Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Meek Inherit the Earth

Sure, they look far more fierce than meek, but read on to find out how they got there.

The occasion for this post: I'm in San Francisco re-taking Doug Goodkin's "Jazz Course," a week-long workshop on how to teach jazz to young children. Doug is a master teacher of the Orff Schulwerk approach to music education. Studying with him has shaped me as an educator, a musician, and a spiritual human being, and this course is a huge part of that.

Most programs for jazz education are aimed at secondary and collegiate instruction. The Jazz Course is unique in its focus on children between the ages of 3 and 13. I took the course in 2008, and was inspired to build an entire year's curriculum around jazz. I'm back now, seven years later, with my full Orff certification, dozens of workshops, last week's trip to Ghana, and several more years' experience under my belt. Most importantly, I've got a far greater jazz vocabulary: as much as I knew about jazz (and I've been playing it since 1976) coming into the course the first time, it wasn't in my blood. Since 2008, it's become a part of who I am.

At the heart of Doug's approach is America's original sin: slavery. For four hundred years, European colonists extracted forced labor from persons of color; and unlike any other known slavery in the history of the Western world, these slaves were never given any hope of freedom for themselves, their children, or even their distant descendants. One could not earn one's way out, or expect that one's children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren would be born free. Slavery was forever for anyone with even the tiniest hint of African blood.

It wasn't enough for masters to own the labor of slaves. They also owned their identities, prohibiting them from drumming, a practice that was not just cultural, but spiritual; changing their names; forcing them to convert to Christianity; doing everything they could to erase every hint of their African origins.

And this is where Doug's story of the origins of jazz made a complete convert of me.

Robbed of their drums, slaves began playing rhythms on their bodies, creating percussive patterns like the hambone and juba. The songs these patterns accompanied were brilliantly subversive, masking ridicule of the master with clever imagery.

Take juba, a word that, though its origins are obscure, probably refers to offal, the portions of an animal that were deemed unacceptable for consumption in the master's big house, but perfectly fine to feed to the slaves, who took these leftover scraps, along with the greens cut from radishes and turnips, the crusts cut from bread, the husks of milled grain, and whatever else was thrown out by the master and transformed it into soul food: chitlins, collard greens, johnny cakes. The words of the juba song--"Juba dis and juba dat and juba killed a yeller cat and get over double trouble, juba"--refer to the belief of the white masters (the "yeller cat") that, if they were to eat these scraps, it might kill them. The song goes on to simultaneously complain about having to eat garbage and transcending the plight of the slave's situation, getting over "double trouble."

And now comes the twist: songs like "Juba," along with the games that accompanied them, were so catchy, filled as they were with syncopation, amusing lyrics, and intriguing dissonance, that they soon became part of white musical vocabulary, being fully incorporated into the minstrel shows that lampooned slave life, with white performers in black face singing the songs they'd learned from their slaves, never realizing that the words they were singing were, in fact, making fun of white attitudes.

It gets better: the music of the minstrel shows, along with the spirituals and gospel music being song in the churches slaves and been forced into, had, by the end of the nineteenth century, worked their way into American popular music. By the end of World War One, jazz, the hybrid child of African, Cuban, and European traditions, was the music American youth listened to, danced to, learned to play and sing.

It continues to get better: jazz and its cousin, the blues, continued to evolve through World War Two. In the years after that war, it gave birth to rhythm and blues, doo-wop, and rock and roll, which conquered the world. And this is how the music of the slaves mastered the masters.

Which brings me to Jay Z and Beyonce, the most powerful couple pop music has ever known. No, there's nothing meek about their music. Jay Z's work is solidly within the tradition of gansta rap, laced with references to crime, drugs, and violence. Beyonce's music, on the other hand, merges blatant sexuality with strident feminism.

To acknowledge that African-American music has conquered the world is not to say that racism has been defeated. This nation has a long way to go in healing itself from the traumas of its past. It is, however, to note the delicious irony of the forbidden spirit of Africa emerging triumphant.

This came to me seven years ago, sitting on the floor of the music room at the San Francisco School, a floor I am happy to occupy again this week. The songs and games I learned here have worked wonders in my classroom, but the most important thing I took away from that first week here was what I've written here. It's informed everything I've done at the low-income school where I teach. When I return there in September, it will be with a renewed dedication to sharing this transformative music, as well as the story of its birth, with children who desperately need to know that even the most oppressed of people can conquer the world with their music.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Ragnar Rocks! And Yet...


One of the many things that make this relay special: the finishers' medal puzzle.

Back in my day, running in a race was a monastic discipline for me.

I was on my own from start to finish. Even when I ran in my home town, there was hardly anyone on the course to root for me by name. I got anonymous support from the lovely spectators ("Great job!" "Go! Go! Go!" "You can do it!" and, of course, the always misleading "You're almost there!"), but it really didn't mean much to me. Occasionally I'd see people staked out along a course, waiting for a particular runner with personalized signs, calling him or her by name, cheering a father, mother, son, daughter on in ways I could only imagine. My family and friends were never that organized: if I was running locally, they'd be waiting for me at the finish line, and that was enough for me.

Five of my seven marathons were also run as a single man, and in a way, this made it that much more important that I wasn't getting name recognition on the course. The marathon was the most powerful test I could imagine for my ability to function as a solitary human being, and since I ran all seven of them in the days before practical digital players (iPods, smart phones), I had to create my own inner soundtrack, called up from memory, played in my head as accurately as I could manage--tough when it came to songs with lyrics, as I've never been very good at hearing and understanding lyrics. I had plenty of time--my marathon times ranged from 4:17 to 4:51--to chew on the details of my divorces, my struggles with vocation, and whatever else might be bugging me. Most of all, I could listen to my body, explore the growing fatigue in my muscles, evaluate how well the walking breaks were recharging my limbs and, as I passed the point at which my body had used up all its glycogen reserves and now had to burn nothing but fat, how desperately I wanted the race to be over. This is why I almost always finished in tears: I had wrung every last bit of emotional and physical fuel out of myself, and I was a wet, hot mess when, seeing the finish line, I drew on that last scrap I couldn't believe I still had and kicked into high gear to finish strong.

Relays are a whole other running animal. In a relay, runners are teamed up in vans that alternate "legs": Van 1 runs legs 1-6, Van 2 7-12, back to Van 1 for 13-18, and so on until the last runner crosses the finish line. It's a tradition for the rest of the team to join the Leg 36 runner for the final hundred meters and cross the line together.

The symbolism of that finish--instead of one lonely runner, twelve teammates finishing together--is what makes relays a far more joyous event. Relays are a 36-hour party, fueled by sleep-deprivation. Runners become punchy, give their teams hilarious and frequently R-rated names, decorate their rental vans with chalk pens, tag each other's vans with magnetic stickers, drive along slowly to offer aid to not just their runners, but members of other teams as they travel to the next exchange where the bracelet baton will be passed to the next runner, and overall are in far better moods than solitary distance runners ever are. In the early days of relays like the Hood to Coast, teams, especially those sponsored by running shoe companies, could be intensely competitive, but that soon dropped away as the vast majority of teams were just along to have fun.

And so relays have come to embody all that makes road running races such a joy. That's why I was delighted to be asked, at the last minute, to join "Run Funny," a team of Comedy Sportz players running the Ragnar Northwest Passage Relay, a 196 route from Blaine, on the Washington-British Columbia border, to Langley, at the southernmost tip of Whidbey Island. One of the team's members had undergone emergency surgery, and despite her hope of somehow managing to run with fresh stitches in her abdomen, had been convinced to recuperate instead. I had three legs, 3.9, 4.1, and 8.2 miles in length, for a total of 16.2 miles, to be run over the course of about 24 hours. I was nervous about doing this--my two previous experiences with relay racing had been when I was much younger, and in marathon shape--but I agreed.

I'm glad I did. I finished each of my legs feeling strong, and while I'm still experiencing some residual soreness a day and a half later, I also have been convinced I'm ready to get back into the marathon game. I also bonded with the twelve other members of my team (our captain also had to call in a substitute at the last minute due to a knee injury, and spent the entire race driving one of the vans), got to know several of the Portland players much better, and made new friends from clubs in other cities. With the mutual support that is so much a part of the fun, relays are incredible team-building events.

From the viewpoint of a distance runner, then, relays are events that give us the one thing lacking from the sport we love: teammates we care about, and who care about us. Even though the legs we run are still, in the final analysis, individual challenges we have to face solo, we do so with a backup band. They're the best fun a runner can have.

As I was running my third, longest, hardest leg (two long steep hills culminating in a plummeting mile-long descent), it suddenly struck me that, as wonderful as relays are, they are absolutely the most environmentally lethal sporting event on earth.

Think about it: 500 gas-guzzling vans are chugging along at slow speeds over a 200 mile course. Frequently when they stop to wait for an exchange, their engines are left idling so the incoming runner can cool off quickly in an air-conditioned space. As at any long-distance running event, huge quantities of waste paper and packaging are generated at many of the exchanges, from drink cups to energy bar wrappers to the toilet paper that fills the chemical toilets, all of which must be dropped off and collected by huge diesel trucks. Along the course, other cars must often wait, their engines idling, as waves of runners are given right-of-way at intersections. The amount of greenhouse gases generated by a relay must be staggering. I wonder if anyone's done the math on how many tons of carbon dioxide are poured into the atmosphere each year by the Ragnar series, which includes ten races scattered across America.

It's appalling, and yet, I can't think of any way of changing it. Camaraderie in the vans is an essential part of the relay experience, and transporting runners from exchange to exchange is what makes it possible for a team of twelve runners to cover two hundred miles non-stop.

Someday, the exhaust coming out of these vans tailpipes will vanish, as will the tailpipes, and quiet electrical motors will carry teams from station to station. Until then, relays will go on being running parties that take athletes through some of the most beautiful places on earth, even as they contribute to the destruction of those places by adding climate-altering gases to the atmosphere.

Running is a paradoxical pastime: an exercise most people avoid because it's so hard that, even amid the unavoidable pain, makes those of us who do it regularly intensely happy. As disturbed as I am to consider the environmental side of relays, I'm not ready to give up this wonderful distillation of all that makes running the most inspiring, enriching thing I do with my body.

But I really want those electric vans to start showing up at Avis.

Reaping the Whirlwind

It's not just the funny hats that are rendering Republicans irrelevant.

It started with health care—at least, that’s what the movement claimed.

They showed up at town meetings that were seeking to gather a consensus on reforming the American health care system, but they didn’t come to discuss, or even to engage in constructive criticism. They came to shout and scream, to shut down the grass roots part of the process, and they succeeded. They were a tiny minority, but the volume of their protest drowned out all the hopes and dreams of the rest of America. They reacted to what they considered unconstitutional nationalization of corrupt, bloated industries that were bankrupting both individuals and collectives with the mountains of expensive red tape they erected as barriers to the product they were supposed to be delivering. Some of them dressed up in colonial costumes, others suspended teabags from wide brimmed hats, and they called themselves the Tea Party.

Over time, the movement attracted other disaffected conservatives, and the ugliness of their outcry grew to encompass immigrants. They were also united in their hatred of the first dark-skinned President of the United States. Their power far exceeded their actual numbers, because these were people who could be counted on to turn out, and to vote as a unified bloc. They could also be depended on to oppose Democratic candidates.

The Republican Party smelled opportunity, and pounced on it. By appealing to Tea Party voters in general elections—especially in non-Presidential years—the Republican Party could bring out a hard core of voters who were often enough to nudge incumbent Democrats out of office, as their own voter base was far more likely to stay home. This was fine for November elections, but primaries were different. To win the Tea Party vote in a primary, Republicans had to play the populist card, appealing to the most paranoid segments of their base.

This resulted in increasingly xenophobic candidates, many of whom succeeded in upsetting incumbent Republicans with solid conservative credentials. Over time, Congress took a hard swing to the right, and President Obama found all the immensely popular measures he had initially campaigned on, and won his first election with, stymied by a recalcitrant legislature. He still cruised easily to reelection, in large part because the minority voters who have just edged white voters out of the majority, as well as female voters, have been turned off by the GOP’s anti-immigrant, anti-government, anti-women platform.

The off-year election of 2014 again saw these same voters staying home, while the reactionary Tea Party core turned out, resulting in the Senate shifting from a Democratic to Republican majority. Emboldened by this victory, Congress has doubled down in its opposition to President Obama’s agenda, forcing him to make policy through executive orders and regulations rather than legislation. Paradoxically, this activity—or, more realistically, strident inactivity—seems likely to cost the Republicans much of what they won in 2014. The vehement xenophobia, bordering on racism, of current GOP presidential leader Donald Trump is charging up Hispanic voters, even as growing awareness of police violence against African-Americans is empowering those voters, as well.

The Republicans find themselves reaping the whirlwind. Their short-sighted coddling of low information voters has made it impossible to deny their basest instincts. This is America’s ugliest side, the citizens who fear anyone who doesn’t look like, talk like, and worship like they do, who despise their black President, who want to turn America’s southern border into a fortress, who want to expel even legal immigrants from American soil, who cry “freedom” while limiting the rights of women, who insist upon their own religious rights to prejudicially discriminate against LGBT Americans. These voters will come out on primary election day, and they will vote for candidates who run on their racist, sexist, homophobic platform: candidates who, even though they may edge past more moderate, establishment candidates in the primary, cannot win in the general election, when women, persons of color, and gay voters will elect Democrats.

The Republican reaping of the whirlwind has cost America uncounted billions that could have been improving the lives of the vast majority of Americans. It has also rendered the party irrelevant. Tea Party voters, however strident they may be in demanding the attention of Republican politicians, represent a shrinking part of America, a part that is aging out, dying off, being replaced by generations of Americans who are kinder, gentler, more accepting of diversity, who just don’t get what all the fuss is about, and who are never, ever going to vote for the Republican party in this incarnation.


The Republican victories of 2010 and 2014 were pyrrhic. In sixteen months, we who believe America’s strength lies in its diversity are going to take our country back, as the whirlwind blows away those who sought to reap its power.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Traces

My father's ashes, along with flowers thrown by his grandchildren, sink into the Pacific.


For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8)
It's the time for casting away.

When my father died December 29, he set in motion a chain of events that will be playing out for the rest of my life. The house my parents have owned and occupied since 1990, and which my grandmother owned and occupied from 1946 until her death in 1988, is too much for my mother to manage. It's also in a place she doesn't want to live in anymore: McMinnville, an hour away from every one of her five sons. She wants to finish out her life closer in, where she can see her grandchildren more often, in a home that doesn't require constant upkeep. So An-Di-Fan, the House of Tranquility that has been the one single geographical constant in my life, not to mention the lives of all my brothers and all of our children, will go on the market in August.

It's a hard choice we're all making here, but it's the only one we can make. None of us wants to live in McMinnville, and none of us wants the burden of caring for a house that, as beautiful as it is, is not a good prospect for a rental property. It needs to be in the hands of someone who loves it, lives in it, and has the time to tend the grounds (it's on a double lot), upgrade the aging infrastructure of the building, and keep it clean.

Putting it on the market means all of us are now facing a deadline. As soon as Mom and Dad moved in, the house became the family storage unit. The attic is filled with boxes of books, papers, clothing, toys, memorabilia--the baggage of our many itinerant lives, too voluminous to move with us again and again, too impractical to keep in use, too potentially precious to just haul off to Goodwill and/or the dump. A few years ago, I gritted my teeth and went through my books, ultimately hauling five fruit boxes of them to Powell's, where four and a half of those boxes wound up on the donation pile. All the hours I'd spent in book stores, all the thousands of hours I'd spent reading them, had no value to the book-buyers at the City of Books. I got a store credit of about $100 for the few they were willing to buy, and the rest went to Goodwill.

This time, I'm not even bothering with the sales stage: as I go through the stacks of boxes in the attic, I'm creating three piles: keep, ditch, donate. So far I've made three trips to Goodwill, my car crammed with my children's toys, clothes, and books. Most of these decisions are easy: the Barbie car, the dinosaurs, the shirts that stopped fitting my kids fifteen years ago; the college and seminary textbooks I haven't opened since the 1980s; the computer peripherals I haven't needed since the twentieth century--all these things I know I'll never need again, and that my kids will never want to touch again, are off to the donation door at the Goodwill store. Or to the landfill: some of what I find just isn't worth the time of the Goodwill workers to sort through.

And then I come to a box of photos and papers, and it hits me: this is history. Suddenly I'm immersed in waves of nostalgia: a picture of Sarah at camp; a drawing Sean made during a service at the Church of the Good Shepherd (the Titanic being attacked by pirates and TIE fighters, all three of his obsessions in one great picture); the tiny red shirt with the singing electronic disk in it that was worn by Sarah's first Winnie-the-Pooh; craft projects they made at camp; bits and pieces of their childhood that are far too special to throw away or, in some cases, far too personal for me to make a decision on their behalf. These go in the "keep" pile, for them to decide on themselves.

Digging deeper, I find myself in the stratum of my own youth: souvenirs from trips I took as a grad student, a college student, in high school, junior high; page after page I filled with my longhand scrawl as I wrote out sermons, papers, stories, novels; clippings of events that mattered so much to me I wanted to keep them for a future scrapbook; gifts from Secret Santas; a reading trophy from fifth grade; Scout shirts and sashes--what shall I do with this archive? I box it up, and it takes up residence in my garage for that day when I wade into it and consign most of it to the recycling bin.

My work done for the day, I head outside to pick some plums. To reach the plum tree, I have to wade into the Secret Garden, an area tucked away between the house and the medical building next door. Here my parents planted a different blueberry bush for each grandchild. The blueberries have not been tended this year, and they're overgrown with bindweed. Still, I'm able to collect a handful of berries, and they're exquisite. I get my plums, make my way out of this nook, back under the grape arbor with its mature white and red table grape vines, cast my gaze upon the rose bushes some of which are older than I am, and try to imagine a time when no Anderson lives in this house, when the bamboo is rooted out, the rosebeds dug up, the back yard paved over to make way for a parking lot for some business that purchases the house. And now it gets me: all these things my parents did to make this place a home not just for them, but for all of us, are passing away, vanishing into memory.

Later in the week, I travel out to Newport with Amy and Sarah to share in a ceremony at sea. All five of the Anderson boys board a fishing boat with our mother, out wives, and as many of our children as we could get out to the coast, as close to Dad's birthday as we could manage. Last night we had a spice cake in his honor--Dad loves sweets more than any other food--and today, we take his ashes on this charter boat. The captain takes us a few miles out into the Pacific. I put on my brightest, most colorful stole, read a few passages from the United Methodist Book of Worship, and then one by one we empty small containers of Dad's ashes into the ocean. The grandchildren and spouses throw flowers. I play "Amazing Grace," then "Taps" on my trumpet. The captain starts the engine, does a slow circle around the site. I can see the ashes in the water. The engine revs up, and we head back to the harbor.

It washes over me without warning, and I let it happen. I hold onto the doorway of the boat's cabin, let the tears flow.

My father is gone. He was a good, loving, dedicated man who sacrificed himself for his family and his vocation. He was happiest making things, and the magnum opus of this work is the house that must now pass into the hands of another owner. Every room is stamped with his work, as is every square foot of the huge garden behind the house. But no matter how significant the work of any one person may be, no matter how enduring it may appear to be, there is nothing in this world that will not, in time, pass away.

It may very well be that the next owner of this property decides to demolish the house and build something new. Even if this doesn't happen, even if the house remains standing for another generation, it will eventually vanish from the space it occupies. When it does, all that remains of it will be the memories of those who passed through it.

The time to keep is drawing to a close. The time to throw away is at hand.

And life goes on.

Monday, July 6, 2015

How Christians Chased Me from the Church

"Could it be...SATAN?" Nope; it's all on you, well-meaning church lady.

I knew it was just a matter of days. In fact, it was more like hours: I put the Facebook "rainbow filter" on my profile picture (as did at least two-thirds of my Facebook friends), and then a non-rainbowed friend from Oklahoma posted a link to this post by conservative blogger Kevin DeYoung : "40 Questions for Christians Who Made Their Profile Pictures into a Rainbow." I don't advise clicking the link; chances are good that, if you're reading this, what you find there will make your blood boil (though it's not as if I can stop you--and I did embed the link, didn't I?). I did take a look at the 40 questions, thought seriously about responding to the damned thing by answering everyone of them (including the loaded and redundant ones), but then thought better of it. A few days later, I saw the link again on Facebook, this time with a helpful comment linking to a different blog post: "40 Answers for Kevin DeYoung." I do recommend clicking the second link. Ben Irwin has sincerely answered all of Kevin DeYoung's questions, taking him at his word, writing from within the scope of evangelicalism, and doing it with grace and generosity. If I ever meet Ben Irwin, I will buy him a beer (or, if he's teetotal--unlikely, as he's an Episcopalian--a coffee); he's a credit to his faith, and he's doing something I no longer can: advocate for the opening of evangelical minds from within evangelicalism.

To be clear, even when I was fully immersed in preaching the gospel, up to and including the occasional altar call, I never completely considered myself an evangelical. I am, it's true, the product of a Baptist/Methodist parsonage, trained at a seminary located deep within the Bible Belt, and for all the years I was a pastor, I was steadfast in my belief that all sermons had to be grounded in solid exegesis of the Bible. But when it came to the "inerrancy" question--the belief that every word of the Bible is literally the word of God and, thus, a mandate on human behavior--I just couldn't go there.

Even so, I spent most of my relatively brief ministerial career working with evangelicals both within and outside the congregations I served. I found them to be, for the most part, good people, compassionate, caring, pious, and sincere in their dedication to carry out God's will in their daily lives. For the most part, we got along well: I admired them for their good works, and they seemed to respect me for my devotion to exegeting the texts I preached from.

Except when they didn't.

There was the man in Cheadle, the British parish I served, who left the church because I pointed out, during a Bible study, that there were two parallel versions of the Flood story in Genesis that sometimes contradicted each other.

There was also a woman--a lay preacher--in that Methodist Circuit who insisted homosexuality was a sin because of a single verse in Romans, even as she conveniently ignored the single verse in 1 Timothy that forbids women from speaking in church.

And there was the man in Talent, Oregon, who harangued me passionately about how the Bible "says what it means and means what it says." And the pastor of an evangelical church in Talent who got my church excluded from participation in the community hymn sing because he'd read that some Methodists were getting soft on homosexuality.

Then there was the ministerial association in Estacada that was disbanded by the evangelical pastors who were most of its members, then reconstituted with a membership requirement that effectively kept the Presbyterian and Methodist pastors out: signing a doctrinal statement that included Biblical inerrancy. The reason was, again, homosexuality: the Methodist church had declared itself a "Reconciling Congregation," that is, welcoming of gay and lesbian persons, and the Presbyterian pastor was backing us up.

I left the ministry in 2000, acknowledging that my heart was no longer in it, but I remained a Methodist for many years to come, thanks, almost entirely, to the existence of a community of radical Methodists that took me in and affirmed all my inclusive ideals. As time passed, though, I found more and more wedges driving me from Christianity. I've written extensively about them in this space, and if you're interested, I encourage you to look them up, especially a series entitled "Losing My Religion." What I'm doing here today is discussing the role well-meaning evangelicals played in chasing me not just from ministry, but from Christianity altogether.

Kevin DeYoung's questions make many insinuations: that homosexuality is inherently promiscuous; that children must be raised by both a mother and a father; that there is an equivalency between homosexuality and bestiality, pedophilia, and polygamy. The message I heard loudest as I read the questions was "I've never taken the time to get to know someone gay, and if one ever tries to talk to me, I'll let him or her have it with a judgmental tirade that will chase the poor sap away before I have to consider he or she might just be a fellow human being." The best thing in Ben Irwin's response is the acknowledgment that, while he once shared Kevin DeYoung's low opinion of gayness, he evolved thanks almost entirely to taking the time to listen to gay people.

There was a time when I was ignorant about what it meant to be gay, simply because I'd never known a gay person--at least, so I thought, as it turns out I had gay friends who were closeted at the time I knew them. Even so, arriving at seminary in 1985, I already believed it was wrong to discriminate against them in either the sacred or the secular world. Everything I learned in seminary confirmed that opinion. Still, it was not until 1993 that I was to establish my first friendship with an openly gay person, an ordained lesbian who gently ushered me into a world that was far bigger and more variegated than I'd ever imagined. Knowing her and her partner, and all the other gay men and women who came out to me once they realized it was safe, I grew more and more convinced that sexual orientation, like race, gender, ethnicity, or physical ability, was just another strand in the tapestry of humanity, and that barring these people from full participation in any aspect of society--including the institutions of religion--was not just wrong, but evil.

More than twenty years later, my friends can finally get married--though not, in most cases, in church. Civil society has finally opened this door to them, but there are still only a few denominations in which they can celebrate their relationships in their home churches. The number of clergy who can perform a same-gender wedding without facing the wrath of their denominations is still so small that most of these weddings will have to be presided over by judges or family friends ordained by an online "church." And the number of Christians welcoming this moment is still so small that the presence of church groups in Pride parades brings as much incredulous applause as it did when I marched in them, wearing my clergy collar, in the early 1990s. In some ways, it's worse: none of the church groups I marched with ever felt the need to carry signs like this:
Marchers in London's 2013 Pride Parade.

Maybe it's the fading relevancy of the church. Maybe it's the polarization of Western society. Probably it's a complicated melange of factors. Whatever the cause, "Christian" is becoming, increasingly, an epithet in progressive circles. I have many friends now who speak the word with an involuntary curl of the lip, and I know exactly why they're doing it, and what they mean: "Christian" has come to signify the stubbornest of evangelicals, those whose hands are clamped firmly over their ears whenever anyone tries to engage their brains with reasoned discourse on what the Bible really says about homosexuality (and also evolution, diversity, climate change...), or their hearts with entering into a heart-felt encounter with a gay person, lest they be shifted even a little from their rigid belief that those who are gay are going to hell, as are those who advocate for them, because God wrote it, I believe it, that settles it. I've stopped correcting these friends with the qualifier "SOME Christians," even though I know so many who are open-minded, progressive, even radically to the left.

Why? Because, unlike Ben Irwin, I just don't belong in that particular cloud of witnesses anymore. The naysayers have chased me out. Thirty years of futilely struggling to respectfully, but passionately, get them to open their minds to the possibility that there's another valid way of seeing the world has worn me down until I just can't associate myself with that theology, that philosophy, with any kind of integrity.

I've read recently that Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor was pushed out of the conservative camp by the meanness of Justice Antonin Scalia, to the point that she became a solid moderate just to avoid associating with his virulent opinions. I think that's what happened to me: thanks to the never-ending stridency of closed-minded evangelical Christians, I'm embarrassed to say they are my kin. I've disowned myself from the family, and hope the residue of evangelicalism doesn't cling to me. It's a sad thing because, as I've said, they're good people at heart, just misguided.

There's a possibility--remote, I expect--that someone arriving at this final paragraph may be an evangelical who's rethinking his or her attachment to exclusionary doctrines, and would appreciate some compassionate help opening his or her mind to the world. If that's you, and you sincerely want to have some genuine dialogue, I'll be happy to talk with you. But if you're hoping to convert me in any way, to convince me I'm wrong and Your God is right, please don't bother. In case the preceding hasn't made it clear, I'll spell it out for you: we have nothing more to say to each other;.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

The South I Knew


In Texas, it's all big.

There are some who will insist that Texas is not a true part of the American South. Its historical identity as, for a brief time, an independent republic, its blended Mexican and cowboy culture, its prosperity relative to most other former states of the Confederacy--there are many reasons to consider Texas more Southwest than South. And yet, Texas was very much a member of the Confederate States of America, and the last slaves to be liberated, two months after the rebels surrendered to the Union, were Texas slaves (an event enshrined in the African-American holiday known as Juneteenth). Texans disparagingly refer to Northerners as Yankees, enthusiastically embracing a patriotism that both celebrates American identity and stubbornly insists on defining it militantly and rebelliously.

The only part of the South I've experienced on a personal level is Texas, more specifically, Dallas. That's even more problematic than calling Texas representative of the South, for Dallas is a hard-driving, profiteering, super-modern city with little, if any, charm. Dallas was the first real city I ever lived in, and I hated it, mostly because Dallas drivers made a sick joke of the Texas highway motto: "Drive friendly, the Texas way." I spent three years in Dallas, and there is nowhere on earth I've been happier to see receding in my rearview mirror.

During my Dallas years, I did have frequent occasion to travel outside the city, often to and through other states of the South, and there I experienced something much more like the famous hospitality the region is known for. Most of the Southerners I met were fellow Methodists who, though much more conservative than their Northwestern cousins, are still about as liberal as Southern Christians get. I knew many who were progressive leaders, in fact, though they tended not to belong to the huge churches that have consolidated so much power in Southern Methodism. They were eager to open their churches and homes to seminary students like my wife and me, doted on our toddler, engaged us in conversations, and found much in common with us. In fact, they were much like people I've met all over the United States: friendly, generous, sympathetic.

In all my travels through the South, I don't remember once seeing the Confederate battle flag prominently displayed, nor do I have any memory of anyone expressing resentment over the outcome of the Civil War. I did, on the other hands, find Southern patriotism to be far more aggressive than what I had grown up with in the Northwest, particularly around national holidays. The Southerners I knew were fiercely patriotic, proudly displaying the stars and stripes. There was never any sense of them wanting out of the United States; if anything, they wanted very much to remake it in their image, and seemed to be gathering the electoral clout to do just that. A year after I left Texas, an Arkansan became President; eight years later, he was succeeded by a Texan.

Southerners are proud people. There is no equivocation in their patriotism or their sense of heritage. They are proud to be Americans, just as they are proud to have once rebelled against America. Their pride is big, powerful, loud, pushy, shameless. It's embodied well in the creepy Bunyanesque robo-cowboy statue called "Big Tex," whose mechanical jaw, waving hand, and amplified "Howdy!" have spooked many a small child visiting the Texas State Fair. It's a patriotism that has no room for irony, that says what it means and means what it says. It's a full-throated rebel yell co-opted by the American bald eagle.

That makes it a hard thing for Yankees to understand. Here in the Northwest, we're far more in love with individual expression than with collective flag-waving. To Northeasterners, Southern patriotism seems coarse, naive, unsophisticated. None of us gets the stubborn insistence on heritage over sensitivity, the deep denial required to believe the symbol European racists, legally prohibited from using the swastika, use to represent their virulent opinions, and which was born out of a war founded on preserving slavery, is anything but a slap in the face to any African-American confronted with it--and that's putting it mildly for those old enough to remember Jim Crow, who know how quickly that slap can turn into a burning church or a body hanging from a tree.

I like to think our Yankee opinion of Southerners is, itself, grounded in ignorance. In my three years in the South, I never met one person I considered a racist. The Southerners I knew could not help but see African-Americans (and, in Texas, Hispanic-Americans) as fellow human beings, fellow citizens, because, thanks to the forced integration and empowerment of the 1960s, they had daily experiences of living and working with them. In the Northwest, it's possible to go for days and even weeks without encountering a person of color. If some Southerners still harbor racist feelings, they can't afford to act on them: persons of color are too big a segment of the Southern economy to treat them with anything but respect.

The South I knew was pragmatic about its past, and that's why I think the Confederate flags will come down quickly now that there's no way for Southerners who hold political office to deny what they represent. They know where their power lies, and they'll do what they need to to consolidate it--including folding up those bloody banners and putting them back in the sock drawer where they belong. Then they'll be able to turn their attention back to regaining control of the White House, while holding onto control of Congress.

Although, given how quickly the Confederate flag issue was pushed from the headlines by the marriage equality issue, that could prove difficult. Southerners may have made peace with civil rights and integration for persons of color, but they've got a long way to go with accepting the gay presence in their midst. All the attorneys general and state court judges that have issued opinions calling on county officials to refuse to marry same-gender couples have been Southern. It's going to be interesting watching this play out. When Southerns choose to be bigoted, they do it big; denied their traditional target, they may well start taking it out with more vehemence on a new one. They'll have to watch themselves: if this is the line they choose to draw, it could cost them national power for many years to come.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Early Riser



I have vague memories of sleeping until noon.

They're mostly memories of high school--or, rather, of summer vacations during my high school years. In a pattern I've recently learned is a natural part of adolescent development, I stayed up well past midnight, sometimes until two or three in the morning, reading science fiction novels. My parents weren't too happy about me being up that late, so I took to hiding the lamp under my bed sheets. Risky, thoughtless behavior is also a natural part of adolescence: there were a number of times when, after hours of reading, I dozed off, only to be awakened by the smell of a sheet being scorched by the hot incandescent bulb it had collapsed into as I slumped into my pillow. Staying awake that late, and then needing nine or more hours of sleep, I would often stumble downstairs, still groggy, at lunchtime.

Those days are gone.

I'm not sure when my minimal sleep quota shrank from nine to eight to, now, somewhere between five and six hours a night, but I can tell you exactly when I lost the ability to sleep through sunrise let alone the entire morning: September 3, 2013.

That's the day I began teaching at Margaret Scott Elementary School. My work day at Scott begins at 7 a.m. Factoring in the 35-40 minute commute, that means I have to be out the door by 6:20 on a school day. Working back from that time to factor in showering, shaving, breakfast, preparing a lunch to take with me, brushing my teeth, and kissing Amy goodbye, that means I've got to be up by 5:00 a.m. five days out of seven.

Well, you may be thinking, at least you've got weekends and holidays to sleep in! That would be wonderful if I could, but at some point in the last couple of decades, I lost the ability. My body has decided that 5:00 is wake-up time, whether or not the sun's up. During the summer, the one thing that could be different for me is climbing back into bed after doing what needs to be done in the necessary room, and having some extended snuggle time with Amy--and if it's a cool morning, I do just that. Sometimes I even manage to doze off for a little bonus sleep time. With the heat wave we've had this week, though, it's just too warm for snuggling.

So I get up and head downstairs. I make coffee, empty the dishwasher, put any leftover dishes that didn't make it in the night before in, have breakfast, catch up on the news, water the roses, balance the accounts on my computer, write a blog--or I go running and do all those other things when I get back.

These summer morning activities are, typically, alone time. I don't mind that, don't begrudge Amy a minute of the sleep she's enjoying during my early morning time. In fact, I rather envy her that ability, as I find myself needing catnaps during the afternoon--though as with my nightly sleep time, these naps are abbreviated compared to what other people enjoy. Usually I only need a minute or two, and then I'm ready to resume whatever I was doing before my eyes so inconveniently insisted on closing.

I expect this to continue throughout the summer. I haven't set my alarm once since school got out, and I've been reliably awake by 5:00 almost every day.

I wrote a few paragraphs back that late nights and the late mornings that go with them are natural body rhythms for teenagers, and apart from my own distant memories of teenage sleep, I've seen this play out with all the teens who've been a part of my adult life. I expect my much-reduced sleep requirements are themselves a product of development: my body just doesn't need as much sleep as it did when I was younger. The puzzling part is how my body rhythms compare to those of others my age: I really seem to be at the low end of the scale when it comes to sleep time, so low that every article I see about sleep makes me worry that I get so little of it.

But I don't worry for long. There's so much more I can accomplish with those extra hours each morning--even if by "accomplish" I mean "waste." I know I spend more time than I should checking Facebook or playing Angry Birds on my phone. If I just picked up a book instead, I could get in a solid hour or two of uninterrupted reading every morning. Or if I opened up my laptop instead, I could be blogging daily. And wouldn't you love that?

How to wrap up a meditation on sleep? By putting the blog to bed, of course. Sweet dreams.

Worse than Hitler


Across the South, Confederate battle flags are coming down. Wal-Mart has pulled them from its store shelves. Online gaming companies have disabled games that feature the flag prominently. Aghast at the sudden repudiation of their "heritage," Confederacy buffs object that Nazi symbols are not receiving the same treatment, even though they clearly represent the Holocaust, while the Confederate battle flag is about honor, not racism.

Try telling that to the families of the nine people who died in Charleston, the members of the black churches that are, again, being burned across the South, or any African-American who has a lynching in his or her family tree.

In fact, as has been copiously documented in the last week, the Confederate battle flag rose to prominence precisely because it was taken to symbolize white Southern resistance first to the enforced empowerment of former slaves during Reconstruction and, later, to the battle against granting their descendants civil and voting rights. Here's an excellent essay debunking many of the heritage claims being made by Sons of Confederate Veterans.

It struck me recently that far from being a symbol of honor or heritage, the Confederate battle flag has been, since the end of the Civil War, a symbol of Southern denial that the war had anything to do with slavery, that slavery was a genuine evil, that the South bore any responsibility for the millions of African descent enslaved, humiliated, tortured, raped, mutilated, and murdered, that there ought to be any contrition at all. In fact, quite perversely, the flag has come to represent Southern pride in this heritage of genocide--though almost always (white supremacists are the exception) with the proviso that slavery was, of course, wrong. Coming into existence after the Civil War began, the flag from its very beginnings was a symbol of rebellion against the inevitable end of the peculiar institution, and its post-war use furthered that rebellion in murderous, treasonous ways. This piece of cloth encompassed three hundred years of slavery in America, and was carried into battle by those seeking to preserve and expand it against the forces that sought to abolish it.

And this is why it's worse than Hitler.

The Nazi flag flew over Germany for ten years. At the end of World War II, it came down for good. Germany renounced Nazism, the German constitution banned use of the swastika, and the nation as a whole began a massive project of restitution to the Jewish people Hitler's regime had sought to eradicate. There are no Germans insisting that the swastika represents anything other than fascism, no German veterans or children of veterans claiming it as their heritage, and the only Germans using swastikas are avowed racists who know exactly what the symbol means.

The cold hard truth--the truth so many who love this flag are denying--is that the Civil War was about slavery, an abominable practice so essential to the identity of Southern states that they sacrificed hundreds of thousands of young lives to keep it from being abolished. The "Lost Cause" they were fighting for was slavery. To be proud of this heritage, to act as if the ancestors who lost the war somehow won a moral victory, and to wrap oneself in a flag that symbolizes fighting for slavery, is to be deluded.

Many American institutions have, in recent years, sought to make amends for their role in historical atrocities. Often their efforts are accompanied by acts of restitution, sometimes by the payment of reparations. The states of the South have been remarkable for their absence from the atonement table. In fact, in the hundred and fifty years since the end of slavery (and beginning of the Jim Crow era, a bonus century of oppression and terror), the only national policy approaching reparations that has made it through state and federal legislatures is affirmative action--a program that has been challenged repeatedly, and may well be ruled unconstitutional by the next term of the Supreme Court.

The collective gall required by the descendants of Confederate soldiers to deny culpability in four hundred years of oppression and insist, instead, that the Civil War was a matter of honor and, further, that the people who so long lived under the yoke of white oppression ought have no say at all in the significance of the symbol most associated with that oppression is mind boggling.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more furious I get. So I'd best just wrap this up, post it, and turn to writing about something that doesn't make my blood boil.