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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Remembering Emma

I'd written something I was going to post today.  It was one of those witty mom posts in which I complain about my kids in a funny way and wax eloquent about how much simpler life was before I had them.  I may yet post it at some point.  But I can't post it today.

I got word on Sunday night that Emma died.  I've never met Emma.  I've never met Emma's parents.  My family connection to Emma is so distant that it would sound like the beginning of a bad joke if I tried to explain it here, and there's just no room in my heart for such jokes right now.  Suffice it to say that while Facebook is sometimes criticized for inflating the importance of casual acquaintances, it sometimes does allow people to be touched by others that they wouldn't have been otherwise.  Emma is one of those cases.  Her maternal grandfather is an old friend of my husband's, and even though we've never met personally, he and I are Facebook friends.  Emma's aunt is married to my brother-in-law, and we have met, and are also Facebook friends.  And through their status updates, I got to know Emma.

Emma was born on July 12, 2009 with a genetic defect that threatened her life the moment she left her mother's womb.  The hospital was ready for this, having detected the defect in utero via ultrasound.  Extraordinary measures were taken immediately to give this precious child a chance at life.  I don't have all the details, and they aren't important anyway, but I believe she was on full life support for a time before undergoing multiple surgeries.  I don't think her parents were able to take her home from the hospital for about six months, and to my knowledge she was always dependent on supplementary oxygen.

Through her aunt's and grandfather's status updates, frequently asking for prayers, I saw this little girl struggle to survive.  I saw her come through every surgery, endure every hardship, and celebrate every victory.  As she continued to grow and her family posted pictures, I could see her young personality just beginning to emerge.  I saw her smile for the camera, the oxygen tube taped to her adorably pudgy cheeks.

But such a young body isn't built for the high levels of trauma she suffered, and the surgeries and the treatments necessary for saving her life caused complications of their own.  She caught a respiratory ailment that probably wouldn't have been a big deal for most children, but for her it proved to be fatal.  She died on Sunday, less than two weeks after her second birthday.

My kids were already in bed when I found out.  All I wanted to do was hold them.  My son had been sick earlier, and got a second look at his supper as it coated his pillow, his sheets, and his beloved stuffed Cat (who is still drying out--Giraffe is stepping in temporarily).  I was glad that he still couldn't sleep and needed to be cuddled.  I held him and rocked him and cried into his hair, grateful that an upset tummy can be easily soothed, and knowing there are far worse things to face than a vomit-covered bed.

A couple of hours later my daughter woke up crying.  I usually let her cry, not wanting her to get in the habit of a midnight cuddle, but this night I jumped right out of bed and held her close, stroking her wispy curly hair so similar to Emma's.  Naomi's just four months younger than Emma.  I held her in my arms and cried, not even wanting to imagine the heartbreak Emma's parents must be feeling.

No parent should have to bury their child.  I know it happens all the time, but it still shouldn't be.  As Emma is laid to rest tomorrow, my heart goes out to her parents.  My prayers have been with them unceasingly since Sunday, and as Emma returned home to her Lord, she was surrounded by the prayers of hundreds of people she'd never met, but who mourn her passing.

Rest in peace, Emma.

In Memory of Emma Seraphym Ballard
July 12, 2009 - July 24, 2011

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Context, Costume, and Identity

Under the best of circumstances, my children's sermons suck.  This past Sunday was no exception.  And it was not the best of circumstances.

I'd just invited the children to come forward, and they'd all come up (all four of them--not bad, actually, for the middle of summer) and assembled themselves in a line, sitting on the stair leading up to the chancel area.  I took a breath and opened my mouth, about to launch into my vain attempt to be interesting and informative to the average six year old, when one of them spoke up and demanded, "Where's the pastor?"

I was the only adult standing, I'd led the liturgy up to this point (with the assisting minister and reader--great lay leadership and participation in this congregation!), my clerical collar peeked out the top of my alb, and my stole matched (more or less) the paraments on the pulpit and altar.  Several people in the congregation snickered in their amusement as I said to the child, "I'm the pastor."  He looked at me in stark disbelief, and I heard more snickering as I found myself having to explain, "I know I'm not your regular pastor, but he's on vacation, and I'm filling in while he's away."  The kid seemed to accept that, and I was finally able to launch into my poorly crafted children's sermon, which flopped as usual, and then they were free to go back to their seats and I was free to go back to my comfort zone in the pulpit.  But that child's question, and the fact that he hadn't recognized me as pastor even while I was in full costume and doing all the things a pastor does during worship stuck with me.

Anyone can wear the costume and say they're a pastor, but that doesn't mean they are one.  Even someone wearing all the appropriate clothes and doing all the appropriate things in a worship setting can just as easily be an imposter.

That innocent question from a confused child had exposed me for what I'd been feeling like all along.  When I don the uniform and stand up there on Sunday mornings, I feel like an imposter.  Even though I'm technically in good standing with my roster status listed as "On Leave From Call - Family Leave," I also can't forget that some have labeled me (and I've labeled myself, if I'm going to be honest about it) as a "failed pastor."  My last call went horribly wrong for a variety of reasons, and I enjoyed no coverage or support from my bishop or his staff.  It's unclear if I could get another call now even if I wanted to (which, right now, I most certainly do not want).  I've done nothing pastoral for a solid year (no preaching, no worship planning or leadership, no teaching, no visiting, nothing).  The moment I returned to Massachusetts and made myself known to a few pastors in the New England Synod, I was immediately sucked back into the vortex of pulpit supply.  But despite the three weeks I've already served as substitute pastor, with two more to go (and still counting), I've not felt like a pastor.  At all.

An hour and a half after that six year old asked me that question, I showed up for the last day's programming of Readercon 22.

Readercon is an annual convention of science fiction and fantasy writers and fans.  Unlike other science fiction conventions, Readercon focuses almost exclusively on the craft of writing.  I learned about it from my husband, who is an avid reader of the genre.  I have nothing against science fiction myself, but it's never particularly grabbed me, either.  However, because Readercon focuses so heavily on the craft of writing, most of the panels are of interest to a nonfiction writer and aspiring writer of literary (opposed to speculative) fiction, like me.

I'd attended the previous two days of programming as well, and I'd pretty much blended into the scenery.  On Sunday, however, I'd come straight from worship, and even though I'd left my stole, alb, and pectoral cross in the car, I was still wearing my tabbed black clergy shirt and black skirt.  This time, I was noticed.

Why didn't I de-tab before going in?  I could have.  But I think I was rebelling against an anti-religious sentiment that had been pervading the entire convention.  Earlier in the weekend, at different panels, I'd heard religion (particularly Christianity) referred to as -- at best -- a "silly superstition" and -- at worst -- a "dangerous colonial imperialism" that "oppressed" people.  The context was inappropriate for a debate on the merits of my particular theology, but I was in no mood to hide my beliefs, either.  I had a legitimate reason to be wearing that collar; I wasn't about to 'camouflage' my uniform because many of the people there didn't think much of what it represented.

The reaction to me was mixed.  Some people asked me, politely and (I interpreted) out of genuine curiosity, what brought me to Readercon.  I recognize that some of the anti-religious sentiment was triggered by some Christians' very vocal opposition to the science fiction and fantasy genres as a whole.  All of it has been categorically dismissed as 'pagan' or 'devil-inspired.'  My presence was a curiosity, and my uniform combined with my bearing and manner (i.e. I was engaging with the panels the way everyone else was, rather than pounding a bible and threatening hell and damnation on everyone who wouldn't repent and be saved) made me an approachable representative of Christianity.  Some talked to me about religion.  Others disregarded my attire and talked to me as a human being (how refreshing!).  Others gave me a very wide berth when I walked down the hallway.  But no one attacked me.

And through it all, it felt right to me.  I knew I was wearing 'distinctive' clothing, but it felt more like a uniform than a costume.  I felt like the clerical collar represented who I was and what I believed.  As I talked with people, I was even able to bring legitimacy to my claims of being a writer because of the writing I've done in the course of my ministry.  I'm a writer who ministers.  I'm a minister who writes.  I can't do one without the other.

Officially, I'm in a period of discernment as I focus on raising my kids.  (At least that's my justification for staying on the roster, rather than just dropping off.)  I think what I need to discern is why I feel more like a pastor at a gathering of non-religious science fiction writers and fans, but I feel like an imposter at church.  What is my calling, anyway?

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Reality TV and Justice

Through an unusual twist of fate which doesn't need to be explained here, last Thursday I found myself stuck in a room for about an hour with nothing to do but watch a TV that was tuned to CNN Headline News.  Given the circumstances that had me in that room to begin with, it would have been inappropriate for me to change the channel.

Last Thursday was the second day after the Casey Anthony verdict, a media circus I'd gone to great lengths to avoid.  Specifically, at the time I was in that room, the judge was hearing arguments about whether or not the names of the jurors should be made public.

I know a lot of people feel pretty strongly that Casey Anthony should have been found guilty of murdering her daughter Caylee.  Alan Dershowitz wrote an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal (click here to read it) that explained why the outcome was what it was, and a couple of the jurors have publicly stated that as much as they wanted to find her guilty, the prosecution just didn't provide enough evidence to justify that verdict.

Most of the posts I've seen on Facebook, however, as well as comments on online news articles and interviews with 'random people on the street,' suggest that many people are angry about the verdict, believing that Casey Anthony got away with murder.  That's all well and good; people are entitled to voice their opinions, and that's what Faceook, message boards, and interviews are for.

But can we trust people to leave it at voicing their opinions on social media sites, or when asked by a roving reporter?

According to my forced TV-watching, at least one juror had expressed "very serious security concerns" to the judge, and most of the jurors had communicated to him that they wished to be left alone, to keep their privacy.  A juror's family had already reported being stalked by someone angry about the case, and the judge read one comment which involved the writer's wish to "filet the jury, pour salt on them, and feed their legs to a piranha."

The attorneys for the media argued that it's in the public's interest to know who these jurors are, and if there are credible security concerns, the jurors can and should be protected.  The judge feels that these jurors were compelled to come and do their civic duty, and shouldn't have the added burden of an unwanted spotlight being shined on them, recognizing that there is a real risk that people might take out their anger on these jurors.

I find myself torn on this issue.  On the one hand, I agree that there is a danger in making jury anonymity the norm.  As many psychological studies have proven, people get more reckless, less responsible, and sometimes just plain mean when their actions are divorced from their identity.  (Think about how many obnoxious comments you've read on a message board by someone named "RighteousDude447" or something like that.  How many obnoxious comments are posted by someone who puts their actual name?  If you are one who comments regularly, do you do it under your own name?  If not, would having to put your real name change what you would say or how you would say it?)  I don't know that we want to try defendants in front of a jury of RighteousDude447s.  A defendant in this country is entitled to be tried before a jury of his or her peers, and those peers are representative of the community the defendant is a part of as well as the community that has been wronged.  Any one of us could end up as a defendant, rightly or wrongly, and we must rely on the representatives of our community to decide the rightness or wrongness of the charges against us.  The jurors must then take responsibility for their judgment for or against one of their own back to the community which they represent.  Keeping their identities secret means they don't have to take responsibility for their decision.  I agree with the media lawyers' argument that this could cause the American public to lose faith in the judicial system.

That's the argument for revealing the jurors' identities.

Here's my argument against.

We are no longer a civil enough society to expect restraint and self-control from ourselves.  While most people wouldn't get violent against these jurors, there are enough people who would that we must err on the side of caution.  Even without the risk of physical violence, there are enough people who would verbally assault the jurors that I feel their requests for anonymity must be respected.

We are no longer a society that accepts representation.  We want our own voices heard and heeded.  Even as many of us do everything we can to avoid jury duty ourselves, we watch the trial on TV as though it were American Idol, or maybe Survivor.  Or we don't watch it at all, we just listen to the daily soundbites as our news, and we expect Casey Anthony's guilt to be clear and obvious, and we expect the verdict to be what we think it should be, without considering the very specific mandate given to the actual jurors, and the requirements that must be met in order for the verdict to be guilty. And when the jurors do other than what we want them to do, we blame them.  Some of us are willing to hear why, but many of us are too busy reveling in our righteous indignation to be bothered with the facts and the subtleties.  It's not for the sake of the public's trust in the judicial system that people want the names of the jurors released; it's for the entertainment value.  It's as though we're angry about an unexpected plot twist, and we want to take it out on the stars of this new reality TV drama.  But this isn't reality TV; it's reality.  It's life.  It's the judicial system in action, unfortunately confused with shows like Law & Order (and its many spin-offs) which are entertainment.  I read an article recently that reported something like only 12% of high school seniors in the United States can correctly identify the three branches of our government.*  Yet not even knowing that much about the judicial system, hoards of angry people are declaring that Caylee Anthony has been denied justice, and some of those angry hoards hold the jurors personally responsible, with one online article calling them the twelve stupidest people walking in America today.  Would you want to be publicly known as one of the jurors who acquitted Casey Anthony?  I know I wouldn't.

If privacy is respected, the jurors can still choose to come forward.  One that I'm aware of already has, and has given an interview, with her name attached, to ABC.  Two more have spoken to the press under the condition of anonymity.  And yet another one has offered to give the whole, inside story of the proceedings to whomever will pay him $50,000.  That's entertainment, folks.

In time this will all die down, and no one will care about the jurors anymore.  You could say it's just a short-term problem; fifteen minutes of fame only last fifteen minutes, after all.  But some people don't want even fifteen minutes in the spotlight, or they aren't cut out for it, and, with the possible exception of the guy who's willing to sell his story, none of these jurors sought it out.  I'm reminded of Robert O'Donnell, the paramedic who rescued "Baby Jessica" from the well in 1987.  He was just an ordinary guy doing his job, but unlike most rescues by paramedics, this one came with instant nationwide fame.  Very quickly he was forgotten, but his fifteen minutes in the spotlight affected him in unhealthy ways.  A few years later his marriage broke up.  He was accused of abusing prescription drugs, and his career was over.  In 1995, at the age of 37, he took his own life.  Those who knew him insist that his downfall was caused by the media attention surrounding that rescue.  He wasn't equipped to handle the spotlight.  And that was before the internet, and he was known for something indisputably positive.  Can we honestly say that all the jurors on the Casey Anthony trial will handle it better?  Judges and lawyers know the risks of a high profile case, and choose to participate in them for their own reasons (hopefully a sense that justice must prevail, but I'm sure the money's pretty good, too).  Jurors aren't given a choice.

Getting people to show up for jury duty is hard enough.  Lost time at work, childcare issues, sometimes such heavy restrictions on your movements and conversations that your closest relationships we really want to add the risk that you will be publicly burned in effigy by RighteousDude447 and thousands others like him?  He might think it's like reality TV, but it could be your life we're talking about here.

*  If you weren't in that 12%, the three branches of our government are Executive, Legislative, and Judicial.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Too Offensive? Or Too Easily Offended?

I am way behind in my reading.  I've got a stack of periodicals that are getting increasingly outdated that I'm working my way through (except for the ones that I eventually throw away without reading, because they're just to irrelevant now).

Right now I'm working my way through the May 17th issue of the Christian Century, which also happens to be the last issue of my subscription.  I like the magazine, and I get a lot out of the articles despite the somewhat liberal Calvinist perspective (I'd always thought 'liberal Calvinist' was an oxymoron, but apparently not!), but I simply can't keep up with a biweekly publication right now.

A regular feature of the Christian Century is the section "Living By The Word," in which a guest contributor writes up a reflection on the upcoming two weeks' worth of lectionary readings.  Quinn G. Caldwell, who is listed as being the associate minister of Old South Church (UCC) in Boston wrote the reflections in this issue.  In his reflection for May 22 he wrote about interfaith dialogue and worship, and he described two ways of going about it.  The first way waters down everyone's faith to the lowest common denominator, so that everyone agrees to only say things that everyone else in the room can agree with.  The other way, which he identifies as his preferred way, allows and encourages everyone to be unafraid about who they are and what they believe.  He writes, "Rather than agreeing not to risk being offensive, we agree not to be easily offended."

I like this approach, and not just for interfaith dialogue.  What would happen if, in general, people worked harder at not being offended rather than not being offensive?  Your personal faith claim of ultimate truth isn't an attack on mine.  My preferred parenting method isn't a critique of yours.  Her strong preference for the culture of a coastal city isn't a slam against his strong preference for the community of a midwestern farming town.  The way one person chooses to live his or her life isn't a judgment on how someone else chooses to live theirs.

I know that in truth, many people would rather be offended, and expect the world to fully agree with and affirm their choices or preferences.  It would be much easier and nicer to live where we never felt like an outsider, or in any way different.  And I acknowledge that sometimes people really are being attacked for their differences, and that is wrong.  But not everything is an attack or a judgment.  Sometimes two people just see things differently, and agreeing to disagree is the only way to fully respect both parties, rather than asking one or both to play down who they are or what they believe.  As Caldwell writes in his May 22 reflection, "[T]he great challenge of our day is not to learn to live with watered-down versions of other faiths, but to live with them in all their fullness.  What could I possibly learn about Islam from a Muslim who's pretending not to be one?"

I'm sure that every time I speak to someone, either publicly or privately, my words could be interpreted as offensive by someone.  Increasingly people who do speak publicly are having to be more and more careful what they say, because someone somewhere is sure to be offended.  As a result, we are saying less and less.  We are not dialoguing with each other about anything important; we are monologuing at each other about nothing at all.  We are not learning from each other, because we're too afraid to say anything.  So we're all retreating to our own safe little enclaves of like-minded people and becoming more and more isolated from each other, and entrenched in our own positions and beliefs, and stagnant in our growth as people, and ignorant in our knowledge of the world.

Back in seminary I was asked to lead a devotional for the Wartburg Association of Students.  I'd found a poem inspired by a verse from John's Gospel, written about a hundred years ago.  The poem used masculine pronouns for God, which was contrary to Wartburg's gender-neutral language policy, but I didn't want to rewrite the poem in the name of political correctness.  So before I read the poem I explained the age of the piece, and that it did include these pronouns, and that I hoped everyone would be able to look past that and hear what the poem was saying.  As far as I could tell, everyone did, and it was clear that despite the presence of the pronouns that some in the room found offensive, by choosing not to be offended by them they were able to hear the beauty of the sentiment that the poet was trying to express.

We can do it.  Something else seminary taught (drilled into) me was this: it's not about you.  Next time you hear someone saying something you don't agree with, don't assume it's an attack or a judgment on you.  Instead, try to hear what they're saying, and understand what it means for them.  Don't demand that everyone else be inoffensive; work a little harder at not being so easily offended yourself.