Tell Me Your Story, re-visit

This post, written in January 2018, further examines the assumptions we make about one another — assumptions that can prevent connection. I repost it here in the wake of this week’s post, Of Reality and Social Media.

I am a hypocrite.

Although I have stood on my soapbox pointing out injustices and crying out for equity, I am a prejudiced person. I’m racist. I’m classist. I’m sexist. I’ll judge a person based on one Facebook status or incriminate a whole group of people for their stance on whether they think athletes should stand for the National Anthem or not. I’ll sort you into a category so fast, it’ll make your head spin.

It’s embarrassing, actually.

I’ve lived my professional life encouraging students to write narratives – to tell their stories of defining life moments — their parents’ divorce, the death of a sibling, a betrayal of friendship, a proclamation of love. These stories cross all lines of race, class, gender, political affiliation, musical preference, and lifestyle choice.

Our stories reveal our humanity; they connect us to one another.

In my classroom I have made space for students to laugh with one another, cry with one another, challenge one another, and embrace one another. I, too, have laughed, cried, challenged, and embraced. I have revealed my humanity to an audience of twenty or so students at a time. I have met and loved kids who are rich, poor, black, white, Asian, Hispanic, Arabic, Christian, atheist, Jewish, male, female, gay, straight, fat, thin, extroverted, introverted, funny, serious,…

It’s not hard to love someone – anyone – once you have heard his or her story. But in order to hear that story, you’ve got to risk getting close. That’s the challenge for me, because I’m prejudiced. I look at your hair, your clothing, your skin color, and your car. I see who you hang out with, what you share on Facebook, and what you retweet on Twitter. I know who you are, I think to myself.You are ‘that kind’ of person. I sort you into a clump and make assumptions about you before I even hear you speak.

I recently returned to a job after two and a half years away. Since I left, my former supervisor, who I loved, had resigned for health reasons. I had had a couple interactions with the woman who took her place, but before I had even worked with her one day, I had decided that she would be not as amazing, not as on top of things as my previous boss. I pre-judged her. Then, during the last hour of a two-day-long training, the new supervisor partnered with me for some role-playing activities, and I got my first up-close glance at her personality and heard the first few lines of her story. My prejudices were confirmed, but they were also dashed. She isn’t, actually, exactly like my previous supervisor; rather, she has her own unique personality and gifts. (Shocking, I know.) I wasn’t anticipating laughing with my new supervisor as she pretended to be a precocious nine-year old to my role of reading instructor, but there we were – giggling like close friends lost in make-believe.

People are hard to hate close up. Move in.”

Brene Brown, Braving the Wilderness

From a distance, even the length of my arm, I can keep you handily sorted into a category – liberal, conservative, educated, ignorant, friend, or foe. However, if I ask to hear your story, everything can change. My beliefs can be challenged, my assumptions destroyed, my heart opened.

Years ago I picked up my first Jodi Picoult book, My Sister’s Keeper. It’s the story of a girl who was conceived by her parents in the hope that she would be a donor match for her critically ill older sibling. Gasp!  One glance at that premise and I formed an opinion. How could they?  What kind of parents….? However, Picoult, I soon learned, is a master at using narrative to bring her readers in close to see issues in their complexity – issues that most of us find ourselves firmly positioned on – euthanasia, gun violence, infidelity, and abortion. She weaves her narratives, often from multiple points of view, to expose these issues as more than dichotomies. She can move me from my Gasp! How could they? to a Wow! I can’t even imagine that kind of love! in 400 pages or less!

Real-life stories are no different from fictional narratives – they are full of complexity and factors that don’t appear on the surface. If I judge someone based on her skin color, clothing, language choices, or friends, I am missing out! I am missing her story – all the characters and plot twists that have led her to today. Not only that, I am diminishing her humanity – I am relegating her to a category rather than appreciating her individuality. Most importantly, I am denying the connectedness that she and I share as members of humanity – children of the Creator.

Our pastor, Gabe Kasper, spoke recently about the necessity for genuine relationships in the church (read or listen to the full-text here). He said that genuine relationships are characterized by vulnerability, empathy, love, and the willing of good for the other person. We don’t often enter into such relationships because 1) we are afraid of getting close to people, and 2) we don’t want to take the time. However, if we are willing to risk getting just a little closer, of asking others to tell us just a little piece of their story, everything — EVERYTHING – can change. Story has the power to transform us – our understandings, our experience of life, and our relationships. Imagine the impact of a couple hundred people who have chosen to be vulnerable, empathetic, loving, and supportive of one another — intentionally and consistently. What ripple effect might that have?

Are we willing to, knowing better, do better. Are we willing to call out our prejudices and stereotypes? Are we willing to set those aside, step in close, and hear the stories of people who may not be just like us?

Consider this: Because I am a 50-something white woman who has been a teacher and a pastor’s wife, you may draw some assumptions about me – that I’m Christian, heterosexual, pro-life, Republican, and financially secure. You might believe that my family is immune from tragedies such as chronic illness, sexual assault, alcoholism, eating disorders, family conflict, depression, or anxiety.  Some of your assumptions may be right; most would certainly be wrong. How will you know which is which? You will have to lean in and listen to my story.

Some of the things you learn about me might be confusing. They might challenge you. You might not agree with me. You might choose to walk beside me anyway. And, in that walking, I might learn some things about you that confuse and challenge me. I see us taking lots of long walks together, learning about one another and growing together.

I imagine that if we are willing to take the chance to move in close and learn the stories of those who we might have previously sorted into categories, our assumptions will be destroyed, and we will never be the same again.

Are you willing to take that risk? Are you willing to tell me your story?

Romans 12:10

Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.

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Have Mercy

I’ve heard the story of “The Good Samaritan” countless times in my fifty years.  You know the one, the guy is traveling down a road when he is attacked by robbers and left for dead.  He’s lying there mangled in the dirt, gasping for breath, hoping against all hope that someone will stop and help him.

One of our pastors this morning set this story in the context of current events. He recalled with us the tragedies of the last week, month, year, years, and asked us the question, “What does it mean for us? for the church?”

Let me just go on record here and say that in the past weeks and months I have  NOT immediately gone to that question as I’ve witnessed all kinds of horrendous acts.  I have been more often found standing in front of the television, eyes wide, saying, “What the…”

It doesn’t take me long to launch into the words I used to hear my grandparents say, “What’s the world coming to?”  From there it’s just a short trip to quoting scripture about the end times and “wars and rumors of wars”.  Before you know it, I’m in a frantic outrage trying to find someone to blame.  It must be the Republicans.  No, it’s the Democrats.  Wait, I think it’s corporate America.  No, no, it’s the extremists.  I’m not really looking for what it means for me, or, to be honest, for ways that I could possibly help.

This morning, our pastor in his re-telling of “The Good Samaritan”  pointed out that each of us, like the man in the story,  is essentially half-dead, lying in the dirt, gasping for breath. He said, “Jesus is the good Samaritan.” Gasp! How did I get fifty years into my life and not realize that the point of the story is not that I would see myself as the good Samaritan and look for ways that I can be better than the priests and the Levites and actually help out the poor hurting soul?  How have I not seen that I am the poor hurting soul!?!?!?

Jesus was telling this story to a respected expert in the law.  The expert had asked him, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  He of course knew what was written, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and  mind and love your neighbor as yourself.”  He just needed a little clarification.  “Uh, Jesus, who, uh, exactly, would you say qualifies as ‘my neighbor’?”

Can’t you just see Jesus inhaling slowly, thinking to Himself, “This one is gonna take a story.” He doesn’t just say, “Every living human, you moron!” like I might. Nope.  He takes this expert in the law, pulls him onto his lap and has a little story time.

The Teacher tells the expert that, in the story, the Samaritan didn’t first check to see what neighborhood the hurting man was from.  He didn’t ask him his last name. He didn’t try to find out if he was an illegal immigrant.  He didn’t check to see if he had a conceal and carry permit.  He didn’t examine the color of his skin.  He didn’t determine if they spoke the same language.  He didn’t check his ID.  No.

He saw a dude in the dirt that needed help. He used his own wine and oil to cleanse the man’s wounds before he bandaged them. He put the guy on his own donkey and then walked with him to a place of shelter. He paid for the stranger’s care. Period.

The Teacher looks the expert in the eyes and says, “Who was a neighbor to this man?” The expert says, “The one who showed mercy.”  And the punch line? “Go and do likewise.”

Is it dangerous to meet the need of someone we do not know? Yes. Is it scary to reach out when we see someone hurting? It can be.  Is it uncomfortable to stand up for the oppressed, the wounded, the outcast?  Sometimes.

Our pastor’s challenge to us this morning was that we ask God to show us the people in our regular flow of life who need us to see them, share with them what we have, walk beside them, and befriend them.  His closing words? “Take the risk to love for the sake of the Gospel.”

Go and do likewise.

Be strong and courageous; do not be afraid.

For I, the Lord your God, will be with you wherever you go.

Joshua 1: 9

 

 

 

Sharing oxygen

Did you ever think about how many you share oxygen with during the week? Some weeks the number is higher than others.  This has been one of those weeks!

On Sunday we were with my in-laws in the Thumb of Michigan.  We worshipped with them at their little Lutheran church. In that small space we shared oxygen with about a hundred people — among them were a former college classmate, two additional relatives, and a young woman who is looking for her first job after college.

On Monday I got to share oxygen with an eye doctor who is doing his fellowship at the University of Michigan, a nurse, and a cornea specialist.  Then, I was able to share food and laughter with several of my husband’s coworkers.

Tuesday I had the blessing of inhaling hope at my physical therapist’s office, exhaling stress at the gym, and then breathing calmly over a table at a library where I leaned in with two students — a woman from Romania who is studying to become a nurse and a man from China who is an automotive engineer.

Wednesday the sweet aroma of my Bible study battalion filled me up before I headed to meet three more students — all children of Indian professionals, eagerly breathing and learning with me.

Thursday, back at the gym, I panted and sweat among many I do not know. Then, I was refreshed by sharing space with my chiropractor and his office manager before I headed to meet another student — a  Chinese man who shared the aroma of my tea and his goals for improving his English.

This morning, my dog and I are sharing space and oxygen.  We are snuggled in together on the futon. He’s been patient with me as I have read my Bible study, chatted on Facebook, and responded to emails.  He knows that in a while I will leave him so that I can sit beside two more students this afternoon — an International college student and an American high school student.

Then tomorrow I will be surrounded again at the gym before I share space, ideas, and air with, first, a Jamaican woman and , then, an Indian young man.

Many times throughout the week, my husband and I have sat side-by-side, often exhausted after very full days, breathing deeply, drinking in each other’s quiet company.

I’ve shared a lot of oxygen this week.   And in all of my encounters, I have not had one single conflict.  I have not felt betrayed. I have not been abused.  I have not been taken advantage of.  I have not been intimidated or afraid. Rather, I have been encouraged, inspired, enriched, and blessed.

It’s worth noticing, don’t you think? It’s worth reporting on a life so blessed.

Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.

Psalm 150:6

 

Confessions of an English Teacher, numero uno, revisit

I am dusting off this post from August 2014 in celebration of the 1000 English teachers I’m reading with now — June 2019.

My students have helped me keep my secret for years — I’m not really the best English teacher. It’s true. They correct my grammar almost as much as I correct theirs. I misspell words, even on the board! And, to be honest, I always have to look up the correct usage of lie and lay.  

I mean I have the credentials and everything — a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in English. I was even magna cum whatever both times. I love English. I love literature. I love words. I’m just not a big fan of rules. 

(I know, I know — obviously.)

What I love about language, actually, is its fluidity, its malleability. I love the way meaning changes over time and according to circumstance. I love playing with language and trying out new words in new contexts.  

When I went to grad school I transitioned from the language of Barney the Dinosaur to the discourse of academia. When I moved from Michigan to Missouri, I switched from pop to soda. I love learning new terms as they emerge, and I especially love trying the language of my students.

One of my favorite parts of teaching is when my students teach me the ‘in’ words of the moment. I like to pretend that I have swag and that I can use their words in appropriate ways, but really I am just providing comic relief for my students who don’t really love language as much as I do. (Sigh.) I once had a group a students who were committed to saying ‘that’s dead‘ at least twenty times per class period. Now for those of you who are not as hip as I am, ‘that’s dead’ means “bad idea” or “I don’t like that” or “no, I disagree”.  So, I would say, “The paper is due tomorrow.” My students would reply, “that’s dead.”  See, now isn’t that fun? 

When I taught at an inner city high school in St. Louis, my students one day spent ten minutes of class teaching me the etymology of the word bird. If I remember correctly bird means a female human. Old bird means my mother. I can’t seem to remember how to refer to a girlfriend, but that’s ok, it was 2005, the words have surely changed by now!

In 2013, for the first time in my career, I taught a class of freshmen. I loved it. They were easily impressed, tried the things I asked them to, played along with my games, and encouraged my love of words. One day we were working on a particularly tough grammar lesson, and one of my students demonstrated that he understood. I excitedly high-fived him and said, “Bam!” That was all it took. For the rest of the year, whenever anyone did something right, we had to have a “Bam!”

Language is a reflection of personality, of individuality. We are not all the same, especially in this country. We are all kinds of people. We can’t all mean the same thing just because we are using the same word. When I say ‘conservative’, I might simply mean ‘guarded’; you might take it to mean a political viewpoint. For me, ‘fresh’ means ‘new”; to some it means ‘stylish’. ‘We negotiate meaning all day long. We have to listen and question to communicate. We can’t assume that we understand just because we hear words that we recognize. We have to enter into dialogue. We have to get to know one another. We have to be flexible, malleable, fluid. 

Ah, grasshopper, there is a lesson here for all of us, isn’t there? Let’s use our words. Let’s listen to each other, without assumption and without judgment. Let’s try to understand where the other person is coming from. When we aren’t sure, let’s ask for clarification. Someone who uses words differently than I do isn’t necessarily dangerous or less than me. (S)he is just different. And aren’t we glad for the difference? A world full of people just like me, using all the same words that I use, meaning exactly what I mean, would be incredibly dull. 

So I learn from my students, and I break a few rules. I try out words that I don’t really understand, and I talk to people who are different than me.

I make mistakes. I ask for forgiveness. Then I try again.  

Bam. 

let the wise listen and add to their learning, and let the discerning get guidance”

Proverbs 1:5