Sunday, May 15, 2011

Love your enemies: kindergarten style

I don’t normally invite God into my classroom. Not only do I strongly believe in separation of church and classroom, being in an interfaith relationship increases my awareness of the subtle ways in which majority Christian culture can entangle itself in my curricular choices. Diligently, I strive to present a balance of perspectives and traditions. Last week, however, a conversation took place amongst my students that let me see how they cannot always compartmentalize their religious beliefs as we adults tend to do. And, I experienced, for the first time, how God can be present in a respectful way in my classroom.
Last week was the second to last week of school. Teachers, you know what this means: assessments, report cards, taking down work off the walls, sending mementos home, finishing that one last project, end of the year parties, yearbooks, field day, and lots of mixed emotions. The other day, those emotions got the better of my students resulting in retaliatory behavior. One child did something mean so the other did it back. Eye for an eye, right?
The moment came today when we needed to have the sit-down conversation, the “come to Jesus” moment that I always dread with my students. Here’s how it went...
“Okay, friends, we need to talk. This is important. It’s almost the last week of school and that is making us feel lots of different things. We’re happy because we have learned a lot. We’re excited about a fun summer filled with vacations, camps, and just relaxing. We’re also nervous about next year and a little sad about missing our friends. All these feelings are making us act in different ways. These emotions look different for everyone, and that is okay. Some of us are getting very quiet and calm. Others are getting loud and out of control. I’ve noticed that some of you want lots of hugs and to talk about our memories. And some are getting grumpy. As long as we don’t hurt anyone, all of these are okay. I have a question for you. When someone is mean and you’re mean back, what do you have?”
“All mean things!” they shout.
“What happens when someone is mean and the other person is nice anyway?” I ask, hoping for a similar rousing response. Instead, there was a rumble of debate.
Then, I told them the story. I told them I helped the mean ladies on Shelby Avenue who didn’t say thank you. They were rapt, drawn in to the magic of a real life Grimm-style fairy tale set in the dark with evil lurking right around the corner. I told them, even though they were not nice, I still felt good inside. The End.
I was on a roll. “So, the next time someone is mean to you, what are you going to do?”
Then, a little girl from right beside me said, “That reminds me of what we are learning about at church!” Oh, no. This is the moment I always dread. Whenever we have civics lessons, I wait for this moment. Jesus at school – what do I do? Quick, change the subject! Usually, I would say, “how interesting that you made that connection” and then I would ramble on about how each religious tradition has its own version of the golden rule, but to each his or her own, yadda, yadda. This time, I didn’t go there. I let her speak.
“Well, this thing is a really hard thing to do, but we’re supposed to love our enemies even though they’re our enemies because we’re supposed to.”
In that moment, I felt like our class could love everyone in the whole world and that everyone in the whole world was lovable.
The children erupted into stories of their own: acts of kindness they witnessed, mostly of their parent’s actions and even some opportunities missed. They connected these stories to our service learning project. Just as our smallest acts of kindness, like collecting pennies for Habitat for Humanity, when combined with others’ makes a big difference for good, so can small acts of meanness lead to big bad things.
Their voices, the voices of children rang clear and true in my ears. In a circle of six-year-olds I heard God’s call to love one another and I couldn’t kick God out of the conversation. Each child, with all their differences, had a story to tell and a personal connection to my story. They seemed relieved to have a safe place to share their experiences of church and temple lessons learned. I don’t think this could have been contrived and I don’t know how I could ever replicate this conversation with another group of students, but it was a good reminder that I’m not in full control, I don’t always see the whole picture, and children make excellent teachers.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Interfaith Bunny Cake

I realize this is past due, but I had to post this picture. Easter morning, we had some friends over for breakfast who ran the gamut of belief systems and non-belief systems. Together, though, we decorated this guy. The pagan symbolism of Easter is about hope through the inevitability of the life cycle. Bunnies will procreate, chicks will hatch, daffodils will bloom, days will get longer and warmer, and friends will come together to celebrate.

It didn't matter what we believed about the resurrection of Jesus that morning, but being together with our diverse group of friends helped me feel the hope of the resurrection story. As ugly as life can get, as mean as we can be to each other, as much as we hurt in body and spirit, decorating a cake cut into the shape of a rabbit with a bow tie will make you smile.

I'm so glad it's spring.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Cookies of Remembrance

One of my sweetest memories from my wedding is of cookies. A dear friend made them for my bridesmaids' luncheon and served them with great ceremony. Rosemary is a symbol of remembrance and fidelity, which is most appropriate for a wedding. The evergreen, woody aroma and pungent, earthy flavor always make me feel grounded and connected to my roots. These cookies are also delicious! I made them tonight for a cake walk, so I thought I would share the recipe:

1/2 c butter (2 sticks), softened
1/3 c sifted powdered sugar
1 1/2 cups flour
2 Tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary

Preheat oven to 325.
Beat butter, add sugar, then flour, then rosemary until just mixed. Do not over-beat!
Form into a skinny log (about the size of a silver dollar) and cover with cellophane.
Refrigerate for at least an hour or until firm.
Slice in 1/2 inch rounds and place on a parchment lined cookie sheet.
Bake for 12-15 minutes, or until slightly brown on the edges.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Good Samaritan or How I Almost Got Myself in Trouble

Last Friday night, I made a potentially dangerous choice. The thing is, at the time, it didn't feel like a choice. It was an impulse, an automatic reaction. As I exited the interstate onto Shelby Avenue in East Nashville, two women were trying to flag someone down. The hood of their SUV was propped open. I rolled down my window and they asked if I had any jumper cables. I said yes. I assumed that I had some in my trunk. Then, they bossily guided me into position so that my hood was aligned with theirs and my trunk was aligned with oncoming traffic. It was dusk. I put my purse under my seat, got out of my car, approached the women, and said, "I hope you don't take offense at this, but I've been hijacked before (true story), so I have to ask, are you good people?" They said yes so I proceeded to look for the cables. Turns out, I didn't have any and the women were peeved. As they were asking me to take them to an auto repair store and use my cell phone I started wondering if I'd been had. In an effort to get myself out of this situation with some grace, I tried to flag down someone else. A man finally stopped and was willing and able to help. I had the sinking feeling he stopped more for me than for them. He tried to explain what was going on with their car while they cursed the repair person who had told them it was their alternator, not their battery that needed fixing. As soon as he removed the cables, I thanked the man profusely, got back into my car and drove away. Not once did the women say thank you.

Let me give you the visual. I was on my way to a birthday party. The theme was the royal wedding, so I was wearing a bridesmaids dress, heels, and my Easter hat from third grade. The two women were dressed like normal people in jeans and blouses. When I got out of my car, the women said, "Are you going to the prom or something?" What business did I have stopping in that get-up?

Ever since I left the scene, I can't stop wondering why I stopped to help. Did I stop because I've heard the parable of the Good Samaritan too many times? Do I have a hero complex? How many times have I seen my father disregard his own safety to help others? Am I naive or just plain stupid? I knew as soon as I pulled away that my spouse would be livid with me for having put myself in harms' way. I almost didn't tell him. It's happened before and his concerns are entirely legitimate. Out of respect for him and concern for myself, I should have just kept driving. My mother even suggested an obvious alternative to stopping. Our city has a non-emergency hot line (615-862-8600) I could have called and they would have sent someone to help. Yet when the moment was upon me, I simply said "yes" and pulled over to help. I blame a sermon I heard nine years ago for my gut reaction.

Reverend, Dr. Carmen Lile-Henley is one of the most inspiring preachers I have ever heard. When I was a sophomore in college, I heard her give a sermon on the Good Samaritan and it forever changed the way I hear that story.

Growing up, I misunderstood the Good Samaritan to be a person who performed a selfless act of kindness. He was an unlikely person to show compassion in this story because he was an outsider, a minority. The priest and the Levite were shameful representations of majority culture. They are like us at our worst when we become rubber-neckers instead of good-deed-doers. It was a fairly simple and straightforward story, I thought.

Then, I heard Carmen preach. She used guided imagery to help us imagine being each character in the story.* She also clarified the details by putting the story back into a Jewish context.** She turned the story upside down when she told us to imagine being the injured man...

There I am on the side of the road. I've been robbed, beaten, and left for dead. My body is so traumatized, I go in and out of consciousness. People pass and do not stop, people who look nice and should stop, but they are busy and I am invisible. Then, after an agonizing number of hours, someone finally does stop. He gently carries me to a hospital and says, "fix her. Spare no expense because I'm paying the bill." When I wake up, I want to thank my rescuer. When he comes in the room, his arms are covered with swastikas. His head is shaved. His chest swells unnaturally large in his wife-beater shirt stained yellow under his arms. His gun gleams in its holster. I know in an instant he is a rapist, a child molester, a thief, a terrorist. This is the man who helped me? How dare he!

Carmen said that this is the message Jesus wants us to hear in this story. Not, would you stop and help, but would you let anyone, including your enemy, stop and help you? Do you see every child of God as your neighbor, because they are.

Hearing the story in this way expanded my concept of humility and compassion in an instant. The Samaritan is the least likely person to help because he or she is the person from whom I least want to receive help. It is the person I revile, abhor, and hate. But in that moment of my enemy helping me, I realize he is human. It stings like a slap because I'm ashamed I didn't see it before. We are more alike than different. We are part of the same human family. How much more would I rather dismiss him from my reality? How much more would I rather we have nothing in common? I would never want to be anything like this person, but our fraternity is inescapable in the love God has for all people. It binds us together no matter how strongly we resist it.

The women I helped were irritable. They were annoying, ungrateful, haughty, and mean-spirited. They wouldn't take no for an answer. In many ways, we were enemies: different class, race, age. All logic says I made a bad choice. Still, in my heart, I don't regret it. Nor can I blame my husband for being upset with me. After all the episodes of Oprah, Law and Order, and The Closer I have watched, I should know better than to trust strangers. His concern comes from a passionately loving and protective place in his heart. After days of reflection, I continue to struggle with how to show respect for my spouse and my marriage by keeping myself as safe as possible with how to answer God's call to help my stranger neighbors. I don't think there is an easy answer.

*Here are instructions on how to use guided imagery as spiritual practice.

**As A.J. Levine says in her book, The Misunderstood Jew, we modern Christians often miss the punchline of Jesus' parables because we do not understand the Jewish context of the stories.

Monday, May 2, 2011

I hate this article

This article about an interfaith couple in Brooklyn was published today in my local paper. It was already published three weeks ago here. I wonder, do you agree that the religion of your unborn, unconceived children must be determined before you get married if you are to have a successful interfaith marriage?

The article makes me uncomfortable. Actually, it makes my blood boil. It presumes that there must be an argument where I hope for dialogue. It asserts that one religion must dominate the marriage and negates the individuality of the partners.

Sharing our differences can make our own beliefs more robust or it can change them altogether. Engaging in the conversation allows us to be vulnerable as it highlights our weakest arguments. But in that vulnerability, we have the opportunity to become more honest with ourselves. I have found it immensely rewarding to question my own assumptions. I thought I had to say "Our Father" instead of "Our Creator" until I attended a United Church of Christ service. I assumed that Jesus was entirely novel, but through learning about my husband's heritage, I have learned his teachings are firmly grounded in Judaism. I assumed most recently that being worm food is enough when I die, then I spoke with a evangelical friend who got me thinking it isn't using the example of the Holocaust. I used to believe there was a reason for everything, then my Wesleyan campus minister said Jesus didn't have to die, he chose to die and it changed my entire worldview. If Jesus didn't have to die, then my friend's mom didn't have to get cancer. The same minister told me that I could be mad at God and read me psalm after psalm of bitter complaints about injustice, which got me through teaching in an inner city school. Often, I find my arguments were weak because I never had to question them. When we are forced to justify our convictions, we look at them critically. This leads to compassion because we see the world through larger lenses. We start to understand our neighbor's point of view and become tolerant, then accepting, then embracing. Why can't we do the same in our marriages?