Tuesday, December 18, 2018

The Most Argumentative Time of the Year

And now it’s time for everyone’s favorite December pastime...arguing over Christmas songs.

And this started long before the current flap over Baby It’s Cold Outside, which probably seemed creepy to younger people for quite some time before the #metoo movement brought it to everyone’s attention in a way that many of us older folks hadn’t thought of it before. No...people have been arguing about Christmas music for as long as there’s been Christmas music.

We’ve been arguing over whether or not something counts as a Christmas song, we’ve been arguing over whether or not something is a good Christmas song. We’ve been arguing over whether or not something is a tasteful Christmas song. And we we’ve been arguing that certain songs don’t belong on Christmas albums or shouldn’t be played on the radio based on our own personal preferences...as if we were the sole arbiter of what’s a good Christmas song…and forgetting that there are millions of people out there with just as many opinions.

Let’s face it, if you think about it a bit, many so-called Christmas songs aren’t even Christmas songs at all...they’re winter songs, and should be played all the way from December 21st to March 21st. But for some reason, we start celebrating winter the day after Thanksgiving and get tired of it on January 2nd...after only 13 official days of the season.

Songs like Jingle BellsJingle Bell RockSleigh RideHome for the HolidaysWinter Wonderland, and Let it Snow are all about winter, not Christmas. But we consider them part of the canon anyway.

Which brings us back to Baby It’s Cold Outside. Creepiness aside, there are those who maintain that this shouldn’t be in the canon because it’s not even a Christmas song. When you bring up the “winter” argument, they counter that it only talks about it being cold, and doesn’t mention the time of year at all.

Unless you look at the lyric that says:

Baby, you’ll freeze out there
It’s up to your knees out there

Up to your knees in what? Ragweed? Pork bellies? Pennies from heaven? I’m betting Frank Loesser was talking about snow…which would mean it was winter…unless you’re in Syracuse, where it could snow into May.

And then, on the not so creepy side, we have My Favorite Things, which everyone agrees is not a Christmas song, but keeps ending up on Christmas albums and playlists anyway. We can thank a song plugger for Rogers and Hammerstein for that. He convinced several well-known recording artists to put that song on their Christmas albums in 1964 in order to drum up interest in the upcoming film The Sound of Music. And now, despite the fact that it has nothing to do with either Christmas or winter, we seem to be stuck with it.

I have a friend who absolutely hates Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer, and can’t understand why anyone likes or plays that song. But I remember when it first came out. I was in my mid-20s, and thought the song was hilarious in a way that perhaps only someone in their 20s can.

And I’m sorry, but you have to be a total Grinch not to like The Chipmunk Song.

But finally, for those who insist that only hymns and other religious music can really count as Christmas songs, I’m gonna end here with a song that is so beloved by many that you won’t believe that anyone dared question it. The quintessential Christmas song, second only to Silent Night. I’m talking about Cantique de Noel, or Oh Holy Night.

What could anyone find wrong with that? Well, after it achieved a certain level of popularity in its native France, the Catholic church considered it inappropriate for use in church for two reasons. The first was that the original poem was written by a wine merchant who had no interest in religion, and indeed, was a Socialist. The second was that the friend who set that poem to music was Jewish. Fortunately, by the time the French church tried to put the kibosh on it, the genie had been out of the bottle for quite some time, and even if it was inappropriate for singing at mass, people would sing it in their homes and everywhere else in France.

So…I’m going to close by saying, no matter how you feel about this song or that song, let’s just take this time to give our arguing a little rest. Accept the fact that different people have different tastes about holiday music, and, in the words of Ralph Blaine…

Have yourself a merry little Christmas!


Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Just Like Breathing

I’ve seen it happen many times before, and each time I’ve seen it, it’s annoyed me beyond any need for a laxative. But now I can better explain why it annoys me so much.

What am I talking about? Articles or documents written by church people for a church audience that get criticized by other church people for not specifically mentioning Christianity or Jesus. Their argument is something along the lines of “How will people know that we’re not just another social organization, not just another group of people trying to do good works in the world, if we don’t mention that we’re Christians?”

My first, rather snarky, response is, “This article was in a denominational magazine. Are you freaking kidding me? Are you that stupid? Do you think that people in general are so dense as to not realize that something in a magazine called Living Lutheran (or Positively PresbyterianEcstatically Episcopalian, or even Confidently Catholic) is based on the writer’s Christian faith?” And does the mission statement of St Andrew’s Episcopal Church really have to state that they’re a Christian community? Isn’t it pretty clear that they’re not a chapter of the Ethical Culture Society?

My second, similarly snarky, response is basically, “This document was written for use within the church. We all know why we’re here. Do we really have to telegraph it to everyone?”

The response of the critics is that as Christians, we need to be aware of, and tell people what’s most important to us, and why we do what we do.

To that I say, “Well…maybe.” But there’s something else I have to say to them. Actually, it’s a question I have to ask.

What’s the most important thing you do every day?

Really, what is the most important thing you do everyday?

Some of you might mention taking care of your kids, or the work you do for the local food pantry, or perhaps it’s your job as a teacher, or maybe even your job at the local hospital. Those are all good things. But quite frankly, none of those count as the most important thing you do every day.

At least not to me.

Nope…the most important thing you do every day is something so intrinsic to your being that you don’t even think about it. In fact, it’s so important that even if you voluntarily stopped for a few minutes, you’d involuntarily start again.

What am I talking about?

Breathing.

Breathing is the most important thing any of us do every day. It’s what allows us to go about doing the other things we think are important. But do we ever mention it? Do we put that at the top of the list of important things we do?

No. We don’t even think about it until we have a hard time doing it.

So why do some Christians insist that other Christians make a point of their Christianity when talking to church audiences?

For that matter, why do some Christians insist on putting their Christianity out on parade when they’re helping others? Isn’t it enough to let your Christianity quietly inform your good works, and then have the people you’ve helped ask you about your motivation later?

A vegetarian friend of mine once said that there are good vegetarians and bad vegetarians. You’ll never know that a “good vegetarian” is a vegetarian unless you pay close attention to what they’re eating, or unless it just happens to come up naturally in conversation. A “bad vegetarian” will take every opportunity to tell everyone about their vegetarianism.

I think that those Christians who want us to explicitly state our Christian identity and motives are bad vegetarians, who want to make us into bad vegetarians too.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Dance to the Music...But Choose it Wisely

Over the years I’ve had a lot of time to think about the music played at wedding receptions, and how I think that a lot of it is wrong for the occasion. I mean it’s great for dancing, or maybe has a nice tune, but when you get to the lyrics, we have a problem. For example, Heard it Through the Grapevine may be a great song for a stroll-type dance, but have you taken the time to listen to the words? I didn’t think so. And while I’ll Get Over You was a personal favorite of mine after a certain breakup back in 1979, and is still a song I love, I don’t think that’s really something you want to play at your wedding reception. And then there’s the DJ who played Like a Virgin at a friend’s wedding many years ago, back when that song was still current. I’m not gonna make any assumptions about my friend, but even though it was a very good dance tune, there were snickers all around the room because the DJ didn’t think about either the title or the lyrics.

My wife and I just celebrated our 30thanniversary, and her parents threw a huge party for us. During the party and after it was over, people kept talking about the wonderful choices of music the DJ played. That’s because I picked them…every…single…song. Then I gave the five CDs with that music on it to the DJ we hired for the night. I saw this as a chance to show people what could be done with choosing appropriate music for a party like that.

How did I do it? First I went through the 2000 or so favorite songs on my laptop and made a playlist of four hours of songs that I thought either presented relationships in a positive light or were totally neutral, while specifically eliminating the ones that didn’t. And wasn’t all that hard…after all four hours works out to be only about 66 songs. Surely you can pick 66 songs with appropriate lyrics from a set of 2000.

And there were still a lot of pretty good songs to dance to…from all decades, styles, and genres…after all, one thing that people forget at wedding receptions and parties like this is that it’s not just about the music you want to hear, but having a little something in there for everyone.

Now…admittedly, this is a whole lot easier to do with a DJ, who you can just hand five CDs to, than with a band, that only knows so many songs; but it can be done to some extent, even with a band. A friend of mine told the band at her reception that if she heard The Chicken Dance, they weren’t getting paid…no matter how many people asked for it. And if the band has a list of songs in their repertoire that you can look at, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to go through it and select which ones you specifically want and specifically don’t want…if you’re willing to put in the time and effort.

So when people commented on the music choices, I’m betting that they weren’t consciously thinking about the lyrics to any of the songs, but they did notice that they all seemed to go well with the theme of the party.

But yes, it can be done. You can choose appropriate and danceable music for your wedding reception or anniversary party, and I challenge you to try it. People will talk about it.

And in a good way!

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Avoiding Responsibility?

A few months ago I had the pleasure of having dinner with some old college friends that I haven’t seen in years…no, let me change that…in decades. They now have kids the age that we were when we last saw each other…and older.

One of the things we discussed is how much the world had changed since we last saw each other. As an example I used one of our doctors, who is the father of a former student of mine. When I asked how his daughter was, he beamed and said that she was doing well…and was living with her boyfriend in Philadelphia. I mentioned how 30 years earlier the father would be grumbling about his daughter living with her boyfriend, rather than beaming.

I thought this was a good change. My friends, however, didn’t. They saw it as “kids these days” wanting to have sex with none of the responsibility. I didn’t want to turn what was an enjoyable time together into a debate, but I quietly vehemently disagreed with them.

I think it is a good change. I think it’s good that, for the most part, our culture has stopped pushing young people into marriage as soon as possible. I think it’s good that we understand that you don’t have to start making babies and taking on a 30 year mortgage at age 25. And I think it’s good that we don’t push people into legal entanglements that will be damned hard to extricate themselves from just so that they can have sex without people giving them the hairy eyeball.

And speaking of legal entanglements, I know of a couple who decided it was best to wait to “make things official” until he got his precarious credit situation all straightened out. They figured there was no sense in making that her official problem too.

But let’s go back to that whole idea of “avoiding the responsibility.” Really, just what does that mean? There are couples who get married and put off having children for years…or decide to not have children at all. There are also couples who don’t get married, stay together for years, and do an excellent job raising kids. And…there are couples who live together until the baby’s on the way, then then decide to get married…and there’s actually a lot of historical precedent for that…which we have conveniently forgotten about.

Now I know that some of you will bring up religious objections to this, and I’ll deal with that. Quite frankly, those who have “religious objections” to couples living together without being married, have objections based on a culture and time when things were much different…where the community was more important than the person, and where a woman’s “value” was based on whether or not she’d had sex with anyone before. And believe me, I am so glad that those days are gone!

Now, having said all that, I can think of some pretty good reasons to bite the bullet and get married. Quite frankly, I think that after you’ve had five years of living together, you really ought to “shit or get off the pot.” And as much as I cautioned against legal entanglements that are hard to extricate yourself from, there are actually some pretty good legal protections marriage gets you for $40 (the cost of the license, not the fancy schmancy wedding) that you’d have to pay thousands of dollars in legal fees for otherwise.

And of course, by this point, some of you are asking how I’d react if one of my  daughters decided to move in with her boyfriend. Well, quite frankly, if he was a decent guy…and could put up with either one of their personalities…I’d be thrilled that they’d found someone.

I’d even help them move!

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

30 Years of Good Advice

Yesterday was our 30thwedding anniversary. Yup…30 years. Who knew it would speed by so fast!

People think that’s amazing because there’s a false statistic out there that says that 50% of marriages end up in divorce. That’s a false statistic for reasons explained in my 2010 post Good News from the Invitation Box. With that in mind, Cheryl and I really aren’t all that special after all. But…I’m still gonna give you some advice from our 30 years together.

First: Marriage creates a new thing, a new family, and your allegiances change. Your main allegiance is now to each other, and not your family of origin. This means that given a choice between your partner and your mother, your partner comes first.

Second: Create new traditions. Don’t both of you insist on slavishly bringing over all of your family’s old traditions to this new thing. This is your chance to decide which traditions you want to keep, which ones you finally get to toss, and which new ones you want to try that you saw in a magazine, a movie, or someone else’s family. Remember…you’re a new thing.

Third: Learn to compromise. You both need to be able to do that. A marriage where one person is a “take no prisoners” type is likely to fail. A marriage where both people are “take no prisoners” types is likely to fail quickly.

Fourth: Learn to alternate. Those couples that argue every year about where to go on vacation make me crazy. One should get to choose in odd years and the other should choose in even years. There. Done.

Fifth: Choose your battles. You squeeze the toothpaste from the end and they squeeze it from the middle? So what! Buy a tube for each of you and move on. It costs the same in the long run. You don’t have to agree on everything.

Sixth: Let George Washington decide some issues. That means sometimes you’re just gonna need to flip a coin over it. Statistically, you’ll each get your way half the time.

Seventh: Understand that you don’t have to do everything together. If you love science fiction and your partner doesn’t, don’t insist on dragging them to the all-night Star Trek festival. Let this be your thing...that you do with your science fiction friends (you do have outside friends, don't you?)…but give them brownie points if they offer to go with you.

Eighth: If their family lives 30 minutes away and yours is six hours, depending on how much vacation time each of you gets, and how it’s given out, you’re probably gonna see more of theirs than yours. But if vacation time is not an issue, let’s go back to item number four, and learn to alternate. Maybe in odd years you spend Thanksgiving with one and Christmas with the other, and then flip it in even years.

Ninth: Despite what the common wisdom says, sometimes it’s best to let the sun go down on your anger. Why? Because arguing when one…or both…of you is tired, cranky, and possibly hungry, gets no one anywhere. Take a time out for a nap and a snack, come back to the issue when you’re refreshed and well-fed, and see how much quicker it gets resolved.

Tenth: If you have kids, don’t let them run your lives. Make time for yourselves without them. They’ll be fine without you for an evening. You don’t want to become one of those couples who realize once they’ve grown up and left home, that all they had in common was the kids.

Eleventh: Finally, remember that you are friends. Ideally you’re each other’s best friends. And ideally, you were friends before you decided to get involved in this whole marriage thing.

And that’s the short version of my advice after 30 years. If you want more, you know where to find me!

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Being an American in Murka

In recent years I’ve felt like two parts of my identity have been hijacked from me.

The first is my identity as a Christian. The second is my identity as an American.

Now, the Christian thing is something I’ve talked about before, and my first awareness of it being hijacked was when someone from a different denomination than me, a denomination with slightly different beliefs, and a different piety, saw the cross on my lapel, and asked if I was a “real” Christian…as if the rest of us Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodists, and Catholics were chopped liver. And as if we weren’t here first.

And over the course of the past almost 40 years, the rise of these people, who use the catch-all term “Christian”, rather than saying what specific denomination they’re from, have made it very difficult for me to identify as a Christian without also having to say, “But not like them.” It has made me want to let people get to know me well enough to know that I’m not a self-righteous, loudmouthed, jerk before letting on that I’m an active churchgoer.

The American thing is a more recent development. It’s not as recent as the Trump presidency, but the hijacking of that identity, and those who hijacked it are one of the many elements that led to it. Actually, I’m still an American, but I find myself right now living in the bizzaro world version of it known as Murka.

Murka, you know…land of the arrogant, home of the fearful and xenophobic…you know…those people who call themselves Murkans. And for the moment, these Murkans have risen to the top, not like cream, but more like dead fish; leaving me embarrassed to admit that I’m an American, lest someone mistake me for a Murkan. Leaving me with second thoughts about wearing anything with the flag, or flag colors on it, lest someone mistake me for one of those arrogant Murkans who have hijacked the flag I once thought stood for something better.

And yet, if I’m honest, if I remember my American history, I have to admit that we’ve always had our Murkan moments. Even as I try to counter fear-mongerers by reminding them that FDR said that we have nothing to fear but fear itself, I have to remember that that same FDR, out of fear…and racism…signed the executive order that sent thousands of citizens of Japanese descent to concentration camps.[1]

I have to remember that even as Emma Lazarus was writing her poem The Great Colussus, from whence came the famous words “Give me your tired your poor” that are found at the Statue of Liberty, laws were being enacted that either prohibited or severely curtailed immigration from Asia. I guess we were willing to take the tired and poor as long as they were white.

I have to remember that my “family history”, with as much as we say we aspire to something great, and as often as we do attain a greatness that other nations look up to, is filled with many ugly and embarrassing moments as Murkans since 1776 misunderstood what making America great really meant.

I also have to keep in mind that as much as those Murkans seem intent on forgetting or ignoring the lessons of the past, there are many people out there who haven’t forgotten and who have learned. There are people protesting how we’re treating our Muslim citizens, and working to make sure that they don’t get treated like the Japanese under FDR. The press, which has not been silenced, is actively reporting on our misguided and inhumane immigration policy. There are people actively trying to carry on a civil discourse with those who refuse to be civil. And these people exemplify what I believe it means to be an American.

As much as they may want to deny it, I will grudgingly admit that those arrogant and misguided Murkans are my brothers and sisters while we work out this current unpleasantness.

And that, my friends, is what makes me an American…as well as a Christian…and I will wear my red, white, and blue to represent the ideals, and not the miserable failures.

Enjoy the 4th!


[1] Yes, “internment camps” sounds so much less harsh, and doesn’t put us on the same level with the Nazis; but technically, while they weren’t death camps, they were concentration camps.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Enjoy Every Stage

I saw a woman in Price Chopper a few weeks ago with a cute little toddler in her cart. We kept running into each other every other aisle, as we worked the store from one end to the other, but going up and down the aisles in the opposite pattern.

Then one of us must’ve skipped an aisle, because suddenly I found myself heading in the same direction as her, and her cart was blocking my path. She was busy examining something on the shelf, and as I approached the cart with her child in it, I said, “Don’t worry, I’m not gonna run off with her. I’m done. I have a 25-year-old and a 15-year-old, and I don’t want to go back to this stage.”

She smiled and replied with just one word: “Lucky.”

I moved her cart out of my way, went back to my cart, and as I passed the two of them, I was reminded of something I’d thought a few months earlier when one of my Facebook friends posted on how quickly her kids were growing up. And then I turned to her and said:

Some people will tell you to enjoy these days because you’ll never get them back, but I’m gonna tell you something different…you’ll enjoy every stage. You’ll particularly enjoy it when she gets old enough to do things by herself and clean up after herself. So don’t let anyone tell you that you need to hold on to these days.

She smiled again and thanked me. But this bears repeating for all the rest of you with young children who seem to be growing up too fast: You’ll enjoy every stage.

I know parents who seem bound and determined to keep their children as little kids that they can have around the house forever. Little kids who they’re constantly cleaning up after and having to harp on to do things that ought to be done. Parents who are reluctant to give their kids the wings they need in order to successfully fly.

I’m not that parent.

I remember doing the little dance when my oldest daughter (with a bit of bribery) was finally potty trained. I remember doing that same dance when my second daughter mastered that same skill. Oh sure, they were both cute at three years old, but boy, could they make a mess (and a stink) in their pants. I was more than happy to see those days go by.

I have photos of my oldest standing on a stool at age seven to make a cake with the mixer in the kitchen, and was pleased when she finally learned how to cook for herself. I’m still trying to coerce her 15-year-old sister into gaining that same skill.

I remember fighting with the 25-year-old over doing homework when she was in fifth grade, and remember how happy I was when she suddenly became self-motivated in sixth.

I remember how we had to fight with our 15-year-old over practicing piano; and now that it’s been five years since we let her give up lessons, I enjoy the fact that she asks me to write out music for her to play.

Let’s face it, none of us really wants our kids to be five years old forever. Sure, when I look at the old photos, I’d like to go back to visit for a time, but I don’t want to live there again. Life is good with the older, and more responsible versions of my kids.

Even after they’ve successfully flown the nest.

So enjoy every stage, and be glad when they’ve moved on to the next.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

What Are the Odds?

I was at the credit union a few weeks ago, waiting to have some changes made to my account, when I had that worry that I seem to regularly have whenever I enter a bank or a credit union.

Suppose a robbery happens while I’m here?

I’m always a little skittish about going to one of those places because of the fear that I just might end up being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Bank robberies do still happen, you know. There’ve been a few in our local paper over the past year. Suppose I end up in the middle of one of them?

But this time was different. I’d been thinking about statistics a bit over the past few weeks, and how we tend to focus on the least likely, most horrible thing, and not the most likely, more mundane thing. This was probably after having seen comedian Hasan Minhaj speak at this year’s Public Libraries Association conference about the infinitesimally small odds of being in a terrorist attack…as opposed to say…being killed in a car accident because you didn’t buckle your seatbelt.

And it’s not just him, who you might think was too close to the issue to be impartial. I know statisticians who say that Americans are absolutely awful at assessing risk; and that, once again, we worry about the least likely absolutely horrible thing, and don’t prepare at all for the avoidable tragedies that are most likely to hit us.

So this time I said to myself, “Shut up and sit down.”

It’s funny that I had to tell myself this, because whenever people come see me at the library, worrying about all the ways they can be hacked by simply going on the Internet, I often tell them that I could worry about the meteor that could fall on my house…but I don’t.

And speaking of librarians, in a recent thread on a librarian Facebook page about how to deal with challenged patrons who are being disruptive, one person said that you should never call the police, because we all know that the police shoot autistic people.

That was it. From anyone else, I might’ve just rolled my eyes and walked away. But this was someone representing a group of people who claim to be all about accurate information. So I said:

Really...has anyone actually looked at the statistics of how many people...black, autistic, white, neurotypical, Martian, whatever...have absolutely fine interactions with the police that don’t end in tragedy, or do we let the few news stories of situations where things went tragically wrong lead us to assume that the bulk of interactions are like that?

They’re called news stories for a reason, you know...because they’re so out of the ordinary and awful. 

Once again…do we let the extremely few really horrible, really attention-getting things lead us to think that they happen way more often than they do? And do we react more to those than to everyday things that we should really be concerned about?

I think so.

Now about that meteor…

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

A Father's Day Correction


Last month, after taking a little flak about my Mother’s Day piece from people who didn’t exactly have the best relationships with their mothers, I mentioned that someday they should ask me about my relationship with my father, and that I have my own set of familial scars. Immediately, a friend of mine from way back jumped in, saying how wonderfully I turned out for someone who had such a bad father…or that maybe it was a conscious reaction to having such a bad father.

And that’s when I realized that I needed to do a little correcting of the story.

They say that no matter how good or how bad you were, all you’re ever remembered for is what you did last. I have a history teacher friend who says that Richard Nixon might have gone down as one of the 10 greatest presidents had it not been for that little Watergate thing at the end. That overshadowed everything else that he did.

Well, that’s the way it was with my father. The first 18 to 19 years were pretty good, but after that, things went all to hell, and the friends who knew me back then only knew the story from me being up close and personal to when it all fell apart. I didn’t have the perspective then that I do now, and they still only know the story that I told 40 years ago.

So let me say it again…it didn’t always suck. The first 18 or so years with my father were actually quite good. The next three or four became a living hell, followed by about another 10 of peaceful nothingness, and then 18 years of cautious d├ętente. And it was during, and immediately after the years of living hell that my friends from back then heard the stories I was telling at the time. Stories that overshadowed the good stuff that came first.

What was some of the good stuff that came first? Here are a few examples of the important things he taught me:
  • How to read and draw a map.
  • How to use drafting tools.
  • The fact that it’s a promise even if you didn’t specifically use the words “I promise” when you agreed to do it.
  • The idea that the Bible may have been written about God, but it was written by people. People who were influenced by their culture and biases as much as what they thought God might have saying to them.
  • How to use the microfilm reader at the public library.
  • That the first thing you say after you’ve had a car accident is “Are you OK?” not “Oh my car!” (And boy, did my wife get grief for that one when I wrecked her car at a friend’s grandmother’s funeral back in 1986.)
  • Got me started playing piano by ear.
  • That the real cost of something isn’t measured in dollars, but in how many hours you had to work for it. (I always use this measure when people start complaining about how high gas prices have gone up. It almost always works out to take a McDonald’s employee roughly the same amount of time for a gallon of gas now as it did for me back in 1975 when it went up to an unheard of 75¢ a gallon.)
  • Oh…and he was the one who gave me the freedom to basically ride my bike all over the county in middle school, when my mother might have had me tethered to our little town.

I also realized, with a little perspective, that my best parenting moments are based on the best moments of the first 17 years with my father, and not a total avoidance of trying to be anything like him. When I’m laid back about issues with my kids, when I give them a long leash rather than hovering over them like the dreaded helicopter parent, when I encourage them in all their interests, then I’m emulating the best of the Melvin Gatling I knew before 1976.

While avoiding the worst of that last act from 1973 up to then.

Because, you know…it didn’t always suck.

And now that I’ve made that correction to the story, my friends who knew me in the midst of, and right after, hell, will understand that.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

On Religious Freedom

Hang on folks, this is gonna be a long one!

Recently my wife was reading a book that dealt with life among the Puritans, and as she gave me regular snippets of information from it, I was taken back to Mrs Alexander’s 8thgrade History class, in which I learned more about the Puritans than what we previously knew about the “Pilgrims” who came here on the Mayflower.

The thing that stuck in my mind the most, and endured for almost 50 years, was that the Puritans left England in search of religious freedom for themselves…and for the right to persecute those who didn’t believe as they did.

Wow…that seemed contradictory and hypocritical even to this then 13-year-old. Seemed to me that if you wanted religious freedom, you wanted it for everyone, and not just your little group. If you wanted religious freedom, you wanted everyone to have it, and not for your group to be calling the shots for everyone else. And so it was a relief to me when we finally learned about Roger Williams (the Puritan minister, not the pianist) founding the colony of Rhode Island on the ideal of religious freedom.

However, this same then 13-year-old didn’t quite grasp what believing that you have the absolute truth and the absolute moral high ground can do to people. I understand now, and that’s one of the many reasons why I’m an ELCA Lutheran, a member of a denomination that most decidedly doesn’t believe that it has the absolute truth, that absolutely knows that it has screwed up in the past, and will likely do so again in the future. A denomination that takes seriously what Paul said in 1 Corinthians, 13 about how we’re not going to get it perfectly right in this world because right now we’re only seeing as through a glass darkly.

This, while others, like those Puritans, are so sure that they’re right, and are so certain that they have revealed truth, that there’s no room for compromise, and no room for considering what religious freedom means for those who aren’t in their group.

So what does religious freedom mean? I’ll start by telling you a few things that it doesn’t.

It doesn’t mean the freedom to enact and enforce “blue laws” that keep your Sabbath holy, while ignoring the Sabbaths of others, or not taking into account those who have no Sabbath at all.

It doesn’t mean the freedom to chose not to serve those who don’t follow the rules of your religion.

It doesn’t mean the freedom to insist that the tenets of your religion are taught in the public schools.

It doesn’t mean the freedom to insist that books and movies that offend your religious sensibilities are removed from public libraries.

It doesn’t mean the freedom to insist that everyone follow the same strict moral code as your religious group.

It doesn’t mean the freedom to harass members of other religious groups, people who have left your religious group, or people who are members of no religious group at all.

It doesn’t mean the freedom from honest criticism of your beliefs, although it does mean the freedom from being taunted for them.

Most important, it doesn’t mean crying that you’re being “persecuted”, when you’re merely being asked to “play nicely” with those who don’t share your beliefs.

So now, what does religious freedom actually mean?

It means the freedom to worship as you wish, with minimal interference (obviously human sacrifice is out, as is having your service in the middle of the Interstate at rush hour).

It means the freedom to reasonably dress in accordance with your religious codes without your school or job telling you that you can’t.

It means the freedom to reasonably wear your hair in accordance with your religious codes without your school or job telling you that you can’t.

It means the freedom to wear a habit*, bonnet, yarmulke, turban, hijab, or other religious head covering without worrying about someone snatching it off.

It means the freedom from being taunted for your beliefs, although not the freedom for having those beliefs honestly criticized.

And those are just the short lists. 

The big problem with “religious freedom” these days is that laws that were enacted in order to guarantee the rights in the second list are being seen by too many as justification to do the things on the first. As a result, what should be an ideal that we all agree on has become tainted, and is looked up with suspicion by those who feel bludgeoned by it.

But religious freedom should not be something that anyone has any reason to be afraid of. And it’s time for those of us who believe in true religious freedom to start taking the term back, and showing people what it really means.



*Technically a wimple



Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Why Should They Listen to Me?

I’ve often been troubled by Bible-thumpers and religious tract-pushers of all kinds. This is, as I’ve alluded to before, one of the many reasons that I’m an ELCA Lutheran. We’ll let you know that we exist, and if you want to know more about us, feel free to ask, and then we’ll tell you all you want to know…but only if you insist.

But getting back to the point I’m trying to work up to, I’ve often been troubled by proselytizers of all kinds. I mean, with so many different people claiming to have the absolute truth about, and inside track to, God, who am I supposed to believe? 

With all the different opinions out there, I sometimes like to apply what I call the “Martian Standard.” That is, if a person from Mars arrived tomorrow, with no cultural baggage…at least no cultural baggage from this planet, what religion would they pick? After listening to everyone’s spiel, who would they decide made the most sense? Would they decide that anyone made sense, or would they just say that it was all nonsense?

And this brings me to me.

Christianity has the concept of “evangelism”, which literally means “to spread the good news.” Let’s ignore for the moment that many so-called “evangelists” are anything but good news, and take the term for what it’s supposed to mean.

I, as a Christian, yes, even as a Lutheran, am supposed to be about spreading the good news. I figure I spread it most effectively by quietly doing good, and letting people be surprised to find out that I’m religious. But let’s take a look at the idea of me actually going out and talking to people about my beliefs. In which case the Martian Standard has me asking:

Why should anyone listen to me?

Really. Why me and not Shoshana? Or Ahmed? Or Yoshi? Or Sanjit? Or any of tons of other people. Why should anyone listen to me, and think that I speak authoritatively for God?

More to the point, if God really wants to get his message to people, if God really wants people to listen, and to know that this isn’t just another Bozo claiming to speak for him, why doesn’t he just do it himself, in a voice that we’ll all know is his?

Many years ago, I read a reprint of a short story that appeared in the August 1948 issue of Cosmopolitan called The Next Voice You Hear. It was about how in the years not too far after the end of World War II, God decided to take over all the radio stations in the world for a short broadcast at the same time every night for a week, to let people know that he was there, and to encourage them to get along with each other and do right by each other.

And this brings me back to my original question: Why should anyone listen to me…a person full of his own biases and misconceptions, who is bound to get things wrong, even with the best of intentions? For that matter, why should anyone listen to Shoshana, Ahmed, Yoshi, or Sanjit?

What I’d really like is to turn on the radio for a week…


Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The Steel Idol

Another school shooting.

Another damned school shooting.

And the lieutenant governor of Texas had the nerve (but not the courage) to say that the problem is that we have devalued life.

This is partially true…some have devalued life, and placed too much value on the right to own any damn gun they please, and take it anywhere they want.

He bemoaned the lack of religion in schools and our lives. I bemoan the lack of religion that tells us it’s important to protect our children, and trading it for the mess of pottage that is, again, the right to own any damn gun we please, and take it anywhere we want.

You want to talk about the role of religion in the wake of this latest shooting? Fine. I can do that. Aaron and the ancient Hebrews had their idol made of gold in the shape of a calf. We have ours made of steel, in the shape of a gun. And we are sacrificing our children to it.

I thought at first when the usual suspects talked about more armed guards, fewer entrances and exits to schools (a fire hazard), and armed teachers, that they had a failure of imagination, because they couldn’t think of other ways that a shooter with a powerful enough weapon could create massive carnage. I didn’t want to mention how easily that could happen lest I give anyone some horrible ideas. But it turns out that what these people have is a failure of memory…because you might remember that the Las Vegas shooting took place in a way that no security guard could’ve stopped, that decreasing the number of entrances and exits wouldn’t have prevented, and no “good guy” with a gun could’ve ended sooner.

In short, you can make every school in the country an armed camp in order to protect your right to own guns that no one has a chance against, and someone perched up on a hill can still pick people off from a distance.

Then what will you say? Then what solution will you give that involves everything except dealing with the gun problem?

Yes, I admit that there are other issues involved here too. We have a serious anger problem in this country. A serious problem with people thinking that if they don’t get what they want when they want it, someone has to pay for it. And when you combine that anger problem with our gun culture, it’s like combining a lit candle with gasoline. We’re no longer content to just punch someone out, we want to kill them…and we can.

Fortunately, the governor of Texas is a wiser man than his second in command, and wants to put everything on the table in order to prevent this from happening again. Some people doubt that anything will come of this because he’s been known as a strong pro-gun person, but sometimes, as Spock said in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, “Only Nixon can go to China.”

Let’s hope that he’s able to successfully go to China…and is able to come back with enough imagination to destroy this idol made of steel.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Mother's Day from a Different Angle

The second Sunday in May is hard on two distinct groups of people. The first is childless women who feel that they were denied something that they always wanted, and hate having that denial thrown in their faces. The second is those who have lost their own mothers in the past year, and hate having that thrown in their faces. As a result, many women decide to stay home that day, and many churches wrestle with observing this day, which grew out of the Sunday school movement of the late 19th century.

Mother’s Day, the creation of Anna Jarvis, as a memorial to her own mother, is that 900-pound gorilla that many churches no longer make a big deal about out of fear of pouring salt in the very raw wounds of some of the women in their congregations. And many of them get out of this by saying “It’s not even a church holiday anyway. It’s not Biblical, so why should we do it?” Well…All Saints Day isn’t Biblical either; and there was some point in the past when it wasn’t on any church calendar…until it was. And despite what many people erroneously think about it because of what it has become, Mother’s Day is not a “Hallmark Holiday”; Hallmark wasn’t even founded until two years after the first official Mother’s Day celebration at St Andrew’s Methodist Church in 1908. They simply made a mint off of the way that most people wanted to observe it.

But let’s talk about the church roots of Mother’s Day, and then I’ll talk about a different way of looking at it.

As I stated earlier, it was created as part of the Sunday School movement of the late 19thcentury that gave us such long-forgotten church observances as Children’s DayRoll Call DayTemperance Sunday, and others. The fact that Mother’s Day took off as quickly as it did, and has lasted as long as it has, is a testament to the letter-writing power of Anna Jarvis, and to her many well-heeled backers.

But the most important thing here is that for Jarvis, who never had children of her own, it was never about celebrating herself as a mother, but of remembering her own mother.

Knowing, and understanding, that takes care of the two biggest issues that many women have with the day. It was never about you, and the mother you either are or never got to be; it was supposed to be about your mother. And if she’s no longer with us…well then, that’s why Mother’s Day was created in the first place.

Observed in the way that Anna Jarvis intended, it should be a burden neither to the childless nor the motherless, but a day to reflect upon your mother, whether or not you still have her with you.

Observed in the way that Anna Jarvis intended, the only people Mother’s Day should be hard on are those whose mothers unfortunately or tragically just didn’t measure up to the job. And yet, even then, it’s possible that those women have someone in their lives who acted as the mother they should’ve had, and they can be reflected upon and honored.

Observed in the way that Anna Jarvis intended, Mother’s Day should no more be a case of rubbing salt in an open wound than observing All Saints Day, when many congregations make a point of recognizing all those who have died within the past year.

Mother’s Day is a day that everyone should be able to observe. Let’s try to remember that this coming Sunday.


Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Moderation in All Things...Especially on the Internet

A lot of us have been asking lately what has happened to this country? What has happened to our discourse? What has happened to common sense? And when did the lunatics start running the asylum (in more ways than one)? I pin it down to too much freedom of speech with too little responsibility to police it.

Wait.

Can there even be such a thing as too much freedom of speech? Isn’t that one of those things in the Constitution that’s inviolate? Isn’t saying there’s too much freedom of speech, and that it needs to be policed more similar to saying that there are too many guns out there, and they need to be policed more?

Perhaps. But let me make my case.

First of all, many of us misunderstand what freedom of speech really means. It doesn’t mean that you’re free to say any damn fool thing without consequences. Aye, ye call your boss an asshole at a staff meeting, and there be consequences. What it means is that the government can’t take action against you for things you say that it doesn’t like.

But that’s not what I’m talking about.

I’m talking about too much freedom of speech…or writing, really…in response to the printed word…in online forums dedicated to the printed word.

Let me explain.

Back in the day, magazines and newspapers had one or two pages devoted to letters to the editor. Because space was limited, only the best written, most interesting, and most intelligent letters were chosen to be published. It was usually a statistical sampling of what had come in, with opinions on all sides of the spectrum. Occasionally a letter from some crackpot who said, “I bet you won’t print this because I disagree with you” made it to print, if only to show the rest of the readers, with more than two brain cells to rub together, that there indeed be fools out there. But aide from that, everything was kept civil; and follow-up letters, if they arrived, were almost never printed…unless the editors deemed them particularly compelling.

Enter the age of the internet, where magazines and newspapers created online forums that took the place of the traditional letters pages. And here, because space wasn’t an issue, there was no screening of what went online. Anything and everything got posted…including some of the most uncivil and vile responses to previous responses. Including things that never would’ve made the cut to make it to the printed letters page. Including posts filled with all kinds of crackpot ideas that had been totally debunked by those who actually knew what they were talking about.

And because these things got printed, and shared across the internet, we became less civil, more vile, and definitely more stupid.

This is because the people who had previously been the gatekeepers of the printed page naively abdicated their responsibility when things moved online. They thought that having those letters just go directly online would make their jobs easier, and that people would behave appropriately.

They were wrong…as countless trolls and troll bots have proven.

Since then, a number of publications and online forums have pulled back from the free for all of open comment pages. Some have started to moderate them, which is simply doing what was done in the print days, and screening things before they made it to the public. Others have taken the even more drastic step of just not printing comments at all. Oh, you can most certainly send them all the comments you want, and they’ll read them in their offices, but you won’t see them printed…not even the most compelling ones.

I think these are both good steps.

And by the way, I do believe that there are too many guns out there.