Thursday, December 17, 2009

Must Be Santa...

One of the most worn holiday books in my house is Red Ranger Came Calling by Berkeley Breathed.  The extraordinarily illustrated tale - which Breathed presents to us as a true one - follows a young boy as he encounters an old hermit named Saunder Clos who converts the solidly skeptical child into a lifelong believer in Christmas. 

The same thing has happened to me this holiday season. 

It wasn't an old bearded hermit surrounded by tiny, pointy-eared friends who turned my humbug into hope this was an elementary school full of generous teachers. 

The school falls under the watch of  Title1 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.  This is the provision that ensures all children, regardless of their socio-economic status, will receive "a fair, equal, and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education."  In other words, many of the children in the school are poor.

One of the high schools in this crowded metropolitan school district has an annual fundraiser every December to buy bicycles for children in their schools who might not otherwise have a gift under the Christmas tree.  Teachers in Title 1 schools are asked to identify students to receive the bikes, and then to consult with parents of those children to make sure the gifts will be meaningful.  

The bicycles had been promised this year.  But the fundraiser fell short of the promises.  The teachers at the school received an email late Monday filling them in:  "We need 10 more bicycles.  They cost $75 each.  Let's try to raise the money."  

Before dawn had broken on the next school day, every bicycle had been funded.  By teachers.  You know...the very people who are in the trenches with our children every day.  The ones we expect to mold and shape and educate the next generation.  The heroes who bring snacks to school for children who are hungry, buy coats for children who are cold, give away hundreds of thousands of pencils and markers and crayons to children who never show up with supplies.  The professionals among us who are paid an annual salary to compete with drywall installers, game wardens, and postal carriers ($45,600).  

They gave without hesitation, even though they've already given those children so much.  

I won't overstate the saintliness of teachers.  They are human.  There are good ones and bad ones, as is the case in every profession.  But they are with our children.  They are paying attention.  They are dipping into their own depleted bank accounts at Christmas to ensure "fair, equal, significant opportunity" for every child.  

They know opportunity sometimes comes with pedals and two wheels and a big, red bow.  

...if you ask if I'm not making all this up, I'll say this:  The word of the Red Ranger of Mars should be all you need.  And if you ask if I believe in Santa Claus, I'll say this:  Mind your own business.  And if you ask about that tree on a Christmas morning a lifetime ago, the one holding the last little bit of an old man's faith and the first of a sour-faced little boy's... 
It's from the book.

And, it's from real life, too.  Both make me smile and give me hope.  


Monday, December 14, 2009

Everything You Need To Know...

You can still learn it in kindergarten. 

My sister does the heroic work that is the public school equivalent to a prep cook in a kitchen, or a weight trainer on an NFL team, or a computer programmer for NASA - without whom we would have no Iron Chefs, no Super Bowl winners, no space exploration.

My sister is a kindergarten teacher.

She calls it herding kittens.   I call it tilling the soil of our future.  Because what happens during a child's first year in school is so often the bellwether of success or failure for a student in the circuitous 13-year system that is public education.  Leaders are born and buried in that system.

So I'm eager to relay this story from a kindergarten class in one of the "boom-burbs" of the Dallas-Ft.Worth area...

My sister received an untimely summons for jury duty this week - the last week before the holiday break at her school.  The kindergarteners are receiving some intense hands-on lessons about the holiday traditions of a variety of faiths and cultures. Each teacher is specializing in one particular tradition.  My sister's assignment for the week was Hanukkah.  She was scheduled to teach the traditions of the Jewish Festival of Lights to every kindergarten class on Wednesday - the very day she has been called to court to do her duty as a good citizen of the United States of America.

She contacted her favorite sub to fill in for her.  Then, as she worked on lesson plans for the day, my sister realized she was asking a conservative, head-covered Muslim woman to teach Jewish traditions all day.  So, in the name of  cultural sensitivity, she called the substitute and apologetically confessed that she didn't even know if her question was appropriate. "Do you have a problem teaching Hanukkah to kindergarteners?"

The woman was more than gracious.

"Oh no," she told my sister.  "There is one God who loves all people.  I believe we will all eventually stand together before that God."  Then she added, "And, I also love all people. Of course I will teach the traditions of Hanukkah." 

And so candles of the menorah will be lit this week in a kindergarten classroom in Mansfield, Texas by a Muslim woman, who is filling in for a Christian woman...

It's an example for little children that the rest of the world needs to see.

Whether you light candles for eight days, decorate evergreens in your living room, fast from dawn until sunset for a month, or feast 'round the clock from December 26 'til January 1 - there is one God.  Surely it does not matter how we choose to tell the story.

I believe this kind of lesson is our One hope for peace on Earth.

And we probably learned it in kindergarten.


Friday, December 11, 2009

Have A Great(ful) Day

Christmas is not my season.

First, there's the shopping.  I do hate shopping.  Already I've mistakenly double-ordered from Amazon, over-spent at REI, and dragged my feet too long to get a must-have item on a loved one's list.  Ugh.

Then there's the clutter.  Christmas decorations make sense to me for about two days...then they become visual background noise that ultimately confuses and irritates me.  But, I'll be racing out for a Christmas tree today, because I'm afraid if I let the weekend pass, all the good trees will be gone.  Double ugh.

Stir in the call of the Faithful to set aside time to anticipate and wait with patience for The Holy, throw in the expectation that all human contact will be full of comfort and joy, add a heaping helping of the Martha Stewart inspired dream of gingerbread in every oven and fresh evergreen boughs on every hearth...and, well, I mostly want to cry.

So I walk gently through the days.  I negotiate the emotional expectations to the present reality every day. I remember to sleep and eat. I cling to time to be still and know God...not the babe in the manger, but the Holy Parent who loves me. And, I try to be eager in my resolve to return all kindness with kindness - hoping, ultimately, that goodness will grow beyond grumpiness.

But I find people are generally grumpy this time of year.

"Wanna bag for this?"
"Really?  We haven't had that for two weeks."
"Uh, yeah, you too (have a nice day). Next."
"No, you can't return that without a receipt.  Next." 

Finally this week, I made a transaction with someone who smiled and said with cheerful authenticity:  "Thank you.  Merry Christmas.  Have a great day."

It didn't happen at the upscale kitchen gadget shop, not at the all-natural-eco-friendly retailer, not even at the bookstore where I was purchasing books about saving the world one school at a time. 

It came from the toothless, shivering, under dressed-for-the-weather man standing on the corner near my house with a sign that read, "Good Karma for you.  Anything helps."  I gave him one dollar.  One measly dollar.  And I said, "I hope you have a warm place to go to soon." 

He was cheerful.  He was grateful.  He said, "Thank you for caring, m'am.  Thank you.  Merry Christmas."  And as I drove away, he smiled, waved, and shouted,  "Have a great day!" 

I now have a stack of dollar bills in my car.  It's my investment in Christmas sanity.

To those among us who need so little from us to be gracious and kind this holiday season...
Thank you.

You have increased my joy and made me mindful of goodness in the crazy world that is Christmas. 


Sunday, December 6, 2009

Let There Be Peace

Dear Mr. President, 
We lit the second candle of Advent this morning in our Christian worship service.  The candle of Peace.  Our prayers were focused on waiting, patiently, for the celebrated birth of the Prince of Peace.  Our scripture texts reminded of us journeys in the wilderness.  Before the gathered parted company for the week ahead, we sang:  Let there be peace on earth.  Let it begin with me.

The words stuck in my throat.  What, I wondered through tears, do peace and justice oriented people of faith do now,  in the midst of escalating war, to begin peace? 

We thought we were beginning it as we registered voters, walked neighborhoods, and voted in 2008. 

Now, as we have done for the last eight years, we have to imagine peace starting with us in some other way.  A dollar to the homeless woman on the street corner?  A donation to a microcredit fund?  A bowl of soup served to a hungry child?  A candle lit in the window?  Prayers for people of Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, Israel? 

We’re doing all that – we’ve never stopped.  Perhaps you can imagine how it all seems like not quite enough. 

What would you have been thinking today if you’d sung these words?

Let there be peace on earth
And let it begin with me? 

Why can’t the leader of the most powerful , best resourced, most envied nation of the world … the man who will receive the Nobel Peace Prize this week … stand up and say, “We’re finished with war”?  Do we have no allies for peace?  Would our economies all collapse if our war industries went idle?    Is there no real good to be done on this planet with one million dollars, multiplied by 140,000 soldiers, multiplied by 1.5? 

What happens if peace begins with you, Mr. President?  Will no one else follow?  Are there not enough people in the world who will stand in the name of peace with us to face our enemies? 

They do seem to be growing weary of standing alongside us in war.

How, Mr. President, do you suggest peace begins?  Not “disrupt, dismantle and defeat.” 

Any chance it can start with you?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

What Don't I See?

A dozen years ago I sat my pacifist self down across the table from two teen aged boys who were temporarily in my care.  They had been in a fight, and I do not approve of fighting.  Not between teen aged boys.  Not between nations.

I told the boys a racial slur was not worth a fist fight.  I reminded them that they - both black - were bigger than that.  I told them nothing was ever solved with violence, and that they gave away their power the minute they engaged in it.

It's what I believed with all my heart.

But - I have never been called a nigger.

That day I wondered if my pacifist perspective was a bit sheltered.  Tonight, I'm wondering the same thing.  Are some things worth a fight?

What about "disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future?"

President Obama thinks that's a perfectly good reason to fight.  He's sending 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan based on that argument:  We must beat the bad guys.

But, it seems to me the bad guys win if we continue to deplete our deeply-indebted financial stores to the tune of $1-million per soldier per year to continue a war that's been depleting our stores for eight years.

It seems to me the bad guys win when the locals (Afghanis) blame poverty, corrupt government (US supported), and interference from other countries for the war in their land before they blame al-Qaida.

It seems to me the bad guys win every time another flag draped coffin is pulled from a plane at an Air Force Base on US soil.

Did you study the faces of the cadets tonight as President Obama delivered his plan to the West Point audience?  To say they were solemn would be an understatement.  Many of them will go to Afghanistan as soon as the last verse of "Silent Night" is sung in a few weeks.  They know this.

Some of them have already been.

Surely a good number of them have lost a friend to the battle.

I'd love to know how they feel about the worthiness of the fight.

Because I have never trained nor taken an oath to defend the constitution of the United States.  Nor have I read through daily security briefings with information like the President divulged tonight: "In the last few months alone, we have apprehended extremists within our borders who were sent here from the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan to commit new acts of terror."

Maybe there is something about our ongoing quagmire that we call war in Afghanistan that I just don't see.

But if it's peace and stability we're after...I sure don't see it at the end of a gun.