Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Words We Remember

A few months ago, we had a guest preacher at our church; and partway through his sermon, he started reciting from one of the Psalms. I immediately recognized it as Psalm 100, and started mouthing the words along with him:

Oh be joyful in the Lord, all ye lands
Serve the Lord with gladness, and come before his presence with a song…

Except that those weren’t the words he was using. I don’t know what version he was reciting, or even if he was doing a rough paraphrase of the psalm; but I know what version I was reciting. I was reciting the words of the Jublilate Deo from the back of the 1940 Episcopal Hymnal that I grew up with; which, not coincidentally, is also how the psalm is set in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer (BCP). But more important, in my case, is the fact that they’re the words to the setting of the Jubilate Deo by George Blake, my former choir director at St Andrew’s Episcopal Church in South Orange, NJ. And when I hear those words, I also hear his tune along with them.

But my point, and I do have one, is that no matter what version of Psalm 100 I grew up with, I was still able to follow along with the version that the guest preacher used. I’m also able to follow along with the version currently printed in Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Quite frankly, even though I grew up with one setting of the words, I’m flexible enough to follow along with, and recite the words to any other setting of it.

Just because I have one set of words memorized doesn’t mean that I think they’re the only set of words that should ever be used.

And just because it’s the set of words I have memorized from my childhood doesn’t mean that I think it’s the set of words that the current generation of children should memorize…if they memorize them at all.

As I was thumbing through the back of the 1940 Hymnal while writing this, I stumbled across a service for the burial of a child, and it included the well-known 23rd Psalm…except that it didn’t have the words that most of us my age grew up with. Most of us know, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…” a construction which confused me for many years…after all, why wouldn’t you want the Lord to be your shepherd? However, both the back of the hymnal and the BCP have it cast as “The Lord is my shepherd; therefore I can lack nothing.”

Wow! And this was done a good 40 years before the Consultation on Common Texts began its work on coming up with common, modern English, settings of liturgical texts for churches in the United States and Canada. I can’t help but think of how much less confusing this setting would have been to a certain eight-year-old.

But, as successful as the CCT and the ICET (International Consultation on English Texts) were with their efforts to bring most of us in the English-speaking world to using common liturgical texts in modern English and a common lectionary, there is still one sacred cow, in all senses of the word, that they have made blessed little progress with.

The Lord’s Prayer.

The “new” translation of The Lord’s Prayer is going on 50 years old, and still has not taken root in most churches…not even those who use the rest of the CCT and ICET texts. Why is that? Two reasons. The first is because people still want to use the words “they remember”, and want their kids to learn the words that they remember.

This, even though they haven’t recited “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want…” or talked about “the quick and the dead” in decades.

The second reason is because they were given a choice. For example, when the Lutheran Book of Worship came out in 1978, using all the other new common English texts, when it got to the place in the liturgy for The Lord’s Prayer to be recited, both versions were printed, giving congregations a choice as to which to use.

And guess which choice most of them made.

Just think about it, had the decision been made to only print the new text back then, most American Lutherans would’ve had almost 40 years of experience with it, they would now have that memorized, and that would be the version their children and grandchildren grew up learning. But because we were given a choice that we weren’t with the Psalms and the creeds, people are still clinging to the words they learned 50 or more years ago…as if they were the only valid words to use.

It has long since been time to change. The rest of us can continue to keep the old version memorized, just as I have the BCP version of Psalm 100 memorized. But unless you’re using Rite I in the BCP, it’s time for us to learn…and teach the new generation...the 50-year-old “new” version of The Lord’s Prayer, and be done with it.


Tuesday, August 22, 2017

“Where Are You From?” Bad English, Othering, Conversation, or Belonging?

“Where are from?” A lot of people have a lot of different opinions about that question.

I have a friend who hates it because it’s not the question people are really trying to ask. She doesn’t mind talking about her ethnic background, but if you ask her where she’s from, she’ll steadfastly reply with the name of her hometown, until you catch on to the fact that you’re asking the wrong question, and phrase it correctly. Then she’ll give you the information you’re looking for.

Personally, I think she’s being a bit of a snot. She knows what they mean, she knows it’s being used as an idiomatic phrase about her ancestry. She knows that when people ask that, they’re probably asking “where are you[r ancestors] from?” But she acts like a big snot until they phrase it the way that she thinks it should be phrased before she gives them the answer she knows they’re looking for.

There are other people who hate this question because they see it as an example of “othering.” They see it as pointing out that you’re different, “not really one of us”, and “don’t belong here.” You know…”You’re not a real American…where are you from, anyway?” But that’s not how many of my generation see that question. The “othering” concept is as foreign to us as the othering concept tries to make the person of a different background.

To many of my generation, the question of “where are you from” was more akin to “what flavor are you?” We all knew that we were from different backgrounds, that we were all different flavors, and it was fun knowing which flavors we were, and talking about them. As I look back, I can recall that Dorothy and Muffy were Italian, Horace was Jamaican, Jimmy was Greek, Matthew was from India, Sophia was from Taiwan, Nancy and John were Jewish, Herbie was German, Linda was Polish, Josie was Puerto Rican, Sheri and Roxi were Norwegian, etc. Wanting to know “where everyone was from” was a natural thing. It wasn’t a divisive thing. It wasn’t an “othering” thing. It was simple curiosity. If we heard an unfamiliar sounding last name, we wanted to know where it was from…and we asked.

It was also part of a thing we used to call “making conversation.” But nowadays I’m told that it’s rude, insensitive, and a potential “microaggression” to ask someone what their ethnic background is when you first meet them, based on what they look like or their name, because it potentially sets them apart as “different” and “other.” You can ask about that later on, when you get to know them better. Maybe.

And then, on the other end of the spectrum, comes the version of the question that comes from a sense of belonging and inclusion. My two, biracial, daughters are regularly asked where they’re from…or more specifically, if they’re X, Y, or Z….by people who are X, Y, or Z themselves, and think that they’ve met someone else like them. They’re excitedly being asked, “Are you one of us too?”

Especially by guys.

I have a friend who’s Puerto Rican and German, and I joke that she wants to take over the world…maƱana. But you wouldn’t know this when you first met her…at least I didn’t. Her ethnically ambiguous look and plain vanilla Anglo name didn’t give me any clues. But she said that all of her Hispanic friends see it in her immediately, and whenever she meets someone from Latin America or the Caribbean, their first question is, “We know you’re one of us. Where are you from?”

This is definitely a case of belonging. It’s like “You’re from Jersey too? What exit?”

So which question is it? Is it always the same question? Should we always react the same way to it, or should we understand that it could be one of many possible questions before we get all bent out of shape about it? Could we maybe assume that no assume that no ill will is intended when that question is asked?

I know what I think.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Fed Up with Being Fed Up with Bad Church Music

I’ve noticed an interesting phenomena when it comes to music…people seem to think that if they happen to like one particular style better than another, it behooves them to belittle the form that they don’t like. It can’t just be a matter of different tastes; one has to be good and the other has to be not worthy of even being considered.

I noticed this many years ago when I was teaching a summer course on web design when Hanson was big. Rather than creating a website about something they liked, the adolescent boys I had worked very hard on an anti-Hanson page. Further back than that, I remember working in Manhattan with someone who adored Springsteen, but reviled Barry Manilow as being “ersatz.” And I have a dear friend who I went to music school with, who hates country and bluegrass music because “her mother didn’t pay all that money for her musical education for her to listen to that crap.”

And into this already sad mix, I saw a link on Facebook a few weeks ago for the group I’m Fed Up with Bad Church Music. I had already let out a long sigh when I saw the name of the group, and then I got more disheartened when I read this partial description of the group:

This group may be for you...

1. If you are of the opinion that Shine Jesus Shine, Here I Am, Lord, etc. are not the most beautiful church songs ever written.

2. If you think the Mass of Creation has had its day.

3. You actually kind of like the idea of singing chant and hymns. Gasp!

4. If you'd rather hear a pipe organ in church than a band or keyboard.

Really? Is this really necessary? Can’t one say that they prefer a certain type of hymnody and liturgical music without saying that everything else is trash?

I got pretty much the same musical education as my friend who looks down her nose at country and bluegrass, and that education enabled me to appreciate the value of all kinds of music…even if it wasn’t a style that I was particularly enamored of.

My first paying job was as a boy soprano at a “high church” Episcopal church of the type that many members of this group either belong to or wish that their church was like; and I can chant with the best of them. But I was also lucky enough to experience all kinds of hymnody and liturgical music as a result of not only being in the choirs of many churches, but of visiting many churches with my friends.

What I learned from this is that there’s a lot out there. There’s a lot of church music out there from all different subcultures and styles, and they all have their place.

That being said, there are many contemporary hymns and pieces of liturgical music that I could live without ever hearing again. But I can also say the same thing about many “traditional” or “classic” pieces of church music. Similarly, there are many pieces of both types of music that I absolutely love.

I don’t make an idol of any one particular style, and am capable of mixing them up. I also believe that to think that God likes one type of church music better than another is the height of arrogance. Can’t we accept the fact that we have a personal preference for one particular type of church music without saying that all other types are holy crap?

And yet, since we went there, I’ll be honest with you…I’m no big fan of Shine, Jesus, Shine either, but I love Here I Am, Lord.

But...my all-time favorite hymn remains In Heavenly Love Abiding, from the venerated 1940 Episcopal Hymnal.

And that's OK. 

Now...can we all just get along now?

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

We Really Need to Talk This to Death...Really

I had planned to post something else this week, but something else came up today that jogged my memory about something else I had been thinking about posting, and made me decide that I needed to put the planned post aside, and sit right down and write this one right now.

It’s about gender and sexuality issues.

I, and a lot of my friends in the cis-gender (that’s “gender-typical” for those up you who aren’t hip to the terminology) are very confused about all these new gender issues that we’re having thrown at us seemingly all at once. As a result, we’re all confused, befuddled, and constantly saying the wrong thing.

We’re trying to understand, but can’t because it’s all so new, and we have no context for understanding. We can’t learn without asking, and we can’t ask without offending. When we ask innocent questions in order to try to understand, we’re often greeted with an angry response like, “It’s not my job to educate you, find out for yourself!” And yet, this response seems to forget that finding out for ourselves is exactly what we’re trying to do.

OK…so maybe what the angry gender-nonconforming person really meant to say was, “It’s not my job to educate you…look it up for yourself.” But that’s problematic in two ways. First of all, that assumes that someone wants to write a book, or series of articles to educate the rest of us, and quite frankly, to turn the question around, why should it be their job to educate us? Heck…looking at it that way, why should it be anyone’s job to educate us? And taking it further, why should it be the job of anyone in any group to educate those outside the group?

The second problem is that we have no way of knowing what’s authoritative information on gender nonconformity unless we ask someone first.

And here’s where the title of today’s post comes in. We really need to talk this to death…really.

Why? Because there’s so much we don’t know. Because there’s so much that’s not part of normal discourse and understanding. Because there’s so much we’re afraid to ask because we’re afraid of offending, and so much we misunderstand, and offend people with as a result.

We need to talk about this all the time. We have to make talking about sexuality and gender issues as natural as if we were talking about hair color, eye color, height, weight (well, maybe not that), or anything else about us. We need to make it so that we’re comfortable talking about the great diversity there is in sexuality from the time we’re little kids.

Yes…little kids can handle this. Little kids can handle the fact that most people fall into neat category of boy or girl, but some don’t. And if you start them out then, there’ll a whole lot less confusion and unintentional offense when they’re older.

And to get there….as uncomfortable as it may seem…we have to talk it to death now. We have to be able to have those awkward conversations that bring about understanding little by little until they’re no longer awkward conversations.

Is it unfair that gender nonconforming people need to educate the rest of us? I don’t know…who would you rather have do the educating…the Westboro “Baptist” Church? Is it unfair that Jews have to explain Judaism, that Moslems have to explain Islam, or that African-Americans have to explain that we’re not all from the hood?

Right now gender nonconformity is a human variant that most of us don’t understand, and are very confused about. But if we talk it to death, it will just become another variation…that we’re all used to and comfortable with.

So I say, “Let the talking begin!”

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

A Nightie, A Bulldozer, and Good Things Growing in Shit

A favorite saying of mine is that good things grow in shit. This doesn’t mean that shit is in and of itself good, but if you’ve done any gardening or farming, you know what a good fertilizer it is. And what I mean by “good things grow in shit” is that sometimes the shit you didn’t want in your life helps something else wonderful to grow.

Now that you understand that, let me tell you the sad story of the nightie.

Back in June, my wife was preparing to go on a one-week mission trip to Haiti with a group from church. One of the things she needed was a nightgown to wear in the shared coed sleeping quarters. Something that wouldn’t be seen as revealing, clingy, or sexy, and yet something a little more suitable for the temperatures down there than the sweats she usually wears (although, now that I think about it, her usual summer sleep outfit of a t-shirt and shorts would’ve done just fine).

I just happened to be in Target one day and saw a nightgown with stars on it that wasn’t clingy, wasn’t overtly sexy, but was really cute. I figured she could take that to Haiti and wear that with no problem, and then I’d get to see her in it when she got back. So I bought it, and presented it to her when I got home, saying that it would be perfect for her to take with her.

When she came back, she told me about how many items of clothing people on her team left behind for the people in their Haitian village, basically only returning with the clothes on their backs. And one of those things was the nightgown I’d bought for her.

I was appalled. I was angry. I was hurt. I couldn’t wrap my head around what was going on in hers. I bought her a cute nightgown and she leaves it behind? Who does something like that?

After a lot of conversation about this, we sussed out that she didn’t think it was special because it wasn’t sexy. She figured I’d just bought her some schmatta to be used on the trip. After 31 years together in one way or another, she hadn’t figured out that I never buy her some schmatta, and that any article of clothing I buy her is something I like, and want to see her in.

We also hammered out a rule to prevent future misunderstandings like this from happening. That rule is that when someone (especially me) gives you something, you have to keep it for at least a year before you give it away…or at least ask first.

So what does this have to do with bulldozers? A lot.

A very dear friend of mine moved away three years ago. She’d pretty much never been away from home in all of her 61 years, and this was gonna be a major event. As a going away present, I gave her a toy bulldozer, telling her that as much as I loved her and wanted her to stay around, she needed to get out and see the rest of the world, and the bulldozer was here to push her out of her comfy nest.

I hear that that bulldozer has sat next to her bed for the three years that she’s been gone. I’ve also heard that her grandson has been salivating over his grandmother’s toy.

And here’s where the part about good things growing in shit comes in.

I saw her recently, and told her the story about the nightie that got left in Haiti. I also told her about what Cheryl and I decided about needing to hang on to something for a year before giving it away.

And then I told her, “Your grandson’s been wanting that bulldozer ever since he laid eyes on it. Let him have it. It’s done its job, and you’re happy where you are. You don’t have to hold onto it anymore just for me.”

I couldn’t have told her that had Cheryl and I not gone through the shit of her leaving the nightie behind, and having to come up with very precise rules about how to handle things people have given you.

And frankly, that shit’s gonna make a child somewhere in North Carolina very happy.