Ever Feel Like a Freak?

9th Grade

“How are you doing?” I asked a teenager this week.

In a moment of unhesitating honesty, she responded, “Well, everyone at school thinks I’m a freak.”  And then she paused.  “But I guess I’m okay.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about that comment—thinking about how many times a day we casually ask about each other’s well-being.  When we ask that question, “How are you doing?” we expect to be answered in a sound bite response:  “Fine. How are you?”  The niceties are out of the way, and we can get on with our busy days.  Sometimes we get the opposite extreme of the sound bite—the lengthy complaint—the one that stops us in our busy tracks and requires us to listen and pretend empathy for a litany of maladies that makes us wish we hadn’t asked.

Mostly, though, I’ve been thinking about this teenager and about myself and my friends at her age.  With the blessing of years, I’ve understood that I was by no means the only teenager in my junior high or high school who thought others viewed me as a freak.  I was a definite late bloomer—still flat-chested and a size 12—a girls’ size 12—in ninth grade.  Extremely nearsighted, I wore thick brown eyeglasses and styled my hair in a flipped up version of my college freshman sister—only hers was longer and in the style of the time.

I was smart.  And I knew that was an advantage to a girl living in a family with an income just above the poverty level, so I worked hard to earn the monies that paid for college.  But I didn’t think my classmates considered it an advantage.  Some of the more popular boys in my class called me the Brain Trust and proclaimed proudly that they were, in contrast, the Brain Rust.  And it didn’t help that my English teacher announced to the class in the middle of the first quarter that he was going to make every test harder until he made one I’d fail.  For an entire quarter, my classmates begged me to fail intentionally before the teacher gave up.  But the stakes were too high for a girl whose only way to avoid going into debt for college was a package of scholarships and grants.

It wasn’t until the ten-year reunion of my graduating class that I started to realize that some of my classmates who I thought led charmed lives in high school had insecurities of their own.  And while there were a few who looked back at high school as the glory days, many shared stories of both the joy and the pain of being labeled in one way or another.  But still unable to look beyond my own lack of confidence, I walked away from that reunion feeling gleeful that one of the guys on the football team asked which of his classmates I was married to because he didn’t recognize me.  And another, whom I’d frequently let copy my homework in hopes that he’d ask me out, had lost all his hair and gained a lot of weight.

Twenty years after I graduated, when I returned for another reunion, I finally understood that every single one of my classmates harbored insecurities, too.  One of my classmates told a story of his own struggles and said to me that he admired my intelligence, that he thought I could have been anything I wanted to be, and that he was impressed that I’d chosen to become a teacher.

We are all complex people.  Even the people we dislike are complex people.  But we like to caricature and label them—stuff them into neat little boxes that will allow us to go on believing in our own place in the world.

Now I have the safety and distance from who I was in high school to recognize that my classmates were actually pretty amazing people in a lot of ways.  Not one of them ever harassed or tormented me outside of class when that bully English teacher abused his power.  And I’m grateful to them now in a way that I couldn’t be back then.

Almost every time I post a piece, I extend an invitation to respond in the Comment Box at the end of the blog.  Only a few of you have commented, though I know from the statistics I get from my host site that many of you are reading.  Don’t get me wrong—I’m elated to have a growing audience of readers!

But I want this site to become a place where we lift each other up by sharing our stories—where we use this growing and shrinking world of the Web to find what’s best in each of us.  I’m pretty sure that those of you who survived high school have your own stories to tell—stories that could benefit that young person out there whose circumstances are more like yours than like mine.  Please tell me a story.  Not for me but for this young teenager who took the risk of being honest—and for those who, like her, need more kindness and empathy in their world.

Sequester Congress?

 

My First Glimpse of the U.S. Capitol Building when I was 16

A few years ago, I served on a jury for a man accused of drunk driving.  The trial lasted for a week, and while the timing couldn’t have been worse for me as a teacher, I left my students with a substitute and tried to put away all distractions to do what I felt was my duty as a citizen.  I focused on working with a diverse jury to make decisions about the six counts against a man who had hit a woman and her daughter head-on.  The woman had little time to react.  She swerved enough to save her daughter’s life, and after the accident, she died in her daughter’s arms.

All of us but one felt the evidence against the defendant was overwhelming.  And because of that one juror, we pored through the evidence and stayed in that room—with no contact with anyone until we came to an agreement.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that as I’ve listened to both sides ratchet up the rhetoric on both sides of the budget debate in the past few days.

“At some point we’ve gotta do some governing,” said President Obama today.

Yes, our leaders in Congress do need to do some governing.  And I’m beginning to think that it’s our leaders who should be sequestered—as in when a jury is kept away from everyone until they reach a verdict—and maybe they should have a gag order of the sort juries have while they’re sequestered, too.

Instead, we, the people, are subjected every hour of every day to political posturing and exaggeration on both sides.  I’m a liberal.  But I’m also intelligent.  And I feel insulted when the administration I voted into office puts out a chart showing how much each state will be affected if an agreement isn’t reached by Friday.  When I look at that map and see that it’s the “red states” that will be most affected, I have a hard time believing there isn’t a bit of propaganda in that report.

Then, of course, when I hear the other side say that the President refuses to compromise, when he has compromised so much that the most liberal people in his base vote for him only because they’re voting against the opposition, I don’t believe them either.

If we continue to let both sides try their case in the media, we can’t help but end up with a hung jury.  But deny both sides access to the media—or to anyone outside the room where the deliberations are taking place—and we’d probably have a very different result.

My mother, who sat out a number of elections, often said, “What’s the point in voting one dirty bunch out and the other dirty bunch in?”

My sister and I, who both believe that this great experiment in democracy is the best government on earth, eventually convinced her that it was important to vote, even when she was disillusioned.

Increasingly, though, I understand how she got to that point.  I don’t believe that either side is a “dirty bunch.”  But I do believe that the 24-hour media cycle has made our leaders feel that they have to be politicians first, leaders second.

So how about it?  Should we all write to our elected officials and insist they sequester themselves and have a gag order until they reach an agreement on a way to avoid the budget sequester?

Hot Pants and Hypocrisy?

Graduation Ushers

My first year teaching—and every year after that in the classroom—I learned that no one has a better radar for honing in on hypocrisy than teenagers. “Why do my parents tell me not to smoke pot when they get wasted on alcohol?”  “Why does the church say they’re all about peace when they’ve gone on Crusades, killing people for their faith, since the Middle Ages?” “Why is our country stockpiling nuclear weapons when they say other countries can’t?”  “Why do we say our country was founded on equality when we don’t let women and black people have the same opportunities as white men?”

I couldn’t answer those questions back then, of course, and I’m not sure I could completely answer them now.  But this week I had to laugh when one of my contemporaries was raging about “the way kids dress today.”

As I listened to her, I was thinking about how my best friend in high school—a guy—once laughed at me when my bathing suit top, tied together by a string in the back, came loose in the pool, and I rose from a dive to see him laughing and pointing at my tiny but completely exposed boob.  Bra-less halter tops and see-through, gauzy blouses were the fashion of the day—and we didn’t wear camisoles.

I remembered my first trip to New York the summer after tenth grade, where, on a shopping trip to Macy’s, I bought a pair of hot pants that barely covered my hips.  I remembered wearing a white dress that I’d made myself when I was one of a few junior girls chosen to hand out programs at graduation.  I stood behind the table, and the yearbook picture has immortalized that short white dress—the only one that showed several inches of leg between table and hem as I stood behind it, handing out programs.  I laugh out loud because the caption underneath the picture identifies me as one of my classmates.  And at my 20-year reunion, when dress styles were no longer mini, that same friend who laughed at my bathing suit malfunction laughed again as we were looking at our yearbooks and asked how I ever got past my dad in that dress.

When I shared these incidents with my contemporary who ranted about current fashion, she said, “Oh, no, the dresses weren’t that short.”

“Yes,” I assured her, “they were.”  I told her about one of my teachers who, when she wrote on the board with her right hand, had to hold down her dress with her left so that she didn’t expose her butt to a group of tenth graders.

And so, when my contemporaries bemoan a world where young people have no values and where our politicians have no ethics, I try to remind myself that I grew up in an age of hot pants and hypocrisy.  The president resigned in disgrace just as I began my freshman year in college, after months of swearing that he wasn’t a crook.

And so it goes.  Each generation must learn its own lessons.  I expect that our daughters will say to their daughters that their clothing is too provocative, that our government is too lax.

I almost hope that that will be the case.  Because if it isn’t, it may mean that the extreme religious conservatives in our country have gained power as the Taliban gained power—that oppressive fanatics have forced our young people to cover their bodies in a future iteration of today’s burkas.

I sit this evening and watch a television special where the Eagles reminisce about women dancing naked on the stage.  One of the band members talks about how they had a party after every show, about how sex and drugs came as a package in the ‘60s.  “Who could handle it?  Who could function?  Who could show up?” they asked.  “We challenged all the rules,” they said.  Only now, as they look back, do they say, “Let’s face it.  We were idiots.”

And so, young people, your parents may not have worn hot pants, and they may not have been hypocrites.  But I was one of the most innocent of my contemporaries.  I’ve never even had a puff of a cigarette, much less smoked pot.  And when I went to a GYN at the age of 23 and asked for a prescription for birth control pills, he looked at me as if I were an extinct species that had shown up in his office.  Most of my contemporaries cannot say the same.

So…this is your world.  We—I and my contemporaries—are as outdated now as we thought our parents were then.  And you’ll have to figure out this world for yourselves.  So don’t let us cynics jade you.  You aren’t in any worse shape than we were as we tried to figure out how to extract ourselves from Vietnam, how to give equal rights to women and minorities, how to trust politicians in the wake of Richard Nixon.

And when I think about that world and remember how we thought we were the answer to the world’s problems, I smile.  And I remember that you are my hope for the future.

So tell me your dreams.  Where will you take us as we, once young but now forced to admit that we’re on the cusp of being elderly, look to you and hope for a better world?

Deceived?

GPC

It had to happen.  I knew it would.  But knowing on an intellectual level didn’t prepare me for it emotionally.

Yesterday, a childhood friend who grew up with me in fanatically evangelical churches told me that I was being “deceived by the devil”—that because I don’t read the Bible literally, my soul is in danger.  This wouldn’t have been surprising—but for the fact that she majored in a science-related field in college and spent her whole career in a lab and her personal life in a home with someone of the same sex.

And though I believe with all my heart that God is full of grace, “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,” as the psalmist sings, it took me hours to remind myself after my conversation with her that when I commune with the Spirit, I feel no trace of that ugly and vengeful God that some of my childhood friends believe in so fervently.

This friend told me that she believes that we’re “living in the end times.”  She said that St. Malachy—though she seemed confused about the connection or lack of one between the Irish saint and the Old Testament Malachi—had accurately predicted the popes up to now and that, if the pope who is named at the end of the month takes the name Peter, he will fulfill the prophecy and be the last pope, who will rule over the end of the world.  She says the list he predicted is locked up somewhere in the Vatican, and when I asked how, then, anyone knows whether the names on the list match the names since the time of Malachy, she couldn’t give me an answer.

I had never heard this theory, though when I did a web search, I discovered that she is by no means the only one who believes she knows with some degree of accuracy when the world will end.  As I listened, I felt I had entered the Twilight Zone.  The last time I saw this friend, more than 20 years ago, she seemed balanced and reasonable.  But yesterday, this woman who has lived with a partner who she now swears is only a companion told me that she believes unequivocally that homosexuality is an abomination. And when I asked whether she believed the Old Testament command to stone a woman for adultery was acceptable, her answer was, “In some parts of the world, they still stone women.”  By this point in the conversation, I was so exhausted that I didn’t have the strength to ask, “Yeah, but are you saying that’s okay?”

Most of my friends have laughed dismissively today when I’ve told this story.  “Crazy!” most of them say—not worth a single moment of thought.

But I still find my friend’s lack of logic scary.  And what I find even more scary is that almost all the educated, reasonable people I know label people like her as crazy and refuse to take them seriously enough to challenge them.  They have their right to religious freedom, we think, and so we allow them to perpetuate these beliefs and to strong-arm their children and their loved ones into adhering to their rigid biblical interpretation of the world.

And friends who are more conservative than I, but still logical and thinking people, tell me that people like my friend are stock-piling weapons and artillery for the battle they believe is coming.  Yet still we liberals try to respect their freedom of religion and their right to bear arms.  And I worry that this must be the same way reasonable people in Salem regarded the witch-hunters, the way reasonable people in the North regarded Southern slave-owners who swore that the Bible justified slavery, the way reasonable people in Germany regarded Hitler, the way reasonable people in the Middle East regarded the Taliban.

So how do we uphold the values on which our nation was founded but resist the rigidity that leads to intolerance and oppression?  How do we follow the example of Christ—who wasn’t afraid to question the religious people of his time who thought they knew the mind of God?

How do we respectfully challenge religious people who purport to have all the answers?  My friend may be too far gone to hear anyone who doesn’t confirm her narrow view of God.  But how do we speak to those who are where she was 20 years ago, when she was willing to hear reason from those who disagreed?  How do we fight for a future where freedom of religion means freedom from being labeled as an agent of evil?

Control a Meteor’s Path

After Hurricane Irene

On Friday we earthlings had a crashing reminder of how little of the universe we can actually control when a meteorite, estimated to be about 50 feet in diameter, slammed into a sparsely populated area of Russia.  For the first time in history, the event was captured in a multitude of videos and posted on the Internet almost immediately.

All weekend the news outlets have swirled with explanations and comparisons to past meteor hits.  The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History reported a significant uptick in the number of people visiting to view the meteorite collection.  Geologists interviewed on weekend news shows championed the importance of government funding for the study of minerals embedded in meteorites—most too small to catch the attention of anyone other than scientists.

Of course, attention also turned to the biggest rock of all—the six-mile wide asteroid that left a 150-mile crater off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula 65 million years ago.  According to a PBS report—and most scientific studies—that unexpected chunk of space junk produced so much dust that it darkened and chilled the earth.  And when the dust settled, the greenhouse gases produced by the impact caused temperatures to sky-rocket, and the two extremes killed 70% of Earth’s plant and animal life.

At the same time that the tiny piece of rock created chaos in Russia, scientists also had their eye on another much bigger asteroid passing within 17,000 miles of Earth.  And every news outlet acknowledged that, as powerful as we human beings are, should such an event happen today, we could do nothing to stop it, just as the dinosaurs could do nothing to prevent their extinction.

Now for a worrier like me, all this hoopla could have shifted my anxiety into high gear—enough to send me over an emotional cliff.  This time, though, the event coincided with Lent, when I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about what the crucifixion means for me in this life and the next. Born into an extended family of evangelicals who filled my mind with the horror of a fiery hell, I was taught that my only measure of control was complete surrender to a God of angry vengeance.

As an adult, I’ve chosen a faith that focuses more on God’s grace.  But it’s taken me a lifetime to put away the fear and anxiety of having so little control.  And now I understand that, for me, focusing so much on the afterlife robs me of the now-life—a sometimes harrowing but mostly joyful journey through an astonishing world.

Writers have been telling us this since the advent of the printed word. Harper Lee’s Miss Maudie described in To Kill a Mockingbird a group of Christians who are so preoccupied with the next world that they’ve forgotten how to live in the present world.  Emily Dickinson wrote that immortality was “So huge, so hopeless to conceive [that] / Parting is all we know of heaven, / and all we need of hell.”

And so I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ll try harder to leave the afterlife to God—that I’ll think about it less and make the most of the gift of this present life.  I can no more control how much time I get to have between this known life and that other unknown life than I can change the trajectory of an asteroid that may come crashing into our planet.

But as I focus on the meaning of Lent, the example Christ set for how to live in this world, I understand that I’ve been given a pretty good model.  He broke bread and drank wine with his friends.  He allowed himself the luxury of having his tired feet anointed with expensive oil, even though self-righteous people criticized him for it.  He never forgot the least among us—doing what he could in the time he was given to make a difference for someone in need.  And he found time away from the needy crowd to center himself and commune with the Spirit.

Not a bad example, is it?  Even if you don’t share my faith.  Even if you don’t believe in the afterlife.  Even if you worry about that meteor that might come crashing into the Earth.

So come walk beside me now.  Tell me your stories of the joy of this present journey.

The Christianity of Christ

Douglass Bible

Courtesy of the National Park Service, Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, Douglass Bible

On Friday we earthlings had a crashing reminder of how little of the universe we can actually control when a meteorite, estimated to be about 50 feet in diameter, slammed into a sparsely populated area of Russia.  For the first time in history, the event was captured in a multitude of videos and posted on the Internet almost immediately.

All weekend the news outlets have swirled with explanations and comparisons to past meteor hits.  The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History reported a significant uptick in the number of people visiting to view the meteorite collection.  Geologists interviewed on weekend news shows championed the importance of government funding for the study of minerals embedded in meteorites—most too small to catch the attention of anyone other than scientists.

Of course, attention also turned to the biggest rock of all—the six-mile wide asteroid that left a 150-mile crater off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula 65 million years ago.  According to a PBS report—and most scientific studies—that unexpected chunk of space junk produced so much dust that it darkened and chilled the earth.  And when the dust settled, the greenhouse gases produced by the impact caused temperatures to sky-rocket, and the two extremes killed 70% of Earth’s plant and animal life.

At the same time that the tiny piece of rock created chaos in Russia, scientists also had their eye on another much bigger asteroid passing within 17,000 miles of Earth.  And every news outlet acknowledged that, as powerful as we human beings are, should such an event happen today, we could do nothing to stop it, just as the dinosaurs could do nothing to prevent their extinction.

Now for a worrier like me, all this hoopla could have shifted my anxiety into high gear—enough to send me over an emotional cliff.  This time, though, the event coincided with Lent, when I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about what the crucifixion means for me in this life and the next. Born into an extended family of evangelicals who filled my mind with the horror of a fiery hell, I was taught that my only measure of control was complete surrender to a God of angry vengeance.

As an adult, I’ve chosen a faith that focuses more on God’s grace.  But it’s taken me a lifetime to put away the fear and anxiety of having so little control.  And now I understand that, for me, focusing so much on the afterlife robs me of the now-life—a sometimes harrowing but mostly joyful journey through an astonishing world.

Writers have been telling us this since the advent of the printed word. Harper Lee’s Miss Maudie described in To Kill a Mockingbird a group of Christians who are so preoccupied with the next world that they’ve forgotten how to live in the present world.  Emily Dickinson wrote that immortality was “So huge, so hopeless to conceive [that] / Parting is all we know of heaven, / and all we need of hell.”

And so I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ll try harder to leave the afterlife to God—that I’ll think about it less and make the most of the gift of this present life.  I can no more control how much time I get to have between this known life and that other unknown life than I can change the trajectory of an asteroid that may come crashing into our planet.

But as I focus on the meaning of Lent, the example Christ set for how to live in this world, I understand that I’ve been given a pretty good model.  He broke bread and drank wine with his friends.  He allowed himself the luxury of having his tired feet anointed with expensive oil, even though self-righteous people criticized him for it.  He never forgot the least among us—doing what he could in the time he was given to make a difference for someone in need.  And he found time away from the needy crowd to center himself and commune with the Spirit.

Not a bad example, is it?  Even if you don’t share my faith.  Even if you don’t believe in the afterlife.  Even if you worry about that meteor that might come crashing into the Earth.

So come walk beside me now.  Tell me your stories of the joy of this present journey.

Creation or Evolution?

Frog on Deck

Walking in the evening dusk last summer, my husband and I disturbed the play of three young boys when our dog, smelling something in the air, began to bark furiously.  Our sheltie tugged insistently on his leash, lunging toward a bucket on the ground that had captivated the boys’ attention until we interlopers showed up.

My husband put the dog into a sit-stay, and when the dog was calm again, we apologized to the boys.

The youngest, not quite old enough to be in school yet, reached into the bucket and pulled out something between his cupped hands.  “Look what we’ve got!” he exclaimed.

He opened his hands just a sliver, and my husband smiled.  “A smelly toad,” he teased.  “Better be careful.”

“Nuh-uh,” said one of the older boys.  “It’s a frog!”  He turned to his brother.  “Show him,” he commanded.

The Keeper of the Frog opened his hands a little more.  “See,” he said, “its back feet are webbed.  It’s a frog!”

“Impressive,” I said, smiling.  We would have stayed to hear more—we live in an adjoining neighborhood, an “active adult community” that has no children except for the occasional visiting grandchild who has no reason to come out in search of other children.

But the dog was beginning to twitch, so we apologized again for his bad behavior and bid the boys farewell, grinning as we turned back to our own community.

A few days later, I wandered onto our second-story deck with my morning coffee to join my husband, who generally gets up earlier than I do on weekends.  As I came out the door, he smiled at me and pointed to the corner of the deck, where a tiny creature sat near my pot of basil.

I leaned over and peered at him.  “How the heck did he get up here?” I asked my husband.

“I guess he climbed up the bricks,” he answered.

Remembering the boys, I asked, “He’s a frog, right?”

“A tree frog, I think,” my husband answered as I went back into the house to get the camera.  And since I’m a long way from elementary school science, I also did some research later that day to find that telling the difference between a frog and a toad is a little more complex than just checking for webbed feet, since some frogs don’t have webbed feet.  I also discovered that tree frogs actually have little suction cups on their feet that allow them to climb.

The little guy—or gal, since my investigation didn’t get that far—visited us several times last summer, and our guess is that it came in search of the water we poured over the basil—not a good sign for our ecosystem, we didn’t think, considering we live next to green space that borders a protected stream.

I promptly forgot our visitor until this week, when a friend of mine who is an atheist posted on social media a picture of Darwin with the caption, “We’ll let you teach creationism in our schools when you let us teach evolution in your churches.”

And it occurred to me yet again, in what each time seems an epiphany to me, that people on those either/or extremes forget that many, many, many of us occupy the space in the middle.  I’m a Christian.  I believe in evolution.  I don’t see the two as mutually exclusive.  And I don’t see any reason to teach the biblical story of creation in a science classroom.

I’m an English teacher.  I’ve read and taught the literature that we collectively refer to as “creation stories”—some of which we refer to as “creation myths.”  I understand that many religions of the world have gone the way of myth as science has explained that we don’t need a god to drive the chariot of the sun across the sky.  And as we come to a fuller understanding of our world, scientists and theologians continue to try to explain the mystery and the complexity of a world we will never fully understand.

For now, I choose to believe in a Father-Mother God big enough to create complex creatures that can evolve as the need arises—a God too big to be boxed in by people on either side who think they know with certainty how our world came into existence.  Why shouldn’t I believe in such a God?  Do any parents ever expect that the children they birth will stay as they are at that moment when their infants slip-slide their way into this beautiful, intricate world?

I know I’m not the only person in this world who believes that contradictions can coexist and that we can, in fact, celebrate those contradictions.

So, dance with me.  Let’s strike a chord against dissonance.  Sing to me in three-part harmony.  Tell me your stories of the in-between.

Feeling Fat?

Mom and Marcella

Mom with Marcella (before I was born)

I love to eat.  I rarely find it easy to turn down a piece of chocolate or a baked potato drenched in butter.  So when Governor Christie’s weight and eating habits dominated the news this week, I watched, fascinated by a conversation that flared back and forth across a country where it’s increasing difficult to remain trim and healthy.  And once again, a complex issue turned into a series of sound bites volleyed across the country’s air waves between two people who had never met each other.

Forced at the age of three by my dad’s job loss to move into a shack on a relative’s property and eat government bologna and cheese, I found my own eating habits shaped early.  I have vague memories of my tiny mother standing at a ‘50s style diner table, wrestling to slice those big blocks of meat and cheese into thin slices, trying to stretch that government handout across several days.   Still petite at the age of 23, she already had three children and was pregnant with a fourth. Continue reading Feeling Fat?

Believe in Unicorns?

Unicorn

I’ve read it, heard it, sung it hundreds of times.  I even wrote about the passage, line by line, in thoughts for the day for my daughter, thinking about every single phrase that speaks to us of love.

I know the history of it—that it is part of a letter Paul wrote to an important city church that considered itself spiritually mature and full of wisdom.  I know that Paul’s words in the rest of the letter have been used for hundreds of years to silence women and justify slavery in churches equally sure of their spirituality and wisdom.

But in spite of knowledge and understanding, in spite of my push and pull relationship with Paul, the writer of most of the New Testament letters, I continue to read it, to admire it, to strive for the kind of love it defines.

First Corinthians 13—the hymn to love—is sung at weddings, read from the pulpit, inscribed on countless scrolls and wall hangings to remind us that love covers a multitude of sins:  “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

Paul directly states his meaning, without the figurative language or parables of the holy texts that sometimes confuse us.  But today I understood the obvious—something I’ve never realized in all those hundreds of times I’ve read it—that having love is even greater than having faith.

That it should be part of today’s lectionary was an interesting coincidence (or maybe not a coincidence) for me.  This week one of my friends posted a collage of past presidents in military uniform alongside a picture of former President Clinton in a band uniform and President Obama in a turban.  I challenged him for posting it, and after a back-and-forth that convinced no one of anything, one of his friends resorted to insults, telling me to stop being holier-than-thou and to go on away in search of that unicorn I’m always chasing.

Though I rarely pay attention to the content of her posts, her reaction to mine made me think, especially when I read that verse this morning.  How do I love someone who makes me angry?  How do I live my faith without coming across as the church in Corinth did—and as so many churches do today—as certain that I have all the answers about what it means to seek God?

I try to remind myself every day that finding understanding and wisdom is a journey—that, truly, the best I can do is “see through a glass darkly,” as Paul says in this chapter.  I know that I must keep looking, every day, for how to be the face and hands and feet of God in a world where it’s easy to get sucked into anger and become self-righteous.

But when my faith wavers and I start to believe that maybe I am hoping for a unicorn, love truly is the greatest of these three.  Love—in the faces of the people who love me in spite of my flaws—picks me up and plants my feet on the ground again.  Love makes me believe in the world in spite of all evidence to the contrary.

And so it is this morning that I think about the purest kind of human love I know—my love for the child I carried inside me and brought into the world with unadulterated hope and faith and joy.  Nothing could separate me from the love I feel for her.  Though we may sometimes disappoint each other, we have faith in each other and in the power of our love.

I’ll never feel that kind of love for the person who thinks I’m searching for unicorns.  But I can at least let go of my anger and hope that she can do the same—that we can forgive each other when words offend.

It’s a lofty aim, and it doesn’t mean I have to stop engaging people when I believe they’re being unjust.  But she’s challenged me to live my faith in humility, to hope for a wiser world—and greatest of all, to keep reminding myself that perfect human love is a unicorn worth chasing.

So tell me the stories that give you faith in human love.