Fully Alive

Mary Ann Zehr

June 10, 2018
Texts: Psalm 130
         2 Corinthians 4:16-18

I’m happy to have a chance to share with you in a teaching right before I make a major transition in my life.  I am leaving the Washington, D.C., area after 27 years and moving to the small city of Harrisonburg, Virginia, in the Shenandoah Valley.  (Yes, it officially is a “city.”)  I will pack up my things and move on July 2.  In mid-August I will start a new job as an English teacher at Harrisonburg High School.  I have loved this faith community and grown a lot by being connected to many of you over the last 13 years.  Your support has seen me through a couple of major transitions in my life.  I’ve appreciated so much the annual silent retreat and emphasis on being attentive to our inner journeys, not just our outward actions.  And I’ve had a lot of fun with you.

In November I gave a teaching about how I was asking the question, “How can I be useful to God?” I reflected then on how I was feeling burned out as a teacher in DC public schools.  I focused on scripture from 1 Thessalonians about how God “tests our hearts.”

I decided to look for a new job and I hoped that I would be able to find one at my age.

I felt I was in the mode of the writer of Psalm 130, which is one of the lectionary scriptures for today.  “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning.”

I waited on the Lord.  Some of you helped me with leads, references, and discernment.  While I was waiting, I tried to do the best I could as a high school teacher.

One highlight of the school year was having Jung-hoon and Yoon-Ju—a South Korean couple who lived in Washington, D.C., and worshipped with 8th-Day for a year a number of years ago—visit my world history classes.  They came to my classes while they were visiting D.C.  for a few days.  They talked with my students about what it was like to be South Koreans living near North Korea.  Yoon-Ju shared that her grandmother had left her family in North Korea and moved to South Korea.  Her grandmother had longed to see her siblings before she died, but this did not happen.  She passed away without seeing them.  One of my students commented later in the year that if a pact was signed to end the Korean War, families might be able to reunite.  She had insight about the human impact of the division of the two Koreas because Yoon-ju had been willing to share so personally. 

I tried a new project of having my students write speeches on topics that interested them.  This teaching unit happened to correspond with the student-led March-for-Our-Lives protest for gun control.  I showed my students the video of Edna Chavez, a Latina from Los Angeles, who spoke with passion about how young people needed positive interventions in their schools to overcome neighborhood violence.  She mentioned mentorships and job opportunities.  Her brother had been killed by a gun and she led the marchers in a chant of his name: Ricardo.

I combined classes with another teacher and my 11th graders delivered their speeches to 9th and 10th graders.  Some of the speeches were very powerful and showed students trusted me and their classmates to share their views honestly.  One student talked about how people kill deer, iguanas, and parakeets in his native country of El Salvador.  “We humans hunt animals only for sport.  We humans act like animals just to satisfy our whims,” he said.  He described solutions for people to appreciate and protect the environment.  Another student gave a speech with the following words:  “I have a baby girl.  She is five months old, and I learn many things from her.  She is my life, my everything, but she is a lot of responsibility.  Use protection when you have relationships because we are young and we will have the opportunity in the future to get married and have babies.”

I don’t think the D.C.  public health department could have come up with a message more powerful than that.

I asked students to reflect on what they had learned in the speech unit and one student said: “Ms Zehr is one of the teachers who told us to raise our voice.  She is trying to tell us we have to be powerful in life.  We are somebody even when people say we are nobody.”

When I heard these words, I was really happy, and felt that teaching continues to be my calling.  I feel that God gives me ideas for how to build community and support my students to be empowered. 

But throughout the school year, there were also signs that I was not “fully alive.”  In the fall I felt trapped by too much work.  One day I stayed home from work because I was discouraged and depressed.

I started the journey of making a new transition, hoping that I could become more mentally and physically healthy and to feel fully alive.  That’s the crux of the message I’d like to bring to you today.  Serving God and being “fully alive” go hand in hand.  But how do we discern what steps we need to take to be “fully alive"? Some of you in this faith community have been models on this, making transitions when they are needed. 

While on silent retreat this spring, I picked up a book by Wendell Berry, which is called, What are people for?  I read the poem “Healing.”

The task of healing is to respect oneself as a creature, no more and no less. 

A creature is not a creator, and cannot be.  There is only one Creation, and we are its members.

To be creative is only to have health: to keep oneself fully alive in the Creation, to keep the Creation fully alive in oneself, to see the Creation anew, to welcome one’s part in it anew.

That’s what I feel that I’m trying to do, to keep myself fully alive, to see the Creation anew, to welcome my part in it anew.

When I told my students I was leaving our school, I cited the following reasons:

  • I don’t want to be old in the city.
  • I want to live near some of my aunts, uncles, and cousins.
  • I want to live near the mountains.
  • I’m happy that I’ll still be able to teach immigrant students.

Many of my students have grown up in the countryside of Central America and they seemed to connect with some of my reasons.  “You will be able to breathe fresh air,” one student said.  “It will be peaceful for you,” said another. 

 “Say hello to Big Foot,” joked another student.  Their comments showed understanding of how I want to be fully alive.

On Friday, my students threw a surprise farewell party for me.  They had flowers, pizza, a cake, and a book with handwritten messages about what they remembered from my classes.  They also had a trivia quiz about Ms Zehr’s words and actions and habits.  The questions and answers illustrated how young people may sometimes be taking in more than you think. 

  • How many books has Ms Zehr read this year?  15. 
  • Which students does Ms Zehr tend to lose?  The answer included three boys who have poor literacy and who sometimes disappeared into the school building if the class work was overwhelming. 
  • And there was also a question about who is Ms Zehr’s “mountain friend.” The answer, of course, is Big Foot.

I laughed at the jokes and felt light in spirit while interacting with my students in this way.  It was confirmation that I want to continue to work with teenagers.

Still I’m scared about the next step and wonder how I will sustain being “fully alive.”

Thich Nhat Hanh, the famous Zen master and spiritual leader who was born in Vietnam, wrote that you also have to be careful about focusing too much on hope.  He writes:

Hope is important, because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear…But that is the most that hope can do for us—to make some hardship lighter.  When I think deeply about the nature of hope, I see something tragic.  Since we cling to our hope in the future, we do not focus our energies and capabilities on the present moment…Enlightenment, peace, and joy will not be granted by someone else.  The well is within us, and if we dig deeply in the present moment, the water will spring forth.  We must go back to the present moment in order to be really alive.”

Earlier in this teaching, I read part of a Psalm about hope and the importance of waiting on God.  I don’t think these words of wisdom from two different sources, the Bible and the writings by Thich Nhat Hanh, are contradictory.  To be fully alive, sometimes we need to hope and wait on the Lord for guidance about the future.  Also, to be fully alive, we focus on relationships with people who are around us in the present.

What’s important is that we pay attention to our inner journey and spiritual guidance so that we can be useful to God.  I was inspired by a story in the Washington Post about a woman my age, Noelle Nguyen, who immigrated to the United States from Vietnam.  She seemed to be in touch with her inner journey and fully alive.  She serves as an interpreter to help elderly people from her home country to understand their doctors.  She also does a lot of other kind things for people outside her formal job.  I was touched that she learned about 4th graders at a local school who couldn’t read, so she started meeting with two boys in the library to help them.  The main idea of the article was that Nguyen’s constant question to God is “What do you want me to do?” I thought it quite remarkable that a secular newspaper published an article centered on this question, “God, what do you want me to do?”

Nguyen said, “I cannot do big things.  I do tiny little things.  … We can do little things with great love.”

I want to hear more stories about people who are asking God, “What do you want me to do?” and are fully alive because they are asking that question.  I’d love to hear stories from you about how you are fully alive in the next couple of weeks while I’m still worshipping with you.

The lectionary scripture for today from 2 Corinthians 4: 16-18 provides some insight into how a focus on the inner journey provides a foundation to be fully alive.  Paul is writing about some of the struggles of the church. 

So we do not lose heart.  Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day.  For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, because we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.

While I was on silent retreat, I wrote a love letter to the city for the 27 years I have spent here.  I remembered so many experiences that indicate to me I was fully alive in this city.  I participated in the Messiah sing-along at the Kennedy Center.  I spotted a bald eagle at the National Arboretum and wood ducks in wetlands along the C&0 canal.  I stood in line to see the biggest flower in the world, which opened for only one day every year.  I marched for D.C.  Statehood in the rain.  I contra danced out at Glen Echo.  I accompanied an undocumented Guatemalan woman to a court appointment and celebrated with her when she was issued a US residency card.  And then I took her on a tour of the city.  I participated in community prayers with all of you, one of my favorite parts of the 8th day service.

I’m a little scared about the move.  What if life in Harrisonburg seems slow?  What if I feel trapped by the work load in my new school?

I’m trusting in God and the idea expressed by Wendell Berry that we can be fully alive by seeing ourselves in Creation anew and welcoming our part in Creation anew.