Jesus the Teacher

As traditions abound this time of year, my family hastily put up a tree, wrapped gifts, and cooked all kinds of complex dishes, culminating last night with Christmas Dinner. My dad and I always attend Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, and this year was no different. I could see my breathe walking up the hill in Sierra Madre to St. Rita’s Parish, perhaps the greatest sign of winter that will come to Southern California. My dad and I found a seat in a pew almost in the very last row, off to the side. Normally, my dad sits front and center. As we sat down, he muttered something about the people who only come on Christmas and Easter. “But they’re here,” he corrected himself. “That’s good.”

Midnight Mass at St. Rita’s looks the same every year. I mean, exactly the same. The same carols welcome everyone to their seats. About 15 minutes late, we all stand as the procession of altar servers, deacon, and priest come down the center aisle to the altar, where they bow and take their places. The priest and deacon “visit” the nativity scene off to the left side, sprinkling the scene with incense. The first and second readings remain: Isiah (the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light) and the letter of Paul to Titus (the grace of God has appeared). The gospel rotates from Luke to Matthew to John each year. In elementary school I learned to remember: Luke= shepherds, Matthew= wise men, John= The Word. Everything else, down to the beginning of the priest’s homily, remains the same. Tradition, ritual. Sometimes, we find relief in the expected. Truthfully, I fought sleepiness the whole time.

There was one essential difference that woke me up. During the homily, the time when the one who says mass teaches the congregation about the readings and offers lessons, the priest acknowledged that our brothers and sisters of another faith were also celebrating: our Jewish neighbors were celebrating Chanukah, the festival of light and rededication. “We must pray for them, and for people of all faiths that they experience peace, enjoy relaxation, and welcome a new year just as we hope to,” he said. 1000 people heard that message, a message of interfaith cooperation in the form of prayer. The priest, our teacher, offered us an important lesson. I believe one of the most important teachers, Jesus, taught that lesson over and over.

9hsvmg6nshe-ben-white
PC: Ben White

Yesterday among the cinnamon rolls and piles of gift wrap scattered around the family room, I reflected on the importance of teachers and the gift of learning. Teachers come in many forms: people, sacred texts, books, stories, experiences…anything can be a teacher if our persons are open to learning. One of the most powerful things about Jesus as I see is that his teachings transcended a particular time and place, and often related to the divine potential of each human being as a steward of resources. Many of the prophets and founders of great traditions of wisdom were also first and foremost teachers, and they were concerned with the flourishing of humanity. The Buddha traveled across Southeast Asia, teaching crowds of hundreds about suffering and liberation. I concluded that teaching is one of the highest forms serving human kind, especially because in teaching, we learn continuously.

Many of us will admit to spending too much money on something in particular: fancy food, clothes, alcohol, sporting events, you name it. I have much to work on in this regard. In particular, books are my downfall. The last time I walked in to a bookstore, there was a table with a “sale” sign, and I walked out with four new paperbacks. In this moment in time, memoirs and books dealing with race, gender, and religion are stacked in my “to read” pile. Besides my students who always prove to be my best teachers, books offer me a constant window into learning, the process that makes me feel most alive. Over my lifetime, the people who have most impacted me have been teachers: they have challenged me, believed in me, journeyed with me.

I closed my eyes with everyone else as we prayed for our neighbors celebrating Chanukah. I remembered something my friend Steven, an Orthodox Jew, taught me while we were on the Interfaith Council at USC: “When we light the Menorah, we take the first candle and light the others with it. Lighting one candle with another does not diminish the light in either.” Such is the case with great teachers, the more we learn from one another does not diminish the vast capacity we have to continue.

Why I Wouldn’t Share the Cure for Cancer

This past week I have been blissfully writing and recharging at the Kenyon Institute’s Beyond Walls Spiritual Writing Program. We have focused on four broad genres of writing, including Midrash, the personal essay, the Op-Ed, and the blog. Every session has been insightful, and through the prompts and practices, I have found myself in tears more than once. The healing and learning we can do for ourselves through writing is nothing short of amazing.

I have been struggling for a while to use my voice in a way that is helpful and not harmful. Every day my Facebook feed is filled with violent, destructive articles and pictures that demonstrate just how unjust (and downright painful) this world can be. Liberating the marginalized from this system feels impossible. My mind and heart ache with emotion, with empathy and a calling to reach out and rise up. I want to validate the anger, fear, and unspeakable pain so many feel. Is adding my voice harmful, is it stifling to those who historically have never had a voice? Most definitely, I believe.

In our session centered around the Op-Ed, we played a game. Our facilitator posed the question, “If you knew the cure for cancer, would you tell the room full of cancer patients before you?” Most everyone responded that they would. “Absolutely not,” I thought. The systems and institutions would still fail these patients, would demand payment after unpaid bills, would privilege insurance, citizenship, able-bodied, and urban dwellers. What good is a cure when it is inaccessible?

The world has always been broken. I am acutely aware of this as I consume article after blog after facebook status stating how this is true, what the problem is. I see some forms of solutions- what allies can do, how to provide self-care, who to call when threatened. But the large vision of equality or peace in a world in which racism and sexism and oppression don’t exist at all doesn’t seem to be an option. I have been longing for a picture of this utopia and fallen short, perhaps because I believed once that my goal as a Zen Buddhist was to attempt to end the suffering of all human beings in order to end my own. As I see it now, the world will always include suffering. My objective is to create slivers of joy in a time of unbearable pain.

Last night we all traced our foot on a blank piece of paper. We filled the foot with words, describing how we feel “stuck.” I wrote about feeling trapped in silence, but that I know silence to be siding with oppression. Justice needs voices and words. We each drafted a question that would help us escape our “stuckness.”

This morning I shared my question with two new colleagues, both women Episcopal Priests. They paused. One answered, “When I talk with people who I know have thoughts and ideas but don’t feel they can speak, I ask them questions. I ask them to respond.” The other said, “This sounds like something Jesus wondered about.”

Jesus?

Jesus.

beatitudes
PC: Rob Bye

As she explained her answer, I realized that the Jesus I knew as a young Catholic is not the only side to the teacher. I always knew Jesus to be a humble son of a carpenter, gentle, someone who spent time with the people others ignored or cast out. But Jesus was also a very influential leader by the time he died. He built a strong, active ministry that brought people together across classes and tribes. He spoke with authority and commitment. In his work, he included the poor, the hungry, the lepers, society’s “ills” because people listened to him. Jesus was the voice when the voiceless needed sound.

I do not believe myself to be a prophet or Messiah. I am a teacher and am moved by the sacredness in every single person. The struggle to know when and how to speak my truths will stay with me as I hold Jesus’ famous beatitudes in my heart. Blessed are the voiceless.