Category Archives: Faith

What Lens Helps You See God?

Creche

On my last day of work before the holiday, a colleague sat at a meeting trying not to cough on those of us at the table with him.  He apologized in advance if any of us end up sick on Christmas, which everyone else celebrates.  He’s Jewish, married to a Christian, and his family celebrates both Christmas and Hanukkah.  His children were sick for part of Hanukkah, and it looks now as if he and his wife will be sick on Christmas.

I shifted my chair a little and laughed nervously.  “I’ve only had one cold in the nine years since I had cancer because the nursing staff taught me to wash my hands fanatically during chemo.”

He smiled and shifted his chair back from the table a little.

“Hey,” I said, “I even use that antibacterial lotion at church after the passing of the peace.”

Another colleague, also Christian but from another denomination, asked, “What’s the passing of the peace?”

I raised my eyebrows in surprise but then realized that the evangelical church of my childhood didn’t engage in this ritual either.  “It’s a point in the service when you shake hands with others in the congregation and say, ‘Peace be with you,’ and they answer, ‘And with you.’  Some people in our congregation don’t even shake hands during cold and flu season,” I explained.  “I do, but then I use hand sanitizer because the nurses taught me to do that during chemo.”

“Wow,” he said, “then you don’t even want to know how my church does communion.”

“How’s that?” I asked, fascinated as always by the traditions of others. “Do you use a common cup?”  He nodded.  “But doesn’t the priest wipe off the chalice between congregants?”

He shook his head.  “And it’s not a chalice.  It’s the same spoon.”

“Hmmm,” I said, tilting my head to think about that.

We went back to work, but I’ve been thinking a lot about that conversation in the past 24 hours.  Yesterday evening one of my Facebook friends vented about gun control.  Though my daughter tells me it’s useless to discuss politics on social media, I responded, since my friend and I respect each other and sometimes come to understand each other better when we tell the stories that led us to have the views we hold.  But one of his friends went on a tirade about how we wouldn’t have such a violent world if we went back to having school prayer.

Many of my friends who are far more reasonable than this person agree with him.  But after 30 years in the classroom, I understand, in a way that many of my friends do not, what that would ask of children who are not Christian.  I think particularly of two girls on the debate team I coached who were Muslim.  Debate meets went on for hours, and we always scheduled these two girls around their evening prayer time.  Very quietly, they would go to a room that we had set aside for them and pray as their faith demanded.  They made no one uncomfortable.  They simply observed the tenets of their own faith quietly, without fuss or show.

In my entire life, I have not known a single Christian who is so devoted to prayer as were these two young women.  One of them went on to become a teacher, a woman who patiently explained why she wore a head covering and who, after September 11, explained endlessly that not all Muslims are terrorists.

And if we were in the minority, I wonder how we would feel if we were suddenly asked to participate in the rituals of someone else’s faith.

So in this season when our world is so much in need of a shared peace that we cannot pass to one another with a few words and a handshake, I wonder how we can find a way to share respectfully the lenses through which we are able to see God—to live in peace with one another in spite of our differences.

I see God through the lens of that babe in the manger who grew into a man who urged conscience and compassion.  He has been and is my salvation, over and over again, as I try to live up to the example Christ set for me. And when I read the stories in the Gospels in search of truth for my own life, I read again and again of how he shared meals and conversations with people that others dismissed.

And I wonder what our world would be like if each of us could do the same—not to sit in judgment but to share the good news of our own lives with one another in search of a shared peace.

So peace be with you.  And now tell me your stories of passing on peace to others.

What Brings You Comfort and Joy?

Ash at Christmas

Images of children have been playing behind my closed eyelids this week—images of those dear children in Connecticut—as I’m sure they have for all of us, long after we’ve turned off the television sets.  But I see them sleeping peacefully or waking to dance in joy at the Spirit’s feet, for I can hardly bear to think of them in any other way.  And I pray that their parents can call up images of their children before this terrible tragedy, for I know that my sadness cannot even begin to approach what their loved ones feel.

The pictures I’ve seen in the media have become like the images we see when we’ve looked at the sun for too long and then closed our eyes to still see their silhouettes.  So I’ve been trying to honor their memory and assuage my own sorrow by imagining visions of children dancing from foot to foot in excitement, clapping their hands in delight, squealing happily in the way that only children can do.

I turn to happy memories of my own daughter, who is 26 now and full of life and the promise of young adulthood, and to my stepchildren, one of whom has given us our first grandchild.  As I imagine every parent must, I fight back the fear at how easy it is to have our children torn from us.  Even as I write this, I realize I’m holding my breath as I think about it.

And then I make myself breathe.  And a wave of guilt washes over me that I’ll be able to return to my life, to breathe normally, long before those children’s loved ones who’ve suffered such loss.  How can I be joyful when there is such suffering?  And then I remember a lesson that cancer taught me:  If the fear of dying takes away the joy of living, then tragedy wins.  And I know that it’s okay for me to anticipate laughter and happiness as our children gather in the coming days.

Perhaps this year, more than I’ve ever considered before, I’m thinking of the child in the manger whose life ends in both tragedy and hope.  I think often of a poem I read in college by Howard Nemerov, a former poet laureate, who writes:

Somewhere on his travels the strange Child

Picked up with this overstuffed confidence man,

Affection’s inverted thief, who climbs at night

Down chimneys, into dreams, with this world’s goods.

Bringing all the benevolence of money,

He teaches the innocent to want…

…Now, at the season when the Child is born

To suffer for the world, suffer the world,

His bloated Other, jovial satellite…

This annual savior of the economy

Speaks in parables of the dollar sign:

Suffer the little children to come to Him.

At Easter, he’s anonymous again,

Just one of the crowd lunching on Calvary.

This poem was the beginning of my understanding that not everyone views Christmas through my glasses–that the chubby Santa of my mother, who couldn’t always put the world’s goods under the Christmas tree, represented something very different to the world at large.  But most of all, that reference to the Baby Jesus as a “strange Child” really made me think—about how others view my faith but, more than that, how strange it really is that my faith begins with an innocent baby and could have ended with an instrument of torture.

But it hasn’t.  Whatever one believes about Christ and about what Christians have done to Christmas, for 2000 years our faith has been a search for life.  Abundant life.  It begins in hope.  It sometimes ends in tragedy we can’t even begin to understand.  And in the intervening days and years, most of us do the best we can to bear the pain and celebrate the joy.  And my prayer for the survivors in Connecticut, still in the in-between, is that they can bear the loss, remember the pleasure, and some day, beyond the crucifying tragedy, find hope and life.

We are stronger in bearing pain when we know that others weep and pray for us.  But let us remember, too, that we grow stronger in hope and love by celebrating and sharing our moments of wonder at the beauty of life.

So what brings you tidings of comfort and joy?

Are We Prejudiced?

Harper's Ferry Church

Like most liberals, I like to think I don’t have prejudices.  I have friends of different races—close enough to vacation together.  I have friends of other faiths—close enough to share our faith traditions.  I believe knowing people who come from backgrounds different from my own enriches my life and my understanding of the world.

But occasionally something happens that forces me to admit that I, too, have prejudices.  Like today.  I read in this morning’s paper that Westboro Baptist, the church that pickets at military funerals and believes that tragedies are God’s judgment, plans to protest at the Newtown funerals.

I held my breath as the blood rose to my head.  I was livid.  I became a child again as I read the page, transported back to my early years among church leaders who preached so hard about God’s wrath that they had to gasp for breath in the middle of every sentence.

Reading the string of angry comments from both people who attacked the church members and people who responded by attacking the attackers, I became even more incensed, caught up in a vicious cycle of anger.  I wanted to respond in the same rabid tone to people who I feel have tried to hijack my faith.  And in that moment, I knew that I had a visceral loathing of people who are absolutely certain they know the mind of God.

I took a breath.  And I remembered that Christ, too, got angry—angry enough to knock over tables in a place of worship.  But we don’t really know how that worked out for him because the story shifts immediately to how he helped the blind and the lepers, who deserved his—and our—attention far more than people like this do.

What did work for him, though, was that he often outsmarted the religious leaders who asked him questions just to try to trip him up.  And he did it by quoting their own holy texts back to them and leaving them with a question.

I could do that.  I’ve read the Bible three times in three different translations, and though I have forgotten many of the stories, I’ve read the Gospels again and again—many more than three times.  And never once have I seen a glimpse in the stories of the small god of Westboro Church.

And while I suspect that they will no more listen to me than the know-it-alls in Jesus’ time listened to him, perhaps I’ll try his approach.  Whenever I have the chance to challenge such people, I will swallow my prejudice and challenge them in the same tone that Jesus used when he calmly drew in the sand with a stick before he gave them answers that have reverberated for over 2000 years.

And though I find this church group ludicrous for their web site URL and their clownish videos insisting that God hates, I will tell the stories of how God’s love has come to me many times in my life through the very people they say God hates—through my lesbian girlfriend who drove me to social events when my family didn’t have a car, through my gay pastor who prayed with my family when I had surgery for Stage 3 cancer, through a lesbian neighbor who takes care of my dog when I must leave town to be with my ailing mother, through a lesbian colleague who gave me her mother’s secret recipe for Chocolate Ganache Torte because she wanted me to have it when she was no longer around, almost as if she sensed that she would die an early death a few years later.

Through people who, if I took out the words identifying their sexuality, you would assume to be no different from me than in their eye color or the length of their limbs.

We all have stories.  And our stories are stronger than hate—stronger than small, hate-filled gods and idols.  So let us tell our stories, again and again, even when we feel they can’t hear them.  And maybe 2000 years from now, our descendants will tell stories about how the Spirit became flesh through the love reflected in our faces and in our voices and in our stories.

So come now, tell me your stories of grace and love.

Which Characters Speak to You?

Patapsco River

When you read, which characters do you identify with?  The books I most love aren’t necessarily the ones with an interesting plot but the ones with interesting people who speak to my spirit on a human level.  In high school I loved Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Dickens’ Pip, poor people who found their way into a world where they didn’t have to worry about material need, only to find that such a world didn’t ensure happiness.  In college I loved the quirky characters of Eudora Welty, whose stories would have been sad without the funny southerners who made me laugh.  And when my first marriage fell apart, I turned to the strong women in Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison.

In the past few months, I’ve been thinking a lot about the characters in Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees, which I read again last spring.  I love the spunk of the 14-year-old narrator Lily, who, like me, witnessed a scene of gun violence when she was a small child that shaped the course of her life.  I love the three sisters, named for months of the year—August, June, and May.  But it is May who haunts me.  She is the tender-hearted one.  When she hears of tragedy, she writes on pieces of paper the names of people who’ve been hurt and stuffs the papers into the crevices of a stone wall behind her home.  When she becomes too overwhelmed with the sadness of others, her sisters give her a bath in honey water and tell her, “Let all that misery slide right off of you.  Just let it go.”  They’ve learned that the human heart can only embrace so much suffering.  But she can’t let it go.  In one of the most powerfully symbolic scenes I’ve ever read, she trudges to the river, lies down with a rock on her chest, and drowns in the sorrows of the world.

Even before the tragedy in Connecticut, our nation was burdened with too much suffering, and in the 24-hour news cycle, it’s become even harder to tuck the agony of others into crevices where we can let them go for a while.  When the Columbine tragedy happened, my daughter was just about to enter high school, and I sat in front of the news for hours, often watching the same clips replay, until my daughter begged me to turn off the television and leave the misery behind.  By the time the senseless tragedy of 9/11 happened, I had learned that I needed to be strong for my daughter and my students, who no longer felt safe in a world so violent and unpredictable.  Now my daughter is 26 and living with her boyfriend, a young man who knows what it is to suffer the loss of his mother, a young man who served our country in Iraq.  He now reminds my daughter, as she reminds me and as August and June remind May, that she has to actively seek joy in a world where pain is so much more pervasive.

But I feel more than a little guilt in seeking joy this week before Christmas when there are parents and sisters and brothers and loved ones who are suffering so much in the wake of the latest tragedy.  How do I help them, as President Obama promised we would?  What can I do but offer them my prayers and weep with them?  Is it too much to ask that, this once, I sit in front of the television and grieve?  But how do I do that without becoming like May and drowning in their sorrows?

In a passionate condemnation of the news media, actor Morgan Freeman suggested that we turn off the news, forget the name of the gunman, and, instead, remember the name of one of the victims of the Sandy Hook shootings.  I’m not sure I agree that we should forget the shooter’s name.  I suspect that he, too, has a story fraught with pain and suffering that will come to us in due time.  But we do need to remember these victims somehow—in a way that will spur us to make a small difference in the life of one person who is in need—but in a way that will not make us so overwhelmed that we are paralyzed by fear and anger and sorrow.

I’ve heard many pundits say that tragedies and disasters are always followed by an outpouring of support that reveals the goodness of humanity.  And we know that is true.  But what if I vow to find a way not just to show the face of God and of love in the wake of human suffering but to look for ways to be the face of love in the world every day, to listen and look a little more closely to a world in need?  What if all of us vowed to find a small way each day to be an instrument of God’s peace?

If we all vow to do that, we won’t have a perfect world.  But the rock will certainly be easier to carry.

If Your Friends…?

 

“If your friends jumped off a cliff, would you jump, too?”  My mom stopped kneading the buttermilk biscuit dough only for a moment to look through her thick glasses and stare me down.

Exasperated, I put my hands on my hips and tried not to be the first to blink.  But as a teenager hearing that answer from my mother, I knew the conversation was over.  Though she could sometimes be badgered into giving in, she had the force of my father’s sternness hovering in the air even when he wasn’t present.  And the one point of argument that never once worked for me was that my friends were all allowed to [fill in the blank here].

Now that my mother is in a nursing home, largely silenced by a debilitating stroke, I’ve replayed this scene in my mind often.  All my adult life, when I’ve been tempted to do something because everyone else is doing it, I hear her voice in my mind and know that I should have a better reason for the choices I make and the causes I champion than that everyone is doing it—that it seems to be in vogue.

My mom quit school in ninth grade to care for her ailing mother, though she did earn her GED when she was 52—after all her five children had graduated from high school.  She readily admitted that there was a lot she didn’t know about English and math, science and social studies, but she wanted all of us to go to college.  And she knew absolutely nothing about the college application process.  She entrusted that guidance to our teachers and supported them in pushing us to make good educational choices.

So when I hear the term “fiscal cliff,” I can’t help thinking of my mother and wishing that our leaders had someone to ask them to have better reasons for their choices than that everyone else in their party is heading over the cliff—or at least playing a game of chicken that sends them so close to the edge of the precipice that the force of momentum may make it impossible to stop their forward progress, sending them over the cliff in spite of their certainty that they can stop just short of recklessness.

Like my mother, I’ll admit that there are some things I don’t know.  I don’t fully understand economics or finance.  But I do know that we cannot continue to pile up a steep mountain of debt and leave our children to look over the cliff into the abyss below.  Nor can we continue to leave the least among us tottering over the precipice with no one to pull them back to safety. 

So like my mother, I want to be able to entrust decisions about our budget to those who committed themselves to finding the best solutions when they asked for our votes.  As my mom trusted my teachers, I want to be able to trust our leaders—all of them, not just those in my party—to find objective experts who can help them make solid decisions.  I know that few of the people we elect are economists.  But they do have the resources to engage experts who can help them move in a positive direction instead of just telling them what they want to hear.

But for that to happen, our politicians need to listen more to people like my mother.

‘Til Death Do Us Part?

Wedding

At the age of 90, my aunt left the corporeal world this week to reunite with seven of her nine siblings, including my father, who died in 1998. My sister, the oldest of our parents’ five children, posted on social media that we once had 24 aunts and uncles—27 if you count the three who died before adulthood—and now only three remain with us. And only one of those 24 aunts and uncles ever divorced.

The evangelical church they grew up in taught that divorce ensured their place in a fiery hell. And while some of them endured hell on earth at the hands of abusive husbands, they all adhered to that tenet of their faith. Many of them did move beyond the more stringent teachings of the church, which mostly applied to women—no make-up, no jewelry, no pants, no haircuts. But the wives obeyed their husbands.

My only aunt who divorced moved to Maryland, eight hours and a world away from the hills of southern West Virginia, far enough away to live her own life. What I remember about her from family reunions was that she joined the men in having a good stiff drink, wore red lipstick, and cursed just as her brothers did. The women in the family whispered about her, but she never seemed to care. When she got into the car to drive back to Maryland, I remember her blowing smoke rings out the window and driving away with a grin on her face.

When I moved to Maryland, I lived an hour and a half from my aunt, but my mom told me later that she and my dad refused to give her my phone number or my address. I never really knew her, and as a young working mother, I had little time to give her any thought.

But I think about her and my other aunts and uncles this week as same-sex couples begin to apply for marriage licenses that will allow them to marry in January. These couples have had a long wait for what my parents and my aunts and uncles took for granted—aunts and uncles who didn’t even have to wait past their teenage years for the right to marry—though I’m certain some of them longed for the right to divorce that many of their children would demand.

But though I left the evangelicals behind and chose a more open faith, being married in a church didn’t ensure my own marriage would last. Despite pre-marital counseling where one of the wisest ministers I know encouraged us to explore our common values, despite a marriage at an altar in front of a majestic pipe organ and 150 witnesses, I became the first of four of my parents’ five children to divorce.

And the only one to marry again.

In the eyes of my parents’ faith, I am an adulteress, just like my aunt, living in this godless state that doesn’t believe a marriage is a covenant for one man and one woman, one time, one lifetime.

But this time, my husband and I listened closely to the minister who helped us understand how our personalities shape the ways we love each other. We listened to the little voices, and we learned how important it is to laugh every day, to remind ourselves every day of why we fell in love. And despite coming from backgrounds that disapprove of divorce and remarriage, we’ve found the love of a lifetime. And 21 years ago, we had the right and the privilege of a second chance at happiness in a church with the support of 25 family members and close friends.

Now same-sex couples in Maryland can enjoy the same rights all of us enjoy, even when we make a mess of it. Just like all of us, some of them will make it and some of them will make mistakes. But they won’t have to long for divorce—or death—to part them, as some of my aunts and uncles have done.

So why on earth anyone would feel that same-sex marriage is a threat to the family?

Get Rid of Clutter?

Christmas Clutter

I had planned to wrap gifts this evening. Over the weekend, I pulled roll after roll of red and green and white paper from the bins at a craft store and stacked them in my husband’s arms. Then we stopped at the area’s newest grocery store to buy a few fresh vegetables for these weeks between the gluttony of Thanksgiving and the sugary delicacies of Christmas. As we entered the store and the doors swished closed behind us, I was mesmerized by a carefully crafted and strategically placed display of satiny red paper with white reindeer, by shiny gold and blue foil, priced at two rolls for $3.00. How could I resist? I stacked four more rolls into the cart and skillfully maneuvered past all the young couples who stood in front of the seafood counter, the fresh vegetables, and the myriad cheeses and used their smart phones to compare prices.

So instead of wrapping gifts this evening, I sit here in front of the lighted Christmas tree, breathing in the smell of Fraser fir and the peace of Christ. Not a bad way to spend an evening. But why, you ask, am I not wrapping those presents?

A girl can change her mind, right? Perhaps it’s because I’m older and wiser now, learning to slow down, you’re thinking? But you would be wrong.

Instead, I’m sitting here thinking of my pastor’s Advent sermon series about getting rid of the clutter in our minds. Two Sundays ago, he made the entire congregation laugh out loud over and over again as he described the difference between himself and his wife, our co-pastor. Like me, she dislikes clutter. Like my husband, he has a much greater tolerance for untidiness, and he offered a very funny “scientific” explanation of the law of physics that ensures that clutter accumulates.

This was particularly amusing to my husband and me because we had just finished cleaning out the basement a few days before. I have six boxes of files from 30 years of teaching that I haven’t gone through in the five years since I left the classroom. At one point it was nine boxes, and I weeded through three before I tired of spending a day off sorting through handouts I was never likely to use again now that my job is to design lessons for interactive whiteboards. But I can’t quite bring myself to toss those other six boxes, even though I have used perhaps two handouts I saved before putting three boxes into the recycling bin. What if I throw out something great that I could have used—something I don’t have on a floppy disk or a CD or a flash drive?

And what does that have to do with wrapping gifts, you ask? At the same time that I refused to wheel those six boxes of files to the recycling bin, I insisted that my husband break down the stack of empty gift boxes he’s saved for the past two Christmases that filled up three storage shelves. And so he did. But he wasn’t happy as he stomped the boxes to break them down flat. One woman’s clutter is another man’s practicality.

And if you haven’t guessed it by now, I need those boxes. I broke my vow to avoid Cyber Monday and shop at the mall. I ordered most of my gifts online in spite of my recent blog to the contrary. But none of those items came with gift boxes. And so now, as I continue to stack those gifts on the bed in one of the guest rooms, a bed that needs to be cleared before our friends visit this weekend, I could have used those boxes that hadn’t been recycled for the past three years.

It’s a good thing that I’ve done a better job this year of uncluttering my mind.

So tell me a story. What’s your most beloved clutter?

What’s In a Smile?

Mom in Pink Hat

I never saw my mom wear a hat.  An accordion-pleated rain bonnet that she unfurled and tied beneath her chin to protect her latest perm, yes.  Ear muffs and headbands that she carefully arranged to cover the hairline that divided her bangs from the hair she brushed back, yes.  And a winter hood that she pulled over her curls and tied loosely to avoid crushing her sprayed and teased salon hair, yes.  She was vain about her hair but too practical to wear a hat that merely ornamented her head.

When my sixth grade teacher told our math class to use our heads for something other than hat racks, I assumed she was talking about other people—those who perched their thoughts over themselves as ornaments for others to see.  And that was not my mother.  She was nothing if not practical.

Now she sits in a wheelchair in a nursing home, forced to trust others to get her dressed.  Her hair is longer and brushed straight back, sprayed into place to keep it from falling into her face.  I creep quietly into her room, looking to see her head tilted slightly toward her chest, trying to judge whether she is awake.  Silent, I put my purse gently on the floor next to a table, unwilling to wake her.

As I straighten back up, my eyes fall on a picture of my mother, sporting a jaunty fuchsia hat.  She looks directly into the camera, and her lips are so reddish blue that she seems to be wearing my trademark berry lipstick.  But despite the uncharacteristic hat, I know that my mom has never in her life worn make-up or lipstick, and I recognize that the color is a symptom of the condition that forces her to wear the oxygen tube stretching across her face, feeding air into her nostrils.  The fingers of a gnarled hand rest on her left shoulder, and I know that the picture was taken before Hospice brought the wheelchair that allows Mom to recline slightly so that she doesn’t fall forward.

I pick up the picture and note from the date imprint that it was taken on Halloween.  But it is my mother’s expression that captures my attention.  Her lips are pursed tightly together, and at first I think she looks angry.  But I’ve seen a similar expression when she labors to breathe in more oxygen from the tube in her nose.  I put the picture down and lift a chair to avoid waking my mother, but when I lower the chair down next to hers, she opens her eyes in surprise and says, “Well!” and the corners of her mouth turn up slightly in a smile.

I lean down to kiss her cheek before sitting and taking her hand in mine.  I rub the top of her hand, always surprised at the silkiness of her skin in spite of years of physical labor.

She chatters, but I understand little of what she says until she points to the television, and the sound that has been background noise enters my consciousness for the first time.  Ellen DeGeneres dances down the stairs, giving away Christmas gifts to an audience that claps and squeals in delight.  I wonder if the staff member who turned on the program knows that my mom has always liked Ellen.  My mom smiles at the television before her gaze returns to me, and I watch her eyes travel to my neckline.  She reaches out and touches the crystal with the tiny silver tree inside.  I had bought the charm the week before, thinking ahead to this visit and remembering how much Mom loves snow globes.

My sister, who is far more than our mother’s primary caregiver, laughs that I am “the shopping daughter” and “the jewelry daughter.”  I am the only one of my mother’s five children who is a practicing Christian, and I am the one who consistently buys our mother jewelry—an act of defiance against her childhood church that forbade make-up and pants and trinkets of any kind.  And as Mom has been able to communicate less, I’ve chosen the jewelry I wear more carefully, knowing that she will be able to get out the word, “Pretty,” which she does just as I am mentally congratulating myself that she has noticed the snow globe.

As her hand returns slowly to her lap, I take it between both my own and tell her I love her.

She smiles again and speaks a sentence that is surprisingly clear.  “I [unintelligible] kids to church.”

I have heard this many times before, and I know that she’s telling me again, “I should have taken you kids to church.”

But, as I’ve done every time we’ve had this conversation, I remind her again that she actually did us a favor by not taking us to hear the sermons of a flaming hell that has terrified her for most of her life.  I ask, “Mom, you do know that God has you wrapped in a hug, don’t you?”

She nods and smiles in a way that reminds me of the picture.  As her attention returns to Ellen, I text my sister:  Who took this pic of Mom in a pink hat?

Almost immediately, I hear two pings.  The first is lol and the second, They took it there at Halloween.

I text back.  Can I take it home and scan it? I like it. She looks like, Don’t be messin with me!

You can have it. 

I put the picture in my purse, and I know that this will be my Mona Lisa picture of my mother.  I will never know what she was thinking when the nursing home staff snapped her picture in a hat she would never have worn.  But it gives me joy to see that expression and know that nothing can ever take away the Spirit of this woman who has given me life.

Feeling Stressed This Season?

Mom and Santa

A few years ago, I had an epiphany early—during Advent.  My daughter was in middle school, and I wanted to see every basketball game she played and to be sure that we participated in all the activities at our church.  At work I faced a growing pile of essays to grade, and as the Christmas season loomed, I hadn’t done any shopping for the perfect gifts for the people I love.  Determined to remember peace on earth and in my life, I wanted desperately to participate in the book study at church of Robinson’s and Staeheli’s Unplug the Christmas Machine: A Complete Guide to Putting Love and Joy Back into the Season.

But I didn’t have time to take the class.  Continue reading Feeling Stressed This Season?

Is the World Your Book?

Christmas Tree

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, and I am joyful.  After church my daughter and her boyfriend will join us to cut a live tree, and her friends will join us to decorate the tree and laugh and talk and share a meal and a cup of cheer.  And while I’m mindful of my faith, many of the traditions we share have little to do with the story of that babe’s birth in a manger.  While we share memories of our church filled with the soft light of hundreds of candles on Christmas Eve, many of us would be stumped if asked why we kill a live tree and bring it into the house with such delight or why we leave cookies and milk for the man in the red suit who finds a way into even those houses that don’t have chimneys.

When my siblings and I were children, our mom bought a set of World Book Encyclopedias, adding the annual volume each year, no matter how little money our parents had, to be sure our information never went out of date.  In those white books, embossed with gold print, some of the most worn pages were those that described how people in other countries celebrate Christmas.  So while we grew up in a tiny town in the Appalachian mountains, we knew that we shared this holiday with people in England and Italy and Germany and Denmark—people who seemed far away but close because of our shared enthusiasm for the babe in the manger who promised hope.

Having grown up in a town that was all white and all Protestant, I didn’t encounter a Catholic until I left home for college.  But I am happily married to a Polish Catholic, and because of those pages in my mom’s beloved encyclopedias, I’ve always had at least a partial understanding of how Catholicism differs from my faith.  So the only real stretch of understanding for me was moving from my mom’s and my childhood church’s non-alcoholic table to the wine and the bread that embodied the risen Christ.

But I didn’t truly know anyone of a non-Christian faith until I moved to the D.C. suburbs, where my school system closed in September for two Jewish holidays that I knew nothing about. And later, our department hired a Muslim of Pakistani descent, a woman who also knew much more about my faith than I knew about hers.  I quickly learned that my colleagues and friends of other faiths often knew more than most Christians about the holidays we celebrate.  And I know that on more than one occasion, my questions and curiosity revealed a complete ignorance of their faith that must have astonished them.  But I was strengthened in my fight against cancer when a young Jewish woman made me a framed hanging with a tiny scroll and a verse our faith traditions shared.  And my life was enriched when the Muslim woman brought a Pakistani meal for our department and explained as she broke bread with us the significance of each dish.

As we begin this month-long, boisterous celebration of our faith tradition, what would happen if each of us took the time to find out something about the traditions of other faiths?  What if I turned to that Buddhist whose quiet strength is often greater than my own and asked about his meditation practices?  What if I asked an atheist—with genuine curiosity instead of a desire to convert her—how she seeks to understand a world that is often vocal in its rejection of her?

As Twain’s character Huck Finn discovered as he floated down the Mississippi River on a raft with the man Tom, who his culture had taught him was only 3/5 of a human being, we cannot possibly hold to stereotypes when we truly get to know another human being in all the complexities that defy the way we’ve been taught to see them.  Every culture and faith has its villains and its heroes.  But once we see someone up close—and even learn to call him a friend—we learn that the complexities of human beings are far more interesting than the extremes in which we paint them from a distance.

And even if we live in areas that never allow us to know those of other cultures, the Internet has made the world a much smaller place.  I can now see videos—and even chat with—those people in far-away places that I could only read about in my mother’s World Book.  The world is now my book.  And isn’t that much more interesting?

Advent—for Christians, the word means the coming of the Christ. But what if it were also advent—a coming into place or view—where we begin to come to a fuller understanding of what’s best in us all?

What have you gained or learned from someone of another faith?