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Reclaiming YHWH Take 2

12 Dec

The day after I posted my last blog entry about reclaiming YHWH and letting go of Zeus, a student of mine offered the following prayer that he wrote:

Translated “I AM”, YAHWEH is our most sacred name for God.  Considered so sacred, people refrain from its use, though they proclaim it with each breath.  Taking a breath, notice the sound of the inhale “YAH” and exhale “WEH”.  It is incredible, the whole world is praying God’s name constantly.  Our life is our prayer and glory to God.  Furthermore, we proclaim, “I AM”, and thus stating we are all a part of God.  God breathed his life into us (Genesis 2:7).  Our breath claims our own divinity as human beings.  Consequently, one person can make a difference in this world.  God can do and as we are divine an individual can do anything.  I want people to appreciate this and see the beauty and potential in themselves and others.  Most importantly, realize we all say the same prayer.

I found this to be beautifully insightful coming from a 17 year old young man.  I use breath as a sign of the divine with my students often.  I will tell them, “God is breath.  We have been breathing since the moment we were born.  Our breath sustains our lives.  It is always with us, we just don’t always choose to acknowledge it.”  And breath is usually associated with the the Spirit, the only part of the Trinity that can be seen by most as female.  But I like this breath connection with YHWH, too.  At some point during my day since he prayed this with us, when I am not feeling so divine, I close my eyes and listen to the sound and rhythm of my breath.  Just being is enough.  I AM, and I can feel the rest of creation breathing with me.  The abundant, self-emptying, relational love is in us and around us and moving through all of us all of the time.  There is great comfort in that for me.  The boundaries break down.  I am breath and life.  It is hard to tell where YHWH stops and my neighbor starts.  There is beauty and power in the simplicity of I AM, and there is a chance to remember that with each breath we take.

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.

More than Eleanor, Por Favor

2 Sep

Oh, Eleanor

This fall I am team teaching a course on social justice to high school seniors with three men.  I noticed that they had very few women up on their walls, the room saturated with amazing men like Malcolm X, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Caesar Chavez and Nelson Mandela.  I think it would have been great if the three men had noticed this and joined me in the search, but be it as it were, I took it upon myself to find some posters of powerful women to join the ranks on our walls.  I had no idea how difficult this Cool Women Poster Project would prove to be.

First, I Google searched “women’s posters,” “posters of women,” “powerful female images” and general phrases such as these.  I found almost exclusively sex posters.  Not quite what I was going for.  When I expressed my frustration with this part of the Cool Women Poster Project, people just dismissed me by saying, “You have to be more specific in your search.”  Yes, true, but isn’t that the problem?  MLK posters are all over the Internet, and the fact that I had to really dig creatively points to a systemic problem of gender.  But I did persevere, and upon digging more specifically, I came upon angry, man-hating feminist posters, which is not quite what I was going for either.  In the depths of virtual reality there are some pretty cool posters of obscure women with powerful quotes, but they are tucked away pretty deep.

Part of my Cool Women Poster Project included asking both men and women what females they look up to.  I was shocked and dismayed at the lack of variety in answer.  Most people could site a woman in their personal lives who they look up to, which is great, but that was not what I wanted.  There were very few famous, powerful women that people could name off the top of their heads.  Another red flag.  It bothers me, going back to my last post, how women remain unnamed in history.  Think about the Bible (I have to since I am a religion teacher).  We have the Greek women who refers to herself as a dog, the woman who anoints Jesus with oil, and the woman who is healed by touching Jesus’ cloak.  What are their names?  And even the women we can name: Ruth, Rebecca, Mary—how much do we really know about them?  What is wrong with our systems that we look up to our moms but have few public figures to aspire to?  Looking over my own list, the women I like to channel for power are mostly musicians, writers, justice workers and survivors who are by no means known widely in the world.  Finding posters of them was close to impossible.

The last observation I will share from my Cool Women Poster Project process is that when women were named, they were usually wives of famous men: Coretta Scott King, Michelle Obama and Hilary Clinton. Don’t even get me started on Eleanor Roosevelt.  Now, Eleanor was wicked cool, but by the end of this process, I was a little done with posters of frumpy Eleanor busts with her one, over-used quote about feeling inferior.  Men would name her as the one woman they could come up with, but then could not tell me anything specific about her.  And what does it say that our namable women are wives who greatly stay in the shadow of the men they are connected to?  It is not just about having women on posters to look up to.  It is about having women writing policy, getting published, inventing things, working successfully on justice, singing songs, and building buildings in our society so that the feminine soul is reflected in our world.

During the Poster Finding Project, I did some reflecting on how our culture values the individual.  It was not Rosa Parks who ran the bus boycott alone, but we are wired to look to one person to personify a movement.  Instead of valuing community work and consensus, we put one person on the top, and so often the person is a man.  I reflected on the waves of the unnamed, unpostered people who have been a part of the foundation on which we stand.

Last week I stepped back from a bulletin board I had claimed in my classroom that I covered with striking 4 X 6 photos of gorgeous, empowered women that I had printed off myself on my home printer.  It was the result of a summer-long struggle to name and raise up powerful women so my female students could see their souls reflected in the world, too.  I smiled at the beauty of the board while noting how exhausting it was to create.  It felt like swimming up stream the entire way, and that fatigue is systemic gender oppression in the US.  Sometimes it is as subtle as noticing what comes up on a google image search.

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