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?