Monday, December 29, 2014

Meditation XXXV--Growing Large Branches

"With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade."

For most, Christ's parable of the mustard seed has been about small things which become big things. However, I'd like to focus on the idea of insignificance. Especially to a non-farmer like me, a single mustard seed can look like a dry grain or piece of dirt. It can seem unimportant, easily tossed aside.

In Mark's gospel, this parable comes amidst other lessons about growth. First Jesus tells his famous story about the sower, and we learn that growth isn't as much about the type or even quality of the seed as it is about the ground on which it falls. Then he talks about the growth of the seed itself, and we see that most of it happens without the sower having anything to do with it. The farmer only brings in ripe grain when harvest times comes.

And here, we can see that the small seed becomes a large tree, certainly large in comparison to its initial size, and also in comparison to what other seeds in the garden become. But what intrigues me is what the seed becomes in importance.

The mustard seed, we are told, eventually becomes a place where "the birds of the air can make nests in its shade." As far as we know, the birds don't thank the plant and the plant doesn't require it. As far as we know, the plant does not feel pride in its work or that it is not enough. It is what God made it to be.

I must open myself to the Holy Spirit to be what I am, not some picture of myself that is not within me or part of the design of my nature. I must, to be at peace in myself and with the One who made me, be ready to grow large branches and serve where I have been planted.

Great Gardener and Tiller of the land in my heart, make the soil of my soul ready for seed. Make me, so often insignificant and tiny of love, something your children can live and grow in. In the Holy Name of Jesus, Amen.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

An open letter to a parent who doesn't get it

When my daughter was small, she kept getting in trouble for talking in class. She would finish her projects or exercises before most of the others in her class, get bored, and then start conversations with her friends. During a conference, her teacher informed me that I needed to get it through my child's head how important it was to sit quietly and avoid disturbing others. After assuring her I would remind my child to respect her classmates' work space, I suggested that the teacher also allow my daughter to pull out a book and read when she finished class work. But the teacher said this wasn't a good idea because if my child was reading while other kids were working, the other kids would have their feelings hurt. 

You might be wondering what this has to do with your son's assignment to read a book. Well, I suspect that you would have preferred the kind of teacher my daughter had. Let me tell you, this woman often showed movies to her students, not as a reward, but to keep from stressing them out, or to keep from grading too much when she had a headache. When I complained to the principal, who thought I was objecting to the content of the movies, he was surprised I actually wanted to see my kid doing some sort of work that required critical thinking.

Noting that your son had to read a book, you said, out loud for anyone to hear, "That sounds like a copout to me. That's not teaching him English!" I'd like to know what you think teaching English is, and why reading a book is not part of that education? Perhaps you are like so many other people who see one fraction of the process and think you know the whole system. As a college teacher, I am baffled by how many students have never read a whole book. Have you any idea what a burden that absence puts on the student starting college, let alone the instructors who try to teach them?

You also said, "They complain about how much they get paid. Maybe it's because you're not teaching anything!" Do you realize how many teachers have to use their own money to buy those books and other supplies for students? Do you realize the kind of stress that teachers at all levels are under just to keep classes under control, let alone to get a single nugget of information into their heads, especially when they have parents like you at home who take a crap on every good idea they ever come up with? Teachers in public schools don't just have to deal with their time in the classroom, but address every concern of every parent and guardian who comes along, parents who don't show up to conferences, parents who ignore or can't read the notes sent home, parents who have time to complain, but no time to volunteer.

Teachers fight a losing battle every day to do something they love, and if part of that battle is getting your son to read one book, you should not be on the side of ignorance. I often hear people complain about how they have a right to complain about my job because their tax dollars "pay my salary." You chose a public place, a place where you get paid by my tax dollars and where you have a captive audience, to spew your venom.
Lady, you should be grateful. You should be glad God allowed the miracle of birth for you, because if I was in charge of the universe, people like you would not have the privilege of procreating. You see, I get the result of work you raise in my classes: people who hate reading because their parents hated reading and because their culture has informed them that any reading except Facebook posts is to be avoided. Perhaps if you knew what education is actually about, and what it takes to actually teach a child about a book, you wouldn't open your mouth and say such vile things. And they are vile. 

I would love to easily pass your remarks off as ignorance, but you speak the sort of ignorance that has become legion this country and particularly in this state. This is the ignorance which has fueled legislators to put their fingers in the places they don't belong. It's this kind of ignorance that has elevated athletes and reality TV "stars" and the Donald Trumps of this world to status and riches that I'm sure your kid dreams of.
I am proud of my daughter. Yesterday was her birthday, and I thought of how good she has grown up to be. She had the foresight to marry a man who loved reading, and she has a son who loves his books as much as he loves his toys, for whom books are as integral a part of life as food and affection. When that boy grows up, he will still love reading. He will learn things and he will become someone who is, in my estimation, better than the glob of jelly you aspire for your teenager. What will your son to come become, after you have finished showing him that reading is not valuable? What will your son do when he goes to college – and he will go to college if you wants a job that pays any kind of wage he can live on – and finds that his textbooks are difficult, and that he can't pass his classes by googling or asking Wikipedia to do his homework for him? Will you be there to berate his professors? Will you complain that your poor kid is 30 and living at home because he has not been given the education he is supposed to get? People like you often ask where the parents were when something goes wrong with other people's kids. People like you often say that education begins at home. Where are you? At the DMV bitching. 

One piece of advice: Should your child come to my school, be sure to keep him from enrolling in my class. Because I want him to succeed, and as part of the process he will have to read a book.

Encouragement in the Small Graces

Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on FaithTraveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Traveling Mercies is a book which encourages readers, not because it tells them how wonderful they are or how terrific the world is despite the awfulness they see or what the terrible things they feel. Lamott doesn't give the us such bullshit optimism or "it could be worse" dismissiveness. What we get is the sense that pain is real, even the troubles that seem small and petty to the outside world. But we also see that pain, even the worst of it, can be lived through, and that grace can be found in the smallest acts of love and mercy.

It has been a long time since I have read a book about the transforming power of love and living in the moment. This isn't a book that tells you how to live. It tells you that life matters. And I can't speak for others, but I needed this.

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Monday, December 15, 2014

Difficult Meditations on Sickness

Devotions Upon Emergent OccasionsDevotions Upon Emergent Occasions by John Donne
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

John Donne’s Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions is difficult to read for a number of reasons. First is the language of the 1600s. That would be little problem for good readers if not for the second reason: Donne's penchant for extended metaphors. A third problem concerns references to a Bible few Christians are familiar with. The fourth is the combination of subject matter and the sense that Donne did not seem to be writing for a particular audience. Despite these issues, or perhaps in part because of them, this is a book worth reading.

Of course, what makes the Devotions most valuable is its painful and moving rumination on sickness and death. Donne contemplates mortality, but also the similarities between physical and spiritual disease. It is difficult to read statements like, “I must be poor and want before I can exercise the virtue of gratitude; miserable, and in torment, before I can exercise the virtue of patience” on their own, but they lead to, “To hear thy steps coming towards me is the same comfort as to see thy face present with me; whether thou do the work of a thousand years in a day, or extend the work of a day to a thousand years, as long as thou workest, it is light and comfort.” There is a good deal of learning in these passages, but not all of that education came from books.

One doesn't have to be a Christian to find hope and comfort in Donne's prose. Though I'm a Christian (and Episcopalian) I must point out there are moments where the author’s theology is suspect. These instances are minor, however, and do not overshadow the power of these meditations.

Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions is often paired with “Death’s Duel,” Donne's final sermon, which addresses similar themes. I wish it wasn't. While there is some to recommend it, the piece is the kind of rambling, cut and paste hodgepodge of scripture and long winded jabbering that reminds me of many of the reasons I don't go to academic conferences. One can pass on it, and not miss much.

As a middle aged man going through my own illness and spiritual angst, I find the Devotions particularly important. I read some of these several years ago in graduate school, and fell in love with the language and the metaphors, the insight into the spiritual condition of humankind and the mercy and love of a sometimes confusing God. Now they resonate deeper for me, and I suspect I'll return to them a few more times before making my way to my sick bed, "where all that the patient says there is but a varying of his own epitaph."

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Thursday, December 04, 2014

Sweaty Joy

Plan B: Further Thoughts on FaithPlan B: Further Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Not every chapter of this book is a winner, but most are enjoyable and thoughtful. Lamott's humor and warmth show here, as always. There are stories of trying to raise a surly teenage boy and trying to love one's enemies (not in the same chapters). I also was touched by her stories of loving the dying and difficult, and the length of time it took for her to come to peace with her mother, well after the latter's passing.

Among the many things I love about Anne Lamott's books is her ability to weave joy -- hard won, sweaty joy -- from the difficulties of life, and her respect for the process of working out one's faith in trials. Here such themes are present, and no matter where people are in their own journeys, this walk is worth the time.

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