Because of that, I will always remember those times she actually used words to teach my brother and me a lesson.
We were having a discussion about religion, and Mom was trying to explain why a strong proclamation of faith is not enough. She shared a story about a group of villagers who raised sheep. They herded the sheep from field to field to graze on the grass. But, over time, the grass stopped growing and the fields grew brown. The villagers could see that on the other side of the river was land with more green fields than they could imagine, and they complained that they had no way of reaching those pastures.
One day, a stranger came to town and told the villagers he could teach them how to access the green pastures. When they excitedly asked for his help, he agreed to stay and teach them to build a bridge. They were eager for his assistance, and he was more than happy to help ensure a brighter future for them.
Years passed, and the celebrations continued. But the villagers spent so much time and energy honoring the stranger that they generally failed to use the bridge.
That was the end of my mother’s story, but even as a child I understood it. Some people spend their time and energy worshiping the idea of Jesus, but they don’t follow his teachings.
I’ve been thinking about my mother’s story in a somewhat different context recently.
The United States now celebrates a federal holiday in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, a man who not only made a life of advocating for minorities and the poor but who encouraged others to do the same.
Some people celebrate the holiday by sleeping in. Others don’t get the day off work and complain about those who do.
There are people who recognize a day of service and those who remember the eloquent words of Martin Luther King Jr.
But none of that matters if we aren’t following his advice or in his footsteps.
The story my mother told so many years ago still applies.
Our country is doing a great job of celebrating MLK’s life and remembering his words.
I only hope that we don’t forget to also follow his teachings.
“God is always talking to people in the Bible, but what exactly does God’s voice sound like?” asked one girl.
“God is an old man with a white beard, so he probably has a voice like an old man,” said a boy.
I couldn’t help but interrupt. “God isn’t a person,”” I said. “That’s hard for us to understand. Maybe instead of worrying about what God looks or sounds like, maybe we should think about what God wants us to hear.”
“But that’s just it,” said the girl. “God doesn’t talk to us like He talks to people in the Bible.”
I tried changing tactics. “Well, if He did talk to you, what do you think He would say?”
The students had no problem answering that question,
“Help each other.”
“Do your chores.”
“Respect your parents.”
“Do the right thing.”
“And how do you know what the right thing is?” I asked.
One student said, “My parents tell me” and another said, “Teachers have rules.” And one little girl got an indescribable look on her face and spoke with almost deliberate slowness.
“I have a little voice in my head,” she said. “It kind of sounds like my own voice when it speaks to me. Some people call it a conscience, but maybe that’s God talking to me in a voice that won’t scare me.”
Her answer made me smile. But then, when kids provide answers beyond what they are told to say, I always smile.
Day 188: Watching Young Minds at Work
Day 187: Funny Phone Calls Day 186: Healthy Lungs Day 185: Reality Checks Day 184: Coincidence Day 183: Lame Attempts to Go Retro Day 182: Learning From Our Mistakes Day 181: Goofy Childhood Memories Day 180: A soak in a bathtub Day 179: Optimism Day 178: The Year’s Top Baby Names Day 177: Reading on a Rainy Day Day 176: “Don’t Stop Believin'” by Journey Day 175: Watching the Torch Pass Day 174: Converse Tennis Shoes Day 173: Family Acceptance Day 172: Christmas Day 171: The Mr. Grinch Song Day 170: Positive People Day 169: Watching Movies From my Childhood With My Kids Day 168: Jealous Pets Day 167: Family Christmas Recipes Day 166: Church BellsDay 165: School Holiday 164: Unexpected Grace Day 163: Letting Go of Things We Can’t Control Day 162: Anticipating a good story Day 161: Hope Day 160: When Dogs Try to Avoid Embarrassment Day 159: Surprises in the Mail Day 158: Kids who aren’t superficial Day 157: A Garage on Winter Days Day 156: Real Christmas Trees Day 155: Being a Parent Day 154: Selfless People Day 153: Nelson Mandela Day 152: Memorable Road Trips Day 151: Great Neighbors Day 150: Oscar Wilde’s quote about being yourself Day 149: Love Letters Day 148: The first day of Advent Day 147: The Breakfast Club Day 146: Marriage and Shared Anniversaries 145: JFK’s quote about gratitude Day 144: Watching My Dog Play Day 143: Having my Family’s Basic Needs Met Day 142: When Our Children Become Role Models Day 141: Random Acts of Kindness Day 140; People Watching Day 139: Sharing Interests with My Children Day 138: Eleanor Roosevelt’s Best Advice Day 137: Weird Human Behavior about Garbage Day 136: Postcards from Heaven Day 135: Mickey Mouse Day 134: Generous Souls Day 133: I’m Moving On Day 132: A Family That is Really Family Day 131: A Personal Motto Day 130: Mork and Mindy Day 129: The Bears’ House Day 128: Veterans Day 127: Doppelgangers Day 126: Letting Life Unfold as It Should Day 125: The Constantly Changing Sky Day 124: When History Repeats Itself Day 123: The Love Scene in The Sound of Music Day 122: Helen Keller Day 121: The Welcome Back Kotter Theme Song Day 120: Sheldon Cooper Day 119: Having Permission to Make Mistakes Day 118: A Diverse Group of Friends Day 117: Family Traditions Day 116: The Haunting Season Day 115; Life Experience Day 114: Changes Day 113: The Wooly Bear Caterpillar Day 112: The National Anthem Day 111: Parents Who Care Day 110: Good Friends Day 109: My Many Colored Days by Dr. Seuss Day 108: A.A. Milne QuotesDay 107: Spending Time Wisely Day 106: Parades Day 105: The Peanuts Gang Dancing Day 104: Sharing a Secret Language Day 103: The Electric Company Day 102: Doing the Right Thing Day 101: When Siblings Agree Day 100: Being Optimistic Day 99: Trying Something New Day 98: The Sound of Children on a Playground Day97: Good Advice Day 96: Red and white peppermint candy Day 95: The Soundtrack from the Movie Shrek Day 94: Accepting Change Day 93: True Love Day 92: Camera Phones Day 91: Bicycle Brakes Day 90: HeroesDay 89: The Cricket in Times Square Day 88: The Grand Canyon Day 87: Unanswered Prayers Day 86: Apples Fresh from the Orchard Day 85: Being Human Day 84: Captain Underpants Day 83: The Diary of Anne Frank Day 82: In Cold Blood Day 81: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry Day 80: The Outsiders Day 79: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Day 78: The First Amendment Day77: People Who Touch Our Lives Day 76: The Rewards of Parenting Day 75: Improvements Day 74: Family Traditions Day 73: Learning From Our Mistakes Day 72: Live Music Day 71: Sleeping In Day 70: Grover Day 69: A Good Hair Day Day 68: A Sense of Community Day 67: Kindness Day 66: Living in a Place You Love Day 65: Gifts from the Heart Day 64: The Arrival of Fall Day 63: To Kill a Mockingbird Day 62: Green LightsDay 61: My Canine Friends Day 60: Differences Day 59: A New Box of Crayons Day 58: Bookworms Day 57: Being Oblivious Day 56: Three-day Weekends Day 55: A Cat Purring Day 54: Being a Unique Individual Day 53: Children’s Artwork Day 52: Lefties Day 51: The Neighborhood Deer Day 50: Campfires Day 49: Childhood Crushes Day 48: The Words “Miss You” Day 47: Birthday Stories Day 46: Nature’s Hold on Us Day 45: Play-Doh Day 44: First Day of School Pictures Day 43: Calvin and Hobbes Day 42: Appreciative Readers Day 41: Marilyn Monroe’s Best Quote Day 40: Being Silly Day 39: Being Happy Exactly Where You Are Day 38: Proud Grandparents Day 37: Chocolate Chip Cookies Day 36: Challenging Experiences that Make Great Stories Day 35: You Can’t Always Get What You Want Day 34: Accepting the Fog Day 33: I See the Moon Day 32: The Stonehenge Scene from This is Spinal Tap Day 31: Perspective Day 30: Unlikely Friendships Day 29: Good Samaritans Day 28: Am I a Man or Am I a Muppet? Day 27: Shadows Day 26: Bike Riding on Country Roads Day 25: When Harry Met Sally Day 24: Hibiscus Day 23: The Ice Cream Truck Day 22: The Wonderful World of Disney Day 21: Puppy love Day 20 Personal Theme Songs Day 19: Summer Clouds Day 18: Bartholomew Cubbin’s VictoryDay 17: A Royal Birth Day 16: Creative Kids Day 15: The Scent of Honeysuckle Day 14: Clip of Kevin Kline Exploring His MasculinityDay 13: Random Text Messages from My Daughter Day 12: Round Bales of HayDay 11: Water Fountains for Dogs Day 10: The Rainier Beer Motorcycle Commercial Day 9: Four-Leaf Clovers Day 8: Great Teachers We Still RememberDay 7: Finding the missing sock Day 6: Children’s books that teach life-long lessonsDay 5: The Perfect Photo at the Perfect Moment Day 4: Jumping in Puddles Day 3: The Ride Downhill after the Struggle Uphill Day 2: Old Photographs Day 1: The Martians on Sesame Street
Since I started working for Catholic Charities West Virginia, people are always asking what I think about Pope Francis. I don’t mind them asking. In fact, I appreciate the opportunity to share my opinion about the Pope: I think he’s fantastic.
As a meeting was wrapping up on Saturday, I was once again asked about my job and about the Pope.
“My job and Pope Francis are both awesome,” I said.
“Did you see the cover of The New Yorker where he is making a snow angel?” one woman asked.
“That’s perfect,” I replied. “I think his messages are right on target.”
“Yes, but will he be able to change church doctrine?” another woman asked.
I didn’t have a reply to that because I didn’t think her question was relevant. I may have spent most of my adult life being an advocate for social change, but Pope Francis puts everything in perspective: keep it simple by caring about other people more than anything else. That message speaks to all people no matter what their faith or whether they agree or disagree with any parts of Catholic Doctrine.
In a world when many of us spend too much time and energy worrying about what kind of car we drive, whether our children’s achievements are sufficient, how high our tax bill or health insurance premium will be or whether we will have enough money for retirement, Pope Francis reminds us what’s really important: using our time on earth wisely by making it a better place for our fellow humans.
That’s pretty much it.
The reason I am such a fan of Pope Francis is that he rises above the issues of doctrine and politics. His message really is simple:
- Care about other people-all other people regardless of race or religion or nationality or sexual orientation.
- Help meet the needs of other people, whether those needs are physical or spiritual.
- Don’t judge other people. Period.
That’s pretty much it.
And yes, I am fully aware that life in the real world can get complicated. But when it does get complicated, that’s when we most need the reminder to “keep it simple.”
I’m pretty sure that’s a message a guy who was born in Bethlehem about 2000 years ago also shared.
Here’s hoping the world starts listening.
This past week, while much of the news focused on Congress, the debt ceiling and the federal shutdown, another story caught my attention.
A school district in Jackson, Ohio agreed to take down a portrait of Jesus that had been hanging in a school since 1947. The district is not removing the portrait because, after 66 years, it realized that the portrait might be a violation of separation of church and state. It’s removing it for financial reasons.
In February, the ACLU of Ohio and the Freedom From Religion Foundation sued the Jackson City School District for “endorsing one religion improperly.” The school attempted to argue that the portrait was part of a “limited public forum” but eventually agreed in court to remove it to avoid “risking taxpayer money.”
The actual story wasn’t what caught my attention. I’ve read about plenty of similar stories over the past couple of decades. What caught my attention was someone’s reaction to it.
“This is why are country is in trouble,” the person wrote. “We are turning our backs on Christianity.”
I couldn’t have agreed with that statement more. I just agreed for entirely different reasons.
I don’t believe many of our leaders or citizens are acting in a way that Jesus wanted.
From what I know about Jesus, he didn’t care about himself. He cared about everyone else. EVERYONE else – regardless of socioeconomic status, criminal status or religion. He simply cared about people and did all he could to help them while trying to teach all of us to do the same.
I can’t imagine the Jesus that I know would care whether or not his portrait was on a wall in a school. My guess is that he probably wouldn’t want it there. He didn’t want his image (or what a lot of people consider his image) to be worshiped.
The type of worship he wanted was for people to understand his words and behaviors and to practice them every day.
There are those who would argue that the portrait of Jesus in a school was just a reminder for students to listen to his words and to do their best to practice his behaviors. If that is what they believe, I applaud them. But if they are trying to promote Christianity as a religion in which all people should believe, then I do have an issue with that.
I don’t think whether or not someone is a Christian defines whether they are good or bad or worthy or unworthy. But I do believe that Christianity means that, instead of judging others, we love and care for them.
And that’s why I agree with the person who said we are turning our backs on Christianity. My agreement has nothing to do with the label and everything to do with the behavior.
Which is exactly the message Jesus was trying to teach us: it’s all about how we treat others.
This week, I had two conversations that morphed into one question about how we live our lives.
The first conversation was with a friend who told me about home-schooled children who were on a field trip at the Shepherd University pool. They were affiliated with a religious group that prohibits females from wearing pants, and, apparently prohibits swimming suits as well. My friend’s son watched astounded as the girls jumped into the pool still in their dresses.
The second conversation occurred on the phone with my mother, who wanted to know if my son had received his birthday check. After telling her yes, I added, “I know, he hasn’t sent a thank you note to acknowledge it. I’m a bad mom.”
My mother disagreed. “No, you aren’t. You are a much better mom than I was.”
Her comment shocked me, because I’m not even close to the type of mother she was.
My mom always made sure we sent thank you notes immediately. She planned menus that met every dietary guideline. And she ensured we did our Saturday chores, our beds were always made and that our laundry was always put away.
Not only do I fail to do all of those things on a regular basis. but my life is a chaotic mess compared to the structure in which I grew up. I told this to my mother in fewer words, but she responded, “You have fun with your kids. You know how to relax and just enjoy them. I never did.”
Not to belabor the point, but she WAS always wound quite tightly, and I’m generally not wound nearly that tight.
But getting unwound wasn’t easy. As I recently told a friend, “I spent the first 15 years of my life being a nerd trying to follow all the rules, and I spent the next 15 years trying to prove I was a rebel. Then I became a mom and had to find a happy medium.”
In short, I had to break free of restrictive expectations and learn balance so I could enjoy life.
Which brings me back to the girls who jumped into the swimming pool in their dresses and to my question.
“Can anyone really enjoy life fully when they are restricted by a rigid belief system?”
Being in a pool with a dress is probably more fun than not being the pool at all, but I can’t imagine it was all that enjoyable. The water-logged clothing had to make movement difficult and exhausting.
I have absolutely no right to question or judge the beliefs and choices of the girls or their families. If they choose to swim in a dress, they have every right to do so.
But I have every right to question my own choices and the self-imposed restraints I’ve often put on myself – those that prohibit me from enjoying life. Sometimes these have been thinking a work deadline is more important than a few hours with my children. Sometimes they have been my obsession with gaining weight. And sometimes they’ve been my concerns that I will fail when I try something new.
I’ve definitely done my share of swimming in a dress.
But both times and people evolve, and as I’ve aged, I’ve become better and better at shedding my dress. That doesn’t mean I’m going out in public in a string bikini, but it does mean I can enjoy a good swim in a modest tankini.
That was news to me, but in this era when people can post anything on the internet and pretend it’s the truth, I have forever been labeled godless.
In reality, that doesn’t actually mean that I don’t believe in God. It just means I don’t share the narrow-minded, judgmental views belonging to some people who call themselves Christians.
Because I support gay marriage, believe in comprehensive sex education, will always fight for separation of church and state and don’t believe that Christianity is the only legitimate religion, to them, I am godless.
This isn’t the first time someone has questioned my faith.
When I was a teen, I often attended youth group activities with a friend at a fundamentalist church. Upon arrival, my friend always got the attention of boys while I always watched from the sideline. One evening, I just couldn’t deal with the situation, and the youth pastor picked up on my petulance and jealousy. He asked me to come to his office, and I agreed because I thought he was going to provide some words of wisdom and solace.
Instead he interrogated me about my religious beliefs.
“Are you saved?” he asked me.
“I go to a Methodist Church,” I said, thinking he would understand that most Methodist weren’t real big on going up to the altar, getting on their knees and proclaiming they were “born again.”
He didn’t like my answer.
“Well then, you aren’t a real Christian,” he said.
Even at fifteen, I knew he was full of it. But, in order to escape his small office, I promised I would think about his advice.
I never talked to him again, which probably wasn’t real Christian of me. Instead, it was actually rather godless, because the God I know is loving and forgiving. I wasn’t being either.
There are times, like this week, when I’m still not.
I question people who wrap themselves in Christianity and proclaim that the way they live their lives is the way everyone else must live theirs. I swear when those same people call me a hypocrite for saying I believe in diversity but don’t believe in exposing kids to the lies they want to perpetuate. And I have a hard time loving and forgiving people who are more intent on justifying their own beliefs rather than caring for others.
I was too angry to truly exemplify God’s love and ability to forgive, so maybe people were justified in calling me godless.
But I’m pretty sure God understands and forgives me.
I had to double-check my calendar this morning to assure myself that it was actually 2013 and I hadn’t been sucked into a time warp.
I hadn’t been.
Instead, I was sucked into reading news articles about a school assembly featuring an abstinence-only proponent whose only educational credential is a Psychology Degree from Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University.
I can’t emphasize enough how inappropriate the assembly was.
Almost 20 years ago, when I was working in the field of sex education, experts had already proven that abstinence-only and shame-based tactics don’t work. And promoting a particular religious philosophy in a public school is simply prohibited.
But self-righteous people, who believe they actually know what God is thinking, seem to find a way around these issues.
The speaker, Pam Stenzel, and her sponsors, a religious group called Believe in West Virginia, say her speech wasn’t faith-based. Instead they say it was just a warning about the dangers of sex before marriage.
Those few words should have been enough to keep this woman out of the public schools.
A real sex educator doesn’t pretend that a wedding ring can protect people from a sexually transmitted disease, an unplanned pregnancy or heartache.
A real sex educator doesn’t outright dismiss homosexuals, who are still fighting for the right to even be married.
And a real sex educator doesn’t condemn, judge or shame.
Instead, a real sex educator gives facts – not statistics that have been manipulated to fit a certain dogma.
A real sex educator will agree that sex is the only human behavior that has the potential to create life or to threaten a life. The educator’s job is to help individuals make decisions to prevent unwanted consequences.
And a real sex educator will spend time talking about healthy relationships and about treating others with respect – not condemnation.
Years ago, I was that person, and I will never forget making a presentation about AIDS and HIV in a middle school classroom. As I interacted with the students, the teacher, who was obviously not happy I was there, took out his Bible and placed it open on his desk. He pretended to read, and I pretended to ignore him.
A year later, I had the same assignment and found myself in the same classroom. But instead of taking out his Bible, the teacher made a point of welcoming me and telling his students they should listen. He then privately told me that “a really good person” from his church had been diagnosed with AIDS. Instead of noting that a lot of “really good people” had been diagnosed with AIDS, I was just grateful that he had become a bit more open and less judgmental.
Now, I am hoping the same for all those involved in permitting the recent school assembly at George Washington High School.
This week, Michigan State Representative Lisa Brown was banned from the House floor for uttering the name of a body part.
She, unlike her male colleagues, actually has that body part.
Personally, I’ve said the word countless times. I’ve taught my kids that it’s an appropriate word, unlike the slang terms that are often used. I’ve even attended a play that features the word in the title and in the script.
But I don’t want to get banned from writing or labeled an extremist, so I’m not going to actually include it here.
I know that’s sad.
But sadder still is that, in 2012, a woman was reprimanded for saying it.
I shouldn’t be surprised. This has been an especially bad year for women.
Access to birth control has been threatened. Equal pay for equal work is being discounted. Ridiculous and invasive medical procedures (procedures that actually include the banned word) have been considered for legislation.
And women who stand up for their rights have been called sluts (because that is apparently not as offensive as a the name of a body part) on a nationally syndicated radio show.
I’m not just feeling belittled and a bit angry, I’m feeling frustrated.
I thought women were making progress. I thought the country was making progress. I thought individuals were important regardless of how much money they make, where they were born, what their sexual orientation is or, most important to me, what sex organs they were born with.
But since we are now engaged in a debate about what words are and are not appropriate to say during a political debate, I’d like to propose five that shouldn’t be part of any discussion.
1. Socialism. In recent years, this term has been used to perpetuate divisiveness and bitterness. It is being used to suggest that it is not American to believe those who have more resources have a responsibility to help those who are struggling.
2. Obamacare. I don’t believe that access to health care should be the responsibility (or fault) of one particular party or individual. It’s about all of us. Health care reform is complicated and hard to understand. But quality, affordable health care is also critical (and currently not accessible) to too many Americans. I have family and friends who have had cancer, high blood pressure and chronic sinus conditions. These are all pre-existing conditions that can drive personal health-care costs sky high. Most of my professional life I’ve been in jobs that either didn’t offer health insurance or offered it at an incredibly high price. I’m a very hard-working person, and I take extreme offense at being told that I don’t deserve the same access to health care as some one who has a different employer. Let’s be rational and talk about the issue rather than about specific politicians and leaders.
3. Christian. Anyone who knows me, knows that I have the greatest respect for God, religion and faith. But America was established on religious freedom, and we are going backward when we make any one religion the basis for laws. Of course our laws should be based on moral and ethical principles, but most religions are based on strong values. Let’s not marginalize people of different faith by holding up Christians as the only religion that counts.
4. Undeserving. This word makes my heart hurt. By using it to broadly describe any group of people is unfair and incredibly biased. It is also very effective. It allows some people to pat themselves on the back for being deserving while belittling people who are different. People hit hard times for a wide variety of reasons, many of which are beyond their control or rooted in a childhood that never gave them a chance. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t set expectations for people or encourage them to take care of their own needs. But lets provide them with skills and opportunities rather than blame and labels.
5. Penis. If vagina isn’t allowed, then we shouldn’t be allowed to say penis either.
Whoops. Did I just say vagina? There go any hopes of a political career.
Hopefully, I will still be allowed to share my thoughts and opinions. And hopefully this post doesn’t get deleted as a result of actually naming a body part.
I was incredibly intent the year I had to make a corsage for my mom out of tissue paper. While my fellow students curled the colorful paper around their pencil erasers then glued it to cardboard to resemble bright flowers, I felt the need to put order to chaos. The result was a smiling face that, in retrospect, bore a striking likeness to the Wal-Mart smiley face.
My mother never hesitated to wear the hideous yellow corsage. In fact, she wore it all day on Mother’s Day, even though it thoroughly clashed with her dress.
I was incredibly proud the year I played Mary Poppins in the Mother’s Day program. Families were required to provide the props, and because my frugal family didn’t have a normal umbrella, I twirled a hideous clear, plastic one shaped like a mushroom as I danced through boxes painted like chimneys. I resembled Mary Poppins about as much as I resembled Grace Kelly.
I was incredibly naive when I bought my mother a card that described Mother’s Day as a “gay” holiday.
I’m a lot older now, and I’m a lot less naive.
But I still don’t have a problem describing Mother’s Day as a gay holiday, especially this year.
That’s because, as I’ve aged, Mother’s Day has come to mean more than simply honoring and thanking my own mom. It’s also become a day to reflect on what being a good mother is.
While my experience is limited to 14 years, I’ve come to recognize three primary truths about being a parent:
1. A mother’s primary responsibility is to ensure that her children grow up to be responsible adults;
2. Every child is different, so there is no “right” way to be a parent;
3. Teaching our children to defend and stand up for those who are different is much more important than teaching them how to be popular or stylish.
This week, our President served as a parent to our entire nation when he publicly declared his support of gay marriage. I know the motivations behind his statements can be disputed, but I choose to believe that he was guided by his sense of morality and his need to set an example for all of us.
I heard his message loud and clear; if we tolerate hate and intolerance wrapped in religion then we are acting in direct opposition to the principles on which our country was established: a country in which all people are supposed to be treated equally.
So, while I seriously doubt my children will ever used their hard-earned allowance to buy a card that describes Mother’s Day as gay, I know that if they do, I would be honored to receive it. After all, it might be describing a holiday that looks beyond stereotypes and bias and unites us with a purpose of increasing tolerance for the next generation.
I can certainly hope.