Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Bible Belt

A friend and former student of mine recently went on a rant about “hypocritical Christians,” and when she used it, “hypocritical” was not a modifier. She wasn’t distinguishing between those of us who are hypocrites and those of us who aren’t. She was using the two words as if to say that one implied the other.

Well, I couldn’t let that stand, and I put a good bit of typing into trying to clarify issues for her. I put a lot of effort into telling her that as an atheist, she knew just enough about religion to be dangerous, and didn’t know all the nuances of interpretation between different groups. I tried to tell her that the people she was talking about are not the majority of Christians, but the loudmouthed nutballs that embarrass the rest of us.

She wasn’t buying it. As far as she was concerned, those loudmouthed nutballs were the majority, and people like me were in an all-too-small minority.

Then as I moved my mouse across the screen, I saw where she was. I quickly wrote back to her:

Oh wait a minute. You’re in Virginia. You’re surrounded by them. No wonder you feel that way about Christians. I understand now.

The Bible Belt. My friend is in that part of the country that we call the Bible Belt. A place where there seems to be a Bible-thumper on every corner, full of fire, brimstone, and condemnation, and more than wiling to tell her that she’s going straight to Hell (she says that at least it’ll be warm there). A place where Catholics, Episcopalians, and Lutherans are looked at with suspicion, and where people wonder if they’re really Christians at all. I understand. I understand all too well.

And then I got to thinking a little more about the Bible Belt. What if this was a place where it was less about citing rule after rule after rule (and making up rules that don’t even exist), and more about living the kind of life talked about in both the Old and New Testaments? What if instead of appearing to be a place full of people like the Pharisee who, obsessed with his own virtue, thanked God that he wasn’t like that sinner over in the corner, it was full of people like that very guy in the corner, who begged God to have mercy on a sinner such as him. (Luke 18:9-14)

Most of us see the Bible Belt as a place full of judgment, and a place where the Bible thumper is more than willing to point out the speck in your eye while ignoring the 2x4 in his own. This is especially true if you’re “not a member of the club.” But suppose, just suppose the Bible Belt was a place where:

There was concern for the poor (Proverbs 14:31)
Foreigners were treated fairly and kindly (Leviticus 19:34)
There was care and concern shown even toward one’s enemies (Luke 6:27)

What if the Bible Belt was...the area around Lancaster, PA? Yes, Lancaster…the center of what’s commonly known as Pennsylvania Dutch Country. Home to the Amish…people who would just as soon forgive you as judge you. People who see their job as being to peacefully live their faith and way of life, while not trying to force either of them on you.

And people who wouldn’t care whose wedding they were baking a cake for.

Ah…what if the Bible Belt was full of Amish/Mennonites, rather than Evangelicals and Pentecostals? How would my friend feel then?

Hmm…maybe she should spend some time in Pennsylvania.

I may come back to this later.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Paul is Paul Because We are Not

A while back, I was sitting in the van, listening to Paul McCartney play some song, and lamented, as I have many times over the past 40 or so years about my own guitar and piano abilities. I lamented the fact that had I only practiced and put more time into either, or both, of those instruments, I’d be as good as he is…and maybe even halfway as famous.

In short, I was a loser.

But then a thought occurred to me that I hadn’t considered before; and this thought changed everything. What was this thought? Well it’s really quite simple, and it’s so simple that I can’t believe I missed it all these years…

It’s not just me.


I’m not the only one.

Come again?

For the first time, I realized the very obvious fact that I’m not the only person in the world to ever pick up a guitar and not become a Paul McCartney, a Les Paul, or a Pat Donohue. I’m not the first person to ever sit down at a piano and not eventually become a Stevie Wonder, an Elton John, or a Billy Joel. The world is littered with millions of guitars, abandoned by people who picked them up with such good intentions, and such enthusiasm, only to find that it was too hard, they weren’t as interested as they thought, or that there were other things in life that interested them more.

The same goes for the millions of pianos around the world, abandoned by people who tried it out, but just didn’t have the real desire…or talent…to stick with it after reaching a certain plateau.

We can’t all be losers, can we? Despite our many hours with Music Minus One and other methods of self-instruction; and who knows how many teachers, we can’t all be losers…after all, we gave it the old college try. Or as I said in the report card comment about a student who desperately wanted to become a computer programmer, but had abysmal math skills:

Perseverance is a trait that is often to be admired…but only up to a point. There does come a time, however, when one must admit that no matter how much arm-flapping is done, the hippo will not fly.

Does this mean that this particular student was a loser because he couldn’t program his way out of a paper bag? No…it simply meant that perhaps his skills and talents lay elsewhere.

And what about those of us who have picked up an instrument, tried it for a few years, and came out something less than a virtuoso at it? Are we losers?

By no means. As I said before, we tried it…we tried it, and found other things we were better at.

More important though, and this is the biggie…if we were all as good as Paul, then Paul wouldn’t be Paul. Imagine a world where everyone was Gershwin, or Marsalis, or Ma. If everyone was that good, then being that good wouldn’t be special.

In short, Paul is Paul precisely because most of us aren’t.

But there’s another side to this that we don’t often consider…as good as Paul is at what he does, there are many things that he’s not that good at…and that some of the rest of us are. So, conversely, you could say that because Paul is Paul, the rest of us get to be who we are, and good at what we’re good at.

There is one more thing though, one very important thing that I had to stop to consider…

Because I’m not as good as Paul…or Elton…or Billy…

I met my wife.

And that’s better than being Paul any day.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

How Many Molecules?

783 Tuesdays ago was that one horrific day. The day that you could call our generation’s Pearl Harbor. And 15 years later it’s still a raw wound for many of us. Especially those of us who knew people who died that day, lived or worked near those places, or had any other connection.

I’m one of those people. I grew up within the shadow of the towers, watched them go up, and suppressed my fear of heights to go to the top…twice. I knew people who died that day, I know people who escaped with their lives that day. And I’m a torn person about it.

Why? Because as a human, as a human who had skin in the game, I want the bastards who planned and pulled off those attacks to roast in Hell for at least eternity. But as a Christian…as a Christian…I’m not supposed to hope that anyone goes to Hell. I can warn them of it being a consequence, but I should always be hoping and praying that at some last moment, they seek, and receive forgiveness. It ain’t easy, and if you think it is, ask the Amish about it.

So how do I reconcile these two parts of myself? I think back to a sermon I delivered two years ago about the concept of the refiner’s fire mentioned in Malachi 3:1-4, and everyone’s favorite poster child of someone who should absolutely never enter the gates of Heaven…Hitler. I thought of how many good molecules of him would be left after all the evil (and there was much of it) was burned off. And then I thought about the millions of people whose deaths he was responsible for, compared to the thousands that the September 11th hijackers were responsible for.

And then I thought something that maybe I shouldn’t think. Something that maybe I’ll burn in Hell for, but you know…I’m human, and believe it or not, I have emotions…emotions which are still raw.

I thought of the fact that Hitler was almost totally pure evil, with no good intentions anywhere. The September 11th hijackers, however, had misguided intentions. They thought they were serving God. What could be worse than to find out when you met God face to face that you totally effed it up, and that he was not happy with you? What could be more painful than finding out that you’ve totally disappointed the one you were trying to impress?

And suppose the flames of the refiner’s fire were fueled by the disappointment that they couldn’t bear?

But there’s more…we Christians talk a lot about grace. You know, totally undeserved forgiveness. Suppose the 11 hijackers were met face to face by each of the people whose deaths they were responsible for, and offered not the hatred they expected and could understand, but an unbearable forgiveness. An unbearable forgiveness that seared off even more of the evil in them.

And suppose this went on for 100 years…until the last person who could remember that horrible day, or was directly affected by it, had finally died, and was able, from a new perspective, to offer that same painful forgiveness. After that last person came through, and the refiner’s fire had gone out, how many molecules of those 11 men would be left to join with those who suffered because of what they had done?

It’s a deliciously evil thought…the idea of tormenting someone by giving them grace that they know they don’t deserve. But it’s a double-edged sword.

Because now the focus turns to us, and the evil we’ve done since that day.


The evil we’ve done by trying to avenge the deaths of our friends and family members by taking the acts of 11 extremists out on members of an entire religion…an entire religion most of whose adherents were as appalled by the events of that day as we were.

We can gleefully think about how many molecules will be left of the September 11th attackers, but when it comes our turn to go through the refiner’s fire, and all the hatred is burned off of us…by those who are forgiving for the evil we've done since that day...

How many molecules will we have left?

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

What is Gay?

“That’s so gay!”

I’ve always hated that phrase. I hated it when my students used it, and I’d always ask them what it meant. What did it mean for something to be gay? And why was it used as a pejorative? Knowing a number of gay people among their friends and parents of their friends, and knowing a number of gay people among the people they admired, none of them could come up with a good answer, and they stumbled along saying things like, “Well, it’s spelled differently…it’s G-E-H, and not G-A-Y.”

To which I said, “B-U-L-L-S-H-I-T.”

But why was it considered an acceptable pejorative to call something gay?

I think that in order to get to the bottom of this, we need to leave our current, “enlightened”, times, and go back a few decades to when we saw and understood things a lot differently. It was only when I did so that I got it, and it finally made sense to me.

We need to go back about 40 or 50 years, and consider a word that was commonly used before the word “gay” gained wide currency, and before the word “gay” used to mean anything but a state of happiness. The word I’m thinking of begins with the letter “f,” and no…it’s probably not the word you’re thinking of.

The word I’m thinking about is “fairy.” As a middle-schooler in the late 60s, I didn’t know from sexual orientation, but I did know about fairies, sissies, and pansies. Effeminate guys who sashayed around and acted like girls…or rather, acted like bad caricatures of girls. And come to think of it, this is probably what the general population thought of what we then just called homosexuals; because we had no clue that they existed among “tough, he-man” types. Those people were still closeted, and would be for a long time. To our limited understanding, being a homosexual guy was about being a fairy, being a sissy, not acting like a “normal” guy, and wanting to be a girl.

So when we said that someone was acting like a fairy…or that other f-word, we meant that they were being effeminate, or that they were acting weak and helpless. And there was definitely something seen as being wrong with that.

So fast forward to the present, and what do we have? A generation of kids who use “gay” as an insult, but that doesn’t necessarily have only the “sissy” image to go with it, because they know lots of gays who are anything but fairies or sissies. Complicating matters is the fact that there are plenty of gay men who are “light in the loafers” who use gay precisely to describe others like them who fit that stereotype, and things that fit the “fruity” gay stereotype. And this creates a problem similar to that of blacks using the n-word.

And yet, some things still seem decidedly “gay” in the classic sense to many people. I mean really, who among us doesn’t know what a kid means when he says he doesn’t want to take dance class because it looks “gay,” or because people will think he is? Or fathers who don't want their sons to work with flowers because it will “make them gay.” Let’s face it, we know exactly what they mean.

So from all of this, three questions arise. The first is why are we defining gay by the old stereotype even though we now know better?

The second is when did “gay” overtake “sissy” and “pansy” as the word to use for something that seemed effeminate?

Third, and perhaps most important, why does it even matter if a guy is a little “light in the loafers”…or if a girl seems a little “butch”? Why can’t these all be seen as variations as natural as hair or skin color?

After all…when was the last time anyone was ever given grief over their skin color?

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Hand of God?

I was slowly catching up on reading my old magazines, something much more easily done now that many of them are available online, and I can read them on my iPad, when I stumbled across an article in one of my religious magazines about the fight to prevent the execution of Kelly Gissendaner for her role in the murder of her husband in 1997.

OK, let me say it now and get it out of the way…I’m no fan of the death penalty, but not for the “touchy feely” reasons you might think. I’m against it for two reasons. First of all, mistakes get made. A photo of a man who was a dead ringer for me, right down to his eyeglass frames and the shirt he was wearing, being arrested for dealing drugs in Washington DC in a late 80s issue of Newsweek made it apparent how easily a case of mistaken identity could happen. But there’s also the case of flawed evidence, and mistaken assumptions. Sometimes the state of the art of science, and what we think we know at the time, can lead us to find the wrong person guilty. And if we execute that person, we’ve made a mistake that can’t be corrected or made up for.

Second, I just can’t imagine anyone wanting the job of being the executioner. Now, from what I’ve heard, I know that they try to set it up so that more than one person is involved in the execution, and there’s some doubt as to who actually did the deed, but still…I can’t imagine having to live with that…especially if it’s discovered later that “mistakes were made.”

Oh wait…there’s a third reason. The unfairness and unevenness with which the death penalty is administered. Some populations are sentenced to it statistically more than others. But that’s an issue for another time.

Frankly, if we are to have a death penalty, I’d much prefer for it to be a “smoking gun” death penalty. By that I mean, we have to have clear video of you committing the murder, or there has to have been a crowd of people nearby who saw you, chased you down, and caught you. There can’t be any of this “reasonable doubt” stuff. It has to be absolutely certain that you did it. That’s a death penalty I could live with. Otherwise, you get life in prison.

But enough about that. Let me return to Kelly Gissendaner.

The article talked about the many appeals to spare her life, especially after she converted to Christianity, turned her life around, and completed a Theology degree through a program offered by Emory University. It talked about how one of the many postponements of her execution clearly showed “the hand of God” at work.

And this is where they lost me.

I’m not a hard-hearted person. I’m not an “eye for an eye” person…at least not in the incorrect way that most people interpret it. But I had to ask, “Where was the ‘hand of God’ when Douglas Gissendaner was being murdered?” Why did God suddenly decide to “show his hand” in procedural delays in order to further the appeals process for Kelly, and spare her life?

I also had to ask, and have asked before in similar cases, “If you’ve become a Christian and have turned your life around, why are you asking for special treatment?” I especially ask this of someone who has completed a Theology degree, and should understand this better than the average person in the pew. If Jesus went, uncomplaining to his death when he was totally guiltless, why are you filing appeal after appeal (or allowing your lawyers to do so) to prevent you from dying for something you’ve admitted to being guilty of?

It just doesn’t work for me. And it especially doesn’t work for me after finding out that she studied Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

So what finally happened? Was her sentence commuted? Was she granted clemency? Did an appeal from Pope Francis save her life?

At the time that the article was written, it was unclear how the story would end, and I wouldn’t find out until the next issue…a true cliffhanger.

But no matter how it ended, I still have problems with the idea of seeing “the hand of God” in the process.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Microaggression and Nuts – Part 2

Previously…I ranted a bit about microaggressions and how everyone seems to be getting on the microaggression bandwagon. I gave the example of asking about a person’s ethnic background as one thing that many people consider to be a microaggression. I also mentioned that nuts had a lot to do with this.

This week I’ll try to tie up all those loose ends.

First let’s go back to the issue of where you’re “from.”

Let’s say that the asker gets the form of the question correct, and asks where are your ancestors from, rather than where you’re from. It turns out that nowadays it’s not polite to ask about a person’s ancestry…or at least not to start out the conversation with it. That’s because that automatically pegs the other person as an “other.” And pegging someone as an “other” is a microaggression.

I don’t quite buy that…nor do millions of other people my age. There was a time when we all talked about what we were and where we were from…I mean where our families originated. This didn’t make anyone into an “other” but just another one of 57 varieties around us. And knowing what variety you were made it more interesting. And finding out that someone else had the same ancestry as you, and that their grandparents did the same strange things, made you feel not quite so strange. Similarly, finding out the "unusual" traditions of some of your friends' families was very cool.

But now we’re told that because some people are offended by this, because some people perceive this as a microaggression, we can’t ask this question at all…at least not in the very beginning.

This is where I think some people are being just a little bit too sensitive…and this is also where the nuts come in.

No, not the crazies (although sometimes some people on the microaggression bandwagon strike me as being a little so); I’m talking about actual botanical nuts.

Like the kind my daughter is allergic to.

Her allergy to certain nuts means that she is sensitive to them. In fact, I might say that she’s overly sensitive to them. And saying that is not a value judgment on her. Her body just goes into overdrive trying to fight off what it thinks is an attacker, and ends up trying to kill her instead.

I think about my daughter’s allergy because many people I’ve run into who have an issue that’s their particular microaggression seem to want to make the world safe from anyone having to deal with that issue…they want to start from a position of assuming that everyone has that issue, even though 99% of the population may not have a problem with it. In fact, I might say that some of these people are macroaggressive about microaggressions. To me, it’s as if I wanted to make the entire world safe for people for whom nuts are kryptonite.

However, I realize that I can’t rid the world of nuts…nor should I try to. My daughter is one of a very small number of people for whom certain nuts are kryptonite, and for the most part it’s our issue to deal with. We won’t prevent anyone else from having all the nuts they want, but it’s her responsibility to keep away from certain foods.

Looking at certain members of the microaggression crowd as being like my nut-sensitive daughter allows me to say that they’re sensitive about, or even overly sensitive about, a certain issue without it coming off as a value judgment. It’s just a statement of fact. My daughter’s body is overly sensitive to nuts and Chris is overly sensitive about gender pronouns.

The difference, however, lies in what they each think the rest of the world should do about their particular sensitivities.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Microaggression and Nuts – Part 1

I admit it...I have a problem with microaggression. Not with people being microaggressive to me. Not with me being microaggressive to others. But with the entire concept of microaggression. It seems that in the last few years we’ve taken what used to be called “having a conversation” and turning it into a minefield where the most innocently asked question can be seen as yet another case of a microaggression.

The program website for a conference I’m planning on going to lists a session on microaggression in one of its tracks, and in the description it says, “Microaggression has become a phenomena…” I want to scream, “Microaggression has not become a phenomena. The concept of microaggression has become a phenomena...and everyone is jumping on the bandwagon!” But as I learned at a conference I was just at this past April, to do that would make me guilty of a microaggression.


One of the things I learned at the April conference was one thing you should never do is to say that the person or people who claim that something is a microaggression is being overly sensitive, because to say that is yet another microaggression. One of the basic concepts is that no one can tell you what you are or aren’t offended by.

Well…I can buy that. I can buy the fact that I can’t tell you what you are or aren’t offended by. I mean, if you’re offended by something, then you’re obviously offended by it. I can’t tell you that what’s part of your reality isn’t a part of your reality. But what they’re really saying is that I shouldn’t tell you what you should or shouldn’t be offended by; and to suggest that you may be a little sensitive about a subject or a question is doing just that. Not only that, but to suggest that you’re overly sensitive about a subject or question is doing that in spades.

There’s just one problem with the idea that you should never tell someone what they should or shouldn’t be offended by; and that’s that there are times when people are offended by things that they shouldn’t be…and that even members of the microaggression crowd would agree that they shouldn’t be. Take for example interracial relationships; there are a fair number of people out there who are still offended by them. Do we have to say that they have every right to be offended, or do we get to call them troglodytes (with apologies to the real troglodytes out there)?

The tricky thing about microaggressions is that the offending comment doesn’t even have to be made with malice aforethought. It could’ve been an innocently-made comment that came out wrong. It could even be what the speaker innocently thought was a compliment, but that annoyed the hearer for the 40,000th time. It’s something the particular hearer is sensitive to, but once again, to call them overly-sensitive is another microaggression.

One of those tricky situations is asking where someone is “from.” Now, I know some people who get bent out of shape over simply the form, and not the content, of the question. Their particular microaggression is people who ask where you’re from (Bethesda, MD) when they really want to know what your ancestry is (Dutch). They wouldn’t mind the ancestry question if it were asked correctly. And yet, my particular microaggression is people who are pedantic about things like that when they know darned well what you mean.

This is one of those things that used to be considered part of normal conversation, but as much as I’d like to talk a little bit more about that, it’ll have to wait; because I want to get to the part about the nuts.

And that will have to wait too…until next week.