Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Our Teachers (August 17, 2008)

Our Teachers

A few years ago I read an article on Lammas, the holiday of Early August, the halfway between Summer Solstice and Fall Equinox, which suggested that this is good time of year to honor our teachers. Ever since, when Lammas comes around I think of the teachers in my life and the doors they have opened for me. I also thought it might be a good way for us to get to know one another if we each shared something of the teachers who have helped us become the people we are.

Any one of us has too many teachers to name. We learn from others long after we leave school. Just this past month I learned: how to harvest cucumbers, how many new ways one can prepare and eat cucumbers, and when to plant garlic for the following year.

So we dedicate our service today to all our teachers, great and small, in the classroom and out in the world who helped form us, and helped us form ourselves.

I want to share a few of my teachers with you, so that you can get to know me better, and so that I can express my gratitude to them, and later in the service each of you will have a chance to do the same if you choose.

Our parents are our first and primary teachers. They are teaching us every minute of the day when we are young, whether they mean to or not. Of all those things, today I am grateful to my mother who taught me to honor our family heritage and that our heritage and traditions are precious. She told me the story of the dishes in our glass cabinet that were passed on from her parents and from my dad’s parents. She told me where the recipes she made each holiday came from, and when I got my first apartment on my own, she made me a cookbook of the most crucial recipes necessary to observe the family traditions.

Of all the things my father taught me, today I am grateful that he taught me how to listen. He taught me to listen critically as I helped him choose a new saxophone; “This one or this one? How does it sound if I change the neck? The Mouthpiece?” And he taught me to listen joyfully, as we listened to our favorite soprano Renata Tebaldi on long drives together.

My Sister is also one of my oldest teachers. I remember once I received a sweater as a gift, and it had just too much fringe of flowers for my taste. I passed it on to her, knowing I would never wear it. She accepted it gratefully and then cut of the fringe and flowers to make it perfectly darling and chic. She teaches me again and again that what the universe gives can be thought of as raw material for you to use and make into something beautiful that fits your own life.

I am still learning from my Grandpa John who, though he died many years ago, continues to be a role model for being honest and big hearted. “What would Grandpa do?” we often ask ourselves when we are stuck with an ethical quandary.

I have to mention Dr. Dewsnap, my High School English Teacher, who played a notable Adelaide in the all-teacher production of Guys and Dolls. I wasn’t sure whether I should pursue a career in music and she said “you have to go for it, or you will always wonder.”

Not too long after I met Prof. Jo Ann Hackett, who taught “Women in Ancient Israel” at Indiana University, and later Prof. Gina Henz-Piazza of the Graduate Theological Union Both taught me to love the scriptures, and empowered me to look for the truth hidden there, which is often hiding out behind the stories told by the power structures of patriarchy and institutional religion.

Prof. Yielbanzie Charles Johnson taught a class in ritual while I was in seminary that turned worship from a form that must be strictly followed, into a magical kind of clay that has the power to support people through transitions, to lift our spirits, to hold us when we grieve, and sometimes to unleash the real magic of transforming ourselves and transforming our world. We learned this not only by creating beautiful ritual together, but also sometimes by creating bad ritual. And we found that bad ritual happened when we didn’t take seriously how much power we have, and how emotional it can be to ritualize something together.

My last year of seminary I finally got pulled from the waiting list to take a class called “The Meaning in Dreams and Dreaming” From UU Minister Jeremy Taylor. He helped me see that much of the self is happening outside of our conscious thought, and that dreamworld is full of power and beauty that help make us whole. He opened up a place in my imagination that lead to a spiritual awakening. And on that awakening there were so many other amazing teachers to guide me, Bob Kimball, Olga Luchakova, and my Dharma Buddies who traveled with me on my way.

Much of what I know about youth ministry I learned from my first youth group; 5 Jr. High school boys who I watched grow to be come fine young men. I’ll never forget my first meeting with them. The retiring youth advisor had gone to the other room, and left me with the group who was trying to find out whether Doritos burn by holding them in the flame of their chalice. We learned that yes, Doritos do burn, and we also learned that the metallic tray the chalice was on was not fire-proof, but actually a flammable plastic which we determined when bits of burning Doritos fell out of the chalice onto the tray below. After running the flaming tray to the nearby kitchen sink, I stated “I think we are done with fire for tonight.” When I left the group 2 years later to become the church’s intern, we held a ritual featuring a very fire-safe kettle grill. They taught me what youth empowerment is and what it is not.

Much of what I know about how to balance a budget I learned from the finance committee at UUCPA who taught me what real numbers look like, and how to tell them from pie in the sky. They taught me the value of a sustainable budget when the dot.com bubble burst around them, and the church stayed afloat without a single lay-off. I am also grateful to my dad and mother-in-law who continue to be models to me about what it means to live within your means.

In the years after birth of my son, I found a yoga teacher who helped me reclaim my physical body, and helped me fall in love with this practice that is my central practice today. Kent Bond taught basic principles of form and alignment and to “feel like a power ranger” I still hear his voice in my head “Don’t punish your knees for what your hips won’t give you” “When you reach your edge, ease up a bit, don’t hang out there” and “your breath, your body” and generally introduced me to the idea that sometimes the goal in life is not to push yourself to be the best, but to do the right action at the right time. I have also been lucky to have taken classes with many great teachers over the past 5 years, like Michelle who taught me to relax the muscles you are not using, and my new teacher Steven Valloney, who made me feel welcome into the Ithaca community and helped me loosen the grasp of ego long enough to heal an injury.

I had so many great teachers on my sabbatical at the University of Creation Spirituality, I wasn’t sure what one to name, so I realize that I want to give a shout out to Matthew Fox, who founded the school, who called those teachers together, and put in place a pedagogical paradigm that taught me as much about religious education as anything I learned in seminary. I went there because I wanted a spiritual grounding that would help me live a life more focused on our earth, and found this small graduate program in downtown Oakland that showed how awe and wonder for the earth is at the core of a sustainable life and community.

I tried to puzzle out how I learned about Social Justice. When I was growing up UU, there were plenty of stories of Susan B Anthony, and Ghandi, and MLK. In fact for a while there our preacher mentioned those 3 each time he mentioned Jesus, one of the original social activists. They are my teachers, and that church was too. I knew that if you put your life on the line for what you believe, you were probably on the right track, and you were in good company. I want to call out Rev. Kurt Kuhwald who was serving with me on September 11, 2001, and Rev. Lindy Ramsden who made the UULM of CA a model for legislative ministry around the country. They showed me how doing the work of a minister looks when making justice is your core value.

Without these teachers, I would miss much of the richness of the life I now enjoy. It was hard to choose just this dozen or so to hang my gratitude on. This list is woefully incomplete. But it shows me what I value in life, and reminds me how many gifts I have been given. I also noticed in the process of reflecting on this list, that when you list your teachers, you learn something about what you feel you KNOW. It is harder to be grateful for something you are still wrestling with. And so perhaps this is a perfect practice for this part of the year when the harvest is not yet complete. It allows us to ask: “What is your harvest? What is still growing?”

1 comment:

anotherbrick said...

Reminds me of Henry Nouwen who, in a slim volume called Creative Ministry, made a telling distinction be Violent Teaching (education) and its opposite (I don't remember what he called it).

Most Americans, he wrote, were only exposed to violent teaching and he made me wonder what this country would be like had we had the alternative.

Appreciate your memories of learning in non violent settings and thru the human lens. TY.

Doug Stearns