Archive | October, 2010

Reclaiming YHWH

24 Oct

I have noticed in my three years of teaching high school theology that many young people who are brave, interesting and mature enough to ask really engaging theological questions tend to self identify as atheists.  They have given up on Church by the age of sixteen, and the saddest part is watching these young people make the possible mistake of giving up on God and Church as if it were the same thing.

My hunch is this might actually be a semantics issue.  We may need to think about a new vocabulary surrounding God.  The early Christian Church was a mix of Jews and Gentiles, so it would make sense that the Christian God became a mixture, too. When Jews, who believed in YHWH, asked pagans to believe in one God, Greeks picked their most powerful god- Zeus.  The problem is that the Jewish YHWH and Greek Zeus deeply contradicted each other. YHWH is humble, self-emptying, abundant love.  Zeus is a self-contained, muscular, sexual, manipulative, controlling male.  YHWH is relation with, Zeus is domination over. Zeus deals with creation like an appendage, YHWH is deeply in, with and through all of Creation.  Our Church today is worshipping a very Greek influenced God.  Zeus is winning.  We have lost touch with YHWH as we read the Hebrew Scriptures less and less.  Art from Western Europe, which makes up our mental prototype for God, is actually Zeus in part because one cannot draw YHWH.  This reinforces our idea of a God as Zeus. We are hard wired for Zeus because he is easier to understand, more like us.  And we yearn for simplicity. If we don’t start making the vulnerable, relational YHWH God accessible, we are going to keep losing young people.  When I offer this idea, the overwhelming teenage response is, “YHWH is what I believe in.  Maybe I am not an atheist.  I just don’t want to worship Zeus.”

“A church committed to a Zeus-god will play upon our fears and keep its membership infantile in order to control it.” (Maggie Ross, Pillars of Flame: Power, Priesthood, and Spiritual Maturity, Harper and Row, NY: 2007, p.76) And the young people I know want nothing to do with that.  Our church needs to reclaim YHWH.  Although there is a part of us that would like God to be a puppet-master, deep down we do not want to be in slavery to God’s will.  I believe young people want responsibility in the world and an authentic relationship with the divine.

There are young, brilliant, energetic, relational, intuitive teens out there who want to make the world more beautiful.  They are self-reflective youth with extremely high spiritual intelligence.  They are leaving the Church in droves, and some of them are leaving God while they are at it.  They see God being co-opted by our limited, sinful human brains, agendas and actions and refuse to worship Zeus as people of integrity.  As we learn more about our YHWH God, we give young people the hope that the light they see in nature, justice work, in themselves and each other is actually the light of God.

A Call for Conversation

14 Oct

There is a lot of buzz about Waiting for “Superman,” the movie about the educational system in the US. Now, buzz can be good and bad.  Our kids and our educational system need some buzz, so I was excited to see that there is talk popping up around the film.  The buzz seemed positive at first.  Oprah loved it, the trailer gave me goosebumps. This was exciting!  Education is on the pop culture radar! Let the conversation begin!

But let’s be honest, our polarized society is having a hard time with conversation as of late.  I mean, there is talking and then there is conversation.  We like to proclaim and pontificate and not listen.  We like to blame and deflect and use anger, which is not always good buzz.  And stakes are high.  People have decided they did not like the film just off the buzz.  I did not want to be that person, so I went on opening night in Minneapolis. I really thought the film had a lot of good things to offer the conversation, and I am so dedicated as a teacher to that conversation.  The anger and defensiveness in regard to the film addressing ineffective teachers, charter schools and unions surprised me because there is no one way that will reform education and offer children more opportunity.  This seemed like a useful voice in the conversation.

I will openly admit it was easier for me to not get defensive watching Waiting for “Superman” as a private school teacher.  I take my different perspective seriously when listening to teachers talk about the film.  At my school, there is no tenure, we have to earn our contract every year.  There are no unions at my school.  We get paid less than our public school counterparts, and we have a waiting list, hundreds of families waiting to pay $9,000 a year.  I was struck by the disconnect between my daily reality and the reality in the film.

It was interesting to watch Waiting for “Superman” in the state of Minnesota.  People move here or stay here and brave horrible February blizzards in the name of good education. And our education is good here, comparatively.  But we rank very high in achievement gap.  Embarrassingly high.  I am a white woman.  Our faculty is almost exclusively white.  We have 18% students of color, many of whom are tracked for non-honors courses.  Closing the gap and making our school actively anti-racist is work we are currently and urgently engaged in.  I was encouraged that that work needs to continue.

The film is not perfect.  I don’t think it is not meant to be.  It is one part of a very important conversation.  Good teaching is an art, and every teacher I know is a brilliant hero.  But we still need to talk about ineffective teachers because even as a numerical minority, they do exist.  There are advantages and disadvantages to unions, and we need to talk about it.  Charter schools are one possible step, but far from the only solution.  I liked this film because I think it is igniting a very important conversation about the state of education in the US.  And I get sad when conversation gets replaced by polarized talking.  I would recommend seeing it, and I would encourage you to be part of that essential conversation.  Be an active stakeholder whether you are parent, tax payer or educator.  Adults have to come together and work together so that children who want to learn have access and opportunity.  The most powerful part of the film for me was when it stated that adults are fighting in the world of education and the youth are the ones suffering.  So I find it ironic that adults are fighting over the film, some without even seeing it.  I am glad people are talking, now let’s start conversing.  Buzz is not enough when education is on the line.  We can take this energy and the increased voices at the table work together toward complex, holistic, compassionate transformation and improvement.

Justin Exists

6 Oct

Last week a former student of mine got assaulted on Augsburg’s campus in Minneapolis, MN for being gay.  He asked me to tell everyone his story, so here it is.  I met Justin in the classroom first.  He did not thrive in a desk, but he is brilliant, and I could tell right away.  He is an amazing actor and play write.  I really got to know him in El Salvador when we spent ten days studying war and poverty there.  He has a capacity and desire to be a change agent in the world that is second to none.  He came out to me the fall of his senior year.  And Justin hit the ground running in college, thriving at Augsburg as he found a community who created room for him to be himself.  Justin is creative, kind and sassy.  I think of him as having an amazing combination of potential and kinetic energy bubbling around.  He is gentle, yet not to be underestimated.

Last week, Justin was hanging out on campus with his friend Sam, who is also gay.  Both men enjoy playing with and smudging gender lines.  Four men approached them, one more aggressive than the others, taunting them and calling them faggots.  Justin simply asked, “Do you know what faggot means?”

Definition: a bundle of sticks, twigs, or branches bound together and used as fuel, a fascine, a torch, etc.1910–15, Americanism cf. faggot  a contemptuous term for a woman (from ca. 1590), perh. the same word as fagot -Dictionary.com

After some verbal sparring, the men left, only to come back in what seemed a very planned physical assault, which left both gay men on the ground while the four attackers fled.  Justin said that the next day was the first day he felt unsafe walking around his campus.  Totally courageous, he asked me to tell all my students his story.  We had been reading The Laramie Project, the play about the crucifixion of Matthew Shepard, a gay student in Wyoming.  I keep waiting for that 1998 story to be outdated and irrelevant, but we are so far away from even the tolerance of live and let live.  Justin wanted my students, who still think of him fondly, to have a face to this issue.  Shepard, the Rutgers student, and now one of our own.  In a way that felt eerie and prophetic, Justin offered, “It is going to be a big year for LGBTQ human rights.  I can feel it.  There is tension, and there is going to be friction, conflict and growth this year.  It is in the air.”  I agree.  It feels urgent.

I could teach Laramie and tell Justin’s story at my Catholic high school because even in the most conservative Church teaching, it is absolutely not ok for someone to be the victim of unjust discrimination because of her or his sexuality.  Justin was not doing anything wrong by standing on his campus.  He did not deserve to be assaulted, and even conservative Catholics can agree we need to work to ensure all people’s dignity and safety.

What happened to Justin just astounds me.  What is it about Justin existing that attacks his executioner’s masculinity and sexuality so much that the attacker needs to act out in violence to re-establish his masculinity and heterosexuality?  Why do gay men get assaulted so much more often than lesbian women? What is the deep connection between gender and sexuality?  Why do we categorize so avidly in a binary system that any human being who chooses to express gender more complexly needs to be beaten back into the rigid norm?

Go back to the origin of the word that was used to insult Justin.  Why is the biggest insult to call Justin a woman?  How is beating him physically going to make things more clear?  It seems to me we have work to do on educating about both gender and sexuality so that all human beings can self- express without having to worry about their physical safety.  Justin wants his assailant to know that punching him will not force him back in the closet.  Justin is a gay man who does not feel fully alive when living by the acceptable gender rules society has laid out for him.  He exists.  And if that makes people uncomfortable, it is their work to be done.  And it is my job as a heterosexual who loves Justin for who he is to tirelessly work to make the world a place where he is not only tolerated, but celebrated.

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