Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Preacher

Sunday morning in Fort Bragg, California, 1961: my mother, my father, and me.

For 25 years, I heard my father answer the telephone with the greeting, "Pastor Elam." I loved this friendly, informal touch. In public settings, others would call him "Reverend Anderson," and I appreciated this, too: my father was a man of distinction who held an office worthy of respect. Once I began serving churches, I called myself "Pastor Mark," and encouraged others to dispense with the formality of "Reverend." But in my first church, a rural chapel in southern Illinois, I was called something else: "Preacher." I heard this from many of my parishioners, in the same way, now that I'm in a classroom, my students will often just call me "Teacher." At the end of that student pastorate, I returned to Oregon for a month, and shared with Dad the title my flock had called me by. He smiled sadly and told me he'd been wishing for his entire career to have someone call him "Preacher," because in his mind, the most important thing he did was the twenty minutes on Sunday morning when he expounded on God's word before his congregation. He retired two years later, and as far as I know, never was called by the title he had so coveted.

Consult any church's official rulebook on the definition and job description of "pastor" and you'll find a very long paragraph. Pastors are responsible for the spiritual well-being of every member of the church they serve. This entails teaching, counseling, programming, visiting, socializing, leading, and, of course, preaching. And it extends well beyond the boundaries of the congregation. Pastors are expected to be active in their communities, presenting the public face of the church, caring for the marginalized, belonging to committees and councils, engaging in diplomacy with leaders of other churches and faith communities, and reaching out to the unchurched. Globally, pastors must be active in their denominational bodies and work to connect their local congregations with mission work in other parts of the world. And finally--and often most difficultly--pastors are expected to be intentional about their own spiritual welfare, engaging in regular disciplines of study, prayer, and meditation. The flashpoint of all these responsibilities is the worship hour, when the needs and demands of congregation, community, and world are all focused on the person in the pulpit. In the planning and execution of the service, and especially, at least for Protestants of the evangelical tradition, in the proclamation of the word, the pastor brings together the mundane and the sacred in a regularly scheduled "thin place." (Marcus Borg's term for a place where one feels the presence of the ineffable more fully.)

At least, that's how it's supposed to work.

For pastors who take these expectations seriously, ministry is far more than a job. Most pastors won't even refer to it as "work," "employment," or "job." It's a "vocation," from the Latin for "call." Dedicating one's entire life in this way is never an easy thing, and no pastor does it to perfection. Some fail horribly, committing crimes against innocent people, abusing their office, becoming addicts, living double lives, and because of the high expectations of their parish and community, keeping it all a secret until it's just too late. When pastors implode, it's a terrible blow not just to them and their families, but to everyone they work with and around. The ripple effect can cause many to walk away from or never consider joining a church. If they recover, it may take them the rest of their careers to repair the damage they've done. Most never try: once caught having an affair, preaching under the influence, abusing a child, dipping into the emergency fund, they quickly surrender their orders and vanish from public life.

And that's just the monsters. Far more pastors struggle with the demands of their vocations, experience spiritual crises, and either mark time, shuffled from church to church while performing minimal work until they reach early retirement, or, as in my case, are gently ushered out by church leaders and encouraged to find a different line of work that better suits them.

And then there's my father, the Reverend Elam J. Anderson who, though never achieving high office or acclaim in either the American Baptist or the United Methodist Church, lived his vocation with as much integrity as any pastor I've known.

It was never easy for him. Balancing the expectations of demanding congregations with the responsibilities of raising a family cost him on both the home and work fronts. The flexibility of his schedule--he didn't have to be at church until after dropping us off at school, he could come home for lunch every day if he wished, and with the church usually next door to the parsonage, he could be around at many other points throughout the day if he needed to be--caused us to have unrealistic expectations about his availability for parenting. At the same time, he was out far more evenings than most working parents, and he was often late for dinner. He missed most of my high school concerts, which tended to be scheduled on the same evenings as church council meetings. There were times when he drove me to youth meetings in another town, went off to do some visiting, and was far later than I expected picking me up, leading me to wonder if he'd forgotten. While he tried to keep his day off sacrosanct, pastoral emergencies always took precedence over relaxing with his family; and weekends were never free of work. He rarely finished his sermon before Saturday night. Looking back across my entire childhood, I know he was present for me to an exemplary level, but it was never something I could predict.

I know he was diligent about visitation, going from house to house throughout his parish. I know he found meetings stressful, and often came home from them weary and frustrated with a church that refused to be led by its pastor. I remember seeing one book prominently displayed in his library: When the Church Says No. I experienced that frustration myself on many occasions in my short ministerial career.

That frustration came out in his preaching. I heard my father preach hundreds of times. On most Sundays, I would find my mind drifting, and wish I could politely read a book through the sermon. Once in awhile, Dad would tell a story, something I wish he'd done more, as he always held my attention with those illustrations. The other thing that got my attention, uncomfortably, was when he felt the need to be prophetic. Then his voice would rise, and take on the same tone he used when storming up the stairs to break up a fight between his sons, and I'd know there would be a price exacted on him and on us, as his family of cold glares from the church's lay leaders.

Some pastors never take on that tone, never raise their voices in righteous anger, always manage to leave their congregations comforted and encouraged by their sermons. Those pastors usually enjoy long appointments. My father, on the other hand, stayed at churches for an average of three years. That's how long it took for people to tire of being prophesied to, whether from the pulpit or across the meeting table. I remember, in particular, the struggles he had with the church in Philomath, which rejected a request from Head Start to house a preschool. Apart from being an excellent opportunity to be involved in the social needs of the community, renting out space to Head Start would've meant a steady source of income for the church. The church council, though, would have none of it, because they didn't want "those people"--the poor families served by Head Start--on church premises.

Yes, I know, it's blatant hypocrisy, a rejection of all that Jesus stood for, a turning inward from the social justice mandate of even the most conservative denomination; and that's what my father preached the Sunday after that meeting, concluding with a call to join him in prayer, kneeling at the rail, for forgiveness. He knelt by himself as the sanctuary silently emptied.

Miraculously, we didn't move that year, though clearly the church wanted us to. I know my father was called up to Portland to meet with the Bishop who questioned whether he should even still be in ministry, asking him if maybe he should consider leaving to pursue a different vocation. He held fast, though, and pleaded for another year, a fourth year in that place, so that I wouldn't have to move just before my senior year of high school. The Bishop consented, and I was able to graduate with my class the following year, oblivious to what that request had cost him. I attended the same high school for all four years, in fact, a luxury known by none of my younger brothers.

There's a cliche about preachers, that their task is to "comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable." I've known many successful preachers who hewed mostly to the first half of that axiom. I'm sure my father preached many such sermons in his time; but I know it was the latter part of the job that kept him from long pastorates of the kind that allow a pastor to settle down, get to know multiple generations of a congregation, and provide some stability for his family. I know he struggled with this, trying to strike the right balance among the demands of family, congregation, world, and what I know meant most to him, following Christ's example. That he lived that struggle with integrity, that he fully embraced the cost of discipleship, and that he did so without complaint, and in all humility, is the highest praise I can imagine for any Christian who, like my father, aspires to be called "preacher."

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Junior

The Anderson, c. 1932 (from left): Victor, Elam Sr., Elam Jr., Colena, Frances.

Elam Jonathan Anderson, Jr., was born July 8, 1926, in Shanghai, China. His parents, Elam Sr. and Colena, were American Baptist missionaries, sent to Shanghai to run a Chinese-American school. It was a turbulent time in China, with threats of violence both internal and external: the Empire of Japan would, in a few years, be invading and occupying the country, even as Maoists plotted a revolution that would transform China into the world's largest Communist country. Reading the signs of the times, Elam Sr. knew Americans would not be welcome in China much longer, and began working to hand over leadership of his school to indigenous people. This was met with resistance by the American Baptist mission board, so he left his post to found his own school, an academy that would be self-sufficient. In 1932, he was recruited by telegram to become president of Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon. The Andersons loaded all their belongings on a steam ship and set sail for the United States. It was my father's first move.

Dad didn't remember much Mandarin, though his parents were fluent in it, and would converse in it whenever they wanted to keep a topic secret from him. From birth he was known as "Junior," a title he retained well into his 30s. He was a mischievous child, doted on by both parents, and precocious, as well: he became an Eagle Scout at 14, graduated from high school at 16, and received his bachelor's degree in physics at 19. Of my grandfather, I know only a few stories, for he passed away in 1944. After six years at Linfield, he moved the family to southern California, where he was named president of Redlands University, the college my father was to attend. Elam Sr. died suddenly of an aneurysm. Elam Jr. was home that day, and attempted to revive his father using techniques he had learned as a Scout, but was unsuccessful.

Colena remained in Redlands for two years, time enough for her youngest to graduate from the university. Already a freelance writer, she began writing books, and working on her PhD. She was recruited by Linfield to be an English professor and, eventually, Dean of Women. She moved to McMinnville in 1946 to take up residence in a home purchased in her behalf by the current president of the college, and lived there for the remaining 42 years of her life. This was the house my parents moved into at retirement, and yesterday morning, my father died there, in the same room in which his mother had died 26 years earlier.

After Redlands, my father enrolled in the University of Washington's graduate psychology program. He was unhappy there, though, and in the midst of an existential crisis, found encouragement in the person of a professor who encouraged him to take a different path. Rather than finish the psychology degree, he enrolled at the American Baptist Seminary in Berkeley, California, from which he received his Bachelor of Divinity (a graduate degree subsequently upgraded to Master) in 1952. At 26, he was ordained and began serving churches in the Bay Area. Doing that work, he met my mother, Jean Richard, an organ performance major at San Jose State College who played occasionally at a large Baptist church where he was an associate pastor. They began dating, were engaged in 1958, and married in 1960. Nine months later, I was born.

I'm not sure at what point my grandmother, uncle, and aunt stopped calling my father "Junior," and consented to call him by his first name, Elam, though I think it was probably around the time of my birth. After seventeen years living in his father's shadow, it may have just finally seemed right to allow him to stop being the baby of the family, and be a man in his own right. I never heard him called "Junior" except in stories told about his childhood. Hearing his unusual name--I've never met anyone else with it--I always knew he was being addressed or spoken about. Looking at the few photographs I have of him as a child, though, Junior seems quite appropriate. There is an impish quality to his features. He received special attention from his father to, in part, make up for the huge workload and exhausting travel schedule of his father's work as a college president.

Dad didn't speak much about his father, but there were two stories he told and retold, the first to give us a sense of how his father could be simultaneously strict and hilarious, the second to illustrate how important it is to keep promises made to children.

Like most siblings, Elam Jr. and Victor bickered incessantly, often fighting over favorite toys. On one car trip, they'd been fighting over a camera. Their father had kept his cool, silently driving, as their argument went on and on. Suddenly, without warning, his hand appeared between them, plucked up the camera, and tossed it out the window. He didn't have to say a word: they got it, and the argument, apart from being moot, was over.

Growing up in McMinnville, Elam Jr. became a rock hound, an interest he maintained throughout his life. Somehow he learned of a farm in central Oregon where people could go to gather thundereggs, and excitedly told his father about it. As busy as he was, Elam Sr. promised to take his son on an expedition to the rock farm. It must have slipped his mind, though, because some amount of time passed. One day my grandfather looked at his car and decided it needed a new paint job. He took it to a body shop, had the work done, and the car looked new. On arriving back at the house, proudly showing off the polished new paint job, he was reminded by his youngest of the rock hunting expedition. He looked at the lovely shine on the car, sighed, and said, "How about tomorrow?" It's a four hour drive from McMinnville to Madras now; I can't imagine how long it took in 1936. I'm sure much of the road was gravel, and especially once they were on the back 40 of the rock farm, the paint job took some real punishment; but keeping a promise to a child came first. By the time they arrived back in McMinnville, late that night, the car might as well not have been painted at all.

In 1999, I took my father on an expedition to that same rock farm. We collected a bucket of thundereggs, and my father had them cut and polished. One of them sits on my mantle to this day. For years, my father talked glowingly about that trip the two of us took, revisiting a precious memory from his childhood and creating a new one, just for the two of us.

Elam J. Anderson, 1926-2014


Elam J. Anderson

July 8, 1926 – December 29, 2014

The Reverend Elam J. Anderson, 88, passed away on December 29, 2014, at his home in McMinnville, Oregon.

Rev. Anderson was born on July 8, 1926 in Shanghai, China, the son of Elam and Colena Anderson, American Baptist missionaries. The family returned to the United States in 1932, living first in McMinnville, where his father served as president of Linfield College; then in Redlands, California, where Elam Anderson Sr. passed away during his presidency of Redlands University in 1944. Elam Jr. continued his studies at Redlands University, where he earned a Bachelor’s degree in physics. He studied graduate psychology at the University of Washington before enrolling at the Berkeley Baptist Divinity School, from which he received a Master of Divinity in 1952. He served American Baptist congregations in Oakland and San Jose, California, where he met his future wife, Jean Richard; and Fort Bragg, California.

In 1964, Rev. Anderson moved his family to North Charleston, New Hampshire, where he served as pastor of two rural Methodist congregations. In 1966, he became pastor of the Pleasant Street Methodist Church in Salem, New Hampshire, and remained a United Methodist clergyman until his retirement in 1990. He went on to serve churches in Filer, Idaho; Emmett and Sweet, Idaho; Philomath and Alsea, Oregon; Harrisburg and Coburg, Oregon; Monroe, Oregon; and finally Halsey and Shedd, Oregon. Following retirement, he returned to McMinnville, where he spent the rest of his life living in the same house his mother had purchased in 1946.

Rev. Anderson volunteered with the Boy Scouts, and was active in ecumenical work, belonging to ministerial associations in every community he served, and working to build bridges across the theological spectrum. Despite spending most of his career as a United Methodist minister, he remained a Baptist at heart, fiercely independent and dedicated to perceiving and following the right course. He was a lifelong learner, voraciously reading in the fields of history, biography, and science. He was a perpetual tinkerer, servicing his own cars, repairing homes and appliances, building furniture and knick knacks in his woodshop. With the help of his sons, he renovated the McMinnville house from attic to basement. An outdoorsman and naturalist, he loved introducing young people to the wonders of the natural world.

Most of all, Elam Anderson was a devoted husband to his wife, Jean, and father to his five sons, Mark, Stephen, Jonathan, James, and David. As the years passed, he took great delight in his many grandchildren, including foster and step-children coming into the lives of his sons.
In later years, he traveled with his wife, Jean, on long trips, helping her piece together her family tree in Great Britain, New England and the maritime provinces of Canada. In December 2006, he fell and broke a hip. In the years since then, his health declined gradually, until he died peacefully on the morning of December 29.

Rev. Anderson is survived by his wife of 54 years, Jean; son Mark and his wife Amy Milshtein; son Stephen; son Jonathan and his wife Marci; son James and his wife Gail; and son David and his wife Angela; grandchildren Melissa, Gabriel, Aaliyah, Sarah, Sean, Seth, Shawn, Emma, Liam, Ewan, Julian, Alex, Sarah, Eric, and Connor; and great grandchild Lydia. Preceding him in death were his parents, Elam Sr. and Colena; his sister, Frances Gulick; and his brother, Victor.

A memorial service will be held on Saturday, January 10, 2014 at 2 pm at First Baptist Church, 125 SE Cowls St., McMinnville, Oregon.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be sent to UNICEF, 125 Maiden Lane, New York, NY 10038; www.unicefusa.org/donations. To leave online condolences, please visit www.macyandson.com.


Sunday, December 28, 2014

You'll Shoot Your Eye Out



"I want an official Red Ryder carbine-action two hundred shot Range model BB gun!"

"You'll shoot your eye out, kid!"

Which is what he did:



Though, to be accurate, what Ralphie really hit the first time he fired his precious BB gun was his glasses. Had he not been wearing them, he would've had to change his nickname to Popeye.

Now that I've refreshed your memory of this beloved holiday classic, I'm going to unveil my own personal heresy, likely to send many of you flying to your keyboards in protest: I really don't care for A Christmas Story.

(In a further effort to forestall the outcry from the hordes of people for whom this is the BEST MOVIE EVER and how DARE I not like it, hey, haters gonna hate. If it's that important to you to know that everyone in the world shares your taste is questionable entertainment, STOP READING NOW, before your feelings can be hurt; and before you fill up my comment boxes with righteous indignation, be warned that it won't matter, as I will continue my policy of ignoring comments. So there.)

I realize there are many reasons I should like it. For starters, much of this nostalgia-fest could be ripped from my own childish memories of Christmas in New Hampshire: the holiday parade, the department store visits, the whole look of the thing, even the appearance of main character Ralphie, who looks very much like my own primary school self. Even though the movie is set about twenty years before I was Ralphie's age, it gets so much of my formative Christmas experience right that I can call up scene after scene, thirty years after seeing it in a theater in Urbana, Illinois, the one and only time I've watched it all the way through. Knowing this, why shouldn't I have a warm place in my heart for A Christmas Story?

In fact, though, I remember leaving the theater disappointed. Yes, I had laughed, uncomfortably, at many of Jean Shepherd's anecdotes. I remembered how it felt to be bullied, the futility of trying to defend my own younger brothers from bullying, the embarrassment of blurting out a forbidden word and having to explain both where I'd heard it and what I thought it meant (though there was no soap-eating in my upbringing), I remembered the unbearable anticipation of the longest, slowest buildup to a holiday there could be. And most of all, I remembered how painful it was to desperately want something, to have that want denied again and again until I had given up all hope of achieving it, then against all odds to realize it after all--and learn that there was no way the reality could possibly live up to my expectations. (Hell, that's an experience I continue to have to this day.) It's remarkable that one piece of entertainment could so perfectly capture all these elements, yet still leave me with a frown on my face. Why wouldn't I want to include this on my list of Christmas essentials?

I can answer that question in just one word: redemption. Or, to be more precise, a total lack of redemption.

Ralphie wants a BB gun. He finally gets it. As every adult warned him, it turns out to be far more dangerous than he had anticipated. He breaks his glasses. The dog gets the turkey, and the family has Chinese food (along with a painfully racist moment as the restaurant staff sing "Fa-ra-ra-ra-ra") for dinner. The end.

Contrast that with How the Grinch Stole Christmas, which concludes with the Grinch realizing Christmas is not about getting, but about sharing. Or A Charlie Brown Christmas, in which our hero, as jaded at first as the Grinch by the commercialization of the holiday, has his own initially rejected effort to prop up an unwanted tree salvaged by the efforts of his friends. Take even such a commercialized property as Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, and at its heart you'll find a powerful message about the hidden gifts of the unwanted misfit. Then there's It's a Wonderful Life, in which George Bailey realizes the true richness of life is in the things one does for others. No discussion of secular Christmas redemption would be complete without the granddaddy of them all, Dickens' A Christmas Carol, and Scrooge's salvation from his own miserliness by three holiday spirits, each of whom shares with him not just the joys of the season, but also the ways in which his own rejection of it is dooming him to a lonely, early death.

There is something all these stories have in common: the disillusionment of the central character. Christmas has failed every one of these protagonists. They've all lost the magic--or perhaps realized it was never there for them in the first place. The problem with Ralphie's story is that it ends at the very beginning of that cycle, with his first discovery that getting what you want is just the first step toward the cruel realization that all the packages, boxes, and bags are superficial, that placing all one's eggs in the materialist basket will ultimately leave one cold, disappointed, and alone. That's it, the beginning of the end, with no promise of anything better. The moment of wonder at the pile of gifts under the tree has given way to the mess of torn wrapping paper and the discovery that some assembly is required, that Santa forgot to buy batteries, or that the magical gadget that looked so cool in the TV commercial is a flimsy piece of crap that breaks the first time it's used. What comes next for Ralphie? We'll never know: that part of the story doesn't exist.

Maybe it's asking too much of a holiday movie to expect that it will give me hope in humanity--but then again, this holiday is ostensibly about hope coming into the world in an unlikely way, a peasant child born to an unwed mother in a barn. I don't expect this message to be spelled out explicitly (as only A Charlie Brown Christmas does), but I do look for some hint of it in anything I watch, read, or listen to at this time of year. The surprise of the season is not an unexpected toy under the tree, but an insight into the goodness of human nature, the beauty of creation, the value of community, something, anything that makes me feel better about the world around me. A Christmas Story does none of those things, which is why, for all the nostalgic notes it sounds so well, I find it as disappointing to unwrap as a Red Rider BB gun.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Desert Wonderland



First the grumblings:

Tucson the city is like everything that's wrong with Portland's TV Highway--times ten. Yes, there's a quaint downtown with interesting shops, an arts district, and a few good places to eat. As soon as you've passed the rattlesnake pedestrian bridge, though, Tucson is nothing but mile after mile of unremitting suburban sprawl: strip malls, fast food franchises, car dealerships, and nothing to distinguish it from any other American metro monoculture. We came to Tucson hoping for some Southwestern flavor, Mexican influence, some sense of place. The neighborhood we're staying in has adobe-style houses, but apart from that, we might as well have stayed in Beaverton.

And in case you're wondering, yeah, it really sucks to get sick on the first day of a vacation.

But now on to the wonder.

The main reason we chose Tucson for our winter vacation was the cactus. Tucson borders the Saguaro National Park, and is within daytrip distance of the Organ Pipe National Monument. Cactus is everywhere, and we came to hike through cactus forest. My cold and Amy's knee troubles kept us from doing anything strenuous, but we were able to have two spectacular day hikes through what is aptly named the Cactus Forest.

I've seen saguaros before, but never in these numbers; nor have I been truly aware of the diversity of cactus. I couldn't help thinking I'd fallen into a painting, or was on some alien planet. The high deserts I love in Oregon and Utah bear little resemblance to this explosion of prickly flora.

Seeing how these plants have adapted to their environment--photosynthesizing directly through their trunks and branches, rather than through leaves, which have in turn been transformed into protective sharps; developing crenelated structures that expand to absorb water during sporadic rainstorms; patiently holding on through long periods of aridity and intense heat--I was humbled at the ingenuity of evolution. Wikipedia tells me cacti are native to the Americas, with only one exception. It struck me as I walked through this prickly Eden that I was getting a preview of what interplanetary exploration will be like. The earth has many deserts, and they have much in common: lack of water, heat. less nutritious soil. It would not be surprising to find similar life forms in all these deserts. And yet, traveling just a thousand miles from the deserts of Oregon, I encountered a biosphere utterly unlike anything I've seen before. Life had to tackle the same problems in both places, but came up with radically different answers: instead of junipers and sage, prickly pears and saguaros.

I couldn't help thinking, as we walked, that the first humans to land on a world that sustains life will have a similar experience--times ten or more. Just as Tucson sprawl is like Portland's, but massively bigger, so will the variations in life on worlds separated by light years be astronomically different from our own. Life will be facing the same problems--how to thrive in an environment that is hot/cold, wet/dry, etc. It's a shame I won't live long enough to know the answers to that question, but it's fun wondering about it.

Another feature of this desert that intrigued me was the ubiquity of the wash, a dry stream bed that only seas water during flash floods. The trails we were following occasionally went through these areas which are naturally more open that the rest of the desert. At other times, the trail (cut deep in the ground by overuse by hikers) had been expanded by the presence of water. I was reminded that water takes the easiest route as it flows through an area, as much an opportunist as the plant life we saw all around us. The suburban development I'd been grumbling about showed the same tendency, spreading across the valley floor to the utter limits of the national park.

That's life. Whether it's the virus my body is fighting off, the barbed flora covering the hills around Tucson, or the mile after mile of asphalt atrocities that make up the bulk of this city, life will find a way to grow, spread, thrive, adapt.

We learned so much on those short walks. We will be back.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Under the Gun



Three police officers were shot and killed last weekend. two in New York City, one in Florida. In the New York incident, the shooter then killed himself. The shooting may have been a reaction to the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. In the Florida shooting, the perpetrator is in custody; no word yet as to what motivated him.

Spokespersons for police unions blamed politicians and protesters for the New York killings, insisting the cause was that too little has been done to defuse anger over the Brown and Garner killings, and suggesting that more stringent measures should have been taken to put down protests. If the context of these words wasn't so tragic, the sentiment expressed would be laughable. In fact, though, police daily put themselves on the front line between order and chaos, and from time to time, they die for their efforts.

I propose a different interpretation, one that anyone who has read my blog in the past will find completely unsurprising: what ties these deaths together is guns.

I'm aware that Eric Garner died in a choke hold, and not from a gunshot wound; and that Michael Brown was unarmed when he was shot repeatedly by Darren Wilson. These facts are beside the point, which is that American criminals and police are in a cycle of violence that has escalated to radically lethal proportions thanks to America's love of guns.

Guns are such a part of our culture that, going into any situation, police have to assume their opponents will be armed. When any traffic stop, any conversation with a young person on the street, any interruption of a burglary could turn instantly lethal, police have little option save to go in shooting, or if not, to still take extreme measures to restrain a potential assailant. The logical assumption has to be that any suspected perpetrator is carrying a gun and is not shy to use it.

Add to this racist assumptions that a person of color is more likely to be a drug dealer, bandit, home invader, gang member, and the net result is young men of color dying at a hugely disproportional rate to that of young whites. It was inevitable that, with guns so easily obtainable, some deranged individual would exact revenge on police.

What we have is a war between police officers and the lower classes. It's the stuff of dystopian fantasy, ala Escape from New York and Fort Apache: The Bronx. Police view themselves as the last hope for restoring order on a chaotic civilization. To some extent, it's a race war, but much more than that, it's a cold war turned hot: Mutually Assured Destruction by guns. As with the nuclear-weapon-fueled cold war of the twentieth century, this is a conflict that simply would not exist but for the ubiquity of these weapons of precise destruction.

If you doubt my logic, consider this: if the Darren Wilson had not been carrying a gun, Michael Brown would still be alive. If the officers who brought Eric Garner down and suffocated him hadn't had to worry that he might have a gun, he might, also, be alive. And if the cop-killers in New York and Florida had not possessed guns, again, those police officers would still be alive.

But this is America, you say. Our guns are part of our identity. We're the frontier, the wild west, the civilization who tamed a primitive continent with gunpowder and lead. We can't give up our guns anymore than we can give up our freedom. Beyond that, civilians are in the same boat as the police: we don't think we can afford to be unarmed when whoever invades our home is very likely armed. "I'll be happy to give up my gun when I feel safe in the knowledge that criminals don't have them either." Of course, that means never.

What is to be done, then? How can we begin to turn our armed-to-the-teeth nation into a land where everyone, police officers and civilians both, can walk down the street without fear of being shot?

By living that way. I don't own a gun. I never have, and I never will. I've only fired one once, on the rifle range at Scout  camp. To my way of thinking, guns are like cigarettes, lethally addictive devices that seem indispensable to their users, and I understand that giving up that addiction is a tall order. I don't have to give up anything: I'm a tall white man with broad shoulders, and I've never felt threatened by people on the street, though I've had a couple of police officers give me a tongue-lashing over a driving mistake. But I've never had to feel at risk of being shot in any of the places where I function. And before you suggest that's an easy thing to say when I live in the suburbs, let me remind you that I teach in Portland's poorest school district. There are some dicey neighborhoods in the areas I frequent, and the high school in my district saw a school shooting last June.

I choose not to be afraid. I choose not to own a gun. If a gun is ever pointed at me, I'll give its owner whatever he or she wants. But I will not own one.

That's what I suggest to you, too: if you're considering buying a gun, don't. If you already own one, get rid of it. Go out into the world as those who intend to live, not as those fearful of dying. If guns come out, you're probably doomed, anyway. Perhaps in time we can draw back from this urban warfare, convince our young people not to carry, convince the police that they don't need to go for their weapons at the least provocation. It's a thin hope, but it's better than none. The rewards of eschewing gun violence are manifold: young people living to adulthood, police serving rather than terrorizing the communities they patrol, and everywhere a sense that the world is safer, less to be feared than embraced.

This post was written in bed. Amy and I are in Tucson, hoping to soak up some sun and see some cactus. Unfortunately, I got off the plane feeling like something was coming on, and it was. After a feverish night, I feel (fingers crossed) that I'm on the mend, and I'm hoping to have some desert landscapes on the blog soon.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

What We Have Become


The worst part of it is that I still kind of like 24.

The Fox action drama that spins out a very bad day in the life of counter-terrorism agent Jack Bauer distinguished itself from the beginning with the extremes he would go to to extract information not just from obvious villains, but from well-meaning but misguided innocents. Shouting, threatening, torturing, even shooting one in the head to get his crony to talk--no action was too atrocious if it got Bauer the intel he needed to avert a far greater catastrophe. He was the ultimate pragmatist, doing whatever it took to defend his country, even as his friends, colleagues and superiors cried out in protest. He became a patriotic martyr whose actions, even though they had saved countless lives, rendered him an outcast, rejected by the country he loved. In the process, he endured torture, abuse, gunshots, even death (CLEAR!), not to mention the loss of every friend and family member he had. With its compressed storytelling, each season of 24 was like a revenge-porn passion play, with the Christ figure fighting back at every turn, yet still ending up sacrificed in the end, rejected even by the God of democracy he had just, once more, saved from destruction. He was a scapegoat, the only human being capable of doing what had to be done, however heinous, to save us all, taking upon himself all the consequences, being the one man who broke all rules so the rest of us didn't have to.

And yes, I watched every ticking minute of it.

Part of what grabbed me was knowing this is how the world looks to a Republican chicken hawk, a politician who has never served in the military, yet believes invasion is the answer to all foreign policy problems. There are so many bad guys out there. Let's kill them. In this right wing nerd fantasy, the good guys are excellent shots, the bad guys not so much, and every atrocity is justified by the knowledge that they'd do it to us if we let them.

It's diverting to dabble in these fantasies, enjoy the video-game rush of it all. And then I remember that there are people doing these things in my name, and that unlike Jack Bauer, they are being honored for their crimes.

That's where the fantasy comes apart. At least in 24, there are consequences for the necessary evils Jack Bauer commits. He can never go home, never have a happy marriage, never retire. There are no medals, no honors, and saddest of all, no rest from his labors.

In the real world, on the other hand, torturers are called patriots by President Obama; and the simple act of exposing their techniques is branded partisan treachery by the Republican party (with the notable exception of John McCain, bless him). This embrace of abominable interrogation techniques comes with the blessing of the American people, 53% of whom think there are instances in which it is justified. Following the release of the Senate investigation on CIA torture, director John O. Brennan went to great lengths to insist the torturers were following orders and were--and he quoted the President when he used the word--patriots.

Where have I heard that before? Now I remember: it was Adolf Eichmann's excuse for what he did. It's called the Nuremberg defense, used by every Nazi but Hitler to justify participation in the Holocaust. "I was just doing my duty, serving my country, obeying my superior officer." It's the most banal reason a person can give for dehumanizing another: just doing my job.

Which is why the word "patriot" should be banned from this discussion. Patriots are idealists, not petty bureaucrats. They can be misguided, commit horrible acts in the service of their country, but when they do, it is because they believe they are doing what is right. To engage in actions that one believes to be wrong because one is following orders, to blindly, mechanistically subvert everything one's nation stands for, is anything but patriotic. 

That the majority of citizens in our nation have let their sense of morality slide to the extent that they are willing to accept the idea of torture as just part of the job for national defense is a testament to the effectiveness of the Republican propaganda machine. The double speak of "enhanced interrogation," coupled with the righteous indignation of having, for the first time since 1812, been victims of an assault on our own shores have cost us our ethical spine. When he came into office, Barack Obama insisted that torture was antithetical to our national identity. Now he calls torturers patriots.

The best-known words in American oratory are those spoken by Abraham Lincoln at Gettsyburg. Standing their on the killing field that had taken so many young American lives, he spoke of that event being a catalyst, not for vengeance, but for the rebirth of an America that truly embraced its foundational ethic. If all those dead were not to have died in vain, he said, "this nation shall have a new birth of freedom; that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth."

Being a light to the nations, a city on the hill, a people who place rights over convenience, who sacrifice comfort for liberty, means holding true to our ideals, even in the face of terror. We have become something far less: a people willing to accept practices that just twenty years ago we would have ascribed to Nazis. As I so often explain to kindergartners, just because that child did it to you doesn't make it right for you to do it back. We all understand this, teach it to our children, expect it of our system of justice. It's time we started expecting it of the agencies that guard our borders, as well, lest we become what we beheld when our soldiers liberated the death camps in 1945.

As our President said before he was co-opted by the torturers, "We're better than that."

Thursday, December 11, 2014

American Brutality

An iconic image from Abu Ghraib.

Eric Garner dies in a choke hold.

Two press releases that came within days of each other lead me to wonder: how far does it have to go before we realize what we've become?

Americans have long known about the horrors of Abu Ghraib, the Iraqi prison where US Army and CIA personnel subjected prisoners of war to treatment Americans normally assume is the province of demented fascist regimes. Two days ago, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a report detailing abuses committed by the CIA that go far beyond the stories we've heard from that hell hole. This came just four days after a grand jury failed to indict an NYPD officer for killing an asthmatic African-American using a department-prohibited choke hold.

At first glance, these two stories have little in common: Abu Ghraib was in Iraq, while Eric Garner died on Staten Island. The prisoners abused at Abu Ghraib were believed to be war criminals; Eric Garner was detained for allegedly selling cigarettes without a license. The torturers at Abu Ghraib were soldiers and intelligence officers; Eric Garner was killed by domestic police officers. The victims at Abu Ghraib were Iraqi Arabs; Eric Garner was an American citizen.

For all their differences, though, these two events say something significant about the American ethos in the 21st century: we are becoming a people who don't just tolerate, but embrace, the violent treatment of suspects. What ever veneer of civilized restraint we may have had in the 20th century has worn thin to the point of vanishing; and a significant number of our national leaders approve.

Republican voices, in particular, have been almost completely unified in decrying the report on CIA torture, insisting, in lock step with former Vice President Dick Cheney, that torture is an effective means of ascertaining vital information, and that the suspicious nature of official CIA victims--almost all of whom are suspected of ties to terrorist organizations--vindicates any moral quandaries that may ensue from having Americans torture foreigners. The lone voice in opposition, as always, is former prisoner of war and current Senator John McCain, who endured many rounds of torture that ultimately maimed him for life while a prisoner of the North Vietnamese. He can say in all honesty that any information gained through torture is suspect, because torture victims will say whatever they have to to make the pain stop.

Meanwhile, much closer to home, there is the Eric Garner decision, which comes quickly on the heels of the Michael Brown decision. American police are killing black men with little or no justification, and grand juries are letting them get away with it. Meanwhile, conservatives are insisting that these victims "had it coming" for engaging in petty crimes, both involving cigarettes.

Now seriously, people: is a stolen or illegally hawked cigarette really grounds for the death penalty? And since when did street cops become Judge Dredd, deciding for themselves who is innocent, who guilty, and executing the verdict of death whenever they deem it appropriate?

Going a  little further back, we can see that conservatives, with the backing of the NRA, also succeeded in downplaying the horror of Sandy Hook, in which 20 children and 6 adults died in a mass shooting at an elementary school. This could have been the impetus for sane gun legislation, but the outcry from the right was so great that it quickly lost its power to move majorities.

As a nation, we've grown inured to violent news stories, just as we've lost interest in serious cinematic wrestling with war ethics, preferring our movie shootings to be clean and heroic. We imagine that's how police shootings are, as well, a violent miscreant picked off before he (and it's almost always a male) can harm anymore innocent victims.

In fact, though, police are 21 times more likely to shoot African-Americans to death than their white counterparts. Add to this the common perception among persons of color--often grounded in real-life experience--that being stopped by a policeman is bad news for them, and you may begin to understand that there's a real problem here.

My personal experience of dealing with police, by the way, has generally been one of being let off easy. I've been lectured and even berated by traffic police for speeding and, in one case, coming too close to a stopped motorcycle cop, but I've always been let off with a warning. I suspect that has a lot to do with me being a middle-aged white man driving a boring middle class sedan. But that's not the point of this essay. What I'm writing about here is how Americans have come to take in stride the use of vicious, even lethal force in our name.

Whether they're "defending democracy" in Iraq or "protecting and serving" in a black neighborhood, our troops and peace officers have been torturing or shooting first, asking questions later, if at all, and the conservative voices in the media and Congress have backed them up. It's considered unpatriotic to question the application of "enhanced interrogation techniques" on suspected terrorists, or of lethal force on suspected criminals.

It could be argued that there is nothing new about the shooting of black civilians by white police officers; that, in fact, there's an unbroken line running from the horrors of slavery right up to the street cop applying a choke hold to an unarmed man. It could also be argued that the principle of "just war" has never been consistently applied by American strategists, and has really only been window dressing to assure American citizens that our troops are more moral than those barbarians who oppose us. The cynic in me wants to say this is absolutely the case, and that any pretense we may make to being a more moral people than the Nazis, the Soviets, the Viet Cong, the terrorists, is all just a crock of excrement, and like them, we'll do whatever it takes to win. The same cynic observes the old joke that a Democratic is just a Republican who's never been mugged, that we're only really progressive with regard to matters of criminal justice so long as we are not, ourselves, victims of crime. I can aver to truth in both those caveats. At the same time, though, I set them aside, because Ronald Reagan was right about America: we should be a shining city on a hill.

And that is where the conservative supporters of violence, both domestically and overseas, prove themselves to be the true traitors to the ideals of America. The city on the hill is concerned first and foremost with justice for all. That may be uncomfortable when it means letting a petty criminal get away with his stolen cigarillos, or admitting that there's just no way to get the information we want out of that probable terrorist, and in fact we have to let him go. Freedom isn't free, as veterans are fond of saying: sometimes truly valuing freedom means letting bad guys get away with what they've done, because the alternative is becoming someone we really don't want to be: a nation that tortures, a police state that rules by the bullet rather than the court.

We are not the first to face this quandary. The prophets of the Hebrew Bible went on at great length about how Israel was supposed to be a light to the nations, a state that had Torah written on its heart, whose king was just, whose priests were pure, and whose religion was all about love and mercy. The Chosen People frequently fell short of those ideals. They still do; otherwise, Palestinians would be living peaceably among them, or have their own state.

We who call ourselves Americans have the same mandate hanging over our collective head, though in the place of the Torah, we have the Constitution. Our founding documents were about freedom and civil rights, and we have, over time, always been working to expand those rights, extending them to more and more marginalized minorities. That the minorities of color have consistently suffered inordinate abuse from the police flies in the face of our high calling. That our intelligence and military apparatus would engage in practices we associate with fascist regimes and terrorists makes a sham of it. And that our elected officials, those sworn to defend the Constitution, would not just jump on the band wagon, but assemble it themselves, says a great deal about the poor choices of the low-information voter.

We can reverse these trends. We can step back from the government-sanctioned violence in our streets, disarm our police, park their urban assault vehicles, downgrade or even confiscate their weapons. We can respond with revulsion to the torture performed in our name and demand our legislators--even the Republican ones--legislate it into a federal offense. 

And by "we," I mean all of us with a line to a Congressperson who would rather sweep CIA abuses under the rug, and who is too much under the influence of military contractors to scale things back. I know it's many days late and dollars short, but simply by voting for progressive candidates who oppose torture and favor police reform, we can begin to turn this around.

It starts closer to home than a simple ballot, though. Do you spank your children? I understand the urge: in many ways, children are uncivilized animals, in desperate need of breaking. Whether as a parent or as a teacher, I've had my moments when what I wanted most was to turn a defiant naughty child over my knee and dole out some primitive justice, not because it will ultimately facilitate any change in the behavior of the child, but because it will simply make me feel better to spank a bottom until my hand stings.

Which is why I will not, cannot do such a thing. Lashing out with a hand, a paddle, a weapon may momentarily feel like a good solution to an intractable problem: waterboard that terrorist, choke that rude pedestrian, put a bullet in that cheeky teenager, and for a moment, we feel like we've made a difference.

Except we haven't. What we've done is set ourselves and our nation a step back toward the frontier. We've made ourselves no more civilized than the perpetrator we're attempting to correct, and in some ways even less civilized: with great power, as Stan Lee taught us, comes great responsibility.

Those supposedly conservative voices who seek to do this to our nation, to peel away the progress we've made toward becoming a shining example to the world, need to hear the voices taking delight in our hypocrisy. We are being criticized by China. North Korea is wagging its finger at our embrace of torture.

If we truly believe that our highest calling is to be the nation that, more than any other, embraces civil rights and defends freedom, then these two events must be the herald of a new birth of liberty. We're better than that, you Republican reprobates. The most American reaction we can have to the deaths of black men at the hands of police, and the torture of foreign citizens by American intelligence agents, is shame and the sincere commitment to do better next time.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Grinch's Small Heart Grew Three Sizes That Day


And what happened, then? Well, in Whoville they say - that the Grinch's small heart grew three sizes that day. And then - the true meaning of Christmas came through, and the Grinch found the strength of *ten* Grinches, plus two!

I've been such a Grinch.

The original purpose of this blog was to provide me with a platform for venting. Since leaving the ministry in January 2000, I'd been without a pulpit. After more than a decade of being able to say my piece in front of a captive audience at least weekly, I was now reduced to guest preaching, no more than monthly at first, eventually tapering off to not at all. I wrote occasional essays, submitted some for publication, and even made it onto the Oregonian's op ed page twice (though the second one was only in their online edition). Even when I was guest preaching, I was doing my best to behave, tempering everything I had to say to keep it from shocking my listeners. So when, after thirteen years of bottling it all up, I started blogging, it was more than just floodgates opening: it was the Hoover Dam blowing up. The rush of opinions could not be arrested.

I commented on everything that bugged me: politics, economics, work, play, music, TV and, most of all, church. I wrote  pieces on every aspect of theology I'd ever wanted to rant about, everything that was wrong with church polity, everything that sucked about being a minister, and I just kept going and going, long after even the most dedicated followers had gone back to Facebook or Twitter after realizing yet another piece was Too Long, Didn't Read. In some cases, I extended the length to multiple posts, writing enough to fill a book on some topics.

Christmas, for instance.

Going back to my earliest days of ministry, I had found much about the popular celebration of Christmas to grumble about, to the extent that in just my second year of preaching I adopted Dr. Seuss's How the Grinch Stole Christmas as an apocryphal part of my own scriptural canon. Every complaint the Grinch had about Christmas resonated with me: the commercialism, the glitz, the gluttony, and above all, the noise, noise, noise, NOISE of it all. It wasn't that I hated the holiday itself; in fact, I had many warm memories of Christmas as a child, though they were often tinged with the stress of living in a parsonage as my minister father and organist mother stressed out over doing their jobs both at church and at home, not to mention the "is this all their is?" disillusionment so many middle class children experienced once all the beauty of the living room has been turned into a wrapping paper recycling project. Looking back, though, my fondest memories of the holiday are associated with quiet Christmas Eve services, the sanctuary lighting muted or extinguished to emphasize the wonder of a flickering candle bringing illumination to the world in the midst of darkness. At the heart of Christmas is a story of extreme poverty, a homeless unwed mother giving birth in a barn in a country under occupation by a brutal empire. That's the nugget buried beneath the glitz.

For most of my life, I railed against the glitz, trying to defend that precious little miracle from the annual capitalist bombardment. The irony of exploiting this story of poverty to save not souls but profit margins infuriated me, even as, to some extent, I swallowed it, trying to reproduce the secular warmth of my childhood memories for my own children. We had to have a well-decorated--though not too tall!--tree, stockings, some kind of cinnamon pastry for breakfast, Christmas music playing on the stereo, and most of all, a mountain of wrapped presents under the tree. Divorce only made this worst, as now I realized my children were being subjected to two gift orgies, and with neither of their parents willing to give up the experience, that they were happening on the same day. When I preached against Christmas, it was often coming out of the awareness of my own hypocrisy: I wanted all the world to swear off what I couldn't keep myself from doing.

Over time, those gift gluts faded, and as my ex-wife and I matured, we were able to give up having to see our kids on Christmas Day and forcing them to leave whatever celebration they'd been enjoying--including most of the gifts they'd just received there--midstream to go and start a new one in their other home. Now they could wait until a later day to change locations. As the children themselves matured, and especially after they became separated from me by 700 miles, the giving of gifts became much saner: when they were with me over the holidays, I gave them presents on the day; when not, I ordered things from Amazon that could be delivered to their mother's house sometime in December.

Meanwhile, my connection with church became more and more tenuous, to the extent that I no longer had a church home at all. I still had church music work, though, which kept me out on Christmas Eve, directing choirs and playing pianos, until finally last year a full-time teaching position enabled me to leave even that behind. That's why, a year ago, I devoted so many words to my almost-lifelong problems with Christmas: it was safe--no fears of turning off parishioners--and I had the time.

As December approached this year, I was fully prepared to click right back into Grinch mode, grumbling about all those frustrating years of trying to defend the baby from the bathwater, but with an added sour point of knowing I'd already said everything I could possibly have to say about hating the whole Christmas season. That didn't stop me from going out and getting a tree last Sunday, but the following day, as I came back to school, I was dreading three weeks of teaching Christmas songs. Except then something unexpected happened.

Maybe it's not having to teach in a gym. Maybe it's knowing these children much better. Maybe it's just an opening in my heart that's been underway for some time now. Whatever it was, I experienced my own Christmas miracle this week.

I started each Kindergarten through Third Grade music class with a "brain dance" to the Manhattan Transfer's version of "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," always a kid-pleaser. Then we sat down in a circle, and I played the chorus of "Jingle Bells" on a xylophone. Every class of children jumped in, happily singing the song, anticipating the moment when I would pass out sleigh bells for them to play as they sang. But before I did, I asked them what the song was about: "Santa!" "Reindeer!" "Christmas!" I heard this in every class from children of every ethnic background: Russian, Ethiopian, Somali, Arab, Mexican, Polynesian, Chinese, Vietnamese, and yes, from that smattering of African-American and white American children in each class, as well. I set them all straight, much to their befuddlement and then amusement, pointing out it wasn't a one-reindeer open sleigh, that the bells were mounted on the horse's harness so they could ring with every step (the song is an excellent way of demonstrating the difference between keeping a steady beat and playing the rhythm of a melody), that Santa and Christmas never appear in it at all, and so on--and even with all that misinformation dispelled, they loved the song. They loved moving to "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," too. They loved ringing the sleigh bells. They loved telling me what songs they want me to teach them in the days leading up to winter break. I found myself awash in love, joy, excitement, and this from children who, in many cases, view school as a refuge from their chaotic home lives.

For a child living in poverty, winter break can actually be a time of great stress. Whichever parent they are staying with probably has to work through the holidays, meaning the child may be left home, unsupervised, for extended periods of time. If there are two adults at home, they are likely to be under more stress from the daily presence of children than when school is in session. We teachers mean a lot to these children, as well, and they miss us when they don't see us every day. Finally, it's anyone's guess what gifts, if any, they'll be receiving. Christmas for many of these children is going to look like Whoville after the Grinch left with his overstuffed sleigh crammed with all the gifts and goodies. I need to add, as well, that many of my students probably don't celebrate Christmas as all, because they're not Christians.

And even so, they all love it.

The enthusiasm is palpable, and seeing it, hearing it, I find my own heart growing. My little Whos have taught me, after all those years of pontificating on the sociology, anthropology, ecclesiology, and theology of Christmas, what it really is all about: a poor family making the best of a difficult situation to bring light into a darkened world. There is so much light in these children's faces. How can I begrudge them their joy?

So in the two weeks ahead, I will be teaching them almost every song they want to learn. (No to "Let It Go" and "Baby It's Cold Outside," but everything else is a go.) We'll wring sleigh bells some more, crack a whip, laugh like Santa, sing about Rudolph, Frosty, and of course that Jolly Old Elf. We'll have a lovely time without packages, boxes, or bags because, as the Grinch learned, Christmas comes without anything of these things. It comes just the same. Christmas day is in our grasp, as long as we have hands to clasp.

Huh. The lights on my tree have little halos. Must be the mistiness in my eyes as my heart melts.

Merry Christmas, and God bless us, every one.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

'Tis the Season to Be Scroogey. Or not.



I'd like to believe I never really believed, but I know that's not the case.

Like any child raised on the American Christmas tradition, I lived for this holiday. I delighted in every church, Scout, or school-sponsored party that featured an adult volunteer dressed as Santa, doling out goody bags, their disappointing contents (mostly peanuts, maybe a candy cane or two mixed in) offset by the understanding that this was just a foretaste of something much greater to come. At night, long after I should have been asleep, I heard the crinkle of wrapping paper as my parents prepared for the big day. Decorating the tree, Christmas carol sing-alongs were highlights, watching Charlie Brown, the Grinch, and Rudolph on our black-and-white TV, counting down on an Advent calendar, filling my nose with the aromas of holiday baking, gorging myself on fudge and divinity, until finally the longest agonizing day of the year arrived: Christmas Eve. If we had school that day--and I occasionally did--there would be a class party to dilute the suspense, but everything that followed slowed time more than an interstellar wormhole. We went to church, of course, and I did enjoy those services: my mother playing the organ, my father singing "Sweet Little Jesus Boy," the lowering of the lights, the lighting of candles as we all sang "Silent Night," stretching things out until we were finally on our way home. Beyond church, Christmas Eve had its own set of traditions: the hanging of stockings on our mother's secretary (we rarely had a fireplace to hang them over), the setting out of cookies and milk for Santa, and, when we were old enough to have begun understanding that giving was as much a part of Christmas as receiving, the setting of our gifts for the rest of the family under the tree. Finally it was bedtime, and if insomnia had been a problem earlier in the season, it was far worse now. The house would be filled with the aroma of my mother's coffee cake, a Christmas tradition she still follows (we'll go home with one wrapped in foil after the family party December 27), and again there would be the sounds of wrapping, delayed as long as my parents could afford, so much so that they often weren't in bed until two or three in the morning; but I'd always be awake long enough to hear it. Finally I'd get to sleep, usually to awake to the sound of my younger brothers sneaking out in the dark, oohing and aahing over the beauty of the gift-laden tree, then being chased back to bed by my father's angry voice--he might have only had an hour or two of sleep at that point--and if I did manage to get back to sleep, I'd be reawakened by the same sounds an hour or two later, this time accompanied by the bleary resignation of my parents to the inevitability of having to be up again. We'd rush out to the living room, then have to wait for our parents to settle in on the couch so that we could empty out our stockings in front of them. Then we were permitted one wrapped present before breakfast, after which the unwrapping orgy commenced.

There's not a lot of "Christ" in that Christmas memory. Perhaps that's one reason I stopped believing in the magic at a relatively young age. Another, I'm sure, is that at some point my parents gave up on the artifice of the Santa letter, and just let us put together Santa lists. We'd pore over the gift catalogs from Sears Roebuck, Montgomery Ward, and, in later years, J.C. Penney, looking for the best deals on the toys we wanted, struggling to keep them under the monetary limit set by our parents, struggling to strike the right balance between quality and quantity, ultimately compromising ourselves on both criteria. And in the end, most of what we picked for ourselves was disappointing: games that were never as fun in real life as they looked in the TV commercials, imported gadgets that didn't hold up to rough play, or cheap store-brand knock-offs that couldn't compare to the real thing. Over time, I came to embrace a concept introduced to me in the Peanuts comic strip: the "post-Christmas let-down." The real thing just didn't deliver on all the hope and promise.

Becoming a minister added another layer to my Scroogery: in addition to having joined Charlie Brown in his criticism of the commercialization of the holiday, it was now my job to defend it against capitalism. Advent was supposed to be a time of quiet preparation, not a premature celebration, and so I denied Christmas carols to my congregations, even as they were immersed in them everywhere else they went. I was rigid in my insistence that the gospel stories be kept separate--there would be no wise men in the church manger until Epiphany--and God forbid Santa be a part of any church celebration. Off the job, I was a hypocrite, obsessed with finding the right gifts for family, spouse, and children, decorating the house, doing everything I could to replicate that elusive comforting warmth of my childhood.

This internal warfare couldn't go on forever. In many ways, it was a manifestation of my larger struggle over being an agnostic in priest's clothing. In fact, I can trace my skepticism over all things mystical to one day in 1967 when I was poking around under my parents' bed, and discovered their Christmas hiding place. I was six years old, and I had just seen Santa without his beard. I maintained the fiction for myself for a few years--I even remember waking up at 3 a.m. on a Christmas morning in 1969, hearing the clock on the mantle chime, and thinking I heard Santa in the house--but by the time our Santa letters turned into order forms, my faith in the myth was long since dead.

That's the biggest reason I left the ministry. Doubting Santa was a catalyst to the cognitive awakening that decimated all my faith. Comingled scripture passages, misinterpreted theology, proof-texting, all the things people do to put a religious veneer on their own agendas, led me to the rotten core of Christianity: we try too hard to make religion be what we want it to be, rather than what it was meant to be from the beginning. We take the story of a homeless preacher, and turn it into pageantry, triumphalism, and exploitation. The moment of truth for me was the day I was finally able to say "Bah! Humbug!" not just to Christmas, but to the church.

And yet--there is so much about Christmas that is good. I do want to do things for the people I love. I want to see them, express my affection for them, give them something significant. I want them in my home, enjoying the (ironically cut down) symbol of life that is the evergreen tree, bedecked with the LED string of lights symbolizing light in the darkness, topped with the silvery crown of a star that beckons us to follow the pauper king. I want to sing songs of mystery and awe about the birth of that king, but also secular songs of cheer in a time of cold, dark bleakness. There are, in fact, excellent reasons, both sacred and secular, for valuing and observing this season.

So there is a tree in my living room. I will be teaching holiday songs to my students at school. I will be attending Christmas parties. I will wear a Santa hat on the last day of school. I will give gifts to my wife, my children, my parents, my brothers and sisters-in-law and nephews and nieces. I will say "Merry Christmas" to them without a hint of irony.

But I can guarantee this: you will not find me at the mall. I'll do my gift shopping online, visit Fred Meyer and Costco only for groceries, zap Christmas ads as I watch things on the DVR; and except for the party at my parents' house (where the gift orgy is a tradition that refuses to die), there will be no furious unwrapping of presents. The one gift I covet most for myself, and want most for those around me, is company. As the Grinch learned, the best part of Christmas happens when people come together not to shop, not to unwrap, but simply to be together, enjoying each other. It's not presents, but presence, that matters. Yes, I would have been sorely disappointed in a Christmas without wrapped gifts when I was a child, but then, I was almost always sorely disappointed by those gifts, anyway.

This is what Scrooge learned at the end of A Christmas Carol: that being present for others, and enjoying their company, really is the richest thing in this world. Can I hear a "Hallelujah?"

Friday, November 28, 2014

High Flying Congress



"The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president."--Mitch McConnell, October, 2010

If you've read my posts about teaching in the Reynolds School District, you've probably come across the term "high flyer." That's teacher talk for a student who is an exceptional child in ways that no parent wants his or child to be exceptional. The child may very well be bright, even gifted academically, and may not have any of the disabilities one normally associates with being on an Individualized Education Plan, but still is on the radar of every administrator and behavioral specialist of the school for one reason alone: he or she makes it hard for the rest of the class to learn.

High flyers are obstructionists. They interrupt the teacher without being called on, talk with neighbors while the teacher is lecturing, distract everyone around them. When they do raise their hands, it is to ask to use the bathroom, get a drink, go back to their desks for something they forgot. Told "No, class will be over in five minutes, wait until then," they become more persistent in asking for that extra privilege. Separated from whichever classmates they can't sit next too, they will have arguments across the room with them. Interrupt class to have a meeting about how to have more fun and learn more cool things, and every other child will have constructive ideas that, absent the high flyer, will make the next class wonderful; the high flyer will behave just as badly. Going to talk to the counselor or the principal is no help. Put on a behavior plan, the high flyer will decide that the cracker jack rewards for good behavior are just not as fulfilling as having an entire group of people enmeshed in his or her personal drama.

A week ago I had a class of fifth graders in the music room for a recorder class. Most classes with this particular group are extremely frustrating, as there are two high flyers who tend to dominate the class, much to the frustration of the other twenty students. Last Friday was different: one of the high flyers were absent. With him gone, the other high flyer was the best behaved I've seen her in the two years I've been teaching at this school. The class got more done in that one half hour than in the previous three weeks.

I love my students, and I have great empathy for the drama in the high flyers' home lives that makes their school behavior so challenging. Even so, I have to admit my job would be much more fun if this handful of students stayed home more often. And that brings me to Congress.

Earlier this morning, as I was writing my Thanksgiving post, I had an insight into the personality of the modern Republican Party, especially as it is manifested in Congress: they are a party of high flyers.

In this metaphor, Barack Obama is the teacher, and the electorate is the school administration (the office, the principal, the counselor)--though it also has to serve a dual function as the students. In this model, Teacher Obama has many cool and wonderful things to explore, and most of the class is eager to learn. We're very interested in universal health care, immigration reform, economic stimulus, minimizing American military intervention in the world, reversing climate change, investing in green technology, and above all else, creating an atmosphere of cooperation not just in Washington, but throughout our nation. We want to learn these things, and we know the President could teach them to us, if only given the chance.

Unfortunately, there is a disproportionately noisy minority in the classroom who don't care about learning. They want class to be all about them. They don't like admitting the teacher is really in charge. They don't know exactly what they'd do if they were, themselves, in charge; in fact, describe the ideals of the teacher to them without mentioning his name, and they'd probably go for most of them. As soon as they hear that these things come from him, though, they reject them loudly, rudely, and effectively.

They never let up, either. They refuse to make any concessions. They will not accept that there will be time to visit the bathroom after class, and will not stop asking to go until the teacher gives in. Once he does, they seize on that fact and are even more persistent in their next dilatory demand. Asked politely to step aside for a moment and just let the poor man have a chance to speak and they shout down that request.

The teacher would love to send the high flyers to the office. Unfortunately, the office is only open for one day every other year, and even then, the teacher is at the mercy of whoever happens to show up. In a leap year, the office is far more likely to be occupied by administrators sympathetic to the majority of students who want to learn. In other years, though, the administrators are themselves high flyers, and not only send the problem students back to the classroom undisciplined, but add to their numbers.

What is the teacher to do? He could hold class meetings, trying to get a dialogue going about how to have more productive classes, but the people most needing to participate in those meetings would always have the same response: "Give us what we want and we'll behave." 

In essence, the high flyers will just go on holding the class hostage until they get what they want. Since giving them what they want means going back on all his ideals, the teacher has to go on saying no. It's an impasse. Denied the right of expelling the high flyers from class, the teacher has no options left: he turns class over to the high flyers, retreats to the teacher's lounge and, to mix metaphors, puts the inmates in charge of the asylum.

Except he's more responsible than that. He came here to teach, and by God, he's going to do it. It does mean giving up on teaching to the entire student population--but then, the high flyers weren't going to start listening anytime soon, anyway. So now he reaches out to those he knows will hear him, and just ignores the high flyers. His lessons shift from being cooperative learning experiences to being lectures, which is fine for the majority, who just want to hear those words. This infuriates the high flyers, of course, who cannot be happy unless everyone, including the teacher, is giving them full undivided attention.

And to that, and all the hurt feelings being whined about by Mitch McConnell and John Boehner now that President Obama has finally decided to use his executive powers rather than try to work with those who refuse to work with him: go to hell, go directly to hell, do not pass go, and do not collect the votes you need to sustain your tantrum past 2016. The next time you're in the office, the principal is going to give you a lecture that will singe your ear-hair and send you to your corner in tears; and with the rest of the good kids in the class, I will be cheering.

Wait and See (A Midlife Thanksgiving Meditation)

 
Once upon the time there was an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically.“Wait and see,” the farmer replied.The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed.“Wait and see,” replied the old man.The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune.“Wait and see,” answered the farmer.The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out.“Wait and see,” said the farmer.

Across America, families will gather around tables laden with comfort food and share their gratitude for events of the last year. My family will be no exception: there will be seventeen of us today at An-di-Fan (the House of Peace), a craftsman home on Baker Street in McMinnville, Oregon, purchased by my grandmother in 1945 and transferred upon her death in 1988 to my parents who have lived in it ever since. We call it An-di-Fan because my grandparents, during their missionary years in Shanghai, took that as their Chinese name.

That name has become something of an ideal for me to ascribe to, especially when I consider how well my grandmother personified it. No matter how great the obstacles in her life, Colena Michael Anderson personified the evangelical cliche of maintaining an "attitude of gratitude." Every day of her 97 years was both a blessing and a preparation for the greater joy to come once she left this earth, and was reunited with those who preceded her in death. Her tranquility was shared with those who met her, as well: however stressful or frightening my own life might be, I knew I could experience peace in my grandmother's presence.

As I've entered into middle age, I have more and more sought to cultivate this same sense of balance in myself, accepting life as it is, knowing that every moment, however difficult, contains seeds of a future that can be either blessing or curse. I've looked for the good, sought to minimize the impact of the bad, and find myself happier overall.

This blog has been about the tao of life, and my quest to find blessings in the midst of frustrations and defeats. The last year has presented me with many such issues, both local and global. I've vented my spleen at the many challenges of teaching in a poor district, while celebrating the rewards of working with children whose poverty seems to make them more open to the gifts I bring to the classroom. I've ranted about the the broken electoral system that permits a small minority of cranky oldsters living in rural states to wield inordinate influence over the partisan makeup of Congress. I've shared the difficulties and wonders of traveling to the Third World, the screw-ups and surprises of attending an Orff conference in Nashville, the things I regret about my younger self and the things I realize can only be known with maturity. As often as possible, I've striven to be balanced, whether ranting, raving, or just meditating.

Which brings me, finally, to Thanksgiving. Everything I've experienced in the past year, whether personal, local, regional, or global, has contained within it both chaos and sublimity. What follows is not a comprehensive list; rather, it will be a few examples, and you'll just have to trust me that (previous sentence) everything contains the same spectrum of potentiality.

Take school. At the beginning of 2014, I was almost halfway through my year teaching in the gymnasiums of schools in neighborhoods distinguished by poverty. The size and acoustics of that environment ultimately defeated me from teaching a comprehensive musical curriculum, and the prospect of another year in such a setting led me to look for work in other districts throughout the summer. At the same time, though, my stubborn insistence on being as successful as I could be, on getting as much musical education into these children as I could, made me a far stronger teacher and a more confident man. Coming back in September to a far better teaching space, I was able to take command of that classroom as never before. In many ways, I feel as if I've come into my own as a music educator; at 53, I'm finally in the prime of my career. I owe that to my hard first year in Reynolds.

Continuing with school, but dovetailing with my home life, Amy and I got married and bought our house this summer. With the two weeks I spent in Ghana consuming me from the moment I left school (a day early) to the first week of July, there wasn't much time this summer to catch my breath. The down time I had was mostly spent preparing for these big events, including planning our honeymoon, and applying for jobs in Beaverton. It was only as we were signing for the house the week before I returned to school that I learned our mortgage application would have been denied if I'd changed jobs. A complicated, stressful transition--from renter to homeowner--would have become far more complicated and extended, as we now had to either go through the process once more or, even worse, found a different, probably much more expensive, home to rent and moved into it. "Wait and see," said the old farmer.

Let's expand it out to the political realm. I've been deeply frustrated by the whimsical nature of the American electorate. Polls show that a sizable majority of Americans favor the policies of the Democratic party, and yet the people who turn out to vote are the cranky but active demographic I belong to: white American men over the age of 50. For some reason, most of my people are fed up with the social contract, refuse to listen to reason, and love to express their ignorance with their votes. That's how we have rewarded four years of Republican obstructionism with an even more empowered Congress of dunderheads whose entire agenda can be summed up in Mitch McConnell's 2010 wish to make Barack Obama a one-term president--a goal his party has, in many ways, accomplished, blocking so many of his initiatives that the White House might as well have been vacant for the last four years. It's infuriating to an idealist like me who believes in the push-and-pull of the balance of powers. At the same time, though, I can see the last four years as something like my year in the gym, toughening our President and convincing him the time has come to use all the powers of his office he has previously held in reserve to govern despite, rather than along with, Congress. Perhaps the next two years, coupled with the productive first two years of his first term, will add up to a great one term Presidency, and we can just forget about the ways in which the Republicans have acted like those one or two high flyers in every class who keep the rest of the kids from learning. (Wow--there's an insight I'll have to give its own post!) "The election results are a horrible catastrophe!" "Wait and see," said the old farmer.

"Wait and see" is no call to complacency, but an acceptance that any judgment about the overall impact of an event is premature. Only in retrospect can we begin to assess the successes and failures of our lives. The tragedy of Michael Brown's shooting may be the catalyst for this country to finally address its congenital racism. Two more years of Republican tantrums may finally teach the American electorate to reject the Grand Obstructionist Party. Having both our names on a mortgage is, I am realizing, as great a bond as any marriage contract. And taking "wait and see" as my personal credo makes the rest of my life far more fulfilling than all the anxieties and passions of my youth.

That, I believe, is the greatest gift my grandparents bequeathed to our family: that our very name means embracing both the chaos and promise in every event, and in that acceptance, making every place we lay our heads a House of An.