A Train, Peaches, A Passport, and More – Things That Remind Me of Freedom

A Train, Peaches, A Passport, and More – Things That Remind Me of Freedom

1982 (age 8)

Freedom.

Ka – thunk, ka-thunk, went the train

Escape.

Ka – thunk, ka-thunk, went the train

Wall.

Ka – thunk, ka-thunk, went the train

Guns.

Ka-shhhhhhh, went the train as we stopped again.

On the way home from a family trip to West Berlin, we had to make our way through East Germany. That trip included periodic checks to make sure that no one was escaping.

“How many more checks will there be, Daddy?” He shushed me saying that we were almost back in West Germany. There would be no checks in the West. An armed soldier came to the door. Dad handed him our passports. The guard looked at the symbols of America on the front and grunted as he checked each face to its passport picture.

Ka-thunk, ka-thunk, ka-thunk, the train began to move again, and my brain raced as I imagined an escape story – Someone could fit under this seat, couldn’t they? Maybe a girl my age. My passport would keep her safe, because the guard didn’t check our sleeping car.

Dear President Reagan and Mr. Gorbachev. I started to write a letter in my mind, they would listen to a little girl who had just experienced seeing something unjust, wouldn’t they?

What can I do? I thought as the train meandered on, taking me back to freedom.

***

November 1989 (age 15)

The wall fell!?!?

Hooray went the International celebrations.

“Hey, the Berlin wall fell!”

Listen, I tried to tell my classmates what it meant.

We were Freshman in High School and East Germany was a whole world away for them.

All I could see in my mind’s eye were the armed guards and the little girl I had imagined. I wondered how they were feeling – if they were some of those who were helping to break chunks out of the wall.

What can I do? I thought as I celebrated the burgeoning freedoms of being a teenager in the USA.

I thought of little girls all over the world unable to get an education. Walking 6 miles each way to carry water from an old spring only to turn around at night to do it again. Girls married off at my age. Girls working on farms. Girls getting shot at while they tried to learn to read.

Was there anything I could do to help tear down walls for them, or for my classmates so that they could see how blessed we were?

***

1996 (age 22)

“Do you know what this is?”

“Sure,” I said to the wrinkled man who was holding my passport. I was wondering if this Bulgarian man was going to give it back or make a run with it.

“Do you really know what this is?” I watched his worn and craggy hand as he flipped each page with a sacred awe. I thought of his whole life behind the communistic wall. He would have been young after WWII when the walls went up. To have tasted freedom and then have it taken away, I couldn’t imagine.

“I’m beginning to,” I said as we locked eyes and looked at each other.

“Live well,” he said as he gave it back to me.

The passport would give me a lifetime of the pursuit of happiness.

In Bulgaria I was shushed for talking about religion too loudly in a woman’s apartment.

“Be quiet!” she said with fear in her eyes, “they’ll hear you!”

We were in her own living space, and she was terrified. My passport gave me the ability to live without that fear.

In Bulgaria, I was choosing some peaches from a fruit stand. The owner began throwing bruised peaches in my bucket.

“Hey! What are you doing?” I asked, shocked at his actions.

“What are you doing?” he asked back.

“I’m choosing the peaches I want to buy.” Duh!

“You’re not allowed to choose!” He roared at me and continued to throw rotten fruit into my bucket.

 I poured the peaches back on his pile and handed him the bucket, “then I choose NOT to buy from you!”

Then I bought triple the number of peaches from the woman in the next stand because she said I could choose whichever I wanted.

The passport gave me the right to know that I could choose.

After a year and a half of living and working in a former Eastern European Country in the mid-nineties, my plane landed on the tarmac of JFK. The passengers erupted into spontaneous cheers, clapping, and laughter.

I had never been on an International flight before where we spontaneously broke into applause and cheering when we hit American soil. But, there was something about that plane ride. It was loaded with refugees from war-torn Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia.

I spent time on the flight trying to help translate for the refugees because the Bulgarian language and theirs were similar.

That was something I could do. And I found something else too.

***

1997 (age 23)

“Are you Wilhelm?” 

I turned to look.  A man walked up to me. He was tall and fit in a crisp, clean officer’s uniform.

“Yes?” I lamely muttered, while glancing at the lunch stains on my t-shirt, tugging at my cluttered ponytail, trying to smooth out the grooves in my hair.

I followed him into a beautiful oak paneled room, where he stood in front of me on a small dais, about a foot off of the ground flanked by the American flag on the left and the Utah state flag on the right.

 “Raise your right hand and repeat after me.  I, (insert your full name), do solemnly swear”

As I repeated, I thought of the little girls in East Germany who were not on the train.

“that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic;”

I thought of the old gentleman holding my passport.

“that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same”

I thought of the woman in her own apartment, with fear in her eyes. The peach sellers. The refugees.

There, in front of the flags and the officer, in a quiet, solemn ceremony, I found myself overwhelmed with a sense of patriotism I’d never felt before, a pride and gratitude that I felt both then and now to be a defender of my country. To help bring freedom to the little girls all over the world so that they could read and write and pursue happiness.

***

Modern day (age, er um … older)

What can I do? I think as I look around me.

How do I teach my children? I wonder as I see the immense privilege that we live and breathe daily.

How can I help them understand how free we truly are?  

I write. I teach. I speak. I serve. I donate. I pray.  I work to never forget that freedom is an ideal, a state of mind, a series of great privileges to live without fear, to live without walls, to choose. It has to be taught, and re-taught or it will be lost.

How can we help those around the world to create places of freedom in their nations as well? Can we help our own break out of walls of hate, anger, misunderstanding, and addictions that we create?

What can I do? I think as I drive through my beautiful country, thankful for those who have sacrificed to make us free.

Being a Powerful Woman (part 2 – Spiritual Gifts)

(This cake was created by my daughters to celebrate Father’s Day last year. While not perfect, it’s amazingly creative for girls making it from scratch [that’s homemade fondant] and without any prompting on my part!)

My dear sisters, you have special spiritual gifts and propensities. Tonight I urge you, with all the hope of my heart, to pray to understand your spiritual gifts—to cultivate, use, and expand them, even more than you ever have. You will change the world as you do so.

Sisters’ Participation in the Gathering of Israel, President Russell M. Nelson, October 2018.

To continue my discussion about how I am training my girls to be powerful spiritual women, I want to talk about spiritual gifts and propensities as well as physical talents.

I believe that the keys to “cultivate, use, and expand these gifts” are to teach them to practice and to be creative.

The power of small moments

The first is be wise with time. The thief of developing talents is not be in the habit of daily practice. Are we truly aware of the difference that small moments (15 minutes or so) can make when taken advantage of each day? (And obviously, if I am in a consistent pattern and miss a day here or there, it will still be okay as long as I continue.) Practice must be intentional. With all of the distractions of life, talents and gifts can be procrastinated out of existence!

I’m encouraging my children to find what they like, and to work on those things daily (while they’re young and the days are more unstructured than life will be when they reach older teenage years and adulthood). When I see them on a device, we run through a list of things that they need to do (homework, chores, etc.) and then areas in which they would like to improve (music, art, special projects, creativity, etc.). We made a calendar so that they could track daily practice to see progress.

Perhaps these things are little, but I think too many women are engaged in the smallness of spending life scrolling on social media, or shopping sites, or binge watching, or playing games – constantly comparing, constantly looking for the “newest and the best”, constantly being entertained – rather than living life. (And, yes, I’m pointing the finger at myself here too! 🥴)

Creativity to develop gifts

The second area that will train my girls to “cultivate, use, and expand these gifts” is to learn to be creative.

Let me give two examples of this.

In our family of daughters, it’s pretty easy for my husband to feel overwhelmed. Last year, our youngest daughter (age 4 at the time) finding out that it was Father’s Day, decided to “throw him a giant party!” She enlisted the help of her older sisters and they decorated, made gifts, games, and food and we had a special day celebrating their Dad. (See the picture of the cake above.) The amazing thing was, they didn’t enlist my help or money. They did it all themselves with things that we had around the house. Creative ingenuity and problem solving will be a blessing in developing gifts and talents.

Second, with the many blessings that technology has brought to us, there are myriads of creative ways that one could use to help develop talents. If I don’t have money for dance lessons, I could look for YouTube videos on the basics of dance and practice at home. And if I couldn’t find videos, I could look for books at the free public library that taught basic dance steps. And if I couldn’t get to the library, I could play music and create dance steps. And if I couldn’t play music, I could sing and then dance. (You get the picture!)

I believe powerful women take advantage of time and opportunity to creatively develop and train themselves. In this way, they improve and beautify the world, both around and within themselves.

We are expected to develop ourselves

From here, I could move on to talk about the parable of the talents, (Matthew 25:14–30) and how if we don’t develop them we could be in serious trouble when the judgement comes. I love the fact that though the parable talks of talents (as in money from that time period) it is easy to use the parable to teach about talents (as in gifts, propensities, etc.). I will leave you, the reader, to explore and ponder this parable in light of the discussion.

Not just physical talents

At the end of the day however, physical talents are not the only thing that a powerful spiritual woman needs to cultivate, though these are important.

There is a whole world of spirituality that will bless her life and the lives of many for the eternities. If I teach each daughter to be aware of how the Holy Spirit prompts her individually, our home now and her future will be rich. The Spirit will refine her and help teach internal beauty such as how to be kind, how to listen, how to reach out and put another’s need above your own, how to love and befriend those who are difficult to love and befriend.

She will then follow in the footsteps of the Savior who spent His days and His gifts and talents, blessing and serving all around. There is no denying how the Lord’s unique ministry and teachings have blessed and lifted the world.

Internal goodness and spirituality are qualities that this world desperately needs but the world at large is seldom, if ever, teaching women to gain. At least, I rarely see these qualities taught in video games, online shopping, news articles, or in music, movies and shows. They would craft women to be self-serving, self absorbed, self obsessed, and even violent. “Sex and violence sells” so they tell me, but these qualities don’t have the power to lift and bless. So, if my works never sell, what does it matter? I’m looking to generate the true spiritual power of womanhood that I believe can change the world for good. And if all I change and better is my little corner of this vast universe, so be it.

Moving forward

My next job is to help guide my girls to uncover and develop those spiritual gifts and teach them to use the gifts (both the physical talents and spiritual gifts) for uplifting and edifying others (as is taught in Doctrine and Covenants 46).

And all these gifts come from God, for the benefit of the children of God. (D&C 46: 26).

And that will be the topic of my next post. For now, thank you for reading and I welcome your comments. I’d especially love to hear your thoughts, scriptures, and quotes about spiritual gifts.

Thou Shalt and Drafting

One of my students, Ren Owen, recently wrote a paper about drafting (his chosen profession).   I was so impressed with one of his insights that I requested to share it here.  The following are his words, but are edited for clarity.

THE SHALL EXPERIENCE

I was drafting some details for an engineer and on his hand drawn copy I thought that maybe he had misspelled a word, so I used the word will. When he red-lined the drawing, he changed the word will to shall.

I thought it was strange because in my experience shall was a biblical word.

Thou shall not steal.

Thou shall not commit adultery.

I thought that it was funny and seemed foreign that when describing building material the word shall would be used.

The rebar shall be ½ inches in diameter.

The floor joist shall be placed 24 inches on center.

I laughed it off, but then I started noticing how often shall was used in the details. The more I thought about it, I realized that maybe the reason for using the word was because of its relation to the Bible. I figured that this was because of the severity of what could happen if a contractor didn’t  follow the specifications on a structure.  It  could be costly, even to the loss of life.  So, the builders should consider the specifications as if they were commandments.

The First Amendment in the Classroom; or Is it Constitutional to Teach about Religion?

I recently read a book called, Religious Literacy: What every American needs to know and doesn’t (Harper Collins, 2007), which I enjoyed very much.  It really made me ponder a lot of things and I wanted to share a few notes. 

The author, Stephen Prothero is chair of the religion department at Boston University, and he has authored many nonfiction books on religion  and writes many reviews and articles for various journals and newspapers.  He treats religious beliefs with a great deal of respect and he discusses the history and ideas that support his thesis in a very scholarly way.  His website can be found here.

The basic premise for the novel is (from his website):

Do you get tongue-tied when asked to name the Twelve Apostles? Do you think Adam’s wife was Joan of Arc? If so, join the crowd. The United States is one of the most religious places on earth, but it is also a nation of religious illiterates. Many Protestants can’t name the four Gospels, many Catholics can’t name the seven sacraments, and many Jews can’t name the first five books of the Bible. And yet politicians and pundits continue to root public policy arguments in religious rhetoric whose meanings are missed, or misinterpreted, by the vast majority of American citizens. This is in my view a major problem in contemporary civic life. “Religious Literacy,” … explores this problem, pinpointing key moments in U.S. history that spawned our current epidemic of religious illiteracy and offering practical solutions to remedy this problem, including mandatory religion courses in the public schools. The book also includes a Dictionary of Religious Literacy with key terms, beliefs, characters, and stories that every American needs to know in order to make sense of religiously inflected debates: from abortion and gay marriage to Islamic terrorism and the war in Iraq.

He begins by talking about a quiz that he made for his students (which can be found here if you’d like to take it) and proving that Americans fared very poorly on their knowledge of  things that they profess to believe.  (No small surprise there, simply because we live in a society of entertainment, and to become literate in Culture or Religion is usually only done if one is self-motivated.)

Prothero goes on to give the history of Religion in the USA and how it was the Believers and not the Atheists that led to the secularization of  American schools.  At the beginning of the public schools in the US, readers like Noah Webster’s Spellers, and the McGuffy Readers were pious schoolbooks and were slanted toward Protestant teachings.  Roman Catholics took opposition to these teachings in the schoolhouse (and rightly so, considering that many were aimed at teaching against Catholicism).

Now, I’m summing up a great deal of highly interesting information here, but eventually, the first amendment was invoked and religion began to take it’s place out of the schools and the responsibility for religious instruction fell largely on the American Home and the Sunday School.

Prothero then suggests a remedy  – which is to bring religious studies back into the Public School.  This of course, as a teacher, is the part that intrigued me the most.  His main premise is – Religious people make huge life decisions based on their beliefs.  Since most news stories are about religion (Iran, Iraq, Israel, etc) and many major political decisions are based on religion, then we need to do a better job of understanding faiths, our own and others.

But the question is, can we talk about religion in schools?  Is it Constitutional?  Many teachers are fearful to even mention the subject at all.

The answer, that the Supreme Court has given, is  – yes. It is Constitutional to teach about religion in the Public Schools.  WHAAAT??? 🙂

What is illegal is to teach “Sunday-school-style religious instruction” (Prothero, p.128) or in other words, a school teacher cannot proselytize his/her pupils into a religion, but s/he may teach about religion.

Prothero gives  five different quotes from Chief Justices that very clearly outline the Court’s decisions about teaching religion.  I will repeat those ideas here (more detail can be found on p.128-129 of this text or from the court rulings themselves).

  • Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson (McCollum v. Board of Education, 1948) –  “Music without sacred music, architecture without the cathedral, or painting without the scriptural themes would be eccentric or incomplete, even from a secular point of view. … Certainly a course in English literature that omitted the Bible and other powerful uses of our mother tongue for religious ends would be pretty barren.  And I should suppose it  is a proper, if not indispensable, part of preparation for a worldly life to know the roles that religion and religions have played in the tragic story of mankind.” Jackson also stated,  “The fact is, that, for good or ill, nearly everything in our culture worth transmitting, everything which gives meaning to life, is saturated with religious influences.”

 

  • Justice Thomas Clark (Abington v. Schempp, 1963) – “[I]t might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization.  It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities.  Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistent with the Fist Amendment.”
  • Justice William Brennan (Abington v. Schempp, 1963) – “The holding of the court today plainly does not foreclose teaching about the Holy Scriptures or about the differences between religious sects in classes in literature or history.  Indeed, whether or not the Bible is involved, it would be impossible to teach meaningfully many subjects in the social sciences or the humanities without some mention of religion.”
  • Justice Lewis Powell (Edwards v. Aguillard, 1987) “Courses in comparative religion, of course, are customary and constitutionally appropriate.”  and The Supreme Court (Stone v. Graham, 1980)  –  “the Bible may constitutionally be used in an appropriate study of history, civilization, ethics, comparative religion, or the like.”

Prothero states:  Few school administrators understand the crucial disctinction that these justices have repeatedly made between studying the Bible academically (which is constitutional) and reading it devotionally (which is not). He says that schools that educate teachers don’t understand or teach the distinction that the First Amendment makes in teaching religion, and so the teachers remain silent.

But, [s]ilence can lie as well as words, of course, and in the case the lie is that religion doesn’t matter: it has no social, political, or historical force so students can get along just fine without knowing anything about it.  This approach flies in the face of decades of Supreme Court rulings.  It also lends credibility to the complaint, common in conservative Christian circles, that public schools, far from being religiously neutral are actively promoting a ‘culture of disbelief’.

… the First Amendment requires of state governments not just neutrality among religions but also neutrality between religion and irreligion.  The current state of  obeying the law by avoiding religion may well be violating the Constitution, by indoctrinating students into a secular world view.

He goes on to say that when we don’t teach the youth about religion in general, it fails to prepare students for citizenship in a world in which religion matters.

At the end of his book, Prothero gives a Dictionary of Religious Literacy that covers topics from Abraham, to Buddhism, to yoga,  Zen, and Zionism.

I highly recommend this book, both for it’s historical account of religion in education and it’s very informative section on what we can do under the Constitution.  As a teacher, I find it encouraging to know that I will not be “put in the stocks” for saying the words Bible or Jesus Christ in my classes.