Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Winter Concerts

A number of years ago, letters went back and forth on the pages of the local paper about this relatively new thing (since we were kids) in our schools called the “Winter Concert,” which, in an attempt to not offend anyone, seemed to pointedly ignore the Christmas elephant in the room. People weighed in on this from all sides. Some people expressed themselves well, and others didn’t. Some made us think a little bit, while others made us cringe. I hope that what I have to say here is one of those things that makes you think.

What I miss, from my high school years back in the early 70s, are the annual mixed-program Christmas concerts, and the key here is that they were mixed-program. Sure, they included a lot of religious Christmas music, much of which even I, as an Episcopal Church choirboy from 5th grade, had never heard before, but they also included a lot of secular seasonal stuff. Yes, there was the opening procession of all the choirs on the old French carol At Solemn Midnight and the coveted senior solo on Oh Holy Night, but there was also Sleigh Ride, We Wish You A Merry Christmas, and other secular seasonal favorites.

Unfortunately, a mixed program like this probably wouldn’t work in a public school anymore because some people would say that the proper place for the religious music is in a church. However, the secular music wouldn’t be welcome as part of a church program either. I don’t just want a church hymn-sing and I don’t just want to hear songs like Jingle Bells, that don’t even mention Christmas at all, in an attempt to offend no one. I want both sacred and secular holiday season music, and it seems that the only solution is for someone to form a “community chorus” that would allow us to hear our young people do a mixed-program Christmas concert at a “neutral” venue.

The obvious exception here is college choirs. For six years I was a member of the Hendricks Chapel Choir at Syracuse University, and despite our being the Chapel choir, which sang at the regular Sunday chapel services, we were also a traveling and performing choir for SU, which meant that we also learned secular works to round out our concert program. I’m sure that many other college choirs do this same mix with no concerns. But I guess things are different by the time you get to college.

And what of those people who aren’t Christians and don’t celebrate Christmas? Recent surveys have shown that despite our increasing diversity, a huge majority of people celebrate Christmas in one form or another. Things may look a little different in DeWitt than in Fabius or in Brooklyn than in Rice Lake WI, but the fact is that it’s the holiday that most people are talking about at that time of year, and it seems a little odd to pointedly ignore it when our schools give concerts around that time of year. Perhaps, that’s why so many schools have moved their winter concerts from December to January so that the whole Christmas thing is a total non-issue.

But I still miss the mixed-music programs.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

What is a Mission Trip?

In the weeks after my wife returned from her mission trip to Haiti this past June, I was bombarded with questions from so many people, that I decided to do a little research so I could answer them for everyone. The big question I had intended to write about was the one about why it costs so much to go on one. But as I looked online for information to supplement what I was told by someone else who’s had experience with them, I discovered something else that really needs to be talked about…the actual definition of a mission trip.

I saw a lot of derisive comments on a lot of websites about “voluntourism”, and about the people who “get in the way of the people doing the real missionary work.” And those comments didn’t sit well with me. Those comments implied that no matter how much good you did in the country you went to, unless you were actually preaching, unless you were actually trying to “win souls for Christ”, you weren’t part of the real work that needed to be done there. I got the impression that unless your group’s goal was to “preach to the heathen”, then you had no right to use the term “mission trip” at all. Oh sure, you could call it a “humanitarian aid” trip, but don’t call it a mission trip if you’re not doing missionary work.

At that point, I decided that my mission was to preach to you just how much male bovine excrement that is.

I was going to rhetorically ask if you have to be preaching in order to have a mission? Can’t your mission be to improve health care in a certain remote village? I was going to ask why is it that some of my fellow Christians have defined the term “mission trip” so narrowly? Then I was going to point out that often these are the same people who define the term “Christian” so narrowly that I, and many others, would be left out.

But other things came up. There were other issues to write about, and my piece about mission trips got put on the back burner…that is until I made a comment about missionaries and missionary work on Facebook the other day, and a friend replied:

Effective missionary work just serves people. It does not proselytize.

Whoa! This was huge! And it pretty much echoed what one of the leaders of the Haiti trip said when he said, “We’re not there to bring Jesus to Haiti. Jesus is already there.” And my friend’s comment was enough to put this back on the front burner.

For some reason, some people think that a mission trip is, or should be, all about proselytization, which if you haven’t heard the word before, or figured it out by now, is just a ten-dollar word for “preaching and trying to convert people.” But that’s not true. As my Facebook friend said, effective missionary work just serves people.

Let me put it a little differently, at its best, a mission trip is really no more than a “humanitarian aid” trip done by a congregation or sponsored by a religious group. Really. If students and teachers from the Camillus Academy in Camillus, NY decide to go to Puerto Rico for a week to help dig people out from Irma; as a secular organization, that would be called a humanitarian aid trip. But if the students and teachers from St Camillus Catholic School in Ampere, NJ went to do the same thing, it would be called a mission trip…whether they preached or not. Why? Because that’s just the way it is…just like how a skirt on a guy in Scotland is called a kilt.

And what of the derisive comments about “voluntourism”? Well, my friend went on to say:

Some people get curious about what it is that motivates others to go somewhere else and serve, and maybe they ask, and maybe they are inspired to try what they see others doing. In some circles this is called “a policy of attraction.”

There is still help needed in these places, and it’s not always simply about throwing money at the problem for someone else to take care of. Often it’s also about throwing people at the problem as well. These “voluntourists” who go down for a week, make a difference, perhaps build relationships, and then come back and tell others, who also go down and make a difference. They also often continue to be somehow involved with that community when they return. And the cycle continues.

This is what a mission trip is all about…

No matter what you call it.

And if you want to find out more about the organization my wife traveled with, check out Stone by Stone.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

God's Shit

A few weeks ago I got to hear our pastor preach a sermon on Philippians 3 for what may have been the fourth time in the past 12 years, because of the three-year lectionary cycle that Lutherans are on. And because of this, I knew where he was gonna go with it. I knew when he was asking us what some of our highest moments were, he was gonna tell us that Paul said that everything he had before counted as rubbish compared to knowing Christ.

But I also knew that he was gonna tell us that the Greek word that was politely translated as “rubbish” really means what he politely referred to as “dung.” In other words Paul was saying that everything he had before wasn’t shit compared to knowing Christ.

And I wasn’t disappointed. He hit all the points I expected him to hit.

I thought about all of my really high moments, and most of them involved meeting or being with my wife. Well…OK…and the recent Paul McCartney concert. But then again, I was at the concert with my wife.

The next day, as my daughter was doing her mother’s hair, she complained that Cheryl was being too quiet. So, having been prodded to speak, my wife said, “You know all that stuff Pastor said about all the great experiences we have here not being shit compared to knowing God? I don’t buy it. I think that God is in every one of those moments. In fact, those are what he himself likes to call God moments.”

When Cheryl told me about that little conversation, I laughed and said, “Yeah, maybe everything else in Paul’s life wasn’t worth shit, but then again, he met God. I haven’t met him yet. So right now you’re pretty damned good. I’ll decide whether or not everything else isn’t worth shit when I actually meet God.”

Then I laughed and asked Cheryl if she’d ever heard the story about the boy who wanted a pony. She hadn’t, so I told her:

There was a kid who had been bugging his parents for a pony. Every day, “I want a pony. I want a pony.” His parents tried to tell him that it wasn’t very likely that he’d get a pony, but he kept at it. And then, around Christmas time, just to be sure, he told Santa what he wanted…a pony. After all, Santa wouldn’t let him down, now would he?

The kid’s father decided that it was time to teach the kid a lesson about disappointment, and how you don’t always get what you want (hey…I wonder if that kid’s name was Mick), and so on Christmas Eve he went out, got a load of horse manure, and put it under the tree where the kid’s present should’ve been.

On Christmas Day, far from being disappointed at seeing a pile of manure under the tree for him, the kid was excited. “It’s horse shit!” he exclaimed as he ran out the door. “That means there must be a pony somewhere!”

And then I said to her, “So if you’re not even shit compared to meeting God, at least you’re God-shit. And I think that’s pretty good.”

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

You'll Never Get These Years Back

It started with a comment about a comment my 15-year-old daughter made about me not being a supportive sports parent because I only made it to one soccer game this season. She claims that as a musician, I’m more supportive of her forays in the arts than I am of what she does in sports. I say that’s not true. I definitely enjoy her arts activities more, because I was never a sports person. In 16 years at Syracuse University, both as a student and a staff member, I only went to two basketball games and one football game. Heck, in high school, I was on the math team. But that’s something different.

“I shouldn’t have to get all excited over my dad showing up to one game,” she said.

And I reminded her that last year I made a point of going to all her home games that fell on my regular Fridays off. The same thing the year before, when she did three sports. This year, with so much else going on and a new system that made it seem like games were popping up randomly rather than being on a pre-set schedule that we were given at the start of the season, it slipped my mind to check the system until it was almost too late.

When I recounted this conversation online, I heard people saying that every home game on my day off wasn’t enough. I heard them say that every home game wasn’t enough. I heard them say that I needed to be at every game, whether it be here in Syracuse or in Botswana. That’s what a parent who supports not only his daughter, but the team, does.

And when I suggested that that was perhaps going a little overboard, that was when I heard it…first from one person, then another, and then a veritable Greek chorus joined in with the line I keep hearing from people, and am now finally going to speak out against:

Enjoy these years with her. You’ll never get them back.

I don’t buy it. I just don’t buy it. I don’t buy the idea that I have to be at everything my kid does, and embrace every moment because I’ll never get this time with her back. I don’t buy having to be at every game because “I’ll never get this time back” any more than I buy having to be at all three nights of the musical (and this is a certified arts person saying that).

Do I enjoy my time with the kid? Sometimes. And there are also times when she is an annoying, selfish, jerk. Should I embrace these moments too, because “I’ll never get them back”? I don’t think so.

I like having the kid around, but I also enjoy those weeks when she’s away at camp, at a choral festival, or on a mission trip, because it gives me time alone with my wife. And that’s time that I need to make the most of too, because I’ll never get that back either. In fact, with as much time as we spend with the kid, at her activities, and schlepping her back and forth between activities, I’ve worried that my wife and I were on the fast track to becoming one of those couples who discovered that they had nothing in common but the kids when the last one left the nest.

A few days later, my wife was lamenting having to take the kid shopping. She doesn’t even like to go shopping for herself. And when she finished complaining, I smiled and said to her, “Take her shopping. Enjoy this time with her. You’ll never get it back.”

I think she wanted to hit me.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

A Few Words on Hugh Hefner

Well, I've seen a lot of comments come through my feed over the last few days about Hugh Hefner. Some about how four generations of 13-year-old boys owe him a debt they can never repay, some about how he contributed to the moral degradation of our country, some about how he managed to die on Hump Day. I think the reality of Hugh Hefner and the changes he brought to society are a little more nuanced and complicated than a simple black and white “good vs evil” assessment.

Yes...he did help to bring sex out into the open. He helped make us able to talk about it openly, to admit that we enjoyed it. To admit that we (women as well as men) wanted it. He helped us to be able to joke about it in “polite company.” And yes, he gave many 13-year-old boys their first look at a naked girl who wasn’t their sister, and was much better built. He helped us to get out of the era of sexual repression that we had been in for way too long.

And that’s a genie that needed to be let out of the bottle. 

Now...if you believe in sexual repression, then you obviously think that he was the personification of evil. But if you don’t believe in it, then things look a little different.

Did he help glorify the objectification of women? I don't know. Don’t we all objectify each other? I’ve taught high school girls, I’ve read Redbook and Cosmo, and I’ll tell you that there’s enough objectification going on by everyone on both sides of the fence. It’s what humans do as sexual creatures.

The difference here is that men tend to be a lot more visual than women. When a group of investors tried to put out a women’s magazine with photos of naked men, they found that women weren’t their biggest customers...but gay men were.

Seems that’s just the way we’re wired.

And I’ll let you in on a little my adolescent/young adult days, when I’d look at the pictures in Playboy, my first thoughts weren't “Nice tits, I’d like to f*** her”, although that was a close second. My first thought was, “She seems really nice. I wonder if she’d like me.”

You see...the genius of Hefner and Playboy from my perspective at that age was that he presented the women there as people with personalities, people with interests, people who you might want to get to know better...and then maybe sleep with...because it seemed like you'd both enjoy it. (And let’s hear it for my personal favorite from back in the day, Barbi Benton).

Those other magazines weren’t as classy as Playboy. They weren’t about getting to know…and maybe sleep with…the girl next door. They were about body parts and kinkiness. Does anyone remember that Playboy was first offered the infamous Vanessa Williams photos, and turned them down? He was not in the business of ruining people’s reputations for a quick buck…and especially not for the kind of pictures those were. Unfortunately, someone else across town was. Ah...if only Hef had bought the photos when he had the opportunity, and just sat on them...

But in the end, Hef was a victim of his own publicity. As he got older, he couldn’t seem to let go of the idea of himself as the stud able to surround himself with beautiful young women. He didn’t get that while it might seem cool to be seen with a hot 24-year-old at age 48, at age 84 most of us…most of us guys…were going “Eew…she could be your grand-daughter!” He didn't understand the “Eew Equation” of half your age, plus 7. It’s as if, having let the genie out of the bottle, he let it take him over. He couldn’t just quietly step back at age 69 and say, “You know, I’m really too old for this now.” He didn’t understand that there can be too much of a good thing, and became a caricature of himself…a garish caricature of himself.

Hugh Hefner is dead. And like so many of us, he was a mixed bag…who also gave us a mixed bag.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

A Blessing of a Password

When I was a teacher, I often learned from my students, and looked forward to those moments. As a librarian, I often learn from the people who come to get my help with computer issues.

Such was the case with the woman who wanted me to help her set up a new email account.

We had gotten through all the basic stuff like first name, last name, and desired username; and now it was time to create a password. I gave her my standard spiel about not using “password”, your dog’s name, 12345678, or “monkey” (really), and was about to give her some of my ideas about how to create one, when she told me one of her own.

“They tell me that your password should be something that people normally wouldn’t associate with you, so I want my password to be GodBlessTrump.”

I raised my eyebrow, and then she continued.

“Make no mistake, I despise the man. I think he’s a vile creature, and both an embarrassment and a danger to our country. But I also think that man needs some serious help, and I figure that every time I type that in as a password, I’m asking God to give him all the help he needs to do a good job and not get us all killed.”

I nodded my head to indicate that I understood what she was saying. So often we use the word “bless” to indicate approval or special favor, but as I’ve said before, it also can also mean divine care…which is most decidedly not the same as asking God to give him whatever he wants, but rather, asking God to help him, by giving him the wisdom, caring, sense of justice, sense of decency, and sense of others outside himself that are necessary for being a good human being, let alone a decent president.

Then she said, with a twinkle in her eye, “And maybe that SOB will learn a thing from Dr Seuss, and what little heart he has now will grow three sizes!”

We both had a good laugh, and then we entered her desired password.

The system wouldn’t accept it.

She laughed and said, “It hates him more than I do?”

“Oh no,” I said, laughing myself. “I know what the problem is. You need a special character in there too.”

“Like an exclamation point at the end?”

“That’ll probably work.”

And indeed it did.

Now, every time she types in her password, she is most emphatically asking God to make Trump into a better human being.

Hmm…maybe I’ll go change my password.