This I Believe – Part Two

Dear Reader,

This I Believe: To Believe in God is to Believe in People

When we study literature, especially poetry, I always teach my students about denotation and connotation. The denotation of the word is what it actually means-if you look it up in the dictionary, you will find a precise definition of the word along with where it came from and other uses. The connotation of a word is what it actually means to us. The connotation of the word evolves and is defined over time through usage and through cultural applications of the word. Normally, the connotation of a word allows for a lot more possibility than the original definition.  For example, “gay” used to just mean happy – now it has a different meaning for most people, one that encompasses a lot more. For me, “Christian” is a word that has evolved quite a bit.

I grew up with very religious (Southern Baptist) grandparents, and my first understanding of what it meant to be a Christian crosscame from them.  My mom was not too strict about taking us to church, but whenever we stayed with my mom’s parents, we did the whole thing: Sunday School, morning worship, Sunday evening services, and Wednesday night prayer services. Mostly being a good Christian meant being still and quiet in church so my grandmother didn’t get upset.  My grandfather sang in the choir, so he didn’t really sit with us.  If we were good, we could have gum.  I never really considered church that much when I wasn’t with my grandparents – until high school.  When I was in 8th grade, my stepfather got assigned to Andrews Air Force Base in Camp Springs, Maryland.  After learning that the schools in Prince George’s County weren’t too highly regarded, our parents decided to put us in private school, a religious school.  Having gone to public school all my life, it was quite an adjustment.

Since I was a small child when I went to church with my grandparents, I really learned what Christianity was about in high school.  Through a consistent Bible-tinted filter, we were taught basic subjects and how we were supposed to view the world.  We attended chapel sermons a few times a week.  We had an active youth group, and we were strongly encouraged to attend church every Sunday.  I did go to church – first at my school and then at another church down the road.  Initially, I was drawn to the compassionate message of Christianity: that God is love, that he made the world for us, that he died for us – and that we should spread that message to others.  I loved coming together to worship.  But we were also inundated with the messages that hell awaits us with fire and suffering.  There is no such thing as a good person, only sinners who need redemption.  Nothing you can do in this life is good enough to save your soul. And weirdly, it is a sin to vote for the wrong person.  The longer I was involved, the more I began to notice that in church people judged other people based on their clothes and other superficial things. I learned that it was important to have the right costume, say the right things – as if being a good Christian was like acting a part in a play.  I was totally immersed, and it gave me a somewhat hard view of the world – so much of the dialogue in church was “us against them” and what base creatures we humans are and what judgment awaits the world.  But I was a full participant.  I passed out literature to strangers in shopping malls inviting them to “Consider Eternity” and things like that.  I shared my testimony with others, implored them to accept Jesus, and I even told people that I believed they would go to hell if they didn’t.

When I first went to a secular college and got out of the Bible Bubble I had lived in during my high school years, it was a culture shock to learn that other people didn’t see the world exactly as I did.  I mean, what could they be thinking?? But it helped me to start to consider the things I had been taught and to consider what Christianity looks like from the outside.

Sometimes people ask me if I consider myself a Christian anymore.  This is a hard question because of the connotation the word Christian has acquired and how my belief in God has evolved.  I still believe in God, but I don’t believe what I grew up believing. My faith has gotten bigger than that.  I think God is bigger than that.  We are the ones who limit him because we are limited by language.  When we can name something we understand it.  We want so much to understand.

When it used to thunderstorm outside when I was a kid, my great grandmother said it was God moving furniture in heaven.  She could have said that it was the sound made by the electrostatic charge of lightning, but she didn’t have that vocabulary.  Instead, it was God moving furniture.  It reminds me of Greek Mythology.  The Greeks made up myths because myth is what we tell ourselves about our world so that our lives make sense.  Rough seas mean Poseidon is restless.  Thunder means Zeus zeus_lightningis angry, etc. We do that too – we have given God a human face: a large, old white man with a beard.  We do that so we can understand him.  He’s a father.  He cares for us.  The Bible itself is full of metaphor – the King James Version of the Bible was transcribed by poets commissioned by King James I of England in 1611.  It has come a long way from its original language.  It’s fair to think that some things have been lost in those translations.  Have you ever played the game of telephone?  Whisper a phrase into one person’s ear in a group of people, and by the time it gets whispered around the room, even in a room of people who all speak the same language, it will be a different phrase, maybe even unrecognizable.  How can we expect the Bible to remain the same through hundreds and hundreds of years, many different languages, and several translations?  How can we cling to every word of it literally when we know poetry isn’t meant to be literal?

Today we have reduced Christianity to a set of political views on what we should be allowed to do with our bodies and our guns.  I don’t see those things I was first drawn to: compassion and love.  This is what I mean when I say that God is bigger than we have described him.  We ourselves have created rules in God’s name, but we ignore some of the logical inconsistencies of those rules.  Jesus said help the poor, but many people who claim to be Christians look at the poor as “moochers” who don’t deserve compassion. In the book of Matthew Chapter 7, Jesus said that we should not judge others – we are not worthy to do that, but there is a lot of judgment going around.  We have created a framework that we are comfortable in, we use it to hide behind and condemn things (and people) we don’t understand or are afraid of.  We have taken the poetry of men and made it our absolute North Star.

The word “Christian” has a decidedly un-poetic connotation now.  Too often in today’s society, to be a Christian means to deny, to reject, and even to hate. It means being a part of a narrow political group or being proud of the things we don’t do, what we resist, and who we exclude – that is not something I want to be associated with. The sad thing is, the negativity is the result of the loud mouths of 1% of people who call themselves Christians.  There are many Christians who aspire to live a life of love, peace, and tolerance.  I know some wonderful Christians who don’t resemble the Mike Huckabee/Pat Robertson/Duggar Family mainstream connotation of that word at all.  But their message is not the one that gets played and replayed.  I want to be associated with a way of believing that measures goodness by what we embrace, what we create, and who we include.  

These days, I guess I prefer to think of myself as a spiritual person.  Our faith matters because what we believe is a fundamental part of our identity and self-concept. Our religion is a public profession, a badge of courage that announces what we value and what we live for. I don’t belong to any particular denomination and I accept that there are more possibilities than I rainbows and doveswas originally taught.  To be a spiritual person is to let things into my world, not leave things out. I do believe in God, but this is what I believe: to believe in God is to believe in good.  To believe in God is to believe in people, to choose to believe that people have the capacity to do and be good, not believe that people are inherently bad or that those who are different should be feared and shunned.  To believe in God is to believe in what is possible.  In that way, maybe there is some poetry in the idea if we can, as Emily Dickinson wrote, learn to “dwell in possibility / a fairer house than prose.”

© 2015 Ryna May

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This I Believe – Part One

Dear Reader,

The title of this month’s blog is inspired by the NPR Podcast Series “This I Believe.”  If you have never listened to it, I highly recommend you check it out.

This I Believe: Civil Rights are Equal Rights

This month, the Supreme Court will rule on marriage equality. In the court of public opinion, the issue has already reached the tipping point. In 1996, the first time Gallup polled on the issue, only 27% of the public thought that same-sex couples deserved marriage equality, but in 2014, the poll showed that 55% of the public now believes that civil marriage is a civil right for all people.  (A separate poll by the Wall Street Journal has 58% in support of marriage equality.) That’s an amazing shift, and I can only really attribute it to one thing: people have realized that gay people are not trying to destroy them! That’s right: gay people are just people trying to live their lives.  They do not want to wreck your life or your marriage.  I am in a same-sex marriage (Thank you, Maryland!), and I can attest that there is nothing about my relationship that adversely impacts the heterosexuals around me.

marriage_equality

I believe the experience of actually knowing a gay person is what changes minds and hearts. I did not meet an openly gay person until I went to college, and since I went to college pretty late in life, that was when I was almost 30 years old.  It caused quite a bit of cognitive dissonance for me. On the one hand, I grew up in an environment that told me that homosexuals were abhorrent – that God hated them.  On the other hand, I knew this nice, funny, creative, and warm man who would become one of my lifelong friends.  How could he be abhorrent?  Worst of all, he knew I was “religious,” and the idea that he might think I hated him for who he was sickened me.  Most of all, knowing him got me to think about what I had always heard and been taught.  I always say, if you want your faith to mean anything, it has to be your own – not merely an uncritical repetition of what has come before.  I ought to know why I believe what I believe.

There are some who argue that the Bible defines marriage as the union between one man and one woman.  Actually, this is not consistently true.  In various places in the Bible, marriage is defined as the union between a man and “at least” one woman.  Men with multiple wives are described as “highly blessed” in their marriages.  Abram cheated on his wife, and the servant woman that he took as a second wife bore him a son. That’s not exactly what traditionalists think of as a traditional marriage.

In fact, there were a variety of marriages that were permissible in the disparate cultures that produced the Bible.  Titus 1:6 describes a monogamous relationship.  But Deuteronomy 22:28-29 has a less romantic view of marriage wherein rape victims are given by their fathers to marry the man who raped them – after, of course, the rapist pays the girl’s father 50 pieces of silver.  In another passage of Deuteronomy (25:5-10), a man is commanded to marry his brother’s widow – even if he himself is already married.  This is also mandated in Genesis and Ruth. These are just a few examples of how marriage was practiced in these distinct moments. But we might also argue that as members of a pluralistic society, it doesn’t matter what the authors of the Bible thought.  We are a society of many religions and many beliefs – the beliefs of one religious group should not define the rights for all people, especially for an institution that has long been more secular than religious.

I think the key to understanding this is acknowledging that the definition of marriage has always been produced by culture, and culture changes.  Now, our culture does not look favorably on polygamy.  We do not think a rapist should be able to buy his victim or that having sex before marriage makes a woman unworthy of marriage (and thus more inclined to marry the man who raped her).  We don’t think a man should be compelled to marry his brother’s widow.  We do believe in marital monogamy.  And as we have seen, we are now culturally ready to believe that loving same-sex couples deserve a chance at happiness.

It’s about more than just happiness though.  It’s about rights and dignity.  When opponents of same-sex marriage argue for civil unions instead of marriage, they perhaps don’t realize that what they are asking for is a version of the “Separate but Equal” fallacy that suppressed African-Americans for so long in this country.  They are right about this: our culture views marriage as a sacred right.  This is precisely why same-sex couples should share it.  We don’t get to pick and choose who gets rights and who doesn’t – in our society, we demand equal rights.

we the people
We the People, in order to form a more perfect union…

You might not know that much of our country’s philosophy was influenced by the English philosopher John Locke. Locke advocated for natural rights – the basic rights of all human beings to be treated with dignity and respect by virtue of their very humanity. Locke wrote that all human beings are equal in the sense that they are born with certain “inalienable” natural rights. That is, rights that are inherent to every individual and can never be taken away. Locke also argued that individuals should be free to make choices about how to conduct their own lives as long as they do not interfere with the liberty of others. Thomas Jefferson thought these were pretty good ideas – so much so that he put them into the Declaration of Independence.

Paul-Walker-Westboro-Baptist-Church-Funeral
Awful, Ugly Speech is Still Free Speech

Marriage is not the only right we are talking about.  For example, free speech is a civil right we are all entitled to.  What’s hard is that we have to honor free speech even when we don’t agree with what is being said.  The Westboro Baptist Church’s message is abhorrent, but we have to respect their right to be abhorrent. We have to respect them because we also respect the rights of union workers and Million Mom Marchers to picket, assemble, and protest.  Everyone gets the same rights or else they are not sacred.  And we believe that our rights ought to be sacred – that is the society we want to belong to.

In his book, A Theory Of Justice, philosopher John Rawls asks us to imagine that we belong to a group of people who are gathered to plan our own future society, a just and fair society that operates under a Social Contract.  Rawls calls this scenario the “Original Position.”  In the Original Position, we don’t know who we will be in society, what status we will have.  So, we must design our society behind what Rawls calls the Veil Of Ignorance:

“No one knows his place in society, his class position or social status; nor does he know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence and strength, and the like.”

The goal, then, is to create a society in which you are guaranteed to be treated fairly.  You might be gay, straight, black, white, rich, poor, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, male, female, transgendered, fit, or physically limited, but it will not matter.  If you have created a truly just and fair society, everyone will have the same opportunities, the same challenges, and the same freedoms.

You might be thinking: but the people who wrote the Bible never imagined that people of the same sex might want to get married.  For the most part, I think you’re right: they couldn’t imagine it.  Just like there was a time when we in America could not imagine people from different races getting married.  We could not imagine that African Americans could be more than slaves.  We could not imagine that women ought to be allowed to vote.  We could not imagine these things – until we did.  Culture evolves because people change.  In every instance, we lean into inclusion.  I believe we have crossed the Rubicon now with marriage equality and other gay rights, but there are still many important issues for us to consider on our way to a fair and just society.  For example, Bruce Jenner’s recent interview and transition to Caitlyn Jenner has pushed transgender issues, finally, into the national conversation.  It’s a dialogue that is long overdue and will be difficult.  But I have faith that as long as we consistently do the human thing, that as long as we consistently value the natural rights of individuals, we will find our way.  As Dr. King so wonderfully said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Next month on Friday Nite Writes: This I Believe – Part Two

© 2015 Ryna May

Commencement

Dear Reader,

I am a teacher, and for me and teachers everywhere, this time of year is a time of many emotions.  I am always excited that the semester is ending and that the glorious expanse of summer is just ahead.  At the same time, it is always just a little bittersweet because, since I think of my life in academic terms, it marks the passing of another year.

Commencement is the term we use for graduation ceremonies.  It’s funny because the denotation of the word is “the beginning or start” of something, but we assign the term to the pomp and circumstance that concludes an educational experience.  But I like that the word is forward-looking: it implies that we are ready to begin the next new, exciting chapters of our lives.

I have commenced 4 times in my life: in 1991 from high school, in 1999 from Howard Community College, in 2001 from the University of Baltimore, and in 2003 from the University of Maryland.  I have one more commencement in my future. God willing, that will be 2016 from Morgan State University with my doctorate, and then I will be able to retire from being a student.

My road to and through college was not a straight one.  I went to a private, religious high school that graduated boys who were encouraged to be preachers and girls who were encouraged to be housewives and Sunday school teachers.  My high school coaxed students to consider colleges that prepared young people to be in church-oriented professions: places like Bob Jones University or Pensacola Christian College.  If you can believe it, Dear Reader, Liberty University was considered too liberal – we were not supposed to consider that as an option.  So of course, that is where we all wanted to go!  Show us that forbidden fruit!

I have wonderful memories of high school.  I don’t want to brag or anything, but I will: I won an award for “Christian Character,” I lettered in 3 sports (volleyball, basketball, and softball), was a team captain in 3 sports, was a league all-star and MVP in 3 sports, was named a US Army Scholar Athlete my senior year, worked on the yearbook, was the president of my senior class, and earned the title of valedictorian.  I gave a speech at my graduation.  I was also voted homecoming queen.  (Those of you who know me well will appreciate how little I cared about that last thing, but it happened.)  High school was a blur of fun things, and even though I was considering college, as a first-generation college student, it was not my main focus or goal but an option.  I grew up in a blue-collar family, so I felt no pressure to go off to college.

When I graduated from high school, I had a partial scholarship to attend Liberty University (of course I applied there!).  I was also considering the “family business”: I grew up in a Navy family and was weighing whether to join the Army or the Navy.  I also knew my step-father was about to be reassigned from Andrews Air Force Base to a new duty station and was considering just moving out and starting my own life, putting down roots here in Maryland – as a Navy brat who had moved all over the place her whole life, this was pretty appealing.  Ultimately, I decided to move out on my own and take a few classes at community college.  Then, as Frost said, way led on to way, and after a few semesters I ended up putting off college while I worked in the “real world.”

I loved being on my own, but not long after I moved out into my own apartment, I got married, and after that as a partner in a marriage determined to pull her own weight, I worked as a puppet, a pirate, a poet, a pauper, a pawn and a king. Well, almost: I worked at Carvel making ice cream cakes, at a pharmacy as a technician, as a softball and basketball coach, as a bartender, as a vice principal at a private school, and as a Special Police Officer for the Federal Protective Service.  It is in this job that life took a dramatic turn.

Many of you will recall the bombing of the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City that occurred in April 1995.  American “Patriot” Timothy McVeigh parked a Ryder truck full of explosives in front of this federal office building that he then detonated, killing 168 people and injuring nearly 700 others.  I mention this event because at the time, I was working for the FPS in Crystal City, Virginia.  My duty station was a federal building.  My beat took me between the Crystal City complex, the Navy Annex, and the Pentagon. I was on that same beat two years later: April 19, 1997.  We were all on high alert that day because it was the anniversary of the bombing, and that is when people get a little squirrelly.  We got a call that a “suspicious object” was left unattended in the stairwell at one of the Crystal City buildings.  This was not a drill.

There are a lot of things about that day that I don’t remember, but a few things will never fade.  The first thing I remembered was my training: we had to evacuate the building to make sure all of the workers were safe, but then it was my job to run into the building.  It was my job to run back into the building.  I was the valedictorian of my class, and my job was to run into the building to look for the potential bomb.  I also remembered a conversation I had with my mom just a few days before that.  She told me that she was going to start taking college classes.  Because my mom chose to have a family at a young age, she had to earn her GED and now, years later, she was going to start pursuing her college education.  It struck me that I had no excuse.  I had been given every advantage my parents could give me, and I never cashed those things in.  I needed to have a path or plan for the future that led me out of the fire, not into it.  (I should say now that I have tremendous respect for first responders – that job is not for punks – that is hard, dangerous, and honorable work.  I am not worthy.)

Gatsby
The Great Gatsby: the book that unlocked my curiosity

The “suspicious object” was found by someone else and was not a threat, but a prank.  But it was a metaphorical bomb to me because it blew UP my life.  I had to admit that this was not how I imagined things for myself.  The next day as I was coming home from work, I took a detour.  In a trance, I drove to the bookstore where I wandered into the section called “Classics.”  At my conservative high school, we weren’t given the opportunity to read a lot of literature.  We read some Romantic poets (Wordsworth), Animal Farm (to remind us how great America is), and Romeo and Juliet (as a cautionary tale: don’t think you can defy your parents).  I was starved for literature.  I wanted to see the world through new eyes.  I stood in front of that shelf of mysterious books, and my eyes fell on The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  I had heard of that book, so I bought it and read it.  I didn’t get it.  But I knew that there was something there, and I couldn’t stop thinking about the “green light” and other things in the book.  It made me curious to read more.  I bought another book after that: To Kill a Mockingbird.  And then I read Catcher in the Rye.  And then, before I knew it, it was August, and I was enrolling in classes at Howard Community College.

The two years I spent at Howard Community College changed my life definitively.  I came there lost and not knowing quite what I sought.  I picked a major (Psychology) out of thin air and, because of an amazing teacher, found my true calling.  I ended up in her Introduction to Literature class by divine accident (I thought I needed a requirement that I did not need), but that literature class made me want to take another literature class.  And another….  After I wrote a paper for one of those classes, the teacher, who was the same amazing teacher from my other classes, wrote a question on my essay: “Why aren’t you an English major?????”  I could not answer that.  This teacher got me to consider the thing that no one else had: what is it that I love?  I switched my major. I went on to finish my undergraduate degree and earn my master’s degree in English Literature.  I said yes to some unbelievably lucky opportunities that allowed me to start teaching, and ultimately, I was lucky enough to find a way to make what I love what I do for a living. In Taoist philosophy, it is believed that the “way” becomes clear for an individual when the individual surrenders to what is. The way is at once the beginning of all things and the way in which all things pursue their course.  The way is commencement.  It is not lost on me that I am able to pay that forward.  A teacher changed my life by helping me give in to what I loved.  Maybe I will inspire some student somewhere to change hers.  And so on, and so on…  I try to ask my students every semester: What is it that you love? What is it that you want?  I ask them to understand that life is long and that work is part of our identity: it should be more than just earning a salary.  Maybe, for some student, that will inspire them to consider their passion and not just a paycheck.

At Commencement, 1999, with the teacher who changed my life
At Commencement, 1999, with the teacher who changed my life

Commencement: the day in 1999 when I graduated from HCC.  I felt a renewed idea of my purpose for my life.  I felt, for the first time in a long time, like I was going to be able to shape my destiny instead of just stumble onto it.  Commencement: I am drawn, every summer, back to The Great Gatsby.  I have read that book at the beginning of every summer since 1997.  I understand why Gatsby wanted to reinvent himself.  I understand his desire to be the author of his own story.  I didn’t understand it when I first read it, but it profoundly speaks to me now, and now each time I read it, it resonates more and more. Gatsby helped me get started on a new path, and now, it is the way I commence, in gratitude, welcoming each new year.

Do you have a book that saved your life?

Coming next month on Friday Nite Writes: This I Believe 

© 2015 Ryna May