Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Resurrection is a Cop-Out

 
Here's a practice I'm not going to miss at all: the flowering cross.

They come out on Easter, and I have wondered for years if the idea came from a florist. The sentimentality behind it is understandable: Easter is the celebration of the Resurrection, and it just happens to fall in early spring, so let's buy a bunch of cut flowers and decorate the cross with them! It's a popular custom, and typically the cameras come out after the service so people can take pictures of themselves in their Easter best, posing with the beautiful flowering cross.

And I hate it.

I always have. From the very beginning, I believed the cross should symbolize one thing: the death of Jesus. It actually does this best when there's a bloody corpse hanging from it, as can be found in many a Catholic church. But that imagery is deemed ghoulish by many, and probably properly so. It also teeters toward idolatry, which is why the Puritans removed it from Anglican churches, as have many Protestants throughout the world. In its place, you're more likely to see a bare cross, which itself is open to misinterpretation. I've heard some say "We worship with an empty cross because of the Resurrection"--as if Jesus was resurrected right off the cross.

The story, as told in the Gospels, is that Jesus was entombed for somewhere between 36 and 48 hours, a period considered three days because it includes two sunsets, and that when his followers went to the tomb to tend to his body, it was empty. There are conflicting versions of how he was experienced to be alive again, but they're all in agreement on this: he was definitely dead when he was taken down off the cross, and he stayed dead long enough for the resurrection to be more than just waking up from a long nap.

To me, the flowering cross always represented the tendency of people to want to skip the gory bits, to leap from the adulation of Palm Sunday to the triumph of Easter without experiencing any of the grief and despair of Holy Week. As a pastor, I rejected it: the cross, I insisted, was a torture device, a tool for capital punishment, and it succeeded in its work, putting to death a dangerous Jew who made the Roman authorities nervous--as if they needed any excuse to crucify a Jew. The point was that the death of Jesus was essential to the good news. As some of my Black preacher colleagues liked to put it, "No cross, no crown." And that's how I preached it myself for years.

When I left ministry, I continued insisting on the importance of Jesus' death to the gospel message. The reason, for me, was fundamental: I needed to believe in resurrection. I had experienced far too many little deaths over the years, and I needed to know there was life beyond death. It didn't have to be a literal resurrection, by the way, just a sense that every winter is followed by a spring, that given time, any defeat will give way to new life.

That message has worked for me. I've had more personal resurrections than I can count. I could also call them rebirths. I'm in the midst of several of them right now, as my teaching career emerges from the shadows of budget reductions that clouded it for four years, and my relationships with my partner, her children, and my own grown children continue to evolve into new stages.

But here's where it is again a good thing that I am no longer in ministry: I've outgrown the (capital R) Resurrection. I don't believe Jesus was literally raised from the dead. In fact, I find myself finally on the side of Leonard Bernstein who, in his Mass, and more particularly the Credo, criticized the doctrine of the Resurrection as a colossal copout. "You had a choice...to die and then become a god again."

And there it is: the Resurrection is the deus ex machina that renders the crucifixion null and void, especially if, as the Gospels insist, Jesus knew he would rise again. If a hero knows death is not the final word, it loses much of its significance.

Consider the "cliffhangers" of main character deaths in TV dramas, and particularly in Star Trek. When Kirk died toward the end of "Amok Time," we knew he'd be back. He was the star of the show, after all. So it was no surprise that McCoy had spiked the blood doping compound he gave Kirk so he could survive the thin air of Vulcan with a powerful sedative that made him appear to be dead, only to have him return to life. Similarly, when, in the most recent Star Trek movie, Kirk dies while repairing the warp drive to save the Enterprise, we know it's not the end. Without Kirk, there is no Star Trek. There will be some last minute solution to his apparent demise, and sure enough, there is. The stakes are just not that high.

Contrast these instances with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and other programs that have come from the mind of Joss Whedon. Whedon kills characters with abandon, and once they're gone, they rarely come back. Or think of Game of Thrones, in which central characters are killed, really killed, to the horror of an audience that expects them to go on. It took me reading the novels to accept that a character who died toward the end of season one really would not be coming back. That these deaths really were permanent made the storyline more tragic, more powerful, and the death more significant--and more meaningful.

The myth of the resurrected demigod predates Christianity by centuries, and there were plenty of other dead-resurrected gods floating about in first century religions as the Resurrection doctrine came together, so it's not as if Christians had to make theirs up out of whole cloth. What sets Christianity apart from all those other reborn god religions is that it survived--thanks in large part to imperial edict, as Constantine proclaimed Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.

So what about the copout of resurrection? Does Christianity really need a resurrected Christ in order to carry on?

The Apostle Paul certainly thought so: " If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins....  If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied." (1 Corinthians 15:17, 19) That's strong stuff: no resurrection means Christians really are fools, chasing after an illusion, putting their hope in something that just doesn't exist, pitiful wretches whose lives mean nothing.

Thinking about the many Christians I've known, I have to acknowledge that there are a substantial number of them who are in exactly that boat, placing their hope in a Pie in the Sky afterlife, looking to it alone to sustain them through their dreary existence in this world. I think it's important to note that Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus are in the same boat, looking forward to some sort of reward in the afterlife (or their next life) to make up for whatever misery they're experiencing in this life. The Resurrected Christ does more than symbolize that reward; he makes it happen.

And this, finally, is where I part ways with the belief that is at the very heart of Christianity. I understand why the early church felt the need to believe not just in resurrection, but in The Resurrection. I understand why human beings throughout time have felt the need to believe that death is not the final word. I understand why mythology, drama, literature have all needed both to kill and to resurrect heroes and gods. Where I draw the line is this: "If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile."

That's a harsh thing to say, Paul. Too harsh. Especially when I compare it with these other words of yours: "...Rarely will anyone die for a righteous person...But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us." (Romans 5:7-8) The death of Jesus has world-shattering significance without the Resurrection. In fact, I would argue it makes Jesus himself far more of a hero. When there is no escape hatch, no parachute, no fire exit, no cavalry coming over the hill, no sense that God will pluck him from the cross, his death is both more tragic and more heroic. To die for anyone, with no chance for redemption, is a great thing. To die for sinners goes beyond greatness.

And as for the afterlife: while I was yet a minister, in fact, while I was yet a seminarian, I let go of my need for a literal heaven. I learned that the pearly gates, the harp-strumming angels, the very idea of a paradise for dead saints was something grafted onto Christianity from Greek mythology, that there was in fact almost nothing in the Bible to back it up, and I was okay with that. I could be agnostic about what comes after death. I'd rather go on living, but I just don't know, and I don't thing anyone can know, whether there is any kind of existence beyond the grave.

Accepting that means embracing something else that I picked up in seminary. I saw a film about Buddhism, and watched as a Buddhist abbot walked a gravel path, barefoot, slowly, sensuously, experiencing every step. To live, to breathe, to feel and smell and see and hear and taste and think and remember and speculate and know and create--all of this is something to be embraced. Yes, it hurts. Yes, we will lose things. We will be defeated. We will lose friends and family members and partners. Some will walk away, some will hate us, and in the end, all of them will die. We will suffer many little deaths over the course of our lives. But all of it, every last experience, from the most agonizing to the most sublime, is life, and we are here to savor it, shape it, remember it, tell of it, and finally to release it. All of that can be, should be exquisite.

I don't need a resurrection to eternal life to have paradise. My Eden is right here, right now. Whether or not your believe in an afterlife, your present life will be all the better for embracing it and loving it for the wondrous gift that it is.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Not That Big a Thing

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 A gay wedding presided over by a United Methodist Bishop? Can it be? Are the progressive leaders of the church finally putting their money where there mouths are, stepping up to the plate, diving into the deep end?

Well--not quite.

The symbolism of this wedding was significant. There have been same-gender weddings performed by Methodist clergy for decades. Some have even been out in the open, and have resulted in the pastors who presided over them being put on trial by the church. This is the first to be performed by a Bishop, who did so over the objection of the actual Bishop in charge of the Conference where the wedding took place. So it appears that Bishop Melvin Talbert was putting his career on the line, risking the highest-profile discipline yet meted out by the denomination, a church trial that could bust this issue wide open.

Except for one thing: Bishop Talbert is retired.

Which means there's little of real significance being put at risk. Bishop Talbert will not lose his episcopal area, because he no longer presides over one. His pension is (I believe) secure. It's conceivable the denomination could, as the result of a trial, strip him of his ordination, but again, since he's retired, it's not as if he can be barred from ministering to his parish, since he doesn't have one.

I hear about many bishops who are in accord with Bishop Talbert. In fact, the entire Western Jurisdiction--Bishop Talbert's home region--has sided with him in his call for "Biblical Obedience" over mindless allegiance to the backward dicta of the Discipline. It's unlikely the Jurisdiction will put him on trial, despite the uproar he generated in the Alabama Annual Conference, where he performed the wedding over the objections of the resident Bishop. The Council of Bishops condemned him for doing it. So, of course, did the Good News movement, a faction that is to Methodism what the Tea Party is to Republicanism. The Reconciling Ministries Network, Methodism's movement for the rights of sexual minorities, has praised him. One fellow Bishop, Mary Ann Swenson, has issued a statement supporting Bishop Talbert's actions. Bishop Swenson is--wait for it--also retired.

These two Bishops are far from alone in their principled stance. Throughout the Western Jurisdiction, retired and honorably located ministers have expressed their willingness to perform gay and lesbian marriage services. And why shouldn't they? They have little at stake save their ordinations. And, by the way, as an honorably located United Methodist elder, I'm both able and willing to marry any and every gay or lesbian couple who come knocking, up until the church takes away my orders. Bring it on. I'm not using them.

But that's not going to advance this cause. If things are going to really change, ministers, superintendents, and bishops--active bishops, appointed ministers and superintendents--will have to stand up and preside. As long as gay weddings are performed in secret, or by retired or located church officials like myself who have nothing substantive to lose, there will be no progress. The air waves will need to crackle with the sheer volume of church trials before the abomination of church-sanctioned homophobia finally collapses. They must believe so strongly in the full inclusion of all people that they will put their careers on the line.

Unfortunately, I don't see that happening, because time and again United Methodist church officials have proven themselves far too cowardly to risk that scrap of paper hanging on the wall to minister in this way. Bishops can go on looking the other way as they ordain gay and lesbian ministers, or as the clergy under their supervision perform same-gender wedding ceremonies; but allowing things to happen is a far cry from openly, publicly, proudly advocating for them and participating in them.

I may be wrong about this. The tide is certainly turning, and it has Good News running scared, screaming for the church to take immediate disciplinary action against Bishop Talbert. In the screed with which they reacted to the wedding, they ominously foretold the division of the denomination, the loss of the unity to which it has clung for almost fifty years. My thought on that is "good riddance," but I know there are many Methodists to whom the wholeness of the church is precious--just as I know there are many clergy for whom risking their elder's orders really is a huge thing.

I'm just not there anymore. If the price of staying ordained in a united denomination is sanctioning bigotry, then neither of those treasures is worth keeping. I suspect there are many active bishops who agree with me. I just wish they were brave enough to follow the example set by Bishops Talbert and Swenson.

Take. A. Breath.


His name is Hank Green, and he's brilliant. He's a musician, entrepreneur, and vlogger (video logger) on many matters of importance. He creates short videos that run on YouTube and lay out well-reasoned arguments about such topics as the health care crisis, global warming, and human sexuality. I find him engaging, entertaining, informative, and unbearable.

Yes, I said unbearable. I can't stand to watch his videos. The reason? He's edited out every single pause, every throat-clearing, every breath. Watching him for a few minutes, I find myself gasping, and not because of the startling things he says (though, as I said, I'm very impressed by his logic). It's the inhuman rapidity of what he's doing, the sense that he's got so much to say, and so little time to say it, that breathing is expendable.

This is problematic. Humans breathe. That quality has shaped the way we communicate both information and feelings. Punctuation, sentence structure, grammar, language is shaped by our need to pause for air. When musicians don't breathe regularly, their playing becomes rushed, even if they're not playing a wind instrument: pianists and mallet percussionists become urgent when they don't allow themselves to breathe with musical phrases, and the music sounds mechanical to listeners if there are no discernible pauses.

Oratory, as well, is highly influenced by breathing patterns. The dramatic pause is a staple of rhetoric. So is the passionate flood of words that culminates with the speaker pausing for breath while the audience processes what has just been said. Story tellers know how to stretch out the tension by increasing their breathing rate. Think of Garrison Keillor's sometimes labored breathing as he delivers the news from Lake Wobegon, or Bill Cosby's stretching sentences to paragraph length.

Not Hank Green. He delivers more words in three minutes than an auctioneer--and as I said, he does it by simply editing out the breaths.

Maybe I'm being old-fashioned here. Younger people have become used to artificially distorted voices through the heavy use of auto-tuning in hip hop, and to watching short features that honor the ethic of TLDR (Too Long Didn't Read). Their attention spans seem incapable of accommodating a Keillor or Cosby, anymore than they can stand to read an entire long form piece. And yet blockbuster movies continue to last for more than two hours--though now with the same kind of rapid-fire editing Hank Green employs in his informational videos. Which may explain why many tentpole movies leave me exhausted. Two hours without a breath is a recipe for brain death.

Apart from popular culture, breathing is far more than an essential life process. It's an underrated pleasure. Laid up by a broken toe, I'm currently frustrated by my inability to get on my bicycle or to put on my running shoes and do some rapid heavy breathing in this beautiful autumn weather. The smell of autumn leaves, the crispness of the cooling air, the occasional tang of yard debris being burned--it's my favorite time of year to exercise outdoors, in large part because of how delicious it is to breathe this air. It's been awhile since I took a yoga class (again, the wounded foot is holding me back), but the final stage of the class, lying in corpse pose and breathing deeply, is what makes all those awkward postures worthwhile.

I'd really like to see what one of Hank Green's videos is like before he starts deleting breaths. I think I'd find it much more pleasant to watch. And as for the rest of you: take some deep breaths. Get outside, exercise, and breathe. You'll feel so much better for it. I expect Hank Green will, as well.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Credo


I've written thousands of words in this space about things I no longer believe, and why I have lost my faith in them. Ironically, my favorite part of the church service used to be the recitation of the creed. Methodism is not a creedal faith--the church has no official statement of beliefs (don't tell the conservative Good News lobby this unless you're up for a thumping of Biblical proportions)--but most Methodists spend a couple of minutes every Sunday speaking a creed in unison. Because none of them is official, there can be a different one each week. I liked the Apostles' Creed for its conciseness, and because I could say it from memory; and the Creed of the United Church of Canada for its contemporary social justice orientation. The Nicene Creed, on the other hand, felt like an exercise in dogmatics, which is exactly what it was intended to be from the beginning: a bureaucratic summary of those beliefs deemed essential to Roman Catholicism. For much of the history of the Roman Church, Catholics were required to believe everything in this creed, under pain of Inquisition.

The Canadian Creed I mentioned had considerable wiggle room in it for a young man of my skeptical inclinations. It still affirmed belief in Jesus, but it also stressed the importance of action in the world, and it began with the words "We are not alone, we live in God's world," and ended with "In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us.We are not alone. Thanks be to God." This was comforting to me, and I wholeheartedly embraced it, in large part because I lacked the certainty of faith I saw in so many around me.

I never really had that kind of faith. At times it was almost in my grasp, but to possess even a small portion of it, I had to surrender much of my identity. At times I experimented with the more emotional aspects of Evangelicalism, but it proved a poor fit. I simply could not suspend logic enough to claim the Truths of belief as my own. I tried, sometimes on my knees, to surrender myself to certainty about the virgin birth and the Resurrection. I could earnestly accept that there was symbolic truth in those doctrines, but my bottom line was that these were matters of faith, not news reports; and over time, I came to believe what truth was in them was symbolic.

That is where I am today, accepting that there is symbolic truth in religion. It's an aesthetic spirituality, a spirituality grounded in overhearing the gospel, in sensing something ineffable in art and nature, but of never being able to grasp it. It's why I cannot speak a creed that makes concrete statements of fact. I don't know for a fact that Jesus was born of the virgin Mary, or rose from the dead on the third day, so I can't say I believe it.

But am I an atheist, one who has no belief at all? Must my statement of faith be that of Penn Gillette, whose essay on "This I Believe" was about unbelief? Am I ready to climb aboard the atheist bandwagon with Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins?

No. Not by a long shot. Because I do believe some things. And here they are.

1. I believe in community. The creeds refer to this as "the holy catholic (small "c" for universal) church" and "the communion of saints." I believe in the power of people coming together, whether through affinity or in celebration of diversity. I believe people are more powerful when they are connected to others, that communities can carry individuals through times of crisis, that hanging together we need not fear hanging separately. I believe communities are strongest when they are intentional, when members can speak their truth to one another with compassion and integrity, and when no one need fear being cast out for being different. This sounds utopian and idealistic, but if the New Testament has any truth in it, it is how the early church functioned.

2. I believe in the Cosmos. There are far more things in heaven and earth than I can even begin to dream of. When God rebukes Job from the whirlwind for being so small-minded, I feel my own petty complaints shrivel. I do refer to the Universe as Creation, and I experience it to be constantly creating and recreating, evolving, transforming, birthing, dying, being reborn. My mind cannot begin to comprehend the vastness of the night sky, let alone Hubble Telescope's deep field. Nor can I grasp the quantum structure of all matter and energy. The awe I feel as I consider both the micro and the macro, and the emergence of life from their interplay, has a religious aspect to it. Whether God is a part of it is unknowable to me, but considering it both humbles and astounds me.

3. I believe in evolution. Whether or not God is involved in the constant recreation of the biosphere, our world is developing all around us.

4. I believe in chaos. Life is random, nature is random, much that happens to us is random. Humans do interfere with that randomness, but even so, we cannot avoid the chaos for long. A jar falls on my foot, breaks a toe, and sidelines me from teaching the movement activities I had planned for my next week. Neil Degrasse Tyson refers to this as "Stupid Design": there is so much in the Cosmos that is out to kill us. Richard Dawkins talks about the ongoing scream of natural selection, as every thing in nature eventually succumbs to something else. We are all born to die, and our deaths are both random and inevitable. Entropy is ultimately victorious over order, which cannot help but corrode, decay, collapse.

5. I believe in order. The fractal nature of chaos creates intricately beautiful patterns. Simple laws, many of them reducible to easily proven equations, govern the motion of the stars and planets, the birth, life, and death of all living things, the ways in which children mature into adults, and those adults pass through phases of exploration, coupling, childrearing, empty nesting, retirement, and ultimately death. As chaotic as the Cosmos can be, it is ultimately governed by laws discernible by intelligent beings.

6. I believe in art. The arts make human life meaningful, and it is criminal to remove them from school curricula in the service of balancing budgets. If we devoted to the arts half the energy and resources we poor into improving test scores in English and math, our nation would be a stronger, happier, less violent place.

7. I believe in life. Throughout our world, life proves itself more powerful, more resourceful, more insidious than any obstacle thrown in its way. Tour the blast zone around Mt. St. Helens, visit Badwater in Death Valley, dive to the deepest parts of the ocean, and you will find life, adapting, adjusting, overcoming.

8. I believe in love. There have been times in my life when I questioned this belief, as one relationship or another crashed and burned; but over time, I have seen that love, like life, will overcome. When abused, it can and will die, but if allowed, it will reenter the coldest of hearts and ultimately triumph.

9. I believe in beauty. I walk in it, bicycle in it, ski in it, drive in it, hold it in my arms, fill my senses with it, and it never lets me down. Experiencing the beauty in every moment has become my true faith.

This list is not exhaustive. I'm sure there are plenty of other things I believe in. What holds them all together is that they are things I have experienced, seen and tasted and touched and heard with my own senses, and this is how I know them to be true. These are things I cannot say about the power of prayer, the rightness of institutional authority, or any of the other dogmas I once clung to in my insecurity, knowing in my heart that none of them held water. And yes, I realize that some things do have to be believed to be seen, that there are times when a leap of faith is required to move from rejecting to accepting reality--which brings me to a tenth statement that subsumes all the others:

10. I believe that no mind can comprehend all truth. Reality is bigger, smaller, more complex, more intricate that any sentience can grasp. In the face of such grandeur, how can I help but fall to me knees in an attitude of worship--whether or not there is a God in the equation?

And that, dear friends, is the faith I have grown into at the age of 52. I can only hope that you, too, may experience some semblance of the tranquility I have come to know in this faith, whether yours is grounded in institutional religion or tailored to your own unique sensibility.

Blessings, grace, and peace to all.

Can I Hear an "Amen"?


Have you seen the light?

Yes, that's James Brown in the academic robe favored by African-American preachers, and he's calling out the question to John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd as the Blues brothers. It comes in the midst of a stirring rendition by Brown, a church choir, a backup band, and a company acrobatic fan-waving dancers of "The Old Landmark," a gospel standard that inspires the brothers to put their band back together to raise money to save the orphanage in which they were raised. The movie is The Blues Brothers, and it's a shaggy dog of a film stuffed with amazing R&B performances, car chases, celebrity cameos, and occasional blue language. It manages to respectfully poke fun at Catholicism, full gospel Protestantism, neo-Nazism, soul culture, blindness, prison life, government bureaucracy, law enforcement, homelessness, and probably several other politically dangerous topics more successfully than any other Hollywood movie I can think of. See it. Show it to your teenaged children.

And there ends the plug.

The occasion that led me to search for that photograph, and then to go off on a film nerd tangent, is my last Sunday at Parkrose Community United Church of Christ. For three and a half years, I have been playing for Sunday morning services at Parkrose, accompanying hymns and choral anthems and improvising preludes, offertories, and postludes. I come to each service with an armload of fake books and, drawing inspiration from the theme of the service and the content of the sermon, select Broadway, jazz, and pop standards that will evoke those themes in both poignant and humorous ways. For a postlude, I always jazz up whatever I've chosen to play, whether it's a standard or a hymn, so people can leave the sanctuary dancing. It's been a fun gig. It paid well, I received plenty of appreciation for what I did, and I felt like I contributed to a worthy cause: inclusive Christianity for a diverse community. But it was time to leave.

Why was it time? What led me, a month ago, to give notice? Two things: time and progress.

The time piece of this transition is easily conveyed. For the first time in four years, I am now teaching full time. Five days a week, I come home exhausted, for while the work is engaging, enjoyable, and rewarding, the intense focus required drains me physically. There's not much left for Amy. I realized within the first two weeks of the job that I needed Sundays back.

That word "back" is somewhat paradoxical, because, except for very brief periods in my life, my Sundays have always included church. And that's where the progress piece kicks in.

I grew up in church. My father was a Methodist minister, and there was never any question what I would be doing Sunday mornings, even when, as a teenager, I desperately wanted to sleep in. This religious upbringing stuck with me, and all through college, graduate school, and my first year as a teacher, I stayed active in church, singing in choirs, spending large portions of my Sundays (and often my Wednesdays) in a church. Going to seminary just amplified that involvement, which now became professional: throughout seminary I worked as a church choir director, did case studies of church services, and for three years had student pastorates that had me preaching weekly. The only break came my last semester of seminary when, fired from a choir job for dozing off during a sermon, I was free to attend the church of my choice for a few months. It never occurred to me to just stay home, workout, or take my wife and child on a weekend excursion. I belonged in church.

Graduating, I went immediately to serving churches full time, continuing to do that until January 2000, when I left ministry to tend to some emotional wounds. Still I attended services, now with the intent of sitting with my children during church. I also began attending the Sunday evening services at Metanoia Peace Community, which was to become my physical, as well as spiritual home, for three years. Soon after moving into the Peace House, I was recruited to play the piano in an African-American congregation. I was there for five years, then took a job as music director at a much larger church in Vancouver. Three years there, and I was again cut loose. For a year and a half, Metanoia was my only church involvement, and my Sunday mornings were free. Then Parkrose recruited me.

And here I am again, looking at Sunday mornings without church. But there are two differences from the other intervals like this: I'm here by choice; and I have nowhere to go in the evening. Metanoia disbanded a little over a year ago, and I have not sought out a community to take its place.

This blog is about transition, adult development, evolution, whatever else you might want to call it. I began writing it last spring because I sensed myself arriving at a crossroad. "When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways." (1 Corinthians 13:11) Richard Dawkins quoted this verse on Bill Maher's Real Time Friday night, and it resonated powerfully with me. For Dawkins and Maher, Christianity was part of childhood; once they had matured and inquired into its foundations, they outgrew it. I don't know yet if "outgrowing" is what has happened to me, but I have certainly grown away from the religion of my youth. A large part of that growth came, paradoxically, from my training to be a professional Christian: theology, Biblical criticism, liturgy, church polity, pastoral care, church history, missiology, all these things contributed to me knowing a bit too much about the inner workings of the church for it to continue to be a spiritual home.

Metanoia was the last resort for me to stay a Christian, a community that was intentional, prophetic, radically inclusive, and embraced me as no other community has. The memory of Metanoia will always be a home to me, as will many other congregations that nurtured me over the decades. But like the houses I grew up in, they and it are no longer the home in which I live. Even as I participated enthusiastically in the life of Metanoia, I knew something about it was not working for me, and never would. During my first few years at Metanoia there was a member named Phoenix who brought a lovely Buddhist flavor to the community. Over time, she fell away because, as she openly said on many occasions, she just had too much of a problem with the Jesus thing.

I don't have problems with Jesus, but I do, very much, with Christ. It took Metanoia for me to realize this: there is to much Christ in Christian. I cannot accept Jesus as Messiah. My informed understanding of the whole Bible, coupled with my respect for Judaism and my rejection of the anti-Judaism implicit in much of the New Testament, mean that I cannot accept Christ as my Lord and Savior.

Beyond that, I have grown away from petitionary prayer. It simply does not work, and it implies things about God I cannot believe.

And finally, the church is just not a place for me. Parkrose is a wonderful, warm, welcoming community, but I do not belong in an institutional faith community. The worship that works for me takes place outdoors, on trails; in concert halls and arenas, immersing myself in music; and at the keyboards (both piano and computer), creating musical and written art.

And my service? It takes place in a gymnasium, making the world a better place for children as I share the liberating force of music with them.

I'll be writing more in the coming days about this transition, and how it feels to be fully church-free for the first time in my life. Stay tuned.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Teach Like a Rock Star


"You're a saint!" whispered the special ed teacher as she helped the kindergarten teacher shepherd her class out of the gym.

This surprised me. I had just had my best half hour all year with this particularly unruly litter of feral kittens, and while they'd been just as active and demanding as ever, the presence of two other adults throughout the class made things far easier for me. I didn't have to worry, for instance, about a particular boy bolting for the exit, or another boy leading a race-around-the-room rebellion. So I'd just had fun with them, leading a movement activity, teaching them to play two different clapping games based on the Spanish pronunciation of "chocolate," and telling them a story that included the ABC song. I had two helpers that day because the classroom teacher had quickly come to capacity with this group's impulsive behavior, and after getting assistance from the special ed teacher, had decided that both of them would stay with the class through their time with me.

Later that day, I passed through the cafeteria as the kindergarten was having lunch, and was greeted with a chorus of cheers from them and the first graders who are also in there at that time. This despite the fact that much of my teaching time with both age groups during the first month of the year had been spent trying to corral them, often sternly. Things have settled down with the first grade thanks to the edition of a third classroom, bringing numbers down from as many as 42 to a much more manageable 25-26, but these children do still try my patience on occasion.

Fortunately, I don't have to hold onto that patience for long. Music lasts for 30 minutes, and then the next class comes in, and I start fresh, flushing any flavor of frustration the previous group may have left on my pedagogical palate. And really, I don't get frustrated all that much. I seem to be settling into the right balance of strictness and silliness, two qualities vital to these children, many of whom come from chaotic and stressful home environments.

Even on days when my frustration leaks through, enough that students see my scowl, I can be sure of smiles and cries of "Music teacher! Mr. A!" and, in one case, "Mr. Gym!" when I'm spotted during recess, lunch, or dismissal. It's as if a rock star has just strolled on the scene, and they all want my autograph.

I have not always engendered this reaction from children. Eleven years ago, when I reentered teaching after a long detour into ministry, I spent most of my day floundering, struggling to present stale canned lessons from whatever curriculum I found in my classroom to children who wanted nothing more than to be out of the chairs I made them sit in, moving to the music I played for them. After a year of subbing and two years teaching music full-time, I encountered the Orff approach, and instantly knew which direction I needed to go if I was going to thrive in this profession. The transition took time; in particular, I had to get over myself, as all improvisers must, and find in my heart the sense of play I don't remember ever having, even as a child.

It was awkward at first. Dancing with children, singing in falsetto so they can match pitch, putting more expression into my story-telling--none of these things came easily. But with practice, and in cooperation with the deep empathy I have always felt for children, they became more natural. Still, I was just really settling into my full Orff teacher persona when the lay-off notice came.

The most frightening part of the lay-off was the fear that I might never again be in an elementary setting. A year of nothing, followed by a year of extreme part-time, then two years of half-time, all at the secondary level, and I was finally learning to relax with teenagers; but band and choir directing at that level is a whole other thing from teaching music to small children. It's performance-oriented, more like artistic coaching, and there's little real opportunity to be silly, to play games, to really relax into a lesson. Rehearsals have to have a level of intensity that would never fly in a third grade music class. There's just too much at stake: festivals, scholarships, the self-esteem of every member of a high school group hinges on how well that group performs when it's on stage.

It took me just a few days to slide back into my general music persona, and I was delighted to find that three years of improv have significantly heightened my ability to turn a floundering lesson around. The evidence of this is, of course, the rock star treatment I'm getting.

I've had inklings of it before. In both Hood River and Banks, there were classes that I loved to see come through my door, and who clearly loved being with me. In Hood River, I even took to subbing for a particular kindergarten class on my off days, and we had a great time together. At Margaret Scott, there seems to be much less of a favoritism thing happening: almost every class I see is happy to be with me, and even with the troublesome fifth grade I have a significant number of fans.

Because, make no mistake, these children are fans. They give me in spades something I have not had at all in my foray into high school teaching, and rarely encountered prior to that: adulation.

It's strange that compliments from adults don't affect me. I've been hearing them every Sunday, as my efforts playing for the Parkrose UCC service have been very well received. I frequently hear them after a Comedy Sportz show, as well, especially if we've knocked an improvised musical or opera out of the park. I used to get a fair number of compliments after every sermon I preached, or when I played my trumpet in church. And all these compliments, put together, can't hold a candle to what I feel when a child's face lights up because I'm the music teacher, the guy who helps children learn to sing and dance and play.

They smile, they laugh, they wave, they call me (sort of) by name, and often, they hug me. It's amazing. Even after a hard day, when I'm worrying how much frustration has leaked out of me, the children still bring me back to home base with their affection.

Yeah. It's good to be a rock star. You should try it sometime.

Friday, October 25, 2013

I Wish I'd Spent More Time at Work

I had a rough morning.

It started with the system update glitch that prevented my phone from waking me at 5 with "All Blues," my preferred wake-up music. (Try it sometime; it's a soothing, swinging way to ease into consciousness.) At 5:43 I opened my eyes, realized what had happened, and sprang into action, throwing together my lunch and a quick pot of coffee, then rushing out the door to pick up a couple of donuts at the QFC. I actually got to school a little early, but it was hard to shake that breathless sense of encroaching tardiness. And my foot was already hurting.

That's right, my wounded little toe wanted nothing so much as to be elevated with an ice pack. Instead, I spent almost the entire day on it, moving about the gym where I teach, leading students in an especially vigorous jazz dance to "Sing, Sing, Sing," and, in one case, futilely chasing kindergartners around the room. Sassy fifth graders, a fourth grade substitute teacher who obliviously started bringing her class in before I'd gotten said fifth graders out, and not one but two classes of hyperactive kinders rounded out my morning. By lunchtime, I was more than ready to call it a day--but it was only half over.

The afternoon more than made up for the morning. The choir was charming and enthusiastic, first graders laughed delightedly at both the dance and the story I told them, and both second and third graders loved every minute of the lesson. But all of it was intense, vigorous, taxing, and it was no easy feat making the 40-minute drive home without a nap.

I told Amy about my day, and she asked me, "Do you actually like this job?"

And with full candor, I replied, "I love it."

There's an old aphorism about work that I used to quote regularly: "No man on his death bed ever looked up into the eyes of his family and friends and said, I wish I'd spent more time at the office." And to the extent that this quote is about an office job, it could definitely have applied to me for most of my years in ministry, as well as the first two years of my education career. I could toss in my first year of band directing at Banks, as well, which was riddled with growing pains, and portions of the second--but that would be stretching it.

The truth of this matter is that I do love teaching music, and I really love doing it at Margaret Scott. Yes, I'm stuck in a gymnasium that is much too loud a space, and which tempts the more active children to chase each other and run havoc on my classroom management. Yes, I lack a full set of the instruments I really need to make this work. Yes, I can only present a half year's curriculum, because in January I move to a different school to do the same curriculum there. And yes, many of the classes are much too large, and populated with children who have extreme behavior issues.

But, but, but:

For many of these children, music is the highlight of their week. So many of them come from disadvantaged home lives, with parents who are drug dealers, sex workers, working poor, homeless. It shows in their behavior, in the way some of them react so violently if I raise my voice at all, in the ways they simply cannot control themselves as they dart around the room, call attention to themselves, distract everyone else in their classes. These children are well known throughout the school--"frequent fliers," we call them--and we're all working to make school the place that makes a difference for them, that keeps them from winding up in the justice system. Twice a week, I give them an experience that makes them smile, laugh, tell me on the way out that it was FUN today. When I hold up a pair of drum sticks, a tambourine, a hand drum, there's a chorus of "Me! Me! Me!"--even though I've made it clear I'll pick the quiet, patient children first to play instruments. They want badly to make music. I make a difference in their lives.

And then there are the "good" ones, the children who try futilely to shush the attention-demanders because they really do want to learn, and they understand that the more disruption there is, the less they'll get from the lesson. I don't know what kind of homes these kids come from, but they are the majority of my students, and they are a pleasure to teach.

Many days, I am treated like a hero by my students. They hug me as they arrive at school, grin when they come in for music class, laugh at my stories, wave excitedly at me like I'm a rock star when I pass through the cafeteria. I get more affirmation from a day here than I had in all the time I was in Banks.

It's hard work, no question. I'm lucky that my hours are so limited. I couldn't maintain this focus much longer than I do.

And as hard as it is, I love it. I do wish I'd spent more time doing it earlier in my life, that I hadn't so quickly given up on it in 1985 to plunge down the dead end rabbit hole of ministry. What I'm doing right now is the truest ministry I've ever had, and my biggest regret is that I've got less than two more decades to do it.

Don't get me wrong, I wish I had more time to spend with my loved ones. That's why I'm leaving my Sunday morning piano gig, and am not taking on anymore private students. There is a balance that must be struck.

But at the end of this day, as tired as I am, as sore as my injured foot is, I'm thrilled to be doing this work, and I want to keep doing it as long as I'm physically able.

Eat your heart out, office drones: I have the best job in the world. You should be so lucky.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Gravity Is Still Not My Friend


Ow ow ow ow ooooowwwwww!!!!

I was putting away groceries last night when I was reminded of one of the liabilities of using either cloth or plastic grocery bags: a 24-ounce jar of pickles, unsupported by the limp fabric around it, fell off the counter. It did not break on the floor, though, because it was cushioned by my foot--more specifically, the little toe of my left foot.

I limped to the sofa, put my foot up, and accepted a bag of ice cubes from Amy, as well as a handful of ibuprofen. I've had a couple more doses today. My toe didn't keep me from working today, and as always, I was on my feet almost the entire day. Toward afternoon, it began to hurt again, but I soldiered on, doing a vigorous swing dance with my students. Once the last class was out the door, though, the endorphins fizzled and I suddenly remembered I was in pain. So much for working out after school.

It's sore and swollen, but nowhere near as badly as the toe I stubbed a couple of years ago while running on a park trail. Even so, I'm going to be taking it to an urgent care clinic this evening, probably getting it x-rayed, and who knows after that? Hopefully not an air cast; that would make the movement part of my classes really awkward.

All this on top of the tumble I took yesterday as I was walking backward through the gym, trying to monitor overly enthusiastic students during that jazz dance I mentioned. I forgot I had set out some traffic cones to keep kids on the right side of the gym. I fell on my hip, and wound up with sore spots on a rib and shoulder.

I've said it before, enough times to make it a catch phrase, and I'll say it again, and probably keep saying it until it achieves its final victory, and I'm lowered into the ground: gravity is not my friend.

It's not your friend, either. Of all the forces of nature that can kill you, gravity is the most relentless, because it's always there. Trip on a crack, and you may not break your mother's back, but you'll likely leave several square inches of skin on the pavement. Forget your grocery bags are cloth, rather than paper, and you may break a toe. Neglect to put on the brakes as you're skiing down a slope, and you may dislocate a shoulder. As you age, gravity becomes more lethal: I'm lucky the fall in the gym didn't break my hip, as happened to my father several years ago. It also becomes less flattering, injecting the element of sag into one's face and other body parts.

My biggest beef with gravity, though, continues to be evenly divided between bodily injury and property damage. I'm a big man, with long arms and legs and huge feet. I bump into things. I knock things over. I drop things. Those things get broken. And sometimes the things that get broken are attached to me, as when my 9-year-old arm was badly broken just one game into the Little League season. I spent that summer wearing a heavy plaster cast, and never did become the great slugger of my dreams. (Which was, to be honest, not going to happen. As an outfielder, I would pray through every inning that there would not be a hit to me--and it being Little League, there very rarely was.)

As I age, the possibility of injury haunts me more than it used to. I took up cross country skiing at 39, and within two years, gave myself an enormous hematoma on one hip that took months to heal, and dislocated my right shoulder. Neither of those scared me away from the sport. But then, in 2006, my father's foot became snarled in some power cords at the library, and he fell, breaking his hip. He never really recovered from that injury, and now spends most of his time in a wheelchair. True, he was 80 at the time of the accident; but I'm 52, and there are a lot of mountains I still want to climb. One bad fall in the gym could put a severe brake on my adventure life.

I try to tell myself how important gravity actually is: it's what keeps us attached to the thin habitable skin of our planet; it makes possible many of the pastimes I enjoy; without it, there'd be no playing the piano, as just pushing a key would cause a pianist to drift away from the instrument. So it's probably all right if it sometimes can be such a jerk.

But jerk it is, unfriendly, doctrinaire, insisting on its own way. Gravity will go on not being my friend, or your friend, either, as long as life exists on this planet. If we evolve (and progress) enough to someday really live in space, we may have the chance to divorce ourselves from this invisible force that glues our cosmos together, may even come to miss the solid sense of connection with the Earth, the sound our feet make as we walk, run, dance. And really, I do accept that gravity is as important to my life as oxygen.

I just wish it wasn't so stuck on dropping things.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Boondoggle


A couple of weeks ago, there was a story going around the internet about how the State Department had commissioned a Vermont company to make 12,000 pieces of official stem- and barware for American embassies around the world, with a price tag of 5 million dollars, one day before the Republican-engineered government shutdown. People posting links to the story on Facebook were shocked, shocked that such a wasteful contract would be pushed through at a time when clearly the government was running out of money, and, further, that so much was being spent on these glasses (and yes, $416 apiece is spendy by any calculation) when perfectly good glassware could be had at  Walmart. And yes, that's the argument that was being made.

This scandalous purchase--5 million dollars to an American company for products that would be made by Americans for use in American embassies, where trade with America is promoted by American diplomats--came at a time when Republican brinksmanship was costing the American economy somewhere between 3.1 and 24 billion dollars. My Yankee mother used to refer to hypocrisy like this as "the pot calling the kettle black."

Back in my younger years, there was a Senator from Wisconsin by the name of William Proxmire. Senator Proxmire considered himself a pork-hawk, rooting out boondoggle projects from the federal budget and awarding the "Golden Fleece" prize to them with much fanfare. The publicity served him well: he was elected to five terms in the Senate, and in his last two campaigns, did not need to spend a penny on the election apart from the filing fee. Many of his targets were scientific research projects, especially those involving space exploration. One area of porkbarrel spending that did not receive a golden fleece award, however, was dairy subsidies--an important source of income for Proxmire's Wisconsin constituents.

Screaming "pork" at the federal budget is popular sport for Republicans in general, Tea Partiers in particular, but Proxmire was a Democrat. The reality of Proxmire's blinders toward his own pork-mongering is that, as Tip O'Neill famously said, "All politics is local." Politicians may be elected to office on national issues, but bringing home the bacon is what gets them reelected. Any senator or representative who does not funnel at least some federal spending back to his or her home state or district will not long be holding a seat in the Capitol.

Personally, I've got a far bigger bone to pick with these deficit hawks than the hypocrisy of their pork-hunting. We have become so eager to cut taxes and then slash budgets to make up for the missing revenue that this country is falling apart. Our children attend school in buildings that would collapse in an earthquake, reading tattered textbooks that were out of date years ago. Music, art, drama, physical education are all cut or eliminated at the primary, the intermediate, and, increasingly, the secondary level. Bridges are collapsing, national parks are unsupervised, poor families are going hungry; pharmaceutical and medical research that could save countless lives is being curtailed; and research that could revolutionize our understanding of the universe, both at the micro and the macro levels, never gets past the proposal level. We are abandoning space exploration, turning inward, cutting ourselves off from anything bigger than our bank balances.

What about private and charitable financing of these projects? If we can't find a grant for it, can't make it generate a profit, do we really need it?

If you know me at all, you know that question was purely rhetorical. In truth, most of what the federal government does for us cannot or will not be done by any private interest--or if it is done by them, will be done at far greater expense, and lower quality, than a federally-funded version.

Consider the National Parks. There was a time when parks were staffed entirely by government employees. Rangers were easy to find, admission prices were low or nonexistent, and Americans roamed freely in these wonderlands of nature and history.

Then came the contractors. Most park services are now contracted out to private companies. Lodges are run by hotel chains, cafeterias by food service companies, camp stores by retailers. Everywhere you look in a national park, you see corporate interests there to make a buck. Their employees are underpaid, relative to true public sector workers, and while they often share the love rangers have for the parks in which they work, they have not dedicated their lives to them; and their employers' first concern is the bottom line.

Last summer, Amy and I spent several days backpacking in Olympic National Park. The ranger station where we entered the park was shuttered, and we encountered not a single ranger while we were there, most likely a result of the sequester. There was no one patrolling the trails, no one monitoring activity at camp sites, no one checking to make sure we were all right, no one watching out for yahoos knocking over scenic wonders for kicks. It was almost eerie, especially in contrast to last summer, when our visit to Arches National Park was blessed with several positive ranger contacts. There just isn't money for these uniformed naturalists anymore--those that hadn't already lost their jobs to concessions.

Now consider pharmaceutical research. The argument is often made that Big Pharma is investing billions in identifying new medications that will benefit all humankind. That argument does not take into account the bottom line: unless there's an adequate market for a drug, Big Pharma's not interested. Medical conditions that affect only a small percentage of Americans see little or no private research in their behalf. Once the medications that are created come to market, they come with enormous price tags, thanks to the medical monopolies encouraged by American law.

The harsh truth of the matter is that medical conditions that only affect thousands, as opposed to millions, are only studied with funding from the federal government. If there's not enough money to be made, corporate medicine is simply not interested.

The same goes for infrastructure and public education: if it's not going to improve someone's annual financial statement, it won't get done. Corporate dollars coming to education are aimed at preparing children to be corporate drones, to become the kinds of workers who will create the next generation of profit-friendly merchandise. The arts and physical education offer no obvious benefits to this picture, and go unfunded as a result. Without public funding, all that makes school worthwhile to our children dries up.

I could go on with this listing of programs and projects, but I won't. The point I'm making is simply this: all that makes our nation great, that injects the most energy into our economy, that once made us the envy of the world, came from federal, not private, spending. Those federal dollars keep many a state economy simmering, and sometimes boiling, through hard economic times. The research projects that seem like golden fleece to some may be improving the lives of many further down the road, and will do it far more efficiently than any profit-driven corporate work ever could.

And that stemware? What would it say to an ambassador from a foreign power to attend a state banquet at an American embassy and find a "made in China" sticker on a wineglass?

Impressions matter. As true as it might be in today's climate, I'd rather not have that diplomat thinking of the United States as a country so down on its luck that it can't afford a decent piece of crystal.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Our National Tantrum


I love my students.

I always have. It's what brought me back to teaching after my long side trip into ministry, and it's what's kept me teaching through steep professional learning curves, lay-offs, underemployment, and problem students.

That last item is what occasions this post: some students are hard to love. And yet I love them all the same.

Teaching music in elementary schools, I see all age levels from kinder to tween. Over the years, I've created my own categories to help me deal with discipline problems. Some children are attention-seekers who just want to know the teacher cares about them. Often I can channel this need into performing a simple task: have one of them be the first to model a clapping game with me, and they'll be on board for the rest of the lesson. Others are looking for the firmness they don't get at home. I have to be stricter with these children than I personally like to be, but so long as am intentional about tamping down any anger I may be feeling, and still including them in the lesson, they eventually come around. And then there are the feral children.

These are the hardest nuts to crack: children who have no sense of how to behave in a school setting, who run rampant through class, assaulting other children, racing around the teaching space (much more of a problem in the gym I'm teaching in than it was in my tiny classroom in Hood River), treating music like their own personal jungle gym. Most of these children are kindergarteners who did not attend preschool, and thus have not yet been socialized to an educational setting. Occasionally they're older: I've had a number of first graders who fit the model, and in one case, a second grade, a recent immigrant from Albania who appeared not to speak any English. With time, these children become more socialized, are integrated into the learning community, and mature into normal developmental patterns.

As hard as it is to deal with this last group, I still care for them. I frequently use traffic cones to divide the gymnasium into more manageable areas, a concept that is still lost on some of the kinders. Friday, during a kindergarten class, I was addressing a minor blow-up in one corner of the gym, and turned around to find a half dozen boys performing pole-dancing moves on one of those cones. It's heart-breaking to imagine what must be going on in their homes, and as shocked as I was by their behavior, I mostly felt compassion. (And not to worry, I also wrote them up so their classroom teacher can make some inquiries.) When small children are aggressive or disruptive, it usually means something's going on, or has previously happened, in their home lives that needs to be addressed, and I certainly can't blame them for whatever led to this behavior.

And then there was the dynamic duo.

Last year, in Banks, there were two high-risk students who landed in the choir because there was no other class that would take them. They constantly called attention to themselves, and no amount of intervention with administrators or parents made a difference. They were frequently suspended for a variety of reasons, including using drugs on campus (which helps explain their frequent "party hearty" behavior in choir). Toward the end of their time in choir, they seemed to be playing a game to see how quickly they could get thrown out of class. Whenever they were, the rest of the class would visibly relax, eager to finally get down to the business of rehearsing--though by then I was usually a wreck inside.

After a semester of constant struggle, they finally left the choir, but so did almost half the remaining students, completely burned out on the experience. The remaining nine worked hard through the second semester, and came close to qualifying for the state choir festival. I'm very proud of them for that, but when I think about choir last year, mostly I feel bruised. Over the summer, I got a drunk call from the duo--in one of my many efforts to alter their behavior, I had left my cell number on the voice mail of one of their parents (she never called back)--and found myself experiencing some post-traumatic shock.

And yet, still, I can't help thinking there must have been something in those children's lives that put them on this path, that has festered and gone septic and will continue dragging them down: some incident of abuse, some pattern of neglect, some trauma they may not even remember, something that just really is not their fault. I worry about them, what sort of lives they have ahead of them as they burn out school after school, leaving a trail of wounded classmates, teachers, counselors, social workers, parole officers, sponsors, until finally--if they're lucky, and it's not too late--they hit bottom and begin to heal. Whatever happened to trigger this pattern of destruction, they didn't choose it, and for that I cannot help but pity them.

Which brings me to the House of Representatives and, more specifically, the Tea Party contingent of the Republican caucus.

From its first primal protestations against the Bush-instigated banks bail-out, the Tea Party has seemed more aptly named for a favorite game of toddlers than a colonial act of civil disobedience. (They also seem to enjoy the game of dress-up, but that's a whole other story.) Their know-nothing rants against health insurance reform succeeded in turning what could have been a watershed event in the expansion of democracy into a half-decade (so far) slog toward incremental improvements, with the one truly revolutionary piece--and I mean revolutionary in the way that "no taxation without representation" was revolutionary--so riddled with concessions to the industry that the online roll-out broke the servers. The Affordable Care Act is the chimera it is due to futile efforts to appease the Tea Party, futile because, in the end, all their protests were, and continue to be, an infantile tantrum.

When it became clear the screaming would not succeed, that the legislation had become law, that the ruthless sine quo non of democracy, putting it to a vote, was never going to break in their favor, they moved on to the final resort of the tantruming toddler: violence. For a few years, I had a toddler in my home who, in the depths of a tantrum, would throw furniture. Seriously. After 40 attempts to overturn the ACA, the Tea Party started throwing fiscal furniture.

When a toddler is endangering the other children with his or her violent behavior, the teacher or parent has no alternative but to shut things down. There is no negotiating with a tantrum, even if it is based on a reasonable complaint. When children begin screaming, when all semblance of civilized behavior is jettisoned in favor of running and pushing and hitting, it's time to isolate the perpetrators. In my classroom, a time out usually takes care of such behaviors, but in rare instances, I have to call in help. So far this year, I've had two children removed from my class, and they've both come back the next time in a far more cooperative frame of mind. In the case of those high school bullies disrupting the choir, it was a trip to the office--which, unfortunately, just seemed to pour gasoline on the flames of their year-long tantrum. One thing that is accomplished by such measures is bringing the parent into the situation, which can often make a huge difference--though, again, not in the case of those high school students.

The Tea Party faction on Capitol Hill got its time out in the form of a government shutdown. Sixteen days of plummeting polls and the threat of national default seems finally to have gotten through to the overly permissive parents in this scenario, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker of the House John Boehner, and finally the Tantrum Partiers were voted down. And several wasted billions later, the government is again operating--for now.

I don't know how long this will last. The "concession" our nation's principal, President Obama, made was to negotiate with the tantrumers. Speaking as both a parent and a teacher, I'm extremely skeptical this will avoid another explosion. When toddlers get stuck on having to have their way about something they simply cannot have, the only real solution for the adults in the room is to create some kind of work around. In a classroom, that can be a difficult thing to work out. It has to be something that will distract the problem children from their rage long enough to get the lesson back on track. The one thing that cannot be done is to reward the tantrum with attention. The time for attention is after the flames have died out; that's when talking about whatever caused the tantrum in the first place can yield productive results.

The workaround in Congress is far easier to accomplish, because it's been there all along: allow the House of Representatives to be truly representative. Instead of forcing the Republican caucus to act as a bloc, let each Congressperson vote on every issue. This violates the so-called "Hastert Rule," a Republican principle that blocks the Democrats from any kind of meaningful participation, and it may endanger Boehner's Speakership, but really, people: how many billions is that worth?

That is, ultimately, how the shutdown ended: Democrats and moderate Republicans were allowed to finally vote on a clean resolution to fund the government. The Tea Party screamed bloody murder, then went off to pout. They're still out there, and there's no guarantee they won't try exactly the same thing early next year, when the debt ceiling comes up yet again. The long term solution is, of course, simply to remove the dangerous weapon from the playroom, and repeal the very notion of a debt ceiling, but that will take far more adult behavior from everyone to realize.

I'm off to school now. Hopefully my students will behave with more maturity than the Tea Party has ever demonstrated. I fully expect they will.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Commonweal


I teach in a gym.

Considering how important movement is to teaching music the Orff way, this space has many advantages. My students can make grand sweeping movements without fear of smacking anyone else in the face. I can teach them line dances, and never worry about someone colliding with a wall. I can separate the gym into two separate spaces, one for movement, the other for instruments. When we do body percussion, the hardwood floor makes a satisfying "smack" whenever students stomp their feet.

And there the advantages end.

The acoustics of a gymnasium cause my impaired ears to overload on a regular basis. I'd say it's like teaching in a barn, except that a barn has natural echo-reduction built into it in the forms of hay and straw. I expect this also contributes to the hyperactivity of some of my students: sensory overload, the stress of hearing so much noise and not being able to understand words. And then there's the temptation to run, screaming, because it is, after all, a gym.

I teach in a gym because the schools where I teach (Margaret Scott until the end of January, then Hartley for the rest of the school year) turned their music rooms into regular classrooms. They didn't have much choice in the matter: student populations increased, but there was no money to expand the school buildings; and it happened at a time when music (and also PE, but that was perfectly at home in the gym) had been eliminated from the curriculum by a budget cut. Now these programs have been restored, but only half-time at each site. The only place I can teach in either building is the gym, and I can do it without fear of interruption by the PE teacher, because she's on the reverse of my schedule.

These schools are lucky to have any music at all. Sure, it's only half a year in each place, and it's in the gym, but in Banks, the district I just left for this one, it is now the fifth year that there has been neither music nor PE in the elementary school; and it seems likely that next year will be the sixth. It's not just the smaller, poorer districts in Oregon that have made these cutbacks: Portland made similar cuts three years ago, and is only now putting back music due to a voter-approved arts tax, and Beaverton is now in its second year of reduced music for elementary schools.

There was a time when such cuts would have been unthinkable. Music was a necessity, not a luxury, for the young child. Music educators were actually in demand. Oregon state law required every child receive a musical education. Public schools, the incubators in which children's physical, emotional, aesthetic, and physical maturation took place, were universally accepted to be the foundation upon which American democracy was built. The very idea of imposing austerity on the education of our children was anathema. All American society took on the responsibility of educating the complete child. This was part of the far larger task of building the commonweal, the great community of which we are all a part. Bring up the youngest members of society with an appreciation of the arts and we all benefit. In the same way, social safety nets ministered to the needs of the less fortunate, those unable to work due to disability or economic downturns. Even the mentally ill were cared for by this sense of community.

Not anymore. Starting with the property tax revolt of the late 1980s, school districts throughout the United States have come under the knife as funding began to dry up. A common complaint was that of the elderly taxpayer who didn't want to finance the education of someone else's children. "Why should I pay for your services?" became, over time, the one-size-fits-all answer to any request for revenue.

And look where it's gotten us: poor school districts, both urban and rural, cutting out every program that makes education enjoyable for students, and helps those students become whole adults, not just automatons who can fill in bubbles on standardized tests; mentally ill homeless people roaming the streets; roads and bridges falling apart with no money available to repair them; public parks, formerly free to all, requiring more and higher user fees, while rangers are laid off; poor people working multiple jobs, forced to leave their children unattended with no affordable day care available, and Head Start programs closing due to the government shutdown: it's as if none of us wants to take responsibility for making the world better for all of us.

That is, in fact, what has happened. Nobody likes to pay taxes, but until very recently, people understood that their taxes existed to make society as a whole a better place. Taxes paid for fire and police departments, roadwork, libraries, museums, public schools, medical research, mental hospitals, parks, and so much more that makes life better for everyone. I might grumble at my tax bill, but when I thought about what it was supporting, I paid it willingly. This is the commonweal: As a citizen, I offer up a portion of my income to create a community, a state, a nation of which I can be proud, even if I never take advantage of some of the services for which I am paying.

In contrast, consider the libertarian America toward which we appear to be heading. Parents pay tuition for their children to attend school, the fire department refuses to save your house until your credit card goes through, everyone pays admission to visit the city park, medical research is reserved for drugs with profit-generating potential, and the poor have nowhere to live but the street--until desperation drives them to crime. The rich get richer, the poor get prison.

Not all of America is descending to this dystopia. Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, New York--there are many cities in which citizens have voted to turn the clock back, to restore funding to programs that have been eliminated for lack of revenue. But even on a city level, this is no way to build the commonweal. If the United States of America is to ever be a great nation on a par with the foreign powers that understand the connection between taxation and the common good, we must return ourselves to a system in which I am happy to have my taxes building infrastructure in Arkansas, tending to patients in Wisconsin, keeping parks open in Utah, and maintaining the arts and physical education for every child, everywhere.

Yes, it's going to sting in the pocket book. But there's no other way. Stepping back from the libertarian nightmare and into the commonweal means raises taxes, and I don't just mean on the wealthy. It means middle class professionals like me will have to pay more.

In the long run, it will be to everyone's financial betterment. Taxes for the commonweal are an investment in our economy. Building infrastructure--and that includes expanding schools so music teachers have their own rooms once more--injects money into the economy, even as improved roads make shipping and travel more efficient. Investing this way, spending collectively on services that benefit the whole community, will ultimately mean higher levels of income for everyone. It's Econ 101.

When this finally gets through the thick heads of the obstacles on Capitol Hill, when they finally let go of the crazy notion that the way out of an economic downturn is to starve the economy even more, then maybe, just maybe, we'll start growing back into a nation we can all be proud of, a place in which the ill are cared for, the poor are housed and fed, and music teachers can finally get their rooms back.

I'd happily pay higher taxes for a world like that. How about you?

Shutdown!

December 26, 1995, I set off on a vision quest. I had been separated (and eventually divorced) from my first wife for just over a year, and was embarking on what was to be (though I had no idea at the time) the endgame of my career as a United Methodist minister. The locale of my quest was to be Utah, more specifically the many National Parks that blanket much of that state. Given the state of my soul—I felt very much that I had been shut out of my marriage, and was beginning to feel that I was to be shut out of my vocation, as well—it seems (in retrospect) apt that I was shut out of most of those National Parks, as well, and had to find alternative wonders to explore.

And why, you may ask, was I shut out of the parks? Actually, you probably don’t need to ask, because after eighteen years, the phenomenon is back: Republicans are holding the nation hostage to their demands, and the federal government has been shut down.

I found plenty to gape at in Utah; it became, and remains, my favorite place in the world to find the perspective that comes from surrounding oneself with natural wonders millions of years in the making. But I was stunned then, just as I am now, by the audacity of a political party cramming its agenda down the collective throat of the nation even as it becomes clear the vast majority of voters is not on board with that agenda.

I am a public employee now. I teach music in a school in which more than 90% of students are on free or reduced lunches. When they go home at night, many of them are fed meals purchased with the help of the WIC—Women, Infants, and Children—program, a federal subsidy that helps poor mothers purchase food for themselves and their children. WIC is in shut-down mode thanks to the political gun the Republican Congress is holding to the nation’s head, which means those children I see every day are going hungry.

I’m fortunate that my salary is paid by a local school district, funded by the state of Oregon. National Parks employees are not so fortunate. Nor, I learned during our weekend trip to Bend (and our climb up Black Butte) are Forest Service rangers. I assume that the eventual restoration of government will mean this public servants receiving back pay, but in the meantime, I hope they’ve got an adequate fiscal cushion to pay their rent, utilities, and grocery bills—unlike Congressman Lee Terry, who has a mortgage on a “nice house” to pay, and won’t be forgoing his paycheck as a result.

This crisis started over an insane plan to accomplish through extortion what dozens of symbolic votes could not: the overturning of the Affordable Care Act, a law of the land providing millions of previously uninsured Americans with health insurance. Written to protect the absurd for-profit bureaucracy of the insurance industry from being scrapped in favor of a far more efficient and cost-effective single-payer system, the ACA is far from perfect, but it does mean that many of the working poor—several hundred of whom have children at my school—will, for the first time in their lives, be able to receive medical care somewhere other than an emergency room. It’s the law of the land, passed by both houses of Congress, signed by the President, and ratified by his reelection in 2012. And, in the minds of the Grand Obsolete Party, it must be stopped at any cost.

Words cannot contain the fury I feel over this. So I’m going to leave it here. And maybe write something more specific about the magical thinking on the hard right side of the aisle.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Short Cuts


There are times when ideals have to be seasoned with pragmatism.

I mostly keep my hair short these days. Very short. I go in to Great Clips and ask for a clipper cut, 5 comb on the top, 4 on the sides. The reasons are twofold: with my hair this short, shampooing is a snap, and I can do it with any soapy liquid; and more importantly, I've concluded that my receding hairline has finally reached the point at which I just look better with a buzz cut. Any concessions to vanity in the form of longer hair soon takes on the aspect of a comb-over, and if allowed to get too long, can become Hitleresque. Better just to keep it short. Very short.

This is in stark contrast with my youthful preference for hair that came down to my collar, and occasionally beyond. I was a frustrated hippie wannabe. I had a cousin whose ponytail went all the way down to his waist, but I never quite summoned up the gumption to go that far. Mostly I went for shaggy. But it's been years since I could pull that off, so the bohemian ideal of the artist's do has been sacrificed on the twin altars of taste and convenience.

And with that, I turn back to discussing classroom management in general and, more specifically, extrinsic and intrinsic motivation.

In my previous discussions of this issue, I've come down hard on the side of intrinsic motivation as the only ethical choice for either an educator or a religious person. The moment at which one's choices are motivated by fear of punishment or the promise of reward, those choices cease to contribute to long-term retention of the behavior or learning at issue. If I only study to avoid penalties or to earn prizes, I'm never going to realize that the content I'm studying is worth my time. I won't learn to love it for itself.

That's my ideal, in a nutshell: unwrap the subject in such a way as to captivate my students, and they will love it for life. And I do believe that with all my heart.

The reality of my work, however, is that not every student can be motivated by the inherent coolness of music. Most of them can, and that's what keeps me motivated from one day to the next. But a significant minority need more. They've got to be coaxed into giving the music a chance, into letting it into their hearts past the attention-demanding, classroom-disrupting behavior they bring through the door of the gym. And so I have an additional incentive for good conduct: "Corral Cards," light referrals that result in notes going home to parents about how a student has been disruptive, disrespectful, unsafe.

I wrote one yesterday for a third grader who'd been excessively sassy, continuing to talk back to me as I was correcting him for talking back in the first place. This morning he presented me with a written apology, clearly written with a parent leaning over his shoulder. I expect the next time he starts to feel his oats, all I'll need to do is direct his attention to the clipboard with the corral card, and he'll  clean up his act. The rest of the class will benefit as a result, able to more completely concentrate on the lesson thanks to the reduced distraction.

This is the ethical compromise I'm having to make: in order to reach the majority of students who are intrinsically motivated by the music I'm sharing with them, I have to dabble in extrinsically coercing their less cooperative classmates into giving me, and the rest, a chance to have a learning experience together.

It's a compromise I see being made throughout the school. Today I witnessed the kindergarten teacher I help at bus time using a system of awarding points to tables that were quietly waiting to be dismissed. This is the most feral bunch of kindergartners I've ever had to work with, and they were, every single one of them, sitting patiently. And then came the reward: each child received a chocolate. It worked.

So is that what it comes to? Buying good behavior with candy? Certainly that bothers me, but I can't but acknowledge that these children have been in need of major domestication since day one. When they come out to the gym for music, class frequently devolves into chasing them down as they rampage through the room, often endangering each other with their thoughtless actions. If the cost of getting them to sit quietly and attentively for five minutes is a tiny piece of chocolate, perhaps it's worth it. I know for certain there's very little learning going on when I have to play kitten wrangler for the entire time they're with me.

This is true with the older children, as well: I can't teach effectively when even just a couple of students are acting out, raising their voices, banging away on instruments when they haven't yet received permission or instruction, teasing others, whittling away at the minimal instructional time I've got.

The dirty secret of it all is that extrinsic motivation works: it stops the misbehavior. Like a shot of caffeine to a drowsy truck driver, it ups the attention span, generates enough focus for me to get the lesson in front of my students. It's the same with competition, a motivator that many in the Orff world eschew, but which has salvaged many a music lesson from the complaint of boredom. I'd rather not use it--I really don't believe in it--but it works, by golly. It gets them to attend and cooperate, and if I can't get them to do that, I can't teach them anything.

You won't see elaborate star charts, or promises of video days or pizza parties or any of the other tricks other teachers use in my classroom; but you will see me (thank you, Tim Wiegand, for this idea) singling out well-behaved students to have first choice of the cool instruments; holding out the possibility of referral as a brake on behavior that is running far too hot; and the fun of competition to keep kids focused and on task. I won't push these tricks, but they'll be on my tool belt.

Because, bottom line, I'm here to teach, and if a little icing on the music cake makes it more appetizing to the finicky students in my classes, then so be it.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Because I Say So!

On the white board in the gym where I teach music I have written a set of four expectations, boiled down to just a few words:

1. One Voice (translation: in the big boomy space that is the gym, we can only have one person talking at a time, and I will decide who that person is).

2. Move--no running or jumping! (Yes, we meet in a gym, but when I'm there, it's the music room, and we will not be endangering each other by jumping for basketball nets or running during movement lessons.)

3. Permission (I will let students know when it's time to play an instrument. Until then, consider them off limits.)

4. Respect (Me, the instruments, each other).

There's an after-school program that meets in the gym afternoons. A couple of mornings ago, I came in to set things up, and discovered one of the Boys & Girls Club leaders had added a couple of words to number 4 on my list, so that it now read:

RESPECT MY AUTHORITY
 
I smiled for a moment, knowing exactly what that young man was trying to get across to a recalcitrant fifth grader (I have a strong suspicion who the child might have been), then erased the extra words. Because here's the thing: I don't respect authority. Which is a problem.
 
It's a family problem. Anderson men are notorious for calling bullshit on self-important poobahs who expect people to kowtow to their opinions simply because they've got a piece of paper hanging on their walls that labels them Master of This or Doctor of That. We may take our marching orders from these potentates, but if we think those orders are questionable, then by golly we question them; and if it comes down to "Because I'm the boss," then we grit our teeth and do what we're told, but there's no illusion of respecting the authority that issued them. Needless to say, we tend to burn through jobs rather quickly, especially when we're in our 20s. Okay, also in our 30s. But I think I finally outgrew it at 40. Or at least learned how to mask it a little better, because I've not had a job since then in which it "just wasn't working."
 
But back to the smartassery that has cost me and, I think, my brothers, and possibly my father, a great deal of job security over the years. In this, as in so many other philosophical matters, I find myself turning to a Biblical text:
 
Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes. (Matthew 7:28-29)
 
I've long found justification in this passage for my skepticism toward those who use degrees and professional certificates to declare their superior wisdom to the world. True authority, I've believed, comes from actually knowing what you're talking about, knowledge that comes from experience, shaped by intelligence and ethics.
 
Which brings us to the real crux of the matter: the word "Why?" It's a word that can induce conniptions in an authority figure who expects respect without first earning it, and can lead to the declaration "Because I said so!" In a situation with a power imbalance, such a pronouncement can get immediate results, but will ultimately lead to even deeper rebellion on the part of the underling or student who knows it to be the last resort of the despot. And I will readily admit to knowing just how empty those words were every time I said them to my children or my students.
 
For the last few days, I've started every music class with a visual: a broken maraca. I hold it up, demonstrate how one entire face of the instrument has sheared off from the whole. I know what comes next: "Who did that?" someone asks. I've been working on my answer, shifting it away from "I don't know, but it could have been anyone..." to "You all did." The point I make is that there is a right way to treat these instruments, and if they don't follow my instructions--if, for instance, they hit two maracas against each other, or on the floor, or with a drumstick, instead of shaking them in the air--this could happen. I then expand it to a lesson about all the instruments they'll be playing during that lesson: the claves that must not be hit too hard, or they will splinter; the guiros that could suffer the same fate as the maraca, unless they're simply scraped (and not sawn, as so many attempt to do); and the hand drums that are to be played with hands, not sticks, which could punch holes in them. I leave out the triangles: they can take it. The overall message is one of respect for these instruments, of which we do not have an unlimited supply.
 
Having that visual in my hand lends far more authority to the lesson than simply telling them what to do. Now when I take a maraca or a guiro or a drum away from a child for abusing the instrument, he or she has a far better reason than "because I say so."
 
I'm not done saying so, by the way. I've been in this job for just a month. Some of these students are still feeling me out, figuring out just what I'll let them get away with, testing my resolve, challenging the authority of the staff ID badge I wear around my neck. Earlier this week I had to resort to telling one that he was to obey because I'm the teacher, and when that still didn't get him to back down, to call in the principal. By the time she arrived, the situation was mostly defused, but there was still a need for her to remove the student in question and do some explaining about appropriate responses to teacher directives. He was much better yesterday, but the initial confrontation was rough.
 
The roughest part is that I know I haven't yet earned my authority. I'm winning a lot of these students over with my lessons, but there are some older kids who need more than that. They need to see that I'm consistently firm in my discipline, and that no matter how many of my buttons they push, they won't get a rise out of me--though they will get themselves referred. The respect I seek from them will take longer than it will with the little ones and the intermediates, who (right up to fourth grade) are predisposed to honoring adult authority. For myself, though, even with the littles, I will be working to deserve this gift of respect they give so freely; and pragmatically working to earn it from the older children, as well.
 
Talking less helps. I learned earlier this week that spoken (and diagrammed: I put it on the board) instructions suffer from the "Too Long Didn't Listen" curse, and no amount of reiteration can cure that. Modeled instructions, on the other hand, punctuated with nonverbal claps and mouth noises, get them all to moving and paying attention as they wonder what I'll do next.
 
And this, it seems to me, is the source of true authority, the kind that anyone can respect: what I do, not what I say. Learn the lesson that way, and it's not just that you'll internalize it better. You'll also see that I know the subject matter so intimately I can teach it without talking about it, show rather than tell. One demonstration, properly delivered, is worth an entire printed curriculum.
 
The principal at Margaret Scott School is also new to the district. Many of the teachers at Scott have been there for years. The principal put some new procedures in place before the year started, and there was a great deal of skepticism about them; but I'm coming to sense a grudging respect emerging from my colleagues as they realize she does know what she's talking about, that these policies do make sense (and she did patiently answer every "Why?" the staff asked when she presented them), that they really do put the welfare of the students ahead of the inconvenience they may cause. In this first month of school, I've seen her working diligently, compassionately, putting in many more hours than the far lighter load that has me dozing off at 8 p.m. She's earning my respect the right way, showing us how it's done, with warmth and humility.
 
And that's what I call authority.