Tuesday, June 28, 2011

God Bless America…and Canada Too

Lately it’s fallen out of favor to say “God bless America.” Why? Because it’s assumed that saying that is chauvinistic, and saying that the United States is better than everyone else, and therefore deserves to be blessed more than anyone else.

But I don’t know about that, and the reason that I don’t know about that has to do with children’s prayers.

Imagine little Suzie, just before she goes to bed, finishing off her nightly prayers with “and God bless Mommy, and Daddy, and Grandma, and Grandpa, and Uncle Albert, and Aunt Beth…” Do any of us have any problem with that? Do we have a problem with little Suzie asking God to bless the people she loves? Of course not! In fact, it makes perfect sense for her to do so, because she loves them.

Now let’s go across town where a similar scene is playing out at little Bobby’s house. He finishes off his prayers by saying “and God bless Mom, and Dad, and Nana, and Grandpa, and Uncle Eddie, and Aunt Martha…” Do we assume that Bobby is asking God to bless is parents more than Suzie’s parents? Of course not! Do we accuse Bobby of asking God to bless his Uncle Eddie and Aunt Martha instead of Suzie’s Uncle Albert and Aunt Beth? Again I say “of course not!” I believe that most of us have been taught that God’s capacity for blessing is infinite, so his blessing Bobby’s Aunt Martha in no way diminishes the amount of blessing he can give to Suzie’s Aunt Beth. There is definitely more than enough of God’s blessing to go around.

So if we can ask God to bless the people we love, why do so many people think it’s wrong to ask him to bless the country we love?

I suppose it’s because many of us have a mixed-up idea of what “blessing” means.

To be sure, the word has many definitions. A quick check at Wiktionary shows that blessing is often used to mean approval, good fortune, or divine aid. I suppose I can see where people might have problems with asking God’s approval on America, after all, not everything we do is worthy of approval. But for that matter, that applies to everyone else, including Bobby’s mom and dad. Somehow I’m not thinking that that’s what Bobby, Suzie, or the rest of us are really thinking.

How about the second definition of good fortune? I’m sure that Bobby would like his parents to have the good fortune to never get cancer. But I’m also pretty sure that he’d like Suzie’s parents to have the same good fortune (especially if they meet later on in life and get married). Isn’t it OK for us to ask that the United States has good fortune…as long as it’s not at the expense of someone else [exceptions apply here for fighting the Nazis during World War II]?

What about the third definition? How could anyone argue with asking for divine aid? I suppose they could if they saw it as the religious version of good fortune.

But there’s one other definition that Wiktionary doesn’t list. It’s divine care. Now you might argue that divine care and divine aid are pretty much the same thing, and I would argue that the fact that you said “pretty much” means that there is a difference.

Think about it; do wise, caring parents let their kids run rampant and get away with anything they want? Not in my book. Do they try to bring up their kids to be kind, caring, and thoughtful adults? Ya, you betcha. When they find out that their kid has been bullying others, do they sit there in denial, and possibly even make excuses, or do they deal with their kid right then and there? I believe it’s the latter. When their kid screws up badly and “fesses up” to it, are those parents their with their love and support, as they try to make sure that the kid doesn’t make the same mistake again? Of course.

So…if asking for God’s blessing means asking for his divine care, rather than his approval or blind aid, we’re asking for him to treat us as a wise, caring parent would. Correcting us when we’re wrong; letting us learn how to deal with the neighborhood bully ourselves, rather than always stepping in himself; and trying to make us into better people; then where is the problem with asking God to bless America?

Or any country, for that matter. After all, Jesus says in Matthew 5:44 that we should love our enemies and pray for those who hate us.

We should pray that they’ll be blessed. Equally as blessed as we are.

And so, with the Fourth of July coming up, I will say God bless America. I’ll also say God bless Canada. And Honduras. And Zimbabwe. And Sweden. And Cuba. And Israel. And Iran. And China. And so on.

Heck, I think that even though it’s a little out of season, I’ll borrow a line from Charles Dickens, and say…

God bless us every one.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

I'll Always Have Paris

May 1976. It was my first time out of the United States besides the trip my family took to Quebec when I was 10. I was on a concert tour of Europe with the Hendricks Chapel Choir of Syracuse University. Just think, 64 college students packed on a double-decker tour bus, going from Bremen to Amsterdam, to Brussels, to Paris, to Strasbourg, to Florence, to…well, you get the drift.

64 of us traveling across Europe to celebrate America’s Bicentennial, with a concert program of both European and American music.

And four days in Paris.

Yes, four days in Paris. I could tell you stories about paying a Parisian street musician with our leftover Danish money. I could tell you about the silly tourists we saw trying to take pictures of the Eiffel Tower at night with a flash camera. I could tell you about how we were scheduled to sing at Notre Dame de Paris, but had our concert cancelled at the last minute, so our director, wanting to be able to say that his choir sang at Notre Dame, signed us all up for a tour of the place, and then had us “spontaneously” start singing. I could tell you those stories and even more, but that’s not the story I want to tell. It’s not the story I need to tell.

The story I want to tell is of a bass in the choir who was a nice enough guy, who was a friendly enough guy, and who seemed to get along well enough with everyone in the choir, but who wasn’t really convinced that anyone liked him enough to invite him to go along with them as they made their plans for sightseeing during their downtime from performing. To be sure, he would be welcome to go along with just about anyone, but he didn’t want to feel like he was just tagging along. He wanted to be invited. He was a little insecure about his social position not just in the choir, but in the world, and his personal script was based on the idea that he was tolerated, but not necessarily really liked.

If you're guessing that this person was me, then you're right.

So one day in Paris, while everyone else was making plans to go see this, that, or the other, I decided that rather than jumping in to join a group that was doing something I thought was interesting, I'd just sit in my hotel room, waiting to be invited by someone.

I don’t recall how many games of solitaire I played that day, after everyone left without me, but the fact that no one came along to ask me to join them played right in to my personal script about not really being wanted, and as a result, I sat around for the rest of the day feeling pretty sorry for myself.

Later on, when everyone came back to the hotel for dinner, I told my friend Sandra about his experience, and she let me have it with both barrels, saying:
You’ve got a lot of nerve feeling sorry for yourself! If you want to do something with people, if you want to go somewhere with people, you have to let them know. You have to join up. If no one asked you to do anything with them, it’s because they figured you already had plans with some other group, or were happy doing what you were doing. But don’t you dare try to blame us for the fact that you sat alone in your room all day while the rest of us were enjoying ourselves!
Your time in Paris, or anywhere else on this tour, is what you make of it. 
Wow. That wasn't what I was expecting, but she was right, and when a group made plans to take a boat ride on the Seine that evening, I made sure to go along with them. In fact, for the rest of the tour, I made sure that I took the initiative to join groups that looked like they were doing something interesting.

As a result, to this day, I have very little patience with people who sit around moping, waiting for someone else to make them happy, rather than getting up off their butts and making their own happiness.

I learned a great lesson from Sandra. It was a lesson I’ll never forget, and that I also try to teach my students.

And in that way, I’ll always have Paris.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Thinking Outside the Self

I was diagnosed with sudden onset Type-1 Diabetes in November. I was perfectly healthy at the beginning of September, when I saw my doctor for my semi-annual checkup, and at the end of November I was giving myself insulin injections every morning, testing my blood daily, and watching what I ate very carefully.

One would think that this was as good an excuse as any for me to sit around and feel sorry for myself for a while, and you'd be right. I was prepared, with a little help from Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, to do just that.

But there were more pressing things going on outside of my life, things that weren't as easily taken care of as a non-functioning pancreas: the fiancé of a friend gone missing, and presumed dead, in the Rockies; a local toddler killed when a bullet meant for someone else hit the minivan he was riding in; the friend of a former student murdered by her jealous former boyfriend. In my prayer life, my pancreas could definitely take a backseat to all these issues. They needed God's attention, and the people left behind needed God's care, a whole lot more than I did.

It's funny how a little tragedy in your life can either turn you in on yourself or turn you out toward others. And please, I'm not getting down on the people who initially turn in on themselves; it's a natural part of the grieving process. Perhaps what I should say is that it's funny how some people can turn outwards more quickly than others, and sad that some people never turn out at all.

My little "tragedy" came at a time when others around me were suffering from great ones, and for some reason, known only to God, I was able to think about them first.

I've come to terms with my own little issues. "Shooting up" and pricking my finger have become parts of my daily routine, just as much as running the dishwasher in the morning. Believe me, I'd rather not have to have them as parts of my routine; but somehow this new routine has made me think about others more.

And yet the good news is that you don't have to suddenly be diagnosed with diabetes in order to start looking outside yourself. You can do it right now, even if your life seems to be going just fine.

Although maybe, just maybe, my own little "tragedy" gave me a little more empathy for others.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Unfortunate Ejaculations

What is the English language coming to these days? Doesn’t anything mean what it used to mean anymore?

A former student of mine sent me a Facebook message with a link to a photo of a TV screen of a fire somewhere, with the closed-captioning saying “Firefighters to deal with not just the fire with people in the middle of the road ejaculating.”

Forget for a moment that the sentence isn’t constructed very well, and could use a comma and the word “but” after the word fire. The reason that this picture caused such an uproar on Facebook was because of the word ejaculation. Over 200 people who responded to this posting had the image in their heads of a crowd of people becoming suddenly sexually excited at the scene of the fire. Many people commented on the inappropriateness of it, and blamed it on everyone’s favorite enemy: over-zealous predictive autocorrect.

One wit wrote, “This just in from Intercourse, PA.”

But one, and only one, person took the time to point out that the word “ejaculation” could indeed be appropriate there.

“What’s this?” you ask. How on earth could you possibly use "ejaculation" appropriately in that context?

It’s really quite simple. “Ejaculate” and “ejaculation” are words that once had other meanings before they took on the more familiar biological definitions. A quick check at Wiktionary shows that it can mean to eject abruptly or to say abruptly. These uses have fallen out of favor in recent years as the biological definition has overshadowed them, but one of them is undoubtedly what the person who spoke them on TV meant.

My question is were the people in the middle of the road throwing stuff or shouting things.

And as I think about it further, I wonder if at one time “ejecting abruptly” and “saying abruptly” were the more common and predominant definitions of “ejaculation,” before it became a euphemism for something else…a euphemism which made perfect sense. And once ejaculation started being used euphemistically, it was “game over” for its use in everyday life.

Just look at the word gay. Once upon a time – within my lifetime, in fact - anyone could say that they were feeling gay, and not have a single eyebrow raised by anyone. Now if you say you’re feeling gay, people are wondering just who you’re feeling.

And let’s talk about the passages in Matthew 26:34 where Jesus tells Peter that before the cock crows, he will have denied him three times. Now there’s a term you don’t hear used to describe male chickens anymore. Most modern Bible translations use the term rooster precisely because nowadays the term “cock” will elicit tons of little giggles from adolescents and those who act like them.

So while “ejaculation” may have been an unfortunate word choice for the reporter that day, it was not totally inappropriate. The reporter just had a better grasp of the English language than most viewers.

Still, I can’t help but think of the following sentence:
“Wow, Jack sure is a jerk,” ejaculated Dick.
That’s definitely one to raise the eyebrows.

But wait! This just in.
As I searched for a copy of the picture to illustrate this post with, I found out that the story was covered at my favorite urban legend website: Snopes.com. And, apparently, I know more about the English language than I did about the circumstances of the actual story. The picture didn't tell you much, but the story at Snopes was that this was from a newscast covering the Malibu fires of 2007, and that the announcer was talking about how the firefighters were prepared to deal with the fires themselves, but not the people who were trying to evacuate.

"Oh!" as the old joke goes, "That's the word!"

Apparently, the computer-generated captioning, a close relative to the over-zealous predictive autocorrect, brought the story to a totally different climax.