Teaching Is My Religion

These are not my students, but they're doing something you can see my students doing almost any day of the week.

If church is the medium, the place and structure upon which and within which we exist as spiritual beings, then religion is what we do within that medium.

That was not an easy definition to write. Like many Americans my age and younger, I've had a love-hate relationship with the word religion, trending more toward hate in the last decade or two. Post-War (World War II, that is) children have increasingly moved away from the clearly defined religion of our parents and grandparents, seeking less institutionalism, less dogmatism, less formality, less pomp, less structure, less of everything we were taught to respect as children. We shy away from titles, resist authority, eschew decoration. We long for freedom, intimacy, inspiration, and we find none of these in the stern, hushed gatherings our elders preferred, where we were expected to be seen but not heard.

All these aspirations for religion existed within me when I was in ministry, but apart from my three years in Estacada, where I was encouraged by my progressive congregation to experiment with worship leadership and theology, I was never really able to express them. Most of my parishioners were elderly, and while they might be tolerant of some of my edgier ideas, there was no question what they wanted on Sunday mornings: traditional hymns within a highly structured format, clearly defined roles for worship leader and congregation, peace and quiet. Then they wondered why young families didn't want to come in and hear what a member of their own generation (me) had to say. As my brief ministerial career drew to a close, I realized I had last the ability to worship, that really I no longer had a religion. Ministry was a job, a job I was intellectually well-equipped to perform, could have written textbooks about, but for which I had lost all enthusiasm. I was leading worship services that would have put me to sleep. I would not want to belong to the churches I was pastoring, anymore than did any of the younger families who dropped by on Christmas and Easter, never to be seen again.

This was the religion I left when I hung up my alb and joined the Metanoia Peace Community.

Metanoians were Christians who were constantly engaged in John Wesley's definition of religion: working out their salvation with fear and trembling. I came to Metanoia seeking many things: comfort, connection, inspiration, purpose, home. And Metanoia delivered: here, I came to realize, was the one community where I could almost feel like a sincere Christian. Almost. In the end, though, as different as Metanoia's religion was from every other Methodist congregation I'd known, it was, at its heart, not a religion I could fully embrace. The religion of Metanoia, the way in which its members most fully lived out their faith, was activism, and as sympathetic as I was to the causes Metanoia embraced, I am simply not an activist. Protesting, marching, martyrdom are just not in my wheelhouse.

I had been a part of Metanoia for almost three years when I finally found what I was looking for, something I would be able to call my true religion: public school teaching.

I know what many of you are saying at this point: teaching's a job, just like ministry! They're both servant professions. And teachers are (apart from parochial schools) supposed to be secular. How could you call teaching in a public school a religion?

It's really very simple: religion, as I'm defining it here, is what liberation theologians call "praxis." It's what we do to make church all around us, the living out of our faith, the exercise of our beliefs. While some branches of the Christian religion include explicit and public evangelism, for most, it is enough to witness to one's beliefs by living according to their principles in the secular world--to live out Google's old motto of "Don't be evil." Many of the Christian public school teachers I know labor to practice their principles in their classrooms, and do so successfully without ever revealing their religious identities. The separation of church and state is alive and well at all the public schools where I teach, but it doesn't keep any teacher from witnessing through compassionately educating his or her students.

If that's all I meant by religion, though, I would be falling short here, for in my mind, such teaching is as purely humanist as it is Christian. The principles I practice in my classroom can be seen at play in schools around the world. Loving and teaching children is a vocation that transcends culture and creed.

No, what I mean by religion is that which I live out every moment I am teaching. It is the full working out of my salvation, the way in which I have church on a daily basis. It was what my former colleagues who stayed in ministry are, I hope, achieving as they engage in the many and varied tasks of their profession. It is what keeps teaching from being a job, and makes it much more, a passion, a call, an impulse so profound that not to express it is to cease being a complete person. It is why my classroom, my curriculum, my students are never far from me, regardless of the fact that, as I write this in my living room, I am more than twenty miles from my school. Like Torah, teaching is ever on my lips, in my ears, hovering on the edge of my awareness, so that whatever else I may be doing, I am also constantly tinkering with lesson plans, perfecting pedagogy, striving always to get my content through more completely, more deeply, to the children who are my charges for half an hour at a time.

How, you might ask, is that different from any workaholic, any Type A executive who can't leave work at the office, but has to be on the phone all through the commute, lets it interrupt dinner, takes files along on vacations, stays up late working on projects in bed, and either dies on the job or doesn't survive retirement because why go on living without a job? And I will grant that there are certainly similarities; in fact, there is probably much more in common between dedicated teachers and driven executives than we who teach are comfortable admitting. But here's the difference, and it involves making a claim of superiority, the kind of thing I carefully avoid doing when discussing matters of faith: the church of music than the church of capitalism.

You may have noticed I didn't call it the church of education, though I do believe there is such a church, and many of my colleagues at school belong to it. As I said in my last post, my church is music. The principles of music have much in common with the principles of education: it's a fundamentally humanist church, a church that strives to mold its adherents into complete human beings, creative, compassionate, communal, connected to themselves and their world. Music brings out the higher self, the self that cares about and seeks connection with other humans. So does education. I'm not convinced that the same can be said about business, however real the "invisible hand" may be, as it's founded on the principle of self-interest, of encouraging others to participate in the economy for the ultimate good of the encourager.

Back to the church of music: as in Christianity, there are many different ways of living out one's faith. Some are called to be performers, some composers, some conductors, some arrangers, some producers, some critics, some simply to be the appreciative audience. While all those vocations (with the possible exception of production) are present in me to some extent, I am most called to be a teacher of music, and that is my religion, the praxis of my faith. It is in the classroom (or, in the case of my private students, whatever passes for a music room in their homes) that I have church. Connecting with my students, coaxing music out of them, implanting kernels of musical knowledge and understanding in their hearts, molding them together into flash ensembles so they can create their own music, their own sacred moment of making something of beauty together--this is my religion. 

I wish I had discovered this religion earlier in my life. I wish I had not sojourned so long in the land of Methodism, laboring half-heartedly at a religion that was wrong for me. However, I'm also aware that ministry, particularly preaching, bestowed upon me a confidence in performance that I had been lacking before, enabling me to teach, play, sing, and even dance with an authority I never could have known in my pre-ministry days. That may be why my initial foray into teaching was such a failure, and why, despite the challenges I've faced in the last thirteen years, I have grown from strength to strength in middle age, working out my salvation in, yes, fear and trembling, but also in joy and celebration. As my Bible Professor William Powers so loved to say (and, from the frequency of quoting him, I clearly enjoy saying, too), God works in mischievous ways, his blunders to perform. I may not have been fully equipped to be a pastor, but doing that work equipped me much more completely to be a music teacher, and that is where I will continue to have church, practicing my religion as long as I am able.


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