplish anything we put our minds to if we work "as one people" with a common language.  What a tremendous statement of the potential of human community!

The story attempts to answer the age-old question "Why can't we all just get along?" while at the same time acknowledging what incredible things we could do if ever we DID get along.  Here on earth, maybe effortless cooperation and communication are no longer possible.  Maybe, the struggle inherent in communicating with one another post-Babel is part of the learning process we must engage in on earth.  Perhaps it makes us better people if we must work to understand one another.  That process forces us to put others first, thereby limiting our inherent narcissism, our desire "to make a name for ourselves."  Maybe striving for community and communication only has value when it comes not from a place of narcissism but merely for the common good.  As St. Francis of Assisi put it, "grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand."  Perhaps that is the true lesson of the Tower of Babel.


Saturday, January 19, 2013

Revisiting Biblical stories you think you know: Cain and Abel

Cain and Abel is another one of those foundational stories of Genesis, the root of the phrase "Am I my brother's keeper?" and the archetypal tale of sibling rivalry, where God is in the role of the parent.  It goes like this:
Abel kept flocks and Cain worked the soil.  Cain brought God an offering from the fruits of the soil, and Abel brought God an offering of fat portions from the firstborn of his flock.  God looked with favor on Abel's offering, but not on Cain's.  So Cain was angry.  God says "Why are you angry?  Why is your face downcast?  If you do what is right, will you not be accepted?  But if you do not do what is right, evil is crouching at your door; it desires to have you but you must master it."
Then Cain takes his brother out into the field and kills him.  When God asks where his brother is, Cain says "I don't know.  Am I my brother's keeper?"  God curses him and says "You will be a restless wanderer upon the earth."  Cain is afraid he will be killed by whoever finds him, so God protects him with a mark.
This story is, in its way, as problematic as any.  After all, Cain does his level best.  He works the soil.  So he brings the fruits of his labors, just like his brother does.  And God turns his nose up at it.  (God, in this story, is obviously not a vegetarian.)  Then, when Cain's feelings are hurt by this, God says, basically, "Get over it."

It's always bothered me that God turns his nose up at Cain's offering.  Why does he do this?  It seems so unfair.  Perhaps that's the point.  There will be times when we will ask, "God, why did you let this happen?  This seems so unfair."  And those are the times when evil crouches at the door and we must master it.

I find myself coming back again and again not to the phrase "Am I my brother's keeper?" or the sibling rivalry in this story but to that phrase about evil crouching at the door.  Some translations say "sin" instead of "evil."  I think "evil" as a word casts a wider net and gives that phrase more resonance.  It's not just the evil that we ourselves may do.  It's the evil that humanity may do.  Evil is always crouching at our door and we "must master it."  What does it mean to master the evil in our world?

Obedience seems to be an important biblical value, at least in the Old Testament.  Case in point, the story of Adam and Eve.  Likewise, Abraham and Isaac (a story I'll write more about in a later post).  And yet, time and again in our lives, we see that to act in a moral way, to master evil, we sometimes must demonstrate disobedience.  Nazi Germany is one powerful example of this.  The Vietnam War is another.  The Civil Rights Movement.  Women's Suffrage.  Over and over again, we learn that sometimes we must disobey a figure in authority because we believe their commands to be morally wrong.  It is not acceptable to claim that we were "just obeying orders."  We are morally aware creatures, and therefore we bear the onus of moral responsibility.  

Of course, there are many disagreements about what is right or wrong in given circumstances.  That's the price of the more complex world that comes with moral awareness, with the knowledge of good and evil.  Evil crouches at our door and we must master it.  We must be able to recognize it and overcome it.  Not a simple task.

I sometimes think "mastering evil" means something more than just stopping it, preventing it.  Mastering evil may also mean finding hope, strength, faith and belief in good even when we are faced with the presence of an evil that has occured, that could not be prevented.  This understanding of the phrase occurred to me as I struggled with the murder of children in Newtown, Connecticut, and I asked "Why?"  We are surrounded by such examples of evil in our world.  Some of them are too great for any one individual to overcome.  How do we make our peace with that? Perhaps mastering evil means believing in the power of good in such situations, believing that striving for good is still a worthy goal.

Evil crouches at your door.  You must master it.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Revisiting Biblical Stories You Think You Know: Adam and Eve

I've been working on a short story inspired by Genesis.  It's gotten me thinking about Biblical stories that have gotten a bad rap or been misinterpreted throughout the years.  I thought I'd post about a few of them, and I'm starting with the most obvious one.  After all, you might as well begin at the beginning.  Adam and Eve, specifically, the eating of the apple.

I can't tell you how many times when I was in college I heard people reference this story as a demonstration that Christianity and the Bible was, at heart, anti-intellectual.  Now, if you're a thinking person, that struggle between the intellectual and the spiritual is a pretty big struggle, and this story is often at the heart of it, this idea that God is so anti-intellectual that he doesn't want Adam and Eve to eat of the tree of knowledge.

The thing is, it's not the tree of knowledge.  It's the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  And that's a whole different thing.  The tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Think about it for a minute.  It's the awareness of morality.  That's what gets Adam and Eve kicked out of paradise.  That's what makes them ashamed of being naked.  That's where all the trouble begins.  The development of morality.

But there's more.  The reason Eve eats the fruit.  Eve gets the biggest bad rap of all in this story, but the reason she eats that apple isn't because she's stupid or easily tricked.  It's not because she's evil (she doesn't even know what that is yet, remember?).  She thinks she's doing the right thing.  She eats it because she sees that it is "good for food, pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom."  Gaining wisdom.  She's making the best decision she can with the information available to her.  And remember, she doesn't know about good and evil.

It makes you wonder.  If Adam and Eve don't have a sense of right and wrong yet, then why are they punished?  They're punished just for disobeying.  But if they don't know good and evil, then they don't truly know disobedience as a wrong.  To me, this is the part that makes the story troubling.

Still, it's troubling to me in a good way.  It forces me to meditate on the ethical questions of our decisions and choices.  What weight should be given to obedience as opposed to wisdom or nourishment?  What would be involved in decision-making if you had no notion of good and evil?  Why would a loving God want to protect us from the knowledge of good and evil?  Was it an effort to protect the kind of childlike innocence we see in a newborn child?  And why, through the ages, has Eve been given such a bad rap when she was seeking wisdom?  The Bible has many, many other passages that indicate that the search for wisdom is a good thing.

I don't have answers, but I do believe these questions are worth contemplating.  Like Eve, I am seeking wisdom, I guess.  That quest may mean losing innocence, being cast out of a paradise of contentment.  The questions ruffle the smooth waters of the mind.  So be it.  After all, that's how the journey of humanity begins.  

Sunday, January 6, 2013

What Makes God Laugh?

My last post, and the quote it triggered for me, got me thinking about this question.  'Cause, like I said, I find it hard to believe God would sit there laughing at all us poor schlubs just because once in a while we need to labor under the delusion that we have control over our fates.  I just don't want to think God is that spiteful, that mean-spirited.  Maybe it's a gentle sort of laugh.

On the other hand, we really ought to imagine God laughing more often.  The Bible says, "He who sits in the heavens laughs."  But there's not much in the Bible to tell us what makes God laugh.  If we're made in God's image, maybe we have to look to ourselves to see what makes God laugh.

Laughter definitely feels heaven-sent to me.  Some of the most joyful times I've ever spent were those where I laughed the evening away over the freewheeling exchange of thoughts and comments and ideas that somehow sent me into big, beautiful belly chortles, though I honestly think any individual item that set me off, removed from the context of love and friendship in which it was born, just wouldn't seem as funny.

The best laughter grows and builds from shared awareness of our own foibles, our common humanity.  It feels freest, most holy, if you'll pardon the use of that word, when it represents our own ability to laugh at ourselves, when it is born from an ineffable soil of humility and empathy.

Unfortunately, like so many human gifts, sometimes we use laughter for good and sometimes for harm.  When laughter is driven by cruelty, by the desire to exclude, by envy and the mean-spirited wish to make ourselves seem more important at the expense of someone else's dignity, it is an ugly and harmful thing.  A lot of social bullying in elementary school feeds on this kind of laughter.  Sometimes we laugh at things that make us uncomfortable, like we just don't know how else to respond.  There's an anxiety and uncertainty to that kind of laughter that lacks the strength to build into joyful rolling waves.

I'd like to believe that when God laughs, He is laughing with us instead of laughing at us.    But if God is completely removed from us, superior to us, how can we believe that he laughs with us?  This is where the Christian belief that God became human comes in handy.  If God has truly and completely experienced what it is to be human, then he can laugh with us, from that place of empathy that drives the best of laughter.

So what makes God laugh?  I'd like to think God gets a good laugh out of some of those goofy, halfway jokes that third graders tell, you know, the ones that represent kids' early explorations of their own sense of humor.  And I'd like to think God gets a good laugh out of watching us laugh, 'cause we all know laughter is contagious.


Now I'm back at that quote that started me down this road:  "Man plans and God laughs."  Can that possibly be a laughter of empathy?  When I think about it, I believe it can be.  After all, surely God's plans don't always go the way he wants.  Look at the story of Adam and Eve.  Free will makes it a given that God's plans may not go the way he thought.  Maybe he looks back on some of those moments, in the hindsight of eternity, and laughs.  At the very least, this experience means that he can laugh in empathy when things don't go our way.  He can laugh and say "I've been there, my friend."


I wonder what it looks and sounds like when God laughs.  If God is in all of us, then maybe, when we laugh, it is really God laughing.  When I hear my students laugh, perhaps I should say to myself, "There goes God, cracking himself up again."