Tag: Theology

14Dec

Honest Bones

There’s a short story in the Bible*, barely a blip, which recounts how a man named Philip insists on his buddy Nathanael meeting his new friend Jesus. Nathanael doesn’t buy into the hype that Jesus is the legendary figure they’ve all been waiting for, but he goes along with Philip anyway and is taken by surprise when Jesus greets him with a compliment: “There’s a real Israelite, not a false bone in his body.”

“Where did you get that idea?” Nathanael asks. “You don’t know me.”

I imagine at this point in the story, Nathanael is feeling equal parts cynical and creeped the hell out. But then Jesus answers: “One day, long before Philip called you here, I saw you under the fig tree.”

And just like that, everything changes for Nathanael. He instantly recognizes Jesus as divine and joins his posse.

I can’t stop wondering what Nathanael had been doing under a fig tree that would hold such significance when brought up in conversation. It would have had to be something spiritual and deeply personal if Jesus’s noticing him translated to God noticing him, and it would have had to be something of incredible importance to Nathanael for him to know exactly which tree and which long-ago day Jesus was referring to.

Had he been wrestling with doubts? Having a meditative breakthrough? Contemplating suicide? Encountering God in a new way? Facing his life with honesty for the first time? Giving the universe an ultimatum? Feeling like he was at the end of his life? Feeling like he was finally at the beginning?

Don’t worry; this isn’t becoming a Bible study blog, and if you’re still reading, thanks for not bolting in terror at the prospect of Preacher Voice (you know what I’m talking about). It’s just that this little story lodged itself in my mind last night, and not even sleep was enough to shake it loose. I keep imagining Jesus’s expression as he said “I saw you.” Under the fig tree in that moment of personal victory or anguish, long before meeting face to face, in a state of such profound aloneness that only God could have known, I saw you.

It gives me shivers, but not the creeped-the-hell-out variety. They’re the deliciously warm shivers of knowing I’m seen. The Bible is such a complicated and mine-sown book for me that I don’t usually have this reaction to it. I’m much more likely to end up crying or furious or weary or curled into a fetal position sucking my thumb. This is not a dignified thing to admit to, especially as a churchgoer who would rather people not notice her Bible closed tight the entire service, but the contrast between forced religious devotion (hi, fundamentalism!) and Jesus is just too much a part of my life not to share.

Fundamentalism leaves no room for doubts or questions or honest soul-wrestling sessions. Its version of faith is inseparable from putting on good appearances, from reciting the script of holiness at all times. Meanwhile, Jesus says I saw you back then, under the fig tree, working through the messy realities of your own heart. I saw you, and I love your honest bones.

~~

* John 1:45-51. I quote from The Message, which is usually the only version I can read without an allergic reaction.

13Dec

For What She’s Worth

I am not an angry feminist. In fact, I’ve never thought of myself as any kind of feminist; gender inequality was never more than an infrequent blip on my radar, and part of me secretly thought that outspoken feminists were like kids whining because their friends have more toys than they do—technically correct, but irritatingly focused on the comparison game instead of gratitude for their own unique lives.

Which is why I was a little shocked to catch myself writing the following in an email to Sarah Bessey about her upcoming book, Jesus Feminist:

I grew up a pastor’s kid and have been a full-fledged member of eight separate churches, plus a visitor at many, many more, and rarely have I heard a women’s Bible study discuss anything except 1) submission, 2) homemaking à la Proverbs 31, or 3) modesty. We as women in the church do not discuss the power of our prayers. We do not discuss our spiritual gifts or how God might have uniquely equipped us to use them. We do not discuss the strong female leaders of the Bible. We do not discuss the fact that our church-approved roles as women seem to be cobbled together from a select mix of Paul’s instructions and sitcoms from the 1950s. We do not discuss the damage done to our hearts every time men in the church label our gender as defrauding, disruptive, or deceived.

No. We discuss how a too-tight shirt will cause our brothers in Christ to stumble, how assertiveness or reluctance in the bedroom will drive our husbands into sin, and how not keeping our homes in order is a matter for repentance.

Boom. Apparently I’m not as apathetic toward gender inequality as I’d thought. I know I wrote about male-female roles last week, but that was in a very personal scope, untangling my own thought processes from fundamentalism. This is something bigger. This is about a lie that is such a universal part of the human experience that we only recognize small parts of it at a time.

Like the part that says darker skin is inferior to lighter skin.

Or the part that says inhabitants of one country are inferior to those of its next-door neighbor.

Or the part that says people with empty wallets are inferior to people with 401(K)s.

Or the part that says humans with higher estrogen are inferior to humans with higher testosterone.

This lie that has so thoroughly infiltrated our way of thinking says that one category of people can be worth less than another… and nowhere is this more disheartening to see in practice than among followers of Jesus.

I grew up in a very extreme subculture of Christianity which relegated women to husband-helpers, children to automatons, and Democrats to hell-fodder. Rare varieties of prejudice thrived in that sealed-off environment, and I happily recognize that the perspectives I grew up with are not the norm. However, most mainstream churches still support the doctrine that women, by sole virtue of their gender, are less qualified than men to make decisions, offer advice, or—God forbid—lead. If a woman believes that her true gifting is that of a pastor, most Christians would either take that to mean she is deceived (Eve’s contribution to our sex) or channel her controversial calling into “acceptable” outlets, like teaching children’s Sunday School or possibly running a women’s-only group.

Most churches don’t forbid women to braid their hair, though a Bible verse speaking against that very thing is followed by a verse calling wives “the weaker partner.” The latter is accepted as God’s truth and used to demean women’s minds, skills, and hearts while the former is understood as a) metaphorical, or b) culturally irrelevant. The same thing happens over and over again throughout the pages of this book we call our foundation. I know of very few pastors who still teach that women are saved through childbirth, but the following chapter’s mandate that deacons be men is followed unquestioningly. Women are no longer required to remain silent in church, but they are usually prohibited from teaching men—which makes two different interpretations of the same verse. Reading a single line of Genesis, we latch on to the fact that woman was made to be man’s “helper” while failing to read the rest—“a helper comparable to him”—or noting that the Hebrew word for “helper” is most often used throughout the Bible in reference to God. (Providing help makes God worthy of devotion but women worthy of disrespect? Please explain the logic of this to me.)

How can we believe that both male and female reflect God’s image but the male reflection is superior? How can we think that men have individual and divinely-inspired purposes in life but that women are universally designed for one lifestyle? How can we possibly justify thinking that one soul carries more weight than another because of the body attached to it?

I see this men-lead/women-submit mentality as just another facet of the insidious lie proclaiming that some demographics have the right to lord over others. Once God’s name is attached to the lie, it becomes harder than ever to uproot… and meanwhile, women are absorbing the idea that God thinks of them as less and men are shouldering burdens that were always meant to be shared and the church is missing out on the beautiful power of men and women contributing their strengths in harmony. It’s heartbreaking and discouraging and utterly maddening… which I guess qualifies me as an angry feminist after all.

28Nov

Grace as: Permission to Celebrate

 [Photo: circa 2009
Nisse hats: Danish, via the whimsical Rachelle Mee-Chapman
Sophie’s pantslessness: Her idea]

I’ve never set foot inside a church that seemed entirely comfortable with Christmas. Their relationship always strikes me as more of an uneasy truce, one side agreeing to adopt a festival with pagan origins, the other agreeing to be picked apart at Bible studies and put back together as a subdued and thoroughly de-Santafied version of itself. A sermon on “the true meaning of Christmas” is usually a given, though even the pastor starts to squirm when it comes to discussing practical applications. It’s easy enough to condemn materialism from the pulpit, but few clergy are willing to look into the eyes of their congregants’ children and denounce Christmas gifts as evil.

Not to say that doesn’t happen too. Our family didn’t celebrate Christmas for years, and I still have Christian friends who see the tradition as unjustifiable. After all, Christmas isn’t in the Bible. Jesus’s birth? Yes. A bank holiday to commemorate it? No. For so many Christians I know, red and green are the team colors of GUILT, and even just enjoying a glass of eggnog can set their minds scrambling to find a moral, a Scripture reference, something to assure them Jesus would approve.

And I get it. I do. I am an over-thinker at heart and a religion-wrestler by birth, and I have grappled plenty of times with the web of cultures, histories, and traditions linking the Nativity to roast goose. To be honest, I have trouble enjoying anything if that enjoyment hasn’t been earned or justified or sanctioned by a higher power, and the holiday season is especially great at breeding angst. My fellow serious-hearted belief-wranglers? Consider this a virtual fist bump. (And to those of you whose hearts are naturally merry and light, feel free to commiserate—or whatever cheery thing it is that you do—with my husband and/or play him with cookies.)

I remember the day I let go of the Christmas debate though. Dan and I were at a Bible study, and the leader opened by asking how we thought consumerism fit with the true meaning of Christmas. Perhaps because it was such a loaded question or perhaps because it was the tipping point at which a phrase like “the true meaning of Christmas” goes from annoying to nauseating, but I realized that I was done. Done trying to legitimize the joy I felt in picking out gifts for loved ones. Done hunting for Bible verses to sanctify the fun of putting up our imperfect little tree. Done vilifying Santa Claus and the Whos of Whoville and every cautiously cheerful cashier who wishes me “Happy Holidays!” Done debating, done nit-picking, done shouldering assumed guilt, done.

Here’s the thing—The Bible makes no mention of December 25th, but it does talk extensively about being part of our communities, taking an active and empathetic part in each other’s lives, extending love at every opportunity, and living with joy. It talks about opening our eyes to wonder and lavishing generosity. It tells us that the details of everyday life are made holy by the who and the how rather than the what (“TURNING THIS SHIT HOLY,” as Momastery puts it), and that a life lived in cahoots with God is spacious, expansive, and freeing. Paul calls it “The new country of grace.” I call it “Let’s get some rum in this eggnog already!”

All of those times I’d thought I was wrestling with my conscience, I had actually been wrestling with the restrictions and anxieties woven like a dark pattern through church tradition. That guilt was never mine to own because what I truly believe—what my soul and the divine glow in it whisper to me as truth—is that we were designed to love the liturgy of candlelight and cake. Whether you observe Christmas or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa or Festivus, it doesn’t really matter, does it? There is so much joy wrapped up in the practices of giving and inviting and feasting, grateful remembrance and togetherness, and it is a gift straight to the core of my too-serious heart that I have God’s personal permission to celebrate.

~~~

{I’ve always had trouble comprehending the word “grace” as it’s used by religion or defined by Webster, but something in me knows it’s integral to who I am and who I’m becoming. In this Grace as: series, I’m attempting to track it into the wild and record my peripheral glances of it, my brushes with the divine. Come along with me? You can follow along via TwitterRSS, or my piping hot new Facebook page… and as always, I love hearing your thoughts in the comment section!}

Previously:

Grace as: Glitter in the Floorboards

Grace as: Three-Week Smiles

18Sep

Schooled

Today marks one week back at school for the girls. Summer lasts long in Italy, and I can no longer contemplate freshly sharpened pencils in the same month when all our neighbors are headed to their beach homes, or apples for the teacher when we’re still in the syrupy peach haze of August. No, the backpacks come out of storage with the skinny jeans here, and this, my fifth back-to-school as an expat mother, is the first time I haven’t been afraid of it.

You have to understand that few personalities are less suited to the learningcoastercrazyspiral of expat life than mine. Two words: shy perfectionist. I’m easily intimidated by the challenge of opening my mouth in my own language, much less a foreign one, and I desperately want to do every last little particle of life right. Moving to a new culture where I am 100% guaranteed to make mistakes every time I a) step out my door, b) open my mouth, and c-z) try to pass myself off as a confident, capable adult who knows what the hell she’s doing in line at the post office has been an ongoing exercise in recovering from mortal embarrassment and pinning my worth on something other than social finesse. (Baked goods, perhaps?)

The girls’ back-to-school transition is particularly prone to trial and error because parents are expected to know through a combination of telepathy and strategic neighborhood networking who to register with, where to order books, how to stock up on supplies, which uniform is required, and what day and time of day school starts. I am inordinately grateful each year when we manage to show up before the bell and with a majority of the right supplies. This year, however, my gratefulness was due less to beating the telepathy game and more to having a great group of friends we can hit up for details. I didn’t have to worry that my child would end up the only second-grader without 5-millimeter graph paper or that my other child would be kicked out of kindergarten for lack of a sun hat. I really didn’t worry at all, which was a welcome departure from tradition.

This lack of anxiety was significant for another reason too, another kind of cultural divide overcome. See, I was raised in a hyper-fundamentalist Christian lifestyle based almost entirely on fear. First and foremost, we were afraid of God; he was demanding, judgmental, and vindictive, and he dangled the threat of hell above our heads like a sword hanging on the gossamer strand of his patience. We were so afraid of incurring his wrath that we accepted every passing religious do and don’t at face value and left critical thinking to those damned (literally) liberals.

We were almost equally afraid of “The World,” the term we used to describe any society or person who did not share our beliefs. The World was the government who collected taxes and redistributed them as welfare and failed to enforce our country’s founding values. The World was secular media, with its television programs and feature films and news bulletins all designed to glorify sin. Most of all, The World was public school, Satan’s greatest ploy for corrupting young hearts and minds. The only times I set foot in a public school as a child was when my parents went there to vote, and despite the empty classrooms and quiet halls, I was terrified that the godlessness of the place would seep into my pores like an airborne disease.

I’m a parent of school-aged daughters myself now, and I understand more than ever what my parents feared about sending me off to school. When I pass my girls into the waiting arms of their teachers, I relinquish a very large measure of control. I no longer act as filter and gatekeeper to my children’s minds, and yes, it is incredibly scary to imagine what ideas and mannerisms they could absorb away from home. My kneejerk reaction would be to protect, protect, protect, to turn our home into a bunker of parental-approved thinking and only let in whatever wafts of the outside world won’t disturb our family ecosystem.

I know from deeply personal experience, however, that mind control is a losing game for everyone involved. Discernment can’t grow in an environment where only one side of an issue is ever presented. Conflict resolution can’t be learned where conflict is never allowed. Grace can’t thrive in a relational or ideological vacuum, nor can compassion, courage, or humility. We were designed to live in a multifaceted world full of wonderfully unique people who hold diverse opinions, and I want my children to experience the horizon-expanding beauty of this design instead of hiding from it in fear.

Beyond the fact that I would be a terrible homeschool teacher (seriously, the worst), I don’t actually want to be the only adult my girls look up to or learn from. I don’t agree with everything that their teachers and Sunday School leaders and even relatives tell them, but those differences in opinion have a way of sparking great conversations with the girls, conversations we wouldn’t get to have if they were getting a single-minded stream of information from me. Besides, facts aren’t everything. The girls also get love from the “outsiders” in our lives, and part of the joy of their return to school this year was in their reunion with much-beloved teachers and classmates.

How could I be afraid of that, I ask?

First grade done

(I can’t.)

9May

Trumped

I decided years ago that I was done with the creation vs. evolution debate. As a Jesus-follower, I often hear earnest sermonizing that God created all life forms in six literal days and that science is trying to undermine the truth of our Bible, but I no longer take on that conversation. My personal belief is that the creation story in Genesis is highly figurative and that God in science are on the same team, but I could be mistaken. Honestly, I don’t care. I see a divine fingerprint on the world around me, but the method of its origin has no bearing on my faith. It’s simply a non-issue to me.

I’ve taken the same approach with the sexual orientation subject too. Nearly all Christian denominations openly condemn the homosexual and transgender, but I never saw the point in getting worked up over it. After all, I’m straight. I can hardly claim to understand, much less consider myself an authority on those with other sexual orientations. Yes, there are passages in the Bible decrying homosexuality, but the Bible is a complicated book, and I didn’t see a personal need to delve into the linguistic and cultural nuances behind those passages in order to polarize my stance. The issue simply didn’t affect me.

That was before someone very dear to me shared the story of her husband—a conservative pastor and Quiverfull dad—admitting that he actually identified as female and of their transition to a same-sex marriage. I was stunned. My lack of a position on the whole subject left me in a philosophical no man’s land as I tried to wrap my mind around their story, and my own longsuffering spouse can attest to the many hours I spent talking myself through it. I kept trying to put myself in Melissa’s position, but I just couldn’t imagine finding out that my husband had always felt his deepest identity to be female. More, I couldn’t imagine coming out myself and continuing our committed, affectionate relationship as he became a she.

It finally dawned on me that I was trying to understand things from the wrong angle. My body and soul genders match each other, and my romantic inclination is as conventional as it comes; I’m not going to be able to conjure up the transgender or gay experience any more than I could picture myself a tsar. But I don’t need to. I don’t need to feel what my friend is going through in order to hear the emotions of her story, see the awe-striking love she and her spouse have shown each other throughout, or understand the way people’s reactions affect them. I don’t need to twist my mind around in search for empathy. It’s been right here all along… and so has my stance on the issue:

Love matters most.

Jesus said that when a religious leader asked him for the greatest commandment, and it’s one of my favorite things in the Bible. All those lists of laws and thou shalt nots are both summed up and solidly trumped by love. You would think, according to some sermons I’ve heard, that Jesus accidentally forgot to exclude homosexuals when he said “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But this same Jesus met with scathing criticism from the churchy crowd for his habit of hanging out with prostitutes, cheats, and other flagrant sinners. He had dinner with outcasts and approached people considered too vile for interaction, and you know, he never once remembered to launch an anti-gay campaign. He was too busy teaching how to cultivate peace, live authentically, and stop burdening our fellow human beings.

I realize that unconventional sexual orientation has become a huge moral issue to many people, and it’s often seen as grounds for terminating friendships. In the case of Christian communities, many adopt the strategy of trying to shun the offending person into repentance. Bullying can take the form of anything from hate crimes to prayer meetings to constitutional amendments, and we’re only kidding ourselves if we claim that our repugnance is rooted in the Bible. The Old Testament puts pride, eating pig meat, and doing things to gain popularity in the same category as gay sex, but the cultural stigmas on those actions have long since been lifted. If you pick up a clam on the beach today, you’re not going to face a religious firing squad even though touching shellfish is listed as an abomination in the same section of the Bible most often used to bash homosexuals. Like it or not, every single Christian interprets the Bible through a cultural filter, so I think it’s about time that we acknowledge our prejudice for what it is.

I imagine that some people are ready to jump down my throat right now with theology books in tow, but I’m less willing to join in the debate now than I was during all my years of disimpassioned neutrality. It really all comes down to this one truth beating in my heart:

The Bible says homosexuality is an abomination!
But love matters most.

God intended marriage to be between a man and a woman, period!
But love matters most.

If I remain friends with gay people, they will think I’m condoning their behavior!
But love matters most.

They’re unnatural and perverted and mentally unsound; they need to be cured!
But love matters most.

What if my child turns out gay?
Love matters most.

No matter our fears or aversions, our power as a majority group to put others down, or our arsenal of theological ammunition, love matters most. Jesus summed up centuries of religious law in this, and I don’t believe for one second that he meant “love” as an abstract semantic device that we can claim over the people we’re shunning. Jesus’s love was always hands-on—touching the sick, embracing muddy children, tearing off hunks of bread for the hungry, washing his followers’ feet—and he charged his believers with carrying out his heart for people. He charged us with grace, freeing us forever from the responsibility of judging or condemning each other. His is a legacy of radical community, beautiful in its unconcern with convention or religious respectability, and I can’t tell you how grateful I am to be a part of it… right alongside my friend.

~~~

I’ve linked to this before, but it’s worth a second read: A Mountain I’m Willing to Die On

4May

Do-Over

The tips of my ears burst into flame as I hustled the girls across the sun-baked parking lot and into the car. I felt sure that everyone in the store was staring at me, the foreign young mom who had just tried to do a good deed and spontaneously combusted. I couldn’t bring myself to look back, I couldn’t, and a new wave of heat billowed up my cheeks. What had I just taught my girls? Patronization? Irresponsibility? Penance, maybe? Were they learning cowardice from me in that very moment? I hoped they wouldn’t tell Dan. Really, my only coping strategy was to pray that we’d escape notice, and I wished with all the fervor of the shame-flushed that the woman we’d left on the curb would forget my face the moment we drove away.

That morning had unfolded with the sticky sweetness of late summer. The girls and I had breakfasted, hung the laundry, and headed to the grocery store to pick up some essentials. I was working out just how many ripe watermelons I could justify as essential (considering the one already taking up half our fridge, my husband would have said none; I would have said five, so I figured a compromise was somewhere in the two to three range) when I saw her. She wasn’t selling anything that day, only standing in the parking lot like an uprooted willow swaying in the heat. That she was there at all, trading in her time for the kindness or indifference of strangers, showed a heartbreaking kind of hope. It pierced me to remember how I had judged the spectacle of that hope in the past, how I had brushed away her courage and vulnerability as an annoyance. I knew this was the do-over I had prayed for.

She’s thirsty. A heart-nudge, one of those whispers of intuition that I’ve come to recognize as divine grace notes, steered my cart to a shelf of water bottles, and I tucked one among the watermelons. I felt instantly self-conscious—tampon aisle self-conscious—as if the item I’d just slipped into my cart would end up on the evening news and provoke international shock… but why? Even if I were to announce over the store’s loudspeaker that the bottle of water was meant for the woman in the parking lot, no one would care. Why was I so thoroughly discomfited?

I dawdled over checking out and putting groceries in the car, but finally it was just me with a water bottle in my hand and two little girls following me uncertainly toward the woman. She sat on a curb now, deflated, and I felt ridiculous in my sunglasses clutching the key to my air-conditioned car. Our disparity nauseated me with guilt. I felt a wild need to apologize for being born into a different life than she was, for buying watermelons while she begged, and for walking up to her now offering what she had not asked of me. Instead, I stammered out, “Here’s a bottle of water for you. I thought… with the heat…” I couldn’t meet her eyes, not even when she said a timid thank you and began to drink, and the only other word I could remember in that moment was “goodbye.”

My do-over was done, and as I hurried back to the car with flaming face, I couldn’t figure out at which aspect of it I had failed the most. According to insistent voices from my memory, I was damaging the economy by giving hard-won resources to a freeloader. All the You don’t work, you don’t eat philosophies I’ve ever heard converged to berate me for encouraging this woman’s lifestyle, and somewhere in there, the old adage about teaching a man to fish groped around for a point. From the other side of the spectrum, hyper-compassionate ideologies blasted me for not having done enough. Only a measly bottle of water to a woman who in need? My actions had made a mockery of her situation. The ostrich part of my personality mumbled from deep in the sand that I had presumed far too much, involved myself in something that wasn’t my business. My polite Southern roots chided me for my horrible attempt at conversation. I shouldn’t have done anything, I should have done more, I should have bought an umbrella back in December and cleared myself of any further obligation, I should have at least asked her name. My ears burned.

~~~

The water bottle incident happened last summer, and I still haven’t figured out where to assign my feelings about helping the down-and-out we encounter on a weekly basis. I know that poverty can be a politically charged minefield, and even though I prefer to stay out of those debates—like, continents away—I still tend to see a lot of issues in the epic scope of The Common Good. And it makes me crazy. (See above.) Of course I’m going to over-think a bottle of water until it becomes an economic and moral crisis; that’s how I’m made. It’s not how I want to be, though, subjecting the needs of my fellow humans to a gauntlet of opinions as I combust with guilt. I just want simplicity, the freedom to follow my heart-nudges with a whole mind.

That’s where people like Erika come in. Erika is the kind of soul-sister who would have snuck me out to go dancing had we known each other in our teens (maybe we’ll sneak out of the same nursing home together one day?), and she posted a story yesterday about a homeless man and a trip to Froyo World that undid about a million years of politically-correct anxiety in my chest. Loving with intention—that’s it. No expectations or grand schemes to change the world. No pressure to manage others’ lives. No political formulas or lines in the sand, and certainly no cost-benefit analysis. Just love plus intention.

Since that bungled parking lot encounter last summer, I’ve been waiting for answers, rows of watertight logic to categorize my debate so that I can make a clearly informed decision next time I see a beggar. What I wasn’t expecting was to realize that the debate no longer matters to me. It really doesn’t though. When I read that Erika and her family are buying an extra coffee each time they go to Starbucks so they can share it with someone who needs a lift, my heart jumps in recognition. This is it, the versatile beauty of love packed into cup, and maybe it’s not meant to feel comfortable, but I can finally let go of needing it to feel reasonable. Love has never followed the rules of reason anyway.

I’m not saying that it’s suddenly going to be easy for me to walk up to strangers and offer bottles of water. I still have the self-consciousness thing working against me, remember, and I’m guessing the should/shouldn’t debate will try to make itself heard again. But goodness, if any kind of intentional living is worth practicing on a regular basis, love is it. All I need now is another do-over.

13Mar

Religulove

When we enrolled Natalie in first grade last September, we opted out of religion class. Even though we share some fundamental beliefs with the Roman Catholic Church, we weren’t comfortable with her learning doctrine as an academic subject. Frankly, I find it incredibly dangerous when any religion is painted in the same black and white lines as grammar or algebra—right versus wrong, subject to a grade—and I’d like to think that we would have opted out of the class even if it had taught our exact beliefs. (Sunday School is a whole ‘nother ball of wax, but it’s easier to discuss what the girls learn there without having to discredit the entire academic system.)

I was at peace with our decision until we picked Natalie up after her first Friday at school. She was as cheerful as ever, happily recounting how she had gotten to go out in the hallway during religion hour and watch the other teachers have their coffee. I was… less cheerful. Bit by bit, Dan and I uncovered that Natalie was the only child in the entire elementary school in the entire course of its history to opt out of religion class, and the teachers didn’t know what to do with her other than send her out of the room. My heart thudded straight down onto our granite tiles.

I know all too well what it is to be the odd child out… the only kid at the grocery mid-morning, the only girl in our homeschool group wearing a jumper, the only teen not pledging for True Love Waits. I remember the icy sense of exposure and the sharp loneliness, and I’ve never, ever, evereverever wanted to subject my daughters to them. However, that’s exactly what I found myself doing that Friday, wielding religious principles that banished my six-year-old to the hallway.

I hurt all over for her, but Natalie was clearly not bothered by skipping class, so Dan and I didn’t push the issue. Instead, we talked to the teachers and arranged for her to join the other first-grade class while hers was doing religion. Some of the other parents overheard us, and the next Friday, Natalie was joined by a little boy. For all the countercultural drama we were putting her through, at least she was no longer alone.

The subject of religion class hasn’t really come up in the months since, but this morning, the little boy’s mother caught up with me after school drop-off. “Guess what I found!” she chirped, taking my arm as if this were the seventy millionth instead of the very first time we’d talked. (I immediately wanted to kick myself for not introducing myself sooner. Or, you know, at all.) “Looking through my son’s workbook, I found a little note he had written during religion hour: ‘Dear Natalie, you are beautiful!’” We laughed together, and I felt a little like crying and a little like skipping all at once. She asked about our church (evangelical), and I asked about theirs (Muslim), and it didn’t matter a single bit that some members of both our religions dedicate energy to hating each other. Our faiths didn’t affect our ability to be friends.

And yes, I know I’m realizing things all the time on this blog that are probably common sense to most people and it’s got to be irritating by now, but I realized in those three minutes of conversation that this is the lesson we’re teaching Natalie with our lives here. She and her classmates might not attend the same church, but our families’ homes are open to each other. We share meals and swap recipes and give each other’s children rides, and if I hadn’t been bracing myself so hard against alienation, I might have noticed sooner that there was no need. Our differences don’t prevent us from loving each other well. Our separate journeys with God don’t make us enemies. That this is even possible makes my soul giddy with hope, and I find myself grateful in a way I couldn’t have imagined last September that my daughter gets a front-row seat.

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