Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Spirits of All Three

Scrooge at one of our performances of Dickens' story
At the end of Dickens' A CHRISTMAS CAROL, Scrooge vows, "I will live in the past, present and the future. The spirits of all three shall strive within me." I'm not sure I ever truly thought about what this meant until last night. We had our annual Christmas Carol party and reading, a tradition for more than 20 years in our home. During the party, our small house is stuffed with guests who join together in reading a one-hour scripted version of Dickens' story. The party functions as a merry rehearsal of sorts for when we perform it at local residential care facilities.  A few hours before this year's party, my husband and I attended a Memorial Service. At the party, we heard about the death of a friend. And all through the evening, memories of past parties and past performances were layered over every moment.

The spirit of Christmas Past - friends and loved ones no longer with us, the children who were Tiny Tims and have now gone off to college, the years we did 14 performances, the years snow prevented even one, the era of performing the story at the local AIDS hospice until one day it was no longer necessary, and so many more. Every phrase I've just written is connected like a fine gold filament to a deep, rich, true story woven into my heart - some joyful, some wrenching, and I wouldn't trade a single one.

The spirit of Christmas Present - embodied in every friend who came to celebrate with us last night, new faces and familiar faces, the laughter and conversation and food and drink, the preparations, the last lingering musings late into the night, even the clean-up - as well as the many moments of human connection this week with my students at school, my colleagues, my friends and family near and far. Again - not all of it happy, but all of it so real and true and enriching in the best sense of the word.

The spirit of Christmas Future - the knowledge of mortality, which becomes ever more real with each passing year, as friends and family shuffle off this mortal coil. Scrooge's redemption doesn't mean he won't die. We all die. Dickens' Christmas Future is frightening, yes, and yet Scrooge says he will live with that spirit, too, and it is that spirit, that awareness of how "any spirit working kindly in its little sphere will find its mortal life too short," that ultimately brings about Scrooge's fullest change of heart and his commitment to a different path.

We are here on this earth for but a blink of the divine eye. Most of us don't consciously carry that knowledge of impending mortality with us all the time. It's too much too bear. It must be tempered by the spirits of Past and Present. But it must be somewhere in our minds and hearts, for it drives us, too. It drives us to remember what truly matters. What legacy do we wish to leave? How do we wish to be remembered? How shall we live while we are here? Will we connect with our fellow human beings? Will we honor and cherish what we learn from our past, embrace our present regardless of our circumstances, and be cognizant of our future?

Scrooge doesn't say the spirits of all three will co-exist peacefully, mind you. He says they will strive within him. Miriam Webster defines strive as "struggle in opposition" or "endeavor." I think "struggle in opposition" fits here. The three spirits contend with one another, and out of that struggle comes a potent energy for good. It's very much in keeping with the Christianity I know and love, a religion born out of struggle, a religion in which sorrow and joy, death and rebirth, God and man commingle. It is Jacob wrestling with the angel.

Long live the power of struggle! May the spirits of past, present and future strive within all of us to drive our best selves and illuminate all that it means to be human.

Monday, November 30, 2015

A Prayer Trade

As I drove home today, I thought about selfish and unselfish prayer - namely my own. During the dark season of the year, I am prone to struggle with dark thoughts, and to say a few prayers for deliverance, that somehow God will lift me up enough to keep going. I have very few external reasons for my darkness. It travels inside me, to paraphrase Milton. But internal darkness is just as much cause to turn to prayer as external. Normally, I don't think of those prayers as selfish. It's not selfish to ask for help when you need it.

However, as I drove home today and listened to the news on the radio, I wanted to take back those prayers for my own small self and invest them instead in combatting the darkness of the world. Climate change, terrorism, violence, war. Our planet, our world - the huge, overwhelming darknesses we face, those things I feel so limited and powerless to change. If carrying my own darkness and wading through it could somehow mean there was extra prayer energy to fight those huge, terrifying crises that plague our world, I would gladly take up the burden. Given a choice, I choose the world over me. I'm one person, a blip on this earth. But this earth is, can be, beautiful on a grand and ageless scale, if only we human beings could just stop screwing it up.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Politically Biblical, Biblically Political

My well-worn Bible
During campaign season, many candidates and political parties embody the worst of the hypocrites and pharisees of the New Testament, trumpeting their religious beliefs to the heavens, announcing their prayerful attitudes, claiming positions on behalf of God as if they were prophets and messiahs, when all the while they are driven by their ambition. God's positions are infinitely more complex than they acknowledge. When will we humans understand that we are not God's mouthpieces, we are not capable of full understanding in this life, that now we see through a mirror darkly?

On the other hand, the Bible does get political. The classic, New Testament case is "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and render unto God what is God's." That one's about taxes, but it also seems to be speaking about the intersection of faith and civic responsibility. Both must be honored. Civic responsibility for us today includes being informed voters of conscience.

 I'm particularly hesitant about referencing the Old Testament, since a central message of the New Testament is that the old covenant is replaced by the new covenant. However, the Old Testament, because it focuses so much on the law, has an inherent tendency to intersect with politics, which is about the lawmakers. Many people are fond of pointing quite selectively to the Old Testament to support some of their right-wing beliefs.  So I thought it might be worth looking at a handful of current issues through that lens.

Thinking about the question of minimum wage, and also, perhaps, of undocumented workers? Here's what Deuteronomy 24:14-15 has to say: "Do not take advantage of a hired man who is poor and needy, whether he is a brother Israelite or an alien living in one of your towns. Pay him his wages each day before sunset, because he is poor and counting on it." These days, paychecks tend to go out every two to four weeks, not every day at sunset. That's the letter of the law. But the spirit of this law is clear. Pay laborers what they deserve, no matter who they are. They are counting on it.

What about the issue of immigration? Here's what Leviticus 19:33-34 has to say: "When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt." Now, we weren't all aliens in Egypt, but trace your ancestry back far enough and somewhere along the way, your family were the aliens in a new community - a new land, a new tribe, a new state, a new neighborhood, a new country. Remember that. Show empathy first.

Those who want to cite the Old Testament with priority should be aware of its entirety. 

However, those who claim to be Christians need to prioritize the New Testament. And in the New Testament, Jesus makes it clear again and again what His priorities are. When they ask Him, "What is the greatest commandment in the law?" He replies, without parable or hesitation or obfuscation of any kind, "Love the Lord your God with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments." (Matthew 22:36-40) I don't think you can get much clearer than that as a litmus test for any political choice you make.These two come first. Everything else hinges on them.

If you must mix politics and faith, which a voter of faith is no doubt compelled to do in making their choices, then for a Christian, these are the verses that matter and these are the questions to ask. Does my position come from a love of God? Does my position come from a love of neighbor? Does my position come from a love of self (because that second commandment only works if you love yourself; hate yourself and you hate your neighbor)? And, by the way, it doesn't say "Love thy neighbor if they share your political views." So, we left-wing folks have to factor love into the mix when we hate the words and vitriol that our neighbor spouts. That means we choose not to respond with vitriol. Our political discourse must also come from love. That's a tough one.

The other tough part, I think, the part where things get muddy and tangled and divisive, and always have, all the way back to ancient times, is that first commandment. What does it mean to love God with all your soul and mind? What does that look like in the world of politics? Those folks who start digging into the Old Testament do so perhaps because they believe that is how you love God. but if all those other commandments were made at the service of these two, then loving God transcends the notion of following a set of rules and regulations.

Jesus has something to say about this, too, in Matthew. "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men's faces." And later, "You give a tenth of your spices ... but you have neglected the more important matters of the law - justice, mercy and faithfulness.

Even as I'm writing this, I'm aware of the danger of quoting chapter and verse. The Bible is a complicated, multi-layered text. If you really try, you can use it to say almost anything, selectively. Search your hearts. This much is clear: Place love first. Mercy, justice, faithfulness, and all the rest of your actions must stem from the root of love. Even in politics.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Value the Moment, Honor the History, Understand the Journey

The day after the recent Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage, I was in Salem, Oregon, for a dragon boat race. My team was warming up on a brick-covered picnic area. I leaned over for a stretch and found myself face to face with the inscribed brick you see pictured here.

I stopped. The park around me seemed to inhale and hold its own breath. Five words and a few numbers sent me falling  through a telescoping tunnel of history, and I wondered, Would everyone see in these letters and numbers what I saw? Because what I saw was an epitaph, a love-letter, a hidden grief. I saw one man with a full name, one without. I saw a date of death in 1991. I saw AIDS, and all the loss and secrecy and grief and politics hidden within it. I saw a time in history when the idea of gay marriage wasn't even part of the conversation, when the hope was for recognition, for the right to acceptance, for safety and community and belonging and love without a death sentence attached to it. I saw another time where a marginalized group was insisting, in the face of bigotry, that their lives mattered. And then, with the mental roar of a jet engine, I fast-forwarded to now, and the significance of the Supreme Court ruling, and the celebrations throughout the country, and a Facebook image posted that afternoon of a friend, a survivor of that terrible era of AIDS, standing, holding hands and saying vows with his partner. These two images - the brick in the park and the photo from Facebook, melded into one and I saw the journey writ large across my mind, overwhelming in its significance.

I blinked and stood up and looked at the circle of people around me who continued about their business. And I went about my business, too, but my heart held the journey - then, and now, and everything in between. I couldn't let it go.

As I thought about that moment and its meaning, and as I tried to explain it to the people around me, I found words inadequate. I stood at a strange crossroads of past, present, and future

The day before, I'd been at a high school graduation party and heard a group of young people talking so openly and casually about sexual orientation. It was no big deal who was what. They are the future. Do they know the past? Do they understand the journey that led to this moment? The whole journey? Do I?

There is an incredible young adult book that speaks with exquisite eloquence about this particular convergence of past, present and future. It's by David Levithan and it's called TWO BOYS KISSING. Read it. 

That moment looking at the brick in the park resonated beyond the journey of gay rights and LGBT history for me. As I age, my relationship to time - to the past, present and future - changes. When I was very young, I lived mostly in the present. Soon, my attention shifted to the future. Who would I be when I grew up? What college would I go to? What would I do after college? Where would I live? Would I get married? Would I have children? The future - always the future. But now that I've rounded the corner of middle age, the past - its value and meaning - occupy a growing portion of my attention. 

Friends, contemporaries, face terminal illness or sudden death from heart disease. Children marry and start families. Parents struggle with the challenges of aging. Technology leaves me in the dust. The world around me becomes increasingly different. My neighborhood is changing. I see city blocks with buildings razed, and I find myself asking "What used to be there?

That question looms in my mind. What used to be there? Memory, communal memory - that's what history really is and remembering history is more than being "condemned to repeat it." We need to hold and preserve our communal memories in order to understand ourselves, to appreciate our present and to grapple with our future. It is frighteningly easy for that memory to disintegrate like old silk and crumble into nothing. When that memory includes part of your own story, the thought that it will evaporate is heartbreaking and terrifying and infuriating all at once.

We have a responsibility to record the journeys. For some, it is through writing. For others, through film or the visual arts or music. For some, the responsibility lies not in the telling, but in the asking and the listening and the learning. And the noticing - stopping and noticing a small group of words and numbers on a brick on the ground in a park by a river, and registering their significance.

Friday, June 19, 2015


The news is filled with violence and hate. Again. And I find myself thinking of the Great Flood, when God was so fed up with human beings, He just wiped us all out. But even then, He couldn't quite bring Himself to give up entirely. He could have. He could have gotten ridden of every last one of us and created a brand new race. He didn't. That's called hope.

The question is, can we as human beings carry that same hope into our world? Can we face the worst of ourselves, in honesty, and not give up that hope? Can we seek out the good and nurture it? Can we embrace the small, daily fight against our worst side, the small daily nourishing of our best? Can we, moment by moment, build on that hope and live up to it?

Can we?

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Tao of Teaching Revisited

(From notes I posted on Facebook about 7 years ago whose ideas I return to time and again.)

Lao Tzu says 
Color Factory
be "careful as someone crossing an iced-over stream.
Alert as a warrior in enemy territory.
Courteous as a guest.
Fluid as melting ice.
Shapable as a block of wood.
Receptive as a valley.
Clear as a glass of water.

Do you have the patience to wait
till your mud settles and the water is clear?"

I want to be careful with my students, 
since they are young and vulnerable. I want to be alert to all that is happening in my classroom at any moment. I want to be courteous, always using the language of respect. I want to be fluid, prepared to change as the day and needs of my students change - deliberately, not wildly. Shapable as a block of wood ... I want to be willing to change, but not without purpose. Receptive as a valley - I want to create a place where young growth can thrive. Clear as a glass of water, that learning travels through me and I don't muddy it up or get in the way. The patience to wait til the mud settles  - The perfect description of waiting for students to come to attention.

Lao Tzu says
"What is rooted is easy to nourish.
What is recent is easy to correct.
What is brittle is easy to break.
What is small is easy to scatter."

Many students are not rooted, or their roots are weak, grown in harsh soil and rough conditions. It is not easy to nourish their spirits. How can they take in lessons of community and trust, let alone lessons about math and reading, when they are not rooted?

But they are young, and therein lies the hope. The older a child gets, the harder it is to correct their learning and help them find the right path in life. What is recent is easy to correct. What has been their whole lives may be harder to correct.

What makes something brittle? If a child hasn't had what they need, their spirit may well be brittle, their feelings may be brittle. They are vulnerable, more vulnerable than I sometimes remember in the heat of the moment. They break easily, and that is not a good thing.

Children are like tiny plants or seeds. So much potential, but to grow, they need tenderness and careful attention. What is small is easy to scatter. But perhaps scattering is not what they need. 

"The Master views the parts with compassion
because he understands the whole."

The wise teacher views all the parts of a child's personality with compassion, all their quirks and challenging behaviors, because she understands the whole child, the big picture.

"The Master allows things to happen.
She shapes events as they come."

The wise teacher is flexible and allows for teachable moments. She takes advantage of unexpected and organic learning opportunities.

"She steps out of the way
and lets the Tao speak for itself."

There's nothing I can add.