Saturday, June 29, 2013

Coercing God


Just in case you were wondering, you need at least one hand free to take a webcam selfie.

I have always had a difficult relationship with prayer.

As a child, I had two prayers, at bedtime and at mealtime. They were short and sweet, so I'm putting them up here. You'll recognize the first one, though it was adjusted in a significant way by my parents. The second is a family blessing that came either from Germany or Sweden 150 years ago.

Now I lay me down to sleep
I prayer the Lord my soul to keep
And in the morning when I wake,
Make me good, for Jesus' sake.

Dear Lord, come and be our guest.
Bless this food which you have set before us.
In Jesus' name, Amen.

The original version of that first prayer should be familiar to many: the second two stanzas should read, "If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take." My parents probably altered it because 1) death is too scary, and definitely not something you want on children's minds at bedtime, when it's likely to keep them awake (as it did with my daughter, even without this prayer); and 2) it wasn't Jesus so much as my parents who really wanted me to be good, for their sake.

The second blessing has delighted me for many years because of the notion of God being an invited guest at the dinner table. Of course, it still contains the classic notion, offensive to many a beleaguered and unthanked cook, that it is God who set the table, too, but we'll give that a pass, because that's not the point of this post.

I grew up with those two prayers, said them automatically with whoever was tucking me in at bedtime or holding my hand at dinnertime, and never gave it another thought--until the summer I broke my arm.

I was nine. I had just played in my first little league game of the season. It was late June, a hot summer night in Filer, Idaho, and I was in the back yard, waiting for my father to come out and play badminton with me. I was warming up for our game, hitting shuttlecocks into the air, and one of them went up on the roof. Not having a lot of sense (did I mention I was nine?), I climbed up on the slide attached to our swing set to get a better look at where it had gone. I should mention that my brother Stephen, also not at this time possessed of a great deal of wisdom (he was seven), was running water from a hose down the slide.

You can probably guess what happened next. My mother tells me she heard a horrible scream from the back yard and ran out to find me lying on the ground, presumably with my arm at a strange angle. I just remember being on the slide one minute, and the next being on the living room couch, my arm in a sling my father had jury-rigged from a Cub Scout neckerchief. Our pediatrician was called, and then I was helped into the car and driven to the Twin Falls hospital's emergency room. I have a vivid memory of sitting on the examination table, hearing my doctor make small talk about football with an orderly outside the room, thinking angrily to myself, I'm in here, with a broken arm, and all you care about is FOOTBALL? Eventually they came in, took me to the x-ray room, then back to the ER where my arm was set with a heavy plaster cast. It was a bad break, and included a dislocation of my right shoulder, so gravity was to be part of the therapy. A sling went around my neck.

For two months my arm hung from that sling, encased in plaster. I had to learn to do everything with my left hand, and I was forbidden from engaging in any activity that might get the cast wet--though it was getting plenty moist on the inside during those hot months. If all went well, the cast would come off in August, just before school started up again, so I'd have my right hand back in time for that.

Meanwhile, I suffered. There was no bicycling that summer, no playing pool in the church's youth room, no splashing around in our kiddy pool, and because of the logistical difficulty of keeping that cast dry, only an occasional bath. The arm itched horribly, and I could only reach a few inches inside to scratch the ever increasing layer of dead skin. Worst of all, I had to sleep on my back, with my upper body elevated.

I'm a light sleeper, and I prefer being on my stomach or side, neither of which was possible. Add to that an entire season of hot nights, and it's a recipe for insomnia. I would lie in bed, utterly unable to sleep, imagining terrible things. At some point I noticed my neck popped lightly when I turned my head, and I began worrying that I had broken my neck somehow; we eventually had to drive to the pediatrician's house and have him feel my neck to verify that it was not, in fact, broken. Clued into my sleep problems, my father would come in, sit on my bed, and recite Psalms with me, then tell me to keep doing that after he'd left. We started with Psalm 23 (The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want...), then added Psalm (I lift up my eyes to the hills; from whence comes my help?). By the end of the summer, I had them memorized. And then the cast came off, and a few weeks later, I was allowed to sleep on my stomach again, and things got better.

Until junior high, when I had even more struggles with insomnia, more time with the Psalms, as well as with lessons in extemporaneous prayer. From all of this, I gathered that prayer was supposed to comfort me, to help me transcend the scary moments in my life, stop dwelling on frightening or frustrating thoughts, calm my mind so that I could sleep.

High school brought with it my first flirtation with doubt, wondering if I was really a Christian. In college, I took the popular C.S. Lewis seminar (a near-must for sophomores, whether or not they were religion majors--and as you should know by now, I was not), and took comfort in his many writings about agnostics having a part in God's plan for the world. My senior year, reading a picture book about galaxies, I had an epiphany about how vast the universe is, and how miniscule or human beings. Connecting that with a rather basic understanding of the atonement, I had a kind of conversion. But it didn't really translate into a prayer life.

Graduate school was no better. Coming back from Illinois, looking for work, settling down in LaGrande, then losing that first job so quickly, I finally found myself on my knees, prefacing every night's sleep with a prayer session. I prayed hard, for specific things: to keep my job and then, when that didn't happen, for the strength to survive whatever came next. That appeared to work, and kept me going through a relocation to my parents' home, then to Salem, and into my exploration of becoming a candidate for ministry.

Seminary, where one would think there'd be plenty of instruction into spirituality, actually offered little practical advice. I was in a formation group, and we did spend time in meditation together, punctuated by spontaneous vocalized prayers, but most of my fellow students were from the South, and they prayed like evangelicals, something that really turned me off. I did have a dark night of the soul that first semester, a feeling of intense loneliness that had me on the floor, sobbing, begging God to let me know I was not alone. At one point, I had a sensation of hands on my shoulder, comforting me; I emerged from that state of despair and began dating. Yes, that was the real emptiness in my life: I was 24, and had never had a girlfriend. Within a few months of that night, I'd had two; the second became my fiancée, and then my first wife.

One could gather from this that my prayers were being answered, but it's also very possible that I had just engaged in some intense self-therapy. I was also seeing a counselor (my first) and participating in group therapy, not to mention that formation group, so I had plenty of avenues for coaxing myself out of my solitary insecurity and into relationship and community.

Being a student pastor, first in Illinois, then in England, I learned some things about praying with others. Specifically, I learned to improvise a prayer that drew on the fears and hopes of the person I was with, and to carefully phrase things so that I was putting the entire situation in God's hands, but not getting too specific about any expected result. I was channeling a moment in one of the most famous MASH episodes (the one without a laugh track) in which a soldier who thinks he's Jesus is asked, "Does God really answer prayers?" His reply is, "Yes; but sometimes the answer is 'no.'"

That was the God I was preaching and practicing, the one who says answers prayers, but sometimes says "no." And it was good enough for me until May 5, 2002, the day my son was born.

Sean suffered a massive birth trauma. He was rushed directly to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, and none of his doctors was optimistic about his future. Gathered around his cot several hours after his birth, seeing him for the first time since he was rushed away from the delivery room, on a respirator, IVs going into every limb, as well as his head and navel, we had him baptized by the pastoral counselor I was seeing, Fred Strassbourg. With nurses gathered around us, Fred put some sterile water in a Styrofoam bowl, lightly touched it to Sean's head, and we all put his tiny life in God's hands.

And he lived. It defied the expectations of every doctor in the hospital. Every meeting with a doctor included the reminder that we might have to make a decision at some point to let go, to stop the heroic measures being taken, because the insult to his systems was just too great; but he lived. He stubbornly held on, and finally, after two weeks, we took him home. He was a miracle baby.

I prayed hard during that time, as did many people, and with the hospital calling him a miracle baby, the outcome felt like an answered prayer. I had my touchstone now, my proof that God was real and answered prayers if they were only fervent enough.

Two and a half years later, I was on my knees again, praying for God to save my marriage. I prayer fervently, passionately, in sobs too deep for words. But this time the answer was "no."

That's when my theologizing about the limitations of God began. I'd had the language for a long time--I studied process theology in seminary, the idea that God is affected by Creation, and, like the universe God created, is constantly becoming; and trapped within the laws by which the universe operates, may not intervene in ways that violate those laws. This doctrine of God's limits became my new touchstone. I put these words in God's mouth: "I could save your son; I can't save your marriage."

The problem with such a doctrine, though, is that after awhile, prayer seems irrelevant, even insulting. Asking God to alter reality is asking for an exception to the laws of the Cosmos. If God is all-powerful and in charge, it's a kind of coercion, insisting that God change God's mind just this one time, even as most people in this situation will have to suffer the usual outcome. In the NICU, it was asking God to save my baby, while so many other babies were dying. Of course, God had help in this case: a modern hospital, networking with other hospitals to come up with new therapies for a rare condition, using the best technology available. But what about babies born in more rural settings, in places of extreme poverty? Was God's power limited by available technology? And with respect to my divorce, was God incapable of softening the hardened heart of a fed-up spouse who knows she needs freedom from a lifeless marriage if she is to survive?

It became clear to me that if, in fact, God was answering prayers, that the fervor of the supplicant had no direct relation to the outcome, that the rules governing those answers were so complex as to be impossible for any human to discern, and that if God really was all-loving, then something was holding God back from answering prayers--and at some point, I gave up on praying.

Until one night in August, 2008, when I was just a few hours away from being in court, arguing for custody of my son, and I was again sobbing before God, pleading for what I believed to my very core was the right outcome, the just outcome--the outcome I didn't get.

It's been five years since that night, and I haven't prayed once in that time.

Part of it is skeptical: I no longer believe there's any point to making requests--correction, demands--of a God who, if he/she does exist, is either incapable of or unwilling to answer them, or if she/he does so, does it capriciously, arbitrarily, even cruelly. Part of it is logical: often there are two diametrically opposed prayers being offered with equal fervor by people on opposite sides of an issue, both of which can be argued to have merit; "yes" to one means "no" to the other, and God saying "I'm sorry" just doesn't take care of the fact that "no" can be psychically maiming when it involves the custody or life of a child. And then there's the ethical issue: should I really be coercing God to change the laws of nature in my behalf? And finally, the simple theological question of why God would answer one prayer while ignoring another. I just don't think God--if there even is a God--can operate in that way. It gets back to that question of the caprice of God, and whether such a god is even worth believing in.

I do think there's a place for prayer, but it's a different place than the petitions so many people make. Prayer, I've come to believe, is most useful, most effective, as an exercise in community, a form of group meditation that brings about change in the petitioners, empowering them to go out and be the change they've been praying for in the world around them. Thus a peace vigil binds together and empowers communities of activists to resist the forces of violence in their community. It centers their focus on their vocation of peace-making.

Such an understanding of prayer helps overcome the pettiness of petitions for parking spaces, the unfairness of praying for victory, the injustice of yes/no coercion of the Almighty. It also transcends denomination and creed: Buddhists meditating together, Muslims bowing to Mecca, Jews reciting Kaddish, Christians saying the Lord's Prayer, are all engaged in an act that charges their community with spiritual power, whether or not there's Someone listening.

It's not as comforting as thinking that God will answer that petition, but it's something. And it works for me.

The terminology of prayer being coercion of God is borrowed from the science fiction of Julian May. I can't remember exactly where I read it, probably in the Galactic Milieu trilogy, which, along with the related Saga of Pleistocene Exile, I highly recommend.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Own that Blame!

I've had a lot of therapy.

It's not something I'm embarrassed about. It's been an essential part of my adult development; without it, I'd be far from functional. Therapy has walked me through traumatic transitions in relationships and vocations, helped me understand where I come from and why I react to things in the ways I do. Most importantly, it's given me the freedom to choose how I will respond to situations that seem to threaten my well-being.

As a young man, I often felt trapped by my personality. I'd be the lone introvert in a meeting, and because of my native shyness--what some of the retired farmers in my first church called "backwardness"--I could go for the entire meeting without saying a word. I didn't enjoy this. Often I had things to say, but I couldn't bring myself to interject them, to break the flow of the conversation, which seemed to naturally move from one extravert to another, with no room for me to insert my opinion. In my mind, it would've been rude to interrupt, not to mention awkward--even though everyone else in the conversation seemed quite comfortable interrupting each other. The problem for me was that they did it smoothly, while my attempts at participating seemed halting, dissonant, like a needle scratching across a record. Rather than break the flow, then, I'd sit, silently envying the others' facility with the gave-and-take, resenting the fact that no one appeared to value my opinion, because no one was asking for it. I would leave those meetings angry, especially if my wife, who had excellent conversational skills, had been present. I wanted her to be my wingman, making room for me to participate, but she rarely did. And so I blamed her, and all the other loquacious extraverts, for leaving me out.

One of my first entries in this blog was about my dislike for group process (oh how I hate it), and should give you insight into how difficult it is for introverts to be heard in large meetings, and why it's important for those running the show to make sure the introverts have a voice; but the reality of the world is that extraverts do run the show, and that they expect others to follow the same rules they do. My problem, and that, I suspect, of many introverts, is that as much as we want those rules to be amended to include us, it's not going to just happen. Blaming our silence on the rules of the game changes nothing. If we want to be part of the game, we've got to play by those rules, as dumb as we may think they are. If we want a wingman, it needs to be someone like us, another introvert for whom we can interrupt the flow of extraverted chatter with "I'd like to hear what Susan has to say." In so doing, we can alter the rules within that conversation, modeling the behavior of soliciting input from others who may be more reticent, but who nonetheless may have valuable contributions to make. If there is no other introvert in the room, we can couch our interruptions with "I hate to interrupt, but I think we need to consider..." Again, we're modeling a behavior, but doing it within the context of a set of rules that don't normally allow for that behavior--which, in this case, is adding a note of politeness to what feels like a rude interruption.

These two strategies for using interruptions to model politeness and make room for introverted voices are examples of taking ownership of a problem, rather than blaming others for it. It's not the fault of the extraverts that I'm not saying anything; they're playing by the rules by which the conversational game has operated since time immemorial. If I want to be in the game, and if being in the game means changing those rules, I've got to do it myself, not expect them to spontaneously change the way they've been doing things all their lives.

Therapy helped me figure this out by forcing me to confront my darker emotions, to analyze the twisted logic that led to them, to untangle those knots, dig my way out, and act intentionally in situations that felt threatening or disempowering. It didn't happen overnight; I've probably had about two decades of therapy, all told, and I still have qualms about interrupting lively conversations. But now I own those qualms, and I consciously choose whether or not to participate; and if I don't, I don't hold anyone responsible for it but myself. In fact, if I choose to just sit and listen, I'm comfortable with that choice. I don't have to blame anyone for my silence. I've just concluded that everything I would want to say has already been said.

There was a practice in the Metanoia Peace Community, borrowed from the Quakers, called "sense of the meeting." The idea was that a group took a question important to the community, a decision that needed to be made, and sat in silence, meditating on it, waiting for the spirit to move them to say something substantive. There was no obvious flow to this, and often the silences were protracted. If someone said something with which another person agreed, that person could add, simply, "My brother (or sister) speaks for me." Ultimately, a decision was supposed to emerge from this process, a sense of the meeting about how to proceed. This is different from consensus, because no audible debate is taking place. The emphasis is on inner weighing of evidence, including the deep feelings of other members of the community.

I found sense of the meeting to be an incredibly frustrating way to run a community. The irony of this is that it's a methodology that could have been designed entirely by introverts. It's utterly respectful of individual voices, while simultaneously banning reactions unless they are affirming what has already been said. Every contribution is to be only what the speaker is thinking and feeling at the moment, speaking for himself and herself only. You couldn't ask for a more introvert-friendly decision process. And it drove me crazy.

Decisions have to be made. Topics have to be debated. Few organizations have the time to respectfully wait for everyone who has something to say to say it only at the right time. This is the reason for the compromise known as parliamentary procedure, a set of rules for debating and deciding which, in my mind, best balances the desire to have a voice with the need to come to a conclusion. It's not a communitarian approach--there will almost always been winners and losers when controversial issues are put to the vote--but at least things happen, and there is time allotted for anyone willing to raise a hand to have a voice.

That's a digression. The heart of this essay is ownership.

Therapy can be threatening to the other people in a patient's life. I've had partners and family members ask me after a therapy session whether they came up. Often they have, and not necessarily in a complimentary context. My inner struggles usually originated in relationships, whether it was with parents, siblings, friends, or partners, and therapy was most effective when I was honest with myself about those relationships. There was no disguising that what I had said about someone in the privacy of the session was unflattering; but that never meant I was blaming that person for the problems I was addressing.

It can feel like that. I've certainly had that feeling myself: that I was being blamed for everything that had gone wrong in my partner's, parent's, or child's life. And it may, in fact, have felt like that to the one who seemed to be blaming me.

But that's not how good therapy, or even mediocre therapy, works. Therapy does involve a lot of listening, and much of what a therapist hears is how horrible other people have been to a patient. What makes it therapy--as opposed to catharsis--is that the therapist can then take what has been shared and reshape it, redirect the energy in constructive directions, help the patient develop new strategies for addressing the situation. Those strategies may ultimately result in a broken relationship: the goal of the therapist is, first and foremost, the overall well-being of the patient, even if that comes at the cost of a job or a marriage.

The point at which healing begins is the abandonment of blame in favor of ownership. When I can honestly say that, whoever may have contributed to my current situation, it is up to me to resolve it, then I am on the path to wholeness. People do horrible things. They take advantage of situations, manipulate others, exploit weakness, even behave sadistically; and all these actions contribute to the woundedness of others. For healing to begin, it is often essential to point fingers and blame perpetrators, and if possible, to make sure those perpetrators face consequences for their actions; but this can only go so far toward healing. If I never get farther than that, I will only ever be a victim. If I am to be a whole, empowered individual, I must take ownership of my own fate. To quote Terminator 2: Judgment Day, we have "no fate but what we make."

We begin making a better future when we take ownership of our path out of whatever our present may be. That is true of every challenge we face, whether it is having a voice in a meeting, surviving an assault, transcending a vocational obstacle, or emerging from a divorce with our sanity intact. Revisiting the event, dwelling in the past, hanging onto the hurt and the blame, is a trap. Moving into a future of healing, wholeness, and love begins with ownership.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Cloud of Witnesses

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us... (Hebrews 12:1, NRSV)
 
As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3:27-29, NRSV)
 
Legacy figures prominently in the life of any family or community that has existed for more than a decade.
 
Last Sunday, Parkrose Community United Church of Christ, where I play the piano each week, celebrated its hundredth anniversary. At one point in the service, Pastor Don Frueh paid tribute to one of the oldest members of the congregation, who had belonged for a continuous seventy years. She had grown up in the church, and is now in her 90s. He then asked people to stand if they'd been involved with the church for seventy years or more (there were two, counting her), sixty years or more, fifty or more, and so on. Once he'd finished, Brian Heron, former pastor of the Eastminster Presbyterian Church, which merged with Parkrose a year ago, rose to read the passage from Galatians I quoted above, and asked who'd been involved with the church for a hundred years. The congregation laughed, but then Brian went on to ask if anyone in attendance had a connection that went back to the founding of the church, whether that was parents, grandparents, friends of the family--and only the woman Don had honored earlier could raise her hand. Her parents had been charter members. Apart from her, there were no direct connections to the founding of the church present that morning.
 
"Heirs according to the promise" was the theme of Brian's remarks, and it touched me deeply. It got me thinking about how every step I take is possible because of what the writer of Hebrews called the "great cloud of witnesses," the pioneers of the faith who made it possible for others to now be a part of it. In the case of this passage, those pioneers were all Jews, whether they were judges, kings, priests, prophets, or simply ordinary people working out what it meant to be in covenant relationship with God from day to day. This sense of inheriting one's place in life from titans of history is essential to Christianity, which is a faith promulgated through conversion rather than procreation. There is no official genetic legacy in this faith. While many are born into it, they still must decide for themselves whether to be Christians; as opposed to Jews, whose bloodline makes them what they are, regardless of whether they choose to observe the rites and practices of their people.
 
There are many spheres of life in which people move by virtue of the actions of a cloud of witnesses: professions, communities, fraternal organizations, fan clubs, trade unions, musical genres, guilds, clubs, troops, and on and on. Human beings affiliate groups that exist because founders and perfecters, many of them now forgotten, crafted them to accomplish certain purposes, then stepped back as what they had created outgrew those purposes and took on lives of their own. To play jazz, to march in a band, to gather with fellow Masons, to organize labor against management, to camp out with fellow Scouts, to join one's brothers on a keg roll, to play Mah Jongg, all these things are possible because of the work of spiritual ancestors, patriarchs and matriarchs, who did these things first and, through trial and error, arrived at the rules that define these pursuits.
 
I am indebted to a cloud of witnesses who date back to anonymous jongleurs, monks, balladeers, and minstrels who gathered and shaped the music of their time and place, gradually evolving it into songs that became the basis for western music. It was not until the Renaissance that composers with names began shaping this music into works that could be recorded and paper, passed on for future generations to perform. It continued evolving, changing, its principles altering to suit the tastes of different communities and ethnicities, until Johann Sebastian Bach finally codified those practices into a system of twelve keys. Those who followed took what he had done and developed it further, finding ways to inject more lyricism into the system, to stretch it and warp it and ultimately to break its rules, crafting works of jarring dissonance and fragmented rhythm. Subsequent generations gathered up the broken bits of theory and boiled off the harsher elements, creating a post-modern idiom more accessible to contemporary ears. Walking in the footsteps of these titans, I can pick and choose what I like to curate my own personal library of music, whether it is for my own listening pleasure or for me to share with students and audiences as a teacher and performer.
 
I am indebted, as well, to the cloud of witnesses brought to this land in chains, who carried with them the rhythms and improvisational spirit of African music. Barred from playing the drums that were their inheritance, they created other instruments from bits and pieces of rubbish, played rhythms on their bodies, developed coded lyrics that ridiculed their masters without cluing them in to how subversive they really were, songs so catchy and amusing that they could be sung by those masters, never knowing they were making fun of themselves as they sang. This music gave birth to the Blues, to gospel, to rock and roll, and especially to jazz--America's music, the culture of the slaves ultimately taking over the nation and, by extension, the world. I walk in their footsteps whenever I sit down at the keyboard to play jazz, pop, gospel, folk, soul, reggae, any of the crazy quilt of styles that make up my repertoire.
 
I walk in the footsteps of titans whenever I step into a classroom. Whether it is the music masters who conceived of and developed the modern band, or the conductors who created all the techniques I use to rehearse and lead my ensembles, or the music educators who worked out how to involve children through movement, rhythm, melody, and song, I am able to do what I do because others came before me. I have been privileged to study with some of these titans, and their indelible imprint on me is visible whenever I teach, direct, conduct.
 
Then there are the pioneers who literally made it possible for me to be here, those who created the genes that make me what I am. I'm going to close this essay with two photographs. First is a picture I took of my parents in 1998:
 
 
My father was 72 at the time of this photo, my mother 63. They were both retired, living in the house they occupy now, a craftsman house now more than a hundred years old, purchased in 1944 by my grandmother who, after the death of my grandfather, decided McMinnville was where she wanted to live out the second half of her life. My father was a minister by trade, first an American Baptist, then a United Methodist. He served primarily rural churches. He was also a naturalist, gifted with a scientific intellect and a native curiosity that he labored long and hard to impart to his five sons. My mother was a musician, an organist and piano teacher, who taught all of us to play, and insisted we had to master the basics of piano technique before we would be permitted to play any other instrument. I have followed in both their footsteps, becoming both a minister and a church musician. While I no longer preach, it is almost certain that my fascination with the outdoors originated with my father; and while church music is only a small part of how I pay my rent, teaching music is the vocation that I will practice until I retire.
 
My parents both walked in the footsteps of these titans: 
This slide was probably taken in 1943, possibly 1944. The occasion would have been my grandparents' 25th anniversary. My grandfather would have been the age I am now, 52; he would be dead within a year. My grandmother was the same age. She lived to be 97. No one in my generation knew our grandfather, though we have always lived in his shadow. He was an ordained American Baptist preacher, but he spent his entire career in education, whether in the mission schools he founded in Shanghai, China, or in the two colleges of which he was president, Linfield and Redlands. During his years in higher education, he was known as the president who knew every student by name. He was in demand as a speaker throughout the United States, and traveled extensively. And he was well-loved by his wife and children. He died far too young. My grandmother outlived him by 44 years, but never gave up her connection to him. She never remarried. Instead, she reinvented herself as a writer and academic, earning a PhD and serving Linfield as a professor and dean until her retirement. She traveled throughout the world, corresponded with thousands of people, and wrote inspirational books about retirement that became best-sellers. She was far more than a mother-in-law to my own mother, whose own mother died just before my mother's eighteenth birthday. Grandmother's influence on all her grandchildren was monumental. I believe I inherited the writing gene from her, and she always encouraged me in it, even as I sent her wild science fiction stories I had penned. Her greatest example to all of us was that of quiet, dignified, patient acceptance of her advancing age.
 
These are just four of the witnesses in my great cloud, the throng in the balcony egging me on, rejoicing in my victories, bearing me up in my defeats, guiding me through the many passages of my life. There are many more I have not mentioned here, some related by blood, most not: teachers, professors, pastors, mentors, friends, authors, leaders, counselors, colleagues. Their handiwork is evident in everything I do, and without them, I would be helpless, struggling just to survive, let alone thrive. It is a blessing that I do not have to reinvent the wheel, thanks to them; and a deeper blessing that they have approved of my modifications to that wheel, that they rejoice when I build upon the foundations they laid long ago.
 
I can only hope that I have had some semblance of their impact on the people who have encountered me over the years: students, parishioners, colleagues, readers, audiences, friends, brothers, sisters-in-law, nieces, nephews, and, of course, the children I have parented. This is the only immortality I covet: that once I am gone, I, too, will be counted among the cloud of witnesses of the next generation, and even as my name vanishes into anonymity, that I will be one voice within the chorus underlying all the great improvisations yet to be performed.

No Place for My Stuff

This little bungalow on Northeast 74th Avenue was just right for me when I moved into it. My ever-changing life had just taken a hard turn in a direction not to my choosing, but it was hardly the first time something like that had happened. In this case, I'd had two enormous transitions hit me simultaneously: my children were being moved to Idaho Falls, and my contract at a Catholic school in Vancouver had been canceled for looking into other jobs closer to home. Ironically, I found two jobs to take the place of that one: a church music position in Vancouver; and a 0.8 FTE music teaching job in Hood River. The 90 minutes of commuting I'd been doing was about to get much longer.

This neighborhood was a good compromise between the two jobs, half an hour from the church, an hour from the school. It still meant crazy driving--there was no avoiding that--but it was close to both I-84 and I-205, so I generally had clear sailing the entire long way to work, whichever direction I was heading. The house itself was actually smaller than the apartment that had preceded it, which is where the topic of this entry comes in. I had, by now, accumulated as much stuff as I was ever going to own. A great deal of it was kid-oriented: furniture, clothing, toys, books, assorted other items that belonged to my children. By now, six years after my second divorce, very little of it suggested coupledom. I slept on a futon, watched television on another futon, ate meals at a dinette, kept my desktop computer in the dining area. The huge basement held my washer and dryer, as well as several boxes of outdoor recreational supplies. It was a bachelor pad, through and through.

While I lived there, I began a relationship with another teacher that, after a year, became an engagement; a year later, it was broken off. My church job shrank after the first two years, as well. The commute up the Columbia River Gorge was becoming an enormous burden; there were afternoons when, driving home, I caught myself dozing at the wheel while traveling at 70 miles an hour. Had I known the engagement was going to end, I probably would've moved to Hood River, and only driven to church on Sundays, the one day I still needed to be there. But I thought I needed to work closer in, spend more time with my fiancée, so I took a full-time job in Banks.

The commute was easier, but everything else started coming apart. The end of the engagement shattered me. The psychic pain of having Sean for a monthly weekend, then coaxing him onto a plane, was coming to a head as he began telling me for forcefully that he wanted to live with me. And the church job went completely away. In the summer of 2008, I made two huge decisions: to give up the house on 74th Avenue and move to Forest Grove, just ten minutes from Banks; and to go to court over custody, fighting to have Sean live with me while he attended high school in Banks.

The move was huge, and began with a two-day yard sale. Sean and I both went through the entire house, locating anything that we no longer had any use for. The front yard, the driveway, the porch were all filled with items we were offering for sale. Going through the house, thinking about how much of that stuff was just taking up space, whether there would ever be a use for it, I found again and again that most of it didn't matter to me anymore. I didn't need that stereo, those records, those books, that book case, this clothing, that tent, the office chair, the desk, the folding tables. By the end of the sale, we'd cleared several hundred dollars, much of which went into Sean's savings. There was still plenty left over, and a good deal of that had considerable value--but only if a buyer could be found. That wasn't going to happen, so after taking a long, sad look, I loaded most of it in my car and drove it to a Goodwill donation center.

Even after selling and donating so much, we still had far more than our Forest Grove apartment would hold. A lot of that ended up in my parents' attic in McMinnville. Now the precedent had been set, though. Every move I've made since then--there have been three--has resulted in the shedding of large quantities of perfectly usable items, most of it through donation.

Each time I move, I have less stuff to take with me. I think this is partly a factor of realism: the older I get, the less I need to have things around that I know I'll never use. I don't need books I'm never going to refer to or reread. I don't need movies I'm never going to watch, furniture I really don't like, clothing I'm never going to wear. I don't need redundancy in my kitchen or garage. I'm very quick now to just haul that extra stuff to Goodwill and be done with it. Occasionally I'll put something on Craig's List, or take a box of books to Powell's (they rarely buy more than a dozen of them); but mostly it's just too much effort, so off to Goodwill we go.

This shedding marks a change within me: the place acquisition once occupied in my heart has shriveled, may be gone forever. I still appreciate beautiful things, and enjoy being around them, but they're mostly ephemeral: pictures, recordings, roses, consumables that will take up no space at all once I've eaten or drunk them. The one category of stuff that continues to grow in our garage is outdoor gear, but I see all of that as means to an end.

The transition that began on Northeast 74th was from things to experiences. The objects I choose to keep evoke memories: photographs of my children, my partner, beautiful places I have been. I'd rather spend a vacation climbing mountains than touring antique stores. I'm just not interested in possessing anything but a memory.

In five years, Amy's daughter Sarah will graduate from high school, and we will seriously look for a new home. We want it to be a craftsman, preferably on the inner east side of Portland. We want it to be small. Two bedrooms is plenty. And we want it to have room for a garden. We want to keep the cost down because we'd much rather spend our money on experiences than things. Having a smaller place will, of course, mean there's no room for a great deal of our stuff; and that's fine. We know where the Goodwill truck is parked.

George Carlin did a hilarious bit in the 1980s about finding a place for his stuff, and I related to it. Most of my life I've been trying to fit all my stuff into whatever cupboards, closets, and shelves came with the place I was living in. My address has changed a lot over the years, and like most Americans, I've found myself moving more stuff each time--until now. One of these days I'll be able to rent the smaller U-Haul for a move, and will feel a surge of pride for what I've accomplished in the area of de-acquisition. If I'm lucky, when it comes time to sprinkle my ashes on a mountaintop somewhere, I'll leave behind just a few precious items for my heirs to divide amongst themselves. Hopefully what I'll mostly leave is memories of the adventures we've shared and the love we've known for each other.

And that is stuff I can always find a place for.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Long Time Coming


I don't remember his name, but for reasons which will soon become apparent, I'll call him Adam.

It was twenty years ago next month that I stepped off a plane in Washington, DC, and took the Metro to George Washington University, there to attend the National Convocation of Reconciling Congregations. I was pastor of one of those congregations, the Estacada United Methodist Church.

Estacada is a small former logging town in rural Clackamas county, an unlikely place for a church to proclaim itself Reconciling, the word Methodists use to mean gay-friendly. But the small size of the church made it much easier to reach the decision. All it took was remembering that Marvin, who had grown up in the church, was openly gay. Knowing and caring for a gay man broke through all the barriers of ignorance and bigotry that kept most Christians in that time, and many even now, from opening their hearts to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered persons. The vote went through in no time, and Estacada pioneered the position that was, over the course of the next two decades, to set the tone for United Methodism in the Pacific Northwest.

I had a rough first year in Estacada, but it was not the fault of the church. I'd had a hard time with my new district superintendent, who was (rightly, it eventually turned out) skeptical of my fitness for ministry. I just didn't seem to have the fire in my belly, and I was struggling with depression, due, in large part, to my slowly imploding marriage, not to mention the never-ending struggle to stay in a vocation that just wasn't right for me. But I loved that little church, and they loved me, and wanting me to grow as a reconciling pastor, they sent me to Washington.

My first day at the convocation was a blur of activity, plenary sessions, small group meetings, inspiring speakers, dinner out with the Oregon delegation (there were, by then, two other churches that had become reconciling; one of them was my eventual post-ministry home, Metanoia), a final worship service, and then I was introduced to Adam, who would be putting me up in his guest room for my stay. He showed me to his car and chatted amiably with me as he took me to his home in Dupont Circle. He kept talking about his "other half," and in my ignorance, I assumed he meant his wife.

But no, his other half was Steve. At least, that's what I'm calling him for reasons you can probably figure out yourself.

Imagine that: I was attending a gay conference, and it never occurred to me that my host family would be a gay couple. Ignoramus that I was, they welcomed me into their home, fed me breakfasts, transported me to and from the convocation, and were always happy to talk with me about any questions I might have about DC, the Reconciling movement, or being gay.

I think it was my third night there that I stayed up talking to Adam, learning all sorts of things about him and about his relationship with Steve. They were a strictly monogamous couple, had been together for several years, and from everything I'd seen, loved each other with a tender intimacy that I found myself coveting. I shared with Adam at one point that I wished my marriage was as supportive and loving as his relationship with Steve, and asked if he'd ever want to have a Holy Union service (the term the movement was using then to describe a gay wedding). He sighed. Civil unions weren't even on the horizon at this point, and having their relationship recognized in church seemed an empty ritual until it had some kind of legal muscle behind it. "It wouldn't really change anything," he said. "We're committed to each other. There's no one else for either of us."

The rest of the convocation continued to open my eyes. On my final night, Adam and Steve took me to Café Luna, a favorite hangout for Washington's gay community, for dessert. Apparently the waiter was hitting on me, though I was completely oblivious to it, and only learned about it many months later from an Oregon friend who'd talked with Adam after I flew home. I was oddly flattered when she told me.

I had two more years in Estacada, and during that time, we fought against a local measure that would have barred the town charter from including homosexuality as a protected minority for hiring purposes. It was a vicious fight, brought in by the Oregon Citizens Alliance, an anti-gay organization that had targeted Estacada after losing a statewide battle the year before. We lost the election, but the coalition that grew out of the struggle eventually displaced the forces of bigotry from their position of power in the community. The night of the election we held a "service of reconciliation" at the church, with invitations sent to all the conservative churches that had booted the Methodists from their ecumenical organization when the church became reconciling. None of them came, but we did bring in a large contingent of gay men and lesbians who had not been in any church in years. One of them stood up and said, "Because of what this church has done, this is a safer place for me and my family." Some of those people decided it was time to set aside the fear that associating with us would be a tacit outing, and began attending on Sunday mornings. By the time I left Estacada in 1995, the Citizens for Fairness, the group born to combat that election, had become the most broadly inclusive and powerful organization in the community.

The churches I went to pastor after Estacada were nowhere near as progressive; I was chided at one point for reading the "I Have a Dream" speech from the pulpit on the Sunday before Martin Luther King Day. I lost touch with the movement, though I continued to believe in the cause of opening Methodism to full inclusion of sexual minorities. But the denominational trend was entrenchment against such progress, and every four years the General Conference moved to close more loopholes, to shut off whatever entrée might be figured out to ordain gay men and lesbians. Ministers were now being prosecuted for performing same-gender services, even though they still had no legal standing. In 2000, I left ministry and became part of Metanoia Peace Community, a radically inclusive alternative congregation that happily situated itself on the front line of these issues.

In 2004, I canvassed against Oregon's version of DOMA. It nearly cost me my job, which at this point was teaching music at a Catholic school in Vancouver. I had signed a petition, to be published in The Oregonian, declaring my support for full inclusion of gay men and lesbians in every aspect of society. Unbeknownst to me, the petitioner had added the title "Rev." to my name; so when the principal of my school opened her newspaper and saw my name, she suspected it was me. (My seminary education had been a strong reason for offering me the job.) She called me into her office, pointed to it, asked me if it was, in fact, my name, then reminded me that I had signed a document stating I would not advocate for positions contrary to Catholic teaching. I pointed out that this was something I was doing on my own time, and not even in the same state as this school. She replied that all it would take would be one parent calling her up and complaining about my activism, and she'd have to suspend me. That didn't happen, but it was a part of my decision to seek a public school position at the end of that year.

We lost that election battle, and Oregon's state constitution has enshrined that bigotry, just as it once included a clause prohibiting persons of color from residing in the state. I have no fear that it will eventually be excised, just as was the racial purity clause; but until it is, I have to admit to some shame when I call myself an Oregonian.

I have more hope today than I've had in years that the time will come, perhaps in next year's general election, when Oregon will set aside this monument to homophobia. The Supreme Court threw out DOMA this morning, and rejected an appeal of California's reversed anti-gay-marriage statute, but did so without setting a mandate for the rest of the states. But the change is coming, and those who resist it will ultimately be plowed under by it.

I've argued for years that gay and lesbian couples are no threat to marriage; that, if anything, their intense desire to be married, to have the same right all heterosexuals are born with, may save the institution from people like me. It was far too easy for me to marry, both times I did it. In neither instance were my wife and I ready for this commitment. We didn't know each other well enough, we had not experienced enough life together, and we had no idea how changing times might change our feelings for each other. People like Adam and Steve, though, have been waiting all this time, longing for this right, passionately working toward it, and will value it far more than the straight couples of my generation.

It's been a long time coming, but at last it's here. And maybe, just maybe, one of these days I'll be able to dust off my preacher papers and preside over a wedding between two men or two women. It could very well be the highlight of my long abandoned career.

Here's to you, Adam and Steve. I hope you've booked a chapel.

What Makes God(s) Real

Wow. There is a lot of bad God art on the internet.

Look through this blog, and you'll notice that I try to put an arresting image at the top of every post. For this one, I wanted something other than the typical old but virile white guy to represent God. I briefly considered a blue, flute-playing Krishna (nice to see God playing the flute), but Hindu art always feels schlocky to me. The same is true of most Christian art, by the way; I'm an equal-opportunity snob when it comes to religious iconography. In any case, I do like to think that, if God were to pick a contemporary human face, it would be that of Morgan Freeman, so here he is:


Writing this blog has brought out the frustrated theologian in me, and I've gone on at length about a wide variety of theological problems. Today I'm going to tackle idolatry, in the sense of what makes a god obviously false. I will not be attempting to prove the reality of God (I'm no Schubert Ogden), but I will begin with my minimal standard for accepting that a god is not false: that he/she/it exceeds our highest ideals for human behavior. Thus, pettiness, selfishness, vindictiveness, exploitiveness, jealousy, a violent nature--none of these qualities will be found in a true god.

That automatically rules out the gods of both the Greco-Roman and Norse pantheons, who are, for the most part, stand-ins for human archetypes, constantly bickering with each other, manipulating human destiny to settle arguments, raping human women whenever they feel like it, punishing humans who have the bad fortune to stumble upon goddesses who neglected to hang the "do not disturb" sign at the entrance to the forest glade where they were bathing, and on and on. These mythical gods do provide great insights into human nature, but their flaws far outweigh any  qualifications for divinity.

It also calls into question many of the primitive stories about the God of Israel, who is depicted at times as whimsical, capricious, bloodthirsty, even cruel; and who certainly takes no thought to the suffering of those he chooses to destroy for their sins. Granted, there is always the sense that those who are punished have it coming to them, that God does not impulsively lash out at humans who've done nothing to deserve such treatment; but even so, the sin that merits such punishment often shrinks by comparison to God's response.

Before you insist that I'm only talking about the "Old Testament God" here, let me offer up this story from Acts 5: Ananias and Sapphira, members of the early church in Jerusalem, sell some property, and bring only a portion of the proceeds to Peter as a tithe. Peter calls them on their withholding, and they are both struck dead right there in the church. Harsh punishment for having a savings account, but that's how God continues to act, despite all our efforts to cram the deity into a different box for the New Testament. It's far more radical, in fact, than anything the IRS has ever done to collect on hidden taxable income.

I point again to the dictum above: a the minimal standard for a true god is exceeding the highest ideal we'd have for a human in the same situation. The most dogged of tax assessors wouldn't smite a client for tucking away a nest egg; but for Ananias and Sapphira, the penalty is death. Take that, New Testament God of Love!

The ancient world was, of course, rife with actual idols, carved and graven images of deities or furniture for those deities. The Hebrews frowned upon such things, believing strongly that, provincial though their god might be, at least he couldn't be confined to a block of wood. Don't permit a representation of God, the reasoning went, and you you're less likely to think you can control God's actions. There were still plenty of efforts to manipulate this God through prayers and sacrifices, but at least imagery was off the table. That's why belief in a false god is called idolatry; there were literally idols that people worshiped. This anathematization of images was carried over into Islam, where it was taken to a much further extreme: no images of any kind were to be created by Muslim artists. That's why Muslim art is so abstract.

There are, of course, still world religions who create images of their deities. Hinduism immediately springs to mind. Buddhism makes use of similar imagery to represent its saints. And Christianity, despite periods of art-bashing, has generally favored iconography, as any quick web search will reveal. Some of the greatest art of the western world was created in the service of Christian religion. In fact, it was understood in preliterate times that people needed something to hang onto as they stood through interminable Latin masses, incapable of understanding almost anything the priest said, and so churches and cathedrals were decorated with frescoes, statuary, and stained glass depicting the great saints and stories of the faith. As a Protestant, I have often felt a twinge of discomfort when observing Catholic veneration of a statue or image (particularly unavoidable during my year teaching in a Catholic school).

But really, I doubt that anyone using representational religious art, whether it is tacky or transcendent, makes the mistake of confusing the art with the deity it represents. We know the difference between the material and the ineffable--mostly.

There are times when our respect for material objects goes a bit far. Even the most iconoclastic of Protestants will have qualms about desecrating a Bible; burning Korans can lead to rioting in some Muslim nations. Shifting our focus to civil religion, I am, thanks to spending my formative years as a Boy Scout, especially sensitive to flag desecration. I respect protesters' Constitutional right to burn and otherwise deface the stars-and-stripes, but that doesn't keep me from averting my eyes when I see it happen, and I'm similarly uncomfortable with letting a flag touch the ground. Old habits die hard.

No, when we're going to worship a false god in the modern world, we don't turn to something as simple as a piece of ivory or stone. Our false gods are abstractions, concepts, principles we use to organize our cosmology, to establish codes of ethics for ourselves and codes of judgment for others. We may ascribe these principles to gods of actual religions, but to the extent that they fall short of the

1) Capitalism: As I previously wrote in a post about money, this is the real god of America, the god in which we genuinely trust. Adam Smith, the Moses of the Free Market, talked about Capitalism exerting an "invisible hand" on the behavior of the market. Writing as a philosopher of the Enlightenment, he believed in the inherent goodness and generosity of human nature, in the imago dei implanted in us at Creation that makes us reflections of the Almighty, and guides us to look out for each other, even as most of our actions are guided by self-interest. While it is true that some wealthy individuals act benevolently, using their fortunes to better the lives of others, capitalism is, at best, a morally neutral force in the world. Witness how the demonic self-interest of Wall Street brokers nearly destroyed the American economy in 2008. Or go back a few years earlier, to the Enron scandal. Take a look at how profiteering drives gas prices up and down, how hospitals routinely bankrupt patients, how supplying American consumers with cheap goods turns Asian laborers into slaves, and you've got all you need to know that capitalism is a false god with all too many worshipers, the most fundamentalist of them occupying the capitol.

2) Patriotism: I'm a patriot. I believe strongly in the Constitution and its protection of the rights of the minority, however small that minority may be. I have made many a pilgrimage to Washington, D.C., to visit the temples of our civil religion. And as I said earlier, I believe in treating flags with respect. Even so, I quail at the abominations performed in the name of patriotism, the senseless wars, the pointless deaths, the destruction of whole peoples whose only sin is to speak a different language, worship a different god, or have the bad luck to be born on the other side of an artificial line on a map. It's good to love our country, but when that love turns to hatred and violence of the other, the nation has been transformed into the cruelest of false gods.

3) Violence: I've written about this in other places, too. The god of war is often another face of patriotism, but it also exists in its own right independent of love of country. There are some who love war simply because it gives their lives meaning. And war is not the only incarnation of this god. Every fall, millions worship at the altar of professional football, sacrificing the health of young men whose few years in the limelight will mean a lifetime spent hobbling about on ruined knees, dying early deaths from repeated brain traumas. When the NFL talks of changing rules to disallow head-butting, the fans rise up to protest that the game just won't be as interesting without it. A god that demands sacrifices like these is as false as the god who sends young men and women overseas to die for a cause that no one can articulate.

4) Test Scores: This may seem puny on a list that includes macroeconomics and international conflict, but it is altering the lives of millions of children. Standardized testing has consumed public education to the point that school funding is rewarded based on how well children fill in bubbles on a test sheet, and test preparation has crowded out both the funding and the time for arts and physical education. This false religion goes beyond K-12 schools, as many college admissions and financial aid are based on SAT and ACT scores; and graduate school admissions on GRE, GMAT, LSAT, and MCAT scores. There is no escaping the truth that high test scores reveal, to at least some extent, the highly specialized ability to take tests well--an ability that only translates into either academic or professional excellence to the extent that it also involves taking tests. It's an inherently invalid criterion for entry into a career path, and yet most Americans are judged by it at multiple points in their lives. And yes, it's a jealous, judgmental god that demands the obeisance of teachers and administrators at every level of American education.

5) Celebrity: There's nothing new about bemoaning fan culture. Entertainment and sports giants have been unabashedly called idols for generations, worshiped with a fervor rarely expressed toward more orthodox gods. Because celebrities are as human as the people worshiping them, they are, perhaps, the most likely to topple from their pedestals, disillusioning those who most admire them. The cost of being a celebrity is well known: the constant unauthorized photographs, appeals for autographs and other memorabilia, and utter lack of privacy, with the covers of supermarket magazines filled with embarrassing photographs and lurid headlines. Ironically, this is a case of the religion being falser than the god, for its adherents are the fickle ones, abandoning today's idol for tomorrow's hot commodity without regret.

This list is far from comprehensive, and I'm sure you can think of plenty of false gods to fill it out. The point in every case is this: worship a false god, and your heart will be broken, as will the hearts of all those you love. Find yourself a true god instead. It need not be a personified creedal deity. It may simply be a philosophy that calls you to a higher good, toward generosity toward neighbors, mercy toward enemies, and charity toward the disadvantaged. It may lead you to enlist in a just cause, to forego wealth in favor of benevolence, to serve humanity's greater good rather than your own self-interest. Pick something to believe in, test it for Truth, and build your life around it. You, and your world, will be all the better for it.

Your Chance to Live!

Did that get your attention?

I was born in 1961. That put me in diapers during the Cuban missile crisis, in grade school through most of the Vietnam War, and in junior high during the "Your Chance to Live" emergency preparedness campaign. This seemingly endless series of film strips and short films presented arresting stories of survival in a variety of natural disasters, as well as, with the help of stock footage and dramatizations, of how to survive a nuclear attack. These lessons were powerful, terrifying, and largely pointless for the geographic region in which I was living at the time: Idaho, a state rarely experiencing any weather-related disasters or earthquakes, and probably toward the bottom of likely American targets for a missile attack. Regardless, we all sat and watched in shocked silence as one force of nature or war after another destroyed homes and lives. We never had a "duck and cover" drill, but we all knew which buildings in town were certified fallout shelters.

And yet, the actual threat of nuclear war was receding all the time. The early 1970s were the era of détente, as Henry Kissinger made inroads in both China and the USSR. 1974 saw the first joint Russian-American space mission. Arms reduction talks made slow but steady progress throughout the next two decades, until the collapse of the Soviet Union took Mutual Assured Destruction off the table completely.

Still, I was haunted by those lessons, fear that was heightened in the early 1980s with films about the aftermath of nuclear attack that presented it far more believably than those government films ever had.

In the 1980s, I lived in two parts of the United States, Illinois and Texas, that had passing familiarity with extreme weather. A tornado touched down near Urbana-Champaign while I was attending graduate school there, but apparently it was in an empty field (there are plenty of those in central Illinois), so no damage was done. In 1987, my wife and I took a sort of late honeymoon tour of Texas and drove through a storm front that, a few hours earlier, had destroyed a town with a tornado. That was considerably more frightening, with the sky turning green and rain driving against the car so hard that we could only stop and hold each other until it passed. In 1993, the Spring Break Quake cracked the ceiling of our living room in Sherwood, Oregon, and another earthquake in 2001 had my third floor room at the Peace House rocking. That last event was the only one in which my disaster training paid off: I got in the doorway, and was able to tell my neighbor to do the same.

There were other safety films I watched in school that were not related to either nuclear or natural disaster. Two stand out: train safety and alcohol awareness.

Growing up in Idaho, unmarked rail crossings were a fact of life. All those crops and wood products had to be transported, and trains were constantly plying the high plateau where we lived. I think I was in third grade when we were shown the film about what could happen if we weren't careful around those crossings, and it haunted me for years. Like all effective fear mongering, it utilized dramatization. I remember two: kids playing hide-and-seek in a rail yard; and teenagers racing their car through a crossing, trying to beat the train. In the first scenario, a child is under a freight car when it shifts. He screams. His friends and some workers rush to pull him out. The next thing we see, he's on crutches, one pants leg empty, mournfully watching his friends play at recess. In the second, they don't, of course, make it, and there's a spectacular crash. We then see one of them in a coma in the hospital--but he was the lucky one. The next shot is of a tombstone.

The film about alcohol scared me away from drink for almost two decades. The most memorable scene was a forensic investigation of who caused a fatal car accident: the woman driver who'd had one martini, or the lush who'd downed a fifth of whiskey before getting behind the wheel. To answer this question, the pathologist sliced their brains like loaves of bread, showing how that of the light drinker was almost pristine, while the heavy drinker's was riddled with holes, dark and bloodshot. I'm not making this up. I can still see those brain slices in my mind's eye.

These fear campaigns worked. I am always nervous at rail crossings, never try to beat the gates, and I am always concerned (especially in our fair boozy city of Portland) about blood alcohol levels when I'm on the road.

Which is a long way of saying I've come around to agree with the National Rifle Association on one issue: All American children need to be taught gun safety.

Just to be clear, I don't, and never will, believe all Americans have to learn how to shoot. I will never own a gun, hunt with a gun, shoot at targets with a gun, defend myself with a gun. The damn things are dangerous, lethal, and the less of them in existence, the better. But the reality of our situation is that there are a hell of a lot of them out there, and just from the sheer volume of stories about children "accidentally" killing themselves or friends or family members with a gun they came across in their own homes or the homes of playmates, we have got to start teaching them to leave them where they find them, and better still, to tell an adult to put them away.

Slate magazine's crime writer, Justin Peters, has been blogging about juvenile shooting deaths on an almost-daily basis. They happen that often. He beats two drums: education and prosecution. If Americans are going to have such easy access to guns, then for God's sake let's teach them to lock them up, put trigger locks on them, never ever leave them out where children can find them, and if we're going to have them in our homes, teach our children to respect and avoid them if we forget to take the normal precautions; and since we can't guarantee our children won't come across them at a neighbor's house, teach them these same things even if we don't keep them in our own houses. The second part of it, the one that sounds harsh but seems more and more common sense, is to prosecute the thoughtless adults whose carelessness makes it possible for an unsupervised child to pick up a loaded weapon left lying out in the open and put a bullet through another child's skull. At the very least, it's manslaughter. It might even be murder.

But that's beside my point, which is safety. I have to admit that guns are present in a lot of American households, whether I like it or not, and this is not going to change anytime soon. Children are far more likely to encounter them, and in far more places, than they are a tornado, earthquake, hurricane, or nuclear bomb; and being inquisitive, curious, and naïve, not to mention exposed to a variety of media in which shooting is depicted as cool (and I have to admit I enjoy many of those shows and movies, too), unless the guns are locked in a safe, they will be found, no matter how well you think they've been hidden.

This is why I believe gun safety training should be a requirement for anyone purchasing a gun. It's at least as common sense a precaution as requiring written and driving tastes before licensing drivers. And yes, again, all our children need to be taught how deadly guns can be, and to leave them alone if they find one lying around.

As an educator, I know that attaching a strong emotion to a lesson burns it into long-term memory far better than simply lecturing about it. The more visceral the emotion, the more permanent the learning. I'll never forget the nausea I felt when those freight cars shifted and that kid screamed, or when the pathologist sliced up those brains.

Fear is a powerful learning tool. Fear of loaded guns will save lives. Fear of a child dying because of your carelessness may cause you to lock up your weapon, and that, too, will save lives.

And isn't saving lives the main argument for owning a gun in the first place?

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

If there's one thing I can't stand, it's people groveling.


GOD: Arthur! Arthur, King of the Britons! Oh, don't grovel! If there's one thing I can't stand, it's people groveling. ARTHUR: Sorry!! GOD: And don't apologize. Every time I try to talk to someone it's 'sorry this' and 'forgive me that' and 'I'm not worthy'. What are you doing now!? ARTHUR: I'm averting my eyes, oh Lord. GOD: Well, don't. It's like those miserable Psalms -- they're so depressing. Now knock it off! ARTHUR: Yes, Lord.
--Monty Python and the Holy Grail
 
It's true, I do like Monty Python's Flying Circus.
 
But that's a digression. The real point of quoting the dialogue between a scary cartoon God and Graham Chapman's King Arthur is the truth it speaks about popular theology. What comes next is, of course, the commission of the Quest for the Holy Grail, but that's another story.
 
Grass roots theology, pop theology, the opiate of the masses, whatever label one puts on the religion of the vast majority of believers throughout the ages, it all tends to come down to this: God is big, scary, and vindictive, so if we know what's good for us, we'll get down on our knees and beg for mercy. Oh, and while we're down there appeasing God's wrath, let's ask for a favor or two.
 
From the very beginnings of written theology, religious thinkers have been trying to coax people away from this Worm Theology (as my fellow Metanoians called it); but it's the religion that simply will not die, probably because it's the easiest to grasp: take a being, or pantheon of beings, powerful enough to create the cosmos; then project human concepts of justice on the deity; and pow! The deity is/are pissed, and everything bad that happens to us is divine punishment for one rule or another that we've broken, sometimes in ignorance. The cosmic scales must be kept in balance.
 
Forget that simply reading the headlines puts the lie to this idea, as every day we learn of innocents suffering and sinners prospering. Forget, too, that even the saintliest of individuals continue to suffer as long as they oppose themselves to the status quo, so clearly there's no way of winning God's favor here on earth. Human beings seem to have an inherent need for God as celestial Santa/Firefighter/Principal/Executioner; and when confronted with the certainty that that's just not how it works, most either go into denial or become atheists.
 
The worst part of Worm Theology, though, is not that it's patently deluded. It's what it says about God. To buy into this cosmology, one has to believe that God is something very like the cartoon king in the clouds as animated by Terry Gilliam. The funniest part of this particular sketch is that, even as Arthur and his knights are acting exactly as respectfully and worshipfully as believers in a God who looks and sounds like this ought to act, God rejects all their acts of piety. "If there's one thing I can't stand, it's people groveling." It's proof that, for all their rebellious tweaking of orthodoxy, the Pythons knew their Bible as well as any of the other great literary references that show up in their sketches. These words in God's mouth sound remarkably like those of the prophet Amos:
 
I hate, I despise your festivals,
    and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
    I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
    I will not look upon.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
    I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
    and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:21-24, NRSV)
 
God is not appeased, or amused, by human worship.
 
Amos stands at a crossroads in the evolution of theology. As Israel suffered both natural and international disasters, it became clear the old theology wasn't working. There were attempts to explain these catastrophes as retribution for the sins of the people, who were not pious enough; and of their kings, who also strayed to other gods; but when even the most pious of kings, Josiah, sought to bring about a restoration of Torah-faithfulness, only to see the nation invaded one last time, and the line of David brought to a horrible conclusion, the punditry of the priesthood ran out of steam. The historical books of the Hebrew Bible still blame an impious king for this final invasion, but it's half-hearted. It became the task of the prophets now to better understand why God would abandon Israel in its time of greatest need, seemingly betraying every promise ever made to the Chosen People.
 
Their answer: God had bigger plans for Israel, plans that had to be worked out on a global scale, across generations. The Santa God of the old religion was too small, too local. The One True God of Israel was the God of all the world, and was preparing Israel to be a light to all the nations. That meant spending some time in exile, which was to be a cultural purgatory, cleansing the people of all their attachments to false gods and earthly prosperity.
 
It was ingenious, and it kept the faith alive for half a millennium. But things continued to get worse, and eventually the idea of God working through history to restore the whole world ran out of steam. Now things were so corrupt that only an apocalyptic battle could set them right. It was now the time of the Roman occupation, and every street corner had a wild-eyed preacher predicting fire and brimstone. One of those preachers was named Yeshua. His followers would take the God of Israel beyond the boundaries of Judaism, announcing that the One True God had sent Yeshua--now called Jesus--into the world to redeem all of it. Theirs was a message of hope, of a loving God who wanted the salvation of all people.
 
But soon the popular theology took over. The worminess of humanity was just too obvious to resist. And now it took on a particularly insidious bent: humankind was so corrupt that it deserved total destruction, a global cleansing like the Old Theology flood to wipe the slate clean; but God had used Plan B, offering up God's own and only son, Jesus, as a sacrifice for all human sin. It was a terrible thing for God to give up, but as Spock says in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few...or the one." This doctrine is called the atonement, and it has been the heart of Christianity for almost its entire existence. "God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son" (John 3:16--yes, the sign somebody's always holding up at televised sports events) is the motto of almost every church that has ever existed.
 
But here's the problem with this doctrine, which again gets us back to the Python God at the top of this post: while it's wholly consistent with a God whose glowing eyes and booming voice are terrifying, a kind of "neat idea" such a God might have as an alternative to authorizing an earthquake, a hurricane, or some other "Act of God," it's simply not consistent with a God who really is all-loving. A God who would establish a Cosmic Constitution that required such a sacrifice as the price for not destroying everything is not a God worthy of praise. It is, though, a God who would welcome gaze-averting, groveling, worm theology adherents.
 
Look at it this way: the  popular God is usually depicted with a crown, as a divine king. Imagine now a king or president who rules with an iron fist, whose judgments are harsh but always righteous, and who occasionally destroys a village just to show who's boss. The iron fist could even be contained by a velvet glove; the king might, on occasion, be benevolent, generous to his subjects, protecting them from invasions, even punishing nobles who exploit their power by persecuting their vassals. The bottom line is still that one does not want to cross this king. Such a ruler would be called, in modern political science, an autocrat, a dictator, even a tyrant. Now imagine this autocrat announces that there will be no more harsh judgments, no more villages destroyed, no more public executions--except for one: the crown prince has decided to offer himself in exchange for all the future punishments the king might ever, however righteously, mete out. It's to be a horrible, public display of torture, humiliation, and painful death, with a large mocking crowd present; and once it's over, the king will be satisfied. The dead prince will have atoned for all the sins of the kingdom. The people enshrine the memory of the prince as a hero who caused the king to become lenient--but they never really start trusting the king.
 
That's atonement in a nutshell, along with its greatest caveat: if God is a tyrant, does God committing substitutionary infanticide change that fact? If God really requires the death of Jesus for the rest of us to escape judgment, is the peace that ensues worth its bloody price?
 
It's the same question asked by Oregonian author Ursula  K. LeGuin in her short story, "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas." In the story, there is a mythical kingdom called Omelas in which every citizen lives a full, happy life, free from suffering, blessed with long life, abundant resources, rewarding work--really, it sounds a lot like the United Federation of Planets. There's just one hitch: at the age of majority, every citizen is taken to a cell deep in the bowels of the castle, and shown a single orphan, locked away, malnourished, and terribly alone. The child cries piteously, but the new citizens are not permitted to reach out in comfort. It is explained to them that this is the price of all the happiness of life in Omelas, that the suffering of this one child makes possible the happiness of all the thousands who live in the kingdom. Burdened with that knowledge, the new citizens return to their lives to learn trades and professions, marry, raise children, live out their lives of contentment and fulfillment--except for those who don't believe the suffering of even one child is justified by the happiness of so many. They are the ones who walk away, never to return.
 
The parable works best as a critique of First World prosperity. So much of what we enjoy is made possible by the hard labor of underpaid workers, both the undocumented immigrants who do so much of our work for us here, and the factory workers toiling in near-slavery conditions overseas. The computer upon which I write this blog, the iPhone that tells me someone on Facebook has liked it, the clothing I wear as I type, all these things are affordable to me because someone in Bangladesh, Malaysia, China, Mexico is working under conditions I would find unbearable for a salary I couldn't begin to live on. Like the citizens of Omelas, though, I'm able for the most part to put the suffering of the many out of my mind. The haves have because the have nots haven't, and we take that in stride, comforting ourselves perhaps with Jesus' words that "the poor you have...always" (Matthew 26:11, Mark 14:7, John 12:8). It's always been that way, it probably always will be that way (unless the Federation comes into being), so deal with it--or walk away. Go be a missionary, join the Peace Corps, join Occupy, work in a soup kitchen, protest corporate greed: there are many ways to walk away from Omelas, but as in the story, few have the heart and soul to do it.
 
And now for the Christological spin on the story, which is far simpler to interpret: the child is Christ. The paradise of Omelas is the Kingdom of Heaven. And we have access to it thanks to his suffering. But don't forget about that suffering. In fact, a healthy dose of guilt is called for by your knowledge of what was done for you, perhaps some shriving, fasting, discipline, maybe even a little torment. And don't even think of approaching the throne of God in any way but prostrate, groveling...
 
And we're back to that.
 
I'll say it again: is this God worthy of praise? Set aside any discussion about whether such a god exists. Clearly the worship of a cruel, vindictive God comes from an attitude of fear, self-loathing; worship ceases to be worth-ship, and becomes worm-ship.
 
And I have to say no. I understand the temptation to ascribe these characteristics to God. I've fallen into it myself in times of trial, praying with "sighs too deep for words" (Romans 8:26) for God to intervene in what I'm facing, to fix the injustice running rampant in my life; and when there has clearly been no intervention--or when the result demonstrates that, if anything, God sided with my oppressor--I've turned instead to berating God, shaking my fist at heaven like Job.
 
Five years ago, that happened for the last time, and I finally walked away. Groveling had, again, yielded me nothing, and God was utterly silent about the result. I felt nothing: no comfort, no explanation, not even the angry rejection of my request; just a void.
 
I don't know where my pilgrimage away from the God of unanswered prayers will take me. I have felt a softening in recent weeks, as I've been writing this blog, a slight opening in the windows I slammed shut in 2008. If I do return, it will be to a very different understanding of God, to a cosmology of a God with severe limitations--something that has always been in my preaching, but not in my faith on those occasions when I've most needed a lifeline.
 
I do know this: I am finished with groveling.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Yeah. It Was Scary.

 
I called it my single parenting midterm: leave after church on a March Sunday in 1996, drive halfway, spend the night in a hotel, then drive the rest of the way the next day to camp in the Disneyland campground. The following day--Tuesday--we'd have early admission at the park by virtue of staying at an official Disney facility. We'd make the most of it, riding everything appropriate to two small children and their still divorce-shell-shocked father (the papers had only been signed six months earlier), until the park closed at dusk. The following day, we'd drive to Yosemite National Park, spend the night in a cabin, then tour the park for a day. The day after that, we'd drive all the way home. Along the way, we ate many of our meals out of a cooler. This was Spring Break on the cheap. And I mostly pulled it off.

It was a simpler time in many ways. Sean and Sarah were 3 and 6, respectively. Their main concern in the car was who got to ride in the front seat next to me. (See? Simpler time. Also no air bags in my 1985 Honda Accord.) They were generally good sports about meals, so long as they got them on schedule. There was far less bickering than their would be on later trips. There was a lot less to Disneyland then: ground had not yet been broken on the park-doubling California Adventure, and, as I said, we were able to camp across the street from the main entrance. The campground, and the strawberry field that was next to it, are long gone to make way for more retail and lodging. And the park is open late year-round, not just during the summer.

We got in early, and went straight to the attraction that was of most interest to us: the recently opened Indiana Jones ride. There we learned, to our chagrin, that Sean was a few inches to small. Instead, we hit It's a Small World, which they enjoyed just fine, and Pirates of the Caribbean, which they thought was exceptionally cool. After that it was Toon Town, a recently-opened portion of the park dedicated to small children. Their favorite part of it was Goofy's bouncy house, but there we had our first inkling of the health maze Sean would eventually take us through: he had a spontaneous nosebleed that could not be stanched. (The following summer, he began to have seizures, though he was not diagnosed with epilepsy until well into 1997.) Eventually it stopped, and we continued with our day, though I had a sense of foreboding that did not begin to leave me until he came off the ketogenic diet in 2003.

At lunch time, following the advice of a guide book I had purchased for this trip, we headed back to the campsite for lunch and naps. They didn't really sleep, but the break seemed a good idea. Then we played in the campground pool, where they would've been happy for the rest of the afternoon. I, however, had purchased our one-day tickets, and with the park closing at sunset, we were running out of time. Finally I was able to corral them into getting dressed and returning to the park. Lines were longer now, but we still managed to ride several attractions, including the Thunder Mountain roller coaster. They enjoyed this, and it emboldened me to get in line for Space Mountain. The sun was setting, but I knew they'd let everyone in the line complete this one last ride, so it seemed a good way to gain extra value from our expensive tickets.

I had only been to Disneyland once before, in 1982, when I was attending a Model UN conference at the Anaheim Marriot. I remembered the cars on the Space Mountain ride being like bobsleds, holding three people who sat in each others' laps. I knew it was a fast, loud roller coaster ride, but I figured we'd be fine with that configuration. Sean was, surprisingly, tall enough for this ride. The line was long, and went around many corners, doubling on itself in ways that disguised its length. By the time we finally made it to the boarding area, the kids were fidgety, and as we came around the last corner, I realized what a terrible mistake I had made: the bobsled cars had been replaced with more standard roller coaster cars, rows of just two seats. It got worse when it was finally our turn to board: we were at the front of the train. After waiting nearly 45 minutes in line, I wasn't about to abort. I had to make a snap decision about whether to let either child ride alone while I rode with the other, and if not, whether to sit in front of or behind them. I put them in the front. There was no one beside me as I took my seat behind them.

As the cars made their noisy, clattering climb up the first rise, with music blasting in my ears from the speakers in my headrest, I knew I had made a terrible mistake.

Space Mountain is a fast ride through a dark building. Stars, planets, and galaxies are projected on surfaces, but the main impression is of moving rapidly, being disoriented by the music blasting in one's ears, and having no idea what comes next. I couldn't hear anything coming from the seats in front of me, which meant that the only voice I heard was that echoing in my head: "You are the worst parent in the world. You have totally failed this test as a single parent. Why didn't you call it off when you saw the cars? What the hell is wrong with you?"

It's not really a long ride, but terrified as I was at what it was doing to my children, it seemed to take forever. Finally the train ground to a halt, the harnesses released, and I leapt from the car, pulling Sean and Sarah from theirs. Sean seemed to have taken it all in stride, but Sarah was sobbing. I carried her out the exit, and sat down on the first bench I could find. Over and over, she kept saying, "Why did we have to go on that? It ruined the vacation!" I comforted her as best I could: "It's over, sweetheart. It was just a ride, and it's over." I looked over at Sean, who had placed a comforting hand on Sarah's arm, and I said with perfect taciturn pre-school wisdom, "Yeah. It was scary."

Sarah's trauma lasted for two days. Finally, the morning we awoke in our cabin at Yosemite, she seemed to have calmed down. There was a large boulder outside our cabin, which delighted both her and Sean. I let them play on it for awhile, then pulled them off so we could do some sight seeing. We rode the park bus to Bridal Veil Falls, where I took this picture:
You may have noticed the tams they're both wearing. The previous fall, my parents had gone to visit my brother David, who was on a semester abroad in England. They came back from the trip with these hats for all their grandchildren. They both looked cute, but Sean's hat--as well as his Mickey Mouse sweater--really set off his bright copper hair. (Like mine, it has darkened over the years--though now mine is going to silver, so perhaps it's lightening again?) There was a busload of Japanese students visiting the waterfall at the same time as us, and they seemed especially taken with Sean with his red sweater, red hat, and redder hair, snapping pictures of him, cooing over how cute he was. Sarah had a jealousy attack: why wasn't she getting any attention? She was cute, too!

I think that may have colored our other activity: a short hike to a reflecting pool, where we ate a sack lunch I had packed. It was a beautiful spot, with glorious views of awesome granite monoliths. But the children were burned out by now. On the hike back, they fought over who would be carried. We arrived back at the cabin with me finally fed up. They played happily on the boulder until dinner time.

I've called it a parenting midterm, but really, this was a learning experience for me: when one is taking small children on vacation, one does not get to impose experiences on those children. I took this to heart, and every trip I've taken with children since then, I have let them have at least some input to every activity. This has sometimes meant disappointment for me--if you follow me on Facebook, you know I'm an avid outdoorsman, and I would love nothing more than to be able to share it with my sometimes-exercise-averse progeny--but it's been tempered by the knowledge that the right choice on a kid-centered vacation is the kid-centric choice.

Putting the children first, I would've let them play longer in the pool. Putting them first, I would've pulled the plug on Space Mountain as soon as I realized we wouldn't be together in a bobsled car. And putting them first, I would've let them play on the boulder until they finally tired of it, and only then would we have attempted a short hike, or gone to see sights.

The other piece I take from this trip is Sean's words: "Yeah. It was scary." That simple expression sums up the way in which Sean has survived all that has happened to him over the years: divorce, epilepsy, learning challenges, bullying, separation from one parent or the other and from siblings, moving great distances from all he  knows and loves. Yeah. It was scary. And now it's over.

So much of the psychic pain we experience comes from not letting our traumas be over. Yes, divorce was horrible to me, and it has continued to visit me with inconveniences and causes for outrage; but the worst of it came at the beginning, and that part is over. Yes, the crisis of Sean's birth, and the subsequent crisis of his seizure disorder and the long gauntlet of neurologists, drugs, and finally the crazy diet that seems to have been the cure--all of that was scary. Yes, losing contact with my children when they moved to Idaho was scary. Yes, fighting for custody of Sean three years later was scary. Yes, being laid off and having to figure out how to survive on free-lance income was scary. All of it was scary.

And it's been tempting to let many of those traumas define who I am in the present moment. Difficulty with forgiveness, refusal to reconcile, comes out of hanging onto the scariness of those past traumas, and blaming others for the pain it birthed. But holding on tight to pain is a recipe for misery long after the event that caused it. Yeah. It was scary. But it's over.

In 2003, I took my children back to Disneyland. Sean couldn't get enough of the roller coasters, and insisted on riding even the most frightening one in the new California Adventure. And Sarah? This time, she was the one insisting on Space Mountain. She wanted to prove to herself that she could handle it.

And yeah, it was scary. But only for a minute.