She’s Come Undone

We’ve heard this story a lot.  You know, the one about Jesus “breakin’ the law.”  He heals someone on the sabbath.  I heard the story again this week, and it annoyed me.  Is there no rest from the whip of social justice?  Do do-gooders get no time off for good behavior?  That can’t be it.  Jesus saves the whip for the money changers– they’re the ones who really piss him off.

Jesus is teaching on the sabbath, first of all.  (That’s work in my book, but I won’t get sidetracked again.)  A woman showed up, all “bent over” like she feels awful, and Jesus says, “You’re okay,” and touches her.  She is healed.

A kind word, a touch– that doesn’t seem like nearly as much work as arguing scripture.  He hardly does anything, he hardly moves, he hardly has to think.  He just notices her, says something nice, and pats her on the hand.

I do as much with everyone at church every Sunday.  It’s easy.  “Peace,” shake hands. It’s our routine, in the church, and requires almost no effort.  Half the time I don’t mean it, half the time I don’t think about getting the peace back.  Once in a while, though, I do.  There have been a few Sunday nights I looked at my right hand and insisted to myself that there was peace in it.  Everyone had given me peace.  And I had taken it.  I was holding it, even if I couldn’t feel it.

If anyone worked on the sabbath, it might have been the woman who dragged her sorry ass down to the temple when she clearly wasn’t in the mood.  She had a “spirit that crippled her,” a condition I think we’re all familiar with.  Usually it shows up Monday morning.  Sometimes on the weekend, too, though.  She dragged herself down there, and she didn’t even ask for help.  She just showed up.  Jesus didn’t sit her down for six weeks of cognitive behavioral therapy, or serve her dinner and clean her house, or write her a check to pay her mortgage.  He was just kind to her.

Jesus explains, “You all untie your animals and lead them to water on the sabbath, right?”  Sure, they say.  You have to.  And it’s no work at all, letting them go get what they want and what they need.  “That’s all I’m doing for this lady,” he shrugs.  “I just untied her and let her go.”

Jumping in to advise with programs and supplies can be too much.  Notice, and a kind word, can be enough.  It requires no heroic effort to greet people politely, and give them a little encouragement.  It inspires no drama.  There is no martyrdom.  Yet it is often enough.


“One of the most dedicated participants in the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, was an elderly Negro whom we affectionately called Mother Pollard.  Although poverty-stricken and uneducated, she was amazingly intelligent and possessed a deep understanding of the meaning of the movement.  After having walked for several weeks, she was asked if she were tired.  With ungrammatical profundity, she answered, ‘My feets is tired, but my soul is rested.'” — Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love.

I’ve had a hard time figuring out what to do on MLK Day since I started teaching.  It’s supposed to be a day to do (ideally) or think (at least) social justice.  The trouble is, my feets is usually tired on this day.  I think that my teaching adds a drip slop of mortar to the very clumsy and gorgeous wall of social justice.  It does wear me out, though.

I’m tired, but with rest, I can keep going.  Me not burning out, thus far, has something to do with my own choices, and a hell of a lot to do with people around me, some of whom don’t get the relief and happiness of seeing students sprint grow, as they occasionally do, or the glory of having people at parties affirm your virtuous career choice over hummus.  (Which is very kind of them, don’t get me wrong.)

My first year teaching, an anonymous benefactor bought and delivered chairs, rugs, bookcases, and blinds to my public school classroom.  What began as the set for a cut-rate Soviet public service announcement began to look more like a pleasant learning environment.  Books by the dozens also appeared, the most popular of which is definitely Parenthood by Bill Cosby (it reads well in 30-minute bursts), and then Do Fish Drink Water? , which I haven’t read, so I don’t know if they do.

Teachers who mentored me found no question too ridiculous, made me feel safe enough to divulge the stupid things I had done and the stories of days I could not control my students, and, even more amazingly, transitioned me gently from treading-water novice to expected leader.  They set a good example by maintaining a personal life, and managing stress with massages, laughter, and happy hours.  Last but not least, I continue to use the gorgeous Crayola markers and gigantor roll of poster paper bequeathed to me.

Many people have bought me nice dinners, wonderful wine.  People have taken me to the opera.  Taken me on vacations and given me time and space to play and relax.  Bought me presents that I needed and couldn’t afford to buy myself.  My students were directly affected by those kindnesses.  I have a richer life, and feel more generous, when other people are generous with me.

Other teachers (especially at my school) have shared my optimism, loss, frustration, and accomplishments.  They have helped me laugh things off when I wanted to scream.  We have sat in a room together silently, shocked by grief.  I have been gently taken to task when I was asking for it, and patted on the back for being brave when I needed to be.  I have been praised, and offered opportunities, wisdom, celebrations, and forgiveness.

Someone has volunteered to assemble an anthology of my students’ writing and artwork, with professional editing that makes them (and me) look good.  Those books have become the texts for our poetry readings, and an important cultural touchstone for a school often lacking a yearbook or regular newspaper.

We lose too many of the people who know how to do the work of social justice and have the experience and wisdom to do it well because they lack support.  Burnout for teachers and social workers is especially shocking.  Resting your feet to regain your strength, or buying someone else a foot massage, is a good way to make sure more souls stay in fighting shape.  So, thank you again.