Throughout my career, I have stood sentinel on the line between church and state. Perhaps you imagine that line as a dividing line between people of different religions—or perhaps that line evokes an image of people of faith on one side and agnostic people on the other. I haven’t stood on one side or the other. I have stood on that line, guarding it, as a woman of faith who is trying to put her faith into action. I do not believe that religion should be taught or proclaimed in public schools. The separation of church and state protects my right to believe as I do, and it protects your right to believe as you do, and it protects anyone’s right not to believe anything at all. It protects something increasingly precious in this world that we inhabit together and share: religious tolerance. A lack of tolerance leads to disrespect, disrespect leads to factions, factions lead to extremism, and extremism leads to violence. This has been true throughout history, and it is certainly true in our world now.
Separation of church and state protects children from bad or self-serving theology. It protects the home as a place to share and teach and pass on the religious tradition of the family. I am against prayer in schools (though I encourage everybody to pray for schools). I don’t teach prayer, but I teach hope and love relentlessly. My students and I take hope into the harder parts of history, into those dangerous neighborhoods of our past. I teach that when we take a good hard look at the failures of justice in our past, we can look to the future with informed hope. I am a hope encourager when my children face personal struggles, too. “You’ll get through this,” I whisper, “Hope triumphs and love wins.” They know I mean it.
Sometimes we dare to hope for what seems impossible. Fervent hope becomes prayer. The hope is realized, the prayer is answered, and suddenly there we are, in the shade of the miracle tree. This happened to me last week. I went to Mexico to go to a very important doctor’s appointment with my sister and her husband. The doctors explained everything, including the fact that my sister, Elliott, had chosen not to have surgery and they concurred. This was a quality-of-life decision. They would watch her closely. I could see the worry and sadness on their faces. She had lost so much weight. They took so much time, listening and talking and asking questions with care. Then it was time to go to the examination room. The doctors each examined Elliott. They were perplexed. But slowly a very quiet joy came into the room. The tumor was no longer a tumor. Elliott was the one that said it, “It is gone. I am okay.” It took all of us a minute for this to register. This was the miracle that we had been hoping and praying for.
The next day, in the shade of the miracle tree, we were so quiet; it was as if we were afraid our usual raucous humor might shake the bird of misfortune from the branches. The leaves of the tree cast patterns of light and shadow at our feet. The tiny shadow remnants of fear gave way to the growing light of revelation. Fear was vanquished. Hope was realized. There was no bird of misfortune, just a new reality. The miracle is not immortality. Elliott’s reprieve is that she now lives with the same unknown that the rest of us do. We now live with a deeper knowledge that life is short and life is beautiful.
I left my sister’s village in the very early hours of the morning last Sunday. It was hard to leave. She and I spent our childhoods imagining epic journeys that began on camel saddles that stood still in our bedroom in Egypt. We were unwittingly rehearsing for a real epic journey that we would one day face together. And here it was. She is the heroine, strong and brave and true. The car waited on the cobblestones outside her gate. A dog barked in the starry night. A rooster crowed antiphonally. I gave thanks again to God for the miracle of all of it, and for the many people who prayed and for all the traditions they represented. Which prayers worked? Which traditions? Which alternative therapies? Which traditional approaches? Does it matter? Bands of angels in the form of friends, good friends, gathered around my sister. They offered their strength and their gifts–just as my friends did when they helped me leave school for a week.
The snow came right after I got back and that meant another missed week of school. On Monday I will be back with my children and back at my post, standing sentinel on the line between church and state. I believe in the separation of church and state, but privately my faith informs my teaching and my teaching informs my faith. I love being part of a community of many faiths. What if my children ask me if the fact that my sister is well is a miracle? How will I handle that? Simply with these words: Hope triumphs, love wins. Hope and love surround us in many ways. These are the quiet words spoken in the shade of the miracle tree.