Can We? Part 2 – Telling the Truth

Thanks for coming back. I hope that there are a few of you still sticking around after last week  🙂

Today I want to ask a couple more questions that we as Christians (or any ethical and/or religious people, for that matter) need to consider as we go out into the world of politics, patriotism, and public policy.  The questions we’re going to ask ourselves today deal with the issues of honesty and integrity. I hope that even if you don’t completely agree with what I have to say here, you will find some valuable thought to take with you this week.

So here we go:

Can we stop lying to our children by sugarcoating American History?

I love studying history. I love the cause and effect of it all, the subtle connections, the never-ending story it provides. I even love that it has the good, the bad, and the ugly. I wouldn’t want to study history if it were all shiny and happy and victorious, because then it would ring false. We know that our daily lives are a messy mix of good and evil, truth and lies, good guys and villains. How could we expect anything different from history? I don’t just love studying history, I love teaching it, too. Over several years of teaching elementary school, I found that history was about the most fun subject to teach because it lent itself to so many different kinds of teaching and learning. The projects and enrichment activities seemed endless.

But I also found something very frustrating about teaching history, particularly American history, and even more particularly, teaching it from Christian textbooks. When I read about American history in those books, I couldn’t help feeling like we were only supposed to serve up one side of the story. All of these men and women were supposed to have been brave, freed0m-loving, hard-working, God-fearing heroes and heroines. But what of their failings, mistakes, or outright sins? They were not even given a footnote. Here’s what I found, in a nutshell:

  • We were supposed to talk about Christopher Columbus praying on his ships as he sailed to America, but not about the Spanish explorers to the New World killing and enslaving the natives.
  • We should teach about the Puritans coming to America so that they could create a world where people were free to worship God, but not about how they themselves persecuted anyone who did not follow their version of Christianity.
  • Our children should learn about the Founding Fathers seeking American Independence because they loved God and wanted all people to be free from the economic and political tyranny of Great Britain, but they don’t need to know that the American Colonies had a far higher standard of living than any part of Europe in the 18th Century, nor that most of the Founding Fathers were humanists and deists rather than Christians.
  • We should teach them about the great soldiers of the Union Army, who fought the Civil War to free the slaves because that’s what Abraham Lincoln knew God wanted them to do, but not about the real causes for the Civil War or about how very little was actually done to improve the lives of former slaves.
  •  Our children should learn of the courage, determination, and industriousness of the Pioneers who spread our nation westward, but we ought not to mention the countless Native Americans that were killed, oppressed, relocated, lied to, and cheated so that the white settlers from the eastern states could have land to farm and mine.
  • We should praise the heroic way in which America saved the world from dictators, communism and genocide by bailing France and England out during WWI and WWII, but gloss over the many pleas from England during the Great War (WWI) for America’s help that didn’t come until the last year of the war, or the fact that while our soldiers were fighting against the genocide and concentration camps of the Nazis, we were busy rounding up all the Japanese Americans and putting them in internment camps because we couldn’t trust them as a race.

That is just a small sampling of the low points in American history. We, as a nation, have been greedy, violent, racist (to everyone from Native Americans, to African Americans, to Italians, Irish and Jews), and dishonest. That is not to say that we haven’t done some great things over the last 400+ years. We have one of the best constitutions out there. We have unquestionably free and fair elections. There are many good reasons why we have been considered the land of opportunity and the promised land by millions of immigrants. Like I said last week, I am extremely thankful that I get to live in America. I may be saddened or disappointed by some of the things I find in our country’s history, and frankly in some of the things we are doing today, but that does not make me any less thankful.

I think there are two reasons we sugarcoat our history, especially when telling it to children. First, we think that if we were to tell the whole truth, people would start hating America, and we would lose all our precious little patriots. I don’t think this is true. I don’t think that if we tell our children the whole story of America that they will become chain-smoking, nationalized-healthcare-dependent, multilingual expatriates somewhere in Europe. I think they will just have a better understanding of the whole nature of man. If, as George Santayana said, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” then we ought to make sure our children know and remember our whole history so that they can avoid repeating the negative parts of it. But how can they remember something they do not know? Are we condemning our children to repeat the failures of the last several centuries?

The second reason many parents and teachers avoid telling the whole history of America to their children is that they feel that the children aren’t capable of understanding it, or that the truth is too unpleasant for children to hear. I do not think this is true. Children are much wiser than we give them credit for, and much more able to process this sort of information while they are young, because they have less rigid constructs of how the world must be. When you are 7 or 8, you are perfectly willing and able to stretch and change your understanding of the world because that is something that is happening on a regular basis as you grow and learn. What is more, children are better able to absorb the personal aspects of history than most of us adults. Teach a child about the Trail of Tears or the horrible segregation of blacks and whites in the South, and those children will be able to empathize and respond with compassion. Tell an adult (who presumably is unaware of these facts in history) about the same things and they will say, “How sad, how unjust. I’m glad we know better now,” and walk away unchanged.

Children are capable of understanding and hearing unpleasant things without being scarred for life. Perhaps not in gory detail, but certainly they can handle a larger measure of the truth than we think. This is even true of the most seemingly sensitive children. For example, I once had a student who was very intelligent, but also possessed a very vivid imagination. Imaginary frights and foes easily took over her mind, and thus she had a very low tolerance for scary or suspenseful stories. One would expect that she would not be able to handle the more unpleasant aspects of history. However, I found out quickly that she could absorb and understanding things that she knew were true, factual history. If you told her about a dragon coming to burn down the school, she would have nightmares about it. But if you told her that thousands of Cherokees died on the Trail of Tears, she would be able to logically process that into her understanding of American history. Let’s stop insulting our children by telling them half-truths and lies.

There is another reason that we out to change the way we dispense history to our children, and that is the issue of our own credibility.We have a culture, as parents and teachers, of consistently lying to our children. We lie to them about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy. We lie to them about how we feel. We lie to them about others. We lie to others in front of them. We have woven this culture of dishonesty so deeply into the framework of our lives that a natural part of growing up is the process of pulling all the lies out so that we can reorganize our worldviews. Sadly, because we distrust so much of what our parents and teachers told us, we pull out even the truth that they did tell us and discard all of it together.

Do you never wonder why so many young adults turn away from the faith they were raised with? Think about it: if you tell me that Santa is real, and then he turns out to be a myth, ditto the Tooth Fairy and Easter Bunny, how is God, or Jesus Christ, any different? They are all just good stories to get me to behave as a child, but are no longer relevant now that I’m in charge of myself. And why should I believe it just because you told me about it? You also lied about how much you liked Aunt Agnes’ lamb stew and about how “beautiful” your sister’s wedding dress was, because those lies made your life easier. Maybe you lied to me about religion, faith, and salvation because those lies made your life easier. Yes, we may have to be selective about how much detail we share from the more violent parts of our history, but we hurt our children more by lying to them than by telling them the truth.

Can We Stop Using the World’s Ways?

I’m not a big fan of politics. I have an especially hard time reconciling the beliefs of Christians in the political realm with their actions within that realm. This has nothing to do with their particular stands on taxes, abortion, marriage, jobs, trade, or immigration. It also is not because I feel that Christians shouldn’t be involved in government and politics. It’s just that I constantly get the sense that the Christians  (and the moral conservatives of other religions) are denying everything they supposedly stand for by the way they conduct themselves in the public arena.

Let me show you what I’m trying to say. We’ll transfer this concept into the area of evangelism. Suppose a missionary or preacher wanted to bring as many people to God and salvation as possible. Preaching the Gospel wasn’t working as fast as he wanted, the radio spots weren’t getting enough attention, so he decided to try a new tactic. He mailed out flyers stating that he would personally pay the college education for the children of anyone who accepted Jesus (even though he couldn’t possibly deliver on that promise). He sent out emails to his faithful members, emails full of libelous and scandalous “facts” about the other ministers in town (not a bit of which was true; but his faithful flock passed these “facts” along to everyone on their mailing lists). And how did he pay for all this? Well, because he was doing “the Lord’s work,” he took all the money that was originally earmarked to build a new food pantry and soup kitchen, and he paid for his campaign of salvation.

What were the results? Many people came to the church, curious and excited about the prospect of something for nothing. They heard the Gospel preached, but that wasn’t what they came for. Very few believed and were saved, and several true believers that had been in the church for years were so disgusted with the preacher that they left for another church. And the food pantry/soup kitchen? It never was built. There wasn’t enough money.

No pastor, evangelist, or Christian who is sincere in his or her beliefs would condone any of what our hypothetical preacher had done. He was deceptive, he started false rumors, and he misused the financial resources of his congregation. The sad thing is, when it comes to politics, we seem to think that these tactics are just fine.

I get a few advertisements each week from political campaigns. They have two messages: 1) The other candidate is ruining your life and everything else in this country, and if he is elected, you can pack your bags for the end of the world. 2) Our candidate will make your life better, will stop all crimes, will make everything you disapprove of illegal, and will vastly improve the economy. Anyone who thinks logically can quickly spot the problems here. First of all, a president cannot do either thing so completely. He cannot ruin everything, nor can he fix everything. Now, that doesn’t mean that I think that each candidate is equal; certainly you will find that one of them has more in common with you and seems more likely to improve things to your liking. Second, there is no way for all of the things about “our candidate” to be true. He can’t eliminate taxes and increase spending. He can’t make more things illegal and lower crime. Use your logic, folks!

I understand that this is marketing, and we humans like to hear the simplest, best-case scenarios. But if the election of our leaders is up to each of us, I’d prefer the “us” to be educated about the facts, not just suckered in by shiny promises and fancy-dancy adverts. If we can’t be trusted to sift out the truth from the lies, why should we have the right to decide the fate of our nation?

Have you ever listened to talk radio, especially political talk radio? Here’s a tip: If you have really, dangerously, low blood pressure, just switch on your local talk station. Within 10 minutes, you’ll be just fine. I confess, I used to listen to these shows, mostly because the only other radio stations my car would pick up played a confusing mix of Justin Bieber, Li’l Wayne, and MercyMe. That’s all one station, folks. You see my dilemma. But then I started listening more closely to what these hosts and their guests were saying, and also how they were saying it. I found four themes. 1) Fear – whatever the “other side” is planning, it is going to result in disaster. Therefore you should side with us. 2) Anger – whatever the “other side” is saying, it is evil, it’s a lie, they’re just doing it to make your life difficult. 3) Tunnel Vision – whatever the “other side” is saying is wrong, because they are saying it. Only our (my) way and our (my) opinion is right. There can be no discussion, no variance. Hold the party line, boys! 4) Hypocrisy – the “other side” is always lying, stretching the truth, drumming up negative sentiments, fear-mongering, making false promises. Um, and what is it we are doing? Oh, right, just presenting the objective truth so that everyone will know that we are right. I don’t know about you, but to me, those things don’t seem to be the way that Christ or the Apostles changed the hearts and minds of the people in Israel, Rome and Greece.

What about campaign finances? Now, I don’t want to get into an argument here over legislated spending limits or anything official like that which might be on your ballot this year (it will be here in Colorado). That’s not the point. You can hold your own opinion on who should be allowed to spend how much on what parts of a campaign. The laws are not the issue here. What is at issue is how we as individuals choose to use our money. I understand that part of the thinking behind donating to a party or a candidate, whether you donate $25, or $250,000, is that you are helping change the world by getting your candidate elected. To some extent, that is true. But there are two problems with that. First, how much of that money is really necessary? Is a 600 million dollar campaign 10 times as successful as a 60 million dollar campaign? Second, how much is your candidate really going to change things for the better? A few tax dollars here, a few immigrants there, a couple jobs one way or another – unless they are able to do something radical, there is usually only a modest amount of change.

But imagine this with me for a minute. What if the couple that donated a combined $10 million to the Romney Super PAC or the businessmen and entertains who donated a combined $36 million to the Obama Super PAC had instead donated that money to funds that would target homelessness, hunger in the US, education deficits, struggling single mothers, and at-risk teens (all using proven, effective methods). Would that change our country drastically? You bet it would. And yet, if I asked those donors to give even $100,000 to a jobs program for recovering homeless men or for a crisis pregnancy center that finds homes and jobs for teen mothers and connects them with adoptive parents who will care for their babies, they would probably balk.

Again, I don’t think any law is the answer to this. I think that we need to wake up and realize that no candidate, no president is going to be able to make the amount of impact on the issues that matter to us, whatever they may be, that we could make if we took our money power and combined it, large donations and small ones, and put them towards directly affecting the issues. But maybe we do realize it; maybe the saddest thing of all is that we know our money could be more effective somewhere else, but we are too eager for the power and recognition that comes with being a political backer that we just don’t care.

And finally, the one that really just irks me. The one that makes me wish there were a way to ban certain people from using the “forward” button on their email. Yes, you guessed it: the hyper-indignant, oft-forwarded, absolutely-true, must-read-this, ALL-CAPS-SCREAMING email giving you all the facts that you never knew about who “the other guy” really is, and what will really happen to America if “he” and “his cronies” are elected. Would you believe that Barack Obama is a communist, gay, atheist Muslim who was raised by jihadists and is secretly plotting the Arab invasion of American by giving the banks too much power and letting the Mexicans cross the border? It’s all absolutely true, according to Stephanie Van Winkerflump of the American Society for Political Truth. Or so the emails read. I may have condensed a bit. To prove the point, there are photos, emails, voting records, and YouTube videos. (They can’t put it on YouTube if it’s not true, you know.) I mostly have conservative and Republican friends and contacts, so this is the stuff I get. I’m sure if you were more in with the liberal crowd, you would know that Mitt Romney is part of a secret society along with George Bush (either one – pick the one you hate most) which uses baby endangered animals for their ritual sacrifices, he really has 12 wives (he’s a Mormon, after all), he used his tax shelters and businesses to funnel millions of dollars into offshore accounts to help pay for his 12 wives and 37 children, he leaves his (non-hybrid) car idling in the driveway for more than 10 minutes, and there is some possibility that he is actually an android. It’s all absolutely true, because that guy from that TV show that’s on after the one I really like said so. Celebrities wouldn’t lie. That’s why they get to be so famous.

We pass on all this total nonsense because we like the idea that “the other guy” is so awful. It makes our guy look a lot better. Fact is, if we were to get them in a room together without all the political bunk, they’d probably be a lot more similar than they are different. They’d probably even agree, at least in principle, on a lot more things that we think. But we like the world to be black and white because then we don’t have to use our thinking muscles. Well, let me challenge you, all you political-forwarders out there, next time something shows up in your inbox that presents horrifying facts about the opposition or makes dire predictions about the future, do some research before you hit “forward to everyone who’s ever been in my address book”. Check out snopes.com. Do some googling, and make sure you’re not getting your info from someone else who got the same email. Bottom line: if you can’t be sure that every single thing in that email is true, just don’t forward it. If people already have the same views as you, sending them more lies isn’t of any worth, and if they don’t, then it is just plain wrong to try to convince them of your stance by using lies. If “our” position is the right one, then we shouldn’t need made-up “facts” to convince people of it.

 

So what do you think, can we do it?

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Biker Chick, or If At First You Don’t Succeed, You’re Probably Doing It Wrong

Still a little dark...glad I don't have to leave any earlier

I rode my bike to work this morning. It was lovely. It takes about the same amount of time as driving my car – though the fact that going to work is downhill means I get a nice little workout on my way home- and it allows me to turn my focus more toward appreciating the beauty of God’s creation around me (rather than trying to avoid hitting said creation, especially the meandering “we own the road” deer that seem to outnumber the human residents of this town). If you had known me as a child, this would be a shocking revelation. Me? On a bike? Without needing medical attention? Not possible.

The Bike and I, a play in 3 acts

Who doesn't want handlebar streamers?

You see, I have always had a love-hate relationship with that two-wheeled monster, the bicycle. My first bike was a fantastic creation with purple wheels, neon stickers and colorful handlebar streamers. But it was not the pink bike I had clearly specified on my list for Santa. Eventually we made up, and I learned to like my bike, especially when I discovered that I could leave purple skid marks on the sidewalk. It seemed like the bike and me might be a match made in heaven after all. We did have our little squabbles, like the time I tried to go all Evel Knievel and ride my down the hill from the front yard to the back. The boys next door did it all the time, and it looked so cool. My first grade understanding of physics wasn’t all that great, and I neglected to notice the fact that our side of the hill was signifcantly steeper than the neighbors’. Needless to say, It was a good thing my mom insisted on me wearing my very uncool helmet, because otherwise I would have several nifty scars on my forehead, and probably some serious brain damage. But in general, the bike and I got along well, and I even got to ditch the training wheels. I was well on my way to the Tour de France. Or at least the Tour de Block.

It didn't look exactly like this, but it seemed about this intimidating

A couple of years later, I got a “big-girl” bike. A purple and hot pink mountain bike. It was totally rad, to use a phrase of the times. I rode it a grand total of about 10 times before it tried to kill me. I was trying to steer, really I was, but there was an irresistible magnetic force to the rolls of discarded carpet in the church parking lot where I practiced my fancy riding. I had always dreamed of flying, but that wasn’t quite how I imagined it. Mercifully, the bike was stolen during a move later that year. And there, with my narrow escape from death-by-demon-bike, my riding career was apparently over. Once in a while I would be at a friend’s house, and would end up borrowing their brother’s bike to try to ride to the 7-11 for a slurpee, but I pretty much thought I was going to die each time. I developed a type of sour grapes philosophy about biking, deciding that it was a dumb way to get around, only slightly better than running (both of which I knew should never be done for fun).

Shade is definitely a good thing when riding in the East

Fast forward about 15 years. While living out East, we discovered a beautiful trail through the woods not far from our house. It was great for walking or jogging (for others to jog, not me!). On a trip back to our hometown, we retrieved our bikes from our respective parents, and came home to ride the trail. It seemed like a good way to spend time together and get some much needed exercise as well. My first time on the bike, I managed to get about 100 yards before I realized that I needed about 30 feet to go around other people on the trail, and that trying to ride over the bridge across the river was like trying to ride through a herd of longhorns in a cattle chute. But my sweet husband was encouraging, and I kept practicing. Later that weekend, we decided we would ride our bikes down to the cute little island in the middle of the river. We got about a quarter of the way there when my bike went off the edge of the pavement, and in trying to correct my path, I ended up flipping my bike over and landing in a mangled mess. No permanent damage was done to the bike or to me, but I had a sore ankle and a nice bruise on my knee for several days. And yet, I didn’t give up. It’s sad to say as a grown woman, but I was really excited the first time I made a 5 mile roundtrip without a) falling over or b) having a heart attack.

In Which I Move to Hippie-land and Become a Biker

My beautiful trail

Not too long after that, we decided to move ourselves West, to a beautiful small town that is incredibly bike-friendly. There are trails all over the place, and in spite of being in the mountains, the town is really pretty level. Actually, bike-friendly is an understatement. Every shop downtown has a bike rack out front, it’s not surprising to see several children or small dogs in trailers behind bikes, and even tiny children are seen riding their bikes to school each day. Bike-crazed is a more appropriate term.  I started researching commuting and grocery shopping by bike, and got really, really excited. When we were house-hunting, one of the requirements was that it be close enough to ride our bikes downtown for events and shopping. When we finally found a house, it was not only close enough to downtown to bike everywhere, but it was also only about 100 yards from the entrance to the main bike/hike path through town. It was just over a mile from work, and a mile and a half from the grocery store or the main drag downtown. As they extend the trail system, I’ll also be able to ride my bike to Wal-Mart. I love the idea of the bicycle trifecta – green transportation, money saved on gas, and exercise without adding much time to my schedule.

Pride Goeth Before a Fall…

All ready to go...

And so, just days into the school year, I decided I would ride my bike to work for the very first time. I had my brand new basket on the front holding my lunch and purse so charmingly. I left plenty early so that I would have time to enjoy the scenery. I kissed my sweetie goodbye and pedaled off down the street, so proud of myself. I turned onto the bike trail, reached up to adjust my helmet, and then everything went wrong. Apparently the adorableness of my basket had thrown the balance off, and when I tried to single-hand it, I sent myself skidding off the edge of the trail. As any physicist will tell you, inertia is an absolute bear. The bike went sideways, and I went down and forward. I landed in the gravel and prickly grass at the edge of the trail, immensely thankful that there was no one around to witness my divinely appointed comeuppance.

One of two crash sites

I picked the gravel out of my palms, dusted off my khakis and beige sweater as best I could, and got back on the horse…er, bike.  “I can do this,” I thought, with only the slightest of tears of pain and embarrassment welling in my eyes. I continued on bravely. “Woohoo! I have conquered the bike…yeah!” went through my mind as I turned the corner to the street my school is on, followed shortly by, “Uh-oh…you’ve got to be kidding me!” as the gravel shoulder of the road reduced the coefficient of friction that had been holding my bike upright to nil and I crashed, yet again. I picked myself up quickly, lest a passing motorist (heaven forbid a parent or student) see me in my shame. Now feeling summarily reduced from my normal 5-foot-11 stature to about 3-foot-6, I pedaled very, very carefully the last tenth of a mile to school. Somehow I managed to make it on time and without severely noticeable injuries to my person or my wardrobe.

Safely parked at school

I was left with a healthy fear of the road and a bruise the size of a grapefruit on my leg, which lasted for a good few weeks. My shiny new basket still fit on the front of my bike, but had acquired a peculiar crooked tilt. I also had the pleasure of going back over the entire trail searching for my cell phone which had made a McQueen-esque escape from said basket. In all, though, there was no lasting damage, if you don’t count the basket’s re-alignment.

The Moral of the Story

Lesson learned, I was very cautious as I biked to work over the next several days. I felt quite accomplished when I was able to ride home from Safeway with a full basket and a bag of groceries to boot. My dear and I began making a habit of biking to the farmer’s market each Saturday morning, and quickly realized that we were going to need more baskets and racks if we were going to continue bringing nature’s bounty home each week. Just as I had planned, we were spending time together, getting things done and moving our bodies into a much greater state of health.

Who wouldn't want to ride here?

One day, I realized that I didn’t think biking for fun or for transportation was so dumb, like I had when I was a kid. Not only was it acceptable, it was something I really enjoyed. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think I’ll ever be one of those die-hards that I see here biking up mountain passes in the snow. I still hold on to my vestigial laziness and comfort-seeking behaviors. I’ll ride to work as long as it’s not actively snowing or raining, the temperature is above 20 degrees and the wind is under 30 mph (which can sometimes be an issue here!). I feel stronger and healthier each day that I ride, and I also feel something else – a sense of accomplishment. I had failed and failed, and finally I had succeeded.

When we fail at something, especially early on in the process, it is easy to convince ourselves that we just don’t have what it takes. We deceive ourselves and give up because we don’t want to fail again. Isn’t that the worst kind of pride? We can’t bear the thought of being a failure, so we refuse to fail. If only someone could show us all the wonderful things we are missing by not adjusting our methods and trying again. I imagine that seeing those possibilities laid out before us would revolutionize our way of thinking about life. Proverbs 24:16 tells us, “A righteous person falls seven times, and rises again…” If we give up the first time we fall, we are not exploring the full potential that God has created us for. Will the falling still hurt? Well, sure it will. Will we run up against things that are really difficult? Definitely – that’s a part of life. But if God calls us to do something, then nothing can stop us. Please don’t think that this means that anyone can do anything just because he or she wants to. Not everything is good for us, or part of God’s plan for us. Sometimes we will reach a point where we are right to give up and try something else. But that point is never after the first fall. God is reaching out His hand to help you back up. Will you take it, and try again?

May your heart be glad!

A Serious Heart Condition

Welcome back. I hope that you have had a restful (or at least joyful) weekend. We’ve been fighting several dread diseases around here, so it was good to take a break, though I have missed you all.

Alright, I have a bit of a confession to make. My heart was not particularly glad for much of this past week. I could make some excuses: sick students, lack of sleep, lots to do, blah, blah, blah. Or it could be the time of the year. We’re a couple of weeks out from spring break at school, which means we are in a time of meltdowns for everyone, teachers and students alike. It’s like lap 402 at Daytona, week 37 in a pregnancy, or mile 24 of a marathon; you’re bored, tired and ready to be done, but you can’t give up now because it would make all the struggle thus far absolutely worthless. It can be hard to find joy when you’re in one of those seasons. The weariness can cast a shadow over all the great things that are in your life.

If I am honest as I look back on my week, there were several heart-gladdening things – the afternoon bike ride with my husband, the 2 nights of fabulous sleep, the evening spent enjoying the company of friends – and yet, I woke up Friday with clouds forming right over my head. I was like a walking thunderstorm. Husband not paying enough attention to me? Bang! Lightning bolt! A 6-year-old not displaying as much sense and maturity as I would like? Pow! Another bolt! Stubborn student? Crash! The storm is in full force now! One mildly critical comment? Crack! Another day destroyed.

But then, in a completely unexpected way, which I didn’t quite grasp at the moment, God taught me a really important lesson. What was the means of this great teaching moment? A playground merry-go-round and a handful of squealing little kids. Usually, I’m just an observer at recess. Especially on days when I’m not in the best of moods. But for some reason, I decided to give into the kiddos’ pleas for me to push the merry-go-round.  And then, in a real moment of spontaneity, I jumped on and joined them in the dizzy-fest. They were thrilled and giggling, and I laughed like I had not laughed in a long time. it was the silliest thing I had done in weeks. I was also incredibly joyful.

And here is what that ride on a merry-go-round taught me: If you are going to have a glad heart, you simply cannot take yourself too seriously. I realized that those moments when I was the most cranky or downright angry were the moments when I was so sure of my own importance, wrongly believing that I was the most important person in my world, that it was only me who could be counted on to make my students who they need to be, that I was too good to be worthy of any suggestions for improvement. The times over the whole week when I was happiest were when I was focused on others, when I completely abandoned any thought of my own image or importance.

So what about you? Have you been taking yourself too seriously lately? How has it affected the joy level of your spirit? Let me challenge you this week to make a point of taking yourself less seriously. If you want extra credit, here is your assignment: Do something this week that is completely silly and lacking in dignity. If you need some help, I would suggest you find your nearest and dearest 5- or 6-year-old; I am sure they can give you a few good pointers!

May your heart be glad (and just a little silly)

Spread a Little Hope, Part 2: Orphans and Widows

Greetings, Reader! We are going to talk today about a specific area in which you can spread hope to the world around you. If you haven’t read my first post on the subject, go check it out. It’s okay, I’ll wait for you… Alright, got it? Good, now we can move on.

So, I’ve been reading the Bible a lot lately. Even if you don’t, stick with me, because I think you will agree with what it has to say here. The specific book I’ve been focused on is the book of James, which is historically accepted as being written by the brother of Jesus. I mention that to point out that he would have been very familiar with the teachings of Jesus, who is recognized by Christians and non-Christians alike as having quite a bit to say regarding the right way to treat other people (He was pretty big on caring for “the least” among us). Here’s what James has to say: “Pure and lasting religion in the sight of God our Father means that we must care for orphans and widows in their troubles.” Other translators have used the words “undefiled” and “unblemished” instead of “lasting”. Let’s focus in on what the author is saying here. He’s assuming that there are kinds of religion, and a multitude of ways that people express their religion. James makes the unequivocal statement that none of those things matter if they don’t put a high priority on caring for the disadvantaged and socially oppressed. I think we can all agree that a lot of religion has historically been defiled and blemished by its adherents. Crusades, ethnic cleansing, suicide bombers, forced conversions…the list could go on and on.

Why do religious people get caught up in defiling their religion? Because they have lost the focus of what “pure and lasting religion” is really about. It is not about power, it is not about mandating any form of belief or behavior, it is not about earning a better place in heaven. It’s about love. Jesus, that famous brother of James, put it pretty clearly: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Not a lot of wiggle room there. And I can’t think of a single religion or a belief system that would disagree, except for perhaps Utilitarianism, which is not real popular… Caring for those who cannot care for themselves is a universal moral imperative. We innately know that it is the right thing. And yet, we often do a pretty abysmal job of following this imperative.

Not that we don’t want to do it. Organizations and movements which at the very least claim to help the “orphan and widow” abound. Many of us are content to let them do the actual work, while we send them some money. Isn’t it nice that we can help out these “poor folks” without ever having to interact with them? (Note the sarcasm.) Our governments are also have a finger in the pie. With this being an election year, we are going to continue hearing a lot of very strong opinions as to how much the government can and should be doing to help the “least of these” in our society. There are some valid reasons to be having that debate, but that’s really not what I’m concerned with. Because the imperative we’re talking about today didn’t say anything about pure and undefiled government (as if!) being characterized by caring for the financially and socially downcast. It was about religion, and religion is about people. James (and Jesus) mean us. I see you there, looking at the person next to you. Cut it out. I mean you. You need to be caring for the orphan and the widow. Sure, it’s not what you were planning on when you got up this morning, but it’s where we’re headed now.

Still with me? Good. Let’s make this practical. So you don’t have an orphanage right down the street from you?No streetchildren wandering in front of the bus stop on your way to work today? Sorry, you’re not off the hook just like that. The fact is, there are orphans and widows in your town, and there are lots of ways to find them. Community services centers, churches, synagogues, mosques, and a whole variety of non-profits in your community can all direct you to those in need.

But even more than just looking for the actual orphans and widows around us, let’s think about what James really meant by calling our attention to those two specific groups of people. In the first century, your position in society was tied to the position of the men in your family. Your father, your husband – they determined where you stood in the eyes of the community. So to be without that father or husband practically meant that you had no place in society. You were totally at the mercy of others. Often, those others didn’t feel very compelled to care for you. They had enough to do to take care of themselves, or so they thought. James said this wasn’t the case. Not only did people have the ability to care for others, they had no choice – he says we “must” care for the orphans and widows.

In our society today, there is a much wider variety of people who are what we might call financially disadvantaged or socially oppressed. Race, geography, education, religion and politics are all contributing factors. All of those factors need to be addressed. But that’s not the imperative we are talking about here. What did James say? He said we much care for the oppressed “in their troubles”. Not in the socio-historical background of their troubles. Not in the generational cycle of their troubles. He said in their troubles. Where they are right now. The care we are to give is immediate, obvious, and effective.

What does this mean for us? It means giving up our free evening and babysitting to give a single parent a night off to have fun or pursue a hobby or work on his or her degree. It means mentoring children who do not have adequate parental involvement. It means sitting and listening to a friend who has just lost her husband for hours even if you have other things that “should” be done.  It means welcoming a refugee or immigrant and making them feel like a part of the community. It means visiting the elderly lady on your block that hardly ever gets out of her house. It means loving and helping those around you without expecting to get anything in return.

Trust me, Reader, in writing this I was just as challenged as you are right now. I know I’m not anywhere near close to perfect. But I’m trying. Because when I come to my last days, I want to have been part of something pure and lasting.

Peace Be With You

It’s The Little Things…

Specifically 10 “Little Things”. The ones I spend 8 hours a day with,  5 days a week. In this current chapter of my life, I teach in an elementary school. Anyone who spends all day with any number of young people can tell you, children have a 6th sense for raising blood pressure. Can I get an “Amen” from my fellow teachers and stay-at-home moms? Only children can ask the same question 8 times, get the same answer each time, and still feel the need to ask a 9th time. They can be completely convinced that it is a reasonably good idea to put goldfish crackers in strawberry yogurt. They can make a hangnail seem like an injury on par with having your spleen removed with stone-age surgical tools. I have named knots in my back and shoulders after particularly trying precious students. And yet, they can bring joy to my spirit and a smile to my face in so many unexpected ways. Care for some examples?

  • When you’re faking your death because the classroom is so messy, and 9 kids are laughing at you, but one says, “I don’t ever want you to die; you are the nicest teacher.” I’m glad at least one of my students doesn’t want me dead.
  • When a little boy chooses a princess pony out of the Friday Treasure Box instead of choosing a Nerf football, just so he can give it to his little sister.

  • When someone is complaining about their schoolwork, and you hear a little voice say, “You should be happy to be at school. Education is great!” And they mean it!
  • When you find the one or two 8 year-olds that you can actually discuss classic movies and literature with. More than you could with your friends in college.
  • When a little someone hands you a whole bouquet of dandelions, and it is more precious to you than a thousand roses.

  • When you get letters in the mail from past students and they make the same spelling mistakes that you nagged them so much about when they were in your class, but this time you’re glad they made them. It feels familiar.
  • When you read a story by a 2nd grader that manages to combine aliens, fruit and God along with at least 3 instances of the word “awesome”.
  • When a 2nd grader suddenly can explain the properties of multiplication…even though she can’t spell “multiplication”

  • When you’re standing outside the library and you hear your whole class singing a song about the Bible, and you didn’t even suggest it to them.
  • When you read Anne of Green Gables to your class, and the little red-haired, freckle-face boy in your class can’t get enough of it.
  • When the boy who could barely read at the beginning of the year is now the last one in line – every time – because he can’t put his book down.

  • When you get to explain that there is no “Specific” Ocean, and that “cinnamons” are not words that mean the same thing. And then you start using those words because they’re just so funny.
  • When you get that one kid that everyone thinks is just too much trouble to do something really great, and you see the pride on their face.
  • When you get invited to an 8 year-old’s American Girl themed birthday party, and she really does want you to come. And then you show up, together with Samantha, whom you’ve had since you were 8. And Little Miss thinks it’s the greatest thing ever.

I could go on and on. No matter how rough a day at school has been, it’s very rare that a whole day goes by without some ray of sunshine.  And even if I can’t think of anything else that has gone right that day, there’s always the fact that they are going to home, sleep it off, and start over again the next day.

May your heart be glad!