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Thursday, December 20, 2012

Why We Need Advent

There are a lot of people right now who are just not feeling that elusive "Christmas Spirit."  You know the one: that idea that everyone has to be happy and joyful for the entire month of December (or longer, if you take your cues from the retail industry).  Christmas is supposed to be a time of generosity and love, a time to enjoy friends and family, buy presents that will make the people you care about happy, and a time to eat lots of cookies but somehow not gain any weight.

But 20 young children died last week.  People are losing their jobs, and families are losing their homes.  A lot of people have strained relationships with their families or have recently lost loved ones, and Christmas Day brings out all the dysfunction you've been trying so hard to ignore.

For a lot of people it's not a very happy time, this Christmas season.

Fortunately, it's not really Christmas.

It's Advent.

You might remember Advent from Sunday School or CCD.  If you're a church-goer, you might recognize Advent as the excuse your pastor gives for not singing all the Christmas carols you love at church, at least not until the radio stations have stopped playing them.

But just as so many fervent Christians shout out that "Jesus is the Reason for the Season," there is a reason for the season of Advent as well.  And the reason is that a celebration of the Savior's birth makes no sense in a world that doesn't recognize its need for salvation.

Isaiah writes in chapter 9:

2 *The people who walked in darkness
   have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
   on them light has shined.
3 You have multiplied the nation,
   you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
   as with joy at the harvest,
   as people exult when dividing plunder.
4 For the yoke of their burden,
   and the bar across their shoulders,
   the rod of their oppressor,
   you have broken as on the day of Midian.
5 For all the boots of the tramping warriors
   and all the garments rolled in blood
   shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
6 For a child has been born for us,
   a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
   and he is named
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
   Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 His authority shall grow continually,
   and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
   He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
   from this time onwards and for evermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.  (NRSV)

The light is so important because the people have been living in darkness.  They were burdened with yokes across their shoulders, weighing them down.  They were under the rod of their oppressors.  They lived a reality of tramping warriors and bloody battles bringing terror into their lives.  There was pain, and suffering, and misery.

The Christian story does not deny the harsh realities of life.  The Christian story is so powerful because Christ comes to us in the midst of those harsh realities.

Advent is not merely a preparation for Christmas; it is the active expectation of redemption and liberation.  And in a world where children are murdered, people are homeless and hungry, and families are fractured, we need to know that we are redeemed and liberated.  Advent is a time when we look forward in hope and anticipation for better days, even as we acknowledge that although we currently sit in darkness, we have seen a great light.

Don't worry if you're not feeling the Christmas Spirit this year.  Advent will meet you exactly where you are, wherever you are.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Time Capsule Challenge

Received via Farai Chideya and Tayari Jones.  My assignment was to write about when I was staring down 30 and compare it to now (when I'm staring down 40).

A month before the big three-oh, I was on my pastoral internship in Edgemont, South Dakota.  It was part of my Masters in Divinity program at Wartburg Theological Seminary.  The population of Edgemont at that time was 864.  I'd grown up in a suburb of Boston, where there were about 1200 students in my high school alone.  Needless to say, I was suffering from some culture shock.  I was also struggling with my pastoral identity, trying to figure out how this female ex-Catholic Bostonian could possibly minister to a congregation of rural Midwestern Lutherans.  Being single, the isolation was difficult for me, and I was transitioning from a problem drinker into a full-blown alcoholic.  I was also a smoker.

Even though I wanted to get married, I expected I'd remain single for the rest of my life.  Before I'd begun preparing for ministry, I'd always had trouble attracting decent men.  Once I added 'Pastor' to my identity, it was like I was radioactive.  Most guys wanted nothing to do with someone in my profession.  Additionally I was told by some well-meaning family members that my standards were too high.  I decided I'd rather keep my high standards and remain single than settle into a bad marriage.  I planned to adopt a daughter after I was firmly established in my first call, about two or three years down the line.

I didn't want to make South Dakota my permanent home, but I knew I never wanted to return to New England, where I'd never felt I belonged.  I hoped for a call in Wisconsin or Iowa, where I would be a parish pastor in a smallish community (preferably with a population in the low thousands, rather than hundreds) and hopefully serve the same congregation for a very long time.

Ten years later I've burnt out on parish ministry after serving two congregations as called pastor and two more as interim.  Only one of those congregations was in the Midwest, and it was the most toxic of the lot, essentially destroying any desire I might have to go back (to parish ministry or to the Midwest).  I also quit smoking in 2003 and have been sober for over eight years.  I'm happily married to a man who met my standards (what do you know--he did exist!), and I'm a stay-at-home homeschooling mom to our two young children.  We're also living in New Hampshire, and are very happy here.  It turns out New England is where I belonged after all.

I'm not letting my theological training go to waste, even as I acknowledge that parish ministry is not a good fit for me.  I'm an active member of a local Lutheran congregation, where I occasionally teach adult bible studies.  I also fill in for my pastor and other nearby colleagues when they need a Sunday off.  Finally, I'm combining my theological training with my life-long love of writing.  I'm in the process of launching my own publishing house where I will publish devotions, bible studies, worship resources, theological books, and even some fiction (which may or may not have a religious theme).  Of course, that takes a backseat to being a wife and mother, two jobs that are MUCH more difficult than I'd ever imagined (but worth it nonetheless).

Would you like to participate in the Time Capsule Challenge?  Leave a comment with your current age, and I'll give you an age to write about.  If you're willing, please either write your response in a comment, or provide a link to your own page.  Otherwise, just do this for your own edification.  It's fun!

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Where Does It Begin? How Will It End?

I had to wipe my tears with a crumpled-up napkin I'd found in the glove compartment.  I was driving to the mall so my kids could run off some excess energy at the indoor playground, and my son asked me why I was crying.  When I told him it was because of what I'd heard on the radio, he--quite sensibly--opined that "Maybe we shouldn't listen to this radio station [NPR] any more."  I smiled and told him that would make sense, but Mama had to know what was going on in the world.

And what was going on that made me cry in the car was the news that 20 elementary school children in Newtown, CT were dead, along with six adults from their school, and the shooter.  Since then it's been revealed that the shooter's mother was a teacher at the school, whom he'd also shot and killed at home earlier in the day.

I could only wonder what kind of person would do such a thing.  And what kind of world do we live in that produces such people?  Because this was not an isolated event.  Sure, the fact that it was an elementary school was a new twist, but earlier this week someone shot up a shopping mall in Oregon.  Two weeks ago a young man shot his father with a bow and arrow as he taught class at a community college in Wyoming (after fatally stabbing his father's girlfriend at their home).  A few months ago someone else shot up a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin.  And a month before that, someone else shot up a movie theatre in Colorado.  Why do so many people resort to indiscriminate violence as the solution to their problems?  Why are they so unaware or uncaring of the pain and suffering they'll inflict on people who are in no way responsible for the wrongs committed against them?

Not long after arriving at the mall playground, I saw part of the answer.  Three boys, all the same age or not much younger than the majority of victims at Sandy Hook Elementary School, were running around pretending to shoot everyone with their index fingers.  And laughing as they did it.  When one of them pointed his 'gun' at me and I shook my head 'no,' he yelled, "Bang bang!"  He was about six years old.  I informed him sternly that guns are not toys, and it's not a fun game to pretend to kill people.  His two friends overheard me and came over, pointed their index fingers at me, and opened fire, apparently now with semi-automatic index finger-guns.  Then they ran away, laughing.  The mother of the two boys who came later, who were apparently brothers, was sitting nearby and saw the whole thing.  She was smiling.

A little while later, after the boy who 'shot' me first had left, my son Spencer began playing with the brothers.  Very quickly I found myself having to give him the same lecture I'd given the first boy.  I told him that I understood he was playing with those other boys, but he wasn't allowed to play that game, and if that's all they wanted to do, then he'd have to find someone else to play with.  They began just chasing each other, sans guns.  I would have preferred him not to play with them at all, but he has to learn to pick his own friends, and he was obeying me.  I know this because I was watching.  Closely.  Unlike the other boys' mother.

After a couple of minutes, Spencer came over crying.  One of the brothers had pushed him.  I told him that if he did that, then he wasn't really a friend, and he shouldn't play with him.  But Spencer is forgiving (or at least really enjoys playing with other kids) so he went back.  The boy's mother either didn't know what had happened, or didn't care.  A little while later Spencer was crying again.  This time the boy had pushed him off one of the climbing structures, and Spencer had landed hard on the floor.  The boy's mother pulled him over to her seat and told him to "Go say you're sorry."  The boy refused.  His mother sat him down next to her and told him he couldn't play anymore until he said he was sorry.  I told Spencer that even if he did apologize, I didn't want them playing together anymore.  Spencer agreed.  The other brother came over and invited Spencer to play with "just me."  Spencer went.  The 'pusher' saw Spencer and his brother playing and got up from his seat.  His mother asked, "Are you going to say you're sorry?"  The boy said he was, so she let him go.  He went in the opposite direction of Spencer, clearly with no intention of apologizing.  His mother watched him go, shook her head, then went back to playing with her phone.  I watched the little hooligan make his way around the play yard back to the climbing structure, where his brother and Spencer were playing, now joined by my daughter Naomi.  And then I heard a banshee shriek I know very well.  This boy had now pushed Naomi off the structure, too.

The boy's mother made him stay with her this time, but kept him occupied with snacks while she gave her other son a few more minutes to play.  When it was finally (mercifully) time for them to leave, the boy who hadn't pushed my kids threw a temper tantrum, and only promises of pizza and ice cream (for both of them) could entice him to leave the play area.

That child probably won't grow up to be a mass murderer.  But what did he learn today?  He learned that after you push and hurt other children, you get pizza and ice cream.  He learned that bad behavior, even violent behavior, doesn't result in negative consequences. And he'll remember, when things get difficult when he's older, how much fun it was to run around and pretend to kill people, and how much easier life was back then.

What mothers do matters, but we're not the only ones who influence our children.  Sometimes we do our best to teach them proper behavior and give them plenty of love, attention, and guidance, and they still turn out to do these horrific things.

I'm noticing a trend.  It's too early to begin to speculate about motive regarding the Connecticut shooter, but we do know a few things about him.  He was 20 years old, and has been described as quiet, reserved, and highly intelligent.  He came from a loving home, and had no known criminal record.

The Oregon shooter was 22 years old, and was described by friends as being a really nice guy in high school, popular with the other kids, and having a heart of gold.  School administrators described him as having average talent and earning average grades, with no record of disciplinary issues.  The only trigger anyone can point to is the fact the he had recently broken up with his girlfriend, though he'd seemed to be dealing with that OK.  His dream was to move to Hawaii.

The Wyoming guy was 25, had a Bachelor's degree in Computer Engineering, a Master's degree in Electrical Engineering, and was working a low-end, blue-collar job for a utility.  He lived in a rooming house and was described as shy and socially awkward.  He also had Asperger's Syndrome, which he believed his father 'gave him.'  He had no criminal history.

The Wisconsin shooter was 40, and had a history of behavioral misconduct and affiliations with hate groups.

The Colorado shooter was 24, and had been studying for his Ph.D. in neuroscience until he withdrew from the program after failing his oral exams.  He was described as quiet, responsible, and nerdish, raised in an upscale section of San Diego and once worked at a summer camp for needy children.  He'd never given any indications of problematic behavior until his academic career began to fall apart.

With the exception of the Wisconsin shooter, they were all promising young adults.  Most came from loving homes.  They were all most likely raised to believe that they could accomplish anything they set their minds to, and were encouraged to pursue their dreams, expecting they'd be successful.  Two were well educated, but found that in real life, you don't automatically get on the team just because you showed up at tryouts.  In the adult world you have to work hard, and sometimes hard work isn't enough.  You still have to deal with disappointment, despite your best efforts.  And when things don't go your way, you don't get to throw a temper tantrum and have someone offer you a cookie to stop.  Two specifically targeted a parent.  Only one is still alive today.

As parents, we want to protect our kids, but we also have to teach them how to cope with things not working out the way they want.  In order for them to learn to deal with disappointment, they need to sometimes be disappointed, and that means we have to let them fully experience it.  We can comfort them, but we can't fix it for them.  We have to let them know that some behavior is simply not acceptable, and punish them for it, even if it inconveniences us.  We have to let them know that they must meet certain expectations, and they don't get a prize or a passing grade just for trying.  The world doesn't really care about their self esteem once they're no longer children or teenagers.  Life can be harsh, it can be unfair, and we're doing them a real disservice if we lead them to believe otherwise.  And even when we do all that, we still have to help them navigate through childhood in a culture that expects absolutely nothing of them until they're 18 or 22, at which time they are expected to be fully-functioning adults.

In the days and weeks to come, there will be talk about gun control, increased security in the schools, zero tolerance policies, anything that might better protect us from the monsters who sadly aren't imaginary.  Those are worthy and useful conversations to have.  But what we really need to talk about is a culture that actively discourages children and teenagers from preparing for life as adults.  Take away the guns, and those who want to kill will use knives or bows and arrows.  Increase security at the schools, and the criminals will find ways to get to their targets, and everyone else will become accustomed at a young age to living in a police state.  Let's not waste too much time with the symptoms; we need to address the cause if we're ever going to end this.

All I wanted to do yesterday was hug my kids.  I know I wasn't alone in that.  I want to protect my kids from those horrors.  But I won't turn off the radio, even when it makes me cry, because that's the world we live in, and I have to know what the reality is if I'm going to live in this world, and prepare my kids for it.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Chicken, the Egg, and the Retail Dilemma

Not only is it old news, but it's practically ancient history by now that several retailers began their Black Friday sales on Thanksgiving evening.  I responded by ignoring the Thanksgiving Day sales with as much enthusiasm as I ignore the Black Friday sales.  Having been forced to participate in a run on Cabbage Patch Kids at Toys R Us with my mother when I was about eight years old, I have a pretty negative reaction to the mob mentality that comes with the cattle-call pursuit of STUFF that is the backbone of doorbuster sales.  Even though the Cabbage Patch Kid was for me, I knew back then that it just wasn't worth it.  Sure, I was glad I got Francis Xavier (who later had a bow tied in his hair and was re-Christened Crystal Something-Or-Other).  But if I'd known that I'd have to stand in line with a couple hundred adults and a (very) few children, then go stampeding with them to the very back of the store, and then witness grown-ups ripping dolls out of each others hands and pushing each other down, I think I would have chosen to do without Francis Xavier/Crystal Something-Or-Other.

Of course, after months of pre-election coverage and weeks of election post mortem, the talk shows on NPR that narrate my errands during the week were trying to fill the election vacuum with discussions about the new trend in Black Friday sales: starting them on Thursday, regardless of the fact that it's still Thanksgiving.  And what struck me was the claim the retailers kept repeating over and over again: We're only trying to give the customers what they want.  If they want to shop on Thanksgiving, then we want to provide them with that opportunity.

With a few notable exceptions, nobody wants to shop on Thanksgiving.  What people do want, what many people need in this crappy economy, are the deals.  And if retailers are only offering the good deals on Thanksgiving, then people are going to shop on Thanksgiving.  Of course, if the retailers wait until their normal week-day opening time on Friday morning to offer the great deals, the customers would happily do their shopping at that time.  But the retailers don't want to wait until 9 or 10 AM Friday morning, because they mistakenly believe that being open an additional 12 hours will beat out their competitors and improve their bottom line. 

Why do I say they 'mistakenly' believe this?  First because people will go for the deals, regardless of when the stores offer them.  Second, because people only have a certain amount of money to spend and shopping to do, and forcing them to get it done earlier means they won't do it later.  The New York Times recently reported that even though sales on Thanksgiving Day were up from last year (most likely because many stores were open more hours on Thursday compared to last year), Black Friday sales were down from 2011.  Overall sales of the weekend (if you can really call the five-day period beginning with Thanksgiving and ending with Cyber Monday a weekend) were up a bit from last year, but the evidence suggests that would have happened anyway.

But the retailers will only look at the improved sales from Thanksgiving, and convince themselves that if people were lining up at the doors at 8 PM, then that means they really want to be shopping at 4 PM, and that's an extra four hours of sales, which means an extra four hours to earn a profit (not that that's why they're doing it--they only want to give the customers what they want, after all).  And since there's zero chance of the economy improving significantly in the next twelve months and plenty of data suggesting it's going to get worse, the shoppers with dutifully show up for the great deals whenever they're offered.  And that will improve next Thanksgiving's sales, which will tell the retailers that the customers really want the stores to open at noon, and, well, you see where this is going.

In the meantime, Black Friday sales and early and mid-December sales will decrease, keeping the overall holiday shopping frenzy reasonably stable, with the modest increases or decreases (based on overall economic health) being spread thinner and thinner over the ever-expanding 'Holiday Season,' further diluting the meaning of the season and reinforcing the idea that our primary purpose in life is to be consumers, not citizens with a heritage to celebrate, a religion to observe, or families to enjoy.

Retailers and shoppers, supply and demand, chickens and their eggs.  Which came first?  In this case, for as long as the retailers have the most sought-after prize (good deals on stuff people want), the retailers make the rules.  Only when we stop behaving according to the retailers' assumption that we're nothing more than consumers can we begin asserting ourselves as people.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

What Are We Eating?

I wanted to make a simple supper for my family last night.  Soup and bread.  No problem, right?

Well, a normal person would go out and buy a can of Pillsbury Flaky Biscuits and a few cans of Campbell's Chunky New England Clam Chowder, and have supper ready in about 30 minutes.

But as I'm sure you've figured out by now, I'm not normal.

I measured the correct amounts of milk, honey, eggs, butter, flour, salt, and yeast into my bread machine, waited nearly two hours for those ingredients to be kneaded and allowed to rise, then shaped the dough by hand into pinwheel rolls.  Next I brushed melted butter on the rolls, then left them to rise again for another 45 minutes.  After that I was finally able to put them in the oven to bake for about 30 minutes.

I also chopped two cups of onions, peeled and diced six small potatoes, cooked and diced four ounces of bacon, then put all that together with milk, heavy cream, and, of course clams (canned, not fresh--I do have my limits after all!).  Between preparation and cooking, the chowder took about three hours.

Why did I do all that?

I'm not a contender for Mother-of-the-Year.  I'm not a masochist.  I'm not looking for bragging rights.  (OK, maybe a little on the bragging rights.)

I did it because of partially hydrogenated soybean oil, xanthan gum, TBHQ, monosodium glutamate (MSG), modified food starch, flavoring, sodium phosphate, and succinic acid.  These are the things my family avoided ingesting because I didn't go with the 30-minute supper.

Some of these are simple chemical processes that have been proven (or at least are widely believed) to be completely benign to humans.  However some of them aren't.

We've all heard the warnings about avoiding trans fats, which means avoiding partially hydrogenated oils.  Consumption of trans fats can increase the risk of coronary heart disease.  Furthermore, the process of hydrogenation typically involves the use of an alkene, and the simplest and most commonly used alkene is ethylene.  Ethylene is listed with the IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer) as a class 3 carcinogen.  Granted, a class 3 carcinogen has a relatively low risk of actually causing cancer, as it's defined as being "not classifiable as to its carcinogenicity to humans."  Compare that to classes 1 and 2, which are "definitely" and "probably" carcinogenic, respectively.  However "not classifiable" is a lot different from "probably not," which is class 4.  With as much as we still don't know about cancer, I'd prefer not to take my chances.

TBHQ, or tert-Butylhydroquinone, is also used as a corrosion inhibitor in biodeisel.  In addition to being a food additive, it's added to varnishes, lacquers, resins, and oil field additives as well.  Now that's multitasking!

Modified food starch is a process that's used to thicken foods and make wallpaper adhesive.  Sure, I can see how that could be useful.

What can I say about the ingredient 'flavoring?'  What exactly is that, anyway?

And finally, sodium phosphate, great as a food additive, cleaning agent, stain remover, and degreaser.  Yummy!

Maybe you believe that God designed humanity to live in harmony with his creation, providing all that we need for sustenance in the produce and animal life of the earth.  Or maybe you believe that we are the products of billions of years of evolution.  Either way, the fact remains that the human body was not designed to require the services of a trained chemist in order to meet our nutritional needs.

Yes, it took more work to make the rolls and chowder from scratch.  But I also doubled the recipe for the chowder, and we froze the remainder, so my next simple soup and bread supper will be a lot simpler.  And the rolls?  The ones I made last night are my husband's favorite, and I wanted to make up for having him do the single parent thing all weekend while I was away at a retreat, so I decided it was worth the extra effort.  But I also have a recipe for cornbread, which takes about 35 minutes (preparation and cooking) that he also likes.  Less beloved by my husband but adored by my kids are my baking powder biscuits, which take about 45 minutes total.  Both are more work than the Pillsbury bread-in-a-can, but, unlike what Pillsbury has to offer, in neither case do I need to Google any of the ingredients to find out what they are.

I realize they're called 'convenience' foods for a reason, but it's important to ask the question, is it worth it?  Ever since Americans began eating more convenient, prepackaged, highly processed foods, we've become significantly unhealthier as a population.  The exact reasons and relationships elude us, but the correlation stands.  There are several other things I would have liked to have accomplished yesterday afternoon, but weighed against the health and wellbeing of myself and my family, none of them were important enough for me to turn my family into a chemistry experiment.

Life is messy, it's complicated, and it's full of tough choices.  One of my choices is to try to keep my food as uncomplicated as possible.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Why Don't Domestic Goddesses Get Sick Days?

I've been sick for going on three weeks now.  It started as a simple cold, blossomed into bronchitis, infected the rest of the family, and is still stubbornly hanging on.

I've gone through all the prescriptions I've been given by my doctor, and am now trying to do the classic 'rest and drink plenty of fluids' thing.

But the thing is, I'm a Domestic Goddess by profession.  And Domestic Goddesses don't get sick days.

We just had to hunker down for a little Frankenstorm you may have heard of called Sandy.  Not knowing what to expect, my sick husband and sick me had to tag-team taking care of our sick children (who still--somehow--have disturbing levels of excess energy) and stock up on all the essentials in case we lost power for a few days.  It turned out to be unnecessary as we never actually lost our power, but we couldn't have known that beforehand, so we had to scramble around.

And the kids still need help getting ready in the morning.  Naomi needs a clean diaper and help getting dressed, and Spencer needs help reaching the big-boy-underwear in his top dresser drawer.  Cereal doesn't put itself into bowls, nor does juice pour itself into sippies.

Peanut-butter sandwiches don't make themselves, and proud announcements of "Mom, look what I just made with my blocks!" need to be responded to.  So do custody battles over those same blocks, which, apparently, aren't quite plenteous enough for two children to share.

Halloween doesn't care that I promised to make the kids' costumes back when I was feeling a lot better, so red shirts with large white circles labeled "Thing 1" and "Thing 2" needed to be sewn today.

Nobody's going to get better without a healthy diet, so the cooking had to be done.  And then the dishes because, even though Mommy's sick, so is Daddy, and of the two, Mommy's actually doing a little better.

And a certain two-year-old knows she's turning three in a week, and knows that birthdays include parties, cake, and presents, and I can't bear to disappoint her with the words, "Sorry, Sweetie, Mommy doesn't feel well."

Don't get me wrong; I'm not SuperMom.  I'm in my PJs right now not because I got ready for bed early but because I never bothered getting dressed this morning.  My dining room floor crunches when you walk near the kids' chairs, and I expect it to continue to do so until I spit-shine the house in preparation for whatever passes for Naomi's birthday party.  I called in sick to my unit of Clinical Pastoral Education last week, and I have no idea if I'll be able to make an appearance there tomorrow.  Whatever is not absolutely necessary is simply not getting done right now.

But that still leaves an awful lot.  The work to turn a house into a home never ends, regardless of how I feel, but that's my job.  And despite the occasional minor discomforts and struggles, living in a home where everyone knows they're loved and cared-for is well worth it.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Unexpected Teaching Moment: Prejudice

The other night I watched West Side Story with my kids.  I love the movie and haven't seen it in years (over a decade, at least).  My kids really enjoy movies with good music, especially when there's singing and dancing involved.  Especially Spencer.  He's also getting tired of watching and re-watching his usual flicks.  So I saw it as a win-win: Spencer got to see something new, and I got to watch something that wasn't made by Pixar.

Now, let me describe for you what it's like to watch a movie with Spencer.  My son is apparently unable to process a thought silently--he verbalizes his stream of consciousness.  And there's a lot to process when watching a movie (even after he's seen it three dozen times, he still processes it as though he's never seen it before).  He's constantly asking, "What just happened?  Why did he do that?  Why are they walking?  Where are they going?  What's going to happen next?"  And so on.  I usually respond with a steady stream of, "You were watching, you saw what happened.  Just wait, and you'll see.  Watch and you'll find out."  Until I finally resort to, "Just be quiet and watch the movie, Spencer!"

West Side Story started off with the expected questions:  "Is that a playground?"  Yes, Spencer, it's a playground.  "Why are those boys in a playground?"  Because they want to be there.  "Why are they dancing?"  They just are.

And then the questions began to get a little harder.  "What are they doing to that other boy?"  They're letting him know they don't want him there.  "Why not?"  Because they don't like him.  "Why don't they like him?"  And then, before I could come up with a four-year-old appropriate answer to that question, "Who are those boys?"  They're that other boy's friends.  "Are they fighting?  Why are they fighting?"  Because those two groups of boys are enemies.  "Who are the good boys and who are the bad boys?"  Uh, they're all pretty good boys.  "Then why are they fighting?"  Because they don't like people who are different from them.  "Why not?"  Because they just don't.  "Because they're mean?"  They're mean to the people they don't like, and they're nice to the people they do like.  "But why aren't they nice to everybody if they're good boys?"  Umm, some people are like that.  And then, "Why don't they want that girl around?"  Because girls aren't allowed.  "Why not?"

And this was the first ten minutes of a two and a half hour movie.

As exasperated as I was trying to answer these questions, I loved the fact that they proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that my son doesn't understand prejudice.  He doesn't understand how people can decide to be mean or nice to someone based on their skin color or accent.  He doesn't understand why someone's gender would make them ineligible to join a certain group.  And when I tried to explain it to him, he gave me a look that clearly said, "Mom, that's got to be the stupidest thing I've ever heard you say, and that's saying something!"

And he's absolutely right.  It is stupid.  It's pointless.  It makes no sense.  And it's not a natural part of who we are.  Spencer didn't understand prejudice because he's never been taught prejudice.  He's never been taught to exclude others for arbitrary reasons, and he's never been excluded for arbitrary reasons himself (though I'm sure that day will come).  Children don't hate others until they've been told that they should, and taught how.  It may not be done intentionally, but they are very observant, and they will act the way they see the adults around them acting.  Too many adults don't think about what they're teaching the children who idolize them.

I wanted to introduce my son to one of my favorite musicals.  In doing so, I also began to teach him about the darker side of some human interactions.  He liked the music, even when I sang along.  He liked the dancing.  He thought the girls were pretty (both the Caucasians and the Puerto Ricans).  He didn't like that he had to hug me and pat my arm reassuringly at the end and say, "It's OK; everything's going to be all right" when I was crying hysterically because some people died for some really stupid reasons.  Why couldn't they all just get along?

I think we'll watch Fiddler on the Roof next.  Then I'll get to explain religious persecution to him, as well.  And sing along with more of my favorite showtunes.

Friday, September 28, 2012

10 Rules for Being Politically Obnoxious on Facebook

It’s election season again, and the attacks are in full swing, both among the political professionals and their devoted followers on social media.  However, I’ve noticed a few people on Facebook engaging in posts and comments that are simply unacceptable for the current political and cultural environment.  Now, I realize there is a certain freedom in the online world that’s lacking in real life, however there are rules which must be followed if one is going to successfully destroy all hope for intelligent debate and informed citizenry.

Rule #1:  Ignorance is Power.  If you don’t know all the facts, then they can’t trouble you.  You already know everything you need to know about everything, because you read something someone posted about it once.  As long as you can loosely paraphrase a soundbite that supports your position, you have all the information you need.  It’s a waste of time to research actual statistics, read actual reports, or listen to actual speeches given by the person you don’t want to vote for.  As long as you avoid actual facts, no one can contradict you.

Rule #2:  Choose Your Sources Carefully.  Obviously not everyone is an expert on everything (only a few brilliant souls like myself can claim that).  Therefore you must sometimes find reliable information elsewhere.  Online is best, because if it’s on the web then it must be true (unless it was planted there by the ignorant followers of the other party).  Be sure to seek out bloggers who share your opinions or paid political organizations that specialize in masquerading as grass-roots organizations.  Their newsletters can always be trusted to be completely factual and accurate.  After bloggers and hired guns, entertaining talk show hosts are good sources.  Conservatives should go to Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh for information, and liberals should get their news from Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert.  If you must rely on an actual news organization, be sure to choose one with an obvious bias towards your opinions.  Fox News is best for conservatives, and MSNBC is best for liberals, though liberals have more choices due to the liberal bias of the entire mainstream media.  However the more outside sources you consult (liberal or conservative), the more different interpretations you’ll be exposed to.  Pick one or two sources and stick with them exclusively.

Rule #3:  Limit the Debate.  Only one issue matters: the one you care about.  Dismiss any arguments against your preferred candidate that try to change the subject, and drive home the importance of your facts by stating your strongest opinions and then using the words, “END OF DISCUSSION.”  (All caps is very important here—see rule #4.)

Rule #4:  USE ALL CAPS WITH ABANDON.  A generally accepted understanding of online etiquette is that using all capital letters is equivalent to yelling.  Since we’re trying to drown out all opposing opinions, we want to be as loud as possible.  Use all caps to ridicule or deride an argument or the individual who made it (it doesn’t matter which—see rule #5), or to emphasize that you won’t be swayed from your opinion NO MATTER WHAT!!!  (Extra exclamation points also help to increase the volume of your online rant, so feel free to use them excessively, as well.)

Rule #5:  There is No Difference Between a Person and Their Position.  Since a person is completely defined by their political beliefs, we are free to judge people based on their political postings.  If you think someone’s opinion is stupid, then they are stupid, too.  If you think someone’s opinion is immoral, then clearly they are immoral, as well, and you have a moral responsibility to inform the entire online community of their depravity.  Do not humanize people who think differently than you; they’re nothing more than faulty opinions that need to be shot down and made to go away.

Rule #6:  Go Negative.  Anyone with any common sense at all already knows why the person you want to vote for is the only reasonable choice.  Therefore it’s a waste of time to extol the positive attributes of your candidate, and you should only focus on what’s wrong/immoral/evil about the other candidate, his or her entire party, and everyone who supports them.

Rule #7:  Sweeping Generalizations are Always Accurate and Appropriate.  If one person holds any given position, that person’s entire political party and all other supporters must hold that same position.  You are free to assign whatever motives you wish to why they hold that position (the more nefarious the motivation, the easier it is to ridicule it and the person as well—see Rule #5).

Rule #8:  If You’re Losing an Argument, Switch to Another Topic and Pretend You Didn’t.  Sometimes a really annoying online adversary will somehow be able to defend his or her (wrong) position while poking very real holes in your (obviously right) position.  When this happens, change the focus of the debate to something you can win, and pretend it’s the same debate.  This allows you to completely disregard the minor victory your opponent thinks they may have won, and also has the added bonus of annoying your opponent so much that frequently they’ll just shut up and go away.  That means you’ve won.

Rule #9:  Disregard All Information From Sources You Don’t Use Yourself.  This is related to Rule #2, but applies more specifically to any sources cited by someone you’re debating.  Any data or information they bring up from a source that doesn’t align with your preferred bias completely factual and unbiased source is irrelevant and can be dismissed.  Unless they can use your own preferred sources for their information, it’s not worth discussing the matter with them.  (If they can use information from your own sources against you, then you need to tell them how they’ve twisted and misinterpreted the data, are too stupid to understand it, or else change the focus of the argument, as detailed in Rule #8.)

Rule #10:  There are No Human Consequences.  Issues like war, hunger, poverty, health care, mental illness, unemployment, and family values are ideologies to be enforced, and real people aren’t affected by the consequences of these ideologies.  Therefore you should make light of these issues and the people who claim to be harmed by your view of them, because mockery strengthens your argument.  People who disagree with you aren’t really human anyway, and should be mocked, insulted, and demeaned (see Rule #5).

By following these rules, you can help silence those who are seeking intelligent debate.  More and more people will become disillusioned with the political process and simply disengage, leaving the decisions to be made by the loudest and most obnoxious extremists out there.  We’re well on our way down that path already; please do your part to accomplish this important goal.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

Anyone with a Facebook account knows that it's election season.  'Friends' are posting links supporting their favorite candidates, bashing their favorite candidate's opponents, and frequently offending some number of their 'friends' in the process.

That's all fine.  It's part of the democratic process, freedom of speech, etc., and if you don't want to be offended by anyone, you should go hide in a cave somewhere (something which I'm very tempted to do more and more often lately).  But there are two things that I find particularly problematic with many of the posts, links, and the inevitable attached comments.

First is the total lack of awareness that the poster's opinion isn't the only 'correct' one.  People who disagree aren't automatically ignorant, un-American, bigoted, or in any other way mentally deficient.  The lack of civil discourse on both sides is appalling, and is part of the reason why I want to go hide in that cave.

The other problem with many of those posts is the wrong or misleading information that's being put out there.  Everyone wants to look their best, especially if they're running for President, but repeating a lie or half-truth over and over again doesn't make it true, and it's not helpful.

Again, both parties are guilty of this, but a post from a 'friend' just hit my Facebook newsfeed yesterday afternoon, and it's the one that happened to inspire me to write.  It was a graphic from the Facebook page 'Being Conservative' which, according to their 'About' page is a South Carolina LLC.  Their stated mission is to find "5 million fans to stand in opposition to Obama's liberal policies."  (Current fan count is around 2.6 million.)  Their website ( identifies them as a consulting firm specializing in "us[ing] [their] knowledge and media buying expertise to ... leverage our sophisticated geo-targeting engine built for our larger corporate clients to help our candidates dominate their opponents on Facebook."

So let's not confuse them with some grassroots organization of like-minded citizens earnestly trying to get a conservative candidate more to their liking into the White House; they're a professional consulting firm who is putting this stuff up on Facebook because someone is paying them a lot of money to do so.

Now, on to the graphic in question. Sadly, I can't reproduce it here without the formatting getting all messed up, so here's the pertinent information.  It's a graph entitled "President Obama's Record" and shows the unemployment rate, median income, price of gas per gallon, and national debt as they were when Obama took office compared to 'Now.'  At the bottom it indicates that the sources were BLS, Sentier Research, Dept. of Energy, and Dept. of Treasury.  Here's how those numbers compare:

Jan 2009:  7.8%
Now:  8.3%

Jan 2009:  $54,983
Now:  $50,964

Jan 2009:  $1.84
Now:  $3.82

Jan 2009:  $10.6T
Now:  $16T

First off, let me state my appreciation for the fact that Being Conservative reported accurate numbers provided by reputable sources.  Too often people will just pull numbers out of the air (we've all heard the one about 98.9% of all statistics being made up on the spot), or they'll see it on some blog somewhere and, since it's online it must be true.  So the numbers as presented by Being Conservative are true and accurate.  Kudos.

But the kudos stop there, because those numbers are also highly misleading.  How are they misleading?  I'm glad you asked.  They're misleading because the whole premise of Being Conservative is that a conservative-leaning President would have better numbers, and that it's Obama's liberal policies that resulted in these admittedly disappointing figures.

Let's compare with George W. Bush's years in the White House to see if that holds true, shall we?  I'm pretty sure he counts as a conservative.

Jan 2001:  4.2%
Jan 2009:  7.8%

Right out of the gate we have a problem.  The liberal President had a .5% increase in unemployment during his time in office, while the conservative President had a 3.5% increase during his tenure.  Don't like that we're comparing Obama's four years with Bush's eight?  OK, we'll assume the unemployment rate would continue on its current trajectory and double the increase to 1% to account for a second term.  That's still less than 1/3 the increase under the last conservative's policies.

Jan 2001:  $40,148
Jan 2009:  $47,361

My number for 2009 came from the US Census Bureau, a source not used by Being Conservative.  If the Census Bureau is correct, then median income actually increased during Obama's time in office.  But there's another consideration to be made here, and that's inflation.  The experience of myself and many others I've spoken with is that wages are going down while costs are going up.  This has been happening during the last four years, but it started long before Obama landed in the White House.  Here are the same numbers adjusted for inflation (same source as above):

Jan 2001:  $52,005
Jan 2009:  $50,599

It doesn't look very good for our current liberal President, but it wasn't much better with our previous conservative President, either.

Jan 2001:  $1.51
Jan 2009:  $1.84

Again, things are not always as they seem.  Gas prices are anything but stable, and snapshots of a given day do not give an accurate picture.  For example, have we already forgotten the energy crisis of 2008 that had gas averaging over $4 per gallon and that inspired 'Drill, baby, drill" to become a popular conservative slogan?  Let's look at gas prices averaged over each year.

2001:  $1.46
2002:  $1.38
2003:  $1.60
2004:  $1.90
2005:  $2.31
2006:  $2.61
2007:  $2.84
2008:  $3.30

And then Obama:
2009:  $2.41
2010:  $2.84
2011:  $3.58

Again, the liberal policies aren't great, but the conservative record isn't any better.

And now for the National Debt.  I think we all know how this one's going to look, but let's go there anyway.

Jan 2001:  $5.7T
Jan 2009:  $10T

Yup, conservative fiscal policies nearly doubled the national debt.  And turning around the debt is like turning the Titanic; the momentum carries you forward no matter how hard you try to turn the wheel.  But didn't Bush have to contend with momentum in the debt, too?  Let's look at his (liberal) predecessor's record.

Jan 1993:  $4.2T
Jan 2001:  $5.7T

There was a little momentum there, but not nearly enough to account for the increased spending we saw under our last conservative President.

I'm not trying to claim that Obama's a great President.  Personally, I don't think he is.  But Being Conservative is trying to claim that Obama's liberal policies are sending the country in the wrong direction, and implying that a conservative candidate would do better.  When I look at the full story behind their numbers, I don't see a convincing argument.  Could a conservative do a better job?  Quite possibly.  But simply being a conservative isn't enough.  I already know why I shouldn't vote for this particular liberal.  Why should I vote conservative?

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Todd Akin and His Mission from God

By now we're all aware of Missouri Congressional Representative and Senate hopeful Todd Akin's inflammatory comment about women rarely becoming pregnant as a result of a 'legitimate' rape.  Several others have already posted (ranted) about the insensitivity, ignorance, and sheer idiocy of that statement, and, since I have nothing new to add to that particular discussion, I'm content to let their words stand in regards to how I feel about the whole thing.

One detail caught my eye, however, that has received much less attention, and I think it needs to be highlighted.  The New York Times ran an article two days ago entitled, "A Politician Whose Faith is Central to His Persistence."  It describes Mr. Akin's Evangelical Christianity, as well as his desire to return America to its "Judeo-Christian roots."

Putting aside for the moment the fact that America has never been a theocracy, nor should it ever be, I personally get interested whenever a politician tries to legislate according to his or her "Christian" values.  What are the Judeo-Christian values that Mr. Akin embraces and believes we should all pattern our lives around?

The best way I could think to answer this question was to look at his voting record.*  I'll confess that I stopped after reviewing the last two years because frankly, the House votes on a lot of bills, and I don't have days to spend on this.  I think his record over the last two years should be sufficient to extrapolate Mr. Akin's values from his votes.

We all know how Mr. Akin feels about abortion, so I'm sure it comes as no surprise that he consistently voted against everything that included any provision for abortion or any support for any entity that might somehow be related to an abortion provider (i.e. if it had Planned Parenthood anywhere in the text of the bill, Mr. Akin voted against it, even if it was for something like breast cancer screening.)  The overreaching aside, I'm willing to consider the rights of the not-yet-born to be a legitimate Christian concern.  Whether those rights are absolute and always override the rights of the mother is still a matter of debate, and something I have absolutely no intention of tackling in this post or on this blog.  But trying to protect those who are unable to defend or even speak for themselves, yeah, I'll agree that that's a value I recognize as Christian.

Except Mr. Akin's concern for the not-yet-born seems to disappear once the mother makes the decision not to abort.  He voted against HR 3470, Infant Mortality Pilot Programs.  What this bill did was identify areas within the United States that had unusually high infant mortality rates, and provide funding for those communities to better support pregnant women and new mothers, to improve the health of mother and child alike, as well as reduce the odds of preventable miscarriage.  Keep in mind that this bill was in no way connected to Obamacare.  Yet Mr. Akin's Christian values didn't inspire him to support these efforts.

He also consistently voted against everything to do with Obamacare, because he doesn't believe the government should be involved with health care at all.  Caring for the sick is not a priority, according to his Christian values.

Mr. Akin voted against H Amdt 1127, which would have repealed indefinite military detention provisions.  People suspected of terrorism can sit in military prisons--without charge and without trial--forever, as far as he's concerned.

Fiscal responsibility is a big concern of Mr. Akin's.  It's also a big concern of mine.  I believe the government is going to have to realize that it can't have everything it wants, and is going to have to make some hard decisions about what it can and can't afford.  So does Mr. Akin.  Let's look at what choices he made, based on his strong faith and desire to legislatively recognize the Creator God.

Despite the deficit, small businesses should be entitled to hefty tax breaks.  Individuals, however, should suck it up and lose the payroll tax holiday, pay more income tax on their social security benefits, have unemployment benefits reduced, and lose all federal assistance to stay in their homes.

The Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense should get every penny they asked for, but funding should be reduced for the United Institute of Peace, and food assistance to low-income families and children should be reduced or eliminated.

And federal funding should be prohibited for the financing of presidential elections and National Public Radio, but allowed for NASCAR sponsorship.  (Seriously, H Amdt 92.  I wouldn't dare make something like this up!)

When I think about what a Christian is called to do, I think about Matthew 25:31-40:

31 ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” 37Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (NRSV)

To me, that is what a Christian looks like.  Someone who gives food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, and clothes to the naked (social programs to help people make ends meet).  Someone who welcomes the stranger (sane immigration policies).  Someone who takes care of the sick (health care).  Someone who visits those in prison (recognition that even those who wish to do us harm are human beings, and deserving of the respect and courtesy they would never dream of giving us).  Jesus never made a distinction between the 'deserving' poor and the 'undeserving' poor.  Jesus certainly never identified the mark of the righteous as those with the strongest military, but rather emphasized the role of peace in God's kingdom.

I don't have a problem with Todd Akin voting according to his interpretation of Christian values; I have a problem with Todd Akin and others like him defining for the world what Christian values are, and using his warped voting record to do so.

It seems to me that there are two types of Christians in America today: the care-for-the-poor-and-needy-because-that's-what-Jesus-taught-and-did type of Christian, and the you'd-better-live-according-to-a-strict-moral-code-that-I'll-define-for-you-or-else-you're-going-to-burn-in-hell type of Christian.  I'm in the first category, and I'm happy to report that I'm not alone here.  But Todd Akin is in the second category, and he has a lot of company there, too.  Unfortunately, they get all the media attention.  Their voices are louder than ours, so they're defining for everyone who isn't in either category what Christians believe and value.  That is unacceptable.

I'm not suggesting a screaming match, because a) I don't think that would do any good, and b) that kind of infighting would seriously damage the proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ.  But I am asking that some of you other social-justice-oriented Christians make yourself known, and let it be known that the Todd Akins of the world don't speak for all Christians.  There are other voices out there; let yours be heard.

*I used to see Mr. Akin's voting history.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Cutting the Distractions

About a year ago I tracked my time for five weeks and reported the results in my post What Do You Do All Day?  I'm feeling the need to do that again, because once again I'm feeling slammed-to-the-wall busy while simultaneously wondering why I don't seem to be accomplishing anything.

I've been wanting to do this for a while, but it seems like there's always something 'special' going on that's going to skew my time in a misleading way.  For example, I don't plan to start until sometime after next week, because next week I'll be bringing my kids to VBS, which means four nights of not cooking supper (which I usually do) and of following a completely different routine from what we do every other week of the year.  Back in June there was the five-day retreat I took at a Benedictine Monastery, which would have totally skewered my numbers.

But looking over the post from last year, I can already see some areas where I'm going to fall down.  Mindless computer time leads that list.  I'm spending way too much time playing stupid Facebook games.  In preparation for my next attempt at better time management, I've gone ahead and disabled the applications platform on Facebook, which means not only can I not play the games, I can't even see the posts about my friends' game activity.  Sorry, friends, but something's gotta give.  I lost Bejeweled Blitz to the need to wear two wrist braces continuously, and I just don't have time for Bubble Safari or Hidden Chronicles anymore.  I'm also completely failing at exercise, so I'm going to try to pick that up again before I start logging my time.  Please believe me that I'm doing these things not to make my time logs look better, but because I'm genuinely trying to manage my time better, and I don't need a detailed log to know that these things have to change if I'm going to live my priorities.

So what are my priorities?

Taking care of my family still ranks first.  This means spending quality time with my husband and kids, individually and as a family.  It means preparing healthy meals for them.  It means having regular homeschooling sessions with my kids (I've been pretty haphazard about it so far).

Professional development as a writer ranks second.  Last time I did this I was talking about wanting to be a writer, but I wasn't really writing anything except this blog, plus editing some old sermons to send off to  Now in addition to those two things, I'm writing daily devotions at Quiet Publications, plus entering several writing contests.  I'm also trying to reformat some bible studies I've written so I can make them available for sale at Quiet Publications, and I've got a couple of short nonfiction book ideas I want to develop for that site.  And then there's the novel.  And the memoir.  Realistically I know I can't possibly do all that, and I'm going to have to pick one or two things to focus on and put the rest on hold, but for now I'm trying to do it all so I can see which of these projects really inspires my passion.

Self care?  I feel obligated to put this one in my top three, but I don't have very high hopes for it.  Don't get me wrong; it's not that I don't want self care to be a priority, it's just that it seems like a luxury I can't really afford right now.  I realize that's short-term thinking, and if I want to achieve my long-term goals (or, more specifically, live to have long-term goals) I'd better make it a priority.  So there it is, and I'll do what I can.  For the purposes of this project, self care will include exercise, time with friends, and down-time (reading for pleasure or watching TV that I choose, opposed to what my kids choose).

The wild card is going to be my continuing education.  I've been accepted into a year-long unit of Clinical Pastoral Education, which is going to take up twelve hours a week from September through April, plus commuting time (about an hour each way).  It's part of my effort to become a certified chaplain, which is a long-term goal.  It very easily could push its way into my top three (most likely squeezing out self care), and I may eventually have to choose between it and writing.  I hope not, but it's a possibility I have to consider.  As much as I hate to admit it, chaplain is kind of my back-up plan in case writing doesn't start bringing in some money.  I want to be a writer.  I'm willing to be a chaplain.  If I have to start helping out with the bills (a real possibility in this economy) what I want to do may have to take a backseat to what I have to do.  I'm nothing if not pragmatic.  But it's also part of the reason why I'm putting such a push on writing now; I'd really like it to start paying some bills.  But in the meantime, I'm trying to pick up three more unites of CPE, one unit at a time.

These are my priorities.  When I log, I'm going to pay attention to mindlessness (mindless games, mindless websurfing, etc) because I don't really get a benefit from those things.  That's not to say that all my self care has to be intellectually challenging; rereading the entire Harry Potter series is on my short-list of things to do, and I certainly don't consider that to be challenging.  But it's not mindless, either.  Escapist fiction that I intentionally sit down to read is a lot different from random websites that distract me from whatever it is I should be doing.

It will be interesting to see if I'm living according to my stated priorities.  It will also be interesting to see where my time is going; I really don't feel like I'm accomplishing much most days.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Medical Restrictions and Deadlines

I haven't given up on the Biblical Definition of Marriage series, nor am I pulling back from this blog again.  But in the world of me there's always something, and this time the something is tendonitis.  In both wrists.

My doctor's advice was for me to take two wrist braces and call him in the morning.  Or rather, wear two wrist braces all day every day, not lift anything heavy, don't stress my wrists at all, and call him in a few weeks with an update.  Well, I've been doing this for a week now, so when his nurse called me today with the results of the x-rays I had last week (hence the diagnosis of the aforementioned tendonitis, which had previously been suspected and has now apparently been confirmed by the lack of arthritis in the x-rays--good news there, I guess), I told her I wanted to give an update now.  It's not working.  I told her I want to move forward with physical therapy or something, and get this fixed.  I need my wrists back.

See, my primary job is Mama.  And Mamas don't get sick days.  We can't use a note from our doctors to demand reasonable accommodations be made for us on the job.  Our kids don't care.  My daughter is two years old, thirty-five pounds, and still in diapers.  I can't exactly tell her that she has to stay in her poopy diaper because I'm not supposed to pick her up or do the wrist-twisting necessary to change her.  My husband's been great about taking care of that for me when he's home, but he's the one bringing in a paycheck, and that frequently requires him to do these obnoxiously inconvenient things like leaving the house and actually going to his job in order to keep doing that.

So I've gotten in the habit of checking all the bottles of juice and jars of peanut butter and jelly I'm going to have to use while he's at work, and giving them to him to break the seal for me before he leaves the house if they've never been opened.  But my bottles of Perrier that I drink during the day?  I'm on my own.

And then there's typing.  I traded in my mouse for a trackball and switched the buttons so I'm pushing down with my ring finger more than stretching my thumb, and got those annoying gel rests for in front of my keyboard and mouse, but it still really sucks to type while wearing two wrist braces.  I can barely do it at all with the good braces I bought last week.  Five minutes and I'm done, in pain, and my entire upper body is fatigued for hours.  I'm able to do better with the cheap braces I got a few years ago when I was pregnant with Spencer and had some wrist pain.  But I'm sure that the reason I can type better with those is because they're not giving me as much support, which probably means I'm aggravating my tendonitis with every keystroke.

But I'm trying to be a writer, and writers have to write.  I'm touched by and grateful to the woman at church on Sunday who offered to transcribe for me, but I can't write by speaking into a tape recorder, and handwriting is no easier on my wrists than typing is.  (Oh yes, I'm sure it was quite entertaining for the congregation on Sunday watching me try to preside at communion while wearing my wrist braces.  Thank heavens for a helpful worship assistant who spared me from having to pour the wine from the heavy flagon into the chalice!)  So I have to be selective about what I type right now, and anything with a deadline has priority.  I have new devotions being published daily over at Quiet Publications, so keeping up with that has been my number one priority.

My other priority this week has been a writing contest.  My friend Jenn (she blogs at Randomness and Lunacy and Writesy, and earlier this year published her first novel Ripple the Twine) posted a link to the Center for Writing Excellence's August Fiction in Five contest on Facebook a few weeks ago, and I signed up.  The way it works is they e-mail a prompt and the guidelines on a given day (this past Monday, to be exact), and the entrants have five days to write a story and send it in.  The deadline is this Friday night.  So by design the writing has to be done this week.  When I signed up, I had no idea typing would be such a chore for me this week.  But anyway, that's a hard deadline, so that's been getting a fair amount of my limited typing ability, as well.

And now I've squeezed out a blog post here, and my wrists are killing me.  But rest assured that I'll still be here as often as I can.  I just need to slow down for a bit.

Like I have time for that!

Friday, August 3, 2012

The Biblical Definition of Marriage, Part 3: Adam and Eve (Genesis 2)

In Genesis 2 we see God creating the man from the dust of the ground before the garden of Eden is planted.  After God plants the garden and puts Adam there, God decides that "It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner."  (2:18, NRSV)  God then proceeds to form every animal of the field and every bird of the air out of the ground, just as he'd* formed Adam, but none of them are found to be a suitable "helper as his partner."  So God puts Adam to sleep, takes one of his ribs, and fashions the woman out of it.  When Adam sees this new creation he says, "This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken."  (2:23b, NRSV)  The next verses read, "Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.  And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed."  (2:24-25, NRSV)

Now we might be getting somewhere.  Eve (who won't be named until the end of chapter 3) was created as a 'helper and partner' for Adam, and is referred to as his wife.  It's hard to argue against the claim that this is indeed the first marriage, created by God.

But is this 'definition' of marriage the only legitimate definition of marriage for all time and in all places?  Does God soundly reject marriage in any other form?

If we say yes, then we have to accept that everything else about this 'definition' ('example' might be a better word to use here) must hold true today.  That includes the bit about both of them being naked and not being ashamed.  So if we're to take this as the biblical definition of marriage, then all Christian modesty doctrines are out the window.

Also out the window are any ideas of subservience of the woman to the man.  The NRSV rather clumsily renders the Hebrew ezer kenegedo as 'helper as his partner.'  This at least moves away from the subservient 'help meet' used in the King James Version.  Ezer kenegedo is literally translated as 'a helper like one opposite of him.'**  In other words, Eve is everything that is lacking in Adam, and vice versa.  While this actually bolsters the claim that marriage was initially intended for the natural complement of one man and one woman, it also defeats the claim that the woman was created as anything other than equal to the man.

So if we're going to take this biblical example of marriage seriously, then we must be willing to accept it all.  According to Genesis 2, marriage is between one man and one woman, both of whom are equal to each other, and clothing for modesty's sake is unnecessary.

But Karen, you might say.  This is before the Fall.  Because Eve ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and gave the fruit to Adam to eat as well, modesty became important, and God cursed Eve, making her subservient to Adam.  Good point, I would respond.  But then that begs the question: if the Fall changed what God expected in regards to modesty and gender roles, might it also have changed what he expected in regards to marriage, too?  If not, why not?  If our mortal situation and context can change God's definition of shame, why can't it change his definition of marriage, as well?  (As for it changing his definition of gender roles, I'm not so sure it did.  When God said to Eve, "Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you," was he giving her a commandment, or was he stating an unfortunate fact based on his knowledge of the nature of men?  Just something to think about.)

We know that God intended for Adam and Eve to not be ashamed of their nakedness, but in response to their disobedience, and in response to their new situation of having that shame anyway, what did God do?  Genesis 3:21 tells us, "And the LORD God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them." (NRSV)  Adam and Eve were acting out of their deepest feelings of shame, which were contrary to God's intention for them, but rather than punish them and insist that they remain naked, God himself made clothes for them.

I'm willing to go with the idea that in God's highest ideals for humanity, marriage is between one man and one woman, and that they are to live without shame and without worry in the garden of Eden.  But since the Fall we're not capable of living up to God's highest ideals for us, and the God of the bible I read isn't in the habit of unleashing his wrath on those who are unable to live up to his highest ideals.  He gets pretty ticked when people worship other gods, practice injustice, and exploit the most vulnerable among them, but there's not a whole lot of him getting all fire and brimstone on people for their human moral failings.  In fact, he tends to use many of those people to achieve his work in the world.  As God demonstrated when he stitched together animal skins to cover the beautiful bodies he'd created because Adam and Eve needed him to, he understood where they were coming from, and he adapted his intentions to their needs.  As these posts continue to look at how marriage is depicted in the bible, one of the things I'm going to look at is how God adapts to humanity's changing needs.  If there is biblical evidence that our own human contexts can influence what God will accept from us, then I'm not so sure that we can point to the prototypical marriage, created and established in the garden of Eden before the Fall, and claim it's the only acceptable definition of marriage for all time and in all places.

Genesis 2 might give us God's original intention for marriage, but it is by no means THE biblical definition of marriage.

If you read a little further, you'll find that only six generations later, one of Adam and Eve's descendents invented polygamy.  Genesis 2 defines marriage as being between one man and one woman, but Genesis 4:19 tells us that Lamech took two wives.  Given the fact that he addresses both of them simultaneously in 4:23, there can be no doubt that he was married to them both at the same time.  Lamech single-handedly redefined marriage, essentially saying to God, "I know better than you what constitutes a marriage."  And God did---nothing.  There is no biblical evidence that God objected to this redefinition.  If he was going to nip it in the bud and enforce his original intention, that would be the time to do it, but he didn't.

It will be interesting to see how marriage continues to develop in the bible.  I hope you'll stick with me.

* For my policy on inclusive language in reference to God, see
 ** Ancient Hebrew Research Center, "Biblical Hebrew E-Magazine" July 2008, Issue #044

Part 1     Part 2

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Biblical Definition of Marriage, Part 2: Adam and Eve (Genesis 1)

Any discussion about the biblical definition of marriage must begin with Adam and Eve.  They were, after all, the first people created by God, and their story is most frequently invoked as how God defines marriage.  And there you read about one man and one woman, joined together by God.  End of story.

But what exactly does the story say?

First it depends on whether you're looking at the story that's told in Genesis 1 or in Genesis 2.

Genesis 1:26-28 tells this story: "Then God said, 'Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.'  So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.  God blessed them, and God said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth." (NRSV)

Let's forget for a moment that we're looking for a biblical definition of marriage, and consider what the text does and doesn't say.

In the order of creation, humankind* alone is created in God's image.  God's intent in creating humanity was to establish us as caretaker of all the rest of creation.  Men and women were both entrusted with this task equally, as both were created in the image of God.  After they came into being God first blessed them, then commanded them to "Be fruitful and multiply."

One might infer that God just created marriage here, but nowhere in all of Genesis 1 do the words 'marriage,' 'husband,' or 'wife' appear.  To understand this as the establishment of marriage is reading more into the text than is there.  This is the story of how God established humanity as stewards of creation.

The only suggestion that this is a marriage is in God's command to "Be fruitful and multiply."  As I mentioned before, it was the first thing he said to them after blessing them.  But if we're going to read Genesis 1 as the establishment of biblical marriage, then we must also accept that the primary purpose of marriage is to reproduce, and therefore any marriage that does not produce biological offspring is contrary to God's definition of marriage.

More likely, Genesis 1 is not talking about the institution of marriage, but of the primacy of humanity over all other creatures of the earth.  Procreation does require one man and one woman, but as we are well aware, procreation can and does occur outside the bonds of holy matrimony.  God is commanding procreation not as the primary purpose of marriage, but as the way in which humankind is to maintain its dominion over the earth.

But this is all an academic exercise, because few if any point to the Genesis 1 story of Adam and Eve as God's intention for marriage (it's way too egalitarian for many, what with men and women being created equal and equally charged with managing the world).  The Genesis 2 story is much juicier!

*The literal translation is actually 'man,' not 'humanity.'  A more literal rendering of verse 27 would read, "So God created man in his image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them."  Since the final stanza specifically includes both men and women as being created at this time and in this way, I'm going to continue to use the gender-neutral term 'humanity' here, as that is clearly the intent of the original text.

Part 1

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Biblical Definition of Marriage, Part 1: Introduction

Comments made by Dan Cathy, President of Chick-Fil-A, recently brought the debate over gay marriage back to the forefront.  Again.  As usual, most people split into one of two camps: those in support of legalizing same-sex marriage, and those in support of "the biblical definition of marriage," including restricting legal marriage to those who fit that definition.

The term "biblical definition of marriage" is bandied about with great authority, but every time I hear it, I also hear the voice of Inigo Montoya saying, "You keep using that word.  I do not think it means what you think it means."

In popular usage, the "biblical definition of marriage" appears to be shorthand for "marriage between one man and one woman."  That's the definition that some want included in a constitutional amendment addressing the issue.  However there are some who also include the submission of wives to their husbands, the restriction of women to the traditional roles of homemaker and mother, as well as an absolute prohibition of divorce in the "biblical definition of marriage."  In a land of majority two-income households, where more women are graduating from college than men, and where roughly half of all marriages end in divorce, I can't see a whole lot of public support for those aspects of the "biblical definition of marriage."

So what is the actual biblical definition of marriage?

Sadly, when I went to my concordance and looked up "definition of marriage," nothing came up in the entire bible.  Of course the answer's not that easy.  So this can't be answered in a single post, even one of my marathon-length ones.  But it's important.  The issue at stake, as Dan Cathy puts it, is whether or not we're "shak[ing] our fist at [God] and say[ing], 'We know better than you what constitutes a marriage.'"  The issue, simply put, is whether or not we are redefining marriage in direct opposition to how God has defined it.  Therefore, this is the beginning of an ongoing series in which I'm going to explore the bible and see what it really says about marriage.  I don't expect these posts to settle the question once and for all, but I do hope that those of you who read them will think about your own assumptions, and be willing to think critically about what you believe and why.

My intention is not to attack or ridicule those who are earnestly trying to live according to biblical principles.  I myself am a faithful Christian trying to live according to biblical principles.  I'm doing this primarily because I believe there is a lack of knowledge and understanding about the bible, especially among those who use it to justify their own political positions.  Perhaps I'm about to join those ranks, but I'm tired of having a vocal minority define for the world what my faith is.  If we're going to use the bible to defend our positions, let's take a look and see what the bible actually says about those positions.

I welcome you to join the discussion in the comments section.  As always, please keep it civil.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

What Communion is All About

Look at the word.  COMMUNION.  It suggests community, something that brings people together around a common event.

But communion is one of those things that tends to separate more Christians than it unites.  Should it be restricted to members of one's own denomination or congregation, or open to all baptized Christians?  Should baptism itself be a prerequisite?  Should communion be celebrated with leavened bread or unleavened?  Grape juice or wine?  Individual cups or common chalice?  Should it be brought to people as they sit in their seats, served to kneeling parishioners from behind an altar rail, or handed out from the center aisle assembly-line style?  Should it be reserved for those who have a proper understanding of what it means?

It's easy to get caught up in the debate; after all, partaking of the body of Christ is not something to be done lightly or casually.  But all these questions serve to break down the body of Christ, rather than help knit it together.

This morning I was reminded of what communion is really all about by none other than my own not-yet-communing four-year-old son.  For once I wasn't preaching, and I had given my husband the morning off by taking both kids with me to church.  They both went up for the children's sermon, where they were treated to an object lesson about how communion is supposed to be a welcoming experience.  The pastor talked about how some people were allergic to wheat, and so couldn't share the communion bread, which wasn't very welcoming to them.  He passed out a bag of gluten-free crackers and invited each child to eat one, while he explained how some of those crackers were put on the altar alongside the bread, and available for anyone who couldn't eat wheat so they could still share in the Lord's Supper.  He also talked about grape juice being available in the same way, but by then he had lost the kids' attention, as they were busily and happily munching on their crackers.

Of course my son had to ham it up.  When it was his turn to reach into a bag and take a cracker, he did so with a huge smile on his face and, before the pastor (and, more importantly, the pastor's microphone) got out of range, he took a bite and said, "Mmmmm, yummy!"  Of course this was picked up and broadcast over the sound system.  But given all the other things he could have said into the microphone (we've recently begun distinguishing between 'grown-up words' and 'words Spencer can say'), I just laughed along with everyone else.

The smile never left his face, and he asked his sister next to him if her cracker was yummy, too.  She nodded that indeed it was, as crumbs decorated her lips and chin.  The sermon ended, and the kids came back to join me in the pew.  As Spencer approached I noticed that he still had a piece of cracker in his hand.  This kid has already established that he is one of the world's slowest eaters.  But before I could tell him to hurry up and finish his cracker, he reached his hand out to me, cracker pinched between his thumb and forefinger, and he said, "Here Mama.  I saved this for you."

You could have knocked me over with a feather.  I noticed several women nearby grinning with their eyes shining, and I realized that their expressions probably mirrored my own.  I said to him, "The pastor gave that to you.  Don't you want to eat it?"  He replied, "I saved it for you.  Eat it, it's yummy!"

What could I do?  I took the bit of cracker and ate it.  I gave him a big hug and thanked him, and tried not to cry.  It was definitely one of those moments when you forget all the temper-tantrums and the time-outs and the messes, and you're just so grateful and proud to be Mama.

It wasn't communion per se; the words of institution weren't said, and there was no prayer or ritual.  It was a gift shared among a group, and even as Spencer relished its goodness, he wanted to share it with someone who wasn't there to receive a portion of her own.

Does Spencer understand the Lutheran understanding of the 'real presence of Christ' as distinct from the Catholic understanding of transubstantiation as distinct from the Calvinist understanding of eucharistic symbolism?  Most assuredly not.  But does it matter?  Did the disciples have to pass that test on the night in which Jesus was betrayed?

Spencer received a gift, and he enjoyed and appreciated it, and he knew it was too good to keep to himself, so he shared it.  If that's not what communion is about, then what is?