Sunday, November 28, 2004

A Laywoman's Lectionary: Keep Awake - For the First Sunday in Advent (11/28/04)

But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. (Matthew 24:36-44 [NRSV])

A couple of years ago, when our son was waiting to hear from college admission committees, he and I were in what might understatedly have been referred to as an attentive posture of being. We could have been more accurately described as about to explode from the volatile combination of apprehension and hopefulness. We were on constant red-alert for e-mail and snail mail, attentive to the slightest alteration in the letter carrier's schedule. And when the news finally arrived, most of it good, we had waited so long and so hard that it was actually something of a let-down.

You can't live in a state of such tense alertness for long, at least not at my age, without doing some serious damage to your heart. Of course, there are far worse situations: a hospital room where a child lies in critical condition, the front lines of a war, the smell of smoke and the crackle of flames in the middle of the night. At such times, our sensory perception goes into high gear and the little things that we would not otherwise notice become etched into our very long-term memory.

Fortunately, most of us are not required to live in such tension for long periods of time. In fact, most of the time, we are barely aware of our surroundings. How many times have you driven dozens of miles down the interstate without really knowing it? Could you tell me what you had for lunch yesterday? You know your paid your bills last month, but do you have any clear recollection of having done so? No, most of the time we are on automatic pilot, just doing what we need to do more or less when we need to do it.

It has been posited that it is precisely that automatic-pilot approach to life that will leave some of us in the breach. Today's Gospel passage has become the foundation for the Left Behind novels. In that series of a dozen or more bestsellers, the end of the world as we know it begins with the disappearance of the "saved," in the course of an ordinary day and right before the eyes of friends and family. The premise, also based on the Book of Revelation, is that those who have been "saved" in this life will, on the Day of Rapture, be called to God's side in the blink of an eye, while the rest of the sorry human population will be left to its dread fate in the ensuing conflict between the battling forces of the Christ and the the antiChrist.

They aren't pretty books. The explicitly depicted violence is revolting, but no more so than the articulated vision of a god of violence and judgement who is out to render the universe into two opposing camps. Is that really what God means to do? Does God want us to be attentive only to the consequences of our actions in the context of an ultimate judgment between good and evil? The parallel to the Biblical flood story might seem to indicate that such is the case. Certainly the fear of a final catastrophic judgment seems endemic to human nature, as evidenced by the flood stories told by virtually every ancient culture.

However, I don't think that today's passage is placed here at the beginning of Advent, completely out of context, to remind us of the potential for disaster, or even to be attentive to the possibility of an event of gargantuan proprotions, like a hurricane or tidal wave. I think it's here to remind us to be attentive to the possibility that a colossal shift in the cosmos might be hidden in the smallest and most ordinary of events: the birth of a child in a cave on the outskirts of a small town.

"Keep awake, Jesus says, years later, to his followers. "Keep awake, " we are reminded, a month before Christmas. Keep awake for what?

I will be the first to admit that I do not "keep awake" for the Gospel message, for the good news that the world, and the part each of us plays in it, has been transformed. Mostly, I do my regular stuff. I check my e-mail and I prepare my lessons. I wash the kitchen floor and clean out the litter box. I teach my classes and go to meetings, at the school where I teach and at the church where I worship. I nag my children about their responsibilties. I do the laundry and ignore the vacuuming. Occasionally I remember to give thanks, for a crisp and blue-skied morning, for a child who has navigated a rocky passage, for a student who makes a leap of achievement. Sometimes I remember to pray ahead of time; for instance, before I open my opinionated mouth. (Not usually.) But mostly I am not awake or aware to the power or even the love of Christ in my life.

Sometimes. The truth about my walking has far less to do with my middle-aged quest for fitness than with my need for such awareness, which I tend to experience, if at all, when I am moving on my feet through God's created world. I walk largely as an exercise in attentiveness. There have been many occasions when I have paused as I have circled the small lake to which I often walk, noting a migrating bird or a startling shimmer of light across water, and been aware that the passing cars are missing something important. One afternoon I crouched behind the full-grown reeds of late summer, observing three green heron siblings learning to fly. Baby down feathers still stuck out here and there from their increasingly adult plummage, and as they hopped awkwardly from branch to branch, I worried like a mother heron that they were all about to fall in. Cars sped behind me and bicylists zipped down the nearby path. I was the only human witness to that first flying lesson.

Even that level of attentiveness is hard to maintain. Most of the time, we fancy ourselves too busy for the daily mindfulness to which both Buddhism and Christrianity call us. John Kabat Zinn entitles one of his books Wherever You Go, There You Are -- a point worth noting. Most of us are usually too busy with where we think we are going to attend to where we actually are.
Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister says that "The role of religion is to bring us to an awareness of life. The role of religion is to transform the world, to come to see the world as God sees the world and to bring it as close to the vision of God as we possibly can. Why? Scripture is very clear. What God changes, God changes through us."

Part of the good news is that we are now reminded, as the earth swings on its annual orbit, to "Keep awake." We have another opportunity, every year in the longest and darkest days of winter, to wake up and pay attention.

Friday, November 19, 2004

A Laywoman's Lectionary: Presby Present

And so I stopped going to church for awhile. I stopped teaching Sunday school and serving on committees and helping to run programs. I started reading a lot and praying a lot and journaling some.

I knew I was on the right track when, after I told the head of Christian Education at our church that I wouldn't be teaching Sunday School the following year because I was going to take some time out to focus on my own spiritual life, she responded, "Well, give me a call when you get bored."

I wasn't all that keen on a church leader implying that a personal spiriutal search would become a boring enterprise. Maybe that's why, despite the energy and activity of that church, I no longer felt at home there.

A friend, who knew that I was at loose ends, suggested that we try her Presbyterian church. She told me that a new minister had just begun his tenure there, and said that he was an incredible preacher. It was actually a bit strange that I'd never been to her church; our children attended a Montessori school housed there, so I'd been to the building nearly every day for seven years. Still, I'd never been in the sanctuary. I decided to take her up on her offer.

Sure enough, fine preaching and terrific music, along with a long tradition of social justice work. The church had been in the forefront of community racial integration efforts in the 60s, a move which, I eventually learned, had cost it hundreds of members.

A lot of people, I think, when they hear the word "Christian," envision masses of religious fundamentalist political conservatives singing contemporary praise music. And that is an accurate reflection of a powerfully vibrant portion of American Protestantism. But it's not immediately apparent -- certainly not through the media -- that while our numbers may be declining, there are still thousands of congregations housed in mainline Protestant churches, listening to preachers whose education and knowledge stretches far and wide beyond the Bible and seminary, singing under the direction of well-trained and multi-talented classical musicians, and engaged in significant social action.

It took me maybe seven or eight years to switch church memberships. For one thing, I was preoccupied with some family issues and a major career change, from law to teaching. For another, I had learned my lesson -- as soon as your name in on the rolls of a church, people start to call you up and ask you to do things. So I just modeled myself on a leach for awhile. I went to worship services, taught some Sunday school, volunteered here and there, and otherwise followed on my own little tangential path. My daughter got caught up right away -- this particular church welcomes its children enthusiastically, and the music director doesn't hesitate to get them right up there in front for their little solos. I will be forever grateful to her for noticing that my little girl could sing, giving her opportunities to perform, and helping her prepare her very first audition, for a place in the Children's Chorus of our city's orchestra.
Eventually, I felt ready to make the committment that church membership implied to me. By that time, I could no longer interest anyone in my family in even accompanying me on the occasional Sunday, let along joining with me. I decided not to worry about it. If God were calling me to participate in a religious community, then I would respond. Church can look like a "family thing," but it doesn't have to be.

I admit, though, that I felt a bit out of place. I had been on a journey of several years toward a more interior life of the spirit, and that's not a process Presbyterians are known for. Presbyterians, at least the ones I know in the liberal PC (USA), tend to focus on corporate worship and social action. Many of us will readily admit to a rather dramatic level of Biblical illiteracy and even less familiarity with the great witers of the last several centuries of Christian theology, prayer, and spirituality. Our own senior pastor is a man deeply committedto a life of prayer and a journey with God, but his natural pastoral inclinations tend toward the sphere of politcal and social engagement. I had been very much interested in those kinds of matters in my previous church, but had been on a different journey for so long that I doubted whether I had really found the right place with the Presbyterians.

However, I had become part of a small group at the church that was committed to pursuing the inward spiritual journey, and in bringing it to the attention of the congregation. It's been a slow process, but with the arrival of a new associate minister in the past year, we are seeing some lively movement. I served on the committee that ultimately called her to our church, and I was there in large part as a voice for the need to hone the adult education and spiritual formation component of out church. I think that she will help us make major strides in becoming a congregation that is truly focused on both the inward and the outward journey.
Our senior pastor has been at the church for ten years, just a little longer than I have. His message has consistently and emphatically been one of God's pervasive love for all of us. He hammers home his themes of diversity and inclusiveness week after week. In a practical sense, that means that it's pretty easy for us to get from the Biblical text to committments to justice in the areas of race relations, poverty, gay and lesbian rights, education, and other areas of social concern. In a personal sense, it means that we all hear, over and over again, that God's love for us never falters in its all-encompassing presence.

As it turns out, the Presbyterian Church (USA) is a good place for me to hang out.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

A Laywoman's Lectionary: Creation - For the First Sunday of Christmas (12/26/04)

Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD from the heavens; praise him in the heights!
Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his host!
Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars!
Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens!
Let them praise the name of the LORD, for he commanded and they were created.
He established them forever and ever; he fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed.
Praise the LORD from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps,
fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind fulfilling his command!
Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars!
Wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds!
Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth!
Young men and women alike, old and young together!
Let them praise the name of the LORD, for his name alone is exalted; his glory is above earth and heaven.
He has raised up a horn for his people, praise for all his faithful, for the people of Israel who are close to him. Praise the LORD! (Psalm 148) [NRSV]

I guess it is not so surprising that one of the lectionary possibilities for the day after Christmas is this hymn of praise to God the Creator -- an echo of the creation stories of Genesis. After all, the Gospel of John begins, not with a nativity story (those, as a commenter last week pointed out, are found only in Matthew and Luke and are quite different, one from the other), but with the famous introduction that reads "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." Since one of the four Gospels begins with a re-introduction of the creation story, with Christ as its first and most central character, it's logical that one of our four lectionary choices this week is a reminder of the magnificence of God's creation. The readings from Isaiah and Hebrews proclaim the saving grace of God, and the reading from Matthew tells the harrowing story of Joseph's next dream and the flight of the tiny Holy Family to Egypt to escape Herod's murderous insanity, but the reading from Psalms enables us to indulge ourselves in gratitude for a beautiful universe.

Anyone who knows me at all knows that I try to find time every week, if not every day, to revel in the the outside world. Even though I live in an older, inner-ring suburb of an older, rust-belt midwestern city, I have no trouble finding spots of natural beauty. We are fortunate that powers-that-be of decades ago set aside vast spaces for parks, and for the 400-acre arboretum cemetry where I often walk, and that "little old ladies in tennis shoes" of only a few decades ago faced down some state visionaries dreaming of an interstate through one of our loveliest lake areas, a natural stopover for migrating birds in the spring and fall. Our city sits on the shores of one of the Great Lakes, and my New Year's Resolution, if I have one, which I guess I do now, is to find some time at least once a month to spend out on the lakefront.

This past year, I have had a considerable amount of good fortune in terms of witnessing the natural beauty of our country. I've taken long walks on the Atlantic coast and the Pacific Coast. I've trudged the dunes of Lake Michigan, walked the paths near Lake Chautauqua, and hiked in the forests and to the waterfalls of western North Carolina and western Oregon. I've been to Chicago and Portland, Traverse City and St. Augustine. I've flown 3,000 miles west and back again, and driven 1,500 miles south and north (with only one major car repair on my van with its 120,000 miles to show for it!). My report is that, despite the nasty divisiveness of the election, we live in a land of dazzling natural diversity. It makes complete sense for us to pause at this time of winter solstice, when much of nature is undergoing a process of rebirth underground and under snow, and offer our gratitude for the gift of this earth and its universe.

A few years ago, on an annual family vacation to St. Augustine, Florida, we all decided to go parasailing. As our guides took us an an extremely bumpy motoboat journey (I think they wanted to impress our teenagers with their speed and daring) over the waves and way offshore to our starting point, we passed a gannet riding the waves much more comfortably than we were. Gannets are large seabirds, seen out over the waters of St. Augustine only when driven inward by sea storms. I love their beauty -- stark white bodies with sleek black wings -- and their torpedo-like grace as they dive for fish from vast heights above the water. They don't come into shore, so the only way to view one close -up is to be out on the ocean yourself. Our guides were surprised by how thrilled I was to see what they had thought was "just some other kind of big gull."

The best was yet to come, though. I wasn't really all that confident about the whole parasailing idea. You hook yourself into a harness and the motorboat takes off, gradually lifting you 1400 feet into the air -- and heights aren't really my thing. But the flight is peaceful and the view is extraordinary. As we sailed over an ocean rolling in colors of teal, green and blue, a giant ray swam underneath us. We often see dead rays washed up on the beach, but I had never seen a live one except in the National Aquarium in Baltimore, where the exhibit of rays and sea turtles is mesmerizing. What an amazing sight that was from the air: that huge and ancient creature, with the odd shape that has served it well for 400 million years, gliding along just under the surace of the water, oblivious to the humans with whom it shares the world.

I realize that I could go on and on. Sometimes you have no idea where you will end up, when you sit down and start to write. I thought, at the beginning of the week, that I would write about the Flight to Egypt -- I have been so engrossed inthe dark and foreboding hints in this year's Advent readings. But as the week passed, I was increasingly drawn to the reading from Psalms, and now I can see why. Many of the other readings have been ominous, but they have also been about attentiveness: to signs around us, to proclamations, to angels and dreams and today, to the the natural world. We really need this time -- especially on an early winter day like this one when the sky is already darkening and huge flakes of snow are falling, with a great softness that belies the difficulties they are no doubt creating for holiday travelers -- we need this time at the end of the calendar year and beginning of the church year, to reflect on a world far beyond ourselves.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

A Laywoman's Lectionary: The Methodist Years

Why were we so attracted to a church about which we knew next to nothing? The preaching was the first main thing. Our senior pastor, who turned out to be rather famous in preaching circles, had started that new year off with one of his favorite approaches: a short series on a theme. The theme arose from the book In His Steps by Charles Sheldon. Written in 1896, it was, as far as I know, the first book to ask the contemporary question, "What would Jesus do?" For four weeks, our pastor preached on the response to that question -- as it might be answered at church, in the workplace, etc. His sermons were exactly what I was looking for, as I tried to figure out how to reconcile an increasingly upscale professional life with the call of the Gospel.

For the first couple of years, we were content just to go to church on Sundays. Church as lecture and concert, I guess you could say. We didn't know anyone (there were about 1500 members, with about 400 in attendance on any given Sunday morning) and we didn't know how to get to know anyone. That changed a bit when I was asked to join a committtee, but we were still on the periphery of the community. I don't think that we really understood that there was even such a thing as a church community. In retropsect it seems a bit odd, but I gave birth to my twins and then to my daughter during that period and, while their arrival and baptisms were duly noted in ther church bulletin, no one showed up with a dinner or anything else of use.
Things began to change shortly after our daughter was born. The church beban to focus on small group development, and we found ouselves hooked up with a neighborhood group of several young families like our own. We all had small children and most of us were on our own, far from extended family support. We were starving for companionship, eager to learn about our religion, and thrilled beyond belief to have found each other. Suddenly -- community!!! In the early years, we met regularly for various Bible and other studies and began to celebrate our holidays together. As the women quit work to mother fulltime, we began to get together for conversation every week, and started going away for an annual week-end together. At the same time, we all became deeply involved in the life of the church, teaching classes, taking classes, and serving on committees and boards. Many of us took two or three of the Methodist year-long DISCIPLE Bible study classes together.

As the kids grew and moved into involved sports and activities schedules and the moms went back to work, we found it harder to get together, and some of us drifted away from the church. A couple of years ago, the moms reinstituted our weekly get-togethers -- at a coffee shop these days, where other groups of women also show up and sometimes merge with ours. The days of meeting in someone's kitchen while the children play underfoot are long gone, but more recently we have been known to settle in at the tables we pull together for breakfast at around 10:00 and on occasion decide a few hours later that we might as well have lunch, too. Most of us are pretty liberal, politically and theologically speaking, and we live in a community of unusual diversity (all of which we take for granted, except at times like the recent election). We never run out of things to talk about.

For myself, over the years I found less and less sustenance of a spiritual nature through the church itself. Ministers came and went, and the preaching waxed and waned. I got burned out on volunteering. My husband lost interest -- and it's VERY hard to keep children focused on weekly Sunday School when their dad is sitting in the kitchen reading the paper. Our family was vacationing at the Chautauqua Institution every summer, and it was to the speakers and classes at Chautauqua that I was increasingly turning for my religious life. There were a few years when the music and preaching at Chautauqua would carry me all the way through to Christmas -- I would buy the tapes of the summer lectures and church services and listen to them as I drove around all year long. (I still do.) I took at least three journaling classes there over several summers, took yoga classses in the early mornings, and bought stacks of books from the authors I heard speak.

At Chautauqua I was discovering a rich tradition of Christian spirituality, contemplation, and scholarship that was not particularly accessible through my church. Over the years, I heard, many times over, speakers such as Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister, Episcopal priests Barabara Brown Taylor (my favorite preacher on the planet) and John Claypool, religious scholar Marcus Borg, commentator Karen Armstrong, Unitarian pastor Forrest Church, rabbi and lawyer David Saperstein (and, for the first time last summer, his brother, Rabbi Marc Saperstein), environmentalist Jane Goodall.

My favorite concert ever, and as spirit-moving an event as any of the Sunday services where 5,000 people rise to sing "Holy, Holy, Holy" in an outdoor ampitheatre, was Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie in combination. You haven't lived until you've been part of that same outdoor ampitheatre crowd that will come back to worship the next morning when, late on a summer Saturday night, Pete Seeger gets you all to sing "All people That on Earth Do Dwell" in a ROUND -- all 5,000 of you!

So I was a Methdodist in form and name, but not in practice or attentiveness anymore. I was reluctant to give up my church -- the building is huge, but I knew its every nook and cranny, and the architecture and stained-glass windows are breathtakingly beautiful -- and yet, I wasn't really there anymore. We went as a family to Christmas Eve services, because we couldn't abandon the music and the candles held by hundreds of people in the dark of a cavernous cathedral at midnight, but I was gradually responding to a call from another direction.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

A Laywoman's Lectionary: The Empty Years

There isn't much to say about my spiritual journey in my 20s, since I wasn't making one. I went to college -- three of them, in fact, in Massachusetts and Rhode Island -- and never set foot in a chapel or took a course in religious studies. I got married in a church, that little brick Methodist church of my childhood, but only because a tornado and torrential rains wiped out our plans for an outdoor wedding. I went back to the midwest for law school and I went to work.

Something was nagging at me, though. All those years in religious schools had taught me that my life was supposed to be one of service to others. As a child of the 60s, I did, like many of my law school classmates, have some vague and ill-defined ideas about using the law as a tool for social action, but it turned out that those kinds of jobs were few and far between, especially where I live. So I ended up in the corporate world, wearing elegant suits and making good money, taking regular business trips and eating in nice restaurants. And always, always, wondering whether I wasn't supposed to be doing something -- well, something more substantial with my life.

One day when I was in my late twenties, completely out of the blue, I told my husband that I thought that we should find a church. He was agreeable, and suggested that we check out a Methodist one a few blocks away. I was fine with that. The building had tremendous appeal -- it's built on the plan of a 13th century French cathedral.

It offered a safe trial -- the services were broadcast on weekly cable, so we didn't even have to go near the place to check it out! We liked what we saw -- great music and erudite preaching -- and so off we went, walking on a cold and sunny January morning down a narrow pathway that ran through the residential blocks between our house and the church. We had no idea what we were doing, but a month later we were official members of a large mainline United Methodist congregation.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

A Laywoman's Lectionary: Education of the Head, Hand, and Heart

Next stop: a new boarding school, this one in western Massachusetts where, between high school and college, I would spend the next five years of my life. Are there many places on the planet more beautiful than the Connecticut River Valley and the Berkshire Mountains? (I'm afraid, though, that I would have to admit to having taken them largely for granted at the time.)

I had finally reached my father's objective for me: a New England boarding school of unquestioned academic reputation. Unfortunately, by the time I got there, it was the fifth of my summer camps and boarding schools in as many states, and I was exhausted from the repeated challenge of starting all over with completely new people in a foreign environment. My high school years developed into one extended period of acting out the losses of childhood and adolescence. I won't bore you with the details.

I will share some of the story from a spiritual point of view, however. You may recall that during my childhood years I had a tangential relationship to small-town midwestern Methodism, and had moved on in junior high to the mysterious ritual of the pre-Vatican II Catholic church. Suddenly, at fifteen, I found that I had landed in an entirely new religious environment.

My school had been founded in the late 1800s by a famous evangelist, whose purpose had been to provide a solid education for the young farm women of the area so that they could be trained as missionaries to foreign lands. A couple of years later, he founded a boys' school across the river, hoping to offer to young men of little or no means the rigorous education that the sons of the wealthy and prominent obtained at the famous New England prep schools.

The founder's legacy -- education of the head, hand, and heart -- left a pattern of interesting dichotomies all over our campuses. From an academic standpoint, our education was second to none. Our school was renowned across the country for the excellence of its college preparation for young women. (And no, I didn't know that when I arrived. I was fifteen, exhausted, and couldn't have cared less.)

The school also emphasized the value of manual labor. Every student had a job on campus, every day, changing positions each trimester. Sometimes I signed up for pre-breakfast preparation, wanting to get my work out of the way first thing in the morning. I can remember showering in the pitch dark and running down to the kitchen at 6:30 a.m., my long hair hanging down my back and soaking through my kitchen uniform. My favorite job was after-dinner tins -- the endless washing of pots and pans. It was a miserably difficult task, but it took so long that the tins girls could escape some of the two-and-a half hour evening study hall. Whenever I hear the song Spirit in the Sky, I think of spring evenings in the kitchen, dancing to the music as we dried off the huge cooking vats with all possible deliberation and lack of speed.

The job program was probably the reason I chose that particular school. I was given no choice about going away, but I was offered a few options in terms of destination. Most of the catalogues I flipped through featured girls in expensive clothing engaged in what looked like expensive occupations. The one I gravitated toward pictured young women in weird outfits and caps, scrubbing and sweeping and preparing food. I didn't have any more intrinsic interest in those activities than I do today, but I figured that a school where the students did real work couldn't be all bad.

And, finally...the religious aspect. Once again, something that was never discussed in my home, but became critical to my formation.

We attended daily chapel and Sunday church services and, amazingly, I usually showed up. My group of friends tended to be of a mind to skip the religious demands on our lives -- but I loved the morning chapel music and the eloquence of the speakers who visited our campus. I couldn't sing two notes in succession to save my life, but I could listen. I was astonished and mesmerized by my introduction to the Protestant tradition of religious music. While my friends were slinking out the back door of the chapel and hiding out in unoccupied buildings, I was hunkered down in my pew, soaking up the sounds of centuries of Christian organ and choral music.

I loved the speakers, too. I wasn't much of a student in those days, sticking to the subjects I liked and ignoring those I didn't, but when William Sloane Coffin showed up, I paid attention. I don't remember any specifics, but I know that to be awash in the words of the best speakers New England colleges had to offer during the 1960s was a transformative experience.
And so were words, in general. The words, astonishingly, of the Bible, and of the great religious writers of our time. We didn't just go to chapel and church. We also took religion classes as part of our regular academic schedule. Yes, just like in Catholic school -- religion every day. A year of Old Testament, a year of New Testament, and then electives.

These were not your usual high school religion classes. These were an incomparable gift. Our Old Testament class was basically a college-level survey course in the literary-historical critical analysis of the Biblical text. By the time September was half over, "JEDP"* resounded in my head and symbolized the approach that would forever after inform my aproach to the Bible. It was no longer a book of childhood mythologies and improbable miracles. It had become a puzzle, its intricately woven layers of texts challenging the intellect at every level. What a treasure trove of knowledge to hand over to high chool students! I have a friend here who was in my class at boarding school and not so long ago we smiled over those years. "JEDP!" she exclaimed. "We were so lucky! They taught us the Bible as if we were adult thinkers."

My senior year elective was called "Church and Society." We read Bonhoeffer, Freud, Frankl, and who knows who else. I still wasn't a religious person in any sense of the word but, again, my ordinary daily life was informed by the prophetic voices of our century -- in class --and of our decade -- in chapel. I was seventeen, and in an environment where I could assume that everyone grew up in the midst of the ongoing religious and philosophical discussions of the ages. Our school was mostly Protestant in theology , and mostly white in population, but its doors were wide open to every thought and question imaginable.

And, once again, it was a religion teacher who tried to open the windows to the broader world in a more pragmatic sense. My religion teacher senior year was a man from North Carolina. One morning as we walked to class through a couple of feet of snow, he asked where I was applying to college, and then began to rail against what he termed our "parochialism." Why are y'all so stuck on New England?" he asked. "Y'all should be thinking about Chapel Hill and Vanderbilt. Get out of here and find out something about the rest of the country!"

So what had I learned, by the time I was eighteen, about religion and the people who care about it? That the people who study and teach religion are often the ones who will push you onward and outward, into a vast universe of unanswered questions. That faith is a worldwide phenomenon expressed in a myriad of ways. That almost everyone of faith claims to have some hold on some kind of truth. That if there is a God, then that God seems to have numerous ways of trying to reach people. That religion can be a subject of deep and challenging intellectual inquiry. That it can be a source of illuminating joy or astounding evil. That it can be a matter of complete indifference. That it has inspired music so exquisitely powerful that if there were nothing but the music, that alone could make a believer out of someone not otherwise inclined in that direction.

I didn't yet have any idea that faith could seep into your life when you weren't paying any attention. That knowledge was to come much, much later, when I would begin to see it as the path toward a worldview of openness and curiosity and authenticity.

(*JEDP is shorthand for the four sources compiled to form what we know as the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, as posited by significant scholars of the 19th century and debated vigorously by Biblical inerrantists.)