Motor Mouth

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As Daddy backed the car out of our short driveway and headed it up the dirt road, Mama twisted around from the front seat to face me. “Tell me about school. Do you like it? Do you have friends? What’s Mrs. Bost like,” she asked.

We were going to school—my new school—for the first open house with my new teacher in my new classroom. I had attended Christ Lutheran’s church school for kindergarten, first, and second grades, but, now that we had moved far out of town, I had been moved to the county public school, Startown Elementary.

I didn’t really know how to answer her questions. I didn’t like this new school. It scared me. The classes were bigger, and the boys meaner. The only friends I had were girls, but I didn’t want to tell Mama and Daddy that. Mrs. Bost seemed okay, but I still got in trouble for talking too much. At Christ Lutheran, my teachers took care of my talking too much by punishing me in class and simply noting that “Alan talks too much” on my report card. That was all about to change.

I led Mama and Daddy into the building where my third-grade classroom and Mrs. Bost awaited, a new one-story structure built next to the imposing original three-story building that housed the principal’s office and upper grades of elementary school. We only went in there for a weekly visit to the library and for lunch in its basement. Mrs. Bost was busy talking with other parents when we entered, and Mama asked to see my desk.

All our desks had little folded tents made of cardstock with our names neatly written on them by Mrs. Bost. We weaved our way through the classroom, and I pointed out different students I knew, pretending to have more friends than I did. As we approached my desk and its little folded tent, I noticed that it looked different, and my heart began to pound in my chest. By the time I realized what was written there, it was too late—Mama and Daddy knew it was mine. The tent read “Motor Mouth,” neatly written in Mrs. Bost’s hand. I flushed from fear and embarrassment; Mama and Daddy flushed from anger. And, here was Mrs. Bost, walking across the room to explain how my talking too much disturbed her class. I was silent on the ride home, while Mama and Daddy discussed how to handle me and my Motor Mouth.

In my junior year of high school, I had occasion to call my mother at work one afternoon. She worked with several other women in a kind of secretarial and administrative pool above an auto parts store in town. Mary Jane, who answered the phone when I called, didn’t put me on hold. Instead she yelled across the upstairs office for my mother, “Jet Jaws! The phone’s for you!”

Jet Jaws! Mother of Motor Mouth. If only I had known.

Do as I say, not as I do . . .

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We have all heard those words, used to call out the hypocrisy of someone—they’re saying one thing and doing quite the opposite. Well . . . let’s look at Jesus’ words—what he said—from last week’s Gospel:

“Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

Now, let’s look at what Jesus says and does in this week’s Gospel:

[A] woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

The parallel passage in Matthew is even clearer:

[A] Canaanite woman from that region came out and began to cry out, saying, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is cruelly demon-possessed.” But He did not answer her a word. And His disciples came and implored Him, saying, “Send her away, because she keeps shouting at us.” But He answered and said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and began to bow down before Him, saying, “Lord, help me!” And He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. . . . It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs”! Did Jesus just call this woman, this Gentile, Syrophoenician, Canaanite woman a dog?! Did he just tell her that she’s not worthy of the bread—that ‘Bread of Life’ we heard so much about in previous Sundays—meant for the chosen ones of Israel. Is this the same Jesus who just last week warned us that it is “the things that come out [of us] that defile”?

Now, this is a Jesus I can relate to! I’m very good at giving advice but not so good at following it. I find it very easy to get angry and ignore those who are different than me, even put them down with slurs and a clever remark to justify my anger. But, that is the point, isn’t it, of having a God who cares enough to find out what it’s like to be human, to live in our skin and grow up in our world of prejudices and biting words? A God who says the right thing one day and does quite the opposite another?

Of course, we all know how the story ends. Jesus relents, telling her, “O woman, your faith is great; it shall be done for you as you wish,” and heals her daughter. He doesn’t try to convert her. He doesn’t beat himself up about not getting it right the first time. He goes on and does the right thing. This is a Jesus that I have a harder time relating to, but . . . that other Jesus lets me know that this Jesus understands me. He gets me. And, he shows me how to move on from “do as I say, not as I do” to an integrity of words and actions.

“Coming Out for Owen” . . . Coming Out on August 25th!

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I am very excited to announce that my story “Coming Out for Owen” has been published in Kevin Jennings’s book One Teacher in Ten in the New Millennium. The book will be released on August 25th. (You can pre-order it now on Amazon!)

“Coming Out for Owen” is my story about coming out to my sixth graders in my eighth year of teaching. Up to that point, “I never saw the need to tell [my fifth- and sixth-grade students] about my sexual orientation. The word sexual in that descriptor gave me pause in coming out to them: “Fifth or sixth graders don’t need to know who I sleep with,” I thought.” But, when the parents of one of my students complain that he’s being picked on because “he was perceived to be gay,” I have a change of heart.

Recalling the humiliation I felt when my fifth-grade teacher sent me to the guidance counselor to be evaluated with a note that read, “Alan is a sissy and seems to enjoy being that way,” I realize that I can’t remain silent any longer. My students’ reactions were nothing short of amazing, making us a real community, and “it made me a better teacher–and a better person.”

This third edition of One Teacher in Ten includes “voices largely absent from the first two editions–including transgender people, people of color, teachers working in rural districts, and educators from outside the United States– . . . providing a fuller and deeper understanding of the triumphs and challenges of being an LGBT teacher today.”

While “Coming Out for Owen” is my story, it also reflects the story of gay and straight allies, from the teachers and administrators at School of the Future, the public school I taught at in Manhattan, to the group of teachers with whom I workshopped the story at the Hudson Valley Writing Project. No teacher, straight or gay, should feel alone in her or his classroom.

If you are in New York City on Thursday, September 10th, come to the book launch for One Teacher In Ten and hear our stories as we read from the book! The event is from 6:00 to 8:00pm at the Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School at 40 Charlton Street between Sixth Avenue and Varick (the high school’s location). Please RSVP by clicking this link by Tuesday, September 8.

The Episcopal Church Welcomes You*

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The Episcopal Church is a welcoming church. It says so right on our signs! There is an asterisk that might be placed at the end of that sign, though . . . According to the Episcopal Church’s website:

It goes by several names: Holy Communion, the Eucharist (which literally means “thanksgiving”), mass. But whatever it’s called, this is the family meal for Christians and a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. As such, all persons who have been baptized, and are therefore part of the extended family that is the Church, are welcome to receive the bread and wine, and be in communion with God and each other. (italics added)

Such a policy, known as open communion subject to baptism, is the official policy of the Episcopal Church. In some other denominations, such as the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod and the Catholic Church, the official policy is a closed communion–not only must you be baptized, but you must also be a member of that denomination to participate in communion. I was jarred into that realization when I attended a friend’s mother’s Catholic funeral, and the bulletin made it clear that only baptized Catholics were welcomed at the altar rail for communion. I sat in my seat during the Eucharist, feeling very much excluded. That would not occur in an Episcopal Church. So, the Episcopal Church welcomes you, but . . . please be baptized to participate in the Eucharist.

In action, however, many Episcopal Churches do not follow this policy. I have been in many Episcopal Churches where the celebrant announces that “This is God’s table and all are welcomed.” No asterisk or signed statement affirming baptism. In fact, when I attended the Diocesan Convention a couple of years ago, Bishop Dietsche made such an announcement. To be fair, he could be pretty sure that all in attendance were baptized members of the Episcopal Church, but I liked hearing him say that “all are welcomed” at God’s table.

Not all Episcopal Churches are so open however. St. Luke in the Fields, the church I attended in New York City, made it clear that, if you weren’t baptized, you were welcome to come forward and receive a blessing, but you should not receive communion. I was in formation there with another adult preparing for baptism who could not participate in Eucharist on Sundays, which felt odd to me.

In her memoir, Take This Bread, Sara Miles, who had been an atheist with little interest in Christianity, describes walking into a church for the first time: “One early, cloudy morning when I was 46, I walked into a church, ate a piece of bread, took a sip of wine. . . . This was my first communion. It changed everything. Eating Jesus, as I did that day to my great astonishment, led me against all my expectations to a faith I’d scorned and work I’d never imagined. The mysterious sacrament turned out to be not a symbolic wafer at all but actual food–indeed, the bread of life.” I have to wonder what she would have done if the church she had wandered into had made it clear that only baptized Christians were welcome to receive communion. Would she have missed that opportunity for change–radical change?

In Those Episkopols, sometimes called the “unofficial handbook of the Episcopal Church, author Dennis Maynard says that he teaches children preparing for their First Communion this devotional:

As we raise our hands to receive the Holy Bread pray the following words, “Out with self. Out with envy. Out with anger. Out with greed.” Then take the blessed bread in your hands and offer this prayer, “In with compassion. In with forgiveness. In with understanding. In with love. In with Jesus.”

In with Jesus. The bread of life. Should anyone who feels called to come to the altar rail be denied that opportunity?

God Bless America

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Lord God Almighty, in whose Name the founders of this country won liberty for themselves and for us, and lit the torch of freedom for nations then unborn: Grant that we and all the people of this land may have grace to maintain our liberties in righteousness and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (The Collect for Independence Day)

Last Saturday we celebrated America’s birthday, Independence Day, and rightly so. The founding of our new nation was, and is, something to be celebrated. Never before in the history of the world had a nation come into being built on the principles of the equality of all men and the “unalienable Rights [of] Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” As we all know, those words have had to be expanded over the 200+ years since they were first written-slavery had to be done away with so that all men, regardless of the color of their skin, might be included; and “men” had to be expanded to include women as endowed with those same inalienable rights; and these ideals are still works in progress. Indeed, Thomas Jefferson, sometimes called the “most democratic of the [Founding] Fathers,” wrote in a letter to James Madison, “no society can make a perpetual constitution or even a perpetual law. The earth belongs always to the living generation.”
The earth belongs always to the living generation. It is our responsibility, then, as citizens to always review and reimagine what those principles of equality and the unalienable Rights of Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness mean and to whom they must be extended. Even more so is it our responsibility as Christians. In the Gospel reading for Independence Day, Jesus reminds us to, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you . . . for [God] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” I would go a step further and say that God makes the principles of equality and the unalienable Rights of Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness also to “rise on the evil and the good, and . . . on the righteous and the unrighteous.” It is not for us to judge; we are called only to pray.
This brings me to those words of one of our nation’s most cherished anthems, “God Bless America.” For a long time I didn’t like hearing this song at all-I feel that it is so often sung not as a plea but as a demand,  or as a fait accompli, a done deal-but that’s because it is so often sung without its first verse:
While the storm clouds gather far across the sea,

Let us swear allegiance to a land that’s free,
Let us all be grateful for a land so fair,
As we raise our voices in a solemn prayer.

As we raise our voices in a solemn prayer. That prayer being that God would bless America, not that God has already blessed America. As citizens and as Christians, it is our responsibility to pray for God’s blessing on America and to work toward that blessing through ever expanding the ideals of equality and the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, even to those we call our enemies.

Equal Dignity in the Eyes of the Law

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What a momentous day for “equal justice under law”! Today, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution guarantees a right to same-sex marriage. As Justice Kennedy writes in his majority opinion:

[The couples’ challenging state bans on same-sex marriage] hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.

I can only imagine the mixed emotions of the lead plaintiff, Jim Obergefell, at hearing those words affirming his marriage to his partner of 21 years, John Arthur.

Jim and John married soon after the Supreme Court’s previous gay marriage decision striking down the federal Defense of Marriage Act in 2013, United States v. Windsor. Although they lived in Ohio, they had to fly to Maryland to be married as Ohio would not recognize their marriage. Three months and 11 days later, John died. Jim was listed on John’s Ohio death certificate as John’s spouse only because Jim had sued the state and won. Ohio appealed that ruling, leading to today’s Supreme Court case being named Obergefell v. Hodges. Richard Hodges is the Ohio official who handles death certificates. So, despite today’s victory, I imagine that Jim is feeling sad and, yes, lonely, his personal victory being allowed to be listed as John’s spouse on John’s death certificate.

I am reminded of my own feelings on June 25, 2011; the day after my current home state of New York passed its Marriage Equality Act. My partner’s mother died that evening, and I had the honor of being with Scott, his father, and his mother at her bedside for the 24 hours before she died. The next day, a friend of mine, the New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, wrote a column for the Times’s Sunday Review, To Know Us Is to Let Us Love, talking about marriage equality in a very personal way. I was moved by Frank’s column and wrote him the following e-mail:

I read your column this morning with obvious interest. Unfortunately, I was not in New York this weekend to celebrate this hugely important occasion for us, and I wanted to share with you why. I was in DC with Scott, doing what families, couples—spouses—do. I was sitting at Scott’s mother’s hospital bedside with Scott and his father as she died after a year-long battle with cancer.  I have never felt so privileged and so married in my life.  And, it means so much to me that now that relationship can be honored and respected as equal to my brothers’ marriages.  As I read your column, I realized that I don’t need marriage equality to make it real, but I—and all other gay couples like us—deserve it.

With today’s ruling, I reiterate that I do not need marriage equality to make my relationship real, I deserve it, and I thank Justice Kennedy for recognizing that the Constitution of the United States—my constitution—grants me the right to equal dignity in the eyes of the law.

Esmeralda

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I wrote a poem for the Peace Corps’s poetry contest last month. It didn’t win anything, but . . . here it is:

Esmeralda

Guatemala!Guatemala!Guatemala!

Gua-TE!

The ayudante sings his song for

Esmeralda,

Her Bluebird school bus carriage

Transformed from Cinderella-pumpkin-yellow

To Mayan huipil hues of reds, greens, and blues

For her trip to Guate.

Guatemala!Guatemala!Guatemala!

Gua-TE!

The city, the ayudante, Esmeralda

Beckon to the campesino,

His cowboy hat pulled low over

Coal black eyes

Watching his basket of chickens—his life—hoisted onto

Esmeralda’s back.

Guatemala!Guatemala!Guatemala!

Gua-TE!

The volunteer hurries through Antigua’s market

To Esmeralda,

Smoke stinging her eyes, backpack slung across

Her shoulder,

With one change of clothes, a toothbrush, and

Her dreams inside.

Guatemala!Guatemala!Guatemala!

Gua-TE!

The ayudante’s call to

Adventure

For the campesino, for the volunteer,

For Esmeralda—

All bound together on the road to

Guate.

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  • Esmeralda is the name of a bus company from Antigua to Guatemala City. They are Bluebird school buses from the States painted in bright colors.
  • Ayudante is the “helper” to the driver of the bus. He would sing-song “Guatemala! Guatemala! Guatemala! Guate!” to announce the impending departure of a bus for Guatemala City.
  • Huipil is a Mayan woman’s brightly colored blouse.
  • Campesino is a man who lives in the rural countryside.