My responsible, obedient, first-born, Baptist outer shell has turned out to be a thin cover for a complete sloth. I plan my classes to the minute for the entire semester and have everything printed out in compelling chart form weeks before the first day of class. I assess my students (both formatively and summatively, thank you) for every learning objective. So, when the forecasts of snow and ice descended upon the sunny south, I was amazed at how quickly my best laid plans were tossed aside in favor of the no school happy dance. There was the most fleeting how-will-I-ever-catch-up thought quickly followed by the joy of nothing-I-can-do. I had a twinge of guilt over the televised stranded motorist phenomena, so I sat a little closer to the fire and got out some more snacks until the feeling passed.
It’s amazing how permanent life seems yet how unpredictable and ephemeral it actually is. We see disaster where it isn’t and then get completely blindsided by massive events. Remember Y2K? Neither do my students. Not because nothing happened but because they were only 5 years old at the time, as they gently reminded me. At the other end, how did no one see 9-11 or the financial meltdown coming? We’ve all raided the grocery store in preparation for snow and ice that never materialized, but there are local teachers who I am certain will never forget the bliss of spending the night at school courtesy of unpredicted ice.
Back in my church youth group days, a popular novel by Hal Lindsey called The Late Great Planet Earth scared the dickens out of an entire generation with its forecasts of doom and terror during the Earth’s last days. We lit candles and sang “I Wish We’d All Been Ready.” No wonder we morphed into the 80s Me Generation – if that prediction had any merit, we’d better get on with our big hair, big cars and big houses before Tribulation came down on our heads. It was the lifestyle equivalent of raiding the grocery store.
Wisdom might not come with age, but at least there is an appreciation of the mystery that surrounds us from eternity right down to tomorrow’s weather. Beyond a sense of nothing-I-can-do there is a freedom that comes from humbly recognizing that our place in time is fleeting, yet valuable. And that somehow I can whip that syllabus back into shape.
It seems that Pope Francis’ question, “Who am I to judge?” has attracted answers from everyone with access to the internet. Now, I’m as smitten with this humble pontiff as a Southern Baptist girl can be, and I could not be more charmed with the world’s response to his embodiment of Christianity. I’m pretty sure he was responding to a specific question about gay priests, but somehow the idea has taken hold that maybe being judgmental isn’t a hallmark of the followers of Jesus after all. Glory, halleluiah!
The Hebrew Bible tells us that God’s people were originally ruled by judges, but being envious of the nations with kings, they wanted one of their own. The prophets tried to tell them that this was not a good idea, but if we learn anything from the Bible it’s that people never listen to the prophets. If you think they were foolish to envy being under the thumb of a monarch, then you must be one of the 11 people in the United States who did not get up in the pre-dawn hours to watch Will & Kate’s vows --- a phenomenon made even more amusing by the fact that the USA exists because people were sick of their king. Reading I & II Kings reveals some Israelites who got really fed up with theirs too.
Judging others is not necessarily a bad thing. I remember an adult Sunday School class where the “Who am I to judge?” topic came up. Considering that one member of the class was a federal judge, it was obvious that some people are qualified and even required to judge others. Sometimes we appreciate this, and sometimes it knocks the luster off our affection. I was a fan of both Steven Tyler and Martha Stewart until they entered the reality show realm-- he as a judge and she as a subject to a ridiculous judge with a hideous comb over. It just hasn’t been the same with us since.
I’m a study in dissonance when it comes to judging and being judged. No skill is more easily mastered than the ability to judge the flaws of others. Not only is this skill a delight to practice, it has the added bonus of confirming my own vanity. But I seldom welcome criticism directed at me, not even the constructive kind ---especially not the constructive kind. It’s a tricky subject to address because warning people about being judgmental can come off sounding very judgmental. Take it from the Pope, “The reality of vanity is this: Look at the peacock; it’s beautiful if you look at it from the front, but if you look at it from behind you discover the truth. Whoever gives in to such self-absorbed vanity has huge misery hiding inside them.”
My husband has been fortunate to have a car donated for his use during much of his coaching career. The latest is a snazzy candy apple red BMW with enough blue tooth capability to handle basically everything in our middle aged lives. (And yes, I realize that label implies an assumption that both of us will live past the century mark.) During a recent ride we had a question about the music features. I immediately looked in the glove compartment but the car, like my iPad, understands that actual printed owner’s manuals are so 20th century. Our next bright idea was that it was probably stored somewhere in the car’s computer and when we managed to call it up it gave us a polite message that we shouldn’t be reading instructions unless the car was in park. I’m sure the view from the front of the car would show it indulgently rolling its headlights at our efforts. Finally my husband solved the problem by saying, “I’ll just ask Tyler.” As if this needs explaining,Tyler is a 20something co-worker who has never been in the car, but will know the answer immediately. It reminded me of a lady who once stopped my daughter on the street with the question, “You look young. Could you fix my iPod?” My daughter saw that the woman had accidentally set the device to play the same song over and over again. She reset it and the woman thanked her and left happy.
Recently a Los Angeles school district launched a $1 billion project to provide each of its students with an iPad fitted with security settings by school administrators. It took the first students who received the devices a week to alter the settings, get on social media, and teach all the other students how to enable the capabilities that the adults had protected them from. The project was immediately halted, because what should be done when innovative educators are out-innovated by the students? Not only that, but any teacher who could teach a skill at near mastery level to one of the largest school systems in the country in a week’s time would undoubtedly be hailed as teacher of the century. It was like the ending of every Scooby Doo cartoon when the adult lamented that his plans were perfect if it hadn’t been for those pesky kids! Then, the adult often pulled a mask off his face, which confused me as a child because I had never seen this happen in real life, but it seemed like a great idea to the cartoon perpetrator almost weekly.
Every generation thinks that the previous one is out of touch and the following one is out of control. If anything is different now, it’s that the latest generation has the best toys of all time. As an educator, it feels like uncharted territory. As a parent, it’s a relief that I can ask my kids for help. As a church goer, it’s obvious that we can’t just project PowerPoint slides in the sanctuary and call ourselves cutting edge. Influencing the next generation may involve a little more humility than we can comfortably muster. I guess I'd better get used to house bands instead of choirs and preachers in skinny jeans and fashionably wrinkled shirts. Insert an audible sigh here. On the bright side, the young church attendees seem to consider faith without works to be dead and to value people over social norms --- sounds awfully Biblical to me.
He was helping her out of the ditch when I slowed my bike to a stop on the Ladiga Trail. She righted her bicycle, brushed herself off and explained with one word, “squirrel.” I nodded my understanding. My friend Rene once spent some time on crutches with a cast on her ankle for the same reason. When those bushy tailed rodents stop in the middle of the lane and do their little shimmy dance, why do we swerve? People can not out-reflex squirrels.
My father taught high school driver education in addition to many other hats he wore during 30 years with the Birmingham City Schools, and he used to quiz me about driving situations. The one I always got right was probably the most useful too. Question: “What if something is in your lane and you don’t have time to stop?” Answer: “Hit it.” Dad was convinced that swerving while driving a car could make any accident more serious and he wanted to train my first thought to be “Hit it.” The rule came in handy when a ladder fell off the truck in front of me while driving on I-20 in heavy traffic, and also when assorted wildlife darted in front of my vehicle over the years. Swerving can cause a lot of trouble, and frankly, it almost never saves the deer either.
We can’t always weigh every option when faced with a quick decision regarding an obstacle in our path. But what about the things in life that are more important than bicycles, ankles, cars or deer? How do we know when to take a stand and when to keep the peace? I’ve always been a big fan of Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was one of the first Christians to stand up to Adolf Hitler. Bonhoeffer became so frustrated by the lack of action among his fellow clergy that he became involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler. As it turns out, good Christians do not always make good assassins and evil dictators have a much higher success rate when it comes to killing off their opponents. I’m not an advocate of assassination in general, but you have to admit Bonhoeffer decided not to swerve.
WWJD? Jesus seemed to have an inordinate amount of patience with some people and a very short fuse with others. He compared respected teachers to whitewashed tombs --- pristine outside but dead inside. He invited outcasts to eat and chat. He was no stranger to verbal barbs nor to words of compassion that surpassed anything the world had ever seen. And of course there was that incident in the temple with the overturned tables.
So how to know? Maybe when I feel like telling someone off I should show love, and when I feel like melting into the woodwork I should speak out. Courage is an interesting virtue… one you may not know you have (or don’t have) until faced with a dictator or a table that needs to be overturned.
My grandparents always planted their garden on Good Friday. I never asked why. It was just one of those things like the Frigidaire or the chester drawers. I was grown before I realized that it was pronounced “frigid air” and was a brand name, not a synonym for refrigerator. I’ll blame the prevalent Southern drawl for converting “chest of” to chester, but again, it took years to sink into my thick head. My understanding of the Good Friday planting has arrived more belatedly still. It dawned on me as I was planting my garden this year. As I dropped the seeds into the ground, covered them, patted down the dirt, and wondered how long it would be before they sprouted, the proverbial light bulb snapped on over my head. Of course! The seeds were being buried to rise again. I was proud of myself for figuring this out until it sunk in that it had taken me over half a century to do so. I may not be the sharpest tool in the shed.
When someone asked St. Paul to explain resurrection he said, “We have a parallel experience in gardening. You plant a ‘dead’ seed, and soon there is a flourishing plant. There is no visual likeness between seed and plant. You could never guess what a tomato would look like by looking at a tomato seed…You get a hint at the diversity of resurrection glory by looking at the diversity of bodies not only on earth but in the skies – sun, moon, stars – all these varieties of beauty and brightness. And we’re only looking at pre-resurrection ‘seeds’—who can imagine what the resurrection ‘plants’ will be like?” [from 1 Corinthians 15, The Message translation]
Beyond the seasonal life and death cycle of my plants, there is a daily hint for this mystery as well. Every night I die to consciousness and rise from sleep the next morning. During a significant portion of my life, I am completely unaware of my own existence. I literally provide a visual aid for resurrection every day. Not to get all new-agey about it, but if there is no context for an answer in our known experience, maybe spiritual awareness is superior to rational arguments when it comes to finding the truth. Who can imagine? What lies beyond may even be superior to homegrown tomatoes and okra. Wow.