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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Faith Vs. Reason?

Last week I wondered what Christians do that give others the opinion that we're either angry, judgmental, and unhappy, or else stupid.  This week I have yet another example as to why.

GOP presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann said to a group in Florida, "I don't know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians.  We've had an earthquake; we've had a hurricane.  He said, 'Are you going to start listening to me here?  Listen to the American people because the American people are roaring right now.  They know government is on a morbid obesity diet and we've got to reign in the spending.'"*  Really?  God is mad at American politicians who value spending money to try to help the poor and bring peace to the world over keeping a balanced budget?  I realize that how government spends taxpayer money is certainly a matter for debate, as are the intentions behind such spending, the effectiveness of the efforts, and the appropriateness of such priorities in a democracy.  But claiming natural disasters, one of which took forty lives (and counting!), are God's way of championing the rights of Americans who don't like the way their government is being run is heartless, arrogant, ignorant, and cruel.  I'm one who thinks the government needs to reign in spending, but I don't want God to throw a tree at an 11 year old boy's home and killing him to make my point.  Furthermore I refuse to worship a God who does so.  Fortunately I don't have to repudiate my faith or my God, because Bachmann's interpretation of recent events is wrong.  She does not have the monopoly on understanding God's will.  (Neither do I, before you start pointing fingers.)  Unfortunately she's got a microphone to help her spread her interpretation, and media focusing attention on it.  No one is going to repeat with such fervor that the earthquake was due to perfectly natural friction caused by the constantly moving tectonic plates beneath the earth's crust, or that the hurricane was caused by typical weather patterns for this time of year.

Not all Christians believe as Bachmann does, but she's got the louder voice and the sexier story, so her beliefs are understood as representative of all believing Christians.

And we (those of us who subscribe to faith and reason) let her do it, by keeping silent.

It's understandable why we keep silent.  When we speak and offer an alternative interpretation, those who believe as Bachmann does shout us down with their accusations that we're not really Christians, that our faith is tainted, or misguided, and not true Christianity.  And those who aren't Christian (by their own profession, not my designation) won't listen to us, because we're Christian and therefore obviously ignorant and reactionary, because they know how Christians are (they've heard what Michele Bachmann said, after all!).

I don't know how to counter this.  With the increasing polarization in politics, society, and the world, 'faith seeking understanding' is no longer seen as a viable approach.  It's now either/or.  The most vocal Christians proclaim that faith gives all the answers, and anything that challenges those answers challenges the faith.  Because of that insistence, faith has been pushed out of all other conversations, and those of us who have faith are assumed to have nothing of value to contribute.  That more than anything else, I believe, is what may succeed in relegating the church to irrelevancy.  In many ways, we're almost there already.

It doesn't have to be a choice between faith and reason.  The two are not diametrically opposed.  There are thinking Christians out there, trying to contribute to the important conversations.  And they are out there, doing good work in spreading the good news.  They just never make the news.  At best they're seen as the exception, and at worst, they're not seen at all.
 

*As reported by the L.A. Times.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Identifying with the Church-Harmed

I've been doing a lot of pulpit supply since I returned to Massachusetts, mostly at the church where I'm a sort-of member.  I've actually preached there five Sundays out of the last seven, which is good, because I never could have preached the sermon I preached on Sunday if I weren't known to and had established trust with the congregation.  In order to preach the sermon I was led to preach, I had to get personal, and I don't do that with congregations I don't know.

The gospel lesson I was preaching on was from Matthew, when Jesus asks his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" and then, "But who do you say that I am?"  (The full passage was Matthew 16:13-20, if you're interested.)  When preparing to write the sermon, I found a note written next to this passage in my bible, probably from a text study I attended years ago: Outsiders' opinion of Jesus.  Why does the Church today need to hear what non-church people say about the Church?  What do we do with that information?  And with that old notation, the direction for my sermon was set.  I needed to explore what Christians do that give non-Christians the impression that we're angry, unhappy, judgmental hypocrites, or else simplistic and too stupid to really understand what's going on around us (because let's face it: when you see Christians depicted in movies and on television, that's usually how we're portrayed).  Sure, there are the obvious culprits like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, but we can't lay all the blame at their feet.  There are a lot of ordinary, non-famous and non-controversial Christians out there who do a lot of harm to others, and give both Christianity and God a bad name while doing so.

And that's where my sermon had to get personal.  I am one of the Church-harmed, and my own story demonstrates the point I was trying to make better than an over-the-top Falwell or Robertson foot-in-mouth moment that most people can simply dismiss as idiocy.

I was first harmed by the Church (my capitalization here is intentional) when I was thirteen years old.  I'd been attending CCD at the same Catholic Church since kindergarten, at the same church I'd been baptized in, and where my parents had been married.  At the beginning of 8th grade they signed me up for CCD automatically, but no one bothered to tell me where and when to report.  So I missed the first class.  The next day in Social Studies several schoolmates, who were also in that CCD class, told me that the teacher (CCD wasn't taught by the priest) had told everyone there that I was the spawn of the devil because I obviously didn't care about learning about God, and that their eternal souls would be at risk if they associated with me.  Fortunately for me, they weren't too worried about their eternal souls, so I didn't lose any friends over this.  That church did lose a member (me only--my parents had already stopped going because the Church didn't recognize their divorce), and once I got confirmed later that year (at another Catholic Church in the center of town--my mother made me), I left the Catholic Church and never looked back.

The second time was four years later, when I was attending an evangelical church with a friend.  We were going on a ski trip to Vermont, but the bus that had been chartered to take us there never showed up.  The youth pastor organized us into cars driven by adult volunteers, without informing our parents of the change.  The volunteer driving the car I was in drove recklessly and caused a serious accident.  No one was killed, but I missed nearly two months of school recovering from my injuries, and then spent several more months unable to walk without the assistance of crutches or a cane.  My mother sued the church, and I was then informed by some of the leadership that I was an unrepentant sinner beyond all hope of salvation.

Fast forward through my years of atheism, militant church-hating, and then eventual return and even (shock, horror, and awe) ordination, to a first call with a workaholic senior pastor who was unable to share leadership and allow me the autonomy to minister according to my own gifts, to a second call at a level three conflict congregation (a fact that was known to the synod, but was hidden from me).  Because I wasn't aware of the dynamics going in, I didn't provide the correct leadership for that level of conflict, and it quickly became level four.  That last experience caused serious spiritual harm to me and to my family, and has me questioning whether or not I ever want to have anything to do with congregational ministry again.

And the reason I put all of this into my sermon is because all this harm was caused by other Christians, and we as Christians need to know that our words and our actions matter.  I called myself one of the Church-harmed earlier, because I've discovered that there's a disturbingly large number of people who have been harmed by the Church in similar ways.  We are pastors who have been spiritually and emotionally destroyed by abusive congregations.  We are church members who have been exploited and condemned by abusive pastors.  We are seekers who have been judged and convicted by well-meaning believers who are convinced that their understanding alone is sufficient to determine who is worthy of God's love, and who is not.  We are still on the fringes, trying to find our place in the Church.  We are seeking acceptance and belonging in secular circles, wanting nothing to do with the Church.  We're okay with God, but don't want anything to do with the people of God.  We're not okay with God, because who wants to be okay with a God who lets his* people treat others like that?  Or it doesn't matter if we're okay with God or not, because our experiences with Christians have convinced us that there is no God.

I now identify with this group.  And who knows--maybe my calling as a pastor is to reach out to others like me, and to make sure a part of the Church is safe for those who have been harmed by it before.

Assuming the Church doesn't totally beat me down first.


*I disagree with the current efforts to use only gender-neutral language for God, but I'll save that for another post at a later time.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Whose Fault is the Next Recession?

The government is tapped out.  The big banks are teetering.  Large corporations are watching their stock prices plummet, then skyrocket, then plummet again, with no idea where they'll settle.  We are on the brink of recession.  And if we go over that edge, it will be the fault of American consumers and small businesses.

At least that's what an article* in the Wall Street Journal suggested last week.

According to an economist interviewed in the article, consumers and businesses who worry about a recession and make spending decisions based on that worry will then, by their cautious actions, trigger that recession.  He called it a self-fulfilling prophecy.

His words make sense, but they--and the article--leave out some very important details.

The United States government has been passing a deficit budget nearly every year since around 1970.  That means that for about forty years, the government has been borrowing money to meet its expenses.  Of course, they eventually had to pay that money back, and they did that by borrowing more money, on top of what they were already borrowing.  And then, when those bills came due along with all the others, they paid those off by borrowing yet more.  It's like someone paying all their bills with a credit card, and when their credit card bill comes due, they get a new credit card to pay it off, and on and on it goes.  The recent fiasco in congress about raising the debt ceiling came about because someone finally questioned whether it was a good idea for the government to continually get a new credit card every time they maxed out the old one.

So now the government is trying to cut spending.  And some of the things they are cutting are the safety nets.  Now I for one see a distinction between a safety net and an entitlement program, but that's an entirely different rant for an entirely different post.  At any rate, I believe that some of those entitlements do indeed need to be trimmed.  But the entitlements benefit so many people that they have powerful lobbies, and it's hard to touch them at all.  So the small safety nets that are still left and make the difference between life and death for a few people (comparatively speaking) are being cut or eliminated, and the backlash against the entitlements when it comes (and it will come) will cut too deeply, and then they will barely function as safety nets, either.  So watch out, citizens!  Don't count on Uncle Sam helping you out if you get in trouble; you're on your own.

Big banks were lending large sums of money to people with small incomes.  Mortgages were great for the banks.  The more money people were able to borrow, the more they were able to spend on a house.  As more money was available to spend on housing, the more expensive houses got.  So people had to borrow more money for less house, and with the availability of that money, houses got yet more expensive, and people had to borrow more.  Anyone not buying a house was cautioned that they'd better do it before they got priced out of the market completely, because home prices were only going to go up.  So more people felt pressured to buy, and took on interest-only mortgages with low monthly payments that would balloon later, expecting that by the time their payments went up, their house would be worth so much more than they'd paid for it that they could just tap their equity and make the house pay for itself.  Free money, free house.  Banks encouraged this by lowering their lending standards to practically nothing.

Then the banks began betting that their borrowers would default with the investment known as Credit Default Swaps (CDS).  These little beauties made it so the banks won either way: if the mortgage was paid back along with the interest due, the bank got a payoff from its investment; if the mortgage defaulted and wasn't paid back, the CDS would pay the bank a lump sum, and the bank got a payoff from its investment.  The losers were the ones who had to pay out the CDS.  And since you don't have to actually be the creditor (i.e. hold the mortgage) to buy a CDS, anyone can get one.  So those made their way into pension funds, mutual funds, etc., as safe investments with high payoffs, which was accurate (provided the mortgages never defaulted).  Of course, once things reached a breaking point and people couldn't pay their mortgages, there was widespread failure across the system.  The banks, who held both mortgages and CDS, found themselves overexposed and ready to fail.  Of course if that happened, people and businesses couldn't borrow money, and the entire economy would seize up (because we've already established that no one can pay for anything unless it's with borrowed money).  So the government bailed them out and covered their investment losses (but did nothing to help the individuals who suffered losses--except make it easier for them to borrow more money to make ends meet) and took more money out of taxpayers' pockets and gave it to the banks.  So watch out, bank customers!  Don't count on the banks working with you if you get into trouble; you're on your own.

Businesses have focused so much on quarterly earnings that they cost-cut their way to short-term profits while sacrificing their long-term strategies and even viability.  They lay off employees (i.e. people who are trying to work for a living and take care of themselves) and expect unreasonable levels of productivity from those who are left.  They shift more of the costs of health insurance to their employees.  They make management decisions that cause the workplace environment to become unpleasant or even unhealthy (I'm aware of one company that has removed every third fluorescent tube from their overhead lighting to save money, making the office just dim enough to cause eyestrain).  They use cheaper quality components in their products while charging their customers higher prices on account of the company's 'increased costs.'  And finally they take advantage of perfectly legal tax loopholes that allow them to post record profits while keeping their federal income tax liability at zero. So watch out, employees!  Don't count on your company to value your job over their shareholders' gains; if they need to lay you off to save a few pennies, that's your problem; you're on your own.  And customers, don't count on prices going down, either.

Individuals aren't innocent here, either.  No one was forced to take on an oversized mortgage.  If you took out anything other than a conventional mortgage with a fixed interest rate, then you contributed to the problem.  If you took out a home equity loan for anything other than major home repairs or improvements, you contributed to the problem.  If you ever used your credit card and didn't pay off the balance in full at the end of the month, you contributed to the problem.  (I'm not talking about the occasional large purchase that took two or three months to pay off; I'm talking about if you can't remember the last time you didn't carry a balance on your credit cards.)  Of course, this was also in an environment when costs were going up, salaries were remaining stagnant or going down, and we were being told that it was our patriotic duty to stimulate the economy by spending money.

No one (that I'm aware of) is spouting off that 'patriotic duty' crap this time around, but putting the responsibility of another recession on the backs of consumers amounts to the same thing.  (It's also notable that the American public is usually referred to as consumers, and not citizens or people--I guess it's clear what our primary purpose is in this country.)  We've learned that prices are going up, jobs can't be counted on to last, banks will gamble with people's money and expect the government to cover their losses, our own individual taxes will have to pay for those bailouts as well as make up for the taxes the large corporations aren't paying, and the government isn't going to help us out if we get in trouble.  But if we practice fiscal responsibility by living within our means, saving for a rainy day, and spending cautiously, the next recession is our fault.

Give me a break.


*The article was "Penny-Pinching Puts Recovery on Thin Ice" by Ben Casselman and Conor Dougherty, in the Wall Street Journal's online edition on Wednesday, August 11, 2011.  I have provided a link, but I believe the article is locked unless you have a subscription.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Seductive Simplicity of a Studio Apartment

Don't get me wrong-- I love my husband and my kids.  I love them more than life itself, and I wouldn't want to contemplate living without them.  But the thing is, I have this daydream.  In my daydream, life is simple.  I live in a small, uncluttered studio apartment in the city (sometimes it's Boston, sometimes it's Manhattan, depending on my mood).  It's a snap to clean, and it's quiet.  I keep my own quirky schedule, because I live alone and I don't have to worry about carving out time for a 9-to-5-job-holding husband or messing up the routines of two small children.  I go out frequently to shop for the necessities or run errands one or two at a time, because I don't have a car and I'm limited by how much I can carry.  But it's the city, so everything's either walking distance or a short ride on the bus or subway.  My life is simple, and quiet, and flexible.

In my daydream I'm not rich, but I live so simply that I don't need a lot of money, and I'm able to support myself with my writing.  It's not like it was in my late teens and early twenties when I was working 60 hours a week at two crappy jobs I hated just to pay the rent on my should-have-been-condemned-by-the-Department-of-Health studio apartment.  In my daydream, my studio is very nice, and I can pay for it just from writing.

Except I suffer from chronic insomnia, and if I'm writing out of the house full-time, I'll be spending all my time in my sleep area, making it very un-restful.  That won't work.  I'll need at least a one-bedroom apartment, so I can keep my sleeping area separate from my living and working area.

Wait a minute.  Living and working area?  Boundaries are important, and I'm going to need a way to unwind and relax when I'm not writing.  Just moving to the couch and turning on the TV or opening a good book won't work if my computer is mocking me from three feet away.  Since the sleep hygiene necessary for my insomnia prohibits my moving the computer or TV into my bedroom, clearly I need dedicated office space.  So a two-bedroom apartment it is, with the second bedroom being used as office space and the living room as my living/recreation area.

Hmmm.  A nice, two-bedroom apartment in the heart of the city.  Manhattan is out--no way can I afford that!  Boston's still possible, but a stretch.  I don't think I could do it on writing alone, not right now anyway (hopefully someday my writing will really take off and it would be possible, but right now it's just not realistic).  So I'll need to work an outside job.  Part-time would be preferable, but a nice two-bedroom in a nice area of Boston?  That'll require full-time work.

A full-time job while writing part-time from my not-so-small two-bedroom apartment.  I'll need a cleaning lady to come every other week to dust and do the floors, kitchen, and bathroom.  I hate cleaning, and that time would be better spent writing, anyway.  Oh yes, and I'll need a car so I can do all my grocery shopping and whatnot in one quick trip.  I might need to work some overtime.

You know, my daydream is beginning to sound pretty hectic and complicated.  And lonely.  Wouldn't it be nice to find someone to share the load, to enjoy each other's company over the mundane things like morning coffee and supper together after work, a simple, healthy supper at home that I would cook and he would do the dishes after.

And it would be nice to have a couple of kids.  But the city's no place to raise them--we'd have to move to the suburbs.  And daycare's so expensive, it would make more sense for me to stay home with them.

I'm sure I could fit writing in somehow...

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Time Well Lost

My internal clock is scary-accurate.  On those (extremely) rare occasions when I'm not wearing my watch and my son needs five minutes in a time-out corner, my estimate of five minutes is usually accurate within a few seconds.  I'll drive my husband crazy when we've just turned out the light for the night, and I'll say something like, "What time is it?  11:37?"  And he'll check and then reply (rather crankily), "No, it's 11:36."  Actually, that's how he used to answer.  Now he's more likely to say, "Oh, shut up."

This accuracy comes from a lifetime of constantly checking my watch or keeping an eye on the clock.  Even if I have nowhere I need to be and nothing going on later, I still need to know what time it is.  (This is why I have to ask my husband if it's 11:37--he removed the clock from my nightstand because he got tired of hearing the minute-by-minute account of how poorly I'd slept the night before, what time I woke up, how long before I fell back to sleep, etc.).  I don't know why it's so important for me to always know what time it is, but it is, and it always has been.

But every once in a while, I'll actually forget to mark time.  It's an extraordinarily rare occurrence, but it does happen.  And it happened this past Saturday.

I was bringing the kids to Hampton Beach to meet a friend I hadn't seen for several years.  She'd never met them, and I'd wanted to introduce them to the beach anyway.  We left the house at 11 AM, and I figured we'd arrive around noonish.  I didn't anticipate the traffic.  At 1 PM, when we finally crossed the New Hampshire border, I pulled over at a rest stop to use the facilities, call my friend, and have a picnic lunch with the kids.  We got back on the road at about 1:45 (OK, it was 1:47).  We arrived at the condo where my friend was staying at 2:15, unloaded all the accessories (two small children come with lots of those!), then went in search of a parking spot.  One mile, twenty dollars, and thirty minutes later, the car was parked and the kids, the double stroller and I joined our stuff and my friend at the condo.  It took nearly forty-five minutes for me to get myself and the kids in our swim suits and well covered with sunscreen.  The beach was only a short walk away, so it was 3:30 when we laid down our blankets.

Then I did what I'd been dreading all day.  I took off my watch and put it in my beach bag.  Then I walked about fifty yards to the wet sand that was cooler and much more fun for the kids to play with.  No watch, no clock.  I was on my own.

My friend and I talked while the kids played.  The sun beat down on us, and after a while I went back to our blankets to get some water.  And check my watch.  I'd guessed we'd been there for about an hour.  I was right--it was 4:30 exactly.  I put my watch back in my bag and went back to the group, where my son was splashing in the small pool my friend had dug for him and my daughter was doing her best to become one with the sand.  Completely.

An hour later I saw the lifeguards take down their chairs and lay them against the wall near the sidewalk.  I knew it was an hour because it had felt like an hour, and I'd seen the sign on the way in stating that the lifeguards were on duty until 5:30 PM.

And then it happened.

At some point after the lifeguards left my son announced that he wanted to go back to the condo.  My friend rinsed all their toys in the ocean, and I rinsed the kids in the little pools we'd dug in the wet sand.  We returned to the blankets, shook them out, packed them up, and went back to the condo.  Once there I herded the kids into the bathroom and stuck them both in the shower, t-shirts, bathing suits, and all.  They weren't happy.  It took as long as it took, and when they were reasonably salt- and sand-free, I sent them into the living room so I could have my turn in the shower.  I think I took a quick one, but I could be wrong.

After that, the kids and I hung out while my friend took her turn.  By that time I was wearing my watch again and sitting in front of a clock.  I remember looking at it a few times, but the positions of the hands didn't register.  I didn't care, and I didn't notice that I didn't care.  When my friend was ready, we went out in search of dinner.

We found one at a nearby restaurant, where we had a very enjoyable meal.  When we were done my friend returned to the condo to retrieve the double-stroller, so I could introduce my kids to that staple of Hampton Beach cuisine--Blink's Fry Doe.  Not surprisingly, they're now fans.

Having accomplished all that I'd wanted to accomplish that day, we got the car and were driving back to the condo to drop off my friend and pick up the kids' accessories when my cell phone rang.  It was my husband.  He was worried about me, because he'd expected me home a while ago.  I started to laugh until I realized--it was full dark outside, and it had been for a while.  I looked at the clock in the dashboard, and was astonished.  "Is it really 9:20?!" I asked.  Both he and my friend assured me that it was.  I'd completely lost track of time.

I can't say exactly what it was about Saturday after the lifeguards left that made me forget to care what time it was.  It wasn't just that I was relaxed and having a good time; I do do that sometimes, and I still need to check my watch obsessively.  But I liked being freed from the schedule, especially with the kids.  We had things to do, and we did them, and it took as long as it took.  I know I can't live every day like that, but I certainly hope to do it more often than I have been.  Especially with the kids.  My son is three, and every time he sees a clock, he asks me, "Mama, what time is it?"