How Did Your Pastors Vote?

How did my pastors vote? I think I know, but I’m not sure. Neither of them ever stood in the pulpit and named a candidate. Nor did they talk about the hot-button issues to make it abundantly clear which candidate would get their votes. But they did encourage us to vote—to vote our conscience. They did not expect us to follow their lead blindly, and they did not make us feel that we were less Christian if we voted a certain way. Instead, they urged us to look through the lens of our faith and think carefully about how to cast our vote.

So this morning, the co-pastor who delivered the sermon began by describing her experience at the polls, painting a vivid picture of the pleasure she took in reviewing the sample ballot one last time at breakfast, waiting in line for a voting machine, choosing each candidate and issue, and carrying the little plastic card to the official. Though she talked about the exhaustion of being bombarded with mailings from both sides, she was full of joy as she talked about the privilege of living in a country where our votes really do count, even when the candidate we want doesn’t win.

Her story was a beautiful introduction to the biblical text for today—not one she chose but one that was chosen by several denominations as a Common Lectionary years in advance. But Psalm 146 was the perfect song for a less than perfect election season, especially verses 3-4: “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day, their plans perish.” She reminded us that the God we serve is bigger than “the princes of Congress,” bigger than party, bigger than anything we can imagine for ourselves.

Choosing pastors like her and her husband, the co-pastor, is not the path this church has always chosen. Before the congregation called these pastors (and before I moved to the area), the church fought hard and bitterly about the very issues our country debated in this election, as did many churches in the denomination. But this church split down the middle, and the former pastor left, taking many life-long members with him. The results were disastrous for both sides. I had a friend who left with the pastor, and that church dissolved after only a year, leaving the members to find other churches or to reject organized religion altogether. The congregation that remained fared better, but the wounds took years to heal and, for a while, God’s mission was slowed down by the limping, bleeding congregants who held on for the lengthy process of finding new pastors willing to take on the challenge of bringing people back together for God’s common good.

So these two pastors know more than most what happens when two sides become bitter and unable to hear each other. And as I sat in the presence of this very inspiring minister this morning, I looked around at the faces in the congregation and hoped that somehow our president and the princes of Congress can find it in them to do what our co-pastors have done—to bring us together for a noble cause that is bigger than princes, bigger than party, bigger than liberals or conservatives—a country that still strives to be one nation indivisible in spite of our differences.

And what about me? I’m not a prince, nor a senator, nor a congressman, nor would I want to be. But I am a citizen, and I owe it to my country not to gloat that the candidate I wanted has won this time, as I’ve heard so many liberal pundits do in the last few days. I don’t have to give up my principles. But I do have to understand that I don’t have all the answers and that my side hasn’t been able to solve our nation’s problems any more than my opponents’ side did in the eight years before President Obama was elected. And that isn’t just because of the opposition. The problems we face wouldn’t loom large if there were obvious and simple solutions.

But I can’t expect our leaders to do what I am unwilling to try to do myself. I am a citizen. And more than that, I am a child of God. And so are we all.

What doesn’t kill us makes us…?

“Lots of stuff that doesn’t kill you makes you weaker,” said the character Manny in an early episode of ABC’s sitcom Modern Family.  That was the episode—“Truth Be Told”—that hooked me on what has become my favorite show on television.  Manny’s fictional character spoke the real-life truth about a worn-out platitude.

The “truth” of the episode is much more complicated:  Manny’s stepfather Jay, who is constantly trying to get him to “man-up,” has attempted to hang a poster in Manny’s room that says, “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.”  Manny is quick to give an example that debunks Jay’s simple view of life—that his grandfather had a heart attack and now he has to use a machine to help him breathe.  When the poster frame falls and kills Manny’s pet turtle, Shel Turtlestein, we belly-laugh at the absurdity of Jay’s cover-up story, which is so ridiculous that Gloria, Jay’s wife, tells him, “I’m Columbian. I know a fake crime scene when I see one.”  And as it always does in comedic fiction, the truth comes out.

The show plays on almost every stereotype we hold of what it means to be family, and we can laugh in a way that we cannot when we think of our own painful experiences. So this week when news outlets reported that Ariel Winter, the real-life 14-year-old who plays the nerdy and intelligent Alex, had been removed from her mother’s custody, my heart ached for the girl who plays the character most like the childhood version of me.

Unlike Alex, Ariel and I both live with the real-world complexities of the parent-child relationship.  According to news reports, Ariel’s older sister had been permanently removed from her mother’s custody 20 years prior to this incident.  And while the courts are still sorting out what is the “truth be told” of this situation, it remains to be seen whether what hasn’t killed her will make her stronger.

For me, being abused as a child has done both.  I spent half a lifetime revering my mother and love-hating my father, who drank his way through weekends and beat my siblings and me with a belt that he pulled from his waistline with a snap at the slightest provocation.  But when my first marriage fell apart and I told a therapist that my mom was my hero and my father was “a total shit,” the therapist asked a simple question that changed my life:  “Estelene, has it ever occurred to you that by today’s standards, your mom would be an accessory to child abuse?”

That one question challenged me to reconsider the simple beliefs I had held true for my parents.  I had always thought that my mother, who quit school in ninth grade and married my dad when she was 17 and pregnant with my sister, had stayed with my father because she had no other options.  But while I still love my mother for her unconditional love of her children and her strength in the face of adversity, I no longer idolize her, and I know that we all make choices.  And while I still can’t excuse my father’s abuse, I can now understand that the hard life of a coal miner with a fifth grade education put him at a life-long disadvantage in supporting a family long before he was ready emotionally or financially.

I can also think rationally about the paradoxes that led me to be the person I am.  My father recognized what his own choices had done to his life, and he said to me nearly every day of my childhood that I would get the education he didn’t have so that I could have a better life.  So, in a striking irony, I became the Alex Dunfee of my real-life family and grew up to be a teacher, like my parents’ teacher for whom I am named.  So my father is largely responsible for my education and my vocation.

I know I’m lucky that my father stopped drinking when I was about the age that Ariel Winter is now.  I actually got to know the better side of a sober father who mellowed later in life.  And perhaps that fact and the certainty of our mother’s love are why all five of my parents’ children were able to break the cycle of abuse that sometimes perpetuates itself through generations of families.  Like Ariel, whose sister was removed from her mother’s custody 20 years ago, there was ample evidence in my family of a history of abuse.  My father’s sisters laughingly told the story of how my grandmother threw my father into the yard when he was a toddler “like he was a sack of potatoes.”  And one of my aunts, who saw the welts on my sister’s arms, told my dad she would report him to the police if she ever saw such wounds again.  We had teachers who averted their eyes from the welts and bruises our mom made us cover up when we went to school.  We had neighbors who called in their children and closed their doors when my father beat my brothers in our front yard.

So truth be told?  I’m still figuring that out, as I guess I will until my last breath.  For my siblings and me, the truth is that one of us indeed was killed rather than made stronger—my brother who died of a drug overdose in his 40s, leaving behind two children who adored him in spite of his flaws.  Our truth is that the remaining four of us have struggled mightily with both the strengths and the weaknesses of what hasn’t killed us.

So this week my heart and my prayers go out to Ariel and other victims of their parents’ inner demons.  May it be so that the truth really does make them stronger.  Amen.

What Is a Great Teacher?

Dr. Shrewsbury

Why is it that social gatherings where a teacher is present inevitably lead to horror stories about kid-killer teachers or absurd tales about incompetent ones? Though many of us have teachers who change our lives, those are rarely the narratives we hear in our social dialogue.

Perhaps it’s because the consummate teachers consistently do great things without fanfare every day. They engage us, they lure us in, they make us love their subject through their own passion. But if asked to name one thing that teacher did, most of us have to think hard before we can point to a single moment that would do justice to the skill of a master teacher.

Dr. James B. Shrewsbury became my adviser the second semester of my freshman year.  I knew I wanted to be a teacher, but I changed subjects twice before I landed in his English 102 class, the second semester of freshman composition.  He was a short, wiry man with white hair, piercing blue eyes, and a Santa-style white beard. When he was thinking hard or listening carefully, he chewed his upper lip, almost as if he were tasting his thoughts before he voiced them.

He began the class by having us read short stories and imitate the sentence styles of great writers, and for the first time I learned that I could sometimes capture beauty in the flow of a sentence.  And when we read Eudora Welty’s “A Visit of Charity,” a story about a young girl who visits a nursing home solely to get points as a Campfire Girl, I wrote a paper analyzing every literary device in the story to show how the young girl is visiting the home for all the wrong reasons.  But I entirely missed the wry humor in the story.

As the teaching assistant handed back the papers, Dr. Shrewsbury turned on the overhead and projected an essay onto the screen.  I recognized the paper, my name removed but the tight curl of the cursive distinctively my handwriting.  Dr. Shrewsbury walked us through the paper, pointing again and again to its strengths.  As he got to the end, he pointed to his closing comment—A very good first paper!  I breathed a sigh of relief…until he continued.

“But let’s look at this one word the writer used.  The writer has pointed out that the little girl isn’t really performing an act of charity, and that’s right.  But do you think this is the right word?”

Pointing to a phrase near the bottom of the first page, Dr. Shrewsbury touched his finger to the words the debauchery of Marian’s motives.  He smiled when it was clear that no one in the room, least of all the writer, knew what the word meant, and then explained that the word did indeed mean corrupt, the word the writer seemed to intend, but that it had the connotation of a dirty old man.

Chewing his upper lip, he stroked his beard and allowed himself the hint of a smile as the class laughed.  “There you have it,” he said.  “Never use a thesaurus to try to make yourself sound more intelligent.  Use it to remind yourself of words you already know.  Or take the time to learn the nuances of the word.”

Miserable, I couldn’t meet his eyes as I left the classroom.  Though he had been gentle, I had rarely received criticism on my work in high school.  It would be years before I could laughingly tell that story to my own students to prevent them, in advance, from suffering similar humiliation.

But at the end of the semester, Dr. Shrewsbury invited me to be his student assistant for his freshman composition classes.  He assured me that I was a “born teacher,” and he made me believe in myself.  After that, I signed up for every course he taught, garnering far more credits in English than were required for certification.

But how did he do that?  I don’t really remember.  The story I do remember could have been one of silent chagrin in the hands of a lesser teacher.  But Dr. Shrewsbury taught me by both word and example to find something to praise before pointing out weaknesses.  And while no teacher is ever perfect for every child, this is Dr. Shrewsbury’s legacy.

So tell me about a teacher who deserves your gratitude.  Or better yet, tell the teacher.

What Is Friendship?

Jefferson

Illustration by Charis Tsevis
Weincek, Henry. “The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson.” Smithsonian Magazine. October 2012.
 
“I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend,” Thomas Jefferson is said to have pronounced. This quotation has been widely circulated online this election season where some of us try never to reveal our opinions while others of us try futilely to change the minds of our friends who disagree with us.
 
Neither of these extremes seems to work very well. I really want a world where we can talk about our religion and politics and philosophy and learn from one another–a world where we find a third way–a middle place where we honor what’s best in the opposition and put it to work in a world much in need of compromise and collaboration. I like to think that I try to do that most of the time. But my daughter is quick to disabuse me of that notion and to remind me that while I listen to what people say, I still try to convince them that I’m right.
 
So how do we hold on to our best principles and yet hear that the opposition also has some best principles? What’s the difference between learning from one another and letting go of what we believe is right?
 
This isn’t a new question in a country that is founded on democracy–a philosophy that is often hard to live by as it’s played out in the real world. As Henry Weincek’s fascinating article in Smithsonian Magazine points out, Thomas Jefferson–the man we hold up as the standard bearer for freedom and democracy–somewhere along the way gave up his principles. In his original draft of the Declaration of Independence, he denounced slavery as “a cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberties.” But South Carolina and Georgia refused to sign such a document, so it was revised. And as we know now, by 1790 Jefferson had given up his efforts entirely and not only owned slaves but tolerated brutality against them.
 
As Weincek points out in this article, “It is curious that we accept Jefferson as the moral standard of the founders’ era, not Washington. Perhaps it is because the Father of his Country left a somewhat troubling legacy: His emancipation of his slaves stands as not a tribute but a rebuke to his era, and to the prevaricators and profiteers of the future, and declares that if you claim to have principles, you must live by them.”
 
Had Jefferson lived by his principles instead of giving them up, how different might our nation have been? Would we be living a very different legacy of race in this country? Or would we even have continued to be the “United” States of America?
 
And so it is that we allow ourselves to expect more of our leaders than we are sometimes capable of ourselves. We want to keep our friends. We can’t figure out how to hear each other, so we keep silent, speak so loudly that our friends walk away and ignore us until the battle of the political season is over, or give up on what we truly believe.
 
We want our leaders to have principles and live by them. We want our leaders to compromise and collaborate. How can they possibly do both?
 
One thing is certain, no matter who wins the election today: our President has a monumental task before him. Find a way to hold on to your principles, find a way to hear what’s best in your opponents’ principles, find a third way that is better than either way alone.
 
And so, Mr. President, whoever you are at the end of this day, my friend, I pray that you’ll find a way to do better what we’ve been trying so valiantly to do for over 200 years.

What Is a Saint?

With his usual penchant for humor, my husband reminded me on the way home from church that he is named for a saint, Matthew, and that I—well—am not. I didn’t need his reminder that I’m not a saint, but since I tend to be terminally serious, I do need him to remind me to laugh and enjoy this beautiful life I’ve been given.

Today is All Saints Sunday. Our church explains the service in this way:

All Saints celebrates the baptized people of God, living and dead, who make up the body of Christ. Today, many congregations will remember the faithful who have died during the past year. Our worship abounds with references to the saints and our continual relationship with them. Today and this week, we reflect on the lives of people – both the living and the dead – who have moved and supported others by their lives of faith.

I went into the service thinking of my friend Jane Ann, who died in September, leaving behind a 15-year-old daughter, a 90-year-old father, and scores of friends who miss her every day. Jane Ann would not have thought of herself as a saint, nor would she want her daughter or her loved ones to remember her as perfect. But she was, more than almost anyone I know, perfectly and gloriously human, and as her fourth grade teacher wrote on her Facebook page, her legacy is that she always, always reached out to help others. But she never forgot the healing power of a great big belly laugh.

Most of us don’t think of ourselves as saints, but my pastor reminded me this morning that even those we do consider the saints of the church weren’t perfect. But they were people who, like Jane Ann, never lost the optimism that their lives could make a difference in the world. I loved the way my pastor closed the service.  I’m paraphrasing here because I can’t remember her exact words:

On this post-hurricane, pre-election, All Saints, communion Sunday, we need to remember that ours is a God of justice, freedom, and forgiveness….a God who is enough for us all—enough for you, enough for me.

I needed this reminder, too. I beat myself up sometimes for spending more time thinking about helping people than actually helping people. The magnitude of the need in our world sometimes overwhelms me. I’m reminded of a character in Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees, who wrote about the sorrows of others and put the papers into the cracks between the rocks in the wall that lined her property. After a time, she became so overwhelmed with the agony of others that she went to the river and lay down, a rock on her chest, and drowned herself in others’ sorrows.

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, we all know how easy it is to be swept away in the raging currents. But this morning at church we were asked, if we could, to fill up a five-gallon bucket with cleaning supplies and tools to send to the victims of the hurricane.

We are little good to ourselves or others if we take on too much of the pain and anguish of a world where the needs are so great. We do need time to lay our burdens down and gaze in wonder at the blue sky and the gentle roll of the mountains in the distance.

But I wonder what would happen if every single person who was able would fill up just one bucket and carry a little bit of the burden. What a difference that might make in our world!

What Do Disasters Tell Me?

What do disasters tell us?  I woke up wondering about that this morning as I sat in my comfortable home where the electricity flickered but never stayed off for more than a couple of minutes.  Then I watched news video of the fire in Queens and the devastation all around me and gave thanks that most of us have made it through this latest disaster alive.

 
And then I read the news reports and the editorials where both liberal and conservative journalists began the blame game while the two presidential candidates tried to look like the leaders they both so desperately want to be.
 
And I realized I was asking the wrong question.  I started to wrestle with the gnawing realization that’s been trying to creep into my brain for weeks now as I’ve been thinking over the elections of my lifetime, where I’ve occasionally voted against party lines and have never felt the excitement that some Boomers older than I felt when they voted for the Kennedys.
 
When George W. Bush took office, I refused for months to address him asPresident Bush.  Like millions of Americans, I didn’t think he’d been elected.  And after the Supreme Court sided with him, I was indignant.  I wanted him to fail.
 
Then came 9/11.  And while there would later be plenty of blame to go around, for the most part, the nation came together, and our devastating loss brought out the best in us.  Though I still didn’t agree with his decisions, I finally began to pray for him and to speak the phrase President Bush, but I also prayed for a successor who would care for the poor and bring out the best in us.
 
Eight years later I watched as much of the nation felt the same about President Obama as I had felt about his predecessor.  From the day he took office, people questioned the legitimacy of his presidency, too, and shortly into his first term, Mitch McConnell, then minority leader of the Senate, said, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president….I don’t want the president to fail; I want him to change.”
 
So I woke up this morning and finally acknowledged that I seldom pray for wisdom for the president I don’t support, except in times of crisis.  I suspect I’m not the only one who prays instead for God to deliver us and send us a leader who will bring out the best in us four years down the road.
 
As I listen to the pundits and the speeches and the spin Sandy has left in her wake, I’ve finally admitted to myself this morning my fear that we’re getting exactly what we’ve prayed for–a leader who can do little except try to survive the opposition well enough to get a second term.  Because as long as we’re just lining up on opposite sides and praying for the other person to lose, we’re going to get exactly that answer to our prayers.  And it won’t matter which man wins next week.
 
And so I realize, yet again, why Jesus commanded us to love and pray for our enemies–and, of course, he didn’t just mean that we should pray for their defeat.  As he said with a wisdom that has caused his words to ring true 2000 years after he spoke, it’s easy to pray for someone you love.  Anyone can do that.  But to pray for the one you want to lose…not so much.
 
This won’t be easy for me, but now that I’ve had this insight into myself, I’m going to try to pray for wisdom for our leaders–by name–even for those I detest.
 
So what does this latest disaster have to say to you?

Who Deserves This Rite?

Matt Estelene in Hawaii

Serena loved to drive, and her father bought her a green Toyota Celica the year it made its entrance into the American market, an incredible luxury in a coal mining town where most families owned only one car and where my family owned none. I was 21, and I wouldn’t get my license until the following summer when I was forced to learn to drive because I got a teaching job in a town an hour away. My younger brothers would take me to the dirt track on the outskirts of town, a small circle in a field where almost every 16-year-old in town learned the basics of driving, and I would get my license and have two accidents in the West Virginia mountains before I’d had a license for six months.

But Serena got behind the wheel of that sporty green Celica at every opportunity, so she quickly agreed to drive me six hours to Alexandria, Virginia to see my boyfriend, whom I hadn’t seen all summer. She had a friend in the DC suburbs, so she cheerfully agreed to drop me at Adam’s house and then pick me up at the end of the weekend. Just after we crossed the border into Virginia, we heard the sound of a siren and saw flashing red lights behind us. Serena pulled over and opened the window to see a burly policeman, red-faced and incensed.

“Young woman, you must be in a real hurry to get somewhere!”

Serena did her best to appear contrite as the policeman told her she had been going 80 mph in a 50 mph zone. He told her that the fine was $150, an enormous amount of money for a college student in the 1970s, and he ordered us to drive into town and pay the fine immediately unless she wanted to spend the night in jail. She complied, as I frantically opened our purses to see how much money we had between us. After we paid the fine, we had $13 left over. But we continued the trip to see the people we loved.

Though we’ve sometimes lost touch for years, our friendship is true and lasting.  I broke up with that boyfriend a year after that trip. I married and divorced and married again before I found the love of my life. Serena, a devout Christian who reads the Bible every day, is still with Marianne, the friend she went to see that weekend, after nearly 40 years.

And then there’s Dave, my cousin. He married and had children before he was able to admit to himself that he was gay. He divorced and later found a partner with whom he shares his life. Dave, too, is a devout Christian. He posts inspirational quotations on his Facebook page that encourage all of us who are privileged to be his friends. He loves to garden and grows flowers and vegetables that he shares with everyone who lives in his neighborhood. But his choice to acknowledge who he really is has come at a cost.  Of his three siblings, only one will speak to him or be a part of his life.

And in 2003 when I lay on an operating table for a surgery that would take nine hours to excise the cancer from my body, the youth pastor of my church would come to the hospital, pray with my family, and sit with my daughter and my husband until he was sure they were okay. A year later, when my daughter had tired of being stronger and more mature than any 17-year-old should have to be, this pastor was the one who talked to her when she crashed and finally allowed herself to question what kind of God would let her mom have cancer.

In one of the few denominations that allows a debate about ordination of gays and lesbians, this man of incredible compassion and passionate eloquence was unable for years to get a call to be a senior pastor because of his sexual orientation. Even in our church, a liberal congregation that shared sacred space with a Jewish congregation, this pastor never brought his partner to church events out of respect to those in the congregation who might be offended by his choice of partners.  And yet I don’t know of a single heterosexual minister who has ever been expected to do the same for a spouse of whom the congregation might not approve.

These three people have enriched my life. And though I read the Bible every day, I cannot understand why people obsess over six verses that condemn their sexual orientation in chapters that also forbid behaviors that heterosexual couples engage in every day without similar condemnation. How is it possible that these six verses—on a topic that is never mentioned in any of the four Gospels—can outweigh story after story of Jesus’ compassion and love?

So, yes, last weekend I stood in line for an hour and fifteen minutes to vote in Maryland. And of the page after page of choices I had to make, on none of them was I more sure I was in the right than when I cast my vote to allow these three people to have the same rights I have to marry the love of my life.

NOTE: The names have been changed to protect the privacy of those whose stories I’ve told.

Why Do We Believe What We Believe?

This week I received an email from a former colleague who moved out of the country because of her husband’s job. She is missed in our office for her friendliness and her generosity in sharing her chocolate desserts. I can resist the run-of-the-mill donuts and left-over Halloween candy, but this woman’s hazelnut torte was a taste of heaven.

I worked with her for more than a year, and we took a yoga class together—my first venture into yoga. She encouraged me to take the class when I told her that my oncologist had been saying for years that yoga would be good for both my physical health and my ability to deal with stress. Because my colleague always seemed so centered, I took the class and learned from watching her and talking with her about how yoga helped her face life.

She cheered me on when I was accepted into a workshop with the editor ofNarrative Magazine, and she read the first chapters of my memoir and told me to be sure to stay in touch and let her know how my writing was going. So when I emailed her the link to my web site, I was surprised when she responded that she had passed on the link to some of her friends. Why? Because she revealed to me for the first time that she is an atheist—something I know only because she told me.

Her response really made me think. Would I have shared her web site had our positions been reversed? How many Christians do you know who would pass on a link to a site that explores the questions of atheists? And why didn’t I know that she was an atheist? She knew about my faith from my writing, but I had never asked and perhaps she had never felt comfortable sharing her own views.

I also have a family member who is an atheist. He’s a single father—a good father—of two young children. And one of my closest friends has struggled her whole life to decide whether she agrees with her parents, who taught her that no thinking person would ever believe there is a God. She is a teacher who has spent her entire career making a difference in the lives of troubled children other teachers have given up on.

These people have taught me that it takes a great deal of courage to admit to the world that one doesn’t believe in God. No matter how sterling the character of an atheist, most people fear them, disparage them, or try to convert them.

Faith, by its very nature, is a belief not based on concrete proof. And for most of us, faith is a response to what our parents taught us. We accept the beliefs of our parents because we see it in the content of their character and the example they set. We reject the faith of our fathers when we can’t reconcile what they say with the way they live. We live without much thought to faith because our parents didn’t consider it important.

So why should we feel threatened or indignant, why should we think less of a person of character because that person has rejected our belief system? We shouldn’t. I believe in God because there are too many things that have happened in my life that I just can’t chalk up to coincidence, because I have felt a Presence with me in both the joy and the muck, because I’ve seen the face of God in the people who’ve loved me and cared for me. This isn’t concrete proof, but it works for me. I chose Christianity as the lens through which I can best see God first because my parents believed in God—though one of the vengeful sort—but mostly because some of the most significant people in my life have shown me the face of God through their lives.

And while I believe in God in spite of being a victim of child abuse and facing a battle with cancer, I admit that I sometimes look at worse things that others have endured and hope I never have my faith tested in such a way. All of us have doubts about our faith, and I’m guessing that atheists do, too.

One thing is certain, though. In every way that counts, except for our views about the Eternal, my friends who are atheists are no different than I. They are people of character. And in a world where a lack of belief in God isn’t socially acceptable, they are, perhaps most of all, people of courage.

So come now, tell me stories of how your life has been enriched by someone whose faith is only in this life.

How Do I Answer Her Tough Questions?

Ash and Me

When my daughter was three years old, we commuted together on one of the busiest interstates in the country to my job as a teacher and to the daycare center where she spent more waking hours with care providers than she spent with me.  Despite the stress of having my precious cargo in a hellish commute with me, I loved sharing that time with her.  She chattered away and asked a million questions, even though we left home while the sky was still dark.  I knew that I needed to prepare myself for a lifetime of tough questions when she asked me, “Momma, how did God get all those stars up in the sky?”

That night, I read to her from James Weldon Johnson’s poem “The Creation”:

Then God reached out and took the light in His hands,

And God rolled the light around in His hands

Until He made the sun;

And He set that sun a-blazing in the heavens.

And the light that was left from making the sun

God gathered it up in a shining ball

And flung it against the darkness,

Spangling the night with the moon and stars.

Then down between

The darkness and the light

He hurled the world;

And God said, “That’s good!”

I remember being happy that she had asked me that question and not the daycare providers.  I remember feeling guilty that I couldn’t be a stay-at-home mom.  But now, she can’t remember the names of the people who cared for her, and I’m sure that she thinks more about all the things I’ve taught her than she thinks about anything that any of them said to her.

That doesn’t mean that she always agrees with me.  She views the world through the lens of her own experiences and ideas. And when she does, she isn’t shy about telling me that she doesn’t agree with me or share my view of the world.

And so today, she sometimes openly challenges my thinking in ways that I never challenged my own parents.  My father was a Republican who only once voted anything other than a straight ticket.  He was a child of evangelicals who never in my lifetime stepped foot into a church except for the funeral of a close friend.  My mother registered as a Republican and gave Dad a second vote in every election until he died, when she changed parties and cast the last vote of her life for Barack Obama.  She was a devout Christian who never worshipped in a church and who worried she might be going to hell because she didn’t accept the faith of her parents and in-laws.

I never considered registering as anything other than a Democrat.  I became eligible to vote in March 1974, a few months after Nixon had declared that he was not a crook.  But I never told my dad that I didn’t register for his party.  I never once discussed religion with my father either.  And after being a practicing evangelical for all of my teenage years and young adulthood, I chose a denomination that messily debates every social issue of the day. And I eventually chose a church that shared space with a Jewish congregation and ordained a gay minister.

Like many 20-somethings, my daughter doesn’t go to church as often as I do.  And she is far more accepting than I am of friends who have political views that differ from her own.  On many matters of politics and religion and life, she shares my views.  But she is much more quick to challenge people at the two extremes than I am and much more quick to offer her friendship to people whose views diverge from her own.

And maybe that’s a good thing in a world where we could use more people who can listen and really hear people who disagree.  The danger of teaching our children to think for themselves…is that they will.  But perhaps it’s our hope for the future, too.

Surrounded By the Flood?

Rain in Front Yard

Surrounded by the flood?  Not yet.  But the electricity just flickered for the first time…and when an official from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says that we’re about to see a storm we’ve never seen before–a “billion dollar storm”–we pay attention.  So here’s the view from my front porch, and I’m wondering how many of those leaves–and those azalea flowers, which aren’t even supposed to be blooming at this time of year–will be left by this time tomorrow.
 
“Yeah, yeah,” you say, “you and everyone else in the path of Sandy are blogging about it while you still have electricity.”  And you’re probably right.  But I wonder how many of the people who’ll blog about this storm will read the Common Lectionary for the day and tilt their heads at the coincidence.
 
Here’s the thing:  I follow my church’s Common Lectionary to center myself at the beginning of each day.  (And I’ve recently started exploring the holy texts of some other faiths as well, and it’s surprising how often our texts tell similar stories or say the same thing in truly poetic ways.)  The Common Lectionary readings are chosen by leaders of a number of denominations as a two-year cycle of readings for personal reflection.  And the Old Testament reading today–chosen long ago as part of a two-year cycle–is from the Book of Jonah, and it says, in part:
 

“You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me….The waters closed in over me; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped around my head at the roots of the mountains.” (Jonah 2: 3, 5-6)

 
Now I don’t believe that God is some master puppeteer who is up in the ether pulling the marionette strings and watching us dance.  But that coincidence does make me tilt my head and go, Hmmm.  It makes for interesting conversation with my friends who are thinking evangelicals…and even my friends who are deeply reflective atheists.
 
One of my friends texted this to me recently after reading an earlier post:  “I still don’t know the who or even if I believe the ‘is’ of God, but I do know that my life is enriched by your existence in it.”  And I feel the very same way about her.  And I find that sort of honesty much more rational and logical than the false prophets who’ve been warning us for thousands of years that earthquakes and hurricanes and tsunamis are God’s punishment for our transgressions.
 
And so, my friends, at the end of this storm may we all find that the great is has kept us through the storm and that, as Jonah was spewed out onto dry land in today’s reading, so may we find ourselves–safe and dry.  And if we are not, may we dismiss those voices who point accusing fingers and arm ourselves with compassion and courage to face the aftermath of the flood.

For People Who Don't Know All the Answers